“You could have gone,” Mom whispered to her. “I thought you knew.”
“It didn’t feel like that, not for me. Carter and I would have died years ago if it wasn’t for you and Maxon. I didn’t feel like I could ever not be in the process of thanking you.”
“You befriended me when I was a stranger. You talked me down from walking out of the Selection. You held back my hair when I had morning sickness. Remember, because it always happened in the afternoon?”
They both laughed.
“When I was scared of this job, you told me I could do it. You helped stitch up a bullet wound, for crying out loud.”
I was about to ask about that one but chose to let it go.
Miss Lucy walked over and knelt beside Miss Marlee, taking her hand. “We have a very tangled past, don’t we?” she said. Mom and Miss Marlee smiled. “We’ve made mistakes and kept secrets and done plenty of foolish things along with the good. But look at us. We’re grown women. And look at Eadlyn.”
The three of them did just that.
“Should she be looking at herself twenty years from now bound by every little lapse in judgment? Feeling chained by them?”
“Should we?” Miss Lucy concluded.
Miss Marlee’s shoulders slumped, and she pulled Mom and Miss Lucy close.
I watched this, feeling a knot in my throat.
A day would come when my mother would no longer be here, when my aunt could no longer visit, and these ladies would move away. But then there would be me and Josie and Neena, with daughters and cousins and friends. We would live together and weave our lives into one another’s and hold on to a sacred sisterhood that only a handful of women ever experienced.
And I was glad that my mom had chosen to come here, across the country, to the home of a stranger, and trusted a girl on a plane and befriended the girl who drew her baths, and that no matter if and when they parted, they would never be separated. Not really.
THE STUDIO HAD BEEN GIVEN a makeover. While discussing my engagement in front of an audience of friends, family, and staff members as I was broadcast live across the country wasn’t exactly the level of intimacy I’d been aiming for, sometimes a girl just has to take what she can get.
I searched the room, looking for Mom and Dad. I needed to see them, to see their smiles at my choice. If they were happy and calm, then I could be, too. But they weren’t here, yet. Kaden, however, was.
I watched from the door, seeing him stare across the room as if he’d been slightly bewitched. He spooked a little when I came up next to him.
He cleared his throat and looked down at his feet, blushing. “Yeah, everything’s great. Just hanging out.”
I followed his gaze to see if I could figure out what he’d been looking at, and it instantly became all too clear. Josie had given up on elaborate hairstyles and excessive jewelry. She’d abandoned heavy makeup and showy gowns. Looking at her now—hair slightly curled, the hint of gloss on her lips, and an age-appropriate blue dress—it seemed she was finally stepping into her shoes instead of mine.
“Josie’s really pretty tonight,” I commented.
“Oh? I hadn’t noticed. But now that you mention it, yeah, she looks nice.”
Miss Marlee, seeming breezy and peaceful, said something to Mr. Carter, and Josie laughed, the sound still a little too loud for my ears but pretty nonetheless.
“Since you’re not on camera for the show, maybe you should go sit with her. It looks like she’s got an open seat.” I peeked down at Kaden, watching a little smile twitch onto his face before he covered it back up again.
“I suppose. I mean, I don’t really have plans to sit with anyone else.”
He walked over to her, straightening his suit the whole way, and I found myself dying to know how all that would unfold.
I turned to Mom’s voice, happy to see her coming over with open arms.
“How are you feeling?”
“Totally wonderful and not at all terrified,” I joked.
“Don’t worry. Henri’s a good choice. An unlikely one, but very good still.”
I peeked to the back of the room where Eikko was straightening Henri’s tie, and they spoke back and forth, their lips a jumble of shapes I couldn’t read.
“What’s funny, though, is there’s nothing to be jealous about.”
I looked up at Mom, confused. “Jealous?”
“Earlier today when you were speaking to Marlee, you said you were jealous of what she did for love.”
“Did I say that?” I swallowed.
“You did. And I wonder why you’d be jealous of someone suffering to get to the person she loves when it seems like a very sweet boy is waltzing right into your arms.”
I froze. How could I spin this around?
“Maybe a better word would have been admire. It’s a very brave thing she did.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “If you want to lie to me, that’s fine, but I’d suggest you stop doing it to yourself before you find you’re in a position you can’t get out of.”
With that she walked on, taking a seat next to Miss Lucy and General Leger. The studio was usually cold, but I felt sure that the chill that went through me wasn’t related to the temperature.
“And you’ll wait right here,” the producer said, dragging Henri to stand beside me. “We still have some time, but don’t go running off. Has anyone seen Gavril?” she shouted to no one in particular.
Henri pointed to the tie that Eikko had just fixed. “Is good?”
“Yes.” I brushed at his shoulders and sleeves. I looked past him to Eikko, who had done an amazing job at pulling himself together. I hoped I appeared as calm on the outside as he did. Inside it felt like I was a sweater with a loose string being pulled and pulled until I’d be nothing but a knot on the floor.
I walked around Henri under the guise of double-checking his suit from all angles. I dropped my arm as I passed Eikko, and our fingers met in a kiss before I moved back to stand in front of my fiancé.
The thrill running up my skin was electrifying, so I clasped my hands together in front of me, focusing on the feeling of my engagement ring against the back of my fingers. In my periphery, Eikko’s figure disappeared through the crowd, presumably so he could find his own level of sanity in this moment.
“So,” I asked, facing Henri, “are you ready?”
He looked at me, his usually jubilant expression dim. “Are you?”
I wanted to say yes, and I could hear the word in my head, but I couldn’t manage to work it down to my mouth. So I just smiled and nodded.
He saw right through me.
Taking my hand, he pulled me toward the back of the room, toward Eikko.
“En voi,” Henri said, his tone more solemn than I’d ever heard it.
Eikko’s eyes flashed between us. “Miksi ei?”
“I am slow here,” Henri said, pointing to his mouth. “Not here.” He pointed to his eyes.
My breathing sped up, knowing my life was all about to fall apart, and terrified of what might happen after it did.
“You are love,” he said, motioning between us.
When Eikko started to shake his head, Henri sighed and picked up his right hand, pointing to the signet ring. And then he picked up mine, which still wore Eikko’s.
“Eikko, please explain to him. I have to follow through with my Selection. Tell him he’ll never need to doubt me.”
Eikko rattled off my appeal quickly, but Henri’s expression remained undeterred.
“Please,” I pleaded, grabbing onto his arm.
His expression was incredibly sweet when he spoke. “I say no.” He picked up my hand and gently pulled off my engagement ring.
The room started turning fuzzy at the edges. I was minutes away from a live announcement, and I’d just been jilted.
Henri grabbed my face, looking deeply into my eyes. “Love you,” he vowed. “Love you.” Then he turned and clutched Eikko’s arm. “And love you. My good friend. Very good friend.”
Eikko swallowed, looking ready to cry from Henri’s words. Through most of the last two months, all they’d had were each other. Forget what this moment meant for me. What did it mean for them?
Henri pulled us both in close. “You being together. I make your cake!”
Despite my worries, I laughed. Looking into Eikko’s eyes, I ached to let go and give my heart the one thing it truly wanted. But I couldn’t get past my fear.
I scanned the room, searching for the one person I needed right now. When I found him, I turned to my boys. “Wait here. Please.”
I ran across the studio. “Daddy! Dad, I need your help.”
“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t want to marry Henri. I want to marry Eikko.”
“Erik. His translator. I’m in love with him, and I want to marry him. And even though he hates having his picture taken, I want to take a thousand so I can put him on my wall and wake up to us laughing every day, just like you do with Mom. And I want him to make me doughnuts, just like his mom does for his dad. Even if I have to let out all my dresses. And I want us to find our own thing or maybe find out that our own thing is everything, because I feel like if I have him, even the stupid stuff would matter.”
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