I cleared my throat and suggested the bed, matching her unintentional come-on with one of my own. Shoving my hoodie and cap off her comforter as she sat, I reminded my resurrected hormones that there were a million reasons Jacqueline Wallace was not for me, starting with the fact that I was basically lying to her about who I really was, and ending with the knowledge that girls like her didn’t fall for guys who looked like me.
But she didn’t have to fall, did she, for me to be the boy she slummed with? Her bad-boy phase. Her rebound. God help me, I was all too willing.
She stared at me with wide, apprehensive eyes, and I wanted to calm her, to gentle her with my hands. Instead, I found myself telling her we didn’t have to do this if she didn’t want to. I waited for her to release that pent-up breath she was holding and tell me this was a mistake. Part of me hoped for those words, because then I could backpedal before I made the monumental mistake of compromising my integrity in too many ways to count.
But I wouldn’t leave unless she told me to. Not while my head was full of nothing but wanting to move closer to her.
‘I want to,’ she said softly, her body still rigid, like one of my wooden sketch models – bendable at the joints but otherwise inflexible. Her declaration didn’t correspond with her posture, but I didn’t know which was valid – her body or her words.
‘What position would be the most comfortable for you?’ I asked, and she blushed again, harder than she had a moment before.
I bit my lip and turned away, parking my ass on the floor several feet from her, my back against the only blank section of wall in her room. Opening the pad against my knees, I took a slow breath through my nose and cursed myself for sending that text. Even though my request to sketch her was no ploy, this private proximity was nothing short of hell. In one crashing moment, I realized that I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anyone before. This desire had been building for weeks, and I’d left it unchecked, because she had a boyfriend, because she was a student in a class I tutored, because she was impossible, unattainable, a fantasy and nothing more.
Then there was that night – a night that must terrify her, still – but I’d kept it from being so much worse. My hand gripped the pencil. I couldn’t credit myself for saving her and then take her as the prize, not under false pretences, not when she could never be mine.
But then, she had false pretences as well, didn’t she? I could give her what she wanted.
I told her to lie on her stomach and face me, and she obeyed.
I nodded, and my head swam. Goddamn – what had I done to myself? I had to touch her.
Unmoving, she watched as I tossed the pad and pencil to the side, coming up on my knees and closing the distance between us. She closed her eyes when I pulled my fingers through her hair, arranging it to reveal the curve of her jaw. A tiny, solitary freckle became visible just under her chin, and I forced my hand away to keep from stroking a finger over it. She opened her eyes, and I wondered if she could see the battle raging inside my skull and beneath the surface of my skin.
We were both silent while I sketched her. I knew she was watching me, though she couldn’t see what I was drawing. I felt her gaze but didn’t return it. Minutes later, her eyes drifted closed and she went very still. I finished the sketch and wasn’t sure what to do. On my knees again, I approached the bed, sat back on my heels, and watched her for several minutes. Her breathing was deep and even. I put the pad and pencil aside and struggled not to touch her.
‘Falling asleep?’ I whispered finally, and her eyes opened.
‘No,’ she said, though I knew she was mistaken.
I didn’t correct her. She asked if I was done and I heard myself tell her that I wanted to do another. When she agreed, I asked her to turn on to her back. She obeyed. I told her I wanted to arrange her, and she consented. My heart drove life through my veins as if I was waking up from a years-long coma. Everything was bright and detailed. Raw and sensitive. I wanted her so badly it hurt.
At first, I thought to arrange her as though she’d tumbled from the sky and landed on her back – an angel dragged to earth by her broken heart. But as I took her wrist and angled her arm over her head, I pictured her in my bed. Heart pounding, I moved her opposite arm – first to her stomach, and then above her head, with the other. I crossed her wrists and imagined her laughing and daring me to tie her up, clear as a memory. Goddammit.
I had to stop touching her or I was going to lose my mind, so I sketched her as she was, concentrating on lines and angles, shadows and reflections. My pulse subsided to a steady rhythm. My breathing returned to normal.
My gaze moved to her face. To her eyes. Which were wide open, watching me.
Her small hands, still obediently crossed at the wrists above her head, clenched into fists and then relaxed. The pulse at her throat thrummed. Her chest rose and fell faster. I was lost in the endless blue of her eyes. She seemed almost afraid, which made me angry – though not at her.
‘The night we met –’ I’m not him. I’m not him. ‘I’m not like that guy.’
‘I know tha–’
I put my finger to her soft, full mouth, stilling her words. ‘I don’t want you to feel pressured. Or overpowered.’ Even in the midst of my duplicity, I meant the words, needing her to trust me. I also wanted to kiss her more than I wanted the next breath.
‘I do, absolutely, want to kiss you right now. Badly.’
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