Authors: Marianne Knightly
It was tempting. He was tempting. She wanted more than casual, that was true. She’d been so lonely her whole life, she wanted forever, wanted it maybe too much. She was beginning to doubt she’d ever find it. So why not spend a little time with Prince Nathaniel?
“I’m still not sure what to call you.”
He smiled, a dimpled grin that was as sexy as it was genuine. “Try ‘Nate’. See how you like it.”
“I don’t know. It seems wrong.”
He stepped closer, gently pressing his body against hers. He pressed a soft kiss just beneath her ear and whispered, “Say it.”
How was she expected to think clearly when he was doing that?
Another kiss and a quick bite to her earlobe. “Say it. Nate.”
She felt him smile against her skin. “Was that so difficult, Charlotte?”
“Charlie. Call me Charlie.”
He shifted to her other ear. “I prefer Charlotte.”
Unable to resist any longer, her deft fingers slid into his long hair and gripped tight, forcing him to face her. “Charlie. Say it.”
“Charlie.” His eyes bored into hers. Why were they both breathing more heavily? “Charlie.” He groaned. “God, Charlie.”
This time his lips weren’t soft, they were firm and unforgiving. She moaned as his mouth and tongue took what they wanted, as his hold on her body tightened. She could feel almost every ridge of muscle along his abdomen, and she definitely felt something long and hard against her. They might have kissed for hours or only moments before they pulled away from each other.
It cut her deep to realize that even his skillful mouth had barely raised her temperature. She could appreciate his kisses – and, by God, that man could kiss – but she knew from experience her body needed more. She sighed; there was no point in worrying about something she couldn’t change.
“Charlie. God, Charlie.” He buried his head in her still damp hair and took a deep breath. “I could kiss you all night.”
Though the idea appealed to her, she’d had a very long day and had another long one ahead of her. “Nate.”
“I know. I know. We’ll plan that for another time.” He lifted his head and locked eyes with her. His eyes had become pools of a rich, dark brown, the color of chocolate. “I want to see you tomorrow. What time are you off work?”
“Around nine in the evening, unless they need more help.”
“Do you feel like going out?”
She stiffened. “I thought we decided to keep this private.”
“I just meant outside. We could have a late night picnic on the grounds. It’s still private. We can find a spot in the gardens. No one would find us.”
“It’s November. Besides the fact that most of gardens have gone away for the season, the nights are getting colder.”
“I’ll bring a blanket. If you’d rather do something else, just let me know. We could have dinner in my apartment.”
Her eyes bugged out. “Your apartment? In the Royal Wing? I’m not allowed up there.”
“As my guest, you would be, but you don’t have to use the hallways if you don’t want to.”
“How else would I get up there?”
He smiled conspiratorially. “Can you keep a secret?” She nodded. “There are secret passages running all through the palace. I can take one from here to the Royal Wing, though it’s quite a distance.”
“There’s a secret door in my room?”
“Yes, in all the rooms, though I don’t know where yours is offhand. Some of our forefathers had them built in with the palace. No one but the royal family and their designees can access them.”
“So, I’m safe?”
He hugged her tighter. “You’re always safe. If you don’t feel safe, you need to let me know.”
The problem was that she felt all too safe in his arms. “I’m fine.”
“Hmm. All right.” He dropped another kiss on her lips before pulling away. “I’ll meet you by the northeast entrance around half past nine. I promise to find you a well-sheltered garden. Or would you rather try my rooms?”
“No, no. The garden is fine.”
“I’ll take care of the food.” He laughed at the look of trepidation on her face. “I didn’t say I’d cook it myself, just that I’d arrange it. Dress warmly, Charlotte.”
“Call me Charlie.”
“Bye, Charlie.” With another devastating smile, he walked out of her room.
Charlie just stared at the door, wondering what the hell had just happened, and what the hell she was going to do about it.
Nate woke the next morning after little sleep. Dreams of Charlotte had left him painfully aroused, while nightmares about Valleria’s debt had left him with night sweats and a painful ache in his chest.
Needless to say, his body felt a little unsteady.
To clear away the cobwebs and help him focus, he spent an hour working out in his personal gym, rather than the larger one shared by everyone in the Royal Wing; he didn’t want to see anyone just yet.
When he stepped out from his shower some time later, his mind was clearer and ready to tackle the grueling day of work ahead of him. What he was not ready for, however, was to find one of his brothers waiting for him when he entered his bedroom wearing only a towel.
“Jesus, Marcello, what the hell? Skulking in shadows again?”
Marcello merely smiled from his perch in a comfy chair in the corner. His dark blond hair was styled back and he wore jeans and a simple shirt on his svelte but toned frame. “You know how I love to surprise my brothers.”
“I’ve heard the horror stories from Alex.” Nate took off the towel and threw it in Marcello’s direction, but Marcello deftly caught it and threw it back in one swift movement; it was a classic Marcello maneuver.
“Then you shouldn’t be surprised.”
Nate strode into his walk-in closet and spoke as he dressed. “I am surprised to see you, though. Weren’t you supposed to be in England?” Marcello’s lady love, Grace, was English; the pair often spent weeks in England when Grace was needed there.
“Grace just sold her worthless husband’s estate and we finalized things a couple days ago. She’s only got her family’s estate now, which she’ll keep.” Grace was a widow whose abusive, controlling husband had died in a car accident over a year ago. “We were going to just pop in for family dinner, then go back to England for a little while. When I got a call from Papa last night, though, we changed our plans and decided to stay in Valleria through the holidays.”
Nate came out of the closet half-dressed. Though his pants were on, his shirt remained unbuttoned and his tie was draped around his neck. “So you know?”
Marcello nodded gravely. “I got the basics. Why don’t we head to my office to discuss the rest?”
Nate shook his head while he buttoned and tucked in his shirt. “I don’t want people to know you’re involved, not yet. If the wrong person sees, it could put us all in danger.”
“You think it’s that dangerous?”
“You don’t? You’re the former spy. Besides which, someone has siphoned billions from the national accounts, and they’ve apparently done it over the span of at least two years, if not more. Not only that, they managed to keep it covered up.”
“So, we’re looking at someone who has been with the government for at least that long then.”
Nate finished with his tie and reached back into his closet for his suit jacket. “I don’t just want you to look only at the agency heads and department employees. It could be anyone, so look at everyone with government credentials and access.”
“That’s going to be a long list. Fortunately, we don’t have a high turnover in government offices, or it would be longer.”
“That’s because the benefits are good. I don’t know who else to look at.” Nate plucked a small strip of leather from atop his dresser and used it to tie his hair back.
Marcello finally stood as Nate made his way out of his bedroom and towards his kitchen. “There are a few groups out there.”
Nate paused in the kitchen, a French press in one hand and a bag of fresh Vallerian roast coffee beans in the other. While he could have ordered fresh coffee from the kitchens, he preferred making his own in the mornings. “Groups?”
Marcello nodded as he leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms over his chest. “There’s the Anti-Monarchist Group, the Constitutional Monarchy Imperative, Vallerian Patriots, and a couple others.”
“You think there’s someone out there working for the government who wants to see the government demolished?”
“No. I think there’s someone out there who wants to see the monarchy demolished and a different government put in its place, and they just happen to work for the government, too.”
Nate scoffed while he ground the beans and poured the coarse grounds into the press. “They’re not really sticking to their principles, are they? Working for us, taking the money they earn, and then also stealing more?”
“I doubt they’re very concerned about principles at this point. It may have started out that way, but once this amount of money comes into it, it’s a whole different story.”
Nate poured boiling water from a special hot water tap into the press and set it aside on the counter to steep. “Do you think Calvin had something to do with this?”
Marcello nodded. “I do, and I think you were right when you suggested it. I’m going to look into his finances and also into his death. He was pretty young when he died; if it wasn’t an accident, I want to know.”
“Jesus, you think someone killed him?”
“I think if they did, and we can prove it, they’ll get a better prison sentence for it than he might for embezzling.”
Nate shook his head as he reached for the breakfast tray; he had a standing order every morning so it was automatically brought up for him. “What the hell have I stumbled into?”
Marcello walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. “
stumbled into it, brother. Don’t worry. We’ll make things right.”
Nate nodded as he pushed aside the warm cloth of the bread basket. Nestled inside was fresh brioche, one of his favorites. He lifted the bread to his nose and took a deep breath; the soft, fresh scent reminded him of Charlotte, and he just knew she had baked it.
“Should I leave the two of you alone?” Marcello smirked. “You look like you’re having a private moment.”
Nate shrugged and barely managed to keep the blush from staining his cheeks. “I like to take time and enjoy the simple things in life, Marcello. Want to join me?”
“No, thanks. I’d better get started; there’s a lot of people to investigate.”
Nate nodded while he sliced into the bread and spread some freshly made jam on top of it; his mouth was watering already. “Do you want to meet for lunch?”
Marcello shook his head. “No, let’s chat after dinner.”
Remembering his late-night picnic, Nate suggested, “Before dinner. I’ll need to speak with Papa and Alex about the budget anyway. It’s best if we all touch base then.”
Marcello quirked an eyebrow. “Got plans tonight?”
Marcello never missed a trick, but he still wasn’t ready to reveal his feelings for Charlotte. It was too soon and they were both too unsure of the future. “I’ll likely be working.”
“If you say so,” Marcello said, and Nate knew he didn’t believe him. As Marcello turned to go, he said, “Oh, Nate?”
“Don’t forget to put on some shoes. No one’s going to take you seriously if you go barefoot.”
Nate looked down, surprised to see his feet bare. When he looked back up, Marcello was walking away, laughing.
This was going to be a very long day.
Charlie was in the kitchens bright and early the next day. Her shift wasn’t due to start until nine that morning, but she arrived at six to get things in order. More than that, she wanted to be there first, before Pierre arrived.
She’d called Coco that morning and told her what had happened with Pierre. Coco hadn’t seemed surprised and had said that she’d speak with Pierre about it. Charlie could only guess what that meant. Would Coco rescind the offer of promotion? Fire Pierre? Fire her? She just didn’t know.
Charlie kept to ‘her’ kitchen that morning, and Coco came in to see her just after ten while she was kneading dough.
“How long have you been in this kitchen?” Coco asked, her hands fisted on her hips. “This is more than an hour’s work.”
Charlie finished with the dough and began to roll it out; it would make the basis for some lunchtime pizzas. “I had some things I wanted to get a jumpstart on, that’s all, so I came in early.”
“And you worked late last night. I don’t know if I’ll get approval for your overtime, Charlie. Overtime’s only been approved for the state dinner in a few days.”
Charlie’s heart – and wallet – sank a little at the news, but she wasn’t surprised by it. “I know, Coco. Don’t worry about me.”
“I do worry about you.” Coco walked over and put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder; she stopped moving the roller across the dough. “You want to talk about what happened last night?”
Despite herself, she blushed. Then, angry with herself for getting embarrassed again at something that wasn’t her fault, her face got even redder. “I already told you what happened.” Fear settled like lead in the pit of her stomach. “Did Pierre tell you a different story?”