A Royal Without Rules(4)

By: Caitlin Crews

His lips quirked. “But I am a prince of the realm. Surely your role as subject and member of staff is to satisfy my every whim? I can think of several possibilities already.”

How was he getting to her like this? It wasn’t as if this was the first time they’d spoken, though it was certainly the longest and most unclothed interaction she’d had with the man. It was also the only extended conversation she’d ever had with him on her own. She’d never been the focus of all his attention before, she realized. She’d only been near it. That was the crucial difference, and it hummed in her like an electric current no matter how little she wanted it to. She shook her head at him.

“The only thing that matters is making sure you cease to be a liability to your brother for the next two months. My role is to make sure that happens.” Adriana smiled again, reminding herself that she had dealt with far worse things than an oversexed black sheep prince. That she’d cut her teeth on far more unpleasant situations and had learned a long time ago to keep her cool. Why should this be any different? “And I should warn you, Your Royal Highness. I’m very good at my job.”

“And still,” he murmured, his head tilting slightly to one side, “all I hear is challenge piled upon challenge. I confess, it’s like a siren song to me.”

“Resist it,” she suggested tartly.

He gave her a full smile then, and she had the strangest sense that he was profoundly dangerous, despite his seeming carelessness. That he was toying with her, stringing her along, for some twisted reason of his own. That he was something far more than disreputable, something far less easily dismissed. It was disconcerting—and, she told herself, highly unlikely.

“It isn’t only your brother who wants me here, before you ask,” Adriana said quickly, feeling suddenly as if she was out of her depth and desperate for a foothold. Any foothold. “Your father does, too. He made his wishes very clear to Lenz.”

Adriana couldn’t pinpoint what changed, precisely, as Pato didn’t appear to move. But she felt the shift in him. She could sense it in the same way she knew, somehow, that he was far more predatory than he should have been, standing there naked with a sheet wrapped around his hips and his hair in disarray.

“Hauling out your biggest weapon already?” he asked quietly, and a chill sneaked down the length of her spine. “Does that mean I’ve found my way beneath your skin? Tactically speaking, you probably shouldn’t have let me know that.”

“I’m letting you know the situation,” she replied, but she felt a prickle of apprehension. As if she’d underestimated him.

But that was impossible. This was Pato.

“Far be it from me to disobey my king,” he said, a note she didn’t recognize and couldn’t interpret in his voice. It confused her—and worse, intrigued her, and that prickle filled out and became something more like a shiver as his eyes narrowed. “If he wishes to saddle me with the tedious morality police in the form of a Righetti, of all things, so be it. I adore irony.”

Adriana laughed at that. Not because it was funny, but because she hadn’t expected him to land that particular blow, and she should have. She was such a fool, she thought then, fighting back a wave of a very familiar, very old despair. She should have followed her brothers, her cousins, and left Kitzinia to live in happy anonymity abroad. Why did she imagine that she alone could shift the dark mark that hovered over her family, that branded them all, that no one in the kingdom ever forgot for an instant? Why did she still persist in believing there was anything she could do to change that?

But all she showed Pato was the calm smile she’d learned, over the years, was the best response. The only response.

“And here I would have said that you’d never have reason to learn the name of a little beige hen, no matter how long I’ve worked in the palace.”

“I think you’ll find that everybody knows your name, Adriana,” he said, watching her closely. “Blood will tell, they say. And yours...” He shrugged.

She didn’t know why that felt like a punch. It was no more than the truth, and unlike most, he hadn’t even been particularly rude while delivering it.

“Yes, Almado Righetti made a horrible choice a hundred years ago,” she said evenly. She didn’t blush or avert her eyes. She didn’t cringe or cry. She’d outgrown all that before she’d left grammar school. It was that or collapse. Daily. “If you expect me to run away in tears simply because you’ve mentioned my family’s history, I’m afraid you need to prepare yourself for disappointment.”