Ashes (Page 83)

“No,” he said. “It does. I just … can’t …”

“Can’t what? Explain?” She darted a look at his face. His skin was tight and white as snow except for the two hectic stains of color along his high cheekbones. The scent of his shadows was stronger, as if they were closing around, trying to protect him somehow. “What’s there to explain, Chris? We had sex ed in sixth grade, so if you need any pointers …” She heard the cruelty in her voice and choked back the rest. What the hell was she doing? She didn’t care.

“You don’t understand,” he said.

“You don’t owe me any explanations.”

“But I wish I could,” he said. She heard his misery and something more: disgust. “God, this is so messed up.”

“Yeah, you think?” The frustration was pillowing in her head like hot steam. Any second, the top of her head would pop like a cork. “You’re realizing this now?”

“Please, I don’t want to fight with you.”

“You know, it’s fine, Chris, really. It’s your town. If you want to screw Lena, choose her to go play house with, do it.”

“Stop.” His eyes closed, and the small muscles of his jaw twitched and jumped. “Please. Alex, I don’t want Lena. I never have.”

“Yeah? Well, you better clue her in.”

“Will you shut up?” With an abrupt twitch of his wrists, he jerked back on the dray’s reins. The sleigh slewed, and she had to grab on to the side to keep from tumbling out, but then he was grabbing her by the arms and shaking her. “Do you think I want this? Do you think I want her?”

“Don’t you? No, don’t answer that. I don’t care what or who you want!” she spat, and then she slapped him across the face, hard and fast, the sound as crisp as the snap of a dried bone. The sound broke something inside her, too, and she felt a sudden, hot rush of shame as he gasped and his hands fell away. The sting in her hand burned like acid. “Chris,” she said. “Chris, I’m sorry, I’m—”

“Why can’t you like me?” he said, his voice breaking. His scent steamed then, hot and heady with a welter of contradictions: apples and fire and the electric roil of those cold, black shadows. “Why can’t you like me just a little?”

She would never know how she might have answered, because he never gave her the chance.

Instead, he kissed her.

60

It was not like Tom at all.

This was more like a bomb.

She felt her body go rigid with surprise and then the quick lurch of her heart and a sudden breathlessness. For an instant, just an instant, she could’ve pushed him away. But she didn’t. A stunning white heat scorched the thought right out of her brain, and then he was pressed against her and her body was tingling and she felt his hunger, his need, and she’d grabbed the lapels of his coat because she was starving for his touch; she couldn’t get close enough, and the scent of spiced apples made her feverish and dizzy.

The kiss went on forever. It lasted for a second. She wasn’t sure who broke it off. Maybe both of them did at the same time, or neither of them.

He let her go. “I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry,” he said, his voice ragged. “Please don’t hate me. I just …”

“It’s okay,” she said. The red splotch of her hand stood out on his cheek like a brand. Her lips felt bruised and swollen. “I shouldn’t have egged you on. I was just mad.”

“I think …” Chris leaned back, his chest still heaving. “I think maybe when I get back I shouldn’t be around you anymore. I can’t think. When I’m out there, all I can think about is here and … being with you. I just … God, Alex, I’m just trying to protect you.”

Her automatic rebuttal—I don’t need your protection—jammed up behind her teeth. He was telling the truth; she could smell it. This was like when he’d given her the sunglasses, only this time she held his feelings in the cup of her hands.

“You know what I worry about? I worry that when I come back, you’ll find some loophole, something we’ve overlooked, and then you’ll be gone and I don’t think I—” Chris closed his eyes. “Please say something.”

“I’m so sorry.” She reached for his face, touched the mark she’d left there. “I don’t hate you, Chris.”

He gave a sad half-laugh. “But you don’t like me.”

“I kissed you back,” she said.

“After I surprised you, after I forced you …”

“No. You didn’t force me. I think …” She pulled in a shaking breath. “I think I’m afraid to like you.”

His surprise and then the hope on his face were almost painful, and she had to bite her lip to keep from bursting into tears. Her hand was still on his cheek, and he covered it now with his own. “Why?” he asked.

A sob tried to push its way out of her mouth. “Because it means giving up. It means that you’ve closed up all the loopholes and there’s nowhere else for me to go.”

“But Alex, the rules exist for a reason. They’re there to keep you safe.”

“Then why does Jess think they need to change?”

“Alex.” He moved closer, and when he gathered her up, she didn’t resist. “I want to protect you. I want to take care of you. If you stayed, would that be so bad?”

Her hands hooked on to his jacket, and she held on.

“No,” she said.

They rode in silence the rest of the way, but she stayed close, their thighs touching, her hand looped through the crook of his elbow. The snow was thicker and beginning to swirl by the time they got to the hospice. When the sleigh had coasted to a stop, however, she did not jump down. Beyond the glass doors, she could see the hospice guard watching, his hand on the push bar to let her in.

She turned to Chris. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?”

“Awhile, maybe. Couple weeks.” His mouth moved in a tense, uncertain, lopsided smile. Snow clung to his dark hair. “Don’t worry. I’ll have someone here for you.”

“I’m not worried about me.” She took his hand, and their fingers laced. “When you get back …”

“Yeah,” he said.

This time, when they kissed, there were only apples: sweet and crisp and right.

That afternoon, one of the nurses dashed out of the treatment room for something or other, and left a clutch of fresh instruments spread on a tray. One was a Gigli saw, a coil of wire that could cut through bone—or a tree, or a man’s neck. The saw was sixteen inches long with two handles. Coiled, she could slip it into her jeans. A saw like that would come in handy on the road for a girl on the run.



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