Page 24

 A.G. Howard

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He pulls me to lie beside him on the quilt, brushing hair from my face. “Can’t believe we wasted so many summers playing chess under this tree while your dad was at work.”
“You’re just mad because I always won,” I say.
He rests his head on his outstretched arm. “It was worth it. I got to tickle you afterward.” He traces my lips with a fingertip. “I liked having an excuse to touch you.”
I kiss his finger. “Even back then you thought about touching me?”
“Spending every day surrounded by sketches you inspired left little time to think of anything else.”
I suppress a wave of longing for the simplicity of the life we once lived. I had no idea at the time how easy it was.
How am I supposed to tell him I’m leaving? How do we say good-bye to moments like these?
I skim my fingernail along his ear, searching for the words.
He shivers and smiles. “Speaking of my artwork,” he says before I can speak, “we need to talk about Ivy. We were wrong about how much she’s willing to pay.”
I tighten my lips at hearing the heiress’s name. No wonder he was so evasive on the phone. He was counting on that money to help us get started in London.
This is the perfect opportunity. I’ll tell him it doesn’t matter. That money is the least of what’s standing in the way of our future now.
I open my mouth, but Jeb beats me to the punch again. “She’s offering ten thousand more,” he says as he sits up and brushes leaves from his T-shirt and jeans.
I scramble to sit beside him, mind spinning. My tunic slides off my shoulder, leaving it cool and exposed. “Twenty thousand bucks? For one fairy painting?”
Jeb glides a fingertip along my shoulder. “Not exactly. She wants a series … three new fairy paintings. Sexier ones.”
When Jeb paints me, he poses me, evaluates every contour of my body, studies the way the light and shadows skim my skin, which often leads to things other than work. I’ve missed those sessions. It would be so perfect to start them again. The thought makes me ache even more not to leave.
I swallow, fighting to say good-bye, wishing I didn’t have to.
Jeb leans down to kiss my bare shoulder—tender, warm, and sweet—then covers my skin with my sleeve. “You need to know, there’s one condition,” he says, leveling his gaze to mine. “Ivy wants me to paint a collection of her. She wants to be my muse.”
I shove aside all thoughts of Wonderland and magic wars. “Ivy wants to model for you?”
Jeb was bound to get commissioned for customized portraits eventually, but I wasn’t prepared for that to happen today.
He watches me in silence.
“What do you mean, sexier paintings?” I press.
“Well, she has this amazing costume. She wore it when we met at the studio. It’s a little revealing, but …” Jeb scrapes his palm down his chin. “It’s not a nude series or anything. I told her I wasn’t down with that.”
I’m grateful for his chivalry, but it’s a small comfort. The thought of him being tempted day in and day out by a sophisticated, experienced, half-naked woman makes my stomach churn.
“Al, you just need to meet her. You’ll feel better when you see how serious she is about the art. She has some really cool ideas … eccentric even beyond the costumes. She’s an old soul, like us.”
Old soul. Bad enough that she’s beautiful and rich. He’s not supposed to like her personality, too.
My heart sinks so low I would trip over it if I was walking. That possessive chant resurfaces: mine mine mine.
The leaves around us begin to flutter, even though the wind isn’t blowing. I concentrate on the willow branches, sending everything I’m feeling into them. They curl around Jeb’s shoulders, as if to hold on to him—a puppet’s strings to make him do my bidding.
He jumps, and the limbs loosen. Looking up at the swaying canopy, he frowns. He doesn’t realize I’m causing the motion, that something is waking inside of me, something I’ve kept hidden for months. Something I don’t want to suppress right now, because the feral anger makes my insecurities seem conquerable, which in turn makes me feel stronger.
As I notice the bewilderment on his face, ice-cold shame washes over me. I stanch my anger and jealousy. The branches go still again.
Jeb’s gaze meets mine. “Did you see that?”
My heart pounds. “See what?”
He rubs his hair. “I could’ve sworn …” He stops himself. “Must’ve been a gust of wind.”
I have no response. I’m horrified by how easily my darker side bubbled over—by how much I wanted to overpower Jeb. To control him.
He must see the shame clouding my features because he takes my hand and laces our fingers together. “I’m sorry to spring this Ivy thing on you. But I need to give her an answer. She’s only here through this week. If I turn her down, it could affect my reputation.” He studies our linked hands. “Collectors and reviewers might think I’m a one-trick pony.”
“I get it,” I mumble, trying not to let my emotions control me again.
I wish he’d at least pretend this was a hard choice for him, but his expression is hopeful. It’s obvious he wants me to say I’m cool with all of this, whether for the money or for the artistic growth. But it hurts, even though I know it shouldn’t. I’ve always been his inspiration, and this just proves he no longer needs me … at least artistically.
To be honest, it seems like he’s been growing away from me for a while now, and that’s what really hurts.
The twinkle lights over the porch swing blink on and off, my parents’ subtle hint that I quit studying and come inside. Their timing sucks.
Jeb lifts me to my feet, leans in, and kisses my forehead. “We’ll talk more tomorrow.” I take a step back, but he grabs the neck of my tunic and the heart-shaped locket underneath to keep me close. “Hey, don’t you forget that I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I hold his hand at my chest. The leaves rattle around us again before I catch myself.
After glaring overhead, Jeb gives me a lingering hug and kiss, then stretches to pull himself into the tree.
“Wait.” I snag the waistband of his jeans before he can settle in the branches. None of this has to happen. I can get his mind off Ivy and this commission for good by showing him the truth about Wonderland, about me. “Can you pick me up from school tomorrow?”