Suddenly Royal
Author:Nichole Chase

“Correct. I believe the last count was at ten thousand, four hundred and sixty-six.” I wrote the number on the board, plowing forward, trying to calm my nerves. The class settled down and I did my best to keep things on track.

“How many orders of birds are classified by the IOU?” I looked around the room. “Seriously, guys? You’re going to let him come in here and show you up?” Laughter filled the room and I was relieved when Hermione raised her hand and had the correct answer.

By the time class was over I couldn’t have been more ready. I had twenty minutes before the next lecture and I was considering putting a note on the door and hiding. As the students got up and left, a few of them came down to try to ask me questions. I did my best to shoo them away, but a few were much more dedicated to finding an answer. Becca had come to stand just to the side of me, her friendly smile replaced with a glower that made me rethink my original assessment of her personality.

“C’mon, Sam. It’s the school paper. Just an interview. I’ll let you decide which questions you want to answer.” The editor for the student paper was leaning against my desk and I was resolutely trying to ignore him.

“I told you, Toby, I have too much going on right now. I’m sorry.” Truth be told, I would always have too much going on when it came to having time for interviews. Especially with Toby. He was a pervert to the tenth degree. “If you don’t mind, I have to finish grading some papers.”


“This way, sir.” Duvall appeared beside Toby, a friendly hand placed on his shoulder. “Lady Rousseau has asked for some space.”


“Another time, maybe.” Duvall maneuvered Toby away from my desk and off the stage, to my relief. Who would have thought I’d be grateful to see Duvall after all?

“You’re an excellent teacher. You handled the class quite well.” Alex’s voice in my ear made me jump, bumping my head into his chin.

“Youch!” I rubbed the top of my head while he looked down at me with amusement. He rubbed his chin but smiled. “Good grief. Don’t sneak up on me. And I would have handled the class much better if you hadn’t shown up.”

“I’d like to think I encouraged them to try a little harder.” His blue eyes sparkled as he looked at me. “And I wanted to make sure they weren’t giving you too hard of a time.”

“Thanks, I think.” I frowned up at him, trying to not get pulled into his eyes. “But I would have managed just fine. You don’t have to take care of me.”

“You’ve been thrown into a new world… I just wanted to help you get your feet.” Instead of being annoyed with my reluctance to accept his help, he seemed entertained. “How many more classes do you have today?”

“Two more.” I rubbed my forehead. “Then I go to the sanctuary.”

“I see. Do you have time for lunch somewhere in there?” He leaned casually against my desk, his perfect rump perched on the edge. I tried to not think about it and just focused on the conversation.

“I usually eat in the office after the last class. Catch up my paperwork before I head over.” I bit my bottom lip, confused by his presence in my class, by his interest in me. His eyes focused on my mouth briefly before moving back to my eyes. Some flashes from the right side of the hall drew my attention and I realized some of the students were using their phones to take pictures of us talking. Becca jumped down from the edge of the stage where she was standing and headed in their direction.

“Would you mind if I join you? Or is that not allowed?” He cocked his head to the side and I found myself studying the way the bright lights of the stage played in his blond hair.

“Um, no, that’s fine.” My eyes traveled over his face, taking in the slight imperfections that only seemed to make him more handsome. “Uh, I usually just grab a sandwich or something. I guess we could order something in, if you’d like.”

“A sandwich is perfect. Why don’t I bring the food? I’ll meet you there, that way you don’t have to waste any of your time.”

“Why?” The question exited my mouth before I could rethink it.

“Why save you time?” His eyebrows drew together.

“Why do you want to have lunch with me? Surely you have more important things to do.”

“Well, I like your company for one thing.” He leaned a little closer. “And you underestimate your importance. I’m starting to think you’re very important.”

I didn’t know what to say. What could I say to that? There was no mistaking it this time. Alex was definitely flirting with me and I felt like a fish out of water. I was a terrible flirt, too blunt and not coy. And I blushed. Like I was doing right now.

“I make you nervous, don’t I?” His gaze turned thoughtful. “And not because of my rank. That doesn’t seem to faze you at all.”

“A title is a title. It doesn’t define the type of person you are.” I closed the notebook with the quizzes and took a deep breath.

“Very true.” Reaching out, he brushed a stray strand of brown hair that had escaped my ponytail back from my face. I froze and our gazes locked before I remembered the cameras. I looked over to where the students had been standing, but no one was there.

“We’re alone. Duvall and Becca saw everyone out and are watching the door.”

We’re alone. His words sent a shiver through my soul. Images of him and me on the desk filled my mind and my blush deepened. His fingers traced my jawline briefly before he stood up and gave me enough space to breathe again.

“Do you have a preference for lunch?”

“No mustard.” I stayed in my seat, feeling safer there.

“No mustard. I can manage that.” He turned and walked down the steps. I couldn’t stop my eyes from following his backside as he went.

“My office, it’s on the second floor.” I cleared my throat. “I share it, so there will be other people there. They might pester you.” In fact I was sure Mary would pester him.

“I’ll find it.” He smiled over his shoulder at me.

Chaos on Campus

—College Daily

“Unless you can tell me the number of toes a bird has, you have accidently wandered into the wrong class.” I put my hands on my hips and glared at the students. “And that means you need to drag your hung-over self out of your seat and go find the correct room. Now.”

I waited while half the room got up and left in an explosion of noise. Some people took pictures of me with their cell phones before they ducked out of the door, others laughed like it was all a big joke. When it finally quieted down, I looked up from my desk and tried to not groan. There were still too many people in the room, but at least a good portion of them had left. Taking a deep breath, I stood up and started the last lecture of the day.

By the time I was finished, I barely had any patience left. I had been asked if I was a princess, if I was really a teaching assistant, if I knew the Queen of England. People had taken my picture and recorded my lecture. Nothing had been accomplished in the lesson. I should have just canceled the class and hidden in a broom closet somewhere.

“Lady Rousseau, let’s wait to move until the room has cleared and there isn’t as much traffic in the hallways.” Becca glanced at me over my desk with a look of pity.

“Can you just kill me? Carry me out in a box?” I looked up at her. “Do you even have a gun?”

“What kind of bodyguard would I be if I needed a gun to kill someone?” Becca smiled at my expression. “Besides, it could’ve been worse.”

“That’s not comforting.” I leaned back in my chair and groaned. “Thank God I don’t have any more classes today.” I grabbed my notes and shoved them into my bag. My stomach was in knots and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the classes or the fact that I was supposed to go eat with Alex.

“Ready?” Becca asked.

“Yeah.” We left the room and headed for the back stairs. There were still people in the halls, but for the most part they moved out of our way. When I got to the office, Alex was leaning against the wall next to the door, a bag of food in one hand and a tray with drinks in the other. His head was against the wall, his eyes closed. I felt guilty that he looked so tired. He must’ve been up late to see to my truck and get me those notes. As we approached, one of the men in his detail said something quietly. He tilted his head to look at us and smiled. His gray suit made his blue eyes look almost silver and I felt my mouth go dry. Just being near him felt like something in my gut was tugging me to him. He was perfect, right down to the light stubble on his chin.

“No mustard.” He held the bag up in victory and I laughed. He looked so proud of himself I couldn’t help it. Some of my nerves melted away and I felt a bit more relaxed.

“C’mon.” I opened the door so he could walk in and almost melted in relief when no one else was inside. I had been dreading the stares and awkward conversation. “That’s my desk.” I pointed at the one near the window and he stood next to the chair Becca had used earlier. I checked the message board, watching him from the corner of my eye before going to find some paper towels.

“Thank you.” He sat down when I handed him the napkins. “I hope you like red meat. I have a weakness for hamburgers. The bigger the better.”

“You’re in luck. The hamburgers from the cafeteria are great.” I spread the fries onto a napkin so we could both get to them. “So tell me. How did you manage to go in the cafeteria and come out alive?”

“Many years of practice.” He took a bite of his burger and groaned. “Ah, now that is good.”

“Why not just send someone else for them?” I took a bite of my food and mentally agreed with him.

“I was hoping it would draw away some of your fake students.”

“You mean you prostituted yourself out to the masses? To draw them away? That was… sweet.” He choked on his drink and coughed roughly. I set down my sandwich and slapped him on the back.

“I hadn’t thought about it that way.” He chuckled. “But it was worth it if it helped you.”

“Well, thank you.” I picked my sandwich back up and smiled at him. “For lunch and for pimping yourself out.”

“I told you I wouldn’t throw you to the wolves.” He winked at me, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him about all the people who had still crashed my classes. “Did you have a chance to look through the notes I sent?”

“A little.” I pushed some of the fries toward him. He seemed to like those just as much as he liked the hamburger. “I have to admit I’m interested in the specialist you listed.”

“There is a great deal of information online, too much to print out.”

“Thanks. I’ll look it over before I talk to Dad.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket and checked for new text messages. Still nothing from my father, so I texted the lady that came to check on him twice a day. Patricia was a neighbor who had been good friends with my mother. She wouldn’t let me pay her, and honestly, I have no idea how I would have anyway. But knowing she went to check on Dad to make sure he didn’t need anything was a huge relief.

Patricia: He’s got one of his migraines today and is sleeping. I’ll let him know you’re coming over later.

I sighed in relief and told her thank you.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Dad hasn’t texted me since yesterday and I was getting worried. He gets terrible headaches sometimes.”

“But he’s fine?”

“Fine as can be.” I chewed on some fries and thought about it. “A family friend checks on him a couple of times a day to help out. She said he was sleeping.”

We didn’t say anything else for a little while, just munched on our food and watched the light snowfall. It was going to be a cold afternoon. At least I wouldn’t be in the truck. The heat took forever to warm up. Which reminded me…

“Thank you for seeing to my truck. Tell me how much the repairs were and I’ll get the money to you.”

“Don’t worry about it. I was happy to see to it.”

“Alex, I appreciate it, but I don’t feel right letting you pay for it. It’s not your fault the starter died.” I set my sandwich down and looked at him. The thought of someone paying for me didn’t sit well. Especially someone I had only met the night before.

“If we hadn’t invited you out, you likely wouldn’t have been stranded. It is my obligation.” Alex leaned back in his chair as if amused by my obvious disapproval.

“In which case it wouldn’t have started this morning and I would have been late for class. Arguing when it happened is silly. It’s my car, my responsibility.”

“Fine. You can pay me back after you’re granted your lands and title.”

I thought it over for a minute before I realized what he had done. He’d given me one more reason to go to Lilaria. I narrowed my eyes but couldn’t help the smile that tugged at my mouth. “You’re sneaky.”

“That’s one way of looking at it.” I liked his laugh. There was something free and honest in it. I shook my head and picked up my food again. I’d let it slide for now until I figured out what I was going to do.

“So, what are you doing after this?” I looked at Alex, curious. I tried to squash the hope that was bubbling in my stomach. Being around him made me feel like I wanted more.

“Well, that depends. I have some phone calls to make and we were invited to dinner at the mayor’s house, but I have a few hours free.” He shook the ice in his cup before taking another sip. “I’d like to see your birds. I have to admit, I miss being around them when I travel.”

“Well, you’re welcome to come with me but it’s going to be pretty cold. And there will definitely be people there.” I looked around the room. “I don’t know how we got lucky for lunch. Normally everyone is here about this time.”

“Lucky that you got me all to yourself?” Alex smiled and my face turned beet red.

“I just meant that Mary wouldn’t have left you—I mean us—alone with all her questions.” Good Lord, I was going to inflate his ego to unbearable proportions if I wasn’t careful.

“A man named David sent everyone out of the office. I think he was worried about this Mary, too.”

“Mary isn’t a bad person; she just takes some getting used to.” I shook my head. “I’ve known her for two years now and she still shocks me.”

“I’m glad it worked out this way. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to spend some time with you since you turned me down for drinks last night. Free time is often hard to come by.” Little creases of amusement appeared at the corners of his eyes as he laughed at my expression. “From the shock on your face, I can tell I wasn’t being obvious enough.”

“I just thought you were being polite.” I looked down at my food and tried to calm my racing heart. His warm fingers lifted my chin so that I was looking him in the eye. His face had turned very serious, his eyes intent.

“Wanting to spend a few hours getting to know a beautiful woman isn’t about being polite.” His thumb ran over my bottom lip and my breath stuttered. “I shouldn’t chase you, Samantha, but I’m not sure I can help myself.”

I didn’t know what to say. Why shouldn’t he chase me? Because I’m from diluted nobility? Or because I have enough going on to keep me busy? Did I want him to chase me? I did and I didn’t. I wanted him, the man staring at me right now. But I didn’t want what that included: the cameras, the politics, and who knows what else.

As I tried to sort out my thoughts, there was a knock on the door. I had been leaning forward, pulled in by his eyes, so sat back quickly. “Come in.”

Becca stuck her head in the door and smiled. “Ma’am, someone named Jess is here.”

“Oh, let her in.” I shook my head as Jess walked through the door. Today was possibly the weirdest day of my life. Well, after yesterday, anyway.

“Heard your classes were crazy.” She set her bag down and swiped a few fries from my desk. “Hello, Your Majesty.” She looked embarrassed for roughly one quarter of a second and I had to assume it was because of her word vomit last night.

“Hello, Jess.” Alex gave her a friendly smile. I wondered if she was breaking some kind of protocol by being so informal. He didn’t look bothered, even if she was.

“Word is you had to shoo people out.” She narrowed her eyes at me.

“You could say that.” I frowned at her. I didn’t want Alex to know I’d still been swarmed with strangers.

“Yeah?” She sat on the desk next to me but on the opposite side of Alex.

“Yeah. It was weird. Normally I have to worry about most of the class not showing up for the eight o’clock block.” I snorted. Not the problem today.

“My prof gave a pop quiz. I think he was really offended that people might have skipped his class ‘just to see some royals.’” She made air quotes with her fingers. “No offense, Alex. He’s a stick-in-the-mud.”

Jess was a teaching assistant for Dr. Woodrum, one of the most boring teachers you could get. Then again, the thought of premed classes made me squirm. Animals were one thing, but I didn’t want to change any bedpans or give rectal exams.

“What class is it?” Alex asked.

“Beginner’s Biology.” Jess grabbed another fry. “Long story short, Woodrum hates all college students but knows the basics better than anyone.”

“And he is your advisor?”

Jess nodded her head. “It’ll look good on my resume. He’s written so many articles it’s insane and it lets me work on some really interesting projects. Even if I do have to put up with his comb-over and bean-dip breath.” Jess sighed dramatically.

“You chose it.” It was an old argument.

“I thought you might need someone to go with you to the raptor center, but it looks like you’ve got it covered.” Jess’s eyes darted between me and Alex. I knew she was trying to figure out if he was going with me. I could almost feel her mentally prodding me for answers. Or maybe that was the foot she was using to kick my leg.

“There are three bodyguards standing outside the door waiting on me.” I batted her foot away from me.

“Not to mention the three that followed me.” Alex laughed.

“Oh, are you going with Sam?” Jess turned bright eyes toward him. He seemed to pick up on her tone and leaned back in his chair, that little smile playing on his mouth.

“She was kind enough to offer to show me the birds.”

“Uh huh.” She turned and smiled at me. I thought about shoving her off the desk.

“Alex has birds at home. I thought he might enjoy seeing the ones we have here.” I stood up and started collecting the trash. Alex held open the bag so I could stuff the wrappers inside.

“Well, I guess I’ll go on to my office then.” Jess stood up and picked up her bag. “Have you heard from Dr. Geller?”

“Shoot. I need to check my e-mail. Today has thrown me off.” I sat back down at my computer and opened up my account, scanning the messages. I frowned when I saw the one from Dr. Geller. Apparently the dean had contacted him, so he knew a little bit about what was going on. He would be in early tomorrow to talk.

“Greeeaaat,” I muttered.

“Geller unhappy?” Jess looked over my shoulder.

“The dean called him.” I met Alex’s eyes. His face was blank and I knew he was waiting for more information. “I think he was just surprised to not have heard the news from me.”

“It’s not like you exactly had time.” Jess shrugged. “You’ll be fine. Geller loves you.”

“We’ll see.” Would he still love me if I went to Lilaria? He had invested a lot of time in my education. Was I really thinking about going?

“I’m going to run. I’ve got some papers to grade and I don’t want to do it tonight.” Jess looked over at Alex. “Enjoy the birds. Don’t let the eagle bite you. He’s a moody bastard.”

“I shall endeavor to keep my fingers to myself.”

“You do that.” Jess moved out of his sight and winked at me.

I looked away from her and down at my computer to log off. “See you later.” I didn’t look up when I heard the door open. I was worried Alex would see the relief on my face. The longer Jess was around him, the bolder she would become in her jokes.

“She’s a good friend.” Alex said it like he knew for sure after spending less than an hour with her.

“I have good taste.” I smiled at him as I picked up my bag. “Ready?”

“Lead the way.” He opened the door for me and motioned into the hall. There were people in suits filling the area just outside the office.

“Uh, I need to head over to the center.” I looked at Duvall, who motioned at the others. Someone handed Alex a winter coat and we headed down the stairs. There were more people in the lobby than normal and I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t because of the snow. In fact, the ones that normally used the area to study looked irritated. I didn’t blame them.

“Sir, should I send someone for your car as well?” A man that rivaled Alex in size leaned close.

“No, I’ll be accompanying Samantha.” Alex nodded at me.

“Yes, sir.” The man moved ahead of us to clear the door.

A young woman with red hair broke away from a group near the elevator and stopped in our path. She was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I knew her from. Her shirt was unbuttoned much farther than it normally would’ve been considering the frigid air outside, and from the way her friends giggled, I was sure it was just for Alex’s benefit.

“May I have your autograph?” She smiled around the bodyguards at Alex, her eyes practically shimmering like an anime cartoon. The guards continued to block her, allowing Alex to make the decision.

“I’m sorry, I can’t sign anything.” Alex flashed a panty-dropping smile and she made a little moue of disappointment before turning toward me.

“Would you sign?” She pushed the notebook toward me.

“Um.” My eyebrows rose so high, I thought they might try to escape my face.

“You were the TA in one of my classes last semester. I can’t believe I know a royal.” She shoved the notebook toward me and I had no choice but to grab it. I felt awkward and clumsy as I stared at this girl who acted as though she knew me.

“As much as we would love to sign it for you, we’re not allowed to give autographs.” Alex took the notebook from my hands and held it out to the girl.

“So you are a royal?” Something in her eyes shifted to a shrewd glint. With one simple sentence, Alex had confirmed all the news reports floating around and sent the rumor mill into overdrive.

“I’m a grad student.” I tried to keep my face friendly, but I had a feeling she wasn’t some silly co-ed.

“But you’re also part of the royal family from Lilaria?”

“I’m sorry, we’re going to be late.” I tried to smile, but it probably looked deranged.

“My brother works for WKFS. He’d let you tell the story in your own words.” She stepped closer and I saw the guards around us move into action. Duvall slid between us and Becca stepped close to my right side. Alex put a hand on my elbow and steered me away from the redhead.

“Let’s go.” A thread of anger slid through his quiet words as we tried to walk around everyone.

“Samantha, are you and the prince dating? Have you always known you were from a royal family?” The heat that would have normally flooded my cheeks was countered by the cold that seeped up my spine.

I didn’t look back up until we’d gone through the security checkpoint. That was when I noticed the extra campus guards. Instead of the usual one, there were three. They each looked me over with interest but also made sure no one was following us.

The cold air slammed into me and I scrambled to button up my coat. Alex had dropped his hand from my arm but stayed close by my side as we walked through the campus to the parking lot. Despite my earlier instructions to not walk around me like they were guarding the crown jewels, the team was carefully edging people away from us.

“It’s a pretty campus. I imagine it’s very nice in the summer.”

“Are you trying to distract me?” I looked up at him, amused.

“Is it working?” He cut his eyes toward me. “You looked like you were leading a funeral procession.”

“I did not!” I laughed, realizing he was right. “Okay. It’s just weird. And strange. And disconcerting. All these people staring at me. I’ve been here for four years, but they’re acting like I’ve suddenly sprouted a second head.”

“You’re a novelty.” We got to the car and he opened the door. “It’ll wear off. Probably.”

“You Lilarians aren’t a very comforting bunch.” I pulled my bag off my shoulder so I could slide into the seat. He laughed as he closed the door and walked around the car.

Raptor Center Receives Large Grant

—Minnesota Raptor Association

The ride to the center was long, but it would have been shorter if people had stopped turning to look in our windows. When we pulled into the gravel parking lot where I had met Duvall yesterday, I hopped out of the car before Alex could get around to my side and shouldered my bag again.

“Well, this is it. Last chance to come up with something interesting to do. If you stay I might put you to work.” I looked at him, not sure if I wanted him to stay or go. Logically, I knew I’d get more work done if he wasn’t there, but I was also starting to enjoy his company.

“Use me as you see fit.” Alex stepped close, his eyes lit with mischief. “I’m at your disposal.”

“You may regret that.” I tried to keep my voice calm but failed.

“I highly doubt it.” Stepping around me, he opened the gate and we walked toward the main building. People stopped to stare at us, but for the most part no one really bothered me. For the first time that day I felt normal, like I could be myself.

I threw by bag down in a corner of the office and looked around for any notes. David had been here earlier in the day and checked on the birds. Thankfully everyone seemed to be handling the weather well.

“You might want to leave your suit jacket.” I grabbed Dr. Geller’s large snow coat from the rack and tossed it to Alex. He traded coats and hung his jacket on the rack.

This was the part of my day I looked forward to. Here, I didn’t have to deal with students or idiotic questions. Most of the others were leaving or going to their offices to finish up paperwork. I could focus on my birds, get lost in research, and agonize over my thesis. It was my passion and here nothing else got in the way. Nothing else came first.

Alex didn’t talk much as I showed him the facility: the mews, the enclosures, and the area where we prepped the food. There was also a very small room where Dr. Geller performed examinations of the injured birds brought to us. It was a slow time of the year, considering most birds that could leave the cold did so. That was why Dr. Geller chose this time to take a team of students farther south. They had spent time in the Everglades and the swamps of Louisiana. I think it was also a convenient way for him to get away from the snow for a while.

“How many of you work here?” Alex was helping transfer some of the birds while I cleaned cages. He hadn’t needed much direction. It was easy to tell he spent a great deal of time with raptors.

“Depends on the season.” I hauled a bucket over to use for trash. “In the summer we have volunteers who help out. There are shows and education programs as well that help raise money for the birds.”

“Education is the key, isn’t it? The more people understand about these creatures, the more they will be able to see their vital importance.” Gently, Alex coaxed the horned owl from her perch and onto his gloved arm. “That’s one of the things I’m working on back home. I run a charity that goes to schools and town centers to help educate the public. The kids love it.”

“What’s it called?”

“The Future Bird Trust.” He didn’t look at me as we talked, his eyes solely on the bird, so didn’t see my dumbstruck expression.

“You run the FBT? I thought they were based in France.”

“Yes, we work very closely with the French government to uphold the laws protecting these beauties.” He looked at me over the owl’s head, his eyes full of determination. “It’s my goal to spread the FBT to the surrounding countries to educate the public about the importance of raptors. I hope that with more knowledge people will understand why it is so important to preserve these birds.”

“I’ve read about the FBT.” I leaned the shovel I was carrying against the wall and went to wash my hands. “They’ve done some great things.”

“Thank you.” He looked back at the owl, examining the large gash on her beak. “What happened to this one?”

“Car.” I turned back to the table to finish getting the food sorted. Rats and mice were the entrée for tonight. Not exactly my favorite part of the job, but I’d become immune to it at this point. Everything has to eat. I brought a small rat over to Dover, the owl Alex was holding. Alex took it in a gloved hand and proffered it to the bird.

“C’mon, sweetheart. Don’t be shy.” Alex clucked when Dover turned her head away from the meal. “I saw you eyeing it while the lovely Samantha got it ready.”

“She’s a coy one.” I smiled at him, not sure if I was more amused by the coaxing tone or by him calling me lovely.

He mumbled a few words in Lilarian, at least I thought they were Lilarian, and Dover turned to look at him. He chuckled and offered the rat again, which she deigned to accept. I didn’t blame her for turning to look at him. While he spoke English easily with an almost British accent, those words were beautiful.

“Well, that may be the fastest she’s ever accepted a meal from anyone.”

“That so?” He smiled over at me.

“It’s the accent. Women always swoon for an accent.” I rolled my eyes.

“And does the accent work on you?”

“You wish.” I fumbled with the gloves I was trying to put on. I looked at him over my shoulder to see if he was watching.

“Too true.” He winked at me. My heart jumped and I turned to finish making the meals. Unfortunately I knocked over the shovel and was rewarded with a loud clanking that sent all the nearby birds into a flutter. I bent over to pick up the shovel and glanced at Alex. He was openly watching my backside.

When he realized he had been caught ogling, he smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Nice jeans.”

“Thanks.” I turned back to the task at hand.

“No—thank you.” He chuckled and I blushed.

“Did you know what your aunt was going to tell me last night?” I asked, wanting to change the subject. I kept my back to him, not wanting him to see my red cheeks.

“No. She asked me to accompany her to dinner and since I had no other plans, I agreed. She mentioned something about the university, but since we had been here earlier that day, I had no reason to think it was for anything else.”

“Yeah, I saw you guys. You were busy flirting with a blond girl outside the library and I couldn’t get through the front doors. I had to go all the way around to the back and they still wouldn’t let me in with the fancy-schmancy prince visiting.” He laughed at my barb and I remembered the way he had been laughing with the girl. Something in my chest tightened. I tried to stomp the emotion down because I had no reason to care.

“Jackie.” He said her name with a fond tone and I felt my back stiffen. There was no reason I should care if he liked her. Just because he had been flirting with me didn’t mean anything. And really, I had no use for a prince. “She was assigned to show us the campus. Part of a sorority, I believe.”

I continued chopping up mice bits and ground my teeth. Of course she was. Cute, blond, designer clothes. Probably a business major so she’d have a degree when she went to work for the family company. Plus, she’d looked adorable standing next to Alex for the camera’s that had come to record the event. They had looked cute standing next to each other. And comfortable with each other.

I grunted. “Yes, she was the perfect little host, I’m sure.”

“Yes, Jackie was an… excellent escort.” Escort? Escort? Alex’s next words cut through my thoughts with amusement. “How small are you planning on cutting those?”

“Shit.” I frowned and looked at the mess I had made. I pushed it aside and started on another mouse. I’d freeze this for one of the birds we had to syringe feed.

“You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were jealous.”

I spun around to glare at him. I opened my mouth and closed it. If I denied it, I’d look like an ass, but I couldn’t just tell him the truth. Shit, shit, shit. I was jealous. Snap out of it, Sam!

“Your ego is something of a wonder, isn’t it?” I glared at him as he put Dover on her perch to finish eating.

“I think I like this look on you.” His eyes were a different shade of blue as he regarded me. “Jackie was nice, very friendly, and dumb as a rock. She is nothing compared to you.” He pulled the gloves off as he walked toward me. I flattened myself against the counter with each step he took. Placing a hand on either side of me, he leaned forward. “Put down the knife, Samantha.”

“Why?” I hadn’t realized I was still holding it. My voice had been too high; excited. This close to him my brain was turning into mush. His blue eyes peered down into mine and I felt small and feminine.

“Because I’m going to kiss you and I don’t want to be stabbed when I do it.” His hand moved to mine and carefully plied my fingers away from the blades’ handle. When he had disarmed me, he dipped his head down toward mine and I felt my heart beat speed up. While his breath tickled my lips, he carefully pulled my work gloves off. One of his hands moved to cup my cheek, tilting my face upward. Our eyes stayed locked until his warm lips touched mine. It started out slow and tender, our breaths mingling while we touched with feather light brushes. I was putty in his hands, my body no longer under my command.

I ran my hands over his chest, tracing the muscles I had caught hints of through his shirt. Eventually I tangled my fingers in his hair. He mumbled things I didn’t understand and didn’t need to, the tone making it obvious. He tasted like a dark, decadent dessert. I had a feeling I could live on that taste alone for months; that his kiss was something I could become addicted to.

The sound of wings flapping and loud squawking had us pulling apart. My breathing was heavy and I felt lightheaded. Alex ran a thumb over my bottom lip, his eyes bright with a mixture of surprise and desire.

“I think someone is jealous.” I bit my lip and looked over his shoulder to where Dover was glaring at us.

“Not much I can do about that.” He leaned forward and nipped my bottom lip. I melted back into him, already craving his taste again. His hands moved up my sides, his thumbs barely grazing the sides of my breasts. I sucked in a breath at his touch and moaned softly.

One of the side doors opened and we froze at the sound of voices. Alex smiled at the look on my face, but pulled away. I adjusted my shirt, hoping I didn’t have that ‘just kissed’ look. Alex picked up my gloves and handed them to me. I pulled them back on and turned back to what I was doing.

“Hey, Sam?” David’s voice heralded his entry into the room. Alex moved over to the sink to wash his hands and I heard David’s footsteps pause.

“What’s up?” I turned to look at him, the knife in my hand. His eyes moved from Alex to me, noting how close we were standing.

“I wanted to see how Dover was healing. Dr. Geller asked me to keep an eye on her while he was gone.” Something in his tone changed and I realized he appeared pissed.

“She’s doing good.” I felt my eyebrows draw together. David was usually a bit distant, but friendly. Did he think I had ignored the owl because of everything going on? Everyone brought friends or family to the center, so he couldn’t be upset at Alex’s presence.

“Have you given her the medicine yet?” David glared at Alex, who had turned around to lean against the sink. There wasn’t much space between us and I could see the calculating gleam in David’s eyes.

“Yep.” My response was curt, annoyed by the judging look in his eyes.

“Good.” He grabbed a glove from one of the shelves and walked over to check out Dover. I turned back to my task and frowned.

“She’s a beautiful bird.” Alex had stayed leaning against the counter, so close that my elbow hit him when I went back to work.

“Yes. She is.” David’s voice sounded odd, so I tried to peek over my shoulder. Dover was sitting on his arm, but his eyes were trained on Alex. “She’s been through a lot. I’d hate to see her hurt any more.”

I turned back to the mouse I was holding and frowned. Why did he sound so angry?

“I’m sure everyone here takes very good care of her.” Alex’s voice sounded affable, but there was something odd about the way he phrased his words.

“Often people hurt things on accident.” David’s voice took on an edge. “No one plans on hurting anyone, but it happens.”

Anyone? I froze at and set down the knife I was holding. Slowly I turned around and glared at David. He was ignoring me, his gaze still glued on Alex.

“I have no intention of hurting Samantha.” Alex’s posture was relaxed, at odds with his words.

“She’s been through enough. I’ve watched her fight her way through the death of her mom and now her dad. Don’t pull her into something just for her to have to fight some more.”