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“No!” she cried, standing tall. “I can work.”

Aspen smiled. “Very well.”

“Lucy, go to the workroom and finish that dress. We’ll come help soon. I don’t care what anyone says, Lady America. You’re leaving in style,” Anne said, addressing me at the end.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. They left, closing the door behind them.

Aspen walked over, and I stood to face him.

“I thought you were dead. I thought I’d lost you.”

“Not today,” I said, smiling weakly. Now that I saw how bad it was, the only way to stay calm was to joke about it.

“I got your letter. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the diary.”

“I couldn’t.”

He bridged the space between us and ran his hand down my hair. “Mer, if you couldn’t show it to me, you really shouldn’t have tried to show it to the country. And the caste thing … You’re crazy, you know that?”

“Oh, I know.” I looked at the ground, thinking over all the insanity of the last day.

“So Maxon kicked you out because of that?”

I sighed. “Not exactly. The king’s the one sending me home. If Maxon proposed to me this very second, it wouldn’t matter. The king says no, so I’m going.”

“Oh,” he said simply. “It’s going to be strange without you here.”

“I know,” I said with a sigh.

“I’ll write,” he promised quickly. “And I can send you money if you want. I’ve got plenty. We can get married right when I come home. I know it’s going to be awhile—”

“Aspen,” I said, cutting him off. I didn’t know how to explain that my heart had just been crushed. “When I leave, I want some peace, okay? I need to recover from all this.”

He stepped back, offended. “So, what, do you not want me to write or call?”

“Maybe not right away,” I said, trying to make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal. “I just want to spend some time with my family and get my bearings again. After everything I’ve felt here, I can’t—”

“Wait,” he said, holding up a hand. He was silent for a moment, reading my face. “You still want him,” he accused. “After everything he’s done—after Marlee—and even when there’s absolutely no hope, you’re still thinking about him.”

“He never did anything, Aspen. I wish I could explain about Marlee to you, but I gave my word. I have no hard feelings toward Maxon. And I know it’s over, but it’s the same way I felt when you broke up with me.”

He scoffed incredulously, rolling his head back like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“I’m serious. When you ended it, the Selection became my lifeline because I knew I’d at least have some time to get past what I felt for you. And then you showed up here, and everything shifted. You were the one who changed us when you left me in the tree house; and you keep thinking that if you push hard enough, you can make everything go back to before that moment. It doesn’t work that way. Give me a chance to choose you.”

As the words came out of my mouth, I knew that this was so much of what was wrong. I’d loved Aspen for so long, we’d just assumed a lot of things. But everything was different now. It wasn’t like we were still two nobodies from Carolina. We’d seen too much to pretend we would ever happily be those people again.

“Why wouldn’t you choose me, Mer? Aren’t I your only choice?” he asked, sadness dripping into his voice.

“Yes. Doesn’t that bother you? I don’t want to be the girl you end up with because my only other option isn’t available and you never looked at anyone else. Do you really want to get me by default?”

He spoke intensely. “I don’t care how I get you, Mer.”

Suddenly he charged at me, taking my face in his hands. Aspen kissed me fiercely, willing me to remember what he was to me.

I couldn’t kiss him back.

When he finally gave up, he pulled back my head, trying to read my face.

“What’s happening here, America?”

“My heart is breaking! That’s what’s happening! How do you think this feels? I’m so confused right now, and you’re the only thing I have left, and you don’t love me enough to let me breathe.”

I started crying, and he finally calmed down.

“I’m sorry, Mer,” he whispered. “It’s just, I keep thinking I’ve lost you for some reason or another, and it’s my instinct to fight for you. It’s all I know to do.”

I looked at the floor, trying to pull myself together.

“I can wait,” he promised. “When you’re ready, write me. I do love you enough to let you breathe. After last night, that’s all I need you to do. Please breathe.”

I walked into him, letting him hold me, but it felt different. I’d thought I would always have Aspen in my life, and for the first time I wondered if that was completely true.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Stay safe here. Don’t be a hero, Aspen. Take care of yourself.”

He stepped away, giving me a nod but no words. He kissed my forehead and made his way to the door.

I stood there for a long time, not sure what to do with myself, waiting for my maids to come and pull me together one last time.

CHAPTER 31

I TUGGED AT MY DRESS. “Isn’t this a bit grand for the occasion?”

“Not at all!” Mary insisted.

It was late afternoon, but they’d put me in an evening gown. It was purple, and very regal. The sleeves went to my elbows, as it was colder back in Carolina; and a sweeping hooded cape was draped over my arm for when I landed. A high collar would protect my neck from any wind that might come, and they’d pulled up my hair so elegantly, I was positive this was the prettiest I’d ever looked at the palace. I wished that I could go see Queen Amberly, sure that even she would be impressed.

“I don’t want to linger,” I insisted. “It’s hard enough to go as it is. I just want you all to know that I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done for me. Not only for keeping me clean and dressed, but for spending time with me and caring about me. I’ll never forget you.”

“And we’ll always remember you, miss,” Anne promised.

I nodded and started fanning my face. “Okay, okay, I’ve had enough tears for one day. If you could tell the driver I’ll be right down, I’m going to take a moment.”

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