I’d thought about how my life would change if I won or lost a million times, but I’d never considered what it would mean for the others. After everything with Celeste, I really should have.
Kriss put a hand on Elise’s. “Almost all the girls who went home are already engaged to wonderful men. To be a part of the Selection at all makes you a prize. And you made it to the top four of the Elite at the very least. Trust me, Elise, guys will be lined up around the block for you.”
Elise smiled. “I don’t need a line. I just need one.”
“Well, I need a line,” Celeste said, making us all chuckle, even Elise.
“I’d like a handful,” Kriss said. “A line does sound overwhelming.”
They looked at me. “One.”
“You’re nuts,” Celeste decided.
We talked for a while about Maxon, about home, about our hopes. We’d never really spoken like this, without any kind of wall between us. Kriss and I had been working on it, trying to be honest and upfront about the competition; but now that we could just talk about life, I could tell that our relationships would survive the palace. Elise was a surprise, but the fact that her perspective came from such a different place than mine made me think on a deeper level, opening me up.
And the bombshell: Celeste. If someone had told me that the brunette in the heels who walked over so menacingly that first day in the airport would be the girl I was happiest to have settled next to me at this very moment, I would have laughed in their face. The thought was almost as unbelievable as the fact that I was still here, one of the last girls and very heartbroken about how close I was to losing Maxon.
As we spoke, I could see her being accepted by the others as fully as she was now by me. She even looked different with the weight of her secrets cast off from her. Celeste had been raised to be a specific kind of pretty. That beauty depended on covering things up, shifting the light, and seeking to be perfect at all times. But there is a different kind of beauty that comes with humility and honesty, and she was glowing with it now.
Maxon must have walked up very quietly, because I had no idea how long he had been standing at the door, watching us. It was Elise who saw his figure on the edge of my room and stiffened first.
“Your Majesty,” she said, bowing her head.
We all looked over, sure we’d misheard her.
“Ladies.” He nodded his head back at us. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I think I just ruined something here.”
We looked at one another, and I felt sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, No, you made something really amazing.
“Everything’s fine,” I said.
“Again, I’m sorry to intrude, but I need to speak to America. Alone.”
Celeste sighed and started moving, looking back to wink at me before she stood. Elise rose quickly, and Kriss followed, giving my leg a little squeeze as she hopped off the bed. Elise gave Maxon a curtsy as she left, while Kriss paused to straighten his lapel. Celeste walked up, as strong as I’d ever seen her, and whispered something into Maxon’s ear.
When she was done, he smiled. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Good.” She left, closing the door behind her, and I stood to take whatever was coming.
“What was that about?” I asked, nodding toward the door.
“Oh, Celeste was making it clear that if I hurt you, she’d make me cry,” he said with a smile.
I laughed. “I’ve been on the receiving end of those nails, so be careful there.”
I took in a breath, letting my smile fade. “So?”
“Are you going to do it?”
Maxon grinned and shook his head. “No. It was an intriguing thought for a moment, but I don’t want to start over. I like my imperfect girls.” He shrugged, his face content. “Besides, Father doesn’t know about August, or what the Northern rebels’ goals are, or any of that. His solutions are shortsighted. Jumping ship now would be just that.”
I sighed in relief. I’d hoped that Maxon cared about me enough not to let me go, but after sitting with the girls, I didn’t want to see that happen to them either.
“Besides,” he added, seeming pleased, “you should have seen the press.”
“Why? What happened?” I begged, moving closer.
“They were impressed with you once again. I don’t think even I quite understand the mood of the country right now. It’s as if . . . it’s as if they know things could be different. The way he governs the country is the same way he governs me. He feels no one is capable of making the right decisions but him, so he forces his opinions on people. And, after reading Gregory’s diaries, it sounds like it’s been that way for a while.
“But no one wants that anymore. People want a choice.” Maxon shook his head. “You’re terrifying to him, but he can’t expel you. They adore you, America.”
I swallowed. “Adore?”
He nodded. “And . . . I feel similarly. So, no matter what he says or does, don’t lose faith. This isn’t over.”
I placed my fingers on my lips, shocked by the news. The Selection would continue, the girls and I still had our chance, and, based on Maxon’s report, the people were approving of me more and more.
But for all the good news, one thing was still pressing on me.
I looked down at the blanket, almost afraid to ask. “I know this will sound stupid . . . but who’s the French king’s daughter?”
Maxon was silent for a moment before he sat down on the bed. “Her name is Daphne. Before the Selection, she was the only girl I really knew.”
He huffed out a soundless laugh. “And a little late in the game I discovered her feelings for me went a little bit deeper than friendship. But I didn’t return those feelings. I couldn’t.”
“Was there something wrong with her or—”
“America, no.” Maxon reached for my hand, forcing me to look at him. “Daphne is my friend. That’s all she ever could be. I spent my life waiting for you, for all of you. This was my chance to find a wife, and I’ve known that for as long as I can remember. Romantically, my interactions with Daphne were nonexistent. I’d never have thought to mention her name to you, and I’m certain the only reason Father did was to give you yet another opportunity to doubt yourself.”
I bit my lip. The king knew my weaknesses too well.
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