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.