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Chapter no 22

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

I DRANK CHAMPAGNE AND LAUGHED too loudly and ate half my body weight in chocolate. Just for a few hours, I wanted to revel in the ridiculous opulence I’d always taken for granted. Tomorrow I would sip water and get my head straight. Tomorrow I would worry about how to keep my country together. Tomorrow I would think about husbands.

But tonight? Tonight I was going to bask in this perfect, sparkling moment.

“One more dance?” Ahren asked, catching me mid-sip in what I swore was my last drink. “I have a flight to catch, but I wanted to say good-bye.”

I stood, taking his hand. “I’ll take whatever good-bye I can get. Anything will be better than last time.”

“I’m still sorry about that, but you know why I couldn’t.”

We locked form, and he spun me around the room. “I do. That didn’t make it any easier though. Add that to everything else that’s going on, and life’s been a little harsh without you here.”

“I’m sorry. But you’re doing very well, better than you think, I’d wager.” “We’ll see. I still have to establish my government, make sure Mom and

Dad slow down, and find someone to marry me.” He shrugged. “So, basically nothing.”

“It’s practically a vacation.”

He chuckled. Oh, how I had missed that sound. “I’m sorry if my letter was harsh. Mom and Dad wanted to protect you, but I was afraid that not knowing where you stood might actually cripple you.”

“It wasn’t easy to read, but it’s come up again and again. I really should have known. If I hadn’t been so self-centered—”

“You were trying to shield yourself,” he said quickly, cutting me off. “You are doing something no one else in this country has ever done. Of course you found ways to make it easier.”

I shook my head. “Dad has been exhausted. Mom has never slowed down. You were in love, and I tried to talk you out of it. There’s a word for what I am, but I’m too much of a lady to say it.”

He laughed out loud at that, and I caught several eyes looking our way, most noticeably Camille’s. I’d wanted to be mad at her, this girl who’d done everything I was trying to do but ten times better, this girl who’d taken away

my twin. But it was clear how happy she was to see us reunited.

I still didn’t understand how she’d mastered everything so easily, how she seemed to maintain being a leader and a girl without effort. I worried that, as perfect as this day was, it wouldn’t last.

“Hey,” he said, noting the worry in my eyes. “It will be fine. You’re going to make it through this.”

I fixed my face, trying to find the magic that had been running through my veins only moments ago. I was the new queen; it wouldn’t do for me to be sad on today of all days. “I know. I’m just not sure how.”

The song came to a close, and Ahren bowed deeply. “You must come to Paris for New Year’s.”

“And you have to come back for our next birthday,” I insisted. “Then you have to honeymoon in France.”

“Not unless you come back here for the wedding.” He held out a hand. “Deal.”

We shook on it, and my precious twin pulled me close for a hug. “I was mourning for days, thinking you’d never forgive me for leaving. The fact that you’re not mad at all makes going that much harder.”

“You have to call. And not just Mom and Dad, you have to call me.” “I will.”

“I love you, Ahren.”

“I love you, Your Majesty.”

I laughed, and we both took a moment to dab at our eyes.

“Speaking of that wedding,” he started, “any idea who your groom will be?”

We surveyed the room. The Elite were easy to spot with their crisp suits and ties, as handsome as any of the visiting royalty. I’d watched them all night, adding their behavior to the piles of information I had about them.

Kile had graciously entertained most of the younger guests, and Fox had shaken so many hands I caught him massaging his wrists at one point. Though Ean and Hale were out of the running, I’d overheard them both giving glowing commentaries about my character to the press, going above and beyond anything I’d hoped for. And then there was Henri. He had done his best with Erik at his side, helping him through conversations, but as I watched him studying the partygoers from his seat, it was clear he’d had a rough time.

“I’ve gone back and forth a few times. It’s hard to know for sure who the right choice is. I just want to do what’s best for everyone.”

“Including you?”

I smiled, unable to answer.

“If there’s one thing I hope my leaving home proves,” he said seriously, “it’s that you have to do whatever it takes to be with the person you love.”

Love. Like clothes, I had guessed it was something that fit no two people exactly the same way. I was still unsure what the word looked like for me, but I sensed that, sooner rather than later, it would be fully defined. All that remained to be seen was if I could be satisfied with the definition.

“I’m telling you, Eady, wars and treaties and even countries will all come and go. But your life is yours, singular and sacred, and you should be with the person who makes it feel that way every blessed second you live it.”

I looked down, studying my gown, feeling the weight of the crown on my head. Yes, my life was singular and sacred, but from the moment of my birth

—a mere seven minutes before his—it had belonged to anyone but me. “Thank you, Ahren. I’ll remember that.”

“Please do.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Go find your wife. Be safe getting home, and let us know when you land, okay?”

He took my hand from his sleeve and kissed it. “Bye, Eady.” “Bye.”

Though I was getting tired, I knew it wasn’t yet time for me to sneak away. One last lap, I told myself. I’d shake hands, give two or three interviews, and duck out the side door.

So many smiles and hugs, so many well wishes and promises to be in contact soon. It cycled energy through me almost as quickly as it sucked it back out. As I rounded the corner where Ean was speaking with a few people who had won the lottery to come to the coronation, another waltz started playing.

“Oh, a dance!” a young girl pleaded. I thought she meant she wanted Ean to dance with her, but she nudged him in my direction, and he was only too happy to escort me onto the floor.

After a few turns I had to ask, “How long have you liked Hale?”

He smiled. “From the moment we were getting prepped to meet you. He just looked so happy, to the point of being cartoonish. It was endearing.”

“It is endearing,” I agreed.

“I’m sorry I lied to you. I was planning on taking this to my grave.” “And now?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure. But Hale’s so damned insistent on being true to yourself that, at the very least, I wouldn’t try to use someone like a screen to hide it, the way I tried to with you. It’s not fair to anyone.”

“It’s hard to be fair to yourself sometimes, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “I wouldn’t compare our circumstances though. In the end, no

one cares about me, and everyone cares about you.”

“Don’t be silly. I care about you. I cared about the swaggering snob who introduced himself that very first day.” He laughed, thinking back. Some of that veneer had slipped away. Not all of it, but I knew how hard it was to let walls down. “And I care about this nervous, gentle person in front of me now.”

Ean was not the type to cry. He didn’t swallow or blink or give any of the typical signs, but I sensed that if he’d ever been close to shedding a tear, it was right now.

“I’m so glad I get to see you be queen. Thank you, Your Majesty. For everything.”

“Any time.”

The song came to a close, and we bowed our heads to each other.

“Is it all right if I leave in the morning?” he asked. “I’d like to have some time with my family. To talk.”

“Of course. Stay in touch.”

He nodded and crossed the room, ready to begin his new life.

I’d done it. I’d made it through the day without doing anything humiliating, no one had protested, and I was still standing. It was over, and I could escape to the peace and quiet of my room.

And then when I was about to hit the side door, I saw Marid speaking in front of a camera.

He looked at me and lit up like a firework, waving me over to join in his interview. And while everything in me wanted to go and rest, his smile was so charming that I went to his side.

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