An hour later, Fiorella was strapped into a plush passenger seat of a helicopter and gazing across the lights of the metropolis below.
'Nervous?' he asked.
'No,' she shook her head. 'I understand the physics of how it flies.'
His smile quirked. 'Okay. So who's Hester?' Through the headphones, his voice sounded wickedly intimate.
She knew they were using a private channel and the pilot couldn't hear them. 'She was my roommate and study mentor. Now she's my paid assistant. She's very reserved.' She bit her lip but the truth babbled out because she needed to share it with someone. 'She's gone to Triscari with Alek. They left this afternoon. They're getting married. Isn't that amazing? I still can't believe it.'
'Your assistant is marrying your brother?'
'Apparently they fell for each other and I didn't even realize…'
Jaxon swiveled to glance into her eyes. 'And you don't think it might have anything to do with the fact that he has to get married in order to be crowned king?'
She stared back at him. 'You think it's some kind of convenient arrangement?'
'No.' She shook her head vehemently. 'You don't know Hester. Or Alek. And you didn't see them.'
He laughed. 'Did she have sparkles in her eyes?'
'Actually, she did.' And Fi fully regretted telling Jaxon any of it now because for a second there she'd forgotten he was a cynical toad who bullied people into doing what he wanted.
'Those sparkles are just lust, Princess.'
'You're wrong. What made you so cynical?'
'Do you even know lust, Princess?' He suddenly challenged with a low growl. 'Do you know that hot, wet, can't-get-enough lust?'
She froze, yet at the same time her innards were melting. Because she might've felt something approaching that a little earlier today. 'Uh…'
'It fades, Princess.' He crushed her softly. 'Every time.'
That heat swirled within her and mixed with wistfulness. 'Something else can't grow alongside it? Something stronger, more enduring?'
'Like a cancer?'
'You really don't think they could actually be in love?' She watched his cynically amused reaction and rolled her eyes. 'You don't believe in love.'
He rolled his eyes even more exaggeratedly. 'Let me guess, you do.'
'Of course I do and I bet underneath that slimy exterior, you do too.'
'Slimy exterior?' He shot her an arrogantly outraged look. 'Slimy?'
'That whole slippery, can't-be-caught thing you have going on. Jaxon Greene—billionaire playboy.'
He laughed so hard it was insulting.
'Maybe you don't give any woman enough of a chance,' she mused, wishing she could score a point somehow. 'Maybe you move on too quickly.'
He shook his head. 'Maybe I have too much work to do.'
'Maybe you just haven't met someone who matters enough yet,' she rebutted firmly. 'Or maybe you have and she hurt you?'
He shook his head. 'Or maybe you haven't grown out of your sweet and romantic phase?'
She gritted her teeth. 'You know, I get that you love your work, so do I. Work really matters. I hate being interrupted by anyone. Even Alek sometimes. But he's someone I'd always make time for. There should always be people who come first. Maybe when you meet her, you'll realize.'
'When I meet her?' He laughed again. 'Oh, Fiorella, you really are sweet and romantic and so naive.'
She might've been sheltered, but she wasn't stupid. 'And you really are a toad. Look at Henry and Rose.'
'Ah.' He shrugged. 'But they're the exception. There's always an exception.'
'So why can't Alek and Hester be an exception?' she asked triumphantly. 'Why can't you? You're already exceptional.'
To her surprise, his smile faded. 'Because no one gets it all, Fiorella.'
That silenced her. Because as much as she didn't want to agree with him, she had the horrible fear he was right. She'd seen it. She'd felt it.
He watched her curiously as the helicopter descended. 'Not going to argue with me?'
She shook her head, struck by a wave of something unsettling. 'Why do you think it is—why can't we have it all?'
'We?' he asked mockingly as he guided her out of the helicopter and into the waiting car.
'I know, I have a perfect life.' Fiorella stared out the window as they moved through Manhattan.
His soft doubt unsettled her. 'Of course. How completely lucky am I? I'm financially secure, I get to study my passion. My brother wants what's best for me, which he defines as my freedom. He doesn't want me "burdened with royal duty." It's why he fought for me to be allowed to come here to study.' Her gaze dropped. 'And why I never need go back. I can choose to do whatever I want…'
She swallowed, feeling foolish as they pulled up outside an apartment building with amazing swiftness. 'But if Triscari isn't my home, then where is?'
Jaxon was silent for a second as he gazed into a security camera lens by the elevator. As the door slid open, he turned to her. 'Maybe you'll have to find your own.'
'Alone.' She didn't really want to be alone. But people were hard to find and hard to hold on to.
'Plenty of people do.'
Jaxon had, hadn't he? His teacher had told her that. And now she gazed about his massive penthouse apartment.
'Henry worries about you,' she said absently as she took in the soft, luxurious furnishings. The coziness surprised her for some reason. And the wall of books fascinated her.
'Worries,' she murmured, studying the spines of the impressive library. 'He thinks you're lonely.'
'He told you that?' Jaxon laughed dismissively and took a seat on the enormous sofa. 'He just can't believe people don't want the same things from life that he does.'
'What things does he want?'
Jaxon paused. 'The same as you, I suspect.'
His smile twisted. 'I don't find that in the same things he does. But he did save me from a life of crime and taught me that I could use my strengths to get what I wanted legitimately.'
'I was going to be a hacker.'
'Wow. Really?' She perched a safe distance from him but couldn't resist enquiring more. 'Why did Henry save you? Where were your parents?'
'My father wasn't around from the start. I'm not actually sure who he is and have no desire to find out. Why suffer that rejection twice over?' His small smile tightened. 'Don't feel sorry for me, princess.'
'Why shouldn't I?' She answered lightly to hide the hit inside. 'My mum died when I was very young. My father, just last year. So I'm an orphan and my lovely older brother doesn't want to burden me with anything so… I can spare a little sympathy for you. I'm sorry your dad wasn't around for you when you needed him.'
'I didn't need him.'
She swallowed. 'What about your mother? She wasn't around either?'
There was a hard glint in his eye. 'For a while. But she was lonely and unhappy about it.'
'Oh.' She wondered what that meant exactly.
'We're no longer in touch.' He shrugged. 'Don't be sorry about that either, Princess. I have a good life. The world is mine.' He gestured toward the window.
'Because you're not afraid to take risks?'
'Because I've had nothing before and survived, so I know I can survive again if I were to lose everything. And I like being alone.'
Yes, he had that innate confidence in himself and in his abilities but she felt sorry that they'd been forged through such a fight. 'If you like being alone, why did you invite me back?'
His lips twisted. 'Just one night is never an issue.'
Yes, he was a shark. She'd known that. And she'd said yes anyway. And now that heat was back and her heart was racing and she couldn't look away from his startlingly blue-green gaze.
But he suddenly glanced away from her, a frown pleating his forehead. 'So, seeing we're doing the questions, why not talk me through what you're specializing in?'
His eyebrows lifted. 'Like those scary-looking fish deep in the abyss that have their own little lamp?'
'Kind of,' she said, grinning.
'Do you want to give us all the ability to glow in the dark or something?' He suddenly leaned forward, clearly more interested in it than she'd expected.
She smiled. 'There are many possible applications—'
'Yeah? Nothing could be better than being able to glow in the dark.'
She laughed. 'Actually, you'd be surprised…'
'Tell me more about it'
Somehow she lost track of time. The topic expanded, segued, narrowed again—on his latest project, on her lab work. He wasn't just an attentive listener, he was fascinating to talk to. She didn't remember curling her feet up on the sofa, or sliding down to rest her head so she was more comfortable. She certainly didn't remember the moment he put the soft throw over her to keep her warm. But she remembered the second she woke.
She was being held in a warm cocoon. She lay still as she realized he was lying behind her, one arm curled around her waist, holding her close so she couldn't fall. His other arm was her pillow.
'That's the first time I've fallen asleep on the sofa in years,' he murmured behind her, having sensed she was awake.
'That's the first time I've fallen asleep on the sofa at all.' She sat up awkwardly and swung her legs to the floor. She took in a deep breath as she turned to face him. She truly was sorry. He was unbearably gorgeous—his tie long discarded, his shirt half-unbuttoned, his hair unruly and his eyes so full of sleepy sexiness her body temperature soared. 'I'm so sorry.'
Because why was it that the first time she spent the night with a man, she'd remained fully clothed? And Jaxon Greene? The guy dated a different woman every week but wasn't interested in her? That was…horrible.
And now he was watching her with a sexy half smile on his gorgeous face. 'Are you, Princess?' he said huskily. 'I'm not sorry at all.'
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