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“Thank you, sir.” I didn’t know how genuine that statement was, but maybe him saying it would make other people think it.

“One has to wonder, if you’ve been working at such a pace, have you made any time for this lot over here?” he asked, nodding his head toward the Elite.

“A little.”

“Really? Anything you can share with us?” He wiggled his eyebrows, and I was reminded again of the ways in which his on-camera personality differed from his off-camera one. Entertainment was his job, and he was great at it.

“Yes, but for fun—I won’t be using names.”

“Not using names?”

“For instance, one member of the Elite has left us today,” I said, though I knew this was a throwaway that’d be unraveled in seconds. “I would like to say of our departed suitor that he left in good spirits and as a friend.”

“Ah, I see,” Gavril said. “I like this! Give us some more.”

“Well, today one of my suitors gave me a gift made from a very precious metal.”

“Oh, my!” Gavril surveyed my hands, looking, as everyone would, for rings.

I held them up for the world to see. “No, not gold. It was steel. He gave me a sewing pin. But I promise, it was very special.”

Chuckles arose from our audience and from the Elite, and I hoped that this was as charming on camera as it was in my head.

“Please tell me you have at least one more,” Gavril pleaded.

“One more,” I allowed. “Earlier this week, one of the Elite told me he definitely wasn’t in love with me, and I told him I felt the same way.”

Gavril was wide-eyed. “Is this the same young man who happened to leave us?”

“No. And that’s the crazy part. We’re not in love and yet we have no desire to be separated, so there you go.” I gave a playful shrug, and smiled as I listened to the sighs and laughter around the room.

“While I’m sure a fair share of our country will be up late tonight trying to guess who you’re talking about, it would be nice to have something a bit more solid.”

“You might have to talk to the boys about that.”

“Then I think we shall do just that. May I go and quiz these handsome young men?”

“By all means,” I replied with a smile, happy to back out of the spotlight for one beautiful moment.

“All right, let’s start down here. Sir Fox, how are you?”

“Very good, sir. Thank you.” He sat up a little straighter and smiled brightly.

“The people understand that the princess has been under a lot of stress and her days are packed full, so the one-on-one time has been limited,” Gavril said graciously.

“Yeah, it was impressive to see how hard she was working before, so seeing her take on even more these last few days … it’s inspiring.”

I tipped my head, feeling a little warm inside. Inspiring? That was such a kind thought.

Gavril nodded in agreement. “Considering all that, could you tell us something from your time with the princess that has stood out against all the rest?”

Instantly, a smile came to Fox’s face. “I suppose the most significant moment of our relationship would be after the fight, when Burke went home. She came and spoke to me and was so honest about what she hoped for. She listened to me, too. I think that’s a side of her that few people have the privilege of seeing. It’s not as if she can go door-to-door giving everyone an hour of her time … but when she’s with you, she’s all there. She’s really hearing you.”

I remembered that night with Fox warmly, but I didn’t realize how much it had meant to him. He’d treasured that moment.

Kile raised his hand. “I’d have to agree with that. Everyone knows that Ead—uh, the princess and I really only began our friendship recently. And in that time, I’ve felt a lot of my worries and aspirations have been heard.”

“Like what?” Gavril prodded.

He shrugged. “I mean, it’s nothing exciting, but I do have a passion for architecture, and the princess actually sat down and looked at my sketches.” He raised a finger as if he suddenly remembered something. “Granted, we’d had some wine, and I’m sure she was very bored, but still.”

Everyone chuckled, and I smiled at Kile. He made being on camera look so easy, always coming up with wonderful things to say. It made me feel surer I’d made the right call telling him how I felt.

Carrying the momentum, Gavril bypassed Henri and headed straight to Ean. I hated that Henri was being excluded, but it looked like Gavril had a plan.

“Sir Ean, you are maybe the quietest one of the bunch. Do you have anything to add?”

His expression was as cool as ever. “I am a man of few words,” he agreed, “but I will say that the princess is incredibly thoughtful. Though there are only five of us left, none of the eliminations were made flippantly. Just by getting to know these other gentlemen, I can see the effort the princess has put into making the best possible choice for herself and for her people.

“What the cameras couldn’t capture was the mood in the Men’s Parlor when she had to make her most recent elimination. There wasn’t a drop of animosity in the air. She’s been so generous with us that it was impossible to be upset. All the other suitors left satisfied.”

Gavril nodded. “So how do you think your chances are? You’ve made it to the top five!”

Ean, as always, was nothing but smooth. “I am at Her Highness’s disposal. She is the best woman any of us could possibly attain, and as such has incredible standards. It’s not about my assessment of my odds, it’s about her preference. For that we will all wait and see.”

I’d never heard Ean speak so much at once, but I found myself feeling instantly indebted to him. Though we had an understanding in our relationship, and it was admittedly unromantic, he still saw so much good in me. That, or he was an incredible actor.

“Very interesting. What about you, Sir Hale? As I recall, you had the first date with the princess. How are you feeling right now?”

“I feel lucky,” he said warmly. “I’ve grown up seeing her in parades, and watching her on television, and seeing her face in magazines.” He pointed across the room at me. “She’s so pretty it’s intimidating, and she has this look like maybe she could burn you with her eyes if she felt like it.”

Part of that stung, but there was something so terribly honest about it that I couldn’t not smile.

“But I got to have dinner with her once and made her laugh so hard she spit her drink out.”

“Hale!”

He shrugged. “Someone would find out someday. You might as well share!”

I covered my face with my hands, wondering what Mom and Dad would think of all this.

“My point is, everything we’ve said about her is true. She’s tough, she’s a leader, and, yes, I think if she wanted to shoot fire from her eyes, she could do it.” The room chuckled. “But she’s also a great listener, and is invested, and knows how to laugh. Like, really laugh. I’m not sure everyone will get to see that, so I feel lucky that I did.”

The entire segment was such a glorious tribute to my finer qualities that I almost wondered if the boys had been coached. And if they had, then I owed something huge to whoever thought of it.

As the cameras went down, I walked over to Gavril. “Thank you. You were outstanding tonight.”

“I have always been on your side, and I always will be.” He winked at me and went on his way.

I watched as the audience filtered out, and I stood there a moment feeling proud. I’d gotten through it, almost entirely on my own. The Elite were fantastic, kinder than I could have guessed or hoped. Mom and Dad were going to be so pleased.

“Well done.” Kile wrapped an arm around me. “Your first solo Report is in the books!”

“I seriously thought tonight might be a disaster, but look!” I said, leaping away and holding out my arms. “I’m still in one piece.”

Hale came over and chuckled. “Did you think people would stream in through the doors and tear you to bits?”

“You never know!”

Fox laughed, and Ean stood back, still smiling. I was so grateful. If I’d known how to articulate it, I’d have unabashedly gushed about how great they’d been tonight.

“Dinner?” Fox asked, and the boys all nodded.

I heard Henri saying one word over and over again excitedly, which I assumed meant he was thrilled to be getting food. We all formed a little group and walked to the dining hall together.

I FELT SO CONTENT AS we walked up the stairs and down the hallways, a sense of familiarity and peace surrounding me that I suspected had a lot to do with me feeling so comfortable with my company.

It lasted right up until the moment we walked through the dining-hall doors.

Mom and Dad were still upstairs, and Grandma had retreated to her room. Osten wasn’t feeling well this evening, so Kaden was keeping him company, and my twin was still an ocean away from me and then some.

One look at the empty head table and I wanted to go and hide away myself.

“Your Highness?” Erik asked, and I turned to find myself inches away from his concerned eyes. There was something calming about them, a detail I remembered from after the fight in the kitchen. I’d looked into them then and felt like I had seen right through to his soul. Even now, with so many people around, just seeing his crystal-clear blue eyes search mine swept away my sadness. “Are you all right?” he said, and I could tell from his tone that he’d already asked me once and I’d missed it.

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