Read American Royals Online

Authors: Katharine McGee

Tags: #antique

American Royals (6 page)

And when he accompanied her to royal functions, Connor no longer stood stone-faced to one side. Now he caught Beatrice’s eye whenever someone made a bad joke or an outlandish remark, forcing her to look away lest she burst out laughing. They even developed a silent system, using her purse as a signaling device. If she slid it back and forth from one forearm to another, it meant she wanted to leave, at which point Connor would walk over with a fabricated excuse and help her escape.

As time went on, Beatrice slowly pieced together Connor’s story. He’d grown up in West Texas, in a town called El Real—“How typically Texan to call a town
real,
as if the rest of the world is just made up,” Connor had joked. His dad worked as a post office clerk, and his younger sister, Kaela, had just started college.

The more she learned about Connor, the more Beatrice revealed about herself: her opinions of people, her frustrations. She attempted
jokes.
As strange and unexpected as it might be, she’d begun to think of Connor as her friend.

And Beatrice had never had a close friend, not the way that Sam had Nina or Jefferson had Ethan. Even in elementary school, she’d struggled to form connections with her classmates. Half the time she had no idea what they were talking about—their references to TV shows or Disneyland were completely lost on her, as if they were speaking a bewildering foreign language. The other girls were unerringly polite, but always held themselves at a distance. It was as though they could
smell
her inherent otherness, like wild cats.

Eventually Beatrice had given up on trying to make friends. It was just easier to keep to herself, to seek the approbation of adults rather than that of her peers.

Until Connor, she hadn’t realized what a relief it was, having someone who knew her so well. Someone she could simply
talk
to, without having to weigh every last word before she spoke.

It had been jarring when she graduated, and they left the informality of Harvard to come back to court, with all its etiquette and expectations. Beatrice had secretly feared that things between her and Connor might change. But while he did start calling her
Your Royal Highness
in public, in private they slipped right back into their easy camaraderie.

“You’re so quiet,” Connor said now, interrupting the princess’s thoughts. His eyes met hers in the mirror. “What’s going on, Bee?”

“My parents want me to interview potential husbands tonight.”

The words rattled out violently into the room, like the discharge of musketry during the annual Presentation of the Troops.

Beatrice wasn’t sure what had possessed her to say it so bluntly. She hadn’t wanted to talk about this with Connor at all. Which was foolish, really, given that he knew practically everything else about her: that she hated bananas, and called her grandmother every Sunday, and had dreams of her teeth falling out whenever she got stressed.

Why did it feel so strange, then, to tell Connor that her parents wanted her to start thinking about marriage?

Maybe her subconscious had made her say it, hoping to gauge his reaction—to elicit a flare of jealousy.

Connor stared at her with a curious expression, tinged with something that might have been disbelief. “Let me get this straight,” he said slowly. “You’re going to meet some guys that your parents have picked out and then
marry
one of them?”

“That sums it up pretty accurately.” Beatrice had seen a couple of the young men across the room during the cocktail hour. She’d managed to avoid them thus far, but she knew she would have to face them after the ceremony.

“How many … potential suitors are there?” Connor went on, clearly uncertain what to call them.

“Why do you care?” Beatrice meant it to sound flippant, but it came out slightly defensive.

“Just trying to do my job.”

Of course. It didn’t matter whether they were friends. At the end of the day, Beatrice was still his
job.

When she didn’t answer, Connor shrugged. “They need you back outside. Are you almost ready?”

Beatrice reached for a flat velvet box on the side table and unhooked its clasp. Nestled inside was the Winslow Tiara, made over a century ago and worn ever since by the Princess Royal, the oldest daughter of the reigning monarch. It was breathtaking, the whorls of its lacelike pattern covered in several hundred small diamonds.

She placed it on the hairsprayed nest of her hair and began to pin it into place. But her hands fumbled, the pins slipping from her fingers. The priceless tiara began to slide off her head.

Beatrice barely caught it before it could shatter against the floor.

“Here, let me try,” Connor offered, taking a swift step forward.

Beatrice bent her knees into an almost curtsy, though Connor was so tall he probably didn’t need her to. She felt oddly out of body, like she was swimming through the watery depths of a dream, as she watched him lift the tiara. Neither of them spoke as he used a series of bobby pins to fasten it in place.

The rise and fall of Beatrice’s chest was shallow beneath the silk faille of her gown. He barely touched her, yet every motion, every brush of a fingertip against the back of her neck, felt scalding.

When she stood up again, Beatrice blinked at her own crowned and glittering reflection. Her eyes were still locked on Connor’s in the mirror.

He reached for Beatrice’s cloak, as if to imperceptibly adjust it, though it was already perfectly placed. Was it Beatrice’s imagination, or did he hold his fingers on her back for a moment longer than was strictly necessary?

A flourish of trumpets rebounded down the hallway. Connor stepped back, breaking the moment—or whatever it had been.

Beatrice squared her shoulders and started toward the door. As she turned, the dense blue velvet of her cloak swept majestically behind her. It had to weigh at least fifteen pounds. Her tiara glittered, sending a spray of shadows and lights over the wall.

When they reached the door, Connor instinctively fell back a step, so that he would walk out of the room behind the princess, as befitted both their ranks. It had happened so many times before, yet Beatrice’s heart still fell a little as Connor lingered. She much preferred having him
next
to her, being able to see his face.

But this was the way things were. Connor was simply doing his job—and so should she.

DAPHNE

You had to hand it to the Washingtons, Daphne thought, from where she sat in the audience of the knighthood ceremony. They really knew how to do pomp and circumstance.

As far as royal dynasties were concerned, they were hardly the oldest. The Bourbons, the Hapsburgs, the Hanoverians, the Romanovs: those families could trace their sovereignty back a great many centuries, or in some cases—the Yamatos had been rulers of Japan since 660 BC—
millennia.
The Washingtons were such
nouveaux arrivés
by comparison that they were practically the Deightons of royal families.

But what they lacked in age, the Washingtons more than made up in style.

Hundreds of courtiers sat on wooden benches, facing a dais with three massive thrones. The central and largest was that of King George IV himself, upholstered in red velvet with his interlocking initials, GR for Georgius Rex, stitched in gold thread. Queen Adelaide was seated in the neighboring throne, while the king and Princess Beatrice stood before her, conducting the knighthood ceremony.

Beatrice held out a scroll of parchment—one of the patents of nobility, tied with a red silk ribbon. The robe of state swept behind her, shimmering with embroidery and trimmed in fur.

“Ms. Monica Sanchez.” Beatrice spoke into the microphone pinned to her sash.

One of the figures in the first few pews, presumably Monica Sanchez, jumped to her feet. Her movements were stiff with nervousness, as if she were a marionette whose strings had been cut. Honestly. People got so worked up about meeting the royal family. They seemed to forget that the Washingtons were humans too—who breathed and had nightmares and vomited just like everyone else. But then, Daphne had seen all that firsthand.

Monica trailed up the steps and knelt before the king.

“For the services you have rendered this nation and the world at large, I thank you. From this day forward, I grant you the honors and dignities of a Knight Defender of the Realm.” The king was holding a ceremonial sword, its hilt engraved with the American eagle: not the sword that had belonged to King George I, because that had been lost long ago, but a replica based off an old portrait.

The king tapped the blade of the sword flat against one of Monica’s shoulders, then lifted it over her head to tap the other. Daphne was quite certain that she saw Monica flinch. Probably she’d heard what happened last year, when Jefferson had drunkenly decided to knight people using one of the antique swords on the wall. He’d ended up nicking their friend Rohan’s ear. Rohan laughed about the whole thing, but you could still see the scar.

“Arise, Lady Monica Sanchez,” the king concluded, holding out a hand to help her to her feet. There was a polite smattering of applause, noticeably softer than it had been at the beginning of the alphabet. At least they were finally on
S.

“Jeff looks
amazing,
” a girl in the next row whispered.

Daphne felt her mouth curl in a proprietary smile. Jefferson did look fantastic, standing there on the side of the dais, a glaring space next to him where Samantha should have been. On a normal man, the royal dress uniform might have looked ludicrous, all that ribbon and decorative braid and those shiny gold epaulets. Yet Jefferson somehow made it seem distinguished, even sexy.

“Mr. Ryan Sinclair,” Beatrice went on, and Daphne quickly checked herself before anyone could catch her staring at the prince. There were so many cameras, clustered on both sides of the room like a thicket of eyes, and she never knew which of them might be trained on her. She clasped her hands in her lap and looked forward, arranging herself like a mannequin on display.

The ceremony concluded at last. Slowly, like a great lumbering elephant, the herd of elegantly dressed people shuffled back down the hallway and into the ballroom. Toward the entrance, a few journalists spoke rapidly into their microphones, completing their coverage of the evening. Daphne didn’t bother searching for her parents as she began to circumnavigate the room.

She knew where Jefferson was at all times. She could
feel
him, as if he were holding the opposite end of a rubber band, and its constant tugging let her know in which direction to look. But she didn’t look. She would wait until the time was right.

She’d forgotten how good it felt, being at court. Her blood thrummed at something in the air—as thick as the scent of rain, but more raw and primal and heady like smoke. It made Daphne feel brutally awake, all the way to her fingertips. It was the scent of power, she thought, and if you were smart, you knew what it meant.

She couldn’t go a few a feet without someone stopping to greet her. Here was Countess Madeleine of Hartford and her wife, the Countess Mexia. Daphne noted with a spark of envy that both women were wearing gowns straight off the runway. Next the Minister of the Treasury, Isabella Gonzalez: her mousy, poorly dressed daughter was a close friend of Samantha’s. And now fast-food heiress Stephanie Warner was rustling over to pose with Daphne for the photographers, making certain to stand on Daphne’s right, so that her name would appear first in the photo captions.

“How’s your friend Himari?” Stephanie asked when the bulbs had stopped flashing. The question caught Daphne off guard.

“Himari is still in the hospital,” she replied, with perhaps the first genuine emotion she’d shown that day.

Stephanie pursed her lips into a moue of sympathy. She was wearing a dark shade of lipstick that wasn’t right for her pale complexion. It made her look garish, like some kind of vampire bride from the crypt. “She’s been in there a while, hasn’t she.”

“Since June.” Daphne said a quick goodbye and moved along the room. She couldn’t let herself think about Himari, and what had happened to her the night of Jefferson’s graduation. Once she did, the memory would grab hold of her mind and refuse to let go.

This was the greatest game in the world, the only game that truly mattered: the game of influence at court. So Daphne glanced around at her smiling enemies and smiled right back at them.

Looking slender and shadowy in her dusky silk gown, she started at last toward the prince. Her heels made emphatic little clicks on the hardwood surface of the ballroom. She’d worn her hair down tonight, its fiery layers framing the perfect oval of her face. She’d even managed to borrow a pair of emerald droplets that brought out the vicious green of her eyes.

When she reached him, Jefferson made a show of looking up as if startled, though he’d probably been watching her from across the ballroom. After all these years, he was just as attuned to her presence as she was to his.

Daphne dropped into a curtsy: straight down like a bucket, like a ballerina at the barre. The fabric of her skirts pooled architecturally around her. She kept her head lifted the whole time, her eyes on his. They both knew there was no reason for her to greet him like this, except to give him a good view down the front of her dress. A bit desperate, but then, so was she.

After a moment, Jefferson reached to pull her out of the curtsy. She looked up at him wistfully, as if to say,
Here we are again, after all,
and was relieved by Jefferson’s answering grin.

“Hey there, Jefferson.” The familiar syllables of his name rolled in her mouth like candy.

“Hey, Daph.”

“Dance with me?” She flashed her most beguiling smile, the one Jefferson had never been able to resist. Sure enough, he nodded.

As they stepped onto the dance floor, he twined a hand in hers, resting the other on her waist, the way he had so many times before. God, he was so gorgeous, so achingly familiar. All the old tenderness and warmth was bubbling back up, and the hurt, too, as she remembered what he’d done to her—what she’d done to
him

“Did you have fun in Asia?” she asked, to cover her momentary confusion.

“It was incredible. There’s nothing like sitting at the top of Angkor Wat and watching the sun rise to really put things in perspective.” Jefferson gave a lazy smile. “How’s senior year treating you? I heard you got prefect, by the way. Congratulations.”

She wondered how he knew that—whether someone had told him or whether he’d read it himself, in the news blurb she’d pressured Natasha to publish. Either way, it was nice to know that Jefferson was still keeping tabs on her.

“The real benefit of being prefect is that Sister Agatha no longer chases me down for hallway passes when I’m out of class.”

“As if you ever cut class.” Jefferson spun her in an expert twirl, causing the folds of her gown to flutter and settle around her with a pleasant whisper.

“I cut class that time we went to the World Series.”

“Was that when Nicholas got so drunk that he bartered away his shoes for a hot dog?”

“His shoes
and
his phone.”

They both laughed at the memory, the kind of easy, intimate laugh that they hadn’t shared in a long time, and when it was over, Daphne knew she had scored her first point.

Not to mention that people had noticed them together. She felt herself glowing ever more vividly, with the spark that collective attention had always struck from her.

“Daphne,” the prince said hesitantly, and she leaned forward, expectant. “I owe you an apology. I’m sorry for the way I ended things.”

“It’s okay.” She didn’t need an
apology
from Jefferson. She needed him to want her back.

“I just feel like you deserved better,” he added.

Daphne knew he was thinking about that girl in his bed, and for a moment she almost despised him, for being too cowardly to tell her the truth about their breakup. For apologizing without actually telling her what he was apologizing
for.

“It’s all in the past,” she said quietly, hiding her emotions behind the courtier’s mask of her face. “Jefferson … I’ve missed you.”

She waited for him to say it back. And for an instant, it seemed like he might.

But then he was stepping away, lowering his hands to his sides. “I have to—sorry, but I have to go.”

“Of course.” Daphne forced herself to smile as if nothing were amiss, even though Jefferson was leaving her alone mid-song. Turning her into a source of gossip.

Tomorrow various versions of this story would make their way through drawing rooms and dinner parties.
Jefferson abandoned her on the dance floor,
people would say;
there’s no chance of them getting back together now.

“May I cut in?” Ethan Beckett, Jefferson’s best friend, appeared at her side so quickly that one could only assume he’d been watching their whole interaction.

Daphne opened her mouth to make some incisive comment, then caught herself. If she danced with Ethan, just for one song, it would distract people from the prince’s abrupt departure. Which might have been precisely what Ethan was counting on.

“All right.” She tried to rest her hands lightly on his shoulders, so lightly that they almost weren’t touching, but through the fabric Daphne felt the warmth of his skin.

Ethan had been Jefferson’s best friend since elementary school. He was good-looking, with laughing dark eyes and a smattering of freckles. He wasn’t noble: his mom worked as a public school teacher, raising Ethan on her own. Daphne had always assumed he attended Forsythe on scholarship, because there was surely no way his family could afford the tuition. Now Ethan was a freshman at King’s College—where Jefferson would likely go, as soon as his gap year ended.

Daphne had always liked that about Jefferson, that he had someone like Ethan as his best friend. Someone who came from a background so drastically different from his own.

Then again, it was easy to ignore things like money and status when you had near-infinite amounts of both.

They danced in silence for a few moments. Without quite realizing it, Daphne had overstepped Ethan to take the lead, her steps growing faster and faster until they outpaced the tempo of the music.

When she almost tripped over Ethan’s feet in her agitation, his grip on her hand tightened. “It’s a dance. You can enjoy it, not attack it.”

She didn’t apologize, but she did back down. Slightly.

“I take it things didn’t go so well with Jeff,” he went on, in a conversational tone.

Daphne fought back a swell of indignation. She didn’t owe an explanation to anyone, least of all Ethan. Yet he’d always had a particular talent for getting under her skin.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Come on, Daphne, you guys are over. Is it really worth throwing yourself at him like this, just so you can get a tiara someday?”

Daphne stiffened. Only Ethan had ever accused her of dating Jefferson for the wrong reasons. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Relationships never make sense from the outside; the only people qualified to weigh in on them are the people in them.”

“Except that you and Jeff aren’t
in
a relationship anymore,” Ethan pointed out ruthlessly.

“For now.”

They were both speaking softly, their eyes locked on each other. Daphne had almost forgotten that they were in the ballroom at all.

“You’re wasting your time. You won’t snap your fingers and get him back, just like that,” he countered.

“Not
just like that.
” It wouldn’t be easy, and she might have to wait a while. So what if Jefferson hung out with some of those skanky, stalkerish girls from the prince posse? Those girls didn’t mean anything to him. He would come back to her, because in the end they belonged together, and he knew it as well as Daphne did.

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