Read American Royals Online

Authors: Katharine McGee

Tags: #antique

American Royals (9 page)

“We sold that portrait, actually,” Teddy told her—and immediately stiffened, as if he regretted his words. Beatrice felt like she’d invaded some personal territory.

“Well, I had to write a paper on that painting, and it was one of the worst grades I received in my entire college career,” she went on. “So let’s hope for both our sakes that you aren’t as confusing as your great-grandmother. Because if so, I’ll never understand you.”

Teddy seemed to be studying her with thoughtful curiosity. “You know,” he said at last, “I was a little surprised when my parents told me why I was meeting you tonight. I mean … you could have literally anyone you want.”

Not anyone.
Beatrice thought again of how slim her folder of options was.

“It’s not quite that simple” was all she said.

Moonlight danced through the enormous windows on one wall, catching the startling sapphire of Teddy’s eyes. He nodded in understanding. “I can only imagine.”

The other boys had been so predictable, so one-note. None of them had really paid attention to Beatrice. They’d just postured and preened, dancing over the surface of their conversations without truly listening to her.

She might not feel butterflies with Teddy, but there was something genuine about him that struck her as a mark in his favor.

Beatrice tried to hide her nervousness. She’d never actually done this before, except in dialogue with her etiquette master—yes, Lord Shrewsborough had made her practice asking guys on dates, since most men would be too intimidated to ask
her.

“Teddy …” She broke off, swallowed, and rallied her words. “Next weekend my family will be at the opening night of
Midnight Crown,
the new show in the East End. Do you want to come with me?”

He hesitated, causing Beatrice to wonder if she’d made a misstep, asking Teddy to see a
musical,
and with her entire family, no less. But then he relaxed into a smile.

“I’d love to,” he assured her.

Connor was conspicuously quiet as he walked Beatrice back to her suite at the end of the night.

She reached up to rub her temples, still sore from the tiara. If only she could kick off her shoes and skip through the halls barefoot like Samantha did, but even now, some deep-rooted sense of propriety refused to let her.

She glanced over at Connor. He was looking away, his jaw set firmly. It wasn’t like them to be this silent. Usually at the end of an event they were both brimming with stories, comparing notes about the people Beatrice had talked to, sharing a complicit laugh at someone’s expense. Tonight, though, he seemed determined to ignore her.

Finally Beatrice couldn’t stand it. “What’s going on?”

They were alone in the upstairs hallway, their footfalls muffled by the heavy scrolled carpet. Still Connor refused to look her way.

“Come on,” she insisted. “You’re the only person who’s really honest with me. What’s bothering you?”

“Honestly?” He finally turned that gaze on her, as clear and sharp as a hawk’s. “I can’t believe you agreed to go along with this. What’s your plan, exactly? To eliminate these guys one by one, and whoever’s left at the end gets the final rose?”

“I’m sorry, do you have a better idea?”

He made an angry, disbelieving sound. “I just don’t think you can summon a bunch of noblemen to meet you and expect to find happily ever after with one of them.”

“It doesn’t necessarily need to be happily ever after. At least not according to my parents,” Beatrice heard herself answer, with an uncharacteristic touch of bitterness. “Just
happy enough
ever after.”

They had reached her suite. Her sitting room was beautiful, if rather impersonal: full of antique furniture and enameled lamps, the pale blue walls hung with demure watercolors. Near the door to her bedroom, a serpentine desk was littered with invitations and official documents.

Connor followed her inside, closing the door and leaning against it with crossed arms. “Why are you doing this, Bee?” He sounded upset. Which wasn’t fair, given that this really had nothing to do with him.

She let out an angry breath. “What other choice do I have? You know how strange my life is. I can’t just
go on dates
like a normal girl.”

“And you think choosing some guy from an aristocratic lineup is your best bet?”

“Please, just … don’t,” she said helplessly. “I’m anxious enough as it is.”

“You said you wanted me to be honest.” Connor stuffed his hands into his pockets, his posture stiff and closed off. He was still leaning against the door, a few yards’ distance separating him from the princess. “And why are
you
feeling anxious? These guys are all here for your sake. You’re the one holding all the cards.”

“I’m terrified because I have no idea what I’m
doing,
okay? This is all new to me! I’ve never had a real boyfriend, never even—”

She stopped herself before she could finish that sentence, but Connor probably knew it anyway. These days, the entire country seemed to have an opinion on Beatrice’s virginity.

“I’ve never been in love,” she said at last. “Given the circumstances, I never really had a chance to.”

Then, for some reason she couldn’t explain, she let her eyes lift to Connor’s. “Have you?”

It was as personal a question as she had ever dared ask. Connor kept his gaze on hers. “I have.”

Beatrice was surprised at the resentment that twisted through her at his words. “Well then,” she said coldly, “I’m happy for you.”

“You shouldn’t be.”

She recoiled a step. Whatever he was talking about, whatever past love affair of his had gone wrong, she didn’t want to hear about it. “This is really none of your business. You may go.”

Never in all their time together had Beatrice
dismissed
him like that. She saw him flinch at her words, and opened her mouth to take them back—

A roar sounded through the palace. An explosion, maybe, or a blast.

Connor leapt forward, fast as a liquid shadow, before Beatrice had even fully registered the sound.

He pulled her back toward the wall, then whirled around, keeping her safely behind him. In the same fluid motion he slid a gun from its holster.

His eyes darted from the door, to the hallway, back toward the windows, assessing the likelihood of a threat from any direction. He had run to her with impossible speed, and now he stood before her with preternatural stillness, the sort of bone-deep stillness that clearly resulted from years of training.

Beatrice’s heart raced. She was hyperaware of every place their bodies touched, from her legs up to her chest, which was pressed against Connor’s back. His uniform was scratchy against her cheek. She could feel the rapid rise and fall of his breath, smell the spiciness of his soap. The warmth of his body seemed to burn through her dress, to scorch her very skin.

The oath of the Revere Guard echoed in her mind.
I am the lantern of honor and truth, the light against the darkness. In life and limb, to live or die, I swear to guard this realm and its Crown.

To live or die
. Connor had literally sworn to protect her with his very breath. Beatrice had known this, but it was another thing entirely to
see
him fling his body in front of hers as a living shield. To know that he would fight for her, if it came to it. She felt oddly humbled.

It felt like an eternity passed before a voice crackled over the palace’s intercom system. “False alarm, everyone! One of the fireworks accidentally went off on the South Portico!”

Connor turned, placing his hands on Beatrice’s bare shoulders to steady her. They were the hard palms of a man used to physical exertion, a man who lifted weights and held a rifle and was no stranger to the boxing ring. His face was alight with something—alertness, and concern, and something else that radiated from him like heat.

“Bee, are you okay?”

Her throat felt very dry. She managed a nod.

Seemingly satisfied, Connor stepped away, holstering his weapon. In all the excitement, the collar of his suit had shifted, and there it was again: the edge of that tattoo. It hinted at the real Connor, the private body that he kept hidden beneath weapons and uniforms.

The palace was probably full of voices and running footsteps—it should have been, after a security scare like that. Beatrice heard none of it. The rest of the world seemed to have receded to nothing.

She stepped forward and lifted her mouth to his.

Her good sense must have momentarily fled her body, because she acted entirely without thinking; but all her senses came rushing back as their lips touched. The utter
rightness
of that kiss struck her, deep in her core.

Connor broke away and stumbled back. Something, maybe his lantern pin, had snagged on her ivory sash, ripping it from her shoulder as he stepped away. It fluttered to the floor like a white flag of surrender.

Oh
god.
What had she done?

Connor’s breath was as shallow and uneven as hers. Neither of them spoke. She imagined them frozen in time like cartoon people in a comic strip, little speech bubbles floating out of their mouths, but empty of any text.

A knock sounded at the entrance to her suite. “Beatrice!”

Just like he always did, her father pushed open the door before she could even say
come in.

Nothing about their position was compromising; they were standing in her sitting room, Beatrice still dressed in her full ball gown and heels. She just hoped that her expression didn’t give them away.

“Are you all right?” the king exclaimed. “Sorry about the firework. I’m not quite sure how that happened.”

“I’m all right,” Beatrice said steadily.

Next to her, she felt Connor bob into a stiff bow. “Your Majesty,” he murmured, and hurried from the room.

“I just wanted to check in. How do you feel about the young men you met tonight?” the king asked, as the door shut behind Connor.

Beatrice’s ears were still ringing from what had happened. She had kissed her
Guard.
The knowledge of it echoed like the sound of the firework that had exploded several minutes ago.

Had it really been only a couple of minutes? It felt more like a lifetime.

“Can we talk tomorrow? I’m exhausted,” she asked her dad, with a wan smile.

“Of course. I understand.”

When her dad had left, Beatrice crossed her sitting room and bedroom and retreated into her final refuge—her closet. There was a deep bay window along one of the walls, with an old window seat piled high with cushions.

Climbing onto it, she kicked off her shoes and drew her knees up so that her skirt flowed over the cushions. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the cool silk of her gown, willing her pulse to slow down.

What did Connor think of what had happened? Was he still standing there, at attention outside her front door?

Beatrice couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.

She was afraid that she’d messed things up with him forever, but even more afraid of herself—and the thrilling, terrifying new feelings that coursed through her.

Feelings for a person who would never end up in a manila folder of approved, appropriate options. A person who could never be hers.

SAMANTHA

Samantha pulled the coverlet over her head and squeezed her eyes shut, but it was no use. She’d forgotten to close her drapes, and the gray predawn light seeped into her room, highlighting the delicate pillows that she’d kicked unceremoniously onto the carpet.

Her ears felt pinched. She reached up, realizing that she’d accidentally slept in the diamond earrings from the Crown Jewels collection. Oops. She unscrewed them and tossed them onto her bedside table, then lunged for her phone, suddenly desperate to know whether Teddy had texted.

He hadn’t. But then, had she even given him her number? She swiped over to her various social media handles to find his profile, but it was frustratingly unhelpful. Just a few infrequent photos: a lobster roll, a Nantucket sunset, pictures he’d taken last year at a friend’s birthday. She clicked through them all, burning with curiosity for any last shred of information about him.

Finally Sam flung back the covers and headed into her closet, changing into a pair of electric-pink workout pants and a matching top. She debated going down the hall to bang on Jeff’s door, but he was always so grouchy in the mornings. Instead she sent him a text:
Movie later?
If she put in a request now, they might actually get clearance to go to a real movie theater, with actual
people
in it, which was always more fun than watching something in the screening room here—even if they did get advance copies of all the films before their official release. She just needed a pair of security officers to sweep the theater about a half hour before their arrival.

Sam was unusually quiet as she headed toward the protection officers’ control room downstairs. The palace on the day after a party always felt curiously evocative, the empty rooms echoing with the aftereffects of the night before. Already maids were wiping down tables and unrolling carpets, retrieving misplaced champagne flutes from wherever drunk guests had forgotten them: on a shelf in the library, inside a potted orchid, or in Sam’s case, on the floor of the coatroom. She chuckled at the broken plaster and scorch marks out on the South Portico, where the firework had gone off. At least this accident, for once,
hadn’t
been her fault.

“Beatrice?”

Her dad was seated on the tufted bench at the foot of the stairs, leaning over to lace his running shoes. “Oh—Sam. I thought you were your sister,” he explained when he glanced up. “Have you seen her?”

“Not yet.”

“She must have decided to sleep in.” The king braced his hands on his knees and stood up with a sigh. His eyes lit again on Sam, in her all-pink workout outfit, and he cleared his throat. “What about you, up for a jog?”

Of course. Samantha wasn’t her dad’s first pick for a running partner, just the second-string option when Beatrice didn’t show.

“Um. Sure,” she muttered, and followed her dad out into the brisk winter morning.

A pair of security officers fell into step alongside them, wearing matching all-black performance gear, their guns holstered to their waists. They had long ago resigned themselves to the king’s running habit: he went out almost every day, on a preapproved loop through the center of town. Often he asked someone to come with him: a foreign ambassador, or a politician who wanted to lobby him on a particular issue, or most often, Beatrice. Invitations to run with His Majesty were more highly prized than an audience in his office.

That was the thing about Sam’s dad—he never stopped working. There was no clear division for him between office and home. His mind was never still. Even when they were on vacation, Sam would catch him at work, in the early mornings or late at night: composing speeches, reading reports, emailing his staff or his press secretary or the people who ran his charities about a new idea he’d had.

They headed out the palace’s discreet side exit, and the city unfurled before them, from Aviary Walk to the broad green strokes of John Jay Park. Past the blur of apartments and office buildings, the iridescent spire of the Admiralty Needle rose into the horizon, which was tinged with the saffron light of dawn.

A few other joggers passed their way, but aside from some curious glances and the occasional
Good morning, Your Majesty,
they left the king in peace.

Sam glanced over at her dad, but his gaze was fixed resolutely forward. He didn’t seem as fast as usual—normally he clocked four eight-minute miles—but maybe Sam was just running at top speed, hyped up on adrenaline. Daydreams of Teddy kept spinning through her brain. The very air felt heavy with possibility, as thick and tangible as the mist curling in off the river.

And even though she knew she was just the backup option, Sam felt oddly glad that her dad had asked her to join him this morning. She couldn’t remember when she’d last gotten any time alone with him.

Things had been different before Sam’s grandfather died, before her father ascended to the throne and was forced to become the world’s greatest multitasker. He used to spend hours with his children, playing games that he’d invented. One of Sam’s favorites was Egg Day, when their dad gave them an egg in the morning and told them that they had to carry it with them at all times. If the egg was still safe at the end of the day, they won a prize. The palace staff ended up cleaning egg yolk out of everything from place mats to curtains.

The king was also a history enthusiast, and an endless source of stories about America’s former rulers. Sam had loved to walk into a room and ask him who’d lived here, then listen as her dad recounted the adventures of their ancestors. He could spin a story out of anything.

She knew she could be a handful, but back then her antics had made her father laugh rather than shake his head in disappointment. She remembered one time when she wrote her name in permanent marker on the wall between the elevator shaft and the third-floor staff hallway. She wasn’t sure what mischief had prompted her to do it, but her dad hadn’t been angry at all; he’d just roared with laughter. “You’ve made your mark on history,” he had teased, pulling the red marker from Samantha’s hands.

That was probably the only mark she ever
would
make on history. No one ever remembered the younger sisters of kings or queens, except as a footnote to their older siblings’ biographies.

The sun had risen higher in the sky. Its watery light illuminated her father’s features, underscoring the lines of weariness etched across his brow. Sam realized, suddenly, how old he looked. When had his hair gone entirely gray?

“Samantha,” he said at last, as they turned around the great reflecting pool, “what happened last night? First you showed up late to the Queen’s Ball; then you completely missed the knighthood ceremony.”

“I’m sorry.” Sam wanted to get this over with as fast as possible, but her father shook his head.

“I don’t want you to blurt out a token apology,” he admonished. “I want to
talk
to you.”

The protection officers sped up a little to give them space, though they probably heard everything anyway.

“Your sister has been thinking about her future,” the king went on, in a strange tone. Sam wondered what he meant by that. Was Beatrice starting a new government initiative? “I was hoping that you would too. I haven’t seen much direction from you.”

“I just graduated high school!”

“Samantha, you graduated in June. It’s December,” her father pointed out. “When I agreed to let you and Jeff take a gap year before college, I hoped that you might use this time constructively: for reflection, or to learn something new. But all you did was jet from one place to the other.”

“You approved the itinerary,” she said defensively. She had a feeling that Jeff wasn’t about to hear what a disappointment
he
had been.

Sam wished she could explain how she’d felt throughout that trip—that she was searching for an indefinable something, and no matter where she went, she never managed to find it. Maybe she never would. But then, how could she be expected to find it if she didn’t even know what she was looking for?

Her father nodded, conceding the point. “I did approve it. But now that you’re back, it’s time for us to discuss what comes next. You can’t spend the rest of your life ditching your bodyguards, sneaking off to ride ATVs. You haven’t even decided where you’re going to school next year.”

Sam had halfheartedly sent in a bunch of college applications last spring. To no one’s shock, all the schools had accepted her. She knew that everyone expected her to go to college, but for what? It wasn’t as if she could ever get a
normal people
job, even if she’d wanted one.

Perhaps she and Jeff would just be professional wastrels, a drain on the economy for the rest of their lives. The modern incarnations of a pair of medieval court jesters. At least, that was what they always told each other: that they had a constitutional responsibility to stir up trouble, if only to make up for how excruciatingly
good
Beatrice was.

“I get it,” she told her dad. “I’ll accept one of the college offers.”

The king let out a frustrated breath. “Sam, this isn’t just about college. It’s about your behavior. I know it’s not easy, being unable to do so many things that other teenagers take for granted. I was your age too, once. I understand what you’re going through.”

“I don’t know if you do,” Sam insisted. Her father couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to be the spare. He had been the heir, the one who could do no wrong, the one everyone fussed and exclaimed over. The one whose face was printed on money, and stamps, and coffee mugs.

“You’re right. It’s harder for your generation, with all those gossip sites and social media things,” her father replied, misunderstanding. “This life—being a Washington—is a life of privilege and opportunity, but also a life of unusual constraints. My hope for you has always been that you’ll focus on the open doors, instead of the ones that are closed to you.”

His breath was coming more heavily; he slowed to a walk. Sweat beaded his brow.

“I know it isn’t easy,” he went on. “You’re young, you’re bound to make mistakes, and it isn’t fair that you have to make them in front of the entire world. But, Sam, please try to give this some thought.”

She still didn’t understand. “Give what some thought?”

“What you want to do until you start college next fall. You could get an internship somewhere—a design firm, perhaps, or with an event planner? Or you could volunteer, find a charity to focus on.”

“Can’t I keep traveling?”

“You could go on a royal tour, just you and Jeff.”

Samantha snorted. She hated getting dragged on the royal tours—parading down the streets of various small towns while the crowds shouted, “Look this way, Beatrice!” and “I love you, Jeff!”

They turned on to the last mile back toward the palace. The city was stirring to life, people lining up at the coffee cart on the corner. Sam’s shadow danced long and distorted on the gravel trail before her.

“You’re so fiercely stubborn,” her father went on, though the way he said it made it sound curiously like a compliment. “Whatever you do, I know it will be great. You just have to channel all that tremendous energy into something positive. You remind me of your aunt Margaret,” he added, smiling. “You act like her too. You’re all Washington, you know.”

Aunt Margaret, the king’s older sister, had been the wildest and most controversial member of the royal family. At least until Samantha came along.

Sam adored her aunt Margaret. They had always been two of a kind, because unlike Sam’s father, Margaret knew precisely what it felt like to be the unimportant Washington. And it must have been even more painful for her, because she was older than Sam’s dad, and had to watch her younger brother pass her in the order of succession.

That was how it had always been for the princesses of America: the closest they ever got to the throne was at the moment of their birth. Because eventually, no matter how long it took, a boy would follow—and the boys had always taken precedence. Those princesses had stood by, silently watching as their place in the hierarchy slipped ever further, as they were demoted in importance with the birth of each successive male. Until Beatrice.

If the law had changed in Aunt Margaret’s time, instead of a generation later, she would have been the first queen regnant instead of Beatrice.

Sam suspected that the law changed
because
of Aunt Margaret. Because Sam’s grandfather knew how smart Margaret was, how much potential she had—and watched as she grew bitter and hard-edged, falling in with a reckless, bohemian set, deliberately distancing herself from the royal family. Maybe King Edward III had regretted what happened with his oldest child, and wanted to ensure that history didn’t repeat its mistakes on Beatrice.

The security guards melted away as Sam and her father reached the palace. Its white stones soared above them, a glorious second-floor balustrade spanning the air above the Marble Courtyard. Arriving via the front drive, one had a deceptive impression that the palace was symmetrical, but from the back entrance its unevenness was glaring.

Sam reached up to retie her hair. She wondered what Teddy was doing right now. Was he dwelling on their kiss the way she was?

“Dad, what do you know about the Eatons?”

“Why do you ask?”

The king’s eyes lit on hers, and for a moment Sam felt certain that he knew
Teddy
was the reason she’d missed the knighthood ceremony.

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