I made a face. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“It was awful!” After shaking his head, he pointed his fork at me. “My mom will not stop talking about it. ‘You look so good! Why didn’t you smile more?’ I swear, it’s maddening.”
“You’re blaming me?” I asked, feigning indignation.
“Forever. Forever I am blaming you! I don’t like being on camera.” He shuddered. I was glad he didn’t actually seem angry, though I could sense how serious he was about it.
I laughed, and he looked down bashfully at his plate as he smiled. It was then I realized Henri was stuck watching me chat with his translator while I was supposed to be on a date with him.
“You know, Henri, maybe we could do a full Swendish immersion experience, and you could teach everyone to make that soup you were talking about.”
Erik translated, and once again Henri was jubilant. “Kala-keitto!” he exclaimed.
There were things I was curious about with Henri. I wanted to know more about his family, particularly his sister. And I wanted to know if he was at peace with the idea of living here and working beside me, or if it worried him that we could have moments like the parade all over again and he’d be stuck trying to protect me from angry masses for the rest of his life. I wanted to ask him about that kiss in the kitchen, if he’d thought about it much or dismissed it as a lapse of judgment on one or both our parts.
But until I could ask him those things without having to ask Erik, too, there was no way I’d be able to.
THE DRESS WAS RED. MOM hadn’t worn it in years, which was one of the reasons I chose it. Hale trimmed the long lace sleeves up to my elbows and pulled a few of the layers from beneath the gown so it wasn’t quite as full. He was right about some of this being irreversible, but he’d handled it all so tastefully that even if Mom eventually wanted it back, she’d probably be thrilled with the alterations.
Eloise helped me do my hair, and it looked so smart, with braids leading back to a modest bun. I chose a tiara with rubies in it, and I looked like I was on fire.
It was beautiful, really. I knew that, and I was thankful for all the hands that had gone into making me look like someone who could be trusted with the decisions that had to be made on behalf of the country. It just felt old, older than I truly was, though maybe closer to the age I should behave. Sighing, I came to terms with the dress. This was who I had to be for now.
I was tugging at my seams in the studio when Josie came up to talk to me. “That dress is amazing,” she praised, unable to keep her fingers off the layers of satin.
I kept straightening. “It’s my mother’s.”
“I’m sorry about all that, by the way,” she said quietly. “Don’t think I’ve told you yet.”
I swallowed. “Thank you, Josie. That means a lot.”
“You know, since everything’s been so serious, it might be a good idea to have a party.”
I huffed out an almost laugh. “I’m a little busy for that. Maybe once things settle down.”
“I could plan it! Just let me talk to a few maids, and we could pull something together in a week.”
I turned from the mirror. “Like I said, maybe one day, but not now.” I moved away, trying to focus.
She trailed me across the room, insistent. “But why? Shouldn’t you be celebrating? I mean, you’re practically the queen, so—”
I spun on her, enraged. “But I am not the queen. That title belongs to my mother, who nearly died. That you so casually brush over that fact makes the condolences you just gave me meaningless. What don’t you get, Josie? Do you think this job is nothing but dresses and galas?”
She stood there, stunned. I watched her eyes dart around the room, checking to see if anyone was watching our interaction. I didn’t want to humiliate her. In a way, I understood her. There might have been a time when nothing brought me more joy than a reason to start a guest list, a time when I thought this role was nothing more than dresses and galas myself …
I sighed. “I’m not trying to insult you. But it would be inappropriate to throw a party when my mother is still recuperating. Please, what I need from you tonight is some level of understanding, which I realize may be too much, considering our history. Still, for my sanity, I beg you, just try to consider what it’s like to be in my shoes.”
She sulked. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Of course that only matters to you when it’s convenient.”
I wanted to rip her head off. What part about my life right now did she think was convenient? But I had a broadcast to think about.
“Excuse me?” I called to a passing maid. “Please escort Miss Josie to her room. Her attitude tonight is unsettling, and I need to concentrate.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The maid turned cheerfully to Josie, not worried about our personal issues and ready to do her job.
Josie huffed. “I hate you.”
I pointed to the door. “Yes, and you can do that from your room just as well as from here.”
Without waiting to see if she obeyed, I made my way to my seat. I’d never seen it set up this way: the Elite on one side and a single chair on the other.
As I was staring at the sad, lonely seat, Kile sidled up to me.
“What was that with Josie?”
I smiled and batted my eyes. “Nothing, sweetheart. Just making me seriously doubt how much I want her as an in-law.”
“Still too soon.”
I laughed. “No, we had a … disagreement. And I feel kind of bad, because I understand her. I just wish she could understand me.”
“That might be hard for Josie. She’s only aware of herself. Also, have you seen Gunner?”
I squinted. “He left this afternoon. Didn’t he say good-bye?”
Kile shook his head.
I walked over to the other boys, who all sat up straighter as I approached. “Did Gunner say good-bye to any of you?”
The others shook their heads in confusion as Fox cleared his throat. “He stopped by to see me. Gunner’s a bit sentimental, and he didn’t have it in him to go through a long farewell. He just said this wasn’t right for him and that he had your approval to go.”
“He did. We parted on very good terms.”
Fox nodded. “I think he thought he’d lose his resolve if he stuck around. He asked me to pass on to everyone how much he would miss you.” He smiled. “Really nice guy.”
“He was. But take his words to heart,” I pleaded, looking at each of their faces. “This is about your futures as well. Don’t stay for something that you might not be able to handle.”
Kile nodded, looking suddenly pensive. Hale gave me a bright smile. Ean was impassive as ever, and Henri was taking in Erik’s translation, looking confused.
Certainly I’d spend the rest of my evening overanalyzing their expressions, but for now, we had a show to put on.
“Hale,” I whispered, pointing to the gown. “Thank you.”
“Beautiful,” he mouthed. I knew he meant it, and I tried to hold myself taller. I wanted to do this dress justice tonight.
The cameras went on, and I greeted the country as honestly as I could.
“Let me begin with the news you’re most eager to hear. My mother is doing well. As I speak, she is healing in her room, with my father by her side.” I tried to stop focusing on how I was standing or what I should do with my hands. Instead I thought of my parents, no doubt watching this in pajamas with doctor-approved snacks by their sides. And when I pictured that, I smiled. “We all know that their love story may be the truest one ever told. Though it has been no small task to step into my father’s role.
“My brother, Ahren, now the prince consort of France, is also a testament to the power of the deepest love. From what I understand, he is settling into his new position very well and is already very happy to be a husband.” My smile crept through again. “None of this surprises me. His devotion to Princess Camille over both time and distance has been constant and strong, and I can only imagine his happiness at getting to be beside her every moment.
“As for the country at large”—I glanced at my notes, though I hated to do it—“some of the disquiet we’ve been experiencing has diminished over the last few weeks.” In one way that was absolutely true, but as far as disquiet related to me, my nose ought to be growing as I spoke. “Taking into account how much work my father has put into the cause of peace abroad, the thought that we could finally be achieving a greater peace at home brings me extraordinary joy.”
I hit on everything I was supposed to—the budget proposal, the upcoming start to the drilling project, and the change in the advisory board, which made a few people in the room squirm—and when it was all done, I searched the crowd for a few important faces. Lady Brice gave me a big nod, as did General Leger. I saw Grandma fidgeting, impatient with the lengthy announcements, and likely only holding on so she could hear the boys speak. And, just off the stage, Erik smiled at me, pleased.
“Your Highness.” Gavril bowed as he spoke. “May I say, considering the circumstances under which you’ve been thrust into this role, you are doing a fantastic job.”
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