“And Lady America.” Maxon looked over at me, and I felt every muscle in my body relax. Tiny started bawling immediately, and she wasn’t alone. Maxon let out a long sigh.
“To everyone else, I’m incredibly sorry, but I hope you all trust me when I say that I meant this to be a good thing for you. I don’t want to raise anyone’s hopes for no reason and risk your life in the process. If anyone who is leaving wants to speak to me, I’ll be in the library down the hall, and you may visit me as soon as you’ve finished eating.”
Maxon walked out of the room as quickly as he could without running. I watched him until he crossed in front of Aspen, and then my attention was diverted. Aspen’s face was confused, and I knew why. I’d told him I didn’t love Maxon, so he would have assumed I meant next to nothing to Maxon as well. So why would I be so tense about staying or going? And why would Maxon want to keep me around?
Before a second had passed, Emmica and Tuesday were running after Maxon, no doubt looking for an explanation. Some girls were in tears, obviously heartbroken, and it fell on those of us remaining to comfort them.
It was unbearably awkward. Tiny ended up swatting away my hands and running out of the room. I hoped she wouldn’t hold any bitter feelings against me.
People left within minutes, no longer hungry. I didn’t linger myself, unable to handle the outpouring of emotion. As I passed Aspen, he whispered “tonight.” I gave a tiny nod and went on my way.
The rest of the morning was odd. I’d never really had friends that I would miss. All the occupied rooms on the second floor were open, and girls scurried in and out, passing notes and gathering addresses. We cried together and laughed together, and by the afternoon, the palace had turned into a far more serious place than it was when we came.
No one was left in my little wing of the hall, so there was no sound of maids rushing to and fro, or of doors closing. I sat at my table, reading a book as my maids dusted. I wondered if the palace always felt this lonely. The emptiness made me miss my family.
Suddenly a knock came at the door. Anne rushed to get it, looking at me to make sure I was prepared for a visitor. I gave her a small nod.
When Maxon came into the room, I jumped to my feet.
“Ladies,” he said, looking to my maids. “We meet again.”
They curtsied and giggled. He acknowledged them and turned his eyes to me. I hadn’t realized how eager I was to see him. I stood by the table in a daze.
“Do forgive me, but I need to speak with Lady America. Would you give us a moment?”
There was more curtsying and giggling, and Anne asked—with a tone that implied near worship of the prince—if she could bring him anything. Maxon declined, and they left us. He had his hands in his pockets. We were silent for a while.
“I thought you might not keep me,” I finally admitted.
“Why?” he asked, sounding honestly confused.
“Because we fought. Because everything between us is weird. Because…” Because even though you’re dating five other women, I think I’m cheating on you, I thought.
Maxon closed the distance between us slowly, choosing his words as he walked. When he finally reached me, he picked up my hands in his and explained everything.
“First, let me say I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.” His voice was completely sincere. “It’s just that some of the committees and my father are already pressuring me in this, and I truly want to be able to make the decision for myself. It was frustrating to run into another situation where my opinion wasn’t being taken seriously.”
“Another situation?” I asked.
“Well, you’ve seen my choices. Marlee is a favorite with the people, and that cannot be overlooked. Celeste is a very powerful young woman, and she comes from an excellent family to align ourselves with. Natalie and Kriss are charming girls, both very agreeable and favorites of some in my family. Elise happens to have relations in New Asia. Since we’re trying to end this damn war, that is something to take into consideration. I’ve been debated down and cornered from every side on this decision.”
There was no explanation for me, and I almost didn’t ask for it. I knew that we were friends first and that I had no political uses at all. But I needed to hear the words so I could make the decision for myself. I couldn’t look him in the eye.
“And why am I still here?” My voice was barely above a whisper. I was sure this was going to hurt. In the pit of my stomach I was sure I was only still here because he was too good to break his promise.
“America, I thought I’d made myself clear,” Maxon said calmly. He let out a patient sigh and used his hand to nudge up my chin. When I was finally looking into his eyes, he confessed.
“If this were a simpler matter, I’d have eliminated everyone else by now. I know how I feel about you. Maybe it’s impulsive of me to think I could be so sure, but I’m certain I would be happy with you.”
I blushed. I could feel tears rising, but I blinked them away. The expression on his face was so adoring, I didn’t want to miss it.
“There are moments when I feel like you and I have broken down every last wall, and then others when I think you only want to stay for convenience. If I knew for sure that I, and I alone, was your motivation…”
He paused and shook his head, as if the end of his sentence was something he couldn’t let himself want.
“Would I be wrong in saying that you’re still unsure of me?”
I didn’t want to hurt him, but I had to be honest. “No.”
“Then I have to hedge my bets. You may decide to leave, and I will let you go if you do. In the meantime, I have to find a wife. I’m trying to make the best decision I can within the boundaries I’ve been given, but please, don’t doubt for a moment that I care for you. Deeply.”
I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. I thought about Aspen and what I’d done, and I felt so ashamed.
“Maxon?” I sniffed. “Can you … can you ever forgive—?” I didn’t get to finish my confession. He came even closer and started sweeping the tears off my face with his strong fingers.
“Forgive what? Our stupid little fight? It’s already forgotten. Your feelings being a little slower than mine? I’m prepared to wait,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t think there’s anything you could do that I couldn’t forgive. Need I remind you of the knee to my groin?”