Tonight wasn’t about doing everything perfectly. Tonight was about letting go.
Flipping the tsipouro glass over with a flourish and smacking it down onto the table, Lauren Grant smiled with the first surge of honest pleasure she’d felt in days. She’d had to work way too hard to find this dive bar in the seaside paradise of Garronia, and harder still to ditch her friends and the persistent tagalongs from the palace security. But it was worth it.
She’d spent most of her life under the careful watch of others, and that hadn’t kept her safe. For safety, she’d had to rely on herself. Same for having fun.
Two men and one woman were left facing her across the table. The woman listed to the side, supported by her husband, who kept shaking his head and grinning. The pile of cash in the center of the table was barely enough to buy a pair of shoes, but cash was never the goal anyway. It was simply a way to keep score.
The goal was to be the last woman standing.
“Another!” Lauren called out, and a cheer went up from the crowd circling the tiny table, along with laughter and catcalls, the usual fare of late-night drinking contests. The waitress moved forward instantly, a new round of tsipouro at the ready, but the husband waved her off as his wife slumped fully against him.
That left two.
Lauren smiled saucily at the duo. She was almost certain they were brothers, which didn’t bode well for her. They were big men, swarthy, their Greek heritage not a distant echo but evident in every line of their sun-worn faces and thick, dark hair. These were the true backbone of the Mediterranean, not the people living in the vaunted castle on the hill, where her dear friend Emmaline was being courted by an actual prince. Hell, not even courted. She was going to marry the guy. And that was cause for celebration.
“Yamas!” She raised her glass with the word to another round of applause. Close enough to the Garronois equivalent of “cheers,” her lapse into Greek made her competitors eye each other smugly. The three of them tilted the tsipouro back, and the potent grape liquor washed down Lauren’s throat in a fiery line of absolution. The distilled spirits might have been made of the dregs of the wine-making process, but it definitely packed a punch.
As she crashed her glass down on the table and more money changed hands, however, she saw him.
It didn’t take much. A shift of the crowd in exactly the right way, the right-dodging face that should have dodged left. She didn’t squint into the gloom surrounding their table to make sure, because she didn’t have to. The man was Dimitri Korba, ranking captain of the Garronia National Security Force. Kind of a high-rent shadow, but that didn’t improve her mood.
Dimitri Korba was everything Lauren didn’t need right now, here in this tiny little bar in Garronia on the one occasion she’d been able to break free in days.
Granted, the man was mouthwateringly gorgeous in a big, iron-fisted kind of way. Six foot four if he was an inch, he wasn’t built like the guys she knew back at home, their lean muscles and sinewy bodies honed with miles on the bike and the treadmill. Dimitri Korba was a giant. Heavily muscled legs, powerful arms, granite-set jaw beneath his dark, flashing eyes. Everything about him angled dark, actually, from his richly tanned skin to his black hair to his obstinate scowl. He was the quintessential bull, determined to tromp into any china shop in his way if it blocked him from his goal.
But in the end, he was simply another babysitter.
And Lauren knew how to handle those.
Swiveling around, she waved for the waitress, not missing the fact that the arc of her swing was a little too wide, a little too sloppy. Finally, the drink was taking effect. Finally, for at least a little while, the game was changing. She wouldn’t have to think for a while, wouldn’t have to think about anything but the next hour or how she was going to get herself home. Tomorrow, there would be consequences. There would always be consequences. But in this moment, she didn’t need to worry about—
“Miss Grant.” Strong hands caught her as she canted dangerously to the right. The right? Hadn’t she been moving to the left? She blinked up into the impossibly hard planes and harsh, dark-eyed stare of the man looming over her. Because that was what Dimitri Korba did best. He loomed.
“I thought that was you back there,” she said archly. She could always do “arch,” even drunk off her ass. She’d be able to do “arch” when she was ten years dead, she suspected. “Stand aside. I have a wager with these men.” She turned around, but her drinking mates were gone from the table, standing at a distance. They looked at her reproachfully, their gaze ricocheting in a triangle between her, Dimitri, and the small pile of euros between them. She could tell immediately that the game had soured, and anger blossomed within her, thick and hot. “Oh, great. Look what you’ve done.”
She spoke in Garronois as a matter of course, though the desire to slip into a flow of utterly American curses was almost impossible to beat down. She shoved Dimitri away, and he stepped back easily, fluidly, with the movements of a born fighter. Then she stood, proud that she didn’t falter, and held herself perfectly in check to ensure her center of gravity was stable. She inclined her head with all the grace born of twenty-three years of Grant family training and control. Lifting her chin again, she smiled at the two men with exquisite precision, and gestured to the cash.
“I default by cause of this ox beside me,” she said, her words ringing out loudly in the preternaturally quiet bar. She had a feeling Dimitri did that a lot, when he wanted. Intimidated merely by standing there. “The money is yours, with my thanks. And here.” She reached for her purse, startled when Dimitri’s large, bronzed hand shot out to cover hers.
For a moment, she stared at it. His hand looked overlarge, almost cartoonish against hers. She was no simpering pale flower, but her light golden tan couldn’t compare to his skin tone, weathered almost to burnt sienna with the work he must do in the sun all the time. The sun, the wind, the rain, the—
Focus. She was losing control here, the tsipouro hitting her too hard after barely seeming to affect her for the past hour. It had been that way last time, but she’d been building up a tolerance since then, she’d thought. The same way she’d been building up a tolerance to Dimitri Korba.
Neither of those was working out too well right now.
“Let go of me,” she said curtly.
He smirked but obligingly dropped her hand. “Your wish is my command, princess.”