Cursed - Page 27

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“Do you think I’ll look at you differently? That it would somehow change how I see you?”

He sounded kind of offended, and I had to look up; I had to see him. Our eyes met. There wasn’t a challenge in them anymore. I don’t know what I saw in them, but I felt my fingers relax and then let go.

Needing no other invitation, Hayden gathered the hem in his hands and began tugging it up and up. He pulled the hoodie over my head, exposing almost all my secrets.

Chapter 18

I could feel his eyes traveling over my arms and across the swell of my chest. Hayden was checking me out, but not in a way I’d ever wanted a guy to look at me. I knew what he saw.

Angry lines slashed across my upper arms, and faint scars spread across my chest and disappeared under my tank top. They’d originally been red, but they’d now faded to white. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror, I thought the scars looked like someone had dropped a spiderweb over my body. The only parts of me not scarred were my legs.

A minute went by before Hayden spoke. “Does it… does it hurt?”

Opening my eyes, I stared into the dark corners of the cabin. I felt vulnerable, exposed. “No. It never hurt. Not when I… came back.”

He let out a stilted breath. “But before?”

I forced a casual shrug and glanced at him. He wasn’t staring at the scars, but at my face. “Yeah, it hurt. Can I have my sweater back now?”

“No.” Hayden dropped it on the floor. “You shouldn’t have to hide yourself.”

“Doesn’t it bother you?”

He frowned. “Why would it bother me?”

“Because… because it’s ugly. I look like Frankenstein.”

“You don’t look like Frankenstein,” he said, so softly I almost didn’t hear him.

“Trust me, I know how I look.”

“Okay. What do you want me to say? That I see those scars and wonder how badly it had to hurt to end up that way? Or how wrong I think it is that you let those scars take away from everything else?”

“Take away from what?”

“Em, the scars on your arms are barely visible. You could wear shirts without sleeves. No one would notice, and you… well, no one would pay attention to the scars.”

I still wanted to jump up and grab my sweater, but I forced myself to stay put.

“How does it feel?”

“What?” I stared straight ahead, focusing on the darkness.

“To die.”

Dying wasn’t easy to put into words. “Nothing—it feels like nothing. One minute, there was pain, and then there was nothing. Just empty blackness and you’re kind of aware of everything, but not. You kinda feel it here.” I placed a hand over my stomach. “When you die you feel it empty and leave you.”

“Feel what?”

I snuck a quick peek at him. He was watching me intently, his face soft. Before I lost my nerve or thought better of it, I reached out and placed my hand on his lower stomach. Even though he wore a sweater, I could feel the heat his skin was throwing off.

“Your soul,” I said quietly. I knew I had told him I didn’t want to talk about it, but here I was with a mad case of verbal diarrhea again. “You feel it burn itself out. Like a candle.”

Hayden inhaled roughly. “You really think you don’t have a soul?”

I pulled back and shrugged again.

“All because of your touch?” Hayden shifted and leaned on one arm. His breath danced over my shoulder.

I shivered. “Well, yes. That, and the fact that I felt it go poof.”

“Em, you have a soul.”

“How can you be so sure of that, Hayden? How many people die and come back?”

“No one dies and comes back. You did because of your sister, and you have a gift. Maybe that played a role in your coming back, but you have a soul. You aren’t evil. There’s nothing you can say that will make me think that.”

I looked up and our gazes locked. “And there’s nothing you can say to make me feel differently.”

He lowered his eyes. Thick lashes fanned his cheeks. “I know you do, because I wouldn’t want to… to kiss you if you didn’t have a soul.”

I froze. “You… you want to kiss me?”

His gaze lifted as he leaned in, placing his mouth an inch from mine. The air was sucked right out of the room, and I felt dizzy again. “Ever since I first saw you.” He moved so that his mouth was angled with mine. “And right now I want to so badly it hurts. You have no idea, Em, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

My gaze dropped to his parted lips. What would it be like to feel them against my own? Unable to stop myself, I brought my mouth within a hair’s breadth of his. “I want to kiss you, too.”

Hayden made a soft sound in his throat. His breath moved over my lips, and I closed my eyes, imagining the way he would feel, taste. Then his breath warmed my cheek and each of my eyelids before it returned to tease my lips again.

I placed my hands on his chest, curling my fingers into his sweater. “Hayden,” I whispered.

He answered by clasping my hips and pulling me into his lap. I wanted nothing more than to kiss and touch him. I lowered my cheek to his shoulder, squeezing my eyes shut as his caress drifted from my hips to the small of my back. Fine shivers danced over my skin, making me ache for something I could never have.

His hands traveled up my back, fingers pressing into my spine, bunching the thin material of my tank top, then back down. My body arched into the motion, and his hands shook. Each time his hands came close to my bare skin, it felt like every cell came alive only to slowly burn out. His breathing turned ragged.

I don’t know how long we stayed like that, coming close to touching—to something—until Hayden drew in a heavy breath and lifted me off of him. “Enough,” he murmured. “God, but it’s not enough.”

“I’m sorry.” I lowered my chin, wishing I were someone else, someone he could kiss, he could touch.

Hayden leaned back, brushing a few of my curls back as his eyes met mine. “Don’t apologize. I’m enjoying this. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted it to be like this between us and I don’t want to stop, but…”

“But you’re afraid you won’t stop?” I asked, feeling my skin flush even more.

“Exactly.” His smile was crooked as he lay back, patting the spot next to him. “Come here.”

I raised my brows at him. Lying beside him was so not going to quell the fire burning in my blood. And a part of me couldn’t believe what he’d admitted or what had happened between us. It seemed surreal, like a dream I’d never thought I could grasp.

Hayden’s gaze fell to my lips.

My heart did a stupid little jump that made me all warm and fuzzy. He liked me—really liked me. Even after seeing my scars. It was like hitting the jackpot of awesome guys.

“Come on.” He patted the spot next to him again.

“It’s a Friday night. Shouldn’t you be out having fun or something?”

One corner of his mouth tipped up. “I’m having fun here. Lots.” He placed his hands behind his head. Straightening out his legs, he nearly knocked me off the bed.

I didn’t have much of a choice. Carefully, I climbed over his legs and sat down on the other side.

“Lie down,” he ordered.

“Hayden.”

The smile grew. “Ember?”

I rolled my eyes, but did as he requested. “Happy?”

“Yep.”

Tilting my head so I could see him, I smiled when he winked at me. “You… you surprise me.”

Hayden rolled onto his side, propping himself up on one elbow. “How do I surprise you?”

I bit my lip. “You worry about hurting me, but you never seem to worry about me hurting you. And I’m the one with the killer touch.”

“I don’t because I know you won’t hurt me.” His gaze drifted over my face, then lower. He wiggled closer. Our knees pressed together, sending sharp tingles down my legs.

“Can I ask you something? Personal?”

He sent me a sidelong glance. “Sure.”

“How old were you when Cromwell found you?”

His eyes moved back to the ceiling. The smile was gone. In its place was a dark, brooding look. “I was seven.”

“Were you still with your parents?”

A shake of the head, a fine tensing of muscles followed. “No. I was in foster care.”

I bit my lip. I didn’t have any experience with foster homes, but it was a fear that’d driven me to do everything possible to keep Olivia out of them. “How did Cromwell find you?”

Hayden relaxed and tipped his head down. “He came to the foster home—the eighth one in two years.” He stopped, laughed. “It was the beginning of summer, and he just showed up. The rest is history.”

“What is it about the Facility? It’s like they are so evil, but you’ve been there. It sounds like Cromwell worked for them. I don’t get it.”

“The Facility is complicated.”

“Well, try explaining it to me. I may end up there one day.”

Hayden frowned. “You’ll never end up there, Em.”

“How can you be so sure of that?”

He flipped onto his back, but somehow he was closer than before. “I’d never allow it. The Facility isn’t evil, but they have their own methods of training. They’re harsh at times, demanding. To them, being gifted is everything. Their motto, ‘What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you,’ isn’t what Emerson believed when he said those words, you know?”

“How long were you there?” I asked, not really expecting him to answer.

“I… I was seven when I got there. Eleven when I left. So… four years, give or take a couple of months. It was better than foster care, but in a way, it was also worse. There were a lot of rules. They monitored every single moment, so I had no time to myself. And there were a lot of tests. They liked to… push you to your limits. To really test your control and see what it took for you to lose it.” He trailed off, staring at the ceiling. “Anyway, tell me something about you. Something I don’t know.”

There was a lot he wasn’t sharing, but I let it drop. “I don’t know. My favorite part of winter is the first snowfall. I… love the way autumn smells. I’ve never seen a shooting star.”

“Really?” He sounded surprised. “I haven’t, either.”

I smiled a little. “I’ve always looked, but I’ve never seen one.”

“I’ve never had a pet,” he admitted with a low laugh. “Not even a goldfish.”

“Goldfish don’t count, anyway.”

He laughed again and time slipped away from us. Only a pale slice of moonlight fell across the bed. At some point, while we talked, I forgot that he could see the scars and I actually felt normal. But every so often, he’d stop talking and would look at me, and I knew what he wanted to do.


Tags: Jennifer L. Armentrout Fantasy
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