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Excerpt for The Princess Deception by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Princess Deception

By Nell Stark

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Nell Stark

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

The Princess Deception

When Sebastian, the Crown Prince of Belgium, overdoses on heroin shortly before he is set to launch Belgium’s campaign to host the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, his family manages to hush up the scandal. While the royals are debating how to proceed, Sebastian’s twin sister, Viola, decides to impersonate him to keep Belgium’s bid hopes alive.

 

Missy Duke is a freelance reporter covering Belgium’s World Cup bid. A former women’s soccer player whose career was sidelined by injury, she is now trying to break into the male-dominated sportscasting world. While in Belgium, she meets the imposter Sebastian and soon realizes that he is actually Viola. Sensing a big story in the making, Duke feigns ignorance and plays along with the charade.

 

Real sparks develop between the two women, but will the double deception doom this fairy-tale romance?

The Princess Deception

© 2018 By Nell Stark. All Rights Reserved.

 

ISBN 13:978-1-62639-980-8

 

This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185

 

First Edition: May 2018

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design by Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail)

By the Author

All In

Homecoming

Running With the Wind

 

The Princess Affair Novels

The Princess Affair

The Princess and the Prix

The Princess Deception

 

By Nell Stark and Trinity Tam: The everafter Series

 

everafter

nevermore

nightrise

sunfall

Acknowledgments

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night tells the story of Viola who, shipwrecked on the coast of a strange land, hides her “maiden weeds” and passes as male to survive. The experience of passing is familiar to me. As a card-carrying member of the “You’re in the wrong bathroom” club, I can empathize somewhat with the difficulties Viola encounters as she performs the role of Cesario. I love Twelfth Night for its glorious, playful queerness, which persists all the way up until the final scene. Scholars call the play a comedy, and technically, they’re right. Still, many queer readers can’t help but heave a forlorn sigh when the cross-dressing woman turns out to be straight, after all. Tragic.

The Princess Deception is, among other things, a queer “revision” of Twelfth Night. It is also a contemporary lesbian romance. As such, it can’t help but be inspired by the real life romance I’m privileged enough to live with my wife, Jane. She is my Muse, my cheerleading section, my rock, and my soulmate. I am so blessed by her love.

I am also privileged to be a part of the Bold Strokes Books family. If the zombie apocalypse breaks out, I’m confident that we’ll find each other, form a commune, defeat the undead hordes, and continue printing quality queer literature.

Radclyffe knows how much her work means to me, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to publish with her team. It’s the best in the business, and I would like to thank all the hardworking people at BSB—Sandy, Ruth, Carsen, and others—for helping to market and release quality product year after year. Special thanks go to my editor, Cindy Cresap, who keeps me laughing and on my toes while she continues to teach me valuable lessons in how to grow as a writer.

Finally: I am profoundly grateful to my audience. As the saying goes: “every writer needs a reader.” It’s at once inspirational and humbling to envision you picking up this book. It belongs to you now.

Dedication

For Jane.

 

“With adorations, fertile tears,

With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire”

—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

“Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest

Now is the time that face should form another.”

—William Shakespeare, Sonnet III

 

 

 

“Conceal me what I am, and be my aid

For such disguise as haply shall become

The form of my intent.”

—Viola, William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Chapter One

Brussels, Belgium

 

Her Royal Highness Princess Viola of Belgium had just raised her camera when her phone began to buzz. It was odd to be receiving a call at this hour, but after a moment’s indecision, she ignored it. The light’s perfection was fleeting, and if she didn’t capture this shot now, she never would. She sighted through the viewfinder to where a single shoe lay discarded on the cobblestones, its patent leather gleaming beneath the early morning sun. Behind the shoe rose the edifice of a small fountain, one of the many in the city dedicated to a segment of the population who had lost their lives in the Second World War. As the fresh light streamed across the small square, it was refracted by the water droplets to create a rainbow arc that appeared to end in the shoe’s gaping mouth.

It was a fantastic shot, made even better by the sharp toe and traditionally masculine buckle of the shoe. If it turned out, she would call it Cinderello. As she made her final adjustments, Viola wondered what had possessed the man to leave his footwear behind. Intoxication, probably—not nearly as interesting as the thought of a mistreated pauper, granted one wish by his fairy godfather.

After capturing several photos on her SLR, Viola grabbed her phone to snap a few digital shots. But when she powered up the screen, a prickle of unease settled between her shoulders. The missed call was from her mother.

“Your Royal Highness.” Her bodyguard, Thijs, was always serious, but there was an urgency in his tone that intensified her apprehension.

She turned quickly. “What is it?”

“Your brother is in the hospital. We must return to the palace immediately.”

“Sebastian?” Viola suddenly felt dizzy. She must have swayed on her feet because Thijs was instantly at her elbow, one hand supporting her. A flash of irritation at herself sliced through her panic, and she pulled away to face him. “What happened? Is he all right?”

Thijs looked from her to the street, his expression one of grim wariness. “We need to get in the car.”

As though he had summoned it with those words, the Suburban used by her security detail swung around the nearest corner, then jolted to a halt. Viola tried to move quickly, but her limbs were strangely unresponsive. No sooner had she clumsily clambered into the vehicle, than Thijs jumped in behind her and the car rocketed away from the curb.

“Tell me what happened,” she demanded. When he reached around her to buckle her in, she swatted his hand away. “I’ll do that, damn it. Tell me.”

“I’ve told you all I know.”

Viola stared him down. The line of his jaw was as taut as a blade, but he returned her gaze steadily.

“You spoke with my parents?”

“With Ruben,” he said, referring to the chief of security at the palace.

When another wave of panic crashed over her, it must have shown in her face, because he clasped her shoulder briefly.

“He is alive. Focus on that. We’ll be back within moments and you’ll know more very soon.”

Viola didn’t want his reassurances. She wanted the truth. “I’m calling my mother.”

Her hands trembled as she extracted her phone, and the sensor refused to confirm her sweat-slicked fingerprint. Cursing, she bypassed it with her code. But the call went directly to her mother’s voice mail, and when she tried her father, she got the same result.

A wave of nausea forced Viola to lean heavily against the leather seat. She closed her eyes and focused on taking slow, even breaths. Shock. She was in shock right now, but she had to get over it before she saw her parents. No matter what had happened, they would need her to be strong.

Sebastian had been in Paris last night at a high profile charity gala to benefit Syrian refugees, and as far as she knew, he had been planning to prolong the trip until his appearance in The Hague tomorrow to kick off the World Cup bid festivities. Had he been in a car accident? A shooting? Why hadn’t she felt anything? Wasn’t that how the twin bond was supposed to work?

The car slowed, then dipped and curved sharply. She kept her eyes shut as the realization washed over her: they weren’t going in through the gates, but through the Catacombs. The secret underground route led both to the palace and to the nuclear fallout shelter that had been built beneath it during the Cold War. Her parents were committed to an honest and transparent monarchy whose comings and goings were a matter of public record, and their policy was to use the tunnels only in case of an emergency. Viola’s panic ratcheted up another notch. The last time she had been in the Catacombs, terrorists had attacked the airport. Had they struck again? Was her entire family in danger?

“This way?” she managed to ask, hating the shiver in her voice.

“Ruben’s orders.” Thijs sounded as tense as she felt. “I don’t know why.”

The sinuous twists and turns were disorienting, and Viola fumbled for the handle on the door to brace herself against the motion. When the sour taste of bile filled her throat, she swallowed convulsively. She would not be ill. Not now.

Thankfully, the car’s path straightened out within moments. As soon as the small parking alcove became visible, Viola unbuckled, ready to move. The uncertainty was torturous. Her head was pounding and her chest ached and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. But Sebastian was alive. For now, she had to stay focused on that simple fact. He was alive.

As she prepared to exit, Viola realized she didn’t know the way. The door ahead led to an elevator. By going up, she would gain direct access to her parents’ apartments. But the elevator could also access the underground bunker. She remembered the day of the airport terror, pacing the length of the bunker’s main room while Sebastian sat at the small table holding their mother’s hand. She remembered the whirlwind of her thoughts: gratitude that no one she knew had been injured in the attack, fear that another might be forthcoming, sorrow for the victims, guilt for the privilege that allowed her to feel secure when the rest of the nation did not. Over the hollow echo of her footsteps on the concrete floor, she had heard her father’s vehement debate with Ruben over when they would be removed from lockdown. The people needed to see the royal family, he had argued. They needed reassurance and some measure of stability. None of them did anyone any good locked away in the dark.

That day, she had drawn comfort and strength from the presence of her family. Now, she didn’t want to be sequestered away while Sebastian was in danger. She turned to Thijs, dreading his answer.

“Which way?”

When he pointed to his ear, she understood. He was still receiving instructions. She wrapped her arms around her chest, each passing moment an eternity of anxiety.

“Yes, sir,” he finally said, pointing skyward for her benefit.

Up. Her relief lasted only seconds, before the formidable security measures between them and the elevator—including palm and retinal scans—offered a temporary distraction from all emotion. Once inside the elevator, she chafed at its slow progress and positioned herself in front of the doors. When Thijs moved to interpose himself between her and the metal, she glared at him. He backed off.

As the car slowed to a halt, Viola turned sideways and shouldered through the gap as soon as it was wide enough. One of Ruben’s men was there to meet her, but she ran past him down the foyer. Voices emanated from the sitting room, and she turned into it sharply, dodging another man who was lingering in the doorway.

Her mother was seated on the sofa, her posture rigid. Tears streaked her pale cheeks, and she was fixated on her husband, who stood a few feet away, holding a phone to his ear.

The sight of their obvious distress broke Viola’s heart and ratcheted up her own fear. Only when she dropped to her knees at her mother’s feet did she notice her presence.

“Viola! Thank God.” She clasped both of Viola’s hands in hers, her lips trembling with suppressed emotion.

“What’s happened to Sebastian? Where is he?”

“Your brother…” She choked off, eyes welling with tears that just as quickly spilled over. Before Viola could move, her father was there, wrapping his arms around her mother, who turned with a soft, heartbreaking gasp and buried her face in his chest. He rested his chin on the top of her head and gently smoothed her flowing, silver-tinged hair before finally turning to meet Viola’s gaze. She watched as he pulled himself together and saw the effort required to compartmentalize his feelings.

“Very early this morning, Sebastian arrived at an emergency room in Paris. From there, he was rushed to the Hôpital Hôtel Dieu in critical condition, but the physician just called to tell us that he is now stable, though still unconscious. He—he overdosed. On heroin.”

The shock was a punch to her chest, robbing her of breath. Dazed, she shook her head slowly. “What?”

“When he arrived, he was barely breathing. Fortunately, the physicians were able to administer an anti-overdose drug that saved his life.”

Saved his life. The words ricocheted in her mind. Sebastian could have died. Would have died.

“From your reaction, it seems you are just as surprised as we are,” her father said quietly.

“Yes, I—I had no idea.” A wave of guilt joined her fear and shock. Why hadn’t she noticed? As different as she and Sebastian were, there was no one on the planet to whom she was closer. Their bond had formed in the womb, as much a part of each of them as their fingers and toes. As children, they had developed their own language. She thought of the silly little secrets they had kept together—but always from the rest of the world. Never from each other.

“Sebastian is the only one responsible for his own actions,” her father said, the strain in his voice audible. “But if you do know anything that might be able to help the doctors treat him—such as how long he has been struggling with this…this addiction—please tell us. We won’t be upset with you, Viola.”

A rush of anger overwhelmed her as she realized he didn’t trust her first answer. How, how could he doubt her, now of all times? She would have pulled away, but the misery reflected in his face caught at her, dissolving her rage as quickly as it had materialized. As the plea in his eyes and voice finally sank in, she squeezed her own eyes shut, but the tears seeped out anyway. No. This was not the time to lose control of her emotions. Her parents needed her to be strong. She needed herself to be strong.

When a soft hand cupped her cheek, she blinked furiously and focused on her mother.

“We love you,” she said.

Viola swallowed hard as a fresh wave of tears threatened. “I know. I love you, too. And this is coming as an utter shock to me. I had no idea Seb was using heroin. I truly didn’t. I would have tried to stop him, if I’d known. I swear it.”

Her father leaned forward and covered her hand with his own. “We believe you. I hope you can understand why we had to push.”

Viola nodded. As much as their mistrust stung, she had to focus on staying strong. Grasping for empathy, she tried to imagine herself in their position, but her mind recoiled from willingly embracing any more pain. All she could think of was Sebastian, lying supine and still in a hospital bed, all alone while machines marked the rhythm of his breathing.

She needed to be there, lending him strength. He had done the same for her after they were born one month prematurely, when he flourished but she languished. Mystified as to the cause of her weight loss and poor breathing, the doctors had finally put Sebastian into her incubator. Some innate fraternal instinct had prompted him to put one skinny arm around her tiny shoulders, and from that moment on, her health had improved. Every year on their birthday, her parents pulled the yellowing album off the shelf to show them the photograph and repeat the story. And every year, Sebastian rolled his eyes and joked that she still owed him one. Now, perhaps she could finally fulfill that debt.

She rested on her heels, barely registering the tightness in her legs, and looked from her mother to her father.

“I don’t care what the visiting hours are. I need to see him. Now.”

“I know.” Her father glanced over one shoulder. “Ruben, is the helicopter standing by?”

“Yes, sir.”

He squeezed Viola’s hand. “You will go in the chopper with your mother. I will follow behind you in a car.”

Viola opened her mouth to protest that they should all be together, but thought better of it when Ruben moved to her father’s side. Security protocols dictated that the entire family could never travel together, and with Sebastian in critical condition, she knew Ruben would insist on splitting them up.

“Your Majesties,” Ruben said into the silence. “Have you given any more thought to my earlier question?”

When her father closed his eyes and took a deep breath, Viola knew he was in danger of a rare burst of temper. Her mother stroked his arm gently, and Viola was struck by how they took turns caring for one another. It was beautiful.

“My answer is the same as it was,” he said. “Take all reasonable precautions to keep Sebastian’s condition private. Once we have seen him, we will reevaluate the situation.”

“The paparazzi will not be reasonable.” Ruben’s tone was even and carried no note of command. At times, he was as much an advisor to her family as he was their security chief. “If word of this leaks before we make an announcement, we will be on the defensive.”

Her father’s shoulders tightened. “So be it.” When he stood, his hands were clenched at his sides. “This is the life of my son, not a narrative to spin. Have your people process it as much as you like, but not another word to me about this until we’ve seen Sebastian.”

His vehemence was as uncharacteristic as it was compelling, and Viola admired him more in that moment than she ever had. Following his lead, she got to her feet and reached out to her mother. The sooner they got to the hospital, the better.

Chapter Two

A suburb of Paris, France

 

Duke’s left knee twinged as she gave the bowl of eggs one final, wistful whisk and turned toward the stove top. She hadn’t anticipated how much reprising this routine would hurt, though most of the pain had nothing to do with her most recent surgery. Smothering a grimace, she fell back on the mantra she had been repeating since her arrival: Be thankful for your friends and your job.

The scent of bacon radiated from the oven, a mouthwatering aroma that was only enhanced by the scent of frying garlic and potatoes as she wielded the spatula she’d found languishing in the back of a drawer. She was no longer useful to her friends as a teammate, but at least she could still cook for them.

The sound of footsteps on the stairs snapped her out of her spiral of self-pity. So far, her mantra hadn’t been very effective. But when her ex-girlfriend Juno entered the room closely trailed by her now-girlfriend, Leslie, Duke managed a smile that wasn’t entirely forced.

“It smells amazing in here.” On her way to the refrigerator, Juno paused to plant a kiss on Duke’s cheek, while Les slumped against the counter, blinking slowly at her surroundings.

“Coffee, Les?” Duke said.

“God, yes.” Les’s voice was still gritty with sleep. “Thanks.”

If she had been anyone else, Duke would have teased her about her distaste for mornings. Duke had always been an early riser, one of many attributes she shared with Juno. Duke also refused to let the world see her uncoiffed, and her teammates had joked that she wore her makeup to bed. She didn’t actually go that far, but neither did she feel comfortable looking less than polished. The girls had dubbed her “the Duchess” in a play on her surname, and while she had complained at first, she secretly didn’t mind it at all. While not quite as fastidious in her own habits, Juno had understood her need to present a carefully controlled persona. But as refreshing as that common ground had been, Duke suspected their similarities had been the downfall of the relationship.

Les was nothing like either of them. Her boyish clothes were always rumpled, her short hair always tousled, and unless she was on a football pitch, she seemed in danger of dozing off. Duke silently scolded herself as she worked the French press. That last thought had been uncharitable. She might not understand Les’s lackadaisical approach to life, but put her between a pair of goalposts, and she turned into Spider-Woman. That counted for a lot. And she seemed to make Juno happy in ways Duke had never managed to do.

“There you go,” she said as she placed a steaming mug before the prodigy in question.

“Bless you.”

As Duke retreated behind the counter to finish preparing the meal, Rosa joined them.

“How did we live without you?” she asked Duke by way of greeting, before helping herself to the coffee.

By the time the last of the four roommates, Cecilia, appeared, the kitchen was buzzing with energy. Even Les pitched in to set the table, and soon, the fruits of Duke’s labor were being passed around the table. While the others piled their plates high, she ate sparingly and tried not to feel bitter about having to do so. Unlike her friends, she wouldn’t be burning hundreds upon hundreds of calories this afternoon, and she refused to become one of those dried-up athletes who gained weight as soon as they retired.

Tradition and superstition dictated they not talk about the game ahead, and the conversation turned instead to Duke’s new job.

“When do you have to leave tomorrow?” Rosa asked.

“My train’s at nine, so I won’t have time for a repeat performance,” Duke said, trying out a grin.

Rosa elbowed her. “That’s not why I was asking.”

“But I’m devastated,” Les said mournfully around a mouthful of potatoes.

“When is the actual event?” said Juno.

“Not until Sunday, but in the meantime, I have to meet with the Dutch authorities to get a press pass.”

“What part of the bid process is this, anyway?” said Les. “I know they declared their intent or whatever last year, but now what happens?”

Duke wanted to tell them that they didn’t have to show this kind of interest for her sake, but neither did she want to bring down the mood of the room. She also had no desire to subject herself to another lecture from Juno on how important it was to stay positive, which was exactly what she had earned the last time she’d made a self-deprecating comment about her new career.

“Usually, a bid is pretty dull: a lot of behind-the-scenes work that turns into a bureaucracy nightmare. All the paperwork culminates in the visit of a FIFA delegation that inspects each bidder’s facilities and infrastructure before a final decision is made.”

“That sounds marginally more exciting than watching paint dry,” Juno said.

Duke smiled—more at Juno’s inability to take her own advice than at the comparison. “Right? But Belgium and the Netherlands have decided to get creative and take things to the next level. The official visit only lasts a few days, but they’re turning the whole month before FIFA shows up into a celebration of their football programs. The kickoff is Saturday.”

“And you’ll get to meet both royal families?” Rosa said.

“Maybe.” Duke knew she should have been more excited about the prospect of hobnobbing with royalty, but she wasn’t. These days, she didn’t have the strength to muster enthusiasm about anything before it was absolutely necessary.

“Details, Duke,” Rosa said. “Stop playing hard to get. We want to live vicariously!”

Rosa was smiling, her words unintended knives. Duke’s chest constricted painfully and her pulse was suddenly racing and her hands had clenched into fists under the table without any conscious will. The idea that Rosa would want to give up her perfect knees and step into Duke’s broken, useless body for any reason was beyond ludicrous. A few other words sprang to mind, too, and she took a long swallow of orange juice to stop herself from saying something she’d regret. To buy a little more time, she pretended to cough, then dabbed at her mouth.

“Sorry about that,” she said, hoping they would impute the hoarseness of her voice to orange juice going down the wrong pipe, rather than the pressure of choking back rage at the weakness of her own ligaments. “Prince Sebastian is the face of the bid in Belgium, but King Maximilian has taken the lead in the Netherlands.”

“Why not Prince Ernst?” Cecilia asked.

Les arched an eyebrow. “I had no idea you were such a royal fanatic, Ceci.”

“I’m not a fanatic!” Cecilia protested.

“Haven’t you ever wondered about the gossip magazines on the coffee table?” Juno said. “They’re all hers.”

“Not all,” Rosa said. “Half are mine, and I’m not ashamed.”

Duke barely heard their banter. She didn’t know the answer to Cecilia’s question, and she should. She hadn’t done enough homework, and she knew it. Now they would, too. Before her chagrin could become full-blown self-loathing, she forced herself to move on. “Not sure why Ernst isn’t on the front lines instead. I’ll have to look into it.”

Cecilia cut her a look. “Well, Sebastian is a total smoke show. Can you at least try to appreciate that for my sake?”

“And mine,” Rosa chimed in.

For once, Duke laughed without having to force it. “I’ll do my best.”

“He’s given himself a makeover this past year,” Cecilia said. “Ever since he started dating Maria Fournier.”

“The model?” Duke might not know much about the Dutch and Belgian royals, who weren’t nearly as newsworthy as their British counterparts, but she had heard of Fournier, who had posed for a particularly provocative centerfold several months ago.

Les wrinkled her nose. “She’s dating Sebastian and not his sister? That’s disappointing.”

“You have to let some beautiful women be straight, Leslie,” Rosa said.

“Why?” Les deadpanned.

As Rosa rolled her eyes, the words sunk in. “Wait, what? Sebastian’s sister is gay?”

When all four women looked at her as if she’d sprouted an extra head, Duke knew she was in for a lecture, after all.

“Where have you been?” Cecilia said. “She had a relationship with Dahlia last year. And I know you know who that is.”

That much was true. Dahlia was one of those musical artists who didn’t require a surname. Her biggest hit had been the unofficial anthem of the national team for Duke’s final soccer season.

“The Belgian princess’s name is Viola,” Les added. “And they had broken up by the time the whole thing came to light.”

Duke was stuck on the time stamp. No wonder she had missed that tidbit of gossip. Last year had been a blur of multiple surgeries followed by months of rehabilitation. While she had stayed in touch with her closest friends, she had avoided social media on all but her most masochistic days. Watching her number of followers slowly dwindle had been a daily blow to her ego. Reading about her teammates’ exploits both on and off the pitch had opened up a new world of pain, the door to which she had only closed with the help of a sports therapist and an ongoing regimen of antidepressants.

“There were all the jokes you’d expect around Dahlia’s tongue ring,” Les continued.

Rosa nudged her playfully. “Trust you to remember that detail.”

Smirking, Les was just about to offer a retort, when Juno cut her off and put an end to the banter.

“Really, Duke, you haven’t done any research yet?” Her lips were drawn together in a thin line of displeasure. “You told me you were taking this job seriously, and I—”

“No.” Duke swiveled to face her. “Don’t you dare start.” She didn’t yell, but the words crackled with the simmering frustration that was always threatening to boil over. Clearly, Juno thought she was entitled to boss Duke around because she’d bullied her brother Toby into dropping Duke’s name at Goal Sports Network. But Duke hadn’t asked Juno for that favor, and she’d been appropriately grateful after she’d gotten the job. She wasn’t going to let Juno use that currency now.

Duke watched as Juno’s eyes narrowed and could tell the instant she decided not to heed the warning. But just as she was opening her mouth to fire a retort, Les gently rested her palm on Juno’s forearm.

“Hey,” she murmured. “Let it go.”

Duke expected Juno to blow off her current girlfriend as easily as she’d disregarded Duke’s own wishes when they were dating, but miraculously, Juno closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Huh. Interesting. While she and Juno had only ever riled each other up, Les seemed somehow capable of helping her maintain a more even keel. Maybe there was more to the kid than her sexy swagger and “good hands.”

Wanting to diffuse the tension that had filled the room, Duke pushed past her irritation at Juno. Maybe that was a sign of her own progress, because at one time, she would have wallowed in the feeling. Maybe.

“I’ve been saving my royal research for the train ride, but if you all feel like walking me through the high points, I wouldn’t say no.” She reached for her laptop. “Up to you.”

“Are you kidding?” Cecilia said, gesturing to Rosa who had lit up like a Christmas tree. “This is our thing!”

“Yes—yes, it is.” Rosa leaned forward conspiratorially. “So. Until recently, Sebastian was never one of the more interesting royals. He wasn’t very attractive—”

“Always a little chubby,” Cecilia chimed in.

Rosa seemed suddenly chagrined. “Not that appearance is everything, of course, but he was also kind of boring.”

Cecilia nodded. “He was a golf pro for a while, but never highly ranked. There was a short-lived rumor that he and that princess of Monaco were dating—you know, the one who turned out to be gay—but obviously that wasn’t true.”

“Alix,” Les interjected, her tone clearly conveying her disappointment at Cecilia’s omission. “Her name is Alix.”

Cecilia raised her hands. “Sorry! I sit corrected.”

Duke, who had pulled up her article file when Cecilia began, was fleetingly thankful for her touch typing skills. “What prompted the change?” she asked, fingers flying over the keys as she hastily made note of their observations.

“No idea, but over the past year, Sebastian lost a lot of weight and started to be seen in the company of A-listers.” Rosa shrugged. “He’s finally had some sustained runs in the tabloids.”

“Joy,” Duke said, injecting every possible ounce of sarcasm into the word.

She might not have blue blood and a coat of arms, but for a time, she’d been American soccer royalty. Once the media began billing her as the second coming of Mia Hamm, Duke had been under just enough scrutiny to know how awful it could be: the invasive and inappropriate questions about her personal life, the digging and sifting through her social media presence in an effort to find anything that might topple her from her pedestal, the minute attention paid to where she ate and what she wore and who she was seen with. She had still been light years away from the A-list, but anyone with a camera phone could be an amateur paparazzo. Which was everyone.

And yet, there was a part of her that missed the attention—a part she’d been forced to acknowledge by the therapist she had finally agreed to see. Duke had always wanted to believe herself humble: a hard worker who cared more about results than the glory that attended them. It had taken more than a few heated debates with Dr. Pena before she’d recognized her humility as self-delusion.

“Sometimes,” Pena had said into the shock of that epiphany, “when a significant change is required, you have to take yourself apart piece by piece—down to the very cornerstone of your identity—and then rebuild.”

When Duke had asked how to recognize that cornerstone so she wouldn’t accidentally throw it out with the rest of the debris, Pena had smiled and told her that was impossible.

“Your cornerstone is the most fundamental belief you have. The core value you can’t abandon. The immovable object of your psyche.”

“Hey, are you listening?” Juno’s voice was accompanied by a nudge of her foot. “We’re trying to help, you know.”

“Sorry.” Duke stifled a pretended yawn and rubbed delicately at her eyes, as though they were tired. They weren’t, but the memory had made her tear up, and she didn’t want anyone to notice. “I didn’t sleep very well last night.”

Rosa stood and squeezed her shoulder before beginning to clear the plates. “I’d be nervous about meeting royalty, too. But you’re going to do great. You’re smart and beautiful and charming—royalty in your own right. You’ll always be our Duchess.”

Duke smiled and told her she was sweet and then excused herself by claiming she had to visit the WC. As she left, she caught Juno’s scrutinizing look and prayed she wouldn’t follow. Duke quickened her pace, gained the threshold without incident, and locked the door with relief. The bathroom was tiny but private, and right now that was all that mattered. She braced her elbows on the sink and finally let the tears fall, registering the tiny plink of each drop on the ceramic surface. She wept silently, a skill she had cultivated in recent months.

It had been a mistake to come here. She’d had her misgivings, but Dr. Pena had convinced her that reconnecting with her friends—seeing them in the space they shared, going about their lives as she moved on with hers—would be good for her. Instead, all this visit had done was remind her of how much she had lost. She had ripped off the scab far too early.

As the tears finally began to slow, Duke focused on taking slow, even breaths. But when she tried running through one of Dr. Pena’s meditation techniques, her chaotic mind refused to cooperate. The hours stretched ahead, interminable and tinged with the anticipation of pain. She didn’t want to leave the house without her game bag. She didn’t want to part ways with her former teammates at the stadium entrance and watch them disappear behind the locker room door. She didn’t want to be a spectator, cheering them on with rows and barriers between her and the pitch. Even sitting the bench would be preferable to sitting in the stands.

But what she wanted didn’t matter. Her career was over, and the sooner she managed to accept it, the sooner she could find a way to move on. Today, she would find the strength to hide her grief and support her friends. Tomorrow, she would begin the first chapter of her new life in good faith with a good attitude.

Somehow.

Chapter Three

Paris, France

 

Despite the beep of the heart monitor and the whoosh of the ventilator, an eerie hush pervaded Sebastian’s room. It came from him, Viola realized—from the stillness of his body beneath the pale blanket. She tightened her grip on his hand as she watched her mother smooth his hair back from his forehead. Her fingers were trembling.

Viola forced herself not to look away. She had never seen someone intubated before, and while she understood that the procedure was necessary, the sight of the tube disappearing into his mouth filled her with horror. What must he be feeling—if he could feel at all? Had he regained consciousness since being admitted? As much as she wanted him lucid again, she hoped he hadn’t woken alone and disoriented and in pain.

A selfish part of her wanted to flee the room, but she squared her shoulders against the panic. Sebastian needed her, and she would be damned if she gave in to cowardice now. After a hard swallow, she began to speak. At first, her voice was little more than a halting whisper, but the trickle of words grew stronger until they became a torrent, pouring out of her without conscious thought.

As she spoke to him, her mother moved to her side and took hold of her free hand. The gentle pressure anchored her, and Viola took strength from it, channeling that unspoken love into her words. She told Sebastian that she would always stand by him. She reminded him of all the ways he had taken care of her in the past and assured him that she would do the same for him in the present. She painted a picture of his best self, urging him to remember all the good he had already done in the world. She spoke of her pride in his accomplishments and her excitement for his future.

The tide of words slowed, then stopped. She felt hollowed out, drained. Her mother tugged her gently toward the chairs, and they sat.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said.

But Viola shook her head. “I should have known.”

Now that the initial shock had passed, the thought had become a painful mantra, drilling into her brain until the vibrations were all she could feel. How had Sebastian hidden his drug use from her? On the short ride to the hospital, she had found herself hoping that last night was the first time Sebastian had ever tried heroin, but she wasn’t naive and could recognize her own wishful thinking. Denial was the first stage of grief, and she had to move past it if she was going to be able to help him.

Even so, the shock was difficult to absorb. She had never known him to be interested in drugs of any kind. As adolescents, they had tried marijuana together, and while Viola found the experience pleasurable, Sebastian had become paranoid. She had never seen him use it again. They had been at many parties where other drugs were circulating, and she had never seen him try those, either. But clearly, her knowledge was faulty.

If she had to guess, she would bet he started using shortly before he began losing weight. She distinctly remembered complimenting his appearance at a holiday party, when his new slim look had been accentuated by the cut of his brand new tuxedo. Why hadn’t she realized that he’d lost too much, too quickly? How had she mistaken addiction for hard work and healthy choices?

Swiping at her lingering tears with her free hand, she forced herself to move past fruitless conjecture. What-ifs were of no use now.

Her mother placed one palm on her cheek and turned Viola’s head until their eyes met. “You are not your brother’s keeper,” she said, unfallen tears shimmering in her eyes. Despite her reassurance, guilt saturated the words.

“Neither are you,” Viola whispered.

The tears did fall and Viola’s heart broke all over again at the sound of her mother’s sob. She hugged her. It was all she could do, and the profound helplessness was overwhelming.

At the scrape of the door opening behind them, Viola turned to the welcome sight of her father. He joined their embrace, but Viola could sense his impatience to see Sebastian, and with a squeeze of his shoulder, she stepped out of his way. As she watched him smooth back the hair from Sebastian’s forehead, she experienced a flash of anger at her brother. She should have realized something was wrong, but he also should have told them. Unlike so many other families, theirs wasn’t fractured by ideological chasms or unhealed wounds from unresolved grudges. They were on good terms. They communicated well. No one would have judged him—they would only have tried to help. Why had he not reached out?

Why hadn’t he at least confided in her?

When she realized she was blaming him, Viola’s disgust at herself was punctuated by a bout of nausea so severe she thought she might actually be sick. She steadied herself against the wall and bowed her head in an effort to regain control. After a few deep breaths, she felt marginally better, but not enough to open her eyes. She concentrated on the bass rumble of her father’s voice as he spoke to Sebastian, reminding him how strong he was and how much they all loved him.

The door opened. Cautiously, Viola straightened and turned. The man who entered was probably not much older than she was, but his badge proclaimed him a doctor.

“Good morning, Your Majesties,” he said, inclining his head toward her parents before glancing in her direction. “And Your Highness. I am Lucas, one of the physicians assigned to Prince Sebastian. When you are ready, Dr. Charcot, the chief of cardiology, will be happy to speak with you in her office.”

Viola looked to her father. His eyes were red-rimmed and his cheeks pale, but when he spoke, his voice was steady.

“Please, take us to her now.”

Minutes later, Viola trailed her mother into the tidy office. It wasn’t as large as she had expected, but the deceptively delicate spire of Sainte Chapelle filled the window, and beyond it, the thick ribbon of the Seine. Behind the nameplate on her desk, a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat stood as they entered and offered a shallow bow.

“Your Majesties, Your Highness. I am Jeanne Charcot. I have been overseeing your son’s case since his arrival.”

Viola was glad she wasn’t required to speak. She kept hold of her mother’s arm while her father stepped forward to shake Dr. Charcot’s hand. “We are grateful beyond the power of expression for all you have done to care for Sebastian,” he said. “What can you tell us about his condition?”

Dr. Charcot gestured to the chairs before her desk. “Please sit.”

Only when Viola was off her feet did she realize how exhausted she was. It seemed as though years had elapsed since her early morning foray into the streets. She had slept well and risen before her alarm, relieved to see that the expected good weather had indeed materialized and eager to capture new perspectives of her native city. But the promise of the day had been shattered, and the horizons of her world had collapsed under the weight of her fear and guilt and grief. Sebastian had to pull though. He had to. She fixed her gaze on the physician. Beside her, she dimly noted the clasped hands of her parents, resting on her father’s knee.

“Sebastian is currently suffering from a condition known as noncardiogenic pulmonary edema. He has a buildup of fluid in his lungs, which is causing him to have difficulty breathing. This accumulation of fluid is the result of an overdose of heroin, which depresses the respiratory system.”

“Do—” Her father’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “Do you expect him to make a full recovery?”

“The next forty-eight hours will be critical,” Dr. Charcot said. “Most patients in a similar condition are able to come off the ventilator within that time, unless they experience complications.”

“What kind of complications might arise?” her mother asked, the strain of the question inflecting her words.

“A collapsed lung is possible, though unlikely in Sebastian’s case. We must also be concerned about pneumonia.”

Viola took a deep breath and forced herself to ask the question that had been haunting her since she had seen Sebastian, so still and unresponsive. “Is he likely to have any brain damage?”

When Dr. Charcot’s sympathetic gaze met hers, Viola had her answer. In that moment, she vainly wished she could take back the question to shield her parents from the answer.

“That is a possibility. We do not know how long he was unconscious before he was brought to the ER.”

Her mother turned to her father in confused distress. “But…can we not find out?”

When her father closed his eyes briefly, Viola realized he had been keeping some details from her mother. A sickening jolt of dread made it hard to swallow. What else did he know?

“Sebastian was brought to the hospital by a car service. The driver said he had been paid in cash—triple his normal price—to make the trip.”

Viola watched the horrified comprehension dawn on her mother’s face one moment after her own epiphany. Sebastian’s companions—whoever they were—hadn’t possessed the decency to personally ensure his safe arrival at the hospital. No doubt, they were trying to protect themselves.

“What is his treatment plan?” Viola asked, wanting to steer the conversation back toward pragmatics. It would do them no good right now to spend precious energy speculating about the circumstances of Sebastian’s overdose.

“Now that Sebastian is stable, he has been scheduled for a CT scan,” Dr. Charcot said. “That will give us a clearer picture of the existence or extent of any brain injuries.”

“And when he wakes?” her father asked.

Viola appreciated his certainty. Yes. Sebastian would wake. He would be fine. Except, of course, he wouldn’t. He would wake to the beginning of a lengthy battle against addiction.

“We can begin treating his withdrawal symptoms here, but he will need to be admitted to a detoxification and rehabilitation program as soon as possible.” Dr. Charcot pushed a manila folder across her desk. “I have prepared a list of several such facilities that have my highest recommendation.”

Her father took the file and opened it. Viola watched his eyes flicker as he scanned the page. When he looked up, his expression was one she had never seen before—sorrowful and dazed.

“I…” He exchanged a glance with her mother. “We know very little about such rehabilitation. What is the recommended protocol? What factors should we consider when making this decision?”

At that moment, Dr. Charcot’s phone rang. She excused herself and answered. Her gaze returned to them briefly before she focused on her computer. Viola realized that her parents, their heads close together as they silently comforted one another, hadn’t seemed to notice. Was this call about Sebastian? Had something changed in his status? Wanting to stand up and demand an immediate explanation, Viola gripped the arms of the chair and clamped her teeth together.

Dr. Charcot lowered the phone and moistened her lips. Viola thought the pressure of her fingers might splinter the plastic rods of the chair. Each second that passed was an excruciating eternity.

“I have good news,” Dr. Charcot said into the silence. “Sebastian has regained consciousness.”

 

* * *

 

A train in eastern France

 

Relief washed over Duke as the train lurched into motion, and she rolled her shoulders in a futile effort to loosen the tension lodged between her shoulder blades. If she had to be on the receiving end of one more ineffectively disguised pitying glance from her friends and former teammates, she thought she might scream. Soccer had been her life, all her life, but it wasn’t anymore. Though she had learned that lesson already, this past week had only served to reinforce it.

The pity was hard to stomach, but the fear was even harder. Her friends were probably just as relieved by her absence as Duke was. She represented their worst nightmare: being struck down by injury in the prime of their career. Her presence reminded them that their status, goals, and financial security were as fragile as a tendon or ligament, as easily crushed as cartilage.

Duke closed her gritty eyes and rested her head against the cool glass of the window. She felt sluggish in body and mind, the product of both overindulgence and insomnia. She’d had just enough to drink last night to make her tipsy, but not enough to drown the hamster wheel of her brain.

Not so long ago, she had found it easy to relax her guard in the presence of her teammates. They had been her rock—she could trust them to watch her back, and to keep her secrets if she chose to engage in a tryst. Now, she was on the fringes of the close-knit community that had once been her family. Last night’s party had included too many people she didn’t know well enough to trust.

If Duke hadn’t been so bone-weary from fighting off her own despair, she might still have risked a one-night stand with Isabelle, the Brazilian national team’s starting goalkeeper who played second to Leslie on her club team. Isabelle’s attempts at flirtation had been as terrible as her body was beautiful, but her assertiveness was exactly what Duke craved in a lover. In the old days, she would never have hesitated to accept such an offer. She had a powerful libido and no compunctions about seeking out liaisons whenever she was single. But when she was in a relationship, the strength of her drive often became an inconvenience. At times, she had even wished it away entirely.

Now that her wish had been granted, she wanted to take it back again. Without the spark of desire, she felt cold and empty. Better to burn too hot than to wonder if she would ever burn again.

A flood of light momentarily blinded her as the train emerged from the tunnels beneath the station. As soon as her eyes adjusted, she watched the urban landscape transition quickly into the rural. Low hills rose in the distance, and atop one hulked the ruined fortification of a castle. Delight temporarily chased away her melancholy. That castle was most likely older than her own country. She hadn’t yet become so inured to Europe’s charms that she took such a sight for granted.

After a few indulgent minutes, she reluctantly turned from the window and opened her laptop. This research wasn’t going to do itself, and her blind spot when it came to royal gossip had been amply demonstrated by her friends. She opened a browser, gave herself a mental pep talk…and still felt her gaze pulled by the window.

Doing any research at all seemed useless. There was no way she would ever get close enough to one of the royals for a tête-à-tête. Still, if she didn’t prepare for this job, she would never escape Juno’s nagging words in her head, giving voice to Duke’s own self-loathing.

Better to get it over with.

To sweeten the task, she allowed herself to start with Sebastian’s sister. She, at least, sounded interesting. Sure enough, her friends had been right: Princess Viola of Belgium was best known for having briefly dated Dahlia. Most of the relevant articles were about Dahlia and mentioned Viola only in passing, but after some sifting, Duke finally found the original press release in which Viola had come out to the world. The release had been issued by the Belgian Crown, and one day later, a lengthy piece by Dahlia about bisexuality and her relationship with Viola appeared as the cover story for an entertainment magazine.

Intrigued despite herself, Duke double-checked the bylines. The cover story of a print magazine required plenty of advance work. That meant Dahlia had been interviewed and photographed weeks before the issue’s due date. Duke skimmed the piece and found very few references to Viola. Dahlia did speak extensively of the pressure to conform to heteronormative standards and the tension placed on her relationship by her desire to come out publicly. She didn’t speak of the relationship in the past tense.

The Crown’s press release did. Her Royal Highness Princess Viola “had been” in a serious relationship with another woman, the release proclaimed, but that relationship “had ended.” King Leopold, Queen Charlotte, and Prince Sebastian fully supported Viola, who was in the process of planning an advocacy campaign for LGBTQ+ issues. That was it. And one day later, Dahlia’s glossy cover hit the shelves, featuring the titillating title: My Alternative Royal Romance. The use of “alternative” made her skin prickle; although the word had enjoyed a recent comeback, it felt condescending in this context.

Duke noticed a few forum posts that, like her, had picked up on the timing of both announcements. These argued that Viola must have disagreed with Dahlia’s decision to tell all, or she had learned about it at the very last minute. Generally, the posters applauded Dahlia’s honesty while criticizing what they saw as Viola’s duplicity.

At the bottom of her screen, one of the advertised links wanted to take her to the transcription of an interview with Princess Viola in the gallery featuring her most recent photography exhibition. Duke blinked at it, surprised that Viola was a serious enough photographer to have her own show. Perhaps it was a publicity stunt? Curious, she followed the digital breadcrumbs and discovered that Viola had taken her bachelor’s degree from the prestigious University of the Arts in London, and her master’s degree at the even more prestigious Royal College of Art. Two years prior, she had won the annually awarded Belgian Art Prize, and her exhibition in a prominent Parisian gallery last year was considered a success by most. There were, of course, plenty of naysayers who believed she would never have found success without the prestige of her last name—or technically, her lack thereof. Viola had three middle names, but no true surname. She was simply “of Belgium.”

Duke’s melancholy deepened at the thought of Viola’s reality: she had grown up in the lap of luxury, but that very fact would always make her question her own accomplishments. Did they belong to her, or to her title? How must she feel to be better known for her royal status and her failed romance with Dahlia, than for her art? Duke had never been judged based on anything other than her merit. She could say that much, at least, despite the implosion of her career.

At her lowest moment, a few weeks after her second surgery, she had wished she’d never been born with an aptitude and love for soccer. But in the introspection that followed her anger, she finally realized just how much that aptitude had done for her. Without it, she wouldn’t be on a train traversing the German landscape, but back in her tired West Texas hometown. Without it, she might have believed herself content to follow the path of her mother, her aunt, and her grammar school friends—to attract the attention of a sports hero (preferably the starting quarterback), marry him after high school, get pregnant, and take part-time jobs to supplement the family income.

Would she have even realized she was gay? Duke honestly wasn’t sure. If any of her childhood peers had identified that way, they hadn’t been out. Homosexuality was habitually denounced in the local pulpits. Any boy who preferred art to athletics, and any girl who couldn’t juggle makeup and soccer balls with equal skill, was relegated to the lowest social caste. Duke wondered what her life would have been like had she chafed against the traditionally feminine presentation expected of her. Fortunately, she never had. As comfortable in a dress and heels as she was slide-tackling an opponent, she had never wrestled with any cognitive dissonance on that score.

Beginning in her teenage years, soccer had allowed her to travel far beyond the arid landscape of her community—first around the state, then the country, then the world. Much of that world had shocked her, initially. Duke rolled her eyes at the ghost of her reflection in the window, remembering how naive she had been. It hadn’t taken long for her to realize that everything she had learned as “truth” was up for grabs, and that her family’s way of understanding it was only one of many. She met girls of different ethnicities and religions who challenged the hierarchies and beliefs she’d been taught. And she also met girls who crushed on each other instead of on boys.

She could still remember their names: Lauren Kaplan and Jasmine Fox, one from northern California and the other from New Jersey. They had already been a couple when Duke had arrived to her first training camp for the U-18 national team. The first time she’d seen them holding hands on the bus, she hadn’t been able to stop staring, feeling at once horrified and intrigued. Fortunately, they had been too wrapped up in each other to notice her scrutiny. Barely sixteen and the newest member of the squad, Duke had kept her mouth shut, waiting to see the others’ reactions. The happy couple was subjected to some good-natured teasing, but that was it. The team didn’t care about sexual orientation. They cared about winning.


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