Alexandra Ryans's life has been anything but normal. Some might even call it a fairy tale. As the daughter of the former U.S. ambassador to England, she grew up within the palace walls, best friends with the three young princes. Adored by the press and the British people. What more could a girl want?
If only the press knew the real story behind her relationships with the Dudley boys. Then, they'd really sell some papers.
Oliver Dudley, youngest son and third in line for the throne, loves everything about his life. The fame. The parties. The women. The utter lack of expectations and responsibilities that come with being last in the line of succession. But while the world thinks he has everything he wants, there's one thing he was never able to call his own
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22 Years, 9 Months, and 22 Days
Safe travels, Ryans. I'm really looking forward to seeing you.
I haven't seen Oliver Dudley, third in line for the throne of England, in three years. That should have been enough time to get any boy out of both my mind and heart, yet one text from him and my insides feel like a firecracker has just gone off in a mailbox.
For the love of Alan Rickman.
Cinderella had it easy. Real-life fairy tales are a lot more complicated than making it home before your carriage turns into a pumpkin.
I wonder how easy it would be to switch my flight. Jet off to somewhere no one could find me. Of course, that would entail running from a family that had MI6 at their disposal, so I doubt I would get very far.
I eye the bottle of whiskey the airport bartender tosses from one hand to another like he's watched one too many marathons of Vanderpump Rules.
This is going to be a disaster, and I've had one too many of those in the past year. "Bartender!" I call out. "Whiskey ginger, please."
"You sure you want to do that, little lady? You already smell a bit like you took a bath in tequila," notes a deep rumble of a voice from my right.
I spin my chair slowly toward the sound. Just as I'm getting ready to let this man know it's rude to tell a woman she still smells like the Mexican restaurant she drowned her sorrows in the night before, I take him in.
What. Is. Happening?
"Santa?" I whisper.
Either Rodrigo slipped some peyote in my jumbo margaritas last night, or I am currently sitting one chair away from a grown man dressed like Santa. In July. My mouth drops open.
"Whiskey ginger for the Real Madrid fan," the bartender says, sliding my glass toward me, noting the futbol jersey I'm wearing.
"Actually, I'm a Liverpool fan. I just like Castillas," I grumble, cradling the glass, unable to let anyone for two seconds think I'm not the biggest Liverpool fan in existence. Not like Ollie would let me forget it. Always ready to remind me of that one time Manchester United beat Liverpool's ass. Never willing to back down from reminding me he thought he knew more about sports than I did.
"God, Ryans, you might just be the prettiest girl I've ever seen."
I laugh and roll my eyes. "You've seen me almost every day for seventeen years, and this is the first I'm hearing anything of it."
He leans in. Close. His breath tickling the side of my neck. "Because you were never mine to look at before."
There he goes again, shooting through my mind like one of those flashing signs that warns of dangerous road conditions up ahead. I tilt the glass of whiskey back and let the liquid burn up my insides, hoping it will destroy all those pesky feelings on the way down in the most Pompeii way possible.
Santa clears his throat.
For the briefest of moments, I think of spilling my guts to Father Christmas. Despite his snarky remark, there's something warm and welcoming about the man. Maybe it has to do with childhood memories of sugar cookies and presents, but I want to tell him about Ollie. About Aiden. About how bad I messed things up. How scared I am to get on the plane and return to England.
How I was given the fairy-tale life, and it didn't take an evil queen or ugly stepmother to ruin it. I did that all on my own.
Instead, I blink back my tears and slam the glass down on the bar.
I half expect Santa to retort that I'm now permanently on his naughty list, but instead, he chuckles. "Another whiskey ginger for the kid," he calls out to the bartender. I raise my eyebrow. "What?" he asks, reaching up to straighten the Santa hat that sits atop his Santa head.
"Didn't think you approved," I say quietly.
"Never said that. I was just asking if you were sure you wanted another drink. 'Cause you smell like a frat house the day after a rush party."
I pull my shoulders back and stare down Kris Kringle. "Look, the last person who should be judging me for my life choices is a man sitting in an airport bar dressed like Father Christmas."
With a scowl, Santa turns away from me, and I feel like a giant ass. I'm not this girl. The mean, embittered woman crossed by life and love. I won't be her. Even if things seem like they can't get any worse.
I clear my throat and run a hand down my hair. "Santa?" I ask meekly, instantly feeling foolish that I, a grown woman, am about to grovel to a man whose belly is known to shake like a bowl full of jelly.
He doesn't answer, but I can tell he's listening. "I'm really sorry. It was super nice of you to buy me a drink. And you certainly didn't deserve me, you know, being a — "
"— a Grinch who's sure to get coal in her stocking?" he interrupts, followed by a good-natured grin.
I can't help but laugh a little. I've never been called a Grinch before. Certainly not by a man dressed like Papa Noel at an airport bar in the middle of July. But, then again, my life has never quite been normal. Despite all the running from it I've done to make it so.
"Something like that, yeah," I say.
"Don't worry about it," he replies, turning back toward me. "Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned the whole smell thing."
"At least maybe not twice," I offer, taking my new drink and toasting him.
"My wife always did say I let my mouth run like a sled with genetically engineered reindeer," he admits.
"Mrs. Claus sounds like a smart woman," I reply before taking a swig.
"She was," he replies quietly, holding a hand up to get the bartender's attention.
I may have failed out of college, but I don't miss the verb tense switch. Was. Besides, I know that look he wears so heavily on his face. It's the same one my father wore for years after Mom died.
I saw the ghost of that look on my face once, but being the perpetual fool that I was, I never could pinpoint the cause. Back when things got so messy, I couldn't tell where I began and where I ended. I was so mixed up with those boys.
"His drink is on me," I call out to the bartender once Santa has put in his order.
I nod as we both fall into the most comfortable silence two strangers can settle into at an airport bar. Papa Noel keeps checking his watch, as if by sheer force he can bend time to his will. My mom had always been like that. Obsessed with time. Every inch of our flat filled with pillows and artwork bestowed with some platitude about how time waits for no man. Of course, back then, I didn't realize what it had all meant.
Mom was fascinated with the concept of time because she knew she would never have enough of it. Maybe she thought she had outrun it the first go-around with the cancer, but she knew she was damned during the rematch. I don't have many memories of her. I was so young when I lost her. But the ones I do have all seemed filled with ticking clocks and blaring alarms.
My childhood was Alice in Wonderland in more ways than one.
Mom and I'd be eating dinner or playing at the park, and she would stop midsentence, look over at me wide-eyed, and whisper a list of numbers: years followed by months followed by days. How long she had been alive. How long she had kicked time's ass.
I run my hand across my wrist where my mother's watch rests.
The way my mom marked time always seemed like a moment of triumph, but every morning I wake up, listing the years and months and days I've been on Earth, it is a reminder of how much time I have wasted. 'Cause as it stands, my life is a complete and utter tornado of bad decisions.
Living on this Earth for twenty-two years, nine months, and twenty-two days and all I've managed to accomplish is letting a silly little crush on the wrong boy stop me from realizing I was in love with my best friend, running away from the only real home I've ever known, getting kicked out of college, and sleeping with a professor who, turns out, happened to be married.
I glance up at the clock on the Arrival/Departures board across the way and adjust my mother's watch.
I sip on my second drink and start to flip through one of my magazines. It takes three pages before I see them. The royal family in all their crowning glory. Poised perfection. My eyes become entrapped by the Dudley brothers.
Like Alice falling down that darn hole.
Tall, lean men, the youngest of which spent more time chasing futbols than policy. His firm, muscled body could attest to that. And despite their extremely different personalities, there was no doubting they were brothers. They all had the same constantly ruddy cheeks partnered with bright smiles that put all those rumors about poor dentistry in England to bed.
I swallow. Hard. It feels a bit naughty thinking the word "bed" while staring down at England's hottest royals since, well ... Had there ever been hot royals on the throne of England? I guess Henry VIII was considered good looking until he got fat and started killing his wives.
Their eyes. That's where the real difference lay. Especially between Aiden and Ollie. Ollie's were green and hungry, always searching for what was next. Aiden's were the sort of blue travel photographers searched oceans for — clear and deep all at the same time.
My fingers slide across the glossy pages until they touch the space between Aiden and Ollie, the space where I somehow always seemed to live. Until living in that space became unbearable for all of us.
I had been too big of a wanker to figure out who I wanted back then, and I had made a mess out of everything because of it. And while the newfound clarity of my desires would seem like a bit of freedom to most, it only makes everything worse. Because of who I want. Because of who I have become. It will never work.
The traitorous tears return as I slam the magazine shut.
Pull it together, Alexandra, or you're never going to make it through the next few weeks.
"You never did ask me why I was wearing this Santa suit," I hear from the darkness. I take a deep breath and pull myself up.
"Well, what else would Santa wear?" I ask, managing a smile.
"The HoHoHo Convention in Las Vegas. It's the biggest convention for Santa impersonators this side of the Atlantic. They do a big Christmas in July thing, and by the time my flight arrives, I'll just be able to make it to the Jingle Ball. No way to change clothes in between," he explains.
"You're telling me you're not the real Santa?" I ask, feigning shock.
He chuckles. "Don't worry, I'll put in a good word with the real guy for you."
I let free a shaky laugh. "Thanks. I'm going to need it."
"It can't be all that bad," he says, clinking his glass against mine.
Should I tell him about all the time I've wasted messing everything up in my life? What would Santa say about the rumors I slept with a professor to raise my grade? I clear my throat as I run my fingers over the band of my mom's watch.
"Says the guy who reminded me twice I smell like a walking ad for prohibition," I counter.
"Want to talk about it?" he asks, eyeing me like a rotten child who's about to give him a good, swift kick to the knee.
Yes. I did. But I couldn't. A tiny slip of a name, and I'd be putting them all at risk. I wouldn't bring that kind of shame on them. I'd done enough to cause strife in that family.
Instead of spilling my guts, I shift in my seat. My eyes shoot to the exit. I could make it out to the taxi line in less than ten minutes if I booked it. What if I'm not strong enough to face them? Any of them?
Santa places a hand on my shoulder. "Whatever the hell has you so scared to get on that plane, face it. Life is incredibly, mercilessly short. There are so many things that come for us that we won't be able to fight. Save your fear for them. But all those pesky other things, the things that nearly destroy us but don't, we always manage to get back up. Always. Our fear is wasted on them."
I open my mouth and then close it. How did he know just what to say? He's like my own fairy godmother. Which makes a sort of sense. If I were to have one, it'd be a man dressed like Santa in July, sitting in an airport bar buying me shots. That's just how my life works.
I reach up toward my shoulder and place my hand on his, giving it a squeeze. "You're the best damn Santa I've ever met." And before I overthink it, I give him a hug.
He's right. This is nothing. I've been through worse. Losing Mom. That was pretty awful. I managed to make it through that. I can survive this.
"Besides, it could be worse," Father Christmas says as I pull away. "You could be one of those poor suckers. At least our problems aren't broadcast for an international audience."
My eyes dart to the television just in time to see the headline "King Worries Prince Oliver Will Bring Wild Models to Royal Wedding."
And just like that, I'm reminded that Santa isn't real.
22 Years, 9 Months, and 23 Days
"You look like one of those dreadful women on Absolutely Fabulous," Mrs. Wright says with a tsk and a scowl. Only Mrs. Wright would choose to insult me with a nineties' television reference. Heck, the nineties was probably the last time she watched television. Back when we were all young and the biggest trouble we could get into was sneaking too many cookies during afternoon tea and throwing up in the Queen's Gallery.
I cross my arms over my chest. "I'll take that as a compliment. That's a highly entertaining show." I pout.
Mrs. Wright had always been judge, jury, and executioner when it came to the Dudley boys and me. Originally, she was brought on as the princes' governess, but as they got older, she served more in the role of their public relations coordinator, whose services were needed by one of the Dudley boys more than the others. And even though her job was mostly making sure none of us caused a national scandal, she easily slipped back into her governess persona. It was one of her more annoying habits, but she was the closest thing any of us had to a mother. We may have complained, and complained a lot, but deep down we all loved her.
"Yes, the show is wonderful, but the women dressed like trollops. In fact, they might be slightly better dressed than you currently are. Now, get in the loo and put on that pretty little frock I bought you before I box your ears like I did when you were a girl."
I blow air out my nose, mostly in an effort to keep my mouth shut. Nothing good ever came from talking back to Mrs. Wright. Doesn't mean I don't stomp my feet a little as I push through the noisy pub lined with patrons who mostly look like me — shell-shocked and hungover as hell.
There's something nice about it all, though. The cramped space of the pub. The warmth. The stone walls overburdened with old pictures and paintings from England's glorious past. A hodgepodge of square and round and oval tables and barstools. Someone shouting at the telly, swearing to never watch futbol again. The aroma of gravy and mead wafting through the air. Sunday brunch in all its glory.
God bless Mrs. Wright. She may be a tyrant, but she knows what's she doing. If she was going to force me to sit through a lecture on her behavioral expectations for me over the next few weeks, at least she chose somewhere I liked — a pub the boys and I used to sneak off to so we could have a few beers when we managed to venture away from London. Heck, maybe our adventures here were less about the pints of beer and more about the escape. A few, brief hours where we just got to be teenagers. Where the only throne any of us had to worry about was the porcelain one.
Ollie and I used to take turns flirting with Liam, his lead security man, to let us go. Escorted, of course. We were never sure which of us Liam preferred, but it always worked. Aiden hated it, but he went along just the same. Mostly to make sure we stayed out of trouble.
No one ever recognized us here because they weren't expecting royalty to walk through their doors. These were everyday people. The kind who made all our problems seem feeble and shallow. They didn't see us because they would never think to look. Sometimes it was as simple as that. Of course, there were also the wigs and the prosthetic noses and fake beards. Ollie couldn't get enough of the dressing up. I swear if he weren't currently third in line for the throne of England, he'd be a famous actor. Dressing up as someone else was almost as fun as the beer drinking.
I didn't think Mrs. Wright had known about our secret rendezvous.
What other secrets does she know about?
I force the thought from my brain. I plan on enjoying the relative peace of the pub. Minus Mrs. Wright's diatribe, of course. Because in a few short hours, I'll be back in London, and there will be no peace after that.
From relative obscurity rocketed back into the spotlight.
Excerpted from "Royal Attraction"
Copyright © 2017 Tiffany Truitt.
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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