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And it was worth every speck of energy it took for the smile to cross my face.

“You have to be spotless, do you understand? You need to be an exemplary candidate. Up until recently, I didn’t think there’d ever be a need to tell you that, but now it seems I do: don’t give anyone a reason to doubt your competence.”

I sat there, stunned. What did he mean? If I’d had any more clarity of mind, I’d have asked.

Not a moment later, the butler returned with a tray full of rolls and twists and loafs, and Clarkson stepped back.

“Until next time.” He bowed and left, arms tucked behind his back.

“Will this do, my lady?” the butler asked, and I dragged my tired eyes to the pile of food.

I nodded, picked up a roll, and bit.

It’s a strange thing to discover how much you matter to people you didn’t really know you mattered to. Or to find that the slow disintegration of yourself causes a smaller version to happen in other people.

When I asked Martha if she wouldn’t mind bringing me a bowl of strawberries, her eyes welled up. When I laughed at a joke Bianca told, I noticed that Madeline sort of gasped before she joined in herself. And Clarkson . . .

The only other time I’d seem him really upset was that night we’d caught his parents fighting, and I sensed that his becoming slightly unhinged then was his way of expressing how much they meant to him. That he got so bothered over me . . . it wasn’t my preferred way of him letting me know he cared. But if that’s what he knew, it made sense.

That night when I tucked myself into bed, I promised myself two things. First, if Clarkson cared that much, then I was going to stop treating myself like a victim. From now on, I was a contender. Second, I was never going to give Clarkson Schreave a reason to get upset like that again.

His world looked like a storm.

I was going to be its center.

CHAPTER 9

“RED,” EMON INSISTED. “YOU ALWAYS look stunning in red.”

“But it shouldn’t be so primary. Maybe something deeper, like a wine.” Cindly pulled out another gown, much darker than the first.

I sighed with delight. “That’s the one.”

I didn’t have the fire some of the other girls had, and I wasn’t a Two—but I was starting to think there were other ways to shine. I’d decided that I was going to stop dressing like a princess and start dressing like a queen.

It didn’t take much work to notice that there was a line drawn between the two. The Selected girls were given floral prints or dresses made with gauzy material. The queen’s dresses were statements, bold and imposing. If my personality wasn’t that way, at least my clothes could be.

And I was working on carrying myself differently. If I’d been asked back in Honduragua which was harder, roasting beans in the heat all day or trying to have decent posture for a solid ten hours, I’d have said the first. I was starting to wonder now.

It was the subtleties I wanted to master, the unnameable things that hung around a One. Tonight, on the Report, I wanted to look like the obvious choice. Maybe if I looked that way, I could feel that way.

Any time I felt a sliver of doubt, I thought of Clarkson. There wasn’t a huge, defining moment between us, but when I worried I wasn’t enough, I held on to the little things. He’d said he liked me. He’d told me not to check out. He might have walked away, but he’d also returned. That was enough to give me hope. So I put on my red dress, took a pill to prevent a headache, and prepared to do my best.

We weren’t exactly prepped for when we would or wouldn’t be asked questions or have a discussion. I assumed it was part of the Selection process: finding someone who could think on her feet. So I was disappointed when the Report ended without us getting a chance to speak. I told myself not to be bothered. There would be other opportunities. But while everyone around me sighed with relief, I was down.

Clarkson walked over, and I perked right up. He was coming this way. He was going to take me on a date. I knew it! I knew it!

But he stopped in front of Madeline. He whispered in her ear, and she giggled as she gave him an enthusiastic nod. He held out a hand, allowing her to move forward, but before he followed her, he ducked back and murmured into my cheek.

“Wait up for me.”

He left, not looking back. But I didn’t need him to.

“Are you sure you don’t need anything else, miss?”

“No, Martha, thank you. I should be just fine.”

I’d dimmed the lights in my room, but I left my dress on. I nearly sent up for some dessert, but I felt certain he’d already have eaten.

I wasn’t sure why, but I felt warm all over, as if my skin was trying to tell me tonight mattered. I wanted it to be perfect.

“You’ll send for me, of course? You shouldn’t be alone at night.”

I reached for her hands, and she didn’t hesitate to let me hold them. “As soon as the prince leaves, I’ll ring for you.”

Martha nodded and squeezed my hands before leaving me alone.

I ran to the bathroom, checked my hair, brushed my teeth, and straightened my dress. I needed to calm down. Every inch of my skin was awake, waiting for him.

I sat at my table, concentrating on my fingertips, palms, wrists. Elbows, shoulders, neck. I went piece by piece, trying to soothe myself. Of course, it was all rendered perfectly useless when Clarkson knocked on the door.

He didn’t wait for me to answer. He walked right in. I stood to greet him, and I meant to curtsy, but there was something in his eyes that left me bewildered. I watched him saunter across the floor, his stare intent.

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