“Yeah, the square was so full, people were standing on top of one another. She fell into me and made a joke about being a klutz, which you know is true for Brenna even on a good day.” I thought about the time she seemed to just fall off the sidewalk for no apparent reason. Why hadn’t this occurred to me before? “As soon as I could get free, I was rushing to the stage.”
I remembered those moments, Aspen’s desperate attempt to get close to me. He hadn’t been faking at all. I smiled. “And just what were you planning on doing once you got there?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t actually think it out that far. I was considering begging you to stay. I was prepared to make an idiot out of myself if it meant you wouldn’t get in that car. But then you looked so mad … and I get why you were.” He let out a sigh. “I just couldn’t do it. Besides, maybe you’d be happy here.” He looked around the room at all the beautiful things that were temporarily considered mine. I could see how he would think that.
“Then,” he continued, “I thought that I could win you over once you came home.” His voice seemed suddenly tinged with worry. “I was sure you’d want out and come home as soon as you could. But … you didn’t.”
He paused to look at me, but mercifully, didn’t ask just how close Maxon and I were. He’d seen some of it already, but he didn’t know that we kissed or had secret signals, and I didn’t want to have to explain that.
“Then there was the draft, and I figured it would be unfair to even think about writing. I could die out here. I didn’t want to try to make you love me again and then…”
“Love you again?” I asked incredulously. “Aspen, I never stopped.”
In a swift but gentle move, Aspen leaned in and kissed me. He put his hand to my cheek, holding me to him, and every minute of the last two years flooded my body. I was so grateful they weren’t lost.
“I’m so sorry,” he mumbled between kisses. “I’m so sorry, Mer.”
He pulled away to look at me, a small smile on his perfect face, his eyes asking exactly what I was thinking: What do we do now?
Just then, the door opened, and I was horror-struck as my maids took in Aspen’s closeness.
“Thank goodness you’re back!” he said to them as he pushed his hand more firmly against my cheek before moving it to my forehead. “I don’t think you have a temperature, miss.”
“What’s wrong?” Anne asked, worry falling over her face as she raced to my bedside.
Aspen stood. “She started saying that she felt funny, something about her head.”
“Is your headache worse, miss?” Mary asked. “You look so pale!”
I bet I did. No doubt every drop of blood had dashed away from my face the moment they saw us together. But Aspen, so cool under pressure, had fixed it in a split second.
“I’ll get the medicine,” Lucy piped in, scurrying to the bathroom.
“Forgive me, miss,” Aspen said as my maids went to work. “I don’t wish to disturb you any more. I’ll come back when you’re feeling better.”
In his eyes I could see the same face I’d kissed a thousand times in the tree house. The world around us was completely new, but our connection was the same as ever.
“Thank you, officer,” I said weakly.
He went to leave, giving me a small bow.
Soon my maids were all stirring around me, trying to heal a sickness that wasn’t even there.
My head didn’t ache, but my heart did. The longing for Aspen’s arms was so familiar, it was like it never left.
I woke to a hard shake on my shoulders from Anne in the middle of the night.
“Please, miss, you have to get up!” Her voice was frantic, worn with terror.
“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“We’re under attack. We have to get you to the basement.”
My mind was groggy; I couldn’t be sure I was hearing her right. But I noticed behind her that Lucy was already crying.
“They’re inside?” I asked in disbelief.
Lucy’s fearful wail was all the confirmation I needed.
“What do we do?” I asked. A sudden adrenaline spike woke me up, and I jumped out of bed. As soon as I was standing, Mary was pushing my feet into shoes and Anne was putting a robe on me. All I could think was North or South? North or South?
“There’s a passage here in the corner. It’ll take you straight to the safe room in the basement. The guards are there waiting. The royal family should already be there and most of the girls, too. Hurry, miss.” Anne pulled me out into the hallway and pushed on a section of wall. It turned, like a hidden passage from some mystery novel. Sure enough, behind the wall, a stairwell awaited me. As I stood there, Tiny bolted from her room and scurried down the passage.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said. Anne and Mary gaped at me. Lucy was shaking to the point she could barely stand. “Let’s go,” I repeated.
“No, miss. We go somewhere else. You have to hurry before they get here. Please!”
I knew at best they’d be injured if they were found; at worst they’d die. I couldn’t bear them being hurt. Maybe I was a little cocky, but if Maxon had gone out of his way to do everything he’d done thus far, maybe they would matter to him if they mattered to me. Even if we were fighting. Perhaps it was too much generosity to bank on, but I wasn’t leaving them here. The fear made me move faster. I grabbed Anne’s arm and pushed her in. She stumbled and couldn’t stop me as I grabbed Mary and Lucy.
“Move!” I told them.
They started walking, but Anne was protesting the whole way. “They won’t let us in, miss! This place is just for the family.... They’ll just make us leave!” But I didn’t care what she said. Whatever their hiding place was, there was no way it would be as safe as wherever the royal family was staying.
The stairwell was lit every few yards, but even so I nearly fell a few times in my haste to move. My mind was blinded with worry. How far had the rebels penetrated before? Did they know these pathways to safety existed? Lucy was half-paralyzed, and I tugged her down to keep us together.
I couldn’t tell how long it took for us to reach the bottom, but finally the tiny pathway opened up to a man-made cavern. I could see other stairways and other girls, everyone running behind what looked to be a two-foot-thick door. We ran up to our safe place.