“Is it okay if I call you that? Eikko? I like your name.”
He shrugged. “I only changed it because I thought it was too strange.”
“No,” I insisted. “It’s not strange.”
He looked down, toying with the blanket. “What about you? Full name?”
I sighed. “There was some debate over middle names, so it’s Eadlyn Helena Margarete Schreave.”
“That’s a mouthful,” he teased.
“It’s pretentious, too. My name literally means ‘princess shining pearl.’”
He tried to hide his smile. “Your parents named you Princess?”
“Yes. Yes, I am Queen Princess Schreave, thank you.”
“I shouldn’t laugh.”
“And yet you do.” I brushed the crumbs off my dress. “It makes me feel like I was predestined to become a brat.”
He grabbed my hand, forcing me to look at him. “You are not a brat.”
“The first time we really spoke, I corrected your manners.”
He shrugged. “They needed correcting.”
I smiled sadly. “I’m not sure why, but that makes me want to cry.”
“Please don’t. That was a good day for me.”
I questioned him with my eyes, holding on to his hand as he continued. “When you got up onto the float and you were speaking with Henri? After you were done, you looked down to let me know everything was okay. You didn’t have to do that. You were busy and in a rush, and you still acknowledged me. Even after knowing I was the type of person who bit my nails when I was nervous.”
That made me want to cry even more. “Did it start then?”
“Pretty much. And I’ve chastised myself for it every day since. But, of course, I assumed no one would ever know, least of all you.”
“I was a bit slower,” I admitted. “I think it was when you pulled me from the kitchen. You weren’t worried about what was happening, or how we might look running through a crowded room, or anything else in the world, it seemed. I was unsettled, and you brought me back to earth. So many people are in charge of keeping me in line, but no one seems to make me feel quite so normal as you.”
He swallowed. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to do that much longer.”
“You have no idea how much I wish you could.”
After a strained moment of silence, he cleared his throat. “Would you please be so kind … when this is over, would you please not contact me? I’m sure you could find me any time you wanted. But please don’t. You have been a wonderful friend to me, and so have these men. I don’t want to become the kind of man who betrays his friends.”
“And I don’t want to become the kind of woman who deceives her husband. When it’s over, it’s over.”
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“But nothing is over tonight,” I reminded him.
He looked down, smiling a bit. “I know. I’m trying to decide if I have enough courage to ask you for another kiss.”
I moved closer to him. “You can ask for one. Or two. Or twelve.”
And he laughed before he toppled backward, the rush of our movement knocking over his glass of wine and sending the candle flames dancing.
I GOT TO THE OFFICE a little later than I’d intended the next morning. I’d swept back my hair and dressed in a rush, but no matter how much time I spent on my face, I couldn’t seem to wipe away my smile.
It was a delicious feeling, falling in love. I’d had so many luxuries in my life, and I thought I’d had a taste of this before, but I realized now it was merely a cheap imitation of something not meant to be imitated in the first place.
I reminded myself it would end, and I’d already made my peace with it. I knew I was going to choose Kile; I’d told Eikko as much.
Kile would make me happy, and I hoped I could do the same for him. I figured at some point, once Kile knew I was choosing him, I’d come clean to him about some of this. And I knew Kile well enough to know that he’d understand if I confessed to feeling confused about the process and that kissing Eikko wasn’t something I planned, both of which were true. I didn’t want it hanging over us. Any of us.
And a life side by side with Kile was not exactly a prison sentence. He was smart, passionate, funny, charming—a dozen things a husband ought to be. He would be beloved by the people—our people—and he would stand beside me and fight Marid. He was so charismatic, he might even render Marid useless.
And, deep in my heart, I hoped there was a chance that I could learn to love him, now that I knew what that really felt like.
For the time being I had a few precious days left with Eikko, and I intended to treasure each one.
Neena tapped on my desk, bringing my attention back to the present. “Are you okay? What are you thinking about?”
To be honest, I was thinking about the sound of Her Majesty Eadlyn Helena Margarete Schreave de Koskinen, and how suddenly my mouthful of names seemed like a line of poetry. But then I looked into her eyes and saw they were tinged with red.
“About you,” I said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said in a tone that said not really. “It’s just Mark. He’s working such long hours, and now I have to work more, and it’s getting harder to keep in touch. You know, same old. Distance isn’t a big deal until it is.”
I took her hands. “Neena, the last thing I want to do is cost you the person you love. You’re a brilliant girl; you could work anywhere—”
“Are you firing me?” she whispered, looking like she might cry.
“Of course not! The thought of you leaving breaks my heart. If you can have friend soul mates, you’re mine, and I don’t want you going anywhere.” She laughed through her glassy eyes. “I just can’t bear to watch you lose something that matters so much to you.”
“I get that. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to sit back and look at your life right now?”
I sighed. “My life is a different thing entirely. And, like you said, I could do worse.”
“Eadlyn, please rethink this. There must be a better way to stop Marid.”
“If there is, I don’t have the time to wait for it. If I don’t secure my place now, I’ll either have a reign filled with people trying to usurp me and failing, or people trying and succeeding. Those options aren’t acceptable. This matters to me. I can’t compromise.”
She nodded. “Well, neither can I. And I couldn’t leave you like that.”
I took her hand, grateful, as always, for her presence in my life.
“Let me know if you change your mind,” I insisted. “If you need to leave, I could—”
I was stunned into silence by the sight of Josie coming into the office balancing a tray in her hands. She set a cup of coffee in front of Neena and one in front of me before she spoke.
“Everyone said you took your coffee with two sugars, but if it’s wrong I can go back.”
“No, no,” I said, still slightly confused. “That’s right.”
“Okay. And I was walking by the mailroom and they had these, so I figured I could get them to you.” She placed a handful of letters in the wooden in-box on my desk.
She nodded. “Also, I saw your mother this morning. She’s doing very well. I haven’t seen any of the boys.”
“Good luck hunting them down,” I said with a smile. “Thank you, Josie.”
“It’s the least I could do.” She shrugged. “I’m not busy, if you need another set of hands.”
I turned, and saw she was still taking in this change. “How’s your penmanship?” she finally asked.
“Excellent,” Josie replied, beaming.
“All right, then.” And just like that, I got an unexpected addition to the office.
Fox was quiet as we walked the palace halls. It wasn’t the most exciting of dates, but the constant cloud of worry hanging over my head had sapped any creativity I had. Still, as the photographer checked the images on the back of his camera, he seemed pleased.
“It’s kind of sad that we can’t go out to a restaurant or do something fun like … Do you bowl?” Fox asked.
“No,” I answered with a laugh. “Putting on shoes that a thousand other people have worn and putting my fingers into holes with goodness knows how many germs in there?” I stuck out my tongue. “Not my thing.”
He smiled. “But it’s so fun! How can you even think about germs?”
“Osten once asked to go bowling for his birthday. We rented an entire bowling alley for the afternoon. After I realized you were supposed to wear used shoes, I couldn’t get over it. No matter how much disinfectant they sprayed in there, I wasn’t up for that. Everyone played, even Mom, but I watched.”
“That’s sad. Are you afraid of germs?” His tone was almost mocking.
I let the snub go. “No. It’s just incredibly unappealing.”
“Well, that settles it,” he said.
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