“Your Highness, is this really necessary?”
Princess Arabella of Salasia grinned at her bodyguard, as she painted red streaks on his face to match her own. “Yes, Royce. You said you were going to help me blend in with the crowd to ensure my safety. Now hold still.” She bit her lower lip, concentrating hard. If making the most of her time in America meant painting war streaks on cheeks, so be it.
Recently arrived in New York City, Arabella and Royce were about to attend a New York Knights’ game against the Savannah Bootleggers, Arabella’s all-time favorite team. My first American football game, she thought with glee, even if Kyle Young wouldn’t be playing tonight.
Badass quarterback, Kyle Young.
Hot-as-hell Kyle Young.
Looking-good-in-them-tight-pants Kyle Young.
He’d been her favorite player for a few years now. She’d followed his career closely on every social media and gossip site possible. Not only was he gorgeous, but he was also a talented, savvy ball player whose skills had strengthened as the years had passed. She hadn’t admitted to anyone, though, that she often thought about the other, hidden skills he might possess. However, nobody had to know such things about a princess.
She wished she could’ve seen him perform tonight, but he’d suffered a minor injury and was sitting the next two games out. Instead, Brian Murphy, their third-string quarterback, would be getting the action. Good enough for her; she liked him too. Nothing was going to ruin the excitement of her first real adventure in America.
Born and raised in the small European principality of Salasia twenty-four years ago, Arabella had grown up with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. Her father was kind and tolerant, but her mother was much more strict about how a royal princess had to behave. But Mother wasn’t here today, was she? Today, Arabella could do as she pleased. Today, she was her own woman in the City that Never Sleeps, a city she had always dreamed of visiting, as far removed from her parents’ watchful eyes as possible.
Well, her own woman, as long as her royal watchdog slash bodyguard went along with her plans. Better than nothing.
Arabella stepped back from Royce to admire her work. “Perfect. Now, all you need is a foam finger…”
“With all due respect, Your Highness, I don’t like the sound of—”
“Here.” She reached behind her for the giant red foam hand used at so many American football games and slid it onto his hand. “Now, you’re Number #1.”
Royce glowered at her with a mix of apathy and annoyance. “Might I inquire again why we are not sitting with Mr. York in his private box? You would be more comfortable there, Your Highness.”
“I don’t want to be comfortable, Royce. I want to be happy.”
Royce gave a defenseless sigh.
Jacques York, family friend and fellow Salasian, happened to own the New York Knights and was partnering with the Salasian royal family in a number of charities, the reason Arabella was in New York in the first place. Tickets for the game had come from him, though she’d declined sitting in his private box on account of her wanting to experience the game first-hand—not as a princess, but as a spectator.
“Royce, look, I want to experience a football game just like anyone else,” she said. “Being served martinis in an air-conditioned box with the Salasian owner of the New York Knights wouldn’t precisely fit the bill, now would it?”
Royce sighed. “No, milady, I suppose not.”
She moved to the hotel mirror—one of many in the lavish hotel suite—making sure her own face paint was perfect and that her long, dark hair was pulled up into a neat ponytail. Normally, she’d wear a suit to any public event, but today she wore jean shorts and a tight red tank with NEW YORK KNIGHTS, as much as it pained her, emblazoned across the chest.
If Mother could see me now, she thought.
After a few more finishing touches, they rode to the Knights’ stadium in their rented limo, complete with their own private driver who catered to her and assured her he’d be at her beck and call all night. Same old, same old. Arabella found herself staring out the tinted windows with a longing gaze. Regular New Yorkers paraded the sidewalks, phones in hand, paper coffee cups in the other. What would it be like to walk out of a NYC flat—no, apartment—and just go wherever she wanted?
Bliss, she thought. Pure bliss.
Then again, she was well aware of how most people thought growing up with wealth and the best schools and traveling the world would be blissful, but what good was all of that if you were always under a watchful eye? If you had to worry about what you said, what you did, what you bought every moment of the day? If travel was always for business and charity and she had to constantly be around others and could never truly relax?
Regular people didn’t know how good they had it.
“Knights’ Stadium,” the driver announced, as the limo crawled along a winding line of cars. Outside, groups of people walked toward the stadium.
“Drop us off at the private entrance, please,” Royce told the driver, looking glumly out at the masses of spectators trying to get a peek into the limousine.
“No, I want to get out here,” Arabella said, bouncing with excitement.
“Your Highness, it’s not safe where the masses are.”
“Royce, you’re no fun.” Arabella reached for the door handle, and before Royce could protest, stepped out into the crisp September air. New Yorkers all gawked and tried to identify who she was.
Royce scrambled out of the limo after her. “Your Highness, if you are going to be so reckless, I would advise you to stay close to me and do as I say. Your mother only allowed you to come to New York on the condition that I stay with you at all times. She wasn’t happy about you attending a football game to begin with, let alone blending with the commoners.”
“I know, I know.” She waved off his concerns and led him through the sparse crowds into the more densely packed areas where eager patrons pooled near the entrance. “But I want to experience this event like any other football fan.” She came to a sudden stop and whirled around. “And if anyone asks, you’re my brother. At least attempt to act like a normal person today. Please, Royce? For me?” She gave him her best girly pout.
His dark eyebrows furrowed above a stubborn expression. For a middle-aged man, Royce was rather handsome. If only he would smile more often, the lines on his forehead might diminish.
After purchasing beers, hot dogs, and nachos, she and Royce found their spots in the stands. Arabella sat next to a pimply, blonde-haired teenage boy wearing braces. She smiled at him. “Hello.” When her eyes made contact with his, he looked away shyly. This only made her smile wider.
“What is so amusing?” Royce looked up from inspecting the goopy cheese of the nachos.
“Nothing of consequence.” She poked him in the side, like she would her own older brother, Louis. “Liven up, Royce. Everything will be fine. Maybe you’ll even have a little fun tonight.”
“No, milady, you’re here to have fun. I’m here to work.”
“Whatever, party pooper.”
Suddenly, the stadium came to life, as the Knights made their appearance out on the field. Arabella waved her red foam finger and pretended to be a fan, even though the Bootleggers held her heart. Her plan had been to blend in, and blend in she would. Still, when the Savannah Bootleggers ran onto the field, their bright blue uniforms in contrast with the red and green on the field, she jumped up and cheered for them too, eliciting strange looks from the pimply teen next to her.
“Equal love for all players, right?” she said to the boy.
The boy looked away again.
Her eyes scanned and scanned the Bootleggers’ sidelines. Even though he wouldn’t be starting tonight, Kyle Young would most likely be here—in the flesh—to cheer his team on, and she couldn’t wait to lay eyes on the real thing.
As the team prepared for the game with their drills, Arabella sipped her beer and took in the whole ambience. Though the beer tasted like septic water—not that she’d ever tasted septic water before—nothing was going to ruin this experience for her. The cheering crowd, the bite of fall in the air, the electricity buzzing throughout the stadium…it was all—beautiful.
She closed her eyes to take in the sounds and smells.
When she opened them, she spotted him. Down below, dressed in team jersey but with jeans on, Bootleggers’ quarterback, Kyle Young, stood waving at the crowd from the sidelines. Like the coaches, he wore a headset to communicate with Murphy.
There he is… Even from this distance, she appreciated his tall stature, strong build, and commanding presence… Sigh.
“Your Highness, did you hear what I said?”
“What?” Arabella turned to Royce. “Sorry, I blipped out for a moment there.”
“That’s not the only thing you’re blipping.” He pointed to the cheese dripping onto her leg from the nachos.
“Oh!” She quickly grabbed a napkin and blotted the warm spill on her thigh.
“Dreadful food product,” Royce mumbled.
“Actually, it’s not as terrible as I thought.” She bit into her chip dabbed with melted cheese. “So, Royce, have you ever attended a football game?” Rarely did she have the chance to talk to her bodyguard, and now that it was just the two of them, she would try to poke through his taciturn exterior. “An American football game?”
He glanced at her, his red face paint creasing as he frowned. “No, this is my first visit to America, Your Highness.”
“Please don’t call me that.” Arabella’s shoulders drooped. “Call me Arabella, or sis—”
“Please,” she said more firmly, a sly smile at her lips. “Or I’ll turn into your worst nightmare, screaming for attention at the top of my lungs. You don’t want me having a tantrum here, do you, Royce?”
“Fine.” He seemed to struggle inwardly before nodding. He ground out her name, “Ara…bella,” as if it pained him.
She laughed heartily. “There you go. Now, what about sports? Did you play as a child? European football? Basketball? Cricket?”
He thought for a moment before replying, “Rugby, milady, for a short time in school.”
“Ah. I can see that.” Royce boasted a wide frame and chest, the very picture of someone who used to play rugby. She waited for him to go on, but getting Royce to talk was like pulling very stubborn, large teeth. “And you enjoyed it? You hated it? You had no feelings about it whatsoever?”
“It was fine.”
Fine. Of course it was fine. Arabella looked away. So much for trying to have a friendly conversation with her staff. Why couldn’t Mother have hired a chatty bodyguard? Why couldn’t friendliness toward the princess be a qualification for any royal servant? At least she wouldn’t be having conversations in her head all the time.
The Knights won the coin toss, and the game began with the blow of the ref’s whistle. Early in the first quarter, the Knights scored a touchdown, and everyone around her went berserk. She loved the cheering, the slapping together of hands, the sheer camaraderie between the fans. When the Knights scored another touchdown early in the second quarter, she cheered right alongside them but began feeling sorry for the Bootleggers.
“Come on, Murphy,” she mumbled, her eyes volleying between the starting quarterback and Kyle Young pacing nervously on the sidelines. She watched as the Bootleggers advanced on the 20-yard line. It was fourth and down, Murphy kicked back, and went for a Hail Mary pass. “Come on, come on…”
The Bootleggers’ wide receiver reached up to catch the pass and tumbled into the end zone.
“YES!” she screamed, joy filling her heart. Score! At least the game wasn’t a complete shut-out anymore. Suddenly, Arabella noticed the silence all around her. Had she really just jumped out of her seat to cheer for the opposite team? Surrounded by New Yorkers, of all people? “Heh, heh…” She laughed meekly. “Silly me, I know nothing about football.”
Settling back into disgruntled chatter, the crowd forgave her and continued watching the game, as Royce shook his head. “Way to avoid attention, Your Highness.”
“Oh, stop. It could happen to anybody,” Arabella said. The truth was, she did know a lot about football. Quite more than anyone in her family or even Salasia, she would venture to say. And now she could say she’d seen the Bootleggers play in person, even score against the New York Knights! Even though the touchdown hadn’t been scored by her favorite player, she was loyal to the team nonetheless.
As the second quarter neared its close, the Bootleggers gained three more points with a field goal, so now the score was 14-10. The buzzer rang, and halftime began, as many fans got up to stretch their legs and use the restrooms.
“Wasn’t that amazing?” Arabella asked Royce. “I so wish Kyle Young was playing, but then again, it’s wonderful that Murphy is getting his time to shine.”
“Yes, wonderful, Your—Arabella. Quite amazing.” He golf-clapped to mock the game, and she rolled her eyes at him.
Just as a beer vendor walked by, Arabella stopped him and purchased another tall, teetering drink. “Here, have something to drink, Royce. You look parched.” She handed him the plastic cup filled with golden liquid, and although he seemed at first like he was going to refuse, he drank it without comment. To her surprise, he polished it off in a few swallows, causing her to widen her eyes as she watched with amusement.
“What a delicious drink,” he commented. “What is it called again?”
She pursed her lips. “Bud Light.”
“Bud Light,” he repeated, as if it were a fine Chardonnay. Royce’s expression seemed lighter already, and Arabella wondered if he’d ever had a beer before. Clearly, he was a bit of a “lightweight,” as the Americans would say, since his shoulders relaxed after drinking the alcoholic beverage, and the permanent scowl he seemed to wear disappeared from his face.
“You know what?” Arabella stood and stretched, attracting the admiration of several men around her. “I’d like to purchase some souvenirs. And perhaps more Bud Lights?” She winked at Royce.
“As you wish, milady.” Royce wavered to his feet and followed Arabella out of the row. He wasn’t a terrible bodyguard—she’d had worse—but Royce could definitely stand to crack a smile or two. If she was lucky, maybe she could lose him in the crowd and really be on her own.
They arrived at a kiosk tended by a bored attendant. Arabella glanced at the bright red Knights’ items—T-shirts, pennants, bobbleheads, trading cards, and water bottles—wondering if she could possibly persuade Royce to carry one of everything back to the limo. As much as she wished this could be a Bootleggers’ home game, any NFL products would do, even of the New York Knights.
She picked up a T-shirt with a glittery KNIGHTS logo across the front, holding it up to her chest to see how it would look, peering into a tiny mirror affixed to the souvenir stand. “How do you like this, Royce? Would it look good on me?”
“Your mother would fire me in an instant.”
She laughed and was about to put it back on the rack when she heard a voice behind her. “Red’s not quite your color. I’d say bright blue, if I’m honest.”
Arabella whirled around, wondering who might be so bold as to tell her what looked good on her or not, ready to chastise the haughty random stranger, when she recognized the handsome face underneath the baseball cap pulled down low. It was none other than Kyle Young, leaning against a post. Even wearing street clothes, he seemed unnaturally larger than life.
“Is that so?” She forced out a breath. Arabella was sure she could see the delineation of his abdominal muscles through his button-down shirt. He exuded masculinity, from his strong jaw to his muscular legs to—oh God, her mind wandered to places it shouldn’t.
“Yeah. Red’s an angry color. Blue is more heavenly…cool…sublime.” His eyes flashed in admiration, as his gaze roved over her body from head to toe. “But I guess you’re not a Bootleggers’ fan, so it doesn’t matter. Have a great day.” He started off toward the concession stand when something possessed Arabella to go after him.
“Your Maj—eh, Arabella? Stay here, please,” Royce ordered.
She ignored him. That’s Kyle Young! Don’t let him walk away… “No, wait,” she called. “Wait. I’m a Bootleggers’ fan. I swear, I am.”
“Now, now…it’s not polite to swear, and come on, darlin’, you don’t have to play nice with me. This is your home turf after all.” Kyle Young eyed Royce quickly, as if annoyed by the third party bystander.
Darlin’? That didn’t sound as affectionate as he’d probably meant it to. And why would he start a conversation with her, then walk away, unless she’d caught his eye? She hurried after him. “It’s not. I mean, I’m not from New York. I had no choice but to wear these colors…” God, she sounded pathetic defending her actions.
“Arabella? It’s time we get back to the seats now,” Royce warned.
“Just a minute…” She couldn’t tell Royce who this man was without alerting the man himself that she recognized him, and she didn’t want to give him that satisfaction, no matter how cute he was.
Kyle Young—the Kyle Young—paused at a garbage can to throw away an empty drink cup then whirled to face her, but was met with Royce’s stern expression. He sighed and moved around Royce. “So…you’re telling me…a beautiful girl—not from New York—accidentally wears the Knights’ colors, even though she’s a Bootleggers’ fan?” He laughed to himself, hands on his hips. “You don’t have to change your groupie tune now that you’ve met me, sweetheart. Stay loyal.” He tapped her nose and walked off.
“What?” The nerve of him! Did he really think she was only “sucking up” to him now that she’d recognized him? Yes, he was gorgeous as hell with those blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, and day-old stubble on his face, but like hell would he make assumptions about her. “I’m not a groupie, for your information,” she assured him. “I’m a fan, incognito.”
“Ooo, incognito…” He pretended to be hiding from suspicious followers. “Are you famous or something? ‘Cause that would explain the guard puppy following you around.” He gave Royce an annoyed glance.
She hesitated. She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone who she was. That was quite outside protocol and would have her mother sending for her in a moment’s notice. “I have my reasons. Why—why are you here anyway? Shouldn’t you be in the locker room pep-talking to your team? Murphy has done quite well in your place, wouldn’t you say?”
“I say he’s doing alright. I’m getting some nachos, if you must know. I like making them myself. They never give me enough jalapeños when I ask our assistant to go get ‘em. Plus, I’m tired of eating carrot sticks.” His eyes roved over her body again. “Though I can tell you probably eat healthy as sin.”
A little spark of evil shot into her smile. She got it now—the whole walking away act. He was flirting with her. Kyle Young was egging her on. Arabella clucked her tongue lightly without taking her eyes off Kyle. “Royce, oh, brother? Would you be a dear and go get us some more drinks?”
“Your Maj—uh, Arabella. Let’s get them together. I don’t know what you want.”
“I want a Bud Light. Go away now.” She smiled at Kyle whose dimples deepened.
Her bodyguard hesitated, but at her quick dagger-like expression, he gave in without comment. “I will return shortly. Please do not move from this spot.”
Young watched with curious eyes, as Royce stalked away. Then, he whistled. “Hoo-whee! Who was that? Your bodyguard? Dude’s got a stick up his ass.”
For a moment, Arabella froze. So much for being normal. He could see right through her. Then, she realized he was only joking. “Ah, my brother…you could say he’s overprotective. Also, he’s not particularly fond of football games.”
“And you? Are you particularly fond of football games?” He laughed, as though there was something wrong with that statement.
“Quite.” She nodded. “I recognized you after all, didn’t I? Why else would I have followed you to the nacho stand?”
“I see, so you’re only talking to me because I’m famous.”
“No, I’m talking to you because you didn’t believe me.”
“That I’m a Bootleggers’ fan. I’m wearing red because I have to.” She sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“I like long stories. Maybe you can tell me after the game.” He smiled, bit into his lip, then turned to order nachos from the concession stand attendant. Had he just invited her to see him again after the game?
Arabella took the opportunity to size him up and down. Very down. His jeans fit beautifully. She imagined the amazing things he hid inside of them. “You think I’m a football groupie, but I’m not. I’ve watched the Bootleggers play since before you joined the team.”
His eyebrows rose. “Really? But you’re not American, I can tell. Where are you from—England?”
Her accent tended toward a proper British tinge, but at the moment, she wished she could speak American like a regular New York—or Georgia—girl. “I’m from Salasia, a small principality in Europe.”
“I know where it is.” At her raised eyebrows, he laughed. “You thought a dumb football player wouldn’t have heard of it, huh?”
She blushed and looked away. She had assumed he wouldn’t know about Salasia, but only because most people outside of Europe didn’t know it existed. Hell, she wasn’t even sure people in Europe knew it existed. “I don’t think you’re dumb, Mr. Young.”
He laughed and reached for the bowl of jalapeños. “Thanks,” he told the attendant, reaching in and piling them on to his nachos. To Arabella, he said, “Don’t feel bad, Duchess. You’re too pretty to look so worried.”
“I’m not merely pretty, Mr. Young,” she said with as much confidence as she could, though she wanted to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Not only was she speaking with Kyle Young…he had flirted with her and called her pretty!
“Call me Kyle.”
“Kyle,” she said, testing out the name. Her heart fluttered at the sound. If she could, she would take this surreal moment and make it last forever. “I know all you see is a groupie,” she teased. Two could play that game… “But I’ve studied the Bootleggers’ defense and offense. I know you’re one of the top five players in line for NFL MVP. I know you had three-hundred fifty-seven completed passes out of five hundred attempted last season. And I could also tell you that you have a tendency to throw long when there’s little time left in a game.”
“A Hail Mary pass,” she interrupted. “I know what it’s called. Apparently, you told Mr. Murphy to use it at the end of the second quarter.” She smiled. Touché. That would teach him to think of her as nothing but a pretty face. “Good for you. And the Bootleggers.”
His eyebrows rose at her recitation. He turned to her, the nachos forgotten, and her heart pounded. As she fought to control her breath, he leaned down to speak into her ear. “Duchess, I love hearing you talk football.” His breath was light and warm and made butterflies take flight in her stomach. “I love your accent. You could recite statistics, and I’d be enthralled.”
His expression said far more than his words did. I can think of a hundred other things I’d love to hear you say. And scream. Starting with my name when I’m buried deep inside you, he seemed to silently tell her.
Her heart pounded wildly.
“I’m Bella,” she said suddenly, a name she never used. But right now, she wasn’t quite herself. Right now, she was a bolder version of herself, a woman who normally wouldn’t flirt so outwardly. The name suited her.
“Bella. That’s a real pretty name. A pretty name for a beautiful woman.”
She could hardly believe what was happening—Kyle Young, star quarterback of the Bootleggers—was totally taken by her. She’d had her share of suitors, only men didn’t flirt with princesses. They courted them. They treated them like porcelain dolls. She’d dated so little that she’d only slept with a man once, and it had been so lackluster, she’d been afraid that something was wrong with her, like she was broken or something.
But at Kyle’s nearness, as her breathing quickened, and she felt her body tingle all over, she knew she wasn’t broken. She wanted more of this flirting; she wanted to touch him and for him to touch her, and no matter how this day ended, it had already been made, because she’d had this moment with Kyle Young.
“Young! There you are.” A woman with blunt blonde bangs and glasses stalked towards them. “You need to get back downstairs. Coach is looking for you.”
Kyle glanced at the woman then back at Arabella. Once more, he leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “Meet me after the game. Room 586, down the hallway across from the ice cream cart. So, you can finish…telling me those statistics.” With a final wink and a devilish smile, he followed the woman with his tray of nachos and disappeared.
Arabella finally sucked in a deep breath of air and held on to the counter for support. “Holy Hell! What just happened?” she murmured to herself.
The concession stand attendant laughed. “Cute, ain’t he?”
Royce returned, offering more beer, his face flushed. “I drank another one of these,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “I must admit, they are delightful. Do you think we can order them in Salasia?”
“I’m sure I can get you some.” She smiled. If it would keep him occupied, she would buy him a whole case per week!
Arabella led him back to the stands, smiling at her meeting with Kyle Young. Smiling, because he had invited her “backstage” after the game, smiling because Royce was getting sloshed out of his mind. As he opened up about his days as a rugby player, she could only halfheartedly listen, because her mind was elsewhere, lost between reality and a land of dreams, though the two worlds seemed on the verge of colliding.
Meet me in Room 586. Should she dare? What did he want? To really hear more statistics from her, or…to kiss her? Sleep with her? Arabella shivered at the thought. Whatever Kyle Young wanted, Arabella—er, Bella—could hardly wait to find out.