Author’s Note: This is a scene I deleted from Royal Sucker before publication. It didn’t belong in the book itself, but it’s a lot of fun, so here it is for your reading pleasure.
To set the scene for you, Calli (who is about to become the princess of Andera) and Owen (her bodyguard) are wandering the palace late at night, when they just happen to run into a puppy. And big, bad Owen can’t handle the cuteness…
“Ready to head back?” Owen asks. “You must be tired.”
Maybe I would be tired, if it wasn’t for the fact that I took a nap this afternoon, in an effort to get Owen to take a rest. I’m not sure if he got any sleep, but I conked out for four hours.
Now it’s three AM, and I’m wide awake. Which is not healthy. I need to get off this nocturnal schedule once and for all. Both so I don’t fall asleep during public appearances, and so I’m not spending so much time with Owen.
“You’re right.” I march across the room, keeping in front of Owen so he can’t see my expression. “We should go.”
The hallway is brightly lit but eerily quiet. I speed-walk toward the grand staircase, the clack of my heels on the marble the only sound.
“Wait.” Owen’s arm comes out like a gate, stopping me.
“What’s wrong?” There can’t possibly be any security issues. No one else in the palace is awake. Without the sound of our footsteps, the hall is completely silent. Except…
I tilt my head, straining for any sound, and I hear it again. A high-pitched bark, like someone set a puppy free to roam the palace. The barking gets louder and louder—and Owen gets tenser and tenser—until there’s a blur of movement at the end of the hall.
I was almost right. It is a puppy, but he’s only sort-of running free. He’s on a leash, though he seems to be walking the man holding the other end of the leather strap.
Owen pushes me behind him, like the tiny Anderan bulldog represents an imminent threat to my safety. “Mark! What the hell is going on?”
“I’m so sorry.” The man on the other end of the leash, finally manages to pull the puppy to a halt. “I took him outside to use the facilities, but he didn’t want to go back into his crate.”
The puppy nudges past Owen to sniff my shoes. He has short legs, a broad chest, and a wrinkled forehead that makes him look adorably thoughtful. I can’t help it—I drop to my knees so I can scratch him behind the ears.
He looks at me with big liquid brown eyes, and I melt. I love this dog. As soon as Edward and I come back from our honeymoon, I’m adopting a dog.
“What are you doing with the king’s dogs?” Owen demands.
“This isn’t one of the kings dogs. This is…” Mark shoots a glance at me and lowers his voice. “A wedding gift.”
I squeal. “He’s mine?”
“Someone sent a dog as a wedding gift?” Owen’s tone makes it clear what he thinks of this choice.
I hug the puppy. He squirms closer, licking my cheek.
“Who’s the cutest puppy in the world?” I ask him. “That’s right! It’s you!”
He barks in agreement.
I stroke the soft fur on top of his ears. This is exactly what I need. Someone I can safely lavish my love on so I don’t do something stupid.
“Whoa. Not so fast.” Owen pries the puppy out of my grip like I’m a dog napper. “Has it been cleared?” he asks Mark.
“No, sir. Not yet.”
“Cleared?” I try to grab the leash, but Owen is too quick for me.
“All the wedding gifts are being screened before they go to you and Edward,” he explains. “I have a whole team on it.”
Of course he does. “Right. I get it. But this is a dog. Not some suspicious package that could be a bomb.”
My puppy barks in agreement. I think I’ll call him Harold. He looks like a Harold.
“Everything gets screened,” Owen says.
“It’s a dog. What are you going to do? Put him through the x-ray scanner to see if he swallowed a bomb?”
Owen turns to Mark. “Has it been through the scanner?”
“He,” I correct. “Not it. And I was joking about the scanner.”
“He’s been through the machine already.”
“What?” I want to grab Mark and shake him. “How much x-ray exposure is that? He could get cancer!”
“So it’s cleared?” Owen doesn’t sound happy about this news.
“We were able to verify the dog doesn’t have any suspicious objects concealed internally. But we couldn’t get a conclusive read on his collar. And, since we can’t remove it, we’re waiting on an expert to take a look. That consultant you signed off on this morning.”
I squint at the collar around Harold’s neck. It isn’t what I would’ve chosen, but I like that my puppy is confident enough in his masculinity to pull off the rhinestones.
The bling traces an interlocking chain of princeza lilies that’s brighter than the chandelier in the dining room. Like, I-need-sunglasses bright. I’ve never seen rhinestones that sparkly. They look almost like…
No. It’s not possible. No one embellishes a dog collar with diamonds.
Except, now that I think about it, I vaguely remember a news story about Amber Watts buying a custom, diamond-studded dog collar for her teacup chihuahua. They showed a close-up of the collar, zooming in on the designers initials—an A and a G that had been pressed into the leather in distinctive cursive script. A distinctive, cursive script that perfectly matches the AG embossed onto Harold’s collar.
Holy crap. My puppy’s collar must be worth…
My head swims. I stand up too fast, and have to brace one hand against the wall so I don’t fall over. “You guys! That collar is a Velamo original.”
All three men—including Harold—give me identical blank looks.
“Arturo Velamo,” I specify.
Harold cocks his head to one side, staring at me quizzically.
“The guy who designed Amber Watts’s Oscar dress. The one with the feathers and—” I’m wasting my breath. “Never mind. The point is, it’s not a bomb. It’s nothing to worry about. Unless you’re concerned about the sanity of the person who spent $10,000 on a dog collar.”
Harold loses interest in the conversation and decides to shine Owen’s boot with his tongue. Owen pulls back like it burns.
“Who’s the dog from?” he demands.
“Uh…” Mark looks from Owen to me to the dog, like he’s trying to decide if he should respond or not. “General Maric,” he says finally.
Aaaaand there goes any chance of Owen handling this situation like a logical, reasonable human being.
He shoves himself between Harold and me, forming a human wall. “Until we’re sure the collar hasn’t been compromised, I can’t have you near this dog.”
Harold yips in protest.
“Come on. You’re being ridiculous.”
“I’m doing my job.” He tries to hand Harold’s leash back to Mark, but Harold is trying to leap over Owen to get to me, and in the confusion, Owen trips over the puppy. He untangles himself from the leash and tries again. Harold barks and, again, Owen can’t manage the hand off.
Huh. I get that Harold is a hyperactive puppy, but it’s not like Owen to be this clumsy.
I watch closely as Owen makes his third attempt. He tugs Harold’s leash, trying to move the puppy in Mark’s direction, but Harold is more interested in climbing Owen’s leg to give him doggy kisses.
Owen flinches away from the puppy.
Oh. Oh. “You’re afraid of Harold.”
“What?” Owen gives me that look men have spent hundreds of years perfecting. The one that says he can’t believe the ridiculousness that came out of my female mouth. “That thing is barely ten pounds. And he’s not exactly guard dog material.”
“Exactly. You’re afraid of the cuteness. I’ll bet you’ve never even had a pet. I’ll bet you’re one of those guys who thinks he doesn’t need anyone.”
“Just because I don’t want to sign on for fifteen years of dog walking, vet bills, and picking up shit doesn’t mean I’m afraid.”
“Then prove it. I dare you to take a walk with Harold and me.” Some deep-down survival instinct surfaces, warning me not to play games with Owen, but it’s easy to ignore. “I’ll make it easy for you. You don’t even have to hold his leash.”
Owen hesitates, his instinct to keep me away from anything the general might have come into contact with warring with his instinct never to refuse a dare. “We can’t,” he says finally. “Not until the collar is cleared.”
“I told you, it’s a Velama.”
“It’s not a Velama. It’s some knockoff that’s hiding a StealthTronix P226.”
A stealth what now? “Is that even a real thing? Because it sounds like a made-up super weapon from some TV show that was adapted from a comic book.” I drop my voice as low as it goes. “Watch out, Ridiculo-Man! They have the StealthTronix P226!”
The corner of Owen’s lip curls up, like his muscles want to smile, but his brain is fighting it. “It’s not a weapon. It’s a tiny listening device with a top-of-the-line microphone, noise cancellation, and—”
“You think someone hid a bug in Harold’s collar?”
“No. I know someone hid a bug in the collar.”
“Then prove it.” I stack my hands on my hips. Somehow, I’ve gotten a lot closer to Owen. So close, I can see the individual hairs that make up that dark stubble forming over his jaw.
Step away, Calli.
It’s time for me to go back to my room and go to sleep. I don’t know how to play this game I’ve inadvertently started. I don’t even know the rules.
But I can’t abandon Harold just because I get a little crazy when I breathe in Owen’s pheromones. So I take a step back, just in case, but I hold Owen’s gaze. “There’s an easy way to see if the collar is hiding a listening device. Cut it off.”
This is what happens when I ignore my better judgment and let Calli leave her suite. The woman attracts danger like a magnet. “You want to ruin your $10,000 designer dog collar by cutting it in half?” I say, calling her bluff, “fine with me.”
“You said it was a knockoff.”
“I’d have used a knockoff. But Maric is the kind of guy who might actually use the real thing, just to show how much cash he has to throw around.”
Calli falls silent, staring at the bedazzled collar, and I give myself a mental pat on the back for shutting down her argument. Now all I have to do is get her back to her room and tucked into bed.
Except—shit—thinking about tucking Calli into bed was a bad idea. Abort. Abort!
I need to think about something unsexy. My sister crying because she skinned her knee. My mom passed out drunk. My dad, that last day in the hospital.
“I don’t care about Harold’s collar,” Calli says. “I care about him. Cut the collar off.”
“I don’t have a…” My voice trails off, because Mark is handing me a pair of heavy-duty shears. Where the hell did those come from?
I give him an if-you-value-your-job-you’ll-make-those-disappear glare, but he’s too busy gazing adoringly at Calli to notice.
I grab the shears. Okay. Cut the collar off the dog. I can do that.
I squat. Unfortunately, the saliva machine on legs takes this as an invitation to play. He jumps up, grabbing my shoulders with his paws, and licking the bottom of my chin.
He doesn’t have that unwashed-dog smell like the stray my sister Jenn brought home when she was eleven. Did Mark give him a bath, or do Anderan bulldogs smell different than American dogs?
“See,” Calli says. “I knew you’d fall in love if you gave him a chance.”
“What?” I lose my balance and fall on my ass.
The puppy presses his advantage, charging onto my chest. I cringe away from his tongue. “Hey! Down!”
With a sharp yelp, the dog skedaddles off my chest. Finally, we’re communicating.
“You scared him.” Calli throws her arms around the dog like he’s a little kid who lost his mommy. “It’s okay, buddy. You’re okay.”
“The damn thing tackles me, and I scared him?”
“Aw,” Calli says. “Do you need a hug too?”
My body likes that idea. My body likes that idea way too much.
I push to my feet, taking myself out of hugging distance. “If you want the collar off, you’re going to have to hold him still.”
“At least you’ve figured out it’s a him, not an it. That’s progress.”
She’s right, damn it. At least she has gotten the dog settled down. She’s kneeling next to him, patting his head, while she whispers about what a good boy he is. No way will he be moving any time soon. Not with Calli touching him like that.
I approach slowly, making sure the dog isn’t going to try to lick me again.
Nope. Calli has him hypnotized.
I crouch down low and lift the collar as far from his neck as I can. Getting the shears in there is the hard part. I can’t get the angle right. There’s not enough give in the collar to—
“You’re not going to be able to cut the collar off without touching Harold,” Calli says dryly.
“Thanks for the heads up, genius.” Even though I know she’s right, I’m reluctant to get any closer. But, the sooner I get this done, the sooner I can get Calli back to her suite.
I bend closer, slipping the shears into position. My hand brushes Harold’s fur. It’s soft. As soft as—
I focus on the collar, but I can’t see the diamond-studded leather anymore. Instead, I’m looking at a stuffed bear, head tilted to the side, regarding me with curious eyes. My dad gave me Felix when I was four, and I slept with him every night until…
Until my dad died. Jenn was crying, so I gave her Felix for the night. And that was that. From then on, Felix was hers.
“Aw,” Calli says. “You really are a big softie, aren’t you?”
I swerve out of my unauthorized detour down memory lane.
I’m petting the dog, the shears in my hand totally forgotten.
Harold cocks his head, staring at me with big brown eyes. Okay. The dog is kind of cute. When he’s not barking or slobbering on me. If I was a dog person—which I’m not—I might even like him.
Calli scratches Harold behind the ears, and the dog looks like he’s in heaven. I can’t blame the guy. Calli is completely focused on him, like her only goal is to make him happy. If she focused on me like that—
Her fingers brush mine.
Her heat surges through me like lightning, waking up all the pleasure centers I’ve tried to kill off through disuse. I want her.
I clench the shears in my hand. Cut the damn collar off, McCadden.
The collar falls to the ground.
Somehow, I manage to pick it up. Two strips of leather have been sewn together to make the collar, but now that it’s cut in half, it’s easy to rip the stitching out to reveal—
Nothing. No electronics whatsoever. No evidence of any kind of tampering. The only thing of note are the initials AV, in a fancy font with a bunch of curlicues, pressed into the underside of the leather.
“Shit,” Mark breathes. “It really was a Velama.”
“I told you,” Calli says smugly.
My stomach lurches. But not because I just destroyed a $10,000 dog collar. The problem is, I want to go back to the place I was, petting Harold and hoping Calli might accidentally touch me again.
Sam was right. I need to get laid.
Want more of Calli and Owen? If you haven’t already read their story, you can find it in ROYAL SUCKER. Or check out Ava’s other romance novels.