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