He set down his utensils. “Are you saying my home stinks?”
For a second I worried I’d offended him, but there was a tiny, joking spark in his eyes.
“Not at all! But it’s still different. Sort of like the old books and the grass and whatever cleaner the maids use all mixes together. I wish I could bottle it somehow to keep the smell with me always.”
“Of all the souvenirs, that’s by far the most peculiar one I’ve heard,” he commented lightly.
“Would you like one from Honduragua? We have some excellent dirt.”
He tried to press away his smile again, still seeming afraid of letting himself laugh.
“Very generous,” he commented. “Am I being rude, asking all these questions? Is there anything you want to know about me?”
My eyes widened. “Everything! What do you like most about your job? Where have you been in the world? Have you actually helped make any laws? What’s your favorite color?”
He shook his head and gave me another one of those heart-crushing half smiles. “Blue, navy blue. And you can basically name any country on the planet, and I’ve seen it. My father wants me to have a very wide cultural education. Illéa is a great nation but a young one, all things considered. The next step in securing our position globally is making alliances with more-established countries.” He chuckled darkly to himself. “Sometimes I think my father wishes I’d been a girl so he could marry me off to secure those ties.”
“Too late for your parents to try again, I suppose?”
His grin faltered. “I think it’s been past that for a while.”
There was something more to that statement, but I didn’t want to pry.
“My favorite thing about my job is the structure. There is order to it. Someone places a problem in front of me, I find a way to solve it. I don’t like things left open or undone, though that’s not typically an issue for me. I’m the prince, and one day I will be king. My word is law.”
His eyes sparkled with delight at his speech. It was the first time I’d seen him impassioned like that. And I could understand it. Though I didn’t long for power myself, I was aware of the appeal.
He continued to stare at me, and I felt something warm trickle through my veins. Maybe it was because we were alone, or because he seemed so sure of himself, but I was suddenly very aware of him. It felt as if every nerve in my body was attached to every nerve in his, and as we sat there, a strange electricity began filling the room. Clarkson circled his finger on the table, refusing to look away. My breathing sped up, and when I let my eyes drop to his chest, it looked as if his had, too.
I watched his hands move. They looked determined, curious, sensual, nervous . . . a list went on in my head as I stared at the little paths he drew on the table.
I’d dreamed of him kissing me, of course, but a kiss was rarely only that. Certainly he’d hold my hands or my waist or my chin. I thought of my fingers, still rough from years of labor, and worried what he would think if I touched him again. At the moment, I desperately wanted to.
He cleared his throat and looked away, breaking the spell. “I should probably escort you back to your room. It’s late.”
I pressed my lips together and looked away. I’d watch the sunrise with him if he asked me.
He stood, and I followed him into the main hall. I wasn’t sure what to make of our late, brief date. It felt more like an interview, if I was honest. The thought made me giggle, and he looked at me.
“What’s so funny?”
I debated saying that it was nothing. I wanted him to know me, and that would eventually mean me getting past my nerves.
“Well . . .” I hesitated. This is how you learn about each other, Amberly. You speak. “You said you liked me . . . but you know nothing about me. Is that how you usually act with girls you like? Do you interrogate them?”
He rolled his eyes, not angrily but as if I should already understand. “You forget. Until very recently, I’d never—”
The sound of a door crashing open startled us out of our conversation. I recognized the queen instantly. I started to curtsy, but Clarkson pushed me sideways into another hallway.
“Don’t you walk away from me!” The king’s voice boomed across the floor.
“I refuse to talk to you when you’re like this,” the queen replied, her speech faintly slurred.
Clarkson put his arms around me, shielding me even more. But I suspected he needed the embrace more than I did.
“Your spending this month is outrageous!” the king roared. “You can’t go on like this. It’s that kind of behavior that sends this country into the hands of the rebels!”
“Oh, no, dear husband,” she replied, her voice drenched in fake sweetness. “It will send you into the hands of the rebels. And believe me—no one will miss you when it does.”
“Get back here, you conniving bitch!”
“Porter, let me go!”
“If you think you can bring me down with a handful of overpriced gowns, you are mistaken.”
There was the sound of one of them striking the other. Instantly, Clarkson let me go. He grabbed one of the door handles and turned, but it was locked. He moved to the other, and it opened. He grabbed my arm and forced me inside, shutting the door behind us.
He started pacing, gripping his hair with his hands as if he was tempted to rip it all out. He moved to the couch, grabbed a pillow, and tore it to threads. When he’d finished with that one, he moved on to a second.
He smashed a small end table.
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