“Five grand, but for that look on your face, I’d have paid ten. Shall we?”
I followed the line of Noah’s gesture down the length of the beach. There was a blanket anchored farther down the expanse of white sand, surrounded by torches. A piece of bright fabric was swathed between two trees.
He walked toward the ocean and stood at the edge where the waves licked the sand. I followed him almost all the way, careful to avoid the water. The sunlight was all gone and gray clouds chased one another across an inky, perforated sky.
“This is what I should’ve given you for your birthday,” he said, his voice velvet, but shot through with something I couldn’t name. Then he turned to me and his eyes dropped to my throat. He took a step closer, nearly aligning my body with his. His elegant fingers moved to my neck. They wandered over the jewel. “And this.”
They traced my skin, dipping below the necklace, then up. “And this,” he said, as they came to rest below my jaw, tipping my face up to his. His thumb followed the curve of my mouth, and his beautiful, perfect face angled down toward mine.
“And this,” he said, his lips just inches from mine.
He was going to kiss me.
He was going to trust me.
Somewhere between the boat and the dress and the beach and the sky I had forgotten what I’d done. But now it roared back loudly in my ears; if I didn’t tell him now, I never could. Lies make us look like someone else, but with Noah, I had to be myself.
The words burned in my throat. “I—”
Noah drew back slightly at the sound of my voice. His eyes translated my expression. “Don’t,” he said, and pressed one finger to my lips. “Whatever it is. Don’t say it.”
But I did. “I read it.” The words took my breath with them. Noah’s hand left my skin.
They lie, you know. It’s not easier to ask forgiveness. Not even a little.
I’M SORRY,” I STARTED TO SAY. “ I DIDN’T—”
“Yes, you did,” Noah said, his voice cold. He looked at the ocean. Not at me.
“I just thought—”
“Must we? Must we do this?”
“Do what?” I asked softly.
“This.” The word was a splash of acid. “This—whatever.” His voice had slid back into flatness. “You told me to write what I see. I did. Then you read it without asking. Fine.” He dropped a viciously indifferent shrug. “I suppose part of me wouldn’t have left it there if I hadn’t wanted you to. So, done. It’s over.” He stared ahead into the darkness. “It doesn’t matter.”
He turned to me with predatory grace. “All right, Mara.” His voice lacerated my name. “You want to hear how I first learned about my ability? About being told that we were moving into yet another miserable home two days before we left by my father’s secretary, because he couldn’t be bothered to tell me himself? About feeling so numb to it and everything that I was sure I couldn’t actually exist? That I must be made of nothing to feel so much nothing, that the pain the blade drew from my skin was the only thing that made me feel real?”
His voice grew savagely blank. “You want to hear that I liked it? Wanted more? Or do you want to hear that when I woke up the next day to find no trace of any cut, no hint of a forming scar, all I could feel was crushing disappointment?”
There was nothing but the sound of deceptively tranquil waves and my breath in the stillness before he shattered it again.
“It became a kind of game, then, to see if there was any damage I could actually do. I’ve chased every high and low you can imagine,” he said, underscoring the word every with a narrow look to make sure I understood what he meant. “Completely without consequence. I wanted to lose myself and I couldn’t. I’m chasing an oblivion I will never find.” And then he smiled; a dark, broken, empty thing. “Have you heard enough?”
He was terrifyingly cold, but I wasn’t afraid. Not of him. I took a step toward him. My voice was quiet, but strong. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t matter?” he asked tonelessly.
“What you did before.”
“I haven’t changed, Mara.”
I stared at him, at his expression. I still want to lose myself, it said. And I began to understand. Noah craved danger because he was never in it; he was careless because he didn’t believe he could actually break. But he wanted to. He wasn’t afraid of me—not just because he believed I couldn’t hurt him, but because even if I did, he’d welcome the pain.
Noah was still chasing oblivion. And in me, he found it.
“You want me to hurt you.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
He took a step toward me. “You can’t.”
“I could kill you.” The words were edged in steel.
Another step. His eyes challenged mine. “Try.”
As he stood there in his exquisite clothes, his flawless features staring me down, he still looked like an arrogant prince. But only now could I see that his crown was broken.
The air around us was charged as we stood opposite each other. Healer and destroyer, noon and midnight. We were silently deadlocked. Neither of us moved.
I realized then that Noah would never move. He would never back down because he didn’t want to win.
And I wouldn’t lose him. So all I could do was refuse to play.
“I won’t be what you want,” I said then, my voice low.
“And what do you think that is?”
“Your weapon of self-destruction.”
He went still. “You think I want to use you?”
Didn’t he? “Don’t you?”
Noah inhaled slowly. “No, Mara.” My name was soft now, in his mouth. “No. I never wanted that.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I want—” He stopped. Tore his fingers through his hair. “Never mind what I want.” His voice was quieter, now. “What do you want?”
“You.” Always you.
“You have me,” he said, his eyes meeting mine. “You inhabit me.” His face was stone but the words issued from his lips in a plea. “You want to know what I want? I want you to be the one wanting me first. Pushing me first. Kissing me first. Don’t be careful with me,” he said. “Because I won’t be careful with you.”
My heart began to race.