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It's not easy being royal. Sixteen-year-old Evangeline wears her crown proudly, but between her duties and her overprotective big brother, the idea of romance is just a dream. But a chance encounter in Chicago changes all that….
Sure, seventeen-year-old Tyler Evans loves playing hockey, but he's more concerned about providing for his dad and little sister. Then he meets Eva--and falls head-over-heels in love—and he has two more problems. One, she's his best friend's little sister. Two, she wears a crown.
But then Eva accidentally mistakes Tyler for a visiting prince, and for the first time, Tyler doesn't feel like a nobody. He knows he has to tell her the truth…but not yet.
His plan? To keep up the royal charade as long as it takes to convince Eva he’s the guy for her. Even if he’s lying to everyone…including himself.
Disclaimer: May cause disillusionment. Those girls looking to find their Prince Charming might consider scouting out hockey rinks.
Each book in the Chicago Falcons series is STANDALONE:
* Just One of the Boys
* Just One of the Royals
* Just Pretending
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Below me, the busy streets are lined with cars so small, they look like toys. Miniature people try to hold their umbrellas against the strong wind. Beyond it all, a vast horizon of skyscrapers stretches upward toward the gray sky.
I take a deep breath and step off the edge.
My heart leaps in my chest, and for a moment, I feel like I'm flying.
Then, my heels click on the glass bottom floor. I stare down at Chicago, bustling beneath my feet, and place my hands on the glass wall. I wish it wasn't there, so I could soar through the city like a bird.
I turn around and smirk at my brother. "I told you. It's not scary."
Daniel — who is not afraid of anything — leaps from the solid floor to the glass box I'm in, suspended more than one hundred floors above the ground. "Come on," he says, poking my side. "You're terrified!"
I step out farther into the glass box, just to prove him wrong ... even though my legs are shaking, and my stomach flip-flops every time I look down. "I'm not afraid of anything, big brother."
Daniel puts his nose right to the glass. "Just wait till we ride the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier tomorrow! You won't be saying that when we're at the top."
I sigh. My half-brother has taken it upon himself to show me every must-see attraction in the city. But to Daniel, even the rundown pizza parlor on the corner of his street is a must-see. Today, it was the Skydeck, with its towering architecture and crystal-clear glass box that juts over the city. Yesterday, it was a horse-drawn carriage ride through Millennium Park, and the day before that, we visited the Shedd Aquarium. When Daniel's at school, his mother's been kind enough to take on the tour guide role, even though I insisted I would be happy to go with him and see what a real American school is like. Or what any school is like, really. I've had a private tutor since I was two years old.
But now, it's become ridiculous. Daniel was supposed to be at school today and his mother had to work. I thought I might have a few hours to explore the city by myself, but Daniel insisted on skipping class to keep an eye on me. I should rat him out to the principal.
"But look, Eva," Daniel says, pointing outward. "This is the tallest building in the western hemisphere! You can see four states from up here."
"You do know," I say, "that if you climb to the tallest tower in our castle, you can see five different countries?"
Daniel gives a dry laugh. "Sure, but knowing Lyle Worthington is the duke of one of those countries really spoils the view."
I smile. I know Daniel's just trying to be a good host, but I haven't had a moment to myself since I arrived. When Mother agreed to let me have a week off from royal-duty in October to visit Chicago, I was so excited. One week without any responsibilities, expectations, or having my every move scrutinized. One week where I could just be a normal teenager, instead of the Queen of Eldonia.
But instead of Mother watching my every move, now it's my half- brother Daniel. He won't let me go anywhere without him or his mother, and he seems determined to stop me from experiencing the things a normal teenager would. I think my big brother has forgotten I already have a bodyguard.
"So, what's our plan after we look at the four states?" I raise a brow.
"Well," Daniel says, running a hand through his slick black hair, "I've gotta go to hockey practice, so I was thinking I could drop you off at home. Ma left some food in the fridge — "
"I'll come and watch your practice!"
He scoffs. "No, it's super boring. I'll drop you off."
"Won't Madison be there?"
"Yeah, but she'll be working, doing her trainer stuff. And Al will be on the ice."
Daniel has just listed my only other friends in Chicago. "Dwayne can keep me company." I nod in the direction of my bodyguard, who is standing off to the side, watching us from beneath a pair of thick black sunglasses.
A muscle ticks in Daniel's jaw as he considers my suggestion. Daniel might have made sure I saw every attraction in Chicago twice, but he hasn't let me spend any time with his friends. Besides one dinner with his girlfriend Madison and walking around Grant Park with his teammates Hayden and Alice, I haven't talked to a single person our own age.
He's kept me so busy, I can't help but wonder if he's purposely trying not to introduce me to any of his other teammates. I study his face. He looks oddly serious for once. "The thing is, Eva ... "
"What is it?" I'm not sure I like this paranoid version of my brother.
"I love my teammates. They're great. I'm just worried about introducing you to them."
"Because they'll be too dazzled by my amazing personality?" I joke and toss my hair over my shoulder.
"Yes." Daniel doesn't smile. "They won't care about you at all. They'll just care about your title. Believe it or not, we don't get many queens in Chicago."
His words tug on a familiar shard in my heart. This is nothing new. I've been the princess of Eldonia to everyone I've met since the day I was born, and now I'm the queen. I don't have the luxury of living across the sea from my royal title and responsibilities like my half-brother. Although his words hurt, it's a truth I've learned to accept. But that's not going stop me from having fun this trip.
"Don't worry so much." I smile sweetly and decide to appeal to the one thing that will always get him — his love of hockey. "This is your last season playing for the Falcons. I want to watch as much as I can!"
His face falls. "I can't believe it's our last year all together. It's surreal."
"If you're so sad about it, why can't you all just keep playing for the Falcons?" I bump against him.
Daniel snorts as if the answer is obvious. "Because we're finally eligible for the NHL draft! Rumor has it, Tremblay's going to be the number one pick. But Coach says I have a real shot at getting picked up by a team, too. Even if I have to play for a farm team for a few years, it would be amazing." He looks away. "But that means this will be the last year Hayden, Tyler, Alice, and I play together. It's our last chance to win the whole thing."
I loop my arm through his and lean my head on his shoulder. "That's why you should let me watch your practice tonight. I want to see the four musketeers all play together!"
"Okay, fine," he says. "You can come to practice. Just ... don't do anything I wouldn't do."
I stand on my tiptoes and give him a kiss on the cheek. "Whatever you say, Dan-Dan."
He rolls his eyes and heads back toward the solid floor, taunting Dwayne, who hasn't dared step on the glass.
I take one last look at the sprawling city of Chicago. This place is so different from Eldonia. Compared to the quaint little houses, the cobblestone streets, and the antique buildings of my homeland, this makes me feel like I'm in a different world.
And in this world, no matter what my brother says, I could be just another girl. Not a princess. Not a queen. Just Eva.
Daniel said that his teammates would only see my crown, not me. But I've watched the way he is with his friends, and I've seen the way they treat him. When Daniel was in trouble last summer, most of the Chicago Falcons came to Eldonia to help him pull off something amazing. They were there for him. His hockey team doesn't care about my brother's title ...
So maybe they won't care about mine, either.
My gaze shifts to the glass. I look at my reflection, staring back at me, transparent as a ghost. Other reflections wisp through mine — strangers passing through my body, completely unaware.
The thought makes me feel light, free. Maybe for a few more days, I can just be a ghost, not leaving a trace.
I turn on my heels and walk over to Daniel. "Let's go meet the team!"
* * *
My pen flies across the page. I flick my eyes up for a moment, watching the hands of the clock tick. There's two minutes before the bell rings. The fluorescent lights hum lazily behind the chipper voice of our teacher. How she can sound so happy about Marxist Russia, I'll never know.
I chance a look at the clock again. I'm so close. Thirty seconds to go.
The bell buzzes, shrill and angry, and everyone around me shuts their notebooks and starts shuffling with their bags.
Phew. I finished just in time. I add one final bit of shading to the hair, then blink my tired eyes and look at it.
While everyone else was taking history notes, I finished this sketch of Bloom Blossom, the fairy princess from Millie's favorite book. It came out better than I thought it would. I'm sure Mils will be delighted.
I stretch and gather my things. Sure, I was drawing while everyone else was taking notes, but I was listening. I'll go through the lecture in my head on my way to practice tonight. I have just enough time to pick up Millie and grab my gear from home before meeting the boys at the rink.
My chest feels light. It's Friday, so there's hockey practice tonight, and Dad's working the day shift at his store. I won't have to worry about Mils tonight.
"Mr. Evans?" My teacher's voice floats over the din of gossip and chatter as we all squeeze out the door.
I hold in a breath and turn around. "Yes, Mrs. Perry?"
"Do you have a moment?" She smiles at me. A sad smile. A pitying smile.
"Uh, actually, I've got hockey practice. I really have to run — "
"It'll only take a minute." She eyes the rest of the students, making sure they've all left. "I promise."
I know I have time to make it to the arena, and I know I'm not in trouble. I don't go around parking my motorcycle in the principal's spot like my best friend, Daniel Sacachelli, and I don't have a crowd of swooning fangirls waiting for me to get out of class like my other best friend, Hayden Tremblay — not that I could afford to go to his smarmy private school, anyway. But still, my feet feel like lead as I walk toward her desk.
"I noticed you didn't attend my post-secondary FAQ yesterday," she says, her too-kind eyes trying to hold mine. I look away. When I don't say anything, she presses on. "I'm having another one next week. I think it would be very informative for you — "
"I don't want to waste your time," I finally say. Or mine.
"Tyler, I really think you should give it some thought. Here, I've gathered some information for you from a few schools I think you'd really have a shot at." She gathers a pile of papers and pamphlets up from her desk, then hands them to me. "Just give them a look over when you get home."
My stomach twists. Why would she put me through this? Make me do this awkward dance with her? I know I should pretend I'm interested, if only to get her off my back, but it's like she's trying to humiliate me by pretending that there's any point in me looking at universities.
My cheeks flush and finally I blurt out, "Mrs. Perry, I don't have the grades."
It's not like it's a secret. I'm barely passing each of my classes, and that's only because my teachers feel sorry for me. Once word got out that I was "the boy with the dead mom," I started noticing random extra credits on my report cards. I'm sure they think I'm trying hard during class, taking detailed notes instead of drawing.
Mrs. Perry's face melts again into that disgustingly pitiful gaze. "Tyler, I know your grades aren't the highest, but you're a bright kid. Every teacher in the school thinks so. We'd be happy to write you reference letters. And with your athleticism, the community colleges would be lucky to have you — "
She's really going to make me say it. As if she can't tell just by looking at me — my ratty hoodie, my dirty sneakers. "Mrs. Perry, please." I stare straight at my big toe, barely peeking out of the front of my shoe, then look up at her, finally meeting her gaze. "I can't afford it."
I thought that would finally wipe that sappy smile off her face. But it only deepens. "Oh, Tyler, don't be discouraged! There are scholarships you can apply for. Look." She rummages with the papers she's still holding out to me and slaps a pamphlet on top. "Read this one. It's for an international school."
"Don't think I don't see you doodling in your notebooks all class. It's for an art school in Prague. They have an entrance scholarship. All you need to do is write a personal essay." She steps out from behind the desk, toward me. I take a step back. "I know writing isn't your strong suit, but — "
The awkwardness inside me shifts. This isn't just humiliating anymore, it's insulting. Why would she suggest something so impossible? An international art program? She's met Dad and Millie at school events. She knows I can't tromp off to some foreign country!
I knot my hands into fists. It doesn't matter. Regardless of what La-La Land Mrs. Perry is living in, that option isn't available to people like me.
I release a big sigh. "I'll take a look at them." I just want to get to practice.
Mrs. Perry smiles, satisfied, and hands the papers over. "Just read them. That's all I'm asking."
She doesn't know how much she's asking for.
I turn and walk to the door, my shoulders carrying a weight they hadn't had just moments before.
"Tyler?" Mrs. Perry calls as I'm leaving. "There's more for you out there. You don't have to feel guilty about taking it." The air feels thick. "Your father wants what's best for you."
I stand there, fighting the urge to say the words that are on the tip of my tongue. Cruel words. Hurt words. Words that would make Mrs. Perry regret ever trying to help a hopeless case like me. Instead, I just walk away.
The hallway teems with kids laughing and gushing about the weekend. I meld into the crowd, just another faceless student. I look down at the pamphlet on top of the stack of papers. There's a sunshine-soaked Baroque building, surrounded by cheerful orange roofs. It almost reminds me of Eldonia, the country Daniel happens to be the prince of.
Visiting him in Eldonia was the only time I've ever been out of the USA. The first time I've been outside of Illinois, period, for something besides a hockey game. As I stare at the picture, there's an ache in my chest, a familiar one I've been pretty good at filling with work and hockey and memorizing lectures.
What would it be like, just to pick up and go somewhere? Study art in Prague, go diving in Thailand, wake up to a sunrise in the Outback? Maybe even go back to Eldonia and visit the most beautiful girl in the world....
What would it be like to see beyond the tiny rooms of my house?
There's no point in thinking about that. Because even if I had amazing grades, even if I didn't have to watch out for my dad and Millie, and hell, even if I were as rich as a prince, I couldn't go to college.
I look at the picture of the beautiful building with the sun-baked cobblestones and, above it, the words.
I see nothing but a mess of lines overlapping each other, forming symbols my brain can't make sense of.
There's no point in dreaming about a future I can't have. Because there is no future for someone like me.
Someone who can't even read.
Millie says she's heard of it before — that it's called dyslexia. I just call it being an idiot.
I crumple the papers in my hands and storm out of the school. Immediately, I'm swallowed up by the herd of students racing home for the weekend. I search their faces. Each one of them has a better shot at becoming someone than I do. The poor kid. The kid with the dead mom. The kid whose best friends are a hockey star and a prince.
I storm down the sidewalk and feel a dark desire growing inside me. I would give anything to be someone else, anyone except Tyler Evans.
I pick up the pace as I approach Millie's elementary school, skidding past hordes of screaming kids and dodging grouchy parents as if they were opposing defensemen. I spot Mils leaning against the chain link fence, her face completely obscured by a book. Jeez, for a fourth-grader, she's certainly got the posture of a teenager.
"Whatcha reading?" I say, plucking the book from her hands.
"Hey!" she squawks. Her little nose scrunches up. "I was just getting to the good part!"
"Yeah, is Bloom Blossom going to take down the Goblin King with her magic flower wand?" I look at the cover and see there's a new princess on the front — one with blue-hair and a dress made of bubbles.
"No, I finished that one yesterday," she says, and snatches the book back. "This is Marina, Princess of Mermaidia. And she's even cooler than Bloom Blossom."
"Sooo, you wouldn't want this?" I grab my drawing out of my back pocket.
Millie's face lights up. She snatches it out of my hands. "WOW! You drew her in her adventure outfit!"
"Your favorite," I say. "Now, come on. Dad's going to be home any minute, so I gotta drop you off and bolt to practice."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Just Pretending"
Copyright © 2018 Leah and Kate Rooper.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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