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He sighed, searching for the words. “I can’t tell you she means nothing. I can tell you that you mean more.”

“How am I supposed to be sure of that if you can’t send her home?”

A devilish smirk came to his face. He moved his lips to my ear. “I can think of a few other ways to show you how you make me feel,” he whispered.

I swallowed, both frightened and hopeful he’d say more. His body was now up against mine, his hand low on my back, holding me to him. The other hand pushed my hair off my neck. I trembled as he ran his open lips over a tiny patch of skin, his breath so very tempting.

It was as if I forgot how to use my limbs. I couldn’t hold on to him or think of how to move. But Maxon took care of that, backing me up a few steps so I was pressed against his collection of pictures.

“I want you, America,” he murmured into my ear. “I want you to be mine alone. And I want to give you everything.” His lips kissed their way across my cheek, stopping at the corner of my mouth. “I want to give you things you didn’t know you wanted. I want”—he breathed into me—“so desperately to—”

A loud knock came at the door.

I was so lost in Maxon’s touch and words and scent that the sound was jarring. We both turned toward the door, but Maxon quickly put his lips back on mine.

“Don’t move. I fully intend to finish this conversation.” He kissed me slowly, then pulled away.

I stood there gasping for air. I told myself this was probably a bad idea, to let him kiss me into a confession. But, I reasoned, if there was ever a way to cave, this was it.

He opened the door, shielding me from the visitor. I ran my hands through my hair, trying to pull myself together.

“Sorry, Your Majesty,” someone said. “We’re looking for Lady America, and her maids said she would be with you.”

I wondered how my maids had guessed, but I was pleased they seemed so in tune with me. Maxon’s brow furrowed as he looked toward me and opened the door all the way to allow the guard to walk through. He came in, and his eyes had the air of inspecting me, like he was double-checking. Once he was satisfied, he leaned over Maxon’s shoulder and whispered something.

Maxon’s shoulders slumped, and he brought his hand to his eyes as if he was unable to deal with the news.

“Are you all right?” I asked, not wanting him to suffer alone.

He turned toward me, sympathy in his face. “I’m so sorry, America. I hate to be the one to tell you this. Your father has died.”

I didn’t quite understand the words for a minute. But no matter how I arranged them in my head, they all led to the same unthinkable conclusion.

And then the room tilted, and Maxon’s expression became urgent. The last thing I felt was Maxon’s arms keeping me from hitting the floor.

CHAPTER 23

“—UNDERSTAND. SHE’LL WANT TO VISIT her family.”

“If she does, it can only be for a day at the most. I don’t approve of her, but the people are fond of her, not to mention the Italians. It would be very inconvenient if she died.”

I opened my eyes. I was on my bed, but not under my covers. I saw out of the corner of my eye that Mary was in the room with me.

The shouting voices were muted, and I realized that was because they were just outside my door.

“That won’t be enough. She loved her father dearly; she’ll want time,” Maxon argued.

I heard something like a fist hitting a wall, and Mary and I both jumped at the sound. “Fine,” the king huffed. “Four days. That’s it.”

“What if she decides not to come back? Even though this wasn’t rebel caused, she might want to stay.”

“If she’s dumb enough to want that, then good riddance. She was supposed to give me an answer about those announcements anyway, and if she’s not willing, then she can stay home.”

“She said she would. She told me earlier tonight,” Maxon lied. But he knew, didn’t he?

“About time. As soon as she returns, we’ll get her in the studio. I want this done by the New Year.” His tone was irritated, even as he got what he wanted.

There was a pause before Maxon dared to speak. “I want to go with her.”

“Like hell you will!” King Clarkson yelled.

“We’re down to four, Father. That girl might be my wife. Am I supposed to send her alone?”

“Yes! If she dies, it’s one thing. If you die, it’s a whole other issue. You’re staying here!”

I thought the fist hitting the wall this time was Maxon’s. “I am not a commodity! And neither are they! I wish for once you would look at me and see a person.”

The door opened quickly, and Maxon came in. “I’m so sorry,” he said, walking over and sitting on the bed. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Is it real?”

“Yes, darling. He’s gone.” He gently took my hand, looking pained. “There was a problem with his heart.”

I sat up and threw myself into Maxon’s arms. He held me tightly, letting me weep into his shoulder.

“Daddy,” I cried. “Daddy.”

“Hush, darling. It’ll be all right,” Maxon soothed. “You’ll fly out tomorrow morning to go pay your respects.”

“I didn’t get to say good-bye. I didn’t . . .”

“America, listen to me. Your father loved you. He was proud you’d done so well. He wouldn’t hold this against you.”

I nodded, knowing he was right. Practically everything my dad had told me since I’d come here was about how proud he was.

“This is what you need to do, okay?” he instructed, wiping tears off my cheeks. “You need to sleep as best as you can. You’ll fly out tomorrow and stay at home for four days with your family. I wanted to get you more time, but Father is quite insistent.”

“It’s okay.”

“Your maids are making an appropriate dress for the funeral, and they’ll pack everything you need. You’re going to have to take one of them with you, and a few guards. Speaking of which,” he said, standing to acknowledge the figure standing in the open door. “Officer Leger, thank you for coming.”

“Not at all, Your Majesty. I apologize for being out of uniform, sir.”

Maxon reached out and shook Aspen’s hand. “Least of my concerns right now. I’m sure you know why you’re here.”

“I do.” Aspen turned to me. “I’m very sorry for your loss, miss.”

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