Read an exclusive excerpt of Alyssa Cole's A Duke by Default just in time for the royal wedding
It’s royal wedding season, but author Alyssa Cole is busy wrangling her own reluctant royals.
The award-winning author behind The Loyal League series and The Reluctant Royals, which triumphantly launched in February with A Princess in Theory,is shaking up the traditional princess narrative with her witty romances that feature a host of characters reluctant to assume the mantle of the aristocracy/monarchy.
Cole has seen an impressive amount of serendipity with this series. A Princess in Theory, which featured a highly technologically-advanced fictional African nation, launched just weeks after Black Panther started breaking box office records. Many have pointed out the parallels between the two stories.
The second book in the series, A Duke by Default, arrives in late July and it moves the action to Scotland, which proves that lightning can strike twice given that the run-up to the book’s release is being dominated by another U.K. royal pairing, the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The ties run even deeper considering Markle is making history as a bi-racial woman joining the British royal family, while both of Cole’s Reluctant Royals books feature black heroines.
In anticipation of the royal wedding, EW called up Cole to get a sneak peek at her next book and find out which Hollywood silver fox inspired her hunky hero, what she makes of her serendipitous publication dates, and why her romances (and the princess narrative) are inherently political. She also shared an exclusive excerpt with EW. Scroll past the interview to read the first chapter from A Duke by Default.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You wrote an amazing essay for Bustle about the importance of making the princess narrative more inclusive, but I still wanted to ask where the idea for the Reluctant Royals series came from and what was the moment you knew you had to write it?
ALYSSA COLE: I got the idea for the series at work. I was going through a period where I was starting to get a lot of random spam mail, and it was when they were giving more warnings about phishing emails. Nigerian princes were a pretty popular spam mail thing, so I started thinking about that and what situations people could be in where they would be desperate enough to believe it. I just started thinking — what if this fan mail you got was true and it turned out you were actually betrothed to an African prince? Recently someone posted a screen-cap from one of my historical novellas, Let it Shine, and I saw at the top of the page [where the one of the characters] says something like “black girls can’t be princesses.” I wrote that a couple of years before I had the idea, but this was something in the back of my mind — how we’re never shown as princesses or in these kind of fairytale roles to the point that a lot of young girls might not even think that’s something for them. I’m definitely not the only person writing black princesses or princesses of color, but this is something that had been in my mind for awhile that I finally found the opportunity to incorporate into a romance novel.
A Duke by Default is about Portia, Ledi’s best friend in A Princess in Theory, and a Scottish Duke named Tavis – can you give us any other little tidbits or teasers?
This was also inspired by something I saw on the news. Sometimes there’s a cute local newspaper article going around, and there was a Scottish sword-smith who was looking for an apprentice, so he could pass on his knowledge to other people and get more people involved in sword-making. A lot of times, I get ideas for romances if I see something that interests me, and I’m like “What about that but with kissing?” That was something I filed away in my mind, and then when I started writing this series I was like this is how I can incorporate this fun, Scottish sword-maker apprentice story plus secret duke. Portia is kind of a hot mess. In the first book, she and Naledi go through a rough patch in their friendship, and that has caused Portia to reevaluate her own life and how she’s treating people around her and what she wants to do with her life. In the book, she’s undertaking Project New Portia. She’s fairly wealthy, so she’s able to do internships and workshops and classes, which is cool, but she also is getting older and is still not settled down and her family wants her to do something serious with her life. She has been running from fear of her own inadequacies. So, of course, when she’s presented with a chance to do a sword-making internship in Scotland, she’s like, why not?
She shows up, accidentally maces her boss, who turns out to be a Scottish silver fox, and they then have, I wouldn’t call it exactly enemies to lovers, but they don’t get off on the right foot. Tavish is divorced and has started this business that he loves, but he’s in danger of losing it because of gentrification and property taxes and changes in his business. He definitely does not want an annoying, rich American woman bothering him. It’s his brother who set up the internship. He did not want to be attracted to anyone, but of course now that his apprentice has arrived, he’s attracted to her. Portia trying to figure out what to do with herself and her naturally inquisitive nature leads her to discover that Tavish is actually the love child of a duke. Which is kind of a solution to some of his problems, but creates a whole different other set of problems. It’s kind of a Pygmalion story, “My Fair Duke.” She’s wealthy, and she knows how to operate in high society. She then decides because she feels guilty in a way for getting him into this situation, that she’s going to spend the rest of her internship teaching him how to be a duke or how to operate around rich people to help him better fit into this new world that he is going to be a part of.
With Tavish, did you have any particular celebrity silver foxes in mind while writing?
I did picture him as Taika Waititi while writing. Tavish is half Chilean. One aspect of the story is that his mother came over as a refugee during Pinochet’s regime. I love dukes, but one thing I would always find funny when I first started reading historical romance was that they were always really tan, and described as having bronze skin. And I was always like, “Where is this coming from? They’re British guys who generally hang around indoors or in their clubs or whatever they’re doing.” It’s not like they’re out working in the sun or anything. That’s one thing that became a romance shorthand for he’s a hot dude, but in the back of my mind I was always like British people don’t tan that easily. Yeah, so, I do imagine him as Taika Waititi-ish a bit.
Does that mean we might get to see him wearing a pineapple onesie?
No, Tav does not have as great a sense of style as Taika, which is part of what Portia helps him with in this story. I did miss an opportunity for her to dress him in a pineapple onesie. I’ll have to save that for a novella (laughs).
You’ve set your books everywhere from apocalyptic sci-fi scapes to the grim realities of the Civil War. Now in this series, you’re setting moves from the fictional Thesolo in Africa to Scotland – what new challenges did that present? Was it more restrictive in any way to write of a real place than one from your imagination?
It was a bit more restrictive, but I worked around it. I created a fake neighborhood where they live, which is obviously still grounded in the reality of Scotland, but it gave me a little bit more leeway. I tried to base it loosely on this actual neighborhood, but also create a little fictional enclave for the story to play out in. It was a bit restrictive, but then I just kept telling myself for book 3 there are going to be two fictional kingdoms, so I’ll have even more room to roam with that setting-wise. It was a little restrictive, but it was also fun because he is a sword-maker and there are references to medieval things. His brother and his sister-in-law live with them, and they’re both into geek culture, so I get to make fun references with them and talk about cosplaying and stuff like that. Even though it was restrictive in one sense, it was also fun getting to play around in the modern medieval ideas and that was another way to explore the setting in a different way. I got to find ways to have fun within these already set parameters of Scotland and Scottish history and those kinds of things.
The first book, A Princess in Theory, debuted just weeks after Black Panther, and many have noted parallels there. The lead-up to this next book is coming in the wake of a British royal wedding and the book is set in Scotland. What do you make of how well contemporary pop culture and going-ons are accompanying your books?
It does get a little freaky sometimes. Even with The Loyal League series, in a less fun way, it was like, “Oh I’ll write about the Confederacy, that’s long gone” and then suddenly there are Confederates marching in the streets. Maybe from now on I’ll be a little careful about what I’m writing about. But more seriously, actually, it’s just really serendipitous. I’ve seen Black Panther three times now and there were similar threads. Naledi is like Killmonger minus the misogyny and toxic masculinity. It was strange. Each time I watched it, for me, it was cool in that I’m sure we researched similar things in creating our fictional kingdoms. Now with the upcoming royal wedding, I won’t say I didn’t see that coming because the third prince is a red-headed prince who falls for a black woman.
We’re releasing this excerpt as part of our Royal Wedding coverage – are you a big fan of Harry and Meghan? And what do you make of this real life happily-ever-after taking place?
I’m not a huge royals watcher. I don’t have any commemorative plates or anything like that, but I grew up in the age of Princess Diana and as a kid I was a voracious reader. I read everything about Princess Diana and her sons, including making my parents buy all of the tabloids at the supermarket checkout, and then was very sad and effected when she died. Seeing the stuff that happened afterwards and Harry being wild and crazy. Obviously, he was going through some things. Not excusing everything that he did, but, with him talking more recently about going to therapy and seeing him find someone that makes him happy and he makes her happy — it is basically the ideal romance story. The romances I really enjoy are about two people living lives but kind of having something that they need to deal with that they can’t quite deal with on their own. It’s not like the other person heals them, but more like people finding someone to have a romantic relationship that enhances their own lives that helps them realize the best of themselves. Something in this other person brings out the best in themselves and something about the way they work together brings out the best in both of them. They seem to bring out the best of each other, which is I think what most romance readers are talking about when they’re talking about a happily ever-after. Because some people think happily-ever-after means they have no more problems in their life and everything is hunky-dory at the end, but it’s actually they have just found someone that will help them get through the tough things in life. When I look at this royal happily-ever-after happening, this seemed as close to a real romance happily-ever-after as I’ve seen in awhile.
Have you found personal meaning in her identity as a bi-racial American woman?
I know Meghan is American, but also all the black and British people of color are going to have someone who looks closer to them in the royal family, which is also a huge representation. They might not love the monarchy. I don’t want to say everyone’s going to be all happy just because there’s a woman of color in the royal family now, but I think it does push things forward in a way. It’s not going to solve anything or heal anything, but for some people that representation will make them feel good.
Your work always has a political aspect or a caring for the greater good through-line to it, which was certainly present in A Princess in Theory. First can you tease how that through-line will continue in A Duke by Default? And did you feel it was harder to balance that viewpoint in say a contemporary romance that’s taking up this fairy-tale myth than a historical romance grounded in research?
In this book, a couple of the things that are being dealt with are gentrification and the way it effects neighborhoods. Even in a lot of romantic comedies, there are some things that are not fun and happy going on in the background. Tav is living in this neighborhood that is being gentrified, and there are rich people who are trying to push out the people who have lived there all their lives. He has this building that he’s inherited from his father that he didn’t know. His mother’s Chilean; his stepfather is Jamaican; his brother is biracial. He’s biracial but more white passing. His sister in law is Asian. It’s a multicultural community. He teaches classes for children who come from various backgrounds, but are all Scottish, and the way that the political rhetoric is affecting the kids who are starting to get teased at school by their classmates who are saying they’re going to get deported. I don’t really go into Brexit and all of that stuff because it’s changing every day, and it is kind of a fantasy world. But one aspect of him deciding to take on this mantle of the dukedom [is] because he knows even if he doesn’t have so much actual power, what it will represent to the people of his neighborhood and that he will have some power to speak out about things he cares about like the treatment of refugees and things like that. That’s just what I gravitate towards because I try to think about the world people are living in and how they interact with it and how they try to make it better. Especially in this Reluctant Royals world where these people do have some amount of power and what comes along with that power.
What have you always loved about princesses or the princess narrative? Was there something you greatly disliked that you wanted to dispel?
I never saw princesses as weak. To a certain degree, yes, I wanted them to have a bit more power and to be the one saving the day explicitly sometimes, but I never really saw it as a true position of weakness. I wanted to explore the weight of the responsibility that can come with being a princess – that’s something that will play out through the series for Naledi who’s becoming a princess. Tav is a duke. The idea of not what happens after the happily-ever-after, but what does the happily-ever cost in the fairytale sense? Now you are a princess, now you are a duke and on the surface, it’s like “Ok cool now you have all this money and power,” but one aspect of this series is examining actual power, perception of power, and what you can do with both of those things. What does it cost to have those things or to give them up? Even to give up having a normal life? I guess the thing I didn’t really like was the princess always being the one saved from the tower. Like I was saying earlier about Harry and Meghan, with these stories I really try to show the way they’re saving each other from their own inner tower. They’re defeating each other’s dragons in some sense. It’s not like one person is saving the other person. The way they interact together allows them to save each other. There is no prince charming really. They are each other’s charmings.
Who was your favorite princess growing up? Your favorite princess now?
Growing up, it was Princess Diana. My favorite princess now is Shuri from Black Panther because she is my kind of princess who is into science and technology, but she can also go kick ass when she needs to and help save her brother and her kingdom. And also, crack a joke at the appropriate moment.
Below is an exclusive excerpt from A Duke by Default, the next novel in Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series hitting shelves July 31.
Project: New Portia was off to a fantastic start.
The Portia Hobbs of old had been no stranger to waiting for cabs at the asscrack of dawn, bleary- eyed and disheveled, but she’d generally been hun- gover and making a hasty exit from her f—boy of the night’s bed.
New Portia was stone-cold sober, as she had been for months, and halfway around the world from her usual New York City stomping grounds. It was cold and rainy outside of Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, her new boss had almost certainly forgotten to pick her up, as planned, and—yup, there was a dude pee- ing less than five feet away from her.
I could’ve stayed in New York for this, Portia thought irritably.
She pulled her rain-frizzed hair back out of her face, slipping the hair tie on her wrist over the mass of tight rust-gold curls to secure them, and then smiled and snapped an obligatory selfie to capture her arrival in Scotland.
She’d appreciated the beautiful ticketing room of the recently restored station after stepping off of the red-eye train from London — her master’s in art history and string of museum internships hadn’t just been a way of putting off responsibility, despite what her family thought. But outside of the ticketing room and at this early hour, Waverley was just a creepy, unfamiliar train station like any other. It was nestled in a valley, and the silhouettes of medieval structures and Edinburgh’s natural terrain loomed up around her, adding to the doom and gloom. The city felt old, like it emanated a sense of history impossible to find in even in the most historic parts of Manhattan.
She shifted the straps of the Birkin travel bag that were digging into her shoulder and glanced irritably at her phone, switching from the camera to the SuperRyde app. A car driven by someone named Kevyn was supposedly a minute away, but she’d watched the car circle Edinburgh station and the countdown clock reset four times in the last ten minutes, so she didn’t get her hopes up. Her boss standing her up had already set a bad tone for the three months of apprenticeship that awaited her.
Of course, it isn’t going to work out. There’s this little thing called “a pattern,” and this is how yours always plays out.
Portia hummed under her breath, as if that could drown out the annoying voice inside of her head, the one that reminded her that fucking up was the one thing she could do consistently and well.
It wasn’t her fault that her boss had stood her up. Maybe he had overslept, or something catastrophic had occurred, like the armory had burned down or he’d spontaneously combusted?
Or maybe it was her fault. What if she’d gotten the date wrong, or misunderstood something, or forgot to submit an important form? Had she even really been chosen for this apprenticeship? She might show up and be turned away at the door. She would have to return home and everyone would look at her with pity because Portia had made a fool of herself again.
Portia sucked in a deep breath and tried to pull the brakes on her rapidly escalating catastrophic thoughts. She was imagining trouble where there probably was none and besides, New Portia didn’t make those kinds of mistakes. Well, not as much as Old Portia had, at least. Her calendar was checked faithfully, most mornings, and her to-do list had alarms set and reminders for her reminders to keep her on track. She’d made sure she had everything about her arrival in Scotland planned out perfectly, but that didn’t stop the anxiety tightening in her chest like a fist.
“Hey, Oracle. Call Bodotria Armory, please.” The peculiar buzzing ring tone that had taunted her since she’d set foot in Scotland sounded through her ear- piece.
She hadn’t found much info on her new boss when she’d performed her obligatory internet dirt search: a low-resolution picture on the armory’s atrocious website in which he was dressed like a cosplayer at a medieval fantasy con. A YouTube video of him in some type of armor that covered his face, showing the proper technique for wielding a broadsword.
“Hello. You’ve reached the voicemailbox of Tavish McKenzie, master-at-arms and proprietor of Bodotria Armory. Please leave a message.”
The voice was Scottish. Like, really f—ing Scottish — deep, with a strong burr that would have had Old Portia frantically clicking on the “Yes, I would like to subscribe to your sexy accented newsletter” button. New Portia pulled the hand brake on that cart before she started barreling toward the Bad Ydeas Towne section of the renaissance fair.
Men were not a part of Project: New Portia, most especially not her new boss, who was, well, her boss and who also seemed to have forgotten her existence before she’d even arrived. She was done with f—bboys, and fuckbosses for that matter, no matter how sexy their accents were.
She sighed and busied herself with posting her selfie to her InstaPhoto account while she waited for Kevyn.
Yes, that is a man peeing in the background. #GoodMorningEdinburgh #WTF #IThinkIveMadeATerribleMistake
She deleted the last hashtag before posting the pic. Negativity was too Old Portia. New Portia was resil- ient, could roll with the punches, and wasn’t think- ing about heading back into the station and running away from this frustrating setback.
Her phone vibrated, and she was sure it would be her boss, gravelly-voiced and apologizing for run- ning late, but it was a new message in the International Friend Emporium group of her message app.
Ledi: What the hell is up with that picture? Where are you? Are you okay?
Portia: Um, I just posted. How did you see it so quickly?
Ledi: I turned on notifications for you so I wouldn’t miss any updates from your adventure.
Portia: Awww, you lurve me. I’m fine. I’m still at the train station. My boss never showed so I’m waiting on a SuperRyde.
Ledi: Well, that’s one way to make a first impression. Do you have the pepper spray I bought you? It’s not technically pepper spray, since it’s illegal there, but it’s apparently the same formula as bear spray so you should be safe from criminals and Ursidae.
Portia: <photo of pepper spray clutched in hand> Come at me, bears.
Portia: Waiting for a car to bring me to the armory now. Tired and annoyed.
Ledi: I’m annoyed on your behalf.
Nya: I’m up, too. Sorry your boss is a jerk. Could this be a test? Like a mission in an RPG?
Maybe you get bonus apprentice points for navigating your way to the armory.
Portia: I sure as s— hope this isn’t a test. My boss already failed. What are you both doing up so late?
Ledi: Same thing I do every night: studying viruses and trying to stop them from taking over the world.
Nya: Playing a dating sim to make up for the real date I had earlier. Rognath the Vampire Lord is much better at courtship than Luke, who started the night by calling me Sexual Chocolate and went downhill from there.
Portia: Oof. Ew, Luke. Yay, Rognath? Good old, dependable Rognath.
Nya: Rognath is a gentleman and all, but.
Ledi: You’ve already become a cynical New Yorker, cous! One day, your Rognath will come.
Nya: I guess. If a prince can track you down and trick you into falling for him, I can find my brooding, misunderstood vampire lover.
Portia chuckled. Nya was relatively new to their friend group, but Ledi had been Portia’s friend since they’d met in an undergrad club for people into both science and the arts. Ledi had stuck with Portia through thick and thin — a hell of a lot of thin over the last couple of years. Almost losing her best friend was what had sparked Project: New Portia.
The project had three main pillars: getting organized, being a better friend and family member, and not using booze and men as an escape from reality. Instead, she was using an apprenticeship in a foreign country to escape, which was clearly much healthier. “Three months in Scotland? Making swords? This sounds like a great opportunity! Can you tell me a bit more about what you hope to get out of it? Moving to another country is exciting, but also a huge change. You’ve talked about the urge to run away before . . .”
Change was exactly what Portia wanted, and even her therapist Dr. Lewis’s annoying but necessary questions hadn’t deterred her. If anything, they’d made her even more resolved to go.
She’d had this romantic idea of summer in Scotland, running through the moors with the Highland winds whispering her life’s purpose in her ears. Instead, she was alone at the station, forgotten. This was more like stepping into a smelly bog and realizing there was no easy way to extricate herself.
A horn honked, and when she glanced up, a small blue car that managed to be boxy and egg-shaped at the same time had pulled up. A pallid man with spiked brown hair stuck his head out the window.
The license plate matched what was shown on the app, though the Vauxhall was slightly more dented than the one in the image on her phone.
“Hi. Kevyn?” She watched his eyes light up.
“An American!” His tone was one of slightly disgusted squee, like when a New Yorker spotted a rat carrying a slice of pizza to its subterranean lair, or a pigeon taking a bath in an oily puddle.
He hopped out and began loading her luggage into the trunk; it was a tight fit considering the car’s toy – like size.
Portia: My car is here. You two make sure to get some rest. I’m going to try calling the armory again.
Nya: Okay! Be safe! I hope the rest of your day goes better!
Ledi: Let me know when you get to the armory.
If you don’t, Thabiso will call the Thesoloian embassy there and have them send out SWAT. Is there SWAT in Scotland? SCWAT? You know what I mean.
Ledi was still somewhat new to this royalty busi- ness, but would clearly use what pull she had to protect Portia if necessary. That knowledge eased the tension in Portia’s neck a bit. Someone had her back, even if only through an invisible link between their mutual phones.
Kevyn moved around to open one of the car’s two doors and pulled the passenger seat forward so she could slide into the backseat. She didn’t like the idea of being trapped in the back of a random car, but it couldn’t be worse than loitering around the station.
“In you go, my lady,” he said jovially and Portia forced a smile as she climbed in.
“First time here?” he asked. “Work or pleasure?”
How is he so chipper? she thought crankily, then remembered it was his job to engage with the strang- ers getting into his car. Maybe he’d also had a shitty night, but he wasn’t going to take it out on her, was he? It wasn’t his fault she was in a bad mood. Besides, if she knew anything it was how to feign polite con- versation. Faux niceties had been ingrained in her through years of deportment lessons and dealing with her parents’ rich family friends.
“Thank you. Yes, it’s my first time. I’m here for work,” she. She’d traveled extensively, but somehow never made it to Scotland.
“Welcome to Edinburgh,” Kevyn said, hopping into the front seat. “You’re gonna love summer here. As long as you enjoy rain, that is. And darkness. And drink.”
So her hair was going to be jacked up, she was go- ing to be depressed, and one of the two things she was trying to avoid most was going to be a constant temptation? Awesome.
She closed her eyes and inhaled, allowing herself a moment to settle as the car carried her toward her destination. She was in Scotland. She was starting a new adventure. She should be excited and ready for anything, not focusing on the negative. This was not the vibe she wanted to put out into the universe.
I am the heroine of my own story. I choose my own path . . .
Portia’s phone chimed and she jumped up in her seat, disoriented and unsure of where she was. She glanced out the car window; they were on a residential street now, with rows of squat brick houses. She’d nodded off for a second.
A message from her twin sister, Reggie, slid into view on her phone screen.
Hey. Did you arrive? Thanks for finding that information about that…thing.
It had been weird when Reggie asked Portia to find one of her online friends who had disappeared, it had been weirder when Portia had discovered the friend was a guy, and it was peak weird that Reggie was now referring to it as “that thing,” but Portia wouldn’t pry.
I did. And no prob! You know I love playing internet detective.
She saw the three dots that indicated Reggie was typing and wondered if she’d get an explanation, but apparently none was forthcoming.
Do you want to do posts for GirlsWithGlasses/ Adventure while you’re there? I understand
if you won’t have the time, with all your swordmaking and whatnot, but I’d love it if you could, especially since people were super into the first post about the call for an apprentice and when I said you’d been chosen. Plus people like the Wonder Twins aspect of us making content together. I like it too, tbh. Later, loser.
Portia smiled. She and Reggie were still in the pro- cess of rebuilding their relationship, mostly via chat- ting about Reggie’s popular site, GirlsWithGlasses. It was Reggie who had forwarded Portia the link about the apprenticeship after one of her followers had sent it in for the weekly Cool Opportunities posting. An- other key aspect of Project: New Portia —stop putting up roadblocks in her relationship with her sister.
I can def write posts. I’m on it! Portia replied, then decided to try to call her boss again.
“Hey, Oracle. Call Bodotria Armory please.” “What’s that, lass?” Kevyn asked.
“Just talking to my phone,” she responded brightly, her gaze automatically heading to the left of the car before readjusting and flicking to the right, where it landed on the back of his head. The phone kept ring- ing and she was sure that this time someone would answer, but then she heard the familiar click as she was transferred to voice mail.
“You say ‘please’ to your phone? I didn’t expect an American to be so polite.” He seemed pleased.
“I just want to be spared when our AI overlords take power.”
Kevyn laughed. “Did you get a hold of anyone at the armory? Not sure anyone is about now. The area
is by the docks and pretty deserted this early.”
Portia shoved a hand into the Birkin and rear- ranged the mess so that her pepper spray sat atop all the other crap she’d stuffed into the giant bag.
“I’m texting with my boss now,” Portia lied. Kevyn didn’t need to know that she was in a strange country for the first time and that the only people who should have been expecting her likely wouldn’t notice she was missing.
“Tav knows how to send an sms? He’s finally get- ting it together now that he’ll have you for an ap- prentice, eh?” Kevyn caught her eye in the rearview mirror and Portia stiffened, though he was grinning. This had gone from friendly to stalkative way too quickly for her liking.
She was too tired and frustrated to be polite. “Am I going to have to mace you?”
He barked out a laugh and smacked the wheel. “Aye! Definitely American! Don’t stress,” he said. “I take lessons at the armory, and everyone’s been on about the American apprentice arriving this week. Cheryl said she’d stalked her InstaPhoto account and the woman was beautiful and glamorous, and seeing as how you’re going to the armory and you’re . . .”
Portia didn’t think psychopaths had the ability to blush as bright red as Kevyn was up in the driver’s seat, so she relaxed her hold on the pepper spray. Be- sides, anyone who would call her glamorous after the hours she’d spent in transit deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Her anxiety about her apprenticeship eased, but then ratcheted up a notch. People were discussing her and excited for her arrival?
Are they in for a disappointment.
“So people are expecting me. Mr. McKenzie forgot to pick me up at the station and I was starting to won- der if I hadn’t imagined this whole apprenticeship thing.”
“Oh, yeah. Tav is . . .” Kevyn paused, and in the rearview she could see his brow crease. “Tav is a right bawbag at times. But a bawbag who grows on you, I suppose.”
Portia pulled up her web browser and searched “bawbag scottish slang.”
The term bawbag is a Scots word for “scrotum,” which is also slang for an annoying or irritating person.
She’d had only brief contact with the man who would soon be teaching her the ins and outs of Scot- tish swordmaking, so she couldn’t agree or disagree with that. They’d spoken briefly on the phone, once, and he’d kept the conversation to a minimum — at the end of the call she’d realized that he’d barely spoken at all. Her other correspondence had been with someone named Jamie McKenzie, who seemed cool or, at the very least, more interested in a two-sided conversation.
“Leaving me stranded at the station is pretty baw-bagish so I have to agree,” she said.
“Aye, this is going to be grand,” Kevyn said, then the car slowed and stopped just in front of what looked like a wooden telephone box, but blue and on steroids. Portia was fairly certain Reggie had dressed up as one of those things for Halloween the year before, with the words police box around the top; it was from a TV show she loved.
“Here we are, Bodotria Armory,” Kevyn said, hop- ping out.
Portia fought her way out of the backseat, struggling with the front seat that refused to push forward as Kevyn busied himself pulling her bags from the trunk— boot —of the car.
In the picture on the website, the building had looked charming, but in the early morning darkness with mist rolling in from the nearby bay and creeping over the cobblestone streets, it had a distinctly men- acing air. It was Georgian neoclasssical, if she was guessing correctly, three stories of perfect symmetry and imposing bulk. The gray sandstone was dark and grimy with age and moss grew in fissures between the stones. The windows were all dark, except for a circular Palladian window at the very top floor.
“There better not be any wives locked in the attic,” Portia muttered.
“Maestro Tav is single. No worries there,” Kevyn said cheerfully as he handed off her rolling suitcase. “I’ll wait for ye to get in, lass.”
“Thanks,” she said. Now that she was here, the entire plan seemed ridiculous.
- Go to
- Make 3. . . . ?
Her parents’ objections replayed in her head.
I could really use a shot or two, for fortitude.
No. A shot wouldn’t do anything but lower her inhibitions. She didn’t need to be fearless, or reckless. She was great at trying new things; it was the finishing that was the problem. Starting was her damn forte, something she had never failed at, and there was no reason to think she would this time. She inhaled deeply for fortitude and began walking toward the front door when a loud cry broke through the fog. “Oh, stop it, you f—ing tosser!” It was a woman, and she was mad or scared or both. “I said cut it out!”
Portia’s suitcase clattered to the cobblestone and she looked around wildly, gaze landing on the giant blue box.
She ran to it and pulled at the door with all her might, but it was locked tight.
“Oh, those were decommissioned ages ago,” Kevyn said calmly, as if there weren’t a crime in progress. She’d heard the Scots were a levelheaded people, but this was a bit much.
The sound of renewed struggle reached her through the fog.
Portia didn’t think. She jammed her hand into her purse, rummaged around, and then took off toward the sound.
“Och. Wait!” Kevyn called out, but she was al- ready around the side of the building and stepping through the fog into what seemed to be a courtyard. She heard a grunt and the sound of scuffling shoes, then saw movement in the fog. The courtyard was illuminated by a few dim lamps, and she could make out a woman with a crown of pink hair trying to fend off an attacker. He was large, broad-shouldered, and looked like he could bench-press both Portia and the woman at the same time.
The woman kicked out. “Let go!” she growled.
The man laughed, deep and menacing. “Make me.” Portia was paralyzed by panic for a moment, but she had taken self-defense courses. She had played this out in her head many times before, what to do if she saw someone being attacked, but she’d never had
to act on those imagined combat scenes until now.
She took a deep breath, ran up — holy shit this guy was huge — and rammed into him with her shoulder, bouncing back a few feet from the force of the impact. The blow didn’t seem to faze him, but it got his atten- tion. He turned toward her and had the nerve to look affronted.
His skin was tanned, surprising for all the talk of cloudy days and pasty British men she’d heard. His eyes were a distracting shade of hazel green beneath a fringe of salt-and-pepper hair, shorn on the sides and longer at the top. His face was that of a man too young to be going gray, though rough-hewn, with stubble darkening his jaw.
Portia blinked, and then she saw a flash of metal in his hand and his attractiveness became the last thing on her mind.
He had a knife.
Portia focused on those gorgeous green eyes, lifted her hand, and sprayed like he was a cockroach that had invaded the sanctity of her morning shower.
“What the bloody hell!” There was the clatter of metal hitting the ground and then the man dropped to his knees, the heels of his palms pressed to his eyes. He muttered a string of words Portia didn’t un- derstand, but she was pretty sure that they were in- vective against her.
“She told you to let her go,” Portia said, feeling a strange light-headedness that was probably an adren- aline rush chased by pride — she’d just arrived Scotland and had already stopped a crime in progress. She was mentally composing the text message to her parents, some variation of See? I can be useful, when she felt a burning that had nothing to do with victory. “Ow, ow, OW!” She dropped the spray and brought her hands to her eyes, too.
“Did you stand downwind?” the attacker asked. For a moment she thought he’d started crying, but the sound was in fact low laughter. He was laughing. At her. “You did. Oh, you bloody tosser.”
“Tav, are you okay?”
Through her tears, Portia could make out the woman she thought she’d saved run to her attacker and help him up. Her attacker named Tav.
“Be a love and go get some milk, Cheryl,” he said, pulling himself to his feet.
“Did you just mace Maestro Tav?” Kevyn had arrived on the scene. Perfect. “Tav, did she? Oh, this is bloody brilliant.”
“Aye, she didn’t. And herself,” Tav added. Tavish McKenzie. Her new boss.
She pressed her palms more firmly into her eyes, waiting for Cheryl to bring the milk or for the cobble- stones to part beneath her feet, allowing the earth to swallow her. She’d just arrived in Scotland and had managed to assault the man who would be her boss for the next three months — and herself in the process.
Project: New Portia was off to a fantastic start.