Just Pretending – 1st Chapter

Chapter One


Below me, the busy streets are lined with cars so small, they look like toys. Miniature people try to hold their umbrellas against the strong wind. Beyond it all, a vast horizon of skyscrapers stretches upward toward the gray sky.

I take a deep breath and step off the edge.

My heart leaps in my chest, and for a moment, I feel like I’m flying.

Then, my heels click on the glass bottom floor. I stare down at Chicago, bustling beneath my feet, and place my hands on the glass wall. I wish it wasn’t there, so I could soar through the city like a bird.

I turn around and smirk at my brother. “I told you. It’s not scary.”

Daniel—who is not afraid of anything—leaps from the solid floor to the glass box I’m in, suspended more than one hundred floors above the ground. “Come on,” he says, poking my side. “You’re terrified!”

I step out farther into the glass box, just to prove him wrong…even though my legs are shaking, and my stomach flip-flops every time I look down. “I’m not afraid of anything, big brother.”

Daniel puts his nose right to the glass. “Just wait till we ride the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier tomorrow! You won’t be saying that when we’re at the top.”

I sigh. My half-brother has taken it upon himself to show me every must-see attraction in the city. But to Daniel, even the rundown pizza parlor on the corner of his street is a must-see. Today, it was the Skydeck, with its towering architecture and crystal-clear glass box that juts over the city. Yesterday, it was a horse-drawn carriage ride through Millennium Park, and the day before that, we visited the Shedd Aquarium. When Daniel’s at school, his mother’s been kind enough to take on the tour guide role, even though I insisted I would be happy to go with him and see what a real American school is like. Or what any school is like, really. I’ve had a private tutor since I was two years old.

But now, it’s become ridiculous. Daniel was supposed to be at school today and his mother had to work. I thought I might have a few hours to explore the city by myself, but Daniel insisted on skipping class to keep an eye on me. I should rat him out to the principal.

“But look, Eva,” Daniel says, pointing outward. “This is the tallest building in the western hemisphere! You can see four states from up here.”

“You do know,” I say, “that if you climb to the tallest tower in our castle, you can see five different countries?” Daniel gives a dry laugh. “Sure, but knowing Lyle Worthington is the duke of one of those countries really spoils the view.”

I smile. I know Daniel’s just trying to be a good host, but I haven’t had a moment to myself since I arrived. When Mother agreed to let me have a week off from royal-duty in October to visit Chicago, I was so excited. One week without any responsibilities, expectations, or having my every move scrutinized. One week where I could just be a normal teenager, instead of the Queen of Eldonia.

But instead of Mother watching my every move, now it’s my half-brother Daniel. He won’t let me go anywhere without him or his mother, and he seems determined to stop me from experiencing the things a normal teenager would. I think my big brother has forgotten I already have a bodyguard.

“So, what’s our plan after we look at the four states?” I raise a brow.

“Well,” Daniel says, running a hand through his slick black hair, “I’ve gotta go to hockey practice, so I was thinking I could drop you off at home. Ma left some food in the fridge—”

“I’ll come and watch your practice!”

He scoffs. “No, it’s super boring. I’ll drop you off.”

“Won’t Madison be there?”

“Yeah, but she’ll be working, doing her trainer stuff. And Al will be on the ice.”

Daniel has just listed my only other friends in Chicago. “Dwayne can keep me company.” I nod in the direction of my bodyguard, who is standing off to the side, watching us from beneath a pair of thick black sunglasses.

A muscle ticks in Daniel’s jaw as he considers my suggestion. Daniel might have made sure I saw every attraction in Chicago twice, but he hasn’t let me spend any time with his friends. Besides one dinner with his girlfriend Madison and walking around Grant Park with his teammates Hayden and Alice, I haven’t talked to a single person our own age.

He’s kept me so busy, I can’t help but wonder if he’s purposely trying not to introduce me to any of his other teammates. I study his face. He looks oddly serious for once. “The thing is, Eva…”

“What is it?” I’m not sure I like this paranoid version of my brother.

“I love my teammates. They’re great. I’m just worried about introducing you to them.”

“Because they’ll be too dazzled by my amazing personality?” I joke and toss my hair over my shoulder.

“Yes.” Daniel doesn’t smile. “They won’t care about you at all. They’ll just care about your title. Believe it or not, we don’t get many queens in Chicago.”

His words tug on a familiar shard in my heart. This is nothing new. I’ve been the princess of Eldonia to everyone I’ve met since the day I was born, and now I’m the queen. I don’t have the luxury of living across the sea from my royal title and responsibilities like my half-brother. Although his words hurt, it’s a truth I’ve learned to accept. But that’s not going stop me from having fun this trip.

“Don’t worry so much.” I smile sweetly and decide to appeal to the one thing that will always get him—his love of hockey. “This is your last season playing for the Falcons. I want to watch as much as I can!”

His face falls. “I can’t believe it’s our last year all together. It’s surreal.”

“If you’re so sad about it, why can’t you all just keep playing for the Falcons?” I bump against him.

Daniel snorts as if the answer is obvious. “Because we’re finally eligible for the NHL draft! Rumor has it, Tremblay’s going to be the number one pick. But Coach says I have a real shot at getting picked up by a team, too. Even if I have to play for a farm team for a few years, it would be amazing.” He looks away. “But that means this will be the last year Hayden, Tyler, Alice, and I play together. It’s our last chance to win the whole thing.”

I loop my arm through his and lean my head on his shoulder. “That’s why you should let me watch your practice tonight. I want to see the four musketeers all play together!”

“Okay, fine,” he says. “You can come to practice. Just… don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

I stand on my tiptoes and give him a kiss on the cheek. “Whatever you say, Dan-Dan.”

He rolls his eyes and heads back toward the solid floor, taunting Dwayne, who hasn’t dared step on the glass.

I take one last look at the sprawling city of Chicago. This place is so different from Eldonia. Compared to the quaint little houses, the cobblestone streets, and the antique buildings of my homeland, this makes me feel like I’m in a different world.

And in this world, no matter what my brother says, I could be just another girl. Not a princess. Not a queen. Just Eva.

Daniel said that his teammates would only see my crown, not me. But I’ve watched the way he is with his friends, and I’ve seen the way they treat him. When Daniel was in trouble last summer, most of the Chicago Falcons came to Eldonia to help him pull off something amazing. They were there for him. His hockey team doesn’t care about my brother’s title…

So maybe they won’t care about mine, either.

My gaze shifts to the glass. I look at my reflection, staring back at me, transparent as a ghost. Other reflections wisp through mine—strangers passing through my body, completely unaware.

The thought makes me feel light, free. Maybe for a few more days, I can just be a ghost, not leaving a trace.

I turn on my heels and walk over to Daniel. “Let’s go meet the team!”


My pen flies across the page. I flick my eyes up for a moment, watching the hands of the clock tick. There’s two minutes before the bell rings. The fluorescent lights hum lazily behind the chipper voice of our teacher. How she can sound so happy about Marxist Russia, I’ll never know.

I chance a look at the clock again. I’m so close. Thirty seconds to go.

The bell buzzes, shrill and angry, and everyone around me shuts their notebooks and starts shuffling with their bags.

Phew. I finished just in time. I add one final bit of shading to the hair, then blink my tired eyes and look at it.

While everyone else was taking history notes, I finished

this sketch of Bloom Blossom, the fairy princess from Millie’s favorite book. It came out better than I thought it would. I’m sure Mils will be delighted.

I stretch and gather my things. Sure, I was drawing while everyone else was taking notes, but I was listening. I’ll go through the lecture in my head on my way to practice tonight. I have just enough time to pick up Millie and grab my gear from home before meeting the boys at the rink.

My chest feels light. It’s Friday, so there’s hockey practice tonight, and Dad’s working the day shift at his store. I won’t have to worry about Mils tonight.

“Mr. Evans?” My teacher’s voice floats over the din of gossip and chatter as we all squeeze out the door.

I hold in a breath and turn around. “Yes, Mrs. Perry?”

“Do you have a moment?” She smiles at me. A sad smile. A pitying smile.

“Uh, actually, I’ve got hockey practice. I really have to run—”

“It’ll only take a minute.” She eyes the rest of the students, making sure they’ve all left. “I promise.”

I know I have time to make it to the arena, and I know I’m not in trouble. I don’t go around parking my motorcycle in the principal’s spot like my best friend, Daniel Sacachelli, and I don’t have a crowd of swooning fangirls waiting for me to get out of class like my other best friend, Hayden Tremblay—not that I could afford to go to his smarmy private school, anyway. But still, my feet feel like lead as I walk toward her desk.

“I noticed you didn’t attend my post-secondary FAQ yesterday,” she says, her too-kind eyes trying to hold mine. I look away. When I don’t say anything, she presses on. “I’m having another one next week. I think it would be very informative for you—”

“I don’t want to waste your time,” I finally say. Or mine.

“Tyler, I really think you should give it some thought. Here, I’ve gathered some information for you from a few schools I think you’d really have a shot at.” She gathers a pile of papers and pamphlets up from her desk, then hands them to me. “Just give them a look over when you get home.”

My stomach twists. Why would she put me through this? Make me do this awkward dance with her? I know I should pretend I’m interested, if only to get her off my back, but it’s like she’s trying to humiliate me by pretending that there’s any point in me looking at universities.

My cheeks flush and finally I blurt out, “Mrs. Perry, I don’t have the grades.”

It’s not like it’s a secret. I’m barely passing each of my classes, and that’s only because my teachers feel sorry for me. Once word got out that I was “the boy with the dead mom,” I started noticing random extra credits on my report cards. I’m sure they think I’m trying hard during class, taking detailed notes instead of drawing.

Mrs. Perry’s face melts again into that disgustingly pitiful gaze. “Tyler, I know your grades aren’t the highest, but you’re a bright kid. Every teacher in the school thinks so. We’d be happy to write you reference letters. And with your athleticism, the community colleges would be lucky to have you—”

She’s really going to make me say it. As if she can’t tell just by looking at me—my ratty hoodie, my dirty sneakers. “Mrs. Perry, please.” I stare straight at my big toe, barely peeking out of the front of my shoe, then look up at her, finally meeting her gaze. “I can’t afford it.”

I thought that would finally wipe that sappy smile off her face. But it only deepens. “Oh, Tyler, don’t be discouraged! There are scholarships you can apply for. Look.” She rummages with the papers she’s still holding out to me and slaps a pamphlet on top. “Read this one. It’s for an international school.”


“Don’t think I don’t see you doodling in your notebooks all class. It’s for an art school in Prague. They have an entrance scholarship. All you need to do is write a personal essay.” She steps out from behind the desk, toward me. I take a step back. “I know writing isn’t your strong suit, but—”

The awkwardness inside me shifts. This isn’t just humiliating anymore, it’s insulting. Why would she suggest something so impossible? An international art program? She’s met Dad and Millie at school events. She knows I can’t tromp off to some foreign country!

I knot my hands into fists. It doesn’t matter. Regardless of what La-La Land Mrs. Perry is living in, that option isn’t available to people like me.

I release a big sigh. “I’ll take a look at them.” I just want to get to practice.

Mrs. Perry smiles, satisfied, and hands the papers over.

“Just read them. That’s all I’m asking.” She doesn’t know how much she’s asking for.

I turn and walk to the door, my shoulders carrying a weight they hadn’t had just moments before.

“Tyler?” Mrs. Perry calls as I’m leaving. “There’s more for you out there. You don’t have to feel guilty about taking it.” The air feels thick. “Your father wants what’s best for you.”

I stand there, fighting the urge to say the words that are on the tip of my tongue. Cruel words. Hurt words. Words that would make Mrs. Perry regret ever trying to help a hopeless case like me. Instead, I just walk away.

The hallway teems with kids laughing and gushing about the weekend. I meld into the crowd, just another faceless student. I look down at the pamphlet on top of the stack of papers. There’s a sunshine-soaked Baroque building, surrounded by cheerful orange roofs. It almost reminds me of Eldonia, the country Daniel happens to be the prince of.

Visiting him in Eldonia was the only time I’ve ever been out of the USA. The first time I’ve been outside of Illinois, period, for something besides a hockey game. As I stare at the picture, there’s an ache in my chest, a familiar one I’ve been pretty good at filling with work and hockey and memorizing lectures.

What would it be like, just to pick up and go somewhere? Study art in Prague, go diving in Thailand, wake up to a sunrise in the Outback? Maybe even go back to Eldonia and visit the most beautiful girl in the world….

What would it be like to see beyond the tiny rooms of my house?

There’s no point in thinking about that. Because even if I had amazing grades, even if I didn’t have to watch out for my dad and Millie, and hell, even if I were as rich as a prince, I couldn’t go to college.

I look at the picture of the beautiful building with the sun-baked cobblestones and, above it, the words.

I see nothing but a mess of lines overlapping each other, forming symbols my brain can’t make sense of.

There’s no point in dreaming about a future I can’t have.

Because there is no future for someone like me.

Someone who can’t even read.

Millie says she’s heard of it before—that it’s called dyslexia. I just call it being an idiot.

I crumple the papers in my hands and storm out of the school. Immediately, I’m swallowed up by the herd of students racing home for the weekend. I search their faces. Each one of them has a better shot at becoming someone than I do. The poor kid. The kid with the dead mom. The kid whose best friends are a hockey star and a prince.

I storm down the sidewalk and feel a dark desire growing inside me. I would give anything to be someone else, anyone except Tyler Evans.


I pick up the pace as I approach Millie’s elementary school, skidding past hordes of screaming kids and dodging grouchy parents as if they were opposing defensemen. I spot Mils leaning against the chain link fence, her face completely obscured by a book. Jeez, for a fourth-grader, she’s certainly got the posture of a teenager.

“Whatcha reading?” I say, plucking the book from her hands.

“Hey!” she squawks. Her little nose scrunches up. “I was just getting to the good part!”

“Yeah, is Bloom Blossom going to take down the Goblin King with her magic flower wand?” I look at the cover and see there’s a new princess on the front—one with blue-hair and a dress made of bubbles.

“No, I finished that one yesterday,” she says, and snatches the book back. “This is Marina, Princess of Mermaidia. And she’s even cooler than Bloom Blossom.”

“Sooo, you wouldn’t want this?” I grab my drawing out of my back pocket.

Millie’s face lights up. She snatches it out of my hands. “WOW! You drew her in her adventure outfit!”

“Your favorite,” I say. “Now, come on. Dad’s going to be home any minute, so I gotta drop you off and bolt to practice.”

“What’s this?” Millie says as she turns my sketch over. My chest tightens as if I’ve sucked in too much air. The pamphlet of Prague is stuck to the back.

“Nothing.” I grab for it, but Millie twirls around, dodging my grip. Jeez, if she ever put down a book long enough, she’d make a great forward.

“Wow, it’s so pretty,” she says, staring at the pictures. “It looks like the fairyland you visited in the summer.”

“That wasn’t a fairyland,” I say, successfully snatching the pamphlet back. “That was a crazy place. Spaghetti everywhere!”

She laughs, as if I’ve just said the most hilarious thing in the world. At least, I have my little sister. When the rest of the world reminds me of everything I can’t do, there’s Millie to marvel over my little sketches and laugh at my dumb jokes.

I start walking, setting a quick pace. Millie falls into stride easily, asking, “Is Prince Daniel going to be at practice tonight?”

“Do you have to say his name like that?” I groan. “Prince Daniel? It wasn’t more than six months ago, you were tackling him every time he came over.”

“It’s like out of a storybook,” she says, eyes cast upward. “I want to meet a prince and live in a castle.”

“Yeah, well apparently, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” Who knew my best friend, resident bad boy Daniel Sacachelli, would end up being the crown prince of a small European country? He’s still living here in Chicago, but things are definitely different.

In fact, for the last few days, he’s been busy entertaining a queen.

My heart feels too heavy for my chest. I only met her once—the Queen of Eldonia—but somehow, she creeps into my thoughts every day. Her rich mahogany hair, the curve of her lush smile, the sway of her hips. She looked like a model for a Greek sculptor, a modern-day Aphrodite.

“Ty?” Millie tugs on my shirt.

I shake my head and come back to reality. Sure, she’s beautiful, and yeah, she’s in Chicago right now. But I can’t ask to see her. And not just because she’s a queen.

She’s also Daniel’s little sister.

The thought of batting eyes at Evangeline is enough to make my knees shake. Daniel isn’t exactly what you would call a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.

“I dunno,” Millie says dreamily. “I just think it would be nice.”

“What would be?”

She sighs. “To be a princess. To marry a prince.”

I give a sad laugh. “Well, keep dreaming, little one. And hurry up. We peasants don’t have gilded carriages.” I pick up my pace and heave my backpack higher up on my shoulders. It’s filled with textbooks—not that I ever open them, but they allow me to keep up appearances at school.

I’ve become an expert at lying. Recording lectures, using diction apps to transcribe my voice for written assignments, or bribing Millie into reading the homework out loud for me. Sometimes, I even forget I can’t read. When I stare and struggle long enough, I can force the jumbled lines into words. But I can only make sense of the words when I’m really concentrating. And if I’m under any sort of pressure—like a test—I can forget about even that. Thank goodness for multiple choice.

Luckily, there’s only one person who knows.

I look down. We must be the only siblings on earth whose little sister reads to her big brother before bed.

We turn the corner onto our street. It’s pretty empty for late afternoon, but this area of town doesn’t really come alive until after nightfall. Millie knows the rules. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk to anyone. If someone comes too close, run.

We climb the stone steps up to our door. The panels on our house are cracked and faded, and the chain link fence looks like it could fall over at any minute. In fourth grade, I remember being invited to a friend’s house. He had a green lawn and a big TV and a couch that was as firm as concrete. And when he asked if he could come to my place, I told the first of what would become many lies. I don’t want anyone to ever see where I live. I just know if they saw this, they’d think less of me than they already do. I haven’t even let Hayden or Daniel come in, and they’re my best friends.

Quickly, I rush to my room, where all my gear is piled in a towering mountain. Between my bed and my gear, there’s no real space. I’m the only kid on the Falcons who doesn’t have formal training or who didn’t play in an expensive league beforehand. We could never have afforded that. But Coach said my grit and determination won him over. I guess spending my childhood at the community ice rink paid off.

But since I didn’t grow up in the fancy hockey leagues my teammates did, I know there’s no chance I’ll get drafted to the NHL. Playing for the Falcons is as far as I’ll go. And it’s good for me. Sure, the little stipend we get is nice, but it’s more than that.

On the ice, I’m not alone. I’m part of a team. I’m not Tyler Evans—I’m #13, just a piece of something so much bigger. So, it doesn’t matter that my gear is either secondhand or a return from Dad’s sports store. All that matters are my blades, my stick, and the puck.

I drop my heavy backpack to the floor and empty my pockets. The piles of papers Mrs. Perry gave me are still in a crumpled ball. I drop it on the nightstand. It thuds there, like a weight.

I gather all my gear, energy brimming under my skin. I check my watch then check the wall clock. Dad should be home any minute. My whole body is itching to get on the ice. I need to burn off some of this energy.

I pace the hallway, then the kitchen, then finally walk into Millie’s room. She’s lying on her bed, her nose buried in her book again.

“Dad’s late,” I say.

She shrugs but doesn’t look at me.

The phone rings, shrill and angry. I walk to the kitchen to grab it. “Hello?”

“Oh, hey Ty, how’s it going?”

“Hey, Dad. What’s up?” I check the clock again. Damn,

if he’s calling from work, he won’t be home for another fifteen at the earliest. I look over at Millie in her bed. I’m sure she’d be fine alone for fifteen minutes…

The wail of a siren screeches by, and the thought drops like a popped balloon. Coach can deal with me being a little late.

“My closer called to say he’s having car problems and won’t be in for another hour.” I hear the hesitation in Dad’s voice. “I just can’t remember if your hockey practice is tonight or tomorrow. I can close the store for an hour if it’s today…I just don’t have anyone else to cover.”

I stare at the doorway, at my pile of gear ready to go. Then I look back at Millie, lying on her small bed, lost in her fairy-tale world. If she’d been born into another story, her room would be bright pink with sparkly decals pinned everywhere, the floor covered with dolls. Instead, she’s got a stained library book and some bad sketches pinned to the walls.

It’s an easy decision to make because there’s really no choice. Not for a family like ours. “Oh, yeah, no practice tonight. It’s tomorrow. I was just going to be hanging out here anyway.”

“Great!” Dad says. “See you in an hour.”

I hang up the phone and rest my head against the wall.

How could I even dream about going to Prague? I can’t even go to hockey practice.


“So, the entrance to the rink is just through that door,” Daniel says, adjusting his hockey bag over his shoulder. “You can watch the practice from the stands.”

We’re in the big lobby of the arena. A cold blast of air washes over me as someone opens the double doors leading to the rink. “Yes, yes, I understand,” I say, pushing on his chest. “You better get ready, assistant captain.”

“Alternate captain,” he mutters, then gives me a quick hug before disappearing down a long hallway toward the changeroom. He looks back. “I’ll meet you in the stands after.”

I let out a long sigh and turn to Dwayne. “Better watch out. I think he’s gunning for your job.”

Dwayne, my bodyguard, adjusts his sunglasses but doesn’t respond. For a moment, I’m reminded of being home in Eldonia, of being the only person in the castle under the age of fifty. A small part of me already misses my brother. He might be overbearing, but at least he laughs at my jokes.

“EVA!” A high-pitched squeal rings through the lobby. I turn to see Madison running toward me.

“Madison!” I open my arms, and she gives me a giant hug. I met Madison last summer when she came to Eldonia with Daniel. She took it upon herself to prepare him to take the throne…all while pretending to be his girlfriend. She really did help my brother sort out some of his troubled ways, and I owe her so much. Madison was the one who discovered the loophole in my small country’s archaic law that wouldn’t allow a female heir to take the throne. Thanks to her, Daniel didn’t have to become King, and I was free to take my place as the Queen of Eldonia. And all my dreams came true.

At least, I’d thought they had.

“Wow.” I look her up and down. “You look very official.”

Madison runs a hand through her long dark hair. She wears a blue jacket with the Chicago Falcons logo on one side and her name embroidered on the other. “It’s my new trainer’s uniform!”

A strange desire rushes through me. I want a jacket like that. Not because the fabric’s nice or it’s overly flattering or anything like that, but because of what it means.

It means that Madison belongs here. And I know from spending time with Daniel that being part of the Falcons doesn’t mean you’re just on a hockey team—it means you’re part of a family. Looking at Madison, I know exactly what the jacket means. It wasn’t just given to her—she earned it.

Madison shifts from foot to foot. “So, it looks like you’ve escaped Daniel’s whirlwind of fun for a moment?”

“He really wants me to see everything.”

“Or not see something,” Madison mutters, then smiles. “I swear, I thought he was going to give himself an ulcer trying to plan out your whole visit. The only other things I’ve seen him that passionate about are hockey and spaghetti.”

“Hmmm,” I say, “and what about his girlfriend?”

Pink colors Madison’s cheeks, and she tucks a strand of hair behind her ears. “Okay, maybe me too.”

To no one’s surprise (except their own), Daniel and Madison started dating for real. I was glad. I really liked her. I’m not exactly familiar with having friends, besides my bodyguard and my butler, but I’d like to start. I know one thing—I’m happy to see her.

“I appreciate his passion,” I say, because it’s the truth. “But he’s got our schedule so jam-packed, I feel like I’m in Eldonia. Seeing the whole city twice isn’t exactly the type of fun I had in mind.”

Madison bites her lip. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much. I’ve been so busy getting my application to Julliard ready.”

I smile. “I just know you’ll get in. Your part on 100 Years Fallen was amazing!”

“Yeah, I have to admit, I killed that death scene.” Madison winks then uses her pen to imitate being stabbed in the stomach before falling to the ground with an agonized expression on her face.

“Yeah, yeah, Madison,” a voice says from the hallway leading to the changerooms. “We all saw you get stabbed by Leo Monty. You only made the whole team watch that episode a hundred times.”

I turn and see one of Daniel’s teammates sauntering toward us. Madison picks herself up off the ground and crosses her arms. “Like you have anything better to do, Gervase.”

I stare at the boy walking toward us. He’s vaguely familiar, perhaps one of the Falcons who visited Daniel in Eldonia. As he approaches, I can tell he’s tall—even taller than Dwayne. He throws back the hood of his sweatshirt, and I get a good look at his cropped hair and deep brown eyes. He’s looking right at me.

Madison taps her shoe and levels him with a stare. “Gervs, this is Daniel’s little sister.”

But Gervase doesn’t look at her—he’s still looking at me. He takes one distinctive step toward me and says, “I know.”

That deep voice, his American accent, the confident grin… I feel my face flush and look down at my heels.

Bloody hell.

“How are you enjoying your time in Chicago?” Gervase asks.

“It’s quite lovely. Daniel’s been showing me all the sights.”

Gervase gives me a crooked grin. “Sacs has been holding out on us.” I open my mouth to reply, but he cuts me off. “If you’re ever bored of the touristy shit, I could show you some local places. What’s your favorite food?”

My favorite food? I could tell him Eldonia’s top exports, or the highest-quality vegetables and fruits we harvested last quarter. But my personal favorite? It’s been so long since anyone’s asked me that…

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’s this local diner, right by my house. I’m usually pretty hungry after practice.”

I’m not sure what to say. Is he asking me out? Do I want to go out with him? What’s an American date all about? Gervase walks past me, drops a hand on my shoulder, and lowers his head to my ear. “Hope to see you after, Evangeline.”

Once he’s gone, I turn to Madison, who’s got a sly smile on her face. “Is that the kind of fun you’re looking for?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. My legs feel wobbly. “Maybe?”

Being the Princess—and now Queen—of Eldonia, I’ve had no shortage of admirers. But I know it’s all for show— people talk to me for political gain, not because they’re actually interested. But if that hockey player really liked me… A flash of hope sparks within me. Maybe I could find a place to belong within the Falcons, too.

Madison crosses her arms and sighs. “Hey, I’m not judging. God knows, I’ve got experience with bad-boy hockey players.”

“If you’re talking about my brother, Myong, he’s a perfect angel, and no one will convince me otherwise.” We look at each other for a moment before we both burst out laughing.

“But seriously,” Madison continues, “Gervase doesn’t have the best reputation. What about hanging out with one of our other friends, like Tyler? He’s the sweetest, and his big baby-blue eyes are killer. He’s one of the good ones.”

“I want to go out with a hockey player, not a puppy.” My eyes are trained on the door to the locker room. “I dunno. I think he might be one of the good ones.”

“I’m keeping my eye on you, Your Royal Highness. But for now, I’ve got to go babysit these ruffians.” Madison gives me another tight squeeze before disappearing down the hallway.

Dwayne and I head up into the stands. Some of the players are lounging on the benches. My brother is on the ice with Hayden and Alice. The team is all dressed in their white practice jerseys.

Every time I watch my brother play, it’s like I can feel the electricity crackling in the air, the happiness that radiates off him when he’s just where he needs to be. Daniel may be a prince, but he’s also a hockey player, a juxtaposition that creates the beautiful mosaic that is my brother.

I pull out my sketchbook and pencil from my bag. I don’t get a lot of free time in Eldonia, but when I do, I like to spend it drawing and painting. It’s one of the few things that Mother approves of…although, she has always preferred my watercolor landscapes to my sketches of pirates and mermaids.

The graphite moves easily across the page as I try and capture the flurry of movement created by the players on the ice. A sly smile crosses my face as I watch Alice. She’s the perfect mix of grace and force. Not one of the boys can catch her once she gets the puck, even the captain—her boyfriend—Hayden Tremblay.

I finish my picture and look down at it. Daniel is in the middle, his stick in his hand. He’s doing something he loves, surrounded by his friends. Together, they create something beautiful. A strange ripple of sadness courses through me. I shove my sketchbook back in my bag. I have everything I want, too. There’s no reason to be jealous of him.

I’m not jealous, really.

I stand, hiking my bag up over my shoulder. I don’t want to feel this way. “I’m going to stretch my legs,” I say to Dwayne. He stands up to follow me, but I wave him down. Ever since Daniel visited last summer and introduced him to hockey, he’s really gotten into it.

“Sit down,” I urge. “I’m just going to the lobby.”

His face tenses for a moment, then one of the players slams another to the ice, and Dwayne’s sucked back into the action.

I head down the steps toward the lobby, which takes me past the bench where some of the players are sitting.

“Yeah, I think I made a pretty good impression.”

It was the same player I’d met before the practice. I look through the plexiglass and see Gervase talking to one of his teammates. The real American hockey player. He looks so handsome sitting there, an easy smile on his face. I take a few steps back so I’m behind the concrete wall but can still hear them. I know I shouldn’t eavesdrop, but I’m pretty sure they’re talking about me, and I’m more than a little curious.

“Shut up! Don’t let Sacs hear you,” says a voice I don’t recognize.

“Sacs is on the ice,” Gervase says.

“I heard she’s a total snob,” says another.

“I don’t care what she is.” Gervase laughs. “She’s a fucking princess. When else will I have the opportunity to hook up with royalty? That’s definitely worth a black eye from Sacs.”

I stagger out into the lobby, not bothering to look back. My cheeks feel damp, and I quickly wipe them with the back of my hand. I mutter to myself, “I’m a queen, not a princess. I’m a queen—”

I collide with a wall—even though I’m fairly positive there wasn’t a wall in front of me a moment ago—and fly backward, falling onto the hard floor.

“Ah, jeez! I’m sorry! Do you know if practice has ended? I’m running late!”

I shake my dizzy head and peer through my hair, flung in front of my face. It wasn’t a wall at all, just another hockey playing brute. One of the Falcons is sprawled on the floor in front of me, his helmet twisted over his face. His hockey gear is spread all over, and so are the contents of my purse. My makeup, notebook, and pencils are scattered everywhere.

I growl a response and reach for my things. He’s already started scooping his stuff into his bag, not even bothering to fix his helmet still drooped over his face. He reaches for his skates but accidentally grabs my sketchbook instead. It’s opened to the picture I just drew, of Daniel and the rest of the Falcons.

My face flushes, and I try to snatch it back.

He fumbles with his helmet and murmurs, “Wow. This is really good.”

I withdraw my hand. “You think so?”

He adjusts his visor and flips to another page with a quick watercolor of the belugas at the aquarium. “Yeah,” the player says. “I love how you used the color here to mimic the light underwater. Incredible.”

I bite the inside of my lip. A part of me just wants to snatch my sketchbook back but…I haven’t shown very many people my art, and Daniel and Mother have never studied my pictures like this. I try to get a good look at him, but his face is covered by his helmet and he’s wearing his practice jersey. No number.

“Aren’t you late for practice?” I urge.

He doesn’t even look up, just flips the page. The next one is of the gardens of Eldonia, backed by the tall towers of the castle. My home.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“I know this place,” he mutters. “It’s…”

He drops the book and scrambles to his feet. But he’s in such a hurry, his hockey stick swings out of his grasp and knocks me across the chest and back onto the hard floor. “Oh my gosh, Princess Eva—I mean, Queen! Queen Evangeline! I’m so sorry. Argh, I’m such an idiot! Are you hurt, Your Queenship?”

I snarl and shove my book into my bag and turn away from him. So, it was only okay to talk to me when he didn’t realize who I was? They’re all the same. Daniel was right. Not a single one of them can see past my crown. I was an idiot for thinking someone like me could ever belong here. “Are you hurt?” The player staggers after me, his bag still open, contents flying everywhere.

“If I am, it’s because of you.” I stalk through the hallway. My face feels like it’s on fire.

“I’m so sorry! Let me help you!” the player stutters. I can hear him clomping after me.

I can’t even look at him. “Get in my way again, and my bodyguard will make sure it won’t matter if you’re late for practice.”

I hear him stop in his tracks. Good. I see the exit door and bolt outside. The chilly wind feels good on my hot cheeks.

“Queen Evangeline.” I turn around to see Dwayne walking toward me. “Are you all right?”

I feel like a fog of disappointment and embarrassment has settled over me. “I only have a few days left in Chicago,” I say. “I guess I thought when I returned to Eldonia…I would feel like I belonged here.”

“You do belong,” my bodyguard says, “to Eldonia. To your people.”

Then why do I feel so empty? “I just want someone to see me as something other than a queen.”

Dwayne looks confused. “But…you are a queen, milady. It is who you are.”

I think of Mother’s loveless hugs, the empty echo of the castle late at night. It’s all so different than Daniel’s warm townhouse, so unlike the rink that hums with the connectivity of the players. “It doesn’t matter. I understand now,” I whisper. “I’ll never be a part of the team.”