Undraland, page 18
I remembered that birthday. Linus hadn’t spoken to me for days. I blamed it on the chemo. It did funky things to your body and could crush even the brightest spirit. Spending your seventeenth birthday in the hospital is no one’s idea of fun. That was when he started treating me like his kid sister, instead of his equal.
I stood up from the table abruptly, but my knees were unprepared. They buckled under me, but I was yanked upright before I could plummet to the ground. Jens sat me in my chair, but my spine felt like a noodle. Echoes of my father telling me to sit up straight in my chair at dinner taunted me, but I couldn’t obey.
Uncle Rick and Jens were saying something. It must’ve been important with the way they were carrying on, but I couldn’t hear a word. Incoherent noise with no meaning reached me, burying me deeper in my fog.
Home. This place wasn’t my home. I didn’t belong. I wasn’t related to Uncle Rick by blood. I tried to piece together that Charles Mace was my brother, but my sandcastle of sense crumbled every time I tried to put structure to it.
Suddenly my feet felt wrong here. I put all my brainpower into telling my legs to move, and finally they obeyed, pitying me as they went.
“Lucy, sit down,” Uncle Rick insisted.
Jens tried to lead me back to my chair, like I was a senile old woman caught roaming the streets on her own at night.
I pulled away and reached for the door. “Air. I need air.” Bull. I was going to run. As soon as my legs cooperated, I was going to bolt. I didn’t care where or how, but I knew I needed Henry Mancini to come with me, and he was outside.
Jens held onto my triceps, searching my face for signs of life. “No, Loos. Just take a breath.”
I felt cold all over, but somehow managed to struggle out of his grip. “I need air! I can’t breathe in here!” I turned the knob and flung open the door, stumbling back and falling on my rear at the burst of unnatural sunlight that temporarily blinded me. My eyes shut tight as I moved to my hands and knees on the wood floor. I smacked the ground when Jens reached for me. “Don’t you touch me! You knew! You knew all of it! Did Linus know about you?”
“It wasn’t my decision!” I could hear the plea for clemency in his tone.
I let out a single cry of despair, and then slapped the ground again, my eyes still shut. “No! I will not cry in front of you!”
Uncle Rick and Charles were talking at me, but I could not understand the mix of voices all colliding with each other in dissonance. It was Jamie’s voice that reached me above the din.
“Miss Lucy! Close the door, or you’ll hurt your eyes.” Jamie ran in and shut the door before me, taking in the men all shouting, and me shaking with heartbreak and rage on the floor. Instead of asking for explanations, he scooped me up off the floor like a child, lending me one arm for support for me to lean on and the other as a shield around my shoulders. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves! When you are ready to apologize for upsetting this woman so, she’ll be in her chambers.”
Jamie walked with me up to the bedroom, where I climbed under the covers and shut out the world.
Sharing a Bedroom with Jens
I slept. I don’t know for how long. When I awoke, there was no bustle about the house, so I guessed it was nighttime. Dim light filtered in from the window under the shade, illuminating touches of the room. While I slept, someone had put Henry Mancini in bed with me. For that, I was grateful. His fur was warm, and his snout rested across my arm as he slept peacefully.
Linus had kept a secret from me. A big one. He broke our pact, our us-against-the-parents deal we made when we were kids that we would never keep secrets from each other. We’d pricked our fingers and swore a blood oath, making it official. We were dramatic six-year-olds, but leaving your friends as often as we did made us cling to each other all the more.
I turned over in the bed and found a head of messy black hair leaning against the bedside. Jens was sleeping upright sitting on the wood floor, which I couldn’t imagine being very comfortable.
I kissed Henry Mancini and slipped out of bed, tiptoeing toward the door. I tried to think thoughts of invisibility, but one of the floorboards gave me away. A hand shot out in the dark and wrapped around my ankle. I tripped and fell, smashing my knee into the ground. “Ow! What was that for?”
“You can’t sneak off, Lucy,” Jens scolded, releasing my leg when he was certain I wouldn’t run. “Sorry. You alright?”
I crawled away from him in the dark, kicking at him for some distance. “I’m fine. And I wouldn’t leave without Henry Mancini, so you can unclench.”
“You cracked your knee pretty good. Let me take a look.” He lifted my dress over my knee to examine it, but I yanked it back down.
“I’m wearing a dress, Jens! Hands off. Jeez!”
He lifted his arms in surrender. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Did I hurt you?”
I gesticulated wildly. “Are you serious? That’s all you ever do! Go back to sleep. I just wanted to get a glass of water.”
“I’m sorry, okay? When Linus got sick again when he was seventeen, I…”
“He wasn’t seventeen. We were seventeen! You had a secret with my best friend in the world, and you both kept it from me for years! Why was I kept in the dark by everyone I loved? Why?” I stopped my tirade and shook the crazy out of my head as best I could. “No. We’re not doing this. I’m getting water, and you’re going back to sleep.” I rubbed my sore knee, waiting for the sting to fade before I stood.
Henry Mancini hopped off the bed and scampered over to lick my purple toenails.
Jens petted Henry Mancini, earning a few licks to his palm. “So, that’s how you’re playing this one? Shut it all off and bury it where everything else got shoved?”
“I could crawl into a hole of despair, cry until I die and see if that pays the bills. I never tried that one before.”
“Can’t you have a normal conversation without sarcasm?”
“I don’t know. Can you talk out of your mouth instead of your butt?”
“I guess you can’t. You’re such a child.”
I laughed bitterly. “A child. You’re funny. No, Jens. I’m old. I’m too old to have patience for people who can’t handle their own feelings. I didn’t imagine what almost happened here yesterday.”
“Nothing happened!” he argued, clearly agitated.
“That’s why I said ‘almost’.” I shook my head at him, donning a superior tone now that I’d regained the upper hand. “Wow. That hit a nerve. Do you want to talk about it? Or are you going to use sarcasm to cover over that place inside where you keep all the bad things buried?”
“Now who’s talking out of her butt?” he jabbed lamely.
“Now who’s the child?” I pointed out, gladly earning the glare he shot at me. I reached down to pet Henry Mancini, but my hand landed on his instead. “Don’t touch my dog,” I said as I cast his grubby mitt aside.
“He’s not a dog. Henry Mancini’s a wolf.” Jens turned his wrist and caught onto my hand, holding it in the dark. I could hear his breathing grow heavy as we glared at each other.
Then slowly, without warning, the mood shifted. The anger fused with intensity, and hanging between us was something raw and unbalanced. His grip on my hand tightened as he moved into my body space, leaning me back onto the floor. The motion was so smooth and swift, I didn’t have time to resist it. I lay beneath his hovering body and felt neurons firing from head to toe, transferring energy and multiplying it without my permission. My arm was pinned to the ground next to my head, but instead of feeling helpless, I was emboldened.
Jens sniffed my hair, and then pulled up, studying my face for some sort of answer to all of his unspoken questions.
I let go of the ripcord and bunched my hand in his shirt. “Stop pissing me off,” I growled, and then yanked him down.
Jens gave in to my gravitational pull. I gave in to the need I had been trying to live without. The instant h
I wrapped my legs around his waist and rocked us until I was on top, and he was my prisoner. I shoved his hands to the floor beside his head and reveled in the surprise mixed with unbridled lust on his face as he jerked his chin up to beg for more of my mouth. His need was captivating and oddly heady, so I indulged him.
I indulged myself.
Neither of us liked the submissive role on the floor. Jens pulled a fast one and rolled me so I was beneath him again, but instead of attacking like the animals we were in the moment, he slowed. His kisses were filled with just as much passion, but he took the time to relish every brush of our lips. Each movement was a plea for understanding, for acceptance, for something he needed only from me.
I gave it to him. Whatever it was. Whatever he needed. I gave it all up for the taking. He kissed me in lengthy strides, and for once, our mouths worked for our benefit. He kissed the snark straight out of me. He took away the anger I could not put words to. He put value to the parts of me I secretly tore down and treasured the bits of me I was unsure about.
He kissed me slowly until I was trembling beneath him, a jumble of emotions and stimulated nerves. “Better,” he whispered into my cheek as he allowed me a moment of reprieve from the intensity. “Better than I ever imagined it.”
“I give it a seven,” I responded once my voice came back to me. We both sounded like we’d run a marathon.
Jens snorted into my neck, collapsing on top of me. “Sorry. You can’t make jokes when I’m like this. Seven out of how many?”
“Oh, man. That’s a five-syllable word. I haven’t scrambled your brains enough.” He kissed me again, a savoring one to remind us both that what just happened had indeed occurred. He made a noise under his breath, a sort of “mm”, like I was a delicious dessert he could not get enough of. I was very aware that I was wearing only a thin dress.
“That was better than I imagined it, too, for the record.”
He rolled off me and propped himself up on his elbow, his other hand tracing the contours of my face. “You fantasized about kissing me?” Henry Mancini whined for attention, so Jens gave him a clumsy pat.
“No. Well, yes, but I meant for my first kiss. Spent a lot of time picturing it. I’m glad it was with you. That was incredible.”
Jens covered his face with his free hand. “I forgot that was your first kiss. I’m sorry, Loos. There were no flowers. No romance. I pretty much just attacked.”
I smirked, giving him one light brush with my lips. “That’s the thing about chemistry. Explosive if you do it right.”
I woke up the next morning in the bed and peeked over at Jens, who was asleep on the floor between me and the door. Watching him breathe in and out was comforting; it assured me that it really had happened, and that he wasn’t flaking out on me this time. He was so sweet in sleep, his lips parted and arm splayed across his toned belly. I didn’t mean to rouse him just by staring, but he rolled to face me.
“Morning,” he said, his voice gravelly. He stood and stretched before sitting on the edge of the bed, cracking his neck twice. “You sleep well?”
I sat up and kissed him in lieu of an answer.
He moaned into my mouth, and I thrilled at the sound. He tipped me back onto the sheets, starting the day with a solid make-out, which, really is how every day should start.
He grabbed onto my leg and hitched my knee over his hip, eyes still closed. His large hand palmed my calf muscle and squeezed as he emitted that “mm” noise again. “I like you in a dress.”
I kissed his swollen lips. “I like you in a dress.”
He snorted and rolled onto his back, the perfect picture of restful slumber. He breathed so peacefully that I was content just to watch him.
Then he pounced. I squeaked as we wrestled, fighting to be on top as we rolled around on the bed, laughing and kissing each other in our cozy little bliss. The fighting was the best part about the kissing, and we did both well.
The knock on the door a few minutes later was a bummer, and I was gratified to catch the murderous look Jens threw at the door for interrupting our time. “One second.” He untangled himself from me and sat on the edge of the bed, taking a few deep breaths to slow his racing heart. “It’s not kosher for a Tomten and his charge to be sharing a bed, so try not to look so… like you’ve been rolling around in the sheets with me.”
I hopped out of bed, straightened my hair and opened the door. “Good morning, Jamie,” I beamed.
Jamie’s expression of concern mutated into confusion at my giddiness. He looked to Jens, who stood from the bed a little too quickly, straightening his shirt. “Oh! Um, good morning, Miss Lucy. So sorry to interrupt.” His eyes lit up with joy and teasing when he addressed his friend. “Jens, did you sleep well, brother? Alrik would like to see you both downstairs for breakfast in the observatory.” He leaned down to pet Henry Mancini, and I saw Jamie’s small red pointed hat fastened to his wavy brown hair.
“I slept fine. We’ll be down in a minute.” Jens tried to avoid his best friend’s knowing look. “Don’t start, Jamie.”
“Shall I send word to Jeneve that she’s off the hook for good now?”
Jens shook his head in warning at Jamie, his eyes wide.
“Who’s Jeneve?” I asked, running the pearl-handled brush through my curls.
Jens answered with “no one” just as Jamie answered “my sister”. Jens sat on the edge of the bed and shoved his feet into his boots and began lacing them up. “Drop it, Jamie. She doesn’t understand our culture. It’ll seem weird to her.”
I bent down and kissed the top of Jens’s head, earning a giddy grin from Jamie. “You always seem weird to me. I highly doubt Jeneve will be the tipping point.”
Jamie waved off Jens’s discomfort. “Surely you know about how Jens saved our village from the tribe of murderous trolls?”
“I do.” I clasped my hands under my chin and faked a swoon. “My hero!”
“Oh, shut it. Adoration from you is just unsettling.” Jens stood and stretched, avoiding my eyes.
“Aren’t you going to wear a little garden gnome hat, like Jamie’s?” I inquired, still fuzzy on the details of their culture.
Jens scratched his rippled abdomen, drawing my eyes like a beacon. “Nah. That’s for proper folk. Trust me, no one expects me to be proper. They expect me to slay the trolls and beat up the bad guys.”
Jamie opened the door and continued his story as we walked down the hall. “Back then, the reward for anyone who vanquished the trolls was a small fortune and the king’s daughter in marriage.”
Well, that was worth stumbling over my own two feet. Jens righted me as Henry Mancini batted the hem of my dress. “Don’t get worked up. I’m not married.”
“Oh. Okay. Confused me there for a second. You can see how gravity would be my nemesis after that.”
“I took the cash reward, but turned down the offer for his daughter. Serious slap in the face to the king. That, coupled with the fact that everyone got a little carried away in their gratitude is why King Johannes has it in for me. Plus, Jamie’s my best friend.”
“I’m the black sheep of the family,” Jamie admitted with a small amount of pride. “Royalty is supposed to sit around all day and reap the benefits of the labor of the people. I do not believe in that. I don’t live in the palace anymore. I have my own home, which you’ve been in. I raise my own crops and have a marvelous time doing it.”
“But you’re betrothed to that other Nisse woman,” I observed. “So you must still be seen as a ruler of value, right?”
Jamie’s smile died. “Yes. And when the time comes, I shall fulfill my duty. Father thinks it’ll smooth over relations between our regions. Plus, he does not wish me to marry below my station. Sets a bad
Jens rubbed a stiff muscle on his left bicep. “If I would’ve just sucked it up and married Jeneve, my family’s position would have been higher, and Britta might’ve been an option.”
“Jens!” Jamie protested, shocked that Jens would speak about their hidden love in front of me.
“Oh, is it a secret?” I asked, my fingers tracing the gold-painted hallway walls as we walked. “I mean, it’s written all over your faces.”
The prince shook his head at his friend. “You know it wouldn’t have mattered, even if you did marry Jeneve. Father will have what he wants, so he’s traded me like a sack of flour. It’s my birthright. Besides, if you had taken Jeneve for your wife, the fortune you won would be long gone by now. Father doesn’t realize how much it takes to satisfy her, because our money comes from the people. I would never have let you marry her, so there’s no use dwelling on it.”
Jens offered a weak smile to his friend, clapping his hand down on his shoulder from behind. “Sure, but then we could’ve been brothers.”
Jamie turned and gripped the nape of Jens’s neck, and then pulled him in for a loud kiss on both cheeks. Very Italian, and totally adorable. “Jens, we are brothers.”
“You two are precious,” I commented as we reached the observatory.
“Go on in, Jamie,” Jens instructed, pulling me aside before we entered. Henry Mancini jumped up for attention, which Jens gave him in the form of a scratch behind the ear. “Things are different here than where you come from. We can’t hold hands or kiss in public or be… you know. That kind of public stuff just isn’t done here. If it is, people will assume we’re getting married or something. The king’s already tried to have me killed three times for turning down his daughter. If word gets to him that I’m… you know, what happened last night? You’ll be on his short list, and it’ll be bad for you. And for me, since I protect you. That’s why I was a jerk to you yesterday.”
I shot him a simpering look. “You know, you could’ve just explained that yesterday. Didn’t have to go all stereotypical cool guy on me.”