Authors: Tegan Wren
“It’s one of the rooms we sometimes let photographers use if they want to do a shoot in the palace. Otherwise, we keep spare clothing in the wardrobe for just such emergencies.”
Just such emergencies?
I kind of loved the refined, formal way he talked.
He disappeared around a corner that, from my vantage point at the entrance to the room, was hidden. It looked like he stepped through the wall.
“Come over here and have a look.”
I carefully tiptoed through the room, afraid to drip on the plush rug or brush up against the furniture. When I rounded the corner, John had the wardrobe open.
“Riding clothes?” It was just a guess.
“That’s right. We keep these here for palace guests who come for dinner and stay for hunting or riding. There’s a linen bag in there for your wet clothes. I’ll wait outside.”
And he quickly slipped into the hallway, quietly closing the door behind him.
The hulking wardrobe nearly touched the ceiling. Green and pink rose-patterned paper lined its interior walls.
“That happens? You come to the palace for dinner and end up gallivanting through the woods in designer clothes?” I said out loud to the empty room as I gently touched the velvety fabric of a pair of pants.
Most Toulenian women were thinner than my U.S. size twelve, so I assumed most of these clothes would be too small for me. I sure didn’t want to squeeze into tight breeches that would tattle on my every chunk and bulge.
I checked the tags inside the waistbands, and found a pair of jodhpurs that had potential. I peeled off my undies for fear their dampness might seep through and create unseemly wet patches around my crotch.
Putting on the old-style riding pants with the flare of fabric below the waist was like handing my thighs a megaphone: “We are
and we are
!” they seemed to scream from inside the overly bulky breeches. I just shook my head. There was no other choice.
On to the shirts. Only white. A perfect complement to my wet black bra.
I glanced at the canopy bed as I walked back through the room and wondered who might’ve had a fun romp there. A maid and John’s father? Maybe he caught her by surprise one winter’s evening. At the thought of this imaginary encounter, I exhaled loudly. I glimpsed at myself in the mirror, noting the black bra peeking through the thin button-up and my dark stringy hair drying in messy clumps.
No one wants to romp with this
I tentatively opened the door and peered into the hallway. John was on his phone, scrolling through something with an intent expression.
He raised his eyes. “You look brilliant!”
I extended my arms, looked down at my attire, and laughed at his assessment.
“You can’t be serious.”
He laughed too. “I mean it. I’m only sorry it’s raining and we can’t go for a ride now that you’re dressed for it. Maybe another time. Let’s go and see about getting you back to your car.”
I nodded, but I heard the high-pitch whine of air seeping out of my happy little balloon. This unexpected adventure could’ve led to a brief interview or tour of the palace. But it seemed the inside of a guest room wardrobe was the only intimate encounter I’d have with Belvoir. Just as well. My deadline loomed.
He led me back through the maze of hallways, but stopped abruptly before descending the wooden staircase.
“Hatty. Have you had lunch? Do you want a bite before you leave?”
How ‘bout them apples? Maybe I’d get my story-photo-flirting trifecta after all.
wanted to jump at his invitation to stay for lunch but… “I’m supposed to have my photos from the daycare ready for an online story by 4:00 p.m.”
“If I give you an exclusive interview over scones and coffee, think you could buy yourself some extra time?”
“I’m sure. Let me text my editor.” I reached into the linen bag that held my wet clothes. “Oh no. My poor phone.” I pulled it from the pocket of my wet pants.
It was waterlogged and didn’t jump to life like it usually did when I pushed the home button. Panic gushed into my fingertips, forcing them to push the button repeatedly. My photos from the preschool were on there!
“Do you know the number? I can take you to a phone.” He started down the stairs.
“Yes. That’s great.” Distraught that the phone―and photos―likely weren’t salvageable, I dropped the dead device back into the bag.
At the bottom of the stairs, he veered left and there was a rotary phone in a small alcove in the wall.
“Will this do?”
“Once I figure out how to dial it.”
James picked up on the first ring.
“Yes?” he demanded.
“Hey, it’s Hatty,” I said a little sing-songy, trying not to give away my editor’s tone to John who stood a respectable distance down the hall, but remained within ear shot.
“Are you on your way back? Please tell me you got some good shots of the prince and the girl who got into the limo with him. It’s all over Twitter and Instagram, though no one got a clear shot of her face. We have to get the story of the mystery girl. I bet he’s seducing her at the palace right now.”
with the prince. He gave me a ride to Belvoir.”
I registered the horror of James’ words. Journalists becoming a part of the story was a major no-no. “He pulled
into the limo? Why the hell would he do that?”
I worked hard not to roll my eyes. “He’s agreed to let me interview him. But I won’t make the 4:00 p.m. deadline.” I tried to sound like the seasoned reporters who held their own with the editors.
“Okay. Ask him who does his hair. I’m kidding. But definitely ask him about the little tart who was on his arm at the Carlisle racetrack Sunday afternoon. If you can get him to talk about this stuff, all the regional papers will run your story. They eat this shit up. See you soon.”
“Fine,” I said and hung up the phone. My toes dug into my damp shoes at the thought of writing a story about the prince’s love life.
“All set?” John asked.
“You bet. Where do you want to talk?”
“In a big room filled with my ancestors. Come. I’ll show you.” He was already rounding a corner at the end of the hallway.
John led me to a room with a ceiling that was at least two stories high. Arched windows at the top of the walls ushered in natural light. The layout reminded me of a great hall I once saw while touring a German castle. The walls were painted a deep red, creating a dramatic backdrop for the room’s many paintings.
I strolled inside and surveyed the artwork. There were portraits of serious-looking royals as well as pastoral landscapes that reminded me of the Ozarks. Bloody combatants were frozen in time on several canvasses marking major moments in Toulene’s history.
No one does war like Europeans.
As I walked deeper into the cavernous space, my heels clicked on the parquet floor, then fell mute when I crossed onto a broad maroon rug that ran the length of the room.
While I soaked up the paintings, John pulled two white chairs out from the wall, positioning them in the middle of the room. He handed me a black notebook and pen.
“Here. You might need these. I want you to get my quotes right. Most reporters fail at this basic task.”
“Thanks. I’ll do my best. Before we start, tell me about this room.”
“It’s called the Regents Room. If you ever tour the palace, you get to walk through here. But few people outside the family and close friends spend any significant time in here.”
“So who’s your favorite relative?”
“That’s a tough choice because so many of them have fascinating stories. If I had to pick, it would be Uncle Fergus.” He pointed to a painting halfway up the wall to our right. “He’s the one standing in front of a mirror being fitted for a suit.”
“Ahh. And why is he your fave?”
“See the woman in the painting crouched by his feet, checking the length of his pants? That’s Emmaline, the royal seamstress. Despite extreme ridicule from his mother, Queen Helena, Fergus followed his heart and married her. Theirs was the first marriage between a member of our family and a commoner. The queen disowned him.”
“Talk about harsh.”
“It got worse. About a year after their marriage, he and Emmaline contracted typhoid. She died first at their shack on the outskirts of Roeselare. When Uncle was nearing the end, he had his neighbor wheel him in a cart to the front gates of Belvoir. He sat for two days in his own filth, and the family refused to send anyone to help him. When he died, the guards left him there and didn’t dispose of the body until after dark.”
I shivered at such cruelty. “That’s criminal.”
“My mum felt the same way. She had this painting commissioned during her first year of marriage to my father. I think it was her way of staking some territory with Granny. She had it unveiled in a public ceremony and my father apologized on behalf of the family for its treatment of Uncle Fergus and Aunt Emmaline.”
“Wow. Your mom had some moxie.”
“She did. Just like those two.” He nodded toward the painting.
John’s admiration of his relatives’ sacrifice hinted at depths that lay beneath his camera-ready smile.
“I love the paintings that show Toulene’s history. In America, we look up to you guys since you were the first ones who broke away from British rule,” I remarked, as I took another sweeping glance at the battle scenes. “It’s your ancestors’ decision to set up a monarchy that makes Americans wince. You know, I always wondered, did the pilgrims consider sailing across the channel to Toulene instead of hanging a right to the New World?”
John laughed. “Good question. These battle scenes and the portraits of my predecessors give me perspective. Whatever crises they faced are now gone. The country remains. It reminds me I’d have to work pretty damn hard to muck it up.”
“May I quote you on that?”
“Absolutely not.” There was an edge to his voice. His expression was harsh and he clenched his teeth, creating a line above his jaw bone.
“In that case, may we begin the actual interview and speak on the record?”
“Yes. Go ahead.”
“Why wasn’t the queen at the preschool? The press advisory said she’d be there to promote her ‘Read to Succeed’ program.” I looked him straight in the eye and smiled.
Charm and disarm.
“Ask the public affairs office for a statement on changes to her schedule.”
I was talking to a different person―the warm, winning personality had evaporated. Sitting in front of me was a polished politician who gave perfect on-the-record answers.
“Okay. Then, what did you take away from today’s event that you’ll share with your grandmother?”
“I saw how the program’s helping children with learning disabilities. Parents get referrals for at-home interventions and therapies. Government revenue subsidizes the service, but parents pay a fee based on their income.”
He placed his right ankle on the opposite knee, expanding his physical presence. Instead of intimidating me, it intensified my desire to know him better. His ability to handle himself so skillfully in this setting underscored how prepared he was to become king. He exuded power and it hit me in heady waves.
“The press release said it’s only a pilot program. Why doesn’t the queen plead her case to the assembly for more funding? If she really believes it’s such a great program, why not request broader implementation?”