Romance

That Prince Is Mine by Jayci Lee (Excerpt)

 

CHAPTER ONE


Emma Yoon tucked her feet under her and tilted her face toward the midday sun. The window seat overlooking the garden was her favorite spot in the house. Well, the garden had been transformed into a veritable organic farm since her dad retired, but it still provided her with a lovely view. Exhaling a happy hum, she sipped her tea from a delicate porcelain teacup dotted with pink blossoms.

With her morning lesson finished, she had a couple of hours to herself before her next client arrived, but her thoughts had already drifted to the recipe she planned to teach. Gujeolpan, platter of nine delicacies, consisted of colorful julienned meat and vegetables circling a stack of small, delicate crepes. Each of the dish’s nine components took time and effort to prepare, but the end result was visually stunning and absolutely delicious, which made it the perfect introduction to Korean royal court cuisine. Anyone could add beauty and harmony to their lives with a little loving care. With jeongseong.

Jeongseong wasn’t a cheeky sentiment like a “sprinkle of love.” It meant working hard with a generous heart. It was a pure and true intent to do your very best—to imbue the best of yourself into something. Korean royal court cuisine would be nothing without jeongseong. As a matter of fact, Emma was a firm believer that life itself would be meaningless without it.

When her mother left, Emma built a warm, loving home for her dad and herself with jeongseong. All the meaningful relationships in her life were sustained through it. Everything that was beautiful and worthwhile required jeongseong. It might not come conveniently bottled, but jeongseong might truly be the secret ingredient to a happy, secure life.

As Emma swung her legs to the floor to go check on some ingredients, her cell phone rang in the pocket of her favorite floral maxi dress—the pocket being a major contributor to why the dress was her everyday go-to. Setting down her empty teacup beside her, she glanced at the screen before answering with a smile.

“Hi, Imo.”

“Hello.” Her godmother’s voice sounded uncharacteristically hesitant and her heart gave an involuntary lurch. “How are you, my dear?”

“I’m doing great, thanks to you,” Emma said, smoothing out the frown gathering between her brows. It was probably nothing. “The new clients you referred to me are all so sweet and eager to learn. They’re a pleasure to teach. And with my business growing, I’ll be able to put a down payment on a commercial kitchen space soon.”

Auntie Soo was a renowned Madame Ddu, a Korean matchmaker, with a coveted Black Book that made her unbeatable at the game. She’d not only successfully matched countless couples in the US, but her reputation had reached the rich and powerful jaebeol families of Korea, extending her business overseas. This development proved lucrative for her godmother and came with an unexpected boon for Emma’s small enterprise.

Rumor had it that a bride of the pseudo-royals in Korea must possess a proficiency in Korean royal court cuisine—gungjung yori. Since Auntie Soo had an impressive line of clients hoping to marry into a jaebeol family, she directed them straight into Emma’s kitchen and open arms. The implication that women belonged in the kitchen chafed. Who did these jaebeol people think they were? But if these women chose to be in the kitchen—as Emma had—then more power to them. Their place should be wherever they chose to be.

And thanks to her new clients, Emma’s dream of opening a culinary school was finally within reach. Her parents disagreed on virtually everything, but the one thing they tacitly agreed on was the importance of having a profession you were passionate about. It shouldn’t mean everything to her—her mom’s career took precedence over her family—but it should be something essential to her. She wanted to do something worthwhile with her life. Something worth her jeongseong. Running her own culinary school would be just the thing.

“Those goddamned busybodies,” Auntie Soo muttered.

Emma’s mouth dropped open. Her godmother treated all her clients with warmth and respect. She would never call them … “Goddamned busybodies? Your clients?”

“No, not them.” She clicked her tongue. “Why would I call them busybodies?”

“I have no idea. That’s why I asked—Never mind.” Emma paused for a calming breath. “Who were you calling busybodies, then?”

“The Crones, of course,” Auntie Soo said.

Mrs. Chung, Mrs. Lee, and Mrs. Kim—her godmother’s rival matchmakers—were not-so-affectionately nicknamed the Crones. They absolutely abhorred each other except when it came to ganging up on Auntie Soo. Then they became of one mind and purpose—to cause their biggest rival the most grief they could possibly conjure up. But they were pesky little gnats more than anything. Her godmother really shouldn’t let them get her so worked up.

Emma padded into her bright and tidy kitchen and glanced around with a content smile. Even with tidings of the Crones, the pristine white of the subway tiles and the cool depth of the slate-gray countertop soothed her. Every small detail in the kitchen—from the sunny yellow valance over the sink to the copper rooster mold on the side wall—were lovingly handpicked by her.

“What did they do this time?” she said with studied patience as she placed her empty teacup in the sink to hand-wash later. Seeing no point in being idle, she wiped the already clean counter with a dish towel.

“Don’t patronize me, child. I’m not calling to gossip,” Auntie Soo said with an impatient huff. “This can impact my business, which means it can impact your business.”

Emma’s hand stilled over the spice jars she was about to rearrange. “How can they possibly hurt your business?”

“They’ve discovered my Achilles’ heel,” the older woman said in an ominous whisper.

“You have an Achilles’ heel?” Thank goodness she was done with her tea. Otherwise, she would’ve spewed it all over her kitchen counter.

“Yes.” Her godmother paused for dramatic effect. “It’s you, Emma. You may be my downfall.”

“Me?” Emma couldn’t hold back her snort, but an uneasy premonition tempered her amusement. “Imo, you can’t be serious.”

“We should’ve done a video call. Then you’d be able to look into my eyes and see how serious I am.”

“Fine. I believe you,” Emma said with an innocent sigh. “Your eyes are full of seriousness.”

“Impudent girl,” Auntie Soo chided, but Emma didn’t need a video feed to see the affectionate smile on her godmother’s face. “You’re like a daughter to me.”

“I know, Imo.” She blinked away hot, sudden tears as gratitude mingled with the ache of an old wound. Her godmother was more of a mother to her than her own mom ever had been.

“Oh, sweetheart.” Her godmother sniffed loudly, understanding Emma’s unspoken words. “But since you are basically my daughter, the Crones are whispering in people’s ears that they can’t trust a matchmaker who has a spinster daughter.”

“A spinster?” Emma sputtered. Focused on building her business, she hadn’t given relationships much thought. Besides, she had no reason to waste time on something as unreliable as dating, since she’d always assumed her godmother would arrange a good match for her when the time came. But a spinster? “What are we? Living in a Jane Austen novel? No, wait. Are they telling people I’m on the shelf?”

“Be serious, Emma.”

“I am, Imo. My eyes are filled to the brim with seriousness. I’m only twenty-eight.” She threw her hand up, pacing back and forth in her kitchen. The Crones were making her feel like a canned good about to expire. “I’m not close to being a spinster.”

“Of course, my dear,” Auntie Soo readily agreed. “You still have months until you turn twenty-nine.”

She shouldn’t even ask. “What happens when I turn twenty-nine?”

Then I will have a spinster daughter.”

“Imo,” Emma shrieked, smacking her palm down on the counter. It was just a number. What made twenty-nine so special? Why not thirty-five? Or twenty-seven? Or eighty? What if there were no random number at all to label women as this or that? Was that too much to ask?

“Oh, my poor ear.” Her godmother clicked her tongue. “In my line of work, reputation is everything. Something as inconsequential as having an unwed, twenty-nine-year-old goddaughter could be spun into a personal failure.”

“What about Jeremy oppa?” Emma was breathing so hard she probably looked like a charging bull. And she sure wanted to ram into something. “Your son is thirty-two years old and still single. Why isn’t he your personal failure?”

“Jeremy is busy building his practice—”

“Well, I’m busy building my culinary school,” Emma snapped, then closed her eyes. There was no point in berating her godmother. She wasn’t responsible for the inequities of society, where a woman’s worth hinged on her youth and beauty. “Just say it.”

“And he’s a man,” Auntie Soo said with a resigned sigh. “He has at least two more years until he’s considered an aging bachelor—probably longer since he has an MD.”

“Ugh. Just ugh.” Fuck patriarchy. Emma massaged her temple. “It’s all so ridiculous. The Crones are just going to make themselves look foolish.”

“The problem is I deal mostly with my clients’ mothers, and they tend to have thin ears.”

“Thin ears?” Emma returned the spice jars to their original positions, too agitated to keep still.

“It’s a Korean saying,” her godmother explained. “People with thin ears are easily swayed by what others tell them. They confuse gossip at the grocery store with gospel.”

“So they’ll question your competence just because the Crones say so?” Emma stopped puttering around the kitchen and headed for the stairs. She needed to continue this conversation in private. Her dad was out in the garden for now, but she didn’t want him to come in and overhear something that might cause him to worry.

“I’m afraid they will.” Auntie Soo sighed. “If I lose clients over this, you’ll lose clients as well.”

Emma trudged into her pale sage bedroom, her knees feeling weak. She plopped down on the neatly made bed and smoothed her hand over its simple cream bedding with a mountain of artfully arranged pillows.

She was so close to achieving her dream. If business continued like this for a few more months, she would have enough money saved up for a down payment on a commercial kitchen. She had something special to share with the world. She could help people create moments of warmth, joy, and beauty in their lives.

The house had felt so dark and cold after her mom left, but the simple grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup she had made for dinner had brought a smile to her dad’s face—a smile that had felt like sunshine and hope. Food had the power to do that. She had the power to do that. Her hands curled into fists on her thighs. She wasn’t about to let a group of petty, spiteful women take that away from her.

“Madame Ddu.” She shot to her feet and jutted her chin. She didn’t particularly feel ready, but she’d always intended on having an arranged marriage. Why not now, when it could be so helpful to her and her godmother? Emma had worked too hard to delay her dream any longer. “It’s time for you to make my match.”


CHAPTER TWO


“I don’t understand why you insist on staying at a hotel.” Gabriel glanced around the hotel café, then shrugged his reluctant approval. “Charming café notwithstanding.”

Michel took a sip of his excellent coffee. The hotel was something of a historical monument, built more than a hundred years ago, with rich wood panels, sparkling chandeliers, and a grand double staircase. But the airy, sunlit café that sat beneath the vaulted ceilings of the lobby was the main perk of staying at this hotel.

The café was the perfect place to prepare for his lectures—and put out the occasional fires with the ministers back home—while indulging in some people watching. The hotel bustled with a variety of clientele, from tourists dressed head to toe in Mickey Mouse paraphernalia to businesspeople in somber, dark suits. Michel relished the luxury of being the one to observe others for once.

“There are many things about me you will never understand, my dear cousin,” he drawled.

“Ah, yes,” Gabriel said in a voice that made the Sahara Desert sound humid. “The crown prince of Rouleme is an enigma no one can decipher.”

“Can you say that a little louder in case anyone missed it?” Sarcasm was a talent at which they both excelled, but Michel did feel a trickle of unease as he scanned his vicinity. If his true identity became public knowledge, then he might as well return to his country—to a reality he could not accept. He could bear the weight of the crown, but he wanted someone he loved by his side. Just as his father had his mother … even for a short while.

“Relax. There’s no one close enough to hear.” Gabriel smirked when Michel raised his royal middle finger at him. “How are the lectures going at USC?”

“There was a bit of a learning curve in the beginning—it’s not exactly the same as giving a speech in front of the UN—but I’m getting the hang of it.” Michel sat forward with his elbows on the table, forgetting his momentary ire. “The students seem truly interested in the importance of international relations. How it could impact this changing world. It takes me at least half an hour to get out of the lecture hall because they bombard me with questions at the end. It’s fantastic.”

“I’m sure they’re enthusiastic about international relations … among other things.” His cousin’s lips stretched into a sly grin. “Such as—what is it the media always goes on about?—hair spun from the golden rays of the sun and a toe-curling accent that could melt the coldest hearts.”

“That’s rich coming from you,” Michel said with a pointed look.

With his jet-black hair and piercing green eyes, Gabriel Laurent looked as though he belonged on the silver screen. No one would guess that he was an exacting philosophy professor at USC, whom his students called the Sphinx behind his back. But to Michel, Gabriel was simply his favorite cousin, childhood playmate—when they’d been allowed to be children—and someone he trusted with his life.

“I’ve heard good things about your class from both the faculty and the students,” his cousin said with obvious pride. “For the time being, I don’t regret sticking my neck out for you.”

When Michel explained his fraught plan to his cousin, Gabriel didn’t laugh his head off. Instead, he arranged for him to come to America as a visiting professor at the University of Southern California. While Michel assured his father that he would also be carrying out his diplomatic duties, his royal status was shared only with the president of USC, citing security reasons for the secrecy. To everyone else, he was Dr. Michel Chevalier, a European expert on international relations. He decided to borrow his mother’s maiden name for anonymity, as well as for the practical reason that royal last names were a lengthy, complicated bore to recite in full.

“It’s a shame I can’t say the same about you.” Michel crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Aunt Celine makes it a point to visit the palace nearly every week to lament the fact that her only son abandoned her to live in America of all places and never even calls her. She likes to point out how I convinced the king to allow you to leave Rouleme.”

“Sorry, cousin.” Gabriel had the grace to cringe in sympathy. “Mother can be melodramatic.”

“It wouldn’t hurt you to call her more often,” Michel pointed out. “She just misses you.”

“You mean she’s hell-bent on guilt-tripping me back home,” his cousin grumbled.

“That, too.” Michel chuckled. “Even so, call her.”

He couldn’t help but envy Gabriel for his headache. The king’s sister was used to getting her way, but she really did love her children. Michel would give anything to talk to his mother one last time. Maybe she would tell him the secret to finding the woman of his dreams and making her fall in love with him. Tell him what made her fall in love with his father.


Copyright © 2024 by Judith J. Yi

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