As his mouth moved over hers, he could feel her conflicted emotions in the kiss, but he refused to let her push him away. He pressed his body along the length of hers. The longing to touch her, to feel her against his hot skin, was almost unbearable. He knew the precise moment that she gave up the fight. With a flick of her tongue against his she opened her soul to him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, accepting the fact that she wanted him as much as he wanted her.
He kissed her cheeks, her jaw line. When his lips found her neck she moaned aloud and arched her back against the railing of the pier, unconsciously giving him more access to the velvety skin of her throat. Her hands ran up and down his back, clutching at his shirt, nails raking the flesh underneath.
His hands hovered over her breasts, teasing and tormenting until finally moving to the buttons of her dress. He had them halfway undone before his mind registered that she was speaking. He felt her hands on his, impeding his delicate progress.
"Please – Joseph. Please, don't." She was breathing heavily and her pleas sounded almost like sobs, but he could see she that she wasn't crying. "We have to stop. I can't do this."
His breath caught in his throat. His body screamed with thwarted desire. He fought to hold himself in check. Slowly he dropped his hands and stepped away. This time he turned his back to her and stared out over the black water. Clouds obscured the moon and he couldn't see her face. He spoke to the waves, "I'm sorry. I misread the situation, I guess. I don't want to pressure you into something you don't want to do."
When she didn't answer, he thought he could feel his heart crack just a bit. The moon emerged from behind the clouds and he could see her face once more.
Her eyes were downcast. Slowly her hands moved to her throat. "I… I'm scared, I suppose." She lifted her eyes. There was no mistaking the desire burning in them. "You haven't misread anything - I want you, I want this. But I'm scared to have it just this once and then have to live without it. I can't give up my duty. Not until Mia takes the throne. I can live with loneliness, Joseph. I can't live with both loneliness and longing."
He leaned in towards her until he was sure she could feel the same magnetic pull he did – the pull of their bodies towards each other. He looked her full in the eye, his face inches from hers.
"I can't live with that either, Clarisse. I know what is expected of you, and of me. I also know there are ways we could make this work. We have to keep our relationship secret. But if you want this as much as I do, I promise to find ways for us to be together."
"How would you do that, Joseph? Stolen moments? A shadowy pairing? It sounds like something out of a trashy romance novel." She lowered her gaze and whispered, "Is this nothing more than a cheap affair for you, Joseph?"
"You know me better than that." He leaned almost imperceptibly closer. Her breath quickened. He waited until she looked up at him again before he continued. "You are the great love of my life, Clarisse. And if you will allow me, I will love you like no other. I understand that we can't have the relationship that I would like right now. But I'm willing to wait, and one day we will find a way to be together in the sunlight, as well as the shadows."
She bit her lip and took his face in her hands. She studied his eyes, looking for any lingering doubt. "I trust you," she said and he answered her with a long sweet kiss.
When they finally broke apart, she rested her head on his chest and he buried his face in her hair. He breathed deeply, forever imprinting its sweet scent on his mind.
They stood together for a long time, bodies swaying to the rhythm of the surf, soaking in each other's presence. She finally pulled back just enough to look up at him. "We should head back, I suppose," she said. "Charlotte will probably have the army out searching for us by the time we get home. Unless, of course, you were thinking ahead and rented out an entire country inn somewhere for the night?"
She hugged him tighter, enjoying the feel of the laughter in his chest.
She fell asleep against his shoulder on the drive back to the palace. He woke her gently and escorted her safely to the door of her suite. Acutely aware of the two footmen on duty a few feet away, he said his goodbye with a chaste kiss to the back of her hand and a fiery gaze that lingered just long enough to let her know what he was thinking. She smiled in return.
The next day was Joseph's scheduled day off. Clarisse spent the day straining to hear his footstep in the hallway and hoping each phone call would be from him. Finally she got up the nerve to ask Charlotte if she had seen him. She hadn't.
Clarisse left her office long after five o'clock and went downstairs to the kitchen for dinner. She ate quietly, on her own. Finally she made her way upstairs and entered her suite. She leaned against the closed door, taking a moment to rub her eyes, trying to stave off a headache.
"It certainly took you long enough."
She stifled a scream. "Joseph! You scared me half to death!"
He chuckled as he swept her into his arms and apologized with a quick kiss.
"I missed you today," she said.
"I had a mission."
"Oh, really? What did that entail?" she asked.
"A trip back to the beach and a negotiation with an artist." He indicated a large brown paper parcel leaning against the back of a couch.
She laughed with delight. "You bought the painting, didn't you?"
He nodded and indicated that she should unwrap it. She did and stepped back to admire the work.
"Oh, Joseph! It's perfect. I can't believe it!" She turned to look at him and her eyes were shining. "Did you ask him to do that?"
"No. He told me he was through with it until he saw us standing at the edge of the water. Then he decided to add just a bit more. I think it works well, don't you?"
The artist had painted two figures into the scene – a man in black and a woman in blue. They stood next to each other, their arms entwined and their faces hidden by the brim of her hat. They seemed to be at the verge of the horizon – both observing and participating in the sunset.
"I think it's magic. I love it."
Before he left her suite, he offered to hang the painting. She refused, telling him she wouldn't hang it there. This was their painting, she explained, not just hers. It would hang somewhere they could both see it whenever they wanted. He would have to wait and see where it showed up.
She helped his escape by calling her footmen in and having them arrange to have the painting moved out of her rooms. He crept out of the suite so quietly she wasn't even sure he was gone; not until she called his name after the doors were closed again. She couldn't help but sigh when there was no answer.
The next morning Joseph almost stumbled over one of the maids as he turned a corner on his way to the Queen's office for a luncheon meeting. The maid stared at a new piece of artwork hanging on the wall.
He apologized for his clumsiness and she smiled forgiveness at him.
"Isn't this a lovely painting, sir? Her Majesty had it hung this morning." She said.
"It is stunning," he agreed. After a moment's study he asked the maid, "Do you know what it signifies?"
"No, I don't."
"This painting tells the story of an ancient Genovian legend," he said. He glanced towards the Queen's office door. It was open and he could see her watching him from the doorway. He winked at her over the head of the maid.
"The story goes that the evening sky and the morning sky were deeply in love. They wanted nothing more than to be together, but their duties keep them apart. They could only meet for a few minutes each day, early in the morning and late in the evening. They held each other and whispered their love, however briefly. Then they followed their duty and separated until the sky changed again from night to day and day to night. They longed to be together always, but it was impossible. However, the few moments they spent together were so incredible that it made all the time apart bearable for them," he said.
"Oh! How sad! I've never heard that story before, but it's very beautiful," the maid said.
"Isn't it?" he asked a little bit impishly. "I can't imagine why you've never heard it before." He studied the painting closely so the maid wouldn't see the smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
"You have to finish the story, Joseph." Both he and the maid started slightly, neither having heard the Queen walk down the hallway towards them.
"Finish it?" he asked, somewhat at a loss.
Clarisse addressed the maid. "The rest of the story is that Mother Earth saw the purity of the feeling between the evening sky and morning sky. She created other spirits to take their places and nurtured the others, carefully training and preparing them until the day they could step in at dawn and release the spirits of the sky from their sacred duty. The spirits thanked Mother Earth and roamed the world together, loving only each other for all eternity."
She caught Joseph's eye and had to cough to keep from laughing. "Or something like that," she finished.
"Oh, Your Majesty! That is such a lovely story, I'll want to cry every time I see this painting," the maid said.
"Really? That's certainly not what I want to do every time I see this painting," the Queen said somewhat cryptically. Joseph was briefly overcome with a fit of coughing. The maid looked at her expectantly, as if awaiting an explanation.
Clarisse merely smiled at the maid, then spoke to Joseph, "Are you ready for our meeting Joseph? Lunch is about to be served."
"Yes, Your Majesty," he replied and followed her into the office, carefully locking the door behind them.