Reluctantly Royal

By: Nichole Chase

ONE


I WAS CLEOPATRA ABOUT to change the fate of the world. I was Queen Elizabeth the First proving that a woman could rule an empire. I was Meredith Thysmer and I was about to sing.

Bathed in the spotlight’s warm halo of attention, I reveled in the moment. Standing on stage waiting to sing was one of the highlights of my life. That pause as the audience waits, the anticipation—it fueled me. Of course, opening my mouth and letting the music flow out of me was even better. I loved the way the audience sat up a little straighter as the first notes hit the air, and the look of surprise and delight on their faces as I launched into the meat of the song. It was intoxicating, a drug just for me.

I opened my mouth and let the words pour out. I sang with my heart, feeling the awe and hope of the song. We were practicing for our holiday show, and the songs, the bells, the sweet feelings all touched something inside of me. I used it—that sense of magic—to propel my song, my voice, to something more than just a singer singing words. I wanted everyone in the auditorium to feel what I was feeling, to sense the emotion behind the lyrics.

The next verse was soft, with the barest amount of background music to play with my voice. Because of the quiet I heard the squeak of a door opening and the slow steps of a person entering the auditorium. I saw a figure pause as he walked down the side aisle. The lights made it impossible to make out the face, but from the height and stature I was sure it was a man. He took a seat next to the director and I tried to ignore their whispered exchange. It was a closed practice, but I wasn’t going to complain if someone wanted to listen. Music had a way of easing the soul, and you never knew when someone needed the break it could offer.

As the song ended and my voice trailed off, I stood there and took a deep breath. Several of the other cast members clapped, but my eyes were trained on the director. He was the best there was, here in England. There was nothing that he missed and his teaching was invaluable. I’d been thrilled when I found out I made the cut for the show, much less been given a spot in one of his advanced classes.

He leaned back in his chair and smiled, but there was something in his eyes that left me disappointed.

“What is it now?” I put a hand on my hip and frowned.

“Nothing.” He sat up in his chair and shook his head. “It was perfect.”

“But?” I raised an eyebrow.

“But nothing.” He frowned at me. “You did everything right.”

“You have that look.” I gestured in his direction. “That look that says something is wrong but you don’t want to tell me.”

“Your performance was perfect.” He stood up. “Everyone take ten. Meredith, come down here with me.”

Nerves churned in my stomach as I wondered what I had done wrong. Had the director changed his mind about me?

I felt my eyebrows pull together as I walked down the steps and looked from the director to the man sitting next to him. Max? Why had Prince Maxwell of Lilaria come to my practice? We’d met at his older brother’s wedding and shared a dance, but nothing more. Just visiting the area, perhaps? Checking up on some of the newer royals? That seemed unlikely though. From all accounts, Max tended to stay away from royal duties.

The last couple of years had been a whirlwind and I still couldn’t imagine why a prince would be at my rehearsal, much less in England where I was busy building a career and new life for me and my son. When my grandfather had been contacted by the Lilarian royal family to tell him he was from a long-lost line of royalty, I had been certain it was a ploy to get his bank account number. Not that it would have done anyone much good. The old man had been broke and barely able to keep his heat turned on. I smiled at the thought of my grandfather’s face when he found out it was real.

“Lady Meredith.” Max unfolded his long frame and stood up before holding his hand out to me. “That was a beautiful performance.”

His warm fingers wrapped around mine before lifting my hand to his mouth. His bright green eyes looked up at me from under his light brown hair. For half a second I almost swooned before yanking myself back to reality. A handsome face was the perfect shield for a player’s heart. I knew that from experience. Knew all too well how quickly that smile could turn into a sneer.

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