“Okay, I think we should put your hair all the way up now,” May insisted.
Lucy rolled her eyes jokingly toward Aspen and me and let May drag her back to the mirror.
“Was this your idea?” he asked quietly.
“Yes. May looked so lost. I had to distract her.”
“She looks better. And Lucy looks happy, too.”
“It does as much for me as it does for them. It feels like, if we can do things that are silly or even just typical, I’ll be okay.”
“You will be. It’ll take time, but you’ll be okay.”
I nodded. But then I started thinking about Dad again, and I didn’t want to cry now. I took a deep breath and moved on.
“It seems wrong that I’m the lowest caste left in the Selection,” I whispered back to him. “Look at Lucy. She’s as pretty and sweet and smart as half of the girls who were in that pool of thirty-five, but this is the best she’ll ever have. A few hours in a borrowed dress. It’s not right.”
Aspen shook his head. “I’ve gotten to know all your maids pretty well over the last few months, and she’s a really special girl.”
Suddenly a promise I’d made came back to me.
“Speaking of my maids, I need to talk to you about something,” I said, dropping my voice.
Aspen stiffened. “Oh?”
“I know this is awkward, but I need to say it all the same.”
He swallowed. “Okay.”
I bashfully looked him in the eye. “Would you ever consider Anne?”
His expression was strange, as if he was simultaneously relieved and amused. “Anne?” he whispered incredulously. “Why her?”
“I think she likes you. And she’s a really sweet girl,” I said, trying to hide the depth of Anne’s feelings but build her up at the same time.
He shook his head. “I know you want me to think about the possibility of other people, but she’s not at all the kind of girl I’d want to be with. She’s so . . . rigid.”
I shrugged. “I thought Maxon was like that until I got to know him. Besides, I think she’s had it rough.”
“So? Lucy’s had it rough, and look at her,” he said, nodding his head toward her laughing reflection.
I took a guess. “Did she tell you how she ended up at the palace?”
He nodded. “I’ve always hated the castes, Mer; you know that. But I’d never heard of them being manipulated that way, to acquire slaves.”
I sighed, looking over at May and Lucy, this stolen moment of joy in the middle of sorrow.
“Prepare yourself for words you thought you’d never hear,” Aspen warned, and I looked up at him, waiting. “I’m actually really glad Maxon met you.”
I coughed out something close to a laugh.
“I know, I know,” he said, rolling his eyes but smiling. “But I don’t think he would have ever stopped to wonder about the lower castes if it wasn’t for you. I think just you being there has changed things.”
We looked at each other for a moment. I remembered our conversation in the tree house, when he urged me to sign up for the Selection, hoping I’d have a chance for something better. I didn’t know yet if I’d gotten something better for myself—it was still hard to tell—but the thought of maybe giving something better to everyone else in Illéa . . . that possibility meant more to me than I could say.
“I’m proud of you, America,” Aspen said, looking from me to the girls by the mirror. “Really proud.” He moved into the hallway, back to his rounds. “Your father would be, too.”
THE NEXT DAY WAS ANOTHER sentence of house arrest. From time to time, I’d hear the floor creak, and I’d turn my head, thinking that Dad would walk out of the garage, paint in his hair like always. But knowing that wasn’t going to happen didn’t feel as bad when I could hear May’s voice or smell Astra’s baby powder. The house felt full, and that was enough for now—its own kind of comfort.
I’d decided Lucy shouldn’t wear her uniform while she was here, and after a little protesting, I wiggled her into some of my old clothes that were too small for me but too big for May. Since Mom was busy distracting herself by cooking and serving everyone and I’d decided to tone down my look to sit around the house, Lucy’s main job was to play with May and Gerad, a task she took on happily.
We were all gathered in the living room, busying ourselves in our own ways. I had a book in hand, and Kota was hogging the television, reminding me of Celeste. I smiled, betting she was doing exactly that now.
Lucy, May, and Gerad were playing a card game on the floor, each one laughing when they won a round. Kenna was propped up against James on the couch, and baby Astra was finishing a bottle in his arms. It was easy to see the exhaustion in his face, but also the absolute pride in his beautiful wife and daughter.
It was almost as if nothing had changed. Then I’d see Aspen out of the corner of my eye in his uniform, standing watch over us, and remember that, in reality, nothing would ever be the same.
I heard Mom sniffling before I saw her coming down the hall. I turned my head and watched her walk toward us, holding a handful of envelopes.
“How are you feeling, Mom?” I asked.
“I’m fine. I just can’t believe he’s gone.” She swallowed, forcing herself not to cry again.
It was strange. There had been so many times when I had doubted Mom’s devotion to Dad. I’d never caught the glimpses of affection between them that I’d seen in other couples. Even Aspen, when everything was on the verge of being real but still very much a secret, showed me he loved me more than Mom did Dad.
But I could tell that this was more than the worry of raising May and Gerad alone getting to her, or stress over money. Her husband was gone, and nothing would ever make that right.
“Kota, could you turn off the TV for a minute? And Lucy, honey, could you take May and Gerad into America’s room? I have some things to discuss with the others,” she said quietly.
“Of course, ma’am,” Lucy replied, and turned to May and Gerad. “Let’s go then.”
May didn’t look happy about being excluded from whatever was going on, but she chose not to put up a fight. I wasn’t sure if it was because of Mom’s heavy demeanor or her love for Lucy, but either way I was glad.
Once they were gone, Mom turned to the rest of us. “You know your father’s condition was something that ran in the family. I think he could tell he only had a little time left, because about three years ago, he sat down and started writing these letters to you, to all of you.” She looked down to the envelopes in her hands.
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