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“I told him to take the day off. He seemed a little down.”

Dad’s head snapped up. “Was he? I didn’t notice.”

“Yes. He, and I think maybe Miss Lucy, are having a bad day.”

At the mention of her name, he seemed to understand.

“Well, now I feel awful for not saying something.” He leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his temple.

“Have you been sleeping much?” I asked, fiddling with a paperweight.

He smiled. “I’m trying, honey, really. But if your mom makes so much as a peep, I’m instantly awake, and I end up watching her for an hour before I’m calm enough to sleep again. That heart attack sneaked up on us. If anything, I’d have expected for something to happen to me.”

I nodded. So many times recently I’d found myself watching him, wondering if he was okay. But Mom? She blindsided us all.

“Your mom keeps talking about going on the Report tomorrow like it’s some sign of things getting back to normal. As if, since she can do that, I should go back to work. And I know the second I go back to work, she will, too. I’m not saying I want her to sit around and twiddle her thumbs, but the thought of her going back to being the queen, all day, every day … I don’t know how to take it.”

He rubbed his eyes and gave me a humorless smile. “And the truth is, it’s been nice to pause, take a breath. I don’t think I realized how hard I’d been running until I had to stop.” He looked up at me. “I can’t remember the last time I had ten undisturbed hours with my wife. She’s got these pretty little laugh lines by her eyes.”

I smiled. “Well, you tell a lot of horrible jokes, Dad.”

He nodded. “What can I say? I’m a man of many talents. But that’s almost as hard to take: when she goes back to being queen, I need to go back to being king. And I don’t know when I’ll get another week like this, where it’s just her and me.”

“So, what if she didn’t?”

He squinted. “What do you mean?”

“Well …” It had been circulating in my head since the town hall meeting yesterday. I’d probably never be able to help all my people, but I could reach a few. That thought thrilled me more than I imagined possible. And, at the very least, I could help my parents, which recently started feeling like a monumental accomplishment. Still, as the words came out, I knew they were pure insanity. “What if she wasn’t queen anymore? What if I was?”

Dad stilled, staring at me in disbelief.

“I don’t mean it as an insult,” I stammered. “I know you’re fully able to lead … but you’re right. Mom’s going to want to go back to the complete role of being a queen. If I was queen, she’d have to do something else.”

His eyes widened as if he hadn’t considered this option.

“And if she wasn’t queen and you weren’t king, and this time it happened to be while she wasn’t recovering from a heart attack, maybe you could do more than sit around. Maybe you could travel or something.”

He blinked, astonished at the possibility.

“We could do it this week even. I can have a coronation dress made, Lady Brice and Neena can organize everything, and you know General Leger would make sure the entire event was safe. You wouldn’t have to worry about a thing.”

He swallowed, looking away. “Please, Dad, I don’t mean it as an insult. I—”

He held up a hand, and I silenced myself, stunned to see tears in his eyes when he turned back to me. “I’m not insulted,” he answered gruffly before clearing his throat. “I’m just so proud of you.”

I smiled. “So … you’ll let me ascend?”

“You’ll have a difficult time,” he said seriously. “The people are restless.”

“I know. I’m not scared. Well, not that scared.”

We shared a laugh. “You’ll be wonderful.”

I shrugged. “I’m no you. And I’m definitely no Mom. But I can do this. I have help, and I’ll still have the both of you. And between all of us, I’ll probably come out looking like a decent queen.”

He shook his head. “You are more than decent, Eadlyn. Maybe I haven’t told you enough, but you’re an extraordinary young woman. Bright and funny and capable. What a privilege it will be to be your subject.” His words were so genuine that I found myself blinking back tears.

I didn’t realize how much his opinion of my actions mattered until that moment. I should have, though, considering how many steps I’d taken at his suggestion. It meant the world that he approved of ones I was taking on my own.

He took a deep breath. “Okay, then.” Standing, he walked around the table and slid his signet ring off his ring finger and onto the middle finger of my hand. His eyes, the clearest I’d seen them in days, stared deeply into mine. “That looks rather nice on you.”

I tilted my head. “Nearly everything does.”

WHEN MOM WALKED INTO THE studio on Friday evening, the entire room broke out in applause. She lifted her hand in a wave, acknowledging the support as Dad walked so close beside her you couldn’t see a speck of light between them. She had a tiny limp from where the doctors had removed the vein from her leg, but she was so graceful, you really had to look to see it. She’d chosen a dress with a high neckline, and I could tell by the way she kept touching it that she was anxious about her scar.

“You look wonderful,” I said, stepping in stride with her and Dad, trying to distract her.

“Thank you. So do you.”

“How are you feeling, Dad?” I leaned around her, trying to gauge his emotions.

He tilted his head from side to side. “Part relieved, part nervous. Not about you—you’ll do fine. I’m just concerned about the reaction.”

I noted that he looked a bit more rested, and I could tell that seeing Mom all dressed up lifted his spirits.

“Me, too. But we knew this day would come sooner or later. I’d rather do it now and help when it’s most useful.”

Mom let out a wistful sigh. “Finally out of the spotlight and into the background,” she said. “I’ve missed it there.”

“People will still watch, my dear,” Dad said. “Just try to keep your chin up tonight, and I’ll be right beside you if you need me.”

“So, same as always?”

He smiled. “Same as always.”

“Look, I don’t plan to kick you out or anything, but if you insist on being mushy all the time, I’ll have you in a cottage faster than you can say P-D-A.”

Mom kissed my head. “Good luck tonight.”

They made their way to the chairs while I walked across to the boys.

“Your Highness.” Ean sank into a bow, his smile brighter than usual.

“Hello, sir.”

“How are you tonight?”

“Good, I think. It’s going to be a very exciting show.”

He leaned in. “I’m always up for a little excitement,” he whispered.

Ean smelled of aftershave and tobacco, and as there had been since the moment we’d met, something slightly hypnotic filled the air around him.

“I’ve been very busy lately, but I’ve been wondering if you and I should have a date soon.”

He shrugged. “Only if you want one. As I said, I have no intention of demanding anything from you.”

“So you’re quite comfortable?”

“I am,” he answered with a smile. “And as always, I’m here for you in whatever capacity you need me.”

He bowed and walked away, sitting down next to Hale, who whispered something to Ean as he approached. I watched Ean shake his head in reply. Hale looked unsettled, and I realized we hadn’t spoken since our disaster of a date. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to cross that bridge yet.

I walked over to my small group of suitors all the same.

“It’s so great to see the queen back,” Fox said.

I beamed. “It is. She’ll be giving a small update about her condition, there will be the normal notes from the advisers, then my father will be making a big announcement. You’re off the hook for tonight.”

“Thank goodness.” Kile slumped back in his seat, grinning.

I chuckled. “I know the feeling. So just sit there and look handsome.”

“Done,” Ean joked, a thing I hadn’t thought him capable of doing. Hale laughed and Henri smiled, though his expression showed me that he didn’t understand what had happened.

I started walking away, shaking my head as I went, when I was caught by the light brush of fingers across my wrist.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” Erik said. “I was wondering if I should sit with the audience since there won’t be any questions tonight.”

His blue eyes caught the bright lights of the studio, brilliant and clear.

“Are you afraid I’ll drag you into the middle of the set if you don’t hide?”

He chuckled. “More than you know.”

“Don’t worry. You’re safe. But Henri will need to understand my father’s announcement, so stay close.”

He nodded. “I will. Are you all right? You look a little on edge.”

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