His true queen, p.16
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       His True Queen, p.16

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  As I exit the car and Damon guides me into the hotel, I hardly notice the throngs of people or the cameras flashing, my mind too occupied with what the article said. “Okay?” Damon asks as we board the elevator, everyone else following close behind.

  I look at him, in a bit of a mind spin. “I think so,” I answer, looking at my purse when I feel my mobile phone vibrate from within. I know better than to find it. That can wait until I have some privacy.

  “You looked like a true queen on that dance floor, ma’am,” Damon says quietly, as if he could be worried Kim or Sir Don may hear him. “Majestic.”

  “You are getting soppy in your old age,” I tease, but I’m once again thanking the heavens for my Damon. Whatever would I do without him to pick me up when I’m down? To encourage me onward and truly look out for me. Not because he is paid to, but because he really actually cares. He smirks, his attention on the backs of the heads before us, as we are carried to my floor. “How’s Mandy?” I ask.

  “Wonderful,” He glances at his watch. “I’ll be able to call her in a few hours. She misses me.”

  It must be such a strain to be apart. I know firsthand, because being away from Josh hurt like nothing else, and I haven’t known him for a fraction of the time that Damon has known his wife.

  Josh.

  My urgency increases somewhat with the thought of him, and I will everyone to hurry and get off the elevator once the doors are open. I’m hustled down the corridor and as soon as the doors to my suite are open, I head straight for my bedroom, leaving everyone behind to do whatever it is they’re going to do. Disperse to their own rooms, probably. Except for Damon and his men. They’ll do shifts throughout the night. But no one will relax until I’m tucked in safe and tight. And I plan for that to be very quickly. Or, at least, I plan for them to think I am tucked in safe and tight.

  I reach the door and turn to close it, meeting Kim nose to nose. She is clearly on a mission. “Breakfast,” I remind her sweetly, making her lips twist, annoyed. “Eight.”

  “Should I arrange for that to be a private affair?”

  “I think that will be wise,” I say with utter finality, just in case she tries to instigate the conversation I do not want to have, not now nor in the morning. But by morning I will have at least prepared some words of assurance. But now? My brain is mush. I couldn’t possibly muster the strength clearly essential to appease Kim. Yet I know I need to say something. “And if Sir Don happens to press you before we speak in the morning, I’m sure you’ll assure him that there is nothing between Mr. Jameson and me. Because, of course, there isn’t.”

  Her mouth now straight, she takes one step back. “Of course, ma’am.”

  “Very good. Good night.”

  “You need help undressing, ma’am?”

  I see Olive and Jenny approaching behind Kim, ready to help me out of my dress and get this tiara off my head. “I’ll manage just fine on my own.” I smile to them both. “You’ve been a marvelous help all day. You should get some rest.” I close the door between us quickly and turn to face my empty room.

  Empty.

  Blissful.

  Away from the disdain.

  I sigh and lean against the wood, relishing the sound of silence. Until my phone breaks it. And I remember . . .

  Hurrying to my bed, I perch on the side and pull my mobile from my purse, finding a message from Josh. There’s only a link, and I know what it’ll lead me to before I click it and a webpage opens. The picture Kim showed me in the car, the one of Josh and me, is the first thing I see. Goodness, seeing it this closely, it’s obvious how uneasy I felt. I look like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Fitting, since that is how I felt. Below is another picture, this one at a slightly different angle, showing the profiles of our faces, our noses close to one another’s. This must be later on in the dance, when I had relaxed a little. My fingertips meet my lips when I read the headline.

  We think they make the most gorgeous couple! What do you think?

  “Oh my gosh.” I keep scrolling through the reams of pictures, all Josh and me. There’s not one of the President and me, not on this media page, anyway. When I finally reach the end of the album dedicated to us, I go on to read the short passage detailing the state dinner at the White House, how I danced with the President before Josh Jameson swooped me off my feet. My eyes bug when the journalist mentions how precariously close Josh’s hand was to my backside. And then my mouth drops open when they mention that Josh’s new mystery woman might not be all too pleased with the story these pictures tell. I can’t decide whether that’s a good or terribly bad thing. It doesn’t take me long to conclude that it’s the latter. Regardless of the fact that they’re still intrigued by the mystery woman that Josh was pictured hiding under a hoodie outside The Dorchester weeks ago, they’re also intrigued by these pictures.

  In complete exasperation, I drop my phone and flop back on the bed. “A disaster,” I say to the ceiling. I should have politely declined Josh and made a sharp exit from the floor. Well, I did try, at least. I can’t be held accountable for this media circus. But I know I will be. Sir Don, David Sampson, and everyone else here to supposedly support my reign have been waiting for me to put a step wrong. I didn’t simply put one step wrong. I put a million wrong, all around the dance floor of the East Room at the White House.

  Dragging myself up off the bed, I go to the mirror and give my reflection a thorough telling off as I remove my earrings. I will be sure to reprimand Josh, too. He must have known this would happen. I reach up to my head to remove my heavy tiara, but my fingers pause as they come to rest on the diamonds. Josh told me he’d see me here. Do I undress? Change into something more comfortable? Or stay as I am? And how in the name of God will he sneak in here when I have Damon and his army guarding the door? I also expect Kim will be on the prowl. Not to mention Sir Don.

  So what do I do? Picking up the bottom of my dress, I hurry back to the bed and find my phone. I don’t call him for fear of listening ears, so I text him to ask whether I should change or not. His answer is quick and to the point.

  Stay in that stunning dress. AND the tiara.

  “Oh,” I say to myself, frowning at the screen. “But it’s so heavy.” Reaching up, I flex my neck a little. Now that I’m not distracted, the weight of it is becoming a burden.

  And how long must I wait here?

  As I go to click send, there’s a light rap on the door. “Ma’am?” Damon calls softly. “May I come in?”

  “Of course,” I say, his head popping around the wood soon after. “What is it?”

  He pushes his way into the room. “You have been summoned, ma’am.”

  “By whom?” I ask indignantly. Oh God, is Sir Don waiting to grill me? What will I say? My mind races with excuses. Maybe I argue that Josh is seeing someone else. That article I just read mentioned Josh’s mystery woman. Will Sir Don buy it? I should laugh at myself. Of course he won’t buy it. He knows the woman that was hustled into the hotel under Josh’s hoodie was me. He was in Evernmore on that fateful day I let my emotions get the better of me and blurted about my relationship with Josh. God, what have I done?

  On a cock of his head, Damon lets a small smile curve the edges of his mouth. “I don’t believe there is anyone with the power to summon you, Your Majesty,” he says, reminding me of who I am. Of course. What was I thinking? It is me who does the summoning now. “Except one person, of course,” Damon finishes.

  I recoil a tiny bit, unsure, excited . . . breathless.

  Josh.

  “Where?”

  “I believe that part is a surprise.”

  “That’s ridiculous.” I laugh. “I’m a hostage in this hotel unless I want the world to see me leaving.”

  “Do you need your bag?” Damon asks, ignoring my uncertainty and moving into my room to collect if off the bed.

  “You tell me,” I reply. “Since you are clearly privy to what is unfolding.”

  “Maybe you’d like to reapply some
lipstick?”

  “Jenny has my lipstick.” I scold myself for not thinking to seize the makeup I’ve worn tonight from Jenny. “Wait.” I make a mad dash for the bathroom. “I think I have a similar shade in here somewhere.” Like a frantic woman, I scrounge through the various bags in my bathroom. “Aha!” I hold up the lipstick victoriously. “I have it.”

  “Very good, ma’am,” Damon calls dryly. “Now, not to rush you, but we’re on a bit of a time constraint.”

  “We are?” I put myself in the mirror and assess what is before me. Damon is right. My lips have no color. That must have been the anxious chewing on them. Pulling off the lid of my lipstick, I lean into the mirror to repaint my lips, going straight out of the line the moment the color touches them. “Drat,” I curse, snatching some tissue paper to wipe up my mess. “Won’t be long,” I call, my second attempt no better. I’m shaking. It could be nerves; it could be excitement. What has he got planned for us?

  I do my very best to get my lipstick even, but I don’t spend too much time ensuring it is. The clock is ticking. “Ready,” I declare, emerging from the bathroom. “Now what?”

  “Now you come with me.” Collecting me, Damon walks us to the door and looks out cautiously.

  “Where is Kim? And Sir Don?”

  “In their rooms.” Encouraging me out, we tiptoe through the suite, and Damon takes the door handle lightly, tense and cringing as he turns it. I’m skittish, constantly glancing over my shoulder for anyone who may rumble our escape mission.

  “Where are all of your men?” I whisper.

  “I think the less people who know, the better, don’t you?”

  “Yes, indeed,” I agree quickly.

  We sneak out of the door, and Damon closes it quietly behind us. And then he breathes out a relieved breath that has me suppressing a chuckle. And in the process of suppressing it, I snort. “Oh my.” I quickly cover my mouth, surprised by the very unladylike sound.

  “Did you just snort?” Damon asks, clearly shocked, too.

  “You know, I believe I did.”

  There’s a few seconds silence, while Damon stares at me, stunned. Then he falls apart before my very eyes, doing a terrible job of retaining his laughter. The sight is really something to behold. I’ve never seen him so tickled pink, and it’s got my own laughs coming harder. “Quick,” he splutters, hurrying me down the corridor as we laugh like crazy people, both doing terrible jobs of keeping quiet. He takes us past the elevator and into a stairwell, and only then do I find the will to pull myself together.

  “Oh, I’ve never laughed so much,” I admit, drinking down air as Damon works to get himself back in check, constantly letting out little bursts of chuckles as he does.

  Once we’ve both settled, he indicates the way down the stairs. “There’s a fair few flights, but it’s the safest route.”

  “Why are you doing this, Damon?” He’s going above and beyond.

  His smile is soft and fond. “Because, Your Majesty, I think you need to experience both worlds that are on offer to you. To their fullest. Both highs and lows, everything there could be. Only then can you truly decide which one to choose.”

  I stare blankly at him, taken aback, the signs of a lump forming in my throat. I have no idea what to say. So I say nothing and walk into his chest, giving him a hug I hope tells him how grateful I am. He knows which world I truly want. I think he’s telling me in his own little way that I can’t have both. I know he’s right, but in this moment, I can’t think past the fact that the man I love is waiting for me somewhere, and Damon is going to get me to him safely. “You are a very special man, Damon.” I smile into his suit when I feel his big arms wrap around me. “Your wife is a very lucky lady.”

  “I know. I tell her all the time.”

  I sniffle on a chuckle and break away from him, knowing he’s not all too comfortable no matter how much he humors me. “I can’t be with Josh without hurting everyone I love.” I tell him what he already knows, and he just smiles in that way he does, telling me he understands.

  “Would you rather I didn’t encourage situations like this?”

  I don’t answer that. I don’t need to. I can’t tell him to deprive me of the one thing that keeps me functioning, no more than I seem to be able to deprive myself. “How many floors did you say?” I ask, changing the subject. There’s no point continuing, since we won’t reach a resolution.

  “A few. Want a piggyback?” He’s joking, though he might not be laughing when I take him up on his offer. “I think I’ll manage,” I reply, starting down the stairs.

  Five minutes later, I’m struggling. “My toes are pinching,” I complain as we take the final few steps.

  “After all that dancing you did tonight, you’re going to complain about a few stairs?”

  “Ha ha.” I give Damon an epic eye-roll before he looks out the door. “Okay, nice and quick.”

  We scamper into the lobby, Damon’s eyes ever watchful, though there is not a soul in sight. Not one person. I realize it is very late, but it is a hotel, after all. Most of the guests may be tucked up in their beds, but you can always expect the odd one or two floating around. Not to mention the night staff. “Where is everyone?”

  “Lost for two more minutes with the help of management.”

  Just as he utters the words, I spy someone. “Oh no,” I breathe as Damon yanks me behind a pillar. “What is Dr. Goodridge doing up at this time?” I hiss.

  “Your guess is as good as mine.” He looks around the corner vigilantly. “He’s on a call.”

  “Whoever to?” The old man has never married, has no family. His life, like most royal servants from his era, has been dedicated to the Monarch.

  “I don’t know, Your Majesty. I can’t hear.” Damon ushers me along quickly. “In.” He wraps his arm around my back as he holds a door open and applies pressure to encourage me through.

  I gaze around the empty space, a little lost. “The bar?” A fire is dancing on the other side of the room, the flames framed with a rich, glossy wooden fireplace. I hear the doors close behind me. “What am I doing here, Damon?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer, and I turn to see him through the glass panels of the huge wooden doors. On a slightly raised brow, he pulls across some sheer curtains, hiding me. I frown as I slowly pivot to face the room once more. I’m alone, nothing but me and the sounds of the fire crackling. Elaborate, heavy claret curtains frame each window, perfectly set in a swags-and-tails style, never to be drawn. More sheer material hangs within them, blocking out the world beyond. Rich, wooden chairs upholstered in cream for the seats and claret for the backs are set perfectly around each table, and the barstools lining the prominent arched bar match. I’ve stayed at the St. Regis many times, but never have I been in the hotel bar. It’s warm and cozy, despite being very large. And at gone midnight, it is empty aside from me. Even I know that at this time, there is always someone in the bar of a hotel having a nightcap. So where is everyone?

  I pout, wondering what I’m supposed to do. Just as I decide to call Josh, I hear movement, just a muffled shift of something—feet, perhaps—and I take a few more steps into the room, searching the far corners. My ability to breathe is stolen from me when I see Josh sitting in one of the chairs, a glass of Scotch in his hand. He’s watching me, has been all this time while I’ve been taking in my surroundings. Goosebumps tickle my skin, erupting into constant prickles of anticipation. He’s still in his dress suit, looking obscenely handsome, but a little something has been added to his attire. Something I recognize. I latch onto my bottom lip as I lift my eyes from the little pink hanky stuffed into his breast pocket, finding his wild eyes again. I would go to him if my legs were not listless and useless. I would talk if I could find my tongue.

  Keeping me in place with his fierce gaze, he finishes the last of his Scotch and sets the tumbler lightly on the table before rising from the chair. His hands slip into his pockets and he takes slow, measured steps toward me, doing what Josh Jameson does best. He
makes me impatient and desperate. His smile glows, growing the closer he gets until we are body to body. Taking me in his hold, just the same as at the White House, he remains still for a few seconds, and then the voice of Fats Waller joins us.

  “You think you can relax now the world isn’t watching?” he asks quietly.

  I’m so happy, I could cry. “I think so.” I make a point of holding him firmly, something I could not do only a few hours ago.

  “Good. And I get to hold the royal ass I adore.” His hand falls to my bottom, cupping it over the smooth black satin of my dress. He gives it a little squeeze, and I give him a mock disapproving expression that he completely ignores. “I also get to do this.” He kisses me deeply, lifting me to my tippy-toes as Ain’t Misbehavin’ plays softly around us. Our reunion isn’t as frantic as I would have expected, given how much I’ve missed him. But it is as intense as always, our tongues softly dancing and exploring each other’s mouths, his palm slipping to my nape and holding me as close as he can get me. And we kiss forever, catching up on lost time. It’s times like these the weight on my shoulders lifts, and I’m free as a bird, content and untroubled. I’m not who I really am, but a woman allowed to be in love with a man who is besotted with her. Is there a way? Can I truly have everything? Can I be with Josh and maintain the Monarchy’s carefully constructed façade?

  I don’t mean for my lips to falter on his. I don’t mean to flinch. But it’s inevitable when I silently admit the answer to my questions is a solid no. My compliant position on the throne is the only thing keeping all of the nasty secrets locked away.

  “Stop it,” he whispers, withdrawing a little so we’re no longer kissing, but our mouths are still touching. “I didn’t go to all this trouble so you could sulk.”

  I snap myself out of it and tell myself I need to live in the moment, as I always have where Josh is concerned. There should be no thoughts of tomorrow; it’s all about right now. And right now is perfect. “We’re alone,” I say, forsaking the comforting sight of Josh to take in the sumptuous bar once more. “How did you manage this?”

 
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