Read American Royals Online

Authors: Katharine McGee

Tags: #antique

American Royals (27 page)

When it all came rushing back, it weighed a thousand times more than it had before.

“I’m sorry.”

Beatrice closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see Connor’s face.

He was on his feet in a swift, fluid motion, the space between them aching.

“You’re really doing this,” he said heavily. “You’re really choosing him?”

“No!” she cried out, shaking her head. “That’s not it. Just because I’m marrying him doesn’t mean I’m
choosing
him. But Connor, you know that you and me—it’s impossible.”

“Is it,” he said dully.

Beatrice’s skin prickled with the cold. “I don’t want this any more than you do. But we can figure something out. We’ll find a way to keep seeing each other—”

“What are you saying?” Connor cut in.

“I’m saying that I love you and don’t want to lose you!”

“So you want me to … what? Just stay here as your Guard? Watch from the sidelines, alone, while you marry him, eventually have
children
with him? Stealing moments together when we can get away with it, whenever your husband is out of town? No,” he said bitterly. “I love you, but that doesn’t mean I want to live off the scraps of time you can spare from your
real
life.”

“I’m sorry,” Beatrice whispered through her tears. “But Connor—you’ve always known the constraints on my position. You know who I am.”

“I know
what
you are. But I’m not sure I know who you are at all. The Beatrice I know would never ask this of me.”

Beatrice felt suddenly, terrifyingly lonely.

She reached for his hand, but he retreated a step. Panic laced down her spine. “Please,” she begged. “Don’t give up on us.”

“You’re the one who already gave up on us, Bee.” He let out a ponderous breath. “If this is really your choice, then of course I can’t do anything to stop you. All I can do is refuse to be part of it.”

“What do you—”

“Consider this my formal resignation. When we get back to the palace, I’ll let my supervisor know that I need to be reassigned.”

Once, in third grade, Beatrice had fallen off her horse and broken her arm. The doctors assured her that it was no big deal, that lots of people broke their arms, and that the bones often grew back stronger in the broken places.

Standing here in the cold empty garden, she thought of that day, of how much pain she’d been in, and how exponentially worse this was. It was so much easier to break an arm than to break your heart.

Hearts didn’t heal themselves. Hearts didn’t remake themselves stronger than before.

“I accept your resignation. Thank you for your service,” she told him, and the voice that came out of her was a voice Beatrice had never heard herself use before—steely, calm, taut with control.

It was the voice of a queen.

Connor gave a silent nod before heading back toward the palace.

Beatrice waited until she heard his steps crunch far down the gravel path before lifting her hand to study the line of Sharpie inscribed there. She could barely see it through the blurriness of her vision.

She reached into her pocket for her diamond engagement ring and slipped it back over her finger, covering every last trace of the ink.

NINA

“Come to Logan’s frat party with me tonight?” Rachel pleaded.

Nina shook her head automatically. All week, in the wake of her explosive fight with Samantha, she’d stayed camped out here in her dorm, emerging only to walk to her lectures or to her job at the library, a hoodie pulled low over her head. No way was she going to something as crowded and hypersocial as a fraternity party.

She curled on her side and closed her eyes, waiting for the sound of Rachel shutting the door.

Instead Rachel stormed over to the bed and yanked the blanket off Nina. “Get up,” she snapped. “No more wallowing in your room.”

“I can’t—”

“Yes, you
can.
” Rachel threw open the doors to Nina’s wardrobe and began pulling out various items, tossing them one after the other onto the bed. Her vivacity was contagious. “Get dressed and let’s go.”

“All right.” Nina was startled into agreement.

Rachel played music on her phone, singing along in a distinctly off-key voice as she waited for her friend to get ready. Nina pulled on a black crocheted top and skinny jeans, with a long multistrand gold necklace. Then she swept her hair into a high ponytail, revealing the piercings that trailed up the cartilage of her ears.
Let people stare,
she thought, with a new fierceness. Rachel was right—it was time she stopped hiding.

When they walked outside, Nina was pleasantly surprised to see that only a single paparazzo was stationed outside her dorm. He snapped a few halfhearted photos, muttering to himself, then began to pack up his gear.

Rachel gave a bright, quicksilver laugh. “Looks like Beatrice’s engagement took the heat off you.”

“Apparently so.” Nina wasn’t all that close with Sam’s older sister, but still, she felt oddly grateful to her.

Rachel led Nina to an old redbrick building at the end of Somerset Drive, which students at King’s College called simply “the Street,” since it was lined on both sides with all the fraternity and sorority houses. On nights like this, cars didn’t even attempt to drive down the Street; there were too many college kids spilling out onto the pavement, holding their phones to their ears, trailing back and forth from one house to another as they party-hopped. Despite the chilly weather, a few of the houses had kegs and music on their front lawns, so that people could bring the party outside.

The moment she stepped through the front door, Nina heard the whispers:
She’s prettier than I expected; she’s not all that pretty; do you think her boobs are real; look at what she’s wearing.
People held up their phones to take very unsubtle photos of her, which they probably hoped to sell to some tabloid or gossip site.

“Nina! How are you?” A girl from her English class—Melissa? Marissa?—stepped forward with an eager smile. “Is Jeff here?” She glanced around Nina’s side, as if Nina might be hiding the Prince of America on the fraternity’s front porch.

“He isn’t,” Nina said tersely.

“Bummer! Hopefully next time,” Melissa-or-Marissa replied, in the eager voice of someone who thrived on gossip. It shattered Nina’s already tenuous self-control.

“Excuse me,” she murmured, and brushed past the girl into the party, Rachel close on her heels.

The fraternity house’s two-story living room was filled with other undergrads, many of them clutching red Solo cups. A music video played on the massive TV. In a nearby room, clusters of students gathered around a plastic table, lining up their cups of beer for a drinking game.

It might have been Nina’s imagination, but she thought the noise of the party dipped a little at her arrival, as people nudged their friends and pointed her out. The moment she passed, little currents and eddies of whispers rippled out in her wake.

She came to a halt near the door to the backyard and tipped her chin up, daring people to say something. Eventually the noise level in the room recalibrated toward normal.

“Promise you’ll stay at least an hour. You look too good to waste this outfit on moping around in your room,” Rachel begged, as if reading her thoughts.

Nina managed a half smile. “I’m glad you dragged me out. Even if you did bring me to a frat party.”

“Nothing wrong with a frat party every now and then,” Rachel said evenly. “Besides, if you leave right away, the haters have won.”

Some of those haters were probably here now. Nina stared around the room, full of overt stares and glossy fake smiles. She wondered which of these students were the ones who’d sent in photos from lecture halls, poking fun at her outfit choices or so-called lack of class. How many of them had logged on to the comment boards to call her an ugly name?

She had never realized how hard it must be for the royal family, to know where to place their trust.

Rachel let out a breath. “You know they reached out to me.”

“‘They’?”

“Magazines, blogs. I don’t know how they found me, but they figured out that we’re friends. They offered me a thousand dollars in exchange for information about you, compromising pictures, anything. I told them to go to hell, obviously,” Rachel said quickly. “But I thought you should know.”

Nina recoiled from the shock. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

“As if I would sell out my friend. Not to mention my hookup for my VIP library status.” Rachel smiled, leaning back against the wall and crossing her arms. “Now, will you
please
tell me why you still refuse to talk to Jeff?”

A few people inclined their heads toward them, trying desperately to eavesdrop without being obvious about it. Nina deliberately turned her back on the rest of the room. “I’m just not ready for … whatever that conversation is going to be.”

“It’s been almost two weeks,” Rachel said baldly. “And I know he’s been calling nonstop. Or should I say, your imaginary friend
Alex
has been calling.” Rachel’s eyes glinted with amusement. “That was kind of obvious, Nina. Next time you’re hiding a secret relationship with a prince, don’t label his contact icon with one of his middle names.”

This was the problem with having smart, observant friends, Nina thought wryly. She let out a breath. “I know it’s not completely fair, but part of me feels angry at Jeff. This whole media firestorm is exactly why I didn’t want to tell anyone, and the story still got out anyway.”

Rachel tapped one chunky heel absently against the floor. “Jeff didn’t take those pictures. Doesn’t he at least deserve the chance to tell you he’s sorry?”

“Are you saying this because you really think he’s blameless, or because he’s the prince?”

“I don’t see why it can’t be both,” Rachel said glibly, and her grin loosened some of Nina’s resolve.

As if on cue, her phone buzzed with an incoming call from Jeff. She started to ignore it, but Rachel’s skeptical look stopped her. “Fine, you win,” she muttered, and answered.

“Um, hey. It’s Jeff.” He sounded nervous, as if he hadn’t expected her to pick up—and now that she had, he was terrified she might hang up again. “I came to your dorm room, but you aren’t answering.”

“You’re on campus?”

“Yeah. Where are you?”

Nina was startled into answering. “A party at one of the frats.”

“Which frat?”

“Sigma something? Listen, Jeff—”

“I understand if you don’t want to talk to me.” There was a crackling on the other end of the phone, as if he was moving quickly and needed to say everything in a single breath. “I just want to apologize for all the madness that the press has put you through. You should have every expectation of privacy. I’m so sorry.”

Nina felt her resentment slowly lessening. “I know it’s not your fault.”

“Is it Sigma Chi or Kappa Sig? Or SAE?”

“I don’t know, the one on the corner?” It took Nina a moment to realize what he’d just said. “Wait—are you
here
?”

There was the sound of a car door slamming. “Look, at least let me deliver this Wawa chocolate shake. Especially after I waited for it and everything.”

“You went to Wawa
yourself
?” Nina tried, and failed, to imagine Jeff standing in line. The entire store must have asked for selfies with him.

“I had to make sure they gave you extra M&M’s. Obviously.”

Before Nina could answer, a commotion rose up behind her. She felt everyone’s eyes swivel abruptly toward the front door, then to Nina and back again, as if observing a tennis match. Nina knew even before she turned around what she would see.

It was Prince Jefferson George Alexander Augustus, his phone pressed to one ear, holding a Wawa milkshake in a plastic cup. “I’m here,” he said unnecessarily, still speaking into the phone. Nina had the surreal sensation of hearing his voice in her ear and, at the same time, several yards away from her.

No one was even
pretending
not to stare, but Nina didn’t care anymore.

She hung up and started toward the prince. He looked oddly nervous, as if he still wasn’t sure how she would react to him. Neither was Nina.

“As promised, your delivery,” Jeff declared, handing over the Wawa milkshake. Nina took a small sip to cover her confusion.

“Jeff!” Rachel exclaimed in her upbeat, bouncing way. She’d ignored his titles, Nina noticed in a daze, which Jeff would appreciate, and held out her hand rather than curtsying. “It’s so good to meet you. I’m Rachel Greenbaum.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Jeff replied. “And might I say, you have excellent taste in names for your goldfish.”

“You told him!” Rachel rounded on Nina, though she didn’t sound upset. “Before you judge me, you should know that every girl on our hallway has a poster of you in her dorm room, except Nina.” She gave a mischievous grin. “I get it, though. Why have a poster of you when she’s already got the real thing?”

“The real thing is much more work, trust me,” Nina countered, only somewhat teasing.

Jeff’s eyes gleamed. “But would the poster deliver you on-demand milkshakes?”

Against her better judgment, Nina ventured a step closer. Her mind was throbbing with confusion.

“Is there somewhere we can talk? In private?” Jeff asked.

“You could go upstairs to the study,” Rachel suggested. “I guarantee that no one will be working right now.”

“There’s a study here?”

“Frat boys have homework too.” Rachel shrugged, her eyes drifting to Jeff. “Actually, Jeff, they say that your uncle
and
your father both wrote their senior theses in that room.”

Neither Nina nor Jeff spoke as they traipsed up the stairs and down the hallway, his security detail hovering alongside them.

The study was lined with shelves of old books, a pair of circular tables gathered beneath bank-style iron lamps. Nina held her breath as the protection officer stationed himself outside and pulled the door shut. She set the Wawa cup on the table; her stomach was too twisted with anxiety for a milkshake right now.

“Jeff, why did you come?”

“To see you,” he said, as if it were self-evident.

“No, I mean—why did you come
tonight
?”
After I’ve been avoiding you since last week,
she didn’t need to add.

“Sam told me that she came by. She also told me what you said, about how hard it’s been, being involved with our family all these years. I’m so sorry for making you feel that way.” His eyes were downcast. “And then last night, after Beatrice’s engagement interview, when I saw all those people crowding around her and Teddy outside the palace—I should have realized that was why you wanted to keep our relationship a secret. Anyway,” he said clumsily, “I really am sorry.”

He sucked in his breath before his next question, as if he couldn’t bear to ask but couldn’t bear not to.

“Nina … what’s going on with us? Are we going to be okay?”

Nina trailed a hand along the spines of the nearby books. She couldn’t help noticing that they weren’t arranged in any kind of order, not alphabetically or by the Dewey decimal system or even by
color.
A perverse part of her wanted to pull them all out, catalog them, then put them back on the shelves properly.

“I meant what I said earlier,” Jeff added, rambling into the silence. “The way that the media have been treating you is completely out of line. I’m so sorry for my part in it.”

“I know.” Nina wasn’t quite ready to say,
It’s okay.

“But I’m still curious how the paparazzi knew about us,” she went on, voicing a thought she’d had multiple times this past week. “Someone must have tipped them off, for them to be ready and waiting outside my dorm with a long-lens camera.”

“No one knew about us. Except for my security detail and the team at Matsuhara, and I don’t think they would betray us.”

“You never told anyone? Not even Ethan?” She didn’t have to point out that Ethan went to this school, too. Maybe even lived in one of the dorms near Nina’s.

“I told Ethan that I liked
someone,
” Jeff admitted. “It was kind of hard not to, after the reporter asked that question at the photo call. But I never told him who it was. And I trust Ethan, implicitly,” he added, before she could accuse Ethan of tipping off the tabloids.

Nina gave a slow nod. She believed Jeff. After all, she certainly would never do anything like that to Sam.

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