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I walked over to him. And when he realized I was on my way, his gaze flew up to mine. In an instant, everything in the room came alive. Like the sunshine had a melody and the sounds of footsteps had a texture I could feel in my fingertips each time anyone moved.

The world woke up when I looked at him.

I stopped in front of Erik, hoping I didn’t look as dazzled as I felt. “I’m not commanding. I’m asking.”

He sighed. “That makes it a thousand times worse.” Smiling, he put his hand in mine, but before I could pull him onto the stage, he looked down at himself. As soon as the ceremony had ended, he’d taken off his suit jacket and was now only wearing a vest and tie. “Now I’m underdressed,” he lamented.

I sighed and unbuttoned the snaps holding the cape to my dress. The second I held it out, Hale came to carefully take it away. “Does that help?”

“No.” He swallowed. “But if you truly want this …”

“I do.” I tilted my head and playfully batted my lashes.

He laughed, clearly realizing he was defeated. “What do I do?”

“Okay.” I grinned, stepping closer. “Put this hand here,” I said, placing the front one on my waist. “And this one here,” pulling the other up to my shoulder. I put one hand on his chest and the other looped behind his arm, and we stood there in a loose embrace. “Now smile at the camera.”

“All right,” he said.

With my hand on his chest, I could feel his heart pounding. “Calm down,” I said quietly. “Pretend it’s just you and me.”

“I can’t.”

“Then, I don’t know, say something in Finnish.”

He chuckled to himself and whispered, “Vain koska pyysit, hauska nainen.” Though I couldn’t understand the words he continued to murmur, I knew I would never be able to forget his tone. Without looking up at him, I could hear his smile, which only made mine brighter. I had to remind myself to breathe, I was so busy listening to him. I knew in my heart these were important words. And I couldn’t recognize a single one.

“That was a good one,” the photographer said, and almost instantly Erik dropped his hands.

“See? Was that so awful?” I asked.

“I thought it would be much, much harder,” he confessed, and there was something funny in his voice, like I’d missed a detail.

I could hear it again, the rat tat tat of my foolish heart. I swallowed, ignoring it and turning instead to the footsteps echoing as they entered the hall.

“Marid,” I called in greeting.

“I’m sorry to intrude, but I couldn’t help myself. Is there any way I could get an official picture with my new queen?” Marid asked.

“Of course.” I extended a hand, and he walked over, happily taking it.

“The country is abuzz,” he told me. “I don’t know if you’ve been hearing reports today, but the coverage is very positive.”

“I haven’t had a second to pause and look,” I confessed as he held both of my hands affectionately and faced the camera.

“No need. You have people at your beck and call to report it all later. I’m just happy to be the first to tell you that your inaugural day is going beautifully.”

He squeezed my hand, and I sighed, thinking that maybe, finally, it was all coming together.

I DRANK CHAMPAGNE AND LAUGHED too loudly and ate half my body weight in chocolate. Just for a few hours, I wanted to revel in the ridiculous opulence I’d always taken for granted. Tomorrow I would sip water and get my head straight. Tomorrow I would worry about how to keep my country together. Tomorrow I would think about husbands.

But tonight? Tonight I was going to bask in this perfect, sparkling moment.

“One more dance?” Ahren asked, catching me mid-sip in what I swore was my last drink. “I have a flight to catch, but I wanted to say good-bye.”

I stood, taking his hand. “I’ll take whatever good-bye I can get. Anything will be better than last time.”

“I’m still sorry about that, but you know why I couldn’t.”

We locked form, and he spun me around the room. “I do. That didn’t make it any easier though. Add that to everything else that’s going on, and life’s been a little harsh without you here.”

“I’m sorry. But you’re doing very well, better than you think, I’d wager.”

“We’ll see. I still have to establish my government, make sure Mom and Dad slow down, and find someone to marry me.”

He shrugged. “So, basically nothing.”

“It’s practically a vacation.”

He chuckled. Oh, how I had missed that sound. “I’m sorry if my letter was harsh. Mom and Dad wanted to protect you, but I was afraid that not knowing where you stood might actually cripple you.”

“It wasn’t easy to read, but it’s come up again and again. I really should have known. If I hadn’t been so self-centered—”

“You were trying to shield yourself,” he said quickly, cutting me off. “You are doing something no one else in this country has ever done. Of course you found ways to make it easier.”

I shook my head. “Dad has been exhausted. Mom has never slowed down. You were in love, and I tried to talk you out of it. There’s a word for what I am, but I’m too much of a lady to say it.”

He laughed out loud at that, and I caught several eyes looking our way, most noticeably Camille’s. I’d wanted to be mad at her, this girl who’d done everything I was trying to do but ten times better, this girl who’d taken away my twin. But it was clear how happy she was to see us reunited.

I still didn’t understand how she’d mastered everything so easily, how she seemed to maintain being a leader and a girl without effort. I worried that, as perfect as this day was, it wouldn’t last.

“Hey,” he said, noting the worry in my eyes. “It will be fine. You’re going to make it through this.”

I fixed my face, trying to find the magic that had been running through my veins only moments ago. I was the new queen; it wouldn’t do for me to be sad on today of all days. “I know. I’m just not sure how.”

The song came to a close, and Ahren bowed deeply. “You must come to Paris for New Year’s.”

“And you have to come back for our next birthday,” I insisted.

“Then you have to honeymoon in France.”

“Not unless you come back here for the wedding.”

He held out a hand. “Deal.”

We shook on it, and my precious twin pulled me close for a hug. “I was mourning for days, thinking you’d never forgive me for leaving. The fact that you’re not mad at all makes going that much harder.”

“You have to call. And not just Mom and Dad, you have to call me.”

“I will.”

“I love you, Ahren.”

“I love you, Your Majesty.”

I laughed, and we both took a moment to dab at our eyes.

“Speaking of that wedding,” he started, “any idea who your groom will be?”

We surveyed the room. The Elite were easy to spot with their crisp suits and ties, as handsome as any of the visiting royalty. I’d watched them all night, adding their behavior to the piles of information I had about them.

Kile had graciously entertained most of the younger guests, and Fox had shaken so many hands I caught him massaging his wrists at one point. Though Ean and Hale were out of the running, I’d overheard them both giving glowing commentaries about my character to the press, going above and beyond anything I’d hoped for. And then there was Henri. He had done his best with Erik at his side, helping him through conversations, but as I watched him studying the partygoers from his seat, it was clear he’d had a rough time.

“I’ve gone back and forth a few times. It’s hard to know for sure who the right choice is. I just want to do what’s best for everyone.”

“Including you?”

I smiled, unable to answer.

“If there’s one thing I hope my leaving home proves,” he said seriously, “it’s that you have to do whatever it takes to be with the person you love.”

Love. Like clothes, I had guessed it was something that fit no two people exactly the same way. I was still unsure what the word looked like for me, but I sensed that, sooner rather than later, it would be fully defined. All that remained to be seen was if I could be satisfied with the definition.

“I’m telling you, Eady, wars and treaties and even countries will all come and go. But your life is yours, singular and sacred, and you should be with the person who makes it feel that way every blessed second you live it.”

I looked down, studying my gown, feeling the weight of the crown on my head. Yes, my life was singular and sacred, but from the moment of my birth—a mere seven minutes before his—it had belonged to anyone but me.

“Thank you, Ahren. I’ll remember that.”

“Please do.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Go find your wife. Be safe getting home, and let us know when you land, okay?”

He took my hand from his sleeve and kissed it. “Bye, Eady.”

“Bye.”

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