“Stop! I’ve been trying so hard!”
“I know,” he said, wiping the smile off his face. “And, wardrobe issues aside, you’ve done a wonderful job.” He gestured toward the Great Room. “They’re not just whispering about how gracefully you’ve behaved tonight, Hollis. They’re saying they’ve known all along what a great queen you’d be.”
The word came out a hopeful whisper. “Really?”
He nodded. “You’ve done beautifully.”
I stared at him, at the glimmering hope in his blue eyes. There really was something extraordinary about that blue. And the way his hair shifted when he dropped his shoulder. And how he smiled, as if he wasn’t holding anything back, saving his worry and care and affection for anyone else.
“I feel so fortunate to have met you,” I confessed. “Since you’ve arrived, I’ve felt . . . different.”
“I feel different, too,” he said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “When you’re near.”
It suddenly became clear to me that we were very much alone. Footsteps in these vast hallways were unmistakable, and there was no such sound.
“I should probably get back,” I breathed.
But neither of us moved. Until we both did, meeting in the middle of the hallway for a stolen kiss.
Silas cupped my cheeks, holding me with such tenderness that I felt everything inside my body melting. I could feel the calluses on his fingers as they traced the edges of my face, and I couldn’t help but compare the feeling to that of Jameson’s perfectly smooth hands. There was something about the awareness of Silas’s hard work, the labor that earned him those calluses, that made me treasure his touch.
I could have stayed lost in it for ages, but I heard the sound of distant footsteps.
Jerking away, I couldn’t even bring myself to look into his eyes. What had I done?
“Wait five minutes and then go back,” I whispered urgently. “For my sake, please tell no one.”
I was already walking when he simply replied, “If you wish.”
I moved toward the Great Room with my head high, trying to convince myself that if I simply looked confident, then no one could possibly suspect I’d just kissed someone who was decidedly not my intended. Who was a foreigner. Who was, by every measure I’d been taught to value, a commoner.
He’d been right; everywhere I turned, people were giving me knowing looks and thankful smiles. They’d finally come to respect me at the very moment I’d let them all down.
I walked up to the head table, kissing Jameson on the cheek. He gave me a warm look but continued his conversation with King Quinten. I was counting the minutes until that man left, taking his entourage with him. I needed everything to go back to normal.
But I was starting to wonder if there’d ever be a normal. Since the moment I’d locked eyes with Silas Eastoffe, I’d felt something. The string was pulling me, taut and unyielding. I couldn’t help but notice I still felt that pull as he walked into the hall, eyes downcast, as if he couldn’t muster the strength to fake any kind of happiness.
I’d said he couldn’t burn me. I still believed that. If I was going to go up in flames, it would be my own doing.
I INHALED DEEPLY, TAKING IN the scent of freshly blossoming flowers. Though I could have happily spent an hour by myself in the maze of hedges in the peaceful gardens of Keresken, it was surprisingly pleasant to sit by Queen Valentina as Jameson and King Quinten practiced their archery. Jameson had beautiful form, and I was sure Quinten must have at some point as well. These days, the arching of his back made pulling the bow securely a bit of a challenge. Still, I could see in his steady fingers and the sureness of his gaze that he knew precisely what he was doing.
Valentina and I took refuge in the shade of several large parasols being held above us by palace servants, and we watched as Jameson let another arrow fly. It hit very close to its mark, and he turned back to me, raising his eyebrows and clearly waiting for praise.
“Bravo, my lord!” I called, swallowing hard immediately after. It was difficult to get the words out. There was a secret kiss hiding in my throat, blocking all the words I knew I was supposed to say, halting all the actions I knew I was meant to do.
I feared that something about the set of my smile or the shade of my eyes was going to give me away. Any minute, Jameson was going to know that I’d betrayed him. And even to this second, I couldn’t explain how it had happened.
I also couldn’t change it. The best I could hope for was to forget it ever happened and continue walking steadily toward Jameson and the crown. I sighed, turning to Valentina.
“I want to thank you again for yesterday,” I began, trying to restart our easy conversation from the night before. It was much harder when things felt so official.
“I did very little in the grand scheme. You orchestrated everything. I can see why your king favors you so much.” She looked over at him admiringly. There really was no other way to look at Jameson.
Then why did you kiss someone else?
“I . . . I’m still not sure what made him choose me,” I started, stumbling over the words. “Some say it’s because I make him laugh.” I tilted my head, still not sure what the true answer to this question was. I supposed Etan would have said it was my pretty face. “How did you meet King Quinten?”
She shrugged. “There isn’t much to say. I have been at court with my parents since I was a child. The court is large, so we didn’t truly cross paths until a few years ago. That was that.”
I cast a knowing look at her. “That sounds close to my story. Amazing what can happen when you leave the country for a palace.”
“True. The castle had all but been our home for years; we only left it to travel.” A whisper of a smile crept onto her lips. “I’ve been to nearly every country on the continent,” she boasted. “My parents wanted me to see the world.”
“I envy you. You already know how small my world is.”
She nodded. “Maybe your king will be more adventurous, take you to meet the princes of each land. It will serve you well; there is an education that can only be received through travel.”
For the majority of my life I’d had no reason to think that I needed to see anything more than the hills near Varinger Hall or the sunrise on Colvard River as it cut by the capital. But meeting people from across the continent was enlightening, and now I ached to know more.
“I hope so. What about you? Do you hope to finish this education? Go to those final few countries?”
Her smile faded. “The king is most preoccupied with his kingdom.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I assumed, whatever it was, it gave them cause to stay close to home. Coroa, at least, wasn’t much of a journey.
“It makes me miss my parents,” she said in a voice so quiet I almost didn’t hear it. When I looked at her then, she didn’t seem so much like a queen anymore, but more of what she was: another young girl trying to make her way in the world. “I have little trinkets from our trips. . . . This necklace,” she said, touching the silver oval tied around her swan-like neck. “My father got me this in Montoth from a little gypsy woman by the side of the road. I have a feeling she didn’t make it, if you catch my meaning.”