“And where is that?” Elise asked.
No one answered.
“I just want to say . . . ,” I started. “All of those moments were really important to me, and I care about Maxon.”
“Are you implying that we don’t?” Celeste barked.
“I know that you don’t.”
“How dare you?”
“Celeste, it’s no secret that you want someone with power. I’m willing to bet you like Maxon well enough, but you’re not in love with him. You’re shooting for the crown.”
Without denying it, she turned on Elise. “What about this one? I’ve never seen a speck of emotion out of you!”
“I’m reserved. You should try it sometime,” Elise fired back quickly. Seeing a spark of anger in Elise made me like her more. “In my family, all the marriages are arranged. I knew what was coming for me, and that’s all this is. I may not be head over heels for Maxon, but I respect him. Love can come later.”
Sympathetically, Kriss spoke. “That actually sounds kind of sad, Elise.”
“It’s not. There are bigger things than love.”
We stared at Elise, her words echoing. I fought for my family out of love, and for Aspen, too. And now, though it scared me to think it, I was sure that all my actions where Maxon was concerned—even when they were hopelessly stupid—were driven by that feeling. Still, what if there was something more important here than that?
“Well, I’ll say it: I love him,” Kriss blurted. “I love him, and I want him to marry me.”
Snapped back into the discussion at hand, I ached to melt into the carpet. What had I started?
“All right, America, fess up,” Celeste demanded.
I froze, breathing shallowly. It took me a moment to find the right words.
“Maxon knows how I feel, and that’s all that matters.”
She rolled her eyes at my answer but didn’t press any further. No doubt she was worried I would do the same to her if she did.
We stood there, looking at one another. The Selection had been going on for months, and now we could finally see the real lines of competition. We’d all gotten a peek into everyone else’s relationship with Maxon—at least one aspect of it—and could look at them side by side.
Moments later the queen walked in, wishing us a good morning. After curtsying to her, we all retreated. Into corners, into ourselves. Maybe it was always supposed to come to this. There were four girls and one prince, and three of us would be leaving soon with little more than an interesting story of how we spent our fall.
I WAS WRINGING MY HANDS as I paced the downstairs library, trying to put the words together in my head. I knew I needed to explain what had just happened to Maxon before he heard about it from the other girls, but that didn’t mean I was looking forward to the conversation.
“Knock, knock,” he said, coming in. He took in my worried expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t get mad,” I warned as he approached.
His pace slowed, and the concerned look on his face became guarded instead. “I’ll try.”
“The girls know I saw you without your shirt on.” I saw the question coming to his lips. “I didn’t say anything about your back,” I vowed. “I wanted to, because now they just think we were in the middle of some big make-out fest.”
He smiled. “It did end up that way.”
“Don’t joke, Maxon! They hate me right now.”
The light didn’t leave his eyes as he hugged me. “If it’s any consolation, I’m not mad. So long as you kept my secret, I don’t mind. Though I am a little shocked you told them. How did it even come up?”
I buried my head in his chest. “I don’t think I can tell you.”
“Hmm.” His thumb rubbed up and down my back. “I thought we were supposed to be working on our trust.”
“We are. I’m asking you to trust that this will only get worse if I tell you.” Maybe I was wrong, but I was pretty sure confessing to Maxon that we were checking out half-dressed, sweaty guards would get us all into some kind of trouble.
“Okay,” he finally said. “The girls know you’ve seen me partly undressed. Anything else?”
I hesitated. “They know I was your first kiss. And I know everything you have and haven’t done with them.”
He pulled back. “What?”
“After I let the whole shirtless thing slip, there was a lot of finger-pointing, and everyone came clean. I know you’ve spent plenty of time kissing Celeste and that you would have kissed Kriss long before now if she would have let you. It all came out.”
He wiped his hand over his face, taking a few paces as he processed this. “So I have absolutely no privacy anymore? None? Because the four of you had to check scores with each other?” His frustration was clear.
“You know, for someone concerned with honesty, you ought to be grateful.”
He stopped and stared. “I beg your pardon?”
“Everything is out in the open now. We all have a pretty good idea of where we stand, and I, for one, am thankful.”
He rolled his eyes. “Thankful?”
“If you had told me that Celeste and I were at about the same point with you physically, I would never have tried to come on to you like I did last night. Do you know how humiliated I was?”
He scoffed and started pacing again. “Please, America, you’ve said and done so many foolish things, I’m surprised you can even be embarrassed anymore.”
Maybe it was because I had been raised with less of an articulate education, but it took a second for the full impact of his words to hit me. Maxon had always liked me, or so he’d said. I knew it was against the better judgment of other people. Was it also against his?
“I’ll go then,” I said quietly, unable to look him in the eye. “Sorry I let the whole shirt thing out.” I started walking away, feeling so small I wondered if he even noticed.
“Come on, America. I didn’t mean it like—”
“No, it’s fine,” I mumbled. “I’ll watch my words better.”
I made my way upstairs, unsure of whether I wanted Maxon to come after me or not. He didn’t.
When I got to my room, Anne, Mary, and Lucy were in there, changing my sheets and dusting the shelves.
“Hello, my lady,” Anne greeted. “Would you like some tea?”
“No, I’m just going to sit on the balcony for a moment. If any visitors come, tell them I’m resting.”
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