Walking into the room for the first time, my eyes were drawn to the grand, wooden table covered in a red checkered tablecloth piled with steaming plates of basted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, and wobbly cranberry sauce. Suit-donning agents with wires attached to their ears and sunglasses that obstructed their eyes surrounded the room, heads turning back and forth in sync to ensure no one else showed up. None of them reacted to my entrance, still searching for something--or someone--else.
Sighing, I approached the chair next to the head of the table, not wanting to upstage my host, who was fashionably late, as always. A butler pulled out the seat for me to sit, patting the soft cushion to fluff it up.
"Thank you, sir," I mustered, sitting down stiffly. There was no reason to be afraid, yet I couldn't help but feel on edge.
The butler nodded, smiling slightly. "You are most welcome, Miss Harriet." He paused, studying my expression. "Apologies if I have overstepped, but you seem uncomfortable. Dare I ask what is troubling you?" His amber eyes shone brightly, the bottoms crinkling in concern.
I blushed in embarrassment, rubbing the back of my neck. Mother would be furious if she learned I had outwardly shown my discomfort. "Thank you for your concern, sir, but I must assure you I feel most pleasant. Your hospitality is impeccable."
The butler didn't look convinced but knew just as well as I that it would be rude to question a young lady about her feelings. "Yes, well, the duchess did her absolute best to ensure you would feel welcome here. Truly, you should thank her instead." A fanfare of horns interrupted our conversation. I shuddered, knowing that sound all too well. The duchess--my dear aunt--and her husband were arriving.
"Please welcome the Honorable and Great Duchess Lorilynn Davis and her spouse, Prince Thornton of Junewood Manor," announced a man I hadn't noticed before, his voice loud enough to carry throughout the entire hall. My aunt stepped out haughtily. She began waving her silk-gloved hand back and forth in a princess-like manner as if there was an audience other than the staff who saw her every day and me. Distantly, I heard some smattering of applause. The staff was probably trying to appease her huge ego.
"Thank you, thank you," she proclaimed in that annoying, contemptuous voice of hers. Dressed in a flashy, golden-laced pantsuit with 6-inch heels, her long, blonde hair fashioned in a crown-like updo, she simply oozed snobbiness. Her, her pushover of a husband, fourth-in-line-to-the-throne Prince Thornton, practically cowered behind her. I wouldn't be surprised if he worshipped the bottoms of her feet.
"Ah. Hello Auntie," I greeted, standing up and brushing nonexistent dust off my pink floral dress.
"Harriet!" she exclaimed, rushing over to me and pulling me into a hug, her comically long nails digging into my back. She pulled back and frowned. "What did I tell you about your posture? Stand up straight. No boy will love you with a crooked spine."
I sighed. I had been hoping my aunt would cool it on the incessant criticism and comments, but it seemed that wasn't the case. She and my mother were so similar, truly two peas in a pod. It was a wonder they didn't get along when all they spent time doing was judging others.
My aunt frowned again, licking her finger to brush a stray hair away from my face. "Who styled your hair? Was it Laurel?" She tipped back her head and laughed. "I wouldn't be surprised. My sister, dear as she may be in my heart, doesn't know the difference between a french braid and a chignon."
I laughed uncomfortably. "No, it was me. I styled my hair."
"Oh, you poor girl," my aunt said, placing a hand on her heart. "I cannot possibly imagine having to style my own hair. How sad. Thornton, we must get her a stylist, don't you agree?" she asked her husband, who was staring blankly at nothing.
"Y- yes, dear. Whatever your heart desires," he stuttered. My aunt beamed.
"Then it's settled. Harold? Harold? Add a personal stylist for my dear niece to my chequebook."
I didn't know who Harold was, but I felt sympathy for the poor man who had to deal with my awful aunt day in and day out. I couldn't imagine being bossed around like that.
She smiled icily again, plopping down at her seat at the head of the table. Her husband quickly followed her lead, sitting next to her. "Now, I'm sure you're wondering where everyone else is. After all, it is American Thanksgiving, and as we Americans know, it is a family event. Thornton, naturally, is not used to such excitement this time of year, but he will learn in due time. Won't you, darling?"
Thornton nodded nervously. "Yes, my dear. I will do whatever you want."
I tapped my hand on the table, wishing my aunt would just shut up so I could eat and leave. I didn't want to be here either, but Mother had forced me, saying it would be beneficial if I could be an informant as to how life was going at the manor. I suspected she wanted me to tell her Aunt Lorilynn was having an awful time, which was obviously not the case.
My aunt cleared her throat. "Thornton. It is rude to interrupt me."
"I just said it was rude to interrupt me!" she exclaimed, raising her voice ever-so-slightly.
I noticed some of the staff averting their eyes. It seemed these types of outbursts were common for my aunt. I couldn't say I was surprised. "Ahem. Anyways. I have invited you here because my dear husband and I were talking and have decided to make you heir apparent to Junewood Manor."
I nearly spit out my tea. What was she thinking?
"I know you're surprised, but, to be quite honest, there is no one else more qualified. We aren't having kids after all, not at our age, which means if we don't choose someone soon, the Queen will just pass it on to Prince Carrington." She shuddered at his name, obviously remembering something. "As I'm sure your mother has told you, Prince Carrington is utterly awful at hosting balls. It's embarrassing, really. He can't possibly tarnish the Junewood reputation."
I leaned back in my chair, processing her words. I didn't even realize it was legal in English law to pass the title down to someone not directly involved in the royal family.
My aunt sighed. "Technically, it isn't allowed just yet, but dear Thornton here will just have to talk to his grandmother and convince her. Isn't that right, Thornton?"
His left eye twitched precariously. "Yes, dear."
My aunt clapped her hands. "Perfect. It's settled then. You shall be heir to the duchy. I can't wait to see Laurel's face when I tell her the news. Imagine her daughter being more powerful than her. Ha ha ha ha ha."
"Wait, but I didn't say-"
"Oh, please," my aunt interrupted. "You can't possibly give up a chance like this. I mean, when I met Thornton here, I wasn't very impressed by him, but then I realized he was in line for the throne!"
The man in question clenched his fork so angrily that his knuckles turned white. When he spoke, his teeth were clenched. "Yes. That I am."
"But wait, I want to live in America. I'm a lawyer!" I protested.
My aunt brushed me off with a movement of her hand. "Don't be silly. Why work when you can have others do the work for you? All we need now is to find you a husband like Thornton here who'll never question you. Of course, he has to be rich too, hmm…"
I looked over at Thornton, who, unbeknownst to my aunt, was practically fuming from his ears. I nodded ever so slightly at him. "Do it," I mouthed.
Without warning, he got up abruptly, slamming his fork down with a crash. "That's IT! I'M DONE!"
The staff looked on amused, gossiping amongst themselves like high schoolers. My aunt blinked slowly. "What do you mean, my dear?"
Thornton's eyes widened crazily, breathing heavily. "I mean…" he grabbed his cup of tea, slamming it on the ground with a splat. Tea splashed out the sides, and glass exploded everywhere. "I'm DONE!" He stormed off
I paused. "Well. That's one way to end things. And on that note, I reject your offer. Bye."