“Nice to see you again, Your Highness.”
“Thank you, Gavril. The pleasure is all mine.” Maxon’s voice was as poised as the rest of him. He radiated waves of formality. I wrinkled my nose at the idea of just being in the same room with him.
“In less than a month, thirty-five women will be moving into your house. How do you feel about that?”
Maxon laughed. “Honestly, it is a bit nerve-racking. I’m imagining there will be much more noise with so many guests. I’m looking forward to it all the same.”
“Have you asked dear old dad for any advice on how he managed to get ahold of such a beautiful wife when it was his turn?”
Both Maxon and Gavril looked over to the king and queen, and the camera panned over to show them looking at each other, smiling and holding hands. It seemed genuine, but how would we know any better?
“I haven’t actually. As you know, the situation in New Asia has been escalating, and I’ve been working with him more on the military side of things. Not much time to discuss girls in there.”
Mom and May laughed. I suppose it was kind of funny.
“We don’t have much time left, so I’d like to have one more question. What do you imagine your perfect girl would be like?”
Maxon looked taken aback. It was hard to tell, but he may have been blushing.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I think that’s the beauty of the Selection. No two women who enter will be exactly the same—not in looks or preferences or disposition. And through the process of meeting them and talking to them, I’m hoping to discover what I want, to find it along the way.” Maxon smiled.
“Thank you, Your Highness. That was very well said. And I think I speak for all of Illéa when I wish you the best of luck.” Gavril held out his hand for another shake.
“Thank you, sir,” Maxon said. The camera didn’t cut away quick enough, and you could see him looking over to his parents, wondering if he’d said the right thing. The next shot zoomed in on Gavril’s face, so there was no way to see what their response was.
“I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for this evening. Thank you for watching the Illéa Capital Report, and we’ll see you next week.”
With that, the music played and credits rolled.
“America and Maxon sitting in a tree,” sang May. I grabbed a pillow and chucked it at her, but I couldn’t help laughing at the thought. Maxon was so stiff and quiet. It was hard to imagine anyone being happy with such a wimp.
I spent the rest of the night trying to ignore May’s teasing, and finally went to my room to be alone. Even the thought of being near Maxon Schreave made me uncomfortable. May’s little jabs stayed in my head all night and made it difficult for me to sleep.
It was hard to pinpoint the sound that woke me, but once I was aware of it, I tried to survey my room in absolute stillness, just in case someone was there.
Tap, tap, tap.
I turned over slowly to face my window, and there was Aspen, grinning at me. I got out of bed and tiptoed to the door, shutting it all the way and locking it. I went back to the bed, unlocking and slowly opening my window.
A rush of heat that had nothing to do with summer swept over me as Aspen climbed through the window and onto my bed.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered, smiling in the dark.
“I had to see you,” he breathed into my cheek as he wrapped his arms around me, pulling me down until we were lying side by side on the bed.
“I have so much to tell you, Aspen.”
“Shhh, don’t say a word. If anyone hears, there’ll be hell to pay. Just let me look at you.”
And so I obeyed. I stayed there, quiet and still, while Aspen stared into my eyes. When he had his fill of that, he went to nuzzling his nose into my neck and hair. And then his hands were moving up and down the curve of my waist to my hip over and over and over. I heard his breathing get heavy, and something about that drew me in.
His lips, hidden in my neck, started kissing me. I drew in sharp breaths. I couldn’t help it. Aspen’s lips traveled up my chin and covered my mouth, effectively silencing my gasps. I wrapped myself around him, our rushed grabbing and the humidity of the night covering us both in sweat.
It was a stolen moment.
Aspen’s lips finally slowed, though I was nowhere near ready to stop. But we had to be smart. If we went any further, and there was ever evidence of it, we’d both be thrown in jail.
Another reason everyone married young: Waiting is torture.
“I should go,” he whispered.
“But I want you to stay.” My lips were by his ears. I could smell his soap again.
“America Singer, one day you will fall asleep in my arms every night. And you’ll wake up to my kisses every morning. And then some.” I bit my lip at the thought. “But now I have to go. We’re pushing our luck.”
I sighed and loosened my grip. He was right.
“I love you, America.”
“I love you, Aspen.”
These secret moments would be enough to get me through everything coming: Mom’s disappointment when I wasn’t chosen, the work I’d have to do to help Aspen save, the eruption that was coming when he asked Dad for my hand, and whatever struggles we’d go through once we were married. None of it mattered. Not if I had Aspen.
A WEEK LATER, I BEAT Aspen to the tree house.
It took a bit of work to get the things I wanted up there in silence, but I managed. I rearranged the plates one last time as I heard someone climbing the tree.
Aspen started and laughed. I lit the new candle I’d purchased just for us. He crossed the tree house to kiss me, and after a moment, I started talking about all that had happened during the week.
“I never got to tell you about the sign-ups,” I said, excited about the news.
“How’d it go? Mom said it was packed.”
“It was crazy, Aspen. You should have seen what people were wearing! And I’m sure you know that it’s less of a lottery than they’re claiming. So I was right all along. There are far more interesting people to choose in Carolina than me, so this was all a big nothing.”
“All the same, thank you for doing it. It means a lot to me.” His eyes were still focused on me. He hadn’t even bothered looking around the tree house. Drinking me in, like always.
“Well, the best part is that since my mother had no idea I’d already promised you, she bribed me to sign up.” I couldn’t contain my smile. This week families had already started throwing parties for their daughters, sure that they would be the one chosen for the Selection. I’d sung at no less than seven celebrations, packing two into a night for the sake of getting my own paychecks. And Mom was true to her word. It felt liberating to have money that was mine.