Home > The Favorite (The Selection #2.6)(3)

The Favorite (The Selection #2.6)(3)
Kiera Cass

Of course, I couldn’t help comparing myself to everyone else. Tiny didn’t do very well, so at least I wasn’t at the absolute bottom. But it was hard to say who had done the best. Bariel was so comfortable in front of the camera, and so was Kriss. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it to the Elite.

America was wonderful, too. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I realized now that I had never had friends below my caste. I felt like such a snob because of it. Ever since coming to the palace, America had been my closest confidante—and if I couldn’t rank among the top contenders, I was thrilled that she was up there.

Of course, I knew anyone would be better for Maxon than Celeste. I still couldn’t believe she ripped America’s dress. And to know that she had gotten away with it, too, was so disheartening. I couldn’t picture anyone telling Maxon what Celeste had done, which left Celeste free to go on torturing the rest of us. I understood she wanted to win—for goodness’ sake, we all did—but she took things way too far. I couldn’t stand her.

Thankfully, Jada’s nimble fingers were working all the tension out of my neck, and Celeste began to fade away, along with my piercing voice and the aching posture and the list of worries that accompanied trying to become a princess.

When there was a knock on the door, I hoped it would be Maxon, though I knew that was a pointless hope. Maybe it would be America, and we could drink some tea on my balcony or take a walk in the gardens.

But when Nina answered the door, the officer from earlier was standing in the hallway. He peeked over Nina, not bothering with protocol.

“Miss Marlee! I came to check on you!” He seemed so excited to stop by, I had to laugh.

“Please come in.” I stood from my vanity and walked over to the door. “Take a seat. I can have my maids bring us up some tea.”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to keep you too long. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t crippled from that fall.”

I thought he was keeping his hands behind his back to maintain a small level of formality, but it turned out he was simply hiding a bouquet of flowers, which he presented to me with a flourish.

“Aww!” I pulled the bouquet to my face. “Thank you!”

“It was nothing. I’m friendly with one of the gardeners, and he got these for me.”

Nina came over quietly. “Shall I get a vase, miss?”

“Please,” I replied, handing her the flowers. “So you know,” I said, turning back to the officer, “I’m very well. A small bruise, but nothing serious. And I’ve learned a valuable lesson about high heels.”

“That boots are far superior?”

I laughed again. “Of course. I’m planning on incorporating them into my wardrobe much more.”

“You will be solely responsible for the new direction of palace fashion! And I can say I knew you when.” He chuckled at his own joke, and we stood there smiling at each other. I got the feeling he didn’t want to leave . . . and I realized I didn’t want him to either. His smile was so warm, and I felt more at ease with him than I had with anyone in a long time.

Unfortunately, he realized it would be odd for him to stay in my room, and he gave me a quick bow. “I guess I should go. I’ve got a long shift tomorrow.”

I sighed. “In a sense, so do I.”

He smiled. “Hope you get to feeling better, and I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“I’m sure. And thanks for being so helpful today, Officer . . .” I looked to his badge. “Woodwork.”

“Any time, Miss Marlee.” He bowed again, then retreated into the hallway.

Shea closed the door gently behind him. “What a gentleman, to come and check on you,” she commented.

“I know,” Jada seconded. “Sometimes it’s hit or miss with those guards, but this batch seems nice.”

“He’s certainly a good one,” I said. “I should tell Prince Maxon about him. Maybe Officer Woodwork could be rewarded for his kindness.”

Though I wasn’t tired, I crawled into my bed. Turning in for the night meant the maid count went from three to one, and it was as alone as I could get. Nina walked over with a blue vase that looked beautiful with the yellow flowers.

“Set them here, please,” I asked, and she put them right next to my bed.

I stared at the flowers as a smile played on my lips. Even though I had just suggested it, I knew I’d never tell the prince about Officer Woodwork. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew I’d keep him to myself.

The creak of the door opening jerked me awake, and I stood up instantly, pulling Maxon’s coat over my shoulders.

A guard walked in and didn’t bother looking me in the eye. “Hands out.”

I’d gotten so used to everyone adding “miss” to their sentences when they spoke to me that it took me a second to respond. Luckily, this guard didn’t seem to be in the mood to punish me for my slowness. I placed my arms in front of me, and he shackled them in heavy chains. When he let the chains fall, my body lurched down a bit with them.

“Walk,” he ordered, and I followed him into the hallway.

Carter was already out there, and he looked awful. His clothes were even dirtier than mine, and he seemed to be having a hard time standing upright. But the instant he saw me, his face lit up with a smile like fireworks, causing a gash on his lip to reopen and bleed. I gave him a tiny smile before the guards started leading us toward the stairs at the end of the hall.

Based on our trips to the safe rooms, I knew there were more passages in the palace than anyone might suspect. Last night we were taken to our cells via a door I’d always assumed was a linen closet, and we took that same path now to the first floor.

When we reached the landing, the guard leading us turned around and barked a single word. “Stay.”

Carter and I stood behind the half-opened door, waiting to be escorted to our humiliating and painful punishment.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. I looked up at him, and even with his bleeding lip and messy hair, all I saw was the boy who insisted on taking me to the hospital wing, the boy who brought me flowers.

“I’m not,” I replied as forcefully as I could.

In an instant, every stolen moment we’d shared flashed through my mind. I saw all the times our eyes had met and quickly turned away; all the times I’d made a point to stand or sit somewhere in a room if I knew he was nearby; every wink he’d given me when I’d walked in for dinner; every quiet giggle I’d let out as I passed him in a hall.

We’d pieced together a relationship around all our obligations to the palace, and if I had been walking to my death today, I’d have done my best to take the past month for what it was and be satisfied. I had found my soul mate. I knew it. And there was too much love in my heart to leave room for regret.

“We’ll be okay, Marlee,” Carter promised. “Whatever happens after today, I’ll take care of you.”

“And I’ll take care of you.”

Carter leaned down to kiss me, but the guards stopped him. “Enough!” one snapped at us.

Finally the door was opened all the way, and Carter was pulled forward ahead of me. Morning sun flooded in through the palace doors, and I had to turn my eyes to the ground to bear it. But as disorienting as the brightness was, the deafening shouts from the throngs of people waiting to see the spectacle were worse. As we emerged outside, I squinted up and noticed an area of special seating set aside. I was heartbroken to spot America and May in the very front row. After a pull from the guard nearly made me fall, I looked up again, searching for my parents, praying they were already gone.

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