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Eadlyn

FOX UNDERSTOOD WHAT BEING SUMMONED to my office meant. So he refused to come and instead sent his good-byes through Neena, who arranged for him to stay at a hotel until he could get a flight to Clermont the following morning.

I felt low, sneaky somehow, like I’d gotten off too easy. I’d been prepared for a battle. I got a retreat.

But Hale walked through the doorway all smiles, dressed to the nines and ready to leave like a gentleman. His arms were open as he crossed the office, and I fell into them, trusting him to a fault.

“I’m going to miss you so much,” he whispered into my ear.

“Me, too. But you know how to get ahold of me if you need to, right?”

He nodded. “Neena gave me some information along with my flight details.”

“Good. Because I’m probably going to need to speak with you soon.”

“Oh?” he asked, stepping back and straightening his suit coat.

“Of course. Someone has to design my wedding dress.”

Hale stood there, the smile wiped instantly from his face as if he thought this was some twisted joke.

“Eadlyn … do you mean that?”

I held him by the shoulders. “You shielded me when the public threw food. You befriended me before I was willing to accept it. Even now you’ve protected me, far past anything I’ve deserved. The least I can do is be your first client. I’ll be watching your skyrocketing career with interest, sir.”

His eyes glistened with tears, but he managed to keep himself together.

“I’m kind of scared to leave,” he confessed. “So much is going to change once I’m outside of these walls.”

I nodded. “But that doesn’t mean it’s going to all be bad.”

He laughed. “When did you become such an optimist?”

“It comes and goes.”

“As do most things,” he said with a sigh.

“As do most things,” I agreed. I hugged him one last time. “Have a safe flight, and start designing as soon as you get home.”

“Are you kidding? I’ll be designing in the car!”

Hale kissed my cheek and winked. “Bye, Eadlyn.”

“Bye.”

With Hale gone, everything spiraled into a laser focus. This was the end. There were two suitors left, and one blue-eyed soul mate. I wasn’t sure who to speak to first. After some thought, I realized Eikko knew what was coming. He wouldn’t be surprised by my announcement. But Henri would, and I expected he was going to take it hard. I would see Kile first, and that would leave me plenty of time to talk this out calmly with Henri through the painful use of his positively wonderful translator.

I was trembling when I knocked on Kile’s door. I hadn’t prepared a speech or anything. And while I assumed he’d say yes, I really had no idea. What if he’d suddenly decided that I wasn’t worth all the work?

His butler answered the door and bowed deeply. “Your Majesty.”

“I need to speak with Sir Kile, please.”

“I’m sorry, miss, he’s not here. He mentioned getting something from his old room.”

“Oh. Well, I know where that is. Thank you.”

I made my way up to the third floor, following the path I’d taken the night he’d agreed to kiss me in the hallway. What a strange turn our lives had taken.

Kile’s door was slightly open, and I could see him tinkering away in the corner of his room. He’d flung his suit jacket and tie on the bed and was sanding a small piece of wood, presumably preparing to attach it to the structure beside it.

“Can I come in?”

He whipped his head up, and a few strands of hair fell into his face. It was getting long again. It didn’t look as bad as I remembered.

“Hey there,” he said, shaking the mess off his hands and coming to greet me. “I was hoping I’d get to see you today.”

“Oh, yeah?”

He put an arm around my waist and pulled me to the back of the room. “I was watching some TV this morning, and I kept seeing all this stuff about Marid.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know. He’s a bit of a problem right now.”

He swept some dust off a chair, and I sat across from him, looking at his little creations. Detailed sketches in blue and black ink, piles of books with papers sticking out, and his miniature buildings scattered around like a tiny town. He’d made a world up here.

“Can he really propose?” He sounded nervous, like he feared Marid might take me instead of the country.

“He can, I suppose, but I won’t say yes.” I sighed. “Turns out Marid is not the ally I thought he was. He’s been threatening to sway public opinion, and at first I wasn’t sure he could do it. Then the way he got himself into everyone’s house today … it’s brilliant, really. Just like Lady Brice said, it’s an instant, battle-free invasion.”

“Invasion? Like what? Is he suddenly vying for the crown?”

I ran my fingers over the lines of one of Kile’s drawings. “I don’t think it’s sudden. I think he and his family have been looking to make a move for quite a while. The inept young queen was a perfect opportunity.

“Now he wants to be my consort and use my name to make his plans happen. My only hope is to get engaged before he can try to propose, because I’m sure the press will just gobble it up if I reject him.”

“So let’s do it.”

“Do what?”

“Get married. Eadlyn, I’d marry you tonight. Between the two of us and our families, there’s no way he’d survive. People have been pulling for us from the start. Marry me, Eadlyn.”

I looked into the sweet and worried face of Kile Woodwork, and for a minute I really thought I could. I’d told myself it would all be easy, to walk down an aisle and find him at the end. He’d always make me laugh. And after the last two months of being on the same side, I knew, without question, that he would support me for life.

“I will confess, I came here just now to make that very proposal. But … I can’t.”

“Why? Is it because I didn’t get down on one knee?” He dropped instantly, gripping my hands. “Or wait, is it because you’re supposed to ask?”

I got down on the floor with him. “No. It’s not because of any of that.”

His face fell. “You don’t love me.”

I shook my head, laughing. “No, it’s not that either. In fact, I might love you a little too much. Maybe not entirely romantically, but I definitely love you.”

“Then why?”

“Because of this,” I said, motioning to the work around me. “Kile, I’ll never be able to tell you how much it means to me that you would take me for life just to save me from one person. Considering what a pain I’ve been, that’s a miracle.”

He chuckled, still holding my hands.

“But all you have ever wanted was to get away from these walls. All you want to do is build. I think that’s a beautiful thing. So many people in the world want to tear things apart. How wonderful is it that you’d do the opposite?”

“But I’d give it up. I wouldn’t mind.”

“I would. I would mind. And eventually, when the scary side of my life dies down, you would, too. You’d die a little from the ache for it. You’d resent me.” Tears pooled in my eyes. “I can’t live in a world where you don’t like me.”

“I’ll stay, Eady. I’m telling you, I want to.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. You just said that you needed to. Who could do this better than me?”

Hot tears streamed down my face. “Please, don’t make me force this on you.”

“You can’t make me leave, Eadlyn.”

I ripped my hands from his and shot to my feet, wiping my face. I looked down on Kile, my sweet, sacrificing friend, and steadied myself.

“Kile Woodwork, you are hereby banished from the palace for the term of one year.”

“What?” he stood, balling his fists.

“As compensation for losing your home, and for services rendered to the royal family, you will have an apartment fully paid for in Bonita.”

“Bonita? That’s on the other side of the country!”

“In addition, funds and materials will be allotted to you to begin a housing project for the homeless in the province’s capital city.”

His face softened. “What?”

“If you find the funds or materials insufficient, you may write the palace and request more, and I will have them sent to you as quickly as possible.”

“Eadlyn …”

“You will always be my family, Kile, but I won’t make you my husband. I can’t do that to you.”

His voice was tender. “But you will make someone your husband. You need to now.”

“It will be Henri. Fox left a few hours ago, and Hale just got into a car.”

He was completely floored. “This is really the end, isn’t it?”

“And I was prepared to be with you for the rest of my life. In a way, I guess I still can. But I’d hate myself if I kept you here. It’d be heartless.”

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