New York City, USA
October 2010

A glass of wine with you, sir

As predicted, the party is positively teeming with people. It's only after a couple of minutes searching that Dan and I manage to find some colleagues of his, several of which I know from his last birthday party (Dan takes great pains to explain my presence to them). It proves to be a fluid group, with people disappearing into the throng at intervals and others stopping as they walk by, being absorbed into the circle.

Dan knows better than to attempt to babysit me and an hour or two into the party, he has been carried off by two people from his office, the three of them deeply immersed in matters I've never particularly cared to understand. In the meantime, I have already fended off the attentions of a Dutchman named Pieter who was kind but proved bland after ten minutes of talk and glared away another guy whose name I never caught and whose sense of personal space I found to be lacking.

Currently, I am listening to a humorous tale as told by one Robert from Mombasa. (Or was it Kinshasa?) His work vaguely ties into what Dan does and he, too, was present at that birthday party last month. I remember thinking him a bit shy then, but a drink or two have obviously loosened his tongue a little, and he proves to be quite an amusing conversationalist while always maintaining a gentlemanly distance.

Idly wondering whether another drink might give him the courage to ask me out or whether I will be left to facilitate the next step myself, I crane my neck in search of a waiter and, more importantly, his delectably filled tray. Someone clearly figured that with royalty present, they had to bring their best in the booze department. It's much appreciated, too.

Instead of finding a tray of drinks, however, my eyes land on royalty instead.

The Prince of Wales held a short speech at the beginning of the night – of the well-studied kind that says little and offends no-one – and has been working the room ever since. Obviously primarily concerned with the more important people present, his handlers have carefully kept him away from us mere commoners, just as I predicted to Joy. Thus, I have so far only gotten a fleeting, far away glimpse at the prince, confirming little else but the fact that he is, in fact, dark-haired.

Now though, the VIP is standing a mere ten metres away, politely nodding along to whatever the middle-aged woman hanging from his elbow is telling him in rather a shrill voice. She's easily twice his age, but clearly very determined not to let him get out of her sight. (What's betting she has a lovely daughter or niece she just has to introduce him to? They're not calling him the most eligible bachelor in the world for nothing.) He looks amiable enough and yet there's something I can't quite put my finger on –

"Looks like His Royal Highness is feeling unwell," remarks Robert quietly, obviously having followed my gaze. And yes, now that he mentions it, doesn't the prince look slightly peaky around the nose? A little green, even?

Just now, he's gently trying to free himself out of the woman's grasp and takes a step backwards, obviously in an attempt to excuse himself. She, having only just gotten her claws into him, clearly won't hear of it though. Snatching his arm back, she continues talking loudly, her free hand gesturing in front of his face. And though his expression remains one of politeness, there's a creeping sense of panic in his eyes and in the way he presses his lips together.

Stomach flu, I realise.

And with sudden clarity, I know that in exactly eight seconds, he's liable to vomit all over the woman's orange velvet dress. (Seriously. Who in their right mind even wears orange velvet in this day and age?) I've seen that exact look far too often in the mirror during the last week not to recognise it.

Thus, when a waiter with a tray of drinks enters my field of vision, I react instinctively. Taking a calculated step sideward and swinging around in an exaggerated motion, I barrel straight into him. (In my defence, I always did adhere to the Joy-and-Jem school of thought of 'act now, deal with the consequences later' – or never, I suppose. Whichever comes first.)

Almost as if in slow motion, I see the waiter stumble, causing his laden tray to become dislodged and sending the glasses flying. The contents spill onto my dress in what would be artful dribbles, if only there had been any kind of intention behind it. Seeing as there isn't, it's just a plain old mess.

It just had to be red wine.

Thanks for nothing, universe.

Choice of drink notwithstanding, my little stunt does prove suitably dramatic, immediately ensuring that all eyes are concentrated on me. Robert, who had the presence of mind to grab my arm and prevent me from following the waiter down to the floor, just as quickly lets go of me again once I've re-gained my footing (no mean feat in these shoes) and instead procures a handkerchief as white as my dress used to be. The waiter quickly scrambles to his feet and though he nods at my apology, his glare belies any outward show of forgiveness.

As I futilely dab at my dress with Robert's handkerchief, I dare a discreet glance into the direction where the prince stood just moments ago. There's no trace of him anymore, just the woman in orange velvet standing in the same place, looking slightly bewildered and more than a little put out at having been deprived of her conquest.

Good. So at least I didn't ruin Joy's dress for nothing.

"That waiter really ought to have taken more care," states Robert, who's still hovering at my side, and I have to stop myself from scoffing. How anyone could feasibly claim that any of this was the unfortunate waiter's fault is beyond me.

Still, I hold my tongue and merely continue my futile dabbing for a moment or two longer. Then, giving it up as a bad job, I straighten. "Best that I go and get myself cleaned up. Mind if I borrow this?" I raise both the handkerchief and an eyebrow and Robert is quick to assure that he's perfectly fine with me borrowing the handkerchief. In fact, why won't I consider it a gift?

Murmuring a quick thanks, I then proceed to step around the five or so waiters currently employed with mopping up the mess I made and make my way across the room towards where I believe the restrooms to be. Finding the ladies' room to be positively brimming, I immediately leave it again, instead convincing a helpful man with an official looking name tag to show me the staff restrooms instead. He also provides me with a couple of damp towels, though quite how they are supposed to conquer red wine stains on white cloth remains his secret.

I did not exactly expect any of my ministrations to be any more successful, and they are not. Neither dry nor damp towels do any good in removing the stains. If anything, they just make it worse by rubbing the stains into the cloth instead of out of it. Ten minutes in, I give up the dress as lost and throw towels and handkerchief alike in the bin with no little frustration. I reckon my best bet is to figure out a good excuse for ruining the dress and do it soon-ish.

Walking out of the restroom, I am still rubbing at a particularly large stain with my thumb and thus, manage to walk into another person for the second time this evening, just not intentionally this time. Thankfully, there are no more flying drinks involved, though I am once more steadied by a pair of hands closing around my upper arms.

"Steady there," says a voice somewhere above me. A voice with a very posh English accent.

Raising my gaze to his, my slightly befuddled mind can think of nothing but to take note of the fact that while his hair is indeed dark, his eyes are a clear grey. He's also taller than he looks on TV. And his smile is rather nice, isn't it? (Should be enough of a detailed description to satisfy Joy, if nothing else.)

"You're my saviour," he realises, and his smile widens a notch. (It really is rather nice.)

Alright. Breathe, Rilla. And now, speak. Don't just stand there like an imbecile. Talk!

"I… I guess I am."

Good. Not very eloquent, but it's a start.

Thankfully, 'how to set speechless people at ease' is apparently part of Being Royal 101, for he just continues talking easily. "If you hadn't caused that ruckus, I'm sure I would have vomited all over that woman's dress about thirty seconds later."

Less, by my approximation.

Instead, I murmur, "Orange velvet," and shudder slightly.

He laughs. "It did look rather garish, didn't it?"

"Like a pumpkin," I agree. "Which is seasonal, but otherwise…" Lacking a proper word to end my sentence, I wave around an airy hand instead.

"Ill-advised," he finishes with a nod. Which is more diplomatic than anything I could have come up with.

"It would certainly have been less of a loss than your dress," he continues with a pointed glance at a wine stain on my shoulder. "Do you think it's salvageable?"

"Red wine," I say by way of explanation, and shrug.

His expression remains politely curious and I belatedly realise that not only has he likely never been faced with the trial of getting red wine stains out of clothing, he's probably never even done his own laundry in the first place.

"It's notoriously difficult to get rid of red wine stains," I elaborate for his benefit. "I've had some success with salt, and then there's vinegar for the more persistent stains, but looking at this mess… I'm not exactly very hopeful."

"Bugger," he responds with a sympathetic smile and I have to suppress one of my own. It's just such a delightfully English thing to say, isn't it?

"If it's any kind of consolation though, you really did save me," he adds. "It would have been all over the papers if you hadn't allowed me to make a quick exit just there. I can just about picture the headlines. Prince of Vomit. They would have had a field day."

He's shaking his head, but his lips are quirked up in a smile and this time, I allow myself to return it. "His Royal Sickness?" I suggest.

He laughs. "That's a good one."

Then, however, he leans forward slightly and considers me with interest. "You don't happen to be a journalist in disguise, do you?" His voice is light, but there's seriousness in his eyes that wasn't there before.

How awful must it be never to be able to trust anyone you meet?

"What would happen if I were?" I ask, raising a challenging eyebrow at him but barely able to fight off my smile. As intended, something in my stance is enough to convince him that I'm joking, and I can see his shoulders relax slightly.

"Oh well…" he shrugs. "Journalists disappear all the time, don't they?"

"I'd scream," I point out.

"You wouldn't even have time to scream," he explains amiably. "I don't much fancy company when turning my stomach inside out, but that doesn't mean my security detail isn't around here somewhere. They're trained in all kinds of vaguely Asian-sounding combat techniques."

"Impressive."

He nods. "It is. Want a show?"

"Not particularly," I decline, and he flashes me a grin.

"Before you entertain any ideas of disposing my body in some isolated forest," I continue, "I have to remind you that we are in the US, which isn't part of your daddy's collection of countries. There was this incident once, it involved tea in a harbour. Ring a bell?"

"Distantly," he concedes, trying and not quite succeeding in appearing solemn. "We British are notoriously touchy about our tea, you must know. We care about little else but dogs and horses, but we do care about tea. Dumping perfectly good tea into a harbour was never going to go down well with us."

I scoff. "Yeah. Obviously not."

He smiles, but otherwise keeps up an impression of concerned seriousness. "Impertinent Americans aside, however, I feel it is only fair to inform you that I do have diplomatic protection."

"And so does your security detail?"

"And so does my security detail."

"Well… bugger," I reply, doing my best impression of his posh English accent.

That seems to have given him an idea, because he eyes me with renewed interest. "Besides, I don't think you really are one of the impertinent tea-dumping Americans, are you? I haven't been here for long, but I think I can recognise an American accent when I hear one. Yours isn't that."

Busted.

"Canadian," I admit a little reluctantly. "I'm from Halifax originally."

He visibly brightens. "Oh. Well, that simplifies matters a lot. I can have you thrown into The Tower after all."

"What a riveting prospect," I dead-pan.

"It is, really. The Tower is where we used to send the important prisoners. Some of them were even known to keep servants while there. Women of lesser means, we sent to The Clink or Newgate. Or Holloway, I suppose. That one's still in operation," he informs me helpfully.

"Oh, well. The Tower it is then," I reply with a shrug of my shoulders.

He considers me for a moment. "You seem curiously unmoved by such a fate," he points out.

It helps that it's a purely theoretical one, I guess.

"If I get sent to The Tower, I could seek out the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Do an interview, find out if she really slept with her brother. It could be my great breakthrough as a journalist," I explain, crossing my fingers behind my back and hoping that this particular accusation was a real one and not invented by the makers of The Tudors for purposes of dramatization. I mean, I do think I remember it also featuring in that movie with Natalie Portman, but…

He nods, thus confirming that the makers of The Tudors didn't get it entirely wrong. And they say watching TV isn't educational!

"My sister actually tried to find that out once," he states thoughtfully. "She had them bring her all the old court documents and whatever else survived of Anne Boleyn's papers."

"And what was her verdict?" I enquire, genuinely interest.

He frowns. "You know, now that you mention it, I'm fairly sure she got distracted halfway through and abandoned that particular quest." Which, from what I've read about her, sounds about right for the Princess Royal.

"All the better. So, I might yet get my exclusive with Anne Boleyn's ghost," I conclude blithely.

"Indeed, you might," he concedes with a soft laugh. His laugh, like his smile, is really very nice.

It doesn't last long though, for just moments later he grimaces slightly, his laugh turning into a quiet groan.

"Nausea acting up again?" I ask knowingly.

He nods, his expression pained. "I don't even know what's wrong with me. Normally, I'd chalk it up to being hungover, but…"

"It's too late in the day for a hangover to hit," I finish with a brisk nod.

"Well… yes," he admits, his face registering surprise for a moment.

Really. Where did he think I got my knowledge about the removal of wine stains in the first place?

"It's stomach flu. It's been making the rounds among us commoners for a couple of weeks now," I explain. "It's not actually dangerous but it is known for appearing out of nowhere and crippling anyone afflicted for several days."

He groans again, louder this time. "And I have at least another two hours of greeting people to suffer through before I can feasibly hightail it. Just bloody great!"

Come to think of it, won't those people already be wondering where he is? The only one liable to miss me is Dan (and maybe Robert from Mombasa – or was it Kinshasa?), but his absence is likely felt much more keenly.

Taking pity on him for the second time in less than an hour, I snap open the flap of my clutch bag – selected by Di to match the shoes – and reach inside to reveal two blisters of pills, without which I didn't quite dare to leave the house, lest my own stomach bug rears its head once more this evening.

"Lucky for you, I came equipped," I inform him, "these pink ones here should help with nausea and the blue ones will set your stomach at ease."

Gladly, almost eagerly, he stretches out a hand and allows me to pop a pill each into it. Watching him curiously as he swallows them quickly, I wonder, "Are you allowed to take pretty pink pills offered to you by a virtual stranger?"

His face freezes. It's a bit comical, to be honest.

"Those better not have been Mollies," he warns.

Mollies?

Oh.

Right.

"I'm not that kind of girl," I remark loftily.

He relaxes visibly.

"However," I add, and he tenses again, "I do wonder what you would have done if those had been Mollies? Thrown me in The Tower?"

For a second, he just stares at me. The he shakes his head, laughing quietly. "I would have found you a prison without famous ghosts haunting the premises."

"Pity," I declare with a smile. He returns it easily.

"If my sister finds out about the ruined dress, I might yet take you up on the offer though," I add thoughtfully. "I reckon a prison might just be enough to keep her outside and me safe."

"It's a loaned dress?" he asks quickly, now looking concerned.

I shrug. "Actually, it's a loaned everything. I'm pretending to be my sister tonight. She was busy with work, so I'm here together with her husband. This is the outfit she planned on wearing."

"And you sacrificed her dress to help me," he states slowly, "Risking her anger in the process."

"Er… something like that," I agree. I don't have the heart to tell him that Joy won't give a fig about the dress. It's Di's wrath I fear. But I suppose there's little use in needlessly complicating matters.

"You must let me replace the dress," he insists.

I raise a questioning eyebrow. "So, you're only going to replace it now you know it's not mine? I suppose that as a loyal subject, the sacrifice of a dress would have been an entirely acceptable price to pay for the honour of saving my future king?"

He looks so utterly startled for a moment that I have to suppress a smile. (I must admit that I'm quite proud of myself. Considering I barely got a word out when I first stumbled into him, I do think I've come quite far.)

"I was always going to replace it," he clarifies, lightly shaking his head at my words. "The matter merely became more urgent when, in addition to the loss of a dress, you stood to encounter your sister's anger as well." There's a smile tugging at his mouth, causing mine to finally break through as well.

"Fancy words," I acknowledge.

"I do aim to please," he shoots back.

Now I'm the one shaking my head and his smile widens to a grin.

"So, what brand is that dress? I mean, I don't think I can just walk into some store or another and tell them to sell me a white dress?" he queries.

"No, my sister might notice." Di that is, not Joy.

He nestles at his – envyingly well-cut – tuxedo jacket and procures a small metal case from the inside pocket. When he flips it open, it reveals a notepad and a nifty little pen.

"Now, the brand?" he asks.

"Oh." I wave a hand around. "It's by a totally important designer."

He blinks at me and I have to laugh. I didn't really expect him to get that reference.

I also don't really expect him to know how to spell the name of that totally important designer, so I reach out and take both notepad and pen from him, scribbling down not only the designer's name but a few other points of information that might prove helpful to him in finding a replica of the dress I'm wearing.

When I hand back the notepad, he looks down at it for a moment before snapping the case shut and pocketing it again.

"And now," he continues, watching me with interest, "I only need to know into whose hands to send the new dress."

Ah.

"Couldn't you have your people find that out?" I ask back. "I mean, you surely have access to all kinds of secret channels and information not open to the rest of us mere mortals."

It's meant as a joke, but when he answers, he does so at least partly seriously. "I do, and I could. But I've been reliably informed that it's – and I quote – creepy. That's why long ago I settled for actually asking people for their number. It's less hassle, too."

I wonder if by 'people' he actually means to say 'women'?

"And besides," he continues, a glint of amusement in his eyes, "to find you, I'd need one of your shoes. And how would your sister like that?"

The reference is so unexpected that I give a surprised burst of laughter. He looks pleased.

"No way will I part from these shoes," I inform him. "They're the most uncomfortable shoes I've ever worn, but they're also pretty. I do intend to keep them, thank you very much."

He nods gravely. "Nothing else for you to do but to give me your number, then."

He does have a point, doesn't he?

When he pulls his phone from a different pocket and hands it to me, part of me is tempted to do a quick scroll through his contacts – just to see what kind of people a prince has on speed-dial – but I control myself.

Under his watchful gaze, I first type in my number. Instead of my name though, I enter Cinderella. (He was the one to bring up the fairy tales, wasn't he?) Then, on second thought, I delete the last part and replace it so that it now reads Cinderilla, before pressing 'save'. Let him parse that one at his leisure.

I return the phone and he slips it into his pocket without another look.

"Very well, Your Royal Highness," I begin when he makes no move to speak. "I do believe you have guests to get back to and I shall see whether my brother-in-law is ready to go home."

He quirks up an eyebrow. "I didn't take you to be the kind that insists she must be home by midnight."

Oh, lovely. That was another fairy tale reference, wasn't it?

"Indeed, I am not," I confirm. "I am however getting slightly drunk from the smell my dress is emitting. Since I have a paper to write this weekend, I would prefer to get myself into something not reeking of alcohol. Otherwise, I might yet experience the effects of an unintentional hangover tomorrow."

For a moment, he appears to want to ask something else, but then catches himself. "You're right. I really have to get back," he agrees and is that a tinge of regret in his voice?

He doesn't elaborate on it though, merely extending a hand for me to shake. When I do, his hand is warm and large and reassuring.

"I really must thank you," he adds, sounding serious all of a sudden.

"For rescuing you in there?" I ask with a smile.

He lets go of my hand again. "Yes. For that, and for making this evening more memorable than it otherwise would have been."

Then he gives me a slight nod before turning and striding away, back into the direction of the party. I remain standing there, looking after him and resisting the urge to pinch myself. Because wasn't that just the most surreal conversation?


The title of this chapter is taken from the song 'Sailing to Philadelphia (written by Mark Knopfler, released by him in 2000).


To AnneShirley:
Great to be hearing from you again! I very much hope you'll enjoy my latest offering - from what it sounds like, we're at least off to a promising start ;). I'm also very glad you like my Joy and her family, because those four are a lot of fun to write and will feature often during the course of the story. I've been wanting to write Joy into a story for ages now and I figured that modern medicine is on her side, so this was her best shot at staying alive.
Oh, and if this chapter hasn't made it clear already: It's a very different Prince of Wales. In fact, it's an entirely different British Royal Family (diverging from the real one sometime in the late 19th century), so while some titles remain, the people behind them are very different indeed. So, never fear, I wasn't going to set up Rilla with Charles ;).

To the anonymous Guest:
Anne and Gilbert will feature in due time and both Walter and Shirley are very much alive in this universe as well. Rilla and Joy are nine years apart, so there's lots of space in-between them to fit in a couple of siblings. I just didn't mention them so far because I didn't want to do too much exposition right of the bat. But keep your eye open for more information on all family members in the next chapter :).