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“It’s a fair question. But I can’t really answer it right now. I have so much to figure out.”

“Exactly,” he replied enthusiastically. “So I am going to ask for something ridiculous. Could I kiss you?”

I stepped back. “Excuse me?”

“We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. But I think a kiss can say a lot. I think one kiss would be enough for you to know if it’s worth me pursing you or you pursuing me.”

There was something sweet about his request, like even though a picture of me kissing Kile had been plastered across the country, he still didn’t think it was a given that I’d just go and kiss anyone. And that he’d learned enough from Jack’s expulsion to move with care. That alone made me want to give him what he was asking for. But to do this, to potentially lose a final suitor without even trying to know him better? It felt foolish.

“You could be a prince. You could have more money than you knew what to do with, be so famous people who don’t even have televisions would know your face. Are you willing to bet all of that on one kiss?”

“I’m willing to bet your happiness and mine on it.”

I inhaled, thinking. “Okay.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.”

Once the surprise wore off, Gunner placed his hand on my waist. He lowered his face to mine, stopping momentarily to laugh.

“This is a bit surreal.”

“I’m waiting, sir.”

He smiled just before our lips touched. There were plenty of good things about the kiss. His mouth wasn’t rigid, and he didn’t try to stick his tongue down my throat. He also smelled pretty good, though not like cinnamon or flowers or anything recognizable. Overall, I would say not bad.

But then, the fact that I could make that assessment as it was going on …

Gunner pulled away, pressed his lips together, and considered.

“No, right?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Not that it was bad!”

“It just wasn’t that good.”

“Exactly.” His stance shifted in relief. “Thank you so much for this experience, but I think it’s time for me to head home.”

I smiled. “You sure? You’re welcome to stay for the Report, go home in the morning.”

“Nah.” He smiled bashfully. “I think if I stayed, I’d try to talk myself back into it. You might be the most beautiful girl I’ll ever meet, but … I don’t think you’re the girl for me. I’d hate to find a reason why you could be when I’ve been trying to tell myself for a while that it was unlikely.”

I held out my hand. “I respect that. Best of luck to you, sir.”

Gunner shook my hand. “And to you, Your Highness.”

As Gunner made his way to the stairwell, I saw a butler escorting Hale toward Mom’s room. I waved him over, though his eyes were on my dismissed suitor as they passed.

“What was Gunner doing up here?” he asked.

“Making a choice. Come with me. I need your hands.”

I CAME OUT OF MOM’S closet wearing our top pick, pressing it to my chest to save my modesty. “Thank you for doing this,” I said as Hale went to work, pulling at seams and pinning them in place.

“Are you kidding? I’m helping dress my future queen right now. I’m over the moon.” He pulled some more, watching the way the fabric reacted in the mirror. “Of course, it’s not the same as building you a gown from scratch, but this will be an impressive addition to my resume.”

I chuckled. “I just feel bad you have to give up your afternoon for this.”

“Well, it gets kind of boring in the Men’s Parlor. I’m sure if I ask Kile, he’ll come and sit with me while I work. Or Ean, maybe.”

“Ean,” I said, shocked. “It’s hard to imagine him willingly joining anyone anywhere.”

Hale smiled. “Yeah. I think he’s finally getting used to us. He talks to me sometimes, and to Erik. Probably because he’s not competition.”

“That makes sense. Ean seems like the ‘not here to make friends’ type, but I don’t think anyone could go through this without getting close to someone. It’s too hard. As difficult as it is for me, I know it’s just as bad for you all.”

“We definitely get the better end of the deal though,” he said, winking at my reflection.

I tilted my head. “I don’t know about that. The more I think about it, the sadder I get about having to send all but one of you away. I’ll miss having you here.”

“Have you considered a harem?” he said, deadpan.

I bent over in laughter and was rewarded with a pin stabbing my waist. “Ow!”

“Sorry! I shouldn’t joke when there are needles around.” He walked in front of me, and I held still, watching his eyes, recognizing the analytical gaze, knowing I did the same thing myself to designs and proposals and sometimes even to people. “I think we need to streamline this a little. Are you sure this is absolutely okay with the queen? Because some of these cuts I can’t undo.”

“Don’t worry. You have full permission to tweak in any way you deem necessary.”

“That makes me feel so important.”

“Well, you are. You’re helping me look like a leader tonight. It takes a thousand little things to make this role work, so I owe you one. Or two. At least two.”

“You all right?”

I looked up, not realizing how somber I’d gotten. “Yes. It’s just a lot to deal with sometimes. I’m trying to hold it together, that’s all.”

Hale pulled a pin from the pile the maid had left us and held it up for me. “Use this next time you feel like things are falling apart. It’ll help, I promise.”

Slowly I took it, spinning it between my finger and thumb, and, at least for a moment, I believed it was true.

Henri was right on time, rushing into the parlor as if he’d been dying to run down for the last fifteen minutes. He bypassed ceremony as he held my hands and kissed my cheek, making me laugh.

“Hello today!”

I smiled. “Hello, Henri.”

Over Henri’s shoulder, Erik bowed, and I gave him a nod.

I took Henri’s arm and led him to the table, laid with two settings fairly close together and a third slightly distanced.

“Here,” Henri said, pulling out my chair.

Once I was seated, he eagerly ran around the table to sit across from me … and the conversation drew to an abrupt halt. I pulled the cover off my plate so they would know they could do the same, and after a few silent bites, I worked to bridge the gap.

“How’s your family?” I asked. “And your sister?”

“Miten on Annika?” he said, turning to Erik for confirmation. He nodded, and Henri returned to me, delighted. “Good. She very good. We miss.”

I gave him a sad look and nodded. “I understand completely. You have no idea how much I wish Ahren was here.”

He kept his expression calm but leaned over to Erik, who muttered a translation of my answer as quickly as he could.

“Your mom? Is good?” Henri said, trying so hard.

“Yes, thank goodness. Heading back to her room right now and recovering nicely.”

Once again Erik came to our rescue. We went back and forth in the same way for a few more minutes, and even with all the effort he’d been putting into learning English, Henri was as lost as I was. I hated this. It was too impersonal. It was one thing to need a translator for a visiting dignitary, but for someone who was in my home daily, it felt like too much. Even if Henri’s time in the palace was short-lived, I really wanted to be able to speak with him, just him, at least from time to time.

“Erik, how does Henri do with the other Elite? Do they all speak through you?”

He sat taller, taking this in. “Mostly. Hale and Kile have picked up a few words.”

“And the others?”

He pursed his lips, looking guilty, as if he was worried he’d sully the reputation of the others. “Gunner has been marginally interested, as is Fox, but they don’t appear to want to take on the challenge. It’s a lot of work. And Ean will speak with me but doesn’t really try to speak with Henri.”

I let out a long sigh, several thoughts flitting through my head. “Would you be up to giving us all a little Finnish lesson tomorrow morning?”

Erik raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“Absolutely. It seems unfair that Henri has to do all the work.” As I said his name, Henri’s eyes darted over to me. He was certainly following our conversation in his own way, but I was excited for him to discover exactly where this was going.

Erik spoke swiftly in Finnish, and Henri’s eyes lit up.

“I speak, too? I speaking?” he asked as if this was going to be a party instead of a lesson.

“Of course,” I said, and Henri sat there, completely beside himself, the gears already turning in his head.

“I think you just made his day,” Erik commented.

“I’m upset I didn’t think of it sooner. It will make things easier on everyone.”

“I hope so. But I’m still going to focus on the English lessons. I’m hoping to avoid any more appearances on the Report.”

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