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I take in a deep breath and decide to approach this with all I’ve got. This is happening whether I like it or not, so I may as well take what control I have over the situation.

“Your Highness,” I address Ella as I pick up my glass of red wine, and her eyes go to mine, startled. “May I propose a toast to you and your country of Liechtenstein. Thank you so much for coming to stay with us this evening. I know myself and my family have been very excited to meet you.”

She raises her brows, as if this whole thing is catching her off guard. Perhaps she didn’t expect me to talk. Well she’s going to have to get used to it. If things go well here, she’ll have to get used to it for the rest of her life.

And yet the way she’s looking at me, as if I’m from another planet entirely, maybe of some low life form, like an amoeba or something, makes me wonder if she even wants to be here with me at all.

“Here, here,” my father says, raising his glass of sparkling water.

We all say cheers and then the appetizers are spread out and the small talk begins.

“So, Princess,” the Queen says, “I’ve heard that you left Liechtenstein at a rather young age. Has Lady Jane been with you that whole time?”

“Since she was thirteen, Your Majesty,” Lady Jane says and then quickly covers her mouth with her napkin as Ella gives her a look for talking out of turn.

My mother takes it in stride. “Thirteen. So young. And you went to boarding school in England…I do hope you were able to go home to see your family during the holidays and the summer.”

Ella manages a small smile. “Yes,” she says carefully. “I went home often enough. But I didn’t find boarding school to be a lonely experience. It taught me a lot. It especially taught me to put all my focus into my studies.”

“And you are at St. Andrews University, correct?” my father asks as she nods. “What are you taking?”

She gives him another tight smile and seems to pause, momentarily staring down at her plate and seeming to take in a deep breath before she speaks. “Environmental studies.”

“That’s very interesting,” my mother says before spearing a piece of salad with her fork.

“What kind?” Mari speaks up. “I mean, what are you learning about?”

Again, the princess seems to take a moment. “It’s a lot to do with climate change, with global protection acts, with protecting resources.”

“So you’re an environmentalist in the making,” my father says with a nod. “A female Leonardo DiCaprio. You know Magnus here knows him.”

“That’s nice,” she says, giving me a quick, curt smile.

Her tone basically says “good for fucking you” and damn does it ever get under my skin. So I say to her, “Well, Norway recently vetoed potential seismic drilling around Lofoten in order to protect the orcas up there.”

A flicker of surprise, like she’s impressed, runs through her dark eyes but it’s quickly buried. “The only reason Norway did that was because of public pressure. There was a lot of campaigning on behalf of activists such as Sea Legacy and journalists from all around the globe, campaigning that went directly to the Norwegian people to let them have a say in what their government was planning to do. It was only then that the prime minister and your government, and maybe even yourselves, decided to prevent the oil and gas exploration up in the Arctic. The change came from outside.”

There’s so much heat in her voice, a fire in her eyes, that she suddenly doesn’t seem so quiet and demure anymore.

I glance at my father, waiting for his response. I mean, she pretty much just took any credit away from us, from what little we had to do with the end result.

But he chuckles softly. “You certainly know your stuff. And you are very correct. I’m afraid if it wasn’t for activists and environmental crusaders, nothing would have changed and the drilling would have been allowed. Rest assured, that area is now protected.”

“But that’s just one area,” she says quickly. “When will the government stop whaling? When will sustainable practices be used for commercial fishing?”

“We have pledged to become climate-neutral by 2030,” Mari speaks up.

“And yet you’re one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas.”

“Among students, though, we’re really pushing for change with the country,” Mari tells her with almost as much passion. “Renewable energy is a lot of our focus, even in high school. We’re challenging the government, challenging the companies.”

My father clears his throat loudly. “Seems the two of you are both the voices of the future. You must understand, Your Highness, that this nation is trying to become as green as it can be.”

“But so far you are more of an environmental hypocrite rather than a hero.”

“Ella,” Jane chides her, glancing around furtively. “I don’t think insulting the country is appropriate when you’re currently its guest.”

Ella’s face falls at that, her skin seeming to grow even paler.

“Oh, don’t worry,” my father says good-naturedly. “It’s very rare that we have guests over that speak their mind the way that you do, and I can tell that these issues are very important to you. There’s nothing wrong with that and I can whole-heartedly agree that as a country we have a long way to go. It will take time but it’s people like you who are pressing for the change. I think it’s rather charming that you feel so strongly. Don’t ever be afraid to argue with me.” He glances at me. “In fact, you remind me a bit of Magnus. He’s also never afraid to argue, even when he knows he’ll lose.”

I cock my brow. “When have I ever lost?”

But the knowing gleam in his eyes reminds me that I’m currently losing at this very moment.

With Princess Planet finishing her spiel about Norway and the environment, the conversation turns to safer topics such as favorite travel spots or the latest programs on TV. When my mother asks Lady Jane about herself, she takes the questions and runs with it for most of the meal.

Which is more than fine with me. It gives me time to watch Ella closely, to really take her in. Normally I have a hard time focusing on people, like I’m able to look at them but not really see them. But with her, I have tunnel vision. I can’t look away even if I wanted to.

And I want to. Despite the craziness of this arrangement, despite the fact that I rarely care about what people think, I don’t want to be known as this crazy creeper who won’t stop staring at her.

But it’s probably too late for that. When she meets my eyes from time to time, it’s only for a second and then she quickly looks away. I’ve heard from women that my gaze can be intimidating and intense but all those times I was only faking it, faking my interest. Now that I’m really absorbing all her little details, I might just look certifiably insane. Magnus the Mad, indeed.

Since I’ve seen how outspoken she can be, she’s become a little less ethereal in my eyes. Still fairy-like and dainty, but there’s a fiery realness to her. Her eyes are this rich dark brown and narrow, like she’s permanently squinting, which is also kind of hot since she looks like she’s thinking of what sexual things she could do to you. Her mouth is wide, her lips soft but not outrageously plumped as it seems to be in style these days. Half the time I’m with a woman I can’t tell if those are her actual lips sucking me off or the plastic surgeon’s filler.

I think the most endearing thing about her are her teeth, which she doesn’t show much unless she’s smiling or laughing. The front ones are large and there’s the slightest gap between them. It’s both adorable and extremely sexy.

I just wish she’d show them off more often. Or, to put it another way, I wish I was the one making her smile. Usually the women around me can’t stop smiling at me. At first anyway. The scowling comes later (and there’s a fuckload of that).

Once dessert is finished, we all stand up and move into the parlor for drinks and digestifs in the world’s smallest cocktail party.

Before Ella gets settled though, she anxiously turns to my mother and asks where the washrooms are, then politely excuses herself and Jane as they head over to them.

I watch Ella carefully as she disappears from sight, still unable to tell if she’s nervous because of me, my family, the whole marriage thing, or everything combined.

I turn to my mother. “I don’t remember. There’s no window she can escape from in the washroom, is there?”

She laughs. “I think it’s all going fine, don’t you? She’s lovely.”

“And feisty,” my father says. “Oh, I look forward to arguing with her. She seems so quiet but I can see there’s a spitfire underneath.”

“She’s okay,” I concede, still unsure exactly how I feel about her. I’m definitely attracted to her, intrigued even, but whether we have any chemistry remains to be seen. I’m trying to not even think about marriage.

But I should probably start. I exchange a look with Mari and then say to my mother, “Don’t you get the feeling that she doesn’t know why she’s here?”

“Nonsense,” my mother says. She looks at my father, brows raised. “You did tell the Prince of Liechtenstein why Princess Isabella was invited, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did,” he says, looking rebuked. “I was completely honest and upfront about the whole thing. You know me. I told him that you were looking for a bride and that Isabella captured your interest and you wanted to meet.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, waving my hands as I shake my head. “You told him I was looking for a bride? You didn’t tell him that I had no choice in the matter, that we’re doing this because of a scandal?”

He frowns. “Goodness, no. That would be most insulting, not to mention presumptuous. That would reflect very badly on us.”

I stare at him, open-mouthed. She honestly thinks she’s here because I want to potentially marry her, not because I’m being forced into the matter? She thinks this is…genuine?

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