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Royal Valentine
Author: Jenn McKinlay

 


Chapter One

 

 

“Molly, did you read this?” Briana Cho asked.

I didn’t look up from my desk, knowing that my very verbal best friend would keep talking whether I answered her or not. I was right.

“This is absolutely outrageous! It can’t be true, or I’ll have to re-evaluate every relationship I’ve ever had.” Bri brandished her phone as if she could shake whatever was irritating her right out of it.

Sensing I was in for a longish rant, I put the lid back on the box that contained the rare first edition I was itching to examine and gave Bri my full attention.

I folded my hands, still in their white cotton gloves, on top of the box. “What’s outrageous?”

Briana turned sideways—yes, my office was that small—to navigate her way around the boxes and stuffed bookcases, then plopped into the wooden chair across from me. As an educator for the Museum of Literature, where we both worked, Bri wore a matching skirt and blazer in powder blue over a pewter-colored silk blouse, her usual professional attire. Her curtain of silky black hair was twisted into a smooth bun at the nape of her neck and gave her a very polished appearance.

Tall and lithe with delicate features, Briana was the yin to my yang in the looks department. I was on the short side of medium in height and instead of slender my figure was...let’s go with...lush. My head of frizzy, shoulder-length, honey-colored curls that defied the laws of gravity or hair product, preferring to spring out of my scalp like wild vines, made me resemble a mad scientist when I stood next to Bri. The only thing missing was the lab coat.

As the registrar, I was the person in charge of the objects at the museum. I didn’t dress to impress but instead wore a loose-fitting heather-blue turtleneck sweater with flared black slacks and comfortable low-rise black Converse. This was the closest I could get to pajamas without actually wearing a grownup onesie.

“Just listen to this.” Bri looked at her phone and began to read, “A study done by the Creighton Research Institute has determined that while men date aspirationally women do not.”

I blinked. A curl flopped over my right eye, and I blew it out of the way. “What does that even mean?”

Briana glanced up. “It means dating people out of your league.”

“Oh.”

The image of the last guy I’d been interested in flashed through my mind. We’d found each other on a dating app and agreed to meet at a happy hour in Midtown Manhattan. He’d stared unabashedly at my chest during our entire fifteen-minute conversation before I fled. The next day, he’d texted me a pic of his privates asking for one of “the girls” in exchange. Currently between jobs, short, pot-bellied, and rocking a receding hairline, he had definitely not been an “aspirational” date. I sighed.

“Yeah, there are no aspirations here,” I said.

I remembered the professional man Bri had met the week before. He was a good-looking guy, despite the prematurely gray hair and beard, who wore a corduroy jacket and liked to be called “professor.” She’d abandoned him at the coffee shop where they’d arranged a meeting when he’d asked her if she’d dress like a schoolgirl and sit on his lap.

“And you don’t either,” I added.

She nodded at me so vigorously her hair came loose. “I know! This study claims that while men consistently go for women who are more desirable than they are, based on a general ranking of age, income, appearance, and career, women don’t. In other words, we reach down instead of up.”

I pursed my lips and tapped the box. “I don’t think I reach down precisely—”

Briana lowered her phone and stared at me. “Davis.”

I flinched.

“Exactly,” she said.

Davis was my age, thirty-one, with what he described as a flourishing IT career. Right. I came to learn that was code for playing video games all day. He lived in the basement apartment of a three-family house in Queens, which seemed promising, until I was leaving for work one morning and met his landlord, aka his mom, taking out the trash. So, that was two months of my life that I’d never get back. The guy wasn’t even that good in bed.

“According to this,” Bri paused and waved her phone at me, “statistically, women settle in relationships while men aim high. Why?”

“Is that a rhetorical question, because I seriously do not have an answer for you,” I said.

“Yes, of course it is.” Bri tossed her phone onto my desk in disgust. “The real question is, what are we going to do about it?”

Bri stared at me, and I sensed that this time she expected input. “Aim higher?”

“Yes!” She pointed at me with both index fingers. “Exactly that. We have to go for men who are successful, smart, confident, kind—you know, our very own Prince Charmings.”

Yeah, no. I had once believed in happily ever afters and Prince Charmings, thanks to a steady diet of Disney princess propaganda my older sisters had barraged me with as a kid. But that belief was dusted and done in first grade.

I had arrived at school for our Halloween party, wearing my much loved, hand me down pink satin dress and matching plastic tiara, hoping my crush Brandon Kincaid, the most popular boy in our class, would finally notice me. Well, he noticed all right.

In the middle of recess, as I was strolling amid the Batmans, Catwomans, Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Power Rangers—Brandon was dressed as the red Power Ranger—he stopped my royal promenade by grabbing my arm. In my fairy tale deluded brain, I thought Brandon was going to declare his love for me and kiss me. Nope.

“Look! Molly thinks she’s a princess!” Brandon cried with all the mocking venom a six-year-old can muster. Then he leaned close and took a big sniff. “Nah, she still smells like manure. She must be a cow princess. Moo.”

In a matter of seconds, he had the entire class laughing and mooing at me. I wanted to die. The mooing followed me as I ran all the way into the girl’s bathroom, where I had a pitiful crying jag that lasted until my teacher found me and delivered me to the school nurse, who sent me home.

Brandon was the only child of affluent dentists while I was the middle of seven children of a dairy farmer and a high school teacher. We lived on completely different socio-economic planets, and it was my first lesson in elitism and privilege. From that moment on, I despised the whole royal-peasant love angle. It was simply too far-fetched and one of the many reasons I’d given up on fairy tales and happily ever afters.

As for Bri’s proposition, I had absolutely no idea how aiming high might work when I couldn’t even meet a decent guy in a city full of single men, never mind a prince. Plus, I really really really just wanted to get back to the book in the box on my desk.

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. I used my best wrap-it-up voice, but sadly she didn’t budge from her seat. Ugh.

“That’s what we need, isn’t it?” Bri asked as if I’d said something inspired. “A plan.”

“Sure.” I nodded. “And since you’re in the education department and I’m in charge of the objects, why don’t you come up with a PowerPoint to illustrate exactly how we’re going to do that?”

“Molly Graham, are you trying to get rid of me?” Bri’s eyes narrowed.

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