TUCKINGTON BELLE reached behind his back to steady his guitar as he hurried down the cobblestone steps alongside the castle walls. He didn’t pay any attention to the mold growing between the gray stones as he ran his fingers along the wall. The route from the small music college, where he gave guitar lessons, to his family’s shop was so familiar that short of something jumping out in front of him, he could do it with his eyes closed.
“Prince Frederick sighted!”
Tuck reeled backward, away from the teenager in a newsboy’s cap who had leaped in front of him. “Huh?” He blinked and shook off the shock of the interruption.
The boy brandished a newspaper at him. The headline blared what he had shouted. Tuck looked up at the castle. From his position so close to the wall, the only part he could see was the very top of one of the turrets, pointing an accusing arrow at the overcast sky. Tuck’s childhood home sat on a hill above the city, with a direct view of the castle and its grounds. When he was younger, Tuck would sit in his bedroom and stare down at it. He imagined what it would be like to be allowed to go there and play with Prince Frederick. He knew that some children did. A few of his classmates had come back talking about how Prince Frederick had a dollhouse in his room that was an exact replica of the castle, right down to the little plastic fish in the garden pond and toy people that looked like the royal family. Tuck had never been invited to go. He never did figure out what was so special about the other children. Now Tuck lived by himself next door to his family’s shop. He’d lost his view of the castle, but he still remembered the sight.
But then Prince Frederick had closed the doors on the castle. It happened around his sixteenth birthday. Some said he had been rejected by a woman. Others said it was a man. But one fact remained: no one had seen the prince since the bolt slid home on the man-sized wicket door in the much larger front entrance.
Ten years ago almost to the day. Not many people remembered the exact day. They might remember it in approximations, by recalling how old they were at the time, or how old their children were.
Tuck remembered it because he had been walking along the wall and had passed the door at the moment the scrape and clunk of the bolt locked the prince inside. Of course, he hadn’t known at the time what the motion would come to mean, so it was probably more accurate to say that he remembered the day not for the door closing, but for the moment before. It was still a hair’s width ajar; he had seen a sliver of a pale face, ginger hair, and a portion of a blue eye looking out. Tuck had started to hurry, trying to reach the door before it closed. He was fourteen, still young enough to be excited about playing in the castle grounds, and he was certain if he could just reach the prince in time, Prince Frederick would let him in and they could spend the day running around the gardens that Tuck had memorized from his bedroom window.
His Royal Highness Frederick Deor, Duke of Styrin, and next in line to the throne, had looked right at him. Tuck was sure of it, even though he couldn’t see more than a corner of his eye. He grinned and broke into a run.
And the door closed.
Tuck stared at it for a good minute. He kicked it, which hurt his toe more than it hurt the two-foot-thick block of wood. Part of him wanted to yell that he only desired to come in and play, but he was too old for outbursts like that. Besides, the prince was undoubtedly long gone. Tuck kicked the door again, gentler this time, then continued toward the shop.
He told his mother what had happened and waited expectantly for her to confirm his belief that Prince Frederick was a jerk for slamming the door in his face. It wasn’t until she asked him why he thought the prince was closing the door himself instead of having his groundsman do it that Tuck realized he had witnessed something seriously wrong.
With each passing day the prince remained in the castle, Tuck became more certain that was the case. The prince’s parents, King Edgar and Queen Beatrice, arrived, coming down from the royal palace that was their official home, but left that same afternoon and were portrayed in the newspaper photos looking sober. They returned from time to time, sometimes with their younger son, Prince Jasper. Each time, photographers waiting at the gate captured departing expressions just as serious as the ones they’d worn on that first visit.
Singing sometimes wafted over the town, drifting as far as the window where Tuck lay abed. When he turned his thoughts to it and forced himself to choose from the rumors presented, Tuck joined in the common belief that the singing belonged to the prince. He stopped short of agreeing or disagreeing with the notion that it was Prince Frederick’s ghost, but he heard pain in those long notes, sorrow perhaps, neglect… all emotions that he believed the prince to feel based on that fleeting moment when he had looked into Prince Frederick’s eye as he closed the castle grounds door for the last time.
Now, ten years later, with rumors running rampant, a claim that he had been seen was the most shocking of all. The newspapers would print that he was mad or dressed as a commoner to sneak out at night via underground tunnels or was deformed in some way that wasn’t obvious upon first glance but that had frightened his intimates and was the source of his embarrassment. Or they would speculate on his “death kept secret.” But they could not print that he had been seen.
Because he hadn’t been. Not in ten years.
Tuck snatched the newspaper, suddenly unsteady in his desire to see for himself. He unfolded it to show the entire picture. A single glance and he thrust it back at the boy, who put his arms up and took a step away.
“You touch it, you buy it, mister.”
“It’s a picture of a shadow. It could be anyone. It could be a woman. You can’t even tell where it was taken.”
The boy shrugged and held his palm out. “Fifty pence.”
Muttering “shit” under his breath, Tuck paid him.
“Ta,” the boy said and ran off.
Tuck uttered a brief prayer, asking forgiveness for cursing, and resumed his walk. His phone went off, so he tucked the paper under his arm to answer it.
“Get your butt here now, moron. Mom is freaking out.” Despite his words, Daniel sounded as easygoing as ever. To him, moron was a term of endearment. Tuck had long ago learned to put up with this and other symbols of “affection,” such as headlocks and arm punches that held nothing back, from his more outgoing younger brother. Daniel could be overwhelming sometimes, but Tuck knew that when it came down to it, his brother would have his back and vice versa.
“What’s wrong?” Even though Daniel sounded calm, that didn’t mean the situation wouldn’t warrant panic. In fact, it usually meant that it did.
“Eustace Pringle, of the Pringle Lane Pringles, is coming tomorrow with her niece to pick up a custom dress, and it’s not finished yet. Mom’s insisting it needs more panache. You know what word of mouth means for the store, and Mrs. Pringle has a loud mouth. Mom’s terrified if she doesn’t like the dress, we’re done.”
“It’s a prom dress, Daniel. She’s not ascending to the throne in it,” Tuck said. This was a workable situation. Not panic mode.
There was a pause from his brother. Tuck wasn’t sure if Daniel was taking in what was said or waiting for Tuck to.
Prior to their mother opening her dress shop after their father died, mothers and daughters waited for a traveling seamstress to arrive in her wagon. Once a quarter, she would set down for one week, take orders and measurements, and then return with the finished product on her next visit. When Anna opened her shop, it was instantly popular. Tuck’s mother made top-of-the-line designs and she didn’t grumble if a woman gained thirty pounds between ordering a dress and the day she picked it up. His mother came from a clothing-shop background herself. An uncle that Tuck had never met had operated a clothing design shop in Paris, and according to his mother, it had been unmatched in style, fit, and service and her reason for wanting a dress shop of her own.
Tuck had grown up sewing alongside her. At twelve, he ran the fitting rooms for the first time for a cotillion of demanding mothers-of-the-brides. Now twenty-four, he did it every day. Even though this was his family business and he knew he would inherit it, Tuck often wished he could pursue his love of music. His father had instilled it in him, so his mother didn’t ever say she disapproved. The guitar lessons he gave brought in some extra money, which probably helped. Yes, he had been born into the dress business, but to Tuck, music was a calling.
“Just get here,” Daniel said.
“I’m five minutes away.”
“Okay.” That seemed to calm him some. “And I got you a girl.”
“A what?” He stumbled as he hurried over the uneven cobblestone. Shit. (Another prayer for that.) Ever since Tuck had told Daniel that he was too busy to even think about dating, “eligible bachelor” or not, Daniel had taken it upon himself to become Tuck’s personal matchmaker. Unfortunately, his methods typically involved dragging Tuck up to an unsuspecting young woman and saying something along the lines of “This is my brother, Tuck. He’s young, employed, and fertile. And he can sew.” Daniel would add this last bit as if he were confiding a great secret to her and was as smug as could be.
“A girl. Long hair, boobs, high voice. You know. A girl?”
“I know what a girl is. What do you mean you got me one? You didn’t…. Daniel, did you hit on a bride…?”
“No, I didn’t. She’s a bridesmaid. She came in to choose dresses with the wedding party. And she is smo-king! If you don’t snatch her up, I might. So hurry up and get here before I decide to impress her with my awesome ability to do a one-armed handstand while balancing a coat hanger on my other hand.”
“Fine. Three minutes.” Tuck ended the call before Daniel could get another word in about how much this night was going to suck.
With the girls that Daniel forced him to meet, it was disconcerting how often their eyes would spark with interest as Tuck stood there plotting ways to hurt his brother. Tuck always broke away if the spark started at “fertile,” but if it started at “sew,” he would stammer an apology for Daniel’s behavior. Either way, he would retreat as his brother explained that he was “shy” and handed over a business card for the shop. Tuck made sure to run operations from inside the sewing room for several days afterward instead of walking around to chat with the patrons, so he never could be sure how many of these potential “dates” he altered dresses for.
It was coming up on dusk as he approached the family shop: Belle of the Ball, by Mrs. Belle and Sons. The gaslights on either side of the entrance burned brightly above the shrubbery that lined the facade. Beneath the sign bearing the shop’s name there was the motto: Where Peasants are Treated Like Princesses. It was slightly different than the motto Daniel had suggested and that Anna had rejected: See Y’all at the Ball. Tuck looked through the windows, their smoked glass divided by iron trellises, to see if the girl was inside, but he couldn’t make out anything except the usual blur. He headed around to the back entrance, just in case.
“Don’t take your coat off!” his mother said as soon as he stepped in the door. “We need purple wildflowers.” He threw his hands into a defensive position upon seeing her rushing toward him like a carriage out of control, and she shoved a pair of scissors and a brown potato sack into his hands.
“It’s too late to go into the woods,” Tuck protested.
“Tuckington, I am not going to adorn the dress of young Miss Pringle with weeds picked from the woods. Use your head, son! Go for the good stuff!”
“Mama, you’re not making—” He stopped talking when the glint in her eyes turned slightly insane. Shit. He began to back out the door. “You’ve got bail money in case I get caught?”
“Of course, dear.” Anna smiled brightly, looking more like her usual self. “And hurry back so you can meet the young lady Daniel has been talking to about you!”
“Right,” Tuck said, as the idea of sneaking into the castle grounds, risking his life scaling the stone wall, dropping onto a muddy hill with no traction, and avoiding the guard dogs and the security detail suddenly seemed like a great idea.
The castle had always had an amazing garden, but ever since Prince Frederick had disappeared, it had been left untended. Wildflowers grew alongside rosebushes. It was a ramble. Usually Daniel did the flower run, after which he was intolerable because he came back all “Return of the Conquering Hero,” full of bombast and backflips.
The last time Tuck did it, he’d been bitten by a dog (thankfully trained to contain and not maul) and arrested.
Jail hadn’t been so bad. He’d spent only a few hours behind bars, and he’d exchanged recipes with a senile old lady in custody for exposing herself in a crosswalk. His mother then paid to get him out and managed to convince the arresting officer to drop the charges because Tuck was “touched,” and had “gotten lost” in the castle garden. Tuck kept his mouth shut and his head down as she led him out of the building, though he definitely caught the sympathetic looks the officer gave his mother, as if she were a saint for dealing with such a testing child.
Back at the section of wall where he had run his fingers on his earlier walk, he looked inside the bag. His mother had placed a paper bag inside. Its contents—hamburger stuffed with sleeping pills—already bled through.
Tuck slung the bag over his shoulder, hooking his arm through the cord. He checked that no one was watching, caught hold of the wall, and hoisted himself to the top. After scrambling to his knees, he wobbled and glanced down. The castle grounds sloped up to meet the castle wall at its half-height, which was about six feet beneath Tuck. An uncomfortable drop for him—he got nervous on the shop’s stepladder—but a heck of a lot better than the twenty-foot one a few yards away. He slung the bag to his front and prepared to lower himself.
And then he was falling, yanked down by a sudden weight as something caught the bag. A split second before his head hit the ground, he registered a furry body trying to make off with the sack that was still caught around him. He landed half in mud and half on stone, banging his head hard. He felt the dog lying down next to him, gnawing on the bag. As his eyes closed and he thought at least I don’t have to impress a girl, he contemplated that maybe it was time he admitted he was gay.