Royally screwed, p.18
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       Royally Screwed, p.18
 

         Part #1 of Royally series by Emma Chase
Around nine, we pull up to a mansion on a hill. No, not a mansion, an estate--with a historic-looking house about half the size of the palace, but still enormous. Security swarms--secret service-type men in tuxedos wearing little wire earpieces, but Nicholas still brings his own men, with James now leading the pack.

  Nicholas holds my hand--I'm not sure if that qualifies as "PDA," but he doesn't seem concerned. He leads me through a cavernous foyer, down a hall, through the open doors of a ballroom. And into a casino! A fully stocked, even better-than-Vegas, wood-gaming-tables, giant-betting-wheel casino. The room is crowded, with groups of elegantly dressed people, every one young and beautiful, shouting and laughing and drinking.

  I'm surprised I'm able to spot him so easily, but I see Henry by the bar, looking not quite as dashing as his brother, but handsome in a black tuxedo--surrounding by a group of men and women hanging on his every word.

  "So, what do you think?" Nicholas whispers against my ear, giving me goose bumps.

  "I think...I know how Alice felt when she fell into Wonderland."

  He winks. "We're all mad here."

  A swirl of red silk flashes in front of my eyes--engulfing Nicholas in a boisterous hug. She has thick, honey-colored hair and is as tall as Nicholas--like an Amazon woman and every bit as stunning. It's the girl from the "marriage watch" piece on television and the People magazine pictures--the "old friend" Nicholas mentioned.

  "There you are, you bloody sod! I blink and you disappear to the States for two months. How are the hell are you?"

  Nicholas smiles. "Hello, Ezzy. I'm very well."

  Brandy eyes, as sparkly as the dangling rubies in her earrings, fall to me. "I see that. Aren't you a pretty little thing."

  Nicholas introduces us. "Lady Esmerelda, this is Olivia Hammond. Olivia, meet Ezzy."

  "Hi, Ezzy."

  She shakes my hand in a friendly grip. "Lovely to meet you, sweets. Tell me, are you a virgin?"

  Nicholas groans. "Ezzy."

  "What? I'm just making conversation." She elbows him. "If you want a shot at this sorry sack, the V-card has to be in pristine condition. Is it, Olivia?"

  I stand up tall. "Does anal count? If it does, I qualify."

  Esmerelda's red lips open wide in a contagious laugh.

  "I like this one, Nicky."

  Nicholas laughs too, and something like pride glows in his green eyes.

  "So do I."

  He grabs two glasses of wine off a waiter's tray and hands me one.

  But then another woman approaches us--another blond in a royal-blue gown, with soft, pretty features and ice-blue eyes. A sedate, uncomfortable silence falls over Nicholas and Ezzy.

  "Hello, Nicholas." Her voice is delicate--like a wind chime.

  Nicholas nods. "Lucy."

  Her eyes fix on me. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your new toy?"

  His jaw tightens. "No, I'm not."

  She gives a tiny shrug. "No matter." She holds out her hand. "I am Lady Deringer, and you are?"

  "Olivia Hammond."

  "I heard about you. The coffee waitress." Her mouth purses and her gaze flicks to Nicholas. "You always did enjoy slumming it, didn't you, darling?"

  It's the "darling" that gets to me--that pokes at the flesh of my heart like a thorn.

  "That's enough, Lucy," Nicholas says sternly, in that deep, authoritarian voice.

  It has no effect on her, at all.

  "No, I don't think it is enough," she hisses like a cornered cat. "Not even close."

  Her eyes slide back to me and she leans in.

  "He'll crush you, you know. It's what he does. Breaks you, then crushes you into dust with the heel of his shiny shoe."

  It's the way she says it that's most disturbing. Gently. And smiling.

  "Oh for fuck's sake, Lucille, get over it," Ezzy barks, waving her hand. "Be gone before somebody drops a house on you."

  She raises her glass to me. "Remember that I told you so."

  And then she drifts away, like smoke after a blaze.

  I take a big gulp of wine and decide not to get into whatever that was with Nicholas. At least not now.

  "So...ex-girlfriend?" I ask, clearly unable to resist.

  "More like ex-psycho stalker," Esmerelda answers for him. Then she takes my hand. "Forget about her. Let's go lose some of Daddy's money."

  Nicholas takes a breath, nods, and we head off to the tables.

  But I don't lose anyone's money. An hour later, I'm up eight black chips at the blackjack table. I think, I hope, they're worth a thousand each--if it's any more than that, I'll be too freaked out to touch them. My dad taught me to play the game when I was twelve. On his good days, we still play a few hands.

  Nicholas's big, warm hands squeeze my shoulders, and he speaks close to my ear. "I have to head to the little lads' room."

  I look at him over my shoulder. "Okay."

  Our eyes meet and I know him well enough to recognize the look burning in his. He wants to kiss me--badly. He stares at my mouth like a starving man.

  But then he pulls back, looks around the room, remembers where we are.

  "Ezzy--mind Olivia for me a bit?"

  "Yeah, sure." She nods and Nicholas walks away.

  But fifteen minutes later, he still hasn't come back. And Esmerelda spots a group of friends she hasn't spoken to "in ages." With a pat to my arm, she says she'll "be back in a jiffy" and she heads off to them.

  Leaving me alone in the center of the room, feeling like an alien surrounded by Martians who sweat money and shit gold.

  I watch a white-gloved waiter slip through a swinging door--probably to the kitchen--and my feet itch to follow him. Because my home planet is behind that door--my people.

  Dozens of curious, unkind eyes appraise me as they float past, in groups of chatting, laughing twos and threes. So I lift the hem of my shimmery dress and walk closer to the wall, to be less conspicuous. I slip my phone out of my purse and text Ellie, asking what she's up to. I talked to her and Marty last night, just after they'd finished closing the coffee shop. They sounded good. I sent them pics of my room and the palace grounds--Marty replied with so many emoji's, he probably broke the button. He's expressive like that.

  When she doesn't respond a few minutes later, I put my phone away. And I don't want to smother Nicholas, but at the same time--where the fuck is he? Five more minutes pass and my stomach turns twisty and sour. He knows I don't know anyone here--why would he leave me alone?

  Screw it. I put my Champagne glass on the tray of a passing waiter and set out to find him. Every room I wander through looks like the inside of a crystal chandelier--sparkling and glittery. And they're noisy, with pinging slot machines and cheering crowds.

  Royals like winning money too--even when they already have it. Go figure.

  One room is dark, black, except for colored strobe lights, a glowing dance floor, and the pounding club music coming from the DJ's speakers. I spot Henry's unmistakable blond head in the middle of the floor, surrounded by gyrating women, and I almost head over to him to ask if he's seen his brother.

  But then--I can't explain why--a door on the far side catches my attention. It leads outside, onto a balustraded balcony. By the time I reach it, my palms are sweating and clammy. My heels click on the tiled stone outside--I only go a few steps--and that's when I see them, at the far corner of the balcony in the soft halo of a teardrop-shaped lamp.

  Nicholas and...Lucy.

  I taste bile in the back of my throat.

  Her back is to me, her blond hair cascading, her head tipped up to him and her forearms resting on those broad shoulders I love to touch. I can't tell if he's pushing her away or pulling her closer--and the sour sensation in my stomach seeps into my bones.

  Anger mixes with embarrassment--and flight kicks fight's ass.

  When I pull the door, back open I think I hear my name, but the sound is drowned out by the pumping bass that rattles the walls. I walk quickly, through the dance room, back into the main gambling r
oom.

  I make it through the doorway--and then my arm is grabbed, encircled by an iron grip, like a shackle.

  "Just where do you think you're going?" she asks, with a light Wessconian accent.

  I look up at her and the breath literally whooshes out of me. Because she's the most breathtakingly beautiful woman I've ever seen. Half a foot taller than me, with shiny dark brown hair, onyx eyes, perfect doll-like features and pale, pristine skin.

  "Huh?"

  Nice recovery, Liv.

  "Let me guess--you walked outside and saw Lucille and Nicholas, not quite kissing but not not-kissing either?"

  "How do you know that?"

  She snorts--and manages to make it sound adorable.

  "Because Lucy is the most unoriginal bitch I've ever known." She taps my nose. "But you aren't going to run off--absolutely not. You can't give her the satisfaction."

  She plucks two fresh glasses of Champagne off a passing tray, hands one to me, and clinks our glasses together.

  "Drink up and smile--you're being watched."

  I peek around the room. "Watched by who?"

  "Everyone, of course. You're new and shiny and...poor. And you have your hands on what every woman here, except me and Esmerelda, wants--the royal family jewels." Her head tilts. "Are you really a waitress?"

  Why does everyone keep asking me that? I drink my Champagne--really, I chug the whole freaking glass; I deserve it.

  "Uh...yes."

  "That idiot. I can't believe he brought you here."

  She shakes her head, pitying.

  "The world is full of cunts, dearie--some are just smellier than others. Remember that, and they'll never be able to hurt you."

  I stare at her for a beat. "Who are you?"

  Her smile makes her even prettier. "I'm Lady Frances Eloise Alcott Barrister...but you can call me Franny."

  Franny.

  "Franny! Simon's Franny--bubble-bath girl!"

  Franny pouts. "Did he put the call on speaker in front of a full house? I'm going to have a strongly worded chat with that husband of mine."

  "Strongly worded chat about what, dove?" Simon asks, coming up beside her, his hand sliding affectionately around her waist.

  Franny grins at him. "Say the devil's name and he doth appear."

  Simon makes devil horns on his red head with his fingers. Then he smiles at me, blue eyes dancing. "Olivia, it's a pleasure to see you again."

  There's a warmth about him, a genuine sweetness that makes me feel...comforted--without him even trying. Simon Barrister is the kind of guy that would stop to help someone with a flat tire even in a downpour, or help an old lady carry her groceries, or make silly faces at a kid having a meltdown.

  "Hello, Simon, it's good to see you too."

  "How are you, my dear?"

  "What a question to ask, Simon!" Franny swats him. "Look at the poor girl. She's overwrought. Lucille has been playing her nasty head games again."

  Simon scrunches his nose. "You should ignore Lucy, Olivia--she's a bit of a vile bitch."

  "She's a cunt," Franny reiterates. "My love is just too kind to say so." She pats my arm. "But I'm not."

  The jittery, sick feeling starts to creep up on me again. "I think I just need some air."

  "Brilliant," Franny says, taking my arm and guiding me toward the large French doors. "Let's go out on the veranda for a smoke. I just recently started the habit--trying to work off the pounds I gained from the honeymoon."

  I suspect Franny might be a little crazy. The fun kind, not the scary kind. Outside, she smokes her cigarette while Simon talks business with a man beside him. Then she quickly stubs out her bud on the iron railing, her eyes trained on the open doors that lead into the ballroom.

  "He's found you."

  I turn to look. "Nicholas?"

  She doesn't let me look. "Yes, he's coming this way." She claps her hands together. "Now, when he arrives, you should smile gracefully and pretend like nothing in the world is wrong."

  "Why would I do that?" I ask.

  "He won't know what to make of it. It'll drive him insane. A woman's weapons of mass destruction are indifference and confusion."

  I feel like I should be writing this down.

  "He's coming. Get ready." She smacks my lower back. "Chin up, tits out."

  With a mind of their own, my chin lifts and my shoulders pull back, pushing my chest forward. And believe it or not, it actually makes me feel stronger. More capable.

  "Olivia."

  Right up until he says my name. I close my eyes against the sound. The way he says it--there will never be a day that I don't love the sound of my name on his lips.

  Bracing myself, I turn Nicholas's way, but I don't actually look at his face--instead I look just over his right shoulder into the bright, glistening lights of a golden chandelier.

  I feel his gaze on my face, watching me, reading me.

  I don't have the chance to pretend that everything is fine. Because without another word, Nicholas grabs my hand and pulls me toward the steps that lead off the veranda to the gardens. "Come on."

  He guides me down a winding dim path, to a white trestle gazebo. Garden lights ring the outside, casting a soft glow, but under the roof it's dark and feels private. I hold my dress as I climb the steps.

  "Why don't you like Franny?"

  He told me in New York that they didn't get along--that he couldn't stand her. But he's surprised by my question. "Ah...from the moment Simon met her, he was enamored, but she gave him the brush-off over and over again. The night he told her he was in love with her, she said she could never be with him--and when I came home, I found her in my bed. Naked."

  Jealousy, hot and biting, bites at me. And shock.

  "Did you sleep with her?"

  "Of course not," he says, low and growly. "I would never do that to Simon. I told him about it, but he didn't care. He said they were 'working through their issues.' Shortly after, they were an item--and they got married a few months ago. I've given up trying to figure it out."

  I sit down on the bench. "Jesus. She doesn't seem like someone...who would do that. She was nice to me."

  Nicholas stands in front of me, his face partially hidden by the darkness. "I'm glad she was nice to you, but things here aren't always what they seem. I should've told you that, before." He pushes a hand through his hair. "I should've told you a lot of things, Olivia. But I'm not used to...saying things...out loud."

  "I don't understand what that means."

  He sits down beside me, his voice hushed. "I want to tell you about Lucy. I want to explain."

  I want to be the bigger woman--the kind who says he doesn't owe me an explanation. We're just temporary. But my heart...my heart pounds loudly that he does.

  "Why were you with her? Why did you leave me alone? Did you kiss her, Nicholas--it looked like you could've been kissing her."

  His hand splays across my jaw. "I'm sorry you were on your own--I didn't mean for that to happen. No, I wasn't kissing her. I swear to you--on my parents--nothing like that happened."

  Relief loosens the pincers on my heart. Because I know he would never mention his parents--not unless it was true.

  "Then what did happen?"

  He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, looking at the ground.

  "I met Lucy at school--Briar House--when we were both in year ten. She was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. Fragile in a way that made me want to keep her safe. We started dating...The media went into a frenzy and I was worried it would scare her away. But it didn't bother her, and I remember thinking she was stronger than I thought."

  He takes a breath, rubbing the back of his neck.

  "She became pregnant when we were seventeen. I was stupid--careless."

  "Oh my God."

  He nods, looking at me. "Pregnancy at that age is difficult for anyone, but add in--"

  "The whole future-leader-of-a-country thing..." I finish for him.

  "And it was a horror show. Her
family wanted to start planning the wedding immediately, wanted the Palace to announce our engagement. My grandmother demanded tests and retests to confirm that she was really pregnant and that it was really mine."

  And again I'm struck by the strangeness of Nicholas's life--the archaic rules that box him in.

  "What did you want?" I ask--because I have a strong feeling no one else did.

  "I wanted...to do the right thing. I loved her." He rubs his face. "In the end, it didn't matter. Just a few weeks after she found out, she lost the baby, a miscarriage. She was heartbroken."

  "And you?"

  He doesn't answer right away. Then softly, he says, "I was...relieved. I didn't want that responsibility. Not yet."

  I rub his shoulder. "That's understandable."

  He swallows and nods. "When the year ended, my grandmother sent me to Japan for the summer--a humanitarian mission. Lucy and I talked at first, texted...but I was so busy. When I came back to school in the fall, things were different. I was different. I cared for her, but my feelings had changed. I broke it off, as gently as I could, but she still took it...badly."

  Sadness washes through me like a wave.

  "How badly?"

  "She tried to kill herself a week later. Her family sent her away to a hospital. A good place, but she never came back to school. And I've always felt...guilty about it all. Responsible. It stayed out of the papers--I don't know who the Palace had to pay off or kill to keep it that way, but there wasn't a single line written about it."

  "Is that why you're so careful? About the condoms?"

  "Yes."

  With a tug, he gathers me in his lap, hugging me close. And I know this wasn't easy for him.

  "Thank you for telling me. For explaining."

  We stay just like that, shrouded in shadows and earthy-scented air.

  Then I ask, "Should we go back to the party?"

  He thinks about it. And gives me a little squeeze. "I have a better idea."

  The Horny Goat.

  It reminds me of a pub in New York--comfortable, familiar, and a little sticky. After Nicholas gathered Simon and Franny, Henry and a cute redhead that was clinging to his arm, the six of us ditched the casino house party and ended up at The Horny Goat for the rest of the night.

  I did tequila shots with Franny. Henry sang karaoke. Simon and Nicholas insulted one another about their dart-throwing skills.

  By the end of the night, in the early morning hours, Nicholas and I stumbled into his room, fell onto his bed--and fell asleep, fully clothed, wrapped around each other...and happy.

 
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