Royal's Arranged LoveBy: Sophia Lynn, Ana Adams
She gulped back a knot of emotion in her throat. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your honesty. And thanks for listening.”
They shook hands and she spun on her heels, eager to process this news in private before returning to her work shift. The smiling guests and wafting jazz music were an unintelligible blur as she raced out of the ballroom.
Adrien straightened his back, watching as Clara scurried out of the ballroom like the clock was about to strike midnight. The door closed behind her, swallowing up the trail of her black ballgown, sealing her off from him like she’d been a fantasy instead of standing before him only five minutes before.
He surveyed the room for what felt like the millionth time. The faces were always the same—a blur of well-groomed American people, all hard R’s and negotiation. But Clara had been a breath of fresh air. Unexpected and much too brief. He caught himself as he turned to follow her out the door she’d slunk out of.
She’d been talking to the headmaster, a man he knew only peripherally. What an actress had to do with the headmaster was beyond his immediate frame of reference, but he was sure there was a link. Usually involving affairs. Though he certainly hoped that wasn’t the case with Clara.
Not that he should think anything about Clara. A waif of a woman who’d appeared and then disappeared as quickly as any of these passing faces at a charity function. That’s how all the women in the world acted in his sphere. Brief encounters; fleeting glimpses. Most were married, but all were interested in his namesake. And that made weeding out the duds even harder.
Had Clara recognized him? Energy had crackled between them, like water on a live wire, intense enough to shake him up, make him think far too long about this stranger who was now long gone from the party. Deep in his bones, he sensed she didn’t know who he was. She’d been so innocent, so openly lighthearted and direct. The connection pulled at him with aching fingers, made him want to whisk her away for one night where he could forget about his life, his obligations, and just lose himself in a woman who didn’t give a damn about where he came from.
He downed the rest of his champagne and nodded toward some of the guests as he made his way out of the ballroom. After an hour on the job, it was time to go home. He’d put in the requisite smiles and conversations for the evening.
Once the chatter of the ballroom faded to a pleasant murmur, Adrien let out a sigh. Letting the tight strings of the façade loosen around him was a relief, one he could only practice in moments of solitude. When Mr. Pike, his driver, spotted him exit the front door, he hurried to retrieve the town car. A few moments later, the sleek black sedan pulled into the cul-de-sac.
Adrien let himself into the back seat, the chatter from the ballroom a distant murmur, Clara’s easy smile burning bright in the back of his mind.
In the cool hall, she pressed back against the wall, drawing a few deep, measured breaths. Keep it cool. No breaking down in public. There will be other chances in the world.
But what other chances? Her throat tightened. The rent on her studio apartment, the most basic of tolerable options in the city, was climbing yet again. With how much she owed, she needed to hit the lottery, and the only future she could see was a long string of shitty, second-rate jobs. Expendable work as she fought to snag a respectable job in her actual field of study. Places where her analytical mind withered, where her thousands of dollars’ worth of education rotted like a forgotten meal.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, she allowed herself a few more seconds of misery before she swallowed it down and buttoned it up. Nowhere to go but forward. She marched back into the serving pantry where Katy waited with a hopeful face.
“I saw you leave the ballroom. So what happened?”
“They’re not hiring.” She frowned and pulled the pearls from her ears, pushing them into Katy’s waiting hands. “Said they’re scaling everything back. Financial emergency.”
Katy wilted visibly. “Oh, Clara. I’m so sorry.”
She shrugged, stepping out of her dress. The white and black of her serving uniform felt like a scornful follow-up to her valiant lunge for a better life. Tears choked her. “Just gotta keep looking, I guess.”
“Listen, do you wanna go home early?”
Her heart thudded with desperation. “More than anything. But I can’t afford—”
“You should go. I’ll get you to switch a shift later this week to make up the hours. But seriously—you look like you’re gonna break down at any second. Just go home and cry it out. You’ll feel better.”
Her best friend was right. She let a big sigh, shoving her dress into the duffel bag. “Thank you, Katy. I really appreciate it. I think if I just sulk the rest of tonight, I’ll wake up refreshed and more ready to…I don’t know…accept my lifelong debt and inability to escape it.”