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“Tell me you’ll wait for me. If you’ll wait for me, Mer, I can handle anything else,” he breathed into my ear.

The music switched to a traditional song, and a nearby officer asked for a dance. I was swept away, leaving both Aspen and myself without any answers.

The night went on, and I found myself peeking over at Aspen more than once. Though I tried to seem casual about it, I bet anyone really paying attention might have noticed, particularly my dad, if he had been in the room. But he seemed more interested in touring the palace than in dancing.

I tried to distract myself with the party and must have danced with everyone in the room except for Maxon. I was sitting down resting my tired feet when I heard his voice beside me.

“My lady?” I turned to see him. “May I have this dance?”

That feeling, that indefinable something, coursed through me. As dejected as I’d felt, as embarrassed as I’d been, when he offered me that moment, I had to take it.

“Of course.” He took my hand and walked me out to the floor, where the band was starting a slow song. I felt a rush of happiness. He didn’t seem upset or uncomfortable. On the contrary, Maxon held me so close I could smell his cologne and feel his stubble against my cheek.

“I was wondering if I was going to get a dance at all,” I commented, trying to sound playful.

Maxon managed to pull me even closer. “I was saving this one. I’ve put in time with all the other girls, so my obligations are over. Now I can enjoy the rest of the evening with you.”

I blushed the way I always did when he said things like that to me. Sometimes his words were like single lines of poetry. After the last week, I didn’t think I’d ever hear him speak to me that way again. It made my pulse race.

“You look lovely, America. Much too beautiful to be on the arm of a scraggly pirate.”

I giggled. “How could you have possibly dressed to match? Come as a tree?”

“At the very least, some kind of shrubbery.”

I laughed again. “I would pay money to see you dressed as a shrubbery!”

“Next year,” he promised.

I looked at him. Next year?

“Would you like that? For us to have another Halloween party next October?” he asked.

“Will I even be here next October?”

Maxon stopped dancing. “Why wouldn’t you?”

I shrugged. “You’ve been avoiding me all week, dating the other girls. And … I saw you talking to my dad. I thought you might be telling him why you had to kick out his daughter.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. I was not going to cry here.

“America.”

“I get it. Someone has to go, and I’m a Five, and Marlee’s the people’s favorite—”

“America, stop,” he said gently. “I’m such an idiot. I had no idea you’d see it that way. I thought you felt secure in your standing.”

I was missing something here.

Maxon sighed. “Honestly? I was trying to give the other girls a sporting chance. From the beginning, I’ve really only looked at you, wanted you.” I ducked my head for a moment, overcome by his deep stare. “When you told me how you felt, I was so relieved that a part of me didn’t believe it. I still have a hard time accepting that it was real. You’d be surprised how infrequently I get something I truly want.” Maxon’s eyes were hiding something, some sadness he wasn’t prepared to share. But he shook it away and continued explaining, starting to sway to the music again.

“I was afraid I was wrong, that you would change your mind any second. I’ve been looking for a suitable alternative, but the truth is …”—Maxon looked me in the eyes again, unwavering—“there’s only you. Maybe I’m not really looking, maybe they aren’t right for me. It doesn’t matter. I just know I want you. And that terrifies me. I’ve been waiting for you to take back the words, to beg to leave.”

It took me a moment to find my breath. Suddenly all that time away looked different. I could understand that feeling—that it was too good to be true, too good to trust. I felt like that every day with him.

“Maxon, that’s not going to happen,” I whispered into his neck. “If anything, you’re going to realize I’m not good enough.”

His lips were at my ear. “Darling, you’re perfect.”

My arm on his back drew him toward me, and he did the same, until we were closer to each other physically than we’d ever been. In the back of my mind, I realized we were in a crowded room, that somewhere my mother was probably fainting at the sight, but I didn’t care. For that moment, it felt like we were the only two people in the world.

I pulled back to look at Maxon, noticing that I needed to get the moisture out of my eyes to do so. But I liked these tears.

Maxon explained everything. “I want us to take our time. After I announce the dismissal tomorrow, that will appease the public and my father, but I don’t want to rush you at all. I want you to see the princess’s suite. It adjoins mine, actually,” he said quietly. Something about being that close to him all the time made my bones feel weak.

“I think you should start deciding what you want in there. I want you to feel completely at home. You’ll have to pick a few more maids, too, and figure out if you want your family in the palace or just nearby. I’ll help you with everything.” A tiny beat of my heart whispered, What about Aspen? But I was so taken in by Maxon that I barely even heard it.

“Soon, when it’s proper for me to end the Selection, when I propose to you, I want it to be as easy as breathing for you to say yes. I promise to do everything in my power between now and that moment to make it that way. Anything you need, anything you want, say the words. I will do everything I can for you.”

I was overwhelmed. He understood me so well, how nervous I was about making this commitment, how frightening it was for me to become a princess. He was going to give me every last second he could and, in the meantime, lavish me with everything possible. I had another one of those moments when I couldn’t believe this was all happening.

“That’s not fair, Maxon,” I mumbled. “What in the world am I supposed to be able to give you?”

He smiled. “All I want is your promise to stay with me, to be mine. Sometimes it feels like you can’t possibly be real. Promise me you’ll stay.”

“Of course. I promise.”

With that I rested my head on his shoulder, and we slow danced through song after song. Once May caught my eye, and she looked like she was about to die with happiness watching us together. Mom and Dad stood looking on, and Dad shook his head as if to say And you thought he was sending you home.

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