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“If you marry me, the first order of business is putting in our own personal bowling alley.”

I laughed.

“I’m not kidding. Maybe we could do away with the studio and put it there.”

“No more Reports?” I asked joyfully. “Okay, that might be a tipping point for me. I’m on board.”

“You could design your own shoes!”

“Oooooh!” I could already imagine taking those weird shoes and making them worthy of royalty. That would be a fun project. “That’s one thing I really like about you, Fox. You’re good at lightening the mood.”

“I think we’re good, Your Majesty,” the photographer said, retreating. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” I called. “Sorry about that. With things getting to the end, people really want a peek into the final four.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said. “I feel lucky, getting this far, getting to be with you.”

I rubbed my thumb across his hand. “Thanks, Fox. I know I’ve been busy.”

“Do I look upset? I’m on the first date with you as queen. How incredible is that?”

I hadn’t even considered how that might be taken. I’d been hoping to hint that he might be leaving soon. Now I felt trapped.

“I’ve been so rude. How are you doing? How’s your family?”

“Dad’s all right. He’s been bragging to everyone who’ll stop and listen. ‘You saw Fox was in the final four, right? That’s my boy.’” He shook his head. “I guess he hasn’t had much to celebrate for a while, so even though I kind of want to tell him to calm down, I can’t. At least I don’t have to watch it firsthand.”

I giggled. “I know what you mean. My dad’s into photography, and he likes to document every little thing. For some reason it can be way more embarrassing when he’s there than a journalist, even when they’re doing the exact same thing.”

“It’s your dad. It’s personal.”

“Yeah.”

We fell silent, and the palace felt empty. For a moment I missed the crowding mass of boys who’d stormed into my life barely two months ago. I wondered if I would keep thinking about them after this was all over.

“Anyway, he’s doing well, all things considered,” Fox said, filling the space. “He’s really proud, but he keeps asking me questions that I’m never quite sure how to answer.”

“What do you mean?”

I watched Fox’s expression shift from determination to embarrassment.

“He keeps asking me if I love you. Or if you love me. I’ve told him that I can’t go walking into your office and demanding a declaration of love.” He grinned, showing he understood how unreasonable the request was. “I would never ask you to tell me your feelings. I’m not sure that’s fair. But I thought you should know that I … I …”

“Don’t say it.”

“Why not? I felt it for a while now, and I’ve wanted to tell you.”

“I’m not ready to hear it.” I backed away, my heart pounding in my ears. This was too fast, too sudden. I’d hardly gotten to speak to him recently, and now this?

“Eadlyn. I want you to at least know how I feel. You’re going to have to pick someone soon, so wouldn’t it be wise for you to have this information?”

I turned to him and squared my shoulders. If I could face reporters and dignitaries, I could face a boy. “Tell me everything, Fox.”

His smile was tiny but sincere. “I think I’ve been a goner for you from the night you let me stay. You were so kind to me in the middle of the worst night of my life, and I’m desperate for you to meet my family. I want to see you on the beach in Clermont; I want you to spend an evening around the table with us. In a million ways, I think you’d fit right in with the Wesleys.”

He paused, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe he’d said that.

“I want to help you. I want to be there for you in any way I can. And I’d like to think that you could be there for me. I don’t know how much longer I have with my dad. I’d like him to know I’ve chosen a path before he dies.”

I closed my eyes, feeling overwhelmed with guilt. It wasn’t that long ago my mother was on what I thought was her deathbed. I understood that wish.

“But that doesn’t mean I can make it come true,” I mumbled.

“What?”

“Nothing,” I answered, shaking my head clear. “Fox, these are beautiful sentiments. And I admire your honesty, but I’m not ready to make any promises.”

“I’m not asking you to.” He came closer, taking my hand. “I just needed you to know how I felt.”

“And now, as you said, I’ll take all this into consideration as I’m making my choice. Which will be soon.”

He rubbed his finger across my hand, a gesture that felt less comforting than it should have.

“I’m serious about you, Eadlyn. Don’t doubt it.”

“Oh, I don’t,” I whispered. “Not in the slightest.”

“I DON’T UNDERSTAND,” NEENA CONFESSED the next morning as I recounted the date to her. “Isn’t him confessing his devotion a good thing? Like, maybe he could be one of the top two instead?”

Everyone else was still at breakfast, so the office was empty. As the sun beamed through the windows, we sat together on a couch, legs curled beneath us, as if this was the morning after a slumber party.

“I don’t think so. Something about it felt so forced. Not that he didn’t actually feel those things, but it was like he orchestrated a moment so I would have to hear it.” I rested my head on my hand, the lines repeating in my head. “And then I felt guilty. He talked about his dad and said I’d make a good Wesley and … it was all just off somehow.”

My free hand picked at the hem of my skirt as if my fingers could undo my tangled thoughts. “I think what it was,” I began, “is that he said he’d felt this way since the night of the kitchen fight, but we haven’t really had much interaction since then, at least not one-on-one. So for him to have this growing, deep, serious attraction to me … where does it stem from?”

Neena nodded. “It’s like he’s in love with someone he thinks you are, not who you really are.”

My whole body wilted in relief. “That’s it. That’s exactly what this feels like.”

“So send him home?”

I shook my head. “No, I promised Hale he could leave next. He’s ready, and I don’t want to disappoint him, not after everything he’s done for me.”

“Good morning, Your Majesty. Hi, Neena.” Lady Brice walked in, holding a muffin in her hand. “Your Majesty, I have some documents from your brother for you to review. It appears France wants to renegotiate their trade deal. I think this will be the easiest one in years.”

“Aww, what a handy little thing, that Ahren.” I was sure this was more Camille’s doing than his, but I knew his presence was helpful.

“He sure is. I also have three contracts for you to review from New Asia; they’re waiting on your desk. And the producer of the Report would like to film an interview with you this afternoon, something about transition pieces, I don’t know.”

“Oh, so, a nice, easy day?” I joked.

“As always!”

“Lady Brice, did you help Dad this much?”

She laughed. “Only for a short time. Once you grew up, he wanted you to take on a bigger role. And as soon as you feel you’re on your feet, I’ll happily step back, or maybe retire.”

I scrambled off the couch and grabbed her by the shoulders. “No. Not ever. You will live and die in this office!”

“As you wish, my queen.”

“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!” someone yelled.

“Josie?” I called, watching as she ran in. “What’s the matter?”

“I was watching TV. Marid.” She was gulping in breaths.

“What about Marid?”

She swallowed. “He was seen shopping for engagement rings. It’s all over the news.”

All the advisers flooded into the parlor as we watched everything unfold. Very quickly, the many people I didn’t trust with my secrets were made all too aware of what Marid had been plotting and just how close he was coming to the crown.

“He’s got the look of a king, doesn’t he?” one newscaster said.

“Of course he does! He’s descended from one!” her cohort replied.

“Really, wouldn’t that be so romantic?”

“It would. Oh, it so would, but she is in the middle of a Selection.”

The newscaster brushed her hand across the air. “Who cares? Let them go. None of them has the charm of Marid Illéa, not by a long shot.”

I flipped channels.

“According to the jeweler, Mr. Illéa was looking at some rather expensive pieces, which would only be fitting if he is indeed planning to propose to the queen.”

“This is yet another unlikely event in a series of unprecedented moves surrounding the royal family. First, we have a Selection led by a princess instead of a prince. Second, we have a young woman ascending well before she’s been either fully trained or her father has passed. And now we have an outside suitor trying to steal the queen’s heart before one of the Elite has a chance. It is absolutely fascinating.”

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