THE PLAYBOY KING CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER ONE

Warren

Loud knocking echoed through the room, disrupting the sweet cocoon of sleep that had enveloped me. With a groan, I rubbed my eyes and struggled to shake off the remnants of dreams that clung to my consciousness like cobwebs.

The persistent knock came again. “Sire?”

With a heavy sigh, I threw off the covers and swung my legs over the side of the bed. My feet met the old rug that had likely seen the bare feet of many of my ancestors. Being in a royal family that survived on tradition, there was apparently some unwritten rule we had to live like those that came before us. We had to use all their old belongings and traditions, including the rug under my massive king-sized bed, which was fitting.

By the end of the summer, I would be king.

I stumbled toward the door, my mind groggily trying to piece together the events of the day ahead. Irritation simmered in my fuzzy brain. My time was no longer my own. I missed the days I could sleep in and do whatever I wanted. Sure, I had never been totally free, trapped by my family’s expectations, but every minute of my day hadn’t been scheduled weeks in advance.

Those days were gone. I had to be the grownup. Granted, I was thirty and it was about time, but I missed my days of being carefree, and I likely would for the rest of my days.

Carefree wasn’t very kingly.

I opened the door to find Clive, my personal assistant, with his hand raised and about to knock again. My eyes narrowed and he dropped his fist before giving me a curt bow. In the old days, he’d been called my valet or my butler. Thankfully, that was one tradition I was allowed to leave in the past. I didn’t have to call him anything but Clive.

His face was flushed and he nervously fidgeted with his sleeves, adjusting them over and over. He hadn’t always been so intimidated by me. It was just another interesting side effect of my new role. The crown wasn’t officially on my head yet, but he treated me differently anyway. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes or snap at him.

“Your Highness,” he stammered. “Forgive me for disturbing you, but you have an interview scheduled in an hour with the American news channel. I thought it best to remind you.”

Annoyed as I was, it wasn’t Clive’s fault he was so jumpy. Memories of my father’s cruel temper were still fresh in my mind. Clive had served my father faithfully, enduring his tirades and outbursts with a quiet dignity that spoke volumes. But I was not my father, and it irked me that this man couldn’t see that.

Clive was only a few years older than me and easily my best friend. He had served my father for the last fifteen years, and when my father died, it seemed I had inherited Clive along with the throne. I thought it was weird but not totally unwelcome. Now if I can only get him to loosen up again.

The other day, I had suggested to Clive that we grab a beer, and he was so shocked that he nearly swallowed his own tongue. Re-establishing our old bond was going to take a light touch.

“I’ll be ready in thirty minutes,” I replied formally.

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

“Yeah, I need you to take it down about three notches.”

“Take what down, sir? The thermostat? The lights?” He looked over my shoulder as if he might see a problem.

“Your whole vibe, Clive,” I said, smiling to lessen any offense. “First of all, it’s too early to be this wound up. But more importantly, you can’t be making me nervous today. Like you said, I’m going to be on the news. The world is watching our nation, and we need to project strength.”

He bowed his head. “I have the utmost confidence in you, sire.”   

“What do you think will happen if I go out there all anxious, huh?”

His expression fell. “Our kingdom will collapse. And it will be all my fault.”

I laughed. “No, nothing quite so dire. But I’d rather not look silly if I can avoid it. On that note, I’m going to get dressed now.”

“I would be happy to assist,” he said, moving to enter.

I blocked the doorway. “No, Clive. I can get dressed by myself. Get yourself a mimosa or something.”

His eyes bored into mine like an abandoned puppy as I shut the door. Clive genuinely took joy in helping, but he needed to remember I wasn’t my father. I didn’t need him to help me dress or do much of anything else.

I would have let him in to just hang out while I got ready, but in his state, he would probably dress me by force.

It was a weird dance we were doing. My father’s death had shaken up our worlds. Now, we were trying to figure out how to navigate our new relationship. If he were anyone else, I could have transferred him to some other role in the royal household, but we were friends, despite the current awkwardness, and the poor man would be gravely insulted.

He had lived with us since he was a kid. His father had been my father’s valet and his mother had been one of our nannies. In a lot of ways, Clive was more like a brother to me than an assistant. It had been great until he started acting like I was a stranger—or worse, my late father. I hoped he would learn to relax a little around me someday.

As I began to dress, the weight of my responsibilities settled upon my shoulders like a lead cloak. The interview was just another item on a never-ending list of duties that seemed to consume every waking moment of my life. But it was a necessary evil, a chance to project an image of stability and confidence to the outside world.

People were looking at my past and assuming I couldn’t handle the duties of being king. They thought I was too young, too immature, and too much of a playboy.

I’d seen that cursed word on too many headlines lately. Playboy.

They were probably right, but the media didn’t need to know that. And neither did my subjects.

Subjects. I cringed at the word.

I glanced at myself in the mirror and adjusted my tie with a sense of weary resignation. The face that stared back at me was not my own but a carefully constructed mask that hid the turmoil raging beneath the surface. It was a role I had been born into, a role I was expected to play without question.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew my father would die eventually. To his credit, he lived a lot longer than I had expected. No one had ever accused him of being a kind man, and I figured he just kept living out of pure spite. Now, some of my people believed I was going to be as rotten as he was. I suppose they had no reason to believe otherwise.

I straightened my shoulders and squared my jaw, doing my best to look the part. When I gazed into the mirror, I saw a young, inexperienced man that had no business being king. But I had to do it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be king. I did. I supposed it was because I still felt like the sixteen-year-old kid that wanted to go swimming or play baseball. I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer I could keep up the charade. How much longer before the weight of expectation became too much to bear?

If they discovered I had no idea what I was doing, what then?

With a final glance in the mirror, I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the ordeal ahead. The show must go on, after all. My family name and legacy were important. I had to get my shit together for more than just me. My younger sister also needed me to take charge and keep things stable.

One of my royal duties was to carry on our family name into the next generation. The new marriage season loomed like a black storm cloud. I knew I had to get married. Period. But once again, I felt too young to make a lifelong commitment.

Oddly enough, by traditional standards, I was getting to the age of being too old. If I had living parents, they would be arranging a marriage for me. My mother would have pushed my dad to choose a woman that I could grow to love. He would have chosen a daughter from one of the richest and most powerful families in the Golden Society.

It was days like today that I missed my mother the most. My father’s tyrannical reign had left a lasting impression on the society. They would be leery of matching their precious daughters with me because of my father’s horrible reputation. My mom died when I was young, but I knew people loved her.

She had been matched to my father by her parents, which was sad for her. She never complained. She accepted her fate. Despite his constant emotional abuse, she remained kind. I missed our long talks. In hindsight, it seemed like she knew she wasn’t going to be around when I got older. She insisted I be a good boy and a better man. She was the only one who truly understood me, who saw beyond the disguise of the dutiful prince to the vulnerable boy beneath. She told me on more than one occasion that my sister and I had brought her all the joy she could have asked for. In her eyes, her marriage had been a successful one, because it gave her her children.

But she was gone now, taken from us far too soon, leaving me to navigate the treacherous waters of court politics and royal obligations alone. I missed her every single day. When it was time for Sara to enter Wed season, I knew it was going to get more difficult on her. She wouldn’t have her mother there to pick out gowns and advise her on how to deal with boys.

I was going to be doing my own match. I had to choose wisely. It was a political alliance disguised as a love match, a union designed to strengthen the ties between our kingdom and another, regardless of the desires of the individuals involved. I had to find a woman who would understand the sacrifices that must be made for the greater good, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness in the process.

I sighed heavily, the weight of my role dragging me down. There was no escaping my fate, no avoiding the inevitable march toward a future I never asked for. But for the sake of my kingdom, and for the sake of my sister, I would do what must be done.

I trudged down to the dining hall. My footsteps echoed in the empty corridors of the palace. Inside the massive dining room, my sister, Sara, sat alone at the table, a faint smile playing at the corners of her lips. She looked so small at the table that could comfortably seat twenty people.

She smiled. “Morning, Warren.” 

I took a seat opposite her, pouring myself a cup of coffee from the carafe. We were very American according to some of our friends. Coffee in the morning had become a habit after a trip abroad years ago.

“Good morning,” I replied after taking the first sip.

“How are you feeling today?” she asked.

A plate of food was delivered almost immediately by one of our staff. “Dreading the interview, to be honest,” I admitted. “But it’ll be over soon enough.”

“It won’t be so bad,” she said. “Smile, nod, and give the answers you’ve practiced for weeks.”

Sara’s words did little to ease my apprehension, but I appreciated her attempt to offer comfort. My mother would have done the same thing. We fell into a companionable silence as we ate our breakfast, both lost in our own thoughts.

“And what about you?” I asked. “Any exciting plans?”

Sara grinned. “Uh, hello? I’m flying out to South Carolina to be with Victoria for the next few days.”

“Crap, I forgot that was coming up. Is it today already?”

“Yep.” She nodded. “Don’t you dare change your mind.”

“I’m not. It just totally slipped my mind.”

“Victoria’s getting ready for the wedding season, you know,” Sara said casually.

I nearly choked on my toast. Victoria, the girl Sara had known since childhood, the girl I’d always considered to be a bit nerdy and unremarkable?

“Victoria?” I sputtered. “As in, Victoria Victoria?”

Sara rolled her eyes at my reaction, smiling playfully. “Yes, Warren, Victoria Victoria,” she teased. “I know it’s hard to believe, but she’s all grown up now. We all are.”

I shook my head in disbelief, struggling to reconcile the image of the awkward girl from my childhood with a young woman old enough to be entering Wed season.

“Well, I hope you have a good time,” I managed to say, forcing a smile onto my face. “Tell the Ashford family I said hello.”

“Do you talk to Roman anymore?” she asked.

“I haven’t talked to him in a while,” I said, referring to my old friend, Victoria’s older brother.

“Well, I’ll tell them you send your best, Warren,” she promised, her eyes shining with excitement. “And don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Sara?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t do the marriage season earlier,” I said. “I know I waited too long. You should be entering the season as well.”

She shrugged. “It’s fine. But don’t you dare make me wait another year.”

I smiled. “I don’t think that’s even allowed. I have to get married before my coronation or at least pretty close to it.”

“I’m sorry all of this is falling on your shoulders.” She shook her head. “I know you never really wanted this.”

I stared into my coffee cup. “It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming.”

She nodded. “Well, keep your chin up. I’ll call you when I land. Good luck with that interview. You’re going to be great.” 

Sara got up from the table and rushed out of the dining room. I turned my attention back to my breakfast.

Clive appeared. “The car is ready when you are,” he said.

“Sit down and eat, Clive. They’ll wait. What are they going to do if I don’t show up on time?”

He fidgeted with his hands, turmoil clashing behind his eyes.

I nodded at the chair across from me. “Sit.”

Clive dropped into it.

“Eat.”

He began filling a plate while I brooded. There weren’t many perks to my life right now, but seeing as how I was about to be king in a matter of months, I would cash in the fact that nobody could do a thing if I showed up late. I would enjoy my coffee and my breakfast, even if my solitary company was afraid of me.

I had to maintain some control over my life.

If only for today.

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