Valentines day anthology.., p.18

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs, page 18

 

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs
 


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  He traced his thumbs over her cheeks, moving his legs, so she jostled and shifted and moved so they pressed more closely together. “You’re very beautiful.”

  His voice was like music. Really, really sexy music.

  “So are you,” she breathed.

  A ghost of a smile flickered across his face. His hands were like magic, and her whole body, was thrumming and whirring and buzzing to life beneath the onslaught of the timbre of his voice and his drugging touch.

  His thumbs moved to her neck, and her eyes drifted closed. “I’d like to kiss you, Phoebe.” He trailed a finger along her lips, and her mouth dropped open, desire blasting through her low belly. The stubble of his jaw traced along her cheek, his lips coasted down her ear. Everything fluttered – her body, the house, maybe the whole world. His nose trailed along her ear, and she bit back a moan, fighting her traitorous body’s desire to writhe against him. When his mouth closed over her collar bone, she nearly jumped. “I’d like to kiss you a lot. But I can’t.”

  Her eyes popped open. “What? Why?”

  A hand at the base of her spine pressed her closer, so the hard length of him rode over sensitive skin between her thighs. Only two layers between them, her silky pajama pants and his thin cotton briefs. She wanted to wiggle and grind against him.

  “There’s so much I need to explain to you first. About me. And what my body would do to yours if we were to kiss with our mouths.”

  She could think of a lot of things she’d like his body to do to hers if they were to kiss. “What would it do?”

  He kept pressing hot, sucking kisses against her neck, making it impossible to focus. His breath tickled along her skin. “My people, the Argenti, we mate for life. We Bond our women to us. So if we were to…” He trailed off. The kisses against her neck stopped, and it was hard to believe, but she was pretty certain he was blushing. Was he embarrassed? “If we were to… be intimate… well, our bodies and our minds would form a permanent union we call the Bond.”

  His body pulsed against her. It liked the idea.

  She just wasn’t sure how she felt about it. “Permanent? Like forever?”

  He nodded, eyes earnest. He seemed almost boyish for a moment.

  “What’s that got to do with kissing?”

  “If you kissed me, you wouldn’t want to stop.”

  She laughed softly. “I’ve heard that before, Szar. I’m sure I can resist your talents.”

  “No. I mean it. There are hormones in my saliva, aphrodisiacs that would…” He coughed, glancing away. “They would make you very… ardent.”

  He was dead-flipping serious, so she tried really hard not to laugh at him as she said, “Ardent?”

  He nodded, hands sliding down her thighs, fingers hooking behind her knees. “Ardent.”

  A creeping suspicion rose in her mind. “Szar? Are you a virgin?”

  His face darkened. He really was blushing. “Not a virgin, no. But it’s been a long time.”

  “How long?”

  His hands tightened. “Fifteen years.”

  “Holy mamma.” She whistled. “Why?”

  “A lot of reasons. One of which is that there are few women in our world. And another is that once I reached maturity, I can’t be with anyone in that way without forming a permanent Bond.”

  “No kissing? No heavy petting?”

  He shook his head.

  “No… nothing?”

  A man who looked like him… Not quite a virgin, but about as close as they came.

  She shifted off him, and his brow furrowed.

  “I’m sorry.” His voice was glum.

  “Don’t be. Nothing to apologize for. I’m still glad you aren’t a slug.”

  He laughed. “You do say strange things.”

  She pulled herself off his lap, looking around for something else to talk about. “Did he Bond with anyone while he was here?” She suddenly felt embarrassed asking about it. “Jogon, I mean. You said it brought on a mental connection or something. Maybe he fell in love. Maybe he’s looking for someone.”

  Szar scratched his neck. “It was years ago. He was arrested for killing twenty-two people here on earth. Anyone he may have loved would be long gone by now.”

  Saturday

  Valentine’s Day morning came with a big bright sun, twittering birds and a temperature spike. Spring would be here soon. Phoebe’s head was still tender, and the occasional burst of dizziness hit if she stood too quickly, but for the most part, she felt okay. Maybe sad, though. And vaguely guilty.

  She made toast and coffee for Szar. He seemed to recognize the stuff, but in typical bizarre fashion, he said it backwards, like eeffoc, and grinned happily after each sip.

  They got to Union Station early. Szar said he needed to buy clothes for the evening, and the train station had a decent mall, where he might find something to fit his massive frame.

  She didn’t go with him. Something felt off about it all now. In the light of day, she saw him differently. Not because he was an alien, not entirely. More because of what he’d said about Bonds, and kisses, and his world with few women. He felt more real this morning. Like a person she was taking advantage of.

  Maybe he was using her too, to find Jogon, but it didn’t really wash away the guilt. Not to mention the lie to Sasha.

  She settled in at a coffee shop on the mezzanine level, overlooking the train station’s elaborate barrel-vaulted ceiling, all lit up like a golden treasure chest. Sculptures peeked out from the window wells across from her. Down below homeless people slept on benches, and business people clattered about even on a Saturday, pulling suitcases, chattering into earpieces. A custodian pushed a whirring floor polisher, slow as molasses, leaving a shiny trail in his wake.

  She texted Sasha to let her know they were on their way, and checked her emails and the business bank account. They were doing okay. She’d been in business for two years, and she’d never gotten over that moment of nerves every time she checked the bank account. There had been weeks and months she’d been terrified of closing her doors, having to fire Tina and Jimmy-slash-Jogon. But mostly, business had been good lately. She could afford to give Tina a modest raise. The woman had earned it.

  Sasha’s response came quickly and wasn’t at all what she’d expected. Thanks for coming, Phoebe. I know today is a big day for your shop. It means a lot to me. Can’t wait to see you. I wish Mom could be here, but I’m so glad I have you.

  Her eyes welled up instantly. She had to reread the text a few times to be sure she hadn’t imagined it. Sasha had never been emotional. They’d never been prone to those sorts of declarations. Twins were supposed to be best friends, but they’d never been that close. Not since before their mom died.

  She touched the crystal pendant, taking comfort, as always, in the connection to her mom. She’d died eight years ago. A freak accident, and her whole world had changed. She and Sasha had been so young. Nineteen. Across the country at different colleges. Too shocked and terrified to do much more than go back to school and pretend it hadn’t happened.

  They never spoke about feelings like Sasha just had. Before she could change her mind, she typed in the first words that came to mind. I miss her too. I wouldn’t miss your engagement party for the world. Looking forward to it. She pressed send before she could lose her nerve.

  Sasha’s response came back instantly. I love you, Phoebe.

  A hand touched her shoulder, followed by lips at her ear. Szar. She’d recognize his smell anywhere. No cologne could compete. “Tears, Peahen?”

  She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.

  “I didn’t take you for a crier.” He walked around her and sat facing her, setting a shopping bag on the floor beside them.

  “I’m not.”

  “I know. You keep taking things in stride. I’ve been impressed with your adaptability. You just keep moving forward.”

  I love you too, Sasha. She typed the words fast and hit send. She hadn’t said those words to anyone. N
ot since her mom’s death. Which may account for her epic-failure of a love life.

  “So why are you crying?”

  “I’m not. Got something in my eye.”

  “Liar.”

  She traced a drip of coffee down the side of her cup. “Sometimes.”

  “Are you okay?”

  “Yes. Better than okay. I think my sister just fixed our relationship in a single sentence.”

  He cocked his head to the side. “Sounds like something to celebrate. Not cry over.”

  “Happy tears.” That felt even more like a lie. “I don’t know. We lost a lot of years. Maybe I’m sad about that and imagining how different things could have been if she’d said it sooner. Or if I had.”

  “What happened?”

  “When I was nineteen, a gas truck exploded near a café where my mom was eating. She died. And my twin sister and I just kind of… drifted apart, I guess. We couldn’t really handle it. And we never knew our dad, so that was it. Our family kind of dissipated.”

  Szar stared at her, the weirdest look coming over his face.

  “What?”

  “You’re twenty-seven? Eight years ago? Your file says your mom died in a hospital. In a coma, after complications with her heart, seven years ago.”

  She breathed against the pang of the reminder. “She did. The explosion was right before Christmas. She was rushed to the hospital. They kept her alive for two weeks. The accident happened while I was taking my final exam. I walked out of the test, checked my phone, and had a message from the hospital. I took the next flight home. She died just after New Year’s Day.”

  With a muttered apology, Szar pulled out his comm and tapped away.

  “We need to go get on our train in twenty minutes.” She lifted her coffee, barely even warm now.

  He glanced up at her, eyes vivid green and hard. “Where was the explosion?”

  Her heart pounded in her throat. “Friendship Heights.”

  His jaw hardened. “Jogon caused that explosion.”

  The coffee slid from her hand. The cup hit her lap and flipped over itself in slow motion, landing on the floor a few inches from her feet. The top popped off and coffee exploded outward, splattering her in a shower of brown. At least she was wearing black.

  With a shaking hand, she grabbed a useless brown napkin and blotted ineffectively at the wet spots on her pants. “It was a gas truck. Random explosion. No one caused it.”

  He shook his head. “No. It was a shot that caused that gas truck to explode. Jogon went rogue. He refused to leave Earth. He’d been here years before, studying Earthlings, and then got on the return trip, and that time he wouldn’t leave. The Guarda came in to manually extract him. No one was authorized to remain on this planet. Your people were deemed too unpredictable. He resisted arrest and fired a shot. It hit the gas truck, causing the explosion.”

  Phoebe gave up blotting at her pants. It was becoming too hard to see anyway. “He was in D.C. before? How long before?”

  Szar’s jaw ticked. “Twenty years.”

  “And he was a scientist?”

  He nodded.

  Phoebe squeezed her crystal, her mind playing over events. She’d never seen her dad. Never met him. But her mom had talked about him before, and there was only one thing she’d heard. The same sentence on repeat. Like a mantra, from a woman desperately in love. Phoebe had sworn she’d never be so pathetic. A handsome scientist with pale hair. Special. Who’d loved them all, and left to protect them. But he’ll come back some day. She’d always thought her otherwise-intelligent mother was an idiot for having faith in a man who’d clearly conned her.

  Her heart pounded so hard in her ears she could barely hear her own voice. “Twenty-eight years ago, Jogon showed up in D.C. studying humans. A scientist. He had to leave, but he came back, nineteen years later, and happened to be where my mom was. He was arrested. He escaped prison and came right back to D.C. and got a job working at my flower shop.”

  Her eyes were burning.

  Szar pulled on his ear. “Yes.”

  “Did it occur to you that he wasn’t looking for something. But for someone?”

  He didn’t move a muscle.

  “Why wouldn’t he leave, Szar?”

  “No one knew. He never said.”

  “How did he study humans?” She felt like someone else, some stranger, disconnected, emotionless.

  “He got a job. Working with humans.”

  “Where?” She was barely breathing.

  Szar didn’t need to look at his comm. “A jewelry store.”

  Her mom had designed jewelry. She clutched the crystal pendant her mom had shaped with her bare hands. “That was the first time he came?”

  “Yes. His objective was to get close to humans. Learn about them.”

  “Maybe he fell in love. Maybe he had kids – twin daughters. Maybe he just wanted to be free. Maybe it wasn’t personal when he killed your brother. How far would you go to get back to your wife and children?”

  His head tilted.

  “That would explain why he came to my shop.” She stood, dusting off her pants. It was too much to handle. Her dad might be an alien. And her mom had been right all along. And she and Sasha were part aliens. Way too much. Not today. She picked up her purse and grabbed the handle of her rolling bag. “The train leaves in five minutes.”

  He hesitated. Just for a split second. Not much. But it was there.

  “You don’t have to come.”

  He stood. “I do.”

  “No. Seriously. I’d rather you didn’t. I need to spend some time with my sister. I shouldn’t have lied in the first place. I release you from the deal. Go find Jogon. But be nice to him. Maybe he’s my dad.” And she’d never even looked at him. Not really. Not enough to even see his face. She choked. “Maybe he killed my mom, but he still might be my dad. I guess.”

  She walked away. And didn’t look back. It was easier than trying to figure out a long, drawn-out goodbye. Szar didn’t owe her anything. There was no point pretending they were anything they weren’t.

  She didn’t need the complication in her life right now. Not with her business and her sister. She was busy. The last thing she needed was some alien mucking up her life like her mom’s. It was time she grew up anyway. Lying to her sister about a date was pathetic.

  What if she had a dad? What if he was a murderer? What if he killed her mom? What if she never saw Szar again? What if she did? These aliens were too dangerous. And too confusing.

  She wiped at her eyes. Oh, Mom. What happened? Did you get mixed up with an alien too? Did he kill you?

  The train ride was uneventful. As was the check-in at her hotel. She got dressed like an automaton. Pulled on a black sweater dress and heels with fingers that felt like they were made of glass. Her face was too pale, and she overcompensated with blush and had to redo her makeup twice.

  Her mind refused to focus on anything other than her mom, imagining how it must have been. Her mother had been beautiful in her early twenties, happy in a new job at a jewelry store. She met a man, a coworker with thick, curling pale hair, strong and tall and charming. A scientist, she’d said. They fell in love. and she got pregnant with twins. And he had to leave her. Empty promises. A lifetime of hope. Her mom had died believing that the man would come back for them one day. And Phoebe had always thought it was pathetic. But what if it hadn’t been? What if the man did come back?

  The explosion had to be an accident.

  She swiped on red lipstick and pulled on a red coat in honor of the holiday. It was an eight-block walk to the party, but the heels were wedges and comfortable, and she really didn’t mind the chance to think. At least there was no slush here.

  Should she tell Sasha about Jogon? Tell her what?

  And what would she tell her about her missing date – the tall, hot, dreamy man.

  She should probably just tell her the truth. I lied, Sash. I’m a liar.

  The brownstone was beautiful, warm light spilling f
rom every window as she climbed the steps. Guests mingled beneath chandeliers, heels digging into silk and wool carpets, champagne glittering in cut-crystal flutes, a quintet tucked into a library. Roses spilled from bowls.

  Sasha stood in the foyer chatting with her fiancé. He whispered something in her ear, his hand curling around her waist, and her sister tossed her head back and laughed. She looked so much like their mom in that moment, that Phoebe’s heart skipped a couple of beats. The long dark hair, the wide eyes. Maybe that was part of it. All these years, had they looked at one another and seen their mother? Had it been so painful to relive the grief that they’d just withdrawn?

  Sasha leaned up and kissed her fiancé on the cheek, a quick one that looked like a promise, and her eyes drifted around the room. She saw Phoebe.

  There was no hesitation. Not even a blip on the time map. Sasha grinned. “Phoebe’s here!”

  Phoebe had to bite her cheek to stop tears from coming. This wasn’t her day. This wasn’t about her and whatever weirdness was going on in her life. This was about Sasha.

  Her sister ran across the room, and a second later, Phoebe was wrapped up in a bear hug.

  “Finally! I’m so glad you made it. It’s amazing to see you! I wanted to ask if you’d be my maid of honor. I was going to wait until we had a minute alone, but I just can’t. Do you mind? Say yes? Please, Phoebe!”

  Overwhelmed and confused, Phoebe just hugged her back. “Of course I will. I’d love to be your maid of honor.”

  “Good. Okay, I have to tell you something. Quick, before anyone sees you’re here.” Had Sash always talked a mile a minute? Probably. Her sister just kept right on chattering, grabbing her arm and dragging her down the hall. “Come with me. I’ll be fast because I can’t disappear for too long, but you really, really need to see this.”

  Confused, curious and still totally overwhelmed, Phoebe followed Sasha into an office off the library.

  “That was delivered for you today. There was one for me too.” Sasha pointed at a small, square vase filled with pink roses. A small card dangled off one side. “Open it.”

 
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