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
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’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.
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.
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