Read American Royals Online

Authors: Katharine McGee

Tags: #antique

American Royals (8 page)

It felt to Nina like she’d spun out of this universe altogether, and into some new place where anything might happen.

“Do you want to go upstairs?” Jeff murmured. Nina knew she should say no, of course not.

“Yes,” she whispered instead.

They stumbled through his sitting room and into his bedroom. Nina fell back onto the bed, pulling Jeff down next to her. The air seemed thinner, or warmer, or maybe all the oxygen had simply drained from her blood, because the entire world had turned on end. She was here, with Prince Jefferson.

His hand slipped under the strap of her dress, and it forced Nina brutally to her senses.

She’d made out with a few boys from her class at school, and that one guy at the bar in Cabrillo, on a trip with Sam, but none of it had gone past kissing. It was crazy and foolish and Nina had refused to even admit it to herself, but she knew that some part of her had been waiting, hoping, for this. That she would eventually be here, with the only boy she’d ever loved.

She couldn’t let herself go any further right now, because if she did, she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to stop.

Reading her hesitation, Jeff carefully replaced the strap of her dress. “No pressure,” he said quietly.

Nina kissed him again, because she didn’t know how else to explain what she felt—that it wasn’t that she didn’t like Jeff; it was that she liked him
too
much.

For a split second Nina thought she heard a noise from the door. She glanced over, panic spiking through her system, but no one was there. And then all thoughts were driven from her mind as Jeff pulled her close and kissed her again.

When she woke the next morning, he was gone.

She lay there for a while in sleepy confusion, blinking into the early-morning light. He was leaving for his royal tour this morning, but surely he wouldn’t go without saying goodbye? Maybe he’d just left to check on something.

Eventually Nina slid out of bed and began hunting for her things. She tiptoed into the hallway wearing last night’s dress.

“Miss?” One of the palace security guards stood outside Jeff’s door, his expression carefully bland and professional. “We have a car waiting to drive you home.”

“Oh” was all Nina could say, her entire body hot with mortification. The pleasant glow of last night rapidly melted away. She knew she and Jeff hadn’t made each other any promises; it wasn’t as though she was expecting a handwritten love note, but she’d thought she would at least
hear
from him in the morning.

Maybe he was annoyed with her for putting on the brakes. Maybe he’d only invited her upstairs because he’d assumed she would sleep with him, and once she told him no, he’d rushed off the first chance he got, leaving his security to shuffle her away like a dirty little secret. Well then, thank god she hadn’t slept with him after all.

Nina angrily clicked onto her phone, determined not to think about Jeff—only to find that the internet was flooded with a single news story. JEFFERSON’S GREAT MISTAKE, one headline proclaimed; another ROYAL SPLIT: BUT IS IT FOR GOOD?

Apparently, after almost three years of dating, Jeff and Daphne had mutually agreed to break up.

In article after article, the columnists seemed to share the same opinion: that Jeff would regret his decision.
Daphne Deighton was the best thing to happen to the monarchy since Queen Adelaide. She is relatable, intelligent, and kind, and she brought out the best in the prince,
proclaimed a staff writer at the
Daily News. In losing Daphne, the Crown has lost one of its most forceful and vibrant assets. Whoever Jefferson decides to date next, she simply won’t measure up.

Nina felt sick to her stomach. Of course she wasn’t Daphne. Daphne was the type of girl who could walk for hours in heels without complaint, who knew which fork to use at a formal dinner, who could tell a joke that was funny without being crass—probably in four languages.

Daphne was the girl Jeff would marry, and Nina was the girl he’d snuck upstairs at a party, then sent home in a hired car before anyone found out. The knowledge made her feel cheap and tawdry, and oddly hollow.

She had been so elated when they kissed, but it had only been the product of good, or rather bad, timing. All last night meant was that Nina had happened to run into him before anyone else did: that she was
there,
and apparently stupid enough to hook up with him. Like every other stupid girl in America.

Now the light of the last firework dissolved into the velvety darkness of the sky.

It was getting colder; the wind lifted the hair on the nape of her neck. “I should go,” she murmured, wrapping her arms around herself.

Jeff wordlessly slid out of his jacket to drape it over her shoulders. It was heavy, jangling with various medals and pins.

Against her better judgment, Nina slipped her arms through the sleeves. The jacket smelled like him, warm and a little bit sweet.

When Jeff leaned forward to brush his lips against hers, she didn’t pull back.

She felt a sizzle of shock as the kiss ricocheted through her body.
This
was what she’d been chasing, when she’d kissed those boys at school whose faces receded into a blur. This was how a kiss should feel—electric and pulsing and smoky all at once, like you had discovered a new source of fuel that could warm you from within.

Then her senses snapped abruptly back into focus, and she remembered everything Jeff had done.

Nina put her palms on his chest and pushed him violently away.

Silence fell like a curtain between them. Nina stumbled to her feet. Jeff blinked up at her, his face twisted in shock, as if he couldn’t believe what had just happened. Neither could she. Oh god, wasn’t it
treason
to strike royalty?

“I’m sorry. I misread the situation,” Jeff said hesitantly. He stood up, his features still etched with confusion.

No one ever tells him no,
Nina realized. Not anymore. That was the curse of royalty.

Well, there was a first time for everything.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she snapped, though she knew it wasn’t entirely fair. She
had
been sitting close to him, out here in the cold in a thin gown. Wearing his jacket.

Jeff’s hair fell forward; he reached up to push it back with an impatient gesture. “I know I didn’t handle things well last time—”

“Didn’t
handle things well
? Do you have any idea how it felt, waking up in your bed after that?” Her voice broke with suppressed emotion. “And then I never heard from you, not once in the past six months!”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, as if to remind her that he’d said it already.


Sorry
isn’t a magic eraser that undoes whatever wrong thing you did! You can’t just say sorry and expect everything to be the way it was, not when people have been hurt!”

Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, and she stuffed her hands into Jeff’s pockets. He had a stray button in one of them. She kept toying nervously with it.

“I never meant to hurt you,” the prince said slowly. “But I felt embarrassed about the way I handled things. I wasn’t broken up with Daphne when you and I … I mean, I didn’t actually break up with Daphne until the next morning.”

“The press made it sound like the breakup was mutual.” Nina felt an instant bolt of shame, that she’d admitted to reading those articles.

“You of all people know the tabloids make that stuff up. I called Daphne the morning after the graduation party to break up with her. But I never told her about us,” Jeff added. “It just seemed unnecessarily cruel. I don’t know, maybe that was wrong of me. Or cowardly.”

Nina wasn’t sure how to respond. She had gone up those stairs too, had muddled the line between right and wrong.

“I wanted to talk to you at the reception earlier, Nina, but you ran off before I could find you. I took a chance that you might be out here.”

“You came looking for me?” She’d thought Jeff’s appearance on the balcony was a coincidence.

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Nina … do you think there’s any chance that you and I could start over? Try again?”

“I don’t know.” It was as much of a truce as she was willing to give.

A corner of Jeff’s mouth lifted, as if he wanted to smile but wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to. “Well,
I don’t know
is much better than a flat-out
no.
I’ll take it for now.”

His words were both a question and a promise. All Nina could do was nod. She shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to him before heading back inside.

BEATRICE

Beatrice had been going on royal tours her entire life.

She’d only been six months old on her first tour, of the American South and Southwest. She didn’t remember it, of course, but she’d seen the photos so many times—of her parents stepping out of
Eagle V,
holding her in their arms—that she felt like she remembered it. Her parents had apparently carried her everywhere on that trip, even when she was asleep. At the sight of the infant who would be the first-ever Queen of America, the crowds had roared with a frenzy that bordered on hysteria.

Beatrice had grown used to the tours, the way she had to smile and make eye contact with every person she met, thanking them for their time, greeting them by name. She knew just how important these moments were for the image of the royal family. As her grandfather had put it,
A monarch must be seen by his people,
all
his people, in order to truly be believed.

Even so, Beatrice occasionally caught herself rolling into autopilot mode, saying
Thank you
and
It’s a pleasure to meet you
so many times that she forgot what the words even meant.

She felt that way now, at the Queen’s Ball. Like she wasn’t inhabiting her own life but had turned into an actress, reciting a script that someone else had written.

It didn’t help that she was struggling valiantly, and with little success, to avoid being stepped on by her dance partner.

“… and that’s why the harvest went so much more smoothly this year,” explained Lord Marshall Davis, grandson of the Duke of Orange. He was very handsome, especially when he smiled, white teeth flashing against his smooth ebony skin.

They were box-stepping around the ballroom in a languid waltz. It was rare for Beatrice to dance so much at an event like this; usually she and her parents refrained from dancing.
When you’re dancing, you can only talk to one person,
her father always said.
It’s a more effective use of your time to stand to the side, and circulate through the crowds.

Tonight was an exception, of course, because tonight Beatrice needed to get to know the various candidates. She still refused to think of them as potential husbands.

She was grateful, at least, that the young men already knew what was going on, because that saved her from having to explain why she was introducing herself. And they each seemed to know who the others were; that much was clear from the way they kept staring at one another across the ballroom.

So far she’d met most of the young men. There was Lord Andrew Russell, future Earl of Huron, whose father was currently serving as the ambassador to Brazil. Lord Chaska Waneta, future Duke of the Sioux, and Lord Koda Onega, future Duke of the Iroquois; the two heirs to the Native American duchies who were closest to Beatrice in age. There was even a pair of brothers, Lord James Percy and Lord Brandon Percy, heirs to the Duchy of Tidewater, the narrow strip of land that encircled most of the Gulf of Mexico.

The one thing they all had in common was their eagerness to brag about their own accomplishments. Marshall, for instance, was currently boasting about a vineyard his family owned in Napa.

Beatrice forced a smile on her face. She rarely even
drank
wine. “I’m glad the harvest was successful. Agriculture is such an important part of the American economy, especially in Orange.” She was tired, grasping at straws, but clearly she’d said the wrong thing.

“Creating wine is not
agriculture.
It’s an art,” Marshall informed her.

“Of course it is,” she hastened to say. He nodded stiffly before leading her into a careful promenade turn.

As she spun, Beatrice caught sight of a blond head across the ballroom. That was Theodore Eaton, the only young man on her parents’ list who hadn’t yet sought her out. She recognized him from the photos in her manila folder.

“Excuse me, but I need to step away,” she murmured. No matter how Beatrice felt, her manners never seemed to abandon her. “It’s been a pleasure.”

“Oh—okay.” Marshall retreated, letting Beatrice cross the dance floor toward Theodore. In her full-skirted gown, weighted down with her sash and medals and the Winslow tiara, she felt a bit like a ship at full sail, making slow but stately progress across choppy seas.

“Theodore Eaton. It’s nice to finally meet you,” she declared. It was a bit more direct than Beatrice might usually have been, but she was feeling frayed and scattered.

“Your Royal Highness.” He held out a hand expectantly, his feet already pointed toward the dance floor. “And please, call me Teddy.”

“Actually …” Beatrice swallowed. “Would you mind if we just sat down for a minute instead?”

He nodded and followed her through the double doors into a sitting room, which was mercifully empty. Beatrice settled onto one of the couches with a sigh of relief.

“So, where were you all night? Hiding from me?” She meant it to come out teasing, but clearly she’d made yet another mistake, because Teddy reddened slightly.

All the years of etiquette training she’d received, and still she had no clue how to talk to boys.

“I figured that I should wait my turn,” Teddy said tactfully.

A shadow materialized in the doorway. Beatrice knew even before she looked up that it would be Connor.

He took in the scene with a single glance. Beatrice met his gaze, giving him the slightest of nods, and because after a year together they could communicate without words, Connor understood. His brow furrowed into a frown, but he made a stiff bow and retreated.

Beatrice braced herself for the inevitable half hour of bragging she was about to endure. Yet before she could ask Teddy to tell her about himself, he interrupted her thoughts.

“How are you holding up?”

She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“This must be awkward and incredibly stressful for you, meeting a bunch of guys that your parents are trying to set you up with. How are you feeling?” he asked, then shook his head. “Sorry, I’m sure everyone has been asking you that all night.”

“Actually, you’re the first person to ask.” Beatrice felt oddly touched by his concern. “The truth is, yeah. It’s kind of weird.”

“Totally weird. Like that reality speed-dating show,” Teddy agreed, which made her want to smile. She knew the show he was talking about; Samantha and Nina used to watch it.

Teddy wasn’t all that tall, certainly nowhere near as tall as Connor, but as he leaned back against the pillows, he seemed … imposing. Not in a bad way, Beatrice decided: in a solid, steady way. But something off-kilter about his appearance kept nagging at her.

“Your bow tie isn’t on right.” To her immense surprise, she found herself leaning forward. “Here, I can redo it.”

Teddy gave an apologetic smile, though she caught another flicker of self-consciousness. Oh god. Did he think she was flirting with him? But then, wasn’t that precisely what she was supposed to be doing?

“Are you always such a perfectionist?” he demanded.

“It’s part of the job description.” She focused on her hands to keep from feeling flustered: twisting the bow tie over itself, looping it, and then pulling it through.

“How did you learn to do this?” Teddy asked as she leaned back. The bow tie was perfectly symmetrical, with crisp edges. Beatrice never attempted any task that she couldn’t complete perfectly.

“My etiquette master taught me.”

He started to chuckle, then caught himself. “Oh my god,” he said. “You’re not joking. You really had an etiquette master?”

“Of course I did.” Beatrice squirmed beneath his scrutiny.

“And what did this etiquette master teach you?”

“Table manners, how to curtsy, how to get in and out of a car safely—”

“I’m sorry, why is
that
part of etiquette lessons?”

Beatrice tried not to feel even more embarrassed. “I have to swing both legs out at once, my knees locked together, to keep the paparazzi from …” She couldn’t bear to say
getting a crotch shot,
but she didn’t have to, because Teddy’s eyes widened in understanding.

“I’m really glad I don’t wear skirts,” he joked. It made Beatrice want to burst out laughing. She settled for pursing her lips against a smile.

The sounds of the ballroom emanated toward them, growing softer as the night wore on. Teddy looked over at her, thoughtful. “I saw you around Boston a few times, you know, when I was home on break.”

“Really? Where?”

“At Darwin’s. I used to go there to study,” he said sheepishly. “I always knew when you were coming, because one of your protection officers would do a sweep of the place. Ten minutes later you’d pull up on your bike, hiding your face under a baseball cap, to pick up bagels and cold brew. I thought it was cool of you,” he added softly. “That you went to get bagels yourself, when you clearly could have sent someone.”

Beatrice flushed. She was aware that the baseball cap hadn’t fooled anyone, but the nice thing about college was how much people respected her privacy. Even when they recognized her, they generally didn’t bother her. “I loved biking to Darwin’s. It was a lot of work to get me there, but I never wanted to give it up.”

“What do you mean, it was a lot of work to get you there?”

“One of my protection officers would follow in a car with darkened windows, while the other—the one who’d done the sweep—would be waiting at Darwin’s to greet me,” Beatrice said sheepishly. “It was a lot of intricate choreography, just for a bagel.”

“In your defense, those bagels taste best fresh out of the oven. They would never have lasted if you’d had them delivered to the library, or wherever you were studying,” Teddy assured her.

“Police station.” Beatrice corrected him before she could catch herself.

“What?”

“I couldn’t ever get work done at the library. It was so crowded, and I don’t really like being in small, enclosed spaces, not when they’re full of people ….” Beatrice swallowed. “I used to bike to the Cambridge police station with my bagels and hang out on the top floor doing my homework. No one ever bothered me there.”

She felt a little silly confessing this, but Teddy nodded in understanding. “What was your go-to bagel order?” he asked, deftly changing the subject.

“Blueberry, with extra cream cheese. Unless I got a butterscotch brownie,” she confessed. “I used to eat those once a day during exams. They were my personal anti-stress routine.” She tilted her head to look at Teddy. “What was your Darwin’s order?”

“The Brawny Breakfast Sandwich, the one with chorizo and jalapeños. I’m addicted to that spicy kick,” he confessed, and laughed. “I worry that I’m being judged by my bagel choice.”

“I don’t have much else to judge you on. The other guys spent most of the time talking about themselves.” Beatrice had given him the opening, but Teddy refused to take the bait.

“Maybe I have less to talk about.”

“You aren’t going to brag about Yale?” she said lightly.

“I didn’t want to rub it in that I went to such a better school than Harvard,” he replied, with another smile. “Though I used to wonder why you chose not to go to King’s College.” Where America’s future kings have always gone, he didn’t need to add.

“I’m trying to set a new precedent,” Beatrice told him, skating around the question. People usually assumed that she’d attended Harvard for its academic rigor, when the truth was, she’d simply wanted to get away from the capital for four years. As far as she could go.

She would have preferred one of the colleges out west, except that her parents would never have allowed her to go all the way to Orange.

“Remind me, weren’t you on the crew team?” Beatrice asked, attempting to change the subject.

“Only my first year. And now I have proof that you’ve seen my résumé.” Teddy propped an elbow on one knee. “Do you have color-coded files on all of us, sorted in alphabetical order?”

“It’s sorted by precedence of title, actually,” she countered, attempting a joke. “How did you know?”

“Because it’s what my parents would have done.”

She wasn’t sure how to answer that, but Teddy went on. “My parents are very … opinionated,” he said tactfully. “As I imagine yours are. Right now, they’re upset that I’m not going straight to law school. All my family are lawyers,” he added, as if that explained everything.

“And you want to be a lawyer too?”

“I don’t know if wanting has anything to do with it,” he said softly.

Beatrice felt a pang of empathy. She was no stranger to that kind of situation.

“I think I saw a portrait of one of your ancestors at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Lady Charlotte Eaton,” Beatrice recalled. A wistful smile stole over her features at the memory of that night.

“The Whistler portrait,” Teddy said knowingly. “She was my great-grandmother.”

Beatrice nodded. “There must be a lot of your personal art on display at that museum. It was nice of your family to lend it.”

Most of the Washington family’s art was on permanent loan at the National Portrait Gallery. Except when Beatrice was younger, and one picture a week had been rotated in from the collection, to hang in her lesson room. Some of the bloodier historical paintings used to give her nightmares.

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