Love Match by Laire McKinney

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Editor: Chelsea Cambeis Proofreader: Hannah Ryder

LOVE MATCH

Copyright © 2021 Laire McKinney All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please write to the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2020937297 ISBN: 978-1-64397-198-8 (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-199-5 (Softcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-200-8 (Ebook) For information, write: BHC Press 885 Penniman #5505 Plymouth, MI 48170 Visit the publisher: www.bhcpress.com


also by laire mCKinney Destiny Fulfilled



Love Match



Chapter 1

S

erena McAllister could not get her mouth to close despite the unflattering angle at which it was hanging. She had been committed to portraying herself as sophisticated, elegant, and as appealing as a Marilyn Monroe-Jessica Rabbit crossbreed, but she was failing. Miserably. “Miss McAllister?” someone said, but she didn’t respond. Who would blame her? No one could look upon this sprawling palace and expect her to react otherwise. It was too gorgeous, with its blush-colored stucco exterior and light beige roof, all shimmering under a burning island sun. A mirage. A dream. A veritable oasis tucked on remote Birin Island in the southern region of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, it housed a prince who kept what she suspected was a modern-day harem, known among royalty in this region as a coterie, further known as the reason she was here. Nevertheless, the undercover investigation and eventual exposure of yet another womanizing male and another suppressive institution, and the fact that this was her last attempt at job security made this endeavor nothing but a positive in her eyes. The trip was so last-minute, she’d packed and left just yesterday.


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“Serena McAllister?” Serena ran her tongue over her parched lips, dehydrated not only by the dry air on the long, overnight flight from New York, but also from the three glasses of champagne she’d had on board and the two bourbons in their tiny, delicate jars. That had to be it—she was tipsy and hallucinating this palace into existence as a sort of self-soothing. Plus, she was struggling to recover from the nightmare that had been the past week of her life. It was no wonder her mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Who could have guessed she would come away from that week and find herself in this tropical paradise? Since calling her name didn’t work, whoever was by her side tugged at her arm several times, the last tug more of a curt twist. When she dragged her eyes from the setting in front of her, her gaze met that of a tall, broad-shouldered, wide-smiling man. He was dressed in a white linen tunic with matching pants and tan moccasins—perfect attire for the warm and balmy temperature. “Miss Serena McAllister, I presume.” He extended his hand. “My name is Tareek. I am Prince Shailemon’s personal assistant.” “Um, hi.” “Please follow me.” Despite the number of speech, acting, and etiquette classes she’d nickeled-and-dimed to afford over the years, all in an attempt to erase any trace of her rural, poverty-ridden upbringing in Kentucky, manners were not in Serena’s repertoire today. This magical island had extinguished her ability to speak. Tareek took her elbow and guided her past two huge planters brimming with blooming jasmine, through wide ornate double doors, and into an interior that stopped her in her tracks. Tiffany lamps rested on shiny wooden tables, along with a scattering of golden animal figurines. The ceiling was high, the rugs oriental, the window treatments silk. Small yet elegant furniture was positioned strategically to create an opulent ambiance but did not hinder the view


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of the Pacific Ocean, which shimmered just beyond the crystal clear windows. Tareek pulled her toward a hallway that extended to the left, saying something about “the coterie wing,” but he could have been taking her to the guillotine for all she was aware. She struggled to drink it all in, not only to add depth to the article she wanted to write for The Daily New Yorker—the real reason she was here unbeknownst to anyone on this island—but for her own personal memories. Never had she seen luxury so, well, luxurious. Head raised toward a picturesque ceiling that depicted an island sunrise on one end and a sunset on the other, her feet followed a route of their own. She slipped away from Tareek, who continued on his brisk path toward the coterie wing. A few more steps, an illtimed stumble—damn her constant clumsiness—and she slammed straight into one of the enormous glass windows. “Ouch.” She grabbed her head. “Shit, that hurt.” She pulled her fingers away to see if there was blood. There wasn’t. “Seriously, Serena,” she mumbled to herself. “You’re supposed to be charming and elegant, not an errant elephant in a glass shop…” When she looked up, a man who was not Tareek stood nearby, staring at her as if she were possessed by a rowdy band of demons. Her hand fell from her aching head. “Oh my God. You’re… you’re…” “Crown Prince Shailemon Sharma. Who might you be?” “I’m so sorry.” Serena whipped around to find Tareek scurrying toward them, a look of panic on his handsome face. “I was with him.” She pointed an accusing finger. “It’s his fault.” The prince did not look impressed. “But don’t be mad,” she added in a rush. “He’s cool. Um, he was taking me to your…to that place…the coterie.” Her cheeks warmed as shame washed over her. Even though she would never consider herself graceful and poised, she usually handled herself better than this—better than a blubbering idiot, that


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is. But there was something about the prince that made the ground beneath her feet shake and her normal thought process to flatline. Damn this gorgeous man. And Prince Shailemon was gorgeous. Almost too gorgeous—a god-like version of a steamy Bollywood hunk. He was tall, broad-shouldered, lean-waisted, and dark-eyed with an even darker stare that simmered with something akin to irritation or impatience. She wanted to shrink from him—or throw herself into his arms and beg to know the way to his royal bedroom. Get it together, Serena. You knew what to expect. You’ve seen the pictures of him. But what she’d seen on the internet did not capture how handsome he actually was, even though one article had deemed him the hottest man on the planet. She and her Danish roommate, Kir, had ogled over these pictures whilst sharing a bottle of wine merely two days ago. Serena pulled in a deep breath that wavered more than she cared to acknowledge and released it with a huff. She thrust out her hand. “Let me start over. I’m Serena McAllister.” Prince Shailemon did not reach out. Tareek stepped in front of her. “Sorry, Shai. She got away from me.” Serena peeked over Tareek’s shoulder. “I did. I really did. I slid right out of his needy little grasp.” Both sets of eyes stared at her, unblinking and unreadable. If she didn’t shut up, they would put her on the next flight off Birin Island, and she would have no content for her article—an article that would push her ahead of rude and vile Jane Childers to nab the assistant editor in chief position she coveted. If she didn’t have an article worthy of national attention, she would be shown the door, and she certainly didn’t have another job lined up. The industry had little space for print journalism these days. To say her level of desperation was glacier-deep was laughable. Why? Because it was so much deeper than that.


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The Daily New Yorker was one of the few profitable print newspapers in the United States. If she didn’t get the new position, she’d be up the creek without a paddle or job prospects. Staying in her old position wasn’t an option now that it was being phased out to freelancers. To make matters worse, the source for her original topic— police treatment of prostitutes—suddenly and inexplicably stopped returning her calls, making the investigation of royal coteries— commonplace in this area of the world and possible front for more traditional harems—her only option. Not to mention the not-so-minor issue of a certain philandering fiancé—ex-fiancé—who was still back in Manhattan. No way she wanted to return to any land that housed that slimy, cheating bastard. Mick Long III can kiss my little Pilates-toned ass. She straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat. “Your palace is beautiful. I apologize for getting lost…Your Highness?” Serena dropped into an awkward curtsy like she’d seen British citizens do on television, then glanced at Tareek to see if this was the correct way to greet a prince. Confusion morphed into horror on the assistant’s face, as if she’d just released a resounding belch. A sheen of sweat glistened on his upper lip. “I presume you are our new American?” Prince Shailemon’s expression was close to blank, save for the slight narrowing of his lids. He exuded authority and a no-nonsense air that only added to his appeal. He was the single most handsome man she’d seen. Ever. She was barely able to control her tongue and keep from blurting out that little observation, followed by an offer to lick peanut butter off his biceps. “American extraordinaire, at your service. Well, not at your service.” She stammered, “Um, I don’t think so at least. Not like that.” Her cheeks burned. “I mean, I hope not. I’m not ready for that just yet.”


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Tareek’s head fell forward like he’d just been smacked in the back of it. Shailemon remained immobile except for the pursing of his full, sculpted lips. What would it be like to kiss lips like that? Oh, dear God. Maybe I am ready to hop into bed with this man— though I doubt the editor in chief would want my investigation to be quite so thorough. “Tareek.” Serena clapped him on the shoulder. “You might want to get me out of here before I do something really offensive, like offer him a fist bump.” Serena stepped back. “I’m sorry. I’m usually far more poised than this. I’m not sure what’s gotten into me.” She felt her blush creep to her hairline. Shut up, Serena. Just shut up. Tareek flashed Prince Shailemon a look of woeful apology and grabbed Serena by the arm. “Sorry, Shai,” he mumbled. She liked Shai more than the longer version of his name and was about to say so when Tareek gave her another tug. “Come. Now,” he whispered, not dragging her per se, but certainly eager to get her out of there. “Okay. Okay.” She tried to get her footing. “You don’t have to be rude about it.” But Tareek was no longer paying attention to her. His attention was on Shailemon, who was staring at a group of men in flowing black robes as they swept down the hall toward them like a swarm of overeager mosquitoes.


Chapter 2 “

W

hy is King Ata here?” Tareek muttered under his breath. Shai heard his friend and assistant’s question but did not acknowledge it. He was wondering the same damned thing. In this region of the world, customs were adhered to with an iron fist, and dignitaries and rulers never slighted these customs. In fact, one hundred years ago, it would’ve been cause for war if a king showed up on an unexpected visit to another kingdom. To make matters more interesting, Birin Island had only broken free from Lovaria, the country ruled by King Ata, fifty years ago. The smaller island’s independence was fragile at best. Throw in the unexpected death of Shai’s father, King Arumon, mere weeks ago and Shailemon, along with Birin Island, was in a vulnerable position until he ascended his father’s throne in a month’s time. He glanced at the American. She didn’t belong in this wing of the palace. Based on his first impression of her, she was a typical American—unpoised and silly—and the last thing he needed was to be embarrassed in front of the rotund Ata. At least she was beautiful, and beautiful women were the Lovarian king’s greatest weakness.


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As the men strode closer, Shai gave her a quick once-over. Her long chestnut hair flowed down her back in loose waves. The tan pencil skirt and white button-up blouse made her look like a 1950s secretary, but he liked the look and easily—too easily—envisioned her shimmying that skirt up over the curve of her hips. He cleared his throat as he lowered his folded hands over his groin. Maybe Madame Moreau, the French woman in charge of his coterie, was right in inviting her here despite Shai’s protestations that American women were jealous, crass, and did not fit in with a coterie. Not that he fit with the coterie either. He viewed it as a necessary entity for social and political gains versus its ancient purpose of housing royal mistresses. More than anything, it was a tradition that dated back long before him. But her sculpted cheekbones alone, with their high, rounded smoothness, were enough to make a man’s resolve falter. Not to mention her eyes—as green and clear as rare gems. And her lips? Plump and full, almost overly so but not quite, and bare of makeup. She was exquisite. Shai could tell he was not alone in his assessment. Ata’s blatant perusal of her person was enough to make Shai want to cover her with a cloak. Then Ata was standing in front of him, his smile broad and artificial, and Shai forced himself to focus. “Prince Shailemon.” Ata threw his arms out wide. “King Ata.” Ata folded Shai in an embrace that he tolerated for five seconds before sliding away. “I apologize for coming on such short notice.” Ata released a booming laugh because he had, in fact, given no notice of his pending arrival. “You are always welcome.” Shai ensured the words were unaffected and monotone, giving nothing away of his inner disturbance.


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“I am still grieving over the death of Arumon. Your father was a jewel of the Pacific Ocean.” “Thank you for your condolences.” Ata’s eyes rolled away from Shai and returned to the American. “Who is this stunning woman?” Shai bristled as Ata reached for her and pulled her to his side instead. She seemed fine with being saved from Ata’s embrace, even leaning into Shai like she wanted to be there. She smelled fresh and airy, a mix of lemons and honey and sugar. He inhaled as he closed the two inches separating them, securing her under his arm. “Allow me to introduce Serena McAllister,” he said as Tareek slid to his other side. With a flourish, Ata captured her hand and kissed it, his fat lips leaving a visible wet mark on her skin. If the king noticed her cringe, he didn’t react. “It is a distinct pleasure to meet you, my dear,” Ata said. “It’s nice to meet you as well.” Ata tugged at her arm, but she wouldn’t budge, tilting her head toward Shai until her cheek brushed against his shoulder. He made sure his satisfied smirk didn’t show on his face as his arm flexed around her. He would relish her nearness, if only to taunt Ata.

Serena studied the overweight king. There was something behind his beady stare—hunger, desire, a feral instinct to devour—that made her recoil farther into Shailemon. If she could, she would have slid behind the prince’s back, taking the shelter his powerful body could offer. But his arm was solid and secure around her shoulders, and if his embrace was not warm and cozy, at least it offered her a sense of protection—no matter how fleeting it might prove to be. “I can tell by your accent you are American.” Ata yanked on her hand again, not getting the hint that there was no way she was moving from Shailemon’s side.


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“I live in Brooklyn, New York, United States of America.” The place with bombs and guns and a government that has a cowboy complex… She wasn’t sure why the sight of this man put her on edge, but it did. She needed to be careful. What if this coterie indeed was a traditional harem, like her worst fear and dreaded instinct told her? What if they believed they owned women…shared them…traded them…? Oh God. “Ah, New York. When was the last time I was there?” He tapped a finger against his temple. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I love America, except for the food. I do not like anything fried. I prefer fresh foods simply prepared.” He clapped his hands. “Shailemon, invite this beauty to dinner tonight. We can show her the most decadent dishes from our side of the world. I assume there will be the traditional dignitaries’ banquet?” His brows raised, expectant, challenging. Shailemon tensed, and she wondered why, assuming it had something to do with why King Ata looked like a cat teasing its prey. But something about the anger emanating off the prince suggested he was anything but easy prey. She wondered if this King Ata knew who he was dealing with. “Of course.” Shailemon’s voice was as smooth as chocolate mousse. “And tomorrow we will sit down to discussions, which I’m sure is why you are here.” “Yes, and this beautiful American?” Ata’s eyes sparkled with an unspoken intention that made Serena wilt. “You will invite her to the banquet? I should like more time with her. I do so love Americans.” Serena’s knees buckled as Shai offered a curt nod. More time with me? Shailemon was going to lend her to this awful man like a book to be shared. Nausea washed over her. At least she’d get her story, but at what cost?


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“Tareek, please see Serena to the coterie. She seems fatigued from her travels.” Shailemon transferred her to Tareek’s arms. Ata swooped in and snatched both her hands, planting wet kisses on the back of each. “Please rest. I would not want the evening to pass without the pleasure of your company.” Serena tried to offer a smile, but even her lips were shaking. Coming here was the single worst mistake she’d ever made. How could she have thought this would be safe? That she could come halfway across the world to enter what was likely, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day harem and leave unscathed? Exposing this type of institution, and the prince who supported it, might not be worth it after all. Clearly, the recent events of her life have deluded her ability to make sound choices. Tareek had to practically carry her down the hall. Just before they rounded the corner out of sight, Serena twisted in Tareek’s arms. King Ata was staring at her bottom, his pudgy hands wrenched together, his heavy jaw slack with distraction. If she were wearing a potato sack, she still wouldn’t be covered enough. But it wasn’t Ata’s expression she wanted to read. It was the prince’s. He, too, was watching her, though his gaze was settled on her face. If a look could smolder, his did—with lids hooded and eyes focused like a tiger’s. Standing there, stoic and impenetrable, he reminded Serena of a Greek statue, molded and carved and smoothed to perfection. She didn’t know if the intensity behind his gaze was from pleasure or distaste. She hoped for the former more than she cared to admit, but based on the distinct look of dissatisfaction spreading across his face, she predicted the latter.


Chapter 3

A

short time later, Shai was in his office, pondering the real reason behind Ata’s visit. “Tareek!” he bellowed. Tareek flew into the room, skidding across the floor. “Yes?” “Get Chiro to my office. I need answers as to why Ata is here.” “And you think the master of coin has those answers?” “He must have some idea. My father had asked that I return from London to discuss the relationship between Birin Island and Lovaria. We were scheduled to meet in a week’s time.” Shai gazed at his hands, the sound of his father’s deep voice still resonant in his ears and the loss of him still palpable in his heart. “But,” he sighed, “as you know, my trip back to the island was for his funeral instead.” Tareek remained silent. There was no need for further condolence, so what else was there to say? Shai was grateful for Tareek, who had been by his side since they were young boys. Even over the past ten years while Shai lived in London, Tareek had remained a steadfast, loyal part of his life. And though Tareek refused to get on an airplane to visit him in person, he had been willing to Skype so they could watch football


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matches while hurling harmless insults at the teams, referees, and each other. “I hope Chiro might be able to enlighten me as to what is going on and what my father would’ve wanted during that meeting we never had.” “I’ll summon him right away. I’m sure he’s in his office with the blinds pulled down, empty teacup by his side, poring over some document or other. I swear the man is going to wither away into a ghost someday.” Shai tried to chuckle, because Tareek’s words were so true, but he was troubled, and the sound fell flat. “And tell Madame,” he continued, “to prepare a coterie woman for the banquet tonight. I can’t believe we are holding a dinner for that pompous ass.” “He didn’t follow diplomatic procedure. Maybe you shouldn’t either.” “I won’t stoop to his level.” “Who do you want Madame to prepare? The American? I just left her in the coterie reception area.” “I don’t think so. I need someone more seasoned, someone who knows how to behave in delicate political situations. Until I find out why Ata is here, I need to keep my guard up, and I can’t have any missteps.” “There is the Russian, Ekaterina. She accompanied you to an event the last time you were home.” “I don’t want to spend an evening with Ekaterina. Is there no one else?” “There are multiple women in your coterie, but Ata asked for Serena in particular. If I’m not mistaken, you agreed, as evidenced by your little head nod.” Shai fiddled with a pen, weaving it between his fingers with ease. “When you found us in the hallway earlier, before Ata arrived, she had just walked into a window. Slammed right into it like an errant bird.”


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Tareek chuckled. “Perhaps she could use time with Madame to learn grace and poise, but there is no doubt Ata would like her to be in attendance. Perhaps you would too? It would help take your mind off things.” Life had become overwhelming. When his father died of a heart attack, Shai had been in London—where he’d remained after obtaining a degree from Oxford—growing then selling small businesses with no immediate plans to return to the island. In fact, the reason he hadn’t come two months ago when his father had first requested a meeting was because he’d been in the early stages of a delicate and highly lucrative acquisition. Shai had developed an actual career in Europe and was making substantial money from it, not trading on his royal status for even a pound. He felt, if not fully alive, at least free of stifling obligation and duty. His father was healthy and thrived in his role as king. Shai thought he would rule for another twenty years. But with King Arumon’s unexpected passing, everything changed. Now Shai was back on Birin Island as a king-in-wait, preparing to ascend the throne in a month’s time, with the legal obligation to find a queen before he could do so. Considering he had no appealing prospects in that last regard, he felt more doomed than ever, like a capsized boat sinking into the endless depth of the Pacific Ocean. Maybe he could use a distraction. “Tell Madame to prepare the American.” Shai paced along the periphery of the office, oblivious to the glistening ocean just beyond his royal garden. He moved to the small putting green that ran along the wall, grabbed a putter, and readied a ball. With one smooth tap, the ball rolled down the green and plopped into the hole. “Shai, are you okay?” Shai readied another ball as tension shot across his shoulders and sadness swept through his heart. “No, Tareek. I am not okay.”


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That distraction could not come fast enough.

Tareek had deposited Serena in what looked like the empty check-in area of a high-end spa, only without the signature counter. The beige walls were free of artwork or adornment, save for a mural rendering of blooming jasmine. A small wooden table stood near the door, and on its surface was a large pitcher of ice water with fresh melon floating on the top. Serena sat in one of two suede-covered chairs that rested opposite a matching love seat and looked around. As she waited for someone, anyone, Serena picked at her cuticles, trying not to chip the French manicure Kir had given her. Without magazines or books to peruse, and her computer tucked away in her luggage, she had nothing else to do with her hands and nothing to divert her anxiety-filled thoughts. What made her think this was a good idea? Desperation was what. She needed this article to be a success. Just as she started to nibble on the corner of her nail, a petite woman swept into the room from a side door. She was dressed in a tailored pink sheath dress with sky-high nude heels that barely brought her to five feet tall. Her dark hair was cut into a sleek French bob with thick bangs. She looked like a life-sized porcelain doll. “Miss McAllister?” Her painted lips spread wide to reveal little white teeth. Serena stood. “Yes.” “Welcome to Birin Island. I am Mirena Moreau, known as Madame Moreau in the palace, or simply Madame among the women. We spoke yesterday on the telephone. As I mentioned, I’m in charge of the prince’s coterie and will be your contact person during your stay here.” “It’s a pleasure to meet you in person.”


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“It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, my dear. Tell me. How was your flight? The travel from America can be quite tedious.” Not if you’re intoxicated. “It was fine.” “Your trip was quite last-minute. Typically, I conduct more than one phone interview and do a background check, but we had a room open, and I like to keep the coterie full. I must admit, they are not as popular as they used to be, and we find ourselves without the lengthy waitlist we once had.” Wonder why that is? “Anyway, I am glad you were able to make the trip to our beautiful island on such short notice.” “Why did a space open up, if you don’t mind my asking?” “Well.” She offered an indignant huff. “The young woman found herself with child.” A soft beep caused Madame to glance down at her phone, interrupting further explanation if there was one. Was it the prince’s child? Serena had to assume it was. What kind of place was this, where he knocked someone up and then sent her away, alone and shamed? Serena had a sudden and powerful urge to get this story out to the world. Maybe the exposure from her investigation would help change the sexist tradition of coteries or at least get a dialogue started. Further, it might open up the discussion within America as well. The trip did seem timely. Her mind reeled as her fingers itched to get to her computer, to document her findings so far and expand on the notes she’d started taking as soon as Kir planted this idea in her head—gained from the back of a Danish magazine her parents had sent her. But for now, Madame was talking, and Serena forced her mind to focus. “We have not had an American in years, and it was time to offer the coterie experience to a broader pool of women. It seems to be a dying entity, even with all the recent changes to the institution, so we are doing what we can to keep the numbers.”


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“Recent changes?” “Recent meaning fifty or so years ago. The coteries of old were phased out, and a replacement version was phased in.” “What does that mean?” Madame waved a hand in the air. “There is time for the history lesson later. Besides, I’m sure you already know all this. Now, I will show you around and introduce you to the ladies who are here, then we can begin orientation. At that time, I will answer all questions you may have. For now, there are fifteen women in total, and they often spend their free days at the beach, reading in the palace’s library, or in town shopping, so it’s quiet right now. I’m sure someone is lurking about, though.” Serena followed Madame into an expansive, elegant lounge filled with suede-covered chaises, silk pillows, and cashmere blankets. Healthy plants and small flowering potted trees were placed around the periphery of the room, adding an exotic, sensual flair, like Serena was on the outskirts of a balmy rain forest. She inhaled as she bent toward a fat pink bloom. The scent was heady yet lovely, the petals softer than silk against her fingertips, their color richer than anything she could find in a paint supply store. A counter ran along one wall, the surface covered with dates, nuts, fresh fruits, and small vases of fresh-cut flowers. A small stainless-steel refrigerator sat at one end. The room was empty, save for a stunning honey-blond resting on a nearby chaise. She looked up as Madame and Serena entered the room, her eyes as cold as a Siberian winter. “Who’s this?” She unfolded her tan legs and stood. “Ekaterina, this is Serena, your new roommate. She is from New York.” She looked at Serena. “Ekaterina is from Russia. Siberia to be exact.” Serena extended her hand, but Ekaterina did not acknowledge it. First, the prince and now, this woman. What was it about people on this island and the aversion to the good ole handshake?


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Madame shot Ekaterina a warning glare as her phone chirped. “Excuse me.” Ekaterina folded her arms across her chest. “I’m sure it’s about me. The prince probably wants me to attend a function with him.” Madame slid the phone into her pocket, then placed a dainty hand on Serena’s arm, a faint whiff of her rose perfume escaping into the air. “My dear, I need to speak to you. Ekaterina, enjoy the rest of your day.” “Is it a note from the prince?” Ekaterina positioned her hands on her hips like a defiant child. “Surely he doesn’t want to share his time with this American.” She spat this American like the words came straight out of the filthy language dictionary. “This is no concern of yours, Ekaterina.” With another magnificent huff, the Russian stormed outside. Madame motioned for Serena to sit. “I’m sorry you had to witness that.” “Not the friendliest woman I’ve ever met. Seems to be a little territorial.” Madame smiled. “The reason I need to speak to you is…well, we usually don’t throw our novices into delicate situations such as this.” Never good words on one’s first day in a coterie. “Prince Shailemon has requested your presence at the banquet for the King of Lovaria and his dignitaries.” “He wants me to be there?” She hadn’t thought Ata’s request would actually be granted. Madame glanced at her Cartier watch. “You need to be ready in an hour and a half.” Serena’s jaw fell slack. “Huh?” What about time to rest? She was jet-lagged and disoriented, her head still spinning from everything that had happened over the past week. She could use, at the very least, a nice long bath, as well as a gallon of water to rehydrate after her one-too-many airplane cock-


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tails. She was so far off her A game right now that she was firmly in the D zone, and that was never a good thing. With a heavy sigh, she looked around for a wine rack, frowning when she didn’t see one. Pray tell, this isn’t a dry island, is it? Madame was staring at her with an expression of unease and blatant apprehension. “I am sorry to put it so bluntly, Serena, but you will have to handle yourself with more grace this evening than you are displaying now. The prince is putting a lot of faith in you not to embarrass him.” Serena’s jaw snapped shut, and her spine straightened. “I won’t embarrass His Royal Hotness.” She slapped a hand over her mouth. “Highness. His Royal Highness. I mean, he is hot…” Madame cringed. “King Ata has requested your presence at the banquet, and Prince Shailemon wants to be accommodating, even though we never allow new arrivals to attend such functions. We prefer the women have a better understanding of how relations work in our part of the world first.” Serena’s internal alarms roared. “I am part of Prince Shailemon’s coterie. I’m not…I don’t want to be…passed around.” She could not keep the horror out of her tone. It might make a good diary entry, but it would not make a good life entry. “My dear, no. You have it all wrong. You will be Prince Shailemon’s date. There is more to discuss about what is expected of you during your stay, and we will talk about that during your formal orientation, which I will put off until tomorrow. For now, you must get ready.” Madame walked toward an opened doorway at the back of the room. “This way, please. I will show you to your apartment, and then I’ll return soon to help you dress.” She glanced over her shoulder. “It’s clear I’ll need to allow time for a quick etiquette review.”


30 LAIRE McKINNEY

Serena’s right foot tripped over her left foot, and she caught herself on the nearest chaise. “Etiquette would be good,” she muttered. “Maybe a lesson on balance too…”


About the Author Laire McKinney enjoys writing fiction for women across many genres. Her debut novel, Destiny Fulfilled, was well-received and is earning great reviews. She believes in a hard-earned happily-ever-after, endearing characters, and complex conflict. When not writing, she can be found traipsing among the wildflowers, reading under a willow tree, or gazing at the moon while pondering the meaning of it all. Originally from West Virginia, she now lives in Virginia with her family and beloved rescue animals.



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