“Who else knew about this, Ember?”
“No one,” I stuttered, eyeing the door handle. I could make a run for it. I could also touch him.
“Do not lie to me. Who else knew about this?” he demanded.
“I’m not lying.” My fingers clawed along the door. “No one else knew. I have to take a test—”
Cromwell pulled out of the parking lot before I could even open the door. “Why didn’t you come to me about this?”
“I…” I couldn’t think of a lie fast enough. Telling him that I thought he or one of his freaks was behind it wouldn’t make anything better. So the next words that came out of my mouth even amazed me. “Why do you collect kids? What do you want from us?”
“I don’t want anything from you. And I’ve already answered why I bring the gifted into my household. I will not explain it again for your amusement.”
“It’s not for my amusement! You want these kids for some bizarre reason.” Another moment in my life where I knew I needed to shut up, but couldn’t. “Just like you wanted Olivia—because they’re all gifted. Why do you want their gifts?”
“I understand that you’re upset, but you will not question my intentions. I’ll determine who has been leaving those things in your locker whether or not you fess up to who’s been bothering you. The next time—if there is a next time anything like this occurs—you will come to me. Do you understand?”
“A—Are you going to send me away?”
“Sometimes I want to, Ember. I really do. So don’t push it.”
My fingers opened and closed in my lap. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to take you home. You will go upstairs. You’re grounded—”
“What?” I screeched. “How am I grounded? This isn’t my fault! And grounded from what? I don’t go anywhere.”
“You’re grounded, because you should’ve come to me. I could’ve stepped in before this—whatever this is—involved any of the outsiders. This is the second time you’ve let me down, Ember. I had to use my gift to manipulate someone. The last thing I need is the school administration prying around my home because they so obviously believe that one of my children has something to do with this.”
“Go figure,” I snapped.
“And trust that I will have a talk with every single one of them this evening.”
“But I didn’t tell any of them!”
Cromwell glanced in my direction. “I don’t know why you think you can lie to me.”
I didn’t, either.
I kept waiting for Cromwell to change his mind, to storm into my bedroom and inform me that he’d contacted the Facility and they were coming for me. But as the hours passed and the light of the moon crept across the room, I realized I was safe for the time being.
My nerves settled down enough that I could get some semblance of sleep. I don’t know what woke me near sunrise. Maybe it’d been a nightmare. I’d dreamt of shadowy figures following me, which probably explained why my heart threw itself against my ribs.
I sat up and tossed the covers off my legs. Climbing out of bed, I took a step, and then noticed a shadow against the door. And when it moved forward, I opened my mouth to scream.
“Ember, it’s me.”
“Oh, my God,” I gasped, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” Hayden said quietly.
I could barely see him. Once I felt sure I wouldn’t pass out, I stood up again. “How long have you been in here?” Watching me sleep? Even though I didn’t say that, it hung in the air between us. Instead of creeping me out, which it should have, knowing that he was in here made me feel weird… in a good way—a confusing way.
“Not that long. I was debating if I wanted to wake you up.”
“Oh. Is… is everything okay?”
“I think that’s a question only you can answer.”
“I guess Cromwell talked to you last night.”
“You guessed correctly.”
I sighed and reached for the bedside lamp, but Hayden suddenly stood in front of me. I don’t know how he moved so fast. Up close, I could see his expression, but couldn’t gain anything from it.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the other stuff?” he demanded, his voice low.
I should’ve known he’d be mad, but I hadn’t been concerned with that last night. I started to turn, but he caught my arm. “We haven’t exactly been getting along.”
Hayden lowered his head, meeting my wide-eyed stare and holding it. “That’s not a good enough reason, Ember.”
“I know, but I didn’t want to bother you with it. Anyway, it was just hamburger meat and I did overreact.”
“What about the dolls and the noose? What about the fact that you told a teacher and not me, Ember?”
Well, apparently Cromwell had told him everything. “Mr. Theo—”
“The English teacher?”
“Yeah, but he knew about the rabbit. And I didn’t mean to tell him about the rest, but he knew something was going on and—”
Hayden cut me off, eyes flaring. “You told him over me?”
His words meant something. It wasn’t me telling a teacher over him. Or even a stranger over him. You told him over me. I recognized the look in his eyes, because I felt it whenever he left lunch with Phoebe. Not anger. Not even disappointment. “You’re—are you actually jealous?”
“You are! You’re jealous because I told Mr. Theo over you.” I yanked my arm back, but he pulled me right up against him. My legs were flush with his, our chests met. I could feel him take his next deep breath, and I forgot what I was saying.
The look of jealousy slipped away, replaced by something equally frustrating. His hands slid up to my shoulders, sending tiny shivers down my body. He backed me up until my legs hit my desk. “Can I?”
“Sure.” I had no idea what I was agreeing to.
Hayden lifted me and sat me on the desk. His hands lingered on my hips, his touch burning through the thin cloth. A smoky scent, like a candle blown out, wafted through my room, but there was no source.
“What are you doing?” I asked, my breath hitching.
“I don’t know.”
“Hayden?” I whispered.
“Yes?” He shifted closer, his warm breath brushing the skin of my neck like the night in the cabin. This was our form of kissing—our soft, feathery-light kisses that never made contact.
My hand rose reflexively, wanting to touch him. I stopped myself a mere inch from his cheek. Helplessly, my fingers curled around thin air.
“It’s okay.” His hands were on the move again, sliding upward. When they circled my waist, all rational thought went out the window. His breath trailed across my throat, around my chin and stopping over my cheek. His fingers curved along my back as his soft breath hovered over my lips. “Do you know what you do to me?”
I think I shook my head, but I wasn’t sure. All I could concentrate on was how exquisite, how right, how wonderful being this close to him felt.
His breath still lingered over my lips, and one of his hands drifted upwards, stopping at the collar of my shirt.
And then he touched me.
My eyes fell shut and a tiny sigh escaped me. Hayden moved the tips of his fingers across my neck, over my chin. They jerked more than once, but he continued until his entire hand pressed against my cheek.
“Tell me to stop,” he pleaded hoarsely.
Any resolve I had shattered. I touched his face, cupped his cheek. His skin felt just like I’d imagined. No. Better than I’d ever thought. His skin was hot, smooth, and inviting. Maybe even as hot as I felt and I was tingling all over.
Hayden let out a ragged sound. Seconds went by, and just our breathing could be heard. His thumb traced a broken circle over my cheek. He couldn’t keep his hand still. Whatever poison in my skin affected him, but I couldn’t pull my hand away.
I inhaled once, twice. The scent of smoke and spice filled me.
He moved his other hand to the nape of my neck, his fingers spasming as they made contact with my skin. A startled sound escaped me. My brain couldn’t process one logical thought other than how wonderful he felt—how beautiful, how alive.
“Ember…?” His voice felt like a whisper against my lips.
He was going to kiss me. I knew it. My entire body tensed in anticipation, my pulse hummed deliciously. But on the fringes, things start to blur. Even as I felt like I would burst through my skin any second, my head started to swim. Then he pulled away so fast I nearly fell off the desk.
Panting heavily, Hayden stepped back and stared. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Did I hurt you?” I asked, surprised by how husky my own voice sounded.
He looked at me like I’d grown a hand out of my head and it’d wiggled fingers at him. “I was hurting you, Ember. I could feel it.”
“No,” I said slowly. “I was just a little dizzy. You didn’t drain anything, right?”
“I wanted to.” He looked away. “Don’t you get it? I did. I could feel it happening and I would’ve held on. I would’ve done it.”
I wished he’d pull me back into his arms. I liked it there. And I didn’t see what the big deal was. “It’s okay. Nothing happened.” I sounded a little disappointed.
“I could have seriously hurt you.” He ran a hand over his head, clasping the back of his neck.
“Do you realize how weird this is? I’m the one who could’ve seriously hurt you. You can make me dizzy and maybe, worst-case scenario, put me in a coma for a few days. I can kill you. So who has the bigger right to freak out here? I’d say me.”
“You wouldn’t hurt me. I haven’t told you this, but my gift would kick in before you did any serious damage. I don’t think I’d even be able to stop it from doing so.”
Well, that was good to know. But it didn’t bother me. It actually made me glad that he was protected in that way. I chewed on my lower lip and watched him. Regret strained his face. That kind of stung. This probably explained why I asked the next question. “Are you still mad that I told Mr. Theo and not you?”
Hayden took a step back, eyes narrowing. “I think it’s ridiculous that you’d confide in a complete stranger. I thought you trusted me.”
“I do trust you, but Mr. Theo isn’t a stranger.” I hopped down from the desk and brushed past him. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I thought you didn’t want to hear about it anymore. That you were done dealing with it.”
“What?” He spun around. “Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know. I just didn’t want to bother you.” I folded my arms. “I just thought it would make us argue more.”
Hayden shook his head. “I don’t understand you sometimes. If you could just let go of how you feel about my family for two seconds—”