A Royal Without Rules(5)

By: Caitlin Crews

“It isn’t only your brother who wants me here, before you ask,” Adriana said quickly, feeling suddenly as if she was out of her depth and desperate for a foothold. Any foothold. “Your father does, too. He made his wishes very clear to Lenz.”

Adriana couldn’t pinpoint what changed, precisely, as Pato didn’t appear to move. But she felt the shift in him. She could sense it in the same way she knew, somehow, that he was far more predatory than he should have been, standing there naked with a sheet wrapped around his hips and his hair in disarray.

“Hauling out your biggest weapon already?” he asked quietly, and a chill sneaked down the length of her spine. “Does that mean I’ve found my way beneath your skin? Tactically speaking, you probably shouldn’t have let me know that.”

“I’m letting you know the situation,” she replied, but she felt a prickle of apprehension. As if she’d underestimated him.

But that was impossible. This was Pato.

“Far be it from me to disobey my king,” he said, a note she didn’t recognize and couldn’t interpret in his voice. It confused her—and worse, intrigued her, and that prickle filled out and became something more like a shiver as his eyes narrowed. “If he wishes to saddle me with the tedious morality police in the form of a Righetti, of all things, so be it. I adore irony.”

Adriana laughed at that. Not because it was funny, but because she hadn’t expected him to land that particular blow, and she should have. She was such a fool, she thought then, fighting back a wave of a very familiar, very old despair. She should have followed her brothers, her cousins, and left Kitzinia to live in happy anonymity abroad. Why did she imagine that she alone could shift the dark mark that hovered over her family, that branded them all, that no one in the kingdom ever forgot for an instant? Why did she still persist in believing there was anything she could do to change that?

But all she showed Pato was the calm smile she’d learned, over the years, was the best response. The only response.

“And here I would have said that you’d never have reason to learn the name of a little beige hen, no matter how long I’ve worked in the palace.”

“I think you’ll find that everybody knows your name, Adriana,” he said, watching her closely. “Blood will tell, they say. And yours...” He shrugged.

She didn’t know why that felt like a punch. It was no more than the truth, and unlike most, he hadn’t even been particularly rude while delivering it.

“Yes, Almado Righetti made a horrible choice a hundred years ago,” she said evenly. She didn’t blush or avert her eyes. She didn’t cringe or cry. She’d outgrown all that before she’d left grammar school. It was that or collapse. Daily. “If you expect me to run away in tears simply because you’ve mentioned my family’s history, I’m afraid you need to prepare yourself for disappointment.”

Once again, that flash of something more, like a shadow across his gorgeous face, making those lush eyes seem clever. Aware. And once again, it was gone almost the moment Adriana saw it.

“I don’t want or need a lapdog,” he said, the steel in his tone not matching the easy way he stood, the tilt of his head, that hot gold gleam in his eyes.

“I don’t work for you, Your Royal Highness,” Adriana replied simply, and let her profound pleasure in that fact color her voice. “You are simply another task I must complete to Prince Lenz’s satisfaction. And I will.”

That strange undercurrent tugged at her again. She wished she could puzzle it out, but he only gazed at her, all his shockingly intense magnetism bright in the air between them. She had the stray thought that if he used his power for good, he could do anything. Anything at all.

But that was silly. Pato was a monument to wastefulness, nothing more. A royal pain in the ass. Her ass, now, and for the next two months.

“I don’t recall any other martyrs in the Righetti family line,” he drawled after a moment. “Your people run more to murderous traitors and conniving royal mistresses, yes?” A quirk of his dark brow. “I’m happy to discuss the latter, in case you wondered. I do so hate an empty bed.”

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