Yes. Infatuation is no picnic either.
The following day, the glass-and-gold carriage rolls its way down the main thoroughfare of the city. It’s a lovely-looking contraption—and awful to ride in. Hot as a goat’s ballsack, my father used to say, though how he came by that information, I have no idea.
But it’s tradition. Part of the summer festivities and celebrations the public looks forward to. The pavement is packed with people—cheering and laughing and holding up banners. Typically, the season culminates with a tremendous gala at the Palace—the Summer Jubilee Ball. This year, however, there will be no ball.
There will be a royal wedding instead.
Miriam and I sit beside each other in the carriage, waving through the windows to the crowd.
“Edward is still away on business?” she asks.
It’s what we told the press as well, to preemptively explain his absence.
“He’s been gone forever,” she whines. “When is he coming back?”
“I’m not sure. A few more weeks, perhaps.”
Then I change the subject. “I’m melting. If I go the way of the Wicked Witch of the West and disintegrate into a puddle, the throne’s all yours, Miri.”
These are the things we joke about in our family.
“No thank you very much,” she replies in a singsong voice—her smile never wavering, like the professionals we are. “If they ever try to glue me to that throne, I’ll abandon ship faster than you can say abdication. You and Edward better pop out some royal babies quickly after you’re married.”
The mention of Edward and babies makes my insides pulse with a mix of hesitant hope and cautious joy, and the near-constant ache of missing him.
But I smile and carry on. Because queens do many things, but I think we do that most often of all.
“How are we even related?” I tease my sister.
“It’s a question I’ve asked myself more times than you ever want to know.”
I start to laugh, but the sound is cut off by the sharp snap of breaking glass. And I squint at the window—staring through the perfectly round hole that’s there now. That wasn’t there before.
A pebble. Must’ve been a pebble is all I can think . . .
Until another shatter comes.
And the horses scream. And the glass explodes all around us, glittering shards falling down like sharpened raindrops. And the carriage churns and jostles like it’s lost a wheel.
Then suddenly, Winston is here. In the carriage, pulling me and Miriam to the ground. He covers us—spreading himself on top of us, pressing us into the floor so hard I can’t draw a breath.
He lifts his head and I look at his face. His lips are moving, telling me something, shouting—but it’s as if the whole world has been plunged under water and I can’t make out the words.
I strain so hard to hear . . . and then . . . everything goes black.
THIS WAS A MISTAKE.
I knew it on the first day, but I had to keep pushing, trying. I thought I could come out here to this gold mine and slip back into my old life for a time. I thought it would be easy, like flipping a light switch.
I thought wrong.
This doesn’t fit anymore, none of it. I’m not the same man I was when I arrived back in Wessco . . . or when I carried a lovely, stubborn girl through the rain.
My priorities have changed. I have changed. Everything has.
I can’t turn it off and I don’t want to. Lenora haunts me. I lie awake at night in my tent thinking of the sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, the ever-changing shade of her liquid-silver eyes.
During the day, I wonder what she’s doing. If she’s all right. If those tools in Parliament are treating her well. I promised I would never let her fall . . . and then I left her there all alone.
She’s the most alone person in the whole world.
The guilt eats at me, slices through me, right down to my bones.
But it’s more than that. More than guilt or obligation. There’s something else, something I don’t know what to call yet—a constant push, an urgent pull from the center of my chest where my heart beats. A desperate straining desire to return home.
To return to her.
All these years I’ve been out here looking, searching for where I belonged and what I was supposed to do. For my purpose. And I’ve finally found it; I’m finally sure.
Lenora is my purpose. She is my reason.
And I have to get home to tell her.
In my tent, the three guards on my security detail watch as I stuff my belongings in my bag. They don’t talk much and I think they probably hate my guts. For dragging them halfway around the world, into the jungle, sweating and miserable. Can’t say I blame them.
Outside the tent, Ian Kincaid calls my name. I grab my hat, step through the flap and look around. He’s at the docks, waving his arm at me. And it takes a moment to decipher what’s in his hand.
When I do, my stomach plummets straight to hell.
Because it’s a telegram.
An advisor from the palace—Smith something-or-other—meets me at the airport in Indonesia with the royal plane, an update and a proper suit. I don’t sleep a wink during the fifteen-hour flight. I spend the time torturing myself thinking that if I had been there, it never would’ve happened. Fuck me.
I wash and shave, and when I slip my arms in the sleeves of my suit . . . it doesn’t feel like hell anymore. It fits just right now.
I arrive back at the palace, and they tell me the Queen is in the infirmary, so I run down the halls to get there. When I push open the door and finally see Lenora—whole and unharmed and herself—the worry and guilt that’s had me knotted up loosens its grip.
And I’m filled with blessed relief. Because she’s here and she’s all right.
But then, as I continue to watch her across the infirmary . . . I start to feel something different entirely. Something twisting and ugly springs up.
Because she’s in a chair, sitting very close to the bed, chatting with that chud Winston. He’s shirtless except for a large bandage stuck to his chest and the sling cradling his arm. They talk in soft, familiar tones—almost intimate—then Lenora smiles at him. And it’s a real smile. The kind that dances in her eyes and lights up her whole face.
And I want to shoot the bastard. The same way they shot the evil fuck who tried to hurt her—right where they found him, on that same day, in an abandoned building across from the parade route.
I walk into the room. “Well, isn’t this nice?”
Lenora turns at the sound of my voice, and for a moment she looks happy to see me.
“Edward!” She stands. “When did you get back?”
Despite the fuse that’s been lit in my head, my eyes drink her in deeply. They’ve missed her. “Just now.”
“Duke Anthorp.” The bodyguard greets me, dipping his head in a bow.
“Winston.” I turn to face him. “Thank you for what you did. We are . . .” I glance at Lenora, then back again. “. . . forever in your debt.”
And though resentment sizzles in my throat, the words are true.
I loop my arm around Lenora’s shoulders, pulling her good and snug against me. “Come along, love. Say goodbye to your little friend.”
She looks at me strangely, but then turns to the guard. “Good day, Winston.”
And I guide Lenny out of the room. In the hall, I step back and look her up and down again—checking for injuries.