women who look good driving them. As the spare in the Ringham
dynasty, he parties in the best nightclubs around the world while his
sister Victoria prepares to take the throne one day. When fate
thursts the crown back onto Albie’s head, three generations of
romance, hopes and frustrations come along with it. Can Albie fulfill
generations of his family’s obligation to become the people’s prince?
Or will he be lured away from duty by love when introduced to the
appeared in academic journals and books. She is the award-winning
novelist of Love Comes Later and An Unlikely Goddess, among
others. As the host of the Expat Dilemmas podcast, she peppers each
show with reflections from a decade of living abroad. She teaches
courses on literature, argumentative and creative writing. You can
read more her website: www.mohadoha.com.
Albert Present Day
Albert leaned back, though he might as well have tried to move a brick wall. The ornate chair gave no quarter. His lower back remained a knot of muscle, a remnant from his flying days, whenever he sat still. Overhead chandeliers cascaded fifteen feet above the tables, laid for a three-course meal. Oyster forks. Albert unbuttoned his jacket. The schedule read four hours – at the rate they were going, this ceremony would be slower than the Oscars. At the opposite table, a blonde bombshell flashed the valley of her breasts while bending forward for her napkin. Frigid aircon blew on the top of his head though most of the women wore one-shouldered gowns, if they had straps at all. Simpering glances from the others on either side of the blonde came his way. As they had done since he was old enough to register women’s interest. When had that been? When he was five? Shuttled from his mother’s side into boarding school and then the army; his family worked to keep him as far from women as they could. Or was it women as far from the century’s most eligible bachelor? In either case, the women themselves couldn’t be stopped. Like father, like son the tabloid captions read, as Albert worked his way through a stream of interchangeable blonde girlfriends while at university. He shuddered at the comparison.
Tonight no one of f***able age sat in any of the eight seats at his table or at the one immediately to his right. Two women out of the hundreds scattered in rows throughout the ballroom were at his table and these were matronly types. Normally this would irk him. Torie never missed a moment to remind him that, as the keeper of the family crown, her duty was to ensure he stayed in line. Her darling little brother. The heir meant to be the spare.
Tonight, however, Albert could use a break after his weekend in the American city of Las Vegas. Like they say, detox. He smirked at the gent in the tuxedo to his left. Seventy if he was a day. Earl… Lord… something. Cufflinks glinted in the dimmed lights. There was a crest there, he could make it out if he squinted a bit longer. Albert lost the summary card with the event details and hadn’t listened while his aide, Edward, gave him the run-down of those seated at his table. Albert shuffled through the notes tucked inside his jacket. Thank everyone for their time. Recognize how important the events are.
“Sir.” A waiter, his face filled with wrinkles pulling at deflated cheeks, harrumphed on Albert’s left.
“Yes, what is it?”
“I present Miss Heather Sparkle.”
“Spark—” Albert forgot his caustic remark as an olive-skinned woman slid into the seat on his right. Her high-necked, black lace dress hugged a trim figure. Other than the men in tuxedos, she wore the most fabric of anyone in the room.
The tuxedo on the other side of her rumbled about no one being seated after all the royals were in the room. “Most unorthodox,” he said. The waiter looked down a long nose.
“I’m sorry, the studio’s helicopter was late.” Sparkle’s eyes darted around the room. Her hands tugged at the ends of long, straight black hair. “Mixed up landing times or something.” She pulled a napkin onto her lap. “Am I a course behind?” In her agitation, she picked up the butter knife, to do what exactly with the empty charger, Albert couldn’t have guessed.
“Oh, Miss Sparkle, you made it.” Edward pushed aside the waiter who remained still as a pillar.
Albert leaned on one elbow – a sight Torie would have frowned on disapprovingly – to take in the unusual occurrence of a breathless Edward. Normally his dour equerry, inherited from his mother’s staff, would have nudged Albert’s chin off his palm. Except at the moment the unflappable Edward focused entirely on the late arriving guest.
“They gave me a hard time at the door,” she said. Slender fingers tapped the bun at her neck before flitting to the check the tear shaped necklace in the hollow of her throat. “No one is allowed in after the prince.” Now she craned her neck as if looking for another prince, one other than he seated next to her. “They didn’t say where he was.”
“Oh, he’s–” Edward coughed.
“I hope he didn’t see.” Sparkle dropped the knife back onto the plate with a clang.
“Those pesky rules.” Albert gave her a wink that the three hundred strong paparazzi would have loved had they been allowed in the ceremony itself, not panting at the entrance for a chance at a close up. “Surely he’s too busy to notice.”
“Yes, hopefully no one will notice,” she repeated to herself in a whisper. A fringe of dark lashes lowered. The effect was – alluring. Albert toyed with his butter knife. She in no way fit his type – or the type his sister accused him of having. Blonde, billionaire, party girl.
Edward stepped aside as a bevy of waiters approached with warm plates. They elbowed him out of the way in order to set Albert’s dinner on the gold rimmed charger.
“The ladies first, please,” he said, in a deeper voice since the vision beside him still hadn’t registered she was in fact sitting by the prince of her concern.
“Of course, sir.”
That got her attention, he noticed with satisfaction.
“Hello,” she said pointedly to Lord-what’s-his-name.
A mild shiver ran through Albert. He couldn’t place it as mirth or the sudden onset of a cold from the continued blast of the aircon. She thought the tuxedo was him. No, surely no. Surely everyone knew about the red-headed prince. They had television in America. Didn’t they? The girls he invited to his suite during the last night on the Strip certainly had.
“It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Duke.” She repeated this several times because the tuxedo – Earl of Nottingham, yes that was him, Louis, – couldn’t hear her.
Albert let out a cough at the twisted expression on the older man’s face as he tried to make sense of what she was saying. “Young lady,” he began.
Albert raised his hand to stem whatever withering tirade would otherwise ensue. These were the types of lecture he grew up; good deportment, paying attention, protocol, blah, blah, blah. “Actually,” Albert interjected. “I believe you’re looking for me.”
A pair of deep brown eyes rounded on in him in growing horror. She sized him up, from his hairline to his cufflinks. “You’re too young.”
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced.” He chuckled at the red flush creeping up her cheeks.
“You are.” She closed her eyes in mortification. “Your Highness!”
“The only time a guest may enter at whatever time she chooses, is when she’s the guest of honor,” Albert explained to the Earl. “Ms. Sparkle here is receiving recognition for her charity work with children living with AIDS. You might recognize her from her work on – Sport of Kings?”
“Game of Royals,” she corrected in a murmur.
“Yes, that’s the one.” Albert snapped his fingers. “Haven’t seen it yet,” he said by way of apology. “Didn’t realize these period dramas now had people worth watching.”
Despite her clear agitation, Sparkle gave a giggle. She tucked into the steak with that peculiar habit Americans had of holding her fork in the right hand.
“Young lady,” the Duke began, aghast that the late arrival would eat before the head of the table.
“Enjoy your meal,” Albert said. He shook his head at this peer of the realm, someone Torie had placed here to stymie her brother’s evening. At least the gods sent him this paean of beauty and earnestness.
“I usually don’t eat at these things,” Sparkle said, the first bite tucked into the side of her cheek like a chipmunk in order to make conversation possible. “But I’ve been running around all day.”
“By all means,” Albert said. He folded his arms on the table, eliciting another round of frowns of disapproval from the Duke. “I know how that is.” This had the opposite effect of warming her up – Sparkle froze with the fork halfway to her mouth. A cello played, unaccompanied, a mournful string of notes competing with the click and clang of cutlery at tables all over the ballroom.
“Oh God, I didn’t read the briefing card.” She gulped down the sizeable piece of meat garnished with an orangy cream sauce. “It was in the bottom of my bag and it got wet when –”
“Your Highness.” Edward returned, sidestepping the departing waiter with the grace of a dancer. “Your sister wishes to see you.” He said the second part into his ear.
“I’m at the table,” Albert hissed back. For the first time in months and months he sat next to someone remotely interesting. How had Torie sniffed it out? He scanned the room for one of her well-intentioned spies. No Thomas around to steady him if the waters got murky.
“Most urgent,” Edward whispered.
“I’ll have my meal first.” Albert reached for his napkin.
Albert froze. They hadn’t ever used that word. This was their pact, a word that meant they needed to discuss something big. Something on the level of your-mother-is-dead big. “I’ll be right back,” he said to the downturned head of the woman attacking the mozzarella and tomato accompaniment with vigor. He smiled tersely at everyone else at the table, British enough to know they should stand when a senior royal left the table. She rushed to her feet at the last minute, bumping her water glass. Canadian he mused as they led him out a side door into a private lounge. Hadn’t picked that up in the accent.
They walked out of the side exit to the ballroom as the full orchestra filled the room with the sound of popular concertos at least several hundred years old. The cement hallway magnified their steps. As the music faded behind them, Edward passed him an oversize iPad. He led them into a private event room, used for meet and greets with the musicians, with a white baby grand in the center, and a marble topped bar.
“Can you get me the show? I’ll watch whatever episodes you can stream to me, on the phone,” Albert called after Edward. “Game of Royals.” His long-time staffer said nothing and pulled the doors closed, sealing him away from the glamour of the evening a few hundred meters away. “In any order,” he added, confident of Edward’s excellent hearing. “Any chance of a drink?” he muttered to himself, eyeing the bar. Albert hoisted himself onto a leather topped stool. The iPad beeped an in-coming call.
Torie’s face filled the screen, her brow creased in the middle like a folded bedsheet.
“You’re alright.” He let out a whoosh of breath. Then his heart set to racing again. “Granny?” His panicked mind tried to come up with the family agenda. “Thomas?” His panic escalated at the thought that after all this, on the eve of his sister’s engagement, her fiancé might be in peril. No she’s fine. No tears. She’s fine. In searching for relief, flashes of the edges of their mother’s coffin came into focus. Oppressive summer heat as they walked behind her – behind her body – through the streets of London.
“We’re all fine,” Torie said in muted tones. The camera focused on her aquiline nose, her blue eyes glittering with something – not grief – an emotion he hadn’t seen before. “Your tie is crooked, Albie.”
“I’m in the middle of dinner,” Albert snapped. “Did you really use Mum’s code to correct my attire?”
“I didn’t,” she sighed. She swiveled, the camera sweeping across their mother’s desk, the one that they had climbed across as children. Newspapers littered the wide expanse.
Albert’s mirror image in the insert fidgeted with his bow tie in the circle in the lower right. “What is it, then? Stop frowning. You’re going to ruin that perfect forehead.”
“You’re going to send me to an early grave,” Torie said. She rubbed at her forehead, the lines still tight around her mouth. Their childhood ribbing hadn’t worked to ease the tension. “I’m not going to another event tonight.” His mind churned through the reasons she might have called. “I’m only back from America a few hours and –”
Albert halted in fidgeting with his tie. “I don’t know what they told you but I kept a low profile as you asked. No paparazzi, hats all the way, no one knew I was there.”
“No one besides the girls in your private party.” Torie paced across the room, scanning her camera across a set of glossy shots, spread across the coffee table. They showed a panorama of his suite in the Bellagio; several thousand pounds spent in alcohol and food. A few select party guests. Women. Blondes.
“Now just a minute. What I do in the suite stays in the suite.”
“Not when your guests share it with the world.” One week, the bags under his sister’s eyes accused. You couldn’t behave for one week?
Albert flopped into a brocade covered wingback as the camera steadied on an image of him. Edward wasn’t the only one regretting his week’s vacation. Torie would be furious. Her brother, nude, save for a pair of hands covering his nether region, kneeling on the bed. Head thrown back in mirth. No mistaking who it was. Flaming red hair and all.
“Everywhere,” Torie said in the crisp tones of their family. “Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. All the tabloids. Top of the ticker on the 24-hour cycle.”
“Cousin Torie!” Sophia’s twins burst into the room behind Torie. His sister scrambled to gather the photos. “Nanny,” Torie called, not quite a shout, ever the lady. “Someone please bring the nanny.”
“Cousin Bertie!” Andy’s chin filled the screen with Alice clamoring behind him.
“Listen, it’s easy enough to explain,” Albert said, waving to their cousin’s children. “A game of strip billiards. I mean, I lost. You know I’m crap at games.”
Torie flashed an image at him. Full length of Albert hugging a woman from behind, her also nude. Thankfully her long hair hid her face. “She’s not great at them either.” Not even a laugh.
A woman with a thick waist and heavy-soled shoes came in to take each of the protesting children out, holding their hands. “Come now, let’s see if we can find some biscuits.”
“Head home now,” Torie called from off screen. “We’re handling it.”
Home? What about Sparkle – the screen went blank in his hands. The silence in the empty sitting room rang in his ears after the commotion of the last few minutes. They were handling it. Albert pulled off his tie in frustration.
True to form, Edward opened the double doors at the far end of the room. “This way, sir.”
“I’m not leaving,” Albert protested. “I have an award to give out.”
“All arranged,” Edward said. He persisted in holding the door open. “The Earl of Nottingham was happy to be of service.”
“What, old Louis?” Albert’s voice rose. “For a cinema honor.” He had no one to be mad at but himself.
“They wanted someone from the peerage,” Edward said. “The car is here.”
“Peerage? They asked for me,” Albert growled. This man had seen him through far worse. From the dark days of his parents’ divorce into the oblivion afterward.
“Someone. Anyone.” Edward flicked a hand. “This way sir.”
You couldn’t reason with them that you might need to blow off a little steam. Not that there was any way to justify his romp. Those girls assured them they knew how to keep a secret. “A prince! I can’t believe I’m with a real life prince,” they squealed throughout the night, kicking the phrases back and forth like footballs. At the time, their chorus washed over him, like a soundtrack to his life. The spare was exciting enough for some – particularly Americans. He scrolled through the headlines, searching for the worst as a preparatory strategy.
Grainy photos, backlit by a floor lamp, him kneeling in rumpled white sheets. Thank God for those hands he thought, a second time, albeit for completely different reasons. The woman who held his genitals left him a shred of dignity. From Sandhurst to this. His grandfather’s ire would be inescapable. Albert recoiled at the questions that awaited him from his family and the paparazzi. He flung the iPad away and stormed out of the room, winding his way through a series of hallways to the back of the Victoria and Albert hall. Edward ushered him into the back seat of a tinted SUV, murmuring, “I’ll follow.”
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