His true queen, p.4
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       His True Queen, p.4

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  The sound of two loud clicks follows his words, and I look across to see a briefcase on my father’s desk, David having popped it open. He pulls out a small black case and unzips it. “Is that a needle?” I ask, shooting forward in my chair to get a better look.

  “Indeed, ma’am.”

  I hear Eddie chuckling over by the fireplace. “You’re lucky. They shoved that thing in my arm the moment your father popped his clogs.”

  “Edward,” Mother sighs tiredly.

  “The results were swift and conclusive,” Eddie rambles on, helping himself to another two fingers of Scotch. “I am a bastard.” Swinging around, he grins at me. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.” A quick glug of his drink. “Much.”

  “Why is this happening?” I ask, looking at Sir Don. “Do you think I might be illegitimate, too?” My eyes divert to my mother, finding her shaking her head. Is that despair, or is she telling me that I am, indeed, who I think I am?

  Sir Don goes on. “Forgive me, ma’am, but given the circumstances, we need to be sure the crown is landing on the right head.”

  I’m astounded, but there’s that little tiny part of me that hopes this blood test reveals that I am like Eddie. A bastard. If only to save me from my fate. But then another part of me, the proud part, the disgusted part, wants to prove to these arseholes that I am, in fact, the King’s daughter. I could refuse. Tell them to go to hell. But I don’t. Let them have their blood test. I viscously yank up the sleeve of my jumper, slapping my arm on the desk. “Fine, but David is not putting that needle in my arm.”

  “Of course.” Sir Don heads for the door.

  “How hard are you all wishing that I, too, am illegitimate?” I ask his back on a curled lip.

  “Not at all, ma’am,” he says as he swings the door open, revealing Dr. Goodridge. I’m only mildly relieved I have a professional to draw my blood. Although Dr. Goodridge is an old man and shakes somewhat terribly.

  Ma’am. I notice none of them have addressed me in the true and expected way their Queen should be addressed. Your Majesty. I’m right. They don’t want to accept I am their queen. They don’t want to bow to the notoriously rebellious and reckless Princess Adeline Lockhart. Why else would they do this? They think I’ll be a terrible Sovereign, and a silly part of me wants to prove them wrong, the jumped-up fools that they are. Utter fools, because if I am not Queen, the next in line is Father’s sister, Aunt Victoria, and she would be absolutely unbearable with a crown on her head. God, and her husband Phillip? He’ll relish it. Lord it up, throw his weight around.

  I have so much more to say, but with Dr. Goodridge present, I realize I can’t. The old man makes his way over, the hump on the right side of his back seeming to get worse each time I see him. He slaps the inside of my elbow, looking closely for a vein. “A small scratch, ma’am.”

  I wince when I feel the sharp prick, closing my eyes and breathing through the process. Within seconds, it’s done and a plaster is being applied. Pulling my sleeve down, I sit and watch the vampire who has just sucked my blood put all his equipment away.

  “I’ll take it straight to the lab.” Dr. Goodridge snaps his case shut and leaves, his old legs carrying his old body slowly. He gives Sir Don a small nod before he closes the door behind him. I bet he’s been asked to rush this through and deliver the results to Sir Don without delay.

  “So now I have to wait to find out my fate?” I ask.

  “Your fate is sealed, Adeline.” Mother speaks up, not only to me, but to everyone else in the room who may doubt her. “I assure you.”

  I look straight into her eyes and know she is speaking the truth. And my heart sinks further.

  “If you’re done with me.” Eddie moves to leave, stopping at the door. “Great story, by the way,” he says to Sir Don. “I mean, totally brilliant. I believe I will play the depressed, drunken ex-soldier brilliantly.” He storms off, and the rest of the room empties, leaving Mother and me alone.

  I wait for the door to close before I speak. “I don’t want to do it, Mother,” I say quietly, desperate for her to hear the devastation in my voice.

  “You must, Adeline.”

  “Why? Why must I?”

  “Because there is no one else. You are the only member of my direct family who can rule, and I refuse to let you throw that away. Everything your father worked for. Your grandfather and his father. You will not cast aside their memories by dropping the crown at the feet of that vulture sister of your father’s.”

  I recoil, never having heard so much passion and determination in her voice. “Who cares who gets the throne?” I ask.

  She stands and brushes down her skirt. “I do, Adeline. I haven’t endured the past forty years to see my children hung, drawn, and quartered by the British public. I did not leave Spain for that. Don’t you see? The story, the smoke and mirrors, it’s to protect you and Edward.” Approaching me, she strokes a soft hand down my cheek, smiling fondly at me. “Wear the crown. Be a queen. That is all you have to do.” She leaves, and I am left all alone with nothing but her words stirring the guilt, the hopelessness, and the despair.

  And the broken heart, because being Queen isn’t all I have to do. Abandoning my heart comes first. Abandoning my soul.

  POSITIVE. I NEVER DOUBTED WHAT the blood test results would be, not when I looked into my mother’s eyes, but there was always that little part of me that hoped. For a brief second, when I realized what was transpiring in my father’s office, I felt like I had a lifeline. Something that could save me. Something that would take me away from this nightmare. Alas, it wasn’t to be. I am, indeed, the King’s daughter. The heir to his throne. And now, Queen of England.

  I tossed and turned all night, dreaming up elaborate plans to wriggle my way out of the responsibility. But, and it is alien to me, my mother’s words have stuck with me, and they have stuck hard. Eddie would be ripped apart. I would be ripped apart. My dead father and brother would be ripped apart, and though she never mentioned herself, my mother would be, too. Crucified. I can’t let that happen. My heart simply won’t allow it, not for the sake of my selfish need to walk away. My destiny is written. My sacrifices have been made. My punishment determined.

  And as if my sacrifice has heard me, my phone rings from the bedside and his name glows at me. In my current frame of mind, lost and hopeless, I shouldn’t take his call. Weakness isn’t a trait I should reveal to Josh, and I can’t guarantee I won’t crumple under the sound of his voice, won’t beg him to come rescue me from my prison.

  Reaching for my phone, I roll to my back and stare at the screen as it continues to ring. And then it stops. Just for a few seconds, just a few moments of relief. And then it sounds again. I silence it and drop it to the pillow, getting myself up and taking myself to the safety of my bathroom. I shut the door. Rest my back against it. Stare at myself in the mirror ahead. I don’t look like a queen. I look like a lonely and lost young woman, whose hair needs brushing and whose skin looks grey and sallow. Frankly, I look unacceptable, and in a silly attempt to rectify that, a kind of self-justification plan, I start to get myself ready for my day. Whatever that may hold. What will it hold?

  By the time I’m done, my makeup is perfect, if a little heavy to conceal my tiredness, my long dark hair is straightened, and my attire simply signature Adeline. A figure-hugging black pencil dress with skyscraper red stilettos.

  “Oh,” Jenny says when I pull the door of my private quarters open, looking me up and down with her hands full of styling tools, products, and makeup bags. “Am I late?”

  “No, I’m early.” I collect my purse, retrieve my phone from the pillow, and leave. “I thought I would get myself ready today.”

  Jenny scampers behind me, juggling the things in her hands to keep hold of them. “You should have called. I would have come earlier.”

  “No need,” I assure her, taking the stairs to the foyer. Knowing the dinosaurs who sat in my father’s office yesterday reading me my rights, they’re probably expect
ing me to be dressed in a two-piece and pearls, a la Mother, now I am unofficially the Queen. No way. Over my dead, royal body. It won’t be happening now, and it won’t be happening when they tell the world I am now their Queen.

  Glancing down at my phone as I take the stairs, I purse my lips when I see a text message from Josh. Don’t open it. Don’t open it. I forbid you to open it, Adeline.

  But despite my mental mantra, my thumb takes on a mind of its own and clicks the message open. I stop abruptly at the bottom of the stairs when I come face to face with the picture he’s sent, and a small, helpless whimper escapes before I can pull it back.

  “What is it, Your Highness?” Jenny questions, sounding concerned.

  “A dirty cheeseburger,” I mumble, my eyes filling with tears. There’s even an American flag speared through it. Josh’s words stamp all over my mind.

  Every girl needs something bad for them now and then.

  I swallow and look to the bottom of the picture where he’s typed three simple words.

  Even the Queen.

  This is a message, loud and clear. He’s not giving up. He’s had his warning, and he’s ignoring it. Clearing my screen, I hold my phone against my chest and nibble at my bottom lip for a few thoughtful moments. He needs to stop. He needs to walk away.

  “Ma’am?” Damon appears from the kitchen, looking me up and down. “Are we due to be going somewhere?”

  I have no plans that I have advised him of. No arrangements have been made for my travel. And in truth, I have nowhere to go. “I don’t know,” I admit, gazing at him, certain he can see how lost I am.

  On a sigh and ushering Jenny away, he collects me and walks me to the car. “Perhaps the stables?”

  “Yes, that’s a wonderful idea.” I could kiss him for his genius plan. Distraction, it’s what I need, and what better way to do that than in the fresh countryside air on horseback. Stan and Spearmint will think I’ve neglected them these past few weeks.

  “Although you’re hardly dressed for the stables,” he says, as he opens the back door for me.

  His phone rings and he reaches into his inside pocket for it while I follow his eyes to my body. “Oh my.” I laugh a little. “I can barely walk in this dress, least of all ride a horse.” I thrust my purse in his chest as he takes the call. “Give me two minutes while I change.” I dash off up the stairs, my spirits considerably better than before.

  “Your Highness,” Damon calls, pulling me to a stop halfway up.

  “Yes, what is it?”

  He holds up his phone, his face grave. “You’ve been summoned.”

  My stomach drops. “Whoever by? And whatever for?”

  “I believe it is time,” he says simply, his chest expanding in a deep breath that could serve both of us, and I hope it does because I’ve suddenly lost my ability to breathe.

  “Time,” I murmur. The official statement I reluctantly signed was released yesterday. The country is shocked but sympathetic toward the Fallen Prince. But Eddie still has their hearts, thank God. I take the handrail to steady myself, my eyes darting across the steps. It’s time for me to fulfil my duty. It’s time for the world to know. Of course, they knew the moment Eddie had renounced his position, but now it will be official. Real. “Then I suppose we should be on our way.”

  Just put one foot in front of the other.

  Keep your back straight.

  I look at my red heels, and something sick inside of me smiles. They will be horrified by my attire. Good. Let them be. I walk down the steps, shoulders back, and slip into the car. Damon says only one thing the entire drive. Looking in his rearview mirror, he gives me a crooked smile. “You may just be the most beautiful queen I’ve ever seen, Your Majesty.”

  I laugh a little. “Worried I might fire you?”

  Damon shrugs, his smile still in place as he refocuses his eyes on the road. “You’d miss me too much, ma’am.”

  I smile and take one last breath as he pulls up to the gates. He’s right. He’s in my corner, and that cannot change now.

  The Private Chamber is bursting at the seams with people. Old people, all quiet. There must be two hundred bodies, all eyes on me. The Accession Council. I take in the scene, all real now, when it has only ever been something built in my imagination by my mother. It really is as intimidating as it sounded, though Mother spoke of it with a certain edge of fondness. As I stand here now, my mind wanders to an easier time. A time when I was an oblivious little girl.

  She entered my room and dismissed my nanny, her usual crisp skirt suit replaced with a nightdress and full-length robe. Lifting me into her arms, she carried me to my bed and tucked me in.

  “Tell me a story, Mother,” I begged, nestling into my pillow. These moments were rare. I would keep her with me for as long as possible.

  “A story?”

  “Yes, one with a happy ever after.”

  She laughed, bringing lines to the corners of her eyes. She’d seemed to get older in recent years, and I knew it even as a six-year-old girl. “Right then, let me see.” Placing a fingertip on her chin, she looked into the distance as if deep in thought. “Ah. I have just the tale.”

  “What’s it about?”

  “The Accession Council.”

  I frowned. “What’s that?”

  “They meet all but once in a lifetime, hundreds of members of the Privy Council and many other important people. You know what the Privy Council is, don’t you?”

  “Yes, they help Daddy do his job right.”

  “Indeed. But only when a new Sovereign takes the throne is The Accession Council called, and on this day, they were all there for your father.”

  “Because Grandfather had died and Father was now King.”

  “Exactly that, little princess.” She clucked my chin on a fond smile. “To welcome him. It was daunting but exciting, a happy occasion, a new era, but clouded by the loss of your grandfather. There he was, a prince, a young man in his prime, and he was their King. The Nation’s King. By the grace of God, he swore he would rule his country with all his heart. With his Queen, his two little princes, and his beautiful princess.”

  “That’s me,” I sang, making her laugh. “I am the princess.”

  “That you are.” Settling beside me, she let me snuggle into her side. “He would uphold his duties with pride and conviction, lead by example, and he would love his people,” she told me. “He would do his father proud. He would do his family proud. He would do you proud, my sweet little princess. Being King is a job of great importance and privilege, just like the job of being your daddy.”

  “Will I be King one day, Mother?”

  She smiled. “No, my darling. You will never be King.” Dipping, she rested her lips on my forehead. “But you may one day be Queen.”

  I blink a few times, taken aback by the flashback. Did she know this might happen? Or did she fear it? It’s only now I appreciate the heart in my mother’s words back then, and what she was inadvertently doing. Warning me. She was also trying to show my father in the best light. And it’s only now I wonder if my father’s strong arm with me all these years have been the actions of a king, or the actions of a father simply wanting the best for his daughter. Or to prepare her. His love seemed to shine less as I grew up, his authority becoming stronger. Something changed him, and I cannot help but wonder if it was my mother’s betrayal. Was that why he was so hard on me? So cold? But he didn’t treat Eddie with the same contempt. He didn’t try to bully my brother.

  Because maybe he knew Eddie would never be King.

  You are an aberration, Adeline. A disgrace to the Royal Family.

  A disgrace. Would he turn in his grave to know I was taking his throne? Would he write me off as a failure? Was this his worst nightmare come true? Probably. The notion makes my shoulders lift with my chin.

  I gaze around the room. Everyone is still staring at me, and it takes me a few seconds to realize they’re waiting. They’re waiting for me to speak. My mind goes blank, and all
I can think about is how old everyone standing before me is. Except me. I must be half the age of the youngest member of the Privy Council, a mere baby in their eyes. And here I am in a tight black pencil dress and red heels. Their Queen. I bet they are inwardly shouting their disapproval.

  Clearing my throat, I hunt through my mind for the right words. Any that might give the impression that I know what I’m doing, when I have absolutely no idea. What do I say?

  “My father was a good man,” I begin, calling on the mask I’ve relied on for years to get me through this moment. It’s only the beginning, and all I have is my heart to follow. My desire to prove my father wrong is suddenly so fierce. To show him I can do this. To show all of them. “His passing was premature, a shock for us all, and now his duties and responsibilities as Sovereign have fallen to me.” I look around the room for any expressions that might tell me how I’m doing. Every face is straight. They’re robots. “My father worked tirelessly to further the happiness and well-being of this country. He adored his people, and if I can mirror even a speck of his devotion during my reign, I will have served well. I will have made him proud.” Proved him wrong. Proved you wrong. “I must thank you in advance for your advice and guidance in the coming years. I will lead with a strong heart and a stable mind. I will depend upon the support and loyalty of you and my people. And I will pray that God steers me right on this new and unexpected road I’ve found myself upon.” I nod, signaling I’m finished, and then hold my breath, trying to replay every word I’ve spoken. And I can’t help but wonder if my father would be proud. Shocked? Would he laugh?

  Heads bow. Silence lingers. My eyes drop to the table in the center of the room, where various papers are laid out, an old-fashioned fountain pen set neatly to the side. Ceremonial forms. Sacred oaths to be made. My heart quickens as I’m invited forward, and for the next half hour, my life is a blur of promises made, commitments vowed, and historical papers signed, as I shakily let myself be guided through the rigorous tasks the constitution demands.

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