His true queen, p.34
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       His True Queen, p.34

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  The wrong man.

  I see me standing beside Josh’s bed in his suite, staring at something that changed my life, my spirit, and my faith. Forever. I see betrayal and lies, just more deceit to dictate me.

  Pain radiates within me, sweeping through my body mercilessly. And I let it take hold, not bothering to fight it off.

  When I finally blink, the haze dissipates, and I find my mother across the ballroom. She’s still, quiet, watching as I let myself be paraded in front of my guests. She isn’t smiling. She is just watching. As always, silent and detached. Indifferent. Because she lived this.

  “The happy couple,” David Sampson sings, muscling his way between us, an arm around each of our shoulders. It is little more than madness, every single person in this room falling victim to the deception, getting caught in the huge web like stupid little flies. How can they be so foolish? So ignorant to this circus?

  Sabina approaches, her smile soft and searching. She must be as surprised by my answer as I am. “My dear girl.” She claims me from her son and grandson and takes me in a hug, her slight frame supporting mine. “Are you okay?” she asks in my ear.

  “It is the right thing to do, is it not?”

  “Probably.” Releasing me, she holds me at arm’s length. “Just remember one thing, Adeline. Haydon adores you with every fiber of his being. Every woman deserves that kind of love.”

  And does the man not deserve that kind of commitment in return? Alas, marriage is just another duty in this job. Something else to be done for the greater good. For everyone else, except for me. Everything that happens from here on doesn’t matter. Not to me. I am not merely caged anymore. I am caged, chained, and gagged. Things I swore I would never be.

  WHEN MIDNIGHT STRIKES, I AM guided from the ballroom by my devoted fiancé, faces smiling at me as I go. I look to Haydon. He is thriving, his face bright and cheery. He’s so happy. As my feet blindly lead me with the help of my husband-to-be, I search deeply for the smile I should be showcasing.

  No smile.

  Damon catches my eye as we pass through the doors, his face as stoic as I have ever seen. Why I would try to fool my beloved bodyguard that I am as thrilled as everyone else is beyond me. But I do, straining to find my smile, forcing it onto my lips with too much effort. His inscrutable face remains expressionless.

  Our journey to my suite is silent. I can’t even hear my heart beating anymore. But though I am numb, I feel . . . something. It is only when the doors to my private quarters come into view that I realize what that something is.

  Tension.

  Anticipation.

  Oh goodness, is Haydon expecting to come in? Is he expecting to consummate our union? Our first time together? My stomach rolls, nausea taking hold. Throughout this madness, I never paid one thought to what would be expected of me as a wife. Just that of the Queen.

  When we reach the door, I notice Haydon’s hands are stuffed in his trouser pockets, his eyes downcast, his lips twisting a little. He’s thinking. He’s thinking the same as me, though where I am dreading it, he is expectant.

  “Thank you for walking me back.” The words spill out in a rush, my desperation getting the better of me. There is no way I would be able to sleep with Haydon tonight. Maybe ever.

  “You are very welcome.” We come to a stop at the door, the tension and awkwardness tripling.

  “I will see you tomorrow, I expect.” I couldn’t be any more blunt, and when his shoulders drop somewhat, I feel only a smidgen of guilt. I expect I will see him? Of course I will see him tomorrow. I am marrying the man, after all. He’ll be taking up residence in my private quarters. He will share my personal space. My bed? “Good night,” I say, taking the handle of the door.

  “Adeline.” He reaches for my arm, and for all the will in the world, I can’t stop myself from tensing from my toes to my tiara.

  Full of caution I can’t hide, I look at him. And he moves in, his lips getting closer and closer to mine. My mind yells at me to move, to pull away, to stop him. But shock keeps me where I am. I close my eyes, as if to hide from what is about to happen, and as soon as I have darkness, I have Josh. His face, his smell, the feel of him. Then a foreign smell, one I don’t recognize. Hot air breezes across my lips, and my eyes flip open. I turn my face in the nick of time, and Haydon’s lips land on my cheek. “Thank you for a lovely evening,” I say, pushing my way into my quarters and shutting the door quickly behind me. My back meets the wood, my knees give, and I sink into a heap of wretchedness. Reaching up, I pull my tiara from my head and set it by my thigh, then gaze at my ring finger. It looks all wrong. It feels so heavy. Everything feels heavy. Pulling it from my finger, I place it on the floor and drop my head back, looking to the crystal chandelier. I can’t cry. There are no more tears left to fall. I’m a dry, brittle vessel of a woman now. Slowly dying.

  One unbearable day down, endless to go.

  I CAN’T BEAR TO LOOK at the magazines and newspapers anymore. It’s not the pictures and excitement that irritates me, but the fact that my smile in every picture is so completely fake. I’m not sure how the dread behind it isn’t being seen by the world. One week on, my engagement is still headline news. One week on, I have still avoided any intimate contact with my fiancé. One week on, he is still ignoring it. That’s irritating, too. So is David Sampson’s stupid, grinning face. And the fact that Sir Don is being nice to me. And one more thing that is getting right under my skin is the lack of contact from my brother. His support is needed now more than ever, and I feel he is the only one I can turn to. But he’s not answering my calls.

  “Damon,” I call, setting my coffee down and pushing away today’s newspapers that have kindly been set out with my breakfast. “Please find Prince Edward and tell him I wish to see him.”

  “I believe he is currently sleeping, ma’am.”

  I study Damon, reading between the lines. My brother has been frequenting that seedy gentleman’s club again. “Thank you,” I sigh, and he leaves without another word. What am I going to do? Eddie can’t avoid me forever.

  Kim wanders in, and I raise a curious eyebrow, noticing her usual grey suit has been switched for a black one, making her red hair seem redder.

  “Is it a special occasion?” I ask, taking my pastry and slicing through the center.

  “I would say shopping for your wedding gown is a special occasion.” She motions to a chair and sits when I nod.

  Of course, I forgot about that. “Why do you say shopping? Are we leaving the palace and actually visiting shops?” I put a piece of butter on one half of my pastry and spread.

  Kim ignores the fact that my question is rhetorical. “No. The dresses have arrived this morning and have been taken to your suite.”

  “Marvelous.” I pop my breakfast in my mouth and chew, cocking my head when Kim sighs. “What?” My mouth is full, making my words muffled. Very unqueenly.

  Kim leans over and speaks quietly. “Your lack of enthusiasm is starting to be noticed.”

  Dropping the other half of my pastry, I wipe the corners of my mouth with my napkin and stand. “Frankly, Kim”—I push my chair under the table, holding the backrest—“I really couldn’t give a fuck.” I turn and wander away from her stunned face. “Let’s try on some dresses,” I sing, so completely over the top. I slap on my smile and make my way to my suite, Kim on my tail. My lack of enthusiasm is being noticed? I laugh to myself. So they expect me to dance for joy, do they? Faint with excitement when they told me my wedding is coming before my coronation. Because having a husband is apparently going to make me more of a queen. This, of course, means I will be married off in four weeks. The Earl Marshall has spiraled into a tailspin, his Royal event-organizing skills being tested to the limits. I’m sure he hates me, too.

  “Have you decided on Haydon’s title yet?” Kim asks once we make it into my suite. “Sir Don needs to announce.”

  “No.”

  “Well, can you?”

  I turn tired eyes onto her. “
Prince Haydon of Adeline’s Vagina?”

  “You are so bitter, it’s making you look old,” Kim sighs, and I recoil. “And while we’re speaking some home truths, I think maybe you are letting yourself go.” She points her pen to my wet hair that is scraped into a high bun. “Do you want to go down in history as the bitter, bedraggled queen?”

  “Well.” I laugh. “Who shit in your coffee this morning?” I frown as soon as I say the words, wondering where on earth they have come from.

  “I could ask you who has shit in yours for the past week. Come on, Adeline. Just tell me what on earth has happened.” I go into my shell and look away, making Kim sigh. She knows I won’t speak of it, and she eventually gives up waiting for an answer. “I’ll be back shortly.”

  “Thanks,” I mutter, dropping heavily to the couch in the lounge area. I look across to my bedroom. The double doors are open, revealing the end of a huge mobile dress rail. I see white protection bags and lots of pairs of shoes on the bottom rack. Will any of those dresses be black, because I should wear a black dress. I certainly feel like I am in mourning.

  An army of people enter, and Kim hands me a huge file. “The collection.”

  I take the file, which is more like a wedding album, all white leather and silver font, and rest it in my lap. A tall lady approaches, a tape measure draped around her neck. “Your Majesty, can I please say what an absolute honor it is to be awarded the task of helping you choose your wedding gown.”

  I strain a smile, setting the file on the couch beside me as Kim comes forward and introduces the lady. “Madam Beaumont has dressed high-profile brides for thirty years, ma’am.”

  “Very good.” I get up and wander into my bedroom.

  “Since you declined my offer to design your gown, ma’am, and you had no preference on style, I have taken the liberty of bringing my new collection to showcase. You are the first to see it, ma’am.” Madam Beaumont overtakes me and gushes all over the rail, pointing at dresses that I can’t see because they’re all concealed by protective covers. “I’m sure there is something made for you in here. We can adapt it, of course, if you so wish.” She claps her hands and a young girl appears, her hands full. “Set it up just here, Frances. Right in front of this mirror so Her Majesty can see herself in all her glory.”

  All her glory? I glance across to the mirror to which she is referring, catching sight of my reflection. I frown and reach up to my hair. Kim is right. I look a fright. “Let us get on with it, then,” I declare, taking myself to my bathroom.

  “Your robe, ma’am.” Olive comes after me, followed quickly by Jenny. The second the door closes behind us, I strip down to my underwear and let Olive help me into the robe. Neither she nor Jenny murmurs a word. They don’t express any excitement.

  “Would you like me to dry your hair?” Jenny asks, a little tentatively. “And do your makeup?”

  “I’m trying on dresses.” I fasten the tie of my robe. “No need to make it more complicated than it should be.”

  She backs up, flicking a concerned look to a cautious-looking Olive. They are walking on eggshells around me, two of the few people who are sensitive to my melancholy, along with Damon. Everyone else is pretending I wasn’t secretly seeing another man. Why I am not now is something only Damon will ever know. I sigh, dramatically dropping my chin to my chest. “I’m sorry for being so moody these past two weeks.”

  Of course, Olive rushes to placate me. “Oh, no need—”

  “Yes, Olive, there is very much a need.” I reach for her arm, as well as Jenny’s, holding on to them both. “It is not your fault I’m miserable.” Both women are positively dying to know what happened between Josh and me. But they are way too respectful to ask, unlike Kim. Regardless, I give them just a little in the hope they understand my despondency. “I was blinded by possibility and hope. Now I realize I was very stupid. We were from very different worlds, and I see now it would never have worked. I’m just very sad I was so foolish.”

  “I don’t think you’re foolish, ma’am,” Olive says, ever so sweet and naïve. “And if you were, it was because love made you that way.”

  “Here, here,” Jenny adds, her smile soft. “But does that mean you should marry Haydon Sampson?” The immediate fall of her smile tells me she’s mentally retracting that question. Like she shouldn’t even ask. She probably shouldn’t. But this is Jenny.

  “If I were a normal woman, then no. But sadly, I am not a normal woman, am I?” I release them and correct my fallen shoulders. I know better than anyone that I was preyed on in a moment of weakness. Caught off guard, feeling heartbroken and lost, I was cornered by Haydon and the voices in his ear. “And now I am in way over my head.” I smile at them both. “So I guess I should get on with things, yes?”

  They nod, as do I. I open the door to find Matilda has arrived, her form as contemplative as ever. I give her a nod of assurance that I’m sure doesn’t wash. “My mother?” I ask, looking for her. Should she not be here for her daughter’s first dress fitting?

  Kim goes straight to her phone and dials. “She will be joining us shortly.”

  “Indeed,” I breathe, knowing exactly where she will be. “I believe she had a meeting with Davenport.” I step up onto the small podium that has been set up. She has had a lot of meetings with Davenport recently. And seems to have avoided me in the process.

  The first dress is carefully taken out of the protective bag, and it is all I can do not to scowl at the gown that is far from my style—all frills and excess material. I will look like a throwback from the eighties.

  “This is a particular favorite of mine, and I think it will be perfect on you,” Madam Beaumont gushes.

  I keep my dubious look at bay as she helps me into the masses of material, keeping my thoughts to myself. I wriggle like a worm, tugging it up more roughly than I should, not that Madam Beaumont pulls me up on it.

  “Oh, Your Majesty,” she sings, stepping back with her palms covering her delighted mouth. “It is sublime on you.”

  I turn toward my reflection. The long, puffy sleeves make my arms look like they could be bulging with muscles beneath, the tiered ruffles of the skirt made to conceal all kinds of lumps and bumps. The modest neckline is beaded, the bodice a busy lace design. Frankly, it is awful. I look shocking. Hideous. “That will do,” I declare, stepping down from the podium.

  I turn for Olive to unfasten me, ignoring the collection of stunned looks being thrown my way. “You’re not trying on more?” Kim asks the question that everyone else wants to ask but dares not.

  “As Madam Beaumont said, it is sublime.” I step out and walk to the bathroom, hearing Kim coming after me.

  “Adeline, it is dreadful,” she whisper-hisses.

  I stop and pivot at the door, finding my private secretary checking over her shoulder to make sure she hasn’t been heard. When she returns her attention to me, I don’t whisper. “My entire life is dreadful, Kim. So the dress matches, yes? Suffocating, compliant, covering all my sins. I would say it is perfect.”

  Her eyes close briefly, her years of working for me telling her I am not going to be convinced otherwise. “A reminder about your first official engagement with Mr. Sampson tomorrow evening at the Royal Ballet,” she breathes.

  “Can’t wait,” I quip. More fake smiles. More avoiding his attempts to kiss me. And in public, it will be worse. Poor, delusional Haydon will be desperate to give the world a picture of him kissing his bride-to-be.

  “Jenny will be here to help you get ready. Did you try on the gown sent by Elie Saab?” My lips twist, and Kim sighs. “I will have a seamstress waiting for any needed alterations.”

  “Thank you.” I close the door and gaze around my bathroom. My eyes fall on the mirror. On my reflection. The reflection of a woman I do not recognize. A hideous woman. And before I know what has happened, I have thrown everything I can lay my hands on at the glass.

  Shattered.

  Destroyed.

  NO ALTERATIONS ARE NEEDED. T
HE long, silver gown fits as if it has been made for me. My headdress is embellished with aquamarine stones, my chandelier earrings a perfect match. I look more like myself on the outside, but on the inside, I am dead.

  Haydon is waiting at the bottom of the steps as I descend, smiling a smile so full of happiness it makes my insides twist with guilt. “Wow,” is all he says, his head lifting and lowering constantly as he takes me in. When I reach the bottom, I release the front of my skirt as Olive lowers the back, arranging it perfectly so it pools the floor at my feet.

  As Haydon moves in to greet me, I catch Damon by the door watching me as I start to tense up. “Gorgeous.” Haydon takes my hands and kisses my cheek, taking full advantage of his immunity from protocol. As my husband, Haydon will never have to wait to be invited to touch me, and, terribly, I hate that.

  His lips linger and my eyes close, wishing them off me. And with my eyes closed, I leave myself vulnerable to the locked images haunting me, flashes of Josh’s toned body coming on with an onslaught of pain as well.

  I jolt, my eyes springing open. “Better go,” I say abruptly, my legs carrying me away from the source of my distress without waiting for Olive to help me with my gown. As a result of my hast, my feet get tangled up in the excess material, and I stagger, being caught by Damon before I tumble to my knees.

  “Careful, ma’am,” he says softly, righting me.

  “Darling, are you okay?” Haydon rushes over and fusses over me, righting my already righted position. Darling. Not darlin’, but darling.

  I reach down and yank up the skirt, carrying on. “Silly me.” I push away every thought plaguing me, every image too, and work hard to empty my mind once again. Lowering into the car, I smile when Damon moves in and blocks Haydon’s path to me, gathering the bottom of my dress and setting it around my feet. “Thank you,” I murmur, not for his help, but for his intervention.

  “Welcome.” He straightens and closes the door, turning toward an indignant Haydon. “This way, sir.” Damon indicates around the car where the other door is held open for my husband-to-be.

 
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