Part 29: 6th Day of Xmas

Things are very normal. It’s the only word I can think of, but not one I have much experience with. After last night, I might have thought things would be tense between us. Instead, I’m watching her get ready in the mirror, wondering why she bothers with even a drop of bloody make-up. She doesn’t need it. Her eyes flit to mine in the mirror and rake down my body. There’s not an ounce of reservation or disgust as she takes in my scars. If anything, she looks like she’s thinking about the same thing I am. 

“If you keep looking at me like that, I’m going to have to take you back to bed.” I warn her.

“Yes, please,” she whispers, before sighing. “Don’t even think about it, X. I’m going to be late already.”

As if she could say no to me. Actually, I think it’s well-established that we can’t say no to each other. “I warned you that I’m a man who takes what he wants.”

I prove by point by throwing her over my shoulder and carrying her to her bedroom. 

“Put me down!” Her palm smacks me. “I’m late.”

“Stop fighting me or you won’t make it in at all.” I can think of much better ways for Clara to spend her day than sitting behind an office desk, and I can think of several inventive ways to ensure she doesn’t have a choice.

Of course, I might be able to convince her. I let her fall to the bed before dropping over and crawling up her body, giving me the chance to catch her skirt with my teeth. When it’s at her hips, my fingers dive past her lacy thong to her wet cunt. “See, poppet? You’re still dressed.”

She moans as my thumb finds her plump clit and strokes circles over it.

“Although this bra is vexing.” I want more of her. All of her. I don’t want her to leave--not for work. Not for any reason at all.  “Your tits belong in my mouth. Don’t they, Clara?”

Her hands grab the sheets as she arches, her body tensing. She’s so close to release, but I’m not ready for her to come yet. I pause and wait. She needs to learn that patience is rewarded. Plus, she hasn’t answered my question. I brush my cheek against hers, my scratchy stubble scraping gently over her soft skin. “Clara?” 

“Yes!” she squeaks, and I reward her by plunging my fingers inside her, drawing her orgasm from her with precise strokes. Her hips thrust against me. I’m not the only one who wants more. 

I brush a fallen strand from her face, so I can drink in the pink hue of her cheeks and watch her slowly return to me from wherever my machinations just took her. I will never tire of seeing her like this, glowing with the bliss of her climax. I want her underneath me every hour of the day, coming again and again. We can pause to eat. I lean to kiss her, about to tell her just that until someone knocks on the door.

Who the fuck got past Norris?

I kiss her more insistently, hoping she didn’t hear. There’s another, much louder knock that makes her go rigid. I give up. I’m not meant to be happy for hours on end, after all. I give her my hand and she stands on shaky legs, adjusting her clothes and looking around for her blouse. 

I wish I was dressed, because she takes off for the door before I have my jeans on. We’re going to have to talk about answering the door. It’s not safe anymore. People will try to get to her now that she’s been linked to me. I’m slipping my shirt over my head when the yelling begins. It’s muffled, but I make out enough through the walls to know she’s not in danger.

She is, however, having a rather heated argument.  

No one needs to know I’m here. It will only complicate matters for her, but I can’t stop myself from padding into the hall. I’m about to go out to her, when I catch an older woman say, “That’s what you said before. When did you start seeing Alexander again? Don’t try to deny it! Your appearance with him at that ball has been all over the internet. We have people who can help you spin this.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary, Mom.” 

Mom. Fuck, I really don’t need to put Clara through this. I don’t want to give her mother the wrong idea, and Clara’s already had to deal with my father. I step backward so I won’t be seen and debate returning to her room. But I can’t decide which she’ll dislike more: being left to deal with her mother alone while I lay low or being put on the spot for an introduction.

She decides for me. I hear her loudly instruct her mother. “All I really want is to finish getting dressed. I need to be at work in less than hour.”

Her mother just speaks more loudly, ignoring her. “I called Lola this morning, and she thought that we might try—”

“You called Lola?” 

I scroll through my mental file on Clara Bishop. But can’t recall a Lola.

“She’s going into PR and she’s very savvy about social media,” her mother days.

“She’s twenty-one and she’s had fifteen majors since she got to university!”

“Lola is set on public relations.”

“You know what?” I hear Clara stomp across the flat.  “I’ve got this. I don’t need you or Lola or Dad helping me out.”

There’s a pause and then an unmistakable sob. I’m nearly out of the hall before I realize it’s her mother crying. 

“You’re cutting me out of your life, Clara. You know how dangerous that is. Does he even know? Have you spoken with him since the story was leaked?” she sobs. 

Her questions reverse my previous decision to stay out of it. I don’t think, I just know that I won’t let Clara apologize to her mother for what the media did to her yesterday.

“He knows.” I answer her mother’s question, leaving no room for her to misinterpret what I’m saying. Clara’s gaze falls on me, her eyes shutting for just a moment, and I know she’s bracing for impact. But I won’t let her endure it alone. I’m surprisingly good with parents. “You must be Clara’s mother. I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Bishop.”

I extend a hand, but her mother doesn’t move. She just stares at me, her mouth hanging open. She’s a lovely woman, if a bit overdone. It’s obvious where Clara gets her looks from.

“Mom,” Clara says softly. “This is Alexander.”

She looks between us twice, shakes her head and turns on me. “Well, I’m glad she told you. Relationships must be built on honesty. Don’t you agree, Alexander?”

“Of course.” I force a smile for her sake.

“I think it would be best for all of us, particularly Clara, if we had someone attempting to contain this story. I’m sure you agree with that as well.” She taps her fingers, waiting for me to agree with her. I suspect most people don’t bother disagreeing with her often. I’m not most people. 

“Unfortunately from personal experience, I can tell you that it’s very difficult to control what they publish, whether it’s true or not,” I point out.

She shakes her head, dismissing me out right. I’m reminded of my father. “We have to do something.”

“I can’t promise anything, but I do have my best man looking into the circumstances behind the story,” I say.

Clara’s eyes widen with horror. “You shouldn’t be dragged into this.”

“This happened because of me. It’s the least I can do.” Why does she have to argue with me? I don’t know what it will take to convince Clara that she’s going to have to get used to things like this happening--as well as allowing me to deal with them.

I suddenly find myself hugging her mum, who clutches me like a life preserver. I’m not sure she’s going to let me go.

“Thank you,” she whispers as Clara shoots a sympathetic look at me. “It’s so nice to see Clara has found someone.” She finally lets me go, and her tears are miraculously dried when she hits me with, “We’d love to take you both to dinner. Do you have plans tomorrow?”

“Mom!” Clara looks like she’gs going to kick her out.

I suppose it’s fair.

“I’d love to,” I say before Clara gets too worked up.

“You’d what?” Clara asks, but Mrs. Bishop is already linking her arm with mine as she makes her way to the door. 

“I’ll arrange everything.” She pats my arm reassuringly. “You don’t have any food allergies? I’ll call Clara with the details. Harold will be so excited.”

I swear that she didn’t even pause for a breath. Clara’s already at the door, trying to shoo her out. 

When she finally manages it, she slumps against the door, pressing a hand to her forehead. “I’m sorry about that.”

“She seems to be a bit of a handful.” At least, her intentions are blatantly transparent.

“I can get you out of this,” Clara says quickly. “Don’t worry about it.”

I frown.  “I don’t mind going to dinner with your parents.”

“Are…you…sure?” She gawks at me. I must really have been shit at this boyfriend thing.

“Stop staring at me like I need a straight jacket. Unless, you don’t want me to go dinner with your parents.” Is that what this is about?

“No!” she shrieks, startling a bit. “Of course, I do, but I understand if you aren’t comfortable.”

“Isn’t this what boyfriends are supposed to do?” I ask. “Meet the parents. Charm them. Earn the privilege to debauch their daughter.”

Clara continues to stare.

“Is something wrong?” I ask, replaying the last few minutes and looking for clues. I’d been polite. I’d agreed to dinner. “Did I do something to upset you?”

She swallows, shaking her head. “Nope. I just don’t deserve you, X.”

“You don’t.” She’s not wrong about that. “No one deserves to put up with me.”

Her finger presses to my lips, her blue eyes growing sad. “Don’t say that.”

“Where did you come from?” I ask softly. “Who sent you to save me?”

Clara’s eyes pierce through me and then her mouth is on mine. I don’t think. I react. I press against her, urging her leg up to coil around me. I can feel her damp heat against my groin, earning the attention of my cock. It takes more than a little effort to pull away and remind her that we have other places to be.

“You have to get to work,” I whisper, unable to resist tempting her to change her mind. My own plans for today can wait. “Unless…”

Her tongue flicks over her lips. “Unless?”

“You want to call in sick and let me show you what a good boyfriend I can be.”

She takes a deep breath. “Sorry, X. I can’t play hooky on my third day of work.”

I let her go slowly, knowing that she has a real life to return to. I can’t cage her like I’ve been caged no matter how much I may want to.

“Tonight.” I tell her.

“Tonight,” she repeats.

 

My mobile rings as soon as I step out the back entrance. Norris is there, waiting by the Bentley. 

“Yes?” I answer.

“I assume you’re with her,” father says distastefully. 

“What do you need?” I bypass his slight. I don’t need my good mood ruined by him. 

“I assume you’re coming to the country this weekend. I wanted to be certain you didn’t try to back out of it.”

“I’ll be there,” I confirm, sliding into the car.

“Good. You need to get out of the city,” he says pointedly.

And away from her. I know what he’s thinking. “Clara will be there, too.”

“Alexander, I don’t--”

I hang up on him and smile.

“Home?” Norris asks me.

“Where’s that?” I murmur absently.

“I’m sorry?” he prompts.

“Yes,” I say so he can hear, staring out the window as we merge into the morning traffic. “Take me home. I have a note to write.”

Part 30: 7th day of Xmas

Author's note: You might notice that some scenes are missing from the original book. All of those scenes will appear in the final published version! The rest of Xmas is going to be picking which scenes to share up to the end of Command Me and leaving the rest for you to enjoy in the final book!

Clara’s quiet when we leave dinner. I wonder if her mind is on her parents and the tension that lingered between them throughout the meal. It seems I’m not the only one with family issues to deal with. I slide a hand between her legs, squeezing her thigh to draw her attention to me.  “Clara?” 

“Sorry, X.” She shakes her head as if clearing it and climbs into my lap.

“Something’s on your mind.” I have no idea if she wants to talk about it. Lately, every moment we spend together seems heavy, reality weighing down our stolen moments. Part of me misses how this started when I could push aside my life and focus on burying myself deep inside her. But I can’t look back. The strangest part is that I don’t want to. 

She sighs. “I was thinking about my parents. They barely spoke to one another.”

“And that’s not usually the case?” I wonder if I’m prying. 

“My mom tends to be a little high maintenance. She was definitely giving my dad the cold shoulder.”

She shrugs, something shifting in her face as she turns to wrap her arms around my neck. Her face angles to mine, sending a clear message that she’s done talking. She wants to be distracted, and I’m more than willing to oblige. I trail a finger over the rounded line of her cleavage. It’s far from innocent but I’m surprised by her reaction. Clara rocks into me, and I hook a hand around her neck, pulling her mouth to mine hungrily. I’d behaved myself during dinner. Now I’m ready to appreciate dessert.  He caught the nape of my neck and pulled me forward, his mouth slanting over mine as he captured my lips. His breath was hot, laced with a lingering tinge of liquor, and I licked across his teeth, savoring the taste of him.

“I owe you sexual favors,” she murmurs, her hand reaching to my belt buckle.

I can already imagine her soft hands on my cock. It can imagine them, too, but I can’t put off talking to her about my plans any longer. I cup her face with my hands, hoping that I can seduce her into agreeing to deal with my family again. “Come to the country with me this weekend.”

Her eyebrows ratchet up, but she gives me a pleased smile. “Do you even have to ask?”

“I’m not asking,” I tell her, knowing she won’t be as thrilled when she hears the rest. “I already told them you would be there.”

She stills, zeroing in on the most loaded word. “Them?”

“My family.” There’s no way around it.

“You want me to spend a weekend in the country with your family?” 

“There will be some friends there as well. Edward has invited a group.” I think she likes my brother--or she will when she gets to know him. I know he’ll be kind to her. With his help, the weekend might not turn into a disaster. 

“X—” she starts

“You said anything,” I remind her.  “I said that I wasn’t asking. I expect you to be there with me.”

“Don’t you want to spend some private time with them?” Her voice is impossibly small, because she knows how ridiculous the question is. 

There’s a reason I’m taking her, because if not I might murder half of them in their beds after the first evening. But also because they need to understand that Clara is part of my life now. “The only person I want private time with is you. Three days apart is too long. I need to know you’re being taken care of.”

“I can take care of myself.” She swallows and I regret saying it. I don’t want her to think I see her as fragile, but I can’t imagine not worrying about her being stuck in London to deal with paparazzi--or her mother, for that matter. 

“You can get dressed.” I realize I’m going to have to play dirty. “You can eat and drink and sleep, but you won’t have everything you need.” 

I press my erection against her ass to tempt her.

“You raise a good point,” she says breathlessly.

“Do I?” I have her. I know it. But it won’t hurt to give her a preview of why she’ll be glad she came.

“Mmhmm.” She circles against my cock. “You owe me.”

“I thought you owed me sexual favors,.” I smirk. 

“I promised that before I found out I’d be dealing with your family for a whole weekend. Let’s call it a draw, X, or you’ll be repaying me for a long time.” 

“Oh, poppet.” My hand crept under her skirt as I kissed her neck, her collarbone, reminding her that I would make it worth it. “I am more than happy to be in your debt.”

It’s a debt I’d start repaying now. My fingers find the thin elastic of her thong and I rip it off her. I toss its remains on the seat, Clara looking like she might come if the wind changes.

“You know there are finite resources in the world. You might spare a few pairs of panties,” she says in a saucy voice that has me dreaming of putting her over my knee.

Later. Right now, I need to sink inside her and remind us both that no matter what’s coming, there’s one thing that always makes sense. I have her on her back in a second and her thighs flower open. “I’d love to hear more about your panties, later.”

“But--” she starts to object, but I cut her off with a kiss and a quick thrust of my hips.

Clara gasps against my mouth, her body clenching around my cock as she shatters. Her head lolls back as her fingers clutch my shoulder blades, holding onto me as she unravels. As much as I love watching her come, I’m not satisfied. 

Still, I can’t deny that I enjoy the tight heat clamping my shaft. I piston inside her, rolling my hips to put as much pressure on her tender clit as I can.

“Oh fuck,” she moans, panting. “I can’t--”

“Yes, you can, poppet,” I coax, continuing to work her towards her next orgasm. “For me. Consider that a command.”

There’s a warm gush  of arousal around my cock. She loves being dominated, told what to do, freed to give in to her every desire. Someday she’ll see that. Someday she’ll trust me enough to hand me total control--after I earn that trust. Not before. For now, I’m more than happy to relish the subtle gifts her body gives me. I hammer into her, taking another moment of rapture from her, this one claiming me with it. 

“You win,” she says between pants as I gather her into my arms. “I’ll go to the country.”

I tip her chin up with my index finger and kiss the tip of her nose. “Of course, you will.”

She never had a choice.

Part 31: 8th Day of Xmas

I’ve lost my bloody mind.

It’s the one thought occupying me some completely that I barely speak to Clara on the drive to Norfolk. There’s no way to prepare her, because I hadn't bothered to look at the guest list my office sent me. It’s not hard to guess who will be there. The usual sycophants always turn up for the hunt. There’s nothing more appealing to the aristocracy than chasing down a helpless animal and murdering it. 

I just have to make sure they stay focused on the fox, and not the woman at my side. 

I’m out of the car as soon as we pull into the front drive, making my way to Clara’s side of the car to help her out. I need to keep her with me as much possible. It’s the best thing for her. A few valets are already bringing our bags inside. She pauses, looking around like she’s not sure if she should offer help or not. 

“They’ll take it to your room,” I tell her.

“My room?” she repeats. “I thought I was here with you.”

I lift her knuckles to my lips, kissing her hand. “First rule of country weekends. Propriety must be observed.”

“So we sleep in separate rooms? Will they be sending a chaperone with us?” she asks dryly.

“You’ll find my family is all about appearances, poppet. Separate bedrooms are one thing, but that just leaves people to find new, exciting places to fuck,” I tell her in a lowered voice as we climb the stairs.

“Is that so?”

“I’ll prove it to you,” I say, allowing my wicked thoughts to edge into my voice. Finding dark corners to drag her into is about the only aspect of this weekend I’m looking forward to. 

Manfred, Norfolk’s head butler, greets us at the door. “Everyone is in the parlour, your highness. Your bags are being taken to your rooms. Perhaps, you would like to freshen up before joining the guests?”

“Please,” I say.

“I will have Charles show Miss Bishop to her room,” he says.

“Is that necessary?”

“Your father asked for her to be placed in the southern wing,” he tells me stiffly.

And my room is in the north. “Naturally.” I force myself to stay calm. It’s not as though it matters where they put her. No one bothers to worry about the bed-hopping that goes on after dark, but I dislike sending her off.

“It’s fine,” she says, squeezing my hand before letting it go. “I’ll find you back here?”

I nod as a young valet appears to show her away. 

“Will you require any more assistance? I can send a valet up?” Manfred asks as they disappear from sight.

“I haven’t needed anyone to help dress me in years.” I stride off in the direction of the family quarters as Edward appears in the hall.

“I thought you might have changed your mind.” He swirls a glass of Scotch. 

“I should have,” I admit to him, looking around to be sure we’re alone. “They put her in the fucking south wing.”

Edward snorts. “Geography’s never stopped you. I still remember you trying to explain it when father caught you sneaking across the grounds at dawn when you were eighteen. I believe you said, you’d been out for a run.”

“I had been exercising.” I smirked, trying to remember whose bed I’d been visiting that night. In truth, those times all blurred together. It had probably been one of my sister’s friends. “Sarah’s friends were always good for a little overnight aerobic activity. This is different though.” 

Edward fell into step beside me. “You didn’t really expect them to make you two a bed? Why have thirty guest rooms if you don’t use them?”

“She’s not a guest,” I bite out. “She’s my girlfriend.”

“I’m aware,” he says dryly. “Honestly, I’m shocked you got her here at all. Father’s been on a rampage all day.”

“I din’t give him a choice.” I cast a meaningful look at my brother. “Sometimes, you have to take what you want and say sod the consequences.”

“Let me know how that gors for you.” he says with a bemused smile, taking a sip. “Speaking of what I want, I better go back. I left poor David with them.”

At least, everyone plays along with Edward, pretending not to know about his secret romance. That means that while he and David are miserable at these things, they aren’t targeted. I have no idea how my father will punish Clara for being here, but I expect the others will be just as bad. 

“Edward,” I call before he gets too far. “Help me keep an eye on her?”

“She’s really important to you, isn’t she?” he asks.

I hesitate, uncertain how to answer that. If anyone might understand loving someone you can never have, it’s him. I settle for nodding.

“Will do. I haven’t been asked to join the hunt, so I will shield her as much as possible.”

“Thank you.” I stalk toward my room, finding it exactly as it’s always been. Apart from the lack of dust, there’s no sign that anyone’s stepped foot in here. No waiting bags. They’ve been unpacked already, I assume. Crossing to the wardrobe, I find a suitable change of clothes and begin to undress. 

I have a part to play this weekend, my suit is the costume, and everyone around me is an ally or antagonist. It’s tradition to take a weekend in the country each summer, everyone ready to flee the heat of the city. But I know better than to think this will be an escape. I’ve walked Clara into hell itself. Who knows how badly we’ll get burned?

Part 32: 9th Day of Xmas

I lounge in the hall, hoping to catch Clara before anyone else does. When she finally emerges she steals my breath from me. There is something effortless about her. She’s not trying to impress anyone. She is simply beautiful. Her navy gown skims along her curves, pulling my thoughts in indecent directions and bringing out her blue eyes. It reminds me a little of the dress she wore that first time--in the lift. Thankfully, it’s not that exact same dress or I’d already have her against the wall. “Poppet?” 

She sighs as I find my way to her side. I hate that I’m not the one making her make those sounds. “Save those for me.”

“I’m not allowed to sigh?” she asks sharply. 

“Oh, I insist that you sigh.” I lower my lips to her jaw and whisper the words across her skin. “And whimper and moan when I’m fucking you. I demand it. I’m a selfish man and those noises belong to me.”

“I’d be happy to comply.” She grabs my suit jacket, and I’m struck by how forward she’s becoming, channeling the possessiveness I display toward her back at me. I rather like it. 

I have to pull away to keep myself from carrying her off to a room, locking the door, and not leaving the bed the entire weekend. It’s what I want. I don’t want to waste time on the simpering idiots that finagle invitations to the country every year, but I also need to prove a point. My father needs to see that Clara will be at my side whether he wants it or not. “Don’t tempt me or we’ll never make it to our scheduled appearance.”

“So I’m not the only one with a printed itinerary?”

“Unfortunately not.” I offer her my arm. At least, hers doesn’t include a bloody fox hunt. “To the Billiard Room?”

“Yes. I was lost.”

“I would have found you.” I would always find her. In a crowd of people, she will always be the first one I see. It’s as though there’s a thread attaching her to me, always tugging me her direction. I can’t explain it.

I sure as hell can’t ignore it.

The usual wankers are present in the Billiard Room. The only friendly faces are Edward and David, who are making a good show of being there alone. Although as we enter, I catch Edward’s eyes sweep toward David as though he’s checking on him. I want to wish he’d come out and say what everyone suspects, but I know all too well the position that will put David in. It’s why I edge slightly closer to Clara now as though I can protect her from the vipers circling around us. 

I lead her into the room, dropping my voice to a whisper. “An hour. Do you want a drink?”

I’m not sure if that’s good self-preservation instincts or not. I’m about to tell her just that when a valet enters the room, glancing around until his eyes fall on me. I’d expected my father to raise a bigger fuss about Clara’s presence. The valet comes to me and whispers, “Your father would like to speak with you, your highness.”

Of course, he would. I grab Clara’s arm as he adds, “Alone.”

Naturally. “I need to attend to something. Edward will look after you.”

I motion for Edward, who strides toward her. I’m already thankful I spoke with him earlier. I don’t have to explain in front of her where I’m going or worry that she’ll be left to deal with the rest of these snakes.

It’s not just my father waiting, his mother is there as well. My grandmother Mary looks like what happens if you leave a princess out in the sun too long. The skin around her lips is pinched from age into a permanent scowl of disapproval. Her once blonde hair is now silver, carefully styled into a helmet of curls. She sits across the desk from him.

“Grandmum.” I move to her, kissing her cheek before taking the other vacant seat. “You look well.”

“You brought that girl,” she responds disdainfully.

I force a tight smile. 

“I told father I invited Clara. We all have friends here.” I don’t look at him as I say it, but I saw Pepper in the Billiard Room. It’s no surprise that she’s here, but it’s hardly his place to lecture me on bringing a woman for the weekend. 

“She’s just a friend then,” Grandmum says carefully.

“A girlfriend,” I admit.

She gasps as though I struck her and my father grunts something under his breath.

“Would you rather I call her a friend and take her to bed in secret?” I ask him pointedly. Our eyes meet, the one trait we share, and he knows I’m calling him out. I have no idea if his mother knows that he’s screwing Pepper, but I doubt he wants me to bring it up.

“You have responsibilities,” he says, his face returning to a more neutral passivity. “Clara is very pretty, but you can’t make life decisions based on what your dick wants.”

I cross my arms to keep myself from lunging across the desk to strangle him. “This is the twenty-first century. Clara is well-bred—”

“She’s American,” my grandmother says like I’ve invited a mutt into the house.

I turn my glare on her, challenging her to continue explaining what she means by that statement. The Royal family are the original snobs, but nothing gets under their thin-skin more than Americans. The country who didn’t have the decency to close their eyes and think of England.

“You need to be prepared to assume my role—” my father continues.

“Are you planning to retire?” I half expect him to live forever to prevent me from ascending the throne. I want him to, actually. I have no desire to be king.

“I do not approve of your flippancy,” Grandmum lectures.

But my father looks as though he’s got a headache. It’s how he’s looked most of my life. I recognize the temple-rubbing frustration from every conversation we’ve ever had. “There are situations that you need to be briefed on, and yet you’re busy screwing that—”

This finally sends me to my feet. “Choose your words very carefully. She is precious to me.”

There are lines that once crossed will force decisions neither of us want to make. I know my father well enough to guess the lengths he’ll go to in an effort to separate me from him. He’d once sent me to face death itself to avoid bad press. What will he do to avoid an unwanted addition to his precious bloodline?

Before he can speak, Clara steps into the room. Her eyes are hollow, worn down and empty. Edward is nowhere in sight. How long has she been standing there? How much has she heard? “I’m going to bed.”

It’s nothing more than a declaration of intention, but it’s a loaded statement. She’s drawn a line in the sand. Them. Her. What team will I choose?

“I’m coming with you.” I cross to her, taking her hand, but carefully angling my body so that I can step in front of her like a shield if necessary. 

“We are not finished speaking,” he says, his jaw tightening as I choose her over them.

“This conversation is over.” I dismiss his objection. I’m through with pandering to their snobbery and power games.  “I’m not debating this with you any longer. I’ve made my decision.”

He pauses, his eyes scanning the woman next to me--assessing and dissecting. This isn’t over. Finally, he simply says, “Good night.”

Part 33: 10th Day of Xmas

After our ride this afternoon--and my father’s none-too-subtle threat during the hunt--I’m feeling possessive of Clara. I’m not sure if she had to sew her outfit tonight or what’s taking her so long, because dinner’s started before she appears in the hall, Edward at her side. A strange sensation grips my heart seeing them together, arm in arm and heads bowed in whispered conversation. I want them to be friends, but I’d rather not share her. Not today. Not knowing how far my father is willing to go to keep us apart.

As they get closer, I grow more impatient. “You’re late.”

“Alexander.” Edward shoots Clara a look and drops her hand as though he senses he’s on my territory. “I was just escorting your lovely girlfriend to dinner.”

Clara’s eyes dart to the floor, her embarrassment a strange contrast to the scrap of clothing she’s wearing. I give Edward a meaningful stare that says are you responsible for this? He shrugs, a bemused smile playing on his lips.

“I can handle that.” I offer Clara my arm, but find myself wondering if she’s prefer to be escorted by my brother. The two seem to be getting along and she needs all the friends she can get. Clara must sense my hesitance, because she rolls her eyes. Edwards continues on, leaving me for a moment to address her appearance. I run my eyes down her, appreciating how the fabric under the black lace of her dress nearly matches her own skin. She might be completely covered but she’s giving me ideas. “In this light, you look naked.”

Her giggle suggests she knows how provocative the dress is, but does she know how hard it’s going to be to sit at the table with her while sporting a rock hard erection.

“We’re late for dinner, X,” she simpers.

I open the door just enough to let light into the dark corridor and get a better look at her. It’s worse in the light. It’s also better. 

“What are you wearing?” 

Her hand grabs my chin and I realize her shoes have brought her to nearly my height. I glance down and see how long her legs look streaming from a pair of heels that basically beg me to turn her around and fuck her on the spot.

We’re never going to make it to dinner.

“I wore something sexy for you.”

For me or for them? There’s something different about Clara tonight, and I can’t quite put a finger on it. She’s acting bold and I can’t help worrying any brash confidence she exhibits will only draw more bullying her way. She doesn’t need to try so hard to impress anyone, least of all me. “You always look sexy to me.”

She responds by kissing me so deeply that I forget my worries for a moment. I slide a hand down her hip and around to cup her ass. There’s no resistance from her clothing. It’s practically hanging out, ready to be spanked.“Christ, this is short. Suddenly, I’m not hungry.”

But it’s clear she’s got other plans. “I’m ravenous.”

Despite her proclamation, she totters as she pulls away and I catch her. I can’t help pressing closer to her, so she can feel my cock straining against my trousers. Maybe I can convince her to skip dinner if she knows what’s on the table.

 “Oh X,” she murmurs, “Don’t you know that good things come to those who wait?”

“Screw waiting.” Before I can just lift the skimpy excuse for a skirt up and pin her against the wall, she frees herself from my embrace and moves quickly to the dining room door. 

“Delayed gratification, X.” 

“Clara,” I call after her. I’m going to need a moment to adjust myself before I dare head inside, and she shouldn’t enter alone. But she ignores me, continuing on, her ass swinging dangerously as she makes her way to her seat at the table. 

I can see everything through the crack in the door that she’s left ajar. Dinner’s already begun and every one stops to stare at her as she passes. She might be a guest. She might be an American. She might be the ruin of this family, if my father is asked, but in this moment, she’s a queen.

It’s so obvious that she rises above all of them. 

A server moves toward her and instinct takes over. No man, no matter how innocent his intentions, is getting near her when she’s dressed like that. I burst through the doors, tossing a nod at my father, and made my way to her. Clara’s own instincts must also be kicking in because she doesn’t move. She doesn’t take her seat. She watches me--only me--as I find my way back to her. I dismiss the server curtly and step behind her chair. “Clara.”

She sits and I take the seat next to hers, trying to decide if I’m angry or turned on. What on earth has made her think a power play is a good idea? The weekend is already going badly enough. Her hand strays under the table to squeeze my knee, but I push it away. I don’t think my cock can take even the barest touch from her anywhere on my body.

“Nice of you to join us, Alexander,” my father says disdainfully.

I watch Clara as I speak. “I had no idea I was a necessary aspect of your meal. You certainly didn’t need to wait for me. I’m not a fork.”

I wish she wasn’t here like this, showing herself off. I wish he couldn’t see her. 

“If you’re finished with this display of machismo, I’d like to eat dinner.”

“So would I,” I say, speaking to him but looking at Clara, my eyes saying something entirely different. I have somewhere to be. Namely balls deep inside you.

“Doesn’t Clara look fabulous, Alexander?” Edward asks, forcing me to address the scandal in the room.

“She’s a bit overdressed for dinner, don’t you think?” Pepper says, sniffing a bit, but earning eager laughs from her harem of vipers. “Or under-dressed, depending on how you look at it.”

“Jealousy doesn’t suit you.” Edward doesn’t bother looking at her. He just picks up his butter knife and smirks. “It makes your complexion look all green. Clashes with your dress.”

“We all know you’re an expert on the subject,” Pepper says, turning to Clara. “I saw that dress at Tamara’s. I had no idea you had even heard of her. I thought she was a bit more exclusive.”

But Clara doesn’t miss a beat. “She can’t be terribly exclusive if you know who she is.”

What is going on?

“I’ll have to speak to her,” Pepper says.

“When you do, give her my love.” Clara dismisses her cattiness with a casual disinterest that only makes her place as the center of attention more clear. 

“I will.” But Pepper won’t back down. She’s never known when she was in over her head. That’s probably how she wound up shagging my father. It’s clear she wanted to get her claws in me. 

Clara turns her attention to her soup, and I do my best to focus on the first course. But the only thing I’m hungry for is her. It takes dedicated focus to lift my spoon to my mouth and eat. 

When Clara places her napkin on the table, she whispers, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” 

“You seem upset.”

I can’t stop myself from smirking, meeting her eyes to assure her that I’m not. “We still have a lot to learn about one another, Clara. I wasn’t upset. I was turned on. I didn’t think I could stop myself from throwing you across the table and ripping off those shameless excuses for knickers you’re wearing if you touched me again.”

She blinks, her eyes widening just a little, and there is my Clara. Not the Queen of the castle, but the pure soul that I’ve fallen for. She’s so unlike the rest of them. 

It’s almost dangerous.

“Maybe you should,” she murmurs.

“Don’t tempt me, Clara. A man only has so much restraint.” I grin again, wondering if she’d even stop me if I spread her across the table and had her for dinner. It would certainly put a stop to all the ridiculous gossip going on around us. Clara’s hips wriggle in her chair and I know I’ve made her wet. I know she’s picturing the same thing.  “Soon, poppet.”

I watch her eat a few bites of her salad, her mood increasingly restless. Why are we here wasting time with all these snobs when we could be alone? I should have kept her home this weekend in London. Bringing her here while a statement, can only make matters worse. Everything would be better if we were cozied up at her flat. As a server places my plate in front of me, I don’t bother looking to see what we’re eating, instead I decide to goad her a little and enjoy watching her squirm. “Eat up, Clara. You’ll need your strength tonight.”

Her eyes shutter, lost to some waking dream of what I mean by that when Pepper’s caustic voice interrupts. “I do hope you aren’t having an episode.” 

I’m about to intervene when Clara takes a bite, chewing it slowly, and glaring so hard at Pepper, I think she might set her on fire with her thoughts.

This does nothing to distract her though.

“I was so surprised when I found out about your little problem,” Pepper says. “Usually women with eating disorders are thinner.”

I’m vaguely aware of laughter followed by silence. 

“Pepper, be careful,” Edward finally warns her. “Your bitch is showing.”

“Edward,” our father cuts in.

“Oh, you aren’t deaf,” Edward turns on him. “You’re just pretending to be oblivious to what’s right in front of your face.”

“Something you count on,” Pepper mutters, batting her eyes meaningfully.

I don’t dare speak to defend either of them, because when I do lines will be crossed. There will be no turning back, and I’m fairly certain that if i don’t get control of myself I’ll wind up throwing one of them through a window. I grip my silverware like it's an anchor, reminding myself that it’s not a weapon.

Pepper turns to me. “You should probably get your girlfriend some help before her eating disorder gets her on more tabloid covers.”

It’s the last mistake she’ll make in my presence, but before I can deliver that news, Clara responds serenely, “Pepper, I can’t help noticing you haven’t touched your plate or your salad or your soup. The only thing you’ve had your mouth on is that rocks glass. I’m happy to lend you my doctor’s name after I finish eating.”

 “Enough of—” my father starts.

“You don’t get to say enough,” I say in a voice low enough that everyone stills to hear me. “Not if you watch as she’s slandered.”

“Don’t be melodramatic.” The telling slide of her throat undermines her arrogance. She knows she’s made a mistake.

“You’re here as a guest of this family,” I tell her, “because of Sarah. I’m now rescinding that invitation. I’d like you to leave.”

Pepper gawks at me, her mouth falling open. Around her, everyone starts talking at once.

“This is my house,” my father booms, knocking his fist against the table.

“And surely you stand by your son’s request to have a fair-weather friend removed from our table,” I say, my own voice rising to match his. “Unless Pepper is here at your invitation.”

Check mate. He knows I have him. Unless he wants his dirty secret unveiled to the entire dinner party--many of him will eagerly sell the information to the press--he has to play along with my edict. He nods in agreement to my wish before leaving the room without another word. 

I have no doubt I’ll pay for getting his little toy sent home early. He’ll have more time to fuck with my relationship now, but I couldn’t allow Pepper’s behavior to continue.

“Pris?” Pepper looks to her friend, but Pris isn’t going to leave with her. Pepper might enjoy attention from her little crowd but none of them are loyal enough to abandon their own standings with the family. 

Next to me Clara has stopped eating. I want her to take her away, but not until I’m sure she’s been fed.

“Finish your dinner,” I urge her.

She stares at her plate as the rest of the dinner party fumbles to continue the evening.

“Now,” I growl under my breath.

She does as I command. One bite after another until her plate is empty. Then she stands and looks at the rest of us.“The meal was delicious and enlightening. Please excuse me.”

Before I can stop her, she runs from the room.

Part 34: 11th Day of Xmas

I finally find her standing on the back veranda, staring out at the sweeping lawns. Opening the door, I cross to her and pull her into my arms.

“Alexander—”

I press a finger to her lips before she wastes effort sharing her thoughts. “I won’t apologize for her, Clara. I won’t waste any words on her.”

“I have a few that wouldn’t be wasted on her.” Her voice shakes, some of her confidence eroded. 

Pepper stole that from her. My father enabled it. That’s what she’s going to face again and again if I persist in this affair.

“Poppet.” I take her face in my hand and kiss her, wiping away the evening from her mind. I have the power to do that. She submits to me, going limp against my body as my tongue plunges hungrily in her mouth. I want her. I don’t know how to deny myself her. I can’t. I push her hand against my erection to prove how powerless I am in her presence. “This is what you do to me.”

She reaches for my belt buckle, but I won’t let her. Not tonight. I need to push her. After what my father said today, after tonight’s dinner party, I know what I have to do. If she runs, it’s for the best. I’ll go away, ask for a new assignment in the middle east or go off on tour. I’ll find a way to keep myself from her.

It’s for the best.

I simply have to show her just how out of her depths she is.

“No, Clara. When I say,” I demand. She’s let me be dominant before, but not like this. “Right now, I want you to turn around.”

I’ll use her. Possess her. Humiliate her. I’ll do everything she’s asked me not to do, and then she’ll see what I really am.

Then she won’t love me.

Leading her to a stone railing, I push her over the edge and lift her skirt. She’s staring at the house in front of us, at its open windows, at the occasional passing movement as someone walks down a hall. Anyone could look out and see us. That’s the point.

“When I saw you before dinner,” I say, leaning down to whisper, “I wondered where you’d left your skirt.”

She laughs but there’s a nervous edge to this. I’m taking her outside her comfort zone.  “I like this dress.”

“Oh, I like it, too,” I tell her “I like that I can do this.”

I slide a hand under her skirt, giving in to every fantasy that I’ve had about claiming her like this before the world.

“I must admit I didn’t like sitting next to you, so close to this—” I press my palm to the heat between her legs“—so close to what is mine, knowing I had to wait for it.”

“Antici…pa…tion,” she teases.

“That’s exactly what I had in mind, poppet.” My fingers move under her thong, gliding between her swollen, wet seam. “Do you want to step out of these for me?”

She sighs as I stroke her softly. “You’re giving me a choice?”

“It’s come to my attention that we have finite resources on Earth,” I remind her, “and that I should spare a few pairs of panties.”

“How forward-thinking of you,” She reaches to her hips and wiggles the panties free.

“I think you’ll approve of my planned call to action.” I bend and pick up the lacy undergarment. Then I shove it against her face. “We’re so very close to the kitchens, and I want to keep all those sexy little noises and cries of yours to myself.”

I expect her to cringe as I push them into her mouth, but she whimpers instead. Fuck, that’s not how this is supposed to happen. 

“I’m actually jealous, poppet,” I say, stroking my free hand down her neck. “I’ll bet you can taste that sweet, little cunt of yours on those panties, something I’ve been dying to do all night. I suppose I need to do something about that.”

I push her high enough on the railing that her feet come off the ground, her ass rising in the air. She’s completely on display and I force her legs father apart, leaving her exposed to the world around us. She continues to moan, and I realize that she’s enjoying this. I’d expected her to be more shy this close to a house full of people. But she’s always had a way of surprising me. How much farther can I push her? I lightly clutch her neck, moving my other hand up higher to spread her cheeks open, revealing the pink pucker of her ass. I push my thumb against it slightly.

“Relax,” I command her. “You belong to me, Clara, and I want you. All of you.”

Her body tightens, tensing despite my order. I push my thumb inside her anyway, plunging in and out while she squirms.

“I’d like to take your ass, Clara,” I muse. I would have eventually. “Remember it is mine, and I will claim it when I choose to.”

Her moans grow louder, muffled by the panties gagging her, but it’s clear that she’s enjoying this. So much for pushing her too far. 

“Not tonight.” I need to try a different tactic. “You aren’t ready, poppet. But you can’t deny me my desire to play with you after you teased me all night in this poor excuse for a dress. They’re scared of you, you know. So different, so confident. You’ve unraveled them just as you’ve done to me.”

I begin fucking her ass with my finger before slipping two more fingers inside her cunt. I don’t hold back as I roughly claim her pleasure. She’s practically crying as her body moves closer and closer to the edge.

“I love that little cry of yours. It sounds so helpless, as if you’re begging me to rescue you. Do you want to come?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

She nods and I curl my finger, hitting a spot inside her that sends her orgasm exploding from her. She drenches my hand as she comes on it. 

I wanted more. Withdrawing, I bend and suck her clit into my mouth as her thighs protest from the additional stimulus. Before she can squirm free, I push my thumb inside her ass again and she comes even more powerfully a second time. 

I can’t stop, even as her legs clamp against me. Even as she pleads for me to. How can I ever give her up? “I need to be inside you.” I rise and yank the panties from her mouth. Bringing her to her feet. “Ask for it.”

She shakes her head, wobbling on her feet.  “I…I can’t.”

“Wrong answer,” I say and unzip my pants. 

“Too much,” she moans.

“Poppet.” I know she’ll take it. I know that she’ll take anything I give her. I’ll never convince her to run, which means that I’m going to have to force her to and nothing I can to her body will be enough to push her away. I’m going to have to break her heart.

But first, I need her one more time. Maybe if I know this is it, it will somehow be enough. I stroke my cock along her swollen cunt. Her legs try to shift but she keeps them closed. She’s battling herself--and losing.

I kiss her shoulder. I won’t force it. Not anymore. Not if it’s going to be the last time. 

“I need to feel you, X,” she finally says, something foreign in her voice. “Your skin on mine.”

I understood what she meant. Not my cock or my mouth. She wanted me--all of me. The parts of me I’d only given to her. It’s the least I can do. But as I unbutton my shirt, I know selfishness drives my actions. I want this, too. I want to be with her, completely bared to one another, nothing between us. 

Except the whole world. 

I draw her body up against me, pressing my skin to hers, giving her the parts of me that only she will ever claim. 

“I want your cock. I want you to fill me,” she cries and I groan, thrusting inside her, meeting no resistance in her slippery heat. 

My hands slide across her, wanting to feel her. I grab her breast. I hold her to me. For this one moment, she’s mine and I’m hers and nothing can change that. 

“I’m going to come inside your beautiful cunt.” I couldn’t hold out much longer. I needed to empty inside her, feel what it’s like to mark her one more time. “Christ, you’re milking me. You want me inside you, don’t you? You want me to pour inside your cunt, because you know it’s mine.”

“Only you,” she promises.

“Only you.” It will only ever be her. I know that and the revelation sends my climax rocketing to my cock. I release inside her as she falls along with me. 

When she crumbles forward, I catch her. Lifting her into my arms, I carry her towards the house. Away from what might have been to to what has to happen.

I carry her inside to break her heart.

Part 35: 12th Day of Xmas

I watch Clara wander around my bedroom. She pauses to survey a photo of me with my mother and Sarah. I can’t even recall where it was taken or when. Most of the memories waiting for me in this room feel as though they belong to a different man living a different life. 

“She was beautiful.” Clara picks up a photo of Sarah on one of her horses. The photo was taken on the grounds. She must have been fifteen years old. Was that this last time she was here?

“She loved to ride horses,” I share, trying to remember the last time I saw her ride. 

“What happened?” she asks softly.

I’ve been waiting for Clara to ask me about the accident since the morning after we slept together the first time. I know all too well how many women will get in bed with a prince to get a peek at the family secrets. But Clara never presses. She waits. She offers. She means it when she says she wants all of me, and she’s willing to wait for me to give myself to her.

I wish I could. 

“Clara, I honestly wish I knew.” I hesitate. Why tell her this so near the end? It’s not how I want her to think of me. But part of me feels she has to know this as though it might help her see why she doesn’t belong in this world. She’s too precious to risk to the reporters and the courtiers and my own flesh and blood. “I remember flashes. That’s why I continued to invite Pepper to events.”

She smiles not a radiant bright smile but a small, understanding one. She’s listening.

“I was drinking and my sister showed up. She was underage, and I yelled at her for being at a bar.” I shake my head. The night is so blurry, even after all these years. I’ve replayed it over and over in my head. Her palm moves to my shoulder. “For some reason we left. I don’t remember much after that. And what I do remember, I can’t burden you with.”

“Nothing between us, X,” she murmurs. “No secrets.”

No secrets. Sarah is proof there will always be secrets. My family clings to them, especially the ones we keep from ourselves. If we never admit we know the truth, it’s not a lie. It’s how we protect ourselves. It’s how we continue to do our duties.

For some reason, I can’t stop talking about that night, though. I thought it might serve as a warning for her, but now something else is driving my confession. Something I don’t understand. “I remember how slippery her blood was on my fingers. She sagged like a rag doll. I remember the heat of the fire as it blazed across my skin, but I couldn’t leave her there, even though I couldn’t carry her. I was so scared that I didn’t even feel the frame of the door in my side. I’d been impaled, but I wouldn’t leave her, so we burned together.”

Clara claps a hand over her mouth, but I hear her sob of horror. “And Pepper?”

“She’d been flung from the car. Broken bones,” I say. “If she remembers more than me, she’s never admitted it.”

“X, what happened was horrible.” She brushes hair from my forehead, trying to get me to look in her eyes but I won’t. “But it wasn’t your fault.”

“Why don’t you see the monster when you look at me?” I ask. “Everyone else does.”

“They don’t see you like I do.” She takes a deep breath before plunging forward. “They don’t love you like I—”

“I’m sorry,” I cut her off. “I just need a minute.” I move to the loo, locking the door behind me, and sag against the wall. She’d almost said it. I’m not sure I could let her go if she did. I haven’t heard those words since they died. Not from someone close to me. Someone who knows me. Girls shout it at me on the streets, but behind closed doors no one loves me and I love no one. Sarah rarely said it and usually only out of formality. I haven’t truly heard those words from anyone since I was child.

Clara is wrong. I’m the reason Sarah was there that night. She’d followed me. She had a crush on Jonathan. I should have let her stay. Dance. Have fun. But I demanded we leave, knowing what the papers would say the next morning. I was already fighting with my father about university. I didn’t need any more attention paid to me. Instead, the morning’s papers told a different story--one that changed my life forever.

One that sent me into hell looking for redemption. One that showed me how little anything mattered in the larger scheme of the world. And one that ultimately put me on a collision course with her.

No good came from that night. It’s poison taints my family blood. Leading me to her was only its finally temptation. Would I damn her soul along with mine? 

I can’t. 

I will never hold Clara on blood-soaked pavement. I will never dictate her every waking hour to duty and ceremony and all the other bullshit a royal has to deal with. I will never take her freedom to steal joy from this half-life I’ve been born to. 

I will let her go. 

A low voice floats muffled through the door. My father’s arrived, come to seek me out for another round. I resist the urge to open the door and save her. I can’t do that anymore. Letting him threaten her is the first step in my plan. The only way to save Clara is to break her heart. 

I wait for a minute or an hour. It hardly matters I open the door to hear my father say, “You’re his toy, and when he tires of you, he’ll get a new one. There’s nothing you can do to secure your place in this family.”

“Has it ever occurred to you that I am not looking for marriage?” she asks, her voice pitching up a bit. “Or a place in this family?”

He laughs at her, and my blood runs cold. “All women are looking for marriage, whether they know it or not.”

Clara turns, spotting me in the door. She starts toward me, but I narrow my eyes, lifting the veil to the rage that always simmers just below its surface. 

“I see that since you couldn’t sway me with your threats, you switched tactics,” I speak to him, ignoring Clara as much as possible. 

“We both know how this ends.” He meets my glare with one of his own. “The tart’s quite pretty, but you aren’t serious about her. Why do more damage to her reputation?”

I force myself not to look at her. I tell myself I can’t show her I care about his cruel barbs. It will undermine everything.

“You know the expectations,” he says. “I’ve given you far too much latitude since you returned, but it’s time to accept your role in this family.”

And then I play my final move-- I let him finally win.“I know.”

I can’t bring myself to look at her as I sacrifice the match to save the queen. 

“I should leave you two,” he says, his eyes ticking back and forth between us. “Good evening.”

He closes the door and a second later, a book flies across the room. I still don’t look at her. I keep my eyes on the door. 

Walk through it.

Walk away.

Escape.

When I finally turn a cold gaze on her, she collapses to the ground. I do nothing. I command my limbs to stay locked in place--to ignore my heart crumpled on the ground. She blinks up at me, waiting, a last gasp of hope on her face. 

My eyes flicker away. 

There’s movement, and when I look back, she’s standing. Her eyes pierce through me, and I know she sees me for what I really am: cruel and controlling and irredeemable. 

She steps in front of me, effectively forcing me to look at her. 

She doesn’t touch me, and her voice trembles when she finally speaks, “I love you, Alexander.”

I close my eyes as the words hit me. Had I thought I could stop her from saying them? Had I even tried? My heart closes around them, tucks them away, and locks the darkest, deepest space inside it. It will be enough to know they’re there. I can’t let this change anything. It’s proof that I’m doing the right thing. She deserves a life I can never give her at my side--a life I can only give her by letting her go. I summon all the hatred I feel towards this place, towards the past, towards my birthright and let it overtake me before I open my eyes.  “That wasn’t part of our arrangement.”

I don’t stop her when she turns to run. I don’t go after her, even as I hear her wrenching sobs. This is always how it had to end. I’d known that from the beginning, and I’d been too selfish. Now she had to pay the price. I wouldn’t take any more from her.

After a few moments, I leave the room and walk across the hall, knocking softly on the door.

Edward opens it a crack, and I spot a flurry of movement behind him as David tries to hide.

“It’s just Alex,” he says. He tilts his head and studies me. “What happened?”

“I broke her.” I won’t lie to him. He needs to know. He needs to see. Maybe David does as well. There are no happily-ever-afters for men like us. That’s the stuff of fairytales. “Find her. Get her home?”

“Are you okay?” he asks in a low voice.

For some reason, I laugh. “It doesn’t matter. It’s done.”

I turn away and walk into the darkened corridor, disappearing into the shadows. I watch as Edward leaves to go after her. When he’s out of sight, I follow, sticking close to the many corners and nooks in Norfolk to hide me. Coming around one, I stop and move back into the shadows as Edward leans over her and whispers something. 

From the darkness, I see her lift her head. “I fell in love with him.”

She doesn’t have to say more. Edward picks her up and carries her off--away from me and this world. I continue to follow behind them, watching as he helps her throw clothing into her bag. I lurk as he hugs her and places her in a car bound for London. When it’s driven far enough from the estate to be nothing but a speck in the summer twilight, I finally step from the shadows and move towards his side. 

“Why?” he asks, not looking at me.

“You know why,” I say gruffly, not trusting myself to talk this through. 

“You can still go after her,” he says, sensing my thoughts.

“Why prolong it?” I turn from him back to the house where my future waits--my duty and my punishment.

Edward calls out before I take another step, “Do you love her?”

I pause. I hear what he’s saying. This isn’t only about her and me. This is about this world. “Does it matter?”

I leave him there and return to my prison, ignoring the hollow space in my chest as my heart races back to London.

Thank you for going on this crazy drafting journey with me. I know you probably have a lot of questions like:

What about (blank) scene? Is it not in the book? Does X end here? What about Notting Hill?

 

Part of drafting this book was getting into X’s head space at the beginning of their relationship. Since Command Me, I’ve written chapters from his POV in all the other books, but I always wondered what was going on behind the scenes during Command Me. When did he realize he loved her? Why did he hurt her like he did? How much did he hurt when things were going wrong or they were separated? A natural first step was to go in and reimagine the scenes you already know and love from his POV with insights into what’s going on his head, adding in scenes we’ve never seen before to see his interactions with his family and Norris. There are still a lot of scenes missing from this version. I’ve cherry picked scenes that I thought gave some juicy details or let us see him interacting with Edward (my favorite character)! Now? I’m diving back in to finish reimagining all the scenes from Command Me that didn’t make it into this round as well as half a dozen new chapters I’ve been making notes on to fully see his side of the story. 

It’s been a true joy to share the skeleton of this book with you and I can’t wait until you get to read X in all his glory in March. I think you’re going to fall in love with him all over again. I know I have. 

This rough draft will be up through the end of 2020. After that, I will be finishing it for its March 16 publication. Thank you for coming on this journey. I am blessed to have the most wonderful readers in the world. I know circumstances made this last longer than expected, but what can I say, X is all about anticipation ;)