Chapter 2

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"Where were you earlier?" Charlotte asks, coming up beside me as I make my way toward an empty marble coffee table on the President's expansive front lawn.

Every year, the President holds a party at his mansion after the Ceremony. None of the Matches themselves are ever present, instead staying home with their new partners. I've never been on the President's property before, but it's as grand as the reporters have made it out to be every year.

I sit down on the purple leather banquette and cross my legs, a habit I picked up from my sister, much to our mother's dismay. I fiddle with the ridiculous lavender bow at my waist. If I knew Mother wouldn't have thrown a fit, I'd have taken a pair of scissors to it a long time ago. "I was with Kalli."

She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees, which are covered with powder blue fabric. "You got to see the Marking? What was it like?" She shakes her head and holds out a hand. "Wait, don't tell me. I'm not supposed to know."

I laugh. She's always doing stuff like this.

"Gosh, I wish I could have seen it... Anyway," She pauses and glances around to make sure no one is listening. "I saw the President looking at you. What was that about?"

"I have no idea."

"Well maybe—"

She cuts off when Jasper sidles next to me. I scoot over to give him more space, but he catches my hand, making me still. I don't think he even realizes it because he lets go immediately and says, "You two look serious. Is it a girl thing? That time of the month?" he asks, wrinkling his nose like he used to when we were five. He's speaking nonsense. Doctors figured out a way to make periods short and painless during the 100 Years' Peace after World War IV. He smiles and leans closer to me. "Come on, it can't be that bad."

Charlotte sighs. "We were talking about the Ceremony."

He turns toward her. "Great job this year."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

Jasper just rolls his eyes, tugs on a loose ringlet of my hair, and I sit back down. He doesn't let go and proceeds to twirl it around his finger. "Sometimes, I don't understand how you can be Kalliope's sister."

Scowling, I swat his hand away and he releases my hair immediately. "I trust the Matchmakers will make the right decision for me. What's wrong with that?" I add when I see a line form in between his eyebrows, a sign I've come to recognize as a precursor to a lecture.

"Nothing," he answers too quickly.

I narrow my eyes and am about to press him for more when I see a female reporter coming our way.

Charlotte says loudly, "It's so strange to think they'll all be talking about us in a year. Who do you think our Matches will be?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the woman inching closer to us, aiming the small box in our direction, no doubt broadcasting our "private" conversation to the rest of the Heartland.

"Well, I feel sorry for whoever ends up with either of you," Jasper quips with a grin.

I shove him lightly and he laughs, righting himself.

Charlotte scoffs, "Yeah, because you're a real charmer. I feel sorry for the girl who gets you. Maybe I'll send her a condolence gift basket."

He sighs. "How deeply you wound me." He pauses, waiting until the reporter realizes we're done entertaining and walks away before he says, "Seriously, though, if you're unhappy, I'm just a call away." He stares at me as he says the last part and I quickly look away, already feeling heat rise to my cheeks. He stands up. "See you later."

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