1. A Royal Dilemma
My mouth gaped open wider than it had ever been before, and I’ll be honest, my jaw had stretched on a number of occasions for different reasons.
But this wasn’t one of them. The image which stood in front of me had both shocked and disturbed me, equally so.
And the screeching cry which came from someone unexpected had disgusted me, yet I couldn’t look away even if I tried. As my hand flung over my mouth, I knew I had to suppress the laugh which begged to be released from my lips.
But not tonight.
A FEW HOURS EARLIER
It wasn’t your average party.
But I knew I would enjoy myself regardless because I was celebrating my best friend’s birthday.
Xavier had just turned twenty-five and begged his family for a private gathering with just his friends, and for once they listened.
Well, sort of.
Despite the event being small and private, it was quite a posh one indeed, considering where it was held. Salmon mousse on bagel pastries, crab cakes with lime and chive mayo, black-tie scallops, and my least favorite, the best and finest caviar in the world.
Of course, all of this was made possible by my mother, Cecilia; organizer extraordinaire to the rest of the world but CC to the people around her.
I had grown up in the Nine Provinces of Castitrona after my mom received a job offer too good to refuse. She and my dad apparently argued about it a little until he realized how much they offered for her services.
That changed his mind quickly, not to mention they offered him the esteemed Headmaster’s position at the private school of elites. My dad might not have had any experience in that whatsoever, but he indeed was an incredible teacher with a knack for leadership. They didn’t need a new one, but they were desperate for my mom. It was a win-win situation. Not to mention, the secure life it could have provided us all. There was absolutely no room for second thoughts.
Xavier’s parents and mine eventually became the closest of friends, and the two of us were inseparable, and still were. Though our friendship was still strong, our time spent together dwindled when he met his girlfriend, Clarence.
She was sweet. Really sweet. And we got along well.
Except, I wished she would stop playing the role of a desperate matchmaker with every available bachelor in the province.
It’s not that I didn’t want to date, hell if I found the right person, I would throw myself at him for sure.
Figuratively, of course.
“What about him over there?” Clarence smiled, pointing towards one of the guys I had only met a few times before.
Nate was cute with soft curls gracing his face, and one of the locks fell freely across his forehead. He reminded me of a modern Danny from Grease, a movie which my mom had watched with me religiously when I was a kid. I vaguely remembered him as a kid, but he moved from the Provenance to a different country, and only returned within the last few months. We’d met a couple of times, but hadn’t had the chance to get acquainted better
I shrugged my shoulders. As cute as Nate was, I wasn’t sure I was his type. He preferred blondes apparently, something Xavier had mentioned one night while we were drunk in the wine cellar.
“I doubt he’ll be into me,” I replied, confident with my answer.
“I don’t know,” Clarence smirked. “I’ve seen him look in your direction a few times. Maybe you should chat with Nate. Give him a chance.”
I thought for a moment, sneaking a glance at Nate who smiled as he spoke to Xavier’s younger brother.
It’s not like I lacked the confidence. I was quite like my mom in that regard, at least that’s what she told me on more than one occasion. But I was hesitant, only for the mere fact I knew I wasn’t his type.
And of course, there was this teensy-tiny issue of him being Royalty.
I smiled, stood, and straightened my black gown before I found the confidence to walk over and talk to Nate who immediately flung his arm around Xavier’s brother and walked away, leading him to the bar.
I swallowed my embarrassment and quickly retreated to the couch.
“Of course that would happen to me,” I said as I fell back onto the soft cushion.
As sweet as Clarence was, her laughter at my blunder only made me more horrified, and it worsened when Xavier joined in.
“Stop it, Xav.”
He wiped the stray tear from his eye, and his giggle eventually died out. “Sorry. It’s a classic Em move.” I punched him on the arm and he immediately winced in pain. “What was that for?”
Xaver’s posh accent was strong, but whenever he was mad, for some reason, it would lay on thick.
“That was for laughing at me.”
“You didn’t hit Clarence.”
My eyebrows raised, and I shook my head with a slight smirk. “You’re asking me to hit your girlfriend?”
“That’s not what I meant!”
I loved teasing Xavier. It was my favorite thing to do, though he could dish it back as well as he took it.
Clarence reached out her hand and eased Xavier’s pain by caressing him on the exact spot I had hit him. He smiled at her sweetly, then leaned in for a brief kiss of appreciation.
My chest tightened and a slight lump in my throat formed.
I wanted what they had, but the doubt in my heart that I would find love as such only strengthened the longer they glanced at each other.
“Okay, so Nate’s out of the question.”
“What about Archie?” Clarence blurted out.
Xavier and I glanced towards each other, trying to suppress our laughter, but it was too much to hold in. Within seconds, we were bowled over, howling at the absurdity of Clarence’s suggestion.
Xavier’s younger brother. Not a chance in hell.
Not because he wasn’t attractive. Archie was actually cute. Adorable and sweet, but he was too young for me.
And I saw him as a brother. Nothing more.
Clarence tilted her head and waited for Xav and me to stop our hysterical moment. By the time we finished, I could tell the once sweet girl was slightly annoyed.
“Okay, what’s wrong with Archie.”
“Nothing,” I replied, wiping my tears. “There’s nothing wrong with Archie at all, but don’t you think he’s a little too young for me?”
“Young? What are you talking about?” Clarence asked. “He’s only two years younger than Xavier.”
“Actually, he’s five years younger than Xav,” I corrected her. “Archie is 20. Definitely too young for me.”
Clarence stretched her lips at the slight mistake she made.
Well, not so slight.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “I forgot. So Nate’s out of the question, and Archie’s out of the question. Who else is there?”
“Nate’s out of the question for what?”
My eyes closed with Nate’s voice interrupting our not so private conversation. My previously flushed cheeks only burned brighter with the idea he overheard what was said about him.
Clarence shifted her attention to Xavier’s friend. “Perfect timing,” she beamed. “We were just talking about you.”
“I gathered that, but why?”
Nate suddenly shifted his attention to me.
It was hard to focus on anything other than his ocean blue eyes and pouty lips. Or the way that loose curl sat perfectly against his forehead. And when he smiled, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before, because it was the first time I had seen him smile that way.
Nate was perfect.
And right then, I wanted to kiss him even though I knew it was wrong. Because that’s exactly what it was. Completely wrong that I wanted to kiss a guy I hardly knew and so out of my league in every sense of that manner.
So damn wrong.
Nate drew his brows together and I realized I had been unintentionally smiling at him for God knows how long without saying a word.
Great. Now I look like a female version of Joe Goldberg.
“Are you okay, Emma?” Nate asked.
God, he knows my name. Of course, he knows your name doofus.
“I’m fine,” I lied. “Completely fine.”
“Actually,” Clarence interjected. “Emma here was just talking about you.”
“You were?” Nate asked.
And that’s when my vision faded to nothingness.