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I stare at the ground, collapsing under the weight of this all.

Oh my god. He doesn’t think I’m worth marrying. I’m not worth anything at all. Once again, I’m kicked to the curb, I’m sent off, I’m…

I think my heart is breaking.

“And you are,” he adds simply.

My head flies up. “What?”

“You are worth marrying, Ella,” he says.

I blink at him rapidly. “I don’t understand. You just said you were going to go marry the Princess of Belgium.”

“I’m pretty sure the Princess of Belgium is sixty years old,” he says. “And while I do like my older friends, I have to draw the line somewhere.”

What the fuck?

“I don’t get it. Why would you say all of that to me?”

“Because I wanted to get a reaction out of you.”

“You ass!” I try to punch him in the chest again but his hold on me is too strong. “A reaction? You almost broke my heart right there.”

Even in the shadows, I can see his features soften. “Then isn’t that your answer?”

He’s got me. He’s completely got me there.

To think of him leaving me and marrying someone else, it nearly broke me just now. So why on earth could I have ever imagined leaving him? Was it because for once I wanted to be in control, to have the power I so often wish I had? Was that my way of asserting myself when it comes to him?

“Look, Ella,” he says, letting go of my hands and cupping my face, making me feel cradled and small. He peers at me intently, his eyes glinting. “The situation hasn’t changed, but we have. Maybe this wasn’t how we saw our lives going, but right now, I can’t think of it going any other way. I know you have your reservations and you’re entitled to them. I have mine too. I know we’ve only known each other for a few weeks and I know we’re not in love. We’re barely in like. But I do know that I want to do this with you and I can only hope you’ll do it with me.”

My breath is starting to come back to me, my heart is starting to slow, and yet my nerves feel like they’ve been laced with gasoline and he’s about to throw a match on it.

“Question time,” he says softly.

My throat feels thick. “You didn’t sing it.”

“It feels too serious for that,” he says. “Ella, will you marry me?”

I try not to think about it.

I just open my mouth and blurt it out.

“Yes.”

He grins so broadly it makes him look positively boyish. “Do you mean that?”

Holy shit. I actually do.

“Yes. I do. I mean, I have a list of demands before we actually get married.”

“Oh, I’ve heard you mention it plenty of times.”

“And I’m not sure you can meet them.”

“I’ll meet you on everything, Ella.”

Oh hell, I might as well get this hard part over with. “One of them involves sex.”

“I am very much into meeting your demands there.”

I flash him a quick smile. “I just…”

“Ella,” he says reassuringly, his hands trailing down to hold on to mine. “I’m aware this isn’t conventional. I don’t expect anything of you. Whether on our wedding night or after that. We’ll just take this day by day.”

I jerk my chin back. “You’re serious? That doesn’t sound like a Magnus thing to say.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t try and seduce you at every fucking turn,” he tells me. “Because, believe me, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

The thrill that runs up my spine nearly brings me to my knees.

“I’ll be ready for you,” I tell him, my voice sounding choked.

He bites his lip as he smiles. “Yeah, you will be.”

Then he leans in and places a long, wet, soft kiss right beside my lips. I never knew something so chaste could feel so sexual. “I’ll go tell the cooks you’re coming down,” he says as he pulls away and leaves the room.

It feels like he takes all the air with him.

What have we done?

Fifteen

Magnus

I’m getting fucking married.

A phrase that once would have made me want to be sick now only makes me smile.

Okay, so it’s a shaking smile, a nervous smile. I’m smiling on the outside and I’m a pile of writhing nerves on the inside.

But that’s to be expected.

Ella and I have been thrust into a whole new world.

The night that she said she would marry me was the last night the two of us had any peace and quiet.

The next morning my mother came over.

It was supposed to be my father too, but he wasn’t feeling that well, which of course immediately put me on edge. My mother insisted, though, that he was doing better and that I’d see him soon enough.

So, with Sigurd and a lawyer that Ella had summoned for herself, since she’s smart like that, we all gathered in the parlor and spread out the contracts, which now included Ella’s list of demands (minus the sex part):

She gets to pick where we live (and she’s picked this place, which she calls Thornfield Hall for some reason).

She gets to open up and head her own non-profit as soon as possible (I told her to call it the Princess Planet Foundation but she wasn’t keen on that).

In the event of public embarrassment, AKA if I do something stupid like have an extramarital affair (not going to happen) or anything else that makes her look bad, she has the right to leave the relationship, no questions asked. If it happens after we are married, we will divorce, no contest.

We get a dog (rescued, preferably).

We open a dog shelter (demand number four suddenly spurred on the edition of demand number five, to be added later. I made them add that I can pick the name).

She has the option of finishing her university degree in Oslo.

Then the contracts were signed and the moment that was done, my mother proudly announced to us that she knew that Ella would come around and that she’d already gotten a head start on the wedding plans with the help of my sisters.

In fact, it was then that she handed Ella the sparkling engagement ring she picked out for her. I obviously didn’t have one to propose with, though I would have liked to have some time to pick one out myself.

Needless to say, that was the first sign that there would be no gentle transition into this arrangement. Ella and I were to go from two weeks of isolation to being torn in a million different directions by a million different people.

At least we’re in it together. Because I’m the one who has had experience in the public eye, Ella has been leaning a lot on me, and I’ve been trying to shoulder the brunt of it and show her the ropes.

Especially now with our first on-camera interview. It’s not even with a Norwegian network but the BBC. You’d think they’d be over that royal stuff by now but it seems they’re jonesing for another Meghan and Harry. I think they’re claiming Ella as one of their own, though, since she went to boarding school and university in the UK.

“How do I look?”

I’m standing in front of the mirror and adjusting my tie when she appears in the reflection, standing behind me in the doorway. We’re supposed to be somewhat dressy for the interview, but the sight of her is making my heart stop.

My hands fall away from my tie, and I have to remember to breathe.

It’s just a simple dress, royal blue and sleeveless with a scoop neck.

But the dress is fitted, showing her every curve, and her golden hair is down around her shoulders in cascading waves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so shapely, ever seen her hair so wild and free, begging me to wrap the strands around my hand.

I slowly turn around and she shyly walks toward me, stopping in the middle of the room and sticking her hips out to one side, arms raised, as if to say “ta-da.”

“I’m speechless,” I finally say, licking my lips.

She smiles warmly. “I can see that. Maybe I should dress up more often. Though I do have my dress fitting tomorrow and we do have our engagement photos in a couple of days. Honestly, I don’t know why since we’re getting married so soon after.”

“The pictures are my mother’s idea, you know that,” I tell her. “But it makes her happy.”

She nods and we stare at each other, long beats stretching out between us.

Even though it’s been five days since we signed the contracts and two days since the news broke publicly that we are engaged, and we’ve been together almost every step of the way, there are a lot of little moments just like this one. Moments of slight awkwardness, of sexual tension. This whole thing is so strange and new, and fuck, scary, but underneath it all is the fact that I want her like I’ve never wanted any woman before.

And I know she wants me.

But that kiss we shared at the cabin was the last time—the only time—we were physically intimate in any way. And even though I want to be as respectful of her wishes as possible, I am a hungry, greedy man who would like nothing more than to relieve her of that dress, throw her on the bed, and make her scream my name until the whole house shakes.

“There’s a problem,” I tell her gravely.

She sucks in a breath. I slowly bring my gaze up the length of her body and focus on her fearful brown eyes.

“What?” she asks.

“You look extremely fuckable.”

Those eyes widen, stunned. “That’s a problem?” she asks after a beat.

I grin and walk over to her. “Yeah, it’s a problem.” I stop right in front of her and reach for her hair, letting the smooth strands run through my fingers before brushing it over her shoulder. “You see, according to the story we’ve been telling everyone, we’ve been on-again, off-again lovers for a long time. Years. And I finally broke down and admitted my love for you. Swept you off your feet in an extravagant proposal that involved trained peacocks, a flock of doves, and a monkey. And in order for that to be believable to everyone, especially the people at home watching our interview, we have to act like we’ve been passionate lovers for years and are finally celebrating our overdue love by getting married. You get what I’m saying?”

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