Authors: Katharine McGee
She hadn’t yet met these noblemen, but she could already guess what they were like: the same type of spoiled, self-absorbed young men who’d been circling her for years. The type of guys she’d been carefully turning down at Harvard, each time they asked her to a final club party or fraternity date night. The type of guys who looked at her and saw not a person, but a crown.
Sometimes, Beatrice thought traitorously, that was how her parents saw her too.
The king braced his palms on the conference table. Against the tanned skin of his hands glinted a pair of rings: the simple gold of his wedding band and, next to it, the heavy signet ring marked with the Great Seal of America. His two marriages, to the queen and to his country.
“Our hope for you has always been that you might find someone you love, who can also handle the requirements that come with this life,” he told her. “Someone who is the right fit for you
Beatrice heard the unspoken subtext: that if she couldn’t find someone who checked both boxes, then America needed to come first. It was more important that she marry someone who could do this job, and do it well, than that she follow her heart.
And truthfully, Beatrice had given up on her heart a long time ago. Her life didn’t belong to her, her choices were never fully her own—she had known this since she was a child.
Her grandfather King Edward III had said as much to her on his deathbed. The memory would be forever etched in her mind: the sterile smell of the hospital, the yellow fluorescent lighting, the peremptory way her grandfather had dismissed everyone else from the room. “I need to say a few things to Beatrice,” he’d declared, in that frightening growl he used just for her.
The dying king had taken Beatrice’s small hands in his frail ones. “Long ago, monarchies existed so that the people could serve the monarch. Now the monarch must serve the people. Remember that it is an honor and a privilege to be a Washington and devote your life to this nation.”
Beatrice gave a solemn nod. She knew it was her duty to put the people first; everyone had been telling her that since she was born. The words
In service to God and country
had literally been painted on the walls of her nursery.
“From this point onward you are two people at once: Beatrice the girl, and Beatrice, heir to the Crown. When they want different things,” her grandfather said gravely, “the Crown must win. Always. Swear it to me.” His fingers closed around hers with a surprising amount of strength.
“I swear,” Beatrice had whispered. She didn’t remember consciously choosing to say those words; as if some greater force, perhaps the spirit of America itself, had taken temporary hold of her and snatched them from her chest.
Beatrice lived by that sacred oath. She had always known that this decision was looming in her future. But the suddenness of it all—the fact that her parents expected her to start picking a
tomorrow, and from such an abbreviated list—made her breath catch.
“You know that this life isn’t an easy one,” the king said gently. “That it often looks so different from the outside than it really is on the inside. Beatrice, it’s crucial that you find the right partner to share it with. Someone to help you through the challenges and share in the successes. Your mother and I are a team. I couldn’t have done any of it without her.”
Beatrice swallowed against a tightness in her throat. Well, if she needed to get married for the country’s sake, she might as well
to pick one of her parents’ choices.
“Should we look through the candidates before I meet them tomorrow?” she said at last, and opened the folder to its first page.
Nina Gonzalez clattered up the stairs at the back of the lecture hall, headed toward her usual seat in the mezzanine. Below her stretched hundreds of red auditorium chairs, each affixed with a wooden desk. Almost every seat was occupied. This was Intro to World History, a required class for all freshmen at King’s College: King Edward I had decreed as much when he founded the university back in 1828.
She rolled up the sleeves of her flannel shirt, and a tattoo flashed on her wrist, its angular lines inscribed on her burnished sienna skin. It was the Chinese character for
Samantha had insisted that they get the tattoo together, to commemorate their eighteenth birthdays. Of course, Sam couldn’t very well be seen with a tattoo, so hers was somewhere decidedly more private.
“You’re coming tonight, right?” Nina’s friend Rachel Greenbaum leaned over from the next chair.
“Tonight?” Nina reached up to tuck her dark hair behind one ear. A cute boy at the end of the row was glancing her way, but she ignored him. He looked too much like the one she was still trying to get over.
“We’re meeting in the common room to watch the coverage of the Queen’s Ball. I made cherry tarts using the official recipe, the one from the Washington cookbook. I even bought cherries from the palace gift shop, to make it authentic,” Rachel said eagerly.
“That sounds delicious.” Those cherry tarts were famous worldwide: the palace had served them at every garden party or reception for generations. Nina wondered what Rachel would say if she found out how much the Washingtons secretly hated those tarts.
Honestly, it would have been more authentic if she’d cooked barbecue instead. Or breakfast tacos. Both of which the royal family ate with shocking frequency.
“So you’re coming, right?” Rachel pressed.
Nina did her best to look regretful. “I can’t. I actually have a shift tonight.” She worked at the university library shelving books, as part of the work-study program that funded her scholarship. But even if she hadn’t been busy, Nina had no desire to watch the coverage of the Queen’s Ball. She’d attended that ball several years in a row, and it was pretty much the same every time.
“I didn’t know the library was
on Friday nights.”
“Maybe you should come with me. Some of the seniors still have finals; you might meet an older guy,” Nina teased.
“Only you would daydream about a library meet-cute.” Rachel shook her head, then let out a wistful sigh. “I wonder what Princess Beatrice will wear tonight. Do you remember the gown she wore last year, with the illusion neckline? It was
Nina didn’t want to talk about the royal family, especially not with Rachel, who was a little too obsessed with them. She’d once told Nina that she’d named her pet goldfish Jefferson—all ten of them in succession. But a deep-seated loyalty to Samantha made Nina speak up. “What about Samantha? She always looks beautiful too.”
Rachel made a vague noise of disagreement, ignoring the question. It was an all-too-typical reaction. The nation adored Beatrice, their future sovereign—or at least most people adored her, except the sexist, reactionary groups that still protested the Act of Succession to the Crown. Those people hated Beatrice, simply for having the temerity to be a woman who would inherit a throne that had always belonged to men. They were a minority, but they were still vicious and vocal, always trolling online photos of Beatrice, booing her at political rallies.
But if most of the nation loved Beatrice, they positively swooned over Jefferson, with what sometimes felt like a single collective sigh. He was the only boy, and the world seemed willing to forgive him anything, even if Nina wasn’t.
As for Samantha … at best people were entertained by her. At worst, which was relatively often, they actively disapproved of her. The problem was that they didn’t
Sam. Not the way Nina did.
She was saved from answering by Professor Urquhart, who started up to the podium with ponderous steps. There was a flurry of activity as all seven hundred students broke off their murmured conversations and arranged their laptops before them. Nina—who was probably the last person still taking notes by hand, in a spiral notebook—poised her pencil on a fresh page and glanced up expectantly. Dust motes hung suspended in the bars of sunlight that sliced through the windows.
“As we’ve covered all semester, political alliances through the turn of the century were typically bilateral and easily broken—which is why so many of them were sealed through marriage,” Professor Urquhart began. “Things changed with the formation of the League of Kings: a treaty among multiple nations, meant to assure collective security and peace. The League was founded in 1895 at the Concord of Paris, hosted by—”
Nina silently finished. That was the easiest part of French history: their kings were consistently named Louis, all the way up to the current Louis XXIII. Honestly, the French were even worse about
than the Washingtons were about
She copied the professor’s words into her spiral notebook, wishing that she could stop thinking about the Washingtons. College was supposed to be her fresh start, a chance to figure out who she really was, free from the influence of the royal family.
Nina had been Princess Samantha’s best friend since they were children. They had met twelve years ago, when Nina’s mother, Isabella, interviewed at the palace. The former king—Edward III, Samantha’s grandfather—had just passed away, and the new king needed a chamberlain. Isabella had been working in the Chamber of Commerce, and somehow, miraculously, her boss recommended her to His Majesty. For there was no “applying” to jobs in the palace. The palace made a list of candidates, and if you were one of the lucky few,
reached out to
The afternoon of the interview, Nina’s mom Julie was out of town and Nina’s usual babysitter canceled at the last minute, leaving her mamá Isabella no choice but to bring Nina with her. “Stay right here,” she admonished, leading her daughter to a bench in the downstairs corridor.
Nina had found it surprising that her mamá was interviewing in the actual
but as she would later learn, Washington Palace wasn’t just the royal family’s home in the capital. It was also the administrative center of the Crown. By far the majority of the palace’s six hundred rooms were offices or public spaces. The private apartments on the second floor were all marked by oval door handles, rather than the round ones downstairs.
Nina tucked her feet beneath her and quietly opened the book she’d brought.
“What are you reading?”
A face topped by a mountain of chestnut hair peered around the corner. Nina instantly recognized Princess Samantha—though she didn’t look much like a princess in her zebra-print leggings and sequined dress. Her fingernails were painted in a rainbow, each one a different primary color.
“Um …” Nina hid the cover in her lap. The book was about a princess, albeit a fantasy one, but it still felt strange to confess that to a
“My little brother and I are reading a dragon series right now,” Samantha declared, and tipped her head to one side. “Have you seen him? I can’t find him.”
Nina shook her head. “I thought you were twins,” she couldn’t resist saying.
“Yes, but I’m four minutes older, which makes Jeff my little brother,” Samantha replied with irrefutable logic. “Want to help me look for him?”
The princess was a storm of kinetic energy, skipping down the halls, constantly opening doors or peering behind furniture in search of her twin. The entire time she kept up a steady stream of chatter, her own greatest-hits tour of the palace.
“This room is haunted by the ghost of Queen Thérèse. I know it’s her because the ghost speaks French,” she declared ominously, pointing at the shuttered downstairs parlor. Or “I used to roller-skate down these halls, till my dad caught me and said I can’t. Beatrice did it too, but it never matters what Beatrice does.” Samantha didn’t sound resentful, just pensive. “She’s going to be queen someday.”
“And what are you going to be?” Nina asked, curious.
Samantha grinned. “Everything else.”
She led Nina from one unbelievable place to another, through storerooms of pressed linen napkins and kitchens that soared larger than ballrooms, where the chef gave them sugar cookies out of a painted blue jar. The princess bit into her cookie, but Nina tucked hers into her pocket. It was too pretty to eat.
As they looped back toward the bench, Nina was startled to see her mamá walking down the hallway, chatting easily with the king. Their eyes lit on Nina, and she instinctively froze.
The king smiled, a genial, boyish smile that made his eyes twinkle. “And who have we here?”
Nina had never met a king before, yet some unbidden instinct—perhaps all the times she’d seen him on television—prompted her to bob into a curtsy.
“This is my daughter, Nina,” her mamá murmured.
Samantha trotted over to her father and tugged at his hand. “Dad, can Nina come over again soon?” she pleaded.
The king turned his warm eyes on Nina’s mamá. “Samantha is right. I hope you’ll bring Nina here in the afternoons. After all, it’s not like we have a short workday.”
Isabella blinked. “Your Majesty?”
“The girls clearly get along, and I know your wife has a busy schedule, too. Why should Nina stay home with a babysitter when she could be here?”
Nina was too young to understand Isabella’s hesitation. “Please, mamá?” she’d chimed in, brimming with eagerness. Isabella had relented with a sigh.
And just like that, Nina was interwoven into the lives of the royal twins.
They became an instant threesome: the prince, the princess, and the chamberlain’s daughter. Back then Nina hadn’t even known to feel self-conscious about the differences between her life and Samantha’s. For even though they were twins, and
Jeff and Sam never made Nina feel like an outsider. If anything, they were all equally excluded from the glamorous and inaccessible world of the adults—even from Beatrice, who at age ten was already enrolled in private tutoring on top of her middle school courses.
Sam and Jeff were always the instigators of their plans, with Nina trying and failing to keep them in line. They would escape the twins’ nanny and set out on some escapade: to swim in the heated indoor pool, or to find the rumored safe rooms and bomb shelters that were supposedly hidden throughout the palace. One time Samantha convinced them to hide beneath a tablecloth and eavesdrop on a private meeting between the king and the Austrian ambassador. They were caught after just two minutes, when Jeff tugged on the tablecloth and knocked over a pitcher of water, but by then Samantha had already squirted honey into the ambassador’s shoe. “If you don’t want honey in your shoes, don’t kick them off under the table,” she’d said later, her eyes gleaming with mischief.
The fact that Samantha and Nina’s friendship had survived all these years was a testament to the princess’s determination. She refused to let them drift apart, even though they went to different schools, even after Nina’s mamá left her role as chamberlain and was named Minister of the Treasury. Samantha just kept on inviting Nina to the palace for sleepovers, or to the Washingtons’ vacation homes for holiday weekends, or to attend state events as her plus-one.
Nina’s parents had mixed feelings about their daughter’s friendship with the princess.
Isabella and Julie had met years ago in grad school. By now they were one of Washington’s power couples: Isabella working as Minister of the Treasury, Julie the founder of a successful e-commerce business. They didn’t argue very often, but Nina’s complicated relationship with the Washingtons was something they never managed to agree on.
“We can’t let Nina go on that trip,” Isabella had protested, after Samantha invited Nina to the royal family’s beach house. “I don’t want her spending too much time with them, especially when we aren’t around.”
Nina’s ears perked up at the sound of their voices, which echoed through the building’s old-fashioned heating pipes. She was in her bedroom on the third floor, beneath the attic. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop … but she’d also never confessed how easily she could hear them when they spoke in the sitting room directly below.
“Why not?” Julie had replied, her voice oddly distorted by the old metal pipes.
“Because I worry about her! The world that the Washingtons inhabit, with all its private planes and court galas and protocol—that isn’t reality. And no matter how often they invite her or how much Princess Samantha likes her, Nina will never really be one of them.” Nina’s mamá sighed. “I don’t want her feeling like a poor relation from some Jane Austen novel.”
Nina shifted closer on her mattress to catch the response.
“The princess has been a good friend to Nina,” her mom protested. “And you should have a little more faith in the way we’ve raised our daughter. If anything, I think Nina will be a positive influence on Samantha, by reminding her what exists outside those palace gates. The princess probably
a normal friend.”
Eventually Nina’s parents had agreed to let her go, with the stipulation that she stay out of the public eye and never be quoted or photographed in press coverage of the royal family. The palace had been happy to agree. They didn’t particularly want the media focusing on Princess Samantha, either.