Suddenly Royal

By: Nichole Chase

Raptor Center Receives Large Grant

—Minnesota Raptor Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it called?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That so?” He smiled over at me.

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

“And does the accent work on you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“David!” I felt my mouth fall open in shock. How had the conversation turned into this?

“She’s like my sister and I’m tired of seeing her screwed over.” His eyes turned to me apologetically.

“I can understand that.” Alex stood up straight. “But I think she can take care of herself.”

“Just remember there are people, here in the real world, that love her.” My heart squeezed with David’s words. I had grown really close to everyone in the office. David had been a big help when I was applying for a master’s position. He wasn’t one for too much emotion, so to hear him say that made me want to throw my arms around him in a hug.

Alex nodded his head and David turned back to Dover. I stood there staring at them both, wondering what on Earth had happened to my life.

“Close your mouth, Sam.” David didn’t look at me, but his voice shook me out of my thoughts. I grabbed the gloves off the floor and turned back to the task at hand.

Alex’s phone rang and he walked away to answer it. I could hear him but couldn’t make out what he was saying. When I had finished cutting up the food, I split it up and went to deliver it to the birds in the building. When I got back, David was finishing up his examination of Dover. He put her back in her pen and replaced his gloves on the shelf.

“See you later?” David looked at me from where he was standing and I nodded my head.

“Yeah. Geller will be back tomorrow.”

“I know.” He turned to leave. “See you then.”

“David?” He stopped and looked at me. “I love you guys, too.”

He winked before turning and leaving the way he came. Alex was still on the phone, so I checked the time before going about cleaning. I was almost finished by the time he was done with his conversation.

“I didn’t mean to leave you with all the cleanup.” Alex took the broom out of my hand.

“There’s not much to do.” I shrugged and rinsed out one of the rags while he swept the trash I had collected into the dustpan.

“Still, I said I would help.” He frowned.

“It’s really okay.” I headed for the office where our coats were hanging with him following close behind.

As I reached for my coat, I was spun around and pressed against the wall. Alex leaned down to nuzzle my neck before dragging his lips across mine. There it was, my new drug of choice. His kiss was hot and hungry. His hands weren’t patient this time as he slid them over my body. It was as if our first kiss had answered a question and now he was sure of what he wanted.

His phone beeped and he muttered something that had to be a curse. The kiss slowed. There was something serious and dangerous behind his kiss—something that made my heart stutter and my panties catch fire. When his phone beeped again, I pulled back so there was just enough space between our mouths that I could feel our breaths mingle.

“You should probably get that.” My voice was husky and thick. It had taken a lot of willpower to pull away from him.

“They can wait.” He started to lean forward again but I shook my head.

“I can’t. I need to go see my dad.”

He sighed but nodded his head. “I understand.”

“Are you leaving soon?” I bit my lip, surprised I had asked him. Did it matter? I guess it did, considering how my heart was beating rapidly.

“I’m waiting to see what you decide.” He brushed some of the hair out of my face.

“Is that why you’re kissing me? To try to convince me to come to Lilaria?” The words seemed to freeze the air between us and I felt my stomach clench.

“You think I would kiss you to try to get you to come back?” He leaned farther away. “I’m not sure what you think having you in Lilaria would accomplish for me, but I assure you I don’t go around kissing people to make political alliances.”

“I’m sorry.” I closed my eyes and thunked my head against the wall. “I just can’t imagine why you… I’m just…”

He pulled away from me with a look of frustration. “Do you realize how insulting that is?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“You didn’t mean to insinuate I would stoop to such a thing, or you didn’t mean to insinuate you’re not attractive enough to make me forget my senses?” He stood up and ran a hand through his hair. “I do want you to come to Lilaria. I think it would be good for you and for your father. I think if you would let yourself, there could be something good between us, as well.”

“This is happening too fast. There’s too much going on.”

Alex pulled his coat off the rack. “Don’t think your whole life is here. Your ancestors were courageous—don’t let them down by hiding.”

I watched as he walked out of the little office, my mind a complete mess.

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