Read Red, White & Royal Blue Online

Authors: Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue (3 page)

(He also thought about prying up the staples with his fingers and taking the picture out and keeping it in his room, but he never did. His fingernails were too stubby; they weren’t made for it like June’s, like a girl’s.)

But then came the first time he met Henry—the first cool, detached words Henry said to him—and Alex guessed he had it all wrong, that the pretty, flung-open boy from the picture wasn’t real. The real Henry is beautiful, distant, boring, and closed. This person the tabloids keep comparing him to, whom he compares
himself
to, thinks he’s
better
than Alex and everyone like him. Alex can’t believe he ever wanted to be anything like that.

Alex keeps drinking, keeps alternating between thinking about it and forcing himself not to think about it, disappears into the crowd and dances with pretty European heiresses about it.

He’s pirouetting away from one when he catches sight of a lone figure hovering near the cake and the champagne fountain. It’s Prince Henry yet again, glass in hand, watching Prince Philip and his bride spinning on the ballroom floor. He
looks politely half-interested in that obnoxious way of his, like he has somewhere else to be. And Alex can’t resist the urge to call his bluff.

He picks his way through the crowd, grabbing a glass of wine off a passing tray and downing half of it.

“When you have one of these,” Alex says, sidling up to him, “you should do two champagne fountains instead of one. Really embarrassing to be at a wedding with only one champagne fountain.”

“Alex,” Henry says in that maddeningly posh accent. Up close, the waistcoat under his suit jacket is a lush gold and has about a million buttons on it. It’s horrible. “I wondered if I’d have the pleasure.”

“Looks like it’s your lucky day,” Alex says, smiling.

“Truly a momentous occasion,” Henry agrees. His own smile is bright white and immaculate, made to be printed on money.

The most annoying thing of all is Alex
knows
Henry hates him too—he
must,
they’re naturally mutual antagonists—but he refuses to outright act like it. Alex is intimately aware politics involves a lot of making nice with people you loathe, but he wishes that once, just once, Henry would act like an actual human and not some polished little windup toy sold in a palace gift shop.

He’s too perfect. Alex wants to poke it.

“Do you ever get tired,” Alex says, “of pretending you’re above all this?”

Henry turns and stares at him. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean, you’re out here, getting the photographers to chase you, swanning around like you hate the attention, which you
clearly don’t since you’re dancing with my sister, of all people,” Alex says. “You act like you’re too important to be anywhere, ever. Doesn’t that get exhausting?”

“I’m … a bit more complicated than that,” Henry attempts.

“Ha.”

“Oh,” Henry says, narrowing his eyes. “You’re drunk.”

“I’m just saying,” Alex says, resting an overly friendly elbow on Henry’s shoulder, which isn’t as easy as he’d like it to be since Henry has about four infuriating inches of height on him. “You could try to act like you’re having fun. Occasionally.”

Henry laughs ruefully. “I believe perhaps you should consider switching to water, Alex.”

“Should I?” Alex says. He pushes aside the thought that maybe the wine is what gave him the nerve to stomp over to Henry in the first place and makes his eyes as coy and angelic as he knows how. “Am I offending you? Sorry I’m not obsessed with you like everyone else. I know that must be confusing for you.”

“Do you know what?” Henry says. “I think you are.”

Alex’s mouth drops open, while the corner of Henry’s turns smug and almost a little mean.

“Only a thought,” Henry says, tone polite. “Have you ever noticed I have never once approached you and have been
exhaustively
civil every time we’ve spoken? Yet here you are, seeking me out again.” He takes a sip of his champagne. “Simply an observation.”

“What? I’m not—” Alex stammers. “You’re the—”

“Have a lovely evening, Alex,” Henry says tersely, and turns to walk off.

It drives Alex
nuts
that Henry thinks he gets to have the last
word, and without thinking, he reaches out and pulls Henry’s shoulder back.

And then Henry turns, suddenly, and almost does push Alex off him this time, and for a brief spark of a moment, Alex is impressed at the glint in his eyes, the abrupt burst of an actual personality.

The next thing he knows, he’s tripping over his own foot and stumbling backward into the table nearest him. He notices too late that the table is, to his horror, the one bearing the massive eight-tier wedding cake, and he grabs for Henry’s arm to catch himself, but all it does is throw both of them off-balance and send them crashing together into the cake stand.

He watches, as if in slow motion, as the cake leans, teeters, shudders, and finally tips. There’s absolutely nothing he can do to stop it. It comes crashing down onto the floor in an avalanche of white buttercream, some kind of sugary $75,000 nightmare.

The room goes heart-stoppingly silent as momentum carries him and Henry through the fall and down, down onto the wreckage of the cake on the ornate carpet, Henry’s sleeve still clutched in Alex’s fist. Henry’s glass of champagne has spilled all over both of them and shattered, and out of the corner of his eye, Alex can see a cut across the top of Henry’s cheekbone beginning to bleed.

For a second, all he can think as he stares up at the ceiling while covered in frosting and champagne is that at least Henry’s dance with June won’t be the biggest story to come out of the royal wedding.

His next thought is that his mother is going to murder him in cold blood.

Beside him, he hears Henry mutter slowly, “Oh my fucking Christ.”

He registers dimly that it’s the first time he’s ever heard the prince swear, before the flash from someone’s camera goes off.

 

TWO

With a resounding smack, Zahra slaps a stack of magazines down on the West Wing briefing room table.

“This is just what I saw on the way here this morning,” she says. “I don’t think I need to remind you I live two blocks away.”

Alex stares down at the headlines in front of him.

THE $75,000 STUMBLE

BATTLE ROYAL: Prince Henry and FSOTUS Come to Blows at Royal Wedding

CAKEGATE: Alex Claremont-Diaz Sparks Second English-American War

Each one is accompanied by a photo of himself and Henry flat on their backs in a pile of cake, Henry’s ridiculous suit all askew and covered in smashed buttercream flowers, his wrist pinned in Alex’s hand, a thin slice of red across Henry’s cheek.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t be in the Situation Room for this meeting?” Alex attempts.

Neither Zahra nor his mother, sitting across the table, seems to find it funny. The president gives him a withering look over the top of her reading glasses, and he clamps his mouth shut.

It’s not exactly that he’s afraid of Zahra, his mom’s deputy chief of staff and right-hand woman. She has a spiky exterior, but Alex swears there’s something soft in there somewhere. He’s more afraid of what his mother might do. They grew up made to talk about their feelings a lot, and then his mother became president, and life became less about feelings and more about international relations. He’s not sure which option spells a worse fate.

“‘Sources inside the royal reception report the two were seen arguing minutes before the …
cake-tastrophe,
’” Ellen reads out loud with utter disdain from her own copy of
The Sun.
Alex doesn’t even try to guess how she got her hands on today’s edition of a British tabloid. President Mom works in mysterious ways. “‘But royal family insiders claim the First Son’s feud with Henry has raged for years. A source tells
The Sun
that Henry and the First Son have been at odds ever since their first meeting at the Rio Olympics, and the animosity has only grown—these days, they can’t even be in the same room with each other. It seems it was only a matter of time before Alex took the American approach: a violent altercation.’”

“I really don’t think you can call tripping over a table a ‘violent’—”

“Alexander,” Ellen says, her tone eerily calm. “Shut up.”

He does.

“‘One can’t help but wonder,’” Ellen reads on, “‘if the bitterness between these two powerful sons has contributed to what many have called an icy and distant relationship between President Ellen Claremont’s administration and the monarchy in recent years.’”

She tosses the magazine aside, folding her arms on the table.

“Please, tell me another joke,” Ellen says. “I want so badly for you to explain to me how this is funny.”

Alex opens his mouth and closes it a couple of times.

“He started it,” he says finally. “I barely touched him—he’s the one who pushed me, and I only grabbed him to try and catch my balance, and—”

“Sugar, I cannot express to you how much the press does not give a fuck about who started what,” Ellen says. “As your mother, I can appreciate that maybe this isn’t your fault, but as the president, all I want is to have the CIA fake your death and ride the dead-kid sympathy into a second term.”

Alex clenches his jaw. He’s used to doing things that piss his mother’s staff off—in his teens, he had a penchant for confronting his mother’s colleagues with their voting discrepancies at friendly DC fund-raisers—and he’s been in the tabloids for things more embarrassing than this. But never in quite such a cataclysmically, internationally terrible way.

“I don’t have time to deal with this right now, so here’s what we’re gonna do,” Ellen says, pulling a folder out of her padfolio. It’s filled with some official-looking documents punctuated
with different colors of sticky tabs, and the first one says:
AGREEMENT OF TERMS
.

“Um,” Alex says.

“You,” she says, “are going to make nice with Henry. You’re leaving Saturday and spending Sunday in England.”

Alex blinks. “Is it too late to take the faking-my-death option?”

“Zahra can brief you on the rest,” Ellen goes on, ignoring him. “I have about five hundred meetings right now.” She gets up and heads for the door, stopping to kiss her hand and press it to the top of his head. “You’re a dumbass. Love you.”

Then she’s gone, heels clicking behind her down the hallway, and Zahra settles into her vacated chair with a look on her face like she’d prefer arranging his death for real. She’s not technically the most powerful or important player in his mother’s White House, but she’s been working by Ellen’s side since Alex was five and Zahra was fresh out of Howard. She’s the only one trusted to wrangle the First Family.

“All right, here’s the deal,” she says. “I was up all night conferencing with a bunch of uptight royal handlers and PR pricks and the prince’s fucking
equerry
to make this happen, so you are going to follow this plan to the letter and not fuck it up, got it?”

Alex still privately thinks this whole thing is completely ridiculous, but he nods. Zahra looks deeply unconvinced but presses on.

“First, the White House and the monarchy are going to release a joint statement saying what happened at the royal wedding was a complete accident and a misunderstanding—”

“Which it was.”

“—and that, despite rarely having time to see each other,
you and Prince Henry have been close personal friends for the past several years.”

“We’re
what
?”

“Look,” Zahra says, taking a drag from her massive stainless steel thermos of coffee. “Both sides need to come out of this looking good, and the only way to do that is to make it look like your little slap-fight at the wedding was some homoerotic frat bro mishap, okay? So, you can hate the heir to the throne all you want, write mean poems about him in your diary, but the minute you see a camera, you act like the sun shines out of his dick, and you make it convincing.”

“Have you met Henry?” Alex says. “How am I supposed to do that? He has the personality of a cabbage.”

“Are you really not understanding how much I don’t care at all how you feel about this?” Zahra says. “This is what’s happening so your stupid ass doesn’t distract the entire country from your mother’s reelection campaign. Do you want her to have to get up on the debate stage next year and explain to the world why her son is trying to destabilize America’s European relationships?”

Well, no, he doesn’t. And he knows, in the back of his mind, that he’s a better strategist than he’s been about this, and that without this stupid grudge, he probably could have come up with this plan on his own.

“So Henry’s your new best friend,” Zahra continues. “You will smile and nod and not piss off anyone while you and Henry spend the weekend doing charity appearances and talking to the press about how much you love each other’s company. If somebody asks about him, I want to hear you gush like he’s your fucking prom date.”

She slides him a page of bulleted lists and tables of data so
elaborately organized he could have made it himself. It’s labeled:
HRH PRINCE HENRY FACT SHEET
.

“You’re going to memorize this so if anybody tries to catch you in a lie, you know what to say,” she says. Under
HOBBIES
, it lists polo and competitive yachting. Alex is going to set himself on fire.

“Does he get one of these for me?” Alex asks helplessly.

“Yep. And for the record, making it was one of the most depressing moments of my career.” She slides another page over to him, this one detailing requirements for the weekend.

Minimum two (2) social media posts per day highlighting England/visit thereof.
One (1) on-air interview with
ITV This Morning,
lasting five (5) minutes, in accordance with determined narrative.
Two (2) joint appearances with photographers present: one (1) private meeting, one (1) public charity appearance.

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