His true queen, p.22
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       His True Queen, p.22

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  MY FEET STILL ACHE, BUT I make a point of wearing the highest heels Jenny can find, matching them with a cream Victoria Beckham piece that sits just below my knee with cap sleeves. No cardigan. No tights. No pearls around my neck. “Earrings?” I ask as she spritzes my heavy waves with shine spray.

  “I have just the thing,” Kim says as she enters my suite. She takes me in, her expression reading my mood by my outfit. Formidable. “You look lovely. Seems a shame to waste it on those who won’t appreciate it.” She hands me a small box.

  “What is this?”

  “Something someone gave me to give to you.” Her eyes flick to Jenny, cautious.

  “What?”

  “They’re very lovely.” She turns and heads back out. “I’ll see the men to your office once you’ve had breakfast with Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother.”

  “Thank you,” I say, looking at the box.

  “Go on, then.” Jenny presses. “Open it.”

  I look up at her, thinking, fiddling with the small box in my hands. “Do you mind?” I ask gently, feeling like I perhaps need to be alone. As silly as it may seem, I sense Josh all over this box.

  Jenny doesn’t question my request, of course, backing out of the room, albeit with a definite quizzical look on her face. She wasn’t present when Josh was inconveniently discovered in my hotel suite. I trust Jenny, probably more than Kim, yet caution and fear is warning me to keep those in the know as low as possible.

  Jenny stops at the door, her hand on the doorknob. “I know,” she blurts on a hissed whisper.

  I solidify. “Know what?”

  She quickly checks behind her before shutting the door and scampering over to me. “Forgive me for being so forward, ma’am, but I know about you and Josh Jameson.” She bites her lip and watches my startled face as I try to comprehend what she’s telling me.

  “How?” I breathe, not even thinking to deny it.

  Her whole body deflates, like it is a weight off her shoulders. “After we returned from the White House, I couldn’t sleep. Jetlag, I think. I didn’t want to disturb Olive with my tossing and turning, as we were sharing a room and she was sound asleep, so I went for a wander. I saw Damon carrying you to your room. And Josh Jameson was following.” Her lips quickly form a straight line, as if she’s stopping herself from saying anymore.

  “Oh, I see.” I clear my throat, imagining Jenny’s reaction to her discovery. I need to have a word with Damon. His stealth skills are slipping and now, more than ever, he needs to be top of his game.

  “I’m sorry, I couldn’t keep it in anymore. I won’t tell a soul, I swear, ma’am.”

  “I think that goes without saying, yes?”

  “Of course.” Her eyes drop to the box in my hands, and then return to mine. I know what she is thinking before she speaks. “Is it serious?”

  Serious in the sense of our relationship, or serious in the sense of the consequences? Yes would be the answer to both, though I know Jenny’s angle is the former. Dropping my backside to the edge of the bed, I breathe out heavily. I’ve known Jenny for years, and she has become a great friend during that time. I know I can trust her. “Well, would you consider being in love with someone serious?”

  I see an excited squeal building, but the wretched worry I feel myself is holding her back. It’s very sad it is deemed a worry for a woman to be in love with a man. Especially when she is single, and so is he. Sad and frustrating.

  “You don’t have to tell me what you are thinking,” I say, though she doesn’t know half the reasons why my future with Josh is impossible. Jenny must see me shrinking, because she comes to sit beside me and nudges my arm.

  “Open it.”

  I smile and pull the pretty pink bow loose, and the paper wrapping the box falls away, revealing a little black case. “I’m a little nervous,” I admit, staring at it.

  “As nervous as you were when Haydon Sampson gave you your birthday gift?”

  I laugh. “Goodness, no.” Flipping the small gold catch, I pull open the box as I pull in some air. My inhale catches. “Oh my,” I whisper, blinking away the shards of light that escape from the darkness. A gorgeous pair of diamond earrings are nestled in the velvet cushion. I realize the sentiment the second I decipher that the design of each pretty earring is an M and a Q, the two letters entwined together. “Aren’t they stunning?” I say to Jenny, pulling one out and studying it closely. Truly stunning, and not because they are perfectly cut diamonds. It’s the meaning that is stunning to me.

  “Yes, but what do the letters mean? An M and a Q?”

  “My Queen,” I breathe over the lump in my throat. “They mean, My Queen.”

  “Oh my God.” Jenny’s palm meets her chest, and I look at her, my eyes welling with tears. “Why are you crying?” she asks, looking completely thrown.

  “Because he makes me so happy, and I can’t tell a soul.” I roughly wipe at my face, so furious with myself for letting his gift unearth such a reaction from me. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be.” Jenny smiles softly as she takes the earrings from my shaky hands before I drop them. “Here, let me.” She sweeps my hair over my shoulder and puts them in for me, standing back when she’s done. “Beautiful.”

  I nod, feeling at them in my lobes. I’ll never take them off. Not ever. “How is my face?”

  “Blotchy.” Jenny sets to work refreshing my makeup, putting extra on. I feel like I’m being painted for battle, which is ironic, really. Because I know a battle is on the horizon. I’m just not quite sure what it is I’m defending. “You’re good.”

  Brushing down my cream dress, I square my shoulders and head to meet Mother in the dining room. As I’m wandering down the center of the gallery landing, staff stooping and greeting me as I go, I have a compulsion I can’t fight off. Pulling my camera up on my phone, I stop and lean on the banister, holding my hair away from my face on one side and puckering my lips in a kiss. I snap the picture and send it to Josh.

  I love them. And you. Your Queen x

  As I look up from my mobile, I notice unmistakable surprise on some of the footmen’s faces. “Yes, the Queen just took a selfie,” I say, laughing a little when they nod their approval. “Have a good day.”

  I find Kim faffing with the cutlery on the table when I enter the dining room, checking everything is where it should be. “Mother isn’t here?” As I ask my question, Kim nods past me, and I turn to find her in the doorway behind me. “Mother.” I go to her, quietly noting how sallow she looks. I don’t kiss her formally on the cheek, and instead take her in an uncustomary hug. Although surprised, she embraces me. She’s lost weight; I can feel it.

  “My darling, you are glowing.”

  I can’t return her gesture. I’m a little alarmed by the loss of meat on her bones. Pulling away, I give her a small smile that she returns fondly, reaching for my cheek. Her eyes fall to my ears when her hand shifts my hair. I will my body not to stiffen enough for her to notice, watching her as she brushes across my earring with the dainty tip of her finger. “Pretty,” she says, as simple as that, returning her attention to me. “Shall we eat?” Leaving me a little struck dumb, she glides across to the table and takes a seat. Josh was in the maze when I learned of her affair with Davenport. Of course, I know where the earrings come from as well as the significance of their design. My mother would not. In fact, I doubt anyone but Jenny would know. Although I am somewhat curious why Mother hasn’t mentioned Josh to me since that day.

  While I try to fathom whether she truly believes Josh and I are no longer seeing each other, I watch Mother as she helps herself to a slice of toast and meticulously spreads a thin layer of jam on it. I take a seat as one of the footmen pours our coffees before standing back, waiting for his next job. I give him a subtle nod, telling him to leave, which he does hastily, shutting the door behind him. It’s silent for a time, except for the quiet, ladylike chews of Mother working her way through one corner of her toast. I cast my eyes down the long table and the
endless empty chairs lining it, then around the detailed cornicing of the ceiling. This huge, beautiful space is just one of dozens of rooms at Kellington. All beautiful rooms within a beautiful palace. A beautiful building containing everything ugly.

  “Your trip was successful?” Mother asks, pulling me back to the table. She places her half-eaten slice of toast down and brushes the crumbs off her hands.

  “Yes.” I’m not in the least bit hungry, but I take a slice for myself and start buttering it, just for something to do with my hands. “The President is a truly delightful man.”

  “And you danced with him.”

  Doesn’t she approve? Straining my own smile, I place the toast I buttered on my plate untouched. “I think it went down rather well.”

  “Indeed. He wasn’t the only man you danced with either, I’m told.” She laughs lightly as she picks up her china coffee cup delicately. “You were quite on form, I hear.”

  On form, she hears. From whom? “I believe you must be speaking of Josh Jameson.”

  “Are you seeing him again?”

  I still in my chair, cautious. Isn’t it an awful world when one cannot trust her own mother with her secrets? Lord knows, I am keeping enough of hers. I should be sure of her confidence, yet I am not. She’s grief-stricken, hurt, and desperate to keep us safe from ridicule. And for my sins, I feel the same where she and Eddie are concerned. “I am not seeing him, Mother.”

  Whether she believes me or not, she returns to her toast and resumes picking at the corners.

  “How is Edward?” I ask.

  “Very good.” She’s quick to answer, and I frown, stunned. Not as I understand it. Has she checked up on him at all? I don’t get the opportunity to ask. “I trust you have reconsidered your living arrangements.”

  I slowly lower my cup to the saucer. “Pardon?”

  “Claringdon. It is where you must reside.”

  “I’ve had this discussion with Sir Don already, Mother.”

  “And I don’t think Sir Don reiterated how important it is for you to be at Claringdon. There’s more staff, more space.”

  “I am but a little Queen,” I say with too much sarcasm. “How much space can one need?”

  “More than Kellington has to offer. I won’t enforce much on you, Adeline, but as the Queen of England, you must reside at the official royal residence. You are breaking an age-old tradition if you do not.”

  I breathe in deep and hold it. Tradition? Or rules? I’ve broken more traditions and rules during my short reign than I expect all previous monarchs have combined. “Have it your way.” I relent, far easier than I should. At least Claringdon is vastly larger than Kellington. There are more quiet places, more space to hide. “But I am taking my staff with me.”

  “It is not my way, Adeline,” she says softly. “It is the way of history.” Placing her napkin on the table, she stands. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have a day at the stables arranged.”

  “You’re leaving already?” I ask.

  “Afraid so, my darling.” She breezes out of the dining room without another word, and I reach the solid conclusion that Mother only came here when I requested our breakfast together to have me agree to living at Claringdon. And probably because she was asked to talk some sense into me. Will they see her as the voice of reason where I am concerned? Will they constantly use her as a weapon against me?

  I gently tap my teaspoon on the tablecloth, resting back in my chair. Is my mother now one of them? Now? What am I thinking? When have I ever felt my mother’s support of me? Her position has always been about status, as she confirmed herself, so why would I expect her to simply wish to dine with me? I know she loves me, but her devotion to the throne still comes first. To the Monarchy. Always the Monarchy. Never for me.

  I look at my phone when it chimes, and I smile mildly. My American boy. My secret. Is he now the worst-kept secret?

  Happy you love them. Even happier you love me. I had them commissioned after I spanked your ass in the woods. Would have loved to give them to you myself. It’s after midnight here. Will call you later, baby x

  “That was a quick breakfast.” Kim enters the dining room, carrying a few newspapers, and I can’t deny my skin turns a little cold. Setting them on the table, she looks at me questioningly as I set my phone down.

  “Looks like I’ll be living at Claringdon.”

  “Ah, yes, I do believe that was on today’s agenda,” she says so very casually, making me tilt my head. “It was agreed your desire to remain at Kellington would be seen as detrimental to the Monarchy.”

  I inwardly snort. “Of all the things they could label detrimental, they choose the living arrangements?”

  “Earrings look lovely, by the way.”

  Kim’s statement takes my fingers to my earlobes, and I play with the diamonds thoughtfully. “Mother thought so, too. I think she’s suspicious.”

  “Suspicion is to be expected. He was with you on the day we lost the King, Adeline. You’d be naïve to think you can fool them into believing you and Josh are no more, especially since your little rumba around the White House.”

  I laugh, pouring Kim a coffee. “It was not a rumba, Kim.”

  “No, but it was as sexually charged.”

  My hand falters as I set the coffee pot down, my eyes flicking to hers. Her lips are straight. Damn Josh and his lack of control. “In any case, I must do everything I can to convince them otherwise.” Josh will be Public Enemy No. 1, and I dread to think what they might do to tarnish his reputation. I can’t let that happen because of me. “I feel like my mother is working in cahoots with them.” Something horrid comes to me. Could they be threatening her? Using her past sins as a tool to get what they want? The fact that they don’t want me on the throne is beside the point. On that little detail they are powerless. The way things are going, I will be dancing like a puppet very soon. Lord, I already agreed to Claringdon. Whatever next? Determination begins to heat my veins.

  Kim stands from the table. “Ready?”

  “Do I look ready?”

  “Well, ma’am, your choice of dress screams ready, but the body in it looks a little flat. I suggest you find the Adeline sass pronto before we make it to your office or they will eat you alive. Come on.”

  She’s right. The spiders are creeping back into my head, and I need to be rid of them. I stand on a deep breath and expel it calmly. “It’s going to be a long day, isn’t it?” I’m doomed. Just the thought of taking on one single day is exhausting. I have a whole life of this.

  Kim just smiles, and we walk together toward my office, my mind racing with various scenarios to various matters that will be sprung on me. Control. I must take the control. “Oh, thank goodness they got rid of it,” I say on entering my office, noticing the monstrosity of a portrait has been removed. “I hope they took an axe to it.”

  Kim laughs as I take my chair, my eyes widening at the piles of correspondence covering the surface of my desk. “Don’t worry,” she assures me, pulling more chairs around my desk. “I checked it all this morning. Nothing pressing.”

  “Thank you, Kim.” I open my top drawer and swipe my desk with my forearm, clearing the space.

  “That’s one way to deal with it,” Kim quips dryly, taking her seat. Her hands go to her lap. “Shit, I’m nervous.”

  I frown at her stiff form. “Why?”

  She startles. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud. And I just said shit in front of the Queen.”

  I chuckle, the cobwebs in my mind being burned away by replays of Josh’s vulgar mouth. I would tell Kim not to worry, since my ears have been made to bleed regularly recently by a certain American, but the door knocks and opens, and all of the cobwebs are suddenly back.

  “Your Majesty.” Sir Don puts himself at the end of my desk, David Sampson following closely behind.

  “Sir Don. David.” I nod and motion to the chairs.

  “Your Majesty.” David smiles a smile that could be mistaken as fond, if I didn’t k
now him better. “How lovely you look today.”

  I notice Kim shift as I study him lowering to the chair, my face straight, showing no appreciation for his compliment. He’s on the charm offensive. It won’t wash.

  I wait for Felix to find his seat, looking as uncomfortable as Kim. “I trust you are all well.” I lay my forearms on my desk, sitting forward in my chair, alert. I get a nod or sound of acknowledgment from everyone, before Sir Don clears his throat, ready to launch into his list of things to cover, all of which I’m sure will test me. “I have some questions from The Minister of Works, ma’am.”

  Of course, my coronation will be the first item on his agenda. But what flowers and decorations I will have is not top of my agenda. The Minister of Works will have to wait for the information he needs to create the spectacle the world is waiting for.

  “He has asked me to—”

  “I believe that I would like to lead today’s meeting, Sir Don,” I say, silencing the room and thickening the atmosphere. He lowers his files onto his lap and rests back in his chair, subtly nodding. I stand, maybe to be taller than everyone in the room, or maybe so they can all see how unqueenly my dress is. Maybe it’s both. I need to gain control and maintain it. Walking to the window, I gaze out, thoughtful for a few moments, leaving them waiting for what I may lead with. I know exactly what, and I know Sir Don must be anticipating some kind of backlash from me. I’m simply making them wait for it.

  Slowly turning, I brace my hands on the back of my chair. Sir Don has had years of being controlled by my father. Does he think he can overpower me because I’m female? “I understand there was a certain report in the newspapers regarding my relationship with Haydon Sampson.”

  Silence.

  No one owns up to it. Of course, they wouldn’t. “It was both misleading and inaccurate, and the world would do well to know that.” I look to Kim. “Draft a statement to that effect.”

 
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