Courted:Gowns & Crowns, Book 1

By: Jennifer Chance

Chapter 1

Em Andrews gazed out over the crystal blue water…

Forget that. If she was standing in the middle of an honest-to-God fairy-tale kingdom, this daydream was going to start off the Best. Way. Possible.

Princess Emmaline Aurora Grace gazed out over her seaside paradise kingdom as sunlight danced over crystal blue water and members of her gorgeous, strapping royal guard trained in the crashing surf, preparing to protect the kingdom from—

“Yo, Em! Where’s the suntan lotion? I’m about to fry my face off!”

Em snapped back into focus and swung around, squinting as her best friend in the entire world ground to a halt in the sand beside her. Gasping for breath after the blurted demand, Nicki Clark braced her hands on her thighs, her reddish-gold hair and turquoise running tank plastered with sweat, her back heaving as she sucked in air.

“Red bag, side compartment,” Em said, mentally picturing her packing list for the day’s tote, everything neatly tucked into place. She would have grabbed the bag herself, except a tanned foot with perfectly polished toes snaked out of the shadow of the enormous hotel-monogrammed beach umbrella to kick it their way, the rasp following it as dark as death.

“Nicki, for the love of God… Silence.”

“Lauren! You’re up! You should have come jogging with me and Fran!” Nicki dropped to a squat and began rooting through Em’s provision bag as a muttered curse floated out from under the umbrella. “Best thing in the world to knock out a hangover.”

“Right after I finish icing my face. Promise.”

“Where is Fran, anyway?” Em returned her gaze to the beach. It was filling up with tourists and sunbathers, but the last member of their group was nowhere to be seen. “You didn’t lose her, did you?”

“Hardly. There was some sort of Farmers Market setting up. It looked awesome, but I wasn’t going to stop my run for it.” Nicki liberated the suntan lotion. “Fran found some sort of scarf thingy hanging from a rack and refused to move until she could buy it.”

She sank onto the beach blanket, then grabbed a towel and a squeeze bottle of water to sponge herself off. “I’m here now, though, so if you wanna take a walk, feel free. I’ll make sure nothing takes off on its own while Lauren is in recovery.”

Em smiled, nodding her thanks. Nicki knew her too well—she wouldn’t go wandering off to enjoy this beautiful day if Lauren might need her to go fetch food, water, or possibly a physician after she’d decided she could hold her own in a tsipouro drinking contest the evening before.

It’d been their first night in this idyllic kingdom, the second and southernmost stop on their European tour. A tiny country carved out of the mountains of Greece and edged by the glorious Aegean Sea, Garronia was an anomaly in the modern world—a nation run by royalty, and apparently run well.

But regardless of its governmental prowess, what Garronia really excelled in was looking amazing. Em turned again to gaze out over the smooth, sun-kissed water of the Aegean, then headed for the shoreline, her feet sinking into the soft white sand. If she were Nicki, she’d come up with the perfect words to describe the water’s particular shades of blue. Then again, if she were Nicki, she wouldn’t be focusing on the pretty picture the Aegean Sea made at all. She’d be analyzing riptides and undercurrents, trying to set up the perfect scenario for an impromptu wind-surfing competition.

But Em wasn’t interested in cataloging their European odyssey for some extreme travel blog. She wanted to immerse herself in it, diving into the inherent escape it provided, if only for a little while. Floating on the Aegean, she could forget about the letter she’d received before she left Kansas City, the rich, creamy stationery, the crisp typed words. Final scholarship deferment… Decision needed…sincerely hope you will consider…

No. She didn’t need to think about any of that. Not yet, anyway.

Now she needed simply to revel in the glittering waves that had been beckoning to her all morning. She wasn’t totally used to swimming in open water, but she couldn’t resist the lure of the gorgeous, jewellike azure sea. It already seemed to hold her in its shifting grip, drawing her out, pulling her deep…

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