She shook her head. “I can’t just ask to leave! I need to stay. I couldn’t go home … not now.”
“Why, Marlee? What’s keeping you here?”
For a moment, I wondered if Marlee and I shared the same dark secret. Maybe there was someone she needed distance from, too. The only difference in our situations was that Maxon knew about mine. I wanted her to say it! I wanted to know I wasn’t the only one who’d ended up here out of some ridiculous circumstances.
But Marlee’s tears stopped almost as quickly as they started. She sniffed a few times and straightened up. She smoothed out her day dress, squared her shoulders, and turned to face me. She pulled a strong, warm smile to her face and spoke.
“You know what? I bet you’re right.” She started to back away. “I’m sure if I just give it some time, it’ll all work out. I have to go. Tiny’s expecting me.”
Marlee half ran back to the palace. What in the world had come over her?
The next day, Marlee avoided me. The day after that, too. I made a point of sitting in the Women’s Room at a safe distance and making sure to acknowledge her whenever we crossed paths. I wanted her to know that she could trust me; I wouldn’t make her talk.
It took four days for her to give me a sad, knowing smile. I just nodded. It seemed that would be all there was to say about whatever was going on in Marlee’s heart.
That same day, while I was sitting in the Women’s Room, Maxon called for me. It would be a lie to say I wasn’t absolutely giddy when I ran out the door and into his arms.
“Maxon!” I breathed, falling into him. When I stepped back, he sort of fumbled a moment, and I knew why. The day we’d left the Swendway reception and went inside to talk, I confessed what a hard time I was having dealing with the way I felt. And I asked him not to kiss me until I was more certain. I could tell he was hurt, but he nodded and hadn’t broken his promise yet. It was just too hard to decipher those feelings when he acted like he was my boyfriend, but clearly wasn’t.
There were still twenty-two girls here after Camille, Mikaela, and Laila had been sent home. Camille and Laila were simply incompatible and left with very little fanfare. Mikaela got so homesick she burst into heaving sobs during breakfast two days later. Maxon escorted her from the room, patting her shoulder the whole way. He seemed fine with letting them go, and was happy to focus on his other prospects, myself included. But he and I both knew it would be foolish of him to invest his heart completely in me when even I wasn’t sure where mine was.
“How are you today?” he asked, stepping back.
“Perfect, of course. What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be working?”
“The president of the Infrastructure Committee is sick, so the meeting was postponed. I’m free as a bird all afternoon.” His eyes were gleaming. “What do you want to do?” he asked, holding his arm out for me.
“Anything! There’s so much of the palace I still haven’t seen. There are horses here, right? And the movie theater. You still haven’t taken me there.”
“Let’s do that. I could use something relaxing. What kinds of movies do you like best?” he asked as we started walking toward where I guessed the stairwell to the basement was.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t get to watch a lot of movies. But I like romantic books. And comedies, too!”
“Romance, you say?” He raised his eyebrows like he was up to no good. I had to laugh.
We turned a corner and continued to talk. As we approached, a mass of the palace guard pulled to the side of the hall and saluted. There had to be more than a dozen men standing in the hallway. I was used to them by now. Even the sight of a collection that big couldn’t distract me from the fun time I was about to have with Maxon.
What did stop me was when I heard the gasp that escaped someone’s mouth as we passed. Maxon and I both turned.
And there was Aspen.
I gasped, too.
A few weeks ago, I’d heard some administrator in the palace talk about the draft in passing. I had wondered about Aspen, but seeing as I was running late to one of Silvia’s many lessons, I didn’t really have a chance to speculate much.
So he’d been taken by the draft after all. Of all the places he could have gone…
Maxon caught on. “America, do you know this young man?”
It had been more than a month since I’d seen Aspen, but this was the person I’d spent years committing to memory, the person who still visited my dreams. I would know him anywhere. He looked a little bigger, like he’d been fed, really fed, and was working out a lot. His scraggly hair had been cut short, practically all gone. And I was used to seeing him in secondhand clothes that were barely being held together by threads, and here he was in one of the brilliant, fitted uniforms of the palace guard.
He was alien and familiar at once. So many of the things around him seemed wrong. But those eyes … those were Aspen’s eyes.
My eyes fell to the name tag on his uniform: OFFICER LEGER.
I doubted a second had passed.
I kept myself composed enough that no one saw the storm raging inside—a miracle in and of itself. I wanted to touch him, kiss him, scream at him, demand he leave my sanctuary. I wanted to melt away and disappear, but I felt so very here.
None of it made sense.
I cleared my throat. “Yes. Officer Leger comes from Carolina. He’s actually from my hometown.” I smiled at Maxon.
No doubt Aspen would have heard us laughing as we rounded the corner, would have noted that my arm was still draped on the prince’s. Let him make of that what he would.
Maxon seemed excited for me. “Well, how about that! Welcome, Officer Leger. You must be happy to see your Champion Girl again.” Maxon held his hand out, and Aspen shook it.
Aspen’s face was like a stone. “Yes, Your Majesty. Very much so.”
What did that mean?
“I’m sure you’re pulling for her, too,” Maxon encouraged as he winked at me.
“Of course, Your Majesty.” Aspen bowed his head a bit.
And what did that mean?
“Excellent. Since America is from your home province, I can’t think of a better man in the palace to leave her with. I’ll make sure you’re put on her guard rotation. This girl of yours refuses to keep a maid in her room at night. I’ve tried to tell her....” Maxon shook his head at me.
Aspen finally seemed to relax a bit. “I’m not surprised by that, Your Majesty.”