NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 10 – THUNDER

Hey all, I have no words about this chapter other than to say I hope you enjoy and thank you to all who are reading and commenting. xo, Ani

10

Thunder

Friday lands with thunder and rain. It startles me awake, then I wonder whether I was truly sleeping. Javier’s trial is today—or rather in twenty-one hours Portland time. I shuffle to the window and peer outside. It’s still pitch dark. Heavy torrents are cascading like a waterfall around the cottage. And even though this is common for England in June, I tell myself it’s a good omen if my sky is matching Portland’s weather.

I wrap myself with the quilt and lumber downstairs to start the kettle. Despite the heat of the stove and the quilt, I start shivering. I watch my hands pick up the loose-leaf tea, the infuser, a teacup, but they’re background images. On the forefront, sharp and clear, are Javier’s hollowed eyes and ashen face last time I saw him as an armed ICE officer dragged him away. My hands shake and the kettle spout misses the cup. A clap of thunder rattles the cottage windows, and I shamble down the corridor to the library, clutching the hot teacup with both hands. Only one person can calm me now, but Reagan is not on Skype. I ring her mobile twice; no answer. More tea spills out of the cup, staining the quilt like an amber rose print. Then a text blinks on the screen from Reagan: “Sweetie, I’m with the Solises, can’t talk. The girls figured out what’s happening & they’ve been crying. I’m staying with them tonight.”

My teacup drops on the rug at my feet. I thumb a text back as quickly as I can: “Oh no! How did they find out?

“Overheard Maria talking with Benetto. He’s been here all day.”

            “Here” must be his parents’ home. Another shiver whips over my skin. “What does Benetto say?”

“Not much. He’s working nonstop, preparing testimony.”

I resolve to send Benetto my very first paycheck even though he said he’s defending Javier pro bono. “Is he hopeful?”

It takes twenty-two elements on the periodic table for Reagan to respond: “We don’t know. We’re all praying.”

“Reg, what can I do? Please tell me what to do!”

“Pray with us, sweetie. There’s not much else you can do.”

I can barely see the screen through my tears. “I will. Should I talk to the girls?”

“No please don’t! We told them you’re helping Javier when they started asking for you.”

Another roll of thunder volleys through the sky, drowning my sob. “Tell them I love them. Tell them I’ll take care of them.”

“Will do. Hang tight. I’ll be there in 2 days.”

“Don’t worry about me. You stay there with them. They need you more.”

“Gotta go, babe. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”

            No, please stay with me. Please stay with them. Please be air, Reagan, and be everywhere. “I’ll be waiting. Love you, Reg.”

Her final text flashes quickly—“Love you too”—and then she’s gone. I drop on my knees and join my palms together. Prayer was not a daily practice in this cottage, but even Dad agreed science did not have all the answers. When I asked him what he thought God was, he said, “God is the wonder that makes science life.” I pray now to God, Mum, Dad, and any other angel who will listen to me up above. I pray for my Javier, crumpled on the floor in a cramped dark cell with armed guards outside. I pray for Maria and Antonio, and their love that has survived so much. And I pray for the girls and their little beating hearts. Give them strength, God, give them love! More tears splash on the rug like the downpour outside the window. Make them brave, please, save them from fear!

I don’t know how long I kneel here shivering and praying, but eventually my alarm buzzes for me to wake up for work. I start getting dressed, chanting my litany the entire time: “Give them strength. Give them love. Make them brave.”

Outside, the dark has lifted. The torrent has slowed to a downpour but heavy droplets still stream from the sky like crystal rosaries. Give them love, make them brave. I plod across Elysium for the bus stop huddled under Mum’s umbrella and rain jacket. My wellingtons squelch through the sodden grass and I dig deep in her pocket, checking for the Baci quotes that she stuffed everywhere, needing her so badly. She doesn’t disappoint. I read the crumpled quote, trying to keep it dry:

“Kisses are the lightning but love is the storm.”

            Give them strength. Give them love. The bus is empty today—another advantage to boarding it so early. The driver has become accustomed to my drawn face and silence so he only nods as I drip my way to my parents’ seats. Then time starts moving in lulls and lurches like the bus. Reaching Oxford seems to take a lifetime, but once I’m there, it becomes a blur. I beat Graham to the lab and all the other researchers. Everything inside me starts working faster: my heart, my brain, my hands. Give them strength. Make them brave. My fingers fly over the lab equipment as though trying to form the protein of bravery instantly. If I had it now, if only I knew how, I could mail it to the Solises to use in the months ahead. I try to decode what Dad meant: “Fifth time. Not December. Add love.” It makes absolutely no sense, yet I’m convinced it has to do with this. Dad never locked unimportant things in the safe.

“Hah! Look who caught the Oxford insomnia,” Graham’s voice startles me. I whirl around, palm over my heart.

“Sorry! Didn’t mean to frighten you.” He smiles, shaking off raindrops from his jacket, but he’s not alone today. With him are three other researchers—dripping too—whom he introduces as Sophie, Rupert, and Elena. “They’re part of our team. They specialize in peptide reduction and are dying to meet you.” Graham rolls his eyes behind their backs probably to make me laugh. But nothing can do that anymore. Why did they have to pick today to join us? On the other hand, more brains for the protein of bravery. I smile and speak the absolute minimum that politeness requires, then turn to my pipettes to prepare them for dispensing the liquefied fear molecules. Graham takes his spot to my left.

“All right there, Eliser?” he asks under his breath. I nod, keeping my eyes on the pale blue liquid. Graham must attribute my silence to my concentration because he doesn’t talk anymore. He starts his methodical calculations, and I feel a rush of gratitude I have him as my lab partner instead of the newcomers who chat freely with each other, stealing looks at me.

Hours race like this as Javier’s last night falls over Portland. If the others talk or ask me questions, I don’t know it. I resurface only when Edison comes in and starts calibrating measurements with us for a while. Any other day, my nerves would be live wires from his presence. But today my brain seems to compartmentalize everything, as though it needs every single neuron to survive.

“You move your hands exactly like Peter,” Edison comments to my right, a ring of marvel in his voice. My brain tucks that away close to my heart, but doesn’t falter. At the same time, it’s dispensing the fear liquid into vials while converting time to Pacific Standard—it’s midnight in Portland now. Everyone will be curled up in bed, but they won’t be able to sleep. Give them rest. Make them brave.

“Elisa, slow down. We don’t want to spill the 2-AG liquid,” Edison coaches gently.

“I won’t spill it,” I answer with a confidence that two days ago would have stunned me. Today it stuns them. From the corner of my eye, I notice all five stop what they were doing and stare. My brain is already allocating the rest of the liquid into vials, but it sends a signal to me to pause, look up at them, and mimic a smile. “Sorry, I know I’m being rude, but I’ve had a thought and would like to test it as soon as possible. And I’m hopeless at talking while doing that.” The lie is smooth—too smooth for me—but instinctively I know I shouldn’t share my dad’s clue with anyone. Not until I have decoded it. Dad hid it in the safe and kept it to himself for a reason.

“No doubt, no doubt,” mumbles Edison, watching me intensely as though I’m one of the combusting peptide bonds. “Exactly like him,” he adds, but my brain has moved on. The last droplets of the blue liquid swirl into vials like glacial pools. Another line of neurons triggers a memory of his sapphire eyes, and my hands falter now. One of the pipettes trembles, and I almost miss the vial. I think I hear a smirk from Edison, but the liquid doesn’t spill. No more thoughts of him, my brain issues a global command, and every cell falls in rank as they mobilize my hands to start injecting peptide liquid—the fear’s counter-substance—into the blue pools. Two in the morning in Portland now, the hardest hour, and I move faster. The pinkish hue of the peptides infuses the blue liquid, turning it lilac like Mum’s eyes in the sun. Help them, Mum, give them sweet dreams! Edison, Graham, and the others have injected all the other vials. In unison, we place them in the centrifuge. While they spin blurry with speed, my brain is counting down the minutes to dawn in Portland. After a fifth rotation, the vials stop spinning.

“Now then,” Edison announces meaningfully. “I see you mixed them a fifth revolution longer. Let’s see if this will coagulate them.”

Gingerly, with the crucible tongs, I lift the first vial to hover it over the Bunson burner that Graham is controlling. A single brain cell takes a second to confirm my hands are steady, and then all six sets of lungs in the lab hold their breath. If the “fifth” in my dad’s note relates to spinning time, the lilac mixture should thicken to a viscous syrup consistency. If not—

BANG! The vial cracks at the same time that the mixture combusts into a blue flame. A collective gasp drowns the hissing noise as dawn breaks over Portland.

“Again,” I say. And we start all over. BANG! BANG! BANG! The vials explode into smithereens, fire after fire. The Solises will be getting up now, getting dressed. Reagan and Benetto will drive to the courthouse in Tacoma, while Maria, Antonio, and the girls stay behind, away from ICE officers. Will they even be able to say goodbye? Make them strong. Make them brave.

“Again,” I say, reaching for another vial.

“No, Elisa, this is the fifth time, we can’t waste it!” Edison’s tone is final, exasperated, but my brain pauses everything. The fifth time! I stare at the innocent lilac liquid in the vial in my hand. What happens to it in the fifth time? Whatever it is, it cannot be December. My brain kicks into overdrive, cataloging everything having to do with the month: Christmas, cold, winter, snow, ice, the last month, the twelfth month! In a blast of awareness, my head snaps up to the periodic table on the wall across from me. The twelfth element: magnesium. Remove it on the fifth spin!

“What is it? Elisa, what? What have you discovered?” Edison’s loud voice breaks through at the same time as adrenaline starts waning. Because I still don’t know what “add love” means. Is that February fourteen? I search the periodic table but neither the second nor the fourteenth element would make sense. My parents’ anniversary? My birthday? No, those don’t fit either.

“Oh for heavens’ sake!” Edison shouts, yanking me back. His eyes are wide, boring into me like lasers. Graham and the others are watching too.

“What did you see?” Edison asks again, his voice calmer now that he has my attention.

“It’s nothing, I didn’t see anything,” I tell them all. The energy that was powering my brain drains away, and abruptly I feel the urge to sit.

“You thought of something! I know you did!” Edison insists. “I’ve seen that look in Peter’s eyes a thousand times. What was it?” The lab is trilling with his excitement, his desperation, but deep inside my dad’s voice says hush.

“Well?” Edison’s hands are in fists at his sides, so intense is his hope.

“I thought maybe if we added an anti-fire coagulant this time, it would help,” I invent wildly.

Edison shakes his head with a deep sigh, deflated, as I knew he would be. His fists relax. “We’ve tried that. Didn’t Graham tell you?”

“He must have, only I forgot.”

He closes his eyes briefly as though unable to watch, and I see in that gesture how much this means to him. How he grieves each step-back, perhaps as I grieve Dad.

“We’ll get there,” I assure him, feeling guilty, but not guilty enough to break with my dad.

Edison nods and composes his face. “No doubt, no doubt. Keep up the good work.” He scans the lab one last time and strides out, but his sunken disappointment stays behind. We all return to our own desks in silence. I sense eyes on me, but my brain has gone from absorbing everything to registering nothing except the courtroom where I last saw Javier. Soon he will be leaving his cell in an inmate van. Give him strength. Give him courage.

Graham leans close to me. “Something’s going on with you today,” he mutters. “Did you really not come up with anything or was that just for Edison?”

“No, I really didn’t. I’m just distracted—my best friend from Portland is coming to visit tomorrow.”

“That’s brilliant. Is he or she staying long?”

“Her name is Reagan.” Saying it out loud feels good, like sending it into the universe for her to answer. “And I wish she could stay forever, but it’s only for a couple of weeks.” And then what? Will I have to start all over again? How many times can I say goodbye to Reagan before her star implodes too?

Graham starts the experiment from the beginning, but I’m across the ocean. Judge Lopez will enter the courtroom any minute now and begin trial. My stomach starts twisting so violently that I mumble about needing a break and barely manage to walk normally to the restroom. As soon as I close the door, I deposit whatever little is in my stomach into the sink. Make them brave. Make them safe. I splash cold water on my face, not seeing my reflection in the mirror, only that courtroom. Is ICE presenting its case now? Javier is a thief; he stole painting supplies; he is a risk.My dad’s watch ticks the minutes away as I lean against the restroom wall. When will Benetto start his defense? Dad, give him your brainwaves. Give him help. My stomach churns again but thankfully nothing comes out this time. I gulp some water straight from the faucet and plod back to Bia.

“Any breakthroughs in the lav?” says Graham.

“I wish.”

“Ah, that’s rotten luck. Sometimes I get my best ideas in there.”

I start scrubbing all the beakers, flasks, burets, and unbroken vials vigorously, my eyes seeing nothing but the Tacoma courtroom. Benetto’s argument must be over by now. Any minute Judge Lopez should issue his ruling. Give him compassion. Give him mercy. A beaker slips through my hands and shatters on the stainless steel sink. I start cleaning up the shards, ignoring Graham’s offers for help, needing like air the focus required for collecting broken glass. Behind me, the four of them start cleaning up their workstations—it’s a summer Friday after all. Soon they’ll leave and I can fall apart alone.

“Eliser, come on! We usually grab a pint at King’s Arms on Fridays,” calls Graham from his locker. “I don’t think you’ve been there yet. And we might as well save some of the beakers.”

“Sorry, Graham, rain check this time,” I call back, keeping my eyes on the vial I’m disinfecting. “I have to be back at the cottage tonight.” As if any other place could contain me after my phone rings.

All four try to convince me to join them for a few useless minutes but they eventually relent. As they pass me on their way out, Graham whispers: “When I said he lives in you, I didn’t mean have no life for yourself. Have fun with your friend. See you Monday.”

The lab door closes behind them with a click.

Perhaps it’s the terror mounting inside me or Graham’s words lingering in my ear—“he lives in you”—but my brain reignites abruptly. What if I can really do this? Not just for Dad anymore, but for all my other lost stars. And what if someday he could use it? What if he could eat my bravery protein every morning—it’ll be flavored like Skittles, his favorite candy—like he did my anti-hunger protein that one time at Reed? It could help ease his terror of hurting others, his fear of flashbacks. And he would never know it was from me. I would donate the formula to an American lab for free on the conditions that they produce and supply it exclusively to all PTSD survivors and military combatants and never disclose my identity. A gift to give him even an hour of peace each day without the side effects of psychoactive drugs or the side effects of our relationship. Dad would have liked that too.

My fingers start flying then. I begin isolating and removing the magnesium on the fifth spin. The process is painstaking but that’s good. It fills the time as the clock ticks the minutes away and my phone screen remains categorically blank. Eventually, the magnesium disintegrates off the peptide bonds. I inject the stripped peptides into the blue liquid, goggles firmly on in case it explodes again. But it doesn’t. The lilac liquid starts thickening. My heart is sprinting but in a few seconds the liquid separates and disintegrates into a watery mess.

“Bollocks!” I curse at it. This must be the moment when I need to “add love.” But no matter how much I stare at the periodic table or search through the supply cabinets, I cannot fathom what Dad meant. Yet I can’t help but feel I’m getting closer. Give them all peace. Make them all brave.

It’s almost eleven thirty in the morning in the Tacoma courtroom. Minutes pass, one after the after, and my phone remains silent. I contemplate calling but what if Judge Lopez is still deciding or asking questions? I don’t want to interfere with anything. And what if they’re done? What if Judge Lopez ruled to deport Javier, and they’re saying goodbye? How could I interrupt that one last moment?

I jump to my feet then, cleaning up quickly. Even the breakthrough I just made cannot stop my molecules of terror any longer. I sprint out of Bia, needing only one place in the world that’s not that courtroom. My cottage. The downpour has changed to a drizzle by now, like teardrops against the twilight sky. Give them light. Give them strength.

I wish some day I could look back at these hours and say I passed them with courage, or at least grace. But that’s not what happens. Instead I have empty stretches of time where I remember nothing. I don’t know how I got on the bus or when I arrived at the cottage. But here I am as the rain stops completely and the clouds part for the evening stars. I call then. Ringing Reagan over and over while pacing every corner of the cottage but her bubbly American voicemail always has the same answer: “You’ve reached Reagan. I can’t get to the phone right now. Leave a message and I’ll call you back.”

After twenty-five times—definitely not graceful or courageous—I call Maria, no longer caring if she is standing right next to Stella. But the ring drops off with the generic computer greeting that all the Solis phones have. Antonio’s does the same. There could be only one explanation and my mind recoils from it even though we knew it could end this way. I whirl like a tornado through the cottage, trying to think. Who do I call next? I try Bob—his assistant informs me he is at a trial. Is that the Solis trial, Miss, has he gone to watch? The assistant politely tells me she cannot share confidential information and takes my name and number. By the time she hangs up, there is no one left. Only him! But how could I inflict myself on him when I know the pain my voice would cause him, the terrifying flashbacks I would trigger? And if it is bad news, as it’s looking to be, can I put the burden of giving it to me on his ever-tense shoulders? Can I force him to speak the words that will shatter me more than any attack of his? All this after making him a monster? And could I hang up after hearing his voice? Could I live through that again?

I march out of the cottage and start tending to the roses with a lantern. Help them, Mum, save them with your magic. I prune the withered blooms and gather the petals that have fallen from the rain into mulch. The thorns prick at me—they’re just sharp kisses, Mum would say—but I welcome it. Each prick is a call back from the nightmares in my head. But even the roses can’t hold my attention anymore.

Phone clutched in hand, I end up in Elysium, treading circles around its perimeter. The moon is brighter than the sun was today, and the clouds have cleared. And the phone remains silent, no matter how often I check its signal or battery. Make it end, God, give it a good end, please. My entire frame is shaking in terror. Perhaps I could keep some of the bravery protein for myself. I trudge back toward the cottage then, unscientific superstitions slithering inside my brain like venom. If I change paths, maybe they will call. If I enter the cottage on the right foot, maybe Judge Lopez will rule for Javier. If I light the fire in the fireplace, maybe it will burn away these thoughts. If I prepare the guest room for Reagan and cover every inch with fresh roses, she will bring me good news. But nothing works. I turn on one of our home movies on mute and curl up on the sofa, keeping my eyes on Mum and Dad dancing Argentine tango. I’m behind the camera this time, while they waive at me then embrace, eyes only for each other.

And still the night stretches without a call or text. Eleven now, midnight.  With each swing of the pendulum clock on the wall, the answer becomes inescapably clear. Javier didn’t make it. And losing him is so staggering, no one has life left in them to comfort me. They’re all comforting each other, exactly as it should be. Tears start dropping hot and fast on my hands. So this is how it ends. In silence, without the words that make it true because no one can utter them. Who would have the heart tell me there’s been an accident this time? Poor Reagan will need to do that in person tomorrow, or I guess it’s technically today. What mirror did I break? What ladder did I walk under? Help them, God, stay with them. Not with me. I unmute the home movie, letting the tango play because I know my phone will not ring.

Thunder rumbles, rattling the windows again, startling me upright. It’s still dark out. I must have dozed off here on the sofa—how were my neurons able to fall sleep? Another salvo crashes through the cottage, jolting my phone off my hands.

“ELISA!” a voice booms over the clamor, loosening my very bones as another volley shakes the front door. And I realize it’s not thunder, it’s heavy knocks. “ELISA!” the voice resounds again but my feet are ahead of me, sprinting to the foyer. I wrench the door open and for one second, in the foyer light, I glimpse a face I’ve seen a thousand times today in my mind.

Gaunt and hollowed like me, with a thick ebony beard, Javier is standing on my threshold, fist in the air about to knock again. And right next to him, a mass of wild, red curls. That’s all I see because in a flash I’m wrenched off my doorstep as Javier crushes me to his chest.

“Isa, thank God! Thank God!” He cries in my hair, kissing the top of my head, clutching me tightly, as Reagan sobs, hugging my back. I’m squeezed between them, their arms and hands around me so solid, so substantial.

“Javier! Reg!” I gasp into Javier’s sweater, kissing it and clasping his shoulders. “What—how—you’re here—how are you here?”

“Shhh, amorcita, it’s okay. You’re alright. Gracias a Dios, you’re alright!” he says over and over into my hair, pressing me closer.

“Careful Javi, let her breathe!” Reagan chides while hugging my neck.

“You’re the one choking her,” he says but still he tilts up my face. His paint and peppermint smell envelops me, along with Reagan’s Lolita Lempicka perfume. At their homey smell, the tears start—sobs really, so intense that they pull away exactly one inch, while still gripping both my shoulders and hands.

“Breathe sweetheart, deep breaths! We’re here. We’re here for you,” Javier repeats methodically, his voice back to that calm, soothing timbre I remember. He strokes my hair, his ashen face wild with anxiety, and I blink hard to dispel the tears. I see them properly now: Reagan’s tearful emerald eyes—were they always so kind, so beautiful? And Javier’s deep obsidian ones sparkling above the beard full of life, so different than the last time I saw him.

“What happened, Javier?” I blubber, squeezing their hands in each word. “Did ICE kick you out? Are you hurt? Where is Maria? What about the girls and Antonio? How are they—where—why—Javier, what happened?”

“Isa, relax.” Javier brings me back to his chest, gently this time, while Reagan rubs my back. “We’ll explain everything, but we’re all fine. Worried sick about you, but fine.”

“But what happened? I’ve been waiting—”

“We won, sweetheart. Well, we lost first, then won. Then I got emergency parole to travel and see you for humanitarian reasons.” His voice shudders at the last words. “Why did you do this crazy thing, Elisa? I thought I told you not to do anything that risked your green card. And you go and give it all up for us.”

So Bob kept his word; he gave them the money. Exactly right. “You’re my family,” I sniffle into his chest. “Of course I’d take care of you.”

“And we’ll take care of you,” he says quietly, wiping away my tears.

“But how could you possibly have won? And how did you get here so fast? I’ve been so worried!” I pull back to look at the wall of their bodies in front of me, so close, so warm, I almost miss the sideways anxious glance Reagan gives Javier.

“Well,” he says slowly, softly, cupping my cheek. “We had a lot of help from someone.”  They part then, like a double door in front of me, freeing the light of the foyer to stream into the dark garden.

And there, in the path of light some feet away, is a silhouette my cells know awake or asleep, ash or alive. Tall, ramrod straight, shoulders hard against the night, he stands motionless by the Elisa roses.

“Aiden!” My gasp, my feet, my very heart move fast on their own, propelling me forward while everything else falls behind. But with each trembling step toward him, the mind catches up. This isn’t real, it says. It’s too similar to before.

I stop and look over my shoulder. Javier and Reagan are still on the threshold, heaving suitcases inside—they were never in my dreams before. They felt real a few moments ago. But then they close the door behind them, plunging the garden into darkness. My heart starts clawing against my ribs. Under the terror, it will implode like all my stars. This isn’t real.

“Elisa,” his voice calls me, and the sound is so heartbreakingly beautiful. Softer and huskier than the other dreams—like the first word we might speak after a long, deep slumber. My feet obey instantly to his music, captive despite the terror.

I reach him then, as I always do. His face is darker than usual too, the moon is behind him this time, gilding his wavy hair silver. I can’t see his eyes, only the panes of his face contoured against the moonlight. And I know in that, this must be a dream. I know because the livid wound inside my chest is sealed shut. In its place is that deep ember he lit up the very first time we spoke to each other. Even afraid, I can feel it there, its warmth radiating through me, thawing every cell back to life.

“Elisa, are you alright?” He takes a step closer, yet is farther than the other nights he has visited. A faint scent of cinnamon, sandalwood, and something I can’t name wafts with the river breeze. The sandalwood and nameless scent are new; my dreams are getting better. Why is that? Is that because I’ve never needed him more than I do tonight?

“Elisa?” His voice is urgent now, a crescendo in his music.

“You’re here,” I answer, a statement not a question—like I did in the other dreams. Any minute now, he will smile. And the night will get lighter. And I will be able to see his stunning face.

“I am.” The voice is back to a sonata, so perfect for a dream. But the night is not lightening. We haven’t gotten to that part yet.

“Why?” I say my next line.

A deep, throaty sigh—so male I shiver. “There are about seventeen answers to that question in a dichotomous key, Elisa,” he murmurs exactly my words to him from an evening at Andina bar a lifetime ago. So vivid, so flawless even for dreams.

“Give me one,” I tell him. Make the night lighter. Say you’re here to show me the answers.

“To bring you your family,” he says, but it’s the wrong line. And the right one. Always trying to help me, never himself. But the night stays deep, his face still etched in shadow and starlight. I glance back at the cottage—it’s still there—then again at him, unwilling to miss a speck.  He is not walking toward the river like he should be; he is still close to me and the Elisa roses.

“What day is it?” I ask us both to test reality.

“June sixteenth,” our voices join together, baritone and violin. “June fifteenth in Portland,” he adds after I stop. “Elisa, what is it? What’s going on?” The panic in his voice is almost muted by the sudden pounding in my ears.

“And what did you do on June sixteenth ten years ago?”

“Elisa, what’s the matter? Are you hurt?” He is inches from me, his hands out as though to break my fall. Exactly as a dream would.

“Answer me, please,” my voice shudders.

“Okay. I woke up at five-thirty, worked out for forty-five minutes, ate scrambled eggs and four pieces of toast, answered twenty-seven calls and eighty-nine emails, reviewed the articles of incorporation for Hale X, played sixteen games of chess, and fell asleep, reading Brothers Karamazov. The last line I read was ‘The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.’ Do you need more?”

“It’s really you!” I gasp. He is truly here. No one else could match him, real or dream. That’s why he smells better, why his voice is sweeter, why his answers are not lines from a play or details my subconscience could have known. My mind has never done him justice. I tense as my entire body springs to life but his face contorts in anguish at my words—even in the pale moonlight, I can see that. A gust of breath leaves his lips like he has been punched in the gut.

At that sight, at that sound, the last two weeks don’t matter. His lie about Javier doesn’t matter. My questions don’t matter. My wants don’t matter. The only thing that matters is to release him from this pain. To free him. To tell him the truth and turn his stardust into light. So he can shine on.

He is still watching, I can tell from his hard breathing, matching mine gasp to gasp. “I’m so sorry, Aiden,” I tell him. The words spill out fast, as though they’ve been rolling in my mouth since the Solstice Gallery that fateful night. “I’m so very sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry about?” He sounds bewildered. I wish I could see the V that I know is forming between his eyebrows.

“For believing you reported Javier.” My voice trembles. “For even asking you that awful question in the first place.”

I have stunned him into silence, that much is obvious even in the dark. “Elisa,” he says at last, his voice so unbearably soft I imagine him calling me “love” instead. Like he used to. “You didn’t believe anything I didn’t want you to believe.”

Always trying to protect me, even from myself, even now after the end. “That doesn’t justify anything. I know now, I know it wasn’t you. I know you could never have done something like that. It was Feign all along.”

“How did you figure it out?”

You gave me the truth, I want to tell him. You came here every night, like you are right now, never stopping until I found my way. “That’s a very long answer. I’m just sorry I couldn’t figure it out sooner. I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much pain.”

His gasp drowns my voice. “Elisa, stop! You’ve given me nothing but joy. You erase pain, you don’t inflict it.”

How could that be, I want to say. How could I erase pain when my very sight must be triggering memories of his attack, of his suffering? So much so that he exiled me from his life. “That’s not true,” I tell him. “I should have listened to you. I shouldn’t have forced myself on you after the attack. I should have left like you begged me to so many times. I’m so sorry.”

“Elisa, stop this right now!” His voice rises to its familiar hard command. “If you blame yourself about any of this, you will only make me more disgusted with myself.”

And there it is. The truth of the truth; the end of the end. “We will always come back to that, won’t we?” I whisper. To his self-loathing, his determination to save me from himself at all costs, especially at the cost of himself. I step an inch closer—one fingertip and I could touch him. One fingertip and it would shatter me. I knot my hands tightly together at the exact moment that his hands do the same. “Aiden,” I start, feeling his name in my mouth one more time. The way the A molds to my tongue, the way the D caresses the rooftop, the way the N soft and airy brushes my lips. How could I have ever silenced it? How could I have banned it? He waits as I try to find my words. I can feel the warmth of his ember fading, the wound starting to throb again. “I know it’s in your very molecules to shoulder all the blame. Even your atoms think you’re not worthy. Even your cells don’t think you deserve happiness. But you do. I don’t ever want to be the reason for any of these feelings you have about yourself—”

“You’re not!”

“Listen to me, please! I told you once, you brought me back to life. And now you’ve saved Javier—I have noidea how you managed to pull that off, I’m sure I’ll soon find out—but I know it was for me. You keep trying to save me over and over again, even now when I’m not yours to save.”

His shoulders ripple against the moonlight, and his breath catches. “You’re not mine,” he repeats, as if to himself. And the air changes.

“We can’t keep doing this,” I say, every word a shard of glass, cutting the perfect mouthfeel of his name. “You can’t stay captive to me, always trying to do the right thing by me yet hurting us both. I want you to live, live the exact kind of life you want me to have.”

“Elisa…” he whispers. “Love, what are you saying?”

That word. I can keep that word as a souvenir, can’t I? We deserve that much, don’t we? “You call me ‘love’ still.”

“You will always be my love,” he repeats his words to me from that last day we had together. “You know that—”

“Once you love, you love forever,” I finish for him, dream and life coming full circle. This is why all my dreams ended this way. I must have known even then it would have to come to this. I’d have to leave him for the right reasons.

He is unfathomable before me, shadows of night and light carving him into stone. No sound, no breath. I wish the moon was brighter, I wish I could see his beautiful face, his eyes that never told me a single lie. But it’s better this way—how could I have spoken these words then? Yet the urge to touch him, to feel him real here in my garden once so I can look at this spot in the years ahead and say, “I touched a real-life angel there once” becomes visceral. It unlocks my hands and I reach for his face—a small part of me still afraid he will disappear. But this is the goodbye we should have had, even in my dreams.

My fingers touch his cheek for the first time—his warm, smooth skin, the gentle nip of his stubble, longer than I remember. He leans into my hand. “Elisa!” he says, voice catching at the “s” like a sigh.

“Thank you,” I tell him. “For everything.” I want that kiss, that one last kiss to keep forever on my lips like a Peter Pan wink that keeps one young. But I’m not strong enough for that even though I know he would give it. He would give me everything, everything but himself. So I reach on my tiptoes instead and kiss his L-shaped scar. His hands fist in my hair, holding me there tight, his breathing harsh in my ear. His body is taut steel, a forged statue brushing against every line of mine. “Be happy!” I say and try to pull away, shaking with loss. He must sense my need for distance because he drops his hands and lets me go.

“Is this what you really want? What about your happiness?” he chokes, always putting me first.

“I’m sorry, Aiden, you can’t give it to me. No one can.”

“I’d like to try. Please, Elisa.”

“It’s not your job anymore, my love.”

“You call me “love” still.”

“You’ve said it yourself, lack of love was never our problem.” I step back, tears searing my eyes. And why should I cry? Aren’t I lucky to have had this kind of great love? Doomed in the end, yes, but great. My insides don’t find that thought comforting. The wound rips wide open.

“Elisa, please,” he says again, but I am drained. I have seconds left before his sentient eyes see my own pain even in dark and try to save me again, in a never-ending cycle of selflessness that hurts more than any selfish deed.

“Do you have a place to stay?” I ask even though I know he must. He would never sleep with me. He doesn’t even have any suitcases with him.

He nods without words; I can only see the movement.

“Sleep well then. Make it a good dream.”

I caress his scar one more time and turn away, running inside as the tears breach through the last of my dams.

“Elisa!” his voice calls after me even as I close my door.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 9

Hi everyone and welcome to all the new and old readers who are returning! It’s been wonderful to see your names and social avatars again. Thank you for coming back to Aiden & Elisa, and for your comments to me. You support and encouragement means a lot. Without much delay, here is Chapter 9.  Tic toc…

9

Stardust

            Living with the truth turns out to be harder than I imagined.  It’s harder because now I know exactly how much he couldn’t bear to be with me after the attack. It’s harder because there is absolutely nothing I can do to change that. And it’s harder because now I don’t dream of him at all. And that’s the worst part; it’s like losing him all over again.

Still, as difficult as living with the truth is, it’s easier than living with myself. Because harder than everything else are the what-if’s. What if I hadn’t believed him when he told me he reported Javier? What if I had looked closer? What if, instead of forcing myself on him after the attack, I had left as he asked? What if! What if! What if! Like a sledgehammer to the brain, shattering all my rules.

The only things getting me through are Oxford and Reagan’s visit in three days. Of course, we all have to live through Javier’s trial in forty-eight hours first. I cannot think about that. I grab Dad’s lab coat and run out of the cottage for the bus stop even though it’s only five in the morning. But today—after two days of orientation—is my first time working in my father’s lab at Oxford. And although things like joy and excitement are beyond me, I cannot bear the idea of embarrassing my dad.

Walking at dawn alone, without him, feels like the Portland airport, but worse. It’s as though losing him was a cataclysmic event, a big bang that could not be contained in one continent. It has expanded now, radiating through the planet, finding me here in my little, peaceful town, pulverizing whatever flimsy structure I had managed to build.

But the moment I step on the bus, I feel a little stronger, las though Oxford’s hard limestone permeates my skin. By the time the bus drops me off at the University Center, I am centered too.

On the outside, the Chemistry Building looks calm and quiet. But inside, it’s teeming with life. Apparently Oxford does not sleep even in the summer. Students are huddled over books, clutching thermoses of caffeinated drinks, eyes bloodshot with shadows underneath. At least here my face will blend right in. Researchers are stretching their arms in the air, twisting their backs side-to-side, loosening the night’s knots. And behind closed office doors, I’m certain there are professors poring through papers or staring into space at concepts the rest of us cannot see. The entire building is humming with single-minded pursuit of knowledge, with the thrill of discovery within. There is no space in its vast horizons for lost loves, immigration trials, or past crimes. Oxford has its eyes on the vistas of possibilities, on the finite rules of science that survive any big bang, that explain everything. And because of that, Oxford is perfect for me.

But am I perfect for it? As I enter the cavernous state-of-the-art lab that could fit Denton’s in one of its fume hoods, I’m not at all certain. At least ten researchers are there already and when they spare a moment to look up, they all stare.

“Ah, Elisa! Here you are!” Edison calls, striding toward me from one of the cryogenic freezers. “I was beginning to fear you had lost your way.” Clearly, 6:30 in the morning is too late for this crowd. I’m sure Dad used to come to work later, but then again he had Mum and me. Edison is betrothed to science.

“I’m sorry,” I mumble, mortification draping over Dad’s lab coat that I’m wearing.

“Ah, not at all, not all. Like father, like daughter, I reckon. Peter would get in late too, but accomplished twice as much as us, the brain of his.”

Not wanting to waste another second, I start scuttling to the closest empty lab desk, but Edison chuckles. “No, my dear girl, you’re this way, with me.” And he starts marching the length of the lab at a pace that is only technically not running. I scramble behind him, feeling inquisitive eyes on my back, probably relieved that I, the flake, will not be anywhere near their experiments.

“Here we are,” says Edison, opening a door to a lab within the lab—like a heart chamber. I expect to see more futuristic technology, but this lab is homier, with a warmer glow than the harsh fluorescents of the Goliath around us. And, at the very front, as though he is waiting for me, stands a man, probably in his thirties, wearing a white lab coat identical to mine, except the initials: GRK. The moment I look at him, I feel the need to squint. He has lustrous blond hair as though a thousand sunrays are weaved in each strand. His skin is golden and his eyes a butterscotch hazel. He is so lanky that, clad in his brilliant white coat, he could be a neon beam himself. And he is the only one not staring. He is simply smiling.

“Elisa, welcome to the lab where many seasoned chemists wish they could brew. This is Bia.” Edison says the name of the Greek goddess of force and energy with reverence. “And this is my chief researcher, Graham Knightley.”

I’ve been practicing a smile and I employ it now as I reach for Mr. Knightley’s hand, expecting it to be hot due to his sunny appearance but it’s cold, like a true lab resident. “Hello, I’m Elisa Snow. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Knightley.”

“Graham, please! And I know who you are. We’ve all been very eager to meet you.”

If he meant this as reassurance, it has the opposite effect on me. All I can think about is how I am going to embarrass my dad next. What was I thinking taking this on in my current state? I should have worked at the local pub for a while or forever as there are no dreams left for me. But before I can panic thoroughly enough to submit my resignation, Edison claps his hands once, as if to call attention, and says something that changes everything.

“Now, Elisa, you know your father and I had this dream of inventing proteins that are easy to digest but accomplish big things. Like the protein that fights hunger, which you’ve already developed.” He inclines his head to me while I use every brain cell to block memories of selling that protein to him to buy my green card. “Well, shortly before Peter’s accident, we had another idea: develop a protein that fights fear.” Edison whispers this last word, as though it’s an incantation or some secret gospel. For him, it is. As it instantly becomes for me. It triggers a memory of Dad in those last few weeks locked up in our library in that fervor that took over his brain sometimes. He would never tell me the idea that possessed him until he thought it through or found a way, no matter how much I questioned him. “You’ll know soon enough, Eliser,” he’d say. But he never had a chance to tell me that time. He died before the answer came. But I’m still here: how can I resist finding the answer for him? If I cannot dream my own dreams, maybe I can dream my father’s.

“Did Peter tell you about this idea?” asks Edison with a fanatical gleam in his eyes, as though he can read thoughts.

“No.” I shake my head, disappointing him no doubt. “I just remembered that he was in one of his zones right before—” I swallow. “But he never told me what it was.”

“Oh.” The gleam in Edison’s eyes disappears, but he recovers quickly. “No matter. I think he may have made more progress than you realize. So, here in Bia, Graham and I are continuing this work. Every day, every night—for the last four years. We get close sometimes, then lose it right at the moment we inject the 2-AG molecule in the peptide bonds. It combusts into flames. This one is tricky—trickier than anything else I’ve tried. But with you here, maybe we have a chance. Perhaps something will occur to you that has not done to us. And imagine if we do succeed!” Edison’s eyes glint again. “Imagine brewing a life with no fear. What that would mean to you, to me, to so many.”

            To my dad, I finish in my mind. It’s impossible not to feel that I will let Edison down; how could I ever do in a summer what my father wasn’t able to in his life? But how could I not try? How could I not give it every day and every night of what remains of my existence? This is the last thing I have from him.

Time becomes a blur then. Edison leaves for a lecture, and Graham and I work side-by-side, as he shows me their progress, their challenges, and where they’ve gotten stuck. He works quickly, elegantly, his gloved fingers handling the equipment with fluidity, like piano keys.

Every once in a while, he mentions Dad: “Professor Snow would have seen right through this” or “I think he’d have done it this way.” At some point, we both start talking to Dad out loud and neither of us seems to think this is mental. But mostly, we work in a companionable silence trying to reduce the elusive 2-AG molecule into any form compatible with peptides that doesn’t combust. Testing one compound here, another there—like a new musical note in a melody. Many look at chemistry and see fumes, liquids, beakers, flasks, burners. But that’s not what chemistry is: it’s music. Each element, each atom is a note. Each piece of equipment is an instrument. Mix these two compounds together, and they hiss. Mix those two others, and they babble. Throw this fifth substance in, and they ring like trumpets. Find the right formula, and you have a concert. A concert that feeds you when you’re hungry. A concert that makes you brave.  Someday, perhaps a concert that keeps you young. But it’s always music—chemistry is the soundtrack to life.

“Break?” Graham asks after a while.

“No, it didn’t. See? The peptide is still intact.”

“No, I mean, take a break with me?” Graham annunciates slowly, as if thinks I might have forgotten how to speak English.

“Oh! No, no, no!” I say quickly like he suggested I should swallow the liquefied peptides. Who needs a break? What could I possibly allow myself to think? Not to mention I’m not ready to converse casually with people who are not Reagan. Graham’s eyes widen a fraction so I amend to keep him from seeing the madness within. “I mean, thank you, but I’d really like to finish this first. I might—”

“Eliser, it has waited four years, it can wait forty minutes. Besides, I’m famished.” He smiles, but I’m frozen solid. “What’s the matter?” He frowns when I don’t move, probably questioning my mental stability at this point.

“My dad used to call me that sometimes,” I whisper, remembering Dad laughing at his own pun: Eliser—Elixir. “I haven’t heard it said out loud in a long time.”

Graham blanches. “I’m very sorry, I should have asked. Only that’s how Professor Snow referred to you and I suppose it stuck—” he clears his throat. “My apologies, I shouldn’t have used it. What would you like to be called?”

Simple manners, yet the question feels suddenly important to me. “Eliser is fine,” I answer, surprising myself.  Then again, is it really a surprise? The girl I was, named after Beethoven’s melody, is gone forever; no one will be playing the piano again for me.

Graham waits as though he guesses I’m processing something. Or perhaps he is getting used to everything taking me longer. “A break might be a good idea,” I concede, trying to sound normal as we walk out of Bia.

Without failing, the researchers’ eyes follow us out. By the time we reach the building cafeteria though I realize it’s not just the researchers. A couple of professors come up, shaking my hand, saying, “Welcome back! Welcome back!” The kind-faced woman who prepares our lunch grins at me. “Ham and mustard for your sarnie, dear?” she asks. I can only nod as I realize she is guessing I like my sandwich like my dad. Even the elderly groundskeeper weeding the quad when we go to eat outside looks up and tips his hat. “Bless my soul! It’s Peter and Clare’s girl! Welcome home, child! Welcome home!” I keep my practiced smile glued firmly on my face but it must not be very convincing because Graham picks up his pace, leading us to the ancient oak tree on the other side of the quad. As we perch on its thick roots, I try to look like I’m unwrapping my sarnie when really I am trying to breathe. All these people—each a molecule in my parents’ life—happy to see me, and all I can think is they have it wrong. I’m back, yet I feel gone too long.

“All right there, Eliser?” Graham prompts. The fact that he has eaten half his sarnie is a clue as to how long I’ve been drifting.

“Oh, sorry. It’s just all this. They all . . .” I can’t find words to explain what I’m feeling.

“Stare, smile, and welcome you back with open arms?” Graham finishes for me. “Come on, it could be worse. Besides, it’s only your first week here. By Friday, they’ll have moved on to something new.”

That should comfort me, but it does not. “It’s not just that. Even Edison . . . he—I don’t know how to put it.” What is the feeling Edison gives me sometimes? Like I’m not meeting expectations? Or like I am? I can’t decipher it.

Graham sets down his sarnie on the paper plate and turns to me. In the sun, he is even brighter. “Listen. I, Edison, the others—we can’t imagine how hard it must have been losing your parents. But you have to understand, Peter Snow was a legend around here. And your mum curated Ashmole’s manuscripts for heaven’s sakes. Everyone loved them. Their accident rocked Oxford! And now, everyone feels like they’re catching a glimpse of Clare again, or a bit of Peter. It’ll pass. With time, they will see you for you.”

There is no me left, I want to say. He is missing the real problem. “I’m more worried about disappointing Edison, about not being able to do this. I’ve only just graduated, and you two are light years ahead of me. Shouldn’t I be scrubbing beakers in Goliath instead of helping you in Bia?”

“Ah, yes!” Graham nods. “Feeling inadequate at Oxford—that’s novel. No one’s ever felt that before. Definitely not me. And especially not Edison.” He winks with sarcasm, probably trying to lighten the mood.

It does not work. I don’t mind not keeping up with the brainiacs. I mind embarrassing my dad. I mind failing at his dream. These are things I cannot tell Graham, but he must have a sense—he is one of the brainiacs after all—because he speaks again after a few more bites. “Listen, Eliser! I was born to study chemistry. I have no passion or interest in anything else, and I’m told I’m not brilliant with emotional conversations either. But I do know one thing: you can work day and night, you can study harder than anyone else, you can sacrifice everything, and you still won’t achieve something that does not live in you. To me, to Edison, and the other researchers, Peter Snow was a chemistry god, and mortals can’t do what gods can. But to you, he was only your dad. And whether you think that’s enough or not, he lives in you. So don’t do what Edison or anyone else expects: do what you and your dad would do. And all will be well.” He frowns at the last words, as if he is assuring himself as much as me.

I turn his words in my head. Could the answer be there in their simple precision?

“Do you still live at the cottage?” Graham asks abruptly, like he has reached his capacity for emotional reassurance.

“How did you know about the cottage?”

He gives me a look that can only be described as an eye roll. “Everyone knows about the rose cottage.”

            And how it was abandoned. “Yes, I’m still there.”

“Well, after you’ve adjusted a bit, you could invite some of the profs and researchers—not all, mind, some of us can be positively cutthroat—and you can start forming your own relationships, hm? And if you finally finish that sarnie so we can get back to work, I might even be persuaded to leave the lab for a few hours and come over to help you with deep emotional things.” He chuckles, pointing at my sandwich. I wrap it back quickly and hop up.

“I’m ready.”

“Can I have that if you won’t eat it?” Graham asks, quite serious. For some reason, I think of Javier—of that big-brotherly feeling I always had around him. They are opposites, Javier and Graham, in every way: Javier is dark where Graham gleams golden. Javier lives for art, and Graham lives for science. Javier sees straight to one’s soul, Graham sees the molecules. Javier is losing everything in two days, and Graham is only starting. Yet they’ve both given me the same thing: a sketch for the next step.

I think about that while riding the last bus back to Burford, nine hours later. We all have before-and-afters that change us forever. Our personal big bangs—massive explosions in our skies that form and transform our galaxies from the ashes and dust left behind. And we go on, each time a new star, gravitating across the universe until our orbit collides with other stars, and we form constellations we call families, friends, love. My constellations have imploded—one by one, each star was extinguished. I have been rotating around their void, searching for a trajectory of some kind. I’m not a star, only a cloud of ash left behind. But what if it’s not all ash—what if it’s the stardust of those bright, bold stars?

I see a solution then. Maybe I can use what’s left of my energy to ignite the stardust back to light. Use my orbit to make Dad’s dream come true, care for Mum’s roses, help Javier’s family, and let him live free of me without guilt. And if I can do all that, maybe my lost stars will shine again. And maybe that’s enough in the end to transform this existence from inertia into life.

The cottage is quiet when I go in, Mum’s roses fast asleep in their beds, tucked under the velvet sky blanket, with the moon as a side lamp. As I switch on the lights, I wonder if the cottage sees in me what I see in it: no more dust or cobwebs, warmer, with some signs of life. Fresh-cut roses here, open books and empty teacups there, a little fire in the beehive fireplace, trainers on the doorstep. At least the cottage must think I’m alive.

I make some spaghetti, tapping my foot while the water is boiling, eager to kindle my stardust. When the pasta is ready, I take the plate with me to Dad’s library.

First: Javier’s family. In two days, their own constellation will implode. I send an email to Bob, my lawyer, to confirm that the trust I set up for the Solises is ready for them to use immediately after the trial. It’s not the same as having their brother, but it will help. Then, after finishing almost all of the spaghetti in thought, I text Maria. I cannot call her while she is living with his parents; I won’t ever let my orbit collide with his again, no matter how distantly.

            “Mamá, it’s me. I’m sorry I haven’t called, I will soon. I know the next two days will be very hard. But please remember what I told you before I left: no matter what happens, you, Antonio, and the girls will be okay. I may be gone, but you’re in my heart. I’ll take care of you. I love you, corazon y alma.”

            I stare at the inadequate text, wishing I could tell them about the money but Bob was strict that I could not before the trial. The message bubble becomes green as it’s delivered internationally, and I picture it arriving in her phone, in his childhood home, beeping in her hand or by her ear. She’ll be looking at it now, dabbing her tearful eyes, whispering “Bendita, bendita.” As I wipe my eyes along with her image, a bubble floats on my screen:

            “Isa, amorcita! I miss you. I love you. You here in mi corazon. Reagan says you hurt and no talk. Be strong, hija. Be strong. Eat your comida. Sleep your sleep. God is good. God will save all my children. God will bring you all back to me. I go to church now for pray with Stella. Call me, hija, I miss your voice!”

A tear drops on my phone screen. All her world is about to end, and she’s telling me to eat and sleep. I will never regret giving up my green card so she can live, and live well. Another tear drops on Stella’s name—his mum. The only other woman in the world who has borne the brunt of his startle reflex and the exile that follows. Who knows some of what I’m feeling. Maybe Maria and Stella will form their own constellation—two mothers with sons alive but lost. I send Maria a heart emoji and turn on Bod.

Second up: Javier himself. I cannot save him, but I can avenge him. I draft a full account to The Oregonian, exposing Feign’s fraud and telling them about the true Da Vinci. Javier’s genius will be known even if he will not be there to see it. I save the draft and schedule to send it Friday after Javier’s trial is over. None of us will have anything more to lose by then. I write to Oxford next, asking about their fine art program admissions for international students living in Mexico. Although America would be Javier’s dream, I know the universities there will not admit him after he is deported. But Oxford might—Javier has no past here. And, with his family secure and my cottage as a home, maybe he can pursue his art. Maybe his star can finally shine.

It’s near midnight now but I don’t feel tired. I still have Dad’s dream left. I dig out all of Dad’s notepads from every single shelf and drawer and stack them into towers on the floor, like miniature skyscrapers. And then start reading. Flipping through the pages, tracing every scribble and covalent bond with my finger, looking for anything he might have wanted, wished, or thought about the protein of bravery. But I can’t find anything—some of it I can’t even read or understand. My eyes start to itch, even though I’ve only made it through two of the fifteen towers. Oddly the lack of progress calms me. I have many years ahead to fill with this dream.

But as my eyelids start to droop and another dreamless night stretches before me, I can’t ignore the star I’ve been avoiding. His. He is the hardest of them all. Because his most powerful wish is to be able forget, and I have no proteins for that. But there was one other thing he wanted: me to forget him, me to stay away. And I will, but not because he is a monster. I will leave him because it’s best for him and best for me. I see it now so crystal clear. The end of love is never in anger. Love ends only when it’s the right thing. And this is right even though the agony sears me to my cells. I stand then, not surprised by where my feet are taking me. I think I’ve known since the field epiphany it would come to this. A goodbye to the man I know, not the one I heard that day.

The safe in the wall clicks open at the code, and the aged envelopes Benson gave me tumble forward. “You were brilliant, Benson. I just wasn’t quick enough to see it,” I whisper as I grab their rough, commissary paper, hands trembling so hard I almost drop them. The pain in my chest changes—it doesn’t throb; it suffocates, wringing my veins and airways until I can’t breathe. But I clutch the envelopes to that spot between my lungs he first brought to life, keeping the eyes on the periodic table until I find oxygen again. Then, gently as though the edges will slice me, I tear the envelopes with Mum’s letter opener.  The reddish coarse sand trickles on my fingers. And like that very first time I read his words, I sink on the floor.

            April 14, 2003

            My All,

            I come to you the way we come home. With dust on the skin and fire in the blood. It’s always dark when I come to you, the shamal winds wailing, the sand cycloning in places you haven’t touched (probably for the best). The light is always on above our door, the curtain is always moving. I raise my hand to knock, but I don’t want to knock gently. I want to pound with my fist on the door, tear it off its hinges, and make the foundations whimper. I want the night to go deaf from my arrival. I don’t want to enter, I want to burst into your arms and there I can kneel, molding into your small hands back into the man you believe me to be.

            I want to go blind from your eyes. I have no idea what color they are (I have tried blue, green, brown, black—nothing fits you). I want my eardrums to rupture at your cry when you finally see me.  I hope you yell at me, hit me, slap me. “What the hell took you so long?” I hope you tell me.

            And I will stand there, absorbing your blows more than any bullet, with no words. No words for your face, for the smell of you, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.

            “So help me God, Aiden Hale, what took you so long?” you will yell again, furious.

            But I will not answer you. How could I tell you that I had deserts to cross, oceans to swim, thousands to murder, more to free, bleeding brothers to carry on my back for miles and miles and miles before I came to you? You will never hear that outside of these letters. I have made an oath to give only music to your ears (and some really filthy words).

             So instead, I will look at your face. I loved you at first sight. At last sight. I didn’t need to see all of you to know that I was yours. Probably only a single strand of your hair blowing in the wind, or your hand peeking from your sleeve, or maybe even your shadow, and I loved you. This is how I want to love. In a way that will finish me at the end of the desert, at the end of the war. At the end of it all, I want to die because of you.  

            “Are you going to answer or will you just stand there gawking at me?” you will shout.

             I will reach for that strand of hair I first saw and kiss it. “Bed,” I will say.

            Yours,

            Aiden

Dawn breaks outside the cottage, the first ray of sun filtering through the library window. All the letters are open, each word tattooed forever on my retinas. They all start and end the same: “my all” and “yours.” In between are the words of a fairytale, of a man and a woman who could only be together in letters and paintings. And that’s where they should always remain, in a happiness we could not give them in life. I tuck all the letters back in their envelopes and place them in the safe.

“Be well,” I tell them.

But as I shuffle the rest of the safe contents to close the door, another speckle of stardust falls out: a torn piece of paper with Dad’s script, so rushed he must have barely finished it before locking it in:

“Fifth time. Not December. Add love.”

            I stare at the words. To anyone else they would make no sense. I don’t know what they mean either, but I know what they are: Dad’s code when he discovered something. I lock it back in the safe as outside, a new day starts in England, ticking away the hours to Javier’s fate.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 8

Hi everyone,

Thanks to those who read and dropped me a note on the last two chapters. It means a lot to hear from you, and keeps my story going.  Here is Chapter 8–I think it will answer a big question many of you have been wondering since the story was first posted. Hope you enjoy it. xo, Ani

8

The Truth

            The next day is short. And long. It’s short because I spend most of it sleeping while my mind and body grapple with the consequences of my homemade drug use. It’s long because when I finally wake up at three in the afternoon, groggy and dazed, there are still hours left before I can camp on the field and hope for sleep—and him—to find me naturally this time.

I can’t say how I spend those hours. My mind is more determined to replay every minute of last night’s terror than register any hour of today’s waiting. It dissects every detail, magnified in Technicolor and surround-sound, while the present plays in the background like muted elevator music. Every time I try to pause the rewind reel—by washing Mum’s parka, by preparing my clothes for Monday, by tending the roses and allowing the occasional thorn to prick my skin—my mind wrenches me back to the dream, reliving the path we took, his words, my reckless leap into deep rapid water, over and over and over. Perhaps my mind is trying to learn something new, or perhaps it’s entirely broken. Whatever the reason, my brain only reconnects with the present when the sun starts to dip and I have to find our old camping tent in the depths of the garden toolshed. From that moment onward, my mind and body seem to meld together, moving in tandem, focused inexorably on every preparation for the night ahead. As though survival depends on it—because it does.

I finally find the tent from our last family camping trip to Scotland. That same old ache enters the fray of my insides, but my brain is too interlocked with my body to falter. Next, I grab the bare minimum essentials for tonight: my sleeping bag, a flashlight, a change of clothes in case I end up in the river again, and a thermos for tea. But packing it all in a way that I can carry defies all my mathematical skills. And it breaks all my three cardinal rules in one fell swoop. Because I have to unpack my rucksack from America to manage to pack for my trek tonight. It’s impossible not to think of the past as I dig out my clothes that still smell of Portland, that still carry him in their fibers. Raw, utterly un-scabbed by time, the wound inside my chest rips open and for, a few moments, I can’t breathe. But The Oregoniannewspaper Reagan bought for me at the airport to honor my tradition tumbles out and restarts my lungs like James’s arms did yesterday. I flip through its carbon-printed pages, marveling at the date. June 1. Only a week ago, yet it feels a lifetime away. So much happened on that day. How did the world have room for more? But it did. Someone won the Powerball, the Timbers lost to the Sounders, and—my breath catches again—Brett Feign’s investigation made the papers: “Brett Feign, prominent local artist and owner of Feign Art Gallery prosecuted for tax evasion, fraud, and assault on an officer.” I snort. A single headline for an investigation that caused so much grief. I crumple up the paper and toss it in the waste bin, wishing I had time to light it on fire. Maybe if I survive my expedition tonight, I will. I don’t need souvenirs or reminders of that day.

The sun is lowering further now, and I manage to cram all my camping gear inside the rucksack, except the rolled-up tent which I’ll have to carry in my arms. I gulp down some canned soup, and set out on foot, locking the door behind me.

“See you soon,” I tell the cottage, hoping this is not another promise I will have to break.

The evening is balmier tonight. The fluffy clouds are lit up with sunset, like apricot rose blooms across the sky, deepening to copper in the bottom with iridescent halos on top. With a sigh, I realize they look like my favorite rose: Aeternum Romantica.  The rare rose I’ve only ever seen once…when he shipped hundreds and hundreds of them from Kenya for me. The jolt of pain from the memory knocks me breathless, locking my feet. I clutch the packed tent to my chest, hugging it close. “Hydrogen! I whisper. “1.008. Helium, 4.003. Lithium, 6.94…” It doesn’t dull pain—it hasn’t been working well since the hilltop grave—but at least my breath flows again and I’m able to move. The Aeternumclouds glow brighter above. I tell myself this is a good omen, and troop ahead awkwardly under my load.

I follow the same trail along the river as last night, but this time I will take the bridge. As he meant for me to do in the dream.  The nightingales start their dusk mating song, and the Aeternum clouds float across the sky. When I reach the bend in the river, a shiver runs through me, but I keep walking, noticing with relief there are no tents or tall figures around. Wherever James is, at least I don’t have to face him.

The limestone bridge is only a quarter mile further—“we’re getting closer,” he said in the dream—but I’m still huffing and sweating by the time I reach it. Its arches curve over the river straight onto the field. I cross it as quickly as I can, and finally I’m on the other side.

I stop to catch my breath for a minute while scanning the field.  It’s empty, a dark bronze under the twilight sky. The grass sways in the breeze, taller on this end than by the cottage. A beech or elm tree punctuates through it here and there, like guards standing sentinel in front of some invisible gate. At the far border opposite me, the town’s lights are starting to twinkle.

“What does he want me to see here?” I mumble to myself, feeling abruptly foolish for this whole endeavor. Worse than foolish; downright mental. Yet, there is no question of me turning around. I heave the tent into my arms and start searching for a spot to camp for the night. I don’t know where he would want me but, since he’s been pointing to this field as far back as the cottage, I have to assume I should camp in that direction. So I cut through the grass parallel to the river, breathing hard again. Eventually I make it back down across from Elysium. If I squint, I can see the peaky rooftop of the cottage in the distance. There is a strong beech tree nearby, about the size of the one planted for me in the garden. That seems like another good omen, so I set up my tent under its branches with a lot more effort than it takes to understand Dad’s and Edison’s theory of crystalline structures of inorganic matter. When it’s finally erect and secure, I’m so exhausted that I plop on the grass, panting and sweating, not even bothering to crawl inside, just staring at the sky as the stars begin to cross-stitch constellations across the navy velvet canvass.

At length, my breathing slows, and the breeze dries the beads of sweat off my temples. An inky darkness drapes over every blade of grass. And reality changes with the night. Instead of quiet, the field seems brooding. Rather than near, the cottage feels too far. Instead of alone, I feel lonely. And instead of a solution, this camp feels like closure.

I stand then. This would be a good time to take out my flashlight and comb through each centimeter of this field. Search behind each tree trunk, shake down the branches. It would keep me occupied, and it would block these thoughts. But instinctively I know the search would yield nothing. Whatever I need to see here is not part of my conscience, I cannot access it while awake. No, this is subliminal, somewhere deep, interred in the subconscious recesses of the mind. And for reasons I cannot grasp, it will only reveal itself with him.

I crawl inside the tent, certain that my psyche will summon him here when it’s time. The familiar thrill starts crackling in the closed space like electricity. The cheater is stronger tonight. My conscious being recoils from it in revulsion—I hate this frisson that binds me to him like an umbilical cord. But it will be over soon. If tonight doesn’t work, on Monday, I will call a doctor. My insides resist that option too for other reasons, reasons having to do with not seeing him again, but I shove them aside. They don’t change anything.

I slide inside the sleeping bag, sipping my chamomile tea, waiting for sleep to find me. But hours pass and nothing happens—probably because I slept in so late or because I don’t have the willows’ lullaby. Every once a while, I test reality: I can push my finger against the tent’s nylon fabric without it going through. I can trace back my steps. Awake. Awake. Awake.

Then, sometime in the night, something changes. Instead of wondering when he will come, I start thinking where he is. Is he in his home nestled in the hills of Portland or at his Alone Place, sleeping outside like me? His stars are just starting as mine will be fading. And it feels like a metaphor for everything.

“Elisa.”

His voice rings out, so clear, so close. I jolt upright, expecting to see him right next to me, but the tent is empty.

“I’m outside,” he says like a caress, like an answer to my unspoken question. In an instant I’m out of the tent and onto the field, as though his words were marionette lines.

He waits for me under the silver moonlight, with those eyes that look past the world. They trace my jawline like always, as the tectonic plates shift and find that peaceful spot that belongs to me alone. He smiles my favorite lopsided smile, and the dimple I know so well forms in his cheek like a kiss.

“Thank God you’re safe!” he says with relief, and his right hand lifts a fraction as though he’s reaching for me. Instinctively I step forward into his touch, but his hand flies behind him. The abrupt motion leaves me drifting.

“I should have listened to you,” I whisper, still looking at the empty space his hand left behind.

“Don’t be sad, my love. We can try again now. I’ll keep you safe. Do you trust me?”

“Yes.” My answer is resolute and automatic.

He smiles the full-dimpled smile again, then starts striding across the field, always a step ahead of me. But even though he walks slower tonight, I never seem able to catch up to him. I notice he is leading us away from the river, in the opposite direction, toward the edge of the field that borders town. I don’t ask him where he is taking me, it doesn’t matter; I know he will lead me there in the end. Instead, I look only at him, the hair tousled from the wind, the ever-tense shoulders, wishing he would slow down so I can see his otherworldly face. As though my wish was a silent command, he looks over his shoulder, and his pace slows to a stroll.

“You’re not in a hurry tonight?” he says.

I shake my head. Another dimpled smile. “I like it better this way, too.”

“Why?”

He stops abruptly, gazing at me without an answer. The smile is still there but the dimple disappears. So small a pucker but it leaves a chasm open in my chest. I want to bring it back.

“I was thinking of you,” I say. “Right before…before you came.”

“Oh?” The dimple reappears.

“I was wondering where you were, where you sleep.”

“You know the answer to that one.”

I shake my head. The dimple disappears again. “I am always with you.”

I want to tell him it’s not true, that he has never slept with me, but I don’t want the dimple to go away. So I just nod, and he starts walking again. “We’re almost there,” he says, his tone a mixed note of sadness and triumph. “Just straight ahead.”

We’re almost across the field now, as the rows of gabled rooftops and chimneys loom in the lightening night. Their windows are still dark, but the overnight lights of the shops are glowing, closer and closer. Then suddenly underneath my sneakers, I hear the thump of cobblestone instead of the whish of grass. We’ve reached the town.

“Right across the street,” he says, but for the first time, lets me lead. I cross the cobbled alley to the line of ancient shuttered shops. Now what? I turn to him for direction, but he is still on the other side, looking at me with unfathomable eyes.  “Three doors to your right,” he says before I can ask anything.

I count the doors—one, two, three—and there, in front of me, is a very familiar whitewashed shop, with mullioned windows and barrel pots full of evening primroses that Mum planted as a gift on the shop’s fiftieth anniversary. On the eave above, under a pool of light, hangs its sign:

Solstice Gallery

Fine Art

Ivy Lane

Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4PA

“Aid—” I start to call him in confusion but as I read the words again, something astonishing happens. The letters start moving, scrambling together, bumping into each other, sliding out again, dropping off, like vectors in chaos. My eyes are frozen wide, tracing every move as the mosh pit of letters spins and rearranges itself over and over.  Then, in a burst of intuition, the letters stop and new words appear before my eyes:

Solis Ice Reality

Feign Art

“Oh!” I gasp. The force of my realization yanks me back violently, wrenching me awake as my scream drowns a fading whisper: “Once I love, I love forever.”

The world comes into sharp, crystallized focus, but it takes me longer—longer than any other night—to get my bearings. The raw wound by my heart is throbbing, pulsing like a heartbeat of its own, making my head spin as every event, every word of those last few days in America replays under this new light. I sink on the sidewalk, gripping the cold, cobblestone for balance and leaning my head against the wall of Solstice Gallery. The letters on the eave sign are immobile, exactly as they’ve always been, but I only read the truth, the reality of what happened with the Solises. It was always Feign who turned Javier in; it was never him.

Every puzzle piece falls together now, so obvious, so simple I could only have missed it by emotion, not logic. Feign panicked when the Department of Justice came looking and found Javier’s sketches of my face. Tax evasion he could defend, but he could never risk the world learning about Javier. So he took him out by calling ICE and reporting him for stolen supplies: just another illegal immigrant thief locked up in a cell. Who would believe Javier now even if he talked? Who would care what his family would say just to save him? And who would ever know that Feign was the tipster when he could do it anonymously, just like Benetto said at Javier’s hearing? Leaving the blame open for the taking. And who else would swoop in and take it but the man who needed it so desperately? The man who needed one unforgivable reason for me to leave him because I wouldn’t have left him any other way. How neatly it all fits together now that I see: link by link, a chain reaction shackling us all together, friend, family, lover, and foe.

I don’t need to look across the street for him—for I know he is forever gone. My subconscience summoned him to help me see what I must have known all along but refused to acknowledge. It stitched together these subliminal messages from my past—innocent tidbits of data so familiar, it was automatic, instinctual that I would know them even asleep. Things like opening the front door, the familiar path along the river through Elysium, this little gallery where Mum and I would come on weekends to browse the pastoral paintings, and the well-known “Fine Art” sign which sounds so much like Feign’s gallery back in Portland that used to make me snort with its pun. My subconscience arranged it all, sliding each detail into place, while I clung to denial and anger for survival. She was not the cheater, I was. But how to make me listen? How to make me see the truth when I was blocking him at every waking moment? There was only one time when my subconscience could do that: in my dreams. And there was only one dream I would obey so fully, so irrevocably: him. So the harder I worked against the truth during the day, the more it tried to burst through at night, until now I see it with finally free, clear eyes.  All my mistakes, all my wrongs. Because worse than running from England, worse than abandoning the cottage, worse still then falling in love in my last days in America, was my belief—my conviction—that the man I loved, the man I knew was a monster. Is there a more grievous crime?

And he let me believe it. Because he would rather I hate him than be with me.

I curl inward in myself, trying to withstand the violent sobs. Everyone else trusted him and tried to tell me: my own lawyer, Reagan, even Benson. “In hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life,” Benson wrote. The waves of pain drown me here, slumped on the empty sidewalk, trying to breathe. Just to breathe. Do I deserve even that much? No, I don’t, but my parents do. For a long white, I shiver under the gallery sign, forcing air in and out, hugging my torso to keep it from imploding.

But dawn comes. Lightening up the street, the shops, the empty field, making me visible. Some brain cells register that my town shouldn’t see me this way—that Mum and Dad don’t deserve that—so, shaking, still gasping for air, I start back the way he brought me. The field seems endless, like an abyss without him.

Aiden, his name breaks through now that the walls are shattered, each musical syllable a new knifepoint in my chest, but I still try to silence it. Because none of it matters it in the end: despite the truth, he still will never be with me. And despite my crimes, I still would never be with him. How can you be with someone who will go to any length, pay any price not to be with you?

By the time I reach my tent, the sun has risen and the morning clouds are brilliant white.  No more Aeternumroses like omens in the sky.  Just an ordinary day, ending an extraordinary life. Because I know now, I know from the tangled strands of my hair to the blistered soles of my feet, what comes next: somehow I have to learn how to live without my anger, without my hatred of him. From this dawn until I’m passing from this life, I will have to live with the truth. I will have to live with myself.©2020 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 6 & 7

Happy weekend, everyone! And thank you again for all the kind messages, wishes, and prayers about this story and myself. Please know they are very appreciated, and many of them have come at a time where I need them most. Here are the next two chapters while the words are flowing. Things are getting close to a big reveal. I hope you enjoy them! xo, Ani

rose in smoke swirl on black

6

CHANGE

            Days go by. Even in England. The sun sets and rises, the date changes on the calendar. But time does not pass. Everything seems suspended in the same, eternal moment. Case in point: here I am, on my fourth dawn in England, still waking up screaming on the riverbank; still shivering in the cold air of his absence; still staring at the empty field across the river. His parting words still ring in my ears, reverberating all around my rose garden: “Once I love, I love forever.”

            Yet change happens. Almost imperceptible, but it happens. For one, each night, he is leading me further along the riverbank, away from the cottage; and each night, I follow more willingly. Awake, I’m fully aware of the potential for disaster, for real danger here. What if I sleepwalk right through town onto the motorway? Or slip and crack my skull against a rock? And yet, in my sleep, I trust him wholly, blindly, never to lead me into any harm. Because—change number two—the desire for him, the curiosity for what he is trying to show me is growing stronger, not weaker. I love him more in my dreams, the less I love him when I’m awake. And exponentially, the pain in my chest is getting worse, not better. As though each dream is chipping away at what little progress I manage to make during the day. Like Prometheus, tied to the rock, growing his liver only for Zeus’s eagle to eat it again in the morning.

            But, unlike Prometheus, I’m adapting or at least learning. For example, I go to bed fully dressed now, even my sneakers. I don’t lock the door until after the dream because it doesn’t keep me inside. I agree categorically that this is pathological behavior. The first thing I should do when I get back inside is not prepare for my meeting with Professor Edison this afternoon, but book an appointment with a well-respected psychiatrist. Yet I can’t bring myself to do so. It’s not hard to understand why, as the sky starts to lighten but I still stand in the exact spot where he left me: because then these dreams might stop and I’ll never learn where he is leading me so urgently. But I must know if I am to overcome him, if I am to keep the oath I made on my parents’ grave. So I have a plan: tonight, I’ll find out once and for all.

            I walk back to the cottage, gazing at the field across the river one more time, wishing I could solve this riddle now. But I can’t because my meeting with professor Edison is in nine hours, and I’ll need every minute between now and then to get ready.  It’s not my scientific knowledge I worry about—I’ve been studying nonstop for this meeting since he emailed me back three days ago, not to mention the last four years. But I have no idea what to do about the face in the mirror that has transformed. Pale, gaunt, with deep shadows under the eyes that initially will remind Edison of my mum until he looks closer. Because worse that the drawn cheeks and the sallow skin are the lifeless eyes: dull, more plum than violet, and blood-shot. I wish I had Reagan here to transform me into Liz Taylor as she once did. As it is, I spend the next three hours with teabags over my eyes and rose oil over my cheeks, trying to force a semblance of color on my skin. While home remedies attempt the work of magic wands, I revise again every scribble of Dad’s notes about his projects with Edison and every one of Edison’s own eighty-seven published articles. I know I’m overdoing it for just one meeting. I’m very careful not to hope Edison will give me a job—that would violate Rule Number Three—but I do need to be able to hide the mess I am enough to make Dad proud. The entire Chemistry Department will be talking about me: Peter Snow’s tragic daughter come home at last. 

***

There may come a time in my life—perhaps when I’m Mr. Plemmons’s age—when I might be able to sit with Reagan and tell her about the bus ride from Burford to Oxford today. About how it felt to sit on the seats that carried Mum and Dad to and from work twice a day, every work day except the day they died. About how the handrail felt exactly like their hands holding mine until this very last stop. But that day will not come for a long time. 

            I teeter off the bus, clutching Dad’s leather briefcase. Then, slowly, I lift my eyes to see Oxford’s medieval skyline for the first time since before the accident. The gothic spires, towers, and cupolas of the ancient colleges spike like heartbeats on an EKG line. Domed rooftops stretch out like knobbly protective arms. Every facet glows like limestone skin under the molten sunlight of the afternoon sky. And through it all, like emerald lifeblood, run the colleges’ lush parks, forests, gardens, and meadows.  

            Four years ago, I rejected this dream for another, thinking it would break me to face my parents’ second home. It never occurred to me that Oxford would have the power to do the opposite: heal. But as I stand here on its threshold, two hours early, braced for the lance of grief, that’s exactly what happens. I stop shaking, the nausea of the bus ride recedes, and I only feel a sense of shelter. It releases my locked knees and pulls me, like gravity, inside the university circle. I stroll the worn lanes with ease, feeling as though Mum and Dad are gliding on either side of me, as in our home movies, blissful that I have returned to the place they loved so deeply. The landmarks of their life feel like hugs, not bruises: Mum’s tiny office at the Ashmolean, the King’s Arms pub where Dad and Edison would drink cask ale after work, the Bodleian Library where they taught me how to check out Ashmole’s manuscripts using the old tube system. By the time I make it to the Science Area quad and steel a peek at my reflection on the windows of the chemistry lab, there is some color on my cheeks.

            But the moment I enter the reception lobby of the Chemistry Building, that small rush of blood drains from my face. Because there, steps from me, carved in bronze, is my father’s bust. 

            He looks at me. His eyes, seeming too sentient for a statue, are crinkled at the corners as they were in life when he would smile. His jaw is sharper, more sculpted, the way it would look when he was chewing at the end of a pen. His lips are parted a fraction as though he is saying, “ah!” And right below his bust, an engraved plaque says:

“I am in my element.”

Peter Andrew Snow

Oxford Chemistry Department, 1993-2011

            I don’t realize I have walked to him until my hand molds to his bronzed cheek. The metal is cool yet it warms my suddenly icy fingers.

            A gentle cough startles me. Professor Edison is standing a few steps away, watching me with a small smile and wistful eyes—an improvement on Mr. and Mrs. Plemmons who looked positively frightened by my face that first day I dropped by. Edison looks exactly as he did four years ago, except thinner and his forehead is more lined.

            “I’m sorry to startle you, Elisa. But oh, how welcome you are!” he says with feeling, stepping closer and handing me a handkerchief, as I realize I must be crying. So much for not appearing tragic. I dab my eyes quickly.

            “Hello, Professor Edison. It’s good to see you. I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting…” I hand him back the handkerchief. It’s initialed NFE.

            “Nigel, please. I’ve known you since you were in nappies.” He rests his hand on my shoulder gently—as physical as British men get for such a reunion. “And don’t apologize, this is my fault. I should have mentioned Peter’s sculpture, but I suppose it’s such a natural part of my day, it didn’t occur to me.”

            The casual reference to my dad’s name derails me for a moment so I force a smile.

            “Are you well? Do you need something to drink or a spot of lunch?” Edison asks quickly. My smile must not look like a smile.

            “No, no, I’m fine; just a bit jetlagged.” True enough, even if not at all relevant to this moment.

            “Of course,” he says quickly. “Right then, let’s go in. Do you still remember your way around this place?”

            I nod, and he breaks into a full smile, leading me down the long hall to the research lab where his office and my dad’s used to be. The entire trek there—perhaps relieved that I’m no longer crying—he is talking. “I must tell you, I was gobsmacked to see your email. Just absolutely astonished. I’d given up all hope you would ever return. It would be completely understandable, of course, with everything you lived through. But, here you are, looking right like your mum—dear, beautiful Clare! What a day!”

            He shakes his head as if in wonder or perhaps to give me a moment to respond.     “What a day,” I say back, for entirely different reasons.

            “So what brought you back, hm? I must give thanks to whatever it was.” 

            I’m ready for this one; I have rehearsed the answer down to each inflection so that it doesn’t sound like the lie that it is. “Well, my student visa ended after I graduated Reed, but I was missing England even before then. I suppose home is home. It always calls you back.” As I say the words, however, I notice they don’t sound like a lie, as they did a few days ago or even this morning. Did Oxford make them true?

            We reach the end of the hall now, and my attention closes in on the last door to the left. Dad’s office. If Edison says anything, I can’t hear it over the pounding of my heart.  When he opens the door, at first I think he’s trying to give me a moment, but then I register that this is now his office. A rush of heat rises creeps over my neck. 

            “Ah, my fault again!” Edison sounds alarmed that he might have triggered more tears. “I should have said. See, I moved in here after Peter—well, you know. I didn’t want to at first, but it felt … better. Closer to… to him.” Edison closes his eyes briefly, as I grasp that I’m not the only one who was left behind grieving. Of course Edison would have missed his friend. And of course Oxford would not have left a professor’s office vacant for years. Yet, I can’t help feeling angry, offended somehow, without any right to the feeling whatsoever. 

            “Here,” Edison says, beckoning me inside. “You can look. I didn’t change much. I still have his computer, his books, his files.” He waives his hand around the small office and my anger disappears as quickly as it came. Because he is right—not much has changed. Even the potted miniature roses that Mum gave Dad on their last spring are there on the windowsill. There is only one yellow bloom, but it’s enough to feel like a smile.  Edison is still looking like he is sitting on its thorns.

            “It’s fine, Professor—I mean, Nigel. I’m the one who should apologize. Of course you would have missed Dad. How can I blame you for that?”

            He takes a deep breath, then smiles again. “Bumpy start, I know. For both of us. To be expected, I suppose. How else do you start after all that’s happened? Well, let’s try it again.” He chuckles and sits on my dad’s chair, gesturing for me to sit across from him.        The conversation feels more natural then. He only asks about my projects, what I’ve been working on, and if any of it has to do with Dad’s previous work. The world-leading professor comes out: singular in his focus, consumed by his curiosity, his relentless search for knowledge. Beyond work or passion, chemistry is his life.

            “So what are your plans?” he says, eyes still sparking with the fervor of describing his last publication. “Are you back for good?” 

            I don’t trust myself to verbalize yes so I simply nod. 

            “Well, do you want to test things here for a bit? Maybe intern for the summer?” Edison cuts straight to the point. I watch him stunned. I hadn’t even dared to ask.

            “Do you mean as a research assistant? Here? In your lab?”

            “Of course!” He shrugs as though this is the most natural thing to be offering me. “We have hundreds of research projects going, and look at your credentials. I’d offer you a position even if you weren’t Peter’s daughter. But you are his daughter, and that is everything.” He says this with finality, leaving no room for argument. And why would I argue? This is exactly what I need. 

            “Wow,” I say.

            “Is that a yes?”

            “Yes, absolutely, yes, but—”

            He frowns. “But what?”

            “But is this right? Shouldn’t I apply first?”

            He smiles then. “My dear girl, do you know who you are? You’re the only child of the finest chemist this institution has ever seen. His talent lives in you; it’s quite obvious. You’ve had your name down for Oxford since you were born! I’ve already spoken to the rest of the faculty—they’re quite agreed.”

            I swallow hard. I don’t know what to say to any of that. Can I do this in this state? Can I be who Edison thinks I am?

            “Don’t you want this opportunity?” Edison sounds perplexed. 

            That question, so elemental, does it. “I can’t hope for anything more,” I answer truthfully because I can’t. That would violate Rule Number Three. 

            Edison’s smile becomes as bright as the yellow rose. “Well then, you can start whenever you want.”

            “Tomorrow?”

            He grins again. “I don’t believe we’re quite as desperate as to have you start on a Saturday, but Monday would be brilliant.”

            For the first time since landing on Heathrow Airport, I have something other than dread to expect in the morning. 

            Edison stands then, and I gather my Dad’s briefcase to leave. But Edison’s eyes are trained on it, unblinking, with something like hunger. “His briefcase!” he whispers, as though seeing it for the first time.

            “Yes, I took this with me to America. Can’t imagine going anywhere without it.” 

            “No doubt. No doubt,” he mumbles, still staring at it as he follows me out. I turn to shake his hand, but he reaches behind the office door. “Here,” he says, bringing out a white lab coat. For a moment, I’m confused—why would he give me his lab coat?—until I see the initials embroidered on the front pocket: PAS.

            “I think you should have it for Monday,” Edison says awkwardly without meeting my eyes, and throws the coat over my shoulders. 

            The bus ride back to Burford is easier with Dad’s lab coat wrapped around me. It’s even more imperative now that I stop the dreams this weekend. So that I can take this last chance at life. So that I can be my father’s daughter.

7

SAVIOR

Later that evening, I sit on the wrought iron reading bench, watching the last sliver of sun dip behind the horizon of the field across the river. The field turns lavender gray from the evening shadows. Its grass sways, like wavelets with no shore. Beyond it, in the distance, the town’s first nightlights are twinkling like fireflies. 

            “See you soon,” I say, standing up, tightening Mum’s pashmina around me. I could wait here for sleep, but not yet because—change number three—routines form, like slender reeds growing on a marshy path: not enough to support you, but enough to show you the way. My reeds are: wake up in the morning, force down porridge, study, research lucid dreams, tend the roses, Skype with Reagan, put on sneakers and the parka, go to bed, sleepwalk, scream, stumble back home, sleep, repeat. And now, Reagan is calling. She keeps it short tonight, like the last few nights, giving me barely any detail at all. If I didn’t have a plan to implement, I’d worry that distance is stealing her away from me. But she’s juggling a lot—visiting Javier, the Solises, her own life—for me to demand any more of her time.

            “Say hello to Javier,” I say. “But remember, don’t tell him I’m gone until—”

            “I know, I know.” Reagan’s voice is brisk. “I’m sick of all the secrets.”

            “But you still love me?”

            “Like a pest,” she says, but her soft, teary eyes say “I love you to England and back.” 

            After she’s gone, I get started for tonight. A strange energy builds in my muscles, like excitement or thrill. I know this is because soon I’ll have the answers. But deep down, I’m terrified that there is another reason for my excitement: that the buzz is the cheater, feverish to see him tonight. No matter. Soon, she’ll be gone too.

            Dad’s cupboard of chemical ingredients has not been restocked in over four years but it still has the basics I need: galantamine, mugwort, valerian root, choline bitartrate, a few others.  From my research, these substances, or oneirogens, may induce lucid dreams and keep the dreamer asleep longer and deeper, allowing them to redirect their dreaming. Although mine are not lucid dreams—quite the opposite actually; I’m not awake, I’m fast asleep—the same side effects theoretically should apply. Theoretically. 

            I grind the substances and measure each dose carefully on Dad’s digital lab scale, trying not to think how apoplectic he would have been if he ever saw me doing this when he was alive. How do you know what side effects it will have on you, he would have spluttered. What lab testing have you done? What control group? What safeguards? 

            “I’m sorry, Dad,” I mumble as I mix the substances together in simmering water, and spin the mixture in his centrifuge. “But I don’t have time. If I don’t do this now, the dreams might kill me. And that would be worse than any side effects, wouldn’t it?”

            No, he would have spit out through his teeth. Think like a scientist! They could be equally deadly! 

            “Unlikely in these doses.”

            Unlikely does not equal impossible. Go to a doctor! Now!

            “I can’t. I have to know. I’ll be all right, I promise.” I let the sickly green liquid seep in the vial for fifteen minutes. Then with a final swirl, I swallow it in three gulps. Its bitter, resin taste stings my tongue.

            For a few moments, terror locks me here. What have I done? What if I’m wrong? But worse than all the questions is the loudest one: what if this doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t give me the answers? I would keep trying until either the cheater or I wind up dead. And that cannot happen. I promised my parents I will live. 

            I clean up the mess of my experiment and get ready. Sneakers on? Check. T-shirt, jeans, and parka? Check. I unlock the front door, turn off the lights, open the window, and curl up on the sofa under my quilt. No need to go upstairs tonight. I close my eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and focus only on the whoosh of the river and the willows’ lullaby. She’s here. She’s here, they sing still. An owl hoots into the night, as the breeze carries the scent of roses inside me. I follow the rose scent in my mind, as it rides the river breeze through the window into my nose, blowing gently on the open wound by my heart, then flowing out with my breath into the garden. She’s here. She’s here. Flying back again with more perfume, floating inside me, and then drifting back out to the willows. He’s here. He’s here.

            I fling my eyes open, holding my breath, but the room is dark and silent. There is no voice calling my name, not a sound. Then the willows rustle again, he’s here; he’s here. I bolt up and flit to the window. And there he is, a silhouette by the Elisa blooms, gazing at me.

            “You were waiting for me this time.” His voice is as soft as the rose breeze, a murmur blending with the willows. “I’m here.”

            A sense of impatience, a high surges through me and I sprint to the door. In a blink, I’m next to him, looking up at his face, darker tonight as the moon is waning. But his eyes light up in peace as always, two safety beams in the blackest hour.

            “You’re eager tonight,” he chuckles in that old waterfall way I remember, and the sound fills me with longing. “Maybe you’ll finally see. Come, let me show you.”

            He turns from me, always a step ahead, striding to the riverbank. I follow him without question, without doubt, an electric energy gathering inside me, raising goosebumps on my skin like static.   

            We reach the riverbank almost at the same time, and he traipses along it, toward Elysium. I know this path; we’ve been here before. 

            “No questions tonight?” he asks after a while.

            “Would you answer them?”

            He chuckles again, but it has lost the waterfall sound. “That’s why I’m here.” The familiar note of sadness enters his voice. He walks faster now, leaving Elysium behind, but always along the river. “It’s there!” he says with hope, almost pleading, pointing at the field across. “Right there! We’re getting closer.”

            “There’s nothing there, Aiden. Nothing but grass.” 

            He stops abruptly and turns to me, eyes burning. “You’re wrong!” His voice breaks, the last word like a sob, and his hands fist in his hair. “You’re not looking far enough, Elisa. Please!” His shoulders convulse once and his angelic face contorts in pain, so sharp, so staggering that it counterpoints straight into my own heart. “Aiden, it’s ok, I’ll keep looking, I’ll—” The words die in my mouth. Because in his beautiful face, glimmering under the starlight is a tear. It trickles down from his closed eyes over the sculpted cheek. “Please, my love!” he begs. “Look closer!”

            A few things happen all at once. The electrical energy that was building in my tissues radiates through me like a force field, as if the sound of his pain, so raw and primal, lit up a fuse. And then I’m running. Streaking past him down the riverbank to the point where the river bends and narrows into a chute.

            “Elisa, wait! Not that way!” he calls behind me, but I’m almost there. I can see the opposite bank, closer and closer. “Stop!” his voice rings out, filled with dread. But with one jump off the balls of my feet, I leap hard off the bank, aiming for the boulder peaking in the middle of the chute to trampoline me to the other side. The last thing I hear is his terrorized “No!” and then I plunge through black, rapid water.

            Every cell screams awake, as the cold river fills my mouth, my nose, my ears. It’s much deeper than I thought. The current sucks me under and flings me around, dragging me downstream, no matter how hard I kick my legs and arms to fight it. I try to grab anything—boulders, branches—but there’s nothing. My lungs are out of air and stars burst in my eyes. I push harder, trying to orient myself toward the surface for air, but the rapids roll me like a log and a wave of dizziness disorients me. Mum, Dad, I think. My promise. I try to kick harder, but my legs feel like lead, pulling me under. I can’t find my arms.  I wish I had heard him say, “Once I love, I love forever” one more time. The current jolts me again, and then a thick branch must twist around my torso like a band, yanking me hard. I brace for my skull to hit the bottom but suddenly I slice through clear, cold air.

            For a while, there is only chaos. I’m coughing and spitting out water, heaving for breath as the band constricts my torso again. Some more water gushes out of my mouth and finally air flows freely. I draw huge gulps of it, gasping, trying to right myself up and find the ground. And that’s when I become aware that I’m still being carried somehow. I thrash away, afraid the river is coming for me again. 

            “Fuck!” I hear a harsh oath right next to me, almost in my ear. My body stops flailing as I realize I’m not alone. And the bands around me are not branches, they’re someone’s arms. I don’t know the voice, yet it sounds familiar. An American accent. 

My savior sets me gently on the riverbank on the side of Elysium, breathing hard. I try to make out my savior’s face but it’s still dark and my eyes are blurry. The body is obviously male, tall, bulky, as he crouches in front of me.

            “Are you all right?” the man says anxiously. His accent gives me an instant feeling of safety, as I had in the dream. Oh no, the dream! I blink, clearing more water from my eyes, as I try to make out where I am and exactly how far the river dragged me. 

            “Hello?” the man calls more loudly now, sounding panicked. “Can you hear me? Are you hurt? Do you know where you are?”

            “Who are you?” I croak, and instantly regret it. How about thank you first?

            I think I hear a sigh of relief. “James, Ma’am. At your service.” 

            I can’t understand the disappointment that grips me even in current state. I knew it was not him—even if he was my last thought under water—but who else was I expecting? Maybe a Jazzman or Callahan or Hendrix or Benson: one of his many Marines? I’ll deal with myself later.

            “Thank you,” I rasp again. “Thank you for saving me.”

            “You’re welcome,” he sighs and sinks on the ground next to me. A few brain cells register that I’m alone with a stranger in the middle of the night, but I can’t feel the right kind of fear. All I feel is the fear for what happened in the dream. For what I’ve done. And for what’s still ahead. 

            “Quite a time for a swim,” James says casually but kindly, I think. I don’t answer. What would I say? That I intentionally mixed several substances to make my sleepwalking dreams longer so I could redirect them to find the answers that my ex-boyfriend wants me to see so badly, only so that I can finally forget him? So I can kill my love for him before it kills me? These are not reasonable things to tell a stranger.

            “Well, thanks again,” I mutter, rising from the ground, legs shaking. 

            “Hey, hey, take it easy!” James sounds alarmed, standing with me. “No rush! You were down for almost two minutes.”

            That’s all? It felt like a whole life. Like a whole death. It almost was. Abruptly, I feel exhausted, tired to the bone. “Good night, James,” I tell him, and start stumbling in the general direction of the cottage. 

            “Wait! Hey, wait!” James is next to me in one stride. “Where are you going?”

            “Home.”

            “I’ll walk with you. I promise I won’t hurt you,” he says, raising up his arms, as though in surrender. “I’ve got three sisters. I’d want someone to walk ‘em home. You’re safe with me.” Three sisters. An American Javier. For some reason, I believe him. Besides, why would he hurt me if he just pulled me out of the river? I manage a nod and start plodding—crawling would be more a more appropriate description, if I weren’t upright. The American Javier matches his pace with mine. I register now how tall he is, but his height triggers memories of another tall man I was chasing in the dream. The terror returns so strong that I start shivering. Or maybe it’s because my clothes are drenched, even Mum’s parka. My breath hitches into a dry sob.

            “Here,” James says, handing me a light bomber jacket. It’s dry, unlike the rest of him that is soaked; he must have had enough presence of mind to take it off before rescuing me. I huddle under his jacket, inhaling the faint scent of tobacco to clear the fog in my brain. Where do I go from here? How do I safely stop the dreams and also find the answers? Because if I know one thing, know it instinctively, is that the two are related: if I solve the puzzle, the dreams will stop, and I will survive. If I don’t solve it, the cheater will continue the dreams until there is no American Javier to save me. Either way, a part of me dies. It just has to be the right part, his part. So the rest of me can heal.

            “You came out pretty far for a dip,” James brings me back, probably wondering how much further he has to walk with the strange, silent woman. The contours of the cottage loom ahead, as I realize I ran well past Elysium trying to shortcut straight across the river and onto the field. A throbbing headache hammers at my temples.

            “Hey, are you feeling ok?” James asks. “Is there something I can get you?”

            I shake my head—it’s a true answer to both questions. We’re crossing Elysium now, and memories of playing hide and seek here with Mum and Dad flash like a reel. They loved me so much. And look at the mess I’ve made of all their hopes and dreams.

            “You know,” James says, perhaps trying to help, perhaps bored of the one-sided conversation with the mute stranger. “If you were trying to get across the river, you could have just taken the bridge.”

            The bridge! Yes, that’s where he would have taken me if I had let him, if the drug hadn’t made me reckless. “Not that way” he had called behind me in terror. He would have kept me safe. If only I had let him. 

            “I should have,” I breathe to James. We’re at the cottage now, the rose garden silver as the sky starts to lighten. 

            I turn to James, and am able to make out his face for the first time. Or what can be seen of it. He has a full beard, maybe auburn, and wild curly hair that adds to the impression of his vast height. His beard reminds me of Javier again, the last time I saw him, being dragged back to his cell.

            “This is me,” I say, handing him back his jacket. “Thank you again…for everything.”

            “No problem,” he says, looking past me at the cottage and scanning the rose garden. Something about that action reminds me so forcefully of him, of the vigilance that would emanate from him when he entered public spaces.

            “You were out for a late stroll yourself,” I say. Maybe James has his own demons.

            He shrugs. “Not really. I’m camping. Was in my tent when I heard you scream.”   Camping! My loud gasp makes us both jump. That’s the solution! He has been trying to get me safely onto the field. If I camp out there, I’ll be already where he wants me to be, and he can lead me to whatever he needs me to see so desperately. It would be safe even for me. Flat grassy surface, no river to cross, no one around, no roads, no riverbanks. Yes! That’s it!

            “You ok?” asks James, clearly wondering if I’m mentally competent at this point.

            I nod, adding a silent thank you. He may have just saved my life again. We will see.

            “Well, night then,” he bows his head gently. “If you need anything, I’ll be camping around here for a while. Just turn on a flashlight or something in that top window. Better than whatever it is you were doing tonight.”

            He waits at the edge of the garden as I plod inside, my sneakers squishing, my clothes still dripping, Mum’s coat heavy with river water on my shoulders. All her last molecules, her scent spoiled and washed off. Another sob breaks through me. I lock the front door this time, despite friendly American saviors. That was what drew me most to that land, but thinking about that violates Rule Number Two. I take off my sodden clothes and leave them in a pile by the door but hang Mum’s coat. Maybe I can salvage it this weekend. Drained, I climb upstairs to my parents’ bed and curl into a ball, shivering under the covers. Images of the black river water and its earthy taste make me shiver harder. But I draw warmth from one fact. One way or another, it will be over tomorrow. I’ll camp on the field and finally I will know. I thank James again in my mind, realizing I didn’t even ask where in America he was from, how long he has been backpacking through England, or tell him my name. Yet I’ll always owe him. As I drift off, I think about how, despite the terror of this day, there was also hope. I faced Oxford, I got a summer job, a stranger saved my life and gave me a hint. Perhaps—change number four—luck happens. Even to me.

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©2020 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 5 – CHEATER

Hey everyone! First, thank you so much for all your messages, comments, and prayers after my last post! After all this time, I truly wasn’t expecting anyone would still read, and it warmed my heart to see so many of you come back here to this space to read more about Aiden and Elisa, and to check on me. Seeing all your names and messages was exactly like one of you put it: like meeting old friends after a long time and picking up exactly where you left off without missing a beat.  It meant so much. I had missed you and this little friendship we have built so much. And, an unexpected bonus: seeing you made some more words flow. I’m not naive enough to think that the trauma of the last few years is letting me be, but every day or hour where I can do something beyond cry or grieve feels like a gift. So thank you for that too. Truly. 

And second, as a thank you, here is Chapter 5 – a lot longer than usual. Originally it was two chapters, but – well – you’ve waited so long.  I hope you enjoy it. I hope you let me know. And I hope I can keep going.  Lots of love, xo–Ani 

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It’s pitch-dark inside the cottage. The air is stale with the scent of books and aged wood.  Mr. Plemmons—in his eighties by now—must only come here every few days.  I will have to thank him tomorrow morning for caring for my home so well. I fumble for the light switch on the wall, relieved when the overhead chandelier lights up, bathing the small foyer in a soft glow.  At least electricity went as planned.

On the oak console is the crystal vase of the last roses Mum ever cut, now dried and shriveled. Pictures of the three of us on our world travels line the foyer walls. And on the coatrack still hang Dad’s tweed scarf and Mum’s ladybug-red parka, now faded to pink. Gently, I caress Mum’s sleeve. The fabric is stiffened with time, cracking under my hand like a roll of parchment.

“Hello,” I whisper. “It’s me.” 

I reach in the pocket, afraid of finding it empty, but she doesn’t let me down. Inside, there is a grocery list and a Baci quote—of course.

“If you can forget, forgive.  If you can’t forgive, forget.”

I stare at the words, trying to convince myself that they are just a coincidence. That Mum could not have predicted I might need them some day. Then again, maybe she could. I blink away tears and tuck the note back in her pocket, shoving away memories of reading Baci quotes with him. Some things even Mum would not forgive. 

I dump the rucksack and sneakers on the floor and slip off my dirty socks, clenching my teeth when the skin peels off in some spots. But the cool floorboards feel balmy against my soles as I start roaming the cottage, turning on every light.

White sheets are draped over the furniture like ghosts. I can’t stand looking at them and smelling the lifeless dust. I start ripping them off, grey clouds puffing up everywhere. Sneezing, I open every single window until the rosy breeze floods every nook and cranny. It blows through the cottage with me as I dash through every room, checking to make sure everything is as it should be. It seems so—the picture frames, pillows, the last book Dad was reading on his nightstand—yet I cannot shake this sense of panic that someone else has been here, has touched them, has moved them an imperceptible inch. Rationally, I know it isn’t true; I know it’s only this guilt, this grip of possessiveness that I now feel over every speckle of dust here. How could I have left it unprotected?

I save my favorite room for last. Dad’s library. Bookshelves line the green-paneled walls floor to ceiling. The plaid, squashy armchair still has a dent on the seat, as if Dad just got up to go to the kitchen. This is where my love for science first started, where I memorized the periodic table that spans the entire back wall. And where my most precious treasure is—one that I could not take to America. The unfinished chess game that Dad and I started the morning before the accident.

It rests under another sheet on the corner table, inside the glass flower case Mr. Plemmons gave me after the funeral. The sheet is askew, and I panic again. What if a piece has been touched or knocked over? Hands trembling, I peel away the sheet and air flows freely again. Every piece is exactly as we last played it. I was white. Dad was black. Six moves to checkmate for each of us. I run my fingers over the glass case, knowing I’ll never finish this game, and pad to Dad’s desk, shutting down the memory of another chessboard in another library in his home in Portland. 

Dad’s desk is messier than I remember it; he must have been running late that last day. But everything seems to be here—the solved Rubik’s cube, the After Eight peppermint wraps, the yellow notepads with his scribbles. I caress the indentations of his precise script, missing him so much in this moment that I wish I was there with him, under marble.

Unable to stand myself, or the silence, I fire up our Oxford Bodleian desktop, or Bod as we used to call it. I am prepared for it to take ages to turn on and update, but the loyal machine hums back to life with ease and the Internet is connected. I need to call Reagan—she must be besides herself with worry. Sure enough, Skype’s first ring is barely finished before she picks up.  

“ISA!” Her American accent booms around the library, and her face and wild red ringlets fill my screen. For an instant, my chest clenches with joy, not pain. But then I see her red-shot eyes and tear-streaked cheeks, and the 8,000 miles between us stun me into silence. They must stun her too because for a moment we just stare at each other across the pixels. She is sitting on my old bed, in my old room, wrapped in my old blanket, wearing her purple fascinator. 

“Oh sweetie!” She finds words first. “I’ve been so worried. You were supposed to get there hours ago! Are you okay? What happened?”

A whole life. A whole death. “I… I’m so sorry, Reg. It’s been—” I stop because I can’t tell her about falling asleep on graves. Only one of us should have nightmares.

  “Hell,” she finishes for me. “It’s been hell, I can see it.”

I swallow hard—even my best friend is not safe from my mistakes. “It had to happen . . . I had to face it.”

  “Yeah, but not like this. Not alone . . . Hey, have you heard from Aiden?”

It’s the first time his name is said out loud since Portland, since before the end. It rings like a shotgun, echoing off the walls of the library, reverberating throughout the cottage, until it pierces through my lungs. The wound flares, as though my ribcage is being ripped open. My arms wrap instinctively around my torso.

“Don’t say his name!” I spit out. My tone is sharper, harsher than I intended, and Reagan leans back, her eyes widening. I take a deep breath, staring at the periodic table on the wall. “Sorry, Reg, I just can’t handle hearing his name. But, no, I haven’t heard from him and I don’t expect I ever will.” This is what he wanted after all. To put distance between us. He’ll never let our lives collide again. And that is a good thing.

            “No, no, Isa, you don’t understand!” Reagan presses. “I saw him at the airport! Right after your plane took off. He missed you by five minutes, ten maybe. That’s why I thought he must have called or come over there.”

            Everything inside me goes silent at this announcement. “What?” I manage after a moment. 

            Reagan is off then—fast and animated, like she has been bursting to speak for hours. “Oh, Isa, I didn’t know what to do. One minute I was watching you take off, the next I was sitting there on the airport floor, looking at the pictures in your camera. The one you gave me before you left, remember? And I was crying so much. Just seeing all your pictures, everything you loved, and then bam! There he was! Towering over me with Benson and these two big guys I’d never seen before. Do you know who they are?”

            I’m so lost it takes me a second to realize she is asking me. “Umm, no—no idea.”  Maybe his Marine friends? Hendrix or Jazzman or Callahan?

            “Oh! Well, they looked pretty intense. Anyway, the minute Aid—I mean he saw me, he dropped to his knees—more like fell actually. ‘Is she gone?’ he said. I was so shocked to see him, I couldn’t answer right away so he grabbed my shoulder and kept asking ‘is she gone? Is she gone?’

            “So then—well, you know me and my big mouth—I flipped out. I told him it was all his fault and he ruined your life. And a bunch of other horrible things. But he just sat there on his knees, frozen. Except his shoulders were convulsing, kind of like he was getting electrocuted. It was weird. Benson and the two guys were hovering over him like he was dying—honestly, I think he might have been. But he wouldn’t talk to them. He just kept staring at the camera, at your picture on the screen.

            “Then Benson said something really fast to the two guys and they ran off somewhere. And security came because I was yelling. Aid—he didn’t even look at them! He was just locked on your picture. And his eyes—holy shit, Isa, I’ve never seen eyes like that. It was scary. Like he was burning or something.

            “Anyway, I didn’t want to get in trouble so I stood up to leave but then he sort of came to and asked if he could have your camera. Can you believe it? I was like, “fuck no!” I thought he’d get mad, you know, like he does, but he just said, ‘Please. I’m begging.’ I said “no way” and ran out of there. I only looked back when I got to the exit doors and he was still kneeling there on the floor, Benson with him.”

            Reagan stops talking abruptly. A ringing silence follows her story—punctuated only by her harsh breathing as though she had said all this without drawing breath. But inside me there is clamoring chaos. The questions are deafening—hammering against my skull like a stampede so that for once the throbbing in my temples is worse than the one in my chest. How could he have been surprised that I left? Why would he chase me to the airport after doing everything in his power to push me away? And why would the man with eidetic memory ask for my camera?

            Yet louder than all of these questions is a faint whisper, so deep inside I almost miss it. It doesn’t care about the how’s or the why’s. It has only one worry, just one: is he all right? And because of that, I hate it. I hate it with vengeance. Because I know that whisper—it is the cheater part of me that likes his delusions, the traitor that listened to him in my sleep on the hilltop, perhaps that conjured the dream-nightmare in the first place. Mutiny against the self when I’m barely surviving, when I’m trying to move on.

            “Isa?” Reagan brings me back.

            “Yes?”

            “So what do you think? About Aid—him at the airport, I mean.”

            I try to crystallize what matters and what doesn’t. “I think he was there out of guilt.  Benson obviously told him I was leaving and he came there to try to contain the fallout of his actions. His last words to me were ‘go live your American dream.’ I think he was hoping I’d just take the green card and move on.  He never expected me to leave—” My voice chokes off. How little he knew me. How little he knows about love.

            “I don’t know, Isa…he seemed pretty broken up. I’ve been thinking. What if we have this all wrong?”

            “How could we have it wrong when he admitted it, Reg? I don’t care how broken and guilty he feels now. He turned Javier in. He ruined my family!” I snarl through my teeth, the force of my anger chaffing against my raw throat.

            “But Isa, what if he didn’t?”

            “Stop it, Reagan!”

            “No, hear me out! There’s something else. He moved the Solises!” Reagan’s voice becomes pleading. 

            “What? What do you mean he moved them?” 

            My stunned question must encourage her because she is off again. “He moved them last night to a different home so ICE can’t find them now that Javier is caught. Maria told me when I called to check in. She said Aid—damn it, I mean he had called her and explained and sent movers to set them up. Apparently, it was all done within hours. He has moved them in with his parents . . . ”

            Reagan is still talking but the stampede inside my head becomes so loud, it drowns out her voice.  My Solises—my souls—have been uprooted, but I can’t deny that it is safer, that I should have thought of it. And they’re staying with his parents, probably because it’s the last place where ICE would ever look. And the last place where Solises would see him because he never visits his parents. Of course, it was all done immediately, with trusted movers, so he could not be anywhere near the girls. Despite my hatred of him now, I can’t help admire the military precision of his execution.

            “Isa? Did you hear me?”

            “No, sorry. What did you say?”

            “I said why would he go through all that trouble if he didn’t care about the Solises?”

            I don’t have many answers but I have that one. “Because it’s the least he could do, Reg, after tearing them apart. Don’t you see? He turned in Javier to save me, but there is nothing to be gained from deporting the whole family. He doesn’t want to think of himself as a monster. So he’ll try to save them to feel better about what he did.”

            Reagan’s raised eyebrow tells me she is not convinced. “But why, Isa? Why would he do this horrible thing in the first place? I mean, he obviously loves you. I don’t understand.”

            Of course she doesn’t. But it’s not her fault because she is missing information. Information like the fact that he suffers from PTSD and has a violent startle reflex that will cause him to attack anyone who sneaks up behind him. Like he attacked his mother. And then banished himself from her life. Like he attacked me. And then stopped at nothing to force me to leave him after that, including reporting Javier. No price was too high as long as I was safe from him. That is how he operates. Safety at any cost.

            These are things I cannot tell Reagan; they’re his secrets that even now, somehow, I feel bound to protect. But I also cannot lie to her—not when she is the only thing still right in my world. “Some day I’ll tell you the whole truth, Reg. But right now, I just need you to trust me that there is a major reason why he did all this. Can you do that for me?”

            She looks at me with knitted eyebrows for a moment, but then nods. “I trust you.” 

            “Thank you,” I whisper, staring at the keyboard trying to find letters for my next words. They are hard words, but necessary to my survival. “And I need you to promise me something…” 

            “Anything, sweetie. What do you need?”

            “I need you to never mention him again. I need you to promise me that this is the last time we will ever speak of him. No matter what.”

            It’s Reagan’s turn for a long pause now. I watch her resistance in every flutter of her curls, in every twitch of her eyebrows. After a few moments, she simply nods. 

            “I need your help to forget him, Reg, I can’t do it alone.” I plead, my voice breaking even as I reach deep for my anger. But it galvanizes her into the sister she has always been to me.

            “I’m here, Isa. What can I do?”

            My heart stutters. As though it thinks its beats are numbered. As though it knows a part of it is about to be flayed alive. The cheater part—the part that lets him in.  But the cheater and I cannot both survive.  One must die and—for my parents, for their hopes for me, for Reagan, for the Solises—it cannot be me. “I need you to log into my Gmail account and delete everything from him, then block his address.” I know it’s an empty action—he will never write—but the cheater cannot have access to his old words, the old him. She would only nurse him back to life while draining me.

            “Isa, are you sure?” Reagan’s voice trembles.

            “Yes, my password is “i-s-a-i-d-e-n-May7,” I say, embarrassed and broken for the girl I was a month ago, putting all her dreams and hopes in foolish passwords like this. “Change it after you delete everything, and tell me what the new one is.”

            She only nods this time. 

            “Tell Maria not to mention him to me either, please. Don’t tell her why; just tell her it hurts. Tell her I need space from it all.”

            “Okay. If she will listen…”

            “For me, she will. Besides, I won’t be able to call her while they’re living with his parents.” I realize now I will miss the Solises even more. Anger burns my throat again. “And, last, never give him any information about me.” Something stabs at my insides, as though the cheater is trying to fight back. “I don’t think he’ll ever ask but, if he did, I don’t want any part of my life to be shared with him. Promise?”

            She closes her eyes, and her shoulders rise in a deep breath. “I promise.” 

            With a loud thud from my heart, the cheater part is gasping her last breaths. Soon now, she will be gone. “Thank you, Reg.” I whisper, tightening my arm around my torso.

            “And one day you will tell me why?”

            “I will,” I promise her back.

            Another silence falls between us then. It’s dark out here but daylight still in Portland. How will I wake up tomorrow without Reagan, without the Solises, without Portland’s rain? How will I fall asleep tonight? 

            As though she is wondering the same things, Reagan says, “I’ll be there soon. Right after Javier’s trial on the fifteenth. You just do your best until then. One way or another, I’m bringing you back home.” 

            Home. Why are these four-letter words so heavy? Home, hate, love, oath, rage, hurt, hope, live, life. But I amhome. Whatever I hate, that part I love. But I don’t say this to Reagan. I don’t tell her about the oath I took on my parents’ grave, the rage against the self. I can’t hurt her. Right now she needs hope that someday I will return. So she can live her life.   

            “Do you want to see something?” she says, her voice suddenly lighter.

            “Sure.”

            “Hang on!”  She fumbles out of my bed with her laptop, and I see my old walls and closet in the background as she pads to my old window and opens it. Then the little rhododendron yard in front of our apartment fills my screen. The pink and cyclamen blooms are exactly as I left them. A heavy rain beats down on their petals mercilessly, yet they stand upright—their rugged, Oregonian stems not flinching an inch under the torrent. 

            “Can you see it?” asks Reagan.

            “Yes,” I breathe.

            “It started pouring right after you left. Three inches already. It’s a record. Even the sky is crying for you.”

            “It’s not crying, it’s singing.”

            “How does it look over there?”

            I turn Bod around so she can see the library. “Oh!” I hear her gasp. “Show me everything!” I give her a little tour—my reading nook, the chess game, the periodic table, the books.  

            “It’s precious,” she says in a wistful tone. “It’s so… you.” Her voice breaks, and I wonder if she is realizing that I might be gone forever. I cannot stand her pain. 

            “You’ll see it for yourself soon. And when it’s light tomorrow, I’ll show you the rose garden. You’ll die when you see it! Very British. Can you hear the river?”

            We stay like this together for a while, me listening to Portland’s rain, Reagan listening to River Windrush and the whispering willows. She’s here, she’s here. “I can stay on while you fall sleep, if you want?” she offers. 

            I want to say yes; I want to curl up here, with her on the line, and if I am lucky enough, I will not wake up. But that would violate Rule Number Two: that would keep me in the past. “No, don’t worry, I’m jetlagged. There won’t be much sleep, until you’re here with all your hats.”

            She giggles. “I’ve already started packing. See?” She points at the fascinator fluttering on her head. “Purple. For your eyes,” she chokes up again. “Okay, I’ll let you be. I’ll go do those…things…you asked and send you a fresh password. Then I’ll go see Maria. Try to get some sleep and make sure you set up your cell phone for England, okay?”

            I nod, trying not to think about the fact that Reagan will meet his parents and I never did. “I love you,” I tell her.

            “Love you, too.” She blows me a kiss, and then she is gone.

            The silence she leaves behind is unbearable so I turn on BBC. The commentator is discussing protests to legalize undocumented immigrants in the United States. If only protests could save Javier; if only they could reach inside his cell doors.

            I pad back to the foyer, pick up my rucksack, and make my way back to the library, my goal now the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia of Elements.  The cheater starts clawing at my insides as she realizes what I am about to do. I dig up his envelopes from my rucksack with fast, jerky movements, wishing Benson had never given them to me. I cannot burn or shred them, and if I were to mail them, they could get lost. I’ll send them back with Reagan when she comes to visit. Until then, they will stay locked up. I punch in the code, and the safe clicks open, revealing the miniscule universe of our important documents within. A copy of the deed to the cottage, my parents’ diplomas, Dad’s formulas every time he invented something. I shove the envelopes in the far back, and lock the safe shut. They seem to call and rattle from their prison inside the wall. Skype dings from the Bod, and Reagan’s message pops up on the screen: “All done. New password: ReaganIsComingJune16. Xo.”

            Is there a better friend in this world? I log quickly into my sanitized account. Reagan has been thorough—in my inbox it’s as if he never existed. The cheater thrashes again, so I start composing an email to Professor Edison, my Dad’s colleague and friend at Oxford. Perhaps he will have a job or internship for me. I type slowly at first, trying to explain my sudden return and interest in Oxford when I rejected it four years ago. But every letter, every word feels a step further away from America, from my past, from him. And another nail in the cheater’s coffin. My fingers move faster over the keyboard.

            I hit “send” trying not to think of Professor Edison’s reaction when he sees this. He worked closely with my Dad—the two of them would lock themselves in the lab for hours as they were developing a formula or a new chemical. He reached out to me a few times over the years but, as with everything British, I never reached back. Who knows if he will even want to help me.

            Abruptly, the weight of the last four years, thirty days, and thirty-six hours seems to free-fall over me, and my whole frame starts trembling. A deep chill seeps through my skin, all way to my bones. I trudge up the creaky stairs to the bathroom. It’s time to wash the past off, no matter how much the cheater fights against it. 

            I run the faucet for a while until the water is hot and clear on the tiny copper tub. During the first shower I took here all by myself, Mum sat on the toilet, telling me I should always raise my face to the water. It rinses off bad thoughts, she said. I step under the scalding stream now, wondering whether England has enough reserve to rinse off my thoughts. To wash off an entire continent, an entire life, an entire dream.

            The water scorches my skin but I welcome it, rubbing it methodically with one of Mum’s rose soaps. My fingers skate over the yellowing bruises he left on my skin. The contours of his fingers look like rust where he gripped me on my arm and shoulder. Four welts, the length of his fingers and the L-shaped imprint of his thumb on my bicep. It resembles the scar above his eye. I shut down the memory by scrubbing my skin harder. With each sud and bubble, the last molecules of America dissolve in reverse order. Portland’s carpeted airport, Reagan’s tears, Maria’s last kiss, Benson’s hug, Javier’s shackles, and finally, finally, his body, his kisses, his scent—all down the drain. Exactly as they did when I washed him off after our embargo night. He forced my hand then too.

            When he is gone from my pores, and all America with him, I sit under the stream of water, wondering how long it will take to expunge them from my insides. It could be one of those wars you wage until your last breath. But if war keeps you alive, wouldn’t you fight it?

            The last bubbles pop and disappear down the drain, and just like that, America is gone.  I tense for the cheater to stab inside me again, but there is nothing.  Shutting him out and washing him off in every day finally removed her only reason for living. Mentally, I lay her corpse on the hilltop grave. 

            Feeling freer, I dry off, put on pajamas, and wrap myself tightly with Mum’s soft robe. Her perpetual scent of roses lingers here too, and I inhale deeply, imagining it’s her hair, her shoulder, her skin. But it’s not enough. Somehow, although I’m not running away anymore, although I’m closer, I have never missed my parents more. I make my way downstairs to the living room, my mission now the small TV set in the corner. I slide one of our old home movies in the ancient VCR, and turn on the TV.  It takes a moment, but then the small screen lights up.  Entranced, I curl up on the sofa, eyes fixed on the screen. 

            It’s spring sixteen years ago, out front in this same garden. The roses on the screen are blooming like they are now, just fewer. Mum is wearing her polka dot dress, crouched with her arms wide open, smiling at a chubby little toddler in a matching polka dot jumper, stumbling a few feet away. Me.

            “Keep going, love,” she croons, and I hear my Dad’s deep laughter from behind the camera he is holding. The film gets blurry from the tears I did not know had started to fall. I wipe them away with Mum’s sleeve, unwilling to miss a second. 

            We are by the beech trees, my baby tree is only as tiny as me. The grass is thick with petals—safe enough for a toddler to fall. 

            “Keep going, Elisa,” Mum sings again, and Dad and the camera zoom closer. The toddler’s fists seem clenched around something—petals, I think—and she is giggling with a joy that only my parents ever brought on.

            “Yes, that’s it. That’s it.” Little me takes another step, stretching out her fist full of petals at Mum. Mum looks at my Dad. “Are you getting this?”

            “Every second,” he answers, and she blows him a kiss. “I love you,” I hear him mumble, probably to himself. Or maybe for her to hear someday. The screen gets blurry again from the tears. 

            “Keep going, darling,” Mum tells little me again. I watch her face transfixed as Dad steps closer. But he zooms the camera on little me, pointing at him and babbling, “Dada.”

            “That’s right, my love. That’s your Dada. He loves you so much. Keep going, sweetheart.” 

            The light of the TV swaths the dark living room in a soft blue. I watch the little, happy family over and over again, even though my sleeve is soaked and my eyes sting with hot tears. Keep going. Keep going.

            “Elisa? Love?” Dad’s voice sounds different now, almost worried, but Mum is still laughing. “Can you hear me?” the voice asks, and I realize it’s not Dad. This voice is huskier, deeper, closer.  

            “Love, listen to me.” The voice pleads now, more musical even than Mum’s laugh. I wait for the man with the piano voice to join the little family on the screen, but there is no one else. 

            “Elisa?” It sounds like a beautiful lament, like a mournful nightingale song. Then three quick taps, like a knock, and the voice begs again. “Come to the window, love. Let me in.”

            My head whips away from the screen toward the still-open window, and I squint through the pale blue glimmer of the TV. My heart is pounding a healthy, robust beat—invincible and strong.  I know there should be a wound festering in my chest, but there is nothing—only free, clear air.

            “Aiden?” I breathe, dashing to the window, squinting to see out in the dark garden. I can’t see his face, but his tall frame and unmistakable tense shoulders are silhouetted against the moonlight. A wave of wellness washes over me, even as I know I am supposed to fight it. “Aiden, what on earth are you doing here?”

            “Come, let me show you,” he says, and strangely I think of Reed College. “Bring a jacket, it’s cold out here,” he adds. I laugh—the motion feels strange, unfamiliar. Sprinting to the foyer, I throw on Mum’s parka and wrench open the door. He is standing by the Elisa blooms, framed against the moonlight, his back to me. But he must hear me, because he turns. I still can’t see his face from here, but I sense he smiles. “Come, you have to see.”  He sounds eager, urgent even.

            “See what? Aiden, wait! When did you get here?” But he has started to walk across the garden toward the river already in that quick way of his. I follow in a trance, reveling in the feeling of safety that cocoons me. Deep in my belly, I remember I should be angry but, with the moonlight like a halo above him, I can’t remember why. He stops by the reading bench, almost on the riverbank, beckoning me forward. I reach him finally, impatient to see his face.

            He turns then, his seraphic face stunning me with its beauty. In the light of the full moon, I can now see his eyes morphing as always into calm pools as he gazes at me. His skin glimmers with happiness, as though the moon’s very blood is flowing underneath.       “Look,” he whispers, pointing across the river to the field ahead. 

            I resent having to look away from his face but I follow his finger, straining to see in the dark. “What, Aiden? What am I looking for?”

            He smiles, but it’s a small, wistful smile—sadness lingering at the corners of his mouth, like a kiss. “Answers,” he says, and the ache in his voice throbs inside my chest. I would give everything to erase that sadness. 

            “What answers?” I ask, stepping closer, inches from him now, inhaling his cinnamon breath. I raise my hand to caress his lips, to wipe away the sadness, but his eyes—so calm and clear—lock frozen.        

            “Once I love, I love forever,” he says, and disappears. 

            My fingers flutter over an icy black void. 

            A piercing cry rends the air, still echoing into the night, even as I jolt awake, disoriented, looking around me, searching in panic. What I see only terrifies me more. I truly am out in the garden by the riverbank, the cottage right behind me, the front door open. I am barefoot, wearing Mum’s red parka over her robe, just like in the dream.

            And I am alone. There is no one else here. My knees give out and I plop down on the reading bench, heart pounding still, throat burning from my scream, the rest of me shaking. But worse of all are my insides. Gone is the wellness, the joy; the only things left are pain and dread. Dread that something has broken deep inside me.  Something beyond my heart.  Something in my brain. What else could explain this? Am I sleepwalking? What kind of dreams are these? Neither asleep, nor awake, just vivid composites of memories, thrown together in a senseless mash by a crazed mind.  Is it a crazed mind? Why did it bring me here to this spot? What is it searching for? Answers, he said, and I look at the field across the river uselessly, as if they will be spelled there.

            But stronger than any other fear is the terror of realizing that the cheater was never dead.  She was only biding her time, waiting to let him in when my defenses are down. Fueling these dreams, these memories, destroying by night everything I build by day. What hope do I have to survive this when a part of my own self does not want me to? How can I fight an enemy I cannot see?  Briefly, I consider going to a doctor, but my mind rejects the option. I test reality—I can pinch myself, a rose thorn makes me bleed, my coat drops if I let it, the date in my head matches the date on my Dad’s watch, I remember exactly how I got here—so insanity must not be the cause. I ponder other options for a while, sitting here on this bench, pressing my thumb gently against the rose thorns, feeling the reassuring prick that tells me I am real, this is real, and I am awake. 

In the end, I decide it must be grief. True, I never had these kinds of dreams when my parents died but grief changes, I know. And this was a different shock; a betrayal, not an accident. Of course my brain is still processing what happened, trying to catch up with my body here in Burford when so much of it is stuck in Portland. Yes, that must be it. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I resolve to give it a few days for the jetlag and the shock to wear off. And double my efforts during the day to block him out and silence the cheater once and for all. 

            Calmer now, I pad back inside and lock the door. I gulp some water straight from the faucet and trudge up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. I curl up on Mum’s side, focusing only the whispering willows. She’s here, she’s here—a sibilant lullaby sooths me into a dreamless sleep.

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©2020 Ani Keating

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Ninety Days: Chapter 4 – Home (and a note)

Hello! Is this thing still on? It has been a long time, my friends; four years and two months to be exact. And what years they have been! I know that many, if not most, of you have faced tough, dark times this last year and maybe even before. I hope you and all your loved ones are safe, healthy, and finding joy and hope in whatever form it comes. As for me, we would need chapters, maybe a whole book, to cover the last few years. I will not do that. They have tested me in ways I did not know I could be tested, from the state of our world to my own health and that of my beloved husband. Every week or month has felt, and still feels, like a new war, some days for myself, other days for those I love. A couple wars on the health front are still raging. To be honest, I don’t know how or if we will come out of it. But I know that, slowly, my creative world went dark. The more I fought to be there for those who needed me in real life, the less my art, my characters, my joy, and eventually my self spoke back. And then for a long time, there was only fighting and silence, fighting and silence. Then today, for the first time in very long while, Elisa spoke right as I was in the middle of an ugly sob, the kind that I need two days in bed to recover from. “Hi,” she said. I almost didn’t hear it over my crying. But there it was again, the way she used to sound in my head back when I was writing. I lay there on the floor, by the window where I was supposed to watch the first snow Portland has had in a while, but was choking for air instead. And then I crawled over to this laptop, opened a file I had last accessed on February 2017–a whole different woman back then, full of joy, dreams, life. And it was like looking at a stranger. I sobbed some more–for a whole different Ani that feels now gone, maybe forever. For a whole different life. But through the tears, eventually I started reading the words that old me had written. It felt like I was reading someone else’s book. And I realized why Elisa’s voice came at such a dark, hopeless moment: because she too was left locked in her own hell. And I thought, maybe I can at least get her out. Maybe she can get me out too. So I started typing the last sentences of this chapter that old me had left unfinished. It took all day, instead of the ten minutes it would have taken the girl I used to be. And then I came here on this blog: forgotten passwords, forgotten how-to, forgotten file names, everything. That took hours too. I read through some of the comments you had left–again feeling like they were to someone who no longer exists. But then a sense of gratitude broke through. And I thought I’d give you this chapter. Maybe you still remember the story and will like it. Maybe you have moved on. That’s totally understandable. But if you read it, it might help to refresh the first three chapters in the last post I blogged. I hope this new chapter brings you a smile or some happiness. I don’t know if I can keep it up. If I can, I will be back and post more. If not, sending you lots of love and gratitude for every time you have read, commented, waited, messaged, liked, shared, tweeted, posted, wondered, hoped, laughed, cried, and lived with me and my characters. – xoxo, Ani

4

HOME

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that has never been true for me. In fact, as I trudge back down the hill toward Burford, I feel more fragile than ever, as though the flap of a butterfly’s wings will shatter me.  But my senses are sharper, ranging out in hyper-vigilance for any potential trigger of pain.  So perhaps what doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. Perhaps it only makes you wiser. I cannot endure more hurt, but I know my rules of survival.

Rule Number One: I will not think about him.

Rule Number Two: I will not think about the past.

Rule Number Three: I will not dream about future.  

I will think only about the present—here and now. Practicalities really. Things like, will the Internet be reactivated at the cottage by the time I get there if I called the utility company from Heathrow eight hours ago? Will the food I bought at the airport last me a few days before I have to face town?  What will I say to Mr. Plemmons who has taken care of the cottage these last four years when it should have been me? Should I email Oxford to look for a job in Dad’s chemistry department? If I do email, how will I explain my sudden reappearance? What will I say to my father’s colleagues? 

I spend the rest of the trek down the hill, rehearsing my lines in my head.

My name is Elisa Snow. My father was Peter Snow; he was the Chair of the Science Department—you may remember him. I am a chemist, too. I just graduated from Reed College in the United States. Yes, a very long way away.  I have invented only one nutrient component, which I do not own any more, but I am a fast learner. I will dedicate every hour of my day, and every day of my life, to your department’s research. To continue my father’s work. Please give me a job.  I have nothing else to do.  No one else left to save. 

It’s impossible to ignore the swipe of déjà vu, rehearsing a very similar speech for ICE thirty days ago.  But that breaches Rule Number Two so I force all my senses on the path ahead. At the end of the trail, a welcome sign boasts, “Cotswolds. Area of outstanding natural beauty.”  Even in my state, I cannot deny its truth.  Soft hills roll endlessly around me in every shade of green imaginable. Mint, moss, shamrock, jade. Their crowns are gilded orange from the setting sun, and River Windrush glistens between them like a silk ribbon. Beyond the welcome sign, the ancient road stretches for about a mile, framed by Burford’s medieval cottages, tucked closely together like fairytale books on a shelf.  The native nightingales are just starting their mating night song. And a sultry breeze swirls in the air, laced with the perfume of freshly mowed grass and sweet clover.  I inhale deeply, as though emerging from underwater.  And what felt forced a few seconds ago now feels like hunger.  I cannot widen my eyes enough to trace every thatched rooftop and swaying tree.  With a tight grip in my throat, I realize a very simple truth: I have missed this place.  Despite all my efforts to banish it into oblivion, it has lived in my blood. 

Abruptly, I feel late, very late—impatient to see my cottage while there is still some daylight. Worried that it has changed. That it is no longer the perfect nest of my childhood. No longer mine.  I throw my scarf over my head and scurry the opposite direction of the sign, taking a shortcut across the clover field under the protective tunnel of the primordial yews and oaks. The blisters on my feet rub against the canvass of my sneakers, slowing me down. I slip them off, and traipse along the grass.  The cool, dewy blades soak my socks and soothe the soles of my feet, like the moist air does with my chapped lips and parched throat.  Now and then, a leaf or branch brushes softly against my hair or cheek, and I can’t help but imagine that England is welcoming me back. Like the prodigal, even though I don’t deserve it. The sun is dipping lower in the horizon now, and I walk faster, wincing at the ache of my muscles. But I don’t want the first sight of my cottage to be in the dark. 

 Finally the town is behind and the hill ends, sloping into a tiny valley like a child’s cupped hand. I pause at the edge, my throat tightening at the sight. This is the valley of my childhood. From the moment I could walk, I was lurking in this grass so constantly that Dad named it Elysium.

My eyes skate over the meadow urgently, fixing on the grove of weeping willows at the far end, right on the riverbank. At the sight of their swaying garlands, I start running toward them, rolling like a pebble down Elysium’s bowl, not caring about the blisters in my feet or the spasms in my legs.

The willows have grown. Their branches drip down like a thick curtain, the tips brushing over the grass. I can’t see anything through the leaves, except a glimmer of river here and there, but the air is heavy, redolent with the smell of roses, and I know my cottage is right behind the leafy drapes.  My heart—so silent until now—starts pounding.  I pause and listen, cupping my ear, like I used to do when I was a child.

            Shhhhhhhh, the river babbles behind the branches. Shhhhhhhhh, whisper the willows. I try to find words in their murmur. Shhhhh…sssss….hhhh… I repeat the sound until it rings in English. She’s here. She’s here. I sweep aside the branches and step between the thick trunks into the most magical place I have ever seen. 

My Rose Cottage.

It stands there, gleaming silver under the twilight sky, swaddled between the river and the two ancient beech trees with my swing still hanging on the lowest branch. A third beech tree that Dad planted the day I was born has grown close to the huge trunks—healthy and strong, so very unlike me. But despite their vast heights, the trees seem dwarfed, overshadowed by the thousands of roses blooming underneath. Miniature pink blossoms have taken over the whitewashed stone walls, lacing around the black shuttered windows, covering every centimeter of the peaked rooftop with their vines. Bigger, fuller blooms shoot up from grassy beds, so many that the tiny handkerchief yard is blanketed with a petal-woven quilt, hiding the grass and path underneath.  Over the arched front door, a garland of magenta blooms has climbed like a crown. And the small reading bench by the river is braided with garden roses the color of ballet slippers. The rose fragrance infuses everything—there is no trace of river, grass, willow, or dirt in the air. Only roses as though the whole earth is soaked in their oil. It’s surreal—as though Mum never passed, as though her soul gives magic to the blooms. 

I don’t realize I’m crying until the cottage blurs in my vision. I wipe off the tears, resisting even a blink. Isn’t a blink too much to miss for something you suddenly realize you’ve missed for a long time?

I pad in a trance down the cobblestoned path covered in petals—it is soft, comforting under my socked feet, as though it knew I’d come back with blisters.  Trembling, I reach the ivory blooms below my bedroom window. TheElisa hybrid that Mum cultivated for me. I caress one of them, teardrops falling over the petals like dew.  Brutally, the memory of showing him a similar rose in the Portland Rose Garden on our first night together intrudes on this perfect moment.  “No!” I snarl, shaking my head forcefully to dispel the image.  But another memory—him waking me up with that same rose the next morning—breaks through with its force.  “No!” I  shout louder, pressing the tip of my thumb intentionally against a real Elisa thorn. It works.  A small bead of blood drips on an ivory petal, and I become absorbed with wiping it away, not wanting to taint any part of my cottage with him.  Then with shaking hands, I dig up my old key, slide it in the lock, and hold my breath as I turn the rose-shaped brass knob and open the door.   I’m home.

30 nights of snow 90 days of hale aidan hale aiden hale american beauty ani keating ani surnis Ani Surnois bestseller billionaire hero christian grey eidetic memory elisa snow elise snow Fifty Shades Fifty Shades of Grey Fifty Shades of Grey fanfiction free books FSOG FSOG fanfiction good writing immigration love story immigration reform inkslinger PR javier solis lana del rey LOVE POEMS love story Master Muse Masters Muse military hero military love story military romance new releases new romance ninety days samhain publishing sequel The Master's Muse thirty nights thirty nights of snow TMM U.S. Marine virgin heroine xavier solis

Sequel Excerpts: Happy Publishversary Thirty Nights!

Hey everyone!

Two emails in one week, you say? What’s happening! Nothing much. Just today is the one-year anniversary since Thirty Nights was published.  Oh the chills and thrills of that day.    I’m feeling them all over again, even as I get ready to finish my second book and start the third. How about celebrating with the first three chapters of Ninety Days?  Here they are in draft form.  Not edited yet so things may change for the final publication.  Hope you enjoy!  And thank you to all of you who bought Thirty Nights, told a friend about it, and have stayed loyal to me throughout this time. – Love, Ani

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1

Flight

Every airplane hurtling across the sky carries goodbyes. Some for days, some for life. Then there is mine—the unknown kind.

I stare out of the Plexiglas window into dense darkness. It’s midnight back in Portland, Oregon. Did Reagan make it home safe? Is she curled up on my bed, still crying? And Javier—does he even have a bed in his jail cell? Or is he slumped on the floor, staring at darkness just like me? I leave the hardest person for last . . . him . . . Aiden Hale, I force myself to think the name. Is he awake? Or finally asleep—relieved to have me out of his life?

A burning pain—part rage, part agony—flares like a livid wound between my lungs, and I close the window shade. The businessman next to me is snoring softly. I avoid looking at his charcoal suit—so similar to Aiden’s when it hung closely with my dresses. The wound throbs again, and I gaze at the crumpled note still in my hand. Aiden’s right-hand man, Benson, scribbled it on a torn piece of paper like he was out of time.

Elisa,

I am breaking Mr. Hale’s rules by giving you his letters in hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.

Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life.

Benson

I have the words memorized, but they still seem scrambled. Alone they make sense, but together they mean nothing. What does Benson know about my mistakes? About our regrets?  What rules is he breaking? Why? What’s the difference between the man I know and the one I heard today?

I know the answer to that last one. Aiden Hale—the man I thought I knew, the man I loved—would have never reported Javier to the immigration police just to save my future. He would have never ruined my little family. He would have never hurt someone I love. But the man he truly is—the man I saw today with finally clear eyes—did all of that, and admitted it three times.

The burning ache rages up my throat, constricting it until I can’t breathe. I loosen my scarf, searching for air. It blows in a steady gust from the airplane vent. Straight into the center of my forehead. Where Aiden’s lips rested last. Where my father’s lips rested always.

I lift my face toward the vent and draw a huge gulp of pressurized air. In, out. Hydrogen, atomic weight 1.008, helium, 4.002, lithium, 6.94—

“Miss? May I get you anything?” A hushed feminine voice murmurs next to me.

I turn to the flight attendant, trying not to look at her Union Jack scarf that reminds me of Reagan and her obsession with all things British. “Some coffee, please,” I whisper.

Her eyebrows arch—coffee is not the drink of choice at this hour—but she scurries back to the galley for the pot.

I know this is a mistake. I know I should try to sleep. It would be easier to shut down, drift into a different place, a different time. Perhaps I would be back in Portland again. On the couch with Reagan, listening to Lana Del Rey. Or in Javier’s studio, looking at his paintings. Or perhaps in a rose garden, tangled under the blooms with the Aiden I loved, not the one I discovered today.

Yes, it would be easier to sleep, but I cannot. Because if I sleep, this day will be over.  If I sleep, this will be the last day in my home, the last time I saw my family, the last time I held my best friend, the last time I was in love. And when I wake up, everything I have will be yesterday. It will be the past.

“Miss? Your coffee?” The flight attendant is back, holding a steaming Styrofoam cup. How long has she been standing there, waiting?

“Thank you,” I mumble, gripping the cup with both hands. She nods and cruises up the aisle, checking on the only other overhead light that is still on. I gulp the coffee, hoping it will burn. It does, and that’s good. Because this kind of burning pain I can understand. When the flight attendant strolls down the aisle again, I refuse the pillow and blanket but take more coffee until that last light is off, and I am the only passenger awake.

Alone now—as though this should matter—I take the stack of Aiden’s envelopes from my rucksack, running my fingers over the coarse commissary paper. Forty-eight of them—one for each of his last days in Iraq. They’re not marked or organized in any way—only yellowed by time. I feel each one for thickness. About the same—one page, two at most. This would be a good time to open them. They would keep me awake. They would let me escape in a love story that was almost mine. But perversely I do not. At first, I don’t understand my reaction. This afternoon I would have ripped them open, drinking in each word, each syllable. But as the plane charges through the night, the reasons for my resistance become clear.

One, there is nothing in these letters written twelve years ago that can explain or justify what happened today.

Two, they will only break me further.

Three, I cannot survive any more breaking.

I tuck the envelopes back in my rucksack, along with Benson’s note and Aiden’s dog tags. Then I raise my face to the vent again, turn off the light, and shut my eyes.

I am not asleep. My senses are heightened, as though my body is on survival mode. I hear the snore of my suited neighbor, the rustle of a blanket as someone tosses and turns, the whoosh of compressed air, and, above all, the rumble of the jet as the thousands of miles race by. Toward ghosts.

2

Homage

The black iconic cab comes to a full stop on the side of the gravelly road. For a moment, the sight outside the window stuns me. Not because I didn’t expect it—I’ve been conjuring up this image over and over since I stumbled off that plane—but because nothing about it has changed. Not the low hill rising straight ahead, or the single trail meandering to its peak, or River Windrush flowing behind the blackthorn shrubs. Even the skylarks sing invisible in the air the same mosaic. Everything is exactly the same as I remember it. Time does not touch places like England. It only withers those who want to leave it behind.

“Sure this is the place, duckie?” The cabbie’s voice startles me, as though I’ve been yanked back through a space portal. He glances at the deserted road, then back at Burford’s spires and rooftops in the distance. “No soul ‘round ‘ere.”

“Yes, this is it.” I will never forget a blade of grass from this hill, or the tiny meadow on top. And yes, there are souls here.

For some reason, the cabbie frowns but then shakes his head. “Right. Tha’ ull be nine’y quid, then.”

            Ninety pounds, 129.73 dollars. I dig inside my rucksack for the new, crisp notes. They look too flashy, too colorful compared to my American dollars. I hand the cabbie two fuchsia fifties and a mauve twenty, and stumble out.

It takes a while for that first step, but it’s the only step I’m sure about. Behind me, the cabbie is still watching. I start treading up the dirt road toward the hill, listening to the crunch of gravel under my old, worn sneakers. It’s warm—a typical June day for Burford—but my hands are chilled, even my toes. I know why. Chills are a symptom of grief. It will be months, maybe even years before I no longer feel cold. I walk faster, fixing my eyes on the sunny hilltop.

As though it senses my gaze, the peak summons my body, jolting it forward. A buzzing energy spikes in my muscles. Abruptly, I start running. Clouds of dust burst around my feet as I sprint down the road. The gravel is ending now, turning to grass, and I charge up the windy trail. The crest is straight above, beckoning me upward. My thighs burn, my breath comes in loud, sharp huffs, but I keep running. The rucksack rattles on my back with a faint metallic jingle from Aiden’s dog tags. I push my legs harder. The hilltop is closer now; the wind whips my sweaty face, flinging my hair everywhere, whooshing in my ears. Another summit, higher and craggier than this—Aiden’s Alone Place—flits in my vision, and I stumble. I shove the memory aside and hurtle toward the peak. Streaking past shrubs and trees, tripping, falling and getting up again. Three more strides now, two, one. I leap into the tiny crest meadow, gasping for air.

The dazzling sunlight blinds me, but I don’t blink. I don’t move a millimeter, even though every band of muscle is quivering. Because there, across the swaying grass, the white marble tombstone glimmers under the solitary cypress tree. The same as then, the same as it will always be.

Grief slashes through me, and my knees give out. I sink here at the edge of the meadow, wrapping my arms around my ribcage to keep it from imploding. Hydrogen, I think desperately. Hydrogen, hydrogen, hydrogen . . . But there is no trick for this kind of pain. The only way to survive this is to feel it.

A golden ray of sun shatters over the marble into a thousand sparkles, and I wish I believed it was a smile. They have waited four years, four months and twenty-nine days for me. And I have abandoned them. I wrench myself up, unwilling to make them wait a single minute longer. But even though I dash across the meadow, it seems to take too long to reach them.

I am there at last. Mum and Dad rest together under the same marble cover. The tombstone stands sentinel above their heads, glistening with a million rainbow crystals.

Peter Andrew Snow & Clare Emilia Snow

10 October 1962 – 8 January 2011; 16 December 1967 – 8 January 2011

Amor Vincit Omnia

            The miniature climbing roses I planted have grown. Their white buds are about to bloom around the epitaph. Abruptly, I wish I had brought them something—something other than my grief. I rummage through my rucksack, pawing through my clothes, pushing aside the envelopes, until I find what I want all way in the bottom, swathed inside a sock. The crystal vial with the dried rose from Mum’s garden. It has followed me from the day I left here, all way across the ocean, and back again. I rest it gently under the epitaph and kneel, running my icy hand over the marble.

To my surprise, it is not cold. It’s warm, almost hot from the sun. My fingertips thaw slightly, and I spread both hands on the marble, pressing them against it. The stone doesn’t budge, but the wind gentles and blows my hair away from my face. Like a caress.

How often have I thought about the words I would say to them and now, I can’t form them. Instead of words, or even letters, my body breaks into dry, violent sobs. My entire frame is shaking, vibrating until my teeth start to chatter. The tombstone tilts and blurs. A strange, strangled sound rips through my teeth, drowning the gentle hum of the wind. Under my knees the earth is rocking with a cradle-like movement. I know it’s not the earth; it’s me. I grip the marble edge and rest my cheek on the slab. Exactly where Mum’s chest would be.

I keep my eyes only on the epitaph I chose. Love conquers all. What a beautiful lie to tell. As though to prove the truth, the last four years burst through all my walls and fill my vision with every love I’ve lost. Dad’s Oxford thinker lines, Mum’s rosy cheeks, Maria’s liver-spotted hands, Antonio’s rumbly voice, the little girls’ giggles, Javier’s sunny smile, and Aiden’s sapphire eyes brightening to turquoise in peace as he looks at me. Agony tears through me, knocking me breathless, blinding me with its force. My body convulses as wave after wave of pain swells over me, fighting over which lost beloved face will rip me into pieces. I grip the marble tighter—my only anchor in the squall—and shut my eyes.

“Hydrogen,” I rasp. “Oxygen, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen . . .” In the deluge, I can’t recall the atomic weights of the elements or their order, but I choke out their names over and over and over. The marble radiates warmth through my chest, and the sun heats my back as though they’re battling the storm with me. I focus only on the world outside my head—the woody scent of cypress, the birds’ warble, the dewy grass under my knees—until the sobs recede and the shivers slow down. I don’t know how long it takes. Time no longer has meaning. But when they finally stop, I don’t move. I just lie there, breathing the hilltop air. It’s fine, I tell myself, it’s fine; you survived it. It can’t get worse than that.

3

Oath

At first, I think it’s the wind. Brushing through my tangled locks gently, sweeping them away from my face. But the caress feels too substantial, fingers instead of air. Combing through my strands, grazing my cheek softly.

“Elisa?” A low, husky voice murmurs next to me. Its rich timbre is so beautiful that my heart twitches with ache.

“Elisa? Baby?” The voice croons again, this time closer. A gust of warm breath tickles my cheek, and the fiery aroma of cinnamon wafts with the grass-scented air. I inhale deeply, for some reason surprised that my lungs are working.

“Elisa, can you hear me?” The voice pleads with heartbreaking softness. I open my mouth to answer but something silky, like petals, touches my lips.

“Open your eyes, love.” That word, that last word—so small, so big when the voice says it. My eyelids flutter to obey, but deep in my belly, something starts to thrash and claw as though in warning. It doesn’t want me to listen to the voice.

“Please, Elisa!” The voice begs now, breaking with anxiety. I ignore the thrashing thing—nothing is worth the anguish in this voice—and fling my eyes open.

I am glad I did.

Because the moment I see the seraphic face, twisted with tension, a sense of well-being washes over me. Rightness, the word resounds in my head, and strangely I remember the laughter of children.

“Aiden?” I sigh.

The deep sapphire eyes gazing back at me start brightening, like always. Marine, cerulean, azure, and finally a light, peaceful turquoise. The rest of his face glows, effervescent with beauty. I raise my hand to touch his cheek, but his eyes lock.

“Once I love, I love forever,” he says, and disappears.

My hand clutches around freezing, pitch-black void.

A guttural cry pierces the silence, and I jolt up, blinking and panting. The first thing that comes into focus is the tombstone, rose-gold now, no longer warm. The meadow is empty, grass swaying with wind, not with someone’s passage. The sky is a swirl of vermilion and sapphire. The color sends my insides throbbing. A lark rockets out of the cypress high into the air, its dusk song replacing my cry. I shudder where I am, frozen solid to the marble. Gulping the crisp air, I sit there a while longer, trying to shake off the nightmare.

No, not a nightmare. It was a lovely dream. And not just a dream, but a memory. A composite of beautiful moments I have truly lived. The rose petals on my lips like our first embargo morning; my epiphany of wanting my own children as Aiden and I babysat Javier’s sisters; Aiden’s gentle caress every time he woke me up; his words, his promises—all of that happened, they really happened.

With a feeling of dread, I realize that things can get a lot worse. Where traumatic memories didn’t kill me, the beautiful ones will do the job.

I scramble up—my body screaming with its own agony. A razor-sharp ache wrings my shoulders and neck. My muscles burn with stiffness and from the sprint up the hill. My ears, nose, fingers, and toes are numb with cold, and my throat is raw as though I’ve scrubbed it with sand paper. Everywhere I touch, it hurts. And I deserve it.

Suddenly, I’m furious with myself. For everything. For falling asleep on a grave, for drinking so much bloody coffee that I couldn’t sleep until my body collapsed in exhaustion, for drifting into memories when I should focus on the present and, above all, for still feeling the way I do about him.

These are faults serious enough to earn me my own padded room at the Burford Hospital, but fury is pouring freely now for all my decisions, all my mistakes. Inflicting him on the Solises, falling for him against all sense and reason, getting on that fucking plane to America in the first place, running away like a coward, abandoning everything the two people under this headstone tried to give me. Rage pulses through me, hot like the gushing blood of a wounded animal. It claws against my chest, and I finally recognize the thing that was clawing inside me in the dream. Even asleep, I make mistakes. My hands ball up in fists, and a scream tears through my lips. The force of my anger scorches my throat, stretching my vocal chords until I run out of oxygen.

It feels good. It feels good to scream by choice, and not for him.

He will not have any more pieces of me.

I straighten up, breathing hard and brushing grass from my jeans. But as I look down at myself—standing here by a grave with stained clothes, frozen limbs, no food in my stomach, no water, only aches and shivers—I know the problem is deeper than him. The problem is me.

Shame takes the place of rage and settles deep. It roots me here for a while as all the mistakes of my last four years merge into one thing: I keep letting myself get hurt over and over again. I keep chasing dreams. Well, no more. This is my third chance at the life I was meant to live. Science, roses, tea . . . quiet. Perhaps with time it will not feel like another death or a betrayal. Perhaps when I’m gray and old, I might even say I healed.

I stumble up to the tombstone and rest my hand on it. The words I’ve wanted to tell my parents finally come.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “For everything.”

The leaves of the miniature roses flutter in the wind like a nod. Strange how human beings will find signs to confirm what we want to hear.

I reach in my rucksack one more time, and fish out the dog tags. They jingle with a joyful sound at odds with their macabre purpose of identifying soldiers for burial. My fingers tremble over the letters carved in the steel surface.

Aiden Hale; Blood type zero; Social Security Number 520-13-1117; No religious preference for burying.

Of its own volition, my hand clutches around the tags so tight that the metal edges dig into my skin and my knuckles crack with the strain. How can someone with the blood type that saves everyone else destroy so many lives? I wrench my hand open and pick up the rose vial from the tombstone. I lift its hermetic seal and drop the tags inside, next to the dead rose. Then I reseal the cap and set the vial back on the grave.

“Goodbye,” I tell him.

A gust of wind blows through the hilltop, hugging me once, and then it’s gone.

©2016 Ani Keating

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Sequel update, Aiden’s Thirty Nights, and a little thank-you.

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Hello everyone,

Happy belated Veteran’s Day! I know it has been a while since you heard from me.  I have been busy writing the sequel while also managing my real job (why does everything get insanely busy at the same time?).  Many of you have asked for the release of the sequel and I haven’t been able to respond as my publisher was going through some major business changes.  They were going to close and removed some editors, including mine which put a pause on a lot of things. But after a long period of negotiations, they are safe and saved and doing well.  It’s hard not just for authors out there.  So we are back in business despite the delay.  I appreciate all your patience and support throughout this tricky and difficult process.  I am getting a new editor, who is excellent, but she has to play a little catch up in the series and I have to do some more writing.  So we are aiming for a Spring release date.  Deep breaths! I know. I want it out as soon as possible too.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support.  And because I know you’ve been missing Aiden and Elisa, and to celebrate Veteran’s Day, I wanted to give you a little something.  A part of Thirty Nights told by Aiden’s perspective.  So many readers have asked for a peek inside his mind–which is difficult because his mind is so complex.  The most requested scene was their first coffee date.  So here it is: Chapter 10—Paradox, from Aiden’s perspective.  What do you think? Is he like you thought? Different? Anything surprises you about him? I hope you enjoy him.

THIRTY NIGHTS OF HALE

Chapter 10

Paradox

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine…
My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life…
We will become part of each other…

The United States Marine Creed

 Saturday morning at precisely 9:42, Benson pulls into the Reed East Parking lot by the Chemistry building, as far from Denton’s lab as possible.

“We’re here, sir,” he says.

Here. Yes, here. What the fuck am I doing here?

I know very well what I’m doing. I am further solidifying my standing at the top of The World’s Most Obsessive and Dangerous Suitors.

I stare out of the Rover’s window—an unnecessary, empty action. I already remember every pixel of this image. Except the new leaves in the gutter, the buds on the cherry trees, and two blue jays pecking at some breadcrumbs on the sidewalk.

“School is out so the campus should be all empty,” continues Benson. “There’s no one around. And I’ll follow from a distance.”

I roll down the window—another unnecessary, empty action—but its whirling noise fills the air with a sound other than Benson’s words. A sound other than the disease I’m dragging into this misty spring morning. Into Elisa Snow’s life.

“She’ll be safe, sir,” Benson persists.

His words—low, in his deep drawl—splinter the air. Instead of assuring me, I feel something similar to the sharp cadence of a rifle being loaded. A looming sense of an irreversible shot in the air that forever changes the war. The trouble in this case is that I don’t hold the weapon; I am the weapon. Cold metal getting warmer in a soft feminine hand. Loaded to the brim with bullets. She only has to choose where to aim me. My horror is that like any rifle, I could hurt my owner just as well as my enemy. And like any rifle, I no longer seem to have a will of my own. I am only as good as the hand that wields me.   Maybe I’ll be lucky and Elisa will point me to whatever is haunting her so I can end it.   Or maybe luck will be on her side and she won’t pick me up at all. But there is a third option – the bloodiest one – that she will pick me up and aim me at herself.

Of all three options, the one I should want is the second – that she will stay away from me, perhaps after using me for Option One. But, deadly as I am, the option I dread as much as I covet is the last. The one where I claim her as mine once and for all. This is my Catch 22: there is no middle ground for me. No alternative where she could just hold me without firing. That’s the problem with loaded weapons: we all aim at something.

A thought flickers once. Maybe there is an Option Four: she can unload the rifle. I snort. No, darling, this rifle is incapable of being unloaded. It has held a bullet in the chamber since it was born.

“Sir?” Benson asks, a bit more forcefully this time. “Should we go back?”

That does it. No, I don’t want to go back. I want to see her. That’s why I am here—first and foremost. To see her. Not her image in my memory, not her fantasy in my sleep. Her. And a few other reasons as well . . . Abruptly, I feel lighter.

“All right, I’m going,” I say, opening my door. “Follow us but not too close. “

“Where will you take her?”

“Wherever she wants… that’s safe.” He knows what that means. I slam the door and take the worn path to the Chemistry building, resolutely ignoring the ludicrous question of whether I look good enough for this meeting. And what exactly am I going to talk to her about? I should have memorized an Organic Chemistry textbook or maybe some Quantum Physics, instead of wallowing in self-loathing next to Benson. Well, if push comes to shove, I can talk about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I read that 12 years ago. Boring as desert sand.

I yank open the doors to the Chemistry Building with a strange, enervating energy. I take the stairs to Denton’s office two at a time. Even though Elisa Snow has no idea I am here, somehow I feel late. 32 years late.

Denton’s office is closed, the lights off. But down the hall, his lab is open, buzzing with an ominous hissing crackle that does not sound healthy for a place chock-full of chemicals. Fuck! What if she is here early and is in danger? I start sprinting to the lab before I realize that she knows more about Chemistry than I do. Flying past the glass-pane windows, I try to assess the situation. I marshal all my knowledge for dealing with chemical weapons and burst through the lab doors, scanning the area corner to corner. Thank God! She is not here. Instead, a slight boy with tar-black hair sticking out in every direction is standing over a white-tiled workstation, mumbling to himself in triplicate.

“Crap, crap, crap! No, no, no. Shush! Shush! Shush! Be good, Beaker, be good. Do not break. Do not break. Ugh, Snow will kill me this time.” He is fidgeting with some crucible tongs in one hand and forceps in the other.

Good Lord! This must be her replacement. Fuck me—my grant is wasted if this fucknut is going to oversee the testing stage of Elisa’s supplement invention. Something hisses again and he jumps back like the beaker is about to bite him. I want to announce myself but this kid does not look like he can handle the strain of an introduction right now. Suddenly, he lurches forward and turns off the burner under the beaker. The hissing stops.

“There! Nice beaker. Nice beaker,” he whispers.

I clear my throat quietly to get his attention. He yelps and whirls around, eyes as wide as his goggles. But when he sees me, he takes a deep breath, his knees buckle, and he grips the counter. I have to repress a laugh when I realize he was worried that I was Elisa Snow.   The idea that, to this kid, she is scarier than I am is ludicrous.

“Hello,” he says, clearly grateful that he will live for another few seconds.

“Pardon the interruption. Is this a safe time?” I ask, in case he has something else brewing that may explode and blow us all into smithereens.

“Oh, yeah, yeah. I unplugged the Bunsen. Sorry. I’m… well… ah… new… here. I mean I’m a second year, but new with Denton and Snow.   Real coup to train with them, ya know. Forty-two people applied. Still… ah… um… who are you?” he rattles off in one short, nervous breath.

Replacing Elisa Snow as Denton’s Chief Research Fellow must be quite a feat. Although I have no claim to her whatsoever, I feel a strong sense of pride.

“I’m Aiden Hale,” I say, stepping inside the lab. “I… ah… I’m looking for Miss Snow.” Apparently, Elisa Snow makes all men stutter.

Fucknuts looks like he cannot imagine why any man in his right mind would walk around looking for Miss Snow voluntarily.   His eyes dart to the clock on the wall.

“She should be here any minute. She’s never late. I’m running the experiment today so she should have time.” He starts to resemble very much the green goop in the beaker. He nods awkwardly once and takes off his goggles. Then he dons a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and starts scrubbing the beaker vigorously.

At his intense focus, I feel the need to pace. The energy that was building in my blood has seeped in my brain, in my lungs. I look around the lab to distract myself from my ridiculous physical reaction to the mere anticipation of her. Instantly, I recognize what must be her desk. It’s spotless. The polished surface reflects the fluorescents. A large collection of pens bursts like a bouquet from a small crystal vase. Most of them have multi-colored feathers glued on top, like quills. Others have butterflies, flowers, or soccer balls.

I inch closer to her desk, craving even this slight voyeurism into her world. If Fucknuts weren’t here, I’d open the drawers. As it is, the eidetic beast inside my head inhales everything in double time. At the corner of the desk, there is a spray bottle labeled “Rose-Scented Ethanol”. Next to it, a small, clear glass jar of white cream, labeled “Shea Olive You”. It takes me a moment to realize it’s a pun. Good God, she makes her own cosmetics! From the silky feel of her hand, they work. On the shelf above the desk, is a solved twelve-sided Rubik’s Cube because clearly, a six-sided one would be too easy.

“Ah, here she is!” Fucknuts cries out.

I turn around. And there she is indeed!

Standing by the lab door, gazing at me. On cue, the memory beast inside my head stops ravaging, kneels, and bows. Elisa’s calmness floods every neuron until every space between all and nothing is filled with her alone. The sensation is extraordinary. Everything inside at peace and everything outside at war. Mind, heart, maybe even soul—quiet. Body, blood, skin—aflame.

The vibrant purple of her eyes twinkles with the same wonder as it did at her thesis presentation yesterday, but her lashes don’t release their trademark melancholy for a second. Her hair is straight today. Like a sheet of black satin. I like her natural waves better but that’s not saying much. It’s like comparing one star to another and preferring the one to the left because it’s on the side of your heart.

Her clothes cling to her closely, not that I blame them. She is wearing a light blue sweater and dark jeans. Modern clothes seem out of place on her. Like Snow White or Elizabeth Bennett wearing something so common as denim. It is not until this thought occurs to me that I realize how truly unusual she is. Here is the most ubiquitous of all fabrics, looking redundant.   On second thought, every article of clothing on her is redundant.

Elisa is still standing by the door, examining me. For the first time, I have enough presence of mind around her to notice the scientist in her eyes. They are sharp and focused, with a laser quality as if they look beyond skin, to my very molecules and cells. She assesses me like I am the cause of whatever theory she is forming.   Strangely, I am unwilling to let her draw a conclusion yet. Not on so little. I step towards her, trying to look normal.

“Hello again, Miss Snow.” As I address her, I notice a strange phenomenon. I want to call her Elisa. Not just to say her name in vacuum, but to hear her respond to it.

“Good morning, Mr. Hale. This is a surprise,” she chimes in her silver-bell voice, but I am distracted but yet another epiphany. Apparently, I want her to say my name, too. Lunacy all around!

“Yes, it is,” I mutter, except my “surprise” has nothing to do with showing up in this lab. In fact, of all the revelations where Elisa is involved, my presence here is the least surprising and the most expected.

“Do you have any additional questions about my project?”

A reasonable assumption. But utterly wrong. Still, I can’t blame her for not guessing ‘are you here because you cannot sleep at night, because I am usurping your every thought, because I own you in parts of yourself you did not know you could be owned, and there is nothing you can do about it?’

“Not as such,” I answer instead. “But I’d like to speak with you for a few moments. I understand from your assistant that your schedule is flexible.”

“Sure. Let me just leave a note for Professor Denton and show Eric the timer.”

I smile at her “yes” to me. Her pink-rose blush colors her cheeks and she glides to Denton’s office. Eric has blanched completely, knowing that she is going after him next. Sure enough, she comes back in twenty seconds and smiles at him. He tries to smile back but it looks like he has a toothache. Good God, I hope I don’t look like that when I smile at her.

“Did you burn the protein?” she asks him quietly. Her gentle manners are wasted on Eric who grips the station desk with both hands for support.

“H-h-h-how did you know?” he manages.

Good question. How did she know? The poor bastard scrubbed that beaker spotless.

“Well, the lab usually smells like ethanol, with a trace of peppermint or cinnamon. Today, there’s no peppermint or cinnamon, but there is more alcohol and a hint of carbon dioxide. That makes me think that you burned the protein and disinfected the beaker with extra ethanol,” she whispers as if she is lullabying him to sleep. I suspect she is trying not to embarrass him in front of me.

Eric has forgotten to speak English altogether and just stares at her, mouth open. She laughs with a beautiful, Christmassy sound.

“Don’t worry. I burned mine when I first started, too. Here, you must remember to use this…” She is off in geek land, explaining to Eric how to use a specialized chronometer. Eric writes it all down but every few words or so, he gets lost on her face. Yes, buddy, I know. Brutal, isn’t it?

She gives him a last instruction, laughing and saying, “I’ve got my ion you.”

Her pun is lost on Eric who is staring at her without blinking. She pats him on the shoulder—Fucknuts gets a touch!—and dances towards me. Finally!

I open the lab door, relieved that I can move slightly better than Eric. She steps out with a smile playing on her lips. Those lips. I look away from them, forcing my eyes not to stray anywhere over her body. Definitely not her ass. Or the swell of her breasts that has tormented me for five days. I fail completely and stare anyway, half-entranced and half-furious at my adolescent reaction to this woman. It’s not until we reach the main doors—the bane of my existence—that I resurface from my ridiculous fantasies.

I open them for her, stepping carefully aside so that she is nowhere near my back. She walks through—oblivious to the danger—and I follow in a trance. Once outside, I scan the area. No one around, except Benson following from a distance. I sense Elisa’s eyes on my face and look back at her too eagerly. A small part of my brain registers that she is probably expecting me to say something instead of gawk at her like a pubescent moron.

“Is there a particular place you’d like to go?” I offer, but because I can’t really take her anywhere she wants, I ask about places that have private dining rooms. “The Nines or the Heathman? Andina?”

She smiles but something like regret lingers at the corner of her lips. “They all sound lovely but I need to be back soon. Eric is still learning how to use the bioreactor. Maybe Reed’s Paradox Café?”

Good God, Eric operates a reactor? “Sure. Although if a reactor is about to go off, Tour Eiffel may be safer.”

She smiles brilliantly, sadness all but gone from her lashes. Why is that? That’s another reason why I am here; to find out. To understand her. To see if I can break those barricade walls that go up in her eyes sometimes. But I remember her resistance to my prying all too well, so I start with easy questions.

“How did your finals go?”

“Fine, all,” she says, her lips twitching with a smile but then she frowns. “I mean… they went well, thank you.”

A hint of blush bursts along her hairline, and she keeps her eyes on her red shoes. Embarrassed? At what—her pun? I don’t know why; it’s adorable. She just gave the word “final” three fully appropriate meanings in one utterance. And she smiled, which means that school is a safe subject.

“Did you have a favorite class this year?”

“My thesis with Professor Denton.” She shrugs and instantly, the walls go up in her eyes. Hmm. Maybe school is not safe. What was the difference with this question? Maybe because college is over? Try it.

“Has Reed turned out to be everything it promised to be?”

She nods, but does not speak. Okay, we are getting close. New tactic.

“I noticed you liked Rubik’s cubes.”

Guards down. Dazzling smile. “Yes. They have a new one now with mirrors. It’s supposed to be really difficult.” Her eyes sparkle as though putting the brain through torturous puzzles is her idea of fun.

“How do you think Eric will do with the experiment when you’re done?”

Guards up. “He’ll do fine.”

Yes, something about her thesis and school ending. That has to be it. But for now, I slide my thoughts back to neutral, as I see Paradox Café approach. Because whether Elisa Snow calms me or not, I need my head in the game if I’m about to enter a public space. From the corner of my eye, I notice Benson closing some of the distance. He holds up three fingers discreetly, then taps his left hand. Three people inside, all to my left.

I open the café’s door for Elisa, fighting the tension of my shoulders. It is not as difficult as usual—probably because she is here, calming me with her sheer presence. And consequently, making me more dangerous because I’m not as vigilant.

The café is small—30 by 24. One fire exit in the back. A wall of windows. In the left, a gothic barista with a stud in his eyebrow. Next to him, wiping glasses, a bubbly waitress—corkscrew blond curls, sparkly eye shadow. And in the left corner, a hunched student is poring over a book called “The Black Athena,” his neck twitching at regular intervals like a nervous tick.

Safe. As safe as it can be with me here.

I feel Elisa’s scientist eyes on my face again and lead her quickly to a table in the far right corner. She can never see this part of me. I smile at her for good measure. For some reason, she blushes and looks away immediately, fixing her eyes on an unfinished chess game on the table. Four moves to checkmate for the white. As if I outlined them out loud, her eyes trace those very same four moves with practiced ease.

“Do you play?” I ask, fighting a jolt of ridiculous alacrity that we may have the ultimate game of strategy in common. When my brain is not occupied with mergers and acquisitions, it plays chess. The patterns tend to dull the memories and channel the mental energy to the least violent form of war.

“I used to. Not anymore though,” she speaks the words softly but the guards in her eyes become a fortress. Impenetrable.

“Why not?” I try to keep my voice even lest she withdraws more, if such a thing is possible.

It is.

“It’s a long story. What did you want to discuss Mr. Hale?” Even her voice has lost its silver bell sound. It is lower, like a muted piano key.

“I have time,” I press. As long as she wants. As long as it’s safe.

She looks at me as she did at her presentation. She does not speak but her eyes say it all. Please don’t ask me, she is begging. Abruptly, rage prickles at the edge of my conscience. I want to demand that she tell me everything because obviously something is wrong. But I am not sure what will hurt her more. To tell or not to tell?

From the corner of my eye, I see the corkscrew waitress approach our table. I tear my eyes from Elisa only enough to give my order. But the waitress is staring at me, eyes wide, cheeks flushed, mouth open. Ah, fuck! Not now. I raise my eyebrow at her. Nothing. I frown. Nothing. I cock my head to the side. Nothing. All right. I clear my throat. The waitress blinks and draws a breath. Thank Christ. I don’t need an admirer right now unless she is sitting across from me with purple eyes, spewing out puns.

“Hi! My name is Megan. What can I get you folks?”

I keep my eyes on Elisa. We are not together but strangely, I don’t want her to think I have any interest in Megan or any other woman. In fact, from the way the eidetic beast in my head is knocked out unconscious, it is highly unlikely I will ever have an interest in another woman again. Terrifying. If I could, I would leave now and never return.

“A hot chocolate, please,” Elisa orders with a smile as if the world is about to right itself at the prospect of chocolate. This simple order—something I can understand, a normal girl liking chocolate—gives me some hope that not everything about Elisa Snow is a puzzle requiring a physicist’s brain.

“And for you, sir?” Megan turns to me.

“An espresso doppio and a Pellegrino, no ice, no lemon,” I answer, making only as much eye contact as politeness strictly requires. Megan takes off. Excellent. But Elisa is pressing her lips together like she is trying to repress a smile.

“Something amusing?” I ask.

She frees her restrained smile. “I was just contemplating selling you some of my secret-formula skunk spray so you can repel all your admirers.”

I laugh—which in itself is a surprise. Of course she noticed Megan ogling. Of course she has such an invention. “And what is the going rate for this defensive weapon?”

“One million dollars,” she fires off without hesitation.

“Of course it is.” I laugh again, but not at the price. I laugh because I’d probably pay it.

For some reason, her eyes widen in response and she looks away. I am about to ask about her reaction, but Megan returns with our order. She gives the hot chocolate to Elisa who looks like she is praying for restraint not to snarf down the whole cup in one gulp. Possessed as I’ve become, this makes me laugh again. Megan sets the espresso cup and the water in front of me, her hands shaking, and runs off.

I turn to Elisa to ask my earlier question, or about her obvious chocolate obsession, or anything else, but she has other plans.

“So, what did you want to discuss, Mr. Hale?”

Damn it. Always so eager to be done with me. Probably for the best. I cannot allow myself to be in her company—or to enjoy it for that matter. And I’m enjoying it a lot more than I should. I set down my cup of espresso—it’s too sweet—and get on with the program. The option that keeps her from picking up the gun.

“Are you the woman in my paintings?” I start.

I meant to ask only for confirmation but I might as well have fired a shotgun. Her body stills from her lashes to her knotted hands. She blanches and her mouth parts only slightly, whether to let air in or out, I don’t know. What the fuck have I done? I am about to tell her to forget about it—whatever my question triggered is not worth this dread—but in seconds, she is back to her masterful command. The guards in her eyes become a stronghold. Wall after wall rises up at some internal command. I have never seen a mind overpower emotion on its tracks like this. The only thing left behind is her patent sadness. Apparently no matter what her mind can conquer, it cannot overcome that. Whatever causes that melancholy, is beyond her strength or perhaps a part of her.

“Why would you ask me that?” Her voice is surprisingly strong, but her controlled delivery hints at a careful calculation underneath. I have hit a spot, but I don’t know if it is painful, scary, or simply private.

“I am a man of means, Ms. Snow,” I say quietly, not entirely sure how to handle this.

“What exactly does that mean?” The scientist is back. She will give nothing until she has her own answers.

That’s all right. I will give them to her if it calms her. I start explaining, keeping my voice soft because we are clearly in dangerous waters. “It means that if I want something, I will stop at nothing to get it. In this case, however, the conclusion was not hard to reach. I saw you at Feign’s gallery and the way the receptionist ordered you around indicated that you must work there. I obtained a copy of Feign’s personnel records and the only two women that have worked for him are blondes. You are the only one with dark hair and the woman in the painting of the neck has dark hair.”

“But the model does not need to be an employee. She could be anyone.” Still clinical, scientist voice.

Why is she insisting on this? Is she ashamed that she poses nude? Hmm… I had not considered that possibility. “Yes, she could be. But she is not. She is you.”

“If you have already reached this conclusion, why are you asking me about it?”

Beautiful question. And the most relevant. “To hear you confirm it, Miss Snow.”

“Why would my confirmation matter if you are convinced?” Her inscrutable eyes brighten slightly, and she cocks her head to the side as if the experiment just became interesting.

Her final query strips me bare but reveals nothing of her. Poor performance, Hale. Very poor performance. In four questions, she got to the heart of the matter, and in one week, you still know shit about her. Well, I might as well be honest.

“Because it will be a surrender, rather than a conquest.” I dissect her face but her control never slips.

“A surrender? Is that why you are here?”

“It’s one of the reasons. And before you try your distraction technique again, let me make it clear that I don’t intend to divulge the other reason for my visit until you have satisfied me on this point.”

She squints her eyes at the corners as if she is masterminding some other strategy.

“Admit it,” I say before she bests me again. I don’t know why it is suddenly so important to me that she admits the truth. Perhaps because this kind of subterfuge is so at odds with the virtue she has exuded from that very first sight of her. Or perhaps I want her to reveal something to me—something that she guards so closely.

“It seems that despite your impressive deduction skills, you have overlooked one possibility, Mr. Hale,” she finally says.

Oh no, Elisa! I most certainly have not. “Have I?”

“Yes. It is possible that there are different women for each painting.” She presses her denial. What is she hiding? Surely, it would be easier to just admit it so we can move on.

“There is only one woman, Miss Snow. And we both know who she is. But if you need more convincing, I’ll be happy to show you.”

Show me? How?” She says nervously.

I take advantage of this small chink in her armor, and lean across the small table into her space. At her proximity my mouth dries. For the first time in my life, I am hesitant to touch a woman. Not just any woman, but this woman. She is here, inches from me, with a clean scent of soap and roses, but I cannot make contact even though touching her is all I have thought about this week. This entire life, it seems. I know why. From the first moment I saw her painting, I have been afraid of defiling her. Still, captive, I hover my index finger close to her skin. My body responds with vengeance, as if this non-touch is the climax.

“Like this,” I say. “It’s your neckline. Your throat. Your collarbone.” My finger trails along the path with no contact. “I have no doubt, Ms. Snow, that if you take off this sweater and these jeans, I would see the same waistline, hipbone, and leg as in my paintings.”

I keep my eyes on hers, afraid that I will lose it all—especially my hesitation—and tear off her clothes right here, right now. Her body is tensed, coiled, and her eyes gleam with something like thrill and fear. If it were only fear in her irises, I would retreat. But that thrill—that spell-bound look—that illuminates her violets propels me forward.

“I can describe them to you if you wish. You have three dark freckles, positioned exactly like an equilateral triangle right above your left hip. They are the only marks on your skin. I would be more than happy to prove my case. Would you like me to or will you surrender?”

I only wanted her admission but at my words, something cellular happens. Her breathing shallows, her body braces as if to withstand a torrent within, and her pale-rose blush morphs into crimson—a color of life, so vibrant that it eclipses for once her shining violets. For any other woman, this would look almost like … well… frankly, arousal. But on her, this is … what is it? As if somewhere, in a mystical space in her veins, someone plugged in a cord, turned on a switch, or simply breached a dam and now her lifeblood is rushing through her, strong and implacable.

Astounded as I am by the process, I almost miss her body straighten a fraction as though synapses are finally talking to the flesh. Her skin takes on a subtle glow, and for the first time, the sadness vanishes from her eyes. Maybe relieved of the weight, her lashes flutter instantly as if she is shaking off sleep. The purple of her eyes changes. The bluish undertone turns indigo and burns with a fiery intensity until the only nuance left is a dark lilac or orchid, illuminating from within. She blinks once, twice… three times.

At her rose skin and vibrant eyes, I finally find a word for what I am seeing. More than bloom, more than life. An awakening. That’s what this is. And for some reason, I caused it.

Helpless, I watch her for an immeasurable moment—lost in my own emotions as much as hers. “Which will you choose, Miss Snow?” I whisper. Of all the options, I want the third now, so very, very badly.

She blinks again as if she returned from another world. She smiles at some thought, swallows once, and closes her eyes as if to stay in that other world a bit longer. When she opens them, they are still glowing.

“I surrender,” she whispers.

I know she means that she admits she is the woman in the painting. But this small victory somehow means more. It’s not her surrender, as much as it is her decision to let at least one guard down. And it belongs to me. Just like that vital moment of awakening. But before I congratulate myself too thoroughly, reality seeps through and I realize what she really decided. She chose not to argue, not to let me in. It was not a yes, Hale. It was a no.

The dejection should leave me winded but at least, in it, I find the silver lining. She chose not to pick up the weapon. For a moment, it was tempting. But in the end, she chose against it. And that’s a good thing.

“Safe decision,” I say, ignoring the mangled, terrifying ways in which my insides are twisting. I will deal with them on my own. But her intelligence at least prevailed. She is safe from me. I should leave now. Let her be. Move on with her life that is just starting. Earn a PhD or more likely ten. Invent a pill that cures cancer with one dose. Design a computer model that prevents wars. Brew some potion that stills eidetic memories. Or simply say “yes” to a nice, reasonably fit college professor, marry, and have enough children to deposit her DNA in this world’s genetic database.

For a blind moment, the beast does not conjure the past; it conjures the future. Elisa Snow—the way she was a moment ago, hectic spots of crimson on her cheeks, amethysts in her eyes, and fluttering lashes—dressed in white. Walking slowly down an aisle toward a faceless man. Why is that image so painful? So visceral? I don’t know this girl from Eve; she is not mine. But that’s precisely why. Because she is not mine. And can never be. The only place where she should belong to me is in a painting.

Noble plan, Hale. Now stick to it. I take a sip of my water and fix my eyes on her.

“That leaves only one question before we move on to my other reason for coming here today,” I say—noticing with some satisfaction that my voice is back to detachment. “Why did you lie about it?”

“I didn’t lie,” she says defensively.

“It’s a loose use of the word but you cannot deny that you were trying to cover the truth. Why?”

She squints her eyes—clearly, a habit of geniuses. Then, she stands straight and squares her shoulders.

“Because I was working illegally, Mr. Hale. My student visa does not allow me to work off campus. My brief hours of modeling have provided some much-needed income,” her voice is even, almost defiant.

Aha! So this is the issue, is it? She is just breaking the law. I am surprised by how unchanged she remains in my eyes. If this is what she needs to be well, I don’t give a flying fuck how many laws she breaks.

“I see,” I say, trying to keep my voice light. “That explains why there is so very little information about you anywhere.”

“You researched me?”

Researched? That’s an understatement. “As I said, I’m a man of means,” I say. “But I could not find much about you beyond your impressive academic credentials.”

She takes a deep breath as though this relieves her. “Yes, that would be CIS—the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service. They keep the records of foreign visitors strictly confidential,” she explains slowly

Well, that explains the nightmare that has been this last week. Benson will be relieved. I think he was beginning to worry he had lost his investigative touch. In truthfulness, I am relieved as well. Such a simple explanation. She is just not an American citizen, that’s all. Her paper trail belongs to a different arm of the government. The most impenetrable: homeland security.

“I must say, you’re unexpected Miss Snow. I thought you were an independent contractor, not an under-the-table worker. But don’t worry, I won’t turn you in,” I say, in case this is worrying her. I take a deep breath for the final piece. The piece that will allow me to keep her in some form. “In fact, that brings me to my next point. I’d like to hire you.”

Her mouth pops open in one of those rare unguarded expressions of hers. “Hire me?” she squeaks, as though this was the last thing she expected.

“Yes, indeed. And yes, I realize that would break the law. Apparently, I don’t care.” I only want you in the only form I should have you.

“But I have to finish my supplement first,” she stutters—all composure gone.

So naïve and innocent. It’s always about her supplement. “I’m not talking about your supplement. I’m talking about a painting. I’d like to hire you to model for a painting for my eyes only.”

Her eyes widen, in addition to her perfect O of a mouth. But her eyes are sparkling with some inner mischief. “What kind of painting? I don’t pose nude.”

Good! I’ve been driving myself insane with venom that Feign sees her naked. This small disclosure relieves me to no end and momentarily takes the sting off her earlier rejection. I smile. “What makes you think I want you to pose nude?”

Her skin explodes crimson again. “I’m sorry, I assumed that’s what you wanted because of the nature of the paintings you already bought. My mistake.” She keeps her eyes on her cup of hot—or maybe cold—chocolate, looking like she is praying for the ground to swallow her up.

“You assumed both right and wrong. If I were the artist, your reluctance against nudity would be a problem indeed. But since I am not, and you will have to pose in front of another man, I have no intention of commissioning a nude painting. Does that satisfy you?”

She blinks a few times while I panic that she will say no and leave me with nothing of her at all—nothing but my suddenly inadequate memory.

“Why should you care if another man sees me naked?” she says instead.

Okay, it’s not a “no.” But it is another question that asks too much of me and not enough of her. “I have pondered the question myself. For now, let’s just say that I like my art…unique. In fact, I plan to pay Mr. Feign a very handsome amount so that he does not paint you ever again.”

This is actually true. Her little mouth opens into another full O. The image is distracting, maddening so I press my case before I do something to that O. “I regret that this will cause you to be out of a job that you desperately need. I will compensate you on a fair trade commission, which would include the share of profits you should have received for your work.”

Her mouth closes. Thank God. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Hale,” she says haughtily, her chin jutting out. “But you don’t need to pay me. I still have my job at the lab and my student visa ends soon.”

Why would I deprive her of something she really needs? And why is she determined to fight me every fucking step of the way? Rage starts prickling again, so I fire off my first defense. Voice. “You seem to be under a misapprehension that this is a negotiation, Miss Snow, but it is not. I refuse not to pay you when I am the reason you will never pose for anyone ever again. And that’s the end of the discussion on this point.”

For most people, men or women, usually this cold tone is enough to trigger a natural warning to back off before my war defect burns them to ash. Does it work the same way on Elisa? Of course not. She stands up straighter, tilts her head to the side pleasantly, and smiles a seraphic smile that does not touch her eyes.

“Mr. Hale, you seem to have picked up on the same thing that Feign has: that some immigrants don’t have any bargaining power. You are unfortunately right, and you have me cornered because you know my secret. So I have no option but to agree. But make no mistake that, until your ultimatum, I was going to accept your offer with pleasure. But now, all you will get is the surrender you wanted. So let’s get down to business, shall we?”

What. The. Fuck. Rage floods my veins now, inexorable. My blood becomes gasoline, with a metallic, smoky taste in my throat. Instantly, my muscles lock down to stave off the onslaught. I have two, three minutes left. I play Fur Elise in my head, fixing my eyes on Elisa’s jawline, throat, skin, grappling to fend off the symptoms. Fifteen more seconds now. Ten. Five. I just need the smoke to leave my throat. Slowly, it wafts back into the pits of my mind, and I sense my throat relax enough to see reason in her stubbornness. To form words.

“I don’t view you as a second-class citizen, Miss Snow,” I say slowly. “But I suppose I can understand why my delivery would be offensive for someone in your circumstances. It was not my intent to make you feel used. My apologies.”

She gives me a brief nod. “Accepted.”

I take a deep breath as my blood cools as instantly as it ignited and the remnants of fire settle deep in my stomach. Quickly, I turn the subject to lighter topics. “Now, about the business details. I’d like you to model in my home.” Yes, I need her there. Once. Only once. Enough to fuse the place with her calmness. And maybe enough for me to find out what is haunting her and end it.

“That’s fine,” she says, draining the last dregs of her hot chocolate from the cup.

“And I don’t want just glimpses of your body. I want all of it, including your face.”

The cup shakes in her hand and she sets it back down. “I don’t know why but okay.”

Ah! Even Elisa Snow has insecurities. This should make me feel better. It should make me feel like I’m sitting next to a normal, comprehensible human girl that I can decode, help, and let go. But instead, it sets this odd indigestion-type ache in my chest. “You don’t know why?” I ask her.

“No, not really. But it’s okay. You don’t have to give me some speech about how I really am beautiful and don’t see myself clearly.”

This is unusual. In my experience, about 80% of people—men or women—will press the issue, looking for reassurance. They will say things like “Look at me,” “I’m not that interesting,” “No, I don’t know why.” Elisa Snow discards it altogether. Is it because nothing will assure her? “It seems you are familiar with that speech,” I probe gently.

“Yes, and frankly it never works for anyone. It would be better if we used our time productively.”

Yes, of course. God forbid we are being inefficient. But what if I really could erase her insecurities? What if I told her exactly how she makes me feel? Would that flatter her, or terrify her? Probably terrify her.

“What would you like me to wear?” Elisa interrupts my thoughts, blushing of course.

Nothing. “My shirt.”

More crimson, more violet in her eyes. “And what else?”

Me. “Nothing else. Just my shirt.”

Her empty cup rattles in her hand and she sets it back down again. Then she picks it back up. “Will the shirt be open or buttoned?”

Oh, Elisa, your brain is failing you at this moment. There is only one answer to that question. “Open,” I mouth, enjoying her reaction.

She swallows hard. For once in our five-day-long history, I have slightly more control than she does. “Umm…,” she starts, her eyes flitting to my glass of water and then back at her empty cup. “That might be a problem with the no-nude rule.” Another peek at my water. “I’d feel more comfortable if I could keep my knickers.” She bows her head completely.

I almost laugh. I almost rip her off her orange velvet armchair and across the table onto my lap. Almost. A very close almost. But I know very well what would happen if I did that; eventually she will get hurt. Not to mention that her hands are shaking and gripping that damn cup so tightly with nerves that I take mercy on her and back off.

“Okay, knickers,” I concede, but it feels like too much to give up so I tack on a condition. “But I get to pick them.”

She nods so fervently that her black hair flops over her forehead. “Thank you,” she says, like I threw her a life raft at her while she is overboard.

I want to tease her about what kind of knickers she would like, what is she wearing right now, should we buy the entire Agent Provocateur or choose them together? Except there are three problems. One, my own jeans—loathsome fabric. Two, I truly don’t think she could take it. If this girl has slept with more than one or two men, I will volunteer for another deployment. Three, none of that will ever happen between us.

“That’s it,” I relent. “Unless you want to talk price.”

She shakes her head vigorously again. Apparently, she cannot even bring herself to speak this time. I take advantage and move on to questions for which I need her unguarded. The questions that will hopefully give me some answers. Truths that are personal to her, that are vintage Elisa.

“Now, I’d like the same color and style as the rest of the paintings but before I hire Feign, I need some information from you.”

Still crimson in the cheeks. “What kind of information?”

Question Number One, which I shouldn’t ask but fuck it. “Are you sleeping with Feign?”

Her eyes widen and the crimson spreads to her neck. I don’t blame her—the question was rude. “No, I am not.”

Excellent. Question Number Two. “Incidentally, are you with someone else?”

A little crease between her eyebrows, but still crimson. “No.”

I relax and lean back in the chair, which is starting to feel a tad too comfortable. “Then, I will discuss the schedule with Feign and get back to you.”

Her little crease becomes a full frown—a very cute, attractive frown. “Why would you not hire Feign if I was with him or someone else?”

Fuck, we are back to me. Not a chance. She is not getting the upper hand again. I just broke her down. “I don’t want you distracted, Miss Snow. And I certainly don’t need to invite the ire of a jealous boyfriend. It wouldn’t end well for him.” It most certainly wouldn’t.

“I guess that makes sense,” she mumbles, but her eyes squint at the corners. I press on with my questions before she changes topics from herself again.

“Do you go back to England often?”

She looks up almost startled. “No.”

“What about your parents? Are they in England?”

It was supposed to be an easy question. A simple one that keeps her violin voice in the air. But one look at her face and I realize now my mistake. All my mistakes with her. I know her answer before she gives it. I know it in the way her eyes zoom in and out of focus like mine do when I remember Marshall. In the way, her mouth parts to let air in because she has no strength to breathe it on her own. In the way all crimson blanched from her face. In the way her lips move like she is counting.

For a moment, I want to tell her not to answer. I want to take this whole morning back and cancel the painting, even give up the few moments of peace she gives me. Just so I don’t have to see that look on her face. But she speaks before I do.

“My parents have passed away, Mr. Hale,” she whispers, keeping her eyes on her cup of cold chocolate.

It’s even worse in her breathless whisper. What can I tell her? What can I do? How arrogant I was to think I could fix whatever haunts her. There is nothing I can do to end this for her. Nothing to replace the void she feels. If I know anything from the hair in my head to the heels of my feet is that.

“I’m very sorry,” I say, wishing I could take her hand. My words are inadequate so I add, “And I’m sorry I asked. I had no idea.” I am sorry for more things than that . . . sorry that I’m here in the first place, which is bad enough. But that I’m inflicting myself even deeper in the life of someone who has no protectors, that’s truly inexcusable.

“No need to apologize,” she says, her voice gaining some strength. “There can be no fault when the intention is kind.”

Oh yes, there can, Elisa. Believe me when I say, there can. “Do you have siblings?” Please say yes.

“No.”

As alone as she can get. “I’m an only child myself. I sympathize.”

She smiles. “I went through a stage where I would draw my brother and sister. My parents had to endure the stick figures at the dinner table for several months.”

I smile, too, because that’s obviously what she wants. “I should have given that a try. It might have made me less selfish.”

“Most kind people think of themselves as selfish, I have noticed.”

I force another smile, racking my brains for a way to fix this. For something that will improve her life even if it will never fill a void. For the strength to leave her alone. For anything…

“What about your parents?” she probes.

“They’re vacationing in Thailand for the next month. My father, Robert, is an architect; my mother, Stella, an editor,” I answer quickly—I cannot flirt with triggers at this moment. “Why did you leave England?”

She shrugs. “After my parents’ car accident, I needed a fresh start. I’d always heard the States were immigrant-friendly. So, here I am.”

She puts on a good show. Or maybe she really believes it. But at least she is talking. Maybe that helps? “This must have been very difficult for you.”

A small smile. “I’ve had my moments. It’s better now though. I miss them still, but I have done my best to keep parts of them alive. Like the nutritional supplement that my dad was so keen on. Most days, I just feel really lucky to have had such unconditional love even for a short while.”

“Well, from what I’ve seen, they would be really proud.” If there is one thing she has to know, it must be this.

“Thank you. I’d like to think so,” she whispers, lowering her eyes and fixing them on her cup. I bend my head to meet them but she does not look up.

She starts fidgeting with the wristband of her watch—a 1970s Seiko with a wide, round face and sturdy leather strap, clearly made for a man . . . A man from the 1970s. A father. At the realization that indigestion-like ache starts brewing inside my chest again.

“Yes, this was my dad’s,” she volunteers. She must have noticed me looking at it. “I know it’s masculine but I can’t imagine wearing something else.” Her voice is wistful and her eyes drift to my own watch. A fucking Audemars Piguet. Why did I have to wear it? I place my hand on my thigh almost casually.

“No need to hide your James Bond watch, Mr. Hale,” she smiles—reading straight through me. Of course, I was not being particularly subtle. “Trust me, orphans don’t like making others uncomfortable. On the contrary, I’m happy for you.” Her voice is fervent again, unquestionable. In that tone, I realize another layer to Elisa Snow. She is good—kind. The most underestimated quality in human beings, and she has it. Others might feel resentment at what they lack and become stingy with others. She seems to draw genuine happiness from the fact that only she had to bear the ugly brunt of fate.

“Your parents must be proud, too,” she says, with a brilliant smile.

It’s instant. The image of my mother’s broken body on the floor implodes in my vision. Her splayed legs, her right arm twisted off its socket as her other hand reaches weakly for my face. My hands—my own hard, war-callused, hateful hands—wrapped around her throat. And her whisper gasping over the gunfire blaring in my ears: “Aiden…it’s me… it’s mom… I love you… your father loves you… you are good… you are g-g-good, s-s-son… we… l-l-l-ove you…”

But then a musical voice—louder, closer—breaks through my mother’s pleas, almost nonsensical. “If I ever sell my supplement, I’ll send you a picture of my Audemars.”

Elisa speaks hesitantly, her words like the melody she must be named after.

As instantly as it started, the memory reel slows down. Still photographs now, not a fast-backward film. But I still hear gasps and mortar fire. I still smell my mother and IED smoke. I force myself to see only Elisa’s face. Her sunny smile still lingers on her lips, but her beautiful orchid eyes have dimmed, probably in concern for whatever terror slipped out of my own. The gunfire stops blaring; my mother no longer pleads. My eyes fix on Elisa’s jawline—that flawless first part of her I saw in that painting. Adrenaline recedes; my muscles start unlocking. Blood cools in my veins. And at last, air flows in my lungs. Clear, moist, with a faint scent of soap and roses.

Elisa smiles again, her eyes never leaving mine—clueless of the storm she just silenced, of the balm she layered over me, of the peace she weaves.

I force a smile back and lock my muscles again. Not from memories this time but because my body wants to slump forward until my face is buried in her hair. Perhaps if I breathed only her, I’d be healed and flashbacks like this will go away forever. Perhaps if I gave her the world, the world would make some place for me.

She’s waiting for me to say something—barely seconds have passed in her normal mind while mine lived in three time periods and places at once.

“Or maybe you’ll find yourself winning the lottery, Miss Snow.” How shallow my words sound for what she really deserves. For what I’d really pay. But how I can tell that I would gladly give everything—every penny I own, every day I have left in this non-life of mine, in exchange for one day—no, one hour—completely free from the ravages inside my head?

She meets my eyes for a long moment—there is no question of me looking away. Now or ever. As I stare at her, I know I will look at this girl—the only girl in the world who has calmed me—for the rest of my life. She will move on after my painting. She will go to Harvard, cure cancer, save other men. She will fall in love, marry, have children. She will age, her mind will slow down, and her memories will fade. She may return to England for her final days. And when that last breath comes for her, it will be in beauty. Exactly as it should be, Elisa. Exactly as it should be.

She might once or twice remember she posed for a strange man. She might wonder what he did with her painting. She will never tell her husband, but she will tell her daughter or her friend. But with time, she will forget his name, or the way his eyes fixed on her as though she was the only sight left. She will forget him in the end, never knowing that her painting will always hang in his bedroom. That she will be the first and last thing he will see every day. That her face will be the avatar he will summon against every flashback, every abyss. That she will be his medicine until his very end. Exactly so, Elisa. Exactly so.

She speaks at last in her wind-chime voice. “You can call me Elisa, Mr. Hale. Or Isa.”

I swallow once, as if to clear my mouth for her name. For the name I’ve wanted to say out loud since I saw her this morning. For the name I might say on my final breath if I want peace.

“Elisa.”

She smiles in response. It’s so beautiful—almost, almost carefree—that I nearly say her name again but abruptly her smile disappears and she bolts to her feet.

“I’d better go,” she says quickly. “I have a lot of information to download on poor Eric.”

Eric? Ah, Fucknuts. It takes a second to recall the rest of the ordinary world. Yet somehow I don’t think he is the real reason she is leaving. Did she see the monster in my eyes? I hope she did. I hope she didn’t. Go Elisa! Go. She should leave. She has to leave. Every minute she spends with me is a minute she is in danger. I know that…but like an addict, I try to hold on to her a few more seconds.

“I’ll walk you to the lab, Elisa,” I say her name again, leaving some money on the table and waiting for her to lead the way.

She does, and I follow blindly in her wake, unsure if I am going toward something or running from it.

©2016 Ani Keating

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FRESH-FICTION INTERVIEW WITH AIDEN HALE, GIVEAWAY, EXCERPT & NEWS

Hello everyone! Happy Saturday! Got some goodies for you and hope you love them!

1.  FreshFiction (yep, that awesome FreshFiction) is doing an exclusive interview with Aiden today, where he gives hints on the sequel and answers your questions.  Many of you submitted questions for Aiden and we tried to answer as many as we could that wouldn’t spoil the sequel or that kept the interview within word limits. Here is a sneak peak (with Gandy as Aiden even though he’s wearing a suit, because, why not?)and you can read the full one here

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Ani Keating: (plopped on a beanie bag at an undisclosed location, wearing flannel pajamas.) Hey Aiden, thank you for coming here today.

Aiden Hale: (sitting in a winged armchair, ankle over his knee, wearing torn up jeans instead of the customary charcoal suit, and glaring at Ani with wrathful eyes.) I didn’t do it for you. I’m doing it for your readers.

AK: I know, I know—you’re mad at me because of what I did in THIRTY NIGHTS. But really, don’t you think it’s best if people face their worst fears in the end?

AH: (attractive snort) No!

AK: How can you not agree with that?

AH: Very simple. Your theory is making the person I love the most in the world suffer. I have no respect for any principle or author that causes her pain.

AK: I’m assuming you’re talking about Elisa.

AH: I’m assuming that’s not a serious question.

Continue reading here 🙂

2. FreshFiction is running a giveaway for Thirty Nights and have created an exclusive page for it. It will be up for four days.  Another signed copy of Thirty Nights — get them before they run out. I’m almost out of author copies now.  Enter the FreshFiction giveaway here

3. Excerpt & News: As some of you know, Samhain Publishing, my publisher has decided to close its doors. Although this saddens me because they were a great publisher, I want to assure you that NINETY DAYS – the sequel – is still on and it will still come out this year (hopefully Spring). THIRTY NIGHTS will continue to be on sale during the wind-down process, and after that, I will make sure it remains available as well.  Below is a tiny excerpt from the sequel–more will follow soon.

NINETY DAYS EXCERPT

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I fling my eyes open, feeling a gust of warm, cinnamon-scented breath on my neck. He’s here. He’s here. A cloud of body heat rises around me, melting all ice, fueling all fire. I turn to find him but the only thing standing out in the darkness are his sapphire eyes. They stir and brew as his trademark tectonic plates shift along with his memories. 

“Aiden?” I gasp, his name whooshing like a spurt of life.

He’s here. He’s here. He holds both of his hands open, as though he is trying to show me something invisible. The sapphire light of his eyes fractures on his skin, emitting an Aurora Borealis. He does not smile but his irises darken. He leans his forehead against mine and closes his eyes.

“Be happy,” he murmurs.

Can you guess what this is? – Love you all and be back with more.  xo Ani

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Happy Heart Day!

All my love to my readers everywhere today! I can’t believe it’s Valentine’s Day already. I hope yours is filled with the best, sexiest love stories of all: our own. And to add some to that love, here are two little gifts for you:  1) A teaser for the sequel—Ninety Days; and 2) A Giveaway that I’m running with my publisher, Samhain.  Two $5 Amazon gift cards, for two winners. All you have to do is tweet today and tomorrow what Aiden should get Elisa for Valentine’s Day today, and use the hashtag #thirtynights. Copy me, and voila!  I will enter you to win the card so you can discover even more love stories. Enjoy playing and reading! See you soon (I’m in a wee bit of a rush because I have to finish a sequel chapter today and cook with hubby-two loves in one.)

CHAPTER 1

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FLIGHT
(This chapter has not been edited. It may appear in a different form in the published novel)

Every airplane hurtling across the sky carries goodbyes. Some for days, some for life. Then there is mine—the unknown kind.

I stare out of the Plexiglas window into dense darkness. It’s midnight back in Portland. Did Reagan make it home safe? Is she curled up on my bed, still crying? And Javier—does he even have a bed in his jail cell? Or is he slumped on the floor, staring at darkness just like me? I leave the hardest person for last . . . him . . . Aiden Hale, I force myself to think the name. Is he awake? Or finally asleep—relieved to have me out of his life?

A burning pain—part rage, part agony—flares like a livid wound between my lungs, and I close the window shade. The businessman next to me is snoring softly. I avoid looking at his charcoal suit—so similar to Aiden’s when they hung closely with my dresses. The wound throbs again, and I gaze at the crumpled note still in my hand. Aiden’s right-hand man, Benson, scribbled it on a torn piece of paper like he was out of time.

Elisa,

I am breaking Mr. Hale’s rules by giving you his letters in hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.

Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life.

Benson

I have the words memorized, but they still seem scrambled. Alone they make sense, but together they mean nothing. What does Benson know about my mistakes? About our regrets?  What rules is he breaking? Why? What’s the difference between the man I know and the one I heard today?

I know the answer to that last one. Aiden Hale—the man I thought I knew, the man I loved—would have never reported Javier to the immigration police. He would have never ruined my little family. He would have never hurt someone I love. But the man he truly is—the man I saw today with finally clear eyes—did all of that, and admitted it three times.

The burning ache rages up my throat, constricting it until I can’t breathe. I loosen my scarf, searching for air. It blows in a steady gust from the airplane vent. Straight into the center of my forehead. Where Aiden’s lips rested last. Where my father’s lips rested always.

I lift my face toward the vent and draw a huge gulp of pressurized air. In, out. Hydrogen, atomic weight 1.008, helium, 4.002, lithium, 6.94—

“Miss? May I get you anything?” A hushed feminine voice murmurs next to me.

I turn to the flight attendant, trying not to look at her Union Jack scarf that reminds me of Reagan and her obsession with all things British. “Some coffee, please,” I whisper.

Her eyebrows arch—coffee is not the drink of choice at this hour—but she scurries back to the galley for the pot.

I know this is a mistake. I know I should try to sleep. It would be easier to shut down, drift into a different place, a different time. Perhaps I would be back in Portland again. On the couch with Reagan, listening to Lana Del Rey. Or in Javier’s studio, looking at his paintings. Or perhaps in a rose garden, tangled under the blooms with the Aiden I loved, not the one I discovered today.

Yes, it would be easier to sleep, but I cannot. Because if I sleep, this day will be over.  If I sleep, this will be the last day in my home, the last time I saw my family, the last time I held my best friend, the last time I was in love. And when I wake up, everything I have will be yesterday. It will be the past.

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Thirty Nights Outtake: The Snow Express (with art from Beauty and the Beastly Books)

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2016 is off to a great start. Mine has been crammed with…. you guessed it, Ninety Days.  But I always have a little nostalgia lingering after the holidays, and before they are completely forgotten I thought I would post this outtake from Thirty Nights.

At the time a version of this chapter was posted online, I was astonished at how many fans it had. I thought it was Christmas cravings, but the feeling withstood throughout the year. So here it is, in a final nod to the most wonderful time of the year.  The beautiful cover art is courtesy of the talented Carol Sales from Beauty and the Beastly Books Blog. Enjoy and check out her blog as well for some great new recommendations!

*Mature Audiences Only*

SNOW EXPRESS

May 22, 2015
(three days after Aiden’s Alone Place)

“I have to do some work for a couple of hours,” Aiden says after dinner, caressing my cheek. My heartbeat stutters at his martyred expression and the tone of his voice. Beneath the husky musicality, there is some hesitation. As though a part of him doesn’t want to leave me even for a short while.

But I know better now. I know the part of him that doesn’t want to leave is small—just a pinprick of light in his vast, dark depths. The rest of him would stay away from me in the blink of an eye if it meant that I was safe.

Safety has never sounded more dangerous.

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“You know, work is overrated for billionaires,” I say, gripping him to me.

He smiles. “Everything is overrated about billionaires. Especially the billionaires themselves.” I’m about to start defending at least one billionaire, but he tips my face up so he can see my eyes. “Seriously, will you be okay for a while?”

The truthful answer—pathetic as it may sound—is “no”. I will miss him every minute of those bloody two hours. Two hours are long for someone who has only 22 days left. But at least I have some sneaky plans to keep me occupied.

“I’ll be great,” I answer. “You go work. I’ll hang out with Cora and call Reagan.”

The faithful V forms between his eyebrows, and he bends his seraphic face to kiss the corner of my lips. “You know, it feels long to me too,” he whispers. “But—”

“Don’t tell me the but part,” I murmur and kiss him hard. He kisses me back in his urgent, demanding way, perhaps finishing his sentence with his tongue, instead of words. When he pulls away, we are both breathless.

“I was going to say, ‘but I’ll work from the library, so I’m not very far.’” He grins at his trick, and taps my nose twice.

I try to come up with some clever response but I can’t speak from the warm bubble parachuting in my chest. I don’t have him for forever, and I may not have him even for 22 days, but I do have him tonight. And I will do my damnedest to make it a great night. A night he will remember not because of his memory, but because he wants to.

“I like that you won’t be far,” I finally manage. “And if you’re very lucky, I may even interrupt you… there’s no telling whether I’ll be wearing clothes or not.”

He laughs his carefree, waterfall laughter. “I’m rarely that lucky.” And with another kiss, he sweeps out of the kitchen, the lights flickering at his passage.

The moment I hear the library door close behind him, I sprint to Cora’s apartment for my Christmas plans. Somewhere deep in my brain, I wonder whether it really is such a good idea to celebrate the holidays early together in case my visa doesn’t come through. Is there a better way to invite bad luck than to celebrate it? I almost trip in terror but then remember Dad’s words from ages ago: luck favors those who don’t fear it.

I skid to a stop at Cora’s door and knock. She opens it immediately with a big smile.

“Isa, hi, come on in!”

Cora’s apartment is clean and all white, with punches of hot pink and royal blue. But the first thing I notice is not the color; it’s the warmth. Cora keeps her apartment at least ten degrees warmer than Aiden keeps the rest of the house. I know it’s because ever since the desert, he doesn’t like heat. Still, it is nice to have warm toes while wrapping presents.

“Here,” says Cora. “I have everything set up and ready to go.” She leads me to the corner of her living room where on a round, dining table are my Christmas ornaments, a new stocking for Aiden, and neat bundles of twinkling lights.

“Cora, you bought more lights!” I pretend to scold.

She laughs. “I couldn’t resist. This is fun for us too.” She rubs her hands together like it really is Christmas in May.

“Did Benson manage to find a tree?” I grin, sitting at the dining table and curling my legs under me.

“Oh yes, you just wait ‘til you see it—it’s beautiful. Benson’s hidden it in the back woods so Mr. Hale doesn’t see it.”

“Good idea. We can bring it all in after Aiden goes to bed. Are you sure he doesn’t suspect anything?”

“Not a thing. Benson said he was very distracted all day trying to close a deal he’s working on and yelling at Bob’s immigration team to hurry up.”

Lunatic that I’ve become, the image of the Dragon breathing fire makes me smile. But only because it’s for my benefit.

“Okay, now here are your frames and the rest of your things,” Cora says, uncovering a clear plastic bin under the table. “I’ll go clean up in the kitchen and keep an eye on Mr. Hale.”

After she leaves, I look at the universe of my treasures that I have carried with me for the last four years. They look ridiculously small—shabby even—compared to what Aiden did for me at his Alone Place. Most of the Aeternum roses are now in Denton’s lab, undergoing geraniol extraction. But some are sprinkled throughout the house, even here on Cora’s dining table.

Yes, my gifts are not much compared to his, but they are all I have. I start scrawling, cutting, gluing, and printing for almost two hours.

In a way, giving Aiden anything that belongs in a frame is silly. With his memory, he does not need pictures—he has none anywhere as far as I’ve seen. But that’s why this is important. I am noticing that although he remembers everything, he has difficulty connecting the memories in a positive way. His mind remembers moments, but his self-loathing and guilt connects them in the most savage, self-destructive way. In short, brilliant though he is, Aiden misses the forest for the trees, the frame for the photos. And with this present, maybe he will see a new way to connect the moments that have brought us together… that are making us, us.

I stare at the finished gifts—how much we have done together in such a short time! Uncovered secrets, saved dreams. It’s hard to believe—looking at all these moments—that there isn’t something better for us. That we are racing toward the end and not the beginning.

I don’t know how long I sit here—lost in the future for once, rather than the past—but eventually, a beep from iPhone jolts me back.

Cora: Mr. Hale is roaming the halls. Hurry! 🙂

I laugh at her smiley face, and sprint to Aiden’s temporary bedroom with only twenty seconds to spare. By the time I rip off my clothes and sprawl naked across the bed, he opens the door.

“There you are—” he starts but then his mouth freezes open into a perfect O. His sentient eyes widen and gaze at me so intensely that my entire skin explodes crimson. From my cheeks to my pinky toe. Still, I don’t look away. His Christmas starts tonight even if he doesn’t know it.

At length he closes his mouth, swallows hard, and speaks—his voice low and husky. “I thought you forgot me.”

I shake my head, keeping my eyes on him. “Haven’t we established that that’s impossible?”

He smiles and saunters to me, slowly. On each step, he takes off his T-shirt, and then his socks, and then his jeans. By the time he towers over me, he is only wearing his snug, grey boxers. He lies on top of me without complexities, without elaborate set-ups. Just his heated skin covering every inch of mine.

He leans close, his lips to my ear. “That’s the beauty about your memory,” he whispers. “For you, forgetting is possible.”

“Not if I don’t want to forget,” I answer and bring his mouth to mine. Still, for now, I do forget everything—the ticking clock, his demons, my Christmas plans, Cora and Benson still awake—and focus only on this moment and the way Aiden’s mouth molds with mine. His tongue dancing a slow, carnal rhythm with my own. His hot lips scorching fiery trails over my skin. His strong hands carving new paths over my breasts, my waist, my hips. And our bodies soldered together without space for anything else but each other.

In the afterstorm, we lie there, my body buzzing from within, the sound of our harsh breathing filling the air. Aiden rests his head on my chest as our lungs stabilize and slow down. I wonder vaguely if we are drifting into sleep and how special that would be—us sleeping in the same bed, legs tangled in knots, maybe fighting for the most blanket. I’d let him have it all. If he would only sleep with me.

“I like the sound of your heart,” Aiden murmurs—his voice slightly hoarse. He looks up, his eyes now the calmest of Mediterranean blue. “It calms me, like you. I listened to it on our first night… after you fell asleep.”

The heart in question starts thundering loudly—very pleased with itself. He smiles and rests his head on my chest again, listening. Every time his lips touch me or his fingertips brush my skin, my heart tries to break out of my chest. We talk now and then… about his work, about my dreams if I get my green card, about our favorite places in Portland and favorite foods. I learn that, like me, he hates TV but really likes public radio. His favorite book is Brothers Karamazov as well. He, too, loves the Portland food carts and orders take-out every Wednesday. He is an undefeated Trivial Pursuit champion—figures!—but his real interest is chess. I melt as I discover how much we have in common. More than just troubled pasts and inner pain. Even without those, we’d still fit together, simply because we were born that way. Albeit two worlds and fifteen years apart.

At length, his voice deepens and slows, as does mine. On any night, I’d stay here, hoping in vain that he’d forget about sleeping apart. But not tonight. Tonight, I have a turkey to roast. “I better let you sleep,” I finally say, caressing his cheek. “You’ve had a long day.”

His arms tighten around me, and his eyes still as though he is imagining something. But before I can ask, the tectonic plates shift and his arms loosen. “It’s safer this way,” he murmurs, kissing me one last time.

I nod, fighting the chilly emptiness that surges up my spine.

“You believe me, don’t you?” he presses as if he can sense it. “You know this is just for your safety.”

“I know,” I sigh, kissing his scar. I can’t argue with his motivation. Not to mention that if I did, he’d feel even worse about all the normal things I’ll be missing if I stay with him. Hideous thought.

“Come on, I’ll tuck you in,” I say, unraveling myself from his arms and legs. He grins and watches me as I throw the comforter over him and switch off the light.

“Sweet dreams, Elisa.”

“No dreams, Aiden.”

That’s the best wish for Aiden’s sleep—he can never trust his dreams. I listen to his low chuckle for a moment after I close the bedroom door. I love you, I think, then shuffle to his real bedroom to put on my pajamas and wait until he is fast asleep.

Benson and Cora find me in the living room about half hour later, Benson carrying a huge Douglas fir that dwarfs even him. They have already strung the lights on it—hopefully they were busy with that and didn’t hear our sexcapades.

We secure the fir in a deep pot by the piano, and plug in the lights. A soft glow illuminates the massive glass wall, casting long, cheerful shadows on the polished hardwood floor. I watch entranced as the isolation of Aiden Hale cracks a little. From Benson’s slack mouth and Cora’s misty eyes, they might be thinking the same thing.

“Thank you,” I tell them, staring at the twinkling lights woven in the branches. “I couldn’t done this without you two.”

To my surprise, Cora gives me a hug. Benson clears his throat, which I think means “don’t mention it,” and turns around to string more lights along the glass wall.

“Oh, come on, Benson,” Cora teases. “Turn around—I know you’re choking up. You’re the biggest softie there is. And I mean that literally.”

“Will you two keep down the giggles?” Benson pretends to hiss but he still doesn’t turn around. “The man sleeps with one eye open. He’ll wake up and catch us here, looking like idiots.”

The two of them razz each other as we hang the ornaments that Reagan and I have accumulated over the years. Cora and I stream a garland over the fireplace and I hang Aiden’s stocking where I’ve spelled Dragon in sparkly dust. After Benson plugs in the last string of lights and Cora fluffs the Santa pillows, we step back and look at our handiwork. It still looks like Aiden’s home, but without the loneliness. It looks cheerful, as though you’d expect laughter and old-world music from each corner.

“Isa, are you sure you don’t want me to help with the cooking?” Cora says. “I’m having too much fun. We’ve never had holidays her—” She stops abruptly as though she said one sentence too many.

But it’s too late. My body absorbs her words faster than my mind does, and a chill runs up my spine in shock. “Never?” I whisper.

Cora shakes her head, her lips pressing together as if to block any other disclosures.

“Why not?” My question sounds almost like a sob. Surely his parents must come here or Marshall or his other Marine friends… But just as I think this, I understand. Yes, his parents would want to come. As would his friends. But would Aiden let them? Would he ever risk their lives for himself? I know the answer to that one. No, he wouldn’t.

Benson and Cora watch my face as though my thoughts are written there in capital, bold letters. Neither of them says a word—perhaps worried they have already said too much.

“So… so what does he do for Christmas? For New Year’s? Is he all alone?” I whisper, my hand flying to my mouth as though it doesn’t want the words to become real. But I know they must be. Here I have been these last four years, missing my parents so much at Christmas that the pain felt like an iron hand choking me every minute until the holidays were over. But at least I had the Solises and Reagan, when just up the hill from me, surrounded in wilderness and cold glass, a man who has fought for his own land—who is better than the sum of all my best parts—sat alone, missing people that are still alive. How can he stand it? How has it not killed him for the last twelve years? Does he see the ones he loves in every twinkly light and miss them in every ticking second?

A sob builds in my chest and I shudder. What have I done by planning Christmas? Am I going to bring him pain tomorrow instead of good memories? How many years will this little whim of my fantasy cost him?

“Cora!” I choke out, hot tears welling in my eyes. “Benson! We have to take all this down. We have to get rid of it, right now. Oh, how could I have been so stupid?”

Cora and Benson flit to my side, Cora taking my hands. “Isa! No, don’t you say that,” Cora whispers urgently, squeezing my hands like Reagan does. “You’re not stupid. This is the best thing for him, sweetheart. Oh, I wish I hadn’t say anything!”

“H-h-how can it be the best thing for him?” I shudder again, trying to swallow the sobs. “Cora, he h-hurts on Christmas. No, no—we have to bring this down. ”

Cora starts to explain but at that moment, Benson’s arm comes around my shoulders—my knees buckle under the weight. “If he hurts on Christmas it’s not because of Christmas. It’s because he’s alone. But now he doesn’t have to be. Now he has you. So why take that chance from him, hmm?” Benson’s gentle eyes are crinkly at the corners, and he’s watching me like I might break.

“Yes, yes, good point Benson!” Cora nods feverishly. “Isa, sweetheart, if I had a coin for every time I wished his parents and friends didn’t listen to him and broke through that door, I’d be richer than Mr. Hale. But they can’t do that because they know their presence alone brings him pain. But with you, it’s different. He only has good memories with you. Listen to Benson. Don’t take that away from Mr. Hale without at least trying.”

I sniffle, trying to find some sense in what they’re saying but the terror of hurting him is too strong for logic. “But who am I to do this for him? I’ve known him five minutes! If his parents and friends respect his choice, who am I to presume I’ll be different and make him happy?”

Benson smiles and pats my shoulder three times—my knees buckle again on each pat. “You’re the only woman he wants. That’s gotta count for somethin’, eh?”

It does—it counts for a lot. It counts for the warmth that radiates in my chest at Benson’s words, for the weak flickering of hope that glimmers now and then, but it doesn’t count enough to cause Aiden pain even for a minute.

“Isa, sweetheart,” Cora continues with a small smile. “Every couple that has so much going against them must be meant to be together. Or else why would the universe bother?”

Because there is no such thing as universe conspiracies, I want to say. But I want to believe her words too much to argue with her.

“Don’t let them win,” she urges, sensing my weakness. “Be a little selfish!”

“Yes, exactly—be selfish on Christmas,” Benson says, shaking my shoulder and making my teeth rattle.

I smile at his enthusiasm—at their eager faces and nervous smiles. And somewhere in their words, I see their logic. There is such a thing as too much selflessness. Aiden too selfless to allow me in his life, and I too selfless to push him. Is that the trouble here?

“Come on, Isa,” Cora says in a final tone, seeing my decision before I make it. “I’ll help you with the turkey. And maybe some steak too. If there is one thing that always puts Mr. Hale in a good mood is steak.”

I smile and wipe my eyes with my sleeve. “All right, but if I see even a trace of hurt in his eyes tomorrow, I’ll call it off.”

“Makes sense,” she approves. “And you won’t see pain.” Benson nods with certainty.

“You two go to bed, I can handle this. Besides, it will be more quiet that way.” They start to argue but perhaps sense that I want to be alone. So eventually they head to their apartments, threatening to come check in on me and make sure the tree is still up. As they are about to turn the corner, I remember.

“Cora! Benson! Wait.” I take out their gifts from my purse and skip to where they are standing, rooted to the spot. “Merry Christmas!”

They stare open-mouthed as they take the small packages from me. I start feeling really foolish. “Umm, it’s not much. Just a small thank you,” I mumble.

They tear the turquoise wrapping paper, Benson struggling a little with the bow and his enormous, sausage-like fingers. Cora opens her box first.

“It’s daffodil bulbs,” I say. “We’ve been experimenting with new breeds at the lab. They’ll be purple and white because they’re crossbred with hyacinth.”

“Thank you,” she says in amazement. “I’ve never seen purple daffodils.”

“Well, they don’t exist unless you make them in a lab, but that’s why I thought you would like them. I saw you had some paper-whites in the kitchen.”

She gives me a warm smile like she thinks I am Father Christmas himself. Then she turns to Benson and jabs him in the ribs. “What did you get, Benson?”

He lifts the lid of his box and pulls out a glass jar. His forehead crumples in confusion.

“It’s thief detection powder,” I explain.

His eyes widen and his face morphs from confusion into downright ecstatic pleasure. Apparently it’s true what they say: inside every adult man—even one as enormous as Benson, there’s a tiny boy waiting for the right toy.

“No fucking… I mean, I’m sorry… no way!”

“Yes way. I always had a jar around in case someone stole supplies to make psychedelics. It will turn the hands of the thief blue and it can’t be washed, unless you have the antidote. That’s the second jar,” I point.

Benson is gaping at me like a huge guppy fish. “Are you telling me you made this yourself?”

I nod, blushing. “Maybe you can use it to catch someone if they threaten Aiden…” I trail off, whether from embarrassment or fear that someone might actually hurt Aiden, I have no idea.

But it must be clear to Benson because he steps closer to me and lowers his head until his gentle brown eyes are level with mine. “It’s my job to protect him. Don’t you ever worry about that. His only enemy is inside him.”

I nod, afraid that if I say something I’ll choke up, and I’ve had enough emotional meltdowns tonight for Cora and Benson to safely label me as clinically unstable.

After they go to bed, I stuff the turkey quietly, fiercely glad that Aiden’s house is so big and that he has exiled himself to the farthest bedroom in his effort to stay as safely away from me as possible. I also marinate some steaks and bake cookies for his stocking because apparently, he has been known to ask for them in convoluted ways, like “Not sure what the big deal is about cookies? Can you make some for my office staff, Cora? Chocolate chip are their favorite.”

By six in the morning, I am finished. The tree is trimmed, his presents are wrapped, his stocking is filled with cookies and naughty coupons, and Christmas carols are downloaded on my iTunes account. After one last glance at our very own North Pole, I tiptoe to his bedroom and inch the door open quietly.

He sleeps. On his back as though he’s lying on cold ground, and hands in loose fists over his abs like he is holding a weapon. The only sign of rest is his peaceful face. As I did on that second night together, I want nothing more than to curl next to him and kiss him awake. The craving is so strong that it propels my feet forward to the bed. Like Aurora reaching for the spindle under Maleficient’s spell. But as I stretch one single finger toward his hand, his alarm goes off. Fur Elise! The melody startles me so much that I gasp. Instantly his eyes fling open.

“Elisa! Baby, are you okay?” he demands urgently, bolting upright—all signs of sleep disappearing.

“I’m fine, I’m great—don’t worry,” I assure him, perching next to him and slithering my way into his arms.

“What’s wrong? Why are you up so early?” Still urgent, but his arms tighten around me like titanium bars.

I press my lips on his chest. “There’s nothing wrong. I came to wake you up but you distracted me with your alarm clock.”

He groans. “You came to wake me up? Elisa, I’ve told you—that’s dangerous. Do I have to lock the door at night?”

“No, no, I was going to call your name,” I improvise quickly and get back to more vital matters. “Your alarm is Fur Elise?”

He shakes his head as though he doesn’t believe me, but then lies back down with a sigh, taking me with him. He tucks me into his fragrant chest and kisses my hair. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Tell me why your alarm is Fur Elise.”

“Why wouldn’t it be? I have good memories with that melody,” he shrugs as though this should be obvious.

I can’t speak over the heart galloping in my chest. He must like me. He must. Not as much as I love him, but enough to want to wake up to my melody.

“Now tell me, why are you up at six in the morning on a Saturday? Are you worried about your green card? Did you have a bad dream?”

I press my lips on his chest. “Such a pessimist, Aiden. You’re worse than me. Why couldn’t I have a good reason to want to see you?”

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

A hint of the terror I felt last night flickers again but it’s too late now. He’ll see what I’ve done no matter what. “I have a surprise for you.”

His face relaxes, and the tectonic plates shift until his eyes become the clearest turquoise. “A surprise?” he smiles.

I nod, trying to calm down my pulse. He waits—probably for me to tell him what it is—but I’m having a bad case of stage freight. Maybe we should just stay here. I start kissing him, running my hands over his abs. He responds immediately.

“I like this surprise,” he murmurs against my lips and rolls me over his body so that I’m straddling him.

“Umm, it’s… in the… living room,” I breathe, barely coherent now that his lips have found a path down my throat toward my breasts.

“Oh… well… we… can…do…it…there…too,” he says between kisses. “Where… do you… want it?” He pulls back to examine my face intently as though his life depends on my answer. It’s enough for me to remember what’s happening.

“It’s not sex… well, at least not all of it.”

He smiles. “O-kay…” he draws out the word into syllables, now looking confused. “Are you sure you want me to see it? You seem a little… I don’t know… nervous.”

Too late now. Too late now. “Will you promise something before we go in there?”

The smile disappears at the serious tone of my voice. “Promise what? Elisa, what’s going on?”

“Promise me that for today, you will be selfish.” I run my fingers through his stubble and over his scar.

“Selfish? I’m … confused.” The deep V folds between his eyebrows.

“Well, for today, when you see what I have planned, I want you to be selfish. If you don’t like it, I want you to tell me right away. And if you do like it, then just enjoy it without thinking about right and wrong and all those moral principles you torture yourself with.”

The V disappears as he understands, and he smiles. “Am I that bad?”

“Yes.”

He shakes his head. “I’m a lot more selfish than you think I am. Case in point: you being here against my better judgment. But if it means this much to you, I promise. For today, I will be selfish. Not a hard thing to do with you…,” he adds quietly, as though speaking the last sentence to himself.

“Thank you! Now come.” I hop off him and take his hand. “Come and be selfish.”

He chuckles, climbs out of bed and slides on his pajamas. Please, let him love it. Or at least don’t let him hate it.

I fix my eyes on him the moment we cross the threshold of the living room. He stops dead on his tracks, as the overhead lights start flickering. But he doesn’t seem to notice them. He just stares unblinkingly for seventeen seconds, then blinks furiously, then stares again—his mouth open, arms hanging to the sides. A full minute later, he still has not said a word, but he turns to me slowly, looking like he is seeing a real-life elf. I’m shaking in my socks. Bad idea. This was a bad idea.

“Merry Christmas?” I meant to say it as a wish but it comes out like a question.

He doesn’t answer but the tectonic plates shift furiously in his eyes.

“Umm…Aiden?”

Eventually, the plates stop, and he gazes back at the tree. He still has not closed his mouth but he treads into the living room, stopping first at the tree and the presents underneath, touching his stocking, running his hand over the garlands and the Santa pillows. It’s not until I see his laser-focused eyes that I realize he is not remembering or hurting. He is recording this with all his senses—his super-memory absorbing every last detail for life. I breathe a small sigh of relief. If he is doing that, he cannot hate it. He would have flinched once or recoiled. But instead, he looks utterly engrossed. He walks back to me where I’m standing almost prostrate from nerves.

His eyes are glowing with a bright, new light I have not seen before, and he sinks on his knees until we are face to face.

“Elisa.” He cups my cheek gently, his thumb brushing over my lips. “You’re giving me Christmas?”

I nod and swallow hard. “I thought… I thought we’ve missed out on so many years … and who knows if we ever will have the chance… so maybe we celebrate it just this once. Even if it’s silly and it’s in May. And maybe now you will have some good memories… you know, to compete with the bad ones.” I don’t why I am whispering and tearing up, but abruptly he takes me in his arms in a hold so strong, it glues me back together.

“Baby, why are you so nervous about this? I love it.” His voice is soft, but emphatic.

“You do?” I pull back to look at his face. It’s lit up, looking as carefree and happy as a real Christmas morning.

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because, well, I thought you don’t celebrate Christmas. Because maybe it’s too… too painful?”

“Apparently not with you,” he answers with a true, blinding smile. “Merry Christmas, Elisa.”

“Merry Christmas, Aiden.”

I can’t stop my stupid tears. But they are happy tears. There is no pain in me at all. Only happiness and that sense of origin, of a new start. Abruptly I realize that even though I’m the one who planned Christmas, Aiden is the one giving it to me.

He kisses me on the mouth and dries my tears with his fingertips. “Seeing as how I’m supposed to be selfish today, I order you to stop crying immediately even if it’s good tears.”

“Yes, Lieutenant.” I giggle, executing a Marine salute and wiping my eyes.

“Oh, I like this obeying thing. Okay, now stand up and take off your clothes.”

“No!” I laugh, smacking his chest. “Christmas is starting in two minutes. Go sit on the couch.”

His laughter dances around the room—so beautiful that I almost start crying again. “Yes, Ma’am.” He marches to the sofa by the tree, looking at the ornaments. “Are these yours?”

“Mine and Reagan’s. I borrowed them for the day.” I take my eyes off him only long enough to start the hot chocolate.

“And the lights and the tree?”

“Cora and Benson helped me. They’re amazing, by the way.”

“Yes, they are. You must have made their year with this.” He smiles as he tries to peek into his Dragon stocking.

“Aiden, no! No peeking!” I shout and he laughs again, sauntering my way. He looks so happy—like he has no past today. I pour the now-ready hot chocolate in mugs and hand one to him, wishing I could record the sound of his laughter.

“Ready to open your presents?” I say.

He looks at them with a strong emotion on his face. My hands start sweating in nerves so I start playing Christmas carols on my iPhone. He takes it from me and hooks it to some fancy speakers, humming along to Baby, It’s Cold Outside. I wish Dean Martin would stop ruining the sound of Aiden’s voice. Then he switches on the fireplace and turns to me.

“A dance first.”

He takes my hand, and we start twirling. I can’t stop grinning. “Gosh, your lips look delicious,” he sings in my ear. I listen to his voice, marveling that we are the same wounded Elisa and Aiden that we were yesterday, and maybe that we will be tomorrow. Just a bit more selfish for what we want today.

When the song ends, we sit by the tree, and I put all my effort not to look like a quivering mass of jello.

“There are no presents here for you,” Aiden says, and his face falls.

“Yes, there are. Here he is,” I say, and put my hand on his face. “And here,” I grab his cock, who also is excited for Christmas, probably wondering about his present.

“You’re getting daring, Elisa. I like it. Okay, which should I open first?”

“This one,” I hand him the smaller box. I have to sit on my hands so I don’t bite my knuckles. I follow his gaze as he opens the box, even though I know what he is seeing. A double frame; on one side is a photo of his home and on the other, my one-way ticket to America the day he bought his house. I would have never parted with this ticket but ever since I met him, it seems I came here for him alone.

He looks at me with a strong emotion on his face, the one without name that I saw at his Alone Place.

“Is this the real ticket?” he asks, his voice low.

I nod, swallowing so that tears don’t rise to my eyes.

He looks at it again even though I know he has memorized it. His Adam’s apple rolls once in his lovely throat. “Why are you giving it to me?”

“Because this whole journey was worth it just to meet you. Even if it is only now.” I don’t tell him that the ticket was bought with the last of my parents’ money or that all these years it has lived behind their picture on my nightstand.

He leans in and kisses along my jaw to the corner of my lips. “Thank you.” His voice is new, almost humbled.

“You’re welcome. And now, you have a frame!”

He chuckles. “So I do. I think I’ll put it on my desk in the library. It will shock the hell out of Cora and Benson.”

I almost float like a helium balloon. I love you, I love you, I love you. I snap a picture of the moment lest the words break through my locked teeth. “Ready for the other?” I ask.

“Will it make me cry?”

I laugh. “I don’t think so. You’re pretty tough.”

“I don’t know. That last one almost took me out.” He reaches for the big box with a grin. I scoot next to him for this one.

“Another frame,” he muses.

“Yes. I know you don’t really need it with your memory but I thought you should see a new way of connecting things.”

He raises one eyebrow. “New connections?”

“Yes, or associations. You remember everything. But maybe there is a happy way to connect the memories.”

He tears the turquoise paper and holds out the big frame. I watch every flicker of emotion as he takes it all in.

The front page of the Oregonian the day I arrived here. Javier’s sketch of that first painting. The front page of my PowerPoint presentation. A picture of Paradox Café. Byron’s Poem scrawled on the same paper as my paintings. Our Baci quotes. The dried Centifolia rose. The receipt from Powell’s Books. A copy of the front page of Fleming’s book. Bob’s business card. The signature page of the agreement for the sale of my supplement. A dried Aeternum. A picture of him sleeping. A picture of us signing my books. A map of Burford and one of the United States…

Now that I see it, I’m embarrassed. It’s cheesy, but it’s everything we have had together.

“Explain it all to me,” he says softly.

“What is the connection you see?”

He looks suddenly lost despite his perfect recall. “Us,” he says after a moment. I tingle at the pronoun.

“What else?”

“Well, your arrival here all way through yesterday, judging by the dates. The journey that brought you to me?”

“Yes, that’s there. Anything else?”

He shakes his head, and my heart breaks that he does not see himself there at all.

“What do you see?” he asks before I can speak. The tectonic plates are utterly still. He has no memories for this, nothing to interfere. And for what I have to say, that’s the best I can hope for.

“I see what sets you apart from everyone else.”

He swallows hard once. “What is that?”

“You told me what makes me special—my calmness and all that—but you don’t know your own worth. I think it’s time you hear it.”

He looks like he wants to argue so I press on, my voice gaining strength on each word. “From the first time I saw you, you have saved me in one way or another. At first, I’d just have these dreams about you, and every night they made the countdown slightly livable. On our embargo, you woke me up in every sense of the word. And now you’re helping me with my green card, even with my career. You are so determined to keep me safe that you even think you should save me from yourself. But there is one thing you are saving me more from than all others.”

“What?” He looks like the question is burning him.

“My past. You were right at Bob’s. I have lived every day trying to keep my parents alive because a part of me feels guilty about moving on, and an even bigger part still cannot cope with their… death. But then you came along and are bringing out the real me. Where I had a past, now I have a future. Things that used to hurt, now hurt a little less.”

I take his hand in mine and kiss it. “Thank you!”

He looks lost, eyes drifting a thousand miles away, then back again as though he is torn by two tremendous, opposing forces. Then somehow he resolves the conflict because he smiles and gazes at me. “There are two responses to that, Elisa. But in keeping with the rules for Christmas, I’ll only give you the selfish one. I have loved every minute. Even the ones I’ve hated.”

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Before I know it, I’m in his arms in one of his bionic movements. He kisses me hard, as if the strength of millions of memories is fueling him. My lips and tongue rush after his, their only goal to taste this moment for as long as he is willing to give it. I love you, my mind is singing. I love you. His lips consume me as our clothes come off. He kisses me slowly, as if each kiss should last one thousand years. And this moment becomes private, even from my own thoughts and my own words.

Around us rain pine needles, twinkling lights, and a song that for the last four years, I have not been able to listen to.

You’re all I want for Christmas.
All I want my whole life through.
Each day is just like Christmas.
Anytime that I’m with you.

My parents wink and walk away, as their favorite carol is now mine.

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Sequel Clue, Elisa’s Letter, Aiden’s New Year Resolution… Oh my!

Happy Holidays everyone!  Here is an early gift for you:  can you solve Elisa’s Riddle and find a clue about the sequel?  Try your smarts against her, and see if you can figure out one of her wishes. 🙂

Here is her Letter to Santa (with the riddle) and, for extra credit, below is Aiden’s New Year’s Resolution.  Can you guess what he means?  An IQ of 160, an eidetic memory, a crazy author, and countless amazing readers!  Piece of cake… Go!

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ELISA’S LETTER TO SANTA

Dear Santa,

When my mental mum Ani (pun intended) asked me to write this, I hung up on her, using some very U.S. Marine vocabulary (I’m furious with her for other reasons). But she kept calling and calling and calling and calling (she’s truly obnoxious that way) until the musical Fur Elise ringtone that Dad installed in our old rotary phone here in Burford filled the cottage with something other than emptiness. And I suppose for that, I became oddly grateful to my mental mum, so I’m doing what she asked. Besides, it occurred to me: I’m not the only one who has ever written to an imaginary person. Stop: don’t go there!

So here are my wishes. But what would a wish list be without a wee bit of logic? Just dreams, and frankly, I don’t dream anymore (except the strange turquoise-tinted nightmares at night).   That’s why there is a riddle for reading my list. If you solve it, you’ll understand a lot more than just my wishes (who cares about those anyway?).

Elisa’s Riddle

The first letter is always strong,
Like the iron sign that follows along.
But when I am thrown into the mold
The iron changes to the first hint of gold.

Yet all that strength and all that glitter
are nothing more than a weak whisper
So if you want to find the true treasure
This one little thing you must remember:

The last clue you will find
In the periodic table, group 15, first line
Mix everything together, and there the answer lies,
Clear as cloudless climes and starry skies.

My Wishes

  1. Freedom for Javier
  2. One more day with Reagan
  3. Seeing the Solises one last time
  4. Stopping the turquoise nightmares and the bloody knock
  5. The truth

Thank you, Santa! Oh, and get my mental mum to finish my journey, please!

Elisa

AIDEN’S NEW YEAR RESOLUTION

RIGHT FOUR WRONGS

***

Enjoy everyone! I will be back tomorrow and on Christmas with more goodies, including announcing the winner of the Thirty Nights Giveaway and a very special outtake!  HAPPY HOLIDAYS and may the next year be filled with peace, joy, and unforgettable book boyfriends.

xo, Ani

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More Fan Art for Thirty Nights!!!

Happy Monday lovelies! The Amazing Leslie Alvarez, aka Miss_Read_It has put together another beautiful piece of fan art for Thirty Nights! This is one of my favorite Elisa quotes.  Check it out and find her on Instagram.  Thank you Leslie! Definitely starting her a Javier Gallery.  Enjoy!

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First Fan Art for Thirty Nights

Happy Sunday everyone! I’m working on a little surprise for you but I couldn’t help but share this new little gem that landed in my email.  FAN ART for Thirty Nights!  This is from the talented Leslie Alvarez who has more goodies in store for us.  🙂 I especially love this because it blends the painting with the ticking clock! What do you guys think?  Maybe I’ll create a Leslie’s Gallery with Javier on the blog. Thank you Leslie for sharing your talent with us and for your love of Thirty Nights!!

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A Friend Until The End of Time: The Timeless Heroine

Happy Saturday everyone from an unusually-cold Portland, Oregon! Although I thought this would be a good excuse to wear those enormous faux-fur boots I convinced myself I absolutely needed, I decided it’s a better day to stay inside, decorate my tree, and write (the sequel, that is!)  Until we have some more news/material to share on that one (hopefully soon), I thought I’d open up a discussion on Book Heroines. We all lose our minds over the heroes (from Mr. Darcy to Christian Grey, my list of book boyfriends is LOOOONG!)  But I wonder whether part of that hold is not the heroine.  Although the heroes bind us to the book, I think the heroines bring us back time and time again.  Here are my thoughts on what makes for a Timeless Heroine. What do you think?

A FRIEND UNTIL THE END OF TIME: THE TIMELESS HEROINE

My husband and I have this game we play. It’s called Who Lives in Your Fantasy Neighborhood?™ His dream neighborhood consists of: Hugh Hefner, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, David Letterman, some baseball player I don’t know—you get it. My fantasy neighbors are Elizabeth Bennett, Scout Finch, Anne Shirley, Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen…

Notice a pattern? (Other than the very good question of how on earth my hubby and I would ever live together?) Of course you did. All my hubby’s dream neighbors are real people, and all of mine are fictional heroines. So that got me thinking: why? What is it about these heroines that transformed them from a character on page to a ‘til-death-do-us-part imaginary friend?

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One possible answer is that maybe I’m just plain crazy. After all, I have all the necessary ingredients for a little bit of madness. I’m a writer. I’ve been surviving on four hours of sleep per night and some mercury-questionable tuna sandwiches. I have out-loud dialogue with the characters of my novel, and at my dream dinner table, my heroine Elisa Snow, sits to my right. Crazy, yes?

Probable. But here is another theory: these heroines feel so real to me because, despite their surreal lives, they are wonderfully, imperfectly flawed. They have fears and insecurities, just like me. They make mistakes—big mistakes—and then fix them. They grow and change, and tell me that I, too, can become better. They take care of their heroes, no matter the cost. But there is one thing they never, ever compromise: themselves. They never sell out!

Sure, they are beautiful and smart and sassy and get the swoon-worthy man of my dreams. Yet I’m never jealous—because I know they deserve him. These heroines earn their happy endings because of the way they “live.”

Take my Elisa for example. An orphan, her biggest terror in life is losing someone she loves. After both her parents died in a car crash, she packed a small suitcase and crossed the ocean from England to the U.S. Not for money, not for fame, but to escape her memories. A starving science student by day and an artist’s muse by night, Elisa has slowly built a new life. With a new family, a new little lilac home, and a new best friend. But when the U.S. government orders her to return to England, she stands to lose everything all over again.

There is only one man who can save her: Aiden Hale. Dark, complex, sexy, with a hint of danger—he has every chemical element to be addictive to the heart. But how can Elisa allow herself to love and lose a third time around? She can’t—she resists him at every turn. Until she discovers Aiden’s own torment, and then—like a true heroine—her own fears no longer matter. All that matters is saving the man she can’t help but love. But her happiness comes at a high price: to keep Aiden, she must sacrifice her new family. And to save her new family, she must lose Aiden. Which will she choose? Which morals will she trade? It’s that final decision that has earned her a penthouse in my dream neighborhood for life.

What about you? Who lives in your fantasy neighborhood? Are Aiden and Elisa are on your list? Would love to hear from you!

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Top Ten Reasons Why We Love a Tortured Hero

Good morning lovelies and Happy Post-Turkey Day!  And, for my readers abroad, hope you are off to a great weekend! I wanted to share this guest post I wrote that is featured on a few blogs.  🙂 Knowing you, I think you’ll find it interesting.  I wrote it to explain some of Aiden’s (and indeed, the dark hero’s) appeal to us. What do you think?  Do you love tortured heroes? Would love to hear from you.

TOP 10 REASONS WHY WE LOVE A TORTURED HERO

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a pulse will fall in love with at least one tortured hero in her life. I know Jane Austen would agree, and that should be evidence enough. But if you need more convincing, here are three more incontrovertible proofs:

  1. Mr. Darcy

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  1. Heathcliff

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  1. Mr. Rochester

JANE EYRE

I am no exception. From the very first time I pictured Mr. Darcy’s arrogant brow disdaining the world, Heathcliff’s long fingers digging up a grave, and Rochester’s shaggy hair whipping at his jaw, I was a goner. And I knew then—I knew it like I knew the fast, strong, irrational pulse throbbing in my neck—that I would never stop loving the right wrong man. And that some day, somehow, I would write my own tortured hero.

And write him I did, in all his tormented beauty. Aiden Hale. His first name means fire in Gaelic, and his surname sounds like ice. Everything about him whispers, “darkness, darkness lies here…” From the icy sapphire eyes and the livid scar over his brow to his home, buried deep in a forest, and the relentless tension of his shoulders. Aiden Hale has a dark secret. And I fell hard all over again. That’s when I realized that my irrational pulse has its reasons—10 reasons to be exact—for loving tortured heroes.

  1. The secret nobody knows. There is nothing more compelling than a secret to keep you up at night. And no one does secrets like tortured heroes. They don’t hide small, petty banalities. They hide dark, deep, stormy things that change you forever when you discover them. Tortured heroes call to a fundamental part of our psyche: curiosity. We love to learn, and to understand. And so we stand no chance against a mystery.
  1. The face in the mirror. Tortured heroes are imperfect. They are flawed. They are scarred. They are outcasts. They screw up, over and over again. In short, they are just like us. And when we see those flaws—sometimes worse even than our own—we find companionship and understanding.
  1. The unbroken trust. Tortured heroes don’t gain your trust easily. They make you work for it. Page after page, they ensnare you into the deepest, darkest, most intimate kernel of their being. They let you into their secret. And something sacred happens when they trust us with that. We trust them right back. We know they will never, ever let us down. And just like that, we find safety.
  1. The unfailing hope. Hope never dies. At least not with tortured heroes. They remind us that change is possible; that no matter our flaws, we can always improve on ourselves; that no matter our wrongs, we can always find forgiveness. And that redemption is always possible.
  1. Forbidden fruit. How many times did my mama tell me to avoid rule breakers? To stay away from boys with tattoos and motorcycles and black eyes? Probably sensible advice for real life. But not for fantasy. Because when I want to escape, it’s never with the reliable, safe boy next door. It’s always in the strong arms of an utterly forbidden, perfectly imperfect man.
  1. Danger warning. Tortured heroes are dangerous. They tell us so themselves. Repeatedly. At first, we don’t believe them. But then a wall crumbles or a veil lifts, and we see it for the first time—that hint of danger they’ve been warning us about. Violence, possession, torment, loss, you name it. But the moment we sense that danger, adrenaline starts spiking, and we become addicted to tortured heroes for life.
  1. Sex on fire. Antiheroes are sexy. Plain and simple. Deep gazes, husky voices, whispered words. They are bad, they are ruthless, and they’ve been around the block. They have no morals; they have principles. And they don’t just take you; they possess you, because they fear it may be their one and only chance. If that’s not sexy, I don’t know what is.
  1. Survival of the fittest. Name a tortured hero who is not strong. I can’t do it. Because by the time we meet these heroes, they have already been through the blazes of hell. Sometimes hell looks like Aiden’s—war, torture, death. Sometimes, it looks like Mr. Darcy’s—the constraints of his social position. Whatever fire they had to walk through, tortured heroes have survived it. Who am I to stand against them?
  1. True love. The only way to love a tortured hero is unconditionally. You accept them with all their fatal flaws. Not despite of their imperfection, but because of it. And that’s how they love you back. They don’t know how to love half-way. They either love you with their entire being, or they don’t love at all. As my Aiden says, “Once I love, I love forever.”
  1. Protective instincts. But no matter how strong tortured heroes are, I’ve never met one that didn’t call to a protective instinct deep inside me. I want to take that vulnerable boy under all the steel layers in my arms, and guard him with my life. I will fight with best friends for my tortured heroes. I will stay up until 2:00 am, writing Top Ten posts about them. I will reincarnate them on page over and over again so they never die. I will spend sleepless nights to comfort them, and time away from my family to give them their happy ending. In short, I will protect them with my little, throbbing heart until the day I die. Because as Jane Austen would say:

They pierce my soul.

Want to read more about Aiden and his chance at redemption? Aestas Book Blog (yep, that Aestas, I’m not joking… the Goddess of Books!) had this to say about Aiden:

“If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you’ll know that I have a weakness for tormented heroes. Don’t ask why but guys with secret pain are literally the key to my heart. And Aiden was about as tortured as they come. But I especially loved the explanation for why. Being a former soldier eidetic memory meant that he vividly and accurately remembered everything he ever read, saw, heard, tasted, experienced, and felt. Naturally given some of the more horrific memories in his past on the battlefield, this led to an extremely painful form of PTSD. And yes, while some of his behaviour could certainly be labelled extreme under normal circumstances, once you understood the reason, it made perfect sense, explained the way he was and why he held certain view points. It brought a complexity to his character that intrigued me to no end and tugged all my heart-strings.”  –  Aestas Cross, Aestas Book Blog.

Do you agree?   Would love to hear from you!

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A special Giveaway & Thank you!

Hello lovelies!!

It’s been exactly a week since Thirty Nights was released, and what a week it has been!  I would like to thank every one of you who has picked up a copy, has read, and has dropped me a line or left a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and beyond.  I’m pretty sure reviews are the food of authors, and without them, we starve.

So to celebrate, and to give my brain some extra food for the sequel (YEP, it’s in the works!!) I’m doing a very special giveaway exclusive only on my blog & social media.  It’s the full THIRTY NIGHTS experience giveaway (picked through the sloshing Portland rain by yours truly):

  1. A Pandora’s pure sterling silver Rose Charm
  2. A signed Thirty Nights copy
  3. The coolest Powell’s book bag, Books Not Bombs—perfect to tote around your treasures
  4. A box of Baci chocolates so you can start your own collection
  5. A bottle of rose petal potpourri from the Portland Rose Garden
  6. A pod of solid Portland Rose perfume
  7. A jar of extracted Oregon Rain (yep, known for its curative abilities)
  8. A signed Powell’s bookmark
  9. A feature of the winner on my Blog, such as your favorite things, an interview of you–anything you want (optional and only with your consent!)

Take a look at the goodies, and read below for how you enter this special, personally selected giveaway:

Giveaway Package
The Rose Charm

Silver Rose Charm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baci chocolates, Portland Rose perfume, Rose Garden potpourri, Oregon Rain, Powell’s bookmark.

Portland Package 2

Portland Package

Powell’s fun

Powells Package

To enter this giveaway, it’s super-easy:

  1. Post a review of Thirty Nights on Amazon (click here)
  2. Email me a link at ani_keating@yahoo.com

This giveaway will run from November 25 until DECEMBER 20—so you can hopefully get your goodies by CHRISTMAS! The winner will be announced here on my blog on December 21, 2015.  Those of you who have posted a review already can just send me a link to your review and do not need to post again. And of course, we have to comply with applicable law—you can read those rules below.  THANK YOU AND GOOD LUCK!!!

Official Legal Rules: You must be 18 years or older to enter the giveaway. U.S. residents only. Void where prohibited. Only one winner will be selected.  Winning is a matter of chance only. Open from November 25 to December 20, 2015. Winner announced on or around December 21, 2015. Delivery date depends on delivery service provider, and is not guaranteed. 

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Mia Hopkins talks about her new novel, and why diverse heroines matter.

Hello everyone,

What a week it has been so far! Thirty Nights is out, and you guys have stayed true to your awesomeness! Thank you for reading and reviewing on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.  The most rewarding part about this is reading your words and seeing that I was able to make you happy for a while.  No better feeling. Please, please, drop me a line on Amazon (I’ve got a bad addiction to it.)

But today is not about me.  Today, I’m taking a break from Thirty Nights Craziness to introduce you to a new author that I love: Mia Hopkins.  I met Mia on Samhain’s vast author base, and became instantly taken with her voice, her storytelling, her hot male pictures, and especially pictures of food.  This woman does everything well.  Her first full-length novel—Deep Down—comes out today, and she is sharing a teaser, an excerpt, a full interview, and order links. I was lucky to get an advanced copy and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Eve and Sam. They are real, and they teach that we don’t have to look to fantasy to find dream-fulfillment.  It’s staring us in the face in the real people that surround us.  My review will follow, but in the mean time, here is Mia:

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Hi Mia! Welcome to my blog and thank you for all your support of Thirty Nights. Now, let’s talk about you!  If you and I had not met on Samhain’s author space, but had met in a sushi restaurant instead, what would you have told me Deep Down is about?

I would try not to talk with my mouth full, because I love sushi, but I would say this—it’s about a female sushi chef named Eve and a commercial fisherman named Sam who team up to outsmart a dangerous loan shark. But it’s about a lot of other things, too: sex, friendship, California, the ocean. Oh, and food! It’s definitely about food. Just put all that stuff in a blender, blitz it up, and that’s Deep Down.

Deep Down is very different from your first novella, Cowboy Valentine.  For one, it’s a full-length novel, but for another, it explores a different conflict.  What inspired you to write Deep Down?

At its deepest level, Deep Down is about fighting for control of your life when there are so many uncontrollable forces working against you. In my early twenties, I was working whatever jobs I could get and not moving forward in any significant way. I took a gamble and applied for work teaching English in Osaka, Japan. That gamble changed everything. I learned so much about myself and I fell in love with Japanese culture. Years later, while writing Deep Down, I wanted to capture that feeling of taking a big risk and crossing an ocean to start over. That’s exactly what my protagonist Eve does, but in the opposite direction—she comes to California instead.

What would you say is Eve’s biggest conflict in the book? Why?

Eve’s biggest conflict in the book is her fear that she isn’t being true to herself. Sam is this larger-than-life, incredibly charismatic figure. The more important he becomes in her life, the more she fears she’s giving up too much of her identity in exchange for helping him work out his own problems.

What is Sam’s biggest conflict? (Other than the trouble he is in with the cartels?)

Oh, Sam. Sam was my whipping boy. I did horrible things to this man. In terms of personality, I see Sam as this Han Solo character, a lovable rogue with a beat-up ship and a lot of adventures under his belt (in more ways than one). He’s loyal to his friends and works like a beast, but he’s made a lot of mistakes he’s paying for now. His biggest conflict is himself—this deep, secret belief that he’s nothing but a screw-up, unworthy of love and unworthy of Eve.

As a wife of someone who LOVES fishing and sushi, I connected with both Sam and Eve. I loved that they feel real, rather than fantastical/escapist.  Was that intentional and why?

Cool question! Like most romance readers, I enjoy novels about billionaires (like your Aiden in Thirty Nights, holy guacamole). I enjoy being seduced by that world. However, I absolutely love stories about working class heroes. I don’t want to romanticize manual labor—it’s difficult and thankless, it takes its toll on the body—but I do want to portray the dignity of people who do physical work and take pride in it. Sam is a commercial fisherman. Eve is a chef. They work with their hands and they operate at high levels in their respective industries—both are deeply respected by their peers. In my opinion, everyday heroes like them are worthy of epic love stories, too.

What are Eve’s and Sam’s biggest flaws, respectively?

In the beginning of the story, Eve is content to find loopholes in the system rather than to stand up against it. Sam’s biggest flaw is his self-doubt. It hamstrings him a lot.

If you could choose one word to describe their love story, what would it be?

Oh, man. What a good, meaty question, Ani. “Delicious.” [Ani: aren’t you hungry by now? I am.]

Like Deep Down, you have your own beautiful, interesting story.  Can you tell the readers something about you?  How did you decide to write romance and what brought you here?

Sure. Up until last year, I had worked as a teacher for thirteen years. In 2010, my husband and I were having some trouble starting a family. To help cheer me up, he’d bring me little gifts when he came home from work, just things from the drug store: a bottle of soda, a chocolate bar, a tabloid magazine with a particularly salacious headline. One day he brought me a Scottish highlander romance novel. I’d never read a romance novel before, but when I started reading it, I could not put that thing down. Soon I was living a double life. By day I worked with students on Shakespeare and Whitman and Steinbeck, but by night I devoured romance novels. Soon I started writing my own short stories and sending them out to websites and calls for submission. I sold a few, and in 2013, I started my first novel during NaNoWriMo. Slowly, my sales began to rise and in 2014, I decided to leave the classroom to write full time. My first novella, Cowboy Valentine, was published by Samhain this past August. And now Deep Down has been published by The Wild Rose Press. It’s been a really cool year.

If there were anything you could change about the current romance market, what would it be?

I’m a relatively new to publishing, and as such, pretty pathetically grateful to be working alongside so many talented, intelligent people. The romance industry is already so big almost any writer or reader will be able to find her place within it. In terms of a change I’d like to see, I can already see it happening—increased visibility for ethnically and culturally diverse authors and publishers. I follow the #weneeddiverseromance hashtag on Twitter. It’s a good place to start.

Finally, can you give the readers the links where they can find your book, and a short excerpt?

Sure! Thank you, Ani, for having me as a guest today. And a big thanks to your readers, too. I invite everyone to visit miahopkinsauthor.com for more information about my work.

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Excerpt

A gust of wind blew sheets of rain against the side of the building.

“I’d like to make a push in the next few weeks,” said Sam. “Instead of three days a week, we’ll be doing four. It’s going to be nasty work. Do you think you’ll be up to it?”

“No problem. Whatever you need.”

Without thinking, Sam ran his fingers through her ponytail. Her hair was silky, heavy, and slightly damp from her shower. He stroked her hair for a few seconds before he realized what he was doing. At once, he withdrew his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice rough. “My mind was somewhere else.”

Her smile was gentle. “Don’t worry about it.” She stood up and stretched. “I’m gonna change and get out of here so you can get some sleep.”

“Hell no,” he said. “It’s pissing rain.”

“It’s not that bad―”

“No way. No how.”

“But―”

“Don’t make me use my captain voice on you,” he said. When she looked at him, something flashed in her eyes. Did she like it when he told her what to do?

“Fine,” she said with mock indignation. She went over to the closet where he kept the spare pillow and blanket.

He got to his feet and put his hand on the closet door, preventing her from opening it. “We’re past this. It’s cold downstairs. Just take the bed.”

“What about you?” Her eyes were wide.

“Oh, I’m taking the bed, too.”

ANI: Ok, doesn’t that make you want to know what happens once he gets in bed?? Let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint. 🙂  Read more about Deep Down and Mia below, and why USA Today Bestselling Author, Samanthe Beck, calls her “one of the most exciting new voices in super-hot contemporary romance.”  Add it to your next read, by clicking on the links below!

Deep Down Twitter header

Blurb

Sex, drugs, and spicy tuna rolls?

Resilient and disciplined, tsunami survivor Eve Ono moves to California from Japan looking for a position as a sushi chef. When she’s suddenly fired from her restaurant job, desperation drives her to find work on a fishing boat despite her fears of the ocean. To make matters worse, she’s stuck in close quarters with her new captain—a man whose raw physicality drives her out of her mind with lust.

Free-spirited and roguish, Sam Lamont is a commercial fisherman aboard his own dive boat, the Bravado. When he makes a bad deal with a deadly loan shark who threatens to take his boat, Sam is in danger of losing both his business and his way of life. On top of that, he’s got to train his new deckhand—a beautiful hard-ass who just so happens to be sexy as hell.

A female sushi chef with mad knife skills. A deep-sea diver who’s pissed off a Mexican drug cartel. Together, they’re in trouble, and the only way out is down.

“Mia Hopkins is one of the most exciting new voices in super-hot contemporary romance. Add her to your must-read list. Now!”

~Samanthe Beck, USA Today bestselling author

Buy Deep Down

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Wild Rose Press (print) 

 

Thank you for reading everyone!!! I’ll be back with more Thirty Nights stuff soon!

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY THIRTY NIGHTS and some more goodies!

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So the countdown is over, and Thirty Nights is here!  Really, truly, finally  here.  I wanted to thank every one who has followed me in this incredible journey: from those very first few readers on fan fiction to every single one of you who has read, reviewed, emailed, messaged, and supported my story.  And a ginormous thank-you and blog-hug to the following:

  • My wonderful editor, Tera Cuskaden Norris, for taking a chance on Thirty Nights, for her passion for a good story, and her hard work to bring you this book;
  • My awesome agent, Stacy Lorts, who saw the potential of this story when it was just a fairytale on my blog;
  • The whole Samhain team, and especially Katlyn Osborn, for all of their guidance and hard work;
  • My PR agency, Inkslinger PR, and the amazing, superwoman Nazarea Andrews, for curbing the insanity of the marketing and promos during the #30days countdown;
  • All the blogs who have featured Thirty Nights–so many to mention, but especially Aestas for her attention to Thirty Nights, A Literary Perusal, Jezebel Girl & FriendsGarden of Reden, Southern Belle Book Blog, for their amazing support through this process, and many others, which you can find here
  • And last, because it’s the closest to my heart, my friends and my husband for all his love, patience, and support during these last two mad, beautiful years .

I couldn’t have made it without you! I hope you enjoy Thirty Nights, and know that this was all for you! I can’t wait to hear what you think. I will be waiting for your thoughts with open hearts. And no matter what you say, THANK YOU!

And now another little goodie to keep you company while reading: the Poem Soundtrack for Thirty Nights.  Yep, you heard that right.  And why not?  A poem soundtrack makes as much sense for Thirty Nights as a playlist. 🙂 Here it is, with my favorite lines! Enjoy and see which one suits which scene and/or character… and read in the end for more info.

  1. She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night

of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and light,

meets in her aspect and her eyes.

  1. If You Were Coming in the Fall, Emily Dickinson

If certain, when this life was out,

That yours and mine should be,

I’d toss it yonder like a rind,

And taste eternity.

  1. I Do Not Love You… Pablo Neruda

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.

I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;

so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,

so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,

so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

  1. I Do Not Love You, Except Because I love You, Pablo Neruda

In this part of the story I am the one who

Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,

Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.

  1. Fire and Ice, Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

  1. I Carry Your Heart With Me, E.E. Cummings

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

 i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).

  1. Because She Would Ask Me Why I Loved Her, Christopher Brennan

Then seek not, sweet, the “If” and “Why”

I love you now until I die.

For I must love because I live

And life in me is what you give.

  1. If Thou Must Love Me (Sonnet 14), Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If thou must love me, let it be for nought  

Except for love’s sake only.

  1. Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare

Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark…

  If this be error and upon me proved,

  I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

  1. Extinguish My Eyes, Rainer Maria Rilke

Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.

Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.

and without feet, I still can come to you,

without a mouth, I still can call your name.

Sever my arms, I will still hold you,

with all my heart as with a hand.

Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.

And if you consume my brain with fire,

I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.

Ahhhhh… I read these, and I want to give up writing because these are genius.  But not yet… 🙂 I will have more goodies for you during release week, including excerpts, guest posts, Aiden POV, giveaway announcement (over 1,500 people have entered!!!!) etc.  I will be back soon with more. All my love, Ani

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Last Day: Thank you, goodies, and a little ask!

Good morning everyone,

Where did the time go? It’s the last day in our countdown! After three years and thirty days, tomorrow, Thirty Nights will be released!! For those of you who have already pre-ordered and are waiting for it to land on your Kindle, Nook, and iPads—thank you for the bottom of my heart. For those of you who have not pre-ordered yet, please give it a shot and see if you like the original Aiden and Elisa.  The order links are on my home page.  But whether you have ordered or not, I just wanted to say a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has followed Thirty Nights throughout this journey, who has reviewed and emailed me with your thoughts and encouragement, and who has spread the word! Without you, Thirty Nights may have never happened.  It’s as simple as that.  Thank you!

Now, today’s goodies:

First, the official Thirty Nights Playlist.  Enjoy it on Spotify as you’re reading, and see if you can guess which scenes and chapters go with which song.

Second, a special, exclusive excerpt from one of my favorite Aiden and Elisa scenes. I chose it for the last excerpt because in my mind, this was the true turning point for both of them. And for what each means to the other.  Full-on trust, and full-on surrender.

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He reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a tiny silver remote. A song I know—one of my favorites—floods the tent. “Amado Mio”, by Pink Martini. It’s flowing from a wireless set of speakers in the corner that I had apparently missed in my astonishment.

“May I have this dance?” he asks, holding his hand out to me.

“You tango?” I squeal. Bloody hell, I’m melting. Inert gases have more substance than I do right now.

My favorite dimple puckers on his cheek. “Since this afternoon.”

“You learned tango…in one afternoon?” Where is my jaw? It was here somewhere, around the Aeternum.

He chuckles at my incredulous expression. “In the ninety-two minutes it took you to get ready, to be precise.”

When I open and close my mouth a few times, unable to produce sound, he smiles, tapping his temple. “There are some benefits to this beast and YouTube.”

I blink and close my mouth. “That’s just…just…” Brilliant? Stunning? No, I can only think of one word. “That’s just Aiden.”

His chuckle becomes a true laugh as he wraps his arm around my waist, pulling me into a close embrace. He starts moving. At first a slow cadencia, then the caminada, his long legs parting mine. Aiden leads in his dominant, protective way, but the real change is in me. For the first time in my life, tango does for me what tango does for women. I am not a daughter. I am not a sister. I am not a friend. I am a woman. Aiden’s woman. My leg hooks and wraps around his with a new confidence, sultry, feminine and powerful. I watch our entwined shadows on the tent’s curtains, looking very much like Mum and Dad’s when they danced. Yet, in this moment, I’m discovering a new bliss that belongs to me alone. Not to ghosts, and not to memories.

I bury my face in his chest, inhaling the Aiden-and-Aeternum scent.

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And last, a small task! To support for Thirty Nights, for those of you who are excited and have been following it in this journey, please change your avatar to the Thirty Nights cover tomorrow for its release, with  the French Flag colors to show our support and solidarity for the people of France and the victims.  Feel free to download this, and I will circulate on my social media as well.  And when you get the book, please don’t forget to leave a review!! 🙂 It makes the difference between a loved book that no one hears about and a loved book we can all share. THANK YOU everyone for all your support, your love, your commitment to this story, and your participation in this amazing journey!  I will be back soon, xo Ani

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DAY 3: TRAILER For Thirty Nights!

Good morning everyone!

An early morning in my household, as my hubby and I are volunteering at a church today.  First, my thoughts and prayers to all the victims and their families in Paris. It’s heartbreaking and I’m giving all my French readers a big hug and comfort. I hope you are all safe, and that you stay strong through this.  Lots of love from Portland, Oregon.

Second, to cheer you up a bit, here is one my favorite surprises we’ve prepared for you for Thirty Nights.  The Book Trailer!!!!! I love, love, love, love this trailer so much.  I hope you like it too. Thank you, Amanda and Samhain Publishing for creating it for me, and for all your hard word on the book!  There ‘re  only three days left. 🙂  I can’t thank you enough for all the support you’ve given me so far.  Have a good Saturday, with all your loved ones and families near and safe!

Thirty Nights Trailer:

Day 5: Little Teaser and a Podcast

Hey everyone!
It’s almost Friday, which means it’s almost the weekend, which means it’s almost November 17!!! I’m not sure how I’m going to sleep at all in the next few nights.  But we have some more fun for you.  First a little art teaser. :-)  And second my first podcast! A little honest to goodness real interview.  Derek Diamond at DDE_Podcast. 🙂 It was so much fun to speak with him about Thirty Nights, authors, fan fiction, some new fanficiton authors, and more!!  You can listen to it on the DDE_Podcast  and I hope you like it!
And here is the TEASER! Enjoy!!!

“So, what did you want to discuss, Mr. Hale?” I ask the question that is buzzing in my brain to prevent myself from tripping while sitting down.

His smile vanishes as he sips his espresso. He sets down his cup and looks at me with probing intensity. “Are you the woman in my paintings?”

Bollocks! The question settles in front of me like a coiled beast. Blood rushes to my feet and my stomach twists. My mouth parts to let in some air. I notice with horror that he has seen all my reactions, which must be confirmation enough. I have to get it together. No matter my flights of fancy, what Javier and I are doing is illegal. I’m a goner already, but Javier could get deported. I have to help him, even if it takes me down.

“Why would you think that?” I try to keep my voice as composed as possible but don’t do a great job of it.

“I’m a man of means, Miss Snow.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Bloody hell, does he know about Javier already?

“It means that if I want something, I will stop at nothing to get it.

 

Excerpt 5 Photo

Day 7: Author Interview with Mia Hopkins

Good morning everyone, and happy Day 7—eek, only one week left! Can’t wait for all of you to hold Thirty Nights and find Elisa and Aiden again, in both their new and old selves.  But we still have a few more exciting plans for you: more excerpts, more posts, a trailer, playlists, reviews, and more interviews.  Here is another one for Day 7 with Mia Hopkins—an amazing author on her own right, who burst into the romance market as the winner of the RWA Contemporary Romance Writers Stiletto Award of erotic romance, and has not stopped since.  Check out our interview, and spread the word.  We little debut authors are nothing without our readers.  xo, Ani

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HI, ANI. CAN YOU PLEASE TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK?

Would love to. Thirty Nights is the first book in the American Beauty series. It tells the love story of an orphan from England—Elisa—and a U.S. Marine with PTSD and total recall—Aiden. They meet in the eleventh hour, when in the height of the anti-immigrant movement, Elisa’s visa to live in the U.S. is denied. Determined to save Elisa from everything, including the government he once served, Aiden fights the way only he can. His only condition is for Elisa to stay away from him and his demons. But despite all the reasons why they shouldn’t be involved, the two soon realize that the biggest battle is fighting their tortured pasts. With thirty nights left, they begin a terrifying and scorching race to save themselves, and each other. But are some demons too deep, too vast to fall? In love, is surrender perhaps the best kind of fight? I’ll let the readers decide.

Your protagonist Elisa faces a difficult challenge when her visa is denied. What inspired you to create her?

Elisa—unlike all other characters I’ve written—came to me fully formed. I knew from the moment I “heard” her voice in my head who she was, what foods she liked, what made her tick. But not because she is me in any way. She incorporates some of the best traits of the most influential women in my life, and their flaws—even though she is entirely fictional.

But at the core, Elisa was “born” because I wanted a heroine who gave voice to the millions of women who have come to (or were born in) this land and fight tooth and nail for their dreams. I wanted to see what the American Dream still means: to Elisa, it means love and family.

Tell us a little bit more about Aiden. What makes him so yummy?

Read more about Aiden at Mia’s Blog

SEE YOU ALL SOON!! Like, in a few hours.  Love,

Ani

Day 9: Full Excerpt 3

Happy Sunday everyone! A day for working in pajamas in my home. We’re in the single-digit days for Thirty Nightsnine more days. That’s it! How can time move so fast and so slow at the same time? You’ll be seeing lots of activity in the next few days: excerpts, trailer, reviews, interviews, etc.  Please help me spread the word and make Thirty Nights what we’ve all wanted it to be.  And because it’s Sunday, here is a full-length excerpt for you!  Enjoy it!

EXCERPT 3: AIDEN’S HOME

An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us...

An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us…

Suddenly, I know we have entered his domain the way we know spring has arrived. With a feeling in our blood, right before ice starts to melt. The pressure of the altitude muffles my ears until all I hear is my own heartbeat. There are no houses around anymore, only dense evergreens and sky. Aiden takes a sharp left and comes to a stop before a modern iron gate. He slides his palm over a pad in a stainless steel monitor. The gates open.

I expect to see a house, but no. An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us, framed by tall oaks and cedars. On the right, in a green clearing, is a paved, smooth circle. It takes a few blinks to realize it’s a helipad.

At last, as though part of nature, a stately house materializes among the trees. Except, the word house is too artificial. This is almost an extension of the primordial forest. Everything about it, from the red cedar wood panels to the charcoal slate, the gray riverbed rocks and the airy spatial windows, is organic. The modern minimalist lines curve around nature rather than bending nature to their will.

Aiden chuckles next to me, and I close my gaping mouth. “It’s beautiful here,” I say.

“It’s getting better.” He smiles, and gets out of the car to open my door. The moment I’m out, he takes my hand again and presses his lips to my hair. I lean into him, sniffing his Aiden scent surreptitiously. I should figure out a way to bottle this.

At the double front doors, he slides his palm over another pad. The doors open into a cream-and-slate foyer. The moment we step inside, lights brighten almost imperceptibly. I blink once and everything is back to normal. Hmm, maybe I imagined it.

Aiden leads me by my waist to a palatial living room. As we cross the threshold, the lights brighten and dim again, blinking fast. I turn to ask him, but he shakes his head. I tuck this away as a world perched between earth and sky surrounds me.

Straight ahead, Mount Hood is almost touchable. Refracting sunrays are my only clue that a back wall separates us, made entirely of glass. I blink, recalling Denton’s lecture on glass optical qualities. This must be the highest—nearly invisible.

Everything from the open-flame riverbed rock fireplace to the barstools in a kitchen the size of Feign Art is bespoke and chic. All light gray and cream, except the chestnut wooden floor and the oversized salvaged oak coffee table. Colors of rivers and forests. Abstract, understated art, none of it my paintings. There is something peaceful about the stunning natural décor.

Yet my first thought is…not loneliness. The controlled minimalism is too intentional for that. Isolation. That’s what it is. I look for signs of the inner Aiden. There are some books stacked on the coffee table. The Brothers Karamazov—one of my favorites, Byron’s Poems, The Things They Carried. Redemption, passion, guilt, war. And poetry. Aiden Hale has soul.

My eyes drift to a shiny black piano, tucked by the glass wall. My breath catches a little at the sight. Not because it’s a rare Bösendorfer. But because on it, is the most astonishing arrangement of flowers I have ever seen. They’re not in a vase—they’re in a low crystal terrarium, like a secret garden. I walk to it in a trance, sensing Aiden’s body heat behind me.

And there, rising over green moss, is a single bloom of probably every flower genus they sell in Portland. Hyacinth, orchid, gardenia, peony, amaryllis, calla lily, rose…

“I didn’t know which one was your favorite.” Aiden’s warm breath tickles my cheek. It’s just air—his air—but my knees start wobbling. He pulls me against his front, his lips fluttering over my jawline to my ear.

“So?” he whispers.

“Hmm?”

“Favorite flower?” He kisses the soft spot behind my ear. I shiver.

“Umm…”

He chuckles and pulls away. “Maybe it’s too soon to combine thinking with kissing.”

I flush the color of the amaryllis. “Roses,” I breathe.

He raises an eyebrow. “Roses?” There is a hint of humor in his voice.

“What’s wrong with roses?”

“Nothing. It’s just such a common choice for such an uncommon woman.”

©2015 Ani KeatingiStock_000033453000_Small

Day 11: My Guest Post for NYT Bestselling Author, Delilah Devlin

Good morning everyone, and Happy Day 11 in the countdown:  It has been a week of great news in my world:  First, Aestas Book Blog — yes, that Aestas, the Goddess of all Books–picked up Thirty nights in her to-be-read list.  **Super-squeeeeeeeal**  Second, I got my author copies in the mail!!!!   IMG_2662There is no feeling like it in the world. Especially after a 15-hour long day at work. I can’t stop staring at them.   And third, I did a guest post on NYT Bestselling Author and USA Today’s Bestselling Author, Delilah Devlin’s blog.  I was a little star-struck for the whole process, but at least I managed to string two words together. 🙂  Please read it here, and let me know what you think.  You’ll see one of your favorite excerpts there too. 🙂

ANI KEATING: From Fanfiction to Published Author—Five Things I Learned in the Process

When Delilah invited me to post on her blog, my first reaction was a fangirl squeal. My second reaction was a Carlton dance.  And my third reaction was a complete, paralyzing writer’s block, which continued until last night.  How the hell do I choose what to write on Delilah’s blog? This is Delilah! Everyone has been in bed with her, and I’m just popping my publishing cherry!! Oh, the stress.

But I have a generally-calm, down-to-earth, hold-your-hand-through-hell hubby who said, “That’s what you write about.  Popping your cherry.” And he was right. With my first book only eleven days away, I haven’t taken a full moment to pause and articulate what I learned in this amazing process.  It started out as a small story on Fanfiction, then it grew on my blog, and now, finally, it’s hitting the stands.  It has been a beautiful whirlwind, filled with lessons.  And because I’m a list person (blame my legal job), here are the top five:

READ MORE AT: Ani Keating: From Fanfiction to Published Author — Five Things I Learned In the Process (Contest)

Day 14: Full-Length Excerpt 2 and Excerpt Tour Schedule

Good morning, and happy Day 14 to #thirtynights!!  Two weeks!  Two weeks! The whole apartment building has been listening to me screaming that, and they’re all sure our apartment is actually a padded, rubber room.  Oh well! I have a couple of goodies for you today:

  1. The second full-length excerpt for Thirty Nights.
  2. A schedule of all the blogs that will be featuring Thirty Nights excerpts from November 2 to November 8.  Go and check them out and find out about some new releases as well.

I hope you enjoy them! And since we are getting so close, I’d love to ask for your help with spreading the word! You guys made this possible the first time around with telling your friends, posting on your media, etc. Please, please, please do the same now so that Thrity Nights can have a good shot on the stands and everyone can meet the same characters we’ve loved for a while. 🙂  And feel free to send me links to your posts and I’ll circulate them too.  THANK YOU everyone! xo

Here is the Excerpt Tour Schedule:

Friends Till The End Book Blog http://friendstilltheendbookblog.blogspot.ca/ 2-Nov
Southern Vixens Book Obsessions http://www.facebook.com/svbookobsessions 2-Nov
Maari Loves Her Indies https://www.facebook.com/Maari-Loves-Her-Indies-483861215121076/timeline/ 2-Nov
Works of Fiction http://bkwrm29.blogspot.com/ 2-Nov
Sanaa’s Book Blog Http://blogtasticreviews.wordpress.com 2-Nov
A Literary Perusal http://aliteraryperusal.com 3-Nov
Shelf Life http://www.mom2hjkblog.com 3-Nov
Tumbleweed Book Reviews https://www.tumbleweedreviews.com 3-Nov
Bad Boy Book Addicts http://badboybookaddicts.blogspot.co.uk 3-Nov
Turn The Paige Book Blog https://www.facebook.com/turnthepaigebookblog 3-Nov
Read My Mind http://www.aliseonlife.blogspotcom 4-Nov
Reading and Writing Between the Wines Blog http://readingbetweenthewinesblog.com/ 4-Nov
Teatime and Books http://www.teatimeandbooks76.blogspot.com 4-Nov
Cupcakes and Vodka Book Blog http://cupcakesandvodkabookblog.blogspot.com/ 4-Nov
Garden of rEden http://www.gardenofreden,com 4-Nov
SnoopyDoo’s Book Reviews http://snoopydoosbookreviews.com/ 5-Nov
grownupfangirl // oh the bookfeels http://www.grownupfangirl.com // ohthebookfeelsl.com 5-Nov
Mama’s Dirty Little Reads http://www.mamasdirtylittlereads.com 5-Nov
A Dream Within A Dream http://adreamwithindream.blogspot.com 5-Nov
Lucky 13 Book Reviews and News https://m.facebook.com/lucky13bookreviews 6-Nov
Pink Lace & Silver Buckles Book Blog http://www.pinklacebookblog.com 6-Nov
Arc Angel http://www.facebook.com/lynseyag 6-Nov
My Favorite Things http://heffroberts.blogspot.com 6-Nov
Adventures in Writing http://thhernandez.com/blog-3 7-Nov
PBC http://www.paranormal-bookclub.com 7-Nov
Up All Night Book Addict http://www.upallnightbookaddict@live.com 7-Nov
Mikky’s World Of Books http://mikkysworldofbooks.blogspot.ro/ 7-Nov
Sexy Bibliophiles http://sexybibliophiles.com 8-Nov
Liz’s Reading Life http://lizjosette.blogspot.com 8-Nov
Evermore Books http://evermorebooks.weebly.com/ 8-Nov
The Book Lovers Codex http://www.thebookloverscodex.co.uk 8-Nov
Alpha Book Club http://alphabookclub1.blogspot.com 8-Nov

And now the Excerpt.  This is my favorite Aiden Moment. Ever.

EXCERPT 2: FIRST KISS

Excerpt 2 First Kiss Photo

He steps inside. I think he’s trying to calm himself but it’s hard to tell with the smoke coming out of his ears. He runs a hand over his hair. What the devil is wrong with him? He takes one deep breath and explodes.

“Are you so above the rest, Miss Snow, that you will not deign to attend even your graduation from the institution that has granted you its highest academic honor? Or is this how little your own life means to you?” He speaks through gritted teeth.

Oh, bollocks! How did he find out, and why does he care? Be strong, Isa. “I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business.” I ignore his second question. Something about it makes me recoil.

He looks at me like I just insulted his mother. Honestly, I think I see fire from his nostrils. “None of my fucking business? Is that your answer?” Still gritted teeth, which I suppose is better than fangs.

“Yes, that’s my answer.” I stay calm, hoping some of it will rub off on him. No such luck.

“Over three thousand people watched President Campbell announce Miss Elisa Cecilia Snow, valedictorian in absentia, and a full minute of silence fell over the crowd, and you say it’s none of my fucking business?” He is spitting fire.

Damn it! Why would President Campbell announce it? I emailed the traitor. Well, one thing at a time. The Dragon first. “No, I didn’t say fucking business. I said simply business.”

He looks at me with flared nostrils and roars, his fists hanging down.

“What is wrong with you?”

Oh, this is rich. He is morphing into a Tolkien creature and I’m the freak? I am usually a calm, rational agent. It’s probably not apparent based on this last week, but I am. But right now, with my newly shaved legs and my lacy knickers on, after practicing his name all day in front of a stupid fan, I want to scratch his eyes out.

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Mr. Hale. However, based on your behavior these last two days, may I suggest the very real possibility that there is something seriously wrong with you? I strongly recommend that you visit a psychiatrist, sir, and soon, before you become a menace on the streets of Portland and incinerate us all for exercising our right as free human beings to go wherever we bloody well please,” I hiss, feeling a kindred spirit with Medusa because he has turned to stone.

Before I can draw a breath, he takes the two steps between us and his mouth closes in on mine, his hands like a vise around my face.

The force of his kiss slams me against the wall and makes me gasp. His lips mold with mine, and his tongue is dancing inside my mouth. My knees shake a little. As if he knows, one of his hands leaves my face, trails down my body and rests at the small of my back, arching me against him and supporting all my weight. I move my tongue shyly around his. I taste cinnamon and something else, something Aiden. My blood ignites, and another gasp escapes me. At the sound, he presses his hips against me, and his long fingers reach into my hair. He pulls my head back until my mouth opens wider. Our tongues move together, and his anger changes to desperation and then to a slower rhythm that I can follow. Of their own accord, my arms reach up around his neck and my fingers knot in his hair. He tenses, so I try to let go but he draws me closer until there is no more space left. I feel every line of his body against mine. His teeth graze my bottom lip. It takes me a moment to realize that the moan I hear is coming from me. He pulls away, his breathing harsh and labored.

“Impossible woman,” he growls.

I open my eyes. His sapphire depths are blazing. Without his arm supporting me, my knees go back to shaky and weak. Then it dawns on me. Bloody hell, I’ve just been kissed by Aiden Hale! And what a kiss it was. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have much experience with such things, but I am willing to bet my supplement’s formula that no girl, anywhere, has been kissed like this. I pinch myself discreetly to make sure I’m awake. Yes, it was real. My lips are tingling.

“Are you ready to go?” he asks, his breathing now back in control. Apparently, we are not going to talk about it. That’s good. What if his next words end this? And what is there to say regardless? By some miracle, he wants me at some level, and I want him at all levels. That’s good enough for now. Good enough for forever for someone like me.

©2015 Ani Keating

Day 16: Full-Length Excerpt 1

Happy post-Halloween Sunday!  Hope everyone has recovered from the candy.  I have not.  Ate one too many Twix bars… then tried to convince myself that eating bread and cheese would counteract the sugar… BAD idea! Note to self:  if your stomach is hurting from too much food, the answer is not more food.

Anyway, as promised, and because Sunday used to be posting day for Thirty Nights when it was just a seedling, I thought I’d give you the first full-length excerpt today.  Meeting Aiden Hale.  Enjoy! (30N Pros: do you see the differences?) Be back with more.  xo, Ani

EXCERPT 1: MEETING AIDEN HALE

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A tall man, dressed in a tailored charcoal suit, white shirt and cobalt-blue tie, is standing a few feet from the gallery desk, scrutinizing a painting. His dark brown hair is swept back in casual waves. His eyes burn an intense sapphire blue. On the corner of his right eye is an inch-long scar, bleached by time. Beautiful in its savagery. Like something sharp could not resist his beauty but ricocheted at the last minute, desperate to mark him as its own, yet unable to defile him.

Attractive. Much, much too attractive. In fact, only someone so bewildering could reach me in this final hour. For a wild second, I wonder whether my brain has snapped and has created him, like a hallucination, to get me through the next thirty-seven days alive.

Despite his magnetic pull, something about his posture creates a force field around him. Untouchable. Distant. He stands straight, away from everything, his back angled toward the wall. His broad shoulders are tense, as though he senses an invisible, uninvited presence behind him. I scan the gallery, expecting to see something or someone other than Kasia. But it’s utterly empty, except a tall man, the size of Shaquille O’Neal, standing in the far corner like a security guard.

“Would you like something to drink, Mr. Hale?” Kasia simpers, her voice higher than usual. She sounds like she is faking a British accent. I snort.

“No, thank you,” he answers coldly, continuing to stare at the painting in front of him.

I follow his gaze and stop. I feel a twinge of satisfaction to see that he is looking at a painting of me. Not that he would know that. I never model my face, just random parts of my body. This painting portrays only the curve of my throat and jawline, my hair slightly swept back, exposing the skin. The rest of the canvas recedes into darkness. That’s Javier’s style—he never paints blatantly erotic things like breasts, arse, pubic hair. That’s not the point, he says. The point is to force the viewer to imagine the rest of the beauty. Good thing too. I couldn’t have posed naked for anyone, especially Javier. Today, we are painting my waist and left hipbone, but I have a long white sheet to cover the rest of me.

“We could probably have that painting done in color as well.” Kasia is melting. “But the artist feels that the black, white and gray colors allow the real beauty to shine through.”

He does not respond to her. I feel a tiny bit of sympathy for Kasia now. Really, anyone would be a mess. I need to leave, but suddenly I want to hear his voice again. It’s cold and cutting, as if every word is intended to crack a canyon between him and the world. But it’s also hypnotic. Like you would do anything it bid you to do.

My short-lived sympathy evaporates like smoke when Kasia turns to me with a raised eyebrow.

“Isa! Why are you standing there? You know Brett’s instructions. Cleaning ladies in the back.” She cocks her head to the side, pointing to the back door that leads to Javier’s secret studio.

Fuck off, Kasia. I start to walk away but Mr. Hale turns to see what has offended Kasia. He moves with paradoxical military grace. Fluid, yet erect. As if he expects to defend himself at any point but is confident about the outcome. He regards me intently, his eyes narrowing slightly at the corners. There is something endless about his eyes—like you enter through them and perhaps never come out. For a moment, I panic that he can see a similarity between me and the woman in the painting. That he knows it’s me.

But I recover quickly. There is nothing in the painting that can link its subject to me. That’s Javier’s point. That the woman on the canvas can be any woman, any fantasy, any emotion because only a small, unidentifiable part of her is exposed. Mr. Hale’s impassive face confirms Javier’s genius. He turns to Kasia and his voice is, impossibly, colder.

“I will purchase the painting. Is it part of a series?”

Kasia fumbles as she takes his credit card and hands him the purchase agreement. She blushes and stammers and finally manages, “Umm, no—I mean, yes. Yes, it is. The one you’re purchasing is the first. The artist is working on the final, and there are three others in the back. Would you like to see them?”

I know the other paintings. One is of my right shoulder and collarbone. The other one is just my belly. The last one is my left leg, knee down, standing on tiptoe.

“With the same model?” Mr. Hale asks.

“Yes—er, I mean, technically no. The artist says the model is not real, Mr. Hale. He imagined her.”

He does not speak. For an instant, I feel like I’m fading. Like I truly don’t exist here anymore. Adrenaline spikes in my blood and I have a compulsive urge to throw myself between them and say, It’s me! I’m the girl you want!

His voice whips through the air again. “I will buy them.”

Instantly, I feel the first warmth of the day. He kept me. I may be gone in a month but at least some parts of me are ending up on the wall of an earthly Adonis.

“I’ll call you when the final painting is finished, Mr. Hale,” Kasia gushes. She would have an easier time lifting the Portland Memorial Coliseum with her pinky than getting a reaction from him.

He starts reading the purchase agreement, and I get the feeling he is simply avoiding looking at her. “Double the price if it is finished by the weekend.”

Kasia’s mouth pops open. So does mine. Feign sells those paintings for $10,000 apiece. Of course, Javier gets only $400 and gives me $50. Who buys art without looking at it? At regular price, let alone double? Mr. Hale is now poring over the care guarantee agreement. Frustrated with his indifference, Kasia takes it out on me.

“Isa? Now.”

From my peripheral vision, I see his head whip up but I scuttle away to where Javier is waiting, not daring to look at the cold stranger.

©2015 Ani KeatingiStock_000033453000_Small

Day 17: A Hint of Danger

Happy Halloween, everyone!

I hope you’ve got your best, scariest, most dangerous face on, and all your ghosts, ghouls, and goblins are happily hovering around the candy. In our little apartment, hubby has already started to dig in the bowl full of Twix and Starburst. If there is any left by the time the kiddos get here, it will be a miracle.  If not, I’m not sure what my exit strategy is when his sugar high hits.  I may or may not be spending Halloween night at the motel down the street.  🙂  Anyway, I have a nice surprise for you tomorrow (I hope), but before then, here is a hint of the darker side of Thirty Nights. Coming in only 17 days.  And great work entering the raffle: one of you better win that Tiffany’s necklace.  Talk to you soon. xo, Ani

Danger Teaser

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Day 19: Aiden Memory Teaser

Good morning everyone! I took a little break for Day 20, mostly because of a 12-hour day writing briefs at work. 🙂 But I can’t go more than 24 hours without a little bit of Aiden, so this one is as much for me as it is for you.  Because I freaking love this photo.  And this line.  You’ll know that this relates to Aiden’s eidetic memory, or total recall.  But I bet you don’t remember the line because it’s from a brand-new scene.  Hope you like it! Day 19 almost gone.  #ThirtyNights is around the corner.  Please spread the word and use the hashtag. Love you all, xo – Ani

Aiden Memory Teaser

Day 21: Another little teaser

Happy Tuesday every one! It’s almost Wednesday, which means it’s almost Friday.  For today—Day 21, I thought I’d show you what Elisa’s paintings look like in Aiden’s bedroom.  Or at least how they are arranged.  When editors and agents read the book, that was one of their questions. It’s hard for me to find a picture of Aiden’s bedroom similar to what’s in my head (still working on that).  It’s even harder (actually, it has been impossible, and I’ve given up) to find the actual paintings.  Here is the closest of what I can find, and how they look on the wall. Hope you like it. 🙂  Talk soon, xo – Ani

AIDEN’S BEDROOM TEASER:

We walk through a hallway along the ubiquitous glass wall, our footfalls echoing on the polished hardwood floor. Over the sound system, Neil Diamond croons about a girl becoming a woman. We walk past six open doors and stop at one that is slightly ajar. He opens it and steps to the side. I enter, feeling like I am walking into a haunted house and a dream at once.

It’s his bedroom.

Excerpt 4 Bedroom Photo

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Day 22: Recipe for Aiden and Elisa’s First Meal (and Gandy Monday)

Happy Monday loveys! (I can hear you complain, “ah, not so loud, it’s Monday morning!”).  True, so we will keep easy for today.  How about some good food and hotness  to start the week right? Below is the recipe of the first meal that Aiden and Elisa share.  Can you guess where it was? It was at Aiden’s home, for her graduation (that she decided to skip).  Roasted Wild Salmon and Apple-Fennel Salad.  It’s super-easy! 

As I was finished editing Thirty Nights, I got the idea of collecting all its recipes and sharing them.  So here is the first.  Hope you enjoy it.  I actually felt good after eating this (trying to use my “first book fifteen”).

WILD SALMON and APPLE-FENNEL SALAD 

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Ingredients for the Salmon (serves four):

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 4 skinless wild Sockeye or Chinook salmon fillets (about 5 ounces each)
  • 1 cup very thinly shaved fennel (from 1 bulb)
  • 1 cup of small cherry tomatoes (mixed colors)
  • A few springs of flat-leaf parsley
  • 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Coarse salt for sprinkling
  • Zest of half a lemon
  • Five medium-thickness lemon slices

Photo courtesy of Martha Stewart

Ingredients for the Salad:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • juice of half a small lemon
  • juice of half of a small blood orange or regular orange (preferably Valencia)
  • 1/2 cup very thinly shaved fennel (from 1/2 bulb)
  • 1 apple (preferably Golden Delicious apple), thinly sliced or julienned
  • 1/2 cup of pomegranate seeds (optional)
  • 2 generous cups of mixed greens (preferably arugula, mache, pea shoots, baby kale, butter lettuce, and dark leaf baby lettuce)
  • salt (pepper optional)

Preparation For Salmon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix five tablespoons of the olive oil with the lemon juice and rub each salmon fillet.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large ovenproof skillet over high heat (preferably Pyrex), and swirl to coat pan. Layer the lemon slices and fennel on bottom.

Place salmon, skinned side up, and surround with the cherry tomatoes. Sear until golden, about 3 minutes. Flip salmon, and transfer to oven. Roast 5 minutes (for medium).

Take out; season salt and pepper; drizzle some olive oil over it; and garnish with the flat-leaf parsley sprigs.

Preparation For the Salad

Place all the baby greens, the fennel, the apple in a large serving bowl.  Separately, whisk or mix together the olive oil, orange juice, and lemon juice, until they are thick and emulsified. Toss over the salad, sprinkle salt to taste, and add the pomegranate seeds.  Layer on top of the salmon or to the side, and enjoy!  Print the photo below for extra nutritional effect. 🙂

David Gandy: The Appetizer, Entree, and Dessert of Every Meal. 

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Day 23: Another teaser

Happy Sunday everyone! Hope you’re all having a quiet, relaxing day.  Mine is filled with laundry and waiting like crazy for the new Homeland episode tonight. #LetQuinnSurvive.   In the meantime, here is another teaser for you.  23 days left to Thirty Nights!  Spread the word and don’t forget to register for the giveaway.  Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for this story. xo, Ani

Tango Teaser

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Day 25: Meet the girl that bonds them – Elisa Snow

What can I say about Elisa?? Just the fact that at times, I know her better than I know myself. Because she tends to be on the expressive side, readers feel like they know her best.  But I bet there are lots of things about her you didn’t know.  Check out her new page and read some more.  Her background, trivia, her favorite things.  And her top rose breeds on the gallery in the side bar. Why do you think Aiden is so crazy about her?  Let me know your thoughts and I’ll tell you mine.  xo

Elisa Snow

 

Day 26: Tiffany’s Key Necklace Giveaway

Good morning!!  Happy Day 26!   What would a countdown be without fabulous jewelry and some man candy? To toast Thirty Nights in style, we are doing a giveaway that I wish I could win (but of course, I can’t).  Tiffany’s Iconic Key Necklace, in Tiffany Blue!! It’s reversible silver, so you can wear it on both sides.  Let me tell you, I stared at it for a long time—I’ve never been able to own something from that store. But I hope you can! I would LOVE it if the winner was one my readers, followers, and—let’s face it—friends!  Below are the pictures of the necklace and the link for you to enter the giveaway.  Sign up and let’s hope one you wins it!!!  And please spread the word: mention Thirty Nights to your friends.  Every time you tweet or share or say something about Thirty Nights, it helps! It really helps.  THANK YOU! (scroll below for the links, pictures of the necklace, and mandatory man candy because why not? It’s jewelry day!)

Enter the giveaway here  and here is the full link if for some reason you want it separately: https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/4cf78adb299/

Tiffany Iconic Necklace GiveawayTiffany Key Necklace Giveaway

Tiffany Key Necklace Rerversible

 

 

Tiffany Iconic Necklace Box

And just for fun, I couldn’t resist these two pictures:  The first because … well, you need no reason to want to post it.  The second because they bear a resemblance to Aiden and Elisa together.  Happy Day 26!  Talk to you tomorrow!

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“Aiden” and “Elisa”?  I can kind of see it–definitely in him, a little bit on her, especially the rose earrings. 🙂

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Day 27: Meet Javier Solis and a little announcement

Good morning everyone! The countdown continues. 🙂  Learn some new information on Javier this time by visiting his brand new page and his gallery on the side bar menu.   You will see trivia, character background information, and listen to his playlist (which has a soft spot for me). Javier had so many fans when the story was first posted that now he is getting his own book:  the third in the American Beauty series!!!!  Yep, you saw that right.  Until then, check him out and see why so many of you are big fans.  I’ll be back with teasers and excerpts very soon.  Thank you for spreading the word about Thirty Nights.  xo, Ani

Javier Small for website

Day 28: A little interview with a cameo by Gandy :-)

Good morning everyone! The Thirty Nights countdown continues… this time with a little fun interview I did with another author: Kameron Brooks.  And look who stopped by to completely derail me.  David Gandy!!! (Ok, he doesn’t know, but in my head this is an actual date).  Hope you like the read, check out Kam’s own works, and stay tuned for more: we have more excerpts, teasers, giveaways, and other materials coming up.  Thank you for reading!

Author Showcase and Interview with Ani Keating

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Welcome, Ani Keating!!

  1. For those who might not be familiar with you, would you be a dear and tell the readers a little about yourself? How did you get your start in the writing business?

(Ani) Hi, Kam. Thank you for having me on your blog (I love the Superman gravatar).

I’m a lawyer by day (please don’t stop reading, it gets better) and a writer by night. I have settled in Portland, Oregon, after trying out a few other places, and I love it here.  Rain, green forests, bookstores, and coffee shops… I had no choice but to start writing. J  It was something I had always wanted to do—since my first short story in third grade—but “real life” took its course. College, law school, job, family… It wasn’t until three years ago that I finally decided to go for it. I got this idea in my head that just wouldn’t leave me alone. Next thing I knew, I was outlining, then opening an account on fanfiction, then posting chapters online, and the rest became a roller coaster ride. I thought I’d be lucky if I had one or two readers and they’d both like it. I ended up finding quite a few more, then an agent, then a publisher.  And now here I am, with my first novel coming out on November 17, 2015.  I’m still trying to catch my breath, but I’m so glad I started.  Being a writer is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do (and I argue for a living) but it has also been one of the most beautiful and fulfilling experiences of my life.

(Kam) Yeah, Superman ROCKS!! 

  1. All writers fear the dreaded “block”. Please tell us how you handle it.

 

Continue reading here and take a look Gandy! 🙂  See you soon!! xo

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Day 29 of countdown continues: Meet Aiden Hale

Happy Monday morning! Let’s start the week off right by talking about Aiden.  Of all my characters, I have received the most questions about him.  Take a look at his updated page here for new information about him, including his strong pet peeves, and even his reading speed.  Do you think the new trivia about him makes sense? Why? What is your favorite Aiden trait?  xo, Ani

Aiden Small for website

Day 29: Teaser

Good morning everyone! The “Thirty Days to Thirty Nights” continues.  Hope you like this teaser for Day 29– what do you think it says about Aiden?  I’d love to hear from you! xo

Teaser 1 Inkslinger PR