Kriss had never spoken so forcefully, and I didn’t know if the reason was her absolute faith in her words or the heavy amount of champagne. She looked so fierce at the moment, I wasn’t sure what to say.
I wanted to tell her that Maxon and I could do great things, too, that we’d probably already done more than she could guess. But now wasn’t the time to brag. Besides, she and I had a lot in common. I came here for my family; she came here for a family of sorts. That got us through the doorway and into Maxon’s heart. What good would it do us to tear each other apart now?
She took my silence as an agreement to behave, and she relaxed her stance.
“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the party.”
Giving me a cold stare, she swept out of the room, leaving me torn. Should I keep my mouth shut? Should I at least let someone know? Was this even a bad thing?
I sighed and left the bathroom. I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate anymore, so I took the back stairway up to my room.
Even though I wanted to see Anne and Mary, I was glad no one was there. I flopped onto the bed and tried to think. So Kriss was a rebel. Nothing dangerous, according to her, but I still wondered what that meant exactly. She must be who August and Georgia were talking about. What had ever made me think it was Elise?
Had Kriss helped them get into the palace? Had she pointed them in the direction of things they had been looking for? I had my secrets in the palace, but I’d never stopped to think about what the other girls could be hiding. I should have though.
Because what could I say now? If there was something real between Maxon and Kriss, any attempt to expose her would look like a desperate last effort to win. And even if that worked, that wasn’t how I wanted to get Maxon.
I wanted him to know I loved him.
A knock came at the door, and I considered not answering it. If it was Kriss coming to explain more or one of the girls trying to drag me downstairs, that wasn’t anything I wanted to deal with. Eventually, I heaved myself upright and went to the door.
Maxon stood there with a stuffed envelope and a small, gift-wrapped package.
In the second it took us to register that we were in the same place again, it felt as if the whole space charged with a magical kind of electricity, making me acutely aware of just how much I missed him.
“Hi,” he said. He seemed a little stunned, as if he couldn’t think of anything more to say.
“Do you want to come in?” I offered.
“Oh. Um, yes, I do.” Something was off. He was different, nervous maybe.
I stood aside, making room for him to enter. He looked around the space as if it had changed somehow since the last time he saw it.
He turned to gaze at me. “How are you feeling?”
I realized he probably meant about my dad, and I reminded myself that the end of the Selection wasn’t the only shift in my world right now. “Okay. It doesn’t really feel like he’s gone, especially now that I’m here. I feel like I could write him a letter, and he’d still get it.”
He gave me a sympathetic smile. “How’s your family?”
I sighed. “Mom is holding it together, and Kenna is a rock. It’s mostly May and Gerad I’m worried about. Kota couldn’t have been any meaner about the whole thing. It’s like he didn’t love him at all, and I don’t understand that,” I confessed. “You met my dad. He was so sweet.”
“He was,” Maxon agreed. “I’m glad I at least got to meet him. I can see bits of him in you, you know.”
“Absolutely!” He put his parcels in one hand, holding me with his free one. He walked me over to the bed, sitting next to me. “Your sense of humor, for one. And your tenacity. When he and I spoke during his visit, he grilled me. It was nerve-racking, but kind of funny at the same time. You’ve never just let me off the hook either.
“Of course, you have his eyes and I think his nose, too. And I can see your optimism beaming out sometimes. He gave me that impression as well.”
I soaked up the words, holding on to all the parts of me that were like him. And here I thought Maxon didn’t know him.
“All I’m saying is, it’s okay to be sad about this, but you can be sure the best of him is still around,” he concluded.
I threw my arms around him, and he held me with his free hand. “Thank you.”
“I mean it.”
“I know you do. Thanks.” I moved back beside him and decided to change the subject before I got too emotional. “What’s this all about?” I asked, nodding toward his full hand.
“Oh.” Maxon fumbled with his thoughts a moment. “These are for you. A late Christmas present.”
He held up the envelope, thick with folded papers. “I can’t believe I’m actually giving this to you, and you have to wait to look at them until I’m not here, but . . . it’s for you to keep.”
“Okay,” I said questioningly as he set the envelope on my bedside table.
“This is a little less embarrassing,” he added playfully, handing me the gift. “Sorry the wrapping is so bad.”
“It’s fine,” I lied, trying not laugh at the crooked seams and tearing at the paper on the back.
Inside, the gift was a frame holding a picture of a house. Not just any house, but a beautiful one. It was a warm yellow color with plush grass that I wanted to put my feet in just from looking at the print. The windows were tall and wide on both stories, with trees offering shade to a section of the lawn. One tree even had a swing hanging from it.
I tried not to look at the house but at the photo itself. I was sure that this little piece of art was something Maxon made himself, though I couldn’t guess when he’d gotten out of the palace to find its subject.
“It’s beautiful,” I admitted. “Did you take it yourself?”
“Oh, no.” He laughed, shaking his head. “The picture isn’t the gift; the house is.”
I tried to let that sink in. “What?”
“I thought you’d want your family close by. It’s a short drive away, with plenty of room. Your sister and her little family would even be comfortable there, I think.”
“Wha . . . I . . .” I stared at him, searching for clarification.
Patient as ever, Maxon gave me the explanation he thought I already understood. “You told me to send everyone home. I did. I had to keep one other girl—those are the rules—but . . . you said that if I could prove I loved you . . .”
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