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A Royal Affair: The Royals 2 by Tara Brown (1)

1

Emojis are the cave drawings of the 2000s.

A distance thing

October—Spooky time

“I told you it wouldn't work,” Linna muttered, giving me her best arched-eyebrow side-glance as she chewed on her pencil, which had become a thing since she’d quit smoking. I wanted to give her a shot back, but it was hard to defend myself holding my paper with a bad grade while she sat in front of her ancient civilizations textbook. The fact she was studying more than me should’ve shamed me more than it did. School was easy for Linna. She was naturally smart, so if she was studying, it meant I needed to do twice as much. And I wasn't even doing half . . .

But my brain was preoccupied on a level I couldn’t fathom. The ring on my finger from the boy I didn't get to see, mixed with finally understanding what saying yes to him involved, was weighing me down. “You need to spend more time studying and less pacing like a weirdo,” Linna offered as she flipped the page with a bit more zest than normal.

“Whatever,” I groaned. “No one warned me that bribing teachers was an American thing. That tidbit should’ve been part of the school introduction or something they addressed on the first day. Like, how was I supposed to know ethics and morals are more important than currency?”

“Seriously?” Jess asked.

The C+ written in bright red font staring back at me suggested my teacher hadn’t considered the latte I’d brought him after researching what kind he liked. Or that I’d complimented him on his attire three times. Or that I’d slipped him a card with a gift certificate to an expensive restaurant inside. All things that had gotten me through high school.

“Stupid Scotland.” Closing the laptop, I checked my phone. It had been two days since Aiden had texted me more than a three-word reply. He was too busy to talk. Something that had been going on for weeks. His king training was in full effect since his father was feeling a bit better after his surgery and treatment which, unfortunately for us, meant Aiden would have to learn as much as he could while his dad was still able to teach. The only positive in the whole thing was his coronation had been postponed.

In the last month, his father had gone from horribly sick to what everyone called “marginally better.” It was the answer we got whenever we asked anyone how he was. There was even talk of working toward treatment and remission. He was eating some mushroom, having tea with matcha, taking probiotics, and living his best Gwyneth Paltrow life. Everything was a no except a tiny select list of foods. He was living the “no” diet. Glancing down at my muffin top and the bag of Curly Wurlys in front of me, it would seem I should’ve been on the no diet too. But it was way too harsh for me.

Some eyebrows had risen when Aiden first mentioned nearly starving his dad, but when he began to get better, maybe enough to remain king, I was all for it. If he needed an organ, he could have one of mine. Anything to keep him alive and in charge.

Not that it changed Aiden home schooling in Andorra while I attended St Andrews without him. Which had never been the plan. None of this had been the plan.

But that wasn't changing, no matter how healed his dad got. And I had no right to complain. I wanted to, but I held my tongue as much as I could and played the part of supportive girlfriend, a role that couldn't have been more foreign to me.

Aiden’s life wasn't going the way he wanted either. The death of his brother meant he was heir to the throne, pretty much guaranteeing he would be busy for the rest of his life. Something I didn't want to reflect on. But my brain was against me so it wasn't going well. His absence made it hard to ride out the rush of feelings I’d had when he proposed, which we were still keeping secret. But two months apart made me question how I felt about being with someone whose entire life was already planned. The more time we spent apart, the bigger that question became in my mind.

“You need a tutor,” Jess said as she stared at my computer, interrupting my thoughts.

“Oh my God.” I brushed her comment off. “It’s only first semester, I’ll be fi—”

“Don't say fine,” Jess snapped, closing her own text and sitting up. “You won’t be fine. You’ll fail and Aiden will be upset. You know everyone is watching you. Do you really want that in the papers? Future queen can’t even make it past first year history? Future queen cheated on tests and bribed teachers?”

I had so many responses, old-Finley responses I wasn't allowed to say anymore. So I said nothing. I flared my nostrils, imagining for just a second, saying things not on my list of approved words.

“And stop flaring your nostrils at me while you think about all the shitty things you aren’t allowed to say. You’re as bad as your dad.” Jess rolled her eyes, reading my mind. “I’ll find you a tutor. Then you’ll be fine.”

“Why can’t you just tutor me?”

Linna snorted as if something was funny.

Jess grinned as she spoke, “Because you’ll act like a dick the minute I don't do things your way or the work gets hard or because it’s Tuesday and you’re feeling sassy. You save your drama for those closest to you. A tutor who’s a stranger, who might sell you out to the tabloids, will ensure good behavior and actual effort.”

“And that right there is called the cold hard truth.” Linna nodded and closed her text. “But enough about schoolwork. We have a party to get ready for. You guys didn't forget, right?”

“Of course not, it’s Halloween, duh. And I’m not a dick,” I grumbled, still stuck on Jess’ comment.

“Yes, you are, Fin. You’re a huge dick.” Linna got up from the floral armchair across from me and grabbed my hand to pull me up. “But you’re our huge dick.”

“No.” Jess wrinkled her nose.

“Gross.” I laughed, certain I was rocking Jess’ same horrified expression.

“Oh my God, you know what I mean.” Linna nudged me.

“No and I don't even want to know.” Jess shuddered. “I’m gonna go get ready. Because I did forget about the party and now I think I have an anxiety stomachache.” She walked through the door of our small common area. Jess hadn’t changed, or rather college hadn’t changed her. She still didn't want to party. She didn't like crowds. And she wasn't interested in guys. Except the one guy who she was secretly dating.

“But I thought we could get ready together?” Linna scowled, she hadn’t changed either. She was as guy crazy as ever. “I want to do your makeup,” she shouted after Jess.

“Fine.” Jess popped her head back around the corner. “But I just need to—”

“FaceTime Johan,” I said before she could, showing how predictable she’d become. “Whatever, ditch us for your creepy sexting session.”

“You have fifteen minutes before I storm the door and accidentally catch a glimpse of Johan,” Linna threatened lightly, but it was real, joking or not. She still spoke of him like he was a piece of meat, mostly to drive Jess nuts. It worked.

“You need help.” Jess’ cheeks went crimson.

“I embrace my crazy, Jess. You should try it.” Linna gave an evil-queen cackle. “You showering first?” she asked me as Jess left us.

“Yeah—no.” I changed my mind. “I should see if I can get ahold of Aiden, so he isn’t calling me mid party. He gets weird when I’m out while he’s stuck at the house with his parents and siblings.” Aiden had always been a little jealous. He’d disliked the attention Carter and Aaron gave me, but it was nothing compared to his feelings about me having fun with groups of guys here. It was obvious he tried to keep it under wraps but every now and then, something slipped out. Something zesty. And for whatever reason, probably all the petty, shitty ones, I enjoyed that little glimpse into his crazy. Maybe because he always came across as so perfect, and this proved he wasn’t. A fact I reveled in.

Although, honestly, if I were in his shoes, bored AF in Andorra with his dad sick, his mom up my ass, and his siblings my only company, I would’ve hated being there.

There was no way to deny it, college in Scotland was amazing. And the worst part was, he’d already been to college abroad, so he knew what he was missing.

Aiden was a passionate person who loved life, food, and traveling and meeting new people. He traveled like a local, getting invited back to houses and told old stories about families and the history of a place. That was his jam. Or rather had been. And while I’d found that part of him scary, I also found it incredibly attractive. I would miss it if his new role in life stifled that aspect of him.

While he wasn't able to be here, he did want me to have fun and do things, even if it made him jealous. The actual instructions from Aiden hadn’t come yet. He hadn’t sent me on a single trip and the ghosts of Christmas past weren’t mentioned again; he was busy.

But as per his advice, though he likely regretted saying it, every weekend we tried to do something new. Went somewhere and had fun. We’d partied at clubs in Glasgow, pubs in Edinburgh, and everywhere we could in St Andrews. Each time I’d had more fun than the last place. Even with the bodyguards in tow.

And I hardly had to try to keep it in my pants here as far as partying went. We never got too drunk or crazy. The people weren’t like us Americans. They didn't get high or drink to the point of puking, not as often anyway. They had a few pints in a pub and watched a lot of sports and talked about sports, and I suspected they dreamt about sports. Sometimes they talked about politics and news and made fun of other countries or each other, but not in a way I’d consider rude, just different. No one was off limits or safe, and yet no one was discriminated against either. They were sort of shitty and judgmental about everyone and everything. And everything was a laugh. Having a laugh. He’s a laugh. She’s a laugh. That place is a laugh. Let’s have a laugh.

And to make things even better, they loved club music and dancing too. No matter where you went, you laughed, danced, and had a blast. Easing into enjoying myself at parties again hadn’t been bad. Nothing about being here had been bad, except missing the boy. That sucked.

But every time I thought about him, I was able to drown my sorrows in a pumpkin spice latte. Surprisingly, Starbucks offered them in Scotland. We were slower to get it, so when it didn’t arrive the same day as back home, we had a small heart attack, but it was here now. And we’d heard that the eggnog would also make an appearance closer to Christmas.

And dorm life was better than I’d expected it to be.

Our hall, St Salvator’s—Sallies—was a highlight of being here. I hadn’t appreciated the old boarding school feel to it fully until Jess made me watch the Harry Potter movies again. This time, I actually watched them instead of playing with my phone.

And she was right, they did resemble going to school here with the added magic of being in an old Gothic hall with a bunch of international students. And now that it was fully fall, or maybe it was me being a typical crazy North American girl who loved Halloween, but I could swear I’d felt the magic of Scotland in the air. Late October was cool here with old stories of witches and legends. And I wasn’t sure if they were serious or not, but everyone spoke of it as if they were superstitious. I could’ve lived without that.

They didn't decorate or celebrate Halloween for the commercial party it was for us, but instead, treated it more as the old pagan holiday.

Not that they needed to decorate. The ancient buildings, ghost stories, and creepy ruins all added to the season. And the weather was shit. Perfect fall gloom. Rainy, dark, windy, misty, and cold. It was like living in Sleepy Hollow.

I loved Scotland but the scary stuff kept me on edge.

Even the royal block where our wing was, which had been refurbished more frequently than any of the other dorms, was creepy at night in the halls with the shadows and narrow doorways. Isaac and Tracy were right next to us, protecting us from their accommodations next door, but I was creeped out regularly. At least there weren’t any clowns or circus people.

As much as I felt bodyguards at college was a whole experience I could do without, having them around wasn’t terrible. And thus far, we really hadn't needed them. Aiden and I kept our engagement secret; no one knew. Mostly because I didn’t want to explain. But also, his country needed him focused, and I was scandal waiting to happen. People in Europe said “American” the same way cats hissed at dogs. And after Aiden’s brother’s death and his father’s sickness, Andorra, being a financial haven, didn't need any more scandal.

For now, no one knew who I was, apart from a couple of old ladies, the kind who stalked the royals day and night. Of course, they’d seen some random photos of me on the internet as the gossip about us possibly dating had hit.

Fortunately, apart from those crazy stalkers, no one cared about Andorra. At least not in a negative way. Most Europeans knew where it was, but none of them had any intense stories about the place. It was a giant ski resort everyone loved. Honestly, Geoffrey dying was the biggest news to come out of Andorra in years. Bodyguards were major overkill as far as risks to me were concerned, and they drew unwanted attention.

But at least we weren’t alone in having them. A couple of other students had bodyguards. And thankfully, ours were way more incognito than Milo’s, one of the Russian students. His intimidated everyone. We’d met Milo one night in the bar and joked about making our bodyguards compete in small challenges for the title of the best bodyguard. Tracy and Isaac had laughed, but the stern-faced Russians didn’t. I wasn't sure they knew how to or if they genuinely wanted to fight.

With a smile recalling it, I strolled into my bedroom, pressing the kissy-face selfie I’d forced Aiden to take for me so I could change his profile pic to something cute.

It rang and rang, then cut to voicemail. I didn't bother leaving a message.

Instead, I sat on the edge of my bed and sighed, contemplating how long this would last. The glint of the ring, which had been the highlight of my life for five whole minutes but now sort of mocked me, caught my eye.

Eighteen and engaged.

Secretly engaged, which was technically worse.

Only Linna, Jess, his siblings, and the guards knew about it.

It made me shudder every time I thought of it.

As it was, not seeing him, barely speaking, pretending not to be engaged, and his whole family nonsense, I wondered if I’d almost prefer the whore’s ring from before. At least the pressure and expectation of everything would be gone. I lied to myself frequently, convincing myself I’d be fine with being his mistress.

I was mid doubtful internal struggle, a place I frequented, when a knock on the door interrupted.

“Come in.” I knew the knock well.

“Miss Finley, we wanted to be sure we are on the same page for the party this evening,” Isaac spoke softly, his eyes darting about the room as usual. I knew what he was searching for: other dudes. While they protected me, they didn't work for me. The part I wondered about was whether Aiden had asked them to check. That I wouldn’t like. “Make sure we have the same game plan.”

“Well, I’m going as a sexy bat and Linna is going as a sexy kitty. Jess is being forced into the sexy puppy costume, probably going to need your help with that. One of you hold her down while I paint her nose. She bites, just warning you. But if you want to get in on this, I might be able to get you a sexy nurse or a sexy—”

“You know what I mean.” He chuckled, losing the edge.

“Oh, the schematics of the area we’ll be in and what the visibility out at sea should be like.” I made fun of us all. “I’m not sure, being our first Halloween party in Scotland. But I’ll probably have a couple of drinks, dance a lot, try to avoid getting hit on, while also needing to pee more than I normally do.” I grinned. “Can you guys hang back like last time? Linna is desperate to meet dudes.”

“We can if you girls behave like you have been,” he agreed. The last two months of excellent behavior on my part had earned me a small amount of discretion and possibly respect. Maybe not respect, since he still checked my room for guys every time he came in, but more civility perhaps. Although I liked to think we were tighter than the guards were with normal royals. Being a commoner and speaking the common tongue of sarcasm won me points.

“Cool.”

“All right then.” He nodded and backed up to leave but I cut him off.

“Wait, Isaac—” I paused, not really sure how to ask this but thinking he might be the only unbiased opinion I could get. Maybe ever. “You've known Aiden a while, you know what kind of person he is. You guys are observant.”

“Of course,” he answered in the most skeptical tone I’d heard from him.

“Do you think he would have asked me to marry him if he wasn't being forced to take over?”

“Oh uh—”

“I just mean, if we were normal people, we would still be in the beginning stages of dating, right? Like the proposal is too much for how young we are after a year and a half of dating, right? I’m not alone on this one?”

“Right, uhm—” Isaac’s cheeks flushed and his eyes turned to that panicky stare they sometimes got when I overstepped, which happened frequently enough that he should’ve been used to it. “Well—I don't know—”

“Cut the shit! Answer like I was your daughter or sister.”

“You're far too young,” he blurted and paused before carefully adding the rest, “and I suspect this is a side effect of being forced to decide on a life at a young age to prove stability in a young monarchy. Prince Aiden always struck me as an impulsive young man. But never foolish. He is wise beyond his years and what might normally appear to be a rash decision was actually incredibly calculated if you look close enough. He has been this way as long as I have known him, apart from one moment.”

“Asking me to marry him?” I sighed when he nodded. “I wondered. Like I know he said he wanted to marry me when he met me, but I think he would’ve kept that shit to himself for a lot longer than he did, if not for the royalty thing. I almost feel like he checked this off the list because he’s stressed about being king. I’m one item he can cross off and not worry about.”

“Right, I also suspect that is the reason for the rush.”

“I keep wondering if I’m being too doubtful or skeptical but this all feels extreme, ya know?” I hated those words but they were my truth. “The relationship feels right. And when we’re together, I’m confident about us. But these last two months apart have given me some time to think and slow down, and now it’s like this whole deciding thing feels forced.”

Isaac closed the door and leaned against it, his gaze full of dread. “Is it possible for you to take this relationship one day at a time, without overanalyzing every aspect of it? I understand royal families have schedules and agendas, but are you able to disregard them and just be in love as though you’re a regular girl and forget the engagement part of the story until you have to face it?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do, trying to pretend this is just a normal relationship, but this”—I held up the hand with the ring—“this is pressure I can’t pretend not to see. It makes it all official and then I start thinking about where it’s all going.”

“If you’d like I could secure it in a safe deposit box in a bank and hide it away, and we’ll all ignore it as long as we’re able,” he said as if it was no big deal.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that,” he confirmed.

“Okay.” I slipped it off, losing about eight million pounds from my shoulders. I handed the ring to him, unsure this was the best choice, but he was right; the moment he was holding it, I felt better. “What if Aiden gets upset that I took it off?”

“Surely, the young prince is aware of the predicament he has placed you in. But if it comes down to it, I will tell him that we all felt more comfortable with it secured somewhere safe while you were drinking and having fun most weekends. We would hate for it to be misplaced or stolen.”

“Thanks,” I said with relief.

“May I take a turn and ask you a bold question?”

“Always.” I hated the way they both tiptoed around questions or certain topics.

“When you said yes, was it because you loved him or because it was romantic and he’s a prince, and you have some fantasy from childhood based on those attributes?”

“I guess both,” I answered without thinking. “He’s crazy romantic and I love him, so it was magical in the moment. It is magical, just maybe less now. Like I said, us being apart has made all the reality surface and killed some of the magic.”

“Now you are aware of the truth behind the glitz?”

“Exactly. And sometimes he’s so intense and I don't think I see it until way later. He spins my head around when he says things like he knew he loved me the moment he saw me. I mean, come on,” I said with a laugh, “how can a girl fight it when a handsome prince gives you a Cinderella story?”

“Of course.” His tone softened.

“And if I’m being honest, I didn't love him the moment I saw him,” I added, opening up more. “I thought wow, what a hottie. I hope he’s working here for the summer so we can hook up a little.” I bit my lip and grinned. “He was spouting sonnets, and I was checking out how he filled out his jeans. And I guess in some ways, he’s still spouting sonnets, and I’m still just checking him out and thinking basic bitch thoughts. You know?”

“I don't, having never been a basic bitch myself. But I believe I understand what you are saying. Thank you for being so forthright. And I’ll tell Tracy I’m going to deposit this. Between us, I’m not comfortable with you wearing it while you’re partying anyway.” He winked and left.

I texted Aiden, maybe out of guilt for taking his heavy ring off, leaving a miss-you note with an entire row of kissy faces and heart emojis. Because loving him wasn't a lie and missing him was the biggest truth I had. But I didn’t know how to solve any of this.

My phone rang a second later and I thought it would be Aiden but it was Mary, his sister.

“Hey,” I answered a touch disappointed but happy to hear from her.

“Hi, darling. Johan just messaged to tell me that Aiden asked him to ring and tell you he’s so incredibly sorry. They have dignitary duty happening here.” She sounded bored. “He and Mother are entertaining. He isn’t allowed to have his phone on.”

“Okay, tell him I’ll talk to him when he gets a chance, so long as I’m not in class. Oh, and it won’t be tonight. It’s the big Halloween party, so I won’t be available.”

“I’m not giving him that huge message. I’ll have Johan tell him you’re partying tonight, and he missed the boat.” She chuckled.

“Fine. How are things otherwise?”

“Good. I have some huge news. I’m graduating early so I’ll be there in January. Which is going to rock, as you and Linna always say.”

“No way,” I gushed. “You’re coming early?”

“I am. The moment the New Year’s Eve party here is over, we girls are getting on a flight out of here to move me in!” she squealed. “It was the other reason I wanted to ring you myself.”

“This is the best news.” I sighed and lay back on my bed, hoping she couldn't hear my subtle disappointment that it was her and not him coming here. “Us girls, partying and having fun.”

“Right. Anyway, I have to get back before they notice I’m not in with my tutor. I’ll tell Aiden you’re way too busy being fun to have time for him.” She cackled.

“Okay, bye.” I hung up and contemplated the news. Mary coming meant more comforts of home and friendship and less me being the one the guards were here for. She would need a detail. She was an actual princess. I was still just some girl from Spokane.

Linna burst through my door. “Have you seen the lip plumper?”

“The gloss?” I glanced at my vanity.

“No, the sucky thing that pulls your lips out.”

“Oh that.” I laughed and got up. “It’s right here.” I handed it to her. “Friggin’ thing is magical.”

“I know.” She grabbed the cleaner for it and sanitized it. “You go shower and we’ll do makeup together after. One of us is going to have to knock Jess out to get her in that costume.”

“We’ll attack together.” I headed for the shower, wondering what the night would entail.

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