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“We’re simply asking for another group date to keep things fair.”

I rubbed my temple. “It wasn’t exactly a date. There was no planning involved, and my family was with me for most of it, including my younger brothers.”

“We understand that, and we’re willing to do any planning if you’ll agree to come.”

I sighed, frustrated. “How many people would it be exactly?”

“Only eight. Ean asked not to be included.”

I smirked to myself. Of course Ean wanted nothing to do with a bunch of boys grumbling about more time. It made me wonder if I should go grab him right now for a date simply to make a point. I suspected he’d hoped for just that.

“You organize the date, and I’ll do my best to make time for it.”

Winslow beamed. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

“But,” I added quickly, “please pass along to the others that griping like this does not elevate my opinion of you. If anything, this is a bit childish. So you’d better make this the date of your lives.”

Winslow’s face fell as I walked past him and up the stairs.

Two more months. I could do this. Admittedly, there were as many lows as there were highs, but I sensed the worst had passed. I was feeling less intimidated by the boys after the game, and I felt sure I could give Dad the time he needed.

I still wasn’t quite certain what to do with my heart.

I rounded the stairs to the third floor, catching Ahren leaving his room. He’d changed out of his suit coat and into a vest, and I felt sure he was heading to Camille’s new suite.

“Do you ever stop smiling?” I asked, unable to believe his face could hold that pose for so many days straight.

“Not when she’s here.” He straightened his vest. “Do I look okay?”

“As always. I’m sure she doesn’t care one way or another. She’s as head over heels for you as you are for her.”

He sighed. “I think so, too. I hope so.”

It was like he was already gone. In his mind, he was in Paris, showering Camille with kisses and debating what to name their children. I felt him leaving me. . . . I wasn’t ready.

I swallowed, daring to say what I’d been deliberating over for a very long time. “Look, Ahren, she’s a great girl. There’s no denying it. But maybe she’s not the one.”

His smile finally faltered. “What do you mean?”

“Just that you might want to consider other options. There are so many eligible girls in Illéa that you’ve completely bypassed. Don’t rush into something that you can’t undo. If you and Camille broke up, it would be nothing. If you got divorced, we could lose our alliance with France.”

Ahren stared at me. “Eadlyn, I know you’re hesitant to fall in love, but I know how I feel about her. Just because you’re scared—”

“I’m not scared!” I insisted. “I’m trying to help you. I love you maybe more than anyone. I’d do nearly anything for you, and I thought you’d do the same for me.”

Every ounce of happiness left his face. “I would. You know I would.”

“Then, please, think about it. That’s all I’m asking.”

He nodded, running his fingers over his mouth and cheeks, looking concerned . . . almost lost.

Ahren brought his eyes to mine, gave me a tiny smile, and opened his arms for a hug. He held me tightly, like he’d never needed a hug so badly in his life.

“I love you, Eady.”

“And I love you.”

He kissed my hair and let me go, continuing on to Camille’s room.

Neena was waiting for me with my nightgown ready. “Any plans for the evening? Or do you want to dress for bed?”

“Bed,” I assured her. “But wait until you hear what these boys are doing now.” I told her about the demanded group date, adding that Ean had excused himself from it.

“Smart move on his part,” she agreed.

“I know. I keep wondering if that warrants a special date, just for him.”

“A real date or a spite date?”

I laughed. “I hardly know. Ugh, what am I supposed to do with all these boys?”

“Weed ’em out. Ha! I found a piece of grass we missed earlier.” She pulled the blade around for me to see before tossing it in the trash.

“That was so much fun,” I said. “I’ll never forget Mom’s face, hanging out of the window telling me to go for it. I was sure I was in trouble!”

“I wish I could have seen that.”

“You really don’t need to hide in my room all day. It’s always clean, and it doesn’t take too long for me to get dressed in the morning. You should come with me places, see more of the palace than this room and yours.”

She shrugged. “Perhaps.”

But I could hear in her voice that she was excited about the possibility. I wondered if I should train Neena for travel. It would be nice to have her with me next time I went abroad. But if she really was planning on leaving within the next year or so, it might not be worth it. I knew I couldn’t keep one maid forever, but I dreaded the thought of someone replacing her.

I went down for breakfast the next day and noticed that Ahren didn’t come. I worried he was upset with me. We never stayed cross with each other for long, but I hated when that happened at all. Ahren felt like a piece of me sometimes.

I didn’t notice until a bit later that Camille didn’t make it either. I assumed one of two things had happened: Ahren had come to his senses and told her that he needed to consider other options, and they were both in the process of avoiding each other . . . or they’d spent the night together and were maybe still in bed.

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