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Lovers. Liars. Traitors. Thieves. We would become all of these.
The first time I meet Isaac, I’m on my knees in front of another man.
The second time, I discover I’m a pawn in our countries’ wager for peace.
A promised princess. The sister of the heir to a tarnished crown. A pretty chandelier, born to sparkle, distract.
My country is at war, just like my heart.
Two men. Three sides. No happy endings..
Chandelier is the first in the Tarnished Crown Trilogy.
- Dark royal romance
- Second chance
- Steaminess everywhere!
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
Prologue - September (present day)
I am still on my knees when the gunshot ruptures the noise outside.
It doesn’t occur to me to stand, to move away from Ben, to conceal what sin we’ve just prayed at the altar of. Mainly because Isaac’s hand is still holding my hair, his fingers massaging my scalp as if he’s praising me for what I’ve just done.
If we were at war, I would’ve taken cover. Proper war, like what we were taught in history lessons, not this continual threat that’s an axe over our heads. But I’m in my hotel room, protected, two men my bomb shelter.
But this isn’t a bomb.
There are screams outside. Shouting. The sharp screech of tyres against the asphalt. Nothing unusual for a big city, but this isn’t a usual day and something in the air has changed, switched. Particles have stilled, the city has become a paused movie, waiting for the thunder. Then there’s a knock at my door from the adjoining room next door and my name is being said.
It isn’t a prayer. It’s agitated, just like it was said when I was a small child and then a teenager, sneaking in from parties where I should never had been. The voice of the man who has been my guardian since I was a tiny child.
Isaac’s hand leaves my head and Ben yanks up his trousers. He’s in a suit today, trying to blend into this world that I know he hates because he is the desert or the arctic or the seas, not a rally in a northern English city with the royalty he’s never understood.
“Blair, we need to get you safe.” Franklyn sounds just the same as he did when I was fifteen and we had an intruder. He doesn’t even blink at what was going on in the room.
Isaac’s hands pull me up off my knees and he guides me out of our bedroom through rooms and suites and corridors, Ben next to me, the three of us and Franklyn who’s still not judging. There are hotel rooms, all empty, all booked out for the few people staying in this large building swept for bombs and bugs, every member of staff screened along with their grandmothers and relations they never knew existed. I’ve been here before as a child with my parents, then for a tour of the university – where I was never going to go – and again as a woman without my parents knowing. Just Franklyn. It’s an old building, historic. It’s seen much more than what I’ve just done, lived more than I ever will. He opens a door to a room I never knew existed, one that is windowless but with the door open, the noise from outside can still be heard, even if it’s just a cacophony of whispers.
I can feel the roar from outside and it feels red, a commotion that I don’t know the reason for, and then a door closes and the silence becomes overwhelming.
Franklyn shakes his head, his glasses balancing on the end of his long nose. He is ageless, never changing. If I believed in such things, I’d imagine he was an eternal creature.
Isaac is at the door, looking at Ben. He might be trying to communicate something, but even though we’ve just shared an act that is more intimate than most, I know they haven’t developed the art of telepathy yet. I’m not sure if they ever will.
“I won’t let anything happen to her.” Ben is quiet, his words a muted cold blue. Any closeness that there was minutes ago has evaporated, water in the sun.
Butterflies on the breeze.
“I can send…”
“I’m not a thing.” My voice is calm, steel that will never move. A tone I taught myself when I needed something other than my chime.
Ben turns me to him, his hands on my hips now. “That was a gunshot.”
“Could’ve been friendly fire.”
We all know it wasn’t.
There’s nothing friendly about today. Or this place. We shouldn’t have come. Should’ve let Lennox come here alone with his entourage and speak his pretty words to people who thinks he’s either a god or a devil.
I turn to Isaac, seeing his hands in his pockets. I’ve known him three months. Known Ben fifteen years. Known myself even less.
I don’t know this girl who gets on her knees for one man, while another holds her hair and whispers sweet dirty words to her.
“Where’s my brother? What was his schedule?”
There’s no real reason for Isaac to know, except that he knows everything.
“He gave his speech in the square and then he was heading into the Town Hall.” It’s Ben who answers. He will have memorized the itinerary.
But I’m not thinking about how he recalls everything he’s read, can recall details that the average human wouldn’t even have noticed. I’m thinking about my brother with his enthusiasm and vigour and passion; his desire to somehow unify our country with this one through trade agreements and free movement of people. Desires that others don’t share. Desires that others will kill to extinguish.
Before I can say my brother’s name there’s a piercing ring and Franklyn moves to the corner of the lightless room with his phone in his hand. We all watch him, the bare bulb making us all appear as strangers.
Franklyn says nothing, but when he looks up at me I know.
The bullet fired found a new home.
My brother is dead.
My brother is dead and I am now the heir to a tarnished crown.
Everything has changed.
Chapter One - June (previous)
Someone chose blue. A dark - almost black - blue. It’s silk and it feels cool against my skin that has been buffed and polished by hands that aren’t paid enough. In the mirror I see the reflection of a woman who doesn’t look much more than a girl, maybe too thin, too pale, too innocent. Everything is too.
Alina is my make-up artist, because despite being twenty-nine, I apparently can’t paint my own face. I sit in rooms being prepped and coloured in, any desirable feature enhanced, any blemish erased temporarily. But I’m not allowed to do it myself.
I sit and smile, close my eyes, feel the kohl being applied, open them, see the dress that will cling to my breasts, illuminate the slightness of my waist. Bring out the blue of my eyes.
“You’re going to look beautiful in that dress.” Alina sees me staring at the fabric, following my eyes to the gown.
She’s probably right. Because I’m being made to. I’m being prepared to look beautiful in the dress because tonight that’s my role: the pretty princess who will speak intelligently and gracefully with the representatives who are here from England trying to deliver something called peace.
I’ve forgotten what peace is. There are fairy tales about when we used to be one country, back in some long forgotten time. Now we are in a ‘peace process’, trying to agree the terms between Scotland and England. There is nothing peaceful about it. When the union between the countries was broken, back when my Grandfather was around, it was decided that Scotland should be ruled by a monarchy, like it used to be. For the history and the pomp and the circumstance. And the crown.
Alina stands back and lets me step to the dress, a hanging headless corpse decorating a wardrobe. The material is heavier than it looks, the decadent skirt decorated with gems sewn in by calloused fingers, strained eyes seeking minute details. Somewhere there will be a speck of blood from a needle, the sewer not able to fall asleep.
“I think we should leave your hair down.”
I turn to the doorway and see my mother, already made up with her hair in an elaborate style. She has left the grey alone, allowing it to filter through the light brown locks that she’s never touched. Her accent is softer when we’re alone, alone apart from our staff. Here she isn’t on display or duty.
“Really?” Usually, for formal occasions such as these, it would be up, tidy. In keeping with the agenda.
She shrugs. “It’s a change. It will suit the dress. Lennox matches with his tie.”
“He’s my brother. Dressing us the same makes us look like we’re together.”
There’s a laugh, bells tinkle. “Or twins.”
Which was probably her aim. I’d been a twin. My sister was stillborn. Rayne. Rayne and Blair we were named; two little princesses. Rayne: just like the tears I know my mother still sheds for her baby she never got to hold.
“Is Lennox taking a date?”
I feel my shoulders tense enough to be almost painful. Elise is my best friend, allegedly, and I know she’s seeking the company of an heir to a throne. I know she’s had the company in her room already.
My brother can be a fool.
“Not as far as I know, but it’s Lennox. You know what Lennox is like.”
Three years older, a future king, allowed to choose his own suits and shirts and bed mates. That was what Lennox was like.
I’d never had those privileges. It wasn’t my job.
My robe is discarded to the floor, leaving me in just plain black underwear, my pale skin illuminated under the sharp light. This room is my dressing area, the place where clothes that have been selected for me, or gifted, are kept and my public face is applied.
It’s both me and not. Blair is a ghost in this room and the princess takes over. Has to. I’m her as well as the person I want to be where my body’s my own and I don’t have a set of rules and expectations to follow.
Alina helps me slip the dress on. It fits perfectly, exposing just the right amount of skin, completely acceptable for a delegates’ dinner, where we’re polite and converse about matters of interest in the hope that a stronger friendship will mean we can agree how we trade between our countries or how people can move between them.
The material of the dress is soft and weighted, the lining helps it flow. I catch sight in the mirror and as usual don’t recognise myself. The woman who reads and writes and laughs and cries isn’t what I see. Instead there is a princess.
“You look beautiful.”
And that is my role.
* * *
The castle has been entertaining both friends and enemies for a thousand years. Within its stone walls are a million stories and a million more lies, all cemented within a thousand promises and a hundred truths. There is a bar, laden with gins and whiskeys, all Scottish in origin or European. Nothing English, even though the majority of people here tonight are English.
Traitors or heroes? Who knows.
The banqueting hall has been laid out by the staff I’ve known since I first walked through these castle corridors. My father’s kept a loyal team, treating them like a family from the kitchen porters to the gardeners, to the housekeepers and cleaners. Marian is in the banqueting hall, adjusting the place settings, adding detail. She looks up as I enter and glares, the same glare she’s given me since the first time I stole cakes from her kitchen.
“Shouldn’t you be in the Kinney room?”
I should. She’s right. I’m meant to be there to welcome the guests once our butlers have shown them to their rooms for the night and they’ve changed for the evening. But there’s time yet and I love this part of a formal evening: the secrets and the planning, making sure that none of the guests truly know what went on to provide a night that appeared so easy.
“I wanted to see the room.” Before it was spoiled with noise. There would be the usual whispered promises about policies and votes. My father would address the room with a speech that promoted peace between us and England and then one of the English politicians or advisors would respond with words that will be little more than a flirtatious tease. We haven’t agreed terms and all talks have been going on for a decade.
The night would be polluted with impossibilities and the dance would continue into a thousandth night, or so it felt. It was probably more.
“Well, while you’re seeing it, grab that tray, lady, and put out the soup spoons. You remember how they go?”
A memory of being ten and being allowed to walk around the banqueting hall, carrying a silver tray laden with polished cutlery strikes me and I am a girl again, the one with braided hair and freckles that my brother poked fun at.
I take the tray and begin to circle the table, laying out the spoons, ensuring the distance between them and the forks is correct. Marian doesn’t check what I’m doing; instead she talks to Warren, one of the security team and an extension of our immediate family because we can’t breathe without one of them being present.
Peace talks are anything but peaceful.
“You should mingle with the guests.” Marian takes the tray away without warning. “It’ll be over soon enough.” Her accent is thick and full of the Highlands, soothing, soft.
I should mingle with the guests. Tonight is another round of forming acquaintances with a new English government that is as calm as the Lochs in a storm, the dark waters filled with mythical beasts that smile with sharp teeth.
The corridor between the banqueting hall and the Kinney room is long and dark, the mahogany panels original features that were found beneath brick when the castle was resurrected from its banishment once my grandfather became king. The carpet is thick and tartan, greens and whites and creams. Portraits watch me with eyes that have seen too much already, but I stopped caring when I was twelve and I realised that they were oil and canvas and nothing more. There was no magic here, just the promise of storms and a quiet sun.
My hand trails along the panels as I walk, feeling the wood like braille, reading its stories. Before he died, my grandfather told me tales of kings and queens, of treachery and traitors and those heroes that had slain our enemies instead of dragons.
My father would have us believe that there were dragons here tonight, but Lennox, my brother, merely sees dogs hungry for scraps. He also sees the possibility of making his own mark on history as the heir to the throne and maybe the one to finally negotiate the much-needed deals.
I pause outside the Kinney room, peering in from my shadows. Despite women from another age calling for equality, the room’s dominated by men who are intoxicated with the stench of power. I see suits, jackets, shirts, ties, the odd dress and a pair of bare legs, stilettoes. A peel of laughter cuts through the bass and baritones.
My best friend. Schoolmates, classmates. Whisperer of secrets and the keeper of dreams.
“Blair! We wondered where you were!” Elise sees me and releases Lennox’s arm where she’s probably been hanging, a benign spider.
“Helping Marian.” I smile, accepting her air kiss.
She’s dressed in green satin, the material clinging to curves that she’s owned since she was thirteen and she noticed how boys looked at her. Elise doesn’t need anything more than what nature gave her, the power to spellbind the eyes of most beholders.
“You’re the princess, not the staff.”
“Sometimes it’s the same thing.”
She laughs, bells tinkling. A half dozen set of eyes use the sound as an excuse to focus on her, but not my brother, the future king.
“Blair,” my mother sweeps in, smiling. “Let me introduce you. It’s been a while since you were at a dinner like this.”
It hasn’t been long enough.
Six weeks in Australia, four weeks in America. Ten weeks away. Meeting people, opening hospitals, schools, visiting charities, hospices, meeting dignitaries. All with a smile on my face and gracious words even when I was crippled with period pain or struggling with a migraine, because I didn’t have the right to feel like that. Princesses didn’t bleed or throw up or fuck or scream.
We work the room. I meet politicians and advisors, titled gentry, business owners. People whose own personal wealth depends on the matrimonial settlement between two countries who were together for so long.
There’s a man with brown hair that falls over his face as if he’s forgotten to style it. His eyes are blue and small, his cheekbones sculpted. He should be attractive but he’s not.
He holds out his hand. “I’m William.”
I know who he is. The world knows who he is.
“Blair.” I take his hand.
“I think I’m supposed to bow or something.”
“Curtsying would be far more humorous.” I said that to a man once and he did.
William laughs. “I’d probably fall over. More than likely I’d knock you over. Imagine what the press would say about that. ‘Prime Minister fells Scotland’s princess.’”
Because he’s the new Prime Minister of England, recently chosen by his party to lead his country forward. Forward into what, no one knows.
“You can keep your curtsy then.” I smile, the sweetly knowing smile my mother taught me when I was eight.
He gives me a nod. “I hear you spent some time in Cuba. How did you find it?”
He’s been briefed, just like every other statesman in the room. I’m not the heir to the throne, I have no influence, so unlike Lennox and my father, I don’t need to be wooed with impassioned speeches and quiet affiliations.
“Cuba was beautiful.” Standard response. “The culture is superb.” And the men were talented in more than just dancing.
“How long did you spend there?”
He knows the answer to this.
“Not long enough.” The nights in Havana had been cloaked in music and steam, the people not knowing who I was so I could be eaten by the crowds and meet a man who thought I was just another blonde on vacation, looking for an easy fuck.
“You’d like to go back?”
Tomorrow. But that isn’t in my diary, which is planned for the next eighteen months. Maybe longer.
“Hopefully. I spent some time in the schools there. It would be nice to go back and see how the children I met are faring.”
William smiles and nods. Asks more questions and I smile and nod back. He’s the youngest Prime Minister to lead England, not yet forty. He’s been linked with models, actresses, all very discreet of course, and well-chosen. A game of political chess.
“How are you finding your new job?”
His smile is genuine. Flustered. He pushes a hand through his hair.
My laugh is quiet and real. “Did you expect anything less?”
He shakes his head. “No. I didn’t.” Then there is the smile that I know is rehearsed, one for the ladies and the men who prefer their partners with biceps and pecs.
“How is being a princess?”
I’ve been asked it more times than I could ever count and I still don’t know the answer. “My life.” My words barely audible over the call to head to the dinner. “I don’t know anything different.”
He offers his arm for me to take, a gentlemanly act, fulfilling yet another role he has to take. It’s strange, in this time of technology and alleged equality that we fall back on the same manners that we had a thousand years before.
I accept his arm and we stroll back down the corridor, discussing the mountains and vacations and Cuba. My sentences are strung with the experiences I was meant to have over there, the meetings with dignitaries, the sites, the visits, but my head reels with the memories of the night time, dancing in the shadows with a stranger who had no idea I wore a tarnished crown on my head.
Behind us walks a dark-haired man I haven’t seen before. He’s tall, suited, his waistcoat the same dark grey as his suit and he isn’t wearing a tie. Instead his collar has a button undone.
He’s quietly breaking convention.
It’s been ingrained in me. Just as children learn their times tables or the days of the week, I’ve been taught to notice people. A lot can be said when there is silence. A lot can be heard in the intonation of someone’s voice. A lot can be seen in the way someone dresses, or sits, or breaks eye contact.
My spirit animal had to be a chameleon, capable of blending in anywhere but always noticed. The man behind us was doing just that, but that open button told me all I needed to know right now. He had an agenda.
“Did you grow up here?” The Prime Minister has been talking while I’ve been noticing the people around us. His focus has been solely on me, as if I’m the target here, which I might be.
“Here and at Loch Lomond.” In the Trossachs. Surrounded by mountains and protected by the storms. “How about you? Are you a Londoner?”
I knew he wasn’t.
“The university too?” He is a graduate from there. As is his father, a previous Prime Minister, and his grandfather. All Cambridge graduates. Upper class, probably an old title somewhere stuffed in.
“Just about.” His smile is almost nervous and I hear the dark-haired man behind us cough. William turns round, his expression fracturing. I’ve met several Prime Ministers, played with their children, dined with them in restaurants, sat next to my father while he’s discussed negotiations between our two countries. William is young to be one, in more than just age. “Are you okay?”
The dark haired man nods, pausing as we reach the doorway to the banqueting hall. A string quartet plays. Staff stand discreetly around the walls of the room.
“I’m fine.” His voice is low and deep and shivers saunter up my spine. “Enjoy your meal.” There’s no tinge to his voice, no alternate meaning. It’s a simple statement and I wonder who he is to make such, speaking words that aren’t loaded with the lust for power.
I don’t ask William for his identity, because that would show a chink in my knowledge. Instead I smile and show him to his place, perpendicular to me, our secretary of state next to me, my brother to William’s right.
Every place is planned meticulously by one of my father’s advisors and my mother, the women spread around carefully. There is the sound of a bell and someone stands, makes introductions, says the Selkirk Grace in Gaelic.
Tha biadh aig cuid, 's gun aca càil;,
acras aig cuid,'s gun aca biadh,
ach againne tha biadh is slàint',
moladh mar sin a bhith don Triath.
The Scots in the room stand and toast with their whiskies, a few more words of Gaelic thrown in. The English smile, some forced and I see the dark-haired man sitting back, his drink in his hand, probably untouched.
He sees me looking and I don’t move my eyes. His stubble is thick, hair well styled and his eyes hold a gleam of interest. He raises his glass slightly towards me as a toast and nods before looking to the person to his left, Harris, the brain behind our education system.
The meal begins, like clockwork. Entrees, soups, appetisers, wine. Our removed English cousins are courted with Scottish fayre. Oysters from the west, beef, salmon that has been smoked at the palace, everything locally sourced. All another sign that we don’t need England, yet Lennox talks about Cornish cream teas and Leicester cheese, our family’s outstretched hand.
Throughout the dinner I feel eyes regarding me as I politely nod and smile and respond appropriately to what is said. William glances my way, offers me nervous smiles while he talks sport with my brother. And the dark haired stranger observes, an unreadable journal, padlocked. His eyes telling me nothing.
* * *
“There was a security breach last night.” My father sits down with a coffee. We’re in our lounge in a wing of the palace that is the most home-like of the building. This is where we are normal, or whatever normal masquerades as. There are no staff, we cook and clean up for ourselves. As children, Lennox and I would be here without nannies or tutors and we would be our parents’ problems.
But we are safe. Or at least we try to believe we are.
“What was it?” My mother is reading a book, probably a romance. She barely looks up. Security breaches are nothing new.
“A woman entered the perimeter.”
She looks up now. Cyber-attacks occur on an almost hourly basis. Protestors are common. Intruders to the palace, given that it is surrounded by a mile of streams, forests and rough land, are uncommon.
My father nods. “She was arrested. Not known to our intelligence.”
“There were rumbles that Alba an-Asgaidh were planning something.” Lennox looks up from his computer.
It’s unusual for us to all be together like this. Tomorrow Lennox will be in Edinburgh, then Glasgow, then Skye. My father leaves in the morning for America where he is looking at an agreement around our waters and fishing, something he’s passionate about and doesn’t want to delegate. Then they both head to London for more peace talks while my mother and I continue on our social circuit of wooing and courting. Making friends of enemies.
“There are always rumours about Alba an-Asgaidh. Especially when you speak too highly of what could be with us and the South.” My father’s tone is cutting. Lennox’s allegiance with England is problematic and divisive. One day Lennox will be king and my father worries that he will roll over like a panting dog and submit to the South, to England, overturning the trade agreements and reuniting the countries with a bond that had been strangled years before.
“It’s a party for terrorists. They’ll crawl back under their rocks in a couple of months when something else hits the headlines.” Lennox’s attention goes to his phone which has been vibrating.
My mother sits up, her hair loose and messy, off-duty. “When does Ben start?”
I stand up and head to the window, uninterested. Security is something I try to ignore, like a mild allergic reaction. I see the sky and the mountains, the same scene I’ve grown up with.
“This week.” My father quietens. They’re communicating without words. “We should assign him to Blair.”
I turn around. “Who?”
“Ben. Do you remember him?” My mother smiles and it’s warm, the smile when her eyes crinkle at the sides. “He was here every summer with his father, Leonard. He’s been in the army and now he’s coming back here as security. Ben Smith. The blonde boy. A couple of years older than you.”
I remembered Ben Smith. I remember his lanky legs while we ran around the gardens, his teasing words, his laugh. I remember his hands and his mouth.
I remember everything.