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Two weeks in, and this was my fourth headache. How would I explain something like that to the prince? As if it wasn’t bad enough that nearly every girl left was a Two. As if my maids weren’t already slaving away to fix my weathered hands. At some point I would have to tell him about the waves of sickness that crashed without warning. Well, if he ever noticed me.
Queen Abby sat at the opposite end of the Women’s Room, almost as if she was purposefully separating herself from the girls. By the slight chill that seemed to roll off her shoulders, I got the feeling that we weren’t exactly welcome as far as she was concerned.
She extended her hand to a maid, who in turn filed her nails to perfection. But even in the middle of being pampered, the queen seemed irritated. I didn’t understand, but I tried not to judge. Maybe a corner of my heart would be hardened too if I’d lost a husband so young. It was lucky that Porter Schraeve, her late husband’s cousin, took her as his own, allowing her to keep the crown.
I surveyed the room, looking at the other girls. Gillian was a Four like me, but a proper one. Her parents were both chefs, and, based on her descriptions of our meals, I sensed she’d take the same path. Leigh and Madison were studying to be veterinarians and visited the stables as often as they were permitted.
I knew that Nova was an actress and had throngs of adoring fans willing her onto the throne. Uma was a gymnast, and her petite frame was graceful, even in stillness. Several of the Twos here hadn’t even chosen a profession yet. I guessed if someone paid my bills, fed me, and kept a roof over my head, I wouldn’t worry about it either.
I rubbed my aching temple and felt the cracked skin and calluses drag across my forehead. I stopped and stared down at my battered hands.
He would never want me.
Closing my eyes, I pictured the first time I’d met Prince Clarkson. I could remember the feeling of his strong hand as he shook mine. Thank goodness my maids had found lace gloves for me to wear, or I might have been sent home on the spot. He was composed, polite, and intelligent. All the things a prince should be.
I had realized over the past two weeks that he didn’t smile too much. It seemed as if he was afraid of being judged for finding humor in things. But, my goodness, how his eyes lit up when he did. The dirty-blond hair, the faded blue eyes, the way he carried himself with such strength . . . he was perfect.
Sadly, I was not. But there had to be a way to get Prince Clarkson to notice me.
I held the pen in the air for a minute, knowing this was pointless. Still.
I’m settling in very well at the palace. It’s pretty. It’s bigger and better than pretty, but I don’t know if I have the right words to describe it. It’s a different kind of warm in Angeles than it is at home, too, but I don’t know how to tell you about that either. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could come feel and see and smell everything for yourself? And, yes, there’s plenty to smell.
As far as the actual competition goes, I haven’t spent a single second alone with the prince.
My head throbbed. I closed my eyes, breathing slowly. I ordered myself to focus.
I’m sure you’ve seen on TV that Prince Clarkson has sent home eight girls, all of them Fours and Fives and that one Six. There are two other Fours left, and a handful of Threes. I wonder if he’s expected to choose a Two. I think that would make sense, but it’s heartbreaking for me.
Could you do me a favor? Will you ask Mama and Papa if there’s maybe a cousin or someone else in the family who’s in the upper castes? I should have asked before I left. I think information like that would be really helpful.
I was getting that nauseated feeling that sometimes came with the headaches.
I have to run. Lots going on. I’ll send another letter soon.
Love you forever,
I felt faint. I folded my letter and sealed it in the already-addressed envelope. I rubbed my temples again, hoping the slight pressure would give me some relief, though it never did.
“Everything all right, Amberly?” Danica asked.
“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Probably just tired or something. I might take a little walk. Try to get my blood moving and all.”
I smiled at Danica and Madeline and left the Women’s Room, making my way toward the bathroom. A bit of cold water on my face would ruin my makeup, but it might help me feel better. Before I could get there, the dizzy feeling swept over me again. Perching on one of those little couches that ran along the hallways, I put my head back against the wall, trying to clear it.
This made no sense. Everyone knew the air and water in the southern parts of Illéa were bad. Even the Twos there sometimes had health problems. But shouldn’t this—escaping into the clean air, good food, and impeccable care of the palace—be helping that?
I was going to miss every opportunity to make an impression on Prince Clarkson if this kept up. What if I didn’t make it to the croquet game this afternoon? I could feel my dreams slipping through my fingers. I might as well embrace defeat now. It would hurt less later.
“What are you doing?”
I jerked away from the wall to see Prince Clarkson looking down at me.
“Nothing, Your Highness.”
“Are you unwell?”
“No, of course not,” I insisted, pushing myself to my feet. But that was a mistake. My legs buckled, and I fell to the floor.
“Miss?” he asked, coming to my side.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “This is humiliating.”
He swept me up in his arms. “Close your eyes if you’re dizzy. We’re going to the hospital wing.”
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, but 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?”
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 in 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, smudging my makeup all over her uniform.
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?
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.
“God, 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.”
“Bravo, Clementine!” he yelled to a girl who’d successfully ruined another’s shot. “All the same. Dehydration can make headaches worse. Might be good for you.”
His eyes came down to meet mine, and there was something there. Not love, maybe not even affection, but something a degree or two beyond basic concern.
Knowing I was hopeless when it came to refusing him, I stood and walked over to the table. I started to pour myself some water, but a maid took the pitcher from my hand.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Still getting used to that.”
She smiled. “Not at all. Have some fruit. Very refreshing on a day like this.”
I stood by the table, eating grapes with a tiny fork. I’d need to tell Adele about that, too: utensils for fruit.
Clarkson looked my way a few times, seemingly double-checking that I was doing as he suggested. I couldn’t tell if it was the food or his attention that lifted my mood.
I never did take a chance playing the game.
It was three more days before Clarkson spoke to me again.
Dinner was dying down. The king had unceremoniously excused himself, and the queen had almost completely emptied a bottle of wine by herself. Some of the girls started to curtsy and leave, not wanting to watch the queen as she sloppily propped herself up on her arm. I was alone at my table, determined to finish every last bite of the chocolate cake.
“How are you today, Amberly?”
My head shot up. Clarkson had walked over without me noticing. I thanked God he caught me between bites. “Very well. And you?”
“Excellent, thank you.”
There was a brief silence as I waited for him to say more. Or was I supposed to talk? Were there rules about who spoke first?
“I was just noticing how long your hair is,” he commented.
“Oh.” I laughed a little as I looked down. My hair was nearly to my waist these days. Though it was a lot to groom, it gave me plenty of options for pulling it up. That was key for farmwork. “Yes. Comes in handy for braiding, which is nice at home.”
“Do you think it’s maybe too long?”
“Umm. I don’t know, Your Highness.” I ran my fingers over it. My hair was clean and well taken care of. Did I somehow look messy without being aware of it? “What do you think?”
He tilted his head. “It’s a very pretty color. I think it might be nicer if it was shorter.” He shrugged and started to walk away. “Just a thought,” he called over his shoulder.
I sat there for a moment, considering. Then, abandoning my cake, I went to my room. My maids were there, waiting as always. “Martha, would you feel comfortable cutting my hair?”
“Of course, miss. An inch or so off the bottom will keep it healthy,” she replied, walking to the bathroom.
“No,” I countered. “I need it short.”
She paused. “How short?”
“Well . . . past my shoulders still, but maybe above the bottom of my shoulder blades?”
“That’s more than a foot, miss!”
“I know. But can you do it? And would you still be able to make it pretty?” I pulled the thick strands over my shoulder, imagining them cut off.
“Of course, miss. But why would you do that?”
I crossed in front of her, heading into the bathroom. “I think it’s time for a change.”
My maids helped undo my dress and draped a towel over my shoulders. I closed my eyes as Martha began, not completely sure what I was doing. Clarkson thought I’d look nicer with shorter hair, and Martha would make sure it was long enough that I could still pull it back. I lost nothing in this.
I didn’t dare even to take a glimpse until it was all done. I listened to the metallic bite of the scissors over and over. I could feel as her snips got more precise, as if she was making everything uniform. Not long after that she stopped.
“What do you think, miss?” she asked hesitantly.
I opened my eyes. At first I couldn’t even tell a difference. But I turned my head ever so slightly, and a piece of hair fell over my shoulder. I pulled a strand over the other side, and it was as if my face was encircled by a mahogany frame.
He was right.
“I love it, Martha!” I gasped, touching my hair all over.
“It makes you look much more mature,” Cindly added.
I nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Emon cried, running to the jewelry box. She fished through several pieces, searching for something in particular. Finally, she came up with a necklace that had large, glittering red stones. I hadn’t been brave enough to wear it yet.
I lifted my hair, expecting her to want me to try it on, but she had other ideas. Gently, she laid the necklace across my head. It was so ornate, it was very reminiscent of a crown.
My maids all sucked in a breath, but I stopped breathing completely.
I had spent so many years imagining Prince Clarkson as my husband, but never once had I considered him as the boy who could make me a princess. For the first time ever, I realized I wanted that, too. I wasn’t full of connections or dripping with wealth, but I sensed that it was a role that I would not simply fill, but excel at. I’d always believed I’d be a good match for Clarkson, but maybe I could be a good match for the monarchy, too.
I looked at myself in the mirror, and along with imagining Schreave tacked on the end of my name, I placed princess right before it. In that instant I wanted him, the crown—every last piece of this—like nothing before.
I had Martha find me a jeweled headband to wear in the morning and left my hair completely down. I’d never been so excited about breakfast. I thought I looked positively beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to see if Clarkson felt the same way.
If I was smart I’d have gotten there a bit early; but as it was, I ambled in with several other girls, completely missing my chance to get the prince’s attention. I darted my eyes toward the head table every few seconds, but Clarkson was focused on his meal, dutifully cutting his waffles and ham, occasionally glancing over to some papers beside him. His father drank coffee mostly, only scooping up a bite when he took a break from the document he was reading. I assumed he and Clarkson were studying the same thing and that both of them starting so early meant they were going to have a very busy day. The queen was nowhere to be seen, and while the word hangover was never said aloud, I could practically hear it in everyone’s thoughts.
Once breakfast was over Clarkson left with the king, off to do whatever it was they did that made our country work.
I sighed. Maybe tonight.
The Women’s Room was quiet today. We had exhausted all the getting-to-know-you conversations and had grown accustomed to spending our days together. I sat with Madeline and Bianca, as I almost always did. Bianca came from one of Honduragua’s neighboring provinces, and we had met on the plane. Madeline’s room was next to mine, and her maid had come knocking on my door the very first day to ask my maids for some thread. Maybe half an hour later, Madeline came by to thank us, and we’d been friendly ever since.
The Women’s Room was cliquish from the beginning. We were used to being separated into groups in everyday life—Threes over here, Fives over there—so maybe it was natural for that to happen in the palace. And while we didn’t divide ourselves exclusively by castes, I couldn’t help wishing we didn’t do it at all. Weren’t we made equals by coming here, at least while the competition lasted? Weren’t we going through the exact same thing?
Though, at the moment, it seemed as if we were going through a bunch of nothing. I wished something would happen if only so we’d have something to talk about.
“Any news from home?” I asked, trying to start a conversation.
Bianca looked up. “My mom wrote yesterday and said that Hendly got engaged. Can you believe that? She left, what, a week ago?”
Madeline perked up. “What’s his caste? Is she climbing?”
“Oh, yeah!” Bianca lit up with excitement. “A Two! I mean, it gives you hope. I was a Three before I left, but the idea of maybe marrying an actor instead of a boring old doctor sounds fun.”
Madeline giggled and nodded in agreement.
I wasn’t so sure. “Did she know him? Before she left for the Selection, I mean?”
Bianca tipped her head to one side, as if I’d asked something ridiculous. “It seems unlikely. She was a Five; he’s a Two.”
“Well, I think she said her family did music, so maybe she performed for him once,” Madeline offered.
“That’s a good point,” Bianca added. “So maybe they weren’t complete strangers.”
“Huh,” I muttered.
“Sour grapes?” Bianca asked.
I smiled. “No. If Hendly is happy, then so am I. It’s a little strange, though, marrying someone you don’t even know.”
There was a pause before Madeline spoke. “Aren’t we kind of doing the same thing?”
“No!” I exclaimed. “The prince is not a stranger.”
“Really?” Madeline challenged. “Then please, tell me everything you know about him, because I feel like I’ve got nothing.”
“Actually . . . me, too,” Bianca confessed.
I inhaled to begin a long list of facts about Clarkson . . . but there wasn’t much to tell.
“I’m not saying I know every last secret about him, but it’s not as if he’s any old boy walking down the street. We’ve grown up with him, heard him speak on the Report, seen his face hundreds of times. We may not know all the details, but I have a very clear impression of him. Don’t you?”
Madeline smiled. “I think you’re right. It’s not as if we walked through the door not knowing his name.”
The maid was so quiet, I didn’t realize she’d approached until she was at my ear, whispering. “You’re needed for a moment, miss.”
I looked at her, confused. I’d done nothing wrong. I turned to the girls and shrugged before standing to follow her out the door.
In the hallway, she merely gestured, and I turned to see Prince Clarkson. He was standing there with that almost smile on his lips and something in his hand.
“I was just dropping off a package at the mail room and the post master had this for you,” he said, holding up an envelope between two fingers. “I thought you might want it right away.”
I walked over as quickly as I could without seeming unladylike and reached for it. His grin became devilish as he abruptly stuck his arm straight up in the air.
I giggled, hopping and trying desperately to clutch it. “No fair!”
“Come on now.”
I could jump fairly well, though not in heels, and even with them on I was slightly shorter than he was. But I didn’t mind failing, because somewhere in my sad attempts, I felt an arm wrap around my waist.
Finally, he gave me my letter. As I suspected, it was from Adele. So many tiny happy things were piling into my day.
“You cut your hair.”
I pulled my gaze from the letter. “I did.” I grabbed a section and brought it over my shoulder. “Do you like it?”
There was something in his eyes—not quite mischief, not quite a secret. “I do. Very much.” With that he turned and walked down the hall, not even glancing back.
It was true I had an idea of who he was. Still, as I saw him in day-to-day life, I realized there was much more to him than what I’d seen on the Report. That knowledge didn’t seem daunting, though.
On the contrary, he was a mystery I was excited to solve.
I smiled and tore open the letter right there in the hallway, moving under a window for the sake of the light.
Sweet, sweet Amberly,
I miss you so much it hurts. It hurts almost as much as it does when I think about all the beautiful clothes you’re wearing and the food you must be tasting. I can’t even imagine what you’re smelling! I wish I could.
Mama nearly cries every time she sees you on TV. You look like a One! If I didn’t already know the castes of all the girls, I’d never guess that any of you weren’t in the royal family. Isn’t that funny? If someone wanted to, they could just pretend those numbers don’t exist. Then again, they don’t for you in a way, Little Miss Three.
Speaking of which, I wish there was some long-lost Two in the family for your sake, but you already know there isn’t. I asked, and we’ve been Fours from the start, and that’s all there is to it. The only notable additions to the family aren’t good ones. I don’t even want to tell you this, and I’m hoping no one comes across this letter before you, but cousin Romina is pregnant. Apparently she fell for that Six who drives the delivery truck for the Rakes. They’re getting married over the weekend, which has left everyone sighing in relief. The father (why can’t I remember his name? Ah!) refuses to have any child of his made an Eight, and that’s more than some men years older than him would do. So, sorry you’ll miss the wedding, but we’re happy for Romina.
Anyway, that’s the family you have right now. A bunch of farmers and a few lawbreakers. Just be the beautiful, loving girl we all know you are, and the prince will undoubtedly fall for you despite your caste.
We love you. Write again. I miss hearing your voice. You make things feel more peaceful around here, and I don’t think I noticed it until you weren’t here to do it.
Farewell for now, Princess Amberly. Please remember us little people when you get your crown!
Half-asleep, I swatted at a tickle on my shoulder. It happened again, and I instinctively rolled away. The tickle returned, traveling across my back. Oh. It wasn’t a random breeze or another feather that had escaped from my pillow.
Those were kisses.
Eyes still closed, I smiled to myself as Maxon brushed away a lock of hair to find a new place to kiss. Waking up to the feeling of Maxon’s breath on my skin reminded me of how we ended up knotted in these sheets in the first place.
I giggled as his mouth hit a ticklish spot on my neck.
“Good morning, darling,” he whispered.
“I was wondering,” he began, murmuring the words into my cheek as I rolled over. “Seeing as it’s my birthday, do you think we could get away with spending the entire day in bed?”
I smiled and forced my sleepy eyes open. “And who will run the country?”
“No one. Let it fall to pieces. So long as I have my America in my arms.”
His hair was a perfect mess, and he was so warm that every last particle in my body wanted nothing more than to stay here with him. It was completely fascinating to me the way that love grew. I kept thinking I’d found a way to give him all that I had, but then I’d learn a new quirk, hear a new story, go through a new experience, and my heart swelled.
“But what about the party? We spent weeks planning,” I complained.
He propped up his head on his hand. “Hmm. Okay, we’ll take a ten-minute break to check out the party and come right back.” Maxon wrapped his arms around me, and I laughed as he covered me with kisses.
We were so distracted, we didn’t even hear the butler open the door. “Your Majesty, there’s a call from—”
Before he could finish, Maxon chucked a pillow at him, and the butler retreated into the hall, pulling the door shut behind him. There was a pause before a muffled voice filtered in. “Sorry, sir.”
I’d gotten used to a lack of privacy since living in the palace, and as far as those awkward moments went, this was one of the better ones. I covered my mouth, trying to contain my laughter, and when Maxon saw my smirk, he smiled, too. “Well, I guess that answers my question.”
I sat up to kiss his cheek and immediately felt a rush of dizziness. “Oh!”
“Are you all right?”
“Mmhm,” I mumbled, covering my mouth. “Sat up too quickly.”
He ran his hand over my back, and I leaned into him.
“What time’s the party again?”
“Six. Everyone’s coming, even my mom.”
“Oh, then it’ll really be a party!”
I swatted him. “Are you ever going to let it go? It was one time.”
“She danced in the fountain on New Year’s Eve, America,” he said, a childish amusement in his eyes. “It was amazing, and I will never let it go.”
I sighed. “Anyway, don’t be late. I’m going to get dressed. I’ll see you at breakfast.”
I pulled the sheet off the bed as I stood, wrapping it around me.
He lay back and watched me go. “Of all your dresses, that’s my favorite.”
I bit my lip as I took one last look at him before opening the door that led to my suite. There was no way I was ever going to have enough of him.
Mary was waiting for me, of course. She was used to seeing me walk back from Maxon’s room or watching him bolt out of mine, but it was that knowing smirk that got me every time.
“Good morning, Your Majesty,” she greeted me with a curtsy. “Have a good night, then?”
“Wipe that smile off your face!” I teased, tossing the sheet at her and running to the bathroom.
I had been worried about the cut of my dress, but it fit spectacularly. Heads turned when I walked in to the party, and I tried to accept the attention graciously. Even after two years of marriage, being in the spotlight still took some getting used to.
May rushed to my side. “You look radiant, Ames!”
“Thank you. You clean up pretty well yourself.” I touched one of her perfectly placed curls and marveled at how well my sister had adjusted to life as a royal. Not that I was surprised. She had always been charming and bubbly, and almost as soon as she and my family moved to Angeles, May had become a media darling. While plenty of pictures of me would be printed tomorrow, there would be twice as many of May.
“Are you feeling okay?” she asked.
“Just a little distracted. You go have fun. I need to make sure everything’s running smoothly.”
“Have fun? I’m on it!” She dashed off, waving to people I was positive she didn’t even know, sparkling all over. The party was in full swing by now, and it looked as though the guests was enjoying themselves. The decor was simple, the lighting was lovely, and the musicians were doing an excellent job. I hoped Maxon was pleased.
I made my way across the floor, sampling some hors d’oeuvres on my way. None of the food seemed terribly appealing, though. Maxon’s favorites weren’t necessarily mine, I just had to trust that everyone else would enjoy the selection.
I stretched up to my tiptoes, scanning the room. If Maxon had listened to me, he ought to be around here somewhere by now. I didn’t find him, but I did see Marlee. She rushed over as soon as she saw me, leaving Carter talking with some of the guards.
“The party is amazing, America,” she gushed, kissing my cheek.
“Thanks. I’m trying to find Maxon. Have you seen him?”
She turned to look with me. “I did see him come in, but I have no idea where he is now.”
“Hmm. I’ll have to do a lap. How’s Kile?”
She smiled anxiously. “Good. I’m trying to get used to letting a nanny put him down.”
Kile was just over a year old, and Marlee absolutely adored him—as did I. He was the only male who regularly spent time in the Women’s Room without expressly asking for permission.
“I’m sure he’s doing fine, Marlee. And it’ll do you good to spend some time with Carter alone.”
She nodded. “You’re right. We’re both having so much fun. But just you wait and see. It’s hard to let them go, even for a little while.”
I smiled. “I can only imagine. Go, enjoy some of the food. I’ll see you later.”
“All right.” She gave me another kiss and made her way back to Carter.
I looped around the room, searching for my husband. When I finally saw him, my heart lit up. Not simply because I was happy to find him, but because he was talking to Aspen.
Aspen’s cane was gone now, but there were times when he still limped, especially if he was tired. We all considered it a miracle that he had healed so well, but if anyone could have recovered through sheer determination, it was Aspen.
They looked deep in conversation, and I moved closer, coming up behind them.
“Was your first year hard? Lots of people say it is, but you two seemed to do so well,” Aspen said.
He and Lucy had planned to get married not too long after Maxon and I did, but when her dad got sick, everything was put on hold. He eventually recovered, but even after that Aspen dragged his feet more than he needed to. I suspected he was afraid Lucy would change her mind, and I blamed that fear on me. They were so right for each other, he never needed to doubt. And when they finally did tie the knot, I was as happy as I’d been on my own wedding day.
Maxon sighed. “Hard to say. I don’t think it was the marriage part that was so hard as much as the duties. It was a lot to ask her to step into the role of a queen when she’d barely gotten used to the idea of being a princess.”
“Did you fight?”
“Are you kidding? That’s what we’re best at!” He and Aspen shared a laugh. I wanted to be offended, but it was true—we were good at arguing. Still, that had died down a lot.
“I don’t know why it feels like such a big deal,” Aspen said, his laughter fading. “We wanted to get married for so long. Why does it feel so overwhelming now that we are?”
“It’s the title.” Maxon took a sip of champagne. “It’s scary to be a husband. It feels like there’s more to lose. I worry about that title more than being called king, easily.”
Aspen was quiet, considering this.
“Listen,” Maxon started. “This isn’t me kicking you out. You’re always welcome here. But maybe what you and Lucy need is your own place.”
“What, like a house?”
“Look around. Take Lucy with you and see if you find a place you like, that feels like something you can work on together. Making a life together might be easier if you have a home that’s really yours.”
“Marlee and Carter do fine here.”
“They’re a different couple.”
Aspen looked down, and I could see that something about this made him feel like he’d failed.
Maxon clapped him on the back. “I don’t trust many people the way I trust you. You’ve done a lot for me and for America. Just go look. See if there’s something out there that you two really love, and if there is, consider it a gift from us.”
“It’s your birthday. You’re supposed to be the one getting gifts,” Aspen protested, but there was a smile on his face all the same.
“I have everything I want. A country on the upswing, a happy marriage, and good friends. Cheers, sir.”
Aspen lifted his glass with a smile, and they drank. I blinked away my happy tears and came up, tapping Maxon on the shoulder.
He turned and broke into a sunrise of a smile. “There you are, my dear.”
“Thank you. This is really the best party I’ve ever had.”
“You did good, Mer,” Aspen added.
“Thank you both very much.” I turned to Maxon. “I need to steal you away for a bit.”
“Of course. We’ll talk more later,” Maxon promised Aspen, and followed me from the room.
“This way,” I instructed, pulling his arm.
“Perfect!” he said as we walked into the garden. “A break from the madness.”
I giggled, putting my head on his shoulder. Without instruction, he led us to our bench, and we sat, him facing the forest and me facing the palace.
“Champagne?” he offered, bringing over his glass.
He took a sip himself and sighed contentedly. “This was a wonderful choice. Truly, America, this was the best birthday I could have hoped for. Well, second best. I still would have liked the option I came up with this morning.”
I smiled. “Maybe next year.”
“I’ll hold you to it.”
I took a steadying breath. “Listen, I know we have a full night ahead of us, but I wanted to give you your birthday present.”
“Oh, darling, you didn’t need to get me anything. Every day with you is a gift.” He leaned in and kissed me.
“Well, I hadn’t planned on getting you a gift, but then something presented itself, so here we are.”
“All right then,” he said, placing his glass on the ground. “I’m ready. Where is it?”
“That’s the only problem,” I started. I felt my hands begin to shake. “It won’t actually arrive for another seven or eight months.”
He smiled but squinted. “Eight months? What in the world could take . . .”
As his words drifted away, so did his eyes, leaving my face and making their way to my stomach. He seemed to expect me to look different, for me to be as big as a house already. But I’d done my best to hide everything: the tiredness, the nausea, the sudden distaste for foods.
He stared on and on, and I waited for him to smile or laugh or jump up and down. But he sat there, frozen to the point that it started to frighten me.
“Maxon?” I reached out and touched his leg. “Maxon, are you all right?”
He nodded, still watching my stomach. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke. “Isn’t that remarkable? I suddenly love you a hundred times more,” he said, quietly and in awe. “And I didn’t think it was possible to find love for a person I don’t know at all.” He finally looked up at me. “Are we really going to have a baby?”
“Yes,” I breathed, welling up, too.
His eyes lit up. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
“It’s too soon to tell,” I said through happy tears. “There’s not much the doctor can tell yet except that someone is definitely there.”
Maxon placed a gentle hand on my tummy. “We’ll shorten your workdays, of course, or we can cut them completely if we must. And we can have more maids put on call.”
“Don’t be silly. Mary and Paige are plenty. Besides, you know my mother will want to be here, and Marlee and May will be around. I’ll have too many people taking care of me.”
“As you should!”
I threw back my head and laughed, but when I looked at him again, I saw that his expression had turned dark. “What if I’m like him, America? What if I’m a terrible father?”
“Maxon Schreave, that isn’t possible. If anything you will be too generous. We’re going to have to hire the strictest nanny in the world just to even it out!”
He smirked. “No strict nannies. Happy nannies only.”
“If you say so, Your Royal Husbandness.”
Maxon cleared his throat and wiped away his tears. “I’m assuming this is our secret?”
He smiled brightly. “All the same, now I definitely feel like celebrating.”
He scooped me up, rushing me back inside, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I peeked up at his expression, so hopeful and excited, and I knew we were only just getting to the best part of our lives.