First Chapter Friday: Fifty Frogs

When Vivian left town for a three-month residency, she had no idea that she’d come back to find her life turned upside down.

The casual boyfriend who’d seemed ready to commit? Changed his mind.

The job she’d loved so much? Gone.

The parents she’d assumed would be there for emotional support? Off on the adventure of their lives.

When she realizes that she’s essentially homeless, jobless and boyfriend-less, Vivian knows something has to change. She needs to take charge.

Inspired by her aunt’s idea that a girl has to kiss at least fifty frogs to find her prince, Vivian comes up with a plan: she’s going to go on a series of first dates only, and each one must end in a kiss. She’ll chronicle each date–the good, the bad and the downright unbelievable–and turn the stories into an in-depth magazine series about the realities of dating in the twenty-first century.

While none of the frogs she meets–and kisses–make her heart leap, there’s a guy closer to home who definitely does . . . and despite the fact that Charlie always seems to catch Vivian at her most awkward and embarrassing moments, she can’t help wondering if it’s time to ditch the plan . . . and kiss just one more frog.

Read the first chapter here

“Still five pounds overweight.”

A collective groan rose from the line of people behind me. I ignored them all, even as I felt my face going just a little bit redder. 

“Okay, then.” I unzipped the rolling suitcase, dug into it, and pulled out a handful of clothes along with a random shoe. I tried to stuff them into my carry-on backpack, but it was already too full. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to close the bag as it was. 

Still . . . with a frown, I bit my bottom lip and tucked what I’d just removed into the crook of my arm. I’d figure out what to do with it later. “Try it now, please.” 

“Lady . . .” The airline baggage check attendant sighed and rolled his eyes. “That’s not five pounds’ worth of stuff you just took out.” 

Fine.” With a barely-contained snarl, I replaced the shoe in the suitcase and pulled out more clothes instead. I didn’t stop until the better part of my wardrobe was in my arms. “Please check it now.”

The attendant shrugged and lifted the suitcase back onto the scale. All of us—the employee, the people who’d been waiting not-so-patiently in the ever-growing baggage check line and me, of course—held our collective breath as the numbers blinked, finally settling at an ugly fifty-three. 

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath. 

“Look, just pay the damn fee already, okay, princess?” The man who was next in line behind me had a heavy New York accent. His meaty forearms were covered with tattoos, and he wore a Yankees cap. His baseball fandom alone was enough to make me dislike him. What he did next sealed the deal. “Here.” He reached into the back pocket of his sagging jeans and retrieved a wallet. “What’s the fee? I’ll pay it. Anything to get us moving again here.”

“I can pay my own fee, thank you very much.” I gathered as much dignity as I could, considering I was draped in a mismatched ensemble of clothes. “But I’m not going to do it. The airlines already charge us a ton of money to ride on the plane in a seat that’s barely big enough for a toddler, let alone a regular-sized adult. They let us bring on one flipping piece of luggage. Hell if I’m going to give them more money just because my bag weighs slightly more than the average suitcase. It’s the principle of the matter.”

“Your principles are going to make us all miss our flights!” This time, the complaint came from the woman standing four people back. “Just pay the damn fee.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’d hoped my little speech about the injustice of airlines would have the effect of rallying everyone around my cause until the airline employee just gave in and let me check my bag as it was. But no. They were not standing with me in solidarity against the industry. Instead, they all looked almost ready to lynch me if I didn’t give in and pay up. 

The check-in attendant cocked his head, looking at me with some measure of sympathy. “It’s the shoes, you know? It’s not the clothes. Not really. And you can’t carry your shoes all loose onto the airplane. I’m sorry, miss. I think you’re going to have to pay the fee.”

“Nope.” I dumped all the clothes I’d been holding onto the floor and began unpacking the backpack, too, adding the clothes there to my pile. Once it was empty, I transferred the shoes from the main suitcase to the carry-on. When they were all out, I was able to add back some of the clothes, watching the numbers on the scale carefully each time I did. When it hit fifty, I stopped, zipping up the suitcase with a triumphant smile. 

“Okay, great.” The attendant picked up the bag and tossed it onto a conveyer belt behind him. “Now what are you going to do with all those clothes? You can’t leave them here.” 

“I have a plan.” Bending down, I scooped everything into my arms and held the bundle against me before I picked up the stuffed backpack. “Thank you so much for your help. And thanks to all of you for your patience.” I raised my voice and turned my head to cast a quelling stare at the line of people. 

“Honey, they won’t let you just carry those on, you know.” The lady who had been so helpful earlier threw a little more advice my way. 

I ignored her and marched off, praying that none of those people whom I’d just delayed were on my flight to Florida. I was beginning to sweat under the weight of all the clothes I was carrying, but I managed to get to the nearest women’s room, which, thank God, didn’t have a line but did have a small bench. It was probably there for nursing mothers, I figured, but today, it was going to be a good place for me to organize what I’d liberated from my suitcase. 

Once I’d dumped all everything onto the bench, I began to organize it into piles, thanking heaven that I hadn’t packed that many pairs of jeans. Instead, when I’d been choosing outfits to wear during my three-month writing residency on Amerails, I’d gone for leggings, anticipating that they’d be more comfortable on the long train rides. I’d been right about that . . . and now, these leggings were my new best friends. 

I was already wearing one pair under a loose trapeze dress. Choosing the tightest pairs first, slowly I tugged each one onto my legs. At first, it wasn’t too difficult, but each subsequent pair felt that much tighter, until by the last one, when I was barely able to get the elastic waistband to the top of my thighs. 

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” I muttered to myself. But there wasn’t any time to sit and mope; I still had seven shirts to pull over my head. 

By the time the bench was devoid of extra clothes, I resembled something out of an old-time freak show. Or maybe one of those sumo wrestler suits people wore on sitcoms or reality shows for extreme sports. Let’s just say it wasn’t my best look.

My legs could barely move, and I couldn’t hold my arms down to my sides. I’d tied a denim jacket around my waist—it barely reached around my new bulk—and the sleeves of a cardigan sweater were around my neck. My face was beet red and damp with sweat. Limp strands of my brown hair clung to my forehead and neck. 

“But none of that matters,” I told puffy, sweaty me in the mirror. “I might look like a lunatic, but it’s okay because I have my principles. And an extra twenty-five dollars that didn’t go to the airlines.” I snorted, shaking my head. “Yeah. I’m totally the winner here.”

Rolling my eyes at myself, I picked up my stuffed backpack and began lumbering to the gate. Of course, because this was me, the line for security reached to the border of New Jersey. With a sigh, I took my place at the end of the queue, behind a woman with two small girls holding her hands. Dropping my backpack at my feet, I smiled at the child who’d turned to stare at me.

“Mommy.” She tugged her mom’s purse, her gaze never leaving me. “Mommy, why does that lady look so weird? What’s wrong with her?” 

“Kelsey, shhhhh.” The mother, who looked cool, calm, and completely put together in her cropped cotton pants and sleeveless blouse, patted her daughter’s head and glanced over her shoulder at me. Her eyes went wide. 

“Hi.” I tried out my best wide smile. “I know, I look crazy, don’t I? I’m not, I promise. Although I guess even if I were, I might tell you that I’m not . . . but I’m not. I just had too many clothes for my suitcase, and the airline was going to charge me more, and I couldn’t fit them into my carry-on. So . . .” I gestured down my body. “I beat them at their own game. I wasn’t going to pay some stupid fee just because an airline bigwig came up with an arbitrary number for how much my suitcase should weigh.” 

The woman’s back stiffened a little. “It’s not arbitrary. The airlines study these things—and the fees are in place to help protect the baggage handlers so that they don’t get hurt lifting bags that weigh too much.” 

“Huh.” I huffed out a breath. “Because of course, the baggage handlers get the extra money we pay for heavy bags. Yeah, that’s how it works.” Sarcasm dripped from my words. “It goes to the owners and the board of directors, not to the people who do the real work.”

The other little girl turned around, looked me up and down with one raised eyebrow, and piped up to share her two cents. “My daddy works for the airline.” 

Her mother drew both girls a little closer. “Sloan, that’s enough. Stay with me, girls.” She whipped a cell phone from her pocket, her thumb flying over the screen. I hoped she wasn’t alerting her husband who worked for the airline to send security to drag me out of the airport. This day just got better and better. 

I made it through security, which was a miracle in itself. Thanks to some deity who was finally giving me a freaking break, I didn’t set off any alarms as I walked through the sensor. I shuddered to think of what a pat-down would’ve meant under these circumstances. They probably would’ve made me take off the clothes, and God only knew how I would’ve gotten them back on.

At the gate, I fell into a chair with a loud exhale, relieved to be sitting for a little while. Digging my cell phone from the outer pocket of my backpack, I scrolled through, looking for the right name. 

Vivian: Well, I’m finally at the gate. Wait’ll you hear the story I have to tell you. 

I hit send and sat, phone in my hand, watching the screen as I waited for Jeremy’s response. It didn’t come right away, and I frowned and then shook my head. It wasn’t like he was sitting around expecting to hear from me. I’d only let him know a few days ago that I was on my way home because the date had been kind of fluid for a while. His response had been vaguely positive, but that was men for you, right? 

I flipped back through our conversation until I got to the day I’d left Florida, three months ago. It didn’t take long to get there. Jeremy’s messages to me in the beginning of my residency had been longer and more involved, filled with talk about our future and plans for what we might do when I returned home. I waited for a feeling of giddy anticipation to fill me, that sense of excitement that I was returning to the arms of the man I loved. Instead, though, I only felt an anemic flare of . . . something. It wasn’t joy or pleasure . . . but it wasn’t unhappiness, either. I didn’t think it was.

That was okay because this was what grown-up commitment felt like. I’d spent three months talking myself into this. Closing my eyes and leaning back as far as the clothes would allow, I remembered the night before I’d left.

Jeremy and I had been seeing each other casually for about a year. We’d met through friends at a birthday party, and about a week later, Jeremy had called to invite me out for coffee. That had been pleasant enough, and neither of us was too weird, so for our next date, we’d moved on to dinner, and then a few days later, to a movie. 

After that, we’d just fallen into the habit of each other. Our friends had assumed we were together, and there hadn’t been any reason not to be. I’d introduced Jeremy to my parents, who lived in the same town I did, and when his mother had flown down for a visit, I’d met her, too. It had all been very calm and easy. Jeremy and I never fought about anything. We never disagreed. If I wanted to do something that didn’t interest him, I simply went by myself, and he did the same. We saw each other a few times a week and chatted occasionally on the phone to confirm plans.

My best friend Teddi, who shared my apartment, said that Jeremy and I had the most mature relationship she’d ever seen. “You never argue. I never hear either of you even raise your voices. I don’t know how you do it. Shane and I fight about everything.”

I’d smiled but stayed silent. I knew all too well how much Teddi and her boyfriend Shane argued because the walls in our place were thin, and I spent a lot of time at home. I had a front-row seat to their disagreements and to their makeup sex, which tended to be loud and tumultuous. In contrast, Jeremy and I were less . . . physical. The compatibility we had didn’t exactly lend itself to passion. In fact, when I let myself think about it, the distinct lack of intimacy made me wonder exactly why Jeremy and I were together at all. 

At first, I’d been impressed that he didn’t pressure me. We’d gone on six dates before he’d tried to hold my hand, and another four before he’d attempted a kiss goodnight. If we’d been sixteen, that would’ve been sweet and honorable. At twenty-six, it gave me pause . . . when I examined it too closely, which I tended not to do often. 

There were so many wonderful things about my boyfriend that focusing on the aspects that weren’t awesome seemed petty, especially when my single girlfriends bemoaned their dateless states. 

“You’re so lucky you have Jeremy. You never need to worry about what you’re going to do on Saturday nights or special occasions. You’ve got a built-in plus one for every wedding invitation.”

That was all true. And Jeremy did clean up well, although maybe that was the wrong figure of speech to use, because I never saw him get dirty—and I don’t only mean that in terms of sex . . . even if that was true, too. He wasn’t the type to want to go hiking or camping or, God forbid, to the beach. He wouldn’t even go running with me outside, preferring to get his exercise in an air-conditioned gym.

In light of that aversion to outside activities, I’d asked him why he’d moved down to Florida from New England. He’d looked faintly surprised and puzzled as he answered.

“Because the job down here was the best one offered to me. It had the best salary and benefits package and the most promising opportunity to advance in the company.”

“Uh-huh.” I’d nodded. “But did you ever think hey, Florida! Sunshine, beaches and year-round summer? I want to get me some of that?

Jeremy had frowned. “No. The place didn’t mean much to me. If the job had been in Montana or Oklahoma or Maine, I would’ve given it the same consideration that I did with it being in Florida.”

Being a Florida native, I couldn’t really speak to what I myself might’ve done under a similar circumstance. I’d been born here in central Florida, gone to the college where my dad was a professor, and after graduation, I had taken the one and only job I’d been offered. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe Jeremy’s logical, practical approach to decisions like this revealed some kind of lacking in his sense of adventure. We were young, after all; weren’t these the years when we were meant to be impulsive and carefree?

But aside from these few concerning differences in philosophy, I didn’t have anything to complain about with Jeremy. He was steady, tolerant, and understanding, and if we had a distinct lack of the same heat I saw between other couples, well, maybe that was just because he was so mature for his age. 

When I’d been notified that I’d won one of the coveted writing residencies on Amerails, discussing it with Jeremy hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d been giddy with excitement when I’d told him that I’d been selected to spend three whole months riding trains around the US, writing blog posts about changing family travel in the twenty-first century and how the train could be part of that shift. 

Because Jeremy was nothing if not polite and supportive, he’d taken me to dinner to celebrate. Over the next two weeks, as I’d run around preparing to leave, I hadn’t seen too much of him. But we’d agreed to spend the evening before my flight together at his townhouse. It had been a lovely night, with perfect Florida spring weather. Jeremy had ordered out from my favorite Italian restaurant, poured me a glass of my favorite red wine, and just before dessert, he’d dropped a bombshell.

“Vivian, I’m so happy about this chance you’re getting, to pursue something you’ve always wanted to do. And I think it comes at the perfect time for the two of us.” 

The ravioli I’d just enjoyed suddenly felt like lead in my stomach. Holy shit, was he breaking up with me?

“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” Jeremy went on, studying his hands where they were folded on the table. “Not just over the past few weeks, but actually, for a while before. I’ve weighed pros and cons, upsides and downs, and ultimately, I came to a decision.”

I held my breath, waiting for the blow. 

“I think you should move in with me.” 

If Jeremy had told me he’d decided to sprout wings and fly around the world, I would’ve been less surprised. I stared at him, my mouth open, for the space of several heartbeats. 

“Well?” He smiled and reached across the table to touch my hand. “What do you think? It seems to me the timing couldn’t be more perfect. You told me that Teddi has been talking about living with Shane. If you move here, she could have your apartment. While you’re away, I can put everything into motion so that when you come home, we can have the movers lined up.” 

“Jeremy.” I found my voice. “Um . . . I know it will sound trite if I say this is so unexpected, but it really is. I had no idea you were even considering this.” 

He shrugged. “We’ve been seeing each other for a year, Vivian. This is the next logical step. It makes sense.” 

The nausea that had come on when he’d first begun to speak hadn’t gotten any better. In fact, now it was much worse. Jeremy sounded as though he were proposing a merger, not something romantic and exciting. 

“Right.” I nodded. “The thing is, Jeremy, I haven’t been on the same wavelength as you, I guess. This is coming out of left field. So I can’t give you an answer tonight. Would you let me take this time while I’m away to think about everything? When I get home, we can see if you feel the same way—”

“Oh, I will.” He looked faintly amused that I’d suggest otherwise. “I told you, I thought this through. My decision is made.” He patted the back of my fingers. “But you take all the time you need. I’ll be here when you come home. You’re worth the three-month wait, Vivian.” 

It was on the tip of my tongue to blurt out something sarcastic, but I knew he was being earnest. This was what passed for sweet nothings in my boyfriend’s head. 

For the first three or four weeks that I was away, Jeremy texted me regularly—and I responded. We didn’t talk on the phone, because it was virtually impossible for me to have any kind of real privacy on the train, and the cell phone signal was usually iffy at best. 

I did think about what he’d said, though. At first, my gut response was to say no. His suggestion had made me realize that I’d never considered a long-term future with Jeremy. I’d been fine with things between us as they were, but I had never pictured myself marrying him or settling down for the rest of our lives. Maybe this was the perfect time to make a break that was long overdue, even if it meant I’d be single again. I realized that impending singleness was more upsetting to me than the idea of not having Jeremy in my life. That was telling. 

But as the weeks slipped by, I began to change my mind. I watched families on the train, and I thought that maybe I did want that sooner rather than later. And there was no question that Jeremy was an excellent candidate for responsibility and commitment. He’d be a very good father, not to mention a steady, reliable husband. I began to hear a voice in my head that remarked, “You could do worse.” 

Now a voice not in my head but over the loudspeaker interrupted my ruminations, announcing that the flight was beginning to board. When my section was called, I rolled onto my feet, clumsily slinging my backpack over one very padded shoulder, and joined the line. 

By the time that I got into the plane, seats were limited, and I could tell by the expressions on several faces that I was the last person they wanted sitting in their row. I guessed I couldn’t blame them; aside from how nuts I looked in my multi-layers, I was probably not smelling as fresh as the proverbial daisy. 

I finally found an empty aisle seat in the back, next to an older lady who beamed at me as I stuffed my bag into the overhead compartment and settled myself alongside her. We exchanged small-talk pleasantries until after takeoff. When the pilot announced that we were at cruising altitude, the woman turned to me with a smile. 

“You said you live in Florida. What do you do for a living?”

I perked up. “I’m a writer. A journalist, actually. I work for a local weekly journal, writing about the leisure opportunities in our community. I had a three-month residency on Amerails, traveling on the train all around the country, and I’m going home now that it’s over.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun. What an adventure to have while you’re still young and . . . unattached?” She took a sip of her complimentary ginger ale. “Do you have a special someone in your life?” She eyed my left hand meaningfully.

“Well . . .” I paused. “I think I do. Actually, I’ve been dating this guy for a year, and right before I left for this residency, he asked me to move in with him. I was shocked, because I never considered us that serious. But now I’m thinking I’d be crazy to turn him down.” 

“Oh.” She folded her hands, her face softening. “Are you just completely in love with him?” 

“Um.” I fiddled with the corner of my napkin on the tray. “He’s really a great guy. He’s got an amazing job at a bank, and he’s smart about money and all that. He’s courteous, he dresses well, and he takes care of himself. He treats me with a lot of kindness and respect.” 

“Hmmm.” She narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.” 

I threw up my hands. “What kind of idiot wouldn’t be in love with a man like that? So yeah, I guess I am. I think I’m going to do it, too. My roommate’s boyfriend moved into our apartment while I was gone, and they just boxed up my stuff and stored it at my parents’ house, along with my car.” I nodded decisively. “I’m going to go to my mom and dad’s garage, put all my crap into my car, and move it to Jeremy’s townhouse. That’s the grown-up thing to do.”

“Are you sure about that?” She looked dubious, this stranger on the airplane who was dissecting my life at thirty-nine thousand feet above the earth.

“Yes. No. I think so.” I shrugged. “I don’t have a good reason to say no.”

“That might not be the best reason to say yes,” she observed. “Okay, tell me this. Is he madly in love with you?”

I hesitated again. “Ummm . . . he likes me. He finds my company enjoyable, I think.”

Judgy woman made a sound in her throat. It sounded very skeptical. “Is he anxious for you to be back with him in Florida? Has he been calling you? Texting you?”

I picked up my phone, reminded that Jeremy had never responded to my last message. “That’s just not who he is, you know? He’s not the lovey-dovey type. He’s not physically demonstrative.” 

“Hmmm.” She pursed her lips. “And how are things in the sack?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me? I don’t think that’s any of your business.” 

She lifted a shoulder. “None of this is when you get down to it, but you brought it up. Or maybe I did, but it doesn’t matter. We’re both in deep now. And let me tell you something, sweetie. If this man doesn’t blow off the top of your head when you’re in bed together now, it’s not going to get any better. Trust me. My first husband and I had amazing chemistry. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Now, we were young and stupid, and we ended up getting divorced over something trivial, but the sex never stopped being fantastic.” She sighed. “My second husband was the steady, dependable type, but he couldn’t get me off to save his life.” 

My face, which had already been flushed, thanks to the layers of clothes, went even hotter. “Ummm . . .”

“And then one day, I got smart. I left the dud, went back to husband number one, and told him that if we agreed to have sex every time we wanted to argue, we’d be fine.” She grinned and elbowed me. “That’s been forty-two years and counting.” 

“That’s, uh . . . nice.” I shifted a little. “But I’ve never met anyone like that. Before Jeremy, I never really had any steady boyfriends, just guys I dated a little, here and there. So maybe I’m not the type to get the top of my head blown off.” 

“Honey, we’re all that type. You just haven’t met the right one yet. From what you’re not saying, I assume this Jeremy doesn’t get the job done?” 

“Oh, he never leaves me unsatisfied. I mean, he hasn’t in the three times we’ve, um, done it.” I swallowed and stared straight ahead at the seat in front of me. Nothing like admitting to a seventy-something woman that she had a hotter sex life than I did. 

Three times?” Her eyes went wide. “In a year? Holy cannoli, honey. You need to call this one. Code blue. Run in the opposite direction.” 

I sighed. “But what if I never meet anyone else? What if he’s my one shot?” 

“In that unlikely event, you’d still be better off alone than with a man who you can only tolerate. Trust me, sweetie.” She craned her head back, taking me in. “And look at you. You’re pretty. I mean, under the undeniable crazy of wearing all your clothes at once, which I’ve shown remarkable restraint in not asking about, you’re probably a very nice-looking girl. Do you have a cute little shape?” 

I covered my face with my hands. “I don’t know. I guess. Maybe. I’m not fat when I don’t have eight layers on me. I could have a little more in the boob department, but I think I’ve got a decent ass.” Shaking my head, I rolled my eyes. “And why the hell am I talking to you about this?” 

“Well, why not?” She laughed. “We’re stuck together for three hours in a tin can careening over the earth. We could stick to boring small-talk, which is a waste of time and energy, or we could get to know each other a little better, and maybe part as friends. I take this flight every two or three months when I visit my sister in Winter Haven. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve gotten to know this way. We’re all friends on Facebook.” 

“That’s wonderful.” And it really was. I hoped that in fifty years, I was full of life and making new friends. “I’ve got a couple of people like that in my life. Only we didn’t meet on airplanes.”

“Doesn’t matter how it happens, but it’s always good to have a support system. A man in your life is a wonderful benefit, but a girl still needs her posse, right?” She reached over and patted my leg. I couldn’t feel it through all the leggings, but it was a nice gesture. “Now, I hope when we land, you’ll think long and hard before you make any decision about your future with this young man. Life’s too short to waste it with the wrong person, darling. Take it from me.” 

I nodded. “I’ll definitely take everything you said under consideration. But it’s not easy out there, you know? I dated in college and afterward. It was never serious, just guys I knew through friends or met in classes. But the idea of being back out there, trying to date, makes me feel slightly nauseated.” 

“That could just be all the layers you’re wearing, hon.” She snickered. “I do understand. But trust me. Someday, you’ll look back and regret it if you don’t at least take some time to consider what you could be getting yourself into. Don’t settle for less than the man you absolutely can’t live without.” She drained the plastic cup in front of her and set it on my tray before flipping her own back into position. “Now I’m going to take a little rest. My sister has tickets for us tonight to the all-male revue, and I want to make sure I’m wide awake for that.”

She leaned back then and closed her eyes. I would’ve done the same, but the seven shirts I was wearing made it tough for me to rest my head against the seat. Instead, I laced my fingers together on my lap and considered my seat neighbor’s advice. 

I’d thought I’d made up my mind. Now . . . I wasn’t sure about anything. Hearing myself talk about Jeremy reminded me why my gut reaction had been to tell him no. I tried to picture a future with him, getting married, having children, and growing old together. It made me feel claustrophobic, as though I was going to jump out of my own skin. 

But was I willing to give up a sure thing if the alternative was being alone?

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First Chapter Friday: Hot Off The Press

Sophie Kent loves her new job as press liaison for Kyra Duncan, fiancee of Britain’s Prince Nicholas. But there’s one downside, and it comes in the form of a very sexy, very annoying American reporter named Garrett Smith.

He’s determined to make life more difficult, and so far, he’s succeeding. But these two just might discover their chemistry is stronger than their combat.

Read the first chapter here!

“Kyra! Hey, Kyra! Look here, love!”

“One picture, Kyra! Give us a smile!”

“Kyra, any wedding details?” 

“Kyra, does Her Majesty approve of you shacking up and living in sin with her grandson?”

In front of me, with her chin high and a vague smile pasted on her face, Kyra Duncan waded through the crush of journalists and photographers as we pushed our way from the car to the door of her office building. She was doing fine, ignoring all the yells and questions, until that last one zinged in. Even then, her steps stuttered just a little bit—and maybe I was the only one who noticed, because I was watching so carefully.

She kept going, though, walking up the three cement stairs to the door and pausing as the lobby security guard opened it for her. Within seconds, she had disappeared behind the tinted glass. 

I continued behind her, sweeping my gaze from left to right as I registered who was here from the press as part of the Kyra contingent. I tried to maintain a general idea of which papers and media outlets were covering her so I could follow what they wrote. Today, I recognized everyone in the crowd . . . but only one made my stomach clench with irritation and nerves. 

He was at the front of the pack—of course, he would be—and he was impossible to miss. He stood a head above the other reporters, but even if he’d been shorter, it wasn’t hard to see that he was different; his dark hair was long, brushing the tops of his shoulders, and above the collar of his jacket peeped the top edges of several colorful tattoos on his neck. His face, I thought to myself, wouldn’t be half bad if it wasn’t for the expression of arrogance it carried. 

Garrett Smith had shown up about two months ago, right around the time I was named to my current position of press liaison to Kyra Duncan, fiancée of Prince Nicholas. At first, I hadn’t known who he was; I’d spent the first five weeks buried deep in the Kensington Palace offices, learning all the ins and outs of navigating the press as an official member of the Royal Family’s staff. There were so many rules, so much I had to absorb, that I barely paid attention to anything in the outside world. 

But even there, the infamous Garrett Smith somehow managed to intrude. I’d been sitting at a table one day, studying old press releases and announcements from the Palace with several of the more experienced members of the staff, when Aline Perkins had sailed in, a scowl on her pretty, perfectly made-up face. 

“The nerve of this man. I mean . . . really, the nerve.” She threw her hands in the air and rolled her eyes. I’d never seen this woman, who was second-in-charge of the press office here at Kensington Palace, as anything but calm and collected. Something drastic—or someone extreme— had to have rattled her. 

“Who is it, Aline?” Jessica leaned forward, her eyes displaying the same curiosity as I felt. 

“That awful man. That Garrett Smith.” She spit out his name as though it tasted foul on her tongue. 

“Ugh.” Jessica shook her head. “Him again? What’s he done now? What horrid story has he written this time?” 

“It’s not what he’s written—although there was a piece in a tabloid rag today with his byline. In it, he speculated that Ms. Duncan forced the prince into an engagement through her grandparents’ business connections.” 

I couldn’t help a snort of derisive laughter at that. “Prince Nicholas is crazy about Kyra! How could anyone think otherwise?” 

Aline spared me just a passing glance, but still, I was well aware that I’d broken a couple of protocols. We did not speculate or comment on the lives of the Family, nor did we refer to them by anything other than their correct titles. Even though Kyra insisted that I call her by her first name, I knew well enough to stick to Ms. Duncan when I was in the office. 

“But those sorts of stories are to be expected. We see them every week. What else did he do to upset you, Aline?” Jessica tilted her head expectantly. 

“He’s requesting an interview with Ms. Duncan. A personal, one-on-one interview.” Her tone was incredulous. “He made some overblown claims about the need to offer a balanced view, that it would only be right to have the American press represented and able to ask her questions that apparently only an American reporter could produce.”

“He’s got to be joking.” Jessica shook her head, and around the table where we all sat, there rose a murmur of agreement. After all, even I knew better than that. Interviews with any member of the Family were granted sparingly, usually on special occasions such as landmark wedding anniversaries, engagement announcements and certain state occasions, and even then, those interviews were given to carefully vetted journalists, usually those who had been long-time supporters of the Royal Family. An American freelance paparazzi had no chance of winning one of those coveted spots. 

“I would have thought so, but he’s persistent. He won’t stop submitting requests and calling my office.” She lifted her nose as though she’d scented something unpleasant. “He’s a pest.” 

That day was far from the last time I heard Garrett Smith’s name—and it was always in that same tone of voice. And then once I actually began my job . . . I met him, and I realized why Aline, Jessica and everyone else in the press office felt the way they did.

Now, as I made my way through the dispersing crowd of reporters and photographers who knew that their quarry would likely stay in her office for the rest of the day, I made a deliberate effort not to look at Garrett Smith. I didn’t want to give him any opening to begin lobbing questions at me. 

“Hello, Sophie, how’s it going on the other side?” Bob Cruise, a reporter I’d known when I was still a staff member at The Lloyd Post, smiled at me. He was one of the friendlier members of the self-dubbed Kyra Corps, the mass of news people who dogged my new boss’s steps from dawn until dusk—and often, beyond. 

“Can’t complain, Bob.” I nodded at him, careful to be friendly but not too familiar. That had been one of the lessons drummed into my head during my crash course at the palace press office: I had to remember who I was now, and even more importantly, for whom I worked. Aline hadn’t made a secret of the fact that the power brokers inside the palace didn’t like to hire from within the ranks of journalists. They’d only grudgingly given into Kyra’s stubborn demand that if she had to have a press liaison, only I would do.

“Lucky you, not having to tromp around in the weather anymore.” Bob cast a sideways glance at the black car that waited at the curb. “Stepping up in the world, I see.”

I bit down on the corner of my lip, swallowing the need to jump to my own defense. I might have had just a little bit of a guilt complex about the perks of my new position. 

“Always good to see you, Bob.” I flashed him a quick smile that I hoped looked genuine. “Stay warm and dry.”

He chuckled, and I headed for the door again, studiously ignoring the fact that Garrett Smith was still lingering just at the top of the short set of steps, about two feet away from my destination.

“Sophie Kent.” He didn’t yell my name the way he did Kyra’s; instead, he said it in a leveled, moderated tone. 

I risked a quick glance at him, more of an automatic response to hearing my name than anything else. But when my eyes met his, I was startled to see the interest in those piercing crystal blues. It wasn’t the calculating, crafty expression I’d expected. Instead, he seemed almost . . . friendly.

Flustered, I gave a brief nod, not willing to say anything that could be considered an invitation to a conversation. 

“Former staff reporter for The Lloyd Post. Worked the social circuit for a few years, reported on weddings and parties for the most part. Covered the royals here and there. Was just breaking into real news when Kyra Duncan burst onto the scene, and then you were assigned to report on her romance with the prince. You spent months two years ago following Kyra around Maine and Florida. When he dumped her in the fall, you wrote an impassioned piece, talking up Kyra and basically calling the prince a fool.”

I paused with my fingers wrapped around the handle of the glass door, frozen, listening to him recite my curriculum vitae, as if it were somehow news to me.

“And then, once the happy couple hooked up again and made it official this time, Kyra hired you to be her press rep. From what I hear, she actually battled to have you on her staff.” He shifted from one foot to the other. “Now, here you are, trailing behind her every day while the rest of us grub around to get a decent picture or a genuine quote. Must be nice.”

Irritation flared, making my heartbeat stutter. “Mr. Smith, was there a question buried in there somewhere, or was that recitation of my recent past meant to make some sort of point?”

He laughed, softly. “Neither one. I was only trying to get your attention.” 

I felt my face go red. “Why?”

“Maybe just to see if I could. Now that I did, how about considering my request for an interview with Kyra?”

I heaved a huge sigh and rolled my eyes. “There it is. I knew it was coming. Mr. Smith, all requests for interviews with members of the Royal Family go through the press office. I believe you’re well aware of that.” 

“Yes, I’ve heard that line before. Once or twice, I guess.” He winked at me. The shameless idiot winked at me, like we were some kind of old friends. “But the weird thing is, even though I submit the requests every week and go through the so-called proper channels, I never hear a word back. I figured maybe if I went directly to the source, you could set me up. Make it happen. Cut through the red tape.” He smiled then, his full and generous mouth stretching into a wide, winsome grin. “Help out a fellow stringer.”

“Mr. Smith.” I gritted my teeth in an effort to keep my voice even. “You’re wasting your breath. Even if I were inclined to help you—and I assure you, that’s a big if—I don’t have the amount of influence you seem to think I do. I’ve just begun this job, and I’m the lowest of the low at the press office.” Not to mention that my loyalty was still in question, in the opinion of many of the higher-ups—but that wasn’t something I cared to divulge to Garrett Smith. 

“That’s why now’s the time to strike. Step out and make this job your own. You have Kyra’s ear. Tell her about my request. I’m open to laying down guidelines or topics that are off-limits. I just want to nail the first interview.”

I quirked an eyebrow his way. “Too late. Both Ms. Duncan and the prince were interviewed on the occasion of their engagement announcement.” 

Garrett waved his hand. “That doesn’t count. Everyone knows that’s just the palace’s chosen reporter asking exactly what the suits tell him.” 

The wind had begun to whip up, and a chilling gust swept through the street, making me shiver. My fingers on the door handle were beginning to go numb. 

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Smith—”

“Garrett.” He stepped slightly closer. “My name’s Garrett.” 

I ignored that. “—but I’m not willing to jeopardize my own job so that you can have bragging privileges to Ms. Duncan’s first solo interview. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

“Have a drink with me.” 

I’d begun to open the door, but in my surprise, I let it go. “Excuse me?”

“C’mon, you heard me. Have a drink with me.” 

I blinked, incredulous. “It’s barely past nine in the morning.” 

He laughed, throwing back his head, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and I got a better look at those intriguing tattoos. They were colorful, and I was suddenly insanely curious about what they looked like in full. 

“I didn’t mean now, sweetheart. I meant later. After work. Come around to the bar, and we’ll chat. I’ll buy you a beer. Or do you only drink fine wine, now that you’re part of the establishment?” He cocked his head, and in his gaze, I read challenge.

“That’s none of your business, and thank you, but no. I’m not interested in a drink. And I have to get inside now.” I grabbed the door again and pulled, and this time, when he called after me, I just kept walking.

* * *

“All right, lay it on me. What did I do wrong?” 

Kyra’s office at the London headquarters of Honey Bee Juices was smaller than one might expect, given that she was, for all intents and purposes, running an entire division within the company. But I’d come to realize early on in my tenure with Kyra that the Duncans as a whole tended to be unassuming people. Her grandparents, whom I’d met soon after I’d been hired, were a gentle, loving couple who laughed easily. They were given to grand gestures of generosity, and I’d seen that same trait in their granddaughter. 

She sat behind her desk now, her elbows resting on the blotter as she steepled her fingers and peered at me, waiting for my response to her question.

I settled myself more comfortably in my chair. “I think you did very well today, overall. You kept your head up this time, and you weren’t thrown one bit by all of the questions thrown at you.” 

Kyra sighed. “But . . .”

“No but.” I smiled. “As far as I can tell, you’ve made loads of progress. Once the pictures hit the internet, I can let you know if there’s anything we need to address there.” I paused. “Even when that horrid Garrett Smith called out, you barely reacted at all.”

“But I did react. I just—he seems to be able to figure out the most unexpected question and then throw it at me.” 

“He’s insufferable.” I sniffed. “I can’t stand him.” 

“Wellllll . . .” Kyra drew out the word. “I mean, he’s just doing his job, I guess. And he might be a little rough around the edges, but there’s no denying the dude is seriously hot.” 

I wrinkled my nose. “Do you think so? Really?” Under the cover of the desk, my leg jiggled just a little. 

“He’s not my type,” Kyra hastened to assure me. “I’m more into shorter hair and that good guy vibe—with just a hint of bad boy thrown in for good measure. But you have to admit that from a purely objective point of view, Garrett Smith is sexy.”

“Hmmm.” I was noncommittal and hoped Kyra didn’t notice.

“I think it’s his size. And his hair. And the muscles on top of muscles. And the tattoos—don’t they make your mind wander? Like, to really interesting places, like . . . how far do those tats go? And what are they, exactly? Don’t those things just pique your curiosity?” 

I coughed. “Not at all. Not one bit. He’s a crude, pushy . . .” I couldn’t think of a word to fit what I needed to say. “. . . reporter.” 

“Oh, really?” Kyra regarded me with narrowed eyes. “You know, Sophie, Garrett’s not my type, but that doesn’t mean he’s not someone else’s type.”

“I suppose so. My gran used to say there’s a lid for every pot.” I refused to be drawn into Kyra’s teasing. “And on that note, you have work to do, I’m sure. I’ll take a look at the photos as soon as they go up, and then we can review them when you arrive home.” 

“Oh, joy. I just love looking at pictures of myself and figuring out how to make sure I don’t look like a moron when I’m walking from the car to my office.” Kyra made a face. “I’m having trouble mastering the vague smile. It just eludes me.” 

“Practice makes perfect.” I stood up. “The more you do it, the easier it will become—until you’re smiling vaguely without even thinking about it.” 

Kyra snorted, a most un-princess-like sound. “That doesn’t really sound like a life goal I want to have.”

Laughing, I executed a perfect queenly wave as I paused in the doorway.

“Welcome to the royal life, Ms. Duncan.”

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The Prayer Book

You might know that my dear friend Olivia Hardin and I have worked together on several projects over the years. We’ve done boxsets, anthologies, promotions, parties . . . but one that is dearest to our hearts is related to our shared faith journey.

A few years ago, we released The Faith Book, a collection of essays on our spiritual journey. This Sunday, just in time for Easter, we’re releasing the follow-up: The Prayer Book.

 

“Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.”

These simple yet poignant words from Saint Teresa of Avila beautifully describe the prayer journey Tawdra and Olivia share in their second collection of essays about spirituality.
Best friends for many years despite over a thousand miles between them, their abiding friendship and devotion to one another were cemented by their shared journeys of faith.
In The Prayer Book, Tawdra and Olivia explore the act of prayer and their personal growth in relationship with their Lord. In each chapter, they discuss the revelations, miracles, and blessings of Christ in their lives as they continue to turn their eyes upwards to Him.

We’re also co-writing a daily devotional that begins on Easter Sunday and runs through Pentecost.

You can access that on Kindle Vella, right here. 

Get Your Copy of The Prayer Book here!

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AND don’t miss The Faith Book

discounted to 99 cents for a limited time!

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First Chapter Friday: The Anti-Cinderella Conquers the World

The royal wedding was only the beginning of my happy ending . . .

I’m now a full-fledged member of the royal family. That means all my problems are over, doesn’t it?

Apparently not.

Even though I’m now a princess-by-marriage and a duchess-by-title, I’m still the same Kyra who’s prone to putting her sneaker-clad foot into her mouth.

It’s a good thing Nicky loves me. Our work is thriving and our marriage is strong. Together, we can tackle any challenge. But it’s not until our peaceful existence is threatened that I realize how precious it is.

And they lived happily ever after . . . right?

 

Read the First Chapter Here!

There was a soft click, rousing me from the deep slumber of an afternoon nap. I stirred in the soft sheets and reached blindly toward the spot where my husband should have been lying next to me. 

It was empty, and my eyes still closed, I frowned. 

“Nicky?” I murmured. “Are you all right”

His hand brushed over my hair. “How could I be anything else?” The mattress dipped as he slid under the covers with me. “I’m here in this paradise with the most beautiful, fascinating, sexiest woman in the world, who just happens to be my wife. There’s nothing in the universe that could make me anything less than perfectly blissful.” 

Still more than half asleep, I smiled. “Prove it.”

Nicky chuckled softly. “Again?”

“Always.” I rolled toward him, opening my arms and snuggling against his solid strength. “Love me, Nicky.” 

He bent his head to kiss me. “Forever.”

* * *

“Do we really have to go back?” I trailed my toes along the rushing surf, one hand still clinging to Nicky’s as we meandered along the shore. “I mean . . . would anyone miss us? Between the two of us, I think we’d have enough money to hide away here for a couple of years, at least.”

“As if you’re remotely cut out for a life of hedonistic pleasure,” Nicky snorted. “In moderation, you handle it quite well. But if we stayed here forever, within a week, you’d have the locals organizing gardens and farm co-ops, and then you’d set up some experimental fields, just to test the regional produce markets.” 

I narrowed my eyes. “I think I could very easily get used to being a lady of leisure, thanks very much. Don’t forget, I’m not Kyra Duncan anymore. Now I’m Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Kendal. I could do all kinds of shit I couldn’t before.” 

My husband began to laugh. “All right, then, Your Royal Highness. Let’s stay here for another two weeks and see how it goes.” There was a note in his voice that dared me to call his bluff. 

“Fine. Two weeks will be amazing. I’ll work on my tan, and I’ll read another of those mysteries I’m enjoying so much, and—oh! I almost forgot. I have the company-wide meeting five days after we’re due to be back in London. And there’s the kickoff for the new gardens in Tottenham—the St. Joseph of Cupertino fields are opening early next month.” 

Nicky’s grin stretched over his face. “Uh-huh. And this was the woman who thought she could live the idle life here indefinitely?” 

I shot him a withering glare. “That was a mean trick.” Swinging my foot, I sent a little bit of sand in his direction, spraying his legs with the fine white powder. “You know I meant it more as in the spirit of our honeymoon. I know we can’t stay here for the rest of our lives. You, for one, would be letting down the family, and I’d never be responsible for that. Second, I’d feel horrible about not stepping up to do my duty as Her Majesty has asked.”

“And that’s why you’re the perfect wife.” Nicky spun me until I had no choice but to fall against his chest. “Because you can dream about running away, but you’d never actually do it.” 

“Probably not,” I decided. “I’m not tremendously excited about going back and having to deal with the Palace people and the reporters when we’re in England, but I know it’s my life now, and I’m very okay with that. As long as I’m with you, I can handle anything.”

“That’s good because you’re not going anywhere.” He pressed a hard kiss to the top of my head. “I’ve gotten too accustomed to having you at my beck and call.” 

“I’ll always be your beck and call girl.” I snuggled against Nicky’s chest. “And meanwhile, we have another week here. I plan to take full advantage of every opportunity for—what did you call it? Hedonistic pleasures.” Pressing my breasts into the hard planes of his body, I looped my arms around his neck. “You know, like making out in the surf with my husband . . . or laying in the water, kissing passionately like they did in South Pacific.” 

We’d enjoyed a screening of the classic film a few nights before, and the love scenes had made an impression on me. 

“Hey, when I suggested that sort of thing, you told me that—uh, ‘beach lovin’ was out of the question. You said that the risk of sand in sensitive spots would make it—I believe you referred to it as ‘unpleasant.’” He smirked, remembering. 

“That’s true, I did. And then you said we could have the best of both worlds if we made love on the lounge chair, but you got so involved in demonstrating what we might do out there that we never actually made it to the beach itself.” 

“We didn’t, did we?” Nicky rubbed one gentle hand down my back until his fingers teased the edge of my bathing suit bottoms. “Then maybe we need to test out my theory. There’s a lounge chair in the secluded part of the beach, you know. The section where no one’s allowed to go except the two of us.” 

Desire buzzed through my veins and pulsed in some very specific places—namely, between my legs. “I might know the spot you’re talking about.” 

His fingers dipped lower to pinch my bottom. “Race you there. If you get to the chair before me, you get the first orgasm.” 

I frowned. “That’s not fair. Your legs are longer than mine, and you’re a faster runner.” 

“I’ll give you a head start, darling.” His voice was deep with want. “Believe me, I have a vested interest in letting you win.” 

“But maybe I don’t want you to let me win.” I pretended to sulk for a moment, just long enough to disentangle myself from his arms. Once I was free of his embrace, I took off, racing at top speed toward the cottage that had been our hideaway and love shack for the past three weeks, sending sand flying in my wake.

“You little vixen!” I heard Nicky’s laugh-filled accusation behind me, but I didn’t stop running. It was marvelous, this freedom to be myself, to be crazy and wild and stupid in love with the man I’d just married. 

And when that man caught me and swung me up into his arms, I knew that I’d never been happier in all of my life. 

Wasn’t that the point of the fairy tale? We were living happily ever after, and nothing in the world would ever change that.

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First Chapter Friday: The Anti-Cinderella Takes London

Falling in love with a prince wasn’t something I planned . . .

When I reconnected with the first guy I ever kissed, I never dreamed I’d end up moving to England to be closer to him. But Nicky and I are in love, and living together was the next logical step.

If I thought dating royalty was a tough gig when I was living in the USA, I’m learning that it’s even more challenging now that I’m in London. Every move I make, every word I say, is under the microscope. Becoming part of Nicky’s family while staying true to who I am isn’t easy.

Nicky makes everything worthwhile. The hours when we’re alone together are paradise. And if the press and the pressure are the price I have to pay for him . . . I’ll choose Nicky, every single time.

After all, London’s just another town. Right?

*****

Read the first chapter here!

“Heading home, Kyra?” Serena Kessel turned a bright smile toward me as I passed her desk. Although it was only mid-afternoon, I was on my way out of the brand-new London offices of Honey Bee Juices.

“Actually, I am. I know it’s early, but I’ve found that it’s—ah, easier to avoid—well, it’s better if I vary the time of day that I come and go.” I hated being so vague, but I’d learned the hard way that discretion was the better part of valor—or wisdom, in this case. Being my normal chatty self could potentially put an innocent person into a bad position if she was cornered by the press.

“Of all people, Kyra, you certainly don’t need to explain to anyone why you’re leaving before five. No one would ever question you.” Serena didn’t sound anything but respectful and cheery, but her words struck a nerve. 

“Do you mean because my grandparents own the company? Is that why it’s okay for me to cut out early? Or is it because of who I’m . . .” I stopped abruptly. I heard the almost-shrill tone in my own voice, and I hated it. “Serena, I’m sorry. I know you didn’t—well. I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.” 

“I understand.” The woman was completely unflappable. Here I’d just insulted her, and she didn’t even lose her smile. “I only meant that you work so hard and put in so much more time than the rest of us that no one doubts your dedication.” 

“Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.” I was certain my cheeks were red with embarrassment. “That’s very kind of you.” 

“Not at all.” Serena inclined her head. “Have a lovely weekend. I’ll see you Monday?” It was more of a question than a statement. 

“Yes, of course.” I hiked the strap of my handbag more firmly onto my shoulder. “See you then.” 

My heels clicked on the gleaming tile floors as I walked out of the suite of our offices and down the hallway to the elevator. I passed a few people, some of whom greeted me with a nod and smile, and others of whom glanced at me with open curiosity. I worked hard to keep a blank but pleasant expression on my face.  The hardest thing, I was finding, was not reacting to anything or anyone around me. I thought I’d perfected that ability back in Maine, when the press had first begun following me, but it turned out to be much more challenging here in London. 

The elevator was blessedly empty, and I sagged against the wall, closing my eyes with a long sigh. But once the doors slid open, I was alert and ready again. 

“Heading out, Ms. Duncan?” Alfred, our tall and elegant doorman, smiled at me. “Anything I can do for you?” 

Alfred asked me the same question each day as I left, as if he might be able to suddenly wave a magic wand and make all of the reporters and photographers waiting for me beyond the frosted glass doors disappear. I only wished he could. 

“Thanks, Alfred. I’ll be fine.” I paused to offer him a genuine smile. “I hope you have a nice weekend.”

“You too, Ms. Duncan.” He paused. “Keep your chin up, if you don’t mind me saying it. Everyone here thinks the world of you.” 

“Thank you.” I wished I could say something more—I could tell that Alfred, like so many of the people with whom I worked, hoped that I might relax and share a little with him. But I liked him too much to put the dear man into that position. 

So I simply gave him a wave and another smile before I braced myself for the onslaught and pushed open the door. 

The late-afternoon sun in London in November was anemic at best, but it was shining directly into my eyes, making me blink madly. And it was then the clicking began.

“Kyra! Kyra! Look here. Kyra!”

“Are you joining Prince Nicholas in Africa this weekend? A little pre-engagement honeymoon?”

“Has the Queen given her approval? Have you met Her Majesty, Kyra?” 

“Give us a smile, love! One good picture, Kyra!”

They all shouted at once, and the flashes went off, and they crowded around me. The same panic I felt every single time this happened roared to life, making me long to push them out of my way and run. Run far away and escape from their relentless questions, particularly when they were asking about matters that were tender spots just now. 

My car was parked just a few yards down the block, and with as much purpose as I could manage, I waded through the hoard of press, my lips pressed together and my jaw clenched. I didn’t make eye-contact with any of them, and I tried not to react when they shouted out my name . . . over and over again.

Once I was finally safe in the driver’s seat, I wasted no time before I started the engine and carefully eased away from the curb. I’d learned my lesson during my first week at Honey Bee London, when, in an effort to make a fast getaway, I’d peeled out without looking over my shoulder and nearly side-swiped a passing car. That had made the newspaper and the internet rounds, with the less-charitable publications christening me ‘Krashpad Kyra’. 

Today I managed to get into my lane without any issue. By now, I could make the drive from my office to Kensington Palace with my eyes closed, and it didn’t take long before I was pulling in through the gates at a special residents-only entrance, restricted from public view. The guard waved to me, and I waved back with a quick grin. 

I always experienced an odd mix of feelings when I was back here at the Palace. There was relief, of course, because this was one place where I didn’t have to worry about photographers or reporters, provided I stuck to the more secluded sections of the grounds. But at the same time, I felt a pang of sadness, a sense of being stifled, because in all of the small island nation, this was the only place where I could relax. It felt rather like living in a zoo, I thought as I made my way slowly to the cottage that Nicky and I shared. A beautiful, historic zoo with tons of security and lots of benefits—but a zoo, nonetheless.

Since it was Friday, there weren’t many people around the palace grounds. Most of the residents had decamped for the country either yesterday or earlier in the day; Nicky’s cousins, all of whom were ahead of him in the line of succession, owned estates outside of London, where they could indulge in fun things like hunting and riding horses. One of his sisters lived here with her husband, but they too were away now, representing the Queen on a trip to Spain. 

I let myself into the cottage and glanced around. We didn’t have a housekeeping staff, although Nicky had had a weekly housekeeper before I’d moved in, and she still came by to dust and sweep every Friday morning. But I knew that with Nicky in Africa, I could stay here in the cottage all weekend and never see another soul. 

I wasn’t sure if that idea was appealing or appalling. 

But first things first. I glanced at the clock on the wall and gave a happy little hum as I kicked off my heels and settled onto the plush loveseat, retrieving my laptop from the leather bag I’d been carrying. It was just after four here, which meant that in New Mexico, it was . . . I frowned, doing the mental math. Eight in the morning. The perfect time to call a friend. 

Within moments, I had the FaceTime app open and was waiting expectantly as the line buzzed. It stopped abruptly, and the screen was suddenly with the sleepy face of my best friend, Shelby.

“Hey,” she croaked. “If it isn’t my favorite princess-to-be.” 

A wave of unease slid over me. “Don’t say that. Someone might hear you and think there really are plans in the works.” I paused. “As of right now, I’m still just the girl living at Kensington Palace with Prince Nicholas. His shack-up lady. The cow who’s giving him the milk for free.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Shelby cleared her throat and rolled her eyes at the same time. The woman had talent. “First of all, you know you’re more than just a fling for Nicky. You’re living with him because you both decided you didn’t want to have an ocean between you—and if I remember correctly, darling friend, you’re the one who told Nicky you didn’t want to rush into anything official since you’d never lived in the same time zone. Second, what’s this business about the cow giving away the milk? Are we living in 1955? You aren’t giving anything away—you’re having loads of hot and heavy consensual sex with the man you love.”

“I know you’re right.” I dropped my head to the back cushion of the couch. “It’s just been a long day. A long week, actually. And all of those things I just said are shouted at me daily by the reporters who follow me around. So it’s hard not to internalize some of them.”

“Hmmmm.” Shelby shifted her phone slightly, and I could see that she was still in bed. 

“Hey, shouldn’t you be getting ready for work?” After we’d finished our graduate program in Maine, Shelby had received and accepted an offer for an internship at a center for experimental farming in New Mexico. It was quite an honor, since each year, hundreds of applicants vied for those positions. 

“Nah, I don’t go in until noon today. I worked a late shift last night.” A shadow passed over her eyes, and I wondered if everything was as great as she’d been claiming. Before I could ask, she spoke again. “So you’re just finishing your workday, right? What do you and Prince Charming have planned for this weekend?”

I blew out a long sigh. “Nicky’s in Africa at a conference for No Hungry Child. He won’t be back until Tuesday.”

“And you didn’t go with him? Why not?”

“Because he’s there in an official capacity.” I lifted one shoulder. “I can only travel with him when we’re going someplace for leisure. Like a vacation or a holiday trip. Because as I’ve been reminded more than once, I don’t have any official standing now.”

“That’s bullshit. You’re the prince’s girlfriend. Can’t he tell them he wants to take you with him?” Shelby was bristling, ready to jump to my defense as always. 

“No. I mean, he could, I guess, but it wouldn’t make any difference. There are ways of doing things in this family, and they don’t change on a dime. We’re talking centuries of tradition.” I hesitated. “It’s not easy, though, for either of us. I spend a lot of time here at the cottage by myself.”

“That sucks.” Shelby was still indignant, tradition be damned. “What about Nicky’s sisters? His family? Can’t you do things with them?”

It was all so complicated, a situation mired in potential pitfalls for me, and since I barely understood all the whys and wherefores, I knew it would be difficult to explain to Shelby. “If we’re invited to dinner by his parents or Alex and Jake, his sister and brother-in-law, I can go, as long it’s just a family meal. But they don’t do that very often. Everyone’s busy with their own lives and commitments. And if it’s the larger family, with the Queen and all the aunts and uncles and cousins—then I’m not included. I can’t go with Nicky if he’s going to a party or a movie premiere or a charity benefit if he’s there in his official capacity.”

“But if he’s going as a board member for his charities—the hungry child one and Waste Not—those you can go to with him, right?” Shelby persisted. 

“As long as it’s deemed a quiet event, like a lunch or a tea or something at a private home. It’s just the way they do things here, Shel. I’m not mad or anything—I understand it. Only, sometimes I’m a little lonely.”

“Of course, you are.” She was quiet for a few seconds. “Have you made any friends of your own there, so you have people to hang with when Nicky’s occupied?” 

I shook my head. “No. I have a working relationship with the people at Honey Bee, but I can’t socialize with them really—not in any genuine way, because I’m constantly worried that one of them might go to the press and share something. I can’t just go to a pub and make friends, either. If I’m not here at the cottage, I’m at the Honey Bee offices. That’s my life.” To my horror, a sob caught in my throat. I backed away a little, hoping Shelby hadn’t heard it. 

But no such luck. “Kyra, that’s no way to live. You sound miserable.” Her forehead drew together. “Isn’t there anything you can do to make things better? I mean, the Royal Family can’t make you stay home alone, right? If you’re not official enough to go to public events with Nicky, then they shouldn’t have the power to force you into anything.”

“Nobody is forcing me to do anything.” I pressed my fingers to my temples, where suddenly a headache pounded. “But would you want to go sightseeing if a throng of reporters were following you everywhere? Or if you couldn’t even run to the corner shop without being recognized and having people stare and point?” I shuddered. “Trust me. Staying here is far preferable to that.”

“Oh, Ky.” Shelby bit her lip, her eyes worried. “This isn’t good.” She studied me through the camera. “When’s the next time you’re coming home for a visit?”

“Two weeks.” I was so looking forward to the trip—and dreading it at the same time. “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Florida with the entire family.” 

“Florida? Don’t the Duncans usually do Thanksgiving in Maine?” Shelby had been my best friend long enough to know our traditions. “And is Nicky coming with you?

I shook my head. “No. It’s not a holiday for him, you know, and he already had engagements for that week, so it’s just going to be me.” I swallowed over the lump of worry that had risen in my throat at the thought of leaving him behind. It was far too reminiscent of what had happened between us last year, when we’d broken up for six months. Giving myself a little shake, I went on. 

“And you’re right about Maine. Usually we do celebrate there, but this year, Honey’s been sick. She was in the hospital with pneumonia for a week in October, and the doctor advised against her traveling this winter.”

“Wait a minute—Honey was sick—in the hospital—and you didn’t tell me?” Shelby scowled at me through the camera. “Is she okay?” Shelby adored my grandparents, who were known as Handsome and Honey by both family and friends. I’d given them those names when I was a toddler, and to their delight, the nicknames had stuck. 

“From what I hear, yes, she’s going to be fine.” I crossed my legs and shifted on the cushion of the sofa. “Believe me, I wasn’t any too happy about being all the way over here when she was sick. But my dad promised he’d keep me informed. He was concerned that if I flew to Florida, the press circus might be too disrupting for the family while they were trying to take care of her.” 

“I understand.” Shelby tilted her head, sympathy in her eyes. “Not being there must’ve been killing you. But here’s some good news—if you’re going to be in Florida for Thanksgiving, I can come see you. I’m flying home for that week, too.”

I sat up straighter, giving a little squeal of delight. “Oh, my God! That’s awesome. If you can come over to the beach, we can have a girls’ night. Movies and wine and ice cream.” I paused. “Maybe not in that order.” 

Shelby laughed. “I’m in. I’m spending the first three days with Vivian and Charlie and the baby, and then I need to fit in a visit with the parentals and Aunt Gail. But by the weekend, I’m sure I’m going to be more than ready for some best friend time.” 

“Okay. It’s a date.” I’d been looking forward to going home for the holiday anyway, but now I was even more excited. 

“It definitely is.” She glanced at something off-camera and wrinkled her nose. “But right now, I need to get my ass in gear. I want to grab some breakfast before I go to work. So . . . we’ll text about the details, but otherwise, I’ll see you in two weeks.” 

“I can’t wait.” I frowned a little. “But Shel, is everything all right there? I feel like we talked about all my problems and you didn’t tell me how things are in New Mexico.” 

That same shadow passed over her eyes again. “It’s all good, Ky. Maybe slightly complicated, but—well, I love the work, and the people are mostly nice. I’m learning so much. I just wish . . .” Her voice trailed off. “We’ll talk at Thanksgiving, babe, and I promise, I’ll spill my guts then. You can give me wise counsel over wine.” 

“Okay. You know I’m here for you no matter what, right, Shelby?” I had a feeling that she was evading my questions. “Best friends trump everything, even Royal Family orders. That’s not going to change.” 

“Of course, it isn’t,” she returned. “I know that. Ciao for now, sweetie. And hang in there. Everything is going to work out for you and Nicky. I just know it.” 

I ended the call with a smile, but once I’d shut the computer, the silence of the cottage weighed on me even heavier, and the empty hours of the weekend stretched out before me. 

“Well, I guess it’s just me and Netflix once again,” I sighed, reaching for the television remote. “Another glamorous weekend in the life of Prince Nicky’s girlfriend.”

 

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