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As I was about to hit the stairwell, I was whipped back again. Maxon held me tightly, both of his hands gripping my arms. Surely he could see how furious I still was, but in the seconds that had passed, his demeanor had shifted completely.

“I’m not him,” he said.

“What?” I demanded, trying to free myself.

“America, stop.” I huffed and quit struggling. Without any other options, I looked into Maxon’s eyes. “I’m not him, all right?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

He sighed. “I know that you spent years pouring yourself into another person who you thought was going to love you forever; and when he was faced with the realities of the world, he abandoned you.” I froze, taking in his words. “I’m not him, America. I have no intentions of giving up on you.”

I shook my head. “You can’t see it, Maxon. He might have let me down, but at least I knew him. After all this time, I still feel like there’s a gap between us. The Selection has forced you to hand over your affection in slices. I’ll never really have all of you. None of us will.”

When I shrugged myself free this time, he didn’t fight me.

CHAPTER 22

I DIDN’T REMEMBER MUCH OF the Report. I sat on my pedestal, thinking as every second passed that I was that much closer to being sent home. Then it dawned on me that staying wasn’t much better. If I caved and read those horrible messages, the king would win. Maybe Maxon did love me, but if he wasn’t man enough to say it out loud, then how could he ever protect me from the most frightening thing in my life: his father.

I would always be bending to King Clarkson’s will; and for all the support Maxon had from the Northern rebels, behind these walls, he would be alone.

I was angry at Maxon, and I was angry at his father, and I was angry at the Selection and everything that came with it. All the frustration knotted itself around my heart to the point where it made no sense, and I wished more than anything that I could talk to the girls about what was going on.

That wasn’t possible though. It wouldn’t make anything better for me, and it would only make things worse for them. Sooner or later, I’d have to face my concerns by myself.

I peeked to my left, looking down the row of the Elite. I realized that whoever stayed would have to face this without the rest of us. The pressures the public would set on us, demanding to be a part of our lives, as well as the commands of the king, ever seeking to use anyone within reach as a tool in his plans—all on the shoulders of one girl.

I tentatively reached out for Celeste’s hand, fingers brushing against hers. The second she felt them, she took hold, looking into my eyes with concern.

What’s wrong? she mouthed.

I shrugged.

And so she just held my hand.

After a minute, she seemed to get a little sad, too. While the men in suits prattled on, she stretched out, reaching for Kriss’s hand. Kriss didn’t question it, and it took her only seconds to extend her hand for Elise’s.

And there we were, in the background of it all, holding on to one another. The Perfectionist, the Sweetheart, the Diva . . . and me.

I spent the next morning in the Women’s Room, being as obedient as I could. Several of the extended family members were in town, ready to spend Christmas Day in style. Tonight there was supposed to be a magnificent dinner and carol singing. Typically Christmas Eve was one of my favorite times of the year, but I felt too unsettled to even get excited.

There was a fantastic meal that I didn’t taste and beautiful gifts from the public that I barely saw. I was crushed.

As the relatives started getting tipsy on eggnog, I slipped away, not up to pretending to be jolly. By the end of the night, I’d either have to agree to do King Clarkson’s ridiculous commercials or let him send me home. I needed to think.

Back in my room, I sent my maids away and sat at my table, considering. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to tell the people to be satisfied with what they had, even if it was nothing. I didn’t want to discourage people from helping one another. I didn’t want to eliminate the possibility of more, to be the face and voice of a campaign that said, “Be still. Let the king run your life. That’s the best you can hope for.”

But . . . didn’t I love Maxon?

A second later, a knock came at the door. I reluctantly went to answer it, dreading King Clarkson’s cold eyes as he followed through on his ultimatum.

I opened the door to Maxon. He stood there wordlessly.

And all my anger made sense. I wanted everything from him and everything for him, because I wanted every piece of him. It was infuriating that everyone had to have their hands on this—the girls, his parents, even Aspen. So many conditions and opinions and obligations surrounded us, and I hated Maxon because they came with him.

And I loved him even so.

I was about to agree to do those awful announcements when he quietly held out his hand.

“Come with me?”

“Okay.”

I closed the door behind me and followed Maxon down the hall.

“You have a point,” he started. “I am afraid to show all of you every piece of me. You get some, Kriss gets others, and so on. And I’ve based that on what feels appropriate for each of you. With you, I always like coming to you, to your room. It’s as if I’m stepping into a bit of your world, and if I do that enough, I can get all of you. Does that make sense?”

“Kind of,” I said as we turned up the stairs.

“But that’s not really fair, or even accurate. You explained to me once that these are our rooms, not yours. Anyway, I thought it was time I show you another piece of my world, maybe the last one where you’re concerned.”

“Oh?”

He nodded as we stopped in front of a door. “My room.”

“Really?”

“Only Kriss has seen it, and that was a bit of an impulse. I’m not unhappy I showed her, but I feel as if it pushed things forward quickly. You know how private I can be.”

“I do.”

He wrapped his fingers around the handle. “I’ve wanted to share this with you, and I think it’s well past the time. It’s not exactly something special, but it’s mine. So, I don’t know, I just want you to see it.”

“Okay.” I could tell he was feeling bashful, like maybe he’d built it up to be a bigger deal than it was, or maybe he’d regret showing me at all.

He took a deep breath and opened the door, letting me walk in first.

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