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I smiled a little, happy to see Aspen this way. He’d grown so much.

“I can’t stay away from my studio,” Kota said. “I have deadlines. There are pieces due.”

Aspen, still professional, answered him. “Any materials you need can come to the studio here.” He pointed toward our converted garage. “We’ll make as many trips as necessary.”

Kota crossed his arms and mumbled. “That place is a dump.”

“Fine,” Aspen said firmly. “The choice is yours. You can either work in the dump, or you can risk your life at your apartment.”

The tension in the air was awkward, and very unnecessary at the moment. I decided to break it. “May, you can sleep with me. Kenna and James can have your room.”

They nodded.

“Lucy,” I whispered. “I want you near us. You might have to sleep on the floor, but I want you close by.”

She stood a bit taller. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else, miss.”

“Where am I supposed to sleep?” Kota demanded.

“With me,” Gerad offered, though he didn’t seem excited about it.

“Absolutely not!” Kota scoffed. “I’m not sleeping on a bunk bed with a child.”

“Kota!” I said, stepping away from my sisters and Lucy. “You can sleep on the couch or in the garage or in the tree house for all I care; but if you don’t check your attitude, I’ll send you back to your apartment right now! Have some gratitude for the security you’ve been offered. Need I remind you that tomorrow we’re burying our father? Either stop the bickering or go home.” I turned on my heel and headed down the hall. Without checking, I knew Lucy was right behind me, suitcase in hand.

I opened the door to my room, waiting for her to come in with me. Once her skirts swished past the frame, I slammed it shut, heaving a sigh.

“Was that too much?” I asked.

“It was perfect!” she replied with delight. “You might as well be the princess already, miss. You’re ready for it.”


THE NEXT DAY PASSED IN a blur of black dresses and hugs. Lots of people I’d never even seen before came to Dad’s funeral. I wondered if I just didn’t know all his friends or if they were here because I was.

A local pastor gave the service, but for security reasons, the family was asked not to stand and speak. There was a reception, far more elaborate than anything we could have ever hoped for. Though no one told me so, I was sure Silvia or some other palace employee had a hand in making this as easy for us and as beautiful as possible. For safety, it was short, but that was fine with me. I wanted to let him go as painlessly as I could.

Aspen stayed near me at all times, and I was grateful for his presence. I couldn’t have trusted anyone with my life as I could him.

“I haven’t cried since I left the palace,” I said. “I thought I’d be a wreck.”

“It hits at funny times,” he replied. “I fell apart for a few days after my father died, before I realized I had to get it together for everyone else’s sake. But sometimes when something would happen and I’d want to tell my dad about it, the whole thing would hit me in the chest again, and I’d break down.”

“So . . . I’m normal?”

He smiled. “You’re normal.”

“I don’t know a lot of these people.”

“They’re all local. We checked identification. It’s probably a bit higher of a number because of who you are, but I think your dad made a painting for the Hampshires, and I saw him speaking to Mr. Clippings and Albert Hammers in the market area more than once. It’s hard to know everything about people close to you, even the people you love the most.”

I sensed there was something more in that sentence, something I was supposed to respond to. I just couldn’t right now.

“We need to get used to this,” he said.

“To what? Everything feeling awful?”

“No,” he answered, shaking his head. “Nothing is the same anymore. Everything that ever made sense is shifting.”

I laughed humorlessly. “It is, isn’t it?”

“We’ve got to stop being afraid of the change.” He looked at me, eyes pleading. I couldn’t help but wonder what change he meant.

“I’ll confront the change. But not today.” I walked away, embracing more strangers, trying to comprehend that I couldn’t talk to my dad anymore about how confused I was feeling.

After the funeral, we tried to keep the spirits up. There were presents left over from Christmas to open since no one had been in the mood for a big gift-giving spree. Gerad was given special permission to play ball in the house, and Mom spent most of the afternoon next to Kenna, holding Astra. Kota was beyond pleasing, so we let him go off into the studio without bothering to check up on him. It was May I worried about the most. She kept saying her hands wanted to work, but she didn’t want to go into the studio and not see Dad there.

In an inspired moment, I pulled her and Lucy into my room for some playtime. Lucy was a willing subject as May brushed out her hair, giggling as the makeup brushes tickled her cheeks.

“You do this to me every day!” I complained lightly.

May really had a talent for arranging hair, her artist’s eyes ready to work with any medium. While May wore one of the maid uniforms even though it was too big for her, we put dress after dress on Lucy. We settled on a blue one, long and delicate, pinning it in the back so it fit.

“Shoes!” May cried, running to find a matching pair.

“My feet are too wide,” Lucy complained.

“Nonsense,” May insisted, and Lucy obediently sat on the bed while May tried the most bizarre forms of shoe application on the planet.

Lucy’s feet really were too big, but with every attempt she laughed herself into a stupor at May’s antics, and I was doubled over watching it all. We were so loud, it was only a matter of time until someone came to see what was going on.

After three quick knocks, I heard Aspen’s voice through the door. “Is everything all right in there, miss?”

I ran over and opened the door wide. “Officer Leger, look at our masterpiece.” I gave a wide sweep of my arm toward Lucy, and May pulled her up, her poor bare feet hidden under the dress.

Aspen looked at May in her baggy uniform and laughed and then took in Lucy, looking like a princess. “An amazing transformation,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.


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