Then, to me, Nicholas spoke again, “Look at me, Piper.”
I hesitated at first, but he didn’t move from his spot in front of me, like he was patiently waiting me out.
So, eventually, I chanced a glance upwards.
Nicholas captured my gaze with his own and held me captive. He held so much emotion in his eyes –
blatant affection – it stole my breath away.
“You know who I’d rather be with,” he said.
He meant me.
And the words stole my breath away.
I’d rather be with him too. “Nicholas…”
“Find me,” he said, “before you make a move on Jane…” He sighed. “Or find Julian. Just don’t do
anything on your own.
This felt like a pivotal moment, like he was barring his heart; and it was time for me to do the same. I
wouldn’t disappoint him. I wanted him to know his
affections were reciprocated, in case there was any question about it.
“I’ll find you,” I said. It was a difficult thing to promise. No one knew when or how Jane would appear. It
was likely that Nicholas would be in an entirely different part of the room. But no, I would still make an
effort to get to him.
I would try, anyway. Because he wanted me to.
Slowly, he nodded. “Thank you.” But I could see with the flash of uncertainty in his eyes that he didn’t
quite believe me.
“I’ll have my necklace,” I said, gesturing to where the full moon pendant rested just above my bosom.
Nicholas frowned deeper at it. “Yes, but…”
Beside us, Julian cleared his throat, making us both jump. This added a few more inches between us.
“If you are done stealing my girlfriend, Nicholas?” Julian said. “I think your fangirls got enough pictures
of you two to satisfy them.”
We all glanced back at the overeager group of women who had inched closer to where they now stood.
Many looked embarrassed at having finally been noticed.
Julian made a show of offering his arm to Piper. Piper quickly accepted, afraid any hesitation would
come off poorly on the video.
Nicholas glowered, but I couldn’t point it out to him without making it seem like I was speaking to him
privately again. So I just accepted that he would glare. The girl with glasses moved her fingers over the
screen like she was zooming in.
Julian all but rushed me away from Nicholas, and the group of girls.
“You two all huddled and broody in the corner,” Julian said. He spoke with an upbeat cantor, but I knew
I was being lectured. “Did you forget the purpose of tonight’s event?”
“To catch Jane…”
“No!” Julian swooped me onto the dance floor.
Suddenly his hand was on my hip and the other clutching mine as he pulled me into step with the rest
of the dancers.
“We are supposed to look like we are having fun, remember? All sunshine and happiness, to let all the
good people at home know how great everything is,” Julian said. His smile was bright and wide, and it
didn’t look fake at all.
God he was a good actor. Dangerously good.
If he wasn’t a prince, he could have been a movie star. He had the looks and the talent, not that I would
admit either to him. He was smug enough as it was.
But he was right in this too. I hadn’t forgotten the theme of the night’s event exactly, I’d just been
“I’ve always believed in putting art into practice,” Julian said as he spun me around. I felt light as a
feather in his capable hands. “So maybe rather than pretending to have fun… how about we actually
The King and Queen watched from atop their thrones as the princes danced with and among the
candidates and guests, while the cameras swooped in and out to capture all.
We kept our smiles bright, eager to show how much fun we were having all to maintain our standing in
the competition, of course.
My cheeks were starting to hurt from how big and fake I was smiling. Fake laughter sounded all around
me, every contestant competing with each other for the royal family’s attention – as well as for the
Eventually, as Julian was swirling me around the dance floor, I noticed Susie standing near the edge of
it. Her smile was shaky. She seemed more nervous than happy, even to pretend.
I tapped Julian on the shoulder and motioned toward Susie. “I need to talk to her.”
He understood and released me. “I’ll make the rounds.” He instantly
disappeared back among the dancers, with a new partner now. He switched so quickly, I didn’t even
see who it was.
It didn’t really matter, though, so I hurried to Susie’s side instead. Relief covered her face the moment
she noticed me.
“Piper. Thank goodness.”
“What’s going on?” I asked her.
She worried her hands together. “I can’t do this.”
“Do what? Dance?” I knew she could dance. I’d seen her do the steps countless times before. She’d
even taught me a few moves.
“Pretend,” she said.
I stepped beside her and we both looked out over the dance floor. From this angle, the scrunched up
too–much smiling faces seemed extra unnerving. It looked like everyone had a clown mask on. Only
Julian looked truly genuine, though he was the best actor.
Nicholas was dancing with Olivia, I noticed. He wasn’t smiling at all, but a prince didn’t really need to.
Olivia seemed pleased. She wasn’t overselling it.
Lilliana, meanwhile, was laughing so loudly, smile so big, that it hurt me just
“Everyone looks so phony right now,” Susie said. “I know we need to try to lift the spirits of the kingdom,
but… Won’t they be able to tell it’s not real?”
She looked at me for guidance, and I was honored that she sought out my opinion. Only, I didn’t know
what answer to give her.
Yes, most likely the people would be able to tell this was fake. Hell, even if it wasn’t, what kind of
message was it truly sending? Sorry you are experiencing such strife, at least all the rich elites are still
fine? It all seemed grossly
But… maybe, if I was being optimistic, I could see how the royal family was desperate enough to try. If
part of the public unease was distrust in the stability of the royal family, showing that they could still
maintain the events of the competition could be a step in the right direction.
I sighed, then met Susie’s gaze. Neither of us were political players or strategists. We were just two
young women caught in a game created by people with more power than we’d ever hold. novelbin
Then I remembered Julian’s words, before he pulled me onto the dance floor.
“Maybe instead of pretending,” I told Susie now, “We could try to have fun for real.”
Susie’s eyes went wide, as if surprised. Did she think we could only pretend?” How?”
“We’re friends, aren’t we?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said.
“Then let’s start acting like it.”
I wrapped her arm around mine and pulled her with me toward the dance floor.
“What are we doing?” she asked, though went along with it.
“Dancing,” I said. “Forget the stuffy moves and the practiced dances. Let me show you some of the
dances from my pack.”
At once, I started a dance that mimics pushing a shopping cart. “Then you reach,” I said, and lifted my
arm up, as if pulling an item off the shelf, then mimicked placing said item into the shopping cart. “And
Susie’s eyes were wide, even as her smile grew bigger, more honest. “That looks ridiculous.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s so fun. You try.”
Immediately Susie began the same dance. It was a bit strange, doing such an informal dance while
listening to an orchestra, but a beat was a beat. Anything was possible.
Susie mimed putting items in her imagined shopping cart and then laughed and laughed. “Wait, what if
I need something heavy?” She pretended to lift
something off the ground with both hands.
It was outrageous and messed up the entire beat, but it was so funny, watching Susie in her formal
gown pretending to lift something heavy.
I laughed so hard I snorted.
Our antics quickly drew the attention of others.
“What’s that dance? I’ve never seen it before?” Tiffany asked, joining us.
“A shopping cart dance,” Susie said.
“Teach me!” Tiffany said. Susie eagerly agreed. A few of the guests followed along. Susie came out of
her shell a bit, perhaps seeing how much they actually enjoyed it. Even Veronica joined us.
Soon, half the dance floor was with people, young and old, men and women, attempting the shopping
“I have another one!” I announced and they all turned to me. I very carefully taught them how to do the
sprinkler move, by bending one elbow and moving in a semi–circle, mimicking the movements of a
It was another outlandish dance that made everyone laugh and want to try it.
Susie pulled me into a quick hug. “This is amazing.”
“It is when it’s with friends.” I smiled at her.
I didn’t realize the cameras had shifted from recording the formal dancers to watching us instead. Our
smiles and laughter was certainly more honest than that of the other side. More so now, in fact, since
that side had begun to glare at
All except Nicholas, who was looking right at me, pride clear on his face. I pulled my bottom lip
between my teeth, hoping to hide how wide my smile was growing in response.
Making Nicholas pride? It made something warm burn within me. For a moment, I felt like a little sun
myself, full of warmth and light and happiness.
But then Olivia tugged on Nicholas’s arm, and he was forced to look away.
My sunshine dimmed somewhat.
I glanced across the room, searching for Julian. It seemed odd that he hadn’t joined us for our silly
dances. That seemed like something Julian would have been first in line to try.
But I didn’t see him anywhere. Not on our half of the dancefloor, or on the other half. Not by the
refreshment table. Not by the King and Queen on the throne.
He could have stepped out for a moment, I guessed, but we’d been dancing for a while.
Had that lead of his panned out.
Surely he would have said something.
Then, something caught my eye. A figure in black among an assortment of bright, vibrant, jovial colors.
A stranger was wearing a tight, floor–length black gown, and a black brimmed hat with a veil that hid
her face. She took a seat at one of the tables along the
outer edge of the ballroom. She held a champagne glass but made no effort to drink from it.
I knew it was Jane, even from across the room.