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
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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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?”
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
©2021 Ani Keating