His true queen, p.43
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       His True Queen, p.43

           Jodi Ellen Malpas
 

  “And wasting her time,” I call, flipping the shower on before taking myself back to the door. Holding the doorframe, I lean out. “The Monarchy’s power over me is a thing of the past. What does it say?”

  “That they want consultation rights.” She looks down. “That it must be pre-recorded.”

  “No can do,” I sing, going back to the shower. “Part of the deal was live, and they are paying me millions for the exclusive.” I step under the spray and start washing my hair. I don’t need the money. The properties the King owned outside the publicly owned royal households would keep Eddie, Mother, and me going for ten lifetimes. Not to mention the fact that, though I am not technically British royalty anymore, my mother is still a Spanish princess. I’m still royal, as is Eddie. Money isn’t an issue. But I have another good cause. Shockingly and very unexpectedly, my closest staff walked out of Claringdon three days ago with me. They left behind stable jobs, and whether that was a result of loyalty or that they couldn’t bear the thought of serving my aunt isn’t something that really matters. At the end of the day, Victoria is Queen because I abdicated. I put them in that position. So the money will go to them. It’s the least I can do.

  WHEN DAMON ARRIVES TO COLLECT me, I’ve bypassed the nervous shakes and gone straight to a trembling wreck. The closer the interview gets, the worse my shakes become. Josh and Kim have left me to pace up and down in front of the window, both of them quiet.

  “Are you ready, Your Maj . . .” Damon drifts off, shaking his head to himself. “Sorry. It’s taking some getting used to. Are you ready, Miss Lockhart?”

  Now, I wasn’t surprised to see Damon follow me out of Claringdon. Even now, he’s never far. “Or Adeline.” I laugh, accepting my purse from Kim. “Do I look okay?”

  “You look like Adeline Lockhart.” She checks the zip of my dress. “You’re good.”

  “Okay.” Deep breaths. Deep breaths. I turn to Josh and press my lips together. He’s sprawled on the couch, a bowl of popcorn in his lap. “Comfortable?”

  “Yeah. I’ve heard it’s a great night on TV.” He grins around a mouthful of popcorn, and my eyes narrow playfully. Then he dumps it to the side and comes to me, taking me in his arms and kissing the living daylights out of me. “I know you’re nervous, but try to be excited, yeah? After tonight, we get to start our lives together. Me and you. Everyday. No sneaking around, no sabotage.”

  “Stop, you’ll make me cry, and I’ll ruin my makeup.”

  “Be brave. Be honest.” He rests his forehead on mine. “Just be the woman I love, and everything will be okay.”

  I nod, syphoning off some calm from him. “It’s okay for you. You do interviews all the time.”

  He laughs, thoroughly amused. “Baby, ain’t no one done an interview like this before, believe me.”

  “I do,” I grumble as he passes me over to Damon, the only man I know Josh will trust with me.

  “Keep her safe.” But he has to reinforce it.

  “Let’s go.” Damon takes the reins, and I’m led to the car with the backup of Bates and a few of Josh’s other men.

  I feel like I am about to take the biggest leap of faith any human could take.

  WE CONTEMPLATED KEEPING THE LOCATION secret, but that defeated the whole point of me being free of the clutches of the Royal Family. We didn’t explicitly state where the interview was happening, either, but those in the know just know. So when we arrive, the area outside the TV studio is awash with press.

  “Oh God,” I murmur, feeling Kim take my hand and squeeze. Not to belittle Kim’s act of comfort, but the only person who could possibly comfort me right now is Josh. It’s a frenzy as Damon leads me to the doors, flashes blinding me, people shouting and hollering. My only relief is that they are friendly words being shouted.

  I’m led through the corridors of the studio and into a room that has my name emblazoned across the front. I take a moment to read it. It’s not a title. It’s just my name.

  ADELINE LOCKHART

  I blow out air. That is me now. Simply Adeline Lockhart.

  “Ma’am?” Damon asks, pulling my eyes up to him. He may as well physically kick himself. “Sorry.” He opens the door and lets me wander into the suite, where couches form a square, a TV hangs on the wall, and cameras cover every angle.

  A young girl comes to me, her face awash with awe that makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. “Please don’t curtsey,” I beg, lowering to the plush sofa and helping myself to the jug of water on the table before me. My mouth is parched. I’m still trembling. Damn it, I need to pull myself together. I don’t want the world to see me like this—a nervous, shaking wreck. I need to be strong. Sure.

  I glug down a whole glass of water as I’m given direction. The papers handed to me are taken by Kim, a good job since my shaking limbs refuse to grant me control of them.

  “Are you certain of the open-question policy?” Kim asks for the thousandth time. “I still have time to get approval.”

  I shake my head. “If I don’t want to answer something, I won’t.” We’re left alone by the studio staff, giving me time to gather myself. I’m just making progress in the relaxing stakes when I hear applause erupt. I look up at the TV on the wall and lose every second of the time I spent talking myself down as the camera pans across the audience, hundreds of people standing as they welcome the show’s host. It’s a good full minute before they settle enough for him to talk. The usual bubbly, vivacious man looks serious.

  “Good evening.” Graham Miles’ suit is sparkling, new no doubt. “It isn’t often in one’s lifetime they are presented with an opportunity like the one I have been given this evening.” I look up when the door opens, and the young girl who gave me directions earlier, all directions of which I have now forgotten, smiles as she rearranges her headpiece. “We’re ready for you, Miss Lockhart.”

  Oh God, oh God, oh God.

  Kim stands before me, and after I’ve displayed no signs of moving, Damon helps me up. I breathe out, my heart going crazy in my chest. For a moment, I question why on earth I decided to do this. How I thought I would ever get through it. But my self-doubt disappears in a puff of dust when a solid, vivid vison on Josh invades my mind. For him, I can do anything. For us. For me.

  Making sure my strides are sure and steady, I follow the young girl through a maze of corridors until we reach a screen. My makeup is checked. Kim faffs with my hair. Damon gives me a wink.

  “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Adeline Lockhart.” Graham Miles’s announcement is spoken calmly, but the clapping and cheers reach unspeakable levels. I’m indicated to proceed. I could be carrying iron in my legs. I have to tell myself to smile. All those years I spent summoning my mask so easily, and now it is so hard to find. But I don’t need my mask. I don’t need to fool anyone. This is me. The real me.

  I take the stairs to the studio floor, praying I don’t tumble, and make my way to the couches, thankful when Graham meets me halfway and takes my hands, kissing me like he never could have before. Because I was Queen. Because no one must touch me. Now, I am more thankful than he will ever know for his support.

  “Absolutely ravishing,” he says, holding my arms out to the sides to take me in. “Please, come sit.” I’m helped to the couch, taking my seat as I gaze into the crowd, trying to disregard all of the cameras dotted around. Trying not to think about the entire world watching me.

  I lose myself in time, waiting for the deafening sounds to die down so Graham can speak. “Comfortable?” he asks, getting comfortable himself.

  I pad the cushions with my palms before edging closer to the arm and resting an elbow on it. “It’ll do,” I say, and he laughs, along with everyone else in the crowd.

  “Now, before we begin,’ he says, ‘I have to ask the most important question.”

  “Which is what?”

  “Since you are no longer the Queen of England, does that mean I should disregard that official letter I received from yourself awarding me a knighthood?”

&nbs
p; I laugh, my head thrown back a little, feeling a little bit of my stress leave me. I spent years adopting this tactic with the people I met, trying to ease their nerves by making them laugh. Am I that obviously terrified? “I believe the New Year’s Honors list still stands.” I smile madly when he places his hand over his heart as if thanking God.

  “Then with that confirmed, I can move on at ease.” He sits back, the crowd now deathly silent, waiting for his first real question. “Why?” he asks simply.

  “I’m afraid you will have to be a little more specific,” I say on a smile. “I’m sure there are many answers to many whys.”

  “Why this?” He motions around the studio. “Live, an audience, and me of all people. I’m certain there are many more qualified people who could interview you, but you personally selected me.”

  “Well I rather like you, Graham,” I reply simply, stirring a few chuckles from the crowd and a lovely smile from my host.

  “But this?” he asks again, looking to all of the cameras. “Why this way?”

  I inhale and breathe out. “Because I can,” I say simply. It’s all I really need to say, and he nods, as if he gets it. I just hope everyone else does, too.

  “Because you are no longer under the control of the British Monarchy?” he counters nevertheless, a little cheekily, raising my eyebrows.

  “I don’t think it is a big secret that I struggled with my role within the institution.”

  “As Princess or as Queen?”

  “Both, of course. I never expected to fall onto the throne. I suppose the circumstances of my succession made it somewhat more difficult to come to terms with.”

  He nods. Whether that is understanding or simply an acknowledgement, I don’t know. “Indeed, we can’t very well avoid the tragedy that you and your family have suffered in recent months. The world’s media has been gripped by the shock of your father’s death, as well as your brother’s. Tell me about that. As mere mortals, we only got what the media reported.”

  I beg the growing lump in my throat to shrink so I can speak with some kind of stability. “I think the whole horrific matter proved that the Royals are simply mere mortals, too.” There are cracks in my voice that cannot be concealed, not with any amount of determination. Proving I am right. We’re mere mortals. “My father was a good man. A good King.” I clear my throat, ignoring that I am adding more smoke and more mirrors. But it is for the greater good. The secrets are no longer mine to keep, but they are also not mine to tell. Besides, I still need to protect my mother and brothers. “He followed my grandfather and set an example to myself and my brothers that was always going to be hard to fulfil. When Edward stepped aside, the pressure fell onto my shoulders, and I am not ashamed to say that I doubted myself more than anyone else doubted me. I have always maintained that such an important role should be driven by ability, desire, and commitment. I lacked those qualities. I also had a severe handicap in another form, and it was one of which there was no cure.”

  “The mystery man,” Graham says, and the silence in the studio seems to become deafening. “We could talk all day about your life as a princess, and then as Queen, but I believe there is only one question unanswered. Your official announcement abdicating the throne spoke deeply of a man in your life.”

  I stare at him, flicking my eyes to a nearby camera, knowing Josh is watching. One question unanswered. If only they knew. “Apparently the world is rather curious,” I muse, making Graham laugh along with the crowd. I smile coyly, reaching forward for my glass of water.

  “Of course, because what kind of man could make a Queen give up her kingdom for him?”

  “The kind the Monarchy doesn’t approve of,” I quip, and he gives me a sideways grin. “Not to mention the kind of man who makes everything else in your life seem so pointless.”

  “Being the Queen was pointless?”

  “No, being anything was pointless if I couldn’t have him. He made the impossible seem possible, yet it was made abundantly clear to me that I couldn’t have him.”

  “And so you got engaged to Haydon Sampson.” He fires the statement and relaxes back, letting it explode and take the silence to an entirely new level.

  I swallow and shift, crossing one leg over the other. “Unfortunately I was under a strong influence at the time. I was trying to be the Queen I was expected to be. I could deny my heart belonged to another to all, but not to myself. It was too painful and daunting to think I would live out my life without the man I loved. We faced numerous bumps in our road, but thankfully we have overcome them, and now there is nothing to stop us from being together.”

  He nods slowly, letting my answer settle with the audience. “So are you ready to tell the world who this man is?”

  “Not really.” I shoot back on a smile. “I’ve rather enjoyed having him to myself.” Laughter erupts again, taking a while to die down. I purposely make sure there is silence before I go on. “But, if you must know . . .” I fade and draw breath, sure I hear millions of people do the same, bracing themselves for the name I will say next. I take the leap I’ve been bracing myself for. “His name is—” I snap my mouth closed when Graham holds up a hand, stopping me from uttering the words that will send the world into further media meltdown.

  “Just one second,” he says, standing. I look around the studio, worried, wondering what is going on. I imagine all kinds—the royal aides storming the studio to silence me, or maybe even the police.

  “Don’t look so worried,” Graham says as I glance from one corner of the studio to the other. “I believe the mystery man would like to introduce himself.”

  What?

  My wide eyes dart to Graham, finding him smiling at me where I’m frozen on the couch, unable to talk, move . . . breathe.

  “Ladies and gentlemen.” He glides his arm out to the stairs that I descended, and I crane my neck to see, certain I am the butt of a terrible joke.

  It’s no joke. “Oh my God,” I whisper as Josh appears at the top of the stairs, his hands in the pockets of his suit trousers. The suit he wore to my thirtieth garden party at Claringdon. He even has the pink handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket. I stare in complete shock as he smiles at the crowd and the audience go wild, standing and clapping, whooping and cheering. He looks out-of-this-world handsome, his smile dashing, his body confident.

  “Josh Jameson,” Graham yells over the deafening noise, the confirmation of his name sending the crowds into another dimension of excitement. And as if the masses of spectators aren’t there, Josh turns to me on the couch. When our eyes meet, my entire world turns upside down again, and I cover my face with my palms, returning forward and bending my torso over my lap, my emotion too much to contain. I’m so overwhelmed. So . . . stunned.

  Within a few seconds, I feel him before me, crouching, his knees either side of my legs. He takes my wrists. He pulls my hands away, revealing my stained face. And he smiles a smile that tells me everything is going to be okay.

  “Hello, beautiful.”

  I let out a ragged sob and throw my seated body forward, grabbing him and burying my face into his neck. The noise around me disappears. Right now, there is only Josh.

  He holds me tightly. So tightly. My hair is stroked, he hushes me gently in my ear. “I couldn’t let you do it alone,” he whispers, cupping my head and pulling me out of my hiding place, wiping my tears away with the pads of his thumbs. Then he drops a lingering kiss on my forehead, breathing me into him, as if the whole world isn’t watching. “Okay?”

  I nod, but it’s jerky, lacking any control. I must look a fright, but I don’t care. This is me. I’m just a woman. I’m not made of stone.

  “Let’s do this,” he murmurs, breaking away, though keeping a firm hold of my hand. Taking a seat beside me, he wraps his arm around my shoulders and pulls me close. “Surprise,” he jokes as the crowd roars on.

  “I think the world just drowned in a tsunami of swoons.” Graham’s hand meets his chest, his body deflating with his sig
h.

  I laugh through another sob, squeezing Josh’s hand, smiling up at him. God, he looks unimaginably gorgeous, so relaxed and content. And now, I am relaxed, too, and more content than I have ever been.

  “So then,” Graham says when the audience has finally quietened down, “they didn’t approve of you?” He throws a disgusted look to the cameras. “The audacity.”

  “Well, I’m American.” Josh shrugs. “I swear too much, and half the world has seen my bare ass. So no, I didn’t get off to the best start with the British Royals.” Josh’s answer causes rip-roaring laughter within the audience, and I shake my head in utter disbelief, just gazing at him.

  Graham eventually gets his own chuckles under control. “So there really was a story in that little dance you two had at the White House.” He purses his lips, as if in disapproval, and I blush terribly, more so when Josh plucks his pink hanky from his top pocket and hands it to me on a cheeky grin. “And those Uggs plastered all over the Internet were yours,” Graham adds.

  “They were mine.” It feels so good to tell the truth.

  “So how did you meet?”

  “Like many other couples might meet,” Josh answers for us. “At a social event.”

  “Which one?”

  “My thirtieth birthday.” I watch as Graham shakes his head to himself on a smile, obviously recalling his interview with Josh some time ago when Josh played down the whole event. I stuff Josh’s hanky back into his top pocket. “Our eyes met, and I did what any other woman would do when faced with Josh Jameson.”

  “And what’s that?” Graham asks seriously, hiding his amusement. As if he needs to ask.

  “I believe the term is swoon.”

  Graham nods, looking to the audience briefly. “But you were not just any woman.”

  “On the contrary, I am just that. A woman. Any other woman could have been in my position. It just so happened I was third in line to the British throne.”

  “And due to tragic circumstances, you became Queen.”

 
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