Happy Sunday, everyone! Hope you’ve had a great weekend. Here is a chapter close to my heart for a lot of reasons, including that it is one of the last times we see Reagan and Javier in the books. Thank you to all for reading, and especially to Wattle Ido, HN, Liz, Linda, Darla, and all the others who are writing to me. Your good cheer and love of this story means a lot. xo, Ani [credits: Chatsworth Estate; viator.com.]
I never used to give much thought to happiness. I either had it and took it for granted or I lost it so deeply that thinking about it wouldn’t help. But I think a lot about it now. Not about what it means, but rather about it is. And I notice how different it looks each day, each hour, even minute. An hour ago, happiness looked like two bodies wrapped together in twinkly lights, bursting like halos around each other’s sun. Then it looked like hunting condoms hidden under petals in a rose garden while drinking coffee mouth to mouth. And right now it looks like Aiden and me watering the roses together, waiting for Reagan and Javier for our overnight trip to Pemberley, or rather Chatsworth Estate that Jane Austen immortalized as Mr. Darcy’s abode. Of course to me, Chatsworth is happiness for an entirely different reason: my own Mr. Darcy and the surprise that awaits him.
Happiness is a shapeshifter.
“Well, I’m disappointed,” my Mr. Darcy says, watering the Cecilias in a fresh white shirt and grey jeans while I label the cyclamen floribunda rose I’m dedicating to Reagan. “The woman who breaks chemical protein codes while kissing only managed to find five of my hidden condoms fully caffeinated. That won’t cover us even for tonight.”
“We’re not all CIA-trained analysts, Aiden. Some of us need clues.”
A smile ignites his eyes until his face lights up with that surreal beauty it takes on at certain moments, like when he asked me to meet his parents. My brain couldn’t solve a clue right now even if he gave it to me. He drops the nozzle on the grass and takes the three steps between us, holding out his hand. “Fair point. Close your eyes.”
“That sounds even harder,” I grumble—why would I want him out of sight?
“Come on. I’m trying to be romantic. Don’t ruin it for me.”
“Fine,” I sigh, closing my eyes. “But if you’re being romantic with condoms, you better hurry before Javier comes. We’re really pushing his aneurism.”
He chuckles but cups his hand over my eyes. “No snooping this time.”
Whatever plans he must have for this condom must be hazardously good. He leads me down the path by my waist in the direction of the garden shed, his body brushing against the cerise summer dress he brought me back from Portland. He stops us a few steps later and frees my eyes. “Everything you need is here.”
We’re at the workbench behind the shed where I’ve been trying to cultivate a new rose—a hybrid between the Elisa and the American Beauty I bought from Mr. Plemmons. Not that I’d ever admit to Aiden I’m trying to breed our roses. My excuse is that I’m preparing for the Burford Rose Festival, which is technically true. But maybe he guesses anyway if he put a condom here. I search through the bench mortified, my face matching my dress. “Umm, I don’t see it,” I mumble, looking under my tools and in the plastic pots of dirt, but then something in the Elisa bloom I’m using for grafting catches my eye. “Oh, wait—what is that?”
It’s not a condom. Condoms do not sparkle. There, nestled in the heart of the ivory petals, something blue is shimmering. I inhale a low gasp, fishing it out. Dangling on a fine gold chain is a filigreed locket embedded with a brilliant sapphire the color of his eyes. “Oh my God, Aiden!” I whisper, looking up at him. The delight in his face dims even the radiant gem in my hand. “Is this . . . this is the surprise that will make my heart melt!”
He smiles casually, but I sense a strong emotion underneath. “In part. Open it.”
I stroke the engraved lid, noticing the filigree is an intricate rose vine. “It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, lifting the clasp. A small roll of paper is tucked inside in a message-in-a-bottle kind of way. I pick it up carefully so I don’t drop either it or the locket with my shaking hands.
“Allow me,” Aiden says. He takes the locket and clasps it around my neck, sweeping my hair to side. His fingers brush my collarbones, raising goose bumps in their wake. “Now you can read the note.”
I unroll the strip of paper—it’s longer than it seemed—and I lose my breath again. It’s his assertive handwriting, albeit much smaller—I’d know it anywhere after reading his war letters. But this is not a love note. It’s a list. A list of the oxytocin options that meet the CREB test for the protein. “Good heavens, Aiden! You already solved them?”
He shrugs as though that’s not the most astonishing part. “It’s still long, love, I’m sorry. No matter how many combinations I tried, we still end up with ninety-seven. But I’ve listed them in order of potency—hopefully that saves you some time. I’ll keep working on it if you have other id—”
He never gets to finish his sentence because I throw myself at him, dangling like a locket over his own heart. “Aiden, this is everything! I thought we’d end up in the two hundreds still. Do you realize what a huge leap we just made?”
His arms fold around my waist. “It’s still a lot to test on time. There must be something else I can do.” The V forms between his eyebrows, and abruptly I see how much he wants this now. Why is that? Is it still to help me sleep or is the torture draining more of him than he lets on? I hold him closer to fight a shiver.
“You just did in a week what would have taken me months. Let me worry about the rest. One way or another, I’ll make this for you, I promise.” I try to smooth away the V, but he shakes his head.
“I don’t want it for myself, Elisa. I want you to have it every morning since you insist on staying with me.”
And there it is, the reason why the protein has become just as vital to him as it is to me. I kiss him, unable to find words—they’ve melted away with my heart as he promised. The strong emotion in his eyes is in his mouth too, the way it moves with mine in ninety-seven different forms of love.
He has to break the kiss when I start hyperventilating—there’s no question of me being able to pull apart—and at last I find some words. “Maybe we can share the protein. Like we do with Baci or your coffee?”
He chuckles. “Well, if there’s anything that will convince me to take an ounce of it for myself, it would be your mouth.” He takes the long ribbon of paper, rolling it back into its papyrus form. “I have this memorized just in case, but I tried to think of a way for you to carry it around without anyone suspecting.” He tucks the list back inside my locket and secures the clasp.
“It’s perfect.” I pat the sapphire, not wanting to imagine how much it cost. “Wherever did you find it?”
“The antique shop you told Reagan you liked. Obviously jewelry is not my expertise, but I thought it was a good fit for this. A locket for a secret. And the roses for you.”
“And the sapphire for your eyes.”
He shrugs. “If you want.”
“You forgot the most important part.”
“It rests on my heart, like you.”
His eyes gaze at the spot like a caress. “What a great place to rest.”
There are a million other things I want to tell him. How the gold reminds me of his heart, how its strength reminds me of his character, how someday I want to give it to our daughter. Instead of embarrassing or terrifying him with any of that, I just rest my head on his chest and say, “Thank you. I’ll love it forever.”
Benson drops off Reagan and Javier only fifteen minutes later on his way to London to pick up his mate, Max, whom Aiden is flying over for a few days to keep Benson company. Reagan is wearing the most resplendent hat for Mr. Darcy’s home. It’s an ivory wide disc with a coral silk rose blooming underneath the brim. The rest of her glows in a matching linen dress as she practically runs up the garden path to me.
“Reg, you look like art,” I tell her, choosing the word for Javier.
“Never mind me. What’s that on your neck?” Her emerald eyes widen when she spies the locket.
I caress it as I’ve been doing every few seconds. “Aiden got it for me.” Even I hear the gloating in my voice. He shakes his head next to me with an indulgent smile.
“Well-done, Aiden,” she grins at him. “Very Mr. Darcy of you.”
“I’m assuming that’s a high honor.”
“The highest,” she says, lifting her chin. “Speaking of Mr. Darcy, where the hell is your hat, Isa? You promised you’d wear it for him.”
“He’s not real, Reg.” Javier laughs behind her. “It’s not like he’ll be there.”
“He’s real to us, Javi,” she retorts. “He’s gotten us through hell. And now Isa won’t even wear a hat for him! We’ve been waiting for this day for four years!”
“Reg, calm down,” I laugh. “I have my hat inside. But first I want to show you something.”
All indignation disappears from her face and she smiles. “Oh, whew, I thought you had lost your mind. What is it? Did Aiden get you a tiara, too? Because that would be even better than a hat.”
“No, this one is just for you.” I take her hand and nod at Aiden. He pulls out his phone to record the moment for me.
Reagan looks between us with a grin. “Oh, this must be good. Is it a present? Wait, how does my hat look?”
“Better than Duchess Kate,” I assure her and lead her up the path past the Cecilias, the Clares, and the Elisas to the magenta floribunda bush by the bench. And even though this is her moment, suddenly it feels like my own throat is full of petals. “Here it is,” I smile, holding out my hand toward her blooms.
She blinks at them confused, but then her eyes fall on the rosewood plant marker stuck in the dirt. Reagan Starr, it says in mum’s calligraphy. “No way!” Her hand flies up to her mouth, and she curls down on the petaled grass, stroking the bright blooms. “Isa, is this for real?”
I kneel next to her. “Of course it is. Every woman in my family has a rose in this garden. And now you do too.”
Her hug almost knocks me flat on the grass as Aiden and Javier chuckle above us, now both recording. “I love it so much!” she blubbers. “It’s my spirit plant.”
“And it’s the kind of rose my dad gave to my mum on their first date. It brought them nothing but luck in their love.”
A knowing smile sparkles in her teary emerald eyes—she understands why this is the rose I chose for her.
“You need luck in love, Reg?” Javier pipes up, still recording.
“Duh!” she answers without looking at him. “I’ve been in England for a week and I haven’t seen Gandy yet.” She gives me another hug, this one gentler like all the vulnerability she must be feeling. “Thank you,” she sniffles. “Do you think it will do well in Portland? What am I saying—your green thumbs can grow anything.”
“It will do beautiful in Portland,” I answer her question, unable to touch her assumption. But the petals in my throat just turned to shards of glass at the idea of leaving this garden or being away from any of my three stars. In a blink, their brilliant constellation goes dark. I feel Aiden’s unerring eyes on my face along with the phone cameras and smile the widest smile I can manage. “All right, here’s a Reagan to take with us.” I snip off a bloom and tuck it in her hat. “Now let’s get going. It’s a two-hour drive.”
If Aiden saw the way my heart just ripped in two, he says nothing. He just takes me by the waist as we climb up to our bedroom to pick up our suitcase—just one suitcase, my knickers with his boxers, our socks balled up with each other, our toothbrushes together for our first overnight trip.
“That was a beautiful thing you did for Reagan,” he says as he zips it up.
“She deserves it.” I shrug and pretend to make the bed, glancing at the picture of our kiss and the wilted poppies on my nightstand. Why is fear punching so hard now that I’m carrying the key to the bravery protein in a locket right next to my heart? Can fear sense its end is coming? Or is the end coming for me?
Aiden’s hand covers mine as I am smoothing the pillow, trying to fight the sudden shivers. How many times has he kissed me on this pillow by now? How many times are there left still? He pulls me around and tips up my face. “What’s wrong, love?”
The peaceful beauty that floods him in this room has a shadow of worry, like stubble over his dimple. But the moment his turquoise eyes meet mine, abruptly the shivers start to recede. “I broke Corbin’s rule,” I admit. “I looked ahead instead of at the present moment.”
His hand curves around my cheek. “It comes out of nowhere sometimes, doesn’t it?”
“Yes! For you too?” It’s a terrible thing to give me relief, but it still does—like we’re together even in fear.
“Oh, yes. Sometimes, the more beautiful the moment, the harder it hits.”
“That’s exactly it. I couldn’t understand why it happened just now until you said it. We had the most beautiful morning and then . . .”
“Here, try something with me,” he suggests, folding me in his arms. “You’re better at this than I am, but I’ll start. You’re in my arms, too beautiful for words, with your head on my chest, exactly where I want you to be. Now your turn.”
“Okay.” I smile as I realize what he is doing: bringing me to the present moment. “I’m wearing the locket you gave me, the dress you gave me, the knickers you gave me, and the perfume you gave me. I’m wrapped in you.”
“And we are in the happiest bedroom in the world.”
“And there are only six days and fourteen hours of condoms left.”
He chuckles with me, now continuing out of fun, not fear. “And there are three more condoms in the foyer for you to find on our way out.”
“And you still have your surprise to see.”
“And you still have yours.”
That derails me. “You already gave me mine.” I clutch my locket as evidence.
“I said I gave you part of it. The best part is still ahead.”
“The best part? What could be better than bravery?”
He presses his lips to mine. “Love, Elisa,” he whispers. “Love.”
And just like that, happiness shifts. It becomes this present moment in a tiny bedroom with a white bed, wilted flowers, and a worn rug where we dance.
“OI!” Javier hollers from the garden. “I’M BECOMING AN INSTAGRAM PHOTOGRAPHER DOWN HERE. CAN YOU HOLD IT IN FOR LATER?”
It never ceases to make Aiden laugh. He picks up the suitcase and glances around our bedroom. “You know, despite Chatsworth’s luxury, I’d still rather be here tonight.”
Abruptly I miss this room and we haven’t even left it. “Me too,” I say, grabbing our pillows on a whim.
Visiting Chatsworth is not something you are supposed to get used to, no matter how often you do it, and I have visited twice. The magnificent house glows in yellow stone surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush gardens and serene woods, with the Emperor Fountain like a liquid mirror reflecting the opulence of both nature and man. History flutters in every leaf, glimmers in each drop of dew, flows through River Derwent, and settles like pollen over the emerald expanse of the parkland.
But visiting Chatsworth with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier makes all that history feel new, the grand house a bit like home, and Mr. Darcy just a hero in a book. Not because Aiden has reserved the public part of the house for the afternoon and booked the exclusive Park Farm Estate for the night—I know now that, underneath the lavish expense, these are nonnegotiable safety measures and that, deep down, Aiden dreams of being able to visit such places in a crowd as much as a tourist might dream of being him. No, today is breathless for an entirely different reason: because today my life is better than the fairytale. And happiness has changed shapes again. Now it looks like Aiden, Javier, Reagan, and me plopped on a picnic blanket under an ancient alder tree at the farthest border of Salisbury Lawn. The park is quiet today despite the Saturday sunshine, perhaps because soon the house will be closed to the public for us.
“I just can’t get over it,” Reagan says, downing the last drop of her bubbles from a paper cup. “A week ago, Javi was in jail about to be deported, Isa was here in hell, Aiden—I don’t have the words, and I was visiting a jail. And now, we’re all here together, waiting to visit that palace in private, and I have a rose named after me. Anyone else think they’re dreaming?”
“I was, until Aiden started kicking my ass,” Javier answers, frowning at Aiden’s chessboard where is he ensnared in the Budapest Defense and his king will be mated in five moves.
I haven’t been able to look away from the hand-carved mahogany board since Aiden set it up, despite the plush gardens around us. It’s the same board I saw in his library on our first night together. A rich scent of musk and cigar wafts from it with the woodsy breeze. The chess pieces glow even under the alder’s shade. How many times have Aiden’s fingers touched them? Hundreds, thousands from his seventh birthday when his parents gave the set to him until now.
I haven’t touched a chess piece since my father died, since that unfinished chess game that sits in the glass flower case in the cottage’s library. But even if I could move a finger to stroke the curves of Aiden’s queen or the sharp angles of his knight, I wouldn’t dare. Because Aiden playing his favorite game is formidable. He seems to play entirely in his head, gazing at the board only to see what mistake the mortal in front of him makes next. I’m certain he is letting Javier persevere out of chivalry—he could have ended this game on move six.
Every so often I sense his eyes on my face through the birdcage veil of the fuchsia fascinator I’m wearing for Reagan. Aiden knows what this game means to me. Yet he has never once asked me to explain my decision to lay it at rest. And for that, impossibly, I love him more.
“Some help?” he invites casually, raising a perfect raven eyebrow at me.
I shake my head. “If I help anyone, it would be Javier.”
“Perfect.” His voice is still casual but something warm filters through his eyes like the sun through the alder leaves. He controls it immediately but it was enough. Enough for me to see what he is doing. What he really wants but will never ask. A game with me, even if only through Javier.
I try to picture moving my hand for him, wrapping my fingers around Javier’s bishop to fall for his queen, so Javier’s king can die a dignified death. But I can’t. My hand closes into a fist. It will not open no matter how much I want to give Aiden everything. Apparently even though my body could give him the forehead kiss, it cannot overcome this.
“Sorry, Javier,” I say, straightening the veil over my cheeks. “May your king rest in peace. Reagan and I have to go see Darcy’s stairs.”
“Now you’re talking,” she hops up, arranging her hat.
I pick up my picnic basket—the other reason why I’m leaving, to set up Aiden’s surprise—but his hand wraps around my fist as I stand. He says nothing but presses it to his lips. One light quick kiss, but I know what it means. I saw you. I feel his eyes on me as Reagan and I stroll away toward the great house.
“So any progress with Javi?” I ask, pretending to look at a wild orchid by the rock I’ve been eying to hide a clue for Aiden.
Her delicate snort distracts me from my subterfuge. “As if. Sometimes I think he’s looking at me, but then I look at him and there’s just . . . nothing there.”
I tuck my arm in hers. “Maybe it’s not nothing. Maybe it’s something he’s too afraid to see.”
“Or maybe I’m not his kind of rose.” Her hand strokes the Reagan bloom still in her hat.
“That’s not true. This is an issue Javier has with himself. That’s what Aiden thinks, too. He thinks Javier needs to feel more secure before getting involved.”
“Oh hell, Aiden knows too?”
“He figured it out on his own, I didn’t say anything.”
“Of course he did. The only one who doesn’t want to see is Javier himself.”
“Just give him a bit more time,” I coax her. “It’s only been a week. And if he doesn’t wake up, Aiden said he’ll help us.”
She giggle-sniffles. “God help Javi if Aiden enters the ring.” Then she looks at my basket of roses. “What are you doing with that?”
“Oh, I’m setting up a scavenger hunt for Aiden and I’ve hidden the clues under the basket liner so he couldn’t see. Come, help me plant them.”
She giggles despite the melancholy in her eyes that seems to have become part of her. “Oh fun, what are you giving him?”
I caress the small gift under the liner—it doesn’t give but it’s hard and warm, like sunny marble. “It’s just something small. He’s impossible to buy anything for. It’s really more the game he’ll like.”
We curve around the grand palace where the last groups of public visitors are filing out for our private tour later this afternoon. The baroque facade is gleaming honey-gold under the molten sun.
“So, how are you doing with all of this?” Reagan asks as I tuck my next clue in the grass by the reclining statues of the Emperor Fountain. “I’m worried about you.”
I shrug, marking the clue with an American penny. “We’re just living moment to moment—it’s too hard otherwise.”
“And if . . .?”
Just two small words and the wound rips wide open so abruptly that it makes me gasp. “Oh, Isa! I’m sorry I brought it up. Take a deep breath, sweetie, I’m here.”
I clutch the locket, trying to stay in the present moment. The Darcy stairs are ahead, the bravery protein is literally in my grasp, Reagan’s arm is around my shoulders, Aiden and I are still together, there is beauty, there is love.
Reagan rubs my arm. “It’ll work out, Isa, you guys love each other. One way or another, love has to win, right?”
How can I tell her it’s a lie? How can I tell her about the Romeo nightmare at night even though Dante walks to me each dawn? She needs to believe love always wins for her own happiness right now. But love doesn’t always win. In some cases—some rare, once in a big bang cases—love even kills. Not with daggers and poisons and accidents and bullets. Love kills with beauty, with loss. I clutch my locket again, pressing it against the throbbing spot between my lungs. Make us brave, make us last.
“What a pair we are, huh?” Reagan says, her tone lighter as we stroll up the boardwalk and climb Darcy’s stairs to meet the housekeeper. “My Darcy just got out of jail and yours has a violent startle, and they’re determined to hate themselves while we’re determined to love them. Maybe I should just move here, and you and I adopt a pair of corgis instead.”
“They’re definitely more obedient.” I laugh, keeping my eyes on the gilded fairytale doors for the present moment, for reality. We have family and friends who love us. There is laughter, there is pleasure, there is hope still. For at least eighty-two more days.
The doors open, and the housekeeper comes out. “Miss Snow?” She looks at us both unsure who is the woman who pleaded with her on the phone for this.
“That’s me, Mrs. Redmond. Thank you so much for allowing this.”
“Oh, not at all. The public area of the house is yours for the afternoon.”
“Here, these are for you.” I give her the bouquet of roses. “I’ll be very careful, I promise.”
By the time we make it back to our Darcy’s, happiness looks like handwritten clues, each a quote from our happiest memories, for the man who forgets nothing. I try not to run to Aiden but don’t do a great job of it. It’s more like a leap and a trot. He pulls me close with similar urgency as I curl next to him in a blanket.
“Oh, good, right on time to watch me beat Aiden.” Javier laughs, clearly dying another painful death on the chessboard, while Reagan folds by him, swallowing the last grape.
“Speaking of beating,” Aiden says as he executes Javier’s knight. “The IRS is auctioning off Feign’s properties to cover his tax bill.”
“Good. Fuck him.”
“Including Feign Art.”
Javier blinks and loses his bishop. “Really?” His voice softens as though unable to hate the only place in the world he was able to do what he loved, even in misery.
Aiden nods, looking at the chessboard as though he is studying it, which of course he isn’t. “I bought it,” he adds in a casual tone, advancing his queen.
Three gasps meet his announcement. “You did what?” I ask, while Javier and Reagan watch him with identical open mouths.
“Correction: I rescued it,” he says in that same casual tone, looking up at me.
“Why on earth did you that?”
“A few reasons, but the main one is that Feign Art is where I first saw you, where your painting hung. I wasn’t going to let it fall into the hands of some other asshole or become a soulless thing like a parking lot.” Through the rosy tint of my veil, his face takes on that surreal beauty it held this morning when he gave me the locket, and I recall his words. Is this the other part of his surprise? The glow in his eyes is a clear yes.
“So you own it now?” Javier’s voice is full of the same awe I feel, while Reagan still hasn’t closed her mouth.
“Technically we both do, if you’re interested,” Aiden answers, and I gasp again as I realize the full extent of his surprise—better than a gift to me, it’s a gift to Javier.
Javier is beyond blinking. “Come again?”
“Well, I can’t paint.” Aiden shrugs, advancing his knight. “But I’d like the gallery to stay what it was—a place of art, the place that brought Elisa to me. That’s where you come in.” Finally, the reason for his casual demeanor becomes obvious to me. It’s to entice Javier to say yes or to keep the significance of this gift modest so Javier doesn’t feel indebted.
Javier finally blinks. And that’s all he does while Reagan starts bouncing next to him, chanting, “OMG, OMG, OMG.”
“Aiden, I don’t know,” Javier hesitates but his voice is soft, almost like he’s in a dream as Reagan said earlier. “This is too much.”
“Is it? For a place that abused you and Elisa, that can finally allow you to do what you’re passionate about and makes everyone who loves you happy?” Aiden’s eyes flit to Reagan, and I register another layer in this gift. He’s giving Javier confidence, not just a dream. “It doesn’t seem like too much to me. But, if it makes this easier to accept, you have my word I bought it at a steal. The IRS doesn’t sell for profit.”
For the first time in this conversation, Javier’s eyes squint as they do when he is sketching the first lines, seeing the finished masterpiece in his mind long before his talent brings it on canvass. “How would it work?” he asks tentatively.
“You would run the place. Paint, commission, distribute—your prerogative.”
“My only interest in this endeavor is that it stays a gallery and you finish Elisa’s painting that you started. Other than that, you’re a majority owner.” Aiden’s voice is still casual but something about his words pulls at the edges of my memory. From the time he offered to be a passive investor in my supplement so I would be free of him. Is that what he’s doing now? Giving me distance if we don’t win? A chill whips through me, and I scoot closer to him, clasping my locket.
“Deal, partner?” Aiden asks Javier, holding out his hand.
Javier meets his eyes for a moment, then looks at Reagan and me. Her face is pure bliss; I can’t even feel mine. “Deal,” he answers, shaking Aiden’s hand.
Reagan loses it then and hugs Javier with her usual exuberance. “So happy for you, Javi.” I don’t realize I’m crying until Aiden’s finger wipes a tear with my veil. A single tear as happiness shifts in the shape of an eave above a door, saying Solis Gallery—Fine Art in elegant script. Still shocked, Javier takes me in his minty hug. “How about that, amorcita? We couldn’t even use the front door and now look at us.”
“No, look at you.”
“Can’t wait for you to come back, and we can all be together.” Javier speaks softly, but his voice rings like a gunshot over the gardens for me, cleaving me in two—one part by this pond of lilies, the other across the transatlantic pond. I can feel my blood draining out of my skin, filling the entire ocean with it. I hide my face behind his full beard.
“Love you, Javi.”
“Love you too, kiddo. Is everyone calling me Javi now?”
“Yep, it’s stuck.”
I stay in his hug a few seconds longer—all the years with him at Feign Art flashing like its own reel in front of my eyes. How can I not see Javi every day? How can I stay eight thousand miles from him? A camera clicks, and I meet Aiden’s gaze, his quiet strength fortifying me. I smile, willing the pixels not to show the chill that just whipped through me.
“Pip pip,” Reagan cheers, and a shower of Reagan petals sprinkles over us like confetti as she shreds her rose for the occasion. “Aiden, forget what I said earlier,” she laughs. “This is your most Darcian thing.”
“Darcy is overrated, Reagan. Elizabeth Bennett was the star.” He takes another photo of me, his eyes full of things too big for me to understand.
Mrs. Redmond emerges on the other end of the lawn then, beckoning us toward the great house. And the future—suddenly so bright for Javier, hopeful for Reagan, and utterly unknown for Aiden and me—disappears. There is only this present moment of giving Aiden a beautiful memory.
“You guys go first,” I say, winking at Reagan. She drags Javier away faster than I can reach inside my picnic basket.
“Finally,” Aiden says, but he doesn’t stand. He pulls me onto his arms. “A minute just with you.”
He looks surreal again, in his white shirt as bright as the futures he creates. “Thank you for what you did for Javi. You were right, it’s better than even bravery. I’m afraid your surprise doesn’t compare to this.”
His lips lift into my favorite lopsided, dimpled smile. “Ah, yes, my surprise. I’m sure I’ll love it if you prepared it.”
“We have to walk around for a bit, but the grounds are almost empty.”
“Hmm . . .” he tilts his head side to side, pursing his lips, and my heart freefalls—did I miscalculate?
“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”
“Well, it depends.” I think I hear an undercurrent of humor in his voice, but his eyes are smoldering.
“Will you wear this hat?”
I giggle breathlessly in relief. “If you like.”
His lips brush along my jaw, following the trim of the veil to my ear. “I don’t like that it hides your face . . .” He kisses down my throat. “But I like the way it makes me feel.”
“How does it make you feel?” The veil flutters from my quick breath.
His nose skims my collarbone exposed over the neckline of my dress. “Forbidden.”
“You’re never forbidden for me.”
“Not even from making love to you right here, right now?” His mouth presses at the hollow of my throat.
“Oh, that.” My voice shakes. “Yes, nudity is strictly prohibited in the park.”
“Hmm.” His lips hunt up to my chin and stop on the other side of my veil as it wafts back and forth from our breath. “Then show me my surprise, Elisa, so we can go to the Park House where nudity is most certainly allowed, in fact required.” His mouth presses on mine over the veil. It takes all my power of concentration to form words.
“Okay then.” I push against his chest with difficulty—I can’t think with his lips on me. He chuckles and gives me space as I reach in my picnic basket and hand him the first folded clue. “Read it.”
He unfolds the scrap with that same boyish curiosity he had when he was solving the riddle for the twinkly lights. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” he reads, sounding perplexed.
“It’s your first clue. We’re doing a scavenger hunt. You have to guess each clue, until you find your surprise.”
Unrestrained joy breaks over his face as the tectonic plates shift. “I haven’t done one of these since I was ten,” he grins, looking back at the clue while I bounce on the spot—he loves it! “So this clue is obviously Elizabeth Bennett’s quote that we paraphrased when I was giving you a tour of my library on our embargo night.”
“A very happy memory.”
“That’s the idea.”
The only times I’ve seen him move faster is when he picks me up to make love. He cleans up our picnic spot in seconds. Then we start our hunt, basket with the chessboard in my arm, folded blanket over his. The grounds of Chatsworth are so open and vast that Aiden’s ever-tense shoulders are not rippling, the bands of muscle at his waist are not straining. They’re in their permanent vigilant setting that doesn’t release him even asleep.
“So I’m looking for a rock,” he says, scanning the Salisbury lawn. I almost start skipping because now his vigilant eyes are searching for something fun, not threats.
“My lips are a locket.”
“Your lips are a magnet. Oh, Elisa, what is this? I believe it’s a rock with a purple flower on top.” He found it in two minutes despite the countless mossy boulders dotting the border of the lawn as it slopes into wilderness.
“That’s a wild orchid, and it brings luck.” He tucks the first clue in his shirt pocket and finds the folded note under the rock with an impatient sparkle in his eyes.
“‘We can’t mess with luck,’” he reads, and the plates shift as he summons his memory of this quote. It takes three seconds. “Another happy memory. The fountain at the rose garden in Portland on our first night. You wanted to make a wish to bring you luck, and you wished for another day with me.”
“This is too easy for you,” I grumble, but loving every bit of it.
He brushes my collarbone with the orchid. “That’s not the term I’d use.”
“What would you use?”
“Beautiful,” he answers, and his face beams with a most unAidenish playfulness. “So the fountain next then?”
I nod, but he doesn’t move. “Will you let me add something to the hunt?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Each clue I guess right, we hike this little veil an inch higher.”
He drops the orchid in my basket and lifts the veil half a centimeter, kissing the dip below my lower lip. Then drapes it back down, and we stroll to the Emperor Fountain although I am already wobbling. The spectacular jet stream shoots up three hundred feet in the air today. Aiden’s quick eyes scan the perimeter. This should be harder—the fountain’s lake is a water mirror of eight acres, framed with another lawn of blooms and grass. It would take me an hour to hunt around this. But Aiden knows the way my mind works better than my own. “I have a feeling this clue is hidden by the reclining statue, Elisa, because it looks like it’s lying on a bed, albeit a very uncomfortable one, and you love bed with me.”
I watch in awe as he searches around the sculpture and, in exactly fifteen seconds, he spots the clue on the grass in front it. “Well, well, well, what’s an American penny doing at Chatsworth?”
He chuckles, tucking the rock clue in his shirt pocket, and picks up the folded note under the penny. “‘I’d like to discuss an unconventional proposal,’” he reads his own words to Kasia at Feign Art. “Ah, of course! You were eavesdropping.” He looks ridiculously happy about it. “Another good memory—commissioning my full painting of you. So next we go to the gallery in the Painted Hall?”
“Yes,” I smile, raising my face for him to lift the veil by another half a centimeter. He kisses the corner of my mouth with a sigh and drapes it back over. “I should have stayed strong at one inch. Can I throw the penny in the fountain and renegotiate?”
“No, they don’t allow that either.”
“Tyrants. No nudity, no coins in the fountain—how do they live?” I’ve never seen him more playful. He tosses the penny in my basket and tucks my arm in his as we climb the Darcy stairs that are now empty.
The Painted Hall of Chatsworth was built to take breaths away. And in both my prior visits it has stumped me, but not today. Today, the black and white marble floor gleams less than Aiden’s chessboard in my basket. The vivid demigods and nymphs adorning the staggering ceiling are dimmed by Aiden’s seraphic face flooded with the sunlight pouring from the high windows. We are all alone in this gallery of classical art, but the real masterpiece is framing me with his arms.
“It’s not my favorite painting,” he says, eyes on the frescoed ceiling. “But it’s certainly impressive. Now where would the next clue be?” He roams the hall, his footsteps ringing on the marble floor, gazing at each mural and antique. But the clue isn’t in the crimson settees, the delftware vases, or the marble busts. “Difficult,” he murmurs. “Very difficult—I like it.” His eyes absorb the scene with hunger, his mind focused on solving this happy clue, not reliving horrors.
I know exactly when he has found it because his eyes zero in on the spot in an almost audible way. “Aha!” He strides to the gilded staircase, lined with the burgundy velvet tapestry. “The fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”
“Yes!” I twirl as he jogs up the stairs and digs the clue from under the carpet, laughing his waterfall laughter. I skip to him and snap a picture with my iPhone as he unfolds the note.
“‘La Virgen. Are you sure you want to do this?’” His voice is soft as he reads the question he asked me in his bedroom before making love to me for the first time. But there’s nothing soft about the blue fire in his eyes as they meet mine. “My favorite painting, my favorite night.”
He lifts the veil another half centimeter, his teeth grazing my lower lip exactly as they did then. I hang in his arms, knees like air under me. Why did I hide so many clues? Why couldn’t I have ended it here so we could go back to the Park House and set fires there?
“The Sculpture Room next then,” he says, solving this clue. He tucks the stair note in his shirt pocket with the others—they’re starting to look like a paper boutonniere of happy memories—and sweeps me in his arms, the basket dangling from my elbow.
“Aiden, no! They’re not used to this here, we’re supposed to be modest and respectful.”
“We’re being both,” he answers, climbing the sweeping staircase. “This is modest compared to what I want to do. And it is respectful because there’s no one here and I have compensated them generously to give us privacy.”
What’s the point of arguing with him—I’m exactly where I want to be. He carries me down the splendid empty hall that he memorized from a map, his footsteps ringing in sync with my heartbeat.
“This is it, I believe.” He stops at the next gallery and sets me on my unsteady feet. We weave through the marble sculptures, Aiden more carved and graceful than any of them, until we reach the kneeling Vestal Virgin, her white veil flowing over her marble face as she guards the sacred flame of her temple.
“Do you think the flame she’s guarding represents her desire?” Aiden asks. “Or her life?”
“There is no difference sometimes, is there? When you want something so much it could kill you if you lose it.”
I grasp my locket, forcing myself to stay in this present moment as he picks up the clue on the floor before the virgin, his expression no longer playful. “‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,’” he reads, and the Virgen’s flame is in his voice too. “A lot of happy memories there.”
He pulls me close and lifts the veil another half a centimeter to the part of my lips. His tongue traces it slowly, his breathing as rough as mine. “How many clues are left to burn me?”
“Umm . . . only two.” The tip of my tongue meets his.
He folds the veil back in place—it flutters and billows with my breath—and the playfulness returns to his face. “The library for Byron next?”
“Yes, but you have to behave there—we were told not to sit on the sofas.”
“What makes you think I would misbehave?”
“Shh, Elisa, you’re scandalizing the virgin,” he chuckles and leads me out of the room. As soon as we clear the delicate Sculpture Room, he lifts me in his arms again, basket and all. I’m sure the dignified portraits that adorn the corridor are as horrified as the virgin at our behavior, but I don’t see any of it. I only see the angles of his profile as we wind through the empty splendid halls. Briefly I wonder where Reagan and Javier are—I hope this gallery sparks something for them now that Javier owns his.
“The library,” Aiden announces, setting me down at the door.
The library is not part of the public tour but apparently at the right price, the exclusive doors open to a fortunate few. The stunning room has two floors, like Aiden’s in Portland. About thirty thousand leather-bound volumes line the walls with ladders leaning against the shelves. The precious emerald velvet sofas frame the marble fireplace.
Aiden glares at them as he strides to the carved pedestal on the corner for the library catalog. He flips through the pages quickly until he finds Byron. “Case six, shelf fourteen,” he grins, taking my hand. “Where will you lead me next?”
He finds the clue under the cover of the Venetian red leather volume only seconds later. “‘The most beautiful place in my life,’” he reads his words to me from a week ago when we were snuggled together at Oxford’s University Park. “Our bedroom,” he solves it without hesitation. “The happiest memory there is.”
“You’re impossible,” I laugh as the library clue joints the paper boutonniere and he tucks Byron’s volume back in the shelf.
He lifts the veil another half centimeter, exposing my upper lip, and presses his mouth on mine. The picnic basket feels suddenly heavy on my limp arms. He blows over my lips and folds back the veil with a pained sigh. “To the state bedroom, God help us,” he solves the clue.
As soon as we clear the library, he picks me up again, marching down the hall to the state bedchambers built for William and Mary. The bedroom is dominated by the bed, hung with curtains of crimson and gold and cordoned off in case there is any doubt whatsoever that we are not to lay on it.
“As I said, absolute tyrants,” Aiden says, but his arms wrap around my waist. He walks me backward to the wood-paneled wall until my back is against it and his body is pressed against every line of mine. My breathing is too fast, making the veil flutter as his lips take full advantage, kissing each sliver of exposed skin. I try to settle my lungs but it’s impossible with his mouth on me. The royal bedroom starts to spin.
“Aiden . . .” My picnic basket tumbles from my hand. “Be good . . .”
“Isn’t this good?” His mouth presses at the corner of mine as the veil blows open from my gasp. “I think it is.” Another huff, another fit of the veil, this one exposing my lower lip. He captures it with his teeth. “So good, Elisa.”
“Please?” I breathe. “They’ll make a fuss.”
“They’re not here . . .” His fingers skim my thigh lifting the hem of my dress and he plays hide-and-seek with my veil that doesn’t stand a chance against his mouth. His lips flutter over my jawline to my ear. He nips my ear lobe and trails his mouth down my throat and over my collarbones, kissing my skin as he would another part of me that is on fire. My head is whirling with his tongue. He dips it at the hollow of my throat, pressing into me through the thin fabric of my dress.
And I collapse.
“Elisa?” he asks alarmed, holding me up.
“Yes,” I gasp, shaking my head.
“Are you all right?”
“I think—your kissing—lightheaded.”
“Christ.” He pulls back a few inches to give me space but his arms don’t release me. He blows gently on my lips. “Hydrogen, 1.008, helium . . .” he starts. My giggle comes out shaky and weak.
“I’m okay,” I assure him, reaching a finger to smooth the worried V. “You’re just too good at this.”
He chuckles, still holding me up. “How can you nearly faint from kissing but handle everything else we’ve done?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to sit? Or some water? Or fresh air?” He feels my forehead and I have to laugh.
“No, I’m fine. I get dizzy when you touch me all the time. Besides, we have your last clue.”
He watches me for a long moment as though to be sure I’ll live to tell the tale of his kissing. When my breathing finally evens out and my legs stop trembling, he chuckles again and releases me. “I think it’s this damn room. I better find this clue fast.”
He is probably right. There’s no telling what I would do if we stay in this room much longer—cordoned off bed or not. Besides the next part is guaranteed to cause more breathing problems. He scans the bedroom quickly, searching for anything resembling a clue. “Tricky,” he says, his eyes alighting on the off-limits bed, the dresser, the vanity, the porcelain vases, but there is nothing there. “Where would you have hidden—?” And then he smiles. “You wouldn’t have hidden this behind a painting, would you? Say, a painting of a river and grass and woods? A panting that looks a bit like the University Park where I told you our bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life?”
“You’ll have to find out.”
He strides across the room straight to the painting and peeks behind it at the small scrap of paper I wedged there. I hold my breath as he fishes it out because the happy memory he’s reading now is not ours. It’s his.
“‘When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.’” He reads his mother’s words from April 12, 1987—his first visit to Oxford—with a thick sound in his voice. A deep emotion enters his eyes and for a moment I worry I’ve triggered a horror. But he gazes at the scrap of paper with something like longing that I hadn’t seen in the dark park. “A happy memory from my life before you,” he murmurs.
I pick up my basket and teeter close to him, wanting to take a picture but not daring to ruin on the moment. “You’re done,” I say. “Kiss the first girl you’ve kissed, and you can see your surprise.”
He places the clue in his shirt pocket—the final scrap in the paper boutonniere—and pulls me against him, his eyes deep. “Can you handle this kiss?”
I nod even though I don’t know. I can barely handle his gaze. He hesitates a moment as though to prolong the memory and lifts the veil all the way this time, folding it over the rose on my fascinator. Then his hands curve around my face and he brings his mouth to mine.
I have lost count of how many times Aiden has kissed me—how each kiss feels both home and new, some slow, some urgent, some gentle, some hard, some deep, others light like air. But I’ll always remember this one. It’s like his mouth is combining all the kisses he has given me into this one, a boutonniere of lips imprinting everything he must be feeling on my tongue. When he pulls away, too soon so I don’t faint again, I’m not the only one gasping.
“Thank you,” he says, each word sliced by his harsh breathing. “Whatever the surprise is, I will always remember the hunt.”
“You always remember everything.”
“Not by choice. But I choose this. If I could forget, I’d still never forget this.”
I reach under the liner of my basket, hands shaking, lungs in shreds, heart in my throat, and pull out the little journal. Its yellowed cream cover is embossed with roses.
“Here is something you remember but don’t know,” I say, handing it to him. As soon as it touches his skin, a wave of warmth spreads over me and I’d like to think it’s a hug.
He must see my emotion because he doesn’t ask anything even though curiosity raging in his eyes as he opens the aged notebook. “Clare Emilia Brighton,” he reads my mother’s maiden name quietly. “Is this your mother’s journal?”
I nod. “She kept a journal all her life. Go to the page I’ve marked.”
He lifts the silk tassel and inhales a sharp gust when he sees the date. “April 12, 1987.”
“Read it,” I whisper, leaning over to read with him even though I know it by now.
April 12, 1987
What a day today, dearest! Only six months at the Ashmolean, and I already wonder what on earth was I thinking! Had I listened to Mama, as you know, I would be gallivanting the world for a while before settling. And had I listened to Katherine I would be dating Fawkes—perish the thought. But instead I chose this. The job of a lifetime, the dream —you know all about that, of course. Oh, but how difficult it is! All day, I am squished in this cupboard of an office in the bowels of the museum with only pipes around me and not one window. My chair, I am convinced, used to be a torture implement under King Henry VIII. But I do not mind. It is the Old Beards who are difficult—the senior curators of the Grand Ash. They still will not entrust me with anything older than 1970. I knew as a fellow I would not be allowed to touch the artifacts—it should take years for me to do that. But can I not handle at least something more than gluing ripped textbooks or dusting the shelves? Must I be treated like a schoolgirl, not the scholar I am? Yet I despair that is all they see in me. For months, I have been wondering whether I am foolish to hope I will ever be allowed to restore anything of value. Why, it did not seem like that would ever happen, did it? Until today. It was quite brilliant, as you will see. A neuroscientist came to our dining hall before supper, Doctor Helen Brahms. She is quite respected at Oxford already although not forty yet. She marched straight to the Old Beards sitting together in their grandeur (I am not invited to sit with them, for which I count my blessings—Old Sturgis is positively medieval with his chewing).
“I need Ashmole 611 restored by the end of the week,” she said. “I just took it out for a consult, and it’s in tatters, an absolute disgrace for the earliest study of human memory.”
She seemed mortally offended. The entire hall was watching. But the Old Beards peered down their noses at her although she stands taller than six feet. “That cannot happen,” cackled Old Sturgis.
“It can and it must,” she argued. “There’s a little boy who needs it.”
They ignored her, returned to their pea soup.
“Did you hear me?” she raised her voice. “There is a seven-year old boy who cannot forget anything, and that manuscript might have something to explain it.”
Not one of them looked at her, dearest. Six feet tall and brilliant and still not good enough while a little boy needs help. I could not bear it. So I jumped up and said, “I’ll do it. I will restore Ashmole 611.”
The Old Beards were apoplectic, shouting and telling me off. “She hasn’t touched a page older than 1976,” yelled Old Sturgis. “She will not touch Ashmole 611.”
“Well obviously neither will you,” Doctor Brahms snapped at him.
I admitted it was true, but said, “I’m good, and I will do it for you.”
More shouting—Old Sturgis spit his soup on his beard. But she smiled at me.
“I shall speak with the director. He is a close family friend,” she said loudly for them to hear, and they all fell quiet then. “You will restore Ashmole 611. What is your name?”
“Clare Brighton,” I answered, a bit church-moused now that I realized how well-connected she is.
“Well, Clare Brighton, let’s leave them to their pea soup, shall we?”
And that was it, dearest. She arranged with the director to move me to a proper office and I have been repairing Ashmole 611 until now. The little boy is here with his parents from the United States for the week. I must finish it by then. Can you imagine how that must feel? To never forget? A fearsome power to behold, I reckon. I do hope Doctor Brahms can help him. Meanwhile, she helped me. I have a window now and a director who agreed to mentor me. It was a good day. Goodnight, Diary!
By the time I finish it, I know the seven-year old boy who grew up has read it multiple times. But when I look up at him, his eyes are still on the page despite having already memorized it. A tear gathers in my eye but I dash it off while Aiden still reads. I give him time until he is ready. When his eyes meet mine, they are unfathomable.
“I can’t believe it.” His voice is low and husky.
“I know. I’ve been searching through her journals ever since Doctor Helen told us the date, and I finally found it. I read through her other journal entries for that week. You can read them next if you want. They’re just about her gluing up Ashmole 611 and giving it to Doctor Brahms. Here, see?”
He flips through the pages, reading them in seconds. “She barely slept that week to help me.”
“Yes, but you helped her too.”
He watches me for another long moment. No words, eyes unfathomable still. “Good surprise?” I ask. He nods, still seeming unable to speak. “What are you feeling right now?”
“Happy . . . terrified . . . I don’t want to hurt her daughter . . . or lose you.”
I place my hand over his thundering heart. “You won’t. And you cannot lose me, I’m yours.” For as long as he will have me.
He closes the journal, and places it carefully in the basket. Then he takes my face in his hands and he brings his mouth to mine. So we add love, kiss after kiss— we have learned this trick now—until fear recedes. Because sometimes happiness can look like a monster but it never is. Right now, happiness morphs, looking like Aiden and me in a foreign bedroom with guardian angels above us in the frescoed ceilings and a locket of bravery beating by my heart.©2021 Ani Keating