Chapter no 26

The Crown (The Selection, 5)

I GOT TO THE OFFICE a little later than I’d intended the next morning. I’d swept back my hair and dressed in a rush, but no matter how much time I spent on my face, I couldn’t seem to wipe away my smile.

It was a delicious feeling, falling in love. I’d had so many luxuries in my life, and I thought I’d had a taste of this before, but I realized now it was merely a cheap imitation of something not meant to be imitated in the first place.

I reminded myself it would end, and I’d already made my peace with it. I knew I was going to choose Kile; I’d told Eikko as much.

Kile would make me happy, and I hoped I could do the same for him. I figured at some point, once Kile knew I was choosing him, I’d come clean to him about some of this. And I knew Kile well enough to know that he’d understand if I confessed to feeling confused about the process and that kissing Eikko wasn’t something I planned, both of which were true. I didn’t want it hanging over us. Any of us.

And a life side by side with Kile was not exactly a prison sentence. He was smart, passionate, funny, charming—a dozen things a husband ought to be. He would be beloved by the people—our people—and he would stand beside me and fight Marid. He was so charismatic, he might even render Marid useless.

And, deep in my heart, I hoped there was a chance that I could learn to love him, now that I knew what that really felt like.

For the time being I had a few precious days left with Eikko, and I intended to treasure each one.

Neena tapped on my desk, bringing my attention back to the present. “Are you okay? What are you thinking about?”

“Umm . . .”

To be honest, I was thinking about the sound of Her Majesty Eadlyn Helena Margarete Schreave de Koskinen, and how suddenly my mouthful of names seemed like a line of poetry. But then I looked into her eyes and saw they were tinged with red.

“About you,” I said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said in a tone that said not really. “It’s just Mark. He’s working such long hours, and now I have to work more, and it’s getting

harder to keep in touch. You know, same old. Distance isn’t a big deal until it is.”

I took her hands. “Neena, the last thing I want to do is cost you the person you love. You’re a brilliant girl; you could work anywhere—”

“Are you firing me?” she whispered, looking like she might cry.

“Of course not! The thought of you leaving breaks my heart. If you can have friend soul mates, you’re mine, and I don’t want you going anywhere.” She laughed through her glassy eyes. “I just can’t bear to watch you lose something that matters so much to you.”

“I get that. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to sit back and look at your life right now?”

I sighed. “My life is a different thing entirely. And, like you said, I could do worse.”

“Eadlyn, please rethink this. There must be a better way to stop Marid.” “If there is, I don’t have the time to wait for it. If I don’t secure my place

now, I’ll either have a reign filled with people trying to usurp me and failing, or people trying and succeeding. Those options aren’t acceptable. This matters to me. I can’t compromise.”

She nodded. “Well, neither can I. And I couldn’t leave you like that.” I took her hand, grateful, as always, for her presence in my life.

“Let me know if you change your mind,” I insisted. “If you need to leave, I could—”

I was stunned into silence by the sight of Josie coming into the office balancing a tray in her hands. She set a cup of coffee in front of Neena and one in front of me before she spoke.

“Everyone said you took your coffee with two sugars, but if it’s wrong I can go back.”

“No, no,” I said, still slightly confused. “That’s right.”

“Okay. And I was walking by the mailroom and they had these, so I figured I could get them to you.” She placed a handful of letters in the wooden in-box on my desk.

“Thank you.”

She nodded. “Also, I saw your mother this morning. She’s doing very well. I haven’t seen any of the boys.”

“Good luck hunting them down,” I said with a smile. “Thank you, Josie.” “It’s the least I could do.” She shrugged. “I’m not busy, if you need

another set of hands.” “Neena?”

I turned, and saw she was still taking in this change. “How’s your penmanship?” she finally asked.

“Excellent,” Josie replied, beaming.

“All right, then.” And just like that, I got an unexpected addition to the office.

Fox was quiet as we walked the palace halls. It wasn’t the most exciting of dates, but the constant cloud of worry hanging over my head had sapped any creativity I had. Still, as the photographer checked the images on the back of his camera, he seemed pleased.

“It’s kind of sad that we can’t go out to a restaurant or do something fun like . . . Do you bowl?” Fox asked.

“No,” I answered with a laugh. “Putting on shoes that a thousand other people have worn and putting my fingers into holes with goodness knows how many germs in there?” I stuck out my tongue. “Not my thing.”

He smiled. “But it’s so fun! How can you even think about germs?” “Osten once asked to go bowling for his birthday. We rented an entire

bowling alley for the afternoon. After I realized you were supposed to wear used shoes, I couldn’t get over it. No matter how much disinfectant they sprayed in there, I wasn’t up for that. Everyone played, even Mom, but I watched.”

“That’s sad. Are you afraid of germs?” His tone was almost mocking. I let the snub go. “No. It’s just incredibly unappealing.”

“Well, that settles it,” he said. “Settles what?”

“If you marry me, the first order of business is putting in our own personal bowling alley.”

I laughed.

“I’m not kidding. Maybe we could do away with the studio and put it there.”

“No more Reports?” I asked joyfully. “Okay, that might be a tipping point for me. I’m on board.”

“You could design your own shoes!”

“Oooooh!” I could already imagine taking those weird shoes and making them worthy of royalty. That would be a fun project. “That’s one thing I really like about you, Fox. You’re good at lightening the mood.”

“I think we’re good, Your Majesty,” the photographer said, retreating. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” I called. “Sorry about that. With things getting to the end, people really want a peek into the final four.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said. “I feel lucky, getting this far, getting to be with you.”

I rubbed my thumb across his hand. “Thanks, Fox. I know I’ve been busy.”

“Do I look upset? I’m on the first date with you as queen. How incredible is that?”

I hadn’t even considered how that might be taken. I’d been hoping to hint that he might be leaving soon. Now I felt trapped.

“I’ve been so rude. How are you doing? How’s your family?”

“Dad’s all right. He’s been bragging to everyone who’ll stop and listen. ‘You saw Fox was in the final four, right? That’s my boy.’” He shook his head. “I guess he hasn’t had much to celebrate for a while, so even though I kind of want to tell him to calm down, I can’t. At least I don’t have to watch it firsthand.”

I giggled. “I know what you mean. My dad’s into photography, and he likes to document every little thing. For some reason it can be way more embarrassing when he’s there than a journalist, even when they’re doing the exact same thing.”

“It’s your dad. It’s personal.” “Yeah.”

We fell silent, and the palace felt empty. For a moment I missed the crowding mass of boys who’d stormed into my life barely two months ago. I wondered if I would keep thinking about them after this was all over.

“Anyway, he’s doing well, all things considered,” Fox said, filling the space. “He’s really proud, but he keeps asking me questions that I’m never quite sure how to answer.”

“What do you mean?”

I watched Fox’s expression shift from determination to embarrassment. “He keeps asking me if I love you. Or if you love me. I’ve told him that I

can’t go walking into your office and demanding a declaration of love.” He grinned, showing he understood how unreasonable the request was. “I would never ask you to tell me your feelings. I’m not sure that’s fair. But I thought you should know that I . . . I . . .”

“Don’t say it.”

“Why not? I felt it for a while now, and I’ve wanted to tell you.”

“I’m not ready to hear it.” I backed away, my heart pounding in my ears. This was too fast, too sudden. I’d hardly gotten to speak to him recently, and now this?

“Eadlyn. I want you to at least know how I feel. You’re going to have to pick someone soon, so wouldn’t it be wise for you to have this information?”

I turned to him and squared my shoulders. If I could face reporters and dignitaries, I could face a boy. “Tell me everything, Fox.”

His smile was tiny but sincere. “I think I’ve been a goner for you from the night you let me stay. You were so kind to me in the middle of the worst night of my life, and I’m desperate for you to meet my family. I want to see you on the beach in Clermont; I want you to spend an evening around the table with us. In a million ways, I think you’d fit right in with the Wesleys.”

He paused, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe he’d said that.

“I want to help you. I want to be there for you in any way I can. And I’d like to think that you could be there for me. I don’t know how much longer I have with my dad. I’d like him to know I’ve chosen a path before he dies.”

I closed my eyes, feeling overwhelmed with guilt. It wasn’t that long ago my mother was on what I thought was her deathbed. I understood that wish.

“But that doesn’t mean I can make it come true,” I mumbled. “What?”

“Nothing,” I answered, shaking my head clear. “Fox, these are beautiful sentiments. And I admire your honesty, but I’m not ready to make any promises.”

“I’m not asking you to.” He came closer, taking my hand. “I just needed you to know how I felt.”

“And now, as you said, I’ll take all this into consideration as I’m making my choice. Which will be soon.”

He rubbed his finger across my hand, a gesture that felt less comforting than it should have.

“I’m serious about you, Eadlyn. Don’t doubt it.” “Oh, I don’t,” I whispered. “Not in the slightest.”

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