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We looked at one another. If I was the princess and something was happening where I needed a rational perspective, I’d call Elise first. If I was fighting with Maxon, Kriss would remind me of every good thing about him. And Celeste . . . well, I wasn’t so sure, but if anyone was ever going to tell me to toughen up about something, it would be her.

“So take your time,” she advised. “Adjust to where you are. And let it go. You don’t choose him; he chooses you. There’s no point in hating the others for that.”

“Do you know who he wants the most?” Celeste asked. And for the first time, I heard worry in her voice.

“I don’t,” Queen Amberly confessed. “Sometimes I think I could guess, but I don’t pretend to understand everything Maxon feels. I know who the king would choose, but that’s about it.”

“Who would you choose?” I asked, then cursed myself for being so blunt.

She smiled kindly. “I honestly haven’t let myself think about it. It would break my heart to start loving one of you like a daughter and then lose you. I couldn’t bear it.”

I lowered my eyes, not sure if those words were meant to be a comfort or not.

“I will say I’d be happy to have any of you in my family.” I looked up and watched as she took the time to meet each set of eyes. “For now, there’s work to do.”

We stood there silently, soaking in her wisdom. I’d never taken the time to look at the competitors in the last Selection, to find their pictures or anything. I knew a handful of names, mostly because older women would drop them into conversations when I sang at parties. It was never that important to me; we already had a queen, and even as a girl, the possibility of becoming a princess never crossed my mind. But now I wondered how many of the women who showed up to visit the queen or came for Halloween were her former competition, now her closest friends.

Celeste walked away first, heading back to the comfort of the couch. It didn’t seem as if Queen Amberly’s words meant much to her. For some reason that was the tipping point for me. Everything from the last few days crashed back onto my heart, and I could feel it was seconds away from cracking.

I curtsied. “Excuse me, please,” I mumbled, before moving swiftly to the door. I didn’t have a plan. Maybe I could go sit in the bathroom for a minute or tuck myself away in one of the numerous parlors downstairs. Maybe I would just go to my room and cry my eyes out.

Unfortunately, it looked like the universe was plotting against me. Just outside the Women’s Room, Maxon was pacing back and forth, looking as if he was trying to solve a riddle. Before I could hide somewhere, he saw me.

Of everything I wanted to do right now, this was the last thing on my list.

“I was debating asking you to come out,” he said.

“What do you need?” I answered shortly.

Maxon stood there, still working up the nerve to say something that was obviously driving him crazy. “So there’s one girl who loves me beyond reason?”

I crossed my arms. After the last few days, I should have seen his change of heart coming. “Yes.”

“Not two?”

I looked up at him, almost irritated that he needed me to explain. Don’t you already know how I feel? I wanted to scream. Don’t you remember the safe room?

But, honestly, I needed some confirmation right now, too. What had happened to make me so unsure so quickly?

The king. His insinuations about what the other girls had done, his praise of their merits made me feel small. And it was compounded by all my missteps with Maxon this week. The only way we would have ever been brought together was because of the Selection; but it seemed that as long as it went on, there was no way for anything to feel certain.

“You told me you didn’t trust me,” I accused. “The other day you made a point of humiliating me, and yesterday you basically said I was an embarrassment. And not a few hours ago, the suggestion of marrying me sent you into a rage. Forgive me for not feeling so secure in our relationship right now.”

“You forget that I’ve never done this, America,” he said passionately, but without any anger. “You have someone to compare me to. I don’t even know how to have a typical relationship, and I only get one chance. You’ve had at least two. I’m going to make mistakes.”

“I don’t mind mistakes,” I shot back. “I mind the uncertainty. Most of the time I can’t tell what’s going on.”

He was quiet for a moment, and I realized that we’d come to a very serious crossroad. We’d implied so many things, but we couldn’t go on like this for much longer. Even if we ended up together, these moments of insecurity would haunt us.

“We keep doing this,” I breathed, exhausted with this game. “We get close and then something happens and it falls apart, and you never seem to be able to make a decision. If you want me as much as you’ve always claimed to, why isn’t this over?”

Even though I’d accused him of not caring about me at all, his frustration melted into sadness. “Because half the time I’ve been sure you loved someone else and the other half I’ve doubted you could love me at all,” he answered, making me feel positively awful.

“Like I haven’t had my own reasons to doubt? You treat Kriss like she’s heaven on earth, and then I catch you with Celeste—”

“I explained that.”

“Yes, but it still hurt to see.”

“Well, it hurts me to see how quickly you shut down. Where does that even come from?”

“I don’t know, but maybe you should stop thinking about me for a while.”

The silence was abrupt.

“What does that mean?”

I shrugged. “There are three other girls here. If you’re so worried about your one shot, you might want to make sure you’re not wasting it on me.”

I walked away, angry with Maxon for making me feel this way . . . and angry with myself for making things so much worse.


I WATCHED AS THE PALACE was transformed. Almost overnight, lush Christmas trees lined the hallways of the first floor, garlands were strung down the stairways, and all the floral arrangements were changed to include holly or mistletoe. The strange thing was, if I opened my window, it still felt like the edge of summer outside. I wondered if the palace could somehow manufacture snow. Maybe if I asked Maxon, he’d look into it.

Then again, maybe not.

Days passed. I tried not to be upset that Maxon was doing exactly what I’d asked, but as the space between us grew icy, I regretted my pride. I wondered if this was always bound to happen. Was I destined to say the wrong thing, make the wrong choice? Even if Maxon was what I wanted, I was never going to get myself together long enough for it to be real.


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