“What do you think?” he asked.
“We owe him everything.”
“Agreed.” Carter drew himself up and turned to Maxon. “Your Majesty, my wife and I would be happy to stay in your home and serve you. I can’t speak for her, but I love my position as a groundskeeper. I’m happy to work outside, and I would do that for as long as I’m able. If the head position ever opens, I’d like to be considered for it, but I am otherwise content.”
Maxon nodded. “Very well. And Mrs. Woodwork?”
I looked at America. “If the future queen would have me, I’d love to be one of her ladies-in-waiting.”
America bounced in her seat a little and pulled her hands up to her heart.
Maxon looked at her as if she was the most adorable thing on the planet. “You might be able to tell that’s what she was hoping for.” He cleared his throat and sat up straighter, calling out to the men at the table. “Let it be recorded that Carter and Marlee Woodwork have been forgiven of their past crimes and now live under the protection of the palace. Let it further say that they have no caste and are above any such segregation.”
“So recorded!” one man shouted back.
As soon as he had finished speaking, Maxon stood and took off his crown, while America positively leaped out of her seat and ran down to throw her arms around me. “I hoped you would stay!” she sang. “I can’t do this without you!”
“Are you kidding? How lucky am I to serve the queen?”
Maxon joined us and gave Carter a firm handshake. “Are you sure about the groundskeeping? You could go back to guarding or even be an adviser if you like.”
“I’m sure. I’ve never had a head for that kind of thing. I was always good with my hands, and that kind of work makes me happy.”
“All right,” Maxon said. “If you ever change your mind, let me know.”
Carter nodded, wrapping an arm around me.
“Oh!” America galloped back to her throne. “I almost forgot!” Picking up a small box, she returned to us, beaming.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She smiled at Maxon. “I’d promised you I’d be at your wedding, and I wasn’t. And even though it’s a little late, I thought I could make up for it with a little present.”
America held out the box to us, and I bit my lip in anticipation. All the things I thought I’d have at my wedding—a beautiful dress, a fantastic party, a room full of flowers—had been missing. The only thing I did have on that day was an absolutely perfect groom, and I was happy enough about that to let everything else pass.
Still, it was nice to receive a gift. It made things feel real.
I cracked open the box and resting inside were two simple, beautiful gold bands.
I covered my mouth. “America!”
“We did our best at guessing your sizes,” Maxon said. “And if you’d prefer a different metal, we’d be happy to exchange them.”
“I think your strings are sweet,” America said. “I hope you put the ones you’re wearing now away somewhere and keep them forever. But we thought you deserved something a bit more permanent.”
I stared at them, not able to believe they were real. It was funny. They were such small things, but they were absolutely priceless. I was close to tears with joy.
Carter took the rings out of my hand and handed them to Maxon, removing the smaller one from the box.
“Let’s see how it looks.” He slowly rolled my string down my finger, holding on to it as he slid the gold one on in its place.
“A little loose,” I said, fiddling with it. “But it’s perfect.”
Excited, I reached for Carter’s ring, and he tugged off his old one, keeping it with mine. His fit wonderfully, and I sat my hand on top of his, fanning out my fingers.
“This is too much!” I said. “It’s too many good things in one day.”
America came up behind me and wrapped her arms around me. “I have a feeling lots of good things are coming.”
I hugged her as Carter went to shake Maxon’s hand again. “I’m so glad to have you back,” I whispered.
“And you’ll need someone to stop you from going overboard,” I teased.
“Are you kidding? I need an army of people to stop me from going overboard.”
I giggled. “I’ll never be able to thank you enough. You know that, right? I’ll always be here for you.”
“Then that will be thanks enough.”
EXCERPT FROM THE SIREN
She will risk everything for love.
Read on for a sneak peek at this
sweeping fantasy romance from Kiera Cass!
IT’S FUNNY WHAT YOU HOLD on to, the things you remember when everything ends. I can still picture the paneling on the walls of our stateroom and recall precisely how plush the carpet was. I remember the saltwater smell, permeating the air and sticking to my skin, and the sound of my brothers’ laughter in the other room, like the storm was an exciting adventure instead of a nightmare.
More than any sense of fear or worry, there was an air of irritation hanging in the room. The storm was throwing off our evening’s plans; there would be no dancing on the upper deck tonight. These were the woes that plagued my life, so insignificant they’re almost shameful to own up to. But that was my once upon a time, back when my reality felt like a story for how good it was.
“If this rocking doesn’t stop soon, I won’t have time to fix my hair before dinner,” Mama complained. I peeked at her from where I was lying on the floor, trying desperately not to throw up. Mama looked as glamorous as a movie star, and her finger waves seemed perfect to me. But she was never satisfied. “You ought to get up,” she continued, glancing down at me. “What if the help comes in?”
I hobbled over to one of the chaise lounges, doing—as always—what I was told, though I didn’t think this position was necessarily any more ladylike. Our journey up until that final day was utterly ordinary, just a family trip from point A to point B. I can’t remember now where we were heading. What I do recall is that we were, as per usual, traveling in style. We were one of the few lucky families who had survived the Crash with our wealth intact—and Mama liked to make sure people knew it. So we were situated in a beautiful suite with decent-sized windows and personal stewards at our beck and call. I was entertaining the idea of ringing for one and asking for a bucket.
It was then, in that bleary haze of sickness, that I heard something. It sounded like a far-off lullaby that made me curious and, somehow, thirsty. I lifted my head and saw Mama’s head turn as well, searching for the sound. The music was intoxicatingly beautiful, like a hymn to the devout.
Papa leaned into the room. “Is that the band?” he asked. His tone was calm, but the desperation in his eyes was haunting.
“Maybe. It sounds like it’s coming from outside, doesn’t it?” Mama was suddenly breathless and eager. “Let’s go see.” She hopped up and grabbed her sweater. I was shocked. She hated being in the rain.
“But Mama, your makeup. You just said—”
” she said, brushing me off and shrugging her arms into an ivory cardigan. “We’ll only be gone a moment. I’ll have time to fix it when we get back.”
“I think I’ll stay.” I was just as drawn to the music as the rest of them, but the clammy feeling on my face reminded me how close I was to being sick. I curled up a little tighter, resisting the overwhelming urge to stand up and follow.
Mama turned back and met my eyes. “I’d feel better with you by my side,” she said with a smile.
Those were my mother’s last words to me.
Even as I opened my mouth to protest, I found myself standing up and crossing the cabin to follow her. It wasn’t just about obeying anymore. I had to get up on deck. I had to be closer to the song. If I had stayed in our room, I probably would have been trapped and gone down with the ship. Then I could have joined my family. In heaven or hell, or in nowhere, if it was all a lie. But no.
We went up the stairs, joined along the way by scores of other passengers. It was then I knew something was wrong. Some were rushing, fighting their way through the masses while others looked like they were sleepwalking.
I stepped out into the thrashing rain, pausing just beyond the threshold to take in the scene. I pressed my hands over my ears to shut out the crashing thunder and hypnotic music, trying to get my bearings. Two men shot past me and jumped overboard without even pausing. But the storm wasn’t so bad we needed to abandon ship, was it?
I looked to my youngest brother and saw him lapping up the rain, like a wildcat clawing at raw meat. When someone near him tried to do the same, they scrapped with each other, fighting over the drops. I backed away, turning to search for my middle brother. I never found him. He was lost in the crowd surging toward the railings, gone before I could make sense of what I was witnessing.
Then I saw my parents, hand in hand, their backs against the railing, casually tipping themselves overboard. They smiled. I screamed.
What was happening? Had the world gone mad?
A note caught my ear and I dropped my hands. The song was suddenly the only thing I cared about. My worries faded away. It did seem like it would be better to be in the water, embraced by the waves instead of pelted by rain. It sounded delicious. I needed to drink it. I needed to fill my stomach, my heart, my lungs with it.