His true queen, p.15
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       His True Queen, p.15

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  I don’t know whether I’m in awe of Ed, or if I’m jealous. We have more in common than I ever dreamed, but whereas he is brave and doesn’t fold under the pressure, I do. “I know what that pressure feels like.”

  “Oh, I bet you do. I expect they have someone lined up for you to marry without delay.”

  “There has been someone lined up for quite some time now.”

  “Haydon Sampson.” The President confirms what the world knows. “Can I speak frankly, ma’am?”

  “Of course.”

  “The woman before me is spirited, funny, and beautiful. Don’t let them ruin you. Don’t let expectation monopolize on your happiness. The world is a fickle place. Traditions are only traditions if we keep them.”

  I stare at him, unsure if I want to kiss him or cry. “It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it, Mr. President? To do what one pleases.”

  “It doesn’t have to be a thought. And please, call me Ed.”

  “Then you must call me Adeline, Ed.”

  He laughs, a full-on bout of amusement. “I’m afraid I would be ridiculed if I were to do that, ma’am.”

  I hum my agreement, though on the inside, while I’m grateful for his valor, I’m feeling disheartened by our conversation. It’s a shame that breaking tradition will also break my family. “Well, we’re talking frankly, after all.”

  “I’m sorry.” He laughs a little in disbelief. “How inappropriate of me.”

  “We’re still human,” I remind him. “And who says it is inappropriate?”

  “The world, I expect.”

  “Why, because you are the President and I am the Queen?”

  “Well, yes.”

  “But we are also friends,” I point out, and he smiles. “And friends talk about personal things, do they not?”

  “I guess they do.” Toasting my glass with his, he regards me fondly. “You truly are incredible, Your Majesty.”

  His compliment makes me smile, though it’s ironic. Because everything the President seems to admire about me is everything the British Monarchy dislikes. “Thank you,” I murmur.

  He extends the bizarre nature of our first meeting by winking at me. “Welcome.”

  The President of the United States winked at the Queen of England.

  And I like him even more because of it.

  I’VE TALKED TO ENDLESS PEOPLE. From diplomats to well-known movie directors, though our conversations haven’t been nearly as enjoyable as my dinner chitchat with the President. I’ve not once thought about using my secret signals to call in the reinforcements to save me from a conversation. Until now. I reach for my left ear and start fondling with my chandelier earring as a member of congress bores me to tears over a recent bill that’s been passed about gun laws in the South and what it might mean for arms dealers. Basically, he’s disgusted that it’s being proposed to crank down on gun laws. I have plenty to say on the matter, though I realize it will be nothing this idiot wants to hear.

  I spot Kim approaching the table, but the President swoops in beside me, extending his hand in the most gentlemanly fashion. “Would Your Majesty do me the honor?”

  I look up at him, a little struck. “Dance?” I question, just in case I’ve misinterpreted his request.

  “I promise not to step on your toes.”

  On a little laugh, I look to my right where Melitza is seated. It’s not expected for me to ask, but I’m courteous and respectful. She nods on a smile of gratitude that I would seek her approval before entertaining her husband’s request.

  “I would love to,” I say, rising to my feet. As I walk the length of the table, I’m increasingly aware of the fading of chatter, all guests slowly comprehending what is about to transpire. Sir Don catches my eye, breaking away from a crowd of men—politicians, I expect—and eyes me on my journey toward the dance floor. His face straight, he takes a sip of his water, and I look away from his quiet disapproval. I’m going to dance with the President. So what?

  When I reach the dance floor, I take Ed’s offered hand. The big band quietens with our arrival, and I curtsey before Ed as he bows to me. “Just one thing,” I say as he takes me in his hold. “There isn’t much wriggle room in this blessed dress, so please don’t fling me too far.”

  On a deep laugh, he nods to the band and they kick things off with a dramatic drum-roll that has the crowd laughing, as well as me. “Oh my,” I chuckle as Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing fills the room. “Did they purposely choose the most energetic song in their repertoire?”

  “Well, it is a happy occasion.” On a cheeky smile, the President swings me out of his hold until our arms are extended to full length. “Are you ready, Your Majesty?”

  “I don’t know, am I?” I ask on a wry smile as the room erupts into applause.

  “Something tells me you’re ready for anything.”

  I’m pulled back into a light but rather professional hold, and we’re off around the floor, twirling and stepping, laughing and throwing in a few dramatics as we go—the odd forced gasp when I’m twirled out and in again, a few claps of the President’s hands when they are free. The flashes of cameras come as quickly as the beats of music and our steps, our spectators loving every moment of our show. I am too, my smile fixed and genuine, and by the twinkle in Ed’s eyes, he’s also having a wonderful time. There isn’t an inch of floor space we don’t cover. I can’t say I’m a good dancer, and I don’t think I have ever danced like this, with so much energy and enthusiasm. But the President has moves, and I can only hope he’s making me appear to be as good as he is.

  As the music builds toward the end, I brace myself for what I expect will be a spectacular finish. I’m not wrong. I laugh as I’m theatrically tipped back over Ed’s arm and held there until the music stops completely. And then the cheers start, delight drenching the room. He helps me up to standing and bows. “Your energy knows no bounds.” I chuckle, going against the grain and taking his biceps, resting my cheek against his briefly. “Thank you, that was so much fun.”

  “My pleasure.” Taking my hands, he squeezes and smiles, as the band lowers the tone and starts a less vigorous song. “Oh, Fats Waller.” He waggles his eyebrows.

  “Ain’t misbehavin’.”

  The First Lady makes her way onto the floor where many couples have already taken up hold and are twirling around us. “Would you mind?” she asks, eyes shining with nothing but love as she looks at her husband.

  “Not at all.” I lean in and kiss the First Lady on each cheek. “Thank you for loaning him to me.”

  She laughs, light and carefree. “It’s the least I could do for insulting every royal protocol in existence.”

  “Oh, bugger to protocol,” I quip, leaving them to have their dance. It’s easy to smile now, even through my slightly depleted breaths, as I make my way through the crowds of people who are smiling fondly at me as I pass. When I catch Damon and Kim matching the smiles of other guests, something comes over me. I’m never one for feeling embarrassed, but a sudden wave of it attacks me, and I dip my head as I walk, my smile now shy and directed at my feet. I’m only a few paces from the edge of the dance floor—nearly away from all of the attention—when familiar male dress shoes block my path.

  I barely stop in time to avoid colliding with his frame, and my smile drops, as if it has suddenly become too heavy for me to hold. It really has. What is he doing?

  “This song was made for us, Adeline,” Josh whispers quietly, slowly raising his hand in offer.

  I conceal my hard swallow and look up at him, seeing too much pleading in his eyes. I’m aware of the attention on us, of the anticipation of what might happen next. But I would be foolish to give cause for suspicion, because, as I’ve told myself a million times before, the world is watching. Sir Don is watching. For Josh, this is a fuck you to my closest advisor, one of the men behind the attempts to keep Josh away from me. Has Josh no regard for his reputation? They’ll ruin him. “Thank you, but—”

  “Please,” he begs so very
softly. “Don’t make tomorrow’s news be the Queen declining a dance with Josh Jameson.”

  But by avoiding bruising his ego, tomorrow’s news will be the Queen actually dancing with Josh Jameson. I peek left and right, confirming my fears. All attention is on us. “Why are you doing this?” I murmur, and he moves in, taking me in a light hold, one hand on the small of my back, the other claiming my hand. I can’t stop him, not without causing a scene that’ll be more newsworthy than us dancing together.

  “Because desperate men do desperate things.” Our chests compress lightly as Josh starts to lead the way slowly around the floor, and my spare hand has no choice but to rest on his shoulder or dangle in thin air and make me look even more awkward.

  “And desperate women do stupid things.”

  “Are you desperate, Adeline?”

  “Yes, I’m desperate for you to leave me alone.” Just leave me alone so I have a fighting chance of maintaining my calm façade.

  A subtle press of the flat of his palm in my back is a warning. “Stop with the dramatics, Your Majesty. The acting doesn’t wash with me like it does with the rest of the world. Remember who you’re talking to. Who you’re trying to fool.” He pulls me in a fraction, pressing our chests together more. “Your heartbeats say it all.”

  With my mouth only a few inches from his shoulder, I stare at the material of his suit jacket, feeling the surges of my heart. “And you said it all in your suite. Not my calling.”

  “When you love someone, you say stupid things.”

  “You need to stop this.”

  “I’ll never stop.” It’s a promise. “And quit looking so terrified.”

  “I am terrified,” I admit, turning my face a fraction to my left, seeing the dance floor is now full of couples dancing. I force a small smile, anything to fool the spectators that I’m enjoying myself rather than having an epic internal meltdown. My flesh is buzzing, my heart at risk of punching itself free and landing on the dance floor.

  “Why?” He looks at me, his face straight, and all I can think is that he’s looking at me like I am his day and night, and everyone must be concluding the same. So I look away, only just managing to follow his steps.

  “Because I want everything.” The words come naturally, just the simplicity of us touching bringing on my honesty. “I want to protect my family. I want to prove so many people wrong.” I close my eyes briefly and tell Josh what I’m sure he already knows. “And I want you.”

  “I’m yours, Adeline. I was the moment you flashed that sultry smile my way.”

  I didn’t think my heart could beat any faster, yet it proves me wrong. “But you don’t understand me.”

  “I do. And that’s what frightens me most. I know you can do this.” He smoothly turns us when we reach the edge of the floor, flexing his hand on my back. “I shouldn’t have flown off the handle like that. I’m sorry. I’ve been in hell this week, and I’m not going back, so we need to figure this out pretty fuckin’ speedily before I lose my fuckin’ mind.”

  My tummy flips, and the smile I was struggling so hard to find slowly creeps up on me. “Your language is blue.”

  I feel him smile into my hair. “Is that an agreement?”

  “The world is watching, Josh.”

  “But they’re not listening.” He swirls us around, and I catch the President’s eye, but quickly look away when I see he’s a little too curious of my interaction with Josh. “Say yes.”

  “And how do you think we will proceed?”

  “We’ll start in your suite.”

  “Josh, I’m being serious.”

  “So am I. For now, I need reacquainting with what’s mine. Tomorrow, we talk.”

  Words catch in my throat as I try to get them into order. “I can’t have another night with you unless both of us know what is happening between us.”

  “What’s happening between us?” he parrots, sounding a little perplexed. “Isn’t it obvious, Adeline? And it’s already happened. We’re in love. And when two people are in love, they do what it takes to be together.”

  I deflate in his arms a little. Are we back here again? “Josh, what you know about my family and its secrets is the tip of the iceberg. To choose us over them would make me the instigator of my family’s downfall. I can’t do that.” I wish he could understand this. I’m not being difficult. As it stands, it’s hopeless.

  “I know that.” He turns his head slightly so our faces are precariously close. “But I can’t be without you. I’ve tried this week and gone mad. There is no color in my life without you. There is no anticipation or warmth. I’m a man on the edge, Adeline, and my hope that I can fix this is the only thing stopping me from falling.”

  I swallow, closing my eyes and inhaling through my nose, getting a hit of the scent that is perfectly Josh. “What does this mean, Josh?”

  “It means I love you, woman. It means without you, there is no me.” He laughs under his breath when I discreetly nudge him. He knows I didn’t mean that. “It means for now we’ll have to be careful. But we can’t do that on our own.”

  He’s right. There’s no way of ever seeing each other without anyone knowing. “I trust my staff,” I tell him, knowing this is what he is looking for.

  “Explicitly?”

  “Most of them, yes.”

  “Most?”

  “Well, my closest. There are the ones who mustn’t know. Sir Don, for example. David Sampson. In fact, most of my father’s close aides who I inherited. They’re waiting for me to put a step wrong, and frankly, you are more of a dive-off-a-cliff kind of wrong. They’ll eliminate you within the blink of their beady eyes.” I shrug a little when he raises his eyebrows. “I speak nothing but the truth. And the fact I’m currently being whirled around the dance floor by you won’t be helping.”

  “I believe it.” Josh breaks away as the music comes to an end, dazzling me with a smile that isn’t only for my benefit. Sir Don is still watching. I can feel his slitty eyes on my back. “I’ll see you back at your hotel.”

  “How?” I ask quietly as he bows and people start clapping the band.

  “Smile, Adeline,” Josh orders softly, and I peek left and right to see I am once again the center of everyone’s attention. So I smile, curtseying a little in thanks to Josh, trying to look as cool and unaffected as I possibly can.

  Our opportunity to talk anymore is gone. All I can do now is think. And I think I might turn to dust when I spot Kim giving me a very disapproving look from across the room. Sir Don looks plain suspicious. My mind is already conjuring up what I will say to him.

  It was just a dance.

  Yet to me, it was everything. He believes in me.

  GOOD GRIEF, YOU COULD CUT the atmosphere in the car with a knife. I’m just glad Sir Don is following in a car behind, my body safe from his daggers for now. Even poor Olive and Jenny are tense, and they have no idea what they should be tense about. Damon is quiet, and Kim just stares at me from time to time, as if she might be trying to fathom whether I appear insane, or if I actually am insane. Then she’ll go back to her phone and continue typing something out, probably an email to herself drafting her resignation.

  “Well,” I say, my hands on my bag in my lap. “I think that went rather well.” I get completely stonewalled by Kim, and Damon simply flicks his eyes to the rearview mirror briefly, his look telling me I’m wasting my breath. Maybe so, but I cannot stand this awful silence for a moment longer. “The President and the First Lady were such lovely people. So down-to-earth and friendly.”

  “And the man can dance,” Jenny pipes in. “That dance will go down in history.”

  I smile, betting the Internet is already exploding with news of our jaunt around the dance floor at the White House. “I hope I didn’t look like a complete amateur.”

  “Oh, Your Majesty,” Olive swoons, still looking as star-struck as she did when we entered the mansion. “And you danced with Josh Jameson, too.” God bless her, she has no idea she’s just inflated the alr
eady gigantic pink elephant in the car. With all the chaos in my mind, I forgot Olive is an avid fan of Josh Jameson.

  “So I did.” I play it down, flicking cautious eyes at Kim and smiling awkwardly when she gives me the death stare. Oh, for pity’s sake. Is this the silent treatment? Am I being sent to the naughty corner when I arrive at my suite? “I think we’ll have a meeting in the morning,” I say to Kim. “Bright and early over breakfast.”

  “I think that would be very prudent,” she retorts, going back to her phone.

  Part of me wants to ask her who in heaven’s name she thinks she’s talking to. The other part of me knows she is perfectly wise to be worried.

  “We still have a crowd,” Damon says as we roll up to the hotel, prompting me to crane my neck to see.

  “Oh, really? Haven’t they seen enough?”

  “Maybe the paps are hoping for a dance,” Kim flips dryly, turning her phone so I can see the screen. She’s taken the initiative to zoom in on the picture, making it so I don’t have to lean forward to see. How very kind of her. It’s me with the President, midway through a swirl, my head tossed back on a laugh. I’m not close enough to see what is written with the picture, but I expect it is something lovely, since it is a lovely picture. Then Kim swipes left and a picture of me appears again, but this time with Josh. Without thought, I inch forward in my seat. My face. Oh goodness, my face. It’s a picture of uncertainty. My eyes are low, my body visibly tense, and I’m completely crowded by Josh Jameson. The words with this picture, I really need to see, but Damon opens my door and Kim retracts her arm, taking her phone away before I have a chance to see or even ask. My muscles tense. Shit, this is a catastrophe, and I know Sir Don will have been scouring the Internet like Kim. Fabulous. I need to get to my suite and hide myself from all this disapproval.

 
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