My hand throbbed along with my heartbeat. All I could do was breathe at the now sealed doors of the lift that was taking her away from me.
Think for one moment!
Chasing after her was not an option, so I left the lobby and went into the break room. Elaina was in getting coffee. She kept her head down and pretended I wasn’t there. Smart woman. I hope those idiots on the floor do the same or they just might need to find new jobs.
I threw some ice into a plastic bag and shoved my hand inside. Fuck, it stung! There was blood on my knuckles and I’m certain on the wall next to the lift. I walked back out to my office with my hand in the ice where I told Frances to call maintenance to come and fix the bloody ding in the wall.
Frances nodded without missing a beat and looked at the bag of ice at the end of my arm. “Do you need an X-ray for that?” she asked, her expression like that of a mum. What I envisioned a mother would look like at least. I barely remember mine, so I’m probably merely projecting with her.
“No.” I need my girl back, not some fucking X-ray!
I went through to my office and shut myself in. I pulled out a bottle of Van Gogh from the bar fridge and cracked it. Opening my desk drawer, I fumbled for the pack of Djarum Blacks and the lighter I liked to keep in there. I’d been plowing through the smokes at a record pace since meeting Brynne. I’d have to remember to stock up.
Now all I needed was a glass for the vodka, or maybe not. The bottle would do me just fine. I took a swig with my busted hand and welcomed the pain.
Fuck my hand; it’s my heart that’s broken.
I stared at her picture. The one I took of her at work when she showed me the painting of Lady Percival with the book. I remembered how I’d used my mobile to take the photo and was pleasantly surprised to see how nice it came out. So nice in fact, I downloaded it and ordered a print for my office. Didn’t matter it was only the camera in a cellular phone—Brynne looked beautiful through any lens. Especially the lenses of my eyes. Sometimes it almost hurt to look at her.
I recalled that morning with her. I could just see her in my mind’s eye—how happy she was when I snapped the photo of her smiling down at that old painting . . .
• • •
I parked in the lot for the Rothvale Gallery and shut off the engine. It was a dreary day, drizzling and chilly, but not inside my car. Having Brynne sitting next to me, dressed for work, looking beautiful, sexy, smiling at me, had me soaring, but knowing what we’d just shared together this morning was the fucking bomb. And I wasn’t talking about the fucking. Remembering the shower and what we’d done there would hold me throughout my day—just barely, but it was knowing that I’d see her again tonight, that we’d be together, that she was mine, and that I could take her to bed and show her all over again. It was the conversation we’d had too. I felt like she’d finally let me in a little. That she cared about me in the same way I cared about her. And it was time to start talking future with us. I wanted so much with her.
“Did I ever tell you how much I like it when you smile at me, Ethan?”
“No,” I answered, dropping the smile, “tell me.”
She shook her head at my tactics and looked out the window at the rain. “I’ve always felt special when you do because I think you don’t smile much in public. I would describe you as reserved. So when you smile at me I’m kind of . . . swept away.”
“Look at me.” I waited for her to respond, knowing it would come. This was another thing we had yet to discuss but was crystal clear from the very beginning. Brynne was naturally submissive to me. She accepted what I wanted to give her—the Dom in me had found my muse, and it was just one more reason we were perfect together.
I sweep you away, huh?
She lifted her brown/green/gray eyes to me and waited while my cock pounded in my trousers. I could take her right here in the car and still want her minutes later. She was that much of an addiction.
“Christ, you’re beautiful when you do that.”
“Do what, Ethan?”
I tucked a strand of her silky hair behind her ear and smiled for her again. “Never mind. You just make me happy is all. I love bringing you to your job after I’ve had you all night.”
She blushed at me and I wanted to fuck her again.
No, that’s not right. I wanted to make love to her...slowly. I could just picture her gorgeous body stretched out naked for me to pleasure in every way I could manage it. All mine. For me alone. Brynne made me feel everything—
“Would you like to come in and see what I’m working on? Do you have time?”
I brought her hand to my lips and breathed the scent of her skin. “I thought you’d never ask. Lead on, Professor Bennett.”
She laughed. “Someday maybe. I’ll wear one of those black robes and glasses and do my hair up in a bun. I’ll give lectures on proper conserving techniques, and you can sit in the back and distract me with inappropriate comments and leering.”
“Ahhh, and will you summon me to your office for chastisement then? Will you detain me, Professor Bennett? I am sure we can negotiate a deal for me working off my disrespectful behavior.” I put my head down toward her lap.
“You are insane,” she told me, giggling and pushing me back. “Let’s go inside.”
We ran through the rain together, my umbrella shielding us, her slim shape tucked against me, smelling of flowers and sunshine and making me feel like the luckiest man on the planet.
She introduced me to the old security guard, who was clearly in love with her, and led me back into a great, studio-like room. Wide tables and easels were set up with good lighting and plenty of open space. She brought me up to a large oil painting of a dark-haired, solemn woman with startling blue eyes, holding a book.
“Ethan, please say hello to Lady Percival. Lady Percival, my boyfriend, Ethan Blackstone.” She smiled at the painting like they were best friends.
I offered a half bow to the painting and said, “My lady.”
“Isn’t she amazing?” Brynne asked.
I studied the image pragmatically. “Well, she is an arresting figure to be sure. She looks like she has a story behind her blue eyes.” I peered closer to look at the book she held with the front visible. The words were hard to read, but once I realized they were French it was somewhat easier.
“I’ve been working on the section with the book in particular,” Brynne said. “She suffered some heat damage in a fire decades ago, and it’s been a struggle getting the cooked-on lacquer off that book. It’s special, I just know it.”
I looked again and made out the word Chrétien. “It’s in French. That is the name Christian right there.” I pointed.
Her eyes got big and her voice excited. “It is?”
“Yes. And I’m sure this says, Le Conte du Graal. The Story of the Grail?” I looked at Brynne and shrugged. “The woman in the painting is called Lady Percival, right? Isn’t Percival the knight who found the Holy Grail in the King Arthur legend?”
“Good God, Ethan!” She grabbed my arm in excitement. “Of course! Percival . . . it’s her story. You figured it out! Lady Percival is holding a very rare book indeed. I knew it was something special! One of the first King Arthur stories ever written down; all the way back in the twelfth century. That book is Chrétien de Troyes’s The Story of Perceval and the Grail.” She gazed at the painting, her face glowing with happiness and pure joy, and I reached for my mobile and snapped a picture of her. A magnificent profile shot of Brynne smiling at her Lady Percival.
“Well, I’m glad I could help you, baby.”
She leapt at me and kissed me on the lips, her arms wrapped tightly around me. It was the most amazing feeling in the world.
“You did! You helped me so much. I’m going to call the Mallerton Society today and tell them what you discovered. They will be interested I’m sure. There’s his birthday exhibit coming next month . . . I wonder if they’ll want to include this.”
Brynne rambled, excitedly telling me everything I could ever have wanted to know about rare books, paintings of rare books, and the conserving of paintings of rare books. Her face flushed with the thrill of solving a mystery, but that smile and kiss were worth their weight in gold to me.
• • •
. . . I opened my eyes and tried to get my bearings. My head felt like I’d been smashed with a board. A half-empty bottle of Van Gogh stared at me. Djarum butts were sprinkled atop my desk where my cheek was stuck fast, filling my nose with stale cloves and tobacco. I peeled my face off the desktop and propped my head in my hands, supported on firmly planted elbows.
The same desk where I’d laid her out and fucked her only a few hours before. Yes, fucked. That had been pure, unapologetic shagging, and so good my eyes stung at the remembrance. The light on my mobile blinked madly. I flipped it over so I didn’t have to look. I knew none of the calls were from her anyway.
Brynne wouldn’t call me. Of that I was certain. The only question was how long before I tried calling her.
It was nighttime now. Dark outside. Where was she? Was she horribly hurt and upset? Crying? Being comforted by her friends? Hating me? Yeah, probably all of those, and I couldn’t go to her and make it better either. She doesn’t want you.
So this is what it feels like. Being in love. It was time to face some truths about Brynne and what I’d done to her. So I stayed in my office and faced it. I couldn’t go home. There was too much of her there already, and seeing her things would only drive me utterly mad. I’d stay here tonight and sleep on sheets that didn’t have her scent all over them. Didn’t have her in them. A wave of panic sliced into me and I had to move.
I heaved my arse off the chair and stood up. I saw the scrap of pink fabric on the floor at my feet and knew what it was. The lacey knickers I’d peeled off her during that session on my desk.
Fuck! Remembering where I was when that message from her dad came through. Buried inside her. It was agonizing to touch something that had last been against her skin. I fingered the fabric and put them in my pocket. A shower was calling my name.
I went through the back door to the attached suite set up with a bed, a bath, a TV and a small kitchen—everything top of the line. The perfect bachelor crash pad for the busy professional man who works so late there’s no point in driving home.
Or more like a fuck pad. This is where I brought women if I wanted to fuck them. Always after hours of course, and they never stayed the whole night. I got my “dates” the hell out long before dawn. All of this was before I found Brynne. I never wanted to bring her here. She was different from the beginning. Special. My beautiful American girl.
Brynne didn’t even know about this suite. She would have figured it out in two seconds flat and hated me for bringing her into it. I rubbed my chest and tried to still the ache that burned. I turned on the shower and got undressed.
As the hot water poured over me I leaned against the tile and faced exactly where I was. You’re not with her! You made a cock-up of everything, and she doesn’t want you now.
My Brynne had left me for the second time. The first time she did it in stealth in the middle of the night because she was terrorized by a bad dream. This time she just turned and walked away from me without looking back. I could see it in her face, and it wasn’t fear that made her leave. It was utter devastation at the betrayal, to find I had kept the truth from her. I had broken her trust. I’d wagered too high and lost.
The urge to pull her back and make her stay was so great I punched the wall and likely fractured something to keep from grabbing her. She told me never to contact her again.
I turned off the shower and stepped out, the desolate sounds of dripping water draining away making my chest hurt worse from the hollowness. I pulled down a plush towel and shoved my head in it. I stared at my image in the mirror as my face was revealed. Naked, wet and miserable. Alone. I realized another truth as I stared at my motherfucker asshole self.
Never is a very long time. I might be able to give her a day or two, but never was irrefutably out of the question.
The fact that she still needed protection from a threat which could prove dangerous hadn’t changed either. I couldn’t allow anything to happen to the woman I love. Never.
I smiled into the mirror, my cleverness amusing even me in my sorry state, for I had just found a perfect example of the proper usage for the word never.