Authors: Katharine McGee
That evening, Samantha headed toward a nondescript door that was tucked into the downstairs hallway like an architect’s afterthought. It might not look impressive, but this was the Door of Sighs, the royal family’s private entrance to the grand ballroom: so named because generations of princesses had lingered there when they were too young to attend, and sighed romantically as they watched the dancing.
“There’s going to be hell to pay from your parents,” Nina pointed out, walking next to her.
“Maybe.” Though Sam doubted that her parents had even noticed her lateness. They never noticed anything she did, unless she acted out so much that she forced them to.
Sam’s protection officer trotted alongside them, his mouth set into a thin line. Sam could tell that Caleb was still angry with her for pulling that stunt in Thailand. Well, Sam hadn’t
to run into oncoming traffic; Caleb had simply given her no choice. Nothing else had worked on him—not persuasion or pleading, not even Sam’s last-ditch trick, which usually involved a complaint about cramps or tampons. When she’d tried it on him, the bodyguard had just handed her two Midol tablets and a bottle of water.
“Incoming with the Sparrow,” Caleb muttered into his walkie-talkie. Sam swallowed back a flare of irritation at her security code name. All members of the royal family were designated as birds: the Eagle for the king, the Swan for the queen, the Falcon for Beatrice, the Bluebird for Jeff. It was only a couple of years ago that Sam had learned why security always called the second child Sparrow.
It was Sparrow as in
not the heir.
Sam was the extra child, an insurance policy: a living, breathing backup battery.
The herald, who stood at attention at the Door of Sighs, didn’t dare remark upon Sam’s tardiness. He waited as she reached into her beaded clutch to reapply her lip gloss, a custom peony shade. She’d been offered a multimillion-dollar licensing deal for it—the company wanted to call it American Rose and put Sam’s face on the tube—but she’d turned it down. She liked the idea of the lip-gloss color being entirely her own.
When she nodded at him, the herald stepped into the ballroom and thumped his enormous golden staff on the floor. The sound rebounded over the noises of the party: the clink of wineglasses, the scuffle of leather soles, the low hum of gossip.
“Her Highness Samantha Martha Georgina Amphyllis of the House of Washington!”
Samantha shot Nina one last glance and stepped into the ballroom.
Hundreds of eyes darted toward Samantha, gleaming with calculation. They were all wondering how much weight she’d gained abroad or how much her gown cost or how envious she was of her older sister. Sam tried not to flinch. She’d forgotten just how big a full court function really was, with every last noble and politician in attendance, even the life peers, even their spouses.
White-gloved waiters brushed past with flutes of champagne, and a string quartet played jazz music in the background. Swaths of holiday greenery were draped throughout the room, decorated with poinsettias and enormous red velvet bows. In one corner stood the palace’s official Christmas tree, its branches laden with old-fashioned garlands of popcorn and cherries, the way the royal family had decorated trees for a hundred years.
Sam caught sight of Jeff outside. The French doors had been thrown open, courtiers spilling out on the colonnaded terrace to cluster beneath spidery heat lamps. Several of the twins’ friends were already out there. Jeff met her gaze, his eyes flashing with unmistakable warning, just as an arm closed around Samantha’s elbow like a vise.
“Samantha. We need to talk.” Queen Adelaide looked coolly elegant in a strapless black dress, her glossy hair pinned back with antique diamond clips—the ones that George II had famously won from the French King Louis XVI in a game of cards. The Louisiana Gamble, people called that bet, since it had resulted in France ceding the Louisiana Territory to America.
“Hi, Mom,” Sam said cheerfully, though she knew it was useless.
“That isn’t the gown I laid out for you.” Adelaide had the unique ability to scowl and smile at once, which Sam had always found terrifying, and also a little impressive.
“I know.” Sam had ignored the dress her mom had selected, choosing instead a one-shouldered gown covered in silver sequins: far too edgy and inappropriate for an event this formal, but Sam didn’t care. Her riotous dark hair was loose and messy, as if she’d just tumbled out of bed. She’d also borrowed her grandmother’s choker from the Crown Jewels collection, made of enormous cabochon rubies interspersed with diamonds—but instead of fastening it around her throat, she’d wound it around her wrist in a chunky tangle, making the elegant stones into something almost sexy.
Sam had long ago resolved that if she couldn’t be beautiful, she should at the very least be interesting. And she wasn’t beautiful, not in the traditional sense—her forehead was too wide and sloping, her brows too heavy, her features too starkly hewn, like those of her distant Hanoverian cousins.
But people tended to forget all that the moment Samantha began talking. There was a nebulous, infectious energy to her, as if she were somehow more
than everyone else. As if all her nerves were sparking at once, just below the surface.
The queen steered her daughter firmly to one side of the ballroom, far from any eavesdropping ears.
“Your father and I are disappointed in you,” Adelaide began.
What else is new.
“I’m sorry,” Sam said wearily. She knew the script, knew it was easier to just tell her mom what she wanted to hear. She’d managed to avoid her parents when she landed late last night, and they had been too busy with preparations for the ball to confront her today. But she’d known she couldn’t put them off forever.
the queen hissed. “That’s all you have to say for yourself after running away from your security officers? Samantha, that kind of behavior is inexcusable! Those officers put their lives at risk for you every day. Their job is, literally, to step between you and a bullet. The least you could do is show them some respect!”
“Did you already give this speech to Jeff?” Sam asked, as if she didn’t know the answer. Jeff always emerged from trouble completely unscathed.
It wasn’t fair. Despite how progressive America claimed to be, there was still a sexist double standard quietly underpinning everything. She and Jeff were proof of it, like in those scientific studies where they treated twin babies the same except for one key variable, then tracked how it affected them.
The variable here was that Jeff was a boy and Sam was a girl, and even when they did the
exact same thing,
people reacted to them differently.
If the paparazzi caught Jeff on an expensive shopping spree, he was splurging for a special occasion, while Samantha was spoiled.
If pictures surfaced of Jeff visibly drunk and stumbling out of a bar, he was blowing off some much-needed steam. Samantha was a wild party girl.
If Jeff talked back to the paparazzi, he was simply being firm, protecting his privacy. Samantha was a ruthless bitch.
She would have loved to see how the press might react to
doing any of those things, but of course Beatrice never stepped a toe out of line.
Sam knew that none of it was Jeff’s fault. Still … it was enough to make her wish she could change things. Not that she had any power to do so.
“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal,” she protested weakly. “We didn’t hurt anyone. Why can’t you just let me enjoy my life for once?”
“Samantha, no one has ever accused you of failing to enjoy your life,” Adelaide snapped.
Sam tried not to reveal how much that stung.
Her mom heaved a sigh. “Please, can you at least
to be on your best behavior? This is a big night for your sister.”
Something in her tone gave Samantha pause. “What do you mean?”
The queen just pursed her lips. Whatever was going on, she didn’t trust Sam with it. Per usual.
Sam half wished that she could go back to that moment in Thailand when she’d turned to Jeff, an eyebrow raised in challenge, and dared him to make a run for it. Or earlier, even, to the days before her mom looked at her with such evident disappointment. She remembered the way her mom used to smile at her when Sam came home with stories of her day at school. Adelaide would hold her daughter in her lap and French-braid her hair, her hands very gentle as they brushed the sections and pulled them over one another.
But Sam knew it wasn’t any use. No one cared what she really thought; they just wanted her to shut up and stop stealing media attention from picture-perfect Beatrice. To stand in the background. To be seen and never heard.
There was a stubborn tilt to her head as she stalked across the ballroom. Well, now everyone could gossip about her gown, which was as blindingly bright as a lit-up disco ball. Her eyes gleamed willful and turbulent beneath their lashes.
Sam was almost to the far doors when she saw her older sister, wearing a prim high-necked cocktail dress, probably her first outfit of the evening: she usually had multiple costume changes for state functions. She was talking to a sharp-featured woman with graying hair. It took Sam a moment to realize that they weren’t speaking English.
She hastened past Beatrice and went to station herself at the bar, edging toward the side so that no one would see her.
Where had Nina gone? Sam pulled out her phone and tapped a quick text:
Grabbing drinks, come find me.
Then she leaned forward to make eye contact with the bartender. “Can I have a beer?”
He looked at her askance. They both knew that the palace had never served beer at events like this. It was considered too lowbrow, whatever that meant.
“Please,” Sam added, with as sweet a smile as she knew how to give. “Don’t you have at least
bottle back there?”
The bartender hesitated, as if weighing the risks, then ducked below the bar, emerging a moment later with a pair of frosted beer bottles. “You didn’t get this from me.” He winked and turned away, distancing himself from the incriminating evidence.
“Oh, good, I’ve been looking for one of these,” exclaimed a voice to her left, just as one of the bottles was plucked away.
“Hey, that’s mine!” Sam whirled around on her strappy heel.
The boy standing next to her leaned his elbows back onto the bar, a light glinting in his shockingly blue eyes. He looked a couple of years older, around Beatrice’s age, with unruly blond hair and chiseled features. If it hadn’t been for his pair of matching dimples, his handsomeness would have been almost intimidating.
She wondered who he was. Unlike most nobles, who in Sam’s experience were squishy and soft, he had an athlete’s muscular body.
“Easy there, killer. No need to be double-fisting this early in the night.”
“Did you just call me
?” Sam demanded, unsure whether to be insulted or intrigued.
“Would you prefer Your Highness?” He gave an abbreviated bow in Sam’s direction. “I’m Theodore Eaton, by the way. My friends call me Teddy.”
noble. Very noble, in fact. Though Samantha rather liked that he introduced himself with only his name, when, as the heir to a dukedom, he was technically
The Eatons had been one of the preeminent families in New England since the Mayflower. Some would say that they were more American even than the Washingtons, who, after all, had intermarried with foreign royalty for most of the last two centuries. Teddy’s father was the current Duke of Boston: one of the thirteen original dukedoms, the ones awarded by George I at the very first Queen’s Ball. The Old Guard, those families were sometimes called, because there were no more dukedoms to be had. Congress had put a ban on the creation of new ones back in 1870.
“We just met and already we’re friends? You’re very presumptuous,
” Sam teased. “Where did
come from, anyway? Is it Teddy like a teddy bear?”
“Exactly that. My younger sister called me that, and the name stuck.” Teddy held out his arms in a helpless, amused gesture. “Don’t I look like the teddy bear you had as a kid?”
“I didn’t have a teddy bear. Just a baby blanket that I very creatively named Blankie,” Sam told him. “Well, I
to have Blankie. Now I only have half of Blankie.”
“Where’s the other half?”
“Jeff has it.” What had possessed her to tell this story anyway? She blamed Teddy, and that disarming smile of his. “Blankie was a gift from our grandfather before he died. He gave it to both of us.”
“One blanket for two people?”
Sam idly spun her beer bottle on the bar’s marble surface. “I think he wanted us to learn to share. It didn’t work, of course. When my dad caught us fighting over Blankie, he took a pair of scissors and cut it clean down the middle. Now we each have half.”
Teddy looked at her—
looked at her, those blue-blue eyes meeting hers for a beat longer than was socially acceptable. Sam found herself desperate to know what he was thinking. What he thought of her.
“Being a twin sounds rough. Makes me glad my siblings are all younger,” he concluded.
Sam lifted one golden-brown shoulder in a shrug. At least she hadn’t been fighting with Beatrice; the king would have just given Blankie to her without a second thought.