The warm silk sheets twisted like vines around Delilah as she thrashed. The bright fire surrounded her, clouding her vision as smoke filled her lungs. Breathing became hard as she struggled to find them. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t find them anywhere. Frantically, she searched while the heat and flames licked at her skin. Drenched in sweat, a bead dripped down her temple, finally waking her up.
It’s okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.
Looking down at the tear-stained paper, Lilah wasn’t sure how she felt about receiving her father’s letter. She knew Grandma Jane meant well when she brought it out after dinner, and Delilah also knew the hand-written missive must have brought the distraught mother great comfort at the loss of her son.
Still, the missive brought mixed emotions for Lilah.
“My dearest daughter,” it began.
“If you are reading this letter, it means I didn’t have a chance to speak to you before I left this world. For that, I’m sorry.
I made a mistake, my little Lilah. And I ran away. I take responsibility for both of those things, and I planned on making amends, but again, if you are reading this, it means it’s up to you to do now. Also, for that, I’m sorry.
Before I go any further, I need you to understand what happened. I have given your grandmother permission to read this letter as well. I hope you don’t take offense. If you do, well, sue me.”
Delilah chuckled, reading that line again. She always appreciated her father’s odd sense of humor, and the fact that he left some in a parting letter brought her great peace and comfort.
“I chose a woman.” It continued. “I loved her with all of my heart. But your grandmother didn’t like her. My mother warned me about her and attempted to point out the flaws in our relationship. I didn’t listen, and I persisted. The woman convinced me to move away from home and family influences, and like the idiot I was, I agreed.
“It wasn’t until your grandparents, and I were estranged that I discovered the woman’s ruse. Imagine walking in on your girlfriend and your best mate in flagrante. Actually, don’t imagine it. Never mind that. The two of them were after my money. Thankfully, I discovered her con before we married. I met the love of my life, your mother, many years later, but I was too cowardly to return home.
“Growing up, I was aware of a promise between another family and ours—a deal struck between your grandfather and his best friend. I don’t know the details, only that it included marriage and the fact that their family was royalty, putting me in line for the crown. And now I leave the responsibilities of that solemn promise to you as my only heir.
“I don’t regret my decision to disregard that promise because then your mother and I wouldn’t have had you.
“My sweet, sweet Delilah, you are our world. Your birth, your presence brings us great joy every day. I’m so, so sorry that I am not watching you and guiding you now through this journey, but I know your amazing grandmother will. She is wise. She is caring. I learned how to make snickerdoodles from her. So don’t eat too many!
“Listen well. Do as she says. Continue to make me proud.
“I will be watching over you as I always have.
“With all my love,
Delilah wiped the tears from her face and tried to calm herself. Her red-rimmed, puffy eyes would make an outstanding first impression, she was sure.
“If only someone had given me this earlier. If only Dad took the time to explain before now,” she mumbled.
Still mourning and in shock from her parents’ unexpected deaths, her betrothal news came as a certified letter, notifying her, D. J. Evans, of her prearranged engagement to A. R. Williams. The day after the funeral, the family attorney presented the letter, open-ended ticket, and her parents’ will, naming her then-unknown grandmother as the executor. The actual weight and meaning of the directive eluded her until she had time to consider it further on her long plane ride over the ocean.
Delilah never royal watched. Growing up in America, she never had a great interest. She was familiar with the reigning royal family and the monarch’s eldest grandson, Alexander Reid Williams. The news and images of his scandals appeared on the covers of magazines at home. Beyond that, she never paid much attention.
Now, Delilah would face the royal family alone. Well, her grandmother would be there, but she had just met the woman. Sad and scared, the young lady clutched the letter to her chest and continued to shed silent tears—for the loss of her loved ones and the loss of a future she could control.
A gentle knock on the door startled Delilah. The dark-haired woman from the previous day peeked her head in as she pushed the door slightly open.
“Good morning, Miss Delilah. We need to get you ready to go.”
Lilah sat up and stretched, letting out a loud groan. The woman chuckled.
“Not a morning person, Miss?”
“Not in the least.”
“I’ll make sure we get you some coffee before we go. We need you to be bright and chipper for your big day.”
“I’m not sure either of those words is in my vocabulary at the moment. Any chance I could get a latte...” Delilah left the sentence unfinished. “Sorry, I do not remember your name. Yesterday was a bit overwhelming”.
“Call me Alice. I am the Household Manager. You will find the staff mingling around the estate, along with the families who still live on the property. Your family has been very good to this area for a very long time.”
“Not to sound stupid, but no uniforms?”
“No uniforms. House staff dress according to their respective duties. For some, like me, that can change daily.”
“How will I know who’s who?”
“By the way they treat you and their attire. Your grandmother instructed all the staff to call you ‘Miss.’ Well, until your title changes.”
Alice giggled with the last bit. Delilah, not so much.
“I’ll quickly run and grab your latte while you shower. Please let me know if you need or want help with anything.”
“Would you mind sending my grandmother up in a bit? I have no idea what to wear.”
“With pleasure, Miss.”
After showering in the large en-suite bathroom, Lilah found Grandma Jane staring out the massive windows into the back gardens.
“I’m sorry this all happened, sweetheart. But like your father, I don’t regret having you here with me now.”
“Grandma Jane. Right now, I need you to have, what do you call it, ‘a stiff upper lip.’ I’m barely holding it together.” Delilah sniffed back tears.
Jane turned to her, straightened her posture, and picked her chin and her voice up.“You are right, my dear. Right, right, right. Okay, then. I’ve chosen several appropriate dresses and the accompanying fascinators hats. The brunch will be outdoors- casual by their standards. Just follow my lead, and we will get through this. They are good people. Good friends.”
Delilah sighed and then hugged her grandmother.
“Is there any way out of this?”
“We are not in this to make anyone miserable. All we ask is that you give it an honest chance.”
“An honest chance. I can do that.” Delilah smiled. I hope.
After donning a modest, yet well-fitted deep purple, caped sheath dress, Delilah completed the look with natural makeup and a pair of two-inch ankle strapped heels. For once in her life, she was ready early.
As she paced the marble flooring in the foyer, the clicking of her heels echoed through the house. One-by-one Delilah brought each nail to her mouth out of habit. Their smooth, thickened surfaces reminded her not to bite, though the urge to do so threatened to overwhelm her. She chose to roll the pad of her thumb over the tip of each fingernail instead. A gentle squeeze to her shoulder startled her from her thoughts.
“Worried, Miss?” Jake smirked.
“No! No. What would make you think that?”
“Well, Alice was already getting out the machine to polish the floors, and you’ve left a trail of fingernails, so...”
“Wait. What? I have?”
Jake chuckled. “No. But your furrowed brow is going to leave a dent in your makeup.”
“Hey. I noticed you haven’t called me ‘Miss.’ What gives?”
“You seemed like you could use a friend more than a bodyguard.”
“Is that what you are, Jake?”
“Security personnel at your service, Miss. I figured my badge gave me away yesterday.”
“Well, yeah, but I didn’t realize you were ‘assigned’ to me, so to speak.”
“I’m assigned to this home, on behalf of your intended’s family. Your protection, under their watch, is paramount.”
“Well then, Jake, I guess we will see each other a lot.” Delilah extended her hand.
“I guess we will, Lilah.” Jake smiled as he engulfed her dainty hand in his own.
“Oh my goodness!” Jane’s high-pitched voice interrupted the friendly scene. “I worried so much about your outfit that I forgot all about mine! You can get out of a ticket if you speed, right, Jake?”
“I’m not sure about that, but I’m happy to try, Madam. Ladies, shall we?”