Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Palace Envy, Chapter 7



The dresses Queen Amelia bought me are gorgeous.

This morning, I put on the blue silk one. There’s something both informal and playful about it. Like it’s something you could wear to a fancy dinner party or a day at the park. It’s pretty, but the color is muted enough that it’s not flashy. The hem falls just above my knees, and it accentuates both my breasts and my narrow waist. It’s beautiful, but it’s also me.

I don’t know how the queen picked it out for me, but she’s some sort of fashion genius. I can’t stop staring at myself, and then I even dance around my room a little bit since nobody is watching. I would love to take a picture of myself if cameras were allowed in the palace, which they absolutely are not.

When I enter the palace in my new dress, the butler catches sight of me and he walks into the wall. He literally slams right into it. That is exactly the kind of response you want. You want people to find the dress so intriguing that they risk bodily harm.

The only person who doesn’t seem to like my dress is Iris. When I run into her in the foyer of the palace, her jaw drops open. If eyes could shoot daggers, I would be as dead as Arthur right now.

“What is that?” she declares.

“Um,” I say. “The queen wanted me to wear it. What do you think?”

She crinkles her nose. “It’s a little low-cut, isn’t it?”

I tug at the neckline. It’s a bit low-cut, but nothing inappropriate. Anyway, the queen picked it out. Whatever she tells me to wear, I’m wearing it. If she wanted me to do my job naked, then… Well, I would have to think about that one a bit. But this isn’t naked. This dress is classy.

“Hannah!” The queen’s voice echoes down the hallway. I swear, her voice could carry across the entire Kingdom—no microphone required. “There you are! I’ve been looking for you.”

Iris glances down at her watch. “She’s right. You’re late.”

I flinch, waiting to get reamed out by the queen. I’m two minutes late, and Iris is right—it’s unacceptable. It’s the fault of the dress! I should never have spent so long admiring myself in the mirror.

“I’m so sorry, Your Majesty,” I say. Then I curtsy. Ooh, this dress is fun to curtsy in.

Queen Amelia frowns at me. “For what?”

“She’s late,” Iris says helpfully.

The queen just waves her hand. “Never mind that. I need you to speak with Prince Edward.” She looks me up and down in my blue silk dress and her lips curl slightly. “Right away.”

“Oh… uh.” I clear my throat. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

Queen Amelia puts a hand on my back to lead me away from Iris, who is staring daggers into my back. I suppose I can’t blame her. I’ve only been here three months, and already the queen is confiding in me. It’s such a great honor, but I can understand how Iris must feel.

“Edward is being impossible,” she says in a low voice, almost in my ear. Her breath smells like sweet mints. “I’m trying to do something to help him and he’s refusing.”

“What is it you want him to do?”

“So,” she says, “I am sure you noticed yesterday when he came into the palace that he does not walk very well.”

She pauses like I’m supposed to say something. But I’m not sure what to say. If I agree with her, will I be insulting the prince? This is a very awkward spot to be in. “Well, I think considering everything, and all the stress right now, I think he’s doing—”

“Please, Hannah.” She huffs. “It’s painful to watch and we both know it.”

I just keep my mouth shut.

“So I hired a physical therapist to work with him over the next few days and weeks,” she continues. “If he’s going to be king, the image he projects is very important. It’s not like running a restaurant. Everybody is going to be watching him. Especially at the funeral on Saturday—that’s why the urgency. This physical therapist is one of the best in Norland. He will do wonders for Edward.”

Again, I can’t say what I’m thinking, which is that this woman’s son is dead, so why is she worried about something so unimportant? I almost can’t blame Prince Edward for refusing. But you can never say that to the queen. The queen is always right. Even when she’s wrong.

“I can try to talk to him about it,” I say.

She nods in approval. “Thank you very much, Hannah. Edward doesn’t want to listen to what I have to say, but if a pretty, young girl criticizes his walking, it might inspire him to want to do something about it.”

I cannot fathom going into the prince’s room and telling him he needs to be walking better. That is not something a servant should ever do, even if the queen tells her to do it.  But maybe I can figure out a way to convince him. After all, I’ve been successful so far.

“I’ll do my best, Your Majesty,” I say.

She reaches out and squeezes my shoulder. “I know you will, my dear.”

I may never wash my shoulder again.

I go off in the direction of the indigo room, where I assume Prince Edward is hiding. The door is closed. I take a moment to compose myself, to tuck a stray strand of my red hair behind my ear. Edward is going to know what I’m doing immediately, but perhaps I can make him see reason.

I reach out and rap my fist against the door.

“Who is it?” the prince’s voice calls out.

“It’s Hannah.”

Even through the door, I can hear him groan. “Okay, fine. Come in.”

I push the door open, and he is sitting in his wheelchair this time. His jaw is tightening as he gets ready to tell me exactly why the queen is wrong. But whatever he was about to say, the words die on his lips. And now he’s just staring at me, his hazel eyes like saucers.

I guess he likes the dress as much as I do.

“Jesus.” He looks like he’s having some trouble taking a breath—this dress is seriously dangerous. “You…”

I raise my eyebrows. “Yes, Your Royal Highness?”

I expect him to scold me again for referring to him as “Your Royal Highness” but he doesn’t. He doesn’t seem like he’s quite able to get any words out yet. Finally, he breathes, “Nice dress.”

“Oh? This old thing?” I say about the dress, which probably cost something in the order of five figures.

A smile spreads across his face. “Okay. Hannah Clarke has a sense of humor. Good to know.”

“Of course I do!” I’m not sure I do. I mean, I find things amusing, like everyone else. But I’m hardly a comedian. But if he wants to believe I have a good sense of humor, that’s fine!

“So.” He clears his throat, evidently recovered from my dress. “My mother sent you to bug me about the physical therapist.”

“Well,” I say. “Why not? What will it hurt?”

“Let’s see… well, my brother’s funeral is next weekend, and she is somehow more concerned with how I’m going to be walking than the fact that her son is in a casket. But also, I don’t need it. I’ve had tons of physical therapy in my life. I’m fine.”

“You really think so?”

He winces. “Okay, I know it’s not pretty when I walk. But I don’t have a lot of strength in my legs. And that’s not going to change. I have a muscle disease, and it’s going to get worse, not better. There’s nothing a physical therapist can do to change that.”

“Right. But you’re in pain.”

His eyes widened. “You could tell that?”

I nod.

He rubs his knee with his right hand. “Look, I wear braces on my ankles and… I’m not going to lie, they could be in better shape. But I don’t need anyone’s help. I’ll take care of it when I get home.”

“So what you’re saying is you have a problem that’s causing you to be in pain, and there’s somebody here who could help you who is literally here right now, and you’re refusing to see them. Is that the situation?”


I look him in the eyes. “I have to tell you, that doesn’t seem too smart, Eddie.”

He grins. “You called me Eddie. Not Your Royal Highness.”

I still remember how blindingly white Arthur’s smile was. He always seemed like he was made of some synthetic material. But Prince Edward is real. His smile isn’t as perfect, but it makes me smile back.

“So,” I say, “are you going to see the therapist?”

He lets out a sigh. “Okay, why not? Maybe he could help me. You’re right—it hurts to walk in these goddamn braces.”

Hooray, I did it! I convinced him! And it wasn’t even that hard. Now all I have to do is convince him to become king.

I’m actually starting to think I might be able to do it.




Prince Edward


The physical therapist my mother hired is an Asian man in his thirties who introduces himself as Kevin. He’s got a solid build with biceps the size of tree trunks. When he enters my room and shakes my hand, he gives me a good squeeze, and I return it. I may have a degenerative muscle disease, but I’m not weak.

Even though I technically can’t stand up without clinging to my crutches.

I’ve done plenty of therapy in my lifetime. When I first came to stay with the Boyds when I was five years old, I wasn’t walking very well. Walt and Grace took me to the Conroy rehab center in the next town over, and they got me set up with braces and crutches.

“It’s an honor to finally meet you, Your Royal Highness,” Kevin says. “I’m very sorry for your loss, but we’re all glad you’re here.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I mumble. “And please, call me Eddie.”

“You’re the boss.” I catch him looking down at my legs. “So I’ll be honest, aside from what I’ve read in the last day, I don’t know that much about spinal muscular atrophy. It’s pretty rare.”

“According to my mother, it’s been affecting me since I was about two,” I tell him. “I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t have to struggle to walk. But it’s about stable now. It mostly affects my legs, but my arms are affected too. I work out my upper body to try to keep as much strength as I can.”

Kevin nods thoughtfully. “And you can walk with forearm crutches?”

“Right. And orthotics on my ankles.”

“You mind if I do an exam?”

“Sure. Knock yourself out.”

Kevin does an extremely thorough strength exam. I’ve had plenty of these exams at the Conway rehab center, but it’s been a while. My strength in my arms is very decent, but when he gets to my legs, it’s about what I expected. I have to struggle just to lift them off the floor. When he lifts the leg of my pants to look at my braces, he lets out an audible gasp.

“You’re not really walking around like this, are you, Eddie?”

I duck down my head, knowing I deserve his horrified reaction. “Um, yeah. I got a new pair on order, but it might be a while.”

Kevin straightens up and places his hands on his hips. “You’re a freaking prince. Why are you walking around on braces that are duct-taped together? Even if you weren’t a prince, this isn’t acceptable.”

I don’t feel like getting into a whole explanation about how the rehab clinic is going broke, and in another year, I don’t know where the hell I’m going to get any of my equipment anymore. “I’m busy,” I finally say.

He sighs. “I’ll have our orthotist come by and cast you today. We’ll have a new pair for you by the day after tomorrow.”

“The day after tomorrow?” I can’t keep the shock out of my voice. It’s never taken me less than a month to get a new pair of orthotics. “That soon?”

“Well, believe it or not, there are some benefits to being a prince.” He claps his hands. “All right, shitty braces aside, let’s see what you got, Prince Eddie. I want to see you walk.”

“Okay…” I start to reach for my crutches, but Kevin moved them. “Hand me my crutches, will you?”

He passes them over to me. “Can you walk at all without them?”

“No. Not even a little. I mean, you just saw what I’m working with. Do you think I should be able to?”

“No, I don’t. It’s just that…”

I raise my eyebrows. “What?”

“I’ll be honest with you. One of the things the queen asked when she hired me was if I could get you walking without crutches by the funeral. Or at least with just a cane. She was insistent on it.”

I snort. “Gee, why am I not surprised?”

“Anyway.” He steps back to give me some room. “Let’s see what you got.”

I lace my forearms through the metal rings and grip the handles. I haul myself to my feet, which is the hardest part of the whole process because my hips are weaker than my lower legs. But the entire process is hard. Every step is difficult. Even more so because the braces are digging into me where they’ve worn down or broken, but even if they weren’t, it’s still hard. By the time I’ve gone the length of the room, I’m already worn out. In my defense, it’s a really big room.

“So what do you think?” It’s hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Do you think I could walk without crutches?”

“No, definitely not.”

The most surprising thing is I get a jab of disappointment at his answer. I don’t know why though. I’ve been disabled my whole life. I’m very much used to it. But I’ve always done the poor man’s version of physical therapy, and maybe I did think there was a chance with Kevin’s help, I could do better.

It’s all that desperate, instinctive need to make my mother happy. But let’s face it, even if I could improve my walking by fifty percent, it’s not going to be anything close to Arthur. I will never live up to that.

“What about the cane?” I ask.

“Hmm.” He rubs at the bit of stubble on the tip of his chin. “It will be a challenge, for sure. Maybe very short distances, like six feet, if you had a public appearance. But even that is going to take a lot of work on your part. You’re leaning pretty heavily on the crutches. You’d probably be better off with a walker if I’m being honest.”

“No thanks.” The best thing about the crutches is the increased maneuverability. I’d lose that if I used a walker. If I’m going to do that, I might as well just stick with the wheelchair.

“I’ll bring a large-based quad cane tomorrow,” he promises. “We can try it out and see how you do. And when you get the new braces, I think that will make a huge difference.”

“Great, thanks.” I mean it. I hadn’t realized how much these braces were bugging me until he offered me new ones.

“But for the record,” Kevin adds, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being king and needing crutches or a wheelchair.”

“It’s a moot point.” I make my way back across the room, desperate to collapse back onto my bed. “I’m not going to be king.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “No? I thought you were next in line.”

“I am. But I don’t want it.”

“Really?” He folds his muscular arms—Christ, those guns are making me feel inferior. “Who wouldn’t want to be king?”

“It’s not that great. I promise.” I reach the bed and plop down onto it. “Your job is basically being rich and everyone loves you.”

He laughs. “What’s so bad about that?”

“I’ve got three restaurants in Ancaster. I work hard to keep them going. And to keep all my staff employed. If I were the king, what would be my purpose in life?”

“Hey, you don’t think what the king does is important?”

“Honestly? No.”

“Well, I have to disagree with you, Eddie. I think influencing millions of people is pretty damn important.” He clears his throat pointedly. “Also, why are you sitting down like you’re done? We’ve still got like forty-five minutes left in the session. Back on your feet!”

I reach for my crutches to get back on my feet, but I don’t agree with anything he said. He doesn’t get it. He hasn’t been around the royal family like I have.

This life isn’t for me.






When I have a fifteen-minute break in the afternoon, I hide in one of the many, many empty bedrooms and call the librarian at the Claybrooke public library.

I got to know Helen well when I was a kid because I was always coming in to read newspaper or magazine articles about the royal family, and if she found a book about them, she would order it for me. Like most people in the kingdom, Helen loved the royal family also. She was a wealth of gossip about the family.

When I call the library, Helen picks up after only two rings and I hear her crackly voice on the other line. Like most businesses in the kingdom, the library is small. Helen is usually the only person working there.

“Hannah!” she cries. “It’s so good to hear your voice! How is the royal family doing with everything going on? How is Queen Amelia?”

Helen adores Queen Amelia as much as I do. One year on the Queen‘s birthday, Helen invited me to her house and we baked a cake together for the queen.  My mother might have been gone, but the queen almost felt like a second mother, who was always looking out for me.

The reality of Queen Amelia is so much different. She’s not quite the benevolent figure I imagined when I was a child. In real life, she’s somehow even more intimidating.

“She’s very sad,” I lie. Well, it’s not quite a lie. If I said that the queen was going around the palace sobbing her eyes out, that would be a lie. But I’m sure she’s very sad. She must be. “Helen, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

I look up to check that the door to the bedroom is closed and I lower my voice. “So Queen Amelia had two sons. Two little boys, right?”

“That’s right.” Like me, Helen is a virtual encyclopedia when it comes to the royal family. “Arthur and Edward.”

“So what happened to Edward? Do you have any idea?”

“Well…” Helen hesitates. “I told you that my cousin Louise worked for the royal family back then and she said little Edward was very ill. But nobody knew quite what was wrong with him because Queen Amelia kept him to herself most of the time. She never even let the nanny care for him.”

“I see…”

“She said one day they loaded Prince Edward into the car and they disappeared with him. Louise said the boy looked very pale and the queen was carrying him. So everyone thought they were bringing him to the hospital.” Her voice drops. “But then when they returned the next day, they didn’t have the prince. And he never returned.”

I suck in a breath. “Did they say what happened to him?”

“Louise said they would just tell people Prince Edward was no longer with us. So… everyone just assumed he had died. They expected a funeral to be arranged, but it never was. They thought perhaps in their grief, the king and queen had a private ceremony for the little prince.”

“Were they very sad over it?”

“Oh yes,” Helen says. “Louise said she would hear the queen crying every night. For months after. According to Louise, the queen was always partial to little Edward. She said he was such a sweet boy. And because he was ill, the queen was very attached to him. Arthur was very independent, but Edward was a more affectionate child. Every night, she would spend hours at bedtime reading to him and singing to him. She must have been just wrecked.”

“Oh…” It’s hard to reconcile a queen who cries every night with the woman I work for. The one who has not shed one tear over the death of her son. Who seems more interested in Edward accepting his place on the throne than what he actually wants. “That’s interesting…”

“It’s not interesting—it’s horrible!” She lets out a little sob. “First the poor woman loses her little boy. And then her other son! How much hardship can one woman endure?”

I glance up again at the locked bedroom door. One of the unspoken rules of working for the royal family is that you never tell anybody their secrets. Actually, it’s not so much an unspoken rule as a legal and binding agreement that I signed when I came to work here. But then again, this isn’t a secret. Edward is going to be king! (Maybe.) People are going to find out he is still alive.

“Here’s the thing,” I say carefully. “Prince Edward is still alive.”

“He… is?”


“Are you certain of this?”

“I’m pretty certain. He’s in the next room.”

“But that’s…” Helen is silent for a moment on the other line. “That’s... wonderful! So Prince Edward can become king now.”

I don’t even know how to respond to that. “Yes. He could.”

“Hannah, this is so wonderful!” she gushes. “Oh my, the prince is still alive. How fantastic for the queen and for the kingdom!”

“Yes,” I murmur.

“Tell me, what is Prince Edward like?”

“He’s…” I don’t know quite how to answer that question. Edward is nice. He’s not like anyone else in the royal family that I’ve ever met—he’s the first one who’s ever spoken to me like I’m a real human being and not just his servant. Also, he has a really nice smile. And he’s… “Helen, I have to go. I have to get back to work.”

“Okay, dear. Give my condolences to Her Majesty.”

I let out a sigh of relief when I hang up the phone. Helen and I don’t have the sort of relationship where I can talk about my love life with her. That sort of conversation would just be awkward.

Anyway, my love life has been nothing to write home about. They were very strict at the home for girls, which made it hard to go on dates unless you snuck out. When I was working for the duke, I used to date occasionally on my nights off, but as he got sicker, work ended up consuming most of my time.

And now that I’m working in the royal palace, I have had to put all of my energy into doing my job properly. This is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I suppose part of the problem is that I never fell hard for a guy. My destiny was always with the royal family, and everything else paled in comparison. After all, what man could compete with a giant palace? Inevitably, they all got palace envy.

As I’m coming out of the bedroom, I nearly run smack into Charlotte—Arthur’s fiancée. Or more accurately, former fiancée.

For once, she doesn’t look so great. I mean, she’s gorgeous, obviously. She’s always gorgeous. She always looks like some sort of statue carved by Michelangelo. But today, her golden hair has lost some of its shine. Her cheeks look a little sunken. Her eyes are very slightly bloodshot. Considering I’ve never seen Charlotte with so much as one hair out of place, it’s shocking to see her this way.

“Hannah,” she says sharply. And then she looks down, noticing my silky blue dress. “My God, what are you wearing?”

“Oh.” My cheeks grow warm. “It’s just this dress that—”

“Aren’t you supposed to be wearing your uniform? Do I have to call the queen?”

Part of me is almost tempted to let her do it. I’m tempted to let her fetch the queen, who is still mourning the death of her son, and let her complain about what I’m wearing. Perhaps it sounds petty, but I want to see the look on Charlotte’s face when the queen puts her in her place. Because Queen Amelia is the only person in the kingdom capable of putting Charlotte in her place.

But then I decide against it. After all, Charlotte lost her fiancé. I’m sure she’s devastated. I don’t need to stick it to her. At least I don’t have to call her “Your Royal Highness” anymore.

“I have special permission,” I say.

She looks me up and down, her lips set in a straight line. “You know, just because Arthur is gone, that doesn’t mean you treat me with disrespect.”

“I…” I am baffled. Given what I had been contemplating, I’ve been very respectful. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to disrespect you.”

“Well, you didn’t curtsy for me.”

She has got to be kidding me. I only curtsy for the royal family. But fine. If she needs a curtsy to get through the day, I’ll do it. And then I’ll never have to see her again.

“That’s better,” Charlotte sniffs.

Charlotte removes her wrap and tosses it on me the same way she did the night before Arthur died. This woman will never stop treating me like a coat rack. Thank God she’s never going to be queen. As far as I am concerned, that’s the best thing to come of this. She can act as high and mighty as she wants, but she’s never going to be my boss. The only way that could happen is if she married Edward, and there’s no chance of that.

I clear my throat. “Are you here to see the queen?”

“Actually,” she says, “I’m here to see Prince Edward.”

“Prince Edward?” My heart leaps in my chest. “What for?”

Her eyelashes flutter. “Excuse me?”

“I mean,” I say quickly, “what should I tell His Royal Highness is your reason for coming? In case he asks?”

Her ice-blue eyes sweep over me. “Prince Edward and I both lost somebody we love very much. Do I need a reason beyond that? Is that acceptable to you?”

Oh boy. “I apologize. I’ll go get him for you.”

I scurry off in the direction of the indigo room as Charlotte mumbles under her breath about the disrespectful servants in the palace. I have to admit, part of me is hoping Edward refuses to come out.




Prince Edward


Kevin worked me so hard in the morning that after I finish eating lunch, I end up passing out in my bed.

I haven’t taken a nap in years. First of all, there’s no time. But even if there were, it still doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would do. I’m not a siesta kind of guy. But in the palace, away from my restaurant back home, there’s only so much work I can do. I’m used to being busy almost twenty-four hours a day, and it’s strange not to have much to do. So I just… drifted off.

I wake up with a start when I hear a knock on the bedroom door. I sit up in bed, embarrassed to have been sleeping in the middle of the day. I call out for them to come in, and I’m even more embarrassed when Hannah comes into the room in that blue dress.

Jesus—that dress. Is she trying to give me a heart attack?

If only the circumstances were different. If only I met Hannah somewhere else. There’s something about her. I’ve spent the last year moping about Kate and thinking nobody could make me forget her. But for the first time, I’m thinking maybe I could forget about Kate.

“I’m sorry, your royal… um…” She clears her throat. She has so much trouble not addressing me by a title. Do I look like a prince to her? “You have a visitor. It’s, um, Charlotte.”

Charlotte?” It’s the last person I expected, and the last person I wanted to see. “What does she want?”

“To express her condolences.”

“Fine.” I run a hand through my short hair in an attempt to make it less messy. It doesn’t work. “Her condolences have been expressed.”

I expect Hannah to relay the message, but instead, she just stands there. “I believe she’d like to express them personally, Eddie.”

“Well, shit,” I say. I like the way the corners of Hannah’s lips twitch slightly. “Fine. I’ll come out and talk to her.”

When Hannah leaves the room, I look down at my clothing. I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I expected to change for dinner, considering my mother will be around, but now I have to debate whether it’s worth changing for Charlotte. What is the etiquette for talking to your dead brother’s fiancée? And does it matter if you hate her?

To hell with it. It’ll take too long to change anyway. All my shirts are wrinkled anyway.

I transfer into my wheelchair, doing my best to smooth out my hair and my jeans. My legs are skinnier than they ought to be because of the wasted muscles, so all my pants look baggy. If I were going to be the king, maybe it would be a problem that my clothes never look that great. Then again, I’m sure the palace tailor could do a better job than the department store where I usually get my pants.

When I get into the parlor, Charlotte is perched on the sofa. She stands up briefly when she sees me, and I’m grateful when she sits right back down so I can still look her in the eyes. That’s one thing I hate about the wheelchair—looking up at freaking everyone.

Charlotte looks a little short of her usual impeccable self—the strain of losing her fiancé has done a number on her. That said, she still looks great. Charlotte is a really beautiful woman. Maybe the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in real life. So much so, she doesn’t quite seem real. Like if I reached out, I could turn the dial and tune in to another woman.

When she looks up at me, there’s judgment in her eyes. Over Christmas, when I met her for the first time, she barely spoke to me. And when she did, I felt her disappointment with the fact that Arthur had a disabled brother. Like everyone else, she had this impression in her head that the royal family should be perfect.

My last interaction with her before I left to go back to Ancaster was during a dinner when she was planning a skiing trip for the family. She was talking a reluctant Mara into going on the trip, but then when her eyes rested on me, she said, Obviously you won’t be going.

I didn’t even know what that meant. It’s not like adaptive skiing doesn’t exist. Not that I’ve ever done it, but that’s more from lack of interest and being way too busy. But then again, she was right. I wouldn’t go on a skiing trip with her and Arthur. Still, she didn’t have to say it like that.

I wonder if she remembers that conversation.  I probably barely registered with her.

“Hello, Charlotte,” I say now.

She nods at me. “Hello, Your Royal Highness.”

“Eddie. Please.”

Charlotte doesn’t have a nickname, as far as I can tell. Over Christmas, I spent far more time with her and Arthur than I would have liked, and I never heard him refer to her as anything besides Charlotte. Not Char or Charlie or Lottie. Always Charlotte. I get the feeling if I tried to call her by a nickname, she would have looked at me the same way Arthur did when I called him Artie.

“How are you doing, Eddie?” she asks softly.

“I… I’m okay.” I force a tiny smile. “As you know, Arthur and I weren’t exactly close. So.”

She frowns. “But you’re twins. That’s the sort of bond that can’t be broken. Even if you didn’t see each other for twenty years, you still have that connection.”

Yeah, some people say that, but I didn’t have that kind of connection with Arthur. The only person in my family I felt close with after I got sent away was Mara.

“I guess so,” I say anyway, because I don’t feel like arguing. “How about you? How are you holding up?”

“Oh, I’ve been better.” Charlotte flashes me a brave little smile. I’ve never been quite this close to her while she’s smiling, and I notice there are more lines around her eyes than I remember. I had pegged her as being a little younger than Arthur and me—maybe late twenties—but now I think she’s older. Maybe mid-thirties. “I just… I miss him. You know?”

“Yeah,” I say. I don’t really know though. I don’t miss Arthur. But I know what it’s like to miss somebody that you love. “I’m sorry. I know you guys were supposed to get married in a few months. It must be really hard on you.”

She nods. “We had planned out a lot of the wedding already. I… I even had a dress.” Her voice cracks. “I can’t believe he’s gone. I’ve never met anyone as full of life as Arthur was. He seemed immortal. I always joked around with him that he would live to be a hundred.”

It’s funny—I used to think the same thing. “I know exactly what you mean.”

“Also,” she says, “I want to apologize.”

I raise my eyebrows. “For what?”

She plays with the hem of her dress. “I have to be honest with you. When Arthur first told me about you, his description was not very favorable. And I feel like… maybe I was unkind to you because of that.”

“What did he say about me?” I ask. Then I shake my head. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

“You probably don’t,” she admits. “In retrospect, I think Arthur was jealous of you.”

“Jealous of me!” I burst out. “God’s Gift to Norland was jealous of me? I don’t think so, Charlotte.”

“But that’s where you’re wrong.” To my surprise, she reaches out and puts her hand on top of mine. I want to pull away, but it would be rude. Also, her hand is very soft—insanely soft. Like a cross between a baby’s bottom and a kitten. “Look how successful you are in your own right. Arthur couldn’t do that. Everything he had was because it was handed to him. And if somebody told him he couldn’t be king, he would have nothing. He was terrified of the rug being pulled out from under him.”

“He sure didn’t act like it.”

“Well, you didn’t know him the way I did. He was very insecure at times.”

Which times? I want to ask. Because I never saw my brother at a time when he wasn’t bubbling over with self-confidence. “Maybe…”

“And because of his insecurities, he could be cruel.” She lowers her eyes. “I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”

“Of course I do.” I study her perfect features. “He… he did it to you too?”

“Yes.” Her little white teeth chew on the corner of her lower lip. “He always wanted to approve of my outfits. Like if I was at a store, he would make me send him pictures. And if he didn’t like something I was wearing, he would tell me outright. He’d say, ‘Charlotte, that dress makes you look fat.’”

I wince. “Really? That’s awful. And honestly, I can’t imagine you looking anything less than perfect in anything.”

“You’re so sweet, Eddie.” Charlotte squeezes my hand with her soft hand, which makes me feel self-conscious about the deep calluses on my palm from so many years of wheeling and crutches. My hands are definitely not a cross between a baby’s bottom and a kitten. More like a cross between an alligator and sandpaper. “I wish Arthur had been more like you.”

She doesn’t really think that, does she? Between the two of us, Arthur was the perfect one. Nobody wishes he were more like me.

But when I look up at Charlotte, her blue eyes are wide and earnest. And maybe I’m crazy but I believe her. I know what Arthur was like. It could not have been easy to be engaged to him.

“Now that we’ve cleared the air,” she says, “I hope we can be friends.”

She gives my hand another squeeze and I nod. “Of course. You’re part of the family now.”

She winks at me. “And if you ever need help handling your mother, I am very good at dealing with the queen.”

I laugh. “I’ll bet you are.”

“I certainly am.” She gives me a long look, which would have made me feel uncomfortable when she came in, but it turns out she’s not quite as bad as I thought she was. “Hang in there, Eddie. Call me any time.”

“Same here.”

And then she reaches out to give me a hug. Her hair falls against my cheek, and it’s just about the softest thing I’ve ever felt—even softer than her hand. And it smells like flowers. The hug lasts a few beats longer than it rightfully should, but I don’t try to pull away. It occurs to me at this moment that this is the first time a woman who was not a relative has touched me since Kate and I broke up.

To be continued...


  1. *fans herself* Omg, that physical therapy session was so devvy! I may write a very gay fanfiction about it ;D


  2. Thank you for the last long installment! It was great! Now there are still some hours to wait until the book drops!