Chapter no 14

The Heir (The Selection, 4)

WOULD IT BE STRANGE IF I changed dresses between dinner and dessert? Was he going to change clothes? I’d been wearing tiaras for the last few days, but was it inappropriate if I wore one on a date?

On a date.

This was too far out of my comfort zone. I felt so vulnerable, which I couldn’t understand. I had interacted with plenty of young men. I did have that spectacular interlude with Leron at that Christmas party, and Jamison Akers fed me a strawberry lip-to-lip hidden behind a tree at a picnic. I’d even made it through last night with Kile, though that was nothing close to a real date.

I had met all thirty-five of the Selected candidates and stood tall through every minute. Not to mention, I helped run an entire country. Why was one date with one boy making me so anxious?

‌I decided that, yes, I would change, and I put on a yellow dress that was longer in the back than in the front, which I paired with a navy belt so it looked a little less I’m-ready-for-the-garden-party and a little more let’s-go- out. And no tiara. Why had I even considered it?

I gave my reflection a once-over and reminded myself that he was trying to win me over, not the other way around.

I jumped at the knock on the door. I still had five minutes! And I was supposed to go to him! He was throwing off my entire preparation strategy, and so help me, I’d send him away and start all over again if I had to.

Without waiting for an answer, Aunt May poked her head in, Mom smiling right behind her.

“Aunt May!” I ran over and crushed her in a hug. “What are you doing here?”

“I figured you could use some extra support, so I came back.”

“And I’m here to make this whole thing more awkward than it has to be,” Mom promised with a smile.

I laughed nervously. “I’m not used to this. I don’t know what to do.”

Aunt May cocked an eyebrow. “According to the papers, you’re doing very well.”

I blushed. “That was different. It wasn’t an actual date. It didn’t mean anything.”

“But this does?” she asked, her voice gentle. I shrugged. “It’s not the same.”

“I know everyone says this,” Mom began, pushing back my hair, “but it’s the best advice I can give you: be yourself.”

‌That was easier said than done. Because, who was I really? One half of a set of twins. The heir to a throne. One of the most powerful people in the world. The biggest distraction in the country.

Never just daughter. Never just girl.

“Don’t take any of this too seriously.” Aunt May fixed her own hair in the mirror before turning back to me. “You should just enjoy yourself.”

I nodded.

“She makes a good point,” Mom agreed. “It’s not as if we want you to choose someone today. You have time here, so have fun meeting some new people. Goodness knows, that’s a rarity for you.”

“True. It just feels awkward. I’m going to be alone with him, and then he’ll tell all the other guys about it, and then we’ll have to talk about it on TV.”

“It sounds harder than it is. Most of the time it’s funny,” Mom insisted.

I tried to imagine teenage her, blushing and talking about her dates with Dad. “So you didn’t mind it?”

She pursed her lips together, studying the ceiling as she thought. “Well, it was harder in the beginning. I was very hesitant to be the center of attention. But you’re brilliant at that, so treat this like any other party or event you’d give an interview about.”

‌May looked at her. “It’s not exactly like a post–Grateful Feast recap,” she pointed out before focusing on me, “but your mother is right about you being better in the spotlight. She was embarrassing at your age.”

“Thanks, May.” Mom rolled her eyes. “Any time.”

I chuckled, wishing briefly that I had just one sister. Mom’s other sister, Aunt Kenna, died years ago of a heart condition. Uncle James was a simple man, so he didn’t want to raise Astra and Leo in the palace even though we offered several times. We kept in touch, of course, but Astra and I were very different girls. Still, I remembered all too clearly the way Mom had spent a week in bed holding May and Grandma Singer after Kenna passed away. More and more I wondered if losing a sister was like Mom losing part of herself. I knew it would feel like that for me if anything happened to Ahren.

Aunt May elbowed Mom, and they shared a smile. They never really fought, not over anything that truly mattered, and the two of them soothed my worries.

They were right. This was nothing.

“You’re going to do great,” Mom said. “You don’t know how to fail.” She gave me a wink, and I felt myself stand taller.

I checked the clock. “I should go. Thanks for coming,” I said, taking Aunt May’s hand.

“No problem.” I hugged her at the door, and then headed downstairs.

When I got to Hale’s room, I paused and drew in a deep breath before I knocked. He answered, not his butler, and he seemed thrilled to see me.

‌“You look fantastic,” he said.

“Thank you,” I answered, smiling in spite of myself. “So do you.”

He’d changed, too, which made me feel much more comfortable, and I liked what he’d done with himself. His tie was gone, and he had his top button undone. Between that and the vest, he looked . . . well, he looked cute.

Hale tucked his hands into his pockets. “So where are we going?” I pointed down the hall. “This way, up to the fourth floor.”

He rocked on his feet a few times then hesitantly held out his arm for me. “Lead the way.”

“All right,” I began as we walked toward the stairs. “I know the basic facts. Hale Garner, nineteen years old, Belcourt. But those entry forms are a little cut and dried, so what’s your story?”

He chuckled. “Well, I too am the oldest in my family.” “Really?”

“Yes. Three boys.”

“Ugh, I feel bad for your mother.”

He smiled. “Eh, she doesn’t mind. We remind her of Dad, so when one of us is a little too loud or laughs at something he would have, she’ll sigh and say we’re just like him.”

I was afraid to ask, but I wanted to be clear. “Are your parents divorced?” I asked, doubting that was the case.

“No. He passed away.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling mortified that I’d indirectly insulted his memory.

‌“It’s okay. Not one of those things you know without being told.” “Can I ask when he died?”

“About seven years ago. I know this will sound weird, but sometimes I’m jealous of my youngest brother. Beau was about six when it happened, and he remembers Dad, but not the way I do, you know? Sometimes I wish I didn’t have so much to miss.”

“I’d be willing to bet he’s jealous of you for the opposite reason.” He gave me a sad smile. “I never thought about that.”

We turned up the main stairs, focusing on our steps. When we got to the landing on the fourth floor, I started again.

“What does your mother do?”

Hale swallowed. “Right now she’s working as a secretary at the local university. She . . . well, it’s been hard for her to hold down a good job, but she likes this one, and she’s had it for a long time. I just realized I began that sentence with ‘right now’ because I was used to her switching a lot, but she hasn’t done that for a while.

“Like I said when we met, my dad was a Two. He was an athlete. Went in for a surgery on his knee, but there was a clot and it made its way to his heart. Mom had never worked a day in her life—between her parents and Dad she was taken care of. After we lost him, all she was good at was being a basketball player’s wife.”

“Oh, no.”


‌I was so grateful when we came upon the parlor. How had Dad managed this? How did he sift through all those girls, testing them to find his wife? Getting to know one person was already wearing me out, and we weren’t even five minutes into our first date.

“Wow,” Hale whispered, admiring the setup.

From the fourth-floor parlors at the front of the palace you could just barely look out over the walls. Angeles in the evening let out a beautiful glow, and I’d asked for the parlor lights to be dimmed so we could really see it.

There was a small table in the middle of the room that had various cakes on it, and a dessert wine was waiting on the side. I’d never tried to set up a romantic evening before, but I thought I did a good job for my first try.

Hale pulled out my chair before joining me at the table.

“I didn’t know what you liked, so I got several. These are chocolate, obviously,” I said, pointing to the dozens of tiny cakes. “Then lemon, vanilla, and cinnamon.”

Hale stared at the piles of treats in front of us like I’d actually given him something huge. “Listen, I don’t want to be rude,” he said, “but if there’s anything you want, you should grab it now, because there’s a serious chance I will demolish these.”

I laughed. “Help yourself.”

He picked up one of the chocolate cakes and popped the whole thing into his mouth. “Mmmmmmm.”

“Try the cinnamon. It’ll change your life.”

‌We kept eating for a while, and I thought maybe this would be enough for one night. We’d moved into very safe territory; I could talk about desserts for

hours! But then, without warning, he started talking about his life again. “So my mom works at the university, but I work with a tailor in town.” “Oh?”

“Yeah, I’m very interested in clothes. Well, I am now anyway. Right after Dad died it was harder to get new things, so I learned to hide the rips in my brothers’ shirts or let out a hem as they grew. Then Mom had a pile of dresses she was hoping to sell to get some money, and I took two pieces and combined them to make something new for her. It wasn’t perfect, but I was good enough at it that I could probably get a job.

“So I read a lot and study what Lawrence does—he’s my boss. Every now and then he’ll let me take projects on my own. I guess that’s what I’ll do down the line.”

I smirked. “You’re definitely one of the more put-together guys in the group.”

He smiled bashfully. “It’s easy when I’ve got so much to work with. My butler is great, so he’s helped me with making sure the fit on everything is impeccable. I don’t think he appreciates all my pairings, but I want to look like a gentleman while still looking like myself, if that makes any sense.”

I nodded enthusiastically as I swallowed a bit of cake. “Do you know how hard it is when you love jeans but you’re a princess?”

‌He chuckled. “But you balance it so well! I mean, they plaster your outfits across every magazine, so I’ve seen plenty. Your style is very individual.”

“You think so?” I felt encouraged. Criticism was heavy these days, and that one scrap of praise was like water in the desert.

“Definitely!” he gushed. “I mean, you dress like a princess but then kind of not. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were actually the ringleader of an all- girl mafia.”

I spit out my wine all over the table, which made Hale burst into laughter. “I’m so sorry!” I felt my cheeks burning. “If Mom saw that, I’d get the

worst lecture.”

Hale wiped the tears from his eyes and leaned forward. “Do they really lecture you? I mean, aren’t you basically running the country?”

I shrugged. “Not really. Dad does most of the work. I just shadow him.” “But that’s a formality at this point, right?”

“How do you mean?” My words must have come out harsher than I meant, because the laughter in his eyes disappeared instantly.

“I’m not trying to insult him or anything, but lots of people say he looks tired. I’ve heard some people speculate all the time on when you’ll be ascending.”

I looked down. Did people really talk about Dad being tired?

“Hey,” Hale said, grabbing my attention again. “I’m really sorry. I was only trying to talk. I didn’t mean to make you upset.”

‌I shook my head. “No, you’re fine. I’m not sure what got to me. Maybe thinking about doing this without Dad.”

“It’s so funny to hear you call the king ‘Dad.’”

“But that’s who he is!” I found myself smiling again. Something about the way Hale talked made everything feel calmer, brighter. I liked that.

“I know, I know. Okay, so back to you. Besides being the most powerful woman in the world, what do you do for fun?”

I ate another piece of cake to hide how big my grin was. “It may or may not surprise you that I am also very into fashion.”

“Oh, really?” he replied sarcastically.

“I sketch. A lot, actually. I’ve tried my hand at the things my parents like as well. I know a bit about photography, and I can play the piano a little. But I always come back to my sketchbook.”

I knew I was smiling. Those pages with their scribbles of colored pencils were one of my safest places in the world.

“Could I see them?”

“What?” I crossed my ankles and sat up straighter. “Your sketches. Could I see them sometime?”

No one saw my sketches. I only ever showed designs to my maids when I had to since I didn’t do any of the construction. But for every one I shared, there were a dozen I hid, things I knew I could never wear. I thought about those pieces, each of them stored in my head or on paper, as if keeping them secret was the only way they could possibly be mine.

‌I knew he didn’t understand my sudden silence or why I held tightly to the arms of my chair. Hale asking that question, assuming he was welcome in that world, made me feel like he had somehow seen me—really seen me—and I didn’t like it.

“Excuse me,” I said, standing. “I think I had a little too much wine.” “Do you need help?” he asked, standing as well.

“No, please stay and enjoy yourself.” I moved as quickly as I could. “Your Highness!”

“Goodnight.” “Eadlyn, wait!”

In the hallway I moved much faster, unable to express my relief when he didn’t follow me.‌

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