I couldn’t help but laugh. Maxon chuckled once, then became suddenly serious.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He shook his head. “They were so fast this time.” Maxon’s voice was full of an aggravated wonder at the talents of the rebels. I suddenly wondered how close to disaster I had come by trying to save my maids.
“I’m getting more and more worried, America. North or South, they’re getting exceptionally determined. It seems they won’t stop until they get what they want, and we haven’t the faintest clue what it is.” Maxon looked confused and sad. “I feel like it’s only a matter of time until they destroy someone important to me.”
He looked into my eyes.
“You know, you still have a choice in this. If you’re afraid to stay, you should say so.” He paused, thinking. “Or if you don’t think you can love me at all, it would be kinder to tell me now. I’ll let you go on your way, and we can part as friends.”
I wrapped my arms around him, resting my head against his chest. Maxon seemed both comforted and surprised by the gesture. It took only a second for him to wrap his arms securely around me.
“Maxon, I’m not completely sure what we are, but we’re definitely more than friends.”
He let out a sigh. With my head there against his chest, I could faintly make out the sound of his heart beating through his suit coat. It seemed to be rushing. His hand, gentle as ever, reached to cup my cheek. As I looked into his eyes, I felt that unnameable feeling that was growing between us.
With his eyes, Maxon asked for something we’d both agreed to wait on. I was glad he didn’t want to wait anymore. I gave him a tiny nod, and he bridged the small gap between us, kissing me with unimaginable tenderness.
I felt a smile underneath his lips, and it lingered for a long time after.
I FELT A NUDGE ON my arm. It was dark and either very late or very early. For a fraction of a second, I thought that there’d been yet another attack. Then I knew I was wrong because of the single word used to wake me.
My back was to Aspen, and I took a moment to steady myself before I faced him. In my head, I knew that there were things that needed to be set right between us. I hoped my heart would let me say them.
I rolled over and caught Aspen’s bright green eyes and knew this would be difficult. Then I noticed that he’d left the door to my room open.
“Aspen, are you crazy?” I whispered. “Close the door.”
“No, I’ve thought this out. With the door open, I can tell anyone who comes by that I heard a noise and was checking on you, which is my job. No one would suspect a thing.”
It was simple and brilliant. I nodded my head in understanding. “Okay.”
I turned on the small lamp on my bedside table to make it clear to any passersby that we weren’t hiding anything. I noticed that the clock said it was past three in the morning.
Aspen was obviously pleased with himself. His smile, the same one that used to greet me in the tree house, was wide.
“You kept it,” he said.
Aspen pointed down to my bedside table, where the jar sat with its lone penny.
“Yeah,” I said. “I just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.”
His expression grew more and more hopeful. He turned to look at the door, as if checking quickly that no one was there. Then he bent down to kiss me.
“No,” I said quietly, pulling away. “You can’t do that.”
The look in his eyes warred between confusion and sadness, and I feared that everything I was about to say was only going to make things worse.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” I said adamantly. “You’ve been wonderful. I’ve been so happy to see you again and to know that you still love me. It’s changed everything.”
He smiled. “Good. Because I do love you, and I’m planning on making sure you never have a reason to doubt it.”
I squirmed. “Aspen, whatever we were, or are right now, we can’t be that here.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, shifting his weight.
“I’m part of the Selection right now. I’m here for Maxon, and I can’t date you or whatever this is while it’s still going on.” I started fidgeting with a bit of my comforter.
He thought a moment. “So were you lying to me? When you said you never stopped loving me?”
“No,” I assured him. “You’ve been in my heart the whole time. You’re the reason things have been going as slow as they are. Maxon likes me, but I can’t let myself really care about him because of you.”
“Well, great,” he said sarcastically. “Glad to know you’d be fine dating him if I wasn’t around.”
Underneath the anger, I could see he was heartbroken, but it wasn’t my fault it turned out this way.
“Aspen?” I asked quietly, getting him to look at me. “When you left me in the tree house, you crushed me.”
“Mer, I said I—”
“Let me finish.” He huffed, then was silent. “You took away my dreams, and the only reason I’m here is because you insisted I sign up.”
He shook his head, irritated at the truth.
“I’ve been trying to put myself back together, and Maxon really cares about me. You mean so much to me, you know you do. But I’m part of this now, and I’d be stupid to not let myself see what happens.”
“So you’re choosing him over me?” he asked miserably.
“No, I’m not choosing him or you. I’m choosing me.”
That was the truth at the core of everything. I didn’t know what I wanted yet, and I couldn’t let myself be swayed by what was easy or what someone else thought was right. I had to give myself time to decide what was best for me.
Aspen mulled this over for a moment, still not happy with what I was saying. Finally he smiled.
“You know I’m not giving up, right?” His tone was an obvious challenge, and I grinned in spite of myself. It was true that Aspen was not the type to admit defeat.
“This really isn’t a good place to try to fight for me. Your determination is a dangerous trait here.”
“I’m not afraid of that suit,” he scoffed.
I rolled my eyes, amused at being on this end of the relationship. I’d always been worried about someone stealing Aspen. I felt guilty about how refreshing it was to see him worried about someone stealing me for a change.