I looked into Kimber’s stony face, saw how she sat with her arms crossed over her chest in what I knew was a defensive posture, and realized I was doing it again. Hiding things from her, then justifying myself with reasoning that couldn’t withstand close examination.
Was I really trying to put on a “brave” face and pretend that losing Kimber’s friendship wouldn’t hurt me? Was that the message I wanted to send her? Was that what she deserved?
I let the tears fall, and once they started, I couldn’t get them to stop. Too much had happened, and I’d been putting on the brave face for too long. I’d hurt my best friend. I’d killed a man. And I’d abandoned Elizabeth when I could have helped her. Each decision had felt like the right one at the time, but I was far from sure now. These weren’t the kinds of decisions I should be having to make, not at my age! My decisions shouldn’t determine who lived and who died, who was protected and who was thrown to the wolves. My most earth-shattering decision right now should be which colleges to apply to in the fall, not whether letting my best friend in on a secret might get me or her killed.
Kimber sighed and gave me a hug. That made me cry even harder. This was exactly why I hadn’t wanted to let myself cry in the first place. I didn’t want to manipulate Kimber into forgiving me.
“I-I’m sorry,” I choked out through my tight throat, meaning I was sorry I was sniveling all over her, but I couldn’t get a deep enough breath to say the whole thing.
“I know,” she said softly, still hugging me. “I’m sorry, too. I can’t even imagine going through everything you’ve been through.” She was a far better friend than I deserved.
Eventually, the tears began to dry up and Kimber let go of me. She didn’t leave, though, instead sitting quietly on the bed beside me, waiting for the hiccuping to finish. I felt even more tired now than I had when I’d first woken up, the crying jag stealing the last of my energy. I think I even did one of those magic-hangover space-outs somewhere along the way, because my face went from being damp with tears to bone-dry in the blink of an eye.
“You still need a lot of rest,” Kimber said, her voice startling me out of yet another daze.
I blinked and shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said automatically, despite how heavy my eyelids felt. I didn’t want to just blubber all over Kimber’s shoulder and then take a nap.
“Go to sleep,” Kimber ordered. “I’ll still be here when you wake up.”
“Really?” I asked, managing to sound hopeful and skeptical all at once.
She snorted. “You don’t think I’m letting you off that easy, do you? You’ve got lots more gut-spilling to do, and you can’t do it in the state you’re in. So sleep, already.”
My eyes slid shut despite my best efforts to keep them open.
* * *
Kimber was wrong. She wasn’t still there when I woke up.
I awakened to the unfamiliar feel of an arm wrapped around my waist and a warm body snuggled up against my back. I went from sound asleep to wide awake in the space between heartbeats, my breath catching in my lungs.
I knew without having to look that it was Ethan. Maybe it was just a natural guess—who else would be cuddled up on the bed with me?—or maybe there was something about the feel or the scent of him that gave him away. Whatever it was, I was lying in bed with him, his whole body pressed up against mine, and the sensation was both exhilarating and terrifying.
I held absolutely still, not wanting the moment to end. As long as we lay still and quiet, there were no complications, and I could just enjoy the warmth and comfort of his body. If he knew I was awake, he might go and ruin things by giving me his version of the lecture on why I shouldn’t have come back.
I wondered why he was in my room and Kimber was gone. I imagined my dad was insisting I be under twenty-four-hour guard, but I wouldn’t have thought Ethan would get a shift. There was no way my dad would trust Ethan that far. He was the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.
Ethan shifted behind me, pressing closer, nuzzling my neck. “I know you’re awake,” he murmured against my skin, and the feel of his lips made me break out in goose bumps.
So much for lying still and quiet.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, then wanted to bop myself for it. It was pretty obvious what he was doing as he brushed light kisses all the way up the side of my neck. I wanted to rephrase the question in a way that made sense, but my thoughts were too scrambled.
The hand at my waist slipped under the edge of my nightshirt, touching the sensitive skin of my lower belly. Cue more goose bumps. And I had to remind myself to breathe.
“You freed me,” Ethan whispered right in my ear as he worked his hand farther up under the night shirt.
Right, I remembered in a flash. I’d made a new deal with the Erlking, and so Ethan and I were free to …
But surely he didn’t mean to take advantage of that freedom now. I was still recuperating. And I wasn’t ready to go from doing nothing but some heavy kissing to going all the way.
Ethan’s hand stilled on my stomach. “Don’t tell me you think I’m such an asshole that I’m planning to jump you here in your sickbed.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Guess my trust issues were showing again. Then again, Ethan was a teenaged boy, and I knew he’d earned his reputation as a player fair and square.
I squirmed around so I could face him. He was as gorgeous as he’d been the first time I’d met him, the blue stag gone from his face, along with any sign of the hideous burn. His eyes weren’t the same, were older and wiser and more serious, but at least he was free. I reached up and touched his face where the mark had been, marveling at the softness of his skin.