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I’ve been editing and pitching non-stop recently, and I felt like flexing my writing muscles. This is a short story linked to The Dictator’s Wife. It probably works best if you’ve read that manuscript ( you only need to ask!) but for anyone who hasn’t and is interested, here are the basics.

The British Government has been overthrown by a military coup, led by Julien St John Helmsley. Julien runs the country as an autocratic dictator, revered by some and despised by others. The Dictator’s Wife is told from the point of view of Marianne Helmsley, Julien’s beloved wife. Half the chapters focus on how they met and their rise to power, culminating in Marianne seemingly faking her own death and fleeing to join the resistance. The other, alternating chapters focus on her return five years later, when she is torn between assassinating her husband and resuming her position of absolute power at his side.

This story takes place a few months into the missing five years that separate the two halves of the book. It’s told from the POV of one of my favourite characters: Peter Delamare, the Regime’s Head of Propaganda, Julien’s best friend and unrequired lover, and the son of the US Ambassador.  

RIGHT-HAND MAN

I poured myself my seventh coffee of the day from the gleaming machine, took off the glasses I’d never be seen in in public, and rubbed my aching eyes. I’d spent the last eight days coping on four hours sleep a night and barely rising from my desk during waking hours.

Where I could, I’d delegated, postponed or ignored the rising tide of questions and concerns that plagued the official email accounts, post rooms and inquiry lines. Reports from spies. Plans from party members. Frantic pleas from ordinary people for the Regime to answer their prayers.

Despite my ruthless prioritisation and the desperate effectiveness with which I’d worked through those documents intended for Julien’s eyes only, I never seemed to make a dint in the backlog.

I took a deep breath and slipped my glasses back on, ignoring the protests of my sleep-deprived eyes. The Regime survived because it had always been a slick machine. We were only as strong as our clever policies. As our stirring speeches and impressive public appearances. As our supportive responses to loyalists and our brutal crackdowns on those who dissented. I was dammed if I’d let the machine grind to a halt on my watch.

I sighed at the sound of a knock at the door. Few people could claim to be more of an extrovert than me, but the only way I could keep the whole edifice from crashing down around our heads was to cloister myself away, drive myself as hard as I could, and pray that Julien pulled himself together soon.

I downed the coffee, pulled off the glasses and forced my face into a laconic smile. “Come in,” I called, satisfied that I had just about enough energy left to project the image of myself that people wanted to see.

Matthew, a toned and perceptive junior member of the press team who I’d had my wicked way with just last week crept through the door.

His wide-eyed expression exhausted me. Half-terrified I’d throw curses and orders in his direction, half-pleading with me to love him.

“Good to see you Matthew,” I managed, with a suggestive wink. “What can I do for you?”

“General Moreham to see you, sir.” He bowed, an affection I never knew whether to regard as flattering or alarming. I received nearly as much orchestrated respect as Jules, nowadays.

“Just when I thought this evening couldn’t get any better.” I raised my eyebrows, welcoming him into the joke. The two of us against one of the most senior military figures in the land.

He responded with a gratified grin. I’d have invited him to share my bed again, were it not for the fact that I knew I’d pass out the moment I went anywhere near it.

“Send the bastard in.”

The thought of dealing with Moreham exhausted me more than ever, but sharpened my nerves at the same time. Many people in Somerset House regarded him as little more than a buffoon, but I knew how central he’d been to our coup. I knew that the public respected his bluff manner as fervently as they despised my polished style.

Matthew disappeared, and moment later, returned with Richard Moreham. He stomped into the room, red-faced and breathing heavily.

“Richard! What a delight. Some coffee? Something stronger?”

Moreham didn’t bow. In the Regime’s complex web of etiquette and hierarchy, we officially stood on an equal level, though everyone knew which of us had the First Lord’s ear.

“Is this your latest toyboy? Get him to fetch me some port, and then get him out of here. I want to talk to you alone.”

I prided myself on my control of my emotions, but with this little sleep and this much pressure, my nerves were fraying. No one was better place to push me over the edge than Moreham.

I gave Matthew another of our “shared joke” glances. “Please fetch the General a drink, Matthew. And then get some rest. You’ve worked hard today.”

Mercifully, Moreham resisted the urge to make any more inappropriate comments. Matthew brought him a large glass filled with a good vintage, and then walked away, glancing at me as he left.

“What brings you down from the north, Richard? And perhaps more importantly, what brings you to my office in the middle of the night?”

Moreham drained his glass and slammed it down. “You’ve got to make him pull himself together. The First Lord moping around like this, it’s putting the Regime in jeopardy. He needs to get over her.”

His words echoed my thoughts, but it infuriated me to hear them on someone else’s lips. I wanted Julien to pull himself together because I cared. Moreham merely sounded irritated.

“His wife was murdered, Richard. That tends to upset people.”

“It upsets ordinary people. But if he wants everyone to treat him like a god, he needs to act like one. And if he won’t do it himself, you need to intervene.”

I was too tired for this. The room blurred in and out of focus, and my eyes watered.

“Then you do it. You talk to him.”

Richard’s hand closed around the crystal wine glass. “Drop the bullshit. In front of the rest of the Cabinet, I’ll indulge in power struggles and infighting, but in private, I’ll admit to what we both know. If he’ll listen to anyone, it’s you.”

I wanted to drop my head into my hands. I wanted to sleep. But just like the Regime itself, I was only as powerful as the image I managed to convey. So I smirked and ran my hand through my hair.

“You really think I haven’t tried? You really think I haven’t spent every hour of the last few months trying to snap Julien out of it? You think it doesn’t kill me to see him like this?”

Moreham shot me that punchable grin of his. “I thought you might like the fact that his wife’s out of the way and that he’s feeling vulnerable. Surely it just gives you an opening. We all know that your little secretaries aren’t enough to satisfy you.”

The same old slur every time. The suspicion that I was just waiting for my moment and then I’d pounce on a poor, defenceless Julien. Everyone from jealous senior officials to scathing rebels took my pure, honest love and turned it into something sordid and sinister.

I climbed to my feet, fighting to keep my body language relaxed and my expression laconic, but unable quite to keep my voice expressionless and amused.

“I love Julien. I’ve never denied it. But do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I’m in denial? I know my feelings aren’t reciprocated. At least not in that way. And I love him enough that I’d never embarrass him by trying to push myself forward. I want to see him happy. And I liked Marianne. I’m sad she’s dead. So don’t you dare try to spin this any other way.”

Moreham hauled himself up. “I’ll leave. But I didn’t come here to offend you. Just please do whatever you can to make him his old self again.”

***

The temptation to dwell on Moreham’s words and sheer unpleasant presence almost overcame me, but I took a deep breath and yet another swig of coffee. Letting the thoughts fester would only delay my impossible workload still further. And though my ever-scheming mind longed to plot to get rid of him, now was no time for intrigue and power struggles. Now was a time for an absolute show of unity.

My glasses and my concentrated frown returned to my face. 2am. If I staggered into bed by four, I could be up again by 7am, in time for a slightly delayed press briefing. Any later and I’d be unable to function tomorrow. Any earlier, and I had no chance of finishing the non-negotiable tasks. The press briefing itself. Julien’s speech for his monthly address to the people. A crucial letter to the Chinese ambassador.

Just two hours, I told myself. Two hours of absolute concentration, then you can sleep.

I started with the speech. As always, the bit of my mind I tried to silence dreamed of addressing the public myself. Of being the one in the spotlight. I despised the part of me that dared to think such a thing. It was for Julien. It was all for Julien.

Another knock at the door shattered my concentration into a thousand pieces. I glanced at my watch. Nearly three already. I was on track, but could afford no distractions. I didn’t care if it was a top official, an armed rebel or someone who wanted to give me a crucial piece of information. No one was coming through that door.

“I’m a little preoccupied, I’m afraid,” I drawled, trying to make my tone as salacious as possible, in the hope they’d assume it was a minor orgy keeping me up and not a tower of paperwork. I’ve always found it helps to work on one’s reputation.

“It’s me. If it’s your latest conquest, send them out. If it’s work, it can wait.”

I gripped the table and pulled myself to my shaky legs, in order to unlock the door. It wasn’t as if I could keep Julien out. It was his palace, after all, and we all served at his pleasure. Even so, if I’d asked nicely, he’d probably have left me alone. But work or no work, I didn’t want to send him away.

I didn’t remove my glasses or rearrange my expression. It was ironic. The only person whose opinion of me I really cared about was the person I put the least effort into keeping up a polished persona in front of. Julien knew the real me from long ago, and I had no wish to hide that from him.

I bowed as he entered, half ironically, half with a real fervour that burned inside me.

A thin smile lit up his strained face. “You don’t have to bow to me. Not in private, anyway.”

I grinned back. “But I like to. You know that.”

I took a good look at him as I pulled myself back up to my full height. Bloodshot eyes. An uncharacteristic stubbly beard. Dark circles and a hunched, clenched posture. Slightly worn jeans and shirt in place of his usual, majestic military and formal vintage wear. He still looked beautiful to me, but it was a sick kind of beauty.

“Jesus Christ, Jules. When did you last sleep? Last eat? You can’t be seen in public like this.”

He shot people for lesser insults. But not me. Surely never me.

“I could ask you the same questions. You can’t burn yourself out to save me.”

“I can, I shall, and you can’t stop me. But for now, I’ll take a break. Sit down, let me get you a drink, and tell me what can’t wait until morning.”

For a moment, my mind couldn’t help but do the calculations. At least an hour’s work still to do. Three am already. I couldn’t work out any plan in which I humoured Julien, completed my night’s work and was in a fit state to give tomorrow’s press briefing. My chest constricted at my lack of control, but still I couldn’t deny him.

He threw himself down on my sofa as though he no longer had enough mental strength to stand. I sat down next to him, careful to respect his personal space, certain not to let my body touch his, however much it longed to do so.

“So what brings you to my room at 3 in the morning? Not that this exact scenario hasn’t always featured in my dreams.”

For a split second, Julien threw me that half-amused, half-exasperated glance that that sort of remark always provoked. But his expression quickly collapsed into the broken horror I’d become all too familiar with.

“I’m sorry to disturb you. It’s not like I have important news or anything new to say. But I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about her, and it’s killing me. I just need to talk, need to speak my memories outloud, or I think I might break in two.”

I sunk into the sofa, so soft after the stiff practicality of the office chair. I wanted never to have to stand back up again. I wanted to pull Julien into my arms and hold him until the sadness faded away. With anyone else, I’d have taken my chances. Almost everyone would have fallen for my charms and let me comfort then. Because with anyone else, deep down, I wouldn’t have cared a jot about their suffering or their reaction to me. People speculated about the secrets of my romantic success. My looks, my power and my charm certainly didn’t hurt. But the real secret was that I knew I was better than them, and made them see it too, left them flattered to be deemed worthy of my attention. Sadly, it wasn’t an approach that translated well to dealing with someone I loved and revered.

Instead, I dug my nails into my palm and forced myself to my feet. “Whisky?”

Julien nodded, inevitably. I probably shouldn’t let him drink in this state, but a glass or two couldn’t hurt, and would surely help to smooth the situation over.

I kept my drinks cabinet well stocked with eye-wateringly expensive and impressively rare single malts, and little else. I hated the peaty taste and the way it burned my throat. Give me a gin and tonic any day. But I liked to keep Julien happy.

He downed the first glass within seconds, and I refilled it more efficiently than any butler.

“Drink this one slowly. Savour it. And then tell me your stories.”

Julien obeyed. “I was thinking about the first time I saw her. That speech she gave about benevolent dictatorships. I listened to her words with this amazing sense of having finally found someone who got it. Who got me. Who I could share my dreams with.”

“You could always share your dreams with me.”

He smiled through the sadness. “But we could hardly rule together, could we? And then I remembered our wedding. All of the spectacle was nothing compared to some of the events we’ve hosted since, but it was so perfect. Me and her, making our love public.”

“That was a beautiful day,” I replied, dutifully. I’d managed to enjoy seeing him so happy and splendid, and pushed any unseemly jealousy deep down within me.

He gripped the whisky tumbler more tightly. “But the memory I keep coming back to was the day we made the country free. She was so damn brave. That bastard MP tried to hold her hostage, and she refused to let her safety jeopardise our chances of success. She made me shoot him while he held her like a human shield. I’ve never been so scared in my life.

“I keep wondering whether she was that scared when the Treaty came for her. And whether she was that defiant. I bet they’d have liked to take her alive, use her as bait or bargaining chip, but I know there’s no way she’d have let that happen. I wish she’d been less brave. If she’d played dead or thrown herself on their mercy, I’d have done whatever it took to get her back. Couldn’t she see that? Couldn’t she see that she meant more to me than this fucking Regime?”

I looked at his tear-stained face and shaking hands, and my heart constricted. Why did you have to let them kill you, you stupid cow? Your carelessness, your lack of regard for your own life, it’s broken him. I knew the sentiment was unfair, but that didn’t make it any less heartfelt.

Julien took an audible breath and composed himself before my eyes. We shared the same ability to put an almost magically brave face on things, to hide our emotions behind a wall of perfect composure.

“I should go. It’s cruel of me to keep you up, to put all of this on you. But just saying some of those things helps more than you could ever know.”

“You never need to apologise to me. You never need to leave.”

“You’re exactly wrong. I never need to apologise to anyone else. One of the major perks of being First Lord. But the point at which I don’t treat you with the respect you deserve is the point I know everything’s truly, irrevocably gone wrong.”

His words send a thrill through me, but not enough of one to overcome the ever-mounting fatigue.

“God, Peter, look at the state of you. You need to rest. We won’t last if you burn yourself out. I’ve got this, I swear. Just relax, just for a moment.”

Against all my better judgement, I lay my head back against the arm of the Chesterfield sofa. Toying with me or caring for me? I never knew how to react when Julien treated me like this. The imaginary images flashed through my mind, for the billionth time. I take his hand, pull him toward me. We kiss, and he’s pressed against me…

No. I will not be this person. I will not sully our friendship with this unworkable fantasy. We’ll talk for a little longer. I’ll finish my work. I’ll rest. In the morning, I’ll present a perfect speech to the press corps, and then I’ll track down one of the secretaries and have my wicked way. Stick a plaster over the gaping hole in my heart.

“Just rest,” Julien says again.

His voice sounds like it’s coming from miles away. I shouldn’t have let my guard down. The only way to combat extreme tiredness is zero tolerance. Relax for even a moment, and your guard is broken.

“Please be happy,” I whisper. “You know she wouldn’t want you to suffer. I don’t want you to suffer.” And then the utterly needed and fervently resisted sleep takes me.

***

When I forced my eyes back open, Julien was gone and light streamed in from the bay window overlooking Fountain Court. I sat up, still drowsy and dazed, but free of the bone-crushing, physical exhaustion that had plagued me for weeks. For a moment, I revelled in the sensation of being rested and think about ordering an omelette, a coffee and a massage, then I glanced at my watch and snapped back to reality. 11am. No wonder I feel refreshed. I’ve slept for hours. I’ve missed the press conference. Julien’s speech remains resolutely unwritten.

I flung open the door to the outer office. The guard stepped smartly aside, and the gathered press corp jumped to their feet.

“What the fuck is wrong with you all?” I demand. “Why the hell did no one wake me?”

The secretaries and journalists and spies glanced at either other, every man and woman hoping someone else would be the one who dares to answer. Then the guard turned to me and saluted. “First Lord’s orders, sir. Our great leader made quite clear what would happen to anyone who prevented you from resting.”

“We’ve got everything under control, sir” Claire, one of the senior press officers, added. “This morning’s briefing went smoothly. I don’t have quite your flair, but I can keep the curious hordes under control.”

“And I’ve taken the First Lord his speech,” Josh, one of the speechwriters, confirmed. “He seemed content.”

“If I can be so bold, you look a lot better for a rest,” Matthew added. “You should trust the First Lord’s judgement, like we all should.”

“Fine. Claire, send me a summary of the press conference. Josh, send me this bloody speech. Everyone else, don’t disturb me unless it’s critical. I’ll take the First Lord’s advice. I’ll take the day off. And tomorrow, I’ll be right back into the fray. Don’t make me regret this.”

The whole room bowed. I soaked up the awe and respect. It’s like a drug.

***

I’m not someone who switches off easily, but I forced my mind away from worries about the Regime. I lounged in the rooftop spa, wandered the grounds, then retired to my own room.

I trod a middle-ground between the lure of the latest novels and the demands of work and scoured the internet for signs of sedition. It’s a task I usually leave to my subordinates, but there’s something enjoyable about it, all those rebels and malcontents, thinking they are so clever, so free to complain.

A knock at the door. Never a moment’s peace. But this is my private room, not my office. It’s rare for me to be disturbed here. Then again, it’s rare for me to spend much time here.

I open the door and see Matthew. “Business or pleasure,” I drawl. Now I’ve regained some strength and perspective, a liaison might be fun. But one look at his drawn face tells me sex is the last thing on his mind.

“There’s a defector from the Treaty in the dungeons,” Matthew stutters, his usual confident tones shot through with panic. “He claims he’s willing to spill secrets, but only to you.”

“Matthew, darling, I thought I made quite clear that other people are dealing with problems today. Send one of my interrogators to him.”

“He really wanted to talk to you. And if the hints he’s given me are halfway true, you’ll want to talk to him.”

“Well, Matthew, I’ll trust your judgement on this one. Give me a few moments to change out of jeans and make myself look terrifying, then I’ll come with you. And make sure I’m properly guarded.”

I despised defectors. Once a traitor, always a traitor, and at least the ones who stuck out life as a rebel had the courage of their convictions. Most of the people who threw themselves on our mercy, offering information for sanctuary, were unspeakably pathetic. Idealistic men and women attracted to the Treaty by the lure of the forbidden, then put off by the harsh reality of life as an outlaw. And they rarely told me anything I didn’t already know.

Still, if I had to speak to scum like that, I could at least give them what they wanted and expected. I considered it a point of pride that of all the senior figures of the Regime, the Treaty despised me the most. Specifically, they despised an overdressed, ultra-camp, Bond villain image of me. So I pulled on a white linen suit, modelled on the sort of thing an Edwardian colonial administrator would have worn, gelled back my chin-length hair and poured myself a gin and tonic in a crystal tumbler, then sauntered out into the corridor.

Matthew stared, wide-eyed with longing. The ridiculous image I cultivated – my natural flamboyance dialled up to eleven – fascinated my admirers and supporters just as much as it disgusted my enemies and detractors.

I flirted outrageously all the way to the dungeons, while my mind ran over the possibilities. Could the prisoner really have anything of use to tell me?

The guards at the entrance to the dungeons and the interrogators in the prisoner’s cell all bowed low.

The defector, a non-descript man in his mid-twenties, was handcuffed to a steel chair.

“Untie him, then clear the room,” I ordered. “Wait outside and stay on guard.”

Matt hesitated by the doorway. “You can stay,” I confirmed. “Take a note.”

I slung myself onto a chair facing the prisoner. “You asked for me, I came. This had better be worth my time. I assume I need no introduction, but sadly I can’t say the same for you.”

The man stared at me as though I came from another planet. Finally, he managed to speak. “My name’s Kurt. I used to be a waiter here.”

“Charmed, I’m sure. So you relied on our goodwill, and then you sold us out?”

Kurt looked at the floor. “I’m sorry; I made a terrible mistake. But the point is, most of the Treaty only know the First Lord and Lady from overblown posters or from speeches at a distance. I’ve seen then close to, day after day. I’d recognise them anywhere.”

“That’s marvellous for you, Kurt,” I replied, smoothing my hair back and taking a sip of my gin. “Is there a point to this delightful memory?”

Kurt shivered and took an audible breath. I stood up and crossed the floor to him, noting how he flinched back at my approach. I wondered idly what they said about me in the Treaty camps. I never personally tortured anyone – I felt it was beneath me – but perhaps they didn’t appreciate that subtlety. I handed him my gin. “Drink. Steady your nerves.”

Heedless of any risk of poison, he did as I suggested.

“Well, Kurt, my dearest, what is it you want to tell me.”

He swigged the drink again. “The Eternal Blessed First Lady isn’t dead. She’s living at Treaty headquarters. And not as a prisoner either.”

I laughed. “Of all the things I expected you to say, that was rather low down the list. Do you have any proof of this wild accusation?”

He nodded. “Of course. I’d hardly expect you to take it on trust. There’s a DVD on the table. The guards took it from me, but I persuaded them to get you first and watch it later.”

Matthew walked to the table without needing me to ask. He picked up the promised recording and took it to a computer in the corner, hooked up to a projector. We kept laptops down here for just this purpose, disconnected from the rest of the building’s intranet, to reduce the risk from viruses and Treaty hackers.

Matthew fiddled with the device for a moment. Images appeared on the wall, and I inadvertently clasped my hand to my mouth.

The slimy bastard who ran the Treaty was instantly recognisable from all his smartarse broadcasts, but I knew enough about his activities. The surprise was the woman by his side. Hair cropped in that ugly Treaty style, as though beauty would be a betrayal of the cause, body shrouded in military wear, and face bruised and filthy. No casual observer would connect her with the vision of majesty that was Marianne on the posters and at the staged events, but for someone who’d seen her every day between the coup and her supposed death, the resemblance was unmistakable.

The images came thick and fast as Matthew scrolled through. With each shot, I grew more certain. That was Marianne, the First Lady. She brandished a gun. She posed with the Treaty’s so-called officers. She stood with her arm tenderly around the waist of the sick fuck who’d bombed Somerset House, who hated everything we stood for.

I gripped the table for support, scared I might actually be sick. How had this happened? This was the First Lady, for God’s sake, the one other person Jules trusted absolutely. The one person I’d been sure would never betray the Regime. She’d tried to crush the Treaty through force and through the new constitution. She’d had prisoners tortured so mercilessly that even I’d felt nervous. She’d argued for a bombing raid when even Julien had counselled against it.

Had it all been an act? Surely not. I’d seen the look in her eyes whenever they alighted on her husband. It echoed the love in my own, until I felt no jealousy, only joy that he had found someone who loved him as much as I did whom he could love in return. I’d mourned as much as anyone at her funeral.

“What the fuck is this?” I managed.

“She calls herself Melanie Bonham. Claims she’s the wife of an army officer. The leadership were sceptical at first, but she warned them about the bombing raids, and they grew to trust her. David, our leader, took a liking to her. No one seems to have made the connection. But I couldn’t miss it.”

I thought of Julien’s broken expression, the way news of his wife’s death had crushed him and continued to hold him in its grip. How could the bitch do that to him? How could she betray him and let him believe her to be dead? I’d have done anything for a hint of the love he showed her, and she’d thrown it back in his face. My throat constricted.

“Does anyone else know about this?” I managed to choke out.

Kurt shook his head. “I thought you’d be the best person to tell.”

“You did the right thing.”

“What are you going to do, sir?” Matt asked, pale with shock. “The First Lord isn’t going to like this.”

I folded my arms. “The First Lord is not going to hear about this.”

I imagined trying to tell him. Believing his wife to be dead was one thing. Knowing her to be alive and a traitor was quite another. The former had cut him to the core. If someone let the latter slip, he might try something stupid.

I took the DVD from the computer and snapped it in two.

Kurt stared at me. “I don’t understand. Isn’t this information valuable? Aren’t you going to act on it?

I reached into the inside pocket of my elegantly tailored linen suit and drew out my revolver. Julien always mocked my shooting prowess, clumsy next to his brilliance, but he’d drilled the techniques into me until I was competent.

With fumbling fingers, I pointed at Kurt and fired. I hit his chest, not his head, and it took three painstaking shots to make him stay down.

Then I turned to Matthew, who’d watched the execution with fascination, seemingly oblivious to the fact he was the next on the list.

When I turned the gun towards him, he started to cry. “Sir, please. There’s no need. I’m utterly loyal to you, even before my obedience to the First Lord. I love you. If you want this secret keeping, I’ll keep it.”

I closed the distance between us, and cradled his chin with my free hand. “I know, sweet Matthew, I know. I wish I’d sent you out of the room. But I didn’t, and you saw and heard his story.  I more or less believe you’d never tell the First Lord if I ordered you not to, but I can’t take the risk that I’m mistaken. I can’t let you or anyone else break him.”

I kissed his tear-stained cheek, reflected for a moment on the pleasant memory of our night together, then fired at point-blank range.

By the time I snapped back to reality, the room was full of guards. If I were anyone else, they’d be wrestling me to the floor. Instead, they were fussing over my safety. Everyone accepted that, short of physically harming the First Lord, I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. The fact I’d shot a Treaty defector in cold blood needed no explanation. Their eyes queried why I’d also killed my secretary, but their mouths stayed silent.

“Burn the Treaty bastard’s body,” I ordered. “Inform Matthew’s family that he died a martyr, killed by this traitor while trying to defend me. Have someone in events arrange a hero’s funeral. And don’t trouble the First Lord with any of this. He has enough to worry about.”

With that, I strode out as they bowed. My head spun with thoughts about Marianne. Captured and turned? Captured, imprisoned, and trying to gain their trust so she could escape? Planning this all along? Should we be looking to rescue her? Assassinate her? Imprison her? As long as Julien never found out, I didn’t much care. All I cared about was making him happy again.

So far, I’d tiptoed around the problem, respecting his thoughts of his wife, his need to mourn, his faithfulness to her memory. He didn’t need to know his love was built on a lie, but now I did, I could change tack.

He needed a woman to take his mind off her. I’d subtly raised the suggestion in the past and been shouted down for my troubles, but now, I was free to push harder. If he was going to crack, it’d take someone who reminded him of his wife. Flicking through my memories of eligible girls of the court, I remembered just the person.

I rushed to my room, tore off my bloodstained suit and slipped into a silk-dressing gown.

“Get me Major Livelton on the phone,” I demanded, calling down to another of the secretaries, who hopefully hadn’t yet had time to hear about poor, unfortunate Matt.

The phone started ringing within seconds. My officials were always eager to please, but it was heartening that a senior army figure understood his position relative to mine.

“My dear Livelton, I so enjoyed your party at Easter. And if there’s one thing that stands out for me, it’s the beauty of your little Olivia. I need you to bring her to court. Our illustrious leader is going to need a new wife, sooner rather than later, and your daughter might just fit the bill. I’m sure I don’t need to highlight just what this could do for your career and your status. I’m sure both you and she will consider pleasing the First Lord to be your patriotic duty.”

“My Olivia? Really Peter, where has this idea come from?”

I softened my commanding tone. “It won’t be a patriotic duty carried out in fear or through clenched teeth, Charles, I promise you that. He’s handsome. He’s charming. And on a one-to-one basis, he’s as sweet and kind as he is domineering and awe-inspiring in public. If I had a sister who was of age, I’d try to make him choose her, but Jane’s only twelve. Consider this an honour and a joy, not an imposition.”

“Sir, I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything. Come to court, bring Olivia, and we can discuss the details there. Maybe he’ll turn her down. But I think she stands a fighting chance.”

He made a mumble of assent, and I hung up the phone, satisfied. If Julien couldn’t be persuaded, I’d play with the lovely Olivia myself. She looked enough like a younger Marianne that it would no doubt be quite the experience. The real one, after all, had been one of the few attractive women I’d stopped myself from making a move on, out of respect for Julien. More than once, I’d wondered what it would feel like to seduce her, to take the one woman Julien truly loved. If I ever saw her again, I’d need to have no such qualms, but right now, the thought of touching such a treacherous creature sickened me.

I turned my mind away from both lust and intrigue, and slipped my glasses back on. The piles of paperwork still towered over the desk, and if there was one thing today had taught me, it was that I couldn’t risk taking my eyes of the ball for a moment.

 

 

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