“What about my parents? The other Elite?”
“All fine, sir. Your mother has been hysterical though.”
“Is she out yet?” We started moving, Maxon leading the way.
“Everyone is. We missed a few of the small safe rooms and were doing a second sweep, hoping to find you and Lady America.”
“Oh, God,” Maxon said. “I’ll go to her first.” But then he stopped dead in his tracks.
I followed his eyes and saw the destruction. That same line, the one from last time, was scrawled across the wall.
Over and over, by any means they could find, the warning covered the halls. Beyond that, the level of destruction was elevated yet again. I’d never seen what the rebels managed to do to the first floor, only to the hallways near my room. Huge stains in the carpet announced where someone, perhaps a helpless maid or fearless guard, had died. Windows were shattered, leaving jagged teeth of glass in their place.
Lights were broken, some flickering as they refused to give up. Terrifyingly, there were massive gouges in the walls; and it made me wonder if they had seen people going into the safe rooms, if they had been hunting. How close were Maxon and I to death last night?
“Miss?” a guard said, bringing me back to the moment. “We’ve taken the liberty of contacting all the families. It appears the attack on Lady Natalie’s family was a direct attempt to end the Selection. They’re targeting your relatives to get you to leave.”
I covered my mouth. “No.”
“We’re already sending palace guards out to protect them. The king was adamant that none of the girls should go.”
“What if they want to?” Maxon challenged. “We can’t hold them here against their will.”
“Of course, sir. You’ll need to speak with the king.” The guard seemed embarrassed, not quite sure how to handle the difference of opinions.
“You won’t have to guard my family long,” I said, hoping to break some tension. “Let them know I’ll be home soon.”
The guard’s eyes flickered between Maxon and me, looking to confirm that I’d been eliminated. Maxon simply nodded once.
“Yes, miss,” the guard said with a bow.
Maxon interjected. “Is my mother in her room?”
“Tell her I’m coming. You’re dismissed.”
We were alone again.
Maxon took my hand in his. “Don’t rush away. Say good-bye to your maids and any of the girls if you want. And eat something. I know how you love the food.”
I smiled. “I will.”
Maxon wet his lips, almost fidgeting. This was it. This was good-bye.
“You’ve changed me forever. And I’ll never forget you.”
I ran my free hand down his chest, straightening his coat. “Don’t tug your ear with anyone else. That’s mine.” I gave him a tight smile.
“A lot of things are yours, America.”
I swallowed. “I need to go.”
Maxon kissed me once, quickly, on the lips, and ran down the hall. I watched until he was out of sight and then made my way back to my room.
Each step up the main stairwell was torture, both because of what I had left and what I feared was coming. What if I rang the bell and Lucy didn’t come? Or Mary? Or Anne? What if I looked at every face of every guard I passed and not a single one was Aspen’s?
I made my way to the second floor, passing destruction at every turn. It was still recognizable, the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, even in ruins. But the time and money it would take to restore this was beyond my imagination. The rebels were very thorough. As I got closer to my room, I heard the distinct sound of crying. Lucy.
I let out a breath, happy she was alive but terrified of what was making her cry. I braced myself and turned the corner into my room.
Working with red faces and swollen eyes, Mary and Anne were collecting the shattered glass from the doors to my balcony. I watched as Mary had to stop midsweep to exhale and calm herself. In a corner, Lucy was weeping into Aspen’s chest.
“Shh,” he said, comforting her. “They’ll find her, I know it.”
I was so relieved, I burst into tears. “You’re okay. You’re all okay.”
Aspen let out a huge sigh, his tight shoulders slumping as they relaxed.
“My lady?” Lucy said. A second later she was running for me. Not too far behind, Mary and Anne came, enveloping me in hugs.
“Oh, this isn’t proper,” Anne said as she held me.
“For goodness’ sake, give it a rest,” Mary retorted.
And we were so happy to be alive and safe that we laughed about it all.
Behind them, Aspen stood, watching with a quiet smile, so clearly grateful to see me there.
“Where were you? They looked everywhere.” Mary pulled me over to the bed to sit, though it was a terrible mess, with the comforter shredded, the pillows stabbed and leaking feathers.
“In one of the safe rooms they missed. Maxon’s okay, too,” I said.
“Thank God,” Anne said.
“He saved my life. I was on my way to the gardens when they came. If I’d been outside …”
“Oh, my lady,” Mary cried.
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Anne said. “We’ll get this room fixed up in no time, and we have a fantastic new dress once you’re ready. And we can—”
“That won’t be necessary. I’m going home today. I’ll put on something simple and leave in a few hours.”
“What?” Mary gasped. “But why?”
I shrugged. “It didn’t work out.” I looked up at Aspen but was unable to read his face. All I could see was relief that I was alive.
“I really thought it would be you,” Lucy said. “From the start. And after everything you said last night … I can’t believe you’re going home.”
“That’s very sweet, but it’ll be all right. From here on out, anything you can do to help Kriss, please do that. For me.”
“Of course,” Anne said.
“Anything for you,” Mary seconded.
Aspen cleared his throat. “Ladies, maybe you could give me a moment. If Lady America is leaving today, I need to go over some security measures. We didn’t get her this far only to let someone hurt her now.
“Anne, maybe you could go get some fresh towels and things. She should go home like a lady. Mary, some food?” They both nodded. “And Lucy, do you need to rest?”
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