I loved chaos.
The excitement, the impending danger, the unknown of how it would end. There was something so thrilling about disorder. I’d reveled in it since the first prank I played during a state dinner when I was eight.
Which was probably why my personal bodyguard since the age of five didn’t look the least bit phased as he watched the bar fight occurring before us. Two decades of dealing with my shenanigans meant he knew when I was actually in trouble versus when I was the one who caused it.
“Amazing,” my cousin, Tristan, remarked with awe as he watched Johnny’s complete lack of response to the brawl. “He hasn’t even flinched. Tucker would have had me out the door and on my way home by now.”
To his credit, Tucker did look extremely tense in the booth beside us, only refraining from pulling the King of Astoria out the door because Johnny was so calm.
I caught Johnny’s sharp dark eyed gaze and grinned. He shook his head and I let out small laugh before turning my attention back to Tristan. “That’s because you’re a good kid. Johnny boy is used to me causing trouble.”
Sometimes I found it hard to believe that Tristan and I were related. The only physical feature we shared were our eyes – clear jade – passed down through the bloodline our mothers shared. In terms of literally everything else, we were polar opposites.
Except for the whole royalty thing of course.
Tristan’s coronation had occurred three weeks after his twenty first birthday, as dictated by Astorian law. Landsburian laws stretched the age of ascension to the throne to twenty-five, which gave me a few extra years of being a lowly crown prince, despite being the same age as Tristan. Unfortunately, three of those years have flown by and my twenty-fifth birthday was bearing down on me at an uncomfortable rate.
“You caused this fight?” Tristan asked, hiding his amusement poorly behind his half full pint glass.
I shrugged, draining the last of my beer. “I may have told one guy that the other guy was hitting on his girl behind his back.”
“Went the love triangle route, did you?”
“You know how I love those,” I said nonchalantly, winking at Juliana Bradford as she approached the table with a tray full of refills. In her ripped jeans, crop top, and combat boots, she definitely wasn’t what Astorians envisioned as a Queen Consort, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to be amazing at it.
There were a few misguided months during which I fell in love with her. It was just my luck that her heart had always belonged to Tristan. The sting of longing had diminished ages ago and now I liked to think we were friends.
She rolled her eyes as she slipped into the booth beside Tristan, immediately melting into his side when he slipped his arm around her shoulders. They’d become bolder with the public displays of affection in the year since the announcement of their engagement, which was fantastic. And heart aching for reasons I had no desire to dig into.
Pinning me with a glare, she asked, “What have you done now, Dalton?”
“It was getting a little boring in here and it’s Johnny’s last night,” I explained rationally. “I needed to provide him with some sort of entertainment.”
Johnny wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids and I couldn’t blame him. I imagined having to follow me around all day was bound to get boring at some point. Still, I’d miss his reassuring, steadying presence and the fact that he had no qualms about calling me on my bullshit.
“How generous of you,” she replied drily, the corners of her mouth tugging up slightly as she absentmindedly played with Tristan’s hair.
She was probably enjoying the hell out of the excitement. She’d worked in this bar for years and was on her way to becoming the manager. However, Astorian laws forbade the royal family from having regular jobs, which meant that when she married Tristan in two days, she’d have to say goodbye to the bar.
“I am a very generous person.”
Tristan didn’t even attempt hide his eye roll.
“Speaking of which,” I continued on, ignoring my cousin’s disrespect and focusing my attention on Jules. “When are you going to properly introduce me to your friend from the other day?”
The afternoon I’d arrived in Astoria for the beginning of the wedding festivities, I’d seen Julianna saying goodbye to a pretty redhead at the palace.
“Maria?” Julianna lifted her eyebrows in surprise. “Never.”
“Oh come on, Jules. Are you really going to deny her the chance to become the future Queen Consort of Landsbury?”
“No,” she snorted. “If anything, I’m saving her from a broken heart.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I was only slightly offended.
Jules sighed and leaned back against Tristan’s arm. “I mean, she’s a hopeless romantic. She’s gonna fall in love with you and you’re gonna get bored after a few weeks and I’m gonna be left to pick up the pieces. Let’s face it, Dalton. You don’t fall in love. You fall in lust.”
“I seem to remember a time when I was in love with you, sweetheart,” I retorted, mostly because she was right and I didn’t appreciate being called out.
I had hoped my reply would put both her and Tristan on the defensive, but much to my annoyance, neither one of them seemed at all distressed by me recalling my previous feelings for Julianna. Maybe it was because it had been four years since I agreed to fake a relationship with her or maybe it was because that very fake relationship was the kick in the ass Tristan needed to finally acknowledge that his feelings for his best friend were far more than platonic.
Either way, all the reminder served to do was make both of them more determined to tame my wild ways. They pinned with matching stares, the kind my parents always sent me before I received a very serious talking too.
I shifted uncomfortably against the squeaky vinyl seat.
“I’m only bringing this up because I know your parents will soon as well,” Tristan said slowly, “but your twenty-fifth birthday is in a few months.”
“I’m aware,” I replied, the knot in my stomach tightening as I realized where this conversation was headed.
“Once you’re coronated, the next natural question people are gonna ask is going to involve marriage.”
“I’m aware of that, too,” I sighed. “Luckily, Landsburian law does not require me to be married in order to remain king.”
“That doesn’t mean that it won’t be a topic of conversation,” Tristan reminded me.
I shrugged and changed the topic, but his words were still running through my mind when I returned to Landsbury with my family a few days later.
Shoving my hands into the pockets of my pajama pants, I whistled to myself as I made my way towards the palace kitchens for my twice monthly bonding session with my father.
The tradition had started when I was ten and my father had figured out that having lessons to prepare me to be king of Landsbury were made easier by the addition of brownies a la mode. Nearly fifteen years later, and I always looked forward to the late night snack.
The kitchens were dark when I arrived and I didn’t bother turning on the light as I headed towards the freezers with the ice cream, only to find a small figure standing in front of the open freezer door. Although it wasn’t uncommon to see children around the palace, as many members of the household staff have apartments for their families in the east wing, they weren’t usually around at night without supervision. Though, the Mrs. Jenkins, the Mistress of the Household, had mentioned there was a new crop of household staff which were hired recently, so maybe the new children hadn’t quite yet been schooled in palace rules.
Not that it offended me. In fact, I related to the need for midnight ice cream, and didn’t bother to keep the smile from my voice as I said, “Can’t find the flavor you want?”
The child startled at the sound of my voice, but regained her composure immediately as she glanced at me over her shoulder, eyes narrowed in suspicion behind a pair of glasses with purple plastic frames. “Actually, there’s just too many to choose from.”
“I have that problem sometimes, too,” I nodded, stepping to the side to flip on the kitchen lights. “Usually, I just ask myself a series of questions until I narrow it down.”
She blinked to get used to the change in lighting before tilting her head to the side, her tight black curls bouncing as her head moved. “What kind of questions?”
“Start with the basics,” I suggested. Now that I could tell her age, about eight or nine, it was easier to come up with responses. “Chocolate or no chocolate?”
“No chocolate,” she responded, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
“Okay,” I laughed. “Fruit or no fruit.”
She chewed on her lower lip, thinking for a moment before she said, “I like fruit.”
Now we were getting somewhere. I parted my lips to further help her along her decision making journey when an unfamiliar voice rang out from behind me.
“Caroline Joanna Thompson. Are you trying to eat ice cream in the middle of the night again?”
The girl, Caroline, shut the freezer door immediately and slumped her shoulders. “Yes, Mama.”
I turned to her mother to begin talking Caroline out of getting in trouble, but found myself completely tongue tied when our gazes met.
Her eyes were dark brown, but that seemed too simplistic a description. They were deep and large and warm and they pulled me in and made me feel as though I were drowning and being saved at the same time. Flashes of dark brown skin were visible beneath her baby blue dressing gown and a bright orange scarf covered her hair.
She was perfection and I was the dumbass who couldn’t string two words together.
It ended up not mattering anyway because I saw the exact moment her eyes widened with recognition and I inwardly cursed as I could guess how the remainder of this interaction would play out.
“Your Highness. I apologize for my daughter’s behavior.”
Before I could assure her that there was nothing to apologize for, Caroline said, “Your Highness? You’re the prince?”
Miraculously, I regained my ability to speak enough to respond. “That I am. But you can call me Dalton.”
Her entire expression lit with excitement. “Cool! I’ve never met a prince before!”
I laughed, enjoying the way Caroline’s excitement put me at ease. “Well, now you have. And if you stay a few minutes longer, you can meet a king as well. My father is on his way down to meet me.”
Her gaze shifted to her mother, undoubtedly to ask if they could stay, but her mother held out her hand towards Caroline and beckoned her over. “And that’s our cue to leave.”
“You really don’t have to,” I assured her, trying to think another reason she should stay that didn’t involve me telling her that I thought I might explode if I didn’t stay in her presence longer. “My father won’t mind if Caroline has some ice cream.”
“With all due respect to both you and the king,” Caroline’s mother said once Caroline was at her side, “I think I know my daughter best and the last thing she needs is to be cranky all day tomorrow because the sugar kept her up all night.”
I cleared my throat and nodded uncomfortably. “Of course, you’re right. I apologize…”
I trailed off so that she could tell me her name, praying that she would take the bait. She seemed to think about it for the longest five seconds of my life before replying, “Maia. My name is Maia. We should be going now. Goodnight, Your Highness.”
She grabbed Caroline’s hand and pulled her out of the kitchens before I had a chance to insist she call me Dalton.
Slumping against the nearest countertop, I silently cursed Julianna Bradford. Of course, the one time she was wrong was at my expense. It turned out I was capable of falling in love after all.