Royally screwed, p.22
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       Royally Screwed, p.22
 

         Part #1 of Royally series by Emma Chase

  She turns in my arms and presses her face against my chest, wetting it with her tears. I hold her close and stroke her hair. "Don't cry, love. Shhh...please, Olivia."

  Broken eyes look up at me.

  "I love you too."

  "I know." I stroke her face. "I know you do."

  "But I can't..." Her voice quakes. "If I stay here, if I have to watch you...it'll be like being burned alive, one piece at a time, until there'll be nothing left of me...of us."

  My ribs squeeze as if a snake has coiled around them, making every breath painful and hard.

  "It was unfair of me to ask you, Olivia." I push at her tears, wiping them away. "Please don't cry anymore. Please...forget. Forget I said anything. Let's just--"

  "Enjoy the time we have left," she finishes softly.

  My finger traces the bridge of her nose.

  "That's right."

  I wait outside the Queen's office. Her secretary, Christopher, told me she can't possibly see me today, but I wait anyway. Because I have to--I have to try.

  When she walks into the room, brisk and efficient, I say, "I need to speak with you."

  She doesn't even look at me.

  "It's important."

  She walks past me toward her office door.

  "Your Majesty, please!"

  Finally, she stops and turns her head. Her lips purse, looking me over. And that Christopher guy must have mental telepathy, because without a word, when the Queen proceeds into her office, he raises his arm and leads me in behind her.

  I don't know how long she'll let me speak, so as soon as the door closes, I start right in.

  "Nicholas needs more time."

  Her words are clipped and dismissive. "Time will not make this better."

  "He's not ready."

  She walks behind her desk, scanning the papers there. "Of course he is. He was born for this--quite literally."

  "He doesn't want this."

  "But he'll do it. Because he is honorable and it is his duty."

  "I love him!"

  That makes her stop. Her hand pauses over a piece of paper, and her face slowly lifts, meeting my eyes.

  And then, the Queen's expression goes softer--the lines around her mouth and eyes smooth out, making her look gentler. Like the grandma she's supposed to be.

  "Yes, I believe you do. He loves you too, you know. When he looks at you...His father used to look at his mother the same way--like she was the Eighth Wonder of the World. These last months, Nicholas has reminded me so much of his father, at times it's been almost as if my son were standing right there."

  She gestures to the sofa near the fireplace. "Sit."

  I do, carefully, while she takes a cushioned chair, facing me. "I had a second child, after Thomas--a daughter. Did Nicholas ever tell you that?"

  "No," I answer, all of the righteous heat leaching out of me.

  "She was a sickly, beautiful creature. Born with a heart condition. We brought in all the specialists, doctors from all over the world. Edward was out of his mind with grief. And I would have given up my crown to save her...but there was nothing to be done. They told me she wouldn't last a month. She survived for six."

  She seems lost for a moment, in the memory. Then her gray eyes blink out of the reverie. Her gaze falls back to the present--back to me.

  "That is when I learned that hope is cruel. A pitiless gift. Honesty, finality, may seem brutal--but in the end, it's mercy." And then her voice turns to steel. "There is no hope for a future between you and my grandson. None. You need to accept that."

  "I can't," I whisper.

  "You must. The law is clear."

  "But you could change the law. You could do that for us--for him."

  "No, I cannot."

  "You're the Queen!"

  "Yes, that's right, and your country has a president. And what would happen if your president announced tomorrow that elections would be held every eight years instead of every four? What would your government do? What would your people do?"

  I open my mouth...but nothing comes out.

  "Change takes time and requires will, Olivia--there is no will in Wessco for this kind of change. And even if there were, now is not the time. Even monarchs are bound by the law. I am not God."

  "No," I bite out, on the verge of totally losing it. "You're a monster. How can you do this to him? How can you know how he feels about me and make him do this?"

  She turns to the window, looking out. "A mother burying her child is the only thing that could make one truly long for death--if only for the sliver of hope that she might glimpse her child again. Thomas got me through it the first time. Because I knew he needed me. And when I had to bury him and Calista, it was Nicholas and Henry who pulled me through, because they needed me even more. So, if you wish to think of me as a monster, that is your right. Perhaps I am. But believe me when I tell you, there is nothing--nothing--I would not do for those boys."

  "Except let them live their lives. Let them marry who they want."

  She scoffs at me, shaking her head. "If I am a monster, then you are a naive, selfish girl."

  "Because I love Nicholas? Because I want to be with him and make him happy--that makes me selfish?"

  She lifts her chin like a professor in a lecture hall. "You are common--and I don't say that as a criticism. Commoners look at the world through the lens of a single lifetime. In a hundred years, no one will remember your name. You are as indistinguishable as grains of sand on the beach.

  "Monarchs see the world through the prism of legacy. Ask Nicholas; he'll tell you the same. What will we leave behind? How will we be remembered? Because whether we are reviled or revered--we will be remembered. Nicholas is a leader. Men are dedicated to him, they follow him naturally, you must see it."

  I think of Logan and Tommy and James--the way they protected Nicholas. Not only because it was their job, but because they wanted to.

  "When he is King he will better the lives of tens of millions of people. He will lead our country into a new age. He could literally change the world, Olivia. And you would deprive them of him--for what? A few decades of your own happiness? Yes, child--in my book, that makes you selfish."

  I try to keep it together, but frustration makes me tear my hands through my hair. Because how the hell do you argue with that?

  "So that's it?" I ask, crushed. "There's no way...at all?"

  She's not angry when she says it, or mean. Just...final.

  "No, there isn't."

  I close my eyes and take a deep breath. And then I lift my head--facing her, head-on. "Then I guess there's nothing left to say. Thank you for speaking with me."

  I rise and turn to leave, but when my hand is on the door she calls my name.

  "Yes?" I turn back.

  "I have watched you these last months. I've seen how you are with the staff and the people, with Henry and Nicholas. I've seen you." From this angle, in this light, the Queen's eyes seem shiny. Almost glistening. "I was wrong the day we met when I said you wouldn't do. If things were different, you, my dear, would do...beautifully."

  Tears rise in my eyes and emotion lodges in my throat. It's funny--when people are stingy with their praise, it always seems to mean the most when it's given.

  I dip my head, and bend my knees and slowly lower into a full, perfect curtsy. I've been practicing. And for all she is--a queen, a mother, a grandmother--she deserves that honor and respect.

  After the door closes behind me, I take a big breath. Because now I know what I have to do.

  THE DAYS LEADING UP to the Summer Jubilee are always fraught with frantic activity and planning. There's a tension in the air, a weight that has to be waded through, because all the things that have to get done cling like leeches.

  Dignitaries and heads of state come from all over the world and are hosted at the palace. There are photo sessions with the royal family--immediate and extended--and meetings and interviews with the press. The organized chaos grows as the day of reckoning approaches
, like the burps and grumbles of a volcano, building up to its apocalyptic eruption.

  I've gotten through it the way I do every year--with a smile spackled to my face and unspoken words locked safely in my head. But the last twenty-four hours have been particularly difficult. I say all the right things, do all that's expected, but it feels like a shroud lies across my shoulders, heavy and suffocating.

  It feels like mourning...like the days surrounding my parents' death. When, in spite of the crushing grief pressing down on every cell in my body, I had to go on, keep walking, head high, one foot in front of the other.

  I'm determined to enjoy tonight, though--really enjoy it. Olivia's never seen a real ball, with more pomp and circumstance and grandeur than I doubt she can imagine. And I want to soak up her reaction--every smile and sparkle of wonder that lights in her eyes. I'll hoard those moments, keep the memory of tonight close and safe, so I can pull it out and relive it after she's gone.

  I wait in the morning room of Guthrie House for Olivia to come down after she's done getting primped and painted. Then I'll escort her over to the main palace, where we'll receive our final marching orders from the decorum police and the ball will begin.

  I hear the swish of fabric at the top of the stairs, turn around--and get knocked on my arse.

  Her gown is pale blue, satin and chiffon--low cut, with a taste of cleavage, framed by dips and swells that bare her shoulders but encircle her arms. It's an old-fashioned style without being costumey. There's a slash of rhinestone embellishment across the bodice, and the satin hugs her tiny waist, draping down to a skirt that's hooped but not overly large. On one side, the satin pulls up, held with the same gemstone decoration, revealing pale blue chiffon beneath, dotted with jewels. Olivia's hair is pinned up in ornate shiny black curls, with diamond combs winking out between them.

  Fergus stands beside me, and the old dog practically sighs.

  "The lass looks like an angel."

  "No," I say as Olivia reaches the bottom step. "She looks like a queen."

  She stands in front of me and for a moment we just stare at each other.

  "I've never seen you in your military uniform," she says, eyes drifting over me hungrily from head to toe, before settling on my eyes. "It should be illegal."

  "I'm the one who's supposed to be giving the compliments." I swallow hard, wanting her so much. In every way. "You look breathtaking, love. I can't decide if I want you to stay in that dress forever or if I want to rip it off you right now."

  She laughs.

  Simple, elegant diamonds dangle from her tasty little earlobes, but her throat is bare--just like I asked the stylist to keep it. I reach into my pocket and pull out a small, square box.

  "I have something for you."

  She blushes, before she even sees what's inside. And then, when I lift the lid, she gasps.

  It's a snowflake, in an intricate, spin-wheel pattern, laden with a hundred small diamonds and sapphires. The diamonds are clear and flawless, like Olivia's skin, and the sapphires are brilliant and deep, like her eyes.

  Her mouth goes slack. "It's...gorgeous." She fingers the velvet bed, but doesn't touch the necklace--almost as if she's afraid to. "I can't keep this, Nicholas."

  "Of course you can." The words come out firm, almost harsh. "I designed it myself, had it made." I slip it from the box and step behind her, tying the silk choker ribbon around her throat. "There's only one in the whole world--just like you."

  I press a kiss to the back of her neck, then her shoulder.

  Olivia turns to face me, takes my hand, and lowers her voice. "Nicholas, I've been thinking--"

  "Let's go, Googly Eyes One and Two. We're late," Henry, also decked out in full uniform, says as he walks into the room, tapping his wrist. "You'll have time to drool all over each other later."

  I lean down and kiss Olivia's cheek. "You can finish that sentence tonight."

  We assemble in an antechamber off the ballroom, while the sounds of the party, the chatter and music and the clinking of glasses, seep like smoke under the door. My cousins are here--Marcus and his brood. After the briefest of greetings they stay far away from me, and I do the same. I also stay away from any refreshments they've been near...just in case.

  My secretary, Bridget claps her hands, giggling and vibrating like the head of a social committee in school. "One more time, just in case--the Queen will be announced first, followed by Prince Nicholas, then Prince Henry, who will escort Miss Hammond into the room." She turns to my brother. "Everyone will be standing, so you will walk Miss Hammond to the marked spot near the wall, then return to your brother's side for the receiving line. Everyone's got it, yes?"

  Trumpets blare from beyond the doors, and Bridget nearly bursts out of her skin.

  "Oh, that's the signal. Places, my lords and ladies, places!" She pauses next to Olivia, squeezing her arm and squeaking, "It's just so exciting!"

  After she steps away, Olivia laughs. "I really like her."

  Then she lines up beside my brother. We talked about it--about Henry escorting her in, the expectations, the traditions...but standing here now, it all just seems so meaningless.

  Stupid.

  I turn around and tap my brother on the shoulder. "Hey."

  "Yeah?"

  "Trade with me."

  "Trade what?" Henry asks.

  I motion with my finger. "Our spots."

  He leans over, looking at our grandmother's back. "You're supposed to follow Granny out. Be second in the receiving line."

  I shrug. "She won't look behind her. She won't know until you're beside her--and then, she'll roll with it. You can handle greeting the guests second--I have faith in you."

  "That goes against protocol," Henry taunts, because I already know he's going to say yes.

  I shrug again. "Fuck it."

  He chuckles and looks at me, with pride in his eyes. "You've turned my brother into a rebel, Olive." He taps her hand. "Well done."

  Then he switches spots with me.

  Olivia's arm curls around mine, and her thigh brushes my leg through the fabric of her dress.

  "That's better." I sigh. Because having her on my arm feels like it always has--like it's meant to be.

  The ball is in full swing. Everyone's enjoying themselves--the music is less stuffy than in past years, the orchestra mixing renditions of popular music with classical. People are dancing, eating, laughing--and I stand across the room, by myself for a rare moment, watching.

  Watching her.

  It's the strangest sensation--the swell of joy in my chest that looking at Olivia always brings. The surging pride I feel as she moves with so much confidence, chatting with the wives of ambassadors, leaders, and assorted royalty like she's been doing it her whole life--like she was born to do it. And then the inevitable stab of agony lands--when I remember that she's leaving. That in just another few days, she'll be gone, lost to me, forever.

  "Are you all right, Nicky?" Henry asks, with quiet concern. I didn't see him approach and I don't know how long he's been beside me.

  "No, Henry," I say in a voice that doesn't sound at all like mine. "I don't think I am."

  He nods, then squeezes my arm and pats my back--trying to prop me up, lend me strength. It's all he can do, because, like I told him months ago...we are who we are.

  I push off from the wall and walk over to the orchestra leader. We speak for a few seconds, heads bent together. When he eagerly agrees, I head toward Olivia. I reach her just as the opening notes of the song float across the room.

  And I hold out my hand. "May I have this dance, Miss Hammond?"

  Understanding dawns on her face...and then adoration. It's the prom song she mentioned, that she loves but never got to dance to--"Everything I Do."

  Her head tilts. "You remembered."

  "I remember it all."

  Olivia takes my hand and I lead her out to the dance floor. We've captivated the attention of the entire room. Even the couples already dancing pause and turn ou
r way.

  As I take her in my arms and lead her, Olivia whispers nervously, "Everyone's looking at us."

  People have looked at me my entire life. It's something I've endured begrudgingly, accepted no matter how much it chafed.

  Except for now.

  "Good."

  In the early morning hours, before dawn, I move inside Olivia--on top of her--with only breath between us, white-hot pleasure coursing and spiking through us both with every long, slow stroke of my hips. It's making love, in the truest, purest sense of the word.

  Our thoughts, our bodies, our souls are not our own. They swirl and blend together, becoming something new and perfect. I hold her face while I kiss her, my tongue sliding against hers, our hearts beating in time. Sparks strike against my spine, tingles of electricity that hint at the shattering orgasm that's building. But not yet...I don't want it to end yet.

  My hips slow and my pelvis rests against Olivia's, where I'm buried, touching the deepest part of her.

  I feel her hand on my jaw and open my eyes. She's still wearing the necklace--it shines in the moonlight, but not as brightly as her eyes.

  "Ask me again, Nicholas."

  Hope whispers. Blessed, beautiful, thrilling hope.

  "Stay."

  Her soft lips smile. "For how long?"

  My voice is hushed and rough with pleading.

  "For always."

  Olivia looks deep into my eyes and her smile grows, her head bobbing in the tiniest of nods.

  "Yes."

  NICHOLAS IS PRACTICALLY GIDDY the next morning. We both are. Kissing and laughing--we can't keep our hands off each other. Because it's a new day. I never really understood that expression before. I mean, isn't every day a "new day"? But now I get it. Because our future--whatever that future may hold--starts today.

  And Nicholas and I are walking into it together.

  We have breakfast in his room. We take a long shower together--hot in more ways than one. We finally put our clothes on and venture out late in the afternoon. Nicholas wants to take me biking again. But when we make it downstairs, Winston--the "Head Dark Suit," as Nicholas calls him--is waiting for us.

  "There's a matter we must speak of, Your Grace," he tells Nicholas, not looking at me at all.

  Nicholas's thumb slowly caresses the back of my hand. "We're just on our way out, Winston. Can it wait?"

 
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