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.