His true queen, p.13
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       His True Queen, p.13

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  I get the full length of me, top to toe. “Indeed,” I murmur, reaching up to feel it, the weight bordering uncomfortable already. The last time I had this tiara on my head, Josh was . . .

  I close my eyes and let the memory take hold. It’s too powerful to fight off. His palm on my backside. The sting. The sense of abandon. The sound of his voice. His presence that brings me peace. And then his final words.

  You can be your country’s queen, or you can be my queen. You can’t be both.

  My heart squeezes painfully. Anger rises from my toes. His doubt. His lack of faith in me to do this job and do it well. He’s no better than the other bastards who’ve made my life miserable. Who question me.

  Except Josh can hurt me more.

  I can’t let him. I open my eyes and drink in my form once more. I look formidable. And I must believe I am.

  “I’m ready.”

  “I think the world will be dazzled.” Damon’s voice pulls my eyes to the door, where my beloved bodyguard is standing regarding me fondly. “You look beyond beautiful, ma’am.”

  “Oh, stop,” I scoff softly. “You’ll make me blush.”

  “Can I have a quiet word?”

  “Oh?” I cock my head, and Damon motions to a private room outside my bedroom. I lead on, intrigued, catching Sir Don on the other side of the room as I pass through, his eyes following Damon and me. He’s wondering where we’re going. Wondering what Damon has to tell me. I relish the knowledge of his curiosity. Lifting my chin, I enter the room and wait for Damon to shut the door behind us. “What is it, Damon?” I ask quietly.

  “Princess Helen, ma’am.”

  I straighten, a little worry coming over me. “What about her?”

  “I hope you don’t mind, but I took it upon myself to have a little dig around.”

  Oh. Interesting. As if I would mind. “And what did your dig turn up?”

  “Gerry Rush, ma’am.”

  My eyes could pop out of my head. “What?”

  He nods at my evident shock. “I believe they had an indiscretion a few months ago at a charity gala in honor of war heroes. Mr. Rush donated generously to the foundation.”

  I don’t believe this. “And then donated generously to Princess Helen.”

  “It would appear so, ma’am.”

  “Well, isn’t that interesting,” I muse, starting to pace, unsure whether I should laugh or be disgusted. “The man just can’t keep it in his pants, can he?”

  “Apparently not. I expect that is why he was trying to contact you. To advise you before you found out from someone else.” I frown, prompting Damon to go on. “He was bewitched by you, I believe.”

  I laugh. “Indeed. So he wanted to explain himself, did he? Thought I would fall into his arms and declare my undying love for the rogue once he’d explained it meant nothing?”

  Damon smiles mildly. “Should I limit damage control?”

  “Was he with his wife at the time?”

  “She was at the event with him, ma’am.”

  I laugh. “How cozy.” He really is a Lothario. A love rat of the worst kind. Whatever was I thinking, falling for his charm that evening at the Opera House? God, he had my sister-in-law before me? My stomach rolls in revulsion.

  I reach up to my forehead and breathe in deeply. “Thank you, Damon.” I head for the door. “I’m sure Rush will be more than compliant if he’s asked nicely to keep his mouth shut.” The man was terrified he’d lose his shining reputation when I was stupid enough to get myself caught up in his web. I doubt very much he’ll drop any surprise announcements, but a quiet word in his ear won’t hurt to ensure his silence. “And if he’s a little uncooperative, perhaps remind him of the photographs we have of him and a certain hooker.” Listen to me. I sound like . . . my father.

  Another deep breath.

  Opening the door, I roll my shoulders and swallow down my apprehension as Olive comes forward with the final touch to my outfit. I take in the sash decorated with the Royal Family Order of my father. “It doesn’t really match what I’m wearing, does it?” I quip, letting her place it over my head and under my arm.

  “It’s a necessity,” Sir Don says what I know, as Kim joins me by the mirror and hands me my purse. “Now, tonight. If you find yourself wanting to move along, be rid of someone, or need the restroom, what is the signal?”

  “I’ll fiddle with the earring in my right ear if I need the ladies’. My left ear if I’m bored out of my mind.”

  I flick my eyes to my reflection and find Sir Don with straight lips. I would love to leave him here with Dr. Goodridge. Alas, I grudgingly accept that that will never happen, not on such an important visit. “Did you catch that, Sir Don? The signal?”

  “I did, ma’am.”

  I smile brightly. “Very good.”

  Looking at her watch and then to Damon, Kim takes a huge breath. “Ready?” Bless her heart. I know this evening is just as big a deal for her, too. Her first outing as private secretary to the Queen. She is probably as bewildered by the sharp turn of my life as I am. And having Sir Don judging her every move won’t help her nerves.

  “Ready.” Damon nods and waits for me to approach before taking his customary hold. Really, his action is highly inappropriate, was when I was a princess, and even more so now I am Queen. But his gesture has always calmed me somewhat. And I know he knows that.

  “Stop being nervous,” he whispers, keeping his focus forward. “It doesn’t suit you.”

  “I can’t help it.” Suddenly, everything about tonight is a little overwhelming.

  “I assure you, they will be more nervous than you. Just be yourself.”

  I laugh. “Really, Damon? That’s exactly what I shouldn’t be. Sir Don is probably mentally praying I don’t screw up.” The man didn’t shut up on the flight, detailing everything I should know about this evening. I can’t deny, though, I didn’t take much in. I was too lost in other thoughts.

  “Says who?” Damon flips me a cheeky wink as we step onto the elevator, and the familiar, comforting sight lessens my nerves a smidgen. He’ll be with me all night, and that alone takes the edge off my nerves. Dipping, he looks left to Kim before whispering in my ear. “If you need a cigarette, just give me the nod and I’ll make it happen. I have mints, anti-bacterial hand gel, and a miniature of your favorite perfume. We’re all set.”

  “My, my.” I chuckle. “You are wasted as my head of protection.”

  He sniffs and straightens to his full, tall height. “One must keep the boss lady happy.”

  I nudge him in the arm with my shoulder, and he grins at the door. “Very funny.”

  “I know. When the elevators open, walk straight ahead, not too quickly, and remember to smile.”

  I nod and take a breath.

  I’m ready for you, world.

  I STILL HAVE BLACK DOTS in my vision when we arrive at the entrance of the White House, blinking over and over again to try and clear them. Outside the hotel was bedlam, the flashes and shouts on an entirely new level to anything I have experienced in England.

  Beyond the grounds of the White House, it was chaotic, endless police cars deployed to contain the crowds. And here inside the grounds, it’s bursting with press, but far more civilized. “Oh gosh,” I breathe, not for the first time wondering why on earth I’m feeling so jittery. I’ve done this all before, not as Queen, granted, but the protocol is pretty much the same. I’m just more important now than I was back then. It’s pressure. Pressure not to give the doubters more reason to doubt me. And then I have to ask myself . . .

  If deep down I don’t want to do this, then why do I truly care?

  The red carpet spilling down the steps of the North Portico of the White House is crisp, not a crease in sight. Members of the US Military flank the doors, all armed, one at the bottom of the steps saluting my car as it slows to a stop. Flashes burst from the press gallery, and the President of the United States stands at the top of the steps, pristine in a black dinner suit, the First Lady
to his side. She could be mistaken for a model, her willowy frame encased in a white gown. She’s twenty years younger than the President, who is approaching fifty.

  “Am I attending a state dinner or a wedding?” I ask quietly, noting a train on her dress that would put to shame the twenty-foot-long train my mother dragged down the aisle on her wedding day. The First Lady is also wearing a tiara, white satin gloves to her elbows, and diamonds dripping from every possible place they could drip.

  “Melitza Paston had her wedding taken care of the second Ed Twaine was tipped to win the election a year ago,” Kim muses. “The country is divided on her. Power-hungry gold-digger, I believe was the latest headline.”

  “But they love him,” I say, watching as the First Lady fidgets on the stairs. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting either of them yet. The last time I was in America, the President was a podgy, balding, cheery man who clearly drank too much if the rose of his cheeks was anything to go by. Ed Twaine, on the other hand, is a rather dashing man, with grey hair and a certain friendly twinkle in his blue eyes.

  The soldiers all shift their guns and a few drill commands are shouted before the reverberations of their boots stamping the ground reach me in the car. Damon exits swiftly, pulling in his suit jacket as he rounds the car, standing back while the saluting soldier opens the door for me. A quick look to the heavens, a deep breath, and I find my smile. I gather the bottom of my dress and step out of the car.

  “When you’re ready, ma’am,” Kim says, motioning to the waiting President and First Lady.

  I take the steps like a pro, gracefully, elegantly, and surprisingly steadily. “Your Majesty,” the President says softly, tilting his head so very slightly. “How wonderful it is to have you here.” I offer my hand, which he takes graciously, his smile making his happy eyes twinkle more.

  “Mr. President, thank you for your kind invitation.”

  “Not at all. Please, this is the First Lady, Melitza.” He sweeps an arm out to his wife.

  Camera flashes go wild behind us as the First Lady offers her hand to me. I feel the President tense, and I think I hear Sir Don sigh. The First Lady obviously realizes her error and quickly retracts her hand. Then she curtseys, and I can do nothing more than watch in stunned disbelief. It’s not just a normal one-foot behind the other and a slight bend at the waist. No. The First Lady gives me a full-on bow, her hands grasping her dress and pulling it out at the sides as she does.

  Oh . . . dear.

  Feeling tremendously awkward, I flick a look to Sir Don, who is clearly as stunned as I am. Straining a smile, I take Melitza’s elbow and encourage her up, aware the cameras are going bonkers behind me, and without doubt, her faux pas will be splashed all over the papers tomorrow. She looks at me, a little startled. “No need to curtsey,” I say, having her dart a confused gaze to the President.

  I can see his despair, though he is trying to conceal it, and his wife mouths a sorry at him.

  I widen my smile, trying to ease the obvious onslaught of embarrassment. “Happens all the time,” I assure her, moving between them when the President motions me there. The flashes are soon in my face from every angle, though it’s all rather calm and controlled as we pose for the waiting press.

  “I hope your journey was pleasant, ma’am,” the President says, motioning us along the red carpet toward the doors.

  “Very good, thank you. Although I’m left wondering what one has to do to get her very own Air Force One.”

  The President laughs, as does his wife, though her delayed chuckles are a sign that she’s not as quick to catch on. “I think the royal tradition of flying British Airways is very charming,” he says as we walk.

  “You fly on a regular plane?” Malitza looks at me like the world has gone mad.

  “I don’t think the royal helicopter would get me here,” I tell her, and for a moment I fear she’s wondering why. “Too far, you see.”

  “Of course.” She smiles, taking her beauty up a few notches, her eyes taking in my gown as we wander through the doors. “Your dress is just stunning.”

  “Thank you.” I look over my shoulder to see Damon, Sir Don, and Kim not far behind, the other members of my entourage having dispersed, except for Olive, who is super vigilant, her eyes watching for anything I may need. I find myself winking at her as she comes to a stop behind me, her eyes just about ready to pop out of her stunned head. She’s gazing around the space like a mesmerized child.

  The President motions for the First Lady to continue through the large double doors as he slows his pace to meet mine. “My deepest condolences on the tragic loss of His Majesty King Alfred and His Royal Highness Prince John.”

  I smile, if a little tightly, yet I am profoundly grateful he took the initiative to include my brother when extending his sympathy. I feel increasingly maddened by the lack of reference to John while the country mourns their King. “Thank you.” We enter a huge room, which I recognize from photographs of my father’s state visit five years ago. The East Room. “One could never even begin to fathom the mysterious workings of God,” I say quietly. Because he put me in the White House this evening with the President of the United States and all these people looking at me like I could walk on water.

  All attention pointing my way, I come to a stop with the President and the First Lady. There must be a hundred people, all dressed to the nines, though none of them upstage the First Lady. Not even me.

  After a man, the curator, I believe, has a few words with the President, I’m invited to meet the line of people to my right, all smiling brightly at me. It’s daunting, and I only realize when I spot an official photographer at the end of the line that my face must tell them all so. I quickly correct my slip-up and glance across to Damon. Eyes on mine, he lifts his chin subtly, prompting mine to lift with it. I smile my thanks and move to the first person in the line.

  The President introduces her, though she needs no introduction. “The Vice President, ma’am.”

  She waits for me to offer my hand and takes it lightly, no over-the-top curtsey, obviously having received the memo on etiquette when greeting a Royal. The one the First Lady missed. “Your Majesty.”

  Over the next half hour, Kim keeps close company as I work my way down the line of congressmen, diplomats, and governors. One thing I have learned in my years of royal engagements is not to try and remember everyone’s name. That isn’t going to change now. It would be impossible. So, if I encounter any of these lovely people again this evening, I will depend on them to reintroduce themselves, which they usually do.

  “And this, ma’am,” the President says, taking me to the very last person in the line, “is Senator Jameson, though I believe you have already had the pleasure.”

  My mouth goes somewhat lax when presented to him, and I lose all brain functionality, forgetting myself for a split second. Hand. Offer him my hand. I know what I should be doing, but my arm simply won’t lift. The Senator must see my struggle, and he must deem it appropriate to break protocol to help me out. I’m grateful.

  Taking my hand from my side, he lifts it to his mouth and rests his lips on the back for just a second before laying his other palm across the top. “I could not be more honored to greet you as Queen. Your father would be so proud.” He affectionately rubs the back of my hand, the sincerity of his words disarming me further. My throat seems to swell, my mind telling me not to blink and encourage the tears currently pinching the back of my eyes to fall.

  Adding to my stupor, every snapshot of my time with Josh stampedes through my mind destructively. I swallow, I clear my throat, I will the tears back. But I can’t talk, can’t possibly get any words past the lump blocking my throat. It’s too much. The Senator’s words, who he is, and not only because he was good friends with my father. And like he knows I’m thinking all of this, he simply nods and passes me to Kim.

  “Ma’am?” Kim’s concerned form crowds me. “What is—?” She recoils, the penny obviously dropping. “Oh.”

&nb
sp; I close my eyes, wishing Kim wasn’t aware of my affair with Josh. She’s also privy to the welts he left on my skin after that fateful night partying at Kellington, even if I didn’t confirm the source of my injuries. “All is well.”

  “Let’s hope his son didn’t get an . . .” Her whisper fades off, and though I’m not looking in the same direction, I know what I’ll see when I do.

  “Please say it isn’t so,” I beg.

  “It’s so.”

  Panic eats me on the spot, locking down every muscle I have. Why didn’t I anticipate this? Why, oh why, did I not see this coming? His father is a senator and good friends with my father. Every country that has a state visit traditionally invites guests that share a connection to the visiting country, so it would be obvious to have Senator Jameson here.

  Don’t look. It is what I am telling myself over and over as I fight to find the will to move when gestured by the President. Any hope I had of finding the strength and poise I need to get through this evening like a real queen is slipping further from my grasp. A week has passed with no contact. For a week, I’ve fought back my thoughts and feelings. For a week, my mind has wandered unstoppably to Josh—where he is, what he is doing. I assumed he was in America, but in Washington? At the White House? Here, now?

  “You need to move along, ma’am,” Kim says quietly. “Sir Don is watching carefully.”

  “Right, yes.”

  “And smile.”

  I realize with Kim’s prompt that my face is lax, all shock, and it is a horrendously huge effort to rectify that. “Of course.” I breathe in and force my lips into something as close to a smile as I can manage.

  “And stop shaking.” Kim looks at me out the corner of her eye, her mouth a line of worry.

  I’m trembling from head to toe, adrenaline and fear making it impossible to stop. “I believe I need the bathroom.” It’s no good. A timeout is imperative, a few moments away from the staring faces so I can pull myself together.

 
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