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“I can’t begin to count the horror stories I’ve heard about that one,” she said, nodding her head toward Celeste’s curtained bed.

“Horror stories?”

“Well, she provoked that one girl who hit her.”

“Anna? How do you know?”

“Maxon’s a good man,” she said simply. “He made sure she was checked out here before she went home. She told us what Celeste said about her parents. It was so filthy, I can’t repeat it.” The look on her face conveyed her disgust.

“Poor Anna. I knew it had to be something like that.”

“One girl came in with her feet bleeding after someone slipped glass in her shoes in the night. We can’t prove it was Celeste, but who else would do something so mean?”

“I never heard about that.” I gasped.

“She looked terrified that she might get worse. I suppose she chose to keep her mouth shut. And Celeste hits her maids. Not with anything more than her hands, but they come in for ice from time to time.”

“No!” All the maids I’d encountered were sweet girls. I couldn’t imagine any of them doing something that would provoke getting hit at all, let alone regularly.

“Suffice to say, your antics are making the rounds already. You’re a hero around here,” the nurse said with a wink.

I didn’t feel like a hero.

“Wait,” I said suddenly. “You said Maxon had Anna checked out before he sent her home?”

“Yes, miss. He’s very concerned that you’re all taken care of.”

“What about Marlee? Did she come here? How was she when she left?”

Before the nurse could answer, I heard Celeste’s pouty voice pierce the room.

“Maxon, sweetheart!” she called as he marched through the doorway.

We shared a brief moment of eye contact before he approached Celeste’s bed. The nurse walked away, leaving me alone and aching to know if she’d actually seen Marlee.

The sound of Celeste’s whiny voice was almost too irritating to bear. I heard Maxon murmur his condolences, comforting the poor thing before extricating himself. He made his way around her curtain and focused his eyes on me, seeming exhausted as he walked down the wing.

“You’re lucky my father had the cameras barred from the palace, otherwise there’d be hell to pay for your actions.” He ran his hand through his hair, exasperated. “How am I supposed to defend this, America?”

“Are you going to kick me out, then?” I played with a piece of my dress while I waited for his answer.

“Of course not.”

“What about her?” I asked, nodding my head toward Celeste’s bed.

“No. You’re all stressed after yesterday, and I can’t hold that against you. I’m not sure my father will accept that excuse, but that’s what I’m going to say.”

I paused. “Maybe you should tell him it was my fault. Maybe you should just send me home.”

“America, you’re overreacting.”

“Look at me, Maxon,” I urged. I felt the lump rising in my throat and fought to speak past it. “I’ve known from the beginning I don’t have what it takes, and I thought that I could—I don’t know—change, or somehow make it work; but I can’t stay here. I can’t.”

Maxon moved to sit on the edge of my bed. “America, you might hate the Selection, and you might be mad about what happened to Marlee; but I know that you care about me enough not to just abandon me in this.”

I reached for his hand. “I also care enough about you to tell you you’re making a mistake.”

I could see the pain in Maxon’s face as he held my hand tighter, as if he could hold me there and keep me from disappearing. Hesitantly, he leaned in and whispered, “It’s not always so difficult. And I want to show that to you, but you have to give me time. I can prove that there are good things to this, but you have to wait.”

I inhaled to contradict him, but he cut me off. “For weeks, America, you’ve asked me for time, and I gave it to you without question because I had faith in you. Please, I need you to have a little bit of faith in me, too.”

I didn’t know what Maxon could possibly show me that might change my mind, but how could I not give him more time when he’d done that for me?

I sighed. “Fine.”

“Thank you.” The relief in his voice was obvious. “I have to get back, but I’ll come see you soon.”

I nodded. Maxon stood and left, stopping briefly to tell Celeste good-bye. I watched him go and wondered if trusting him was a bad idea.

CHAPTER 12

BOTH CELESTE’S AND MY INJURIES were minimal, so we were sent back to our rooms within an hour. They staggered our release times so we didn’t have to leave together, and thank goodness for that.

As I turned the corner at the top of the stairs, I saw a guard coming toward me. Aspen. Even though he was bigger after being bulked up from training, I knew his walk and his shadow and a thousand other things that were ingrained in my heart.

As he approached, he stopped to give me an unnecessary bow.

“Jar,” he whispered, and rose again, continuing on his path.

I stood there for a split second, confused, and then realized what he meant. Fighting the urge to run, I moved down the hall eagerly.

I opened the door and was both surprised and relieved to find that all three of my maids were out.

I went over to the jar on my bedside table and found that the one little penny in there had company. I opened the lid and pulled out the folded sheet of paper. How clever of him. My maids probably wouldn’t have noticed it; and if they had, they never would have intruded on my privacy.

I unfolded the note and read a very clear list of instructions. It seemed Aspen and I had a date tonight.

The directions Aspen gave me were complicated. I took a roundabout way to get to the first floor, where I was to look for the door next to the five-foot-high vase. I remembered that vase from walking around the palace before. What flower in the world needed a container that big?

I found the door and looked around to double-check that no one saw me. I’d never managed to find myself so free from the eyes of the guards. Not a one in sight. I opened the door slowly and crept inside. The moon shone through the window, giving the room sparse light and making me feel a little nervous.

“Aspen?” I whispered into the darkness, feeling silly and scared all at once.

“Just like old times, eh?” his voice called, though I couldn’t see him.

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