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I huffed, exhausted at the thought.

At the sound, she looked up. Slowly, the expression on her face changed.

“Doesn’t this hurt you at all?” she demanded. “You’re not that good an actor, Maxon.”

“Of course it bothers me.”

She stood, silently assessing me. “But not for the same reasons it bothers me,” she whispered. She walked across the room, her eyes pleading. “Maxon, you love me.”

I stayed still.

“Maxon,” she said more forcefully, “you love me. You do.”

I had to look away, the intensity in her eyes too bright for me. I ran a hand through my hair, trying to put whatever it was I did feel into words.

“I’ve never seen anyone express their feelings the way you just did. I have no doubt you mean every word, but I can’t do that, Daphne.”

“That doesn’t mean you don’t know how to feel it. You just have no idea how to express it. Your father can be as cold as ice, and your mother hides within herself. You’ve never seen people love freely, so you don’t know how to show it. But you feel it; I know you do. You love me as I love you.”

Slowly, I shook my head, fearing another syllable out of my mouth would start everything up again.

“Kiss me,” she demanded.

“What?”

“Kiss me. If you can kiss me and still say you don’t love me, I’ll never mention this again.”

I backed away. “No. I’m sorry, I can’t.”

I didn’t want to confess how literal that was. I wasn’t sure how many boys Daphne had kissed, but I knew it was more than zero. She’d let the fact she’d been kissed come out a few summers ago when I was in France with her. So there. She had me beat, and there was no way I was going to make an even bigger fool out of myself in this moment.

Her sadness shifted to anger as she backed away from me. She laughed once, no humor in her eyes.

“So this is your answer, then? You’re saying no? You’re choosing to let me leave?”

I shrugged.

“You’re an idiot, Maxon Schreave. Your parents have completely sabotaged you. You could have a thousand girls set before you, and it wouldn’t matter. You’re too stupid to see love when it stands right in front of you.”

She wiped her eyes and straightened her dress. “I hope to God I never see your face again.”

The fear in my chest changed, and as she walked away, I grabbed her arm. I didn’t want her to be gone forever.

“Daphne, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” she said coldly. “Feel sorry for yourself. You’ll find a wife because you have to, but you’ve already known love and let it go.”

She jerked free and left me alone.

Happy birthday to me.

CHAPTER 3

DAPHNE SMELLED LIKE CHERRY BARK and almonds. She’d been wearing the same scent since she turned thirteen. She had it on last night, and I could smell it even as she was wishing she’d never see me again.

She had a scar on her wrist, a scrape she got climbing a tree when she was eleven. It was my fault. She was a bit less ladylike at the time, and I convinced her—well, challenged her—to race me to the top of one of the trees on the edge of the garden. I won.

Daphne had a crippling fear of the dark, and since I had fears of my own, I never teased her for it. And she never teased me. Not on anything that really mattered anyway.

She was allergic to shellfish. Her favorite color was yellow. Try as she may, she could not sing to save her life. She could dance, though, so it was probably even more of a disappointment that I didn’t ask her to last night.

When I was sixteen she sent me a new camera bag for Christmas. Even though I’d never given any indication that I wanted to get rid of the one I had, it meant so much to me that she was aware of my likes, and I switched it out anyway. I still used it.

I stretched beneath my sheets, turning my head toward where the bag rested. I wondered how much time she’d spent picking out the right one.

Maybe Daphne was right. We had more history than I’d recognized. We’d lived our relationship through scattered visits and sporadic phone calls, so I never would have dreamed it added up to as much as it truly did.

And now she was on a plane back to France, where Frederick was waiting for her.

I climbed out of bed, shrugged off my rumpled shirt and suit pants, and made my way to the shower. As the water washed away the remnants of my birthday, I tried to dismiss my thoughts.

But I couldn’t shelve her nagging accusation about the state of my heart. Did I not know love at all? Had I tasted it and cast it off? And if so, how was I supposed to navigate the Selection?

Advisors ran around the palace with stacks of entry forms for the Selection, smiling at me like they knew something I didn’t. From time to time, one would pat me on the back or whisper an encouraging remark, as if they sensed that I was suddenly doubting the one thing in my life I’d always counted on, the one thing I hoped for.

“Today’s batch is very promising,” one would say.

“You’re a lucky man,” another commented.

But as the entries piled up, all I could think about was Daphne and her cutting words.

I should have been studying the figures of the financial report before me, but instead I studied my father. Had he somehow sabotaged me? Made it so I was missing a fundamental understanding of what it meant to be in a romantic relationship? I’d seen him interact with my mother. There was affection between them, if not passion. Wasn’t that enough? Was that what I was meant to be aiming for?

I stared into space, debating. Maybe he thought that if I sought anything more, I’d have a terrible time traversing the Selection. Or perhaps that I’d be disappointed if I didn’t find something life-changing. It was probably for the best that I never mentioned I was hoping for just that.

But maybe he had no such designs. People simply are who they are. Father was strict, a sword sharpened under the pressure of running a country that was surviving constant wars and rebel attacks. Mother was a blanket, softened by growing up with nothing, and ever seeking to protect and comfort.

I knew in my core I was more like her than him. Not something I minded, but Father did.

So maybe making me slow about expressing myself was intentional, part of the process intended to harden me.

You’re too stupid to see love when it stands right in front of you.

“Snap out of it, Maxon.” I whipped my head toward my father’s voice.

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