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"Yes, and then he followed to make sure I was all right.... But I was stressed out, so when he spoke to me, I basically ended up accusing him of being stuck-up and shallow."
Gavril chuckled deeply at this. I looked past him to Maxon, who was shaking with laughter. But the more embarra.s.sing thing was that the king and queen were laughing along with him. I didn't turn to look at the girls, but I heard some of them giggling, too. Well, good. Maybe now they would finally stop seeing me as any sort of threat. I was just someone Maxon found entertaining.
"And he forgave you?" Gavril asked in a slightly more sober tone.
"Oddly enough." I shrugged.
"Well, since the two of you are on good terms again, what sort of activities have you been doing together?" Gavril was back to business.
"We usually just go for walks around the garden. He knows I like it outside. And we talk." It sounded pathetic after what some of the other girls had said. Trips to the theater, going hunting, horseback riding-those were impressive next to my story.
But I suddenly understood why he had been speed dating over the last week. The girls needed something to tell Gavril, so he had to provide it. It still seemed weird that he hadn't mentioned any of it to me, but at least I knew why he had been away.
"That sounds very relaxing. Would you say the garden is your favorite thing about the palace?"
I smiled. "Maybe. But the food is exquisite, so..."
Gavril laughed again.
"You are the last Five left in the compet.i.tion, yes? Do you think that hurts your chances of becoming the princess?"
The word sprang from my lips without thought. "No!"
"Oh, my! You do have a spirit there!" Gavril seemed pleased to have gotten such an enthusiastic response. "So you think you'll beat out all the others, then? Make it to the end?"
I thought better of myself. "No, no. It's not like that. I don't think I'm better than any of the other girls; they're all amazing. It's just... I don't think Maxon would do that, just discount someone because of their caste."
I heard a collective gasp. I ran over the sentence in my head. It took me a minute to catch my mistake: I'd called him Maxon. Saying that to another girl behind closed doors was one thing, but to say his name without the word "Prince" in front of it was incredibly informal in public. And I'd said it on live television.
I looked to see if Maxon was angry. He had a calm smile on his face. So he wasn't mad ... but I was embarra.s.sed. I blushed fiercely.
"Ah, so it seems you really have gotten to know our prince. Tell me, what do you think of Maxon?"
I had thought of several answers while I was waiting for my turn. I was going to make fun of his laugh or talk about the pet name he wanted his wife to call him. It seemed like the only way to save the situation was to get back the comedy. But as I lifted my eyes to make one of my comments, I saw Maxon's face.
He really wanted to know.
And I couldn't poke fun at him, not when I had a chance to say what I'd really started to think now that he was my friend. I couldn't joke about the person who'd saved me from facing absolute heartbreak at home, who fed my family boxes of sweets, who ran to me worried that I was hurt if I asked for him.
A month ago, I had looked at the TV and seen a stiff, distant, boring person-someone I couldn't imagine anyone loving. And while he wasn't anything close to the person I did love, he was worthy of having someone to love in his life.
"Maxon Schreave is the epitome of all things good. He is going to be a phenomenal king. He lets girls who are supposed to be wearing dresses wear jeans and doesn't get mad when someone who doesn't know him clearly mislabels him." I gave Gavril a keen look, and he smiled. And behind him, Maxon looked intrigued. "Whoever he marries will be a lucky girl. And whatever happens to me, I will be honored to be his subject."
I saw Maxon swallow, and I lowered my eyes.
"America Singer, thank you so much." Gavril went to shake my hand. "Up next is Miss Tallulah Bell."
I didn't hear what any of the girls said after me, though I stared at the two seats. That interview had become way more personal than I'd intended it to be. I couldn't bring myself to look at Maxon. Instead I sat there replaying my words again and again in my head.
The knock on my door came around ten. I flung it open, and Maxon rolled his eyes.
"You really ought to have a maid in here at night."
"Maxon! Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to call you that in front of everyone. It was so stupid."
"Do you think I'm mad at you?" he asked as he walked in and shut the door. "America, you call me by my name so often, it was bound to slip out. I wish it had been in a slightly more private setting," he said with a sly smile, "but I don't hold that against you at all."
"Of course, really."
"Ugh! I felt like such an idiot tonight. I can't believe you made me tell that story!" I slapped him on the side gently.
"That was the best part of the whole night! Mom was really amused. In her day the girls were more reserved than even Tiny, and here you are calling me shallow ... she couldn't get over it."
Great. Now the queen thought I was a misfit, too. We walked across my room and ended up on the balcony. There was a small, warm breeze blowing the scent of the thousands of flowers in the garden toward us. A full moon shone down on us, adding to the lights around the palace, and it gave Maxon's face a mysterious glow.
"Well, I'm glad you're so amused," I said, running my fingers across the railing.
Maxon hopped up to sit on the railing, looking very relaxed. "You're always amusing. Get used to it."
Hmm. He was almost being funny.
"So ... about what you said...," he started tentatively.
"Which part? The part about me calling you names or fighting with my mom or saying food was my motivation?" I rolled my eyes.
He laughed once. "The part about me being good..."
"Oh. What about it?" Those few sentences suddenly seemed more embarra.s.sing than anything else I'd said. I ducked my head down and twisted a piece of my dress.
"I appreciate you making things look authentic, but you didn't need to go that far."
My head snapped up. How could he think that?
"Maxon, that wasn't for the sake of the show. If you had asked me a month ago what my honest opinion of you was, it would have been very different. But now I know you, and I know the truth, and you are everything I said you were. And more."
He was quiet, but there was a small smile on his face.
"Thank you," he finally said.
Maxon cleared his throat. "He'll be lucky, too." He got down from his makeshift seat and walked to my side of the balcony.
"Your boyfriend. When he comes to his senses and begs you to take him back," Maxon said matter-of-factly.
I had to laugh. No such thing would happen in my world.
"He's not my boyfriend anymore. And he made it pretty clear he was done with me." Even I could hear the tiny bit of hope in my voice.
"Not possible. He'll have seen you on TV by now and fallen for you all over again. Though, in my opinion, you're still much too good for the dog." Maxon spoke almost as if he was bored, like he'd seen this happen a million times.
"Speaking of which!" he said a bit louder. "If you don't want me to be in love with you, you're going to have to stop looking so lovely. First thing tomorrow I'm having your maids sew some potato sacks together for you."
I hit his arm. "Shut up, Maxon."
"I'm not kidding. You're too beautiful for your own good. Once you leave, we'll have to send some of the guards with you. You'll never survive on your own, poor thing." He said all this with mock pity.
"I can't help it." I sighed. "One can never help being born into perfection." I fanned my face as if being so pretty was exhausting.
"No, I don't suppose you can help it."
I giggled. I didn't notice for a moment that Maxon didn't seem to think it was funny.
I stared out at the garden and saw out of the corner of my eye that Maxon was looking at me. His face was incredibly close to mine. When I turned to ask just what he was looking at, I was surprised to see that he was close enough to kiss me.
I was even more surprised when he did.
I pulled away quickly, taking a step. Maxon stepped back as well.
"Sorry," he mumbled, blushing.
"What are you doing?" I asked in a shocked whisper.
"Sorry." He was slightly turned away, obviously embarra.s.sed.
"Why did you do that?" I put my hand to my mouth.
"It's just ... with what you said earlier, and then seeking me out yesterday ... just the way you acted... I thought maybe your feelings had changed. And I like you, I thought you could tell." He turned to face me. "And... Oh, was it terrible? You don't look happy at all."
I tried to wipe whatever expression I had off my face. Maxon looked mortified.
"I'm so sorry. I've never kissed anyone before. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm just... I'm sorry, America." He breathed a heavy sigh and ran his hand through his hair a few times, leaning against the railing.
I didn't expect it, but a warmth filled me.
He'd wanted his first kiss to be with me.
I thought about the Maxon I knew now-the man full of compliments, the man prepared to give me the winnings of a bet I lost, the man who forgave me when I hurt him both physically and emotionally-and discovered that I didn't mind that at all.
Yes, I still had feelings for Aspen. I couldn't undo that. But if I couldn't be with him, then what was holding me back from being with Maxon? Nothing more than my preconceived ideas of him, which were nothing close to who he was.
I stepped up to him and rubbed my hand across his forehead.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm erasing that memory. I think we can do better." I pulled my hand down and propped myself up beside him, facing toward my room. Maxon didn't move ... but he did smile.
"America, I don't think you can change history." All the same, his expression looked hopeful.
"Sure we can. Besides, who'd ever know about it but you and me?"
Maxon looked at me for a moment, clearly wondering if this was really okay. Slowly, I saw a cautious confidence creep into his face as he looked into my eyes. We stayed that way for a moment before I could remember just what I had said.
"One can never help being born into perfection," I whispered.
He came close, wrapping an arm around my waist so that we faced each other. His nose tickled mine. He ran his fingers across my cheek so gently it seemed he was afraid I would break.
"No, I don't suppose you can," he breathed.
With his hand holding my face toward his, Maxon lowered his lips to mine and gave me the faintest whisper of a kiss.
Something about the tentativeness of it made me feel beautiful. Without a word, I could understand how excited he was to have this moment, but then afraid at the same time. And deeper than any of that, I sensed that he adored me.
So this was what it felt like to be a lady.
After a moment, he pulled back and asked, "Was that better?"
I could only nod. Maxon looked like he was on the verge of doing a backflip. There was a similar feeling in my chest. That was so unexpected. This was all too quick, too strange. The confusion must have shown on my face, because Maxon got serious.
"May I say something?"
I nodded again.
"I'm not so stupid as to believe that you've completely forgotten about your former boyfriend. I know what you've gone through and that you're not exactly here under the normal circ.u.mstances. I know you think there are others here more suited for me and this life, and I wouldn't want you to rush into trying to be happy with any of this. I just... I just want to know if it's possible..."
It was a hard question to answer. Would I be willing to live a life I'd never wanted? Would I be willing to watch as he kindly tried to date the others to be sure he wasn't making a mistake? Would I be willing to take on the responsibility that he had as a prince? Would I be willing to love him?
"Yes, Maxon," I whispered. "It's possible."
I TOLD NO ONE WHAT had happened between Maxon and me, not even Marlee or my maids. It felt like a wonderful secret that I could revisit in the middle of one of Silvia's boring lessons or another long day in the Women's Room. And to be honest, I thought about our kisses-both the awkward and the sweet-more often than I expected I would.
I knew I wasn't just going to fall in love with Maxon overnight. I knew my heart wouldn't let me. But I suddenly found myself in a place where that was something I might want. So I thought about the possibility quietly in my head, though I was tempted to blurt out my secret more than once.
Particularly three days later when Olivia announced to the half-full Women's Room that Maxon had kissed her.