Ensnared Page 53

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It happened too fast. I never saw it coming.

Oh, but my netherling side did, and she casts my human armor aside.

She guides my hands, knots my fingers through his hair, teases his tongue with hers. She won’t let me pull away, because she wants to be there again. In Wonderland, where his tobacco-flavored kisses always take us . . .

Because the things I loathe are the things she adores: His snark, his infuriating condescension. His menacing mastery of half-truths and riddles. The way he shoves me into the face of danger, forces me to look beyond my fears and reach for my full potential.

Most of all, because he encourages me to believe in the madness . . . in her . . . the darker side of myself: the queen who was born to reign over the Red kingdom and to give Wonderland a legacy of dreams and imagination.

His gloved palms seek the bend of my waist, the bow of my hips. He moves me on top of him, so close there’s not enough space for a blade of grass between us. His kisses grow insistent, desperate. His flavor winds through me, fruit and smoke and earth, and other things born of shadows and storms . . . things I can’t put a name to.

I’m carried far away where flames lap at my skin, blinding orange and yellow and white. Heat singes my nostrils.

I’m on the sun. Not an earthly sun, but Wonderland’s. Morpheus is with me, wearing a ruby crown. Together, we’re waltzing barefoot inside the fiery core, unaffected by the inferno swirling around us, aware only of our dance. Glowing embers gild our wings. My red gown, made of roses and netting and lace, catches a spark and burns away. His beautiful crimson suit does the same, dispersing like ash. Our spirits mirror our flesh, all secrets and desires laid bare. We’re free, face-to-face, on equal ground . . . with nowhere left to hide but inside each other. He opens his arms and I go to him, no hint of reservation.

The image fades. I’m on top of Morpheus again, fully clothed on the grass. It must have been a vision, like the one Ivory had of a banquet and a child, a glimpse of a future bequeathed to me by my crown-magic.

The profoundness courses through me, yet I can’t forget my humanness and my love for a mortal man who painted a room filled with beautiful dreams, a man who’s lost his way and needs me now more than ever.

That pressure on my heart scores through my chest, stealing my breath. I push free and gulp for oxygen as I scramble to stand.

“Jeb,” I mumble.

Morpheus snarls and gets to his feet, tucking in his shirt. He sweeps grass from his pant legs and straightens the tie at his neck. “That was a sorely disappointing proclamation of love. Perhaps you’d do better writing a sonnet, preferably with the omission of the letters J, E, and B.”

“I’m sorry.” I grind a knuckle into my sternum to ease the burning sting. “I have to do the right thing, for everyone. I just don’t know what it is. All I know, is everyone needs something different. You, Jeb, my parents, Wonderland. I want to rip myself apart . . . be two beings altogether.”

Morpheus frowns. “Don’t ever say that, Alyssa. It is dangerous to wish for such things.”

“Why? I can’t change that I have two sides to my heart. No matter how much I wish it.”

“You should ne’er even think it. The only way you will ever find peace is if your two sides learn to coexist. You would not be the girl I shared a childhood with, without them both.”

His touching admission makes me consider something I haven’t yet. “The girl you helped shape to be a queen.” I look to the sky ceiling, drowning in my own indecision. “You always told me I was the best of both worlds. Taught me to embrace both my magic and my imagination. Now, I have two inner voices to follow. Each one is drawn to a different life in a different world. I’m hurting everyone because I’m confused. And I hate it.” I turn to him. “Maybe that’s what makes me want to hate you.”

He studies my features, silent and stoic, and I wonder if at last he regrets everything he taught me, everything he brought me into.

I skim my fingertips over the jewels flashing through gloomy hues across his face. “But hate is the furthest thing from what I feel for you. The very furthest thing.”

He captures my hand and presses my lace-covered palm to his chest, trailing his thumb across my knuckles.

I shove the tender moment aside to give my mind’s wheels freedom to turn. “You said we’re going to flush Queen Red out of Jeb so I can destroy her, forever. How are we supposed to do that without hurting him?”

Morpheus bends to pick up my tiara, returning it to my hair and smoothing away wispy locks. “That, luv, will require the biggest sacrifice of all.” His thumb follows the strings at my neck. “And you’re the one who will have to make it.”

He doesn’t get the chance to explain before the door to the room flings open, revealing Jeb at the threshold. Even though he’s insisted that we’re over, déjà vu echoes through my conscience, as if I’ve been caught betraying him again.

That worry fades once his appearance registers: dripping blood, wild hair, pale face, and anxious expression. The feathers on his costume have fallen out—a bird that barely survived a cyclone. Worst of all, Dad’s not with him.

“Jeb, where . . . ?”

His gaze pierces us with otherworldly light. “Both of you. Come with me. Hurry.”

We sprint to the art studio. I’m one step behind the guys, trailing alongside Chessie and Nikki, who fling Morpheus’s requested cap at him as we rush down the corridor.

When we arrive, agonized groans greet us, and dread clenches my chest. The studio is shadowed. Hazy indigo light streams through the glass roof, remnants of dusk. A figure lies on the table, writhing in pain.

“Dad!” I shove past Morpheus where he’s stalled in the doorway, cap clenched to his sternum.

Jeb’s already at the table, giving Dad his hand to squeeze.

Tears strangle me. For weeks I’ve been worried about Mom, when it was Dad who was in danger all along. Why couldn’t my visions have shown me that?

I press my palm to his chest. His ticklish, feathery costume muffles his rapid heartbeat. “Wh-wh-what happened?” I ask.

Jeb concentrates on Dad’s face. “I couldn’t stop them.”

“Stop who?” I press.

Instead of answering, Jeb growls—a guttural sound tangled with rage and remorse. I want to comfort him, but I also want to shake him. For letting my dad get hurt, for going without me.

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