I gasp. I gasp. I gasp. “What are you doing—”

“Juliette, please—” His voice is anxious and he glances behind him like he’s not sure we’re alone. “The other night—” He presses his lips together. He closes his eyes for half of a second and I marvel at the drop drop drops of hot water caught in his eyelashes like pearls forged from pain. His fingers inch up the sides of my body like he’s struggling to keep them in one place, like he’s struggling not to touch me everywhere everywhere everywhere and his eyes are drinking in the 63 inches of my frame and I’m so I’m so I’m so

caught.

“I finally get it now,” he says into my ear. “I know—I know why Warner wants you.” His fingertips are 10 points of electricity killing me with something I’ve never known before. Something I’ve always wanted to feel.

“Then why are you here?” I whisper, broken, dying in his arms. “Why . . .” 1, 2 attempts at inhalation. “Why are you touching me?”

“Because I can.” He almost cracks a smile and I almost sprout a pair of wings. “I already have.”

“What?” I blink, suddenly sobered. “What do you mean?”

“That first night in the cell,” he sighs. He looks down. “You were screaming in your sleep.”

I wait.

I wait.

I wait forever.

“I touched your face.” He speaks into the shape of my ear. “Your hand. I brushed the length of your arm. . . .” He pulls back and his eyes rest at my shoulder, trail down to my elbow, land on my wrist. I’m suspended in disbelief. “I didn’t know how to wake you up. You wouldn’t wake up. So I sat back and watched you. I waited for you to stop screaming.”

“That’s. Not. Possible.” 3 words are all I manage.

But his hands become arms around my waist his lips become a cheek pressed against my cheek and his body is flush against mine, his skin touching me touching me touching me and he’s not screaming he’s not dying he’s not running away from me and I’m crying

I’m choking

I’m shaking shuddering splintering into teardrops

and he’s holding me the way no one has ever held me before.

Like he wants me.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” he says, and his mouth is moving against my hair and his hands are traveling to my arms and I’m leaning back and he’s looking into my eyes and I must be dreaming.

“Why—why do you—I don’t—” I’m shaking my head and shaking because this can’t be happening and shaking off the tears glued to my face. This can’t be real.

His eyes gentle, his smile unhinges my joints and I wish I knew the taste of his lips. I wish I had the courage to touch him. “I have to go,” he says. “You have to be dressed and downstairs by eight o’clock.”

I’m drowning in his eyes and I don’t know what to say.

He peels off his shirt and I don’t know where to look.

I catch myself on the glass panel and press my eyes shut and blink when something flutters too close. His fingers are a moment from my face and I’m dripping burning melting in anticipation.

“You don’t have to look away,” he says. He says it with a small smile the size of Jupiter.

I peek up at his features, at the crooked grin I want to savor, at the color in his eyes I’d use to paint a million pictures. I follow the line of his jaw down his neck to the peak of his collarbone; I memorize the sculpted hills and valleys of his arms, the perfection of his torso. The bird on his chest.

The bird on his chest.

A tattoo.

A white bird with streaks of gold like a crown atop its head. It’s flying.

“Adam,” I try to tell him. “Adam,” I try to choke out. “Adam,” I try to say so many times and fail.

I try to find his eyes only to realize he’s been watching me study him. The pieces of his face are pressed into lines of emotion so deep I wonder what I must look like to him. He touches 2 fingers to my chin, tilts my face up just enough and I’m a live wire in water. “I’ll find a way to talk to you,” he says, and his hands are reeling me in and my face is pressed against his chest and the world is suddenly brighter, bigger, beautiful. The world suddenly means something to me, the possibility of humanity means something to me, the entire universe stops in place and spins in the other direction and I’m the bird.

I’m the bird and I’m flying away.

Chapter Twenty

It’s 8:00 in the morning and I’m wearing a dress the color of dead forests and old tin cans.

The fit is tighter than anything I’ve worn in my life, the cut modern and angular, almost haphazard; the material is stiff and thick but somehow breathable. I stare at my legs and wonder that I own a pair.

I feel more exposed than I ever have in my life.

For 17 years I’ve trained myself to cover every inch of exposed skin and Warner is forcing me to peel the layers away. I can only assume he’s doing it on purpose. My body is a carnivorous flower, a poisonous houseplant, a loaded gun with a million triggers and he’s more than ready to fire.

Touch me and suffer the consequences. There have never been exceptions to this rule.

Never but Adam.

He left me standing sopping wet in the shower, soaking up a torrential downpour of hot tears. I watched through the blurred glass as he dried himself off and slipped into his standard uniform.

I watched as he slipped away, wondering every moment why why why

Why can he touch me?

Why would he help me?

Does he remember me?

My skin is still steaming.

My bones are bandaged in the tight folds of this strange dress, the zipper the only thing holding me together. That, and the prospect of something I’ve always never dared to dream of.

My lips will stay stitched shut with the secrets of this morning forever but my heart is so full of confidence and wonder and peace and possibility that it’s about to burst and I wonder if it will rip the dress.

Hope is hugging me, holding me in its arms, wiping away my tears and telling me that today and tomorrow and two days from now I will be just fine and I’m so delirious I actually dare to believe it.

I am sitting in a blue room.

The walls are wallpapered in cloth the color of a perfect summer sky, the floor tucked into a carpet 2 inches thick, the entire room empty but for 2 velvet chairs punched out of a constellation. Every varying hue is like a bruise, like a beautiful mistake, like a reminder of what they did to Adam because of me.

I am sitting all alone in a velvet chair in a blue room wearing a dress made of olives. The weight of the notebook in my pocket feels like I’m balancing a bowling ball on my knee.

“You look lovely.”

Warner whisks into the room like he treads air for a living. He’s accompanied by no one.

My eyes involuntarily peek down at my tennis shoes and I wonder if I’ve broken any rules by avoiding the stilts in my closet I’m sure are not for feet. I look up and he’s standing right in front of me.

“Green is a great color on you,” he says with a stupid smile. “It really brings out the color of your eyes.”

“What color are my eyes?” I ask the wall.

He laughs. “You’re not serious.”

“How old are you?”

He stops laughing. “You care to know?”

“I’m curious.”

He takes the seat beside me. “I won’t answer your questions if you won’t look at me when I speak to you.”

“You want me to torture people against my will. You want me to be a weapon in your war. You want me to become a monster for you.” I pause. “Looking at you makes me sick.”

“You’re far more stubborn than I thought you’d be.”

“I’m wearing your dress. I ate your food. I’m here.” I lift my eyes to look at him and he’s already staring straight at me. I’m momentarily caught off guard by the power in his gaze.

“You did none of that for me,” he says quietly.

I nearly laugh out loud. “Why would I?”

His eyes are fighting his lips for the right to speak. I look away.

“What are we doing in this room?”

“Ah.” He takes a deep breath. “Breakfast. Then I give you your schedule.”

He presses a button on the arm of his chair and almost instantly, carts and trays are wheeled into the room by men and women who are clearly not soldiers. Their faces are hard and cracked and too thin to be healthy.

It breaks my heart right in half.

“I usually eat alone,” Warner continues, his voice like an icicle piercing the flesh of my memories. “But I figured you and I should be more thoroughly acquainted. Especially since we’ll be spending so much time together.”

The servants maids people-who-are-not-soldiers leave and Warner offers me something on a dish.

“I’m not hungry.”

“This is not an option.”

I look up and realize he’s very, very serious.

“You are not allowed to starve yourself to death. You don’t eat enough and I need you to be healthy. You are not allowed to commit suicide. You are not allowed to harm yourself. You are too valuable to me.”

“I am not your toy,” I nearly spit.

He drops his plate onto the rolling cart and I’m surprised it doesn’t shatter into pieces. He clears his throat and I might actually be scared. “This process would be so much easier if you would just cooperate,” he says, enunciating every word.

Five Five Five Five Five heartbeats.

“The world is disgusted by you,” he says, his lips twitching with humor. “Everyone you’ve ever known has hated you. Run from you. Abandoned you. Your own parents gave up on you and volunteered your existence to be given up to the authorities. They were so desperate to get rid of you, to make you someone else’s problem, to convince themselves the abomination they raised was not, in fact, their child.”

My face has been slapped by a hundred hands.

“And yet—” He laughs openly now. “You insist on making me the bad guy.” He meets my eyes. “I am trying to help you. I’m giving you an opportunity no one would ever offer you. I’m willing to treat you as an equal. I’m willing to give you everything you could ever want, and above all else, I can put power in your hands. I can make them suffer for what they did to you.” He leans in just enough. “I can change your world.”

He’s wrong he’s so wrong he’s more wrong than an upside-down rainbow.

But everything he said is right.

“Don’t dare to hate me so quickly,” he continues. “You might find yourself enjoying this situation a lot more than you anticipated. Lucky for you, I’m willing to be patient.” He grins. Leans back. “Though it certainly doesn’t hurt that you’re so alarmingly beautiful.”

I’m dripping red paint on the carpet.

He’s a liar and a horrible, horrible, horrible human being and I don’t know if I care because he’s right, or because it’s so wrong, or because I’m so desperate for some semblance of recognition in this world. No one has ever said anything like that to me before.



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