“I had a thought about my guests for the upcoming tea party, but I would need your approval.”
He looked at me, confused.
“And I want you to know everything I would intend to discuss with them. We might be breaking several laws, so I won’t do it if you say not to.”
Intrigued, Maxon propped himself up on one arm to listen. “Tell me everything.”
THE BACKDROP FOR OUR PHOTOS was plain and light blue. My maids put together a lovely dress for me, with little off-the-shoulder cuffs that just covered my scar. For now, my days of strapless gowns were gone.
Though I looked pretty good, I was completely overshadowed by Nicoletta, and even Georgia was dazzling in her gown.
“Lady America,” the woman next to the camera called. “We remember Princess Nicoletta from when the women of the Italian royal family came to visit the palace, but who is your other guest?”
“This is Georgia, a dear friend of mine,” I replied sweetly. “One of the things that I’ve learned from the Selection so far is that moving forward means joining your life before coming to the palace with the future that lies in front of you. I’m hoping to make another step in joining those two worlds today.”
Some of those standing around let out satisfied noises as the cameras continued to capture the three of us.
“Excellent, ladies,” the photographer said. “You can go enjoy the party. We’ll be taking some candid shots later.”
“Sounds fun,” I answered, motioning for my guests to come with me.
Maxon had made it clear that of all days, today was one when I really needed to be on. I hoped to be the lead example of what an Elite should be, but it was hard for me to try and be so perfect.
“Tone it down, America, or rainbows are going to shoot out of your eyes.” I loved that even though our friendship was brief, Georgia could see right through my act.
I laughed, and Nicoletta joined in. “She’s right. You do seem a bit perky.”
I sighed with a smile. “Sorry. Today is a high-stakes kind of day.”
Georgia put an arm on my shoulder as we walked deeper into the room. “After everything you and Maxon have been through, I highly doubt he’ll send you home over a tea party.”
“That’s not exactly what I mean. But we’ll have to talk about it later.” I turned to face them. “Right now, it would be a huge help to me if we could mingle. Once things settle down, we need to have a pretty serious discussion.”
Nicoletta looked over at Georgia, then back to me. “What kind of friend are you introducing me to here?”
“A valuable one. I swear. I’ll explain later.”
For their part, Georgia and Nicoletta made me shine. As a princess, Nicoletta was quite possibly the best guest in the room, and I saw in Kriss’s eyes that she wished she had thought of that. Of course, she didn’t have a direct line to Italian royalty like I did. Nicoletta herself had given me a phone number to contact her if I ever needed to.
No one knew who Georgia was, but when they’d heard my line—the one Maxon had specifically fed to me—about joining my past and my future, they thought that was a spectacular idea as well.
Elise’s choices were predictable. Powerful but predictable. Two very distant cousins from New Asia representing her ties to the leaders of the nation paraded next to her in their traditional dresses. Kriss had chosen a professor from the college her father worked at and her mother. I was dreading my family hearing about that. When Mom or May realized they had a chance to be here, I was sure to get a very disappointed letter from them.
Celeste, true to her word, brought full-fledged celebrities. Tessa Tamble—who had allegedly given a show at Celeste’s last birthday party—was there in a very short but glamorous dress. Celeste’s other guest was Kirstie Summer, another musician who was mostly known for her outlandish concerts, and her outfit was more like a costume. My guess was that it was either something she usually performed in or an experiment in painted leather. Either way, I was surprised she got through the door, both because of the way she was dressed and the fact that if you passed within a foot of her, you could smell the alcohol radiating off her.
“Nicoletta,” Queen Amberly said, approaching us. “How wonderful to see you again.”
They exchanged kisses on both cheeks before Nicoletta spoke. “The joy is all mine. I was elated when I received America’s invitation. We all had such a wonderful time on our last visit.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” the queen commented. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit calmer today.”
“I don’t know,” Nicoletta countered, pointing over to where Kirstie and Tessa were standing in a corner and talking loudly. “I’m betting those two will send me home with at least one story.”
We all laughed, though I could see a little anxiety in the queen’s eyes. “I suppose I should go introduce myself.”
“Always the picture of bravery,” I joked.
She smiled. “Please, relax and enjoy yourselves. I hope you get to meet some new acquaintances but, honestly, just take some time together with your friends.”
I nodded, and Queen Amberly left to meet Celeste’s guests. Tessa was looking fine, but Kirstie appeared to be picking up and smelling every finger sandwich on a nearby table. I made a mental note not to eat anything near where she’d been standing.
I surveyed the room. Everyone seemed busy eating or talking, so I decided now was as good a time as any.
“Follow me,” I said, heading to a small table in the back. We sat, and a maid brought us tea. Once we were alone, I dived in, hoping this would go smoothly.
“Georgia, first, I haven’t had a chance to apologize about Micah.”
She was shaking her head even as I spoke. “He always wanted to be a hero. We all accept that things might . . . end like that. But I think he was proud.”
“I’m still really sorry. Is there anything we can do?”
“No. Everything’s taken care of. Trust me, he wouldn’t have chosen a different end,” she insisted.
I thought of the mouselike boy in the corner of the room that night. He willingly ran out into the fray for me, for all of us. Bravery hides in amazing places.
I turned back to the matter at hand. “Well, Georgia, as you can see, Nicoletta is the princess of Italy. She visited with us a few weeks ago.” I looked between them. “At that time she made it clear that Italy would like to be an ally to Illéa if certain things changed.”
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