I was sitting at the table in a straight back chair wearing a dress that Carolynn had purchased for me. It was a tea length pastel blue sun dress that fell just below my knee. I was wearing a pair of closed heels with pantyhose. I hated pantyhose, I couldn’t get comfortable wearing them.
“Juliet.” came a cold shrill.
I took in a long slow breath as my jaw clenched and my lips pursed. “Yes, Madame Hubert?” I asked, sounding as polite as I could manage through clenched teeth. I was beyond frustrated and exasperated.
“That is the wrong fork!” I sighed and slouched in defeat. “Sit up! Ladies do not slouch!”
I rolled my eyes, I couldn’t stop myself.
“Juliet, if you do not take this seriously, I cannot help you! You will never be a lady at this rate.” Madame Hubert huffed as she stormed out of the room.
I made a face at her retreating form before I let myself slouch all the way down. I flung my head back and groaned. Who the hell cared if it was a salad fork or a dessert fork? “Oh my god! I am never going to get this!”
“You really suck at this.” I jumped when I heard a familiar voice behind me. I had to catch my breath and slow my racing heart when I saw it was Gwen.
“Shit you scared me!” I breathed. “And did you see all that?” Gwen nodded, an amused smirk on her face. “Why do you need three forks anyway?” I groaned.
Gwen’s rich laugh brightened her features. “Want some help?”
“Oh god, yes!”
“Mum insisted on me going to finishing school, same one she went to. She figured it would help out here too, with knowing how everything works. Plus, she’s a bit old fashioned on what she perceives as ladylike.”
“Oh dear god, you are a godsend!” I got up and hugged her.
By the grace of God and three hours later Gwen had taught me the different silverware and proper ways to eat. I didn’t have all of it down, but I had a good start, or at least I thought so.
“So, they’re going to announce you then?”
I nodded. “After the incident with the paparazzi, there’s no choice now. The world knows about me, to some extent. I really messed this up. I got Ian and Lana in all sorts of trouble and I don’t want to go through that again. I mean, if I screw up my life, whatever, that’s on me. It’s an entirely different matter if I’m screwing up someone else’s.” I looked Gwen in the eye. “I won’t do that. I won’t have that responsibility on me. I have to figure this out.”
Gwen gave me a reassuring smile. “It won’t come over night, and you’re not a natural.”
“Oh trust me, I know.”
“The finer points won’t come easy, but you’ve got heart. You’re a good person overall. Anyone can learn about forks, to be a genuine good person, that’s rare in today’s world. Even rarer than any kind of noble blood.” Gwen pulled me in for a hug. “You’ll get it.” Gwen promised as she help me at arm’s length. “Have you been out since the incident?”
I shook my head. Since ‘the incident,’ as everyone was referring to it now, I’d pretty much been on lockdown. I wasn’t supposed to go outside without an escort, let alone off the grounds. I understood why. I was a target, and just because it was private property, didn’t mean someone might not try to get the inside scoop. I was more or less stuck on Eastgate Estate until everything had been sorted out, at the suggestion of the king. Somehow, that suggestion seemed a lot more like an order.
Gwen gave me a knowing look. “Come with me.” She led me through the servants’ passageways and out to her house. It was a modest two story with ivy and roses trailing up a trellis. “It’s not much in comparison, but it’s home.” She offered with a modest shrug.
“I love it! That house is too big.”
She ushered me inside and the house looked lived in. There was a blanket strewn across the couch and a thin woman, with blonde hair the same shade as Gwen’s, was sitting in a chair reading.
“Gwen, honey, oh, you brought company.”
“Mum, you haven’t properly met Juliet yet. Juliet, this is my Mum.”
I offered a hand. “It’s a pleasure.” I smiled.
“So you’re the one we’ve been hearing about.” She smiled as she set her book down and got up to shake my hand. “My name is Margaret.”
“I’m just kidnapping her for a while upstairs.” Gwen cooed.
“Don’t do anything foolish, darling.” Margaret called as Gwen pulled me up the stairs.
Gwen more or less threw me into Ben as she barreled through the hallway.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” I excused as I slammed into him. It was about the time my face hit his very solid chest that I realized he wasn’t wearing a shirt. I felt my face flush as I nearly tripped over my own two feet trying to back up. Ben caught me and steadied me with a laugh.
“It’s alright. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” I nodded, more than a little embarrassed as I admired the exposed muscles.
“Watch where you’re going Ben.” She called before sticking her tongue out as she yanked me into her room and closing the door.
“You threw her into me.” Ben called.
Gwen burst into laughter. “Want to have some fun?”
“What kind of fun? I don’t want to cause anymore trouble.”
“You won’t if you’re with me.” Gwen promised with an impish grin.
“I will make you completely unrecognizable as Juliet Eastegate-Benn. You will be Juliet, Gwen McElroy’s friend and wing girl for the night.”
Gwen shrugged. “Or you can go back, go to bed, and be up bright and early to deal with Madame Hubert’s teachings.”
I sighed. “I could really use a drink.”
“I can help you with that. Just let me handle everything.” Gwen handed me a black halter top and a pair of skintight jeans and shoved me in the bathroom. “I think that will look great on you!” She called through the door. I came back out not sold on the outfit. “Oh my god…” Gwen gasped.
“That tattoo!” She pointed to my shoulder. “They don’t know about that do they?
I shook my head. “Don’t think so, but I don’t really get the big deal. Christine warned me they’re not exactly acceptable and since I’m already on the shit list, I figured I wouldn’t add fuel to the fire.”
“Probably a good call.” Gwen nodded. “What made you want that?”
I shrugged and gave her a half smile. “I got it for my mom. About two weeks after she died.”
“Is there a story behind it?”
“Well, out with it!” She smiled. Something about her made me want to tell her. She was one of those people who seemed to really listen when you spoke to them.
I sat on the edge of her bed. “Mom was sick for a while. Toward the end she had a lot of trouble. That’s why I chose a bird. It’s free. And Mom was always such a bright, colorful person, a macaw just fit. She was always so happy, even when she wasn’t she was, if that makes any sense.” I felt the tears and I stared at the ceiling willing them to go away. I took a few deep breaths. I hadn’t explained my tattoo to anyone yet. It was hard to think that she was really gone.
“I’m sorry.” Gwen offered me a hug, but I pushed her away.
“It’s okay. It happens. Everything is temporary.” I sniffled as I reigned my emotions back in. “Wow, way to be a buzz kill.”
Gwen shook her head. “No, you aren’t. But I do think another option would be better.” Gwen handed me a bright green dress and shoved me back in. She was right, I didn’t recognize myself. I still looked like myself, well the Juliet I came here as, not the one that was being stuffed into a mold I clearly didn’t fit in. The eye makeup was much more dramatic and darker than I would have applied, and my hair was done in a bunch of complicated curls, but still out of my face. Gwen was truly an artist. Ten minutes later she’d squeezed herself into a pair of jeans and the black halter she’d first offered me. Her hair and makeup were flawless and she looked awesome. “Are you ready for this?”
“I’m never ready for anything.” I smiled as she handed me a pair of heels and opened her window. She started down the trellis and waved me after her.
Once we were on the ground I noticed Margaret waiting for us. She was just standing there, leaning against the door frame. “Girls?” She used that tone every mother knows. Gwen froze and turned around. “Where are you going?”
“To see Lee.”
“And how are you getting there?”
“Sam is picking us up.”
“And how are you getting home?”
“And do you have money for a taxi just in case?” Margaret handed Gwen a small clutch bag. “I didn’t think so. Be safe, darling.” She kissed Gwen on the forehead and went back inside.
“Wow…” Was all I could manage. That did not go as expected.
“You’re mom is pretty cool.”
Gwen nodded. “Yeah, I don’t know what I’d do without her.” Then she looked at me and winced. “Oh crap, I’m sorry. I didn’t think - I mean-”
“Stop.” I held up my hand to silence her. “It’s okay. Don’t apologize. Enjoy your mom. I miss mine, but I’ll be okay. Don’t walk on eggshells because of me.”
Gwen nodded. “Sam is waiting though, so we have to hurry. Patience isn’t her strong suit. I should warn you, Sam can be sweet most of the time, except when she’s behind the wheel of a car. For some reason, she becomes a bloody maniac. Just go with it.” Gwen led me to a shed with a trap door. “This one will take us off grounds. Being part of the help has it’s benefits.” Gwen smirked as she jumped down. “Stealth is one of them!” She called as I jumped down. I followed her to blue car she opened the passenger side and I followed her in. There were two other girls in the car, the driver, who I found out was Sam had a dark hair in a pixie cut, and Tracy, who had blonde hair cut just below her shoulder and a bright red top that showed off her chest way too much to be anything but desperate.
Gwen warned me that Tracy was a reporter and not to talk to her too much, but she did threaten her if she made my life more difficult. She told a half truth, that I was new on the grounds, and they assumed that meant I was new staff. Thankfully, they didn’t recognize me.
We pulled up to a little bar and there weren’t many people inside, maybe thirty or so. Gwen and her friends walked in like they owned the place. Sam went right over to a boy with dark brown hair in a mohawk and bright green eyes, gave him a hug then went to the blonde boy next to him. She gave the blonde a kiss on the cheek and sat next to him.
The next moment the boy with the mohawk started over towards Gwen and me.
“Gwen.” He gave her a mischievous grin as he pulled her in for a hug. “How’s it going?”
“I’m alright. How about you?”
“Great. Who’s your friend?” he asked as his eyes met mine.
Gwen laughed and smacked him across the back of the head. “Subtlety should be your middle name. Her name is Jules.”
“Jules…I like that, it’s pretty. I’m Harper. How’s it going?”
“It’s all good.” I smiled back.
“An American accent?”
“That’s because I’m American.”
“Fair enough. Ever been here before?” I shook my head and I heard Gwen snicker.
“Harper! We’re up!” shouted the blonde boy Sam had gone over to.
“I hope you’re still here when I’m done with my set.” Harper gave me a wink and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. He was definitely cute.
Gwen led me over to a table where Sam and Tracy were already seated and ordered us a round of beer. “Harper has the hots for you. He wants to go home with you tonight.” Tracy smirked.
“So not happening.” I shook my head as I took a sip of my beer. It was a brand I’d never tried before, but it was good.
“Maybe not tonight, but it will. Trust me.” Tracy huffed. “That boy gets every girl he wants.”
I knew the look on her face. I’d guess Tracy had been one night standed and never got over it. I’d put money on it, in fact. I’ve known a lot of Tracy’s in my life. They smile in your face and pretend to be your friend. They’re over dramatic, thrive off gossip, and you can’t trust them as far as you can throw them. She kept giving me the weirdest looks through the band’s set. I just ignored her and listened to the band and everyone chatting. I had to admit, the band was pretty good.
After they finished playing their set, the band came back over. Harper squeezed himself between Gwen and me. “So, let me introduce you to Lee,” He was the blonde that Sam had gone over to when we got here. “Tyson,” He was a tall boy with darker skin and darker hair and surprisingly light eyes. “, and that’s Bryce.” He pointed to the last member of his band. He was a tall ginger with glasses.
“Sup.” Lee greeted with a not of his head before he stole a drink of Sam’s beer and turned his attention back to her. “Where were we?” He whispered as he grabbed her hand and led her away.
Several hours and several drinks later Gwen and I were dancing to some song with loud bass. Tracy was chatting Tyson up, Bryce had left, and Harper was drinking at the bar. He’d been watching and laughing at Gwen and me. Gwen was easy to be friends with. She reminded me of some friends from back home.
Home. Which I missed dearly. I hadn’t ever been gone this long before. It had been nearly a month. I wondered how Loki was doing and how Amanda and her son were doing. Before I could get too deep into those thoughts I turned back to Gwen. She led me back to the bar and ordered two more shots.
“Damn girl! You know how to hold your own.” I laughed at Gwen as she handed me one and we shot them back.
“You too!” Gwen giggled. “Most people can’t keep up with me.”
“I’m going to interrupt.” Harper cut in. He took my hand and led me to the dance floor.
“Who said I’d dance with you?”
A coy smile played across his lips. “Call it a hunch.”
“No.” I shook my head, a smile still on my face.
“No. Gentlemen don’t just assume they can dance with whoever they please.”
“Oh, well where are my manners?” Harper laughed. “Can I have one dance?”
“Okay, one dance.”
Naturally a slow song would come on. Harper’s hand fell to my waist and mine wen around his shoulders. I felt like I was at a middle school dance with at least six inches between us.
“No funny business.” I warned him.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
I was feeling all the drinks. How many did I have? I lost count after seven or eight, so at least nine with that last shot, but I was pretty sure it was more than that. I started to feel dizzy and realized I was leaning on Harper.
“Sorry.” I mumbled as I stood back.
“It’s quite alright.” Harper charmed. “You’ve been keeping up with Gwen, so I know you have a few drinks in you.”
I nodded. “A lot. I feel it a little bit.”
Harper let out a throaty chuckle. “You’re cute.”
“Thank you. You too. You have pretty eyes.” I looked around and the world was spinning. “We should stop spinning.”
“What is it?”
I shook my head. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Oh Gwen!” Harper realized what I meant and picked me up and rushed me over to the ladies room. “Go check.” He ordered as he inclined his head to the door.
“Bad news bears.” I managed as I flailed out of his arms and puke in the sink. “Oh god.” I groaned. “I don’t feel so good.” I muttered.
Gwen rubbed my back and put a damp paper towel on the back of my neck. “Shh, it’ll be okay. Get it all out. Harper, go get her a water.” Gwen ordered.
I washed my mouth out in the sink and suddenly felt really heavy. I sank down onto the floor. I felt someone wrap my hand around a cup.
“Drink this.” Harper soothed as he rubbed my back. “It looks like her night is over. Sam left with Lee a while ago. I can give you a ride back.”
“Thanks Harper.” Gwen agreed.
Suddenly Harper was in front of me. “Come on now, let’s get you up.” Harper helped me to my shaky feet. The next thing I knew I was in a backseat, confused.
“Where am I?”
“Juliet, it’s Gwen. We’re almost home.”
“So you’re the one everyone’s been making a fuss over.” Harper threw over his shoulder at me.
I sat up slowly realizing what I’d gotten myself into. “Yeah, something like that…”
“Harper, can you help carry her back?”
“Sure. To your house?”
“Not exactly. We have to get her back inside.”
Harper nodded. “No problem. Harper the ninja is at you service.”
I must have fallen back to sleep because suddenly I was being lifted out of the car. “Come along, love.” Harper soothed. I was freezing and he was warm so I cuddled against his chest.
“You’re cuddly.” I murmured. I felt the pull of sleep and struggled to fight it. I liked the way his chest vibrated when he laughed.
“Don’t get too cozy.” Gwen warned, and I wasn’t sure if that was to me or Harper. “Harper, I’m going to show you the way into the main house.”
It wasn’t long before I was outside the door to my room. “We have to hurry. I’m due at work in about half an hour, which means this place is about to come alive.” Gwen warned. Harper helped me into bed. “I’ll have Laurel bring you some aspirin in the morning.” Gwen promised.
Harper leaned down to give me a kiss on the cheek and I turned to give him a proper kiss.
“Good night.” Harper whispered as he went to pull away. I reached up and he stopped. I pulled him back down to me and kissed him again. His lips were soft. My hands reached up around the back of his neck and pulled him harder against me. He made a small noise of surprise but kissed me back with as much ferocity as I gave him. My hands fumbled to the bottom of his shirt, but he grabbed them and pulled away. “No, no, love.” He laughed.
“No?” I asked confused. “No? You don’t think I’m cute anymore?”
“Oh, quite the contrary, but you are very drunk.”
“I’m just tipsy.” I argued and I couldn’t take my eyes off his eyes.
“Good night. I have to go.”
“One more kiss?”
“One more.” Harper promised as he kissed my forehead and stepped away. “Now go to sleep. Tomorrow morning is going to come fast for you.”
I nodded. “Night, night.” It wasn’t but a moment before I felt sleep overtake me.
The next thing I knew Laurel was gently shaking me awake. “Juliet, you have to get up.” She soothed. My head was killing me and I felt nauseous. I looked around confused.
“What time is it?”
“Nearly seven. Come on, let’s get you in a nice warm bath. You’ll feel better.” She helped me sit up and the world spun.
“Oh god, how much did I drink?” I groaned.
“Gwen told me all about it. I’ve told Master Eastgate that you’re not feeling well. He thinks you have the flu.”
“Ugh, why don’t I remember last night?”
“Well, Gwen said you keep up with her. She’s, well, she can hold her own and then some.”
I groaned and covered my head with a blanket. “Why is it so bright?” I whined.
“Because you’re hung over.”
“What did I drink last night?”
“Knowing Gwen, something strong and hard. It probably had a bit of a bite to it. If you kept up with her, I’m surprised you don’t have alcohol poisoning.” Laurel helped me stumble to the bathroom and into the tub. “I’m afraid to leave you alone in here.”
“Can’t have you drowning, can we?” Laurel helped me get cleaned up and was brushing my hair back and away from my face. Meanwhile, I was lying miserable in bed feeling the consequences of a night full of poor decisions. “Gwen is going to come up and see you when her shift if over. But your father is going to come check up on you. I told him I’d come get him after you were awake. Are you ready for this?”
“No, but I haven’t been ready for anything that’s happened so far.” I groaned. “Let’s do this.”
I buried my head in the pillows and tried to remember what had happened. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but I usually had someone to tell me what I’d lost. I remembered going out with Gwen…her friends had driven us, what was her name? S something? Sarah? No, that wasn’t it. Sierra? No. Sam? Yes, Sam…we watched a band…Gwen and I were dancing and drinking…lots of drinking…a lot of shots…a lot of beer. So many I’d lost count…I didn’t remember anything but little patches and glimpses. I needed to talk to Gwen.
It wasn’t long before I heard someone knock and open my door. “Juliet?” My father’s voice was soft and soothing.
“Hey James.” I grumbled as I turned around. The sun was still so bright.
“Laurel tells me you aren’t feeling well.”
I shook my head but stopped quickly. It made everything spin and the nausea return. “I’ll be okay, just not feeling so hot today.”
James came over and felt my forehead. “You don’t seem to be running a fever. That’s good. Maybe it’s all the stress.” James sighed and sat on the edge of my bed. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you anyway.”
Oh great. It was going to be one of those mornings. I sat up and tried to look him in the eye.
“I didn’t intend for everything that has happened to happen. Especially not the way it’s happened. Madame Hubert said despite her best efforts, you don’t seem to be making much progress. As you know, the King and my sister want to introduce you into society properly.”
My brain was having trouble keeping up and I didn’t even try to keep the confusion off my face. “What?”
James sighed. “I didn’t want this to be forced upon you, but now we don’t have much of a choice. The world knows you’re related to the royal family. You’ve been unofficially announced through the tabloids. So many things are not being called into question. My morals, my parentage, even my sister’s character. I cannot let my shortcomings affect her ruling. As much as it pains me to do this, we have no choice.”
I was taken aback. “What are you saying exactly?”
James sighed and seemed to be searching for the right words. “You cannot act as you have in the past. I have spoken with Carolynn, Patricia, and Lana, and we’ve found you an advisor. I understand that you aren’t used to our ways, but at least in public, you’re a reflection of this family. We’ll help you, but you will be taught the proper ways to act in public., how to deal with the press., how to behave as a noble lady. You must not act rashly. Incidents like what happened will not be tolerated. Do you understand?”
I stared at James for a long moment. It was like I was seeing him for the first time. “So, in other words, you’re saying I’m trapped now. I’m not allowed to be myself?”
“That isn’t what I want - ” James started.
“But that’s pretty much what you just told me. I’m rash. I’m outspoken, opinionated, a little childish at times, and apparently foolish. And you pretty much just said I can’t be those things.”
“Juliet, you are an adult. You should act like it.” James got up and walked over to the door. “I didn’t want this.” He repeated before he left.
I stared at the door for a long moment as the information sunk in. I’d made myself a media target and had been an embarrassment to the only family I had left. I wasn’t going to be allowed to be myself anymore. I rubbed my aching head. This was too much. I curled up into a ball and went back to sleep, with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this was just a bad dream.
I woke up to Gwen shaking me. “Hello gorgeous, how’s it going?” She smiled.
“Awful.” I groaned back.
“Awful? It’s that bad?”
I still felt like crap, but not as bad as before. “I’ve felt better, that’s for sure. What was I drinking last night?”
“What didn’t you drink? Either way, I made sure it was the good stuff.” Gwen promised with a smile as she pulled out a flask.
I shook my head. “No more, dear god, no more.”
“It’s not that. This is what Gran used to give Dad for his hangovers, then Ben, then me.”
“What is it?”
“Just drink it.”
I took a swig and made a face. Vomit tasted better. “Ugh, what the hell?”
“It tastes awful, but trust me, it works. I made it this morning before I had to be at work. Look at me. Do I look dead on my feet? Now go ahead, finish it.”
With a grimace I forced the swill down my throat. Once the flask was empty Gwen brandished a cookie. “I don’t want to eat anything.” I declined.
I took a nibble and didn’t feel the nausea wish up. “Wow.”
“I told you.”
“I have a questions for you.”
“What happened last night?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Oh this is rich!”
“What do you remember?”
“A few bits and pieces. Something about a band, dancing with you, and a lot of drinking. Gwen, what did I do last night?”
“Well, Harper has been texting me nonstop.”
“Harper? Why does that sound familiar?”
“Oh my god! This is great! He’s smitten and you can’t remember him! I can’t wait to tell him!”
“Wait, what did I do?”
“You made out with him in your bed.”
“I didn’t.” I groaned as I covered my face. “I’m so embarrassed.”
“I shouldn’t have done that.”
Gwen shrugged. “You needed some fun apparently. It’s okay, but Harper is really into you.”
“Nope, I’m so not going there.”
I sighed. It was a long story, and I had a feeling it’s about to be told. “I’m not ready for anything like that.”
“Why? What happened?”
There it was. “This isn’t a happy story. You sure you want to hear it?”
Gwen nodded. “If you’re okay telling it.”
I sighed. “Back home there was this guy, Chase Evans. He was great, handsome, smart, funny, really sweet. He was in my Communications One class freshman year and we started dating not long after the start of term. Things were really great for a while. He started getting a little distant junior year, and we ended it just before I graduated. As you know, I lost my mom. She was sick for a really long time. Well, while I was sitting by her bedside, he was at someone else’s if you catch my drift.”
“Oh.” Gwen grasped.
Yeah, so as soon as I found out, I left him. I had enough on my plate, I didn’t need to add his crap to it.”
Gwen nodded. “That wanker doesn’t deserve you.”
I laughed. “Nope, but I’m not ready for something else so soon. It just hasn’t been enough time yet.”
“I’m sorry, honey.” Gwen pulled me into a hug. “Feeling any better?”
Now that I thought about it, my head wasn’t aching so badly and the light seemed less harsh. “Now that you mention it, yes, I do feel a little better.”
Gwen smiled. “I knew it. Now get up and get ready. Your advisor is on his way here.”