Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

London February 1889

The lush carpets kept her footsteps from being heard, but the thudding of Alice Anne von Wettin's heart surely echoed throughout the hallowed halls of Buckingham Palace. Though Queen Victoria was her great-grandmother, she had spent very little time in Her Majesty's presence of late. Somewhere between being the little girl unaware of protocol and the young woman who was keenly aware of the importance of who Granny was, the relationship had suffered.

Their last contact had been some three years ago through palace messengers who delivered the news that Her Majesty was most distressed upon learning of her great-granddaughter's flirtation with the American who had garnered such attention in the newspapers. Distressed? Granny hadn't so much as raised an eyebrow over her mother's death, but a meaningful romance with a fellow who just happened to be from another country distressed her?

With each step, Alice Anne gathered her complaints, watering them with a list of slights and other arguments until they grew into full bloom. Armed with this list and all the responses she would make to her great-grandmother's protests, she paused just long enough for the footmen to open the doors.

Double doors gilded in what was certainly pure gold swung open on perfectly oiled hinges. Twin footmen in regal attire stepped forward to bid her entrance to the innermost sanctum of the most powerful person in all of Europe. Instantly Alice Anne was transported to her childhood and the grand Christmases spent here and at Windsor Castle. Though she could not recall meeting her great-grandfather—she was an infant when he died—his hand had been in every part of the decorations, as it seemed it was here.

Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides were draped in yards of golden silk woven through with threads of burgundy and puddled atop carpets of a similar hue. Settees that surely belonged to the first owner of the castle huddled around fireplaces set at either end of the room, while a tea set, also made of gold, had been laid out on a table nearest the westernmost set of windows. Overhead three massive chandeliers, wrought from sparkling gold, blazed.

Alice Anne smiled. The effect was very much like standing inside one of the cherished golden orbs that decorated Mama's bedchamber mantelpiece, and it served as a contrast to the dreary afternoon rains pelting the glass.

The doors closed behind her, leaving Alice Anne in a hushed silence that only the crackle of the fire and the pinging of rain against the window dared break. She moved toward the windows and the massive painting that hung between them.

Measuring more than seven feet in width and nearly that in height, the painting of ships in a harbor was Jules Achille Noël's depiction of her great-grandparents meeting with Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie at Cherbourg some thirty years ago.

"We were all so very young then."

She turned at the sound and found Granny watching her intently, a half dozen minders of all sorts standing behind her. As her great-grandmother moved forward to join her, Alice Anne lowered her eyes from the tiny woman in black to the carpet and executed the curtsy she had learned almost before she could walk.

"Well done, kitten." Granny continued to study her while her courtiers remained gathered near the door. Finally, a smile lifted her mouth at the corners. "Indeed, we do approve of the young woman you have become."

The compliment was both unexpected and very much appreciated.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," she said. "Your praise is gratefully received."

The queen turned her back to move slowly toward the tea table. Though she had few memories of her great-grandmother as an active woman, she did seem to have aged greatly since their last encounter.

Granny looked back over her shoulder. "Alice Anne, do come and sit with us."

"Yes, Gran...er, ma'am," she managed as she moved at a dignified but hurried pace to do as she was told.
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