Royally screwed, p.23
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       Royally Screwed, p.23
 

         Part #1 of Royally series by Emma Chase

  "I'm afraid not. It's rather urgent."

  Nicholas sighs.

  And I try to be helpful. "I'll hang out in the library until you're done."

  He nods. "All right." He kisses my lips, softly, quickly, and then goes to do what he needs to do.

  About forty-five minutes later, I'm still in the majestic palace library--it's two stories, with gleaming wood that smells like lemon polish, the shelves packed with one ancient-looking, leather-bound title after another. I flip through a copy of Sense and Sensibility, not really reading the words.

  "We're ready for you now, Miss Hammond."

  My head snaps up to find Winston looking down at me, his hands clasped behind his back.

  "What do you mean, 'Ready for me'?"

  This guy's poker face is epic. And more than a little freaky. His mouth is relaxed, his eyes impassive--it's the face of a mannequin. Or a very good, very cold, hit man.

  "This way, please."

  Olivia steps into the room, looking curious and so very tiny next to Winston's girth. Her eyes drift over Henry in the leather chair by the fireplace, then she smiles when she sees me across the room.

  "What's going on?"

  I search her face and my own memory--looking for some sign I missed. Something that would've made me suspect...but there's nothing.

  Olivia worries her lip, staring at my blank expression.

  Winston swivels the computer screen on the desk toward her. "These are the headlines that will run in the Daily Star. It's a tabloid."

  HIS ROYAL HOTNESS'S UNWANTED SECRET HEIR

  ROYAL TEEN PREGNANCY ENDS IN

  MISCARRIAGE--ALL THE DETAILS

  Her face pinches in horror. "Oh no! How...how did they find out?"

  "We were hoping you could explain that to us, Miss Hammond," Winston says. "Since you are the one who told them."

  I hate that I agreed to this--agreed to let Winston take the lead, do the questioning.

  "What are you talking about?" Olivia turns my way again. "Nicholas?"

  Winston slides a sheet of paper in front of her. She stares at it hard, brow wrinkling with concentration. "What is this?"

  It's a mortgage statement for Amelia's--for the building of the coffee shop and Olivia's apartment in New York--that was in foreclosure five months ago.

  It was paid off in full last week.

  Winston tells Olivia as much.

  "I don't understand. I just spoke to Ellie yesterday--she didn't say anything." She takes a step closer to me. "Nicholas, you can't really believe I would do this."

  My gut rebels at the idea--but the black-and-white evidence taunts me. "I'm not accusing you."

  "Yeah, but you're not exactly defending me, either."

  I take the paper off the table. "Explain this to me. Make it make sense." Even to my own ears, it sounds like begging. "Make me understand what happened."

  She shakes her head. "I can't."

  It's like a thousand weights are sitting on my shoulders, bending my spine, trying to snap me in half. "I would forgive you for anything, Olivia. Did you know that? Anything. But...I won't be lied to."

  "I'm not lying."

  "Maybe you told someone, accidentally. Maybe you mentioned it to your sister or Marty or your father?"

  She takes a step backward. "So, I'm not a scumbag but my family is?"

  "I didn't say that."

  "That's exactly what you said."

  I throw the bank statement on the table. "For ten years there hasn't been a whisper of this in the press. Then weeks after I tell you, it's splashed across the papers and it just so happens your family's mortgage is paid off at the same time? What am I supposed to think?"

  Olivia flinches, running her hand over her forehead.

  "I don't know what to say."

  My voice booms. "Tell me you didn't do this!"

  She looks me right in the eye, chin raised, eyes simmering. "I didn't do this."

  But then, when I don't say anything, her face falls like a collapsing castle of cards. "You don't believe me."

  I look away. "Put yourself in my place."

  "I'm trying to." Her lip trembles. "But I would believe you, so I can't." She shakes her head. "When have I ever given you a reason to think I want money out of this?"

  "Maybe you weren't after money...in the beginning," Winston interjects, like a barrister setting up a question during a trial. "But then you came here and saw firsthand the wealth that was to be had. Perhaps with your departure so close, you made the choice to get what you could while you could."

  "Shut your mouth!" Olivia lunges at him.

  But I grab her arm, pulling her back. "That's enough."

  Our eyes meet, hers so big and begging. Begging for me to believe her. And, Christ, I want to. But uncertainty twists my heart around in my chest, making it hard to breathe.

  "I'll call my father," Olivia declares. "He'll tell you it's a mistake."

  She slides her phone out of her pocket, dials and waits. After what seems like fucking forever, she looks up at me, nervously. "There's no answer. I'll keep trying."

  While she redials, I ask Winston, "Where did the money come from?"

  "We haven't been able to trace the transfer yet; we're working on it."

  My voice is strong--commanding. "I need that information, Winston. It's the only way to know for sure."

  Slowly, Olivia lowers the phone from her ear. And she looks at me, staring, like I'm a stranger. No--worse--like I'm a monster.

  "After everything that's happened, everything I'm willing to give up for you, everything we've said and been to each other for the last five months...you need more information until you can decide if I'm the type of person who would take one of the most painful secrets of your life and sell it to a supermarket rag?"

  There's a warning voice that tells me to stop. All of this. Right here, right now--go no farther. It says I have no reason not to trust her. That she could never do this to me. Not the Olivia I know.

  But I turn deaf ears on that voice. Because it lies. I've listened to it before--over and over again when I was young and stupid and wrong.

  I won't be wrong again. Not about this--not about her. It would...break me.

  My face feels like a mask--stone cold and blank.

  "Yes. I need more information."

  And she shatters, like a windowpane that's been struck by a fist, right in front of me.

  "Fuck you!" She steps back, yelling and crying and shaking her head. "Fuck you and this fucked-up place that raised you. You're so messed up. You're so warped inside--because of these games and these people. You can't even see it. And I can't stand to look at you right now."

  "Then leave!" I shout back. "There's the door--get out! If I'm so hard to look at, go back to fucking New York!"

  The second the words leave my mouth I want to snatch them back. I don't mean them. But words don't work that way. Once heard, they can't ever be taken back.

  All they can do is echo.

  The color drains from Olivia's cheeks and her eyes close. Her face turns toward the floor and her shoulders drop. Like she's...done. Like there's nothing left to her at all.

  She takes a shuddering breath and without raising her head, without looking at me even one more time, she turns and walks out.

  For a full minute, no one speaks. I stand there--like an idiot--staring at the space where she just stood.

  Henry's words fill the silence. "You're making a mistake. And that was harsh, Nicholas, even for you."

  I face Winston. "Find out where the money came from. Now."

  Winston bows and leaves.

  I feel Henry's eyes on the back of my head, but I don't turn around. I have nothing to say.

  He doesn't feel the same.

  "Hello?" He comes around and tries to knock on my head. "Is anyone alive in there? Who are you right now?"

  He seems different to me somehow, taller or older. More...serious. I don't know why I didn't notice before, or why the hell I'm seeing it
now.

  "What are you going on about?"

  "Well, you look like my brother and you sound like him, but you're not him. You're some alternate version of him--the one who gives all those scripted, meaningless answers in interviews. The Tin Man."

  "I'm not in the mood to play games with you, Henry."

  He goes on like I haven't spoken at all.

  "My real brother would know that Olivia wouldn't, couldn't, do this. He'd know it in here." He pokes my chest. "So either you're too afraid to trust your own instincts or you're too afraid to trust her, but either way, you just let the best damn thing that's ever happened to you walk right out the door. And with the lives we have, that's really saying something."

  I swallow hard, feeling cold and numb inside. Feeling...nothing.

  My voice is as hollow as my chest. "If she didn't do it, it's one hell of a coincidence. I'll know what to do once Winston gets more information."

  "It'll be too late then!"

  I don't say another word. I'm done discussing this. But my brother isn't quite finished.

  "There've been many times in my life when I thought Mum would be ashamed of me. This is the first time I've ever thought...she'd be ashamed of you."

  And then he walks away too.

  I don't take a breath on the way back to my room. I'll lose it if I do. So I bite my lip and wrap my arms around my waist, passing security men in the halls, nodding to maids. But as soon as I'm through the door, I let go.

  The sobs tear out of me, shaking my shoulders and scraping my lungs. It's rage and devastation mixed together, the worst kind of heartbreak. How could he do this? After everything I've done--everything I was willing to do for him.

  I saw it in his eyes--those gorgeous, tortured eyes. He wanted to believe me--but he didn't. Couldn't. Whatever tiny wick of trust still lives inside him has been burned one too many times.

  Did he ever really trust me? Did he ever believe that we could last...for always? Or was some part of him just waiting, watching, until I screwed him over?

  Well, fuck him. Fuck him and his fucking palace. No more. I'm done.

  "Can I bring you some tea, Miss Hammond?"

  I gasp loudly and I think my heart stops. It's the maid for my room--Mellie, I think her name is. I didn't see her when I first walked in because I was crying into my hands.

  Her fresh face is awash with sympathy. But I'm tired of being surrounded--sick of the maids and the security and, and...Twitter assholes...and the fucking secretaries and assistants. I just want to be alone. I want to crawl into a corner where no one can see me or hear me, so I can breathe...and cry my fucking eyes out.

  A hiccup rattles through my chest. "N-no. No th-thank you."

  She nods, eyes down--like a good little servant. She slips past me discreetly, closing the door behind her. Trained oh so well.

  I lock the door. Then I march to the bookcase that connects this room to Nicholas's and lock that too. I walk into the bathroom and turn the shower on to scalding. As the steam rises around me, I strip out of my clothes, choking on my tears. I step into the shower, slide down to the floor, and rest my forehead on my knees. And as the water pounds down over me, I let it all pour out.

  I visited a children's hospital ward once, in a facility that specialized in treating the rarest, most confounding disorders. There was a young girl there--a tiny, bandaged, pretty thing--who was unable to feel pain. Something to do with how her nerves communicated with her brain. At first glance, you would think a life without pain would be a blessing--she'd never have a toothache, a stomach-ache, her parents would never have to dry her tears after a knee-scraping stumble.

  But pain is actually a gift. A warning that something is amiss and action must be taken to correct the situation. Without pain, an otherwise minor injury could lead to deadly consequences.

  Guilt works the same way.

  It's a signal from the conscience that something is terribly wrong.

  Mine eats at me--one slow, sharp bite at a time--in the minutes that I stay in the empty office. It claws at the lining of my gut when I make my way back to my room. It gathers in my throat when I pour myself a scotch, making it almost impossible to swallow it down.

  I can't shake it, can't stop seeing it--the last look on Olivia's face. Defeated. Crushed.

  It shouldn't feel like this. I'm the injured party. I'm the one who's been lied to. Betrayed. Then why do I feel so fucking guilty?

  It stabs at me like the jagged edge of a broken rib.

  The glass clinks when I set it on the table, then walk to the bookcase and through the corridor that leads to Olivia's room. But when I push on the bookcase on the other side, it doesn't give--doesn't move an inch.

  I'd forgotten about the latch.

  My mother installed it herself. It was the only time I'd ever seen her with a screwdriver in her hand--and the only time I'd ever heard her refer to my father as a fucking wanker.

  They'd patched up whatever they'd been arguing about, but the latch had stayed.

  And was apparently now being put back to use.

  I push at my hair and stalk out of the room into the hall, down to Olivia's door. I rap on it hard. But there's no answer.

  A young maid nods to me as she passes and my chin jerks in response.

  I try the handle, but that door is also locked, so I knock again--working hard to tamp down the pissed-offness growing with every second.

  "Olivia? I'd like to speak with you."

  I wait, but there's no response.

  "Olivia." I knock again. "Things got...out of hand earlier and I want to talk to you about it. Could you please open the door?"

  When a security guard strolls past, I feel like a fucking idiot. And that's just how I must look. Knocking and pleading outside a door in my own bloody house.

  This time I pound on the door with the side of my fist.

  "Olivia!"

  Thirty seconds later, when there's still no answer, my guilt goes up in smoke.

  "All right," I glare at the closed door. "Have it your way."

  I stalk down the stairs, spotting Fergus in the foyer. "Have the car brought around."

  "Where are you going?"

  "Out."

  "When will you return?"

  "Late."

  His gaze rakes over me. "Seems like a damn stupid thing to do."

  "Turns out, I've been doing damn stupid things for the last five months." I step out through the door. "Why stop now?"

  I put on my own clothes after my shower--my real clothes--worn gray sweatpants and a white V-neck T-shirt. I don't dry my hair, but twist it up into a bun, wet, on top of my head. My eyes feel puffy and swollen and probably look even worse. I drag my suitcases out from the closet and start packing--being sure to leave every single piece of clothing Sabine, the stylist, brought for me. They already think I'm a gold digger; I'll be damned if I give them any more ammunition.

  When I'm done, I mean to walk down to the travel secretary's office, to get a car to the airport and a ticket home. But my legs have other ideas.

  They bring me through the bookcase to Nicholas's room.

  It's silent in that way you can feel there's no one in it. I see a glass of scotch on the table. I touch it with my fingertips--because he touched it. Then I walk over to his bed--that big, beautiful bed. I sink my face into Nicholas's pillow, deeply inhaling his scent--that amazing man-scent that's all him--a hint of ocean and spice.

  It makes my skin tingle.

  It makes my eyes burn. I thought I was all cried out, but I guess not.

  With a shuddering breath, I put the pillow back.

  "He's not here, Miss," Fergus says from the doorway. "He left earlier."

  "Did he say where he was going?"

  "No."

  I walk up to the brittle, sweet man. "You were kind to me the whole time I was here. Thank you for that."

  As I turn to go, his hand falls on my arm. "He's a good lad--he can be rash at times, but he has his reasons. Let him come to
his senses. He loves ye, lass--as the day is long, he loves ye. Don't rush off just now. Give him a bit more time."

  The Queen's words echo in my head.

  "Time won't make this better, Fergus." I lean over and kiss his wrinkled cheek. "Good-bye."

  Jane Stiltonhouse, the travel secretary, is at her desk when I fill her doorway. "I'm ready to go home now."

  She's surprised at first--and then elated. "Marvelous."

  Jane rises from her chair and slips a folder out from one of the drawers. "I have your first-class ticket to New York ready--courtesy of the Palace, of course. I'll send two girls to Guthrie House to pack your things."

  "You don't have to do that. I already packed."

  Her smile reminds me of poisonous fruit--dangerously sweet. "Anything provided by the Palace to you on loan--gowns, jewels, et cetra, et cetra--remains with the Palace."

  "The only thing I planned on taking was the necklace Nicholas gave me."

  She clasps her hands. "Precisely. The necklace must remain here."

  Those words hit me like a subway turnstile jabbing into my stomach.

  "But Nicholas designed it for me."

  "Prince Nicholas had the necklace commissioned and he is a member of the royal family, therefore it is the property of the Crown. It stays."

  "He gave it to me."

  One of her pointy, penciled eyebrows rises nastily. "And soon he may give it to someone else. It stays. Are we going to have a problem, Miss Hammond?"

  I'd like to show her how we solve problems like her where I come from. But I don't--because, really, what difference does it make?

  "No, Miss Stiltonhouse. There's no problem."

  And her mouth does a fabulous impression of Bruce the Shark from Finding Nemo.

  "Very good. The driver will have your ticket; be sure to bring your passport. Do come visit again--" her condemning gaze combs over my clothes "--if you ever have the means."

  And I can't leave this place fast enough.

  THAT NIGHT, after a lonesome evening spent drinking myself into oblivion in a corner at The Goat, I don't dream about my mother, like I did the last time I was good and pissed. I dream I'm on a ship--a creaky, wooden pirate ship--with a stunning dark-haired figurehead with perfect, pale breasts. In the middle of a giant storm. Being tossed left and right, until one mighty, surging wave topples the whole thing over--sending me reeling into the sea.

 
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