I stare at myself in the large, elaborate mirror while my long, dark hair is tugged and teased into place at the nape of my neck by my personal stylist, Jenny. She ensures I always resemble the enviable, beautiful princess I’m supposed to be. I look like my mother—dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. My looks are the only thing I inherited from the Spanish princess, who is now the Queen Consort of England. Her doting, dutiful, compliant nature escaped me, much to the disappointment and frustration of King Alfred of England. Her husband. My father.
My old man is a stickler for tradition, values, and rules. Antiquated rules, and frankly, unreasonable rules. The modern age apparently bypasses kings and queens.
My black satin pencil dress is as noncompliant as my nature—tight and backless—my heels as high as my long legs can carry, and my lips painted disgracefully red. My look will certainly raise the bushy eyebrows of the King, and, as usual, I couldn’t care less.
I close my eyes, losing the sight of my scandalous self, while Jenny spritzes my loose updo with hairspray. “You could smile, you know,” she muses, tweaking the loose strands framing my face. “It is your birthday, after all.”
I open my eyes and pick up where I left off, staring into the dark, empty gaze reflecting back at me in the mirror. I’m thirty years old today. I’m supposed to be married by now to some blue-blooded member of the aristocratic world, someone like Haydon Sampson. The son of David Sampson, the King’s lifelong friend and one of his trusty advisors, is my father’s choice of husband for me. It’s a shame Haydon is not my choice. I will not marry him. Ever. “Tell me what I have to smile about.”
“Not everyone gets a garden party thrown at the palace in honor of their birthday.”
I move my gaze to Jenny. “You think today is all about me?”
Ignoring my question, she picks up my clutch and places a lipstick and a few other makeup items inside. Jenny has been primping and preening me for royal life for as long as I can remember. She knows how I feel about Claringdon Palace, garden parties, and rubbing shoulders with royalty and aristocracy. “Try to have fun.”
I look past Jenny when Kim, my private secretary, enters my suite. She looks as formal as ever, her short body encased in a stiff grey trouser suit, her red hair held off her face with a clip secured low on her nape. I disregard her raised brow when she takes in my choice of party wear. “Your car’s waiting.”
“Thank you.” I breathe in some courage to face the afternoon ahead, and accept my clutch from Jenny. “My phone?”
“In the side pocket.”
I nod my thanks and wander out of my suite, Kim on my tail. “How long do I have to endure this afternoon?” I ask as we round the huge gallery landing of my home at Kellington Palace, one of many official royal residences in central London. It’s elaborate and sparkling, everything a royal palace should be. I take in the walls as I go, portraits of my ancestors filling every available space, all dressed respectfully, all intimidating. One day, I will hang beside them, undoubtedly looking as royal as they do. Except my portrait will be smoke and mirrors. A lie.
“You mean how long do you have to endure your own birthday party?” Kim asks, amused. “I’d say you’re there for the duration.”
I grimace. “Wonderful.”
“About Friday night,” she says.
“What about Friday night?”
“Your little indiscretion with a certain banker.”
I smile, remembering the indiscretion well. Gerry Rush, president of Britain’s largest bank. He may be mid-forties, but the man is distinguished and delicious. “What about that indiscretion?” I look at Kim as we come to a stop at the top of the grand staircase, not liking the form of her tight, straight lips. “He’s married.”
“No, he’s separated,” I say, remembering the article published a few weeks ago in one of the tabloids.
Kim holds out a newspaper, and I look down to see an image of Gerry Rush with a woman on his arm. His wife. “When was that taken?”
“Thursday. Seems they reconciled.”
My hand meets my chest, my face dampening from the cold sweat breaking out. “Oh my goodness,” I breathe. “The dirty rat. He never said.”
Kim is quick to dab my cheeks down with a soft handkerchief, soaking up the beads. “Of course he didn’t.”
“Does the press know about us?” If they do, then my father does, and that will be a headache of epic proportions that I really could do without. And it would have been even before I knew the lying cheat was making amends with Mrs. Rush.
“Felix took care of it.”
I deflate a little, silently thanking the head of communications at Kellington Palace. He won’t be happy with me either. No one ever is. “So there was something to take care of?”
“A few pictures.”
“How did they get them?”
“They must have followed you from the Royal Opera House.” Kim purses her lips. “I mean, really, Adeline. Separate cars going from the same venue to the same hotel?”
“It was his idea.”
“And I bet your arm took some severe twisting.” She reaches into her bag and pulls something out. “There’s this in Woman. Far more respectful, don’t you think?” Kim presents me with the magazine, where I’m gracing the cover. I take in the picture of me getting out of a car outside the Royal Opera House, being shielded by Damon, my driver and head of security. The headline reads: “To be blessed with beauty, style, and a royal title. What is it really like to be Princess Adeline? Let us tell you!” I roll my eyes and flip to the double-page spread, where they detail my life—all inaccurate. Carefree? Exciting? Fulfilled? I snap it shut and hand it to Kim, taking the stairs to the entrance hall. “My gown looked fabulous, so they got that much right.”
“I bet it looked fabulous on Gerry Rush’s hotel room floor, too.”
“Funny,” I quip, taking the last step and hitting the mosaic-tiled floor, nodding at Damon, who is waiting by the door. He nods back, his usual sharp acknowledgment. His customary black suit has been replaced with a navy one. “Going somewhere special?” I ask seriously, prompting a discreet smile from his worn-in face.
“Happy birthday, ma’am.” His deep, baritone voice does what it always does. Soothes me. Relaxes me. Damon has been my driver and head of personal protection for ten years and is a permanent fixture in my life. It’s a good job I’m quite fond of him, otherwise I might resent him and his intrusion on my life.
“Thank you, Damon. How is your lovely wife?”
“Very well. Thank you for asking, ma’am.”
“Wonderful to hear. Now, let’s get this afternoon out of the way, shall we?”
“It might not be that bad, you know,” Kim says as she stuffs the magazine into her bag, and I laugh, because of all people, she knows. She just knows. I straighten my shoulders and head for the door, looking down to make sure my chest isn’t showing…too much. Damon pulls the door open and stands back, letting me pass. “Thank you, Damon,” I say, coming to a stop at the top of the steps when I see someone blocking my path to the open door of my car.
“Happy Birthday, Addy.” Eddie grins at me, a bunch of white roses held under his chin.
“Eddie!” I virtually throw myself at my brother. “You scoundrel. You never said you were coming home.”
Catching me on a laugh, he swirls me around on the steps of Kellington Palace. “Don’t get too excited.” He places me on my feet and gives my dress a mild disapproving look. “I haven’t bought you a gift.”
“I don’t care,” I declare, looking at Damon. “Did you know?” My driver shrugs, his hand still resting on the door handle. I turn to Kim. “Did you?”
“He might have called last week.” She starts tapping at the screen of her mobile, leaving me to get back to my beloved Eddie, the youngest of my two elder brothers. My savior. The only one who understands me. He’s adorned in his military uniform, his green beret sitting perfectly on his gorgeous head. Part of me envies him serving our country, a daft notion, I realize, but at least he gets to escape this circus for nine months at a time when he’s on tour.
“So let’s party,” Eddie quips, throwing his bag and my flowers by the door. Olive, a member of our household staff, swoops them up before they’ve barely come to rest.
“At the palace?” I grumble, utterly unimpressed by his enthusiasm.
“Drink plenty of champagne and smile. I’m here. It’s bound to be more fun.” His hazel eyes gleam mischievously, and that will be his present to me. Some fun.
My birthday just improved tremendously. I can always count on Eddie. I watch as Kim, who I share with Eddie when he’s home, as well as Kellington Palace and all other staff members, rolls her eyes in mild dread. I grin. She’ll be jumping straight on the phone to Felix as soon as we’re in the car. Poor Felix is kept busy enough when I’m home alone. With Eddie back, he’ll be run off his Italian loafers trying to keep our royal reputations perfect.
“We had better be going before the King sends his minions to track us down.” I link arms with Eddie and walk to the pristine Mercedes.
“I believe Davenport has already called, ma’am,” Damon says as he holds the door open for us.
“Now there’s a surprise,” Eddie breathes, giving Damon a friendly smack of his suited shoulder. “Is that stick still stuck up his arse?”
I laugh. Major Davenport, the King’s private secretary, is old school, just like the King. I’m a thorn in his side, Eddie more of an itch, whereas our elder brother, Prince John, is the saint of the King’s three offspring. The arse-licker. The Heir Apparent, and the perfect prince with it.
“I believe it is, sir,” Damon replies dryly as we both get into the car. I smile my thanks as he shuts the door. I might hate my royal existence, but I love my staff. Unlike my father’s entourage of personal aides, advisors, and servants, mine aren’t stuffy, old-fashioned, uptight, pompous windbags. It’s a mild relief in my suppressed world, especially given my apparent flaws. I smile and cuddle into my brother’s side, so relieved he’s home to lift my spirits.
Happy birthday to me.
As we approach the gates of Claringdon Palace, the street is awash with crowds of the British public and the Metropolitan Police lining the railings that hold them back. Camera flashes are constant, the press out in force. Damon slows the car to a crawl, and I hear the chants of my name, calls of birthday wishes.
“They love you,” Eddie says softly, like a reminder that at least someone in this world admires me, because my family—present company excluded—certainly doesn’t.
“They love you equally,” I reply, smiling across the car at him. But while the youngest of my brothers has the public’s affection like me, he has our family’s fondness, too. Unlike me. He has a purpose in the military, is making use of himself. “Stop the car, Damon.”
“Ma’am?” His eyes jump to the mirror, unsure.
“Stop the car,” I repeat. “I’d like to have a walkabout.”
“But it’s not scheduled, ma’am.”
I just about refrain from rolling my eyes. “It’s my birthday. All these people are here hoping to catch a glimpse, and I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Eddie remains quiet, knowing I’m going to do what I’m going to do, and Damon, albeit reluctantly, slows the car to a stop just before the closed gates. I wait for him to exit and open the door for me, his hand at his earpiece, telling the cars behind of the revised plan. “Are you coming?” I ask Eddie.
“We’ll be late. The King won’t be happy.”
“By our lateness, or because I’ve stopped to say hello to some well-wishers?”
I feign fright, widening my eyes. “Will I be hung, drawn, and quartered?”
I smile and step out, straightening my dress as Kim dashes toward me from the car behind. “Ma’am, this wasn’t part of—”
“I know.” I dismiss her and plaster a smile on my face, turning toward the crowds. Their excitement notches up a few decibels as I wander to the nearest railing. Flowers are thrust at me, people bowing their heads in respect. I come to a stop by a young girl, who has climbed up the waist-height barriers so she can see over them. She has a bunch of daisies in her grasp, a huge, excited smile on her face. I step forward, forcing her to crane her neck back to keep me in her sights. “Are those for me?” I ask gently, pointing to the flowers. She nods enthusiastically, thrusting them forward for me to take. I smile as I accept them, bringing them to my nose. “They are beautiful.”
“Happy birthday, Princess,” she sings, and a few people close by chuckle.
“Why, thank you.”
“It’s my birthday, too.”
“It is?” I mirror her excitement as her mother pulls her down from the metal railings, placing her on her feet. I crouch in front of the barrier to get back to her eye level. “Then happy birthday to you, too. What is your name?”
“And how old are you today, Clara?”
Her little chubby hands come up to the metal rods, clasping them, her face pushed as close to them as she can get. “I’m six, and I’m going to be a princess when I grow up, just like you.”
I let my mouth drop open in feigned shock. “Wow. You will make a beautiful princess. Will you live in a castle or a palace?”
“A palace,” she declares. “And I’ll be pretty like you, too. But I have white hair, and you have brown. And my eyes are blue, and yours are brown. And I’ll wait for my Prince Charming to come find me.”
“Me too, sweetheart.” I smile at her little naïve face. “Me too.”
“Where is your Prince Charming?” she asks.
My mind sees Haydon Sampson, the man I’m promised to. But he is most definitely not my Prince Charming. “Heading this way on his noble steed,” I assure her, and maybe me, too. Looking at my wrist, I ponder something for a moment. But only for a moment. Pulling off the solid silver bracelet, I hand it to her through the bars. “Happy birthday, Clara.”
Her little blue gaze stares at the bracelet, her tiny mouth agape. Then she quickly snatches the silver from my hand, like I might retract my offer. “Clara,” her mother says, admonishing her.
“It’s okay,” I assure her, watching as Clara zooms off, hustling herself through the crowds, calling for her daddy in excitement. I watch her go, wild and free. And then I focus on the bars before me, bars that could be mistaken for a cell, a reminder that I am anything but free. Slowly rising to my feet, I feel my mouth automatically stretch into a smile as I turn and make my way back to the car.
We’re directed to the grand Claret Lounge at Claringdon by the master of the household, Sid, where the family is gathered and awaiting our arrival before we make an over-the-top, elaborate entrance into the gardens like the united, strong royal family we are. Or conceived to be. Father’s face is aggravated when we enter, Major Davenport looking equally displeased with our lateness. And in the corner sipping water, the King’s private doctor. Short, round, with ill-fitted suits and his black leather doctor’s bag to hand, Dr. Goodridge is never far from the King.
I ignore my father’s displeasure and home straight in on Matilda, my cousin and daughter of my father’s sister Victoria. “You’re in trouble,” she whispers in my ear as she hugs me.
“Same story, different day,” I reply, moving on to Matilda’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, neither of who wish me a happy birthday. “So wonderful to see you, Victoria,” I gush, embracing my aunt enthusiastically before moving to my uncle. “And you, Phillip.”
“You look…lovely,” Victoria says dubiously, while Phillip shakes his head in dismay.
I smile sweetly. Like them, I can be falsely gracious, too. “Thank you for coming.”
“Adeline.” My father’s younger brother, Stephan, approaches, and this time my smile is genuine.
“Uncle Stephan.” I throw my arms around him and hug his tall, lanky body tightly. “How awful has it been?”
“Holed up in here with the King while waiting for the guest of honor to arrive? Truly thrilling, my darling.”
I laugh softly and break away from my favorite uncle, straightening out his round spectacles as I do. “Thank you for coming.”
“Wouldn’t miss my niece’s thirtieth for the world. I’ll even endure this circus for it. Be grateful.”
“I am.” I greet his wife, Sarah, with a kiss to each of her pale cheeks. She is dutifully at his side, but the marriage is a sham—just for show—because Uncle Stephan’s sexuality is one of the best-kept secrets in England. “Although I’m not sure I’m the guest of honor.” I point across the room where everyone has gathered around the King and Eddie. Eddie’s arrival home is cause for celebration too, and I’m not the least bit bothered. Anything to divert the attention. “Lieutenant Colonel Lockhart,” our father announces, clasping Eddie’s upper arms with his big hands. “I’m proud of you, my boy.”
Eddie soaks up the King’s rare display of affection, smiling brightly as he salutes. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Father laughs loudly, presenting him to the family who have gathered around. “Like his grandfather, his father, and his older brother, Edward is now a Royal Marines Officer, the elite of the elite.”
Everyone claps, including me. Uncle Stephan lowers his mouth to my ear. “Notice I didn’t get a mention? My dear brother, the mighty king of this prosperous land, can hardly bear to look at me. The homophobic old fool.”
I smile, glancing at him fondly. Poor Uncle Stephan has to live a lie, so not to rock the stable monarchy. “Run away,” I suggest, not for the first time.
“And forgo my monthly allowance?” He snorts in displeasure. “One barely survives on the peanuts the King throws one’s way now. Besides, I live in luxury for free, and my wife has long given up trying to turn me. I’ll carry on sneaking around and keeping my communications team busy. It’s entertaining, if nothing else.”
“You are a rogue, Uncle Stephan.”
“Pot, kettle, dear niece. Pot, kettle.”
I smile, this one natural. I love Uncle Stephan. He understands me.
I watch as Father makes a big fuss of Eddie, but I can’t be anything less than happy for him. John’s always been the favorite, the faithful, reliable, conscientious one of the King’s children, and the perfect heir to his precious throne. John married who he was told to marry, the wonderfully compliant Helen. Eddie is a backup heir, and I’m a backup for the backup, and one our father has openly expressed he’s relived he’ll never have to depend on.
But whereas Eddie has been kept out of trouble since he joined the Marines, I have had no such distraction from trouble.
“And the birthday girl.” The King moves in on me, his suited body decorated with a sash displaying his many medals of honor.
“Father,” I breathe, ignoring his less-than discreet disapproving look at my attire. I bow a little before he embraces me in a hug. “You are late,” he says quietly in my ear. “And what of this nonsense walkabout?”
I peek across the room, seeing Sir Don, the King’s chief advisor and Lord Chamberlain. He takes his job very seriously, informing the King of…everything. “News sure does travel fast around here,” I say under my breath, noticing Sir Don watching me with predictable disapproval in his eyes. “Maybe, Your Majesty, an impromptu walkabout from yourself every now and then might go down well with the public.”
“Do not test me today, Adeline.”
I brush off the King’s scorn and paint on my smile, ready to face the guests invited to celebrate my thirtieth. It’s all rather marvelous, but I’ve been here for twenty minutes and still haven’t had even a whiff of champagne.
We’re all assembled around my father and mother, in the usual, neat fashion, just inside the opposing French doors that lead to the topiary-filled gardens, where fountains trickle peaceful water at every turn, and the lawns look artfully painted, not a blade of grass out of place. The whole palace is perfect, just like the Royal Family.
Breathing in, I widen my smile and straighten my shoulders as the doors are opened and the crowds, many of whom I will not know, all clap and smile in greeting. Father and Mother both roll their wrists, slowly waving, as we stand at the entrance, a united front, letting everyone here receive the honor of marveling at us for a few minutes.
At the first sign of movement from my father, I break away and swipe a glass of champagne from the closest tray. “Fed up already?” Eddie asks, pulling his green beret off and smoothing down his dark blond hair. I’m the only one of the three of us who inherited our mother’s Spanish looks. John took Father’s fair hair and blue eyes, and Eddie fell somewhere between the King and Queen Consort, his hair dark blond, his eyes hazel.
“It is a farce, really, is it not?” I sip my champagne as I watch our family break off in various directions, being accosted by guests, who are all simply dying to shower the royals with compliments and praise. I laugh to myself. They’re all monarchists, the best of the best when it comes to licking royal arse. There won’t be any anti-royalists here. Oh no. We keep those bastards well away. Though I’m secretly smug that they are not so anti-royal when it comes to me.
I point my champagne across the lawn, where my gay uncle is showing a united front with his wife while chatting to guests. “The King’s brother is as gay as the day is long,” I muse to Eddie. “His marriage is fake and loveless.” Moving my pointed glass to Aunt Victoria and Uncle Phillip, who are laughing and smiling, I rest my weight on my hip. “Aunt Victoria and Uncle Phillip, the wonderful Duke and Duchess of Sussex, can hardly bear to even look at each other, let alone talk. And then there is our wonderful brother, the perfect Prince John and his perfect wife, Princess Helen, who have all the ingredients of being the perfect successors to Father and Mother, except for one thing.”
“What’s that?” Eddie asks, truly interested.
“They have been married for eight years and still no heir.”
Eddie laughs. “Do you think our perfect brother is shooting blanks?”
“Not so perfect,” I muse, motioning a footman over and swapping my empty glass for a full one.
“Impossible. Like every other royal couple, they had fertility tests before they married. Maybe they’re just not compatible.”
“What’s not compatible?” Matilda joins us, and the three of us, the most normal three of the entire family, stand and sip champagne.
“John and Helen,” I say over the rim of my glass. “The heir has not yet got himself an heir.”
“Adeline thinks he’s shooting blanks,” Eddie adds as he looks across to our brother, who’s looking super official in a mess jacket, trousers, cummerbund, and black bow tie.
“Adeline is wrong,” Matilda counters, pulling both Eddie’s and my attention her way. She grins. “I heard Mummy talking with the King. Seems you will have a niece or nephew very soon.”
“She’s pregnant?” I ask, my champagne flute lowering from my mouth. Matilda nods. “Nice of them to share the news. When were they planning on telling us?” Just as I say those very words, my father calls for the attention of everyone in the garden, and I know it’s not to wish me a happy birthday.
“Now?” Eddie quips, grinning at me.
“First you steal all the attention, and now this?” I scowl playfully as Eddie wraps an arm around my shoulders and kisses my temple. “When can we have some real fun?”
“Patience, little princess,” he soothes me. “Duty first.”
We listen as the King makes an award-worthy speech, expressing his gratitude for such a wonderful family to support him in his reign as King of England, the same old mumbo-jumbo, before he delivers the exciting news of a new addition to the Monarchy. John’s wife circles her stomach with her palm, smiling at my brother. She is power-hungry, always has been. This will thrill her, being impregnated with what will be the second in line to the throne, meaning Eddie and I have slipped down the line of succession. Well, damn.
“That throne is getting further from your reach, brother dearest,” I whisper in Eddie’s ear, making Matilda laugh hysterically, followed quickly by my brother. “What?” I ask innocently, pouting. “You don’t want to be king some day?”
“About as much as you want to be queen.” He chuckles to himself and puts his green beret back on as he wanders across the lawn to join our mother.
“You two are terrible.” Matilda knocks my shoulder with hers as someone catches my eye. Someone I actually do recognize, though what he’s doing here is a mystery. “Is that Josh Jameson?” I ask Matilda, nodding discreetly through the crowds.
“You mean the actor? The hot American actor?” Her neck cranes to see, and then there is a small gasp from my cousin. “Oh, golly, yes. What is he doing here?”
“I have not the faintest idea,” I say quietly, taking a few small steps to the right to get a better view. I breathe in controlled, but exhale a little shakily. By gosh, he’s even more striking in the flesh. One is a little speechless. Twinkly blue eyes that harbor mischief and pure sex, permanently roughed-up brown hair, and scruff to match. He’s perfectly rugged and dangerously handsome. Josh Jameson. I sigh, smiling to myself, enjoying my new delightful view. He was recently voted the World’s Sexiest Man Alive and has an Oscar under his belt to boot. He is the perfect male specimen, every woman’s fantasy. A Hollywood poster boy. A bloody god. But to me, he is prohibited. The World’s Sexist Man Alive is off limits. Typical. I pout to myself as I continue to admire his fine form, silently damning my royal bones to hell and back. But then he looks in my direction and our eyes meet. I quickly turn away from him, a little taken aback by the blaze in his stare. What is he doing here?
“It’s the London premiere of his new movie soon,” Matilda muses, popping a canapé in her mouth. “I read it in a magazine.”
“But why is he here? At my birthday party?”
She ignores my question, her eyes widening somewhat. “Oh, gosh. Adeline, he’s coming over.”
“He is?” I feel my body straighten out, all the stressed muscles unkinking. “Why ever would he do that?” Josh Jameson’s face and body is splashed on millions of billboards and magazines across the world, his playboy reputation renowned, and now he is here? In the flesh? In a suit, looking all handsome and ruggedly distinguished? At my birthday garden party?
A slow, lazy smile stretches my red lips through my increasing fluster. Josh Jameson.
My, oh my.
“Your Highness.” The rough American accent takes my simmering blood and directs it to my epicenter. And I don’t mean my heart, though it is certainly thrumming. The thrill is electrifying. Your Highness. Never before have those words turned me on. I always feel the inclination to shove them back down the throat of whoever has spoken them to me. Not today. I turn slowly and cock my head in question, suggesting he should prompt me on his name. Of course, I know exactly who he is, yet a deep desire in me does not want to let on that I am privy to his identity.
“Josh Jameson.” He smiles, all bright and dazzling, with a hint of cheek, but it is one hundred percent knowing. Who doesn’t know who this man is?
I don’t try to conceal my demure grin. “What a pleasure, Mr. Jameson. Please, there is no need for formalities. You may call me Adeline.” I’m lying. There is every need for formalities, as expressed in Matilda’s shocked look when I catch her eye. But the truth is, I want to hear him say my name. Softly. In that gorgeous, rough American drawl.
“Adeline,” he muses delicately, taking my charging blood to boiling point. I am far from disappointed. On the love of the King, holy bloody hell. “Happy birthday.”
I inhale deeply, allowing my eyes the pleasure of journeying his long, svelte body to his feet. His three-piece screams bespoke, and his shoes are without doubt handmade. But he looks effortlessly well turned out, the pale pink hanky poking out of his breast pocket not neatly folded, but more stuffed inside as if it could have been a last-minute addition to his attire. He does perfectly roughed-up so well, a mix of neat in his clothes and messy on his face. Goodness, he is edible.
A nudge in my elbow knocks me out of my silent admiring, and I turn to find Matilda staring at me with too many questions in her eyes. I quickly gather myself and shoot my gaze up, immediately finding Josh Jameson regarding me closely, no doubt relishing the scrutiny he’s under. Clearing my throat, I raise my glass to my cousin. “Mr. Jameson, this is Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent.”
“Pleasure, Mr. Jameson,” Matilda purrs. “You may call me Matilda.” Her sarcasm has me peeking out the corner of my eye to her.
“The pleasure is all mine.” Josh smiles, another knowing smile. It is almost too much.
“So how did you come to be at my birthday celebrations?” I ask flippantly, trying not to express too much interest.
“My father met the King during his time in the military many years ago.”
“But you are American.”
“No shit,” he retorts quickly, reining in a cheeky smile. I’m both outraged and in awe. “You Brits and us Yanks are allies, ma’am.”
“I know that.” I roll my eyes dramatically, buzzing with something wild and electric. He cursed at me. It’s unheard of to use such vulgar language in the presence of a royal.
“My father is now a senator.” He points across to the King, who is talking to a rather round man in a black tux. “He was in town, and the King thought we might like to join him and his wonderful family today.”
“How lovely,” I muse. “So you are gatecrashing, for a lack of a better term?”
“Well”—he shrugs—“no man in his right mind would turn down the opportunity to meet the beautiful and illustrious Princess Adeline of England. And I must say, Your Highness, your pictures do you no justice.”
I force my eyes not to widen, gathering myself. “Touché.” My murmured reply is loaded with lust and suggestion. I toast the air, smiling around my pout. “I hope you are having a splendid time.”
“Oh, I am. And you?”
“Things are looking up.” I take a measured sip of my champagne, mesmerized by the sparkle in Josh’s blue eyes.
On a smile, he looks around the grounds. “I’ve often thought how alike we are.”
“Oh? How so?”
“You seem very passionate.”
“Yes.” His smile is now suggestive. “As am I.”
“And you seem to know what you want.”
“I like to have fun.”
“As do I, Mr. Jameson. As…do…I.”
“So we’re a match made in heaven.”
I laugh lightly, feeling Matilda’s despair as she endures this outrageous flirting match. I plan on winning. “In your dreams, Mr. Jameson.”
“Or maybe, Your Highness, in yours.” Josh flashes another one of those dashing smiles, and I’m ashamed to admit it, but I am struggling to maintain my composure. So I do what is best and free myself from the suffocating intensity of Mr. Jameson’s presence before I make a fool of myself and start dribbling. “Excuse me.” Putting one foot in front of the other is far more difficult than it should be. “Delightful to meet you, Mr. Jameson.” I silently scorn myself for such a poor choice of word as I walk away. Delightful?
“Wasn’t it just?” he muses, his body turning as I pass him. A quick glimpse back has our eyes meeting again, his face almost cocky.
Bugger it. I curse myself all the way over to my mother.
“Are you flustered, Adeline?” Matilda asks, giving me another nudge in my side as she flanks me.
I sniff and straighten my posture. “Whatever are you talking about?”
My pathetic question has her chuckling discreetly. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
“You haven’t.” I smile brightly when Mother opens her arms to me.
“Adeline, darling, how are you enjoying your celebrations?” Her Spanish accent is nearly lost completely now, masked by the plums that have been forced into her mouth since she agreed to marry my father. Something that hasn’t been completely masked is her love of my flair and vitality. She should love it, since I inherited it from her, but naturally, she can’t openly approve. Although I can see from her small smile that she secretly likes my choice of dress for today’s event.
“Wonderful, Mother.” I tap each of my cheeks with hers and glance over my shoulder. Josh Jameson catches my eye again and winks. He bloody winks at me. The nerve. Who winks at a member of the Royal Family? I raise my nose and turn away from him, outraged again by his behavior. And hot. So very hot. “A new baby. So wonderful.” I collar John and Helen from a nearby group, apologizing for stealing them. “Congratulations.” I hug them both like I really mean it, because I do. They’re not my favorite people in the world, all holier-than-thou and respectfully proper, but more attention on them in the future means less on me. Hopefully.
Helen, with her perfect lipsticked lips, smiles a fake smile, ever cold and disapproving. “Sorry for stealing the limelight on your birthday.”
“No, you are not.” I laugh, waving off her apology. Neither John nor Helen pretend to be offended, and instead allow themselves to be pulled away by more guests, without so much as a happy birthday to me.
“This is torture in its best form,” I say to Matilda, resting my weight on one hip and sipping my champagne with a lack of anything else to do, while Prince John and Princess Helen lap up the fervent attention and congratulations. Not that I’m slighted by the lack of well-wishes coming my way, more irritated that, as traditional in this godforsaken family, the future of the Monarchy takes precedence over everything.
I sigh and look down at my empty crystal flute, but the glass in my light hold is removed and replaced with a full one before I can see to it myself. I lift my gaze and find Josh Jameson standing before me.
“Miss me?” I ask cheekily, raising my glass to him, playing it cool.
“Maybe, Your Highness.”
“Please, not so formal.”
“It doesn’t seem right to address you so personally, since you’re third in line to the British throne.”
I laugh softly, and something in his blue eyes changes. There’s a hint of amber washing over the aqua, making them appear greener. I watch as Matilda wanders away to join her parents, a definite subtle shake of her head as she goes. It is a shake to suggest she is aware that I’m in a rebellious mood, and she wants no part of it. I’m always in a rebellious mood. Now that mood is being fueled by this dishy American man and the constant rush of pleasure he encourages. Josh Jameson is not a suitable man for me to date, to see, to screw, to even kiss. Which makes me want to do all those things all the more. Temptation to defy the rules is almost too much to resist.
He’s staring at me, his striking face perfect. Here before me stands a man who has made my blood hot just by looking at me. I have to glance away for a moment and blink. “Don’t let my position in the line of succession intimidate you,” I say, braving returning my eyes to his. I bring my flute of champagne to my mouth as I maintain our stares over the rim. I sip. I swallow. Slowly.
“Intimidate me?” he questions, interested.
“Why would I feel intimidated?”
“Well.” I laugh, as if he needs to ask. “My eldest brother is the Heir Apparent. My other brother, Eddie, is a backup heir to the Heir Apparent. I am a backup for the backup, but neither Eddie nor I will be required. The heir’s wife is pregnant, therefore with every baby born to my siblings, I fall further down the line of succession.” Or fall further from grace, I add to myself. Both apply. “I am really not as important as they would have everyone believe.”
“I’m not intimidated,” Mr. Jameson says quite frankly. “Not at all.”
His words surprise me, though I maintain my composure. Just. Never has a man had the audacity to say such things to me. Most men tiptoe around my royal status, eager to please. And never has a man had my blood pulse with excitement. I’ve had lovers, many in fact. But this man? He’s igniting something in me far too easily. I’m almost tempted to move away from the challenge. But where’s the fun in that? “I am a challenge for you,” I say, just as frankly. If he can be upfront, I don’t see why I cannot be, also.
He smiles, accepting a glass of champagne for himself when one of the footmen offers the tray. Mr. Jameson waits for us to be alone before he levels me with a serious expression. “Don’t pretend I would represent anything more than a challenge to you, Your Highness.”
Those words flick thrillingly up my spine again, forcing me to readjust my stance. “I don’t believe I did, Mr. Jameson.”
His head cocks. “Interesting.”
Mine mirrors his. “Indeed.”
And together we smile, now both of us knowingly. This is all rather disgraceful, but this is the most fun I’ve had in a very long time.
“So like I said,” he goes on, “we’re uncannily alike. But you’re way out of my league, Your Highness.”
I wish he would stop addressing me so formally. It’s distracting me from keeping my stone front in place. “Says who?”
“Everyone, I expect.” He flashes me a challenging expression. He definitely shouldn’t look at me like that. He’s goading me, and I rarely need much provoking, least of all from such a divine, handsome creature such as him. “But I’ve never been one to play by the rules,” he adds quietly.
He grins down at me. “Off with my head.”
“Which head?” I ask around my own smile, thoroughly enjoying our light banter.
His grin transforms into a genuine smile, and it is out of this world. Although I’m certain he’s hiding a little shock at my brashness. Shocked is good. “So it’s true what they say?” he asks, his expression taking on an edge of intrigue.
“What do they say?” I gaze around the grounds casually, spotting my father looking over, his tall, embellished body making him look like the sovereign he truly is. I smile and raise my glass to him, and he does the same, though considerably less smiley, and his observant gaze is passing between Josh Jameson and me. My father is looking at Mr. Jameson like he looks at all men who may be showing interest in the princess. With disapproval, and like he is mentally plotting their disappearance from my life.
“Rumor has it that Adeline Lockhart is the unruliest royal that’s ever lived,” Josh says, winning back my attention. “And after spending just a few minutes with you, I know the rumors are true.”
“You have absolutely no idea.” My tongue slips into my cheek of its own accord while he mulls over my suggestion. “I have two vices, Mr. Jameson.”
“And what are they?” he asks. “No, wait. I think I know one of them.” Staring deeply into my eyes, he studies me, his lips puckering in a cute pout. “One must be hot American men.”
“Quite,” I reply honestly and quickly, pulling a satisfied smirk from him. “So how is Hollywood?”
“Oh, so you do know who I am?” he asks, his smile turning cocky. “My, my, Your Highness. If you’re going to feign ignorance, you need to at least keep up the act.”
I could kick myself, but instead I roll my eyes. “Well?”
“Tiring,” he answers candidly. My imagination spins into overdrive. Tiring. I bet. I’ve seen the endless women draped off his finely tuned body.
“Because of all the women throwing themselves at your feet?”
I sigh. “No, more sympathetic.”
“Why would that be?”
“Well, you are clearly unviable for most women, with your fame, inflated ego, and good looks.”
“Am I unviable for you?”
I just manage to withhold my surprise at his continued straightforwardness. “I’m quite sure the King would not approve.”
“But since I’m not one for following rules, and you, Your Highness, seem less than compliant, perhaps I could tempt you to join me for dinner while I’m in London.”
Dinner? I want something, and it isn’t dinner. “You want to have dinner with me? Why?”
“I think you and I will get along.”
I stall for far too long, increasingly mesmerized by the conceited rogue. “It’s very kind of you to offer, but I’m afraid I must decline.” I dig my feet in. I’m being stubborn, playing the game. Making him chase.
“Well, you see, Mr. Jameson, my private secretary keeps my diary. That diary is presented to the King on a weekly basis so he is kept abreast of my royal engagements and everything else I may or may not be doing. If I somehow manage to hide the entry in my diary that will enlighten him of my dinner plans with a renowned Hollywood actor, the journalists who shadow me will ensure he knows. And the rest of the world, for that matter.”
His eyebrow cocks, interested. “Would it be such a bad thing if we were seen together?”
“It would be a frightfully terrible thing, Mr. Jameson. The Princess of England cannot be seen to be cavorting with a Hollywood sex symbol.”
“Who said anything about cavorting?”
“I notice you have not challenged my portrayal of you.”
“Why would I? You are one hundred percent right, and even if you weren’t, I’m not likely to tell a member of the Royal Family they’re wrong.”
“Why me?” I ask, cutting off all the other games and getting to the point.
“Maybe I want to violate a princess.”
I laugh, probably a little too loudly. “I assure you, Mr. Jameson, I need no violating.”
“Oh, I have no doubt.” His hand meets the curve of my arse over my dress, and I go tense, scanning our surroundings for watchful eyes. “But you’ve never been violated by me. So, what do you say, Your Highness?”
His confidence does things to me that have never been done before. By any man. “Are you trying to get me into trouble, Mr. Jameson?” I need no help there. Just ask my private secretary and the head of communications at Kellington Palace. Actually, don’t ask. It’s best not to know.
Pulling his touch from my backside, he takes my hand and kisses the back through a smile. “Most definitely.”
I don’t know why I pout, like I could be pondering whether or not to dance to his tune. I’m going to let this man violate me, and I’m going to love every second of it. A glimpse of a picture of Josh Jameson could make my thighs tighten. Being in his presence, hearing his smooth accent, feeling him caress my bottom like it’s something to be worshipped, has me burning where I stand. I’m a princess, I mentally tell myself. Why I now feel the need to remind myself of that little matter, I haven’t the faintest idea. It is never usually an issue. But while Josh Jameson is Hollywood royalty and most women on earth would jump him at the first flash of his disarming smile, I am actual royalty. I am a royal princess and jumping a man in public would be highly frowned upon, and will definitely land me in hot water with the King. But what I do in private, away from these self-important idiots, is my own business. “I have a terrible habit of getting myself into trouble,” I tell him candidly.
“Want to get into trouble with me?” He steps back and lightly rests his hands in his pockets, waiting for my answer, smiling an adorable, irresistible smile as he does.
“That’s an offer one could never refuse.” I smile, too. I can only hope that it’s as enticing as his. Well, happy birthday to me. “What did you have in mind?”
“I have a gift for you.”
“You? Naked? With a bow covering…” I drop my eyes to his groin, chewing the inside of my lip. “Actually, no bow.”
He laughs, rich and deep. “You are like nothing I’ve ever encountered before, Your Highness.”
“Neither are you,” I admit, tingles licking up my spine.
“Is there anywhere private around the palace?” he asks, gazing around the grounds. “So I can give you my gift.”
“There is a maze of conifer trees at the most southern point of the grounds.” I look away, smiling at the many people smiling at me. “Meet me there in half an hour.”
His grin is wicked, and I just know his body and talents will be, too. Having a quick scan around us, he moves in toward me and slaps my arse. I jolt, despite it being a light rap. “Just warming up my palm,” he whispers in my ear. He’s lucky no security personnel are directly behind him. Said palm would be cuffed quite quickly. My body rolls deliciously, my insides furling. But I’m struggling to identify whether it’s with anticipation or nerves. It’s anticipation. It has to be. I don’t get nervous around men.
“Look forward to it,” I reply, strong and even.
“Me, too.” Jameson looks past me when someone catches his attention. “I’m wanted.”
“Don’t waste too much energy on talking now, will you?”
He laughs a little, landing me with eyes full of intentions that stimulate me. Half an hour might be too long to wait. “My energy levels won’t be an issue, Your Highness. But your tolerance levels may well be.” A cheeky wink is flipped, and my mouth drops open, astounded, but I’m mostly bubbling with exhilaration. My teeth nibble the edge of my glass as he saunters off across the lawn.
“You are a frightful flirt, Adeline Lockhart,” Matilda says, joining me, her eyes stuck on the exact same thing mine are: Josh Jameson’s delightful backside.
I tilt my head, thoughtful. I plan on digging my fingernails into that arse very soon. “I’m having fun at my birthday party.” I turn toward her and raise my glass. “Happy birthday to me.” I sip, very ladylike, but my mind is currently bloody filthy, and my lacy knickers are drenched with desire.
“The King will skin you alive.”
“If he finds out. Which he will not.” I cast my eyes across the lawn, nearly yawning when I spot someone heading toward us. “Oh, bugger, here comes Haydon.”
“I don’t know why you refuse to date him, Adeline,” Matilda says, painting on a smile to match mine. “He’s handsome, with very good prospects, and most importantly, your father approves.”
“My father’s approval in men is not something I seek, Matilda. Haydon Sampson is not for me.”
“No man is for you.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” I catch Mr. Jameson’s eye and raise my glass on a reserved smile.
“Adeline,” Matilda gasps, and my smile widens. “He most certainly is not for you. The backlash would be catastrophic.”
Catastrophic? I was thinking orgasmic. “Oh, stop being such a bore.” She’s supposed to be in my corner. “Haydon,” I chime, seeming thrilled to see him. If only Matilda really understood my plight, she would not see the man in front of me as a suitable match.
He takes my hand and gives it a customary kiss, bowing as he does, before moving in for a kiss on my cheek. “You look absolutely sublime, Adeline.”
I force my sigh back. I wasn’t going for sublime. I was going for sultry. And one man here certainly saw that. Haydon is sweet, terribly sweet, but he does not make my heart flutter. We have known each other for so long, since children, and I was there for him when his mother sadly passed a few years ago. But as a friend. Just a friend. “You’re too kind.”
“Happy birthday, my darling.” His term of endearment grates on me somewhat. I hate the way he talks to me like we’ve been married for years, like I belong to him. The King may say so, as well as Haydon’s father.
I, however, do not.
“Thank you.” I act as graciously as I can muster, which is so very hard. This poor man refuses to give up hope, the backing and encouragement of our fathers keeping him annoyingly optimistic.
“Here, let me hold your purse.” Haydon takes it from my grasp before I can protest. “Can I get you anything? A drink? Something to eat?”
“I’m fine, Haydon.” I strain another smile, once again catching the eye of Josh Jameson, who is looking over with interest as Haydon fusses over me. Josh extends his arm and looks down at the watch decorating his wrist, and then back up at me as he taps the face.
I breathe in, being attacked by tingles of the most wonderful kind, cocking my head in silent acknowledgment. He then starts clenching and unclenching his fist, smiling a devilish smile. Good Lord, the man is sex on legs. I clear my throat and return my attention to Haydon, ready to thank him for coming, but I’m stopped in my tracks by a small, leather box held out to me in the center of his palm. Unconsciously, I step back, wary. The box is small. Like engagement ring size small, and though it might sound preposterous, given that I haven’t even kissed him or agreed to go on a date with him, I would not put a proposal past Haydon. I bet my father put him up to this. After all, I’m thirty today. My eligibility lessens with every year that passes and each year I refuse to play royal ball.
“I hope you love it,” Haydon says, hopeful and smiley. I feel so sorry for him. He has been hanging on forever for me to finally see supposed sense. To me, the King and Haydon’s father are plain cruel, making him endure rejection for all these years. He is a wonderful man, he really is, and there are queues of women out there who would eagerly seize a ring from him and prance down the aisle to declare their undying love before God. But I am not one of them. I wasn’t when I was sixteen, and I’m even less so now. And deep down, I know Haydon knows that. I’ve told him in the nicest possible way on a few occasions over the years, have even tried to encourage him to date the women who have shown an interest. He’s too blindsided.
“It’s not what you think it is.” He cuts me off quickly but shyly. “Though…one day…”
I smile and graciously accept the box, despite my instincts telling me not to build up his hopes. I am aware that our fathers are watching. I don’t want to cause a scene, or embarrass him. Opening it up, I am confronted with an antique ring. I look at him, confused.
“It’s a friendship ring. One I hope will eventually be replaced with a ring that represents my love.”
I shrink, feeling the walls of suppression closing me in from all directions. Forcing myself not to scowl at Matilda when she sighs dreamily drains what remaining energy I have left, leaving me with no fight to stop Haydon from removing the ring from the box and sliding it onto the middle finger of my left hand. I can barely look at the ring without showing my displeasure, and Haydon does not deserve that kind of disrespect. Oh, Haydon. He hears me, but he doesn’t listen to me. Other voices are louder than mine. I take a moment to find the poise expected of me and raise my eyes toward the many people watching. And, of course, my father’s face is awash with satisfaction. I could happily slap it off. “It really is beautiful,” I murmur, searching out a footman for more champagne. “Thank you, Haydon.”
“Always welcome.” He snaps the box shut and slips it into his jacket pocket as I reach for another flute of my savior. It has never escaped my notice that my father’s footmen are always lingering close by with the goods to save them the constant back and forth delivery of my medicine of choice.
“And now time for His Majesty to make a fuss of you,” Haydon says, making my glass pause midway to my red lips. Make a fuss of me? Or berate me? I look across to the King, seeing Major Davenport talking closely in my father’s ear. The King nods sharply, and then focuses his full attention on me, motioning for me to go to him, which, of course, I do. Because he is the King.
“Happy birthday, Adeline,” my father says sincerely, swooping his arm out toward the path that leads to the front courtyard.
I gasp, my palm meeting the black satin that’s half concealing my chest. “Father?” I question, watching as Sabina, the royal stable manager, walks a black stallion through the crowds of people.
“He’s a champion,” Father declares proudly, guiding me to the beautiful beast. “He comes from one of the most dominant sire lines in thoroughbred history.”
“He’s beautiful.” I run my palm down the glossy coat of his neck as he stands, still and obedient. “And he’s mine?”
“All yours, my darling girl.”
To say I am overwhelmed would be the biggest understatement in royal history. I’ve always kept horses; they’re my only true passion, but the King has always deemed it inappropriate for me to dabble in the world of racing. And this is a racehorse. What on earth has changed? “And I can race him?” I ask tentatively.
“When he’s ready, you can race him. He will need vigorous training to get him to champion level.” The King gives my birthday present a solid smack on his neck. “We’ll have your racing colors officiated as soon as you decide what they should be.”
“I don’t know what to say.” This is a monumental gesture by my father. “What is he called?”
“Spearmint, after his great, great, great, great grandfather.”
I scan the stallion, estimating him to stand maybe sixteen hands high, and he has a white sock on his right foreleg. “Hello, Spearmint.” I stroke his nose, and he snorts and shakes his head. The crowd bursts into rapturous laughter, applauding Spearmint’s hello to me. I smile, overcome with happiness.
“Let us get him back to the stables,” my father says, as Sabina, who also happens to be Haydon’s grandmother, smiles at me. She’s a wonderful woman, her passion for horses equal to mine. She has taken care of the royal horses for years. “Look after him,” I tell her pointlessly. Of course she will. “I’ll come by soon to see him.”
“Enjoy the rest of your birthday, Your Highness,” Sabina orders softly, taking Spearmint’s reins. She kisses my cheek sweetly and leads my new horse away, his hooves clicking the granite pathway as he goes. I watch until I can no longer see his well-groomed tail swishing as he rounds the corner, back to the front courtyard.
“You lucky thing,” Uncle Stephan says as he joins me. “A thoroughbred gifted by the King is not to be sniffed at.”
“I know.” I turn into my uncle, who prefers to devote most of his time to painting rather than the equestrian side of royal life.
“I see something else that is not to be sniffed at.” Stephan flicks his head past me, and I look over my shoulder to find Josh Jameson studying me so very closely. He taps the face of his watch again, reminding me that I have an unofficial engagement I am now late for.
I blink and sink my teeth into my bottom lip as I return my attention to Uncle Stephan. “Do you know who he is?” I ask as nonchalantly as I can.
“Who doesn’t?” He brings his face close to mine, a wicked twinkle in his eyes behind his spectacles. “If you can’t behave, be disgraceful,” he whispers.
My small gasp is fake, and Uncle Stephan knows it. “I really don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Dear niece, remember who you are trying to fool.” He kisses my cheek. “If you will not be disgraceful with him, then I most certainly will.”
“You are terrible.”
“Don’t tell anyone.” He meanders off to join his wife, and I stand alone, thinking for a few moments. My brashness toward Josh Jameson is forgotten as I ponder my intentions. Why I am now questioning them is beyond me, yet I am. He is not like any other man I have known, and not only because he’s more famous than God. I watch him casually break away from the group of people he’s talking to, take a bottle of champagne from the table nearby, as well as two glasses, and head for the arch that will take him to the path toward the far side of Claringdon Palace. Just before he disappears from view, he looks over his shoulder and flicks his head in gesture for me to get a move on. It’s a demand. I don’t bow to demands. But, and I’m confused as to why, my feet come to life of their own volition, adrenalin starting to course through my veins. I walk, feeling unstable and shaky, something that is alien to me, too. How does he elicit such reactions from me and so very easily? It’s so very intriguing. He’s confident, cocky, and unfazed by my royal status. It is rather refreshing.
I scan the scatterings of people as I fall away from the activity, seeing my father taking charge of a game of croquet and my mother entertaining a group of ladies by the string quartet. Everyone seems distracted from my silent escape. Then I spot Eddie, who is talking to Haydon. I come to a stop beside the statue of a plump angel that’s peeing water through his rather unimpressive penis. Haydon’s back is to me, though my brother is facing my direction, and his eyes are dividing their attention between Haydon and me. Did Eddie see Josh Jameson wander this way a moment ago? I press my lips together and hold my breath as Haydon makes to turn toward me, maybe wondering what has Eddie’s split attention. But my brother takes his arm and laughs, pointing toward the King who has just declared croquet war on Haydon’s father. They start walking to the grass playing court, volunteering their skills, and Eddie looks back at me, shaking his head so very mildly. He knows how I feel about Haydon Sampson, and though he doesn’t entirely condone many of my activities, he understands why I don’t want to be married to a man who I have no feelings for beyond friendship. I mouth my thank you and back up, passing through the arch that will take me to something both scandalous and illicit.
And hopefully something wonderful.