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Amy sighed. "Yes, thank you."
"America, is there lipstick on my teeth?" Zoe asked. I turned to my left and found her smiling maniacally, exposing all her pearly whites.
"No, you're good," I answered, seeing out of the corner of my eye that Marlee was nodding in confirmation.
"Thanks. How is he so calm?" Zoe asked, pointing over at Maxon, who was talking to a member of the crew. She then bent down and put her head between her legs and started doing controlled breathing.
Marlee and I looked at each other, eyes wide with amus.e.m.e.nt, and tried not to laugh. It was hard if we looked at Zoe, so we surveyed the room and chatted about what others were wearing. There were several girls in seductive reds and lively greens, but no one else in blue. Olivia had gone so far as to wear orange. I'd admit that I didn't know that much about fas.h.i.+on, but Marlee and I both agreed that someone should have intervened on her behalf. The color made her skin look kind of green.
Two minutes before the cameras turned on, we realized it wasn't the dress making her look green. Olivia vomited into the closest trash can very loudly and collapsed on the floor. Silvia swooped in, and a fuss was made to wipe the sweat off her and get her into a seat. She was placed in the back row with a small receptacle at her feet, just in case.
Bariel was in the seat in front of her. I couldn't hear what she muttered to the poor girl from where I was, but it looked like Bariel was prepared to injure Olivia should she have another episode near her.
I guessed that Maxon had seen or heard some of the commotion, and I looked over to see if he was having any sort of reaction to it all. But he wasn't looking toward the disturbance; he was looking at me. Quickly-so quickly it would look like nothing but scratching an itch to anyone else-Maxon reached up and tugged on his ear. I repeated the action back, and we both turned away.
I was excited to know that tonight, after dinner, Maxon would be stopping by my room.
Suddenly the anthem music was playing, and I could see the national emblem on tiny screens around the room. I s.h.i.+fted to sit up straighter. All I could think was that my family was going to see me tonight, and I wanted them to be proud.
King Clarkson was at the podium speaking about the brief and unsuccessful attack on the palace. I wouldn't have called it unsuccessful. It managed to scare the daylights out of most of us. Announcement after announcement came, and I tried to be aware of everything they said, but it was hard. I was used to watching this on a comfy couch with bowls of popcorn and family commentary.
Many of the announcements tied into the rebels, placing blame for certain things on their shoulders. The roads being built in Sumner were behind schedule because of the rebels, and the number of local officers in Atlin was down because they'd been sent to help with a rebel-caused disturbance in St. George. I had no idea either of those things had happened. Between everything I'd heard and seen growing up and what I'd learned since coming to the palace, I began to wonder just how much we knew about the rebels. Maybe I just didn't understand, but I didn't think they could be blamed for everything that was wrong with Illea.
And then, as if he had appeared out of thin air, Gavril was walking on set after being introduced by the Master of Events.
"Good evening, everyone. Tonight I have a special announcement. The Selection has been going for a week now and eight ladies have already gone home, leaving twenty-seven beautiful women for Prince Maxon to choose from. Next week, by hook or by crook, the majority of the Illea Capital Report will be dedicated to getting to know these amazing young women."
I felt the little beads of sweat pooling on my temple. Sit here and look nice... I could do that. But answer questions? I knew I wasn't going to win this little game; that wasn't the issue. I just really, really didn't want to look like a moron in front of the entire country.
"Before we get to the ladies, tonight let's take a moment with the man of the hour. How are you tonight, Prince Maxon?" Gavril said, walking across the stage. Maxon had been ambushed. He didn't have a microphone or prepared answers.
Just before Gavril's microphone reached Maxon's face, I caught his eye and gave him a wink. That tiny action was enough to make him smile.
"I'm very well, Gavril, thank you."
"Are you enjoying your company so far?"
"Yes! It's been a pleasure getting to know these ladies."
"Are they all the sweet, gentle ladies they appear to be?" Gavril asked. Before Maxon replied, the answer brought a smile to my face. Because I knew that it was yes ... sort of.
"Umm..." Maxon looked past Gavril at me. "Almost."
"Almost?" Gavril asked, surprised. He turned to us. "Is someone over there being naughty?"
Mercifully, all the girls let out light giggles, so I blended in. The little traitor!
"What exactly did these girls do that isn't so sweet?" Gavril asked Maxon.
"Oh, well, let me tell you." Maxon crossed his legs and got very comfortable in his chair. It was probably the most relaxed I'd ever seen him, sitting there poking fun at me. I liked this side of him. I wished it would come out more often. "One of them had the nerve to yell at me rather forcefully the first time we met. I was given a very severe scolding."
Above Maxon's head, the king and queen exchanged a glance. It seemed they were hearing this story for the first time, too. Beside me the girls were looking at one another, confused. I didn't get it until Marlee said something.
"I don't remember anyone yelling at him in the Great Room. Do you?"
Maxon seemed to have forgotten that our first meeting was meant to be a secret. "I think he's talking it up to make it funnier. I did say some serious things to him. I think he might mean me."
"A scolding, you say? Whatever for?" Gavril continued.
"Honestly, I wasn't really sure. I think it was a bout of homesickness. Which is why I forgave her, of course." Maxon was loose and easy now, talking to Gavril as if he were the only person in the room. I'd have to tell him later how wonderful he did.
"So she's still with us, then?" Gavril looked over at the collection of girls, grinning widely, and then returned to face his prince.
"Oh, yes. She's still here," Maxon said, not letting his eyes wander from Gavril's face. "And I plan on keeping her here for quite a while."
DINNER WAS DISAPPOINTING. NEXT WEEK I'd have to tell my maids to leave some room in the dress for me to eat.
In my room, Anne, Mary, and Lucy waited to help me out of my gown, but I explained that I'd need to stay in it a little bit longer. Anne figured it out first-that Maxon was coming to see me-because I was always eager to get out of the binding clothes.
"Would you like us to stay later tonight? It's no problem," Mary said just a little too hopefully. After the calamity of Maxon visiting earlier this week, I decided sending them out as early as possible was the best way to go. Besides, I couldn't bear to have them watching me until he showed up.
"No, no. I'm fine. If I have a problem with the dress later, I'll ring."
They reluctantly backed out the door and left me to wait for Maxon. I didn't know how long he'd be, and I didn't want to start a book and have to stop, or sit down at the piano only to hop right back up. I ended up just lounging on the bed, waiting. I let my mind wander. I thought of Marlee and her kindness. I realized that, besides a few small details, I knew very little about her. Still, I trusted that her actions toward me were in no way fake. And then I thought of the girls who were all too fake. I wondered if Maxon could tell the difference.
It seemed like Maxon's experience with women was so great and so small at once. He was gentlemanly enough, but when he got too close, he came undone. It was like he knew how to treat a lady, he just didn't know how to treat a date.
It was quite a contrast to Aspen.
His name, his face, his memory hit me so quickly it was hard to process. Aspen. What was he doing now? It was getting close to curfew in Carolina. He'd still be at work, if he had a job today. Or maybe out with Brenna, or whoever else he'd decided to start spending his time with since we broke up. Part of me ached to know ... part of me wanted to crumble just thinking about it.
I looked over to my jar. I picked it up and felt the penny slide around, so lonely.
"Me, too," I whispered. "Me, too."
Was it stupid of me to keep this? I'd given back everything else, so why save one little penny? Would this be all I had left? A penny in a jar to show my daughter one day, to tell her about my first boyfriend-the one no one knew about?
I didn't have time to dwell on my worries. Maxon's firm knock came only minutes later. I found myself running to the door.
I drew it open in a big sweep, and Maxon looked surprised to see me.
"Where in the world are your maids?" he asked, surveying my room.
"Gone. I send them off when I come back from dinner."
"Yes, of course. I can take my clothes off by myself, thank you."
Maxon raised his eyebrows and smiled. I blushed. I hadn't meant it to come out like that.
"Grab a wrap. It's chilly out."
We walked down the hall. I was still a little distracted by my thoughts, and I knew by now that Maxon wasn't great with starting conversations. I had looped my hand around his arm almost immediately, though. I was glad that there was a sort of familiarity there.
"If you insist on not keeping your maids around, I'm going to have to post a guard outside your door," he said.
"No! I don't like being babysat."
He chuckled. "He'd be outside. You wouldn't even know he was there."
"I would too," I complained. "I'd sense his presence."
Maxon made a playfully exhausted sigh. I was so busy arguing, I didn't hear the whispers until they were practically in front of us. Celeste, Emmica, and Tiny were heading past us toward their rooms.
"Ladies," Maxon said, and gave a small head nod.
I supposed it was foolish to think no one would see us together. I felt my face heat up, but I wasn't sure why.
The girls all curtsied and carried on their way. I looked over my shoulder at them as we went toward the stairs. Emmica and Tiny looked curious. Within minutes, they would be telling others about this. I would be cornered tomorrow for sure. Celeste was staring daggers at me. I was sure she thought I had personally wronged her.
I turned away and said the first thing that came to mind.
"I told you the girls who got nervous about the attack would end up staying." I didn't know exactly who had asked to leave, but rumors pointed to Tiny as being one. She had fainted. Someone else had said Bariel, but I knew that was a lie. You'd have to pry the crown out of her cold dead hands first.
"You can't imagine what a relief that was." He sounded sincere.
It took me a moment to think of how to respond, as that wasn't quite what I was expecting, and I was very focused on not falling. I didn't know how to take steps down very well while holding on to someone else. The heels didn't help. At least if I slipped, he would grab me.
"I would have thought it would be helpful in a way," I said as we made it to the first floor and I found my footing again. "I mean, it has to be complicated to pick one person out of all these girls. If the circ.u.mstances weeded some out for you, shouldn't that make it easier?"
Maxon shrugged. "I suppose it should. But it didn't feel that way at all, I a.s.sure you." He looked hurt. "Good evening, sirs," he greeted the guards, who opened the doors to the garden without the slightest hesitation. Maybe I would have to take Maxon up on that offer to have them know I liked to go outside. The idea of being able to escape so easily was appealing.
"I don't understand," I said as he led me to a bench-our bench-and let me sit facing the lights of the palace. He took a seat with his body facing the opposite direction, so that we were sort of turned in toward each other. It was an easy way to talk.
He looked hesitant about sharing, but he took a breath and spoke. "Maybe I was just flattering myself, thinking I'd be worth some sort of risk. Not that I'd wish that on anyone!" he clarified. "I don't mean that. It just... I don't know. Don't you all see everything I'm risking?"
"Umm, no. You're here with your family to give you advice, and we all live around your schedule. Everything about your life stays the same, and ours changed overnight. What in the world could you possibly be risking?"
Maxon looked shocked.
"America, I might have my family, but imagine how embarra.s.sing it is to have your parents watch as you attempt to date for the first time. And not just your parents-the whole country! Worse than that, it's not even a normal style of dating.
"And living around my schedule? When I'm not with you all, I'm organizing troops, making laws, perfecting budgets ... and all on my own these days, while my father watches me stumble in my own stupidity because I have none of his experience. And then, when I inevitably do things in a way he wouldn't, he goes and corrects my mistakes. And while I'm trying to do all this work, you-the girls, I mean-are all I can think about. I'm excited and terrified by the lot of you!"
He was using his hands more than I'd ever seen, whipping them in the air and running them through his hair.
"And you think my life isn't changing? What do you think my chances might be of finding a soul mate in the group of you? I'll be lucky if I can just find someone who'll be able to stand me for the rest of our lives. What if I've already sent her home because I was relying on some sort of spark I didn't feel? What if she's waiting to leave me at the first sign of adversity? What if I don't find anyone at all? What do I do then, America?"
His speech had started out angered and impa.s.sioned, but by the end his questions weren't rhetorical anymore. He really wanted to know: What was he going to do if no one here was even close to being someone he could love? Though that didn't even seem to be his main concern; he was more worried that no one would love him.
"Actually, Maxon, I think you will find your soul mate here. Honestly."
"Really?" His voice charged with hope at my prediction.
"Absolutely." I put a hand on his shoulder. He seemed to be comforted by that touch alone. I wondered how often people simply touched him. "If your life is as upside down as you say it is, then she has to be here somewhere. In my experience, true love is usually the most inconvenient kind." I smiled weakly.
He seemed happy to hear those words, and they consoled me as well. Because I believed them. And if I couldn't have love of my own, the best I could do was help Maxon find it himself.
"I hope you and Marlee hit it off. She's incredibly sweet."
Maxon made a strange face. "She seems so."
"What? Is something wrong with sweet?"
"No, no. Sweet is good."
He didn't elaborate.
"What do you keep looking for?" he asked suddenly.
"You can't seem to keep your eyes in one place. I can tell that you're paying attention, but you seem to be looking for something."
I realized he was right. All through his little speech, I'd scanned the garden and the windows and even the towers along the walls. I was getting paranoid.
"People ... cameras..." I shook my head as I looked into the night.
"We're alone. There's just the guard by the door." Maxon pointed to the lone figure in the palace lamplight. He was right, no one had followed us out, and the windows were all lit up but vacant. I'd seen that already through my scanning, but it helped to have it confirmed.
I felt my posture relax a little.
"You don't like people watching you, do you?" he asked.
"Not really. I prefer being below the radar. That's what I'm used to, you know?" I traced the patterns carved into the perfect block of stone beneath me, not meeting his eyes.