He laughed at himself and shrugged, and I smiled.
“‘You have beautiful, talent, smartness, and are nice. I hope to showing you how good I think of you. Also, more kissing.’”
I couldn’t not laugh, and he was so happy to see me in good spirits, he looked like he might burst from it.
“Still working,” he said, sitting the notebook down. “Um, I getting Erik?”
“No,” I said. “Just you.”
He looked nervous at trying to communicate with me on his own. But even this was better than we’d ever done before. He nodded, rubbing his hands together to get out some of his nervous energy.
“Henri, you like me, yes?”
He nodded. “Yes. Like you.”
“I like you, too.”
He smiled. “Good!”
And again I found myself laughing. See, Eadlyn, this would be fine.
“Henri … Henri, would you marry me?”
He squinted for a moment before his eyes widened in surprise.
“I marry you?”
“Yes, if you would like to.”
He stepped back, smiling as always, but there was something in his expression I couldn’t name. Disbelief? Doubt? But after a flicker of a second, it disappeared.
“Wait, wait.” He dropped to his knees, clutching both of my hands. “You will marry me?”
He laughed and went to kissing my hands over and over, finally stopping and staring at them for a while, like he couldn’t believe he was going to hold them for the rest of his life.
“Come here,” I said, urging him to stand.
He embraced me, holding me tight. And as sweet as all this was, I was fighting the urge to cry again.
“You have to give me a ring,” I said, and opened the box on the table, taking in Henri’s audible gasp.
Set in the blue velvet were twenty-five different engagement rings, ranging in size and color but all befitting a queen.
He stared at them a second before turning to me. “I pick for you?”
He made a face, a little overwhelmed with his options. Henri ran his finger over the dreamy combinations of garnet and amethyst and lingered over the diamonds so flat and wide, you could go ice-skating on them. But then he found a large pearl, set in a blushing rose gold and surrounded by a string of diamonds. He held it up to his face and nodded.
I held out my left hand, and he slipped on the massive, gorgeous ring.
“Good, good?” he asked.
That was what I would have to be satisfied with. Not perfect. Not blissful. But good. And, for me, after every mistake I’d made along the way, that should certainly be enough.
I smiled. “Good, good.”
“You got a delivery,” Eloise announced.
I looked at the package, not sure what it was, as I hadn’t been expecting anything. I set the box of rings beside it, fanning out my fingers.
“What do you think?” I asked.
Eloise’s eyes widened. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Well, they made twenty-five different rings for this, all one of a kind. A bit over the top, but I’m glad this one was in there. Easily one of my favorites.”
“It looks beautiful on you, miss.” She smiled at me. “Is there anything else you need or would you rather be alone?”
“Alone for now, I think.”
“Excellent. Call when you’re ready for dinner, and I’ll be right up.”
I nodded, and she disappeared around the door, the hem of her dress hitting it as she left.
I never should have doubted Neena.
I gripped the back of the chair at my table, trying to take things one breath at a time. I’d nearly lost so much, but I had to remember how much I’d gained. I was queen, and I was engaged. I’d finally learned what it was to see other people and what it meant to let other people see me. I still had so much to accomplish, so many things I wanted to do for my family and for my people. I hoped I’d firmly settled myself in a place where I could do that.
Sighing, I curiously unwrapped the thin box in front of me. I slid off the lid and gasped.
Staring back at me was a beautiful image of my family on coronation day. Osten looked like he was plotting something mischievous as always, and Ahren was so handsome. All Kaden needed was a sword in his hand, and the image of a perfectly gallant prince would have been complete. I flipped to the next picture, and we were there again in a slightly different pose. I tore through the box, taking in shot after shot, beaming with happiness. Lady Brice clenched me in a hug, Kile laughed as he cradled me in his arms, and the Legers stood with a hand on each of my shoulders as if I really was their daughter.
These moments felt so far away now. It was almost as if I was looking at another girl in all these photos. A little time and hope was all it took to change a person.
When I got to the pictures with Eikko, they stood in stark contrast to all the others. I’d taken off my cape and he was in his vest, and I realized that I had subconsciously posed us like two people in love. My hand rested on his chest as he held onto my waist, and my head was tilted slightly toward him, like his heart had a gravitational pull.
I stared at my favorite picture for a very long time, thinking how amazing it was that the photographer had captured the light in his eyes. Just hours after this was taken, I’d stared into those eyes, been held by those arms. How remarkable was it that I had this picture at all? Had it not been for the others, he might not have even walked over with me, whispering Finnish in my ear. I told myself that I’d been lucky we met in the first place. Had I fought my parents, had Henri not been brave enough to apply, had I moved my hand two inches to the right when I pulled out his envelope …
I took the photo and walked over to the drawer where I’d been hiding my treasures. I smiled, looking down at my little collection and remembering the past two months with a sense of gratitude.
Henri’s shirt that he made into an apron. Kile’s hideous tie that prevented world peace. Hale’s pin, stabbed through a scrap a fabric, reminding me to keep it together. Fox’s embarrassing stick-figure drawing. Gunner’s poem that I really didn’t even need on paper because I couldn’t forget it if I tried. These were the things I’d saved.
I stood there, the photo hovering above the drawer. As much of a treasure as this picture was, I couldn’t drop it in. There was no way I could put my Eikko in a box.
BEFORE WHAT WOULD BE THE most important day of my life could even begin, I was summoned to the Women’s Room. My mother could have held court anywhere, and I still didn’t understand what made some massive parlor her favorite place to do it. All the same, she had called, and I was coming.
Miss Lucy was there, and so was Aunt May. I didn’t know who let slip the news to her, but I was so thrilled I nearly bolted across the room to her. But then I saw that my beloved aunt was not the reason I’d been called. Miss Marlee was weeping into Mom’s shoulder.
She looked up and zeroed in on me. “If you didn’t want to marry him, fine, but why—WHY—did you banish him? How am I supposed to live without my children?”
“Josie will still be here,” I reminded her gently.
She held up a finger at me. “Don’t get smart. You may be queen, but you are still just a child.”
Mom’s eyes darted between us, unsure what to do: defend a daughter who was old enough to defend herself but her daughter nonetheless, or comfort a friend whose son was leaving her with very little warning—a pain she understood intimately.
“Miss Marlee, you have to let me explain.” I crossed the room, watching her crumple into a chair. “I love Kile. He’s become more precious to me than I ever could have expected. And the truth is, he would have stayed for me. He might have even stayed for you. But did you really want that?”
“Yes!” she insisted, looking up at me with red eyes.
“It almost literally broke my mother’s heart when Ahren left. It broke mine. Does that mean he should have stayed here forever?”
She didn’t answer that. I saw that Mom’s eyes were downcast, and she pursed her lips, like maybe she was only understanding this herself now.
“I know we’re not supposed to talk about the things that make us uncomfortable. Like how your hands ended up covered in scars,” I said, staring Miss Marlee down. “But we need to talk about it. It’s remarkable what you did for love, and I am jealous of and awed by you.”
Her face pulled together, tears spilling again, and I fought to keep myself together. I had too many people counting on me today.
“We all know what you did, and we all know how you were restored, and I understand that you think you are somehow permanently indebted to our family, but you’re not. Miss Marlee, what else do you think we could want from you?”
She still said nothing.
“Ask my mother. She doesn’t want you trapped here. You can go with your son if you want to. You could travel the world as dignitaries if you like. To think that because your life was spared it is no longer yours is a lie. And to pass that burden on to your children? To make a gifted, talented, passionate young man spend his best years cooped up behind these walls? That’s cruel.”
Miss Marlee’s head fell into her hands.
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