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“I am glad you were comfortable, my . . .” Ah, I was going to have to break this habit with her. “America.”

I could tell she appreciated my effort. “Thank you.” The smile faded from her face, and she fell into thought, absently chewing on her lip as she played with words in her head.

“I’m very sorry I was mean to you,” she finally said. “I realized as I was trying to fall asleep that even though this is a strange situation for me, I shouldn’t blame you. You’re not the reason I got swept up in all this, and the whole Selection thing isn’t even your idea.” Glad someone noticed. “And then, when I was feeling miserable, you were nothing but nice to me, and I was, well, awful.”

She shook her head at herself, and I noticed my heart seemed to be beating a bit faster.

“You could have thrown me out last night, and you didn’t,” she concluded. “Thank you.”

I was moved by her gratitude, because I already knew she was past being anything close to insincere. Which brought me to a subject I had to broach if we were going to move forward. I leaned closer, elbows on my knees, both more casual and more intense than I’d been with the others already.

“America, you have been very up-front with me so far. That is a quality that I deeply admire, and I’m going to ask you to be kind enough to answer one question for me.”

She gave a hesitant nod.

“You say you’re here by mistake, so I’m assuming you don’t want to be here. Is there any possibility of you having any sort of . . . of loving feelings toward me?”

It felt like she played with the ruffles on her dress for hours while I waited for her to answer, and I sat there convincing myself that it was only because she didn’t want to seem too eager.

“You are very kind, Your Majesty.” Yes. “And attractive.” Yes! “And thoughtful.” YES!

I was grinning, looking like an idiot, I’m sure, so pleased she managed to see something positive in me after last night.

Her voice was low as she continued. “But for very valid reasons, I don’t think I could.”

For the first time, I was grateful Father trained me so well to hold myself together. I sounded quite reasonable when I questioned her. “Would you explain?”

She hesitated again. “I . . . I’m afraid my heart is elsewhere.”

And then tears appeared in her eyes.

“Oh, please don’t cry!” I begged in a hushed voice. “I never know what to do when women cry!”

She laughed at my shortcomings and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. I was happy to see her just so, lighthearted and genuine. Of course there was someone waiting for her. A girl this real would have to have been snatched up quick by some very smart young man. I couldn’t imagine how she ended up here, but that really wasn’t my concern.

All I knew was, even if she wasn’t mine, I wanted to leave her with a smile.

“Would you like me to send you home to your love today?” I offered.

She gave me a smile that was more like a grimace. “That’s the thing . . . I don’t want to go home.”

“Really?” I leaned back, running my hand through my hair as she laughed at me again.

If she didn’t want me, and she didn’t want him, then what the hell did she want?

“Could I be perfectly honest with you?”

By all means. I nodded.

“I need to be here. My family needs me to be here. Even if you could let me stay for a week, that would be a blessing for them.”

So she wasn’t fighting for the crown, but I still had something she wanted. “You mean you need the money?”

“Yes.” At least she had the decency to be ashamed of it. “And there are . . . certain people,” she said with a meaningful look, “at home who I can’t bear to see right now.”

It took a second for it all to click. They weren’t together anymore. She still cared about him, but she didn’t belong to him. I nodded, seeing the predicament. If I could get away from the pressures of my world for a week, I would take it.

“If you would be willing to let me stay, even for a little while, I’d be willing to make a trade.”

Now this was interesting. “A trade?” What in the world could she possibly offer?

She bit at her lip. “If you let me stay . . .” She sighed. “All right, well, look at you. You’re the prince. You’re busy all day, what with running the country and all, and you’re supposed to narrow thirty-five, well, thirty-four girls, down to one? That’s a lot to ask, don’t you think?”

While it sounded like a joke, the truth was she cut to the core of my anxieties with absolute clarity. I nodded at her words.

“Wouldn’t it be much better for you if you had someone on the inside? Someone to help? Like, you know, a friend?”

“A friend?”

“Yes. Let me stay, and I’ll help you. I’ll be your friend. You don’t have to worry about pursuing me. You already know that I don’t have feelings for you. But you can talk to me anytime you like, and I’ll try and help. You said last night that you were looking for a confidante. Well, until you find one for good, I could be that person. If you want.”

If I want . . . That wasn’t an option, it seemed, but at least I could help this girl. And maybe enjoy her company a little bit longer. Of course, Father would be livid if he knew I was using one of the girls for such a purpose . . . which made me like it much, much more.

“I’ve met nearly every woman in this room, and I can’t think of one who would make a better friend. I’d be glad to have you stay.”

I watched as the tension melted from her body. Despite the knowledge that her affections were unattainable, I couldn’t help but be drawn to try.

“Do you think that I could still call you ‘my dear’?” I asked teasingly.

She whispered back, “Not a chance.” Whether she meant it that way or not, it sounded like a challenge.

“I’ll keep trying. I don’t have it in me to give up.”

She made a face, almost irked but not exactly. “Did you call all of them that?” she asked, jerking her head toward the rest of the girls.

“Yes, and they all seemed to like it,” I replied, playfully smug.

The challenge in her smile was still there when she spoke. “That is the exact reason why I don’t.”

She stood, ending our interview, and I couldn’t help but be amused by her again. None of the others were eager to cut our time together short. I gave her a small bow; she answered with a rather rough curtsy, and walked away.

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