I SWIRL THE amber liquid in my crystal rocks glass. Inside the club, I can hear corks popping and the sound of raucous applause, which means Marius, owner of the Veil, has just replayed the end of the Nightgardin Rally. Again.
I shake my head. He doesn’t need to keep kissing my ass. I’ve already bought out the VIP room for the night, spending my winnings like they mean nothing. Because they never do.
Below my balcony, drunk revelers party in the street, all because I was reckless enough to use a hand-brake maneuver. One where the last racer to attempt it flipped his car and died before the pit crew could get to him.
I should be so lucky. Instead, here I am, strangers toasting me like I’m something so goddamned special, even while we all know the truth.
I’m a brother scorned. A prince banished. A killer.
But for them, I’m just some larger-than-life entertainment—the reckless, rich playboy who drives too fast and throws enough money around to make sure the party and the ride never stop.
“Your Highness? Marius has asked me to see to it that you are well taken care of. Can I get you another drink? Perhaps something to eat? Or maybe—a companion for the evening?” A voice beckons from the balcony door, but I don’t turn to face whoever has the balls to address me like that.
Nobody calls me that anymore, not because of any request I’ve made but because everyone the world over knows that an Edenvale prince in exile retains no such rank or respect, especially here in Nightgardin—a country my father and brothers consider enemy territory—which means this asshole is mocking me.
I hold up my barely touched glass of scotch, my back still to him, and assume this will be enough for him to leave me to “celebrate” alone.
Instead, the scuff of his shoe alerts me he’s done exactly the opposite.
So I paint on my devil-may-care grin and turn to face him.
“Party’s inside. I’m good,” I say, taking pains not to speak through gritted teeth.
The man is dark-haired with tanned skin, dressed in finery unlike any of Marius’s other VIP room employees—a dark tailored suit, gold cuff links, Italian leather loafers. I may face him in jeans and a button-down with the sleeves rolled past the tattoos on my forearms, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the apparel I grew up in—the clothing I see my brother Nikolai wearing every time the likeness of Edenvale’s soon-to-be king is splashed across a magazine cover or television screen.
“Very well, Highness. But should you need anything at all, I am at your service.”
He grins, and a gold-covered canine catches the glint of the setting sun.
“Thank Marius for his concern, but the only thing I need is to be left alone.”
The man bows his head and then says nothing else as he disappears into the club.
The only thing that truly concerns Marius is that I throw my money around his club again in the future, but having his crony call me Highness? That is pushing things a bit too far.
I drain the rest of my drink and slip inside the crowded room. No one takes note as I make my way to the rear staircase. They’re here for the free party, not me. I head to the main level and the back entrance, the one that leads to the alley where my red Alfa Romeo—the race-winning vehicle—is parked and waiting for me.
And apparently, there’s no such thing as fucking privacy tonight, because my car doesn’t wait for me alone. Leaning against the brick wall of the club is a brunette beauty—Botticelli curls falling past her exposed shoulders to where her breasts threaten to spill over the top of her tight strapless minidress. A silver stiletto dangles from an index finger, its heel broken. In her other hand is a tumbler filled with a clear liquid. For a brief few seconds, I’m entranced, unable to look away. Then I remind myself that any woman who holds my attention for longer than that is trouble, so I shake myself free of her spell and storm to my car.
I reach for my keys, echoes of Your Highness ringing in my ears. I need to get out of here and clear my head.
But I’m fool enough to look back, and that’s when I notice her bloodied knee.
“Do you need help?” I practically growl as I stalk toward her.
She startles, sucking in a breath, then all at once regains a composure that is as practiced as my own reckless veneer.
“I think I can handle a broken shoe,” she says flatly.
As I approach, though—because dammit I can’t leave her like that—I note the scrapes on her palm as well.
She shrugs. “At least I saved the drink.”
When we’re face-to-face I tower over her, even with one of her four-inch heels still on. Her other foot balances on the tips of bare toes, the nails painted pale pink. I drag my gaze up her lithe frame to her heaving chest, glossy lips and dark eyes. I nearly lose myself in their deep pools.
“What’s in there?” I ask, nodding at the glass.
“Good,” I say, then tug at the dress’s torn lining hanging in front of her barely parted thighs. My fingertips graze her soft skin, and she yelps as I tear the fabric free.
“What the hell are you doing?” she cries.
I don’t answer as I dip the piece of her dress into her drink, soaking it. Then I squat so I am eye to eye with her injured knee, one hand behind it to hold her steady. It’s here that I catch a glimpse of lace just north of her exposed thighs.
She gasps as I press the alcohol-soaked fabric to her injury, but something tells me it’s not from the sting.
The sight of a woman’s panties I can ignore, but dammit if I can’t smell her—tangy and sweet—and it’s all I can do to keep my hand still when I want to slide it up to confirm what I already know—that this strange beauty is wet behind that pretty pink lace.
“I don’t get out much,” she says with measured control as I clean the wound. “Not used to shoes like this.”
I look up, and she stares at me unapologetically. Those eyes are familiar, but I can’t place them. I swear I’d remember if I met someone like her before.
“Do you need a ride home?” I ask.
She glances toward the Alfa Romeo and then at me, those innocent lips parting into a wicked grin. Then she reaches for the hand behind her knee, slides it up between her thighs, confirming my suspicions.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
The Alfa Romeo purrs like a wild jaguar and handles like a dream along the steep road that is one heart-pounding hairpin turn after another. I trace my fingers over the stitching in the caramel-colored leather seat and admire the sleek Italian interior design.
“Where to?” Damien growls softly.
“I don’t care,” I tell him. “Please...just drive fast.”
He acknowledges my request with a preoccupied shrug, and in a blink we’re racing up the mountain at over a hundred and forty klicks. The world outside my passenger-side window dissolves into a dark blur, and it takes all my strength not to pinch myself.
Two thousand feet below, a random club-goer from The Veil is wearing my drab black gown and is two thousand Euros richer. My curves are crammed inside her handkerchief-sized dress. A reckless trade, but one I don’t regret. It feels good to be a little wild.
When I hit puberty, Mother decreed that it was time to quit climbing trees and kicking around the football with the servant kids and start behaving like a Nightgardin princess...i.e: a stuffy, stuck-up, stick-in-the-butt.
The second I reached my sexual maturity, it was “bye-bye fun” and “hello monotony.” I now get to wear clothing more befitting an elderly nun than a young woman of twenty-one.
I’ve been coached to walk in a demure shuffle, keeping my gaze downcast—especially if men were in the vicinity—while waiting for my marriage to be arranged. After that blessed event occurs, I’ll be allowed the privilege of wedlock intercourse for the sole purpose of procreation so I may squeeze out a future heir and secure Nightgardin’s ancient throne.
Let’s face it...I’m a gilded goldfish destined to swim in useless circles until the day I get flushed down the proverbial drain.
The Alfa Romeo skids on loose gravel, wheels leaving the bitumen as I jerk forward, the seat belt catching between my breasts. My chest constricts. A precipitous drop looms mere feet from the end of the hood.
My eyes widen. I recognize this place. It’s Lovers’ Leap. Once upon a time, centuries ago, two star-crossed lovers took their lives here, jumping to their doom. I don’t know much about the legend’s particulars. Mother, the queen regent, forbade my governesses to fill my head with what she deemed “silly romantic notions.” Fewer novels and more nonfiction was her decree, preferably biographies about selfless women who sacrificed themselves for the good of their countries.
The man slouched in the driver’s seat watches my every move with his enigmatic eyes.
Goose bumps prickle along my legs. When I think of his strong, calloused hand on the back of my knee as he tended to my wound, I go slick between my legs.
At last he speaks. “Got to say, it took me quite some time to place your pretty face, but it’s finally come to me... Princess Juliet.”
I can’t hide my grimace.
“Not wearing your typical Nightgardin pillowcase tonight. That cocktail dress threw me off.”
He reaches out and his big hand covers my bare knee, sliding up. Not far. Only a few inches, but it’s enough to ignite a furnace under my skin.
He squeezes my flesh. Not hard, but enough that I tremble from a full-body shiver, my pulse quickening.
“Time to come clean. What’s your agenda? Trying to start a goddamn war with Edenvale or what?” His laugh is bitter. “If so, lots of luck. Word on the street is that you’re kept away from the media, so allow me to update you. My family despise me. See, I once killed a girl, one about as old as you, Princess.”
“I know this,” I hiss, knocking away his hand. “Do not think to patronize me, Prince Damien.”
“Just Damien these days, doll. I was stripped of titles when banished.” He idly rubs the dark scruff coating his chin. “But if you know that I’m dangerous, and that my beloved family has disowned me, why set me up to kidnap you and create a diplomatic row? Who’s paying you?”
“Paying me?” I can’t help it. I burst out laughing, and good Lord it feels good. At court, I must always remain so serious.
“Proper decorum is essential for a queen,” Mother says.
But yesterday she added a second sentence. “And for a bride.”
“I’m to be married.” My laughter dies a quick death. “I’m not here to create a diplomatic scene. I’m here because palace maids gossip and I happen to have excellent hearing. They say that Damien Lorentz, the banished prince of Edenvale, can give a woman ultimate pleasure. Your talents and skill are legendary, even here across the border.”
Now it’s his turn to laugh. “Is that what they say?” he drawls. “I suppose I have seduced more than my fair share of servants.”
“I’ve just learned that I am to wed Rupert Dingleworth, the Duke of Wartson.”
“Insane.” Damien furrows his brows in obvious disbelief. “That old goat’s pushing sixty.”
“Fifty-seven, but who’s counting? Wartson submitted a specimen to the royal hospital, and the medical report makes it clear that he can still sire children.”
“You’ve got to be joking.” Damien sounds equal parts horrified and humored. “Are you telling me that he submitted his swimmers for genetic testing?”
I nod. “Marriage is for one reason in my world. Procreation.”
“Fucking hell. What a tedious country.”
“It’s a matter of duty before pleasure. It’s how we’ve endured for a thousand years.” I flinch inwardly, hearing my sharp tone. I sound exactly like Mother.
“Fifty-seven,” he says more to himself. “And how old are you? Eighteen?”
I make a face. “Twenty-one last week.”
“Old enough for the Duke of Wartson to pump your womb full of his certified spunk?”
My flinch wipes the sarcastic smile from his lips.
“I’m sorry, Juliet,” he says gruffly. “Your situation sucks. But I don’t see where I fit in.”
“I’m a virgin.” I decide to cut right to the chase. “And as the future queen, I understand my obligations. But... I’ll have an entire lifetime procreating with Rupert. All I am seeking is a way to survive the lonely years ahead.” I lick my lips, suddenly shy. “A memory...a memory of one night experiencing absolute pleasure. And that’s where you come in.”