Being born into royalty doesn’t mean she can bear the weight of the crown…
Princess Isabelle never thought she’d rule Ceshela. As the youngest of four royal children, the odds of becoming Queen were never in her favor.
Until her parents had an idea that would change everything.
Now, Isabelle must compete with her brothers to determine who is worthy of the crown. If she wins, she’ll be able to help her people in ways she never imagined.
But when not one but two suitors from opposite social castes begin vying for her heart, Isabelle realizes she might eventually be forced to choose between duty and love.
Because winning always comes at a price. Is it one she’s able—and willing—to pay?
I ushered the eight-year-old girl out of the bathing room and back into the bedroom.
“I don’t want to wear a dress, Isabelle,” Nova complained.
I sighed. “What would you prefer to wear, Nova? Trousers?”
“Yes. I want to run around like the boys. We’re going to the fair! A dress would hinder my movements.”
Nova was one of the children living at the orphanage where I volunteered. My aunt Winifred ran it, and there were over thirty children living here. Nova was one of my favorites because she was so precocious.
“What movements do you expect to be making, Nova? You should not be running around like a boy.”
She put her little hands on her hips and glared at me. I pressed my lips together to keep from laughing, which I knew would only irritate her further.
“You wear trousers sometimes, and I’ve seen you sparring with your brothers before. That doesn’t seem very ladylike, Isabelle.”
I shook my head and sighed. “Would you like me to go find some trousers for you to wear?”
“Please,” she said, reverting instantly back to a sweet little girl.
I headed down the hall and to the stairs that led up to the third level, where the boys were housed. Rosalie, my friend and the daughter of a viscount from the Luna region, was helping a five-year-old named Matthew pull a shirt over his head. She glanced at me and grimaced.
“Are you having as much trouble with the children as I am? They’re overly excited about the fair and are difficult to dress.”
“I’m dealing with Nova, so you know what that is like.”
“Oh, darling, I am sorry. That little girl is cute, but she can be very annoying.”
I chuckled, agreeing. “Do you have an extra pair of trousers for her to wear?”
“Why do you need trousers?”
“She doesn’t want her movements hindered while at the fair.”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Check the armoire,” she suggested, before turning back to Matthew. “You’re ready to go. Head straight downstairs for breakfast.”
The child nodded, causing his sandy blond hair to fall in front of his hazel eyes. I opened the armoire, searching for a pair of pants in Nova’s size and a shirt to match.
“You coddle her.”
“I do not,” I hesitantly replied.
I pulled out a pair of blue pants that were her size and a black shirt that could pass for feminine—not that Nova would care.
“You give in to her every demand,” she added.
“I do not,” I repeated. “I have five more girls to dress after I get Nova prepared. We can continue this conversation later.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.”
Before I left the room, I stuck my tongue out at her. I took the clothes back to Nova and instructed her to get dressed and head downstairs where the others were having breakfast. I then made quick work of getting the other girls ready and sending them downstairs. Nova found me and asked me to do her hair, which I’d forgotten to do previously, but I’d done for the other girls. I brushed her thick, curly black hair into two pigtails and helped her into her shoes.
“Go eat, Nova. We’re leaving soon.”
She nodded and ran off. I made myself useful by picking up the discarded pajamas and other things in Nova’s room before moving onto one of the other rooms.
As I glanced around the fairgrounds, I wondered where my brothers and parents were. That was when I locked eyes with him. He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. His face was perfect; he had a strong jawline, high cheekbones, and full lips. The young man grinned at me, and my stomach tightened. I didn’t have time to return his smile before he strolled away.
“What should we do next?” Rosalie asked, drawing my attention back to my group.
“I’m not sure,” one of my friends, Thelma, answered.
We were standing by the ring toss booth where my cousins were trying to win a small stuffed animal. Nova pulled down on my hand, and I looked at her. Her dark curls had come loose from the pigtails already.
“I want to go,” she whined.
“Give me a moment, Nova.” I turned to my friends and stated, “Maybe we can go see the acrobats perform. I’m sure the children would enjoy that.”
“I would not enjoy that,” Nova objected.
Rosalie grinned at Nova affectionately while Thelma shook her head with an exasperated sigh. Thelma, the daughter of a royal councilor, volunteered at the orphanage with me and Rosalie. Ever since my mother, the queen of Ceshela, required her children to do service work, a lot of the nobles required the same of their children. I’d heard Thelma’s mother talk about it frequently, often using the same phrase: “If the royal children are not too good to volunteer, why should you be excused?” Thelma had complained about it more times than I cared to repeat. Rosalie loved working at the orphanage—she loved children, and she would try to continue working there even after she married.
I looked at the other children. “We will hold a vote. Nova, you will accept whatever is chosen.”
She pouted, sticking her bottom lip out.
“What do you want to do, darling?” Rosalie asked the young child.
“I want to see the sparring matches,” she answered.
“We will hold a vote between those two options: sparring matches or the acrobats,” I announced.
Rosalie, Thelma, and I had seven children with us. I gained the children’s attention and asked them to raise their hand for the option they liked. All of them, except Nova, raised their hand for the acrobatic act.
“Nori,” I said to my older cousin. She turned her attention to me. “Do you want to go with us to the acrobatic tent?”
“I’m not sure if our cousins want to go.”
“You could ask them.”
She sighed, as if it were a big deal, and turned back to our three cousins, who were taking turns at the ring toss to increase their chances at winning. They were so competitive, even if the prize was something we’d just give to our younger cousins. Noriana asked if they wanted to join us, and they enthusiastically agreed.
“Then it’s settled,” Rosalie stated. “We’re heading to the acrobats’ tent. The next show is starting soon, so we should make our way there now.”
Noriana helped Thelma and Rosalie gather the children. I looked down to find that I was holding the hand of another little girl. Nova was gone.