The rain slowly sprinkled the side windows. The car smoothly turned round the corner. Proper snow instead of this slush would be nice.
Ella Fitzgerald was urging to have a merry little Christmas but Emma, who hummed along with the light tune, reached for the tuner and resolutely switched to the news program. William winced, annoyed.
“You were enjoying the song yourself, why bring back all the gruesome gore,” he muttered.
Emma chuckled and touched her cheeks with a powder sponge, thinking disappointedly that the dark circles probably were there to stay, at least until the next election race.
“Stop it. There’s nothing gory there. Only congratulations for your person and a couple of funny Christmas jokes,” she said cheerfully.
Will’s look would make a convincing illustration for the word “skeptical” in dictionaries. Emma sighed and threw up her arms defensively, ceding the point.
“Fine, be like this. If that’s what you want, let’s acknowledge that everyone and their dogs criticize your party’s conservative policy and our young queen had quite a party the night before last in Soho. Feeling better now?”
“No,” Melbourne closed his eyes, wearily dropping his head on the headrest. “But all of that is true and something has to be done about it. I just don’t get it, you are a PR person, you should be more of a realist, yet here you are, shining like a brand new penny.”
Emma caught her reflection in the rear view mirror that only confirmed the sad truth she already suspected — nothing about her was shining. Well, at least Will was never stingy with the overtime.
“As your PR manager, I am of course already thinking what to do with the old fart and the sassy girl. But as your friend, I must recommend you not to overthink things. And smile. Especially when there are cameras around, Will.”
“Oh, how nice. Don’t call me an old fart then. The last thing it makes me want to do is smile,” Melbourne struggled to keep his expression earnest but Emma’s silly jokes were getting the job done.
“Well, then think about Her Majesty’s gorgeous legs. You know, that photo in The Sun.”
“Are you taking the piss?” William glared at her, his dark eyebrows frowning.
He did not find it funny. At all. Those legs undermined the nation’s dignity! Those legs… so slender, looking so delightfully long from that angle…
“Maybe just a little bit…” Emma looked dangerously, outrageously snide.
“Don’t you feel sorry for her?” he snorted.
“I do. I have sent her a pack of the best hangover fixer.”
“Oh yeah. You are the expert. I seem to recall…”
“You don’t seem to recall what you were like when you were her age.”
“I wasn’t the Queen of England.”
“Thank God for that. Try to untangle that royal family tree.”
The car took the final turn. The tinted glass made the flashes of many cameras look so harmless. William gripped the handle but turned to look at Emma at the last moment.
“It’s all nice and funny but I would like to hear more constructive suggestions from you. Please figure out how we can help her,” his voice was full of compassion now.
Emma smiled without an ounce of sarcasm this time.
“I think you should look back on our best years and show her how one can have fun without compromising one’s prime-ministerial re-election decades later.”
Melbourne demonstratively rolled his eyes and threw the car door open, diving into the torrent of stupid questions mixed with the blinding lights of clicking flashes. As William made his way to the gleaming black door and turned around on the porch to wave at the curious eyes of dozens of lenses, oozing charm, Emma thought that the next five years at 10 Downing Street might be more challenging for her but so much happier for her friend. The question was how the country was going to take it.
“In other news: is the new prime minister in trouble already? The opposition seems determined to hand Melbourne his early Christmas present as they publish the results of the public opinion poll on the government’s current policy. Rumor has it that someone in the party has tampered with the votes… And it’s almost Christmas! God save the prime minister and send our queen more luck next time she fancies a holiday clubbing session…”
Melbourne’s fingers fumbled with the channel switch.
“And now let’s be original and congratulate Lord Melbourne on successfully maintaining his position. So here's one for our ass-kicking prime minister…”
The energetic drum beats broke through the speakers of the vintage radio, filling the air of the sancta sanctorum of the British political Olympus.
Tell me how you want me
I can feel it in your heartbeat
I know you like what you see...
William smirked. Beat, another beat, and he put down the pen with a gold engraving and focused on the cheerful, teasing tune, staring into the distance, his fingertips joined in front of his nose, his thoughts drifting from today’s cut and thrust with Emma to the vivid, albeit tangled memories. Reckless actions, tapping on the window, killer music, the taste of tequila on the lips that were not his own, and then the mocking glare of sunlight in his face, the disgusting smell of Miss Portman’s signature cocktail and the blessed relief in his temples that followed the consumption of said concoction (provided that you didn’t puke in the first ten seconds).
So many impressive young ladies in those memories… Fresh and perky girls, languishing, intoxicating women… Yet all that seemed so far away now, faded and insignificant. Just some frivolous, meaningless adventures. And the experience that had left its mark on him, a mark that was perhaps much deeper and more painful that he cared for.
Oh, but it was so different now! He felt as if his life began anew, with a new page, with a breath of fresh air. With her. What if he had met her then — would his whole life have gone differently?
Jump! For my love
He loosened and pulled off his tie with one swift motion, rose from the massive desk and stepped to the window. It was probably still damp and gray outside…
I know my heart can make you happy
At first, he thought he went blind. But then he squinted and realized, to his surprise, that his eyes were not failing him and the street was indeed covered in a thick blanket of snow. Judging by the black strip of asphalt stretching along the middle of the road, plow trucks had already been there, which was probably useless, because fat snowflakes were descending on the city quickly and relentlessly. There were bound to be about ten long traffic jams by morning but that was fine — it wasn’t every winter that the Londoners got the chance to have a proper snowy Christmas.
You told me
I’m the only women for you
Nobody does it like I do
Then make the move before you try
And go much further...
William suddenly realized that his legs had been twitching in time with the music for a while. Just like that, the catchy tune sneaked under his skin, making him dance. It only took his head a couple more seconds to catch up with the party, rocking to the rhythm of the drums.
He wondered how many people still stayed in the building. Probably none at all — he had officially dismissed everyone hours ago.
If you want more...
The door swung open. Thighs swaying, knees jerking, William Lamb, the newly elected Prime Minister of Great Britain, danced his way into the hall.
Jump! For my love
And feel my touch
If you wanna taste my kisses in the night
He used to be able to moon walk… The soft carpet on the floor was an undeniable impediment, but what was time and other insignificant obstacles in the face of true talent? Melbourne turned around twice and jumped into the drawing room. Another jump, and another one, now a bit of tap dancing… and now a Ziggy Stardust…
A ringing laughter came like a bolt from the blue, blocking off the roar of the radio in the next room, deafening William. He turned in a brisk jump, trying to fix his non-existent tie and his ruffled hair at the same time.
The pale blue eyes reflected the light of the streetlamps outside. In the half-lit room, the shadows of snowflakes danced a bizarre dance across the face and the figure of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. She was laughing — and the trills of her laughter were cheerful and carefree, even as she realized that her presence had been revealed. She just covered her mouth with a delicate hand. The shining rings on the slender fingers looked like a part of the Christmas decorations adorning the room. Her gray sweater and tweed trousers still had the traces of her having been outdoors recently, glistening with tiny drops of melted snowflakes.
Her laughter was so contagious that William, who had tried at first to pretend as if nothing had happened, finally gave up and smiled at his own silliness.
“Oh my god, what was that?” the queen asked, wiping her eyes. “A part of negotiations protocol for some country I don’t know about?”
Victoria leaned against the wall, dramatically fanning her flustered cheeks with her hands. William even felt a bit hurt and stupid for giving her a reason to tease him for so long.
“No, it’s contemporary interpretive jazz-tap. Every self-respecting member of high society should know how to do it,” he said, his expression inscrutable.
Too weak to laugh at this point, the young woman collapsed on the leather armchair and raised her brows.
“Should I learn how to do something like this too?”
“Well, I don’t know,” William drawled. “To master something of this level of complexity, you have to be able to take your job very seriously…”
He fell silent, leaving the hint to hang in the air. Victoria sighed, and Melbourne caught a flash of guilt on her face.
“All right. I know what you mean, sir. And I certainly must apologize for sneaking in at this hour and mocking your little hobby so tactlessly.”
Her ostentatious humility and earnestness put the unwitting smile back on the prime minister’s lips and Victoria’s face uncrumpled. The matter was as good as settled.
“Speaking of which, I have to inquire, your majesty, what are you doing here?”
William saw a shadow cross his young queen’s face again, her shoulders tensing up, her fingernails digging into the cashmere of her sweater sleeves. Figuring that the atmosphere could use a little trust, he sat in the chair next to hers, so that he no longer towered over her.
Her pale blue eyes flit over his sharp cheekbones and the dark circles under his eyes. He was exhausted but still didn’t let it show in public. What had made him run for a second term then? She would like to believe he’d done it for her…
“I have come here because at some point it just got unbearable… you know… siting in the palace. It’s so boring, every minute scheduled and planned, and I just, you know, don’t feel like… like I am the one in charge… John Conroy has given me about a dozen drafts of the speech… As if I can’t do it myself!”
“Can you?” William asked softly but not without a drop of hesitation.
Victoria knitted her brows and fiercely pulled her sweater sleeves so low that her little fingers drowned in the fluffy wool.
“I am willing to flex my muscles anyway. I may not be quite successful, but, you know, since I am the head of state, it makes sense that I should wish all my people a happy Christmas from the bottom of my heart. My own heart. The way I feel I should.”
William’s smile grew wider, a wave of tenderness washing over his heart.
“Beautifully said, ma’am. Although it still doesn’t explain what has brought you to my humble abode.”
She broke the eye contact, drawing back a little. Her eyes gleamed in the half-light like a cat’s, studying the walls and the décor.
“I don’t know…” she said slowly. “I was actually trying to write the speech but there were so many heavy thoughts circling in my head, and then Mother came and said Nancy was a lame stylist… And I was so sick of it, and then I saw it was snowing and I thought that normal people celebrate Christmas in the company of their loved ones, not surrounded by footmen and relatives who think you are the mistake of the year.”
William avoided meeting her eyes but the queen was nothing if not stubborn and, deep down, he was afraid she might now say something they both would live to regret.
...I’m actually yours...
“So I snuck out. And I headed here because Emma Portman said you were going to spend the whole Christmas Eve working,” there was nothing but compassion in her voice, and William nearly sighed with relief. “How depressing, I thought. But look at you,” she added in a much lighter tone.
The prime minister chuckled.
“There’s only so much sitting one can do. It’s not the kind of work that involves a lot of moving, you know,” he slapped his thighs with both hands, masking his embarrassment with sarcasm. “But I don’t need to tell you this, do I? The throne get uncomfortable from time to time too, and dancing on the bar counter looks so tempting, am I right?”
His stare was kind but mischievous, and it made Victoria turn crimson from head to toe.
“Oh…” she had never sounded so dejected. “And now you too are judging me. I understand. Queens don’t have meltdowns. But… can you just try to see where I’m coming from? My youth is passing me by! I mean, I don’t think even you learned how to dance like this in some fancy boarding school.”
Keenly sensing her despondence and brewing tears, William realized he had to pour oil on these troubled waters right now.
“What do you mean, even you?” he smirked, trying to sound as genial as he could. “What do you take me for, ma’am? I’ll have you know you won’t find wilder companies than those gathering in the dormitories of elite schools after lights out.”
Victoria looked up at him, her eyes still shining with unshed tears, and sniffled so pitifully and so incredulously that his smile grew wider.
“Well… It’s not something I can do anyway,” she chuckled.
“No,” Lord Melbourne nodded, rising from his chair. “But you have an immense privilege. You are a living symbol. Your role, your position is a sacred thing. Even if it has rather, how did you say… lame?”
Victoria sniffled again, but her eyes were dry this time and she looked and sounded belligerent rather than pathetic.
“Lame implications,” he finished. “Unlike most of your peers, you have the possibilities and the right to make an impact on this world. More than that, you have the right abilities for it. A new Queen, a new age.”
Victoria was staring at him, eyes wide, mouth gaping.
“Did you learn to shoot the breeze like this in wild posh public schools?”
“No. It’s something you’re born with.”
Her ringing laughter filled the drawing room like champagne bubbles fill a glass, stirring up William’s blood better than said sparkling wine.
“Well, since you seem to have changed your mind about flooding my drawing room with your tears, I think you should return to the palace before they miss you,” Melbourne said, raising to his feet.
“B-but…” she stuttered, throwing her head back to keep his face in her view.
“Was there anything else, ma’am?” Will said patiently.
Victoria shot a quick glance at her hands, which she kept folded on her lap, nervously fiddling with the rings on her index finger. When she looked up at the prime minister again, he thought he was being subjected to some subtle hypnotic charms.
“I wanted to ask you a favor,” Victoria began softly. “I would love to get presents for my closest friends.” A very pregnant pause hung in the air. “Personally.”
“Out of the question…”
“And you are certainly right. I can’t stroll around London shops on my own. But I could do it in your company.”
William squeezed his eyes shut for a second, shook his head to break free of the charming manipulator’s spell and opened his eyes, summoning all his willpower to say a firm no…
…only for the word to freeze on his lips as he found that she had stood up as well, the top of her head almost brushing his nose.
“Please,” Victoria said softly. “As a Christmas present from you to me?”
Her eyes, pale blue like winter itself, were burning right through his skull.
“We’ll be recognized,” he offered his last point, already knowing that he stood no chance in hell.
“Easy! We’re going to disguise ourselves.”
Shit. He knew she would say that.
Christmas morning found Emma Portman in the best of moods. Regardless of the ever busy schedule, Christmas meant a day off even for her. William was buried up to his nose in papers and didn’t need her. Of course, she would drag her friend out for a dinner but she had a lot of time until evening. Edward was snoring next to her, and Emma wasn’t going to wake her husband — that was the job for their youngest son, who probably had already opened the pile of presents downstairs.
She automatically reached for her phone but stopped herself mid-motion. No work this morning, even if some aspects of it had already become reflexes.
Emma rose from the bed quietly, threw on her robe and drew the blinds open. The snow had stopped, but the yard and the roofs of other houses were covered with a dazzling white, at least half-foot thick blanket. It had been a while since Emma saw such spectacular Christmas weather.
Trying to make as little noise as she could, she walked down the stairs, registering the rustle of tinfoil in the living room. The kitchen still smelled of cranberry sauce and cinnamon. Emma pressed the on-button on the coffee machine and, reflexively, on the TV remote. In the split second it took the screen to light up, she thought that keeping her eye on the ball had become her idee fixe.
The news must be on now. They’re probably going to air the preview of Victoria’s Christmas speech. Let’s see how well Harriet did…
“...what’s more puzzling is how they managed to make their way through his crowd on Piccadilly unnoticed. However, several witnesses captured Her Majesty and Sir William by the boutiques on Oxford Street. Our correspondent talked to a clerk in one of those shops…”
Emma froze, the cup of fragrant espresso hanging centimeters from her mouth. Her eyes wide with shock, she watched a cute blonde in black-and-white uniform babble into the microphone.
“... I didn’t even recognize them at first. Her majesty was wearing this funny beret hiding her hair, and the prime minister had a big scarf on. Like they were in some kind of spy comedy, you know… They were very sweet and purchased a pendant in the shape of letter E for someone…”
The cup dropped from Emma’s limp fingers and crashed on the floor. The last time she was this lost was when she had been invited to work for the government about ten years previously.
“...In conclusion, we can probably safely say that her majesty enjoys long walks, because a little later street paparazzi caught our quaint couple looking at the Harrods window display. The photos are all over mass media and the sheer admiration we can see on the queen’s face is a credit to the brand’s management.”
Not only royalty could be observed on London streets last night. An unprecedented snowfall...”
Emma grimly contemplated the fragments of her favorite cup and the dark pool of coffee on the beige tiles. The severely underdressed young woman on the screen was going on about cyclones and anticyclones.
When the stupor released her a minute later, Emma carefully picked up the porcelain pieces one by one. Ignoring her boys’ whooping in the next room, she flew up the stairs and slammed the bedroom door. Edward shifted in the bed and asked sleepily, barely opening his eyes, “Darling, are you alright?”
Emma’s fingers were already sliding and tapping on the touchscreen of her smartphone. There it was, the number at the top of the favorites list.
Five long signals.
“Hullo? Emma, what happened? It’s ten in the morning and it’s Christmas. Unless it’s an asteroid, a war, or Bowie’s new song, I’m not getting out of bed.”
The nerve of the man.
“You know, I should have left you hanging from that ledge on the third floor of the girls’ residence hall twenty years ago,” Lady Portman said sweetly.
 a source of the author's inspiration