The headline jumped off the page at me, but it was the picture below it that had “Holy shit” forming in my brain before flying from my mouth. I clutched the gossip rag to my chest as my eyes darted around to see if anyone had heard my outburst. Several people shot a glance my way but quickly went back to whatever they were doing. I shoved the magazine into my basket, front page down. Then I popped my sunglasses on, staring straight ahead, hoping no one would recognize me. My eyes shifted to the next register. The same magazines were on display in front of it too. And the next register also. I counted six of the eight registers in this grocery store had magazines displayed, so the customers could browse while in line to check out. Every one of those six had The Mad Tattler, a British gossip rag, front and center.
The headline and the picture of a woman in a light pink sleeveless shift beneath it seemed to glare out loudly from the rack. Her golden hair was coiled up into an elegant French Twist. The simple strand of pearls and pearl earrings were understated…classic…even if a navy-blue lanyard was hanging around her neck with them. Although it was a profile shot, her happiness at that moment was apparent.
The lively blush of her cheeks, her eyes half-closed as she tilted her head back in laughter. She was dancing without a care in the world, embraced in the arms of a regal-looking man. His skin was golden, as if kissed by the sun, and he had dark hair, highlighted at the temples with a touch of gray. So strikingly handsome. She’d never met anyone so dashing and elegant. His wit and humor drew her in, his brilliant smile had won her heart. His kisses made her instantly wet and his hot breath on her skin, along with his skilled hands, had given her the best orgasms of her life…
My breath hitched at the memory, warmth flushing my face, and my heartbeat pounded in my ears.
“Ma’am? Ma’am? Will that be all?” The cashier’s flat tone snapped me from my daydream.
“Y-yes,” I stuttered, crashing back to reality.
“That’ll be $48.75.”
I dropped a fifty in her hand and she gave me back the change, along with my receipt. I grabbed up my shopping bags, a copy of The Mad Tattler mockingly protruding from one, and hurried from the store. I drew in a ragged breath, catching a glimpse of the picture on the front threatening to make me lose my composure again. My frantic hand shoved the magazine deeper into the bag and I reminded myself to watch where I was going. I didn’t want to trip and fall like an idiot to top it all off. I hopped on the bus in front of the store and stood holding the railing overhead for the short four-block ride. If I didn’t have groceries, I would have just walked, like I usually do.
That was a lie.
I was on the bus to hurry.
I wanted to know what was in The Mad Tattler’s article, and I wanted to be in the privacy of my own apartment before it slapped me in the face again. I stepped off the bus and turned the corner. My building was the first one on the right, just a few feet from the busy intersection. I punched the security code into the pad and as it buzzed, I pushed the heavy door open. Even though I was in a rush, I stopped at my postal box in the lobby and quickly retrieved my mail.
“Hello, Claire!” Mrs. Banks’ cheerful voice called out from behind me.
“Hi, Mrs. Banks. How are you?” I managed to calmly reply, grasping the bills and advertisements in my hand, ready to slam the mailbox door shut and make a run for it.
“Good, dear. Come for tea this week, if you can.”
Mrs. Banks was a British transplant, who’d been living in New York since following Mr. Banks here from England. After his passing four years ago, she stayed in the States, even though she threatened to move back to England to be with her family every time we talked. She invited me to tea on a weekly basis, and I felt horrible I hadn’t been able to make it the last few weeks.
“Yes…I will, I promise. We went to print today, so this week is light,” I explained what she already knew.
I had told her the last two weeks the reason I couldn’t make it was because I had been working overtime to get the new summer fashion and bridal issue out. It was Couture House Magazine’s biggest issue every year.
“I understand, dear…I just miss our talks. Drop by any afternoon.” She smiled and shut the door to her apartment while I jogged up the stairs to the next floor, in a rush to be alone in my apartment.
I fumbled with the key in the lock, cursing under my breath and reminding myself I needed to put in a repair order with the maintenance superintendent…this lock had been sticking for weeks. I finally got the key to turn when the cell phone in my purse began screaming with a shrill ring. I pulled it from my purse and saw Lizzie’s brown eyes and long brunette hair on the screen. I could only deduce it was no coincidence she was calling me as the magazine stared up from my shopping bag.
Shit, meet fan…
I answered the call, tucking the phone between my ear and my shoulder, as I wrangled the door open and flipped on the light switch.
“Hey.” I grimaced, anticipating her wrath.
“Claire! What the hell went on at the wedding reception?” Lizzie’s demanding voice shouted in my ear.
“Um, hello to you too?” I mumbled.
“Have you seen The Mad Tattler? Your face is plastered all over London! Holy hell!” She was in near hysterics.
“I just picked it up…” I hadn’t finished my sentence before she continued ranting.
“It’s on the news! Prince Randolph has a twenty-thousand-pound reward for any information on the whereabouts of his mystery woman! This is you dancing with him. On the cover! You’re Candy! Claire, what the hell? This is a disaster.”
I dropped my keys on the hall table and shrugged my sweater off, letting it slip to the floor, and released a long breath while Lizzie yelled into the phone.
“That’s a lot of money. Maybe you should try to collect,” I lightly joked as I walked to the kitchen and dropped my bags on the counter.
“This is serious! Do you realize Harriet and I could be arrested and charged with…fuck, I don’t know! But we would be charged with something!”
“It’s after midnight there…why are you up at this hour? Pregnant women need their sleep,” I told her, my tone matter-of-fact.
“Stop! This isn’t a joke, geez! It’s dead serious. What the hell happened? And why am I finding out my best friend has stolen the heart of a prince from a cheap gossip rag?” That last sentence faded off into a mere whine.
I sucked in a deep breath and flopped back on my couch.
“Because…I didn’t know he was a prince…and I didn’t just dance with him...” I confessed with a sigh.
“Claire?” Her tone urged for more.
I swallowed loudly before I answered. “You missed my walk of shame back to your cottage the next morning.” I winced at my own admission.
“Oh. My. God,” her halting voice blurted out.
“You need to start from the beginning, Claire.”