“I don’t know.”

   The look in his eyes was still complicated, but he didn’t resist when I pulled him to me by the shirt and kissed him again. It wasn’t long until the bad memories started knocking against the place where his lips touched mine. I pulled away. The corners of the room were all shadows, too heavy for the single lamp to extinguish.

   Stellan’s hands rested on my waist. “Kuklachka—” He caught himself. “Avery.”

   “It’s okay. I know you don’t mean anything offensive by it. I kind of miss it.”

   His eyes sparked. “Kuklachka,” he breathed again, lower and rougher.

   “I’m sorry. It’s stupid. I know us kissing didn’t actually cause anything. It’s just—”

   “It triggers something in you. I know. It’s not stupid. It’s . . . inconvenient.” He ran his palms down my arms. “Can I propose a theory? I wonder if you think you shouldn’t be doing this and that is what’s causing this reaction.”

   “What do you mean?”

   His thumbs stroked my palms. “I mean, it’s okay to feel the things you were talking about earlier. Grief doesn’t just mean sad. The anger at your mother, the guilt—it’s not wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re betraying her. It’s okay that you were thinking about things other than her when it happened, and it’s okay that you are now. It’s normal. It’s even okay to feel . . .” His eyes fell to my lips. “To feel good.”

   I found myself shaking my head. I hadn’t felt anything near happiness or peace since my mom died, and for good reason. I couldn’t just go on like normal, pretending everything was okay when nothing would ever be okay again. Who pictured their mother dying while kissing a boy and wanted to keep kissing him anyway? There was obviously something terribly wrong with me.

   “Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s just an association. In which case—” He looked around. The side table between the sofa and the bed was within reach, and he poured tea into the little silver cup. He took a sip. And then he pulled my mouth to his.

   Mint. The taste of it was stronger on his tongue than the scent of it was. Surprisingly sweet. As thick as dessert. I deepened the kiss.

   “Think about mint tea instead,” he murmured when we paused. I could feel all ten of his fingertips through my leggings.


   “Make a new association. When you think of kissing me, think of mint tea instead of . . . other things.”

   “You’re planning to do this often enough we need a new association?” I whispered.

   He traced the curve of my hips. “If we’re ever in public again, we might have to kiss occasionally. It might as well not be painful for you.”

   I rolled my eyes, but pushed away anyway, self-consciously. “We’re destruction, remember? I don’t think mint tea will change that.”

   “Our blood may be.” He took another sip of the tea, set it down. “This is not.” He kissed the corner of my mouth lightly. “This is not.” A kiss on my jaw, on the opposite side. “When you think of this—” He pulled at my bottom lip with his teeth, and I let out a shaky breath. “You will no longer think about ruin and grief. Now it will be here. This room. Mint tea. Incense.”

   I breathed in the sweet, spicy scent; every one of my senses shivered at the heat of the tea and the cool of the mint on his lips. When the screams echoed in my head again, I tried to ignore them. “So this is how you get over something?” I whispered.

   “No,” he said, suddenly serious. “And at some point we’ll get you better help than I can be. But while you’re in survival mode, you do what you can.”

   A door slammed in the lobby—real this time, not in my head—and we both startled. I knew I wasn’t the only one who needed more help than a few kisses could be.

   “I’m scared of it happening again, too,” I whispered, watching the door, watching him. The tension in his jaw when he’d first showed up here tonight had come back. “I was so afraid Elodie—and it would be my fault. I’m scared all the time.”

   He blinked a few times. I could tell I’d hit a nerve. “I know.”

   “I hate this.”

   He drew my face back around to him. “I know. Let yourself not think about it right now.”

   “I don’t think it works that way.”

   “Maybe it could, just for now, if you let it.” He reached to the table again. Instead of sipping the tea this time, he dipped his little finger into the plate of pastries, tasted it. “Honey,” he said, pleased.

   “Why?” I asked.

   “Why what?”

   “Why help me?” I said awkwardly. He had plenty of his own demons, as I could see. I didn’t know why he’d want to come near mine. “There’s no border crossing to ruin here.”

   I understood him showing up at my door. I understood me kissing him, him kissing me back. It was all a part of this strange, shifting push and pull of attraction between us. It was becoming increasingly less clear-cut, but I still understood it. I didn’t understand all this unnecessary kindness.

   He leaned his head against the back of the couch. “I suppose I like making you feel better.”

   I looked down at us wrapped together. “I admire your sacrifice. Very noble.”

   He nodded gravely. “I take my job seriously, even if it’s difficult.” Just like my own teasing, it was a little shakier, a little more lost than the words implied. “Really, I think helping you makes me feel better. So what I’m saying is it’s selfish in every way.”

   “Well, if it’s helpful . . .”

   He grabbed my hips and pulled me tighter to him. “Thank you for your sacrifice, then,” he murmured, nuzzling into my neck, and I almost giggled.

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