His true queen, p.3
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       His True Queen, p.3

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  “He overheard a conversation between his father and me shortly before he passed. He was most annoyed with the King for not confiding in him.”

  That would explain David’s absence when his father died. He was sulking. His nose had been put out of joint. “And then my father had no choice but to tell David when the letters came back to haunt him.”

  “Indeed.”

  “Will it ever end, Sabina?” I ask. “The lies, the secrets? Will that be my job as Queen? To protect the web of deceit from ever being exposed?”

  “Part of it, yes. But you already know that. You must rule with your head, not with your heart. And I know better than anyone that this will be the hardest part for you, Adeline.”

  More treacherous tears tumble down my cheeks, and I move before Sabina sees them. She’s demanding I reach for the indifference a royal requires, but I can’t. I don’t want this. But I can’t let anyone see how devastated I am. How broken. Because I am a queen, and queens are strong.

  But where will I find that courage?

  I SQUINT WHEN THE CURTAINS are whipped across, opening the gates for the blinding sunlight to flood my bedroom. I frown in my sleepy state, wondering what on earth Olive is playing at. Propping myself on my elbows, I search my room for her, finding the blurry outline of a body by the window. But once my vision has cleared, it’s not Olive I see, but a stern-faced lady who I recognize from the staff at Claringdon Palace. Gert. She’s old-school.

  “It is ten o’clock, Your Highness.” She slides a tray onto my dressing table and begins plumping a few cushions on my chaise.

  “What are you doing here?” I ask as my eyes follow her around my suite, her hands fussing and faffing with anything she can lay them on. “And where is Olive?”

  “I believe Olive has been redistributed to another royal household, ma’am.”

  “What?” I’m now awake and most furious. “Whatever do you mean, redistributed? No one from my household should be redistributed without at least consulting me.” A horrible thought suddenly comes to me, and I dive out of bed in a panic, ignoring Gert’s startled eyes as I shoot across the carpet in my lacy nightdress. If Olive has been redistributed, then what about Damon? And Jenny and Kim and Felix?

  Yanking the door open, I throw myself out of my suite and hurry across the vast landing, looking over the balustrade as I round it, searching for him. “Damon,” I yell, drawing many staff members from various rooms, all coming to see what the commotion is about. “Have you seen Damon?” I ask a wary-looking maid, whose hands are full of clean bed linen.

  “No, ma’am, I haven’t.”

  “Shit,” I spit, taking the stairs like a mad woman, unperturbed by my state of undress. “Damon!” I reach the front door and swing it open, searching for Damon’s car. No car. My dread multiplies.

  “What in God’s name is going on?” Dolly asks, her hand armed with a whisk as she ventures from the kitchens. “Oh my goodness.” She wobbles to a stop and takes in my scantily clad form. “Your Highness?”

  “Where’s Damon?” I have no time to address everyone’s shock. I’m too worried. If Damon has been forced out, there will be hell to pay.

  “He has gone to collect His Majesty the King.”

  For a second, I’m utterly confused. Then I remember who is King. Or apparently King. “And where is Edward?”

  Felix appears, ushering Dolly back to the kitchens before approaching me, coming close, obviously not wanting anyone to hear. “I believe His Majesty had a private gathering at a suite in a Mayfair hotel last night.”

  Oh God. What has he done? The communications team will be in meltdown. And just as I think that, Felix answers his phone, looking very stressed indeed. “Do it,” he hisses. “Every camera on the premises, do you hear me?” He stabs at his phone with an angry thumb and stamps off. I sag against the door, cursing Eddie in my head. He’s gone off the rails, and when the world believes you are King, that is not something one should go off. At least, not publicly.

  I hear the sounds of crunching gravel under tires, and I turn to find Damon rolling through the gates. Rushing down the steps, I go straight to the back door of his car and pull it open. “Oh my goodness,” I cry as Eddie topples out of the car and lands at my feet. The stench of stale alcohol hits my nose as he rolls onto his back, chuckling.

  “Sister,” he squawks, grappling at the side of the car. “Or should I call you Your Maj—” He convulses and proceeds to throw up. I jump back, just missing the spray of vomit.

  I look despairingly at Damon as he drags his big body from the driver’s seat, his face a roadmap of annoyed lines. “He’s going to kill himself at this rate,” he mutters.

  My brother, the charming, adored, handsome prince, is unrecognizable. “We should get him to his suite.” I bend and push his blond mop from his eyes, staring at his pitiful form.

  His drunken eyes blink open, and an uncoordinated hand feels around in midair until he finds my face. “I still love you,” he slurs. His drunken words, words I know he really means, bring on a fresh batch of tears.

  “I know you do, you silly fool.” I look at Damon. “I should get him cleaned up.”

  On a roll of his eyes, Damon dips and collects Eddie, throwing him onto his shoulder and carrying him into the palace. “Why are you in your nightie?” he asks as we take the stairs, my hand holding Eddie’s where it’s dangling down Damon’s back. His eyes are rolling now, and he quietly mumbles nonsensical words.

  “I thought . . .” I drift off and shake my head. “Never mind.”

  With the help of a few footmen, we get Eddie into his bed, and rather than let anyone else strip him down, I ask them to leave so I can take care of him myself. His dignity is already dented enough.

  As soon as one of the maids sets a bowl of warm water and a washcloth on the bedside, the room clears, and I am alone with my brother. “What am I going to do with you, Edward?” I wrestle his arms out of his suit jacket and toss it to the floor before starting on his trousers. “This is not the behavior of a prince.” I laugh at myself. I’m a fine one to talk. Although, now there is no reason for him to behave like a prince. And there is every reason for me to behave like a princess.

  Or a queen.

  Starting on his shirt buttons, I unfasten them one by one until Eddie’s chest is revealed. His usually well-defined torso, the result of years in the military, looks somewhat lacking in the muscle department. He’s lost weight these past few weeks. He’s not eaten, just drank. He’s not exercised, just drank. “I will help you, Eddie.” I dip and kiss his scruffy cheek. “I won’t let you go down this dark path.” I stroke down his cheek with my palm, ignoring the stench of vomit as I stare at him. I sigh. He’s dead to the world.

  Once I have him out of his shirt, leaving him in only his boxers and socks, I wring out the washcloth and start wiping his face clean of vomit. I take my time, until he’s as clean as he can be without a shower. Dropping a kiss on his forehead, I tuck him in and dip to collect his suit, holding it at arm’s length as I carry it from his suite, my nose wrinkled.

  “Have this dry-cleaned, would you?” I ask, handing it to one of the maids outside Eddie’s suite. “And please leave the pri . . . King to rest.” I make my way to my private quarters, finding Gert still faffing around my suite when I enter. I’m not one to pass judgement, but I really do not like Gert. She’s perhaps mid-sixties, and just by the way she is looking at me, I can tell she belongs to the camp of royal staff who are antiquated and disapprove of me. “Oh. You’re still here.” I sniff, wandering over to my bedside table. “Can I have some privacy, please?” I find my secret stash of cigarettes and light one, disregarding the rules and Gert’s poorly concealed disgusted face. Knickers to her. “You may leave.” I take a teaspoon and stir my coffee, blowing out a plume of smoke slowly, almost cockily. Gert doesn’t appreciate it. Her old face is twisted as she leaves. “And please don’t enter my private quarters without knocking again.”

  “Apologies, ma’am. I re
ceived a direct order from Claringdon to wake you.”

  “By whom?” I ask, my stirring pausing.

  “The late King’s chief advisor, ma’am.”

  “Sir Don?”

  She nods, and I feel anger burn my veins. “You are to be at Claringdon by noon, Your Highness.”

  “That is all.” I dismiss her abruptly and drop onto my dressing table chair, catching my reflection in the mirror. No wonder everyone was looking at me like I might be a monster as I ran frantically around the palace looking for Damon. Because I really do look like a monster. I reach up and pat my pale cheeks on a sigh, then take another hit of my breakfast and exhale it into my reflection.

  More smoke. How very apt.

  I FEEL LIKE I’M BEING held up with foundation and headache pills. Although I know beyond all doubt that I couldn’t possibly feel worse than Eddie right now. As we pull up at Claringdon, I risk a peek at him once more, if only to remind myself just how awful he looks. I’m pretty sure he’s still drunk.

  “What?” he asks without even the courtesy of looking at me.

  “You look truly frightful.” I’m honest. I can’t possibly be telling him anything he doesn’t already know. “And that was an entirely stupid thing for you to do,” I finish, stepping out of the car when Damon opens the door. He gives me a little shake of his head, as if to remind me that whatever I say to my brother will fall on deaf ears. I know he’s right, but still.

  “When did you become all holier than thou?” Eddie mutters as he joins me at the bottom of the steps. Sir Don and Sid are waiting by the door at the top, and not for the first time since the crash, I miss Davenport greeting me in his usual stuffy, stoic way. We’re told he handed in his resignation. I suspect that that resignation letter was written for him. Probably by Sir Don.

  “I’m worried about you,” I reply to Eddie. He seems to be in self-destruct mode, and he’s going about the right way of exploding very soon.

  “Don’t be. Since I’m not technically a royal anymore, no one should be concerned about the way I choose to live my life.”

  My patience is fraying, and I turn to him, making sure he sees it. “You are still my brother,” I say on a hissed whisper. “And your mother is still a Spanish princess, so you are wrong on both counts.” I storm off, leaving my wayward brother with those words to rattle around in his tender skull. “Sir Don, Sid.” I nod at them both as I pass, pulling my gloves off and handing them to . . .”Olive?” I say as she smiles awkwardly, doing her usual terrific job of ridding me of my outerwear. “You’re here now?”

  “Yes, ma’am.” Nodding politely, she scampers off before I can question her further, not that she would speak. Turning my suspicious eyes toward Sir Don, I’m not surprised to find a straight, unmoving face. It was him who redistributed Olive from Kellington to Claringdon. Suddenly having Davenport on my case for all these years feels like it could have been a breeze. “Why are we here?” I ask, lifting my chin in a forced act of strength.

  “This way, Your Highness.” He sweeps his arm out toward the stairs that lead to the grand landing. There’s only one reason why we would be taking the stairs. My father’s office. I come over a little stifled, the thought of stepping in there overwhelming. I haven’t seen inside the four walls of my father’s private study since I left to go to Evernmore.

  I move forward, looking back to find Eddie dragging his feet like a petulant child being summoned to the headmaster’s office.

  “Is that your phone?” Eddie asks as Sir Don follows us up the stairs. It’s only with my brother’s prompt that I hear the faint sound, and I riffle through my bag to find it. My steps falter when I see who’s calling. “Don’t tell me, it’s Mr. Hollywood,” Eddie says quietly.

  I shoot him a glare, letting my phone ring off, and as soon as the screen clears, I see a message. My pulse quickens as I read his words.

  I’ve received my warning. Keep my silence and keep my distance.

  I shove my phone back into my bag and try not to think about who’s throwing out the warnings, but when I turn and catch Sir Don’s eye, that task becomes trickier. Was it him? What’s also difficult is trying not to think about whether Josh will heed the warning. Because I, now more than anyone, know what this institution is capable of. And now I also suspect that even if my father didn’t know of my affair with Josh before I told him, his people did, and Josh’s trashed hotel room was another warning. Yet what I can’t figure out is why they didn’t tell the King. Because he was friendly with Senator Jameson? Because they thought they could handle it without bothering the King, knowing I’d never listen to him should he demand I stop seeing Josh?

  We’re shown into my father’s empty office, and Sir Don leaves us alone, shutting the door behind him. Eddie immediately heads for the antique globe where my father’s stash of Scotch is hidden, whereas I stand on the threshold, reluctant to venture farther inside. Something isn’t right, and it takes me only a few seconds to establish what. The usual, familiar stench of cigar smoke isn’t as strong. In fact, it has nearly gone completely, and never would I have thought I’d miss it.

  Swirling his drink as he wanders around Father’s office, Eddie seems to take in every little detail, eventually arriving at the massive portrait of the King over the fireplace. He stares up at it, throwing back his Scotch violently before mockingly toasting the oil on canvas. “Rest in peace, Dad.”

  I don’t reprimand him on his disrespect. There would be little point. Besides, the door opens before I can think more of it, and Sir Don re-enters, followed by Mother and David Sampson.

  “Mother?” I question as she gracefully floats across the office and takes a seat quietly in the corner. Sir Don motions for everyone to be seated, and everyone does, except Eddie, who chooses to remain standing by the fireplace. Sir Don waits for his audience to settle before he draws breath to speak, so very serious and cold. “The people in this room are the only people who know of the situation.”

  Eddie snorts into his drink as he takes a sip, laughing to himself. “No, actually, I believe Daddy is missing.” He isn’t speaking of the late King, of course. My father. Mother’s husband. “Has Davenport been warned?” Eddie asks. “Threatened?”

  After my message from Josh just now, I have every faith that yes, Davenport has been warned. “Why are we here?” I cut to the chase, the atmosphere unbearable. “You obviously have a plan to fool the public and avert the scandal of Eddie’s illegitimacy, so let us hear it.”

  Sir Don stands, pulling in the sides of his jacket. “I believe His Royal Highness Prince Edward has passed the throne to his sister due to medical issues.”

  I cough on nothing. “What?”

  “Yes, what?” Eddie parrots. “What the hell is wrong with me?”

  “As we all know, Prince Edward fought gallantly for his country, but sadly he is now suffering the consequences of his commitment.”

  “Are you fucking kidding me?” Eddie splutters. “I have to feign PTSD so the world doesn’t know I’m a bastard?” He swings his eyes to Mother. “And you’re happy with this?”

  She doesn’t murmur a word, her quiet state of Switzerland revisited.

  “Obviously,” Sir Don goes on, ignoring Eddie’s questions and my shocked face, “given the circumstances of Princess Helen’s pregnancy, we—”

  “You mean the fact that she bedded another man to get herself pregnant in order to secure the throne for her family and the future of the Monarchy?” I clarify.

  “Indeed.” Sir Don nods, completely unperturbed by my sarcastic reminder of my sister-in-law’s scheming. “Needless to say, an unborn Sovereign is out of the question, even with a Regent to rule in its name until the child comes of age. Therefore, the next in line is Eddie—”

  “But he’s battling his demons, so the throne comes to me,” I finish for him.

  “Quite.” Sir Don takes his seat, and I laugh, because this is so bloody typical.

  “How about the truth?” I suggest. “Let’s lessen the bur
den of everyone lying and tell the world the truth.” I catch Mother’s wide eyes and worried expression before she corrects it.

  “You will be ripped apart, Your Highness,” Sir Don says frankly. “The Monarchy will be made a laughing stock. And, once more, you will still be Queen of England. Being the Queen of England is a task in itself, made easier if your people love you. Toss their illusions of your quintessentially perfect English heritage into disrepute, then I’m afraid the job will be tedious at best. And your country will not support your reign. You need their support, ma’am. You need their love.”

  Stunned into silence by his frankness, I cast my eyes across the room to my mother, who says nothing to refute Sir Don’s claims. Neither does anyone else in the room. So that’s that, then? I will rule a country built on secrets and deceptions, but my people will love me?

  A piece of paper is handed to me by Sir Don, and I look at it blankly. “What is this?”

  “That, ma’am, is a statement from His Royal Highness Prince Edward renouncing the throne.”

  What? My eyes shoot to Eddie. His jaw is tight, his eyes dark and trained on Sir Don.

  “It requires your approval, ma’am.”

  Casting my eyes back to Sir Don, I tilt my head. “I assume these are not the words of Prince Edward.”

  “Approve it,” Eddie hisses, knocking back the rest of his Scotch before slamming the empty tumbler on the desk and grabbing a pen. Snatching the announcement from my hand, he roughly signs it, adding an over-the-top period with a stab. “Your Majesty,” he says, handing me the pen.

  My heart sinks, and I give him sorry eyes that he can’t possibly recognize through his haze of resentment and anger. “Eddie—”

  “Sign it, Adeline.” He goes back to the drinks globe and refills, knocking another Scotch back.

  On a despondent sigh, I mindlessly scribble something close to my signature next to Eddie’s.

  “Now.” Sir Don takes the announcement and clears his throat. “There is one more matter to be taken care of.”

 
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