Then my heartbreak doubled when I asked for my parents, and Anne told me that all the families had been escorted away quickly. I didn’t even get to say good-bye.
Anne stroked my hair, gently shushing me. Mary was at my feet, rubbing my legs comfortingly. Lucy simply held her hands to her heart, as if she felt it all with me.
“Thank you,” I whispered between sniffles. “I’m sorry about earlier.”
They exchanged glances. “There’s nothing to apologize for, miss,” Anne insisted.
I wanted to correct her, because I’d certainly crossed the line with how I treated them, but another knock came at the door. I tried to think of how to politely say I didn’t want to see Maxon right now, but when Lucy hopped up to answer it, Aspen’s face was on the other side.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, ladies, but I heard the crying and wanted to make sure you were all right,” he said.
He crossed the floor toward my bed, a bold move considering the day we’d all had.
“Lady America, I’m very sorry about your friend. I heard she was something special. If you need anything, I’m here.” The look in Aspen’s eyes communicated so much: that he was willing to sacrifice any number of things to make this better if he could, that he wanted to take it all away if only for my sake.
What an idiot I’d been. I’d almost given up the one person in the world who really knew me, really loved me. Aspen and I had been building a life together, and the Selection nearly destroyed it.
Aspen was home. Aspen was safe.
“Thank you,” I replied quietly. “Your kindness means a great deal to me.”
Aspen gave me an almost imperceptible smile. I could tell he wanted to stay, and I wanted that as well; but with my maids bustling around, it couldn’t happen. I remembered thinking the other day that I would always have Aspen, and I was happy to find that it was absolutely true.
I’M SO SORRY WE DIDN’T GET TO SAY GOOD-BYE. THE KING SEEMED TO THINK IT WOULD BE SAFEST FOR THE FAMILIES TO LEAVE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. I TRIED TO GET TO YOU, I PROMISE. IT JUST DIDN’T HAPPEN.
I WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW WE GOT HOME SAFELY. THE KING LET US KEEP OUR CLOTHES, AND MAY IS SPENDING EVERY SPARE MOMENT IN THOSE DRESSES. I SUSPECT SHE’S SECRETLY HOPING SHE NEVER GROWS ANOTHER INCH SO SHE CAN USE HER BALL GOWN AT HER WEDDING. IT REALLY LIFTS HER SPIRITS. I’M NOT SURE I’LL EVER FORGIVE THE ROYAL FAMILY FOR MAKING TWO OF MY CHILDREN WATCH THAT FIRSTHAND, BUT YOU KNOW HOW RESILIENT MAY IS. IT’S YOU I’M WORRIED ABOUT. WRITE US SOON.
MAYBE THIS ISN’T THE RIGHT THING TO SAY, BUT I WANT YOU TO KNOW: WHEN YOU RAN FOR THE STAGE, I’VE NEVER BEEN SO PROUD OF YOU IN ALL MY LIFE. YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN BEAUTIFUL; YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN TALENTED. AND NOW I KNOW THAT YOUR MORAL COMPASS IS PERFECTLY ALIGNED, THAT YOU SEE CLEARLY WHEN THINGS ARE WRONG, AND YOU DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO STOP IT. AS A FATHER, I CAN’T ASK FOR MORE.
I LOVE YOU, AMERICA. AND I’M SO, SO PROUD.
How was it that Dad always knew what to say? I kind of wanted someone to rearrange the stars so they spelled out his words. I needed them big and bright, and somewhere I could see them when things felt dark. I love you. And I’m so, so proud.
The Elite were given the option of breakfast in their rooms, and I took it. I wasn’t ready to see Maxon yet. By the afternoon I was a bit more put together and decided to go down to the Women’s Room for a while. If nothing else, there was at least a television, and I could stand to be distracted.
The girls seemed surprised when I walked in, which I guessed was to be expected. I did tend to hide from time to time, and if there was ever a moment to do that, it was now. Celeste was lounging on a couch, flipping through a magazine. Illéa didn’t have newspapers like I’d heard other countries did. We had the Report. Magazines were the closest things we had to printed news, and people like me could never afford them. Celeste always seemed to have one on hand, and, for some reason, that irritated me today.
Kriss and Elise were at a table drinking tea and talking as Natalie stood in the back, looking out a window.
“Oh, look,” Celeste said to no one in particular. “Here’s another one of my ads.”
Celeste was a model. The idea of her flipping through pictures of herself drove my irritation deeper.
“Lady America?” someone called. I turned and saw the queen and some of her attendants in the corner. She looked like she was doing needlework.
I curtsied, and she waved me over. My stomach did a flip as I considered my behavior yesterday. I’d never intended to offend her and was suddenly afraid I’d done just that. I felt the eyes of the other girls on me. The queen usually spoke to us as a group, rarely one-on-one.
I gave another curtsy as I approached. “Majesty.”
“Please sit, Lady America,” she said kindly, motioning to an empty chair across from her.
I obliged, still very nervous.
“You put up quite a fight yesterday,” she commented.
I swallowed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“You were very close to her?”
I choked back my sadness. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
She sighed. “A lady ought not to behave in such a way. The cameras were so focused on the action at hand that they missed your conduct. Still, it doesn’t behoove you to lash out like that.”
It wasn’t the order of a queen. It was the reprimand of a mother. That made it a thousand times worse. It was like she felt responsible for me, and I’d let her down.
I bowed my head. For the first time, I truly felt bad about how I reacted.
She reached over and rested her hand on my knee. I looked up to her face, shocked by the casual touch.
“All the same,” she whispered, “I’m glad you did it.” And she smiled at me.
“She was my best friend.”
“That doesn’t stop because she’s gone, sweetheart.” Queen Amberly patted my leg kindly.
It was exactly what I needed: motherly affection.
Tears bit at the corners of my eyes. “I don’t know what to do,” I whispered. I nearly let everything spill out right there about how I was feeling, but I was conscious of the eyes of the other girls on me.
“I told myself I wouldn’t get involved,” she stated, and sighed. “Even if I wanted to, I’m not sure there’s much to say.”
She was right. What words could undo all that had happened?
The queen leaned in to me and spoke sweetly. “Still, go easy on him.”