Chapter no 6

The Elite (The Selection, 2)

“LOVELY, MISS. KEEP POINTING AT the sketches, and the rest of you, try not to look at me,” the photographer asked.

It was Saturday, and all the Elite had been excused from our obligatory day of sitting in the Women’s Room. At breakfast, Maxon made his announcement about the Halloween party; and by the afternoon, our maids had started working on costume designs, and photographers had shown up to document the whole process.

Now I was attempting to look natural as I went over Anne’s drawings while my maids stood behind the table with pieces of fabric, containers of sequins, and an absurd amount of feathers.

The camera snapped and flashed as we tried to give several options. Just as I was about to pose with some gold fabric held up to my face, we had a visitor.

“Good morning, ladies,” Maxon said, strolling through the open doorway.

I couldn’t help but stand a little straighter, and it felt like my smile was taking over my face. The photographer caught that moment before addressing Maxon.

“Your Majesty, always an honor. Would you mind posing with the young lady?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

My maids stepped back, and Maxon picked up a few sketches and stood right behind me, the papers in front of us in one hand and his other settled low on my waist. That touch conveyed so much to me. See, it said, soon I’ll get to touch you like this in front of the world. You don’t have to worry about anything.

A few pictures were taken, and the photographer left for the next girl on his list. I realized my maids had inconspicuously dismissed themselves at some point as well.

“Your maids are quite talented,” Maxon said. “These are wonderful concepts.”

I tried to act like I always did with Maxon, but things felt different now, better and worse at the same time. “I know. I couldn’t be in better hands.”

“Have you settled on one yet?” he asked, fanning out the papers on my desk.

“We’re all fond of the bird idea. I think it’s meant to be a reference to my necklace,” I said, touching the thin string of silver. My songbird necklace was a gift from my dad, and I preferred it over the heavy jewelry the palace provided for us.

“I hate to say this, but I think Celeste has picked something avian as well. She seemed awfully determined,” he said.

“That’s all right,” I replied with a shrug. “I’m not crazy about feathers anyway.” My smile faltered. “Wait. You were with Celeste?”

He nodded. “Just a quick visit to chat. I’m afraid I can’t stay long here, either. Father’s not thrilled about all this, but with the Selection still going on, he understood that it would be nice to have some more festivities. And he agreed it would be a much better way to meet the families, all things considered.”

“Like what?”

“He’s eager for an elimination, and I’m supposed to do one after I meet with everyone’s parents. The sooner they come, the better in his eyes.”

I hadn’t realized sending someone home was part of the Halloween plan. I thought it was just a big party. It made me nervous, though I told myself there was no reason I should be. Not after our conversation last night. Of all the moments I’d shared with Maxon, nothing seemed quite so real as that one.

Still scanning the designs, he spoke absentmindedly. “I suppose I ought to finish my rounds.”

“You’re leaving already?”

“Not to worry, darling. I’ll see you at dinner.” Yes, I thought, but you’ll see all of us at dinner. “Is everything all right?” I asked.

“Of course,” he answered, offering me a quick kiss. On the cheek. “I have to run. We’ll talk again soon.”

And, just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone.

As of Sunday, the Halloween party was eight days away, which meant the palace was a hurricane of activity.

On Monday the Elite spent the morning with Queen Amberly taste testing and approving a menu for the party. It was easily the best task we’d been given so far. That afternoon, however, Celeste was missing

from the Women’s Room for a few hours. When she returned around four, she announced to us all, “Maxon sends his love.”

Tuesday afternoon we greeted extended members of the royal family who were coming to town for the festivities. But that morning we all watched out the window as Maxon gave Kriss an archery lesson in the gardens.

Meals were full of guests who had come to stay early, but Maxon was often missing, as well as Marlee and Natalie.

I felt more and more embarrassed. I’d made a mistake by confessing my feelings to Maxon. For all his talk, he couldn’t really be interested in me if his first instinct was to spend time with everyone else.

I’d all but lost hope by Friday when I found myself sitting at the piano in my room after the Report, wishing that Maxon would come.

He didn’t.

I tried to put it out of my mind on Saturday, as the Elite were obligated to entertain the influx of ladies at the palace in the Women’s Room in the morning and have yet another dance rehearsal in the afternoon.

Thank goodness our family chose to focus on music and art as Fives, because I was a terrible dancer. The only person in the room worse than me was Natalie. Obnoxiously enough, Celeste was the epitome of gracefulness. More than once the instructors asked her to help others in the room, the result of which was Natalie nearly twisting her ankle because of Celeste’s intentionally poor guidance.

Smooth as a snake, Celeste faulted Natalie’s two left feet for her problems. The teachers believed her, and Natalie laughed it all off. I admired Natalie for not letting Celeste get to her.

Aspen had been there for all the lessons. The first few times I avoided him, not really sure I wanted to interact with him. I heard rumors that the guards were switching schedules so fast it was dizzying. Some wanted to go to the party desperately while others had girls back home and would be in huge trouble if they were seen dancing with someone else, especially since five of us would be eligible again soon and in very high demand.

But seeing as this was our last formal rehearsal, when Aspen was near enough to offer me a dance, I didn’t turn him down.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “You’ve seemed down the last few times I’ve seen you.”

“Just tired,” I lied. I couldn’t talk with him about boy problems.

“Really?” he asked doubtfully. “I was sure that it meant bad news was coming.”

“What do you mean?” Did he know something I didn’t?

He sighed. “If you’re preparing to tell me that I need to stop fighting for you, that’s not a conversation I want to have.”

In truth, I hadn’t even thought about Aspen in the last week or so. I was so consumed by my mistimed words and mistaken guesses, I couldn’t consider anything else. And here, while I’d been worried about Maxon letting me go, Aspen had been worrying about me doing the same to him.

“That’s not what it is,” I answered vaguely, feeling guilty. He nodded, satisfied with that response for now. “Ouch!”

“Oops!” I said. I genuinely hadn’t meant to step on him. I worked to focus a little more on the dancing.

“I’m sorry, Mer, but you’re terrible.” He was chuckling even though the heel of my shoe had to have hurt him.

“I know, I know,” I said breathlessly. “I’m trying, I swear!”

I pranced around the room like a blind moose, but what I lacked in grace I made up for in effort. Aspen, kindly, did his best to make me look good, attempting to be a little less on the beat to be in time with me. That was so typical of him, always trying to be my hero.

By the end of that last lesson, I at least knew all the steps. I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t accidentally take out a visiting diplomat with an energetic kick of my leg, but I’d do my best. As I considered that image, I realized it was no wonder Maxon was having second thoughts. I’d be an embarrassment to take to another country let alone receive anyone here. I just didn’t have that princess air about me.

I sighed and went to get a cup of water. Aspen followed me while the rest of the girls left.

“So,” he started. I did a sweep of the room to make sure no one was watching. “I have to assume that if you’re not worried about me, you’re worried about him.”

I lowered my eyes and blushed. How well he knew me.

“Not that I’m cheering for him or anything, but if he can’t see how amazing you are, he’s an idiot.”

I smiled, continuing to study the floor.

“And if you don’t get to be princess then, so what? That doesn’t make you any less incredible. And you know … you know …” He couldn’t get out what he wanted to say, and I risked looking at his face.

In Aspen’s eyes I saw a thousand different endings to that sentence, all of them connecting him to me. That he was still waiting for me. That he knew me better than anyone. That we were the same. That a few months at the palace couldn’t erase two years. No matter what, Aspen would always be there for me.

“I know, Aspen. I do.”

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