Splintered Page 76

Gloved fingers—silken and confident—glide from my shoulders to my wrists. I curse him silently for moving my hands as he raises them to study the scars. He kisses them, his lips a fluid brush along sensitive flesh, then places my palms on his cheeks.

Mouth inches from mine, he whispers, “Forgive me for bringing you into this. There was no other way.” His skin is softer than clouds must feel, and the tears gathering around my fingertips are hot and tangible. But are they sincere?

Our breaths swirl between us, and his black eyes swallow me whole. My heart knocks against the bottom of his rib cage. I know what’s coming next. I fear it. But it’s the surest way to distract him and get the wish. And if it has to happen, I’m going to be the instigator.

Rising up on my toes, I press my mouth to his. He moans, frees my wrists, and sweeps me into his arms—sealing the teddy bear between us. My ankles swing at his shins, and my hand creeps toward his lapel. I’m in control.

But it’s a lie, because now I’ve tasted him. His lips are salty-sweet with yesterday’s laughter . . . digging in the black sands beneath Wonderland’s sunshine, playing leapfrog atop mushroom caps, and resting in the shade of black satin wings.

I try to shake off the spell, but he angles his face and deepens the kiss. “Embrace me . . . embrace your destiny.” He breaks the barrier of my lips, touching his tongue to mine, a sensation too wickedly delicious to deny. As our tongues entwine, his lullaby purrs through my blood and bones, carrying me to the stars.

Behind closed eyes, I’m floating against a velvet sky, lungs filled with night air. On some level, I know I’m still in the middle of a firewarmed chamber, yet my wings pantomime flight on a cool breeze. I’m dancing with Morpheus in the heavens, no longer imprisoned by gravity.

Fluttering our wings in unison, we twist and whirl a weightless waltz among stars that coil and uncoil in feathery sparks high above Wonderland’s warped and wonderful landscapes. Each time we spin, then return to each other’s arms, I laugh, because at last I’m me.

I’m a me I’ve longed to be in my innermost fantasies—spontaneous, impetuous, and seductive.

Morpheus promises a lifetime of dancing, a world where everyone obeys my commands. He shows me every piece and parcel of Wonderland that is mine. Down below, past the stars and night sky, I can see myself seated on a throne at the head of a table, hosting a feast with mallet in hand, prepared to strike the main course dead. Maniacal laughter echoes in the marble halls, sweet to my ears.

The scene makes me drunk with power. I kiss him again. He holds me tighter.

Beneath my feet, the stars burst into a thousand glittering colors: silent fireworks, just like the ones Jeb and I saw in the boat on our first night here.

Jeb . . .

The image of his dimpled smile slams into me like a gasp of ice-cold air. Memories of my mortal life intensify the frost: the pride and satisfaction of finishing a mosaic, the maple-sweet flavor of Dad’s Saturday morning pancakes, Alison’s tinkling laughter that feels like home, Jenara joking with me at Butterfly Threads, and Jeb . . . his loyalty, and his kisses, so magical yet so real.

The spinning in my head slows, like a top falling to its side. I’m back at the castle, pressed against Morpheus in a passionate embrace.

I have to finish what I started, or risk becoming what he is.

I coax my palm into his lapel in search of my wish, returning his feverish kisses. “Checkmate, you son of a bug,” I say against his mouth two seconds before my fingers find an empty pocket.

“Sleight of hand, blossom,” he says right back. “’Tis in fact in my pants pocket, if you’d like to search there.”

I shove him off and drop to the floor, wiping my mouth. “It’s mine!”

“And you’ll receive it when the time is right.” His lips, all I can look at, tilt into that smug smile that I’ve come to detest. He motions toward the chair. “Sit. You’ve just been soundly kissed. No doubt you’re short of breath.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” I huff in an effort to hide a gulp of air and hold the teddy bear against my chest. “That kiss meant nothing. It had underlying motivation.”

“Oh, to be sure. That kiss was nothing if not motivational.”

Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but his pale complexion looks flushed as he turns the chair around so its back is to the fire. Considering that my stomach is a pendulum in full swing, I hope he’s at least a little rattled.

Cheeks hot, I sit on the warm cushions, my wings ornamenting the arms like lacy, jewel-studded doilies. I can’t pin down my emotions. I shouldn’t have kissed him. How could I do that to Jeb? But I did it for us, so he’ll understand, right? As long as I never mention how it affected me, how I almost drowned in Morpheus’s seduction, in my own darkest desires . . .

“Have I commented on your loveliness tonight?” Morpheus asks, compelling me to look at him. His eyes follow the lines of my gauzy appendages. “There’s something about a lady in wings. You wear them well. You’re exquisite, in fact. Just like a netherling princess should be.”

The drag of his gaze alerts all my nerves, forcing me to relive his lips on mine. A touch of his hand would’ve affected me less. I reach for his hat balanced on the chair’s arm and flick the red moths so they dance. “Cut the crap, Morpheus. My clothes are shot, and I look like a marshmallow exploded on my back.”

He chuckles, masculine and deep in his chest. “You’ve always been irresistible when you’re cranky.” He sits on the floor in front of me, pinstripe-clad legs crossed like a Boy Scout’s. Too bad Jeb’s not here to pound him to a pulp.

I punch the hat’s brim, exasperated.

Morpheus flinches as if I hit him. “Careful. That’s my Insurrection Hat. I’ve ne’er had occasion to wear it until today. The red represents battles and bloodshed, in case you were wondering.”

“Doesn’t interest me in the least,” I answer, flinging it to the floor.

With a hiss through white teeth, he gathers his prize. “Bah. You’re a descendant of Queen Red. You crave chaos. You’re happiest when the world is in an uproar. You thrive on madness. Even your magic is at its best when it’s the catalyst to confusion. You still can’t admit this?”

I shake my head, not wanting it to be true.

He places his hat on his knee and shrugs, as if too busy to drag the truth out of me. “You will wash up and change. I’ve picked a stunning ensemble for you. A queen must dress properly for her coronation.”

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