Royal Trouble Sneak Peek!

Royal Spare Racks ’em Up

For years we’ve heard rumors about HRH Prince Alexander’s royal endowment, and now, thanks to one seriously scandalous game of strip billiards, we can officially confirm that everything you’ve heard is true! Sources close to the prince say he hosted the high-stakes game for a few of his dearest female friends (read: royal stans) during a recent trip to Amsterdam. It’s no secret the bad boy of the royal family likes action, but from the looks of it, HRH lost more than his bankroll during the friendly game.

That’s right, ladies. Hold on to your ovaries, because we’ve got the never-before-seen Holy Grail of Hotness: HRH Prince Alexander—au naturel.

Which begs the question: how did these lucky ladies sneak a camera past HRH’s security team? Or should we say former security team? We’re guessing this is the kind of mistake you only make once in the royal employ. #SorryNotSorry

So we’ll just be putting this full frontal pic of HRH in the spank bank, because holy hotness, Batman! Look at the size of his cue! Or, you know, the size of that giant eggplant, because we’re legally required to cover the sexy bits, but trust us, it’s the stuff of fantasies and selfie time. (Don’t look so scandalized. Everyone knows we’re equal opportunity objectifiers here at The Daily Scoop.)

We doubt the royal rogue intended to make a public showing, but never let it be said the Valerian spare isn’t a man of the people. #FreeBall #BigStick

 

Chapter One

Everly Wilson flashed a bright smile and straightened her spine as she took a seat across from On Point magazine’s Editorial Director. She was a firm believer in the power of first impressions, and her first impression of Guy Larson told her this might be another dead end. He hadn’t even acknowledged her when his assistant—who looked like she wanted to curl up under her desk and die—shoved Everly into the office and announced she was the last candidate.

So the company culture here sucked. At least she was going into the interview with eyes wide open. That was something, right?

She’d known when she applied for the position that Mr. Larson had a reputation for being a hard ass, but he was a legend in the industry, and the sad truth was she couldn’t afford to be picky. If she didn’t land this job, she’d have to tell her mom the truth about…well, everything, and risk disappointing the only person who’d ever loved and supported her.

“You’ve got ten minutes,” Mr. Larson said, his attention fixed on the computer monitor, fingers flying over the keyboard.

Ten minutes? Sweat coated her palms, and her confidence faltered. She’d have to talk fast. On Point was the crème de la crème in New York, and adding her name to the list of staff writers would give her instant credibility.

Smile fixed in place, she introduced herself and pulled a copy of her résumé from her bag then offered the crisp white paper to Mr. Larson. The jerk just kept pounding away on the keyboard.

Well then, all the rumors about him were really true.

Everly took a deep breath and dropped her résumé on the desk. She wasn’t exactly thrilled to work for a magazine focused on celebrity news, but she could suck it up for a few months. Once she sold her novel, more doors would open, so until then, she’d do whatever it took to make ends meet.

Besides, the posting was for a human interest writer. Which meant zero celebrity exploitation. She could do the job without sacrificing her integrity—if she could win over Mr. Larson.

Which was looking like a big freaking if.

“Mr. Larson, I hold a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, as well as an MFA, and graduated magna cum laude. During my time at Columbia, I was an active contributor to the Columbia Journal, the university’s literary magazine, writing both fiction and nonfiction stories.” She paused to catch her breath, the ticking desk clock sawing at her frayed nerves, and watched in horror as Larson’s eyes glazed over.

Dammit. She was losing him.

“As I’m sure you know,” she said, pushing on despite his clear lack of interest, “the program is renowned for its esteemed faculty and rigorous coursework, which has helped prepare me for the challenge of working as a staff writer at On Point magazine.”

Crickets.

“I brought my portfolio, if you’d like to take a look at some of my work?” Hopefully, he’d be more receptive to writing samples, since he clearly didn’t give a damn about her credentials.

“That won’t be necessary.” His eyes flicked to her briefly before darting toward the clock.

The interview from hell would end in approximately seven minutes. Assuming he didn’t cut her loose right now.

He offered her a patronizing smile. “Your education is impressive, but you don’t have the experience—or the connections—we expect our feature writers to bring to the table.” He gestured to her résumé. “The gal down in HR saw your Ivy League education and put you right on through, but an MFA doesn’t make up for the fact that you simply aren’t qualified.”

Her stomach clenched. The feedback wasn’t anything new. She’d heard it on no less than a dozen interviews, but she’d hoped—okay, desperately prayed—that this interview would be different. That Guy Larson would see her talent and give her a shot.

Was that too much to ask?

Apparently.

If she didn’t turn this around, she’d end up dressed like a cartoon princess and hustling for tips in Times Square. Frustration burned the back of her throat, and for an instant, she considered name-dropping her father. But she squashed the idea immediately. She’d promised herself a long time ago that she’d make it on her own, and she’d been doing a damn fine job of it until only recently.

No way was she giving up now.

“Mr. Larson.” She scooted to the edge of her chair and leaned forward. “I can assure you there is no one on your staff who will work harder than I will. I’m a quick study, and what I lack in experience I’ll more than make up for in dedication, if you’ll just give me a chance—”

“Do you know how many times I’ve heard that same pitch?”

Everly flinched. Okay, clearly the man was going to dock her points for originality.

He hit her again with the patronizing smile as he stood and buttoned his jacket. “Come back in a few years, after you’ve cut your teeth and have a few bylines under your belt.”

She didn’t have a few years. Hell, she didn’t have a few months. Her savings was nearly wiped out, and the bills weren’t going to pay themselves.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for a meeting.” Mr. Larson grabbed his briefcase and moved toward the door. He didn’t even look at her as he reached for the doorknob.

Panic took root, and Everly shot to her feet. “I’m the creator of Royals Gone Wild.”

Oh no… Why had she said that?

“Excuse me?” Mr. Larson slowly turned to face her then looked her over with an appraising eye, as if truly seeing her for the first time.

Shit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

She hadn’t meant to reveal her dirty little secret—after all, it was in the past—but no matter how badly she wanted to suck the words back in, it was too late. She’d officially crashed into Desperation Station, and the only option now was to step off the train wreck and follow through.

Everly dug her nails into her palms, scrambling for the right words. She’d wanted his attention, and now she had it, so she lifted her chin and steeled her resolve. “I said I’m the creative genius behind Royals Gone Wild. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”

Mr. Larson’s shock gave way to a smile that would’ve made the Joker turn heel, but she held her ground. “I admit I thought you’d be older, but I suppose it makes sense,” he said, shaking his head thoughtfully. “Tell me, how did you do what no other tabloid could manage?”

Oh, you know, being the illegitimate love child of a duke does have its perks.

Shame burned her cheeks, but she stuffed it down deep. Mr. Larson didn’t need to know the sordid details of her life as an outsider on the inside. He didn’t need to know that her father was a total cliché, cheating on his aristocratic wife with an American nanny.

No, Larson just wanted to know how she—a virtual nobody—managed to spill the tea on every capricious action of Valeria’s young and privileged.

“It was easy,” she said, feigning a casual shrug. “I attended Westbury Academy, one of the most elite schools in Valeria. I guess you could say I got a royal education.”

Mr. Larson threw his head back and laughed, shoulders shaking from the intensity. “You know, Miss Winston—”

“Wilson—”

“—there just might be a place for you here after all.”

“What? Really?” She beamed at him, anticipation dancing up her spine. She had zero chill, but so what? The prospect of steady income trumped all else.

“You bring me an exclusive from the upcoming royal wedding and the job is yours.” Mr. Larson grinned. “You are attending, aren’t you?”

And just like that, her moment of euphoria shattered. She’d been invited to all the upcoming wedding activities as a courtesy to her father. Access wasn’t the issue.

She’d promised herself she was done—with the site and that world.

Royals Gone Wild had been the brainchild of a frustrated, angry teen who’d wanted to lash out at her father and the world that had made her feel alone and insignificant. She’d never imagined it would go viral or that the site would generate enough advertising dollars to give her financial independence.

Still, it had been a relief when she finally shut the site down. Oh, she’d rationalized that the royal fools had it coming for making public asses of themselves, but it became less amusing as she got older, and she’d begun to feel gross about exploiting her peers for financial gain. People still talked about the sudden disappearance of RGW and speculated who was behind it all.

“Miss Winston?” Mr. Larson said.

“It’s Wilson. Everly Wilson.”

“Who?”

She shook her head. “I’m a serious writer now, Mr. Larson.” Bile rose at the back of her throat, and she swallowed the sour taste of it. “If I wanted to write for a gossip column, I would’ve applied at The Daily Scoop.”

He nodded, lips pressed into a thin line. “Think of it as paying your dues. The magazine business is tough. It’s our job to tell stories that sell. Prince William is having the wedding of the century, and everyone will be pushing the same milquetoast angles released by the palace press secretary. On Point needs something different, a headline that will stand out from the crowd.” He paused and rubbed his chin. “Tell you what, you bring me something that moves the needle on circulation, and I’ll even throw in a signing bonus.”

Her resolve wavered as she considered the mounting stack of medical bills on her desk.

No. She would not trade her integrity for a paycheck. She’d find another way.

“I appreciate the offer, Mr. Larson, but I’m going to have to pass. I’m not interested in writing celebrity gossip.”

Larson shrugged and yanked the door open, giving her one last look. “If you change your mind, the offer stands.”

Everly forced a tight smile. She would not change her mind. If the promise of a bonus wouldn’t do it, then nothing would.

***

Alexander Stanley scanned His Majesty’s office and knew instantly that he’d made a tactical error. He was outnumbered three to one. Never good odds, particularly when it came to the royal family.

I should’ve stayed the fuck in bed.

He’d known his father’s summons was unlikely to be a social call, but he hadn’t anticipated a bloody family intervention. And what else could it be? There was no other reason for the king, queen, and heir to gather at such an ungodly hour.

He glanced at his watch.

Half past eleven.

Not so early, then.

Xander blinked. His eyes felt like they’d been scrubbed with sandpaper, and the bright rays of sunlight pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows were a personal attack. He lowered himself into one of the plush armchairs opposite his father’s mammoth desk and crossed his legs. As a child, he’d thought the mysterious Resolute desk—and the majestic office that housed it—magnificent.

As an adult, all he saw was a gilded cage.

“Father. Mother.” He nodded a greeting to his brother, and if he didn’t know better, he’d have sworn the corner of Liam’s lips twitched in amusement.

“What in the bloody hell is this?” King George roared, tossing a copy of The Daily Scoop on the desk. Xander slowly uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, smirking at the photo of him posing naked with a pool cue. It was an old picture—taken four or five years ago—and the quality wasn’t great, but there was no mistaking his golden hair.

Xander was the only fair-haired royal in the whole damn palace.

“What’s the big deal?” he asked, keeping his voice smooth and neutral. No sense provoking his father this early in the day, not when he was nursing a hangover of epic proportions. “They covered all the important bits with an eggplant. A rather large one, I might add.”

The king’s nostrils flared as he thumped a meaty palm on the desk. Behind him, Queen Marguerite sighed, the only outward sign of her own displeasure. “The big deal is that your brother and I are working our arses off to bring this country together for the royal wedding and these stunts of yours are going to ruin everything!”

Ah, yes, the royal wedding. He should’ve known. Since his return to the palace, it was all anyone wanted to talk about. Xander leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Which part bothers you most, Father? The fact that I whipped out my knob like a bloody slag or the fact that it’s in the populars for the world to see?” He was fairly certain his father didn’t give a damn what he did with his cock as long as it wasn’t in the tabloids, but thanks to the hangover, his mouth was moving faster than his brain.

What did it matter anyway? He was the spare. The extra. The backup plan. As soon as Liam and Elena started popping out little princes and princesses, no one would give a damn what the bad boy of the royal family did anymore. Thank Christ. He hoped they produced a dozen little heirs—put him as far from taking the throne as possible—and the sooner the better.

“Honestly, why is this even news?” Xander asked, jerking his chin toward the paper. “There are far bigger stories than the size of my cock.” He shook his head in disgust. If people took half as much interest in the real issues as they did in his fuckups, the world would be a better place. “Bloody shame, really, that this is where people spend their energy.”

“Agreed,” Liam said, crossing his legs and turning to face Xander. There was no judgment in his brother’s eyes, and when he spoke, his words were matter of fact. “But as long as you’re getting pissed and making a spectacle of yourself in the papers, you’ll be in no position to make a difference.”

As usual, his brother was the picture-perfect royal. Neatly trimmed hair, clean-shaven face, crisp shirt and tie. He wasn’t sure how Liam always managed to be on, but he didn’t envy him the burden of the crown. Hell, most days Xander wished he’d been born into a different family.

One with fewer rules and lower expectations.

“If you can’t keep your exploits out of the papers until the wedding,” his mother said with a sniff, “we’ll be forced to add a minder to your staff.”

Bollocks. He wasn’t twelve years old, and he sure as shit didn’t need a babysitter trailing his every move.

“Is this a fucking joke?” he asked, irritation creeping into his voice.

“Do I look amused?” his father barked. “You’re a bloody prince. It’s well past time you started acting like it.”

He snorted and opened his mouth to reply, but Liam cut him off.

Probably just as well. They’d never actually spoken of Xander’s parentage, but the prevailing theory at court was that he was the bastard son of his mother’s tennis instructor, who had the same pale blond hair and piercing blue eyes, traits none of the other Stanleys possessed.

“Xander doesn’t need a minder,” Liam said smoothly. “He needs proper motivation.”

He lifted a questioning brow.

“Father and I have been discussing the creation of a new charitable organization to support the families of Valeria’s fallen soldiers. We’ll call it the Blue and Gold Foundation.”

“And?” he asked, unease creeping up the back of his neck.

Goddammit, why was it so bloody hot in this office? He needed some water. Or fresh air. A bottle of fucking aspirin.

“And,” Liam said, leveling his gaze at Xander, “I think you’re the man to lead it. You’re a graduate of the Royal Military Academy, you spent a decade serving Valeria, and your military record is flawless. Who better to lead this initiative?”

“Literally anyone,” he scoffed, shame burning his throat. Couldn’t Liam see he was in no shape to have this conversation now? “You’ve served. Father’s served. Surely you can think of a more qualified, more appropriate choice.”

“Actually,” Liam said, adjusting his tie, “I can’t. You’ve trained and served alongside our troops. It’s no secret they hold you in high regard.” He gestured between himself and the king. “We’re ceremonial figureheads and are respected as such. But you’re a true soldier, having served in the trenches.”

Yes, and that had worked out so well. Just ask Bollinger. Or Smith. Trexler. Hell, any of the men or women who’d been under his command.

“It would certainly be more meaningful coming from you.” Liam paused. “It’s been nearly a year since you resigned your commission. Don’t you think it’s time to move forward?”

As if it were that simple. He clenched and unclenched his fists, flexing his fingers.

“The Blue and Gold Foundation would give you the opportunity to continue serving Valeria’s soldiers,” Liam said gently, “albeit in a different capacity.”

Shrewd bastard.

Xander might be the family fuckup, but he’d taken his military service seriously, limiting his partying to leaves and holidays. He’d worn the uniform with pride, working hard to rise through the ranks. The day he’d been promoted to Captain had been the proudest moment of his life, and nothing meant more to him than his command.

“What is there to think about?” his father demanded, red-faced. “You’ve had your fun drinking and fucking your way around the world. It’s time to grow up and honor your duties as a Stanley. I’ve got enough to worry about with the royal wedding and your sister traipsing all over Europe, raising eyebrows.”

He smirked. Beside him, Liam coughed and cleared his throat in a piss-poor attempt to hide his laughter.

Evidently, their younger sister, Pippa, was rewriting the rules on royal gap years.

Not that he was judging. It was about time the Crown Jewel lived up to her full potential.

“Honestly, Alexander.” The queen gave an exasperated sigh and planted a hand on her hip. “This opportunity is a gift. You can fulfill your royal duties by doing something you actually care about. All you have to do is keep your face out of the bloody populars.”

It was a fair enough request. It was also easier said than done.

The tabloids loved him, they always had, and if today’s headlines were any indication, they’d go to great lengths to keep his face on the front page.

“What do you say?” Liam asked. “Are you up for the challenge?”

No, he sure as fuck wasn’t ready. Still, as he thought about Bollinger, Trexler, and Smith, he couldn’t deny he wanted—needed—the opportunity to do more for the men and women who served Valeria.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be worth it.

“I’ll do it on one condition,” he said. “I want complete control. If we’re going to do this, we do it right.”

Liam gave a curt nod. “Agreed. Father and I will ensure you have all the resources you need at your disposal.”

The king nodded his assent.

“Wonderful,” his mother said, clasping her hands together. “Now we can move on to more pleasant topics. Have you decided on a date for the Calhoun-Donahue wedding?”

 

Chapter Two

Everly had never been a fan of weddings, and Lucy Calhoun’s was no exception. She plastered a fake smile on her face as she sidled up to the bar. Her feet were screaming to get out of these heels, and her cheeks hurt from hours of playing nice with the people who’d made her teenage years a living hell. If Lucy weren’t her best friend, she’d have bolted hours ago.

Actually, if Lucy weren’t her best friend, she never would’ve shown up in the first place.

Especially if she’d known the bridal party was going to treat her like a pariah.

Some things never change.

The bartender flashed a winning smile, eyes raking over her as he approached to take her order. She wasn’t sure if she should be flattered or offended on behalf of women everywhere. It was a tough call given the fuchsia bridesmaid dress she wore was two sizes too small, making her boobs defy the laws of gravity.

Taking her own measurements had seemed like a great way to save a few bucks when she’d ordered the dress. Now? Not so much.

If she passed out from lack of oxygen, at least she could take comfort in the fact that her boobs looked amazing.

“What can I get for you?” the bartender asked, placing a white cocktail napkin on the bar.

“Vodka neat.” There wasn’t room in the dress for much else, but she needed to take the edge off before the bridal party dance.

“Make that two,” came the self-assured command from the tux to her left.

Everly rolled her eyes but didn’t turn to acknowledge the speaker. She wasn’t sure which was worse, his presumptuous pickup or trolling the wedding scene for single women. Maybe if she ignored him, he’d go away so she could get her buzz on in peace.

Or not.

He squeezed into the empty space next to her, his broad shoulders filling the narrow gap between them as he leaned forward and rested his forearms on the bar. He smelled like pine trees and fresh air, as if he’d just come in from outdoors. The clean, crisp scent was a welcome change from the overwhelming fragrance of sandalwood that seemed to cling to every other man in the place, and her curiosity was piqued.

“No one should drink alone at a wedding,” he said, pitching his voice low. The words came smooth and sweet as honey, but she didn’t miss the hint of amusement in his tone.

“There are over two hundred guests here. I’d hardly call that drinking alone,” she countered, turning toward him. Their eyes locked, and her heart stuttered as she found herself face-to-face with the last person she wanted to see: His Royal Highness Prince Alexander Stanley.

She’d known he would be attending the wedding, but with two hundred guests, she’d kind of hoped to avoid him. After all, no need to tempt fate—or her resolve—by putting herself in his orbit. She’d been serious when she told Mr. Larson she wasn’t interested in writing tabloid trash.

Been there, done that, have the emotional baggage to prove it.

“I’d call it a matter of opinion,” Xander said, quirking a brow. “Not to sound like a pretentious ass—”

“Too late.” Everly gave him a saccharine smile.

He ignored the dig. “But you can be surrounded by people and still be alone,” he finished.

“Speaking from experience?”

“Would you believe me if I said yes?” he asked, expertly dodging the question and lobbing one back at her.

She was saved from answering when the bartender returned with their drinks.

Xander turned to thank the man, and Everly took the opportunity to study his profile. It had been years since they’d last crossed paths, and though it should have been impossible, the royal spare had gotten even sexier. Everly had always been a sucker for nice eyes—windows to the soul and all that—and Xander had the most beautiful blue eyes she’d ever seen. They were clear and bright, like the Aegean in spring, and though he hadn’t inherited the same fine-bone structure as the other Stanley children, the sharp cut of his stubble-lined jaw and slight cleft in his chin lent themselves nicely to his roguish appearance.

And then there was his smile. The man had a wicked, full-lipped grin that promised sex and seduction.

Even her ovaries took notice when he smiled, and she didn’t even like the guy.

“Now,” he said, turning back to her with drink in hand. “Where were we?”

“You were feigning loneliness to earn my sympathy.”

“Was it working?”

“Not a chance.” She grinned in spite of herself. “Nice try, but you’re not fooling anyone, Your Royal Highness.”

The prince threw his head back and laughed, a deep rumble that hummed across her skin like a summer storm. She gave him another slow once-over. Which, judging by her suddenly parched mouth, was a terrible idea.

Damn.

The man might be an arrogant ass, but he could rock a tuxedo. The black fabric hugged his athletic body, highlighting his broad chest and narrow waist. If his personality didn’t suck so hard, she might be tempted to proposition him. Rumor had it what the spare lacked in humility he more than made up for in the bedroom.

Xander gave her a knowing smirk, and heat flooded her cheeks.

Nothing like getting busted scoping out the royal package.

“It seems you have me at a disadvantage.” His gaze swept over her, searching for a spark of recognition.

Everly’s pulse quickened, but she willed herself to remain calm. There was no way Xander would recognize her. They’d never been friends, and it had been ten freaking years since she’d seen him last. She’d changed a lot since her days at Westbury. Sometimes even she had a hard time reconciling the grungy, bleach blond, Doc-wearing rebel she’d been with the woman she’d become.

Besides, even if he did recognize her, it wouldn’t matter. He still had no idea she’d been the voice behind RGW. It would be fine.

Probably.

“I feel like we’ve met before, and I’m not one to forget such a lovely face.”

“Does that line usually work for you?” she scoffed. Her brain told her not to be seduced by his charm, but she couldn’t deny the flutter of her heart.

Freaking pheromones.

Xander smirked. “It’s not a line, if it’s true.”

“Debatable,” she said, wrapping her fingers around the glass of vodka the bartender had placed in front of her. The tumbler was a reassuring weight in her hands, a reminder that the beauty and luxury of this world were a seductive lure that could tempt even the most ardent critic.

“I’ll tell you what,” Xander said, eyeing her glass. “If I guess your name, you let me buy you a real drink.”

“You do realize it’s an open bar, right?” The corner of her traitorous mouth curved up. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

“Who says it has to be tonight?” He chuckled, low and deep. The sound reverberated through the space between them, setting her nerves on fire. “Technically speaking, I already have a date tonight, but I’m free tomorrow.”

The suggestion hung between them, wrought with possibility, and for a millisecond she found herself considering the offer.

Shit. What was she doing? The spare might be sexy as fuck, but flirting with him was a bad idea.

“Sadly, I’m busy. Washing my hair.” It was the oldest lie in the book, and she mentally high-fived herself for making her position clear. She raised her glass to her lips and took a sip, the alcohol burning a path straight to her belly. Xander did the same, his tongue licking suggestively at the corner of his lips.

“Let’s see…” he said, studying her with unnerving intensity. Damn. She should’ve known better. A guy with an ego the size of Valeria—especially one who was used to getting what he wanted—was unlikely to be deterred by thinly veiled lies. Her blood heated as his gaze raked over her, taking in every dip and curve, reminding her that the damn dress left little to the imagination. “You’re a loner, but the bride actually likes you, as evidenced by that surprisingly flattering bridesmaid’s dress.”

She laughed, the sound bursting from her lips before she could seal them.

“Trust me,” he said, his voice low and husky. “I’ve seen some truly heinous gowns in my travels.” He set his glass on the bar and turned to face her again. “You’re a straight shooter and you don’t mind calling a man—even a prince—on his bullshit.”

Straight shooter? Ha! If he only knew the truth.

“And since I’m having trouble placing you, it means we haven’t crossed paths in years, so we probably went to school together.”

Everly pressed her lips flat, determined to give nothing away.

“Getting warmer?” he asked, stepping so close she could feel the heat radiating off his body.

Something was getting warmer, but it wasn’t his guesses. A bead of sweat pooled in the hollow between her breasts, and she resisted the urge to fan herself. It was probably just a side effect of the alcohol.

Right, keep telling yourself that.

A slow smile curved his lips, the light that danced in his eyes looking a hell of a lot like victory.

“Everly Wilson.” Her name rolled off his lips in a soft purr that sent shivers down her spine. “Westbury’s own Queen of Snark.”

“I’m impressed,” she admitted, though a voice in her head screamed at her to cut and run. She had no business encouraging his advances, even if she was enjoying their little sparring match. He was on a date for fuck’s sake.

“I told you. I never forget a pretty face.”

She snorted. “An impressive feat given the number of women in your life.”

Xander’s eyes shuttered, and she instantly regretted the barb. Who was she to judge? Especially after everything she’d done.

It was on the tip of her tongue to apologize, but in the space of a breath, the charming rogue was back, any hint of shame erased.

“What can I say?” He gave a flirtatious wink and downed the rest of his vodka. “I’m a man of the people. I’m told it’s one of my better qualities.”

“All of the people or just those with two X chromosomes?” she asked sweetly, ignoring the way the words soured on her lips. “Speaking of, where’s your date?”

“Lotte’s around here somewhere.” He shrugged, eyes fixed on Everly. “She’s an old family friend, but she’s only a friend.”

Charlotte Dupont was his date? All the more reason to walk away. Lotte had been the head bitch in charge back at Westbury and would’ve given Mean Girl Regina George a run for her title. Everly had no interest in reuniting with her.

Not tonight, not ever.

She sighed and threw back the rest of her drink. “Well, this has been fun, but I have bridesmaid duties to attend to.”

“Try not to sound so excited about it.” Xander grinned. “And here I thought you’d welcome any excuse to get away from me.”

“Almost any excuse,” she replied tartly, squaring her shoulders. Maybe she should order another drink. She had a two-drink max, but it might be worth breaking the rule just this once. God knew she would need the liquid courage to get through the next fifteen minutes. “Why the hell did I ever agree to be in this wedding?”

“What?” Xander asked, a look of surprise etched on his face. Shit. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “You have something against marriage?”

“Marriage, no. Weddings, yes. I mean, look around.” She gestured toward the opulent marble fountain where a bevy of swans were swimming in quiet circles. Valerian weddings were a tribute to excess and indulgence, and Lucy’s was no exception. There were cascades of colorful blossoms, gilded candelabras, and crystal champagne flutes as far as the eye could see. “This is completely over the top.”

“You may have a point,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “It does seem a bit extravagant.”

“You better believe if I ever tie the knot, I’m eloping to a tropical island where I can go barefoot and drink champagne from a coconut.”

“Sounds like my kind of party,” he said, leaning close to whisper in her ear. His breath was hot against her cheek and she had to fight to keep her breathing even. “I won’t keep you from your wedding duties, but you still owe me a drink, Everly. And I intend to collect.”

***

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