“She’s already a princess,” I remind her.
“But she’ll never be a queen of her country, even if she didn’t have her brothers. That’s not how it works in their country. No woman will ever inherit the throne. It’s their law. Isabella will never be able to move past her title, and it’s one without many privileges.”
“I really don’t think she has any interest in being queen.”
“How would you know? You barely spoke to her.”
“Well, according to father, I spoke to her long enough to propose to her. You know, I wasn’t going to say this to him because he’s under enough stress as it is, but he really fucked things up there.”
“You watch your mouth,” my mother says, shaking a finger in my face, her eyes sharp as daggers. “For heaven’s sake. And by the way, you’re the one who fucked up.”
Sigurd inhales sharply and my mother spears him with her gaze. “What? It’s my house. I’m allowed to swear. I’m the goddamn queen!”
“Look,” I say slowly, trying to prevent her from having an aneurysm. “My point is, it put Ella in a tough spot. She had to lie to her father.”
“That’s on her,” my mother says dismissively. “If she wasn’t open to the idea at all, she wouldn’t have lied and she wouldn’t be arriving here at any moment to discuss this.”
“She might be. She strikes me as a person with honor and morals, and maybe she thinks flying here and letting us down face-to-face is the right way to do things,” I tell her. “And that whole moral thing is also why I think she won’t go for it. Hey, I’m stuck. This is my bed and it’s full of shit and I’m lying in it. But I’m pretty sure she’s the type who imagined when she one day got married it would be to someone she loved.”
“She could learn to love you,” my mother says softly, almost embarrassed.
I’m certainly embarrassed. I wince. “I doubt that. But my point stands. She has no reason to say yes, not that I know of.”
“Well, you don’t know her at all. None of us do.” She gestures around the room. She then sits down on the couch and has a sip of her coffee which is probably cold by now. She sits back and studies me. “And so say she says no. Then what? Are you going to be disappointed?”
I lift one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug.
I hate to say it, but in a way I think I would be. Because if it’s not her it will be someone else and I think I rather like Ella. At least I’m still intrigued by her, not to mention attracted to her. There’s something about her demeanor, the way she looks so classy and quiet, but I’ve seen the fire inside her already and I’d love to see what she looks like, completely disheveled with that fire unleashed.
Who knows if I’ll even have the chance.
And if I did, who knows if she would let me.
“Your Majesty.” My father’s butler appears at the door. “She’s here.”
My mother gets to her feet and looks at me.
This is a huge mistake.
I knew the moment I booked the ticket.
The moment I stepped on the plane.
The moment I arrived at the airport in Oslo and got into the hired car.
The moment that car pulled up to the palace gates.
A big, big mistake.
I’ve spent the last few days going over the scenario in my head, trying to understand my situation the best that I can. I’ve missed all my classes, calling in sick, because I can’t concentrate on anything else. I’ve made countless pros and cons lists, I’ve had debates with Jane, I’ve even tried meditation to find the right answer, as if the universe will enlighten me with one.
And I’ve honestly come up with nothing.
Which is so ridiculous considering what’s at stake here. I shouldn’t even be entertaining this idea. The moment that Magnus told me the real reason behind everything, I should have just left. I mean, I tried to. But then my father called and he sounded so damn proud of me and happy and it’s like for one wonderful moment, for one lie, I had everything I ever craved right in my hands.
I caved. I should have told him the truth, but not only did I not want to disappoint him, I didn’t want to erase what I had fought so long to have.
And now I’m stuck. Between a rock and a hard place known as Magnus’s muscles.
But I don’t want to marry Magnus.
I don’t want to marry anyone right now.
I certainly don’t want to move to Norway and give up my studies, everything I’ve thrown myself into and worked so hard for over the years.
Is the risk of disappointing my father really worth giving up my freedom, my life, my future?
I still don’t know.
I should know but I don’t.
What I do know is that I don’t trust myself to make any permanent decisions right now and the fact that I even want to talk it over with them all is a bad idea. If I had a backbone at all I would have told them no over the phone and been done with it.
And then what would you have done? I think. Then you’d go back to your classes, tagging along after your roommates, eating dinner with only Jane for company, struggling for the world to take you seriously, floundering after university with no support, no voice. No father to tell you he’s proud of you. Just a lifetime of being stuck in a life you don’t really want.
But isn’t that what marrying Magnus would be like?
I look over at Jane as the car parks beneath the palace, my nerves on fire, my heart jittery and jumping all over the place like I’d injected it with caffeine concentrate. Or maybe it was the several cups of tea I had on the plane.
“What am I doing?” I ask, my eyes wide in panic as I watch the butler approaching the car. “I can’t do this.”
Jane rolls her eyes with an exaggerated sigh. “Will you stop overthinking this? You’ve had a million times to say no and call it off and you haven’t yet. Instead, you’ve spent the last few days thinking about it. That means you need to be here, even if just to hear what else they have to say.”
“But this is ridiculous,” I say frantically, my palms growing sweaty. “I should just get the driver to turn around and take us back to the airport. I shouldn’t even be entertaining this. I don’t—”
The car door opens and the butler says, “Your Serene Highness.”
Which makes me wince. Technically that is the way you’re supposed to address me but I haven’t heard it since I was a young girl and even then it sounded too formal.
I stare at the butler’s outstretched hand, and in that moment I know that if I grab it, if I let him help me out of the car, if I step foot in that palace, I’m committing myself even further, making it harder to back out.
But I do it. I reach out for his hand and he helps me out, Jane right behind me.
The palace looks different in the morning and I’m aware now that it’s in the middle of the city. I can hear cars, people walking past outside the gates. They blocked off the area so that you can’t actually see the courtyard, and from the paparazzi I spied as we drove in, I know it’s for good reason.
“Your Majesty is expecting you,” he says, and leads me toward the main doors. We don’t have any luggage with us this time. In fact, regardless of what happens, Jane and I are booked back on a flight to Edinburgh later that evening. I don’t want to make the mistake of staying over again, especially if I end up saying no. That would be rather awkward.
This time the butler takes us directly to another room instead of the Bird Room where we had to wait last time. I guess all the formalities are gone now.
The room we’re led into is just as opulent as the others, with hanging chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling curtains, and teak and velvet furniture done up in shades of cream and baby blue.
Standing around the biggest coffee table I’ve ever seen in the middle of the room, are Queen Else, Magnus, and two other people I don’t recognize: a short man with a round baby face and a bald, thin man in glasses who holds a stack of papers and folders in his hands.
I’m not sure the proper protocol to enter a room that they already occupy so I immediately bow and curtsey with Jane doing the same.
“Your Majesty,” I say, artfully looking down at the pale grey carpet. “Your Royal Highness.”
“Please,” the Queen says. “You can call me Else. Or Madam. I’d rather things not be so formal between us.” I gradually lift my gaze to meet hers. She’s smiling warmly.
She’s talking as if I’ve already told them yes. That’s not a good sign. I need to take back some control without making them feel slighted. “Thank you so much for having me here on such short notice, madam,” I say to her. “This is the type of thing I believe would be better discussed in person.”
It hits me all at once at what I’m doing—standing before the Norwegian royal family and telling them what’s going on, telling them where I stand, being the one who is dictating the situation. Never in a million years did I think I would ever have the confidence to do this. I’m still in shock.
I push that realization out of my mind. If I think about it anymore I’ll be running for the hills.
“And we appreciate that,” she says, exchanging a quick glance with Magnus. “Please, sit down.”
I sit down on the couch, Jane beside me, and as the butler pours everyone coffee—which I decline—my eyes go to Magnus. I’ve been trying not to look at him in case he influences me one way or the other.
But the fact is, he is influencing me. And he should. This is the man I’m considering marrying. This is the person I may have to spend the rest of my life with. I don’t know him at all, except what seems to be all his bad qualities, and based on our meeting the other night, I can’t say that we get along even slightly.
His gaze is as intense as ever, those dark eyes of his seeming to hold me in my place as I sit before him. It feels like he’s looking for answers from me this time, rather than the way he looked last time—like he was looking for his own answers inside me.