His true queen, p.11
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       His True Queen, p.11

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  “I’m not mad. Why would I possibly be mad?”

  “Because I’m right.”

  “Utter nonsense.” I flinch as soon as I spit the words, hearing them, and Josh laughs, his head tossed back. “Oh, fuck off,” I spit, shoving him away.

  “That’s more like it. My filthy-mouthed queen.”

  My despair has rage tearing through me. “I’m leaving.” His hand lands back on the door.

  “Don’t be stupid, Adeline. You’ll make it one pace through the hotel and all hell will break loose. You’re staying until Damon returns, and that’s it.”

  At that very second, there’s a knock at the door, and we both look at the wood. “Your Majesty?” Damon’s voice sinks into the room, and I scramble for the handle.

  “Damon, I want to leave. Thumbs down!”

  “What the fuck?” Josh holds the door as Damon tries to enter, pulling my grip from the shiny knob and flipping the lock. “You and your fuckin’ thumbs.” I’m lifted from my feet and carried away, kicking and screaming like a naughty toddler. He drops me to my feet, all rather roughly, and points a poker-straight finger in my face, bristling like a grizzly bear, his chest pulsing from his angry breaths. He’s trying to think about what to say, his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish. He can say nothing. He’s said enough.

  “Damon is here now, so I can leave.”

  “Ma’am?” Damon calls. “I have a very intoxicated prince in the car.”

  I gasp and shoot my stare to the door. He has Eddie with him? I dash forward urgently, being jarred to a stop when Josh grabs me, yanking on my shoulder painfully. I yelp and hiss, reaching for my upper arm.

  “Oh shit,” Josh curses. “Adeline, I’m sor—”

  “I’m leaving.” I swing around violently, rolling away the sharp pain. “You will do what everyone else in the world is supposed to do and respect me.”

  He recoils, hurt, and slowly shakes his head. I’ve never seen disappointment on Josh. Until now. And I don’t like it. Of all the people I could wish to disappoint, Josh is at the bottom of my list. Goodness, he isn’t even on the list.

  “Well, like one of your loyal, devoted subjects, I will do just that.” Backing away, he bows his head and sweeps his arm out dramatically toward the door. “Your Majesty.”

  I’ve always loved Josh addressing me in the correct manner. Not because I thrived on my status—I didn’t; I hated my status—but because with his voice, it never sounded like a burden. It sounded light and carefree. Now, it’s weighted down with too much resentment, which is entirely ironic, because that’s how I always felt about it. Add the derision splashed over his face, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so inadequate. So small.

  I stare at him as he stares at me. There’s fire in his eyes. “Don’t ever throw your ultimatums at me ever again.” I seethe.

  “And don’t you throw your orders at me. I will never bow to you.”

  “I never asked you to.”

  “You just did, Adeline.” His jaw pulses steadily, and he draws too much breath for my liking, preparing to say something I’m certain I’ll hate. “You can be your country’s Queen, baby,” he whispers, his eyes glassy, “or you can be my queen.” He steps back. “You can’t be both.”

  Everything inside me dies.

  He’s right.

  It’s like a cavern has opened in my chest, and my heart has been sucked into it. I don’t have a choice. Not anymore. But he will live his life, find his happily ever after. I will live my life shrouded by responsibility. Cloaked in loneliness.

  Because he’s done. And he’s proven himself to be no different to every other person in my life. Shallow. Blinkered by selfish reason. He doesn’t think I’m capable of this.

  I slowly turn and unlock the door, pulling it open. On the other side, Damon looks grave. “I’m ready,” I say simply. Without a word or a look past me to what I have left in the room, Damon positions his hand on my back and then reaches for his earpiece, speaking clear instructions as I’m guided to the door. I keep my sights set resolutely forward, not prepared to remind myself of what I’m leaving behind, as I am steered through the corridors, into an elevator, and out onto the road. It’s only now, amid this impossible nightmare, that I consider what I will be walking away from when I’ve threatened it all these years. My history. My heritage. Or, more to the point, what I’ll be walking away for. A relationship with a man who forced me to give up everything I am. A man who laid down an ultimatum. It doesn’t matter that I was prepared to leave only weeks ago, because I made that decision. Not anyone else. It was me. But the stakes are now higher, the consequences more severe. And Josh only seems to be thinking of himself. How very fortunate of him to have that luxury. I, however, do not. I have to live my life on a knife-edge of guilt, responsibility, and an unreasonable sense of pride that I want rid of. I have too many depending on me.

  “Ma’am?” Damon asks, looking at me carefully. I blink at him and realize we’re standing on the pavement in broad daylight, men shielding my body, the door to the car open for me. “You should get in.”

  I shake myself out of my reverie and step forward, sliding into the car.

  “Addie!” Eddie falls across the back seat and crashes into me.

  I look at him, alarmed, my nose wrinkling from the rancid stench of him. “Goodness, you smell like a brewery.”

  “How would you know what a brewery smells like?” He grins, and it’s boyish, familiar, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.

  “You’re drunk.” I shake my head in disapproval, looking to Damon when he gets in the car. “Where has he been?”

  “His Royal Highness has developed a bit of a fondness for Club 62.” He starts the car and waits for the convoy up front to pull away before following.

  “Ah!” Eddie flops forward, gripping the back of the passenger seat to get close to Damon. “You can’t call me that anymore, Damon. I’m not Royal. Eddie will do.”

  I disregard my silly brother, my frown deep. “Club 62? I’ve never heard of such a place. What is it?”

  “Shhhh,” Eddie slurs, falling into the door when Damon takes a turn. “Don’t tell her, it’s a secret.”

  “A gentleman’s club, ma’am. One that is highly unsuitable for ladies like yourself. Any ladies, in fact.” His eyes meet mine in the mirror. “Unless you work there, of course.”

  My mouth drops open. “A strip club?”

  “Arhhh, Damon,” Eddie whines. “You’ve broken the blood oath.”

  “I’m not a member, Your Highness, therefore I can’t break the blood oath.”

  My head swings back and forth between the two men, astounded by what is transpiring. “Eddie, you cannot be frequenting such places.” The scandal will be outrageous.

  “I can do whatever the hell I like, thank you very much. And since I’m apparently unfit for royal duty, I believe I will make the most of it.” He suddenly takes on a faint shade of green, swallowing repeatedly. “Oh no.”

  “What?” I ask, scanning him up and down.

  “Oh, shit.” Damon says from up front, just as Eddie catapults toward me, retching.

  And throws up in my lap.

  “Oh my God,” I breathe, my hands coming up, the stench immediately filling the car.

  “Oopsy daisy.” Dragging himself up, Eddie flops back, his brow shiny with a sheen of sweat. And then he laughs. “I just threw up all over the Queen of England.” He chuckles, wiping his mouth with his cuff. “Fuck, I’ve really made it.”

  “You are despicable,” I say indignantly, whimpering at the mess in my lap. “Damon, pull over.” I can feel it seeping through the material of my dress, warming my thighs.

  “Afraid not, ma’am.” He motions to the windscreen, and I look out, seeing nothing but bumper-to-bumper traffic.

  “Marvelous,” I grunt. “Am I supposed to sit here for the entire journey home with Eddie’s vomit all over me?”

  My answer is a shrug from Damon and a giggle from Eddie. So I sit deathly st
ill, for fear of spreading the mess, all the way to Kellington, smelling to high heaven.

  But at least this particular misery of mine can be fixed with a long shower.

  Everything else that reeks of misery in my life is out of my control.

  I STAND UNDER THE SPRAY for the longest time, staring at the tiles before me. After my long soak in the bath and being in the shower for an age washing away Eddie’s vomit, my skin has become crinkled. I look at my hands and sigh. The tips of my fingers are lined and opaque. They look old.

  Reaching forward, I shut off the shower and take a towel, patting down my body before wrapping my hair in a bun. I slip into my robe and go to the sink, grabbing my toothbrush. As I scrub my teeth, I stare into my glassy eyes, and each time I blink, I see him. How did such a wonderful moment turn into something so horrid? I spit, rinse, and wedge my hands against the edge of the sink, dropping my chin, breathing deeply. If today has taught me anything, it’s that Josh and I are more than worlds apart. We’re a whole universe apart—a big, black hole of resentment separating us. He doesn’t understand, and I was so depending on him to do so. I was a fool for even momentarily believing I could have the best of both worlds. I want the satisfaction of proving so many naysayers wrong, and I want the injection of life that only Josh can give me. But in my world, there is only my world. I have to let one go, and I don’t have a choice of which world it should be. Josh is right. I can only be one queen.

  Not my calling? His doubt hurts more than anyone else’s.

  Feeling drained of energy and grit, I wander into my suite, ready to collapse into my bed and sleep for as long as my mind will allow. Perhaps tomorrow I will relocate my fortitude and reason. Perhaps this ache in my heart will have faded to something closer to bearable. I pull the blankets up to my chin protectively, rolling onto my side.

  No sooner have I closed my eyes, the door knocks and opens, Kim appearing. She’s armed with her phone, a grey suit today’s armor. “What is it, Kim?” I ask, not even lifting my head from the pillow.

  “Are you ill?” She takes in my reclined form, clearly very shocked to find me in bed. It’s not even teatime. “Shall I call Dr. Goodridge?”

  “No. I’m just tired.”

  “Well, duty calls, I’m afraid.” She scans the room, noting my discarded clothes on the floor. A quick raise of her hand has a maid appearing, who scampers around my room collecting my things.

  “I’m done with duty for today,” I tell her with lacking strength. “I would like to be left in peace.” Whatever else could there be to tend to? I’m very certain I’ve been over every royal protocol and issue in existence this past week, and today has been particularly testing. I’m done for the day.

  Kim disappears into my dressing room and reappears a moment later with one of my dresses—a blue formal piece, with black piping on the seams and hem. “I’m afraid there is no peace for you in the foreseeable future.” A small tilt of her head and a mild wave of sympathy across her face is an acknowledgment of the challenging times ahead for me. “Her Royal Highness Princess Helen has requested an audience.”

  Kim’s news has me slowly pulling myself up into a sitting position. “Why?” I ask, despite knowing that Kim will not have that information. I’ve barely been able to look at Helen on the few occasions I’ve shared company with her, and I know she’s been unable to look at me.

  Her lips straight, Kim lays my blue dress across the back of a chair. “She said it’s of great importance.”

  I’m sure it is. It’s a rather large coincidence that I was officially sworn in only a week ago, the world told I am their Queen, and my sister-in-law, who is carrying my dead brother’s illegitimate child, shows up, demanding to see me. Maybe I should be surprised it’s taken her this long. No one gets an audience with the Queen on demand. I should refuse her. Send her away. But, annoyingly, I’m curious to hear what she has to say for herself.

  “Very well.” I drag myself out of bed. “Is Jenny here?”

  Kim dips her head and backs away. “I’ll send her up.”

  “Thank you, Kim.” I’m not above getting myself ready, but, truth be told, I’m lacking the energy to do even that. Besides, I have a feeling I need to conserve what strength I have left to take on Helen.

  AS I TAKE THE STAIRS to the foyer, Kim by my side advising me of many things that I need to be advised of, I watch as staff crisscross the foyer of Kellington. The bustle seems busier today, and I definitely spot a few additional faces. “What is Sid doing here?” I ask, seeing the Master of the Household from Claringdon directing footmen here and there.

  “A little restructure, I believe.” Kim goes back to her phone, scrolling down the screen. “Where was I? Oh, yes. The official visit to Spain has been postponed for the interim, and I’ve put an itinerary for the next month in your office at Claringdon.”

  “Why wouldn’t you just put it in my office here at Kellington?”

  “Because your official office is now at Claringdon.”

  “That’s my father’s office.” I’ll never see that office as anything but my father’s.

  “As Sovereign, and like many before you, it is now your office, ma’am. But until the logistics of your working space is established, I have also put a copy on your office desk here at Kellington.”

  Then why didn’t she just say that? “My office here will remain my office.” I come to a stop at the bottom of the stairs and take in the chaotic scene in dismay. This is one of the very reasons I refused to move my residence to Claringdon. It’s like a circus there, not a home, and now with the restructure, it is like a circus here, too. “Like headless chickens,” I mumble, watching Felix scurry across the tiles with his phone to his ear, two new faces in tow, undoubtedly part of the restructure. I don’t need to ask Kim what’s got Kellington’s head of communications all in a fluster. When we arrived with an unconscious Eddie, Damon was pulled into Felix’s office to give every tiny detail of his rescue mission, probably including who was in a five-mile radius of this gentleman’s club my brother has become quite fond of. “Where’s Helen?”

  “In the lounge, ma’am. I’ll escort her to your office in a few moments.”

  “Right then.” I cut through the madness, determined to get through this next testing encounter quickly.

  When I arrive at the door of my office, I brush my hair over my shoulder and my dress down, pushing my way into the room. “Oh, for crying out loud,” I snap, immediately spotting the monstrosity I ordered out of my father’s office at Claringdon. I didn’t mean for it to be relocated. I meant for it to be thrown on a fire. Is Sir Don purposely trying to rile me? “Felix,” I shout, spotting him hurrying past the door toward his office.

  He stops and reverses, poking his head around the door. “Yes, ma’am?”

  “I realize it’s not in your job description, but please find someone to get rid of this thing.” I throw my arm up toward the giant portrait without looking at the hideousness.

  Felix can’t hide his horror, either. Good. I’m thrilled he also thinks it is awful. “Burn it?” he asks.

  “You read my mind.” I take myself around my desk and lower to the chair. “How is damage control coming along?”

  “His Royal Highness Prince Edward’s new favorite playground is impenetrable. If anyone talks, they get thrown out. So no one is talking.”

  “That has to be a good thing, surely?”

  “Oh, it is most definitely a good thing, Your Majesty. It’s only because of Damon’s connections we found out about it. I never knew it existed, and I would like to think there are not many things I do not know about in this world.”

  “Quite,” I agree, eyeing Felix curiously. Is he making a point? Telling me something without telling me? I never got to officially declare my relationship with Josh prior to my father’s death, but the mere fact that my American lover was with me when I returned to Claringdon after the royal helicopter crash spoke volumes, even if it has been unspoken of since by the few of my father
s advisors who witnessed my homecoming. At least, unspoken with me. Kind of like a silent mutual understanding, yet I know behind the scenes, action was taken to limit that particular scandal. And I know because Josh told me of the warning he received. Too bad for them he didn’t heed it. Or is it too bad for me? Does Felix know? Is he telling me without telling me he knows? Does he know where I was earlier today? My brain spasms at that thought, my mind back in the suite at Hotel Café Royal with Josh. The bliss. And then the horrible row.

  “Ma’am?” Felix prompts, and I snap my wandering mind back to the here and now. “Is that all?”

  “That is all.” I drop my eyes to my desk and come face to face with a pile of cards emblazoned with the Royal Coat of Arms, a pen set to the side. And to the left, a few drafted press announcements for my approval.

  Signing them with a heavy hand, I toss the lies into my tray, ready for Kim to collect. More smoke. More mirrors. I pick up the sheet of paper that details my schedule for the next month, a list of endless royal engagements and appearances. I feel a headache coming on just reading it. “And when does one get to recuperate?” I ask myself, scanning the list of dates. It’s non-stop, starting with a state dinner at the White House next week, of which I am the guest of honor. I’m there for twenty-four hours before I return to England to have my first official meeting with the Prime Minister. I yawn without thought. And then the next week, I must travel to Portsmouth to christen a new warship that has been named in my honor. My eyes fall down the never-ending list, my heart falling with it. This is my life now. In order to show my father what I’m made of and protect the wretched secrets of this family, I must fulfil these duties and a whole lot more. For the rest of my days. Because if I do not, there will be anarchy. Lives ruined. I drop the paper and slump back in my chair, feeling overwhelmed and so completely helpless. It is not the best frame of mind to be in when I’m about to face my formidable sister-in-law.

  My eyes fall to the door when I hear the knock, though I stall welcoming Kim into the room until I’ve straightened up in the chair and pulled my mask back into place. How many times? How many times will I do that from this day forward? Suck in a deep breath, brace myself to face my foe. “Come in,” I call, joining my hands and resting them on the desk before me.

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