“All right,” Aspen said. He looked at me. “Tuck your hair beneath your hat.”
I grabbed my hair and twisted it up, hoping it would all fit beneath the knit hat Aspen had provided. I pushed up the last strands and looked to Maxon. “Well?”
He choked on a laugh. “Great.”
I gave him a playful punch in the arm before turning to follow Aspen’s next instructions.
I saw the hurt in his eyes to see me so casual with Maxon. And maybe it went beyond that. We’d hid in a tree house for two years, but here I was wandering into the streets, past curfew, with the man the Southern rebels wanted to see dead more than anyone.
This moment was a slap in the face of everything we were.
And even though I wasn’t in love with Aspen, he still mattered to me, and I didn’t want to cause him pain.
Before Maxon probably even noticed, Aspen straightened his face. “Follow us.”
Slipping into the hallway, Aspen and Officer Avery took us down the stairway that led to the massive safe room reserved for the royal family. Instead of heading toward the great steel doors, we moved quickly across the length of the palace, where we ascended another spiral staircase. I had assumed we would be heading to the first floor, but we exited into the kitchen.
Immediately, I was hit with billowing warmth and the sweet smell of bread rising. For a split second, it felt like home. I expected something clinical, professional, like the big bakeries we had in Carolina on the nice end of town. But there were huge wooden tables with vegetables laid out, ready to be prepped. Notes were left in places, reminding whoever was on duty next of what had to be done. All in all, the kitchen seemed cozy, even for as big as it was.
“Keep your heads down,” Officer Avery whispered to Maxon and me.
We studied the floor as Aspen called out. “Delilah?”
“Hold on, honey!” someone shouted back. Her voice was rich and had the slight drawl of a southern accent that I’d heard sometimes back in Carolina. Heavy footsteps came around the corner, but I avoided looking up to see the woman’s face. “Leger, you cutie, how’ve you been?”
“Been good. Just heard there was a delivery to pick up, and I was wondering if you had a list for me.”
“Delivery? Not that I know of.”
“That’s funny. I was sure.”
“Might as well drive out,” she said, no hint of worry or suspicion in her voice. “Don’t want to miss something.”
“Good point. Shouldn’t be too long,” Aspen answered. I heard the swift sound of him catching a set of keys. “See you later, Delilah. If you’re asleep, I’ll put the keys on the hook.”
“Okay, honey. You come see me soon. It’s been too long.”
Aspen was already walking, and we followed him wordlessly. I smiled to myself. The woman, Delilah, had a deeper voice, mature sounding. But even she was sweet on Aspen.
We walked around a corner and up a wide incline to a set of broad doors. Aspen undid the lock and pushed the doors open. Waiting in the dark was a large black truck.
“There’s nothing to hold on to, but I think you two should get in the back,” Avery said. I looked at the large cargo space. At least we wouldn’t be recognized.
I went around to the back, where Aspen was already opening the doors. “My lady,” he said, offering me his hand, which I took. “Your Majesty,” he added as Maxon passed, refusing assistance.
There were a couple of crates inside and a shelving unit along one wall, but otherwise it was an empty metal box. Maxon passed me, surveying the area.
“Come here, America,” he said, pointing to the corner. “We’ll wedge ourselves against the shelf.”
“We’ll try to drive smoothly,” Aspen called.
Maxon nodded. Aspen gave us both a solemn look before shutting the doors.
In the pitch-dark, I pushed myself against Maxon.
“Are you scared?” he asked.
But I was pretty sure we were both lying.
I COULDN’T TELL HOW LONG we’d been traveling, but I was very aware of every move the giant truck made. Maxon, in an effort to keep us stable, had pushed his back against the shelf and braced a leg across me on the wall, caging me in. But even with that, we both slid a bit against the metal floor at every turn.
“I don’t like not knowing where I am,” Maxon said, trying to secure us again.
“Have you ever been out in Angeles before?”
“Only in a car,” he confessed.
“Is it strange that I feel better going into a den of rebels than I did when I had to entertain the women of the Italian royal family?”
Maxon laughed. “Only you.”
It was hard talking over the rumble of the engine and the squeal of the wheels, so we were quiet for a while. In the dark, the sounds felt bigger. I inhaled deeply, trying to focus myself, and noticed a hint of coffee in the air. I couldn’t tell if it was some lingering scent in the truck or if we were passing a shop on the road. After what felt like a very long time, Maxon put his lips to my ear.
“I wish you were safe at home, but I’m really glad you’re here.” I laughed quietly. I doubted he could hear it, but he probably felt it, we were so close. “Promise me that you’ll run though.”
I decided that I’d be of no help to Maxon if something really bad happened anyway. I searched and put my mouth by his ear. “I promise.”
We went over a pretty jarring bump, and he grabbed me. I felt our noses brush in the dark, and the urge to kiss him came unexpectedly fast. Though our kiss on the roof had only been three days ago, it felt like an eternity. He held me close, and I could feel his breath on my skin. It was coming; I was sure of it.
Maxon used his nose, nudging at my cheek, bringing our lips closer together. The same way I could smell coffee and hear every tiny squeak in the dark, the lack of light made me focus on the clean scent that hung around Maxon, feel the pressure of his fingers moving up my neck to the wisps of hair peeking out from under my cap.
In the second before our lips touched, the truck came to an abrupt stop, flinging us forward. I knocked my head against the wall, and I was pretty sure I felt Maxon’s teeth against my ear.
“Ow!” he exclaimed, and I felt him adjusting his position in the dark. “Are you hurt?”
“No. My hair and the hat took most of it.” If I hadn’t wanted that kiss so badly, I would have laughed.
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