His true queen, p.24
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       His True Queen, p.24

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 
“Very good.” I knew they’d work well together, each covering the other’s blind spots.

  “And it was surprisingly nice to have someone to be smug with when the statement went out setting the record straight about you and Haydon.”

  I laugh under my breath. “David and Sir Don still look like they’ve been slapped in the face.”

  “I like that look on them.”

  “Me, too. Did you get hold of Edward?” I ask, running a fingertip over a solid oak console table as we pass. Of course, there is not one speck of dust on the wood.

  “I’m told he is still in bed.”

  “With a gigantic hangover,” I muse.

  “Or he’s avoiding you,” Kim adds, and she is probably right. Kim found a private clinic, one that would be perfect for Eddie, but he didn’t take too kindly to the suggestion when I proposed it over dinner on the last night of my residence at Kellington. Apparently, he hasn’t developed a drinking problem. Apparently, he is perfectly stable. Apparently, he is simply making up for lost time and fun.

  “He hates me.” I fold at the thought. He doesn’t see me as trying to help him, but more telling him what to do. Taking my new role and running with it, I think he said.

  “He doesn’t hate you. He is just a little lost right now. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, and as far as His Royal Highness is concerned, he doesn’t have a problem.”

  “Very true.”

  “I don’t know of many war heroes who party like Prince Edward,” Kim muses, all too casually. “I mean, I thought PTSD was more like depression.”

  I flick my eyes to her as we round the corner, seeing she looks all too casual, too. Of course, no one knows of the true reason behind the throne skipping Eddie, only those who already knew about his illegitimacy prior to my father’s death. But Kim isn’t stupid. Neither is the world, but my right-hand woman obviously feels like she has known me for long enough to subtly pry. She knows it is just thicker smoke and more distorted mirrors.

  Checking we are alone, I pull Kim to a stop and close the space between us. “Kim, you and I both know Eddie isn’t suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

  “Of course I know.” She rolls her eyes. “But I’ve been in royal service long enough to know not to ask.”

  My lips straighten, a really? look passing across my face.

  She shrugs. “It doesn’t stop me from wondering, though.”

  “Wondering out loud?”

  “Sorry.”

  “Don’t be. But trust me, don’t waste your energy wondering. It is past even my comprehension, and I have been unfortunate enough to deal with this family all my life.”

  “As long as you are okay.”

  We start wandering again, and I smile. Okay? I have been back from Washington for three days, and I’ve been drowning in duty. Am I okay? No. I’m not, and with each day that passes, I am being worn down more and more. How long until I’m nothing?

  I look up on a deep breath, trying to refuel on strength, and come to a grinding halt in my heels. “Is this some kind of cruel joke?” I blurt, marching over to the wall.

  “What?” Kim, sounding perplexed, joins me.

  “This.” I throw an arm up at the portrait. “I told them to burn the damn thing.” It’s haunting me, for crying out loud. They must be doing it on purpose. I grimace as I remind myself of my dire state of dress and lack of life in my eyes. This is how they want me to be. All traditional and proper. Dead on the inside. “Urghhhh.” I grab the frame and start yanking at the huge painting, trying to physically rip it from the wall. I’ll burn it myself if I have to, just to be sure it is not going to spring up somewhere else and send me off the deep end. “I want this hideous thing out of the palace,” I shout, wrestling with the frame that refuses to budge.

  “Adeline,” Kim hisses, trying to pull me away. “I’ll get someone to remove it.”

  “I’ve already asked. Twice! Doesn’t my authority around here stand for anything? No one listens. No one respects me.” I’ve finally lost it, my equilibrium tossed to the wind and scattering far and wide, never to be pulled back together. “It’s a damn joke.” I yank hard, and something dislodges, sending me flying back with half the gold frame in my hand.

  “Your Majesty,” Kim yells, shocked, catching my arm to stop me from tumbling to my backside.

  I stabilize myself and drop the piece of wood, brushing my hair out of my face, a little out of breath. I look to my left. Then I look to my right. Over a dozen members of royal staff have come to a standstill, some carrying trays, some carrying files, some carrying nothing. But one thing they are all carrying is a shocked expression. I straighten my shoulders and find my poise, a joke considering they’ve all just witnessed the Queen having an epic meltdown. “Please have this painting removed and burned,” I say calmly, and they all scatter like ants, going about their duties once more. My chin drops to my chest, hopeless. “I can’t even have a meltdown in my own home without being watched and judged.”

  “Maybe hold it in until you get to your private quarters in future,” Kim says, kicking aside the wood I ripped from the wall.

  “I think I’ll go there now.” I leave Kim to fix my mess and take the shortest route I know to my private quarters. A secret passage, one I haven’t used since I was a child. It’s the only quiet, dark, and truly private place around here.

  I pull back the corniced panel at the end of the Picture Gallery and enter the dimly lit passageway. It smells dank, just as I remember, as I walk the cobbled ground to the end where it forks. I smile, a fond memory of my childhood creeping up on me. They’re rare, so I seize it and relish in the reminder of the days when Eddie and I used to play hide and seek in the many secret passages hidden within the walls of the palace.

  I reach a junction where five passages meet, creating a star-like shape. I remember all of the routes, know where each of these passages lead to. Except one. The forbidden passage, the one we never dared venture down as children for fear of our father’s wrath. Nibbling my lip, I pull my phone from my pocket and turn on the torch, shining it down the path. It veers off to the left around fifty meters down, preventing me from seeing more. Before I have made a conscious decision, my feet are walking down the cobbles, following the path. It goes on forever, far longer than I remember the other passages being. Where will this one lead to? Each one of the others lead to various corners of the palace—one to the library, one to the Throne Room, one to the kitchens, and one to what is now my private apartment. But this one? I can’t even get a sense of the direction I’m heading in, the twists and turns too many.

  I finally reach a brick wall, and I feel around the cold stone, looking for any kind of latch or lever. Nothing. So I resort to shining my torch. “Ah.” I spot something at the top right-hand corner and reach up, taking a firm hold. It takes a lot of elbow grease—one can only assume it hasn’t been used for many years—but I eventually feel the decades of dust and dirt giving way, and on one last yank, the secret door opens. I cough and splutter as my nose is hit with the particles of dust that have been dislodged, and I sneeze, not once, but three times. “Bless me,” I splutter, rubbing the end of my nose.

  I step forward and crane my neck around the opening. “Oh my,” I breathe, taking in what I have found. Suited men scurry everywhere, though they aren’t in royal uniform. These men aren’t my staff. A slow grin forms as I slowly understand where I am. It’s part of the open palace, an area of the colossal mansion closed off during the summer months for tourists. This right here is the Blue Room, a huge, iconic space that used to serve as a ballroom before my grandfather, the then King, had it transformed into a gallery for his many paintings, most of which have been restored and rehung for tourists to admire. I quickly put myself back in the damp passageway and secure the door. I can’t help the smile on my face, and as if he has heard my mind going into overdrive, he calls me. I connect the call excitedly. I haven’t spoken to him for two days, his filming schedule and the t
ime difference getting in our way. “Hello.”

  “Hey, darlin’.” God, his voice is the cure for everything. It also makes me miss him all the more. “How . . . ou . . .”

  “Josh?” I say, looking at my phone. Damn it. My service is spotty. I rush down the passageway. “Josh? Can you hear me?”

  “There you are,” he says, and I come to an abrupt stop, hoping I don’t lose him again.

  “Sorry, I have a bad connection.”

  “How you doin’?”

  “Terrible. I miss you, I hate my job, and I just had a meltdown in front of endless staff.”

  “Oh?”

  “It’s just another day in the life of a queen,” I flip casually, keen to move on to less depressing things. “Where are you?”

  “Eating breakfast. You?”

  “I’m in a secret passageway at Claringdon.”

  “Oh, sounds . . . secret. How are you settling in?”

  “I hate it.”

  “Okay, let’s change the subject before you fry yourself with your spitting rage. Tell me what your wonderful mind has been conjuring up for when I land back in the UK.”

  “My original plan isn’t going to work.”

  He’s silent for a few moments. “Not good enough. Why?”

  “I had intended on escaping to Evernmore, but my schedule won’t allow it.”

  “Stupid schedule.”

  “But I think I have another plan,” I tell him, grinning like a mad woman. “Are you listening?”

  “Hit me with it, baby.”

  I smile. God, I’m a bloody genius.

  I CAN’T SAY THE DAYS pass quickly because they don’t. They drag painfully, despite being kept busy with various outings and meetings. By Friday, after being bombarded with the plans of my coronation, I decide I more than need a timeout. More specifically, a whole week in Evernmore with nothing but Josh, me, and absolute privacy. Though I begrudgingly accept I have already waved goodbye to that idea. So I settle for the next best thing. It’s risky, it’s reckless, many would probably call it crazy and undoable. But where Josh is concerned, the risk is worth it, and the recklessness is par for the course for me. I’ll make sure it is doable. I’m about to come out of my skin if I don’t see him soon. To talk to him and be challenged, simply because he likes to spar with me, not because he wants to contest me. To learn more about him and what his hopes are for the future. To laugh, so uninhibited. To just be . . . me.

  Making a hasty exit from my office, leaving Sir Don, David, Davenport, and Kim all watching in surprise at my speedy exit, I dash down the hallway.

  “Your Majesty,” David calls, coming after me. “Wait.”

  My face screws up as I pull to a gradual stop, allowing him to catch up with me. “Am I keeping you?” he asks as he rounds me.

  Yes! “Not at all, David.” I smile, and it is a strain. Being cornered alone with either Sir Don or David, without the support of my newest confidant Davenport, is always a worry. I always expect they will again attempt to browbeat me into submission where my relationship status is concerned. “What can I do for you?”

  On a slap-worthy smile, he slips his hands halfway into his waistcoat pockets. I can’t help but think he looks like a begging dog. “Dinner this evening, I am very much looking forward to it.”

  I’m sure I growl under my breath. “Dinner?” I believed I’d effectively cancelled my dinner with the Sampsons when I sent out the statement putting the public straight about Haydon and me.

  “Yes, as arranged.”

  “By whom?”

  He laughs a little. “Well, you, ma’am. Just yesterday after we returned from the opening of parliament. Since we lost His Majesty and Prince John, the family hasn’t dined together. We should come together. Support each other.”

  The family? Oh, the man infuriates me. I think hard back to yesterday, yet I cannot locate the conversation David is speaking of. It shouldn’t be a surprise. My brain was completely numb after listening to politicians outline their plans for the parliamentary year. Highly unprofessional, I realize, but I was distracted by thoughts of Josh and the fact that I get to see him today. And I should be shown a little forgiveness, since every single day I have been full steam ahead with a job I despise. Yes, I won’t allow myself to feel guilty for thinking of my secret, hot, god of an American lover while the head of the Conservative Party was talking about the National Health Service. About it being stretched to snapping point and what their plans are to rectify that. I plan on being stretched soon, by Josh, and I know there will be a snapping point. “Dinner this evening,” I muse, frantically searching for a reason to wriggle my way out of it.

  “Everyone is so looking forward to it.”

  I smile tightly. “Indeed.”

  “Everything okay, ma’am?” Davenport appears from my office, eyeing David with the wariness he deserves.

  “Yes, David was reminding me of the dinner arrangements this evening.”

  “Oh?” Davenport says, for the first time making me wonder if I’m being tricked. Maybe I didn’t agree. Maybe David went right on ahead and arranged this evening’s get together without my agreement, and now he is using my absentmindedness against me. “I don’t recall any dinner arrangements.”

  The look David fires at Davenport only further confirms my fear. “I don’t believe you were present or invited.”

  “Would you like to join us, Major?” I ask, if only to irritate David. I have no intention of going myself. I just haven’t figured out how I’m going to get out of it.

  “That would be lovely, ma’am.”

  “Wonderful.” I smile.

  “I’m sure Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother will be thrilled to see you,” David says through gritted teeth, aware that with Davenport around the table, too, his scope to resume his mission to try and convince me to wed his son will be limited, if not diminished completely. I would tell him there will be no chance to convince me, anyway, because there will be no dinner this evening—I plan on finding Kim as soon as is reasonably possible and have her cancel it—but I’m rather enjoying David’s testiness. His nerve to mention such a sore, private matter in pure, obvious spite has me stepping forward and leveling him with a deadly glare, one I am sure would turn him to dust if he were not such a hard-hearted arsehole. “That is all,” I say simply, dismissing him in the most abrupt manner.

  As he slinks away, I peek out the corner of my eye to Davenport, and I hate seeing the pain in his eyes—pain he is trying so hard to conceal with contempt. I know he hasn’t so much as seen Mother since he returned as my private secretary, and I know that because he has been stuck to my side. He’s taking his new role very seriously, seems to have something to prove.

  “Major, I’m feeling a tad queasy,” I say, rubbing my stomach, hoping I look as convincing as I sound.

  “A side effect of your run-in with David Sampson, I expect,” he quips dryly, refusing to look at me. Maybe because he knows what I’ll see in his eyes. It’s too late. I have already seen.

  “Would you inform everyone I don’t wish to be disturbed?” My plan is coming together piece by piece.

  Now, he looks me over with a little concern. “Should I call Dr. Goodridge?”

  “No, no.” I falsely strain a smile, making it look like it takes too much energy. “I’m sure some rest will work wonders.”

  “Very well.”

  “Why don’t you go and see Dolly?” I suggest, a little conniving. Mother has spent endless hours sitting with Dolly while my cook has pottered around the kitchen. I think she likes the company, her other chef far less friendly, and Dolly would never dream of turning my mother away from the kitchen. Only yesterday I found her helping stir a cake mixture. She looked like she was in her element, and it was a pleasure to see. Hopefully Dolly is making cakes again today.

  Davenport can’t hide his knowing smile. He knows my game. “I must say, now that I think about it, I am rather hungry.”

  “Good,” I chirp, a little too happily f
or someone who is supposedly unwell. I drop my smile and turn on my heels. “Please, excuse me.” I hold on to my tummy all the way to the other end of the room, before quickly checking over my shoulder. Davenport has gone. I drop my hand from my stomach and pick up my pace, darting toward the secret door. As soon as I am safely inside, I call Josh.

  “You’d better get your ass in gear, Adeline. I’m starting to be recognized.” He sounds a little panicked, but I did warn him the risk would be worth the reward.

  I pick up my pace. “My service might drop. I’ll call you back if it does. Where are you?”

  “By the disgusting yellow couch thing you said to be at five minutes ago. The tour is moving on, and I’m lingering like I want to do bad things to the yellow couch.”

  I chuckle. “I’m nearly there.”

  “Nearly where? Here?” He sounds so shocked, and it makes me smile. “When you told me to be in this spot, I thought Damon was going to be here.”

  “Damon doesn’t know you are here. Nobody knows.” It’s the safest way. Plus, no one can stop me if Josh is already in the palace.

  “Then how . . . ?”

  “Just wait. Is it very busy?”

  “Yeah, these people love all your royal shit. One Chinese dude even claimed to be marrying you.”

  Snorting down the line, I take a sharp right and follow the passageway. “How badly did you want to tell him that I belonged to you?” I grin like a fool, following my feet as quickly as I can.

  “Badly. You know, this yellow couch looks like someone spewed all over it.”

  “It’s Elizabethan and belonged to the only other unmarried queen in English history.” I reach the brick wall and feel up to the right-hand corner.

  “Does that mean you’ll get a puke couch? Because if so, I ain’t fuckin’ you on it.”

  “Behave.” I laugh as I gently ease the door open, just a fraction, and peek through the gap. I spot him and Bates immediately. Josh’s head is covered in a cap, and his body sporting a leather jacket with the collar flipped up. His jeans are ripped. He has spectacles on. If he’s trying to disguise himself, he’s failing. He looks every inch the Hollywood star he is. “Hey,” I whisper down the line, watching as Josh glances around him.

 
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