Page 2

“My mother held such great respect for the Selection, which, as you all know, led to my parents’ long and happy marriage. As such, I’ve decided to honor what I know would be her deepest wish and continue with my own Selection.

“Due to the stress placed on our household in the last twenty-four hours, I think it wise to cut my suitors down to the Elite. My father narrowed his field to six instead of ten because of extenuating circumstances, and I have done the same. The following six gentlemen have been invited to stay on in the Selection: Sir Gunner Croft, Sir Kile Woodwork, Sir Ean Cabel, Sir Hale Garner, Sir Fox Wesley, and Sir Henri Jaakoppi.”

These names were a strangely comforting thing, like I knew how proud they were of this moment and I could feel the glow of it, even from a distance.

It was almost done. They knew Ahren was gone, that my mother might die, and that the Selection would carry on. Now came the news I was terrified to deliver. Thanks to Ahren, I understood exactly what my people thought of me. What kind of response would I receive?

“With my mother in such a delicate state, my father, King Maxon Schreave, has chosen to remain by her side.” Here goes. “As such, he has named me regent until he feels fit to reclaim his title. I will make all decisions of state until further notice. It is with a heavy heart that I assume this role, but it gives me great joy to bring any peace to my parents.

“We will have more updates on all these matters as they become available. Thank you for your time, and good day.”

The cameras stopped rolling, and I moved just off the stage, sitting in one of the chairs that were usually reserved for my family. I felt queasy and would have sat there for hours trying to regain my composure if I thought I could get away with it, but there was too much to do. The first thing on the list was to check on Mom and Dad again, then off to work. At some point today I would have to meet with the Elite as well.

As I went to exit the studio, I stopped short because my path was blocked by a row of gentlemen. The first face I saw was Hale’s. His expression lit up as he held out a flower. “For you.”

I looked down the line and saw they all had flowers in their hands, some with roots still noticeably attached. All I could assume was that they had heard their names on the announcement, rushed from the Men’s Parlor to the garden, and come down here.

“You idiots,” I sighed. “Thank you.”

I took Hale’s flower and hugged him. “I know I said something every day,” he whispered, “but let me know if you need me to up it to two, okay?”

I held him a little tighter. “Thanks.”

Ean was next, and though we’d only ever touched during those staged photos of our date, I found myself unable to refrain from embracing him.

“I get the feeling you were coerced into this,” I murmured.

“I took mine from a vase in the hallway. Don’t tell the staff on me.”

I patted his back, and he did the same to me.

“She’ll be okay,” he promised. “You all will.”

Kile had pricked his finger on a thorn and held his bleeding hand awkwardly away from my clothes as we hugged, which made me laugh and was perfect.

“For smiles,” Henri said as I added his flower to my messy bouquet.

“Good, good,” I replied, and he laughed at me.

Even Erik had gotten me a flower. I smirked a bit as I took it.

“This is a dandelion,” I told him.

He shrugged. “I know. Some see a weed; some see a flower. Perspective.”

I wrapped my arms around him, and I could feel him looking at the others as I held him, seeming uncomfortable to be getting the same treatment as they had.

Gunner swallowed, not able to say much, but held me gently before I moved on.

Fox had three flowers in his hand. “I couldn’t pick.”

I smiled. “They’re all beautiful. Thanks.”

Fox’s embrace was tight, like he needed the support more than the others did. I held on to him as I looked back at my Elite.

No, this whole process made no sense, but I could see how it happened, how your heart could get swept up in the endeavor. And that was my hope now: that somehow duty and love would overlap, and I’d find myself happy in the middle of it all.

MOM’S HANDS FELT SO SOFT, almost papery in a way. The feeling made me think of how water smoothed out the edges of a stone. I smiled, thinking she must have been a very rough stone once upon a time.

“Did you ever used to get it wrong?” I asked. “Say the wrong words, do the wrong things?”

I waited for an answer, receiving nothing but the hum of equipment and the beat of the monitor.

“Well, you and Dad used to fight, so you must have been wrong sometimes.”

I held her hand tighter, trying to warm it in mine.

“I made all the announcements. Now everyone knows about Ahren getting married and that you’re a little … indisposed at the moment. I cut the boys down to six. I know that’s a big cut, but Dad said it was okay and that he did that when it was his turn, so no one can get upset.” I sighed. “Regardless, I have a feeling people will still find a way to get upset with me.”

I blinked back tears, worried she’d sense how scared I was. The doctors believed that the shock of Ahren’s departure was the catalyst for her current condition, though I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d contributed to her stress daily, like drops of poison so small someone didn’t realize they’d ingested something dangerous until it had overtaken them.

“Anyway, I’m off to run my first advisory board meeting as soon as Dad gets back. He says it shouldn’t be too difficult. Honestly, I feel like General Leger had the toughest job of anyone today, trying to get Dad to go eat, because he fought so hard to stay here with you. The general was insistent, though, and Dad finally caved. I’m glad he’s here. General Leger, I mean. It’s kind of like having a backup parent.”

I held her hand a little tighter and leaned in, whispering. “Please don’t make me need a backup parent, though, okay? I still need you. The boys still need you. And Dad … he looks like he might fall apart if you leave. So when it’s time to wake up, you’ve gotta come back, all right?”

I waited for her mouth to twitch or her fingers to move, anything to show that she could hear me. Nothing.

Just then Dad tore through the door with General Leger on his heels. I wiped at my cheeks, hoping no one would notice.

“See,” General Leger said. “She’s stable. The doctors would come running if anything changed.”

“All the same, I prefer to be here,” Dad said firmly.

“Dad, you were hardly gone ten minutes. Did you even eat?”

“I ate. Tell her, Aspen.”

General Leger sighed. “We’ll call it eating.”

Dad shot him a look that would have been threatening to some but only made the general smile. “I’ll see if I can sneak some food in so you won’t have to leave.”

Dad nodded. “Look out for my girl.”

“Of course.” General Leger winked at me, and I stood up and followed him from the room, looking back at Mom just to check.

Still asleep.

In the hallway, he held out an arm for me. “You ready, my not-quite queen?”

I took it and smiled. “No. Let’s go.”

As we made our way to the boardroom, I nearly asked General Leger if he would take me for another lap around the floor. The day felt so overwhelming already that I wasn’t sure I could do this.

Nonsense, I told myself. You’ve sat in on these meetings dozens of times. You’ve almost always thought the same things Dad has said. Yes, this is your first time leading it, but this was always waiting for you. And no one is going to be hard on you today, for goodness’ sake; your mother just had a heart attack.

I pulled the door open with purpose, General Leger trailing behind me. I made sure to nod at the gentlemen as I passed. Sir Andrews, Sir Coddly, Mr. Rasmus, and a handful of other men I’d known for years sat arranging their pens and paper. Lady Brice looked proud as she watched me sweep around to my father’s spot, as did the general when he settled into the place beside her.

“Good morning.” I took my seat at the head of the table, gazing down at the thin folder in front of me. Thank goodness the agenda looked light today.

“How is your mother?” Lady Brice asked solemnly.

I should have written this answer on a sign so I could stop repeating it. “She’s asleep still. I’m not sure how serious her condition is at the moment, but Dad is staying by her side, and we’ll be sure to update everyone if there’s any change.”

Lady Brice smiled sadly. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. She always was a tough one.”

I tried to hide my surprise, but I didn’t realize Lady Brice knew my mother that well. In truth, I didn’t know that much about Lady Brice myself, but her tone was so sincere, I was happy to have her beside me at the moment.

I nodded. “Let’s get through this so I can tell her my first day on the job was at least slightly productive.”

There were gentle chuckles around the room at that, but my smile quickly faded as I read the first page presented to me.

“I hope this is a joke,” I said dryly.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***