Aspen laid me on a bed as gently as possible, but my arm continued to throb.
“We ought to get the doctor,” he said. But I could tell he doubted his own words. Getting Dr. Ashlar would mean either telling the absolute truth or making up an outrageous lie, and neither of those options was something we wanted.
“Don’t,” I urged weakly. “I won’t die from this. It’ll just be a bad scar. We have to clean it up.” I grimaced.
“You’ll need something for the pain,” Maxon added.
“She might get infected. That alley was really dirty, and I touched her,” Paige said guiltily.
A sliver of fire burned across the wound, and I hissed. “Anne. Get Anne.”
“Who?” Maxon asked.
“Her head maid,” Aspen explained. “Avery, get Anne and a medical kit. We’ll have to make due. And we need to do something with her,” he added, nodding his head at Paige.
I watched Maxon’s worried eyes finally move from my bloody arm to Paige’s troubled face.
“Are you a criminal? A runaway?” he asked her.
“Not that kind of criminal. And I did run away, but there’s no one looking for me.”
Maxon considered her words. “Welcome aboard. Follow Avery down to the kitchens and tell a Mallory you’ll be working with her on the prince’s command. Instruct her to come to the officers’ wing immediately.”
“Mallory. Yes, Your Majesty.” Paige gave him a deep curtsy and followed Officer Avery from the room, leaving me alone with Maxon and Aspen. I’d been with both of them all night, but this was the first time it was just the three of us. I could feel the weight of our secrets filling up the already restricting room.
“How’d you make it out?” I asked.
“August, Georgia, and Micah heard the gunshots and came running,” Maxon said. “He wasn’t kidding when he said they’d never hurt us.” He paused, his eyes quickly distant and sad. “Micah didn’t make it.”
I turned my head away. I didn’t know a thing about him, but he died tonight for us. I felt as guilty as if I’d taken his life myself.
I went to wipe a tear away, forgetting to use my left arm, and cried out.
“Calm down, America,” Aspen said, forgetting to be formal.
“Everything’s going to work out,” Maxon promised.
I nodded, pursing my lips together to avoid crying anymore. What a waste.
We were quiet for what felt like a long time, but maybe it was the pain stretching out the minutes.
“It’s wonderful to have such devotion,” Maxon said suddenly.
At first I thought he was talking about Micah again. But Aspen and I looked over and saw him gazing at a space on the wall behind me.
I turned my head, happy to focus on anything that wasn’t the searing pain in my arm. There, beside several pictures drawn by one of his younger siblings, was a note.
I’ll always love you. I’ll wait for you forever. I’m with you, no matter what.
My handwriting was a little sloppier a year ago when I’d left that note by my window for Aspen to find, and it was surrounded by silly little hearts that I would never put in a love letter now, but I could still feel the importance of those words. It was the first time I’d put them in writing, afraid of how much more I felt those things once they were on paper. I also remembered the fear of my mother finding that note surpassing any other worry about the enormity of knowing, without a doubt, that I loved Aspen.
Right now I feared Maxon recognizing my handwriting.
“It must be nice to have someone to write to. I’ve never had the luxury of love letters,” Maxon said, a sad smile on his face. “Has she kept her word?”
Aspen was moving pillows from the other bed to prop under my head, avoiding eye contact with either Maxon or myself.
“Writing is difficult,” he said. “But I do know she’s with me, no matter what. I don’t doubt it.”
I looked at Aspen’s short, dark hair—the only part of him I could really see—and I felt a new pain. In a way he was right. We would never truly leave each other. But . . . the words on that paper? That encompassing love that used to overwhelm me? It wasn’t here anymore.
Was Aspen still counting on it?
My eyes flickered to Maxon, and the sadness on his face read a bit like jealousy. I wasn’t surprised. I remembered telling Maxon that I’d been in love before; he’d looked as if he’d been cheated out of something, so unsure at that point if he would ever fall in love.
If he knew that the love I’d spoken about and the love Aspen just shared were the same one, I was sure it would crush him.
“Write her soon,” Maxon advised. “Don’t let her forget.”
“What’s taking them so long?” Aspen muttered, and left the room, not bothering to acknowledge Maxon’s words.
Maxon watched him go and turned back to face me. “I’m so useless. I have no idea how to help you, so I thought I’d at least try to help him. He saved both our lives tonight.” Maxon shook his head. “Seems I only upset him.”
“Everyone’s just worried. You’re doing fine,” I assured him.
He gave an exasperated laugh, coming to kneel by the bed. “You’re lying there with a seeping gash on your arm, and you’re trying to comfort me. You’re absurd.”
“If you ever decide to write me a love letter, I’d lead with that,” I joked.
He smiled. “Can’t I do anything for you?”
“Hold my hand? Not too hard though.”
Maxon placed his fingers in the loose grip of my palm, and even though it didn’t change anything, it was nice to feel him there.
“I probably won’t. Write you a love letter, that is. I try to stave off embarrassment as often as possible.”
“You can’t plan wars, don’t know how to cook, and refuse to write love letters,” I teased.
“That’s correct. My list of faults is ever growing.” He wiggled his fingers in my hand, and I was so grateful for the distraction.
“That’s fine. I’ll continue to guess at your feelings since you refuse to write me a note. With a purple pen. All the i’s dotted with hearts.”
“Which is exactly how I would do it,” he said in mock seriousness. I giggled but stopped quickly when the movement reignited the burning. “I don’t think you have to guess at my feelings though.”
“Well,” I started, finding it harder and harder to breathe, “it’s not like you’ve ever said it out loud.”
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