Read Reluctantly Royal Online

Authors: Nichole Chase

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Coming of Age, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult & College, #Contemporary Fiction

Reluctantly Royal

DEDICATION

For my Deemaw, the first person to believe in my writing.

ONE

I
W
AS
C
LEOPATRA ABOUT
to change the fate of the world. I was Queen Elizabeth the First proving that a woman could rule an empire. I was Meredith Thysmer and I was about to sing.

Bathed in the spotlight’s warm halo of attention, I reveled in the moment. Standing on stage waiting to sing was one of the highlights of my life. That pause as the audience waits, the anticipation—it fueled me. Of course, opening my mouth and letting the music flow out of me was even better. I loved the way the audience sat up a little straighter as the first notes hit the air, and the look of surprise and delight on their faces as I launched into the meat of the song. It was intoxicating, a drug just for me.

I opened my mouth and let the words pour out. I sang with my heart, feeling the awe and hope of the song. We were practicing for our holiday show, and the songs, the bells, the sweet feelings all touched something inside of me. I used it—that sense of magic—to propel my song, my voice, to something more than just a singer singing words. I wanted everyone in the auditorium to feel what I was feeling, to sense the emotion behind the lyrics.

The next verse was soft, with the barest amount of background music to play with my voice. Because of the quiet I heard the squeak of a door opening and the slow steps of a person entering the auditorium. I saw a figure pause as he walked down the side aisle. The lights made it impossible to make out the face, but from the height and stature I was sure it was a man. He took a seat next to the director and I tried to ignore their whispered exchange. It was a closed practice, but I wasn’t going to complain if someone wanted to listen. Music had a way of easing the soul, and you never knew when someone needed the break it could offer.

As the song ended and my voice trailed off, I stood there and took a deep breath. Several of the other cast members clapped, but my eyes were trained on the director. He was the best there was, here in England. There was nothing that he missed and his teaching was invaluable. I’d been thrilled when I found out I made the cut for the show, much less been given a spot in one of his advanced classes.

He leaned back in his chair and smiled, but there was something in his eyes that left me disappointed.

“What is it now?” I put a hand on my hip and frowned.

“Nothing.” He sat up in his chair and shook his head. “It was perfect.”

“But?” I raised an eyebrow.

“But nothing.” He frowned at me. “You did everything right.”

“You have that look.” I gestured in his direction. “That look that says something is wrong but you don’t want to tell me.”

“Your performance was perfect.” He stood up. “Everyone take ten. Meredith, come down here with me.”

Nerves churned in my stomach as I wondered what I had done wrong. Had the director changed his mind about me?

I felt my eyebrows pull together as I walked down the steps and looked from the director to the man sitting next to him. Max? Why had Prince Maxwell of Lilaria come to my practice? We’d met at his older brother’s wedding and shared a dance, but nothing more. Just visiting the area, perhaps? Checking up on some of the newer royals? That seemed unlikely though. From all accounts, Max tended to stay away from royal duties.

The last couple of years had been a whirlwind and I still couldn’t imagine why a prince would be at my rehearsal, much less in England where I was busy building a career and new life for me and my son. When my grandfather had been contacted by the Lilarian royal family to tell him he was from a long-lost line of royalty, I had been certain it was a ploy to get his bank account number. Not that it would have done anyone much good. The old man had been broke and barely able to keep his heat turned on. I smiled at the thought of my grandfather’s face when he found out it was real.

“Lady Meredith.” Max unfolded his long frame and stood up before holding his hand out to me. “That was a beautiful performance.”

His warm fingers wrapped around mine before lifting my hand to his mouth. His bright green eyes looked up at me from under his light brown hair. For half a second I almost swooned before yanking myself back to reality. A handsome face was the perfect shield for a player’s heart. I knew that from experience. Knew all too well how quickly that smile could turn into a sneer.

“Thank you.” I smiled at him, feeling the eyes of the people still in the auditorium on us. “What brings you to town?”

“I was here for a gallery opening—”

“Oh! Do you have a piece on display?” I smiled. I’d heard that the prince was a magnificent artist, but hadn’t had the chance to see any of his work.

“I do—”

“I’ll have to stop by and see it.” I bit my lip and berated myself for cutting him off. I had a bad habit of doing that when I was excited.

“I didn’t know you liked art.” His eyes lit up for a moment and his serious expression brightened. I hoped that meant he wouldn’t hold my rudeness against me.

“I appreciate art in all its forms.” I smiled. I also appreciated the way his jacket and shirt stretched across his broad shoulders.

The director cleared his throat. “I believe His Highness had something to tell you.”

“Uh, yes.” Max frowned. “Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”

I blanched. Why would he need to talk to me alone? “Is something wrong with Marty?” Adrenaline filled my veins and I fought the impulse to run from the room looking for my son.

“No, no. I’m sure he is fine.” Max touched my shoulder and I was shocked by the warmth in his expression.

“God, for a minute I thought you came to tell me he was dead . . .” My heart froze and I looked up into his green eyes. “Grandfather?”

Max’s fingers on my shoulder tightened. “I’m sorry, Meredith.”

“No. Oh no, no, no.” Tears filled my eyes and my legs grew weak. “Was he alone?”

My grandfather had been the one person I could always count on. Always, I knew that he would be there for me no matter what. When I had found out I was pregnant at seventeen he hadn’t freaked out or been angry—unlike my dad. Instead he had held me while I cried and told me how beautiful and smart any child of mine would be. To think he had died without someone by his side broke my heart. Or worse, with only my drunkard father to ease his passing.

“He passed away in his sleep.” Max moved me with a gentle tug so that I was sitting in one of the audience chairs. “The doctors believe it was his heart.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and took a ragged breath. Where I had felt whole and centered merely a moment ago, my entire world had been taken and turned upside down. The very floor on which my life was planted had been torn away. My grandfather was gone.

“I need to see Marty.” I scrubbed at my eyes, not caring that the mascara I had worn that day was smeared across my cheeks. “I have to be the one to tell him.”

“I have a car out front.” Max stood and held his hand out to me.

I took it, barely registering the way his fingers curled protectively around mine and didn’t let go.

“Can I do anything to help?” My director placed a comforting hand on my shoulder.

“No, no. Thank you.” I shook my head. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Take your time,” the director offered, but I knew better. My understudy would be on that stage in a matter of moments, warming up.

“Right, thanks.” I let Max urge me out of the room.

“How is your son going to take the news?” Max asked quietly.

“He’s going to be devastated.” I whispered the words, my heart aching for the pain I was about to bring to my son. That almost hurt worse than the actual loss—knowing how many times my son had lost people in his life; knowing how much my grandfather had meant to Marty. “Devastated.”

“I’ll help in any way that I can,” Max said. “Let’s get you out of here.”

I let him guide me out of the auditorium and down the hallway. I pulled my sweater closed and couldn’t help my shiver. An arm wrapped around my shoulders and I leaned into the warmth. His long, strong fingers squeezed my arm gently. It made me feel safe and not so alone.

“Thank you.” I sniffed and tried to hide it when I wiped my nose on my sleeve.

“You’re welcome.”

I looked up into his eyes and gave him a watery smile. “I know this must be torturous. Dealing with a stranger who just lost a loved one can be a nightmare. You must have drawn the short straw.”

“I was in the neighborhood.” He wiped a tear from my cheek with his thumb and lingered for half a heartbeat. “Plus we didn’t want you to hear it from strangers. Take it from me, I know what it’s like to have the media tell you that someone you love has died.”

I bit my lip as he opened the door for me. I knew that his father had died in an accident, but I wasn’t sure if that was who he was referring to. A shudder racked my body. The thought of the media telling me that my grandfather had passed away was something out of a nightmare. And the media wasn’t exactly known for being gentle.

The limousine idled just outside and Max chivalrously helped me into my seat. I chewed the lipstick off my bottom lip while I swiped at my eyes with my sleeve. I couldn’t believe that my grandfather was gone. What would I say to Marty? He was only six years old. Would he understand?

The tears formed in my eyes, and despite my desire to stay calm and collected in front of a prince, I was lost. They ran down my face unchecked while I stared out the window and sniffled.

“Here.” He handed me a hanky and I took it with a watery smile.

“Thanks.” I dabbed at my cheeks while debating how rude it would be to blow my nose. “I’m such a mess.”

“You just lost your grandfather. I think you’re holding yourself together remarkably well.” He offered me a soft smile.

Trying to smile back, I felt like snot was going to run down my face, and I quickly looked away. Giving up, I used the hanky to quickly rub my nose. I’d have to buy him a new one. And from the looks of it, it would be an expensive one, and for a moment my old mindset kicked in and I worried about the cost. Snorting, I barely caught a little snot that escaped.

Max looked so uncomfortable sitting next to me, pretending that he wasn’t listening to me quietly cry. It would have been comical if it wasn’t for the hole in my heart.

As the car drove up to the school Marty attended I wiped at my cheeks again. Turning to look at Max, I tried to pull myself together.

“How do I look?”

“You couldn’t look anything but lovely if you tried.” Max’s smile was honest.

“Will I scare him?”

“Scare him?” He looked at me confused.

“Marty.” Had he forgotten I had a son? “I don’t want him to panic when he sees me.”

“No.” He shook his head. “You look serious, but lovely.”

“Thank you.” I took a deep breath and tucked his hanky into my pocket. “I owe you a new one.”

“Of course not.” He helped me out of the car. “Would you like me to accompany you inside?”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to be rude, but this was something that I needed to do alone. “I think it would be easier if there was no one else there when he finds out. He was very close with my grandfather.”

“I’ll stay with the car then.”

“No, I’m sure you have more important things to do. I can get a taxi back to our flat.” I shook my head.

“I’m not leaving you at a time like this, and I’d rather have you in the air on the way to Lilaria before the press catches wind of things.” He closed the door and leaned against the car.

“I guess you’re right.” I chewed on my lip again. “I’ll book tickets from my phone.”

“The royal plane is waiting for us. I’ll be seeing you home.” He tucked his hands in his pockets and his eyes bored into mine. “I’m not leaving you alone to deal with this.”

I watched him for a minute, surprised by his vehemence. “I owe you thanks again.”

“You owe me nothing.” His eyes were sincere. “It’s my pleasure to help.”

“Such a princely thing to say.” I felt my mouth pull up in a small smile.

“Well, if the shoe fits . . .”

“Is it crystal?” I looked down at his feet.

“Leather.” He lifted one foot and smiled. “Much more comfortable than Cinderella’s slipper.”

“And manly.” I laughed and straightened my shoulders. I would have believed my own performance if I didn’t ruin it by sniffing. “Well, time to face the music.”

Taking a deep breath, I rooted through my soul for a role that would fit this moment. A strong woman, a capable mother who could be the rock her son would need.

Without a look back I strode up the steps and through the double doors. The further my feet took me, the stronger I felt. I could do this, tell my son that his best friend had died, and be there to hold him when he fell apart. By all that was holy, I hoped my strength would hold and I wouldn’t turn into a sobbing mess.

The woman at the front desk was more than understanding and took me to a small conference room while someone fetched my son. When the door swung open, Marty ran straight into my arms.

I pressed a kiss to the top of his brown hair and squeezed him tightly. “Hey there, big boy.”

“Why are you here? Do I get to go home early?” He looked up at me with eager eyes.

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