Ensnared Page 61

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I fist my hands, worried he might split the boat again and fall into the water. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I do. I’ll go to the castle, get your dad his cure, and send you and Morpheus off on your merry way. So you can skip the whole aging-in-the-real-world thing and be eternally young now. I mean, who wouldn’t want that, right?”

“Jeb, no!” My vocal cords strain and it registers how far he’s drifted from the shore. We’ve been shouting at each other without my realizing it.

In fact, he’s been moving farther out without even rowing.

A red glimmer undulates through the water, lighting the depths with pulses, as if there were a living heart underneath. On each vibration, Jeb’s boat rides a wave closer to the opposing shore and the exit. He’s controlling the ocean, just like he does everything here.

“The sands will release you when I’m gone, and you can stay with your dad,” he calls over the distance. “By tomorrow morning, you’ll be on your way to Wonderland with Morpheus.”

Frustrated tears singe my lower lashes. Here we are again, in a mystical hostile world, battling each other instead of the dangers lying in wait. “You have no idea what they can do to you!”

I simultaneously tug on my legs and flap my wings until my ligaments feel like they’ll snap. The harder I fight, the hotter the diary gets. Determined to stop him, I recall step-by-step how I used the tiny book as a catapult for my powers in Morpheus’s room.

When the crimson glow seeps into my veins, I redirect the flow, hurling it at the ocean. It works, rolling a wave that reverses the rowboat back my way. The lighthouse blinks, illuminating Jeb as he stands up in the hull. Balanced gracefully like a surfer, he chucks the oars down. Despite the span between us, I swear I can see him sneer.

It stokes my darker side. She relishes the challenge.

“Want to play, do you?” I whisper.

His hair whips around his head. He raises his tattooed wrist—glowing purple like a beacon—and coerces another wave, higher than mine. The water heaves him toward the opposite shore. In turn, I do the same, dragging him back to me. Our aquatic tug-of-war escalates, our drunken determination dancing on some sentient level, until the ocean sputters and snarls.

Gusts whip through our hair and clothes. A splash melts my leggings to mid-thigh and leaves my skirt’s hem a jagged fray. A stray upsurge splatters across Jeb’s shirt, rendering him half-naked.

A spark rides the air between us—not visible, but visceral, like all those times we played chess while fighting our feelings for each other. That’s what collides and teases the ocean to a raging, frothy roar—even more than our magic.

I notice the giant red bubble in the depths too late to stop it, an accumulation of our power that bulges until it erupts into a tidal wave. Jeb slams into the water. His head bobs for an instant in the lighthouse’s glare before the boat capsizes and pounds him, then he disappears in the swell.

I’ve killed him.

“Jeb!” I scream. The wall of water shifts my direction, blocking the starlit ceiling. The ground shakes and hauls me down until the sand swallows my knees, embedding me even deeper.

I bend at the waist, digging until my fingertips sting and bleed. It’s futile. The wave curls and arcs—two stories above me. I wrap my wings around myself, my arms over my head, and brace for impact.

The water crashes down—sweeping me under and knocking the air in my lungs loose. A silent scream erupts from my mouth in bubbles. My wings snap open and flail, scraping my body. I fight the urge to breathe as my spine contorts and twists.

The murky water blinds me. Warm brininess seeps into my nostrils and the seam of my lips. Grappling for the diary and key at my neck, I’m relieved to find them still there, though I can’t remember why. My arms, legs, and wings go limp and I fold.

A warm pressure grips around my waist, startling me to alertness. The sands release my legs. Jeb holds me in his arms and we surface together. I gulp air and cough up salt water.

After dragging us to shore, Jeb collapses beside me, sputtering. The ocean laps gently under his instruction, as if it wasn’t trying to tear us apart seconds ago.

My wings wrinkle beneath my back and I absorb them, skin prickling against the sand. All my clothes are gone—everything but my lingerie, sopping wet and clinging to me. My pulse spikes as I realize Jeb’s clothes have vanished, too, other than a soaked pair of periwinkle boxers that look a lot like the fabric of his tuxedo shirt.

Propped on his elbows, he turns me to face him and rakes wet snarls of hair off my face. He loops the diary and key behind my neck so they’re no longer between us.

Water beads along his whiskered jaw and gathers around the edges of his labret. “Didn’t I tell you never to scare me like that again?”

My mind clears instantly: That’s what he said when we weathered the original ocean of tears in Wonderland.

“You came back for me.” I press myself to him, fill the words with as much awe and gratitude as when I used them to respond a year ago.

His hands cradle my head. “I’ll always come back for you, Al,” he whispers.

I hold his wrists and our heartbeats slam between us. “And that’s why you’ll always be a better man than your dad.”

His features soften to a poignant frown and he leans in to skim his mouth along mine, leaving a warm imprint of salt so illusory it could be a teardrop. The moment I start to respond, he breaks contact and pushes away.

I bite back a sigh.

He sits on his knees, appearing far too pensive for my liking. I’ve seen that look before. He’s about to scold me for taking risks.

“I won’t apologize for being reckless.” My defensive rebuttal leaps out before he can even open his mouth. “The more I think like a netherling, the more conniving and strong I become. How’s that a bad thing here?”

“You’re right.” His confession shocks me. “Listening to your darker instincts is the only way to survive and master these worlds. I get it now.”

Of course he does. He’s been around since I was an awkward kid in middle school. He knows the human side of me better than anyone. And now, after becoming a netherling in his own right, it’s given him new insight into the Wonderland side of me, too.

Goose bumps coat my arms as a breeze blows over me.

He stands. His bared skin glistens in the starlight, each chiseled line brushed with water and sugared with sand. “You’re cold. Let’s get you some clothes.”

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