I stepped away and swatted at him. He laughed, happy to have broken through the uneasiness.
“Let’s forget about it,” I proposed.
“Very well,” he agreed. “Besides, we have a project to work on, you and I.”
“Yes, and since my father is gone, this will be a convenient time to start brainstorming.”
“All right,” I said, excited to be a part of something that was just between the two of us.
He sighed, making me nervous about what he was planning. “You’re right. Father doesn’t approve of you. But he might be forced to bend if we can manage one thing.”
“We have to make you the people’s favorite.”
I rolled my eyes. “That is what we’re working on? Maxon, that’s never going to happen. I saw a poll in one of Celeste’s magazines after I tried to save Marlee. People can hardly stand me.”
“Opinions change. Don’t let that one moment bring you down too much.”
I still felt hopeless, but what could I say? If this was my only option, I had to at least try.
“Fine,” I said. “But I’m telling you, this won’t work.”
With an impish grin on his face, he came very close and gave me a long, slow kiss. “And I’m telling you it will.”
I WALKED INTO THE WOMEN’S Room, thoughts focused on Maxon’s new plan. The queen hadn’t shown up yet, and the girls were all laughing in a clump by the windows.
“America, come here!” Kriss said urgently. Even Celeste turned back smiling, waving me over.
I was a little uneasy about what could be waiting for me, but I walked to the huddle anyway.
“Oh, my goodness!” I squealed.
“I know,” Celeste sighed.
There, running laps in the garden without their shirts on, were half of the guards in the palace. Aspen had told me that all guards got injections to help keep them strong, but apparently they also did a lot of work to keep their bodies in peak condition.
While we were all devoted to Maxon, the sight of cute boys was something we couldn’t ignore.
“The guy with blond hair,” Kriss said. “Well, I think he’s a blond. Their hair is so short!”
“I like this one,” Elise said quietly as another guard ran past our window.
Kriss giggled. “I can’t believe we’re doing this!”
“Oh, oh! That guy, right there with the green eyes,” Celeste said, pointing to Aspen.
Kriss sighed. “I danced with him at Halloween, and he’s as funny as he is good-looking.”
“I danced with him, too,” Celeste bragged. “Easily the most gorgeous guard in the palace.”
I had to laugh a little. I wondered how she would feel if she knew he used to be a Six.
I watched him run and thought about the hundreds of times those arms had embraced me. The distance growing between Aspen and me felt unavoidable, but even now I had to wonder if there was a way to keep some piece of what we had. What if I needed him?
“What about you, America?” Kriss asked.
The only one who really caught my eye was Aspen, and after feeling that ache for him, this felt kind of stupid. I dodged the question.
“I don’t know. They’re all kind of nice.”
“Kind of nice?” Celeste echoed. “You have to be kidding! These are some of the best-looking guys I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s only a bunch of boys without their shirts on,” I countered.
“Yeah, why don’t you enjoy it for a minute before it’s just the three of us you have to look at,” she said snippily.
“Whatever. Maxon looks just as good without his shirt on as any of those guys.”
“What?” Kriss shrieked.
A second after the words slipped out of my mouth, I realized what I’d said. Three sets of eyes focused in on me.
“When were you and Maxon topless, exactly?” Celeste demanded.
“But he was?” Kriss asked. “Was that what that god-awful dress was about yesterday?”
Celeste gasped. “You slut!”
“Excuse me!” I yelled.
“Well, what else would you expect?” she snapped, crossing her arms. “Unless you want to tell us all what happened and why we’re so wrong.”
But there was no way to explain this. Undressing Maxon hadn’t exactly been a romantic moment, but I couldn’t tell them I’d been tending to wounds on his back specifically delivered by his father. He’d spent his life guarding that secret. If I betrayed him now, it would be the end of us.
“Celeste was half-naked up against him in a hallway!” I accused, pointing a finger at her.
Her mouth popped open. “How did you know?”
“Has everyone been getting naked with Maxon?” Elise asked, horrified.
“We weren’t naked!” I shouted.
“Okay,” Kriss said, putting out her arms. “We need to clear this up. Who has done what with Maxon?”
Everyone was quiet for a moment, not wanting to speak up first.
“I’ve kissed him,” Elise said. “Three times, but that’s it.”
“I haven’t kissed him at all,” Kriss confessed. “But that’s by my own choosing. He would kiss me if I’d let him.”
“Really? Not once?” Celeste asked, shocked.
“Well, I’ve kissed him plenty.” Celeste flipped her hair, deciding to be proud instead of embarrassed. “The best was in the hallway one night.” She eyed me. “We kept whispering about how exciting it was that we might get caught.”
Finally all eyes were on me. I thought of the king’s words, suggesting that maybe the other girls were being much more promiscuous than I was prepared to be. But now I knew it was one more weapon in his arsenal, a way to make me feel insignificant. I came clean.
“I was Maxon’s first kiss, not Olivia. I didn’t want anyone to know. And we’ve had a few . . . more intimate moments, and one of those times Maxon’s shirt came off.”
“Came off? Like it magically flew over his head?” Celeste pressed.
“He took it off,” I admitted.
Not satisfied, Celeste pushed on. “He took it off or you took it off?”
“I guess we both did.”
After a charged moment, Kriss started again. “Okay, so now we all know where we stand.”
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