Authors: Katharine McGee
And yet … something in Ethan’s words gave her pause. “Where did Jefferson run off to?” she asked, wishing it didn’t sound so much like she was begging.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I’m asking as a friend.” The words were knives in her throat, but she delivered them with as much grace as she could muster.
“Oh, are we friends now? I thought, after—”
“Careful, Daphne,” Ethan said meaningfully. “We wouldn’t want this to look like a lovers’ quarrel.”
He was right. The way their heads were tilted close together, the quick play and ripple of their conversation—it looked suspect. Daphne put some distance between them, her face glazing with a smile, though it came out as hard and brittle as the crystal flutes lined up on the bar.
“You can’t say those things,” she whispered.
“You mean, I can’t talk about us?”
“There is no
!” Daphne shook her head so violently that her earrings whipped around to smack the sides of her face. “What happened that night was an awful, terrible mistake.”
“Was it? Or is going after Jeff the mistake?”
“Don’t mention that night. Please,” Daphne entreated, scared into politeness. Normally she and Ethan didn’t bother with the niceties.
The prince could never, ever find out what she and Ethan had done. If he did, all her plans would crumble to dust.
“You seriously think you’ll get Jeff back, don’t you,” Ethan replied, with evident disbelief.
But Daphne knew that she could make it happen. She could make anything happen for herself.
“I know I will,” she told him.
“Nina! There you are!” Princess Samantha tugged her friend to one side of the ballroom, moving in the same impatient, long-legged way that she had since she was a child, no matter how hard the etiquette masters had tried to train it out of her.
“More like there
are. You’re the one who went completely MIA.” Nina shook her head in amusement. “Where were you during the knighthood ceremony?”
Sam’s hair was escaping its pins, her face glowing with a telltale flush. Despite her glittering gown and the diamonds flashing at her wrists and throat, she resembled nothing so much as a creature half-tamed, as if she might run wild at any moment.
Sam lowered her voice to a near whisper. “I was in the cloakroom with Teddy Eaton.”
The princess tipped her head toward a guy on the dance floor, blond and aristocratic-looking. Nina would have said that he didn’t seem like Samantha’s type, except that Sam had never really
a type. The only consistent thing about her flings was the shock value they elicited. “He’s cute,” she said noncommittally.
“I know.” Samantha couldn’t hide her smile. “Sorry I disappeared on you. How’s your night going? Are you miserable yet?”
Nina shrugged. “These things just aren’t my scene.”
She had already talked to everyone she actually liked at this party, which wasn’t that many people to begin with, except for her parents. Most of the guests seemed to look straight through Nina as if she were invisible. But that was just the way of things at court: until you were someone, you were no one at all.
“Well, thank you again for coming,” Sam said earnestly. “Next time I promise we can go to one of your college parties instead. I’m dying to meet all your new friends.”
Nina smiled at the thought of Samantha meeting Rachel. Her two closest friends, both with such headstrong personalities, both accustomed to getting their own way. They would either adore each other or despise each other.
Before Nina could answer, a man came to stand behind Samantha. Lord Robert Standish, who had taken over as chamberlain after Nina’s mamá left.
“Your Highness. His Majesty requests that you dance with the Grand Duke Pieter.” Robert kept his eyes on Samantha, ignoring Nina even though he knew perfectly well who she was.
Samantha cast Nina a glance of apology tinged with irritation. “Sorry, but it seems I’ve been
” she said, and headed off in search of the Grand Duke—the Russian tsar’s younger son, who was currently in America as a guest of the court.
Nina stayed to the side of the ballroom, gazing at the dance floor with the dispassionate eye of an outsider. So many people had crowded onto it, all of them wearing their titles or wealth or connections ostentatiously on their sleeves. Seeing them walk around in that stiff Washington Palace sort of way, Nina gave a quiet sigh of resignation.
Nothing had changed. It was the same stale gossip, the same sparkling wine poured into the same crystal flutes, the same people bickering over the same small dramas. It even
the same, the scents of greed and government mixed with rose sachets and musty old furniture.
It reminded Nina of the soap operas that Julie used to love, where you could miss weeks at a time and then seamlessly pick the story back up. Because despite the whirl of action that seemed to affect the characters, nothing much had actually happened.
She watched Samantha approach Pieter; he bowed stiffly and held out a hand to lead her forward. Courtiers crowded around them, gentlemen-at-arms and yeomen of the guard whose names blurred together in Nina’s mind. She was part of Samantha’s private life, not this public, royal sphere, and no matter how many of these events she’d attended, Nina had no idea who most of these people were.
Though she did recognize Daphne Deighton, dancing with Prince Jefferson.
Daphne’s arm was curled over his shoulder, her mouth red and smiling. Everything about her—the blaze of her earrings, the glitter of her gown—seemed rare and expensive and impossibly elegant. Maybe the rumors were true, and she and Jeff were going to get back together after all.
Nina felt suddenly desperate for fresh air. But too many of Jeff’s friends were out on the terrace, and the last thing she wanted was to run into the prince.
Then she remembered where else she could go.
She started forward, her reflection in the ballroom’s antique mirrors moving with her. She never would get used to the sight of herself in formal attire. Her gown, a gauzy violet one of Sam’s with a halter neckline, billowed around her heels as she walked.
Nina headed out the ballroom’s main doors and down a side hallway lit only by antique sconces every few yards. She moved quickly, past ghostlike statues on marble plinths and landscapes in heavy frames. The only security guard she saw was stationed at the top of the stairs; he gave her a disinterested nod before turning back to his phone.
Most of Washington Palace had been renovated many times over. All that remained of the original Mount Vernon house was a small set of rooms along the southeast corner. They were low-ceilinged and outdated, never used for official court functions. But Nina had always loved it here, especially at night, when the building’s age was softened beneath a cloak of shadows.
Kicking off her silver shoes, she stepped out onto a balcony. The flagstones were deliciously cold beneath her bare feet.
Below her stretched the gardens, a patchwork quilt of light and dark. Nina leaned her elbows on the iron balusters and gazed past the cherry orchards—the most popular stop on the palace tour, because of that old story about King George I and the cherry tree—to the city beyond.
Washington, the nation’s capital. The city of dreamers and hustlers, of nobility and commoners alike, of finance and fashion and politics and art—the greatest city in the world, its residents always said, where anyone could come make a name for themselves. It was a glorious clutter of stone roofs and new high-rises, loud with neon billboards. The twin domes of Columbia House, the meeting place of both bodies of Congress, rose above the skyline in gilded splendor.
A door creaked open behind her. “Nina?”
Her breath snagged in her lungs. She should have known this might happen.
“I’ve barely seen you all night,” said Jeff. Or rather, Prince Jefferson George Alexander Augustus, third in line for the throne of America.
“I wanted to be alone,” Nina said curtly. Her tone failed to send him away.
“Smart, coming out here right before the fireworks start. You’ll have the best seat in the house.” He flashed his usual cocky smile, though it didn’t make Nina go weak at the knees the way it once did.
The last time she’d seen the prince, he’d been
with her, and now he was acting as if nothing between them had changed. As if they were still the same easygoing friends as always.
“I was just leaving.”
Nina started to turn away, but Jeff’s hand closed around her wrist. The feel of his skin on hers shot erratically up her nerves. She glared at him, and he let go, chastened.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to say, about the night of graduation …”
Nina crossed her arms over her chest. She wasn’t wearing a bra with this dress, which made her feel suddenly self-conscious, though what did it really matter? Jeff had already seen it all. “Don’t worry. I never told anyone, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“What? No,” he said quickly. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.”
“Sorry that it happened, or sorry you never bothered to text me afterward?” Nina didn’t usually talk like this, but these words had been rattling around her mind for months, and now that she was with the prince again, they seemed to be spilling out independently of her.
“I didn’t know ….”
“You didn’t know that you’re supposed to
a girl the next morning?”
Jeff winced. “You’re right. I should have said something. That was just such a weird night, after what happened to Himari. I guess I didn’t think.”
Nina had readied herself for an excuse—that he’d forgotten, or lost his phone, or that she was overreacting, since after all they hadn’t even slept together. But this caught her off guard.
“Was that the girl who fell?” She’d heard about Himari Mariko, how she tumbled down the palace’s back staircase the night of the graduation party. It was a miracle her parents hadn’t sued the royal family.
Perhaps aristocrats considered it poor form to accuse their monarchs in a court of law. Nina wouldn’t really know.
“After it happened, security came banging on my door. I decided to let you sleep through all that,” Jeff added, glancing at her awkwardly. “And then the next morning we left so early for the royal tour, and I didn’t really know … I mean … I’m sorry,” he said again, helpless.
His apology knocked some of the air from Nina’s chest. The wave of her anger seemed to break, leaving her with a strange sense of uncertainty.
As if on cue, a low, rumbling boom sounded from the lawn, and the sky erupted in a pinwheel of spinning flame. The annual Queen’s Ball fireworks.
Nina remembered how she and the twins used to love watching these, back when they were all too young to attend the party. Sam would insist that Nina come sleep over, and they would sneak onto this very terrace before the fireworks began, all three of them wrapped in a heavy wool blanket.
“I’ll stay for a minute,” she heard herself say. “Just until the fireworks are over.” For old times’ sake.
Jeff gestured toward the flagstones as if offering Nina the most elegant chair in the world. She ignored his hand and lowered herself to the stone floor of the balcony, pushing up the skirts of Sam’s gown to slip her legs through the railings. Her bare feet with their unpolished toes dangled over the expanse of air.
“Do you see that?” Jeff pointed back toward the palace, where an empty birds’ nest was tucked precariously in one of the beams. A hook seemed to tug and pull at Nina’s heart. She’d forgotten that she and the twins used to prowl around the palace looking for birds’ nests. Usually they would leave crumbs out, hoping the birds would eat them.
“Next time we need to bring some leftover scones to crumble,” Jeff mused.
Nina shot him a questioning glance, but Jeff was looking away.
There was something inherently regal about his profile, his square jaw and high cheekbones and aquiline nose. It was the sort of face that the Romans would have stamped onto a coin.
They sat there for a while in companionable silence. The fireworks kept erupting overhead, shades of American red, blue, and gold unfurling in vibrant showers of sparks. They were so fast that each firework lit up the whisper of smoke left over from the one before.
Sitting like this, watching the fireworks the way they always used to, Nina could almost pretend that they were friends again. But she knew there would be no rewinding the clock, no going back to being “just friends.” Not for her.
Nina couldn’t pinpoint when, exactly, she’d fallen in love with Jeff. She’d been friends with him for years, had grown up with him right alongside Sam. All she knew was that one day she woke up and her love for him was simply
like newly fallen snow. Maybe it had been there all along.
When he’d started dating Daphne, Nina had almost doubled over from the pain of it. Suddenly Daphne was invited to all the same events and vacations that Nina came to with Sam, and Nina had to watch, powerless, as their relationship unfolded before her.
She hated Daphne. Hated her perfect smile, her shining hair that never seemed to fall out of place, the sweet yet proprietary way she rested a hand on Jefferson’s arm. Most of all she hated Daphne for being so utterly
—for being the type of girl everyone expected Jeff to go out with. Nina could never compete with a girl like that.
Until the night of the twins’ graduation party, when everything changed.
The twins were leaving early the next morning, for one of the royal family’s annual tours of the country. Even so, the king and queen had agreed to let them throw a graduation party at the palace. Nina laughed, dancing with Samantha and a couple of Sam’s private-school friends. They’d all had a lot to drink; the party’s signature cocktail was some fruity mixed thing that Sam had invented, playing bartender in the palace kitchens.
Eventually the party felt too hot and crowded for Nina. She stepped into the hallway—only to collide with the prince.
Jeff put his hands on her shoulders to steady her, because she tottered a little in her wedges. “You okay?”
Nina was curiously unsurprised to find Jeff here, alone. Of course he was here: in her drunk, happy mind, it seemed that fate had led him here, just for her.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving tomorrow. It won’t be the same without you,” Nina blurted out, then immediately wished she could take it back. “I mean, without you and Sam …”
“Nina Gonzalez.” Jeff grinned. “Are you saying that you’ll miss me?”
Nina couldn’t tell whether he meant it seriously or not. She didn’t know how to answer.
He leaned forward. Magic lay thick and heavy in the air. And somehow—Nina had replayed that moment in her head a million times, and even now she couldn’t say for certain which of them had started it—somehow they were kissing.