The King seemed to age ten years as he spoke them. And I watched as all the joy was leached from Miriam’s dancing eyes.
“Your mother has died.”
Nothing would ever be the same. Nothing would ever be as fun-loving and wonderful as it could’ve been. No one would ever call me sweet or beautiful again.
A cranial aneurism, the doctor said. A freak occurrence, he explained. No warning signs, no treatment that could have prevented it.
My father is a good king, a gentleman.
But he is not a gentle man.
So the day after my mother died, he lectured us in firm, harsh tones on what was expected. We would walk every street in Wessco behind Mother’s casket, as was tradition. Mother was beloved and the people would be devastated, and it was up to us to lead them through their grief.
Our own mourning would be done privately—not in view of the maids or the secretaries or security—we must only show composure. Strength. Dignity.
“Your mother has died.”
And so, the morning of my mother’s funeral, the maid drew my bath. And alone in that porcelain tub, I slipped beneath the water and cried until there were no tears left inside me.
“Can I ask you something?”
A week after Mother’s funeral, we’ve come to Alfie’s for the weekend, fishing for carp in the large pond on his estate.
According to Father, it’s important for me to be skilled in all sorts of manly leisure activities—because that’s where deals really get done. At card tables and hunting grounds and fishing ponds. He’d have me on a rugby field if he thought he could get away with it.
“You can ask me anything, Lenora.”
My eyes dart beside me to Alfie, then back to my father. “It’s personal.”
I look up at this man—my father, my king, my mentor—who most times I feel like I don’t know at all.
“Did you love her? Mother?”
He casts his line into the water and his steel-colored eyes—the same shade as mine—cloud over.
“I know you cared for her, but did you love her? Truly?”
My father has this way of imparting a lesson without making it feel like a lecture. His voice is a wise, resonant, baritone—like the voice of God—that makes you want to follow and obey.
“Your mother was a good woman. Gracious . . . jubilant. When you sit on the throne, everyone wants a piece of you—a piece for the people, a piece for the press, a piece for Parliament, a piece for your spouse, a piece for your children. Eventually, you have to cut yourself up into pieces so small, you feel as if you’ve shortchanged everyone. But your mother never begrudged me.”
He turns his head and puts his hand on my shoulder. “It will not be that way for you, Lenora. Some part of your husband will always resent you.”
“You’re a smart girl—you tell me why.”
I think about all I know and all I’ve seen, and the answer isn’t difficult.
“Men don’t like to bow. To anyone. But especially not to a woman—to their wife.”
My father taps my shoulder and nods, then his gaze goes back to the pond.
“When the time comes for you to marry, we’ll find you a good, greedy man.”
“A greedy man will appreciate you for the wealth and power you give him. And because he’ll want to stay in your good graces, I’ll know he’ll treat you well.”
When you can’t think of anything clever to say, sarcasm will never let you down.
“Greed, wealth and power? Oh my—it’s like a fairy tale. I may swoon.”
My father reels in his line. “Don’t fill your head with fairy tales, child. Or thoughts of love. They are not for us. They will only bring you sorrow.”
With that, he walks away, to the footman to change his bait. I stare at his back.
“He didn’t answer my question,” I say to Alfie.
“’Course he did,” Alfie says kindly. “He loved your mother, very much.”
I tilt my head. “How can you tell?’
“Your father will never lie to you . . . and he didn’t tell you no.”
“Then why didn’t he just say yes?”
“Because love is bloody awful, Chicken. And fantastic. A beautiful, horrible, messy thing. It will make you feel like you can fly one day and rip your guts out the next. It’s complicated.” Alfie shrugs. “And your father wants you to have simple, as much as you can. Because he knows there’s already a whole crown of complications just waiting to be put on your pretty head.”
The next morning, I’m back at the palace at my vanity table, as Megan holds up two outfits for Miss Crabblesnitch to choose from.
And it feels like a lifetime has gone by. Like so much has changed.
Like I have changed.
I look at the ensembles in the mirror—a dove-gray skirt and blouse and a yellow, short-sleeved dress with buttons down the front. I already know which one Miss Crabblesnitch will choose.
There’s an old story about Vincent van Gogh eating yellow paint. Some say he did it because he wanted to die; others say that he was trying to raise his spirits by ingesting the cheery color. Maybe it was neither. Maybe he just said what the hell—and did it because he wanted to.
Because he could.
Because the choice was his to make.
I stand and turn toward the clothing in Megan’s arms. And I point to the yellow dress. “I’ll wear that one today.”
My secretary blinks at me. Then she lifts her pointy nose and sniffs. “Princess Lenora, that is not—”
I barely recognize my own voice. It comes from somewhere deep inside me, cold and clipped. And final.
Today, I will be yellow. Tomorrow I will be some other color.
But I will not be gray.
I will not float like a feather caught in a current, while others pull me in the direction they want and make my choices for me.
If I want to dance, I will dance. And if I choose to wear yellow, then yellow it will be.
Because what I know now, which I didn’t before, is that life is too short, too unpredictable and too cruel for anything less.
Palace of Wessco, 1955
IT’S BEEN SAID THAT ONE PERSON can change the world—and because of who my family is, I know for a fact that this is true. What I didn’t know was that one person can change your life. Fill in the empty, hollow spaces inside that you didn’t even know were there.
That’s what Thomas Rourke has done for me over the last two years. He’s become my rock and my fun skipping stone. The someone I’d been missing my whole life.
The first and only and very, very best.
“There you are,” Thomas says from the stoop of Guthrie House. “I was just coming to see you.”
It’s dark out and late, and even the crickets in the garden have settled down for the night.
“You missed brandy and cigars.”
Brandy and cigars in the library after dinner is the manly powwow session of the powers that be—and Father always insists I attend. Because . . . politics. Keep your friends close and your enemies right up your arse. That’s how it works.
Thomas puts his hand over his heart. “And I’m all torn up about it, really. I had to finish reading the trade legislation for the vote tomorrow. Did you review it yet?”
I groan, like a student cramming for exams.