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“As you wish, miss.”

Maxon was standing tentatively by the door, uncharacteristically waiting for an invitation to enter. He held a small, thin box, and he drummed his fingers against it, fidgeting. “Sorry to interrupt. I was wondering if I could have a moment.”

“Of course,” I said, walking over. “Please come in.” Maxon and I perched on the edge of my bed.

“I wanted to see you first,” he said, getting situated. “I wanted to explain before the others came in bragging.”

Explain? For some reason his words put me on edge. If the others were bragging, I was about to be excluded from something.

“What do you mean?” I realized I was biting my freshly glossed lip.

Maxon passed the box over to me. “I’ll clarify, I promise. But first, this is for you.”

I took the box and unhooked a small button in the front so I could open it. I think I inhaled every millimeter of air in the room.

Resting inside the box were a breathtaking set of earrings and matching bracelet. They coordinated beautifully, with blue and green gems woven into a subtle floral design.

“Maxon, I love it, but I can’t possibly take this. It’s too . . . too . . .”

“On the contrary, you must take them. It’s a gift, and it’s tradition that you wear them in the Convicting.”

“The what?”

He shook his head. “Silvia will explain all that; but the point is, it’s tradition for the prince to present the Elite with jewelry and for them to wear the pieces to the ceremony. There will be quite a few officials there, and you need to look your best. And unlike the things you’ve been presented with so far, these are all real and yours to keep.”

I smiled. Of course we wouldn’t have been given real jewelry to wear until now. I wondered how many girls had taken things home, thinking that if they hadn’t gotten Maxon, at least they got a few thousand in jewelry.

“They’re wonderful, Maxon. Just my taste. Thank you.”

Maxon raised a finger. “You’re welcome, and that’s part of what I wanted to discuss. I chose the gifts for each of you personally and intended that they should all be equal. However, you prefer to wear the necklace from your father, and I’m sure it would be a comfort to you in the middle of something as big as the Convicting. So, while the others got necklaces, you have a bracelet.”

He reached over to my hand and lifted it. “And I see you’re attached to your little button, and I’m glad you still like the bracelet I brought back from New Asia, but they really aren’t appropriate. Try this on so we can see how it rests.”

I took off Maxon’s bracelet and set it on the edge of my nightstand. But I took Aspen’s button and set it in my jar with its single penny. It seemed like it should be there for now.

I turned back and caught Maxon staring at the jar, something hard in his eyes. It disappeared swiftly enough, and he went to removing the bracelet from the box. His fingers tickled my skin, and when he moved away, I nearly gasped again at how beautiful his gift was.

“It really is perfect, Maxon.”

“I hoped you’d think so. But that is precisely why I needed to talk to you. I set out to spend the same amount on all of you. I wanted to be fair.”

I nodded. That sounded reasonable.

“The problem with that being, your tastes are much simpler than the others. And you have a bracelet as opposed to a necklace. I ended up spending half as much on you as the rest, and I wanted you to know that before you saw what I gave them. And I wanted you to know that it came from wanting to give you what I felt you would like the best, not because of your place or anything like that.” Maxon’s face was so sincere.

“Thank you, Maxon. I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” I said, placing a hand on his arm.

As always, he seemed so happy to be touched. “I suspected as much. Though thank you for saying so. I was afraid I might hurt you.”

“Not at all.”

Maxon’s smile grew. “Of course, I still wanted to be fair, so I had a thought.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin envelope. “Perhaps you would like to send the difference to your family.”

I stared at the envelope. “Are you serious?”

“Of course. I want to be impartial, and I thought this would be the best way to handle the discrepancy. And I hoped it would make you happy.” He placed the envelope in my hands, and I took it, still shocked.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know. But sometimes it’s about what you want to do, not what you have to.”

Our eyes met, and I realized that he did a lot for me out of simply wanting to. Giving me pants when I wasn’t allowed to wear them, bringing me a bracelet from the other side of the world . . .

Surely he loved me. Right? Why wouldn’t he just say it?

We’re alone, Maxon. If you say it, I’ll say it back.

Nothing.

“I don’t know how to thank you for this, Maxon.”

He smiled. “Hearing you say it is nice.” He cleared his throat. “I’m always interested in hearing how you feel.”

Oh, no. Nope. I was not putting it out there first.

“Well, I’m very grateful. As always.”

Maxon sighed. “I’m happy you like it.” Unsatisfied, he took to watching the carpet. “I need to go. I still have to deliver the gifts to the others.”

We stood together, and I escorted him to the door. As he left, he turned and kissed my hand. With a friendly nod of his head, he disappeared around the corner to visit the others.

I walked back to the bed and looked again at my gifts. I couldn’t believe that something this beautiful was mine to keep, forever. I vowed to myself that, even if I went home and all the money ran out and my family was absolutely destitute, I would never sell these or give them away, or the bracelet he’d gotten me in New Asia. I would hold on to them no matter what.

“The Convicting is simple enough,” Silvia said to us the next afternoon as we followed her to the Great Room. “It’s one of those things that sounds much more challenging than it is, but above all it’s symbolic.

“It will be a grand event. There will be several magistrates here, not to mention the extended members of the royal family, and enough cameras to make your heads spin,” Silvia barked over her shoulder.

So far this was sounding anything but simple. We rounded the corner, and Silvia flung open the doors to the Great Room. In the middle of the space was Queen Amberly herself, giving instructions to men setting up rows of stadium seats. In another corner, someone was debating which carpet to roll out, and two florists were discussing which blossoms would be most appropriate. They apparently didn’t think the Christmas decorations should stay. So much was happening, I almost forgot Christmas was coming at all.

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