Splintered Page 20

Jeb reaches for my other wrist, wrinkling my fingerless glove as he pulls me back into the entryway with him—close quarters with my fluffed-out miniskirt rustling against his thighs. “If I could read minds, I would know what’s going on in your head to even consider traveling to a foreign country alone in the middle of the night without telling anybody.”

I try to break free, but he’s not having it. “Hitch is a tool. I said I wanted a fake ID, not a passport. He got them confused.”

Jeb releases me, but there’s still tension between his eyebrows. “What would you need a fake ID for?”

That fluctuation in my head comes alive, lapping at my skull, teasing me to push Jeb’s buttons and watch him squirm. “To hit a few bars and pick up guys. Live a little. Get some life experience. You know, so I’ll be ready to go to London in time for your royal wedding to Taelor.”

The venomous outburst has the desired effect. Jeb’s expression changes to something fierce yet fragile, like a mix between hurt feelings and wanting to strangle someone. “What’s going on with us?”

I shrug and stare at my boots, pushing down the prodding sensation inside me. Rain patters against the windows, expanding the bubble of silence between us. I turn to escape into the living room, not even caring about the state I left it in.

Jeb’s on my heels. It’s like I’m the White Rabbit trying to outrun Time. He catches the tail of my petticoats and spins me to face him. His expression stiffens as he sees the recliner over my shoulder.

“What happened to your mom’s patches?” He grasps my arms. “Wait . . . did something go wrong at Soul’s today?”

I shake free and hold my hands in front of my stomach to ease the rocking sensation. “Alison had a setback. A big one. Jen didn’t tell you?”

His study of my face intensifies, taking in every feature. “She was in a hurry. Just got the text about Hitch. Is your mom the reason you’re acting out?”

My cheeks flame. Acting out. Like I’m a preschooler having a meltdown. If he could see the things going on inside me right now, he might actually have the sense to be scared.

It finally hits me head-on . . . how close to insanity I’m teetering . . . the madness behind the things I’m starting to believe. I shiver.

Jeb opens his arms. “C’mere.”

I don’t even hesitate. I let myself fall into his sturdy arms, hungry for one taste of the ordinary and sane.

He guides us to the couch without breaking my desperate hug— his arms around my waist, my feet resting on his boots like we’re waltzing. I breathe in his chocolate/lavender scent until I’m drowning in it. We plop down together on the cushions. I don’t realize I’m crying until I pull back and his ribbed tank sticks to my damp cheek.

“Sorry about your shirt.” I try to brush off the makeup smudged on the left side of his tank.

“Easy fix.” Jeb buttons his jacket, concealing it.

“So much for dignity,” I whisper, scrubbing my face dry.

He plucks at some stray strands of hair glommed on to the wetness on my temples. “You want dignified? Check this.” He fishes something from his jacket’s inner pocket. “The prom committee voted for a masquerade theme. Tae bought me a mask.”

“A masquerade prom? Real original.” I force the sarcasm, grateful he’s avoiding the subject of the recliner and Alison. Whether it’s for my comfort or for his, I don’t care.

“No laughing.” He slips the mask on, a black satin cutout with an elastic band. Miniature peacock feathers fringe the eyeholes and outer edges, making it look as if a butterfly crash-landed on his face. I can’t help myself. I snort.

“Hey.” Dimples appearing, Jeb gooses me in the ribs.

I catch his finger, smiling. “So . . . you’re a drag queen gone rogue, right?”

“Oh, you’re going down for that, skater girl.” He tickles me, relentless until I tumble backward onto the cushions and he half pins me.

“Ouch.” I hug my sides where they ache from both crying and laughing.

“Did I hurt you?” He stops, hands on either side of my waist.

“A little,” I lie.

His forehead’s really close to mine, long black lashes peeking through the mask’s eyeholes. His expression is pure remorse. “Where? Your ankle?”

“Everywhere. Laughing pains.”

He grins. “Ah. So, are you gonna take it back?”

“Sure. You look more like a feather duster, anyway.”

He laughs, then peels off his mask and uses the elastic band like a slingshot to send it soaring across the room. It hits the wall and splats to the floor in a feathery lump.

“Good riddance,” we say simultaneously, sharing a smile.

This is what I’ve been missing. Hanging out with Jeb makes me feel almost normal. Until I remember I’m not.

I scoot over to put some distance between us. “You should go. You don’t want Taelor to see you coming out of my side of the duplex.”

He lifts my left ankle into his lap. “I want to look at that sprain first.”

I’m about to tell him it’s better, but his strong, warm palm under the bend of my knee shuts my tongue down. Biting my lower lip, I watch as he unlaces my boot. When he coaxes an index finger beneath my legging’s hem and gently traces my birthmark, the gesture is so unexpectedly intimate, a tremor races up my shin.

His eyes lock on mine, and I wonder if he felt it, too. He’s looking at me like I’m one of his paintings again.

Thunder shakes the room, breaking our stare.

I cough. “See? All better.” Dragging my leg free, I lace up my boot.

“Al.” His Adam’s apple moves as he swallows. “I want you to put a stop to this Hitch thing. Whatever’s going on, it’s not worth . . .” He pauses. “Losing an important part of you.”

Unbelievable. He thinks I’m such a prude, he won’t even say the word. “You mean my virginity?”

His neck flashes red. “You deserve better than some one-night thing. You’re the kind of girl who should have a commitment from a guy who actually cares. Okay?”

Before I can answer, a fluttering sound distracts me. At first, I think it’s in my mind, until I notice some movement over Jeb’s shoulder. A flash of lightning blinks beneath the drapes in the window, illuminating the hallway. Then it’s unmistakable. Alison’s moth—huge, satiny black wings, glowing blue body—hovers there for an instant in front of the hall mirror before flying into my room.

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