I could hardly breathe, so I knew eating would be a waste. But it would be worth the sacrifice. I needed to make some progress, and I needed to do it fast. According to the king, the other girls were making advances toward Maxon—physical advances—and he’d said I was far too plain to have a chance of matching them in that department.
As if my relationship with Maxon wasn’t complicated enough, there was a whole new issue of rebuilding trust. And I wasn’t sure if that meant I wasn’t supposed to ask questions or not. While I felt pretty sure he hadn’t gone that far physically with the other girls, I couldn’t help but wonder. I’d never tried to be seductive before—pretty much every intimate moment I’d had with Maxon came about without intention—but I had to hope that if I was deliberate, I could make it clear that I was just as interested in him as the others.
I took a deep breath, raised my chin, and walked into the dining hall. I was purposely a minute or two late, hoping everyone would already be seated. I was right on that count. But the reaction was better than I’d hoped.
I curtsied, swinging my leg around so the slit in the dress fell open, leading nearly all the way up my thigh. The dress was a deep red, strapless and practically backless, and I was almost positive my maids had used magic to make it stay up at all. I rose, locking eyes with Maxon, who I noticed had stopped chewing. Someone dropped a fork.
Lowering my gaze, I walked to my seat, settling in next to Kriss.
“Seriously, America?” she whispered.
I tilted my head in her direction. “I’m sorry?” I replied, feigning confusion.
She put her silverware down, and we stared at each other. “You look trashy.”
“Well, you look jealous.”
I’d hit pretty close to the mark, because she flushed a bit before returning to her food. I took limited bites of my own, already miserably constricted. As dessert was being set in front of me, I chose to stop ignoring Maxon, and as I had hoped, his eyes were on me. He reached up and grabbed his ear immediately, and I demurely did the same. My gaze flickered quickly toward King Clarkson, and I tried not to smile. He was irritated, another trick I’d managed to get away with.
I excused myself first, giving Maxon a chance to admire the back of the dress, and scurried to my room. I closed the door to my room behind me and unzipped the gown immediately, desperate for a breath.
“How’d it go?” Mary asked, rushing over.
“He seemed stunned. They all did.”
Lucy squealed, and Anne came to help Mary. “We’ll hold it up. Just walk,” she ordered. I did as I was told. “Is he coming tonight?”
“Yes. I’m not sure when, but he’ll definitely be here.” I perched on the edge of my bed, arms folded around my stomach to keep the open dress from falling down.
Anne gave me a sad face. “I’m sorry you’ll have to be uncomfortable for a few more hours. I’m sure it’ll be worth it though.”
I smiled, trying to look like I was fine dealing with the pain. I’d told my maids I wanted to get Maxon’s attention. I’d left out my hope that, with any luck, this dress would be on the floor pretty soon.
“Do you want us to stay until he arrives?” Lucy asked, her enthusiasm bubbling over.
“No, just help me zip this thing back up. I need to think some things through,” I answered, standing so they could help me.
Mary took hold of the zipper. “Suck it in, miss.” I obeyed, and as the dress cinched me in again, I thought of a soldier going to war. Different armor but the same idea.
Tonight I was taking down a man.
I OPENED THE BALCONY DOORS, letting the air sweeten my room. Even though it was December, the breeze was light and tickled my skin. We weren’t allowed to go outside at all anymore, not without guards by our sides, so this would have to do.
I scurried around the room, lighting candles, trying to make the space inviting. The knock came at the door, and I blew out the match, bolted over to the bed, picked up a book, and fanned out my dress. Why yes, Maxon, this is how I always look when I read.
“Come in,” I offered, barely loud enough to be heard.
Maxon entered, and I lifted my head delicately, catching the wonder in his eyes as he surveyed my dimly lit room. Finally he focused on me, his gaze traveling up my exposed leg.
“There you are,” I said, closing the book and standing to greet him.
He shut the door and came in, his eyes locked on my curves. “I wanted to tell you that you look fantastic tonight.”
I flicked my hair over my shoulder. “Oh, this thing? It was just sitting in the back of the closet.”
“I’m glad you pulled it out.”
I laced my fingers through his. “Come sit with me. I haven’t seen you much lately.”
He sighed and followed. “I’m sorry about that. Things have been a bit tense since we lost so many people in that rebel attack, and you know how my father is. We sent several guards to protect your families, and our forces are stretched thin, so he’s worse than usual. And he’s pressuring me to end the Selection, but I’m holding my ground. I want to have some time to think this through.”
We sat on the edge of the bed, and I settled close to him. “Of course. You should be in charge of this.”
He nodded. “Exactly. I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but when people push me, it makes me crazy.”
I gave him a little pout. “I know.”
He paused, and I couldn’t read his face. I was trying to figure out how to move this forward without being pushy, but I wasn’t sure how to manufacture a romantic moment.
“I know this is silly, but my maids put this new perfume on me today. Is it too strong?” I asked, tilting my neck so he could lean in and breathe.
He came near, his nose hitting a soft patch of skin. “No, dear, it’s lovely,” he said into the curve that led to my shoulder. Then he kissed me there. I swallowed, trying to focus. I needed to have some level of control.
“I’m glad you like it. I’ve really missed you.”
I felt his hand snake around my back, and I brought my face down. There he was, eyes looking into mine, our lips millimeters apart.
“How much have you missed me?” he breathed.
His stare, combined with his voice being so low, was doing funny things to my heartbeat. “So much,” I whispered back. “So, so much.”
I leaned forward, aching to be kissed. Maxon was confident, pulling me closer with one hand and stringing the other through my hair. My body wanted to melt into the kiss, but the dress stopped me. Then, suddenly nervous again, I remembered my plan.
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