After a move clear across the United States to Florida and dealing with severe carpal tunnel and thumb tendon issues, I have finally finished Royal Kiss! It was supposed to be a 30,000 word novella to start off the series, so I could publish the second and third novellas that I already had written as a part of a Kindle World that was discontinued, but it ended up being over 45,000 words. It’s light and fun and flirty, with hopefully the right amount of meat to make it enjoyable.
Hope you enjoy this unedited sneak peek! This novella should be out in late February, but it will depend on how fast the editors get finished. The other books will be republished as well, with the same titles but with updated covers.
I was going to die. No, Vanessa Montagne was going to murder me. Probably in my sleep, and the old lady was smart enough to make it look like an accident. I could see the headlines now: Twenty-six-year-old budding charity worker dead of a heart attack at the Suite Royale in the picturesque country of Beaumont.
Of course the widow Montagne would pretend to be sad at the funeral, sitting there with Millie in her lap, both of them sporting the identical half-smirking grins that drove me mad. Did people and pets start to look alike? Vannessa and Millie certainly did.
I dove for the end of Millie’s leash, but the white Bichon jerked away for the second time as my fingers grazed the expensive braided leather. She fled, darting a mocking canine smirk in my direction. With horror I saw that she was heading for one of the main lodge doors, which an employee held one of the main doors open for a well-dressed, elderly man who clung unsteadily to a gangly teen’s arm.
If not for the zealous employee, I might have been okay. Now I would probably be fired. Or murdered. That was still not off the table.
Millie beelined toward the door like a greyhound in a race, never mind that only minutes before I had literally forced the chubby white Bichon to walk halfway down the drive, her head held high in disdain as if offended by the bit of chill that radiated from the cobblestones this October morning.
The dog park was just around the corner, still technically on Suite Royale property, but today we hadn’t made it that far. Millie had decided to yank me to a stop so she could sniff an innocent statue of some former Beaumontian monarch. Visions of me squatting with a toothbrush and a bucket of soap filled my head, so I’d reached to pick her up before she could do her thing, and the pedigreed pup took advantage of my distraction, yanking the leash from my hand.
And the chase was on.
The lodge employee shot me a surprised look as Millie zipped past him into the massive foyer. The doddering guest, halfway through the door, stopped and stiffly turned to watch the dog’s progress.
Ignoring all of them, I squeezed through the congested opening, painfully banging my hip on the door frame. Maybe if I could get to the dog before she sniffed out Vanessa Montagne—or Lady Montagne, as she liked to be called here in Beaumont, the birthplace of her deceased husband.
The lodge was decidedly busy, but the milling crowd in the foyer didn’t seem to be attendees to the charity auction taking their morning break. Instead, the beautiful, young women loitering there were quite possibly entrants in a beauty contest.
Vanessa was nowhere to be seen, which meant she was probably in the dining room down the main hallway where the auction schedule had promised refreshments during the mid-morning break. I should have been with her, experiencing the energy at the auction and learning about the business—that’s what I’d thought I’d be doing when she’d chosen me from her American staff to be her traveling companion with “light animal duties.” Duties that for three days had kept me in the hotel room or in the dog park as she prepared for the auction, which had started early this morning at eight sharp.
Ignoring the beautiful girls, Millie headed for the main hallway—and the dining room. My sense of dread heightened. Animals were permitted in this lavish hotel in certain areas, but not in the main dining room.
“Millie! Here girl!” I called, as she reached the hallway, sounding as desperate as I felt. Heads turned in my direction. Nearby, someone laughed. Millie glanced around and I swear her smirk grew wider before she continued racing toward the dining room, following her expert sense of smell.
I was tempted not to follow. Tempted to go upstairs and pack my bags and take the first flight back to America and apply for another job somewhere far away from Vanessa’s business in Miami. While spending all my time there scheduling caterers and venues on the phone hadn’t been all I’d dreamed of, this was absolutely not what I’d signed up for. I’d thought being chosen for a trip to this idyllic little country on the French border nestled between Switzerland and Germany, was the next best thing for my career, that maybe I was being considered for the promotion Vanessa had announced to the team before our departure. I knew I’d be perfect for the job, and I’d finally begin using all the aspects of my new business management degree to help people—especially young girls in the foster care system. I’d slaved eight years to earn that degree after high school, paying for it by working at restaurants, copy centers, driving for Uber, and then staying up all night to cram for tests. All those years and five months working for Vanessa, only to become nursemaid to a fat, spoiled canine, who looked more like an old lady than most blue-haired octogenarians I’d ever seen.
But I didn’t flee upstairs because even if I personally wasn’t doing anyone good here, I’d agreed to the job, and I never went back on my word. Besides, Vanessa was raising big money and people would be helped, even if I wasn’t a part of it.
As I sprinted madly down the hall, resigned to my fate, whatever that would be, a stranger stepped from the dining room. Taking in the fiasco at a glance, he plunged a booted foot down on the leash as Millie scurried past him. She came to an abrupt halt inches from the doorway, uttering a yip of surprise.
My relief was like stepping into a heated room after being out in the freezing cold all night. “Thanks,” I said, barely glancing at the man, knowing my face was probably burning a bright red.
He squatted down as I did, his long arms beating me to the pudgy dog, who instantly went docile.
“Be careful,” I warned, glancing past him to see if Vanessa was lingering anywhere close enough to witness my failure. “She’s trying to fake you out so she can escape again.” I’d fallen for that too many times over the past days.
His warm chuckle sent an odd tingle to the pit of my stomach. “No doubt that is her plan.” He spoke English with an accent that was either British or British-educated. It was hard to tell in Beaumont, where the people spoke French with an accent some people said was German, but I thought was probably just Beaumontian.
Millie started to lick his hand, but he deftly tucked her under his arm as he stood, rubbing her curly head. I followed him to my feet, and our eyes met. For a heart-shattering moment, I couldn’t breathe, and my knees actually threatened to go weak. This was no ordinary man. He was tall, even for someone my height, and he was gorgeous, with dark wavy hair, flawless bronze skin, brown eyes that could peer into my soul. His smile could stop a woman’s heartbeat.
Not my heart, though, I thought. I didn’t have time for romance, and men this gorgeous didn’t have a real relationship on the brain anyway. He probably had a line of girls somewhere waiting to fall all over him.
Yet as his eyes lingered on my face, the tingle in my stomach grew to a bonfire. I reached for the dog to mask my emotion. She felt like a heavy, docile stone in my arms, but I knew the sneaky creature was simply awaiting her moment to pounce. I wrapped her leash around my hand as I pivoted, balancing her weight precariously in my arms.
“Bad, girl,” I murmured. She rewarded me with a big wet lick.
“You sure you got her?” the man asked in his incredibly enticing voice.
I gave him a pained smile. “Yes, unfortunately.” I’d meant to add that last under my breath, but it came out far too loud.
He laughed. “Millie has that affect on some people.”
“You know this dog?” Just how close was Vanessa to this man who could have stepped from a scene in one of my most fantastic dreams?
“Oh, everyone here knows this dog. I’m only surprised Lady Montagne doesn’t make you bring her inside the auction.”
“She said dogs aren’t allowed.”
“They aren’t, but Vanessa never follows the rules. And no one cares to stop her.”
His chuckle was contagious but the fact that Vanessa had chosen to regulate me to the background when there had been a choice was annoying. Even so, I couldn’t decide if being included would be any better. Inside the auction, I would get to see how Vanessa worked up close and on site instead of from an office, but on the other hand, I would definitely not want the responsibility of making sure Millie behaved around these fancy society people. The dog definitely had it out for me.
“Well, thanks,” I said lamely. “Guess the dog park awaits.”
“You know where it is?”
This time I only nodded, not sure I could keep a civil tongue where Millie was concerned. I wasn’t exactly a dog person, and my love for the canine breed was at its lowest ebb at the moment. Vanessa had said Millie would win me over, but I wouldn’t give into the little escape artist.
“Too bad. I could have shown you.” He gave me a slow, regretful smile that had me forgetting all about Millie and Vanessa Montagne . . . and my career.
Something odd came over me, and before I could stop myself, I said, “If I’d known that, I might have lied.” Which at that moment felt completely true, although it was only a joke. I never, ever lied because of reasons I didn’t share with anyone.
His smile widened. “Okay then. Let’s pretend. I’ll be happy to show you.” He glanced over his shoulder where two men had appeared, both pausing just inside the dining room. One was tall with golden eyes and light brown hair. The other was shorter, with dark hair and eyes, a typical Beaumontian, his handsome face marred by a mocking smile on his full lips.
“I’m taking a brief walk,” my rescuer said to them. “Can you run some interference?”
The shorter man’s smile seemed more of a sneer. “Really, Jourdain? Now?” He said the name in French, with the J in j’taime—I love you— and with the R slightly rolled. It was a sexy, adventurous name, one that I recognized from the French lessons I’d crammed into my brain these past weeks but still couldn’t really say because of the difficult R.
The friend’s gaze wandered down my navy jumpsuit that I had thought rather elegant and had worn in case Vanessa invited me to the auction. Compared to their very expensive suits, it felt cheap and dated. “That’s okay,” I started to say, the gaze from the sidekick jolting me back to my senses, but Jourdain was already moving toward me.
“Thanks,” he threw over his shoulder. “I’ll be back before the bidding resumes.”
The men sniggered like knowing little boys, which made me uncomfortable. If my rescuer was a guest at the hotel or even here only for the auction, it meant he was rich, and not really interested in a working girl like me.
“Don’t mind them,” he said, reading my mind. “They’re nicer than they seem.”
I arched a brow. “Friends of yours?” I always believed you could tell a lot about a person by the friends they kept.
“Well, not exactly.” His voice sounded off now, different than before. Evasive. “But I’ve known them all my life.”
We’d nearly reached the foyer, which seemed even more crowded than before. The number of beautiful young women had definitely increased, and many of them looked to have brought their entire wardrobes, judging by the large racks of luggage guarded by the blue-uniformed bellhops. A few camera flashes didn’t seem to annoy the women, who were eager to pose, like prepubescent girls looking for attention.
“Beauty contest,” I muttered, this time far enough under my breath that my companion would not hear. Millie stiffened in my arms, her ears perking as she gazed forward alertly, probably deciding which woman to sniff first once she got free.
A light touch on my arm made me look at Jourdain, who came to a stop. “There is another way.” His head tilted toward what looked like a small employee corridor to our right. When I hesitated, he added, “To avoid the crowd.” His gaze went to the foyer.
“Right. Let’s go.”
I followed him down the corridor, belatedly wondering if my pepper spray and my single class of martial arts training would be enough to protect me from this drop-dead gorgeous man if he tried something.
I needn’t have worried. He kept his distance as employees began passing by, nodding politely and averting their gazes, as if afraid of encroaching on our tryst. Was that what this was? No, it couldn’t be. I was Kamille Fairbanks. Conservative, dependable, boring Kamille. Way too practical and a little too smart to believe in fairytale endings.
I sneaked a peek at my companion as we neared an outside door on the far end of the hallway. Grinning, he lunged forward gracefully to open it. The movement revealed an adorable curl of hair at the nape of his neck that seemed to excuse the otherwise too perfect hair. I had the strange and sudden desire to run my hands over his head in the search of more curls that might have been flattened into obedience.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Want me to carry her?” he offered, his step pausing. “She’s a heavy little thing.”
Millie wasn’t really all that big, but I’d become soft in the past months of only working nine to five and sleeping all night, so my arms did ache. “I wouldn’t want to cover your nice suit in fur.”
He arched an amused brow. “Um, she’s a Bichon. They don’t shed like most dogs, right? Instead they’re trimmed?”
“Oh, right.” I stared down at Millie, whose fluffy hair and constant trips to the doggie beauty parlor made sense now.
Jourdain’s grin widened. “You don’t know much about dogs, do you?” His dark eyes were on me, missing nothing. He was more than handsome, he was beautiful— but in the kind of way that makes your heart ache because you know he could only fall in love with someone as equally perfect.
Besides, I was only here until Monday, and then it was back to Miami.
“I’ve never had a dog before.” I pushed Millie’s porcine body into his arms and started walking again. The foster homes I’d grown up in barely had room for kids, much less dogs. “But I’m assuming you have?”
“I have a couple dogs. Or my families does—two at the moment. But they’re Leonbergers and they weight almost as much as I do. They’re cute and loveable, but we certainly don’t carry them anywhere.”
I laughed. “I can imagine.”
“When my sisters were younger, they used to ride them like ponies.”
“You have sisters?”
“Yes, and one brother.”
I fought the envy that always crept up inside me when I learned about someone having siblings, but the emotion was cut short when I noticed an entrance to the dog park ahead, the foliage awash in bright autumn colors.
For this entrance, I didn’t even need the hotel key card. I grabbed a few little bags at the entry for the “dog evidence” as Vanessa referred to it, hoping I wouldn’t have to use them.
We appeared to be the only people at the dog park for the moment, and when he let Millie off her leash, she darted away, sniffing the ground. I breathed an internal sigh of relief. There was nothing the little beast could do to embarrass me here.
“Would have been nice to know about this entrance,” I said.
“Glad to be of service.” He made a little bow, which was quite formal, considering that we were in a dog park, waiting for Millie to do her business. He stepped closer and offered his hand. “You already know I’m Jourdain, Jourdain Lacort. What’s your name?” His first name sounded even more delicious the second time around and the surname was familiar somehow, but I couldn’t place it. Maybe in Beaumont, it was a name like Smith or Jones.
“Kami Fairbanks.” No one called me Kamille except Vanessa and the guy who’d presented my college diploma.
“Nice to meet you, Kami. And how do you like our little country?”
“It’s beautiful.” I motioned to the reds, golds, and oranges of the leaves.
“Very different this time of year from Miami—you are from there, are you not? Like Lady Montagne?”
I couldn’t seem to drag my gaze from his. “Well, I’m there now, but I mostly grew up in New York.”
“Really? You don’t sound like a New Yorker.”
“I get that all the time. I moved around a lot.” The state had relieved my homeless mother of custody when I was nine, and I’d spent the next nine years in ten different foster homes with families who had come to the melting pot of New York from all over the United States.
“Why Miami then? The weather?”
“Lot better than New York. But also for the opportunity to work for Vanessa.” Both true, though neither were the main reason I’d chosen Miami, but personal demons like mine weren’t something one blurted out to a total stranger.
He studied me for a moment in silence, his head slightly tilted, as if waiting for more. Millie chose that moment to come racing back, but as Jourdain leaned over to pet her, she raced away again, teasing him like the little flirt she was.
“Come on, girl,” he crooned.
She dove back in and enjoyed a brief head scratch before darting behind my legs to peek out at him, as if daring him to come get her. He leaned over again, and she was off with a yip of glee.
“I have the feeling I’m never going to get her out of here,” I said. “Though I suppose there could be worse things. Like taking her inside an auction.”
He straightened, his laugh filling me with a strange sense of déjà vu. “Very true.” We were standing a little too close as his gaze caught mine again and held. I was aware of every bit of him from his dark hair to the soulful brown eyes, the chiseled jaw to the wide shoulders and narrow waist.
“So, how long have you known Vanessa?” I asked, dredging for something intelligent to say before I started drooling.
“Years. Since before she married her husband. He was actually a cousin of my mother’s, and they were close as children. But his parents moved to England when he was a teen and from there he went to Miami and met Lady Montagne, or Aunt Vanessa, as we mostly call her. They used to visit more often when he was alive.”
“Was he some kind of nobility?” I wanted to know why he and everyone at the hotel called her Lady Montagne.
“His father did have a minor title, and they can trace their lineage down from one of the first Beaumont monarchs. They sold most of their lands when they left, so the title is more in name only, but Lady Montagne is well respected in Beaumont. My mother is very fond of her.”
I laughed at his choice of words.
“What?” he said, his smile growing with mine.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the word fond like that before. I mean, it’s a perfectly good word, but we don’t seem to use it much in America. Must be an English thing.”
“That’s likely. My tutor was British. What would Americans say?”
I shrugged. “Just that they’re friends, or that your mother likes her.”
“What about chocolate? Are you fond of chocolate or do you like chocolate?”
“Neither. I love chocolate.” We both laughed.
“So do I. Especially hot chocolate with a huge spiral of whipping cream.”
“Me too. So you’re here because of your mother?” I moved a few feet down the path because Millie hadn’t come back, and I didn’t want to lose sight of her. Besides, standing so close to him clouded my brain.
“Actually, I’m here in her place. She always supports Aunt Vanessa, but my mother hasn’t been herself since my father passed away eight months ago after a sudden stroke.” Sadness laced the words, but his voice was steady and resigned, the voice of someone who had already come to terms with the loss. As someone who had also dealt with tragedy, I recognized the emotion.
I stopped walking and faced him. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you. It’s been difficult, but I do feel lucky to have my mother and siblings. I certainly don’t take them for granted anymore.” He let a few seconds pass before saying, “What about your family?”
“I lost my father too. I was eleven.”
His face turned sympathetic. “You had it much harder than I do, then. I had my father all my life. He taught me everything I know.” He paused and added with a hint of humor. “Well, the rest of what my mother couldn’t drill into my thick head. My sisters are also very young, I believe my father’s death has been the hardest on them.”
“It’s good they have you. Maybe you can be to them what he was to you.”
He blinked once, as if surprised. “Right. I try, though I guess I never thought about it quite like that. So what about your mother? And siblings?”
I shrugged, not wanting to tell him anything about my mother. “No siblings, though I always wanted a sister.”
He regarded me silently for the space of a few heartbeats, and for a moment I thought he would push, but instead he nodded and said, “Needless to say, there have been a lot of changes over the past months as I’ve taken over for my father.”
“What do you do?” I started walking again to keep Millie in sight.
His grin was back. “Guess.”
“Okay, I’ll play. Hmm. I know. You’re a professional dog walker who goes around to all the dog parks to see which is the best—and to get more customers.”
He rewarded my creativity with a grunt of laughter. “I wish. That actually sounds fantastic.”
“Okay, then.” I gave him a sidelong glance noting the cut of his suit. Definitely tailored especially for him. And his mother’s cousin had been nobility. “Vineyard owner or manager?”
“No but one of my friends has a winery, so you’re close.”
“Hmm. Law firm? Bank owner? Hedge fund manager?” To each guess he shook his head.
“Okay, I give up.” Maybe he was a playboy. “Wait, I got it.” I snapped my fingers. “Politics.”
“Ding, ding, ding,” he said.
I wondered if that meant he worked for Beaumont’s royal family or for their congress, but before I could ask, he spoke again.
“Have you been to see our mountains? I like them best in the spring, but October has its own charm, especially this early in the month. Most of the leaves have fallen, but there is still enough color to make the landscape come alive. In the morning the chill—well, let’s just say, it lets you know you’re alive.”
“Sounds beautiful. The one thing I do miss in Miami is seeing the change of the season.” I couldn’t help the longing in my voice, a longing for that time when I had been with my mother, even though we hadn’t a roof over our heads.
“Well you’ll see it everywhere here.”
“It is beautiful.”
After a breath of silence, he said, “Tell me all about you. How long have you worked for my aunt?”
“Since May, so I guess a little over five months.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s different than I expected. I guess I thought I’d be working more with clients and such, helping more directly with raising funds and deciding where they should go, but I’m mostly on the phone in the office. Or dog sitting apparently, though it’s the first time for that. But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and Vanessa did choose me to come on this trip.”
His smile this time was wistful. “My father made me start at the bottom too. He said I had to learn all the jobs before I could understand them to manage. And now that I’m where I am now?” He chuckled. “Well, I wish I were back there.”
“Point taken. I bet it’s a lot more work managing. But more rewarding, right?”
He let a few seconds pass before nodding. “Yes. Some days more than others.”
The comment seemed to hold some tantalizing innuendo, but Millie’s loud barking called our attention. Another dog had arrived at the park and Millie was eager to welcome the cowering brown dog whose resemblance to a hot dog was accentuated by the tan sweater he wore.
“We’d better go rescue him,” I said.
We sprinted toward the dogs, where his owner, a stout, elderly lady, began speaking rapid French and curtsying to us as I scooped Millie up to stop her overtures. I couldn’t understand a word. So much for all my study.
“What was that all about?” I asked as we moved away.
“She was grateful?” The comment came out more as a question.
“What are you hiding?” I teased.
He laughed. “Actually, right now in this past half-hour, I think I have been more myself than I have been in a very long time.”
“Good.” I laughed and tightened my grasp on Millie, who was struggling to get down. I snapped back on her leash so she wouldn’t terrorize the poor Weiner dog and let her onto the grass.
That was when we heard a shout near the entry where we’d come in. We looked up to reveal two burly men in long-sleeved, fitted suits, both with slicked back hair that brushed their collars. They strode toward us with long, powerful strides, their eyes scanning the park like some kind of cops.
“Friends of yours?” I asked.
Jourdain nodded. “They work for me. I’ll only be a minute, okay?” I nodded as he strode to meet them. They talked in low voices, not loud enough for me to hear, but it was clear the men weren’t happy with him.
Finally Jourdain returned to me. “Apparently my mother has made an appearance and my presence is required.”
“Okay.” I stifled a laugh at the formalness of his tone, not sure how I was supposed to respond.
My amusement didn’t escape his notice. “You must understand. My mother . . . she hasn’t appeared in public since my father—”
“No need to explain. I think it’s great you want to protect your mother.”
He smiled and took my hand that wasn’t holding the leash. “Can I see you again? Please say yes. I’ll take you to our mountains.”
My heart did a funny dance that I’d sworn never to give into. But maybe the world wasn’t as harsh as I’d always believed, because here was this decidedly gorgeous guy—and he wanted to see me again.
“Okay,” I said.
“I will be in touch then, as you Americans say.” His grin widened as he strode away with his employees, one of whom was barking into his phone. Millie tugged to go after them, but by the time we reach the entrance they were already heading around to the front of the lodge where I spied several dozen black SUVs.
Stifling my curiosity, I followed the cobblestone path into the side door of the hotel, where I picked up Millie. I had barely entered the main hallway when a shout came up from the foyer.
“There he is!” It was a female voice, very clearly excited, echoed loudly by what sounded like a dozen others in many different languages.
I increased my pace toward the foyer, surprised to see many of the young females I’d noticed earlier lining both sides of the main entry doors. Each strained to peer over the others, cell phones in hand.
“Who is it?” I asked a passing hotel employee.
“Our beloved queen, and the crown prince.” He gestured to the women and the chaperones. “They are all in town for the ball, but they’ve been hanging around waiting to catch sight of him—he’s here at a charity auction, you see.”
He nodded. “The annual Autumn Debutante Ball. But this year there is special significance. Our prince will soon be crowned king, and he needs a wife.”
It made sense. Heirs and all that.
Two employees rushed to open both front doors. I recognized Her Majesty Queen Sirine Lacort immediately from an article I’d spied in yesterday morning’s newspaper delivered to our room. In French and unreadable except for a few words I recognized, like queen. She was more beautiful in person, tall, willowy, with raven hair and pale skin. The harshness of her fitted black suit was broken only by the white cuffs and collar.
But it wasn’t her who caught my attention. It was Jourdain, standing next to her.
No. I groaned.
I barely knew anything about the crown prince, who would soon come to the throne because his father had died tragically from sudden stroke, but it had to be him. I wracked my brain to remember what little Vanessa had mentioned about the family during our ten-hour plane ride. I remembered only something about a crown prince and his three royal siblings, the younger girls being born late in the queen’s life after many miscarriages. I hadn’t really been listening to all that celebrity nonsense, but no wonder Jourdain’s last name had been familiar.
As I stood in shock, the young women in the lobby took pictures, curtsied, and waved papers with who-knew-what on them. Phone numbers? Photographs? Room numbers? Jourdain smiled and nodded politely at them all accepting their offerings. His two employees—bodyguards, most likely—walked on either side of him, making sure no one got too close. More men followed and I spied other suited security in the crowd, also watching.
Maybe they’d been watching us at the dog park.
One thing was clear—all of these young women were here for Jourdain. I had been greatly miscalculated about how many women were literally lined up for him. Hoping to be noticed.
Not me. I knew where I stood.
Turning away, I covered the few steps to the elevator and jabbed my finger at the button, grateful when it opened immediately. I stepped inside and turned, pushing the button for our floor.
At that moment his eyes met mine and held. He smiled the same easy smile as in the dog park. I held his gaze as the door shut between us, but I didn’t smile back.
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