Falling For His Convenient Queen is out this week!
Because I love you all, I’m sharing an excerpt of the second book of my royal duet with you today. I’d love to know what you think!
THIS WASN’T A MISTAKE. This wasn’t a mistake.
Princess Nalini of Mattan repeated the words to herself as she watched the castle she’d called home for the last twenty-six years fade into the distance. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she forced herself to look ahead.
The place that would become her new home—the castle of Kirtida—grew clearer as the boat she was on drew nearer. It was a large ominous-looking building that had her heart jumping and her mind replaying those reassuring words again.
‘We’re almost there,’ Zacchaeus’s voice sounded in her ear, and she shivered. It was as much because of the brisk sea air as it was the proximity of the man she was engaged to.
King Zacchaeus of Kirtida.
Mattan had been in an alliance with Kirtida and a third kingdom, Aidara, for centuries. It was called the Alliance of the Three Isles, and up until Zacchaeus had overthrown his father a few months ago, the three islands along the coast of South Africa had been united and strong.
Though there’d been a general concern about Zacchaeus’s actions, it had only grown alarming when Zacchaeus had refused communication with Mattan and Aidara after the coup. And then he hadn’t attended the State Banquet meant to affirm the alliance between the isles, and that alarm had spurred Nalini’s brother, King Xavier of Mattan, and the Queen of Aidara, Leyna, into action. They’d announced their engagement and a day later Zacchaeus had made contact.
Which was the reason she was currently on her way to a new home.
She angled towards him, and felt guilt hit her almost as hard as the attraction did.
His hair was dark, complementing the caramel of his skin and the slight stubble on his jaw. The lines of his face were serious, intense, and strikingly carved. If she hadn’t been intimidated by the clothing he’d chosen to wear—all black, and a clear show of power—she definitely would have been intimidated by his looks. Or, worse still, by the pull to that power. By the pull to those looks.
But she couldn’t ignore the guilt.
She couldn’t be attracted to this man. It couldn’t matter that his shirtsleeves were rolled up muscular arms, or that his trousers were perfectly moulded to powerful legs. Not when Zacchaeus had demanded that Nalini marry him before he would sign the papers affirming Kirtida’s place in the alliance.
And until those papers were signed her kingdom would be in danger.
‘I’ve had a meal prepared for us,’ Zacchaeus said as they arrived at Kirtida. He jumped off the boat and offered her a hand. She hesitated but took it, her lungs tightening at the unease that crept up her arm at the contact.
Because it was unease. The dull throb that had started when he’d touched her. The flash of heat. It was unease, she told herself again, but couldn’t bring herself to look at him.
‘I assume you’re hungry?’
‘You wouldn’t have to assume if you’d asked,’ she replied lightly, shaking off her discomfort. She’d made the choice to come to Kirtida. She’d chosen to save her kingdom by marrying Zacchaeus. The time to choose was over and, because of that, she needed to be civil with him. ‘But I’d love to eat something, thank you.’
Zacchaeus nodded and, after instructing that Nalini’s things be taken to the room she’d be staying in while they planned their wedding, told her to follow him. Goosebumps shot out on her skin as she entered the castle, but she straightened her shoulders.
The interior was a beautiful combination of old and new, its stone pillars rich with history and its wooden floors in a modern style.
He stopped in front of a room with a large dining table and, wordlessly, stepped aside for her to pass. As she did, the staff scattered to accommodate her at the table and, before she knew it, she was seated next to Zacchaeus. She waited a moment and then asked, ‘Is anyone else joining us?’
A shadow crossed over his face. ‘No.’
She nodded and then forced herself to ask her next question. ‘Your parents…are they… Do they still live here?’
The shadow darkened, and Nalini braced for him to tell her to mind her own business. But a few seconds later his face settled into a blank expression, and his brown eyes—a combination of honey and cinnamon that contrasted with the dark features of his face—met hers.
‘They’re still here, yes. I haven’t banished them, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
‘I’m not quite sure what to think, to be honest. I’m not familiar with what happens after a coup.’
Something flickered in his eyes and her stomach dipped. She shouldn’t have said it, she thought, but if she didn’t… Well, she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life biting her tongue. Or falling in line just because she’d been told to. Coming to Kirtida had been a way to escape that life. She wasn’t simply going to settle for another version of it.
‘They live on the royal property,’ Zacchaeus said, interrupting her thoughts. ‘Not in the castle.’
‘Will I see them?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he said impassively. ‘There might not be enough time before the wedding.’
‘Planning this wedding is going to take some time.’
‘I’m sure it will.’ He paused. ‘But let’s not pretend that you only want that time to plan a wedding.’
‘What do you mean?’
He lifted an eyebrow. ‘I know that you’re also here because you—or, more specifically, your family—want to know whether I really intend on signing the papers to confirm Kirtida’s place in the alliance.’
She told herself not to gape. Forced herself not to ask how he knew. Instead, she went for honesty. ‘You’re right. Except it’s me who wants to know. I’m the one marrying you to ensure that you sign.’
‘You have my word,’ he said, and she heard the sincerity in his tone. ‘Once Xavier, Leyna and I come to an agreement about the Protection of the Alliance of the Three Isles clause, you and I will marry and I’ll sign those papers.’
‘And if I don’t believe you?’ she asked softly, compelled by the voice in her head that warned her against trusting so easily. The voice that she’d ignored when she’d been younger.
‘That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?’ he replied. ‘To figure out whether you can?’ She nodded mutely. ‘Do that, then.’
The food began to arrive as he said the words, and she was relieved that she wouldn’t have to come up with a reply she didn’t have. But the servers did their work quickly and, before she knew it, she and Zacchaeus were alone again.
‘Your family,’ he said, reaching for the glass that held his wine. ‘They didn’t have anything to say about your plan? To organise the wedding from Kirtida and figure out whether you could trust me?’
She almost told him the truth. But that would have entailed admitting the displeasure of her mother and grandmother at her decision. It would have meant telling him about how they thought that she was being reckless—a description they’d used for her for the past nine years, despite her efforts to change that perception. How even her brother had thought that, and how she’d expected more of him.
No, the truth included a myriad of things that she didn’t want to think about, let alone tell him.
‘It made sense,’ she said instead. ‘Since, as we discussed over the phone, the wedding will be here, planning it on Kirtida was the logical decision.’
‘And you always make logical decisions?’
‘Does marrying a man I barely know sound logical?’
He smiled a slow, crooked smile that made him look even more dangerous. ‘Reasonable, then.’
‘It’s not reasonable either. Not for a normal person, anyway. But we’re not normal and so, in that sense, this is both logical and reasonable.’ She paused. ‘I also know your people have responded positively to the news of our engagement. So, if I’m here and they see their future Queen plan a wedding with their King, it could strengthen their support of this marriage.’
There was an uneasy silence after her words, and she frowned. ‘You don’t agree with me?’
‘So you told your family this and they agreed to let you come here?’ he asked, not answering her question.
The uneasiness began to swirl in her chest.
‘You’re wondering whether my brother sent me,’ she replied, ignoring the feeling. ‘He didn’t. He wasn’t entirely happy with this decision.’
‘Because he worried that I would find out why you were really here?’
Because he still sees me as an irresponsible teenager.
‘Why would he worry that you’d find out I wanted to know if we could trust you? There’s a reason you figured it out so quickly, Zacchaeus. It wasn’t meant to be some great secret.’
‘Why didn’t he want you to come then?’
‘Probably because he wouldn’t be able to protect me.’ She nearly rolled her eyes.
‘He thought you needed to be protected? From me?’ Unhappiness flashed across his face.
‘Do you blame him? You forced him to choose between protecting his baby sister and protecting his kingdom.’
‘But he chose his kingdom.’
‘No, I chose our kingdom.’ She watched him carefully, and wondered at the emotion she couldn’t quite read on his face. ‘Xavier didn’t want me to do this. Not as a king, but as a brother. He didn’t want to have his sister marry a man he wasn’t sure he could trust. So when I told him I would come here, plan the wedding and see whether we could trust you, he didn’t like it, but he understood.’ And because it seemed as if he needed to hear it, she repeated, ‘This was my choice, Zacchaeus.’
‘Why? Why would you choose to marry a man you barely know?’
She frowned at the rush of answers that came to mind, none of which was appropriate to tell him. ‘You didn’t really give us a choice. Your actions over the past few months have shown us exactly what you’re capable of. So when I said I chose this, I just meant that it wasn’t Xavier who did. There is no real choice when it comes to protecting our kingdoms, is there?’
She watched a stony expression settle on his face and felt her frown deepen. He looked so unhappy at everything she’d just said. As though it was news to him. As though he wasn’t the one who’d started—forced—it all.
‘You’re right, there isn’t,’ he answered her quietly. ‘Which is why we’re in this situation in the first place.’
‘Because Macoa threatened Kirtida with sanctions?’
He nodded. She waited for an explanation to follow—any explanation, really, as to why an ally of Kirtida and the alliance had suddenly made threats after years of working together peacefully.
‘Why?’ she asked when he didn’t continue. ‘I mean, I know that’s why you want the alliance’s Protection clause updated before we get married. Before you sign to reaffirm the alliance between our kingdoms. You want protection against international allies like Macoa to be included in the agreement too. But why do you need that protection? Since—’ she hesitated, and then forced herself to say it ‘—since I’m going to be your wife, I’d like to know.’
‘It’s complicated,’ he said simply. Darkly.
‘I’m going to be Queen to your people, Zacchaeus. Don’t you think that’s enough to share details about complicated matters with me?’
‘You’re not Queen yet,’ he replied. ‘And when you are I’ll tell you what you need to know.’
‘What you think I need to know, maybe.’ She clenched her jaw and then forced herself to relax. ‘The least you could do is tell me why I’m here.’
‘You know why you’re here, Nalini.’ His eyes were sombre. ‘Without our marriage, there’s no guarantee that Kirtida’s place in the alliance won’t be undermined by Leyna and Xavier’s marriage. By the bond that that will create between Mattan and Aidara.’
‘I’d like to know the real reason. The one that had you calling us after you found out Kirtida might not be protected as well as Mattan and Aidara were if Leyna and Xavier married.’
Again, silence followed her words. This time she couldn’t help the muscles that tightened in her shoulders.
‘There’s still no guarantee, you know,’ she reminded him. ‘There won’t be until you sign the papers affirming Kirtida’s place in the alliance.’
‘And you know my conditions for doing that. After the negotiations to protect our kingdoms. After our marriage.’ He tilted his head. ‘Are you hoping I’d tell you I’d sign before either are in place?’
‘Of course not.’ But there had been a part of her that had hoped for exactly that.
‘So you’re not looking for a loophole? You haven’t realised that you’ve made a mistake after this conversation with me?’ He leaned forward, making her briefly notice the food they’d otherwise forgotten. ‘You don’t want to return to the safety of Mattan?’
‘I’m safe here,’ she said, her eyes darting towards the door where her Mattanian guards—who would continue protecting her as Queen of Kirtida—stood.
‘That wasn’t what I meant.’
‘I know.’ She fell silent. ‘I think this will work best if you just say what you mean, Zacchaeus, and don’t expect me to guess.’
He nodded and met her gaze. ‘I’m not going to change my mind, Nalini. You’re going to marry me.’
She didn’t look away. Though the trembling that had gone through her heart at his words made her want to, she didn’t. This was her life now. And this life had been her choice.
She thought of the teenage girl who had once been so filled with hope. Who’d thought that taking a chance on a boy would finally bring her the freedom she’d craved. She thought about the girl who’d had that hope dashed so quickly—so heartbreakingly—that she hadn’t wanted to make another decision for herself since.
Nalini reminded herself of that. She wasn’t the girl who hoped for love or sought freedom any more. Who rebelled and made stupid mistakes. But that was still how her family saw her. The mistake she’d made when she was a teen had completely changed their view of her. More importantly, it had changed her view of herself.
When she’d told Xavier she would marry Zacchaeus, she’d seen it as a chance to make up for that mistake. To prove to herself and to her family that she was more.
Considering their reactions to her decision, she knew she hadn’t succeeded in making them believe that yet. But if she stayed—if she went through with this marriage—she would be saving her kingdom. Her family would have no choice but to see her as responsible.
And she could finally, finally stop trying to convince them that she was.
‘In that case, I suppose this time is even more important for us, isn’t it?’