"Welcome ladies!" Adonis offered a dazzling smile to the three women that sat across from him. Juliette crossed her feet at the ankles, trying to keep her eyes on the prince instead of his family seated next to him.
When she had heard that the prince had a big announcement that he would reveal to the three remaining Selected, she should've expected all of the cameras and crew, but somehow it had slipped her mind.
Eadlyn sat beside her son, sitting straight up with a fairly neutral expression on her face. She had a far off look in her eyes, not looking at any of the Selected girls that were left. Although, Juliette was grateful for that fact considering it was likely that all she'd get was a disapproving glare.
Out of the final three - Elise, Serenity, and herself - Juliette knew that she would be the queen's last pick. Despite having a good family name, a pretty face, and the heart of Adonis, Juliette was not always easy to get along with. She knew that about herself, but Juliette also knew that she wouldn't be able to change just to get her blessing.
"I'm sure you have all noticed that you've reached the final three Selected and know what's supposed to come next. The proposal." His smile was genuine enough for the cameras, but Juliette could see he wasn't as confident as he seemed. "But there's one important step in between…"
Juliette peeked at the other two girls to see if they were catching on, but they seemed just as confused as she was. Adonis held out his arms with a grandiose smile. "So a big warm welcome from my family to yours!"
On a clear cue, the girls turned to look at the door with the many sets of cameras to the entrance of the dining hall and a large group of people entered. Juliette's confusion only lasted for a moment before she recognized one of the faces in the crowd, but Serenity was the first to speak.
"Dad!" Serenity rushed to her father - a large, bulky man - who wrapped his arms around her in a big bear hug that lifted her off of her feet. Juliette rose as well, heading over to her family with a smile.
"You've managed to not totally ruin my bracket so far." Gwendolyn said with a smirk. Juliette ignored her, rolling her eyes before the sisters embraced.
"We've missed you so much." Her mother murmured, joining the hug. Juliette's father stayed out of the embrace, however, simply smiling at the three women.
"I've missed you too." Juliette said into the curls of her sister's hair. She didn't look at him, but she could feel her father's eyes boring into her like a hot beam. What should she say? Should she even try to say anything?
"I look forward to meeting everybody more formally later this evening." Adonis' voice rang out over the murmuring of the families. "Now, please! Eat. Welcome to our home."
Everybody returned to the large table - it suddenly made a lot more sense that it was so large and empty, with the addition of the three families.
"I'm starving." Gwen slid into a seat beside Juliette. "Brunch is the worst - how do rich people wait this long to eat?"
"Rich people things, I suppose." Juliette snorted. "You know it's only noon right? Isn't that when you usually wake up anyway?"
"Well, yeah, but this morning I had to get up earlier to get my makeup done. After all, I'm going to be on TV." The younger girl shot back, starting to create a pile of pancakes on her plate.
"Gwen, behave yourself." Their mother scorned, but her lips tilted into a small smile.
"You're going to embarrass me so bad that Adonis is going to send me home." Juliette said, shaking her head at her sister.
"I would never!" Gwendolyn gasped, "that would be awful for my bracket."
"I'm so grateful to have a sister that cares so much for me." Juliette said sarcastically. She let her eyes roam over the table, but she felt the eyes of her father boring into her.
"Juliette, would you show me where I could wash my hands before we eat?" She kept her cool and nodded, rising from her seat. "We'll be right back."
Her father followed her as she led him to the restroom off of the main dining area, but Juliette knew that washing his hand was not the reason he wanted out of that room. As soon as she was sure that they were out of earshot of anybody that could get her in trouble, Juliette whipped around to face her father, who had an excited grin on his face. "What is so important that we need to talk right now?"
"I received your little refugee." He answered, raising his eyebrows in amusement.
"I didn't think you'd feel the need to let a criminal out. It could've really made a mess of our plan."
Juliette flared with heat. Helena. She must've escaped to the Wright household. It was undeniably a smart move - as long as she wasn't seen, she'd be safe with him. "I didn't tell her to go to you."
"I assumed the two of you were friends."
"She threatened to blame that attack on me." Juliette replied curtly. "She's a traitor."
"It would've been a good plan had you not gotten in the way." He said with a shrug of his shoulders. "But it works out for us - I'm sure it helped you gain the prince's trust."
Juliette took a deep breath. "Dad, I can't kill him."
"Of course you can, darling. We believe in you." He said, easily brushing her words off. "I have something for you as well."
Juliette gasped when he unwrapped a small pistol. Her father shushed her quickly. "Quiet, Juliette. We don't need to garner more attention than is necessary. Put it under your skirt - nobody will see it under the fabric."
Juliette obliged quickly - although, it was more just to get it out of the sight of anyone that might see them than because she would go through with the killing. Her father's smile widened. "We've all been informed that the proposal is happening tomorrow afternoon. People from all over are invited. Our rebels will be hidden among the guests. We've got the king and queen - you just need to get the prince."
Juliette's heart hammered in her chest, the beat of a drum that echoed off of the hollowness that resided there. "And what if I don't?"
Her father's eyes hardened. "Then you'll be added to the casualties."
Lip trembling, Juliette turned back to the dining room. She kept her pace brisk. When she slid back into the seat next to her sister, she forced a mask of pleasantries to her face but couldn't stomach any of the meal laid out in front of them.
Either kill or be killed…
How the hell was she going to get herself out of this one?
It would be a lie if Juliette said that she had spent enough time working on her philanthropy project. In fact, she could count on a single hand how many hours she had invested. She should've been worried about how it would look, but as she watched Serenity presenting her project on renovating homes to be more fire resistant and teaching free classes on fire safety, Juliette found herself unusually calm.
She had just set free a prisoner. Adonis had brought her entire family to the palace without any forewarning to the girls. Her father still thought that she was planning on killing the prince and the plan was all set in stone. Her life was on the line, regardless of whether she messed up or went along with the scheme. Why worry when it wouldn't change her predicament?
However, as she was ushered to the front of the classroom in front of the royal family and Allegra with an expectant smile on her face, Juliette fully realized just how little she had paid attention to her project. The main idea was there, but when she compared it to Serenity's plan with budgets and fundraising already thought through and Elise's plan to teach horseback riding to underprivileged families seeming to touch Eadlyn more personally.
Pushing a smile to her face, she pulled her notepad out and flipped to the page where she had written a few sloppy notes. She didn't have a presentation like the other two, but all Juliette could do now was hope she didn't make a fool of herself.
"It's fairly common knowledge that there has been a bit of unease over the shift to a Prime Minister from the royal family. Some people want more power in the monarchy and some people want less. A lot of the sentiment, however, from either side, comes from the fact that people don't think they're being properly represented." The king and queen already seemed bored of the politics, but Juliette took a deep breath and continued. "They don't know that you care. That's the problem. They see the people that don't represent their struggles being the ones suggesting how to fix them. That's why I think we need to do more as a country to listen to each other and propose that every month, each province holds a town meeting where anyone is able to speak."
Eadlyn pursed her lips, seemingly unsure of how to respond, but Adonis was the first to speak. "I would agree that there seems to be a problem with people not always voicing their opinions, but why don't people just write to their representatives?"
"Have you ever written to a representative?" Juliette asked, turning her gaze to the two other Selected women. Neither of them responded verbally, but Serenity shook her head. "People of higher status might, but most letters don't get answered. I know - my father gets hundreds of letters every week, and most of the time they get prepackaged responses. I want televised meetings where people can come in groups with their ideas and their knowledge. Think of the things we could fix if we knew what issues were actually important to the people."
"How do you propose we decide what issues are most important?"
"We just… Ask them." Juliette hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. "People don't pick their mayors because they agree with them in every sense - instead of picking someone to represent their province, they should vote on the issues themselves. Proposals can happen every month, and once an issue can be drafted once we find a conclusion that the people agree with."
Allegra stood from her chair, clapping her hands together, "Thank you, ladies. You've given Illea and our royal family a lot to think about. You are all free to go."
Juliette was the first to start to leave, since she didn't have all of the props that the other two had. She could hear Elise as she scoffed sarcastically, "Well, at least we didn't embarrass ourselves like someone did."
Juliette ignored her.
This was the first battle of her day - but she still had to introduce Adonis to her family. And she needed all of the energy she could save for that.
"You seem stressed." Amelia ran the brush through Juliette's hair.
"If only you knew." The blonde laughed in response. She knew that it was almost an expectation that she would spend time with her family and the prince together - after all, it was possible that the two families could become one very soon. Yet, she wasn't looking forward to it.
"I thought you'd be excited to see your family." Lexie said with a laugh from the other side of the room, where she was ironing Juliette's dress.
"I am… It's just…" Juliette sighed. "It's hard to explain." Lexie nodded in understanding.
"Well, you won't have to worry about looking good." Amelia asserted brightly, "Because you're going to have the most fabulous messy bun that Illea has ever seen!"
Juliette laughed at her energy, but it didn't do much to quell her nerves. She had no idea how her father would interact with everybody. She knew that he was familiar with interacting with royals - it was part of his job to speak with the royal family to make sure that they knew what was going on with the local politics of Angeles. At the same time, though, she knew that he would be hinting to Juliette every time they were together of what she was expected to do.
It felt like a double edged sword. If she went along with the plan, she'd be killing a man that she not only was in love with, but a man that would be a good king. He cared about the people, something that she had been unsure of before she stepped foot in the castle but now knew without a single doubt.
She didn't have the time to show him. Her father would never believe her. The rebellion was so sure of their cause and he had invested so much of his livelihood that there was no saving him. Juliette had thought she had been too deep to save too, but now her eyes were opened.
"Well, you better get going before you're late." Lexie put a hand on Juliette's shoulder.
Juliette made her way down to the gardens with her head held high, despite the treacherous waters that her thoughts were trying to traverse. She had chosen a picnic as her family meeting event - mostly because she hoped the fresh air would keep her sane if nothing else would.
She put on her most dazzling smile as a guard held the door open for her. To her dismay, Adonis was already chatting with her family. Everyone seemed happy enough, but Juliette couldn't help but ask herself how much of the smiling and laughing was purely for the cameras that were set up nonchalantly all around.
When Adonis turned his head towards the door and his eyes caught Juliette, he rose to greet her. She gave a polite curtsy, but spoke low as her head was bowed. "I hope my family has been treating you well."
"Your sister is a riot." He answered, offering his arm which Juliette linked through her own. "I would've never known how much dirt I could gather. You never told me about your baby blanket still being in your room."
"It's a nice blanket." Juliette said with a chuckle. She greeted her family with hugs before sitting at the blanket beside Adonis. Her mother and father were on a bench beside it and Gwen joined the couple on the thick plaid swath of fabric.
There were a few beats of silence between the group. A picnic wasn't exactly the most exciting event, but Juliette was sort of grateful for the quiet. It kept her from having to think so hard about what to say or do to not incriminate herself to the prince or her father. She picked a grape from a small platter, popping it in her mouth, "How's school been going, Gwen? Still failing math?"
A wicked grin spread across Gwendolynn's features. "Nah, I got myself a tutor."
"A senior boy." Father added with a frown and a raise of his brow. Gwen snickered.
"Yeah, yeah. He's in the honor society." Her sister said with a wiggle of her own brows. "I'm moving up in the world. The basketball JV captain just isn't good enough for when I become related to royalty."
Juliette laughed. "That's a bold assumption, isn't it?"
Gwen shrugged her shoulders and leaned back on her elbows. "I've invested too much into my bracket to not go all in at this point."
"I like her determination." Adonis said, his eyes grazing over the two sisters. "I can definitely tell you're related. You've got the same stubbornness."
"They get that from their father, I'll tell you." Her mother looked at him with a gentle smile. "I wouldn't trade it for the world though."
"Yeaj, it's hereditary so good luck to your future kids." Gwen took a handful of grapes to crunch in her cheek.
"Gwendolynn! Manners." Their mother scolded.
"It's too late, ma, we're practically family. Me and Princy-Poo here are best friends." Gwen gave him a good natured slap on the back, alerting the attention of the nearby guards before Adonis laughed and put them at ease.
"It's crazy how quickly your family accepted me as their own. It's nice that she's already on my side.." Adonis said, smiling at Juliette. Her cheeks darkened into a blush.
"I'm glad you like them." She replied simply, returning his grin with her own.
"Yeah, I'm pretty likeable." Gwen said, stretching her arms in a playful nonchalance. "Just imagine it now, sister… Me and your hubby annoying you for the rest of your life."
Juliette rolled her eyes for what felt like the millionth time at her sister, landing on the prince who had a good natured smile resting on his features. She chuckled to herself. "I can't think of anything I'd like more."
The picnic went on without much more to note - the family joked and played a few card games before the prince rose to his feet. "Well, I have a few other things to attend to today, but thank you all for taking this time to spend with me."
Her family said their goodbyes, heading back to the palace along with Adonis. Juliette got to her feet, following him before he left, "Adonis."
"Yes?" His guards hesitated along with him, and Juliette bit her lip.
"Can I have a moment with you? Alone?" He paused for a second, before waving his guards on for a moment of privacy. "I didn't see you at the rooftop."
"I've been very busy, Juliette. And I told you that I didn't want to show any favoritism." He replied.
"I… Are you planning on choosing me?" She asked.
His eyes flashed. "I can't tell you that, Juliette."
She could feel the gun hidden beneath her skirt still, causing her heart to rattle in her chest nervously. "I just… Even if you don't, you trust me right?"
He raised an eyebrow, "Of course I trust you."
"Whatever happens tomorrow, remember that." Juliette could feel her eyes burn slightly. "I would never hurt you."
"Why are you being so foreboding?" Adonis laughed. "I trust you Juliette. At this point, you just need to trust me too that I will make the decision that is best for me. Now, I really do have a lot to do today, so I'll see you tomorrow."
She stood, watching him return to the palace. Above her, she felt the shade as a large cloud covered the sun. Chiliness pricked at her skin.
Her decision was made.
She would protect the prince. Even if it cost her her life.
A/N: Next chapter is the finale and then we have an epilogue... We're really almost to the end guys. Thanks for reading, I'll see you next time.