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“I love you,” I said quietly.

He held me a little tighter. “I love you.”

I lay there, letting the happiness of the moment sink into me. It seemed only seconds later that Maxon’s breathing was slow and steady. He was already asleep.

Maxon never slept.

I must have made him feel safer than I’d imagined. And, after all my worries about how his father acted toward me, he made me feel safe, too.

I sighed, promising myself that we’d talk about Aspen tomorrow. It would need to happen before the ceremony, and I felt sure I knew how to explain things in the best way. For now, I would enjoy this tiny bubble of peace and rest securely in the arms of the man I loved.

CHAPTER 28

I WOKE TO THE FEELING of Maxon sliding an arm around me. Somewhere in the night, I ended up with my head on his chest, and the slow sound of his heartbeat was echoing in my ear.

Without a word, he kissed my hair and went to hold me closer. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was here with Maxon, together, waking up in my bed. This morning he would be giving me a ring. . . .

“We could wake up like this every day,” he mumbled.

I giggled. “You’re reading my mind.”

He sighed contentedly. “How are you feeling, my dear?”

“I feel like punching you for calling me ‘my dear’ mostly.” I poked his bare stomach.

Smiling, he crawled to sit over me. “Fine then. My darling? My pet? My love?”

“Any of those would work, so long as you’ve reserved it solely for me,” I said, my hands mindlessly wandering his chest, his arms. “What am I supposed to call you?”

“Your Royal Husbandness. It’s required by law, I’m afraid.” His own hands glided over my skin, finding a delicate spot on my neck.

“Don’t!” I said, shying away.

His responding smile was triumphant. “You’re ticklish!”

Despite my protests, he started running his fingers all over me, making me shriek at the playful touching.

Nearly as quickly as I began squealing, I stopped. A guard rushed through the door, gun drawn.

This time I screamed, pulling up the sheet to cover myself. I was so frightened that it took me a moment to realize the determined eyes of the guard belonged to Aspen. It felt as if my face caught on fire, I was so humiliated.

Aspen looked stricken. He couldn’t even put a sentence together as his eyes flashed back and forth between Maxon in his underwear and me draped in a sheet to cover mine.

My shock was finally broken by a deep laugh.

For as terrified as I was, Maxon was the picture of ease. In fact, he seemed pleased at being caught. His voice was a little smug as he spoke. “I assure you, Leger, she’s perfectly safe.”

Aspen cleared his throat, unable to look either of us in the eye. “Of course, Your Majesty.” He bowed and left, closing the door behind him.

I fell over, moaning into my pillow. I would never live that down. I should have told Aspen how I felt on the plane when I had the chance.

Maxon came to hug me. “Don’t be so embarrassed. It’s not as if we were naked. And it’s bound to happen in the future.”

“It’s so humiliating,” I wailed.

“To be caught in bed with me?” The pain in his voice was clear. I sat up and faced him.

“No! It’s not you. It’s just, I don’t know, this was supposed to be private.” I ducked my head and played with a piece of the blanket.

Tenderly, Maxon stroked my cheek. “I’m sorry.” I looked up at him, his voice too sincere to ignore. “I know it’s going to be hard for you, but people will always be looking at our lives now. For the first few years, there will probably be a lot of interference. All the kings and queens have had only children. Some by choice, I’m sure; but after the difficulty my mother had, they’ll want to make sure we can even have a family.”

He stopped talking, his eyes having moved from my face to a spot on the bed.

“Hey,” I said, cupping his cheek. “I’m one of five, remember? I have really good genes in that department. It’ll be all right.”

He gave me a weak smile. “I really hope so. Partly because, yes, we’re duty bound to produce heirs. But also . . . I want everything with you, America. I want the holidays and the birthdays, the busy seasons and lazy weekends. I want peanut butter fingerprints on my desk. I want inside jokes and fights and everything. I want a life with you.”

Suddenly the last few minutes were erased from my mind. The growing warmth in my chest was pushing everything else away.

“I want that, too,” I assured him.

He smiled. “How about we make it official in a few hours?”

I shrugged. “I guess I don’t have any other plans today.”

Maxon tackled me on the bed, covering me with kisses. I would have let him kiss me like that for hours, but Aspen seeing us together was enough. There was no way I’d be able to stop my maids from gushing if they saw this.

He got dressed, and I pulled on my robe. It should have felt funny, maybe, this little moment in the afterward. All I could think about, though, as I watched Maxon cover his scars with his shirt, was how incredible this was. This thing I’d never wanted to happen was making me so happy.

Maxon gave me one last kiss before opening the door and heading on his way. It was harder to part with him than I thought it would be. I told myself it was only for a few hours and that the wait would be so worth it.

Before I closed the door, I heard Maxon whisper, “The lady would appreciate your discretion, officer.”

There was no response, but I could imagine Aspen’s solemn nod. I stood behind the closed door, debating what to say, wondering if I should even say anything. Minutes passed, but I knew I had to face Aspen. I couldn’t move forward with everything that was going to happen today without talking to him first. I drew in a breath and nervously opened the door. He tilted his head toward the hallway listening for voices. Finally Aspen turned his accusing eyes my way, and the weight of his stare broke me.

“I’m so sorry,” I breathed.

He shook his head. “It’s not as if I didn’t know it was coming. It was just a shock.”

“I should have told you,” I said, stepping into the hall.

“It doesn’t matter. I just can’t believe you slept with him.”

I put my hands on his chest. “I didn’t, Aspen. I swear.”

And then, at the last possible moment, everything was ruined.

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