Read an Excerpt from American Royals by Katharine McGee

What if America had a royal family? If you can’t get enough of Harry and Meghan or Kate and William, meet American princesses Beatrice and Samantha. Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown in American Royals by Katharine McGee, which is perfect for fans of Red, White, and Royal Blue and The Royal We!

Two princesses vying for the ultimate crown.

Two girls vying for the prince’s heart.

This is the story of the American royals.

Start reading now!

BEATRICE

Present Day

Beatrice could trace her ancestry back to the tenth century.

It was really only through Queen Martha’s side, though most people refrained from mentioning that. After all, King George I had been nothing but an upstart planter from Virginia until he married well and then fought even better. He fought so well that he helped win America’s independence, and was rewarded by its people with a crown.

But through Martha, at least, Beatrice could trace her lineage for more than forty generations. Among her forebears were kings and queens and archdukes, scholars and soldiers, even a canonized saint. We have much to learn by looking back, her father always reminded her. Never forget where you come from.

It was hard to forget your ancestors when you carried their names with you as Beatrice did: Beatrice Georgina Fredericka Louise of the House of Washington, Princess Royal of America.

Beatrice’s father, His Majesty King George IV, shot her a glance. She reflexively sat up straighter, to listen as the High Constable reviewed the plans for tomorrow’s Queen’s Ball. Her hands were clasped over her demure pencil skirt, her legs crossed at the ankle. Because as her etiquette teacher had drilled into her—by hitting her wrist with a ruler each time she slipped up—a lady never crossed her legs at the thigh.

And the rules were especially stringent for Beatrice, because she was not only a princess: she was also the first woman who would ever inherit the American throne. The first woman who would be queen in her own right: not a queen consort, married to a king, but a true queen regnant.

If she’d been born twenty years earlier, the succession would have jumped over her and skipped to Jeff. But her grandfather had famously abolished that centuries-old law, dictating that in all subsequent generations, the throne would pass to the oldest child, not the oldest boy.

Beatrice let her gaze drift over the conference table before her. It was littered with papers and scattered cups of coffee that had long since gone cold. Today’s was the last Cabinet session until January, which meant it had been filled with year-end reports and long spreadsheets of analysis.

The Cabinet meetings always took place here in the Star Chamber, named for the gilded stars painted on its blue walls, and the famous star-shaped oculus overhead. Winter sunlight poured through it to dapple invitingly over the table. Not that Beatrice would get to enjoy it. She rarely had time to go out- side, except on the days she rose before dawn to join her father on his run through the capital, flanked by their security officers.

For a brief and uncharacteristic moment, she wondered what her siblings were doing right now, if they were back yet from their whirlwind trip through East Asia. Samantha and Jeff—twins, and three years younger than Beatrice—were a dangerous pair. They were lively and spontaneous, full of bad ideas, and, unlike most teenagers, had the power to actually carry out those ideas, much to their parents’ regret. Now, six months after they’d finished high school, it was clear that neither of them knew what to do with themselves—except celebrate the fact that they were eighteen and could legally drink.

No one ever expected anything of the twins. All the expectation—in the family and, really, in the world—was focused like a white-hot spotlight on Beatrice.

At last the High Constable finished his report. The king gave a gracious nod and stood. “Thank you, Jacob. If there is no further business, that concludes today’s meeting.”

Everyone rose to their feet and began to shuffle out of the room, chatting about tomorrow’s ball or their holiday plans. They seemed to have temporarily set aside their political rivalries—the king kept his Cabinet evenly divided between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans—though Beatrice felt certain those rivalries would be back in full force come the new year.

Her personal security detail, Connor, glanced up from where he stood outside the door, next to the king’s protection officer. Both men were members of the Revere Guard, the elite corps of officers who devoted their lives to the service of the Crown.

“Beatrice, could you stay for a minute?” her dad asked.

Beatrice paused in the doorway. “Of course.”
The king sat back down, and she followed suit. “Thank you again for helping with the nominations,” he told her. They both glanced at the paper before him, where a list of names was printed in alphabetical order.

Beatrice smiled. “I’m glad you accepted them.”

Tomorrow was the palace’s annual holiday party, the Queen’s Ball, so named because at the very first Christmas ball, Queen Martha had urged George I to ennoble dozens of Americans who’d aided the Revolution. The tradition had persisted ever since. Each year at the ball, the king knighted Americans for their service to the country, thereby making them lords or ladies. And for the first time, he had let Beatrice suggest the candidates for knighthood.

Before she could ask what he wanted, a tap sounded at the door. The king gave an audible sigh of relief as Beatrice’s mom swept into the room.

Queen Adelaide came from nobility on both sides of her family. Before her marriage to the king, she’d been set to inherit the Duchy of Canaveral and the Duchy of Savannah. The Double Duchess, people had called her.

Adelaide had grown up in Atlanta, and had never lost her ethereal Southern charm. Even now her gestures were touched with elegance: the tilt of her head as she smiled at her daughter, the turn of her wrist as she settled into the walnut chair to Beatrice’s right. Caramel highlights gleamed in her rich brown hair, which she curled each morning with hot rollers and wore encircled by a headband.

The way they were sitting—a parent to either side of Bea- trice, boxing her in—gave her the distinct sense that she was being ambushed.

“Hey, Mom,” she said in a slightly puzzled tone. The queen wasn’t usually part of their political discussions.

“Beatrice, your mother and I were hoping to discuss your future,” the king began.

The princess blinked, disconcerted. She was always thinking about the future.

“On a more personal level,” her mom clarified. “We were wondering if there was anyone . . . special in your life right now.”

Beatrice startled. She’d expected this talk sooner or later, had done her best to mentally prepare herself for it. She just hadn’t assumed it would be quite so soon.

“No, there isn’t,” she assured them. Her parents nodded distractedly; they both knew she wasn’t dating anyone. The entire country knew it.

The king cleared his throat. “Your mother and I were hoping that you might start searching for a partner. For that person you’ll spend your life with.”

His words seemed to echo, amplified, around the Star Chamber.

Beatrice had almost no romantic experience to speak of— not that the various foreign princes near her age hadn’t tried. The only one to make it to a second date had been Prince Nikolaos of Greece. His parents had urged him to do an ex- change program at Harvard one semester, clearly hoping that he and the American princess would fall madly in love. Bea- trice went out with him for a while to please their families, but nothing had come of it—even though, as a younger son of a royal family, Nikolaos was one of the few men actually eligible to go out with Beatrice. The future monarch could only marry someone of noble or aristocratic blood.

Beatrice had always known that she couldn’t date the wrong person—couldn’t even kiss the wrong person, the way everyone else at college seemed to. After all, no one wanted to see their future monarch walk-of-shaming home from a college party.

No, it was much safer if the heir to the throne had no sexual past for the press to rake through: no baggage from past boyfriends, no exes who might sell intimate secrets in a tell-all memoir. There could be no ups and downs in Beatrice’s relationships. Once she publicly dated someone, that was it: they would have to be happy, and stable, and committed.

It had been enough to make her steer clear of dating almost entirely.

For years the press had applauded Beatrice for being care- ful with her reputation. But ever since she’d turned twenty- one, she’d noticed a shift in the way they discussed her love life. Instead of dedicated and virtuous, the reporters had begun to call her lonely and pitiable—or worse, frigid. If she never dated anyone, they complained, how was she supposed to get married, and start the all-important business of provid- ing the next heir to the throne?

“Don’t you think I’m a little young to worry about this?” Beatrice asked, relieved at how calm she sounded. But then, she had long ago been trained to keep her emotions hidden from public display.

“I was your age when your father and I got married. And I was pregnant with you the following year,” the queen re- minded her. A truly terrifying thought.

“That was twenty years ago!” Beatrice protested. “No one expects me to—I mean—things are different now.”

“We’re not saying you should run to the altar tomorrow. All we’re asking is that you start to think about it. This won’t be an easy decision, and we want to help.”

“Help?”

“There are several young men whom we’d love for you to meet. We’ve invited them all to the ball tomorrow night.” The queen unclasped her pebbled-leather handbag and pulled out a folder, colored plastic tabs peeking from its edge. She handed it to her daughter.

Each tab was labeled with a name. Lord José Ramirez, future Duke of Texas. Lord Marshall Davis, future Duke of Orange. Lord Theodore Eaton, future Duke of Boston.

“You’re trying to set me up?”

“We’re just giving you some options. Introducing you to young men who might be a good fit.”

Beatrice flipped numbly through the pages. They were filled with information: family trees, photos, high school transcripts, even the guys’ heights and weights.

“Did you use your security clearance to get all this?”

“What? No.” The king looked shocked at the suggestion that he would abuse his privileges with the NSA. “The young men and their families all volunteered this information. They know what they’re signing on for.”

“So you’ve already talked to them,” Beatrice said woodenly. “And tomorrow night at the Queen’s Ball you want me to interview these . . . potential husbands?”

Her mother’s brows shot up in protest. “Interview makes it sound so impersonal! All we’re asking is that you have a conversation with them, get to know them a little. Who knows? One of them might surprise you.”

“Maybe it is like an interview,” the king admitted. “Bea- trice, when you do choose someone, he won’t just be your husband. He will also be America’s first king consort. And being married to the reigning monarch is a full-time job.”

“A job that never stops,” the queen chimed in.

Through the window, down in the Marble Courtyard, Bea- trice heard a burst of laughter and gossip, and a single voice struggling valiantly to rise above the din. Probably a high school tour going past, on the last day before holiday break. These teenagers weren’t that much younger than she was, yet Beatrice felt irrevocably distant from them.

She used her thumb to pull back the pages of the folder and let them fan back down. Only a dozen young men were included.

“This folder is pretty thin,” she said softly.

Of course, Beatrice had always known that she would be fishing from a tiny pond, that her romantic options were in- credibly narrow. It wasn’t as bad as it had been a hundred years ago, when the marriage of the king was a matter of public policy rather than a matter of the heart. At least she wouldn’t have to get married to seal a political treaty.

But it still seemed a lot to hope, that she might fall in love with someone on this very short list.

“Your father and I were very thorough. We combed through all the sons and grandsons of the nobility before we compiled these names,” her mother said gently.

The king nodded. “There are some good options here, Beatrice. Everyone in this folder is smart, and thoughtful, and from a good family—the type of men who will support you, without letting their egos get in the way.”

From a good family. Beatrice knew precisely what that meant. They were the sons and grandsons of high-ranking American noblemen, if only because the foreign princes around her age—Nikolaos, or Charles of Schleswig-Holstein, or the Grand Duke Pieter—had all already struck out.

Beatrice glanced back and forth between her parents. “What if my future husband isn’t on this list? What if I don’t want to marry any of them?”

“You haven’t even met them yet,” her father cut in. “Be- sides, your mother and I were set up by our parents, and look how that turned out.” He met the queen’s eyes with a fond smile.

Beatrice nodded, a bit reassured. She knew that her dad had picked her mom just like this, from a short list of pre- approved options. They had met only a dozen times before their wedding day. And their arranged marriage had ended up blossoming into a genuine love match.

She tried to consider the possibility that her parents were right: that she could fall in love with one of the young men listed in this terrifyingly slim folder.

It didn’t seem likely.

She hadn’t yet met these noblemen, but she could already guess what they were like: the same type of spoiled, self- absorbed young men who’d been circling her for years. The type of guys she’d been carefully turning down at Harvard, each time they asked her to a final club party or fraternity date night. The type of guys who looked at her and saw not a person, but a crown.

Sometimes, Beatrice thought traitorously, that was how her parents saw her too.

The king braced his palms on the conference table. Against the tanned skin of his hands glinted a pair of rings: the simple gold of his wedding band and, next to it, the heavy signet ring marked with the Great Seal of America. His two marriages, to the queen and to his country.

“Our hope for you has always been that you might find someone you love, who can also handle the requirements that come with this life,” he told her. “Someone who is the right fit for you and America.”

Beatrice heard the unspoken subtext: that if she couldn’t find someone who checked both boxes, then America needed to come first. It was more important that she marry someone who could do this job, and do it well, than that she follow her heart.

And truthfully, Beatrice had given up on her heart a long time ago. Her life didn’t belong to her, her choices were never fully her own—she had known this since she was a child.

Her grandfather King Edward III had said as much to her on his deathbed. The memory would be forever etched in her mind: the sterile smell of the hospital, the yellow fluorescent lighting, the peremptory way her grandfather had dismissed everyone else from the room. “I need to say a few things to Beatrice,” he’d declared, in that frightening growl he used just for her.

The dying king had taken Beatrice’s small hands in his frail ones. “Long ago, monarchies existed so that the people could serve the monarch. Now the monarch must serve the people. Remember that it is an honor and a privilege to be a Washing- ton and devote your life to this nation.”

Beatrice gave a solemn nod. She knew it was her duty to put the people first; everyone had been telling her that since she was born. The words In service to God and country had literally been painted on the walls of her nursery.

“From this point onward you are two people at once: Beatrice the girl, and Beatrice, heir to the Crown. When they want different things,” her grandfather said gravely, “the Crown must win. Always. Swear it to me.” His fingers closed around hers with a surprising amount of strength.

“I swear,” Beatrice had whispered. She didn’t remember consciously choosing to say those words; it was as if some greater force, perhaps the spirit of America itself, had taken temporary hold of her and snatched them from her chest.

Beatrice lived by that sacred oath. She had always known that this decision was looming in her future. But the suddenness of it all—the fact that her parents expected her to start picking a husband tomorrow, and from such an abbreviated list—made her breath catch.

“You know that this life isn’t an easy one,” the king said gently. “That it often looks so different from the outside than it really is on the inside. Beatrice, it’s crucial that you find the right partner to share it with. Someone to help you through the challenges and share in the successes. Your mother and I are a team. I couldn’t have done any of it without her.”

Beatrice swallowed against a tightness in her throat. Well, if she needed to get married for the country’s sake, she might as well try to pick one of her parents’ choices.

“Should we look through the candidates before I meet them tomorrow?” she said at last, and opened the folder to its first page.

2

NINA

Nina Gonzalez clattered up the stairs at the back of the lecture hall, headed toward her usual seat in the mezzanine. Below her stretched hundreds of red auditorium chairs, each affixed with a wooden desk. Almost every seat was occupied. This was Intro to World History, a required class for all freshmen at King’s College: King Edward I had decreed as much when he founded the university back in 1828.

She rolled up the sleeves of her flannel shirt, and a tat- too flashed on her wrist, its angular lines inscribed on her burnished sienna skin. It was the Chinese character for friendship. Samantha had insisted that they get the tattoo together, to commemorate their eighteenth birthdays. Of course, Sam couldn’t very well be seen with a tattoo, so hers was some- where decidedly more private.

“You’re coming tonight, right?” Nina’s friend Rachel Greenbaum leaned over from the next chair.

“Tonight?” Nina reached up to tuck her dark hair behind one ear. A cute boy at the end of the row was glancing her way, but she ignored him. He looked too much like the one she was still trying to get over.

“We’re meeting in the common room to watch the coverage of the Queen’s Ball. I made cherry tarts using the official recipe, the one from the Washington cookbook. I even bought cherries from the palace gift shop, to make it authentic,” Rachel said eagerly.

“That sounds delicious.” Those cherry tarts were famous worldwide: the palace had served them at every garden party or reception for generations. Nina wondered what Rachel would say if she found out how much the Washingtons secretly hated those tarts.

Honestly, it would have been more authentic if she’d cooked barbecue instead. Or breakfast tacos. Both of which the royal family ate with shocking frequency.

“So you’re coming, right?” Rachel pressed.

Nina did her best to look regretful. “I can’t. I actually have a shift tonight.” She worked at the university library shelving books, as part of the work-study program that funded her scholarship. But even if she hadn’t been busy, Nina had no desire to watch the coverage of the Queen’s Ball. She’d attended that ball several years in a row, and it was pretty much the same every time.

“I didn’t know the library was open on Friday nights.”

“Maybe you should come with me. Some of the seniors still have finals; you might meet an older guy,” Nina teased.

“Only you would daydream about a library meet-cute.” Rachel shook her head, then let out a wistful sigh. “I wonder what Princess Beatrice will wear tonight. Do you remember the gown she wore last year, with the illusion neckline? It was so elegant.”

Nina didn’t want to talk about the royal family, especially not with Rachel, who was a little too obsessed with them. She’d once told Nina that she’d named her pet goldfish Jefferson—all ten of them in succession. But a deep-seated loyalty to Samantha made Nina speak up. “What about Samantha? She always looks beautiful too.”

Rachel made a vague noise of disagreement, ignoring the question. It was an all-too-typical reaction. The nation adored Beatrice, their future sovereign—or at least most people adored her, except the sexist, reactionary groups that still protested the Act of Succession to the Crown. Those people hated Beatrice, simply for having the temerity to be a woman who would inherit a throne that had always belonged to men. They were a minority, but they were still vicious and vocal, always trolling online photos of Beatrice, booing her at political rallies.

But if most of the nation loved Beatrice, they positively swooned over Jefferson, with what sometimes felt like a single collective sigh. He was the only boy, and the world seemed willing to forgive him anything, even if Nina wasn’t.

As for Samantha . . . at best people were entertained by her. At worst, which was relatively often, they actively dis- approved of her. The problem was that they didn’t know Sam. Not the way Nina did.

She was saved from answering by Professor Urquhart, who started up to the podium with ponderous steps. There was a flurry of activity as all seven hundred students broke off their murmured conversations and arranged their laptops before them. Nina—who was probably the last person still taking notes by hand, in a spiral notebook—poised her pencil on a fresh page and glanced up expectantly. Dust motes hung suspended in the bars of sunlight that sliced through the windows.

“As we’ve covered all semester, political alliances through the turn of the century were typically bilateral and easily broken—which is why so many of them were sealed through marriage,” Professor Urquhart began. “Things changed with the formation of the League of Kings: a treaty among mul- tiple nations, meant to assure collective security and peace. The League was founded in 1895 at the Concord of Paris, hosted by—”

Louis, Nina silently finished. That was the easiest part of French history: their kings were consistently named Louis, all the way up to the current Louis XXIII. Honestly, the French were even worse about Louis than the Washingtons were about George.

She copied the professor’s words into her spiral notebook, wishing that she could stop thinking about the Washingtons. College was supposed to be her fresh start, a chance to figure out who she really was, free from the influence of the royal family.

Nina had been Princess Samantha’s best friend since they were children. They had met twelve years ago, when Nina’s mother, Isabella, interviewed at the palace. The former king— Edward III, Samantha’s grandfather—had just passed away, and the new king needed a chamberlain. Isabella had been working in the Chamber of Commerce, and somehow, miraculously, her boss recommended her to His Majesty. For there was no “applying” to jobs in the palace. The palace made a list of candidates, and if you were one of the lucky few, they reached out to you.

The afternoon of the interview, Nina’s mom Julie was out of town and Nina’s usual babysitter canceled at the last minute, leaving Nina’s mamá Isabella no choice but to bring Nina with her. “Stay right here,” she admonished, leading her daughter to a bench in the downstairs corridor.

Nina had found it surprising that her mamá was interviewing in the actual palace, but as she would later learn, Washington Palace wasn’t just the royal family’s home in the capital. It was also the administrative center of the Crown. By far the majority of the palace’s six hundred rooms were offices or public spaces. The private apartments on the second floor were all marked by oval door handles, rather than the round ones downstairs.

Nina tucked her feet beneath her and quietly opened the book she’d brought.

“What are you reading?”

A face topped by a mountain of chestnut hair peered around the corner. Nina instantly recognized Princess Samantha—though she didn’t look much like a princess in her zebra-print leggings and sequined dress. Her fingernails were painted in a rainbow, each one a different primary color.

“Um . . .” Nina hid the cover in her lap. The book was about a princess, albeit a fantasy one, but it still felt strange to confess that to a real princess.

“My little brother and I are reading a dragon series right now,” Samantha declared, and tipped her head to one side. “Have you seen him? I can’t find him.”

Nina shook her head. “I thought you were twins,” she couldn’t resist saying.

“Yes, but I’m four minutes older, which makes Jeff my little brother,” Samantha replied with irrefutable logic. “Want to help me look for him?”

The princess was a storm of kinetic energy, skipping down the halls, constantly opening doors or peering behind furniture in search of her twin. The entire time she kept up a steady stream of chatter, her own greatest-hits tour of the palace.

“This room is haunted by the ghost of Queen Thérèse. I know it’s her because the ghost speaks French,” she declared ominously, pointing at the shuttered downstairs parlor. Or “I used to roller-skate down these halls, till my dad caught me and said I can’t. Beatrice did it too, but it never matters what Beatrice does.” Samantha didn’t sound resentful, just pensive. “She’s going to be queen someday.”

“And what are you going to be?” Nina asked, curious.

Samantha grinned. “Everything else.”

She led Nina from one unbelievable place to another, through storerooms of pressed linen napkins and kitchens that soared larger than ballrooms, where the chef gave them sugar cookies out of a painted blue jar. The princess bit into her cookie, but Nina tucked hers into her pocket. It was too pretty to eat.

As they looped back toward the bench, Nina was startled to see her mamá walking down the hallway, chatting easily with the king. Their eyes lit on Nina, and she instinctively froze.

The king smiled, a genial, boyish smile that made his eyes twinkle. “And who have we here?”

Nina had never met a king before, yet some unbidden instinct—perhaps all the times she’d seen him on television— prompted her to bob into a curtsy.

“This is my daughter, Nina,” Isabella murmured.

Samantha trotted over to her father and tugged at his hand. “Dad, can Nina come over again soon?” she pleaded.

The king turned his warm eyes on Nina’s mamá. “Samantha is right. I hope you’ll bring Nina here in the afternoons. After all, it’s not like we have a short workday.”

Isabella blinked. “Your Majesty?”

“The girls clearly get along, and I know your wife has a busy schedule, too. Why should Nina stay home with a baby- sitter when she could be here?”

Nina was too young to understand Isabella’s hesitation. “Please, mamá?” she’d chimed in, brimming with eagerness. Isabella had relented with a sigh.

And just like that, Nina was interwoven into the lives of the royal twins.

They became an instant threesome: the prince, the princess, and the chamberlain’s daughter. Back then Nina hadn’t even known to feel self-conscious about the differences be- tween her life and Samantha’s. For even though they were twins, and royalty, Jeff and Sam never made Nina feel like an outsider. If anything, they were all equally excluded from the glamorous and inaccessible world of the adults—even from Beatrice, who at age ten was already enrolled in private tutoring on top of her middle school courses.

Sam and Jeff were always the instigators of their plans, with Nina trying and failing to keep them in line. They would escape the twins’ nanny and set out on some escapade: to swim in the heated indoor pool, or to find the rumored safe rooms and bomb shelters that were supposedly hidden throughout the palace. One time Samantha convinced them to hide beneath a tablecloth and eavesdrop on a private meeting between the king and the Austrian ambassador. They were caught after just two minutes, when Jeff tugged on the tablecloth and knocked over a pitcher of water, but by then Samantha had already squirted honey into the ambassador’s shoe. “If you don’t want honey in your shoes, don’t kick them off under the table,” she’d said later, her eyes gleaming with mischief.

The fact that Samantha and Nina’s friendship had survived all these years was a testament to the princess’s determination. She refused to let them drift apart, even though they went to different schools, even after Nina’s mamá left her role as chamberlain and was named Minister of the Treasury. Samantha just kept on inviting Nina to the palace for sleepovers, or to the Washingtons’ vacation homes for holiday weekends, or to attend state events as her plus-one.

Nina’s parents had mixed feelings about their daughter’s friendship with the princess.

Isabella and Julie had met years ago in grad school. By now they were one of Washington’s power couples: Isabella work- ing as Minister of the Treasury, Julie the founder of a successful e-commerce business. They didn’t argue very often, but Nina’s complicated relationship with the Washingtons was something they never managed to agree on.

“We can’t let Nina go on that trip,” Isabella had protested, after Samantha invited Nina to the royal family’s beach house. “I don’t want her spending too much time with them, especially when we aren’t around.”

Nina’s ears perked up at the sound of their voices, which echoed through the building’s old-fashioned heating pipes. She was in her bedroom on the third floor, beneath the attic. She hadn’t meant to eavesdrop . . . but she’d also never con- fessed how easily she could hear them when they spoke in the sitting room directly below.

“Why not?” Julie had replied, her voice oddly distorted by the old metal pipes.

“Because I worry about her! The world that the Washingtons inhabit, with all its private planes and court galas and protocol—that isn’t reality. And no matter how often they invite her or how much Princess Samantha likes her, Nina will never really be one of them.” Nina’s mamá sighed. “I don’t want her feeling like a poor relation from some Jane Austen novel.”

Nina shifted closer on her mattress to catch the response.

“The princess has been a good friend to Nina,” her mom protested. “And you should have a little more faith in the way we’ve raised our daughter. If anything, I think Nina will be a positive influence on Samantha, by reminding her what exists outside those palace gates. The princess probably needs a normal friend.”

Eventually Nina’s parents had agreed to let her go, with the stipulation that she stay out of the public eye and never be quoted or photographed in press coverage of the royal family. The palace had been happy to agree. They didn’t particularly want the media focusing on Princess Samantha, either.

By the time they were in high school, Nina was used to her best friend’s quirky plans and contagious excitement. Let’s take Albert out! Sam would text, naming the lemon-yellow Jeep she’d begged her parents to give her on her sixteenth birth- day. She had the car, but she kept failing the parallel-parking part of her driver’s test and still didn’t have a license. Which meant that Nina ended up driving that obnoxiously yellow Jeep all through the capital, with Samantha sitting cross-legged in the passenger seat, begging her to swing through McDonald’s. After a while Nina didn’t even worry about the protection officer glowering at them from the back.

Sam made it far too easy for Nina to forget the myriad differences between them. And Nina loved her, without strings or conditions, the way she would have loved a sister if she’d had one. It was just that her sister happened to be the Princess of America.

But their relationship had subtly shifted over the past six months. Nina had never told Sam what happened the night of the graduation party—and the longer she kept it a secret, the greater the distance it seemed to wedge between them. Then Sam and Jeff went off on their whirlwind post-graduation trip, and Nina was starting her first year of college, and maybe it was all for the best anyway. This was Nina’s chance to settle into a more normal life, one without the private planes and court galas and protocol that had so worried Isabella. She could go back to being her ordinary, real-world self.

Nina hadn’t told anyone at King’s College that Samantha was her best friend. They would probably assume she was a liar—or if they did believe her, they might try to use her for her connections. Nina didn’t know which outcome would be worse.

Professor Urquhart clicked off the microphone, marking the conclusion of the lecture. Everyone stood in a shuffle of closing laptops and suppressed gossip. Nina scribbled a few final notes in her spiral before tossing it into her shoulder bag, then followed Rachel down the stairs and out into the courtyard.

A few other girls from their hallway joined them, talking in excited tones about the Queen’s Ball viewing party. They started toward the student center, where everyone usually grabbed lunch after class, but Nina’s steps slowed.

A movement near the street had grabbed her attention. A black town car was idling at the curb, purring softly. Propped in the car window was a piece of white computer paper with Nina’s name scrawled on it.

She would recognize that handwriting anywhere.

“Nina? Are you coming?” Rachel called out.

“Sorry, I have a meeting with my advisor,” Nina fibbed. She waited a few more moments before racing across the lawn toward the car.

In the backseat was Princess Samantha, wearing velour sweatpants and a white T-shirt through which Nina could see her pink bra. Nina hurried to join her, pulling the door shut before anyone could see.

Nina! I missed you!” Sam threw her arms around her friend in one of her typically effusive hugs.

“I missed you, too,” Nina murmured into her friend’s shoulder. A million questions burned on her lips.

Finally Samantha broke away, leaning forward to address the driver. “You can just circle campus for a while,” she told him. Typical Sam, wanting to be in constant motion even if she wasn’t going anywhere.

“Sam—what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for tonight?”

Sam lowered her voice conspiratorially. “I’m kidnapping you and dragging you to the Queen’s Ball as my plus-one!”

Nina shook her head. “Sorry, I have to work tonight.”

“But your parents will be there—I’m sure they’d love to see you!” Sam let out a breath. “Please, Nina? I could really use some backup right now, with my mom and dad.”

“Didn’t you just get home?” What could they already be angry about?

“The last morning in Thailand, Jeff and I ran away from our protection officers,” Sam admitted, looking out the window. They were driving up College Street toward the soaring Gothic architecture of Dandridge Library.

“You ditched your bodyguards? How?”

“We ran away from them,” Samantha repeated, unable to suppress her smile. “Literally. Jeff and I turned and sprinted into oncoming traffic, weaving between the cars, then hitched a ride to an ATV rental place. We rode four-wheelers through the jungle. It was incredible.”

“That seems risky,” Nina pointed out, and Sam laughed.

“You sound just like my parents! See, this is why I need you. I was hoping that if you came with me tonight . . .”

“I could keep you in line?” Nina finished for her. As if she’d ever been able to control the princess. No power on earth could keep Samantha from doing something once she’d set her mind to it.

“You know you’re the good one!”

“I’m only ‘the good one’ in comparison to you,” Nina countered. “That isn’t saying much.”

“You should be grateful I set the bar so low,” Sam teased. “Look, we can leave the reception early—grab some home- made cookie dough from the kitchens, stay up late watching bad reality TV. It’s been ages since we had a slumber party! Please,” she said again. “I’ve really missed you.”

It was hard to ignore that kind of plea from your best friend. “I guess . . . I could probably get Jodi to trade shifts with me,” Nina conceded, after a beat of hesitation so slight that Samantha probably hadn’t even noticed it.

“Thank you!” Sam gave an excited squeal and leaned for- ward to inform the driver of their new destination. Then she turned to Nina, pulling her slouchy leather bag onto her lap. “By the way, I brought you something from Bangkok.” She dug through her bag, eventually emerging with a packet of pretzel M&M’s. The bright blue bag was covered in the gorgeous loops and curlicues of Thai script.

“You remembered.” M&M’s were Nina’s favorite candy. Sam always brought a bag of them home from her foreign trips—she’d read somewhere that the formula was tweaked in each country, and decided that she and Nina would have to taste-test all of them.

“So? How are they?” Sam asked as Nina popped one of the chocolate candies into her mouth.

“Delicious.” It was actually a little stale, but that wasn’t surprising given how many miles it had traveled, smashed into the side pocket of Samantha’s purse.

They turned a corner and the palace swam into view—far too soon for Nina’s liking, but after all, King’s College was only a couple of miles away. Virginia pines stretched tall and arrogant on either side of the street, which was lined with bureaucratic offices and thronged with people. The palace glowed a blazing white against the blue enamel of the sky. Its reflection danced in the waters of the Potomac, so that there seemed to be two palaces: one substantial, one watery and dreamlike.

Tourists clung to the palace’s iron gates, where a row of guards stood at attention, their hands raised in a salute. Above the circle drive Nina saw the fluttering edge of the Royal Standard, the flag indicating that the monarch was officially in residence.

She took a breath, steeling herself. She hadn’t wanted to come back to the palace and risk seeing him. She still hated him for what happened the night of the graduation party.

But more than that, Nina hated the small part of her- self that secretly longed to see him, even after everything he had done.

3

DAPHNE

Daphne Deighton turned the key in her front door and paused. Out of habit she looked back over her shoulder with a smile, though it had been months since the paparazzi gathered on her lawn, the way they used to when she was dating Jefferson.

Across the river she could just see a corner of Washington Palace. The center of the world—or at least the center of hers.

It was beautiful from this angle, afternoon sunlight streaming over its white sandstone bricks and high arched windows. But as Daphne knew, the palace wasn’t nearly as orderly as it appeared. Constructed on the original site of Mount Vernon, the home of King George I, it had been renovated time and again as various monarchs attempted to leave their mark on it. Now it was a confusing nest of galleries and stairways and hallways, constantly thronged with people.

Daphne lived with her parents on the edge of Herald Oaks, the neighborhood of stately aristocratic houses east of the palace. Unlike their neighbors’ estates, which had been handed down these past two and a half centuries, the Deightons’ home was quite new. Just like their nobility.

At least her family had a title, thank god, even if it fell a bit low in the hierarchy for Daphne’s taste. Her father, Peter, was the second Baronet Margrave. The baronetcy had been awarded to Daphne’s grandfather by King Edward III, for a “personal diplomatic service” to Empress Anna of Russia. No one in the family had ever explained the exact nature of this unspecified service. Naturally, Daphne had drawn her own conclusions.

She closed the door behind her, slinging her leather book bag off one shoulder, and heard her mom’s voice from the dining room. “Daphne? Can you come in here?”

“Of course.” Daphne forced herself to smooth the impa- tience from her tone.

She’d expected her parents to call a family conclave today, just as they had so many times before: when Jefferson had first asked Daphne out, or when he invited her on vacation with his family, or on the unthinkable day when he broke up with her. Every milestone in her relationship with the prince had been marked by one of these discussions. It was just the way her family operated.

Not that her parents had contributed all that much. Everything Daphne had accomplished with Jefferson, she’d done squarely on her own.

She slid into the dining chair across from her parents and reached nonchalantly for the pitcher of iced tea, to pour herself a glass. She already knew her mother’s next words.

“He got back last night.”

There was no need to clarify which he her mother had meant. Prince Jefferson George Alexander Augustus—the youngest of the three royal Washington siblings, and the only boy.

“I’m aware.” As if Daphne hadn’t set a dozen internet alerts for the prince’s name, didn’t constantly check social media for every last shred of information about his status. As if she didn’t know the prince better than anyone else did, probably even his own mother.

“You didn’t go to meet his plane.”

“Next to all the shrieking fangirls? I think not. I’ll see Jefferson tonight at the Queen’s Ball.” Daphne pointedly refused to call the prince Jeff, the way everyone else did. It sounded so decidedly unroyal.

“It’s been six months,” her father reminded her. “Are you sure you’re ready?”

“I guess I’ll have to be,” Daphne replied in a clipped tone. Of course she was ready.

Her mother hastened to intercede. “We’re just trying to help, Daphne. Tonight is an important night. After all we’ve done . . .”

A psychologist might assume that Daphne had inherited her ambitions from her parents, but it would be more accurate to say that her parents’ ambitions were magnified and concentrated in her, the way a curved glass lens can focus scattered beams of heat.

Rebecca Deighton’s social climbing had begun long before Daphne was born. Becky, as she’d called herself then, left her small town in Nebraska at age nineteen, armed with nothing but stunning good looks and a razor-sharp wit. She signed with a top modeling agency in a matter of weeks. Her face was soon plastered on magazines and billboards, lingerie ads and car commercials. America became infatuated with her.

Eventually, Becky restyled herself as Rebecca and set her sights on a title. After she met Daphne’s father, it was only a matter of time before she became Lady Margrave.

And if things went according to plan and Daphne married Jefferson, her parents would surely be elevated above a lowly baronetcy. They might become an earl and countess . . . perhaps even a marquess and marchioness.

“We only want what’s best for you,” Rebecca added, her eyes on her daughter’s.

You mean what’s best for you, Daphne was tempted to reply. “I’ll be fine,” she said instead.

Daphne had known for years that she would marry the prince. That was the only word for it: known. Not hoped to marry, or dreamed of marrying, or even felt destined to marry. Those words involved an element of chance, of uncertainty.

When she was little, Daphne had pitied the girls at her school who were obsessed with the royal family: the ones who copied everything the princesses wore, or had Prince Jefferson’s picture plastered on their lockers. What were they doing when they swooned over his poster, pretending that the prince was their boyfriend? Pretending was a game for babies and fools, and Daphne was neither.

Then, in eighth grade, Daphne’s class took a field trip to the palace, and she realized why her parents clung so obsessively to their aristocratic status. Because that status was their window into this.

As she gazed at the palace in all its inaccessible grandeur— as she heard her classmates whispering how wonderful it must be, to be a princess—Daphne came to the startling realization that they were right. It was wonderful to be a princess. Which was why Daphne, unlike the rest of them, would actually become one.

After that field trip, Daphne had resolved that she would date the prince, and like all goals she set for herself, she achieved it. She applied to St. Ursula’s, the private all-girls school that the daughters of the royal family had attended since time immemorial. Jefferson’s sisters went there. It didn’t hurt that Jefferson’s school, the all-boys Forsythe Academy, was right next door.

Sure enough, by the end of the year the prince had asked her out, when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore.

It wasn’t always easy, managing someone as spontaneous and heedless as Jefferson. But Daphne was everything a princess should be: gracious and accomplished and, of course, beautiful. She charmed the American people and the press. She even won the approval of the Queen Mother, and Jefferson’s grandmother was notoriously impossible to please.

Until the night of Jefferson’s high school graduation party, when everything went so horribly wrong. When Himari got hurt, and Daphne went looking for Jefferson—only to find him in bed with another girl.

It was definitely the prince; the light glinted unmistakably on the deep brown of his hair. Daphne tried to breathe. Her vision dissolved into spots. After everything that had happened, after the lengths she’d gone to—

She’d stumbled back, fleeing the room before either of them could see her.

Jefferson called the next morning. Daphne felt a momentary stab of panic that he somehow knew everything—knew the terrible, unthinkable thing she had done. Instead he stammered through a breakup speech that might as well have been written by his PR people. He kept saying how young they both were: how Daphne still wasn’t finished with high school, and he didn’t know what he was doing next year. That it might be better for both of them if they spent some time apart, but he hoped they could still be friends. Daphne’s voice was eerily calm as she told him that she understood.

The moment Jefferson hung up, Daphne called Natasha at the Daily News and planted the breakup story herself. She’d learned long ago that the first story was always the most important, because it set the tone for all the others. So she made certain that Natasha reported the breakup as mutual, that Daphne and Jefferson had agreed it was for the best.

At least, the article ever-so-subtly implied, for the time being.

In the six months since the breakup, Jefferson had been out of town, on a royal tour and then on a rambling post- graduation trip with his twin sister. It had given Daphne ample opportunity to think about their relationship—about what they both had done, and what it had cost her.

Even after everything that had happened, even knowing what she knew, she still wanted to be a princess. And she intended to win Jefferson back.

“We’re just trying to look out for you, Daphne,” Rebecca went on, as gravely as if she’d been discussing a life- threatening medical diagnosis. “Especially now . . .”

Daphne knew what her mother meant. Now that she and Jefferson were broken up and it was open season again, flocks of girls had started trailing after him. Prince poachers, the newspapers called them. Privately Daphne liked to think of them as Jeffersluts. No matter the city, they were always the same: wearing short skirts and sky-high heels, waiting for hours at bars or in hotel lobbies just hoping for a glimpse of him. Jefferson—oblivious, as always—flitted happily from place to place like a butterfly, while those girls stalked him with nets at the ready.

The prince poachers weren’t really her competition; none of them were even in the same league as her. Still, each time she saw a photo of Jefferson surrounded by a flock of those girls, Daphne couldn’t help feeling worried. There were just so many of them.

Not to mention that girl in Jefferson’s bed, whoever she was. Some masochistic part of Daphne wanted, desperately, to know. After that night, she’d kept expecting the girl to come forward with a sordid tell-all article, but she never did.

Daphne glanced up at the mirror above the sideboard to calm herself.

There was no denying that Daphne was beautiful—beautiful in that rare, dazzling way that seems to justify all successes and excuse a good many failures. She’d inherited Rebecca’s vivid features, her alabaster complexion, and most of all her eyes: those snapping green eyes with a glint of gold, which seemed to hint at untold secrets. But her hair came from Peter. It was a glorious riot of color, everything from copper to red currant to honeysuckle, and fell in a sumptuous tumble almost to her waist.

She gave a faint smile, reassured as always by the promise of her own reflection.

“Daphne.” Her father cut into her thoughts. “Whatever happens, know that we are on your side. Always.”

Whatever happens. Daphne shot him a look. Did he know what she had done that night?

“I’ll be fine,” she said again, and left it at that.

She knew what was expected of her. If a plan didn’t work, she had to make another; if she slipped and fell, she must always fall forward. It could only ever be onward and upward for her.

Her parents had no idea what Daphne was capable of—no idea what she had already done, in pursuit of this crown.

 

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