“Look at the camera, please,” the photographer called. I looked up and saw not just his eyes but the faces of all the other girls watching, and my nerves shot up.
I wiped my moist hands on my dress and exhaled.
“Don’t be nervous,” Maxon whispered.
“I don’t like everyone looking at me.”
He pulled me very close and put his hand on my waist. I went to step back, but Maxon’s arm held me securely to him. “Just look at me like you can’t stand me.” He squinted into a mock pout, which made me crack up.
The camera flashed at just that second, capturing us both laughing.
“See,” Maxon said. “It’s not so bad.”
“I guess.” I was still tense for a few minutes as the photographer shouted out instructions and Maxon shifted from a close embrace to a loose one, or turned me so my back was against his chest.
“Excellent,” the photographer said. “Could we get a few on the lounge?”
I was feeling better now that it was half over, and I sat next to Maxon with the best posture I could muster. Every once in a while, he’d poke or tickle me, making my smile grow bigger until it burst into laughter. I hoped the photographer was catching the moments just before my face scrunched together, otherwise this whole thing was going to be a disaster.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed a waving hand, and a moment later Maxon turned as well. A man in a suit was standing there, and he clearly needed to speak to the prince. Maxon nodded, but the man hesitated, looking to him and then to me, evidently questioning my presence.
“She’s fine,” Maxon said, and the man came over and knelt before him.
“Rebel attack in Midston, Your Majesty,” he said. Maxon sighed and dropped his head wearily. “They burned acres of crops and killed about a dozen people.”
“Where in Midston?”
“The west, sir, near the border.”
Maxon nodded slowly and looked as if he was adding this piece of information to others in his head. “What does my father say?”
“Actually, Your Majesty, he wanted your thoughts.”
Maxon seemed taken aback for a split second, then spoke. “Localize troops in the southeast of Sota and all along Tammins. Don’t go as far south as Midston, it’d be a waste. See if we can intercept them.”
The man stood and bowed. “Excellent, sir.” As swiftly as he’d come, he vanished.
I knew we were supposed to get back to the pictures, but Maxon didn’t seem nearly so interested in it all now.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
He nodded somberly. “Just all those people.”
“Maybe we should stop,” I suggested.
He shook his head, straightened up, and smiled, placing my hand in his. “One thing you must master in this profession is the ability to appear calm when you feel anything but. Please smile, America.”
I raised myself up and gave a shy smile to the camera as the photographer clicked away. In the middle of those last few frames, Maxon squeezed my hand tight, and I did the same to his. In that moment, it felt like we had a connection, something true and deep.
“Thank you very much. Next, please,” the photographer sang.
As Maxon and I stood, he held on to my hand. “Please don’t say anything. It’s imperative you’re discreet.”
The click of a pair of heels coming toward us reminded me that we weren’t alone, but I kind of wanted to stay. He gave my hand one last squeeze and released me, and as I walked away, I considered several things. How nice it felt that Maxon trusted me enough to let me know this secret, and how it had sort of felt like we were alone for a moment. Then I thought about the rebels, and how the king was usually quick to point out their sedition, but I was supposed to keep this news to myself. It didn’t quite make sense.
“Janelle, my dear,” Maxon said as the next girl approached. I smiled to myself at the tired endearment. He lowered his voice, but I still heard. “Before I forget, are you free this afternoon?”
Something kind of knotted in my stomach. I guessed it was a late batch of nerves.
“She must have done something terrible,” Amy insisted.
“That’s not what she made it sound like,” Kriss countered.
Tuesday pulled on Kriss’s arm. “What did she say again?”
Janelle had been sent home.
This particular elimination was crucial for us to understand, because it was the first one that was isolated and not caused by rule breaking. She had done something wrong, and we all wanted to know what it was.
Kriss, whose room was across from Janelle’s, had seen her come in and was the only person she’d spoken to before she left. Kriss sighed and retold the story for the third time.
“She and Maxon had gone hunting, but you knew that,” she said, waving her hand around like she was trying to clear her thoughts. Janelle’s date really had been common knowledge. After the photo shoot yesterday, she gushed about their plans to anyone who would listen.
“That was her second date with Maxon. She’s the only one who got two,” Bariel said.
“No, she isn’t,” I mumbled. A few heads turned, acknowledging my statement. It was true, though. Janelle was the only girl to have two dates with Maxon besides me. Not that I was counting.
Kriss continued. “When she came back, she was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she was leaving, that Maxon had told her to go. I gave her a hug because she was so upset and asked her what happened. She said she couldn’t tell me about it. I don’t understand that. Maybe we’re not allowed to talk about why we’re eliminated?”
“That wasn’t in the rules, was it?” Tuesday asked.
“No one said anything to me about it,” Amy replied, and several others shook their heads in confirmation.
“But what did she say then?” Celeste urged.
Kriss sighed again. “She said that I’d better be careful of what I say. Then she pulled away and slammed the door.”
The room went quiet a moment, considering. “She must have insulted him,” Elayna said.
“Well, if that’s why she left, then it isn’t fair, since Maxon said that someone in this room insulted him the first time they met,” Celeste complained.
People started looking around the room, trying to discover the guilty party, perhaps in an effort to get them—me—kicked out as well. I gave a nervous glance to Marlee, and she sprang into action.