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“You had so much going on this year,” she says, pausing to blow her nose. “With Ellie and all the weirdness . . .” She gestures around the room, at the giant bed, the expensive furnishings, the fancy tissue box, too, probably. “This. And I wasn’t sure, and I felt so dumb, you know? Ben and I have been together forever, and I thought I was being paranoid, and I hated that. Also—”
“Saying it out loud would’ve made it feel true,” I finish, and Isa looks up, her dark eyes wide. “Exactly,” she breathes, and I nudge her leg with my knee.
“See? That’s why you should’ve told me. I get this kind of thing.”
I lean back into the sofa, nearly swallowed up by the striped cushions. “You’re important to me, Isa, and things that are important to you are important to me. No matter what’s going on with my sister.”
My sister.
Who’s the reason I’m here this summer.
Which, in turn, makes her the reason Isa is here this summer. Would Ben still have sent that email if we’d gone to Key West like we planned?
I almost say that out loud, the words right there on the tip of my tongue, but then Isa gives a shuddery sigh and tilts her head to the side.
“What are you wearing?” she asks, and I tug at the hem of my cardigan. I’m wearing the green one, not the gray one, at least, but it’s over a white sleeveless blouse and my jeans have creases down the legs. I’m even wearing little pearl studs in my ears.
“Nothing interesting,” I assure her, and she nods, but then her lips start wobbling again.
Okay, so scrapping the museum and bookstore idea. That stuff is fun, don’t get me wrong, but this is an emergency situation, and hey, I now have some pretty cool stuff at my disposal, stuff I know Isabel has been excited about. Why not use just a little bit of it?
I lean forward. “You wanna go to the palace?”
Chapter 18
The tour I give Isa of Holyrood is definitely not as thorough as the one the tourists get, and most of the impressive parts are on display for the public, but Isabel, dedicated reader of royal blogs, is thrilled with this behind-the-scenes look. We stop in one of the parlors, and she touches a sofa covered in tartan pillows. “So, like, the queen sits here?” she asks, and I lean against a doorway. “Yup,” I reply. “Puts the royal bum right on it. When she’s here, which she’s not right now.”
Alex’s parents still aren’t back from Canada, which, to be honest, is quite the relief. Next week, though . . .
No, not even contemplating that.
We leave the parlor and head down one of the long hallways. It’s not as cluttered as Sherbourne Castle was—fewer paintings and knickknacks, but then again everything that belongs to the Bairds technically belongs to the country, so maybe most of their stuff is in museums—but it’s . . . grand. High stone ceilings arch overhead, and there’s this heavy feeling in the air, like all that history is seeping into the rock.
We stop near a thick window that looks down on one of the inner courtyards, watching a line of visitors snaking past. The glass is old and wobbly, same as the windows at Sherbourne, making everything outside blurry.
“It’s a palace,” Isabel says, turning to me.
“Well, yeah,” I joke, “that’s why it’s right there in the name. Kind of gives it away.”
Isabel’s bag slides from her shoulder to the crook of her arm. It’s so weird seeing something so familiar—Isabel, her black hair caught in a messy braid, her jeans frayed at the knee, that stupid bag she loves so much, made up of different squares of tweed—in this completely foreign place. A good kind of weird, don’t get me wrong. I’m so happy to see someone who isn’t a Fliss or a Poppy that I could cry. Suddenly, I wonder if this is what Ellie felt like when I’d showed up earlier in the summer. Worlds colliding and all that.
“Your sister is going to be a princess,” Isabel says, as if she was just now realizing that.
“Yup,” I say with a shrug. “And then she’ll be a queen, and one day she’ll have a kid who’ll be king or queen, which is actually the weirdest part of all this.”
Isabel thinks that over, blinking. “Holy crap, yeah,” she says, widening her eyes. “Will you have to bow to your own niece or nephew? Do you think Ellie and Alex will let you hold them?”
I roll my eyes, grabbing her hand and tugging her toward the side staircase that leads to our private apartments. “Yes, believe it or not, they let commoners touch the king baby.”
That makes her laugh, and as we head to another part of the palace, she doesn’t even mention all the paintings on the wall, the bizarrely lush carpets, or how everything that could be gilded has been, the gold dull under the surprisingly dim lights. Ellie said that Alex’s dad used the lowest-wattage light bulbs he could to save money, something that made no sense to me, seeing as how these were people who lived in multiple castles and had a literal fleet of fancy cars.
Then Isabel turns, grabbing my arm. “Okay, so yay palace, castle, very cool, hurray for fancy. Spill on Seb.”
I almost snort at that until I remember that Isabel probably shouldn’t know what a tool that guy really is. Hopefully, she won’t even have to see him since, as far as I know, he’s still gallivanting around in Derbyshire, doing whatever debauched royal types do. Probably having some weird orgy involving costumes and claret or something. Burning twenty-pound notes for fun.
No thanks.
“I’ve barely seen him,” I tell Isa now, which is mostly true. We’d only shared that one conversation in my room, and that hardly counted. I hadn’t even spoken to him at the race, and he’d left Edinburgh not long after we got back.
“Okay, but you have to tell me everything,” Isabel says. “How he looks, if he’s as handsome as he is in pictures, how he smells . . .”
I raise my eyebrows at her. “How he smells?”
Isa fixes me with a look. “Girl, I am heartbroken and vulnerable. Throw me a bone and tell me a hot prince smells like manly books and leather, okay?”
Seb usually smells of expensive cologne and whatever alcohol he’s currently pouring down his throat, but no need to crush Isabel’s dream. “All those things and more,” I tell her, and she closes her eyes, tipping her head back.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Giggling, I bump shoulders with her. “Come on.”
We walk down another hallway, this one less furnished than the rest and colder, our footsteps loud against the stone floor. “So,” Isa asks, crossing her arms over her chest, “how are things? Blending in with the royals and all?”
I shoot her a look. “Haven’t you been keeping up with the blogs?”
Shaking her head, Isa gives me an elbow to the ribs. “No, I’ve been loyal,” she says. “And honestly, reading about what your best friend is doing felt too . . . bleurghy.”
“Imagine reading it about your sister,” I reply, and Isa stops, her sneakers squeaking a little.
“I get it now,” she says, then gestures around us. “Why you were so weirded out by all this.” And then she flashes me a classic Isabel Smile, all dimples and shiny teeth.
“It’s still kind of cool, though.”
And the thing is, she’s not wrong. It is kind of cool. I don’t mind the fancy cars and the nice clothes. I’m never going to like a Pimm’s Cup, but the rest of it? It’s . . . not that bad.