Part 3: The Bridal Veil, Chapter 12

Read Part 3: The Bridal Veil, Chapter 11

Soon, the peasant girl found herself walking out of the dungeon and into a star-strewn night illuminated by a full moon. She was wearing a cloak similar to the prince’s, with the hood pulled low over her head in order to conceal her identity. She threw back the hood and raised her face to the sky, spreading her arms wide and breathing in the smell of torches, of roasting meat, of fresh hay and apples and crisp, clean air.

 “You should hide your face. If you are recognized, who knows what the townspeople will do to you.”

 The prince appeared at her side, and what she could see of his face underneath his hood was filled with amusement despite his stern words. She dutifully pulled her own hood back on, remembering their agreement that no one else in the kingdom was to know about their quest to find the missing fragment of his heart and break his curse. She knew he cared nothing about her. All he cared about was their quest. Still, she allowed herself a moment to pretend her life mattered even a little to him.

 “Well? You have said you will help me break this curse. Where do we start?”

 She thought about it. “Where I ended my journey, Your Highness. Then we retrace the steps I took. But first, we return to my home within the town. Perhaps the missing fragment of your heart is there.”

 She started forward, but stopped when his hand closed around her arm. “Dominic,” he said.

 “Y-Your Highness?”

 “My name. Not Your Highness. I am to leave behind my title and all the trappings that come with it, yes? So call me Dominic.”

 “Dominic.” His name slid off her tongue, sweet and familiar. It was the name she had called him in the past. “Then, Your High—I mean, Dominic, you must call me by my name, too. It’s—”

 “Saya. Your name is Saya. In the language of your country, it means ‘Joy’.” A smile full of wonder spread across his face. “I remember your name.”

– – – – – – – –

The words leaped at me from our classroom whiteboard—huge, jagged letters scrawled in black ink against white. Words like claws, going for my eyes, my throat, my stomach.

StAY AwAY frOM HiM,

PIg-slUT!!!!!

“What the hell? Who wrote that?”

“Yikes, that looks demented.”

“Pig-slut? Who’s that supposed to be?”

“Hello, who do you think?”

A girl’s laugh tinkled over the sound of muttering. I turned and found Jasmine and her two friends smirking at me as they came into the room and headed toward their seats. “I mean, aren’t these messages always about Joy? It’s like some weird way of getting attention, am I right?” she pointed out, while her friends murmured their agreement.

For a moment, all I could feel was numb. There was a ringing in my ears, and my hands felt like softball mitts at the ends of my arms. I looked around at my classmates who were drifting into the room and pausing to gawk at the ugly words—looked at their horrified faces and saw the sense of relief underneath that it wasn’t happening to them, that the words weren’t coming for them.

Unexpectedly, my thoughts flashed back to Miguel Santillan and his vow to forget all about St. Helene the instant he left. Sometimes, I understood his hatred for this school perfectly.

“Oh, Joy, you better erase that before either Christian or our teacher gets here,” Sara called out. Of course, not a single one of my classmates offered to help me.

Moving mechanically, I turned back toward the white board and picked up the eraser with one of my baseball mitts. Jenneth came in just then, having finished his conversation with a fellow member of the Science Club outside. He stopped in his tracks and stared at the whiteboard, all the color leaching from his face as if he were a painting left out in the rain. “Oh my God,” he whispered.

“Jenneth, can you help me? It’s kind of big,” I asked in a quiet, measured tone as I rubbed out one end of the text. I couldn’t trust myself to speak any louder than that at the moment. My shock and fear were fading, and something else was taking its place—something that didn’t feel quiet or measured at all.

Jenneth found another eraser and began working on the other side of the whiteboard. “Who did this?” he choked out, turning to glare around the room accusingly. “Which one of you did this?”

“Don’t look at us. That was already there when we got here,” one of the boys responded.

“Maybe if Joy stopped chasing poor Christian all over the place, these things wouldn’t be happening. I’m just saying,” Jasmine pointed out in an infuriatingly reasonable tone.

“You’re with them, aren’t you?” Putting the eraser down, I turned around and faced her, still speaking in that carefully level tone, pacing my breathing to contain the hot, tight something that was growing inside my gut. “You three are part of the Protect the Prince Club.”

“What? No, we’re not,” Lyn protested.

“We don’t even know what that is,” Sara added.

“Sure you don’t. Are you the ones behind the posters before, too?” Jenneth demanded in a thick voice.

“No,” I said before Jasmine could open her mouth. “Those posters were clever, and this is just mean and stupid. Nobody here has the imagination for more than that.”

I cast the three of them a look of contempt as I moved to my seat but didn’t sit down. Jasmine’s and her friends faces went from dark with anger to red with dismay and self-consciousness as they looked past me. “Yes! Made it just in time,” Christian exclaimed as he burst into the room, backpack sliding off his shoulder and catching in the crook of his arm. His grin faded as he took in the tense atmosphere inside the room. “What’s going on?”

Although several boys greeted him, nobody dared to answer his question. Even Jenneth averted his gaze when Christian looked over at him. I sensed him approaching me, noting with dark amusement the way the flush on Jasmine’s and her friends’ faces spread as he drew up beside me. “Joy, what happened?” he asked with a frown.

I looked up at him, a smile fixed on my face. “Nothing. We were just talking about our group work for Social Science.” My gaze fell to his necktie hanging askew beneath his loosened collar, and my hands itched to straighten it. If I did, it would infuriate Jasmine and her friends, and by extension the other members of the Protect the Prince Club, even more. It was a tempting idea, I had to admit. But they were right. It wasn’t my place to be acting so familiarly with him. We were friends, nothing more, and touching him like that would mean crossing a line that I didn’t want to cross. So all I said was: “By the way, your necktie’s crooked.”

He ignored his necktie altogether as he studied me, and whatever he saw in my face caused his lips to press together into a thin line. I kept smiling as I sat down in my seat, glad that nobody else spoke up to contradict what I said. Our classmates had never seen Christian in one of his dark rages, but they too had heard the rumors about him getting into trouble for fighting in his old school in New York. Or maybe they just instinctively sensed the danger in riling Christian up, despite how open and friendly he seemed. Either way, I and the rest of 2A-Rizal had just tacitly agreed on one thing: that telling Christian about this incident would be like setting off a napalm bomb to kill a fly inside the room.

Fortunately, our teacher came in and told Christian to take his seat before he could interrogate me further. Unfortunately, my resolve not to tell him about the writing on the whiteboard lasted only until the end of our first class. As soon as we exited the room to head off to our next class, Christian fell into step beside Jenneth and me. “Tell me what happened before I came in,” he told us in a hard voice.

He looked to Jenneth first and I understood why; my best friend hadn’t been shy about blaming Christian for the bullying I was going through before. But for some reason, Jenneth merely kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, his face still looking slightly pale.

I sighed. It would have to be me then. “When we got to our classroom, we found something written on the whiteboard.”

Christian’s eyes narrowed. “More Garbage Girl crap? Our mystery artist pulled another stunt again?”

“Something like that,” I hedged. “But it wasn’t our mystery artist.” I gave him the same explanation I’d given Jasmine and the others about how the black-Sharpie posters had been cleverer and more imaginative than this morning’s graffiti.

This caused Jenneth to snap out of his trance. “Why do you keep doing that?” he demanded angrily. “Why do you keep defending that—that lowlife when…I mean, there’s got to be a limit to niceness even for you.”

I shook my head. “I’m not defending her. I just know she’s not the one behind this.”

“How can you be so sure? For all we know, she’s the president of that ridiculous Protect the Prince Club.”

“The what?” Christian cut in.

“Your fan club’s official name, Prince Dreamboat,” Jenneth explained witheringly.

“My what? And what did you call me?” Christian looked torn between disbelieving laughter and just plain disbelief.

“Never mind that,” I said hastily, waving a hand in the air. “Look, I just know our mystery artist isn’t part of the—isn’t one of Christian’s fangirls, okay? Honestly, I don’t think she likes you at all. Um, no offense,” I added as Christian’s eyebrows climbed higher. “Her goal was to humiliate me, not to make me stay away from—”

I bit my lips, realizing too late that I’d said too much. Sure enough, Christian’s expression hardened. “The graffiti told you to stay away from me.”

I wanted to reassure him that I wasn’t about to do anything some mean-spirited fangirl wanted me to do, but I didn’t have a chance as we’d already reached our next class by then. I’d also once again forgotten to relay Tony’s message to him. I solved the latter by writing “I need to talk to you after class” on a yellow Post-it note and sticking this on the first page of his workbook before passing it to him. He glanced at the note, then nodded at me.

As soon as the school bell chimed signaling lunch period, he came over to my side while I was packing up my things, casually leaning against the table with his body angled toward me. He performed that simple action with a dash of pointed theatrics, smiling and nodding at the girls who were drifting past, including Jasmine and her friends, before focusing all his attention on me as if I was the most fascinating thing in the world.

I fought back a laugh, recognizing this as his own message to his silly fangirls. “Subtlety, Christian. Look it up.”

His own grin flashed. “I am being subtle. Now what did you want to talk to me about?” he asked as Jenneth joined us and we headed out into the hallway.

I relayed Tony’s message from yesterday, adding: “I don’t know why, but I didn’t like the look on his face when he was talking about you.”

“He looked hella pissed,” was Jenneth’s helpful contribution.

“Tony, huh?” Christian frowned. “When we met at a party last weekend, he tried to get me to join the soccer team, but I told him I’m already with the Self-Defense Club and that’s enough for now. Weird, though. I thought I made myself clear back then. ”

“Oh. I guess they haven’t given up on you yet,” I commented. “So you went to a party?”

“Yeah. It was a gala for the leaders of the IPB Consortium and their families. I escorted my mom, but we didn’t stay for long. I told her I had a very important project to work on,” he added with a small smile.

The Post-it coupons. I looked away, hoping to hide my blush. “A-anyway, just be careful, okay?”

He stopped, forcing me and Jenneth to halt, too. “I can handle Tony and the rest of them, but thanks for worrying,” he said, his dimple flashing. Then his smile faded. “And if he or anyone else tries to hassle you, call or text me. Here, I’ll give you my number.”

I shook my head as he was pulling out his phone from his pocket. “I don’t have a cellphone.”

Buuuuut our friends do so let’s have that number just the same,” Jenneth interjected, fishing a pen from his pocket then grabbing my arm and writing down the number Christian dictated on my wrist.

“Anyway, I gotta go. I’ll see you two later.” Christian nodded at us, then started to walk off in a different direction.

“Wait!” I reddened when both Jenneth and Christian looked at me with surprise. “Um, d-do you want to have lunch with us?” I stammered, then flushed an even deeper shade of crimson when I realized I had just invited him to join us at the Biology 1 lab. It was utterly unheard of. Someone as highly ranked as Christian, hanging out with the dregs of St. Helene society in their formaldehyde-laden cave? Impossible. I might as well have asked him to commit social seppuku; it amounted to the same thing, anyway.

Judging from his open-mouthed stare, it was clear that Jenneth come to the same conclusion. But the thought that Christian could be spending his lunch period alone somewhere gnawed at my mind. I couldn’t stand to imagine him feeling lonely or worse, being stuck with a bunch of people who were only interested in his status, like the girls of the Protect the Prince Club. But now that I’d spoken the words, I would’ve given anything to cram them back inside my mouth. He’s going to refuse. He doesn’t have a choice but to refuse.

Then Christian gave me a smile so warm I just about melted. “Thanks, Joy. Really. But I’ll have to pass for now. I’m meeting someone for lunch today.”

“Oh.”

Disappointment flashed through me, only to turn into a confused fluster when he reached up and brushed the backs of his fingers against my cheek. “Hey, it’s not like that, okay?” he said softly. “Remember, one Post-it and I’m all yours. I’ll see you, Joy.”

After gurgling something in reply, I stared after him as he walked away, my skin tingling where he’d touched me. Then Jenneth drifted into my peripheral vision. “Earth to Joyous. Come in, Joyous,” he said dryly, waving a hand in front of my face.

I blinked, heat spreading through me until even my ears felt hot. “Um, right. Let’s go.”

He sighed, but said nothing more about the incident as we headed to our formaldehyde-laden cave where our friends were waiting. We told them about the new graffiti in our classroom, and Ate Kath and Kuya Simon repeated their instructions about me not going around alone in school. “This isn’t over yet so don’t let your guard down,” Ate Kath warned.

Annelie grinned at Nathan. “You heard her. You’re still on bodyguard duty, Kuya Nathan.”

“Excuse me? What am I, chopped liver?” Jenneth grumbled.

“Face it, Kuya Jenneth. You’re not exactly action hero material.”

“Actually—” All eyes turned toward Honey, who hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath and forged on. “Actually, there’s somebody else Joy will be safe with. Besides all of us here, even Jenneth.”

“Wow. Your faith in me is overwhelming,” Jenneth muttered, and was promptly ignored.

“With whom?” I asked even though I already knew the answer, and in fact, already had the phone number of the answer engraved in my memory.

“Christian. Huwat sâ! Just wait and hear me out,” she said quickly when the others began to protest. “He’s in her class, so he can watch over her during class hours—yes, yes, you’re not chopped liver, Jenneth, I know that. Anyway, those girls won’t dare try anything if he’s around, and all the boys either admire him too much or are too scared of him to mess with someone they know is under his protections. So instead of avoiding him, maybe Joy should spend more time with him, is what I’m saying.”

“Wait, isn’t that guy the cause of all this in the first place?” Ate Kath countered.

“Yes, so that means he’s the only one who can clean up this mess,” Honey pointed out.

“She may have a point,” Kuya Simon said thoughtfully.

“I don’t like it. I think Joy’s better off staying away from him,” Ate Kath declared.

“Listen, everyone!” I called out, halting the ensuing argument. “Thanks for the thought, Honey, but I don’t want to get Christian involved in this any more than he already is.”

“It’s too late for that after you spilled the beans about the graffiti this morning,” Jenneth commented.

I grimaced. “What choice did I have? He’d have found out about that eventually. But I still don’t want him dragged into this. I’m perfectly fine with Nathan and Jenneth and you guys.” I watched Nathan as I said this. All throughout the noisy discussion, he’d been hunched over in his seat, staring at the table top and chewing listlessly at his sandwich. My chest had ached at how disheartened he looked. He doesn’t deserve this. Nathan is the last person in the world who deserves to be hurt like this.

Now, he straightened and looked over at me questioningly, and I gave him a tremulous smile. I knew what I needed to do, of course. I of all people knew how painful it was to be strung along emotionally, to keep holding on when there was nothing there to hold on to. In fact, I planned to tell him that afternoon during our post-tutoring session snack. I had to tell him the truth—that my heart wasn’t as free as I thought it was, and he deserved nothing less than to be loved wholeheartedly.

Nathan didn’t smile back, but he nodded in reply. “And one more thing,” I went on, addressing everyone again. “Christian’s not the only one who can clean up this mess, you know. There’s also me.”

Silence met my announcement, followed by the sound of the door opening as Maisha came in. She took one look at the tableau before her and chirped: “So what did I miss?”

The others filled her in on the conversation, with Honey adding, “So now, Joy’s saying she’s going to deal with these rabid fangirls and bullies all by herself.”

Maisha turned to stare at me. “You? But you’re too nice. You’d never be able to pull it off.”

I thought about the hot, tight emotion coiling in my gut when I read the cruel words scrawled on the whiteboard that morning. “I wonder about that,” I muttered to myself.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, up until the end of our last class. I glanced across the room at where Christian was talking with a bunch of our classmates. We had divided ourselves into groups for another report, and Christian had apparently taken on the leadership role in his group again. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself thinking wistfully about our afternoons spent in detention together. I laughed to myself. Who knew I’d actually be missing detention?

Jenneth left for a Science Club meeting before my own group was finished divvying up the work for our report. He almost didn’t, anxious as he was about my safety, but I told him that everybody was way too eager to go home to bother about bullying me again, and besides, Nathan was waiting for me in the front hall lobby. It was a quick, five-minute walk from our classroom to the front hall. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, something went right when I finally emerged from our classroom and found Christian leaning up against the wall beside the door, chatting with a group of girls from another section. The moment I appeared, he straightened and turned away from the girls. “You’re done?” he asked with a smile.

“Yes,” I replied in wonder. Behind him, I saw the girls shoot me venomous looks before they walked away. “What’re you still doing here? Don’t you have a training session with the Self-Defense Club this afternoon?”

He held out his hand to me until I figured out what he wanted and handed him my books, which he tucked under his arm along with his. “Since Jenneth had to leave, I figured I could be your bodyguard for the time being,” he explained with a shrug.

“I’m just heading to the front hall lobby, where I’m meeting Nathan,” I said carefully. I recalled Honey’s assertion that I was safe with him, and wondered just how true that was.

His jaw tensed, but he nodded. “I know. You guys have a tutoring session. I’ll take you to him.”

True to his word, he escorted me to the lobby, where we found Nathan waiting. He nodded at Nathan, handed my books to him and walked off, leaving us staring after him. “Well, that was different,” Nathan muttered. “Shall we go?”

I told him to wait a bit longer while I made a restroom break. With Christian beside me, I hadn’t felt comfortable enough to tell him I had to make a pit-stop at the restroom. I had just emerged from the cubicle and was washing my hands when a group of girls entered the restroom—the same group of girls that Christian had been talking to, and several of their friends besides. They fanned around the room, surrounding me and blocking the exit, so that I found myself pressing my back up against the sink.

“Well, if it isn’t Garbage Girl herself.” The girl who seemed to be the leader of the gang stepped forward, a smirk on her face and her arms crossed over her chest. “You look right here, you know?” she went on conversationally, glancing around the room. “But you know what would look even better? You on your knees scrubbing the toilets.”

“That’ll be your job one day anyway. You and the other scholarship kids. You’ll all be janitors, cleaning toilets all day long,” one of the other girls added, while the others laughed.

“I bet that’s what your parents are, anyway. Garbage-pickers.”

“You’ll really live up to your name, Garbage Girl.”

I gave them a level look, praying my fury didn’t make me burst into pathetic tears. “Better to be a helpful janitor than an immature, useless waste of space. Honestly, are those insults the best you people can come up with?”

The lead girl’s face turned red with anger, just before she raised a hand and slapped me full in the face. I stumbled sideways, but managed to keep upright by grabbing onto the edge of the sink. “I’ve had enough of you, you fat, ugly slut,” she snarled, then turned to her friends. “Hold her still.”

Before I could shake off the ringing in my ears, I found both my arms twisted behind my back by a few of the girls, rendering me immobile no matter how much I flailed and twisted about. I sucked in a breath and another girl crammed her hanky against my mouth, muffling my scream. At their leader’s signal, the other girls produced black Sharpies and cameras, and began advancing toward me. “If you can’t read a warning when it’s written on the wall,” she said in an ominous voice, “then how about we write it on your face and post it on the bulletin board tomorrow?”

They crowded around me with Sharpies raised, intending to scrawl all over me in black ink—cruel words in black ink, going for my blouse, my skirt, my skin, my face. I bucked, crying for them to stop through the gag over my mouth, but I knew nobody was coming. Not Nathan. Not Jenneth or my friends. Not even Christian. I was all alone.

Then my savior appeared.

 

“What’re you doing? Stop this right now!” a shrill, feminine voice shouted. The girls turned then moved aside as a beautiful girl with a lush figure and a smooth waterfall of glossy hair pushed through the throng until she was standing in front of me. She glared at the girls holding me down. “Let her go,” she barked.

The girls released me, and I sagged against the sink, feeling weak and shaky. “Get out of the way, Tara,” the lead girl told her.

“I won’t. This has gone far enough.” The girl named Tara spread her arms wide. “Whatever you’re going to do to her, you’ll have to go through me first.”

“Why are you even siding with her?” another girl complained. “She’s been chasing after Christian ever since he arrived. How can you even stand to look at her when she’s panting after the guy who’s practically your boyfriend?”

What?

“That’s between him and me,” Tara snapped. “And speaking of Christian, do any of you think he’ll stand for you doing something like this? Especially to this girl?”

The girls looked at one another, doubt creeping into their expressions. Then the lead girl snorted contemptuously. “Come off it. That ugly pig? She’s nothing to him.”

“That only goes to show you don’t know him at all,” Tara retorted, but the other girls appeared to have resolved their momentary crisis of faith and were circling in again.

“Tara.” She jerked her head so I knew she heard me, although she kept her eyes on our attackers. Then I said: “Duck.”

She dropped to her knees just as I twisted the faucet to full power and pressed my hand against the nozzle, sending water spraying everywhere. The girls shrieked and twisted away to keep from getting soaked. In the midst of the confusion, I grabbed Tara’s arm and pulled her up, and together we ran out of the restroom, ducking into an empty classroom and cramming ourselves behind the door as the girls ran past. When the sounds of pursuit had faded away, we emerged from behind the door and looked at each other.

My heart sank into the soles of my damp shoes. Her reputation as one of the prettiest, most popular girls in the sophomore class was well-deserved. Tara Madrigal wasn’t just a perfect combination of an elegant lady and a sexy siren, she was apparently kind and brave as well.

She spoke first. “Oh no, your poor cheek. It’s starting to swell up. You should go to the clinic and get that treated.”

I touched my cheek, wincing at the soreness there. “I’m okay. Thank you for helping me.”

She tilted her head, her long hair sliding smoothly down one shoulder. “You’re welcome. I’m glad to help any friend of Christian’s. By the way, nice move with the faucet.” She smiled at me then turned to leave, only to stop and turn back. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Tara from 2B-Del Pilar. You’re Joy from 2A-Rizal, right?”

I nodded. “It’s so nice to meet you,” she went on, beaming. “Christian mentioned you before, but I had no idea you’re that Joy. Who knew you were in St. Helene, too?”

“I’ve been here for the past two and half years.”

“Oh, what am I saying? Yes, of course, you have. I’m sorry,” she said ruefully. “Anyway, as a childhood friend of his, I know that Christian thinks the world of you and your family. Isn’t that just like him? He’s always had a soft spot for the outcasts. Like Nathan. And of course, there’s you.”

“Of course,” I echoed faintly. My head was spinning again, and I wasn’t sure why.

Suddenly, Tara reached out and took my hand in both of hers. “You know, I like you, Joy. So let me give you a tip. I’m guessing you’ve heard about those rumors about why Christian broke up with Ashley, right? Well, ignore them. There’s nothing going on between us, even if it doesn’t seem that way. Really, this whole thing is, like, Nikki’s fault for going overboard with the champagne.”

“You’re the girl that Christian broke up with Ashley for?” I heard myself say in a voice that sounded strangely hollow to my ears.

She made a face, which only made her look cuter. “Like I said, that’s just Nikki going overboard. You see, we were at a party last weekend, and she noticed that Christian had asked me to dance a few times. The next thing I knew…” She gave a complicated shrug. “I mean, so he asked me to dance a few times. Like, so what? A childhood friend asking you to dance is no big deal, right?”

She looked at me with wide, earnest eyes, as if looking to me for reassurance. I didn’t know what else to do but nod, but that seemed to be enough as she smiled in relief. “I’m so glad you agree. It’s been so crazy lately with all these rumors that I’m starting to get all awkward around him. Then again, he did have this look in his eyes when we were dancing…” She trailed off again, seemingly caught up in her thoughts, then shook herself. “Oh, I’m sorry. There I go again, talking my head off. Anyway, I don’t want you to worry about those rumors. Christian and I are just close friends. Look, I have to go. You better get that cheek patched up, okay? Bye!”

But she still didn’t leave though. “Gosh, I’m such a scatterbrain,” she said as she stopped in the doorway and turned back to me. “Is it okay if I ask you a favor?”

“What favor is this?”

“Don’t tell Christian about what happened this afternoon.”

I stared at her.

Her voice dropped lower. “You know what he’s like when he’s angry. I don’t want him pushed over the edge because of this. Now I’m not saying those girls don’t deserve it, but he could, like, get into trouble like he did in his old school in New York. So please, Joy? Let’s just keep this between us for Christian’s sake, okay?”

She pressed her finger to her lips in a sign for secrecy, then smiled again and waved goodbye. I stood inside the room, trembling and dazed as the ache in my cheek roared into prominence, my thoughts racing like panicked mice. I already had a hunch that Nikki was the source of the rumor about Christian breaking up with Ashley—who else was privy to the details of his life in New York? But I’d been ready to dismiss the other part of the rumor as an out-and-out lie. I admit, I had no way of knowing what Christian did outside of school, but I’d been watching him closely ever since he arrived—watching as he charmed the girls and made friends with the guys, watching as he unconsciously molded entire groups of people to fit around him while holding himself apart from them at the same time. And all this time, I hadn’t seen him single out any girl for special treatment, whether they were from our section or 2B-Del Pilar. Well, except for me. He definitely singled me out, both in good ways and bad.

But now, the fact was sinking in that I had no idea what went on in the other half of Christian’s life. Was he courting some girl outside of school? Did he go to parties with her, or hang out with her in their swanky neighborhood? I didn’t know. And that not knowing…hurt. It tore at wounds inside me that should have already begun to heal.

The girl in the rumor was Tara? He’d danced with her at the party? That they’d met at the party was likely a fact, but how much of the rest was true? Did he like her? Did he really look into her eyes while they danced like she said? Just what was I supposed to believe?

“Joy? Are you here?”

My head snapped up when I heard Nathan’s voice. He nearly walked past me just as I exited the room, and when he spotted me, his shoes squeaked against the tiled floor as he turned and hurried over to me. “I’ve been looking all over for you. What took you—” He froze as his gaze fell upon the bruise on my cheek and the wet splotches all over my blouse and skirt. “Holy shit. Come on, let’s get you to the clinic. What happened?”

On the way, I recounted how a bunch of girls had ambushed me inside the restroom, and how they had held me down and were about to scribble all over me with black Sharpies and take photos. The school nurse wasn’t at her desk when we got to the clinic, so Nathan made me sit on the edge of a bed and began rooting through the first-aid supplies on a shelf. Finally, he took down about three different kinds of antiseptic, including isopropyl alcohol, a bunch of cotton balls, a roll of gauze and some antibiotic ointment, and set these down on the desk. “Uh, I’m not sure how to do this,” he confessed in an agony of embarrassment.

I smiled. “It’s okay, Nathan. I can do it.”

“No, wait, I know.” He pulled out his phone and made a couple of calls. “Okay, Honey and Maisha are on their way.”

“Don’t they have club meetings at this time? And I can do this.” I jumped off the bed and sat down at the desk. I grimaced as I studied the purple swelling on my cheek using the mirror on the school nurse’s desk. Great. Now I looked like Quasimodo on top of being just fat and ugly. Unfortunately, my hands were shaking so much that I ended up spilling some of the liquid antiseptic on the table. Finally, Nathan took charge, dabbing some antiseptic on a cotton ball then raising my face and gingerly wiping my cheek.

“You’ve got a cut right here,” he noted as a sharp sting made me wince and bite my lip. “That girl who hit you must’ve been wearing a ring or something.”

“This is karma coming to bite me in the butt. God, if You’re listening, I’m really sorry I slapped Christian. Twice.” He grunted at that, and I sighed. “Thank you. And I’m sorry about—”

“Don’t apologize,” he cut in gruffly. “This isn’t your fault. I’m wondering, though. I met Tara coming the other way when I was looking for you. Did she have anything to do with this?” When I told him about Tara coming to my rescue, he lowered his hands in surprise. “She rescued you? Wait, we’re talking about Nikki’s friend, Tara, right?”

“Yes. She seemed really nice and friendly, if a bit chatty.”

“Nice and friendly?” Nathan gave the stained cotton ball in his hand a troubled frown. “The Tara I know is just a sneakier version of Nikki. This might be a setup, Joy. Don’t trust her.”

“I know,” I said quietly. “My trick with the faucet shouldn’t have worked that well, but the way those girls reacted…” Besides, there was another reason I smelled a Tara-shaped rat. It was the way she parroted the oft-repeated but erroneous story about Christian getting into a fight in school. Apparently, he hadn’t seen fit to tell his cousin—so she could in turn tell Tara—that he’d been arrested for fighting in the streets, not in school. If Tara was trying to impress upon me how close she and Christian were, then she’d just given herself away at that point.

But she’s so pale-skinned and beautiful and sexy. And she’s rich too. For most guys, those are enough reasons to like a girl, said a voice inside my head. And it was true. If the Protect the Prince Club was looking for a girl who could be a match for the prince of St. Helene, then Tara would be it.

Oh, enough of this. I gave myself a mental shake as I attempted to fold a piece of gauze into a rectangular patch, only for Nathan to sigh and take over the job for me. “Sorry about this,” I mumbled again, trying to ignore the pain as he taped the gauze to my cheek. “It’s not too late yet, is it? Let’s head over to Father Ramilo’s after we’re done here.”

“You’re not going,” Nathan said with uncharacteristic firmness.

“Excuse me? My kids are waiting for me.”

“You’re not going, Joy. You’re going straight home and getting into bed. I’ll go over there and tell them you can’t come,” he insisted. “Look at you. You’re so pale and shaken up, you’ll probably just end up scaring the kids. You should get some rest.”

I frowned at him. “But what about the snack I promised you?”

“We can go tomorrow.”

“But—but I need to talk to you. There’s something I have to tell you—”

He flinched. “We’ll talk tomorrow, Joy. Okay? Right now, you need to rest.”

Before I could argue any further, Maisha and Honey arrived. They exclaimed in dismay at the sight of the bandage on my face, then Maisha handed me her PE shirt so I could change out of my wet blouse. By the time I emerged from behind the curtained-off area in the clinic, Nathan had left for Father Ramilo’s to tell my tutorees that I couldn’t come that afternoon.

We walked back to the House, with Maisha and Honey fussing over me like a couple of mother hens until I reminded them that I wasn’t actually sick. Really, I was okay. Totally okay. All I needed was a nap, and I would be right as rain by dinner time.

But as I slipped into my room and closed the door, I realized I wasn’t okay. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see those girls closing in on me, black Sharpies raised. I could still feel their hands on my arms, their nails digging into my skin. I could smell the sick-sweet reek of their perfumes mixing together in an enclosed space. And I could still see the malice in their faces, hear the cruelty in their words, until I felt as if I was drowning in a sea of black ink and hatred.

Fat. Ugly. Stinks of garbage and poverty. I’d been hearing those words all my life. I knew that they were only spoken out of other people’s prejudice and ignorance, but that didn’t mean the words didn’t draw blood. They did, over and over again. They cut me up, over and over again. It had become a race, with me struggling to patch up my wounds faster than the words could bleed the life out of me.

I sank to the floor and buried my head in my arms. I knew why I couldn’t stop trembling. I was scared. Scared to walk alone in St. Helene, scared to look up at the walls for fear of finding a mocking poster there, scared of the looks and whispers and snide laughter. And I was weakening. The part of me that fought to keep on believing in myself no matter what people said or did, to keep a grip on what’s good inside me instead of the fear and shame and self-doubt—that part of me was caving in. My grip was loosening, and an insidious little thought slipped through the chaos in my mind: What am I even holding on for? What if they were right about me after all? And if they were right, then what’s the use of trying so hard?

Uh oh. This was bad. I was on the brink of giving up.

I raised my head and wiped my face. Outside, the sky was already tinted with the red-orange and gold of sunset. It was probably safe to come out now. Pushing myself to my feet, I changed out of Maisha’s PE shirt and my damp skirt, and into a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. Then I grabbed my MP3 player and stuck the earphones in my ear, setting the music to something dark and melancholy to match my mood. I slipped out of the House, waving to Ate Lita, the guard on duty at the lobby, and at the other House kids who were drifting through, dodging their questions when they saw the bandage on my face. I crossed the street and headed down the path cutting through Annie’s Park, which led to Annie’s shrine. I paused on my way and gazed up at the Blessed Virgin, glowing pale against the greenery, and whispered a little prayer for strength.

Then I walked down to the sports complex, skirting the edge of the soccer field where a bunch of guys were kicking a ball around until I realized it wasn’t the soccer team, which meant that Tony and his cohorts wouldn’t be there. There were several girls sitting on the bleachers, though, and I shied away from them. I had had enough of the Protect the Prince Club for now, thank you very much.

I strolled around the track, keeping my head down to hide my bandage behind my hair, focusing on my breathing and the music. Nevertheless, I soon found myself drifting toward the side of the gym where the training rooms for the sports clubs were. I went from room to room until I came to the last one. I hugged the wall and peered in through the doorway, glad that it had gotten dark enough outside that I wouldn’t be easily noticed.

The room appeared to be the smallest among the training rooms, but the place was hardly the rattling cavern I was expecting it to be. And it wasn’t quiet either. Boys and girls dressed in a variety of outfits ranging from black and red gis to T-shirts and shorts yelled over the incessant clacking of bamboo sticks crashing against one another, while a couple of adult instructors and some older looking kids moved among them, correcting forms or demonstrating a particular move. In fact, there were so many people that they spilled out of the room, with several of the kids were sparring or performing drills on the grassy field. I looked around in amazement. Who knew the Self-Defense Club was this popular?

The room itself wasn’t just full of people. The corners were thick with an assortment of mats, weights, kettle bells, a punching bag, old tires stacked together, sticks and staves and even a few mounted swords—hopefully not real ones—on a wooden rack. The walls also had motivational sayings spray-painted on them. In short, the training room of the Self-Defense Club seemed to be as disorderly as the rooms of the other clubs were not, but it had a chaotic liveliness to it that gave even me a rush of energy.

And there, on one side, was Christian. He wore a sleeveless, gray shirt, a pair of black pants, and an intensely focused expression as he swung a bamboo stick in twirling curves, circles and figure-eights—over his shoulder, behind him, in front of him—shifting the stick from one hand to the other after a while. The stick moved through the air so fast it was mostly a blur, and it stopped only once when a large, fierce-looking man with a neatly trimmed beard who could only be Guro Marcial came over and barked a few instructions about keeping his wrists flexible, to which Christian nodded respectfully before resuming his drills.

I pressed up against the wall, completely fascinated. It was the first time in a while that I’d seen him in something other than our school and PE uniforms, and the simple clothes he wore emphasized his leanly muscled build and the strength in his arms as he swung that stick. He was soaked through with sweat, and his gray shirt had a dark triangle pointing down to his hips, although for some reason his arms were streaked with gray dust, as if he’d been crawling behind some furniture or something. Still, I couldn’t suppress a sigh. I knew I was acting exactly like every other hormonal member of the Protect the Prince Club, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. Christian really was entrancing to watch.

Then he shifted, and I caught a glimpse of a dark gray chain hanging at his neck. It disappeared under his shirt, where a telltale bump lay in the middle of his chest. My heart flip-flopped inside my ribcage in a burst of warmth. He was still wearing his wedding-promise ring. My hand drifted up to cover my own ring underneath my shirt, which I had once again taken to wearing around my neck. That was it, then. Let Ate Grace do her worst. I was well and truly bonkers for him, and there was nothing I could do about it now.

My thoughts were interrupted by a tap on my shoulder. A bespectacled boy in a sweaty T-shirt and shorts was standing beside me. He produced a clipboard from out of nowhere and said: “Hello there. Might you be interested in joining the Self-Defense Club?”

“What, me?” I squeaked, going hot with embarrassment at having been caught spying on Christian. “Oh, no. I’m not really interested.”

“Are you sure? You look like you could do with some lessons in self-defense,” he said, eyeing the bandage on my face.

“No, thanks. I’m good,” I said nervously, taking a step back. “I was just, um, looking.”

The boy’s cheerful expression turned sour. “Oh. Another one of his fangirls, huh? Look, we’ve already said you can’t hang around here if you’re not joining the club. You girls are distracting the members, and Guro Marcial hates that. You’re going to have to leave.”

His fangirls stalk him all the way here, too? I glanced toward Christian, and felt a jolt of alarm when my eyes met his. “Sorry,” I gasped, turning to flee.

“Joy, wait! Wait up!”

I slowed to a stop as Christian caught up with me. “Um, hi,” I muttered, keeping my head lowered. “I’m sorry I interrupted your training.”

“Hey, if it’s you, I don’t mind at all,” he replied, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “But I thought you’d be tutoring kids at Father Ramilo’s right now. What brings you—”

I shifted, and his face went granite-hard when he saw the bandage on my cheek. He caught my chin and tilted my face upward. “Who did this?”

I looked up into his blazing eyes, and silently agreed with Tara. It was better Christian knew as little as possible. “Just me. I wasn’t looking and ran into a door.”

He swore. “Don’t give me that. I know a shiner when I see one. Who hit you, Joy?”

“No one. I hit a door.” I caught his hand and drew it away from my face. “Please don’t ask any more questions. Just leave it at that, Christian. Please?”

He scowled at me so fiercely that I braced myself for an explosion of rage. “Why is it that whenever I take my eyes off you, something bad happens to you?” he growled, raking his fingers through his hair. I just looked at him pleadingly, squeezing his other hand, until finally his fingers wrapped around mine in a reassuring grip. “Okay. Okay. I won’t ask you any more questions. For now, at least.”

“Thank you.” I smiled in relief as my body relaxed, and I didn’t think to question the wording of his answer until later. “And I’m actually here for two reasons. The first is to apologize to you for hitting you. I’ve just recently learned how much it hurts—even if the one that hit me was a door,” I added hastily.

He shook his head, his jaw so tense I thought I saw a vein throbbing on the side of his neck. “I deserved it. But you—you don’t deserve this,” he said tightly, brushing the backs of his fingers against my injured cheek just beneath the bandage in a touch so gentle a lump rose in my throat. Then he dropped his hand. “So what’s the second reason?”

“Hmm? The second reason?” I stopped short, realizing I had no second reason—or rather, no other excuse for stalking him. So I took a chance and settled for the truth instead. “I wanted to see you, I guess,” I confessed, looking down at my feet and blushing furiously.

“Joy,” he whispered, his hands sliding up my arms as if he was about to pull me close. Then his own gaze dropped to his sweat-soaked shirt and dust-streaked arms, and he released me again. “Listen, we’re about to wrap up training, so will you wait for me? Let me get cleaned up. I won’t be long.”

“I’ll be here,” I told him, then stared after him as he ran back to the training room. Then with a sigh, I headed out to the edge of the grassy field and gazed up at the gold and indigo sky. I knew why I’d come here. In the past, whenever I was bullied or teased for my weight or my seemingly overreaching dreams, I retreated into my memories of Christian for comfort and reassurance of my worth, holding on to my wedding-promise ring as if it was a talisman against bad times. I only managed to break that habit last year, after he’d sent that letter and photograph.

But now, Christian himself was here. And instincts I’d thought were long dead were coming back to life.

I touched my cheek, retracing the path his fingers had taken, and smiled up at the sky. Just seeing him again, just hearing his voice again, just knowing he was here within my reach—these were enough for me. And just like that, I knew I was going to be okay.

I wasn’t aware I was singing as I stood there underneath the twilight sky until I noticed movement at the corner of my eye, and found Christian standing there, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, his backpack slung on his shoulder. He was watching me silently with a warm, almost hazy look in his eyes. Flushing, I took my earphones off. “How long have you been there? And why’re you looking at me like that?”

“You were singing,” he said, his voice soft with wonder.

“I was? Oops. Sometimes I do that when I have my earphones on. I kind of forget that other people can hear me.”

“Keep your earphones on then. All the time. Like, twenty-four-seven. Maybe you’ll forget more often and we’ll get to hear you sing a lot more.”

“Are you serious?” I replied, laughing. “Why would anyone want that?”

Instead of laughing along with me, he gave me a solemn look. “I am serious. Joy, has it ever occurred to you that if you’d just step out there and sing your heart out, you’d have everyone falling at your feet? You’ve got something special inside you, and it kills me that you and everyone around you don’t seem to have a clue what you’re really worth.”

I looked down at my feet as shyness and doubt filled me. “I don’t know. I don’t really sing all that well, you know. Plus I get all nervous and rattled whenever I have to present a report in class, let alone sing in front of people. Besides, whom would I sing to?”

“To everyone. To the world, if you want.” Then he smiled. “But you can start with me.”

“Sure. Maybe one day, when I’ve gone crazy enough.” I rolled my eyes and this time, he laughed back.

He offered to walk me home, and we made our way unhurriedly back to the House. By wordless agreement, we took the long way around instead of taking the shortcut through Annie’s Park. A comfortable silence fell between us, allowing us to lose ourselves in our own thoughts, safe in each other’s presence. He transferred his backpack to his other shoulder so that his free hand brushed against mine every now and then, and sometimes when I looked sideways at him, our eyes would meet and he’d smile back.

Before long, though, the memory of the earlier events began to creep back in, staining the peace of the moment. I glanced up at his profile, marveling at how someone like me could ever find herself walking beside someone like Christian. Then I thought about Tara’s claim that he’d asked her to dance a few times, and that he’d had a special look in his eyes as they did so. A special look—was it like the way he looked at me sometimes? Had she been lying about that, or was there some truth to what she said? It was too late to stop myself from falling in love with him again, but could I really afford to trust him with my heart?

Because the truth was, the girls of the Protect the Prince Club were right. Who was I to hope that Christian would actually make me his girlfriend? I was just some plain, chubby, dark-skinned scholarship kid from a wild and wooly shantytown. In everyone’s eyes, there couldn’t be anyone less worthy of him than me. And even if he were to break every rule of St. Helene society by choosing to be with me, he’d end up completely ostracized, his reputation in shreds. Did I really want that for him? Complete and total isolation?

If those were the choices, then maybe he’d be better off with someone like Tara. Or someone like Ashley. Just not…not someone like me.

“Joy.” I turned and looked back at him when he spoke my name, my ears perking at the quiet pain I heard in his voice. We were a few feet away from the steps of the House, but he’d stopped walking completely and was gazing at me with a kind of helpless anger. His own thoughts had evidently not been happy ones, either. He exhaled and raked his fingers through his hair again. “Look, I know I’ve got a long way to go before you can trust me again. I know right now you trust your friends more than me—hell, you trust every single House resident more than me, and it’s nothing less than I deserve. But I wish—I just wish you’d talk to me more.”

Frustration crept into his expression as he threw his arms in the air. “I don’t know what’s going on, only that you’re going through something bad. And I want to know—no, I need to know how to help you. If this is my fault, if I caused this somehow—” he gestured toward the bandage on my face “—then I need to know how to make things right. Joy, please, let me in,” he went on, his voice dropping to a broken plea. “Let me protect you. Or at the very least, let me make up for the mistakes I made.”

Wait, this is what he’s worried about? That what’s happening to me is his fault somehow, and he doesn’t know how to help me? I shook my head, trying to tell him that he’d gotten it all wrong, but somehow, the words got stuck in my throat. His face fell and he turned away, his shoulders sagging and his head lowering dejectedly to his chest. Oh no, he’d misunderstood. Or maybe I was the one who’d misunderstood. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, but maybe some part of me really didn’t trust him. It wasn’t that I blamed him, but maybe some part of me did blame him. All I knew was, I wanted desperately to trust him, but the faces of Ashley and Tara kept coming between us.

Then all at once, I found myself saying: “I want to use a coupon.”

Lifting his head, he frowned at me in confusion, although I could see a spark of interest flare in his eyes. “What?”

“I want to use a coupon,” I repeated. Then another thought occurred to me and my heart sank. “Oh, but I didn’t bring the Post-it pad—”

He shook his head. “It’s okay, you can give it to me tomorrow. Which coupon is it?”

I took a deep breath. “The Truth or Dare one.”

He blinked. “Truth or Dare? Okay then. I choose—”

“Choose truth,” I blurted. Then I winced and said before he could respond: “No, choose dare. No, I mean, truth. No—”

He chuckled. “I choose dare. If there’s anything you want to ask me, then go ahead and ask.”

Did you look into Tara’s eyes when you danced with her? Are you really over Ashley? Is there any chance you could dare to love someone who’s not like either of them—maybe someone like me? I swallowed back the questions, every one of which would’ve left me painfully vulnerable before him. “I—I won’t ask anything, but here’s my dare: Tomorrow, you have to show everyone in school which girl you really like.”

His eyes cleared as comprehension dawned. “This is about that rumor about me and Ashley, isn’t it? I just heard about it a while ago. Joy, I told you, she and I were never like that.”

“But the other part of the rumor, about you liking some other girl—is that true?” I asked, twisting my hands together nervously.

He looked at me in utter amazement. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s true. Would you like me to tell you who she is?”

I shut my eyes and shook my head forcefully. “No, you don’t have to, really. Just focus on the dare. You’ve got to let everyone know about this girl you like, okay? You’ve got to set the record straight. But—but you can’t do it in a totally obvious way either.”

“So you want me to show everyone that I like this girl but I have to be subtle about it?” he asked carefully, his tone clearly indicating that he was convinced I’d just gone off the deep end.

He was probably right, too. “Yes. Like, make it clear that you like her, but you can’t let anyone know who she is, unless, you know, it turns out it’s perfectly fine for you to like her, in which case you can let everyone know who she is, but only if you want to—oh, what on earth am I saying?” I exclaimed, giving up on my shambling monster of an idea. “Forget everything I said. Just spend all day tomorrow talking with a weird accent. That’s the dare.”

“No. No, I don’t think so. I’m going with the first one, as insanely convoluted as it sounds,” he said, a grin blooming on his face.

I turned red and stuck my nose in the air. “If you insist, but let it be on the record that I offered you an out and you refused to take it.”

“Duly noted, Ma’am,” he drawled. We looked at each other, then unexpectedly, we both laughed. Honestly, that had to be one of the weirdest conversations I’d ever had.

“Look, it’s getting late. You need to go home,” I said when our laughter finally died away.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

Neither of us made a move to leave until finally, I sighed and took a step back in the direction of the House. “I really have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow, Christian.”

“Wait.” I watched as he came closer, lifting my face to look him in the eye. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you something to think about tonight,” he said in a low voice.

“Um, okay,” I replied, a little baffled.

He smiled, then leaned down and pressed a lingering kiss on my uninjured cheek. Before he pulled away, he whispered: “Here’s a hint: The girl I like is incredibly smart, incredibly brave, and incredibly strong—so much that she scares the hell out of me sometimes.”

He drew back and smiled again at the bug-eyed, open-mouthed look on my face. “See you tomorrow, Joy,” he said, then he turned and walked away.

I barely remembered what happened later, how I managed to find my way to the cafeteria in time for dinner, how I fielded all the questions from the other House kids about how I’d gotten my injury, how I even managed to get any studying done that night. I was in a daze most of the time, reliving the look in his eyes, the sound of his voice, the feel of his lips on my skin. Luckily, Nathan, Maisha and Honey were there to handle the explanations, and most of the House kids simply assumed I was still recovering from the trauma of my experience and gave me some space. True, the memory of those girls attacking me and Tara inexplicably coming to my rescue still haunted me, but this was eclipsed now by the memory of that afternoon I spent with Christian.

I had to smile. My fairy prince was working his magic on me again, and I was finding it harder and harder to resist.

I was on tenterhooks the next morning, wondering how Christian was going to pull off a dare as confusing as the one I’d given him. But as it turned out, pulling off the dare was ridiculously simple. All it took was for him to show up to class a little earlier than usual and looking completely normal except for one notable difference: He’d shortened the stainless steel chain around his neck until it was the length of a choker, so that his wedding-promise ring rested not in the middle of his chest, hidden underneath his shirt, but right in the hollow of his collarbone, in plain sight of God and everyone.

I froze half-in and half-out of my chair, staring incredulously at the silver ring at his throat, then at the faint smirk on his face as he sauntered to his seat. Almost immediately, our classmates, including Jasmine, Sara and Lyn, gathered around him and started asking him about his new and unusual accessory—where he’d gotten it, how long he’d had it, and if it meant anything special.

“This? I’ve been wearing it all this time. I just shortened the chain so that now you guys can see it,” he explained in a voice that carried across the room while I sat hunched over in my chair, pretending that I wasn’t eavesdropping ferociously on the conversation.

“What kind of ring is that, anyway? It looks pretty big.”

“It doesn’t matter what size it is. This ring is more like a tracking device,” Christian said.

“A tracking device? That ring? What do you mean?”

I dared a glance over my shoulder, and my gaze promptly collided with his. His dimple flickered as he stared straight at me. “Well, see, there’s this girl I’ve been searching for ever since I arrived here,” he began.

One of our classmates sitting nearby muttered to her seatmate: “See? I told you that rumor was true.”

“We were only kids the last time I saw her, so I’m not sure what she looks like anymore,” he continued. “But I do know two things: She’s somewhere here in St. Helene, and I’ll be able to tell it’s her because she’ll have a ring completely identical to mine.”

“Okay. That’s a cool story. So what happens when you find her?”

Christian’s warm gaze held mine. “I’m going to ask her to be my girlfriend, that’s what.”

The story went nova from there—the apparent confirmation of the rumor that Nikki, Tara and the rest of their cronies had set into motion, the revelation that there was a girl in St. Helene who’d captured the prince’s heart, and the unbelievably romantic notion that this chosen girl carried a silver ring bestowed upon her by the prince as a token of his love and devotion to her. All of these, coming straight from the prince himself. Suddenly, there was an easy way to confirm the identity of this mystery girl, and on the flipside, an easy way to eliminate any posers and would-be girlfriend candidates. Including, to my secret delight, Tara, because no matter how good they were, she and Nikki had no way of getting their hands on another copy of the sterling silver napkin rings that used to belong to Tita Cathy—rings that had been custom-made for Christian’s mom on her wedding day.

And as an added treat, Nikki knew about the wedding-promise rings. After all, she was there when Christian first married me, back when we were eight years old.

I faced forward in my seat again as our teacher arrived, one hand touching the familiar lump of my own ring underneath my blouse and necktie. I bit my lip as I doodled hearts all over a Post-it, then stuck the Post-it onto the page of my notebook. Another memory from my childhood drifted into my consciousness—a line I had thought of, after Christian had fought a basketball duel for my sake.

Cinderella never had it so good.

Read Part 3: The Bridal Veil, Chapter 13

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