Coming Tuesday, 12/12!!
Get ready for a super-dirty MFM retelling of Snow White! Who needs seven when two do SO nicely? 😉
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Ready for Protecting Their Princess? Here we go!
(ARC signup is at the bottom.)
Pint of chocolate ice cream: check.
Glass of red wine: check.
Pajamas, slippers, bra off, hair pulled up in a messy bun: check.
It’s finally time for the season finale of Gentleman’s Choice, my own personal favorite guilty pleasure television program, in which an eligible bachelor has six weeks to choose his future wife from twenty eager women.
Tonight, Rowan is deciding between Jade and Serena, and the previews have shot after shot of him staring angstily into the sunset, like deciding between two beautiful women is the hardest thing he’s ever done. Whatever, everyone knows he’s going to pick Jade. It’s obvious.
I settle back onto the couch in my private quarters, my own little corner of the palace, ready to finally have this night to myself. For the past few weeks it’s been nothing but wall-to-wall Voravian independence celebrations, because four hundred and seventy-three years ago this month we broke away from the Holy Roman Empire.
And as much as I love Voravia, and I love being its princess, going to event after event, waving at the people, standing up straight and smiling pretty? It’s all exhausting. Thank God I can finally chill out, take my bra off, and watch some reality TV.
The cheesy title sequence starts: rose petals fluttering down over the words Gentleman’s Choice. A shot of a mansion in the hills, attractive people frolicking on the beach. The silhouette of two people kissing in front of a sunset.
“Rowan has narrowed his options down to just two women,” the voiceover says. “But which one will he choose? After all… a gentleman can only have one choice.”
I toss a piece of popcorn into the air and catch it in my mouth.
“Will he choose Jade, the fun-loving firecracker?” the voiceover goes on. “She swept him away on their skydiving date, but the two lovebirds hit a rocky patch when she confessed…”
Static flickers through the picture, briefly turning the faces on screen black-and-white, their features distorted, the sound gone.
“Come on,” I say.
It rights itself, and I toss another piece of popcorn into the air. Living in a stone palace built sometime around the year 1300 does have its downsides, because it’s not like it was built with the expectation that someday electricity would exist.
“Or,” the voiceover continues, “Will Rowan choose Serena, the upper-class sommelier who wowed him with her knowledge of…”
The picture goes black. No static. No nothing.
I wait a second, hoping it’ll come back and I won’t even have to get up. It happens sometimes, when there’s wind in the forest, or the ravens get curious about the wires, that sort of thing.
“Come on!” I say to the TV, again.
There’s a screech of static and the screen sputters to life, making me jump.
But it’s not Gentleman’s Choice.
It’s a blurry video of someone in a suit, wearing a huge rubber mask, sitting behind a newscaster’s desk. I’m still on the couch, frozen with popcorn halfway to my mouth.
What the hell?
“Greetings, Voravia,” says a gravelly, screechy voice that sounds like a record scratch. “Please enjoy tonight’s entertainment.”
The figure on the TV holds one gloved hand out, and the screen changes again. First there’s a long clip of a bunny, hopping across a field, the footage old and grainy. It’s intercut with a homemade-looking video of a rock climber slowly making his way up a cliff, shot from below.
Bunny, climber, bunny. It’s somehow incredibly creepy, but I’m wondering if this is some weird guerilla art thing that’s supposed to be making a political point I don’t understand.
Out of nowhere, a hawk grabs the bunny, and it screams. I gasp, making a face, and the video cuts to the rock climber.
He falls. The camera goes shaky, but there are flashes of his twisted body on the ground.
I turn my face away.
What the hell is going on?
I look back at the screen, but it’s only getting worse. It’s nothing but horrible accidents, dead bodies, animals eating each other.
Cars smash into each other, buildings go up in flames. Someone’s drowning, there’s a body with a chalk outline, lions tearing into a gazelle while it’s still alive.
I grab the remote and change the channel.
Same thing. I change it again.
Holy shit, this is on every channel, the same horrifying progression of gore, again and again. But whatever it is, I’m not watching it.
Just as my thumb’s over the power button, I’m stopped cold.
There’s one last still shot on the TV, the camera slowly panning back.
It’s a girl, lying on a bed, blood soaked through the sheets below. She’s got one hand hanging down limply, her eyes and mouth open, wearing a fancy ball gown as blood trickles from her lips.
I gasp, my hand flying to my mouth. My eyes fill with tears, and suddenly I’m on my feet, shaking. I feel like the world is rocking back and forth, like reality’s been thrown off balance.
It’s me. The dead girl on the bed is me.
I can’t turn it off. I can’t even look away, I can only stand there, remote in hand, rooted to the spot as I wonder what the hell is going on.
That’s my face.
That’s my dress. That’s my bed.
That’s my room.
Tears course down my face as I quickly glance down the hall, toward the entrance to my bedroom. I’m suddenly terrified to make any noise, because what if they’re in there?
What if I’m dead already? What if I’m not really watching TV, this is all some sort of vivid hallucination and—
The door flies open, and I scream. I don’t even see who it is, but I jump away from the couch, remote in hand, and I brandish it at the men who just came in, backing against the wall.
“Princess Bianca, it’s me,” says the first man, holding his hands up.
I pant for breath, my heart like a jackhammer, and I slowly lower the remote.
“Hans,” I whisper.
He’s part of my bodyguard detail, a gruff, middle-aged guy who’s been glowering around me for a few years now. I’ve never been gladder to see him.
“Are you all right?” he asks, striding across the room.
I just nod, hands still shaking, and put the remote on a side table.
As he passes the TV, he turns it off, then takes my shoulders in his hands. Behind him, two more bodyguards rush in, one speaking into a walkie-talkie already.
“Just breathe,” Hans says, and I inhale a long, shaky breath. “You’re all right.”
“Did you see this?” Kieran’s voice calls.
“Did I see what?”
I drop two ice cubes into a tumbler, then peruse the private airplane’s stock of scotch. After the week we just had, I deserve it.
“The television broadcast about Bianca.”
My hand stops mid-reach, and I lean back so I can see my best friend, leaning back in the sumptuous white leather reclining seat, looking at his phone.
He knows something about her that I don’t.
“What about her?” I say, trying to force casualness into my voice, grabbing the nearest Scotch.
Kieran doesn’t answer right away. I quickly pour two glugs into my glass and cork the bottle again, not bothering to put it back.
He’s still looking at something on his phone, face dark, blue eyes aglow with intensity, his mouth a hard line. Instinctively, I know that whatever he’s looking at isn’t good.
“Tell me,” I say, my voice lowering as I walk back into the cabin, ice cubes clinking quietly in my glass.
Stop keeping her to yourself, I think. Even if it’s just some news segment.
“You should probably just look yourself,” he says, and hands me the phone.
It’s some news broadcast, the blonde, perky-titted anchor telling the camera that Princess Bianca of Voravia is perfectly safe, but in a secret location after the events of last night.
“The fuck happened?” I mutter at the phone.
“Just watch,” Kieran says. He turns sideways in his chair, leans his elbows on his knees.
We’re both still wearing our suits from the trade summit we attended, but ties are off and sleeves are rolled up as we finally make our way back home to Griskold.
I keep watching the broadcast, stomach sinking as I wonder what could have happened that has Kieran so serious and grim.
Well, more serious and grim than usual. My best friend is a lot of things, but ‘a ray of sunshine’ isn’t one of them.
“Here’s the video that the hackers released late last night,” Perky Tits says.
There’s some shit with a bunny, then some shit with a rock climber. They switch back and forth for a minute, and just as I’m about to ask Kieran what the fuck I’m watching, the bunny gets snagged by a hawk, screaming.
“Poor little guy,” I mutter.
Then the rock climber falls. It’s probably a couple hundred feet, and that one makes my stomach clench, and clench harder when the shaky handheld footage shows his twisted, dead body.
“Kieran what the fuck is this?” I ask.
He just looks at me, face grim.
Then the gore starts, all in one-second flashes: car accidents, surgeries, some poor asshole getting his head chopped off by a helicopter blade.
I start sweating, so I look away, take a deep breath.
You’re safe, you’re fine, you’re on Kieran’s plane, I remind myself.
Not out in the wilderness, fighting for your life.
“Me too,” Kieran says, and I just nod.
Then the flashes stop, and it’s one long, slow shot, the camera taking its time to pan out.
A girl on a bed.
No. A dead girl on a bed. Blood everywhere.
It’s Bianca, dead on the bed.
“What the fuck?” I shout, jumping to my feet.
“She’s fine,” Kieran says quickly. “It’s not real.”
I throw his phone onto the seat, start stalking up and down the aisle.
“What the fuck kind of sick fucking joke is this?” I say, shoving both my hands through my hair. “Who the fuck does this sick shit? They should be fucking hanged, I swear I’ll do it myself—”
“Beckett,” Kieran says, his voice still low and calm.
I just keep pacing, unable to get the image of a dead Bianca, lying on the bed in a blue gown, out of my head. Even if they also said she’s perfectly safe, the image was manipulated somehow.
Kieran glances at me, and I glance back at him. Neither of us says anything for a long moment. I just keep pacing back and forth and he sits in his chair, staring at his hands.
Princess Bianca is a bit of a tender spot in our relationship.
We both met her at our friend Prince Grayson’s son’s christening a few weeks ago. And right away, we were both taken by her: dark hair, bright blue eyes, perfect red lips. Skin so pale it looks like she’s never seen the sun.
And right away, we knew she was different.
Let me back up: I’ve fucked a whole lot of women. I’ve fucked a good number of them right here on this plane, not to mention my own jets. The four of us — me, Kieran, Grayson, and our other friend Declan — are notoriously unable to keep our dicks in our pants or sleep with the same woman more than a few times.
But Kieran and I did a little more than that. One night, after getting really wasted, we slept with the same woman.
At the same time.
I’ve forgotten her name, but I’ve never forgotten the way she came again and again, completely overwhelmed as we both took her at once. The way she screamed and moaned and sobbed with pleasure, the way she begged us to never stop fucking her.
We haven’t looked back since. Until now, maybe, because Bianca’s not some girl in a club who’ll flash us her tits and suck one of us off in the bathroom.
Bianca’s a sweet, innocent virgin with a laugh like bells. She blushes when she says hell.
And I’m not sure I want to share her.
“It’s some hacker group,” Kieran’s voice cuts in, silencing my thoughts. “They’re famous for doing stuff like this. Been at it for years, mostly harmless shit, though it’s been escalating lately.”
I grab my scotch again, take a long drink.
He’s grabbed his phone back from where I threw it, and he’s looking down, flicking the screen with his thumb.
“Last year, they claimed to be behind a bombing and a kidnapping in Morgravia,” he says, his voice dead serious. “They had some half-baked political reason, but the explosion killed a bystander, and the Prime Minister’s daughter was kidnapped.”
Oh shit. I remember this, vaguely.
“She got returned a week later, after some negotiations, but she would never talk about what happened to her,” Kieran finishes.
I gulp the last of the scotch, set the glass down on the bar again so hard I nearly break it.
“Let’s fucking hunt them down,” I say, pacing back into the cabin. “Let’s go. Let’s fucking do it now, find those slimy bastards and wring their necks, one by one before they have a chance to—”
“So you know where they are?” Kieran asks, his voice still calm and placid.
I don’t answer, just pace. Of course I don’t fucking know.
“The intelligence resources of every country in the Central European Alliance have been trying to find out who’s behind it for the past year, and they’ve gotten nowhere,” he goes on.
“What?” I say, pacing the other way down the airplane cabin. “So we don’t do shit? It’s Bianca, Kieran.”
“Fuck no,” he growls, his blue eyes lighting from within. “I’m not saying that.”
“I’m saying I have a better idea.”
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