I returned his smile and stepped inside past him, noting that he smelled faintly but rather deliciously of the sea. But the scent was mixed with something else, something refreshing and cool, like rain on a spring day or an arctic breeze. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but I couldn’t help but breathe in more deeply anyway.
“The King, the Queen, and Lisbet arrived about fifteen minutes before you did,” Kennet explained. “They extend their apologies, but they’re exhausted from their trip and have retired for the evening. So I’ll be showing you to your rooms and getting you anything you’d like.”
“Showing us to our rooms will be enough,” Kasper said as he admired the main hall.
The rounded walls were sandblasted glass—opaque with a hint of light turquoise showing through. Like the outside of the palace, they were shaped to look like waves. They curved around us, making it feel as though we were standing in the center of a whirlpool.
Beneath our feet, the floors were glass, allowing us a glimpse of the pool below. It was empty now, but when I’d been here before, I’d seen royalty swimming in it. Above us, chandeliers of diamonds and sapphires sparkled, splashing shards of light all around the room.
“To your rooms it is,” Kennet said with a bright smile, and he turned to lead us out of the main hall down to the quarters where we’d be staying.
Even though it was late, Kennet still wore a suit, and I’d never actually seen him in anything else. This time it was a frosty gray that shimmered silver when the light hit it right, and it was perfectly tailored for his well-toned frame.
Both Kennet and his older brother, Mikko, were very handsome: golden hair, dazzling aqua eyes, strong jaws, perfect complexions, and deep, powerful voices. Kennet was slightly shorter and more slender than his brother, but he didn’t appear any less muscular.
“I didn’t expect you back so soon,” Kennet said, lowering his voice as though he were confiding in me. He walked beside me down the corridor, while Kasper followed a step behind. “But I have to admit, I’m happy you are.”
“I’m just happy it’s under much better circumstances,” I replied carefully.
“Ah, yes. With the Queen back, it is a time of much celebration.” His voice rose with excitement when he spoke, but then he looked down at me, smiling with a glint in his eye. “Hopefully that means our time together will be much more fun this time around.”
It occurred to me that Ridley had been right when we were here before (as painful as it was to think of Ridley in any capacity right now). He’d thought that Kennet had been flirting with me, and I’d brushed it off as nonsense. But now I was beginning to see the merit in the idea.
Ordinarily, I would consider it a bad idea to flirt with a Prince. It could be rather dangerous, in fact. But considering that something very strange was going on in this palace, having another member of the royal family on my side wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“I’m certain it will be,” I said, attempting to match Kennet’s playful grin with my own, and he laughed warmly.
Kennet led us down the spiral staircase toward the private quarters. The main floor was entirely above the surface of the lake, while the private quarters and the ballroom were located underneath the water. As soon as we went downstairs, the musty scent grew stronger.
While an underwater palace sounded like a magical and grand thing, the impracticality of it seemed to have taken its toll. Wallpaper lined the hallway—blue with an icy sheen—but it had begun to peel at some of the corners. Even the navy-and-white checked tiles on the floor had begun to warp in a few places. All damage from the constant moisture of being in a lake.
As I suspected, Kennet led me to the room I had stayed in before, after first dropping Kasper off several doors away. The valet had already carried my bags down, and I was pleased to find them sitting on the lush bedding.
The wall to the outside bowed out, like a fishbowl, and the darkness of the water seemed to engulf the room. Despite all its luxurious trappings, the room filled me with a sense of unease. Like I was a dolphin on display at a zoo.
“In case you don’t remember from last time, the bathroom is across the hall,” Kennet explained; he’d followed me inside the room, standing directly behind me as I stared out at the lake. “My room is in the other wing, should you need me for anything at all.”
I turned back to face him, and despite the gnawing ache in my heart over Ridley, there was something in Kennet’s smile that made it … not exactly easy to smile back, but at least not so hard and not quite so painful.
“I trust that the room is in order for you,” Kennet asked, and I realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off me since we’d entered the room.
Smiling, I gestured around me. “It’s perfect, thank you.”
“If there’s anything you desire, I’ll be happy to get it for you.” And there it was again. A glint in his eye that somehow seemed both dangerous and a bit charming.
“Thank you, but right now the only thing I desire is a good night’s sleep,” I told him politely.
He arched an eyebrow. “You will let me know if that changes?”
When he left, shutting the door behind him, I let out a deep breath and collapsed on the bed behind me. The day had left me exhausted in ways I didn’t even know were possible. It still felt as if a hole had been torn inside me, as if my very insides had been ripped out, leaving a cold shell.
But there was no time to cry or mourn what might have been between Ridley and me. It was over, the way it should’ve been a long time ago, and the only thing I could do was push past it and hope that eventually the pain would get more bearable.
First thing in the morning, Kennet took Kasper and me down to the guard station. The last time I’d been here, when Ridley and I had been investigating Linnea’s disappearance, we’d been denied access to the guards.
This time, Kasper and I were here specifically to see if there was any truth to Linnea’s concerns and to implement new standards for the guards so they’d be better protection for the royalty. That meant we had to be directly involved with the guards.
The guard station was a small round room at the center of the lower level of the palace. It was sparsely decorated, with three large paintings of the royal family the only adornments on its white walls. Four large desks were placed at odd angles, along with several filing cabinets.