NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 27: T-I-M-E

Hey friends and happy last hours of the weekend! I hope it was a good and restful one for you. In case you’re looking for a good, cozy way to finish it off before Monday arrives, here is Chapter 27. We’re getting closer to the end now.  Oh, if you need a song recommendation for this, I had Wicked Games playing in my head. You’ll see why. Hope you’re enjoying the chapters and thank you to all of you who comment and write to me with your thoughts.  I love and read each of them. Talk soon, xo, Ani

27

T-i-m-e

I don’t stop running until I’ve cleared the last weaver cottages, looking over my shoulder like a fugitive in my own village. But because I’ve never been much of an athlete, my legs and lungs give out in ten minutes and I sprawl on the grass in the middle of a grazing field, gasping, spluttering, and clutching stitches at my sides. The evening breeze whips my sweaty face. I gulp it down, staring at the evening lights twinkling from windows in the distance.

How much does Aiden know by now? That I went to Javier’s room for the night, absolutely. Max probably texted him before I finished bolting the door. That I ran away? I don’t think he has made that leap yet or I wouldn’t be panting here alone. He is probably still packing up the stand, making sure there isn’t a single scratch on it. But how long will it take him to figure it out after that? I don’t know. If he decides to give me space, I have a few hours, maybe the whole night. If he checks on me, I have one millisecond.

I scramble to my feet, still huffing and shaking. But my sandals aren’t made for escaping. Their straps are already cutting into my ankles and toes, so I set across the field for the shortcut along the riverbank and its velvet moss. The night is falling fast now, settling over everything in shades of plum, ink, and silver. Not that I can see the colors. My vision is locked in the reddish filter of rage. For a while, the mishmash of emotion is so frantic, I can’t even understand it, let alone control it. There’s the acid of anger, the cleaver of pain, the hammer of fear, the bite of guilt, the blister of grief, each crushing, slicing, and eroding whatever part of me they can reach. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong about that. Because I’m still pulsing with them as I tread away from the river and round the foot of the familiar hill. Instinctively, as I’ve done every few minutes, I look around into the burgundy night. Burford’s lights are twinkling far in the distance, but I’m utterly alone. Not a single psychopath, stalker, or enraged Marine is following me. The trail to the top is hard in my sandals. They slow me down when I want to run up to the peak, but that’s good. Because I’m not just visiting my parents this time. I’m also climbing for me. Coming to the only place that’s still mine, free of surveillance and the terror of the reel. How did a place of incomprehensible grief become a place of hope and now of solace? Is this what they mean by healing?

The tiny meadow is bright with moonlight. Not a single shadow on it except the cypress tree. The American Beauty sapling I planted with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier is growing a new bud. The tokens we brought them last time are still by the epitaph along with the vial of Aiden’s dog tags, exactly as we left them. They haven’t moved an inch, nothing is missing. I run my hand over the engraved names—the marble is as cold as my fingertips.

“Here you go, Mum,” I whisper, but the words flow with ease, more naturally than any of the other three times I’ve visited here. I set down the Rose Cup by her side. The silver stem does not sparkle as it does in the sun but it throws a slender shadow over the marble like a delicate, feminine arm. “They all remember you still. And love you so much . . . except Willoughby of course. He’s absolutely livid he lost again.” I smile, registering with some surprise that I’m able to do so here without Aiden next to me. But it’s definitely a smile, turning up my lips even if it disappears at the thought of him. “It was quite a day,” I sigh, taking the Elisa rose he tucked by my ear and setting it down under her name. It has wilted by now. Make this your day as well, he said. I scoff with irony. How can it be my day, my life when he’s not letting us live it? When every minute of every hour of every day, we are locked in a war inside the mind that’s bombing every aspect of our life?

I rest my palms on the marble. Are they still pink? I can’t tell—I’m still seeing red. But as I sit here finally alone, breathing in the cypress air, the snarl of emotion starts to soften and rearrange. Sorrow fades away, grief changes from a blister to an old bruise. And anger shifts far down, making room for pain, fear, and guilt at the very top. I can think through them all, I can add love, I can see the night free and clear. The pure white tomb glowing with a diffuse light. The veins of the marble forming figures like clouds . . . an eye, a heart, a river, a fork in the road. And emotions start to become thoughts and then crystallize into questions: what do I do now? How do I save Aiden from the reel when it’s stealing him from me no matter how grounded I try to keep him in the present moment? How do we win when every weapon seems useless against it and I’m still nowhere finished with the protein? How do we make happy memories when we barely have a moment alone? How do I salvage some stardust if we don’t survive?

He comes out of nowhere. One second, it’s just me by the grave and another he blasts to the crest like a shooting star.

“Elisa?” He thunders, drowning out my startled cry. He freezes when he spots me, a perfect silhouette against the moonlight, holding something in his hand. I think I hear a gusty sigh of relief in the hilltop wind. A moment passes while we gaze at each other—or at least while I stare at the shape of him. Is it vibrating with tension even from here? Then he glides noiselessly across the meadow like a dream. An old fear flickers once and I pinch the inside of my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake, it’s the real him. As he comes close, I finally see the thing he is holding. My pashmina. He hands it to me without throwing it over my shoulders as he usually would. My throat tightens. But it’s better this way, so I can process.

“Thank you,” I whisper, wrapping myself in the soft cashmere. I didn’t realize I was shivering until now.

He nods once and sits next to me in silence, eyes on the epitaph. Automatically, my body softens at his proximity, despite the anger still lurking underneath. I run through the periodic table twice but he still doesn’t speak, either too angry or relieved to say anything.

“So, you found me,” I finally start.

He looks at me then. His eyes are molten silver. “Does that upset you?” His voice is dark and low like the night.

Of course he would wonder given my escape. A few moments ago, I was wondering myself. I shake my head. “I knew you would. The only question was how long it would take you.”

“Too long it seems.”

I have no idea what time it is—I can’t trust my sense of chronology with him—but it feels like I’ve only been here about ten minutes. “No harm done. I was perfectly safe.”

His eyes close, and he pinches his nose. A subtle shudder seems to ripple over him. “Were you?” His question is so quiet, I’m not sure he meant it for me.

I answer it anyway because it’s at the heart of everything. “Of course I was. If anyone wanted to harm me, they could have by now. I was walking alone in the dark with the Rose Cup as my only weapon. I really wish you would drop this now.”

His eyes fling open, and he shudders again. He stares at the grave, his breathing harsher, his jaw flexing furiously, throwing dark shadows in the starlight. He doesn’t answer, and I can’t think of a single thing to say without a fight. I trace the veins in the marble with my finger. A period, a comma, a question mark . . .

“Do you still believe that?” he asks after a while. My eyes fly up at his face, but he is gazing at the epitaph still.

“Believe what?”

Amor vincit omnia—love conquers all.”

I think about that. When I first chose it for my parents, I thought there wasn’t a truer truth. When I returned here a month ago, I thought it was the most beautiful lie. And now . . . “We have to,” I answer honestly, my voice catching. “I’m starting to think it’s a choice.”

His eyes meet mine then, ardent even in the night. “And what do you choose?”

I try to think with his eyes on me, with him being so close, yet so far, but at least this answer doesn’t require a lot of mental power. “I choose to win with you.”

The shadow of his tense jaw lightens. I think I hear another sigh in the breeze. “Me too.”

“But I don’t know how, Aiden. Not when we’re fighting against each other again, like we used to in Portland. We’re not staying in the present moment, united against the reel. We’re divided: you living in fear for me, me running away at night, making your fears even worse . . .”

He looks at his dog tags now, the flawless panes of his face dark blades again. His hands interlock around his knees in a double fist. The knuckles glow a perfect white.

“I don’t blame you for being angry with me,” I add because it’s true. “I’m sorry I worried you.” And I am now that I’ve calmed down. I added to his stress instead of ease it as I’m trying to do.

He inhales sharply, and his eyes flash to me. “Angry with you?” The light flows over his face with his intense expression. “How could I be angry with you when I gave you no choice? When I took away every place of comfort you’re trying to rebuild? When I suffocated you to the point where you felt you had to run out at night and risk your—” He stops abruptly, closing his eyes and drawing another shuddering breath. His knuckles glint. “No, I’m not angry with you.” He shakes his head after a moment. “I’m infuriated with me.”

It’s as though his mind permeated mine as I was running and read all my thoughts. Yet the more fury he fires at himself now, the less anger I feel. There isn’t a single trace of it left in me. The only thing twisting my insides is hurt for him.

He is gazing at the epitaph again. Of its own volition, my body moves closer until our arms touch. I expect his fragrant warmth, but he has become a sculpture of ice. His breath catches though, and his eyes burn on mine.

“I know why you’re doing it,” I say, brushing my fingers over his diamond knuckles. They soften as does the point of contact between our arms. “You’re just trying to keep me safe with everything you have. It’s your way.”

“Yes, my way, and I’m making you miserable in the process. I cling with arrogant obstinacy to my idea of what will keep you safe, and all I do is break your heart over and over again.”

“Aiden, no—”

“Don’t.” One word, sharp and jagged like a knife against the self, yet his hand wraps gently around mine. Instantly, an old tension I didn’t know I was feeling blows away. He twists up my palm, perhaps searching it for pinkness but it’s bleached white from the moon like everything else. “The point is, I don’t trust myself with you anymore. So we’ll do it your way, Elisa. Starting right now.” His silver eyes blaze even in the darkness, while my mind goes blank.

“My way? What do you mean?”

“I’ll let security go. Max, Ferrars, the overnight guard—gone. Tonight. You’ll never have to see any of them again. Except Benson of course, but you don’t have a problem with him. And we’ll start again. The sooner, the better. This minute, in fact.”

Bloody hell! I stare at him in stunned disbelief. Am I hearing this right? Did he really say it? My heart is crashing against my ribs like Ferrars and Felix into the rose stand. “Does this mean you finally agree there’s no danger?” I blurt out, trying to make sense of the chaos. “That you’ll finally relax about this?”

His eyebrows rise with similar incredulity. “Of course not. I still think someone is curious or worse about you, but what options do I have left? I will not force you into more risky behavior like this. I will not continue to rob you of the new life we had just started. And I’m not willing to let this drive a wedge between us like it has been. So that leaves me with your option: I will protect you myself.”

My head is still spinning. “But why do you still think—”

He presses his finger to my lips. They tremble at his touch. “I will not have this argument with you, not now, not ever again. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, because we’re doing this your way, not mine. Mine is usually wrong.”

He takes his finger away, which is good because my mind is still scrambled. This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Want it so much, I pinch myself to make sure I haven’t fallen asleep on the grave like the first time he visited this hilltop in my dreams. I’m fully awake. So why am I not relieved?

“But won’t you be worried about me still?” I argue anyway.

He shrugs as though this is the least of his problems. “Of course I will. That will never change, whether you have a security team of a hundred or none.”

“I know, but won’t it be worse if you remove security completely? You’ll be dreading that I’m going to get hurt all day instead of saving all your strength for the reel.”

A small smile lifts the corner of his mouth. “First, I sincerely doubt it can get much worse than it was tonight. If I lived through the five minutes, sixteen seconds of trying to find you, not to mention cutting through the festival crowd and the time you were supposedly in Javier’s room, I can probably live through death itself. Second, I’m not removing security completely; I will protect you myself, with Benson of course. And third, yes, I’d worry less about your safety, but more about your heart. So it’s all the same in the end.”

Except I don’t want him worrying in any way. Not under the kind of pressure he is. “Aiden.” I clutch his hand in both of mine. “Is there anything that will convince you I’m safe? Anything at all that will help you relax even a bit?”

The smile doesn’t leave his lips, but his answer sends shivers under my pashmina. “Time, love—the very thing we don’t have.”

No, we do not. Tick tock. Tick tock. But there must be some way that doesn’t involve bombarding the life we’re supposed to live or raiding his mind with stress so he cannot fight the reel. I search the meadow, the epitaph, the marble map for anything. He is the only one who answers. In one of his fast movements, his hand turns so it now covers both of mine.

“It actually might help if I’m protecting you personally, Elisa. Even with Max, I couldn’t rest when you were out of sight. I realized after today, I cannot trust anyone with you like I can myself.”

I cannot argue with that truth. Because I cannot trust anyone other than myself with his rest either. And this way, we’ll have more time together. I feel my own lips lift into a smile. “And I’ll protect you. I’ll make you the protein as soon as possible, you’ll see. And then you’ll never have to fear for me again.”

My favorite, lopsided smile flashes over his face, varnished in silver—so beautiful that my heart stutters at the sight. “Elisa, you already protect me from everything. From the moment I open my eyes with the reel until I close them to your song. It would be impossible to find any man more protected and loved than me.”

At least the reel hasn’t stolen this knowledge from him. At least l-o-v-e is still standing strong against it, his mind is still holding onto that truth like a shield. “Not one,” I agree.

His arms fold around me at last, like protective wings. I haven’t felt them since our doomed lunch, but of course it feels like a century to me. I worm myself into their circle, breathing him in. The air flows easily through my lungs—like sleep, like Für Elise. He is not icy stone anymore, just warm and fragrant steel. He sighs, and his lips press in my hair.

“Is it really going to be just us again?” I verify, still afraid that we will lose more moments alone in our remaining days.

“We already are, love.”

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“You compare a tiny rose to an entire jungle.”

The miniature roses around the epitaph gleam the purest white. Love conquers all. It must. The locket on my chest is pressed between his heart and mine. Help me solve the protein, help us win.

His opalescent arms pull me closer, tucking my head under his chin. He kisses my hair again, holding his lips there, inhaling deeply.

“What are you thinking?” I ask, tracing the vein on his warm neck.

“It might bring back the ire if I told you.”

“No, don’t worry. The wrath is long gone. I lost it with the pashmina.”

“In that case . . .” He breathes me in again. “Thank God you’re safe and thank God for pashminas.”

We chuckle together—his laugh beautiful and argent like the night, mine quiet but effortless for the first time on this hilltop. At the sound, a sense of lightness falls over me like the uninterrupted glow of the moon over the meadow. Something I never could have imagined feeling here. I curl into him totally content, marveling at how time—my Fallujah, my reel, my startle, my mortal enemy—can also be my ally. Because four years ago, this hilltop pulverized me into granules and spewed me across continents like ashes in the wind. Then a month ago, it gave me a purpose, then h-o-p-e. And now another beginning. T-i-m-e. Has it joined our ranks or is it a foe still?

“Do you want to stay here a little longer or go back to the cottage?” Aiden asks after a while. “Just us,” he emphasizes, hearing my unspoken question or perhaps remembering it from this morning. “We can celebrate your win with the others tomorrow on our picnic.”

I smile. “That’s exactly what I want.”

He kisses the top of my head once more and stands, lifting me along and balancing me carefully in case I topple and roll down the hill. But he frowns immediately at my sandaled feet. “Did they give you blisters coming up here?”

“Umm, maybe a very small one. Blister adjacent, I think. Please don’t punish my sandals. I really like them.”

He doesn’t breathe fire on them, but he does glare, not looking the least bit convinced. He picks up the Rose Cup, hands it to me, and swoops me in his arms. “Come on, let’s get those adjacent blisters on some petals. Mrs. Plemmons thinks they fix everything.”

“Aiden, no way!” I protest, trying and failing to wiggle out of his unbreakable hold. “You won’t carry me all the way down the hill. It’s too far.”

“Hah!” He laughs, tucking my scarf around me. “You wanted me to protect you myself instead of the security team. Well, this is the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“The deal is carrying me places?”

He’s already in motion, leaving the moonlit meadow behind. “Carrying you, driving you where you need to be, sitting across from Bia while you’re working, not letting you out of my sight until I fix this, and anything else required to keep all ten of these blistered toes safe.”

He is dragon-serious. There isn’t a single speck of humor on his tone despite the laughter. Except it sounds like heaven to me. I tangle my arms around his neck, kissing his scar. “I’ll take it. You can be my bodyguard anytime.”

He laughs again. “I’ll remind you of that when you’re calling Max and Ferrars in a week, begging them to come back.”

“In your dreams.”

“No, I have a lot better things saved for those.” His arms tighten around me like pearlescent fetters.

I watch his silver profile as he strolls effortlessly down the meandering trail, remembering precisely where a shrub is or a rock. It’s been so long since he has carried me in the moonlight like this. Not true of course. It’s only been a week, but it feels like a different life to me. A life we are starting again.

“So how did you figure out I had escaped?”

A shadow falls over his face as he passes by another cypress tree. “It wasn’t exactly CIA’s Kryptos to decode. Max texted me that you were staying in Javier’s room and that he’d guard you until I was done. Not that I was shocked; obviously you didn’t want anything to do with me. But I thought I’d give you space while I finished up with the stand and then come grovel on my knees. Well, as you can imagine, I barely lasted thirty-four minutes with that noble intention—just enough to dismantle the stand and secure it in Benson’s van. Once I went back to the Inn and knocked on Javier’s door and you didn’t answer, I knew where you had gone. Alone—in the dark—what if—” He chokes off in terror. From his shudder, I shake in his arms.

“Shh, I was all right. I’d never put myself in any real harm.” I stroke his scar, trying to think. He remains convinced I’m in danger. How can I help him with this?

His jaw is throwing starlit shadows with tension. I run my lips over it, back and forth, back and forth until it shimmers silver again. Except I can’t stop. I haven’t kissed him since this morning, and that’s a millennia ago. Besides, how can any mortal mouth be this close to such a face and not touch it?

He smiles. “You need to stop that if you don’t want me to trip.”

“You don’t trip. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you touch me.”

I hold properly still to make this easy for him. It’s hard with all the tingles lighting up on my skin like fireflies—sensations I never thought I’d feel anywhere near this hill. But they’re there, blinking warmer and warmer. Already I can’t breathe right as though I’m the one trekking down the trail.

He is quiet for the rest of the hike, his breath coming out fast and fragrant. Yet his unconscious grace never wavers. And for once I think of Byron, not Shakespeare. He walks in beauty like the night. Aiden says that poem is mine, but as he descends in and out of moonlight and nightshade, now silver, now dark, I’m convinced it was written for him. I should write it on his Timberlands. Would he laugh if he woke up tomorrow to see it Sharpied on their soles?

He clears the hill with me in his arms faster than me climbing with the Rose Cup. The night is thick down here. I half-expect him to insist on carrying me all way back to the cottage, but out of the darkness morphs the black shape of the Rover. I don’t know why it surprises me. How else would he have gotten to me in exactly five minutes and sixteen seconds? He must have raced faster than a nitroglycerin combustion.

He scans the area immediately, and I search with him, rigid with contradiction: body fusing itself to him, mind racing to Bia. We already didn’t have hours to waste, now we don’t even have seconds. But he isn’t tense right now; he is relaxed, whether from the quiet night, my calming effect, or the fact that I’m safe in his arms, I don’t know. He sets me down by the Rover’s door and takes my face in his hands.

“Now about that kiss,” he says and his mouth captures mine. His lips are soft and warm, but his kiss is urgent and deep. I give him back everything I have, parched for his taste. A low moan rises in his throat. He presses me against the Rover’s door, his heated body forged to every line of mine, his fingers gilded in my hair. To my suddenly feverish skin, he feels like a flame. I shiver paradoxically between him and the door. A different mishmash of emotion whirls in me now at the bottom of this hill: the burn of desire, the vise of love, the ocean of longing, the breeze of relief, each healing and rebuilding every part of me.

Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I can’t imagine this all-consuming love to ever end for me, even if I’m ash. I’m still incandescent with it as Aiden’s mouth slows, his tongue tracing my lips with a final sigh.

“Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush mine once more, and he pulls back, his breathing rougher than when he was trekking down the hill while I dangle in his arms, dizzy and gasping. “Come, let’s go home.”

H-o-m-e.  It’s one of the rare times he calls the cottage home. He may not realize it, but I certainly do. I’m counting each one.

He opens the Rover door and stuffs me in the front seat, checking my palms as soon as the cabin light turns on. The pink is fading, only a faint blush now the color of the Clares.

“They still don’t hurt,” I assure him quickly.

“If they’re not back to their perfect condition by tomorrow, we’re going to the doctor, and I don’t want any argument about it.” He gives me a stern gaze.

“I accept,” I answer without hesitation. I’d probably agree to a lot worse if he really would rest.

“Now, let me look at these.” He slips off my sandals carefully, hissing when he sees the two blisters on each big toe, one on each pinky, and another one on each ankle. “As I thought. Blister adjacent indeed. I’m banning that word, Elisa. Right now.”

“Yes, General.”

He glowers as he reaches in the glove box for our first aid kit because of course our cars are equipped with such measures. I think defibrillators and MRI machines are the only medical equipment we’re missing. He disinfects each blister with an ethanol wipe, blowing on it and muttering a string of profanities. Then he wraps a bandage loosely around them, blowing again to make sure air flows through. “You’re not wearing these for at least two weeks!” He orders and hurls my sandals in the back seat.

“Do you have something I can blow on?”

He glares in response, but his lips twitch with a restrained grin. “If you behave.”

The drive to the cottage takes only ten minutes at normal speed. Aiden steers with one hand, twining his other fingers with mine. The rose soundtrack is still on from our Aidonis trip, this time playing Love is a Rose by Linda Rondstadt.

“Do Max and the others know I escaped?” I ask, starting an apology in my head.

He chuckles. “I think it became quite obvious when they saw me bolt out of the Inn like a madman. They’re apoplectic as to how you pulled it off. Incidentally, how did you manage it? Did you take the back stairs?”

I hang my head, feeling guilty. “Yes, that’s why I went to Javier’s room and not Reagan’s. It’s closer to that door.”

In the blue light from the dashboard, his smile seems impressed. “And this is exactly why I need to protect you myself.”

“I didn’t get Max in trouble, did I? He did everything right—even checked the balcony.”

“Of course not. He’s excellent, I’m just impossible when it comes to you. But don’t tell me you’re already missing him?”

“Not in that way. But I do like him, he’s very kind.”

“Well, don’t worry. I’ll bring him back again with Cal and the others. Maybe in September.”

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Everything is quiet when we park in the garage, although it doesn’t stop Aiden’s peremptory examination. But it’s only a blink. He is at my door as I’m unclicking my safety belt.

“Are you tired?” he asks, taking the Rose Cup from me and draping the pashmina back over my shoulders.

Tired? I haven’t felt more awake all week. “Not even a little bit. Besides, I think you promised me a celebration this morning.”

He laughs, sweeping me off the seat straight into his arms, lest I attempt walking the four-minute distance across a velvet of wildflowers on bare feet. “Did I? I must have forgotten.”

“You don’t forget. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you run from me.”

Elysium is brimming with moonlight as he carries me across it. The daisies are brilliant white with the rest of the wildflowers in grey patches like clouds. A heart, a fingerprint, the inkblot of the reel. Aiden tenses as always when we pass by it.

“Will you be okay doing the reel without security?” I kiss along his jaw again until it softens.

“That’s the wrong question, love. The correct question is will you be okay while I’m locked inside the reel. And I’m not going to wait around to find out. We’re moving the reel to daytime” There is no room for opposition in his voice. But I have none. Now that it’s just us again, I will do everything to calm him.

“That makes sense. And I’ll carry my phone on me in case we need Benson. And install a tracking app, too.”

His eyebrows arch in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were capable of being reasonable about your safety, Elisa.”

“It’s all part of the deal, Aiden. I’ll be reasonable if I have you all to myself. Take it or leave it.”

His arms grip me closer. “I’ll take it all, and I might never give it back.” Abruptly his eyes smolder even in the dark, vaporizing my very bones.

The cottage glows snowy white by the river—no guard shadows on its walls. Only the climbing roses and the black shuttered windows. All the roses are asleep lacquered in silver, dreaming rosy things. There isn’t a single sound in the silent night except our breath and the willows’ murmur. They’re here, they’re here. A tiny, peaceful bubble just for us.

I sigh from its beauty, from the longing I’ve felt for it to be ours alone again.

Aiden pauses at the rose hedge, perhaps letting me enjoy the moment, perhaps searching our very own snow globe for safety. I give him his minute too. It could last forever, I wish it would. Because here, cradled in his arms, happiness shifts again for the first time in a week. It now looks like our entwined shadows on the stony path, breathing in the smell of home.

“Welcome back, love,” he whispers, carrying me to the door. I don’t ask if anything looks different or if Jazz saw anyone suspicious today. I know there is nothing to see. And Aiden’s warm, relaxed stride spells the answer in twinkly, star-stitched letters. We are alone. At last.

But he still doesn’t let me cross the threshold first. As soon as we step inside the foyer and he switches on the light, his eyes sweep it corner to corner, his arms flexing around me like shields. Then in another moment, they relax again, but he doesn’t set me down. He rests my Rose Cup on the console and roams the entire ground floor, checking everything. It is his habit now to scan the cottage, roof to studs, before he leaves and scour it again the instant he returns, exactly as he does with me.  Half of my heart clenches at the sight because he has fallen in love with these little walls so forcefully and completely. But the other half shatters because I cannot begin to fathom the terror behind this new routine. I search my head as frantically as he does the cottage for anything that might help him.

“Everything seems as I left it,” he informs me, finally setting me down at the foot of the stairs with a relieved sigh. I can see his entire face in the light now. I haven’t seen it since ten centuries ago under the elm tree when I was accepting the Rose Cup. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful to me, even if veiled with worry. Abruptly an idea flickers in my head. Perhaps sometimes all you need to do is turn on the lights.

“Aiden, what if we hid a camera in the chandelier so you can see if anyone is coming in, would that help? That way you won’t have to search the cottage every time, love.”

His eyes pop wide with unexpected amazement—he looks like I just offered him a vacation from the reel. “You would do that?” he whispers.

“I would. And if no one shows up, then we will know once and for all.”

He watches me carefully, eyes narrowing at the corners. “Why would you do this when you’re so certain there is no threat?”

I wrap my arms around his neck where their shape is probably branded into his skin. “For the same reasons you gave up security for me. Because this is your home too. I want you to feel safe and rested here, no matter what I think. Just because I don’t want to surrender it to others, doesn’t mean I don’t want to share it with you. Every single stone of it.”

His eyes don’t leave mine, but they change—no longer surprised or cautious; they beam with a joy that takes my breath away. Stuns me, heartbeat to blink. “Thank you,” he says with feeling. Then his mouth finds mine and he swoops me upstairs with blinding speed.

Our bedroom door is closed, but he must be expecting it because that surreal beauty falls over him. He sets me on my feet, a smile playing over his lips.

“After you,” he says and opens the door.

“Are you sure I remember how to walk?” I laugh and pretend to wobble inside. And then I rock into such a sudden stop that I fall back into his arms.

“Apparently not,” he chuckles, but my lack of balance has nothing to do with my legs. It has everything to do with my sight. Because our happy bedroom has transformed into my very own rose stand right in front of my incredulous eyes.

Elisa petals carpet the wooden floor. More Elisas are on the nightstands with the dried poppies, our double-frames, and the photo of Aiden’s brain. Above the bed hangs a white runner with black lettering like the rose stand sign, except this one says:

Elisa’s Rose Gallery

And on the walls are photos of me from each rose festival, beginning with my first and ending with the nineteenth from this morning—an image of me sitting at the welcome table that Aiden must have captured from a distance. An unmissable celebration of me, not anyone else.

“Aiden!” I whirl around in his arms. He is all golden now, his face suffused with the bliss he associates with this room. “So you did remember.” Of course he did. Of course he made time for this even while running around, protecting me.

He smiles. “Congratulations on your win, my love.”

Mine. Exactly as he wanted this morning. But I think about the other prize I won today: bringing us back to us again. “Don’t you mean my wins?” I pluralize.

He chuckles. “I stand corrected: your wins.” His fingers weave through my braid releasing the wilted Clares, a serious but tender expression falling over his face. “Your roses.” He kisses the spot below my ear, inhaling deeply. “Your day.” His lips flutter to the corner of my mouth. “And now your night.”

So many mine’s. Except my heart, that’s irrevocably his. And my body, it’s already lost. Everywhere he touches, I feel a flash burn on my skin. I trail my fingers over his cheek. “And my Aiden.” I caress his lips. “My kisses.” I press my hand over his heart. “My love.”

He smiles. “You won all those a long time ago.”

“Yes, but they’re the still my best wins.” I wrap my arms around his waist, refusing to allow any space between us. Because he is my Rose Cup, my Nobel Prize, my Oscar, my everything. I don’t want any other victory if in the end, I don’t triumph with him. “Thank you. I love my celebration.”

He tips up my face, surprise obvious in the turquoise depths. “Do you really?”

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because you’re so selfless. Usually I know immediately when you’ll love something, but I wasn’t certain this time.”

I scoff. “I’m actually not that selfless, Aiden. In fact, I’m very selfish when it comes to you. And the roses. And the cottage. And Elysium. And now Aidonis. And chemistry. And Baci. And clotted cream . . . loads more. I’m selfish about everything I love.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter before I have finished as though me being selfish is a happiness protein. But isn’t it the same for me? The more he loves himself, the happier I feel. “Ah, Elisa. You and your eight selfish things that aren’t even selfish. But I’m glad I made the list.”

“You’re at the very top.”

His eyes change swiftly again, in that way that leaves me a stunned step behind. From amused, they become liquid and warm, and then thoughtful as they burn into mine. His hands travel up my arms to my cheeks, leaving fiery trails in their wake. “Will you let me try to add something else to the list?” The warmth is in his voice too, but with a rare note of plea underneath.

Immediately, I’m curious—more about that tone than anything else. “What would you like to add?”

“A reminder.”

“A reminder about what?”

“You’ll see. Will you please consider it?” he coaxes again.

As if I could say no to that voice and those eyes. “Yes, but on one condition,” I bargain anyway.

What condition?” he asks confidently.

“Well, you accuse me of being selfless, but you obviously suffer from the same affliction. So, my selfish list is open to additions only if we add something to your selfish list as well.”

He laughs again. “Elisa, I’m so selfish with you, I’ve cashed it all in for the entire mankind, but fine, I agree because this should hit both our lists.”

“Oh!” I grin at the chance of being able to give him something he wants. He never asks for anything for himself. “All right then, let me hear this reminder.”

“Thank you,” he says as he did downstairs, except now I hear a strong emotion in his voice. He lowers me at the foot of the bed, his fingertips setting fires on my arms. “Wait here.”

I nod, breathless with his intensity and the curiosity now raging in my brain. For some reason, I expect him to leave the room, but he walks to the window and opens it wide, flashing a smile. “We can’t leave the roses out of your celebration. They’ll be offended.”

The rose breeze blows freely into the room, cooling my feverish cheeks. “Mortally. And they’re already insulted from this last week. You’ll have to grovel and kiss all their petals.”

“Just kiss? I had rather started to think they were partial to other activities.” He winks as he ducks into our small closet while I check my skin for fire. No, nothing is smoking. He re-emerges with a box about the size of a briefcase, wrapped in parchment, and sits on the bed next to me, setting the box between us. His hands reach over it and close around my wrists.

“Just a reminder of something you love,” he repeats gently. “Nothing more.”

My heart starts thumping unevenly from his voice, his touch, his words. Why do I need reassurance for this box? “Aiden, what’s in there?”

He inches the box closer to me. There is no audible movement within.  “Let me unwrap it. I don’t think we need papercuts in addition to irritated palms and blisters today.”

I nod, transfixed as he tears the parchment with a fluid motion, revealing a wooden box. It’s the color of melted butterscotch, polished to a gleam, with a distinctive grain that curls and twists into a mystery map of its own. Instead of a latch, it has a keyhole, carved like an open rose. A faint woodsy aroma wafts from the box. I run my fingertips over the smooth surface, tracing the dense grain, finding figures. A star, a sun, a moon . . .

“It’s so lovely. What is it?”

“It’s called briar wood,” Aiden explains. “A very durable, nearly unbreakable, and heat-resistant wood.”

I look up at him in awe, but not so lost as to miss the way his skin is reflecting the golden glow of the box. “What is it protecting?”

His eyes become very tender. “A part of your heart.”

Oh! The heart in question starts thundering like my brain. In his hand is already a small bronze key, shaped like a rose stem. He slides it into the heart of the rose and the box unlocks with a quiet click. He looks at me through his long lashes. “Just try to remember, love.”

And then his long-fingered hands lift the lid.

Everything changes in a single blink. I hear my gasp, I feel my heart battering my ribs, the shiver on my skin, the blood drumming in my ears. I feel them all, but they are on the periphery. My entire focus is rivetted by the sight in front of me.

Because nestled inside the briar case is the most beautiful object I have ever seen. A carved wooden chessboard set with thirty-two chess pieces, gleaming in the muted light of our bedroom. The dark pieces are deep burgundy, marbled with veins of rich chocolate and crimson. The light ones are golden with a honeyed grain like lacework. The carving is so intricate, the pieces look almost alive, from the flowy manes of the Knights to shimmering crowns of the Queens. Here and there on the chess squares is etched a tiny rosette, like a secret code. An astonishing perfume floats from the board, almost tasteable in the air. Like Aiden, like Aeternum, I have never smelled anything quite like it. It’s a bouquet of rose, musk, woods, and something else entirely. And at the very edge of the board are my initials: ECS.

Supremely magnificent in every way. Fairytale in its beauty.  All mine. Yet my entire being splits in half: my heart and mind hug the chessboard with fervor; my body freezes into its own carved piece of wood, from my eyelids to my hands seizing into fists on my lap.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s soft voice breaks through the thud-thud-thud in my ears. I feel his strong, warm hand around my fists, but I can’t blink away from my initials on the board. He tips up my head until my vision fills only with him. Tenderness marbles his face with its own exquisite grain. He cups my cheek and blows gently across the board over my lips. “Breathe, love.” He draws a deep breath with me, and I realize he, too, wasn’t breathing until now. We inhale the indescribable perfume of the chess set together until I can form sound. Even if only breathy and staccato.

“Aiden, I . . . I don’t have the words.”

“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t ever have to play it. Remember what I said?”

I nod, realizing now exactly why I needed his reassurance. “This is just a reminder.”

“That’s right. Only a reminder of the game you used to love and that still has a piece of your heart.” He comes to kneel before me and tucks me into his chest, kissing my temple. “Like me, this is only yours and no one else’s.”

“Wow,” is all I can whisper. He is giving me this work of art only so it can be mine. Only so I can have the most beautiful reminder there is. I focus only on his lips and the way they brush along my cheek, as I try to remember the joy this game used to give me, the times I won, the thrill of strategy, sometimes higher than the win itself. I haven’t let myself visit these memories in so long. I didn’t think it was possible to recall them without pain, but apparently it is. Not that the pain is gone exactly, but there are other feelings stronger than it. I know it’s because of Aiden’s warm strength filtering to my very bones. And I start to thaw piece by piece. Except my fists. They remain resolutely clenched on my lap.

He feels my softening immediately, probably like I do for him. He pulls back only enough so he can see my face. I don’t know what he finds there, but he smiles. “Were you able to remember something happy?”

I nod, still stunned. “I was, because of you.” I try to pour all my gratitude into my voice; my vocal cords shake from it. “Thank you. For all of it. It’s so beautiful—no, it’s much more than that. . . ”  The chess set draws my eyes back. There is a feeling about it, like a whisper in the breeze or a breathy silence in a sacred place.

“Is it selfish worthy?”

“Oh, yes. It’s already above Baci and clotted cream. Maybe tied with chemistry . . .”

He laughs with a carefree sound. My eyes flit back to him. “As long as it doesn’t compete with me.”

“Impossible,” I whisper, unwilling to interfere with the music of his laughter.

“Do you want to know more about it?” he asks casually, no doubt trying to remove all pressure for me to answer a certain way. Except I’m curious about the thought he put into this most of all.

“Yes, please. Tell me everything.”

His eyes glint with the deep passion he feels for the game, and I realize this is the first time we will talk about chess in any meaningful, just-us kind of way.

He tightens his hold around my fists, and his other hand frames the board. “The aroma you smell is rosewood—a very rare, strictly regulated wood. You can’t buy it from ethical sources anymore so the only sustainable option is from Old World furniture. This particular one came from an antique piano dating back to Tchaikovsky’s days. It will smell like this for a very long time. But I thought it was a good representation of you: roses and woods and music. Beauty and strength and calm.”

I can’t even blink with the way his eyes deepen and glow when he says things like that. Like I’m his best win, too. “It’s perfect,” I whisper, stunned voiceless again.

“The rose motif you see on the squares repeats in a pattern. See if you can find it.” He grins at my wide eyes as I start scanning the board frantically by position number. While I search, a brain cell wonders whether he embedded so many secret details so I could look at this and find only l-o-v-e and never p-a-i-n, only w-i-n-s, never l-o-s-s. The yes in my brain clicks at the same time as the code.

“My birthday. Six times.”

“You’re quick. Can you guess why six?”

He stumps me here. I try to think of favorite dates, favorite chemical element, favorite number, but nothing fits. “Some help?”

“It’s for all the six opening notes of Für Elise.”

“Wow,” I marvel again at the depth—not a single detail without meaning, not a grain of wood left to chance.

“It was carved for you by an old Russian chess master, Asimov,” Aiden continues. “He rarely crafts anymore, but he liked the story for this.”

“What was the story?”

His piano fingers brush my white knuckles the way they flutter over the ivory. “The story of a beautiful, loving, bright woman who is trying to find her way across the chessboard again . . .” He trails off as if he just finished telling a fairytale.

And like a fairytale, it leaves both beauty and longing behind. I want to touch the gleaming pieces so much that desire becomes physical pain, almost as intense as the way I crave him. I try, I really try to move one single finger, but my fists are locked shut—the way my body used to be before Aiden awoke it. And the air starts to thicken with a sadness that shouldn’t belong here, but it slithers in like a tear at the corner of the eye. Because even though this piece of art was made exactly for me, it can never be truly mine. It will never complete its destiny. The young woman will never play again.

“Are you trying to feel it?” Aiden caresses my knuckles.

I look back at his face—worried now, the V chiseled like golden rosewood between his brows. I don’t want to say the words, but they spill out as always under his gaze, “I want to,” I admit, feeling carved in pieces. “I want to play with you. I want to touch it so much, but I can’t.”

He brings a fist to his lips. “Of course you can’t. But would you let it touch you?”

A whisper of warm goosebumps blows over my skin. “Touch me how?”

“Do you trust me?”

“I trust you with my life.”

He flashes me a wistful smile. “Quite literally in fact, but tell me, what was your favorite chess piece?”

“The Queen.”

His smile becomes true and dimpled. “Mine, too. In black?”

“How did you know?”

“Because it’s the harder win. And it’s something else we have in common.”

Such a small thing to say, yet sadness starts to waft away with the rose breeze. He picks up the dark burgundy Queen so fluidly that the moment they join, it looks as though it’s part of him, shining in his long fingers. As he brings it closer, a trace of rosewood floats between us. I lean in reflexively to sniff it, but my fists quiver on my lap.

“Not your hand,” Aiden says, not missing the movement. “Your heart.”

And slowly, without releasing my eyes, he sweeps aside my locket and touches the Queen’s crown to my fluttering chest.

“Oh!” My breath stutters as the satiny curves brush my skin. They’re warm from Aiden’s touch. A million tingles erupt on the spot. I brace for any pain—perhaps a sting or icy chill—but he presses his palm over my heart, holding the chess piece between my lifeblood and his hand. And I only feel everything his touch always makes me feel. The gasp of surprise becomes an ah of desire. The panting of fear becomes a sigh. And my heart splutters with a different rhythm: no longer anguished or terrified. Freed somehow, leaping over four years of loss, bounding above each jagged flashback, only to beat in his hand.

“Listen to that!” Aiden smiles, feeling the boom-boom-boom. “How does that feel?”

“I can’t believe it!” I murmur, watching the way his hand rises and falls with my breath. “How are you doing that?”

“I’m not. You are.”

“Yes, but because of you.” My eyes flash up to him. Even on his knees, he towers a head above me. His face is glowing like the rosewood, dazzling with triumph. But the win is mine. Because a wondrous being like this is with me, healing in a single touch.

He rolls the Queen over my skin, drawing an infinity loop. Then he bends his head and presses his lips to my heart. Kissing the same symbol. Always. The heat from his mouth is no longer a flash burn across my skin. It becomes a slow, deep ember, smoldering away all melancholy, all fear. My back arches on its own, bowing to his lips as they flutter along the neckline of my dress.

He pulls back, his eyes tender, yet somehow still scorching. “More, Elisa?”

M-o-r-e. “Yes,” I breathe, eyes on the Queen glimmering in his fingers. Where will he take it next?

He trails the Queen slowly up my throat and along my jawline, his lips following the same path until his mouth and the Queen come to rest at my temple. He rolls the smooth curves into a circle. “Your mind, Elisa. It guides the chess pieces more than your hand. It moves them even now. You never stopped playing, love.”

When he says it like that, it rings true. “I guess not,” I inhale a chuckle, feeling the caress of the silky wood, like a part of his hand.

As he did with my heart, he removes the Queen and kisses my temple, my cheekbone, the spot below my ear. “More chess?” he whispers, his breath sending a shiver of pleasure down my neck.

“More you,” I sigh back.

I feel his smile against my skin as his lips follow the Queen across my cheek to the corner of my mouth. “Your lips.” He traces the burnished crown over the contours. “Because they smile when you play, even when you don’t know it.”

The warm tip glides effortlessly like a second skin, the fragrance of rosewood a second breath. My head is twirling with his scent, the aroma of chess, and the rose breeze floating around us. For a second, I wonder whether the wood is heat-resistant enough for his touch, for the flame that is blazing in me again. But his mouth replaces the Queen before she catches fire. It’s too late for me. The moment I taste him, my blood ignites. It scorches like lava in my veins, incinerating any remnant of the past. My fists fling open, fly up, and hook in his hair as always, soldering him to my mouth.

“Oh!” I gasp, feeling my fingers run through his raven strands, eager and free.

“Elisa,” he moans, and his kiss becomes a force. Exactly that. Slow at first, in that way he has of stopping time, of making the present moment last forever. Then deep and powerful, like it’s capturing me inside out. His tongue traces the path of the Queen, then moves with mine in a game of its own. He wins all of it. My body falls open. Legs around his waist, arms around his neck, fingers knotted in his hair, mouth melded to his. Yet it’s not close enough for me.

“Aiden, more,” I whisper, pressing feverishly into his torso. More of him, of his gift, of the wooden figure I never thought I could feel again.

A throaty sound whirls in his chest and echoes in mine. It sets of a frenzy in us both. I grip him closer and he winds his arm around my waist, straining me to him. His other hand with the Queen curves around my neck, pressing the warm rosewood against my pulse. His mouth seizes mine in every way. I surrender to the swipe of his tongue, the dent of his teeth, the sting of his bite. His kiss brands itself on my lips, embeds in my neurons, right next to words like h-e-a-l and t-i-m-e. Behind my closed eyelids—tinted red with desire now, not anger—the world starts to spin. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin. They kiss along my jawline to my ear.

“You smell better than the rosewood.” He sighs, breathing the Aeternum spot. “But don’t tell the Queen.” He combs the chess piece through my braid, untangling my hair with his long fingers. I’ll have to take his word for it. I can only smell and feel him. My entire body starts to tremble in his arms. Then abruptly he stops; his mouth is gone.

“Aiden, no,” I whimper, flinging my eyes open.

He is glorious before me, his face exultant.  My eyelids flutter under his gaze, unable to bear the force of his beauty, yet unwilling to miss a blink of it. Fully open now, my hands reach toward him, clasping his face, trying to bring him back to my lips. But he takes off my locket and sets it by the chess set—masterpiece next to masterpiece at the hands of the most beautiful masterpiece there is.

And this work of art unzips my dress and hooks his fingers under the straps, slipping them off my shoulders, raising goosebumps with his fingertips. Shivering with heat—what a concept. The dress pools in a rose-printed cloud at my waist. He lifts me enough to slip it off, tossing it behind him. And then it’s just me, a wet pair of lacy knickers, and a crimson glow over my skin—a panting, quivering, flesh version of the chess Queen next to me.

“Ah, Elisa, all of this under your roses.” His gaze descends from my eyes to my curled, bandaged toes. How can a look burn like this? How can it tighten and twist every muscle inside me?

“My turn.” My fingers grasp the hem of his T-shirt eagerly—were they ever frozen?—and peel it off him. And there he is. A flawless, real, billions-times-more-beautiful embodiment of the golden chess King. But this perfect figure stands to help me. My hands are quick now, snapping off the top button and unzipping his jeans, ripping them off his sculpted legs, feeling the dusting of hair underneath my sensitized fingertips. And he springs free. A different carving from a rarer wood—no Old or New World can source him. He is entirely singular from the bubbles like diamonds on his crown to the familiar woodgrain of veins shimmering on him.

He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. “Still not used to it?”

I shake my head. “I don’t think that’s humanly possible.”

“Good thing we’re human then.” He smiles godlike and lays me across the bed. “Now . . .” He climbs between my legs and picks up the rosewood Queen, flicking it between his fingers. “Shall we play, Elisa?”

And he takes the Queen to my skin, as he did with the feather quill the first time we made love. Wherever the rosewood glides, his mouth follows. Down my throat, over my collarbones, to the hollow indentation in between. The Queen strokes, his lips conquer. A game of chess unlike any other. A game I can play. A game we can both win.

He circles the Queen over my breasts, drawing loops around the nipples with the curve of the satin tip, his tongue swirling in its wake in a dizzying pattern. Rosewood, lips, tongue, teeth, breath, kisses, sucks, licks. I can’t hold still. I’m a breeze, an Aidonis butterfly, a piano string, a flame, a drumbeat—gasping, trembling, and burning under him.

“Shh, love, there are more moves still left.” My insides reverberate with the sound of his husky voice. And the Queen continues its advance down my belly, along my waist, over my hips. Strolling breath to breath, goosebump to goosebump like cellular chess squares on my flushed skin. Spelling words on me as he did on our first night. Some are the same, engraved there forever: I, mine, A.H.  Others are new: yours, love, Elisa. His mouth follows them like punctuation, a lick for a comma, a kiss for a period, a nibble as an exclamation mark. By the time he reaches the band of my knickers, I feel like a poem, like art, a war letter, a pleasure map, a chess game with only victories. The trembles become foreshocks, gathering like a storm at the epicenter of my body. My hips try to jolt off the bed for relief, but he has secured them to the mattress.

“Aiden, now,” I say his name like a plea, trying to find the breeze.

“Soon, love.” His nose skims down the lace of my knickers, inhaling in that way that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. “Mmm,” he sighs. “There’s no rosewood that compares to this.” Before either my blush or shudder is over, the Queen rolls on the lace.

“Oh, God”! I cry out, looking down, bewildered. How can something I cannot even touch feel like this? I know the answer to that one, even crazed and shaking. Because it’s in his hand.

“Not God.” He glides the Queen over the lace again. “Just you and me and a game we love.”

He presses the rosewood into the lace, up and down, increasing the pressure until I topple back on the pillow, gripping the quilt, gulping the air, trying not to faint. In delirium, I feel his finger dip into the lace and pull the knickers to the side. The breeze cools my wet skin. The vibrations inside become violent. I can’t muster any part of my body—if I still my thighs, my hands are clawing at the sheets, if I grip his hair, my hips start writhing for his mouth.

“Aiden, please,” I give up and beg, quivering everywhere, voice to fingertips.

“Not yet, love. You have a game to win.” He blows on the tingling skin and slides the rosewood over the length of me. “Your Queen to my Queen.”

Then his mouth closes around me, starting a chorus of Aidens and Gods and cries and moans. At least my voice is free—no one to hear, just us. Each flick of his tongue is an advance, each suck a domination, round and round, circling me into a checkmate until I break, both winning and losing this game. Winning because pain became pleasure, fear became bravery, and chess became a love play. Losing because I shatter into a million pieces—like a waterfall, like stardust, like spirals of rosewood whittling away to form a new, shining queen. The last conscious thought I register is Aiden’s hushing kisses drawing an infinity loop over the trembling folds. And then I disappear.

But he finds me, brings me back as always. Filling my lungs with his breath. Restarting my heart with his hold. Wakening my mind with his words. I open my eyes and he is lying on his elbow next to me, one long leg parting mine, his steely lines welded to my melted curves. Everything about him is on fire, the sharp angles tensed and hard. Behind him, the white curtain billows with the breeze as though trying and failing to touch him. From my orgasm, his beauty seems to shimmer at the edges.

“Hi.” I take his face in my hands, feeling as though my whole universe is between my pink palms. He shudders once.

“Hi,” he answers, his voice low, his breath rough and fast against my lips.

“That was some game.”

He chuckles, his pectoral muscle flexing like a blade. “Is it over?”

I get lost in his primal, smoldering eyes. “No, it’s your turn to win.” I bring him back to my mouth and kiss him with the full wonder he makes me feel. A groan rumbles in his throat. I reach down and grasp him the way I know he likes. “Play, Aiden. Play like you want to.”

He growls my name. The deep sound vibrates from his throat to my core, and my body starts building again. My leg hitches around his hip but before I can grind against him, he grips my waist and rolls with me on the bed until I’m on top of him.

Your game, Elisa.” In his fingers, the Queen flashes like a beacon. “Touch me with this?”

One question, one fiery gaze, and everything changes again for me.

Would I be able to even consider it if he weren’t burning? Would my hand stay open if my body wasn’t quivering again with my overwhelming desire for him? Would my skin endure it if he hadn’t caressed every part of me with chess, bringing me to orgasm, not tears?

He sees the yes in my eyes before I know it. His smile is victorious, blinding as if he has already won. He takes my hand and kisses it—it falls open at his lips, a tremble flitting here and there on my fingertips, but not with anxiety. With desire for him. Then, light like air, he runs the Queen along my lifeline. My breath stops. The feeling is indescribable—like loving him, like coming home, like touching an Elisa petal in the garden.

“Your Queen.” Aiden smiles and surrenders it on my palm.

“Oh!” I gasp as the smooth weight of the rosewood rests on my skin.

“It looks beautiful on you.” The words sound natural in his voice, but I hear again that strong emotion underneath. He lifts my hand to his mouth, kissing the fingertips, the knuckles, the wrist, the palm, until I only feel his lips and my need to touch him. My fingers close instinctively around his jaw. Then he slips away and my hand wraps around the Queen.

“Hello, you,” I whisper, touching it for the first time in four years. Yet I know it will be even longer before I can play with it as it was carved to do. Suddenly, the Queen weighs more, like iron or lead, not rosewood. My arm feels weak with it. I know nothing has changed except in my mind. But Aiden is waiting for me, rippling with need. And the weight lightens. Because to touch him, I would carry anything.

I lift the Queen—hand trembling—to the corner of his mouth. His breath catches, fogging the rosewood with his heat. His lips lift into a smile as I kiss the spot, and a low moan whirs in his throat. Like the click of the briar wood lock, I grasp now exactly how much he likes this. Not just for me, but for himself even though he will never demand it. Sex and chess. This is what was in his selfish list. The realization marks a transformation, wipes away all my trepidation, the very weight of the chess piece. Because to please him, I would do anything.

Even hooded with desire, his eyes don’t miss my change. “Your move.” He nods and I’m unleashed.

Without hesitation now, I trace his sculpted lips with the Queen. They part with a gasp, his delicious fragrance and the rosewood making my head spin. I swipe the tip of my tongue along the contours, moaning at his taste. And a race begins between the Queen and me, which of us can kiss or touch him first. My fingers roll the rosewood over his golden skin, his jaw, down his throat, over his heart, as he did with me. Sometimes my mouth goes first, sometimes my tongue falls behind. I feel him shudder under me, each golden angle and bronze pane of him like a sentient chessboard of my own. His hand closes in my hair, his chest swells and dips with speed, but he doesn’t rush me. He lets me play over his body at my own pace. I get lost in the perfect ridges, racing the Queen with my lips over the carved valleys and peaks.

“You’re dangerous with that,” he murmurs, tensing with restraint under me. He watches me through his heavy lids, his gaze scorching in every way. His erection is pressing at the small my back.

No, he doesn’t rush me, but my own body does. My heart starts pounding in my ears, my throat, between my legs—everywhere I feel, there is a frantic pulse. I race the Queen down the V-shaped Adonis muscles between his hips. And finally, the queen reaches her king.

“You’ll finish me, Elisa.” He chuckles with a breathless sound and grips the headboard.

“Not before you win.” Then, slowly, I circle the rosewood around the crown and run my tongue over him. “Your Queen to my King.”

A guttural groan rips through his teeth, fingers tightening in my hair. I roll my tongue on him again and his hips tilt up, pushing into my mouth with a hiss. The Queen slips from my fingers; I only have touch for him. I take him in my hand and wrap my lips around him, sucking the glistening crown.

“Fuck, Elisa,” he growls. “Slow, I want to be inside you.”

I try to slow down like he wants but the taste of him . . . saltwater and honey and spice and heat, a bouquet that’s entirely him.  So much better than—

“Oh!” I gasp, jolting up.

“Perfect,” he sighs and pulls me up until I’m straddling him. “My turn to win.”

“No, Aiden, wait!” I cry out because above his incomparable body, as if spelled on his skin, strange things are happening in my vision, numbers, symbols, blurring and spinning.

“Elisa?” I feel him move under me, maybe a hand on my face . . . “Love, are you okay?”

“Shh, I’m having an epiphany!”

“An epiphany? About my cock?”

“One second!”

The images transform over the perfect shape of him, flashbacks now, a very recent memory. “Oh, my God!”

“Elisa?” His strained voice breaks through and my vision clears. Only now I see the scene before me. Aiden is sitting up, tense, eyes anxious, forehead lined, arms around me as if he is trying to protect me from dangers he cannot see. The King towers imperiously between us—even in my utter amazement, I can’t miss him.

“I’m okay,” I smile quickly to calm him. “But I think I just solved the protein.”

It’s instant. The tension wipes off his face and his eyes widen. “Christ! Is that what’s happening?”

I nod, still dizzy with my discovery.

“How?” he marvels, hands vising my face as if to shake me out of my stupor.

“Do you remember—of course you do—but last Saturday, when we were in the Room of Firsts, you said I mumbled ‘orgasms are oxytocin but taste better’?”

“Yes, that was one of your best comas.” He chuckles with the memory.

“Well, it’s been bothering me all week. I kept having this tip-of-the-tongue feeling, like I’m forgetting something, you know?”

“No.”

“Of course you don’t, but it happens to the rest of us and I finally figured out why.”

“And?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before! Doctor Helen practically told me. She said my calming effect on you is like a shot of serotonin to your nervous system.”

“A powerful one.”

“Exactly, and it makes you calm, it erases your fears. Well, at the time, I focused only on the CREB part to help me sort out which oxytocin we needed. But I completely missed this! I have to add serotonin, too—the other form of love! Love for ourselves.”

“Love for ourselves?” His brows knit in confusion.

“Yes! Serotonin is a different love hormone than oxytocin. It’s a hormone related to confidence and self-esteem. And I make you feel it. I make you love yourself, like you do for me. It’s not just one kind of love that dad meant to add to the formula. To fight fear, we have to have faith in ourselves. That’s why the protein isn’t staying solid. It’s missing self-love! It’s missing serotonin!”

He has inhaled every word. The dimpled smile breaks over his face with a look of pure adoration. “All right, I’m caught up. But how does my cock in your mouth fit in, no pun intended?”

“Because, oh, it’s so perfect—”

“Thank you! I’m very attached to it.”

“No,” I laugh. “I mean yes, he is, but serotonin is not just the self-love hormone. It’s also tied to taste. People with low serotonin have lower taste thresholds. Conversely, when you’re happy, things taste better. And that’s what happens to me when I taste you. You said it yourself during my self-love game, only I didn’t realize it. We taste good to each other because we’re happy when we do this. And so my brain must have used that part to make the connection, but then I passed out after my orgasm and didn’t remember it until now that—“

“You were tasting me while more coherent, and it triggered your memory.”

“Exactly!”

He shakes his head with a look of unfettered, existential pride. “You’re unbelievable, you know that? You figured all that out from going down on me?”

I shrug, still dazed. “Apparently. But I think the King deserves a lot of credit.” I nod at the catalyst of my epiphany who is standing there absolutely livid at being ignored in such a manner, undoubtedly a first for him.

He laughs with my favorite sound and kisses me until I’m dizzy and the chandelier above is swiveling. “So you know the moral of the story, don’t you?” he asks when I can breathe again.

“What?”

“You should always, always have my cock somewhere inside you.”

Our laughter presses our bodies closer, leaving no space for anything else between us except the untamed k-i-n-g.  “Now for my win, Elisa.” His eyes become blue fire and he tosses me on the bed, laughing at my squeal. I’ve barely landed on my stomach when he lifts my hips up in the air, smacking my behind. “Your King to my Queen.”

And he slams inside, conquering every square of me, moan after moan, cry after cry, in our very own version of chess where we both play and we both win.

Later, when the lights are off and my chess set is sleeping on the dresser, I count Aiden’s breaths as he drifts off to Für Elise. In the moonlight pouring from the open window, his beauty is silver again, like a dream. Was it this same moon that shone while I was running from him? The same velvet night as the hilltop? T-i-m-e warps again, squeezing lifetimes into hours, days into blinks. Friend or enemy, healer or malady?

But tonight, it was an ally, a time of wins. I curl on my side, careful to never startle him from sleep, ticking our victories on his breaths like I used to count our self-defense weapons on the poppies. The Rose Cup, a place for solace that used to bring grief, a game of pleasure that used to bring pain, a new, old love back on my selfish list, a rare gift, a step closer to the protein, and the biggest triumph of them all: bringing us back on the same side of the fight. Just him and me.

My heart inflates, filling my chest, flowing up my throat, flooding my eyes. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I have hours of happiness in me.

Outside the window, the garden is quiet, the cottage only ours. The willows murmur, they’re here, they’re here. The r-e-e-l is waiting for us in the morning, but in this present moment, all is well. 

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 26 – ROSE THIEF

Hey gang and happy Fourth of July to all my U.S. peeps! I hope you’re all having a great long weekend with family, friends, or just a good book, however you want it to be. And to help with the weekend feel, here is a chapter for you. I took two weeks because it’s an important one, IMHO. And for those of you who read the snippet on Facebook, you might guess why. Hope you enjoy it. Lots of love, xo, Ani

26

Rose Thief

Everything is ready even though it’s only seven in the morning on a Saturday. But when you have an entire Rose Army at your disposal—as Stella has named Aiden, the Marines, and our security team—it takes only an hour compared to the ten it used to take mum, dad, and me to set up for the festival.

And now, after four years under a tarp behind the Plemmons’ shop, mum’s rose stand blooms in the heart of Priory Street as it did for the eighteen festivals our family blossomed together. I stare at it under the sunrise, resisting even a blink.

Dad built it in the shape of the cottage for mum. Just three lattice walls and a peaked roof with wooden slats, painted the same white as our home. Over the roof stretches a canvas of damask roses she bought on their honeymoon, their former pink now faded to the blush of the Clares. Woven baskets hang on the lattice like windows, brimming with roses from the garden: the Elisas in ivory, the Cecilias in cyclamen, the Reagans in magenta, the future Marias. But only the Clares are competing today. Their bouquet—forty-four stems, one for each year of mum’s life—bursts from her favorite vase on a beechwood plinth like a front door. And inside the trellis walls are eighteen rose wreaths with a photo of her from each summer she attended this festival, wearing the same rose-printed dress I’m wearing now and the same roses braided in her hair.

Her smile in the photos turns liquid in my vision.

“Is that a happy tear or a sad tear?” Aiden’s arms fold around my waist, and he kisses the droplet off my cheek as if we are entirely alone, not with a Rose Army around us or vendors throwing furtive looks at mum’s charm from a distance. Mrs. Willoughby seems to be weeping from her champion stand of speckled roses. I wrap my hands around his, eyes on the chime bells tinkling from the picket eave.

“Happy adjacent, I think.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Just because I miss her.” I shrug. “But also happy because I think she would have liked this.”

“Of course she would have. How else do you explain the pink clouds?” He turns me in his arms, his eyes caressing me in ways his hands cannot here. His fingers brush the roses woven in my hair as if the petals are my skin. “You look so beautiful,” he murmurs.

But how could anyone be called beautiful standing next to him? His surreal face eclipses everything, even if it’s still pale from the reel almost three hours later. The images hold him longer now—it takes a few extra minutes each week to bring him back. But he is still here for me, invincible and unwavering.

I trace the circle below his eyes with my fingertip. “How are you feeling?”

He smiles. “Happy adjacent.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Because I’ll miss you and your hair full of roses in a few minutes. But also happy because I have something that might help you with the adjacent part.” A glow falls over him, and the pallor disappears. His usual golden warmth infuses his skin. And even though the edges of the wound start burning at the countdown, I smile back.

“Does it involve a bomb shelter, a new security battalion, or body armor?”

He chuckles. “Not today.”

“All right, go on then. What is it?”

He nods once at someone behind me, and I look over my shoulder in time to see Benson turn the corner to Ivy Lane while the rest of my Rose Army spread out and occupy themselves in an apparent effort to give us privacy.

“So where will you be today while I’m showing off the roses?” I ask him, dreading the long day apart.

“Close enough to have my eyes on you in this dress and with this hair.” His heated gaze descends over me.

“That’s hardly fair,” I grumble. “You get to see me, but I don’t get to see you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave breadcrumbs.”

“Breadcrumbs?”

“Something like that. Here comes Benson.”

Benson is striding toward us like our personal Big Ben, carrying a tall, thin cardboard box under his arm. “Here you go, sir.” He hands it to Aiden, winking at me before joining Max and Ferrars at our welcome table and promptly showing them a map—no doubt the battle plan. Aiden is still looking at me in that fiery way, a smile playing on his lips.

“Allow me?”

“You better. Papercuts are highly dangerous. Why didn’t you hire me a personal surgeon for this?”

“Don’t tempt me. I might throw in a second bodyguard and a bullet-proof vest. Although it would cover the best parts of this dress, I’m afraid.” His eyes linger on my décolleté. I’m about to suggest he builds us a private bunker where we don’t need clothes at all, but he opens the box with a pained sigh, and my snarky remark dies on my lips. Because he takes out a white sign with black letters like the cottage’s shutters:

Lady Clare’s Rose Gallery

“Oh!” I gasp, fingers flying to the painted words to caress the letters. Lady Clare—the name I gave the rose we planted together in mum’s honor at the Portland Rose Garden. “Aiden, did you do this yourself?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the best part. “YouTube and me.”

I throw my arms around him and the sign, hugging them both. “No, it’s just you!” I breathe him in through his T-shirt. “Thank you! I love it and I know mum would have loved it, too.”

He chuckles. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave you with a nameless rose stand. Mrs. Willoughby might have claimed it as her own.”

“And you with it.”

“Not me. I’m taken. I have a thing for Mrs. Plemmons.” He tips up my face, winking at our secret nicknames for each other. Will he always stun me like this? Or will there come a day, whether we win or lose, when I’ll get used to him? The answer might as well be a sign on my forehead: no, I never will.

He hangs the sign under roof, hammering the nails carefully into the slats. I try not to ogle at his arms flexing with the motion but fail quickly and absolutely. Thankfully he finishes before I do something obscene like drag him behind mum’s rose stand for a different kind of hammering with his parents six feet away. He rattles the sign to make sure it doesn’t move an inch.

“Perfect,” he says, regarding his handiwork and pulling me to his side.

I watch his profile, feeling his granite lines against me, inhaling his freshly showered scent.  “Yes, it truly is,” I agree.

He sets down the hammer and gazes down at me, but the familiar hesitancy before we part flickers in the turquoise depths. And the magic bubble pops. We’re back on Priory Street, surrounded by our army, the seconds ticking by. My chest starts to ache under my locket.

“Do you feel it still?” he whispers.

“Feel what?”

“The pain here.” His index finger taps the glowing sapphire.

I nod. “Only when you leave.”

“Me too. But do you remember what I think then?”

“What?”

He caresses a Clare in my braid. “This is just a petal,” he reminds me.

His love-making mantra makes smile despite the countdown. “That’s right, I forgot! The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“Exactly. Think about that with me, and before you know it, the day will be over. And we can celebrate your Rose Cup which I’m sure you’ll win.”

I can tell by the playfulness in his voice that he’s trying to cheer me up. But why is it harder to separate today? I go to work every day and I’m able to crawl out of the car without this kind of devastation. Is it because it’s mum’s favorite event and I want him here with me? Or because I know he’ll be close but stressed, trying to protect me? Whatever the reason, it seems to be harder for Aiden, too. His eyes don’t leave me for long, his body shifts closer every time I move.

“Celebrate how?” I ask to distract myself and him. “Just us?”

I know he hears the desperation in my voice because he smiles. “Oh, I never tell. But will you do something for me?”

“Anything you want.”

He plucks an Elisa from their basket and tucks it above my ear. “Wear something of yours today, too. Make this your day as well.”

He caresses my rose, lips parting, clearly wanting to do more. As do I. But things change quickly then. The horn of the Plemmonses flower cart blares at the end of the street, striking Aiden’s shoulders like a thunderbolt. His eyes harden as he scours the lane that starts bustling at the signal. People are already crowding at the gate. The street vendors start shouting final orders at their own armies. And the local band clangs their cymbals and tests the trumpets. Reflexively by now, our arms fly around each other’s waist—shield and talisman.

“You should go, love,” I say, each word a thorn in my throat. “I’ll be fine with your parents and Max and Ferrars. I wish you’d go fishing or hiking with the Marines, but I know there’s zero chance of that.”

He tenses as if ready to throw himself between the world and me at any moment. “Zero,” he agrees. “But don’t worry about that. Celebrate your mother and have fun.”

His words seem to act as a command to the Rose Army who have clearly been watching him. They spring into movement, even Robert and Stella, forming circle around us, awaiting his orders. Aiden shifts me against his side without releasing his hold on me.

“You relax and enjoy this, too,” he tells his parents. “It’s supposed to stay in the mid-seventies, but if you want to go back at the Inn for a break, Ferrars will take you.”

“Not a chance. We’re staying with Elisa. We have spots in the shade,” Robert assures him. Stella simply kisses him with her eyes. I can’t help but notice a trace of sadness in her smile. If I see it, Aiden certainly does because he bends to kiss her cheek before turning to Max and Ferrars.

“You know the drill. Stay close but inconspicuous. No mistakes. Elisa’s safety first.”

“Yes, sir.” They nod in their casual attire that blends in with the locals and start helping Robert and Stella heave the ice coolers of rose lemonade to our welcome table.

James, Hendrix, and Benson don’t seem to need orders. Like Aiden, they’re wearing more utilitarian clothes: jeans, breathable shirts, Timberland boots. They don earpieces in unison, already scanning the street, their expressions intense even behind their dark sunglasses. At their alert postures, my own spine becomes rigid with nerves.

“Is Jazz back at the cottage?” I guess.

“Yes, he’s betting someone will show up there, but you’re worrying again.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “Nothing will happen to you. All this is so we can find out what we’re dealing with, fix it, and get back to our life.”

I nod, but I still can’t calm the sudden shivers. Because it’s impossible to look at the lethal men around me and not feel that war is starting on Priory Street. And wars have casualties. What if someone gets hurt? Even worse, what if it’s not me? And what if mum’s day is tainted with this? I have no doubt there is no real danger here. I’m more afraid of what seven men trained to kill will do at Aiden’s direction if he perceives danger.

“Aiden, please be careful,” I beg him.

“Of course, I will. I told you, we’re built for this.”

I glance at the army quickly—hard, vigilant, destructive—and pull him aside by the bouquet of Clares. One of her roses brushes against his forearm like a kiss. “That’s my point love,” I whisper. “You’re trained for war, not this. We’re in Burford, not Fallujah.”

He is too tense to smile but he tries. “As stunning as you are, I still know where I am, Elisa.”

I take his hands in mine, caressing the jagged knuckles. “You know what I mean. It’s just a little country festival. Petals, not threats, love. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for danger. Please?”

He’s nodding before I’ve finished. “I will. Now go, play, let me worry about the rest.”

Before I can formulate a response, he arches me against his granite chest and presses his lips softly against mine. And then he is gone. Waving at his parents and bolting away from me after Hendrix and James, Benson at his side.

“Be safe,” I call after him, clasping my locket.

He looks over his shoulder with my favorite dimpled smile. “The breadcrumb is in the box.” His voice wraps around me, warm and velvet. I blink and they vanish into the rose-scented air as if they were only ever a dream.

The wound rips wide open, as livid as when I used to chase after him in my sleep. But my phone buzzes in my dress pocket instantly. I wrench it out, almost dropping it as I read his text:

“Breadcrumbs, not worries.”

Can he see me? I spin around, scanning the sidewalks and rooftops, even stupidly the sky. But I can’t see any of them. Not even our Big Ben or James’s tangle of red hair. Yet as much as I want Iraq’s ghosts away from Mum’s roses, my chest is burning. I almost tear the box that held the sign to search for my breadcrumb, but a folded piece of paper slides out easily in Aiden’s assertive handwriting:

First Time. December. Bring love.

I grin at the words, fighting the urge to kiss the note with his parents, Max, and Ferrars around. He didn’t make it hard for me to decode: Room of Firsts, at noon. A rush of heat flashes over my skin. It will be just us for lunch at least. I tuck the note in my dress and text him back immediately: “I can’t wait.”

But our date is four long hours away, and these hours belong only to mum. As she apparently still belongs in Burford’s heart. They haven’t forgotten her in the last four years. The moment the Song of Windrush kickstarts the festival, a long line of Cotswoldians forms at the end of the street, smiling and pointing excitedly at our stand with its brand-new sign. “Blimey, Clare’s roses are really back!” shouts someone. “I knew it!” answers another. “Mama, it’s the roses you liked!” squeals a little girl.

Everything else fades then as my throat closes abruptly with a different kind of tears. An acidic mix of grief and remorse. How did I erase Mum from this day? How could I have taken her away from them like she was taken away from me? I run my hands over her dress—so many sorry’s, I love you’s, and I miss you’s left unsaid. But that’s not what she would have wanted today. I skip at our welcome table with Robert and Stella by my side and wave at the crowd who cheers and shuffles forward as soon as the song ends.

“Good heavens,” Robert marvels, pouring mum’s rose lemonade frantically into paper cups. “There must be at least three hundred of them and it’s only the start.”

“She was so loved,” Stella croons, all thumbs and laughter.

But across the lane, Max and Ferrars are in a battle stance. They split up: Max moves between the incoming line and me, Ferrars strides parallel against it searching each kind face for danger behind his sunglasses. If I look closer, I can see their earpieces and quick lips coordinating with each other. A metallic taste builds on my tongue at their vicious expressions looking at the well-wishers who are waiting to welcome mum back and seeing nothing but threats.

“Max, please!” I hiss at him under my breath. “Let them enjoy this. They’ve waited a long time.”

He peers at me through his aviators. Or I think he does—only his furled eyebrows are visible above them. I have no idea what he is thinking but he nods once and crosses the street, strolling casually and looking more like a merry goer. Down the meandering lane, Ferrars starts doing the same. I take a deep breath and smile at the ribbon of faces winding through all the other rose stands for ours first. At the very front, Mr. Plemmons is leading the charge in his crocs and cane, wearing his straw fedora crowned with garden roses. Everyone slows for his hunched frame, tipping their hats at the festival’s official tsar for the last fifty years.

“Rose!” he rejoices when he reaches me, taking my hand in his knobbly fist and shaking it in the air like I have already won the Rose Cup. “Bless me soul! The stand looks beautiful—righ’ like yer mum did it. She’s proud up there, she is, I tell yeh.” He leans his head back, admiring the stand, a tear trickling in his mustache while I try to exhale. Other than me, the Plemmonses are the only two people alive who know exactly how much mum loved this. Over my parents’ hilltop, the pinkish clouds are floating like petals across the sky. Are you smiling, Mum?

“Ah, all the roses are perfect!” Mr. Plemmons declares. “An’ look at them in yer hair, Rosebud. Josephine will like this. She’s with Emma an’ Harry, they’ll stop by. Felix, Lavender, and Lily are here from London, too.” He grins under his bushy mustache at his grandchildren’s names.

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, handing him a cup of lemonade. “I’d love to see them again.”

He turns to Robert and Stella, whom he calls his good Yankee mates. “Good of yeh to be with Rosebud today, jolly good. Come by our stand for some nosh—Josephine has made canapes . . . but where is Adam?” He squints at the space between the three of us, his fluffy eyebrows furrowing like sheep’s wool at this new transgression committed by Aiden in addition to staying with me at the cottage albeit in the garden shed.

“He’s fixing a pipe at the cottage, Mr. Plemmons,” I scream, flushing as the whole line listens in about the mysterious, beautiful guest, while Robert and Stella nod fervently, their smiles too wide. “But he got me the sign for the stand, see? Isn’t it brilliant?”

That distracts him immediately. He totters closer to the stand, hitching up his spectacles as he squints to read it. “Adam did tha’?” His eyebrows and mustache wiggle with a smile—perhaps the first smile in the same sentence as Adam.

“Yes, he did! And he hung it himself,” I yell proudly as several necks crane up to see the sign too with admiring hums.

“Ah, tha’ is beautiful, tha’ is. Will save him a canape, Rose. See yeh three in wee bit. Stay out o’ this blasted sun and sprinkle the roses.” He waves and turns to face the line of cheery Burfordians, stomping his cane on the cobblestones for silence. They all fall quiet. “Today,” he wheezes with significance. “We welcome back one of Burford’s best roses. May she bloom like spring. Let the festival begin.” He blows his whistle and teeters back to his famous pony cart stand, harrumphing at all the clapping that follows him.

The whole line jolts forward with energy then, louder than the band. Max and Ferrars radiate waves of anxiety pacing across the lane, ready to hurl themselves at me as my hands get passed like coins handshake to handshake in a torrent of welcomes and cheers that gives me barely a second to breathe in between, let alone say anything other than “hello Mrs. So-and-So” and “thank you.”

“Elisa-pea! Welcome back! Happy Rose Day to beautiful Clare!” Mrs. Potts, the town’s grocer, cries as I hand her a cup of mum’s lemonade and a sachet of dried petals which she uses to dab her tears.

“Oh, how I’ve missed these wee baggies for me dressers. Voting for Clare’s roses, I will!” Mrs. Sterling, the stationer, cheers as she takes two sachets from my basket.

“No better-smelling roses in all of England.” Mr. Jenkins, the chemist, grasps my hand next. “Happy Rose Day, Elisa! Proper chuffed to meet you, Elisa’s friends.”

“Ah, to see Clare’s stand blooming again. Blimey, it’s like she’s here. Look, everyone, look at her pictures!” Mrs. Ashbrook, the milliner, claps her hands and grabs her lemonade cup.

“You look right like your mum in her dress, Elisa.” Mrs. Dawlish, the town’s hair stylist fixes a few roses in my braid. “Well-met, Sir. You have lovely hair, Ma’am. Dear me, I can see where your son gets his looks from—all the ladies bump their gums about him in my salon.” She laughs and shakes Stella’s hand, admiring her perfect chocolate waves. “But don’t worry, Elisa, I told them off. I said he already has the prettiest rose in town.”

Robert, Stella, and I are still laughing when Mr. Willoughby, the archnemesis competitor of Plemmons Blooms, steps up and takes a cup of lemonade. “Good luck, Elisa.” He gives me an icy smile and is the only one not looking at mum’s roses. From the corner of my eye, I see Max zip closer, pretending to admire the Elisas. “May the best rose win.” Willoughby nods curtly at the two beautiful souls next to me without waiting for an introduction and marches back to his champion stand where last year’s Rose Cup is gleaming in the shape of a silver rose stem. I clutch my locket at the sight. The Cup used to rest in our foyer, year after year. Let Mum’s roses win. Bring it back to the cottage for her, please. Above the hilltop, the pink clouds have burned off into a gossamer blue sky.

“There’s an oddball for you.” Robert frowns at Willoughby’s retreating figure with a stern gaze, which he obviously passed to his protective son.

“He’s an envious sort,” I explain. “But not dangerous. At most, he’d knock off a vase and mumble that it was an accident.”

It goes on like this for over three hours. Streams of Cotswoldians rush by the stand, babbling with their excitement about mum’s roses until her very name fills the air as if she were still here. Clare, Clare, Clare. Each time it’s uttered feels like her soft laugh tinkling in the breeze. By the time the torrent slows, we are long out of lemonade, sachets, breath, and tears, and Robert and Stella have met every single Burfordian except Willoughby, their families, and their guests, and have been invited to two weddings and four luncheons. Even Stella’s immaculate hair is fluffed Plemmons-style from the frantic greeting. My fingers hurt from all the hand-clasping. And Max and Ferrars look like they have aged at least ten years during the ordeal. A few stands down, I spot Hendrix who must have descended on Priory Street at some point for reinforcement. Flushed and dabbing their foreheads, they’re all reeling off something into their sleeves, no doubt reporting to Aiden and the others that not a single psychopath, pervert, stalker, or thief has managed to pluck one petal off a rose, let alone hurt me. Exactly as I said it would be. If they’re in this shape, I cannot imagine Aiden’s state. But at least he will be able to relax after this. As Hendrix and Jazz said, if someone was trying to hurt me, they would have shown up here today. Yet, the worst thing that has happened in three frenetic hours is Willoughby’s half-smile.

“That was something else!” Robert blows out a gust of air, folding down in his bistro chair and wiping a bead of sweat from his temple. “But I can’t say I saw anyone suspicious, did you?”

“Heavens, not one!” Stella laughs, plopping next to him in the shade and pinning up her hair. “We’ve made more friends in a week here than a year in the States.”

“They all love you.” I grin with pride, filling their cups with rose iced tea. “Except the Willoughbys, but that’s because she’s in love with Aiden, and he’s in love with the Rose Cup.”

“Well, good luck to her with Aiden.”

We burst out laughing while the object of the female obsession in town sends my phone buzzing next to my thigh.

“Are you plotting your security’s demise?” Aiden texts. I look around giggling, knowing I can’t see him, yet unable to help myself.

“Always,” I respond. “But I have a feeling I won’t have to plot long.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“I am. If anyone wanted to hurt me, I’d be mince by now.”

“Hilarious, Elisa.”

I can almost feel his glare through the pixels. I should know better. Nothing that suggests harm to me in any way is funny to Aiden. “I’m sorry, bad joke.” The three dots hesitate on the screen—sighing, I imagine. “I’m perfectly safe,” I assure him, wishing he were here so I could smooth the V away. “Except I miss you.”

He doesn’t hesitate now. “Miss you too.”

“I solved the breadcrumb.”

“Of course you did.”

“I’ll bring love.”

“I’ll take all of it.”

Am I imagining the sad tone in his text? “How are you feeling?”

“As I always do when I’m away from you.”

Yes, with a throbbing chest and a bitter mouth and a hollowness that erodes the flesh like acid. I know because all the smiles and warmth of the last three hours haven’t changed that. The wound still rages and burns. “Me too.”

“Just a petal, love. See you at noon.”

Noon feels too far away even if it’s only in forty minutes. I pluck an Elisa petal and tuck it in my pocket with the breadcrumb. “Love you.”

“Always.”

His text is immediate as his answer would be if he were right here, brushing my cheek. I stuff my phone next to the petal and duck inside the stand to prepare the love I’m bringing him. Across the lane, Max and Ferrars are relaxing on the sidewalk, but I’m sure their eyes don’t leave us. Hendrix seems to have disappeared. But soon we all will have their lives back. I can almost smell the freedom with the roses.

“Knock, knock.” A familiar voice wafts through the lattice walls. My head snaps up, gasping at my new guests. Edison and Graham are standing by the table—Graham no longer sickly green but still carrying the Encyclopedia and Edison holding the pot of miniature yellow roses that mum gave dad, which has sat in his office ever since.

“Professor Edison, I mean, Nigel! Graham!” I cheer, rushing out of the stand. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“Is it?” Edison smiles. “I used to stop by when Clare ran the stand. You don’t remember?”

“Of course, I do. You and dad played football once using the stand as goal posts.”

He laughs. “And what a lambasting we took from Clare. It never happened again.” He hands me the pot of roses. “I thought this little fellow might like to be at the festival, too. See some of its species for once instead of dusty textbooks and a dour professor.”

“Thank you.” My voice catches as I sniff the tiny rosette. “I’ll introduce it to some friends and bring it back on Monday.”

“No matter. You’re welcome to keep it—it was Peter’s after all.” His eyes fall on Robert and Stella sitting next to me, looking like patron angels of all roses. “Ah, these must be your guests visiting from the States?” Edison guesses.

“Yes, these are Robert and Stella Hale,” I introduce them, heart crashing against my ribs at a part of dad’s life connecting with Aiden’s parents like this. “And this is Professor Nigel Edison and his Chief Researcher, Graham Knightly. They’re my supervisors at Oxford.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Robert stands and shakes their hands. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Uh oh, nothing confidential, I hope,” Graham half-jokes, half-panics.

“Not at all.” Stella smiles at him. “Only that you were close with Elisa’s father and how supportive you’ve been of her now that she’s back.”

“Oh, that’s not entirely selfless, I assure you.” Edison chuckles. “We’re hoping she stays this time.”

They all laugh while my heart rips in two as it always does when geography comes up. Especially with Aiden’s parents around. Because how can I take Aiden from them now that he’s back in their lives? But how can I ever abandon this festival again?

“How long are you staying?” Edison asks them.

“Only one more week, unfortunately,” Robert answers as Stella’s smile fades. I’m not the only one who detests the ticking clock.

“Ah, you’ll miss Peter’s bench ceremony then. Elisa is supposed to speak. I’m looking forward to her remarks.”

I feel blood drain from my face at the prospect. On the upside, it distracts me from the mangled ways in which my stomach is twisting at the thought of maps and transatlantic distance even if Aiden and I win. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss much,” I tell Robert and Stella, trying to force a smile. “My remarks will be: Hello. Thank you for coming. Here is Professor Edison for more.”

They laugh as I wanted them to, but I see earnest regret in their eyes. I know because it’s similar to mine. Like Reagan and Javier, they already feel so natural here. And because of that, my chest throbs faster. I usually lose those I love most. My hand flies to my locket. Make me strong, make me brave.

“Elisa, will you show us the roses that are competing this year?” Edison gestures to the stand.

“Of course. It’s only the Clares this time. The others are here for emotional support.”

“So everyone votes for their favorite rose and the one with the most votes wins?” Graham clarifies.

“Yes, but mostly they just walk around, eating, drinking, and smelling the roses.”

He looks utterly perplexed that anyone would want to spend a Saturday like this instead of in a lab. A lab where I desperately need to be without him. “Here, Graham, try it.” I give him a Cecilia to smell. “According to a recent study by the University of Freiburg, the smell of roses while learning and sleeping increases memory and learning skills by thirty percent.”

“That explains Professor Snow then.” He laughs but almost inhales the petals off the stem.

“Exactly. Keep this by your nightstand and sleep until Wednesday. I’ll bet you solve the protein by then.”

He tucks the Cecilia inside the Encyclopedia, while Edison laughs. “I better take one, too.” He chooses an Elisaand threads it in the loop of his tweed vest. “Bring the Rose Cup by the lab when you win it, like Peter used to.”

They cast their votes for Clares, drop them in the ballot box on the stage with the band, and leave shortly, wishing Robert and Stella a pleasant flight.

“How kind of them to come.” Stella looks at their figures as they melt in the crowd toward the car park.

“Very kind. Mum and dad would have been thrilled.”

She and Robert don’t mention Edison’s comment about me staying in England, and neither do I. But have their sharp eyes already seen the conflict in mine? If they have, they simply smile. Only when Stella turns to water the roses do I see a flicker of something in her face that I don’t think I’m supposed to see. It disappears before I find a name for it. But Robert must know it because he picks up the other spray hose and splashes her once.

“Bertie!” She squeals out of the way. “My hair!”

“Your hair is lovely—the town hairdresser said so,” he answers, reminding me of Aiden again.

They laugh together, but I’m no longer here. Because it’s almost noon, and my feet are already scrambling away. I grab the love I’m bringing Aiden and tuck it in a basket, covering it with my pashmina. “Stella, do you mind watching the stand for about an hour? I have to meet Aiden at the Inn.”

She is laughing at a drenched Robert. “Of course darling. Will Max be walking you?”

As if to answer her question, Max materializes at my side. “Looks like it,” I sigh. “Poor Max. You should be having a pint and enjoying the festival, not worrying about me.”

He laughs with a tired sound. “Worrying about you is my job, Elisa.”

“I know but it doesn’t have to be.” I grin at him as we set off. “Even you have to admit, there’s nothing and no one suspicious around.”

His smile is reluctant. “So far. But the day is only half over.”

“The other half will be just as safe, you’ll see.”

And Aiden and I will finally be alone again. I almost break into a run to the Inn. But as soon as we turn the corner onto Ivy Lane, I see him. Striding out of the Inn, hand through his hair, searching the quiet alley with urgency, no doubt for me.

“Aiden!” I sprint at him and launch myself into his open arms. He catches me in his iron grip, crushing me into his chest.

“Elisa! Thank God!” He murmurs in my hair, breathing me in as though he hasn’t drawn much air in the last four hours. Which is probably exactly the case.

“You haven’t been spending the last four hours imagining horribles, have you?” I kiss the spot above his heart, inhaling the scent of him, reveling in the feeling of air flowing in my lungs wound-free.

“That’s an understatement.” He sighs in profound relief, holding me closer and kissing the top of my head.

I wiggle in his steely hold to frown at him with disapproval. His turbulent eyes are clearing quickly as they roam my face. “Aiden, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re breaking Corbin’s rule. I was perfectly safe, even without the seven of you around.”

He chuckles. “I know you think that, but none of us expected the three hundred people that swarmed you. Not even me, and I know exactly how lovable you are.” He nods at Max behind me. “Well done, Max. Take a break. God knows you’ve earned it.”

He swoops me in his arms, basket and all, scanning every part of me as is his custom. But we don’t get far. His eyes widen when they reach my hands. “What the fuck happened here?” he snarls.

I see what he means. Sort of. My palms are as pink as the Reagans, but they make me laugh despite his obvious anxiety. “I think this is a combination of three hundred Cotswoldian handshakes and working in the dirt with roses. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt at all.”

He doesn’t look convinced. He carries me inside the Inn with speed, blowing up the stairs to the Room of Firsts, the creaky lift obviously too slow for him. The door must have been unlocked as he cradles me in one arm and opens it. I don’t even have time to register if anything has changed in our beloved room because he streaks to the domed restroom and sets me down on the counter.

“Now,” he breathes, and just his smell makes me more light-headed than his velocity. “Let me look at this.” He places my basket on the floor and takes my hands gently, blowing on my palms. The soft breeze of his breath makes my eyelids flutter. “Does that burn?”

“No.” I smile, caressing his tense jaw at my fingertips. “But it’s starting to burn in other places.”

He glares, still holding my hands like soap bubbles. “Be serious. Does it hurt when I do this?” He brushes my palm lightly with his pinky.

“Mmm,” I moan, and it’s not even fake.

His finger stops stroking mine. “Elisa, so help me God, answer or I’ll drive you to the hospital right now, festival or no festival.”

He is absolutely not joking. “All right, all right, calm down. I told you, they don’t hurt all. They’re just a little pink.”

“Just a lot pink. What about prickling? Do you feel anything else at all?”

“Oh! Yes, actually.” I pull back one hand, leaving the other in his. “It really tingles here.” I point at my mouth. “And here.” I trace my fingers down my throat to the rose in my décolleté. “And here.” My hand skims down my waist between my hips. “What now, Doctor Hale?”

His eyes follow the trail of my hand with a fiery hunger that tightens the muscles at the bottom of my belly. A slow, heated smirk lifts the corner of his lips. When he looks back at my mouth, his bold gaze turns my entire skin pink. “I will deal with you in a minute,” he threatens, and just his dark, husky voice sends my blood hammering. “Now, please,behave or the hospital it is.”

I hold still, trying to calm my pulse as he opens the faucet and runs my hands under the cold water, washing them gently with the rose soap, massaging little slippery circles on my palms that make the tingles bloom into full trembles. “It’s not going away.” He frowns, rinsing my hands.

“I’m sure it will.” I pull them back and switch off the faucet. “Just leave them alone and touch some other parts of me as soon as possible and they will be good as new.”

He smirks again and takes a fluffy towel from the rack. “Is that so?” he asks, patting my hands dry.

“Absolutely.”

He tosses the towel on the counter. “I see. So you’re adamant this redness is from too many handshakes and playing with dirt?”

“Of course I am. What else would it be?”

He looks at my hands, eyes narrowing at the corners. It’s not until I see the way the tectonic plates shift in analysis like they did the night of the supposed break-in that I realize what he is thinking. What he is concluding. “Aiden?” I choke, the warm trembles turning instantly to chills. “You’re not thinking this was some intentional act by someone to hurt me, are you?”

He doesn’t answer. He just turns my hands this way and that.

“Are you?” I demand, yanking them back.

He takes a deep breath and meets my eyes. The turquoise depths are pensive underneath, clearly still locked in inner analysis. “I’m just considering all options.”

“And these options,” I press, my voice rising with panic. “They include a theory that someone did this to my hands?”

His jaw flexes while his mind continues to process with blinding speed. “They have to.”

I stare at him in horror. He is not seeing less danger after today as I had hoped, as I was just dreaming; he is seeing more. “Why?” I whisper, losing all volume. “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t like thinking it, but it’s probable.”

And I try. I try very hard to control the spew of emotions that erupts inside— dread for him, grief for our life, panic about the end, sorrow that this is happening on mum’s day, anger at him for refusing to see things any other way—but they spin out like Bia’s centrifuge, rattling my skull until they settle on anger with a mental clang. It hijacks my body, and I hop down from the counter, blood flooding my face. “Probable?” I hiss, glaring at his eyes that are seeing yet another baseless threat. “You mean hypothetical at this point, right? Because there is zero evidence to support this one. Not even a crooked frame or fallen petal this time.”

He shakes his head in his defiant way, and I know I’ve already lost. “Of course there is. You work with dirt every day, and I’ve never seen your hands do this. It has been at least twenty minutes now since your last handshake and the redness has not faded. Yes, it’s possible you have an allergy to something, but you have no burning, itching, pain, or other sensations that go with contact dermatitis or sunburn. Therefore, I have to consider other alternatives, including the option that someone did this in some way for some reason I obviously cannot explain but intend to find out.”

I break then. Every speck of this last week—the hours of dread chasing an intruder who doesn’t exist, the constant surveillance, the relentless rampage in the name of safety, the mental war that has erupted in our cottage, the theft of privacy, the invasion of every nook and cranny of the life my parents built, this shadow over mum’s day—combine, overwhelming me with their force. And I can’t form words. Not because I don’t know what to say. But because nothing I say will make a difference. All my counterarguments—no matter how logical and reasonable—will mean nothing in the end. Once we resolve a threat, his mind will find another, and another, and another, trapping him in war. And me with him. A wave of terror crashes over me.

“This is never going to end, is it?” I whisper.

He blinks at me, shock flickering over his face. “Of course it will. As soon as—”

“As soon as you solve this,” I finish for him.

“Yes.” His answer is resolute, his eyes unyielding. He will either destroy the reel or the reel will destroy him. But in three weeks, despite his strength, the reel has already claimed our new lives, our peace, our happy memories, and now stifling even the fragile tendril of h-o-p-e that blossomed by my parents’ grave. Abruptly, I want to leave. Go back to mum’s day with memories and pain I know how to live with.

“Elisa, I will fix this. I promise you that.” He tips up my face as if to reassure me, but nothing can do that right now. Not even his touch.

I manage a nod as I squeeze past him out of the restroom. The gallery of our firsts spans around me with all its beauty. Everything is as we left it a week ago, except the garland of roses is gone and a small table in the open balcony is set with lunch and a Clare for what would have been our date. In one look, the room transforms from a mosaic of our beautiful firsts to a museum of our happy lasts before the reel ruined everything.

He is behind me, so close I can feel his body heat. “Elisa, what are you doing?”

“Leaving.”

He is in front of me in one second, his arms out as if to stop me. “Why?”

“Because I want to go back to the festival.”

He takes my still-pink hand.  “Love, come on. Let’s not fight about this. We’ve been fighting all week. Let’s celebrate your mother today.”

The reference to my mum on the day when she saw only goodness is too much for me. I pull back my hand—it balls up like his fists. “Celebrate her with you? When you only see danger and threat in the people she loved? You must be joking.”

A bolt of agony strikes his face. “Yes, with me. Who else do we have to celebrate her with, but each other?”

“Everyone else apparently,” I spit out, tears gathering in my eyes. “There are at least three hundred people on that street who loved her who aren’t enemies or intruders or poisoners or psychopaths or perverts or whatever other label you want to slap on them. They just miss her like I do. And right now, I want to be with them, not here with you debating yet another life-threatening scenario because my hands are a little pink.”

His arms drop to his sides as if I just shot him. “Elisa, it’s not—”

“Please, stop. Just stop! I can’t do this on her day. I just want to go back to the festival and be with her in my heart. Can you at least give me that?”

All expression drains from his face, leaving nothing but a beautiful, ashen barren land behind. He watches me frozen, his eyes shifting and aging with an ancient sadness. But he nods at last and opens the door, as I knew he would. “I’ll walk you out,” he whispers as I pass through.

He follows me in silence down the stairs to the lobby where Max is already waiting by the door with Benson. Of course he would be.

“So security stays after today then? Despite all the proof that there’s nothing wrong?” I verify, looking at their intense expressions as they dissect the ivy-covered lane.

Aiden’s hand curves gently around my elbow, turning me to him. I look up at his face reluctantly. I don’t want to see the staggering sadness in his eyes that still won’t change his determined gaze. “Love, it has to, until—”

“Don’t!” I interrupt him, pulling back my elbow. The point of contact shivers as though it wants to stay in his touch. “I don’t want to hear your reasons because they’re not reasonable anymore. This will hurt us, Aiden. I promise you that.”

I march past him to the door. He watches me leave with unfathomable eyes.

But with each step away from the Inn, my anger softens even with Max by my side. This is not how I wanted to say goodbye. Because the wound is festering, the clock is ticking, our lives are still entwined, and I already miss him. I almost go back then, but Hendrix and James are ducking into the Inn, talking to Benson, their faces set with warlike intention. Yes, I want to go back, but it wouldn’t change anything. We are now prisoners to the reel.

Priory Street is feverish when Max and I get there. Band clamoring, couples dancing, children giggling, and swells of people flooding the lane like River Windrush. Yet, I feel cold, as though the sun that’s glazing the stones no longer beams on me. From a distance, I see mum’s stand, glimmering like snow. The new sign pops with its black-and-white elegance against the bright colors of the roses thronging the lane. And the Hales are sitting at the table with the Plemmonses and the Jenkinses, laughing and eating canapes under Ferrars’ watchful eye. I change treks, unable to face them in my current state.

“Max, I need to walk around for a while. Just up and down the street.”

His eyebrows knit above his sunglasses. He has been quiet since we left the Inn, obviously seeing the jungle of emotion on my face. “No problem, whatever you need.”

I watch the jigsaw of rose stands, as familiar as the freckles on my hip or the lines in my pink palms. “The thing is . . .” I hesitate. “I’m not sure how to do that with a bodyguard around all of mum’s friends. They’ve known me since I was in nappies. They’ll think it’s mad.”

“Ah.” Max nods in understanding. “Why don’t you start ahead, and I’ll follow from a distance? Will that help?”

I nod woodenly, even my joints feeling stuck at the idea. But what else can I do? I start treading down the lane, stiff with opposition, half of me stuck back at the Inn, the other half here for mum. But this hour after lunch was the hour I had alone with her. She used to take my hand and say, “ice cream and roses, love,” and we would weave through the rose stands, picking our favorites and eating ice cream, just the two of us. Above the hilltop, the sun is glowing like a halo. Ice cream and roses, Mum.

The first few steps down the lane are hard with the pain in my chest and without her sandals on the cobblestones next to mine. But as I stop by our favorite stands to say hello like she would or buy a candle she liked, it gets easier. Each vendor gives me their signature rose for her—a cheery yellow, a fiery orange, a pure white, a bold cyclamen, a shy pink, a hearty crimson, a pensive lilac—until by the middle of the lane, my arms are overflowing, my hands are sore from all the clasps, and the tears have dried before they spilled. But my heart throbs exactly as it did when I left the Inn. How can a street with hundreds of bodies feel empty? How can the stones miss the heavy Timberland boots that never walked on them as much as they miss mum’s kitten heels? Perhaps the phrase “heart of stone” has a different meaning. Perhaps it doesn’t mean a hard, cold heart. Perhaps it means a heart that loves so much, it has become petrified. Frozen with terror of losing its love.

I buy mum’s favorite gelato—honey and rose—from Mr. Flaubert and weave my way through the crowd back to the stand. Only Aiden’s parents are there now, sipping chilled rosé.

“Sweetheart, look at all your roses!” Stella laughs, rushing to take some of them from my arms, but her smile falls when she sees my face. The walk must not have masked the snarl inside. “Oh no, is Aiden being a bear?”

I wish. Bears and dragons, I know how to deal with. The reel I do not. “Not at all,” I answer, forcing a wide grin and dropping the roses in a pail of water. “He’s just worrying about me when he’s supposed to stay in the present moment and not imagine awful things.”

“Ah.” She relaxes, smiling again. “It’s because he loves you, darling, and he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

“That, and it’s a bit of a Hale trait, Elisa.” Robert chuckles. “He gets it from me.”

Stella laughs again, taking me by the arm back at the table and pouring me wine. “It’s true. When I was pregnant, Robert didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nine months. Even the few hours he managed, he slept on the floor in case I’d roll off the bed.”

“Is he worried about your hands?” Robert guesses with genetic accuracy, gesturing at my palms.

I nod even though that’s not exactly true. Aiden is worrying about someone intentionally hurting me. And that’s why the stories about the Hale gene do not calm me. Because there is a difference between l-o-v-e and the r-e-e-l. Aiden’s love does things like move across the world and mobilize the CIA and the entire U.S. Congress to save my family. Aiden’s mind creates danger that robs us of our very life.

“I saw them too but thought maybe the dirt, the sun, and all the handshakes,” Robert reasons. And here is another difference: the Hale gene notices, understands, and protects. The reel notices, terrorizes, and destroys.

“Here, try some aloe vera,” Stella suggests, digging a small tube from her purse. “Save yourself a headache and Aiden a coronary.”

I rub the cool gel on my painless hands, trying and failing to see anything there that could make Aiden dream up a nefarious act. Who would do such a thing? Why? How when I’ve been surrounded by security? And more importantly, if someone was trying to harm me, why would they make my palms blush but not hurt, tickle, or burn in any way? When I think of it, why my palms at all and not some other part of me? I shake my head to dispel the dark, paranoid thoughts. Because today is mum’s, and she saw good—not evil—in everything.

The endless stream of people flowing by the stand don’t let me forget it. Some familiar, some strangers I’ve never met. Most with their favorite story of her, all different, yet all the same. All about her kindness and the way she made them feel. I string their memories of her like a lei, jotting them down in her old guest book, letting my mind get lost in her world. The rose oil she gave that girl to clear her skin, the hybrid she helped that old man cultivate after his wife passed. Story after story, until for a while it’s just mum and me, even with Max and Ferrars pacing, the countless guests filing through, and the sniper gazes I sense on me. Above the hilltop, the sun is starting to dip like a fervent kiss.

The church clock tower booms with a deep knell then, making me jump. In the same chime, from the stage at the top of the street, a line of trumpets pierces the air with their bright jingle.

“Is this it?” Stella shouts over the din as trombones and drums join the carol.

“Yes,” I yell back, bolting to my feet. “It means the votes have been counted and now they announce the winner.”

On cue, the crowd bursts into song, bellowing Rose, Rose on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest of Them All. But before the second toll clangs again, Max and Ferrars streak to my side with blinding speed, forming a wall of muscle in front of me as the throng starts to jostle along the narrow street. So much for being inconspicuous. I grit my teeth, trying to squeeze through the crevices of their backs to watch Mr. Plemmons who will be carrying the Rose Cup up to the stage, but it’s impossible.

“Max,” I scream over the clangor, tapping his shoulder as the clock peals again. “I can’t see!”

“What?” he roars back, pressing his fingers to his earpiece.

“I—can’t—see,” I cry again, and he finally hears me, pulling me in front of him as Ferrars, Stella, and Robert line next to us. But at least I can see Mr. Plemmons now, wobbling with the sparkling trophy in his hand, his mustache quivering as he laughs, his cane teetering on the stones, and his beloved Josephine at his side. The gate of bodies thunders with applause as they pass. My throat catches at the sight—how many festivals do they have left? As if to echo my question, the clock tolls again. I clap as hard as I can, not caring if my hands will throb or blister after this.

The crowd swells, following behind the Plemmonses, tugging me along. Max’s hands grip my shoulders to keep me from falling while Ferrars looms large next to Robert and Stella. The clock tolls again and, with a suddenness that knocks me breathless, I miss a different set of iron hands on me. But even though the horde is swarming the street like Aiden’s worst nightmare, my phone doesn’t buzz in my dress pocket. I cannot imagine the sheer life it’s costing him to give me the space I need. Except I don’t want space from him—I only want space from the effects of the reel. The idea of him in terror sends my hands flying for my phone despite my anger and our fight. I have to lean against Max to be able to thumb a text with the juddering horde around us:

“I’m perfectly safe. Max is right next to me.”

The clock’s bell reverberates in the stones under my sandals at the same time the phone vibrates in my cyclamen palms. “Don’t worry about me. Try to enjoy this.”

When the clock tolls again, it throbs through my chest, pulsing inside my ribcage like the wound.

“Roses and friends!” Mr. Plemmons shouts into the microphone from the stage when the pealing stops. I look up, startled that I missed the last minutes of his parade. I force myself to focus only on him and Josephine now, and their bushels of white hair above the podium covered with rose garlands. Mr. Plemmons sets the Rose Cup on it with a firm thud. It gleams exactly as it used to on our console where mum would tap it on her way out. My hand claws around my locket. Let mum win, please, bring the Cup back to the cottage for her.

“Can yeh hear me?” Mr. Plemmons wheezes and the crowd sings back, “Yes, we can.”

“Jolly good, because I can’t.” He waves at the throng that titters. “Another festival—gone! ‘Twas our biggest ‘un yet, and very special ‘t was too. ‘Un hundred and twenty more votes, we had. Five more competin’ roses. And two thousand tickets sold fer our school. Well done, Burford, well done!” The crowd whoops while my throat roils with emotion. “And now, before we’re sloshed an’ knackered at the pubs . . .” Mr. Plemmons splays his hands in the air with significance. “As me wooly ‘ead remembers it, the Rose Cup needs rewardin’. Like all me years of doin’ this, our rosebuds counted the votes thrice. But this year wasn’ close like other times. And yeh voted with yer hearts and yer eyes and yer noses, as yeh should. Makes me heart happy to say tha’ this year, the Rose Cup—” Mr. Plemmons pauses, his whiskery voice catching and starting again while I stop breathing. “The Rose Cup goes back home tonigh’ with Elisa Snow fer her mother’s rose, our kind and beautiful Clare.”

The crowd explodes in cheers, while I stare open-mouthed at Mr. Plemmons stomping his cane in applause and Josephine clapping and searching the crowd. I heard it right, I know I have, because Max taps my shoulder with a whoop, the horde starts chanting, “Clare, Clare, Clare,” and Stella and Robert pull me into a double hug. “You did it, dear. You brought the cup back to your mom.” Stella cries, kissing my cheek.

“She did it herself,” I whisper, eyes on the silver rose. Am I imagining the sunbeam shining directly on it? Abruptly the scene transforms for me. I see mum climbing the stage, beaming, a tear like a diamond in her eye, hugging Mr. Plemmons, waving the Cup, looking straight at dad and me and blowing us a kiss. This is for Elisa and Peter, she used to say. Behind the curtain of my tears, she dances off the stage and disappears with a faint pop in my heart.

“Rosebud?” Mr. Plemmons calls into the microphone. “Where are yeh? I can’ see yeh. Open up fer her, yeh lot.”

Stella gives me another peck, fixing up the roses in my braid. “You look beautiful. Go, get your Cup, darling.” She places her warm hand on my shoulder, nudging me gently as the crowd parts grinning at me, clapping like castanets, singing Clare, Clare, Clare. But suddenly the lane empties in my vision despite the hordes of bodies flooding it. And the hollow tunnel of homesickness blows through me like cold wind through a vacant crypt. Not homesickness for mum—she feels closer than any other time since she’s been gone. Homesickness for Aiden, to have him next to me even if angry and worried and terrified.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!”

Fragments of hundreds of voices rejoice, yet I don’t feel their cheers. And I know why. Because Aiden was right. Cheer is not cheer if I don’t celebrate with him. Nothing fills the void the way he does. I swallow all kinds of tears now—happy, sad, in the middle and adjacent to everything—and shuffle toward the stage, feeling more ghost than human. Max and Ferrars walk parallel on each side of me, Hendrix appears ahead. But at least there are no nerves. I know everyone, and country festivals don’t require speeches.

“There she is!” Mr. Plemmons claps as I climb the stage stairs to the chorus of Clare, Clare, Clare. They both teeter to me, glowing and sparkling with tears, carrying the Rose Cup. “Finally,” Josephine lullabies as she pulls me into her canape-and-roses hug. “The Cup goes home after such a long time.”

“Keep it there, Rose, keep it righ’.” Mr. Plemmons rasps gruffly. “Don’ go leavin’ the roses again.”

What can I say? That I love this little village so much I would bleed for it if it meant my blood could grow the roses forever? Or that I love a man so much my heart couldn’t even pump blood without him? “Thank you.” I hug them both—they’re so tiny, it only takes one arm. “I know she is giving you all her love.”

Their white heads turn up to the sky in unison, grinning at it. I turn to the crowd as mum would, waving the silver rose as she did, skimming over the faces because the three dearest ones are not here. And that’s when I see him.

He would be hard to miss even in the shade of the elm tree behind the crowd, flanked by Benson and James. Leaning against the trunk like a sculptural Adonis carved in golden marble. Every angle of him is hard with tension as he thrashes with his most violent demon to be here, but his eyes beam on me as if we are utterly alone. Even from this distance, his gaze heats my skin. I’ve never seen anything more life-affirming. And right now I don’t care that I am supposed to be angry with him. I don’t care that I’m terrified. Because I can feel the cheer now, I can feel the joy for mum, and every part of me is brimming with life, not pain. He’s here, he’s here.

The corner of his lip lifts in a knowing smile as my cheeks flush. He mouths something I can’t decipher from this far, but then he tilts his head at the crowd as if to remind me I’m gawking at him on a stage. But I still can’t blink away from him—here, despite his deepest fear, to share this moment with me, knowing exactly how much it means. He winks now, pointing at the crowd with urgency.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!” They are apparently still singing, breaching just enough through the spell to release my voice.

“Hello!” I speak in the microphone, startled by my magnified voice. Is that me? It sounds like mum. They all fall quiet, perhaps hearing the same note. “Thank you for remembering my mother and choosing her roses after such a long time.” I smile at the sea of faces, spotting Stella and Robert filming with their phones and Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix rippling around the stage. Nerves start to prickle but I know my only line—I heard it for eighteen years. “This is for Mum who loved this day so much.” I clutch the Rose Cup to my chest that feels full but well. “And for Aiden who made it possible for me to enjoy it again.”

A low ahh flitters over the crowd and they burst in applause as if I just gave the most riveting of TED talks, not utter exactly four sentences. Under the elm tree, Aiden shakes his head with a private smile and claps in a this-is-Churchill-the-orator way. And for the first time today, I feel like we got this right, like mum would have liked this festival as much as all the eighteen others before.

I almost run across the stage, trying to get to him as fast as possible but the moment I hop back on the street, a deluge of clasps and pats rains on me. The faces are a haze of grins as I sweep through, Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix storming around on all sides. Yet nothing happens to me, as I knew it wouldn’t—just a chorus of Clare, Clare, Clareblaring in my ears along with the festival’s closing jingle. I shake Mr. Flaubert’s hand last and clear the crowd, heading straight for Aiden under the elm tree. But as I pass our rose stand, a gusty hug from behind almost knocks me off my feet.

“Rosebud!” a familiar voice shouts, and that’s all I grasp. Because as I blink back at Felix—the Plemmonses’ grandson who went to high school with me—a massive shape whooshes past the corner of my eye, rams into him, and his arms tear away from my shoulders with a loud grunt. I whirl around, watching in horror as Felix plunges onto the stones under Ferrars’s body weight, and they skate together in an unstoppable collision course with the rose stand.

“Felix!” I shriek, launching myself into their path as Aiden’s voice reverberates under the clamor, “Elisa, don’t!” and Max yanks me out of the way. And I can’t stop it. Felix and Ferrars crash into the vase of Clares, shattering it into a million pieces and slamming against the rose stand with such force that the wooden slats shake to their bolts and the rose baskets and wreaths plummet to the ground in a mulch of petals, bark, moss, and leaves.

It’s utterly silent for one blink then a throng snaps around us with panicked cries. In the chaos, I’m vividly aware of Aiden’s terror for me as he must be trying frantically to break through the horde to get to me without triggering the startle. But of more immediate urgency are Felix and Ferrars still on the ground.

“Aiden, I’m fine,” I scream even though he can’t hear me in the bedlam, and rip out of Max’s hands, kneeling on the stones next to Felix as Ferrars jolts away from him with frenzied apologies. “Felix, Felix! Are you okay?” I splutter, checking to see if he hit his head. But he didn’t. He fell on his side, there is a gash by his elbow, but the rest of him seems all right. He blinks around, shocked and startled, and scrambles to his feet while I almost collapse on the ground sobbing in relief.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Felix blurts out, clearly not connecting Ferrars to me. Despite my remorse, I let him believe it because underneath my terror, something clicks with a silent roar. This was no accident, was it? It was intentional. Ferrars must have thought Felix—my sweet old classmate, born the same week as me—was about to hurt me.

“I’m so sorry, mate!” Ferrars blusters. “I tripped and crashed into you. Are you hurt? I can drive you to the surgery if you need.” He is checking Felix all over for injuries, proving my hypothesis. And dread turns instantly to anger, pulsing hot and livid, scorching all the joy until I taste iron on my tongue.

“No, I’m fine.” Felix swings his arm around as if to check its radius and turns to me with a smile. “Sorry about the stand, Rosebud. But it looks absolutely bangers still, only the roses fell.”

At his needless apology, the blistering rage blurs my vision with a reddish haze, making me dizzy with it. “It wasn’t your fault at all, Felix. Please, don’t even think it.” I manage to form words, wiping his cut with mum’s handkerchief. His blood stains the lacework, and I fight against my gnashing teeth so they don’t break through my tongue. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” And I am. How much worse could it have been? What if he had cracked his skull? And my frail Plemmonses, what would have happened to them then? I shudder. “Let me get you some bandages, Felix, come sit down. Want some water or iced tea?”

“No worries, it’s just a scrape. I’ll pop up at Gramps and change my shirt anyway. Congrats, Rose.” He gives me the hug he started so innocently, and the reddish blaze flares in my vision. “Chips and ale next week? We’re coming back at the weekend.”

“Absolutely, bring Lily, too. And be careful. Are you sure about the bandage?”

“Positive.” He chuckles, still breathless, and traipses through the lasso of people that loosens for him with angry glares and exclamations at Ferrars who turns to apologize to me. Has anyone connected him with me? And why should he apologize? Can I blame him when he’s only following strict orders to protect me from dangers no one else can see? No, there is only one man to blame for this, and he must be straining desperately to get to me. Was it only minutes ago that he righted my world back on its axis? Now it feels as though he’s razing it to the ground, turning each person into an insurgent and each place into a dessert of terror.

“I know you didn’t mean to, Ferrars,” I answer a little late. “I’m glad you’re not hurt either.”

He starts to mumble something, but his voice fades as does everything else when I finally dare to turn my eyes to the rose stand. The Elisas, Cecilias, Reagans, and future Marias have spilled everywhere like floral arteries on the cobblestoned hearts. The wreaths have survived, but some of Mum’s photos have cracked across her beloved smile. The shards of her vase glimmer on the ground like tears. And all the forty-four stems of her life are smeared on the stones, their blush petals like droplets of some magical blood.

Hot tears spring in my eyes. I start gathering the bruised blooms one by one, some thorns pricking my still-pink hands, some glass slivers nipping my skin. I wish they could lance my neurons instead so I couldn’t feel any of this. Nor the p-a-i-n, or the f-u-r-y, or the f-e-a-r—maybe not even the l-o-v-e.  None of the four-letter words that are wrecking our l-i-f-e. Tears splash like rain drops on the crushed petals as the sun starts to dive behind the hilltop, lighting it on fire, turning the street scarlet behind the reddish glare of my vision.

I sense him before I see him. I don’t know how he managed to cut through the crowd so fast, but the hum behind me falls quiet with the astonished silence that only he inspires. His scent blows in the breeze more beautiful than the dying gasps of my roses. And his tall, tense body crouches next to me on the stones. I don’t look at him.

“Elisa, love?” His murmur is breaking as he tries to take my hands away from the broken glass. “Let me do this, you’ll cut your hands.”

The reference to my hands—the trigger that started all this again—slices through whatever thread is keeping me together, and I start shaking with anger. A smashed Clare slips through my trembling fingers as if its first injury wasn’t bad enough. He sees it. He knows it, because his hand swoops down and catches it before it hits the stone. Then it wraps around both of mine. I wrench them back, blisteringly aware of all the eyes and ears around us. His parents squatting to save the blooms too, the Marines and Benson towering to guard Aiden’s back, and even worse, mum’s friends, admirers, and well-wishers muttering, “ah, that’s too bad,” “that bloke was bang out of order,” “poor Felix,” “poor Elisa,” “she’ll be all right, it’s just the roses,” “it’s lovely she has the Rose Cup again.”

I can’t look at any of them. I clench my teeth against the words I want to hurl at him and pluck all wisps of strength from all crevices of my mind so I don’t cause an even bigger scene.

“I’m fine,” I hear myself speak, but my voice doesn’t sound like mine. It’s just a sing-songy mask my mind must need right now. He hears it. He knows it, because he pulls back his hands that are reaching for mine again and his fingers reappear with a folded map as he starts sweeping the broken shards away from me.

“Sir, I’m very sorry,” Ferrars starts on Aiden too, sounding absolutely wretched, but I see peripherally Aiden’s hand fly up. I tense, expecting him to torch Ferrars alive right here, right now, but he surprises me even in my state.

“No need.” His voice is clipped and hard now that he’s speaking at normal volume. “This is on me.”

At least he knows it. Of course he does. Even without his brain, he could have decoded this one. I told him. I tried reason, logic, science, allies, heart, but he wouldn’t listen. He did this with his security and paranoia, not Ferrars. I move away from him, picking up mum’s broken photos, feeling his eyes on me constantly.

“It’ll be all right, sweetheart.” Stella is there, helping me tuck the frames in my basket. “I know your mom still would have loved this. I think she’s very proud of you up there.”

I nod because she is probably right. Mum found goodness in everything. She might have even laughed, but I can’t. The pressure inside my skull is becoming a cleaving headache. I am utterly unable to calm the gale of fury inside. All strength is going to keeping my face together for every set of eyes that are looking on with sorrow, pity, confusion, or any other expression I didn’t want for today.

The vendors start packing up their stalls now, and the crowd is waning toward the pubs. “Well done, Elisa!” “Stop by The Lambs Inn, Elisa-pea, we can toast your win.” “Ah, look at the Cup by Clare’s stand again, how brill.” I wave at them, a smile plastered on my lips, even for Willoughby who is watching me with a curious smirk that lifts his upper lip into a sneer. He seems even colder than this morning with the Rose Cup snatched away from him. I tuck it in my basket too in case he nicks it back.

As the horde thins, our guard all start helping pack up the stand. I see their hulking silhouettes from the corners of my eyes as I stack the wreaths. The broken glass is all gone.

“Where is the stand going tonight?” James asks as Aiden starts dismantling it himself.

“Elisa?” His body turns toward me, but I can’t look up. If I see his face or his tormented eyes, I will cry or scream or implode in some other way.

“Behind the garden shed at the cottage, please,” I answer, one brain cell wondering whether my voice will ever return back to normal. The rest of my mind is powering frantically to get me through the next few moments. But through to where? There isn’t a single place left in my world where I can just be. Every wedge of my life is under surveillance. The cottage, the garden, the garage, Elysium, Bia, Oxford, the open fields, the very people I respect and love, my very skin. Every single part of me. I grind my teeth against the sudden claustrophobia and start sweeping away the debris, trying to breathe petal to petal, trying to think.

But everywhere the broom turns, there is a muscular frame or a set of eyes or a question waiting. “Same for the table and the chairs?” “What about the sign?” “The coolers?” Aiden takes over, knowing everything, but abruptly, I can’t even breathe. Just one more smile, just one more nod, please. And then what? The stony lane tilts a fraction. Of course he doesn’t miss it. He is in front of me in a blink.

“Elisa?” His finger flies under my chin to tip up my face, but I step back automatically. I can’t handle his touch right now—the touch that makes me do anything. “Look at me please.”

It takes every last fiber of strength to resist his voice. I manage only by looking at the trashed Clares in the bin. “I’m fine,” I repeat, but even the strange voice is fading into a whisper. “I have to finish this.”

“I can do that. Why don’t you go sit?” He takes the broom from me. “Or do you want to go back to the cottage? I can finish up here—we’ll be very careful.”

The cottage? Our happy bubble that has been invaded by security more than any intruder? I start to shake my head, but a bubble of space opens up in my hermetic world as I try to look anywhere but at him so I don’t explode in the middle of mum’s favorite street.

“Actually . . . ” I grasp the bubble with all my mind, the contours of a plan forming. Because I need this, I need it for air. “I’ll go back to the Inn for a bit if you don’t mind.”

His answer is immediate. “I’ll walk you.”

“No,” I say quickly, knowing I don’t stand a chance if he comes with me. “I need you here.”

He doesn’t speak. His body is so close, his Timberlands are nudging my sandals. I try not to think of the way his bare toes look when they dance next to mine on the bedroom rug. Those moments no longer feel like our life. “Look at me,” he whispers at last, so quietly I’m not sure I really heard the words. I know he wants to say more. I know from the way his hand is closing in a fist that he wants to touch me. And for once I’m glad we’re not alone.

“Not now, Aiden,” I mouth back and turn away from him before he sees everything in my eyes.

I know he will never let me walk alone, especially now that it’s getting dark. I skim past all the faces around me—Stella tearful, Robert and Benson concerned, the Marines tense, Ferrars remorseful—for the only person I want to find. My choice surprises me as much as him. “Max, can you walk me to the Inn, please?”

“Of course!” He comes to my side immediately. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

“Just the Cup, mum’s photos, and dad’s plant, please.” I hand him the basket carrying it all.

“I’ll get the rest,” Aiden says behind me, and a look passes between Max and him. Max nods once, probably obeying whatever new order he just received.

“The hospital trolly will come for the wreaths and what is left of the roses,” I remind him needlessly and turn to thank the rest of them, even Ferrars, for helping today. Despite the way it ended, none of it is their fault. In a different universe, we could have gone to celebrate, I’d have given them my thank-you gifts that I prepared, but that’s simply beyond anything I have left.

“I’ll see you in a bit.” I wave at them, feeling guilty for the lie.

They all smile back in their own way—“Congrats, Pest, you kicked Willoughby’s shriveling ass.” “Don’t worry, Trouble, we got this.” “I’m sorry again, Elisa.” “Well done, kid.”—but Robert and Stella decide to return to the Inn with Max and me. Whether they’re tired themselves or worried or both, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, they have their own room.

The Inn is empty and silent when we arrive, as I knew it would be. Stella gives me a silky hug in the lobby. “It was a beautiful day, sweetheart, even with this little fiasco in the end. Try to remember only the best parts because you can.”

“And the hard parts will pass, too,” adds Robert, patting my shoulder.

I think about that as the lift doors close behind them. I know they will pass—they always do—but what will survive? My parents’ favorite memories? Aiden and me? Our life? Or just the reel, not even stardust this time?

“Up to Mr. Hale’s room, Elisa?” Max prompts.

“No, Max. I’m staying in Javier’s old room tonight. I can take it from here.” His eyebrows arch in surprise, but it’s the only habitable place that holds a dear part of me and hasn’t been invaded. And the only room I know here that can give me what I need. Max still insists on walking me up, whether on Aiden’s orders or his own worry, I don’t know. As soon as we open the door to the familiar room, he sweeps it corner to corner, even the balcony despite the fact that we’re on the third floor. The room has been cleaned since Javier left. I manage the first deep breath, sniffing futilely for his homey peppermint and paint smell, but it’s long gone, like him.

“It all seems in order,” Max assures me, not knowing how wrong he is. Nothing is in order anymore, but for purposes of my physical safety, it’s true enough. He sets my basket on Javier’s dresser and leaves, asking me to lock my door even though he’ll be just down in the lobby and Ferrars with him. But I don’t argue. I thud the bolt home with a loud ding, listening to Max’s footsteps fade down the hall.

Finally alone now, I could cry or scream or curl on Javier’s pillow or call him and Reagan or work on the protein or just stare at the spot on the rug where Aiden held me a week ago as I was sobbing, telling me he would stay in England with me. But those are not the only reasons I came here, because this isn’t where I want to be. I grab the Rose Cup, and slide back the bolt quietly, millimeter by millimeter. When I crack open the door, the hallway is empty. I can hear Ferrars and Max’s indistinct voices from the lobby. I tiptoe down the corridor to the door behind the velvet curtains that leads down the old turret stairs where Felix, Lily, and I used to play hide-and-seek when mum and the Plemmonses would deliver roses to the Inn. As soon as I reach them, I leg it. Scurrying down the limestone steps, bursting through the back-alley door, leaping over the low hedge of briar roses, and darting around the corner to Swan Lane. Everything is quiet and empty—the whole town is in the pubs or lingering on Priory Street—but I still can’t help looking over my shoulder as I creep on the mossy cobblestones until I reach the riverbank and the protective canopy of oaks and willows. And then I break into a sprint. My heart is galloping at the same speed, but my lungs are pumping fresh air without effort. I glance back a few times, but there is no one behind me. I’m utterly alone. Bounding across the open fields that are turning inky with the early night, finally free.

Above the hilltop, the moon is glowing.   ©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 23 – BREAK

Hey gang, how is everyone? I hope your weekend is off to a good start and you all have some R&R planned. Here is a new chapter for you, a day early since I’m technically a couple of days late. Hope you enjoy. Things are changing…  lots of love and thanks for reading and writing to me. On a personal note, this blog is giving me a much needed respite from life, and for that, I’m grateful to all of you. xo, Ani

 

23

Break

“Goodnight, dear.” Stella kisses my cheeks as we leave their luxury suite at the Inn after dinner on their balcony. “Make sure you get some sleep. We’ve kept you late.”

“This is what happens when you get my mother started on baby stories, Elisa. I sincerely hope you’ve learned your lesson if you want any of us to sleep for the next two weeks.” Aiden’s voice is exasperated, but there is tenderness underneath. Something flows quickly between him and Stella, and he nods. Carefully, she steps into his arms on her tiptoes and kisses his cheek. He embraces her gently as though she is a soap bubble, but his shoulders turn to granite with memories. In that feather-rock hug, I see the difference between me and everyone else for Aiden: he softens under my touch and tenses with all others, even his mum. Yet he holds her for a while longer, despite the tension straining him, before releasing her with a chuckle. “All right, save some for tomorrow.”

She sparkles at him. “Sweet dreams, Aiden-bear.” That same swift exchange happens between them, and he smiles.

“Like cookies, Mom.”

Some private joke, no doubt, but one I have to know with a similar urgency as the oxytocin. Despite the deluge of details about his childhood, from his first word (“oh, dear, it wasn’t a word, it was a sentence: Mama, where is Daddy?”) to his favorite bedtime story (“he didn’t like baby stories, we had to read him poetry—he loved Byron and Keats”) to his favorite toy (“his chess set!”), I feel parched for more.

“Night, Dad,” Aiden nods at Robert who only hugs Aiden with his eyes.

“Night, son. Goodnight, Elisa.” He clasps my shoulder. “Be careful driving back to the cottage. It’s dark out.”

“We’ll be fine, Dad. Go to sleep.”

They wave together, their soft eyes following us down the hall.

“What does the cookies thing mean?” I ask as soon as I hear their door close, and Aiden presses the button for the lift.

He laughs. “All night you’ve heard all manner of trivia about me, and you still want more?”

“Of course.”

“Fine, that’s how I answered her the day I discovered cookies when I turned three, and it became our standard goodnight for a while. But I suspect it had nothing to do with that tonight, rather than the fact that she finally can wish me sweet dreams again now that I can finally have them. Because of you.”

The lift doors open, but I can’t move my feet—how can I when he says things like this? He pulls me into the tiny box, overwhelming the space, and presses me against the velvet-lined wall with his hips. There is nothing granite about his body now. It’s all steel, forged to every line of mine. The air becomes rare—I lose it and find it as he brings his heated lips to my ear. “At last,” he murmurs, his breath strumming against my skin. “Just you and me.” His nose skims the Aeternum spot. “We met the parents . . .” He kisses the corner of my jaw. “And there were no accidents or heart attacks . . .” His lips brush along my jawline. “Everyone adores everyone . . .” He presses his lips to the corner of my mouth. “Elisa?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you know what time it is?” His dark voice ignites my blood, my memories.

“It’s now!” I gasp as his mouth melds with mine. Every angle of us fuses together. One of his hands gathers in my hair, his other arm lifts me off the floor. I wrap my legs around him, tangling my fingers in his soft waves. He doesn’t tense—the shiver running through him is desire. His hips start grinding and rolling against me.

“This is where we left it, I believe,” he says against my lips. “When I so rudely said no.”

“Mmm . . . very rude.”

“Let me be rude some more.” His erection presses into me over the linen of my dress. Once, twice, and the point of contact becomes a rapid pulse. Then abruptly he swoops me in his arms.  He’s so quick, I gasp and blink around startled, registering that the lift was moving, and it has now stopped. The doors open on the top floor to his suite. “You said something about a Chatsworth bed?” His eyes blaze as he carries me out. “And maybe fainting?”

I bring him back to my mouth. “Hmm . . . I’ll need a reminder.”

“I might have a few.”

He kisses me down the empty hall, lips fluid, tongue alive. I taste him back as deeply as I can. How many times can you kiss a man before he becomes your taste? By the time he breaks the kiss and sets me down at the door to his suite, my head is whirling. He lowers his face to my height, blowing a gentle breeze over my lips. “Reminded?”

“Uh huh . . . fainting . . . you.”

“You take my breath away, too,” he translates. Then his beauty intensifies in that surreal way, as though lit from within. It does nothing to help my balance. “Ready for more reminders?” he dazzles and unlocks the door with the old brass key. “After you,” he whispers in my ear as he opens it, tickling an old memory.

I step inside . . . and gasp to a stop.

It’s the same suite where we had our big bang—the same four poster bed, the same ivory silk linens—but how different it looks. How new, yet how ours. A gentle fire is dancing in the fireplace to the low sultry melody of Amado Mio—the song we first danced together. A garland of the Plemmons’ apricot roses—similar to Aeternum in color—adorn the mantle. On the wall across the bed, taped over the Inn’s painting of roses is a photo of Javier’s first painting of me as it hangs in front of Aiden’s bed at his home. And on the nightstand is the first gift I gave him: the double-frame with my ticket to America and a photo of his home he bought that same day.

“Oh!” I breathe, gazing at the bedroom in a trance. No, not a bedroom anymore—a mosaic of some of our most beautiful moments. The firm thud of the door closing breaks through my spell. I turn to look at Aiden. He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. I take the one step between us, feeling unsteady on my heels. His hands curve around my waist.

“Enough reminders for you?”

“Explain it to me,” I say, knowing by now he never creates a memory without a purpose, a purpose worth remembering for life.

“I’m sure you can unravel this one.” He bends his face to mine as though to kiss me but stops an inch from my lips. “Try.”

And I do, I really do, but it’s almost impossible with a scent like this and eyes like that and beauty like nothing else. “Well, there’s our first night with the painting?”

“Yes, that’s there.” His lips hover so very close to mine. I try to reach on my tip toes, but his iron hands don’t let me. “Solve the next clue, and you get a kiss.”

“Ah, our first date at your Alone Place, with Amado Mio, the roses, and the silk pillows like the bed?”

“Beautiful,” he murmurs, his mouth touching mine. The warm tip of his tongue traces my lips, and tingles spread over my skin. He pulls away at my sigh. “Next?”

It takes me a moment with his lingering aftertaste. Amado Mio ends and starts again. “Something about the fire? Because it wasn’t on last time.”

“Very good. Now what do you think it means?” He inches his lips closer, his hold on my waist correspondingly tighter. His breath enflames my skin like the fire clue, scattering my thoughts.

“Umm, a little hint?”

“What could you burn in a fire, but you would never want to?” he helps me, and instantly I know.

“Your letters! In your homecoming letter, you wrote you would have no words for my face, for my smell, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.”

“And I still don’t.” He gives me his mouth for a while this time, his tongue like a flame crackling with mine. But he stops again when my legs start to shake. “Next?”

“How many clues are left?” I barely hear my voice from the drumbeat of my pulse. “I’m already close to fainting.”

He grins. “Don’t do that. I need you coherent for this last one.”

“Oh, good!” I shake my head to rattle some brain cells awake. “Something about my first gift to you, with the double-frame?”

“I have debated with myself what your first gift to me is but for purposes of tonight it’s true enough.” And then his mouth is on mine in a slow, potent kiss until I drape in his arms. He has to lift me off the floor to take me to the nightstand. “Now find your prize.”

“I thought you without latex invaders was my prize.”

He chuckles. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Find your second prize.”

He doesn’t release my waist as I search through the nightstand, opening the first drawer. Resting right under the double-frame is a rectangle package the same size, wrapped in parchment. I tear it carefully and lose whatever breath I was managing to draw. It’s another double-frame exactly like my gift, but even more precious. On one side is a photo of the cottage as it is blooming now and on the other a yellowed, old ticket bearing the name Aiden Hale and the date April 11, 1987.

“Oh my God, Aiden! Is this your ticket when you first flew to England for your meeting at Oxford?”

“The very same. I had my mother dig for it after we visited Chatsworth. Of course she had saved it. They brought it and your frame this morning.”

I caress the glass over his name, the date, the PDX and LHR airport initials, swallowing back tears before they drop on my prize. “I love it. It’s a real-life treasure.”

He takes the frame from my shaky hands and places it next to the one I gave him. “It’s our first ‘first’” he explains. “Our first connection. My first dream of you in Iraq. First sight of you in the gallery. First date. First dance. And first night.” He brushes my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Tonight is a first, too. Just you and me and nothing in between. It seemed like the right time to remember how far we’ve come.”

His voice turns our history into music, more harmonious than the song that is replaying. I crush myself against his steely lines, half-climbing his legs, throwing my arms around his neck, and pulling him to my lips. “I want my first prize now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he chuckles, and everything else disappears. I hear, see, and feel nothing but us. The riff of our first dance, the sound of our mouths, the pop of his shirt buttons, the tinkle of the locket as he takes it off, the unzipping of my dress. As soon as it pools into a linen cloud at my sandaled feet, he lifts me and wraps my legs around his waist. “Open Sesame,” he murmurs as though finding his own treasure.

I tighten my thighs around him, frantic for contact. His abs ripple in between as he strides to the bed, pulls back the duvet, and drops me on the silky sheets. And air becomes scarce again. I watch, teetering between shaky elbows and crumbling mind, as he peels off his clothes and his body materializes like a sentient sculpture under the muted glow of the chandelier. Then his snug briefs dash to the floor, and my elbows give out. I can’t blink away from the sight of him springing free. Carved steel wrapped in gold silk with a filigree of veins and bubbles like a diamond crown. C-o-c-k: how did I forget the good four-letter words? My skin bursts into flames, blazing hotter than the crackling fire next to the bed.

He grasps my ankle where it’s dangling off the bed and plants a soft kiss at the bridge of my foot as one might with a lady’s hand. “I like these.” he says, tracing the gold strap around my ankle with his fingers. “I think we’ll leave them on, like our first dance.” He climbs between my legs that are quivering like bowstrings to his arrow.  “As for these . . .” He trails his thumb along the wet lace of my knickers, making me moan. “I’m afraid they have to go.” And he grips the delicate fabric and tears it off. The brush of lace raises goosebumps on my feverish skin as he glides the shreds over my torso to my lips. They blow away from my gasp. “I think these are better than the Chatsworth veil, don’t you?” He flutters the cool lace over my mouth. It flurries with my breath.

“No,” I whimper as the lace floats back on my lips.

“No? Hmm, is something missing?”

“Your mouth,” I huff, and the lacy ribbons fly again.

“Ah, yes, how could I forget?” And his lips start racing the frilly scraps. They whirl over my throat, and his tongue chases them off. He sweeps them across my jawline, and his teeth graze my skin. The lace brushes over my mouth, and his tongue traces my lips. The lace flits back, and he sucks my lower lip until blood pools there, throbbing like the rest of me. From my moan, the ribbons fly off and disappear. Then Aiden’s lips and tongue seize mine, spilling kisses, strokes, words inside my mouth. I taste them all, feeling the tickle of my name when he sighs it, the way his I want yourolls off my tongue, until the world starts spinning behind my eyelids. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin.

“No fainting today,” he smiles against my throat as he snaps off my bra.

“Mmm,” is my answer, and the race begins again. He slides the straps off my shoulders, his tongue gliding down their path. His nose skims the lacy trim as he inches down the cups like a veil over my breasts. His mouth folds around me in a lacework of licks and nibbles. And frenzy strikes. My hips arch for contact, and my fingers sprint over every part of him I can reach. How many times can you touch a man before he becomes your fingerprint?

Finally the bra sweeps off and Aiden’s husky voice breaks through the pulse thundering in my ears. “There you are. Just as magnificent as that first time, and better still.” His eyes descend like fire over me, but unlike that first time, I don’t shy away from them. I tangle my fingers in his hair, writhing off the bed toward him.

“Aiden, please, I want to feel you,” I gasp, my voice breaking with need, not nerves.

He holds my eyes. “Then feel me.” And the length of him presses against the wettest part of me in nothing but flawless skin. Ah, the feel . . . My moan mingles with his deep, throaty sigh.

How many times have I longed for the faintest brush, and now his smooth, heavy weight rests on the blazing folds, sending shiver after shiver to my very bones. A sudden wave of emotion rises within me, and I tremble. But the delicious weight disappears. The sudden absence is excruciating.

“Aiden,” I whimper and raise my hips for more contact, but he pins them down on the silky sheets.

“Feel all of me.”

And hard—in this new first time—Aiden slides inside.  My cry drowns the music and the groaned oh-fuck that tears from his lips. Our bodies shudder in tandem, once, twice. A string of profanities in Russian hisses through Aiden’s teeth, but with a low snarl, he reins his body under control and becomes flexed steel above me, breathing hard. I don’t have such mastery. My body is flailing about at breaking point. I feel every ponderous spasm of him inside me as though magnified a thousand-fold, and I’m quivering inside out.

“Breathe, Elisa, breathe and flex,” he guides me urgently, remaining utterly still to help me. And I try. I grip his arms and lock my legs around his waist, but it’s impossible with him so real. I cannot slow a single tremble and he feels it.

“I got you, I got you,” he murmurs, and for a blinding second, his iron chest presses on mine, stunning my lungs.

“Oh!” I huff, and his weight lifts immediately.

“There. Now breathe with me.” He takes a deep breath and lets it wash over my lips. I match my lungs to his, inhaling his fragrant air, and the trembles recede. “Beautiful,” he praises me as if I did anything. “One more time.” And he restarts my mind again, easing me further away from the brink. “Perfect. Now feel with me.”

And I can now. I can feel him with perfect acuity—every angle of steel that manages to feel like velvet, his vibrant heat radiating through my core, the delicious bubbles now a liquid warmth lapping at my depths, and his weighty presence pulsing in sync with me. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that it surges all way to my eyes. I close them, drowning in the sensation of being with him like this. All those other times he felt divine pale in comparison, like my dreams paled to the real him.

“Ah you,” Aiden sighs. I fling my eyes open at the sound of his resonant voice rising over the music. He’s watching me with an aura of pure ecstasy. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful—even in my own euphoria I can appreciate that. The sight nearly restarts the tremors as I realize that, despite his masterful control, this is just as intense for him as it is for me. “You feel even better than I dreamed. And that’s saying something.”

“As do you.”

He brings his mouth to mine and for an immeasurable moment there is just this—his taste with my taste, his heat with my heat, most of him in every depth of me, exactly as we were made. Then he releases my lips.

“I have to move, love, or I will die. Please don’t faint on me.” His lopsided smile takes my breath away like his weight.

“No dying or fainting,” I promise. “But there will definitely be dancing.” I circle my hips in invitation. And Aiden starts to dance with me to our song, skin on skin—no veil between us. At first, a slow tango like our first dance. I wind my arms around his neck, undulating eagerly against his hips, following each bump-and-grind. Then his tempo grows, pounding a tribal beat at my core. I fall behind, and moans change to cries—a chorus of Aiden-Aiden silencing the music. And my body starts vibrating again in a pirouette of trembles and quivers. He feels them all. His rhythm becomes relentless, now punishing, now worshipful. I absorb his force, his possession, the feeling of our bodies fused together, flesh on flesh, liquid on liquid. How many times can a man be inside a woman like this before he becomes her heartbeat? A thousand? Once? Whatever the number, he feels like that to me.

And the finish starts. My vision sparkles, my ears ring, and convulsions start shimming inside me. An overpowering urgency builds at the bottom of my belly, and I spiral, palpitating around Aiden with violence, hauling him over the brink with me. A startling sensation surges in my depths in the final beats. Like two rivers breaching through their dams and flooding each other’s riverbeds to form a little ocean. We plummet in its depths and drown.

But eventually we float back to the surface again, gasping and shuddering, Aiden’s head rising and falling with my chest like waves. My senses lap at him like a shore—his warm weight on me, his messy hair brushing my cheek, his sharp breath on my neck.

“Elisa?” His low drawl thrums above my heart.

“Hmm.”

“Are you here?”

“Mmm.”

“Do you remember last night on the kitchen counter with the jam?”

“Mmm.”

“And all the other one hundred fourteen times before?”

“Mmm.”

“How convinced we were it couldn’t get better than that?”

“Mmm.”

“We might as well have been virgins compared to this.”

We laugh together, and he sways inside me with the motion of our laughter. So real and vibrant, exactly as if he’s new. My body, already shaped to his contours, grasps him with vivid detail—every flawless angle of him, the silkiness of his skin, the velvety texture of us together. And the more of him I feel, the more I want.

“So now that we know,” I muse in wonder. “How do we stop?”

He lifts his head to look at me, the panes of his face glowing. “We don’t.”

I’m about to tell him never, but my mouth is suddenly busy, as captive to him as the rest of me.

The next thing I notice outside of our bodies is the fading fire in the fireplace. The sky outside the window is the inky black before dawn. I’m sprawled on Aiden’s chest on the Chatsworth bed, a sash of the silky curtains still tangled around my wrist. It brings back a vision of my hands tied to the poster, and I flush—that was a first too, and what a first it was.

“You’re back.” Aiden’s chuckle rumbles under my cheek. “I worried you really fainted there for a moment.”

“Did I?”

“No, just your usual orgasm coma but deeper. You didn’t even snore this time. If it weren’t for the drooling, I’d have called the village paramedics, which would have been an awkward conversation.”

“Well, you only have yourself to blame and these new antics with the posters.” I press my lips on his chest, sniffing it surreptitiously. “What do you do when I’m oblivious, anyway?”

I feel him shrug. “Watch you. Some of my favorite memories are with you like that. One time you hummed the entire Für Elise. Just now you said, ‘orgasms are oxytocin, but taste better’ and smacked your lips.” He chuckles again, stroking my hair.

Heat burns my cheeks, half-embarrassed, half- irked at myself. “You’d think after one hundred eighteen times, my body would have learned some discipline. I wonder if I’ll ever stop reacting like this every time you make love to me.”

“I sincerely hope not,” he laughs, but brushes my flushed cheek. “And you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I have to talk to Rostov in Russian because of you. Objectively, we can agree that’s a lot more embarrassing than ‘orgasms are oxytocin.’”

“That’s true,” I giggle, something tugging at the edge of my mind like an unfinished thought. It vanishes the moment his fingers trail down my spine.

“Speaking of passing out, did you want to stay here tonight or go back to the cottage?”

“Hmm, what time is it?”

“Almost two.”

It takes me a while to subtract. Two and a half hours to the reel. His voice is quieter, and his fingers miss a step on their stroll over my skin. Is he thinking about it too? I wrap myself around him closer, covering as much of him with me as I can. “The cottage,” I decide. “The happiest place there is. Although this suite is now a very close second.”

His long fingers pick up their promenade on my back. “We’ll keep it like this for the summer—a gallery of our firsts. Maybe we’ll add more.”

The end of the summer. I swerve around the thought immediately, but even in that fleeting space, a shiver prickles my arms. “What other firsts should we add?” I ask to distract myself.

His voice is as soft as his caress when he answers, “A whole life of them, Elisa. If we’re lucky enough.”

 

Elysium is entirely silver when Aiden parks in the garage fifteen minutes later. Moonlight falls over the wildflowers like pollen and, if it weren’t for his arm around me supporting all my weight, I would curl up on the pearly daisies and say ‘like cookies’ here.

“Why don’t you sleep in today?” Aiden suggests, his voice already a lullaby. “You haven’t slept much in the last couple of nights.”

A huge yawn chooses this moment to overpower me. “Why don’t we both sleep in? Doctor Helen said a couple of hours off occasionally won’t make a difference.”

He looks toward the inkblot of the reel—visible to us even under starlight—and the bands of muscle at his waist petrify. For a breath, I think he’ll argue, but he answers quickly. “That sounds nice.”

And he sweeps me in his arms and picks up his pace as we pass by the spot. I watch his moonlit profile, resisting my drooping eyelids. Even two weeks later, there are moments like this—when he glides toward the cottage under starlight, dreamlike in his beauty—that I still test reality discreetly, nail into my thumb, retracing last steps. Not because I’m worried he is a dream. But because I’m terrified he will disappear—my entire being remembers the staggering agony of waking up without him. Reality hasn’t fixed that fear: it has only made it more intense, as it has done for the rest of him.

He is quiet too as we reach the willows. Wishes, somehow, he’s here. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, afraid he is already drifting into terrors.

“Just trying to stay in the present moment.”

“Are you feeling sad?”

He peers down at me, eyes puzzled. “Sad? I can’t recall a single day I’ve been less sad in my life.” His smile beams like the moonlight, lifting my own lips in automatic response. “Because there isn’t one. Today, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Really?”

He nods, effervescent with bliss. “Elisa, the person I love most in the world just met my parents. I finally was able to give them a day of nothing but joy since I turned seven. And I’ve spent the last three hours inside a woman that seems to have been made exactly for me. I’ve never had more in my life than I do today.”

It is true for me too, in a sense. Despite the terror and unknowns ahead, in this one present moment—fighting together, with our families supporting us, and the cottage beaconing—my orbit is more complete than it’s been in a long time.

The cottage is amethyst with starlight when we cross the hedges, the roses lavender silver, filling the air with their little puffs of breath.

“Like cookies, roses,” I bid them goodnight as Aiden unlocks the front door and we step inside. But as soon as he turns on the foyer light, everything changes so fast, it strangles my cry.

Tension strikes through Aiden like a thunderbolt, and his arm whips around me, wedging me between his side and the corner behind the door as if he’s shielding me from something. A low growl rips through his teeth—nothing like his loving sounds this evening. It’s a terrifying snarl that wrenches me awake and has me cowering in my corner.

“Aiden, what—”

His finger flies to my lips as his eyes eviscerate the foyer with scalpel vigilance. I follow their beams wildly, but I can’t see anything that’s making him tense like a lion next to me. Then his hand curves around my face. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” His whisper is firm and urgent. I open my mouth to speak but he’s already gone. Streaking to the kitchen and living room then back in the foyer, checking on me frozen at the corner behind the door. “Stay,” he mouths and blows to the library, laundry closet, and up the stairs this time. Despite his speed, his footsteps are barely audible with practiced stealth. I crouch in my corner, wide awake, trying to periodic-table through the panic that’s closing my throat. I have barely managed a few gasps when Aiden is back, pulling me in his arms.

“Aiden, what is it? What’s wrong?” I choke.

“I think someone’s been here.” His volume is back to normal, but his voice is strained.

Blood drains from my face. The words are foreign, incomprehensible for Burford. “What? What do you mean?”

He’s impatient now, eyes darting everywhere. “I mean someone who isn’t us came here today or tonight when we were out. They’re not here now, and it doesn’t look like they took anything, but I want you to check to be sure.”

My knees almost give out. “Why do you think this?” I whisper in terror, but his phone flashes in his hand almost blurry with speed and he’s already pressing 2, tightening his hold around me.

“Sir?” I hear Benson’s gravelly voice on the other side after the second ring.

“Benson. Cottage. Thorn. Cold. Leave Max at my parents’ door,” Aiden reels off, his lips moving so fast I barely make out the nonsensical words, but Benson must understand them because he simply answers, “On my way,” and hangs up. Aiden is about to press another number, but I yank the phone from his hand.

“Bloody hell, Aiden! Tell me!”

He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, love. A couple of things have moved since I last saw them when we were leaving with my parents for dinner. That makes me think someone has been here.”

“What things? Where?”

“Here in the foyer, but I need you to check the safe first, then the library, your old bedroom, and the guestroom to see if anything looks different from when you last saw it. I hadn’t been there since you and Reagan cleaned so I can’t tell when the differences happened. Can you do that for me?”

I nod woodenly, and he tows me through the three rooms, his protective arms around me as though to break a fall. I check the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia first, but nothing is missing. Then I wobble through each room, staring at everything for signs of intrusion. Nausea wrings my stomach at the idea of a specter inside our bubble, touching our most precious memories, breaching mum’s magic shield that I thought impenetrable. But everything seems to be where it was—in its neat, orderly place from the deep-clean for Aiden’s parents—at least to my average eyes and memory.

“I wish I could remember like you,” I mutter, scanning every surface. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right, love. Maybe they didn’t come here.”

“What about our bedroom—did they move anything there?”

Fury jolts in his eyes at the idea. “Nothing. I was there last, changing for dinner. Even the door was still closed as I left it.”

“And the other rooms?”

“The only place things have moved is the foyer, as far as I can tell. Now I wish I had entered these other rooms before we headed out, but I never imagined I needed to for this.”

“What did they move in the foyer?”

“Come, I’ll show you.”

As we wade back down the stairs, I recall that fleeting sense of panic when I first entered the cottage a month ago, the guilty worry that someone had touched my parents’ things. How silly it feels now compared to this. Yet everything looks exactly the same to me, even in the foyer.

“Aiden, where—” I start to ask but he gestures to the foyer wall with his chin.

“Look at your picture with your parents in Italy.”

I squint at the photo of the three of us at the Trevi Fountain. “Umm, do you mean that it’s crooked?”

“Yes.”

Without conscious decision on my part, my lungs draw the first deep breath since we came in. “But Aiden, I could have done that when I was dust—”

“It wasn’t like that when we left with my parents,” he interrupts me, shaking his head. “That frame was straight.” There is no doubt in his voice, no room for argument. His memory is absolute, as I know it to be. Yet there is a lethal fervor about him. I watch his face carefully now: the panes are sharp with tension, eyes ferocious with intensity, fierceness emanating from him in destructive waves. Abruptly, a different fear starts spreading over me. Not just for the cottage now, but for him. Is there danger here? Or is this the effect of the reel—seeing danger everywhere, even in the most innocent things?

“But the frame could have moved when you closed the door or on its own,” I argue, trying to stick to logic for answers. “Why do you think someone did it?”

He is shaking his head again before I’m finished and strides to the front door. “Watch the frame,” he says, opening the door and then closing it. “Did it move?”

“No, but—”

“Watch again.” He opens and closes the door three more times, each time harder than the one before, and the frame dips on the third.

“There! There, it just moved!” I cry out, pointing at it. “See, it doesn’t mean anything, love. You’re just extra vigilant right now, that’s all.” I almost sink on the floor with relief, but something flashes in his eyes too quickly for me to understand it.

“I didn’t slam the door when we left, Elisa. I had to slam it now to get the same effect.”

“I know, but frames move all the time. These are just hanging on old nails. Is this the only thing you noticed?”

His jaw flexes once, and that same nameless emotion strikes his face once more. “No, it’s not. Look at your father’s scarf.” He tilts his head toward the coat rack that only has the scarf and parka in it.

A frisson of panic courses through me. “What about it?” I scan the scarf urgently, heart crashing against my ribs, but again I notice nothing.

“It’s slipped on the peg. When we left, both sides were hanging down almost equally. Now the left is a couple inches longer than the right.”

It would have been impossible for me to notice without him pointing it out. “Okay, yes, I see it. But why do you think someone moved it? It’s a piece of tweed on a peg. It can slip on its own. I have dresses that fall from hangers all the time.”

Something gives out at my words, and his eyes start to harden. “Because—” he speaks through his teeth now, but then pinches the bridge of his nose in what I assume is an effort to moderate his voice. “Because—” he tries again. “It’s too many coincidences all in the same six-square feet. That’s why.”

His eyes are boring into me, half-glaring half-imploring me to see things his way. But I no longer know what is worse: for him to be wrong or for him to right. And what is best: to support him or challenge him here? His acute tension decides it for me. “Aiden, love, there aren’t too many coincidences. There are exactly two.”

“You’re wrong!” His voice slips out of his control as it did in my dreams when I couldn’t see past the field of epiphanies.  “Look at your mother’s coat.” My eyes flit to it immediately. “The right sleeve is straight now; it was bent when we left.”

“But, Aiden, it probably relaxed on its own. It’s called gravity. Haven’t you ever heard of hanging up your clothes to release wrinkles?”

His jaw flexes. “I see. And the petals on the console?” I whirl to the console with split terror: dreading and wishing for him to be right. Two petals are under the vase of Clare roses I cut for his parents. “One wasn’t there when we left,” he explains. “The other fell when I slammed the door just now. From fresh roses, I might add.”

I stare at them, counting unnecessarily.

“Well?” he demands.

“I don’t know what answer you want me to give,” I admit, suddenly losing my patience. “If I argue, you’ll just get angrier. Do you want me to agree or disagree with you?”

“I want the truth,” he hisses.

I don’t know what does it—whether it’s that hiss, his refusal to consider a benign explanation, the last several minutes of apparently needless terror, or the emotions of the last forty-eight hours—but abruptly I feel exhausted and angry myself. “Fine, here’s the truth. Petals fall all the bloody time. That’s what they do. I see absolutely nothing about two petals from a bouquet of thirty roses to indicate someone was here, especially when there’s no sign of a break-in at all, in a town that hasn’t had a burglary in forty years, in a cottage that has zero riches of any kind except the roses which are all outside.”

His face becomes livid. “Zero riches?” he roars, hand in a fist around the doorknob still—the brass rose is shuddering from his strength. “It has you, Elisa! For the first time in four years. Maybe that’s why they didn’t steal anything—because who they really wanted wasn’t here tonight! And why would they need to break the door when all the windows stay open the whole fucking time?”

“Enough!” My voice fires off, too loud by my standards, too low by his, shocking us both. He’s breathing hard, watching me with that nameless emotion again. And everything becomes too much for me. I just want to go to bed with realities that, although excruciating, I can understand. Or at least trust. I take a deep breath, trying to lower my voice. “Aiden, it’s been a long day, we have to be up in a few hours for the reel. Let’s just go to sleep. We’re not solving anything tonight even if someone did come in and we can’t call PC Dockery with this kind of evidence.”

I turn for the stairs, but his voice stops my feet. It’s no longer loud or hard—it’s quiet, almost part of the night. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

I look back at him, still standing by door. “I believe you believe this.”

Fury strikes his face so staggering that it makes the livid look of a few moments ago seem like a smile. “Spare me the diplomacy bullshit, Elisa, and say it in plain English. Say, ‘Aiden, I don’t trust your judgment because you’re a madman who has to wear a fucking monitor over his eyes every morning and it’s making you see things.’ Say it!” He speaks in a guttural, arctic voice that rends the night more than his roar. But even worse is the nameless emotion now drowning him. It’s no longer nameless. It’s the purest compound of hurt and fear I’ve ever seen in my life. It knocks me breathless, and I have to grip the rail of the stairs for balance.

“Aiden, no,” I gasp. “I don’t think—” But the doorbell chimes with its Für Elise jingle followed by a battery of booming knocks. I jump up, but he doesn’t move. He is frozen at the door, watching me, anger and anguish in every pore.

Another volley of knocks shakes the door, and a panicked familiar voice shouts, “Aiden! Elisa!” It’s his father, not Benson.

“Fuck!” Aiden hisses, shutting his eyes and trying to rearrange his face, jaw clenching with the effort. But he’s still blanched and jagged when he yanks open the door. I watch, peripherally, as his parents storm in first both in their pajamas, Benson and his military mate, Max, towering behind them. I hear their frantic voices, muffled from my heart hammering in my ears, sputtering that they heard Benson and Max at their door talking about trouble at the cottage, and Benson apologizing for not being able to stop them. But my central focus is on Aiden—shocked, exhausted, worried, furious, surrounded with the people he loves most and vibrating with tension against the foyer wall in terror of hurting them, fuming for his parents to go back to bed right now. That unlocks me.

“Everyone!” I call from the staircase, not wanting to crowd Aiden more. “Let’s all go in the living room and give Aiden some space. We can talk there.”

They scramble and follow me immediately, Benson bending at the waist and Max, not as hulking but still broad, lumbering sideways. None of them even looks at the seats—they just scatter around in various poses of distress while Stella takes me in a hug where I’m hovering by the sofa, gesturing futilely at it. “Are you all right, darling? What’s happened? We were awake from jetlag and heard Benson tell Max something about a break-in.” Behind her, Benson looks almost as murderous as his boss.

“We’re both fine, Aiden’s just being careful,” I assure her but I’m really listening for any sign of him in the foyer. I hear nothing. “Why don’t I get us some tea?”

But before I can take a step, he strides in the room. His face is back under his control albeit ashen, his frame in its granite public setting. He scans the room, eyes landing on me first. They’re opaque under his tight leash, the hurt well-hidden in their depths.

“Everyone, have a seat.” His voice is back to its alpha timbre, too. They all thaw at his command and perch at the edge of everything—armchairs, floor, piano seat—leaving the sofa to us. I panic he won’t sit next to me, but he does. Not close enough for our arms to touch as usual, but I’ll take any closeness at this point. Then he steeples his fingers and starts with his parents. “I’d like for you to go back to bed. This is nothing Benson and I can’t handle—”

“Son, we’re staying.” Robert’s voice is calm but final. “Now tell us what happened.”

Aiden watches his father in exasperation for a moment, then summarizes the last fifteen minutes that feel like fifteen years in three sentences. “When we came in tonight, I noticed a few things had moved. Nothing seems to be missing, and there are no signs of a break-in. But I’m not convinced these changes are accidental, although Elisa has some rational reservations about my theory.”

My eyes fly to him, startled by his admission, but he’s looking at Benson sitting on the floor.

“What was out of place?” Benson asks in an efficient tone, taking notes as Aiden explains everything, including my objections. It’s impossible to miss how unquestionably Benson accepts Aiden’s theory. And how Max nods, clearly considering this possibility. Is that because Aiden is Benson’s employer? I watch Robert and Stella who know Aiden best. Their faces are folded in concern, but I can’t tell if they agree or disagree with him. And the earlier dread starts creeping over me again. Am I wrong? Was there someone really here? Did I hurt Aiden over nothing when he’s only trying to protect me?

“They must have had a key if they didn’t break the door,” Benson concludes. “Elisa, who has a key to the cottage?”

“Just Aiden and me. The Plemmonses had a copy when I lived in Portland, but they gave it back. That’s the copy Aiden has.”

“They don’t need a key,” Aiden disagrees. “They could have picked the lock or easily slip through any of the open windows. No one closes them around here, but that’s changing tonight.”

“Theories on who or why?” Benson prompts.

“Many, one as likely and unlikely as the next.”

“So, we can rule out burglary since nothing was taken,” Max interjects, drawing a line on a scratchpad he seems to have pulled from somewhere.

“I agree.” Aiden nods. “Which points to a more personal motive, but why?”

Benson turns to me. “Has anything like this happened here before?”

I shake my head. “Burford hasn’t had a break-in since 1976 and even then, it was Plemmons Blooms, not a home.”

“What did they steal?” Aiden looks at me again, and I meet his anxious eyes immediately.

“Roses.” A general gasp fills the room, and his eyebrows arch in disbelief. “But it never happened again,” I explain quickly. “It just became a local legend—the Rose Thief. The story goes that it was the ghost of Lady Tanfield who used to own Plemmons’s street hundreds of years ago or a desperately poor farmhand trying to impress his love.”

“So they never caught the Rose Thief?” Benson clarifies.

“No, but it was forty years ago. And they didn’t cause damage or hurt anyone.”

“They didn’t tonight either,” Max points out and ticks something on his notepad. “So maybe we have a motive. There are thousands of roses around here.”

“Yes, but they’re all outside,” I argue, feeling mental for considering legends as options instead of gravity. “Why would they need to come in if they were after roses? And just about every other cottage in town has them. Why this one?”

“Why indeed,” Robert muses, eyes on Aiden. Something quick passes between them, and Aiden’s jaw flinches in defiance.

“You have been working on that new rose hybrid you showed me,” Stella suggests. “Maybe something about it? And the Rose Festival is next weekend.”

I can see all their faces pondering her theory with seriousness, although Aiden shakes his head. “The timing with the festival is suspicious, I’ll grant you that. But the hybrid is out in the garden. As Elisa said, they wouldn’t need to come in. And whoever the intruder is wouldn’t know about it in the first place. But let’s keep it on the table for now. I’ll search the garden as soon as it’s light out.”

“What about a stalker?” Max throws out.

A muted snarl rumbles from Aiden and, for the first time since our argument, his arm flies around my shoulders. “It was my first thought,” he answers through his teeth. “Although Elisa’s things are untouched, which is inconsistent with their playbook.”

I should shudder at the idea as improbable as it sounds, but with his stony arm around me, I can’t feel that kind of fear. My only fear is for him.  I lean closer and he peers at me, eyes softer now. “Have you seen anyone follow you since you’ve been back or even before you moved to Portland?”

“No, never as far as I know,” I assure him. “I would tell you about something like that.”

He nods, but the phone screen flashes to his ear. Everyone is frozen as he waits for an answer from someone at two thirty in the morning. He doesn’t have to wait long. Whoever he’s calling picks up almost as quickly as Benson.

“Yeah, Cal, it’s me,” Aiden speaks into the receiver. I inhale every rapid-fire word he exchanges with James. “Sorry about the hour . . . when you were watching Elisa, did you ever see anyone around the cottage?” A quick answer. “What about anyone following her? Town, Oxford, anywhere?” Another quick answer. “I figured . . . Yes, she’s fine. I’ll fill you in later . . . Agreed . . . See you next weekend.”

“What did James say?” I ask as soon as he hangs up.

“He didn’t see anyone, and if there was someone to be seen, Cal wouldn’t have missed him. And I certainly haven’t seen anyone or they wouldn’t have come here tonight. Don’t worry about this. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” His voice is resolute, and his hand clutches my shoulder on the last words.

“I know you won’t—I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about the stress this is causing you.”

He looks like he’s about to argue, but Robert jumps in with his idea. “What about anyone at work, Elisa, where Cal and Aiden couldn’t see?”

I shake my head, a smile pulling my lips without permission. “No, I’m working with one of my dad’s friends and his best former student who thinks my dad was a chemistry god and talks to him out loud. They quite literally are dedicating a bench to him like a shrine. I’d suspect Lady Tanfield over either of them.”

“Does anyone else know about the protein?” Aiden asks.

“Just the other Bia chemists, but they’re all screened and know everything already.”

“Not everything,” he reminds me.

“Yes, but no one alive knows about the code or the list except you and me. The code is in the you-know-what and the list is always you-know-where and we’ve left no evidence of our work here or there. Besides, if they had found out, why would they need to break in? They’d camp at Bia twenty-four seven, celebrating and testing.” I caress the locket for emphasis.

“I’m sorry, I’m not following,” Stella speaks for the first time in a while. All their eyes are on us, brows knitted in confusion.

“Elisa is working on a highly complex and confidential project,” Aiden explains and, even in his tension, a note of pride still enters his voice. “But we can’t discuss the details.”

“So what options are left? If this project, the roses, a stalker, or a burglar are out?” Robert looks straight at Aiden now and the room falls quiet. He gazes into the empty beehive fireplace, eyes squinting as they shift in analysis too quick for me to follow. Only in the end do I see a flicker of the hurt before he throttles it immediately.

“Well, first, I’m not ruling out any of those options until I have solid evidence to the contrary,” he answers in a tightly controlled tone, eyes still on the fireplace, but his hand on his knee has turned into a fist again. “But if it’s not any of them, the only other option left is that Elisa is right . . . that I’m seeing things.”

“Aiden, no!” I take his fist in both of mine, not caring of the four pairs of eyes on us. “I don’t think you’re seeing things, love. But I do think you might be seeing danger. I don’t question the frame has moved, or the scarf has slipped, or your judgment. I’m only worried you’re under incomprehensible stress and might be interpreting these things to mean something sinister in your heightened vigilance. Please believe me—there’s no one I trust more than you.”

I brush his white knuckles and let him see everything he can see in my eyes—the whole truth. A very, very small part of my brain registers how silent the room has remained around us. Eventually his fist opens, and he nods once. “Fair. We’ll keep that option on the table, too. But I can’t ignore the others. If you’re right, there’s nothing I can do about it. But if I’m right and someone was here, there’s a lot we need to do.” He pulls back his hand and his head snaps up at Benson. “We need to scout the area. It’s almost light out. Max, how long can you stay in England?”

“I have another week off work.”

“If I double your current salary, will you consider staying here as Elisa’s security until I find someone local?”

“My what?” I gasp, but he silences me with one look.

“I’m indulging your theory, now please indulge mine.” His eyes fly to Max again who jolts to his feet and almost salutes him while I watch my life transform in seconds.

“Absolutely, sir. I’ve been wanting to work for you since Benson first started. No one will get near her.”

“Agreed. And vet security for my parents while they’re here as well. Cal and the others will be here next weekend for the Rose Festival, so that’s three more hands. We’ll discuss surveillance and logistics when I get back.” His sniper gaze flashes to his parents who are still at the edge of their seats, faces in identical masks of stress. “Can you stay with Elisa until I get back?”

“Of course,” they answer in unison.

With a deep breath, Aiden turns to me and cups my cheek. “I know you think this is unnecessary and even insane, but I have to do this. I cannot take any risks—no matter how remote you believe them—with your safety, do you understand me?”

I manage a nod, too stunned to produce any words.

“Good. Now stay here and don’t worry—Max will guard the cottage. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

Translation: I’ll be up all night for you, then do the reel, then protect you from known and unknown dangers no matter what it costs me. That unlocks my tongue. “Why don’t you sleep first and go out later?” I plead with him. “Sleep is important for you right now.”

“I’ll sleep afterwards. It’ll be easier to notice any differences now before there’s more activity around or to check if anyone is still in the area. But the three of you should absolutely go to bed.”

“I will if you will,” I offer urgently. “Please?” But he presses his lips on mine quickly and bolts to his feet.

“Benson, let’s go.”

They’re out of the door before I can say or do anything else. I sprint to the window barely catching their shadows disappear over the rose hedges into the violet dawn.

The silence that follows their departure is deafening. I stand frozen, staring at the empty garden, the wound in my chest ripped wide open. What is happening to my love? How can he keep up with this stress? And what if he’s right against all reason, and someone is out there? What if Aiden gets hurt trying to protect me? I’ve been dreading losing him at the end of the summer if we don’t win. But what if we don’t have even that long? What if this experiment or something else claims Aiden before then? Abruptly a flashback of my Romeo nightmare blasts in my vision for the first time in over a week, blinding me with its force. I shudder at its clarity, seeing nothing but Aiden’s parted lips, feeling his cold skin on my fingertips, so much like Mum’s hand in the morgue or dad’s forehead in the casket. A gasping sound patters close by—my own. Distantly I feel a warm arm around my shoulders and Stella’s faraway voice snaps me out of my own terrifying reel.

“Elisa? Darling? Come sit, sweetheart.” She pulls me back on the sofa that no longer has Aiden’s warmth, and curls next to me, holding me in her gardenia hug—much like Reagan two weeks ago except Stella’s arms are wrought with her own terror for her son. That seeps through me. I should be comforting her, not the other way around. I breathe against my own fear, clutching my locket, and fold out of her embrace. Robert is sitting on the other side of her, face lined with worry. Max has taken my spot at the window, staring out into the garden.

“I’m sorry,” I croak, voice hoarse with unshed tears. “I’m being an awful hostess. I’ll start the kettle. Or do you want to rest for a bit? The guestroom is clean, and it would make Aiden happy if you tried.”

Stella chuckles with a forlorn sound. “Oh, sweet pea, you’re not our hostess. You might as well be a second child to me as much as my son loves you. And there’s no chance of us catching a wink. Come on, I’ll help you with the tea. I could use the busy work, too.”

In the kitchen, I don’t dare to touch mum’s tea set in my state. Just our old everyday cups that are almost as precious in their chipped way. I warm the leftover scones from our afternoon tea, fighting back tears at Aiden’s playfulness with the kettle. How blissful and proud he was just two hours ago. The happiest day of his life, he said, and it ended like this—with terror and hurt from me. I stifle back a sob and chase it with tea from his coffee mug to cover the sound. It doesn’t fool his mother.

“You know,” she says, shuffling the Twinnings tea packets in their wicker basket. “Aiden has always been very strong, even as a little boy. He’s like Robert that way. I’m worried about a lot of things tonight. But not about anyone hurting him and Benson together.”

I nod because it’s true—physically Aiden is a weapon of mass destruction—but I don’t feel comforted. Because the reel and he are destroying each other every dawn in other ways—and his parents don’t know that. Outside the kitchen window, the sky is turning sapphire. Max’s boulder shape is out there pacing the garden perimeter, and the roses are washing off their sleep with dew. Did you see anyone last night? I ask them in my head. I think you’d have found a way to rise from your roots and scratch their eyes out with your thorns if that was the case. They don’t answer.

“How has Aiden been sleeping, Elisa?” Robert’s quiet voice startles me from my monologue. It’s the first time he has spoken since Aiden left. He’s at the kitchen table in dad’s and Javier’s chair—his tea and scone untouched.

“Quite well actually, except tonight of course.” I take a sip of chamomile tea, blush prickling my hairline at discussing our sleep with his father.

“That’s good. At least Für Elise is holding.”

The mug shakes in my hand so much that hot tea spills on my fingers, but it’s still cooler than my cheeks. “You—you know about that?”

Stella is dabbing off my hands with a tea towel, looking as stunned as me. “Know about it? We were the ones who discovered it. Didn’t Aiden tell you?”

The kitchen goes blank, except their lined beautiful faces and the gasps of air on my lips. I shake my head, barely mouthing the words. “He said it was painful for him to talk about.”

“Oh, believe it.” Robert nods, exchanging a glance with Stella.

I look at his grave expression then at Stella’s sad smile then back at Robert then back at her again, thoughts a snarl. Can I ask? Should I ask? But Stella nods in encouragement. “Would you like us to tell you, dear?”

“Oh, please, will you?” I stammer, all breath gone. “I’d never make him relive it, but . . .”

“But you want to know. Of course, you do. Here, come sit, and we’ll tell you the story. I don’t want Aiden to have to revisit it either.”

I perch at the wooden edge of mum’s seat and wrap my hands around Aiden’s mug as Stella takes my old chair next to Robert and starts in a low sonata voice. “How to start? From the beginning, I suppose . . . The last night Aiden ever spent in our home was June eighth, 2003—the night he attacked me, about one week after he had returned from that unspeakable place. He was sleeping in the basement back then, although ‘sleeping’ is a generous word. He’d never been a good sleeper, but this was different. He would just lay on the hard floor, either in a nightmare or wide awake—nothing in between. Robert and I used to listen at the stairs . . . I still hear the screams . . . ‘let him go, let him go, let him go,’ he would say in Arabic . . . I was foolish that night. He had told me not to wake him, but I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer that way and . . . well, you know how it ended . . .” She shudders and tea splashes from her cup. I dab her hands, as Robert rubs her shoulder. He doesn’t seem to be breathing.

“He never returned after that night, no matter how much we pleaded with him,” she continues. “I would see him some nights—under the old cedar in our backyard or driving by, but he never crossed our threshold again. He felt so wretched for hurting me, he didn’t think he deserved to come in . . .” She drifts again, a tear sparkling in her eye.

“Where was he staying?” I whisper.

“Outside, camping with Cal and the other boys for a while. They were all in bad shape, although Aiden more so, of course. He was lost to us for a long time. As were they to their families. Only the four of them know how they lived through it. But they did somehow, they kept each other alive, I’m convinced of that . . .” She shudders again, and the cup slips through her hands, tea sloshing everywhere. “Oh, I’m sorry, Elisa. What a mess!” She apologizes frantically while I try to comfort her and mop up the tea, my own hands trembling. Robert shifts his chair so close to her that their arms are touching, like Aiden does with me.

“Anyway,” she sighs. “For the next few years, we’d hold our breath every time we heard tires on the driveway, or a knock on the door, or the doorbell. But it was never Aiden. He would only call or write. Once he started his company and could afford Benson, we’d visit him at home but the pain and guilt and fear in his eyes when he’d see us . . . I couldn’t stand for him to feel it. And so the distance grew year after year and we stopped holding our breath when the doorbell rang . . . But it all changed one night a month ago, the night you left.” Stella looks at me, eyes glimmering with tears and a smile lifting her lips. Robert seems to breathe for the first time I’ve noticed since the story began while my chest throbs at the reminder.

“He had called us earlier that evening to ask if the Solises could stay with us for a couple of weeks. He sounded upset; they’re very important to me, he said. Of course we agreed immediately—it’s so rare for him to ask anything of us. So they moved into the guest house only a couple hours later, and Berty and I had gone to bed.  Then around one in the morning, the doorbell woke us. I don’t know how long it had been ringing, and there he was—right on our doorstep as we had always dreamed but looking so destroyed, we almost fell to our knees. I thought a diagnosis or another Marine had been lost or another accident. But he just said, ‘Can I stay here tonight? I’m not in trouble, but I can’t be anywhere else.’ I don’t even remember what we said . . .

“I just remember he crossed the threshold, very carefully, and that’s when we saw Benson behind him, looking pale, but he didn’t come in. And then Aiden took the stairs to his old room where all his childhood things still are. We followed at a distance, expecting him to close the door, but he didn’t. He let us sit with him in total silence. For almost an hour, he just sat at the edge of his old bed, no words, no movement, staring at an old frame of the three of us at Oxford, for moments at a time he wasn’t even breathing. Then my heart started acting up and I needed my medication, and that’s when he came to. He looked at me and said, ‘I met someone.’

“At first, I didn’t think I heard him right, but he said it again. ‘I met someone, and I lost her.’ We didn’t know what to do, we were just . . .”

“Shocked,” Robert speaks for the first time since the story began. “Absolutely floored.”

“You see, ever since Aiden’s gifts became apparent, we had spent years worrying about the right girl for him, then years worrying about the wrong kind, and then years no longer hoping he’d find anyone at all. And now here it was, and we didn’t know what to say. My first worry was that you had been hurt, dear, but I knew with his memory the very first words we’d utter were the most important.

“So I just asked, ‘what’s her name?’

“‘Elisa,’ he answered and then sort of breathed.

“‘That’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘like the melody?’ And he nodded.

“I don’t know what made me do it, I don’t know why—maybe because I couldn’t find the words—but I went to his old record player and put on Für Elise. And almost immediately he started to breathe. Just regularly, in and out. I sat next to him on the bed—which would have been unthinkable for him to ever allow—and said, ‘tell me about Elisa.’ He lied down on his side, facing us, and said ‘I love her.’

“Neither of us was breathing at that point even though he was, were we, Berty?”

He shakes his head, eyes on his cold tea.

“Then the song ended, and Berty replayed it. ‘I love her,’ Aiden said again. ‘The Solises are her family, but she’s gone. And I don’t know how to be with her or without her . . .’ We waited for him to finish but he just fell asleep. Just like that. Poof! Our Aiden, our tortured, beautiful, kind boy just drifted. We couldn’t believe our eyes . . .”

For a while, they both gaze unseeingly at their cold cups, their faces folded in wonder, as I labor sick with worry to find my lungs or anything in my body to keep me here instead of running through the fields to search for my tortured, beautiful, kind love. To bring him home where he can sleep and dream sweet dreams, safe from everything outside and inside of him. I’ll stand guard while he rests, not Max or Benson—because I’m the one who calms him.

Robert comes back to the kitchen first. “We stayed up all night, just watching him, replaying your song. We figured out how to do it on our phones, so that one would start as the other ended.”

“And through it all, my baby slept,” Stella sniffles, wiping her nose with the wet tea towel. “I know it sounds odd to call him that, as big and hard as he is, but he’ll always be my baby. And that’s why for us, you could have been Medusa living in Hades and we’d still love you. But you’re not—you’re a loving, beautiful girl who is giving our boy sleep.” She caresses my cheek.

“Thank you,” Robert says with a deep emotion in his voice.

I watch their faces, blurring through tears, without knowing what to say or how to breathe or sit still.

“Oh, don’t cry, darling.” Stella wipes my cheeks even though hers are almost as soaked. “This is a good thing. He loves you so much. I know it’s difficult to deal with his . . . intensity, his protectiveness, not to mention his awful temper and stubbornness, but you’re the most important thing in his life. Please indulge him, like he said.”

“But stand up to him, too,” Robert urges. “Like you did today with this threat. I think it’s important you do that. Aiden wouldn’t accept it from anyone else, but he needs to hear it.”

My head is spinning with all the revelations, the different directions my emotions are pulling at me, the millions of needlepoints of panic for Aiden, and love so strong it feels it might crush me more than his startle blow. I try to squint through the gale of my thoughts for the most immediate. “Thank you for telling me,” I manage after a while. “And for being here.”

“Where else would we be, dear? We’ll help you through this and anything else you need. But don’t be afraid, if there is someone out there trying to hurt you, God save him when Aiden finds him, and he will.”

A shiver courses through me, and I gulp some tepid tea, placing my lips on the mug where Aiden wraps his. “I’m not afraid of that. I’m more afraid of what Aiden is going through.”

“You really don’t believe this threat is real then, Elisa?” Robert frowns.

I shake my head. Who would ever want to hurt this place? Or me? Why?

“You make some good points. On the other hand, I’ve never known Aiden to be wrong on matters of perception,” Robert argues. “Emotion is another issue. And this is a bit of both.”

“You agree with him then, Berty?”

“Hard to say.”

They start the same argument then—is it real? Is it not?—while outside, the early sunrise is filling the garden with a diffuse light. Abruptly I can’t sit here any longer. I mumble something about the roses and slip out in the garden. Max’s eyes follow me from the hedge as I pad to the bench where Aiden and I sit together at this hour after the reel, drinking coffee mouth to mouth. But his unmistakable silhouette is nowhere on the horizon. I clutch my locket, eyes flitting over the field of epiphanies. Bring him home. Keep him safe. Give him peace.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 21 & 22

Hello friends, and welcome to tea! Or rather to two chapters since I didn’t post on Sunday: Answer and The Hales.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them. I’m savoring these moments with our couple, you’ll see why.  More soon, and thank you as always for reading and writing to me. Hope the week wraps up well.  xo, Ani

21

Answer

Reagan and Javier’s last hour in Burford comes too soon. Where did two weeks go? How has it been only two weeks when they feel so permanent here, as natural as the roses? How can I watch them go? And what then? Continue living goodbye to goodbye?

“You know we’ll come right back if you need us, right?” Javier asks Aiden and me as we’re all sitting in the Inn’s terrace Friday evening for a final toast before they go to Heathrow Airport. Not that I can swallow anything. Aiden’s arm hasn’t left my waist since he picked me up from Bia four hours ago.

“We do, thank you,” he answers now for us both—my voice has disappeared.

Amorcita?” Javier takes my hand across the table. “I promise. You just say the word.”

“Absolutely, Isa.” Reagan takes my other hand. “As often as needed until you two figure this out and come back.”

At least my blanched face can be blamed on the goodbye this time. At least I don’t have to force a smile. I manage a nod.

“About that,” Aiden adds. “These are for you.” He hands them the two first-class tickets he has bought them. “They’re for . . . September.”

I know he chose the bare minimum words needed but a chill whips my skin anyway. September 18, when our ninety days are up. In case I need Javier and Reagan here then. In case we don’t win.  His hold on my waist could crush the boulder in the river but it’s still not tight enough for me.  He throws his jacket casually over my shoulders.

“That’s when you’ll find out if things have improved?” Javier confirms, his voice lower.

Even Aiden can’t form a verbal answer now—he simply nods, pulling me closer.

“And then what?” Reagan starts but Javier elbows her.

“Reg, don’t.”

“Why not?” she fires back at him, eyes flashing. “Why can’t we discuss the elephant in the room, Javi?”

For a moment I don’t know if she is talking about them or us—there has been no progress with them on that front—but Javier shakes his head. “Because it’s not our elephant to discuss.”

“What did you want to discuss, Reagan?” Aiden asks my question, no doubt for my benefit.

She glares at Javier and, hesitantly, takes Aiden’s hand too. I feel tension jolt through him. It strains him more now the longer he watches the reel. “I don’t care if I’m interfering, I have to say this part. I know you have serious things to deal with but I’ve also seen how much you love each other. And that kind of love is rare. Don’t throw it away.”

“Reg, for the love of God!” Javier explodes—very rare for him. “Isa could get hurt! And not just hurt, but really fucked up! Is that what you want?”

“Of course not!”

“Then what the fuck? Isn’t it hard enough without reminding them how much worse it can get?”

I barely hear Javier and Reagan’s loud voices over the shudder that rocks through Aiden and the snap of his teeth at the mere idea. Javier and Reagan notice it too, and stop mid-fight. Javier takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t mean to—”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re absolutely right.” Aiden’s voice is clipped, filled the terror and self-hatred twisting every band of muscle in his back. That snaps me out of my self-pity.

“No, you are not!” I yank back my hands from their hold, my voice a lot louder and sharper than I ever thought I could produce against Javier. “You don’t know Aiden like I do. He’s working hard at it every day—harder than you could ever know—and he will not hurt me!”

Anger burns my throat and my breath is coming out in hard gusts. I’ve never yelled at Javier before—this is not how I want to say goodbye. But even worse is saying goodbye with him thinking of Aiden this way.

“Elisa, love, it’s all right.” Aiden’s voice—so tender with me when seconds ago it was so vicious against himself—makes me even more furious.

“You stop it, too! You’re worse about it than Javier. Can’t we all just have some . . . some faith in you? In who you are?”

He raises his eyebrows, taken aback by the force of my anger. As we all are. I scowl at the veranda’s balustrade, hands in fists. I don’t understand my fury right now. The last minutes with Reagan and Javier are ticking, I’m more terrified of losing Aiden than ever, yet I’m fighting with them for worrying about me. But I do understand this: I’m not scared of Aiden hurting me physically. I know that’s mad given our history, but I just cannot feel that kind of fear. I’m terrified of what this fight will cost him, of losing him if he doesn’t beat this when I would want to be with him no matter what. Exactly as Reagan said.

She nods at me in understanding.

The two most self-loathing men on the planet heave a similar deep sigh. I don’t want to imagine the arguments Aiden is having with himself right now—they might as well be scrawled in blood across his forehead. At last Javier nods. “Okay, Isa, I can see your point. And I do have faith in you, Aiden. I don’t think you’d ever hurt her intentionally. It’s accidents I worry about.”

“As do I,” Aiden answers, ignoring my huff.

“But I also worry about you two all alone here with so much hanging in the balance. I’m glad your parents are coming tomorrow but after they leave . . . Isn’t there a way for you both to come back while you deal with this? We still have your million dollars. Come back to Portland where we can all be together and support you more.”

Javier looks straight at me now, and whatever blood boiled to the surface from anger drains off my face. Behind him, the moon glows over the hilltop with my parents’ grave. The cottage’s rooftop looms across the field of epiphanies. And in my chest, the locket with my father’s dream is pulsing next to my heart. Tears spring in my eyes, and I have nowhere to look, nowhere to hide.

I know they have seen everything under the veranda’s lanterns. I hear it in their silence, in Reagan’s sigh, and yet I cannot form a single word, I cannot gaze anywhere except at the mental image of a ribcage torn apart like the one in the reel of torture.

“The thing is, Javier,” Aiden breaks the silence in a measured tone as chill after chill flays my arms. “The scientists who are helping me are here. And this place is a bit easier for me right now, quieter, more open. So I’ll have to impose on you to be here for us this summer.”

He just took it all from me and put it on himself so I don’t have to choose or even answer right now. I don’t know if it works on Reagan and Javier, I can’t look because I finally can meet Aiden’s eyes when this topic comes up. They’re the softest blue—softer than the moonlight. Is this how they’ve looked at me every time I’ve hidden from them?

“In that case, we’ll come here as you need us,” Javier says without further argument. “We can revisit if—when—things work out.”

I know he corrected himself for me. I know because he smiles when I manage to look at him.  And then it’s time. Benson comes into the terrace, telling us the van is ready to take them away. All my anger and indecision disappears—the only thing left is anguish and goodbye. No, don’t go, I want to shout in front of that van, but they have their own troubles, their own lives.

“I’ll come with you to the airport,” I sniffle as they stand.

Dios, Isa, no. You wouldn’t get back here until midnight. Aiden’s parents are coming tomorrow.” Javier grins despite my earlier yelling.

And that does make me smile. I get to meet the two people who created the most beautiful force in my life tomorrow, just as Aiden planned it so I’d have something to get me through today.  But I still don’t know how I get through the next few minutes. Only Aiden’s hand in mine keeps me standing or walking as Benson and his mate, Max, start carrying out Reagan’s and Javier’s suitcases one after the other, double in number now because of Reagan’s new hats. Then Aiden’s hand squeezes mine.

“Have a few minutes with them,” he says, kissing my temple. “I’ll be in the lobby.” His eyes follow me as I shamble to Javier’s room in the quiet Inn.

Reagan and Javier are both there, double-checking Javier’s travel parole documents. As soon as they see me, they pull me in their arms in a three-way hug, as they did when they showed up on my doorstep exactly two weeks ago.

“We’ll call as soon as we land, and every day after that,” Reagan says. “I’ll be back before you know it. Take care of my rose until then.”

“I will.” I take their hands and put them together. “And you take care of each other, okay?”

“Don’t worry about us,” Javier answers while Reagan stares at her trainers.  “It’s you and Aiden you need to worry about.” They drop their hands at the same time.

“Love you,” I tell them both. “Love you so much. I’m so sorry I yelled at you, Javi.”

He laughs, mussing up my hair. “Don’t worry about it. That’s how I know we’re family.” Then his face becomes somber, and I know before he speaks that he’ll say something that will ring in my ears long after his plane takes off.  “You know we’re family, right?”

“I do.”

“We’re never going to replace your parents on that hill, sweetheart, but we’re here, flesh and blood. Life is long—you need family with you. Heal Aiden here but come back to us.”

He gives me another peppermint hug, Reagan kisses my cheek, and with a love you corazon y alma, they walk out.

I sink on the rug of Javier’s room as their footsteps fade, clutching my locket, trying to breathe, trying to see the present moment instead of the torn, unknown future ahead of me. But there is nothing visible through the tears that are gushing now. The whole world has become liquid like transatlantic oceans, drowning me in it.

It takes Aiden exactly two minutes to find me here, gasping and weeping on the floor. He folds down next to me, cradling me in his arms. And at first, it’s worse. Because that terrified part of me that’s drowning imagines another goodbye—his—and sobs wrack my lungs so violently that he tightens his hold and starts rocking me in place, murmuring words I cannot hear. I grip the collar of his shirt and another image—this one of gripping the marble grave when I first came back—flashes in my own reel of torture.  But wafts of cinnamon breath wash over my face one after another, and eventually I can find the present moment. I’m in Aiden’s chest, his shirt is soaked, his hand is cupping my cheek as he keeps murmuring, “I’m here, I’m right here, I love you, they love you.”

And though the tears are still trickling, I can breathe through them and it’s not the worst goodbye of my life. I take strength from that. And I’m not alone. Even though my mind dreads his goodbye, in the present moment, Aiden is with me, I’m in the fortress of his arms. And I’m able to lift my head, look up at his eyes.

Just in time to wish I hadn’t. Because the agony there is so staggering that it suffocates my lungs. I’m adding to his pain when the reel already brutalizes him each dawn. And its toll is getting higher each week, each day. The reel holds him longer; it takes a few extra minutes to bring him back; he is more vigilant, seeing more dangers; and his eyes lock in memories more often. Yet he’s here, trying to comfort me, absorbing my tears along with Fallujah’s bombs.

That’s when the tears stop. Immediately as though his anguish switched off my tear ducts and restarted my mind.

He notices. “Elisa?” His voice is panicked, as though he’s not sure if it’s over or about to start again. “Talk to me, please.”

“Hi,” I croak, wincing at the hoarse sound of my voice. He doesn’t speak, but his hand feels my forehead, my pulse. “I’m okay,” I assure him.

“No, love, you’re not. I’ve never seen you in so much pain.”

But I’ve known a lot worse pain. Losing him for one. Losing my parents for another. But he doesn’t need to hear that. “I’m just awful with goodbyes, Aiden, but I’m better now.”

He wipes the moisture off my cheeks, the V a deep canyon between his brows. “It’s not just goodbyes this time though, is it? It’s having to choose: half your heart here, half in Portland, and you don’t know how. That’s why you hide your face when it comes up, why you can’t look at me or anyone else.”

He has seen it all—I never fooled him for a second. I nod a weak yes, limp in his arms. “I didn’t think . . . I didn’t know I’d feel this way . . . until I came back.”

He watches every flicker of expression on me, and I let him, relieved for the truth to be out even if painful. “I’ll fly them over as often as possible,” he offers. “All of the Solises, not just Reagan and Javier. I can buy them a cottage here if you want. Would you like that?”

But they all eventually would leave. Unless I abandon everything I love here, we will always be apart. These are not burdens I can lay on Aiden’s tense shoulders. I stroke the worried V to smooth it—it doesn’t give. “I know you would, but they have their own lives in Portland. They’ve sacrificed so much to be there. I can’t uproot them. I’ll just have to choose which half of my heart I can give up. ”

“Tell me what to do, Elisa.  How do I help you with this?”

I rest my head on his chest, listening to his heart. “This is enough. Just be with me.” No matter what, even if we don’t win, I add in my head, because if I have him, I can live through anything. But that’s the one request that would be excruciating to him, the one thing in the world he would not give to me.

He shrugs as though he doesn’t think he’s enough. “I’m yours, you know that.”

I do know. I just don’t want him to be mine from a distance. I snuggle closer, like a second shirt over his soaked one. He strokes my arm, no doubt noticing the goose bumps. “Will you promise me something?” he asks.

“Anything. Unless it’s some self-loathing nonsense.”

“No, it’s not about my . . . renovations. Will you promise me you’ll talk to me about this next time? You won’t try to hide it like you’ve been.”

I nod, kissing the spot above his heart. “I promise. I don’t know why I try to hide anything from you. You see it all anyway.”

“I do, and the answer is yes.”

His heartbeat is even, calmer than mine that is abruptly galloping again. I look up at him, and his eyes are serene, the V is gone. “The answer to which question?”

“To whether I would consider living here if I become safe for you. Isn’t that what you’ve been wondering?”

I watch him stunned, unsure he spoke the words, but the small smile on his lips is evidence he said them. “You would?” I whisper.

He nods, brushing my cheek. “I can’t promise I will become safe, but I can promise that if I do, I will not make you choose. Whatever you decide, I would support you. Does that help?”

It takes several thundering heartbeats and another waft of cinnamon breath for me to form words. “More than you know,” I answer, the rush of gratitude muting my voice.

His smile widens. “There, you can take that off your list of worries.”

So many other things I want to ask—whether he would want to live here for himself, whether I could ever ask him to give up his life, his empire, his parents with whom he is trying to rebuild his relationship —but I don’t because they’re still just if’s. What matters in this present moment is the love behind them. I take his face in my hands and bring him to my mouth. His lips are willing but hesitant—probably wondering if I’m well enough to be kissed—so I crush myself against him, my lips leaving no room for doubt. Instantly, his body responds, and his mouth starts moving with mine in his possessive, healing way. One of his hands curls in my hair, his other arm tightens around my waist, straining me against the steel lines of him. And that’s when I remember.

“Aiden, oh my God!” I gasp.

“I prefer being your man.”

“No, I mean, do you know what time it is?”

His fiery eyes smolder in a way that sets my skin ablaze. “I’ve known what time it is since five fifteen.”

“Bloody hell, that’s four hours of no condoms! Why didn’t you remind me?”

“You were ups—” His answer fades in my mouth. I can’t kiss him deep enough, taste him long enough, touch him fast enough. My hands swoop down on his belt, snapping the buckle. His fist in my hair tightens as he tilts up my face, and his other hand closes like iron fetters around my wrists. It takes a few moments of rolling frantically on his lap to realize his strength is not possession now—it’s restraint.

“Elisa,” he says, his voice suede and warm—a direct counterpoint to every hardened angle of him. “Will you please stop grinding against my cock?”

“You don’t like that?” I gasp, unable to locate my hips, let alone stop them.

“Clearly I very much do, but not now.”

“What?” His words stop my hips wherever they are. As a rule, he never says no to this. He chuckles at my bewildered expression. “Why not now?” I ask, brain glitching.

His beauty transforms in that fluid way of his that leaves me breathless—or it would if I wasn’t already panting. “Because I’ve thought about feeling you that way hundreds of times, maybe thousands. And now that it’s here, I don’t want it to be right after you’ve been sobbing. Or on Javier’s floor for that matter.”

I try to think through the way his words make my pulse and other things race. “But I’m fine now. And we can go to your room here—we haven’t tried that bed yet. It looks a bit like the one at Chatsworth. Who knows what kind of fainting it would cause.” My body arches futilely against his restraints.

He smiles at my attempts to seduce him. “All painfully excellent points, but I still want my first memory of us together like that on a happier day.”

“Oh!” I breathe, brain finally reconnecting. His memory would always associate our most intimate moment with a day of tears. Perish the thought. “You’re right, definitely not today. I almost ended the world.”

He laughs and releases me now that he knows I won’t attack him. “Come on, my dear Mrs. Plemmons. If memory serves, there’s still one last condom hidden in garden shed to save our lives the old way.”

He starts to stand with me still soldered to him, but something catches his eye. He frowns at the floor under Javier’s dresser. “I think Javier forgot something.”

He reaches under the dresser and drags out a sketch. His low whistle mingles with my sharp inhale. Because there, in carbon pencil, vivid even in black and white, are Reagan’s eyes. Unmistakable and inquisitive as though they’re looking at the man who drew them, asking why not, Javi?

“Wow!” I marvel.

“Quite.”

“I have to talk to him. He has to tell her!” I reach for my purse but Aiden stops my hand.

“Don’t. Let him have this secret if he needs it—we’ve already won.”

“Won how?”

He taps my nose with the sketch. “If I recall, the goal was to make Javier see. Well, he very clearly sees. What he does with that is up to him. Besides, you and I have more urgent things to worry about right now.”

“We do?”

He rolls up the sketch and takes my hand with humor in his eyes. “Of course we do: we have a condom to ruin, scones to bake, that infernal silver tray to polish for the sixth time, parents to meet. These are heavy things, Elisa.”

I laugh as we leave Javier’s room and walk into the sultry night to the cottage. Because I’m with him.

***

Most goodbyes are followed by a hello—even the hard ones, even for me. Like a glistening morning after a night of squall to get us through storm to storm. And that’s exactly how Saturday’s sunrise is, even after the reel. As though all my stars have custom-ordered it for Aiden’s parents’ arrival. I gaze out of the open kitchen window, trying to see my nook of the world with visitors’ eyes. Loving, worried, overjoyed visitors who are finishing off five thousand miles right now to reconnect with their only son and meet his girlfriend for the first time.

The rose bubble around the cottage is shimmering with a golden mist. River Windrush seems more glass than liquid—a flecked mirror from the slow current underneath. On its bank, the willows sway like vermeil sirens in their hushed duet with the larks’ opera. And Elysium’s velvet of wildflowers is so dense it could be a tapestry worthy of Chatsworth’s gilded staircase. If I squint, I can see a thread of grass here and there in the brocade of daisies, forget-me-nots, poppies, wild orchids, and columbines. Even the sunrise is molten today—a dome of gold silk without a single cloud.

Yet despite the magnificent welcome nature has mounted, I feel utterly unprepared. How do people do this? Google was no help for my case. For one, Robert and Stella are the forces that created Aiden—enough said. For another, this is their first extended time with him since he hurt his mum and exiled himself from their life for their safety over a decade ago, as he did with me. There are no etiquette books about how to meet parents like these.

I wipe mum’s special tea set on the kitchen counter for the nth time—the gold rim and blush roses gleam like the rest of the cottage. What would you do, Mum? I laugh, thinking of her journal entry for meeting dad’s parents. The entire tea was an ordeal of epic proportions culminating with mum spilling hot earl grey on Grandpa Snow’s lap. “And we made it,” she wrote. “Just let them see your love, dearest. And bring roses.”

Outside the kitchen window, my million roses are sparkling with welcome, the blooms twinkling with dew, their perfume almost visible in the air.

“If you polish that teapot one more time, a genie will come out of it.” Aiden’s arms wind around my waist, making me jump. “Shh, just me,” he says in my ear. Just him—my entire universe. His freshly showered smell stuns all the roses. “What would you wish for?” He kisses the hollow spot below my ear.

“You.”

“Something you don’t already have.” His lips brush down my throat, blowing away my thoughts. “Wishes?” he murmurs again, like the willow song he hears.

“Umm, that I don’t spill tea on your father’s lap, that I solve the protein before your parents come, and that the plane is a little late, but not too much.”

He chuckles against my neck, sending tingles everywhere. “I will pour the tea, although it’s my lap you should worry about.” He nibbles my earlobe. “And you’re going to Bia this morning while I go to the airport so you might solve the protein.“ His lips flutter over my jaw. “As for the plane, it’s on time, but we’ll grab some coffee first and I’ll take the long way back.” His mouth presses at the corner of mine. “How is that?” He turns me in his arms, and all the other wishes disappear.

He is glowing before me more brilliant than the morning outside, in a white linen shirt and his staple jeans—a droplet water like a diamond in his still wet hair. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful, but I try to see him as his parents might. He looks playful, but his sculpted cheek is more drawn from the reel, and his eyes change more often. Although not now—his smile is as blinding as the sunrise.

“Will I do, Mrs. Plemmons?”

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” He sighs with exasperation as he does when I check on him like this. “They are my parents, Elisa. I’ve met them before. From the minute I was born I’m told although, thank God, that is a moment I don’t remember.”

“I know but it’s—”

“Complicated, yes, I’m aware. But today, it’s easy for once. They’re meeting the woman I love, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier about it. Can we leave it at that?”

As if I can resist him in anything, let alone for happiness that has shifted again and now looks exactly like him. “Whatever you want.”

“I have everything I want in my arms. Now why don’t you tell me what you’re feeling that’s making you polish that tea set for the twelfth time that I’ve counted?”

I shrug. He’d be late for the airport if we covered all my nerves. “Mostly I want it to be a special time for you and them. And I want them to see our love, not just the danger.”

A dozen emotions flash across his face, from disbelief to amusement, but he settles for tenderness. “Elisa, the fact that this is happening at all is special enough. None of us could imagine this happening a month ago. Or my whole life for that matter. As for the love, how could they not see it? What other sane reason would any woman have to be with me?”

I frown at his choice of words. “A million.”

“All right, maybe that’s true on paper, but physical safety seems to be a basic prerequisite in life. And you endanger yours every day to be with me. My parents, more than anyone else, understand the love it takes for that. And the love it takes for me to allow it. So—stop—worrying.” His eyes are piercing as though trying to tattoo this very elemental truth straight into my brain.

“Can I worry about one more thing?”

“No.”

“Please?”

He sighs in that give-me-strength way, but cannot resist. “Fine, what else is worrying you?”

“Do you think they’ll like the scones?”

“You’re impossible.” He brings me to his mouth, kissing me in a way that should be banned and illegal. By the time he releases me, I can’t even remember my name, let alone my worries. I just droop in his arms, the kitchen twirling. He chuckles, although I think his hand curved around my neck is feeling my pulse—checking to make sure I won’t faint no doubt. “That should do it,” he says, satisfied. “Now, please, for today, could we try to be just Aiden and Elisa doing this very normal thing and enjoying this present moment without worrying about what’s behind us and what’s ahead?” He unleashes the full force of his eyes on me, like he did with his mouth. It takes multiple heartbeats, blinks, gasps, and a whistle from the kettle for my brain to unscramble. Even then, I can only manage a breathy, “yes.”

His dimpled smile almost incapacitates me again. “Thank you,” he says softly. He holds me a moment longer until my legs can support me. “Benson is here. Shall I send him to the airport alone while I resuscitate you from my kiss?”

He sounds serious, except the eyes dancing with humor at my expense. “That little peck? I’ll survive. Besides, I have the rose petal jam to taste—much sweeter than you.”

He laughs and throws a tea towel over my head like a birdcage. “Relax!” He kisses me through the other side of it as if I cannot handle his bare lips a second time, which is absolutely true. By the time the towel slides off my face, he’s in the foyer. “The scones are delicious. And be safe at Bia,” he calls behind him as he closes the front door.

I watch him lope gracefully down the garden path to Benson who is standing like another beech tree at the garden hedge, waiving at me. The moment they’re out of sight, two things happen at the same time: the wound starts festering and the nerves start humming. If I stay here much longer, I’ll end up cleaning the cottage to the studs again. Bravery is more urgent. I turn off the stove, throw on my locket and dad’s lab coat, and dash across Elysium to our garage shed for the Rover. Far in the opposite direction of the country road, I think I see the dot of Benson’s van racing toward Heathrow Airport as Reagan and Javier are still charging toward PDX.

22

The Hales

Bia is empty when I bustle in. It’s only eight fifteen on a Saturday morning after all—perfect for under-cover work. I steady my hands and start testing the oxytocin options. Seven down so far, ninety more to go from Aiden’s list inside my locket. As though to contain my nerves, my hands move faster—like they did the day of Javier’s trial—and I eliminate an eighth, ninth, and tenth oxytocin formula within the first two hours, one eye on the combusting vials and the other on the clock. I have only one hour left before I have to go. Another oxytocin ampule explodes, a shard of glass nicking at dad’s initials on the coat. If all fails, I’ll talk about the weather. That’s a good, solid British philosophy. And if his parents ask me whether I’d ever return to Portland, I’ll say what? Have more tea? Do you like the scones? I’m an undecided mess and I couldn’t decide anyway until our terrifying experiment with your only son is over? Because if we lose, there will be no place in the world for me? And if we win, he promised he would support me if I choose England? The questions are so deafening that I almost miss a change in the lab’s atmosphere, almost like a creeping sensation. I look around startled, but there is nothing. And then I finally hear what I sensed: utter silence. The vial in my hands has not exploded.

The gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp of my breath shatters the precious quiet as I stare at the lilac liquid in disbelief. Could it be? Is it possible? What was I doing? Which oxytocin was it? The twelfth! Was this it, Dad? Did “December” have two meanings? Not magnesium the twelfth element, but add the twelfth formula of love? Trembling, with my heart in my throat, too afraid to move, I gently shake the vial. It doesn’t break; there isn’t a single crack on it. But the substance is also liquid, not solid as it should be. In an unforgivable, inexplicable, and utterly mad moment, I tip it to my lips for a tiny drop. I know there’s nothing toxic in it, but no serious chemist would ever do this. Only the desperate ones. I almost hear dad’s voice thundering down on me. Yet the liquid doesn’t sting or hurt in any way. I smack my lips—it’s a bit sour, like lemon. Certainly nothing like what my love tastes. Maybe one more drop? I lift the vial again, mumbling “Salud,” when BANG! It explodes in my gloved hand at the same time that the droplet fizzes on my tongue. I deflate on my lab stool, heart plummeting in my stomach with disappointment. The good news is my stomach doesn’t heave or expel its contents. The bad news is I still don’t have the protein. Or any time left to test more today. As soon as that thought reenters my consciousness, I’m forced to surrender with a groan. Of course this would happen today of all days—on the other hand, it’s better than the ninetieth day. I tuck the oxytocin ampules back in their fridge and start sweeping the shards into the glass disposal bin. Yet underneath it all, I feel a frisson of joy—at least we know which oxytocin it might be. But why on earth is it still falling apart?

“Oh, hey, Eliser!” Graham’s voice blasts behind me. “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you worked Saturdays.”

“Hi, Graham!” I turn to grin at him, saying a fervent and silent thank you to any angel up above, including to my furious father, that Graham didn’t arrive ten minutes ago. “I just came in for some testing, but I’m almost done.”

“You’re becoming as obsessed as me. That’s brilliant, that is. Any luck?” He stows his satchel and tosses on his immaculate coat while I scan my area for any evidence of my work. Luck is indeed on my side—the only sign left is the usual shards of glass.

“Look for yourself,” I answer, inclining my head toward the splinters.

“Oh, more broken vials—that’s novel!” He laughs as I sweep away the crystal fragments. “Well, I’m not giving up, I’ve had an idea.” Graham pulls up the first volume of the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and plops on his lab stool. “I think we’re missing something. Edison is adamant this is the formula he developed with your dad, but it can’t be complete. So I’m going to sit here today, tomorrow, and the rest of the year if that’s what it takes, looking through each substance in this abomination and see if I can come up with anything. Interested? It’ll be most riveting.” He flips open the tome to letter A with another laugh.

I forget sometimes how much I like Graham and his uncomplicated single-mindedness. All he seems to want in life is chemistry—that’s it. With more strength than I realized I felt, I hope he succeeds. I hope he finds the oxytocin on his own, and we can be true partners again. “I’d help but I have to run. A couple of friends are visiting.”

He looks up with a frown. “More guests from the States?”

“Yes, but don’t worry,” I assure him. “They’re retirement age and they’re staying at the Inn so there will be no wild parties to make me late for work.”

His forehead relaxes. “Eliser, I never thought I’d say this to anyone but myself, but you need a life with people your age. What will you do with your fossil mates?”

I laugh, wiping down my counter with ethanol. “Plenty. Tea today, out to dinner tonight, the Rose Festival next weekend . . .” Graham pretends to fall asleep and snore. “Good luck with your abomination. See you Monday.” By the time I close Bia’s door behind me, he’s already absorbed in the Encyclopedia, seeming lost to the rest of the world.

The golden morning is even more brilliant when I park the Rover in the garage, but the nerves are prickling like thorns. I snap off a wilted bloom from the climbing clair-de-lune roses and scuttle across Elysium’s wildflower carpet. A shiver runs through me as I pass by the spot of the reel at the edge—it’s visible from here, the wildflowers are flattened to Aiden’s body shape like an inkblot on the vivid tapestry. I trot to it, fluffing up the daisies, poppies, and trefoils as much as possible. I don’t want Aiden to see his own imprint, although if I noticed, his eyes have certainly not missed it. I roll a Baci quote inside an orchid for him to find after tomorrow’s reel and dash through the field to the cottage.

The moment I reach the garden, the nerves soften a little. The roses have never looked more magical. They went through a rose spa this week, as Reagan called it. We pruned all the wilted blooms, withered petals, and dried leaves we could reach, and now the roses twinkle, draping like Chantilly lace from the rooftop to my feet.

“Well done, you,” I mutter, caressing the Clare rosettes. Whatever else Aiden’s parents will think about us, no one can resist mum’s magic.

Her spell flows inside the cottage too as I look for any speckle of dust with visitors’ eyes. But there is none left. The cottage sparkles—the dove gray velvet sofa, the blush pillows, the heather-plaid armchairs, the vases of roses everywhere. Even the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights are painted in rose tones to blend in—courtesy of Javier. All my wellies and Aiden’s shoes are hidden away, although mum’s parka and dad’s tweed scarf are still in the coat hanger where they will always remain. The sight of home is so overwhelming that it stops my blinks. Will Aiden’s parents like this? Not just in vacuum, but for their son? By Reagan’s account, their home is straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest, which makes sense since Robert is, indeed, an architect.

My phone vibrates against my behind with a text. Aiden: “Dropping off luggage at the Inn. 20 minutes. Good or detour?”

The nerves explode with full force like the vials. “Good,” I manage to text back as I sprint up the stairs, hair and heart everywhere. Because the hardest question that I’ve not dared to examine too close is now clamoring over the bright white walls: will they like me for their son?

Of course they’ll love you. Who doesn’t? said Aiden, the man with Javier’s filter over his eyes when it comes to me. I hope he doesn’t embarrass me with his this-is-the-only-woman-in-the-world nonsense. I scoff, pawing through mum’s dresses for the dusky rose linen dress that Reagan and I selected for the occasion. Then I busy myself with peeking through the lace curtain of the kitchen window, tasting jam and reciting the periodic table.

I hear them before I see them. A deep hearty laugh that has to be Aiden’s father, a soprano one that must be his mum, and my favorite sound in the world—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. Then the three of them emerge through the willow garlands, and my mouth falls open. If there has ever been a more attractive family, I’ll broadcast dad’s bravery formula on BBC. I don’t know how or when, but somehow, someday, Reagan Starr will pay for not warning me about this.

Aiden’s father is the Old Aiden of my visions, tall and leonine, with a full head of hair that glimmers snow-white, which makes his steel blue eyes brighter even from my sneaking spot. I absolutely must not spill tea on his taupe slacks or oyster shirt. Yet my eyes drift to Stella now standing with her mouth open like me as she takes in the roses.

“Oh, my stars!” she gasps—I like her already. Her hair falls in chocolate waves to her shoulders, and she has a heart-shaped face. But it’s her eyes that hold me. Although Aiden’s eyes have no parallel, it’s clear that his neutral sapphire came from her. She is petite, wearing black linen pants, a cream turtleneck, and a caramel purse like the one on Reagan’s dream wardrobe Pinterest account. “It’s like a fairytale,” she swoons, but her eyes never leave Aiden’s face for long. He stands a few steps behind her, and she looks over her shoulder at him with a shining love I’ve only ever seen in my mum’s face in our home movies.

“It does feel like that sometimes,” Aiden answers, and now I examine his face. There is a different beauty about him when he looks back at her. Softer, almost with longing, and something dawns on me that I should have realized by now: unlike most of us, Aiden has not forgotten those initial emotions in life, that first powerful bond between mother and child. That’s exactly what he must be feeling now. How has he been able to endure their separation?

“Come, meet Elisa,” he says, and his voice becomes suffused with pride and excitement. Yes, he’ll definitely embarrass me. They start walking up the path while I sprint to the front door, smoothing down my dress and hair and checking my lips for jam.

“How many roses are here do you think?” I hear Stella ask. According to Aiden, she loves gardening.

“Oh, I’ve estimated just under a million. Many of them have a story, some have names. Elisa can introduce you to them later, she does it better than me.”

“Names? How precious!”

I take a deep breath and open the door. The three exquisite creatures look at me with varying smiles: Robert’s dignified, Stella’s warm, and Aiden’s dazzling as his eyes lighten to my turquoise.

“There she is,” he says, stepping next to me and wrapping his arm around my waist. I hear a low gasp from his parents—perhaps seeing my calming effect on him for the first time?—and feel my face burn. “Elisa,” Aiden breaks the short silence. “These are my parents, Robert and Stella. Parents, this is Elisa.” If there was pride in his voice before, it’s nothing to how he sounds now.

“You’re very welcome,” I say, flushing. “I’m glad to meet you.” The words no longer feel rehearsed—they are true in every syllable because I’m meeting the two most influential people in Aiden’s life.

“It’s so wonderful to finally meet you, Elisa,” Stella says with feeling, reaching out her hand. I take it and, to my surprise, she pulls me into a gentle gardenia hug. “You’re even more darling than in Maria’s and Reagan’s pictures. Thank you for inviting us.”

“It was Aiden’s idea actually, but a good one as usual,” I answer, suddenly wanting her to know this. She beams at him behind me while Robert extends his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, Elisa.” He doesn’t hug me, but his grasp is warm and firm.

“And these are the roses,” I add breathlessly, and they all laugh. “I can give you their names later. Please come in, you must be tired.”

“Oh, not at all, Aiden spoiled us,” says Stella, referring to the first-class flight he bought them, no doubt.

We make it to the living room despite the small foyer, Aiden’s arm never leaving my waist. They seem to anticipate his movements to the millimeter—much better than me, and only a degree below Benson—despite more than a decade of distance between them.

“Oh, this is lovely,” Stella enthuses as she looks around. “Exactly like a fairytale, I just telling Aiden.”

“Beautiful architecture,” Robert approves, his eyes tracing the ceiling beams.

“Thank you. It was falling to ruin when my parents bought it, but they restored it. Please take a seat. Would you like something to drink before tea?”

“No, no, we’re fine,” Stella chimes. “Come, sit with us for a while.”

They take the armchairs, insisting that we take the sofa. At first, I think they must like the squashy seats, but then I notice a sense of wonder flit through their faces each time they see Aiden touch me. Like right now as he winds his long fingers with mine.

“Do you play, Elisa?” Robert asks, inclining his head toward mum’s upright in the corner.

“Only a little. Not as well as my mum and definitely not as well as Aiden.”

“She’s being modest,” Aiden interjects in his this-is-Beethoven voice, his thumb drawing a half-moon on the back of my hand. “She’s an excellent player. We usually play after dinner together.”

“Speaking of music.” Stella looks at me with another smile, and I get the feeling she is trying to make me feel welcome even though she is in my home. “Aiden just had us play the willow game.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter while I melt. “Yes, mom, tell Elisa what you heard.”

“I swear they say ‘more shoes.’”

Robert chuckles too—maybe this is why they were laughing earlier. “Darling, you don’t need more shoes or willows to tell you that.”

She laughs. “Because yours was so much better? Fishing, fishing, fishing?”

I listen to the sound of their family—so new for the cottage, yet so familiar—trying to find nuances and similarities to what I know despite the different cultures and tragedies that have struck our families. They are there: the easy manner with which they show love, the way they tease each other. And the nerves fade. Aiden and I have something in common beyond our connection forged in the fires of Iraq and Javier’s brushstrokes. Our families do not seem that different. Yet could I ever take him away from this even if we win? When I know exactly how it feels to lose it?

“I’ll go set out the tea,” I say, standing. “Please make yourself at home. Or we could have it in the garden if you prefer?”

“Wherever is easiest for you, dear. I can come help.” Stella starts to rise from her armchair, but Aiden stops her.

“I’ll help Elisa, mom. You relax.”

He takes me be the waist to the kitchen, and I sense marveling eyes follow us there. As soon as we turn the kitchen corner, Aiden pulls me in his arms. “Hi, you,” he murmurs, his eyes doing that part-fire, part-adoring thing.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He arches me closer, lips at my ear. “You shouldn’t look this stunning. It’s excruciating with parents around.”

“Me? Have you seen the three of you? You make the rest of us look like wet tea bags.”

He chuckles, kissing the corner of my jaw, inhaling the Aeternum perfume. “Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush to the corner of my mouth. “They like you, you know.”

I push weakly against his chest—his mouth is already messing with my thought process. “Let’s wait for the verdict, shall we? I’ve barely said five words.”

He releases me with a sigh, his eyes still on fire. “I don’t need to wait. I know my parents.”

“They’re so sweet, Aiden. I’m so glad they came.”

“They’re absurdly over the moon. I’m certain every time I touch you, my mom’s heart has arrhythmia.”

He helps me arrange the infernal silver tray—or rather watches me as I do it, his gaze enflaming my skin even though I avoid looking at him so I don’t break mum’s china. “Aiden, behave.”

“What?”

“You know exactly what.”

He chuckles again and this time helps me fold the rose-embroidered napkins. The good news is his heated gaze leaves my skin. The bad news is his fingers brush against mine now and then, giving my own heart arrhythmia. But thankfully he takes over when it comes to the scorching kettle. “I believe I promised to do this for the sake of my father’s lap. Although there’s only one lap burning in that living room and it’s quite the safety hazard.”

A scone drops from my fingers on the silver tray. “Aiden, please!”

“All right, I’ll behave. Tell me about your second wish. How was Bia?” He starts filling the rose teapot, guarding my hands away from the blistering stream.

“Hopeful at first, then it fell apart again.”

“What happened?”

“The twelfth formula stuck for a minute and then exploded.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about my reckless taste test. He would have a dragon fit, parents or no parents around.

“Maybe a dosage issue?”

“That was my first thought, too. I’ll start recalibrating on Monday.”

“It does sound like the correct oxytocin though. It rings true with the December code.”

“Yes, it feels like the sort of thing dad would do: layer meanings in his clues.”

“Just as his daughter does.”

We end up in the garden for the tea under the deep shade of the beech trees in the bistro table and chairs that mum used for al fresco dinners. Stella is bubbling like the Bollinger champagne Aiden is now pouring. “Robert, look at this! There are rose petals in the bubbly.”

“And in the tea.” Robert chuckles with an indulgent sound.

Stella looks at me, her eyes soft—they change almost as quickly as Aiden’s. “You’ve gone to such trouble for us when you’re dealing with so much. We would have been happy with just toast and water, but I can’t deny I love this. Thank you.” There is an old ache hidden well in the velveteen folds of her voice.

“It was no trouble at all,” I assure her. “Besides, Aiden helped me with all of it.”

“Oh, yes,” he answers in a tone so uncharacteristically light, I think he’s trying to banish the ache in hers. “The rose petals in the Bollinger were definitely my idea. Not to mention taking the scones out of the oven and making sure the oven was off.”

Her bubbling laughter returns immediately and she picks up a scone. “I’m not surprised. You were always a helpful little boy.” She turns to me, spreading rose petal jam on her scone. “Would you like to see some pictures, Elisa?”

“Oh, dear God!” Aiden groans, sitting up in his chair and turning to his father. “I thought we discussed this.”

Robert chortles, raising his hands. “I’m sorry, son, I tried. At least she only brought one album. There were five packed in her suitcase before I discovered them.”

“Aiden, stop it,” I laugh. “I want to see them. You’ve seen mine.”

“That’s different—yours are hanging on the wall. I have to see them.”

“And I have to see these.” I scoot eagerly close to Stella, ignoring his resigned growl, as she takes a small album the size of her palm out of her purse.

“Here he is, a month old,” she croons, flipping through the pages, while I try to muster heart, tear ducts, lungs, and ovaries. Because baby Aiden was something entirely wondrous. Even in those early months, his eyes were shockingly aware for an infant under his mop of black hair—certainly more so than Anamelia, for example, when she was a baby. I watch him over the years in this different reel, shooting up and filling out, blowing out candles, riding the blue bike I saw during his MRI, and transforming out of the innocent baby to the somber child with the burden of his entire world imprinted on his mind. Yet his eyes do not change—they remain sentient in every way. I can tell exactly when Stella was the photographer and when it was Robert. Because the child’s gaze holds that undercurrent of longing for Stella and a strand of deference for Robert, until the last photos of pre-teen Aiden who never looks at the camera again.

“All right, that’s enough.” Adult Aiden’s long arm swoops across the table and takes the album over our protests. “I’m confiscating this for the next two weeks.”

“And you accused me of being the cutest kid,” I say, but my throat feels full—full of bubbles, full of his baby smile, full of his memories.

“And I was right.” His otherworldly gaze meets mine, and I wish we were alone so I could ask what he is thinking in this moment. Do I want to know? Under the table, his hand grasps mine, his thumb drawing an infinity loop on my palm.

“Stella, I think we’ve embarrassed our son enough for the rest of the year. Why don’t you show them what the Solises sent?” Robert interjects casually as if he senses exactly the wave of emotion that has suddenly swept the garden.

“Oh, yes, good idea.” Stella scrambles inside her purse again with a grin. “Here, Elisa, this is for you.” She hands me a small glass bottle full of dirt. On it, with sparkly craft paper letters that could only be the work of Javier’s sisters, it says: Isa’s Home. “Apparently, it has dirt from Casa Solis, your apartment with Reagan, and Aiden’s backyard,” Stella explains.

I smile at the dirt, trying to breathe, unable to meet their eyes. Of all our family, Robert and Stella are the ones who absolutely cannot see my conflict—not when they are only now getting their son back. “It’s brilliant,” I whisper, bringing the bottle to my lips and setting it at the center of the table.

“And Maria sent you this.” She takes out a floppy something wrapped in more sparkly paper. I unwrap it, and this time cannot stop my sigh. It’s a handkerchief crocheted with Maria’s lacework and all our family initials embroidered in icon blue. “She made it while Javier was . . . unavailable,” Stella adds softly.

“Of course she did.” I kiss the handkerchief too and set it on top of mum’s rose napkin before I need it for tears.

“And, Aiden, this is only for you.” Stella laughs, handing him an envelope with so many Hello Kitties on it, the paper is not visible. “It’s from Anamelia and she gave us strict instructions that no one else is to open it.”

He pulls me close as I lean in to see. Inside is a drawing and two words sprinkled with more sparkles. Aiden + Anamelia, she has scrawled in pink crayon. Below the words are two stick figures, a tall one with big black hair and a small one with pigtails. Around them, she has drawn a giant heart. Despite the emotion, it makes me laugh. She thinks Aiden is her special friend and the rest of us are allowed to borrow him on occasion.

“She has her brother’s talent,” Aiden chuckles, folding it carefully and setting it on top of my handkerchief. Then his hand grips mine under the table again. “I’ll have to draw something back, won’t I?” he asks me.

“Yes, and right away. She’s probably waiting by the mailbox.”

“Christ.”

“And this,” Stella says with a flourish. “Is from Cora.” She hands us a photo of Aiden’s backyard where the American Beauty roses we planted together before I left are bursting with crimson blooms. And my throat feels full of bubbles again. How can I miss that yard where I barely spent a month as much as I miss this where I’ve lived most of my life?

“Speaking of roses,” Aiden jumps in, no doubt seeing my torment. “Elisa, why don’t you introduce my mom to the ones here?” He strokes my hand under the table, and I know he picked this moment on purpose: to give me a breather and allow me a chance to showcase my life here.

Strolling the garden with Stella is like nothing I can compare it to. She is a bouquet of familiar blooms—kind like Mum, warm like Maria, perceptive like Aiden—yet with something entirely her own. She gives me time between roses, asking just enough questions to draw me out but not enough to push me, and I sense she is being careful, that this is as new to her as it is to me.

“It’s beautiful here,” she says after I finish telling her about the Clares. “I wish I could have met your parents. I’m very sorry you’ve been through that.”

“Thank you. It’s better now than it used to be.” Especially here, so close to them.

“I feel I can imagine some of the pain from losing that kind of love after losing Aiden for so long.” She looks over her shoulder at Aiden and Robert talking at the tea table, Aiden’s eyes checking on me every few minutes. “But he seems happier and calmer than we’ve ever seen him, except as a child of course. That’s why Robert and I are so happy he has found you, dear.” Her sincerity is etched in every line of her smile, in every softly spoken word. “We had stopped hoping he would ever allow himself any love.”

Her openness disarms me so much that my own truth comes out with ease. “I worry about that still,” I admit. “But you’re right that at least now he wants to.”

She nods as we stroll to the Elisas. “How well you know him already! But we must have faith, mustn’t we? For him and for ourselves?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.”

She smiles, fluffing an Elisa bloom. “Isn’t it funny how love works? We are the only two people in the world he has hurt, and the two who have the most faith in him. I prayed every day I would be the only one, but if it had to happen again, let it be to a good end. Let it be so he can overcome this.”

Yes, let it be. There is no other end that’s acceptable, no option where Aiden is lost not just to me and his parents, but to himself. Abruptly the garden seems darker despite the bright afternoon sun, as though Aiden’s star flickered with my thoughts. “He’s working very hard,” I say with force to silence the abstraction. “I’ve never seen more determination or strength.”

Her forehead is creased with worry as I lead her to the Reagans. “He has been vague about this experiment. I’m sure he’s keeping all sorts of horrifics from us, and I won’t ask you to tell me. But please tell us what we can do to help. His father and I are here for you both in every way. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can’t ask of us.”

“I think being here and spending time with him will help. I know he wants to rebuild his relationship with you very much.”

“But there must be something more we can do,” she presses. “Please.” Her voice catches with her breath, and her index finger presses against a thorn absentmindedly. She pulls it back quickly, but it was enough—enough to see the deep fear that must be scalding her insides like mine, even with the faith we’re trying to keep. And enough to see how desperately she needs to do something for him.

“Well, the most important things are to avoid the startle at all costs and stay in the present moment. And, hard as it seems, we’ve been trying to build as many happy memories as possible to counteract the trauma. It might help for you and Robert to do the same with him, especially while I’m at work.”

Her face brightens immediately. “Yes, yes, that’s perfect! We can do that. And I can cook or help with anything else you need—the garden, the cottage—so you can just be.” She sounds lighter, eager, as though she wants to get started right now. Her pace picks up, but then she seems to remember where she is. “We won’t interfere with your time,” she assures me quickly. “We’ll stay at the Inn and give you privacy. More than us, more than anyone else, we know Aiden wants time with you.”

We’re at the garden shed now where the reel lives, and I lead her around it into Elysium. “You and Robert . . .” I hesitate, unsure how to phrase this. She gives me time. “I don’t know how to ask this, except directly I suppose. You don’t mind that I’m here for now? That I have my own . . . baggage?”

She rests her arm on my shoulder with a smile like the daisies. “No. You’re whom Aiden wants. And maybe it’s exactly that . . . history—” she chooses a different word for me—“and this beautiful place that have enabled you to capture him so entirely when no one else ever did. You must understand, we’ve never seen Aiden chase a girl or even hold hands with one, and he chased you all the way across the world, learning rose breeds and drawing for Anamelia and hosting tea. He has completely lost his head. We love it.”

For the first time in this conversation, she laughs freely—the sound flitting through Elysium like a skylark’s song—as though the idea of Aiden losing his mind in such a fashion is her personal bravery protein. The bubbling sound is infectious, and for a while we’re both laughing. Then the laughter becomes an easy silence as we stroll around Elysium. She steps carefully around the forget-me-nots, like me, but seems to avoid the purple wild orchids too. A sense of comfort sweeps over me exactly as in my childhood memories in this meadow despite the newness of my companion. And the vivid tapestry seems as sparkly as it did then. Not like new stars have entered my constellation, but rather like I’m seeing a star that was always there, just on the other side.

I turn us around before we reach the inkblot of the reel. Carefully, asking permission with her eyes, Stella hooks her arm in mine. “It will work out,” she says, gazing at the willows. “Somehow. The willows said that right after the shoes, although I wouldn’t tell the boys.”

I laugh. “What else did you hear?”

“Just that: somehow.”

Aiden and Robert appear from the garden then, striding with a similar step toward us, although Aiden’s fluid grace is not something anyone can match.

“How many baby stories have you told, Mom?” he asks when they reach us.

“I was just about to start on the first time we visited Oxford.” She releases my arm to him immediately.

“Too late.” He grins, tucking my arm in his. “I beat you to that one.” And very chastely he kisses my lips.

“Oh!” Stella gasps, her hand over her heart, while Robert’s arm flies around her. Their eyes are liquid seeing for the first time their son kiss on the lips.

Aiden laughs with my favorite sound. “I picked a good one, Mom, just as you said.”

For once, his pride does not embarrass me. Because underneath, I finally see, it is also pride in himself.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 19 – DAWN

Hello all, and happy Tuesday instead of Sunday! Computer troubles are always a pain in the tonsils as a good friend here would say, but during a pandemic they’re more akin to strep throat. Hence my delay. Hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks as always for reading and writing. Lots of love, Ani.

19

Dawn

One week of war. The most beautiful war there has ever been. Every day is a new reel of brilliancy—one blissful moment to another, all blending into a catalog of happy memories counteracting the reel of torture. Each night is a sheet of music—Aiden’s waterfall laughter, the sounds of our love, and Für Elise rebuilding his memories note after note. And Aiden and I have never been closer. Even our internal clocks have synchronized, melding together in a united front. How different love feels at war. It’s as though each cell dreads love’s absence and therefore magnifies its presence a million-fold. Each touch feels like a hundred touches before, each kiss like a thousand of the ones pre-war. Or maybe our cells have not changed—maybe we’re simply living more. Every day, every hour is a new life, even the darkest hour of them all: right now, at dawn.

Because this is the hour of the reel of torture. We tried other times for it—before supper, afterwards—but the waiting was its own torment, at least for me. Only this small hour wedged between the blissful moment of waking up together and the blissful moment of watching the sunrise in the garden has been survivable.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep in today?” Aiden asks as I throw on my pajamas. He is still in nothing but star-gold skin and midnight hair, glowing under the soft light of the bedroom chandelier. He pulls me into his chest. “It is Saturday after all. You deserve a day off.” His eyes are overwhelming, his voice a lullaby willing me to drift. I have to use all my strength to resist them.

“I’ll take a day off when you take a day off,” I answer, caressing his scar.

“It’s not the same, love.”

“You’re right. You have by far the hardest job.”

He brushes my cheek with whisper-light fingers. “I don’t think that’s true. I know I’d rather go back to that school in Fallujah every hour than watch you do it once, let alone every day as you’re doing with me.” The music of his voice misses a note at the mere thought, as it does every time we have this argument.

“But even worse than that is not being there at all.”

“You would still be there for the recovery part. You just don’t have to be there for the gore.”

I place my hand over his lips. In a few moments, their warmth will disappear, their vivid plum color will bleach away. “Aiden, we’ve been through this and through this. It’s the only option I can live with. I have to be there.”

He kisses my palm and moves it to his cheek. His eyes hold me for a moment, their depths unfathomable. “I love you,” he says. “It’s a selfish reason for you to deal with this, but it’s still the truest thing in my world.”

Before I can say I love you back, his mouth captures mine. His lips are gentle but his tongue is deep, as though he is trying to kiss me inside out. I give him back everything I have, drinking him like an elixir for strength. Because without his taste, I cannot live through the forty-five minutes ahead.

He breaks the kiss with a sigh. “Come on then. Let’s get this out of the way.” He looks around our happy bedroom one final time and takes my hand.

The moment the bedroom door closes behind us, Aiden transforms. The warm glow of his skin vanishes, and he expands—taller, Herculean in his stance. It’s as though the more this war takes from him, the stronger he grows. A flame is lit within him, finally unleashed to raze his past to the ground.

But every war exacts its toll, even the beautiful kind. Not like a big bang—this cost is insidious. It’s in the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights that Aiden has planted like landmines throughout the cottage for my safety—which are an improvement to the Tasers and bear spray he wanted. It’s is in the laundry cupboard where each morning after the reel Aiden washes and stores his battle uniform—the same dark jeans, blue shirt, and grey boxers he wore for the MRI because he will not taint any other item of clothing with his memories of terror or allow those memories to linger inside the cottage even if only on cotton fibers. He dons his uniform now, his eyes darkening except that flicker of turquoise that will continue to gleam as long as I’m in his sight. Because there are live landmines inside us, too. They’re in Aiden’s longer silences and the far-away stare at certain moments. They’re in his touch and mine—the way we hold each other as we pause in the foyer.

“What will you remember during this?” he asks, throwing my mum’s parka over my shoulders.

“This is just a petal.”

“And what does that mean?”

“That the worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“That’s right. And what is our reward today?”

I smile even here on the threshold of our bloodiest battle. “We’re going to Pemberley with Reagan and Javier, and you have a surprise for me that will make my heart melt.”

He traces my lips with his thumb. “I do. I want you to think about that for the next forty-five minutes. Think only of the good things ahead.”

“I have a surprise for you, too,” I tell him, kissing the pad of his finger.

His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile—his last true smile until I bring him back. “You do?”

I nod. “I know you can’t think about that in the next forty-five minutes, but just keep it here.” I rest my hand above his heart. The blade of muscle flexes under my fingers.

“I will.”

Abruptly, I wish we could skip the next hour, climb in the Rover, and drive so he can see it now, so the dimple can stay. It’s almost impossible to surprise Aiden, but I think I’ve managed it this time.

He sighs as though he is wishing the same thing and bends to slide my socked feet inside my Wellingtons. Then with a last glance at my childhood photos, he opens the front door. Because we both knew from the beginning we could never do this inside the cottage or even in the garden.

The sky is still dark when we step outside. The roses are fast asleep under the moonlight, but their fragrance is always awake, healing our lungs. I hear Aiden take a deep breath at the same time that I inhale until my ribcage hurts. Stay with us, Mum.

He is quiet as we cross the garden, and I give him the silence he needs to harvest his strength from every corner of his mind. I do the same but tuck my arm in his and rest my head on his stone bicep. The spot of contact is softer than the rest of him now entirely carved in granite. His knuckles brush the Elisa blooms as we pass them.

We stop at the largest landmine of them all. The garden shed where the headset of torture lives, pulsing with evil. I duck inside to pick it up, ignoring the snap of his teeth in wordless protest. He knows by now this is another argument he cannot win. I crave the pain it gives me to touch it so he doesn’t have to hold it a single second more than he needs. I wrap it inside the woolen blanket dad used for camping, drawing strength from mum’s gardening tools. I am steel like them. I’m the shears slicing off each cable that bound him. I’m the rake flaying the skin of everyone who touched him, the spade digging their graves. I tuck the other item in my pocket, having zero sense or science for it, and come out. “I have a good feeling this comeback will be easier,” I say, trying to make him smile again.

He does, but there is no dimple anymore, no light. “They’re all easier with you.”

As soon as we leave the garden, his stride picks up, tension snapping like armor over him, ready to demolish and be demolished. The opposite happens with me. Even though I battle to stay with him every dawn, suddenly I want to slow to a crawl or even better go back under the sheets with him and hide him in my hair for the next eighty-two days.

But the spot in Elysium where we do this comes too fast. It’s the spot where we sat together exactly a week ago after I had left him a second time. These are the only blades of grass in Burford that hold an initial painful memory for him. We spread out the blanket together while I straighten the corners, prolonging each last second. An ancient grief enters his eyes as he watches me and I know in this moment his only wish is for me to leave, to run away as far as possible from this. No matter how much he wants me.

“I’ll be right here,” I say, forcing my voice to remain steady.

“Only during the safe time.”

“I know.”

“After that, you’ll go straight to the safe zone until it’s over. Promise me.”

“I promise.” It’s the hardest promise to make, the hardest to keep, but the most vital one not to break. Because he needs to trust this to get through the rest. His eyes arrest me, burning intensely, but I don’t blink so he sees the truth in mine. He nods once and sits on the blanket, folding me with him in the fortress of his arms. I rest my head on his chest for a final moment, listening to his heartbeat, drawing his fragrance inside me like a tonic.

“Here,” he says, and I can tell the effort is costing him to keep his voice light. He pulls an Elisa petal out of his cuff and presses it into my palm, closing my fingers around it in a fist and bringing it to his lips. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

“I’ll be waiting,” I whisper so my voice doesn’t break. He reaches for the headset but I beat him to it for once. “Let me do it. I know how.”

His jaw clenches again but he doesn’t argue. He lies down for me even though how he sits doesn’t matter. The white headset is icy like my body heat or dad’s woolen blanket never touched it. I fight my shudder as I look into Aiden’s eyes. In the dark dawn, I feel more than see the turquoise flame go out.

“Think about your surprise and stay safe.” His final words are low, tension twisting the music of his voice into a hard command.

“I will.”

His hands cover mine, pulling the evil over his beautiful head. I secure the strap around his soft waves and snap the buckle at his temple, swallowing my tears. If Aiden doesn’t cry through this, neither will I. I kiss his lips—they’re cooling already. “I love you,” I tell him.

“Always.”

With more strength than it took to attend my parents’ funeral, or to board my flight back to England, or to visit their grave, I press the white button in the center. The sinister red dot gleams immediately like a sniper point at his forehead as the reel starts. Aiden’s body becomes motionless with a soft gasp. And I know even though he is here on the blanket with me, he is now gone. Traveling places, decades, years, days, even hours of the thirty-five years of his incredible life.

I know each minute of the reel by heart—Aiden walked me through them painstakingly second to second to prepare me now that I get to see him, even though we both know no amount of preparation will ever inure me to this. But the first fifteen minutes are the easy ones. Just neutral or positive images from Aiden’s life, including me. I use them to prepare for his arrival. It makes no sense to do this whatsoever—as soon as Aiden reenters the present time, we will want to leave this spot as soon as possible to start our life. But I still decided yesterday to make each comeback new, different somehow. Not because it will make any minute of this hour more livable. But maybe it will make his return easier. I take out the spool of fairy lights from my pocket and tiptoe around the blanket, unraveling it while drawing deep, slow breaths like Aiden taught me to conserve air for the hardest part. I flip on the battery switch and his still form is surrounded with a hundred bright little stars, twinkling under the indigo sky. His face below the headset looks warmer under their glow, like he is sleeping, even if soon it will turn to ice.

“You’ll like this,” I whisper and trot to the safety line he has marked in the grass for me some twenty feet away where I imagine the rose shield starts. The easy fifteen minutes are almost up. I sit on the meadow where I first crawled and wrap my arms around my knees, counting the seconds in my head, eyes never leaving Aiden’s form encircled with lights.

I know exactly when he enters that schoolyard in Fallujah. I know because his restful body becomes rigid, chest jolting upward as his shoulders press against the ground.

“Thirty minutes, love,” I mutter, clutching my petal. But what thirty minutes they will be. In Aiden’s world under the blistering Fallujah sun, the IED just exploded as his body shudders here on Elysium while the shock reverberates through his mind equally deafening as that fateful May morning, unmuted by time. Yet not a single sound escapes his lips. The picture of the little boy’s ruptured torso strikes him now, and Aiden’s throat bends like he is choking on bile. I breathe like he taught me, but the dust and the little boy’s blood are suffocating him. His breaths become gasps as he tries to find pieces of the boy while a helmet full of brains strafes his retinas. But despite Aiden’s gasping, I don’t want the next minute to come. I’d rather asphyxiate here and now for him than have him live through it, but come it does. Aiden’s chest heaves with another shattered breath as the image of the school flashes on his screen and the Marines become surrounded by insurgent fire. He retreats inside the school with Marshall for cover, his body taut on the woolen blanket.

“Twenty-five minutes, love.” I press the heels of my boots in the meadow.

The photo of a young Jazzman blasts Aiden now, and he and Marshall reach the second floor, crossing the classroom I wish they had never entered, to save Jazzman and the others who are under fire below. Go low, Aiden signs to Marshall. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs. I grip my own arms and lock all my muscles in place despite Aiden’s flat and alert body on the meadow, because his hand just closed in a victorious fist. He just fired his last shot, the shot that saved Jazzman’s life. Then Aiden’s head jerks violently and slumps to the side as the back of a rifle cracks his skull.

For the next ten minutes—the only minutes Aiden doesn’t remember—his body is inert on the blanket, his mind utterly dark. I should use these minutes to breathe for the horror ahead, I should use them to think of Aiden’s surprise and mine as I promised, but a different darkness enters my own mind. In thoughts of the worst kind. What if Aiden had never tried to save Jazzman and the children? What if he had gone to the third floor with Cal and Hendrix instead? Worse still, what if Aiden had not woken? What if he had never seen what happens next? I clutch mum’s sleeves, rocking in place, each what if pounding like a crack to the back of my own skull.

But no amount of bartering lives with the universe can stop time. Aiden’s mind reconnects with his body, and he comes to with a strangled gasp at the image of a severed arm. And the torture begins.

No one touches Aiden here on Elysium, yet he starts writhing in silent agony. His head jerks side to side, and he cringes against the blanket, shoulders rounding forward then suddenly convulsing as he tries to tear through the steel cables that now bind him. But he can’t break though. His body contorts in pain right here before my eyes, but not a single scream tears through him, not one cry, as he is throttled from behind.

I jump to my feet then, clenching my jaw to stop my own screams, clutching my head to keep it from imploding like that schoolyard. If I could only get closer, if I could only touch him, hold his anguished face, bring him back now. But I couldn’t—I know that—he is locked in the darkest flashback of his life, his eyes seeing only his best friend being tortured alive. He will need the reel of my pictures before the danger passes for me to get close. I can never betray him now.

On and on Aiden strains in universal agony and I start pacing, shuddering up and down the safe half of my childhood meadow, eyes on him. Because for these ten minutes I am just a child, just a girl who has never once felt pain like this. My parents’ crushed Beetle, their broken bodies, their coffins in the grave together—although big bangs to me—they’re tragedies happening every day in life. They’re not the kind of horror that stuns history and stumps science. Their massacre of the soul does not compare to this.

“Six minutes,” I gasp through my teeth. “I’m coming, love, you just have to hang on for six more.” And he does. He burns in soundless agony, his fists shaking at his sides. “Five minutes. Five petals, Aiden, and we can be together.” Between my fingers, my own petal disintegrates, and I stifle my sob. Because the worst images are still ahead.

Abruptly, I’m furious. With a red-tinged haze over my eyes, Elysium looks different. Nothing has changed—Aiden is still burning on dad’s blanket inside the wreath of lights under the cobalt sky—yet the scene transforms for me. I’m no longer the orphaned girl, the muse in a painting, or the woman who waits for the letters at home. I’m not a warrior or a survivor. I am the war. I am his peace. I summon all our weapons like a shield over me. Because I cannot stop the next four minutes, but as soon as the reel ends, I will need to be as invincible as him.

I stop where I am, steadying my mind, quelling my lungs as the seconds tick away and the sky turns sapphire. “Three minutes, my love. Just three more, and I’ll bring you back. I won’t let anything touch you then.”

But the end does not come easy for him—it never does. If it were for myself, I’d shut my eyes and ears. But I’m here for him. I plant my feet, shove my hands in my pockets to warm them for him, and brace for his visceral low snarl that reaches me here. Chills run from the crown of my head to my heels, but I flex every muscle as Aiden taught me so I don’t move an inch. The torment on his face impossibly doubles, whether with his own agony or Marshall’s or both he will never tell me. Then suddenly he stills, he breathes, because in this image the insurgents have agreed to release Marshall in exchange for Aiden’s life. Go, pretty boy, they’re sneering at him because he is no longer the handsome, young Marine I saw in the photo. His face without lips, nose, or ears is scorching Aiden now. Strangled sounds are ripping from his teeth, as he begs Marshall to leave him behind.

And Marshall listens. Aiden’s ribcage rises and falls quickly as the picture of a blood trail sears his eyes. I watch without blinking as Marshall crawls to the classroom door in Aiden’s flashback. I know because, even drowning in pain, Aiden smiles. Just a small smile watching his best friend leave, no regret for having traded his own life for Marshall’s freedom.

Then with a sudden gasp, Aiden’s torso jolts and his smile dies. Because one of the insurgents fired the first bullet, ending Marshall’s life. Then another jolt and another—like a defibrillator shocking Aiden’s heart—seven times, one per each bullet riddling the corpse of Marshall that is flashing on the screen now. A guttural sound of agony rips from Aiden’s chest, and his lungs give out. It’s the single most harrowing thing I’ve ever heard. His body slumps seeming lifeless in the same position he was then—shoulders contorted and shuddering throat to fist. Under the warm glow of the fairy lights, his mouth is parted in a silent no.

And then it ends. The torture is over even if Aiden is still in its grip. Yet, the chills leave me as I stand here shaking and silent. Because in five seconds, my photo will caress his eyes. My sleeping face, my rose, the stave of my music, my favorite chocolate— the small things that calm him, that make him happy—will enter his mind.

“Almost home, love,” I whisper, swallowing more tears. “I’m coming, Aiden, coming right now.” I step over the safety line, timing my steps to each image.

I would know the second my photograph hits the screen even if I weren’t counting. I would know because he draws his first breath and his arms settle naturally on each side of him. My rose softens his throat. But he is still gasping, his shoulders are still convulsing, his fists are iron hammers at his sides. Then my face kisses his retinas again, over and over, breaking the steel cables and slowing the convulsions of his shoulders. By the time I cross the fairy lights, the tremors have become the familiar ripples that, until I witnessed his torment this week, I had thought were earthquakes. His seraphic face is ashen under the fairy glow, but no longer contorted. The red light on his forehead goes dark. I can touch him now, even if he is still locked away in the aftermath.

I sit next to him and wrap my warm hands around his fist as Doctor Helen taught me. “Aiden,” I call him, pouring all my love, faith, and pride in my voice. “You’re through, you brave, brave man. You’re right here on Elysium with me.” The fist skips a quiver but remains closed. His breathing is still harsh as strangleholds of tension strain him. “You’re safe, I’m safe, and we’re together. I’ll take off the headset so you can see when you’re ready. Feel my hands, love, I’m touching your face.” I tuck his fist between my knees so it stays warm and cradle his face. The sharp panes are cold. I shove back my Romeo vision—this is Dante, he just walked through hell for me—and massage his jawline gently in little circles. “Do you feel that? It’s my fingertips that you kiss each morning.” His jawline flexes, like a hello. “Hi, you,” I greet it back. “You’re strong, you’re loved.” I trail my fingers to his temples and release the small buckles that secure the evil thing. It’s warm now with all the life it has drained from him. I pull it off, immediately finding Aiden’s eyes. They’re closed as I expected them to be, his pupils still racing under the lids in flashbacks. I lower my face to his and kiss them like petals. “We’re on dad’s green blanket, my love, with wildflowers around us. Daisies and forget-me-nots and orchids and poppies.” I kiss his eyelids on each flower name, but there is no change in him. “The sky is lightening, almost lilac-sapphire like it’s mixing the color of your eyes and mine. And in a bit, we’ll watch the sunrise like every morning, just you and me. Can you hear the skylarks and the nightingales? They’re starting to trill.” The fist softens between my knees, but shudders are still running through him. “Do you know this present moment right here is probably the seven thousandth time I’ve sat on Elysium? I can’t remember most of them, but I’ll always remember this because this is when you come back to me. And I have a little something for you when you open your eyes. It will make you smile. What could it be, you might ask . . . ” The ripples are not slowing. “I’ll give you a clue: ‘love that moves the sun and other stars.’ How about that, Dante?” His eyes remain closed, and his breath is still ragged. I press my lips to his and blow inside his parted mouth as he does with me. “Let’s breathe together, love. Your air and my air and the rose breeze. We can smell the roses even from here. They’re awake, waiting for us.” For a moment I start to panic that it’s taking longer to bring him back, but then a familiar sigh warms my lips. His gasps slow as his lungs synchronize to mine, and Aiden kisses me back. Just a gentle brush of his lips, but he is here. “Hi!” My voice breaks in relief and I clutch his face so I don’t collapse on top of him. “Welcome back.”

His eyes open at the same time as his fist. They are dark and ravaged still, but the turquoise flame starts to flicker the moment he sees me. “I missed you.” I smile at him, ribcage swelling at his arrival.

He doesn’t speak but, slowly, lifts his head for my mouth. I mold mine to his, keeping him inside my hair bubble because he likes the way my hair smells. On clue, he inhales deeply. His fist leaves my lap and his arm winds around my waist—it feels weighty, as it does when he falls asleep. He holds me to him, breath to breath, mouth to mouth, as the last wave of ripples disappears. I feel him test his body for response, and I know exactly the moment when control reverts back to him. The weight of his arm eases but he doesn’t release me, and his lips fold with mine. “I missed you, too,” he says as soon as he can speak. His voice is worn and hoarse as though his silence under torture scrubbed it more than a scream would.

I pull back an inch to watch his now-clear eyes. As soon as they meet mine, he smiles. An I-crossed-the-desert-for-you smile, but it lifts up his cupid lips. I will never tire of this smile, ravaged and exhausted though it is. It’s as precious to me as his dimple—because this is the smile that brings him back to me.

He brings his hands to my face—they’re steady and warmer. “How are you?” he asks, searching my eyes, feeling my forehead.

“I’m fine, sweetheart. Safe and happy and so proud of you.”

“As I am of you,” he says. “You did beautifully.”

The word sounds backwards when he says it—like it was made only for him, no one else. “I worried it was taking a bit longer this time,” I admit.

“I’ll always come back to you.”

He pulls me back to his lips here inside my hair bubble and I kiss him back with hunger. Like his worn smile, this languid kiss has become life to me. Second only to his very first kiss because it vanquishes the last dregs of tension and brings him back to him. With each brush of his lips and stroke of his tongue, Aiden comes to life. His mouth takes on its brand of possession, seizing the present moment inside mine. Then abruptly he stops. “Love that moves the sun and other stars?” he asks as all his memories and synapses reconnect. His voice is gaining back its music.

I smile, suddenly feeling as girlish as I was when I first did cartwheels on this field. “Yep. Solve it and you get to see your present moment in full.”

The dimple puckers in his stubble more beautiful than the fairy lights outside my hair curtains. Not that I need their cover—he hasn’t looked away from my face once. “Is it Baci?” he guesses reasonably since that was the first quote Baci gave him in England.

“No, that was to trick you.”

I love watching his eyes shift with childish curiosity, not horror. “Is it one of Dante’s books?”

“No. You’re thinking too big.”

“Something small then . . . that you could fit in your pocket so I wouldn’t see . . . that has to do with love and the stars and the sun . . .” he muses while I almost bounce next to him because he is not thinking of Fallujah now. “A condom?” he asks, and I laugh at his boyish grin.

“No, sorry. But soon you won’t need those anymore.”

Apparently that thought works better at revival than riddles. Pure delight bursts over his face like the imminent sunrise. “In exactly six days—”

“And seventeen hours.”

I’ve never seen his eyes torn with better conflict: desire and curiosity splitting him in half. They both win and lose. He pulls me on top of him, rippling with a different kind of hardness. “I give up,” he says against my lips, pressing into me. I press back, sweeping my hair to the side.

“For you, Dante.”

He blinks in the sapphire dawn where the fairy lights are still twinkling. His grin becomes a soft, good gasp and that flicker of shyness gleams in his eyes, like an echo back from seven-year old Aiden. He sits up, holding me to him, and gazes around at the circle of lights speechless. “I did it during the safe time,” I assure him. “They were shining on you, like our bedroom chandelier.”

It’s a testament to how selfless he is—how little he accepts for himself from others—that even this smallest of gestures stuns him. If this is his reaction to some old lights, what is he going to do at Pemberley today? He feels my excitement in my bounce and looks at me, his eyes brighter than the twinkly lights. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that my chest tightens. “I love my surprise.”

“Oh, this isn’t your surprise. You’ll see that later. This is just our present moment.”

He smiles with a strong emotion in his eyes. “Leave it to you to find a way to make even this beautiful.” And he brings me back to his mouth.

By the time we reach the rose garden to catch the sunrise, the hour of torture feels far away, a different life. How can all the terror of the last hour fade so quickly? Add love, just the right kind. Aiden strips out of his clothes at the threshold immediately and leaves them in a pile with the blanket and the headset, but throws the twinkly lights over his neck—his mind already disassociating them from any pain. At the sight, even the sunrise doesn’t impress me anymore. A flash of heat whips my cheeks. He swoops me in his arms and strides in nothing but lights and golden skin to the garden bench.

“Are you warm or is it my male nudity à la Oxford?” Aiden teases as he sits on the bench with me across his lap.

“Oh, more of one and less of the other,” I answer, eyes on his erection pressing firmly against my thigh.

He chuckles and slips off my Wellingtons and parka, setting them carefully aside. Then he turns me on his steely thighs so we can both see across the river, past the field of epiphanies, and over the rolling hills where an orange flame very similar to the one on my skin is kindling the horizon. Magnificent and utterly ordinary compared to the face behind me. Or the erection now pushing against the small of my back.

“Maybe this will help with the male nudity part.” Aiden’s lips are at my ear, sending tingles down my spine.

“Definitely not helping.”

“No?” His lips press at the Aeternum spot below my ear and brush down my neck. “What about this? Does this help?”

“Not at all.” My voice quivers like the rest of me. A marigold halo bursts through the sky.

“And this?” His hands slip under my pajama top, peeling it off a step ahead of the sun. Wherever his fingers touch, my skin catches fire despite the sultry morning and the rose breeze.

“Huh-uh.”

“My, my, male nudity seems positively dangerous. How about this?” He cups my breasts, and I fall against his chest with a sigh, reaching behind me to grasp the male nudity in question. “Oh, this won’t do, Elisa.” He twines my arms over his neck with the twinkly lights. “Male nudity is distracting you from the sunrise. Maybe something stronger?” His fingers blaze their own fire-trails over my breasts, and his teeth graze my shoulder. My sigh turns into a moan. “Sounds like this is helping.”

“Hmmm . . .”

“And this?” A smooth glassy tip circles my breast, and my eyes fling open. Two twinkly lights are flickering around my nipples as sunrays scatter over us. Every nerve ending in my skin becomes a spark. “Does this help?”

“Mmm . . .”

“More help?”

“Please . . .” The sssss blends with the willows. He draws orbits with the lights on my breasts like they are his suns and his hands revolve around them. The lights gleam on my skin as streaks of heliotrope, saffron, gold, and honey flare across the sky. But the only color I crave is turquoise. The familiar ember in my depths starts pulsing with life. I press my thighs together for some relief and roll against him.

“Looks like we need reinforcements,” he murmurs, kissing the spot just under the corner of my jaw. Before I can think, before I can concentrate on his words over the blood thundering in my ears, he starts winding the string of lights over my breasts, across my ribs, and around my waist like a glimmering thread tying me to him.

“Oh!” I gasp, mesmerized by the little stars blinking on my skin as dazzling as the new sun, as bright as the heat within.

“Helpful oh?” Aiden’s lips brush along my cheek to the corner of my open mouth.

“Yes,” I breathe, turning my face for his kiss. I get lost in his mouth as his hands slip under the waistband of my pajamas. He slides them down my legs along with my knickers until they fall off my feet. Hot as a sunray, his tongue traces my lips at the same moment that he entwines his long legs with mine, spreading them apart as the full sun blazes across the sky. I gasp again, and he frees my mouth.

“Feel, love,” he murmurs, his arms and legs encircling me like the lights, his fragrant body heat engulfing me with the sun. But on the hottest, wettest part of me, I feel only the cool rose breeze. Breathless and trembling, I clutch his hand and press it between my legs.

“Here, please,” I beg shamelessly. It would only be embarrassing if I didn’t know with certainty that he wants me as much as I want him.

One warm finger traces the length of me. “This helps more than this?” he asks, thrusting into the small of my back.

“No . . . but . . . condom . . . far.”

His finger trails back up, making me hiss. “Oh, Elisa, you’re not the only one with tricks.” Before my moan fades, his hand leaves me and reaches under the bench. I’ve barely managed to focus my eyes when he taps the foil of a condom inside my thigh.

“Wha—how?”

He chuckles. “I’ve hidden these everywhere. You have six days, sixteen hours, and forty-five minutes to find them all and ruin them with me.”

He turns me around quickly so we face each other again. And for a moment the world stops for me, even the rapid pulsing inside. What are sunrises compared to him? The blue fire in his eyes smolders, his skin gleams, his lustrous hair like a black corona over his impossible face. Half of the twinkly lights are still draped around his neck, the other half sparkling all over my torso. He looks at me the same way—as though I am his sun.

Just one moment, and the world starts again. I launch myself at his mouth, starved for his taste, his feel, gripping his face, inhaling his scent. Over the rushing in my ears, I hear his moan and the foil tearing. Then he lifts my hips and pauses, waiting for me to open my eyes. I do—how could I miss a single fleck of him?

“Love that moves the sun and other stars, you said, Elisa?”

At my gasp, he lowers me onto him, twinkle after twinkle, inch after inch, moan after moan. Then he takes us both over the horizon until our bodies start to fracture like the sunrays on our skin and a new reel of brilliancy begins.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 18 – FIGHT

Happy Sunday, friends! Time for another chapter in Aiden’s and Elisa’s story. I hope it wraps up your weekend with a smile and that you are are all enjoying some rest and relaxation.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

18

Fight

By the time we drop off Reagan, Javier, and Benson at the Inn, it’s nine o’clock and the terror of the day is winning, settling like sediment in my brain crevices, my ears, my eyes. Each time I blink, Marshall gazes back at me. Each time the Rover purrs, I hear monitor beeps. Each time I wade through my thoughts, Aiden’s pain lances through me, sharper than my own.

“You’ve been quiet,” Aiden observes next to me as he turns left off Ivy Lane toward the open fields.

“Just thinking about it all.”

“It has been an interminable day.” He hits the gas as we zip through the only country road to the cottage. My day is only half-over, but I can’t bring myself to tell him I’m going back to Bia tonight to test the idea Doctor Helen just gave me. How can I add even one more grain of worry to the incomprehensible weight he will be carrying for us, for me?

We reach Elysium in two minutes. Across it, the cottage’s peaked roof rises like a beacon against the brilliant moon. Aiden parks the Rover in the shed at the edge of the field that dad converted into a garage when he and mum bought their Beetle.

“Almost home,” Aiden sighs. He tucks the box with the torture headset quickly under his arm, as if to hide it from me, but even in that glimpse a shudder jolts down my spine. I pat the polaroid of our kiss in my purse and get out of the Rover as quickly as I can. He takes my hand, pressing his lips at my wrist, and we set off across Elysium. In a few steps, mum’s rose shield will fall over us, over him. Guard him, Mum. Take everything from me and give it to him.

The perfume of the roses intensifies, as if they smell the arrival of a new kind among their own—the rare Aeternum oil that Aiden realized for me. Like he did all my other dreams, like he is trying to do for my ultimate dream of being with him. The cottage and the garden come in full view, silvery white. Aiden is quiet, too—perhaps he senses my urgency to get inside the rose bubble, perhaps he feels it too. But the second we reach the garden threshold, he stops, halting me with a gentle clasp of his fingers. I turn, unaware that for the first time I remember, I had been walking several steps ahead of him. He sets down the box of torture outside the garden threshold and takes my face in his hands.

“Please tell me what you’re thinking. Before I lose my mind.”

What can I tell him? That I’m afraid even as I believe in him more than I’ve ever believed in anyone? That the present moment is as terrifying as the future and as fearsome as the past? Or the hardest thought of them all?

His face gleams with moonlight. No wires in his hair—just soft onyx waves, swept with the breeze.

“Elisa, please!” Urgently now, and his eyes seize me the second I lapse and gaze into them. The secret thought blurts out with irrelevance.

“I don’t think I’m worth all this pain . . .”

His soft gasp washes over my face, rendering all roses redundant. But I can’t breathe it in because I see the flicker of agony my words caused him. “This is my fault,” he says. “You’re so extraordinary to me that I forget you’re still only human. You have your own doubts and insecurities just like me. I’m sorry, love. I won’t miss that again.”

I try to look away, shaking my head, but neither his eyes nor hands let me. “I’m not looking for compliments . . . It’s not just me who is not good enough. Nothing ever could be worth you living through this.”

“Ah, Elisa, my fault again.” He releases my face, but takes my hands. “I haven’t explained this right. You say I brought you to life, but it’s the other way around. If it weren’t for you, I’d be stuck in Portland but living in Fallujah still. There would be no brilliancy, no beauty, no love. Just guilt and self-hatred. But you came in—not just as a fantasy or a painting, but so real, you eclipsed everything. All my rules and pretenses and structure and control. And suddenly there was light; there was life. Then you were gone. You did exactly what I forced you to do, but you turned off my sky. There was no more light, no more reason for anything—I couldn’t even go back to my old rules. I didn’t want to because you had made me want to live. That’s why I’m going through all this, for a chance to live. If my life, my health, my dream—and you are all three—are not worth this, then tell me what is.”

My life, my health, my dream . . . listening to him is like hearing my own life in words—it sounds beautiful in his voice. So beautiful, I don’t want to ruin it with mine.

“Do you see, Elisa?” he asks intensely. I nod because when he puts it that way I agree. Only he himself is worth this. But what happens to him if we don’t win?  He sees my shudder even in the balmy night. “You’re scared,” he says, a statement, not a question.

“Yes, but not because I doubt you.”

“I’m scared, too, my love. Do you believe that?”

“You don’t seem scared of anything anymore.” I remember his strength and resolve today—the utter absence of fear when he learned the battle plan.

He smiles without the dimple. “Wrong again. I’m terrified of losing you. But you know what? I know from experience, the fights you’re the most afraid of tend to be the worthiest fights.”

He doesn’t promise me we will win. He cannot. All we can do is fight in every way we know, with every weapon we have left.

I reach on my tiptoes, pressing my hands against his face that still feels like a fairytale. “Make love to me then. Make us forget all this fear, and remember only why we’re doing this.”

His eyebrows arch at my sudden change in direction, but he smiles and the fire ignites in his eyes. “Now there’s the fight I’m talking about. Straight to the fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“No. Make love to me here, right now. Let’s not bring any of this inside the cottage.”

He doesn’t even blink. He sweeps me into his arms over the garden threshold as I knot my fingers in his hair. “Should the roses be watching this? I seem to recall being told not to say ‘fuck’ in front of the roses once.”

“Of course. Roses love love.” I pull him to my mouth. “They just don’t like dirty words. You’ll have to save those for the fifth stair.”

He chuckles, striding into the garden straight for the Elisa roses without breaking our kiss. He sets me down on the petal-blanketed grass, right at the spot he waited for me in my dreams, the spot where he stood when he came back to me.

“Stay,” I whisper, meaning so many things. He becomes utterly still except his hands clutching my waist. I start unbuttoning his shirt—not like he did at the lab, but the way we do together, slowly, eyes on each other—and slide it off his shoulders, down his arms, on the petaled ground. The gold of his skin is silver with the moon, free of the electrodes’ metal discs. I run my hands over his chest, kissing each spot where the discs were. Above his heart, on his sternum, at the pulse on his neck. “Kisses, not electrodes,” I say, reaching on my toes to kiss his temple. His heated gasp enflames my skin.

“You, not memories,” he answers and pulls me hard against him, molding his mouth to mine. His kiss is so overwhelming that I hang in his arms, fingers knotted in his hair. The fear shudders recede. A different kind of tremble starts at my knees, and he tightens his arm around my waist, knowing by this point I have trouble standing upright.  His lips flutter, soft as petals, over my jaw to the hollow below my ear where I dabbed the Aeternum oil. He inhales hungrily there, and good shivers flurry all over my skin. “God, the smell of you.” He sounds pained, like the ache gathering at the bottom of my belly. “It brought me back today, Elisa.” He kisses the Aeternum spot and kneels at my feet, taking off my Byron sneakers and socks. “And these wiggling toes.” He smiles, kissing the tips that curl. “They made me smile in hell—I couldn’t believe it. Just these tiny, itsy bitsy toes, able to lift all of me.” He nips my big toe but sets my foot back on the petals when he notices the wobble of my knees. “Strong, love, we’re just getting started,” he murmurs, running his hands up my legs, over the jeans. I wish I could speak, but I can barely breathe. Was I feeling afraid before? Now I can’t feel anything but the fires he is lighting everywhere with his touch, like fireflies in this garden. He unbuttons my jeans and unzips them with his teeth, peeling off the denim slowly, his lips following the trail of his fingers over my exposed thighs. The cool breeze tickles his hot, wet mouthprints.

“Aiden,” I sigh. His name has become synonymous with so many things. Help, save, love, live, home, kiss, hold—so many good four-letter words.

“I know, love.” He kisses the inside of my thigh. “But you wanted to forget. Forgetting is hard work, I ought to know.” He slips off the jeans completely and tosses them aside. The breeze whirls around my shaky legs as his nose skims back up. He clasps my hips as he inhales the lace of my knickers with the same hunger. I close my eyes, unable to watch when he does that, but I see fireflies even behind my closed lids. He does it again, pressing his nose firmly and I don’t know if this is my moan or his.  “This here,” he says buried in the lace. “This is the reason why the roses don’t like dirty words. Because they’re jealous.” The movement of his lips sends a tremor through me.

“Aiden—I can’t—” I breathe, tugging his hair.

“Yes, you can. You’ll see.” He kisses the lace again and slides off my blouse, lighting more fires with his fingers around my waist, over my ribs, tracing the cream lace of my bra. His mouth wraps around the nipple hidden underneath. “It was nippy there today, wasn’t it?” His tongue wets the lace, but it feels like liquid flame to me. “That made me smile, too, Elisa. Was that a pun?”

“Ah . . . I . . . can’t . . . remember.”

“Good.” Another wet circle of fire, then my bra melts off and I’m free only to realize I’m bound to his mouth closing on my breasts. Whoever said hell burns has never been to heaven. His lips, his tongue, his teeth—they strike like firebolts through me, and my knees give out, but he catches me and lays me on the petal blanket. The petals are cool against my feverish back. I sigh with some relief and am able to open my eyes. He is lying next to me, propped on his elbow, moon and stars and roses above him, one long, denim-clad leg between mine. His eyes cascade like molten silver over my breasts and he brushes them with his knuckles. Such a light caress but the effect on me is gravitational. My back arches toward his hands for the faintest touch.

“Yes, the roses are definitely envious . . .” He plucks an ivory Elisa petal and flutters it over my lips. “There’s no comparison.” And he kisses me over the petal. What a kiss this is. The redolent petal as a thin veil, molding like silk with the pressure of his lips. I kiss him back, feeling the warm tip of his tongue through it, caressing mine. From my sigh, the petal flits back to him. He blows gently, tapping it back against my lips. The petal flutters between our mouths, kissing us both, breath to breath, moan to moan. And the throbbing begins. Not slow and steady as usual, but heavy and fast from the start.

“Your jeans . . .” I murmur through the petal, reaching to unbutton him. His mouth never misses a volley but he grasps my wrists above my head. Fistfuls of petals tickle my fingers.

“Soon. But first you wanted to remember why we’re doing this.” He leaves the petal on my lips where it promptly blows off from my jagged breath, and plucks another one, this for the center my forehead. He kisses over it—his wet mouth sealing the petal on. Another petal at my temple, another kiss. More petals in my hair, weaving with his fingers through my strands as I realize he is placing petals on me wherever there were metal discs on him. “Roses, not electrodes,” he smiles his lopsided smile, now kissing a petal over my cheek, and another at the corner of my lips, a trail of them down my throat, each pasted with the wet heat of his mouth. Petals and kisses rain over my chest, around my breasts, fluttering over my nipples until every spot where his tongue seals a petal is quivering. I’m lost on my own skin—cool breeze, hot breath, soft petal, fire lips—but he doesn’t stop. He drops petals down my belly and over my waist, kissing them in. I try to press myself against him but he hovers just a breath out of touch—only his lips and tongue through the petals on my skin. And the throbbing becomes painful. Not a rapid pulse anymore, but an achy hook, reeling me to him with a flaming pang.

“Touch me,” I whimper, fireflies blinking here and there in my vision.

“Soon, love.” Another petal along the lacy band of my knickers, and then the garden starts spinning because he hooks his fingers into the lace and rips it off, his knuckles brushing my skin. My hips tilt toward him as always, but he drops more petals over my pubic bone, inside my thighs, and at last presses a single petal with his lips right on the center where I need him the most. Another jolt of my hips but he is ready—they drop straight into his hands and he pins them back down on the petal blanket. And then the torment starts with the petal in the center. He blows on it and it flutters against me; he taps it with his tongue and I flutter against it; he kisses it and the ache becomes a deep, radiating thing; he licks the petal and my breathing stops. “Aiden, now.” It’s more of a cry than a plea.

“Just a little longer,” he answers, his voice strained with the same tension that is wringing me.

“Why?” I gasp, a hand pulling his hair, another grabbing petals on the ground, legs coiling around him.

His lips press the petal against me again and again. “Because if we’re strong enough for this . . .” He wraps the petal around me with his mouth. “If I can live through one more minute of not tasting you and you can live through one more minute without my touch, we can live through anything.” The petal circles me driven by his tongue, and tears gather in my eyes. “That’s what you really wanted to know, Elisa, isn’t it?”

How did he know that’s what I wanted before I did? I try to say yes, I try to say I love you, but all that comes out is a garbled, agonized moan. The petal of torment is wet, sticking to the fieriest part of me, and the achy wavelets ripple everywhere.

“See, this is torture too, love, just a different kind.” He slides the petal up and down with his tongue, as I try to find the breeze, the sky, the ground. “Your taste, your feel, your orgasm, mine, all just on the other side of this petal, and we can’t have them yet.” His lips press the petal hard against me, making me hiss. “It hurts, it feels like one more minute will finish you, doesn’t it?”

If I answer yes, I don’t know. I hear nothing but him.

“Me too, love. Right now the need to be inside you is so painful, it could kill me right here on your namesake roses . . . but then I think . . . this petal will fall apart. Any second now it will disintegrate from my tongue, from my hatred of it, and on the other side is you. And on this side is me. Doesn’t that help, Elisa?”

A tear trickles in my hair—a tear of pain, a tear of pleasure—as my scattered mind finally catches up. I moan to agree, clutching more petals on the ground at the next nudge from his hidden lips.

“And that’s all this is, everything you’re scared of, love, is just a petal. Forget all else and remember this.”

“I will.” Somehow the words form—a breathless jumble, but still words—and I start fighting through the petal with him. His tongue presses it into me, I thrust gently back; his lips fold it over, I rub myself against it; his mouth wraps me with it, I grip his hair and push toward his mouth.

“Perfect,” he sighs, breathless like me. “Fight, Elisa. Because through this stubborn, cruel petal is the biggest pleasure there is.” His lips twist it around me one more time and his tongue rips through. His mouth swoops on me, free and clear, and I explode instantly. My cry drowns his pained groan. I writhe with his lips, his tongue, pushing into his mouth, his face, any part of him I can find as waves of release crash over me so violently that fireflies burst in my eyes and tears spill over, Aiden after Aiden, God after God. His mouth knows me by now—knows exactly when to pull, when to kiss—and it sees me through to the other side, sodden, shaky, a mass of limbs and moans and tears on the petals, but alive.

“My turn,” Aiden says immediately before the shakes have subsided. By the time I manage to open my eyes, he is ripping off his jeans. Every aspect of him is raw with need. He springs free, but I barely see the bubble glimmering like a diamond because it disappears behind the condom. Before I can register I forgot to arrange my pill, he kicks apart my legs and slams inside in a blinding exquisite thrust. For the first time, his cry drowns mine. He freezes for a moment, eyes shut, jaw strained, teeth clamped over his lower lip, shudder after shudder running through him as I try to muster my own shaking, my own lungs. I don’t know if it’s the aftershocks of my first orgasm or a new one but it sets off the deep ache again—as if it wasn’t healed, only numbed. He is pulsing everywhere—ponderous spasms that make my own insides contract with him. His deep moan mingles with my sigh. I kiss his lower lip, releasing it from his teeth so I can bite it myself. The moment our lips touch, he is unleashed. All of him, bubble to hilt, relentless with no blinks in between, each thrust harder than the one before, hitting the deep ache head on. And the harder he moves, the harder I want. I cling to him with everything—my teeth, my arms, my legs, every muscle tightening inside. But his thrusts leave all my grips behind. And each time he moves, the ache disappears. All that’s left is the delicious tension building, magnifying every cell waist down. I know exactly when the pain leaves him too because he smiles, melding his mouth to mine, locking our fingers together, whispering his words of love—now dirty, now sweet—so the roses don’t hear. And pleasure comes for both of us at once in waves of warm tingles surging over us in lockstep, seizing our bodies with its singular tension. We fly at the same time, mouth to mouth, skin to skin, moan to cry—it lasts forever, it lasts a blink, it doesn’t matter because we float back on the petals on the same heartbeat. Gasping, shaking, laughing, weightless and tangled like vines. From the earthquake of our battle, little hurricanes of petals are swirling above, raining down on us as though his thrusts shook the roses root to stem. Maybe they did, maybe it was my cries. Whatever it was, there is no pain or fear—only my own body teeming with life.

He rolls off me onto his back, chest rising and falling like mine. “We survived,” he chuckles, catching one of the petals before it lands on his cheek.

“Either that or we died and this is what our heaven looks like.”

He looks at me, heart-stoppingly beautiful, carved moonstone with sharp angles of silver and shadow, and white petals in his messy hair. “It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, Elisa.”

I turn to face him, more petals gamboling off my skin with the movement, and rest my hand on his cheek. It’s warm and flushed. Even in the moonlight, I can see his calm, blissful eyes.

“Did I complete the brief?” he asks, turning to face me too, and dropping a fistful of petals over my head.

“What brief?” I laugh, brushing the deluge off my face.

“You charged me with making us forget the fear and remembering only why we’re doing this.”

“Oh, yes, with flying petals, I might add.”

His eyes soften, but his face intensifies. “The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side. Will you remember this when it gets hard?”

I curl into his chest, breathing him in—covered in my roses, his own fragrance is even more impossible than the Aeternum. “I will.”

“I’ll remind you,” he says, and I sense something in his voice but I don’t know what it is. I try to look up at his eyes but he tucks me closer, trailing his fingers down my spine.

I could stay here in this present moment forever, just adding love each time either of us feels a frisson of fear. But the night is deepening, his memories need sleep, and dawn is coming with a fresh reel of terror waiting for him. I cannot let him live through that horror with only a twenty percent strong remedy even if it feels stronger to him. I need to fight at night in Bia so he can have an easier day.

“Come on, love. It’s past your new bedtime,” he says, no doubt seeing the prospect of the night dawning on me and attributing it to exhaustion. “I’ll make you my special scrambled eggs and we can sleep.”

“Tell me about these special scrambled eggs.”

“Oh, the secret is salt.” He grins and rises fluidly, lifting me with him. Torrents of petals pour from everywhere. His gasp draws my eyes up to his face, and I’m certain the wonder in his eyes is a mirror of my own. “You’re stunning,” he murmurs and, in this moment, I believe my effect on him. Or rather the effect of Mum’s roses. Who isn’t stunning when wrapped in magic? He picks up our clothes and takes my hand, heading straight for the cottage’s front door. Neither of us looks at the box of the headset of torture by the hedges at the garden threshold. I suppose it will spend the night there tonight—it’s certainly safe. Unfortunately no one will steal it around here.

Thirty minutes later, fed and exhausted, we make it to our bedroom. I walk straight to the bouquet of the twelve wilted poppies of our weapons on my nightstand, and rest the picture of our kiss against the vase. He smiles—all dimple and turquoise from the happy memories he has in this room. “Will you please explain to me what the deal is with the wise-not-dead poppies when you have about a million roses outside and probably as many petals in your hair still?”

I shrug, shaking off the petals and putting on my night oil so his eyes don’t see my insane plan on my face. “I like them. Now off to bed with you, Mr. Plemmons. You need sleep at your old age.”

He laughs, swallows his anti-nightmare pill, and turns on Für Elise. “Our dance, first. We have to follow the first night’s routine, remember?”

I do now, and for the next few minutes, I forget my plot. Because dancing with Aiden is fourth of my favorite things: only his laughter, his lovemaking, and sleeping together rank higher on the list. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine as he did two nights ago, wiggling his attractive toes with a grin. And we sway, petals floating to the floor with each turn. He holds me tight against him, plucking more petals from my hair as I memorize the steps to his lullaby. I remember most of them already. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He dips me over his arm on the final note, kissing at the end of my jawline.

It only takes a second Für Elise for him to fall asleep tonight, wrapped around me, nose in my hair. If that doesn’t betray the toll of torture, nothing else does. I know how many puffs of happiness it will take for him to sink into deep sleep. I keep very still and count each waft of cinnamon breath as his weight gets heavy and he rolls away, lying on his back. On puff one-hundred-and-fifty-two, I move one inch at a time—not afraid of him, but afraid of getting caught. He would be a dragon, it’s true, but worse than that, he wouldn’t let me go. He would camp at the front door and probably have Benson, Javier, James, Hendrix, and Jazzman guard the cottage windows at night so I could get enough sleep. But I need every minute I can get with the protein to test the idea Doctor Helen gave me. If Corbin was right today, having me in bed adds two hours of sleep for Aiden, which means, without me, he will wake around four. I must be back here before then and pretend to wake up to go back to Bia. I recognize it is a downright mental plan based on one single supposition by a single therapist from one single night that could be entirely wrong. And I’m fully aware I cannot keep this up, but I’ll do it for as long as I can. If need be, I’ll take power naps in the library.

It takes ten excruciating minutes to crawl out of the bed, heart pounding and barely breathing. I tiptoe to the door, lungs stopping every time a floorboard creaks, but Aiden stays asleep. Thank you, Beethoven. Another three minutes to open the bedroom door just enough to squeeze through one limb at a time. But when I’m almost out, I cannot move, I cannot look away from the sight of him, peaceful and asleep under the moonlight. I know the wound will start festering as soon as I leave. I almost go back, I almost curl right next to him to watch him all night. But the reel of terror is quite literally waiting outside. Sleep well, my love. I’ll be back before you know it.

Torso aching, I get dressed in my old bedroom, in my old high-school clothes, and sneak down the stairs, skipping the creaky ones, smiling at how much he loves them. I leave a note on the fifth stair, hoping he never sees it but not wanting to worry him if for some reason he wakes before four. Although he shouldn’t—Corbin and he have been testing Für Elise for over two weeks. It has worked every night, with or without me.

I had an idea so I went to Bia. I’ll be back soon. I love you.

Mrs. Plemmons

I pick up the Rover keys he left on the console, shake off more petals, and steal outside. But I don’t run right away. I wait on the threshold, fretting that the door woke him, half-expecting his beautiful head to peek out of the bedroom window, shouting enough fucks to scare all the roses. But he doesn’t. I glance at the petal angels we left on the garden and break into a sprint, not looking at the box of torture as I leap over it, plunging down Elysium to the garage. Every few moments, I look over my shoulder like any fugitive, but he is not behind me. Guard him, Mum. Keep him safe until I’m back.

I turn on the Rover as soon as I throw myself inside, but despite the gentle purr of the engine, I still jump, squinting in the darkness. But no light switches on at the cottage. I drive down the country road carefully until I reach town. Then as soon as I clear Burford’s border sign, I hit the gas, eyes on the road, mind on Aiden’s waterfall laughter, hands on the wheel exactly where he rests his.

I reach Bia in twenty-four minutes, chest blistering in pain. I have five hours left before Für Elise wears off. A few researchers are huddled over piles of books in the lobby as always, but Bia is dark and empty. I run straight to the bookshelves to confirm the idea I got from Doctor Helen. She said my calming effect decreases Aiden’s fear by reducing the CREB protein in his neurons. So, theoretically, if I can identify all oxytocin options that reduce CREB, I should be able to find the right one. The trouble is I have no clue which of the four hundred and thirty oxytocin formulas decrease CREB and which ones increase it or leave it unaffected.

I wrench out every textbook on neural chemicals and sit at the corner desk to read. It’s hard, tedious work on three hours of sleep and the day we’ve had. I would do much better if I was mixing oxytocin instead, but I need a way to identify the right one before I start. The hours pass, chapter after chapter, mumbling to myself, muttering to Dad, looking for any scribble of his on the pages and finding none. But at two-fifteen in the morning, as my eyes are itching and panic is setting in with jitters, there it is in bold font: a list of compounds that impact CREB proteins. All eighteen hundred of them. I almost vomit on the page. I almost crawl to the vent for air, but I don’t have time for meltdowns. I select the top one hundred with the highest potency in reducing CREB to start with. It will take weeks, maybe the whole summer, to eliminate even these from the oxytocin options, but it’s the only path I can see. I take a screenshot of the list and start compiling an inventory of all the ingredients in the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules in the cooler to compare them against the CREB list. I scrawl them in my notepad, not wanting to leave any computer traces in Bia. It feels like I’ve catapulted back to pre-historic times but computers can’t keep secrets. At least this part is mindless—just copying down chemical names—it’s all the calculations afterwards that will break my brain. I scribble name after name in mum’s writing to fight off my heavy lids, smiling at her and dad joining this way while Aiden’s waterfall laughter plays in my head. Almost like a family all of us together here in this present moment . . .

The slam of a door startles me. I jump up, almost toppling off my chair, realizing with dread I had fallen asleep. I glance at dad’s watch in panic, but then I see him. Aiden is towering by the lab door, in jeans, a T-shirt, and my dad’s lab coat over his arm. How he got in I don’t know, but I do know no wall or door would have stopped him because the fury and anxiety emanating from him are so palpable they could shatter all the vials and ignite all the combustible chemicals. It is beyond anything I imagined. He is not the Dragon, whom I’ve tamed. He is whatever fear itself is afraid of. He doesn’t speak but, from the way his jaw is set, his teeth must be clenching so hard they could pulverize the building walls. He is glaring down at me, either beyond all powers of speech or still choosing his words. Yet despite his fury, the wound in my chest—festering even while asleep—disappears. I scramble to speak first, with zero formula or plan.

“Hi there,” I start, my voice high enough to break a few beakers on its own. He doesn’t answer in any way, but his jaw flexes once. I look back at Dad’s watch even though I already saw it’s four forty. “Looks like Corbin was right,” I continue in bat-ear frequency. “Did you sleep well? I sure did . . . this desk is so cozy.” Still no response from him whatsoever. “I was going to come back before four but—ah—I’m so thrilled you came here instead because I can show you my—umm—workstation.” That earns me a blink. “Oh, good, you’re thrilled, too.” I hold out my hand, teetering to my bench scrubbed spotless with not a single item of interest on it. “So this is me . . . and over there is Graham who will be here in an hour and a half . . . strong emotions near his beloved 2-AG will give him an aneurism . . . and over there are some beakers . . . oh, have you ever seen a Bunson burner? I think you may be cousins—”

“Enough!” His voice is low and hoarse, yet it silences me more than his dragon roar. He doesn’t move, but his hands clench in fists. “Do you have any idea how it felt to wake up and not see you there?” The question is a strangled whisper. “Any idea at all how worried, how sickened I was?” A shudder runs through him. “I thought I had hurt you in my sleep. I was searching the sheets, the floor for any drop of blood only to find your ridiculous note and then worry more that you were out driving at night stressed, with no sleep, not answering your phone—what if you had gotten hurt?” He shudders again and throws the lab coat on the desk, breathing hard.

I, on the other hand, can’t breathe at all. How did I manage to torment him when I was trying to protect him? How did I cause the exact fear I’m trying to heal here in this lab? How could I have added even one minute of pain to the horror he already lived through yesterday and the horror he will live through again today?

I run straight to him, wrapping my hands around his fists. “I’m so sorry, my love. I fell asleep and didn’t hear my phone, and even worse, I was reckless. You have every right to be furious.” His fists soften in my hands, and his breathing slows. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I promise, leaning my head on his chest.

He takes a deep breath and wraps his arms around me. “Do you know what you mean to me, Elisa? What you would have done to us both if something had happened to you?”

I nod against his T-shirt that he barely must have thrown on. “I do because I know what you mean to me.”

“Then why did you come back here last night? What was so important that couldn’t wait until you got some rest?”

I look up at his anxious eyes, and the words I never wanted to weigh on him spill out. “It’s the protein . . . it’s failing. I had an idea about how to save it, but even that I don’t think I can solve on time now. I know you don’t want me to stress about it, but I can’t do that, Aiden, I have to try. I want us to have every chance and every weapon we can get. But I’m losing this one. Losing it for you, losing it for my dad . . . ” As soon as I say the words, they become real. The truth and exhaustion break through, and the tears start, splashing down my cheeks like his petals. Was it only seven hours ago that we were tangled together under the roses?

“Oh, my love.” He folds me into his chest and carries me back to my chair, sitting with me on his lap. “You’re not losing anything for us—this isn’t your fault. How could it be, loving and brave and bright as you are? Shh, don’t cry. It’ll be all right. We’re fighting together now.” He tips up my face, brushing away my tears. His forehead is lined with worry like his heart line at the lab. That brings me back to my senses. Haven’t I caused him enough grief for a day? For his whole life? I wipe my nose, trying to smile.

“You’re right— we are together, and I don’t want to waste another minute crying. Let’s get some fresh air for a while before I have to come back for Graham and Edison. I’ll be better about sleep tonight.”

He cups my cheek, shaking his head. “Show me the problem, love. Show me what’s upsetting you so I can see if I can help.”

“No, you have enough on your plate, you don’t need to learn chemistry, too.”

“I don’t give a fuck what’s on my plate if you’re hurting. Show me before Graham comes. ”

“But you don’t want anything to do with the protein.”

“I want everything to do with you. And if I can’t convince you not to worry about it, then at least let me help.”

“Really?”

“Really, but only if you give me a real smile. I can’t stand seeing you in pain, Elisa.”

His lips lift into an automatic smile in response to my own, except his is a lot more beautiful. I kiss the corner of his mouth and tell him everything. It feels like it did by my parents’ grave—like the moment I tell him my problems, they split in half or we become double-strong. I show him the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules and the one hundred compounds that increase CREB proteins. “So, you see, we need the protein to emulate my calming effect on you so we can boost its power—maybe instead of twenty percent, we can make it forty or fifty. But the problem is there are too many choices. So I need to cross-reference these CREB compounds against all the ingredients in the four hundred thirty ampules and eliminate all oxytocin formulas that contain any compound that increases CREB proteins. And hopefully the options I’ll need to test will be more manageable then.”

He has absorbed everything—names and concepts that took me entire semesters. “Sounds like a perfect job for my brain.” His eyes are already scanning the labels of the ampules, capturing the ingredients list. “I won’t be any help with the experiment, but combinatorial calculations are my thing. That was going to be my specialty at the CIA.”

“You really think you have time to help me with everything else you have to do?”

He nods, eyes racing over the CREB list—no notes, no screenshots, nothing but his own mind. “How many ampules can you test per day while still getting at least seven hours of sleep?”

“One, two at most before Graham comes in or after he leaves.”

“So we need to narrow down the options to about eighty and we need it stat so you have the rest of the summer to test?”

“Ideally even less than eighty, but if you do this, it frees me up to research other ways to identify the right oxytocin and how much to add.”

“And to sleep.” He strides straight to the cooler of oxytocin and starts turning the ampules so he can see the ingredient list for each.

“Aiden, Graham will be here in an hour. We can come back tonight.” I glance at my watch, a new worry gnawing at me. The last thing I need is for Graham to catch us here.

“We’ll be gone by then,” he answers with confidence, never looking away from the ampules.

“But—”

“Give me fifteen minutes.”

I fall silent, watching him mesmerized. I realize until now I’ve never truly seen him work. Everything I’ve seen him process—from complex financial documents and stock analyses to the books he reads in hours, sometimes minutes—must be as effortless to him as the periodic table is to me. But now that I see him really use his mind, I’m awed. He is memorizing about twenty ampules per minute, slowed only by the time it takes to turn them over for his eyes to photograph the ingredient list and place them back in their previous position. And I finally witness the processing speed that so astonished the Edinburgh scientists—it is not something anyone can envision without seeing it in action. He stops exactly in fifteen minutes as he predicted.

“There,” he says. “Now we can leave.”

He smiles when I just stare with an open mouth, unable to form any words. “There are some benefits to my mind, I acknowledge that.” He grabs me by the hand and helps me put back the books and erase all evidence of my work—he of course left nothing behind. In five more minutes, we’re done. He throws my dad’s lab coat over my shoulders and rushes me out of the lab as I finally manage to find some words.

“So how did you get in? Can you secretly walk through walls, too?”

He chuckles. “Nope, I innocently told one of the researchers in the lobby that you forgot your father’s lab coat. As soon as he saw its initials, he let me in.” Of course, easy as breathing, provided that you have his brain under pressure and remember everything. I stumble next to him, stunned and wordless again, and in another two minutes, we’re out in the parking lot, not a single Graham or Edison in sight.

But Benson is there in his rental van, waiting for us, puffy eyed and in pajamas. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him—of course he would have driven Aiden here since I took the Rover—but it still takes me off guard. A new wave of guilt washes over me. “I’m sorry, Benson. I messed up your sleep, too.”

“Don’t worry, Elisa. I’m still jetlagged,” he lies with a sleepy smile.

Aiden opens the van’s back door and brings out my blanket from the cottage. Even in his panic and anger, he thought ahead for me. The tears almost start again, but I fight them off while he sends Benson back. “Thanks, Benson. I’ll take the Rover back, you get some rest.” He starts towing me toward the Rover before Benson has turned on the van’s lights.

“Where are we going?” I ask him as he tucks me in the front seat and secures my safety belt in case I find the task too onerous in my state.

“University Parks so you can take a nap.”

Despite the exhaustion that suddenly crashes over me, I smile—it will be just the two of us together for a while longer. He backs out of the parking lot and whips right on South Parks Road. I can’t look away from his face—here, caring for me while internally his brain must be already processing. “So how many ingredients were there?”

“Three thousand four hundred and forty seven,” he answers automatically. “You were right, this will take some time.”

“Bloody hell!” All the relaxed feelings disappear. “How can we possibly eliminate them on time?”

He’s racing down the empty road. “That’s my job now. Your job is to relax before you have to go back there. I’d tell you to call in sick but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sighs in a way that could only mean give me strength. In minutes, the brakes skid to a full stop at the secluded corner of the park, by River Cherwell. I grin, peering out of the window. “Did you know down the path here is where the dons of Oxford used to go for male nude bathing away from delicate female eyes?”

He chuckles. “Don’t get any ideas, Elisa. Your no-longer-delicate eyes are here to sleep. There will be no male nudity of any kind. And that’s a promise.” He gets out of the Rover quickly lest I rip off his clothes, which is entirely possible even with my current heavy limbs. By the time I unbuckle my safety belt, he is already at my door, wrapping me in the blanket like one of Maria’s empanadas. He carries me as always, striding across the soft grass to the shrubs by the river. A déjà vu of him carrying me across his Alone Place in Portland hijacks me, and I kiss his neck.

“What was that for?” he asks.

“I love you.”

“Are you after male nudity, Elisa?”

“Always, but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sets me down by a tall cluster of salvias that are blooming a deep inky purple against the still dark sky. The shrubs and stalks hide us completely as the grassland slopes toward the river. “Sleep now, love,” Aiden says, lying next to me directly on the dewy grass and pulling me in his arms.

“No, you’ll get wet. Come inside the blanket with me.”

He chuckles again. “Elisa, this is a feather mattress compared to Fallujah. Sleep.”

“We’re not in Fallujah. We’re in a quiet park together and I’m not sleeping unless you’re inside the blanket with me.”

Another deep give-me-strength sigh, but he crawls inside the blanket that stretches like a hug around us. He brings me in his chest, and his fragrant body heat envelops me, blowing the scent of the park’s lime trees into oblivion. “Happy now?” he murmurs.

“Yes.” I bury my face in the spot above his heart, knowing there are salvias, cedars, and mugwort blooming around but smelling nothing but him. I feel his nose in my hair, perhaps inhaling me too. His body relaxes like another blanket over me, as if we are back in our bedroom, but abruptly I panic.

“What is it?” he asks, sensing my tension.

“Did I ruin your happy memories of our bedroom tonight with my stupidity?”

“Of course not. That bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life. And it wasn’t stupidity, it was love.”

I want to tell him he is the most beautiful place in my life. Whether among petals or in his primordial oak or his sky-high craggy mountaintop or here in a sleepy park—nothing compares to him. But not because he has the face any angel would become a demon for. Because of all the beauty he has within.

“Are you asleep?” he whispers.

“Not yet. It feels like a dream, though.”

“Do you want me to play Für Elise so you feel like we’re at home? I thought maybe the river would help.”

Always thoughtful, always for me. “It does, but I prefer your voice. Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story would you like?”

“Tell me how you discovered that Für Elise helped you sleep.”

He hugs me closer, lips in my hair still, but his body tenses around me. “That’s a very difficult thing for me to talk about. I found it on the night you left . . .” A shudder runs through him and me.

“Then don’t.” I stop him before he forces himself to think of more torment. “Only happy memories now. Pick whatever story you want.”

His comforting, relaxed weight cocoons me again. “All right,” he murmurs after a moment, his musical voice more soothing than any lullaby. “I’ll tell you about my first memory of this park. I was seven, and my parents and I came here before my first meeting with Doctor Helen on April 12, 1987. I was a difficult child, as you might imagine. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Why could I remember everything my best friend Brandon told me but he couldn’t remember anything I told him? Why were the teachers whispering about me? Why did I have to meet with scientists instead of playing ball with the other kids? And why was mom crying at night? Anyway, when we came here that day though, it wasn’t bad. I felt somewhat normal. This was a brand-new place, no memories yet, and I could just run amok or play ball, without crystal clear images in my head every corner I turned. And mom seemed happier, too. She was smiling, as was dad. They were so hopeful the brilliant Oxford scientists would help me. And I saw them kiss. Right down Lucas Walk over there, on that bench. It was just a light kiss, but I hadn’t seen them kiss since Christmas morning in 1986—over four months prior. And in that one moment, they looked happy. It lasted seconds before they spotted me looking at them. They pulled away quickly and waved me over. I pretended to gag but went and set with them. ‘Does our kissing embarrass you?’ Mom asked. Me, the brat: ‘It’s gross, but at least you remember how to do it.’ And she laughed, Elisa. I hadn’t heard her laugh in so long—ever since my mind started showing. She kissed my cheek, as I was squirming away, and she said, “Well, you will never have that problem, Aiden-bear. When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.” I lied and told her I had kissed Jenny, Sarah, Myra, Kate, Laura, Ashley, Emily, Tara, Erica, Leah, and Anna—basically all the pretty girls in my class. She looked horrified until she saw the lie in my eyes, and then laughed again. But what she said stayed with me. That’s how I knew not to kiss on the mouth until I met a woman whose taste I’d want to remember forever in mine. Until I met you. And that’s my first memory of this park—a happy one, just like right now.”

His piano voice stops and, for a while, I don’t know whether I’m asleep or awake. But I must be awake—my mind could never conjure this. I lift my head, fighting off the wall of sleep and the heavy lids just enough to look at him. “Kiss me here then, Aiden-bear.”

He sighs again, no doubt thinking I had fallen asleep, but he kisses me. Softly, slowly, so light it could be the breeze. Or just a dream. And I drift, sleep shutting all of my mind except this one urgency of being the Oxford scientist that can save the seven-year old boy who became a soldier and is now fighting for his own peace.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 17 – WAR

Hello again friends! Hope you’re having a wonderful Sunday. It’s sunny in Portland and warm enough for shorts, which are a nice change from pandemic sweats.  Here is Chapter 17 as war starts for our couple. I hope it gives you a good break today from everything you are facing in your lives. Thank you as always to everyone for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

17

War

The lab that has studied Aiden’s mind since childhood is the size of Goliath. A dizzying number of screens glow from the vast white walls and the runway of white desks lining them—neuroscientists apparently use computers like chemists use vials. Monitors hang even from the ceiling. In each corner are clusters of futuristic equipment that looks like it belongs at the helm of a starship. But more overwhelming than all this is the platoon of neuroscientists waiting for us. Seven white coats stand in line as we walk in, two more are on video screens projected on the wall and—the only colorful wink in the white expanse—Corbin is smiling at us from yet another video screen straight from Portland.

“Aiden, Elisa, great to see you!” He waves at us in a checkered sage shirt.

“Victor,” Aiden nods at him. I wave back but I’m riveted by the woman standing in front of the line of the white coats. She is Amazonian in stature, white and silver from the crown of her short, swept back hair to her grey eyes and eyelashes. Her skin is ivory lace, each wrinkle a neural pathway leading to her steady, penetrating gaze. She is regarding me with gravitas, and I see a flicker of recognition in her eyes.

Aiden pulls me close as he introduces me with unrestrained pride. “Doctor Helen, this is my Elisa. Elisa, this is Doctor Brahms or Doctor Helen to me.”

“You are a daughter of Oxford,” Doctor Helen states like an edict. Even her voice is regal, with a ring of authority that silences the beeps and signals tweeting from the monitors.

I have to resist the urge to bow. “You knew my parents, Doctor?” My voice bends with the reflexive reverence she inspires.

“I did. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I whisper as Aiden’s hand clutches my waist.

“Your mother was my favorite,” she adds in her commanding tone. “She helped restore Ashmole six-eleven—the very first manuscript in existence to discuss human memory.” She turns her dignified gaze on Aiden. “That was the manuscript I had to unearth the day I met you.”

At her words, the icy expanse of the lab’s tundra thaws for me, as though Mum’s warm hands are molding it to back to spring. Aiden smiles. “April twelve, 1987, six thirty, I believe. You said to my mother there was no such thing as fate to explain me.”

Doctor Helen’s grey eyes shift with a sort of wonderment when she looks at him. “I have yet to see evidence of fate. But I’ll allow serendipity. Speaking of both . . .” She turns to her team and they rumble as one. “We have a lot to do. Let’s get started.” She pivots royally to her desk, her lab coat billowing like a mantle behind her as the other researchers scramble to catch up with her ringing footsteps.

Aiden and I take our white seats in front of her—the white is so absolute, I wonder if it’s intentional to avoid triggers—and Doctor Helen introduces us to the rest of the platoon. “On the screens behind me are Doctors Nagapan and O’Connor from Edinburgh. You already know Doctor Corbin, of course, and this is our Oxford team.” She pulls out a binder from below her desk and I thaw further. It’s the only warm, personal detail against the white blank slate. The binder is covered with a collage of Van Gogh’s most famous prints—the wheat field with crows, the vase of sunflowers, the blue irises, the French Alps, his self-portrait—Javier would like it. She flips the binder open with a thud.

“Right then,” she announces. “Our plan today is to test Elisa’s calming effect on Aiden and see whether it’s simply placebo or whether there is scientific evidence of it. This will help us implement an experiment for the next eighty-seven days to reconsolidate Aiden’s memories with the hypothesis that the traumatic ones generally, and his startle reflex in particular, will decrease in intensity once allowed to freely associate with Elisa’s effect on him. Questions?” She reels all this so quickly that I have to blink a few times to realize she is looking at me—who else would have a hard time understanding this in such company?

“Umm, why does it matter whether my effect is placebo or real if it helps Aiden?” is the first question I manage, feeling utterly out of my depth. Chemicals are so predictable—memories and emotions are like fate.

But Doctor Helen regales me with a stately smile. “Excellent question, indeed. Therapeutically, Doctor Corbin would say perhaps it doesn’t matter in the short-term. But for this experiment to hold in the long run, as I understand you both wish, your effect must be real and significant at that. Any other questions?” More rapid-fire decrees, but I also can’t help but feel she wants me to keep asking. Next to me, Aiden is beaming with pride as though I’m the Einstein of neuroscience, not a blob of nerves.

“Ah . . . how do you plan to test my calming effect?” Me again, the Einstein. Except abruptly I feel exposed, riddled with a new fear I did not expect. We have taken for granted my calming effect. It’s our lodestar weapon—the mother of our bombs. Is that about to be eliminated too like the protein was this morning? And then what do we have left but our love and Aiden’s strength?

“You’ll see shortly. Aiden, did you bring the scent we requested?”

“I did,” he answers and nods at me. With trembling fingers, I hand my precious vial of Aeternum, feeling like I’m cutting out an artery of my heart. One of Doctor Helen’s assistants takes it from me with hairy bear fingers instead of the gentle, rose-breeze hold it deserves.

“Please be careful!” I urge before I can control my tongue.

“Don’t worry, Elisa, we only need a microliter of it.” Doctor Helen nods at her bear mercenary who marches out of the lab, taking my artery with him. But I can’t even stare behind it because Doctor Helen fires at us again. “Any more questions?”

Aiden asks his first. “How do you plan to trigger my startle reflex without me seeing it coming if it has to be in a controlled setting?”

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant question at the crux of the matter, but Doctor Helen simply waves her hand. “Obviously, I cannot tell you that, but trust me, I have a plan. I have known you for twenty-eight years, Aiden.”

“And this plan,” he retorts as his chair creaks with tension. “Guarantees Elisa’s safety?”

She doesn’t even blink. “It does. And if you need further reason to believe that, I owe it to her mother.”

That seems to pacify him for the moment while my nerves are buzzing like the hundreds of monitors around me. “And your sleep?” Corbin pipes up. “Have you tested it together with Für Elise?”

I clap my eyes on the Van Gogh prints, and let Aiden handle this one. “We have,” he answers in his controlled tone. “Two nights so far. Full eight hours the first, only three last night, but that was an exception and it’s changing tonight. No nightmares. Little movement. Some increased . . . nocturnal activity.”

The Starry Night is a true masterpiece, isn’t it?

“Full eight hours, really? That’s two hours extra than just Für Elise alone. Let’s keep track of that. Now, what is this increase in nocturnal activity?”

Artists are so warm unlike my next of kin in science who decide to torture me more with questions about our nocturnal activities—all of which make Corbin gleefully happy and Aiden monosyllabic with Aidenisms. I stare at Van Gogh’s self-portrait in the asylum, feeling like our most precious moments, our secret parts—every touch, every caress—is being siphoned into their clinical files. And although I know they’re our allies, maybe even generals in this war, my nerves disappear and abruptly I feel anger. Anger at science, anger at fate that Doctor Helen says doesn’t exist.

Finally the interminable discussion of nocturnal activities ends and Doctor Helen stands. The rest of them stand with her—very clearly not daring to blink without her command. “Aiden, you know this next part. We’ll need your heart rate and brain electrical activity. Elisa, you may stay with him for this. We’ll instruct you on next steps when you’re finished. Everyone except Morse, out with me.” She closes her Van Gogh binder and strides out of the lab with her court of scientists at the same time that the Edinburgh team and Corbin turn off their screens. The only one left is old Morse. He is a Graham-thin fellow in his seventies with wispy, static white hair; Aiden clearly likes him.

“How have you been keeping, Morse?” Aiden asks as he stands, holding out his hand for me. I take it, clueless about where we’re going, wishing I could take the Van Gogh binder with me.

“Oh, older and slower, Master Aiden. You are the one with the exciting life. Falling in love—golly gumdrops, I thought the monarchy would fall before I saw that.”

Master Aiden winks at me. “Old Morse is a monarchist. He’s been handling this part of the circus since I was seven. No one could get me to sit still for this back then except him. You’ll see why.”

I smile at old Morse as though he is Aiden’s Mr. Plemmons. He shuffles with us across the colossal lab to a monitor the size of a windshield, which is attached to a dashboard of countless buttons and dials the way a cockpit looks on TV. Next to it are two more white chairs.

“Morse has to attach a few electrodes on me, Elisa. Have a seat.” Aiden brushes my cheek and starts unbuttoning his blue shirt. I fall down on the chair and with every pore of his revealed skin—the warm skin I love, the skin I have kissed more times than I can count—the anger returns. Anger that his golden skin has to be exposed under harsh fluorescents, attached to electrodes in the cold, sterile air of this lab, only so that we can be together. Only for this simple, human dream of being in love.

“I’m fine,” Aiden assures me, seeing it all on my face. Shirtless now, he takes the chair in front of me and old Morse starts hooking him to a wheat field of wires over Aiden’s temples where the bead of sweat glimmered as he was climbing the oak, over his forehead I kissed only this morning, through his hair where I knot my fingers when we make love, over his chest where I rest my cheek. When Morse glues the next one over Aiden’s heart, I stand, unable to sit still.

“Elisa, love, this doesn’t hurt, I promise. Old Morse knows what he’s doing.”

“Oh, I know, I just want to look around.”

I glare at the blank monitor screen attached to Aiden’s electrodes, its beeps cawing around us like the wheat field crows. And suddenly I become Van Gogh’s sunflowers—firing seeds like bullets at the world. I am his cypress tree darkening your sky so my star can glow. And I can understand preferring an asylum to a world that did this to my love.

“Don’t touch the red, dear! You don’t want to fry Master Aiden’s brain now, do you?” Old Morse cautions me as I hover over the dashboard where the wires are ready to extract the inner Aiden, reducing the wonder that is him to more beeps. How could I have been excited for this? How could I have bounced on my car seat this morning? Now all I feel are murders of crows diving in and out of me.

“Of course not!” I spit out more sunflower seeds, glaring at the row of red buttons on the dashboard—the blood hue feels jarring to Van Gogh’s colors swirling in me.

But Aiden is perfectly still. His eyes are the blue irises, lightening and darkening as I flit in and out of his vision.  His torso is the inverse mountaintop of the French Alps despite the adhesive discs on his skin. His eyes are following me with concern, and he opens his hand in invitation for me to sit back down. I perch like a raven on the chair next to him and grip his warm, strong hand in both of mine.

“Please relax,” he says as though he sees all the madness inside. “I’ve done this dozens of times, although I’ve never enjoyed it until now. And in about three minutes, you get to meet my brain. You love that part. Think about that, okay?” The dimple winks like the starriest star of the Starry Night as he tries to comfort me. The man who needs peace the most is trying to assure me. At that, the rippling stops inside me, and the crows disappear. I am here for him, not the other way around. I force my body to be still like his, willing my calm effect to fall around him like a shield. Finally the last electrode is attached, old Morse flips a switch on the dashboard, and the monitor glows to life. After a flicker, Aiden’s brain waves oscillate brilliant blue on the huge screen and right below them, in gold, is his heartbeat.

“Oh!” I gasp, my hands flying to my mouth, all anger draining out of me.

Shh, listen,” Aiden says with a smile and I cup my ear as we did with the willows. After a static whirr, I can hear his mind speak. It’s a humming sound, a bit like soft waterfall and echoing wind. And every few flickers of the brain waves, his heart beeps as though not wanting to be outshone. Except this beep sounds like a piano note—not a caw—to me, more beautiful than Für Elise.

“Can you make out words from this one?” Aiden’s eyes are dancing in response to the wonder he must be seeing in mine. Peripherally, I register old Morse leaving us but I’m lost in the music of Aiden’s mind and heart. Mmm, ding,

“Mine,” I decide, eyes on the monitor. How could I have wanted to shatter it five minutes ago?

“Yours.” The waves flutter gently on the screen and my eyes fly to Aiden’s face—he is smiling. “Come here, Elisa,” he murmurs as if we’re in our warm bed, the only two people in the world. He pulls me on his lap and takes my face in his hands. His eyes seem to take in the moment, as his scent washes over me—headier than the Aeternum perfume. Then his lips brush against mine. At the some moment, a beep chimes from his heart.

“Oh!” I gasp again, eyes flitting to the monitor, lips glued to his. The gold line of his heart is spiking. His hands tighten on my face, bringing me entirely back to him, as he parts my mouth with his tongue. More beeps ding—the song of our kiss—and I close my eyes, listening. Ding, ding, ding. We chuckle together, mouth to mouth.

“Look,” he whispers, freeing my face as his lips start their favorite trail along my jawline to my ear, inhaling the perfume there. I open my eyes and gaze at the screen even as my eyelids want to flutter close. But I cannot blink because the heart waves are swelling and dipping. Then suddenly the beeps go wild—I panic but then I feel his body hardening against me on his lap. He chuckles again. “This, I have to see.” He meets this part of himself—the visual transcription of his desire for me—with curiosity. I hope he can turn it into self-love, I hope he can see what I see.

“Now you look,” I tell him and let my lips travel over his sculpted jaw down to the hollow on his throat away from the electrodes. The dings go mental, and his waterfall laughter washes over us. How are we ever going to pull apart?

But Doctor Helen’s brisk voice blasts through the lab over some sound system. “All right, you two. We need a baseline reading. Some neutral thoughts would help, Aiden. Elisa, if you could go across the room. In fact, if you could please wait outside the lab altogether while we finish. You can see Aiden afterwards.”

“Look what you did.” Aiden grins while I spring away from his lap, cheeks burning.

“They could see us?” I whisper in mortification.

“Of course not. They must have just received the data, and they know how to interpret it. Go on, love, I’ll finish here soon.”

I leave him there with all my strength, looking back at his face every few slowing beeps—his smile is fading with each step I take. The moment the heavy lab doors close behind me, the wound starts to fester again. I pace at the threshold, arms around my torso. If it hurts so much when we’re only apart for a few minutes, how will I live with it if this experiment doesn’t work?

One of Doctor Helen’s assistants enters a room down the hall, and I sprint behind him to sneak. The metal door has a narrow glass pane at the top, and I have to rise on my tiptoes to reach it. Even then I can only see more screens on the wall showing the monitor in the lab. To my untrained brain, it appears Aiden’s brain activity and heart lines are straighter than when I was there. I stare at every slight undulation, barely breathing.

“All right, Aiden, we have what we need. Morse will clear you and I’ll give you time to go to the fMRI room for the next part,” Doctor Helen says from behind the closed door. I race back to Aiden’s lab for a glimpse of him. The moment he comes out in his jeans and open shirt, all electrodes and adhesive discs gone, I can tell from his guarded eyes that he is not excited about this part. But he smiles when he sees me and pulls me against him with a sort of urgency.

“What happens now?” I ask as he starts walking down another white hallway opposite from the kiss lab. His long stride is slower.

“This is when they scan this beast.” He points at his temple.

Before I can find any useful words, he has stopped by yet another white door at the end of the hall. “I have to go in, Elisa. I’ll see you on the other side.” He kisses my hair and then he is gone without a smile. The door closes behind him with a click. A spike of fear lances the wound’s raw edges, rooting me here, palms against the cold door. There is no audible movement for a while, then it sounds like another door is opening within the same room. The sound releases my feet and I dash back to the control center, reaching on my tiptoes to see. But all the screens on the wall are dark. No one says a word as my toes start to wobble . . . Phosphorus, 30.974 . . . silver, 107.87 . . .

“Aiden, can you hear me?” Doctor Helen finally calls from behind the door. I can’t hear Aiden respond, but she must because she adds, “Very well. This will be hard, but you know the process. Lie still, blink and swallow as little as possible, and look at the photographs that will appear on the screen right above you. Forty-five minutes as usual, but after that, Elisa will join you. Try to hold on to that. We start in . . . three, two, one.”

Then the room goes dark and there is total silence. Not a single syllable or movement. Not one sound to tell me what is happening to Aiden. The pain in my chest rises up my throat, constricting it with panic. The white hallway becomes a tunnel of ice, and my teeth start chattering. It takes exactly one minute to realize I cannot breathe through forty-four more minutes of this. Without a second thought, I pound on the door. One of the researchers opens it with wide outraged eyes, but I’m past caring.

“I have to see,” I say, my own voice sounding foreign to my ears.

“Let her in,” Doctor Helen calls, and I step inside quietly, squishing myself into the corner behind the door. The control room is pitch-black except the monitors. Each scientist is at his or her desk, studying their own screens displaying numbers and patterns I cannot comprehend. One central monitor shows what I assume is Aiden’s brain and the way blood is flowing through it like a storm. Doctor Helen sits at the helm of the room, her back to everyone else, but that’s exactly what I need. Because I can see the wide screen she is commanding where a reel of photographs plays with eye-watering speed. I try to blink as little as possible as I realize these must be the images she is feeding Aiden in the MRI machine. They seem innocuous at first, without a visible pattern to me. Traffic light, Christmas tree, chess set, a blue bike, on and on, a few hundred. Then abruptly my own face startles me—the photo of me sleeping, the only one Aiden had before he came to England. And after my face, the reel changes—people now. Some I know, some I don’t, some I can guess: Aiden’s parents, Benson, Cora, James, two others I assume to be Hendrix and Jazzman, a military headshot of a young Black man in his Marine blues, countless unknown others, again in the hundreds, again with no pattern I can decipher. Then the reel changes quickly a third time—these images are more familiar, warming me. An Aeternum rose, a stave of music from Für Elise, Javier’s fateful painting of my jawline, a Baci chocolate, purple eyes . . . My eyes fill with tears as I realize she is feeding Aiden every image he must associate primarily with me.

I almost miss the next abrupt change of the reel from my tears. Then once I see it, I wish I had never seen. Because the images they are blasting on Aiden now are of terror, gruesome to the extreme. A military helmet splattered with human brains, disembodied torn human limbs, an imploded rib cage glistening in the sun, half a little boy, a flayed corpse, a face that once must have been human before it was peeled, eyes gauged out, nose, lips, and ears scraped off, and the young Black Marine who, with a strangle in my throat, I conclude must be Marshall.

“Stop!” I shout, bolting to my feet, my voice echoing in the control room as all the scientists except Doctor Helen gasp and leap off their seats. I jump forward to—what, do something, anything to the screen of horror—but the bear assistant throws himself in front of me, glaring in disbelief. “Don’t show Aiden those! Please!” I cry, trying to get around him.

But it’s Doctor Helen who speaks in an even tone never looking away from the screen or stopping the reel of terror. “We have to, Elisa. Now, please, we need quiet, or I’ll ask you to leave.”

The bear blocks my view of the screen, towering over me until I fall back on my corner and sink to the floor. He flits back to his desk, freeing my line of sight again. I should close my eyes, but I don’t because if Aiden has to see these, so will I. My stomach heaves violently, bile rising to my clamped teeth—over and over until my insides are burning with acid. A knifepoint pain stabs through my skull, dulling even the throbbing in my chest. I clamp my arms around my knees, pressing my back against the corner, rocking in place to fight off the shudders, as Doctor Helen triggers Aiden’s traumatic memories, searing his retinas while he is captive in the MRI machine with hundreds of sickening, macabre images. It’ll be over soon. It’ll be over soon, my love. Only twenty minutes left. Then we can go back to the cottage where Mum’s magic will help you, and you can sleep while I go back to Bia—to the lab that is trying to fight fear, not inflict it.

Doctor Helen changes the reel again, now alternating the horrific images with the images Aiden associates with me. Marshall—my face, flayed corpse—my face, dismembered body—Aeternum, on and on. Bile rises again and I grip my skull as I stare in horror at what he is living through for us. Then the speed of the reel skyrockets until the images become so blurry I can no longer distinguish them from each other.

“Is he truly processing at this speed?” Doctor O’Connor’s voice pipes through a speakerphone, and I realize the computer is feeding the same images to him in Scotland. Rage burns my throat as I try to find air now that the images have blurred for me.

“Yes, he is,” Doctor Helen responds in a majestic tone that makes me want to scream. “He is extraordinary. We cannot explain him.”

“But maybe we can help him,” Corbin says over the phone with a protective edge and, if he were here, I would hug him. Or ask him to hug me.

Doctor Helen does not respond in any way. Her silence strangles me more than the reel of terror, more than the failed oxytocin this morning. Is she silent because she doesn’t think we can win? Because she doesn’t think we can save Aiden?

“Last wave,” she announces and, for some reason, they all sit up straighter while I shrink smaller. The reel is still too fast for me so I fix my eyes on the image of Aiden’s brain. The brain I wanted so much to meet. The brain that is absorbing image after image of trauma so that Aiden and I can be together. But now that it’s here in front of me, I only see Aiden’s heart.

At long last the reel stops, landing with the image of me sleeping. My face fills the screen—calm and peaceful, hopefully filtering that peace straight into Aiden’s mind.

“Aiden,” Doctor Helen speaks on her microphone, and I jump to my feet again, fighting off dizziness. There is no response from him whatsoever. “The worst is over. Remain still and keep your eyes on Elisa’s photo.” Then she turns to me. “Elisa, if you could join Aiden now in the fMRI room, please? Richard will show you. Quickly. We need to capture these next few minutes.”

I barely hear her last words because I’m already bursting out the door, not waiting for Richard who runs after me. I streak down the hall toward the last room Aiden entered, but Richard leaps in front of me.

“Miss Snow!” he cries, hands out to stop me. “You have to remove your clothing in this room first and all metal from your body. The MRI machine is very strong. There are lockers for your valuables and another door that will lead you straight to it.”

“Fine, fine,” I shout, ducking past him and shoving open the door. It’s some sort of antechamber, but I see Aiden’s belt, shoes, and clothes folded neatly on a bench. I rip off my blouse and jeans, cursing the underwire of my bra. My only valuable—Dad’s watch—goes inside a locker, and I throw a gown over me. Then I wrench open the other door, plunging down another endless hall to the clearly labeled MRI room. I burst through those doors too, wanting nothing but to take Aiden in my arms away from all these computers and horror. But I can’t because he is still inside an astronautic-looking MRI pod.

“Elisa, are you in?” Doctor Helen’s voice blares through an overhead speaker.

“I am,” I gasp, hoping she can hear me.

“Good. Aiden, this part is new to you, too. We have never done this before. We will slide out the bed so that you’re out of the bore waist down. Then we will continue the imaging, so don’t talk or move. Starting in . . . three, two, one.” She counts evenly and the MRI bed rolls out, exposing Aiden’s long legs and narrow waist. He is covered with a pale blue sheet except his toes.

“Now, continue to remain as still as you can. I’ll ask Elisa to come stand next to you and say your name when she’s there. Do not speak. Elisa, now please.”

I sprint to Aiden, forcing myself to say his name as I normally would, not gasp it. I hope I sounded calm, I hope he can hear me.

“Very good,” Doctor Helen coaches. “Aiden, same orders: no movement or talking—we are still imaging. You will be smelling Elisa’s perfume in . . . three, two, one.” A stream of air blasts everywhere, making me shiver in my thin gown, but not because it’s cold. Because the scent of Aeternum floods the room and presumably the MRI bore. I gulp it, closing my eyes, gathering all my strength from every corner of my mind like he gathered roses across the globe for me. The perfume fortifies me like a tonic, and I brace myself for whatever comes next.

“Now then,” Doctor Helen speaks. “Elisa, please take Aiden’s hand gently and again say his name when you do so. Aiden, continue not to move, no matter how much you might want to. In . . . three, two, one.”

I reach under the blue sheet and find his hand. It’s curled into a shuddering granite fist. I wrap both my hands around it. “Aiden,” I say, and the shaking slows a fraction, but the fist remains locked.

“Well done,” says Doctor Helen. “Now the last part. Elisa, I’d like you to talk to Aiden. I want you to describe the present moment to him as if he is unable to see it. Bring him back to you, as it were. Aiden, your job is to focus every single thought on Elisa, continue to watch her image on the screen, and stay away from the images you just saw as much as possible. Feel what you need to feel, but listen to her voice and continue to stay still. We will start in . . . three, two, one.”

Wait, I want to call. Wait, I’m not ready. But Aiden is stuck in some horror while I scramble to find words. I draw another gulp of Aeternum air, and start. “Hi, my love,” I say, not caring who else hears except him. “I’m here. Where is here, you might ask. Here is a white room, with four white walls, smelling like the most beautiful memory in the world. Or in practical terms, like hundreds of Aeternum roses that you shipped for me from Kenya because I had never seen them. Isn’t that incredible? But more incredible than that is this moment right here. Just the two of us, you inside this white MRI machine under a blue sheet and me in a matching blue gown standing next to you in my rose socks, holding each other’s hand because this moment right here is your our fight and I’m so proud of you. That’s why this moment is more important even than Aeternum night. And also because I can see your toes. I’ve never told you, but I love your toes. Who knew there was such a specific type of love? But there it is, making my own toes wiggle in response. There’s some track lighting too—it’s a bit harsh, you wouldn’t like it, but I like it because it lets me see some of you even if you are under a sheet. I hope you’re not cold. It’s a little nippy here. But my hands are warm around yours so think about that and come back to me when ready. I’ll be right here. I love you.”

I stop talking, worried I said too much, too little, too fast, too slow. I don’t know—but I tried to deploy some of our collected weapons: our love, humor, his fighting spirit. Maybe that helped. The fist stopped shaking and has opened.

“Excellent work, both of you.” Dr. Helen’s voice booms over the intercom. “We have what we need. Aiden, you can relax but try to stay in the moment. We’ll give you some time and privacy, and then we’ll discuss.”

The static of the microphone cuts off and the MRI bed slides out, jettisoning Aiden in front of me. I immediately find his eyes—they’re bottomless ocean blue, the depths ravaged by the horrors the images must have triggered, but they are lightening. Specks of turquoise are already flickering.

“Thank you,” he says, and the hell he must have lived through is in his voice, too. It’s slow, hoarse, the way one might sound after a long illness. He takes a shuddering breath and stretches, searching his body that tenses here and there. I give him time as he opens and closes his hands, rolls his wrists and shoulders, wiggles his toes. He smiles then—a worn, exhausted smile that barely lifts the corners of his lips, but a smile still. “Toes?”

“Toes and everything.”

I sit on the edge of the narrow MRI bed, ready to give him more time but he opens his arms—they seem heavy. “Come here,” he says as he did before.

I lift his sheet—he is wearing his grey briefs underneath—and lie gently on top of him because the MRI table is too narrow for both of us. His heartbeat is fast under my ear. He folds his arms around me and I feel his lips in my hair. He is Van Gogh’s Alps again but this time in wrought iron, shoulders rippling like the wheat field, skin frozen like the Alps’ snow, breathing wounded and clipped. He doesn’t talk. I search through our weapons to help him stay in the moment and find one. His words of self-love. “You’re loyal. You’re strong. You’re loving. You’re fucking smart. You’re an excellent fighter. You always win. You’re thoughtful. You are loved.”

And Aiden comes back with a shaky breathless sound that could be a chuckle. His fingers trace my spine over the thin cotton of the gown. I lift my head and watch his eyes clear as they gaze back at me until they beam with my turquoise. At that moment, he kisses me lightly, holding his mouth to mine. I follow his lead, and at length his body comes to life. The heaviness becomes strength—I feel it in his hold, in the way his hands clutch my waist, travel up my arms, and knot in my hair. His lips brush along my jawline, down my neck, and he pulls the gown off my shoulder, kissing to the very tip. By the time he is back at my mouth, the Alps of his body are a different mountain—vibrant and warm, rippling with a faint breeze of desire. But he simply holds me, his fingers memorizing my skin.

“It was a lot easier this time . . . with you.” His voice is back to its beautiful husky timbre, although slower.

I kiss above his heart, fighting a shudder at his words. If this was a lot easier, how was it without me? At least he has a three-month break until he has to be inside this torture chamber again. At least the next eighty-seven triggers will be just Aiden and me in our cottage with Mum’s magic. And I’ll do everything I can to make them the best eighty-seven days of his life. A thousand happy memories to each horrific one.

The telltale static of the sound system makes us both tense. “Aiden, Elisa, if you feel ready, could you join us in the control room?” Doctor Helen calls.

We climb off the MRI bed, neither of us looking back at it. We help each other get dressed in the antechamber—not because we need the help, but because we need the touch—and plod down the halls to the neuroscientists.

But only Doctor Helen and her Van Gogh binder are in the command center now, as well as Corbin over the phone. We take the two seats in front of her, never releasing each other’s hand. Did we win this battle? Or are we about to lose more?

“Aiden, how are you feeling?” she starts with him, as she should. Yet, I taste anger in my tongue. Even if she’s trying to help us, she will always be Doctor Pain to me now.

“Better,” he answers politely. “Much better than five years ago when we last did this.”

“That’s wonderful,” says Corbin; it sounds like he is clapping. “Well done, both of you.”

“You certainly look better and sooner,” Doctor Pain agrees. “And that’s a good place to start. With the encouraging news.” She bestows a nearly invisible smile on us—noticeable only because the gravitas of her face is so absolute. I grip Aiden’s hand tighter. “There is little doubt now that Elisa’s calming effect is more than placebo. It’s very much real to you and its impact on your brain is no different than a powerful injection of serotonin.”

“Of course it’s real. It’s too strong to be anything but,” Aiden responds with conviction as if he never doubted this part, while I draw the first effortless breath since smelling the Aeternum. We get to keep the mother of bombs.

Doctor Pain gives him one stately nod. “That strength, however, is hard to quantify. But based on the fear-related brain areas with heightened CREB protein, we guess Elisa’s effect reduces your terror by about twenty-thirty percent.”

Something about her words tickles a memory of my own but I have no power to chase it because she just drained me with her last two words. “That’s all?” I ask, unable to control the fear in my voice.

“That can’t be right,” Aiden argues. “It feels a lot stronger than that. You saw how quickly she brought me back. About half the time of my best record on medication.”

“I saw. And it’s possible that Elisa’s effect is stronger—our experiment is limited by laboratory conditions. We tried to approximate her presence as much as possible inside the MRI bore with her picture, smell, voice, and touch, but we were lacking the sense of taste and of course the sum of her and the two of you alone together without my voice interfering which of course you associate with unpleasantness and pain. But the point is that we are unable to give it beyond twenty-thirty percent.”

When neither of us can speak—I because all I hear is eighty percent chance of losing this war, Aiden for whatever reason that’s making his jaw clench—Doctor Pain continues. “That said, there is something surprising we discovered about Elisa’s effect on you. It appears to be particularly effective at counteracting images of war.” She gives us another regal smile that I cannot return.

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Is that good or bad?”

The regal smile remains, but her eyes seem to soften when she turns to me. “I believe it to be encouraging.”

“By all means, take your time to explain,” Aiden says in his arctic tone, and I have a mad Van Goghian desire to laugh, if I could move my face.

Doctor Pain’s near-smile becomes more visible. “It means that although Javier’s painting is what brought Elisa’s effect to life, it was very clearly conceived a lot earlier by you yourself, Aiden. We believe it goes back to your war letters. In a nutshell, when you were surrounded by war atrocities, you calmed yourself by writing letters to an unknown woman. And your powerful memory started to associate the idea of being in love with this mysterious woman with being at peace. When Javier practically handed such a woman to you in a frame, he completed a process that had already started twelve years before. That’s why Elisa is able to bring you back from images of war much more quickly. Because you chose her. Your memory itself gave her that power. And I hope in the end that will make a difference.”

“How big a difference?” Aiden’s voice is soft now, perhaps with the same wonder, the same H-O-P-E that is flooding me. Somehow knowing that my effect on Aiden is by his mind’s own choice makes me feel like we belong together in a real, not magical way.

“Unknown. All of this is conjecture at this point. We are not operating within known scientific concepts when it comes to you.”

“But you have designed an action plan for us?” Aiden prompts.

“We have. You just did your first session of it. You’ll need to trigger yourself with traumatic images and have Elisa bring you back to the present moment as she did now but to the full extent of your senses, every day for the next eighty-seven days, at the same time, the same place away from the bedroom or anywhere you associate with rest.”

Aiden nods tensely in understanding, but I no longer feel the chair underneath me. “Excuse me, what do you mean ‘first session’? What do you mean ‘traumatic images’?”

Aiden’s thumb rubs my palm as if to comfort me, but she picks up a box from the desk and brings it on her lap, glancing at me with a trace of concern. I watch in horror as she takes out a monitor wearable over the eyes, like a virtual reality headset, and hands it to Aiden. “This has been uploaded with all the images you saw during the fMRI. You will have to watch them every day, Aiden. I’m very sorry, but it’s the best way.”

“No!” I gasp, jumping to my feet again and grabbing the headset before it can touch his fingertips.

“Elisa, be careful with that!” Doctor Pain’s clinical tone betrays the first note of anxiety as she stretches out her hand. The Van Gogh in me wants to smash the implement of torture on the polished floor. I clutch it to my chest instead.

“Love, what’s the matter?” Aiden rises on his feet too, brushing my cheek—still slower than his usual reflexes. “This isn’t like you.”

“I don’t want you watching these images again. I saw them, Aiden. They’re awful.”

Where the prospect of watching the reel of terror eighty-seven more times didn’t shake him, hearing I watched it once does. He blanches and his entire frame locks in horror. “You saw them?” The strangled question is clearly meant for me but he turns his lethal gaze on Doctor Pain, and for a moment he looks truly frightening. He looks exactly like the Marine who lived the atrocities I only saw in pictures.

“It wasn’t her fault,” I intervene despite my own problems with the regal neuroscientist. “I barged in after snooping. And yelled at everyone.” I peek at Doctor Pain, face hot enough to power all the monitors. “I’m very sorry about that, Doctor.”

“It’s quite understandable.” She nods and meets Aiden’s sniper glare without flinching. “She had a right to see them. This is her fight, too. She clearly loves you very much.”

He turns his eyes back to me, but they’re wild with anxiety now. He cups my neck, except it feels like he is checking for vital signs. “Are you all right?”

“How could I be all right, Aiden? I’m worried sick about you. Watching these horrors every day is torture.”

His hands come around my face, light as if I might break. “Love, please sit. Don’t worry about me, I can handle it,” he pleads. His voice is tender with the concern I’m adding to the agony that must already be burning him. I drop on the chair, gripping the torture headset. He sits down too but shifts his chair so close to me that our arms are touching. His hands are open, ready to catch the monitor that will brutalize him in case I drop it.

“Doctor, please!” I look only at Doctor Pain now, and all my anger at her drains away, all that’s left is terror for him. “This is too much. Why can’t Aiden simply summon a memory on his own instead of watching these? I thought that was the plan.”

“I’m sorry, Elisa, that was our initial idea but it won’t work based on the tests we just ran. Aiden’s brain is too powerful for that, his memory too smart, too quick and adaptable. We have to meet it at its level, while combining exposure therapy with reconsolidation. Please trust that we considered all other methods.”

A total silence follows her words, and I wish Corbin would speak or Mum and Dad would alight from above to put an end to this, to show us another path that doesn’t involve Aiden walking barefoot through the fires of Iraq to come to me. But Aiden pries the implement of torture from my grip—pries it by gently opening each finger one by one—and takes it from me.

“I’ll do it,” he says with finality, leaving no room for argument. There is no hesitation in his voice, no fear. Nothing but resolve.

“Wait!” I gasp again. “Can’t he at least alternate—one day with images, one day by himself? Or would it help if I watched with him on a TV or something? Please?”

“Over my dead body!” Aiden snarls, angling himself as though to hide me from the world. He holds the headset of horror behind his back where he knows very well no one will reach.

Doctor Pain’s face softens in a maternal way that startles me, and she takes my hand. Her touch is not cold, as I expected it to be—it’s warm and tender, like crimpled organza. “Elisa, daughter of Clare, you are so very much like your mother even though everyone says you have Peter’s talent. How I wish I could say to you there was an easier way. But Aiden’s startle reflex is too strong, child. This is the best method that stands a chance at helping him. Many others are more traumatizing or dangerous if you can believe me.”

Abruptly, she becomes Doctor Helen again. Next to me, Aiden relaxes now that she has ruled in favor of him being the only one to watch the horror. “How high is that chance?” he asks. “Knowing that I’ll do this regardless.”

Doctor Helen releases my hand, but the maternal edge stays on her face when she looks at him. “Unknown. Unknown how high. Unknown if it will work at all. Science can’t give you any answers for this. You will have to give the answers to science.”

I grip Aiden’s hand again, and Doctor Helen sees it. “But you do have a choice.” She regards us both now, and the gravitas returns to her face.

“We do?” I whisper, and I no longer know to whom. To science or magic?

Doctor Helen is the only one who answers. “Of course. There is always a choice. Option one, you do this—you stand to risk everything or gain everything. Option two, do nothing—continue as you are but risk Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s sanity if another attack happens again. Option three, you say goodbye now—you lose each other, but perhaps someday science discovers something new, although we cannot promise that will happen.”

A deep chill falls over the control room—or perhaps it’s just me. And the space feels cavernous, but perhaps it’s the wound in my chest that just ripped wide open. The air feels muddy and liquid too—but maybe it’s the river water. And I don’t see the overhead track lighting—it’s extinguished like the dark void before and the dark void after Aiden. No stars, just endless night.

I realize now that Aiden and I have turned toward each other reflexively. His eyes find mine, agonized as though he is back in the MRI.

“We’ll give you a moment,” Doctor Helen’s voice sounds faded but Corbin speaks for the first time.

“One second, Doctor, if I could add my two cents. You are the memory expert and I’ll defer to you on that. But in my experience, Aiden and Elisa’s connection to each other is just as unique on its own right. We cannot underestimate the risk of significant new trauma to them if they lose each other. I fear they would also lose themselves.”

His words light a single candle in the darkness. A candle like the one that burned by Romeo and Juliet.

“Well said,” Doctor Helen agrees. “Aiden and Elisa, you have a difficult choice before you. We’ll leave you alone now so you can decide.”

The door closes behind her as our foreheads fall against each other. Aiden sets down the headset of torture, and wraps both my hands in his—fingers knotted together like the branches of his oak tree that we climbed today. Was it only today? Has it only been one day of war?

“They say it’s a difficult choice,” he says. “But to me, that’s the easiest part. Option one is the only option I can live with. I cannot risk your safety or give you up without all my fight.”

“Are you sure, my love? It’s too much pain, you would be hurting too much.”

“We knew this would be hard.”

“Not this hard. We didn’t know you would have to watch those horrible images every day. Was that M-Marshall?” Despite my resolve to be strong for him, tears fill my eyes. I try to wipe them, but he is there first. He dries them with his fingertips before they spill and pulls me gently onto his lap, folding his arms around me like he is trying to fit me inside his heart.

“Yes, but he is gone, love. No matter how hard I’ve tried to keep him here, he’s gone. All of it is gone, and I’m trying to lay it to rest. I’m just sorry you saw them. I’m sorry they’re in your head. I’m sorry they touched any part of you. I’m sorry I’ve dragged this torment in your life. I’m sorry I am the way I am—”

I place my hand over his mouth. “Please, don’t.”

His eyes rage with acute conflict between fury that I know it’s at himself and desperation to give me what I want.  His jaw is flexing as if to contain all the sorries left unsaid. He takes my hand from his lips and rests it on his cheek. “You’re right,” he finally says. “I’m sorry for so many things that don’t matter anymore. All that matters now is us. Do you choose option one? Will you still fight with me now that you’ve seen all this?”

The direct question leaves me breathless—because it was never really a question. “Of course I will. I promised you that.”

He shakes his head, eyes still agonized. “Not because you promised. I’d understand if you change your mind. A part of me still wants you to—you’d be better off. But I will never force your hand again. Do you want to fight with me now that you know what it will take? Do you have faith in me, Elisa, to overcome all that?”

He asks that last question in a hard, jagged tone—a counterpoint to the vulnerability he must be feeling. I realize with horror that, in my fear for him, I’ve made him question this most axiomatic truth, instead of protecting him as I was trying to do. I grab his face not at all gently like he does with me. “Aiden, I have faith in you most of all. Your strength and our love are the reasons I said yes. Nothing I’ve seen today changes that. If anything, I’m more in awe of you. And I didn’t think I could love you more but I do. Don’t you ever question any of that. Of course I want to fight with you.”

He nods as much as he can in my tenacious grip, his eyes no doubt seeing the pure truth in mine. But his arms tighten around me like a vise. “That’s all I needed to hear. All those images, I can watch them every day, every hour if I have to, if I know you’re on the other side waiting for me.”

“I will be. And after you watch them, we will make the rest of the day so happy that even you will forget what you saw.”

He releases my finger-hooks from his beautiful face, bending it to mine. Love is a strange, powerful weapon. We are in a clinical, cold room, surrounded with monitors whirring with danger, bombarded by the beeps of the risks we’re taking, suffocated by horrific images of the enemy ahead and the enemy within, yet we both smile as our lips meet. And the monitors go silent—there is only the soft sound of our mouths and our breath, hitching with desire, not fear. Or maybe it’s not love. Maybe it’s madness. Maybe we are not in Van Gogh’s paintings. Maybe we are Van Gogh himself—cutting off ears, eyes, and hearts for each other’s love. Whatever it is though, I don’t care as long as I am with him.

He breaks the kiss first, but seems as unsteady as me. “Let’s call them in so we can go home. You need sleep and I need you.”

Sleep is not in the formula for me this summer, but he doesn’t need to know that right now. He sets me back on my chair and strides out of the door to locate Doctor Helen while I sit here processing how a room that seared him with so much cruelty became a place of love. When they return, Aiden sits next to me, arm around my shoulders while Doctor Helen dials Corbin to join over the phone.

“Elisa, Aiden says you have made your choice,” Doctor Helen starts.

I nod, smiling that he waited for us to tell them together. “We choose option one.”

Neither of them seems surprised by this. “In that case,” Doctor Helen says with significance. “Three rules. First, self-care. This will take its toll. In Aiden’s case particularly, sleep is crucial as the memories begin to reconsolidate. Continue to follow the routine of that first night and keep track of everything. Let us know if you start noticing any changes.”

“We will,” Aiden nods.

“Second, endorphins. Live the life you want to live as fully as possible, and stay in the moment. That’s the point of all this. We stand a much better chance if Aiden has as many happy memories as he has traumatic ones.”

“We will,” I promise while Aiden’s fingers draw a happy circle on my shoulder.

“And third—the startle reflex.”

The happy fingers stop and Aiden turns into stone at the mention of the formidable foe. His hand in mine closes into the shuddering fist again. Doctor Helen nods, her face severe as she notices his lockdown. “I’m sure we don’t need to explain how imperative it is that you guard against the startle reflex during this time.”

Corbin interjects in a forceful tone. “I couldn’t agree more. For both Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s mental health.”

Identical shudders run through Aiden and me at the same time—probably for different reasons. I shudder at the fear in Corbin’s voice when he talks about Aiden. I’m sure Aiden is over there in his chair terrified for me.

As if he feels the shudders himself, Corbin continues, “To help with that, we think you should implement some safety measures since you’ll be living without Benson. Maybe things like pepper spray or some other method to incapacitate Aiden should the startle get triggered during this process.”

Aiden is nodding in vigorous agreement before Corbin has finished while all I hear is incapacitate Aiden. “Agreed. Benson and I are already working on some options.”

I watch Aiden terrified about what options of self-incapacitation the most self-loathing man in the universe is contemplating. At my look, he backtracks quickly. “Correction, Victor. Elisa and I will be working on some options.”

He rubs the goose bumps under my sleeve, raising his eyebrows at me as if to ask, is that better? I nod, somewhat relieved, while Corbin chuckles. “My wife wishes I could learn as fast as you, Aiden.”

Aiden smiles, but his turquoise eyes that have absorbed so much trauma today stay on me. Abruptly I want to leave. I want to go back to the cottage—just us and Mum’s roses that will heal him as he sleeps, while I try to be Dad and solve the protein that can protect him when he is awake.

Seeing the urgency in my eyes, Aiden stands. “We need to go,” he announces. “It’s been a long day.”

Things wrap up quickly then. One minute, we’re collecting the box with the torture headset, the next Corbin is gone and Doctor Helen is walking us through the door.

“We’ll be in touch to schedule the next scan. In the meantime, here is your perfume,” she says, giving me back my treasure that immediately warms my fingertips. “Oh, and I thought you both might like this.”  She takes a polaroid out of the Van Gogh binder and hands it to us. “It’s a picture of your kiss,” she explains as I take it with trembling fingers.

There, on the black glossy paper are Aiden’s electric blue brain waves and his golden heart line, spiking and swelling as we were kissing.

“May it bring you both calm when you feel the most fear.” Doctor Helen casts the words like a benediction.

From her binder, Van Gogh’s brushstrokes look suddenly ordinary compared to the brushstrokes of Aiden’s mind, but my own brain waves are abruptly spiking. Because Doctor Helen may have just given me another gift.

“Thank you!” I say with fervor.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 16 – SHOCK

Happy Sunday, friends! Hope the weekend was a relaxing and happy one. To help with Sunday Scaries, here is Chapter 16. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

16

Shock

Monday morning at precisely four o’clock, I want to laugh despite the indecency of the hour, my bleary eyes, and gelatinous legs. Because the Dragon that is driving me to Oxford is very clearly not a morning beast now that he is able to sleep in his den. As it is, my giggle is stifled by a yawn, followed by two of his.

“I really would have been fine riding the bus,” I tell him, my voice still raspy with sleep. “That’s what I had been doing.”

“Fuck, don’t yell!”

“I’m serious,” I whisper, gripping the edge of the seat of his newly leased Range Rover not to laugh.

“No bus!” He glares at the dark road as though he is about to carbonize it into volcanic rock with his fire breath.

“All right, if you want to be gallant and protective, then at least go back to hibernation after you drop me off.”

“What part of my face says joking is welcome at this ungodly hour?”

“The fangs.”

This yawn is more like a fuming roar. The talons grip the wheel. But despite the scales, I have an overwhelming urge to pet him. He needs sleep more than me right now to consolidate his memories, yet he dutifully rose an hour ago, helped me with my breakfast, and now is driving the long way to Bia so that I don’t have to pass by my parents’ accident site.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I have to go in this early so I can test the protein before Edison and Graham show up. Dad didn’t want anyone to know for a reason.”

“This—” yawn “—is exactly what I mean by don’t stress yourself for me, Elisa! I don’t want you operating on three hours of sleep.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have had three hours of sleep if someone hadn’t insisted on avenging my self-love game on every surface of the cottage once the pestilent soreness was gone.”

It works some. One reference to our happy, albeit obscene night and the claws are retracted but he is still glaring. “Yes, well, that ends after tonight. Going forward, sex will be at eighteen hundred hours sharp! You will be asleep by twenty-one hundred.”

“That’s a good thought, Lieutenant. There’s still an awfully lot of floor left.” The scales smooth out and the fangs disappear. The lips almost twitch in a smile. “Not to mention half the stairs,” I continue.

The Dragon flies out of the sunroof and my Aiden is back on the wheel. Because, as I discovered through gymnastics I did not realize I could accomplish, the stairs are Aiden’s favorite, second only to our bedroom. He gulps some coffee from his fourth cup, much calmer.

“You’ll be okay today?” he asks, his voice now a muted, slow key instead of a growl.

“Of course. I’m not handling any dangerous chemicals. Just the protein.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about the way it combusts into flames exactly like him.

“Maybe I should reschedule our meeting with the scientists so you can come straight home after work.”

For a second, I’m distracted by the flutter in my stomach when he calls the cottage home no matter how casually. But only for a second. “Absolutely not. I’m as excited to meet your brain as I am about the protein.”

He sighs, frowning at the road, but doesn’t answer. A heavy feeling—like his memory heard its name and is rising, shifting all its vast weight around us—fills the Rover. Abruptly, I feel selfish, buzzing with excitement when the process must be difficult for him.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “That was thoughtless of me.”

“Of course it wasn’t. How can I be upset with you for loving every part of me no matter how unlovable it is?”

“You’re violating the self-love rules. You know what happens when you do that.”

“It’s not self-loathing if it’s a fact, Elisa.” The melancholy in his face changes to anger as his hands tense on the wheel again. “If I had a normal brain, you wouldn’t have to wake up at this hour. You could sleep in, go to work at a reasonable time, develop the protein at your pace—not exhaust yourself to save the man you love. And then you could come home where we would be together without every tick of the fucking clock feeling like an IED. And I could fall asleep with you in my arms without dreading what I might see next to me when I open my eyes in the morning. So yes, if that violates your self-love rules, so be it.”

I never know what to say when he speaks truths like this—truths that are true in abstract, but completely untrue to me. He is glowering ahead, but I know it’s not at the windshield. It’s at his own reflection. “This isn’t feeling like the opposite,” I mumble. “It’s feeling like more of the same.”

“The opposite doesn’t mean a lie, love.”

I snatch that last word—small as it is, shuddering with anger and fear—and tuck it into every thought. It cancels all his other words. “If truth is what you’re after, if you had a normal brain—whatever that means—we might have never met. And even if we had, it wouldn’t be this kind of love. I’d rather love like this than play it safe.”

More four-letter words, so I grip L-O-V-E tighter. It’s ours—no torture, capture, or war can take it from us while we are still breathing.

His face softens, whether at my words or something else, I don’t know. But he takes my hand where it’s clenched into a fist on my lap and brings it to his lips. “You’re right. I can’t hate anything that brought me to you.”

I caress his lips and the tension of his jaw drains away. I see his mind rearrange the tectonic plates in his eyes as he glances at my profile for a second and finds his peace. When he sighs again, the sound is light and his lips lift in a sleepy smile. “I really know how to kick-start the day, don’t I?”

I grin. “You definitely woke me up.”

He chuckles, the soft sound flitters around the Rover’s cabin, carrying away the memory’s weight on its wings. “Let’s hit restart. I’ll meet you outside your lab at six and we can walk over to the WIN Centre together. And you can look at my brain as much as you want. God knows it loves looking at you, so it’s only fair.”

I smile at his familiar shorthand for the Wellcome Centre for Interactive Neuroimaging. And I love the WIN part for our fight. “Do you think we ever saw each other when you were coming to Oxford and I was little?”

“We didn’t. I wondered about that as I was looking at your childhood photos. I never saw your parents either.”

“Well, maybe I saw you,” I muse, looking at the Oxford road sign. “Maybe little me saw teenage you and tucked your face away so I would recognize you later. Maybe that’s why you feel like home to me, too.”

His hand tightens around mine. “Maybe you did, love.”

I like the fantasy of that. Little us, old us—all sprinkling a pinch of stardust from every time dimension to help us through this one. I will take every bit of help I can get, real or imagined.

Aiden pulls over in the parking lot of the Chemistry Building, and the dimple wakes up in his cheek. “This brings back memories of parking at Reed to ambush you at Denton’s lab for our first coffee date.”

I pick up his coffee cup and sip a mouthful, placing my lips exactly where he drank. Then I reach over to kiss him, pouring some of it in his mouth. “To coffee dates, Aiden.”

He swallows and laughs. “I’ll never enjoy drinking coffee out of a cup again compared to this.”

With his memory, this might actually be true. “What will you do with yourself today?” I ask, prolonging each last second.

“Go for a run on the hills, work at the Inn, miss you.”

I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here in this dark car, drinking coffee mouth-to-mouth, listening to his quiet chuckle, watching his sleepy eyes awake. There is still so much to catch up from the last two weeks. I don’t know every hour of his days without me. I don’t know what he read, what he ate, what songs he listened to, which favorite pajamas he wore, whether Cora made him his chocolate chip cookies—all these insignificant details that blend into a vital whole, the full totality of him.

“And you wanted to take the bus?” he smiles, reading my thoughts on my skin. Or maybe on his own.

“Terrible idea. Don’t ever let me think such lunacy again.”

I force myself to stumble out of the Rover—force only by thinking of the protein we so desperately need.

“Here, you forgot your snacks,” he reminds me, whirling down his window. “And your purse. And your kiss.”

“Bloody hell, I think I forgot my brain.”

His mouth takes it easy on me but I still feel the heat of his lips and the flame of his eyes as I plod across the parking lot to Bia.

“Be safe,” he calls behind me as always when we part. His gravelly morning voice would make Beethoven weep. It almost makes me turn around. As it is, I pause at the front doors to wave at him. He waits for me to go inside, but I peek through the glass panel, watching the lights of the Rover fade down St. Giles Boulevard. The moment they disappear, the livid wound in my chest rips open—as furious as on Friday—like the only anesthetic that soothes it is gone with him. My arm flies around my torso and I shamble down the hall to Bia, trying to remember how I lived with this. How did I think around it to get through the day? Did I lose the micro-layer of strength I had gained? Or has the pain at the thought of losing Aiden magnified, multiplying to the nth degree each second I spent in the bubble of his unrestrained love these last two days? A shudder of terror runs through me and I sprint toward the protein.

Bia is dark and quiet when I go in. It feels like I was here a lifetime ago, not on Friday. Because it was a lifetime ago—an entire dark existence of grief and loss. If its agony had not been etched on my insides, from my lungs full of river water to the festering wound, I wouldn’t have believed the woman who scrubbed these beakers on Friday was I.

I run straight to the cooler of chemicals but the moment I open the pressurized doors, I almost collapse on to the tile floor. Right there, in neat rows with clearly marked labels are hundreds and hundreds of ampules containing oxytocin in one form or another. By the time I’ve calculated four hundred compounds of it, I sink down, head between my knees, palms against the cold tiles, trying to gulp air. But all oxygen is gone. There are not enough days left to test all these. I will not be able to finish on time. Aiden’s cold lips flash in my vision from the nightmare and I cannot breathe. The tile floor starts spinning like a centrifuge. I lift my head to look at the periodic table on the wall but it is blurry with speed too. I can’t even see the lab. All I see is Aiden’s frozen body in permanent sleep. And the boulder’s sickly lapping sound hisses like high pitch through Bia so resonant it could shatter the oxytocin ampules: violent ends.

I throw my hands over my ears and lean my forehead against the cooler door. I should have worked all weekend. I should work all night. But even if I spend every single hour in this lab—not only the secret hours—I’ll never have enough hours to test all the oxytocin options. Even I confide in Graham and Edison—against Dad’s wishes—we do not have enough time. How can I tell Aiden? How can we lose one of the very few weapons we have? How can I kill the tendril of hope before it has even blossomed?

I try to focus only on the cold air blowing from Bia’s temperature-controlled vents. At the same moment, my phone buzzes in the pocket of Dad’s lab coat. Only Aiden would text me at this hour. Only he could get my hands to move or my eyes to see something other than my nightmare. I open the text and the picture Aiden took of us on the poppy field fills the screen. Right below it are his words:

“Does my first selfie count as self-love if we’re in it together? ”

Could he sense I was falling apart? Is his chest hurting like mine? Is that how he knew to send me the only thing that could restart my lungs?

I gaze at his face full of life—the turquoise eyes that manage to look sentient even in pixels, his vivid lips—until I can breathe regularly again and Bia stops spinning. Then I wrench myself upright. I still have to try, don’t I? For the face on the screen, I will do anything.

And right now, I know he is waiting for me. I take a deep, shuddering breath to steady my fingers, my thoughts, and text him back.

“Yes! And it’s extra points. Use them well.”

The three dots indicating he is typing race on the screen. “Then I’ll meet you on the fifth stair before bed, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“I’ll be there.” Until the very end, until my own heart stops beating.

“Present moment until then,” he reminds us both, and then he’s gone. But he brought me back to me.

I stare at the lines of ampules in the cooler. Which of these bottles did it, Dad? Why did you keep it a secret? There are no answers, no miniature roses waving from the marble stone. He lives in you, Graham would say. You are your own brilliant scientist, Aiden would argue. I close my eyes, still seeing blotches from the cooler’s fluorescent bulbs like a Rorschach test. Dad believed the simplest solution is the most elegant. So I begin there, too. I select the purest, most elemental oxytocin compound and prepare the 2-AG blue liquid. I don’t even know how much oxytocin to use. I only know when to add it. And I try. Over and over and over again. But no matter how much I modify the measurements, the vials explode. BANG! BANG! BANG! Each a shotgun bullet straight through my chest. Each broken vial a Juliet flashback. Each explosion decimating the few allies we had managed to collect. Graham’s usual arrival time ticks closer and I’m forced to clean and destroy all evidence of my efforts despite the utter failure. And that was only one ampule of love.

“Top of the morning, Eliser!” Graham calls, bursting through the door right on time. Even though I was expecting him, like all good clandestines, I still jump and whirl around, hand clutching my throat. He laughs. “Every morning! You’re as good at getting startled as you are at handling the pipettes.”

He wastes exactly two minutes hanging up his jacket, donning his lab coat, disinfecting his hands, and marching to his own bench to my left.

“How was the weekend? Did your friend arrive?”

I have to remember what I told him on the last day of my dark ages. Right—only Reagan was visiting then, every other star was imploding or was already gone.

“Yes, she did,” I answer a little late. For a second I contemplate telling him about my other visitors, but the last thing I need right now is for Graham or Edison to think I’m too distracted by social obligations. I need their full confidence now more than ever.

“It must have been quite the weekend,” Graham observes, beginning to allocate the fear molecules futilely.

“Why do you say that?” I go through the allocation motions, feigning concentration when I know very well his method will fail. But I cannot feel enough guilt to share Dad’s last secret. Not when my love depends on it.

“Because you look almost normal. Still your pale self, but no dead eyes. They were a bit spooky. No offense.”

This morning’s meltdown must have bleached all the pink in my cheeks that Aiden so energetically painted there last night. “None taken.”

“Go on then! What did you do?”

Why, of all the mornings, is Graham choosing this one for small conversation? “Not much. Explored Burford.”

“All the eight streets and eight hundred fields?”

I think he is joking so I force a laugh. It sounds like a maniacal screech.

“By the way, did Edison tell you yet?” he asks.

“Tell me what?”

“They’re finally naming the bench out in the quad after Professor Snow. Where he used to sit, you know. I think there will be an inaugural ceremony—plaques, speeches, and all. Mad, isn’t it?”

My hands tremble so hard I spill some of the fear molecule.

“Ugh, watch it, Eliser! Bloody hell!” Graham tries to recapture the spilled drop frantically while I concentrate on breathing. It is too early for so many emotions. Dad’s favorite bench. The bench where we secretly carved PEC beneath the seat with a lab scalpel.

“At least you only spilled a few microliters. What the hell is the matter with you this morning?” Graham demands, his voice half-puzzled, half-mad. There is no bigger crime in Graham’s eyes than wasting his beloved 2-AG.

“I’m sorry, Graham. The bench ceremony distracted me.”

He takes a deep steadying breath. “Yes, all right. But it’s not until August, Eliser. And you’ll get to go. I know they’ll want you to speak now you’re back.”

Another hand tremble and only half a spilled drop this time but Graham doesn’t miss it. “You’re not handling the 2-AG today,” he fires me summarily. “You’re on peptide duty.”

“What? No! I’ll—I’m very sorry. I—I just have a fear of public speaking, that’s all. Here, look, hands steady as forceps now.” I hold them out as evidence.

“No.”

“But—”

“No, Elisa. I’m sorry, but this is vital. Not to mention expensive.” And without a word, Graham—the only semi-friend I’ve made here—turns his back and starts measuring the blue fear liquid with the pipettes.

I gather the refrigerated volumetric flasks of bubblegum pink peptide bonds, fighting off tears. My throat and eyes are aflame like Graham’s Bunsen burner that I cannot touch. I’m not angry with him. Graham is right and, although he doesn’t know it, I already wasted some 2-AG this morning with my first oxytocin disaster. But that’s not what hurts right now—what hurts is my father’s lab coat that suddenly weighs a million pounds. A million pounds of embarrassing him. I swallow wave after wave of tears, not letting one spill, stealing looks at Graham’s back clad in his own brilliant white coat that has never been stained by shaking hands and undisciplined emotions. Because he is a true, grown-up scientist. Not a child whose only accomplishment for access to the exclusive doors of Bia seems to be her last name. Sophie, Rupert, and Elena come in about fifteen minutes later, and I hear their footsteps pause when they see me demoted to the peptide bench. I can’t look at their reflections on the glass cabinet doors in front of me. Without a word, their trainers shuffle to their own workstations, leaving mine next to Graham sterile and empty. I separate all the peptide bonds, not needing brain or attention for it: I learned this from Dad when I was fifteen. I try to find one peaceful spot in my mind to rest my thoughts—one without fear, shame, or pain. But everywhere I look, there is only loss. Either loss in the past or loss in the future. Either loss of life or loss of love. And the present moment is uninhabitable. I squeeze through my neurons, weaving in and out, looking for any image to get me through this day. I find it at last—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. The carefree sound, blasting away all the debris of the mind. I replay it in my head like he does with Für Elise. And the hours pass.

Before lunch, Edison blows through the door with his usual marathon step. And as with Sophie, Rupert, and Elena, I hear his Oxfords skid to a stop on the tile floor.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demands. “Why is Elisa at the peptide bench?” I steal a glance at his reflection on the cabinet doors. He is facing Graham.

“She’s not feeling herself today,” Graham responds charitably, but his voice wavers under the weight of Edison’s authority. I’m sure the other three are pretending to look at their workstations like me.

“Elisa?” Edison turns to me. I draw a quiet breath and turn, unable to look Edison in the eye and missing Denton so much.

“Graham is right, Professor, I’m sorry.”

The tip of his Oxfords taps the floor slightly. “Are you feeling ill?”

Do invisible chest wounds count? “No.”

“Are you under distress?”

Yes. “No.”

“Has anything whatsoever happened to you that makes you unable to perform your regular lab duties today?”

“I was a bit nervous about the . . . the bench ceremony, Professor, and my hands shook. But I’m better now.” I risk a peek at his face but I cannot understand his expression. “Graham was right to assign me the peptides,” I add loyally.

“Elisa, return to your workstation and resume your duties. You are Peter’s daughter. You do not allow anything—absolutely anything—to get in the way of his dream and now yours. Not time, not exhaustion, not failure, and most certainly not nerves. And if you ever forget what you are made of, come talk to me.” The Oxfords pivot on the tile floor and stride out of the lab.

I still cannot face the others so I return to the peptides, pretending to mix the viscous mass while trying to muster things like lungs and tear ducts and fingers. Every molecule wants to sprint out of Bia, go sit on that bench, and text Aiden to come pick me up and hide me away. He would. He would take me into the deepest forest or the highest mountain top—he’d find a way through borders, passports, memories, and rules—and we could camp in my little tent, just the two of us, and wait out the next eighty-eight days. It would be a kind of heaven in Dante’s nine circles of hell.

But I resist all that because Edison is right. In the end, even I fail with the protein, I would at least have stayed true to Dad. I would have tried.

“Come here, Eliser. You heard Edison,” says Graham.

I step up to my workstation, stretching my fingers to make sure there isn’t a single tremor there. When I pick up the pipette, it is so steady it might as well be an extension of my bone. And I start piping the fear molecule into vials, never missing a single drop, no matter how useless I know this method to be.

“I’m sorry I was harsh,” Graham mumbles under his breath.

“No, you were right. This is vital.” For the love of my life, for my dad, for me.

Graham and the others ask me to join them for lunch but I turn them down. I cannot waste a single minute. As soon as they’re gone, I start thinking of ways to eliminate oxytocin options without needing to test everyone. But I don’t dare test a second ampule. I’ll have to come back tonight. I shudder when I think of the fight that would cause with Aiden. I’ll have to leave while Für Elise keeps him asleep. The wound throbs at the idea of missing even a minute of sleep with him. But what else can I do?

Graham returns early, and I’m grateful I didn’t attempt testing more oxytocin.

“Listen,” he starts. “I feel awful. I was a tosser.”

“No, you weren’t. You’re a real scientist, Graham. Able to turn off emotion to benefit the protein before all else, as it should be. I wish I could do that.”

He grins his sunbeam smile. “You just did. I’ve never seen a steadier hand. Not even your father.”

I clench my hands into fists, as Dad taught me to do during lab breaks. His never shook in a lab though.

“Mates still?” Graham asks.

“Mates still,” I smile back.

“All right, you drive the 2-AG today. I’ll finish the peptides.” And without waiting for a response, he demotes himself to the peptide bench of shame.

The day improves then. Not only because I can use my time with the molecule of fear to understand it more—how it bends, how temperamental it is, how sensitive to the smallest flicker of change. And not only because the lab feels warmer with Graham’s sunbeam on my side. But because the minutes are passing and I will see Aiden’s face in three hours, two, one. With each tick of the clock, the familiar energy builds in my tissues like electric current. But my fingers do not tremble, even if everything else starts palpitating at Aiden’s arrival.

“Well, there’s another day with no breakthroughs,” Graham declares the obvious with a sigh. “We try again tomorrow.”

I watch him clean up, riddled with guilt. Should I drop just a little hint? A feeling in my stomach—like slammed brakes—seals my lips. I let him and the others leave first, unable to walk along them with my secret.

By the time I sprint through the front doors, I almost crash into Aiden himself. He has ventured into the quad, leaning against the wall, my personal statue of Adonis sculpted in a way that would make Michelangelo resign.

“Aiden!” I squeal, running straight into his chest. He opens his arms at the exact moment I leap into them. We have this move so synchronized by now that it makes him chuckle as he folds me in his embrace. I listen to his strong heart and gulp his Aiden scent, and instantly the wound seals shut as if it never existed.

“You’d think we’re at the airport and she hasn’t seen him in a year!” Javier’s voice floats from somewhere. It’s only then that I notice him, Reagan, and Benson standing almost right next to me, laughing.

“It’s called love, Javi. You should try it sometimes,” Reagan responds, pulling me into her own version of an airport hug. “We hitched a ride with Aiden so we could see where you work and tour Oxford while you two meet with the experts.” She has reserved an elaborate hat for the occasion that is an art form in itself. A pearl-white beret covered with silk ivory roses.

“It’s perfect,” I tell them—the hat, their smiles, the four of them right here on Dad’s quad, everything.

“Is this where you’re geeking out these days?” Javier points with his chin at the monolithic building.

“Isn’t it brilliant?” I say, squinting at the way the sunset is breaking over the straight, precise lines and reflective glass windows.

“I guess, if you want to go blind. That’s the problem with you scientists. You have no sense of style at all. Let’s go, Reg. There’s real architecture to see around here that’s not made up of four boring walls.” Javier laughs, unfolding a map of Oxford from his back pocket. I circle the places they must see and they take off while Benson waits for us.

“This day really did feel like a year, didn’t it?” Aiden says. He’s still lounging against the wall, in a blue shirt that matches the eyes behind the Raybans and his staple dark jeans. I knot my hands and feet so I don’t run straight to his mouth. Not here in front of Dad’s work or mine.

“A decade,” I breathe.

“Should I assume from your current pretzel position that I am not to kiss you here or that you need to use the restroom before we go to WIN?”

“The first.”

The dimple blows a kiss at my forlorn voice anyway, and he takes my hand. “Probably for the best. After a decade without kissing, we’re guaranteed to be late.”

We cut across the quad, Aiden made of granite and Benson close behind even though most summer Oxonians are either still behind office, laboratory, and library doors or off to supper at this hour. Aiden asks about my favorite spots and I show him the bench, RadCam, the cobblestone where Mum broke her kitten heel the first time Dad saw her, the Ashmolean’s columned rooftop in the distance, but despite these keystones of my life, I cannot take my eyes off Aiden, off the reality of him walking the same paths that Mum, Dad, and I walked.

“So how was your decade-long day on three hours of sleep?” Aiden asks as we take the quiet Queen’s Lane to avoid the busier Magdalen Street.

I pretend to look around to make sure we’re alone but in fact I’m trying to compose my face and words so his eyes don’t see the awfulness of my day. “No breakthroughs yet,” I shrug. “But guess what?”

“What?” The dimple is still there. So far, so good.

“In August, the Chem department is having a ceremony to dedicate the quad bench to my dad. And I’m supposed to speak.” I only shared this so he would attribute any flicker of fear on my face to public speaking but as I say the words, I hear another truth. The truth of how much this ceremony means to me, how much I want Aiden there.

“Is that what’s worrying you? The speaking?”

I nod, not needing to pretend anymore. “I’m terrified of it. It’s my spider.” If only there was a way to have the protein by then. But there is no longer hope for that.

His brow puckers in confusion. “How could that be? You seemed so calm during your supplement presentation to Samson and me.”

“That’s because I had worked on it for four years, practiced for hours with Denton, and had a whole box of paperclips with me. And I still barely slept the night before.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

“You really didn’t notice?”

He smiles, shaking his head while I miss his eyes behind his Raybans. “I had a lot on my mind.”

“Like me trying to sell you my supplement for a million dollars?”

“No, like me trying to stay in my seat and behave normally when I knew you were the woman in my paintings.”

I stumble over a cobblestone, grateful I’m not wearing kitten heels. “That’s when you figured it out?”

He nods, looking down at me but all I see is my wide eyes and open mouth reflected on his sunglasses. “As soon as I saw your jaw and neckline without the scarf you were wearing at Feign’s gallery, I knew. I was barely able to function after that.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

He chuckles and we both look ahead on the walled ancient lane, but I’m certain we are both lost on that day. For me, despite the nerves and anguish, that’s the day I first touched his hand, heard his chuckle, felt the electricity of his skin on mine. But now it’s more than that. It’s the day his memory brought us together by a scrap of skin.

“We can practice your speech together, if you want,” he offers. “You knew your father longer than you knew your supplement. You’ll do great.”

I want you to be there, I think. I want to add an A to PEC. But he cannot come because there will be a crowd, even if small. Unless we win this fight, he will always be absent from moments like this. “Careful what you offer,” I answer. “I’ll probably need to practice every day for the next two months just to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ for something like this.”

“Sometimes, those are the most important words.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Bookend words that open and close entire conversations, even relationships. The high stonewalls curve with us toward WIN, Benson’s shadow over us like a shield.

“How are you liking England, Benson?” I ask him, suddenly worried he is missing his home, that he resents being conscripted into this fight with us.

But his smile is bright and genuine as always. “It’s practically a vacation for me. All these open fields and scientists will put me out of a job.”

Aiden chuckles. “If that day comes, Benson, you have my word you will never need a job.”

They laugh while I break Corbin’s rule and catapult myself into the fantasy of such a day. Saying thank you to Benson as our guard, saying hello to him only as a dear friend. Strolling without his protective shadow, just Aiden and me. The beauty of the daydream pierces me like a new siren song, stunning me with longing as strong as the dream of sleeping with Aiden. I tear my mind away from such dreams—they’re enemies still. They’re the apex assassins in this fight.

WIN with its artless four walls that would offend Javier emerges at the end of the street, and Aiden tenses further—not just his shoulders now, but all of him.

“We got it from here, Benson,” he says. “You know this drill as much as me.”

“I’ll be back in two hours, sir.” And with that Benson turns back the way we came.

“Benson used to come here with you?” I ask.

“Of course, every five years since Iraq. Before then, it was my parents.”

“And everyone we’re meeting has been with you this entire time?”

“The lead neuroscientist, Doctor Helen—Doctor Brahms, of course, but I used to call her Doctor Helen when I was seven so it stuck—has been with me since then. She knows my brain better than anyone. Her research fellows have changed over the years except old Morse—you’ll like him. And the Edinburgh team is new for this. They’re all itching to meet you. None of them has ever heard of such a thing as your calming effect on me.”

Abruptly I’m nervous. “Should I have prepared, Aiden? I feel like I don’t know anything.”

He shakes his head. “They didn’t want us to prepare. I expect that’s part of the plan. They wanted you to be you and us to be us—as much as we can be with all the circus.”

I nod, wishing for a paperclip. Hydrogen, I start in my head but he interrupts me. “Before we go in, there is something I’d like to give you. We have a few minutes. Come.”

He takes me by the hand to the back of the building—a place new to me. But that’s not why I’m surprised when I see the grove of oaks. It’s because of a simple playground to the side, clearly for all the children who must need neuroimaging here. Only two swing sets, a slide, a couple seesaws, and a merry-go-around.

“Oh!” I gasp. “Aiden, did you play here when you were a kid?”

He laughs, but it’s not a joyous sound. It has a hard edge, like a “no.” He marches us past the playground that abruptly looks desolate—the swings swaying empty in the breeze, the seesaw squeaking. He stops at an enormous oak—the Benson of trees. It takes me a moment to grasp it’s not just one oak, it’s two conjoined ones, like two open hands attached at the inner wrists. The branches are thick gnarly trunks on their own right and the canopy of leaves is its own green sky.

This was my playground,” Aiden says, tilting his head toward the two-headed tree. The hard edge is in his voice too.

“Take off your glasses, please.”

He almost huffs but takes them off. And his eyes tell me everything—the way the blue has hardened too, the plates grinding with all the memories this place must hold for him. For the seven-year old boy with a gift no one could understand, a weight he could never share—a lone star, away from childhood and childish things. I step into his tense arms, knowing they will wrap around me like the oak’s branches. “It must have felt so lonely.” I kiss above his heart. Is the past tense really appropriate? Does he still feel lonely now?

He shrugs but the pectoral muscle softens slightly under my cheek as my calming effect fights with his memory. I wish I knew a way to intensify it. Maybe there is. “Show me how you would play. Do we have time?”

He deliberates, but the conflict in his eyes is not one of terror. It’s one of sadness. For what? A lost childhood? Lost time? “Come on,” I coax him. “Let’s play for two minutes.”

His lips lift in a tight, closed smile and that rare flicker of shyness glints in his eyes.

“All right,” he says with a sigh. “Look inside.”

I peek between the two oaks. At the ground where the roots grew together, they left a perfectly round circle surrounded by the thick trunks, like a well. Small enough for a seven-year old boy to play without triggers of any kind.

“I stopped fitting in there by the time I turned twelve. After that, I just climbed the branches.”

“When was the last time you climbed?”

The smile grows bigger, eyes softer—my calm is gaining ground. “When I was seventeen. But I get a feeling I’m about to climb again now.”

“Climb, Aiden!” I grin at him, and the calm advances further. He looks up at the oak canopy of leaves and back at me. Then before I can blink, he lifts me by the waist, making me gasp, and secures my arms around his neck and my legs around his hips. And the calm wins. The plates release and sudden excitement flares in his eyes. His mouth lifts into the dimply smile.

“Hold tight, Elisa!” he warns, and with one jump that makes me shriek, he grabs onto the lowest branch.

“Aiden, I weigh more than my rucksack.”

He laughs, but now the sound is happy and carefree. “Hah! But not much more than full battle rattle.” Then with another laugh, Aiden starts to climb. I solder myself to his front, laughing with him at the different kind of hardness I feel now. The thick branches are so enormous that he might as well be climbing up a steep trail or a rock. But he remembers each knot in the ancient wood, each bough. I’m lost in the way his body ripples with strength, not tension; the way his breathing spikes with athleticism, not fear; and the way he chuckles now and then, both seventeen and thirty-five. In minutes, we reach the thickest branch near the top, like a wooden bridge that has grown between the two trees.

“Hold on to me,” he says, only breathless from the climb that would have made the rest of us faint, drop, and maybe die, and sinks down carefully until he is sitting on the hulky trunk, me coiled tightly around him like the wood’s knots. “Well, this is it.” He shrugs, the dimple forming in his cheek as he takes in the tree of his childhood and adolescence. “It hasn’t changed much—just grown even more massive.”

I wipe a bead of sweat at his temple. “It’s incredible—like its own universe.” I follow his eyes through the dome of branches and leaves, trying to remember everything like him. “What did you do here after you climbed?”

“Usually nothing. I’d climb after all the imaging and the memory tests and the rest of the circus you’re about to see. Mostly I was just hiding if I’m being honest.”

“Let’s hide together then.”

I kiss his lips like leaves. They flutter back, quick as the wind of his breath. A brush of tongue like the tip of a reed, then two mouths joined like the oaks around us, our arms branches knotted in each other’s tree. We don’t have much time, but his memory only needs a blink. And now this kiss is climbing his memories too, hopefully softening their bark with desire and calm.

He smiles. “I’d never have believed this when I was hiding here.”

“I barely believe it now.”

“I need you to do something,” he says. “I planned to give this to you on the ground, but your way is always better.”

“Give me what?”

“Reach carefully in my shirt pocket,” he says, tightening his arms around me as I do what he says. Inside is a tiny two-milliliter lab vial of some kind of oil, sealed hermetically shut.

“What is—” I start to ask but then I gasp because as I bring it close to my nose, despite the laboratory seal, a faint whiff of its scent blows with the wind. “Oh, my God! Aiden, is this—is this what I think it is?”

He laughs his pure waterfall laughter that got me through today. “If you’re thinking it’s the perfume from your Aeternum roses, you would be right.”

I blink at the vial, speechless. I barely mouth “Wow!” and sniff it again, wishing I could break the seal now without risking dropping it. I never thought I would see this, I never thought I would smell it again except in memory.

“I have to admit, at first I was not sure about this,” Aiden murmurs. “I thought I wouldn’t like you in perfume. I worried it would change such an intimate part of the way I perceive you. But then I got this and it’s so perfectly you. It smells like my Alone Place that night, like one of the best memories of my life.”

“Mine too. How did you get it? Did Denton give it to you?”

He nods. “Yes, we need it for this meeting apparently so I reached out to him last week. He’s still processing the rest of the roses. He thinks by the end of it, you might have nine milliliters. He misses you, by the way.”

“I miss him, too,” I breathe, smelling the vial again, leaning in to kiss Aiden’s lips but, in an unprecedented move, he pulls back. His eyes are darker, but with desire, not memories.

“If you do that, we’ll miss the meeting,” he explains to my startled face.

“Oh, right!” The meeting, his mind, his childhood, his memories, his everything. He says he needs to be flooded in me, but I’m flooding in him. And the deeper I sink into his depths, the less I want to come up for air.

“Tonight on the fifth stair then, Mr. Plemmons.”

He laughs and starts climbing down carefully after I tuck the rare bottle of Aeternum oil back in his shirt pocket. “So why do we need this today?” I ask.

“I’m not sure—” a huff as he negotiates the branches. “Doctor Helen told me—to bring a smell I associate only with you—which proved incredibly hard when I remember every smell I’ve ever smelled. But since I cannot bottle you up—this was the closest thing.  And once I got it, I had a vague dream of giving this to you here—in my only other Alone Place . . . by this tree.”

The moment we touch ground, I tear off the seal and dab a drop of Aeternum oil behind each ear. The indescribable scent makes my head whirl—more beautiful than any rare chemical in Bia. Aiden pulls me against him, burying his face in my neck, inhaling deeply with something like hunger. His nose skims along my throat with a low moan. Despite the perfume, I stop breathing and hang limp in his arms, trembling knees, racing pulse, and good goose bumps exploding everywhere. He seems unsteady too—where the oak branches didn’t shake him, the Aeternum scent does.

“Fuck!” he hisses and wrenches himself away, running his hand over his hair. “Rostóv, rubbing his eyes that seemed glued together, raised his disheveled head from the hot pillow . . .” And Aiden starts marching a foot away from me back to WIN, reciting War and Peace.

Rostóv is fighting with Denísov when we reach the lab. But neither of us needs him anymore. Because the moment we enter through the lab doors everything becomes real and Aiden morphs back to stone. Our war has started.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 15 – HOPE

Happy Sunday, friends, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Hope it’s a day of rest and renewal for all of you. In that spirit, here is a new and (IMHO) important chapter. Thanks as always for reading, writing, and following. Lots of love, xo – Ani

15

H-o-p-e

Something soft and weightless pulls at the edge of sleep like a forgotten dream. I breathe against it, too comfortable and warm to wake up. It flutters again, like a puff of breath or a rose dancing over my lips in a familiar way. Memory and consciousness strike at the same time.

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

Aiden is lying right next to me, his face more radiant than the sun, taping an Elisa rose over my lips, exactly as he did on our very first morning together.

“Good morning.” He smiles, his voice still gravelly with sleep.

“Aiden!” I rejoice and throw myself on top of him, quilt, sheets, and all.

He laughs and wraps me in his arms, burying his face in my hair as I burrow in his warmth.

“Elisa, we just woke up together,” he sighs with a profound note of relief. “You and me, and all your perfect ten fingers and ten toes. I checked, they’re all there. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, I can,” I answer, looking at him and believing everything. Not just because he is glowing on the white pillow, under a beam of sun, with the lightest blue sky in his eyes. I believe it because of last night—because of who he is. A whisper from my nightmare hisses like an echo, but I shove it back. Not today.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at the goose bumps that erupted on my skin at the nightmare’s hiss.

“Today will be another good day,” I declare to him and the goose bumps, kissing his lips. He engulfs me in his body heat, and we kiss like this for a while in our hot, sunny bubble. I breathe in his scent until my lungs hurt. He smells like a cinnamon stick inside a leaf of sandalwood wrapped with a rose petal warmed in the sun all tucked inside a heavy cloud of an unknown pheromone blowing out of some pagan sex god—all in concentrated form here under the sheets with me. He frees my mouth when I start hyperventilating and sweating, and throws off the sheets, letting the cool breeze tickle my back.

“I’m sorry, I’m a warm sleeper.” He blows on my flushed cheeks.

“Perfect because I’m usually cold. How did you sleep?” He looked so peaceful while I was keeping vigil, but I don’t know what happened after.

His eyebrows arch in bewilderment. “The best sleep of my life, Elisa.”

“Really?”

He nods with something like awe. “I don’t think I even had any dreams. I must have rolled onto my back at some point but I’m not sure I moved after that. Corbin will want to know.”

That’s true. He never moved while I was awake. And although he doesn’t know it, there was enough commotion to wake him up. “Do you think it’s because you were so tired from the flight and all the awfulness of the last two weeks?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. We’ll see, I suppose. My guess is it’s you but I’m not sure.”

I love that. The idea of giving him a full night’s rest. “Why do you look worried?”

“Not worried exactly. It’s just a very sudden, big change. Full eight hours, no dreams, no movement. I didn’t have that even before Iraq. I don’t know how long it can last.”

And there it is. Tic toc, tic toc. We’ve been given so much in the last twenty-four hours. Is this the held breath before the war?

“Did you sleep well?” he asks, his index finger tracing a circle under my eye.

I’m grateful my goose bumps can be blamed on the breeze this time. “My favorite part was when I was awake.”

He looks at me with a raised eyebrow. “Were you watching me?”

“Of course. You used to do it to me all the time.”

“That’s true. I’d like it better if we were both sleeping though. Were you afraid?” The first V of the day forms between his eyebrows.

Not from you, from my own mind. I smooth the V away. “Not at all. I was just getting to know you.”

He smiles. “Yikes. How the tables have turned. Do I want to know?”

“Oh, nothing serious, only eight erections by the time I fell asleep.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter. “Eight? My, my. Sounds dire. That will make for an interesting conversation with the experts at Oxford tomorrow.”

I prop myself up on his chest—his strong heart thuds there reassuringly alive. “What should I expect tomorrow? I want to get this right.”

“Well, Corbin will Skype in—you’ve already met him. They’ll scan my brain to compare it to five years ago before I met you, and again in eighty-nine days. And they’ll go over their plan with us. Just be you, and you’ll get it right. Look how far you’ve brought us with me completely against you. Maybe we can travel a little farther now that we’re on the same side.”

His voice becomes soft, colored with the h-o-p-e he is holding for us both. Maybe it’s that tone or last night’s nightmare or the loneliness of him carrying this little torch alone, but I let my mind tip-toe around the edges of h-o-p-e. How would it feel if I stepped inside its pool of light? Would it blind me so I can’t see the horrors ahead? Would it stun me so I cannot fight with a rational mind? Would it give me life so it can kill me in the end? Is h-o-p-e the dagger to the chest? I shake off the image, but even with that sliver of thought, the goose bumps return.

“What are you thinking?” Aiden asks, brushing the goose bumps on my arm. “These left and now they’re back.”

So much for the breeze as an excuse. “I was breaking Corbin’s rule and looking ahead instead of at the present moment.”

He nods, rubbing my arms until the goose bumps disappear. “Easy to do. How about my virginity Baci? Only happy memories in this room.”

I laugh despite my current love-hate relationship with Baci quotes and pick it up from his nightstand. “Make it a good one.”

He peels it slowly while I remind myself that I am a woman of science and took an oath last night against superstitions. My hands don’t care—they still clutch the sheets as though he is detonating an explosive device. But Aiden smiles as he reads the note.

“Oh, Elisa, you’ll love this. ‘Everything I know, I know because of love.’”

“Who said it?”

“Our closest friend and confidant, Tolstoy. Straight from War and Peace.”

“Yes!” I squeal, half-relieved, half-furious with myself for my reaction to this most trivial and nonsensical ritual.

“Share it with me.” Aiden pops it in my mouth and chases it with his tongue. We have learned to melt these little chocolates together by now—not a single crumble or drop ever spills. And they no longer taste as good on their own, without the taste of him. He doesn’t stop the kiss when the Baci is gone, and neither do I. His mouth changes, becomes full of slow, heated things. Things my body understands instantly, the way it catches fire and moves on top of him, searching for a precious blink of skin-on-skin.

“Elisa, you seem to be after something. Is there anything my twentieth erection and I can get you? We’re taking requests.”

“Yes, please.” I try to glide against him but he’s too quick. He lifts me an inch, where I can feel all his heat and none of him.

“Behave,” he says darkly when I whimper but tilts his hips a fraction for the faintest brush. “Is this what you want?”

My “yes” is more of a sigh, and he presses a finger gently into me. I tense, feeling the effects of last night’s homecoming.

“Are you sore?”

“No,” I breathe.

“I don’t believe you.” And the finger disappears.

“No, Aiden, more!” Oxygen becomes rarefied, and I try to find the rose-scented breeze.

He chuckles. “The headboard, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“The . . . the . . . the what?”

“Like this.” For a scarce heartbeat, he lets go of my hips and takes my arms, stretching them over him until I can grab the headboard. I take advantage of my hip freedom and brush against him.

“Hold on to that,” he says with a growl and locks my hips again. “I’m going to chain these, Elisa.” He smacks my behind while biting my breast, hard. It makes the fire worse. And the new problem of shaky arms. I grip the headboard as he pulls my prisoner hips upward until I’m hovering over his mouth.

“Wait, no, no—yes!”

His warm lips smile against me. “Now you can dance,” he murmurs. And he releases my hips while his tongue begins gliding as though it’s melting another Baci. Finally free, my hips tango to his rhythm. If he draws circles, they roll. He traces figure-eights and they shimmy. When he blows, they sway. Then his mouth changes again. Instead of a tango, it becomes a tribal dance—pressured, fast, and heavy until with one quick flick, I spiral and fall, sliding down the headboard and all over his face into an inert mass of trembles and whimpers.

He rearranges my melted arms and legs on top of him with a self-assured chuckle, while I try to regain some composure. The clock on the nightstand informs me that my entire transformation from adult woman to blob of molecules took him less than five minutes.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” I try to sound sarcastic and self-possessed but it comes out like a string of drunken slurs.

“Exceptionally. This is one thing where I’m above reproach as a partner. Don’t take it away from me.”

“Not the only thing.” I press my lips over his heart. “But you could certainly improve on self-love.” I wait for my body to solidify, the vague contours of a plan forming in my head. A rational brain cell warns me that I have no clue what I’m doing. But I only have so many weapons, and I promised to fight with him. And the fight has to include this.

“Speaking of self-love,” I say, sitting up and straddling him when I’m steady. His abs flex against me—hopefully an ally in my current incursion. “I’d like to play a game.”

He grins. “What kind of game?”

“It’s quite simple. Someone with your expertise should have no problem.” I press myself gently against his abs, but even the light contact tingles my still-sensitive skin.

Instantly, his grin becomes an arrogant, lopsided smirk. “Is this a sex game, Elisa?”

“It can’t be, can it? As you so thoughtfully observed, I’m a little sore. Which means we can’t use this—” I brush over the length of him, not bothering to hide my sigh. “Or these.” I knot my fingers with his. “As you’d never want to hurt me, right?”

The smirk disappears. “Of course not.”

“Exactly. And we already used your mouth but it just . . . how do I say this . . . it didn’t hit the spot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yes, I think it left something . . . to be desired.”

He looks almost enraged—as though he has never heard such words in any of the twelve languages he speaks. “Encore,” he hisses, trying to bring me closer to his mouth, but I have his fingers locked with mine, knowing he’ll be gentle while in my hands.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” The words slice through clenched teeth, as though all the strength I have neutralized from his hands has seeped into his jaw.

“Because your mouth and I have reached an impasse.”

“Excuse me?”

I press myself against his abs more firmly and they nudge back—reflexively swearing allegiance to me. Good, I need reinforcements. “Yes, you see, your mouth—despite its considerable talent—has an awful habit of saying terrible things about you. So your mouth will not have any part of me until we fix this problem.”

His eyes darken as he catches up to my game. The good news is that the fury disappears from his face. The bad news is that it’s replaced with his patent fire. On command, my skin bursts into flames. “That’s a grave impasse, indeed.” The fire is there his voice too—low, with an after-sound building in his chest like smoke. “And how do we remedy this transgression according to you?”

His abs ripple under me, fueling me on. “It’s simple really. I’ll just have to love myself.”

He did not see this coming, that much is obvious. His mouth pops open into a perfect O, along with his eyes. With more courage than I knew I had, I release one of his hands—he grasps a fistful of my thigh immediately—and trail my fingertips between my breasts all way down like he does, until I feel wetness there. Then I place one fingertip inside his open mouth. He sucks on it with a growl, biting hard. “Do you taste that?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever because it’s the last time you taste it until your mouth and I resolve our dispute.”

He doesn’t release my finger, his teeth and eyes imprisoning me here. “You can keep that one finger, Aiden, if you want it so much. I have nine other perfect ones, as you call them, and your abs, which have sworn allegiance to your favorite home.” I roll against them with another sigh. “So, I will be just fine.”

He drops my finger. “You will beg.”

“Oh, but as you assured me last night, you would never let me burn. So I’m hedging my bets that you will beg first.” His abs twitch under me while a growl whirls out of his mouth. His twentieth erection presses imperiously against the small of my back.

“As you wish, Elisa,” he enunciates darkly, as though his tongue is moving inside me, not in his mouth. “We’ll play your little game. What do I have to do?”

His eyes don’t release me and his free fingers are digging into my thigh, so my voice is as tremulous as I feel. “ Well . . . as you know, I’ve never done this self-love business before. And I would want you to guide me through this very first time, like you have done for all my other firsts. But you lost that right for yourself.”

“An immense oversight on my part that will be rectified as soon as I’m allowed, I assure you.”

“Well, here is your chance. I’ll fumble my way through, just me and myself. And if you want to join, first you have to say something nice about yourself and mean it. And then I’ll do what you tell me to do. Agree?”

He looks at me like I’m the bane of his existence and his reason for living at the same time. “Agree,” he says with something like venom and fire. His free fingers grip my thigh. I slap away his hand as he does with me.

“And no touching, please. This is between me and myself. You can touch when you behave.”

I notice with satisfaction that a low gasp escapes his lips.

“Now, where shall I begin?” I circle my hips over the ridges of his abs, losing my train of thought. They flex with me, and I don’t stifle my moan.

“Elisa!” My name fires through clenched teeth like a warning, his hips thrusting underneath. I tighten my thighs around his waist as hard as I can to lock him down—it’s difficult with a thousandth of his strength and my own body shaking.

“Tsk, tsk. I might have to chain these, Aiden. You’re interfering.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“You should. Because the more you interfere, the more I’ll change the rules. For example, right now I’m contemplating doing this alone in the bathtub with a locked door while you have only your ears and imagination to torment you.”

“It’s not a hard door to break.”

“That may well be. But it’s an awfully small, European-sized tub. Not at all designed for the likes of you. I’m certain only I can fit in.”

“Fuck you.”

“I really hope you do. And soon. But for now, I’ll just do what you would do.” I’m no longer able to handle the heat of his furious gaze so I close my eyes and, with a burst of courage, I throw my head back and wrap my hands around my breasts. “You would start here, I believe?”

A whimper—an actual whimper—comes from the god of sex. It’s the sound I needed for confidence. My hips unleash themselves on his abs, soldered as we are together from my thighs and my weight. And my hands start to mold around my breasts. I know the way he would touch them—his fingers have branded a permanent trail on my skin. I follow it now with my own fingers, thinking only of him. And everything inside starts to pulse.

Aiden shudders underneath me and the whimper becomes a growl that sounds like, “Oh dear God.”

“No, not that God,” I gasp through the inferno I just lit for myself. “Dear Aiden.” I brush my fingers over my nipples—this is harder, more intimate under his blistering gaze that burnishes my skin even with my eyes closed. I pinch as he does at the same time that I circle my hips.

“I’m loyal.”

I almost miss the snarl of his words over the blood hammering in my ears. But they hang in the air, raspy and clear.

“Yes, you are,” I smile. “One of your most noble traits. What would you like me to do in return?”

“Look at me.”

And I do. Those are the rules I made, even if they light me on fire. Under me, Aiden is falling apart. Every band of muscle has turned into a blade of steel. The V is carved so deep between his eyebrows, it might become permanent. His hands are in white-knuckled fists, clenching the quilt. And his fiery eyes are dark and hooded, boring into me with greed.

“Am I doing this right?” I ask, circling my nipples as he would.

He nods furiously, beyond all speech, his eyes unblinking on my fingers. His abs and I continue to dance to the music of my moan.

“I’m strong.” His words ring out again, a little louder.

“Very strong. Stronger than anyone I know. What do you want me to do next?”

“Lower,” he commands as another shudder runs through him. My fingers flutter over my belly like his did when he was playing the piano on me.

“I love you.” His words spill out again.

“No, that’s about me, not about you. Try again.”

“It is about me,” he protests through his teeth. “My love for you is my best trait.”

I deliberate but the throbbing inside makes me a biased judge. My fingers brush over my pubic bone. “How about you’re loving? Can we settle for that?”

“I’m loving.” Half-snarl, half-whimper.

“Yes, and I love that about you. It makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world.”

“You are.”

“What next?”

“Lower.”

My finger tiptoe my public bone to the inside of my thighs, tracing little circles there like he did yesterday with me. “Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

“I like it so much better when you do it.”

“Let me.”

“No.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes . . . wouldn’t that be nice?”

But now I have a dilemma. Where do I go from here? If I move, I lose the friction of his abs and I need that—I need it like air. If I don’t, I run out of real estate on my thigh. And then there is only one spot left. The inferno that will burn us both alive. He must sense my battle because he doesn’t speak—he is breathing hard though. Like my next touch is air to him. And I give it. I wedge my hand between myself and his abs, pressing hard as he would. I barely hear him over my own moan.

“Christ.” His hips thrust again, almost buckling me off.

“No, just you in my head. And control your hips or I will stop.”

He becomes utterly still with a pained groan.

“Good. Now . . . the piano you said, Aiden?” And I play the first notes of Für Elise against myself. I know he can feel them on his abs. I know because he shudders, snarls, and swears at the same time.

“I’m—fucking—smart.”

“Yes! Even though it’s an understatement, I’ll accept it. What now?”

“Get—on—this—bed—now.”

Damn him. He’s taking away his faithful, miraculous abs that have done nothing but love and support me. But these are the rules I made up. “Goodbye for now, Aiden’s abs.” I roll one final time against them and slide off him onto the bed.

He takes full advantage. He springs onto his knees between my legs, looming above me, fire raging from everywhere. He spreads his thighs slightly, forcing mine to open more. He seems taller, broader somehow—as though the last few minutes have stretched his contours to breaking point. His chest is rising and falling with his hard breathing. His fingers are curled inward as if he is gripping me in his head. His now-permanent erection is pointing straight at my mouth.

And the throbbing inside gets worse—like a drum on fire pounded by a flamethrower. I will my fingers to continue to play Für Elise, but I can only summon random, off-beat notes even though I heard it all night. My breathing becomes jagged, matching his. He doesn’t speak so my body arches toward him, as though pleading for his words.  It marks a transformation. A flicker of calculation glints in his eyes, his hands relax, and his breathing steadies. His lips lift into a slow, deadly smile. Abruptly, I feel like I’m about to lose my own game.

“I’m an excellent fighter, Elisa.” His voice is now dripping with triumph. “I always win.”

“That’s true,” I sigh, addictive fear gathering like static over my skin. Not fear of him—fear of whether I can handle whatever he is about to unleash on me. “What would you like me to do?”

“I want you to play your song inside you since my fingers are banned.”

Oh bloody hell! Playing on the surface is one thing, venturing into the dragon’s den with him roaring on the threshold is quite another.

“Your rules, Elisa.” His voice is even and dark. I lost all his whimpers and growls the moment I laid back on this mattress. “I’ll even play the music on my phone to help you because I’m thoughtful like that. And that counts for two self-loving things, which means I’d also like you to spread your legs as far apart as they will go. Now.” Then eyes never leaving me, he calls to his phone. “Siri? Play Für Elise . . . for the only woman in the world,” he adds the last part under his breath.

And the piano starts. “Carry on, Elisa.” His voice is back to its taunting setting—he has already won, I just haven’t found out how yet.

Well, I might as well not go down without a fight. “Like so?” I breathe as I obey both his commands. But only one finger—that’s not bad.

“You will need two fingers for your notes, darling, unless it hurts. I earned this one fair and square.”

“Yes, you did,” I concede and do as he says. The first thing I notice is the soreness has eased, either from the heat or the throbbing I don’t know. The second thing I notice is a lot of wet, warm mess.

“Well, well, isn’t that interesting? How soreness just heals from self-love.”

“Only for me.” I try to sound strong but my breath leaves me entirely as I trace the paths he has blazed inside me as well. So familiar with him, so strange and new to me alone. But pleasant too—in a way I didn’t know I could give myself. Nowhere as bewildering as when he does it, more like a snack to his feast . . . but good nonetheless. My eyes flutter close.

“Oh, no. I earned the open eyes as well,” he reminds me.

I force mine open, begging him in my head as he predicted. Say more nice things, please. More nice things about yourself, and then make them into nice things for me.

“Now,” he begins in a tone that makes me shiver. “Self-love, you said?” And eyes on me, he grasps himself. I whimper as though he grasped me. “I don’t think your cruel rules prohibit this, do they?” And with a controlled sigh, he moves his hand up and down his length to the languid rhythm of my song. It’s my mouth that pops open now, my fingers that curl and stop. I’m the one shuddering. I can’t blink away from the sight.

“Your song, Elisa,” he prompts evenly. “Play it, like I earned it.”

I try. I really, really do. But I’m frozen. I barely survive Aiden pleasing me. How am I supposed to live through Aiden pleasing himself? His beauty in this moment is a force. Exactly that. He knows his body with such precision and control—a fluid symbiosis unlike the treacherous flailing my body is exacting against me. And then he stops. The sparkly bubble of liquid forms over him.

“Don’t stop!” My plea escapes without permission—body and mind completely breaking ranks.

“Oh, no. This is your game. You play, I play. Self-love and all that. Go on.”

As if I can resist him. The sight, the voice, the bubble. I play the keys, and he starts again, as though he can see through my skin. I watch every stroke of his hand, the way the shimmering liquid spreads over him, the way the two of them mold together perfectly without me. And lust becomes almost anger—at myself, at him.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He smirks. “Feeling so left out when the person you love most in the world turns against you like this.”

“Please, Aiden!” My traitor mouth fires away, completely on his side now.

“Are you begging, Elisa?”

“Yes,” Judas continues.

“What would you like?”

“More nice things . . . about yourself.”

“Ah. I’ll have to think . . . hard,” he says as he pushes himself into his strong hand with a hiss. “It’s difficult to think about myself when all I have in my head is you. And what I’ll do to you once this pestilent soreness is all gone. You have chairs in your lab, don’t you, love? Because I don’t think you will be able to stand. But maybe all the oxytocin will help.” The crescendo of my song starts, and I manage to tap out one note out of three. Gasping, coming apart at the sight of him. The familiar tension wrings my body. At least it’ll be over soon. But the moment the trembles start, his words ring out.

“I’m loved.”

“Wha—? R-right now? I’m busy.”

“No better moment. You heard me. I’m loved. Admit it, that’s your favorite nice thing I should know about myself.”

It is. It is and he knows it, that’s why he saved it for now. But at last I’ll have my release. “You’re—very—loved—especially—by—me—what—next?”

An infuriatingly controlled chuckle. “Fingers out.”

“What? No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Why?” The whimper sounds like another “no.”

“Because I earned it. And this one was a very hard one for me to admit. I have plans for this.”

I can’t argue with him, even if my brain cells had not been decimated by his strokes. I almost cry as I obey. The emptiness left behind is physically painful.

“I hate you,” I hiss at him, and he chuckles.

“And there’s the difference between our love. I love you even when you hate me. Now, those perfect fingers of yours . . .”

I tense. “Yes?”

“Since you’ve broken up with my mouth, I’d like you to put one of them in yours.”

“Ew! Really?”

Another slow stroke, another bubble sparkling on him. “Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Elisa. I admitted this very difficult, very vulnerable part of myself. It’s engrained in me not to accept love, but I want to accept yours. I want it so badly, I have gathered scientists, psychiatrists, Beethoven, medication, U.S. Marines, the U.S. Congress, the CIA, Siri, not to mention crossing an ocean and eight thousand miles—all the king’s horses and all the king’s men for the single purpose of deserving your love, but you—love of my life, star of my dreams, peace of my war, lullaby of my sleep—won’t even taste yourself from your finger when you have no problem doing so from my lips? Which is ironic when you are trying to teach self-love. And what’s worse, you refer to my favorite taste with ‘ew’. What is a man supposed to do with all that?”

I just stare. He has stunned even thought into silence, let alone speech. Eyes on him, I put my finger in my mouth without hesitation because he’s right—I’ve done this countless of times with his mouth. I think about the way his bubble tastes instead of me. His eyes widen a fraction—he must have expected more arguments—and a slow smile spreads over his face. I notice with some h-o-p-e that his hand is moving faster. Two bubbles now.

“Thank you,” he says, and his voice is huskier too. “Was that ew?”

I shake my head, still unable to speak.

“Will you say such awful things about yourself again?”

Another shake.

“Good. Did you like it?”

A shrug.

“Ah, that’s too bad. Personally, I could live on it. Would you like to taste something else?”

A nod.

“Well then,” he says, and gathers the gleaming bubbles on his fingertip and brings it to my lips like I did with him. “Taste.”

I shiver from the warm liquid steel that, at least to me, is better than melted Baci. The same moan escapes my lips as it did for him.

His breath catches as his eyes darken. “Better?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever, Elisa. Think about it because it’s only yours. And allowing myself to be yours is the most self-loving thing I can do.” His finger circles the tip of my tongue, sending a jolt through the rest of me, releasing my words.

“I’m only yours, too,” I whisper as he takes his finger away. I’m palpitating from the torture I brought on myself. What was I thinking going against him in this area? But it was worth every unreleased tremble, every ring of fire, every achy throb, just to hear him say, “I’m loved.” I try to press my thighs together to relieve some tension but he is still standing between them—no doubt part of his plan. I give up and close my eyes, reciting the periodic table in my head. My brain glitches over all the elements that are combustible.

Then his warm breath washes over my lips, and my eyes fling open. His face is so close, so heady, the bedroom spins. “Now, will you please forgive my mouth?” he asks, and his voice has become very tender. “It says it’s very sorry and it really wants to taste you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Oh, I’m serious. I have learned my lesson. It was a very effective teaching strategy. I’ll never forget it.”

“You never forget anything.”

“That doesn’t make it less memorable. Please, Elisa?”

“Are you begging?”

“Begging and dying.”

“And you’ll try not to say bad things about yourself again?” I sound almost in tears. Even his body heat and the sheets feel rough against my over-sensitized skin.

“I will. Now please kiss me. I’m literally on my knees.” His lips inch closer, almost brushing against mine.

“You’re forgiven,” my mouth says to his mouth.

He moans. Where his own hand didn’t break his composure, my lips shatter it. He kisses me like his whole soul is pouring into me through his tongue. I do my best to match him—it’s not even close—and every time I kiss him, I’m also kissing the words he formed in his mouth, the syllables of his self-love.

“Aiden, please, let’s try,” I mumble in garbled English. “I’m not that sore.”

“No, love, heal,” he murmurs, and then his mouth—my new ruler and savior—starts traveling over me. Wherever it touches, my skin zaps at even the lightest pressure. By the time he makes it to the mess I made, he has to hold me because I’m shaking so hard. And then he takes my hand.

“Let me show you,” he says and guides my fingers. It’s entirely effortless with him.

“Not this anymore . . . you.”

“You should always know how to pleasure yourself, Elisa. Always.” I sense something in his voice but I don’t have enough brainpower to understand it. I just follow his patient, mind-blowing lesson, introductions to parts of myself I only know from books of science. And soon I’m flying. The little snaps are starting.

“And now together,” he says and his mouth closes on me. It takes exactly one kiss, and I explode into a million tiny pieces—pieces of mind, of heart, of my body that now I can say I thoroughly know.

I feel his gentle lips and strong hands, holding me together until my breathing eases and the shaking recedes. When I’m finally still, he says, “And that, my Elisa, is self-pleasure. It is yours and no one else’s. Keep it and don’t ever give it to anyone. Not even to me.”

I think about his words, his voice—so forceful but for a trace of wistfulness. I’m too afraid to ask about it without my protein. Because a small part wonders if he showed this to me so I know it in case I lose him. So my body doesn’t shut down again after he is gone, like it did after the accident. A shiver having nothing to do with my recent orgasm runs over me. Violent ends . . .No! I mentally stomp on the whisper. I won’t let it slither inside this purest, closest part of our love. Pleasure is our super-power. Is there a weapon more powerful than that?

Aiden is still on top of me, on his elbows, tense with his own unreleased pleasure. Every plane of his face is etched with need, from his dark hooded gaze to his parted lips.

“You know something I’m learning about pleasure?” I ask him.

“What’s that?”

I sit up, forcing him to rise back on his knees. He is right in front of my mouth, soaring. “It feels as good to give it as it does to receive it.” And I swirl my tongue over the glistening bubbles. A shudder and a hiss rip through him.

“The headboard, Mr. Plemmons,” I say with another swirl.

His chuckle breaks and he actually grips the headboard. I wrap my hands around him and take him in my mouth as far as he can go in one swoop. He shudders again with an unrestrained “fuck” and the headboard shakes behind me. I do it again and all his control shatters with a snarl.

At the sound, I become possessed, ruled by instinct—my entire vision narrowing on this one goal of pleasuring him. He has never let me loose on him before like this, only as foreplay under his careful control. Sure, I have the matter of physics—there is only so much of me, and too much of him. But if I ignore the mechanics and think only about his mouthfeel, his taste, then I understand. I understand exactly why Aiden loves doing this to me. Why he was indignant at my ‘ew’—because if he ever said that about himself, I would be furious.

His entire body, from his vocal chords to his thighs, is thrumming. My name is slicing through his teeth, punctuated with groans and profanities that to me sound better than Beethoven. Every time I feel him at the back of my throat, I taste more of him. And the deeper I try to go, the more vicious his battle. I learn his body as he has done with me. The way his head falls back when I do this. The way his knees almost give out when I do that. I use every move he has used on me: from a peck to a suck and everything in between. He falls apart at the sucks—the harder, the better—and goes completely mental over the swirls, thrusting inside my mouth. Knowing him now, I pick up depth and speed. And Aiden—force of nature, epitome of physical strength, and paragon of sexual control—starts trembling, and the entire bed shakes with him.

“Elisa!” he grabs my hair, trying to pull out, but I grip his hips as he does with me. It seems silly to let go now after everything. I take him in the depths of my throat one last time.

He comes like war. There is no other way to describe it. A guttural growl, one hand nearly ripping off the headboard, the other in my hair, convulsion after convulsion, and then Aiden falls backward on the bed, shuddering and twitching.

Bloody. Hell.

I just did that. And survived.

I tilt my neck to test if my head is still attached to my shoulders. It is. To my utter amazement, I feel relaxed despite the tornado that just happened in and around me. Except for a trickle of warmth inside, I feel only wellness and a small sense of pride.

I look over at the foot of the bed where Aiden’s head is barely visible under the arm over his face. He has not resurfaced, ribcage rising and lowering rapidly, spasms over his muscles like waves, his sprinting breath filling the bedroom. I crawl over him, rest my head on my favorite spot on his chest, and kiss his heart. A gentler ripple courses through him with a low moan. I wait for him to recover, thinking about this new weapon in our hands. I add pleasure,self-love, and sleep to the list of defenses we are collecting for this fight. Is that enough for h-o-p-e to turn from foe to ally for me?

“Hi.” Aiden re-enters our realm with a hushed, husky sound.

“Welcome back.” I use his words with a grin.

“Hmm, have I been out long?” He plays along, even though we both know he wasn’t asleep.

“Just your first post-orgasm coma that I have witnessed.”

“Just the first post-orgasm coma, period.”

“That can’t be true.” It’s an unspoken pact that we don’t discuss his prior liaisons.  I know he remembers them with perfect clarity and neither of us wants to revisit those memories. Oddly, I’m not jealous. On the contrary, I’m glad he allowed himself this healthy, ordinary part of life and made it extraordinary like he does with everything else. But I’m still curious about all the careful restrictions he imposed on himself and his partners before me.

“It is. I never would have allowed myself to relax like this, as I do with you.”

My cheeks flush with pride. More firsts—that too has to help.

“Well, Elisa, I’m amazed.”

“I know, the orgasm comas are good, aren’t they? Even if you didn’t pass out like I do.”

He lifts his arm off his face with some difficulty and peers at me with a loopy grin. Lazily, he turns to face me, curling around me and resembling very much a placated, well-fed, happy dragon on a sunny rock. “Yes, they are, but that’s not what I mean. That was quite your first time, too.” His nose skims my throat and he places a soft kiss on it. The flush spreads from my cheeks to my chest because I know what he means. The finale was a first for me. “Did you like it or did you do it just for me?”

My blush must burn even his skin. “I liked it.”

He kisses my throat again. “Don’t be embarrassed by our love. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

And just like that, the first four-letter word joins our ranks. L-O-V-E.

It takes us a while to leave this bed—neither of us is willing to burst this bubble like no other we have had. But eventually the real world intrudes. Growling stomachs, parched mouths, still-packed suitcases, texts from Aiden’s phone about work, texts from Reagan and Javier that they’re awake and will be here in an hour. And Aiden starts making his own big place in the cottage. Hanging up his shirts with my dresses (“aren’t you glad I didn’t pack a lot of feathered hats, Elisa?”), tucking his boxers with my underwear (“will these dried rose packets irritate you with your soreness?”), the books he is reading on his nightstand (“I’ll finish these tonight and start on your father’s library.”), his toothbrush necking with mine in the restroom (“you were not kidding about this bathtub. How are we going to fuck in the shower, Elisa?”) his cologne nudging my face cream (“I have a surprise for you, but it won’t get here until tomorrow.”) All these little intimacies and normalcies—so routine for others, so ephemeral for us.

Eventually we make breakfast and eat it out in the garden, sprawled on a picnic blanket, waiting for Reagan and Javier. Aiden drinks his coffee, his phone tossed aside on the blanket. He checks it less, looks around more. The tectonic plates do not shift as much in his eyes as he builds new memories here.

“So what would you have done with yourself today if we weren’t here?” he asks, popping the last of the strawberries in his cupid mouth—he inhaled four scones and four eggs, the mush, the ham, and the fruit. Even his appetite seems better here.

I shrug, not wanting to imagine such a dark day. “I probably would have gone to the lab to work on the protein. I can’t wait to test it tomorrow. See if I got the code right.”

The same powerful emotion that fell over him when I told him about my protein yesterday morning molds his vernal face now.  But unlike yesterday, I can’t hold back my question, or at least a version of it. “Why do you get that look when I talk about my protein?”

“What look?”

“I don’t know. Like you don’t want me to make it for you or something. Or are you worried I can’t finish on time?”

His gives me a tight smile. “Elisa, I think you can do anything you set your mind on. And that’s not just a cliché boyfriends are supposed to say. I really believe that.”

“Then what is it?”

He tilts his head side to side, deliberating. I sip my tea to give him time, watching every flicker of emotion on his face. But it’s carefully composed. “I suppose I don’t want your second invention to be tied to me. You already tied your first protein to me for your green card—which you threw away.” He glares at me, but I don’t take the bait. “Staking a claim on this second one too . . . it feels unconscionable.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know how to answer that without breaking Corbin’s rule.”

A shiver whips through me, and I see him notice the new crop of goose bumps on my arms. A familiar bolt of fury strikes in his eyes as the jaw flexes—a fury I now know is not at me. It’s at himself.

“It’s in case we don’t win, isn’t it?” I whisper. “That’s why you look like that?”

“I don’t want your second invention tied to me,” he repeats. I take it as a yes.

“But it could help you even if . . . even if . . . that happens.” My voice breaks. I need the protein for myself, I need it for Dad, but I need it for Aiden more than anyone else. Because I can’t shake off the terror I feel for him if we lose. He has cashed in all his hopes and dreams on this final chance. What will happen to the man with the dimply smile, shy eyes, self-loving words, and peaceful sleep if we don’t win? It would kill him, James said. He’d rather die, Javier agreed. A snapshot of my nightmare—the worst one, Aiden’s cold lips—flashes in my vision, making my gasp. Is this what killed him in my dream? Because we didn’t win? Because I made just one vial of protein and he refused to take it from me?

Aiden brushes my arm, no doubt attributing my gasp to his words. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind the crackpot fool—negative thoughts are a hard habit to break. You keep working on your protein. And when you finish it, I’ll try it. But please do it for yourself and your father. Don’t stress yourself for me. Okay?” I hate that he is blaming himself for my terror. And I hate that I’m letting him do it. But I’d rather board the flight I took back to England a million times over than tell him about my nightmare.

“I’ll make it Skittle-flavored,” I offer to move away from these thoughts.

His lips lift in a true smile. “But I’m so attached to the cinnamon flavor of your first supplement. That’s why I changed my toothpaste.”

“It is?”

“Yes, it was all spearmint before you.”

I lean in and peck his lips. “Cinnamon then. But only because your mouth and I are back together.” I lie down and rest my head on his lap.

He chuckles and takes a picture of me, eyes shifting between the iPhone screen and my face. “What does a picture look like to you?” I ask him to distract myself from the odd sense of unease that creeps over me when he takes pictures. “Compared to your memory, I mean.”

He smirks. “The best analogy I have is the difference between a faded Xerox copy and a high-resolution photograph. Pictures are just copies; they lack the depth, the detail my mind absorbs from the moment.”

“And what does the original memory look like in your mind exactly?”

“Well, imagine pulling up that high-resolution image in Photoshop, and the app gives you options of filters to choose from. My memory works sort of like filters. I see you right now sharp and clear, but if you turn your head like this—like you were in Javier’s painting—a translucent filter falls over you, silver-white because he had made your skin look silver. So right this second, your skin looks like porcelain, shimmering with a silvery light. You take my breath away.”

He brushes his index finger over my jawline where he must see the silver veil while I marvel at the woman he paints, trying to grasp his mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I get to see his brain. Truly see it in ultrasound. “So, if I’m understanding this right, if you were to see me when I’m all wrinkly and old, you would still see the young silver pretty me?”

He smiles. “You’re never just pretty. But other than that detail, yes, even at eighty-five, you will have the youthful filter for me. I’d see the wrinkles, but Javier’s filter would light you up, fade them if you will.”

“Wow.”

A loud whistle shrieks through the air then, startling a lark out of my beech tree.

“ISA! AIDEN!” Javier calls from what sounds as far as the willows. “REG TELLS ME WE HAVE TO ANNOUNCE OURSELVES, WHICH IS DISGUSTING.”

Aiden chuckles, looking in the direction of the howl with something like indulgence.

“Speaking of the genius. He thinks he owes me, but I’m the one who owes him for the most beautiful thing in my life.”

Jumping Aiden now is out of the question with Reagan and Javier emerging on the garden path. Reagan is wearing the most spectacular emerald hat with an enormous peacock feather so tall that it flutters above Javier’s head, tickling his hair so that every few steps he swats at it like a fly. I meet her eyes for an update but she shakes her head slightly with a sad smirk. Bollocks. Maybe we need more aggressive measures.

“How was the Inn?” I ask them as they plop on the blanket with us, thoughtfully giving Aiden his space. I push toward them the few scones, jam, and clotted cream that survived Aiden’s appetite.

Dios, it’s like a different world. I’ve already sketched it. Speaking of, Aiden, how much do we owe you to stay there for the next two weeks?” Javier asks, while sniffing the clotted cream with a suspicious look.

“You don’t owe me anything. It’s already paid for.”

“Told you,” Reagan chimes while loading a morsel of scone with a dollop of cream.

“I know it’s paid for but we want to reimburse you,” Javier presses.

“You’re not reimbursing me.”

“What the fuck? Yes, we are.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, we are. You’ve done way too much for us, I can’t accept this.”

“I haven’t done nearly enough and yes, you can accept it.”

Javier looks at me completely bewildered. “Isa, help me with your man. Speak his language. He seems to be taking this whole do-the-opposite thing literally.”

Reagan giggles, and I with her. Aiden just looks calmly at Javier who stares at all of us like we belong at the Burford Dementia Centre.

“Javier, sweetheart, you don’t argue with Aiden about money,” I explain. “Or really about anything. It’s a terrible, terrible idea that never ends well for anyone. You would do better if you ask him ‘why’ questions.”

“Thanks for giving out trade secrets, love,” Aiden says next to me, but he is smiling.

“And you,” I turn to him and the smile drops. “You will do better if you explain your reasons to Javier so he understands where you’re coming from.”

They both blink at each other, while Reagan almost chokes from laughing.

“Fine,” Javier starts. “Aiden?”

“Javier.” Aiden inclines his head.

Why do you not want us to pay you for the Inn?”

“At least five reasons. First, you are Elisa’s family, and I never let family pay for anything. Second, you have become my friends independently of Elisa and, as Cal will tell you, my friends also never pay for anything. Third, I’d like you to save your money now that you have your green card so that you can invest in your future and begin your new life. Fourth, the price of the Inn is nothing to me for the value of having you near while Elisa and I have our privacy. And fifth, as I was recently telling her, I’m the one who owes you for bringing us together in the first place.” He looks at me with an expression like, ‘how did I do?’ I squeeze his fingers to tell him he did very well indeed.

Javier blinks a few more times, speechless—a common side effect when one first experiences Aiden in full form—and eventually finds some words. “Well . . . that . . . okay then.”

Reagan claps, still laughing. “Well done, boys. Personally, I don’t see why it’s so hard but I also speak Aidenish well by now. I’m not as fluent as Isa, but I can definitely converse.”

It’s Aiden who chuckles first—a soft chuckle, nothing like the belly laughs James gives him, but it’s a happy sound. They laugh together as Reagan provides a dictionary of Aidenisms that she has developed in her head. “Yes, ‘hm’ usually means ‘I heard you, have already thought about it, but no.’ ‘Mm’ means ‘interesting idea, and worth considering, but still no.’ ‘Huh’ means ‘stupid idea, definitely no’ and ‘huh-uh’ means ‘get out of my face or you’ll burn alive.’ And the worst part is, he’s usually right. How did I do, Aiden?”

“Huh.”

“Shit, I went too far.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, okay, then. See, Javi? It’s easy.”

I watch them banter this way—learning each other, finding their own frequency, easing into each other’s orbit—and their constellation becomes so radiant that for a moment I have to close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, as though imprinted on the retinas, they are still laughing in this garden, but Mum and Dad are also here, on the wrought iron bench where they used to sit, smiling at us. The image is so stunning that I can’t breathe or open my eyes. How can I lose all this again? Make us brave, keep us together.

“Isa, did you fall asleep over there?” Javier asks while Aiden takes my hand. I swear he is feeling my pulse.

“Are you all right?” His voice is immediately anxious.

“I’m better than all right. But I’d like to take you three somewhere. Are you up for it? It’s a bit of a walk, like everything around here.”

“Will this hat work?” Reagan asks in complete seriousness. “Or should I change?”

Javier shakes his head with a chortle. “No way, Reg. The peacock feather screams countryside.”

“Shut up, Javi,” she retorts but I know her eyes. She is in so deep that even the most innocent tease from Javier hurts.

“The hat is perfect.” I smile at her. “You never know, you may run into your David Gandy while you’re here.”

“Oh, my goodness!” She gasps, as though she had forgotten the entire existence of her favorite male model.

“David who?” Javier pipes up.

I wink at her and scurry to the garden shed, trying to marshal the vortex of emotion. I don’t recognize my insides. Everything is a contradiction. Deliriously happy and utterly terrified.  At peace while fighting my biggest war. In love and loathing everything that conspires against us. I rummage through the tool rack, tossing items into my camping rucksack and needing to get through the periodic table a couple of times to fight off tears. I can just imagine Aiden’s panic if he finds me here falling apart. And I’m not falling apart because I’m upset. I’m falling apart because apparently there is such a thing as too much love.

By the time I drag my rucksack back to them, Reagan has regained her smile while Aiden and Javier are debating how many years Feign will get in prison.

“If my sources are right, it will be at least ten,” Aiden says. “He’ll never bother you again . . . Fuck, let me carry that.” He stands when he sees me and grabs my rucksack, which rattles with a metallic clang. “What the hell is in it?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s go.” I pick up one of the American Beauty seedlings I bought from the Plemmonses, saving the other one. He takes that, too, lest I strain my back from carrying a single rosebud in a plastic pot.

We set off across the fields, the four of us. The village of Burford has never seen a stranger group, of that I’m certain. Reagan leads the way with her peacock feather; Javier next to her with a pencil above each ear and a cross-body satchel full of sketchbooks; Aiden in a white T-shirt, Raybans, and jeans, too beautiful to belong on this planet, let alone in my village, carrying a rose and a rucksack that clamors and bangs loudly with his long strides; and me tripping every few steps because I can’t tear my eyes away from the three of them.

“Will we be walking through town or anywhere we might need Benson?” Aiden asks under his breath.

I hook my arm in his—it’s turned into granite again. “No, just open fields and air. And the occasional deer.”

The tension of his arm softens. “I hope some day we never have to worry about this again.”

H-o-p-e. “I don’t feel deprived of anything. Besides, town is overrated. What are men to rocks and mountains?” I quote Elizabeth Bennett like we once did in his library.

He chuckles and kisses my hair, shortening his stride to match mine. “It’s beautiful here,” he says after a while, eyes roaming the open fields brimming with wildflowers, the river gliding next to us, the rolling shamrock hills like the curves of some earth mother goddess protecting all life within its valleys.

I lean my head against his arm, imagining that his simple observation means more, fantasizing that he wants my little village to be a beautiful home for a beautiful man. He has not mentioned me returning to the U.S. and neither have I. What can we possibly say? We both know where I live is irrelevant if we lose this fight. It’s not a question we can ask until we know our fate. But I wonder if his unerring eyes see the way my heart twists at the idea of abandoning the cottage or Oxford again. Has his quick mind already sensed another deadly war ahead even if we survive this one? A war that could spread my organs across two continents like I’d be blown up by mortar fire: bits of heart here, sponges of lungs there, never whole, never at rest.

“So does Gandy visit where we’re going, Isa?” Reagan calls over her shoulder as we cut across another field, this one carpeted with daisies and forget-me-nots.

“Will somebody tell me who the hell we’re talking about?” Javier demands.

“He is an exemplar of male beauty, Javi. That’s all you need to know.”

Aiden slows down until we fall back a few steps. “So, how would you feel about these two together?”

I yank his arm to a full stop. “You know?” I whisper.

He shrugs. “Of course.”

“How did you find out? Reg barely admitted it to me!”

“I have eyes, Elisa. It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Not for you, maybe. Javier hasn’t got a clue.”

He starts walking again, eyes on Javier’s back. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t think he’s willing to see.”

“Same difference. Meanwhile, Reg is in hell.”

“Yes, I recognize the symptoms. Give them time. They’ll figure it out.”

“I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Javier envisions a love life for himself at all.”

Aiden laughs. “Elisa, he’s a man. I guarantee you he envisions a love life. Whether he goes after it is a different question.”

“I’m starting to think he won’t though. He’s convinced himself he has nothing to offer. He’s almost as self-loathing as you.”

“You know what to do with these self-loathing men, Elisa?”

“What?”

“Add self-love.” He winks, his eyes instantly catching fire at the memory of our game.

I grip his arm. “Don’t joke about that right now. Please help me make Javier see.”

“What could I possibly do about it? The man has to want it, Elisa. And I can see his point to a degree. Wanting to build some security, to be able to provide for his family before he gets involved.”

“Reg doesn’t care about any of that.”

“But he does, my love. It’s important to him.”

“Are we still talking about Javier?”

He smiles with the dimple. “Yes, we are, but I understand him on this point. You and I have serious problems, but at least I’m able to protect you from everything except myself. That’s important to me and I’m certain it’s important to a traditional man like Javier.”

I watch Javier duck away from Reagan’s feather as she skips past him playing with a daisy.

“Trust me on this one,” Javier’s new comrade-in-arms insists. “Javier has to be ready on his own. And if you need more proof, I draw your attention to exhibit one.” He points at the center of his chest, in the exact counter-spot where the raw wound used to hurt me two days ago.

“But in the meantime Reg is hurting,” I argue. “And Javier would hurt too if he knew he is hurting her.”

Aiden sighs. “And you would hurt with them. All right, at least give him these two weeks. Maybe being in this romantic place will trigger something. And if not, I’ll help you. I have no fucking clue how, but I’ll try. Is that better?”

I grin at him, watching his lips lift into a mirroring smile. As unfathomable as Aiden’s mind is, there is a simple axiom at the very kernel of its existence: to protect me, he would do anything.

“You think this place is romantic?” I kiss the spot above his elbow where my lips reach—his golden skin is warm from the sun.

He laughs. “Don’t read too much into that. I also used to think a sand ditch in Iraq was romantic when I was writing your letters. So I’m not to be trusted with the concept.”

A fiery field of poppies ripples around us now. The flowers brush against Aiden’s jeans like Marilyn lips. I watch the soldier who believes he doesn’t understand romance step carefully not to crush the blooms. Then I watch the man who doesn’t need photographs snap a selfie of the two of us parting the poppy sea. And despite the ice trickling down my neck at the camera’s click, I smile. Because this is the kernel of my existence: for him to see himself clearly, I would do anything.

We leave the poppy field behind and I lead them up the hill. For a while speaking becomes difficult from the climb and, in my case, from what the hill means.

“I’m very curious to see where you’re taking us,” Aiden says in perfectly even tone, despite carrying a rucksack full of metal, while the rest of us are huffing and puffing.

“We’re almost there.”

As I say the words, however, a current of panic courses through me. Was this a good idea for Aiden? Will it trigger anything? I stumble at the thought but he catches me gently at the elbow. “Careful, love.”

“How are you feeling?” I ask him.

He frowns at my sudden question. “As I always do with you. Calm. Why?”

“Just checking.”

I hesitate where I am—wanting this deeply, but also wanting only happy memories for him. Javier and Reagan stop with us, clutching their sides. I contemplate turning around, but then, right above us, a beam of sun breaks over the summit. A single, brilliant ray like a halo over the crest. It blinds me to everything else, even the three people next to me, and I start climbing in a trance, as though the beam is a gravitational string made of the most dazzling starlight, pulling me to the peak. I can’t hear Aiden, Javier, or Reagan behind me—I can’t hear anything. Just Mum’s voice crooning like in our home movies, “keep going, Elisa.”  My feet gather speed like last time and I break into a run. The wind flings my hair, the sun blinds my eyes, but I’m air. Just air trying to float to the heavens above. Then with one leap, I’m on the tiny crest meadow.

Under the cypress tree, the white marble tombstone glimmers and sparkles like always. And, as always, I can’t breathe.

Aiden reaches me in a blink. I know because even though my eyes are fixed on the shimmery grave, I sense his presence like a shield right next to me. It blasts away the chills, releases my lungs, and fortifies my knees. He doesn’t speak, but he wraps his strong arm around my shoulders, holding me up, standing so close that I only have to tilt my head and it leans on him. And all the grief, all this implacable loss, all this anguish are also now resting on him, on his iron shoulders carrying this sorrow with me. The agony splits by half so my knees don’t give out like they did when I last came here. My body doesn’t break into dry sobs. And my voice doesn’t disappear. I can stand, I can breathe, I can form thought, even if I can’t speak.

Javier and Reagan appear to my right. I feel Reagan’s hand on my hair and Javier’s fingers around mine. And the climbing roses on the marble flutter with the breeze. Hello.

“Hello,” I whisper back.

The rose buds have now opened into white miniature rosettes, each like a smile, flittering with a “come here” gesture. It releases my feet and I walk to the tomb on my own power. The roses sway when I reach them. I notice our four shadows fall over the sparkling stone, the tallest right next to me. Below the roses, on the marble is the vial of dried rose and Aiden’s dog tags that I last left here. I can’t blink away from my parents’ names to look at him. I test the words in my mouth before I speak. They’re there, I just have to breathe.

“Mum, Dad,” I tell them even though I know they cannot hear. “This is Aiden . . . and Reagan and Javier.”

The rosettes wave.

The first sound registers in my ears. Reagan’s sniffle. I watch her shadow remove the hat, Javier’s shadow pat her shoulder, and Aiden’s shadow pull mine close, his arms folding around me until our two shadows become one that looks like a distorted heart.

Other sounds enter then. Aiden’s strong heartbeat, thudding fast like mine. The warble of the lark that lives in the cypress tree. The whoosh of the hilltop wind. And more words come.

“This place is where they had their first date,” I say, noticing my voice is not a whisper anymore, just a quiet key.

“It’s beautiful,” all three of them answer in unison.

“The four of us are the only ones alive who know that.”

None of them says anything but strangely it’s as though their silence finally allows me to talk in this place. Actually talk. “Everyone in town thought I had gone mental insisting they rest here, away from everything. Of course, I was mental so they gave in to me. I think it turned out well. I think they like this.”

“Of course they do,” says Reagan.

“I brought them something this time. This American Beauty rose from all of us. Will you help me plant it here?”

And they do. I hear Aiden unzip the rucksack, no doubt realizing the racket inside was a hand spade and shovel, a large stainless steel water bottle, and a bag of enriched dirt.  We start then—all four of us together. Javier’s callused hands, Reagan’s delicate alabaster ones, Aiden’s strong fingers, and mine that look exactly like Mum’s. We dig the small hole in the grass at the foot of the marble, and I lower the seedling into it, covering its delicate roots with dirt and watering it. We use the rest of the water to wash our hands. In the end, the little seedling sways in the breeze.

“Want to sit here for a while?” I invite them, eyes still on the stone. “I know it’s strange but . . . it’s the only time I’ve actually been able to truly visit.”

As one, they sink on the grass around the seedling with me. After a while, we start chatting, not an involved conversation—just bits of thought and feeling. Javier draws a rough sketch of the cottage and tucks it with the rose vines. Reagan digs her favorite British toffee out of her purse and places it on the marble. And Aiden opens his wallet and takes out a familiar strip of waxy paper—“Love me for love’s sake only”—the very first quote Baci chocolates gave him on our embargo day. To my utter shock, a smile finds me here. He has kept it all this time and now secures it under the vial of his dog tags and dried rose.

I look up at his face, recalling my fear of whether this would trigger bad memories for him. But he is entirely here with me, from his tender eyes to his hands like strongholds around my waist. And this moment will live on in him, with every pixel of ache and beauty.

“This isn’t a happy memory for you,” I say.

“It’s better than that. It’s precious.”

“I’m sorry about the dog tags. I was trying to leave you behind. You should have them back.” I try to get out of his hold but his arms tighten around me like a fortress.

“Don’t think about that now. Let them stay here, in this special place with your parents. Hopefully that part of me will be at rest, too.”

H-o-p-e again. I look at the seedling, feeling something germinate in my lungs and wind up my throat like the rose’s tendril. It’s a singular, curious sensation—like a tickle, wrapped in warmth, swarming with butterflies. Light like a breeze, yet mighty too, as though it could parachute me straight up. I try to understand what it is. Sunrays shatter into millions of crystals around the epitaph: “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Love conquers all. And I find a name for the tendril. Odd that I should find it here in this place with so much pain, loss, and time long gone. A place of so many four-letter words.

“I hope it does,” I answer Aiden a little late. Here, by my most tragic loss, H-O-P-E joins my side. Or perhaps I join it.

The way back down the hill is easier. Not just physically, but emotionally too. So different than the two other times I’ve stumbled down this trail. By the time we’ve reached the open fields again, I feel light—like the tendril of hope is parachuting me above ground.

“Feeling a little better?” Aiden asks as we stroll across the poppy field back to the cottage.

“Yes. I actually feel happy in an odd way. Everyone I love now has met each other.”

I smile at Reagan picking poppies ahead of us, while Javier opines that she should balance out the red only with dark grass. To which she replies, “you should balance out your dark grass with red.”

“Good one, Reg,” I cheer for her under my breath as she fluffs her flame of red curls. But her euphemism flies right over Javier’s raven-black waves.

“Elisa?” Aiden pulls me by the elbow. I look up at him, tripping to a stop not because of his gentle hold, but because of his face. It’s always stunning but there are some moments, like right now, when it looks surreal.

“Yes?” I breathe.

“How would you feel about meeting my parents?”

Can one trip while standing perfectly frozen? Seems like I can. “What?”

He smiles patiently, giving me time to process.

“Are you serious?”

“Very.”

“B-but . . . they’re in Portland.” Of all the thoughts scrambling in my brain, this is the one my mouth picks.

He chuckles. “Elisa, to meet you, they’d swim over, let alone take a flight.”

“They know about me?” Maybe I should sit down, if I could move.

“They do. I told them after you left when I asked them to shelter the Solises.”

He gives me another moment to process, which is good because I need it. Aiden has isolated his parents since he attacked his mother when he returned from Iraq twelve years ago. Our conversation about this during the drive to his Alone Place might as well be blaring through foghorns over the poppy field. He doesn’t see them—only speaks to them occasionally by phone or other safe methods of communication that do not expose them to his startle reflex and him to the excruciating memory of hurting his own mum.

“I . . . I didn’t realize you’re reconnecting with them,” I manage. “That’s wonderful, Aiden.”

He shrugs with a small smile. “You told me I can’t shut them out. You said someday they will be gone and nothing will be able to take my grief away.” He quotes my words verbatim, of course.  “I thought a lot about that after you left. And then seeing you just now, how close you still are to your parents even though they have passed, made me think you’re right about this too, like you have been about a lot of things.”

I stare at him, unable to voice all the emotion inside. When I still can’t speak, he continues. “I know it makes no practical sense for you to meet each other now if in eighty-nine days you and I . . .” His eyes fall on the immediate goose bumps that sprout on my arms and he rubs them gently. “But somehow that makes it even more important that you meet. That we try this normal life thing to the fullest.”

Finally my brain is able to string together the biggest question—the one that is ruling them all. “Do you want me to meet them? Or is this for me . . . or Corbin?”

“All three. I find that I want you to know them, and them you. I want them to meet the woman I love, no matter what happens in the end. I really haven’t given them many moments of joy in life as a son should. And I might never be able to, except this time with you.”

Except now—this present moment we may never get again.

“And I suppose I thought you would want this, too,” he adds. “To meet everyone we love. Do you?”

His question—as though he still cannot believe I would want every speck of him, let alone such a core part—releases my words. “Of course I do, Aiden. I’d love to meet your parents. I just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, not because you feel you have to do it for me.”

The dimple winks in his cheek, lifting his beautiful mouth into a moon of a smile. “This is the right thing for me. You’re teaching me that—you take these memories in life, no matter how ugly and you make them beautiful. I guess I want to do the same.”

“Well then,” I take his hand in both of mine as I did yesterday. “Let’s welcome your parents.”

He laughs with that pure waterfall sound. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

He runs his hand through his hair, looking around like he wishes someone was close to hear this. But Reagan and Javier are in the distance, plopped under the shade of an enormous oak, waiting for us. Aiden laughs again. “Fuck, I better give a heads-up to my mother’s cardiologist. She might need him.”

He tucks my arm in his and we start walking again. His step is quicker, lighter somehow.

“So when would they come?” I ask, nerves already starting to creak. How will it be meeting the genetic forces that created Aiden? What do they think of our experiment? Of their only son being in this far-flung village, thousands of miles away in another fight for his future, maybe even life?

“Well, if it were up to my mother, they’d get here tomorrow. But I was thinking it might be better after Reagan and Javier leave, so you can have something to look forward to. That way, we’ll also have family and friends around for about half of the summer.”

The easier half. He knows neither of us will be in any shape for company during the second half as the ninety days run out. “Very thoughtful.”

“What’s that in your voice? Are you nervous?”

“A little bit.”

He laughs. “Don’t worry—I’ll keep my mother in check.”

“No, don’t. She must miss you so much. Let this be special for her too,” I tell him, unable to ask my hardest question. But his inconveniently observant eyes have already seen it.

“So if that’s not worrying you, what is?” He tips up my face so I can look into his eyes and, on cue, the question blurts out.

“What do your parents think about us being together? With everything we have to overcome, I mean.” With how much there is at stake if we don’t, I add in my head. He must hear the unspoken part too because the tectonic plates shift in his eyes as he retrieves his answer.

“I won’t lie, they’re worried. Worried about both you and me if I were to . . . again. But they’re also ecstatic that I’ve found someone who has given me a reason to fight and take care of my health. So I’d describe it as joyful terror. A bit like us.”

Oddly his words make me smile despite the f-e-a-r. Because it’s similar to the reaction I see in Javier’s and Reagan’s eyes. And it’s the same reaction Mum and Dad would have had, of that I’m certain. Desolately terrified and deliriously happy—unable to help us with anything but their love. Could our families’ unconditional and undying love be a weapon? Could it help Aiden and me in the same mystical way that Für Elise does—ways science can’t explain because they’re written in the stars?

“And if you’re also nervous about whether my parents will like you—although I cannot imagine your brain forming such a ridiculous thought—of course they will. How could they not?” adds the man who literally has Javier’s magic filter over my face.

“Hmm,” is the only answer I give him.

“Is that an Aidenism?”

“Definitely.”

He laughs, clueless that my brain is more than capable of such questions. Will they like me? What do they think of their son falling for someone with her own trauma? Someone who lives so far away? Someone who—if they knew the full truth—believed their son to be such a monster that she left him and wasted his one million dollars?  But none of my insecurities matter in this bigger constellation we are charting. They’re trivial compared to the brightest thing: Aiden is letting more love in his life.

“All right, tell me more about your parents. Robert and Stella. Tell me everything.”

“Well, this is their last year before retirement . . .” he starts as we make our way to Reagan and Javier. I listen to every word, picking some wilted poppies. No reason to end the young, pretty ones. But wilted poppies have their own beauty too. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, but their swan necks have their own grace—they have survived the wind.

With each withered bloom, I tick off our new list of allies and weapons: our love, Aiden’s strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love if we can grow it, our families, the team of scientists, these mystical gifts from our stars—my calming effect from Javier’s genius, the protein from Dad, and Für Elise from Mum—and now H-O-P-E. Will they be enough for the unfathomable enemy before us, lurking, waiting to strike? Because strike it will.

“Why are you picking only the dead ones?” Aiden asks looking at the eleven wilted poppies I’ve collected.

“They’re not dead. They’re wise.”

He laughs again, and I listen to the sound floating free over the poppy field with the gentle breeze. I add a twelfth withered poppy—laughter has to be a weapon too.

“You two look like you belong in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Jane Austen novel,” Reagan grins when we reach the two of them under the oak tree.

“Shakespeare was an idiot,” I respond.

All three of them lecture me about my issues with the overrated fool all the way home. But they did not hear the chilling whisper that deafened my ears despite my bouquet of allies and the tendril of hope: these violent delights and have violent ends.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 14 – SLEEP

Hi all,

Of all the chapters I’ve written about Aiden and Elisa, this one is the closest to my heart. I hope it is the same for you too. Enjoy and thank you as always for reading, commenting, and following. xo, Ani

 

14

Sleep

The last time the cottage was this crowded and cheery was when Mum and Dad invited thirty of their Oxford friends for a Christmas toast three weeks before the accident. Sure, now there are only six of us, but Aiden, James, and Benson are so tall and muscular for the cottage that each of them counts for at least three professors or seven Grahams. Benson in fact is sitting on cushions on the floor, too self-aware to risk crushing the small furniture, for which I’m grateful. Javier is in my dad’s armchair, laughing and clinking ale mugs with Benson, and my eyes keep flitting to him every few minutes. How perfectly the universe can reform—some new stars find the orbit of the older ones, gravitating there so naturally, it feels as though the old and the new stars merge, neither gone, both shining. And then there is Reagan perched on Mum’s chair, playing with her new hat purchases. She quibbles with Javier about whether she will be able to fit them all in her suitcases (“you’ve lost your mind, Reg, it’s spatially impossible.” “I’ll just pack them in your suitcases then; I’m sure your T-shirts will love some diversity.” “My T-shirts are vintage, thank you, they say soul.” “They say bored.”) The two of them sound like a young version of the Plemmonses—a star pair that is not arriving perhaps because the ancient stars are still blinking. Then there are James and Aiden—bold twin stars—taking up the whole sofa so that the only place left for me is on Aiden’s lap, rotating around him like a moon. And that place suits me just fine. Because his arms are around me, and the sound of his deep voice reverberates through the crisp linen of his shirt and the thin cotton of my dress straight into my heart. His waterfall laughter at James’ jokes is my favorite star frequency: every time it breaks over him and his ribcage pushes against mine, my own lungs vibrate with his carefree sound. Every so often, his fingertips brush my leg inconspicuously, or his lips press on my hair, or his hand tightens on my hip—a silent conversation we are having, a postscript to the chatter around us. You ok? Yes, you? Perfect with you on me. Sleep is almost here. I know, love, present moment. I like this present moment. One of my favorites, too.

And all around us is the stardust—wiped clean plates of Javier’s carnitas, ale mugs and bottles, Mum and Dad’s vinyl records playing oldies, their photographs on the walls sprinkling smiles above our heads, and the rose-scented breeze wafting through the windows.

Life restarts. Even for me.

“I better go pack to take the suitcases at the hotel. Sounds like my T-shirts are about to be evicted.” Javier stands, clueless of Reagan’s emerald eyes following him.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Aiden and follow Javier upstairs. Except in my case, every cell of me feels Aiden’s gaze climbing these stairs with me.

Javier is rolling up his T-shirts into tight balls when I walk into the guest room filled with roses. For a moment I wish we could all just sleep here on top of each other, like children at summer camp. Aiden and Javier would find a way to protect us. Except my playtime with Aiden would give Javier a stroke.

“Hey, amorcita,” he grins at me. I walk straight into his arms, and he hugs me, tugging my hair. “What’s up?”

“Nothing, I just love you. Thank you for accepting Aiden like you did.”

He plops on the bed, patting the spot next to him. When I perch there, he takes my hands in his.

“Isa, you’re smiling.”

“Yes.”

“And you love Aiden.”

“More than anything.”

“And he loves you like a lunatic, that’s obvious.”

“Yes, he does.”

“And you’re scared.”

“Yes.” I whisper so quietly, afraid of speaking the word into this new reformed universe until I finish my protein.

Javier throws his arm over my shoulders—his peppermint smell so much like Dad’s after-eights in the library downstairs. “You know, I’m scared for both of you, too. But remember that Spartan warrior painting we saw at the Portland Art Museum? Well, Aiden makes that dude look like a wimp. Isa, he mobilized the U.S. Congress for me. Can you imagine what he would do for you? I think he loves you so much, he’d rather die than lose this fight. We just have to keep the faith, amorcita.”

Chills whip over my skin and my throat twists shut so abruptly I can’t breathe. The new universe is cruel in its beauty too, aligning with vicious symmetry my brother and Aiden’s brother to say on the same day that our love could finish Aiden.

Then I’d die with him, too, I answer Javier in my head—Romeo and Juliet’s love moving the stars and sun now, not Dante’s words. I don’t know what that end would look like, but I know I heard that boulder prophecy because it’s inside me. Because death can look different than a dagger to the chest or poison to the lips, can’t it? Sometimes the surest death is the one that tears apart your very heart.

“And now you two have all of us,” Javier continues when I say nothing. “Aiden is gathering the forces, sweetheart, he knows how to fight. And Reg and I can stay longer or come back if you need us until you two sort this out. Okay?”

I like the sound of that. Keeping them all here with me. But this reminds me.

“What about you, Javi?” I use Reagan’s nickname for him intentionally. “Where are we going to find you one of these big loves?”

He chuckles. “Oh, you know me, I’ll just draw her.” And he starts rolling up his T-shirts again. I help him pack, biting my lip. How do you make someone so loving see love through a different prism?

“She might be real,” I say, folding his socks into balls.

“Yea, and I’m sure the first guy all real girls want is a recent inmate with no college degree, four little sisters, and a paralyzed dad to care for. Isa, Aiden’s love has made you drunk.” He zips up his suitcase, tugs my hair again, and walks out of the room.

“You are rare,” I call behind him but, if he hears me, he doesn’t answer. Why do all good men hate themselves? This will be my next protein if I survive: self-love.

I pick up a T-shirt Javier forgot to pack and hug it. Here is the price of living in the shadows all your life: even when you come out into the light, you cannot see it. If an entire system treats you like nothing, you will believe you are nothing even when you are so many somethings that mean more than everything.

I grab one of the vases of fresh roses and make my way down the hall to the bedroom where Aiden and I will sleep tonight. Every part of me tingles. I change the sheets so he has fresh ones for his first sleep with someone. The new sheets have a faint scent of the dried rose sachets Mum used for our drawers. I sniff at it deeply. Help us, Mum. Help us with your magic. I set the vase of roses on his nightstand, fill the pitcher with fresh water, and place a Baci next to it.

Downstairs, Benson and James are helping Javier and Reagan with their suitcases and Aiden with his, in this little exchange of guests that will give me my dream tonight and hopefully give Reagan a chance.

“I better head out too,” James says. “Early day tomorrow.”

“James, wait. I have something for you,” I tell him and flit to my Dad’s library.

When I come back out, they are all filing out of the door, laughing about Benson needing to exit sideways. James is not in much better shape; he has to duck so he doesn’t hit his head against the doorframe. He and Aiden are laughing on the threshold and I wish I had my phone to capture it. Or to have eidetic memory just for Aiden’s laughter in this moment—a man-to-man smirk, some synaptic bond forged in the fires of Iraq that will always elude me. Or maybe it’s just another dick joke.

“Here you go.” I hand James the package when I reach them. “Sorry about the girly rose paper. Everything is made of roses here.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Elisa. Cal is really a woman.” Aiden chuckles and pulls me against his side. James tears the paper with what might be a smile—it’s hard to tell with the Viking beard.

“A book?” He sounds perplexed.

“Not just any book. It’s my Dad’s secret fly-fishing guide about River Spey. And that bookmark is his favorite fly he fished there. He said he always hooked something with it. I hope that river gives you better fish than this one did.”

Aiden’s hand tightens on my waist as James pats my shoulder. My knees buckle under the weight of his hand. “You’re a little pest, aren’t you? Making me like you and shit. Well, thank you. I’ll let you know how it goes when we get back.” Then he turns to Aiden. “You are fucked.” And with another barking laugh, he follows Javier, Reagan, and Benson into the garden.

“See you in the morning, Isa.” Javier and Reagan wave, and the four of them disappear down the dark path to pile on Benson’s rental van across Elysium. And then all that’s left are the roses, the night, and my North Star.

I turn to him slowly, our bodies so close together on the small doorstep that our clothes and sneakers are already kissing. Half of him is candlelight gold from the foyer chandelier, the other half dark silver from the moon. He is watching me with a powerful emotion, too powerful for me to grasp, except a flicker of shyness in his eyes I have never seen before.

“That was very kind of you,” he says, and it’s there in his voice, too. A very rare note of nervousness for Aiden.

“James has been very kind to us.”

“Yes, he has,” he murmurs.

“Well then,” I answer, caressing his scar, tracing the L with my finger.

“There’s still time, love.” His knuckles brush against my cheek, and I know he is offering, maybe pleading, for another delay. But the urgency to live, to have every second of these ninety days together has become too potent for rational decisions, no matter how safe they might be.

“No, Aiden, there isn’t. The time is now.”

He smiles, tracing my lips with his thumb. “You are so brave, Elisa. You don’t need your protein at all.”

I want to tell him I’m not brave. I want to tell him how terrified I am. Terrified for him, for us. Terrified of the end, of these dark prophecies I hear in boulders and camera clicks. Terrified of missing a single blink of him. Terrified of everything. Except one.

“I’m never afraid of you,” I say, placing my hand over his heart. It’s thundering, and he shudders at my touch. “We are part of each other.”

His dark-and-light smile breaks over his face. And in a blink he bends and sweeps me off my feet into his arms.

“Bed,” he says over my squeal, exactly as he did in his homecoming war letter, and carries me over the threshold, kicking the door closed behind us.

I don’t know how he finds his way up the narrow stairs, soldered as our mouths are to each other, but he does it without hitting our heads once.

“Which door?” he asks against my lips at the landing, his breathing rough like mine.

“Behind me.”

He kicks it open and we both pause at this second threshold. I know the white king bed I just made with the rose quilt. The crystal lamps on the mahogany nightstands now holding fresh roses, the gauzy white curtains billowing with the evening breeze from the open window. I know them because they were my parents’, and now they are ours.

Aiden’s arms tighten around me. “Should I be expecting lightning bolts in addition to Mr. Plemmons’ cane?”

I giggle, bringing his mouth back to mine. “You barmy old fool. Don’t you know the roses will protect us?”

He laughs as he carries me over this threshold too and sets me down at the foot of the bed. “My dear Mrs. Plemmons, where do I start with you?”

But he knows exactly where to start. With his eyes that ignite a wildfire from the split ends of my hair to my curled toes. He stands right in front me, towering in his full height, and places his phone and other things I cannot bother to register on the dresser behind him. Then, eyes never leaving mine, he throws about six condoms on the bed next to me.

“In case we can’t sleep.” He winks while I check the condoms did not spontaneously combust. For the first time since I met him, I hope we only get to use one or two, three at most.

He steps out of his sneakers and socks, takes off his shirt, and removes his boxers and jeans—his body materializing inch after inch. My skin bursts into flames but I can’t blink away from him to check for smoke.

“I’ll never tire of that look,” he says, his smile pulling up his soft, cupid lips at the left corner while my breath stops completely.

“Come to me,” I mouth, my hands gripping the quilt in little fists.

He parts my sneakers slowly with his bare foot while the sight of his toes launches a blast of sparks to the bottom of my belly, and then kneels between my legs. My hips lurch forward to meet him, but his rests his palms on my knees, steadying the trembles that have already started.

“Slow,” he murmurs, and his hands trail down to my sneakers. He takes them off gently but wherever his fingertips touch, a new fire starts—around my ankle, at the tips of my toes, my heels. His fingers glide up now, light like the cool breeze wafting through the window. I try to feel only that breeze as a new flame erupts at each point of contact. He peels off my dress but even the brush of the soft cotton against me makes me shiver. Everything feels more intense than any other time between us—the fire, his touch, his smell—I don’t understand why. Is it because in so many ways this is like our first night? Is it because we’re here in my home, in this bedroom? Is it because of the day we had, just Aiden and me with people we love and no rules? I don’t know, but my head starts to whirl as the dress finally slips off and his face is so close that his breath warms my lips. Even his beauty is more intense—my eyelids flutter as though I’m staring into the star’s very halo. I find the cool breeze again and open my eyes. It’s good and bad. Good because I can’t miss a blink of tonight. Bad because the fire in his eyes doubles my burning.  His fingertips trace the lace of the bra—the one that matches his eyes—and it snaps off, releasing a wisp air into my lungs, which disappears in seconds again as he slides the lace straps off my shoulders, down my arms, and onto the floor.

“Ah, all of this under your dress,” he says, brushing his knuckles lightly like feathers over my breasts. A shudder rips through me and I almost flop backwards on the bed but he catches me and lays me down gently. “Better?” he asks, climbing between my legs, parting them with his knee.

“Closer,” I whisper, unsure whether I’m ordering or answering him. The ceiling is twirling. I catch the breeze again, but his eyes descend over me like fire, from my lips to the precise center between my legs where the flames are spiraling into a pulsating fireball. My hips arch of the bed straight into his waiting hands.

“These are torturing us both, aren’t they?” His fingers hook under the lace of my knickers, and he slides them off slowly. Then he bends down, skimming his nose exactly where the knickers were.  “Ah,” he sighs as my hips try to fly off again but he is prepared for that. His grip has secured them to the mattress. I can’t move. I search for the cool breeze but I can only feel his nose circling the little inferno and then tracing a straight line upward, over my belly, between my breasts, along my throat until his body covers mine, the dusting of hair like live wires against my skin.

“Aiden, please!” I gasp, trying to twine my arms and legs around him, but he has tangled them with his. His thigh is pressing between mine firmly, making every cell throb. I reach for him with the only things I can move, my lips. But the moment our mouths touch, his lips brush along my jawline to my ear.

“Slow, love, I want to take this slow.” His teeth graze my earlobe. How can I have chills up here and raging fires down there?

“But I might set the cottage on fire.”

I feel his smile as he kisses the spot below my ear. “You don’t think I’d ever let you burn, do you?”

I’m already cinder, I want to say, but he gives me his mouth. I drink him in like he is a spring of glacier water. He makes each second last a minute, an hour, until I no longer count time between his body and mine. I measure time with us—flesh intervals between blistering heartbeats. Our mouths and tongues move together, taste bud to taste bud. If I live a million years and sample the world, I still will not be able to describe Aiden’s taste. Or the way his tongue moves like it’s alive. The way it knows my mouth, the way it catches all my syllables and sighs.

“I missed your taste, Elisa. I know it better than mine,” he murmurs against my lips, stealing all my words, as his fingers start a stroll of their own. Tracing along each blue vein that is hurtling lifeblood to all the fires. Gliding over each curve, goose bump to goose bump.

“And your skin, so soft, so warm, like a welcome.” His fingers trace the inside of my thigh, each fingertip a spark, while his mouth glides down my throat, dropping kisses like hot plumes on my feverish skin. Then in a blink, he brushes his knuckles between my legs. I roll frantically against his hand as the inferno starts spreading little licks of flames everywhere waist down.

“You are my home,” he continues, and his mouth closes on a nipple at the same time his fingers slide in. I cry out his name—it zooms around the room and out the window like I’m his homing beacon. Because he is right. My body molds to his fingers exactly like it was built for his hand. And his fingers move like they know every threshold, every secret nook, every spot of warmth. My hips move with them, umbilically corded to him. When his fingers circle, so do my hips, when he presses down, they tilt. His fingers say come here and my hips listen. His fingers tap and my hips shimmy and shiver.

In the same path, his mouth trails over my belly, planting wet kisses lower and lower until finally it closes around me with the same pressure as his fingers. Each flick of the tongue rings a doorbell. Each circle of his fingers is a knock. And my legs fall open like doors at his arrival. My foundations start to shake exactly as in his war letter.

“What took you so long?” I whimper the words he wrote.

I feel his smile against me, his lips opening with mine. I hook my fingers in his hair—support beams for the earthquake of his homecoming. The pressure of his mouth increases. Flicks, circles, kisses. My whole body is aquiver. Each wall and chamber shakes, and I don’t know: is he the one arriving or am I the one going home? It doesn’t matter though because either way I free-fall. Spiraling, each nerve an epicenter, earthquakes radiating from my eyelids to my curled toes. Then everything crumbles and I’m gone.  With his name on my lips, exactly as he wrote.

Aiden, Aiden, Ai-den.

Somehow he puts me back together. He rebuilds me with soft, hushing kisses. He pastes the crumbles with his tongue, resets the plaster with his lips over my breasts, my throat, my jaw, my cheeks. His hands mold the foundations back together, flesh brick after flesh brick. And his fingers etch all my curves, cinching my waist, rounding my hips, arcing over my neck. His mouth on my mouth is a door. His tongue on my tongue, a garden path. His eyes on my eyes are windows. Until piece after piece, my body builds again. For him.

And he is on top of me, but I don’t feel his weight. Only his heated skin, the sagebrush of his hair, and the hardened lines of his body. Here and there, his muscles twitch like a wink.

“Hi,” I tell him, running my fingers through his hair. He shudders.

“Hi.” His voice is husky and gravelly with his own need.

“That was some homecoming.”

He smiles as another shudder ripples through him. “I haven’t come . . . home. Yet.” I get lost in his darkened, hooded eyes. No, he hasn’t. This was all for me.

“Then come,” I say, twining my arms and legs around him.  “Come home like you do in your letters.”

I grasp him with my hands the way he has shown me. He surges forward and a droplet of liquid bubbles on him like a diamond. On impulse, I brush it with the tip of my finger like he does with my tears and bring the finger to my mouth. Ah, the taste. I open my eyes that I did not know I had closed to reach for more but he has transformed. Half-animal, half-man. A deep growl whirls in his chest. The sound vibrates straight down to my epicenter, and my hips lurch up to meet him. For a precious blink, I brush up against him, skin on skin. But he’s too fast. In another blink he’s covered.

“I loathe using this with you,” he hisses with venom.

I loathe it too. Every cruel latex atom of it. “Monday . . . pill . . . me,” is all I can manage because in another syllable, he is inside, and words become scrambled. An anagram of his name and moans. I arch toward him, but he locks down my hips.

“All of me,” he says, his voice dark and guttural.  He secures my legs around his waist and rises up on his knees until the only parts of me left on the bed are my head and shoulders. Everything else is pressed against him. But despite his support, my body is shaking. I grip his wrists for balance, trying to breathe through the feeling of him this far, in this new upside-down.

“Beautiful, Elisa,” he says gently despite the strain in his voice. “Hold on to me. Breathe.”

But my lungs are not working—every part of me is full. Full of him, full of trembles, full of fire. It takes several heartbeats for me to find air.

“There,” he says, watching, noticing every movement of my body. “Now, you breathe, I’ll move. And when I do this . . .” he pushes a little further into me, causing my breath to stop again. “You do that.” His fingers tap my hips, teaching me how to relax.

It takes a lot more heartbeats for my body to open to him like this. More of his patience, his gentle instruction, a shift here, a tilt there, a pause to let me adjust. But no pain—never that. Only us expanding, taking each other into our deepest parts, and locking each other there in a hermetic touch.

“Perfect. Now hold. Feel.” His voice is rough, sliced between his teeth. “It’s just all of you and all of me. Farther than we’ve ever been. Isn’t that beautiful?”

It is, I want to say. It’s exactly as it should be. But I’m beyond things like speech. The only sounds that come out are garbled sighs, but he must understand because his hands tighten on my shaky hips.

“Now this,” he says, pushing into me. “Is my home.”

Welcome, I think. Welcome, welcome, welcome. But all that comes out is “mmm.”

“I’m going to move now, love. Stop me if it’s too much.”

And Aiden starts to move. Gently at first while I vibrate, trying not to faint. Then his rhythm picks up. Some moves are slow but so deep we both stop breathing. Others are faster, quick and shallow like our gasps. Then he combines them, shallow-slow, shallow-fast, deep-slow, deep-fast—his tempo rising until I get lost. Lost in the darkness of my shut eyes. In the space between breaths. In the feeling of our bodies fused so close together, I no longer know where he ends and I begin. There are several heartbeats when I have no sense of direction or time. Only fragments of awareness between thrusts.  As though each time he moves inside me, he sends an electric current to my mind, bringing me back. But then abruptly there is a change. My body catches up, finds a new bubble of space, and molds around him. No struggle, no ache, just wavelets of pleasure lapping against him as though I’m the sea and he is the shore.

He feels the change too. “Ah, Elisa,” he moans and then starts to move with abandon. With perfect clarity, my senses absorb everything this time. The sound of our voices, the words we gasp to each other. The harsh breathing tearing the air. His mouth, his shut eyes. The ripples that descend over him. And the end begins for us both. My body breaks first in the most intense climax I’ve ever had. It palpitates so violently, my fingers grasp Aiden, the quilt, the pillow, my own hair. With each final move of his, a new wave of convulsions starts, so powerful that for an instant, I think I’m turning inside out. An overwhelming sensation builds at the very bottom of my belly, like a surge, and I explode in every way. My breath becomes a cry, tears spring in my eyes, and my insides liquefy at the same time that I hear his homecoming—my name—and we both collapse in a quivering mass on the mattress.

And then there is nothing.

I don’t know for how long. But eventually I start drifting between reality and non-reality. Reality is a vague sensation of movement and sound, but I can’t say what or how. Non-reality is stillness, as though my body has shut down for universal rest. But I know even in that restful state that there is something stronger coming, something more intimate, something so special, I have been waiting for perhaps all my life. So I hold sleep at bay, inch by inch, and focus on the one thing I know is real. Aiden next to me. Holding on to him with every sense, I realize we are lying on the bed, he is cradling me over his chest, and his heart is deafening in my ear. At that precise moment, I register my own heartbeat galloping in the same rhythm. I hear his harsh breathing at the same time that I find my lungs. And I smell his Aiden scent at the same time that I catch the rose breeze from the window.  Then with a last shove against sleep, I open my eyes.

Aiden has one arm over his face as the other one flexes and twitches around me. I think he just mouthed holy fuck. Tremors still ripple through him like aftershocks, as they do with me. He seems equally unable to lift any body part. His chest is rising and falling at the same speed as mine.

He finds his voice before me, though, even if it is just to rasp, “Hi.”

“Hi.” My voice is just as hoarse.

“I think we’re alive.”

“Can you die from orgasms?”

“That one came close.”

“I think I might have fainted at some point.”

“I’d never allow that.”

“Is it . . . does it . . . is it normal for it to feel like this? So intense?”

“Never for me.”

I think about this new word for us. Never. I was crediting his sex talent for this experience, but it sounds like it’s neither him, nor me. It’s us together. And it’s a good feeling—this rare conviction that, no matter all else that’s against us, in this one aspect of our love, we are a perfect match. No matter how this ends, if they ever were to write stories about us, they would say our physical love moved stars and suns. Even if our storybook would be next to Romeo and Juliet.

“Will you do me a favor?” I ask him.

He turns his head to look at me, questions in his eyes, but I lose my train of thought seeing his face for the first time since his homecoming. A destructive beauty has fallen over him. His pupils are dark and dilated still, but a halo of light is illuminating the irises as they change color before my incredulous eyes until they become the luminous shade of turquoise that belongs irrevocably to me. His lips are darker too from my biting. His skin is flushed, the gold almost bronze.

“Anything,” he says.

“If we make it through these ninety days together, will you tell me about this night some day? I’m losing parts of it already.”

His smile is dizzying. Exactly that. It makes my head spin. “I promise,” he says, cupping my cheek. “If we make it, when I’m eighty-five with a cane and still trying to find a way to make love to you, I will say, ‘my dear Mrs. Plemmons, there was this one night on June sixteen, fifty years ago, when you were so spry you brought a Marine to his knees.’ And you will laugh and say, ‘you crackpot fool, I’m still spry, but you don’t have any knees.’”

I giggle. “I’ve decided that’s what we will dream tonight. You and your cane, chasing me about.”

The dizzying smile softens until it becomes a melancholy kiss at the corner of his mouth. “What a beautiful dream.”

He holds my gaze like gravity. It changes the moment, the room, the night. A different electricity hums between us. Serious, full of unsaid things, full of spoken and unspoken dreams, full of always and never, full of every night gone and every night still ahead, and every single moment in between. Full of this small chance for big things.

Full of dangerous things too—his h-o-p-e, his f-e-a-r for me and my f-e-a-r for him, full of d-a-r-e, of t-i-m-e left and t-i-m-e lost, full of this brand new h-o-m-e we are building inside each other.

Full of his all and my all.

They suspend here in this moment between us—hanging on the balance of what happens tonight and for the rest of the summer.

He does not release my eyes. Shyness flickers again in the blue depths, and I grasp that flicker is the essence of young Aiden. The little boy who was given an almighty gift at such a tender age. There was shyness there once, before memories, war, and torture stole it. But they didn’t take it all. Somehow, in his vast mind, he knew to hold on to this small flicker of virtue, of innocence. He knew to keep this part only to himself. For thirty-five long years until tonight.

I am abruptly overwhelmed by his trust in me. He is lying right here beneath me, mouth silent, eyes loud. In nothing but skin and completely mine. His vulnerability floats inside me and becomes protectiveness, pride. I sit up and place my hand over his heart. It’s still sprinting, and he shudders even at my lightest touch.

“Aiden, do you want to do this? Not because I want it or because Corbin thinks you should. Do you want this for yourself?”

His Aiden’s apple bobbles once, but when he speaks, his voice is clear. “I do.”

“Are you sure?”

He sits up too now so that we are face-to-face. “I am. I’ve waited all my life to sleep with you. And you’re finally here. My only hesitation is your safety.”

I caress his scar, his sculpted jaw, kissing his full lips lightly, feeling the pull between us, feeling it and resisting it. “Tell me how you pictured it,” I ask, my lips moving along his jaw to his ear. I kiss the spot below as he does with me. He winds his arm around my waist pulling me so close, my breasts brush against his chest.

“I haven’t allowed myself any fantasies about it, Elisa.”

The loneliness of the image pierces my heart. A desire so deep, so out of reach even his fantasies couldn’t catch it.

“Not even a single detail?” I brush my lips down his throat, kissing the dip there.

“Well . . . I suppose . . . I always thought I’d fall asleep with my face in . . . your hair.”

I kiss along his collarbone, waiting for the tears that have welled up to dry. Just my hair. That’s all he could give himself. My lips travel over his chest and kiss his heart.

“Don’t be afraid,” I tell him. “You won’t hurt me.”

He pulls up my face until we are mouth to mouth. His eyes are hooded, heavy with the same need I feel but he is resisting it like I am.

“I have an idea,” I say, pecking his lips, and climb out of the bed. The only rational brain cell left registers I’m already feeling sore; the rest of my mind is absorbed with his eyes that I sense on me and the old record player on the dresser. I find Beethoven’s and place it on the turntable. After a few scratches, Für Elise starts.

When I turn to him, he is smiling with his dimple. I hold out my hand, palm up.

“Aiden, may I have this dance?”

The smile becomes a grin. He rises with his usual grace and takes my hand. Then we sway to my song—skin on skin, our bare feet together on the worn rug. His lips in my hair, my lips on his heart, arms like rose vines around each other.

“Are you romancing me, Elisa?”

“Yes, Aiden, I am.”

“I’m a sure thing, you know.”

“You’re the opposite of a sure thing. You’re impossible to me in every way.”

I’ve stunned him speechless but not motionless. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine, holding me tight against him, burying his face in my hair, and we dance. I memorize his steps to the familiar notes. Right, right, right, left, left, turn. His feet move so effortlessly to the melody that has become his lullaby, it’s as though he is playing the piano with our steps. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He twirls me on the final bridge, our laughter trilling with the tune. And on the last note, he dips me over his arm, kissing his favorite spot at the end of my jawline.

“Thank you for the dance,” I say when I’m upright.

“Thank you for the memory.”

In the silence that follows, the willows are playing their own lullaby with the river. Wishes. Wishes. I sense he needs a moment to himself so I start straightening the bed that is a tangle from our homecoming. When I finish, I pull back the covers for him in invitation. “They’re clean,” I assure him. “Except the mess we just made, but it’s all us.”

“Perfect.”

He must like our mess because he grabs his things from the dresser with speed and flits over to his side—no hesitation on his step or voice anymore. When he sees the Baci on his nightstand, he smiles.

“Is this for now or morning?”

“Whenever you want.”

“Morning then,” he says, looking at the chocolate with more emotion than Baci gets from people who are not me. “Is the vase of the Elisas for me too?”

“Yes. I tried to put only happy memories here for you.”

“I have everything I need for happiness right here in this room.”

He pours a glass of water from the pitcher, takes out a small red pill from his wallet, and swallows it. I thank science in my head for giving us this chance, even if it needs to be combined with magic we do not understand. Like my song’s effect on him. He taps his phone and Für Elise starts again, lower now, like background music.

“Will this bother you? It’s programmed to replay until my alarm goes off.”

“Aiden, I’d listen to heavy metal all night if it keeps you asleep.”

He grins. “Lucky for you, nothing else works. Just your song.”

“Will you tell me how you discovered it?”

“Nope. Only happy memories enter this room tonight.”

And hopefully every other night. With our eyes on each other, Aiden and I climb into bed together. Side by side, face-to-face, our pillows touching, our knees touching, our forearms touching. We don’t turn off the side lamps; neither of us wants to miss any detail tonight.

“Will you do me a favor?” he asks, knotting his fingers with mine.

“Anything.”

“You will be careful, right? You will put your safety above all else, including me?”

As if I could ever separate my safety from his. As if could ever tell him no. “I will.”

“And you remember what that means?”

“Yes. No startling you awake, no touching if you’re having a nightmare, add love.”

He chuckles with a sound like the piano. “Add love,” he repeats, bringing his mouth to mine. His lips move in perfect harmony to the music. “Do you remember the morning we played this together?” he murmurs.

“Yes,” I whisper against his lips. “On your piano.”

He turns me around slowly until my back is against his chest, and kisses along my jawline. “You were so new and innocent . . . yet so familiar.” His lips press right below my ear. “And do you know what I was thinking?”  Lips brushing over my shoulder to the tip of my shoulder. He nips at it gently.

“No,” I sigh.

“I was thinking . . .” Hands around my breasts in the languid rhythm of the melody. “I must be asleep.” Lips pressing soft kisses like piano notes over my neck. “I dreamt her in war . . . ” He returns to my mouth. “And now she is bringing me peace . . .” His tongue plays Für Elise, while his fingers tap my nipples like piano keys. “And that’s why your music keeps me asleep . . . because when I played it with you . . . I didn’t want to wake up . . . how about that, Elisa?”

I want to answer, I want to tell him so many things, but I am lost. Lost in the way his mouth plays my song. Lost in the way his long fingers flutter over the ivory of my skin. He synchronizes each touch to the melody. Each flick of the tongue is a note. Each caress of his fingers is an arpeggio. Each slow, gentle thrust is a bar of music. Trill after trill, chime after chime until my body arches against him during the last bridge, trembles during the legato, and we both snap like piano strings into a thousand notes of our own music, us and Elise finishing on the exact note. As he must have planned it to be.

He holds me like this against him as Für Elise restarts. I feel him pull out and discard the latex invader. He wraps his arms around me and buries his nose in the hair behind my ear. I fight sleep with all my strength and lay very still, feeling every tremor of our bodies fade, every gust of his breath in my hair. After another Für Elise, Aiden stills too, and his breathing slows and deepens.

“Oveu,” he murmurs and drifts into deep sleep.

I know exactly the moment when he is gone because his weight around me gets heavier. But I still don’t move. I just listen to the sound of his breath, counting each gentle waft on my neck. One puff of happiness. Two puffs of happiness. Three . . . On the one-hundred-fiftieth puff, Aiden rolls away, lying on his back, one arm still under my pillow. It’s then that I move. First one finger, then two, then my hand, turning slowly, inch by inch so I can see him.

Aiden thought I was a dream, but there is no better dream than the real him asleep. His face is relaxed under the muted light. The sharp planes are softer, the sculpted brow smooth. His lips are parted and his long lashes brush against his cheekbones, casting feathery shadows over his lucent skin. But there is heartbreak in his beauty too. How he has trained himself to sleep on his back, how tension still drapes over his shoulders like a quilt.

I memorize each breath and learn all his little sleeping quirks. Like the way he moves his lips softly sometimes as if he is tasting his sleep. Or the way his toes curl where they’re dangling off the bed.  Every so often, he gets an erection which, of course, for Aiden it’s visible through the quilt. I know this is normal for men, but I still wonder if my song is giving him pleasant dreams. I hope it is. I hope the snowball is shrinking even as he breathes. And through it all, Aiden stays asleep.  Five-hundred-ninety-nine puffs of happiness, six . . . My eyelids start to droop. In those last moments between awake and asleep, I sense the edge of a dream similar to this moment and I chase it. Because Aiden is there too, and in the dream I can touch him as much as I want. We’re in the same room, the same bed, but the light is weaker, flickering from candles, not side lamps. Aiden is asleep, but on his side, facing me. I place my hand on his chest. It’s cold like the river breeze has been blowing on him all night. A sense of unease creeps upon me. Something is missing. My fingers flutter in panic searching his chest. There is no heartbeat. Aiden? I call but no voice comes out. A scream builds from my throat, ripping through my vocal chords, without a sound. Aiden! Aiden! Aiden! The silent screams suffocate me as my fingers fly to his lips. But there’s no breath there—they’re cold, parted on a permanent kiss. I start kissing him, blowing all my breath into his mouth. Take it, take it, take it. But he doesn’t. I keep blowing, pushing against his heart. Will no one help me? Can no one hear? My hands race over him—what can I fix? What went so wrong? And then I see it. In his half-open hand is a vial from Bia. Full of lilac liquid. I did this. I did not make the protein of bravery on time. I take the vial out of his cold hand—kissing each icy fingertip. Maybe there’s an antidote. Maybe I can bring him back. The vial drops into my hand and shatters into smithereens, but the glass-dust spirals and reforms, changing into the glinting blade of a dagger in my hand. It turns like a compass toward my chest. And I plunge it there, straight into my heart.

I jolt up awake, gasping, the silent screams stuck in my throat like shards. I whirl to the real Aiden still here in bed with me, terrified I’ve startled him. But he is still sleeping peacefully on his back. I hover my fingers over his lips. His warm breath is even and strong. The pupils under his eyelids are racing with his own dream—hopefully a lot happier than mine. I know this is real because Für Elise is still playing, the date has changed to June seventeen, and my hand doesn’t go through the wall. But still I lean in, listening to his deep breath for a while, smelling his Aiden scent. As if he senses my terror even asleep, his lips do the little tasting thing again and he sighs. Very real. Very much alive.

I sink down on the bed, still gasping, eyes on him, unable to blink away. And that’s when I notice tears on my cheeks. Abruptly, I’m furious with myself. What a stupid nightmare to give myself on my first sleep with him. I brought this on like a bloody idiot by obsessing about random chocolate quotes, imagining prophecies out of inanimate objects, and pondering universe alignment in a day when I have been given nothing but gift after gift after gift, with the most beautiful gift of all still soundly asleep next to me, despite my sudden jolt and gasps. Yet another gift: Für Eliseand the medication work. Without them, Aiden would be wide awake right now, trying to comfort me—the lunatic girlfriend who dreamt him dead and killed herself in her sleep. I should be locked up. We should absolutely not rule out Burford Dementia Centre. I almost slap my own cheek. I had the best night of my life and had to ruin it with this. Well, no more. I make a vow here and now to have faith in this man who is working so hard for us even in his sleep, while I sit here useless, dreaming up Shakespearean tragedies. Who cares how terrified I am—I’ll work as hard as he, and not indulge these idiocies. I also vow never to breathe a word about this to Aiden and throw out Romeo and Juliet the first chance I get. I’m a bloody scientist, not a fucking oracle.

I shake my head, this time actually slapping myself, and rest my eyes on Aiden’s peaceful form. The only lines I know from the worst love story in the world still manage to slither like gnarly thorns, coiling around the hedgerows of my mind.

These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

Which, as they kiss, consume.

Shakespeare was a fellow idiot. I’ll stick with science, not literature, thank you very much. I toss my hair and the idiot’s rubbish lines with it. Present moment, Aiden would tell me now if he wasn’t sleeping beautifully, deeply, miraculously, trustingly next to me. And my present moment is made of cinnamon puffs of happiness, blowing gently on my skin. One puff, two, three . . . one thousand.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 13 – OPEN

Hey gang, new chapter for you! It has one of my favorite scenes in it, wonder if you’ll like it as well.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me–love hearing from you. I had some questions about whether Aiden & Elisa’s story will be finished in this book. Yes, it will–their love was always going to be two books. I think after you read the ending, you will agree. 🙂 Lots of love, and hope you’re having a great week. xo, Ani

13

Open

Three simultaneous things wake me up: a buzz from a phone, a feeling of electricity on my skin, and a soft chuckle. Aiden. I don’t need to open my eyes to know he is real this time. His smell, his arms caging me protectively on top of his sculpted body still on the floor of his hotel room are more perfect than any dream I can muster.

“Welcome back,” he says, sensing me awake, his fingers trailing along my spine. His deep sultry drawl brings back a deluge of memories about everything that just happened on this floor, and electricity flurries everywhere from my toes to my matted hair.

“Mmm, have I been out long?”

“Just your usual post-orgasm coma. You even snored this time—the cutest little snore.” He chuckles again. A wave of blush must burn even his skin because he brushes his fingertips over my cheek. “I’ve missed your blush, but I don’t see what you have to be embarrassed about. I love that I can knock you fast asleep like your piano piece does with me. It’s good to know we have at least that effect in common.”

Everything inside me opens at his words—arteries, veins, airways—and abruptly I feel like my air, my blood flow, my heartbeat have doubled. Living twice: once for me, once for this dream of sleeping next to him. A dream so powerful, so forbidden that it sings for me like a siren song, always beaconing, never reaching. Until now.

“Are you okay?” He tips up my face to examine me. Can he hear my heart thundering?

“Is it tonight?” The words come out as a whisper, as though my voice already wants us to be asleep.

He understands what I mean immediately. I can tell from the way his eyes move with years of fear and practiced self-denial. “Elisa, love, I . . . can’t bear the idea of hurting you. We haven’t tested it with anyone in bed with me, let alone with anyone who affects me as you do. Can’t we wait the ninety days to see where we land?”

“But Corbin has given us the plan for sleeping. He wouldn’t suggest it if he thought it would be dangerous.”

“Corbin admits he can’t make guarantees. What if he is wrong about the sleep part? I can’t take that chance with you. Do you have the faintest idea of what you mean to me?”

“I know what you mean to me. And you’re not supposed to think of what-ifs. We have to live in the present moment. We have to do the opposite.”

“And we will with everything else. We’ll spend time with Javier and Reagan, we’ll go out, do whatever you want to do while I’m awake and can control myself. But we can’t do the opposite with your safety.”

“You won’t hurt me in your sleep. I don’t think you’re capable of it after what we’ve been through.”

But I’m losing him with arguments. The jaw is starting to flex. “Elisa, do we need a detailed review of everything that happened two weeks ago? I’m still the same man who . . . ” He shudders. “Nothing has changed yet.”

“That was different. I triggered your reflex while you were awake. This time you’ll have your medicine and you’ve never been able to sleep as deeply before Für Elise, you said so yourself.”

“Exactly. We don’t know. It’s too risky for you.” His hands turn into fists at the small of my back.

I give up reasoning and try my best weapon. “Please, Aiden. It’s all I want. I want it so much it hurts.”

I hate the torture that strikes in his eyes at my words. They tear asunder in conflict between never being able to resist what I want and always wanting to save me. But those are not the rules anymore. And he knows it. I watch as the battle slowly resolves and his side loses. He nods once as though he cannot bring himself to say the word, “yes.”

I cannot speak with the way my lungs are bursting; it feels like my ribs are cracking with the purest form of happiness. So I kiss him, pouring all my words into my lips, feeling his warm cinnamon breath washing over my face. He kisses me back just as urgently, as I knew he would. “Isn’t there a small part of you that is happy about this?” I finally manage when I can breathe again.

He brushes his knuckles along my jawline. “You can never know.”

His phone buzzes again, breaking the spell. But I hug this little victory tight in my mind, hide it deep inside my heart where it will beat with me all day until tonight.

“Javier and Reagan are awake. They’re asking for you.”

“Yes!” I bolt up. “Let’s go see them right now. Oh bloody hell, my hair!”

His lips lift in the smile I love best. “It is beyond all description.” And to my surprise, he snaps a photo of it with his phone.

“Aiden, don’t! It’s ridiculous.”

He chuckles. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”

As soon as we are vertical, the full extent of the devastation we have caused with our big bang becomes apparent. My old pajamas are in shreds. One of my wellingtons is on the dresser where it has kicked down a crystal vase of spray roses, the other is nowhere to be seen. My torn knickers are dangling from the chandelier. The buttons of his jeans are everywhere, including in his hair. One of his Timberland boots is on the bed, the other on one of his suitcases, which has collapsed open onto the floor. The nightstand has dragged away sideways from the wall exactly where he was pinning down my wrists. The lamp on it is knocked over, my picture frame too.

“Thank heavens this survived,” Aiden says, sauntering in nothing but flawless golden skin to the nightstand and straightening my frame. The sight of him, especially after my victory, makes me want to demolish the room some more, but I have bigger problems.

“Umm, I might have to wear your clothes back to the cottage. It’s going to scandalize the whole town, not to mention Javier.”

His eyes sparkle. “I’d never allow such infamy. I brought you your clothes.”

“My clothes?”

“Yes, all my gifts that you left behind—the dresses, Powell’s books. I couldn’t bear to keep them.”

Really? They’re here?”

He smiles at my obvious delight. “In that big duffel over there.” How could I have ever left them? Abruptly I miss them so much. “I need a woman minute,” I tell him, rushing for the restroom to clean up as soon as possible so I can wear his gifts. His chuckle follows me like a shadow.

The restroom is domed, like the spired roof of the Inn, complete with a console sink, a bidet, and a shower over a claw-foot tub. I try to clean up quickly but it’s a lost battle.

“Are you done with your woman minute yet?” Aiden knocks at the door. “It’s been twelve and I miss you.”

I wrench the door open to let him in. “Look at me! The mud won’t come off.”

He really tries not to laugh but it bursts from his lips. “Here, I’ll help you. Mine is a mess too.”

Under the hot shower stream with him running his fingers through my hair, it’s impossible not to recall that first shower I took in England two weeks ago, trying to wash him and all of America off. But this time, almost fused to each other in the tiny tub, it’s as though we are washing off the last two weeks together. He scrubs my strands gently and I shampoo his hair, rivulets of mud, tears, distance all draining away with the soap bubbles. And although we can’t wash off the terror still lining our insides, I feel lighter, stronger—as if his touch is flooding me with oxytocin. Which it probably is.

“Fuck, it won’t leave your scalp!” Aiden is doing battle with the mountain of foam on my head, the V etched deep between his eyebrows. It takes fifteen minutes and all twenty of our fingers for the water to run completely clear. But at least his hair and skin are glistening with droplets like a million diamonds are trying and failing to outshine him. A few drops peck his lips like kisses, but those lips are mine. I reach on my tiptoes for his mouth. He gives everything to me, like always. The familiar static gathers on my skin as though the water is vaporizing from the heat within. But he pulls away right as he starts to turn into gold-plated titanium in my hands.

“We’re never leaving this bathroom if we don’t stop exactly now.”

“Fine. Tell me about Rostóv again. I need him.”

Rostóv has made it to his Moscow family home by the time I open the giant duffel back of my gifts. And then I don’t need Rostóv anymore. Because inside, rolled so precisely he could only have packed them himself, are all the dresses he gave me except the one that was torn during the attack. And all my lingerie. And my graduation trainers engraved with Byron’s “She Walks In Beauty” line. I put on the gray sheath I wore when we went to the rose garden in Portland during the daytime—that was a good day. Then I slide on the trainers, convinced my toes and the fabric are hugging each other.

“I’m ready,” I say to the Adonis next to me in a fresh white shirt over a pair of jeans. But he is hiding something behind his back with a grin.

“I think something is missing,” he answers.

“What is it?” I try to peek, but he shifts, blocking the mystery from view. “Show me!” I try again but he is too fast.

“You have to solve the clue first: if you gave me all the kisses in the world, they would still be too few.”

“Baci!” I squeal and throw myself at him. It’s the quote the chocolates gave me the very first time I introduced Baci to him on our embargo day. He laughs and hands me a big box of them. “There are exactly ninety,” he says. “I counted them myself.”

“Ninety,” I whisper, caressing the clear lid through which the silver-wrapped chocolates are twinkling. Last time he gave me thirty of them accidentally before he even knew about my thirty days. But this time he knows the deadline. And he didn’t dare to buy one more. D-a-r-e. Keep us together, make us brave.

“Have one,” he says. “Let’s see what they start us with this time.”

I wrestle with the lid but he takes it back from me and opens it lest I die from a paper cut. I reach for one with closed eyes, willing it to be positive, and read the waxy little note:

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love.”

“That sounds inspiring for our fight,” I say, looking up at him. “It says it’s from Shakespeare, but I don’t recognize the line.”

“Romeo and Juliet,” he murmurs.

If he feels the chill that whips through me, he does not say anything. Don’t be silly, I tell myself. It’s just your fear. Make us safe, make us brave. But the goose bumps are not leaving.

“You pick another.” I tell him quickly, my own naked Baci completely forgotten.

He smiles—am I imagining the kiss of melancholy at the corner of his mouth? “You know, it’s probably because we’re not doing your ritual with the apples,” he says as he unwraps his. I hold my breath.

“‘Love that moves the sun and other stars,’” he reads. “Whew! Thank you, Dante.”

As though Dante’s sun leaps straight out of the waxy note to beam down on me, the goose bumps disappear. This is ours. Haven’t I been thinking about stars and constellations?

“Seems more consistent with the big bang.” Aiden winks with that uncanny way he has of guessing my thoughts. I take his chocolate and shove it my mouth.

“I choose this one,” I mumble, my mouth full.

“No contest.” He hurls the Romeo and Juliet one on the paper bin and brings his mouth to mine, melting the chocolate together until it is all gone.

Downstairs in the lobby, James and Benson are playing chess on the sofa. Benson is ahead by two moves but stands when he sees us.

“Where to, sir?” he asks Aiden.

“Just to Elisa’s for now. Did we get the EBIDTA reports?” They start talking about Aiden’s work at the concierge desk that Benson must have transformed into a mobile command center in the last couple of hours. I take advantage of their distance to perch on the armchair next to James. He grins. “Well, look’s who neither drenched nor muddy.”

I smile. “I told him, by the way.”

“I figured. Better you than me.”

“I don’t think I ever thanked you properly. If you hadn’t been there…” I shiver at my recklessness. “Well, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Why didn’t you tell him, James? I’m grateful you didn’t, but I’m curious.” I lower my voice as much as possible to still be audible. He looks at Aiden still at the desk and, above the thick ginger beard, his eyes age in a way Aiden’s do sometimes.

“He’s my brother, Elisa. I know he’s told you about Iraq. Well, he saved my life, he saved all of us except . . . Marshall. And you know what that’s done to him. All of us would give our lives to save him if we could.” His eyes flash back at me, and I see the human sniper Aiden mentioned. “But it sounds like you might be able to. So why didn’t I tell him? Because I couldn’t bring myself to add anymore to the hell he was in. I’ve only seen Storm that fucked up twice. Once after Fallujah, once at the cabin after he had left you. And then he got the call from Benson that you were gone. I don’t know what you were doing that night, but it would have killed my brother if something had happened to you.”

I can’t find the words to respond. They’re lodged with tears I can’t spill here.

“I’ll ask this once,” James whispers so low I can barely hear him, his sniper eyes still on Aiden—he doesn’t seem to need to blink as much as most humans. “Were you trying to hurt yourself, Elisa? Is that why you jumped into the river?”

And I understand then. I understand the deepest, darkest reason why he kept this from his brother. “No, James. I swear to you I was not. I was just stupid and had experimented with a very strong sleeping aid that I concocted myself. I’d never do that to him. I love him.”

I see relief spread over his eyes even though they haven’t left Aiden once. But they zoom on me now and, in that laser gaze, I know he believes me. “Then we’ll never speak of this again.”

Aiden strides to us seconds later. “Plotting how to keep more secrets from me?”

James barks a laugh. “Not this time. After serious consideration, Elisa and I have decided we both value our lives too much to fuck with you again.”

“How long are you staying, James?” I ask, wondering if I have time to know him more and see Aiden around a friend. It must be so good for him.

“Oh, I’m leaving tomorrow. Hendrix and Jazz are flying over and we’ll fish River Spey in Scotland for a while, courtesy of your man.”

“So soon.” I force a smile. “Will you be going?” I ask Aiden, my voice breaking despite my effort to appear calm and collected. He gives me a look that says verbatim “how hard did you hit your head on that floor?”

“No, I’m on partial leave from work and everything else except you,” he says in a tone that confirms the version in my head. “But don’t worry, Cal and the others will stop by before they head stateside. You can meet them all then.”

Yes! That’s brilliant!” I have wanted to meet his friends since the very first time he mentioned them on our second embargo day.

They laugh at my excited tone. I see Benson coming our way though and whisper quickly to James, “Knight to E-3.” His eyes widen, as he traces the chess move that will get him out the checkmate Benson has set up for him.

“Told you,” Aiden says to him with his “this is Gary Kasparov” tone and takes me by the hand. “Let’s go. You can say goodbye to Cal tonight.”

“Actually, I’ll walk with you. I need to pick up some cigars for the trip.”

But all our smiles vanish and we freeze on the inn’s threshold. The shops are now open and people are littering Ivy Lane. Fewer than Portland’s streets, but even one person in danger is too many. Tension snaps back around Aiden’s shoulders, petrifying them into granite slabs under his crisp white shirt. The ripples jolt all way down to his hand clenched around mine. He looks taller, forbidding, indestructible—as he always does when he feels most vulnerable. For a breathless moment, he locks eyes with the narrow alley, memorizing each shop, door, passerby, bench, flowerpot, cobblestone—engraving it in his mind, calculating and anticipating every outcome—all for the simple, beautiful purpose of protecting it.

It lasts only seconds to anyone who might be watching—just a beautiful man holding hands with an awed woman, heading out of their inn. But to the three of us who know what this costs him—know it, yet still not fathom it—it’s endless. With each ripple of his muscles, I want to say, “let’s just stay here in our little bubble, in the bliss of your arms.” But I bite my tongue so hard, I taste blood. Because he needs all my confidence in him right now.

Aiden looks at me then, his eyes searching my jawline that gives him the most calm.

“Let’s go do the opposite,” he says, donning his Raybans. And he takes the first step onto the street.

The next several steps are hard. As the passersby zig-zag to make room for us entering the lane, Aiden’s vigilance sweeps over us like a shield. An elder gentleman brushes past him, and I stifle my gasp. But a fraction of a second before the near-contact, Aiden shifts slightly away, his mind having already anticipated the move. Then a little boy on a green bike shoots toward us but, again, seconds before he enters our radius, Aiden steps fluidly out of the path. “Mum!” a little girl screams, making three of us jump, but not Aiden. He simply tilts his head as though he had expected her cry before being howled. I watch in awe as his impossible mind powers us through in an elegant, nearly invisible dance of hunt and save.

“Damn, Storm!” James says behind us in similar wonder.

Aiden doesn’t respond, but takes my hand and tucks it into his granite arm. I know he means, “stay close.” And I do. I lean my head against the stone of his bicep and feel it soften, mold to my shape, granite giving in to silk.

It gets a little easier then. Not because of my effect, though. Because of his. As we walk further down the lane and the passersby register Aiden’s presence, his beauty is so intense for Burford, so very clearly not from around here, that they instinctively give him a wide, admiring berth, stunned into general paralysis like me. Especially the female of the species, although some men as well.

“That’s interesting,” Aiden says, clearly not having factored the mind-numbing effect of his own beauty in his vast calculations at all. “Must be a Burford thing. People give you a lot more space and move slower, too. That’s good. I didn’t expect that.”

I can’t stop my giggle on time. He looks at me and, even behind the Raybans, I can tell he is thinking I’ve lost my mind to be laughing at such a juncture. “I don’t think it’s Burford, Aiden. I think it’s you. You’ve incapacitated the entire female population on this street. Why, Mrs. Willoughby just walked into that street lamp over there.”

His head flies up toward Mrs. Willoughby as though she might be an incoming missile. Which would be entirely possible if she wasn’t frozen, ogling our direction. Aiden clears his throat. “I don’t think this is the appropriate moment for us to be fucking around, Elisa. Head in the game.”

James chuckles behind us. “I think Elisa’s got a point, Storm. That dude at ten o’clock just tripped. Just come out dick first next time. Problem solved.”

That’s too much for me. Laughter explodes through my lips, drowned by Benson’s and James’ booming barks. Aiden does not dignify our laugh with any response whatsoever. But I know behind the Raybans, his eyes are sweeping the street with this new lens, no doubt noticing every stare, every mouth popped open, every stumble. Noticing it and entirely overwriting it. His Raybans turn on me.

“You find it amusing that the poor unsuspecting folk of your hometown find a violent madman attractive, Elisa?”

“I don’t know the madman you’re referring to, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one you have this effect on.”

Where dick jokes didn’t make him smile, my words do. Or maybe it’s because we have reached the end of Ivy Lane and the field of epiphanies stretches ahead with no passersby or admirers of any kind lurking in the grass.

“Well, I’m off for my cigars. Benson, wanna grab a beer? I don’t think Storm needs us anymore. He’s too pretty.”

Aiden laughs, tension draining out of him now that it’s over. “You’re not my type, Cal. How often do I have to tell you?”

“Why would you say that? Just because I don’t have purple eyes and black hair?”

“That’s exactly why.”

“Come on, Benson, let’s see if Mrs. Willoughby is interested. See you lovebirds later.”

“Thanks you two,” I tell them, and we both watch them stroll easily back up Ivy Lane. Aiden gazes at the road he just walked over blistering torments of torture, coals of capture, and flames of bystander gazes for me. For us. And I think, this is Dante, not Romeo. It has to be.

“What is it?” he asks, noticing my stare or drool.

“Take off your glasses. I miss your eyes.”

He makes a show of removing them dutifully and tucking them in his shirt but I miss it. Because the blue depths are shining with this other victory—so miniscule to everyone else, so significant to us. I take his face in my hands.

“I’m so proud of you,” I tell him and kiss him with the full force of my words. He responds so enthusiastically that we stumble backwards into the field. And his kiss does what it always does—cancels everything but the taste of him, the feel of his mouth that he has only ever shared with me. Each time our tongues dance and our lips brush they tattoo a new memory in his mouth. A memory that is ours alone.

The walk back to the cottage is a breeze after that. Just open space and us. His shoulders sway with his natural grace. His laughter is easier too—cascading over the field of epiphanies, the arched bridge, the trail along the river. Every so often, he snaps a picture of me with his phone. And despite his smile and the high of the day, I don’t understand why the camera click feels like an icy flick against my skin.

“Why do you take pictures of me?” I ask him as he captures me showing him where I camped. “You don’t need them. You never took them before.”

He takes another one of me twirling a blade of grass, and the ice pinches me again, but he doesn’t answer.

“Aiden? Tell me.”

“I want you forever in every way I can have you,” he shrugs, not meeting my eyes.

He doesn’t have to. I know what he means. Forever in paintings, memories, pictures. In case we fail. In case we don’t win. How can I deny him that, no matter how many ice crystals just broke through my skin?

“Present moment, love,” he says, as if he saw every ice pick. “We have to capture it.”

“Present moment,” I repeat.

But the present moment eludes us both when he spies the river boulder that nearly drowned me. He recognizes it immediately from my description. His fists alone could pulverize it into fine sand. How different it looks to me now after James’s words and Aiden’s terror for me. Instead of a foolish stunt, its rounded black curve seems gravelike. A sinister tombstone or the hunchback of an evil sorceress lurking below. It would have killed him, James said. Perhaps it’s the conviction of his voice, or allowing myself to look at this spot that almost ended us both, or perhaps it’s the ice of the camera clicks, but Romeo and Juliet feel closer than Dante now. My life and Aiden’s are entwined by fate and circumstance like two nerves threaded inside a heart chamber. Cut one, and you cut the other. The river laps at the boulder like a dark prophecy. Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives.

Aiden’s hand wraps around my waist, and he leads us away from the boulder toward the cottage. Maybe he needs to get away from this spot as much as I do.

“Do you want to hear four things that will make you smile?” he asks as the boulder’s sickly lapping sound fades.

“Please.”

He tips up my face. “Cal was there, we are here, it’s been a good day, and tonight you get to take my sleep virginity. I hope you’ll be gentle.”

It works immediately. I giggle at the same time that tears spring in my eyes because he is right. Tonight is still coming. Tonight he will be mine exactly as I’ve always wanted.

“I love the giggle but not the tears,” he says. “Now tell me, what kind of dreams do you think we will have on our first night? The only rule is no sleepwalking allowed.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep at all. I’ll probably just watch you the whole time.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure you pass out. The more knocked out you are, the safer.”

I giggle again. Leave it to Aiden to turn even sex into a safety measure. “How will you manage that with Javier and Reagan? Javier might have an aneurism.”

“I’m working on that part.”

“Have you really never slept with anyone before? Even before Iraq?”

He kisses the top of my head. “Of course not. I never kissed on the mouth before you, but you think I stuck around and spent the night?”

“Why not?”

“Because if I have to remember something forever, it better be something I absolutely love.”

Like us. All his other conquests don’t matter, even if he still remembers them perfectly. The most intimate part of Aiden—his sleep—will belong only to the two of us.

By the time the cottage’s rose-covered roof appears, the boulder is far away and Romeo and Juliet’s quote feels like just another poetry line again, as though the cottage is a counter-curse, folding us within the protective charm of its rose magic. I feel abruptly safer, more carefree—like I always felt here as a child. Everything shifts away as I grasp the present moment: Aiden is coming to my home.

“Let’s do this the way I used to when I was little,” I say.

He smiles with the dimple. “Right behind you.”

We creep up to the guard of willows that susurrate as always. “Listen,” I whisper. “What words can you make out?”

He plays along, straining his ear against the trunks with me under the dense emerald canopy of the garlands. Shhhhhh, shhhhhh.

Wishes?” he asks, cupping his ear.

Wishes! “I love that! I’ve never heard that in the leaves before.”

“What do you hear?”

“Oh, I’ve heard all manner of words here over my life. From selfish to licorice. But since I’ve been back, I only hear she’s here and he’s here.”

He kisses me. Right here under the willow garlands, like a secret. “Come,” I tell him, feeling unsteady as his lips always leave me. And, parting the garlands like a curtain, we step between the trunks into Mum’s magic garden.

“Ah!” Aiden murmurs as he sees it in daylight for the first time. Delight molds his fairytale face as his eyes sweep over my little kingdom. And what a show it’s putting up for its prince. The cottage gleams pearl white under the brilliant sun. The shutters are open, the lace of the curtains fluttering hello with the breeze. The ancient beech trees are murmuring their own welcome like dignified sentinels with sun-plated helmets. The river is glistening like an emerald silk ribbon. And like a royal mantle over it all, are the thousands of roses in full bloom. Sparkling with sunlight like rare unknown gems.

Aiden does not move. He is stunned into silence. But his eyes are more luminous than I’ve ever seen them. They alight on each bloom, each detail of my childhood—absorbing everything.

“Come, let me show you the roses I told you about in Portland.” I take his hand and we wind up the garden path covered in petals. And as he did then, he kisses me by each rose when I introduce him.

“And these are the Elisas,” I tell him, remembering that he made poor Benson hunt for a look alike on our first morning together. My roses wink, flutter, and sway for him as though they want nothing more than for him to touch them. And he does. One single caress with the tip of his finger. I’m not a rose bush, but I can’t imagine any living cell being immune to his touch. I’m certain the Elisas look less white and more pink.

“I don’t have words in my memory for this,” Aiden finally speaks. For once, he looks completely past-free. Then I remember with terror.

“Won’t your first memory of this garden be me breaking up with you last night?”

He smiles. “That’s not my first memory of this.”

“Then what is?”

“My first memory of this is exactly what I had planned: your astonished beautiful face seeing Javier and Reagan on your doorstop. That’s why I stayed so far behind. I wanted that first memory to be only of you and your happy moment.”

What can I say to that?

Inside, Reagan and Javier are in the kitchen, Javier sniffing suspiciously the pot of porridge that Reagan is making while she beams at it, already wearing a royal blue feathered hat. As soon as they hear us come in, they bound to us and pull me into a hug.

“There you are! We were about to figure out how to call British search and rescue on you two,” says Javier. Then their eyes fall on Aiden’s and my joined hands.

“Oh, yay! You’re back together!” Reagan squeals, the feathers of her hat bouncing with her excitement.

Aiden smiles—their old cat-and-dragon exchange only a distant memory—but he lets me answer. “Well, I have officially introduced him to the roses. So I think that means yes. At least while we sort out a few things.”

“What things?” they ask in unison, their voice trembling exactly the same way, their eyebrows knitting together identically.

“Are you two okay? Is there anything the family can do to help?” Javier adds.

In those words, in their worried looks, I grasp exactly how much their relationship with Aiden has changed in the last two weeks. Perhaps working together to save Javier and the rest of the Solises bonded them in ways I never could.

It’s there in Aiden’s voice too when he answers this time. “Let me think about that, Javier.”

“Okay, want something to eat? Although I don’t really know if this is edible. What the hell is this mushy stuff, Isa?” He points at the pot of porridge.

“I’ll just show Aiden around first, okay?”

Aiden is watching me with his fiery eyes, so tall for the cottage his wavy hair brushes against the small chandelier. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful since he crossed the threshold.

“Welcome to the Rose Cottage!” My voice trembles. I want to say welcome home. But the home part is a dream, an h-o-p-e I cannot allow myself. “This is the foyer, obviously—it’s tiny by your standards but I love it. And over there is the living room . . .”

He takes my hand and starts exploring the cottage in the way only he can. He runs his long-fingered hand over the front door, the rose-shaped brass knob, the rotary phone, the walls—memorizing their feel. He spends a good ten minutes gazing at the photographs lining the foyer in reverse order of my aging.

“Look at you!” He smiles at one of me missing my front teeth. “The cutest kid.”

I watch him with a clenched heart, unable to speak. How many times have I imagined him inside these walls and now here he is. Bewildering in every sense of the word. I realize that in those vague fantasies I always imagined the cottage softening him. But as he winds through the living room, running his fingers through the ivory of Mum’s upright piano in the first few notes of Für Elise, clutching the arm of Dad’s plaid chair in the corner like a handshake, I see a symbiotic cord twinning between the cottage and him. He is shining as much beauty on it as it is pouring on him.

“This is surreal,” he says. “I thought I could envision this so well from your descriptions, but I was wrong. No one can picture this without seeing it.”

“Let me show you my favorite room.” I can barely hear my own voice as I lead him to the library. But I hear his quiet footsteps kissing the hardwood floor.

He whistles as he enters my dad’s bubble, and the tectonic plates shift as he recalls everything I’ve ever told him about it. He weaves through the towers of books and notepads, careful not to jostle anything, and goes straight to the unfinished chess game inside the glass flower box. “Is this the last game?”

I nod.

“Six identical moves to checkmate for each of you. So equal and you were only eighteen.”

“I could never equal him.” I barely mouth the words, but he must read them because he comes back to me.

“I’m sure he would disagree.”

“I wish you could you have met him. And Mum.”

“I do too.” His index finger comes under my chin and he bends down to my height. “I have an idea. I’ll read through all of his books and notes, then maybe I’ll know him more. Would you like that?” His voice, his eyes are so tender they could h-e-a-l the deepest wounds, except his own.

My “yes” sounds more like a sigh. “And maybe you can help me with the protein. Here, look at this.” I open the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia of Elements. He peers inside—a childish curiosity glinting in his eyes—and sees his war letters with Dad’s clue and everything else valuable I own, “my all” in a sense. Which is not much. “You can have them—”

He stops my hand before it slithers inside the safe. “Let them stay there.” When he closes the safe, I imagine him tucking in my entire life under a blanket.

This kiss is hushed too. So light, each brush like a whispered secret. A secret I can’t even tell myself.

“MUSH IS READY,” Javier bellows from the kitchen. “AND SOME CRUSTY STUFF!”

Around the dining table, Reagan and Javier have made their first British breakfast even though it’s almost noon. Porridge, scones, clotted cream. But I can’t swallow a single bite—everything from my eyes to my belly is overflowing. The three people I most love in this world who are still alive are here. My three brightest stars twinkling in this new constellation that looks like a table to everyone else but to me it’s a million-faceted crystal, gleaming and sparkling—each plane brilliant, fragile, a mirror of the others. Rarely meeting, always reflecting.

“Reg, I know it’s what they eat here. But just between us four, objectively speaking, this porridge thing cannot have been meant for human taste buds. Aiden, back me up as the only other man here. Is this food to you?”

Aiden is looking at me and I know he has read every flicker of emotion I have not been able to hide. He seems to make a decision of sorts because he turns to Javier. “I definitely prefer your mother’s carnitas. But it’s better than MREs.”

A total silence falls over my constellation. Reagan’s fork drops on her plate. My hand tightens on Aiden’s under the table. I’ve never once heard him make a casual reference to the military. And instantly I know whatever he is doing, he is doing it for me. He folds his napkin while Javier’s fork is still in the air.

“Actually, Javier, Reagan.” He addresses them both while I sit here periodic-tabling for oxygen. “May I have a moment? You asked earlier if there is anything the family can do to . . . help Elisa and me.”

Javier’s fork drops too. “Anything,” he says. “We owe you our lives.”

“It’s not as debt collector that I’m asking. You don’t owe me anything. It’s as a . . . friend, I suppose. This is not an easy thing for me to share. I’d appreciate your discretion. But you’re Elisa’s family, I’ve seen that over the last two weeks more than I was able to grasp before. So you should know—” His hand around mine becomes a live grenade. “Why things are complicated with Elisa and me. It’s not because I don’t love her—”

“We know that,” Javier says firmly. “We all can see that now.”

“It’s because there are things in my past and present that make me . . . not the man you would want for your sister.”

“Aiden, don’t,” I cut in, but he silences me with a grasp of his hand.

“What do you mean?” Javier says while Reagan mouths at me in a completely obvious way, “The thing?”

“Well, without getting into the gory details, I was a Marine. In Iraq. And one mission went . . . wrong. More wrong than I’m prepared to discuss. It has stayed with me in every way . . . and it has left me with a . . .” He takes a deep breath as his shoulders flex once. “It has left me with a violent startle reflex. Not your usual car backfiring thing. I cannot be startled from behind in any way without a series of events being triggered which always end with me attacking the person who startled me.”

The silence that follows his words is clamoring. I don’t think Aiden has breathed once since he started. But he meets Javier’s eyes evenly and I see the Marine there—the one who might never have needed a protein of bravery.

“You attacked Isa!” Javier’s somber, grave tone is punctuated by a small whimper from Reagan.

“I did.” The two words, so low, sound almost like “the end.”

“It was my fault,” I jump in, ignoring the clasp of Aiden’s hand. “I knew about it, and I was careless, and I triggered it, and—”

“Elisa,” Aiden’s voice cuts through, even and clear. “You will never take this on yourself ever again. Please. They have a right to know as your family, and now they do. I won’t be the reason for secrets between you anymore.”

I meet Javier’s eyes. They’re on me, stricken with terror. Reagan searches for my hand under the table but both of mine are on Aiden’s grenade.

“I love him, Javier,” I say directly to him. “I will fight with him against this. No matter what.” Tears start burning my eyes, but I don’t blink. Javier’s deep dark eyes are locked on me too for a long moment. He nods at last—a slow bend of the head but his eyes become so endless, as though he heard exactly what I cannot say. No matter how it ends.

“So,” Javier says. “How can we help? We’ll support you both with whatever you need if this is the decision you have made.” He does not say he agrees. How could he?

“I’m with you too.” Reagan’s voice trembles with tears. “Both of you.”

“Thank you,” I tell them, eyes still on Javier because he is the leader for our patch-quilt family. If he gives us his support, it is irrevocable.

“Yes, thank you both.” Aiden’s grenade relaxes a fraction. “Please know I’d never expose Elisa to this again without some hope that we might be able to overcome it.”

“What’s the hope part?” Javier asks.

I’m glad Aiden answers this one because Javier would see how little h-o-p-e I’m allowing myself. “We’re working with some experts at Oxford and University of York, and of course back home. We’re meeting them Monday; they have an entire plan. But the gist of it is that I need to do the opposite of what I’ve been doing. Not push Elisa away or isolate myself, but rather experience what normal life could be like for her and me if we allow it. Their hope is that, with other interventions and hard work on our part, this will begin to correct the startle reflex.”

Javier blows out a gust of breath and I realize now he has not been breathing much either. “That sounds like good news, right?”

“Hopeful.” Aiden corrects while I stare at my cold teacup trying to look like I am nodding sagely. “And this is where you two come in. The hope part. I will never keep Elisa from you. But of course, she refuses to leave me and I refuse to leave her. These last two weeks almost killed us both. So, by necessity, at least for a while, you might have to be around . . . me,” he says the last word like he is the dark boulder.

“Aiden, that’s nothing to ask of us,” Javier says, and I want to grab him over the table and hug him if both my hands were not around my grenade. “We all care about you. Not just as Elisa’s guy but for who you’ve shown us to be. It’s not a burden on us to be around you. We want you to heal. We want you in our life if you two can make this work.”

H-e-a-l. L-i-f-e. “Umm . . . thank you . . . I appreciate that,” Aiden says with a strong emotion. No doubt his deep self-loathing wasn’t expecting such acceptance. The grenade relaxes further.

Javier takes a deep breath and the deep wrinkles in his forehead soften. “We’ll just be careful, all of us. No one will sneak up on you or anything. And we’ll do whatever we can so you two can win this. Right, Reg?” he turns to her.

“Absolutely.”

For the first time since this conversation started, Javier smiles and the entire constellation brightens up with him. I look at Aiden, the Marine who just disclosed his darkest secret to give me this moment of togetherness, to tear down all walls between my family and me. He shakes his head with a small smile. Anything for you, his eyes say.

“Actually, I’m really glad we know now,” Javier says. “This explains so much. I mean, we started suspecting something when you were able to pull off my green card with all those political contacts, but not this. We thought you were some high-level CIA or something.”

Reagan giggles breathlessly. “Honestly, I thought you were an assassin. Really sorry about that.”

At the shaky laughter that follows, the grenade disarms and Aiden’s face softens with relief. “An assassin?” he chuckles. “And you were yay-ing earlier when you thought Elisa was back together with me? Reagan, I thought your common sense was one of your strongest traits.”

“Of course,” she shrugs. “You’re who she loves.” Her bright emerald eyes flit to Javier who is sighing with relief in an identical posture to Aiden’s.

“Javi,” she tells him, and for a mad moment I think she’s going to declare herself but she has other plans. “I think you and I should move to Aiden’s hotel.”

“What the fuck?” is Javier’s response.

“You heard me.”

“No, Javier has a point, Reg. What the bloody hell?” I ask but she kicks me under the table. Hard. I have to pretend to cough to hide my “ouch” while Aiden fusses I might be choking.

“Listen,” she says to us. “You two need privacy if you’re going to try this normal life thing. Javi and I can sleep at the hotel, you two stay here, and we all hang out and be normal adults during the day. And when Isa has to work, we can be tourists.” She stomps on my foot again in case her desire is not clear.

“Elisa, why do you keep coughing, love? Are you okay? Here, have some water.”

“I’m fine. Just a tickle.” But I drink the entire glass he pours for me to give Javier a chance to respond. And he does. Sort of.

“I guess you’re right. How far is your hotel, Aiden?”

“Just across the field,” Aiden answers quietly and I know in that tone how profoundly he wants Reagan to win, but how deeply he hates the reason for Javier’s hesitation: my safety in case I get hurt again. And he’ll side with Javier. That decides it for me. And I know exactly how to solve it.

“Javier, Reg is right. I want to sleep with Aiden.”

It’s Aiden who chokes now at the same time that Javier throws his hands over the ears, saying “Lalalalala.” But over the chaos, Reagan and I wink at each other. And for a moment, it feels like girls can win everything today.

I add this other little victory to my collection. Can a girl deplete her luck? Should I take more chances? Or should I save it all for tonight? No, I don’t need luck to sleep next to Aiden—I refuse to think that way.

“Let’s all go to town,” I decide. “I’ll show you some of my favorite spots. And you can meet my grandparents for all intents and purposes.” I know none of them can resist that. Especially not Aiden, even if his muscles just locked down at the idea of strolling the streets again.

“Your octogenarian bodyguards?” he asks.

“The very same.”

“Yes, this I have to see.”

The town is enshrined in gold under the late afternoon sun when we arrive, and the streets are lazier, sultrier. Plemmons Blooms is only two roads west of the inn, down a cobblestone alley so narrow that James and Benson—who have been strolling with us in their hulking frames—decide to wait at the inn’s terrace over cigars and ale.

Even though I visited the Plemmonses the very next day I returned, as soon as I see the cascade of wisteria draping over the familiar awning, my own memory rewinds the endless days I spent with Mum in this shop as she and Mr. Plemmons experimented with rose breeds. Nothing has changed except the two snow-haired, hunched over octogenarians who are sitting on bright yellow chairs, head to head, sifting through seeds together. The image is so precious that four phone cameras click at the same time, including Aiden’s.

“OMG, they’re so cute,” Reagan whispers.

“Don’t worry, they can’t hear. You have to yell,” I tell her and then shout at the top of my lungs, “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Plemmons!” All three of them jump despite my warning.

“Bless my soul, it’s Rose!” Mr. Plemmons wheezes, wobbling up on his birch-wood cane, and I notice how much it trembles. “Josephine, it’s our Rose. Blimey, she’s brought friends this time.” He wipes his thick-rimmed glasses against his woolen vest—an unnecessary act since they are generously wiped by his bushy eyebrows and even bushier mustache. Little tufts of cotton blossoms spring out of his ears.

“I can hear you, Harold, and I can see them, there’s no need to shout.” Mrs. Plemmons is sprightlier and she shuffles up to me—tiny, barely clearing my shoulder, looking at me with her once-green eyes that have paled to sage—and kisses both my cheeks. “You’re lookin’ fit, luv. It’s the rose air, I told Harold, didn’ I? I said, let that lass smell the roses for a week and she’ll be pink as their petals.” She still hasn’t let go of my cheeks.

“Ha!” Mr. Plemmons teeters closer and grabs my shoulder. His clasp is so frail that I’m not sure if he needs it for support or if he is greeting me. I peck his fluffy hair gently lest he blows away. “Who are yer friends, Rose?” He peers at them through his glasses, brows wafting high in his forehead like pampas grass.

“These are Aiden Hale, Reagan Starr, and Javier Solis,” I yell their names, pointing at each of them. “They’re visiting from Portland.”

“Hmph,” Mr. Plemmons harrumphs, tottering to each of them, squinting at their faces and finally declaring in front of Aiden. “We’re not giving our Rose back! No, sir!”

“Oh, don’ mind the crackpot fool.” Mrs. Plemmons clasps all their hands. “You’re very welcome here, very welcome. Oh, to see our Rose smiling with friends again! Here, luv, sit, sit.” She tries to clear a bench of cyclamen pots, but I beat her to it.

“You sit, Mrs. Plemmons, I’ve got this.” I clear out the bench and the four of us sit cramped together, visiting with them for a while. Mrs. Plemmons frets she doesn’t have tea and biscuits.

“Don’ fuss, Josephine. It’s only our Rose. We’ve changed her nappies, we have.” Aiden, Reagan, and Javier burst out laughing while I turn the color of the cyclamens.

“Your nappies,” Aiden murmurs in my ear, his fingers trailing my spine behind everyone’s back. “I think I prefer your knickers, Rose. Especially the ones you’re wearing right now.”

“Stop or you will die,” I whisper through my teeth, smiling at Josephine for telling Harold off. He chuckles so quietly I can only tell from his cinnamon breath in my cheek.

“What are yeh two bumpin’ yer gums about?” Mr. Plemmons calls to Aiden and me. “Yeh’re not tryin’ to take our Rose away, Anton, are yeh?”

“It’s Aiden, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, ignoring his question, which keeps my voice from breaking.

“Are yeh sweethearts?”

“Harold, you don’t have to shout every thought that flits in that wooly ‘ead of yours!” Josephine scolds him, but smiles expectantly for an answer.

“Yes, we are,” I whisper before I remember they can’t hear. “Yes, we are,” I raise my decibels again. “And Javier and Reagan are my adoptive brother and sister. They took care of me when I first . . .”

“Ah,” they sigh in unison, abruptly looking one hundred, their heads bobbing at the same time, paled eyes away, and I know we are seeing the funeral day. The only two people left who know every minute of that day, who spoon-fed me until I was taken to the hospital.

“Well, yer Mum and Dad would ‘ave liked yer friends and sweetheart, Rose,” Mr. Plemmons blinks back to the present. “I told Josephine, I said ‘yeh just watch those roses bloom with Clare’s magic now that our Rose is back. They’re glowin’ up there, they are.”

I nod and smile, unable to speak, as Aiden rubs the small of my back gently.

“But no stayin’ at the cottage with Edmund without a chaperone!” Mr. Plemmons stomps the cane on the cobblestone.

“Ha ha ha!” Josephine almost topples off her yellow chair from cackling. “What codswallop you talk, Harold! You never let a chaperone stop you when we met.”

“Tha’ was diffren’. We were older than these two.”

Aiden, towering at thirty-five years old, and Javier, looking even older with his full beard, are shaking with laughter while Reagan is giggling so hard, she twists her legs together in that way she does when she has to pee.

“No, you barmy old fool. We were younger. I had Emma when I was Elisa’s age. That’s your second child.”

“I know who my Emma is!” And they’re off quibbling about the sixty-five years they’ve had together, the decades running together as they should. From the corner of my eye, I see Aiden watch them with something like longing—perhaps wondering whether the years will ever disappear for him. Yet he seems entirely present here in the moment, his fist never clenching, even though he has been sitting in a cramped bench with two other people, albeit in a quiet alley and me in between.

“Wha’ abou’ yeh two? Are yeh sweethearts?” Mr. Plemmons demands of Reagan and Javier.

“No, Mr. Plemmons, we’re friends,” Javier howls while Reagan takes an intense interest in the jasmine bush next to her. At least Javier didn’t say we’re siblings.

“These young ‘uns don’ get married anymore, Josephine. Blimey, there’ll be no more weddings needin’ flowers.”

Eventually, the sun starts setting and we decide to help them close up. I give Mr. Plemmons some new seeds from the garden.

“Yes, yes, they’ll do quite nice, these will. Rose, yeh’ll come to the Rose Festival, won’ yeh? Enter yer Mum’s roses fer the Rose Cup. Willoughby has been twirlin’ his mustache at me fer winning the last one.”

“Of course I will,” I say, even though it will be a day away from Aiden. A crowded festival would be too reckless, too terrorizing. But Mum’s blooms will go to that festival, especially if I don’t know how the ninety days will end.

I buy the American Beauty rose fledgling that’s been waiving at me for the last hour—Aiden carries it gently, earning a smile from Mrs. Plemmons—and say our goodbyes. The Plemmonses shuffle with us half-way through the alley, wishing us and the rose a good night.

“Even yeh, Adam. But keep yer hands to yerself!”

“It’s Aiden, Mr. Plemmons,” I yell again in vain but he just smiles and waves.

We watch them teeter away, arm in arm to their apartment above the flower shop. As the door closes behind them, I wonder how many of these memories I missed and how many there are left. An urgency gathers in my veins and abruptly I want to run, dance, shout, sing, jump, twirl, do everything, live everything, every hour, minute, or second left of our ninety days. Because what if these are the only present moment we have?

“Let’s go!” I tell my three stars. “Let’s find Benson and James and go back to the cottage. We can send James off on his fishing trip with a cheer.”

Javier and Reagan start ahead of us, but Aiden tips up my face. “Are you all right?”

“I’m so glad you met them.”

“Me too, Rose. One of my favorite memories in my entire life.”

“Let’s go make more,” I say and pull him behind me.

Above us, in the twilight sky, the first stars of our first sleep start twinkling.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 8 – THE TRUTH

Hi everyone,

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

8

The Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elisa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” My answer is resolute and automatic.

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

“Oh?” The dimple reappears.

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

“You know the answer to that one.”

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

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

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

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

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

Solstice Gallery

Fine Art

Ivy Lane

Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4PA

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

Solis Ice Reality

Feign Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Friend Until The End of Time: The Timeless Heroine

Happy Saturday everyone from an unusually-cold Portland, Oregon! Although I thought this would be a good excuse to wear those enormous faux-fur boots I convinced myself I absolutely needed, I decided it’s a better day to stay inside, decorate my tree, and write (the sequel, that is!)  Until we have some more news/material to share on that one (hopefully soon), I thought I’d open up a discussion on Book Heroines. We all lose our minds over the heroes (from Mr. Darcy to Christian Grey, my list of book boyfriends is LOOOONG!)  But I wonder whether part of that hold is not the heroine.  Although the heroes bind us to the book, I think the heroines bring us back time and time again.  Here are my thoughts on what makes for a Timeless Heroine. What do you think?

A FRIEND UNTIL THE END OF TIME: THE TIMELESS HEROINE

My husband and I have this game we play. It’s called Who Lives in Your Fantasy Neighborhood?™ His dream neighborhood consists of: Hugh Hefner, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, David Letterman, some baseball player I don’t know—you get it. My fantasy neighbors are Elizabeth Bennett, Scout Finch, Anne Shirley, Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen…

Notice a pattern? (Other than the very good question of how on earth my hubby and I would ever live together?) Of course you did. All my hubby’s dream neighbors are real people, and all of mine are fictional heroines. So that got me thinking: why? What is it about these heroines that transformed them from a character on page to a ‘til-death-do-us-part imaginary friend?

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One possible answer is that maybe I’m just plain crazy. After all, I have all the necessary ingredients for a little bit of madness. I’m a writer. I’ve been surviving on four hours of sleep per night and some mercury-questionable tuna sandwiches. I have out-loud dialogue with the characters of my novel, and at my dream dinner table, my heroine Elisa Snow, sits to my right. Crazy, yes?

Probable. But here is another theory: these heroines feel so real to me because, despite their surreal lives, they are wonderfully, imperfectly flawed. They have fears and insecurities, just like me. They make mistakes—big mistakes—and then fix them. They grow and change, and tell me that I, too, can become better. They take care of their heroes, no matter the cost. But there is one thing they never, ever compromise: themselves. They never sell out!

Sure, they are beautiful and smart and sassy and get the swoon-worthy man of my dreams. Yet I’m never jealous—because I know they deserve him. These heroines earn their happy endings because of the way they “live.”

Take my Elisa for example. An orphan, her biggest terror in life is losing someone she loves. After both her parents died in a car crash, she packed a small suitcase and crossed the ocean from England to the U.S. Not for money, not for fame, but to escape her memories. A starving science student by day and an artist’s muse by night, Elisa has slowly built a new life. With a new family, a new little lilac home, and a new best friend. But when the U.S. government orders her to return to England, she stands to lose everything all over again.

There is only one man who can save her: Aiden Hale. Dark, complex, sexy, with a hint of danger—he has every chemical element to be addictive to the heart. But how can Elisa allow herself to love and lose a third time around? She can’t—she resists him at every turn. Until she discovers Aiden’s own torment, and then—like a true heroine—her own fears no longer matter. All that matters is saving the man she can’t help but love. But her happiness comes at a high price: to keep Aiden, she must sacrifice her new family. And to save her new family, she must lose Aiden. Which will she choose? Which morals will she trade? It’s that final decision that has earned her a penthouse in my dream neighborhood for life.

What about you? Who lives in your fantasy neighborhood? Are Aiden and Elisa are on your list? Would love to hear from you!

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Top Ten Reasons Why We Love a Tortured Hero

Good morning lovelies and Happy Post-Turkey Day!  And, for my readers abroad, hope you are off to a great weekend! I wanted to share this guest post I wrote that is featured on a few blogs.  🙂 Knowing you, I think you’ll find it interesting.  I wrote it to explain some of Aiden’s (and indeed, the dark hero’s) appeal to us. What do you think?  Do you love tortured heroes? Would love to hear from you.

TOP 10 REASONS WHY WE LOVE A TORTURED HERO

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a pulse will fall in love with at least one tortured hero in her life. I know Jane Austen would agree, and that should be evidence enough. But if you need more convincing, here are three more incontrovertible proofs:

  1. Mr. Darcy

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  1. Heathcliff

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  1. Mr. Rochester

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I am no exception. From the very first time I pictured Mr. Darcy’s arrogant brow disdaining the world, Heathcliff’s long fingers digging up a grave, and Rochester’s shaggy hair whipping at his jaw, I was a goner. And I knew then—I knew it like I knew the fast, strong, irrational pulse throbbing in my neck—that I would never stop loving the right wrong man. And that some day, somehow, I would write my own tortured hero.

And write him I did, in all his tormented beauty. Aiden Hale. His first name means fire in Gaelic, and his surname sounds like ice. Everything about him whispers, “darkness, darkness lies here…” From the icy sapphire eyes and the livid scar over his brow to his home, buried deep in a forest, and the relentless tension of his shoulders. Aiden Hale has a dark secret. And I fell hard all over again. That’s when I realized that my irrational pulse has its reasons—10 reasons to be exact—for loving tortured heroes.

  1. The secret nobody knows. There is nothing more compelling than a secret to keep you up at night. And no one does secrets like tortured heroes. They don’t hide small, petty banalities. They hide dark, deep, stormy things that change you forever when you discover them. Tortured heroes call to a fundamental part of our psyche: curiosity. We love to learn, and to understand. And so we stand no chance against a mystery.
  1. The face in the mirror. Tortured heroes are imperfect. They are flawed. They are scarred. They are outcasts. They screw up, over and over again. In short, they are just like us. And when we see those flaws—sometimes worse even than our own—we find companionship and understanding.
  1. The unbroken trust. Tortured heroes don’t gain your trust easily. They make you work for it. Page after page, they ensnare you into the deepest, darkest, most intimate kernel of their being. They let you into their secret. And something sacred happens when they trust us with that. We trust them right back. We know they will never, ever let us down. And just like that, we find safety.
  1. The unfailing hope. Hope never dies. At least not with tortured heroes. They remind us that change is possible; that no matter our flaws, we can always improve on ourselves; that no matter our wrongs, we can always find forgiveness. And that redemption is always possible.
  1. Forbidden fruit. How many times did my mama tell me to avoid rule breakers? To stay away from boys with tattoos and motorcycles and black eyes? Probably sensible advice for real life. But not for fantasy. Because when I want to escape, it’s never with the reliable, safe boy next door. It’s always in the strong arms of an utterly forbidden, perfectly imperfect man.
  1. Danger warning. Tortured heroes are dangerous. They tell us so themselves. Repeatedly. At first, we don’t believe them. But then a wall crumbles or a veil lifts, and we see it for the first time—that hint of danger they’ve been warning us about. Violence, possession, torment, loss, you name it. But the moment we sense that danger, adrenaline starts spiking, and we become addicted to tortured heroes for life.
  1. Sex on fire. Antiheroes are sexy. Plain and simple. Deep gazes, husky voices, whispered words. They are bad, they are ruthless, and they’ve been around the block. They have no morals; they have principles. And they don’t just take you; they possess you, because they fear it may be their one and only chance. If that’s not sexy, I don’t know what is.
  1. Survival of the fittest. Name a tortured hero who is not strong. I can’t do it. Because by the time we meet these heroes, they have already been through the blazes of hell. Sometimes hell looks like Aiden’s—war, torture, death. Sometimes, it looks like Mr. Darcy’s—the constraints of his social position. Whatever fire they had to walk through, tortured heroes have survived it. Who am I to stand against them?
  1. True love. The only way to love a tortured hero is unconditionally. You accept them with all their fatal flaws. Not despite of their imperfection, but because of it. And that’s how they love you back. They don’t know how to love half-way. They either love you with their entire being, or they don’t love at all. As my Aiden says, “Once I love, I love forever.”
  1. Protective instincts. But no matter how strong tortured heroes are, I’ve never met one that didn’t call to a protective instinct deep inside me. I want to take that vulnerable boy under all the steel layers in my arms, and guard him with my life. I will fight with best friends for my tortured heroes. I will stay up until 2:00 am, writing Top Ten posts about them. I will reincarnate them on page over and over again so they never die. I will spend sleepless nights to comfort them, and time away from my family to give them their happy ending. In short, I will protect them with my little, throbbing heart until the day I die. Because as Jane Austen would say:

They pierce my soul.

Want to read more about Aiden and his chance at redemption? Aestas Book Blog (yep, that Aestas, I’m not joking… the Goddess of Books!) had this to say about Aiden:

“If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you’ll know that I have a weakness for tormented heroes. Don’t ask why but guys with secret pain are literally the key to my heart. And Aiden was about as tortured as they come. But I especially loved the explanation for why. Being a former soldier eidetic memory meant that he vividly and accurately remembered everything he ever read, saw, heard, tasted, experienced, and felt. Naturally given some of the more horrific memories in his past on the battlefield, this led to an extremely painful form of PTSD. And yes, while some of his behaviour could certainly be labelled extreme under normal circumstances, once you understood the reason, it made perfect sense, explained the way he was and why he held certain view points. It brought a complexity to his character that intrigued me to no end and tugged all my heart-strings.”  –  Aestas Cross, Aestas Book Blog.

Do you agree?   Would love to hear from you!

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