“I watch you do it, America. You compare yourself to my mother, to the other Elite, to a version of yourself you think you ought to be, and now you’re about to do the same thing with a person you didn’t know existed until a few hours ago.”
It was true. I was already wondering if she was prettier than me, smarter than me, and if she said Maxon’s name with a ridiculously flirtatious accent.
“America,” he said, cupping my face in his hand. “If she had mattered, I would have told you. The same way you would with me.”
My stomach turned. I hadn’t been completely honest with Maxon. But with his eyes right there, staring so deeply into mine, it was easy to dismiss all that. I could forget about everything surrounding us when he looked at me like that. And so I did.
I fell into Maxon’s arms, holding him tightly. There was no place in the world I wanted to be more.
CELESTE HAD BECOME THE CHAMPION of our newfound sisterhood. It was her idea to drag all our maids and a bunch of big mirrors down to the Women’s Room and essentially spend the day making one another over. There wasn’t much point, seeing as there was no way any of us could do a better job than the palace staff, but it was fun all the same.
Kriss held the ends of my hair across my forehead. “Have you ever considered getting bangs?”
“A couple of times,” I admitted, fluffing the fringe hanging just above my eyes. “But my sister usually ends up annoyed with hers, so I change my mind.”
“I think you’d look cute,” Kriss said enthusiastically. “I cut some for my cousin once. I could do yours if you want.”
“Yeah,” Celeste chimed in. “Let her near your face with scissors, America. Great idea.”
We all burst into laughter. I even noticed a tiny giggle from the other end of the room. I glanced over to see the queen pursing her lips together tightly as she attempted to read the file in front of her. I was worried she’d find all this a bit improper, but, honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen her so happy.
“We should take pictures!” Elise said.
“Anyone got a camera?” Celeste asked. “I’m a pro at this.”
“Maxon does!” Kriss shouted. “Come here for a minute,” she said to a maid, waving her over encouragingly.
“Hold on,” I said, grabbing some paper. “Okay, okay. ‘Your Highest of Highnesses, the ladies of the Elite require, immediately, the least fancy of your cameras for . . .’”
Kriss giggled, and Celeste shook her head.
“Oh! A study in feminine diplomacy,” Elise added.
“Is that a real thing?” Kriss asked.
Celeste tossed her hair. “Who cares?”
Maybe twenty minutes later, Maxon knocked on the door and pushed it open an inch. “Can I come in?”
Kriss ran over. “No. We just want the camera.” And she snatched it from his hand and closed the door in his face.
Celeste fell on the floor, laughing.
“What are you doing in there?” he called. But we were all too busy doubling over to answer.
There were lots of poses behind the shrubs and a thousand kisses blown, and Celeste showed us all how to “find the light.”
As Kriss and Elise lay down on the couch and Celeste climbed above them to snap more photos, I looked over and saw the satisfied smile on the queen’s face. It felt wrong that she wasn’t a part of this. I snatched up one of the brushes and walked over to her.
“Hello, Lady America,” she greeted.
“Could I brush your hair?”
Several emotions played across her face, but she only nodded and spoke quietly. “Of course.”
I walked behind her and picked up a handful of her absolutely gorgeous hair. I raked the brush down again and again, watching the other girls as I did so.
“It does my heart good to see you all getting along,” she commented.
“Me, too. I like them.” I was quiet for a while. “I’m sorry about the Convicting. I know I shouldn’t have done that. I just . . .”
“I know, dear. You explained it all beforehand. It’s a difficult task. And you did seem to have a sickly bunch.”
I realized then how out of the loop she was. Or maybe she simply chose to believe the best about her husband at all costs.
As if she could read my thoughts, she spoke. “I know you think Clarkson’s harsh, but he’s a good man. You have no idea how stressful it is to be in his shoes. We all deal with it in our own ways. He has a temper sometimes; I need lots of rest; Maxon jokes it off.”
“He does, doesn’t he?” I said, laughing.
“The question is, how would you handle it?” She turned her head. “I think your passion is one of your best features. If you could learn to control it, you could be a wonderful princess.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry I let you down.”
“No, no, dear,” she said, turning forward. “I see potential in you. I worked in a factory when I was your age. I was dirty and hungry, and sometimes I was angry. But I had an undying crush on the prince of Illéa, and when I got the chance to make him my own, I learned to check those feelings. There’s a lot to be done from here, but it might not happen the way you want it to. You need to learn to accept that, okay?”
“Yes, Mom,” I joked.
She looked back at me, her face like stone.
“I mean, ma’am. Ma’am.”
Her eyes started glistening, and she blinked a few times, turning forward again. “If it ends as I suspect it will, Mom will be just fine.”
And then it was my turn to blink back the tears. It wasn’t like I was ever going to replace my mother; but it felt special to be accepted, with all my flaws, by the mother of the person I might marry.
Celeste turned and saw us, and she ran over. “You’re so cute! Smile.”
I leaned down, wrapping my arms around Queen Amberly, and she reached up to touch my hands. After that, we all took turns crowding around her, getting her to finally make one silly face for the camera. The maids helped take pictures so we could all be in some together; and, by the end of it, I could easily say that was my best day in the palace. I didn’t know if that would hold though. Christmas was right around the corner.
My maids were fixing my hair after Elise’s last terrible attempt at an up-do when there was a knock on the door.
Mary rushed to answer it, and a guard whose name I didn’t know came into the room. I’d seen him around a lot, almost exclusively at the king’s side.
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