“It’s perfect. I can see it’s a little different from your usual style, but then again, your typical look isn’t meant to be coronation-day ready.”
I turned around and looked in the mirror. That one sentence made the whole thing so much better.
“Thank you. I think I’ve been overanalyzing it.”
He stood beside me. It was comical, these beautiful clothes, some of the best we’d ever wear, marked in chalk and held by pins. We looked like dolls. “That seems to be a talent of yours.”
I grimaced but nodded. He was right.
“I realize I’m in no position to tell you what to do,” he said, “but you seem to handle things much better when you think about them less. Get out of your head. Trust your gut. Trust your heart.”
“I’m terrified of my heart.” I didn’t mean to say those words out loud, but there was something about him that made this room, and this moment, the only place I could ever admit to the truth.
He leaned down by my ear and whispered, “There’s nothing there to fear.” He cleared his throat, then turned back to face our reflections. “Maybe what you need is a little luck. You see this ring?” he asked, holding out his pinkie.
I did. I’d noticed it a dozen times. Why would someone who dulled himself down and refused to put on a suit wear a piece of jewelry?
“This was my great-great-grandmother’s wedding ring. The weaving design is a traditional Swendish thing. You see it everywhere in Swendway.” He slipped off the ring and held it between two fingers. “This has survived everything from wars to famine, even my family’s move to Illéa. I’m supposed to give it to the girl I marry. Mom’s orders.”
I smiled, charmed by his excitement. I wondered if there was someone back home hoping to wear it someday.
“But it seems to have a lot of good luck,” he continued. “I think you could use some right now.”
He held out the ring to me, but I shook my head. “I can’t take that! It’s an heirloom.”
“Yes, but it’s a very fortunate heirloom. It’s guided several people to their soul mates. And it’s only temporary. Until you get to the end of the Selection, or Henri and I leave. Whichever happens first.”
Hesitantly, I slid the ring onto my finger, noting how smooth it was.
“Thank you, Erik.”
I looked into his blue eyes. It only took one charged second to hear the heart that I’d had so little faith in. It was taking in that piercing stare and the warm scent of his skin … and it was shouting.
Without considering the repercussions or the complications, without knowing if he felt anything similar to what I did, I leaned into him. And I was thrilled to find he wasn’t pulling away. We were so close I could feel his breath across my lips.
“Have we made a decision?” the tailor asked, springing back in.
I jerked away from Erik. “Yes. Please finish the suit for us, sir.”
Without looking back, I hurried into the hallway. My heart was racing as I found an empty guest room and darted inside, slamming the door behind me.
I had felt it growing, this feeling that had been hiding beneath the surface for some time now. I’d seen him, this person who never intended to be seen, and my faulty, silly, useless heart kept whispering his name. I clutched my chest, feeling my heart racing. “You treacherous, treacherous thing. What have you done?”
I’d wondered how it was possible to magically find a soul mate in a random group of boys.
But now I couldn’t question it.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS PASSED in a whirlwind of preparation for the coronation. I did my absolute best to stay in my office and take meals in my room, but even so, I couldn’t avoid Erik completely.
We had to go by the church and practice the procession, in which he was forced to participate in order to even out the number of people walking behind me. And he had to stick by Henri as we walked the Elite through the Great Room, explaining how best to circulate at a formal party. And I had to approve the final fitting of their suits, which I managed to do without making eye contact but which still was much, much harder than I’d have thought.
The coronation would be one of the most important moments of my life, and still, all I could think about was how it might have felt to kiss him.
I was running late. I never ran late.
But my hair wouldn’t curl the right way, and a seam popped under my arm, and though I’d picked out sensible heels earlier in the week, once I tried them on with the dress, I hated them.
Eloise took deep breaths as she got my hair right, practicing with a mock crown to check that everything would look as beautiful as possible when the actual moment arrived. Neena was busy making sure people were dressed and ready, so it was Hale who dashed in at the last moment with a needle and thread to make sure everything with the dress was fixed.
“Thank you,” I breathed.
He tied off the last stitch. “Any time.” He looked at his watch. “Though I really wish you’d have asked earlier.”
“It didn’t pop until I put it on!”
He smiled. “I gave everything a once-over, and it looks like that was the only weak spot. Better we caught it now than in the middle of the day.”
I nodded. “I need things to be perfect today. Just once I’d like to come across as put together but not so put together that I hate everything and everyone around me.”
Hale laughed. “Well then, if it happens to pop again, roll with it.”
Eloise went to fetch something from the bathroom, and I took my chance. “How’s Ean?” I asked in a whisper.
“Good. Stunned,” he answered, almost giddy. “We both want to help you in whatever way we can. You’re making our futures possible, so we owe you one.”
“Just help me get through today, and that will be plenty.”
“Something every day,” he reminded me.
I hopped off the pedestal and hugged him. “You’ve been incredibly worthy.”
“That’s good to know,” he replied, returning my embrace. “Okay, I’m getting my suit jacket and heading downstairs. Let me know if you need me today.”
I nodded, trying not to tense as Eloise came back to do her final touch-ups.
“He’s a nice one,” she remarked, spraying the last of the flyaways.
“Personally, I’d pick Kile,” she commented with a giggle.
“I know!” I shook my head at her. “I still haven’t forgotten how you let him sneak into my room.”
She shrugged. “He is my favorite. I have to do what I can!”
Finally everything was in place. I made my way downstairs, the tail of my cape draped over my arm. The foyer was a mass of people. General Leger on one side holding Miss Lucy’s hands to his lips, Josie and Neena in matching pale-blue gowns that would look lovely as they held my train down the aisle, and the five remaining Elite in a circle toward a corner, with Erik wearing a tie that was a shade of blue slightly brighter than the others.
But I only had eyes for one boy in the crowd. As I reached the middle of the staircase, I caught sight of Ahren. He was here.
I rushed through the herd, elbowing my way past advisers and friends, running not into Ahren’s arms, but Camille’s.
“Is he well?” I asked into her ear.
“And are your people pleased? Do they accept him?”
“As if he was born one of our own.”
I held her tighter. “Thank you.”
I pulled away, turning to see my stupid brother.
“You clean up nice,” he teased.
I didn’t know if I should joke with him or punch him in the arm or scream or laugh or anything at all. So I crushed him in a hug.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I shouldn’t have left the way I did. I shouldn’t have left you alone.”
I shook my head. “You were right. I miss you so much it hurts, but you had to go.”
“As soon as I heard about Mom, I wanted to come back. But I didn’t know if it would make things worse or better, or if it was even fair for me to show up since it seemed I was the cause.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. All that matters is that you’re here now.”
He held me close for a minute as Lady Brice organized everyone into cars. The advisers went first and the Elite just after, all of them bowing deeply to me, Erik especially. He didn’t meet my eyes, and I was grateful. Who knew what my stupid heart might have done if he had?
It did melt a little when he walked away, pulling repeatedly at his sleeves, seeming painfully uncomfortable in his suit.
“Okay, next car,” Lady Brice announced. “Everyone whose last name is Schreave, even you, Monsieur French Prince.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ahren said, taking Camille’s hand.
“Eadlyn’s in first, followed by Neena and Josie. The rest of the family in after that, and I’ll be in a car right behind you.”
Dad paused. “Brice, you should be with us.”
“Absolutely,” Mom agreed. “There’s room in the limo, and you’re the one holding this whole thing together.”
“I’m not sure that’s appropriate,” she replied.
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