Suddenly Royal(2)

By: Nichole Chase

Royals in Rags

—The Chicago Gazette

My truck sounded like it was on its last leg as I pulled up to the hotel. The traffic had been terrible, so I didn’t have time to park the thing myself and avoid the embarrassment of valet. Cursing under my breath, I tried to stuff some of the garbage from the bench under the seat before the attendant opened my door. Looking up I smiled at the young guy.

“Sorry, the Bentley is being detailed.”

“Looks to me like you traded up, ma’am. This is a classic.” He held his hand out and helped me out of the car. I smiled gratefully at him because I had let Jess talk me into wearing heels tonight. He handed me my ticket and I gave him my keys.

I tried to not cringe as my truck made a coughing noise before it pulled away. The hostess was watching me through the glass doors, so I took a deep breath and held my head high, all the time quietly praying I wouldn’t end up busting my ass in the damn shoes. The doorman opened the door for me, but even he had a look of disdain as he studied me.

Chili was already sounding much better. Hopefully the food would be decent. And not overly expensive. I’d just sent three hundred dollars to the hospital for my dad’s monthly payment. To say I was scraping the bottom of the barrel would be putting it nicely. I smiled at the hostess, hoping that being polite would smooth over the truck fiasco.

“Hi. I’m meeting Duchess Sverelle for dinner.”

“Does she know you’re coming?” The blond woman’s voice grated on my ears. It was high and nasally. Why would they want that for their first impression? There are lots of blond, modelesque women who would love a job like this. Her eyes narrowed and ran over me in disgust.

“Since she’s the one who invited me, I would assume so.” Operation Nice was over.

“Uh huh. And what’s your name?” The woman looked down at the list in front of her with so much seriousness you would think it was full of people waiting for a heart transplant.

“Samantha Rousseau.” I watched her as she looked at the list and then back to me. “I’m from the university.”

“I see. Just a moment.” She walked away, her hair swishing behind her like she was walking in a wind tunnel for a photo shoot and I found myself wondering how she did that.

She returned a moment later, accompanied by a man with a bored look. He was tall, thin, and older, and reminded me of Alfred from the Batman movies. But without any of the humor or intelligence. His eyes traveled over my big winter coat and glimmered with disgust. He lived here, didn’t he? How could he think it was weird to wear a big winter coat?

“Miss…” He looked at me expectantly.

“Rousseau. Samantha Rousseau.”

“Miss Rousseau, your name isn’t on the list.”

“I’m sure it was a simple mistake.” I narrowed my eyes at the man. “Perhaps you could go check with the duchess.”

“I’m sure the duchess would have informed me had she been expecting someone else for dinner.” He smiled at me and I had to take a deep breath before answering.

“Well, as close as you apparently are with the duchess, it must’ve slipped her mind.” I leaned forward. “Look, I’m just trying to keep an appointment here. Can’t you go ask her if she was expecting me?”

“I’m afraid it is against policy to bother guests while they are dining.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I brushed the hair out of my eyes and glared at mini-Alfred. “Just go ask her.”

“Miss Rousseau, this is a very respectable restaurant. I suggest you leave and not cause a scene. I will call security if I need to.”

“I suggest you go ask the duchess if she’s expecting me, or go ahead and call security and you can expect a scene. Then when she sees you escorting me out of the restaurant, you can explain why you sent me away.”

“I’ll go. This once.” He eyed me for a long moment before sighing heavily. “If it turns out you are not an invited member of their party, I will be returning with security.”

“And you can apologize when you get back with your tail between your legs.” Operation Pissed was coming into play. I had a hard time holding my tongue when I got into that mode.

The man sniffed again and I was tempted to offer him a tissue but bit the inside of my cheek instead. “We’ll see.”

He walked away from the little podium and the blond hostess took his place. She ignored me as if I wasn’t there, and that was just fine by me. I slid closer and looked at the sheet in front of her. Just before she covered it with her arm, my eyes landed on my name.

“Oh, now that’s just rude.” I turned away and quickly followed the old man to a table in the center of the room. Those petty jerks were trying to keep me out because they thought I didn’t belong? Because of my truck or my clothes?

My furious stride made quick work of the space between the door and the table Alfred was standing next to. I caught up to him in time to hear the last of his words.

“She looks rather questionable.”

“The ‘rather questionable’ woman is standing right behind you.” You stupid little dildo. I glared at his head, barely registering the people at the table until they stood up.

“I was told the Parallel, and I would assume its restaurant, was used to hosting dignitaries and royalty.” The woman’s voice was calm and cool. “Your tone would be embarrassing no matter who you thought Lady Rousseau was.”

My eyes jerked to the woman and I wondered if the duchess was losing her mind. Perhaps it was appropriate to address people by Lady or Sir in their country. Her mouth twitched in amusement as she watched the man grovel and I decided she must be teaching him a lesson. She might be my hero.

“I’m so sorry, I had no idea….” The Alfred-wannabe was sputtering apologies and it took all my willpower to keep from rolling my eyes.

“No, don’t apologize to me. Apologize to Lady Rousseau.” Her eyes twinkled when she looked at me.

“My apologies, Miss—I mean, Lady Rousseau.”

I bowed my head a little. “Accepted. Perhaps you shouldn’t be so quick to judge next time.”

“Yes, my lady. May I take your coat?”

I shrugged out of my coat and that’s when I felt his eyes on me. Looking up, I realized Prince Yummy had indeed come for the dinner. Jess and the undergrads had been wrong. He wasn’t yummy, he was delicious; a feast to be savored. Dark blonde hair hung a smidge too long, eyes so blue it was like looking into the heart of a glacier. Built like the statue of David; the contours of his suit hugging every delicious muscle. Laugh lines around his mouth and eyes brought him into the realm of humanity, and gave him a personality. As his eyes ran over my face and down my body slowly, heat washed over my skin. When I handed the jacket to the ma?tre d’ I felt naked. There was something about his bright blue eyes that left me feeling exposed.

“Thank you, Alfred.” I mumbled the words, feeling completely off guard by the look I’d just received. The man left without a word, and I really hoped he didn’t do anything nasty to my jacket.

“Alfred?” The prince’s mouth quirked on one side, revealing a dimple, and I wondered if a dimple could kill a person. It was possible I was having a heart attack right now. “Is that his name?”

“Oh, you know. He looks a bit like Batman’s butler, but without the wicked sense of humor.” I winced. I was speaking to a prince, a real live prince, and my first interaction was describing a comic book character. At least I wasn’t a slobbering mess looking at him.

“I vaguely recall something about Batman and his butler.” The princes’ eyes glittered mischievously. I felt my mouth twist a little, relieved he had gotten my ill-timed sense of humor. “I would have pegged him more as Jarvis. Slow, annoyed voice.”

“Samantha, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” The Duchess held her hand out for me and for a brief moment I panicked not sure if I was supposed to bow over it or shake it. I decided if she was in America I was just going to shake it. Her fingers were dry and warm, her grip surprisingly tight. “I’m Rose.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Jesus. I should have read that article myself. I had no idea what to say or how to act.

“This is my nephew, Alex.” I turned toward the outstretched hand and hoped my palms weren’t sweaty.

“An honor to meet you.” As soon as the words had left my mouth, I regretted them. Why had I said that? Why didn’t I just say it was nice to meet him? Surely it hadn’t sounded like a come-on. I was just being paranoid. How had I lost control of this evening already? Who was I kidding? I’d lost control as soon as that weirdo, Duvall had approached me.

“The honor is mine. Trust me.” Instead of shaking, he lifted my hand to his mouth and his lips brushed across my knuckles gently. They were warm and full, and my body tingled at the contact. I stopped breathing for a moment and had to remind myself that oxygen was important. When he lowered my hand, his thumb ran over my knuckles. He knew how to affect a woman, that was for sure. Stepping around me, he pulled my chair out. I don’t think anyone has ever pulled a chair out for me. It was weird. What did I do with my feet? The stupid heels caught on the floor and almost came off, so I just lifted them up until he was done.

He moved around to his aunt and helped her into her chair as well. She was watching me with bright, intelligent eyes and I wondered what she was thinking. I felt a bit like she was measuring me. She motioned to the waitress standing off to the side and I was offered a glass of wine. I took it, but only to be courteous. I was already feeling out of my element.

“I apologize for that terribly inappropriate behavior, Samantha.” Rose frowned.

“It’s okay, Duchess. I’m sure he was just trying to keep people from bothering you.” I was being generous. I was mentally debating egging the hotel.

“Please, call me Rose.” She smiled at me and I smiled back.

“Thank you, Rose.”

“Are you ready to order?” The waitress was back, her white button-up shirt was undone a bit and she stood close to the prince. The question had been addressed to him and only him. Rose looked at me and winked as if amused, but when I noted his uncomfortable expression I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. His face had transformed from friendly and thoughtful to stony.

“Actually, I haven’t had a chance to look at the selection.” I cleared my throat and picked up the large red menu.

“I’ll give you a little more time.”

“Could you turn the heat up a little?” The waitress started to turn, but his voice stopped her. His blue eyes locked on mine and for a minute I wondered if my clothes had caught on fire. Or maybe his accent had managed to make it hotter without turning up the heat. “I noticed your hands were cold.”

“No, no. I’m fine really.” It was cold in the restaurant, not that I noticed right this minute. Or maybe that was just the dress I was wearing. It wasn’t exactly designed for winter wear, but it was the nicest dress I owned. When my mother passed, it was one of the things I had made sure didn’t disappear. I wasn’t much of a fashionista, but I loved the vintage Chanel.

He looked at the waitress and smiled. “The heat, please.”

“Of course, Your Highness.” At her use of his title, the corners of his mouth twitched down briefly and he looked back at his menu.

“Thank you, but I really was fine.” I looked at him and narrowed my eyes. I didn’t care for men that ordered food for their women and picked out their clothing. Even if he was hot as hell. Maybe he was just used to making decisions for everyone.

“No reason to be uncomfortable.” He smiled, his eyes moving back to my face. I felt heat creep into my cheeks and I looked away. Squinting, I stared at my menu, not really seeing the words, and tried to crush the odd effect he seemed to have on me. This was a business meeting and it needed to stay professional.

I could feel his gaze like a hot touch and it was getting to me. It had been a while since I had been with a man, but that was fixable. They made toys to replace men. However, I had a feeling Prince Alex would make my toy wholly inadequate.

“Have you been here before, Samantha?” Rose’s voice drifted to my ears and I was glad for the distraction.

“No, this is the first time I’ve eaten at the Parallel, but I’ve heard the food is wonderful.” I smiled over my menu at the other woman. Sometimes there’s a feeling when you meet someone, a sense of understanding and connection. I felt it with Rose. “Dr. Geller comes here occasionally for business lunches. Speaking of Dr. Geller, I wasn’t able to get in touch with him before coming to dinner, so please forgive me for being unprepared. I’m not sure what exactly we’re discussing tonight.”

Rose smiled at me for a minute as if amused. I looked over at Prince Yummy—dang it, Alex, and frowned. His eyes were moving back and forth between me and his aunt, a small smile playing along his delicious lips.

“Let’s order and then we’ll talk about it. I’m starving.” Rose set her menu down, so I quickly looked through and picked something to eat. My mind was racing. Something weird was going on here and I was going to figure it out. I looked for the waitress and smiled, hoping that would bring her to the table a little faster so we could get down to business.

She glared at me as she sauntered back to us and I wondered why the staff here seemed to hate me so much. What on Earth had I done? Shown up to dinner with the duchess and the prince… Oh. The prince. She was glaring at me because I was eating dinner with Prince Yummy. Sheesh. It wasn’t like we were alone. Who brings their aunt on a date?

The thought brought heat to my cheeks—again. I was never going on a date with Alex. We were from different worlds. He wore expensive suits and probably never got his hands dirty. I wore blue jeans and flannel shirts. My hands were always dirty. Okay, not always dirty. I washed them, but I worked with animals and out in the field.

“You’re ready?” The waitress once again turned her body and ample cleavage toward Alex and smiled.

“Ladies first.” Alex leaned forward so he could look around the waitress. “Samantha, what would you like?” My name spoken in that accent made it sound much sexier, but it was the glint in his blue eyes that made my skin hot.

“I’ll take the chicken, please.” There were no prices on the menu, but I was certain that had to be the cheapest thing on there. Chicken would certainly fall under lamb or duck. I hoped.

“Got it.” If the waitress had been chewing gum she would have popped it in her mouth at me. I was torn between amusement and being offended. She smiled at Rose, though. A disgustingly sweet expression that made her look sick. Or maybe it just made me nauseated. “And for you, Duchess?”

“I’ll have the same thing Lady Rousseau is having.” Rose pushed her menu toward the waitress, but the girl didn’t notice. She was looking at me with a worried expression. I shrugged, not sure what to say. A deep chuckle made me sit up straighter in my seat and look at Alex. He was watching me, an amused glint in his eyes as if he was in on a secret.

“I’d like the rib eye, please. Rare.” He handed his menu to the waitress without looking at her and leaned forward, his hands clasped in front of him, and smiled at me. “Samantha. Are you from here?”

“I’m a transplant. My family moved here ten years ago for a job. Thankfully, the college I wanted was nearby.”

“Is that so?” Alex leaned forward and looked at me intently. “I would think most people going off to college would want to get as far away from home as possible.”

“My mother passed away and I didn’t want to leave my father.” I didn’t like where this conversation was going. I felt like I was giving away secrets. Secrets that could be important for some reason.

“How is your stepfather? I understand he’s been sick.” Rose’s eyebrows drew together. “I can’t say I care very much for the way that healthcare is handled in the States.”

“He’s handling everything very well, thank you.” I guess my outburst with her lackey earlier hadn’t gone unreported. “But we’re not here to discuss my family. What kind of questions do you have about the center and our program?”

Rose leaned forward. “Actually, your family is exactly why I am here.”