A Prince's Ransom: Kidnapped by the Billionaire (12 page)

“Hi,” she greeted, brushing at a strands of her cropped blond hair. “Kinda late to be dropping by for visits, isn’t it?”

His blue eye skated over her effortlessly, with how little she was dressed. She drew back from the door and the prince stepped inside after her. “I merely wished to ensure that your shopping trip with my sister went well.”

“Yeah, it went fine,” Katherine replied with a shrug. “Your sister is really put together for being only fifteen.”

“Well,” he mused. “She has had rather different expectations than you have.” Her eyes narrowed at him slightly, but Eric only chuckled. “I’m glad all went well. You were able to find everything I specified for you, I trust?”

“Sure, that part was easy. The hard part was just deciding which ridiculously expensive thing to wear when they all look out of place on me.” She fidgeted with the hem of her nightgown again and he laughed softly, his gaze following her fingers; Katherine’s throat tightened. “It is late, though, you know? I kinda need a full night’s sleep tonight. Without any, uh, extra activities. I’m totally exhausted.”

Immediately, his eyes lifted to hers. “Of course, I do not mean to keep you if you wish to retire to your bed. Although, if I may, ma chérie… such things as these fit you extremely well. I believe that you are just unused to wearing them.”

A blush lifted slightly on her cheeks, and she shook her head a little. “Maybe. But… but yeah, I was going to go to bed pretty quick here, just finishing up dinner—hey!” She cried out, suddenly, when he moved toward her and wrapped her in his arms, carrying her toward the bed. “Eric, you’re impossible!”

He laughed slightly. “I merely enjoy your height, Katherine,” he replied nonchalantly. “Few women are of such a height as this, where it is easy to pick them up and carry them.”

“If that’s a crack about my height, Eric…”

“Quite the opposite. I thought that was obvious.” He smiled at her, and set her down on the edge of her bed, his fingertips brushing along her ribs and waist before drawing away. Katherine took a deep breath and shook her head at him slightly; she shrugged out of the negligee and draped it over the end of the bed before pushing away the sheets and slipping beneath them properly. He watched her all the while. “You are lovely in that, Katherine. And I imagine you will be only lovelier tomorrow evening in the dress you and Élise found.”

Immediately, she looked away from him. “Look, I get the fact that you just want to marry me for convenience or whatever, but could you… not pretend so well?”

“You don’t believe me,” he concluded softly, without asking a question. “You do not trust that my words are true.”

“No.”

The prince was silent as Katherine slipped further into the bed. “Regardless,” he said after a long moment. “Sleep well. You will need your energy for the riding lesson tomorrow.” Turning away, he started to leave, flicking off the light switch as he went.

“Oh my god
,
I’d forgotten all about the riding lesson!”

Katherine scowled up at Eric, her arms crossed firmly over her chest, determined to stick to her stubbornness. Her dress for later that evening was, as a servant had come to tell her, already here but she couldn’t go and try it on yet because of Eric’s afternoon lesson. The morning had consisted of learning an overly-complicated system of silverware and dining that seriously made her question why nobles needed that many forks. Honestly, why was it so important to have a different fork for every course of a meal? It didn’t really make anything
taste
better, as far as Katherine was concerned. But she had tried to understand the setup since she had been told that there would be a dinner along with the dancing and that she would need to be prepared.

Not that she knew how to dance to any
real
music, at least not music that didn’t have a bass that just made her move to a rhythm without even thinking about it.

“I am not getting on that thing,” she told him plainly, scrubbing the tip of her newly polished riding boot in the dirt. She was dressed like some super-fancy horse rider, Élise had seen to that. White pants and black boots and a fancy dark green blazer thing. A velvet-covered helmet and leather gloves completed the outfit.

“Katherine,” Eric replied with the patience of a father who had been trying to get a toddler to eat her vegetables. “There is absolutely nothing to be concerned with when it comes to horseback riding.”

“I don’t care. I’m not getting on that thing.”

“You told me that you grew up in Arizona—there are plenty of horses there, are there not?”

“I grew up ten minutes from the Las Vegas strip, not next to a goddamn dude ranch. The fact that I called it a dude ranch is probably an insult to dude ranches. I have never been on a horse in my life and I don’t intend to get on one
now
.”

Eric laughed slightly. “Why is that? There is little quite as magnificent as riding atop such majestic creatures, ma chérie.”

“If you haven’t noticed,” she snapped at him. “I am a little bit
vertically challenged
and I don’t like being on things that are taller than I am.”

Something wickedly amusing gleamed in the prince’s eyes. “Funny, I hadn’t thought you disliked being on me a few nights ago.” Katherine’s cheeks started burning instantly and she was glad that Élise was out of earshot. She shot Eric a look and quickly spun on her heel to head back toward the gate of the paddock.

“Katherine!” Eric called after her, laughing. She heard him dismount, his horse snorting with derision, and start off after her. “Katherine, come now, you are far too worried about this.”

“Come on, Katherine!” Élise had ridden closer after seeing her brother dismount, grinning as she looked down at Kat. “You’ll love it, I promise—it isn’t nearly so terrifying as you think it is.”

“Élise is absolutely right. Now, I will be there the entire time and learning how to ride is an essential skill when it comes to living in a court, and—”

“You being there does not make me any more convinced that something will not go wrong, and I don’t
want
to live in a court, so why should I have to learn to ride?” she complained, shaking her head. “No, I am not getting on that monster, and there’s nothing you can do to make me.” She stormed away, hoping that her fear—obvious from her words, admittedly, if a bit smothered by her tone—wasn’t noticeable.

Katherine could practically feel Eric’s eyes narrow at her behind her back. All at once his footsteps followed hers swiftly, and she yelped when he wrapped his arms around her, scooping her up and placing her on the top rung of the fence. “Eric!” she squealed, slapping his shoulder with displeasure as she glared at him.

His arms were still around her waist, his broad form nestled between her legs, and he leaned nearer. “You have not struck me as the type to be easily frightened. Tell me the truth, what are you really afraid of?” he asked her softly, and she bit her lower lip.

“I don’t like
heights
,” she answered furtively, crossing her arms over her stomach unhappily. “And that thing is more than just a height, it is a mile above me and I don’t want to be on it.”

He was still lightly amused, but there was a hint of gentleness in his eyes. “You do not like heights and yet you bought at least five pairs of shoes yesterday which will allow you to be taller.”

“Being taller with my feet firmly on the ground is different than riding a horse.”

“You flew all the way here to Montavian from Pennsylvania, and that is an experience many,
many
times higher than just riding a horse,” he tried instead.

“Yeah, but I was safely enclosed in a sturdy machine and far away from windows where I could see the ocean a billion miles below me,” she countered. “And contrary to popular belief, airplanes are actually safer than cars.”

“Fair enough. You realize, of course, that because I am taller than you, I am actually further away from the ground than you’ll ever be, right?”

“Your head maybe, but not your
feet
.” Katherine looked away from him, and Eric chuckled softly, leaning forward further and nuzzling her hair gently where it poked out from beneath her helmet.

“You are afraid of falling then, not of heights. You are afraid of hitting the ground before your feet can touch it again.”

“Aren’t
all
people afraid of that?”

“Not necessarily,” he murmured, and kissed her cheek. “But ma chérie, I have no intention of allowing you to fall. Never mind what you might think of me or believe of my purpose with you—you cannot believe that I would let you come to harm?”

“I don’t know,” Katherine admitted quietly, aware that she was only realizing this.

“You must know that there is nothing in the world which could distract me enough that I would ever let you get hurt, never mind purposefully inciting such things to happen. I simply will not let you fall,” Eric said, his voice an intense whisper.

“What if I fall anyway? Even if you do everything you possibly can to make sure I don’t, what if I do?”

Eric moved one of his arms from her waist and cupped her cheek. When she started to speak again, he kissed her with a startling tenderness that sent her heart fluttering, until she pulled back all at once. “No, stop it. Don’t pretend affection just to try and get me to do what you want,” she muttered bluntly, and instantly all teasing and amusement was gone from his features.

“‘Pretend affection’?” he repeated, with a hint of darkness in his voice, and he frowned at her. “You truly think me so callous, don’t you, as to willingly toy with your emotions, your heart, to achieve my own ends?” Katherine didn’t answer him. He knew the answer himself. The prince sighed. “Trust me on this one moment, darling. Trust me when I say that I know you will enjoy riding if you only give it the chance. Two minutes on the horse, with me. Promise me that much.”

“With you?” she gasped, bewildered, and looked quickly to the black horse Eric had dismounted. It hadn’t moved from its spot. “Is that thing
able
to carry two people at once?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “It is why I had her retrieved from the stable in the first place. She was the horse I learned to first ride upon as a boy with my father, and the horse Élise first rode upon. She is a perfectly calm and strong animal, and she won’t do anything to make you fall off, particularly with me already on. Two minutes, Katherine.”

She took a deep breath, looking away from the horse to the prince. She still wasn’t pleased with this arrangement but there was that something genuine in him again, something that made her want to believe him. Maybe, she could, for him. “Alright, fine. But just two minutes, even if I like it, okay? I wanna go inside and take a shower and try on my new dress for tonight. I don’t want to smell like a horse in that.”

“Fair enough,” he said with a slight smile, and then moved away from her so he could help her down. “Élise, come give Katherine a boost!” he called to his sister across the paddock. She looked up and then immediately dismounted her lovely white horse to hurry over, smiling broadly.

“Oh, do not worry, Kat! You will enjoy riding, really, there’s nothing like it in all the world.”

“That might be what I’m afraid of,” Katherine moaned softly, approaching the black mare again. Eric mounted gracefully, barely needing the step stool that had been placed to help them get up. Uneasily, Katherine climbed it after him, taking his arm with both of her hands. Élise moved near the side of the horse and cupped her hands, grunting as she hoisted Kat the extra bit she needed to swing her leg across the horse’s broad back.

As soon as her legs were situated, she let go of Eric only to wrap her arms tightly around his waist, burying her face against his back. He made a slight sound of discomfort but didn’t try to dislodge her. “You’ll be fine, Katherine,” Élise said from the ground, before her boots crunched off as she returned to her own horse.

“Ma dear,” the Prince said softly, “open your eyes, look.” She shook her head. “Please, ma chérie. Trust me this once.”

Against the fabric of his riding attire, she shut her eyes tightly. Then her breath quivered as she lifted her head and looked around a little bit. A soft, frightened sound escaped her throat without her consent when she glanced downward and saw the ground spin. Immediately, her face went to his back again, and then one of Eric’s hands brushed the back of hers comfortingly. “Alright, you needn’t look. I’m going to start us off at a slow walk so you get used to the movement.”

A tiny squeak erupted from Katherine’s lips, muffled against his back, and she closed her eyes tighter, shaking badly. She could still feel her heart pounding in her ears, and tears stinging at her eyes.

“Katherine.” Eric’s voice cut through her panicked thoughts, and she realized that the slight movement of the horse’s massive girth against her thighs had ceased. She let out a slight breath. “You are
safe
,” he whispered to her, looking over his shoulder. “I promise, you are safe.”

“You promising me I’m safe does not mean it’s true!” she answered hoarsely, lifting her head and blinking at her tears. “It just means that you’ve done everything you can to make me safe, but you still might fail.”

The prince huffed slightly, and then Katherine let out a shriek when suddenly the horse was moving beneath them much faster than it had been before. She lifted her head and clutched at Eric, her hazel eyes wide with fright.

“Eric!” she cried. “Stop! Stop!” She lifted herself up slightly to shout into his ear, the wind whipping at them both while they sped across the length of the paddock.

She stared wide-eyed at the racing scenery around them, her breath catching in her throat for a very different reason. The palace stable was surrounded by flowers and neatly trimmed grass that seemed like it stretched for miles, and beyond it she could see a small vineyard. Eric had told her about the small winery the royal family owned, something that had been a dream of his mother’s years ago. Katherine could smell all of it as they moved, and she pressed her cheek into his back as she watched the blur of colors. After what felt like an eternity, Eric pulled on the horse’s reins and slowed them down until they came to a stop. The horse’s sides quivered slightly from the sudden burst of speed, matching the way she was shaking as she still clung to him, slowly finding it in her to breathe again.

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