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I turned back to Erik, who was standing by the door. He bowed deeply.

“Goodnight, Your Highness.”

“Goodnight.”

He walked away quickly, and Neena came over, handing me a cup of tea. The strange thing was, my hands were already so warm.

About an hour later I met Mom and Dad in the office to discuss what’d happened.

“Sir Fox looks pretty bad,” a guard relayed. “Sir Henri tried to pull him away, but Sir Burke was practically unstoppable. Both Sir Henri and Sir Kile got some marks simply from trying to separate them.”

“How bad?” I asked.

“Sir Henri has a bruise on his chest and a cut just above his eye. Sir Kile’s lip was busted open, and there aren’t any big scars besides that, but he feels sore from trying to contain Sir Burke.”

“You can stop calling him ‘Sir’!” Dad insisted. “Burke is leaving right now! The same for Fox!”

“Maxon, reconsider. Fox didn’t do anything,” Mom urged. “I agree it was inappropriate, but don’t make that choice on Eadlyn’s behalf.”

“I will!” he yelled. “We did this to bring our people joy, to give our daughter a chance at the same happiness we have. And since it began, she’s been assaulted twice! I will NOT have monsters like that under my roof!” He finished his speech, slamming his fist into a side table, knocking his tea onto the floor.

I stiffened, gripping the arms of my chair. “Daddy, stop,” I pleaded, my words hushed with fear I might somehow make it worse.

He looked over his shoulder at me, as if he only now realized Mom and I were still in the room. His eyes instantly softened, and he turned away, shaking his head.

After a deep breath he straightened his suit and spoke to the guard. “Before anything continues, I expect thorough background checks on each of the Selected. Do it secretively and use whatever means possible. If anyone has so much as gotten into a squabble in grade school, I want them gone.”

Calm again, he sat beside Mom. “I unconditionally insist that Burke leaves. That’s not up for debate.”

“But what about Fox?” Mom asked. “It sounds like he didn’t really instigate anything.”

Dad shook his head. “I don’t know. The idea of letting anyone involved stay seems like very poor judgment.”

Mom leaned her head on Dad’s shoulder. “Once upon a time I was involved in a fight during the Selection, and you let me stay. Imagine how things would have been if you hadn’t.”

“Mom, you got into a fight?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“It’s true,” Dad confirmed, sighing.

Mom smiled. “I actually still think about the other girl often. She turned out to be quite lovely.”

Dad huffed, his tone begrudging. “Fine. Fox can stay, but only if Eadlyn thinks he might be someone she’d have a chance at happiness with.”

Their eyes settled on me, and I was confused about so many things at once, I felt positive it read on my face. I turned to the guard. “Thank you for your update. Have Burke escorted from the premises and tell Fox I’ll speak with him shortly. You can go now.”

Once he left the room, I rose from my chair, trying to compose my thoughts.

“I’m not going to ask about that fight, though, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why you two have withheld so much about your Selection from me and have only decided to share some of the bigger bits and pieces now. And after I’ve faced something you’ve already experienced.”

They sat there guiltily.

“Mom met you before she was supposed to,” I accused, pointing to Dad. “Your candidates were all planted by your father. . . . Maybe you could have given me a heads-up about how to deal with a fight two weeks ago.”

I crossed my arms, exhausted.

“I promised you three months, and I’m going to give you that,” I said, taking in their worried expressions. “I’ll go on dates and let people take pictures so we have something to print in the papers and to talk about on the Report. But you two seem to think that if I stick this out, I’m magically going to fall in love.”

I stood there, shaking my head. “That’s not going to happen. Not for me.”

“It could,” Mom whispered tenderly.

“I know I’m disappointing you, but it’s not what I want. And these boys are fine, but . . . some of them make me uncomfortable, and I don’t think they can handle the pressure of this position. I’m not going to handcuff myself to a weight for the sake of a distracting headline.”

Dad stood. “Eadlyn, that’s not what we want either.”

“Then please”—I raised my hands in front of me, guarding myself—“stop pressuring me to fall for people I never wanted here in the first place.”

I clasped my hands together. “This whole situation has been awful. I’ve had people throw food at me in public; others have judged me over a kiss. One boy touched me against my will, and another flung me to the ground. For all the effort I put in to make things right, the papers have had a field day with the constant shame.”

They exchanged a concerned glance.

“When I said I’d help distract people, I didn’t think it would be this degrading.”

“Sweetheart, we were never trying to hurt you.” Mom looked heartbroken, close to tears.

“I know, and I’m not mad. I just want my freedom. If this is what I have to do in order to get that, then I will. If you want your distraction, I’ll deliver. But please don’t place all those expectations on me. I don’t want to let you down any more than I have already.”

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