A Very Royal Ho (Ho Ho)
A Very Royal Ho (Ho Ho)
~ A Smutty Christmas Tale for Violet ~
by Jenna O’Brien
What does one do when invited to the Royal Family’s Annual Christmas Ball for a once-in-a-lifetime evening that you’re never going to get again?
You wear the wrong shoes. Obviously.
“Sonuvabitch,” I exhale, the blisters on my heels throbbing. Beside me, Alessia snorts her laughter into her napkin. Thankfully no one’s heard me––or if they have, they’re too polite to say otherwise. Even the stern-looking couple across the table from us (Lord Davies? Lord and Lady Davidson? Lady Daniela? Ugh, whatever…) stares dutifully into their salad. Anything to avoid acknowledging the American with the mouth like a trucker across the dinner table.
But who on earth would complain right now? I can’t help but marvel, my wide eyes flitting around the room. The chandelier overhead is blinding, the giant room around us cavernous and immaculate, lined in elegant and oversized portraits. The table is long and narrow, and seats fifty. In addition to ours, there are two identical ones packed with guests across the ballroom.
That’s right. I said ballroom.
Because I, Grace Marie McKellar, from the wee and freezing suburbs of Minnesota––am currently in London at the Royal Family’s Christmas celebration.
...Too bad the Royal Family is not.
“I still can’t believe they didn’t show,” Alessia fumes into her bread roll. “Kate’s at least fun once you sneak her tequila and shove her onto the dance floor.”
I try not to get too distracted. Outside the massive floor-to-ceiling windows just past us, London’s skyline sparkles at night, beckoning. We’ve been preparing for this night for most of our friendship, almost from the very minute we met over ten years ago in the dorms of Columbia University our freshman year. When Alessia confided in me that her mother was the personal secretary to the Queen, I always wondered if there might be an outing in our future. And while sure, I did not get to have my yacht vacation with Harry and Wills before they got the wives and the kids, and the whole thing––
At least we’re here, I can’t help but think giddily. A Christmas vacation in London, just us girls, fresh off my break-up from Kev and her latest work promotion. Alessia Fiona Carbury might look like a supermodel straight off the runway, but it’s her keen real estate eye and cutthroat networking abilities that have made her one of the top luxury realtors in New York City. I’m still not sure why she keeps me around, even after our tech gigs moved me and Kev from New York to Seattle. Maybe it’s my snark? My sass? The fact that I know all her secrets? Even still, there’s something blissfully reassuring that no matter how many years go by, and no matter how many cities we might move to––nothing ever changes in our friendship.
Including her ability to scout hot guys.
“Stop it,” I mutter, knowing I’m blushing. It’s not hard––considering my skin is practically see-through. “Delicate and alabaster,” my mom would always correct me when I would rage as a child about looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost. But we make a good tag team, Alessia and I: her a lioness, all golden skin and sun-kissed hair, me her ghostly alter-ego, a former ballerina with my gawky limbs and fair complexion . . . not to mention my mane of wild, dark curls I can never seem to control. Tonight they are twisted back into a thick and formal messy knot (that took months to perfect for this very occasion). My dress is a perfect balance of slinky and elegant, a strappy and festive burgundy velvet that drapes like falling water to the floor.
But my shoes––goddamn, what was I thinking. What looked strappy and black and flawless on the shelves now feels like razor-sharp talons digging into my skin. I fidget, trying to remember if I managed to fit Advil into my tiny-tiny party purse. Alessia, meanwhile, cannot be shaken.
“I said ten o’clock.”
“Now is not the time, my feet are––” I’m mid-hiss when I finally look over at said Ten O’Clock, and spot who she’s referring to across the table. Any argument immediately dies on my lips.
I know they grow them differently here in England, but . . . what do they say here, again? . . . oh, right.
He’s tall and slim, and wearing a sleek designer tuxedo. His feather-brown hair is mussed this way and that, an eternal bedhead that makes you think about hitting the sheets with him immediately. His lower lip is full and naturally pouting, and I wonder what it’d be like to chew on. His eyes are heavy-lidded and a light, eerie green. I’m reminded immediately of my ridiculous cat Cleo back home, and wonder if this guy’s just as moody.
But who can think about bitchy cats with those cheekbones? I try not to drool. He’s like a delicious, shiny mix of Christian Bale and Robert Pattinson, and I’m suddenly fighting the urge to climb him and ask him to play with his Batmobile.
He’s been watching me this entire time, by the way. The minute I realize I’m staring I look back down at my salad, and feel my entire face burn up in flames.
“He’s totally an upgrade from Kev. Just saying,” Alessia murmurs, toying with her water glass. I sigh.
“I really didn’t want to think about him right now.” Or our apartment, just moved into in Seattle. Or all his boxes at the door, while he waits to move out. Or our cat, who seems confused why Daddy’s leaving when we just got here.
“You need to get laid,” Alessia whispers, and I almost choke on my shrimp cocktail.
“I need to forget about him first,” I tell her.
“Exactly. Which is why I may have spiked your drink just a bit.”
But I don’t have time to fully express my indignant rage, because a sea of uniformed butlers are being released into the ballroom, carrying trays to sweep away the old plates and bring in the new. A ten-man string quartet onstage strikes up a perky carol, and it gives me the cover I need to whisper-scream at my dearest friend.
“What the hell do you mean you spiked my drink?”
“It’s not that bad. I just thought we could both unwind a bit––”
Alessia shrugs. “Bit of vodka. Just like back in college––”
“Vodka??” This can’t be happening. “You know I can’t drink vodka––”
“Oh you can,” Alessia crows. “Ask all those tables I’ve seen you dance on after one martini––”
I wish she was kidding, but it’s true: one is all it takes. I groan.
“Who roofies their best friend at a royal fucking Christmas ball?” I squeak––just as a young butler around our age leans in to clear our plates. His snort is subtle, but not surprising. I glare.
“You heard nothing,” I tell him darkly, more a threat than an observation.
“I heard everything,” the server chuckles, the threat of laughter sparkling in his light eyes. “And by the sounds of it, you go have yourselves a very enjoyable Christmas, madams.”
Great. Just great. My soft spot for fucking delicious holiday punch is ruined, and now even the help is making fun of me. I glance at Alessia desperately, then back at my glass, which is already three-quarters empty and probably stronger than any cocktail I’ve ever had in my life. I frown at Alessia.
“I hate you.”
“You can thank me later.”
A fowl and rather unfeminine curse word rises to my lips—but before I can say it, we’re interrupted by a deep and smooth British voice at our sides.
“Excuse me, but I was wondering...”
I look up, and find myself staring at Ten O’Clock in the flesh, no longer across the table. He’s standing directly in front of us––and smiling right at me.
“Would you care to dance?” Ten O’Clock asks. I automatically start to say no, my feet still stinging, but Alessia’s already screaming.
“YES! YES SHE WOULD!”
Before I know it, she’s grabbing my shoulders and flinging me to my feet, directly into his arms. His grasp is warm, and strong, and sends sparks up my spine. I try to ignore my nipples jumping to full attention––I really should have tried to figure out a bra with this dress––and hope it’s not too obvious as I struggle to stand, suddenly feeling like Bambi on ice. But I clomp along, and Ten O’Clock guides me past the rest of our table and onto a rapidly-filling dance floor.
“You look stunning,” he murmurs in my ear as he turns me, settling me intimately in front of him, so close that I automatically raise my hands over his shoulders, to the nape of his neck. And just like that we’re turning, spinning, blindly––as he exhales––
And overpowers me with the worst, garlic-infested, moldy and horrific breath you’ve ever smelled in your life.
“I cannot lie––I was beginning to think you wouldn’t see me,” he murmurs. What should be a charming endearment is suddenly my worst nightmare, as the smell of hot, rotting flesh combines with the vodka rising up in my stomach, and I start to panic. If the Royal family had kept their fucking promise and actually showed, none of this would even be happening, is all I can think. Ten O’Clock gives a happy sigh, but even that slight exhale leaves my eyes watering. Just as my feet begin to give out, crumpling in the panic and stinky pain of it all––
A strong hand comes to my waist. I soon find myself being pulled away, and staring into dusty-blue eyes that crinkle slightly at the corners.
“Miss. I’m afraid there’s a call for you.”
It’s the butler. The same butler who interrupted me and Alessia, who overheard about the vodka and my sordid history of table dancing. My cheeks burn, and I struggle to understand him.
“I’m so sorry, but––there’s an emergency? You have a call in the other room.” The butler shrugs, and I blink to get my bearings. I can’t dance with Ten O’Clock, because I have a call. Thank fuck I have a call, because that breath would have killed a small child. I cling to the butler, heart hammering in my chest.
“Of course. Of course. Where’s your phone?” I murmur, apologizing to Ten O’Clock under my breath as the butler leads me away across the dance floor. Under his jacket sleeve, his forearm is muscular, and surprisingly rock-strong.
I wait until we have exited the ballroom and turned a corner before finding my voice again.
“Thank you for finding me,” I almost hiccup, wiping the gonnabe-tears from my eyes. “But I can’t take the call yet, because I think I’m going to––”
Before the word Vomit can cross my lips, I turn blindly for the nearest exit, a door to one side. Clawing desperately to vanish––somewhere, anywhere––I’m relieved when the door gives way onto a dark and quiet patio. The roar of the party inside vacuums away into echoing silence, and the harsh winter air across my face gives me the smack I need. The bile building at the back of my throat rises up, but then goes back down as I rush to the brick wall of the patio. I breathe in, then out. In, then out.
This will be my first Christmas in eight years without Kev.
I don’t even realize who is still standing behind me until his voice cuts through the dark.
“Hell. Bleedin’ disaster back there, so he is.”
I startle, then turn to find the butler silhouetted in the darkness against the lights inside. His shoulders are broad, and he moves with an easy, masculine confidence I didn’t notice inside, not quite as polished as the other butlers. Maybe it’s his younger age, but he also doesn’t sound like the others, I realize.
“Are you even British?” I ask, slightly dazed.
“Jesus, no. Irish,” he mutters, unbuttoning his collar and undoing his uniform bowtie. I try not to stare at his strewn curls, or the thin silver chain that flashes over his collarbone. It makes your fingers want to follow it, and dance along that bare skin past buttons unsnapped.
Easy, girl. I swallow, hard, wondering if it’s the almost-slow dance or the vodka that has set me off so easily. Chuckling to myself, I let myself shiver in the freezing cold, then startle when a starchy, rough fabric drops along my shoulders, encasing me.
A jacket. The butler has shuffled out of his, and is quietly wrapping it around me. The coat is part of his uniform and might be stiff, but it also smells like him—something piney and spiced and delicious, in that cozy winter way. Of course I’m grateful for it, but I also know there are bigger matters at hand. The call. Someone was calling from home. Was it Mom? Dad? My mind races with worry, and I struggle to shrug out of the jacket’s oversized warmth.
“Sorry for the false vom scare, but––where’s that phone?” I ask him. He laughs. It’s a quick and harsh bark of a chuckle, and makes me think that he doesn’t get to use it very often.
“No call,” he says, and I’m totally lost. He shrugs. “Anyone within ten feet could smell that bollocks’s breath.” He cocks one heavy eyebrow at me, and I’m struck by how expressive they are. “You didn’t actually think I’d let you suffer that for more than a minute, did ya?”
For a second, my mind battles––between the gratitude at his fast thinking, but also the insult of just being torn away from a slow dance with one of the hottest men I’ve ever encountered. I decide to stick with the latter.
“But that wasn’t for you to decide,” I tell him, proud of myself for sticking to my guns, for once. “So.Thank you for the gesture, but I think I’m just going to go back inside and find my new friend some Altoids, and call this a night––”
But that’s when I reach for the door handle. And pull.
...And absolutely nothing happens.
Maybe it’s a push? I wonder, only mildly panicking. Right, time to push––and so I do so––
With absolutely no effect whatsoever. I crank the handle back and forth, but this door isn’t going anywhere. I pause. The butler pauses.
We both pause.
“Out of the way,” he practically growls at me, and I’m more than happy to move so. Crouching down, he throws his shoulder into it––and while it makes a hefty and impressive thud (and I try not to look at the way his pants stretch over his mighty fine and muscular ass while he does so...).
The door still won’t open. Reality sets in.
I have somehow managed to lock myself out of the Royal Family Christmas Ball on a dark and abandoned balcony with a complete stranger.
Without any further ado: the vodka begins to talk.
“This can’t be happening.” Now would be the time to pace, except I’m losing feeling below my ankles thanks to my shoes. Without another thought, I bend over to unlock them from my feet and rip them off, one by one. The butler double-takes.
“Wait a––you’re gonna be freez––do you always tear off your shoes when yer stressed?” he asks me, but then he falls silent when his eyes drop to my feet.
I don’t know what that means, but one look down and I see where he’s coming from. Where there used to be straps across my feet have now been replaced with indented, bleeding gashes. Blister upon blister pops from the sides of my toes.
It only takes a second, but I decide the best thing to do is burst into tears and drop down into the crouch position.
“Hey.” In less than a second the butler is down by my side, his violet eyes wide and earnest. “We’re good. We’re grand. This is nothin’. In five minutes, somebody’s going to be back here, and nobody’s going to give a second glance at those bleedin’ mingin’ stumps.” But what does “mingin’” mean? Even more importantly, why do I care when there’s so much else going wrong? I hate that when his strong, firm hands run up and down my arms attempting to comfort me, my instinct is to stretch and purr. As if I haven’t been touched that way in years.
Have you, though? my inner, snarkier Grace asks. Just like that, a fresh wave of tears make their way down both cheeks. It’s not even about my fucking feet at this point. When the butler speaks again, his voice is plain and cuts through my screaming thoughts.
“I’m Finn, by the way.” He keeps talking, as if to keep me from jumping off the cliff. “Broke med student by day studying in London, shoddy-ass butler by night.”
I attempt to sniffle daintily, but instead it sounds like I’m snorting back a tidal wave of snot, and struggling. When I finally recover, I manage a small smile.
“Hi. I’m Grace. Tech geek by day, living in Seattle by way of Minnesota...hot mess all the time.”
He barks back another laugh, and I fight the urge to run my hands through his hair. It’s thick and brown, and curls across his forehead like he’s some kind of old movie star. A modern-day Paul Newman, by way of Dublin. I sigh. Can one fall for the hot Irish butler while on holiday? I ask myself, then wonder how I’ve managed to enter an episode of Downton Abbey while visiting post-pandemic England for all of six days.
We just wind up watching each other, eventually, while his hands slow down along my arms. I think we both remember we are complete strangers at the exact same moment, because suddenly we leap back from one another like we’ve been zapped, retreating to separate corners.
“So. Grace,” he says, slightly cagey. “Can I ask what drives a friend to drug you to relax at the Royal Family’s Christmas party?”
“She thinks I’m no fun,” I sigh. Underneath my bare feet, the stone of the patio feels like bliss, ice-cold and smooth. Pointing one foot for the stretch, I let my toes trace the outline of the movement along the ground. First position, second position. . . and plie. I haven’t danced regularly for years, but it’s amazing how in the times of stillness and silence, it’s the only movement my feet seem to remember, more naturally than walking, more automatic than taking my first step.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Finn murmurs, sliding his hands in his pockets with satisfaction. “I’ve only known you ten minutes, and you’ve been a barrel of laughs.”
“A nauseous and weeping, slightly maniacal barrel of laughs?” I raise an eyebrow.
“Well, they come in all types, y’see,” he says without missing a beat. I chuckle.
“My boyfriend of almost ten years and I broke up last week.” I shrug, suddenly not sure where to put my own hands. Sliding them back inside the arms of his jacket will do. “I think Alessia thinks this will be a good . . . distraction.”
“Ah.” He nods. His stare lingers a touch too long on my extended leg, still mindlessly tracing its way through the first act of Sleeping Beauty. His jaw clenches for only a second, or maybe it’s a trick of the light. “So that’s why you’re crying?”
“No actually––quite the opposite––” my answer is automatic, and way too fast. Well shit, Grace. I hold my tongue before I can say anything further. But my patio partner looks intrigued now, and takes a step closer. I blush under his direct gaze. “Never mind––”
“No no, don’t let me stop you. Not when yer just getting to the good part.” He winks, and my belly clenches. Where I come from, winks are corny, and almost always overdramatized. On him, it’s subtle and natural, and way too mischievous––not to mention way too sexy. Especially when he smirks.
“Besides—how many other times are you going to be stuck out on a balcony on Christmas Eve with a stranger who’s willing to listen to all yer secrets?”
He does have a point. With a gulp, I turn to the patio wall again, eager for a distraction. Off on the horizon, London’s lights blink back at me. The only thing that would make the skyline prettier would be snow, but apparently it’s pretty rare here at this time of year. What’s your Christmas wish, Grace? the jagged and sprawling skyline seems to ask me. Do you really want to forgive, or would you rather just forget?
I shut my eyes tight, willing myself to say it before I regret it.
“Just––wait. Wait, wait, wait,” Finn says, holding up a hand and looking like he’s not sure whether to laugh or cry. “You want to be a . . . ‘total ho’ this Christmas?”
When I pause, then nod, his eyes are wide.
“Explain what qualifies as ‘total ho,’ please?”
“Oh, you know...” I sigh.
“No, I really don’t,” he announces, chewing on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. A dimple the perfect size of a kiss appears in one cheek, and damnit if I don’t want to lean in and give him just that. “Explain, please.”
I sigh. “I just wanted to be . . . spontaneous for once, you know? Make out in a dark corner with a stranger. Have a one-night stand in a scandalous place with someone that I’ll regret later. Dance too wild, drink too much. Be ‘that girl’ who has the fling while on holiday that everyone wants to have, but nobody wants to admit.” I shrug. “That was my Christmas wish.”
“Something tells me you’ll have no problem accomplishing that,” Finn murmurs. It’s a throwaway, and I can’t tell if it’s meant as an insult or a compliment. Either way, it makes my cheeks burn again and turns me feisty.
“Oh? And why is that?”
“Because you’re distracting me with those crazy dancer legs, that’s why.” For the first time tonight, my butler sounds gruff, and looks genuinely flustered. The thought of strong, Irish forearms wrapping around me and holding me tight gives me the courage I need. An idea is brewing, and it’s making me giddy. It must put a certain look in my eyes, because Finn immediately holds up his hand to stop me in place.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” I ask, and now I’m the one who’s flustered.
“No, I will not be your makeout in a dark corner, Grace.”
“Oh.” He says it with absolutely no regret, and so I feel foolish. Turning away, I pull his jacket tighter around me and look up at the moon overhead for any wisdom. Instead, all that yells back are my own insecurities.
You never should have said anything. You never should have come here. You never should have ended things with Kev. No wonder he thinks you’re his boring best friend now. No wonder you lost the spark. How on earth did you even get here?––
When his voice lingers over my shoulder, his lips at my ear, I startle.
“I only say that because I’m not the type to take advantage.” His breath tickles, the hint of a smile in his voice. “Especially not with girls already proclaiming they’ve been roofied and are three sheets to the wind, anyway.”
“Do I look three sheets to the wind?” I ask him, turning. Sure enough, there’s only an inch between us. He’s only a few inches taller than me, just enough for our noses to barely touch. He breathes in, I breathe out. I breathe in, he breathes out. Our breaths mingle, a steamy mist in this cold, and I feel his hands hovering over my hips at either side, as if willing himself to keep them from taking hold.
“You do not,” he agrees reluctantly, and I beam him my best triumphant smile. He groans and pulls away, a man struggling.
Struggling not to touch me, I realize, a little bit dazed and delighted by the thought.
“I will not be your makeout in the dark corner, Grace,” he repeats again, almost to give himself the pep talk this time rather than reject my advances. “But––if it’s a matter of making your Christmas wishes come true in some way––”
And just like that, he holds out one hand.
“I should probably warn you: I’m fuckin’ awful at this.” His grin is quick, and sweet, and shoots straight to my toes. “But if dancing wild will make you feel like a ho this Christmas, Grace . . . then I’m in.”
His words are absolutely ridiculous, but somehow this invitation to dance feels ten times more formal than anything Ten O’Clock could have said to me back inside that ballroom. Maybe it’s the hand extended, or the simple, straight way he holds himself. Maybe it’s the look in his eyes, like he’s just as scared as I am of what might happen if I actually take him up on his offer.
It might be the booze, or it might be the moonlight. But I know that if I take this hand, many things in my life might possibly change. And when they do, there’s no going back.
My fingers slip across his with no hesitation, then entwine, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. He pulls me close, impossibly close, and we begin to sway. His other hand rests on my back, the thin fabric of my dress the only barrier between us. There is no music, but when our temples touch side-by-side, I know that we’ll find our own rhythm.
“Yer feet are filthy, by the way.”
“You say the sweetest things cheek-to-cheek,” I murmur, and he snorts. But then we settle into a breathless, peaceful silence moving back and forth, back and forth—
We’re only distracted minutes later when the cold droplets fall down from above, drifting onto our bare faces. We both look up, and I gasp. It’s not much, but it’s just enough to make the air glitter.
In one hushed and simple second, this Christmas becomes my favorite one.
Finn’s voice is quiet and husky, and just a little rough around the edges. “Merry Christmas, Grace.”
We meet eyes. It takes me awhile to find my voice. But when I do, I mean it.
“Merry Christmas, Finn.”
It isn’t until we’re leaning in, one second from pressing our lips to one another’s—that the opening of a door sounds behind me.
Backlit by the blinding light behind her back in the hallway, Alessia’s genuinely shocked face is the gift that keeps on giving. I know I should be leaping out of Finn’s arms, but if anything, his grip on me only tightens. I find myself not wanting to go anywhere anytime soon. After some time, I eventually settle for clearing my throat awkwardly.
“This is what happens when you bring vodka to the table,” is all I can shrug.
“Well that’s a pity—because it turns out I didn’t.”
“WHAT?!” Finn and I roar back at her together, officially baffled. There is no vodka. There was never any vodka. I’m just an emotional mess, but at least I’m not a drugged one. Alessia sighs, as if this entire night has become a complete bust.
“I think I spiked the wrong glass. Lady Davinia across the table has just climbed up onstage and asked if the string quartet knows any BTS. It’s happening, and it’s terrifying. And I’m leaving, because I need to get it on camera—”
If the door closes behind her, we do not hear it. It’s as if learning that I’m sober has given Finn permission to do whatever he initially wanted to do, and in two steps he’s swallowing me whole. His hands are everywhere—my cheek, my neck, my hair—while his lips move carefully across mine, as if searching for something precious. First my lips, then my tongue against his, then the moan that’s ripped from the both of us. Changing angles, I don’t even notice as he backs me up across the patio; not until my butt gently bumps the solid brick of the wall behind us. He lifts me up without any questions, slinging my legs around his hips and leaning in deep. I exhale. His voice is ragged when he finally speaks again.
“Is this a dark enough corner for you, Grace?”
“It’s gonna have to do,” is all I can manage, feeling the length of him through his trousers. My heart stutters, then lifts off and flies—
So this is how it feels, I can’t help but marvel. To have a man who wants me, who doesn’t just tolerate me, who actually craves me on Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile inside, the orchestra hits its crescendo. Guests pour onto the floor, fueled by expensive wine and thoughts of Santa, and absolutely no one goes down the hallway outside our patio for quite some time.
Probably a good thing. The privacy was needed, in the end.
I am happy to report that I, Grace from Seattle by way of Minnesota—am having the absolute best fucking Christmas this year.
...And yes, it’s because I’m a total royal ho.
Jenna O'Brien is currently in Ireland looking at the view below. (What a ho!) I look forward to many more tales of hos upon her return. The photo is a very blurry picture of Jenna that I took from her email instead of asking her for an author photo properly, but you can still tell her hair is fabulous. Jenna is going to be famous someday. You should probably print this story out.