Chapter 1 - Fallout
It was nearly dawn when Joe got up from his desk and walked over to his window. He'd spent most of the night trying to write the story about Anne's press conference the previous day. A couple of hours from his deadline, he was staring at a blank page in the typewriter. It was a familiar scenario, but the cause before had always been his own lack of preparation and the resulting need to rush an assignment for Hennessey at the last minute. This time, he had an abundance of information and no way to use it. He couldn't say that she was smart and passionate and good in a bar fight, or that she loved her country so much that she was willing to embrace a life she hated. He definitely couldn't tell the world she had charmed him out of the life he'd lived so thoughtlessly for thirty-seven years, only to leave him with nothing. But saying anything else felt like a lie, and he didn't want to lie anymore.
The grief was twisting in his throat again, making it difficult to swallow. Wishing he had something stronger to drink, he poured himself a glass of wine and sipped it slowly, looking out over the city.
It was too soon to comprehend Anne's absence. He felt she was still there with him in the tiny apartment, not in a space he could reach, but at the edge of his five senses. It was this certainty that had kept him awake the past two nights. He was sure that if he kept looking, kept waiting, she would reveal herself. And he was equally sure that if he went to sleep she would leave for good. He couldn't allow that to happen because it would force him to face the loss of something he never knew he wanted – a life with her; a life of cooking, dancing, poetry disputes – time enough to see her in plenty of his pajamas…and out of them.
She wanted to stay...she wanted me. Whatever joy he might have felt at the realization had long since evaporated in the face of the anguish he'd caused her. He'd set out to make her love him and had succeeded well enough to make them both miserable. If it were just me losing her, I could handle it, he thought. I'd always miss her but I could live with it if I knew she was happy…
There had to be a way for her, even if there wasn't one for him. In time her attachment to him would lessen. At the press conference, she had spoken of Rome almost as if it were already in her past. That was where he belonged; it would be selfish of him to expect otherwise. She would find some contentment in knowing she made the choice to put others ahead of herself, however difficult that choice might have been at first. She could find someone else who'd love her and whom she could love in return…
Joe leaned back against the wall as the thought cut mercilessly into him. He'd been sure nothing could hurt more than watching her walk out of the Embassy hall. But like all his other feelings from the past two days, this one caught him entirely unaware. As the blade settled in his heart, he realized it was the only right thing to wish for. But not now – not yet, he thought. She can stay a little longer. She was happy with me.
He thought he knew the girl who evinced such joy in doing the things everyone else took for granted, the one who flirted unashamedly with him as they danced. But the press conference was a revelation. He now understood the reason for what the rest of the world was just beginning to notice. Her strength of character perfectly suited her to the position she held – now as a princess and eventually as a queen. And though he hated the result of her decision, he couldn't help admiring the courage with which she chose it.
She did her job, he thought. She'd want me to do the same. He drained his glass and sat down in front of the typewriter.
Hennessey finished reading and looked up at Joe. "This is it? This is all you got?"
"That's all there was to get."
"Come on. This was a photo op with a few softball questions thrown in."
"I take it you have no great opinion of Her Highness's intelligence."
Joe shrugged, silently asking Anne's forgiveness. "Seeing as I've never met her, I have no opinion at all."
"Or maybe that's just sour grapes about the story you didn't get. Why didn't you follow up on those rumors I told you about? You could've gotten something off the record from my Embassy source."
Joe knew he'd taken a risk by not delving into the rumors behind Anne's "illness," but it was a calculated decision. Irving had already indicated he would respect Joe's silence. The Secret Service agents would be strictly forbidden from talking. Joe had considered that while other reporters with Embassy connections might chase the story, no one could put all the facts together without talking to the one person who'd been with Anne the whole time.
"Like I told you, I don't believe in chasing every two-bit rumor I hear."
Hennessey snorted. "If you wanted to grow a conscience, you picked the wrong line of work."
"I'm not a gossip reporter. You wanted the facts; here they are."
At this, Hennessey stood up and shoved a finger in Joe's face. "Understand this: if someone else breaks the story of the Princess's little jailbust, it's your neck."
"Got it. Look, Mr. Hennessey-"
"I'd like a few days off. I've got some vacation time coming."
"Fine. But let me offer you a little advice."
On his way out of the room, Joe froze.
"Given that you now owe me $1,000, I suggest you consider hanging on to some of your money instead of using your vacation time to gamble it away."
Joe turned to face Hennessey's glare. "You'll get every dime of what's coming to you." And I might just get a plane ticket out of here, he thought. He opened the door and walked out, letting it slam shut behind him.
"Your Highness, I believe we may consider ourselves safe."
Anne looked up from the press questions she was studying and waited for the Countess to continue.
"We've been monitoring all the newspaper coverage of your visit to Rome to ensure nothing…unsavory…was leaked to the media."
Anne's eyes narrowed slightly. "I should be surprised if it were," she replied, "since nothing unsavory happened."
The Countess faltered for a moment, not yet accustomed to Anne's newly authoritative demeanor. "Of course, ma'am. No one meant to imply otherwise. But rumors do get abroad, and so we cannot be too careful…" She waited for some sign of agreement, but none was forthcoming.
"It appears, however, that the press coverage is uniformly positive. The articles all follow a line similar to this one." She held out the clipping to Anne, who inhaled softly when she saw its byline.
"I would like to read this," she said, reaching for the paper.
Anne quickly realized her mistake. "And the others too."
"Certainly. I'll fetch them for you." The Countess left Anne's suite, wondering at her young charge. Anne had never cared before for what the press thought of her; in fact, she made it a point never to read news items about herself. Perhaps she's beginning to embrace the prospect of being Queen one day, the Countess thought, and to understand that the world's opinion matters.
But it wasn't world opinion that held Anne's attention as she perused the article:
Princess Anne Concludes Rome Visit With Press Conference by Joe Bradley, American News Service
ROME, June 12 – Her Royal Highness, the Princess Anne of Britain, met with reporters yesterday at the British Embassy as she prepared to leave Rome for Athens, Greece. Her Highness indicated she had recovered fully from the illness which struck her late Thursday evening and led to the cancellation of all her public appearances on Friday.
Responding to preselected questions on the topics of a possible European federation and friendship among nations, the Princess indicated her support for closer cooperation in Europe and expressed optimism at the prospect of improved international relations. She also named Rome as her favorite of the European cities she had visited. Following the question-and-answer session the Princess shook hands with members of the international press corps, greeting several in their native languages.
Her Highness began a three-day visit to Athens yesterday and plans to return home this Wednesday.
Trying to push down an unaccountable but growing disappointment, Anne re-read the item as the words in front of her gradually blurred away. She knew she should be thankful for such a passionless rendering; he had kept his unspoken promise and respected her wishes. But she hadn't anticipated the pain of seeing his name next to such a cold description of her. It seemed unjust to both of them somehow – unfair that no one but the two of them should know how much they'd given up.
Glad to be relieved of the necessity to impress him, she hadn't tried once. She had noticed that, far from seeming inconvenienced, he took more genuine pleasure in observing her happiness and encouraging her enthusiasm as the day progressed. In doing so, he had helped her realize aspects of herself that she didn't know existed – ones she wasn't sure would ever exist again. She'd seen in his eyes that despite his initial deceit, he loved her for the person she was behind the money and titles – and that keeping his silence was costing him far more than any amount of money he'd given up in the exchange.
Hearing the Countess approach, she quickly concealed the tear-stained piece of paper, wiped her eyes, and resumed her press assignment.
"Here are the other clippings, Your Highness."
"Thank you," said Anne without looking up. "Please leave them on the table there."
Sensing a peremptory dismissal, the Countess hesitated. "Forgive me, Your Highness, but we must review the questions and answers for tomorrow's press conference – "
"I shall prepare on my own, thank you, Countess. You have my permission to withdraw."
Had Anne been able to make eye contact, she would have seen an alarmed expression pass over the Countess's face at her words. The Princess had never prepared for a press conference without the help of her minders – and after the propensity she'd lately displayed for departing from their carefully prepared script, no one was very willing to let her try. But the Countess, recognizing again the woman who gave orders rather than the girl who asked permission, knew better than to ask questions. She curtseyed and left the room.
The bed was comfortable enough, but she was turned the wrong way – backwards or something. She had a vague memory of an elevator – perhaps she'd fallen asleep in it. But why would an elevator have a bed? And shouldn't the elevator be moving, taking her somewhere?
She frowned and moved her head slowly to the side, trying to grasp the understanding that eluded her. She opened her eyes just a little and tried to focus them. Then she saw him. He was standing at the other end of the bed, smiling as he watched her wake up. She remembered where she had seen him before – he put her in a very small car and then they danced round the steps together. He had seemed frustrated with her; he had even corrected her poetic attribution as though he had every right to do so. I have to tell him he was wrong, she thought.
But seeing the enjoyment on his face as he watched her, she decided it could wait. His smile was so lovely, and he had found her an elevator bed. She was safe. She could go back to sleep now.
Anne opened her eyes, sat up, and looked around the darkened room, empty save for her. She wondered again why the dream broke off at the happiest, cruelest point. It would have been so much more fitting a transition to reality if she had dreamed of sobbing in Joe's arms like a terrified child at the thought of losing him, of a wordless goodbye at the Embassy, of turning back to look at him one last time – past the corner, so he wouldn't know – and seeing he was still there, miles distant from her, after everyone else had left.
After watching him turn and walk out alone, she had barely been able to plead a headache and escape to her suite before the tears overtook her. Tonight there were none. She was glad for it, because the forced exhaustion of crying meant many more opportunities to dream and be disappointed. She debated for a moment whether to look at the pictures she'd hidden under her mattress, but decided against it. They told only one side of the story – hers – and that no longer interested her. She thought instead about the stories that would never be told – how willingly she had accepted the invitation in Joe's eyes when he spoke of her wearing his clothes, how expertly he had used that gorgeous mouth of his, how easily she had pictured the next fifty years with him, living them all at once in a split second, just as she knew he was.
Down the hall from her suite of rooms the next morning, Anne could hear the Ambassador pacing back and forth. Someone would come for her soon, she knew. She kept her post at the floor-to-ceiling window as she awaited the summons. Outside were the buildings of an ancient city, but not the ones she wanted to see.
"Where is she?" she heard him ask. "It's almost time."
"Just a moment, Your Excellency." She heard the Countess's quick steps approaching, followed by a knock on the door.
"You may enter."
The Countess opened the door and curtseyed.
"We're ready for you, my dear."
I am not your dear, Anne thought. I saw very clearly the night I came back how little you care for me and how much for pleasing my mother and father. She turned around.
As the two of them walked to the great hall, the Countess said, "Your Highness, if I might suggest – if you should wish to greet the members of the press here, as you did in Rome, I think it would be very well received."
What would be the point? He won't be there. "Perhaps I will."
Hearing herself announced, she rounded the corner and walked slowly into the room, keeping her eyes focused on a distant point just above the reporters' heads. She didn't want confirmation of his absence until it was unavoidable.
"Your Highness, how have you enjoyed your visit here?"
Anne forced her eyes slightly downward to look at the speaker, a female reporter in the middle of the crowd, and smiled.
"Very much, thank you. Athens is a lovely city."
"Will Your Highness be glad to return home after such a long journey?"
Willing herself not to look at anyone else, Anne brought her gaze to the Greek-accented male reporter in the front row. "I always miss my family and my homeland when I travel, but I count it a privilege to see so many beautiful places and learn about people and cultures different from my own."
"What does Your Highness believe can be done to improve trade and diplomatic relations between nations?" This woman was at the opposite end of the front row.
There was no help for it. She'd have to look for him now. She let her eyes travel slowly along the line as she gave her answer.
"I believe the most important thing we can do is to begin with our commonalities, not our differences."
He wasn't there. She felt her face growing warm as she stood up for the photographers. It was one thing to look for him – she might indulge that personal weakness with impunity. But until that moment, she hadn't realized that some part of her actually expected to see him.
When the flashbulbs stopped, she turned her head and nodded slightly to the Ambassador. Taking the cue, he stepped forward.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This concludes the conference."
As they left the hall, Anne could feel the Countess's eyes on her face. She realized she had probably disappointed everyone by not greeting the reporters personally. But they know nothing of disappointment, she thought as she returned the Countess's gaze. Besides, I may save one thing for him if I like.