Hey friends, happy Sunday and woe begone to Sunday scaries. If you’re feeling them, here’s a chapter to help with that. As always many thanks to those who are reading and commenting. I love hearing your theories about what is happening to Aiden. Wonder what you think after this? Lots of love to you. xo, Ani
Chronology has stopped making sense again. The Friday before the Rose Festival comes only six days later, but it feels like another lifetime to me. Both familiar and foreign in the same week.
Familiar because some days look more like my old home movies. The cottage has parents around who cook and pack my lunch. The fridge has homemade leftovers of our favorite dishes. The phone rings, the doorbell jingles. Our constellation is expanding again tonight with all the Marines descending on Burford from River Spey. And Aiden and I are back to our rhythm, trying to live present moment to present moment, reel to reel.
Yet it doesn’t feel like my life. Because under the familiar is the strange—new elements more intrusive than the intruder they’re trying to protect me against, rubbing against our days like a blister in a shoe or an eyelash in the eye. We no longer have a security guard, we have a security team: Benson, Max, and Ferrars who is assigned to Aiden’s parents. One of them is always outside the cottage, which is a compromise for the cameras Aiden wanted to install in the rose-covered limestone straight into the cottage’s flesh (“Why don’t you just drill them in my heart and forehead, Aiden, because that’s how it would feel.” He didn’t argue with me after that). And Aiden still picks me up and drops me off at work, but Max remains stationed at Café Vault across the street during my workday, which is an improvement from Bia’s lobby as Aiden wanted (“I’ll quit before I have a bodyguard in my dad’s second home around his closest friends and colleagues, Aiden!” “That’s an overreaction, Elisa.” “This whole thing is an overreaction!” “Fine, the coffee shop!”)
But worse than all these, there is no more love-making in the garden; no more sunrises skin to skin; no more blissful moments of just Aiden and me without someone’s shadow always around; no more rose bubble at peace. They are gone before they truly settled in.
And I miss all of it. The festering wound has doubled in size—once when we’re apart, once for losing the way we were. But I’m not giving up. I’ll try again today, even if it will mean another fight.
“So, are you almost ready for Professor Snow’s bench ceremony?” Graham’s voice startles me out of my planning. He’s been poring through the third volume of the Encyclopedia for the last five hours and looks slightly cross-eyed.
“Ugh, don’t remind me or my hands will start shaking again. I haven’t even written my speech.”
“Your fossil mates been keeping you busy, have they?”
“Not at all. They’re the model for ideal visitors—homemade food, strolls, quiet nights.”
“Oh, I see, you’re a fossil yourself. Everything makes a lot more sense now.” Graham laughs, rubbing his eyes and the deep purple shadows underneath.
“Graham, you look exhausted. Have you left Bia at all in the last week? I’m worried about you.” This is true. As I am worried about time to test the protein if he continues to usurp the lab.
“Of course I’ve left. How do you reckon I’ve been getting lunch?”
I shake my head at him, starting the centrifuge, but sweat dews in the back of my neck. This would be my life if Aiden had not come to England. This might be my life still if we lose, assuming I survive at all. “Maybe you should take a break this weekend,” I suggest. “Come to the Rose Festival tomorrow, get some fresh air—”
Edison blasts in Bia then at his typical sprinting pace, making me jump as usual. “How is the afternoon?” he asks before the door has closed behind his billowing lab coat.
“Abysmal. Eliser is trying to convince me to abandon my post and attend the local rose soiree. The nerve!” Graham chuckles but an enormous yawn overtakes him. He looks nickel green.
“Ah, yes, the Rose Festival.” Edison smiles, but his eyes sweep over Graham and the lab. “Elisa is right, Graham. You need to leave stat. You’re no help to yourself or the protein in your state. Pip pip!” He knocks on Graham’s desk as if to prompt him to blink and turns to me.
“You too, Elisa. I can finish testing today.”
I stare at him, trying to think. I desperately need the lab alone, but I wouldn’t have it with Edison here. “Are you sure, Professor? I can work until six.”
“Nigel, please,” he corrects me for the nth time. “And I’m quite certain. I know the Rose Festival meant a lot to Clare. She would want you to have time to set up.”
I lose all argument then. Because he is right—this was mum’s favorite event and I abandoned it for four years. Not to mention two hours with Aiden before the Marines arrive, hopefully without Max or Benson around.
“Thank you, P—Nigel,” I answer, feet already shuffling toward the door.
“Not at all, not at all.” He waves me off and, without a second glance at anything else, turns to the molecule of fear.
Max is waiting at his usual table by the window at Café Vault when Graham and I traipse outside. He stands immediately when he sees me two hours early, but to his credit, he gives me time to say goodbye. His sharp eyes follow Graham as he shambles under the weight of three tomes to his white Fiat. And even after he drives off at Mr. Plemmons’ pace, Max waits until he disappears around the corner before escorting me to his newly leased bullet-proof Range Rover.
“Would you like Mr. Hale to know you’re out early?” Max smiles as I climb in the back seat. One week in, and he already knows what to ask. Still, it doesn’t make his presence easier.
“No, he’ll like the surprise.”
“I’m sure he will.”
I watch the familiar St. Giles Boulevard flash by behind the tinted windows. My parents’ bus stop, their favorite bakery, Oxford’s golden tones all turn dark under Rover’s filter, as though I’m looking at them through the black veil I wore at the funeral. I lean my head back and shut my eyes. The trip is easier if I don’t look at the charred, smoky colors of my new life.
“Did anyone give you trouble today?” Max checks as he does every day.
“Some vials broke. Does that count?” My sarcasm is ruined by the thick sound of my voice.
“I didn’t notice anything strange around the building either.”
“Maybe because there’s nothing to notice,” I mumble to myself, but Max must read lips in his wide-angle mirror.
“There could be. We don’t know that for a fact.”
I flush but don’t answer. Because what’s a fact in a situation like this? With trauma so vivid, it becomes real, and reality so beautiful, it becomes a fairytale? I clutch my locket for bravery, trying to guess which sheep-dotted field the Rover is darkening.
“Seven minutes out,” Max informs me, clearly knowing my routine by now.
“Thank you, Max.”
“Is there anything I can do to make this easier?”
“No, you’re exceptional. I’m sorry if I seem ungrateful. And I’m sorry you’re spending your vacation in a coffee shop, staring at a lab.”
“I truly don’t mind. Mr. Hale is being very generous.”
Yes, generous, protective, and stubborn to a fault. And the toll is costlier than the bill. The toll on him, on me, and on the beloved hallmarks of my parents’ life. I run through my arguments in my head, trying to pick a winner after two lost battles.
“One minute,” Max announces.
Immediately, I open my eyes and roll down my window, unwilling to see Elysium or the cottage in shades of black and gray. The brocade of wildflowers is brilliant under the July sun except the inkblot at the border, like a scar. Even from here, I can see Benson standing guard by the willows. I inhale deeply, finding the first whiff of rose breeze that no longer blows through the cottage at night. As soon as Max pulls over by the garage, I wrench open the armored door, probably giving myself a bruise, and hop out.
Yet as soon as I step on the flowery tapestry with Max’s boulder shadow next to me, the field of my childhood looks forlorn. I know nothing has changed on it—the daisies, orchids, poppies, and forget-me-nots don’t know the difference—but the change feels real to me. I break into a run down Elysium’s bowl, leaving Max’s shadow behind, craving nothing but Aiden and me alone. I have no hope of outrunning Max, but he lets me go. After all, how much danger can I be in with three trained fighters within hearing distance? I wave at Benson without stopping and dash through the rose hedge, heading straight for the door, but there he is!
Sitting at the garden bench, his back to me—the only place in the world where Aiden allows his shoulders exposed. He is flipping through a thick binder of documents at eye-watering speed. His waves flutter in the breeze, longer than when he first stood in this garden. His sculpted arms glisten under the short sleeves of his white Polo shirt. And immediately the wound shrinks. Yet I’ve never missed him more. I wish I could sneak up and truly surprise him, but I can never do that to him.
“You shouldn’t sit alone like this,” I call across the garden. “The intruder might be Mrs. Willoughby. Have you considered that?”
His head whirls around in alarm. “Elisa?” He bolts to his feet and flashes to my side, scooping me in his arms before I have taken three steps toward him. “Love, are you okay? Did something happen?” His hand flies to my forehead and he scans me head to Byron trainers.
“Of course I’m fine,” I assure him quickly, locking my arms around his neck. “Edison let me go early for the festival.”
Tension drains out of him immediately and he tucks me closer with a relieved sigh. A dazzling smile wipes the worry lines from his face. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.”
I kiss his cheek—it’s warm from the sun. “Because I wanted to surprise you.”
“What a great surprise.”
He nods at Max who has arrived at the hedge and strides back to the bench, eyes glittering.
“How was your day?” he asks as he drapes me over his lap, one arm tight around my waist.
“Very long and gray. Yours?”
“Interminable and pitch black until now.” His hand curves around my face, and he brings me to his mouth. “Welcome home,” he murmurs against my lips.
“Mmm, that sounds nice.” I sigh, tangling my fingers in his soft hair, breathing in his sunshine-and-Aiden scent. My lips shape themselves around his possessive mouth, folding to its pressure, now gentle, now hard. His arm strains me to his chest, and a current of warmth surges through me. I know there are important things I need to say, but his smell and his feel and his tongue moving with mine . . . I crush myself closer, moaning at his taste. Then Benson’s deep laughter drums over the blood that’s hammering in my ears, and I remember.
“Aiden—” I whisper through the kiss.
“Our bedroom.” His husky voice reverberates inside my mouth. I almost moan yes, my breath is already too fast and loud, but Benson laughs again.
“Wait . . . please . . . talk.”
His lips pause on mine—wet and delicious—but he doesn’t release my face. “Talk?”
I nod, trying to settle my breathing.
“All right.” He leans back, still cradling my cheek, but the V forms between his brows, crumpling my resolve. Because I know it will deepen as soon as I start talking. The smoldering light in his eyes will fade. And friction will enter the warm, velvet space between us. “What is it, love?” he prompts. The anxiety in his voice only makes me waver more. But Max’s cough drifts from the willows now, and the words tumble out.
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. I wasn’t joking when I said my day is black without you.” His thumb strokes my cheek as he frowns in confusion. “Is that what’s bothering you?”
“What is it then?”
“Will you keep an open mind?”
He tenses around me. “I’ll give it my best effort.”
I choose my words carefully. “I miss being with you—the way we were a week ago. We had just begun this new life, and now it feels like the old one, with rules and dangers everywhere we turn. We’re not doing the opposite, love, we’re doing more of the same, maybe worse.”
The light burns out in his eyes the second he realizes the topic of conversation, as I knew it would. His hand drops from my face and he takes a deep breath. “Elisa, this part won’t last forever. I’ll take care of the problem, and we can go back to our new life. I miss it, too.”
“But how long will it last? It’s been a week without any incident of any kind.”
“Until I’m convinced you’re safe. I won’t take any chances with your life—you know that.” His voice is resolute and unwavering.
“I know you wouldn’t, but what will it take to convince you? Max has been watching me every day. He admits he hasn’t seen anything odd at all. Neither has Benson or Ferrars. And you’ve been searching the area twice a day. There is nothing, love. You have to let this go now.”
He starts shaking his head before I’ve finished. “A week is too short a time to conclude that. If someone is intent on hurting you, he—because I don’t think it’s Mrs. Willoughby—may not return right away.”
“But Aiden, you heard Doctor Helen. She agrees with me. She said the reel is pushing your vigilance to the extreme, priming you to see and fight danger at all times. Corbin thinks so, too.”
He closes his eyes and pinches his nose for patience. “Elisa,” he begins slowly, no doubt trying to keep from roaring. “For the fifth time, Doctor Helen didn’t agree with you. She said your theory is more likely, but she didn’t say mine is impossible, either.”
I will never win with him if I start arguing probabilities with my safety. I change tracks instead. “Okay, let’s assume you’re right for the sake of argument . . .” I pause, waiting for him to open his eyes. He does with a deep sigh from the effort to stay calm. “Why do we need a security team and bullet-proof vehicles? Who could ever get past you and Benson? Please, let Max go home and give us our happy cottage back.”
Shock flashes over his face despite his calming measures. He stares at me like I belong to the padded corner room of Burford Dementia Centre. “With the festival tomorrow?” he demands in disbelief. “With hordes of people around, in the only place where I cannot protect you myself? Have you lost your fucking mind?” He shudders with tension at the mere idea.
“All right, all right,” I say quickly, stroking his scar to calm him even though the thought of security shadows darkening mum’s roses burns my throat like acid. “Not tomorrow but Sunday then, assuming the worst that happens is dropped ice cream cones like every year.”
But he shakes his head again, unyielding. “This isn’t a joke, Elisa. I can’t do that. I don’t know what we’re dealing with—I’ll be the first to admit it. And until I do, Max stays.”
“No, no more buts. It’s too soon. Later, when it’s safe, I promise I will let security go.”
Later. Tic toc, tic toc. When did s-a-f-e become a dangerous word? “But we may not have until later, Aiden!” My voice rises in panic even though seconds ago I was trying to calm him. “This may be the only time we have, and you’re wasting it with this.”
I’ve shredded the last vestige of his control. His jaw clenches as his eyes harden into blue slate. “Waste?” he hisses through his teeth, fury descending over his face like thunder. “Nothing is a waste to me if it keeps you safe. Absolutely nothing. I—will—not—take—more—risks—with—you. Full stop.”
There is no compromise in his voice, no room for any more arguments. He glowers at me in a way that only Aiden can. I try to glare back, but I can’t find my anger. It vanished somewhere between each second ticking away. Instead of anger, I feel something else. It takes me a moment to find the name for my throat closing, for the windy tunnel in my chest, for the strange hollowness in my stomach. Homesickness. It grips me now, like it did on my parents’ hilltop. Homesickness for us, for how we were, and how we could be. On their own, my fingers knot in his hair, pulling him closer.
“Please, Aiden?” I whisper, giving up on logic. “I miss us on the petals. I miss looking at the colors outside without bullet-proof windows. I miss having the cottage to ourselves at night without worrying who hears us. I miss making happy memories alone with you. I don’t ever want to lose that, and definitely not before our ninety days are up. I think that’s just as dangerous, if not more. Please?”
While I’ve been pleading, he’s been breaking. Ashen, mouth set in a grim line, rippling around me with tension. I hate the war I’m causing in his eyes, wounding a precious part of him whichever side he chooses: risk his peace or risk my safety, risk our happiness or risk our harmony? R-i-s-k. But I hate losing t-i-m-e with him even more. That will harm us more than any intruder, real or imagined. If I know anything down to my DNA’s double helix, it’s that.
He’s still strangled in conflict. With a deft movement, he slides me off his lap. “Give me a minute,” he says, his voice almost hoarse.
“Aiden, where—” But his fingers brush my cheek once and he streaks across the garden inside the cottage.
I stare after him, frozen on the sunny bench, heart in my throat. Did I win? Or did I make everything worse? Jittery with nerves, I jump to my feet and start pruning wilted petals from the Reagan, reciting the periodic table in my head. When I’ve run through it four times, he comes out—calmer now, no longer blanched, eyes clear, my rucksack on his back.
“Aiden, what are you doing?” I run to him immediately, crashing into him by the Clares. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry—”
He catches me and folds me in his arms, pulling me into his chest. “Of course you didn’t. You just reminded me that I can’t protect your safety at the cost of your heart. I have to figure out a way to do both.”
I should have known he’d find a way to make it harder on himself. I press my lips to his shirt over his heart. “You don’t need to do more, love. You need to do less.”
I feel him shake his head in my hair and he drops his arms but takes my hand. “Come with me.”
“Come with you where?”
“You’ll see.” The sparkle returns to his eyes and, with a gentle tug, he starts towing me down the stony path.
“Aiden, wait!” I pull on his arm, breathless from the abrupt change. “What about our conversation?”
One warm hand frames my face. “Elisa, I heard your arguments. The ones you made and the ones you didn’t. And right now, we need to do this.”
“But James and the others are coming in three hours. I have to get ready and—”
He places his finger over my lips. “We’ll be back by then. My mom has already marinated the steaks. And you’ll have me, Max, Benson, Ferrars, Cal, Hendrix, Jazz, and my parents to help you set up the rose stand exactly as you want. But until then, you are right. You need to be with me and I need to be with you. Just us and no one else in the world, making a happy memory. Will you come with me?”
And he unleashes the full force of his beauty on me. It grows in that surreal way, lighting him from within, until it stuns every thought and nerve into oblivion. He takes full advantage of my open mouth and closes it with his. The moment our lips touch, my resistance crumbles. Not because I’m giving up. But because this is exactly what I want right now too, what I’ve missed. To be alone with him.
He feels my change. “Perfect,” he smiles against my lips. With a gentle breeze over my face to restart my brain, he releases my mouth and takes my hand again, striding down the garden path while I wobble next to him trying to find things like feet and knees.
“Sir?” Max and Benson stand from the willow shade in unison when they see us.
Aiden raises his free hand. “Just us for now, gents. You have the cottage. We’ll be back by seven.”
I think they nod but I’m not sure. My eyes are fixed on Aiden as we set across Elysium just him and me with no shadows around. Can the daisies feel this difference? I think they can.
“So where are we going to make this happy memory?” I ask, not that it really matters to me. He could take me into a ditch on the side of the road at this point and I would be happy.
“I don’t have a name for it. That will be your job.” His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile.
He doesn’t take the bullet proof beast when we reach the garage. Instead he helps me in our Rover and sets the rucksack in the back seat.
“What’s in there?” I look at the overstuffed nylon that seems about to explode as he backs out of the garage, scanning the area around us.
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” He winks as he repeats my own words to me from two weeks ago.
Then we’re off. Driving South down the country road slower than his usual speed. And my chest heals—as though the wound never existed. A sense of wellness floods my airways, and I breathe in the luxuriant feeling.
“Look at the colors, love,” Aiden says, rolling down our windows. Wind blows in, flinging around my hair and playing with his curls. But even though I griped about seeing the world through dark windows, now that they’re open, I turn on my seat and look only at him. How happy he looks right now—eyes on the open road, sunshine over his face, dimple in his cheek. He weaves his fingers with mine and brings my hand to his lips. “I’m sorry about the bullet-proof Rover. I didn’t think about the black windows. I can see why that would be depressing to you. I’ll check if they have one with clear glass. If not, I’ll live with a regular one.”
My heart starts sprinting an exultant rhythm. “Thank you,” I breathe. “Does this mean you’ll give up on the other things, too?”
He chuckles and rests our joined hands on the console. “Things? I didn’t realize you had other objections besides armored cars and a security team. Please do tell.”
“Well, if there’s no reason for bullet-proof beasts, then there’s no reason for a guard outside the cottage when we’re home. It’s upsetting the roses. They’re not used to this.”
He laughs the first carefree laughter I’ve heard in a week and glances at me. “Please tell the roses the overnight guard and the daylight one for that matter are there to protect them from the rose thief. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
The victorious galloping of my heart slows. “I really doubt it. They’re highly logical plants. Shall I tell them anything else?”
“Yes, tell them I love them very much. So much in fact that I’m willing to be scratched by their angry thorns on a daily basis to keep them safe.”
I cup my ear, pretending to listen outside the open window. “They say thank you but they miss their happy bubble and will not compromise.”
“My, my, stubborn little plants, but neither will I. Do they have any other objections besides private security, bullet-proof beasts, and cottage guards?”
“Yes, they’re very offended by the closed windows at night. They think you no longer like the way they smell.”
“Oh, that is grave indeed. Do assure them I’m going to prove shortly how much I like their smell. In fact, I miss it right now.” He lifts our joined hands again and inhales my wrist. The bottom of my belly tightens, trying to imagine what proof he is planning. “Do they know some of the windows stay closed because a certain someone can’t be quiet during certain activities we can’t name for the roses’ ears?”
I flush. “Yes, but that certain someone wouldn’t have to be quiet if there wasn’t an overnight guard.”
“I see. Well maybe that certain someone’s mouth will need to be silenced somehow. Tell the roses I will consider it.”
A sense of buoyancy floats inside me like the rose breeze. “They say thank you and they love you too.”
He chuckles. “They’re very welcome. Do they have any other demands that don’t involve compromising their safety?”
“No, other than these they’re very happy little plants.”
“They’re perfect, which is why I have to protect them even if they don’t like it,” he answers with a dazzling smile and presses a button on the wheel. “In their honor.” Kiss from a Rose floods the car, as harmonic as his laughter. I watch him spellbound as his lips move to the lyrics in a low murmur. Neither of us will surrender today. But I tuck all that aside for now, sinking in this present moment of us alone. Beyond his profile, the shamrock hills rise and fall like an emerald heartline.
He kisses the back of my hand when the song is done and turns down the volume. “So how was your day aside from your grievances with me? Is Graham still occupying the lab?”
“He was, but Edison ordered him home. I hope he’ll stay away this weekend so I can test the new oxytocin dose after the festival.”
“Are you excited for the festival now that you’ve chosen the roses? I think you’ll win the Rose Cup.”
“More nervous than excited, I think.”
He glances at me with the worried V between his eyebrows. “Why nervous?”
“Because it was mum’s favorite event. I want it to be perfect for her.” My voice drops, but he still hears it. As he hears the words I didn’t say because his hand tightens around mine when he answers.
“Don’t worry, love. We’ll be discreet. No one will even know we’re there.”
“But I will know. And I’m worried it will feel like a war instead of the cheery, happy event she would have wanted it to be.”
He strokes my palm with his thumb in reassurance. “Elisa, I think your mother would have wanted you to be safe above anything else. I don’t owe this just to you, I owe it to her too for what she did for me.”
How can I argue with him when he says things like that no matter how much I hate the thought of deadly Marines stalking the festival? And even worse, how can I tell him that the wound will rage tomorrow no matter how well the festival goes because he can’t be with me? I can’t—he would hate himself even more for his startle reflex then. “Fine, but if a single rose stem breaks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
“Very sensible.” He laughs and turns up the volume as another rose song starts. The Making of You.
It makes me laugh too, sliding tomorrow away. “Have you made a playlist for roses like you did for ICE in Portland?”
“Well, we can hardly have a rose festival without a rose soundtrack. What would the Plemmonses say?”
I curl up in my seat, listening to his compilation for me, perfectly content if this entire happy memory is just this drive of the two of us, hands knotted, wind in our hair, and that smile on his lips. But it only lasts for three more rose songs.
“Here we are.” Aiden veers to the side of the road at the border of a grassy expanse like a jade sky, with oak and beech families clustered together here and there in their own earthly constellations. River Windrush glimmers through them like a liquid Milky Way. There is no sound except the arias of skylarks and song thrushes. And not a human silhouette in sight.
“I love National Trust Land,” I inform him, hanging my head out of the window and breathing in the clover air. “Do you know they have about 1,600 wildflower species here?”
He chuckles. “Well, we’re not going into Trust Land right now, but I think you’ll like this, too.” He climbs out of the Rover and picks up the rucksack. I strain to listen for any clues to its contents but it’s utterly quiet. “Will you be okay walking for about ten minutes?” he asks as he opens my door. “Or shall I carry you?” He looks eager for the latter.
“Hmm, tempting, but I think I can handle it. Who knows what you might need to save your strength for?”
“Oh, all manner of activities, Elisa. Arguing about your safety, making you faint, silencing your mouth—these require every ounce of strength a man has.” He takes my hand, leading us across the swaying field.
There are some things I’ll never have proper words for. His beauty, for one. His kisses for another. The way he makes love. The whole totality of him, in fact. But somewhere in the list is the experience of walking with him in open space without a ripple of tension. It’s as though he never takes a single step for granted. Where the rest of us put one foot in front of the other without thinking, focused on where we’re arriving instead, Aiden seems to treat each stride as its own destination—flowing in his graceful way step by step through this elusive freedom. I shiver when I think of the reasons behind it and hook my arm in his as he strolls at my pace, lifting me over a shrub or branch and scanning the verdant grassland.
He stops as we approach a thicket of beechwoods, oaks, and yews, and tips up my face. “Will you humor me with something?”
“Anything you want.”
“Then wait here. You’ll be very safe.” And he lets me go, bounding toward the trees.
“Anything but that,” I call after him, but I only hear his carefree laughter as he plunges through the woods. While I wait, I run an experiment on time by setting the chronometer on dad’s watch as I search the ground for four-leaf clover. Aiden emerges from the thicket only three minutes later, but my hypothesis is correct. Emotionally, it felt like twenty minutes to me.
“What was that about?” I ask, trotting toward him.
He lets me lead to the trees, following quietly. I hear the click of his iPhone as he takes a photo of me, but I ignore the chill that trickles down my neck when he does this because the lopsided smile on his lips is worth a million ice pricks. From the canopy of leaves ahead filters a spicy scent of wild roses and sweet water. It propels my feet faster and I zig-zag through the ancient trunks into the most beautiful tiny meadow I’ve ever seen, second only to Elysium. It’s a perfect circle, smaller than the cottage’s garden, wreathed with pink wild roses. In the very center is a spring of water in the exact shape of the bluest of eyes. A pair of Adonis butterflies—the male blue, the female brown—tango in the hazy sunshine. But all this beauty is not the reason why I feel moisture in my eyes. It’s our blanket and pillows spread under the shade of a sweetbriar rose, along with the empty rucksack. A silver Baci chocolate twinkles on my side.
“Aiden,” I whisper, spinning around for the blue eyes of the Adonis standing behind me. He is watching me in that way of his that absorbs every pixel from the moment.
“Like?” he smiles.
“Like? I love. However did you find this?”
“When I was searching the area yesterday. Even you can’t object entirely to my security regime if it led me to this.”
“Yes, this one part is tolerable . . . but only this one.”
He laughs and pulls me by the waist into the molten meadow. But as we reach the blue eye in the center, the laugh gentles away and his expression becomes intent.
“You wanted us on the petals.” He tilts his head toward the wild roses and our blanket. “You wanted to make love without worrying who hears us.” He gestures to the dense trees. “And you want us to keep making happy memories.” He waves at the crystal spring. “I know I can’t replace the cottage or the rose garden but for the next two hours, will you settle for this?”
I push aside the wisp of homesickness for our bubble and press myself closer to him. “Well, that depends.”
“On what name we choose for this place so we can make it ours. That’s my job, remember?”
The lopsided smile turns up his lips. “Of course it is. Any ideas?”
I have to look away from his mirage face to think. I should fear engraving him all over England with our dwindling days, but I don’t. The less time we have, the more I want him spread like pollen on every blade of grass or moss-covered branch, as he already is in every molecule and cell of me. So he can live on here somehow even if we don’t.
The two Adonis lovers are fluttering over the wild roses. “Well . . .” My eyes fly to him again as I make my choice. “I have Elysium. And now you have Aidonis.”
His eyebrows arch—Aiden would never expect anything named after him—but the surprise turns quickly into a chuckle.
“For the myth of him being Aphrodite’s lover?”
“No, for the myth of his own beauty.”
His eyes smolder. “Let’s christen it then,” he murmurs, and his hands seize my face. But the meadow disappears as soon as his mouth touches mine. I feel only our hands ripping off our clothes. I see only the shimmering planes of his body in the gilded air. I hear only the free sounds of our love. And I taste only his incomparable flavor as he pulls us into the sapphire water.
He keeps his promises, I have to admit—whether to make our first swim a memory worthy of the Room of Firsts or to keep us on schedule when I forget my own name, let alone the time. We make it back to the cottage with exactly seven minutes to spare, hair dripping, my legs still shaking, while Aiden strides in his self-assured way as if he didn’t just transform an adult woman into a trembling mass of Adonis butterflies.
“Status?” he asks Benson and Max who are setting up a long table and chairs for dinner on Elysium. Professionals that they are, they don’t comment on our sodden state, although Benson’s lips press together in amusement.
“All quiet, sir. Max rounded twice. The Marines checked in at the Inn and should be on their way. And your parents are with the Plemmonses but will be over for dinner with Ferrars.”
“Thank you. See you both then.” Aiden wraps up quickly, feeling my fingers twitch with nerves. I cannot possibly face James dribbling again, not to mention Hendrix and Jazzman whom I’ve never met before. What was I thinking letting Aiden drag me into that spring a second time? I wasn’t, that’s the problem. His mouth—with its lips and tongue and taste and words—is the real danger, not any intruders.
I’ve barely finished toweling off my hair in our bedroom when the Marines’ raucous laughter clamors from Elysium.
“Bloody hell, Aiden!” I groan, scrambling into the first dress my hands touch—my blue maxi apparently. “Why did you have to go back into that water? I’m a mess.”
He laughs unrepentantly and helps me zip up despite the fact that he is still shirtless. “I recall no objections from you, Mrs. Plemmons. In fact, I’m certain I and the entire National Trust Land heard at least four Aiden-don’t-stop’s.” He kisses my cheekbone that’s blushing. “And you’re the opposite of a mess. You’ll devastate their brain cells for the next decade. I should know. I saw you in a painting once and now I need fMRIs.”
I shake my head at his absurd, Javier-filtered image of me.
Behind him, on my nightstand, the dried poppies tremble at the ponderous footsteps treading up to the cottage like a stampede. “STORM!” James thunders from what sounds like the willows, and it’s impossible not to think of Javier again. “DROP WHAT GOD GAVE YOU AND COME TO THE DOOR!”
“Hurry!” I whimper, throwing on my locket while Aiden continues to gaze at me in the same way that got me into that spring a second time. Another bass voice booms from the hedge.
“Are you sure he lives here, Cal? It smells too good to be his place.”
“Put on your shirt!” I hiss at Aiden. “Now!”
He laughs again but wisely obeys. Then he gives me a quick kiss— “Mrs. Plemmons, I adore you”—and swoops me in his arms, blowing down the stairs with me as James’s fist rattles the door, making all the frames dip. I raise my eyebrow at Aiden as he smirks and opens the door.
“Fuck, Cal, you’re breaking the cottage!” he growls, but they’re both laughing as they fist-bump each other. A familiar sense of wonder fills me as it does when I watch Aiden—so extraordinary, he’s feels magical to me—do normal things like this.
“Hey, pest!” James grins at me, or at least I think he does. He looks even wilder than when I last saw him. Only his hazel eyes are visible in the jungle of ginger hair that’s exploding out of him in every direction. His vast height is blocking Hendrix and Jazzman behind him.
“Hi, James, welcome back.” I hug his branch-like arm that saved me.
“Someone fucking with you?” Through the auburn tangles, his sniper eyes flash with danger.
“No, just your brother.”
He barks another laugh. “Oh, well, he can’t help it. It’s in his nature. Here, check this out.” He pulls out his iPhone and shows me his screensaver—it’s a photo of his massive hands holding a silver salmon the size of my leg. My dad’s fly is hooked inside its mouth. “Caught him on the first cast—made your pops proud, heh?”
“Yes, you did, James. Well done.” I smile at the fly, heart in hooks, wondering if dad didn’t send that salmon swimming up that stream once his fly was floating again.
“Cal, get the fuck out of the way, man! You’ve already met her.” The bass voice grumbles behind him while James ducks past me with another ringing laugh, revealing Hendrix—I recognize him from his photo in the reel. He is long and lean where James is bushy and hulking, with bristling chestnut hair and chocolate brown eyes. He locks hands vertically with Aiden in an alpha way and tilts his head toward me. “Is this the trouble?”
Aiden glows in the most embarrassing way possible. “Hendrix, this is Elisa. Elisa, this is Ryan Hendrix, but we haven’t used his first name since our Crucible when the drill sergeant unwisely started calling him Ry-cry.”
“Nice to meet you, Hendrix. Welcome to Burford.” I smile at him.
He regards me with amused deliberation. “How can something so small wreak so much havoc?” he demands of everyone.
“I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.” I sigh only half-joking, and they all laugh in understanding.
“Don’t worry, Trouble. If anyone fucks with you, he’ll breathe his last.” Hendrix winks at me, and I don’t think he’s joking. But they seem to find the idea of taking down my supposed intruder hilarious and satisfying. It sounds like James is cracking his knuckles in anticipation as Hendrix squashes himself past Aiden and me. But my eyes are rivetted on the threshold where I finally see Jazzman—the Marine I have most wanted to meet. The one whose life Aiden saved in his final act before being knocked unconscious and changed forever.
Aiden tried to prepare me for this. But, like the reel, no amount of preparation could have immunized me to the sight before me. Lankier than the others, Jazzman is two entirely different men in one. Half of him is handsome in a Paul Newman way. The other half, from his bare scalp to his left calf visible below his shorts is covered in livid burn scars, ash-grey and raised above his skin as though he has been woven out of a macabre fabric into a living flag for what these four men lived through. But his marred beauty is not why I can’t blink despite my preparation. It’s the way his eyes lock on Aiden before anyone else, and Aiden’s eyes on him. For a long, quiet moment, memories flow between them. I know from the agony on Aiden’s face and the reverence in Jazzman’s expression that they’re both remembering the same moment: when Jazzman was burning in that Fallujah schoolyard under gun fire and Aiden saved him with his last shot.
Behind me in the foyer, James and Hendrix are silent too. They must be used to this wordless exchange that inevitably occurs when Aiden and Jazzman first set eyes on each other after a long separation. I take my cue from them and remain quiet but lean closer to Aiden so my arm touches his. At our contact, he blinks and his lips lift in a smile.
“My brother.” Jazzman steps up to Aiden and hugs him. Just one arm barely touching Aiden’s shoulders, but they still tense. Yet, Aiden doesn’t step away as he would with others. He lets Jazzman hug him like he does with Stella. And that’s when I see the depth of their unique bond. Two brothers—disfigured from their former selves in such different ways—who are willing to relieve their most excruciating moment over and over again for their friendship.
Gently, I rest my hand at the small of Aiden’s back to help him, and his tension drains away. Jazzman must feel it too because he releases his savior and his eyes—one bright blue, the other glass—flit to me with a smile. “Aha! You are obviously Elisa with the calming effect. I’m Jazz.” He holds out his scarred hand. I take it, both careful and curious to feel his skin. Its texture is like starched lace and very warm, as though he’s been resting his hand on a space heater.
“I’m glad to finally meet you, Jazz.” And I am—not just him, but all of them who have saved Aiden as much as he saved them. Exactly as Stella said.
“I gotta say, I thought Storm dreamt you up at first.”
“So did Storm,” Aiden agrees, and they all laugh together. When Jazz laughs, the terrifying scars seem to fade even if they pull the right corner of his mouth down into a vicious grimace.
“Can you calm other people too? Is it like a superpower?” Jazz holds out his hand again, fluttering his fingers in invitation.
“I don’t think so.” I laugh, meeting his fingertips. “But I can definitely put you to sleep with chemistry lectures if you want. Or rose tea.”
Aiden chuckles, swooping my hand in his. “Stop trying to touch my woman, Jazz. Get your own.”
“Right you are, brother. You found one, how hard can it be?” Jazz’s laughter reverberates through the foyer that’s about to collapse. He squeezes around Aiden and me, ruffling my hair in his passage, and follows Cal and Hendrix into the living room to give Aiden space.
As soon as their trainers vanish around the corner, Aiden’s hands close around my waist, pulling me to him. “Thank you,” he whispers even though his words would never carry through the boisterous baritones echoing from the living room.
“For calming me so quickly. It made it easier for both Jazz and me.”
“He seems very kind, Aiden. I love seeing you all together.”
He chuckles. “Why don’t you wait to decide until we’ve been up until midnight, drinking? You might change your mind after that.”
“I really doubt it.” I stroke the scar above his eye. Its toughened ridge presses against my fingertip, cool and smooth, so different from Jazz. Abruptly, my mind starts bartering with the universe again, like it does during the reel. What if it had been Aiden stuck in the fire and Jazz tortured in the classroom with Marshall instead? Would I rather that Aiden had livid scars on his skin? Or as he is now with the scars within, marring the peace of his mind?
“What are you thinking so hard about?” he murmurs.
“How glad I am that you made it. That you’re here.” I run my fingers down his flawless cheek.
I can see from his eyes that he knows what I mean. Not just here in my cottage, but here-here—a star on earth. “Me too,” he smiles.
Me too. Such big little words for him. Two months ago, Aiden would have never thought them. Two months ago, he wanted Marshall’s place, not this. I find an odd peace with the universe then—an acceptance I haven’t felt since before the reel, since Aiden told me about Marshall at the Portland Rose Garden. Because it doesn’t matter to me where his scars are. I’ll always want him exactly as he is. What matters is that he finally wants to live.
“Elisa, is Storm’s dick blocking your way?” James bellows from the living room right as Aiden lowers his head to kiss me, and I burst out laughing. “Stomp your foot if you need help.”
“You’re still never getting anywhere near my dick, Cal. No matter how much you want it,” Aiden calls back, kissing the corner of my mouth. “Come. With some luck, my dick will be blocking other things tonight and we can keep the window open.”
I follow him to the kitchen, flushing while he takes out dad’s whiskey glasses and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me. He knows scotch is like chess: too painful to sip.
The living room furniture is in danger again. James takes over half the sofa. Hendrix is hunched in one armchair, his knees almost to his chin. And Jazz—while the smallest star in their stellar quadrant—is still overflowing in the other. They have already opened a bottle of Glenlivet from Speyside and fill the glasses as Aiden takes the other half of the sofa, propping me exactly where I want to be: on his lap. I lean into his iron chest that feels more comfortable than a feather mattress to me, ready to enjoy the waterfall laughter that will spring once James starts to speak, but James chooses to destroy every tingle of warmth I’ve felt since Aidonis.
“So what’s happening with the perv? Any sign of him?”
Aiden’s fingers press gently on my hip—don’t scratch Cal, he’s saying—but he shakes his head quicky for my benefit. “No change from my first recon.”
“Sneaky fucker.” Hendrix sneers, his dark expression positively alarming. Like Benson and Max, they seem to accept Aiden’s theory without question. And why shouldn’t they? They have relied on his mind for decades in everything, whether to guide them through the fire maze of Fallujah and save their lives or to build an empire so vast that none of them ever has to work again if they choose. Who would question such a mind? But they don’t know about the reel. Doctor Helen, Corbin, and I are the ones who know and the only ones who remain unconvinced.
“So what’s the battle plan for tomorrow?” Jazz looks at Aiden for direction, but Aiden’s fingers draw soothing circles at the small of my back.
“Well, the festival was very special to Elisa’s mother and to her,” he answers. “So rule number one is non-interference. I’ll walk you through the strategy later.”
All of them nod once in unison with identical serious expressions as though they are receiving military orders. And tension wrings my insides. What strategy? What will they do to mum’s happy day? I open my mouth to ask, but Aiden turns to me, sensing my alarm. “Don’t worry, this just means we won’t intervene unless you’re in danger. Otherwise, we’ll simply watch and you won’t even know where we are, except Max and Ferrars who will stay closer but receive the same orders. That way you can enjoy the festival as if this didn’t exist. Or as close to that as possible under the circumstances.”
I nod as I finally realize why he is keeping the details from me. But how can I enjoy it without him? I force as big a smile as I can manage to stifle the question. Because no matter how much the wound will burn, fester, and throb at his absence, I know it will pale to his agony that he cannot be there next to me. And I’d rather give up some of our remaining days than cause him more pain.
He doesn’t buy my enthusiasm. “I won’t be far,” he comforts me, his voice controlled but I know it too well to miss his anguish underneath.
“Maybe if I know where you are, I can sneak away for a bit.” I try to cheer him up, keeping my smile on my face, but it no longer feels forced at the idea.
Something twinkles in his eyes but before I can ask, James rumbles. “I hope the fucker is dumb enough to show tomorrow.”
“Of course he will.” Hendrix is supremely confident. “Open, crowded space where no one can notice him lurk. He won’t be able to resist.”
“I agree. He has no way of knowing we’ll be waiting for him . . .” Jazz drifts off with a lethal smile that makes me shiver. As if missing Aiden tomorrow is not enough. As if his mental strain doesn’t already terrify me as much as the reel does. Now the festival is a military operation too, instead of the precious tradition that brought mum perennial joy.
And even though I barely know James, Hendrix, and Jazz, even though I already tried today with Aiden, abruptly I want to run through all my arguments again. One by one, right here, right now so that the festival can be how it was when mum loved it, so that Aiden can rest and we can get back to our reel of brilliancy for the time we have left.
But I can see from their faces—James’s determined eyes, Hendrix’s set jaw, Jazz’s grimaced smile, and Aiden’s steely arm around me—that no matter what I say will make a difference. Tomorrow, while roses bloom on the cobblestoned lanes of my childhood, seven lethal beings will find only danger. Make the festival happy for mum, please. Give Aiden peace. Bring us back to us.©2021 Ani Keating