The latest installment of Alyssa Cole’s Runaway Royals series—How to Find a Princess, out today, a riff on Anastasia—finds World Federation of Monarchies investigator Beznaria Chetchevaliere in New Jersey, looking for the lost princess of Ibarania. She thinks she’s found her in Makeda Hicks, but Makeda wants absolutely nothing to do with her alleged royal background, after a childhood disrupted by her mother’s obsession with the idea. But she is interested in the chaotic, compelling Bez. In this excerpt—which kicks off a summer series of romance excerpts at Jezebel—they get flirty while alone together on a Ferris wheel.
She decided to go somewhere that hadn’t been around when she was a kid, given all the memories the princess stuff was pulling up—the Ferris wheel at the Steel Pier. She hated the Ferris wheel in the summer, with the sticky heat and the pier teeming with people and the line to get on the wheel almost as far back as the boardwalk. Now, in the pre-season before the shore was overrun by tourists, there was a refreshing breeze and the warmth was dry, not oppressive. The crowds were sparse, and when Makeda got on, she could expect to have a car to herself and not be stuck with a bickering family or amorous couple.
From the window of the trendily designed car, she could look out over the wide possibility of the ocean and feel that stirring that had once been familiar to her. She’d lost it, down on the ground where reality had started pressing in on her early and often, but the Ferris wheel lifted her up into that sensation every now and again, the one of being overwhelmed, not with bills or worry for other people and the obligations she’d made to them, but with possibility. With all the places she could imagine out in the world, and all the adventures she’d once imagined she’d have. When the ride was over and she placed her feet back on solid ground, she would leave all those fantasies in the air, where they belonged.
There was no wait when she arrived, and the young white guy who worked there took her ticket and guided her on board. Makeda felt herself unclench as she stepped into the car, ready for approximately fifteen minutes of reprieve from a life that had suddenly become a minefield of everyone else’s hopes and dreams, and the realization that she didn’t really have any of her own.
“Miss, you have to wait for the next car,” the Ferris wheel worker called out from behind Makeda.
“The next one will be empty. Miss!”
Makeda’s senses pricked as she turned, picking up on Beznaria’s chaos vibes before the aggravating investigator stepped into the car behind her. The woman grinned down at her and Makeda knew what mice saw last before Kojak sent them on to the great cheese platter in the sky.
The tension that had been relieved by shutting Lindsey down clamped her in its vise again. “You—”
“I am but a tourist trying to see your fine city along the Atlantic,” Beznaria said, hamming up her accent. “This Ferris wheel is said to have a good view that’s best enjoyed with good company.”
Makeda should have jumped out just before the Ferris wheel worker shut the door, like a heroine sliding into an airlock at the climax of an action movie, but Makeda was not final-girl material. No matter how much she wanted to change, she was the person who stood there as a xenomorph approached, and perhaps petted the tiny alien tongue on its head and offered it a snack before it disemboweled her.
The Ferris wheel started to move, and she sighed, annoyed with herself, and dropped onto one of the benches. Beznaria sat down right beside her, close enough that Makeda could smell the sweet grass scent of her lotion—close enough that anyone watching them would think they were a couple.
Beznaria pushed her glasses up, depositing another fingerprint to the smudge menagerie that was killing Makeda softly.
“Can you even make out the view through those things?” Makeda resisted the urge to pull them off and rub them with the microfiber cloth she kept in her purse. “You could at least give them a wipe if you’re here to see the sights.”
Beznaria appeared not to be listening. She jumped up, startling Makeda, and started walking all over the car—she examined the railings, stared at stains on the seats, and even did a jumping jack or two, making the car swing back and forth.
Then she dropped back onto the bench, even closer to Makeda than she had been.
She leaned down in that annoying way tall people had of making it clear that there were a few inches of distance between your shoulder and theirs.
“How many people,” she asked, “do you think have had sex in here?”
“What?” Makeda’s voice came out in a high squeak. “Why would you ask that?”
“It just seems that when in a small semiprivate space, fornication becomes a challenge of sorts for many people. The Ferris wheel’s nature adds the bonus of a time limit to whatever amorous intentions one might have, and the additional bonus of the threat of discovery. How long does a rotation take? Twelve to fifteen minutes is it before that door will open?” She moved her face directly in front of Makeda’s and squinted. “Are you coming down with something? Your cheeks are a bit—”
“I’m fine!” Makeda stared straight ahead, hoping Bez couldn’t hear her heart beating wildly or see the sweat gathering at her hairline. Maybe the smudgy glasses would work to her benefit. “I just don’t want to think about whether there are sex germs covering the surface of the small metal box I’m stuck in for the next few minutes.”
Bez leaned back in her seat.
“Fine. We can talk about Ibarania.” Subtlety was not the investigator’s strong point. “We don’t have a Ferris wheel like this there, but my sister, she works for the ministry of tourism, she says they want to build one if the new ceremonial monarchy increases the island’s profile. The Ruota Royale. Maybe they can name it the Makeda Royale if you become princess.”
Makeda’s shoulders locked up. “I came here for peace, not to talk about the royalty thing, okay? I can’t even relax in my own home because you’re there, at least let me have a few minutes to myself.”
“You don’t relax in your own home, though,” Beznaria pointed out. “I’ve seen your to-do list, and it’s in no way compatible with relaxation.”
“Doing things is relaxing for me, but not with people looking over my shoulder and constantly trying to offer their advice.” She cut Bez a look from the corner of her eye.
Beznaria slumped back, spreading her long legs wide. Her suit was a rumpled mess, but it managed to look artfully shabby even though Makeda knew the wrinkles had formed because Beznaria threw it onto a chair instead of hanging it up.
“I’m just making conversation and get to know you,” Beznaria said. “While some investigators might need to rely on the ‘corner your quarry on a Ferris wheel and force your agenda onto them’ trick, I am above that.”
“Then why did you follow me here?”
“I’m implementing a variation. The ‘corner your quarry on a Ferris wheel and flirt with them’ trick. That is my preferred method, in this instance.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re incredibly annoying?” Makeda bit out, still feeling empowered by hanging up on Lindsey.
“Most people don’t say it outright, but you did the day we met,” Bez said cheerily. “I find it rather refreshing. You’ll become accustomed to it. Like a sea snail in climate-change-warmed seas.”
Bez didn’t seem bothered by the insult; she seemed oddly flattered. Makeda wondered if it was possible for the woman to care about anything but achieving her own objectives. There was something intriguing about Beznaria’s single-mindedness when Makeda’s life had become so aimless.
Beznaria stretched her legs out and then drew them back toward her; her gaze was out over the ocean.
“I haven’t been home for five years.”
Makeda looked around for the invisible person who’d asked when the investigator had last been home, and then remembered her superpower of drawing people’s sob stories from them just by breathing in their vicinity. She heaved a sigh.
“The World Federation of Monarchists has headquarters in London, and the travel required has meant not even being there most of the time,” Bez continued. “I was flirting, but I was also just talking about home because you’re the first person I’ve been able to talk about it with for some time.”
Makeda crossed her arms and leaned back. “What is that like? Never being at home.” She didn’t want to indulge the investigator, but she was genuinely curious. She’d never left home, and the thought of spending years away made her chest hurt.
“I try not to think about how it feels, but I would have to say it’s been lonely. My family is very close, so I’m happy to be going back home for a while.” Bez glanced down at Makeda. “I’ll be happier if you come with me.”
Makeda’s chest grew even tighter. She hated that it was a stranger saying this to her—as a joke, to get what she wanted—when none of the people Makeda had longed to hear those words from ever had. They’d left her behind instead.
“Why do you care? Does the WFM give you a bonus if you bring me in?”
“Yes, there’d be a small bonus, and it would be helpful considering my contract is up and I’ll have to find new work after this,” Beznaria said. “But my happiness wouldn’t be about the bonus. You saw my tattoo. I am a Chetchevaliere. You are an al-Hurradassi, if you are truly Queen Aazi’s granddaughter. It is my duty to bring you home. My duty to my country and family. And to you.”
Makeda stared at Bez, dismay roiling her stomach because this didn’t feel like manipulation. The brightness in the investigator’s eyes, the set of her jaw and sudden puffing of her chest—that kind of earnestness couldn’t be faked.
“Why is it your duty?” Makeda asked.
“Probably for the same reason you’re even entertaining going to Ibarania now. Have you read about the disappearance of Queen Aazi?”
“I did a long time ago, but there are so many different accounts of what happened that I really don’t remember,” Makeda said. “World War II was over and Ibarania had resisted invasion but lost their king. He was the descendant of Lalla right?”
Beznaria nodded. “Yes. He was the first male hereditary heir, but he found a fierce match in Aazi.” Makeda glanced at Beznaria. “Most of the stories mention that the head of the Royal Guard was with her when she disappeared. Some said that maybe she . . . she . . . You know.”
She made a slitting motion across her own neck.
“I know all about what people say.” Bez laughed ruefully. “That guard was my grandmother.”
“Oh! My bad. I didn’t mean to insinuate that she was a killer.” Makeda grasped for something to step this back because while she was leaning into jerkiness, grandmothers were off limits.
Beznaria smiled, amused. “She was the head of the Royal Ibaranian Guard, so she can kill a person in more ways than either of us can imagine—but she didn’t turn those skills on the queen. I know this. I need to bring you back with me so that everyone knows.”
Makeda rubbed her finger over the fish scale ring—she knew what it felt like to carry the burden of mistakes that weren’t yours, and the way the desire to fix them could blot out your own dreams.
What would Beznaria be doing if her grandmother hadn’t lost a queen? Probably not stalking a random American and trying to drag her back to Ibarania.
“You really believe this. That I’m royalty and you’re, what, my bodyguard?” She remembered the sensation that had gone through her when she’d pressed her palm to Beznaria’s tattoo, the crackle like lightning passing over her skin.
“Of course, I do. In regular circumstances, I’m not in the habit of pursuing women across the world, even if they do look like you.”
Makeda’s stomach lurched even though the Ferris wheel continued at its regular pace. “I assure you that in regular circumstances, no one pursues women who look like me, domestic or international.”
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. People were able to track her down when they needed something.
She could tell Beznaria was looking at her and fought the urge to hunch her shoulders.
“Ah, so the American romantic films are correct,” Bez said, her voice full of amused wonder. “Beautiful women really do sit around lamenting how unattractive they are. Do you also trip over random objects and eat pints of ice cream when you’re distressed?”
Makeda inhaled sharply. She was cute—that was what people said if they commented on her looks, and even that was a stretch given how many people had invested time and energy into making her know she was far from it. But Beznaria had called her beautiful, so casually.
“You’re just saying what sounds good,” Makeda said.
Beznaria laughed. “That is actually one of the few things I’m not skilled at. I’m saying that if you aren’t pursued on a regular basis, the circumstances must be irregular.”
Makeda’s resistance began to slip. Could she believe that Beznaria was saying this because she meant it?
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she retorted, inwardly cringing that she couldn’t come up with a cooler put down.
“I don’t flatter you to get myself anywhere, but . . .” Beznaria was looking deeply into Makeda’s eyes, and that tingling sensation started in her body again. Her gaze dropped to Makeda’s mouth and in the space of that brief ocular movement, the particles between them seemed to burst into millions of microscopic flames.
Makeda’s libido had already made its appearance known, but for once she had an impulse that seemed driven by greed and greed alone. “But what?”
“Are you sure it wouldn’t?” Bez asked, her voice softer and lower.
“What wouldn’t?” The microscopic fire particles seemed to slip out from between them to focus their weight behind Makeda’s head, pushing it toward Beznaria’s.
Beznaria ran her tongue over her lips. “Flattery. Would it not get me anywhere with you?”
Something moved over Makeda’s body in a quick velvet wave.
Pleasure. That was pleasure. She leaned into it, just as she had with her annoyance with Lindsey.
“Probably not, but you seem like the type who enjoys a challenge.”
Their faces were very close now. The sun streaming in through the car’s windows showed each individual fingerprint on Beznaria’s glasses, but also the clear honey brown of her eyes and the smooth skin of her cheeks, and her lips. Makeda wasn’t sure what she was feeling because she was too busy thinking that she wanted Beznaria Chetchevaliere—chaotic nuisance and attempted life-ruiner—to kiss her.
It would be okay, here in the air where she allowed herself her fantasies, she reasoned. A princess and her lady knight—the kind of fairy tale she’d always wanted, if she had to be a princess. Not the one her mother had imagined for her. With the way Beznaria was looking at her, gaze full of wonder like she already believed, Makeda could allow herself to believe, too, even if just for the remainder of a Ferris wheel ride.
Excerpt from HOW TO FIND A PRINCESS by Alyssa Cole. © 2021 by Alyssa Cole. Used with permission by Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.