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Maybe he’s decided he’d rather not wait. Which means I have to tell him I’m not ready today. Even worse, I have to tell him why.
I’m totally unprepared, scared out of my head, and not for the usual reasons. My lungs shrink, aggravated by the dank air of the tunnel … the paint, stone, and dust. I cough.
“Skater girl.” All the teasing is gone from his voice. He says my nickname so low and soft, it’s almost swallowed by the background music and the rain pattering outside.
“Yeah?” My hands tremble. I curl my fingers into my palms, nails scraping my scars. Scars that Jeb still thinks were caused by a car accident when I was a kid, when a windshield supposedly shattered and gouged my hands. Just one of the many secrets I’m keeping.
I can’t give him what he wants, not all of me. Not until I tell him who I really am. What I am. It was bad enough when I only had a week left till prom. I’m not prepared to pour out my soul today after being away from him for so long.
“Hey, take it easy.” Jeb works my hands free from their prison of fingers and presses my palm to his collarbone. “I brought you here to give you this.” He drags my hand down to his chest, where a hard knot the size of a dime presses back from under his shirt. That’s when I notice the shimmer of a delicate chain around his neck.
He lifts off the necklace and holds it over the lantern. It’s a heart-shaped locket with a keyhole embedded in its middle.
“I found it in a little antique market in London. Your mom gave you that key you wear all the time, right?”
I squirm, itching to correct the half-truth—that it’s not exactly the same key she had saved for me, although it opens the same weird and wild world.
“Well …” He leans across the basket to place the necklace over my head. It falls in line atop my key. He drags my hair free, smoothing the strands to cover both chains. “I thought this could be symbolic. It’s made of the same kind of metal, looks vintage like the key. Together, they prove what I’ve always known. Even when we used to come here as kids.”
“And what’s that?” I watch him, intrigued by how the tunnel’s opening tints one side of his smooth complexion with bluish light.
“That only you have the key to open my heart.”
The words startle me. I look down before he can see the emotion in my eyes.
He huffs. “That was cheesy … maybe I sucked in too many paint fumes while I was working on the mural.”
“No.” I balance on my knees and drape my arms over his shoulders. “It was sincere. And so swee—”
He puts a finger on my lips. “It’s a promise. That I’m committed. To you alone. I want to make that clear, before prom, before London. Before anything else happens between us.”
I know he means what he’s saying, but it’s not entirely true. He’s also committed to his career. He wants his mom and Jenara to have nice things; he wants to help with college expenses for his sister’s fashion career, and to take care of me in London.
Then there’s the underlying reason that he’s so committed to his art. The one reason he never talks about.
I have no right to be jealous of his determination to make something of himself—to prove himself a better man than the example he was given. I just wish he could find a balance and be satisfied. Instead, it feels like each sale and each new contact whets his appetite for more, almost like an addiction.
“I’ve missed you,” I say, drawing him into a hug that crushes the basket between us.
“I missed you, too,” he says against my ear before pushing us apart. A concerned frown meets my gaze. “Don’t you know that?”
“I didn’t hear from you for almost a week.”
He lifts his eyebrows, obviously chagrined. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t get cell phone service.”
“There’s landlines and e-mail,” I snap, sounding more irritable than I intend to.
Jeb taps the basket between us with the toe of his boot. “You’re right. It just got crazy that last week. It’s when the final auction took place. And the schmoozing.”
Schmoozing = partying with the elite. I stare at him, hard.
He rubs his thumb along my lower lip, as if trying to reshape my scowl to a smile. “Hey, don’t look at me like that. I wasn’t drunk or drugged out or cheating. It’s all business.”
My chest tightens. “I know. It’s just, sometimes I worry.”
I worry that he’ll start to crave things I haven’t even experienced yet. When he was sixteen, he lost his virginity to a nineteen-year-old waitress at a restaurant where he bused tables.
Last year, when he dated Taelor, they never hooked up; his evolving feelings for me kept him from crossing that line. But it’s bad enough knowing he was with an “older woman” before me, that she was just a sampling of the temptations that surround him on a daily basis now.
“Worry about what?” Jeb prompts.
I shake my head. “I’m just being stupid.”
“No. Tell me.”
Tension escapes my lungs on a gust. “Your life is so different from mine now. I don’t want to get left behind. You felt so far away this time. Worlds away.”
“I wasn’t,” he says. “You were in my dreams every night.”
His sweet sentiment reminds me of my own dreams and the life I’m hiding from him. I am such a hypocrite.
“Only one more week of school.” He plays with the tips of my hair. “Then we’ll be on our way to London, and you can go with me on all of my trips. It’s time to get your art out there, too.”
“But my dad …”
“I’ve figured out how to fix things.” Jeb shoves the basket from between us.
“Seriously, Al.” Jeb grins. “You want to talk about your dad when we can be doing this?” He stands, dragging me up with him. His arms enfold me. I snuggle into him, and we dance to a ballad on the iPad, in sync at last. I forget everything but our bodies swaying. Our conversation settles into its own familiar rhythm. We laugh and tease, catching up on the little moments from the past few weeks.