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Chapter no 28

The Heir (The Selection, 4)

AT BREAKFAST WAS STRUCK by a number of things. First was Henri trying to catch Erik up on everything that had happened the night before. Erik’s eyes kept darting over to mine and then back to Henri, and he looked like he was trying to calm him down. I thought for sure Henri would be elated today as the second person in the Selection to get a kiss. Instead, he seemed frantic.

Across from Henri, Kile’s confused gaze flipped back and forth between him and Erik, as he clearly didn’t know enough words to follow even a fraction of the conversation. He slowly spooned food into his mouth without trying to interject.

‌I also noticed that Baden was trying to get my attention. He gave me a small wave and nodded toward the door. I mouthed “Later” and did my best not to be irritated by him neglecting protocol again.

But the worst by far were Mom and Dad surreptitiously peeking over at me, obviously wondering how much I knew about the uprising.

I cleared my throat. “So, did I do okay last night?”

Dad’s face finally broke into a smile. “I was impressed, Eadlyn. After such a trying week, you were incredibly poised. When Henri got up there and you were so generous with him, it was a wonderful thing to watch. And I’m happy to see that maybe some of them are . . . appealing to you. Gives me hope.”

“We’ll see where that goes,” I hedged, “but I did promise you three months, and I think it will take me at least that long to figure any of this out.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” he said, looking as if a thousand memories were flooding his head. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I watched his sweet, wistful smile, and I could see how much this whole thing meant to him. “Will you be disappointed? If I get to the end and there’s no engagement?”

“No, dear. won’t be disappointed.” He only barely accented the word, but it sent me into a sudden tailspin of worry.

What would it mean for me when I got to the end and was still single? If we weren’t just dealing with post-caste confusion anymore and trying to quell an outright rebellion, three months wasn’t enough to fix this. In fact, two weeks had already disappeared in a rush.

‌This wasn’t going to be enough.

And then I understood why they might want to keep any hint of unrest from me: If I thought this was completely pointless, would I quit? If I quit, then there really was nothing.

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” I said. “It’s all going to be fine.”

He put his hand over mine and gave it a squeeze. “I’m sure you’re right, dear.” Then, taking a deep breath, he went back to his coffee. “I meant to tell you; the background checks are done. If we had made a few calls before the Selection, we would have known that Burke had anger issues and that a girl at Jack’s school reported him for inappropriate behavior once. It also turns out Ean spends almost all his time alone. I don’t think that’s anything worth sending him home for, but we should watch him.”

“Ean’s actually been pretty generous.” “Oh?”

“Yeah. But I have noticed he’s a bit of a loner. Not sure why though; he’s a good conversationalist.”

Dad sipped his coffee and stared at Ean. “That’s strange.”

“Anyone else I need to worry about?” I asked, not wanting him to linger on Ean. Isolated didn’t mean troublemaker.

“There was one who had some bad grades, but nothing to kick up a fuss about.”

“All right then. The worst has passed.” I tried to look encouraging.

‌“I certainly hope so. I’m going to have a special team continue to look into this. I wasn’t as diligent as I should have been, and I’m sorry for that,” he confessed.

“But on the plus side, I could have actual dates to talk about next Friday.”

He chuckled to himself. “True. So maybe give someone you haven’t talked to yet a chance. I promise, it is actually possible to meet with all of them.”

I surveyed the mass of boys. “I might not be in the office this week.”

He shook his head. “Not a problem. Get to know them. I’m still pulling for you to find someone, even if part of you thinks it’s pointless.”

“I might remind you, that wasn’t your goal when you proposed this.” “All the same.”

“There are just so many. Anyone you don’t like?”

He squinted. “As a matter of fact . . .” Dad gazed over each of their faces, trying to find one in particular. “That one. Green shirt.”

“Black hair?” “Yes.”

“That’s Julian. What’s wrong with him?”

“This might sound trivial, but when you were complimenting the others

last night, he didn’t smile or clap for any of them. Not a good attitude to have. If he can’t stand being in their shadows temporarily, how would he handle being in yours for the rest of his life?”

For all the mental time I spent debating how much he honestly believed in me as a leader, that statement made it all a waste. Of course he saw me as a leader.

‌“And this might also sound trivial, but I don’t think you’d make attractive children.”

“Daddy!” I yelled, causing a bit of a stir. I buried my head in my hand as Dad doubled over in laughter.

“I’m just saying!”

“All right. I’m leaving. Thanks for the insight.”

I practically bolted from the hall, though I made sure my pace was only slightly faster than what might be considered ladylike. Once I was alone it turned into an all-out sprint. In my room, I filed through the remaining applications, looking for anything that might make one person more exciting than another. I paused on Julian’s picture. Dad was right. No matter how I combined his nose and my eyes or my mouth and his cheeks, every variation looked awful in my head.

Not that it mattered.

I’d send him home soon enough, but probably only once a few dates went bad and he had company. The solo eliminations had all been rather awful. For now I had to make a plan. Ten dates. That was the goal before I had to face another Report. And I’d need to get at least three of them in the papers. How could I make them look magnificent?

Mom was in the Women’s Room with Miss Lucy, meeting with a mayor. There weren’t very many ladies holding down those positions, so I knew them by heart. This was Milla Warren from Calgary gracing our home today. I hadn’t planned on making this an official visit, but now I had no choice.

I curtsied, greeting Mom and her guest.

‌“Your Highness!” Ms. Warren sang, standing to give me a deep curtsy. “It’s a pleasure to see you, and during such an exciting time!”

“We’re very happy to have you as well, ma’am. Please sit.” “How are you, Eadlyn?” Mom asked.

“Good. I have some questions for you later,” I added quietly.

“No doubt a little boy talk, eh?” Ms. Warren asked with a wink. Mom and Miss Lucy indulged her with a laugh, but while I smiled, I thought she should know the truth.

“I don’t think the Selection is quite what you imagine.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Please, give me thirty-five men fighting over me any day!”

“Honestly, it’s more work than anything,” I promised. “We make it look exciting, but it’s challenging.”

“I can back that up,” Mom said. “No matter what side of the situation you’re on, it’s hard. There are long hours of nothing happening followed by bursts of events.” She shook her head. “Even now, just thinking back on it, I feel tired.”

Mom rested her head on her hand and flicked her eyes toward me. There was something in her expression, that motherly, accepting look, that made me feel understood and comforted.

But there was the same worry there, the hint of stress that Dad was wearing this morning. She brushed off the moment and focused on Ms. Warren. “So, Milla, the last I heard, things were going well in Calgary.”

“Oh, yes, well, we’re a quiet bunch.”

‌She’d stopped by on little more than a social call, and I sat there holding my perfect posture until she decided to leave. Which only happened because I slipped a note to the maid asking that she come in and tell Mom she was needed urgently.

The second Ms. Warren was out the door, Mom straightened her dress. “Let me go see what this is all about.”

“Relax, it’s just me.” I studied my nails. They needed some work. Mom and Miss Lucy stared.

“I wanted to talk to you and she wouldn’t stop, so I made an appointment.

Sort of.” I flashed a cheeky smile.

Mom shook her head. “Eadlyn, sometimes you can be a little manipulative.” She sighed. “And sometimes it’s a gift. Ugh, I didn’t think I could take much more.”

I giggled conspiratorially with her and Miss Lucy, glad I wasn’t alone.

“I feel bad for her,” Mom said guiltily. “She doesn’t get out much, and it’s hard to do her job alone. But I didn’t appreciate how she spoke to you.”

I made a face. “I’ve had worse.”

“True.” She swallowed. “What did you need?”

I glanced at Miss Lucy. “Of course,” she answered to my unspoken request. “I’m around all day if you need me.” She curtsied to Mom, kissed me on my head, and left. It was such a tender gesture.

“She’s so good to me,” I said. “The boys, too. Sometimes I feel like I ended up with several mothers.”

‌I smiled at Mom, and she nodded. “I kept the people I love close, and they have fawned over you since the moment they knew you were coming.”

“I really wish she had children,” I said sadly.

“Me, too.” Mom swallowed. “I guess by now it’s common knowledge that she’s faced a long struggle with no success. I’d do nearly anything to be able to help her.”

“Have you tried?” I felt like there was little the Schreaves couldn’t accomplish.

Mom blinked a few times, trying not to cry. “I shouldn’t tell you this; it’s private. But, yes, I’ve done everything I could. I even went so far as to offer to be a surrogate and carry a baby for her.” She pressed her lips together. “It was the one time I regretted being queen. It appears my body isn’t always mine, and there are certain things I’m not allowed to do.”

“Says who?” I demanded.

“Everyone, Eadlyn. It’s not exactly a traditional thing to do, and our advisers thought the people would be upset by it. Some even argued that any baby I carried would have to be in line for the throne. It was ridiculous, so I had to let it go.”

I was quiet for a minute, watching my mother recover from a heartbreak years old, and one that wasn’t even her own in a way.

“How do you do that?” “What?”

“It’s like you’re always giving pieces of yourself away. How do you have anything left for you? I feel exhausted watching you sometimes.”

‌She smiled. “When you know who matters most to you, giving things up, even yourself, doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice. There are a handful of people who I’d lay down my life for without a second thought. And then there are the people of Illéa, our subjects, who I lay my life down for in a different way.”

She lowered her eyes and touched up her already immaculate dress. “You probably have people you’d sacrifice for and you don’t know it. But you will, one day.”

For a second I wondered if we were actually related. All the people she was thinking about—Dad, Ahren, Miss Lucy, Aunt May—were important to me, too. But mostly I needed them to help me, not the other way around.

“Anyway,” she said, “what was it that you needed?”

“Oh, so Dad has deemed that the remaining boys aren’t complete lunatics, so I’m focusing on dates this week,” I answered, leaning forward. “I’m looking for ideas that would be easy but look great on camera.”

“Ah.” She lifted her eyes to the ceiling in thought. “I’m not sure how useful I can be in that department. Nearly all the dates I had with your father during my Selection were walks around the garden.”

“Seriously? How did you two even get together? That’s so boring!”

She laughed. “Well, it gave us a lot of opportunities to talk. Or to argue, and the majority of our time spent with each other was filled with one or the other.”

I squinted. “You guys fought?”

‌“All. The. Time.” For some reason that brought a smile to her face. “Honestly, the more and more I hear about your Selection, the less sense it

makes. I can’t even imagine you and Dad fighting.”

“I know. There were a lot of things we needed to work through, and truthfully, we liked having someone who’d be honest with us, even when it was hard to take.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t want someone honest in my life as well—if I ever chose to get married, anyway—but he’d need to find a better way of delivering his words if he wanted a chance of sticking around.

“Okay, dates,” she said, sitting back in her chair and thinking. “I was never good at archery, but if there’s someone who is skilled at that, it might look nice.”

“I think I can do that. Oh, and I’ve already done horseback riding, so that’s out.”

“Right. Cooking, too.” She smiled to herself as if she couldn’t believe I’d allowed that date to happen.

“And it turned out disastrous.”

“Well, Kile and Henri did great! And Fox wasn’t terrible.”

“True,” I amended. I found myself thinking about Henri and me cooking alone in the kitchen, the date no one knew about.

“Sweetheart, I think instead of going for something flashy, you might try simpler dates. Have tea, take a walk in the gardens. Meals are always a good standard; you can’t eat too many times. It might look better than you riding a horse anyway.”

‌I’d been trying to avoid anything that might be too personal. But those types of dates gave the impression of closeness, which was something I thought the public wanted. Maybe she was right. If I went in with a list of safe topics and questions, perhaps it wouldn’t feel so bad anyway.

“Thanks, Mom. I’ll probably give that a go.” “Any time, sweetie. I’m always here for you.”

“I know.” I fidgeted with my dress. “Sorry if I’ve been a pain lately.”

She reached across to me. “Eadlyn, you’re under a lot of stress. We understand. And short of becoming an ax murderer, there’s nothing you could do to make me love you less.”

I laughed. “An ax murderer? That’s your limit?”

“Well . . . maybe even then.” She winked at me. “Go on. If you’re doing several dates this week, you should make a plan.”

I nodded and, for reasons I wasn’t entirely sure of, scuttled into her lap for a second.

Oof!” she complained as my weight settled. “Love you, Mom.”

She wrapped her arms around me tightly. “I love you, too. More than you could ever know.”

I kissed her cheek and hopped up, thinking of the week ahead and hoping it would somehow appease everyone. But those thoughts were driven from my mind when I stepped into the hallway and found Baden there, waiting for me.

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