Authors: Katharine McGee
By the time they were in high school, Nina was used to her best friend’s quirky plans and contagious excitement.
Let’s take Albert out!
Sam would text, naming the lemon-yellow Jeep she’d begged her parents to give her on her sixteenth birthday. She had the car, but she kept failing the parallel-parking part of her driver’s test and still didn’t have a license. Which meant that Nina ended up driving that obnoxiously yellow Jeep all through the capital, with Samantha sitting cross-legged in the passenger seat, begging her to swing through McDonald’s. After a while Nina didn’t even worry about the protection officer glowering at them from the back.
Sam made it far too easy for Nina to forget the myriad differences between them. And Nina loved her, without strings or conditions, the way she would have loved a sister if she’d had one. It was just that her sister happened to be the Princess of America.
But their relationship had subtly shifted over the past six months. Nina had never told Sam what happened the night of the graduation party—and the longer she kept it a secret, the greater the distance it seemed to wedge between them. Then Sam and Jeff went off on their whirlwind post-graduation trip, and Nina was starting her first year of college, and maybe it was all for the best anyway. This was Nina’s chance to settle into a more normal life, one without the private planes and court galas and protocol that had so worried Isabella. She could go back to being her ordinary, real-world self.
Nina hadn’t told anyone at King’s College that Samantha was her best friend. They would probably assume she was a liar—or if they did believe her, they might try to use her for her connections. Nina didn’t know which outcome would be worse.
Professor Urquhart clicked off the microphone, marking the conclusion of the lecture. Everyone stood in a shuffle of closing laptops and suppressed gossip. Nina scribbled a few final notes in her spiral before tossing it into her shoulder bag, then followed Rachel down the stairs and out into the courtyard.
A few other girls from their hallway joined them, talking in excited tones about the Queen’s Ball viewing party. They started toward the student center, where everyone usually grabbed lunch after class, but Nina’s steps slowed.
A movement near the street had grabbed her attention. A black town car was idling at the curb, purring softly. Propped in the car window was a piece of white computer paper with Nina’s name scrawled on it.
She would recognize that handwriting anywhere.
“Nina? Are you coming?” Rachel called out.
“Sorry, I have a meeting with my advisor,” Nina fibbed. She waited a few more moments before racing across the lawn toward the car.
In the backseat was Princess Samantha, wearing velour sweatpants and a white T-shirt through which Nina could see her pink bra. Nina hurried to join her, pulling the door shut before anyone could see.
I missed you!” Sam threw her arms around her friend in one of her typically effusive hugs.
“I missed you, too,” Nina murmured into her friend’s shoulder. A million questions burned on her lips.
Finally Samantha broke away, leaning forward to address the driver. “You can just circle campus for a while,” she told him. Typical Sam, wanting to be in constant motion even if she wasn’t going anywhere.
“Sam—what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for tonight?”
Sam lowered her voice conspiratorially. “I’m kidnapping you and dragging you to the Queen’s Ball as my plus-one!”
Nina shook her head. “Sorry, I have to work tonight.”
“But your parents will be there—I’m sure they’d love to see you!” Sam let out a breath. “Please, Nina? I could really use some backup right now, with my mom and dad.”
“Didn’t you just get home?” What could they already be angry about?
“The last morning in Thailand, Jeff and I ran away from our protection officers,” Sam admitted, looking out the window. They were driving up College Street toward the soaring Gothic architecture of Dandridge Library.
“You ditched your bodyguards? How?”
“We ran away from them,” Samantha repeated, unable to suppress her smile. “Literally. Jeff and I turned and sprinted into oncoming traffic, weaving between the cars, then hitched a ride to an ATV rental place. We rode four-wheelers through the jungle. It was incredible.”
“That seems risky,” Nina pointed out, and Sam laughed.
like my parents! See, this is why I need you. I was hoping that if you came with me tonight …”
“I could keep you in line?” Nina finished for her. As if she’d ever been able to control the princess. No power on earth could keep Samantha from doing something once she’d set her mind to it.
“You know you’re the good one!”
“I’m only ‘the good one’ in comparison to you,” Nina countered. “That isn’t saying much.”
“You should be grateful I set the bar so low,” Sam teased. “Look, we can leave the reception early—grab some homemade cookie dough from the kitchens, stay up late watching bad reality TV. It’s been ages since we had a slumber party! Please,” she said again. “I’ve really missed you.”
It was hard to ignore that kind of plea from your best friend. “I guess … I could probably get Jodi to trade shifts with me,” Nina conceded, after a beat of hesitation so slight that Samantha probably hadn’t even noticed it.
“Thank you!” Sam gave a squeal of excitement. “By the way, I brought you something from Bangkok.” She dug through her bag, eventually emerging with a packet of pretzel M&M’s. The bright blue bag was covered in the gorgeous loops and curlicues of Thai script.
“You remembered.” M&M’s were Nina’s favorite candy. Sam always brought a bag of them home from her foreign trips—she’d read somewhere that the formula was tweaked in each country, and decided that she and Nina would have to taste-test all of them.
“So? How are they?” Sam asked as Nina popped one of the chocolate candies into her mouth.
“Delicious.” It was actually a little stale, but that wasn’t surprising given how many miles it had traveled, smashed into the side pocket of Samantha’s purse.
They turned a corner and the palace swam into view—far too soon for Nina’s liking, but after all, King’s College was only a couple of miles away. Virginia pines stretched tall and arrogant on either side of the street, which was lined with bureaucratic offices and thronged with people. The palace glowed a blazing white against the blue enamel of the sky. Its reflection danced in the waters of the Potomac, so that there seemed to be two palaces: one substantial, one watery and dreamlike.
Tourists clung to the palace’s iron gates, where a row of guards stood at attention, their hands raised in a salute. Above the circle drive Nina saw the fluttering edge of the Royal Standard, the flag indicating that the monarch was officially in residence.
She took a breath, steeling herself. She hadn’t wanted to come back to the palace and risk seeing
She still hated him for what happened the night of the graduation party.
But more than that, Nina hated the small part of herself that secretly longed to see him, even after everything he had done.
Daphne Deighton turned the key in her front door and paused. Out of habit she looked back over her shoulder with a smile, though it had been months since the paparazzi gathered on her lawn, the way they used to when she was dating Jefferson.
Across the river she could just see a corner of Washington Palace. The center of the world—or at least the center of hers.
It was beautiful from this angle, afternoon sunlight streaming over its white sandstone bricks and high arched windows. But as Daphne knew, the palace wasn’t nearly as orderly as it appeared. Constructed on the original site of Mount Vernon, the home of King George I, it had been renovated time and again as various monarchs attempted to leave their mark on it. Now it was a confusing nest of galleries and stairways and hallways, constantly thronged with people.
Daphne lived with her parents on the edge of Herald Oaks, the neighborhood of stately aristocratic houses east of the palace. Unlike their neighbors’ estates, which had been handed down these past two and a half centuries, the Deightons’ home was quite new. Just like their nobility.
At least her family had a title, thank
even if it fell a bit low in the hierarchy for Daphne’s taste. Her father, Peter, was the second Baronet Margrave. The baronetcy had been awarded to Daphne’s grandfather by King Edward III, for a “personal diplomatic service” to Empress Anna of Russia. No one in the family had ever explained the exact nature of this unspecified service. Naturally, Daphne had drawn her own conclusions.
She closed the door behind her, slinging her leather book bag off one shoulder, and heard her mom’s voice from the dining room. “Daphne? Can you come in here?”
“Of course.” Daphne forced herself to smooth the impatience from her tone.
She’d expected her parents to call a family conclave today, just as they had so many times before: when Jefferson had first asked Daphne out, or when he invited her on vacation with his family, or on the unthinkable day when he broke up with her. Every milestone in her relationship with the prince had been marked by one of these discussions. It was just the way her family operated.
Not that her parents had contributed all that much. Everything Daphne had accomplished with Jefferson, she’d done squarely on her own.
She slid into the dining chair across from her parents and reached nonchalantly for the pitcher of iced tea, to pour herself a glass. She already knew her mother’s next words.
“He got back last night.”
There was no need to clarify which
her mother had meant. Prince Jefferson George Alexander Augustus—the youngest of the three royal Washington siblings, and the only boy.
“I’m aware.” As if Daphne hadn’t set a dozen internet alerts for the prince’s name, didn’t constantly check social media for every last shred of information about his status. As if she didn’t know the prince better than anyone else did, probably even his own mother.
“You didn’t go to meet his plane.”
“Next to all the shrieking fangirls? I think not. I’ll see Jefferson tonight at the Queen’s Ball.” Daphne pointedly refused to call the prince
the way everyone else did. It sounded so decidedly
“It’s been six months,” her father reminded her. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
“I guess I’ll have to be,” Daphne replied in a clipped tone. Of course she was ready.
Her mother hastened to intercede. “We’re just trying to help, Daphne. Tonight is an important night. After all we’ve done …”
A psychologist might assume that Daphne had inherited her ambitions from her parents, but it would be more accurate to say that her parents’ ambitions were magnified and concentrated in her, the way a curved glass lens can focus scattered beams of heat.
Rebecca Deighton’s social climbing had begun long before Daphne was born. Becky, as she’d called herself then, left her small town in Nebraska at age nineteen, armed with nothing but stunning good looks and a razor-sharp wit. She signed with a top modeling agency in a matter of weeks. Her face was soon plastered on magazines and billboards, lingerie ads and car commercials. America became infatuated with her.
Becky eventually restyled herself as Rebecca and set her sights on a title. After she met Daphne’s father, it was only a matter of time before she became Lady Margrave.
And if things went according to plan and Daphne married Jefferson, her parents would surely be elevated above a lowly baronetcy. They might become an earl and countess … perhaps even a marques and marchioness.
“We only want what’s best for you,” Rebecca added, her eyes on her daughter’s.
You mean what’s best for
you, Daphne was tempted to reply. “I’ll be fine,” she said instead.
Daphne had known for years that she would marry the prince. That was the only word for it:
to marry, or
of marrying, or even
to marry. Those words involved an element of chance, of uncertainty.
When she was little, Daphne had pitied the girls at her school who were obsessed with the royal family: the ones who copied everything the princesses wore, or had Prince Jefferson’s picture plastered on their lockers. What were they doing when they swooned over his poster, pretending that the prince was their boyfriend? Pretending was a game for babies and fools, and Daphne was neither.
Then, in eighth grade, Daphne’s class took a field trip to the palace, and she realized why her parents clung so obsessively to their aristocratic status. Because that status was their window into
As she gazed at the palace in all its inaccessible grandeur—as she heard her classmates whispering how wonderful it must be, to be a princess—Daphne came to the startling realization that they were right. It
wonderful to be a princess. Which was why Daphne, unlike the rest of them, would actually become one.
After that field trip, Daphne had resolved that she would date the prince, and like all goals she set for herself, she achieved it. She applied to St. Ursula’s, the private all-girls school that the daughters of the royal family had attended since time immemorial. Jefferson’s sisters went there. It didn’t hurt that Jefferson’s school, the all-boys Forsythe Academy, was right next door.
Sure enough, by the end of the year the prince had asked her out, when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore.
It wasn’t always easy, managing someone as spontaneous and heedless as Jefferson. But Daphne was everything a princess should be: gracious and accomplished and, of course, beautiful. She charmed the American people and the press. She even won the approval of the Queen Mother, and Jefferson’s grandmother was notoriously impossible to please.
Until the night of Jefferson’s high school graduation party, when everything went so horribly wrong. When Himari got hurt, and Daphne went looking for Jefferson—only to find him in bed with another girl.
It was definitely the prince; the light glinted unmistakably on the deep brown of his hair. Daphne tried to breathe. Her vision dissolved into spots. After everything that had happened, after the lengths she’d gone to—
She’d stumbled back, fleeing the room before either of them could see her.
Jefferson called the next morning. Daphne felt a momentary stab of panic that he somehow knew everything—knew the terrible, unthinkable thing she had done. Instead he stammered through a breakup speech that might as well have been written by his PR people. He kept saying how young they both were: how Daphne still wasn’t finished with high school, and he didn’t know what he was doing next year. That it might be better for both of them if they spent some time apart, but he hoped they could still be friends. Daphne’s voice was eerily calm as she told him that she understood.
The moment Jefferson hung up, Daphne called Natasha at the
and planted the breakup story herself. She’d learned long ago that the first story was always the most important, because it set the tone for all the others. So she made certain that Natasha reported the breakup as mutual, that Daphne and Jefferson had agreed it was for the best.
At least, the article ever-so-subtly implied, for the time being.
In the six months since the breakup, Jefferson had been out of town, on a royal tour and then on a rambling post-graduation trip with his twin sister. It had given Daphne ample opportunity to think about their relationship—about what they both had done, and what it had cost her.
Even after everything that had happened, even knowing what she knew, she still wanted to be a princess. And she intended to win Jefferson back.
“We’re just trying to look out for you, Daphne,” Rebecca went on, as gravely as if she’d been discussing a life-threatening medical diagnosis. “Especially now …”
Daphne knew what her mother meant. Now that she and Jefferson were broken up and it was open season again, flocks of girls had started trailing after him.
the newspapers called them. Privately Daphne liked to think of them as Jeffersluts. No matter the city, they were always the same: wearing short skirts and sky-high heels, waiting for hours at bars or in hotel lobbies just hoping for a glimpse of him. Jefferson—oblivious, as always—flitted happily from place to place like a butterfly, while those girls stalked him with nets at the ready.
The prince poachers weren’t really her competition; none of them were even in the same league as her. Still, each time she saw a photo of Jefferson surrounded by a flock of those girls, Daphne couldn’t help feeling worried. There were just so
Not to mention that girl in Jefferson’s bed, whoever she was. Some masochistic part of Daphne wanted, desperately, to know. After that night, she’d kept expecting the girl to come forward with a sordid tell-all article, but she never did.
Daphne glanced up at the mirror above the sideboard to calm herself.
There was no denying that Daphne was beautiful—beautiful in that rare, dazzling way that seems to justify all successes and excuse a good many failures. She’d inherited Rebecca’s vivid features, her alabaster complexion, and most of all her eyes: those snapping green eyes with a glint of gold, which seemed to hint at untold secrets. But her hair came from Peter. It was a glorious riot of color, everything from copper to red currant to honeysuckle, and fell in a sumptuous tumble almost to her waist.
She gave a faint smile, reassured as always by the promise of her own reflection.
“Daphne.” Her father cut into her thoughts. “Whatever happens, know that we are on your side. Always.”
Daphne shot him a look. Did he know what she had done that night?
“I’ll be fine,” she said again, and left it at that.
She knew what was expected of her. If a plan didn’t work, she had to make another; if she slipped and fell, she must always fall forward. It could only ever be onward and upward for her.
Her parents had no idea what Daphne was capable of—no idea what she had already done, in pursuit of this crown.