Royally screwed, p.2
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       Royally Screwed, p.2
 

         Part #1 of Royally series by Emma Chase

  Royals are big on hand-me-downs.

  I head up to the master bedroom, unbuttoning my shirt, looking forward to the hot, pounding feel of eight showerheads turned up to full blast. My shower is fucking fantastic.

  But I don't make it that far.

  Fergus meets me at the top of the stairs.

  "She wants to see you," he croaks.

  And she needs no further introduction.

  I rub a hand down my face, scratching the dark five o'clock shadow on my chin. "When?"

  "When do you think?" Fergus scoffs. "Yesterday, o' course."

  Of course.

  Back in the old days, the throne was the symbol of a monarch's power. In illustrations it was depicted with the rising sun behind it, the clouds and stars beneath it--the seat for a descendent of God himself. If the throne was the emblem of power, the throne room was the place where that sovereignty was wielded. Where decrees were issued, punishments were pronounced, and the command of "bring me his head" echoed off the cold stone walls.

  That was then.

  Now, the royal office is where the work gets done--the throne room is used for public tours. And yesterday's throne is today's executive desk. I'm sitting across from it right now. It's shining, solid mahogany and ridiculously huge.

  If my grandmother were a man, I'd suspect she was compensating for something.

  Christopher, the Queen's personal secretary, offers me tea but I decline with a wave of my hand. He's young, about twenty-three, as tall as I am, and attractive, I guess--in an action-film star kind of way. He's not a terrible secretary, but he's not the sharpest tack in the box, either. I think the Queen keeps him around for kicks--because she likes looking at him, the dirty old girl. In my head, I call him Igor, because if my grandmother told him to eat nothing but flies for the rest of his life, he'd ask, "With the wings on or off?"

  Finally, the adjoining door to the blue drawing room opens and Her Majesty Queen Lenora stands in the doorway.

  There's a species of monkey indigenous to the Colombian rain forest that's one of the most adorable-looking animals you'll ever see--its cuteness puts fuzzy hamsters and small dogs on Pinterest to shame. Except for its hidden razor-sharp teeth and its appetite for human eyeballs. Those lured in by the beast's precious appearance are doomed to lose theirs.

  My grandmother is a lot like those vicious little monkeys.

  She looks like a granny--like anyone's granny. Short and petite, with soft poofy hair, small pretty hands, shiny pearls, thin lips that can laugh at a dirty joke, and a face lined with wisdom. But it's the eyes that give her away.

  Gunmetal gray eyes.

  The kind that back in the day would have sent opposing armies fleeing. Because they're the eyes of a conqueror...undefeatable.

  "Nicholas."

  I rise and bow. "Grandmother."

  She breezes past Christopher without a look. "Leave us."

  I sit after she does, resting my ankle on the opposite knee, my arm casually slung along the back of the chair.

  "I saw your interview," she tells me. "You should smile more. You used to seem like such a happy boy."

  "I'll try to remember to pretend to be happier."

  She opens the center drawer of her desk, withdrawing a keyboard, then taps away on it with more skill than you'd expect from someone her age. "Have you seen the evening's headlines?"

  "I haven't."

  She turns the screen toward me. Then she clicks rapidly on one news website after another.

  PRINCE PARTIES AT THE PLAYBOY MANSION

  HENRY THE HEARTBREAKER

  RANDY ROYAL

  WILD, WEALTHY--AND WET

  The last one is paired with the unmistakable picture of my brother diving into a swimming pool--naked as the day he was born.

  I lean forward, squinting. "Henry will be horrified. The lighting is terrible in this one--you can barely make out his tattoo."

  My grandmother's lips tighten. "You find this amusing?"

  Mostly I find it annoying. Henry is immature, unmotivated--a slacker. He floats through life like a feather in the wind, coasting in whatever direction the breeze takes him.

  I shrug. "He's twenty-four, he was just discharged from service..."

  Mandatory military service. Every citizen of Wessco--male, female, or prince--is required to give two years.

  "He was discharged months ago." She cuts me off. "And he's been around the world with eighty whores ever since."

  "Have you tried calling his mobile?"

  "Of course I have." She clucks. "He answers, makes that ridiculous static noise, and tells me he can't hear me. Then he says he loves me and hangs up."

  My lips pull into a grin. The brat's entertaining--I'll give him that.

  The Queen's eyes darken like an approaching storm. "He's in the States--Las Vegas--with plans to go to Manhattan soon. I want you to go there and bring him home, Nicholas. I don't care if you have to bash him over the head and shove him into a burlap sack, the boy needs to be brought to heel."

  I've visited almost every major city in the world--and out of all of them, I hate New York the most.

  "My schedule--"

  "Has been rearranged. While there, you'll attend several functions in my stead. I'm needed here."

  "I assume you'll be working on the House of Commons? Persuading the arseholes to finally do their job?"

  "I'm glad you brought that up." My grandmother crosses her arms. "Do you know what happens to a monarchy without a stable line of heirs, my boy?"

  My eyes narrow. "I studied history at university--of course I do."

  "Enlighten me."

  I lift my shoulders. "Without a clear succession of uncontested heirs, there could be a power grab. Discord. Possibly civil war between different houses that see an opportunity to take over."

  The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. And my palms start to sweat. It's that feeling you get when you're almost to the top of that first hill on a roller coaster. Tick, tick, tick...

  "Where are you going with this? We have heirs. If Henry and I are taken out by some catastrophe, there's always cousin Marcus."

  "Cousin Marcus is an imbecile. He married an imbecile. His children are double-damned imbeciles. They will never rule this country." She straightens her pearls and lifts her nose. "There are murmurings in Parliament about changing us to a ceremonial sovereignty."

  "There are always murmurings."

  "Not like this," she says sharply. "This is different. They're holding up the trade legislation, unemployment is climbing, wages are down." She taps the screen. "These headlines aren't helping. People are worried about putting food on their tables, while their prince cavorts from one luxury hotel to another. We need to give the press something positive to report. We need to give the people something to celebrate. And we need to show Parliament we are firmly in control so they'd best play nicely or we'll run roughshod over them."

  I'm nodding. Agreeing. Like a stupid moth flapping happily toward the flame.

  "What about a day of pride? We could open the ballrooms to the public, have a parade?" I suggest. "People love that sort of thing."

  She taps her chin. "I was thinking something...bigger. Something that will catch the world's attention. The event of the century." Her eyes glitter with anticipation--like an executioner right before he swings the ax.

  And then the ax comes down.

  "The wedding of the century."

  MY WHOLE BODY LOCKS UP. And I think my organs begin to shut down. My voice is rough with pointless, illogical hope.

  "Is Great-Aunt Miriam marrying again?"

  The Queen folds her hands on the desk. A terrible sign. That's her tell--it says her mind is made up and not even a gale-force wind could sway her off course.

  "When you were a boy, I promised your mother that I would give you the space to choose a wife for yourself, as your father chose her. To fall in love. I've watched and waited, and now I've given up waiting. Your family needs you; your country needs you. The
refore, you will announce the name of your betrothed at a press conference...at the end of the summer."

  Her declaration breaks me out of my shock and I jump to my feet. "That's five bloody months from now!"

  She shrugs. "I wanted to give you thirty days. You can thank your grandfather for talking me out of it."

  She means the portrait on the wall behind her. My grandfather's been dead for ten years.

  "Maybe you should be less concerned with my personal life and more concerned with the press finding out about your habit of talking to paintings."

  "It comforts me!" Now she's standing too--hands on her desk, leaning toward me. "And it's just the one painting--don't be obnoxious, Nicky."

  "Can't help it." I look at her pointedly. "I learned from the best."

  She ignores the dig and sits back down. "I've drawn up a list of suitable young ladies--some of them you've met, some will be new to you. This is our best course of action, unless you can give me a reason to think otherwise."

  And I've got nothing. My wit deserts me so fast there's a dust trail in my brain. Because politically, public relations-wise, she's right--a royal wedding kills all the birds with one stone. But the birds don't give a damn about what's right--they just see a rock coming at their fucking heads.

  "I don't want to get married."

  She shrugs. "I don't blame you. I didn't want to wear your great-great grandmother, Queen Belvidere's tiara on my twenty-first birthday--it was a gaudy, heavy thing. But we all must do our duty. You know this. Now it's your turn, Prince Nicholas."

  There's a reason duty is a homophone for shit.

  And she's not asking me as my grandmother--she's telling me, as my Queen. A lifetime of upbringing centered around responsibility, legacy, birthright, and honor make it impossible for me to refuse.

  I need alcohol. Right fucking now.

  "Is that all, Your Majesty?"

  She stares at me for several beats, then nods. "It is. Travel safely; we'll speak again when you return."

  I stand, dip my head, and turn to leave. Just as the door is closing behind me, I hear a sigh. "Oh, Edward, where did we go wrong? Why must they be so difficult?"

  An hour later, I'm back at Guthrie House, sitting in front of the fireplace in the morning room, handing my empty glass to Fergus for a refill. Another refill.

  It's not that I haven't known what's expected of me--the whole world knows. I have one job: pass my tiger blood on to the next generation. Beget an heir who'll one day replace me, as I'll replace my grandmother. And run a country.

  Still, it all seemed so theoretical. Some day, one day. The Queen is healthier than a whole stable of horses--she's not going anywhere anytime soon. But now...a wedding...shit just got real.

  "There he is!"

  I can count on one hand the number of people I trust--and Simon Barrister, 4th Earl of Ellington, is one of them. He greets me with a back-smacking hug and a glowing smile. And when I say glowing, I mean literally--his face is bright tomato red, and crispy around the edges.

  "What the hell happened to your face?"

  "Damn Caribbean sun hates me. No matter how much sunscreen I used, it found a way to fry me like a chip!" He elbows me. "Made for a creative honeymoon, if you know what I mean. Burn ointment can be quite sensual."

  Simon married last month. I stood beside him at the altar--though I'd tried like hell to get him to make a run for it.

  He's got a big heart and a brilliant brain, but he's never been good with women. The copper hair, milk-white skin, and pudge around the middle that no amount of tennis or biking will melt away didn't help. And then Frances Alcott came along. Franny doesn't like me and the feeling is entirely mutual. She's breathtaking--I'll give her that: dark hair and eyes, the face of an angel, skin like a porcelain doll's.

  The kind whose head will spin around on its neck, right before it drags you under the bed to strangle you.

  Fergus brings Simon a drink and we sit down.

  "So, I hear the Old Bird finally brought the hammer down on the whole marriage thing."

  The ice rattles in my glass as I gulp it down. "That was fast."

  "You know how it is around here. The walls have ears and big mouths. What's your plan, Nick?"

  I raise my glass. "A rapid descent into alcoholism." Then I shrug. "Beyond that, I don't have a plan."

  I toss the papers at him. "She made me a list of potentials. Helpful of her."

  Simon flips through the pages. "This could be fun. You could hold auditions--like The X Factor--'Show me your doubleD talents.'"

  I arch my neck, trying to dislodge the knot that's sprung up. "And on top of everything, we have to go to bloody fucking New York and chase Henry down."

  "I don't know why you dislike New York so much--good shows, great food, leggy models."

  My parents were coming back from New York when their plane went down. It's childish and stupid, I know--but what can I say, I hold a grudge.

  Simon raises his palm. "Wait, what do you mean, 'We have to go to bloody fucking New York'?"

  "Misery loves company. That means road trip."

  Also, I value Simon's opinion, his judgment. If we were the mob, he'd be my consigliere.

  He gazes into his glass as if it holds the secrets of the world--and women. "Franny's not going to be happy."

  "Give her something sparkly from the store."

  Simon's family owns Barrister's, the largest department store chain in the world.

  "Besides, you just spent an entire month together. You must be sick of her by now."

  The secret to a long, successful relationship is frequent absences. It keeps things new, fun--there's never time for the inevitable boredom and annoyance to set in.

  "There aren't any time-outs in marriage, Nick." He chuckles. "As you'll soon see for yourself."

  I give him the finger. "Appreciate the sympathy."

  "That's what I'm here for."

  I drain my glass empty. Again.

  "I've canceled our dinner plans, by the way. Lost my appetite. I told the security team we'll be heading to The Goat for the rest of the night."

  The Horny Goat is the oldest wooden structure in the city. It's located in what used to be the palace proper--the village surrounding the palace where the servants and soldiers made their homes. In those days The Horny Goat was a whorehouse; today it's a pub. The walls are crooked and the roof leaks, but it's the best damn pub in the country as far as I'm concerned. I don't know how Macalister--he's the owner--does it, background checks or bribery, but not a single story has ever shown up in the press about me or my brother after a night at The Goat.

  And there've been some wild ones.

  Simon and I are already piss-drunk when the car pulls up to the door. Logan St. James, the head of my personal security team, opens the car door for Simon and me, his eyes scanning up and down the sidewalk for signs of a threat or a camera.

  Inside, the pub air smells of stale beer and cigarettes, but it's as comforting as fresh biscuits baking in the oven. The ceilings are low and the floor is sticky--there's a karaoke box and stage in the back corner--with a light-haired girl swaying on it, belting out the newest Adele song. Simon and I sit at the bar, and Meg--she's Macalister's daughter--wipes it down with a rag and a sexy smile.

  "Evening, Your Highness." Simon gets a nod but a less sexy smile. "Lord Ellington."

  Then her light brown eyes are back to me. "Saw you on the television this afternoon. You looked well."

  "Thank you."

  She shakes her head just a bit. "I never knew you were a reader. Funny, in all the times I've been to your rooms, I haven't seen a single book."

  Meg's voice has echoed off my walls and her moans have hummed around my cock--more than once. Her NDA is in my wall safe at home. I'm almost sure I'll never need it, but the first "talk" my father gave me wasn't about the birds and bees--it was about how it's always better to have a nondisclosure agreement that you don't need than to need one that you don't have.

>   I smirk. "You must've missed them. You weren't interested in looking at books when you were there, pet."

  Women who live paycheck to paycheck can handle a one--or three--night stand better than those in my class. Noble ladies are spoiled, demanding--they're used to getting everything they want--and turn vindictive when they're denied. But girls like my pretty barmaid are accustomed to knowing there are some things in life they'll never be able to lock down.

  Meg smiles--warm and knowingly. "What would you like to drink tonight? The usual?"

  I don't know if it's the day full of interviews or the pints of scotch I've ingested, but suddenly adrenaline rushes through me, my heartbeat quickens--and the answer is so clear.

  The Queen has me by the balls--and I'm going to have to bleach my brain for even completing that thought--but besides that, I still have time.

  "No, Meg. I want something different--something I haven't had before. Surprise me."

  If you were told that the world as you knew it--life as you knew it--would end in five months, what would you do?

  You'd make the most of the time you had left, of course. Do everything you wanted to do--everyone you wanted to do--for as long as you could. Until time was up.

  Well...looks like I've got a plan, after all.

  DAYS THAT CHANGE YOUR LIFE almost never happen to normal people. I mean really, do you know anyone who's hit the lottery, been discovered by a Hollywood agent at the mall, inherited a tax-free, move-in-ready mansion from a long-lost, dead great-aunt?

  Me neither.

  But--here's the thing--when those days do come along for the rare fortunate few, we don't even recognize them. We don't know that what's happening is epic, monumental. Life-changing.

  It's only later--after everything is perfect or it's all fallen apart--that we look back, retrace our steps and realize the exact moment that split our histories and our hearts into two--the before and the after.

  In the after, it's not just our lives that are changed. We're changed. Forever.

  I should know. The day that changed my life was one of those days. The crappy kind.

  Normal people have a whole lot of them.

  It starts when I open my eyes--forty minutes later than I'm supposed to. Stupid alarm clock. It should know I mean a.m. Who the hell needs to wake up at four p.m.? No one, that's who. Forget about self-driving cars; Google needs to move their asses on self-aware alarm clocks.

 
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