Splintered Page 57

“I think the mouse must’ve had a nose for tea.” I slap a hand over my lips, embarrassed by the senseless reply.

“Okay. Enough pretending everything’s cool.” Jeb drops the book into the backpack along with the wrapper. He comes over and catches my chin, lifting my gaze to his. “You really think I faked wanting to kiss you?”

An odd sense of playfulness blossoms inside me, completely inappropriate for the seriousness of our situation. “Ah-ah-ah, elfin knight.” I peel out of his grasp and jump to my feet—flirty, giddy, and totally not myself. “You’re not to touch my precious booty, remember? Get thee behindeth me, Jebbeth.” I swivel my back to him.

He grasps my elbow. “Would you look at me, please?”

I yank free and skip around the tea wagon to the other side of the table so the place settings form a barricade between us. To my left sits the Door Mouse. He’s the size of a gerbil, but his thin tail is furry like a squirrel’s and covered in white frost. Pillows are piled high on his chair, boosting him so he can reach the table. His head rests next to a cup half-full of hot tea. He must’ve frozen while napping.

I lean close to his ears—silvery with ice and oblong. “I don’t blame you for sleeping your life away,” I whisper to him. Jeb’s gawking at me like I’m from Mars. “Wish I’d slept the last few hours of mine.”

Jeb’s expression falls, and I know I’ve hurt him. That wasn’t my intention. I feel anything but spiteful. Aside from being hungry, I’m whimsical, light-headed, and uninhibited. It’s very liberating.

“Al, c’mon. I don’t want things to be like this . . . not with us.” Jeb starts around the table and I’m about to bolt, thinking a good chase could be fun, when I hear a sniffle. It’s so soft, at first I think it’s the leaves rustling overhead. Then I see the mouse’s nose wriggle. It’s shiny, wet, and pink, like a teensy ball of strawberry icing. I’m about to pluck it off and eat it when Jeb steps up behind me.

The mouse sniffs again.

“What do you think, Jeb? Use the pepper to wake him up. He can be our sidekick. We’ll call him Skittles, like the candy.” The things coming out of my mouth are nonsense, but I can’t seem to stop them. Any more than I can stop the colossal stomach growl that follows.

Watching me with an uneasy frown, Jeb takes the seat next to me and drags out the bag. “Its nose must be defrosted from the tea.”

I can’t concentrate on anything but my body. My skin feels itchy, like I need to do something. I climb on top of my chair, then onto the table, kicking some dishes aside.

“Al, what the—?”

Music plays in my head . . . not Morpheus’s lullaby. Something with a sensual, addictive beat. I twist my hips back and forth. The rubies on my belt sparkle, and the rings jingle—belly-dancer style. I didn’t know I could move like this. Must be from all those years of hula-hooping with Jen.

Jeb’s eyes look like they might pop . . . so do the veins in his neck. He makes a sound—somewhere between a cough and a moan— mesmerized by my rocking hips. He stands. “Would you get down? You’re going to hurt yourself.”

“No. Come up here with me.” I raise my arms over my head and roll my pelvis seductively. “It’s a wake-up dance for Skittles. You know, like the Native Americans used to do to bring down rain.”

Jeb gawks. “I seriously doubt any Native Americans moved like that.”

Feeling the groove through every pulse of my body, I envision the chains on Jeb’s belt dancing to the music, imagine coils of energy running through the links, inducing movement. I beckon them toward me with a fingertip.

“Hey . . . hey, wait!” Jeb’s chains lurch, forcing him up onto the chair. He tries to grab the links with his hands, but they break free, tugging until he’s standing in front of me on the table.

I catch his hips, coaxing his body to sway with mine. Pressed against him, I nuzzle his neck, dropping kisses over his soft skin as I rake my fingers through his hair. His ponytail comes undone. “You taste good enough to eat,” I whisper.

The chains wind around his thigh, squeezing. Tensing all over, he grabs them. “H-how are you doing that?”

I laugh, running my palms across his biceps and chest. “Morpheus showed me I could animate objects. Isn’t it spectacular?”

I’m concentrating too hard on how good his muscles feel, and it breaks my connection with the metal links. The minute he’s free, Jeb climbs to the ground and lifts me down. I drop into my seat, giggling as he clasps both my hands crossways over my chest.

“You’re freaking me out, Al. Come on.”

“Come on where?” I break a hand loose and run a fingertip down his shirt, tracing the line of sheer black fabric over his yummy navel and stopping to clutch his waistband.

A muscle in his jaw jumps.

I purr. “Poor control-freak Jeb. Your world’s way off-kilter when little Alyssa’s not tripping over her chastity belt. Is that it, bad boy?” I tap the button at the top of his fly.

“Uhhh . . .”

“Why don’t you wake up Skittles, and then we’ll go home and have a real party?” I’m smiling so hard, it hurts my face—a provocative, teasing smile. For some reason, I can’t stop.

“You need to quit looking at me like that,” Jeb says, a husky rattle in his voice.

“Or else what?” My insides tickle with an unfamiliar power, knowing that he’s flustered. Knowing that I caused it.

Swallowing hard, he fishes out the bag of pepper again. “‘Home.’ Right. Maybe if we wake the mouse, the others will wake up, too.”

“Yeah! Let the tea party begin!” Then I can finally eat something. I play a drumroll on the table’s edge with my forefingers.

Jeb shoots another bewildered glance my way. It’s delicious being able to unbalance him. Like when his blood turned green over Morpheus earlier. I’ve never known any girl to be in control of Jebediah Holt. Sure would rock to be the first.

A tiny voice inside me tries to break through, tries to remind me this isn’t me . . . that I wouldn’t say these things, not to Jeb—that I wouldn’t take pleasure in his pain. Something’s wrong and I should tell him so he can help, or at least defend himself. But the hunger inside crushes my conscience. It’s more than just an ache for food. I’m starving for power, too. Power to bring the guy I want to his knees. To make him pay for not wanting me back.

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