I nodded, immediately looking away when Cromwell turned around. “So, what are you two getting yourselves into now that you’ve proven you both can cook?”
Hayden shrugged. “I think I’m going to take a nap.”
“Up late last night?” he asked innocently.
My eyes widened as I stared at the floor, but Hayden sounded unfazed. “Yeah, I stayed up late watching TV.”
“What are you doing, Ember?”
“Huh?” My head jerked up. “Oh. Now—I think I’m gonna go sketch.”
“Well, we have dinner at three. I expect both of you to be here.” His gaze fell on Hayden. Cromwell smiled, but it never quite reached his eyes. “Before you run off, Hayden, I’d like to talk to you for a moment.”
I headed for the door, worry gnawing at my stomach. As I went to my bedroom, I could hear Liz and Olivia’s giggles mingling in with the male voices. I pulled on a hoodie and a pair of gloves before grabbing my sketchpad and a pencil.
Taking the route farthest from the kitchen, I slipped out the front door. I felt a little bit guilty about not spending time with Olivia. It used to be just us, and for two years, there wasn’t the smell of turkey or so much laughter.
I convinced myself she was okay while I waited in the chilly air for Hayden to appear. He showed up five minutes later, a wide smile across his face. Bright sunlight broke through the trees, casting a halo around his head.
“Aren’t you cold?” He hadn’t even put on a sweater.
“Nah.” Hayden held out his hand.
I stuck the sketchpad under my arm and took his hand. “Where’re we going? The cabin?”
“I thought we could take a walk.”
“Okay.” I let him lead me into the woods. A chorus of dead leaves crunched under our feet. “What did Cromwell want?”
“He wanted to know what we were up to.” He held a branch back.
“What? Does he know about…” I couldn’t say “last night.”
“No.” He sent a reassuring smile over his shoulder. “He just wondered what was up, I guess. I told him we were making stuffing.”
“He still doesn’t want you around me, does he? He’s worried you’ll get hurt.”
Hayden looked away. “I don’t think he really thinks about it anymore.”
I raised my brows.
“Seriously, I think he knows I like you and nothing is going to change that. He’s coming around. So it’s nothing to worry about.”
“Are you sure?” I didn’t believe him, not in a million years.
“Yes.” He squeezed my hand. “Let’s not worry about him right now, because later—after dinner—I’m seriously going to take a nap.”
“It’s something in turkey,” I told him.
We’d stopped walking, and I wasn’t sure how far we’d gone. The sun barely broke through the canopy of branches out here, if that was any indication. Hayden circled his arms around my waist and pulled me forward. I came all too willingly.
“So why did you want to come out here?” I asked.
Instead of telling me why, he showed me—with his lips, his hands. And eventually we were on a pile of fallen leaves, testing just how far we could go. Breathless and a bit dazed, I rested atop his chest, running my fingers down the side of his face.
“Take off the gloves,” he demanded.
“No. It’s too much.” That was something we had learned last night. If a lot of skin touched, then, well, my. gift went into overdrive.
He tipped his head back and sighed. “Later, then.”
I smiled and dropped a kiss on the middle of his throat. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” He snuck a hand under my sweater and splayed it across my shirt. “Anything.”
“What made you decide last night to be okay with…?”
“I like it when you blush. Brings out your eyes.”
I rolled my eyes. “Shut up.”
He chuckled as he tucked a strand of my hair back with his free hand. “I realized I wouldn’t lose control. Not with you. I…” He stopped, smiled slyly. “I just wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
I could tell there was more to it. “And you believed I wouldn’t hurt you?”
“I never believed you’d lose control, Em.” He reached up and threaded his fingers through my hair. “You’re good inside, better than any of us.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. I looked away, not wanting him to see how hearing him say that affected me.
“Hey. You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, chewing on my lip. “It’s just that… that was really nice.”
His hand drifted out of my hair and fell to my hand. “Will you answer a question for me?” When I nodded, he continued. “What do you draw? Can I look?”
I rolled off him and grabbed for my sketchpad, but Hayden was just so much faster. “Hayden—don’t—you—dare!” He had the creased pad in his graceful hands—hands I had sketched. Oh, God. “Don’t open it!”
He glanced up with a grin. “What’s in it, Em?”
“Just stuff—look, no one has ever seen my sketches.”
“No one? Then I’d be honored if you’d let me see.”
Groaning, I ran a hand through my hair. “I suck. They’re really bad. You don’t want to see it.”
“Your cheeks are blood-red again,” he pointed out, settling back down on his arm.
“Yeah, well, then you shouldn’t look at it.”
“If it really bothers you, I won’t look at them.” He offered me the pad.
I stared at it. One last secret—maybe, and what? Our eyes met as I took it back from him. My drawings were private stuff, like a reflection of my innermost thoughts. Allowing someone to see them was like standing naked in front of a crowd, opening up in a way I’ve never considered. Then I remembered how he’d looked when he’d seen my scars for the first time. He hadn’t stared at them. He looked at my face, and not because he couldn’t bear to look at them, but because he hadn’t cared. They hadn’t mattered to him.
Making up my mind, I thumbed open the sketchpad after a few tries. The gloves made it difficult. “These… these were before the accident. Flowers, landscapes, and this was Sushi.”
Hayden sidled over to my side at some point. He peered at the mashed-up nose and squinted stare. “Wow. That was an ugly cat.”
I laughed softly, flipped to another page. “Dad.”
He stopped my hand before I could turn the page. “He looks like a kind man.”
I traced my fingers over the picture. I had drawn it from memory and it’d taken several tries to get the line of his jaw correct, and the slight bump in his nose. “He was.”
“Em, I’m really sorry about your dad.”
Swallowing, I nodded and turned another page. “This, of course, is Olivia and Mom. These are—”
“Seneca Rocks, Em, you’re really good. I mean it.”
“I don’t know. The edges could be softer, not so bleak and hard.”
He reached across me and turned the pages. He’d make a comment, brush his fingers over the drawing, and then flip to another page. When he came across the sketch I’d done of his hands, I don’t think he realized who they belonged to, but there was no stopping him.
I closed my eyes as he turned to the first sketch of him. He didn’t say anything. I don’t even think he breathed. All I could hear was the sound of him slowly going from page to page.
“When did you draw these?” he asked, his voice rough.
“The first one a couple of days after getting here, and the rest were over time.” I rubbed my hand under my chin and finally looked at him. He had this awestruck look on his face. His eyes were wide and bright, lips parted just enough to show a bit of teeth. “What?”
“I didn’t expect that.”
“It’s kind of creepy, huh?” I closed the pad and tossed it aside. “I don’t mean for it to be. You just have this face that’s all lines and curves. I… I had to draw it. I hope—” His mouth cut me off, stopping whatever lame excuse I was about to give. He leaned into me, deepening the kiss until I swam in the ecstasy of his mouth.
Hayden broke away reluctantly, easing down on his back. He stared up through the branches, his expression oddly pensive.
“Are you okay? Did… did I hurt you?”
“No,” he said quickly, finding my hand and squeezing it. “Do you want to know why I trust my father so much? Why I know he could never do anything to hurt you?”
Not the conversation I really wanted to have right now, but I nodded. “Okay.”
A brief smile pulled at his lips. “When I say he saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. Not just once, but twice. The first time was when he found me in foster care. If he hadn’t found me, I don’t think I would’ve survived.”
I sat back, still holding his hand. I didn’t dare speak, giving him the opportunity to continue.
“Things were bad. There were days when I didn’t get to eat. And if I was caught sneaking food? The beatings were… intense. And at first, things were better—so much better—at the Facility. Then they started this thing called the Assimilation Program, and I was a candidate for it. At first, Cromwell didn’t know all that the program entailed. It was headed up by Doctor Ishtar.” He paused, eyes squinting. “They used every possible method you can think of, Ember. Exposure therapy at its finest.”
He nodded. “Because kids like me were having trouble controlling our gifts when we were, well, just about any time, the doctors would create high-stress scenarios that would provoke our gifts over and over until we became desensitized to the triggers. Some of the things they did would blow your mind.”
I wanted to ask what. Maybe it was just morbid fascination, but somehow common sense prevailed. “How long were you in the program?”
“Long enough,” he answered, sliding his hand out of mine. “When my father saw what it was doing to me—literally driving me crazy—he pulled me out and we came here. Since then, the Facility and Dr. Ishtar swear they’ve changed the program. I know he said he’d send you there, but, Ember, he never would. Even though the Assimilation Program works, it’s horrible. The things I had to do… “ He trailed off for several long moments. “Anyway, he would never do that.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Hayden tipped his head toward me and smiled. “Because he knows if that happened to you, it would hurt me.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through all of that, Hayden. It doesn’t seem right.”
“Well, it’s over now.” His smile slipped away and he reached for me. “How much time do we have until dinner?”
“About two and half hours.”
“Hmm.” Then he tugged on my sweater, pulling me down so his mouth could reach mine. “Not enough time at all.”