His true queen, p.33
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       His True Queen, p.33

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  “Oh my God,” I wheeze, my eyes finding his face. I cough, stepping back. I close my eyes and open them again, blinking to try and clear my vision. The blinking releases the tears, and my vision does not change. I drag my blurry eyes down the length of his naked body, coughing when I see a condom covering him. My stomach turns, and I fight back the nausea, my attention now on the slender female hand resting on his stomach. She’s on her side, tucked cozily under Josh’s arm. I look at her face, a small sob slipping past my wobbly lips. He’s holding her close.

  I don’t want to be here, don’t want to stand here and stare at one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen, but for all the will in the world, I can’t look away. It can only be my mind forcing me to endure it, to make sure the sight is embedded in my head forever so I can remember what a bastard he is.

  The lengths I went to so we could be together.

  The risks I’ve taken.

  All for nothing.

  Anger starts rolling with the emotions, swirling through my body dangerously. I hear someone come in the room behind me. Damon. I hear his inhale of shocked breath. I wipe at my eyes violently, straightening my folded form. The woman moans on a little stretch, shuffling in closer to Josh’s side. And his bicep flexes, pulling her in. My teeth clench so hard, they could crumble. Reaching up, I take out my earrings one by one and toss them on the bedside table, the small clatter stirring them both once again. But neither of them wake up. They’re in a deep sleep. Exhausted.

  I turn around and face Damon. His face is cut with shock, disgust, fury. “I would like to leave,” I say calmly, walking toward him. When his stare finds me, every emotion disappears and he switches into professional mode, collecting me and leading me out of the suite. I mildly note that Bates is snoozing again. I also note now that there is another couch at the far end of the room, another one of Bates’s men splattered on it with a woman draped over him.

  I have never felt such a sense of fury. And the hurt just seems to make it worse. I’m a fool. Blinkered by lust and excitement. I could have ruined everything.

  But instead I have simply ruined myself.

  I HAVE NEVER TRULY FELT lost. I had thought I’d felt it, but this past week, I realize that I really never have. Not like this. I have never questioned my worth or doubted myself; I was always rather confident with who I was, even when faced with my father’s wrath and disappointment. I wasn’t happy, of course, not really, but I was content with who I was. To hell with everyone else.

  Now, I’m just a silly woman who made a terrible mistake, and very nearly made an even bigger mistake that would have changed history. Now, I’m a woman who has proven why I am so wrong for this world I am in. Now, I’m a fool. And, worse still, everyone around me knows it. There has been no mention of his name. My mother hasn’t acknowledged the absence of the announcement I was adamant of making. She doesn’t know why Josh is no longer in my life because she hasn’t asked me. When did wanting a cuddle from your mother become such a big hope? Damon has walked on eggshells around me, as have Kim and Jenny, and Olive is faffing more so than usual. Everyone is wary. Everyone is watchful. Except Eddie. He’s not even come to see me. Hasn’t called or checked in.

  And it is only now I realize that, in some ways, I am actually made of royal stuff. I’m cool and composed to the world; my agony undetectable. But when I’m alone, I fall to pieces. I can’t get the images out of my head. I can’t stop thinking about how stupid I have been. One second I blame myself . . . of course he would get it elsewhere. I was hardly readily available to sate him when he so desired. And the next second, I’m throwing something at a wall and pretending it is Josh’s head, shouting him to hell and back for betraying me.

  I will never trust again. I will never love again. Loving someone is as good as accepting that one day your heart will be broken. It’s accepting you are no longer in control of your feelings. To love is to expose one’s self. And I never plan on letting that happen again.

  My only saving grace during this turmoil is that no photographs have appeared in the papers. And they weren’t likely to, since my damn phone was found under the couch in the Claret Lounge a few days later. My phone may have been missing all the contacts, photographs, and messages after Damon had it wiped, but there were endless missed calls from one number. His number. He’d tried to call me the morning after I walked out of his hotel suite and left him in bed with another woman. It stoked the anger. I handed my phone to Damon and told him to have palace security block Josh’s number.

  Damon, however, never found his mobile. I’m coming around to Matilda’s way of thinking. It was a sign. I was supposed to lose my phone. I was supposed to go to the hotel. I was supposed to discover Josh was a lying, cheating bastard before it was too late.

  I sit on the end of the bed, my hands in my lap, trying to psyche myself up for this evening. A cocktail reception in honor of . . . me. A kind of pre-coronation occasion, apparently. I didn’t contest. On top of the personal lessons I have learned during this wretched time in my life, I have also learned it is far easier to be their puppet. To nod, to listen, and to maybe air an opinion that will be completely ignored. I have had no opinions. Therefore, I haven’t yet been ignored. Not even by Sir Don and David Sampson.

  I refused David’s request for an audience, and that of Sir Don, too. I couldn’t face them the day after I discovered Josh . . .

  I quickly snap my thoughts back into line. The fact of the matter is, I refused. I knew looking them in the eye knowing they were partly right, even if they went about it the wrong way, was a job I was not up to. I was so raw. I couldn’t let them see me like that. They were reinstated. I didn’t request it, but I also didn’t contest it when Davenport advised me it was the right thing to do. My respect for the major has grown tremendously since I discovered who he was, but that day it grew more. He could have let me leave Sir Don and David unemployed. After all, I know he hates them as much as I do. But instead, he cast aside his own grievance and put my best interests first. And now, my only best interest is being Queen and doing a good job. Sir Don and David Sampson are good for nothing else, but they are good for helping me do that. Not even my pride stopped it. Maybe because I’m not feeling anything anymore. Not shame, not embarrassment. Nothing. And to be fair, they haven’t been smug. They know Josh is no longer on the scene, though why isn’t information I will share. Not that they care. He’s gone. That’s all that matters to them.

  Then Sabina came to see me, and, honestly, she was the only person to sit me down and give me the cuddle I so needed. She let me cry. She let it all pour out, no judging, no scorns or advice. She was just there. My release of emotions on her gave me the strength I needed to finally face Sir Don and David a few days later, though nothing was mentioned about Josh. Nothing was mentioned about much, actually. It was all kind of like it never happened. I should be used to that by now, but nothing could ever make me feel like nothing ever happened. I so wish it could, but that is a luxury out of my reach.

  I stand and wander to the mirror. I barely recognize the woman before me. The blush-pink gown is subtle and pretty, my lips a soft shade of pink, and my hair is loosely pinned in pretty curls around a sparkling tiara. Not that tiara. I will never wear that tiara again.

  Olive appears at the doorway, her smile as sorrowful as it has been this past week. Not that she really knows why she is sorry for me. All she knows, like most people, is that Josh is gone, though why will never be revealed. “It’s time, ma’am.”

  It’s time. It’s time for the mask to play its part, except this mask is a different mask to the one I have always worn. This mask is hiding heartbreak and pain.

  I gather up the bottom of my dress and leave my suite. As I’m walking through the palace, I ignore every mirror I pass, though I do pay thought to the way I am gliding, almost effortlessly. It’s how I have always observed my mother’s glide—a robotic action, perhaps—as though she mastered the art of moving without feeling, her legs carrying her wit
h no need to think. The way she is supposed to glide. It’s graceful and elegant, but it is by no means assertive or confident. And I finally know how she learned it, how she perfected it. She detached her heart. She wrenched out her broken, splintered heart and threw it away. I was a product of that broken heart, and I suspect every sighting of me reminded her of my father’s spite and revenge, and every sighting of Davenport reminded her of what she’d lost. So, she became ethereal. Detached. Frozen.

  And now it is my turn. My turn to glide in grief.

  I nod to Damon when I arrive at the closed doors, then to Davenport and Kim who are waiting to remind me of who is here. “The Prime Minister, first, ma’am,” Kim says, as Jenny dusts my cheeks with something. “And then the Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Archbishop of Canterbury, then the Australian Prime Minister.” She continues to reel off the titles of important people as I stare at the wooden doors before me. “Anything else?” she asks. I look at her in question, and she sighs. “Just smile, ma’am.” And as if by magic, my blank expression follows her command. I smile.

  “Please do make sure I at least have a drink in my hand for the entire evening,” I say to anyone who will listen, though it is Olive who voices confirmation. “Okay, then.” I swish the skirt of my dress and pull back my shoulders. It’s the sign that Davenport needs to open the doors. The sound of a string quartet greets me first, and then a sea of smiling faces as the soft sounds of the music fades.

  “Her Majesty Queen Adeline of England.” My title rings through the ballroom like a tormenting echo, as I stand on the threshold, my mind blank.

  “Ma’am?” Kim whispers from a few paces behind, jolting me into action. I step forward and offer myself to the first person waiting to greet me. The man who runs my country. “Prime Minister,” I say, raising my hand.

  I hear no words that are spoken to me over the next hour. I see mouths moving, I nod my head, and I smile. It is about all I am capable of. And, really, isn’t that all that is expected of me?

  TWO GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE ARE what get me through that endless line of people. Maybe another two bottles will get me through the rest of the evening. There isn’t really much for me to be enjoying, but what I am finding very fascinating is watching my mother and Davenport do their very best not to catch each other’s eye. Mother looks beautiful in her navy gown, sapphires dripping from her ears and neck. Her dress is still rather conservative, but something about the way she is wearing it makes all the difference to her presence. For the first time in a week, I manage a real smile, so wishing she would let go a little and embrace the potential happiness before her. But I realize, she will not allow it. Royal behavior and decorum is too heavily ingrained into her.

  “You look lovely this evening, Mother,” I say as she comes to me, saving my ears from the drone of Victoria’s voice. I haven’t been paying much attention to what she is saying, but I expect it will be unpleasant toward someone or something.

  “You are very kind, dear.” We touch cheeks and she acknowledges Victoria with a subtle nod.

  “Edward isn’t here,” I muse, not at all surprised but still a little injured. He’s been elusive this past week, but I did hold hope that his absence would come to an end this evening. As ever, I’m disappointed and hurt.

  “The boy needs reining in before he shames the family,” Victoria mutters into her glass.

  “The boy is a man.” I earn a little dismissive sniff, but she shuts her wayward mouth. When I think the night couldn’t be any more tedious, I spy David Sampson approaching, and it is all I can do not to turn and run. He looks all too happy, has been as chirpy as one could be all week.

  “Your Majesty,” David gives me an over-the-top greeting. One might call it arse licking.

  “Good evening, David.” I smile, forced, and give Olive the signal that I am ready for another glass. “I haven’t seen Sabina.” Just as I say that, I spot her, looking wonderful in a plum taffeta gown. “Oh, here she is.” Her face, as soft as usual, brings a natural smile to mine. “You look beautiful, Sabina.”

  “Oh,” she laughs, fussing with the material. “It has been a long time since I dressed for such an occasion.”

  “Wonderful evening,” David sings, his shoulders starting to jump when the string quartet up the tempo of their piece, raising his Scotch to someone. “Excuse me, I have many people to say hello to.”

  “And I need the ladies’,” Mother says, breaking away. The ladies’. I’m sure. I scan the room for Davenport, not seeing him.

  “Adeline, it may not be my place, but I’m really very grateful that you have reinstated David.”

  I give Sabina my attention and take her hand, squeezing. “It is nice to see you two are back on track.”

  “Yes, it is a relief, I must say.” Her hand hits her chest. “Family is so very important.”

  And my family’s secrets very nearly ruined her relationship with her son. “Indeed,” I agree, feeling a hand on my back. I jump, and Haydon rounds me, a charming smile on his face.

  “Grandmother,” he says, kissing Sabina before acknowledging me. It is actually frowned upon to greet someone before royalty, but simply because it is Haydon and Sabina, I feel fondness rather than offense. Their relationship has always been one to be envious of. “Your Majesty.” Haydon takes my hand before I offer and kisses the back. “I don’t think I have ever seen you looking so beautiful.”

  “And very unlike me,” I quip, making them both chuckle. “Thank you for coming, both of you.”

  “My pleasure.” Sabina lifts her skirt and slips away, very conveniently, leaving Haydon and me alone.

  “Very subtle,” I joke, watching as Haydon takes my fresh glass of champagne from Olive and sets it in my hand.

  “You know she adores you.” Haydon takes a glass for himself, too, as I look down his body.

  “New suit?”

  “I was told it was a special occasion.” He shrugs. “I’m not sure what’s so special.”

  I laugh, and it’s a surprising sound, one that stops me from laughing the moment I start, simply because I’m a little shocked. I laughed. “Me either,” I add.

  “Adeline.” Haydon drops his playfulness and turns serious eyes my way. I withdraw, and he smiles. “I’m really very sorry about everything you have been through.”

  “Haydon, please don’t,” I beg, the momentary glimpse of normality gone as quickly as it was found.

  “I’m sorry. I just want you to know I’m here for you.”

  After everything, he really is too sweet. It’s more than I deserve for being so stupid. Not that he knows the extent of my stupidity. Josh is gone. That’s all anyone knows. “Thank you.”

  “And you know I will always love you, no matter what.”

  I breathe in. “I know that,” I admit. For his sins, he will never stop, no matter how much I tell him to.

  “So that is why I want to try this again.” He is suddenly shrinking before me, and I wait for my body to go into shock, for my mind to tell my mouth to scream. But it doesn’t happen. I’m a statue. Mute.

  He pulls a box from his pocket.

  My eyes fall onto it and stick.

  The music stops.

  Silence falls.

  My heart . . . doesn’t thump in a panic.

  “Adeline Catherine Luisa Lockhart, I will serve you until the day I die. Whether as your husband, or as a mere servant, my loyalty will never waiver.” He hesitantly pushes the box toward me. “Will you marry me?”

  I don’t think. I don’t ponder. I don’t look around at the hundreds of people staring at me. I don’t consider the fact that Haydon knows I’m in love with another man. Or was. “Yes.” I watch Haydon, his eyes wide.

  “Yes?” He slowly stands, as if he needs to be nearer to my mouth to make sure he did not mistake my answer for a no.

  “Yes.” It is the only answer. Sadly, I have kissed goodbye to my true happily ever after. I can give Haydon his. Then at least I have some kind of pur
pose. It’s just another one of my strings being pulled, but this time it is me who pulled it. As backward as it may seem, that helps me in my helpless situation. I can’t carry on constantly fighting the wolves away. I don’t have the strength anymore. My injuries are too deep to recover.

  Haydon stares at me, and I shrug. He knows my heart is far from his. I’ve never been anything less that straight when it has come to my feelings. This is simply a marriage of convenience, just like every other marriage in royal history. I have fallen victim to the institution, and for the first time in my life, I don’t care. My happiness was snatched away brutally a week ago. I can’t be that kind of happy with Haydon, but I can be comfortable. And who knows, maybe I really will grow to love him like that.

  Applause erupts in the room, and it seems to awaken Haydon from his inert state. He scrambles to remove the ring from the box, a huge sapphire circled with diamonds. I offer my hand. He shakes as he slips it on. And for the first time in the thirty years we have known each other, he kisses me. On the lips. Only a peck, though still a kiss. I don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything. As soon as he releases me, my face muscles work as if programmed, making me smile as he turns me toward the crowds.

  I’m his to control.

  I’m impervious.

  I’ve learned the art of acquiescence.

  I am trapped in a never-ending tunnel of echoed well wishes. I am little more than a robot as I smile at every face before me, letting Haydon lead me around the room, showcasing his trophy. Every so often, he sweeps his arm out toward me, like . . . just look at her. In my mind’s eye, I see journalists across the world working through the night to get the news to the people. I see pictures of Haydon and me in this very moment, the happily engaged couple. I see me wandering aimlessly down the aisle of Westminster Abbey ready to sign my eternal love over to a man.

 
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