Atto’s Tale – Free Sample

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Chapter 5: An Unleashed Desire

“I think we would have been better off in the barn,” I conclude after doing a sweep of the farmhouse’s interior.

No matter how rundown the structure may look from the outside, inside is far, far worse.

Around the den, the remains of a couch have been strewn, as though an angry raccoon – or several – have taken out their small-clawed aggressions on it. Musty odor drifts up from the floorboards and in through the walls – a reminder never to take for granted the much feebler smells of the antiques found in Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium. Overhead, fallen beams allude that it might not be a wise decision to venture to the second floor, lest we come crashing through the rotted wood and end up splintered and torn.

All in all, the place is trashed.

Ardette turns up his nose at a floor littered with fragments of waste and debris. “Yes, these accommodations are somewhat lacking. Especially considering the lavish motels you usually pick.”

“Very funny.” I kick at a tuft of couch fluff with my toe. “Sorry, Ardetto. Looks like we’ll be tracking mud into your precious vehicle after all.”

Ardette, never one for dirty things, wrinkles his nose in repugnance. “Ugh. I suppose running water and clean towels were too much to hope for,” he says.

“Way too much,” I agree. I pick a cleared spot of floor to stand in and do a final inspection of the accommodation that never was. “I wonder how someone could just leave an entire farm out here to rot away, anyway.”

Ardette has a theory.

“If I HAD to guess,” he says, attitude ripe, “I’d say it has something to do with the pooled power in yonder pond. Unusual things have been known to transpire at places of strong character. This being one of those places, the former inhabitants may have left for any number of reasons. A haunting perhaps.”

“Haunting?!” I take a reverse step into the corner.

“No, no.” Ardette fans the air. “Not a real one, mind you. I simply meant that condensed areas have the ability to twist nature and lead to paranoia.”

“And now I want to leave more than ever,” I say. “Let’s GO.”

But before I am able to make way for the door, Ardette catches me around the waist. From behind, his arm breaks across my abdomen. I’m pulled against him. “A moment, pit,” he says into my ear, low and soft. “I’ll be savoring this feeling.”

My pulse kicks. “F-feeling?”

“Mmhmm.” He takes the moment he demanded. In the meantime, I manage to say a single aching thing,

“Ardette.”

The thing comes out hushed. Standing motionless against his strong frame, the silence of the farmhouse has just hit me for the first time. It is the stillest sort of silence – a silence that makes me inexorably aware of myself and lends my ears the ability to hear a range of noises they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Breathing. Pulsing. The ruffling of a sleeve. I’d hear it if some distant floorboard creaked. Actually, I’d be glad for a distraction like that. But not a thing within the shambled farmhouse stirs, and so there’s nothing to hear but the own thudding of my chest.

My pores are pricked. My skin notices every bit of invisible air against it, but something much more obvious is Ardette’s arm remaining across my stomach. Inevitably, the enticement of it becomes me. My fingertips drift to his forearm’s warm skin. I connect with the hairs of his arm; the muscle beneath. Then I slide my hand until it meets his. Trembling, I hold him as he holds me.

“This reminds me of the place we met in our second life,” he says into my ear, voice keeping lower than low.

The second first time we met. I don’t even need to search my mind; the memory floats to the top on its own.

“The Osterflit keeper’s house,” I breathe.

I feel him nod behind me.

Yes, the humble abode of the deceased Osterflit keeper. Looking around with new eyes, I realize there is some similarity between this place and there. An abandoned residence in the middle of a forgotten field. An empty house. But places like this hold their own personality, too. In the absence of actual life, the structure takes on its own.

That feeling is the same here as it was there.

That time we met.

How annoying I found him then. Haughty and gaudy and persistent, and with an intolerable knack for reading my thoughts. But then there was a princely sort of charm about him too – something that made me want to see beyond his fronts.

He hasn’t changed. Not even the slightest, little . . .

Well, he no longer has horns, I guess.

The surrealism of it hits me.

This is what he meant about taking a moment. A moment for stepping out of the present and gathering what’s happened. A moment to absorb.

We really get to be together? After everything, we get another chance? A third chance.

How are we that lucky?!

Overcome, I spin to face my princely Daem. He doesn’t anticipate the action, and it reflects on his face. Taking him aback is a thing of scarcity. A thing I adore. Before he can say something snide, I wrap my arms around his neck in a hug. A non-sexual, non-nerve-arousing hug. I need him to hold me.

He does. He returns the gesture. Without cynicism. Without defense.

My cheek becomes pressed against his chest as he holds me in adoration. There is comfort. Safeness. I love him. I love him so much.

~

“My, my, having an overthinking again, are we? You know, my pit, if you aren’t careful, you’ll begin to develop unsightly worry lines right here.” Ardette flicks me in the forehead.

“Huh?!”

I’ve been caught in my head again.

Shoot!

The fault belongs with the coupe. Its sleepy rumbling, responsible for retreating me into my thoughts, is to blame.

Stupid fancy car.

The driver’s side window is cracked to allow a small amount of spring crispness into the air previously filled with only our exchanged breath. I use it to come to my senses. Guess invigoration has its usefulness after all.

“Do share what was so interesting in there;” Ardette lazes, glancing at me from the corner of his eye, “what was consuming your entire attention.”

I rub the spot he flicked and grumble, “Nothing really. It’s not like I was really worried about anything.”

Ardette drums the wheel. “What then, were you allowing to mull about in that distracted little skull of yours?”

Such a minor thing that if I answer, he’s going to sneer. But knowing him, he’ll imagine something worse than the truth if I don’t.

“Just that . . .” I start, guardedly. “I was kind of surprised our force ended up being wave.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well, . . . eh-heh . . .” I prepare myself for insult. “First there was wind, and then fire, so . . .”

I’ll let him finish.

“You expected earth?” he says dry as toast. “As in Earth, Wind and . . . Tell me you aren’t serious! As though the forces of the world would follow twentieth century music trends!”

“Well!”

He puts a hand to his temple, shakes his head, and lets out a condescending, “EGH.” And then, “Really, pit? Really?

So he says, but the side of his mouth shows signs of amusement.

The amusement only puts me grumpy. I slump into the seat and stare out the window in a pout. It was a perfectly reasonable thought, as far as I’m concerned.

“You’re too much,” Ardette coos.

We continue to drive through most of the day, stopping only for gas. The pit-stop is also a prime opportunity to clean up, so before anything else, we make use of the station’s dingy bathroom, which has one of those pull-down cloth towels on a reel that appears to have been last changed . . . NEVER. We aren’t picky. Our muddiness has long turned into a caked layer. Though a change of clothes makes things slightly better, the small sink doesn’t allow for an adequate hair washing. After several neck-craned attempts, I give up, slopping my hair into an oversized bun atop my head.

Ardette has better luck. He exits the bathroom looking fresh and neat. And shaved?

“You really don’t like messy things, do you?” I size him up sourly. But sourness is hard to maintain when he looks so desirable.

He begins a saunter down the station’s aisles.

“Care for a bite, my pit? Perhaps a . . .” He frowns upon inspection of the rotating hotdogs in the station’s deli. “Never mind. I won’t allow you to eat that. Go find whatever else you’d like. We’ll stop at the first decent-looking establishment we come across for a real meal.”

A hotdog would have been fine for me, and for a second I think about grabbing one just to spite him – until I notice that the dogs have an unhealthy green tint about them. Not happening. I trot away to find something else.

Ardette is waiting at the counter with a bag of jerky when I return.

Like that’s so much better than a hotdog! Well, whatever. I plop my pickings onto the countertop. Ardette takes time to study them before tossing a bill at the cashier.

“A jar of peanut butter and a bag of potato chips?” he says with disapproval.

“Yeah! Have you ever tried it? You dip the chips in the peanut butter. But regular chips won’t work. These are kettle chips.” I pat the bag proudly.

“Uh-huh.” He chews his cheek, unconvinced.

“You’ll see.”

“I highly doubt that.”

. . .

Ten minutes later, I sit satisfyingly plopping peanut-butter-dipped chips into Ardette’s mouth.

And I’m smug.

“They aren’t anything special,” he sniffs.

That hasn’t stopped him from eating a dozen or more. “All right, then,” I say. “You indulged me. If you don’t like them, I’ll eat the rest–”

“I didn’t say they were bad. Another,” he orders.

I cock a brow at him.

He rolls his eyes. “If you please.”

I shove a particularly large one mounded with peanut butter into his face. He takes it with an unprepared crunch! Excess peanut butter dribbles down the corner of his mouth. He wipes it away with his finger and then, more invested than necessary, licks it off.

Oh please. Like I’d be affected by something like that. Yet I’m forced to look away.

It’s Ardette’s turn to be smug. “Next time you do that,” he says, “you’ll be the one licking it off for me.”

My neck rises in temperature. Stupid! There is great frustration in my body’s reaction to him.

“I’m the only one who could put up with your foulness, you know,” I tell him.

His response is quiet: “I am aware.”

Because I expected something snappier from him, I steal a look to make sure I haven’t gone too far, but instead of displaying offense, he looks oddly sentimental. “You’re the only one I’d want to,” he says, eyes still on the road.

I love his foulness.

We drive tranquilly an hour more before we reach a town. A small, backwoodsy sort of town, but a town nonetheless. A real town? Holy tomato sandwich! Haven’t seen one of those in a while.

By this time, the sky is dark. As we drove, the sun crashed into the horizon, painting the dash in ochre, but now that night has fallen, only midnight blue cloaks the distance, dotted with sparse light from the town. Without the threat of Sowpa’s ‘dark forces’ finding us, we haven’t a reason NOT to turn in at a decent time tonight. A real meal and a full night’s sleep. Sounds appealing.

Ardette pulls into the first food-serving ‘establishment’ he sees, a bar called Freaky Frankie’s. Freaky Frankie’s? Reminds me of the gas station dogs.

While I picture the undesirable, ill-hued things, Ardette takes care to park his beloved ride several spaces away from the rest of the bar lot vehicles, in a corner clear of streetlight.

“What’s that they say about paranoia?” I mutter.

“I rarely find it beneficial to follow advice from unnamed groups of people,” he says. He comes around the side of the car to open my door for me, then loops his arm through mine and escorts me into Frankie’s.

Inside, warm air welcomes us, infused with the smell of plastic seat cushions and lit by vintage baroque pendant lights that Jerry of Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium would surely covet. Their dim glow shines over each booth and above a worn pool table stashed near the back wall.

At the other end, a lone cowboy sings out-of-tune to a decade-old song. Something sappy about a missing wife and dog.

Gag. I really don’t like that stuff.

Lined along the bar are a few men and a woman who clearly thinks her iron-curled bangs make her quite the catch. All of them talk too loudly and laugh too enthusiastically for what is mostly likely a conversation lacking in nature. Yet they laugh and talk and laugh. All except for a man at the end, who remains silent and stares into a half-full beer as though the amber within holds the secret to happiness. For him, maybe it does.

Ardette strides through the room, inspecting booth tables as he goes, until finally finding one he deems worthy of our company. He gestures that I should take one side before scooting into the other.

I’m fairly certain the sign upfront said to wait to be seated, but Ardette isn’t the type to wait for something trivial like that. It’s probably better this way, anyway. He would only have caused the hostess grief for picking out a table with a smudge on it or something.

A few minutes later the bar’s one waitress – a relation of Frankie’s more than likely – holds a pad of paper before her nearsighted eyes and asks if we’d like to try the special – a type of trout, apparently.

“We’ll pass,” Ardette says, turning his nose up at the thought of fish from this rundown of a place. Instead, he orders a Reuben and whiskey. I order a burger and cola. And when we are finished, the waitress tucks the paper pad into her busty shirt and waddles away. I am left alone with Ardette beneath the dusky glow of vintage light, in a squeaky seat, while the pleasant sounds of drunken laughter and off-tune country and glass clinking surround us.

Ardette leans into the booth, arm over the back of the seat, and watches me. He says nothing; just watches.

It’s stuffy in here.

I avert my eyes into the happy hour menu.

It’s really stuffy in here.

And for some reason, I can’t think of a single thing to say. Not. A. Thing. Even though there’s so much to say, so many things to ask, so much to find out about him – the past lives he’s had, his experiences in this current one – I can’t bring myself to say anything. I can’t find even one word.

I venture to look at him again, and he’s still watching me, mouth entertained.

My stomach does a twist and my eyes again flee – this time to the shoddy pool table.

Why is it so stuffy in here!?

“Tut. Tut,” comes a coo from across the table. “Suppose it says something to our chemistry that I am able to make you nervous after all of this time.”

So that’s it; I’m nervous. Leave it to him to discern it before me. But wait. I’m nervous? Out of the blue? I wasn’t nervous in the car. But I’m definitely nervous now. I can feel my pulse in my neck. For what? It’s not like we’re about to share a bed again. And we’ve spent a lot of time like this the last couple of days. In close proximity. Not to mention, shared so many . . .

I bite my lip.

Thinking about kissing him makes it worse. To heck with that!

I look at him again and lie, “I’m not nervous.” But my neck knows the truth. It flares in heat.

“That so?” says Ardette. Eyes agleam, he leans forward, rests his elbows on the table, and begins to rub a thumb along his chin. “Well, that’s good. I worried you might be all giddy –” His eyes almost appear to flash red – “Considering it’s our first date.”

First date. First date? First date?!

Those last two words slither into the air and circle my head in a wrapping motion, forcing it to begin thinking. Over-thinking, to be more specific.

Our first date. Our first date ever. Just the two of us. Alone. Where other people can see us and assume we’re together. My pulse accelerates in my neck, so much so that it blocks my throat from opening. If I’m not careful I just might pass out.

  1. No matter what, I can’t let that happen. Because it would be awful.

Because Ardette would only gloat over making me swoon.

I fumble for something smart to say, and just when I worry my tongue has somehow fallen out and is flopping around on the floor, my salvation comes in the form of the busty waitress returning with cola and not only one but two whiskies.

She sets them on the table and wobbles away.

I eye the whisky suspiciously. Why’d she bring two? Ardette gestures at the happy hour menu. “Two-for-ones. Didn’t you notice?” He slides the second drink at me. “Drink up.”

“But I can’t–”

“Oh, Aura. The rules of this world are senseless. And besides, your soul is much older than the required age. Drink. It’ll help you get over your nerves.”

Guess that’s true.

In the hopes that it’ll allow me the courage to look Ardette in the eye, I bring the glass to my mouth and tip it back, but cannot hide the foul taste from my tongue. My mouth wrinkles in repulsion.

Ardette sniggers. “Here–” He reaches for my cola and begins guzzling it down.

“Hey!”

And when it is half gone, he pours the whiskey into the remaining cola, and gives the glass a shake. “Try that,” he says.

Mixed, the second drink is much better than the first, although the aftertaste is still nasty. I resort to drinking down the whole thing before I can taste it. Glug. Glug. AH.

I set the glass onto the table and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.

All of this Ardette watches with traces of alarm, and when I am through, he injects, “Well, well. That was an interesting choice, my pit.”

I understand what he means after the waitress returns with our food. Something about the way her nearsighted eyes squint seems much funnier this time around. Oh. So whiskey is strong as far as alcoholic drinks go. So I downed the beverage too quickly on a stomach filled only shallowly with kettle chips and peanut butter. So it’s already beginning to affect me.

Smiling evilly, Ardette orders another for himself, and consequently, one for me.

The burger is thick and feels like a rock falling into the liquid of my stomach. A satisfying plop comes at the end of each swallow. Mmm. Turning brave from the liquor, I catch Ardette’s eye and smile like I’m remembering a joke. But there is no joke. Just a slight jumbling of my mind. Ardette returns the smile with one more puckish and shakes his head.

“Feeling better, are we?” he asks.

The second round of whiskey comes, and this time I don’t feel the need to mix it with anything but burger. Bite. Sip. Bite. Sip. First date jitters cast aside, I’m finally able to converse normally.

“SO Ardetto.” I set down my glass and toss a fry leisurely into my mouth. “What’s your major, anyway?”

“Biomedical Engineering.”

“Whoa, really?”

I wait for him to reveal that it’s a joke. He doesn’t.

“Yes, really,” he says disgruntledly.

“You’re kind of a nerd, then?”

“I’m KIND of trying to make sure we have an enriched life this time around.” He picks a piece of lint from his collar and eyes it with disgust.

But going to college for something like that takes preparation. Even before he found me, he was already planning things like our future? Plotting out the way our life would be together? Losing no faith that this time would be our time at last?

A bit of those jitters return. I take another sip from the glass. “I can’t imagine you sitting through a lecture, no matter how I try,” I tell him.

“And I can’t imagine you, the great savior of the world, waiting around that hoarder warehouse without any direction nor thoughts of your future.”

Harsh. “I don’t know. I just always felt like I was waiting for something,” I tell him. “I don’t even know what. Just something.” But the moment the confession comes, I sheepishly understand. “Or someone,” I add. It is as much an admission to myself as it is to him.

It’s Ardette’s turn to preoccupy himself with his food.

By now, my second glass of whiskey is nearly gone. So is my burger. The sad sounds of that unfortunate soul’s country continue to resound in the air. It’s horrid. Isn’t there someone else who’ll step up and take a turn?

I finish off the whiskey and allow it to sink in. It begins to creep around my body, somewhere between my stomach and my ribs.

Fiddling with his unused fork, Ardette is saying something about the way he thought I’d become a social worker or something. I’m not paying attention. I decide it’s my turn to speak.

“Ardetto . . .” I purr across the table when the warmth of the liquor is at its peak.

Ardette again settles into the plastic cushion and tosses an arm across the back of the seat. “Yes, my pit? Feeling warm, are we?”

“Were you a frat boy?” I ask with a giggle. “Because it seems like you’d be a frat boy.”

At this, his countenance stiffens. “Ugh. Of course not. Don’t lump me in with those moronic types.”

I giggle at him some more. The waitress returns to take our plates. “Another?” She nods toward my empty glass.

“I don’t think–” Ardette starts.

But I beat him to it. “Do you have anything that doesn’t taste so awful?” I blurt.

Looking unenthused, the waitress proceeds to ramble off something with two types of juices in it.

“Perfect!”

“It isn’t part of two-for-ones,” she warns.

“That isn’t a problem,” Ardette says dryly. He wants no part of something so fruity. As the curvy woman leaves, he turns his attention on me. “Fixing to become sloshed, are you? Well, I can’t say I’m not interested to see you drunk, my pit – as I recall, I’ve been responsible for your intoxication once or twice before – but I hope for your sake you don’t become . . . unruly.”

But while he’s lecturing, I am transfixed on his mouth. Why is it always such a focal point? Magnetic, almost. Soft. Warm. I chew my own in remembrance of his taste. Ardette swallows. “And for my sake, I hope you do,” he says, staring at my moving lips. Then he shakes his head and stares off across the bar in an attempt to remain cool. “I’ve a feeling this night will be another test of my morality. Fantastic.”

The third drink is indeed much better tasting. Fizzy and sweet and with only traces of bitterness.

“Ardettoes . . .”

“Aurelia?”

I scoot into the wall. “Come sit by me?”

By his reaction, it is just the sort of request he was hoping for. The dragon in him looks at me through his lashes with dark pleasure. “Gladly.” Like a silent thief, he slips around the table and into my seat, and loses no time bringing an arm around my shoulder and pulling me into his side.

My heart gives a kick, but is quickly stifled by the warm dizziness skulking through me. It feels good to be right up next to him. I allow myself to melt against him. My cheek falls against his chest; my fingers rest upon his solid abdomen. His free hand he uses to pull at a curl of his hair. His other he grazes along the top of my arm, near the shoulder.

It sends a shiver through my neck.

He feeds off of the effect, whispering, “Can I have some of you?”

It is an inquiry I’ve heard from him before, in a lifetime long ago. My response is a kiss to his neck. And then another that is deeper than it ought to be in a public setting.

“My, my, cherry pit,” he says. “You should feel fortunate that I’m an honorable man.”

“Hah!” I giggle into his neck.

He pushes his mouth into my hair, which is still holding a small amount of dried mud, and breathes.

His grazing hand on my arm moves down the side of my ribs. My body gives another shiver. “We should leave, Aura,” Ardette speaks against my hair. “We really must.”

I nod. It’s all right if we leave. Because it’ll mean I’ll have survived our first date. Ardette flags the waitress for the bill, and while he’s settling things, I realize that the room has gone silent. The depressed cowboy has returned to the bar, taking seat next to the downtrodden man staring into his glass.

An impulse, fueled by the liquor in my veins, overcomes me.

“Excuse me, Ardettoes.” I prod my dragon out of the seat. He obeys only because he’s amused by my sudden stricken determination, and before he can stop me, I have moved halfway across the room to the place where the microphone waits.

. . .

“You weren’t lying. You really can’t sing at all, can you?”

We drive through town in search of an elusive bed and breakfast mentioned by the nearsighted waitress.

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” I say, words admittedly a little slurred.

“About as bad as a cat taking a bath,” is Ardette’s reply.

“Mean!”

“Would you prefer dishonesty?”

“No . . .” In truth, I am already fully aware of what a terrible singer I am.

Ardette sniggers. “You up there belting out your heart for Frank’s most devoted patrons.” His lips purse. “At least you looked adorable doing it.”

Whatever. I’m warm, and happy, and sleepy. Too sleepy to care that I’ve just made an ‘adorable’ fool of myself.

Fifteen minutes later, we find the bed and breakfast. A large white house, Victorian style, sits amidst a night-blanketed yard complete with neat fence and rolling garden. “How quaint,” Ardette notes in a drone. Yes, he’s being sarcastic, but the word adequately describes the place perfectly. A quaint, quaint getaway at the edge of a small, small town.

The wheels make a crunching against the dirt of the lot as we turn into a space. I like that crunch. Cruuuunch.

Noises are much more pleasant than normal at the moment. Like my ears can feel them more than hear them. There’s something magical about the way their tonal quality hits me. And while I’m lost in sound-induced pleasantness, Ardette is shrewdly examining our surroundings through the windows, checking for any hiding fiends that may be waiting.

He notices the anomaly first.

Of course he does – because I’m not suited for shrewdness just now. Each time I move my head, whatever was previously in view grows a tail. The picture through my eyeholes repeatedly blurs until my mind catches up with my eyes.

“Is that a sword?” I hear the shrewd boy mutter. When I turn to look at him, he’s stretching his neck to see out the dash, squinting at a sign above us – the bed and breakfast’s sign. He squints a moment more before –

“You have got to be kidding me!”

– in a lightning move, he turns vicious.

Now, inexplicably fuming, he unbuckles himself and storms from the car. Confused, I fumble for the handle, but per usual, he reaches it first. “Tell me, if you’d be so kind, how we always manage to find ourselves in the least desirable of places!” he spits at me upon opening the door.

“What? Atto?” I’m too discombobulated to be much help.

He notices my perplexed expression. “Apologies, Aura. Don’t worry about it.” Head shaking angrily, he helps me from the car, then moves to the trunk to collect our bags.

I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all! I strain my eyes to see the sign, but it’s too dark, and my focus is too off. He said he’d seen a sword up there? A bed and breakfast with a sword on its sign?

“And for another thing,” he mutters vilely into the trunk, “how is it that a town of such puny population maintains a bed and breakfast specifically catering to Dungeons and Dragons?! It’s hardly a lucrative notion!”

Dungeons and Dragons? As in that roleplaying game?

“Personally, I like dragons,” I tell him earnestly because it is the first thought that comes to my mind.

“Hah. Hah. A comedian you’ve become, have you? Come on, drunken pit.” With that, Ardette grabs hold of my wrist and pulls me with him up the walk into the world’s first D&D B&B.

Inside is a bizarre sight indeed. I know so, even in my current state. In what I can only imagine is the collaboration between a senile woman and her whimsical grandson, the interior is filled with crocheted doilies, floral patterns, and pointless bric-a-bracs . . . as well as cases and cases of tiny monster figures, and bookshelves lined with rulebooks. At one time this was unquestionably just a regular bed and breakfast. I can tell. The rest of this fantasy stuff was added later – an afterthought resulting in pure mishmash.

But if I want to learn the reasoning behind such madness, I can’t. The person working is neither the senile woman nor her grandson, but a pretty girl with dark eyeliner. I determine – without much good reason – that she knows nothing; and so while Ardette goes to speak with her, I begin to browse the foyer.

Ceramic cat figurine . . . Sack full of polyhedral dice . . . Painting of a little girl in a sunhat . . . Box labeled ‘Dungeon Masters Only’ . . . Just-for-show tea set . . . Little plastic elf toy? To that, I scoff.

Everyone knows all elves have green hair.

“Aurelia, I’ve gotten us a room upstairs.” Ardette calls to fetch me just as I’m glaring at the yellow-haired elf. “Their roleplay, or what have you, starts at ten if you’d like to join.”

I wonder how much of a roleplay can be had, considering there were only two other cars in the lot, one of which probably belongs to the eye-lined girl.

To answer my unspoken question, Ardette continues, “Apparently many enthusiasts live around here. They don’t rent a room, per se, merely come for the game.”

“So that’s how they manage to stay in business.”

He nods. “Let’s get to our room before they begin arriving, shall we? I’ve a feeling they won’t be our kind of people.”

Realistically, though, they’re probably exactly our kind of people. Regardless, I haven’t the energy to argue with him now.

Fearing my own sluggishness, I try to step lightly up the stairs. This only results in overcompensation, and I end up prancing like a pompous horse. Ardette walks behind in case I become unsteady. Oh dear. I’m a hindrance.

The door to our room comes, but I pass it.

“This way, my pit.”

I backtrack.

Ardette pushes through the door and tosses our bags onto a wicker chair in the corner. “I made sure to get us a room with a bathroom en suite. You, stinky pit, may wash first.”

But not before taking in the room’s incredible ambiance. An oak dresser, topped with framed pictures of people from the 80s. A white hat placed on the wall like art. A pale comforter atop a four-poster bed. This bed, at least, looks much more inviting than the buggy, and again, appears NOT to rotate.

“This is a grandma’s room,” I say assuredly.

“Yes, yes. Now into the bathroom with you.”

Ardette scoops my things from the wicker chair and tosses them in after me. I let my clothes fall into a pile on the bathmat and then step into the shower, which has a bottom so cold that it forces me to stand on my tiptoes until the water has washed over the whole of it.

Mmm. Soapy. Bubbly. This shower is longer than my everyday showers. Mainly because I’m staring at the way the water falls over my hands as though it’s incredibly complex science. My fingers fumble. They’re lazy. Yet somehow, I manage to get every last speck of mud from my hair. I manage to haphazardly shave my legs. I manage to turn the faucet and dress in a towel. Just like I do at home, I walk from the bathroom, to the bedroom, with a towel wrapped around my middle, clamped to my body by my armpits.

Only . . .

This isn’t home.

And there’s a hungry dragon waiting in the other room.

When he sees me, he says nothing, though it looks as though he’d very much like to say more than nothing. Jaw tight, he stares at my exposed collarbone a handful of seconds, breathing only through his nose, before swallowing and shoving past me into the bathroom. Once there, he closes the door with more energy than necessary. I wouldn’t say it’s a full slam, though.

“GET DRESSED.” His words come through the door.

Followed, a minute later, by my bag, which I left lying on the tiled floor. Taking Ardette’s side, it comes flying out at me without restraint.

The second time Ardette closes the door, it’s a full slam.

Whoops.

Realizing my mistake, I hurry to dress, comb out my hair, and hop onto the lumpy bed. Lumpy or not, this one is much safer than the last. Far fewer kinky things happen in a B&B than in a pioneer’s fantasy suite, I assume. Then again, if this is a roleplay themed place . . .

I shake the idea away and listen to the hum of shower coming from underneath the bathroom door. Since when do showers sound so . . . inviting? My intoxicated mind begins to drift.

He’s in there. Completely naked. Separated by just a door. One door. I doubt it even has a lock.

Ardette. Ardetto. Ardettttoooesss.

At this very moment, water is falling over his chest and back and shoulders. His hair is wetly plastered to his head. He’s wiping the water from his eyes and rubbing at his face. Chin. Jaw. Neck. All trickled with sliding drops of wetness. The space between us is filled with magnetic particles that fight to pull me to him.

I bring a hand to my mouth and press into the plush of my bottom lip. I am not fearful like I was last night. That feeling is still back with freaky Frankie. Now, I feel only the desires previously clouded by my nerves and thoughts and anxieties.

I want him.

I want to feel his mouth against mine, tasting me as I taste him. I want him to throw my body onto the pale comforter. To force my hands and bite my lip. I want to wrap my legs around his waist and become tied up with him, tousled in the sheets.

I want to be lost in him. Consumed with nothing but him. Forever and ever and ever.

The water stops, and I hear him begin to dress. I find myself sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping the mattress.

Eventually, the door to the bathroom opens. The navy sweatpants are back, framed by a cloud of steam from the shower. At the sight of my dragon, my chest takes in an uneven breath that it forgets to release.

Ardette begins a smug strut into the room. “Why, my pit, what a surprise. I thought you’d be out cold.” He shifts to wryness. “That, or cowering in a corner, wrestling with your conflicted yearnings.”

There’s no confliction. Ardette’s chest is exposed. His stomach, too, down past the navel. Desire. I feel nothing but desire for him.

From here, everything happens fast. I feel as though I’m floating behind a body that has begun spontaneously acting on its own as it hops from the bed and rushes the unassuming twenty-something. Before I know it, my mouth is thrown on his; my fingers are ensnarled in his wet hair.

Ardette attempts to say something through the kiss, but gives up after the third word, and begins kissing me back. Passionately. Deeply. Slowly. In the middle of the grandma’s room, our mouths move together.

We were made for this.

As pictured, he lifts me from the ground effortlessly, but doesn’t toss me onto the bed; instead, he takes me to the edge of it, sets me down and continues to move his mouth with mine. With intention. I clutch at his back and wrap my legs around him and pull his body over mine. He obliges by crawling onto me.

I want him. Hundreds of years I’ve waited to have him. If I don’t have him now, I won’t be able to live.

His hands find the bottom edge of my cotton shirt and begin to slide it up my waist. This starts a sinful feeling low in my stomach. But it isn’t a bad thing. It’s indulgent. Gluttonous. Meanwhile, I, too, am pulling at the waistband of his pants, fighting with my sloppy fingers to be productive.

He pulls away from my hungry mouth long enough to pant and say, “All mine.” Then he moves to my neck and wets it with his mouth. I let out a cry, soft, as his hand finds my chest.

“I love you so much more than anything,” I say. But because of the alcohol lingering within me, the words are slow to come out. They’re too slow. Too lagging. And they ruin everything.

When he hears them, Ardette stops. He leaves his hand on my chest a moment longer, caressing me gently with his thumb, before sliding it away. He does not lift himself from my body.

“You, my pit, are drunk,” he says into the bed over my shoulder. “And I, my pit, need to leave.”

Leave? N . . . No! That’s the last thing I want!

“What are you . . .” I bumble. “Why?

“Because I love you.”

“Then stay.”

But in flash, Ardette is off of me. He finds a shirt, throws it on, and leaves out the door, while I remain grabbing at the place he just was – the place his warmth has yet to leave.

“Go to bed, Aura.”

That is the last thing I hear from him for the night, followed by the brisk stomping of a frustrated man’s footsteps.

I am angry and confused and tired. Mostly tired.

Before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep.

~

The night is spotted with dreams.

When they end, and when earliest dawn light is streaming through a checkered curtain over the room’s sole window, I wake. I’m curled into a ball, and I can feel no warmth coming from any other body in the bed.

That’s because there isn’t another body in the bed.

Ardette’s sleeping form is limp in a chair. Not the wicker one, but a plump paisley armchair in the opposite corner. His neck is cranked to the side unnaturally, and a wad of shirt is stuffed between his ear and shoulder as a makeshift pillow.

I blink at him. Why is he there?

I can’t begin sorting through the events of last night just yet. I have to go to the bathroom before anything else. I give my knees a final hug before deciding to rise, and find that my leg has a lovely long patch of hair running up the center. My slapdash shave job from last night left me with a mohawk. How ladylike.

I trot to the bathroom to relieve myself, in the meantime, giving a quick dry swipe up the center of my leg with the razor. I half-brush my teeth and do a quick run through my hair with the brush on the counter for good measure.

All right. Now halfway decent, I return into the room. Some part of my routine was loud enough to wake Ardette. Shoot. Even though I was so quiet! He sits in the chair, bags under his eyes and frowning adamantly at me.

“Well, I was up all night lost in a cursed forest,” he says.

The absurdity of it gets to me first.

“You were playing that game?”

“You’ll be pleased to know I am well on my way to becoming a level two Cleric.”

“Cleric?” I say. “Out of everything?”

“I was trying to maintain integrity while knowing you were up here, vulnerable and willing.”

I don’t entirely understand. The events from last night are still hazy.

Rising from the chair, Ardette goes on, “You, my cherry pit, are the cruelest type of woman.”

Sounds like a clue, but I don’t quite grasp it.

Peeling back the covers on his side of the bed, Ardette persists, “I waited until I thought it safe to return. Until I was certain the beast within you had calmed.”

“Beast . . .?” It comes waffling back to me. Ungainly and ruthless. OH! Last night I was unruly. Just as Ardette feared.

“Oh Creator!” I cup my mouth to contain the gasp that wishes to exit. “I was all over you.”

“Yes, you were. And I you. And it was one of the most enjoyable moments of my present life. Now then–” He hops into bed. “Allow me a few hours of gropeless sleep, would you?”

I stand frozen in the bathroom doorway.

“Now, now, Aurelia. You can’t tell me you aren’t still tired. Wouldn’t want our angel to have a hangover, would we? The forces would be so disappointed.”

At his invitation, I walk timidly across the cold floor and crawl into bed beside him. Because I’m suffering of guilt, I lie facing away from him. His breathing is already turning heavy. I hear it coming out of him deeply. He’s exhausted.

“Sorry about that,” I say quietly. “I should have controlled myself better.”

He doesn’t respond, so I add, “You know, you probably could have . . . I mean, I really love you so much, and I really wanted to . . .”

“I would never, like that,” he says, perturbed. “Not if you wouldn’t even remember it.” His tone drastically changes to something passionate. “I want you to remember every last movement.”

I am quiet.

Ardette’s breathing becomes even.

“Thanks,” I whisper, feeling even guiltier.

And then I roll over to face him.

His dark eyes are closed; his face tired. He doesn’t look innocent, as some boys may, resting like that. He doesn’t look like a puppy or any other young animal. He looks like a sleeping lion. A proud, dangerous dragon, always.

And he isn’t all the way asleep yet.

The dragon, reaches for me and pulls me to him like a gathering of blanket. I kiss his cheek to show my remorse, and together we sleep again.

Each time, it feels more natural than the last.

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