Royally screwed, p.24
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       Royally Screwed, p.24
 

         Part #1 of Royally series by Emma Chase

  When I crack my head on the hard, wooden floor, I realize I'm not on a ship. And the tossing wasn't a dream.

  It was my little brother.

  Tilting the couch I passed out on and spilling my sorry arse onto the bloody floor.

  When I'm able to pry my eyes open, I see him standing over me like an angel of morning-after doom--with Simon standing next to him.

  "What the fucking fuck, Henry?"

  "I told you, you were wrong. I told you Olivia didn't do it."

  Those words snap me into full, immediate consciousness.

  Henry's eyes dart to Simon. "Tell him."

  Simon looks pale--paler than usual. And not a little bit guilty.

  "Tell me what?" I rasp.

  He clears his throat. "Yes...well, you see--I've begun a new business venture for Barrister's..."

  When he doesn't continue, I nudge, "And?"

  "Pies."

  Maybe I am still dreaming after all.

  "Pies?"

  "Yes--fresh and flash frozen--they'll be deliverable to anyplace in the world. We're going to knock Marie Callenders' and Sara Lee on their arses. And you know how much I enjoyed the pies at Amelia's when we were in the States, so...I purchased the recipes from Olivia's father. All of them."

  My stomach is still stuck in the dream. It churns.

  "How much?"

  "Over six figures."

  Slowly, I sit up, anger rising. "And you didn't think this was something you should have told me?"

  He rubs the back of his neck. "Mr. Hammond wanted it kept quiet. He's been cleaning himself up--doing the twelve steps and all that. He wanted to surprise Olivia when she came home that the business was out of debt and she wouldn't have to run it all on her own anymore." Simon squirms. "And hell--I can never keep a secret from Franny, so I thought it best if you didn't..." His words trail off as he looks me over. "What did you do, Nick?"

  What did I do?

  The realization of what I have done lands like a moose kick to the balls.

  I'm on my feet in an instant. And with the awful words I threw at her ringing in my ears, I run down the hall--shirt open, feet bare.

  But the moment my hands touch the handles, before I even I open the doors, I know--I can feel it.

  She's not here.

  I stand in the middle of Olivia's room--that's how I think of it now--not the "white bedroom" or "my mother's old room." It's Olivia's.

  Now, it's Olivia's empty room.

  The bed is made but vacant. The white walls and furniture that looked so pristine and fair yesterday now seem gray and lifeless. I check the bathroom and the closet--I don't know why--but except for a few designer outfits encased in clear plastic, that I know aren't Olivia's, they're just as bare as all the rest. Any trace of her--her shampoos and trinkets and the little hair ties she's always leaving behind--have been wiped away.

  Like she was never here at all.

  I wander back into the bedroom and a shiny glinting on the dresser catches my eye. The snowflake necklace. It was hers--it was made for her; I gave it to her to keep.

  To have and to hold.

  Even that was selfish of me, I guess. I liked the idea of her having something tangible, something she could touch, a way for her to remember me...after.

  And she left it behind.

  A message doesn't get more loud and clear than that.

  A maid walks past the open door in the hall and I bark at her. "Get Winston here. Now!"

  I hold the necklace in the palm of my hand when Henry and Simon--and then Fergus--walk in.

  "When?" I ask my butler.

  "Miss Olivia left last night."

  "Why wasn't I told?"

  "You told her to go. I heard you tell her myself. The whole house heard you yell it."

  I flinch.

  "Just followin' orders." And his words drip with sarcasm.

  Not today, old man.

  Winston steps into the room, his lips etched in that constant, self-important smirk. And I want to punch it off his face. Why didn't I do that yesterday? When he suggested that Olivia would ever...Fucking hell, I'm an idiot.

  "Bring her back."

  "She's arrived in New York by now," Fergus says.

  "Then bring her back from New York."

  "She left, Nicholas," Simon points out.

  And Henry begins, "You can't just--"

  "Bring her back!" I shout, loud enough to make the frames on the walls tremble.

  "Oh for fuck's sake." Henry grips my shoulders. "You tell the men to bring her back and they will bring her back by any means necessary. And then we'll add 'international kidnapper' to your resume. She's not a bone, Nicholas--you can't order her to be fetched."

  "I can do whatever I want," I hiss.

  "Bloody hell," Henry curses. "Is this what I sound like?"

  Panic. It rises like smoke up my throat, choking me, making my hands clench the pendant like a life preserver. Making me think wild thoughts and say idiotic things.

  Because...what if Olivia won't come back? What will I do then?

  Without her.

  My voice turns to ash. "She'll come back with them. They'll explain it to her. Tell her...that I made a mistake. That I'm sorry."

  My little brother looks at me like I've lost my mind, and maybe I have.

  Simon steps forward, gripping my arm. "Tell her yourself, man."

  The downside of responsibility and duty is that it gives you tunnel vision--you don't see the big picture, the options, because the options were never yours to have. You see only the track that you're locked onto, the one that takes you through the tunnel.

  But every once in a while, even the most dependable trains jump their track.

  "Prince Nicholas, you can't go in there." Christopher rushes out from behind his desk, trying to get between me and the Queen's closed office door. "Your Highness, please--"

  I burst through the door.

  The Japanese Emperor stands quickly and his security men go for their gunbelts. The Emperor holds out his hand to them. I see this all in the periphery. Because my eyes are fastened onto the Queen's--and if looks could kill, Henry would've just gotten a promotion.

  "I'm canceling the press conference," I tell her.

  Without blinking, she turns smoothly to her guest. "Please accept our sincere apologies for the interruption, Emperor Himura. There is no excuse for such rudeness."

  The Emperor nods. "I have six children, Your Majesty. I understand all about interruptions." He glances my way on the last word, and reflexively I lower my chin and bow--a sign of respect.

  My grandmother looks past my shoulder to the doorway. "Christopher, show Emperor Himura to the blue drawing room. I will join him momentarily."

  "Yes, Your Majesty."

  Once my grandmother and I are alone, her indifferent facade drops like a boulder catapulted over an enemy's wall.

  "Have you lost your mind?"

  "I'm canceling the press conference."

  "Absolutely not."

  "I'm going to New York to see Olivia. I've hurt her terribly."

  "Out of the question," she hisses, eyes glinting like the edge of a blade.

  "I've done everything you've ever wanted! I've become everything you wanted me to be--and I've never asked you for anything! But I'm asking you for this." Something cracks inside me, making my voice splinter.

  "I love her. It can't end this way."

  She regards me, silently, for a several moments, and when she speaks her voice is gentler but still resolute.

  "This is exactly how it needs to end. Do you think I'm a fool, Nicholas? That I didn't know what you were thinking?"

  I open my mouth to reply, but she goes on.

  "You thought you could postpone the wedding for a time--and perhaps you could have. But the fact remains, the day will come when you will be a husband and a father. You will be a king. And what will Olivia be then?"

  "Mine," I growl. "She'll be mine."

  I see her in my head--th
ose smiling, rosy lips, the way her eyes dance when she looks at me. When she's happy--when I've made her happy. I think of the way her thick, dark lashes fan out against her perfect skin while she sleeps--peacefully, because she's sleeping in my arms. I remember the feel of her soft touch and the sheer, miraculous contentment I feel when I'm just lying beside her.

  "The word 'mistress' doesn't carry the same weight it once did, but it is still not a pretty thing to be, Nicholas. And there are no secrets, not in this world, not anymore. You will have a purpose to fulfill, a destiny. You will have the admiration and devotion of a country. And Olivia...will have its scorn. Possibly the derision of the whole world. You've seen it play out--time and again. The nannies who take up with their married movie-star employers, the young interns ensnared by powerful men. It's never the man who is shamed and ruined. It's always the woman--the other woman--who gets burned at the stake."

  And I have no response. Because I didn't think that far. The future didn't matter--all that mattered was having Olivia, keeping her, being able to kiss her every morning and tell her, show her, how precious she was to me every night.

  My grandmother's brows draw together, as if she's aggrieved.

  "Are you really so selfish, my boy? Is that the life you want for her?"

  The life I want for her?

  I want the world for Olivia.

  I want to show her every corner of it, explore it while holding her hand. I want the stars for her--and the moon and the heavens--and everything in between.

  And for a moment, I truly thought I could give them to her. I believed there was a way.

  Stupid.

  Franny called me a fool. A double-damned idiot. For once, I agree with her.

  When I answer, my voice is hollow--a ravaged, empty imitation of my own.

  "No."

  "Then let her go. If you truly love her, let her hate you. It will be easier for her that way." She puts her hand on my arm, squeezing with a strength that still surprises me. "And for you."

  I rub my eyes, suddenly so...tired.

  "Christopher has the list. I've narrowed it down to five. Look it over. They're wonderful women, Nicholas. Any one of them will make you happy, if you just allow it."

  I move out of her office without another word, feeling dazed. I pause in front of Christopher's desk and he hands me The List. One page, five names, five pretty, smiling thumb-size faces. All the same. All meaningless.

  Swallowing hard, I pass it back to the Queen's secretary.

  "Pick one."

  His eyes jolt from me to the page and back again.

  "Me?"

  "Yes."

  "Uh...which one should I pick, Your Grace?"

  And I say the truest words I've ever spoken in my life.

  "It doesn't matter."

  THE MONTHS I SPENT in Wessco flew by in a blink, in a snap of fingers--the way time always seems to move when you're happiest. But the last two days have limped, crawled by in endless, teeth-gnashingly painful seconds. I thought leaving Wessco was the hardest thing I'd ever do.

  But I was wrong. Living without Nicholas is so much harder.

  I called Ellie from the airport--told her I was coming home, asked her to meet me when I landed. But when I walked out of the gate it wasn't her that was there.

  It was my dad.

  His eyes were clear--sober and strong. And knowing.

  I was already crying by the time he got to me. I didn't even try to hold back. He told me it would be okay; he promised that I would be all right. He said I was strong--like my mother--and that I would get through this. He rocked me in his arms and held me so tight.

  My hero.

  But it's been a struggle. I have to fight the urge to curl into a ball and cry because everything hurts. My chest is heavy with the weight of my heart, my head throbs with doubts--all the things I could've done differently. My arms and legs ache with the urge to run back to him, to fix it, to hug him and never, ever let him go. My stomach is twisted and nauseated. So sick that for a split second, yesterday, I considered the possibility that maybe I was pregnant--and that fleeting thought brought relief and joy. It's the worst reason to want a baby, but it would mean we'd still have a connection. And I'd have a reason to go back, to see him again.

  I know I sound like a desperate, pathetic woman, but I just don't care. Having your heart ripped out of your chest will do that to you.

  It's too early for morning sickness, but even if it weren't, I know I'm not pregnant. Those magical fixes happen only in romance novels and on soap operas. In real life, birth control is reliably, sometimes heartbreakingly effective.

  "It's really you! Oh my God, can I get a picture?" the statuesque, twenty-something woman vibrating beside me asks.

  "No. Sorry, no pictures," I mumble, staring at the dirty plates in my hands.

  Business is booming. The line at Amelia's is out the door and down the block. They're not here for the pies--my father filled me in on his covert business deal with Simon Barrister the night I came home. The contract is exclusive, which means we're out of the pie business for good. And I'm happy about that, I am. Happy that my father is sober and healthy. Happy that Ellie will be able to go to college without the weight of money troubles on her back. Happy even for me--that I have choices now, that my life won't be spent doing something I hate for the family I love.

  But Nicholas was right. Everyone has a price and everything is for sale.

  The crowd that fills the coffee shop every day is looking for a piece of Nicholas. They all want to see the table he sat at--Ellie screwed a plaque into the back of one of the chairs: "His Royal Ass Was Here." Beside it, Marty scratched into the wood: "And it was fiiine."

  I don't do autographs or pictures, but that doesn't stop people from asking. I've been working every day--trying to stay busy, but I mostly stay in the back. Away from all the greedy eyes and prying questions.

  I dump the dishes into the sink in the kitchen, while the DISHWASHER WANTED sign still hangs, unclaimed, in the front window. The chatter of the crowd out front is so loud that I don't hear the person behind me come in. Not until I turn around and run smack into his chest.

  Logan steadies me with a hand on my elbow.

  "Pardon me, Miss Olivia."

  That awful tight feeling pinches my chest, because looking at his face drums up memories that pound their way through my head.

  "Why are you here, Logan?"

  He gives me a confused look. "It's my shift. Tommy has the day off."

  "No. No, I mean why are you still here?"

  There hasn't been a word from Nicholas--not a call or a text. I expected Logan and Tommy to head back to Wessco as soon as it was clear I was back. For good.

  His mouth tightens, and sympathy dims in his eyes. "Prince Nicholas asked me to protect your business, watch over your sister. Until I receive new orders, that's what I'll do."

  "Maybe...he forgot you were here?"

  Logan chuckles. "He doesn't forget about his men. If Tommy and I are here, it's because here is where he wants us to be."

  I don't know what to do with this information--if it's some deeper clue about Nicholas's intentions or means nothing at all. But I don't have time to analyze it. Because a second later, my sister's voice echoes from out front.

  "Everybody out! Let's go--it's siesta time, people--we're closed for the afternoon. Hey, Marty, help a sister out, will you?"

  Logan and I rush out of the kitchen. Ellie holds the door open, waving everyone out of it, despite the grumbles and protests, while Marty herds them in her direction like a modern-day shepherd.

  "Your money's no good here." He waves at a guy offering him several bills. "Come back tomorrow."

  "What are you doing?" I call above the line of heads.

  Ellie holds up her finger until the last would-be customer has left. Then she locks the door and pulls down the dark green shade over the picture window.

  "It's almost time for the press conference." She skips to the television o
n the counter, turning it on. "I figured you'd want privacy when we watch it."

  My stomach has dropped to my feet a lot during the last few months, but this time, it drops to fucking China.

  "I'm not watching the press conference."

  "Oh yes you are, Negative Nelly." She drags me by the arm to a front-row seat. "Unlike you, I still have hope that His Hotness is going to pull his stupid head out of his fine ass."

  "Even if he did, it doesn't matter. We were only supposed to last the summer. We were doomed from the start."

  Marty comes up behind me, squeezing my shoulders. "Even if that turns out to be true, this will give you closure at least."

  I hate that word. Closure. It's just confirmation that what you dread is actually true. Dead is dead. Over is really over. But there's no comfort in it.

  "I don't want to watch."

  I haven't searched Nicholas's name online, haven't looked at any of the paparazzi photos that are always so readily available. It would be like holding a still-raw, blistering burn against a hot stove--too much hurt to handle.

  My sister folds her arms. "Liar."

  Okay, she's right. The truth is, I don't want to want to watch. I don't want to miss him. I don't want to need him. I don't want to spend every moment of every day trying not to cry because I can't imagine a future without him in it anymore.

  But...we don't always get what we want. Most of the time, we don't, actually. What did my mother say when we were little? You get what you get and you don't get upset. So I sit in the chair and dig my fingernails into my palm while Ellie switches the channel to the news station carrying the live press conference, and increases the volume.

  To find out exactly what Nicholas and I both ended up getting.

  I'm not the only one who's paid a price. Despite how it all went south in the end, I know Nicholas--every inch of his soul. I know what he felt for me was real--every touch, every smile.

  I've imagined his regret when he found out the truth. I believe if he could've changed things, he would have. I believe he wanted to, more than he's wanted anything in his whole life.

  But we can't change who we are--not a queen, a prince, or a girl from New York.

  Like he told me once...royalty is forever.

  The television focuses on an empty podium, the royal family crest etched into the shiny wood. I don't recognize the ornate background--two windows with heavy floral drapery, with a portrait of Nicholas's parents hanging on the wall between them. It's not Guthrie House--maybe it's another room in the palace, or one of the other properties he'd told me about, but never had the chance to show me.

 
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