“I’M TELLING YOU, MAXON, IT wasn’t an accident.” We were in the garden again, passing time until the Report. It had taken me a whole day to get a chance to speak with him.
“But she looked mortified, and she was so apologetic,” he countered. “How could it not have been an accident?”
I sighed. “I’m telling you. I see Celeste every day, and that was her sneaky way of ruining Kriss’s moment in the spotlight. She’s so competitive.”
“Well, if she was trying to take my attention from Kriss, she failed. I spent nearly an hour with the girl. Rather pleasant time I had, too.”
I didn’t want to hear about that. I knew that there was something small and tenuous between us, and I didn’t want to deal with anything that might change it. Not until I knew how I felt about it myself.
“Then what about Anna?” I asked.
“Anna Farmer? She hit Celeste, and you kicked her out, remember? I know Anna had to have been provoked.”
“Did you hear Celeste say something?” He sounded skeptical.
“Well … no. But I knew Anna, and I know Celeste. I’m telling you, Anna was not the type of person to head straight to violence. Celeste must have said something heartless to her for her to have reacted that way.”
“America, I’m aware that you spend more time with the girls than I do, but how well can you really know them? You like to hide in your room or the libraries. I daresay you’re more familiar with your maids’ personalities than any of the Selected.”
He was probably right, but I wouldn’t back down. “That’s not fair. I was right about Marlee, wasn’t I? Don’t you think she’s nice?”
He made a face. “Yes … she is nice, I suppose.”
“Then why won’t you believe me when I say that what Celeste did was a calculated move?”
“America, it’s not that I think you’re lying. I’m sure, to you, it seemed that way. But Celeste was sorry. And she’s been nothing but gracious with me.”
“I’ll bet she has,” I muttered under my breath.
“That’s enough,” Maxon said with a sigh. “I don’t want to talk about the others right now.”
“She tried to take my dress, Maxon,” I complained.
“I said I don’t want to talk about her,” he said fiercely.
That was all I was going to take. I huffed and lifted my arms in the air just to drop them with a thud against my legs. I was so frustrated I wanted to scream.
“If you’re going to act this way, I’m going to find someone who does want my company.” He walked off.
“Hey!” I called.
“No!” He turned back on me and spoke more forcefully than I’d ever imagined he could. “You forget yourself, Lady America. It would do you well to remember that I am the crown prince of Illéa. For all intents and purposes, I am lord and master of this country, and I’ll be damned if you think you can treat me like this in my own home. You don’t have to agree with my decisions, but you will abide by them.”
He turned and left, either not seeing or caring that I had tears in my eyes.
I didn’t look his way through dinner, but it was difficult to do during the Report. I caught him looking at me twice, and both times he tugged his ear. I didn’t return the action. I didn’t want to talk to him right now. I could only assume I’d be scolded more anyway, and I didn’t need that.
I walked up to my room afterward so upset with Maxon I couldn’t think clearly. Why wouldn’t he listen to me? Did he think I was a liar? Even worse, did he think Celeste was above lying?
Maybe Maxon was just a typical guy, and Celeste was a beautiful girl, and in the end that would be what won out. For all his talk about wanting a soul mate, maybe all he wanted was a bedmate.
And if that was the kind of person he was, why was I even bothering with this? Stupid, stupid, stupid! I kissed him! I told him I’d be patient! And for what? I just—
I turned the corner to my room, and there was Aspen, waiting outside my door. All my rage melted away into a strange uncertainty. Guards, as a rule, kept their eyes forward and stayed at attention, but he was looking at me with an unreadable expression.
“Lady America,” he whispered.
Though it wasn’t his job, he leaned over to open my door for me. I walked past slowly, almost afraid to turn my back on him, almost afraid he wasn’t real. As much as I’d tried to keep him out of my head and my heart, I just wanted him to be with me in that moment. As I passed, I heard him inhale just next to my hair. It gave me a chill.
He fixed me with another stare and slowly closed the door.
Sleep was pointless. I tossed for hours as thoughts of Maxon’s stupidity and Aspen’s closeness battled in my head. I didn’t know what to do about anything. My reflections were so consuming, I didn’t even realize that I’d been mulling them over until well past two in the morning.
I sighed. My maids were going to have to work extra hard to make me look good tomorrow.
Suddenly I saw a light from the hallway. So quietly it felt like I was dreaming it, Aspen cracked open the door, walked in, and shut it behind him.
“Aspen, what are you doing?” I whispered as he crossed the room. “You’ll be in so much trouble if you’re caught in here!”
He continued to walk silently.
He stopped in front of my bed and quietly laid the staff he was holding on the ground. “Do you love him?”
I looked into Aspen’s deep eyes, barely visible in the dark. For a split second, I didn’t know what to say.
He ripped back my blankets in a move both graceful and violent. I should have protested, but I didn’t. His hand was behind my head, pushing my face to his. He kissed me feverishly, and every good thing in the world fell into place. He didn’t smell like his homemade soap anymore, and he was stronger than he used to be, but every move, every touch was familiar.
“They’ll kill you for doing this,” I breathed in a brief moment when his lips traveled to my neck.
“If I don’t, I’ll die anyway.”
I tried to work up the will to tell him to stop, but I knew any attempts would be halfhearted. A thousand things about this moment felt wrong—that we were breaking so many rules, that as far as I knew Aspen had another girlfriend, that Maxon and I had some sort of feelings for each other—but I couldn’t care. I was so angry with Maxon, and Aspen felt so comforting, I just let his hands travel up and down my legs.