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Tears coursed down my face as I tried to fight through the pain. There was no escape. I had gotten myself into this mess, and I could see no way out but through.
"You've only got sixty seconds, Dylan! And you've used up thirty of them crying."
My best friend, Heaven, kept her eyes glued to one of her dad's eight thousand stopwatches — perks of being a PE teacher's daughter, I guess — as I shoved the sixth and final cracker in my mouth. Who knew that the saltine, a cracker so innocuously bland it was only eaten by people with stomach viruses, could be transformed into a weapon of mass destruction?
"All the crumbs must be eaten, Dyl! Wikipedia was very clear on that count."
"Do you see any crumbs?" At least, I thought I said, "Do you see any crumbs?" But I could tell from Heaven's face that I said something that sounded a lot more like "Ooee sshmaprhh oompums?"
"Ten seconds, Dyl. And you've got to swallow it."
"I caaaaan't," I moaned through the most horrifically salty mouthful I'd ever encountered. I couldn't do it.
"Don't you dare touch that Snapple."
My hand had gravitated unconsciously toward the deliciously cold, fruity refreshment perched temptingly on the coffee table. I whimpered.
"Time, Dylan, that's time!" Heaven shook her head sadly. "I expected more from Little Miss Cast Iron Stomach. What happened to the Dylan Janis Leigh who got her picture on the wall at Pig in a Poke after she finished the Belly Buster in an almost record-breaking twenty-two minutes and forty-three seconds? Where's that girl?"
My Pig in a Poke glory days were behind me. I had officially failed the Saltine Challenge, but at this point, all I cared about was getting those saltines out of my mouth. I looked around for someplace to spit.
"Yoo-hoo!" Heaven and I turned as we heard the front door slam. "Mama? Dylan? Y'all home?"
My big sister, Dusty, sashayed into the room with the confidence of someone who'd been spray-tanned since birth. I'd hoped once her yearlong reign as Miss Mississippi ended she'd be less pageant prissy, but apparently she was branded a beauty queen for life. Thank God Dusty hadn't been crowned Miss America. I couldn't even begin to imagine how insufferable she'd be if she'd actually won the whole thing.
I froze. Dusty wasn't alone. She was being trailed by a cameraman, a guy holding a big fuzzy microphone, and a lady with a clipboard. That was one big camera. I felt like it was staring at me with its giant, eyelike lens.
"Whoa, Dylan," Heaven said quietly, tapping the back of my hand. "You okay? You just went super white. Like, whiter than usual."
"Dylan, what in the world is in your mouth?" Dusty had a special talent for making me feel like an idiot. Granted, at this exact moment in time I was being an idiot, but I swear, I could have been sitting in here doing my calc homework, and she still probably would have waltzed in and said, "Dylan, what in the world are you doing?"
"Saltines," I mumbled, transfixed by the camera's evil eye. Why wouldn't it stop staring at me? Was it on? Was it recording me right that instant? Oh God.
"The cameras will be gone soon, Dyl," Heaven whispered as she squeezed my hand. "You just have to deal with them a little big longer."
I needed the cameras to be gone yesterday. Being sixteen was excruciating enough on its own without having to worry about avoiding cameramen who could preserve every awkward moment. Granted, they weren't there to film me, but they'd been dangerously close to getting my elbow in a shot one too many times. One of the many hazards of being six feet tall was limbs that seemed to go everywhere. And an inability to fade into the background. I envied five-foot-nothing Heaven her ability to hide. My best friend, of course, was born to stand out. If Heaven were tall like me, I bet she would have been one of those girls who wore six-inch heels anyway and didn't mind people staring.
"Honestly, Dylan, I can't understand a thing you're saying." Dusty sighed with extreme exaggeration. Ever since Prince in Disguise and the Reality Channel had become a part of our lives, everything Dusty did, as long as the cameras were in the room, was with extreme exaggeration. "Unless you are regurgitatin' a meal to feed some baby birds, I would appreciate it if you swallowed. Now."
"She can't," Heaven supplied helpfully. "That's the whole problem. She failed the Saltine Challenge."
"Good Lord. Don't you two have anything better to do with your time?" Dusty popped the lid off her enormous fountain soda — she rarely functioned without a liter or two of Diet Coke coursing through her bloodstream — and held it expectantly in front of my face. I was torn, because I desperately wanted the saltines gone. But I also knew that if I spat out those saltines, there was a one hundred percent chance that some choice footage of what would definitely look like me vomiting into an empty soda cup, would end up edited into the Prince in Disguise finale. I had been so careful all summer long to be gone when the cameras were around, or if Mom forced me to be in the room, to be boring. To not do anything that would ever, ever make the final cut and air on TV But somehow, regurgitating saltines into Dusty's cup seemed like the lesser of two evils. I spat out all the cracker mush and feverishly gulped my Snapple.
"Dilly, where's Mama?" Dusty asked once I'd set the nearly empty bottle back down on the coffee table.
Every "Dilly" Dusty had ever uttered was like nails on a chalkboard. Which she was fully aware of, and exactly why she persisted in calling me Dilly.
"She's getting her teeth bleached," I muttered, looking at the carpet instead of the camera. Mom's endless pursuit of pearly whites was one of the side effects of being a cohost at Good Morning, Mississippi.
"Well, that's all right; I really came to talk to you anyway." Dusty flashed her own recently bleached set of chompers. The two of them had probably singlehandedly financed our dentist's boat. Dusty is practically Mom's clone. They're both blond former pageant queens who people describe as "leggy" instead of "gangly," which is usually what people call me. Before Dusty turned Princess Bride, she had even been planning on using her communications degree to follow Mom into a career in broadcast journalism. See? Total clones. And then there's me — even taller, not nearly as blond, and totally unsuited for a tiara. In every way possible.
"Why do you have to talk to me?" I mumbled through gritted teeth. "I mean, why are you here with ... them?" I inclined my head vaguely in the direction of the camera.
"Oh, ignore them." Dusty waved her hands dismissively at the camera crew, silver Tiffany bracelets jangling on her long, tan arms. "Just pretend they're not even here."
Right. Like that was possible.
"This isn't a good time," Heaven piped up bravely. "Dylan and I are very busy. She's helping me with a, uh, a science project."
It was a valiant attempt, but I knew Dusty well enough to know that nothing could deter her. She was just like all those stupid T-shirts she wore to the gym that said dumb things like, "Southern girls are diamonds and buckshot!" or whatever. She looked pretty on the outside, but underneath, she was tough as the beefjerky they sold at the gas station.
I shot Heaven a grateful look and mouthed "Save yourself" as Dusty's manicured talons closed around my wrists.
"Come here, baby sister." Dusty hauled me onto the couch, where I landed with a fairly undignified thump.
"Is it on?" I whispered as Dusty sat down next to me, smoothing her skirt.
"Is what — Of course the camera's on, that's why it's here, dummy. Dylan, just ignore it!" A cloud of annoyance passed across Dusty's perma-grin. "Look at me. Me!" She snapped her fingers in my face, like I was a dog she was trying to train or something. I tore my gaze away from the carpet. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Heaven snapping her own fingers, lips smushed into a duckface I recognized instantly as her annoyed Dusty impression. I stifled a giggle.
"That's better." Dusty sighed contentedly. "Now, just keep your focus right on over here." She waved her French manicure around her eyes. "Listen, Dilly —"
"Don't call me that," I muttered.
"Sorry," she huffed. "Dylan."
"Thank you." I was surprised she listened. But she probably still wanted everyone at the Reality Channel to see her as the world's greatest human slash sister.
"Listen, Dylan," she started again, suddenly all smiles, like the last fifteen seconds hadn't happened. Was it possible that reality TV was turning my sister into even more of a pageant-bot than she already was?
"I'm sorry, can we get the other one out of the shot?" the clipboard lady interrupted.
"The other one? Well, excuuuse me," Heaven said. "Dylan, I'll be in the kitchen if you need me. I believe there are some Cheetos in there who would appreciate my presence" She stalked off.
"Heaven —" I protested meekly.
"Not staying where I'm not wanted!" she called as the kitchen door swung shut behind her. It was a dramatic exit, worthy of one of Tupelo High Show Choir's finest.
Now I was really on my own.
"All right, go ahead, Dusty"
"Dylan" Dusty smiled again, as if my best friend hadn't just been forcibly ejected from the living room. "You've been by my side my whole life. As my sister, as my friend, every step of the way."
I stared at her blankly. Why did she sound so scripted? I felt like I'd landed onstage in a play but didn't know any of the lines.
"Huh — what?"
"Your knee." She tapped it briskly. "Stop jiggling your damn knee. That won't read well."
I reddened and concentrated on gluing my knees together and sticking my socks to the floor. I never realized I was bouncing my knee up and down; it just kind of happened on its own. Despite Mom's best efforts to drill it out of me.
"You were there as I started to fall in love with Ronan. And now it's time for Ronan and me to start the journey ofour lives together, as husband and wife. And it's time for me to begin that journey with a countdown to the crown."
"You're not getting a crown," I interrupted. "Ronan isn't a prince. He's a lord. You know you're not actually going to be a princess, right? Just a lady. Or is it the Right Honorable Dusty?"
"She's worse than I thought," the woman with the clipboard muttered. "Dusty, keep going, honey," she added, louder. "We'll edit this all later."
"Sweet Lord Jesus in heaven, Dylan, are you trying to kill me?" Dusty hissed between clenched teeth. "Can you just go with this? For once? Try not to make my life more difficult?"
"I'm not trying to be difficult," I hissed back. "I just hate cameras. Which is why I told you clearly, explicitly, way back in the beginning, that I wanted no part in this."
"Believe me, I am well aware." Dusty grimaced. "You think I wanted you in this? Didn't I do my damn best to keep you out of all of Prince in Disguise? Trust me, Dylan, this has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the network. I tried to warn them about what you were like."
About what I was like? What did that even mean? I didn't want to be part of the stupid show anyway, but I couldn't believe Dusty had wanted to keep me out so badly. It still stung, even though rationally I knew that didn't make any sense.
"Dusty, let's get going here," the clipboard lady called out.
"Absolutely, Pamela!" Dusty trilled. "Just havin' a little heart to heart with my baby sister."
"A sister is a special friend!" I trilled, imitating Dusty's saccharine tone. She elbowed me in the side.
"Ow!" I yelped.
"Don't make fun of me!"
"Keep your bony elbows to yourself!"
"Girls!" Pamela barked. Both of us sat up straight. "I'll cut right to the chase. As you know, Prince in Disguise has been a huge hit for the network."
Prince in Disguise. What a stupid idea for a show. A "prince" — who isn't a prince at all, just a lord, even though no one will listen to me no matter how many times I bring that up — comes to America and pretends to be not royal in order to find a good ol'-fashioned bride who loves him for what's on the inside. Foolproof. Especially because reality TV has the best track record for matchmaking. There's been, what, one successful Bachelor marriage in approximately four hundred seasons?
And unluckily for me, TRC sent Ronan Dougal Murray, Lord Dunleavy, to Tupelo, Mississippi, where he got one look at my sister making a very special Miss Mississippi appearance at Tupelo's All-America City Family Picnic in the Park, and promptly fell head-over-heels in love. Or whatever passes for love on reality TV. I had nothing against Ronan, per se — he'd always been perfectly nice — but I was skeptical. How could you fall in love with someone you'd only dated in front of cameras for a matter of weeks? It was insane.
"We couldn't be happier about how the series wrapped." Pamela smiled at Dusty in a way that conveyed very little actual human happiness.
Of course they were happy. On what was supposed to be the last day of filming Prince in Disguise, when I thought we were done with the Reality Channel forever, Ronan revealed he was secretly a lord, and then he dropped to one knee and proposed to my sister. See? Ronan seemed nice, but he was probably insane. You don't marry someone you just met. Did they not have Frozen in Scotland?
"To capitalize on Prince in Disguise's success, TRC will be filming Happily Ever After with Dusty and Ronan: A Scottish Royal Wedding."
"My big sis, the tall blond Kardashian," I muttered. Dusty glared at me. Probably because I'd just shared her secret life goal out loud.
"But Dusty and Ronan have proven so popular that we'd like to be able to share more than just their special day with their fans"
"You have fans?" I asked archly. Dusty ignored me. I knew she had fans. I just preferred to pretend that these fans didn't exist, that there were no Dusty and Ronan message boards, or Us Weeklys with my sister's face splashed across the cover. It was too weird to think about total strangers somehow being invested in my sister's wedding. In her life. Way too weird.
"Which is why," Pamela continued like I hadn't said anything, "we will also be filming Countdown to the Crown, showing the weeks of planning and prep we'll need leading up to the wedding. It will all be filmed at Ronan's family estate in the Highlands."
Countdown to the Crown. Seriously? No wonder Dusty thought she was getting a tiara. The entire network was in on this delusion.
"Sounds delightful. Thanks for the info. I'll be sure to circle it in my TV Guide. Have fun in Scotland, Dusty!" I brimmed with false cheer. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because, Dylan, although, you aren't exactly what we ... expected" — Pamela looked at me like I was a flaming bag of poo on her doorstep — "the whole royal-wedding-sisters concept has tested very, very positively with our focus groups. Blame the Middletons. People want to see Dusty with her sister by her side. They want American Middletons. So even though ... Well, the benefits outweigh the risks. That's what editing's for, right?"
"Benefits of what?" I asked suspiciously.
"You coming to Scotland with me," Dusty said bluntly. "For the show. Filmin' the whole Countdown to the Crown. Mama's coming, too, obviously."
"No," I gasped. "What? No. I will not be on the show. I cannot be a part of any Countdown to the Crown. Dusty, you know I hate cameras!" I pleaded. "This isn't what we talked about. I thought they were just filming the wedding. You said people just wanted to see you and Ronan and some impressive tablescapes. And you promised that there would only be blurry background shots of me bridesmaiding!"
I knew I sounded like an ungrateful troll who didn't want to be part of her big sister's wedding, but being a featured member of some random royal spinoff sounded like actual hell on earth. Of course I wanted to be at Dusty's wedding — I just didn't want anyone looking at me while I was there. And I certainly didn't want anyone filming me.
"Things change," Dusty said coolly.
"I am not reality TV material," I insisted. And I certainly wasn't any kind of American Middleton.
Excerpted from "Prince in Disguise"
Copyright © 2017 Stephanie Kate Strohm.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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