His true queen, p.27
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       His True Queen, p.27

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  I toss a frown at Josh. I haven’t the foggiest idea what Kim is talking about. Guests? Waiting?

  “Who?” Josh mouths, and I shrug.

  “Who? I’m not expecting any guests.”

  There’s a slight pause, Kim possibly looking at the wood between us with an almighty frown, and then . . .

  “Oh bloody hell.” It comes to me. The dinner plans that David insisted I approved, and I know for certain I did not. I forgot to tell Kim to cancel. And now they’re here. “Oh, bloody, bloody hell.”

  “What?” Josh hisses across the room, impatient.

  “I assume it’s come back to you, ma’am,” Kim says sardonically. “And I thought you would be pleased to hear that His Royal Highness Prince Edward has arrived.”

  “He has?”

  “Yes, and Jenny is on her way up to help you get ready.”

  “No!” I yell without thinking. “I mean . . .” God, bloody hell. There’s simply no possible way I can refuse Jenny’s help this evening, not for such a dinner, and not without raising all kinds of suspicions. “I’m just taking a shower.”

  “Just?”

  “I was asleep,” I spit back in defense, sagging against the door. I can’t believe this. “Tell her to wait for me in the sitting room.”

  “As you wish,” Kim sighs, and soon after I hear her low court heels hit the wooden floor in the foyer of my apartment.

  “Oh God.” I sprint across the bedroom to my bathroom and land in front of the mirror, hearing Josh calling me as I go. My hair is damp, my skin makeup free, and I haven’t even applied any moisturizer. I’m a blank canvas, yes, but it takes time to make a blank canvas something other than blank.

  “Will you tell me what the hell is going on?” Josh appears in the reflection of the mirror at the bathroom door.

  “I have guests for dinner tonight,” I explain. “I didn’t arrange it, David bloody Sampson did, and I forgot to tell Kim to cancel it this afternoon.” I glare at him in the reflection. “Because I was distracted.”

  “Hold up.” Josh looks apprehensive, and he has every right to. “Sampson? That tally-ho motherfucker arranged this? But you told me you dealt with this supposed dinner.”

  “I did. Apparently another was arranged.” My lips twist. I know what’s coming next.

  “Will he be there?”

  I keep quiet, not needing to answer. Of course Haydon will be there. Worryingly, and infuriatingly, I suspect David has not yet given up on his quest.

  “Fuckin’ great.” Josh turns and marches away. “So you expect me to sit up here while you’re down there with that cocksucker licking your fuckin’ ass.”

  I follow him on light feet. “You could practice your script.”

  I get the death stare thrown my way as he lands heavily on my bed. It’s completely warranted, since I just gave Josh such a tough time over a sexy scene in a movie. “If he so much as touches you, I’ll know.”

  I can’t help my chuckle. “Baby, no one can touch me,” I say, avoiding mentioning the fact that Haydon hasn’t seemed to pay much regard for that protocol since my succession. But he will when I correct him. And I will correct him.

  Josh’s eyebrow hitches slightly, and I watch as it slowly dawns on him. “No one can touch you because you’re the Queen,” he murmurs.

  “Because I am the Queen,” I confirm, making it trickier for him to hide his grin.

  “I can touch you.” He relaxes a bit, his stress leaving his strung body. “I can do what the hell I like to you.”

  “I can see this pleases you.”

  “Oh, it does.” He grabs his phone and dials someone, holding it to his ear. “But just in case.”

  “Who are you calling?”

  He dismisses me by looking away. “Damon, it’s Josh.”

  What? I shoot across the room and dive on the bed, trying to seize his phone. I get held at arm’s length with ease.

  “She’s having dinner. A lovely family affair. Watch her. Or more importantly, watch Haydon Sampson.”

  I bat and smack Josh’s hands away, dying to yell at him, but knowing I’ll give myself away if I do. Damon will wring my neck if he knows I’m hiding Josh in my private quarters.

  “What?” Josh turns his eyes back to mine. “It’s your night off,” he mimics.

  “Oh, I forgot,” I chirp without thought, realizing my error the moment it’s tumbled from my stupid mouth. I slap my palm over my lips. Oh no.

  “Yes, I’m with her.” Josh gives Damon what he wants with no fight. “No, I’m at the palace.” He starts shaking his head as I drop my head in despair. “She doesn’t look like she’s in the talking mood.”

  I start shaking my head, too, agreeing with him. I’m a dead woman.

  “Will do.” Josh hangs up and drops his phone. “You’re in deep shit, Your Majesty.”

  “Why did you call him?” I ask, annoyed, diverting the blame to Josh, since, metaphorically speaking, it is entirely his fault. “Damn it, Josh, he will have my guts for garters.”

  “No idea what that means.” He laughs, snatching his script up and burying his face in it. “What’s the problem, anyway? He was in Washington. He knows about us, that we’re sneaking around seeing each other. He’s set most of our sneaky meetings up, for fuck’s sake.”

  “Josh, look around you.” I stomp my way to the bathroom and start haphazardly, and very angrily, slapping makeup on my face. “You are in Claringdon Palace. I put you in here, and that is a step past reckless that Damon will skin me alive for. The reason he wants to know everything, why he helps, is so he can ensure my protection.”

  “You’re in the palace,” he shouts from the bed. “What the hell can happen to you in here?”

  As I rub foundation onto my cheeks, I take myself to the door so he can see me. So he can see how serious I am. “There’s more danger to me within these walls than there is outside of them, Josh.” I pull my hands away and regard him closely as my words sink in. Remorse soon replaces his sightedness. He understands. I didn’t tell Damon because he would never have allowed it. In the outside world, he’s protecting me from the media, which in turn protects me from them. In here, he’s protecting me from them and them alone, and I am dancing dangerously close to the fire right now.

  Without another word and leaving Josh on the bed with his realization, I back into the bathroom and resume getting ready. By the time I’ve mindlessly finished my eye makeup, Josh has found the will and courage to come find me. He looks full to the brim with remorse. I brace my hands on the edge of the sink, staring at him in the reflection as he stares at me.

  “Adeline, can you even comprehend how it feels to know there is something I can’t protect the woman I love from? Not because I physically can’t, but because she won’t let me?”

  I feel for him, his despondency decorating him like a badge for the world to see. “I don’t need protecting, Josh.” My swallow is lumpy. “I just need loving.”

  His shoulders drop, and he comes to me, turning me away from the mirror and pulling me in for a hug. “That bit comes naturally, Adeline. Everything else doesn’t.”

  “I can handle myself,” I say, squeezing him with equal force. I don’t confess the very reason I can handle myself is because he gives me the strength. “You know that.”

  “Oh, I know that.” I’m released, and I know it kills him. Dropping a kiss on my forehead, he sighs through it. “You’d better get your ass moving.”

  He turns and leaves me to finish getting ready, his feet dragging, his shoulders low. I hate this look on him. And my horrible circumstances put it there.

  THE MOMENT I MAKE MY entrance into the huge dining room, I realize what I have walked into. A trap would describe it best. This is the cozy family dinner that was reported in the press, between Haydon’s family and mine. The one I vetoed. This is the dinner that is, apparently, the first steppingstone to our engagement. I stare down the length of table lined with my family, including Aunt Victoria, her husband, Phillip, and my c
ousin Matilda. And on the other side, Uncle Stephan, his wife, Sarah, David Sampson, Haydon, and Sabina. Oh, and Dr. Goodridge, too. Despite my request, I know someone has called him because he’s immediately assessing me, looking for what may be wrong. There’s nothing the old man can give me to cure what I have. Irritation. Fury.

  Everyone stands when my arrival is announced, surprisingly Eddie, too, who looks gaunt, his skin sallow. The sight of him, my habitually bright and breezy brother looking lost and angry, breaks my heart. He could have refused this dinner, yet he hasn’t, and deep down in my heart of hearts, I know it is because he loves me. He wants to be here for me when he’s probably suspicious that attempts are going to be made to twist my arm into marriage. Again. He’s always liked Haydon, but he has equally always accepted he is not the man for me. My brother is the only reason I don’t turn and walk out. Knowing he is here, and Josh is waiting for me in my private quarters, replaces some of my irritation with fortitude.

  I give Eddie a small smile as I make my way to the table, hoping he reads my gratitude. Victoria and Phillip’s poorly hidden looks of disgrace follow my path the entire way, though I don’t acknowledge their disdain. I truly cannot be bothered. A footman pulls my chair out at the top of the table, the center of the show, and I lower, thanking him quietly.

  Then everyone else sits, too. Sabina, ever tranquil and lovely, shoots me a soft smile, while David looks like the cat that got the cream. Haydon has been conveniently placed to my right, as close as one could be.

  “Stunning as always, Your Majesty,” he says, loud enough for everyone to hear.

  “Thank you.” I smile tightly, catching Matilda’s knowing gaze. She’s right at the other end of the table, way out of talking distance. Undoubtedly a good thing. What I have to say to her is not appropriate chitchat over dinner. And I’m not sure I’ll vent quietly enough.

  “We hear Spearmint is doing well,” David chirps, kicking off the conversation with something nice and easy.

  “Very well.” I nod when I’m offered wine, barely holding back from snatching it up before the server finishes pouring. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing him and his jockey decorated when he’s ready to race.”

  Sabina raises her glass. “To Spearmint.”

  I smile and toast, too. “To Spearmint,” everyone chants as our starters are placed before us. I look at the scallops, usually one of my favorites, but my appetite is nowhere to be found. I can only assume that no one else is hungry either, as no one has begun eating. I take a sip of wine, feeling uncomfortable. Everyone is looking at me. I glance at each of them, and it is only when my eyes fall to Uncle Stephan and he lifts his fork that I realize.

  They’re waiting for me, of course. “Please, begin,” I say, taking my drink to my lips again. A liquid dinner it is for me.

  Chatter is all very bland throughout first course and second, my interaction consisting mainly of smiles and one-word answers. I have no appetite for food, and I have no appetite for conversation. Eddie hardly speaks a word, and Mother looks at me constantly in question, as if trying to encourage me to engage with my guests. But they’re not my guests. They’re David’s.

  I feel my mobile phone vibrate in my lap and look to see a text. From Josh. Aware of the outrage it will cause if I were to use my phone during dinner, I discreetly open the message and read it.

  I found your tiara. It looks good on me.

  A little snort of laughter escapes when a picture follows his message, of Josh looking all adorable and smug with my tiara resting on his head to the side. But while I’m amused, I’m also annoyed with the reminder that one of the only people in this world who I actually want to spend time with is upstairs in my suite, waiting for me while I have dinner with many people who I really don’t want to spend time with.

  “Adeline?” Haydon says, winning my attention. His neck is craning, as if he is trying to see what is in my lap.

  “I apologize.” I drop my phone and force myself to eat a spoonful of the chocolate tart I hadn’t noticed has been put before me.

  “Nothing important, I hope.” He slips a big helping of the tart into his mouth around a huge smile.

  Yes. Something very important. Something more important than Haydon, and those here who do not deserve my time. Enduring these dinners has always been testing, even when I could sit in silence, happy to be ignored by all. Now, as center stage, and with every look given to me, every word spoken, the water is rising, drowning me. “Nothing important,” I murmur, setting down my spoon.

  I turn my attention to my mother on my left. I have thought a few times throughout dinner that she seems a little vacant. As if she is here in body, but far from here in spirit. “Mother?”

  She snaps from her daydream and finds me, painting a smile on her face. “A lovely dinner,” she says out of habit, just for something to say.

  “It was.” I look up when Davenport enters the room, his eyes falling straight to my mother. She goes to her wine and loses herself in the glass, her stiffness visible.

  “Would you please excuse me?” she asks, getting up from the table before I have answered. I watch her briskly leave the room, and it isn’t until she has gone that Davenport makes his approach. It’s only now I remember I invited him to eat with us. Why isn’t he? I look to David. Silly question. Or is it? My eyes turn to the door where my mother just scurried out.

  As everyone watches on, Davenport lowers, turning slightly so his back is to the rest of the table. “Damon has just arrived, ma’am,” he whispers. “He is asking to speak with you as a matter of urgency.”

  Shit. I clear my throat and glance to the doors that lead to the foyer, imaging my disgruntled head of security pacing the marble floor. “Would you please inform him that I am currently entertaining guests.” Being at this table is suddenly appealing. “I’ll see him in the morning.”

  “He’s being rather insistent.”

  “So am I,” I retort, leveling him with a look that dares him to argue. “Thank you.” The finality in my tone does the trick if my warning expression hasn’t, and though obviously raging with curiosity, Davenport nods in acceptance and backs away. “Dinner was delicious, I’m sure you will all agree,” I say, forcing my eyes back to the table.

  “You hardly touched it,” Victoria says, waving a footman over to pour her more wine.

  Keeping my glower at bay, I take my napkin from my lap and rest it on the table. “One has been feeling rather off today.”

  “Anything I can help with?” Dr. Goodridge asks, once again assessing me.

  “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I assure him, turning my attention to Uncle Stephan and his wife. “How are you, Uncle?”

  His grin would be wicked if he would reveal it. “Marvelous, dear niece.”

  “Very good. And I hear things are going very well with Santiago, Matilda.” There is no denying the light in her eyes at the mention of the Argentine’s name. “Maybe next time he could join us.”

  Matilda’s smile is bold and knowing. “I would love that, thank you.”

  “I’m seeing someone.” Eddie pipes up, surprising everyone around the table. It’s the first words he’s spoken since we have been seated, and they are quite some words.

  “And who is the lucky lady?” I ask in jest, a wry smile on my lips. A lovely woman. Perhaps that’s what he needs to pull him off the slippery slope to utter disgrace and ruin.

  “I believe you may know her,” Eddie tells me casually, finishing off his last inch of wine before holding it up for a refill. “Hallie Green.”

  “The name is familiar,” I muse, wracking my brain as Stephan chokes on something and a footman dashes to help, on standby in case he needs the Heimlich maneuver.

  “I’m fine,” Stephan coughs, holding his napkin to his mouth as he gives me round eyes. I frown, and he shakes his head, taking off his spectacles and rubbing at his watery eyes.

  “Hallie Green?” Phillip looks at Eddie in utter disgust. “The model?”

&nbs
p; On a smirk, Eddie toasts thin air. “Yes, you know of her?” His head tilts in interest, and Phillip retreats, looking around the table, uncomfortable.

  Stephan is choking again, and this time his wife smacks his back. What’s going on? I’m bemused, as well as confused. “Hallie Green,” I say again, and something in the way that Victoria looks at her fidgeting husband nudges my brain. “The glamour model?” I recoil, my glass hitting the table. The busty blonde is a regular in newspapers, usually either with her boobs out or with a scandalous Kiss and Tell to share. Matilda and I have often rolled our eyes at the latest from the brash woman who is a leech when it comes to high-profile men, her curves and sex-appeal sending them stupid.

  “She’s really rather misunderstood.” Eddie ignores my shock and works his way through his fresh glass of wine. “Maybe next time we all have a lovely family dinner, she can join us, too.”

  Victoria snorts. “Preposterous. Such a harlot would never be welcome to dine with the Royals.”

  “Shut up, Victoria,” Eddie says tiredly, making her recoil as if she could have been slapped. “I know you have always secretly believed you could do a better job than any of us, but you’re not and never will be Queen, therefore it isn’t your call to decide who is or isn’t welcome around the table.”

  Victoria’s mouth drops open, and she elbows Phillip, snapping him into dutiful action. “You will not speak to my wife in such a way.”

  Eddie snorts. “You can shut up, too, you uptight old fool. You’re only here for status and money, you parasite.” He chuckles to himself, while I can do no more than watch on, flummoxed. “You familiar with Hallie, are you, Unc?” Eddie asks Phillip, his smile cocky.

  “I refute your insinuation,” he barks, but I saw the way Victoria looked at him when Hallie’s name was mentioned. It had death in it. “I don’t know of her.”

  “Yes, you do.” Uncle Stephan, now over his coughing fit, jumps into the conversation. Or argument. “She’s a regular at that private gentleman’s club you and your yuppie friends like to hang out at.”

  My jaw hits the table, and Eddie starts laughing hard in his chair. It’s bloody anarchy—Victoria hissing and spitting, Phillip blushing various shades of crimson, Stephan and Eddie looking like they’re having the time of their lives. I realize I should be calling a halt to this circus, but, frankly, it’s rather entertaining, if not enlightening. I look to Haydon. His face is both amused and exasperated, and then to David who is shaking his head in dismay. Sabina, however, just gives me that soft smile she always does, never judging.

 
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