Chapter no 27

The One (The Selection, 3)

WALKING BACK INTO THE PALACE felt impossibly right. A maid I’d never seen before was there to take my coat, and Aspen was next to a guard, explaining quietly that he’d give a full report on the trip in the morning. I started up the stairs, but another maid stopped me.

“Don’t you want to go to the reception, miss?”

“Excuse me?” Was I supposed to have some fantastic homecoming or something?

“In the Women’s Room, my lady. I’m sure they’re waiting for you.”

That was less of an explanation than I was hoping for, but I climbed back down the stairs and headed around the corner to the Women’s Room. Strolling down the familiar halls was more comforting than I could have imagined. Of course I still missed my dad, but it was nice not to see things that made me think of him everywhere I turned. The only thing that would have made this homecoming better was Maxon walking here with me.

I was toying with the possibility of sending for him when I heard the wild noise coming from the Women’s Room. I was confused by the sound. By the volume, half of Illéa was waiting in there.

Tentatively, I opened the door. The second Tiny—what was she doing here?—caught a glimpse of my hair, she called out to the room.

“She’s here! America’s back!”

The room exploded with cheers, and I was so confused. Emmica, Ashley, Bariel . . . everyone was here. I hunted, but I knew it was pointless. Marlee wouldn’t be invited to this.

I was rushed by Celeste, who embraced me tightly. “Ahh, you bitch, I

knew you’d make it!” “What?” I asked.

She didn’t get her words out fast enough. A split second later, Kriss was hugging me and half screaming in my ear. The smell on her breath said she’d been drinking quite a bit, and the glass in her hand confirmed she wasn’t planning on stopping.

“It’s us!” she yelled. “Maxon’s announcing his engagement tomorrow! It’s one of us!”

“Are you sure?”

“Elise and I got the boot last night, but he sent for all the girls to come back and celebrate, so we stayed,” Celeste confirmed. “Elise isn’t taking it well; you know how it is with her family. She thinks she failed.”

“What about you?” I asked nervously. She shrugged and smiled. “Eh.”

I laughed at that, and a moment later a drink was shoved in my hand. “To Kriss and America, the last girls standing!” someone yelled.

I was dizzy with the news. He’d decided to end it, to send everyone home. And he did it while I was away. Did that mean he missed me? Did that mean he realized he was fine without me?

“Drink!” Celeste insisted, tipping the glass back for me. I downed the champagne and came up coughing. Between the jet lag, the emotional stress of the last few days, and the sudden intake of alcohol, I was immediately giddy.

I watched as girls danced on the couches, celebrating even though they had lost. Celeste was in a corner with Anna; it looked as if she was apologizing repeatedly for her actions. Elise crept in quietly and came to offer me a hug before retreating again. It was a blur of excitement, and I found myself happy even though I wasn’t totally certain of the outcome in front of me.

I turned around, and Kriss was suddenly there, embracing me. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s promise that tomorrow, no matter what,

we’ll be happy for each other.”

“I think that’s a good plan,” I shouted over the din. I laughed and lowered my eyes. In that quick second, a serious realization flooded me. That flash of silver on her neck suddenly meant so much more than it had a few days ago.

I sucked in a breath, and she looked at me with an expression that asked what was wrong. Even though it was rude and abrupt, I pulled her out of the room and down the hall.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “America, what’s wrong?”

I dragged her around the corner and into the ladies’ bathroom, double-checking to make sure we were alone before speaking.

“You’re a rebel,” I accused.

“What?” she said, a little too rehearsed. “You’re crazy.” But her hand fluttered to her neck, giving her away.

“I know what that star means, Kriss, so don’t lie to me,” I said calmly.

After a calculated pause she sighed. “I haven’t done anything illegal.

I’m not mounting protests anywhere; I just support the cause.”

“Fine,” I spat. “But how much of your part in the Selection is you wanting Maxon and how much is your group wanting one of their own on the throne?”

She was quiet for a moment, choosing her words. Clenching her jaw, she walked over to the door and locked it. “If you must know, yes, I was

. . . presented to the king as an option. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that the lottery was a joke.”

I nodded.

“The king was—and still is—unaware of how many Northerners were promoted while the choice was being made. I was the only one of all the hopefuls to make it through, and, at first, I was completely dedicated to my cause. I didn’t understand Maxon, and it didn’t seem like he wanted me at all. But then I got to know him, and I was really sad about him not taking an interest in me. After Marlee left and you lost your hold on him, I saw him in a totally new light.

“You might think that my motives for coming here were wrong, and maybe you’re right. But my reasons for being here now are completely different. I love Maxon, and I’m still fighting for him. And we can do great things together. So if you’re thinking about trying to blackmail me or sell me out, forget it. I’m not backing down. Do you understand me?”

Kriss had never spoken so forcefully, and I didn’t know if the reason was her absolute faith in her words or the heavy amount of champagne. She looked so fierce at the moment, I wasn’t sure what to say.

I wanted to tell her that Maxon and I could do great things, too, that we’d probably already done more than she could guess. But now wasn’t the time to brag. Besides, she and I had a lot in common. I came here for my family; she came here for a family of sorts. That got us through the doorway and into Maxon’s heart. What good would it do us to tear each other apart now?

She took my silence as an agreement to behave, and she relaxed her stance.

“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the party.”

Giving me a cold stare, she swept out of the room, leaving me torn. Should I keep my mouth shut? Should I at least let someone know? Was this even a bad thing?

I sighed and left the bathroom. I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate anymore, so I took the back stairway up to my room.

Even though I wanted to see Anne and Mary, I was glad no one was there. I flopped onto the bed and tried to think. So Kriss was a rebel. Nothing dangerous, according to her, but I still wondered what that meant exactly. She must be who August and Georgia were talking about. What had ever made me think it was Elise?

Had Kriss helped them get into the palace? Had she pointed them in the direction of things they had been looking for? I had my secrets in the palace, but I’d never stopped to think about what the other girls could be hiding. I should have though.

Because what could I say now? If there was something real between Maxon and Kriss, any attempt to expose her would look like a desperate last effort to win. And even if that worked, that wasn’t how I wanted to get Maxon.

I wanted him to know I loved him.

A knock came at the door, and I considered not answering it. If it was Kriss coming to explain more or one of the girls trying to drag me downstairs, that wasn’t anything I wanted to deal with. Eventually, I heaved myself upright and went to the door.

Maxon stood there with a stuffed envelope and a small, gift-wrapped package.

In the second it took us to register that we were in the same place again, it felt as if the whole space charged with a magical kind of electricity, making me acutely aware of just how much I missed him.

“Hi,” he said. He seemed a little stunned, as if he couldn’t think of anything more to say.


We stared.

“Do you want to come in?” I offered.

“Oh. Um, yes, I do.” Something was off. He was different, nervous maybe.

I stood aside, making room for him to enter. He looked around the space as if it had changed somehow since the last time he saw it.

He turned to gaze at me. “How are you feeling?”

I realized he probably meant about my dad, and I reminded myself that the end of the Selection wasn’t the only shift in my world right now. “Okay. It doesn’t really feel like he’s gone, especially now that I’m here. I feel like I could write him a letter, and he’d still get it.”

He gave me a sympathetic smile. “How’s your family?”

I sighed. “Mom is holding it together, and Kenna is a rock. It’s mostly May and Gerad I’m worried about. Kota couldn’t have been any meaner about the whole thing. It’s like he didn’t love him at all, and I don’t understand that,” I confessed. “You met my dad. He was so sweet.” “He was,” Maxon agreed. “I’m glad I at least got to meet him. I can

see bits of him in you, you know.” “Really?”

“Absolutely!” He put his parcels in one hand, holding me with his free one. He walked me over to the bed, sitting next to me. “Your sense of humor, for one. And your tenacity. When he and I spoke during his visit, he grilled me. It was nerve-racking, but kind of funny at the same time. You’ve never just let me off the hook either.

“Of course, you have his eyes and I think his nose, too. And I can see your optimism beaming out sometimes. He gave me that impression as well.”

I soaked up the words, holding on to all the parts of me that were like him. And here I thought Maxon didn’t know him.

“All I’m saying is, it’s okay to be sad about this, but you can be sure the best of him is still around,” he concluded.

I threw my arms around him, and he held me with his free hand. “Thank you.”

“I mean it.”

“I know you do. Thanks.” I moved back beside him and decided to change the subject before I got too emotional. “What’s this all about?” I asked, nodding toward his full hand.

“Oh.” Maxon fumbled with his thoughts a moment. “These are for you. A late Christmas present.”

He held up the envelope, thick with folded papers. “I can’t believe I’m actually giving this to you, and you have to wait to look at them until I’m not here, but . . . it’s for you to keep.”

“Okay,” I said questioningly as he set the envelope on my bedside table.

“This is a little less embarrassing,” he added playfully, handing me the gift. “Sorry the wrapping is so bad.”

“It’s fine,” I lied, trying not laugh at the crooked seams and tearing at the paper on the back.

Inside, the gift was a frame holding a picture of a house. Not just any house, but a beautiful one. It was a warm yellow color with plush grass that I wanted to put my feet in just from looking at the print. The windows were tall and wide on both stories, with trees offering shade to a section of the lawn. One tree even had a swing hanging from it.

I tried not to look at the house but at the photo itself. I was sure that this little piece of art was something Maxon made himself, though I couldn’t guess when he’d gotten out of the palace to find its subject.

“It’s beautiful,” I admitted. “Did you take it yourself?”

“Oh, no.” He laughed, shaking his head. “The picture isn’t the gift; the house is.”

I tried to let that sink in. “What?”

“I thought you’d want your family close by. It’s a short drive away, with plenty of room. Your sister and her little family would even be comfortable there, I think.”

“Wha . . . I . . .” I stared at him, searching for clarification.

Patient as ever, Maxon gave me the explanation he thought I already understood. “You told me to send everyone home. I did. I had to keep one other girl—those are the rules—but . . . you said that if I could prove I loved you . . .”

“. . . It’s me?”

“Of course it’s you.”

I was speechless. I laughed in shock and started giving him kisses and giggling between each one. Maxon, so pleased with the affection, took every kiss and laughed along with me.

“We’re getting married?” I yelled, kissing him again.

“Yes, we’re getting married.” He chuckled and let me attack him in my excitement. I realized then that I was in his lap. I didn’t remember getting there.

I kissed him on and on . . . and somewhere in there the laughing stopped. After a while, the smiling dwindled. The kisses turned from playful to something much deeper. When I pulled away and looked into his eyes, they were intense, focused.

Maxon held me close, and I could feel his heart racing against my chest. Guided by a deep hunger for him, I pushed his suit coat down his back, and he helped me as best as he could while holding on to me. I let my shoes fall to the floor, thudding a little song on their way down. I felt Maxon’s legs shift underneath me as he slipped his off as well.

Without breaking our kiss, he lifted me, crawling deeper onto the bed and laying me down gently somewhere near the middle. His lips traveled down my neck as I loosened his tie, throwing it somewhere near our shoes.

“You’re breaking a lot of rules, Miss Singer.” “You’re the prince. You can just pardon me.”

He chuckled darkly, his lips at my throat, my ear, my cheek. I untucked his shirt, fumbling with the buttons. He helped with the last few, sitting up to toss it aside. The last time I’d seen Maxon without his shirt on, I didn’t get to really appreciate it because of the circumstance. But now . . .

I ran my fingers lightly down his stomach, admiring how strong he was. When my hand got to his belt, I gripped it and pulled him back down. He came willingly, dragging a hand up my leg, resting it comfortably on my thigh underneath the layers of my dress.

I was going crazy, wanting so much more of him, aching to know if he’d let me have it. Without even thinking, I reached around and dug my fingers into his back.

Immediately, he stopped kissing me, pulling back to look at me. “What?” I whispered, terrified to break this moment.

“Does it . . . does it repulse you?” he asked nervously. “What do you mean?”

“My back.”

I ran a hand down his cheek, staring directly into his eyes, wanting to leave him with no doubt about how I felt.

“Maxon, some of those marks are on your back so they wouldn’t be on mine, and I love you for them.”

He stopped breathing for a second. “What did you say?” I smiled. “I love you.”

“One more time, please? I just—”

I took his face in both of my hands. “Maxon Schreave, I love you. I love you.”

“And I love you, America Singer. With all that I am, I love you.”

He kissed me again, and I let my hands move to his back, and this time he didn’t pause. He moved his hands beneath me, and I felt his fingers playing with the back of my dress.

“How many damn buttons does this thing have?” he complained. “I know! It’s—”

Maxon sat up, placing his hands along the bust line of my dress. With one firm pull, he ripped my dress down the front, exposing the slip underneath.

There was a charged silence as Maxon took that in. Slowly, his eyes returned to mine. Without breaking that contact, I sat up, sliding the sleeves of my dress down my back. It took a little bit of work to get it all off; and, by the end of it, Maxon and I were kneeling on my bed, my hardly covered chest pressed to his, kissing slowly.

I wanted to stay up all night with him, to explore this new feeling we’d discovered. It felt as if everything else in the world was gone . . . until we heard a crash in the hall. Maxon stared at the door, seeming to expect it to burst open at any second. He was tense, more frightened than I’d ever seen him.

“It’s not him,” I whispered. “It’s probably one of the girls stumbling to her room, or a maid cleaning something. It’s okay.”

He finally released a breath I didn’t see he was holding and fell back onto the bed. He draped an arm over his eyes, frustrated or exhausted or maybe both.

“I can’t, America. Not like this.”

“But it’s okay, Maxon. We’re safe here.” I lay down beside him, cuddling onto his free shoulder.

He shook his head. “I want to let all the walls down with you. You deserve that. And I can’t now.” He looked over to me. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” But I couldn’t hide my disappointment.

“Don’t be sad. I want to take you on a proper honeymoon. Someplace warm and private. No duties, no cameras, no guards.” He wrapped his arms around me. “It will be so much better that way. And I can really spoil you.”

It didn’t sound so bad to wait when he put it that way, but as always, I pushed back. “You can’t spoil me, Maxon. I don’t want anything.”

We were nose to nose by then. “Oh, I know. I don’t intend on giving you things. Well,” he amended, “I do intend on giving you things, but that’s not what I mean. I’m going to love you more than any man has

ever loved a woman, more than you ever dreamed you could be loved. I promise you that.”

The kisses that followed were sweet and hopeful, like our first ones. I could feel it, the promise he’d just made, starting now. And I was afraid and excited by the possibility of being loved so much.



“Would you stay with me tonight?” I asked. Maxon raised an eyebrow, and I giggled. “I’ll behave, I promise. Just . . . would you sleep here?”

He looked to the ceiling, debating. Finally he caved. “I will. But I’ll need to leave early.”



Maxon took off his pants and socks, neatly stacking his clothes so they wouldn’t be too wrinkled in the morning. He crawled back into the bed, snuggling up with his stomach against my back. One of his arms he laced under my neck and the other he gently wrapped around me.

I loved my bed at the palace. The pillows were like clouds, and the mattress cradled me into it. I was never too warm or too cold under my covers, and the feeling of my nightgown against my skin was almost as if I was wearing air.

But I’d never felt so settled as I did with Maxon’s arms around me. He placed a gentle kiss behind my ear. “Sleep well, my America.” “I love you,” I said quietly.

He held me a little tighter. “I love you.”

I lay there, letting the happiness of the moment sink into me. It seemed only seconds later that Maxon’s breathing was slow and steady. He was already asleep.

Maxon never slept.

I must have made him feel safer than I’d imagined. And, after all my worries about how his father acted toward me, he made me feel safe, too. I sighed, promising myself that we’d talk about Aspen tomorrow. It would need to happen before the ceremony, and I felt sure I knew how to explain things in the best way. For now, I would enjoy this tiny bubble of

peace and rest securely in the arms of the man I loved.

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