His true queen, p.5
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       His True Queen, p.5

           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  As I lay my pen down, my eyes fall to one line amid the hundreds of others.

  Queen Adeline the First, by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm and of all Her Other Realms and Territories . . .

  Queen Adeline. Me. I stop breathing for a moment.

  “Your Majesty?”

  I look up through foggy eyes and find The Garter King of Arms smiling mildly at me. “Yes?”

  “I humbly request that your most gracious declaration may be made public.”

  “The Accession Proclamation,” I murmur, and he nods. The paper every person in this room will sign before it is read out to the public on the balcony of Claringdon Palace, following centuries of tradition.

  The world will know.

  I breathe in deeply and nod before walking out of the room, and as I look at my feet carrying me away, I notice for the first time that my shoes were the only splash of color in a room full of stuffy importance. And I was, in fact, the most important.

  “I need to pee,” I say to myself, then I laugh out loud, because the Queen should never speak such words. When I fall into the lavatory, I’m not as desperate to pee as I am to look at myself in the mirror. To stare for a second and try to comprehend what has happened. “Your Majesty,” I say to myself, over and over, hoping at some point during my chant, it might start to sound right. It might begin to suit me.

  An hour later, it still doesn’t, and the only thing I seem to have achieved is a bursting bladder. On a long sigh, I use the toilet, wash my hands, and make my way to Damon. The stables. That is my only escape.

  When I reach the top of the stairs, I pause in my tracks, looking back to the doors of the Private Chamber. I hear him. The Garter King of Arms talking, crisp and clear, shouting the Accession Proclamation from the balcony to the people below. Relaying my unprepared speech word for word to the world, following age-old tradition. That’s it now. No going back.

  Sadness washes over me, no matter how hard I try to stop it. I look at my phone when it chimes, though I know who it will be. He’ll be watching, like every other single person in the world. His message is a simple “congratulations.” Nothing more. My silly eyes sting as I take the stairs, looking up from my phone when I hear scuffling footsteps below. Coming to a stop, I’m utterly thrown by the masses of household staff all lined up neatly, all heads slightly bowed in respect.

  All welcoming their new queen.

  All except Damon, who is waiting by the door, his face knowing. I pass them all as quickly and as gracefully as I can muster and grab the fresh air with all I have when it meets my lungs. “Goodness me,” I breathe, accepting Damon’s hand when he offers it. “Thank you.”

  “Your Majesty,” he replies as he helps me into the car. I notice two cars up front and look over my shoulder to see another two behind. And as soon as we make it to the gates, I realize why. Swarms of people and press cover the square outside the palace, all . . .

  “Are they cheering?” I ask, listening hard.

  “I believe they are, ma’am.” Damon’s smiling eyes find me in the mirror as he reaches back and hands me his phone.

  “What is this?” I look at the screen, my hand meeting my mouth in shock. Long Live the Queen, reads one article, an official portrait of me accompanying it. Finally a Sovereign with a pulse, reads another. The most beautiful queen in history, says one more with various shots of me at various events, always in couture. And, finally, there is a picture of me at my father’s funeral just days before, looking to the sky, a drop of water rolling down my cheek. I inhale, knowing such displays of emotion from a royal are unheard of and highly frowned upon. The headline reads, Empathetic, zealous, and real. She is a queen our country will be proud of.

  I swallow and drop Damon’s phone into my lap, looking out of the window as he crawls through the crowds, police cars now having joined the procession. The overwhelming sound of my name being chanted should fill me with pride.

  I can’t figure out why it doesn’t.

  DAMON TOOK ME TO KELLINGTON where I suffered the same suffocation. All household staff waited in the foyer to greet me for the first time as their Queen. I couldn’t bear it. I quickly changed into my riding clothes and escaped.

  When we pull up at the stables, I see Sabina talking to Dr. Goodridge. Damon opens my door, and I wander over to them, remembering the last time Sabina and I spoke, how fraught and uncomfortable it was.

  “Just take care of yourself, Sabina,” Dr. Goodridge says, bowing his head to me as he backs away. “Your Majesty. Congratulations.”

  “News sure does travel fast,” I mumble, returning his little nod.

  “Your Majesty.” Sabina steps back and curtseys, and I’m quick to pull her up.

  “Sabina, really, let us not be silly,” I admonish gently, needing her to know how uncomfortable she’s making me. “You have known me since I was a baby.”

  She smiles as I offer my arm for her to link. “You should get used to it, ma’am. Many people will be falling at your feet, and you can’t very well scorn them all.”

  We start toward the north stables together, taking our time. “I can do what I like, surely. I am Queen, after all.” I flip her a wry smile that she returns as equally wry.

  “You and I both know that not to be true.”

  “Are you okay, Sabina?” I ask, and she smiles, looking off toward Dr. Goodridge, where he’s getting into his Jaguar. “I’m fine. Just a few pills to help me sleep, is all.”

  “You need to take care of yourself,” I say. She’s taken the responsibilities of the stables all on her own since Colin passed. The stress is clearly taking its toll if she needs help sleeping. “I’m warning you,” I add on a cheeky smirk.

  She stops us and turns to me, taking my hands, her face serious. “And I feel it only right I warn you of something, Your Majesty.”

  “Oh, Sabina, will you please stop with the formalities.”

  “It is what’s expected, and you should get used to it.”

  I roll my eyes, and she takes that as her cue to warn me of whatever I may need warning of. A lot, I expect.

  “David,” she says, giving me a moment to absorb her son’s name. I force my face not to screw up in repulsion. Sabina is the sweetest lady, and Haydon, albeit a little deluded, is really rather sweet, too. So what happened to his dad? He’s the furthest from sweet one could possibly be. If he thinks he can continue with his ambitious attempts to marry his son off to me, then he can think again. And I will make no bones about telling him so. He was there when I declared my love for Josh to my father. He knows, yet I know beyond doubt that he, just like Sir Don and my mother, will ignore it.

  “Sabina,” I begin, but my attention is pulled away from the old lady’s soft expression when I hear something beyond, something I’m hoping I’m mistaken in thinking is . . .”David,” I breathe, dropping Sabina’s hands and stepping back. Did he follow me here?

  He paces over, what seems like a genuine smile on his face as he removes his flat cap. “Your Majesty,” he greets, the customary slight bow of his head executed perfectly. “How lovely to see you again.”

  I don’t know why I do it, since all this formality is currently making me twitchy, serving only as a reminder of what has become of me, but I offer my hand and get a cheap thrill when David Sampson falters before taking it. “Very good to see you, too, David,” I say as he holds my hand. I pull it away once I’m suitably satisfied at his level of squirming.

  “How are you?” he asks.

  “As well as can be expected during such conflicting times. Only a few days ago I buried my father, and today I am Queen of England.”

  “Indeed. It was a beautiful service, fit for the King he was.” A sadness I’ve never seen in him blankets his face, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t catch me off guard. David looks truly grief-stricken. “I will miss my friend terribly.”

  “As we all will,” I reply quietly, unable to gauge his sincerity. And when Sabina reaches for David’s arm and rubs gentl
y, I get a horrible, misplaced sense of guilt creeping up on me once more.

  “It’s so tragic, Adeline,” he whispers.

  Sabina coughs, and David quickly shoots his eyes to mine. Silly and immature as it may seem, I don’t give David the same leniency I did his mother, cocking my head to the side expectantly. I can’t ignore how this man played a massive part in making my life miserable, and it isn’t something I’ll forget anytime soon.

  David soon corrects his faux pas. “Ma’am.” He smiles, and that seems genuine, too. “We must have supper together.”

  “Sounds good to me.” Haydon’s voice comes from behind me, and I turn to see him approaching. Well, isn’t this a lovely day out at the stables for the Sampsons? “Adeline,” he murmurs, taking my hand before it is offered and kissing the back. I can’t bring myself to correct his error, not the touching before being invited to touch, nor the informal addressing of me. “You look sublime.”

  “Thank you, Haydon.” I remove my hand from his with subtle force and nod to the stable block. “I really must be going. Please, excuse me.”

  “And supper?” David prompts, eager and not afraid to show it.

  “That would be lovely.” I smile with some effort. “Please let Kim know, and she’ll be sure to diarize it.” I turn and make my getaway, the weight of power on my shoulders nearly too much. And though I shouldn’t be, I feel irritated. Because David is pretending I didn’t have a secret affair with an inappropriate man. He’s pretending he didn’t sit in the King’s office in Evernmore and bear witness to my confession. He’s pretending it’s not my fault the King—his friend—is dead. And I just know it’s because his son is now promised to the Queen and not a princess. “Smoke and mirrors,” I murmur to myself.

  Over the next few hours, I saddle-up Spearmint, exercise him, strip him down, and clean his tack. Then I pay some needed attention to Stan, taking him out for a little hack in the open fields. Damon isn’t far away while I lose myself in the fresh air, ever closer since Eddie’s incident, despite the investigation now being closed. I try to clear my mind of every miserable thing tarnishing it. I try to find hope amid my turmoil. Impossible.

  I slow Stan to a walk and sigh, reaching forward and rubbing his neck as he clomps along. “What do you think to this madness, boy?” I frown when his skin wrinkles under my touch. Pinching him, I twist a little and release. His skin tents, taking far too long to return to normal. “Are you thirsty, boy?” I ask, pulling him to a stop. I dismount and pull his reins over his head, taking his mouth and lifting his lip back. “You are; you’re thirsty.” I press on his gum and release, watching as the white flesh takes an age to return to its usual healthy pink. Looking up, I see Damon has pulled to a stop a few yards away.

  “Everything okay, ma’am?” he asks out the window of the Land Rover.

  “I think he may be dehydrated,” I call back. “There’s a stream through these trees. I’m going to walk him down and see if he’ll take some water.” Damon makes to get out of his car, but I put a hand up, halting him. “I’m still on royal land, Damon,” I say tiredly. “There’s no need for an escort.”

  “I believe Prince Edward was on royal land, too,” he replies, and I tilt my head in impatience. He’s going over the top.

  “And a satisfactory outcome to that investigation was made, was it not?”

  “Very well.” Damon relents and pulls his cigarettes from his inside pocket. “Do you mind?”

  I shake my head in dismay and lead Stan through the trees toward the stream. “Since when have I minded if you smoke in my company, Damon?”

  “Well, you’re Queen now, ma’am.”

  “Don’t remind me,” I mumble, trudging through the overgrowth. “Come on, Stan. I know it’s down here somewhere. And whatever is going on at the stables for you to need water so urgently?” It really isn’t acceptable, but so very unlike Sabina to let the care of our horses slip. A few branches crack under my riding boots, echoing through the woodland. Of course, there has been a lot going on. I really can’t blame her for being distracted.

  Hooking my arm under Stan’s chin, I hug my face to his. “But we can’t have you being neglected, can—” My feet suddenly weld to the ground, and my heart drops into my riding boots. “What the fuck?” I blurt, blinking to make sure I’m seeing correctly.

  “For the Queen of England, your mouth sure is vulgar.” Josh raises his eyebrows in convincing disapproval, sliding off the back of his horse.

  I kick myself and quickly send a mass apology to the heavens, to every past king and queen who has lived. “You startled me.” I turn around and march away before I can get caught up in a spar with words or be forced to look at him. To face my loss. To face what I can’t have.

  Then I remember . . .

  I glance at Stan and grit my teeth, turning back toward the stream. Toward Josh. Oh goodness, has there ever lived such a prime example of a man? “This is private property.” I go on the defense. It feels like the only good move I could make. “You may only frequent royal land on authority of the King, and since he is now dead, and I am now Queen, I don’t believe I have given you authority. Please leave.”

  “Oh.” Josh pouts, his head dipping a fraction. He’s not doing it out of shame or respect. Oh, no. In fact, I’m certain he’s doing it so he looks like the most adorable thing on earth. He looks perfectly disheveled in old jeans and a lumberjack shirt. “I don’t get ex-fuck perks?”

  Ex-fuck? I’m stung, and I know my face tells him so. “This is not funny, Josh.”

  “I agree, Adeline.” He’s not smirking now, more scowling. “All this is the most unfunny thing that’s ever fuckin’ happened to me.”

  That’s happened to him? “Why are you here?” I should kick myself for asking such a stupid question.

  “Because I knew once you’d been forced to utter every oath they could throw at you, you would escape and find some peace in this madness. That’s why.”

  “And?” I sniff, looking away. I hate that he knows me so very well. But it’s also one of the things I love so much about him. And, worse, I hate that I appreciate it. Appreciating anything in my world is dangerous. It means you’re attached. It means you can hurt when they try to take it away from you.

  My obstinacy makes something in Josh click, and he kicks the leaves at his feet with a lack of anything else to kick. “And, fuckin’ look at me,” he roars, forcing me to step back warily. “You think I’m going to let you cast aside what we had as if we never had it?”

  I remain silent, not asking him what else he expects me to do, maybe because I’m terrified of what that might be. So instead I say something utterly stupid. “Thumbs down,” I murmur pitifully, despite Damon being well out of earshot.

  “No. Never. You never get to give me a thumbs down, Adeline.”

  “It’s Your Majesty,” I shout, staggering back a few feet with the force of my shout. “You will address me with the respect my position demands.”

  “Your position should be on your back under me,” he yells. “And you should be calling me your fuckin’ king. How does that sound, Your fuckin’ Majesty?”

  “You’re a heathen. I want you off my land.”

  “You’re a liar. I want you to stop lying.”

  “I’m not lying.”

  “Yes, you are. You’re lying to me. You’re lying to yourself. You’re lying to every single person in this fuckin’ world.” Josh stomps forward, and I blindly stumble back, catching my foot on a stray branch. I lose my footing and fall to my arse in a pile of dry leaves. I don’t yelp because it doesn’t hurt—I’m numb to everything except Josh—but I do curse to high heaven, further cementing Josh’s claim that I have a vulgar mouth. “God damn it.” With my palms splattered on the muddy ground behind me, my knees bent, I look up at the man looming over me. “This is all your fault.”

  “I take full responsibility. For everything.”

  Everything? “Like what?”

  “Your fall. My feelings.” He off
ers his hand, but I ignore it, getting myself to my feet and brushing myself down of dry leaves. “For your feelings,” he finishes softly.

  My hands falter midway down my jodhpurs. “I do not have any feelings,” I grate, ignoring the unrelenting . . . feelings. The warmth, the disappearance of my woes, the heady sensations of want manifesting within me. Me. Him. The potent cocktail of chemistry we create, just being in each other’s presence. The woodland surrounding us is drenched in it. The atmosphere is thick.

  I glance up when a few moments have passed, silent moments, and meet his eyes. The amber swirl of desire sparkles madly. My heart kicks. He licks his lips, and I follow the path of his tongue from one corner of his mouth to the other. “Stop,” I whisper, to who I don’t know. Him? Me?

  My hands come up to my head, my fingertips pushing into my temples, as if I’m trying to force every reason why this can’t happen to the front of my mind. I look for my father’s words, but I find other words instead.

  You will be ripped apart. Eddie will be ripped apart. Your father’s and brother’s memory with be tarnished.

  But . . . I fell so madly in love with a man, and now I am being forced to disregard that. Can I? Should I?

  I swivel on my boots and run. I can’t trust my head to talk reason, can’t promise I’ll even listen to my reason if I find it, so I’m depending on my legs to take me away as quickly as they can.

  “No thumbs down,” he growls, snatching my wrist and yanking me to a stop, spinning me to face him. My face is grabbed with one brutal hand, and his mouth is quickly on mine. He’s gone low, way below the belt, and worse still, we both know it will work. My universe seems to align, positive and negative working together, our lips glued by an invisible, highly powerful force. Then I feel his tongue sweep through my mouth and explosions of the most calming kind erupt in my soul. My keen hands find his hair and force him closer, our kiss crazed and messy, but so utterly calming and immaculate. I let him guide my backward steps, I let him spin me away from him, and I let him thrust me up against a tree trunk.

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