“Thank you,” I mumbled.
“With the elevated rebel activity, we’re all concerned about Lady America’s safety,” Maxon started. “We’ve already had some local officers dispatched to her home and to the sites being used over the next few days, and there are still palace-trained guards there, of course. But with her actually in the house, I think we should send more.”
“Absolutely, Your Majesty.”
“And you’re familiar with the area?”
“Good. You’ll be heading up the team going with her. Pick whomever you like, between six and eight guards.”
Aspen raised his eyebrows.
“I know,” Maxon conceded. “We’re stretched tight right now, but at least three of the palace guards we’ve sent to her house have already abandoned their posts. And I want her to be as safe as, if not safer than, she is here.”
“I’ll take care of it, sir.”
“Excellent. There will also be a maid going with her; watch her as well.” He turned to me. “Do you know who you want to go?”
I shrugged, unable to think straight.
Aspen spoke on my behalf. “If I may, I know Anne is your head maid, but I remember Lucy getting along well with your sister and mother. Maybe it would be good for them to see a friendly face right now.”
I nodded. “Lucy.”
“Very good,” Maxon said. “Officer, you don’t have much time. You’ll be leaving after breakfast.”
“I’ll get to work, sir. See you in the morning, miss,” Aspen said. I could tell he was having a hard time keeping his distance, and, in that moment, I wanted nothing more than for him to comfort me. Aspen really knew my dad, and I wanted someone who understood him like I did to miss him with me.
Once Aspen left, Maxon came to sit with me again.
“One more thing before I go.” He reached for my hands, holding them tenderly. “Sometimes when you’re upset, you tend to be impulsive.” He looked at me, and I actually smiled a little at the accusing look in his eyes. “Try to be sensible while you’re away. I need you to take care of yourself.”
I rubbed the back of his hands with my thumbs. “I will. I promise.”
“Thank you.” A sense of peace encircled us, the way it did sometimes. Even though my world would never be the same now, for that moment, with Maxon holding me, the loss didn’t ache so much.
He leaned his head toward mine until our foreheads touched. I heard him draw in a breath as if he might say something and then change his mind. After a few seconds, he did it again. Finally, Maxon leaned back and shook his head and kissed my cheek. “Stay safe.”
Then he left me alone in my sadness.
It was cold in Carolina, the humidity from the ocean coming inland and making the chill in the air damp. Secretly, I’d hoped for snow, but it didn’t happen. I felt guilty for wanting anything at all.
Christmas Day. I’d spent the last few weeks imagining it several different ways. I thought maybe I’d be here, eliminated and home. We’d all be around our tree, dejected that I wasn’t a princess but blissfully happy to be together. I’d also considered opening gifts under the massive tree at the palace, eating myself sick, and laughing with the other girls and Maxon, for one day every corner of the competition suspended to celebrate.
Never could I have imagined I’d be bracing myself for the task of putting my father in the ground.
As the car pulled up to my street, I started to see the masses. Though people ought to be home with their families, they instead crowded outside in the cold. I realized they were hoping to catch a glimpse of me, and I felt a little sick. People pointed as we passed, and some local news crews took footage.
The car stopped in front of my house, and the people waiting started cheering. I didn’t understand. Didn’t they know why I was here? I walked up the cracked sidewalk with Lucy by my side and six guards surrounding us. No chance was being taken.
“Lady America!” people called.
“Can I have your autograph?” someone screamed, and others joined in.
I kept moving, looking ahead. For once, I felt I could excuse myself from being theirs. I lifted my head to the lights hanging off the roof. Dad did that. Who was going to take them down?
Aspen, at the head of my entourage, knocked on the front door and waited. Another guard came to answer and he and Aspen spoke quickly before we were allowed inside. It was hard to get all of us down the hall, but once the space opened into the living room, I immediately felt something . . . wrong.
This wasn’t home anymore.
I told myself I was crazy. Of course this was home. It was just the unfamiliarity of how this was unfolding. Everyone was here, even Kota. But Dad was gone, so it was only natural that it wouldn’t seem quite right. And Kenna was holding a baby who I’d never seen in real life before. I’d have to get used to that.
And while Mom was in an apron and Gerad was in his pajamas, I was dressed for dinner at the palace: hair up, sapphires on my ears, and layers of luxurious fabrics draping to my heeled shoes. It felt as if I wasn’t welcome for a moment.
But May hopped to her feet and ran to hug me, crying into my shoulder. I held her back. I remembered that this might be a strange adjustment, but this was the only place I could be right now. I had to be with my family.
“America,” Kenna said, standing with her child in her arms. “You look so beautiful.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, embarrassed.
She gave me a one-armed hug, and I peeked into the blankets at my sleeping niece. Astra’s little face was serene as she slept, and every few seconds she’d unclench her tiny fist or fidget just a bit. She was breathtaking.
Aspen cleared his throat. “Mrs. Singer, I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Mom gave him a tired smile. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry we’re not here under better circumstances, but with Lady America home, we’re going to have to be quite diligent about security,” he said, a ring of authority in his voice. “We’re going to have to ask everyone to stay in this house. I know it’ll be tight, but it’s only for a few days. And the guards have been provided an apartment nearby so we can rotate easily. We’re going to try to be as out of the way as possible.
“James, Kenna, Kota, we’re prepared to leave for your homes to pick up your necessities whenever you’re ready to go. If you need some time to make a list, that’s fine. We’re on your schedule.”
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