This is a bell that can’t be un-rung.
My father stands there unmoving, just looking at me. For a minute, I think he’s so angry, he’s going to hit me. I’ve rarely seen my father lose his temper, hardly ever deviating from the staid and steadfast King that he is.
But right now, he’s angry. Really angry.
“What exactly are you talking about?” he growls. His face is crimson. I’ve never seen him this upset.
Yet I can’t seem to stop the words that come out of my mouth. I could take them back. I could simply say that I misspoke. But I don’t want to. I want him to know.
“Belle and I,” I say. “I married her. We are married.”
The back of my head throbs where I hit it when I fell. I’ve insisted I was okay practically a thousand times, yet no less than five members of the royal staff have checked on me approximately a thousand times since I fainted, even though the physician said a concussion was unlikely.
“Unlikely, but twenty-four hours of bed rest as a precaution.”
I’ve texted Albie, but he hasn’t responded. The doctor said that Albie was fine, simply banged up and needed a few stitches.
Because he punched Derek in the face for calling me a cunt.
I’m not sure whether to be flattered that Albie stepped in to defend me, or pissed off that he threw caution to the wind and got into a fight over me in front of everyone.
You’re fucking that spoiled prick.
Your own stepbrother.
Derek’s words echo in my head, over and over on repeat like they’re playing on a loop.
I text Albie again. For a second, I consider sneaking through the secret passageway to go see him, but that would be too risky. There will be doctors and his security and too many people around now.
Instead, I lie against the pillow for a second and close my eyes. Just for a minute, I tell myself.
I blink my eyes once, twice, three times, willing the pounding in my head to go away.
Then I realize that it’s not in my head. It’s coming from the door to my bedroom. And there’s daylight streaming through the windows.
I must have fallen asleep.
“Isabella Kensington.” The door to my room swings open, and my mother blows inside like a tornado.
My stomach sinks. She didn’t come to see me last night after the doctor examined me. The lecture I expected to get – something about decorum and propriety and how I ruined my own charity event by being at the center of a brawl between my ex-fiancé and my new stepbrother – never materialized.
Instead, I’m getting that lecture first thing in the morning. Before I’ve even had a cup of coffee.
I hold up my hand. “I don’t want to hear it, mother,” I say. “You had no right to invite Derek to the event.”
“Derek,” she says, her voice going up practically an octave. “You think this is about Derek?”
“My head is throbbing and I want to take a shower,” I say, avoiding her gaze. I sit up on the edge of the bed. “Save the lecture. You invited my ex-fiancé who cheated on me to my charity function and I embarrassed you. I’d say we’re about even.”
I slide my legs over, about to stand up when my mother stops me by waving a newspaper through the air.
“You think I care about your and Derek's little fight?” she asks, her voice shrill. “This, Isabella. This is what is plastered all over the headlines this morning. This is what’s all over the internet. Read it.”
"What is it?"
Then she holds it up in front of my face.
Prince's Secret Shocker: It’s A Family Affair!
Married…To His New Sister! The Story The Royal Family Doesn't Want You To Read!
I rip the paper from her hands, my stomach queasy as I skim the article, bits and pieces of phrases jumping off the page at me. A source close to the palace confirms that Isabella Kensington and Prince Albert have been sneaking around the palace for months now…married in a Las Vegas ceremony at a wedding chapel, by an Elvis impersonator…
My heart sinks.
"It's true, Isabella," she says, ripping the newspaper out of my hands and throwing it on the ground like it's contaminated. "Don't try to tell me it's not. Royal Intelligence did their own digging around."
"It was a joke."
"You didn't see fit to mention any of this when you showed up here?" Sofia asks, her voice shrill, nearly a squeak at this point. "You didn't think that perhaps you might have wanted to mention that you'd met Albert before – that you married him in Vegas? And what kind of person – a Kensington – gets married in a wedding chapel in Vegas?"
"It was a joke," I repeat, my voice flat. “I’m sure it’s not even legal. We were going to get an annulment.”
All I can think about is the fact that all of this – the sham marriage, my relationship with Albie – will be plastered across every tabloid magazine, every gossip blog, every evening celebrity news show throughout Europe. Every sin either of us have ever committed in our entire lives will be dragged up and rehashed in the public eye until people are satisfied that we've been sufficiently humiliated.
Our relationship will be laid bare.
I'll be laid bare.
I can't handle it.
"This isn't a joke, Isabella," Sofia hisses. "Whether it was legal or not is irrelevant. You think that these kinds of things are unimportant, frivolities that are beneath you. It's that easy for you to destroy my relationship with Leopold."
"I didn't destroy anything – we didn't destroy anything," I protest.
"We," she says, her hand going to her mouth. "It's we, isn't it. The wedding wasn’t a joke. The two of you are together.”
"No," I say, my voice loud. "The wedding was a joke. That's all it was. I didn't know he was a prince."
She's doesn't even register my protest. "There will be a meeting, Isabella," she says. "A family meeting. A plan. This entire thing is finished. It will all be swept under the rug. You'll need to do an interview, both of you – the PR team will decide all of that, of course. Denial – that’s the best strategy here, I think.”
I can't hear anything she's saying, except bits and pieces of words: PR team…interview…family meeting.
All of it will be focused on Albie and I and our drunken marriage.
And our current relationship.
The tabloids will paint it into something dirty, something disgusting and reprehensible. There will be more headlines like the one on the paper she's holding. I can already picture them:
PRINCE AND SISTER: EXCLUSIVE DETAILS ABOUT TABOO ROYAL RELATIONSHIP
I think I'm going to be sick.
I run headlong for the bathroom. My mother's voice still echoes through the room as she talks more to herself than to me, strategizing aloud. I heave up the contents of my stomach.
Panic clutches at my chest like a vise, gripping my heart as I kneel on the floor. I try to gulp oxygen into my lungs, but I can't seem to breathe.
I can't do this. I can't be the center of a media scandal.
I can't have my relationship with Albie laid out before the whole world like it's something tawdry.
I haven't even sorted out how I feel about Albie, whether it’s just fantastic sex, or whether the way he makes me feel means it’s everything.
And I can’t figure that out with the entire world watching us.
I just can’t.
“I had to talk to you, before all of…whatever the hell is going to happen today." Every word I utter seems to be punctuated by the pounding base drum playing in my head right now, but all I can think about is what's going through Belle's mind as she stands in front of me.
Belle looks…tired. And worried.
"You have to go," she says, her voice strained. "
Christine or someone else from the PR team is going to be here in my room any second now."
She looks away from me. "No," she says. "You shouldn't be in here."
"Belle, look at me." I walk across the room and take her hands in mine. "This doesn't change anything."
"What are you talking about?" she asks, her voice high-pitched. "Of course it does. It changes everything."
"It'll be fine," I tell her. I'm not sure whether I'm lying more for her benefit, or for mine. "It's just –"
"My mother came in here," she says. "She accused us of destroying her relationship with your father. It's in the papers, Albie. It’s all over the internet.”
"That part wasn't me," I say. "Look, I told my father, but Derek or someone at the party must have leaked the rest to the press, or gotten them interested enough to really start digging."
"You told your father?" She shakes off my hands and slowly steps backward, looking at me with a horrified expression.
"I told him we got married," I say.
I left out the rest.
I'm fucking Belle.
I can't stop thinking about Belle.
I think I might be in love with Belle.
"How could you do that?" she asks, her brow furrowed. She brings her hand to her mouth as she shakes her head. "Get out."
"Belle," I start. "I don't care who knows."
"You don't care?" she yells, choking on her words. I think she might cry, but she doesn't. She looks at me, angry. "Didn't you ever think about whether I might care? Or what it would mean to your parents?"
"Aren't you tired of hiding from everyone?" I ask. "It's out in the open now."
“What’s out in the open?” she asks. “The fact that we’re fucking? You had no right to put it out there, to decide that I wanted that out in the open. My sex life – our sex life -- is no one else’s business.”
“We did a little more than just screw, Belle,” I say.
Maybe that’s all it is to her. Maybe all it’s been is screwing.
“We got married in Vegas while we were drunk,” she says. “We had a little fun screwing around after that. But that’s all it is.”
“Is that all it is?”
Her jaw clenches, and she looks away. “That’s all it has to be.”
"Are you getting back with that asshole fiancé?" I ask.
"What?" she squeals. "Are you insane? Of course not. This isn't about Derek."
"That guy doesn't deserve you."
I want to deserve you.
"I didn't need rescuing," she says. "You just – you ran in there and punched him, out of some misguided notion that you needed to defend my honor and now everything's out in the open. Everyone knows, Albie."
"I know you don't need rescuing," I say. My frustration is mounting. "I was coming down here to tell you that – fuck, this is not how I saw this conversation going."
“I don’t want my romantic exploits spread all over the media!”
"You think I wanted this all over the papers, Belle?" I ask.
"I don't know what you –"
The knock at the door interrupts whatever she was going to say, and she looks with something like regret before walking to the door and opening it. She pulls open the door, apparently not caring if someone sees me in here with her.
Christine, the head of the PR team, looks back and forth between us, obviously uncertain about what's going on. "Oh," Christine says. "If you're busy…"
"It's fine," Belle says.
It’s the opposite of fine. Everything right now is as un-fine as it can get.
"Great." Christine looks at her notepad, barely glancing at Belle and I. "Obviously, Erika is on her way here."
"The girlfriend," she says.
I hold up my hand. "She's not my girlfriend," I say. "And why in the world is she on her way here?"
"Girlfriend or not, she's your best way of explaining this entire thing away, and –"
"Get out." Belle's voice is firm, echoing through her room.
"Erika is not coming here," I say. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. If that's the PR plan here, that's ridiculous."
"Get out, please," Belle says. She doesn't look at either of us. "Now."
"Erika will stand by your side," Christine says. "We've already leaked your engagement to the press."
"You did what?" I yell. "Who in the world told you to do that?"
"Get out!" Belle screams. Everything goes silent. "Now. Get the hell out of my room, Christine."
"Belle, I –" I start. I want to grab her by the arms and tell her that all of this will be fine. None of it means anything to me.
"You too," she says. "Just go."
Christine is on me immediately, nonstop talking as she takes my arm before we even leave Belle's room. But I don't hear a word she says.