And his rich voice resonates around the room. “Long live the Queen.”
“Long live the Queen!” The Lords of the realm repeat and we drink some more.
Edward may have said, “Long live the Queen,” but what I hear between his words, in his tone and in the way he looks at me is . . . I love you.
He gives me a wicked wink. And I clink my glass to his.
One month later
One afternoon, Edward and I are at the dining table in the private quarters of the palace, enjoying an early lunch together.
“Miriam sent a letter,” I tell him, holding up an envelope with my sister’s familiar, bubbly writing.
Edward wipes his mouth with his napkin. “How is she enjoying Greece?”
Miriam got married. Again. Last month to a Greek Prince, fourth from the throne. I have no idea if it will last and frankly I don’t think she does either. But she seemed happy, so for now, that’s enough.
I show him a photograph of Miriam and her husband on a lovely sandy beach, with white-tipped waves crashing behind them. “So far, so good.”
And that’s when a dark-haired lad strolls right into our dining room. It’s an unusual thing to happen, but he looks harmless enough—young, perhaps about thirteen—with a newsboy cap on his head and his hands in his pockets . . . and an unhappy frown on his face. He gazes at the paintings on the walls and the intricate plaster on the ceiling with one good eye and one wandering lazy one.
“And who might you be?” Edward asks.
“I’m Fergus, Prince Edward.” He bows to us both. “Queen Lenora. It’s an honor to meet you.”
I raise a brow at the disagreeable-looking boy.
“Hello, Fergus. How did you end up in our dining room?”
“My dad’s Jonathon, the upstairs butler. He made me come with him to start training me up. Hoping I’ll earn a place in the household when little Prince Thomas has a place of his own.”
“How old are you, my boy?” I ask.
“I’m ten, but I’ll be eleven in the summer.”
“Only ten? But that scowl makes you look older. Don’t you think you’re a little young to be so cranky?”
The lad shrugs. “I’m not cranky . . . that’s just my resting face, Your Majesty. Only one God gave me—can’t do nothing about it.”
“How’s the butler training going so far?” Edward asks.
The staff of the palace consider it the highest honor to serve the royal family.
Fergus shrugs again. “Could be worse.”
Despite the disgruntled disposition, there’s something very genuine about his attitude. Honest and real. That’s still a rare commodity around here.
Fergus’s father, however, doesn’t seem to appreciate those attributes.
“Fergus!” Jonathon hisses as he steps through the door from the kitchen. “I told you to stay in the kitchen, you idiot-boy!” He turns to us and in a much more measured tone, says, “My deepest apologies, Your Majesty and Your Highness, that he’s disturbed your meal.”
Edward holds up his hand. “He’s fine. Let him stay.”
Jonathon dips his head, then takes his place standing along the wall. And Edward asks the young Grumpy Gus, “How would you treat my son if you were a member of his staff?”
“Well . . . I’d make sure he had everything he needed—that’s a good servant’s job. But I’d want to treat him like a regular bloke as much as I could. The way I figure it, he’ll have the whole world clamoring to kiss his arse—pardon my French, Queen Lenora. It might be good for a little prince to be treated like one of us normals, once in a while . . . even if it’s just inside his own house.”
My husband smiles at me. “I like him.”
And I nod back, in agreement.
“Tell you what, lad,” Edward says. “You mind your dad and complete your training, and when you come of age, I’ll make you Butler of Guthrie House.” He taps the table. “That’s a promise. What do you think of that?”
Fergus takes a few moments to think it over. Then he nods, spits in his palm and holds it out.
“I accept your offer, Prince Edward.”
Edward spits in his own hand, then he and Fergus—the future cranky Butler to the Crown Prince of Wessco—shake on it.
Three months later
The sun is just setting when I walk into the front parlor and look at the canvas Michael’s painting. “Oh, that’s coming along very nicely. Well done, Michael.”
“I look like a horse’s arse,” Edward grumbles from the other side of the canvas. He poses for the portrait in a leather chair, wearing a perfectly fitted gray pinstripe vest and trousers with a dark blue tie and the cuffs of his white shirt rolled up just a bit. He’s leaning back, his strong arms crossed with a smirk on his lips. Well . . . a smirk when his lips aren’t too busy complaining.
He hated the idea from the very start. I had to bribe him with all sorts of dirty, shocking promises to get him to agree . . . although I suspect he would’ve agreed anyway.
The dirty, shocking promises just made it all more fun.
“Stop pouting! You look devastatingly handsome,” I shoot back.
“I have a new filthy word for you Lenora—taint. That’s exactly what I feel like.”
I roll my eyes and shake my head. “This portrait is going to hang right behind my desk in my office, so I can look at my magnificent husband whenever I like.”
“That reminds me.” Michael puts his paintbrush down. “The portrait you requested is ready, Edward.”
He walks over to us as Michael slips something out of his pocket. It’s an oval locket made of gold—about the size of a half dollar. My husband opens it and inside is a tiny painting. Of me. My hair is down, framing my face in dark waves, as I gaze back over my shoulder with sparkling eyes. I look jubilant.
I look . . . beautiful.
Edward whistles. “Outstanding.” He smacks Michael’s arm. “It’s perfect, mate. Thank you.”
“How did you do this?” I ask Michael, but Edward answers.
“It was a candid shot, before they did your hair up on our wedding day—one of the hundreds and hundreds of photographs that were taken.”
“I remember.” I smile.
“The Palace was going to discard it, but I saved it and passed it to Michael so he could paint this for me.”
Warm, wanted, tender tingles spark across my body—from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes and everywhere in between. It’s how it feels when Edward swoops me off my feet . . . and in a way, that’s just what he’s doing now. But with words instead of his arms.
“What are you going to do with it?”
He reaches over and kisses me, quick but soft. “The same thing I do with all things that are most precious to me.” He taps his front shirt pocket. “Keep it close.”
And a year later, Edward would add a lock of Thomas’s dark hair to the locket.
THAT NIGHT, Thomas lies in the center of our bed, swinging his arms and kicking his little legs. I can’t stop the smile that comes to my lips as I watch him. Or the rush of possessive tenderness that drums in my chest as I look at Lenora sitting on the bed with him.
She smiles down at our sweet boy, delighted by his every move. “Sometimes I can’t believe he’s ours.”
Her hair is down, long; we’re both ready for bed. Lenora has given Thomas his final feeding and the night nurse will come to collect him soon, to put him down for the night. But these calm, quiet hours before then, that’s part of our time with him.