“Of course, miss.”
“Is it still improper for us to hug?” Mary asked, looking at me and then Anne.
“Who cares?” she said, and they crowded around me one last time.
“Take care of yourselves.”
“You, too, miss,” Mary said.
“You were always a lady,” Anne added.
They stepped away, but Lucy held on. “Thank you,” she breathed, and I could tell she was crying. “I’ll miss you.”
She let me go, and they walked to the door, standing together in a group. They gave me one last curtsy, and I waved as they left me alone.
So many times in the last few weeks I had wished I could leave. Now that it was here, seconds away, I was dreading it. I walked onto the balcony. I looked down at the gardens, gazing at the bench, the spot where Maxon and I had met. I didn’t know why, but I suspected he’d be there.
He wasn’t though. He had more important things to do than to sit around thinking about me. I touched the bracelet on my wrist. He would think about me, though, from time to time, and that comforted me. No matter what, this was real.
I backed away, closing the door and heading to the hallway. I moved slowly, taking in the beauty of the palace one last time, even though it was slightly marred by broken mirrors and chipped frames.
I remembered walking down this grand stairwell the first day, feeling confused and grateful at the same time. There were so many girls then.
When I reached the front doors, I paused for a moment. I’d gotten so used to being behind those massive blocks of wood that it almost felt wrong to go through them.
I took a deep breath and reached for the handle.
I turned. Maxon was standing at the other end of the corridor.
“Hey,” I said lamely. I hadn’t thought I’d get to see him again.
He walked over to me quickly. “You look absolutely breathtaking.”
“Thank you.” I touched the fabric of my last dress.
There was a breath of silence as we stood there, watching each other. Maybe that’s all this was: a last chance to see.
Suddenly he cleared his throat, remembering his purpose. “I’ve spoken with my father.”
“Yes. He was quite happy that I wasn’t killed last night. As you might have guessed, carrying on the royal line is very important to him. I explained to him that I nearly died because of his temper and attributed my finding a hiding place to you.”
“But I didn’t—”
“I know. But he needn’t.”
“I then told him that I set you straight on some behavioral things. Again, he needn’t know that’s untrue; but you could act like it happened, if you wanted.”
I didn’t know why I would need to act like anything happened when I would be on the other side of the country, but I nodded.
“Considering that I owe my life to you as far as he knows, he agreed that my desire to keep you here might be somewhat justified, so long as you were on your best behavior and could learn your place.”
I stared at him, not completely sure I was hearing this right.
“Really, the fair thing to do is let Natalie go. She’s not cut out for this; and with her family grieving right now, her home is the best place for her. We’ve already spoken.”
I was still dumbstruck.
“Shall I explain?”
Maxon reached for my hand. “You would stay here as a member of the Selection and still be a part of the competition, but things will be different. My father will probably be harsh toward you and do whatever he can to make you fail. I think there are some ways to fight that, but it will take time. You know how ruthless he is. You have to prepare yourself.”
I nodded. “I think I can do that.”
“There’s more.” Maxon looked to the carpet, trying to align his thoughts. “America, there’s no question that you’ve had my heart from the beginning. By now you have to know that.”
When he brought his eyes up to mine, I could see it in every part of him and feel it in every piece of me. “I do.”
“But what you do not have right now is my trust.”
I was stricken. “What?”
“I’ve shown you so many of my secrets, defended you in every way I can. But when you aren’t pleased with me, you act rashly. You shut me out, blame me, or, most impressively, try to change the entire country.”
Ouch. That was pretty rough.
“I need to know that I can depend on you. I need to know that you can keep my secrets, trust my judgment, and not hold things back from me. I need you to be completely honest with me and to stop questioning every decision I make. I need you to have faith in me, America.”
It hurt to hear all of that, but he was right. What had I done to prove to him that he could trust me? Everyone around him was pulling or pushing him into something. Could I just be there for him?
I fiddled with my hands. “I do have faith in you. And I hope you can see that I want to be with you. But you could have been more honest with me, too.”
He nodded. “Perhaps. And there are things I want to tell you, but many of the things I know are of such a nature that they cannot be shared if there’s even a minuscule chance that you can’t keep them to yourself. I need to know that you can do that. And I need you to be wholly open with me.”
I inhaled to respond, but it never came out.
“Maxon, there you are.” Kriss called, rounding the corner. “I didn’t get to ask you earlier if we were still on for dinner tonight.”
Maxon looked at me as he spoke. “Of course. We’ll eat in your room.”
“America? Are you really leaving?” she asked, coming up to us. I could see the spark of hope in her eyes. I looked to Maxon, whose expression seemed to say This is what I’m talking about. I need you to accept the consequences of your actions, to trust me to make my own choice.
“No, Kriss, not today.”
“Good.” She sighed, coming to hug me. I wondered how much of this embrace was for Maxon’s sake; but, really, it didn’t matter. Kriss was my toughest competition, but she was also the closest friend I had here. “I was really worried about you last night. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Thanks, it was lucky—” I almost said that it was lucky I had Maxon to keep me company, but bragging would have probably ruined what little bit of trust I’d built in the last ten seconds. I cleared my throat. “Lucky the guards got there so fast.”