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“Really, Anne. It would make me so happy.”

She sighed. “Well, there’s one thing. . . .”

“Please tell me.”

Anne raised her eyes from the sink. “But you couldn’t let it slip to anyone. Mary and Lucy would never let me live it down.”

I creased my forehead. “What do you mean?”

“It’s . . . it’s very personal.” She started fidgeting with her hands, something she never did, and I knew this was important to her.

“Okay, come talk to me about it,” I encouraged, wrapping my good arm around her shoulder and ushering her to the table to sit with me.

She crossed her ankles and put her hands in her lap. “See, it’s just that you get along with him so well. He seems to think so highly of you.”

“You mean Maxon?”

“No,” she whispered, a wild blush filling her cheeks.

“I don’t understand.”

She took a deep breath. “Officer Leger.”

“Ooooh,” I said, more shocked than I could express.

“You think it’s hopeless, don’t you?”

“Not hopeless,” I insisted. I just didn’t know how to tell the person who’d promised he’d always fight for me that he should pursue her instead.

“He’s always speaking so kindly of you. I know if you maybe mentioned me to him, or could even find out if he’s got a girlfriend at home . . .”

I sighed. “I can try, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Oh, I know. Don’t worry. I’ve been telling myself it won’t happen, but I can’t stop thinking about him.”

I tilted my head. “I know how that is.”

She put a hand in front of her. “And it’s not because he’s a Two. If he was an Eight, I’d want someone like him.”

“Lots of people would,” I said. And that was true. Celeste noticed him, Kriss said he was funny, and even that Delilah woman sounded like she had a crush on him. That wasn’t even taking into account all the girls back home who’d chased him. Hearing things like that didn’t bother me so much anymore, not even from someone as close to me as Anne.

It was one more thing that made me sure that my feelings for Aspen were gone. If I was happy to suggest that someone else should take my place, then I really didn’t belong with him.

Still, I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject.

I reached over the polished wood and put my hand on hers. “I’ll try, Anne. I swear.”

She smiled but bit her lip anxiously. “Just please don’t tell the others.”

I held her hand tighter. “You’ve always kept my secrets. I’ll always keep yours.”

CHAPTER 16

IT WAS ONLY A FEW hours later when Aspen knocked on my door. My maids merely curtsied and exited, knowing without instruction that whatever we would say needed to be private.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not too bad,” I said. “My arm throbs a bit and I have a headache, but otherwise I’m fine.”

He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have let you go.”

I patted the space beside me on the bed. “Come sit.”

He hesitated a bit. In my mind now, he was past suspicion. Maxon and my maids knew we communicated, and he’d led us out of the palace last night. Where was the risk? He must have thought the same thing, because he finally sat¸ choosing to keep a respectable distance just in case.

“I’m a part of this, Aspen. I couldn’t have stayed behind. And there’s nothing wrong with me. I honestly owe that to you. You saved me last night.”

“If I hadn’t been fast enough, or if Maxon hadn’t gotten you over that wall, you’d be a prisoner somewhere right now. I almost let you die. I almost let Maxon die.” He shook his head at the floor. “Do you know what would have happened to Avery and me if you two hadn’t made it back? Do you know what—” He paused, seeming to hold back tears. “Do you know what would have happened to me if we hadn’t found you?”

Aspen looked at me, into me. The pain in his eyes was clear.

“But you did. You found me, you protected me, and you got me help. You were amazing.” I put my hand on Aspen’s back, running it up and down, trying to comfort him.

“I’m just realizing, Mer, that no matter what happens . . . there will always be a string tying you to me. I’ll never not worry about you. I’ll never not care about what you do. You’ll always be something to me.”

I took my hand and laced it through his arm, resting my head on his shoulder. “I know what you mean.”

We stayed like that for a while, and I guessed that maybe Aspen was doing the same thing I was: replaying everything in his head. The way we avoided each other as children, the way we couldn’t stop looking at each other when we were older, a thousand stolen moments in the tree house—all the things that made us who we were.

“America, I need to say something.” I lifted my head, and Aspen turned to face me, holding me gently by my arms. “When I told you that I would always love you, I meant it. And I . . . I . . .”

He couldn’t manage to get the words out, and to be honest, I was grateful. Yes, I was tied to him, but we weren’t that couple in the tree house anymore.

He gave a weak laugh. “I guess I need some sleep. I can’t think straight.”

“You and me both. And there’s so much to think about.”

He nodded. “Look, Mer, we can’t do that again. Don’t tell Maxon I’ll help him with something so risky, and don’t expect me to sneak you anywhere.”

“I’m not sure it was worth it anyway. I can’t imagine Maxon would want to go again.”

“Good.” He stood, then picked up my hand and kissed it. “My lady,” he said, his voice teasing.

I smiled and squeezed his hand a little. And he did the same back. As we held hands, my grip tightening more every second, I realized that soon I’d need to let go. I’d need to really let go.

I looked into Aspen’s eyes, and I could feel the tears threatening to come. How do I say good-bye to you?

He ran his thumb over the back of my hand and placed it on my lap. He bent and kissed my hair. “Take it easy. I’ll come check on you tomorrow.”

After a quick tug of my ear at dinner, Maxon knew I would be waiting for him tonight. I sat in front of my mirror, wishing the minutes would move faster. Mary brushed the length of my hair, calmly humming to herself. I vaguely recognized the tune as something I once played at someone’s wedding. When I’d gotten chosen for the Selection, I’d wanted so badly to find my way back to that life. I wanted a world full of the music I’d always loved.

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