“Alexander, welcome.” President Williams tipped his head in a small greeting as he rose from his chair. It was acknowledgment of our shared power, but not a bow. For that I was grateful. If there was one thing I loved about America, it was that no one routinely felt the need to prostrate themselves in my presence.
Williams was about the age of my father, but the two had never officially met. He’d taken office shortly before the assassination that claimed the King’s life. But age is where the similarities ended. Albert had been quintessentially British in his looks and demeanor. At least, in public. Williams was every bit the American head of state right down to the red power tie. Despite his years, the lines on his face only gave him an air of wisdom that matched his salt and pepper hair, and, like most Americans foisted into the spotlight, he looked more like a movie star than a bedraggled politician. He was the on-camera commander, whose power was limited by the large congress of lawmakers also elected by the people. That was one position we were both in.
“Congratulations on your ascension. I had hoped to share your joy, but after the wedding, it was felt that…” He trailed away, allowing my memory to recall the events of my wedding day.
“Of course.” I allowed a tight smile. It was polite to offer his solicitations, naturally, but no matter how much time had passed I had never put my wedding day behind me. Williams had been in attendance for the ceremony. Considering the circumstances, he, along with several other powerful dignitaries, had sent their regrets when invited to my coronation. I couldn’t blame them. If I could have skipped the ritual I would have, too. “We’ve been negligent, as well. Clara and I planned to visit your country much earlier. Life and politics got in the way.”
“Don’t they always?” He gestured to a chair next to his, and I took it. “What is your lovely wife up to today?”
“Motherhood,” I said stiffly. Clara would not always be able to avoid the camera, but for the time being I was content to enable her desire to stay off screen. I still hadn’t warmed to the idea of sharing her with the world.
“I feel certain our special relationship would be even more special now that you’re married to an American,” the president said light-heartedly as he adjusted his suit coat before taking his seat.
Annoyance surged through me, and I did my best to hide it. This man and this country had no claim to my wife. I couldn’t exactly tell him that though, especially not during a televised interview. “I think you’ll find that Clara is as American as I am.”
We laughed, but neither of us were amused. Williams’s predecessor had been known for his ease in awkward situations. It hadn’t been a strong enough quality to get him reelected. Now the atmosphere in the Oval Office had the same wary tension of an impending cock fight. This was what happened when you put two alpha males into a room. There was no punchline, only a quiet struggle for power.
“I heard she prefers coffee,” the Secretary of State joined in, her tone effusive. At least, Williams had appointed someone adept at dismantling tension to his cabinet. It was a particularly keen appointment since she handled most of the administration’s foreign policy.
“I’m working on that,” I admitted. The good-natured ribbing had the intended effect and the conversation shifted into an easygoing conversation between the heads of two sovereign nations. About an hour later, during a rousing debate between the merits of American football versus European football, the camera crews began to dismantle their equipment.
“This way, please,” an aide showed the crews out of the office, and the atmosphere changed again.
Williams slumped in his seat, switching off his on-camera persona and becoming another man. “Scotch?”
A moment later, an aide dutifully delivered the drinks as a young, nervous man joined us.
“Alexander, allow me to introduce my press secretary Richard May. He’s here to keep us on track for the press conference.”
I rose and shook the man’s hand as he declined the offering of a Scotch. “I do apologize for sticking you back in front of a camera so soon.”
“I was born in front of a camera,” I said flatly. It wasn’t technically true, but it may as well have been. I’d never known what it was like to be in public without someone filming me. My only real sanctuary from that fact had been during my time on the war front.
“Of course,” May said absently as he shuffled through some papers. “I imagine that most of their questions will be fairly soft. They’ll ask about Clara and your daughter.”
I forced myself to nod. Despite my desire to keep my wife and child out of the spotlight, it was futile. I did my best to keep a firm line when it came to the press though, especially given how vicious the media had been during our courtship. As much as possible, I wanted Elizabeth to have a normal life, however unlikely the possibility was.
“Then there’s the Edward issue.”
“I hope you’re speaking about an upcoming magazine article.” This time I didn’t bother to hide my annoyance. I’d been warned by own people that this might be brought up abroad.
“We’ve briefed the corps on the topics that they’re allowed to broach,” the president assured me, “but freedom of the press means we can’t tell them what they can ask.”
I didn’t miss the none-too-subtle dig. “Britain has it as well.”
“Then you know the trouble it can cause.” Williams spread his hands apologetically, and I nodded.
There had been some negative attention regarding my brother’s engagement in the tabloids. But Edward’s decision to come out of the closet had been largely met with enthusiasm. For most it signaled that the monarchy was no longer an archaic relic, but there were always dissenters.
“I’m prepared to take the fifth,” I joked, doing my best to sound as if the subject didn’t irk me.
“I think he’ll do just fine.” Williams winked at May. “Are we ready then?”
May trembled a little as he nodded his head. There wasn’t enough anti-anxiety medicine in the world to counter the stress of his job. It was remarkable that the man was allowed in front of the camera. As we headed toward the briefing room, Williams lagged behind. I took the signal and followed suit.
“I am sorry that we weren’t at your coronation.” It was a surprisingly sincere apology for a man who had fought to command the room when we first met. “Our security teams felt the risk outweighed the duty, and, speaking man to man, my first concern is always for my wife.”