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“Yes, Your Highness,” Dr. Mission said, throwing in a quick bow for good measure.

“Excellent. Now, is Lady Amberly in good health? Can she go to her room to rest in comfort?”

“I’ll have a nurse check her vitals at once.”

Clarkson waved his arm, and the doctor left.

“Can you believe he had the nerve? I should get rid of him anyway.”

I placed my hand on Clarkson’s chest. “No. No, please don’t hurt him.”

He smiled. “I meant that I’d send him away, find a suitable position for him elsewhere. Many of the governors like having private doctors. He’ll do well in something like that.”

I sighed in relief. So long as no one died.

“Amberly,” he whispered. “Before he told you, did you know you might be unable to have children?”

I shook my head. “I worried. I’ve seen it happen to others where I live. But both my oldest siblings are married, and they have babies. I hoped I would be able to, too.”

My voice hitched, and he hushed me. “Don’t worry about any of that now. I’ll come check on you later. We need to talk.”

He kissed my forehead, there in the hospital wing where anyone could see. All my worries disappeared, if only for the moment.

CHAPTER 11

“I HAVE A SECRET FOR you.”

I awoke to Clarkson whispering in my ear. It was as if my body just knew to respond to him, and I wasn’t even startled. Instead, I was gently stirred by his voice, and it was the sweetest way to wake up in the world.

“Do you?” I rubbed my eyes and looked at his impish smile.

He nodded. “Shall I tell you?” I giggled in reply, and he bent his head again to my ear. “You are going to be the next queen of Illéa.”

I pulled back to see his face, searching for any hint of this being a joke. But, truly, I’d never seen him calmer.

“Do you want me to tell you how I know?” He seemed pleased with himself, to have surprised me so.

“Please,” I breathed, still not believing his words.

“I hope you’ll forgive my little tests, but I’ve known for a long time what I was looking for.” He shifted in the bed, and I sat up so we were facing each other. “I liked your hair.”

Instinctively, I touched it. “What do you mean?”

“There was nothing wrong with it when it was long. I asked several girls to cut their hair, and you were the only one who gave me more than an inch.”

I stared, dumbfounded. What did that mean?

“And the night I came to you for our first date . . . do you remember that?” Of course I did. “I came late, when I knew you’d be ready for bed. You asked about getting changed, but when I said no, you didn’t argue. You came with me, just as you were. The others shoved me into the hallway to wait while they dressed. I give them credit for being fast, but still.”

I considered both of these things for a moment and confessed. “I don’t understand.”

He reached for my hand. “You’ve seen my parents. They war over nonsense. They are concerned to death with appearances. And while that is important for the sake of the country, they let it come between any sort of peace they could have, let alone happiness.

“If I ask you for something, you give it to me. You aren’t vain. You’re secure enough with yourself to put me before your looks, before anything. I know that from how you receive any request I’ve ever given you. But it’s more than that. . . .”

He took a deep breath and stared at our hands, as if he was debating telling me.

“You’ve kept my secrets, and I assure you, if you marry me, there will be scores more to keep. You don’t judge me, or seem startled by much. You’re soothing.” His gaze traveled up to my eyes. “I’m desperate for peace. I think you might be the only chance I have at that.”

I smiled. “The center of your storm?”

He exhaled, looking relieved. “Yes.”

“I would be happy to be that for you, but there’s one small problem.”

He scrunched his head. “Your caste?”

I’d forgotten all about that. “No. Children.”

“Oh, that,” he said, almost sounding as if he thought it was a joke. “I don’t care one way or the other.”

“But you have to have an heir.”

“For what? To carry on the line? You’re speaking of giving me a son. Suppose we managed to have one child and that child was a girl. There would be no chance of her getting the crown. Don’t you think there are backup plans?”

“I want children,” I mumbled.

He shrugged. “No guarantee you won’t get them. Personally, I’m not fond of children. I guess that’s what nannies are for.”

“And your home is so vast you’d never hear one raise their voice.”

Clarkson chuckled. “True. So, no matter what, that is not an issue for me.”

He was so calm, so unconcerned, that I believed him, and the weight of all that worry fell off me. My eyes welled up, but I didn’t allow myself to cry. I would save the tears for later, when I was alone.

“The true issue for me is your caste,” he confessed. “Well, not for me so much as for my father. I’ll need time to work out the proper way to address that, which means the Selection could go on for quite some time. But take heart,” he said as he leaned in close, “you will be my wife.”

I bit my lip, too happy to believe this was real.

He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “You will be the only thing in this world that is truly mine. And I will put you on a pedestal so high, it will be impossible for anyone not to adore you.”

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