BRIDE (The Deceit Duet Book One) 

CHAPTER ONE

Clementine

Funerals are a lot like weddings. Tears. Flowers. Speeches. Hordes of friends and family gathered in their best clothes to mark the end of a life. It’s an odd comparison to make, the joy of a wedding to the somber pain of death, but it’s eerily true—because marrying Gabriel Prince will be the same as digging a grave and burying myself.

“I’ll take your silence as a yes,” Gabriel says as black-garbed mourners, shoulders bowed with loss, navigate around the arrogant man towering over me.

This is not how I envisioned things when I used to have silly fantasies of my true love proposing. A marriage proposal probably isn’t supposed to feel like you’re standing before an Armani suited marksman with the fine red crosshairs of a bullseye on your forehead. I’d say that’s the last emotion it should evoke. Then again, most proposals don’t take place at a funeral.

Fathomless dark eyes wait for the acquiescence they believe is coming, because why wouldn’t I accept? Clementine Bright is a minuscule pebble in the behemoth mountain that is Gabriel Prince. It’s almost laughable: after all this time, he still expects to get his way.

And why wouldn’t he? He’s always possessed that charismatic ‘x factor’ in his DNA that makes people rush to do his bidding. It’s a combination of lethal good looks and devastating charm that has ensured, since we were kids, everyone has always said yes to him. Didn’t matter what it was—ice cream in the morning, shorts in the winter, a car before he was legally able to drive—if he wanted it, he got it. And acquiring me as his wife is no doubt just another yes to him.

“Why would I ever marry you?” I question. There are no sweaty palms, no butterflies, no quiver in my voice. I’m willing them away. Gabriel thrives on weakness, so I’ve heard, and I won’t give him any, even if my forced bravado is holding by a tenuous thread.

“We both know why.” His eyes flit with disdain to his grandfather’s casket, laden with bushels of flowers.

“This is really not the time or place,” I remind him in a hushed tone.

A swollen cloud blocks the sun, darkening his face. “I don’t need grieving lessons. I need a bride, apparently, and that will be you.”

In my clearance sale black dress and heels, I feel like a peasant being given my orders by the prince to obey or suffer the consequences. And peasant isn’t far from the truth.

There was a time when I wanted to be a part of Gabriel’s entitled world, but that time is not today. “Well, you’ll have to find one somewhere else. Trolling a funeral for a wife is a new low even for you.”

“We can discuss the terms later.”

Before I can tell him later will be never, he stalks away to join what’s left of his family in the front row seats. Typical.

I walk closer to the burial site and pick a spot to stand on the fringes of the people who shouldn’t care less Joseph Prince is no longer here. It’s not like he did a lot of good with his billions or was even a nice man, for that matter. A woman in front of me sniffles, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, and I want to ask her what he did that made him worthy of her tears? I’m not here to give my sympathy to him, despite what people may think. The reason I’m here lies on the opposite side of the cemetery, in the poor man's outskirts, beneath the only thing, besides me, that cries they’re no longer here—a weeping willow tree.

For the next hour, I listen as the robed priest extols the virtues of Joseph Prince, and I wait for him to be struck by lightning for lying. A gap in the crowd leaves a clear shot to where Gabriel sits, dry eyed and stone faced. The breeze tugs at his dark hair, but isn’t bold enough to whip it into a frenzy like mine. Even the wind knows to use caution with him.

Unable to stomach my bitterness any longer, I turn away and walk toward the path that leads to the person who was buried quietly without the ostentatious ceremony taking place for Joseph Prince. Maybe my grief is still too raw to have compassion for the sheep wah-ing that their patriarch is gone. He was no saint; he was a wolf, and his fangs were the wealth he used to rip people to shreds. He dined on innocence and sipped their blood like wine, and even in death, he’s stalking his prey.

Oak trees cast a net of shadows on the paved path as I walk faster to beat the tears threatening to fall. Who ever decided flowers were the symbol of grief was a genius. The sadness lurking in the petals of fresh flowers adorning the graves is immeasurable. People can’t let go. I can’t, as I trudge through the vast grounds, carrying my goodbye in my pocket, to the plot now laid with fresh grass.

Crouching down, I peel back the corner and slip a birthday card underneath the sod. So many things left unsaid. So many wrongs never righted. They will be, though. If I have to say yes to Gabriel Prince, so be it.

As I sit and stare at the marble marker, time passes without understanding my world will never be the same.

“Clem,” a familiar voice calls out behind me. The prodigal Prince has returned. Should’ve known Ronin would show up today. He wasn’t sitting with the family, so he must’ve been on the fringes like me.

From my spot on the ground, I glance over my shoulder at the diluted version of Gabriel I haven’t seen in years. The brothers have the same dark eyes, but everything else is different. Where Gabriel is control, Ronin is chaos. Slightly mussed hair, scruffy jaw, and a perpetual pout all make the expensive suit he’s wearing seem like he’s playing dress up.

He steps closer and glances down at the marker.

“Fuck,” he mutters, sliding his hands in the pockets of his slacks. “I didn’t know your sister died.”

There’s a lot of things he doesn’t know. No one knows. And I’ll make sure they never find out.