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Chapter no 30

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

THE SOUND OF THE CREAKING door woke me, and the light streaming in was so bright, I had to block my eyes.

“Your Majesty?” someone asked. “Oh, God! I’ve found him,” he screamed. “He’s alive!”

There was a sudden flurry around us as guards and butlers stormed to our location.

“Were you not able to get downstairs, Your Majesty?” one of the guards asked. I looked at his name. Markson. I wasn’t sure, but he seemed to be one of the higher-ups in the guard.

“No. An officer was supposed to tell my parents. I told him to go there first,” Maxon explained, trying to straighten his hair. Only once did his face give away that the movement pained him.

“Which officer?”

Maxon sighed. “I didn’t get his name.” He looked to me for confirmation.

“Me either. But he was wearing a ring on his thumb. It was gray, like pewter or something.”

Officer Markson nodded. “That was Tanner. He didn’t make it. We lost about twenty-five of the guards and a dozen staff.”

“What?” I covered my mouth. Aspen.

I prayed that he was safe. I’d been so consumed last night, it hadn’t occurred to me to worry.

“What about my parents? The other Elite?”

“All fine, sir. Your mother has been hysterical though.”

“Is she out yet?” We started moving, Maxon leading the way. “Everyone is. We missed a few of the small safe rooms and were

doing a second sweep, hoping to find you and Lady America.”

“Oh, God,” Maxon said. “I’ll go to her first.” But then he stopped dead in his tracks.

I followed his eyes and saw the destruction. That same line, the one from last time, was scrawled across the wall.

WE’RE COMING

Over and over, by any means they could find, the warning covered the halls. Beyond that, the level of destruction was elevated yet again. I’d never seen what the rebels managed to do to the first floor, only to the hallways near my room. Huge stains in the carpet announced where someone, perhaps a helpless maid or fearless guard, had died. Windows were shattered, leaving jagged teeth of glass in their place.

Lights were broken, some flickering as they refused to give up. Terrifyingly, there were massive gouges in the walls; and it made me wonder if they had seen people going into the safe rooms, if they had been hunting. How close were Maxon and I to death last night?

“Miss?” a guard said, bringing me back to the moment. “We’ve taken the liberty of contacting all the families. It appears the attack on Lady Natalie’s family was a direct attempt to end the Selection. They’re targeting your relatives to get you to leave.”

I covered my mouth. “No.”

“We’re already sending palace guards out to protect them. The king was adamant that none of the girls should go.”

“What if they want to?” Maxon challenged. “We can’t hold them here against their will.”

“Of course, sir. You’ll need to speak with the king.” The guard seemed embarrassed, not quite sure how to handle the difference of opinions.

“You won’t have to guard my family long,” I said, hoping to break some tension. “Let them know I’ll be home soon.”

The guard’s eyes flickered between Maxon and me, looking to confirm that I’d been eliminated. Maxon simply nodded once.

“Yes, miss,” the guard said with a bow.

Maxon interjected. “Is my mother in her room?” “Yes, sir.”

“Tell her I’m coming. You’re dismissed.” We were alone again.

Maxon took my hand in his. “Don’t rush away. Say good-bye to your maids and any of the girls if you want. And eat something. I know how you love the food.”

I smiled. “I will.”

Maxon wet his lips, almost fidgeting. This was it. This was good- bye.

“You’ve changed me forever. And I’ll never forget you.”

I ran my free hand down his chest, straightening his coat. “Don’t tug your ear with anyone else. That’s mine.” I gave him a tight smile.

“A lot of things are yours, America.” I swallowed. “I need to go.”

He nodded.

Maxon kissed me once, quickly, on the lips, and ran down the hall. I watched until he was out of sight and then made my way back to my room.

Each step up the main stairwell was torture, both because of what I had left and what I feared was coming. What if I rang the bell and Lucy didn’t come? Or Mary? Or Anne? What if I looked at every face of every guard I passed and not a single one was Aspen’s?

I made my way to the second floor, passing destruction at every turn. It was still recognizable, the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, even in ruins. But the time and money it would take to restore this was beyond my imagination. The rebels were very thorough. As I got closer to my room, I heard the distinct sound of crying. Lucy.

I let out a breath, happy she was alive but terrified of what was making her cry. I braced myself and turned the corner into my room.

Working with red faces and swollen eyes, Mary and Anne were collecting the shattered glass from the doors to my balcony. I watched as Mary had to stop midsweep to exhale and calm herself. In a corner, Lucy was weeping into Aspen’s chest.

“Shh,” he said, comforting her. “They’ll find her, I know it.”

I was so relieved, I burst into tears. “You’re okay. You’re all okay.”

Aspen let out a huge sigh, his tight shoulders slumping as they relaxed.

“My lady?” Lucy said. A second later she was running for me. Not too far behind, Mary and Anne came, enveloping me in hugs.

“Oh, this isn’t proper,” Anne said as she held me. “For goodness’ sake, give it a rest,” Mary retorted.

And we were so happy to be alive and safe that we laughed about it

all.

Behind them, Aspen stood, watching with a quiet smile, so clearly

grateful to see me there.

“Where were you? They looked everywhere.” Mary pulled me over to the bed to sit, though it was a terrible mess, with the comforter shredded, the pillows stabbed and leaking feathers.

“In one of the safe rooms they missed. Maxon’s okay, too,” I said. “Thank God,” Anne said.

“He saved my life. I was on my way to the gardens when they came.

If I’d been outside …”

“Oh, my lady,” Mary cried.

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Anne said. “We’ll get this room fixed up in no time, and we have a fantastic new dress once you’re ready. And we can—”

“That won’t be necessary. I’m going home today. I’ll put on something simple and leave in a few hours.”

“What?” Mary gasped. “But why?”

I shrugged. “It didn’t work out.” I looked up at Aspen but was unable to read his face. All I could see was relief that I was alive.

“I really thought it would be you,” Lucy said. “From the start. And after everything you said last night … I can’t believe you’re going home.”

“That’s very sweet, but it’ll be all right. From here on out, anything you can do to help Kriss, please do that. For me.”

“Of course,” Anne said.

“Anything for you,” Mary seconded.

Aspen cleared his throat. “Ladies, maybe you could give me a moment. If Lady America is leaving today, I need to go over some security measures. We didn’t get her this far only to let someone hurt her now.

“Anne, maybe you could go get some fresh towels and things. She should go home like a lady. Mary, some food?” They both nodded. “And Lucy, do you need to rest?”

“No!” she cried, standing tall. “I can work.” Aspen smiled. “Very well.”

“Lucy, go to the workroom and finish that dress. We’ll come help soon. I don’t care what anyone says, Lady America. You’re leaving in style,” Anne said, addressing me at the end.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. They left, closing the door behind them. Aspen walked over, and I stood to face him.

“I thought you were dead. I thought I’d lost you.”

“Not today,” I said, smiling weakly. Now that I saw how bad it was, the only way to stay calm was to joke about it.

“I got your letter. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the diary.” “I couldn’t.”

He bridged the space between us and ran his hand down my hair. “Mer, if you couldn’t show it to me, you really shouldn’t have tried to show it to the country. And the caste thing … You’re crazy, you know that?”

“Oh, I know.” I looked at the ground, thinking over all the insanity of the last day.

“So Maxon kicked you out because of that?”

I sighed. “Not exactly. The king’s the one sending me home. If Maxon proposed to me this very second, it wouldn’t matter. The king says no, so I’m going.”

“Oh,” he said simply. “It’s going to be strange without you here.” “I know,” I said with a sigh.

“I’ll write,” he promised quickly. “And I can send you money if you want. I’ve got plenty. We can get married right when I come home. I know it’s going to be awhile—”

“Aspen,” I said, cutting him off. I didn’t know how to explain that my heart had just been crushed. “When I leave, I want some peace, okay? I need to recover from all this.”

He stepped back, offended. “So, what, do you not want me to write or call?”

“Maybe not right away,” I said, trying to make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal. “I just want to spend some time with my family and get my bearings again. After everything I’ve felt here, I can’t—”

“Wait,” he said, holding up a hand. He was silent for a moment, reading my face. “You still want him,” he accused. “After everything he’s done—after Marlee—and even when there’s absolutely no hope, you’re still thinking about him.”

“He never did anything, Aspen. I wish I could explain about Marlee to you, but I gave my word. I have no hard feelings toward Maxon. And I know it’s over, but it’s the same way I felt when you broke up with me.”

He scoffed incredulously, rolling his head back like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“I’m serious. When you ended it, the Selection became my lifeline because I knew I’d at least have some time to get past what I felt for you. And then you showed up here, and everything shifted. You were the one who changed us when you left me in the tree house; and you keep thinking that if you push hard enough, you can make everything go back to before that moment. It doesn’t work that way. Give me a chance to choose you.”

As the words came out of my mouth, I knew that this was so much of what was wrong. I’d loved Aspen for so long, we’d just assumed a lot of things. But everything was different now. It wasn’t like we were still two

nobodies from Carolina. We’d seen too much to pretend we would ever happily be those people again.

“Why wouldn’t you choose me, Mer? Aren’t I your only choice?” he asked, sadness dripping into his voice.

“Yes. Doesn’t that bother you? I don’t want to be the girl you end up with because my only other option isn’t available and you never looked at anyone else. Do you really want to get me by default?”

He spoke intensely. “I don’t care how I get you, Mer.”

Suddenly he charged at me, taking my face in his hands. Aspen kissed me fiercely, willing me to remember what he was to me.

I couldn’t kiss him back.

When he finally gave up, he pulled back my head, trying to read my face.

“What’s happening here, America?”

“My heart is breaking! That’s what’s happening! How do you think this feels? I’m so confused right now, and you’re the only thing I have left, and you don’t love me enough to let me breathe.”

I started crying, and he finally calmed down.

“I’m sorry, Mer,” he whispered. “It’s just, I keep thinking I’ve lost you for some reason or another, and it’s my instinct to fight for you. It’s all I know to do.”

I looked at the floor, trying to pull myself together.

“I can wait,” he promised. “When you’re ready, write me. I do love you enough to let you breathe. After last night, that’s all I need you to do. Please breathe.”

I walked into him, letting him hold me, but it felt different. I’d thought I would always have Aspen in my life, and for the first time I wondered if that was completely true.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Stay safe here. Don’t be a hero, Aspen.

Take care of yourself.”

He stepped away, giving me a nod but no words. He kissed my forehead and made his way to the door.

I stood there for a long time, not sure what to do with myself, waiting for my maids to come and pull me together one last time.

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