Splintered Page 59

“Okay, okay—” His voice cracks, and I realize that I’ve brought him to his knees, after all.

My intestines blaze as if fire ants are gnawing through them. I close my eyes to block out the light but can still smell the food— everywhere.

After a pause that seems to take forever, something cushiony and cool nudges my lips. I open my mouth, greedy, and take every plump berry that can fit inside. They burst on my tongue, juicy and succulent. Gulping, I beg for more.

Five mouthfuls later, I can concentrate with no more pain.

I sit up, blinking at the tea party guests who have settled at the other end of the table. The rabbit’s preoccupied with the pocket watch, dabbing it with a napkin and doling out apologies to Father Time. His white eyes sparkle like marbles as he smiles, his lipless mouth revealing three crooked yellow teeth. The Door Mouse is taking a bath in a teacup, his teensy stained uniform laid out on the saucer. And Hattington—he really is faceless. He keeps flashing from the mouse’s likeness to the hare’s, as if someone’s switching channels between them.

Jeb leans over the table. “You all right?” He looks worried.

Guilt slashes through me for the way I wanted to punish him. “I was . . .”

“Uninhibited and impulsive. In a big way.”

I look at the broken plates and crushed food around me. “I have another side to me, Jeb. And I’m not sure it has to do with the curse. I think maybe it’s always been there.”

He joins our hands. “It’s okay that you have a little bad inside. So do I. We’re a great match like that.” He helps me off the table, folding his arms around my waist. As he kisses my forehead, his labret presses between my eyebrows, cool and comforting.

I pull back. “So, you weren’t faking that you want to be with me and not Taelor. This . . . us . . . is real?”

His thumb and forefinger pinch my earlobe gently. He’s so quiet and thoughtful, I’m afraid he’s not going to answer.

Taking a breath, he looks down. “I dated Tae . . . to try not to think about you. Hoping that it might get you out of my system. Just like with the pencil and sketchbook, it didn’t work. Then I wasn’t sure if you felt the same way. And if you did, I was afraid of . . .” Jeb studies the cigarette burns on his forearms through the sheer black stripes of his sleeves.

“Go on . . .” I press.

“Of unloading my baggage on someone as sweet as you.”

I can’t keep the smile off my lips. “Oh, wow.”


“I guess we’re both oblivious. That’s the same reason I kept running from my feelings for you.”

“Because I’m sweet?” That dimpled, boyish grin flashes over his face.

Running my fingers through his messy hair, I giggle. “I didn’t want to pull you into my family’s madness.”

A clatter of dishes shakes the other side of the table where the mouse and hare wrestle over a spoon, both trying to see their reflections in the silver.

Jeb cups my jaw, recouping my attention. “Listen, I never meant to hurt Tae. She gets enough crap from her dad. But when she came to pick me up for prom, we had it out. I told her it was over . . . that we should break up. I was just going to keep it quiet for the dance because she asked me to. She’d already bought her dress, and I’d rented a tux, you know? But she knows the truth. That you’re it for me, Al. Only you.”

They’re the most beautiful words I’ve heard in my life. My stomach feels wonky, like when I was a kid and the merry-go-round at the playground finally stopped spinning and I just lay there facing the swirling sky—dizzy and blissful and exhilarated—until the world came back into perfect clarity. “Oh, Jeb.”

He raises my hand and kisses my knuckles. The labret on his lip glistens in the light, reminding me of Morpheus’s jeweled eyes. I hate that I let him put doubts into my head about the most devoted guy I’ve ever known. I can’t let Morpheus get to me like that again— ever.

“You’re it for me, too.” I link my fingers with Jeb’s. “I’m sorry for the things I said to you in the Hall of Mirrors. And that I lied to you about Taelor’s purse . . . and stealing—”

“Shh.” He leans down to kiss me, so tender-sweet, it chases away everything but his touch. “Let’s forget it all. Except one thing,” he whispers against my lips. “When we go home, can you keep the chain trick? That table dance was very hot.” He growls. I laugh, shivering at the sultry vibration in his chest. He laughs, too, then pulls my hips close and kisses my ears, my temples, my lips—immersing me in a thousand different sensations, each so delicious, I almost forget what I have left to do.

I break our embrace. Jeb’s half-lidded expression looks back at me, questioning. “Be right back,” I say. I peel off my soiled gloves, cast them aside, and scramble onto the table, stopping beside Hattington. “The vorpal sword. Alice brought it to you, before you were frozen. We need it.”

The flat screen of his face blinks, flashing between a reflection of mine and Alice’s. The effect is creepy, like a movie screen snapping between two different eras. Jeb steps closer, waiting.

“Sword?” Hattington glances at his two companions. “Either of you remember anything about a sword?” They all burst into chuckles—a sound that rattles me.

“Perhaps you swallowed it, Herman,” the hare says between snorts. “Open your mouth, and let’s have a look.”

“Better take a flare gun,” the mouse squeaks. “It’s dark and wide as a canyon in there!”

More snorts and giggles.

Jeb grabs the hare by the ears and holds him above the table, ending the laugh-fest. He points to Herman and the mouse. “A little cooperation would go a long way toward you two keeping your hides.”

Hattington’s face flashes to Jeb’s image. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, woodchuck.” He glances at the mulberry overhead. “Someone sent you on a wild duck chase. Wonder who?”

The leaves rustle, and Morpheus appears at the top of the canopy. “That would be me,” he answers, a smirk on his face.



I shade my eyes to look up at Morpheus, an angry knot forming in my chest. Jeb was right. All he can do is mislead us. “You lied.”

His smile fades as Gossamer peeks out from under his hair. “I was misinformed,” he says.

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