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“This isn’t a game,” I answered. “Not to me.”

Madeline was about to say more, but the door flew open. Queen Abby stood in the entrance, looking furious.

If she had a bruise on her, she’d hid it very well.

“Which one of you is Tia?” she demanded. The entire room looked toward the window where Tia sat frozen, as pale as a sheet. “Well?”

Tia slowly raised her hand, and the queen marched back to her, murder in her eyes. I hoped whatever reproach Tia was about to get, the queen would escort her from the room for it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the plan.

“Did you sleep with my son?” she asked, not bothering to be discreet at all.

“Your Majesty, it’s a rumor.” Her voice was barely a squeak, but the room stilled to such a degree that I was aware of Madeline’s breaths.

“That you have done nothing to stop!”

Tia stuttered, starting maybe five different sentences before choosing one. “If you leave rumors be, they die. Vehemently denying something always implies guilt.”

“So do you deny this or not?”

Trapped.

“I didn’t, my queen.”

If she told the truth or if she lied, I didn’t think it mattered. Tia’s fate was sealed before a word was said.

Queen Abby grabbed Tia by a fistful of hair and started pulling her toward the door. “You’re leaving right now.”

Tia screamed in pain and protested. “But only Prince Clarkson can do that, Your Majesty. It’s in the rules.”

“So is not being a whore!” the queen shrieked in return. Tia lost her footing and slipped so that the queen was literally holding her aloft by her hair. She stumbled to keep up as Queen Abby pushed her onto the floor in the hallway. “GET! OUT!”

She slammed the door and immediately turned to the rest of us. She took her time raking her eyes over our faces, making sure we knew her power.

“Let me make something very clear,” she began quietly, gliding slowly past chairs and couches of girls, looking glorious and terrifying at once. “If one of you little brats thinks you can come into my house and take my crown, think again.”

She stopped in front of a cluster of girls near the wall. “And if you think you can act like trash and still end up on the throne, you have another think coming.” She dug her finger into Piper’s face. “I will not stand for it!”

Piper’s face was flung back by the force of the queen’s finger, but she didn’t react to the pain until after Queen Abby had passed.

“I am queen. And I am beloved. If you want to marry my son and live in my home, you will be everything I tell you to be. Obedient. Tasteful. And silent.”

She wove her way through the tables and stopped in front of Bianca, Madeline, and me. “From now on your only job is to show up, be a lady, sit there, and smile.”

Her eyes met with mine as she ended her speech, and, stupidly, I thought that was a command. So I smiled. The queen was not amused, and she pulled back and slapped it off my face.

I let out a grunt and fell into the table. I didn’t dare move.

“You have ten minutes to clear out. You will be receiving the rest of your meals in your rooms today. I don’t want to hear so much as a peep out of any of you.”

I heard the door shut but still had to check. “Is she gone?”

“Yes. Are you okay?” Madeline asked, coming to sit in front of me.

“My face feels like it burst open.” I pulled myself up, but the throb from my cheek pulsed down my body.

“Oh, my goodness!” Bianca cried. “You can see her handprint.”

“Piper?” I called. “Where’s Piper?”

“Here,” she said through tears. I stood up, and she was already walking toward me.

“Is your face all right?” I asked.

“It hurts a little.” She ran her hand over the place where the queen had pushed her, and I could see a half-moon shape from her nail.

“There’s a little mark, but some makeup should cover it.”

She fell into my arms, and we held each other.

“What got into her?” Nova asked, voicing all our thoughts.

“Maybe she’s really protective of her family,” Skye offered.

Cordaye huffed. “It’s not like we haven’t seen the way she drinks. I could smell it on her.”

“She’s always so nice on TV.” Kelsa held herself, confused by the whole thing.

“Listen,” I said, “one of us will know what it feels like to be queen. Even from the outside, the pressure looks unmanageable.” I stopped to rub my cheek. It was burning. “For now, I think we should all avoid the queen as much as possible. And let’s not mention this to Clarkson. I don’t think talking poorly about his mother, no matter what she did, would be good for any of us.”

“We’re supposed to ignore this?” Neema asked outraged.

I shrugged. “I can’t force you. But that’s what I’ll be doing.”

I pulled Piper close again, and we all stood there, silent. I’d hoped maybe I’d form bonds with these girls over music we liked or learning to apply makeup. I never imagined it would be a unanimous fear that would bind us like sisters.

CHAPTER 6

I DECIDED I WOULD NEVER ask him. If Prince Clarkson was intimate with Tia, I didn’t want to know. And if he wasn’t and I asked, it would be like breaking our trust before we even built it. More likely than not it was a rumor, no doubt started by Tia herself to intimidate the rest of us, and look where that landed her.

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