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American Queen

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Teddy J.
Hello! this book is the first of a three-part series of books. I rate this book a 4/5. I read this book in 2 days, the book has around 380 pages of actual reading. This book is split into two parts. You have a combination of three main characters: Geer, Maxine "Ash" the President of the United States, and Embry the Vice President of the United States. The Pres. and Vice Pres. are best friends and meet in battle at Carpathia. They both at different times of their lives fall in love with Geer and each other!!! Sorry for the spoiler... This book is wrapped around the idea of fairytales. How Geer has to keep her kisses to herself or she will dismantle the world. Her kissed will disrupt the way in which the world should be. Her kisses pick and choose who will lead and who will fall...

This is definitely full of romance, passion, and love. This book will leave you confused, angry, happy, and crying all at the same time. I personally am not a cliffhanger lover. I could see how the author was going to make the cliffhanger happen around six chapters before it happed that is the only reason this book is a 4 in my opinion. All characters have sad backstories; this book heavily ways on Geer's story of course. But the sadness brings these three together. If it's a perfect relationship that up to you... LOTS of steamy moments. The last three chapters of the book are only smut. It was hard for me to put this book down.

I did have a couple of lingering thoughts!!! Was this book was a 10/10 no, was it the steamiest book I've read no, but it's a great read, and I recommend reading this book if you are looking for a quick read! 8/10 all in all I was confused at some moments. But the plot is fantastic, the setting and backstory superb, and the steamy scenes left me in awe of how amazing they were detailed and written. Hope I didn't spoil the book, and I hope this helps.
03 August 2021 (09:59) 
I seem not to be able to download the book. I've tried Tor as well yet I still keep getting the same results. Please help!
25 March 2022 (19:47) 

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American Queen

Sierra Simone

Copyright © 2016 by Sierra Simone

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

* * *

Cover Design: Hang Le

Cover Image: Shutterstock

Editor: Evident Ink

To the No Shadow Bitches—Penises!



I. The Princess

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

II. The Queen

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Ready For American Prince?

Also by Sierra Simone


About the Author


The Wedding Day

Love is patient.

Love is kind.

Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.

It bears all things,

it believes all things,

it hopes all things,

it endures all things.

It endures all things.

I stare at the last line of the Bible verse as my cousin Abilene and her mother continue to fuss with the edges of my veil. The entire passage from I Corinthians is etched into a marble block in the church’s narthex, and any other bride standing here might have seen these words as a comfort and an encouragement. Perhaps I’m the only bride ever to stand in front of these massive sanctuary doors and wonder if God is trying to give me a warning.

But when I think of what awaits me at the end of the aisle, of who awaits me, I straighten my shoulders and blink away from the verses. From the moment I met Ash, I knew I was destined to l; ove him. I knew I was destined to be his. There’s no place he can go that I won’t follow, no sacrifice he can demand of me that I won’t give, no part of myself that I won’t offer willingly and completely to him.

I will bear, believe in, hope for, and endure Ash’s love until the day I die, even if that means robbing my own soul.

And it will mean robbing my own soul.

My only comfort is that I won’t be alone in my suffering.

With a deep breath, I step in front of the doors just as they open, the airy notes of Pachelbel’s Canon in D drifting through the stone nave. My grandfather takes my arm to guide me down the aisle. The guests are standing, the candles are flickering, my veil is perfect.

And then I catch sight of Ash.

My pulses catches, races, trips over itself as it rushes to my lips and face and heart. He wears his tuxedo as if he were born wearing one, his wide shoulders and narrow hips filling out the tailored lines perfectly. Even if he didn’t stand at the top of the stairs leading up to the altar, he would still seem taller than everyone else around him, because that’s just Ash. He doesn’t have to exude power and strength, he simply is power and strength made manifest. And right now all of that power and strength is bent toward me as we lock eyes and, even across the distance of the nave, begin to breathe as one.

Shock seems to ripple through him as he fully sees me—the dress, the veil, the tremulous smile—and pleasure kindles and glows in my chest at this. He wanted to wait to see each other until the ceremony, he wanted this moment. And I have to admit that watching his handsome face struggle to contain his emotions, feeling my own blood heat at the sight of him in his tuxedo—it was worth it. No matter how outdated the tradition is, no matter how much it inconvenienced our guests, no matter how long those hours were this morning without him, it was worth it.

And then as my grandfather and I move closer, I see him.

Right next to Ash, dark-haired and slender, with ice-blue eyes and a mouth made for sin and apologies, sometimes even in that order. Embry Moore—Ash’s best friend, his best man, his running mate…

Because of course, I’m not just walking down the aisle to the man I’ve been in love with since I was sixteen, I’m walking down the aisle to marry the President of the United States.

The hundreds of guests fade away, the massive stands of flowers and candles vanish. And for a moment, it’s only the bride and the groom and the best man. It’s only me, Ash, and Embry. There’s no presidency or vice presidency or freshly painted First Lady’s office awaiting me after the honeymoon. There aren’t hordes of cameras inside and outside the cathedral, and the pews aren’t filled with ambassadors and senators and celebrities.

It’s the three of us. Ash stern and powerful, Embry haunted and pale, and me, with bite marks on the inside of my thighs and a hammering heart.

It’s when I’m almost to the front that I see the best man has a bite mark of his own peeping above the collar of his tuxedo, large and red and fresh.

It’s when I’m almost to the front that I see that the small white square in Ash’s tuxedo pocket isn’t a silk handkerchief, it’s undeniably the familiar lace of my panties. No one who hasn’t seen my panties before would know, but he’s so blatantly displaying them, like a trophy. The last time I saw them they were clutched in Embry’s strong fist…

My grandfather lifts my veil and kisses my cheek, putting the veil back down over my face. Ash extends his hand and I slide my fingers into his, and we step up to the priest together, one of my bridesmaids straightening my dress after we find our places and stand still.

I don’t realize I’m crying until Ash lets go of my hand, reaches under my veil, and swipes his thumb across my cheek. He lifts his thumb to his lips, licking the taste of my tears off his skin. His dark green eyes smolder with promise, and behind him, Embry’s hand unconsciously goes up to touch the bite mark I’m certain Ash left on his neck.

I shiver.

The priest begins, the guests sit, and I wonder one last time if God wants me to stop this, if God can barely stand to look at the three of us, if God wasn’t trying to warn me before, because what did I really think I could endure? What did I really think the two most powerful men in the world would be willing to endure from me?

But then I catch sight of Ash’s eyes, still flared with unmistakable heat, and Embry’s long fingers, still probing the mark on his neck, and I decide now that this fairy tale couldn’t have ended any other way.

I mean, God can warn me all he wants, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen.

Part I

The Princess


Eighteen Years Ago

I was cursed by a wizard when I was seven years old.

It was at a charity gala, I think. Save for the wizard, it wouldn’t have stood out from any other event my grandfather took me to. Ball gowns and tuxedos, chandeliers glittering in opulent hotel ballrooms while string octets played in discreet corners. Ostensibly, these events raised money for the various foundations and causes championed by the rich and bored, but in reality, they were business meetings. Political allegiances for this candidate or that were sounded out; potential donors were identified and wooed. Business deals began here, and marriages in the upper reaches of society began here as well—because among the wealthy, what were marriages but lifelong business deals?

I understood some of this, even as a young girl, but it never troubled me. It was life—or at least Grandpa Leo’s life—and it didn’t occur to me to question it.

Besides, I enjoyed dressing up in the expensive flouncing dresses Grandpa Leo bought for me. I enjoyed having adults ask my opinion, I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful women and handsome men, and most of all, I enjoyed dancing with Grandpa Leo, who always let me stand on his shoes and who never forgot to spin me around and around so that I could pretend I was a princess in a fairy tale.

And late at night, when the big black car would pick us up and take us back to the Manhattan penthouse, he would let me chatter happily about everything I’d seen and heard, asking me questions about who had said what, about how they said it, if they had looked happy or sad or mad as they said it. He would ask me who looked tired, who looked distracted, who grumbled under their breath during the keynote speeches. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized Grandpa relied on me as a kind of spy, a watcher of sorts, because people will behave around children in ways they won’t around adults. They let their guard down, they mutter to their friends, certain that a child won’t notice or understand.

But I did notice. I was naturally observant, naturally curious, and naturally ready to read deeply into small comments or gestures. And at Grandpa Leo’s side, I spent years honing that natural weapon into something sharp and useful, something he used for The Party, but that I used for him because I wanted to help him, wanted him to be proud of me, and also because there was something addictive in it. Something addictive in watching people, in figuring them out, like reading a book and deciphering the big twist before the end.

But the night I met the wizard, all of that was still in the future. At that moment, I was giddy and wound up from spinning in circles and sneaking extra plates of dessert from the winking waitresses. I was still spinning when my grandfather beckoned me to join him near the doors of the ballroom. I skipped over, expecting another of his usual friends—the Beltway wheelers and dealers or the snappish, bored businessmen.

It was someone different. Something different. A tall man, only in his mid-twenties, but with crow-dark eyes and a thin mouth that reminded me of the illustrations of evil enchanters in my fairy tale books. Unlike the evil enchanters, he didn’t hunch over a cane or wear long, trailing robes. He was dressed in a crisp tuxedo, his face clean-shaven, his dark hair short and perfectly combed.

My grandfather beamed down at me as he introduced us. “Mr. Merlin Rhys, I’d like you to meet my granddaughter, Greer. Greer, this young man is moving here from England, and coming in as a consultant to The Party.”

The Party. Even at seven, The Party was a force in my life as strong as any other. A risk, I suppose, that came with having a former Vice President for a grandfather. Especially when that former Vice President had served in the White House with the late Penley Luther, the dead and revered demigod of The Party. It was President Luther who was referenced in all the speeches and op eds, it was Luther’s name that was invoked whenever a crisis happened. What would Luther do? What would Luther do?!

Mr. Merlin Rhys looked down at me, his black eyes unreadable in the golden glow of the ballroom. “This seems a bit dull for a girl your age,” he said, softly but also not softly. There was a challenge in his words, lodged somewhere in those neatly folded consonants and airy vowels, but I couldn’t puzzle it out, couldn’t sift it away from his words. I kept my eyes on his face as my grandfather spoke.

“She’s my date,” Grandpa Leo said affectionately, ruffling my hair. “My son and daughter-in-law are traveling out of the country for humanitarian work, so she’s staying with me for a few months. She’s so well-behaved. Isn’t that right, Greer?”

“Yes, Grandpa,” I chirped obediently, but when I caught the frown on Merlin’s face, something chilled in me, as if a cold fog had wrapped itself around me and only me, and was slowly leaching away my warmth.

I dropped my eyes to my shoes, shivering and trying not to show it. The glossy patent leather reflected the shimmers and glitters of the gilded ceiling, and I watched those shimmers as Merlin and my grandfather began discussing midterm election strategy, trying to reconcile what I felt with what I knew.

I felt fear, the kind of creeping, neck-prickling fear I had when I woke up at night to see my closet door open. But I knew that I was safe, that Grandpa Leo would keep me safe, that this stranger couldn’t hurt me in a room full of people. Except I wasn’t afraid of him hurting me or stealing me away, necessarily. No, it was the way his eyes had bored into mine, the way his disapproval of me had enveloped me so completely, that frightened me. I felt like he knew me, understood me, could see inside of me to all of the times I’d lied or cheated or fought on the playground. That he could see all the nights I’d been unable to sleep, my closet door open and me too afraid to get up and close it. All the mornings my father and I went walking in the woods behind our house, all the evenings my mother patiently taught me tai chi. All the fairy tale books I so adored, all of the treasures I’d gathered in the little treasure box stored under my bed, all of my secret childish dreams and fears—everything. This man could see it all.

And to be seen—really seen—was the most terrifying thing I’d ever felt.

“Leo!” a man called from a few feet away. He was also with The Party, and Grandpa gave my hair a final ruffle as he gestured to the man to approach him. “One moment, Mr. Rhys.”

Merlin inclined his head gravely as my grandfather turned to speak to the other man. I willed myself to meet his eyes again, and then immediately wished I hadn’t. His eyes, I now realized, had been shuttered when speaking to Grandpa, and they were un-shuttered now, burning with something that seemed a lot like dislike.

“Greer Galloway,” he said in that soft-not-soft voice. Something like a Welsh lilt emerged in his words, as if he’d lost control of his voice as well as his eyes.

I swallowed. I didn’t know what to say—I was a child, and always my girlish demeanor had been enough to charm Grandpa Leo’s friends—but I sensed that it would do no good here. I could not endear myself to Merlin Rhys, not with smiles or dimples or twirls or childlike questions.

And then he knelt down in front of me. It was rare for the adults in Leo’s world to do that—even the women with children of their own preferred to stand over me and caress my blond curls as if I were a pet. But Merlin knelt so that I could look him in the eye without craning my neck, and I knew despite my fear, this was a sign of respect. Merlin was treating me as if I were worthy of his time and attention, and even though it was tainted with disapproval, I was grateful for it in my own young way.

He reached out and took my chin in his long, slender fingers, holding my face still for inspection. “Not ambitious,” he said, dark eyes searching my face. “But often careless. Not cold, but sometimes distant. Passionate, intelligent, dreamy…and too easily hurt.” He shook his head. “It’s as I thought.”

I knew from the stacks of books beside my bed that the words of an enchanter were dangerous things. I knew I shouldn’t speak, I shouldn’t promise him anything, agree to anything, concede or lie or evade. But I couldn’t help it.

“What’s as you thought?”

Merlin dropped his hand, and an expression of real regret creased his face. “It cannot be you. I’m sorry, but it simply can’t.”

Confusion seeped past the fear. “What can’t be me?”

Merlin stood up, smoothing his tuxedo jacket, his mind made up about whatever it was. “Keep your kisses to yourself when the time comes,” he said.

I didn’t understand. “I don’t kiss anyone except Grandpa Leo and my mommy and daddy.”

“That’s your world now. But when you are older, you will inherit this world,” Merlin said, gesturing around the room, “the world your grandfather helped create. And this world hangs on a thread, balanced between trust and power. Powerful people have to decide when to trust each other and when to fight each other, and those decisions aren’t always made with the mind. They’re made with the heart. Do you understand this?”

“I think so…” I said slowly.

“Greer, one kiss from you would swing this world from friendship to anger. From peace to war. It will destroy everything your grandfather has worked so hard to build, and many, many people will be hurt. You don’t want to hurt people, do you? Hurt your grandfather? Undo all the work he’s done?”

I shook my head vehemently.

“I didn’t think so. Because that’s what will happen if your lips touch another’s. Mark my words.”

I nodded because this was logic that spoke to me. Kisses were magic, everyone knew this. They turned frogs into princes, they woke princesses from deadly sleep, and they decided the fates of kingdoms and empires. It never once crossed my mind that Merlin could be wrong, that a kiss might be harmless.

Or that a kiss might be worth all the harm it caused.

The regret in his eyes turned into sadness. “And I am sorry about your parents,” he said softly. “Despite everything, you are a sweet girl. You deserve only happiness, and maybe one day you’ll learn that’s what I’m trying to give to you. Hold tight to the things that make you happy, and never doubt that you are loved.” He nodded towards Grandpa Leo, who was now walking back toward us.

“Don’t be sorry for my parents,” I said, puzzled. “They’re just fine.”

Merlin said nothing, but he reached down and touched my shoulder. Not a pull into a hug, not a pat or a caress, just a touch. A moment’s worth of weight, and then nothing but the feeling of air on my skin and worry settling into my small bones.

Grandpa Leo scooped me into his arms as he reached us, planting a big mustached kiss on my cheek as he did. “Isn’t my granddaughter something special, Merlin?” he asked, grinning at me. “What were you two talking about?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but Merlin cut in smoothly. “She was telling me how much she enjoys staying with you.”

Grandpa looked pleased. “Yes. I love Oregon as much as anyone, but there’s nothing like New York City, is there, Greer?”

I must have answered. There must have been more conversation after that, more words about politics and money and demographics, but all I could hear were Merlin’s words from earlier.

I am sorry for your parents.

In my overactive imagination, it wasn’t hard to conjure the worst. It was what always happened in the stories—tragedy, omens, heartache. What if my parents had been killed? What if their plane had crashed, their hotel caught on fire, their bodies beaten and robbed and left to die?

I am sorry for your parents.

It was all I could think of, all I could hear, and when Grandpa Leo tucked me into bed later that night, I burst into tears.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” he asked, thick eyebrows drawn together in concern.

I knew enough to know he wouldn’t believe me when I told him that Merlin was an enchanter, maybe a bad one, or that he could somehow sense my parents’ deaths before they happened. I knew enough to lie and say simply, “I miss Mommy and Daddy.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Grandpa Leo said. “We’ll call them right now, okay?”

He pulled out his phone and dialed, and within a few seconds, I heard Mommy’s light voice and Daddy’s deep one coming through the speaker. They were in Bucharest, getting ready to board a train bound for Warsaw, and they were happy and safe and full of promises for when they returned home. For a short while, I believed them. I believed that they would come back. That there’d be more long forest hikes with my father, more tai chi in the evenings with my mother, more nights when I fell asleep to the sound of them reading poetry to each other with logs crackling in the fireplace nearby. That the warm sunshine and tree-green days of my childhood still stretched out before me, safe in the cozy nest of books and nature that my parents had built.

But that night as I tried to fall asleep, Merlin’s words crept back into my mind along with the fear.

I am sorry about your parents.

I barely slept that night, jolting awake at every honk and siren on the Manhattan streets below Grandpa’s penthouse, shivering at every creak of the wind-buffeted windows. Dreams threaded my sleep, dreams of tree-covered mountains in a place I’d never seen, broad-shouldered men crawling through mud and dead pine needles, my parents dancing in the living room after they thought I was asleep. A train steaming across a bridge, and the bridge collapsing.

My parents danced, the wind blew through the trees, men crawled through mud. The train plunged to the valley floor.

Dance, trees, mud, death.

Over and over again.

Dance, trees, mud, death.

And when I sat up in the weak sunlight of morning to see my grandfather standing in the doorway, his eyes blank with shock and horror, his phone dangling from his hand, I already knew what he was there to tell me.

Like King Hezekiah, I turned my face to the wall and prayed.

I prayed for God to kill me too.


Eleven Years Ago

God, as he often does, chose not to answer my prayer. Or at the very least, chose not to answer yes.

Instead, my life went on.

My mother’s parents were aging and frail, and while I had an aunt and uncle in Boston, they already had a daughter my age and they made it quite clear that they weren’t willing to take on another child.

But it hardly mattered. From the moment Grandpa Leo got the phone call, from the very second the reality settled over us, it was never in question that I would live with him. He was only in his fifties, healthy and energetic, with plenty of room in his house for another person. He was a busy man, busy with The Party and his thriving green energy empire, but Grandpa Leo was never the kind of man to say no to anything other than sleep. He moved my things into his penthouse, enrolled me in a small but academically rigorous private school in the Upper West Side, and folded me into his life as best a widowed grandfather could.

I remember crying before and after the funeral, but not during. I remember hiding inside myself at the new school, so different from the airy Montessori classroom back in Oregon. I remember Grandpa Leo buying me stacks of books to cheer me up, and I remember reading late into the night. I remember missing my parents so much it felt like someone had scooped something vital out of my chest with a giant spoon. I remember hearing Merlin’s words about my parents.

Merlin’s prophecy.

If he’d been right about their deaths, was he also right about the other things? He’d told me to keep my kisses to myself—was it a warning I had to follow?

I was certain it was. I was certain now that Merlin could see the future, that he could predict doom, and in my grief and terror, I promised myself at seven years old that, no matter what, I would never kiss a man or woman so long as I lived.

Never, ever, ever.

When I was fourteen, Grandpa Leo asked me whether I’d like to continue going to school in Manhattan or if I’d like to enroll in a boarding school overseas. My cousin Abilene was being sent there in the hopes that she would settle down and focus on her schoolwork, and Grandpa thought I might like to go as well. I was already an excellent student—there were no worries there—but I think Grandpa worried that I was too isolated living alone with him, only going to environmental fundraisers and party events, spending my evenings immersed in gossip and speculation about politicians and businessmen, and spending my weekends as Grandpa’s secret weapon, observing and reporting back to him.

“You’re young,” he said, sitting at the dinner table as he handed me the booklet for the school. The pictures seemed almost calculated to lure me into saying yes—thick fog, old wooden doors, gold and green English summers. “You should see the world. Be around other young people. Get into a little bit of trouble.”

Then he laughed. “Or at the very least, keep your cousin out of trouble.”

And that was how Abilene and I ended up at the Cadbury Academy for Girls the autumn of my fourteenth year.

Cadbury was an impressive place, a large and sprawling complex of stone and stained glass, with towers and multiple libraries and an honest-to-God Iron Age hill fort right in its backyard. I loved it immediately. Abilene loved only its proximity to the boys’ school a mile down the lane. Almost every night, she would crawl out of our ground-floor window and creep across the soft green lawn to the road. Almost every night, I would go with her, not because I wanted to see the boys, but because I felt protective of her. Protective of her safety, of her future at Cadbury, of her reputation.

We crept into dorm rooms, met in the back gardens of pubs that didn’t bother to kick us out, joined illicit parties on the massive flat-topped hill where the Iron Age fort once stood. We weren’t the only girls most of the time, but Abilene was the constant, the leader, the instigator.

By fifteen, she had the tall willowy body of a model, with soft budded breasts and long red hair. She was loud and vivacious and pretty, she drank more than the boys, played lacrosse like her life depended on it, and always, always had a circle of people around her.

In contrast, I was a thing of shadows and corners. I spent most of my free time in the library, I often ate alone on the grounds with a book resting against my knees. I ignored sports but chose dance and creative writing as my extracurriculars instead. I was shorter than I wanted to be, my body lagging behind Abilene’s in the things boys liked to see, strong enough for dance but not quite slender enough to look good in the leotard. My chin had the slightest hint of a cleft, which Abilene and I would spend hours trying to hide with makeup, and I had a beauty mark on my cheek that I loathed. My eyes were gray and felt flat compared to Abilene’s lively blue ones, and all of this would have been fine if I had even one ounce of the charisma Abilene so effortlessly exuded, but I didn’t. I was quiet and spacey and dreamy, terrified of conflict but sometimes thoughtless enough that I accidentally caused it, fascinated with things that my peers cared nothing for—American politics and old books and coral reef bleaching and wars fought so long ago that even their names had all but turned to dust.

The one thing I liked about myself at that age was my hair. Long and thick and blond—golden in the winter and nearly white in the summer—it was the thing people noticed first about me, the way they described me to others, the thing my friends idly played with when we sat and watched TV in the common room. Abilene hated it, hated that there was any one thing about my appearance that showed her up, and I learned within a few weeks at Cadbury that her sharp tugs of my ponytail weren’t signs of affection but of barely controlled jealousy.

Despite the hair, Abilene was still the monarch and I still the lady-in-waiting. She held court and I anxiously kept a lookout for teachers. She shirked her homework, and I stayed up late typing out assignments for her so she wouldn’t fail. She partied and I walked her home, balancing her on my shoulder and using my phone for light as we stumbled down from the hill, her hair smelling like spilled cider and cheap cologne.

“You never kiss the boys,” she said one night when we were fifteen, as I guided her down the narrow lane back to the school.

“Maybe it’s because I want to kiss girls,” I said, stepping over a patch of mud. “Ever think of that?”

“I have,” Abilene drunkenly confirmed, “and I know that’s not it, because there’s lots of girls at Cadbury who would kiss you. And still you never kiss anyone.”

Keep your kisses to yourself.

Eight years later, and I could still see Merlin’s dark eyes, hear his cold, disapproving voice. Could still remember the eerie feeling of portent that came over me when he predicted the death of my parents. If he believed people would suffer if I kissed someone, surely there was a good reason.

An important reason.

And besides, it was such a small thing to give up. It’s not like I had boys knocking down my door to kiss me anyway.

“I just don’t feel like kissing anyone,” I said firmly. “That’s the only reason there is.”

Abilene lifted her head from my shoulder and hiccupped into the chilly night air. Somewhere nearby a sheep bleated. “Just you wait, Greer Galloway. One of these days, you’re going to be just as wild as me.”

I guided her around a pile of sheep shit as she hiccupped again. “I doubt it.”

“You’re wrong. When you finally cut loose, you’re going to be the kinkiest slut at Cadbury.”

For some reason, this made me flush—and not with indignation, but with shame. How could she know the thoughts that flitted through my mind sometimes? The dreams where I woke up throbbing and clenching around nothing?

No, she couldn’t know. I hadn’t breathed a word of those things to anyone, and I never would.

Like my kisses, I would keep those things to myself. After all, I was happy like this. Happy to take care of Abilene and dream of college.

Happy to pretend that this was enough.


The Present

“And so if we turn back further than Geoffrey of Monmouth, back to the Annales Cambriae—that’s the Annals of Wales for those of you not up on your medieval Latin—we see the earliest mention of the Mordred figure, here called ‘Medraut.’”

The clack of keys on laptop keyboards echoes through the small classroom as the students furiously type out notes. The bulk of the undergrads here are actually pre-med or poli-sci, only taking my Arthurian Lit course to fill out their humanities credits, but that doesn’t stop them from striving for the highest scores. Georgetown isn’t cheap, after all, and a lot of the students here need to keep their grades up to retain scholarships and grants. And I empathize completely; only a couple months into this lecturing gig, I can still vividly remember the late nights and coffee-fueled mornings as I finished up my Master’s in Medieval Literature at Cambridge. Sometimes it’s still hard to believe I’m actually done, actually back in the States, actually doing a grown-up job with a nice leather briefcase and everything.

“Mordred is only mentioned as dying alongside King Arthur here,” I continue, moving from behind the podium over to the whiteboard, “and we are given no information as to his role in the battle, whether he was fighting against or alongside Arthur, whether he was Arthur’s son or nephew or simply just another warrior.”

I uncap a dry erase marker and start editing the family tree we’ve been working on as a class throughout the fall semester, writing a question mark next to Mordred’s name.

“The King Arthur legend is famous for many things—the Holy Grail and the Round Table, of course—but maybe it’s most famous for the epic love story between Lancelot and Guinevere.” I draw a heart between their two names on the board, and giggles ripple through the class. “But as we saw moving backward from Chretien de Troyes to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Lancelot was a character invented by the French to satisfy their need for courtly romance. He’s not in the earliest mentions of the legends at all.”

I cross out Lancelot’s name on the board, writing made up by the French above his name. More keys clacking.

“But there is the hint of another romance, older than the Lancelot story and even more dangerous.” I draw a new heart, this time between Mordred and Guinevere. “After the Annals, the next mentions we get of Mordred almost always depict him kidnapping the queen or trying to marry her. This is usually pointed to as the source of the strife between him and King Arthur—who long before being depicted as Mordred’s father or uncle may have simply been a romantic rival.”

I cap the marker and turn back to the podium. “I think Mordred, more than Lancelot, highlights the central problem of King Arthur’s court…which is that trust, love, and family don’t always come packaged together.”

I can hear the old wall clock behind me tick over, and the students slowly begin closing laptops and opening bags, trying to appear attentive but their minds already out the door.

“That’s all for today,” I announce. “Next week, we’ll start into the Welsh Triads. And don’t forget to submit your final project proposals!”

They finish packing up as I walk back to my desk to pack up my own things. A few students stop by with questions and to pick up graded assignments, and then I’m alone in the room.

For a few minutes after they’ve left, I stare out over the vacant seats, as if trying to remember something I’ve forgotten. I haven’t forgotten anything, of course, and nothing is wrong, but an empty restlessness chases after my mind all the same.

You have everything you need, I remind myself. A good job, a nice house, a grandfather who loves you, a cousin who’s your best friend.

I don’t need anything else. What I have is enough.

But then why do I feel so lost all the time?

My office at Georgetown is small and shared with two other lecturers, so it’s crammed with desks and file folders and books and stacks of neatly stapled handouts. I love it. I love it so much that I’ve been known to sleep here instead of my small townhouse near Dumbarton Park (which of course, I can only afford to live in because it belongs to Grandpa Leo and he refuses to hear anything about me paying rent.) It’s something about being in the old stone building, alone in the hallway of mostly empty offices, the darkness falling through the office window…it’s easier to remember why I sought out this life. A life of books instead of kisses. A life where Merlin’s warning doesn’t feel like a curse, but a choice.

I’m used to working late into the night, to being the last one left in the English department, and tonight’s no different. I grade a few papers and then move on to the book I’m trying to write—a literary examination of kingship as chronicled through the multiplicity of Arthurian legends throughout the ages.

I know it sounds boring, but really, I promise it’s not. At least not to me. After all, I met a real wizard once, my very own Merlin…even though as an adult I can laugh down the idea of magic and tell myself that his warning was nothing more than nonsense.

After all, I ignored it twice and nothing happened.

Other than my heart breaking both times, nothing happened.

I’m buried deep in my own mind, trying to recreate a line of thought I had last night about leadership in the Dark Ages, when the back of my neck prickles with awareness, as if someone is standing behind me.

Someone is.

I turn in my chair to see a man leaning against the doorway, arms crossed over a muscular chest, his bright blue suit stretching across his shoulders. Even with the jacket buttoned, I can see the way his tailored pants hug his hips and thighs, the way his white silk tie lies flat against the tight button-down underneath.

I tilt my face up to his, swallowing.

Ice-blue eyes and day-old stubble. High cheekbones and a straight nose, full lips and a tall aristocratic brow. A face made for brooding on a moor somewhere, a face made for Victorian novels or Regency period dramas, the face of the prototypical elitist stranger at a ball in a Jane Austen book.

Except this man’s no stranger to me.

Embry Moore.

Vice President Embry Moore.

I scramble to my feet. “Mr. Vice President,” I manage. “I didn’t—”

His eyes crinkle at the edges. He’s actually a year younger than President Colchester, who took office only six months before turning thirty-six, but years of sunshine and four tours of duty have given him the tiniest lines around his eyes, visible only when he smiles.

Like right now.

I swallow again. “How can I help you, Mr. Vice President?”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Okay. How can I help you, Mr. Moore?”

He steps forward into the office, and I can smell him. Something with bite—pepper maybe. Or citrus.

“Well, Ms. Galloway, I wondered if you were free for dinner tonight.”

Oh God.

I peer around him, and he waves a hand. “My security detail is waiting for me at the end of the hall. They can’t hear us.”

I should ask him why he’s here, why he’s at Georgetown, in my office, at nearly midnight. I should ask why he didn’t call or email or have some secretary chase me down. Instead, I ask, “Isn’t it a little late for dinner?”

He glances at his watch without uncrossing his arms. “Maybe, but I’m confident that any restaurant you’d pick would be happy to open up for me. Or open up for you—I’m pretty sure there isn’t anyone in this town that doesn’t still owe Leo Galloway a favor or two.”

“I don’t throw my grandfather’s name around,” I say, a little reproachfully. “I don’t like the way it makes me feel.”

“Just because you want to forget who you are doesn’t mean the rest of us can forget you.” His voice is soft.

I take a step back. I swallow. A subdued and dignified anger, sculpted into a careful, quiet shape after five years, rises from its slumber. Because, of course, Embry had once been very good at forgetting me.

“Why are you hiding away here?” he asks, uncrossing his arms and taking a step forward. His voice is still soft, too soft, the kind of soft that croons promises in your ear and then breaks them.

I should know.

“I’m not hiding,” I say, tilting my head at my desk, stacked high with papers and books and Moleskin journals. “I’m working. I’m teaching, I’m writing a book. I’m happy.”

Embry takes another step forward, swallowing up the space in my office with one long stride. He’s close enough that I can smell him again, a smell that hasn’t changed after all this time.

I close my eyes for a minute, trying to reorient myself.

“You never were a good liar,” he murmurs, and when I open my eyes, he’s so close to me that I could reach out and run my fingers along his jaw. I don’t, turning my head away and looking out the window instead.

“I’m not lying,” I lie.

“Come to dinner with me,” he says, changing tactics. “We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

“Five years.” The words are pointed, and to his credit, he doesn’t parry them away.

“Five years,” he acknowledges.

Strange that such a long time can sound so short.

I sigh. “I can’t have dinner with you. If I’m seen out with you, then my face will end up on Buzzfeed and all over Twitter, and I can’t handle that.”

Embry is listening to me, but he’s also reaching out to touch a strand of white-gold hair that’s fallen free from my bun. “That’s why we’re going late. To an unannounced place. No one will know but me and you and the chef.”

“And the Secret Service.”

Embry shrugs, his eyes starting to crinkle again. “They won’t write their tell-all memoirs until after they’ve retired. Until then, our dinner is safe.”

I can say no. I know I can, although I’ve never been able to say it to Embry. But I don’t want to say no. I don’t want to go to the pristine townhouse, impeccably furnished and impossibly soulless, and spend another night alone in my bed. I don’t want to be staring up at the ceiling of my bedroom, replaying every moment, every glance, my hand stealing under the sheets as I remember the citrus-pepper scent and the way the shadows fell across Embry’s cheeks. I don’t want to be whipping myself for another wasted night, another missed chance…especially with him.

Just for one night, I can pretend I’m someone else.

“Dinner,” I say, finally conceding, and he grins. “But that’s it.”

He holds up his hands. “I’ll be as chaste as a priest. I promise.”

“I hear not all priests are that chaste these days.”

“Chaste as a nun then.”

I reach for my trench coat by the rack near my desk, and he grabs it for me, holding it open for me to step into. It’s attentive and intimate and charming while being dangerous—all the things I remember Embry being, and I can’t make eye contact as I step into the coat and belt it closed over my blouse and pencil skirt. For a moment—just a tiny, brief moment—I imagine I feel his lips on my hair. I step and turn, facing him and trying to keep my distance all at the same time.

Embry notices, and his smile fades a little. “I’ll take care of you, Greer. You don’t have to be afraid of me.”

Oh, but I am. And not a little bit afraid of myself.

Teller’s is a small Italian restaurant a few blocks away from campus, and it’s one of those delicious tiny places that’s been around forever. Embry doesn’t seem surprised when I suggest it, and after a few phone calls and a very short trip in a black Cadillac, we are inside the old bank building being seated. We’re the only ones there, the waiter’s footsteps echoing on the cold marble floor and the lights dimmed except for those around our table, but the chef and the servers are nothing but polite and happy to feed us. The Secret Service find discreet and distant points in the dining room to stand, and for a moment, without them in sight, with Embry’s suit jacket thrown carelessly over the back of a nearby chair, I can pretend that this is normal. A normal dinner, a normal conversation.

I take a small drink of the cocktail on the table, trying to wash away history, drown it in gin. My history with Embry is hopelessly tangled up in my history with someone else, and as long as I let that someone else cast a shadow over our dinner, there’s no way I can hope to have a conversation that isn’t strained with pain and regret. The only answer is to put everything in a box and shovel gravel on top and bury it until it suffocates.

“How have you been?” Embry finally asks, sitting back in his chair. I try not to notice the way his shirt strains around his muscular shoulders, the way the lines of his neck disappear into the bleach-white collar of his shirt, but it’s impossible. He’s impossible not to notice, he’s impossible not to crave; even now, my fingers twitch with the imagined feeling of running them along his neck, of slowly unbuttoning his shirt.

“I’ve been fine,” I finally manage. “Settling into my new job.”

He nods, the candlelight at the table catching on his eyelashes and casting shadows along his cheekbones. “So it seems. I bet you’re an amazing teacher.”

I think of my lonely classroom, my silent office, my pervasive restlessness.

I change the subject. “And your job? Being Vice President? There’s more to it than being photographed with a different woman every night, I’m sure.”

The old Embry would have laughed at this, grinned or winked or started bragging. This Embry sits forward and stares at me over his cocktail glass, his hands coming together in his lap. “Yes,” he says quietly. “There is more to it than that.”

“Mr. Moore—”

“Call me that one more time, and I’ll have you arrested for sedition.”

“Fine. Embry…what am I doing here?”

He takes a deep breath.

“The President wants you to meet with him.”

Off all the things he could have said…of all the reasons I thought I might be sitting across the table from a man I haven’t spoken with in five years…

“President Colchester,” I say. “Maxen Colchester. That President?”

“As far as I know, there’s only the one,” he replies.

I take a drink from my cocktail, trying to keep my motions controlled and my expressions blank, although I know how pointless that is with Embry Moore. When I first met him, he was a servant to his emotions, impulsive and moody. But in the last five years, he’s become the master of deliberate, studied behavior, and I know by the way his eyes flicker across my face that I’m not fooling him at all.

I set down my drink with a sigh, abandoning all pretense of calm. Like he said before, I’ve never been a good liar and I hate lying anyway.

“I’m a little confused,” I admit. “Unless the President wants to talk about the influence of Anglo-Saxon poetry on Norman literary traditions, I don’t see why he’d want to talk to me.”

Embry raises an eyebrow. “You don’t?”

I glance down at my hands. On my right pointer finger, there is the world’s smallest scar—so small it can’t be seen. It can only be discerned in the way it disrupts the looping whorls of my fingerprint, a tiny white notch in a tiny white ridge.

A needle of a scar, a hot knife of a memory.

The smell of fire and leather.

Firm lips on my skin.

The warm crimson of blood.

“I don’t,” I confirm. I have hopes, I have fantasies, I have a memory so powerful it punishes me nightly, but none of those things are real. And this is real life right now. This is the Vice President, that is the Secret Service over there, and I have a stack of papers waiting to be graded at home.

I’m not sixteen anymore, and anyway, I told myself that I was putting that other man in a box and burying him.

“He saw you at your church last week,” Embry finally says. “Did you see him?”

“Of course I saw him,” I sigh. “It’s hard to miss it when the President of the United States attends Mass at your church.”

“And you didn’t say hello?”

I throw up my hands. “Hello, Mr. President, I met you once ten years ago. Peace be with you, and also the left communion line is the fastest?”

“You know it’s not like that.”

“Do I?” I demand, leaning forward. Embry’s eyes fall to my chest, where my blouse has gaped open. I straighten, smoothing the fabric back into place, trying to ignore the heat in my belly at Embry’s stare. “He was surrounded by Secret Service anyway. I wouldn’t have been able to say hello even if I wanted to.”

“He wants to see you,” Embry repeats.

“I can’t believe he even remembers me.”

“There you go again, assuming people forget about you. It would be sweet if it wasn’t so frustrating.”

“Tell me why he wants to see me.”

Embry’s blue eyes glitter in the dim light as he reaches for my hand. And then he lifts it to his lips, kissing the scarred fingertip with a careful, premeditated slowness. Kissing a scar that he should know nothing about.

My chest threatens to crack open.

“Why you?” I ask, my voice breaking. “Why are you here instead of him?”

“He sent me. He wants to be here so badly, but you know how watched he is. Especially with Jenny—”

Darkness falls like a curtain over the table.


President Colchester’s wife.

Late wife.

“It’s only been a year since the funeral, and Merlin thinks it’s too soon for Max to step out of the ‘tragic widower’ role. So there can’t be any emails or phone calls,” Embry says. “Not yet. You understand.”

I do. I do understand. I grew up in this world, and even though I never wanted to be part of it, I understand scandal and PR and crisis management as well as I understand medieval literature.

“And so he sent you.”

“He sent me.”

I look down at my hand, still held tightly by Embry’s. How did I end up tangled with these two men? The two most powerful men in the free world?

This is real life, Greer. Say no. Say no to Embry, and for God’s sake, say no to the President.

I breathe in.

Fire and leather. Blood and kisses.

I breathe out.

“I’ll see him. Tell him I’ll see him.”

I don’t miss the pain that flares in Embry’s eyes, pain that he quickly hides.

“Consider it done,” he says.


Ten Years Ago

“You have to hold still,” Abilene fussed at me. “I keep messing this one up.”

I sighed and forced my body to stay still, even though I was so excited I could barely breathe. In just a few minutes, a hired car would pull in front of the London hotel Grandpa Leo had put us up in and take us to a large party in Chelsea, a party with adults and champagne. There would be diplomats and businessmen and maybe even a celebrity or two—a world away from the stale beer and crackling speakers of the hill parties back at school.

It was my sixteenth birthday, and as a special treat, he’d allowed us to tag along with him to the party. Or rather, he’d invited me and only reluctantly allowed Abilene to tag along—he could hardly invite one granddaughter and not the other, but we both knew (even if we didn’t say it aloud) that bringing Abilene to something like this carried a significant risk of embarrassment. She’d nearly been thrown out of Cadbury multiple times for a host of crimes—drinking on the premises, breaking curfew, a nasty incident that led to another lacrosse player with a black eye—and every time, Grandpa Leo had quietly paid the right money and pulled the right strings to keep her installed there.

The last thing he wanted was for her to disgrace him at a party full of his friends, but I promised him that I’d keep her on her best behavior. I promised him that I’d keep her from drinking too much, from talking too much, from flirting too much, just as long as he’d let her go, because she would be so hurt if I was able to come along and she wasn’t.

And Grandpa Leo, who used to terrorize senators and petroleum executives, who helped shape the strongest environmental legislation on record and publicly excoriated his enemies on a daily basis, relented to my pleading with a gruff smile and let Abilene come along.

And that’s why Abilene and I had spent our evening in an expensive hotel getting ready, why I was currently trying not to squirm in a chair as Abilene carefully pinned my final curl in place.

When she finished and I stood up to give myself a final once-over before strapping on my high heels and going downstairs, she made a noise behind me.

Worried, I spun around to the mirror. “What is it? Is my bra showing?” I tried to turn this way and that, positive that Abilene had seen something potentially disastrous.

“No. It’s…it’s fine.” Her voice sounded choked. “Let’s go. Grandpa’s waiting.”

I shrugged and sat down to pull on the strappy heels that matched the blush pink gown Grandpa had bought me earlier that week. The tulle and organza dress had a narrow waist and form-fitting bodice, a delicate sash in back, and a skirt that erupted from sedate layers into luxurious drapes and loops. With a matching tulle flower set into my hair and metallic pink heels, I felt like a princess, even though I knew I wouldn’t look like one compared to Abilene.

Tonight, she wore a tight dress of electric blue, with a keyhole in the center of the bodice displaying a swath of creamy-pale skin, and her glossy red hair was down in loose waves. She looked years older than she was, mature and sophisticated, and I stifled the usual pang of weary resignation that came along with seeing Abilene dressed up.

I was used to being in her shadow, after all, the companion to her Doctor, the Spock to her Kirk, and so it shouldn’t bother me tonight. Even if it was my birthday. Even if I was in the most beautiful dress I’d ever worn. But after looking at her, so polished and alluring, it was impossible to look at my reflection and see anything other than the faint cleft in my chin, the ridiculous beauty mark that refused to be covered up, the flatness of my eyes even after the most strategic uses of mascara and eyeliner.

So I did one final check to make sure my strapless bra wasn’t showing, that I hadn’t accidentally smeared pink lipstick across my face or sat on Abilene’s half-eaten Galaxy bar, and then opened the door. Abilene pushed past me without a word and refused to speak to me on the ride down to the lobby.

The mirrored doors opened, and she strode out of the lift, her heels clicking on the marble floor. “Are you angry with me?” I asked.

I racked my brain trying to think of anything I could have done to make her mad and came up with nothing. But sometimes that didn’t matter with Abilene. For all the times she hugged me out of nowhere, made sure I was invited to a party, or defended me to her friends, there were other times when she’d plunge suddenly into a dark, sullen mood, when her stare would burn like acid and her words char my skin like fire. I’d learned not to negotiate with these moods or try to appease them, even though they seemed to happen more and more frequently. There was no point—you couldn’t argue with a storm cloud, you could only wait for it to blow past.

“I’m not angry with you,” she said, still walking fast. I could make out the stout shape of Grandpa Leo through the front doors and, overlaid on top of him, our reflections: Abilene all scarlet and sapphire, and me shell-pink and gold.

She must have seen it too, because she froze, staring at the door. Then she turned to me. “Just stay out of my way tonight,” she mumbled. “Just stay away from me.”

Stung, I watched her walk through the doors as the doorman opened them for her and give Grandpa Leo a big hug, a fake smile plastered onto her face. I wanted to yell at her, tell her that I was the only reason she was going to the party in the first place. I wanted to scream and kick, because couldn’t I have one night, just one, that wasn’t all about her, that she didn’t upstage or steal or poison with her drama?

And most of all, I wanted to cry, because Abilene was my best friend, maybe my only friend, and the whole world felt off-kilter when she was like this with me.

But what could I do? What could I say or scream or beg that would make her understand?

So I did what Greer Galloway usually did.

I quietly followed in her footsteps.

I went through the doors and into Grandpa’s arms and then climbed into the car with her. We sat shoulder by shoulder, my skirt overflowing onto hers, her soft hair brushing against the skin of my arm, and we didn’t say a word to each other the entire drive.

Within minutes of arriving at the party, Abilene disappeared. I made to go find her, but Grandpa Leo held me back with a hand on my arm and a shake of his head. “She’ll be fine after a few minutes,” he promised. “Some space to cool down will do her good, and besides, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my friends.” I knew introduce was Grandpa Leo-speak for planting me as his spy, that he would want me to circulate and listen, or stand by his side and observe people while he talked, and I wanted to do that, I really did, but I also wanted to fix whatever was wrong with Abilene and me before the night grew any older.

I bit my lip, scanning the crowd for any sign of dark red hair, but I saw nothing. She was long vanished into a sea of tuxedos and circulating cocktail trays. I reluctantly allowed Grandpa to pull me deeper into the party.

Women cooed over me and men complimented me, their eyes trailing along my body in a way that I wasn’t used to, and I knew it was all because Abilene wasn’t next to me. They couldn’t see how marred my face was, how boring my body, without a gorgeous redhead the same age standing beside me for comparison. This thought should have made me happy, that without Abilene’s radiant charm, I could finally bask in the kinds of compliments she gathered so effortlessly, but it didn’t. I only felt more miserably aware of her absence. After an hour of this, I excused myself from Grandpa and a circle of guests to go find her, and that’s when I ran—literally—into Merlin Rhys.

He reached down to steady me by the elbow, keeping the amber drink in his other hand from sloshing as he did so. “Pardon me,” he apologized, even though it was my fault.

“No, it was my mistake,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

He peered down into my face and something shifted in his expression. “You’re Leo Galloway’s granddaughter,” he said. No inflection, no follow up. Just that one fact, the one fact that identified me wherever I went, as if the ghost of President Penley Luther was standing right behind me.

“Yes,” I said. “We met once, you and I, but I was a little girl.”

You predicted my parents’ deaths.

You warned me never to kiss anyone.

“I remember,” Merlin replied, and the way he looked at me almost made me feel as if he could read my thoughts. Like he’d heard them as clearly as if I’d spoken them aloud.

“Merlin!” A man in military attire appeared next to us and clapped a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin smiled tightly at him. “I was wondering when I’d catch up to you. How have you been?”

Merlin turned to answer the general, and I took the opportunity to vanish, my heart pounding in my chest.

Merlin unsettled and frightened me, and through all these years I thought it was because I’d met him as a little girl, at an age when almost anything can seem scary. But he still scared me at sixteen. There was something about him…not hostile necessarily, but aggressive. You felt his mind pushing at yours, challenging the walls around your thoughts, slithering through the defenses you kept around your feelings. It made me feel exposed and vulnerable, and I’d had enough of that from Abilene tonight.

I found my cousin in the townhouse’s library—a large lovely room with open French doors leading to a wide patio outside—with an empty champagne flute dangling from her fingers as she let a man older than her father kiss a trail of sloppy kisses down her neck. I cleared my throat and he straightened up, embarrassed. He beat a hasty retreat with a muttered apology in Italian, leaving Abilene against the wall looking livid.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” she demanded once he left the room. “I told you to leave me alone, not barge in here and ruin my life!”

“I’m not trying to ruin your life!” I exclaimed. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

She snorted in disgust. “Yeah, right.”

“What is going on with you tonight?” I asked. “You’ve been angry with me since the hotel.”

“I’m not angry,” she maintained, her nostrils flaring. “I just don’t want to be around you right now. God, why is that so fucking hard to understand?”

“It’s not—”

“And you know what, you always do this,” she went on, her eyes starting to shine with unshed tears. “You always push and push and push, like you have to know fucking everything, and one of these days, you’re not going to like the answer.”

I raised my hands, as if to show I meant no harm. “I don’t want to push you. But I know you’re angry. And I know it has something to do with me. I want to fix it, Abilene, let me fix it, please.”

“You can’t fix it,” she hissed. “Just stay away—”

“I’m not going to do that, I can’t do that—”

“Just leave me alone!” Her shrill voice rebounded through the room, and as if to punctuate her statement, she threw the champagne glass to the floor, where it shattered like ice on the polished parquet.

“Abilene,” I whispered, because I had never, ever seen her like this, so angry that she would act like this in someone else’s house, and there seemed to be a moment where it caught up with her too, where her eyes widened and her pale skin went even paler.

And then she stormed out of the room.

For a long minute, I stared at the mess on the floor. It glittered and flashed in the deafening silence that followed her exit, and it filled my vision, filled my mind and my throat and my chest, until it shrank back to normal size and I could breathe again.

My eyes burned with tears and my throat itched with all the things I wanted to scream at my supposed best friend, but I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t cry and I didn’t yell. I dropped to my knees and began picking up the shards of glass, sliver by tiny sliver, picking up after Abilene like I always did.

“You’ll cut yourself if you’re not careful,” an unfamiliar voice said from the patio door.


Ten Years Ago

The voice was American, which at this very London party was enough to make me pause and look up. He was in his mid-twenties, wearing an Army dress uniform, and as he strode towards me, it felt like all the air left the room, like I couldn’t breathe, like I would suffocate, but suffocate in the kind of way where visions dance before your eyes as you die. Broad, powerful shoulders tapered into trim and narrow hips, and his face…it was a hero’s face. Chiseled jaw, strong nose, full mouth. Emerald eyes and raven hair.

He walked over, close enough that I could read his nameplate now. Colchester. A name that sounded strong and solid and a little chilly.

He squatted down next to me, his pants pulling tight over his muscled thighs. “Let me help.”

Say something, my brain demanded. Say anything!

But I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to make the words come out. I had never seen a man so handsome, so overtly masculine, and for the first time in my life, I felt overwhelmingly and painfully female. I felt slender and soft, yielding and pliant, and when he looked up from the glass to smile kindly at me, I wondered if I would fall apart, like a blown rose caught in a strong wind.

He stood and deposited some of the broken flute in a nearby wastebasket, and then he brought the basket over to me. He knelt down again to pick up more glass.

“She’s jealous of you, you know.” Colchester said it quietly, while keeping his gaze on the floor.

I thought I’d misheard him. “Jealous?”

He cleared his throat. “I hope you don’t mind, but I was standing outside when you first came in the room. I heard you exchange words.”

I frantically searched my brain, trying to remember if I’d behaved like an idiot. This man was so much older than me, so contained, so fucking hot, and the desire to impress him was as sharp as the shards of glass in my hand.

He shook his head, as if reading my thoughts. “Don’t be embarrassed. I was impressed with how calm you stayed, considering how angry she was with you. Of course, when I saw you, I understood immediately.”

“Understood what?”

“That she’s jealous.”

It took me a beat to understand what he meant. “Of me?” I let out an incredulous laugh.

I wasn’t in the habit of being falsely modest. This wasn’t me begging for compliments or trying to patch my insecurities with flattery, because two years with Abilene had trained me to accept her greater worth on nearly every level—save for the academic and in earning Grandpa Leo’s love. There, I excelled. But everywhere else—beauty, friends, personality—Abilene surpassed me. And any other girl at Cadbury would have agreed.

“Abilene’s not jealous of me,” I said with a smile. “She’s Abilene. I’m just me…I’m not like her. If you saw her, you’d understand.”

“I did see her,” he replied dryly. “She and her acquaintance took occupancy of the room while I was on the patio, which left me stuck outside. Red hair, blue dress, right?”

“Yes,” I said, my smile fading. “So you did see her. You do understand.”

“I did and I do. Let me see your hand.”

I gave him my hand without thinking, extending it out and offering him the small pile of broken glass I’d collected. With deft fingers, he plucked the shards out of my palm and dropped them one by one into the wastebasket. “I thought I told you to be careful,” he said.

I was staring at his face, mesmerized, and I had to tear my eyes away and look down at my hand. I’d cut myself somehow, driven a needle-thin point of glass into my fingertip while trying to clean up, and now blood welled around it, wet and sticky.

“Oh,” I whispered.

And I don’t know if it was the sight of the blood or the icy prick of pain or my sudden proximity to him, but my vision shifted and my perception sharpened, and for a minute, I saw him, the real him behind that striking face and decorated jacket. I saw him like I would have if we’d met in the stuffy clusters of the party, if we’d met while Grandpa Leo stood beside me, waiting for me to deliver my observations and deductions.

I saw the small cut along his jaw.

I saw his hand cradling mine, sure and strong, his skin rough and nicked from war.

I saw the dull glint of the Distinguished Service Cross pinned near his heart.

I saw the faint smudges under his eyes.

I saw it all, and the pieces pulled together and wove into a picture.

“They say meditation helps,” I said quietly. “With the insomnia.”

His gaze snapped up from my finger to my face, and his eyes—already the dark, clear green of a glass bottle—seemed to grow both darker and clearer.

“What did you say?”

“Meditation. It’s supposed to help.”

“What makes you think I have trouble sleeping?”

How could I explain the way I knew things? The way I’d been trained for years to hold up a magnifying glass to everyone? I searched for the easiest answer. “It looks like you cut yourself shaving this morning. Like you were too tired to keep your hand steady.” And without thinking and without hesitation, I reached up with the hand he wasn’t holding and touched his jaw, lightly grazing my fingertips over the cut.

His eyes fluttered closed while his other hand came up against mine, holding it tight to his face. The long sweep of his black eyelashes nearly covered up the sleepless bruises under his eyes. The moment froze—the feeling of his smooth face warm against my palm, the blood still dripping from my finger, the muffled noise of the party through the closed door to the hallway.

“I’m sorry,” I offered gently. “If I could help you sleep, I would.”

He smiled, his eyes opening, and the moment unfroze, although I still felt it hanging between us. A palpable pressure, a prickling awareness.

A thawed energy.

Scared of its strength, I started to pull my hand away from his face, but he kept it there for a moment longer, looking me in the eyes. “I’ve never told anyone I have trouble sleeping,” he said. “I can’t believe you just knew.”

“Lots of soldiers struggle with it after difficult missions,” I said, looking down. He released my hand and I let it drop, keeping my gaze on the sparkling glass in my palm. “I just wanted to help. I’m sorry if I overstepped.”

“Not at all.” His voice was warm and filled with wonder. I risked a glance up at him and saw him staring down at me with an awed gratitude so intense it made me flush. “Actually, I should thank you,” he said. “It’s almost a relief to have someone know. To be able to quit pretending, just for a minute, that everything’s okay. That I’m still strong.”

“You are strong,” I whispered. “I don’t know what happened to you, I don’t know what you did, but I know that if you can stand in front of me tonight and still be kind, that makes you strong.”

He took in a deep breath at my words, those green eyes like emeralds in the dark, and then let it out. “Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” I said back.

And this time it was his turn to break our connection and look down, turning his attention back to my injured hand.

“This will hurt a little,” he warned, gently tugging the glass splinter loose. Another teardrop of blood oozed out, and without a word, he bent his head over my hand and drew the pad of my finger into his mouth, sucking the blood off my skin.

I could feel every flicker of his tongue, every soft scrape of his teeth. And every thrum of my pulse and every beat of my heart cried out for more, for something, for I didn’t know what, but parts of me knew. My skin erupted in goose bumps, and I wanted to press my thighs together to soothe an ache that seemed everywhere and nowhere all at once.

When Colchester lifted his head, a small drop of blood clung to his lower lip and he tasted it with his tongue, his eyes locked on mine. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think. I could only feel, feel and then obey when he said, “Stand up.”

We both stood.

It was as if my blood and his gratitude had woven a spell around him. His pupils were dilated and dark, his lips parted—and it was those lips that captivated me now. A perfect mouth, not too lush or too pink, just full and ruddy enough to contrast with the hyper-masculine square of his jaw and the strong line of his nose. The sharp angles of the cupid’s bow on his upper lip begged to be traced, and for a minute, I imagined doing just that. I imagined reaching out with the finger he’d just kissed and running it along the firm swells of his mouth.

“That’s the last time you are allowed to hurt yourself for her, do you understand?” His voice was almost disciplinary.

It’s not his business, a wayward thought intruded, but I pushed it away. The moment I’d mentioned his insomnia, the moment I’d touched his face, he and I had gone beyond what could be called a normal interaction. And there was something so knowing in the way he said it, so caring, and I realized how I felt now must have been how he felt when I told him I knew he couldn’t sleep.

“Yes,” I said, meeting his gaze. “I understand.”

He nodded. “Good girl.”

I flushed again, pleasure curling deep in my chest for reasons I didn’t understand, and he let out another long breath, his eyes on my pinkened cheeks.

I felt like a live wire, like a hot beam of light, all energy and vibration with no direction or outlet. A few minutes before, I’d felt female, but now, I felt young. He was a man, and I was still very much a girl, and that difference was so deeply erotic to me, so delicious, and I just wanted to melt into it. Dissolve into him.

Perhaps he felt it too, because he murmured, “You’re trembling. Are you scared of me?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered. It was the truth.

He liked that answer, it seemed, because he smiled. “I’d like to touch you again, if that’s okay.”

I thought of his lips on my finger, the bruises under his eyes, the heavy ache somewhere deep in my body. “Yes, please,” I said.

His hands came up under my elbows, cradling them as he searched my face. He must have seen what I felt, the echo of my words stamped all over my face:

yes please

yes please

yes please

And then he pulled me closer, those large, warm hands sliding behind me, one planted firmly between my shoulder blades and the other against the small of my back, and I could feel every curve of my body pressed against the wide, hard expanse of his chest. My head tilted back of its own accord, and his eyes dropped to the long arch of my throat.

“Stay there,” he breathed. “Don’t move until I tell you.” And then he bent down to press his lips against my neck.

I shivered—no one had ever done that before. Everything he was doing to me, every command and touch and caress—it was all new.

Virgin territory.

“What’s your name, angel?” he asked. I was still frozen like he’d asked, and he was clearly enjoying it, running his lips down to my collarbone.


“Greer,” he echoed, nuzzling into me. “Tell me, Greer, do you like my lips on your skin?”

“Yes,” I responded, a little breathlessly. “And—”

“And what?”

“You telling me to do things. Ordering me. Moving my body.”

He groaned at that, lifting his head from my neck and pressing me closer to him. Even through the uniform jacket and my own dress, I could feel the firm lines of his chest and stomach. And for the first time, I could smell him. He smelled like leather and woodsmoke. He smelled like a fire burning.

Burn me, I thought, a little wildly. Consume me.

His gaze fell down to my mouth, and his eyelids hooded.

“You’re so young…” he whispered.

Somehow, I knew what was coming next, I knew what he’d say. In the same way he’d asked for permission to touch me, he’d need to know it was okay to do more. He’d need reassurance that I was old enough, that I was an adult, that my consent would have legal weight.

I wanted to lie. I needed to lie. Because if I told him what he wanted to hear, I knew he’d kiss me. And nothing seemed more important than that right now, nothing seemed more urgent and necessary. I needed him to kiss me, if he didn’t, my body would curl into ash like kindled paper and disappear, please please please—

Except I wasn’t a liar.

Except I wasn’t supposed to kiss anybody, that was the promise I made to myself nine years ago after all, and anybody included handsome American military officers.

Except I was certain that—somehow—he’d know I was lying. I knew those green eyes would blaze into mine and illuminate the outline of every lie and half-truth I’d ever told.

“Tell me you’re eighteen,” he whispered.

“I’m not.”

He swore.

And then he tilted my face back up to his, and his mouth came down over mine anyway.

I’d never kissed a boy or a girl, never even tried, and now I had a man’s lips firm and warm over mine, insistent and demanding. If I had been thinking clearly, I might have worried that I would be bad at kissing, that I would be laughably awkward and a disappointment to this beautiful stranger. But I wasn’t thinking clearly, the only thoughts I had were single words—fire and leather and more—and I didn’t need to know what to do.

He knew. And that was how it was supposed to be.

One warm hand cupped the nape of my neck while the other pressed against the small of my back, and his lips parted my own. I gasped the moment I felt him lick inside my mouth—it tickled.

It was soft—dangerously soft—silken, and warm. Every nerve ending I had came frighteningly alive, crackling with need.

And all from one lick of his tongue.

I opened my mouth more to him, sighing as he pressed me closer, so close that I would have lost my balance if he let go of me. It felt so right to open to him, to mold against his body, and I wanted to offer him every inch of my skin. The column of my neck, the space between my breasts, my inner thighs…everywhere.

The thought made me bold, and I realized I wanted to kiss him back. He groaned as I tentatively licked inside his mouth, and I felt his entire body shudder as I did it again.

He tasted sweet and clean, like mint and gin, and the more I kissed him, the more I could taste the lingering salt-tang of my blood. My finger stung from the cut, and I wanted him to suck on it again, I wanted it so badly, and so I pressed it against his lips and into his mouth.

His eyes burned as he closed his lips around my finger and sucked, and everything felt throbbing and swollen—especially the space between my legs. And then his lips were hot on my neck, covering the dip of my clavicle, nibbling on the lobe of my ear.

“Greer,” he breathed. “God, where did you come from?”

I don’t know, but I feel like I’ve always been waiting for you.

And then his forehead fell against my neck. “And why aren’t you eighteen?” he mumbled into my skin.

“How old are you?” I asked.

He lifted his head, resignation and regret in his eyes. “Twenty-six.”

His grip on me loosened, his hands sliding away from my body. I made a noise as he let me go, a noise of pure pain and loss, and he gave a breath like he’d been punched in the gut.

“Please,” I begged. “Please.”

He inhaled raggedly. “You don’t even know what you’re asking for.”

“I don’t care. Anything—I’ll let you do anything to me.”

“I believe you. That’s why you’re so dangerous.”

We stared at each other, and I lifted my fingers to probe at my lips, which thrummed with blood and heat, swollen and soft. “That was my first kiss,” I said, more to myself than to him.

His own lips parted in surprise. “It was?”

“I haven’t…” He doesn’t need to know you’re a virgin, Greer. It’s embarrassing enough that you’ve never been kissed. “Yes. You gave me my first kiss.”

His eyes blazed a deep green, a summer forest about to catch fire, and there was a moment that I thought he was going to reach for me again. As if the idea of being the first man for me ignited a sense of possession in him. But at that moment, the door to the library opened and Merlin Rhys came in from the hallway.

Keep your kisses to yourself.

Tell me you’re eighteen.

Oh my God, what have I done?

We both froze, and then Colchester stepped back and cleared his throat, slipping back into cocktail party mode. “Merlin, hello. Ah, this is Greer…um…”

“Greer Galloway,” Merlin supplied, and his friend swiveled his head to look at me.

“As in Vice President Galloway, Greer Galloway?” Colchester asked me, his strong face both interested and vulnerable.

“Former Vice President,” I mumbled, not for the first time in my life and certainly not for the last.

“Ah, okay. And Greer, this is Merlin Rhys. He’s a family friend and invited me here tonight. I’m in between assignments, but I didn’t want to go home, so he graciously let me tag along.”

“Much good it did if you spent the night hiding on the patio,” Merlin said mildly.

Not the whole night, I wanted to say, but then Merlin’s dark eyes raked over my lips, and somehow—somehow—he knew. He knew that I’d kissed his friend. He knew that I wanted to do it again. He knew that I wouldn’t have stopped, would have surrendered every bit of myself right here in the library.

“We should go,” Merlin said shortly, his eyes still on me as he addressed Colchester. “It’s getting late.”

Colchester stepped away and then looked back at me, biting his lip. It made him look almost boyish, almost my age, until I looked closer and could see that he bit his lip not out of uncertainty, but to control himself.

Merlin sighed and left the room. There was a second when I was certain Colchester would follow him right away, catching the closing door in his large hand and ducking out without a word of goodbye, but then the door closed. And my stranger was still in the room with me.

He was on me in a second, pressing me against the wall, stoking my body to flames once more. “I don’t want to leave,” he told me, tracing his nose along my jaw.

“Then don’t,” I practically pleaded, and he swallowed my pleas with his mouth, kissing me and kissing me and kissing me until there was nothing but his hot mouth and the blood pounding deep in my core.

He stepped back with a heavy breath. “I have to go,” he said with genuine regret, after running a hand through his short hair. He looked as put together and collected as when he’d first strolled in from the patio, as if the kissing hadn’t even happened. As if I hadn’t even happened.

“Wait!” I called out as he reached the door to the hallway that Merlin had walked through moments earlier. “I just realized…I don’t know your first name.”

He paused with his hand on the doorknob and looked down at it. “Captain Maxen Ashley Colchester.” He bowed his head. “At your service.”

“Maxen,” I echoed.

He glanced up and a shy smile crossed his face. “I think I’d like it if you called me Ash.”

And then he was gone.


Ten Years Ago

Dear Captain Colchester,

I hope it’s not too forward of me to email you—or too awkward. But I asked my grandfather if he could find your email address for me, since Merlin is a mutual friend, and I wanted to tell you that it was really nice to meet you last Saturday. I know we didn’t talk about it very much, and it’s probably nosy of me, but I was thinking more about your insomnia and I thought you might like a couple of the attachments about meditation I have at the bottom of the email.

* * *

I hope you’re enjoying London!

Sincerely yours,

Greer Galloway

* * *

Dear Ash,

Is it okay if I call you Ash? You said so the night we met, and I would like to, but it also feels strange to call a near-stranger by their first name. Especially a military stranger, because Grandpa Leo has so many military friends that I’m pretty much trained to salute whenever I see a uniform. I also hope I didn’t bother you by not mentioning my last name while we were talking. Sometimes at parties like that the Galloway name means certain things—usually that people want me to pass on messages to Grandpa or ask for favors. Sometimes it means they don’t want to talk to me at all because they hate my grandfather and his political party. Or sometimes it just means that I can’t start from scratch when I meet someone new. I know that seems like a silly thing to care about, but my whole childhood I was introduced to the world as Leo Galloway’s granddaughter. Here at Cadbury, I’m always ‘Abilene’s cousin’ or ‘Abilene’s roommate.’ I’m never just Greer, and I got to be that with you, and that was special for me. I hope you don’t feel like I was trying to hide something from you?

* * *

Anyway, if you’re still in London, I hope you’re having a good time.

* * *

Sincerely yours,

Greer Galloway

* * *

Dear Ash,

I wasn’t going to bother you any more since it’s been almost three weeks since I sent my first email (and I was certain that I was annoying you) but when I was watching the news about the Krakow bombing last night, Grandpa Leo called. We talked about what the bombing meant for Europe and NATO and America, and then he mentioned that you’d been reassigned back to the Carpathian region the week after the party. I feel so terrible for emailing you such trivial stuff when you were back on duty, and I just wanted you to know that I had no idea. I’ll make sure to light a prayer candle in church for you and pray a rosary for you every night.

* * *

Be safe please.

* * *

Sincerely yours,

Greer Galloway

* * *

Dear Ash,

It’s a real war now. Officially. The Carpathian problem has been around for so long that I’m not sure even Grandpa Leo ever thought it would really come to a head like this. But the Krakow bombing last week—over nine hundred dead—there’s no way war wouldn’t be declared. At least that’s what Grandfather said.

* * *

Did you know that my parents were killed by Carpathian separatists? Almost ten years ago now. They blew up a train bridge and killed almost a hundred people, my parents included. All that death, my childhood completely torn apart with God only knows how many other children’s, and for what? A small chunk of land squashed between Ukraine and Poland and Slovakia? It makes no sense to me.

* * *

Except, in a weird way, it does. I have every reason to hate the Carpathians, but I can’t. I can’t actually transpose my own pain and grief over the images of the war I’m seeing. Instead, I keep thinking of the Carpathian children who might lose their own parents. I keep thinking about how peaceful and quiet I feel when I remember my childhood in Oregon, when I remember what home feels like. There’s no doubt that a handful of the militant separatists have done terrible things, and I understand why there is war now. But part of me wishes that we could simply sit down and grant them what they want—their home. Sovereignty is a complicated thing, and creating a new nation is a fraught prospect in a region already as carved up as Eastern Europe, but what if there could be a way forward without war? I’ve been raised in politics and I’m not naive enough to believe that we can erase killing and violence, but even if we could reduce it just a little…wouldn’t that still be worth trying?

* * *

I’ve been praying for you every night like I said I would. I hope wherever you are that you can feel that. Somehow.

* * *

Sincerely yours,


* * *

Dear Ash,

You’re famous now. Imagine my surprise yesterday at waking up to your face all over the news. My horror when I found out what you lived through, my relief that you were unharmed. It’s unthinkable to me that you were able to fight your way out of a building surrounded by separatists, all while carrying that wounded soldier. I can’t fathom what kind of courage it took for you to stay with your friend when the rest of your squad escaped. What kind of skill it took for you to fight off your attackers and eventually save yourself and him. But after reading and watching all the profile pieces on you, I shouldn’t have been surprised. You have a history of being a hero, don’t you? And I’m not trying to tease you or make you uncomfortable. I’ve been around every sitting president, vice president and first lady since I was a baby, and I have seen how tiring it can be to have people fixate on your accomplishments. But I can’t write this letter without telling you that I’m in awe of how many times you’ve risked your life for your fellow soldiers. ‘No greater love than this’ is what Jesus says about men like you, and I’m honored to say that I’ve met you in person, and that you’re even kinder and more humble than all the profile pieces and journalists say.

* * *

That being said, to me you are still Ash. Our acquaintance lasted only an hour, but the things that I remember about you—the cut on your jaw, the way your hands felt as they worked the glass splinter out of my finger—are more than your battles. You are a hero to me, but you are a man too. Maybe even more man than hero.

* * *



* * *

Dear Ash,

It’s been six months since we met, and part of me is embarrassed to look at this chain of emails—a chain with only me in it. I tell myself it’s because you’re at war, because you’ve been saving lives—last week, that high school building where so many civilians were taking shelter!—but I guess I’m also not foolish enough to believe that a twenty-six-year-old war hero wants unsolicited emails from a boarding school student. So I should stop bothering you, I know I should, but it feels as if I have taken you up as a sort of hobby. Reading about you, thinking about what I should write to you. The girls at school are obsessed with the fact that Abilene and I were at the same party as you this summer, and even though it’s one of the only times anyone has been interested in actually talking to me, I hold what happened between us as my own private secret. I don’t want anyone else to know what it felt like to be in your arms. I don’t want anyone else to know about the little groan you made when we kissed for the first time. I’m greedy for you, or at least for those memories of you. I’m not stupid—I know that you must have a girlfriend or that you’ve had them—I know I’m not the only person who’s heard that little groan or felt the heat of your hands on their back. But I like to pretend. I like to feel possessive of these small parts of you, the parts that don’t belong to the public imagination, and maybe that’s the real reason I can’t stop writing.

* * *



* * *

Dear Ash,

It’s my seventeenth birthday today. It’s been exactly one year since we met, and while you’ve fought in several crucial battles and saved countless lives, I’ve completed a year of high school. The two don’t really compare, do they? I told myself after my last email that I wouldn’t bother you again, both for your sake and for my pride, but tonight I feel strange. Restless, I guess. It’s hot for England, even for May, and muggy. I have the windows thrown open and a fan blowing, but I can’t seem to cool down. Every part of me feels flushed. And Abilene is gone from our dorm room and I found a bottle of Prosecco stashed in her mini fridge, and so I’m tipsy and alone, on top of being restless and hot.

* * *

It feels like the kind of night to make a bad decision. I think normally girls my age find boys my age to make their bad decisions with—at least that’s what Abilene is out doing right now—but I don’t want that. There’s something really pedestrian about the kind of fun Abilene seeks out, and this is not me trying to force morality onto her, because I don’t think there’s anything immoral about having sex, but it’s more of an…aesthetic…thing, I guess. I don’t want boring, common ways of being bad. I want ways that rattle me to my bones, that send me to my knees in repentance, I want to be the kind of bad that leaves me wrung out with bite marks blooming purple on my body. I want to go to the brink of not knowing myself, I want someone to take me there and hold me by the neck and make me stare at an entire reckless realm of possibility. What’s the point of sex if you don’t feel like every dark crevice of your soul has been exposed to the light? If someone doesn’t take your lust and your shameful thoughts, and twist them into a spell that leaves you panting like a dog for more? I think I want that for myself. I want a normal life too—I want an education and career and my own house and to make all of my own decisions—but whenever I think about sex, about what sex would be like when I’m older, I don’t ever imagine the Titanic hand-hitting-the-car-window thing. I want to feel like my veins are being sliced open by the sheer desire of someone powerful, I want to be handled and cherished and used and worshipped. I want a man or woman to claim me as their equal partner in every way—until we’re alone. Then I want to crawl to them. I can have that someday, right?

* * *

Right now, as I type, I’ve got one leg slung over the arm of my computer chair because it’s so hot, but also because it makes it easy to tease myself in between writing sentences to you. I do this a lot when I’m thinking about you. (I am guessing you probably don’t know that, and tonight, for some reason, it just feels like I should tell you.) I started by running a fingertip under the lace of my panties, imagining it was you. Imagining that we are back in the library and we were never interrupted by Merlin. I imagine you pulling up my skirt after I tell you that you were my first kiss, because you want to know if I’m a virgin. You want to feel if I’m still intact, if I’m wet for you, you want to know what I’d feel like wrapped around your dick.

* * *

God, I’m so wet right now. I wish it were your fingers inside me, your thumb on my clit. You’d be so good at that. I can’t stop thinking about your hands, how big and strong they are. I bet your eyes would burn green as you rubbed me, I bet you would lick your lips at the thought of tasting me, of being the first man to ever taste me. I think about what it would have been like if you’d fucked me that night, right there against the wall maybe, or on the large desk in the corner. Abilene says boys should always wear condoms, but I wouldn’t have wanted you to. I would have wanted to feel your skin, if it was hot and if it was smooth and silky. I would have wanted you to feel me. I would have wanted you to whisper in my ear how good I felt, what a gift I was giving you, how you could stay inside me forever and ever if only I’d let you.

* * *

What noises do you make when you come? Do you gasp? Groan? Whisper names? I think I’d like you to whisper my name. Sometimes I imagine you in your cot on base, your hand beneath the blankets trying to be quiet, and then when you come, you have to bite your lip so you don’t say my name aloud. I imagine you fucking your fist in the shower, wishing it was me instead of your hand. I imagine you imagining me in every different way a man can be with a woman, sweet and rough and slow and angry and loving. And right now, I’m going to stop typing and finger myself until I come, and when I come, it will be your name I say.

* * *

I don’t know if this will ever be read. If it will go straight to spam or into some folder marked ‘Crazy Girls with Vice Presidents for Grandfathers’. I almost hope you never see this, but it couldn’t go unwritten. Not tonight. But this will definitely be the last time I write to you. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up hung over and ashamed, although hopefully with that dark excitement that comes with making the best kinds of bad choices. You won’t hear from me again, and I’m sorry if any part of this made you uncomfortable or irritated. But you should know that even if I’m not writing you emails any longer, I’ll still be thinking of you every time I dig my fingers into my pussy.

* * *

Be safe.

* * *




The Present

Ten years separate me and that moment in the library. Ten years encompassing wars and illness and the entirety of my adult experience, and yet somehow it all shrinks to a pinprick point and disappears as I walk into St. Thomas Becket Church. It’s erased and there’s nothing between me and the man kneeling near the front of the sanctuary, his head bowed. There’s no air, no time, no different versions of ourselves…I could be sixteen right now, walking up this aisle, and he could be twenty-six.

Maybe it’s because of this that I hesitate as I get closer to him, my feet slowing as my pulse speeds up. When Embry suggested my church as a meeting place, I leapt at the idea. The church is where I feel safe, the church is where I feel watched over by God, and most importantly, the church is neutral territory. I can’t bear the thought of waiting in line to see him in the West Wing, a hastily penciled-in visitor, and I even less could bear the thought of being smuggled into the Residence. I understand discretion, but I also don’t want to feel like contraband. Like the living embodiment of a lie.

Stop freaking out. You still don’t know for sure why he wants to meet you. Embry had hinted—intimately—at the reason, but I’ve been burned by hope before. And besides, how could there be any room for hope at all? After Jenny, after that long sweaty night in Chicago, after ten years, for fuck’s sake. I should keep this box buried. I should save myself while I still can.

But I don’t stop walking. I send a quick prayer—a blank prayer, a silent plea, because I don’t even know what to pray for at this point—towards the tabernacle as I genuflect and slide into the pew behind the President. I carefully set down the kneeler and get to my knees, lacing my hands together and bowing my head, as if to pray, but I never get around to actually forming the words.

I study the President instead.

He’s praying as well, kneeling like me, his dark head hanging down over his hands. He’s shucked his jacket, leaving him in a white button-down shirt. His sleeves are rolled up, exposing tan, muscular forearms, and I can tell from the loose way the shirt collar lies against his neck that he’s unbuttoned his top button and loosened his tie. The shirt stretches and pulls over the wide shoulders and broad muscles of his back as he keeps his head bowed.

And because I can’t help it, I let my eyes trail down to the narrow lines of his hips. His pants are excruciatingly tailored, excruciatingly, the fabric hugging a firm ass and hard, thick thighs. Heat floods me everywhere, sending sparks and electric flashes dancing across my skin. How could I have forgotten how powerful he is in person? That there is still a soldier’s body under those dark suits and requisite flag pins?

And then when he speaks, the sparks dancing across my skin ignite into true fire as I remember the words he murmured against my lips that night a decade ago—tell me you’re eighteen and do you like my lips on your skin and God, where did you come from?

“I’ve prayed for the free world, the less-than-free world, my enemies, my allies, my staff and my mom’s favorite dog,” the President says without looking back at me, his voice rich and burred around the edges. “Am I missing anything?”

“The babies trapped in limbo, maybe.”

“How could I forget about them?” He leans his head farther down for a brief second. “And please watch over the babies trapped in limbo. In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.”

He crosses himself, and I get a glimpse of those large, square hands that once cradled mine. “Thank you for meeting me,” Ash says. “I know it was presumptive to send Embry—especially as you haven’t ever met him—to do something so personal, but I couldn’t wait another minute after seeing you here on Sunday. And I also couldn’t get away to do it myself. I mentioned it to him and he volunteered to help right away.” He smiles. “He’s an amazing friend.”

Especially as you haven’t ever met him…

Ash doesn’t know that Embry and I know each other? A quiet worry starts tugging at my heart, but I push it aside. “Vice President Moore is a very persuasive messenger.”

“I know. That’s why I sent him. Trust me—the things he’s persuaded me to do can’t be spoken aloud in a church.” The President stands and comes around to the side of my pew, extending a hand. I take it and look up, and all worries about Embry fade into nothing. There is only Ash.

Since the night we kissed, I’ve seen thousands of pictures of Maxen Ashley Colchester, I’ve watched all his televised rallies and debates and press conferences, but it in no way prepared me for seeing him right now. Even though he’s perfection personified in any medium, no picture or video can do him justice. Nothing can compare to seeing him in person, face to face.

Still the same chiseled planes and full mouth, the bottle green eyes—still the most handsome man I’ve ever seen, aside from Embry Moore. But what the President has is more than good looks. There’s a certain nobility to his face, an honesty and openness, and even more than that, a sense of purpose. Like he knows exactly who he is and within seconds, he can tell you exactly who you are. It’s electrifying.

I allow him to help me to my feet. I’m shaking, and he notices.

“Do I scare you?” he asks, his brow furrowing. Like Embry, there are lines around his eyes and mouth that weren’t there a decade ago, and I see a few silver strands peeking through his jet-black hair. If anything, it makes him even sexier now than when we first met.

“Will you be angry if I say yes?” I manage.

His hand slides from mine up to my elbow, and I realize how close we’re standing. “Angry is not even close to the kinds of feelings you stir up, Greer.”

Oh God.

I can’t handle how intense this is, how fiercely my body is reacting to his mere proximity when all we shared was an hour a decade ago and another hour five years after that. I fumble for a way to defuse the sudden weight of the conversation. “Mr. President—”

He sighs. “Please don’t call me that. Not here. Not now.”

I try to force myself to say his name aloud—the name that I wrote a thousand times in looping cursive during my high school classes, the name that I sighed to myself in my shower with my hand between my legs—but my decorum was forged in the crucible of The Party and it’s so hard not to use the title I know I should use.

He leans in, and I smell the fire and leather smell of him. It makes me dizzy.

“You can call me ‘sir,’ if you like,” he murmurs. “But only when we’re alone.”

I have to close my eyes.

He guides me into the aisle, and then we’re walking past the altar to a door at the side of the church. We walk by stone-faced Secret Service agents and go out into the church garden, his hand moving from my arm to the small of my back, steering me where he wants us to go. The gesture is possessive, peremptory, as if he assumes he has prerogative over my body.

I want him to. I want him to have every prerogative over my body.

I don’t see any agents in the garden, even though I know they must be there, but for the moment, it feels as if we’re alone among the rustling red and gold trees and wilted fall flowers, and he stops us in the middle of a flagstone-paved clearing, next to a bleached-white statue of the Virgin.

“I won’t waste your time. God knows I have little enough of my own. But I couldn’t—” he pauses, the famously eloquent soldier at a loss for words. “I couldn’t wait any longer,” he finally says in a low voice.

He is so close, and all I can smell is leather and leaves and I force myself to take a step back. I have to think, I have to use my brain, because my body and my heart are screaming so loudly that I can’t hear anything else, and what they’re screaming is yes please yes please yes please even though a question hasn’t been asked yet.

The President—Ash, I mentally correct myself—lets me step back, but his eyes are on me like hands, still possessing me, still steering me.

“I don’t think I understand,” I say. “I don’t understand why you wanted to meet with me.”

He runs a hand through his hair, a gesture I recognize from that night. “That’s fair, I suppose,” he says, his eyes on the leaf-covered ground as he frames his next statement. “And I don’t want to scare you away by being too…direct.”

“I mean, I’m still shocked that you remember me. We met only the once.”

“Twice,” he corrects me. “Chicago, five years ago. Remember?”

Flames lick my cheeks and I take a deep breath. “I remember.” It was the night I lost my virginity, after all. Girls usually remember that sort of thing. “Twice then. We’ve talked twice.”

And then I bite my lip, remembering something I’ve managed to forget for several years, because it’s not exactly true that we’ve only talked twice. I have talked to Ash more than that, though he never talked back.

The emails.

My face flushes even hotter, this time with humiliation.

God, the emails. Why was I so young and stupid? So ready to attach meaning to the things adults do without thinking twice about it?

“They were very memorable,” he says. “Two times in ten years might not sound like a lot, but it was to me…” He trails off, and my heart squeezes.

But I breathe a silent sigh of relief that he doesn’t mention the emails. I never did get a response to any of my messages, and I had assumed for years that he’d never received them, since he had been actually fighting a war at the time. The younger Greer spent too many hours brooding in the dark about those unread messages, but now as an adult, I pray he’s never even seen them.

“Something’s wrong,” he says, reaching out to tilt my face up to his. I realize that I was staring off into nothing.

Lie. Just lie.

But I hate lying. I try to find an answer that isn’t the whole shameful truth. “I’m embarrassed. Of how I acted when I was younger.”

A smile, surprisingly tender. “Is that all this is? Why you’re acting like you don’t understand why I want to see you?”

“I just…I thought about that kiss so much,” I whisper. “But I knew there was no way you would remember it. Why would you? You were an adult, a man, and I was just a child. And you’ve gone on to live this incredible life, to be a hero and now a leader, and you had your beautiful wife—”

Fuck! I swallow the rest of my words, wishing I could swallow up my own idiocy along with them. Of all the things I shouldn’t bring up, the late Jennifer Colchester was at the top of the list. And sure enough, Ash winces at the word wife. Just the tiniest bit.

“I loved Jenny,” he says quietly, letting go of my chin. And it’s then I notice the dark smudges under his eyes, the telltale signs of exhaustion in his face. He still has trouble sleeping, even after all this time. “And I miss her. It hurts me still that she died so young and in so much pain. But Greer, I won’t pretend that I ever stopped thinking about you. I can’t pretend that.”

“It was one kiss,” I say, shaking my head. “Why would you—”

He holds up a hand to stop me, and I fall silent. “I’m not going to let you do that,” he tells me. “You’re not allowed to dismiss what happened or tell me that it wasn’t worth remembering. I did remember. I do remember. And I won’t forget any second of that night.”

“It’s just so impossible to believe. That you—Maxen Colchester—remembered me. Thought about me.”

A noise leaves him, half heavy breath, half incredulous laugh. “We are meeting after all these years,” he says, “and you believe I haven’t been thinking about you?” He takes a step closer, so close that I could lean in and press my lips against his icy blue tie if I wanted. It’s nearly the same color as Embry’s eyes.

“Look up at me, Greer,” the President orders me. I do as he says. It almost hurts to look him full in the face, he’s so perfect, but it hurts more