I sighed and went to get a cup of water. Aspen followed me while the rest of the girls left.
“So,” he started. I did a sweep of the room to make sure no one was watching. “I have to assume that if you’re not worried about me, you’re worried about him.”
I lowered my eyes and blushed. How well he knew me.
“Not that I’m cheering for him or anything, but if he can’t see how amazing you are, he’s an idiot.”
I smiled, continuing to study the floor.
“And if you don’t get to be princess then, so what? That doesn’t make you any less incredible. And you know … you know …” He couldn’t get out what he wanted to say, and I risked looking at his face.
In Aspen’s eyes I saw a thousand different endings to that sentence, all of them connecting him to me. That he was still waiting for me. That he knew me better than anyone. That we were the same. That a few months at the palace couldn’t erase two years. No matter what, Aspen would always be there for me.
“I know, Aspen. I do.”
I STOOD IN LINE WITH the other girls in the massive foyer of the palace, bouncing on the balls of my feet.
“Lady America,” Silvia whispered, and that was all it took to know I was behaving in an unacceptable way. As our main tutor for the Selection, she took our actions quite personally.
I tried to still myself. I envied Silvia and the staff and the handful of guards who were moving around the space if only for the fact that they were allowed to walk. If I could do the same, I knew I’d feel much calmer.
Maybe if Maxon was here already it wouldn’t be so bad. Then again, maybe it would make me more anxious. I still couldn’t figure out why, after everything, he hadn’t made any time for me lately.
“They’re here!” I heard through the palace doors. I wasn’t the only one who made sounds of delight.
“All right, ladies!” Silvia called. “Best behavior! Butlers and maids against the wall, please.”
We tried to be the lovely, regal young women Silvia wanted us to, but the second Kriss’s and Marlee’s parents made it through the doorway, it all fell apart. I knew that both girls were only children, and it was obvious their parents missed them too much to bother with decorum. They ran in screaming, and Marlee dashed out of the line without so much as a pause.
Celeste’s parents were more put together, though they clearly were thrilled to see their daughter. She broke rank as well, but in a much more civilized way than Marlee. I didn’t even register Natalie’s or Elise’s parents, because a short figure with wild red hair blazed around the open door, her eyes searching.
She heard my call and saw my waving arm and rushed to me, Mom and Dad following her lead. I knelt on the floor, embracing her.
“Ames! I can’t believe it!” she crooned, admiration and jealousy in her voice. “You look so, so beautiful!”
I couldn’t speak. I could barely even see her, I was crying so much.
A moment later, I felt the steady arms of my father taking us both in. Then Mom, abandoning her usual propriety, joined us, and we all held one another in a heap on the palace floor.
I heard a sigh that I knew was Silvia’s, but I really didn’t care at the moment.
Once I could breathe again, I spoke. “I’m so happy you guys are here.”
“We are, too, kitten,” Dad said. “Can’t even tell you how much we missed you.” I felt his kiss on the back of my head.
I twisted so I could hug him better. I didn’t know until this very moment how badly I had needed to see them.
I reached for Mom last. I was shocked that she was so quiet. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t already demanded a detailed report of my progress with Maxon. But when I pulled back, I noticed the tears in her eyes.
“You’re so beautiful, sweetheart. You look like a princess.”
I smiled. It was nice not to have her question or instruct me for once. She was just happy in the moment, and that meant the world to me. Because I was, too.
I noticed May’s eyes focus on something over my shoulder.
“That’s him,” she breathed.
“Hmm?” I asked, looking down at her. I turned to see Maxon watching us from behind the grand stairwell. His smile was amused as he made his way to where we were huddled on the floor. My father stood immediately.
“Your Highness,” he said, his voice full of admiration.
Maxon walked up to him, hand outstretched. “Mr. Singer, it’s an honor. I’ve heard so much about you. And you, too, Mrs. Singer.” He moved to my mother, who had also risen and straightened her hair.
“Your Majesty,” she squeaked, a little starstruck. “Sorry about all that.” She motioned to the floor as May and I stood, still holding each other tightly.
Maxon chuckled. “Not at all. I’d expect no less enthusiasm from anyone related to Lady America.” I was sure Mom would want an explanation for that later. “And you must be May.”
May blushed as she extended her hand, expecting a shake but getting a kiss. “I never did get to thank you for not crying.”
“What?” she asked, blushing even more in her confusion.
“No one told you?” Maxon said brightly. “You won me my first date with your lovely sister here. I’ll be forever in your debt.”
May giggled back. “Well, you’re welcome, I guess.”
Maxon put his hands behind his back, his education coming back to him. “I’m afraid I must meet the others, but please stay here for a moment. I’ll be making a short announcement to the group. And I’m hoping to get to speak with you more very soon. So glad you could come.”
“He’s even cuter in person!” May whispered loudly, and I could tell by the slight shake of his head that Maxon had heard.
He went off to Elise’s family, who were easily the most refined of the group. Her older brothers looked as rigid as the guards, and her parents bowed to Maxon as he approached. I wondered if Elise had told them to do that or if that was just who they were. They all looked so polished, with matching heads of jet-black hair topping their small, smartly dressed frames.
Beside them, Natalie and her very pretty younger sister were whispering to Kriss as their parents shook hands. The whole space was full of warm energy.
“What does he mean, he expected enthusiasm from us?” Mom demanded in a low whisper. “Is this because you yelled at him when you met? You haven’t been doing that again, have you?”
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