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Maxon opened his mouth to object and silenced himself. His eyes gazed toward the ceiling as he thought through our history, trying to pinpoint the moment when he’d told me he loved me.

In the safe room, it was suggested in every way. He’d let the feeling slip into a dozen romantic gestures or indicated it was there by dancing around the words . . . but the actual statement had never come. Not between us. I would have remembered, and I would have made them my reason never to question him, my reason to confess what I was feeling, too.

“My lady?” Anne said, her voice making its way through the door a moment before her worried face.

Maxon stepped back, letting go of my hand as he made space for her.

Anne’s focused eyes took in the wound, and she touched it gingerly as she inspected how bad it was.

“You’ll need stitches. I’m not sure we have anything that will completely numb you,” she assessed.

“It’s okay. Just do your best,” I said. I felt calmer with her there.

She nodded. “Someone get some boiling water. We should have antiseptic in the kit, but I want water, too.”

“I’ll get it.” By the door, Marlee was standing, her face lined with worry.

“Marlee,” I whimpered, losing control. I put the Mallory thing together. Of course she and Carter couldn’t go by their real names while they were hiding right under the king’s nose.

“I’ll be right back, America. Hold tight.” She scurried away, but I felt a great relief knowing she would be with me.

Anne absorbed the shock of Marlee’s presence in stride, and I watched as she pulled out a needle and thread from the medical kit. I took comfort in the fact that she sewed almost all my clothes. My arm shouldn’t be a problem.

With incredible speed, Marlee was back with a pitcher of steaming water, an armful of towels, and a bottle of amber liquid. She set the pitcher and towels on top of the dresser, unscrewing the bottle as she came over.

“For the pain.” She lifted my head so I could drink, and I obeyed.

The stuff in the bottle was a new kind of burning, and I coughed my way through swallowing it. She urged me to take another sip, and I did, hating it the whole time.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” I whispered.

“I’m always here for you, America. You know that.” She smiled; and for the first time in our friendship, she seemed older than me, so calm and sure. “What in the world were you doing?”

I made a face. “It seemed like a good idea.”

Her eyes became sympathetic. “America, you are full of nothing but bad ideas. Great intentions but awful ideas.”

She was right, of course, and I should have known better by now. But having her here, even to tell me how dumb I’d been, made the whole thing less awful.

“How soundproof are these walls?” Anne asked.

“Pretty good,” Aspen said. “Don’t hear too much this deep in the palace.”

“Good,” she said. “Okay, I need everyone in the hall. Miss Marlee, I’m going to need some space, but you can stay.”

Marlee nodded. “I’ll keep out of your way, Anne.”

Avery left first, with Aspen trailing close behind him, and Maxon was last. The look in his eyes reminded me of the day I’d told him I’d gone hungry before: sad to know about it and devastated that he couldn’t undo it.

The door clicked shut, and Anne started working quickly. She’d already set up everything she needed and held out her hand to Marlee for the bottle.

“Gulp it,” she ordered, lifting my head.

I braced myself. I had to come off the lip of the bottle and go back to it several times because of the coughing, but I managed to get a good amount of it down. Or at least it was good enough for Anne.

“Hold this,” she said, passing me a small towel. “Bite down on it when things hurt.”

I nodded.

“The stitches won’t hurt like the cleaning will. I can see dirt from here, so I’m going to have to be thorough.” She sighed, looking again at the wound. “You’ll have a scar, but I’m going to make it as small as I can. We’ll put loose sleeves on your dresses for a few weeks to cover it while you heal. No one will know. And seeing as you were with the prince, I won’t ask questions. Whatever you did, I’ll trust it was something important.”

“I think so,” I said, not really sure anymore.

She got a towel wet and held it inches away from the gash. “Ready?”

I nodded.

I bit into the towel, hoping it would muffle the screams. I was sure that everyone in the hall could hear, but no one else probably would. It felt as if Anne was poking every nerve in my arm, and Marlee crawled on top of me to keep me from writhing.

“It’ll be over soon, America,” she promised. “Think of something happy. Think about your family.”

I tried. I fought to put May’s laugh or my dad’s knowing smile in the front of my thoughts, but they wouldn’t stay. I could only catch them long enough to feel them slip away under a new wave of pain.

How in the world did Marlee make it through her caning alive?

Once my wound was clean, Anne started sewing me up. She was right: the stitches didn’t hurt as much. I couldn’t tell if it was because it was actually less painful or if the liquor they’d given me was finally kicking in. It did seem like the edges of the room weren’t quite as sharp anymore.

Then people were back, talking about things, about me. Who should stay, who should go, what we would say in the morning . . . so many details that I couldn’t contribute to.

In the end, it was Maxon who scooped me up to return me to my room. It took some effort to hold my head upright, but it made it easier to hear him.

“How are you feeling?”

“Your eyes look like chocolate,” I mumbled.

He smiled. “And yours look like the morning sky.”

“Can I have water?”

“Yes. Lots,” he promised. “Let’s get her upstairs,” he said to someone else. And I fell asleep to the rocking of his steps.

CHAPTER 15

I WOKE WITH A HEADACHE. I moaned as I rubbed my temple, then yelped when the action sent a sharp pain across my arm.

“Here,” Mary said, coming to sit on the edge of my bed. She held out two pills and a glass of water.

I slowly pushed myself up to take her offering, my head throbbing through all of it. “What time is it?”

“Nearly eleven,” Mary said. “We sent word that you weren’t feeling well and wouldn’t be at breakfast. If we hurry, we could probably get you ready for lunch with the other Elite.”

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