AFTER THAT, things are fuzzy. Reality is reduced to snapshots. The car ride to the palace. Vomiting on the rose bushes that my great-great-great-aunt, Lady Adaline, commanded be planted outside the palace. Nicholas and Simon tucking me into bed as Olive comments on the papers taped to the walls—saying it reminds her of Russell Crowe’s shed in A Beautiful Mind. Then . . . there’s only the gentle abyss.
But the void doesn’t last long. Because I’m an insomniac—the affliction of champions. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. I only ever sleep for a handful of hours, even on the nights when my blood is mostly alcohol. With the bedside clock reading one a.m., I drag myself on unsteady legs to the kitchen, using the wall for support. My stomach grumbles with the thought of Cook’s biscuits.
I don’t recall eating at The Goat—how long was I there? A day? Maybe two. I smell my armpit and flinch. Definitely two. Bloody hell.
After stuffing my face and taking a few treats for the road, I stumble along the palace hallways. It’s what I do at night—it’s given me a new appreciation for American mall-walkers. I can’t stay in a room, any room, without the walls closing in. It feels good to move, even if I’m not going anywhere.
Eventually I wander over to the blue drawing room, near the Queen’s private quarters. The door’s slightly ajar—enough to see that the light is on, smell the firewood burning in the hearth, and hear the voices inside.
I lean my head against the door jamb and listen.
“You look well, my boy,” Granny says. And there’s a warm affection in her tone that I’m familiar with. Because it used to be reserved for me.
Jealous much? A little bit, yeah.
“Marriage agrees with you.”
“Marriage to Olivia agrees with me,” my brother returns.
I hear the clink of the crystal decanter and liquid being poured. My guess is sherry.
“Is Olivia sleeping?” the Queen asks.
“Yes. She nodded off hours ago. The jet lag hit her hard.”
“I was hoping it was because she was pregnant.”
My brother chuckle-chokes. “We’ve been married for three months.”
“When I was married three months, I was two and a half months gone with your father. What are you waiting for?”
I can practically hear him shrug. “There’s no rush. We’re . . . enjoying each other. Taking our time.”
“But you plan on having children?”
“Of course. One day.”
There’s the scrape of a chair on the wood floor and I imagine them sitting side by side, settling in for a fireside chat.
“So tell me, Nicholas, now that the dust has settled—do you have any regrets?”
His voice is soft but his tone is firm as iron.
“Not a one.”
My grandmother hums, and I picture her sipping her nightcap in the elegant way she does everything.
“But I am curious,” Nicholas says. “If it had been you—if you had had to choose between Grandfather and the throne, what would you have done?”
“I loved your grandfather deeply—I still do—you know that. But, if I had been forced to choose between the two, I would not have picked him. Besides my children, my sovereignty has always been the love of my life.”
There’s a heavy pause. Then Nicholas says quietly, “It was never that way for me. You understand that, don’t you?”
“I see that now, yes.”
“I always knew it was expected, and I was determined to do it well—but I never loved it. I never wanted it, not really.”
“But you’re content now, yes? With the restaurants, the charity you and Olivia and Mr. Hammond oversee?”
It takes a moment for him to answer and when he does, Nicholas’s voice is wistful. “I’m not content—I’m happy. Ridiculously happy. More than I ever dreamed was possible. Every day.”
“Good,” my grandmother proclaims.
“But there is one thing,” Nicholas says, “one chink in the rainbow.” His words go soft and scratchy, like they’ve been waiting in his throat for a long time. “I know I disappointed you. It wasn’t my intention, but it happened just the same. I didn’t forewarn you or discuss it with you. I defied my queen, and you raised me to do better. And for that I am sorry. Truly.”
There’s a tap of crystal on wood—the Queen setting her glass down on the side table. “Listen to me very carefully, Nicholas, because I will only say this once. You have never disappointed me.”
“I raised you to be a leader. You assessed the situation, considered your options, and you made a choice. You didn’t falter; you didn’t wait for permission. You acted. That . . . is what leaders do.”
There’s a lightness in his response, a relief.
There’s another comfortable pause, and I imagine my brother taking a drink. Possibly draining the glass. Because then he says, “Speaking of raising leaders . . .”
“Yes,” the Queen sighs. “We may as well address the drunken elephant in the room,” she quips sharply. “He’s . . . how do they say it in the States? A hot mess.”
“He is that.”
I turn, bracing my back against the wall and sliding down to sit on the floor. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to people talking about me—hell, my pros and cons are often discussed openly, even when I’m standing in the same room. But this . . . this is going to be different. Worse.