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Today, we have the FIRST chapter as a sneak peek! I’m seriously beyond excited for you to get a taste of this story! You WILL fall in love. The pre-order is up! It’ll be FREE in KU! And again, it’s a MUST READ!
I’ve spent eight years wishing I’d fall out of love with Derek Knightley. Blowing out birthday candles, chasing after shooting stars, making it rain spare change into mall fountains—every time it’s the same wish: forget about Derek.
But the day he walks back into my life, I realize there are two things time has yet to soften: my feelings for him and his chiseled jawline.
It’s infuriating that my heart still races when he walks into a room. I refuse to fall prey to old unrequited love, so I decide the less I’m around him, the better. Avoidance is key.
Unfortunately, Derek isn’t going to make it easy. As a teenager, I would have crawled on my hands and knees to attract his attention. Now I can’t seem to escape it.
I’m not sure why he’s bothering. He’s not just out of my league—he’s out of my tax bracket. As the sole heir to the Knightley Company, he’s as close to American royalty as you can get. As for me, I’m just a part-time princess at Knightley’s flagship magical theme park.
I spend my days playing make-believe, but Derek has no use for fairytales. His unwavering confidence makes it clear he thinks I’ll surrender in the end.
He’s just biding his time.
Making me sweat.
His Royal Highness always gets what he wants.
And he wants me.
Chapter One Sneak Peek
My life is a fairytale. Or rather…it takes place inside of one. Smack-dab along Georgia’s southern coast is the largest theme park in the world. When guests turn off the highway, they drive beneath a colorful two-story welcome sign and leave all vestiges of the outside world behind them. A winding road cuts through patchy pine forests and sprawling grasslands. Long minutes pass. The trek continues, seemingly endless. Children grow restless in the back seat of a rented minivan. Tiny shoes and crackers start to fly. The leader in the driver’s seat fears he took a wrong turn and wonders to himself if—nay, when he should admit he has no idea where he’s going.
This is all intentional.
That drive is a black hole, transporting theme-park-goers from their mundane 9-to-5 lives and plopping them down into a world filled with magic and wonder.
At the precise moment in which a U-turn seems all but inevitable, a sight appears on the horizon: a medieval French castle with purple-roofed spires jutting toward the sky, so large and imposing, there’s no way to miss it.
The driver is unsure if his vision is failing him. He convinces himself it’s just a mirage right up until his children start to scream with glee. “We’re here! We’re here!”
Both parents wipe beads of sweat from their brows. The driver can now admit, with a relieved laugh, that he was near tears there for a second.
Welcome to Fairytale Kingdom.
I work inside that castle on the horizon, on the bottom floor inside a room designed to mimic a great hall. It has stone floors and tapestry-covered walls. A spiral staircase leads guests up to a restaurant that requires reservations one year in advance. I stand across from the staircase, in front of an oversized hearth wearing a pale green iridescent gown. Soft music plays from a harp in the corner and several hundred children stand in line waiting for their turn to meet me.
“IT’S HER! MOM! IT’S THE REAL PRINCESS ELENA!”
A toddler stares at me starry-eyed. Another girl cries with excitement when I glance in her direction then she quickly shoves her face into her mom’s dress, overcome with shyness. I smile and wave gracefully and continue to act my part.
All the while, security tries to extricate a little boy who has wiggled his way up underneath my dress.
It’s not the first time this has happened.
My tulle skirt is a sparkling poof of temptation, a fabric cloud begging to be repurposed as a hiding spot. I knew the little boy was trouble as soon as I laid eyes on him. He wiped snot from his nose with the back of his hand while he scanned my dress, eyes alight with possibilities. Beside him, his older sister waited patiently with her autograph book clutched to her chest, shaking with excitement. When it was finally her turn to meet me, her brother didn’t miss a beat. He bypassed her and nosedived for my dress, too quick for his mom to grab.
Now I laugh lightheartedly, all the while trying to signal to Ryan to hurry it up down there. Under my dress, the boy wraps his skinny arms around my leg and shifts my center of gravity a smidge to the right. For the first time, my mask crumples. Oh no—I’m going down. In a second, I’ll be lying face down in a heap of fabric and this carefully constructed idyllic scene inside Elena’s Castle will be ruined as paramedics rush in to tend to my broken nose. Hundreds of children will be scarred for life by the image of blood raining down across my gown.
There’s protocol for this situation. Under no circumstances should I break character. Under no circumstances should I put my hands on the child and forcibly remove him myself. The Knightley Company doesn’t want photos circulating on the internet of one of their princesses manhandling a little boy. That’s Ryan’s job.
Ryan is the man cast as His Royal Highness, Princess Elena’s love interest. On top of playing his part, he’s supposed to function as a form of first-level security. He should have this situation under control, but he doesn’t. He’s too gallant and sweet. He kneels down and tries to goad the boy out from under my dress with promises of candy—“You like Skittles? Yeah? How ’bout I buy you a pack? Ten packs?”—but the boy just giggles with glee and clings to me tighter. I waver on my heels, wide eyes finding Ryan’s.
“Please hurry!” I whisper.
With gathered courage, Ryan flips up the bottom of my skirt, sticks his upper body underneath, and tries to grab ahold of the little boy. Oh dear god. Ryan’s hand accidentally glides against my bare calf—the one I forgot to shave this morning—and the boy wiggles away like a little snake. My face turns the same shade as my hair: blazing red.
Children and parents start to worry. I try hard to spontaneously combust but am still fully intact when Ryan shouts, “Gotcha!”
He rips the little boy out from under my dress. The boy cries with rage. His mom apologizes profusely. More park security rushes into the great hall, brushing past the boy’s sister with her autograph book still clutched to her chest. She stands in mortified shock, her mouth agape. This was her moment. She traveled from somewhere far away, waited her turn for hours, and now it’s ruined. She won’t get to meet me.
Security wants to check that I’m okay, but I brush past them and, without hesitating, crouch down in front of the girl, my hands clasped daintily. I tilt my head and smile. My cheeks are still stained red with embarrassment, but other than that, I’m Princess Elena.
“Hello there. What’s your name?” I ask, tone soft and sweet, just a pinch higher than my normal voice.
“Mc-McKenna,” she stutters.
I smile. “McKenna, it’s a pleasure to meet you. That’s a pretty book you have there. May I see it?”
She nods and hands it over, and just like that, the situation is salvaged. Five minutes later, McKenna has a shiny new autograph and three photos with Princess Elena ready for her mom to purchase in the gift shop. Her smile is permanently affixed to her cheeks—or it will be until her brother does something else to annoy her.
For the remainder of my shift, I smile and chat and pose with children, but inside, I am dead. Not only did I bypass my razor this morning, I also said, Eh, screw it, and decided to leave on my cotton granny panties—y’know, the droopy ones that cover your entire butt and then some—and I know Ryan saw them.
They’re an ugly, faded pair the color of eggplants, but I can’t bear to part with them.
I glance at him out of the corner of my eye, but he doesn’t meet my gaze. His vision is undoubtedly clouded by a shabby purple hue.
I’ve had a crush on Ryan ever since he first assumed his post as His Royal Highness ten months ago. He walked into the training room, sheathed in the requisite emerald green coat and tan pants, and my heart pitter-pattered in my chest. His light brown hair is infused with the shine of a thousand diamonds. His eyes are the color of a summer sky. He smiles and the moms waiting in line sag in defeat. We chat before every shift, and sometimes, he walks me back to my locker when we’re done. Through our exchanges, I’ve started to gather intel on him, and I hoard the facts close to my heart. He likes country music. He’s never seen Armageddon. He went to college for two and a half years to pursue a theater arts degree before dropping out to work at Fairytale Kingdom full-time. He is, in short, the love of my life.
Of course, I also have a small crush on a guy who works in the bakery across the street from the castle. He sometimes gives me free coffee or fudge samples. For simplicity’s sake, and because he never wears his name tag, I call him Fudge Guy, and I’ve had a crush on him almost as long as I have on Ryan.
There’s also Jake from accounting. He’s older. Quiet. He passes out staff paychecks, and my feelings for him wax and wane every two weeks.
This might seem confusing, but I have it all organized in my fictional Rolodex of love interests. Though they never seem to amount to much of anything, I don’t let that deter me. I love love. The butterflies, the hopeful promise of what tomorrow might bring. I fell in love for the first time when I was eighteen. It was unrequited and silly, wrapped up in teen angst. Still, none of my crushes hold a candle to that one. To this day, that crush eclipses all the ones that have come after it. An annoying but enduring fact.
I’ve been hopeful about Ryan, though. A simple creature, he would be good for me. He could introduce me to the world of honky-tonk. We could watch Armageddon and I could cry on his shoulder when Bruce Willis sacrifices himself. Well, I could have…before he saw my saggy eggplant underwear.
I’m still despairing over the morning’s turn of events when I join Cal for an early dinner. We have a standing date every Wednesday. Like clockwork, I wrap up my shift, replace my gown with street clothes, and head back toward his penthouse, which overlooks the theme park. Yes, he lives inside Elena’s Castle. Lucky jerk.
In short, Charles Knightley, AKA “Cal”, is the intrepid brain behind the Knightley Company. He is to Fairytale Kingdom as Elon Musk is to Tesla. Without him, none of us would be here.
He’s a legend around these parts, and not many people have much interaction with him, especially if not on an executive team. But, for the last eight years, Cal has been my mentor, and more than that, a friend. It might seem like an odd pairing considering he’s nearly 60 years my senior, but it works.
I take the spiral staircase past the second-floor restaurant until I reach the third-floor elevator. I scan my employee ID and step inside. The doors sweep closed behind me and up I go.
Cal’s penthouse is concocted from pure fantasy. Ornate, opulent, over the top, and filled with everything the king of the Knightley Company needs to run his kingdom, it’s never quiet. Even now, when I step off the elevator into his foyer, I hear voices filtering down from the living room. He uses the main part of the penthouse to run day-to-day operations. There are always executives and managers running in and out.
The walls of the long, wide foyer are covered in renderings and early architectural blueprints of the park. There are framed chicken-scratch notes of would-be roller coasters and hastily drawn character concepts that all eventually came to life in one way or another. These little pieces of Fairytale Kingdom’s past would sell at auction for millions of dollars, and yet, here they hang, right at my fingertips.
Cal’s booming voice carries to where I stand and I smile and move along, finally spotting him at the large bank of windows that face directly down Castle Drive—his usual spot. It’s a view few in the world have been lucky enough to see.
I nod to the other people in the room—all of whom I know by face, if not by name—and walk over to Cal. He tips his head in greeting and continues his discussion with the Head of Food and Beverage. I know better than to interrupt while he’s putting out a fire. Instead, I glance out the window and take in the park. In the area around Elena’s Castle, everything is designed to look like a medieval French village transformed in colorful pastel hues. Red cobblestone paths lead past small cottages housing gift shops. A smithery churns out toy swords. An apothecary shop sells fruit juice disguised as various tinctures and potions. Restaurants fill to capacity while barmaids and singers spill out onto the street. The manicured lawns are green and dotted with topiaries carefully carved into lifelike knights and their steeds. The street itself is lined with black lanterns and hanging planters. Vendors sell hot dogs and balloons and ice cream and handheld bubble machines. Though the sounds don’t carry, I can imagine the hum of the park. Even this late in the evening, Fairytale Kingdom is alive, and every square inch seems to be filled by guests. From where I stand, they look like ants.
Cal’s hand hits my shoulder and I glance back.
His loose white shirt is rolled neatly to his elbows underneath a purple cotton vest. His green army pants should clash with the thin French scarf tied around his neck, but they don’t. That’s just Cal. I’ve never once seen him shy away from color or pattern or texture. His clothing is as outlandish and eccentric as he is.
“I heard about the incident today,” he says, removing his glasses and letting them dangle on their blue lanyard.
I blush, though I shouldn’t be surprised he found out about the little boy. If anything out of the ordinary happens in his park, he knows about it.
“It wasn’t a big deal. Ryan sorted it out eventually.”
He narrows his eyes, not pleased with that answer. Cal doesn’t think much of Ryan. He’s late for his shifts every now and then. He doesn’t go the extra mile for guests the way some of us do.
“I think we’ll have to change things up a bit with personnel.”
My eyes widen. “You won’t fire Ryan, will you?”
He strokes his neat white beard for a moment as he thinks. “No, not yet. I’ll keep him posted there for now, but I’d like an auxiliary employee stationed with you as well, someone In Character.”
In Character is how we refer to employees who are in costume and an active part of the Fairytale Kingdom world. Guests are meant to interact with them. By comparison, a Non-Character—such as a maintenance person—though dressed in a themed uniform, isn’t in costume and is therefore meant to blend into the surroundings so as to not detract from the overall experience for guests. Cal believes in full immersion and we’re all meant to take that task to heart.
“What do you mean? Last I checked there’s only Princess Elena and His Royal Highness posted inside Elena’s Castle.”
That’s how the story goes, at least. Cal should know. He created it.
He nods, no doubt already working through a solution in his mind. Then he checks his watch before glancing back at the foyer. He’s more distracted than usual this evening.
The executives have filtered out. It’s just us now.
He catches me watching him and smiles. “Come. Let’s go eat. I asked Ava to make your favorite meal tonight.”
Yeast rolls, fried chicken, buttered green beans, and homestyle mashed potatoes fill my plate as I update Cal about my life. He asks me if I’ve heard from my parents and I promise him I’ll call them sometime this week.
“I know they miss you.”
I swallow past a lump in my throat and reach for my water.
Across from me, a crisp navy charger, dinner plate, crystal glass, and folded linen napkin sit untouched, all meant for a guest who never showed up.
“Were you expecting someone else to join us?”
Cal checks his watch again. “Yes. Apparently, he’s been delayed.”
He sounds down about that fact, but he doesn’t care to elaborate so I don’t force it. It’s not unusual to have other people join us for our Wednesday night dinners. Cal is an important man. We occasionally share the meal with other staff from the park, traveling board members, or investors, but even then, Cal always keeps my place at the table right beside him and somehow, we carve out time to talk. Even during livelier gatherings, when the guest list grows out of hand and I seem to be the odd one out in a room full of creative geniuses, I’m still happy to be there sitting by Cal, taking it all in. He’s been a mentor to me for so long, at some point he turned into family.
I know he feels the same.
“There’s going to be a lot of change in the company over the next few months,” he tells me now, his voice sounding grave.
My gaze immediately locks onto his chest as if I’ll be able to see his heart beating through his clothes. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.
He chuckles. “It’s not because of my ticker.”
Cal’s recent stint in the hospital for a heart attack has been at the forefront of my mind recently. We’d all be rudderless without him.
“That being said, it is time I start preparing for a retirement that is hopefully still many years down the line. I’ll be shifting people around, delegating more.” When he catches my not-so-subtle smirk, he amends his statement. “Trying to delegate. My doctors insist on it. Any hopes I can talk you into accepting a position with me?”
I narrow my eyes and shake my head. “Really? Using your health to get your way? I’d expect better from you.”
He laughs good-naturedly and tears a bite off his roll. His dinner doesn’t quite stack up against mine. His chicken is un-fried, his beans are un-buttered, and his potatoes have been swapped for quinoa, but he yanked a roll out of the basket in the center of the table when we first sat down. A man has to live, he said, and I didn’t argue.
“That’s not what I’m doing.” He tips his head, an amused smile peeking through his beard. “Not unless you think it would work.” I roll my eyes and he chuckles. “I just think your talent is wasted down there In Character. I should have insisted on promoting you years ago.”
This is an old shtick. Cal likes to think I have loads of business savvy buried deep down inside me just burning to be set free, but I’m happy right where I am. “You know I like my job. Shift around all the personnel you want, but leave me be.”
And that’s that. No more business talk.
As our food disappears from our plates, our discussion turns to the murder mystery podcast we’ve been following for the last few weeks. I got him addicted and now we both love playing armchair detective.
After dinner, he walks me to the elevator with a doggy bag filled with enough food to keep me fed for a week. Ava always does this, and I’ve learned not to fight it. I know when I get home, I’ll find that the bag is filled not only with leftovers from our meal tonight, but with other previously prepared food as well.
She just can’t help herself.
“Same time next week?” he asks, pressing the elevator button for me.
“Same time.” I nod.
The doors slide open and I take a step in before realizing there’s a man trying to exit. Cal’s guest must have finally arrived. For a split second, we do the awkward elevator tango. Left. Right. Left. How can two humans possibly be so in sync? We’ll be dancing around each other for all of eternity, I think, before he chuckles and gives me a wide berth, stepping around me. I step onto the elevator and turn back, eyes chancing a quick glance up at his face. I expect to see a board member or close confidant of Cal’s, someone who frequents his penthouse. Instead, I’m punched in the gut by the sight of a man I haven’t seen in eight years.
Our gazes catch and my knees give way. A second before I crumple, I catch myself against the elevator wall, just above the control panel.
He doesn’t speak.
I don’t either.
Has it been five seconds or five years since we first locked eyes?
His mouth opens. I know he’s about to say something, but before he can, I slam my hand on the Close door button, and for once the damn thing decides to work. Surely it’s the first time in recorded history. The elevator doors glide shut, blocking him from my view, and I slide down to the floor, lost for words, lost for air.
It’s been eight years and now he’s back.
My first crush.
About the Author
R.S. Grey is the USA Today bestselling author of thirteen novels, including THE FOXE & THE HOUND. She lives in Texas with her husband and two dogs, and can be found reading, binge-watching reality TV, or practicing yoga! Visit her at rsgrey.com.
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