That’s right: I still don’t actually have a title for the royal romance! But what I do have is a nearly-ready-for-editing manuscript, and I just can’t keep it all to myself any longer!
I haven’t had a chance to write the blurb yet, because blurbs are hard and I sort of hope that the task of writing them will go away if I ignore it for long enough (it does not). But I can tell you that the plot of this book involves a seemingly-grumpy prince, a fake engagement, a plot to undermine the monarchy of a small European country, and a West End musical.
With that in mind… here’s your sneak preview! (NB: this hasn’t yet passed the eagle eyes of my lovely editor!)
The Albion Theatre in Covent Garden was one of the most lavish and beautiful buildings in Central London. Almost every bit of it, from the temple-like portico at the entrance to the baroque gold-leafed carvings over the stage, told theatregoers that they were in a very old, very special place.
Unfortunately, at this particular moment, I wasn’t looking at the portico. Or the carvings. Or, for that matter, the stage. I was hiding in the ladies’ washroom outside the Grand Circle, squeezing my eyes shut and trying not to breathe too loudly.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. In fact, a few seconds earlier I had been doing what I thought was a pretty good job of sneaking into the auditorium to watch an open audition for the lead in The Other Shoe, a new musical based on Cinderella. It was a dream role, at least for my best friend Jaya. She’d wanted me to wait with her in the wings, but apparently I wasn’t allowed in there unless I was auditioning, which I absolutely wasn’t. Jaya had pointed out the unguarded door and I’d made a break for it. I would have been out in the Grand Circle already, peering down at the stage from the comfort of a folding seat, if it hadn’t been for the two men who had suddenly appeared at the other end of the corridor that led to it. The washroom had been my only chance to remain undiscovered, so here I was.
The problem was, the men were still in the corridor. They seemed to be having some kind of disagreement.
“We don’t have time for this,” said one of them. His tone was clipped, as though he were used to using his words efficiently. He sounded upper-class, privately-educated, but with a trace of an accent I couldn’t place. “I shouldn’t have let you talk me into coming here in the first place. I’m going back to the airport.”
“No, you’re not.” The second man was posh too, but his tone was airier, and he spoke as though he were smiling. I found myself warming to him, and decided to be on his side in this argument, whatever it was about. “We agreed that you needed a break, a few days away from it all.” He had the accent too.
“Yes, a break. Not… this.” I didn’t know what “this” was, but the first man managed to convey a lot of feelings about it in a single syllable, all of them bad.
The second man paused before responding. “All right. I understand that this isn’t the way you’d prefer to deal with it—”
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“Yes, you said. But, look, you’re here now.” The second man spoke gently, as though coaxing a shy animal out into the open. “It’ll just be a couple of hours, and then we can go and do whatever you want after that.”
“I want to go back to the airport. We might still be able to fly back this afternoon.”
“Except that.” The smiling tone returned. “Come on, let’s go back downstairs. Who knows, this might even be fun.”
A grunt. “I doubt it.” But, several tense seconds later, I heard two sets of footsteps finally fading away down the corridor.
I waited until I was sure they were gone before resuming my journey. I walked slowly, musing on what I’d overheard. Who were those men? What were they doing there? For Jaya’s sake, I hoped they weren’t anything to do with casting. The second one would, I thought, be a receptive audience, but the first one would probably just sit there glaring sourly into the middle distance, which might put Jaya off her stride.
I had reached the gilt-swirled door that led, I hoped, to the seats in the Grand Circle. With a last glance over my shoulder, I pushed them open—and made an unpleasant discovery.
There were two people standing on the other side of the door, a man and a woman. They were dressed entirely in black and wearing earpieces, which might have marked them out as technical crew. Taken in conjunction with the sunglasses and scowls, however, I decided they were probably security.
“Oh,” I said, in surprise. My stomach lurched.
“You can’t come in here,” said the man.
“Right. Sorry.” I took several hasty steps backwards.
The woman moved forward, as if to stop me. “How did you get up here?”
“I, um…” I cleared my throat. “I think I’m lost. I’m here for the auditions?”
“You want the stage door,” she said. “Back down the corridor, take the stairs all the way down, go right at the bottom.”
“Oh,” I said, again. “Great. Thanks.”
They held open the doors to watch me go.
Someone called my name as I neared the stage door. “Rhian!”
I turned. Jaya was still there, one of a crowd of eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-old women waiting in a chilly backstage corridor. Jaya looked even more nervous than she had when I’d left her there. I’d hardly ever seen her like this, and I didn’t like it. Jaya was positive and upbeat, no matter what, and had cheered me up more times than I could count.
I looked around. No one seemed to be watching, so I eased my way through the throng to join her. “Hey. Have they let anyone in yet?”
Jaya shook her head. “Not yet. Apparently some of the people on the audition panel have been held up. What happened to you, anyway? Couldn’t you find a way into the auditorium?”
“No.” I frowned. “There’s these two people up there dressed like they’re secret agents or something. They wouldn’t let me in.”
“Huh.” Jaya started finger-combing her hair. She’d been doing that since we arrived, obliterating the glossy black waves she’d spent the morning trying to perfect. She still looked stunning, though. Jaya always did. “That’s weird.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. Maybe I’ll be able to watch you from here after all.”
But Jaya’s gaze had strayed over my shoulder. Sensing a presence, I turned.
“I told you,” said a voice that was already more familiar than I would have liked it to be. “You can’t be here unless you’re auditioning.” I had met this man, Dave from the production company, about fifteen minutes earlier, and he had indeed told me that.
Beside me, Jaya squeezed my hand. She really wanted me to be here for this.
“Okay,” I said, as resolutely as I could. “Then I guess I’m auditioning.”
His facial expression, one of bored malice, didn’t change as he handed me a form. “Put your details on this. Take it with you when you go in.” He walked away before I could tell him I didn’t have a pen.
“Here.” Jaya fished a ballpoint out of her bag—apparently, she’d read my mind. “They just want your name, address and phone number.”
“Hmm.” I scanned the piece of paper, then glanced up. Dave had retreated to the stage door reception but was still eyeing me with evident suspicion. I pressed the form against the wall and quickly scribbled my information onto it.
There was something printed on the other side. A speech. This production of Cinderella was all-new, a modern take on the fairytale that, at least according to the advert Jaya had shown me, was “sure to become an instant classic”. In the scene I was skim-reading, our young heroine was making a passionate plea to her prince that he might see her for who she was and still love her. I was sort of into it, though not enough to want to perform it. Not in front of all these people. Not today.
Jaya was watching me read it. “It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I lowered the paper. “So, this is all I’ll have to do, right? I’ll watch you do your audition, then mumble my way through this and they’ll let me go?”
Jaya suddenly seemed to be avoiding eye contact. “Right. Just the speech and the song, and then—”
“Whoa.” The pen fell from my fingers and clattered onto the bare concrete floor. The girl ahead of us, one of several who had come to the audition in her own tiara, picked it up and handed it back to me. I thanked her without taking my eyes off Jaya. “What do you mean? What song?”
“Any song you want. It’s up to you.”
I swallowed. “And if I don’t want to do a song at all?”
“Well, I mean… It’s a musical.” Jaya twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “They need to find someone who can sing.”
I looked around, once again taking in Dave and the sea of prospective princesses, then lowered my voice. “I can’t sing.”
Jaya blinked. “You’re not that bad.”
“Jaya. Come on.”
I don’t know if the seriousness in my tone made her think, as it was meant to, of the school talent show we did when we were thirteen, but I, at least, was reliving it. I couldn’t blame Jaya for that incident—it had been my idea for the two of us to attempt to duet “For Good” from Wicked despite my lack of ability to reach most of the notes. There was a rumour that one kid had to have surgery on his ears after that, although I was still hopeful that that was a coincidence. I had realised that day, during the stunned silence where applause should have been, that I didn’t have a future as a singer. I had held onto optimism about my acting for a little longer. Too long, probably.
“Okay.” Jaya tried a smile. “You are that bad. But… please? I’ll really owe you one after this.”
“Yeah, you will,” I said, but I smiled back. “Fine, whatever. Let’s do this.”
“Thanks.” She put her arm around my shoulders, giving me a quick side-hug.
There was movement toward the front of the crowd, a growing sense that something was about to happen. At the end of the corridor, a door opened, revealing the matte-black paint and curtains that camouflaged the theatre’s wings. Beyond that, we had a clear view of the stage, bare and brightly-lit. A man with a clipboard appeared.
“If I could have everyone’s attention,” he began, but he already had it. A hush had fallen over the corridor. Several more tiaras appeared as our fellow auditionees hastily completed their princess looks.
Jaya leaned towards me. “Wait,” she whispered. “Should we have brought crowns?”
I shook my head without speaking. Suddenly, my heart felt like it was beating too fast, and I was cold but also somehow sweaty.
The man with the clipboard continued. “Thank you all for coming out today. I know the panel are really excited to meet all of you. I’m going to call you onto the stage one at a time. You’ll be asked for your name, and then you’ll perform your speech and your song. When you’re done, please make your way off stage right—” he pointed to the opposite wing “—where my colleague will collect your forms.”
We all peered past him to the other wing, where a woman wearing a headset was waving to us. Some of the girls waved back.
I turned to Jaya as the first person was called forward. “Oh, no,” I said. “Now I’m nervous.”
Jaya grinned. She seemed to be cheering up now that the wait was almost over. “You’ll be fine. Or maybe you won’t, but you’ll have a great story.”
“That’s very comforting.”
“Plus, if I don’t get the part, you’ll be able to tell me that my audition was amazing and the casting panel wouldn’t recognise talent if it bit them on the nose.”
I looked down at my piece of paper again in mock horror. “Wait, there’s a nose-biting requirement too?”
She nudged me. “Don’t be an idiot.”
We inched slowly down the corridor as, one by one, the people ahead of us were called onto the stage. Before long, I’d heard the speech performed often enough that I was starting to memorise it, although I still couldn’t decide on a song. The only place I sang these days was the shower, and I wasn’t sure the world was ready for one of my Taylor Swift medleys. The closer we got, the harder it seemed to be to breathe, and I kept having to wipe my hands on my jeans.
Finally, inevitably, we were at the front. The clipboard guy locked eyes with Jaya. “Okay. You’re up.”
Jaya grabbed my arm. “You have to go first.”
“You have to go first. I can’t give my best performance if I’m worried that my best friend is having a heart attack backstage, can I?”
I had to admit that she had a point—I wasn’t exactly a picture of health. Then again, if I had the heart attack on the stage, she might not get to audition at all.
I dried my palms again. “Uh…”
“In your own time, ladies.” The clipboard guy was not sympathetic to my plight.
“Okay.” I glanced back at Jaya, who smiled gratefully, then looked ahead to the stage. “I’m going.”
The thing is, Jaya deserved to be a princess. She really was talented—I’d seen her act the rest of the cast off the stage in every show she’d been in. She could sing, too, both belting showstoppers and heart-wrenching solos that sent shivers down your spine. But she was also a princess sort of person. All the qualities you’d imagine a princess would need—confidence, grace, poise, intelligence—that was Jaya. I’d been jealous of her, a bit, when we were teenagers, and I was sure that she was prettier and more popular than me. I had been more jealous still when she got into drama school and I didn’t. Luckily, I’d realised how stupid I’d been before it had ruined our friendship. Jaya’s life was full of the same mixture of happiness and crappiness as anyone else’s, and I knew I was lucky to be part of it.
Above all, she was a good friend. She had been there for me during some rough parts of my life. Family stuff. Boy stuff. I could count on Jaya in a way I couldn’t count on anyone else—except my grandmother. They were the two most important people in my world, and I knew I’d do anything for either of them. Even sing on stage.
I walked out into the light. Every step I took across the stage felt very deliberate, as though walking no longer came naturally to me. I stopped when I reached the centre.
It was a woman’s voice, but I couldn’t see where it came from. There were lights shining from in front of me, harsh and dazzling, and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I found that I was facing three people in the front row of the stalls. One of them, the woman who had spoken, was peering at me, appraising. The other two were men in suits, and I realised I recognised them. They were the men I’d heard arguing in the corridor. They were having a whispered conversation even now. I hadn’t noticed, when ducking quickly out of their sight upstairs, but they were both very good-looking.
I could guess which of the voices I had overheard belonged to each of them. The one in the middle was lounging back in his seat, perfectly at ease, as though he already considered the front row of this theatre a second home. He had a longish sweep of light-brown hair that curled with effortless ease around his forehead, and had paired what I was sure was an expensive black suit with a white shirt unbuttoned to the collar bone. He had to be the happy-sounding one. The other one was sitting with his back perfectly straight and his brow furrowed. His hair was darker and shorter than the other man’s, and carefully brushed out of his face. He had designer stubble and an immaculate dark blue suit, complete with a tie. He looked as though he would rather be anywhere else but here.
“Hello?” The woman’s eyes narrowed—I had taken too long to respond.
“Sorry.” The apology came out as more of a squeak, and I cleared my throat before continuing. “I’m Rhian. Rhian Rothe.”
“Thank you, Rhian.” She scribbled something on the notepad she was holding. “I’m Carolyn Marks, the director. This is Hugo Gervase, he’s our producer.” She indicated the relaxed-looking man, who finally stopped whispering and turned to give me the benefit of a bright smile. I waited for one of them to introduce the second man, but neither of them did.
“Go ahead with the speech when you’re ready,” said Hugo. The smile didn’t fade.
I looked down at the piece of paper. There was no going back now.
“Wait,” I read. “Your Royal Highness. Please. There’s something I have to say to you…”
To be honest, the speech didn’t go as terribly as I thought it might. I had heard it so many times that I was able to parrot it in a way that was at least credible, if not exactly brilliant. When I finished, Hugo started whispering to the other man again, so I just looked at Carolyn. It was reasonably clear that she was the only one really interested in this casting process. I just hoped that Jaya wouldn’t be too upset if the men talked through her audition, too.
“Thanks for that,” said Carolyn, her tone giving nothing away. “Start on the song when you’re ready.”
I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I had a go at “Memory” from Cats. It became clear pretty quickly that this was a memory we could all have done without, but it did at least get the men to stop whispering. The grumpy-looking one seemed to stare at me in abject horror the whole time, while Hugo kept smiling—he was obviously a “cheerfulness in the face of adversity” type of person. To everyone’s relief, Carolyn stopped me after about ten bars.
“That’s great,” she said, still carefully toneless. “Hand in your form on your way out. We’ll be in touch if we want you for the callbacks.”