The Controversial Princess(4)

By: Jodi Ellen Malpas

“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.”