Ensnared Page 63

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But he’s met his match. Or, rather, he’s created her.

“You don’t have to fight for us.” I trace Jeb’s tattooed wrist. “I can fix it so Morpheus will leave us alone.”

Jeb frowns. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No.” My voice is resolute and strong, almost as strong as Morpheus’s when he told me the secret to getting the upper hand: Once you know someone’s weakness, they’re easy to manipulate.

Jeb touches my face, as if shaken by the seriousness of my tone.

I could argue that Morpheus brought this on himself by forcing Jeb to live with the knowledge that he almost choked me in spite of our arrangement . . . by always manipulating every word, action, and promise to his advantage. I could say he’s taught me well and I’m finally thinking like a netherling. Like him.

But this isn’t for revenge. This is for leverage. Morpheus and I have forever to make things right between us, but Jeb only has one lifetime. He’s been dealt enough misery already. I’m what makes him happy, and he does the same for me. So we should spend Jeb’s one life together.

“Jebediah Holt,” I say, my palm covering my chest in pledge form. “I vow on my life-magic that you’ll be my first in every way . . . in marriage and everything that goes with it.”

His face opens with wonder and astonishment, as if I’ve offered him the Milky Way and all the undiscovered galaxies beyond. “Wait, did you just—?”

Before he finishes, there’s a spasm behind my sternum that sucks my breath away. My heartbeat staggers for an instant, like a fish flopping behind my rib cage. I wail and draw my knees to my chest.

Jeb rubs my arms. “Al, are you okay?”

Cringing, I uncurl my body slowly. My fingers dig into the sand to fight the harsh sting. “I’m fine. It—it’s just a muscle cramp.” The lie tastes sour, like blood.

What if Red put a spell on my heart to control me? To bend me to her will? Every time I stray from her path toward Wonderland, I’m punished with agonizing pain. Just like she used my veins as puppet strings when she shared my body last year.

I can’t let her win. Tomorrow will be here too soon, and I have to convince Jeb to leave with us. If I don’t, he will die.

I grasp his hand, ignoring the pain. “Only you can release me of the vow’s binds. Morpheus will never ask me to break it. I need my magic, to be the queen he’s always trained me to be. Wonderland’s best interest is the one thing in the world he would put above his own desires.”

Jeb’s jaw falls. He half laughs. “Using your role as the Red Queen for a bargaining chip. That’s ingenious.”

I push aside his dark bangs. “I have great potential as a diplomat, yeah?” The teasing is a hollow ploy to cover that I’m struggling to breathe without my chest hurting. I have to get to Red. Make her undo everything she’s done.

Jeb smiles—a genuine Jebediah Holt grin, complete with dimples. Such a beautiful distraction. “I love you, skater girl.”

The nickname winds through me, comforting and sweet. I smooth my palm across his shoulder. “Say it again.”

“I love you.”

“No . . . the other part,” I plead.

He pulls my body to his, so our mouths come together in a warm, soft kiss. “Skater girl,” he whispers against me, brushing hair from my face.

We kiss again—his touch no longer illusory but confident and urgent. He lays me back, covering my body with his delicious weight as he teases my mouth open. I hold his face to savor the movements of his jaw, the flavor of his skin captured in droplets left by the ocean, the feel of his crooked incisor against my tongue, reacquainting my favorite parts of him.

“I missed you, Al.” His kisses trail my chin, my neck, and down the center of my collarbone, following traces of dried water. The splitting fire behind my sternum soothes to tolerable under his lips. I sigh and arch into him, but he freezes.

“Shh. Do you hear that?” he murmurs.

A cacophony builds from somewhere in the distance across the ocean’s lapping tide: thrashing wings and screeching wails. I lift my head as a flock of condor-size flying beasts soars toward us. Goon birds are straddled atop their backs, wearing diving helmets that look like brass gumball machines with glass viewing holes.

“Bats!” Jeb shouts, rolling off. “Get to the lighthouse, now!”

Carroll’s rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle blinks through my mind, but the giant creatures flying toward us are the antithesis to all things whimsical and little. And they look nothing like tea trays.

Fierce gusts rip through our hair. I choke on a puff of blowing sand. Jeb pushes me behind him the instant a bat swoops down. Sleek as crimson leather, the mutant creature lifts off, carrying Jeb into the sky with its talons.

An eagle-faced goon opens the glass window on his helmet and laughs from his seat atop the bat’s back. “Easy as catching sunning snails.”

“You fool. It’s the girl Manti wants!” another one shouts from his winged perch. “And remember, she’s to be kept intact!”

“Then I’d say we got here in the nick of time,” blurts a chicken-beaked goon crudely. His compatriots howl with laughter before turning their airborne mounts toward me.

“Jeb!” I scream.

“Get to the lighthouse!” he yells from up high as he wrestles the claws curled around him.

No way. I release my wings. As I launch toward Jeb, three bats swoop at me from different directions. So tuned in to their target, their goon riders don’t notice each other. The closest bat dips a swanlike neck. The center of its starfish-shaped muzzle opens, thrusting out a cluster of six-foot long, slimy tentacles lined with sharp fangs. One of the teeth snatches my diary necklace and breaks the cord.

Shrieking, I toss out my hand to pry the string off the bat’s fanged tongue, but the bat swallows the tiny book. The other two goon birds veer deathly close. I dive at the last minute. The bats collide and plunge into the ocean with their riders. Flattening out my wings along a current of wind, I skim over the water and ascend.

Silhouetted against the starry sky, Jeb breaks free of his captor and hangs on to a talon while calling upon a wave. The water lifts high enough for him to drop into place. He slides down a slanted plane of foam toward me, catches me around the waist, and skates us both to the lighthouse’s entrance.

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