“I’ve never gambled before. It was nice to win.” His tone was slightly apologetic.
He smiled. “Perhaps. Next time we’ll try to make her laugh.”
I instantly started running scenarios through my mind. What from the palace would make May just die with laughter?
Maxon could tell I was thinking about her. “What’s your family like?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. Your family must be very different from mine.”
“I’d say so.” I laughed. “For one, no one wears their tiaras to breakfast.”
Maxon smiled. “More of a dinner thing at the Singer house?”
He chuckled quietly. I was starting to think maybe Maxon wasn’t nearly the snob I’d suspected he was.
“Well, I’m the middle child of five.”
“Yeah, five. Most families out there have lots of kids. I’d have lots if I could.”
“Oh, really?” Maxon’s eyebrows were raised.
“Yes,” I answered. My voice was low. I couldn’t quite say why, but that seemed like a very intimate detail about my life. Only one other person had really known about it.
I felt a spasm of sadness but shoved it away.
“Anyway, my oldest sister, Kenna, is married to a Four. She works in a factory now. My mom wants me to marry at least a Four, but I don’t want to have to stop singing. I love it too much. But I guess I’m a Three now. That’s really weird. I think I’m going to try to stay in music if I can.
“Kota is next. He’s an artist. We don’t see much of him these days. He did come to see me off, but that’s about it.
“Then there’s me.”
Maxon smiled effortlessly. “America Singer,” he announced, “my closest friend.”
“That’s right.” I rolled my eyes. There was no way I could actually be his closest friend. At least not yet. But I had to admit, he was the only person I’d ever really confided in who wasn’t family or someone I was in love with. Well, Marlee, too. Could it be the same way for him?
Slowly we moved down the hallway and toward the stairs. He didn’t appear to be in any sort of rush.
“After me there’s May. She’s the one who sold me out and didn’t cry. Honestly, I was robbed; I can’t believe she didn’t cry! But yeah, she’s an artist. I … I adore her.”
Maxon examined my face. Talking about May softened me a bit. I liked Maxon well enough, but I didn’t know how far I wanted to let him in.
“And then Gerad. He’s the baby; he’s seven. He hasn’t quite figured out if he’s into music or art yet. Mostly he likes to play ball and study bugs, which is fine except that he can’t make a living that way. We’re trying to get him to experiment more. Anyway, that’s everyone.”
“What about your parents?” he pressed.
“What about your parents?” I replied.
“You know my parents.”
“No, I don’t. I know the public image of them. What are they really like?” I pulled on his arm, which was quite a feat. Maxon’s arms were huge. Even beneath the layers of his suit, I could feel the strong, steady muscles there. Maxon sighed, but I could tell I didn’t really exasperate him at all. He seemed to like having someone pester him. It must be sad to grow up in this place without any siblings.
He started thinking about what he was going to say as we stepped into the garden. The guards all wore sly smiles as we passed. Just past them a camera crew waited. Of course they would want to be present for the prince’s first date. Maxon shook his head at them, and they retreated indoors immediately. I heard someone curse. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to being followed around by cameras, but it seemed strange to dismiss them.
“Are you all right? You seem tense,” Maxon noted.
“You get confused by crying women, I get confused by walks with princes,” I said with a shrug.
Maxon laughed quietly at that but said no more. As we moved west, the sun was blocked by the massive forest on the grounds, though it was still early in the evening. The shade crept over us, creating a tent of darkness. When I’d sought isolation the other night, this was where I wanted to be. We truly seemed alone now. We walked on, away from the palace and out of earshot of the guards.
“What about me is so confusing?”
I hesitated but said what I felt. “Your character. Your intentions. I’m not sure what to expect out of this little stroll.”
“Ah.” He stopped walking and faced me. We were very close to each other, and in spite of the warm summer air, a chill ran down my spine. “I think you can tell by now that I’m not the type of man to beat around the bush. I’ll tell you exactly what I want from you.”
Maxon took a step closer.
My breath caught in my throat. I’d just walked into the very situation I feared. No guards, no cameras, no one to stop him from doing whatever he wanted.
Knee-jerk reaction. Literally. I kneed His Majesty in the thigh. Hard.
Maxon let out a yell and reached down, clutching himself as I backed away from him. “What was that for?”
“If you lay a single finger on me, I’ll do worse!” I promised.
“I said, if you—”
“No, no, you crazy girl, I heard you the first time.” Maxon grimaced. “But just what in the world do you mean by it?”
I felt the heat run through my body. I’d jumped to the worst possible conclusion and set myself up to fight something that obviously wasn’t coming.
The guards ran up, alerted by our little squabble. Maxon waved them away from an awkward, half-bent position.
We were quiet for a while, and once Maxon was over the worst of his pain, he faced me.
“What did you think I wanted?” he asked.
I ducked my head and blushed.
“America, what did you think I wanted?” He sounded upset. More than upset. Offended. He had obviously guessed what I’d assumed, and he didn’t like that one bit. “In public? You thought … for heaven’s sake. I’m a gentleman!”
He started to walk away but turned back.
“Why did you even offer to help if you think so little of me?”
I couldn’t even look him in the eye. I didn’t know how to explain I had been prepped to expect a dog, that the darkness and privacy made me feel strange, that I’d only ever been alone with one other boy and that was how we behaved.