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A Dashing Devil

Here is another excerpt from the tale with Oscar Wilde. This takes place a few chapters after the last except. To adequately capture Wilde's patterns of speech in the dialogue, I studied his quotes and writing, collecting key concepts and turns of phrase. I interspersed a few lines of actual quotes into some of his dialogue here, tweaking them to better fit the story that was unfolding. “I have a certain play, originally written in French. Salomé.” The name rolled sinuously off his tongue. “The censors have refused to license it for performance in England, but a few of my friends have put a production together in my honor. It is completely unofficial, very possibly illegal, and something I think you would find very much to your tastes. Would you care to accompany me to the performance?”

“Tonight?” I asked, puzzled by this sudden turn.

“Oh no,” he responded. “Next Friday. There are a few people involved in the production that I think you should meet. They would find you and your notions of freedom very interesting.”

“Next Friday?” I asked.

“I shall pick you up here at the hotel,” he replied.

He held me for a few moments more, then levered himself up and started getting back into his clothes.

“For the moment, I should be getting home to my wife,” he said, leaning over to kiss me on the forehead. “As it is, the glare I shall earn from Constance for coming in at this hour is likely to turn me to stone.”

He started for the door, then stopped suddenly. He turned around, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a card. He came up and placed the card on the night stand.

“That is the name of my tailor,” he said. “Stop in to see him before next week.”

With that, he swept out into the night.

*                    *                   *

“So what do you think of the suit?”

I held my arms out and did a half-turn, modeling it for him. Oscar sniffed, frowning ever so slightly.

“It’s not bad as far as alterations go,” he said, “but please tell me you have Edgar working on something new.”

I nodded, smoothing the front of my trousers.

“Absolutely,” I said, “but that won’t be ready for another week. In the mean time, I had my other things altered so I could at least be presentable.”

Oscar sighed, rolling his eyes.

“My dear boy,” he began dryly, “if you gain just one thing from our time together, please let it be my sense of fashion. While I still doubt the assertion that you are some wayward college professor, no one could deny that you dress like one.” He tapped his walking stick impatiently against the tiles of the lobby floor. “And the only thing worse than seeing an ugly man in and ugly suit, is seeing a lovely man in a dull suit. It is an offense to the imagination.”

He turned crisply on his heel and started out to the carriage. He held the door for me, then heaved himself in after. When we were settled, he rapped on the roof with the top of his cane. For a little while, the most prevalent sounds were the clopping of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones and the constant creaking of the buggy’s springs.

After a while, I said, “I appreciate the recommendation of your tailor.”

The cab took a corner a little too sharply, and I grabbed for a hand-hold to brace myself. I definitely did not like this method of transportation, although I certainly preferred it to a crowded train. When we were moving along at an easier pace, I resumed.

“I was feeling very lost before I ran into you, and I’m not sure how I would have begun to navigate the city without that little push. I’m grateful, Oscar.”

Oscar beamed, patting my knee fondly.

“There is an age-old affection between a younger man and an elder,” he said, “Where the elder man has intellect and the younger has all the glory and glamour of life before him. It is only natural that I should share my greater wisdom,” he continued. He withdrew his cigarette case, offered me one, and when I declined, lit one for himself. Sighing contentedly, he loosed twin plumes of white smoke from his nostrils. His eyes sparkled when he spoke again. “In exchange for that wisdom, you dazzle and inspire me with all the fire of youth.”

“So you won’t mind if I ask you for another favor?” I inquired.

Oscar contemplated the passing scenery for a few moments, smoking all the while.

“That really depends on the nature of the favor,” he said at last.

“I’m looking for another recommendation,” I responded. “A jeweler this time. I have some gold, and I need it to be made into something.”

Oscar relaxed visibly.

“Ordinarily my boys are asking me for gold and jewels. Are you sure that’s not what you’re getting at?” he laughed, adding, “It’s a little soon for presents, my dear.”

“The jeweler would have to be discrete,” I said quietly.

He sat up straighter in his seat, taking on a stern expression.

“Have you stolen something?” he asked sharply. “I will not provide a fence for you. Morality’s like art. One has to draw a line somewhere.”

“Don’t be harsh with me,” I replied. “It’s nothing like that. These things were given to me, and believe me, I earned them. But I don’t want them, certainly not as they are.”

I felt myself flushing with heat just thinking about it, so I fell silent and forced myself to look out the window. As I watched the houses and people whizzing past me, I concentrated on calming down.

“There’s a large quantity of gold involved,” I said at last. “I simply want to turn it into something useful.”

Oscar studied me for a little while, tapping his cane lightly while he considered.

“How large a quantity?” he inquired.

“More than you’d probably believe,” I said. “That’s why I need someone discrete. I want to be able to forget about the original items. I need someone who will do the same.”

Oscar’s eyes narrowed, but eventually, his face softened. He took another drag on his cigarette and sighed through the smoke.

“There is something very mysterious about you, Matthew,” he said. “And I’m not certain how much I want to involve myself in it.” He gazed out the window, smoking. “I am someone who lives too much in the public eye. It is the blessing and curse of my genius. I cannot afford to embroil myself in skullduggery.”

“I’d rather you not be involved,” I admitted. “But if you know someone --”

Oscar cut me off with a wave of one hand.

“I shall introduce you to my friend Preston tonight. Given some of the company he keeps, I imagine he can help you. But after I introduce you to him, I want to hear nothing more of this.”

“I understand.”

“Very good,” he said. “Now, we are being too serious, and if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is taking life too seriously. We are here on this earth to enjoy ourselves, not brood about petty details. So,” he said, punctuating the word with a rap of his walking stick, “we shall go have our dinner, and then I shall introduce you to the glamorous world of Salomé.”

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The Wildes of London

Once upon a time, I wrote a story set in 1890s London. And I couldn't resist putting a few familiar faces in the tale. Perhaps the most challenging dialogue in the whole book was that involving Oscar Wilde. The man had a rapier wit and a very particular way with his words. They say he'd scribble clever aphorisms on scraps of paper and keep them stuffed in his pocket so he could roll them trippingly off his tongue at dinner parties and seem terribly adroit. I think I captured at least a little of the man's larger-than-life spirit in the following excerpt. The Wildes of London

“Aren’t you a dashing devil with that flaming red hair!”

My head snapped around in time to see a large man with heavy jowls sauntering casually toward me. He had full, pouting lips and a tousled mop of chestnut hair that curled down to his collar. He wore a fashionable checkered suit with a green carnation pinned to the lapel. I saw nothing in his expression to indicate that he actually thought I was a devil, so I allowed myself to relax, just a fraction.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

“You’ll forgive my sudden intrusion on your solitary reverie,” he began, leaning jauntily on his walking stick. “But the moment I saw you, I just had to come over and introduce myself. First of all, rarely, outside of my native Ireland, have I had the pleasure of looking upon hair so red and fine. Second of all, I am compelled to speak with any man who shares my admiration for good drapes. The curtains here at the Savoy have always been favorites of mine,” he said, smiling expansively. “Unlike the curtains at the Alhambra which, in my humble opinion, are excruciatingly plain.”

I dropped the tassel and just stared for several moments.

“I’m not quite sure I know what to say,” I responded carefully.

At this, his smile widened ever further.

“Then say nothing,” he advised with an elegant gesture of one hand, “And people will believe that you are thinking everything.”

I laughed despite myself and stood, extending my hand to him. His large-knuckled fingers nearly dwarfed my own.

“I’m professor Matthew Warren,” I said automatically. I wondered if that had been a good idea, but the words were already out.

“A professor?” he inquired archly, briefly squeezing my hand. “I’m a great fan of men of letters. They usually say terrible things about my plays, thus getting the common people to go see them.”

He chuckled at this, eyes sparkling.

“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, sir,” I admitted. “I still haven’t caught your name.”

He settled his big-boned frame into the oxblood chair across from mine and motioned for me to be seated again.

“The world calls me Oscar, and you may do the same,” he said expansively.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Oscar,” I responded.

There was a buoyancy of mood to him that was contagious. I found myself feeling better for his company.

“I assure you, the pleasure is all mine,” Oscar replied. He daintily crossed his legs, folding his hands on the top of his cane. “I have a sincere admiration for men who define their own fashion, and I find your hair quite stunning. How long has it taken you to grow it to that length? I’ve only seen women with such a long braid, and I’ve never dared ask those sphinxes their secrets.”

“Well, I’ve never cut it, if that’s what you’re asking,” I replied, adding a smile to take the edge off this evasion.

Oscar nodded sagely.

“You say you’re a professor?” he pursued. “What’s your area of expertise?”

“Classics.”

“Really? I have a great love for the Greeks,” he said wistfully. “I often wish I’d been born in those antique days when you might pass a god walking along the street. That was an age big enough for a man like me. But instead, I’m confined to this small world of even smaller men.”

He glanced out the window and sniffed disdainfully.

“I’ve been doing that all day,” I said. “Looking out the window at them, wondering if their world has any room for me in it.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” he replied glibly. “That’s why we define our own space in spite of them, like modern Samsons, knocking the pillars of the temple down if that’s what it takes to be free.”

His eyes met mine, and there was a promise there that lifted the pall from an otherwise dreary afternoon.

“Thank you,” I told him. “I think I needed to have this conversation.”

“Then would you like to continue it?” he asked, eyes alight. “I was just seeing a friend off a moment ago and was on my way to dine when I caught sight of your beautiful hair. I’d love for you to join me at dinner. I have a private room at the Solferino already waiting.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready to go out just yet,” I demurred. “The city has been very distracting.”

“Well, Matthew, I would love to be distracted with you, if only you would allow me to show you around.” With an elegant wave of one hand he said, “Come. We will go and be Titans together. London will be the new Greece, and we will reinstate the worship of all beautiful things.”

“I can hardly say no to that,” I said, laughing.

“Of course you can’t,” he replied, and heaved himself to his feet. “Come along, the wine is waiting!”

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Just a kiss

Another deleted scene from an ongoing work (don't ask how many works-in-progress I'm juggling right now. It probably isn't a healthy number). I don't even know if the romance blossoming in this scene will stay in the series in question. That's the great and terrible thing about writing book-length fiction. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure unfolding in your head, and at times, all the different paths and possibilities exist simultaneously. It's often hard to pick only one. Just a Kiss

“That location is important. I think there’s a chance he’ll try to use it again, and soon,” I continued. I went to my jacket to retrieve the print-out of the Street Witness map. I had just started smoothing it out on the coffee table when Lopez got abruptly to her feet.

“I’m sorry. I can’t do this,” she said.

“What?”

She started heading for the door. “I can’t do this,” she repeated. “I can’t live in your world. It’s too much.”

“Rita, wait." I scrambled to my feet and hurried after her. "I’m not asking you to believe it. Just accept that he believes it.”

She turned her back to me. I’d been so focused on my own anxieties about explaining things, I’d managed to tune out everything she was feeling. But now the connection surged open, and I belatedly felt the crushing weight of her fear.

“No. I can’t believe that things like this exist. Belief like that is what killed my mother." She nearly lost the iron in her voice to the quaver of unshed tears.

That sound wrenched at me. I reached out and seized her arm. I wasn’t sure if I’d meant to comfort her or keep her from leaving. It hardly mattered, because the minute I touched her, everything got tangled between us. I couldn’t tell where her fear ended or my urgent need to erase it began. We just clung to each other.

And then we were kissing.

*                      *                      *

I broke it off first. I wasn’t exactly sure how – I literally couldn’t remember the last time I’d been with someone and kissing felt really damned good. But underneath the urgent, breathless yearning to pull Rita as close as I possibly could was this subtle feeling of wrongness. I think she sensed it, too, but it didn’t telegraph to her body. Her hands were restless, tracing lines of sensation up and down my back through the thin fabric of my T-shirt. Whenever her fingertips brushed passed my wings, I caught my breath with the intensity of the sensation – she couldn’t feel them, but I sure as hell could. She dug in her nails when I finally managed to pull away.

Her mouth was still tilted up to me, lips plump and red from being crushed against mine. I gently gripped her shoulders, holding her at a distance while not quite able to bring myself to let go. Colors danced in the air between us, whirling like some fervid storm. My head resounded with an empathic feedback loop as everything we felt was shared and painfully amplified. She must have felt it, too, even if she didn’t understand what was happening. Her dark lashes fluttered as she slowly opened her eyes. She blinked like someone waking from a dream. Her pupils were huge, making her dark eyes appear jet-black as she gazed up at me.

“Why’d you stop?” she murmured. The words came out as a sultry purr.

“Why’d we start?” I responded carefully.

She sighed, moving to lay her head against my chest. My brain told me to keep holding her away from me. My arms pulled her in close. Her cheek made a nest of the slight depression at the base of my ribcage. “Long day. Felt good. Been wondering if you could kiss,” she responded. “You can.”

I swallowed hard. My heart knocked against my ribs like it was trying to reach her face. My pulse hammered lower, making my jeans feel too tight. Her face wasn’t the only thing pressed up against me. With suddenly dry lips, I managed to say, “I don’t know if now’s a good time.”

She shrugged against me, tracing the lines of my abdominal muscles through my shirt with the edges of her nails. She made an appreciative sound.  “I feel something every time you touch me,” she said.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“We’re adults. There’s no need to make a big deal about it.” Her hands continued lower, plucking at the waistband of my jeans.

“I’m kind of a fan of doing things only when both parties are in full control of their faculties,” I objected. Hell was it tough to get those words out. I managed to peel her away. Holding her at a distance again, I said, “And you’re not. This is something special. Regretting it later would kill that.”

She huffed impatiently at me. “Jesus, Zack. It doesn’t have to be anything. You’re attractive. I’m attracted. End of story.”

She really wasn’t making it easy to take the high road.

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The Rest is Silence

This little piece grew from a scene in a roleplaying game. I often escape to RPGs when writer's block rears its head. There is a certain immediate gratification in sharing stories and character development with other players. He swept her up, carrying her off to the little room deeper in the crypt. Then he laid her gently on satin sheets of the deepest red. He laid a chill finger lightly against her lips, whispering, "The rest is silence."

From there on, he spoke only the language of lip against lip, teasing her with the frisson of light nails dragged down bare skin.

He broke the edict once, after pulling away to slip off his shirt. Languorously she lay, studying the intricate pattern of the ritual scars curving across his torso. She was still clothed. She lifted her eyes to his, her question clear.

"For you? Nothing you do not wish. Nothing you do not invite," he murmured in response.

And then he bent over her, his white hair spilling forward to tickle her cheeks. He sought her mouth, his teeth sharp against her lip, nipping but not yet hard enough to draw blood.

He trailed kisses along her jaw, down to the little hollow where her pulse surged beneath soft skin. He laid his lips there, lightly, breathing the scent of her. He teased himself with the promise of her life and heat, eyes closed to hide the crimson fire that burned within their depths.

A kiss there, then the flick of his tongue. He held his lips upon her thudding pulse. His teeth grazed the sensitive skin, and for a moment, it seemed he teetered on the edge of seizing her -- ripping flesh to release the crimson heat within -- but he drew away, heaving a breath as he mastered himself. She watched him the whole while with half-lidded eyes.

When he bent to her again, he trailed kisses all down her neck as the nails of one hand traced lazy circles of sensation upon her other cheek, eventually twining lightly in her hair.

When he finally reached the base of her throat, he lay his body across her, wiry muscles shifting along his bare shoulders and arms. He leaned his face against hers, nuzzling, his breath soft upon her skin. And then in that place where shoulder meets neck, he took her, sealing his mouth around the flesh and teasing with his tongue before finally slashing with the two sharp teeth.

Stars stood out briefly upon her vision with the two brilliant points of pain. And then rolling, cresting pleasure followed the sweet flow of blood - not much, it seemed, just enough to taste, enough for his magic to connect. She felt his tongue dart along the edges of the little wounds, summoning a tangle of sensations. Pain and pleasure, sharp and soft all in a jumble.

As her blood flowed to him, the death-touched power flared upon his scars. He seemed lit from within by a glimmering dark-light, and all over his shoulders and torso, he gleamed with elegant runes. They pulsed in time with her speeding heart, and then the magic took her, too, gliding along her nerves like lightning, dancing on the inside of her skin.

They lay twined together, his mouth locked upon her flesh. But neither of them were close to their bodies. They were someplace else. Floating, immersed in sensations that had no adequate name.

When he finally drew away, she had no idea how long they had lain connected in that sweet and aching moment. He pressed lips still rouged with her blood against her mouth, questing with his tongue. She could taste herself upon him - copper and sweet.

She met his eyes again, silent in her question. His own eyes, crimson, spilled with stolen light.

"The rest we save till later. A promise, yes?"

She nodded.

He sealed it with a kiss.

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Speculations

Author's Note: A continuance of the story-thread from "Hidden Chambers of the Heart." In this snippet, Matthew seeks to learn more about what he witnessed between his former lover, Elizabeth, and the mysterious and reclusive artist, Percival Lawrence. You may recognize Matthew from my paranormal romance novel, This Heart of Flame. These snippets are excerpted from the 1998 unpublished work that gave rise to Matthew and his world. Speculations 

After what I saw that night in suite number ten, I found myself consumed with the possibility that Percival Lawrence was a vampire. I had to know more. Knowing Halaina’s own interest in the topic, I approached her butler, Robert.

"You don't think I could borrow Halaina's copy of that vampire novel, do you?"  I asked.  I felt strangely self-conscious about wanting to read it, but I knew I didn't have the patience to wait until I was through teaching classes tomorrow to try finding it at a bookstore.  With the play in town, every copy was probably sold out anyhow.

"Dracula?"  Robert inquired.

"Is there more than one?"  I responded, trying to recall some of the titles Elizabeth had mentioned to me.

"Christina Rosetti's uncle wrote one as well," he informed me.  "It's called simply, The Vampyre.  Halaina owns both of them."

"Could I borrow them both then?"  I asked. Robert quirked a brow at me and guiltily, I tried explaining, "I haven't been sleeping much the past couple nights, and I'm looking for something to occupy my time."

Still looking somewhat skeptical, Robert nodded and said, "I'll run up and get them presently.  Sarah, could you watch the front desk for a few moments?"

The coat-check girl hurried over, smiling at both Robert and me.

"Thank you, Robert," I said sincerely.  While he was away, I chatted with Sarah.   On a whim, I asked, "You don't know anything about Percival Lawrence, do you?"

"He tips well," she chirped.  "And he's always polite."

"How long has he been coming here?" I pressed.

She thought about it, then shrugged. "At least as long as I've been here, and that will be two years in the spring."

Two years.  I hadn't been frequenting Arkana for more than two months, and already everyone seemed to know there was something unusual about me.  How had Percival been coming here for two years and escaped notice?  Perhaps he and Elizabeth had only been playing out a fantasy after all.

"Is there anything unusual about him?"  I pursued.

"There's something unusual about everyone here," she responded with a little smirk.  "That's what this place is for."

I had to concede to her there.  I stopped pressing the issue and chatted with her instead about inconsequentials until, with a terrible clatter, Robert arrived back down in the elevator.  He had three volumes tucked under one arm.

"Halaina sent down a third book as well," he said, holding them out to me.  "It's a collection of stories by LeFanu.  The story she said you should read is entitled 'Carmilla.'  She marked the page.  Also, be very careful with Polidori's book.  It's from the 1820s and the spine is getting weak."

"Thank you, Robert," I said, glancing at each of the three covers.  Wesley was right.  Dracula was lurid.  Bright yellow, with red lettering, it had a picture of the Count crawling head-first down a castle wall.  There was nothing at all romantic or compelling about the portrayal.  Did the publisher even realize what the tale was about?  "Give Halaina my thanks as well.  I'll have these back to her before the week is out."

Robert nodded.  Sarah ran off to retrieve my hat, cloak, and cane.  Remembering what had stood out in her mind about Percival Lawrence, I gave her a sizeable tip and headed out into the night.

I spent the remainder of the night and most of the next morning reading.  If I had been expecting Stoker's book to be great literature, I was sorely disappointed.  The first fifty pages were almost enough to discourage me from reading any further, and once I got past the limping introduction, the tale, with all its tedious melodrama, wasn't much of a reward.  Polidori's shorter novel was no better.  The introduction to the characters Aubrey and Ruthven seemed promising, but then the tale degraded into a series of lurid events and coincidences that seemed a stretch of the imagination even in a Gothic romance.  LeFanu's story was more satisfying, although the ending seemed a bit contrived.  By the time I was ready to head off to the college, I found myself more confused about the subject of vampires than when I had started out.

All three stories agreed on one point: vampires drank blood.  Beyond that simple fact, individual interpretations varied widely.  Both Dracula and Carmilla preferred to sleep during the day, and when they had to be up before sunset, they struggled against an overwhelming sense of torpor.  Ruthven didn't seem to mind the day, so long as he had his requisite moonlight.  Dracula had an affinity for wolves, while for Carmilla it was great cats.  Garlic, wild roses, mirrors, stakes through the heart -- all the rest of it was a confusing jumble of nonsense.  Trying to get to the heart of what each story portrayed, I came to the conclusion that a vampire was something -- Stoker had used the term undead -- that had once been mortal and human, but had somehow become changed.

Of course, here was where I had a little laugh.  All three stories implied that this change involved the working of infernal powers, a fact which I knew to be patently false.  Thomas White had made the same mistake of assuming that those creatures he understood to be demons, and therefore infernal, could somehow confer upon him immortal life and magickal powers.  Immortality wasn't something I could give away, though sometimes I'd have loved to exchange it.  And I didn't know anything of magick.  In fact, I made it a point to avoid the kinds of people who did.   I knew about spirits and ghosts, but only because I cohabited with them for the better part of my existence.  Once White had exhausted all my knowledge in that area, there was precious little he could get from me except sex and slave labor.

I mulled things over while I walked to the school.  I knew one thing for certain.  My kind had nothing to do with the creation of vampires.  If we did, I'd know a great deal more about them than I did.  I almost wished I had devoted a little more time to folklore.  Considering what I was, it seemed only reasonable that I would, but frankly I'd avoided all things occult precisely because of my nature.  My existence was strange and complicated enough without adding anything more to it.  Whenever I had a say in the matter, I devoted my time almost exclusively to carnal and aesthetic pursuits.  But now I wondered if there wasn't a bit more to the world around me.

Fiction was clearly no help, so after my afternoon lectures, I strolled over to the university library. I was surprised to discover the extent of their collection on mythology and folklore. After spending more than two hours pouring over various esoteric texts, however, I only succeeded in confusing myself further with regards to the undead.  The more I read, the further away seemed the possibility that Percival was anything other than an ordinary man with a less than ordinary fetish.  Yet my brief foray into the texts on demonology which I also found in the university’s collection convinced me that no one who claimed to know anything about the supernatural had any idea what they were talking about.  If the texts on demons were so far from the truth, then it only made sense that any information I might find on vampires was equally skewed.

Of course, I should have realized all that from my readings the night before.

Finally, I abandoned my research, admitting to myself that I had no head for the occult anyway, and neither did any of the other scholars whose works I had spent the afternoon studying.  I decided to meet Percival Lawrence on my own terms.  I wasn’t certain it was the wisest idea, but I determined to seek him out in his home. Charity was a small town. It shouldn’t be difficult to learn where he lived.

 -- M. Belanger

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Hidden Chambers of the Heart

Author's Note: This is another excerpt from the 1998 work which gave rise to most of the characters in This Heart of FlameHere, the incubus Matthew discovers that he is not the only one at Club Arkana who has a secret, and to sate his curiosity, he secretly spies on his ex-lover Elizabeth with her new beau, Percival Lawrence. (this snippet occurs prior to the events of "Keeping Secrets," published earlier to this blog): Hidden Chambers of the Heart

Elizabeth sat at a small table tucked far away in a remote corner of the club.  She was still looking pensively at herself in the mirrors, but she was no longer alone.  A man sat across from her, reading to her from a book that lay open between them.  She strained forward to hear him, her eyes gleaming.  She had every look of heightened arousal about her; the flush on her cheeks stood out starkly against her pallid face.  Her features were suffused with an agonized yearning, yet strangely she did not look at her companion.  Her rapturous eyes were fixed upon her own reflection in the mirror, as if part of her arousal lay in seeing it etched upon her face.

I held back, studying the scene.  Her companion was none other than Percival Lawrence, the member of the club who had stormed from the stage production of Dracula a few nights before.  Although it was hard to be certain, I suspected that he was reading to her from that self-same story.  The lurid yellow of the binding was just visible beneath the outspread pages.  My curiosity aroused, I found an unoccupied table nearby and settled down to watch them.

Over the music of the orchestra and the murmur of the patrons, I could almost hear him.  I couldn't catch any words, but it seemed that there was something deep and richly mellifluous pitched just beneath the usual sounds of the club.  As I strained to listen, the velvet undertone faded away, and he closed the book with a sense of finality.  It was indeed Dracula.  Elizabeth looked from the mirrors along the wall and regarded his eyes through the smoked glasses Halaina said he always wore.  He lifted a hand to caress her face.  He wore his nails longer than most men, but on him, it gave his long fingers an added elegance.  He whispered something to her, earnestly regarding her with dark, half-hidden eyes.  She shivered and placed her gloved hand over his, pressing it further against her cheek.  Then, fluidly, he rose, turning his hand around to clasp hers.  With a genteel and studied grace, he led her toward the back rooms.

I was going to leave them to their private pursuits, and let my issues with Elizabeth drop right then.  It was clear to me that she had found another surrogate for her obsessive fantasies, only this time she had chosen a darker angel for her romance.  Percival certainly fit the part with his unnatural pallor and dark, burning eyes.  I found myself wondering what he would do to her with those graceful long-fingered hands.  Curiosity got the better of me, and I strode from my table, hurrying to see which room they would escape into so I could find the corresponding viewing chamber.

I made it through the mirrored doors just in time to see Percival closing a door behind them.  To my disappointment, it was suite number ten.  One of the few rooms back here that afforded no peepholes for voyeurs. Then I remembered Halaina’s secret panel, giving her the only access to that supposedly private room from her personal suite.  Feeling supremely naughty and all the more excited for it, I walked back to Halaina’s rooms and, not even bothering to turn the gaslights on, slipped immediately into the little closet that served as a viewing chamber. I settled quietly as possible onto the trunk pressed against the wall and leaned my eye up against the peep hole.  The lighting in the next room was frustratingly low, but once I adjusted, I could see the two figures clearly enough.

Percival had taken his jacket off and lain it over a chair, but still retained his shirt, vest, and trousers.  The book, I noticed, sat on the seat of the chair, partly obscured by his jacket.  Elizabeth was still fully clothed, wearing a gown of deep burgundy satin accented with ribbons and lace.  The wide band of black velvet she had taken to wearing was still snugly in place on her throat.  The hint of a smile playing about her darkly rouged lips, Elizabeth bent over a Victrola, her little hand slowly working the crank.  While she was thus occupied, Percival carefully removed his dark glasses and set them aside.  The change was remarkable.  His eyes were deep-set and very striking.  For a moment, I was reminded of the actor Alexander's burning gaze which, turned even briefly upon the audience, sent the ladies swooning.  In the next moment, Percival had shaken loose his hair.  The gleaming dark waves fell a little past his shoulders, spreading across his back and curling softly around his face.  The frame of dark hair made his face seem gaunt and starkly pale.

Elizabeth finished with the Victrola, and the music of a waltz rasped into the room.  Brahms, I thought, though it was distant and thready from where I sat.  Percival approached her, took her hand in his and bowed over it, bringing it gently to his lips.  She whispered something, and her eyes were enormous, glinting as they had when she had been lost in her reverie on angels that night with me.  Then he took her in his arms and they danced, slowly, sedately, keeping flawless time to the music.

I leaned back from the peephole to give my eyes a rest.  It was strange.   I had never seen Elizabeth this subdued, at least sexually.  She clung to Percival as they danced, and I could hear those sonorous silken tones of his rumbling underneath the music of Brahms.  He seemed to be soothing her.  He stroked her hair, leaning his cheek against her cheek and murmuring in her ear.  She shivered against him and looked ready to weep with the intensity of her feelings.

They danced together until the end of the song.  Then Elizabeth paused to switch the music.  Now the Victrola played something low and almost threatening.  Minor chords filled the room, deepening the shadows.  Mozart's Requiem.  It didn’t strike me as exactly a romantic air. Elizabeth reached up and unfastened the ribbon at her throat, letting it drift to the floor.  Then she returned to Percival, and they swayed together slowly in a modified waltz step to the new music.  Percival bent as if to whisper something in her ear, but this time he lightly kissed her jaw.  She shivered again, her eyes half-lidded.  She let her head drift back, arching her neck a little toward him.

Still swaying as the music crescendoed, Percival bent and kissed her throat.  The way they were standing, I could see her face over his shoulder as her features alternately flushed and grew pale.  Her lips were parted and her eyes tightly closed. She looked for all the world like a woman at the very apex of her passion, and yet all Percival continued to do was bend with his lips to her throat.

I desperately wanted to see what he was doing, but his back was mostly toward me, and when he bent over her neck, his long dark hair fell like a curtain across his face, covering her throat and cascading down her bare shoulder.  Elizabeth arched suddenly against him, back bowing against her corset, her head thrown back and her eyes tightly shut. Her fingers were hooked like claws into the back of his vest. I could hear mewling little cries escaping her throat. Percival remained transfixed, his face buried against her throat, those long-fingered hands steadying her at her shoulders and her waist.

I strained against the wall in the closeness of the closet.  They still did not move, only grew more intense in their posture.  What kind of hold did this fantasy have upon her, if she could be thus transformed by a simple kiss?  Or was it something more?  I thought of Halaina and her discussions about the compelling figure of Dracula.  But of course, that was a play. I had never met a vampire, nor did I know that they could exist. Yet now, I felt the thrill of possibility aching in my chest.  Could Percival be such a creature?  And was I, an incubus, in a position to doubt such a thing?

But maddeningly, all I saw in the room beyond were two people locked in an intense embrace.  And even without his curtain of hair, I doubted I would have been able to see anything significant.

Suddenly as it had begun, it ended.  Elizabeth gave a little gasp, and seemed to swoon in Percival’s arms.  He caught her delicate body easily, lifting her onto the bed.  He eased her against the pillows, and all the while his back was to me.  He leaned over her, and I heard the resonant tones of that soft, deep voice.  Her name, perhaps, said soothingly several times over.  The long-nailed fingers of one elegant hand tenderly stroked her cheek.  She stirred beneath his touch, her eyes fluttering against pale lids.  Percival left her stretching languorously on the bed while he bent to retrieve the ribbon for her throat. Now his face was to me, but there was nothing I could read into his pallid, foreign features.

Then something strange occurred.  As Percival crouched for the ribbon, he brought his head up sharply, searching the room in my direction.  He was poised on the balls of his feet, elbows resting on his knees, the ribbon held loosely in the fingers of one hand.  It was a strangely feral pose.  There was no way he could see me. I was hidden on the other side of the wall, and even the little peephole that afforded my vision of the darkened room was minuscule, cunningly hidden among the pattern of the wallpaper. Nevertheless, he fixed his gaze on me.  It was impossible, yet there he was, looking directly at me.  His posture tensed more severely and for a moment, I could have sworn his dark eyes gleamed with a light of their own.

“When I discover who you are,” he growled, the velvet tones of his voice carrying clearly to my ears, “There will be a reprisal.”

I sat in the closet, stunned, every nerve jangling. Percival shot a final look of warning in my direction, then turned swiftly to where Elizabeth still dozed upon the bed.  Hurriedly, he retrieved his jacket, book, and glasses, then helped rouse Elizabeth.  She seemed dizzy and weak, murmuring and leaning against him. He helped her stand, practically carrying her. Never once did he take those smoldering eyes off of me. Shaken, I had to pull away from the peephole. I couldn’t bear the weight of those eyes one moment more. There was definitely something unusual about the artist Percival Lawrence, and sitting in the shadows of Halaina’s private rooms, I vowed that I would discover the truth, regardless of his threats.

 -- M. Belanger

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Keeping Secrets

Author's Note: In September 1998, all in a flurry, I wrote a piece of historical fiction (these days, it would be labeled paranormal romance). It ended up being about 200,000 words long and in desperate need of revision. Parts of it come together in later works (many of the characters from that initial, rambling piece ended up in This Heart of Flame), but I was never able to salvage the original book. I've picked and poked at it over the years, because there are scenes I wish I didn't have to lose -- but they exist now like islands that were once the tops of mountains, jutting up from the water after a terrible flood. One of these lonely fragments appears below. The narrator is Matthew, who also narrates This Heart of Flame. He's learned a secret about the artist Percival Lawrence -- a secret he breaks into Lawrence's house to confirm. Keeping Secrets

Percival's house was all darkness.  I let my horse trot up to the front lawn, then slid off his back.  Stroking his flank, I made certain he would wait for me.  He stepped out into the lawn and began patiently cropping grass.  Silently, I crept around the outside of the house.  I noticed a sliver of light, muted and weak, slipping out from one of the basement windows.  That was where I would look first.  I stepped around to the back door.  It was, of course, locked.  I planted my hands above and beneath the knob, pushing inward with gradually increasing force.  I heard the snap before I felt the thing give, and I caught myself just in time before all my weight carried me crashing to the floor.

The door swung inward, creaking.  I stepped into a kitchen as pristine as it was unused. The lack of foodstuffs hardly counted as proof, but I added it mentally to my growing list of peculiarities connected with Mr. Percival Lawrence.

Everything was utterly silent.  It was unsettling.  I closed my eyes, trying to feel where he might be.  Even to my subtle senses, however, the house seemed empty.  Either Percival truly was not home or his talent for going unnoticed extended even to the subtle level.  I suspected it was the later.  Regardless of what my senses were telling me, I was certain he was here somewhere.  The basement seemed the likeliest place.  I searched around for a way down, and was rewarded when I caught sight of a faint sliver of light creeping out beneath a door set into a set of stairs.  This door, too, was locked, but it pulled outward.  It was a relatively easy task to snap the lock and pull it open.

The stairs leading down were mostly in shadow.  Only a faint light filtered up from the rooms below.  I leaned cautiously onto the first step, hoping it would not creak.  I pressed my hands against the walls on either side of me to lessen the impact of my weight.  Satisfied that I could proceed in relative silence, I glided the rest of the way down.  All I could see at the bottom was a blank wall.

The stairs were enclosed, so I had to wait until the last step to even look around.  From what I could see of it, the basement had been made into a studio.  Crates and chunks of stone were arranged in a near corner.  The lightsource was coming from my left.  I crept round the corner of the stairs and started into that room when something leapt out at me.  It had been crouching in the shadow of the staircase, lying in wait.  Too quickly for me to react, I felt hands seize upon my shirtfront.  I was lofted into the air and carried backward, pinned against the wall.

I looked down at my captor.  If there had been any doubt in my mind what Percival Lawrence was, they were laid to rest in that instant.  Percival stood beneath me, holding me above his head, his features fixed in a snarl of rage.  His lips were drawn back from his teeth, and I could distinctly see his pronounced canines.

"You!"  he growled.

I let him dangle me in the air, the bricks of the wall pressing roughly against my back.  If he expected me to struggle or cry out, he was disappointed.  I was staring in wonderment at what I saw in his mouth.

He seemed to quickly realize this.  Not relinquishing his hold on me, he closed his eyes briefly, apparently trying to master himself.  The expression of fury seemed to melt from his face.  Abruptly, he let go of me, turning away with a snarl of disgust.  I slid down the wall, dropping heavily to the floor.

I crouched there, stunned to speechlessness for the next few moments, but not because of his rough treatment. Because of what I saw.

There were statues arranged throughout the room, half a dozen of them.  All were life-sized or a little larger.  They were magnificent, practically breathing with life.  Every detail was flawlessly evoked from the stone, nearly down to the pores on the skin.  I recognized a number of individuals from the club.  They may as well have been standing there before me.

"I thought you said your work was flawed," I said wonderingly. It was barely audible.  I had forgotten to breathe.

Percival rounded impatiently on me.  He was wearing a plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up.  He was covered with a fine white dust, nowhere more thickly than his hands and upper arms.  It made his already pale skin as white as the marble of the statues around him.  Flakes of stone stood out in his loose, dark hair.

"What are you doing here?"  he demanded.  He made no attempt to hide his teeth now.  The pronounced canines were obvious and menacing.  "Never sneak up on me like that.  I could have killed you."

I straightened, dusting myself off.  My attention was still captivated by all the wondrous statues.  Even Halaina's work was not so fine.

"I don't break that easily,"  I responded a little tersely.  "Percival, you never said your work was like this.  These are amazing."

I walked past him to the nearest sculpture.  It was of Elizabeth.  I caressed her shoulder and arm.  It was like touching living flesh, except that it was cold.  Smooth, perfect, every muscle could be felt beneath the skin -- it was flawless.  Her face, the way she held herself, the tilt of her head ... he had captured everything vital about her in the stone.  I could have kissed those lips.

"Don't fondle the sculpture,"  he said, his voice sharp with disgust.

Reluctantly, I withdrew my hands from the statue of Elizabeth.  "Can we talk?" I asked, hoping that despite my rude intrusion, his answer would be yes.

-- M. Belanger

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In Dreams

Author's Note: Those of you who have read my short fiction collection, These Haunted Dreams will recognize the following tale. This is the story which opens that collection and, I feel, helps set the tone for the rest of the book. This particular tale was inspired by Blue Oyster Cult's classic Don't Fear the Reaper (if you've never heard the song, listen to it here). You can see distinct echoes from the song in some of the imagery at the end. For a live reading of this haunting tale, click here.

In Dreams

He came to her in dreams.  Not every night.  No, that would have been too kind.  Instead, he teased her with his presence, coming every once in a while, seducing her twice in one week, and then disappearing for almost a month at a time.

The dreams, when she had them, were wonderful.  In her waking hours, she would hear the velvet of his voice, the soft breath against her ear.  The memory of his words was so vivid that it drowned out every other sound on her morning ride to work.

And his touch.  Whenever he came to her at night, all the next day, she could feel him still, like soft electric fire burning in her skin.  Sometimes she would sit at her desk for hours, staring blankly at the computer screen, completely caught up in the memory of his hands all over her.

She did not know him, this strange dream lover.  His face was one she had never seen before – the high, sculpted cheekbones, the thin, perfect nose, the lips that seemed chiseled from living stone.  He was pale – pale as the moon in her dreams, and it seemed that his skin nearly glowed.  Jet-black hair, like a raven’s wing, spilled over his forehead and down the back of his neck.  His eyes, too, were black, or so it seemed.  In the dreams, these held a strange dark-light, and she could never gaze on them for very long.

He would just arrive in her twelfth floor apartment, moving from the balcony to the side of her bed.  She never asked how he got there.  It was, after all, a dream.  And yet how vivid, how sensuous these dream-visits were, until she felt that she truly had a lover, even though this lover had no name.

Months into this strange seduction, she began to go out looking for him.  Somehow, she knew to seek him only at night.  She went to the bars and the nightclubs, dressing in velvet and her slick vinyl boots. Over the weeks, she saw many strange, pale people.  Once or twice, she thought she spied him, but then the young man would turn and the cheek wasn’t right or the eyes were too dim.  It seemed like he was always one step ahead of her, and she could feel his presence lingering everywhere she went.

If a club wasn’t open, she would wander the Village, sitting and watching the people walk their dogs through WashingtonPark.  Sometimes she could feel his presence moving behind her, but then she would turn, and there was nothing but shadows and the sound of the wind.  She knew that he was teasing her, leading her along in some deft seduction. The harder she sought him in the waking world, the longer it would be before he returned to her dreams.

She had resigned herself to being patient, some time after the leaves began to fall.  It was getting too cold to sit all night in the park, although she would still sometimes go out to one of the clubs.

The chill of November was in the air the night she lost her wallet.  She had money in her pocket, but it wasn’t enough to pay for cab fare.  With a bitter wind coming off of the Atlantic, she didn’t relish the thought of walking ten blocks home.  So she found the F train and tried to look inconspicuous as she waited on the platform, shivering in her fishnets and her thin vinyl coat.

It was a Sunday night.  She expected the train to be empty, but instead it had a crowd.  It was nothing compared to the hoards on the morning commute, but she still had to work to find herself a seat.  Several people were standing, fingers twined in the loops overhead. Others were stretched out across three or four spaces, vagrants escaping the night’s chill by riding the train endlessly back and forth

As it was so often lately, her mind was on him.  She gazed out the window, not even seeing the shadowed, stained walls as they sped past her eyes.  She was focused so completely on her internal landscape that she almost didn’t see the pale face reflected beside her in the grime-smeared glass. But for some reason, her eye caught the image and stuck.  It took a moment for the face to sink in.

He was sitting on the other side of the train from her, his dark eyes focused on something far away.

She turned around, half expecting him to not be there when she looked.  Like some phantasm, she feared that he existed only in the glass.  But there he was.  The lights of the subway played upon his pallor, till it seemed he should glow with a light of his own.

The train plunged into a tunnel, rattling wildly along its tracks.  Yet he hadn’t disappeared.

“You!  I know you!”

She couldn’t help herself.  The words echoed through the train.

Slowly, he turned and regarded her.  Those strange, dark eyes seemed to sizzle on her skin.

“Hush,” he said, drawing his dark coat about him.  “Don’t make a scene.  I’ll come to you tomorrow.  Just before the morning.”

The train was jerking to a halt.  He stood, and it was as if the train was moving for everyone but him.  His hands were in his pockets, and he didn’t even seem to brace his legs.  And yet so effortlessly he rose and glided to a door.  She sat riveted to her seat, her eyes, unblinking, fixed on him.  She wanted to run after him, but he was out and the door was closed before she could get her legs to work.  Her heart fluttered against her ribs like a panicked bird in a cage.

It was only after he exited the train that she realized his lips had never moved.

*                      *                      *

Tonight, she thought, and stared through the letters on the screen. Tonight, just before morning.

In agony, she struggled to focus on her work.  His voice had been exactly like it was in her dreams.  But had she dreamed it?  His lips had never moved.  The other passengers, though they reacted to her outburst, seemed insensible to him.

And the way he glided, as if gravity held no power over him!  The train could have shaken itself off its tracks, and he would have been standing there, calm and poised, with everyone else thrown to the floor around him.

What was he?  All those weeks, all those months, that question had never come.  Had she never wondered?  Or had she been afraid to ask?  Was there any chance that he would have answered as he whispered to her at night?  No, he spoke to her in dreams, but it was the language of the bedroom.  In all the time he had been coming to her, she had not even learned his name.

The day dragged by.  And then it was evening, and she made a point of taking the train. She searched the faces, but of course, he wasn’t there.

Just before morning.

She stopped at the vegetarian diner a block from her building.  But she couldn’t eat.  Every time the door opened, she almost jumped up, looking for him.

The elevator ride up to her apartment was torture.  There were five other people, all standing too close.  And of course, the worst of it was, none of them were him.

She stripped out of her work clothes and took a hot bath.  But the steam and the scent of lavender did nothing at all to soothe her.

Those eyes, those high, pale cheekbones!

She turned on the computer and surfed the ‘net.  She found herself checking forums over and over again, desperately searching for some new topic, some line of conversation that could occupy her mind.  In the reflection of her face on the screen, she could almost see him.

At nine o’clock, she took off her bathrobe and slipped on her black lace gown.  She turned off all the lights but left one candle burning, a lone tea-light in a votive holder that glimmered on her nightstand.  She lay on her back among the pillows.  She stared at the ceiling, and the flickering flame of the tea light made the patterns in the plaster come alive.

What was she waiting for?  Should she sleep?  Or did he mean he’d really come, for the first time more flesh than dream?

Eleven o’clock found her tossing, her long red hair tangled on the pillowcase.  Midnight came and went.  She got up and put on music, hoping the quiet tones would ease the wait.  The clock seemed to draw her eyes to it every quarter hour.  She turned her face away, and then would look again: one-thirty, one-forty-five, two AM.

Sometime, she dozed.  She woke to a sound on the balcony.  Somehow she heard it over all the city noise.  A gust of chilly wind greeted her as she sat up, kissing her skin through the thin lace of her gown.

There was a light out there.  She could see it glowing faintly through the muslin of the curtains.  Twelve floors below, motors growled and horns blared.  Four-thirty in the morning.  New York was never asleep.

She pushed the covers back and placed bare feet upon the floorboards.  The chill brought her more awake.  She was awake.  She was sure of it.  This was no dream.

And then that figure moved behind the curtain.  The soft glow upon the balcony marked his stately silhouette.  He was thin, so thin and delicate, and yet she knew the strength that vibrated in those limbs.

He didn’t have to call to her.  She threw open the doors.  He was leaning against the balcony railing, arms crossed upon his chest.  The wind blew his hair about him and she thought of ravens taking flight.

She ran to him, her arms outstretched.  She had no words for the joy she felt, the profound sense of completion.  When he moved, the wind caught the edges of his long silk trench.  It made a sound like wings.

Then the wings were everywhere, and the wind, and the lights of the city as they streamed by like a river that had burst its banks.  And the stars that were streetlamps and the stars in the sky went all topsy-turvy until finally she felt herself in his arms.

They were standing on the pavement, twelve floors below the balcony’s edge.  She could still see the cars and streetlights, but strangely, the city seemed to hold its breath.  The sounds were distant and muffled.  Even the sirens were quiet as they came, heralded by flashing lights.

“I can be with you,” she murmured, breathless.

“You are with me,” he said.

She felt his hands squeezing her shoulders.  They were cold, but they were his.  She laid her head against his chest.  She heard only the wind.

“You have no heartbeat,” she whispered.

“No,” he said.  “I never have.”

Softly, he stroked her hair.  She gazed up at him, and found she could meet those dark and distant eyes.

“How did we get here?” she wondered.  “I mean down here, on the street?”

He pointed to the pavement behind her.  She almost didn’t look.

The flashing lights were a blur around her.  The cars and people screaming were hazy and indistinct.  It was like standing in an impressionist’s painting of the city, everything too blurry to be real.

“How did that happen?” she asked.  She cringed away from it, clinging to his chest.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” he responded.  “You wanted to be with me.”

“To be with you…” she sighed.

His arms were cold around her, but still she found comfort in that embrace.

“Take me away from it,” she pleaded. “Take me away from it all.”

They turned away from the mess on the pavement. Her hand in his hand, they danced away on the wind.

--M. Belanger

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Consuming Passion

Author's Note: First warning - this is long. Second warning - this is not only a fragment. It is a lost shard of story from a novel I first wrote in 1998 and rewrote to death thereafter. The whole can never be recaptured. Although parts of it come together in my novel This Heart of Flame, that novel bears very little resemblance to the original, which is a kind of dreamy paranormal romance between the demon-lover Matthew and artist Halaina. There's parts I like. There's parts I hate. And you can tell this is some of my older work because the writing is very densely packed. I've learned to streamline a bit since this time (though I still love my language, perhaps a little too much). Nevertheless, there are moments here I think are beautiful, even though the story as a whole is lost. A little backstory: The two characters here have just come from a theater presentation of Dracula, arranged by Halaina's one-time lover, Darius del Reginas (renamed Angelo in this version). The play was an attempt to break the ice regarding the topic of the supernatural between Halaina and Matthew, as she suspects there's something up with her favorite youthful model.

The Studio. Revelation.

It was nearly two in the morning when we arrived back at the Radenthall.  Robert had left the lights on in Halaina's studio, and an easel and sketchpad were already set up.  Huge windows lined the eastern wall, built to catch as much light as possible.  There were heavy curtains drawn across them now to keep out the unseasonable chill.  Canvases of various dimensions and states of completion leaned up against one wall and a number of other projects in process lay scattered throughout the room.   Halaina worked in a wide variety of mediums, her talent shining through in virtually anything she turned her hand to.

Near to the easel, in roughly the center of the studio, there was a long chaise-lounge surrounded by two Greek-style columns, each fashioned to look broken-off at about waist level.  A familiar length of white silk had been thrown over the back of the couch.  Halaina went over to a stand and selected a number of pencils and rubber erasers.  She set these down on the tray of the easel.  Satisfied with the arrangements, she approached me, cocking her head back a bit to meet my eyes.

"First of all, I'm going to get out of this dress,"  she told me, already pulling the pins from her hair.  She ran her hand lightly over the front of my tuxedo.  "I suggest you do the same.  If you want anything, just call for Robert.  There's wine or tea if you're thirsty, and I'm certain we have some cheese or some sweets if you're hungry."

I shook my head, saying,  "Not right now, anyway.  I'll wait here."

"Are you sure?"  she called back over her shoulder as she left the room.  "You barely picked at your dinner tonight.  You should be starving."

"Maybe later,"  I called after her.

She glided from the room.  I went over to the couch and stretched out on it.  My fingers strayed to the white length of silk, idly stroking it.  I thought back to our previous two sittings.  There was something intoxicating about Halaina.  My extreme reaction to our intimacy that first night still unsettled me.  It had almost been too much to bear.  I had wanted to ravish her, but could not.  Instead, I took my hunger out on Elizabeth.   I could see that now.  So much of what had happened between Elizabeth and me had been my fault.  I wished there was some way I could fix things, but at the same time I was happy just having Halaina.  Perhaps that should have made me feel guiltier.

I was uncertain what this night would yet hold.  Things between us thus far had been so complex, careening from one extreme of emotion to the other:  Tiberius and Endymion Wingate, Wesley Masterson, whispered intimacies in the theater box, Angelo D'Augustino, Dracula, and all the anxieties he conjured up.  I was exhausted from it already, and I knew the most crucial moments were yet to come.

After some time, Halaina returned, this time wearing a flowing dressing gown of dark red silk.  She looked over at me, her features a mixture of impatience and amusement.

"Didn't I tell you to get undressed?"

"I completely forgot,"  I said.  I still clutched the length of white silk, my fingers idly caressing it in time to my thoughts.

"I suppose I'll have to do it for you,"  she smiled.  "Stand up.  I know you said you weren't hungry,"  she added, "but I've asked Robert to put together some light snacks.  I know I'll want something to eat soon, and I can't keep him standing around waiting to play cook for me.  I understand there's quite a crowd downstairs now that the theater's let out."

She proceeded to quickly and efficiently disrobe me, folding my clothes in a neat pile and setting them aside.  Naked, I stood before her, my arms held loosely at my sides.

"Has anyone else found it strange that you don't sweat?"  she asked, holding my shirt up to the light, then setting it aside with my other clothes.

The clenching that I felt in my chest.  Was it fear or excitement? "I beg your pardon?"  I asked.

"Oh, don't give me that,"  she teased.  "That theater was positively stifling.  I had my fan, little good that it did, but you sat all the way through it and didn't even take your jacket off."

Once again, Halaina's perceptiveness astounded me.  And caught me off guard. "Heat doesn't really bother me,"  I ventured.

If Halaina found this answer inadequate, she did not say.  Instead, she moved in front of me, studying the lines of my body.  She walked back to the gas switch once or twice, adjusting the level of lighting until she had things just right.  She turned me this way and that, still making a show of studying the play of light and shadows on my flesh.  Her eyes were intense, probing, and amused all at once.

"What?"  I asked when I could stand it no more.

She stepped right up to me, so we were almost nose to nose. "There are secrets about you, Matthew,"  she said.  "And I told you before, I will find them out."

She leaned tremulously closer, and our lips almost met.  I could feel that strangeness on the air between us, like the lightening of a breaking storm.  Then she stepped away and was suddenly all business.  She took up the piece of white silk and smoothed out the cushions on the couch.

"I want you to lie supine,"  she told me.  "Lean your back here and lay one arm along the back of the couch."

There was little else I could do but obey.  The secret territory she had hinted at just moments before was still forbidding to me.  As much as I wanted to confide in her, the prospect frightened me.  I could not banish the last images of the play from my mind.  Dracula, paying with his life for not being human.  Mutely, I sat down and allowed her to position me.

"One leg raised,"  she said, bending the aforementioned limb at the knee.  "The other stretched out.  Like that.  Good."

She moved her hands all over me, nudging here, guiding there.  Her fingers were cool but not cold, and they felt delightful against my warm flesh.  I felt the first thrill of hunger begin to rise.  I shivered with the intensity of it, fearful lest it grow to become as overwhelming as that first time.

"Your skin color is extraordinary,"  she mused, laying her cool hand on my chest and comparing her pale flesh to my own.   "Golden. So exotic. I wish you knew your parentage,"  she went on, experimenting with laying the silk across my supine form.  "I'd be curious to know what countries came together to make you."

"British, I suppose,"  I replied.  The silk was cooler than her hands and the liquid folds tingled along my flesh wherever they touched.  I wanted to reach out and touch Halaina, but I held the pose she had put me in.  It was comfortable enough on the couch, and I thought the less I touched her, perhaps the less I'd yearn to touch her more deeply.

"So you said,"  Halaina replied.  She took special care when laying the silk over my sex, making certain that a hint of my shape showed in the lines of the cloth.  Then she reached up and undid the ribbon in my hair, twining her fingers through my loose curls and spreading them out on my shoulders and neck.  She pulled a few short locks into my face, a technique I knew heightened my boyish, playful appearance.

"There's something a bit too exotic about you for England,"  she said, her fingers lingering on a curl.  She turned the hair this way and that, letting the gaslight glint off the reddish-gold highlights.  "You always remind me of Greece when I look at you, but the Greeks had those dark eyes and hyacinth hair."

I shook my head. "Not so.  Sappho's daughter was a blond.  She mentions it in one of her poems.  A lot of the Greeks and the Romans for that matter were fair,"  I said.  "It's a common misconception to assume that the people in those countries today are perfect representatives of their ancient predecessors."

"I suppose you're right,"  Halaina allowed, stepping back to observe the way the silk draped over my hips and thighs.  "But don't tell Angelo.  He prides himself on his Roman heritage.  He hates being called Italian.  Speaking of which ... "

She turned and retrieved the bouquet from where she had left it near the door. "Roses and lilies,"  she muttered to herself, picking at some of the most prominent blooms.  "My, but he's getting deep.  Roses for passion.  Lilies for chastity.  Ugh."

She slid a few of the long-stemmed roses out of the bouquet and set them on the silk.  The blooms lay upon my hip, while the stems curved gracefully along my thigh.

"That's all for now,"  she said, poking once more among the white and scarlet blooms.  "I wonder if I could make a garland for your hair out of these?  Perhaps later,"  she decided, and set the bundle down near her easel.

I lay on the couch, content to just watch her.  I was a little relieved we had changed the subject, even if it had meant discussing Angelo.  But that was not to last.

"You have such ancient eyes, Matthew,"  Halaina observed, taking her seat at the easel.

"They've seen a lot."

"Yet you're so young,"  she continued, picking out a pencil and beginning a few preliminary strokes.  "You say you're only twenty-five.  I'm thirteen years older than you.  Does that bother you?"

"Age has never meant much to me,"  I replied, trying to keep my face neutral for the picture.

She focused her attention on the paper in front of her and remained intent on her pencil-strokes for some time. "Tell me,"  she said at length.  "What did you think about the play?  You seemed quite agitated toward the end."

My response was immediate. "It was terrible, the way he died!" The emotions that final scene had inspired threatened to overwhelm me.  Loneliness.  Alienation.  Fear.  I had to hold very still to keep from breaking my pose.

"But I thought you didn't like vampires,"  she teased.  "Silly nonsense, isn't that what you said? Why so sympathetic all of a sudden?"

"Did he really deserve to die like that?"  I asked in a plaintive tone.  "Everything he did was natural to him.  Yet they needed him to die because he broke their rules.  It's not fair."

I realized that the sound of Halaina's pencil had stopped.  She was staring at me, those emerald eyes keener than any I had known.  I wondered if she had realized I couldn't really lie to her.  She had stopped asking direct questions quite some time ago.  Everything was phrased so I could dodge, if I really wanted to.  And she seemed able to read a great deal into what was left unsaid.

"Halaina,"  I asked, wishing once more there was not this distance between us enforced by her ritual of art.  "What attracts you to me?"

She set her pencil down completely and stood to stretch.  She paced the room for a bit walking over to the windows and opening the curtains.  Night still reigned outside, deep and velvet black.  A few lights from the city shone in the gloom.  The sky was void of stars.

"I like youth, Matthew,"  she began.  "You've seen my work, so you know this already.  But you aren't just a pretty boy who models for me.  There is something very complex about you."  She turned and stood before the windows.  The blackness of the night behind them turned them into mirrors.  Her reflection hovered over the city like a ghost.  She lay her hand against the glass, peering thoughtfully into the night. She said,  "You are youthful in appearance, but you have those brilliant, ancient eyes."

She stepped over to the couch and ran her fingers up my torso, lingering at my cheek.  Her hands held the chill of the windows, and it clung from her to my flesh.  Then she drifted away, continuing her circuit of the room.

"There is a sense of innocence about you, yet you seem replete with all the carnal knowledge of the world.  You dress like a dandy,"  she said, pausing the run a hand over my discarded clothes, "yet you are a professor of Classics at a prestigious university.  How many extremes can come together like that in one person?  You're mysterious.  I want to understand you."

There was a polite rap on the doorframe.  Robert stood there in his uniform, holding a tray out in front of him. "I apologize for the delay, Halaina,"  he said, walking the tray over to a sideboard located against the near wall.  "But I got a bit more elaborate than you requested.  You haven't been eating regularly of late."

Steam rose from a pot of tea set to one side of the tray.  Steam likewise rose from two of the three plates of food he had prepared.  Halaina strode over to investigate, drawn by the savory scent carried on the steam.

"You really didn't need to go to this much trouble,"  she said, picking up a little wedge of pastry and biting into it.  After savoring the first hot mouthful, she changed her mind.  "Thank you.  It's wonderful.  What would I do without you, Robert?"

"The least would be to starve,"  he said with a hint of a smile.  His brown eyes, always so observant and calculating, were warm when they fixed upon her.  "It is always a pleasure to serve you, Halaina,"  he continued, punctuating his words with a little bow.  "If you need anything else, I shall be downstairs."

He turned and glided from the room.

"Are you sure you don't want to sample any of these?"  Halaina asked, taking up a second pastry.  "No.  Wait.  Stay right there.  I wouldn't want to ruin the pose, after all."

Smiling, she lifted the tray and carried it over to the couch.  She set it down on the floor beside her and knelt in front of me.  Little meat pastries were piled on one plate while fruit pastries filled the other.  The third plate had an assortment of fresh fruit: chunks of apples, pears, melons, and a bunch of grapes.  Halaina took the bunch of grapes in her hand and dangled them over my mouth.  I caught one with my lips and tongue and pulled it from the stem.  Juice flooded over my tongue as I crushed the soft pulp of the fruit between my teeth.

"What do you like to eat?"  Halaina asked, offering me another grape.  I took this one, displaying the same deftness of lips and tongue, but declined any more.  "All you do is pick at the food at Starry Night.  Isn't it to your tastes?"

"It's marvelous,"  I said, licking the final sweetness of the juice from my lips.

"Do you ever eat because you're hungry?"  she inquired.  "Mr. Epicurean?"

I smiled at that last bit.  She remembered everything I said. "You've found me out.  I'm a glutton for sensation,"  I admitted, adding,  "There's nourishment in pleasure."

Halaina leaned onto the edge of the couch.  Our arms touched, and even that ordinary expanse of flesh thrilled me, filled me with yearning.

"Halaina,"  I breathed, inclining my head close to hers.  "You move me in ways I hardly understand."

"Tell me about yourself, Matthew,"  she asked.  Her tone was gentle, almost pleading.  She lay her head against my chest and looked up into my face.  "Tell me the truth."

Her hair spilled down my belly, the little curled ends tickling my side.  I broke my pose to cradle her, caressing her cheek and her smooth, auburn hair.

"Halaina, there is nothing I want to do more right now,"  I whispered.  "But I'm afraid."

"Do you think I'll treat you any differently if I know about you?"  she asked.  "I, of all people?" She smiled ruefully, trying to cover the expression up by burying her face in my chest.  Her breath was slow and even, each exhalation caressing the flesh nearest my nipple. "That first night,"  she murmured into me without looking up.  "When you were still a guest and you had no idea who I even was, you were ready to tell me right then, weren't you?  I saw it in you.  You wore it all over.  I've spoken to people since then.  I've heard things.  I own The Place,"  she said, fixing her eyes on mine,  "I know everything that goes on there.  I'm at heart a voyeur.  That's the only thing I require from my patrons.  I know all their secrets."

"Halaina,"  I said, and her nearness put a tremor in my voice.  "Have you ever had a secret so huge that it separates you from everyone else around you?"

She sat up and arranged herself more comfortably on the floor.  She pushed the tray a little further to one side.  The tea and pastries were cooling even as we spoke, but her hunger seemed forgotten.  I wished I could say the same for mine.

"Let me tell you about myself,"  she began.  "Almost nobody else knows.  My parents had no intention of sending me off to Europe to study art.  What they really wanted to do was marry me off to Charles.  Our two families thought it would be a perfect merger of interests.  We owned hotels.  They owned restaurants."

Her eyes grew distant as she looked back on those days.

"I liked Charles.  I really did,"  she told me.  "He was genteel and intelligent and one of the most tender men I had ever met.  We liked one another so much, in fact, that we told each other the truth.  He had a lover.  His name was Wayland.  I had a lover, too.  He was an artist who was visiting fromFrance.  His name was Georges.

"Charles and I were almost ready to get married anyway.  We could live with one another, and we each trusted the other to allow us our lives.  But I got pregnant."

I blinked.  I usually had trouble connecting sexual pursuits with the generative function.  It didn't work that way for me.  And it was always a shock to perceive one of my lovers as a parent.  With Halaina, it was impossible.  She saw my expression and almost smiled.  Her face was suffused with something bittersweet.

"My parents took the news better than I had expected,"  she said.  "They were horrified, of course, but they made the best of it.  My artistic talents were already widely known, and I had begged them to send me overseas to study.  Now they did.  Georges was a dear.  He gave me the names and addresses of all his friends and connections.  The only stipulation my parents put on me was that I stay out of society until the baby was born.  Then I was to send her to a convent to be raised."

Halaina paused and suddenly remembered the tray of food nearby.  She poured herself some tea and sat staring into the depths of the tea cup as if seeking a fortune there.

Distantly, she said, "Little Miette never made it to the convent, I'm afraid.  It was a very difficult birth.  She lasted only a few days.  I was almost too sick to see her, but I insisted.  I was holding her when she died."

Something splashed into the cup of tea, sending ripples across the golden brown depths.  When Halaina looked up again, her eyes were an unearthly color, the vivid green having been heightened by the tears which she wept.  Her lips twisted into that rueful smile again, and she dashed the tears away with the back of her hand.  I was utterly silent through all of this.  I felt paralyzed by the enormity of her revelation.

"The irony,"  she went on, after a tremulous exhalation, "was that after having one baby, I could never hope for more.  Miette tore me open.  It was a miracle I didn't die.  Oh, Matthew. There was so much blood." She trailed off, eyes distant. I knew in that moment she was seeing not merely the blood, but the face of the lost infant. I remained silent for a long while, giving her some time.

"Halaina,"  I finally said.  My throat felt tight.  I was so upset, I'd forgotten to breathe, and so her name was barely audible.

She turned to me and lifted her head.  Her look was one of triumph:  proud, undaunted. "The doctors forbade me from having sex any more because of it,"  she told me.  Her tone was more amused than lamenting.  "And I can't, really. Not that anyone in the club would believe that, except for the people who know first hand.  It was tragic, but I survived.  And when I was well again, I did what I had always wanted to do. Paris, Florence, Rome, Athens, everywhere there was something to learn, I went.  I am married to my art, and that was a wondrous honeymoon."

She looked down and sipped her tea.  I ached to touch her, ached from almost touching all that she carried within her.  I felt poured out, like everything in me had been consumed by that intimate revelation.

"Halaina,"  I said again.  Her name was all I could comprehend at the moment.

"Don't look so tragic, Matthew,"  she said, cupping her tea in her hands.  "It was terrible then when I was in the midst of it, but I survived.  Terrible things grow bearable with time."

I slid from the couch and knelt beside her on the floor, suddenly and very acutely aware of how absurd the male body looks when naked.  I took her face in my hands and pressed my forehead against hers.

"Halaina, you are the most remarkable woman I have ever touched with these two hands.  Your strength, your power, your vision, everything that I admire about you ... It is almost painful to be in your presence and not reach out to touch you,"  I said, trembling against her.  Ardently, I whispered,  "I want to give myself to you.  I want you to know."

I did not cry, but I ardently wished that I could.  Tears would have shone in my eyes when next I looked at her.  Not tears of grief, but those tears that people cry when there is no other way to express their emotion.

"Your skin is flawless,"  she whispered.  "Perfect as a statue.  More perfect, even, for statues have their flaws.  You aren't a mortal man, Matthew.  That much I've guessed.  You look too young yet everything about you speaks of great antiquity.  I can't tell you how I can tell.  Sometimes it's in your eyes, sometimes in the way you carry yourself.  But it's there, if you're looking for it.  You are a being of possibility,"  she concluded, her face pressed against mine.  "Tell me you are something wondrous, Matthew."

I could not deny her.  I knew at that moment, that everything would change.  My life would change.  Others had known before, but not this way.  This was a sharing, a communion.  Halaina had given something of herself to me.  Something rare and terrible and precious.  I could only give her something back in kind.

Suddenly restless, I kissed her briefly on the forehead and rose swiftly to my feet.  I caught up the silk from the floor and wrapped it around myself, tying it off at the waist.  It was now my turn to pace the room and gaze out the windows into the limitless night.

"This is not easy to explain,"  I began.  Then laughed at how absurd that sounded.

I paused at the windows.  My reflection stood before me in the mirror of the night, the pretty golden boy of someone else's desires.  Closing my eyes, I said,  "There are parts about it that I don't like, but I cannot change."

Halaina watched me with those intense green eyes.  I could see her reflection sitting on the floor behind my own.  I lay one arm against the glass.  The chill was sharp, and the window immediately misted over around my flesh.  I thought of all the words I could use, and I thought of the word that was the truth.  I turned around and leaned against the window, then thought better of it.  The cold outside coupled with my natural heat might be enough to shatter the glass.  I stepped a few feet away.

"There is a realm that exists alongside this one,"  I started, knowing exactly how this could sound, but too far in to go back.  "It is a space between spaces, a realm of spirit and energy that is woven throughout the world of matter."

I walked over to a collection of canvases that stood up against one wall.  I idly ran my hands over their edges, letting the rough cloth and splinters of wood catch on my flesh.

I said,  "It is a realm of shadows and ghosts.  Some people have called it Hell, but it is not that.  In the Hell people speak of, there is suffering and pain.  This realm cannot be Hell for there is no sensation.  Even suffering would be something you could feel,"  I reflected, recalling that terrible sense of disconnectedness.  Empty.  Aching.  Yearning.  Never touching, even though the minds there are legion.

"This realm is peopled with beings who have existence but no form.  They are like smoke.  They are less than smoke.  Some of them are ghosts.  Once they were human, but they got caught on this otherside.  They're bitter because without a body they can no longer feel.  They remember what it was like to be human, and their hunger for that former life keeps them lingering close to the physical realm, but never quite able to touch it."

I walked over to the couch, but stood behind it, so it separated me from Halaina.  I bent forward and picked up one of the roses.  It was wilted from being so close to me, and a little crushed.  I pressed its petals to my lips, and I could taste its rich scent lingering upon my mouth even after I drew it away.

"Some of the spirits were never human at all,"  I continued.  "They have always been a part of that realm.  They have no bodies.  They cannot feel, not in any physical sense of the word.   But they have hungers and they desire.  They hover close to this world we are in, feeding upon the shadows of our sensations.   They -- we,"  I corrected significantly, watching Halaina for her reaction.  She had not shifted position on the floor at all.  Everything about her was attentive and intense.  I felt she was memorizing my words and even how I said them.  I felt no fear from her as yet, and no disbelief.  I went on. "We cross over when we can.  There are ways people can bring us across, give us form.  Most often these people make slaves of us.  We can be bound and trapped by substance just as easily as we can be set free by it.  But we want nothing more than physical form, for with that we can feel.  Feeling sustains us.  Passion, ecstasy, desire.  For these things, we endure enslavement."

Carefully, Halaina said,  "I think I know the word we have for what you are describing."

I didn't dare look at her.  The studio seemed suddenly cavernous around me, and her voice was huge.   I was afraid she would say it.  Somehow, it frightened me to think of that word coming from her lips.  I put half a room's worth of distance between us, my restless hands tracing the lines of a sculpture in progress.  It was wax, but would soon become bronze.

"In the age of the witch trials,"  I said from the other side of the statue.  "They called me incubus.  The Muslims called me efreet, a spirit of fire.  That term captures me best, I think.  I am living flame.  Whatever this body, I am fire in my heart, and those things related to flame:  passion, lust, desire, consummation.  These things sustain me, and these things define me,"  I explained.  "That is all."

I stood with the statue interposed between us.  It was a young girl dancing, naked.  The lines of the statue were fluid and free.  The girl moved on the very threshold of womanhood, and there was something of that threshold, that ancient blood-knowledge, captured in her pose.

"No wonder you are so youthful, so perfect,"  she murmured.  "How I would look if I could choose the form I appeared in."

"We cannot choose our forms,"  I corrected somewhat bitterly.  "That is chosen for us, by those who call us here."

"And you cannot change it?"  she asked.

"Not unless I want to risk loosing it,"  I told her.   "I can let go, if I wish.  But I cannot cross back on my own."

She took a mouthful of tea while she pondered this.  Then she made a face.  The tea had gone cold.

"You lied to me after all,"  she said.  She got to her feet and walked over to stand on the other side of the statue.  I experienced a sudden jolt of fear, but was confused.  Her tone was more playful than reproaching.

"This is no lie -- "

"No,"  she said, holding up a hand to stop me.  "Not this.  That first night.  You told me about your childhood in England and about Thomas White, your guardian.  But you never had a childhood."

I tried not to visibly shake at the mention of that name.  I felt myself grow hot, hotter than I had been all night.  I quickly moved away from the statue.

"That wasn't a lie, either,"  I said miserably.  "It was only a partial truth.  Thomas White was a sorcerer.  He dabbled in the black arts.  Most of what he practiced was vile nonsense, but he knew enough to call me.  And he bound me in the form you see right now."

I turned and struck the pose he had held while conjuring.  I twisted my face, expressing all of the hate and anger and misery left over from that dark time.

"I command thee,"  I quoted,  "To take the form of a youth, golden-haired and pleasing to my eye."

His voice echoed in my mind.  I could never forget the sound of it, how it rasped against the blank stone walls.  I could smell the cellar around me, dank and musty.  Acrid incense clogged the air with greasy smoke.  The scent of blood and feces overpowered everything.

I let my hands drop to my sides.  I tried to force the images from my mind, but the memories were persistent.  Finally, I forced the buried emotions back into the darkness.  The effort left me feeling spent.

"What did he do that for?"  Halaina asked.  "Why?"

"He wanted a servant,"  I said darkly, not meeting her gaze.  "He had me do things for him.  He made me hurt people.  It was terrible,"  I said, echoing her statement earlier.  "But it's over.  I'd rather not talk about it in detail.  I want to forget I was part of those things."

"And when he died, you were free?"  she asked.

I did not answer immediately.  Finally, I nodded.

"When he died, I left,"  I responded carefully.  "And I have been free since then."

Again, silence between us.  Then Halaina, tremulous:  "How long?"

"Years,"  I said hollowly.  "Years and years.  Two hundred?"  I thought out loud.  "Maybe more.  Not much more."

"You must be terribly alone,"  she whispered.

I sat down on the floor near the statue.  My legs seemed suddenly too thin to bear my weight.  I held my face in my hands, and stared down at my perfect, flawless toes.

"Never,"  I said,  "And always.  I always have people around me.  I can never go without a lover for very long.  That's what sustains me.  But it can be so ephemeral.  It's strange how, when two bodies are their closest, the individuals can be so very far apart.  It was like that with Elizabeth.  I think I might have hurt her.  I didn't even know her.  I knew her body, but I never touched the woman."

Halaina was kneeling before me.  She took my face in her hands, held it up to look at her.  Her eyes had never been more loving, more accepting of me than in that moment.  She was all tenderness and compassion.

"Everything you've said in the past few weeks makes sense now,"  she said.  Then, "Matthew, you are so charming, so beautiful.  And it's not this outer beauty,"  she added, touching my face.  "It's you.  You are precious to me."

She took me by the hands and stood me up.  Then she leaned into me, and we embraced in a way that was intimate, and companionable, and electrifying all at once.

"Halaina,"  I whispered into her hair.

"Mmm?"  she responded, her arms hooked tightly around me.

"I have something I need to say,"  I started, realizing that this would be the most difficult statement of the past hour.  Yet it was there, tangible between us.  I could feel it in the way every part of me ached and thrilled at the same time when she was near.

She pulled far enough away from me to tilt her head up and look me in the eyes.

"Say it,"  she urged.  "Whatever it is."

"I think -- I mean, I feel ... "  I drew breath and knitted my brows with effort.  "I don't think I have ever loved anyone,"  I said after a pause.  "Not as others know love.  But I feel something I cannot name when I think of you."

"I don't have to worry about you proposing to me?"  she inquired.  Her eyes danced as she met my gaze.

Despite myself, I laughed.

"No.  I'm not the marrying type,"  I told her.  "But I want to do something for you.  I want to share it with you."

"What?"  she asked.

I shivered and grew warm at the same time.  I lay my hands upon her shoulders, then ran them down the lengths of her arms.

"Halaina, I have not touched you until this moment,"  I said.  I felt the tingling begin in my fingertips, and I let it bleed slowly out into her.  I imagined it soaking into her very pores.  She shivered against me, loosed a sussuration of breath.

"Let me touch you, Halaina,"  I said urgently.  Everything I had ever felt at her closeness rose up within me, doubled in force.  I felt swallowed by it.  "Let me touch you where no one can touch.  Let me taste your pleasure.  Let me drink it up.  Let me show you what I am, what I do.  Let me do this for you, Halaina."

When she met my gaze again, her eyes gleamed with desire.  I could feel her heart speeding up in her chest, feel her breath coming more rapidly.  Her white skin had a flush to it, yet as she regarded me, she seemed infinitely sad.

"I thought you understood,"  she said gently.  "I can't do that anymore."

"I don't mean sex, Halaina.  This is so much more than that.  I don't need to touch you there, not if you don't want.  This is what I can give you,"  I said, leaving shivering trails of pleasure wherever my fingers touched.  "I can touch you here,"  I told her, laying a finger against her lips, "and make your body sing."   I focused the merest fraction of my own fire into that touch and she moaned softly, her eyelids fluttering.  Then I focused on my entire body and everywhere our bodies met.  I felt the way that contact between us was charged, and I amplified it.  The space between us vibrated with unspoken potential.

"Matthew,"  she breathed, stepping away, but still rapt in it.

"Let me give this to you, Halaina,"  I said once more.

Silently, somberly, she took my hand and led me across the room to her bedchamber.

--M. Belanger

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