It was the one and only thing we ever agreed on.
He was also my first kiss.
And my first taste of heartbreak so cataclysmic it almost broke me.
I meant it with every fiber of my soul when I swore I’d never marry him.
But on the eve of my 24th birthday, His Royal Highness has the audacity to show up at my door after years of silence and make a demand will forever change the trajectory of our lives: “We have to break our pact.”
“Em? There’s a guy here to see you …” My best friend Gillian stands in the doorway of my bathroom as I hover over the sink, scrubbing tonight’s makeup from my face.
My feet ache from hours spent dancing in the most beautiful crystal-encrusted heels known to man, and my head has finally stopped spinning from the too-many-to-count top shelf cocktails. My body is in the process of thanking me for changing out of a skintight bandage dress and into jersey pajama pants and a cotton tank sans bra. I’m two point five seconds from crawling under the cool covers in my dark room and succumbing to a long, hard sleep.
After the year I’ve had, I needed tonight, but I have a feeling I’m going to be paying for it all day tomorrow.
“He probably has the wrong address.” I press a dry washcloth against my skin before moving for my moisturizer.
“Look, I admire your dedication to your skincare routine after a night on the town, but I’m serious. There’s a guy at your door and he asked for you.” Gillian bites her lip before continuing. “And, um, he’s insanely, ridiculously hot.”
I roll my eyes. Earlier tonight, a few of my friends were trying to hook me up with a dark-eyed stranger sitting at the end of the bar. It was every bit as awkward and embarrassing as it sounds, and he was clearly not having his best night. He just wanted to be alone in a room full of strangers. I get it. I’ve been there.
“Did Stacia tell him where I live?” I ask. “The guy from the bar?”
Gillian laughs through her nose. “No, no, no. The guy at your door is definitely not the guy from the bar.”
I shoot her a look. I don’t know what she’s trying to pull, but I feel like I’m being set up.
“Did Hadley make a fake Tinder account in my name again?” I ask, one hand cocked on my hip.
Just because it’s the eve of my twenty-fourth birthday and I’ve been going through a rough patch and a dry spell doesn’t mean I’m in the mood to hook up with some random guy hand-selected by the most well-meaning yet least discerning friend in my group.
Gillian’s hands lift to the air and she shrugs. “I don’t know who this guy is, but he looks official.”
“He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got a security-looking guy with him.”
“I’m so confused.”
“You and me both.” Gillian yanks me by the crook of my elbow and leads me down the hall and toward the front door. “So why don’t you just see who he is and what he wants?”
“You realize how sketchy this sounds,” I say.
“I do. That’s why I’ll have my phone out in case we need to call 9-1-1 …”
“Reassuring.” I sweep my hair off my neck and pile it onto the top of my head, securing it with a hair tie from my wrist, and then I take a deep breath before opening the door.
And then I hold that breath, deep in my lungs, until they burn.
“Hello, Emelie.” A familiar sparkling blue gaze and signature half-smirk greets me. I’m tempted to slam the door in his face until I remind myself that he’d probably enjoy that too much.
“Julian,” I say, hand gripping the edge of the door so hard my palm throbs. “What are you doing here?”
A man dressed in all black stands a couple of steps behind him, hands folded at his waist as he scans the area then returns his attention to his charge.
“I realize it’s late,” he says, an air of uncharacteristic remorse in his panty-melting voice. There are a million things I despise about this obnoxiously gorgeous specimen of a man, but his accent has never been one of them. Too casual to be the Queen’s English. Too posh to be middle-American.
“Extremely,” I say.
“But I’m afraid my matter is rather urgent.”
I maintain my poise and poker face, keeping my vision trained on him despite the fact that the myriad of cocktails I enjoyed tonight are still working their way through my system.
“Would you mind if I came in and we chatted for a few moments?” he asks. His politeness is jarring, as is the pressed and tailored suit that covers his filled-in physique.
I run a quick calculation and determine that it’s been almost eight years since I saw him last.
It was the summer after I turned sixteen—a summer I’d do anything to forget.
I glance behind me and shoot Gillian a “help me out here” sort of look. She shoots me a quizzical look in return. She doesn’t get it. And she wouldn’t. I’ve never told her about him before.
“I have someone over,” I begin to say. “Now’s not really a good—”
“Hi, I’m Gillian.” The door swings open wider, and Gillian takes the spot beside me, drinking in the handsome vision before us with zero shame. “We met a second ago when I answered the door.”
She’s drunker than I thought …
“Em, you going to introduce me to your friend?” Gillian asks. “I find it odd that we’ve been best friends since our freshman year at Tulane and not once did you ever mention knowing … this gentleman.”
I study Julian’s stunning physique from head to toe, noting the way he’s filled out over the years. His jawline is sharper than before, his sandy brown hair perfectly coiffed, thick and windswept yet formal enough that he could waltz into a meeting at the United States embassy or grace a billboard in Times Square and no one would think twice.
“This is Julian,” I say. “An old family friend.”
“Right. From long ago. It’s been ages, hasn’t it, Em?” he asks. “Though sometimes it feels like it was yesterday.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t feel that way for me,” I say. “Anyway, thanks for stopping by. We’ll have to catch up another time.”
“Emelie …” Gillian whispers under her breath.
I realize I’m being rude, but was it not rude for him to show up unannounced at one o’clock in the morning after eight years of silence?
“Please, Emelie.” Julian’s rich accent fills my ears and makes my knees buckle ever so slightly. “A few moments of your time is all I’m asking for, then I’ll be on my way.”
I fold my arms across my chest as the cool night air wraps around me, sending a chill across my bare flesh, and I remember now that I’m standing in a white tank top, no bra, and sheer pajama pants—but it’s the strangest thing: his eyes haven’t once left mine.
He’s being a perfect gentleman: charming, non-abrasive, and well-mannered.
But of course he is.
He wants something.
Giving into my piqued curiosity, I let him in.
“You have two minutes,” I say as he and his man-in-black step across the threshold and into the small entryway of my townhome.
Gillian lingers for a second, fingers twitching at her sides, and then she mutters something before disappearing down the hall.
“Rafa, if you could excuse us for a moment?” Julian says to his bodyguard. At least, I assume it’s his bodyguard. The man wears an intimidating straight face, not to mention he makes Julian look slight, and Julian is far from slight.
“There’s a patio through there,” I point to my left and Rafa heads to the sliding doors off my living room.
I’m afraid I don’t have anywhere else for him to go. My townhouse is the definition of cozy and all the rooms sort of blur into one another—the entry blurs into the living room which blurs into a small dining area that becomes part of the kitchen. When I bought the place, the realtor called it “open concept.” It sounded nice at the time, but after living here for a couple of years, I realize I forked over my entire life savings for a down payment on a glorified two-bedroom, one-bath shoebox. That farmhouse sink though …
I’m pretty sure my entire home could fit into one of Julian’s palatial bathrooms.
And his bathrooms are palatial … given the fact that he lives in a literal palace.
Not that I’ve ever visited.
Our fathers were best friends who met as young boys at a private New England boarding school. After graduation, they kept in touch, and when they both married and started families, a tradition was born. Every summer, Julian and his parents would spend twelve weeks with us at our country home in Briar Cove, North Carolina. One big happy family …
Despite the fact that Julian’s father was a reigning king of a developed nation, he never acted like it around us. His one and only request was that we “treat him like anyone else.” He didn’t want to feel special. He wanted to feel like a regular guy with his regular wife and regular son enjoying a regular summer and spending time with their regular friends.
The last time I saw King Leo and Queen Marguerite was at my dad’s funeral last year. The king was beside himself. The queen could barely utter more than a few condolences to my mother.
I busied myself with my younger sisters and wallowed in my own grief, though it didn’t stop me from glancing around the funeral parlor every so often, half expecting to see Julian waltz in the door, but he never showed.
I was relieved.
I also hated him for it.
“Emelie.” Julian narrows his gaze at me, my name melting off his tongue with finesse. “Why don’t we have a seat?”
Rubbing my lips together, I glance at my humble living room with my used sofa and unfluffed pillows, the messy stack of glossy magazines, the half-burnt peony candle, and this morning’s coffee mug, and I resist the urge to begin straightening up.
It’s not that I care what Julian thinks, but I’d hate for anyone to get the impression that this is how I live, that my life is in shambles.
Today was a busy day, that’s all. And when you live alone, sometimes you have better things to do than make sure your gossip magazines are stacked neatly and stowed away properly …
“Still reading this rubbish, I see.” He swipes an Us Weekly from the top of the stack.
“Still sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, I see.” I take it from his supple, unworked hands and return it to the pile.
“Do they ever write about me here? In the States?” he asks. I don’t know why he’s playing coy. With an ego that size, I guarantee he knows exactly who writes about him and what they’re saying. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he keeps an entire library of archived gossip articles in the Knightborne Palace library.
“Rarely,” I lie. Two can play this game.
There’s one magazine, Starwood, that writes about him incessantly. I’m pretty sure their editor-in-chief has a personal obsession with Julian. Last year I counted his chiseled likeness on no less than twenty-six covers, and I swear the story was the same recycled garbage about his on-again, off-again love, Princess Dayanara of Spain.
As much as I try to flip past those stories and convince myself that I couldn’t care less what he’s up to these days, I never can resist. It’s like reading about an old high school nemesis, someone who bullied you, hoping they finally got their comeuppance.
Only as far as I can tell, he’s yet to have his date with karma.
In fact, from what I’ve read, his life is pretty magical.
Trips to the Maldives, parties in Ibiza, private planes, a fleet of royal yachts at his leisure, women lined up everywhere he goes, throwing themselves at him.
Professing their love.
If they only knew the real Prince Julian.
“Anyway, what is it you needed to talk to me about?” I ask, checking my watch and ignoring a text from Gillian that flashes across the screen. She’s probably pacing my room, wondering what the hell is going on. And in all fairness, I never told any of my friends that I knew royalty.
That my first kiss was a prince.
That I gave my virginity to the future King of Chamont (more like he stole it).
After my sixteenth summer, it seemed irrelevant, and Julian wasn’t anyone I wanted to bring up ever again.
“Do you remember that pact we made?” he asks. “The marriage pact?”
My stomach heaves and my blood runs cold.
Of all the things I expected him to bring up tonight, that was the last.
“If you’re talking about the pact we made where we promised never to marry each other, then yes. I remember it. Clearly. In fact, it’s the one thing from that summer that stands out most.”
I’ve never told a single soul about our promise. I never wanted to have to explain it. I never wanted to explain him. Without the facts and details to accompany such a pact, it wouldn’t make sense anyway.
I’ve had friends who’ve made marriage pacts of the mainstream variety—if we’re not married by thirty, we’ll marry each other, that sort of thing—but ours was … unique.
And also necessary.
Our fathers were absolutely convinced that we were going to end up together one day, and our mothers used to throw around the word “betrothed” like candy at a parade with smiles on their faces as they were intoxicated off pricey white wine (and oblivious to our mutual disdain for one another that started long before either of us had so much as reached junior high).
After Prince Julian so callously and carelessly shattered my naive little teenage heart into a thousand-billion pieces, I had to make it clear in front of both of our families that a marriage between the two of us would never happen.
It was funny how quickly the word “betrothed” left our mothers’ vocabularies after that.
“Good,” Julian says. “I’m glad you remember it … because we have to break it.”
I start to reply but choke on my words, barely coughing out a simple, “What?!”
He can’t be serious.
Julian smiles a devilish smile for all of two seconds before regaining his composure. He always did love getting reactions out of me.
“No,” I say. “Absolutely not. Please tell me you didn’t fly all the way to North Carolina to ask me to marry you.”
“What if I did?”
“Then I’d say you’re ….”
“What? I’m what?”
“Delusional?” I half-chuckle. “Insane? Arrogant? Mistaken? I would never marry you.”
My hands fly through the air as I speak. I’m pretty sure I’m the one looking insane right now, but I’m too worked up to care.
Julian rakes his hand along his sharp jaw, exhaling. The tiniest bit of five o’clock shadow darkens his sun-kissed skin. I imagine he’s been traveling all day and he’s exhausted, but that isn’t my problem.
I’m not the idiot who thought he could walk back into someone’s life and expect her to say yes to his sorry excuse for a marriage proposal.
“I realize I’m asking the world of you, Emelie,” he says, and I wish he’d stop saying my name. It’s distracting coming from those full lips and soaked in that rich accent with his smooth cadence. “But I wouldn’t come all this way and ask this of you if I weren’t in dire straits.”
“You’re twenty-six.” And the world’s most eligible bachelor … but I don’t tell him that because he can’t know that I’ve kept up on him all these years. “Why would you want to get married now? And to me? I don’t even like you, Julian. What makes you think I’d even consider marrying you?”
My words are harsh, but the audacity of his request has me all kinds of stirred up and confused. I swear I’m feeling emotions I never knew existed before, and it’s making my mind run a million miles per hour with contradicting thoughts.
I don’t know what it is about first loves, but even the briefest ones leave their marks and the tiniest, most microscopic part of you can’t un-love them, even if you can’t stand them.
“You have every reason to feel the way you do, but please. Hear me out,” he says.
I realize now that we’ve yet to take a seat. We’re standing opposite each other, nothing but my cluttered coffee table separating us. I fold my arms over my chest, wishing I’d have thrown a cardigan over myself when I had the chance because how is he ever going to take me seriously when I’m standing here braless and indecent and barking at him like a crazy person who’s been tossing back Belvederes all night?
“The monarchy is currently in jeopardy,” he says. “In my father’s age … his beliefs are … shifting, if you will. He’s growing a bit extreme in his ways. Wanting to change things. The Chamontians, as you know, are a very outspoken people. They’re not having it and quite frankly, neither am I. It’s getting to the point where the media is making a mockery out of him and our country is becoming late-night talk show fodder.”
“What does any of that have to do with you?” I ask. I vaguely recall reading a few articles here or there claiming King Lionel of Chamont is going senile in his old age, but beyond that I never gave them that much thought, writing them off like I do most gossip articles—as fictionalized entertainment.
“Our Parliament wants to do away with the monarchy completely,” he says. “They feel it’s a relic. A costly relic. And with my father acting out … they feel the monarchy is a liability as well.”
“Why don’t you talk to him? Have him step aside?”
“Believe me, Emelie, I’ve tried that. It only makes things worse. He flies into these rages …” his voice tempers into nothing. “We can’t even have him examined by the royal physician. He’s uncooperative and hostile toward everyone who comes into his path, my mother included.”
A vision of King Leo at my dad’s funeral last year comes to mind. Normally a stoic man with a round belly and a boisterous boom in his voice you can hear halfway across town, he was thinner, frailer, and quieter. Less hair. Lackluster blue eyes that had almost turned grey. I thought it was the loss of his best friend that was doing a number on him. Now I wonder if it was something more …
“Our Parliament has the power to overthrow the monarchy and they’re on the cusp of doing so, however, I’ve spoken with our prime minister, and she is willing to make an exception,” he says. “She’s willing to remove my father from power and replace him with a successor. However, the royal order, which spans back hundreds of years and dozens of generations, states that the successor must be married.”
I roll my eyes. I can’t help it. “If Parliament can overthrow your father, I’m sure they can change an outdated rule.”
“I agree with you wholeheartedly,” he says. “Unfortunately, I’ve had that conversation with our prime minister as well. Chamontian culture is steeped in tradition. This was a non-negotiable for them.”
“Don’t you have a cousin or something? An uncle?” I ask. I can’t count how many times he confessed to me when we were younger that he had no interest in being king or running a country. He thought his father’s job was boring and said he’d “sooner gouge my eyes out with a sterling silver caviar spoon.”
“My father was an only child,” he says. “I’m the only successor. I’m all they have.”
“Your mother can’t take over?”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Right. It should. But it doesn’t. And she wouldn’t want to.” He exhales, nostrils flaring. “Anyway, getting back to business, you’re—”
“Wait.” I lift a flattened palm. “Let me make sure I understand this. You need a wife, and the first person you think to ask is me?”
“Yes, Emelie,” he says, jaw setting as he exhales through his perfect, straight nose. “I was just about to explain my rationale to you.”
I silence my commentary and give him my full attention, but only because I’m dying of curiosity.
“My country, as you might know, has a rather complicated relationship with yours.”
And also true.
“And I believe this could be a step in bridging that divide and changing … perspectives. Public and personal.” He pauses before locking eyes with me again. “To put it frankly, Emelie, Chamontians despise Americans, and from what I understand, the feeling is mutual.”
“I don’t think we should be generalizing, but I understand what you’re getting at,” I say. “That said, you’re wasting your time. I’m ninety-nine percent sure you could walk up to any random American girl on the street and propose to her and she’ll say yes. I mean, there’s this whole Meghan Markle phenomenon now and there are a lot of girls dreaming of having royal weddings of their own, so … lucky you.”
“I don’t want some random girl from the street, Emelie. I want you.”
His words suck the air from my lungs, but not for long. “Do you hear yourself right now? How crazy you sound? You’re not even making sense. I can’t stand you, Julian. I would never marry you. And that’s a promise I intend to keep.”
I check my watch again before heading to the patio slider to let Rafa back inside.
“Our conversation is over,” I say to them both before turning to Julian and escorting them to the door. “You came to ask a question. You got your answer. Good luck.”
They leave, quiet. Dumfounded, probably. And I lock the door behind them, refusing to let myself watch through the peephole.
The instant they’re gone, Gillian rushes down the hall, throwing questions at me faster than I can think to answer them, but I still have one of my own: why does he want me?
The man didn’t just shatter my heart that summer, he obliterated it. It took me years to piece it back together and even then, it was never fully right after that. Never quite whole.
I meant it with every fiber in my soul when I swore I would never marry him.
I meant it then.
And I mean it now.