Unhinged Page 23

“Your boyfriend should respect that sometimes you need a break,” she answers.

“He’s not the only one who should respect that.” I rally a convincing scowl. “I’m going to the backyard to study.”

Mom and I have spent many afternoons over the past few months working on a lunar garden that shimmers at night. We planted lilies, honeysuckle, and silver licorice. We even have a small fountain that lights up. The flowing water helps to drown out the whispers of bugs and plants. It’s one of my favorite places to study and think.

When Mom starts to join me, I turn to face her. “I don’t need an escort, please.”

“You need help with your chemistry vocab,” she insists.

I frown. “It’s a one-woman job, Mom.”

Dad steps from the kitchen with a dish towel on his shoulder. There’s still flour all over his clothes. He looks back and forth between us.

I bite my inner cheek, doing my best not to explode. “May I please have some downtime to get my head cleared before school tomorrow?” I direct the question to Dad.

Mom wipes her hands on her apron.

Through the kitchen doorway, the cat clock on the wall ticks away, its tail twitching in time with each second. I can’t have her tagging along. There’s no way I’m diving into the rabbit hole tomorrow without talking to Jeb first, without being in his arms one more time.

Dad must see how close I am to losing it. “Let her go, Ali-bear,” he says. “She hasn’t had much time to herself today.”

Finally, Mom agrees after insisting I take an extra quilt, “since the evenings are cooler with the wet weather we’ve been having.” But I have other plans for it.

On the patio, strands of twinkle lights glow along a gazebo-like trellis that houses the swing, camouflaging it from the back window.

I fluff up the pillows on the porch swing and strategically place the blanket that’s already there over them. Then I balance my book open on top, so if Mom peeks out through the window, she’ll see the silhouette through the trellis and think it’s me.

Quilt in hand, I take the path away from the porch. The fragrances of flowers are magnified by the damp evening air. Moonlight and the twinkle lights reflect off the pale blossoms and foliage. Everything is relaxed and dreamy. The opposite of how I feel.

I spread the quilt in the darkest corner of the yard, out of view of the back door and window. This is the one patch of ground that isn’t overgrown with flowers or plants. A weeping willow’s canopy hangs over the fence that separates Jeb’s backyard and ours, creating a cave. Mom tried to plant things here a few times, but when they never blossomed, she decided there was too much shade.

Little does she know it’s because Jeb and I have spent so many nights under this tree—sneaking out after everyone went to bed—to talk, to count stars, and to do other things …

It’s our sanctuary.

We’re the ones who stifled the seedlings. And I have no regrets.

I lie down and wrap my fingers around Jeb’s locket at my neck.

Moonlight streams through the cluster of branches overhead, and the water fountain gurgles. Everything about this place reminds me why I chose to stay in this world last year, why I love being human. And Morpheus wants me to leave it all behind for a battle in another realm.

I’m starting to realize he’s right. If it means saving those I love, I have to go.

But first I’m going to tell Jeb. I want him in on this. Maybe because I know he’ll try to convince me it’s okay not to leave. Not for something so dangerous. Not when I might not make it back.

I want to hear that it’s okay to be a coward. Even if I won’t believe it.

My hand brushes the key necklace, and the image of a crumbling Wonderland blinks through my mind. My heart hurts—a tearing feeling, as if it’s being ripped down the middle.

A cricket bursts into song somewhere to my left. Between chirps, it taunts me. Courage, Alyssa. Many changes coming … mad, mad changes. They’ll bring out the queen in you.

I freeze in place, fingers clamped on both necklaces. A clunk on the other side of the fence silences the cricket. Leaves shake above my head, and several flutter down to tickle my face. I brush them aside to study the shadowy silhouette outside the canopy.

“You look incredible in the moonlight.” Jeb’s voice, low and silky, is a balm, soothing away the foreboding echoes of the cricket’s message.

I tuck the necklaces under my tunic’s collar, voice caught in my throat.

Branches part to reveal his face and disheveled hair. He’s wearing a sexy, sideways smile. “I know, I’m two minutes late. I deserve a spanking.”

I snort, calmed by his teasing. “You should be so lucky.” I can do this. I can tell him anything. It’s Jeb, after all.

He lets himself drop, hanging on to a branch with one hand so he can flip around, feet first. It’s a trick he used when we would play king of the mountain in our earlier summers.

In one graceful movement, he straddles me, his weight pressing me into the soft quilt. “This okay? Am I too heavy?”

I tighten my arms around him when he tries to balance on his elbows and knees. “Stay just like you are.” He settles back into place, and I twitch my muscles in contentment. Nothing feels as perfect or as safe as being breathless under him.

His hand glides along my rib cage and stops at each bone, like he’s checking to make sure I’m in one piece. “Finally, I have you all to myself,” he whispers, breath hot on my face.

I bask in the scent of his cologne. “Jeb, I need to tell you something.”

“Mmm, can’t it wait, skater girl?” His lips nuzzle my neck.

Hearing my nickname breaks me. I pull up his head to kiss him. Just once, before I completely shatter his world. My fingers wind through his hair. He rolls us so I’m on top, and we lie like that: my body imprinting on his, mouths trailing necks, ears, faces. We kiss under the stars, outside of the world’s reach, and don’t stop until we’re both breathless.

Panting, we draw back and stare at each other—overwhelmed by the drama and emotions of the past few days. And it’s about to get so much worse.

“So …” Jeb breaks the silence. “Is this your way of distracting me so you can steal my king?”

I almost smile at the memory. “Am I that transparent?”

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