Is anyone still out there? I've emerged from the land of the writing dead… I know this has been a long, long time coming but at least we weren't halfway into the story right?! Thank you dear readers for being so patient… I do promise NEVER to go six months without posting ever again, life just seemed to catch up with me and exhaustion led to my lack of inspiration.
So here we are… Chapter one but first I'd like to send a HUGE thank you to Morgan Locklear and Jenn Locklear for really helping me get the Tarot aspect of this chapter right. Their guidance was key and I owe you a thousand kinds of thanks (with that note, if you aren't reading it, check out Morgan's "Bella Voce"). As per usual, I'd also like to send a thank you to Aredi, for keeping me going when times were dreary (and introducing me to Mog and Jenn), as well as xshear and karlotita09. You are all wonderful.
So since it's been so long, I will not keep you waiting any longer… I hope you enjoy!
"It seems I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams"
Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness"
I wore blue because I couldn't bring myself to wear black. It wasn't what she would have wanted and for her I endured the chatter of her society friends behind me. "Would you look at her?" they whispered, shaking their heads behind their thin black veils, "so disrespectful." They meant well; New Orleans was, after all, a city famous for its reverence for the dead so any reactions to my wardrobe were nothing, if not typical. Blue went against all normal social conventions when funerals were concerned. Besides, I told myself, they come from a different age, a different era when black was the only option. So instead of causing a scene I stood there under her bright purple umbrella—another source of contentment I imaged—and chewed my bottom lip willing myself to let it go.
It helped that I took some sort of comfort in the fact that those women behind me didn't know Mémère the same way that I did. For those women, the cherished soul in the casket was merely a New Orleans socialite of sorts; their social intercourse made possible solely by fundraising committees and charity galas. But for me, she was so much more. She was my grandmother, mother figure, confidant and greatest supporter. I didn't remember her as the woman in vintage couture, parading around the city. No, to me she was the elegant woman in her garden, who, despite a nearly full time gardener that the household employed, could still be found elbow deep in the soil nurturing her oakleaf hydrangeas and pruning the magnolia trees. She was the woman who took me in when Renee and Charlie's marriage finally crumbled into its last piece. But most importantly, she was the woman who loved fiercely and without prejudice, the one person in my life who always encouraged me to reach for the stars, even in my darkest hours.
She was buried on a Tuesday, the worst Tuesday that I was sure I had ever lived through—and believe me, I'd lived through my fair share of horrible Tuesdays: Jack, my first boyfriend, broke up with me on one of them, leaving me out in the cold Washington rain while he ran off and made out with Lauren Mallory behind the bleachers. And I couldn't forget the fact that my fifteenth birthday fell on a Tuesday, the same Tuesday that the foundation of my parent's marriage finally fell—a mere two weeks into my sophomore year of high school. Of course, there was also my recent mishap, quitting my job at the publishing firm I always dreamed of working at thanks to my libido's inability to control itself. My heart still sank at the thought of Damien, heartbreakingly attractive, brilliant, perfect, albeit asshole Damien.
"I thought you were planning on staying the night," I sighed. The tight muscles of his back flexed as he reached down to gather his now wrinkled shirt and I thought I might come undone at the sight. He was, by far, the most attractive man I had ever been with and I suppose I found it surprising that he even wanted to be here with me.
"I have things to do." His once warm voice washed over me like a cold breeze, hitting my skin and causing me to tremble. This was not the same man that I had fallen for, the man who did sweet things for me, who brought me dinner on nights when I worked late, who touched my arm in a way that sent my whole body reeling, who kissed me chastely in the elevator and later confessed to his feelings. What had happened to that man?
"And now that my shirt is so obviously destroyed," he scowled looking the buttons that no longer existed, "it appears I'll have to go home to change anyways."
"But…" I tried to manage, blinking back the tears that were filling my eyes as I watched him make his way to the bedroom door, pausing only for a minute to smirk over his shoulder.
I made it two more months in the office before I watched him do the same thing to another new, young editor. It broke my heart and I put in my two weeks… on a Tuesday. I probably should have known better than to get involved with him; Damien had a reputation but had told me many times over that it was unwarranted, talk from jealous, spurned women and I had believed him, like only a foolish and naïve girl would. He broke me and he took pleasure in it. Even now I can hear his words in my head, "Silly Swan… Silly, beautiful, Swan, it was just too easy, and I couldn't help myself."
So when the funeral director said that the soonest the funeral could be held was the Tuesday following her death, I laughed a little. It would figure.
This Tuesday wasn't unlike the others; the rain came down in sheets. But this wasn't a rare occurrence for New Orleans in June and I knew that Mémère wouldn't have had it any other way. She loved the Louisiana rain—it's muggy texture that soaked the skin and inhabited the body like a spirit all its very own, grasping to you tight and refusing to let go until the air-conditioned buildings banished it for a few brief hours. It would have been hard to imagine it not raining and I wondered briefly if it was her way of saying goodbye. Throughout the service fat, wet drops poured down and it wasn't until the minister gave his final blessing that it ceased and the clouds cleared as if welcoming her into the heavens.
All day guests came and went from the mansion in the heart of the Garden District but I walked around numb. It was crowded and I couldn't help but feel stifled by the people I didn't know, didn't even care to know, offering their condolences, praising the woman as though they thought I didn't understand just how wonderful she really was. Didn't they know that it was me, above everyone else, who really knew the truth? Had my absence for the past three years really given the impression that I had abandoned the only women who really ever acted like a mother?
Still, I couldn't change their minds, and the fact was, I hadn't been around and though I wanted more than anything to stand up for myself, each time a conversation ended when I entered a room, I didn't. It was easy to convince myself that it was because I didn't want to desecrate the memory of Mémère, that the last thing I would ever want to bring to a day meant to remember her was unnecessary drama, but it didn't help the sting that their words caused. Then again, maybe there were right after all. It had been three years and Mémère never complained when I didn't come home for holidays or birthdays because work kept me too busy. And, the hardest part was that I knew all along that her health was deteriorating and yet still, my own ambition and selfishness kept me from being there when she needed me the most.
That night, after the final guests had finally left and Renee had gone upstairs to pack her things to fly back out to Florida the next day, I sat in the library. It was dark and quiet, not like how I had once remembered it to be and yet, still the only place I could imagine being at the moment. This room was the only room in the house that let me feel connected to my now deceased grandmother. She sparked in me a passion for literature that became our most common bond. The doors she opened when I came to live with her for the last three years of high school were widened by my college professors and supplemented by my summer vacations back in the Big Easy. We spent hours in here, Mémère on the leather couch while I occupied the plush velvet armchair and we debated everything from the emerging literary techniques in modern literature and the appeal of Byronic Heroes, even the mystery surrounding the infamous New Orleans author Samuel O'Brien. Mémère was fascinated by O'Brien and his magic pen.
"It's impossible!" I smiled, shaking my head.
"Nonsense dear, this is New Orleans and we live in a city ripe with mystery and magic.
"That might be so but bewitched pens don't... can't, exist."
"You didn't think that when you were younger, in fact, I quite remember one entire summer spent visiting every antique and voodoo shop in New Orleans searching for that pen."
"I was impressionable and you were convincing. I'm a woman of the world now Meme."
"Yes, I suppose you are my dear."
That so called bewitched pen ended up being the topic for my master's dissertation at Columbia, which I later made a bound copy and dedicated it to Mémère. I owed every success to her.
I didn't stay in the library long. My own grief was intensified by the large room. So Instead I retired to my bedroom, crying and restless. It had been easy to hold in the emotion around everyone else but alone, it was different. Tears slowly pooled on my pillow and I cried until I couldn't remember anything else, until my exhaustion overtook and sleep finally found me. The dreams however left me restless and afraid.
I stood on the porch, my eyes cast towards the cliffs made hazy by the morning fog. Dawn was breaking but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. Around me the scent of the ocean, of ancient infinity, clung to the atmosphere binding me to the present and the dire situation we faced. I knew I wasn't supposed to be here; he made it explicit that I was to leave on the first train to London but my heart wouldn't let me. As I stood at the station, my small bag resting at my feet while my fingers toyed with the small leather bracelet he tied to my wrist I knew that I couldn't leave, that I couldn't let him do this on his own. The moment of clarity led me back to the tiny cottage just outside the city we had been holed up in.
A door opened and closed from behind me, the sound echoing for a moment before the crash of the waves against the limestone cliffs swallowed it whole. I didn't turn to face him and instead wrapped my arms around my body tighter, seeking warmth and comfort and preparing myself for his anger. He was silent, only the sound of his heavy footsteps and the rage radiating from his body altered me to his presence.
Two minutes of silence passed between us, the weight of the situation trying to tear us apart as I fought to keep him near me. He didn't understand and he never would unless I made it clear to him that I couldn't stand to leave him alone. My safety meant nothing when his was in jeopardy and whether he wanted to admit it or not my being there was the one thing I knew that was buying us more time.
"What are you doing here?" he finally spoke, his voice cold and detached. "I told you to leave."
"Leaving you isn't an option for me," I replied, shivering as the cool wind hit my damp face, wet from the early morning mist.
"No. I won't leave and even if you keep sending me away I'll know where to find you."
"Why are you so stubborn? Why can't you let me protect you?"
He reached out, his hand wrapping around my arm before pulling me tight into his embrace. Beneath the heavy material of his shirt I could hear his heart beating and he gripped me harder and tighter with each passing second as though I was merely a tangible apparition that might cease to exist at any given moment.
"Please Bella," he sighed, his warm breath fanning across my neck as he buried his face against my hair, "please…"
I wrapped my arms tighter around him and closed my eyes. In the darkness all I could see were the images of his mangled body against the brick wall I had found him against: a cut above his right eye caked with dried blood, dirt matted in the thick beard on his cheeks.
"I can't… I can't leave you. Please don't send me away again… don't."
A loud clash of thunder woke me in that moment though the tortured face of the beautiful, nameless man stayed with me. Where he had come from I couldn't be certain but never before had a dream felt so real. I laid there in the dark, searching my memories for his face but coming up with nothing. How could I forget that face? Those eyes? As the early hours of the morning continued to tick away, I let the sound of the rain against the window lull me back to sleep, this time void of any dreams that might explain who he was and what he meant to me.
Three nights later I was still in New Orleans and I was still dreaming about him. The night was cool—abnormally so for summer—and I wrapped Mémère's light blanket around my shoulders as I sat on the porch. In the night everything was quiet and dark yet the images and sounds of my dream flashed like lightening in my mind.
A feminine scream cut through the silence and the dark. Five clear shots sounded and shook the room. A man grunted. Blood, bright red and warm—warm like a pool on a summer day—on the tips of long, white fingers. Tears, wet and salty on lips as a sob ripped through a chest. A body lying against cobblestones, limp, pale, near death. Quiet whispers of a street in the nighttime, the quick rustling of feet, sirens blaring, wind carrying the sounds across a large city. A paper, black and white, written in Italian: Assassinio!
I couldn't bring myself to shut my eyes after that. I was too afraid of what else I might see—afraid that if my gut was right, that it was more than just a dream. So I sat there, my eyes trained on the street lit by a few glowing lamps while my fingers played with the small card I found amongst Mémère's favorite book, my favorite book.
Mary Alice Brandon
33 Bourbon Street
I walked through the French Quarter later that day—though the sun hid behind the thick clouds, the heat still stuck to my skin. My sweaty hands clung to the small card, the edges now frayed. It was one thing I had never expected to find amongst her belongings though I knew she had always been on the eccentric side. Her fascination with O'Brien and his pen was enough to warrant her interest in the paranormal.
The streets were crowded with vacationers: families enjoying the holiday weekend, couples strolling while holding hands and teenagers loitering their summer away. I kept my eyes trained on the cement paving watching the heels of those around me. Red, Blue and White streamers littered the street and I watched as a lone yellow one danced across the ground, mating with the soles of shoes and twisting as the air carried it further. Its beauty was alarming.
I found myself following the small piece of paper down the street; the place that I was once searching for now forgotten. How amazing it was to be so drawn to something and not truly know the answer why.
The paper ribbon continued to weave down the street, playing on the ground and taunting me as it started and stopped again, occasionally picking itself two feet off the ground before gracefully falling back amongst the dirt and stone. For five minutes I watched it, followed it, until it came to rest against the wooden steps of a small building. It was then—glancing upwards so that I saw the number against the creamy white wall—that the cool air seemed to brush against the back of my sweaty neck sending goose pimples across my arms and legs.
33 Bourbon Street
Priestess Mary Alice
"Hey! Watch out there yeah?" the shout of a passerby broke through the silence of my mind, the sharp sides of his peddles nearly brushing against my exposed legs, ready to draw blood. The bike teetered for a minute from left to right, his own body moving against the wheel as he righted his sudden veering so as to not hit me. Once gaining his center he continued to peddle, faster and faster, never looking back until he was lost amongst the crowd, the green of his shirt fading into a sea of red and blue.
I didn't look back to the house, only to the streamer that appeared to pick up another gust of wind, now carrying it down the street once again, as though its path had never been disrupted. The strange happenstance that this had occurred, still sending my mind reeling. Everything was coming full circle and maybe this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Life had led me here: my prompt resignation, Mémère's passing, the dreams, Mary Alice's card tucked into my pocket, even the dancing yellow ribbon. Life was happening, pushing me towards something that both thrilled and frightened me. What if I wasn't strong enough to survive what was sure to await me? Did this mean that the dreams, the man, the murders, everything was real?
I steadied my breath as my hand touched the brass door knob, the metal cool against my hot palm. Was this the place where I would find my answer? Mustering up as much courage as I could, I pressed the lever down and slowly opened it, the faint scent of incense, of sandalwood and vanilla, welcoming me to the answers I hoped to find.
Mary Alice Brandon's shop, however, was nothing like what I expected as I stepped across the threshold. Where I anticipated blood red walls, I was greeted with soft butter cream ones, trimmed in a dark chestnut brown much like the color of my own hair. The gold threaded table cloths of my imagination were soft neutrals and as I let the tips of my fingers graze across them, I knew that the fabric was far from cheap. I admit that my expectations were probably based on my preconceived notion of what I had read in books and seen on television, and even in spite of my apprehension and insecurities of this visit, I couldn't help but be slightly disappointed that there was no cauldron bubbling with some mysterious potion.
As I took in the lush surroundings of the psychic's quarters I was startled at a small head that popped around a corner I had not seen. A mass of perfectly placed, short black hair and the brightest blue eyes that I was certain I had ever seen graced the face of the petite smiling woman. Her painted red lips stood out amongst the pale white color of her skin and for a moment I wondered if she was merely a figment of my imagination; she appeared far too perfect to be human.
"Isabella!" she spoke and even her voice seemed to smile its greeting. "You've kept me waiting for some time now."
She knew my name. The surprise must have been clearly written across my face or radiating from my body as I suddenly felt the room close in on me. The thought that this was all destiny, all fate, was enough for me, the notion, the possibility that the thought could be an actual truth was enough to send me running the opposite way.
"Now darlin'," a soothing voice called from the side, "don't send the poor girl running back to New York."
"Have we met?" I asked, finding my voice though no forward or backwards movement to remove myself from the woman's shop.
"Not formally though I've been waiting for you to come for days!" she grinned excitedly and I watched as a man, presumably the one whose voice had rung out nearly moments earlier, placed a hand on her shoulder.
He towered over her: his height at least six feet, probably six two. Long curly waves of blonde hair were tied behind his neck, and eyes, like hers, blue, as blue as the Adriatic that I had visited once on holiday. His smile was small, timid as though he was afraid that another burst of energy would send me into a panic. When I didn't move, he removed his hand from his companion and approached me like one approaches a wild animal: quietly, carefully. He barely made a sound before he was in front of me, hand tugging on the ends of his hair, a lazy, gentle grin on his handsome features.
"I apologize for my wife… she has a tendency to forget that her presence, though technically small, is enough to scare the most unsuspecting of people."
I nodded gently, shifting my gaze between him and his wife, presumably Mary Alice.
"I'm so sorry for scaring you Isabella, but… I've been dreaming of your arrival for weeks now."
"Ali," he warned, seeming to sense my unease with her forwardness, with her prophecy of my arrival. "Isabella, yes?"
"Bella… I prefer Bella."
"Well then Bella, I'm Jasper… Would you like a glass of water to calm your nerves?"
"No… I'm," I paused for a brief moment. "I'm sorry. I was just… I wasn't expecting."
"Me?" Mary Alice spoke, her voice softer this time, quieter. I merely nodded. "I was sorry to hear about your grandmother… she was a dear friend and client."
"She came often?"
"Every now and then," she replied thoughtfully. "Would you care to sit?"
Her slender fingers pointed to a table in the corner. Shaped like an octagon, it was wooden and the only table not covered with any decoration.
"It's the table I do all my readings at. That is why you came yes?"
Hesitantly, I drew closer to the table, watching her curiously as she plopped down in the chair across from what was to be mine for the length of the session. Her fingers played with the gold thread on the velvet satchel and I watched as a deck of cards came into view.
"How often did she come?"
"She used to visit my grandmother before she passed… then when I took over, I saw her professionally about ten times."
"What was she looking for?"
"I suppose what everyone comes here looking for: answers. Your dreams brought you here did they not?"
I was still standing and I watched her nod to the chair my fingers were still clamped around: my already pale knuckles an even whiter shade. I pulled it out, releasing my death grip before finally sitting down, briefly looking to the door and calculating how long it would take me to just get up and leave. Was this really something that I wanted to do? Did it really matter? Besides, how could I be certain that she was credible? That this was credible? Maybe Mémère had spoken of me and, though not a striking one, we did bear some similar resemblances: our eyes for example. "How do you know so much about me?"
"It's my job," she replied as I watched her shuffle the deck. "And like I said, I've dreamed of you."
Her movements slowed before she held them out to me. "Eleven cards, don't think about it, just pull the ones that call out to you. We'll start with the first one."
My fingers grazed the top of the cards before pulling the first one that felt comfortable and I watched as Mary flipped it over. This continued until she had laid the cards in their pattern, her brow scrunching as she read them carefully, her eyes glancing between me and the cards and then back again.
"What is it?"
"I just…" she paused for a moment. "This could go a great many different ways…"
"What do you mean?"
"You chose the Page of Swords… you're smart Bella, alarmingly so. I wonder if you've always had the ability to bring truth to a situation because you will need that trait. The second card that you chose is death."
"That's bad isn't it?" I asked. The image of the card seemed to suggest this: the black coated skeleton of the reaper as he stood, tall, over the dark haired woman bleeding on the floor. Behind him the river—possibly the Styx—flows waiting to ferry the soul that was dying to the other side, to the afterlife that awaits her.
Mary shook her head though her frown remained. "No… though I can see how you might think that… Death in the tarot is symbolic of rebirth. You've recently quit your job yes?" I nodded and watched her, looking for any tell she might give me to her fakeness. "You are in present, going to come across something that is going to change your life and it is going to dictate how you live for the next few months."
"What is it?"
"That's something I can't tell you."
"Because you don't know?"
"Because I'm forbidden," she whispered, her fingers tugging at the second card, pulling my attention from the question she could not answer and back to the reading. "The Two of Cups… There is a man… a soul mate. You've dreamed of him haven't you? He brought you here."
"This man… he holds the key to everything that is about to happen and you will find him in a very, untraditional way. He will be both the cause of your happiness and sadness. He is the reason for this opportunity and the cause of your fears. The emotions that you feel for this man are unlike anything you have ever known, unlike anything you ever expected to believe to exist. It is both terrifying and thrilling and you know not how to proceed with it."
"He's in danger isn't he?"
Mary drew her bottom lip between her teeth as she looked at the table. I watched as Jasper approached her, leaning down to look over her shoulder at the cards on the table, his eyes widening at he read them.
"The Three of Wands shows opportunity. Bella currently you are poised to have everything you've ever wanted but it's the next card that troubles me, and I'm afraid of what you might think if I tell you what it really means."
A tall brick building, crumbling to the ground showed on the card that she pointed at. My knee jerked under the table, my left hand rubbing furiously at my right arm, confusion and fear written not only across my face but also on the woman in front of me.
"It's the worst card in the deck."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because you need to know… it represents a complete breakdown of everything that you know: a breakdown of beliefs and values and, most importantly, it represents fear."
I closed my eyes, flashes of red liquid and the tattered body of the beautiful man against the wall; his green eyes vibrant and alive then foggy and nearly gray. "The gunshot… the blood," I whispered.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that death will come from it… but you have to be prepared for whatever might happen. I can't tell you… I wish I could tell you but I can't tell you anything. The future is yours to figure out and I can be nothing but a guide. There is also the very important notion that everything in the future is subject to change depending on the paths you chose. I'm sorry…" she said softly, her hand reaching out and touching mine, snapping me from the cruel dreams that had plagued my sleep.
"The Star…" she pointed to the next card, "You already know what you're going to do when the situation happens. You've come to terms with your grandmother's passing and you know that she is guiding you at present. You are very clear on your next move, you know what the right thing to do is, and you know you just have to do it.
"You drew Temperance next… you have no idea how to balance the different things in your life: you spend all your time working or all your time dreaming. You cannot find a way to successfully blend the two, however, given the warning in the cards, it would be in your best interest to find a way to do so. The bow and arrow in the card show you that apart they are useless, but together they can be a formidable weapon. You may not see it yet, but you are key in overcoming the obstacle that stands in your path.
"You're a hard worker, you know that and your family knows that. It's nothing to be ashamed of Bella and I know that right now you feel a sense of guilt regarding that fact. You grandmother was so proud of you and deep down, you know that as well," she continued as she placed a finger on the card: a fight of six against one. "It's a benefit, your hard work… and if you believe in your ability as much as those around you do, then success is even closer."
I watched her closely, no longer paying attention to the cards that had been pulled but rather the expressions of her face: they gave me more insight than pictures ever could. In a passing moment I could see her thoughtful expression change from fear to comfort and it was how I knew that the next card wasn't something I wanted to hear.
I began to stand up, my hand reaching into my purse to grab for the bills that would have been more than enough to cover the reading. This was my life and I wasn't going to let someone tell me what they believed was going to happen.
"No… I can't do this anymore."
"Just wait please… This one, the moon… you have enemies, or he has enemies… There is something dark and magical at hand and you have to be aware of it, you can't ignore what is happening. Please understand that things are not as they always appear to be."
"I don't' have enemies Mary… why would someone want to hurt me?"
"It doesn't mean just you… if we are accounting for the dreams that I know you've been having… He plays a significant role in this, which is why the last card, the Lovers, means you have a choice… In the end you can chose to walk away from all this or you can fight for him… but know that without him your heart will never be complete and I'm pretty certain you know that already as well."
I threw the money on the table and ran out, her words ringing through my ears, my heart beating in my chest. Life was waiting for me, waiting to tear everything I knew apart along with me. There was no choice, my mind was nearly made up, and it was from the beginning. Though this man was a stranger, I couldn't help but believe that we were connected in some mystical way, it would only be a matter of figuring out how, and when.
I took the long way home, letting my thoughts catch up with my brain and as I neared the mansion that Mémère had left to me. As the place came into view I was startled to find a man standing on the porch but upon closer inspection I knew that I would have known that figure anywhere. As I approached him, I smiled, taking in his short cropped sandy hair, the contours of his defined, now thirty year old body.
"Well Mister McKinley what brings you here yonder to my porch?" I grinned seeing his body tense before he turned to face me, his face lit with a smile. He was just as beautiful as my seventeen year old self remembered: clear hazel eyes that were now aged with a few laugh lines, full pink lips, high cheekbones and soft Irish skin.
"Why Miss Isabella, I was just calling to see if you fancied a walk into town with me."
"Looks like I had you beat," I laughed moving closer to him and letting him pull me into a bone crushing hug. "I can't believe you're here Grant! It's been too long."
"I came as soon as I could… I would have been here sooner if it hadn't been for a few commitments that kept me abroad."
When he pulled away I could see the sadness etched on his face. Mémère was as much a part of his family as his to mine and I knew that he carried the same remorse that I did over the separation the past few years. Still, I knew that he had been around more frequently than I had based on conversations with my grandmother.
"It has been too long… I haven't seen you since I left for New York."
"You broke my heart when you didn't come to Chicago you know."
I smiled and nodded, placing my palm against the smooth skin of his cheek, "Had I known I'd never meet another man as great as you maybe I would have chosen differently."
He laughed and shook his head, "No Bella… you wouldn't have. You're too damn stubborn and you had your heart seat on New York long before I came into the picture."
"I suppose you're right," I replied hugging him again before pulling away, only now noticing the small brown package resting against the door. "What's that?"
"That," I replied pointing to it, "did you bring that?" I walked closer to it noticing no postage or address, merely my name written in elegant script.
"No, it was here when I arrived. I was just writing a letter to let you know that I had stopped by when you scared the shit out of me."
I bit my lip and nodded, reaching down to pick it up and tuck it under my arm, "well Mr. McKinley, what kind of good southern woman would I be if I didn't offer you a glass of sweet tea?"
"You and I both know you are far from being Southern but I'll take you up on the drink… tell me you have some vodka to go with it?"
I laughed and nodded my head, opening the door to my past and unknowingly bringing with me, my future.
We sat together across the kitchen table, the package temporarily forgotten in the living room as we exchanged stories of the ten years we had spent apart while sipping sweet tea spiked with vodka. The familiarity that I shared with Grant had not waned in the years that had passed and I wondered if that was something all first lovers shared. He had been my first and if I was being honest, the only one who ever really mattered.
"I moved there officially three years ago for a job with Barclays… It was a tough decision, moving to a place where I was essentially starting my life over but when I went to visit the office something clicked."
"A woman perhaps?"
"No… I work far too much to even consider a wife at this point but I'm happy with my life and that's what matters yes?" I nodded as I took another sip, finding that I was quickly getting drunk which had to account for the fact that I wished I knew the contentment that Grant had. "What about you Bella? What have you been doing?"
I hesitated for a moment, pretending to swallow, while I contemplating telling him the truth or the abbreviated version. My mouth however decided for me and the events of the past five months came spilling from my mouth like water from a dam. Everything, my happiness in landing my dream job, my attraction to Damien, his deceit and the sex we shared, to the betrayal and the work environment that was created after.
I didn't even notice that Grant had pulled me into his arms until I was finished, my tears having stained his shirt and yet he just held me tighter, stroking my hair and placing soft kissing on the crown of my head. It was comfortable and for a moment, I felt like I was the summer I was sixteen again and he had come home from his first year of college. Renee had been trying to force me to live with her in Jacksonville and I was afraid that the life I'd spent the past year building was going to fall apart. Grant hadn't even known me that well at the time but he offered a kind shoulder and that summer marked the start of our two and a half year relationship.
"You're too good for him Bella and that's why he did it. When men see you, they see beauty and generosity, a soul so genuine that they want to possess it… Others want to destroy it. Please don't let him do that to you, you're far too good," he whispered, kissing my temple once more as I pulled away, my finger tracing the wet patch of his shirt.
"I'm sorry I cried all over you."
"I'm not." His voice was sincere, genuine and as our eyes met my heart fluttered in my chest like it had when I was younger. Slowly, he reached to touch my cheek, cradling it in the palm of his hand as his lips touched mine. Though the spark that was once there was gone, the familiarity and the love was still present and I reveled in it, letting myself kiss him slowly back. I was comforted and he made me feel confident as he pulled me closer, pressing our chests together as the kiss deepened.
"Bella," he whispered against my lips before he pulled away, his brilliant smile lighting up the room. "I've wanted to do that since I saw you walking towards me… I've thought about you a lot over the years."
Though I wanted to say the same, the truth was, my thoughts of Grant were fleeting so instead of responding I smiled and kissed him back one more time. "I think I have a shirt you can change into, so you aren't walking around with a giant wet spot from my sloppy tears."
I'm not sure if it was the alcohol or my insecurities needing to be fed but we ended up in bed together. After, as we laid there, our naked bodies tangled in the soft cobalt sheets and each other, I wondered what my life could have been if I had passed on New York and moved with him to Chicago. I could have been happy with him, comfortable and without a doubt, loved, but would I have missed out on opportunities that would have eventually led me to resent him?
"What are you thinking sweet?" he asked, brushing a few strands of hair from my shoulder.
"About the paths we take in life."
"What about them?"
"Does everything happen for a reason Grant? I mean, is there a reason that you're here and we are together at this very moment?"
His brow furrowed for a moment and I pulled away, wrapping the sheet around my upper body as I sat up, tucking my legs beneath me. "There was never any doubt in my mind that I wouldn't see you again Bella. I guess I always knew, or believed that we would find each other again. That's what you want isn't it?"
His words cut through me like a knife. Had I just done to him what Damien had done to me?
"I'm kidding," he smiled. "Though having you for the rest of my life would make me happy… I think that we both know that what we had isn't what we have anymore… Not that this isn't fun."
I laughed and feigned anger as I slapped him against his shoulder.
"What's with the heavy questions anyways?"
I shrugged and laid down next to him again, "I guess I'm just trying to figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of my life… Everything seems so unsure now."
I'm not sure if he replied after that, I closed my eyes and let sleep take over. Though for the first time since coming back, the beautiful man did not come to me in my dreams, and this troubled me more than I ever thought it would.
What's with the pen anyways? That will be explained in Chapter two… So will the mysterious package as it holds the key for the entire story.
Thanks for taking the time to read, and feel free to send me a review (you know I love them), if you feel inspired to do so… It does keep me inspired to know what is going on in your heads!