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What a funny story this would be for my children: the king once carried me across the palace as if I weighed nothing at all. I liked it here, in his arms. I’d always wondered what they’d feel like.

“Oh, my goodness,” someone cried. I opened my eyes to see a nurse.

“I think she’s faint or something,” Clarkson said. “She doesn’t seem injured.”

“Set her here, please, Your Highness.”

Prince Clarkson placed me on one of the beds dotting the wing, carefully sliding his arms away. I hoped he could see the gratefulness in my eyes.

I assumed he would leave immediately, but he stood by as the nurse checked my pulse. “Have you eaten today, dear? Had plenty to drink?”

“We just finished breakfast,” he answered for me.

“Do you feel sick at all?”

“No. Well, yes. What I mean is, this is really nothing.” I hoped if I made this seem inconsequential, I could still make it to the croquet game later.

She made a face both stern and sweet. “I beg to differ; you had to be carried in here.”

“This happens all the time,” I blurted in frustration.

“How do you mean?” the nurse pressed.

I hadn’t meant to confess that. I sighed, trying to think of how to explain. Now the prince would see how my life in Honduragua had damaged me.

“I get headaches a lot. And sometimes they make me dizzy.” I swallowed, worried what the prince would think. “At home I go to bed hours before my siblings, and that helps me get through the workday. It’s been harder to rest here.”

“Mmm hmm. Anything besides the headaches and tiredness?”

“No, ma’am.”

Clarkson shifted next to me. I hoped he couldn’t hear my heart pounding.

“How long have you had this problem?”

I shrugged. “A few years, maybe more. It’s kind of normal now.”

The nurse looked concerned. “Is there any history of this in your family?”

I paused before answering. “Not exactly. But my sister gets nosebleeds sometimes.”

“Do you just have a sickly family?” Clarkson asked, a hint of disgust in his voice.

“No,” I replied, both wanting to defend myself and embarrassed to explain. “I live in Honduragua.”

He raised his eyebrows in understanding. “Ah.”

It was no secret how polluted the south was. The air was bad. The water was bad. There were so many deformed children, barren women, and young deaths. When the rebels came through, they would leave a trail of graffiti behind, demanding to know why the palace hadn’t fixed this. It was a miracle my entire family wasn’t as sick as I was. Or that I wasn’t worse.

I drew in a deep breath. What in the world was I doing here? I’d spent the weeks leading up to the Selection building this fairy tale in my head. But no amount of wishing or dreaming was going to make me worthy of a man such as Clarkson.

I turned away, not wanting him to see me cry. “Could you leave, please?”

There were a few seconds of silence, then I listened to his footsteps as he walked away. The instant they faded, I broke down.

“Hush, now, dearie, it’s okay,” the nurse said, comforting me. I was so heartbroken, I hugged her as tightly as I did my mother or siblings. “It’s a lot of stress to go through a competition like this, and Prince Clarkson understands that. I’ll have the doctor prescribe you something for your headaches, and that will help.”

“I’ve been in love with him since I was seven years old. I whispered a happy birthday song to him every year into my pillow so my sister wouldn’t laugh at me for remembering. When I started learning cursive, I practiced by writing our names together . . . and the first time he really speaks to me, he asks if I’m sickly.” I paused, letting out a cry. “I’m not good enough.”

The nurse didn’t try to argue with me. She just let me cry.

I was so embarrassed. Clarkson would never see me as anything but the broken girl who sent him away. I was sure my chance at winning his heart had passed. What use could he have for me now?

CHAPTER 2

TURNED OUT CROQUET ONLY ALLOWS for a maximum of six players at a time, which suited me just fine. I sat and watched, trying to understand the rules in case I got a turn, though I had a feeling we would all get bored and end the game before everyone had a chance.

“Look at his arms.” Maureen sighed. She wasn’t speaking to me, but I glanced up all the same. Clarkson had taken off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He looked really, really good.

“How do I get him to wrap those around me?” Keller joked. “It’s not like you can fake an injury in croquet.”

The girls around her laughed, and Clarkson glanced their way, a hint of a smile on his lips. It always came across like that: just a trace. Come to think of it, I’d never heard him laugh. Maybe the unexpected bubble of a single chuckle, but never anything where he was just so happy he exploded in laughter.

Still, the ghost of a smirk on his face was enough to paralyze me. I was fine with not seeing more.

The teams moved along the field, and I was painfully aware when the prince was standing near me. As one of the girls lined up a rather skillful shot, he darted his eyes over at me, not moving his head. I peeked up at him, and he turned his attention back to the game. Some girls cheered, and he stepped closer.

“There’s a refreshments table over there,” he said quietly, still not making eye contact. “Maybe you should get some water.”

“I’m fine.”

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