I slowly opened my eyes to the familiar call.
“Toy! Where are you?”
I blinked sleepily in the afternoon sun and looked out over the sweeping expanse of lawn. There he was, rounding the side of the greenhouse with a fifty-pound bag of fertilizer slung over his shoulder, the perfect specimen of tanned male beefcake.
He raised his head at the sound of the distant command, then took off up the rise at a brisk trot, his tree-trunk thighs making easy work of the climb. Even from my distance, I could see the smile on his face and the determined set of his square jaw.
He was Toy. I knew him by no other name. His mistress was calling him, and he would have been unwise to keep her waiting. Even on her kindest days, she was a demanding lady, this Mistress Paulina Martin, keeper of the estate’s grounds and of one muscle-bound boytoy.
I’d been staying at the estate for two weeks, and I’d settled into the flow of things with more ease than I thought possible. In the beginning, it was jarring to be strolling the grounds or relaxing on my porch only to have a 250-pound body-builder pop around a corner and race across the grass pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with sod.
It wasn’t so much the man himself that was startling, though his form was arresting. No, it was what he wore, or rather, wasn’t wearing. Toy’s apparel consisted of a skimpy leather loincloth, thick leather cuffs on wrists and ankles, and a leather collar around his neck. That was it. Startling, most definitely.
I shaded my eyes and searched for Paulina. I spotted her off by the edge of the orchard. Though she was distant, I could tell by her stiff, upright pose that she was displeased with her sub. Her platinum hair flashed in the sunlight, and I thought I could see her boot-clad foot tapping impatiently. Uh-oh, I thought, feeling a touch of sympathy for Toy.
A deep male voice sounded beside me. “He’s in for it this time, I fear.”
I glanced to my right and smiled. It was Xavier Martin. He stepped up next to my lounger, gazing after the racing Toy and his impatient mistress.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” I said.
Xavier smiled down at me. “It’s fortunate then, that Toy enjoys being in for it.”
I returned his smile. “Do you think he deliberately drags his feet?”
“That’s precisely what I think. I’ve told Paulina she needs to crack down on that sort of thing but she won’t listen. Ah, well, it’s her business, no?”
I nodded. Yep. I supposed it was. Odd, this conversation, another thing that took some getting used to. Xavier and Paulina were married, and Paulina was Xavier’s sub, but she was also Toy’s mistress, and Xavier was like a dominant trainer for Paulina, yet he didn’t have any sexual dealings with Toy himself. Convoluted stuff. Took me a while to work it all out.
Xavier nodded at the equipment he held. “I thought I’d catch some fish for dinner. I brought a pole for you. Care to join me?”
I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t say no. He knew it, too. Both he and Paulina were often after me to stay busy, to keep my mind off my troubles. I found it impossible to deny the wishes of these people who cared for me, provided me with meals and support. If they wanted a hand now and then, there was no way I could say no.
“Sure,” I answered, “but let me run back to my place and change clothes. I don’t need anything else ruined by fish guts.”
“Consider those smelly guts your badge of honor for mastering a new task.”
“Yeah, well, I think that badge would look best on an old t-shirt that’s already stained.”
“I’ll meet you at the dock.” He headed off down the lawn toward the small lake.
I managed to slowly heave myself out of the low-slung lounge chair. It wasn’t far to my cottage, and I was in no hurry. That was one of the things about life on the estate; I never felt like I was in a hurry. Even with Toy constantly racing around the place, I felt no pressure to imitate him.
I’d allowed myself to fall into life at this place too easily, I knew. Part of the reason for this was the warm way Xavier and Paulina had welcomed me into their realm. Another part was that this was Gibson Reeve’s home, and I wanted to be close to him. In a way, I needed it.
Then there was the estate itself. The grounds were immense, with greenhouses and orchards, multiple gardens and barns and a huge stocked lake. There were flower trails and wooded trails and even a sort of grassy trail that was kept wild and untended. I’d found numerous small streams and clever little hidden grottos during my hikes in the forest.
Wildlife was abundant, with birds galore, woodland, nesting, water fowl, guineas and peacocks roaming the lawns. Small animals like squirrels and rabbits scampered everywhere. I’d spotted deer wandering the property. One foggy morning I thought I saw a bear, but Xavier laughed at me and said that was unlikely.
This place was unto itself, and it sucked you into it. I felt like I never had to leave it for anything. I could catch fish for my supper, and pick vegetables from the greenhouses or the late summer gardens. Everything was provided.
Well, almost everything. Gibson wasn’t around much. But besides that annoying detail, life on the estate was practically perfect.
It reminded me of when I was a child and spent my summers at my grandparents’ farm. My parents never made much time for me, but my grandparents always seemed to love my company. They never complained that I tagged after them too much, or that I asked too many questions. They never acted like I bothered them.
For two glorious months every year, I lived on my grandparents’ farm. It wasn’t a profitable enterprise, that farm. Both Grandpa and Grandma had to hold down full-time jobs in town, so the farm wasn’t a business for them, but rather a labor of love.
I would happily traipse after Grandpa as he did his chores, feeding the cows and chickens, slopping the pigs. He’d let me pitch in, always giving me something to do that made me feel useful. And he listened to my chatter and chattered right back.
Grandma let me help her in the kitchen and with her gardening chores. She taught me how to crack eggs and how to properly fold a shirt. Over the course of the summer, she fed me a million warm, chocolate chip cookies.
The summer when I was twelve years old, my grandfather was badly injured in an accident at work. I was staying at the farm at the time, and I would forever remember sitting at the hospital next to my grandmother, her hand tightly wrapped around mine when the doctor told us that my grandfather might never walk again.
My parents came and took me home the next day. I fought them like I had never fought before. I wanted to stay, to help take care of Grandpa, to help Grandma. I was old enough to be of help, and I would always believe that Grandma thought so as well.
My parents wouldn’t be persuaded, however. They dragged me home, then shuttled me off to summer camp.
A month later, my mother called the camp and told me my grandparents had died in a house fire. I never knew all the details, only that their house caught fire and they were unable to make it out in time. I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.
For years after that, whenever I thought of my grandparents, I mentally created a scenario where my parents allowed me to stay on the farm to help with Grandpa’s convalescence. The what-ifs were a nagging barrage. I imagined myself smelling the smoke from the fire, running into my grandparents’ bedroom, waking them up, and helping to get my grandfather out of the house. Just in time. Always just in time.
I was younger than them, more agile, and I would have smelled the smoke sooner, would have been able to breathe it longer. I would have saved them. And then they would have been alive, happy that I helped them. They would let me live with them forever.
Sometimes, I imagined that I didn’t smell the smoke quickly enough. Would I have sacrificed myself for them? I wondered. Yes, I would have, I believed. If that had been what was needed to keep them alive and safe. Yes, I would have sacrificed myself for them, those two people who cared for me and liked me more than anyone else in the world.
What wouldn’t I have done for them if I’d had the chance? But I wasn’t given the chance. It was taken from me, and I was only a child who had no way to seize it for myself.
In many ways, Xavier Martin had become a substitute grandfatherly figure to me. The way he listened, his careful advice, his aura of comfortable knowledge, all these traits were reminiscent of that long-lost figurehead. And he was close to my grandfather’s age when I was young. Xavier had salt-and-pepper hair, a distinguished look about him, a fit and strong physique, all of which reminded me of my grandfather.
Paulina, however, was not a grandmotherly type. She was a force of nature, a changeable hot and cold whirlwind. Yes, she could be kind. But sometimes, she could be brutally honest in a way that wasn’t kind in the least. None of which is to say that I didn’t like her. I did like her.
She looked ten years younger than her actual age, early-fifties. A beautiful, refined woman, she had a regal bearing and a penetrating eye. In no way did she physically remind me of my soft and gentle grandmother. No, Paulina did not play grandmother to Xavier’s grandfather.
I slipped into my cottage and quickly changed into my oldest, rattiest clothes. I say “cottage,” which implies it was small. It was not small, in fact. It was the largest home I had lived in since I left my parents’ house.
The cottage was a one-story structure, with four bedrooms, four full baths, two half-baths, two living rooms, a study, a workroom/studio, a huge kitchen, a dining room, a laundry room that would have made a professional laundress proud, two screened porches and a large deck out the back. Really, now. A cottage? Hardly my idea of one. If this was how the three bears lived, no wonder Goldilocks wanted to hang out there.
I felt the least at ease on the estate when I rambled around the cottage. After living for so long in the confines of small, one bedroom apartments, this place was over-sized, and it seemed too much of the space went unused.
It was a beautiful home, though, designed to complement the rest of the buildings on the estate, all of which mimicked the look of an aged Italian villa and grounds. There was even a small vineyard. No olive trees, though. Maybe they wouldn’t grow in this part of the country. I had never thought to ask Paulina about it and knew nothing about horticulture myself.
As I strolled down the lawn, taking a shortcut to the lakeside, I heard Toy off in the distance, shouting something. It sounded like grunts. I realized then what it was. He was counting. I grinned. I could picture what was happening.
Toy would be on the ground, doing pushups as penance for his sins, loudly counting out each completed one. Paulina would be sitting on his back, her legs crossed off to one side. She’d be looking thoroughly bored and would occasionally encourage the muscled hulk to go faster by tapping his bare bottom with her ever-handy riding crop.
Yep, I’d seen that often enough to know exactly what was happening over by the orchard. Everyone on the estate had seen it at one time or another, and there were quite a few people who worked there. One had to have an open mind to be employed at this place.
When I arrived at the lake, Xavier sat on the dock, his line already in the water, the red bobber floating on the blue surface.
I sat down a few feet away and readied my own line. I didn’t have a clue how to fish when I first moved in, but Xavier had taught me much in a short time. With an ease that made me feel proud, I loaded up my hook with Xavier’s special, super-smelly, home-made bait.
I flicked my wrist and sent the line sailing, noting with no small satisfaction that the hook went where I wanted it to go. I held the pole between my knees and opened the water bottle I’d brought with me, taking a few swigs before settling down to the serious business of doing absolutely nothing.
“Toy’s doing push-ups,” I said.
Xavier gazed out over the calm surface of the lake. “She let him off easy. Must be in a good mood.”
“It’s probably because Gibson’s coming home tonight.”
My heart thudded. Gibson. Home. Tonight. Oh my. “Oh,” I said, feigning ease that I suspected Xavier wouldn’t buy. “I thought he wasn’t due for a few more days.”
“Change of plans. He should be home in time for dinner.”
We sat in silence, my heart skipping more than a few beats. I hadn’t seen Gibson often since I’d been living on the estate, a handful of times only, and those were brief and awkward. Mostly, he’d given me updates on what was happening with his continuing efforts to rid the universe of any and all copies of the pornographic videos Michael Weston had posted of me on the Internet and sold as DVDs.
Gibson was relentless in his quest, and successful. I didn’t think the universe would have the cojones to deny him. As of his latest update, all known DVDs had been confiscated, and there had been no sign of my videos on the Internet for days and days.
I always welcomed his news and took comfort from it. But more than that, I welcomed conversation with him. I longed to know what, if anything, was left between us. Was a future possible? Could he care for me, be with me, as something more than a casual partner, after what happened? Those were questions I longed to have answered.
“He called this morning to let me know,” Xavier said. “Told me to invite you over for dinner at the big house.”
“Doubt he realized I’d have you catching your own supper, though, eh?”
I smiled vacantly. “Yeah. I mean … no. What?”
Xavier didn’t glance over at me, just kept his eyes on his line. “He didn’t invite Paulina and me. Asked me to prepare a meal for two. Guess it will just be you and him.”
“Well, guess I’d best show up. Can’t say no to the lord of the manor, after all.”
Xavier shot me a look. “You can say no, if you want. He wouldn’t want you to feel any obligation.”
I knew that, dammit, and it annoyed me that Xavier put me on the spot by saying it out loud. “I’m only kidding around. Ha ha. You know. The great Laird. The master. Monarch of the glen and so on.”
Xavier’s made no reply.
“Anyway, hmm …” I maintained a steady eye on my red bobber, my concern that there might be something happening out there under the water a mere pretense.
Xavier studied his own line and left me to my scattered thoughts.
Gibson had invited me to dinner. Sort of. He had, technically, asked Xavier to invite me to dinner. Why didn’t Gibson ask me himself?
He never called me anymore. He could have texted me. Why didn’t he text me?
Argh. I hated this wishy-washy, does-he, doesn’t-he crap. What was I — 15?
I wanted to shake myself all over, fling off my doubt and insecurity. And yet I didn’t. I wallowed in uncertainty.
Xavier reeled in his line, checked his bait, added some more, then tossed his line back into the water. “So, had any new ideas lately?”
I made a non-committal sound.
“Given any more thought to returning to school?”
“No, I won’t be going back to school. I’ve had enough of that.”
“How about Elaine’s offer? Have you given her an answer?”
Elaine Hoyte had offered me the position of manager in one of their stores.
“I told her no,” I said. “I don’t have any experience in retail. I wouldn’t want to screw up one of her stores just because she and Ron feel sorry for me.”
Xavier looked at me sharply. “We’ve talked about this.”
“I know. I just … come on. They offered me the job to be nice. I couldn’t do it.”
“That’s fine, but there’s no reason to assume you’d fail at the job. You’d have a lot to learn, but you’re capable of learning it.”
“So what’s the real reason you turned down the job?”
I sighed. “I don’t know.”
“Sure you do.”
“Could be pride.”
I pursed my lips. “Maybe.”
“So you’re an annoying man sometimes.”
I tugged on my line, took a sip of water. “If I’m so prideful then what am I doing here freeloading off of Gibson, and you and Paulina?”
“Oh, not me and Paulina. This is all Gibson. You’re freeloading off of him alone.”
I had a mental “ack” moment, hearing Xavier say it out loud the way he did. I could call myself a freeloader all I wanted, but it was different hearing someone else say it. “You’re right. I should leave.”
“No, you shouldn’t. And if you try, we’ll do our best to stop you. However …”
He paused for a moment, turned to catch my eye and held my gaze with his own warm, steady one. “Since I first saw you, before I ever actually met you, I sensed something in you, that you were someone on the verge of action. You wouldn’t be stopped from breaking free of whatever was holding you back.”
He turned to the lake. “And now, here you are. Stopped. A woman of action, refusing to move.”
My face flushed. I felt my pulse ramp up a bit. “I didn’t stop it. Michael did that to me.”
“At first maybe. But that’s not why you’re stopped now.”
I flicked my rod up and down, watched the bobber dance on the surface of the water. I wanted to snap at Xavier, tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Instead, I said nothing.
He gave a quick pull on his rod and the line tightened in the telltale visual that he had caught a fish. The rod bent as he rapidly reeled in the line. It didn’t take long before he landed a good-sized trout.
I complimented his haul as he removed the hook and tossed the fish into the holding basket. Soon, he had a freshly-baited line whizzing out over the lake.
He settled back and dug a couple of butterscotch hard candies from his shirt pocket. He handed me one and together, we unwrapped the candies and popped them in our mouths.
The sugary scent of the candy mingled with the lake smells. The water lapped gently at the dock posts, and dragonflies buzzed the surface of the water.
I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was that maybe this place had spoiled me, and I’d never been anywhere so magical, so perfectly easy, and maybe that was why I couldn’t make a plan, why I couldn’t move. Any plans I might make involved leaving. No one in their right mind would want to leave this place. Or these people.
Or one, powerful man in particular, a man who visited me in my dreams and called me beautiful, who touched me in a way that made me believe no one had ever humiliated or degraded me. With him I felt whole again. Maybe only with him. Maybe only here.
How could I move if the only path I could travel led me away from what I needed most?
But I didn’t say any of that to Xavier. We sat in silence and enjoyed the sweet butterscotch. And waited for the fish to bite.
At seven o’clock that evening I stood before the kitchen door and willed myself to knock. Some perverse side of me had turned me away from the front of the house and led me to the back side, to the ivy-framed kitchen door of the massive, Italian-villa style home.
The formal, arched stone entryway to the house scared me away for some reason, made my invitation to dinner seem too much like an event. If I showed up at the kitchen door, then I was just a neighbor over for a casual meal.
Anyway, when Gibson was gone, I always entered the big house through the kitchen.
I knocked on the door, expecting to hear Xavier yell out for me to enter. Nothing. I knocked again, and when no answer came, I turned the knob and let myself in.
After taking a quick tour of the big room, I realized no one was there. I noticed some dishes on a counter, covered pots on the stove, and a large pan warming in the oven. I rapidly deduced that Xavier had made the meal, then left for his own home.
I debated between wandering into the house at large and yelling around for Gibson, or backtracking outside and knocking on the front door like a normal person would have done in the first place. I opted for the normal approach, for a change.
I had just reached for the door handle when I heard a sound behind me.
“There you are,” a familiar voice said. “Trying to sneak out before we even eat?”
The smooth, deep tones sent a warming tendril curling in my belly. Gibson.
I turned and looked at him a little shyly. “I never know what the protocol is here.”
He looked his usual handsome self, his dark hair brushed back from his forehead. He was dressed casually this evening, in cotton pants and a jersey shirt. His smile told me he was pleased to see me. “No protocol. Just me.”
“I guess. I keep getting the feeling that an elderly lady is going to pop out of a corner and scold me for not having manners appropriate for a mansion.”
“Then she’d be more guilty of bad manners than you.”
“She wouldn’t care. She’d say, ‘It isn’t done, Missy. It’s simply not done!’”
“Sounds like you’ve thought this through.”
“I may be watching too much ‘Masterpiece.’”
A corner of his mouth twitched. “I still say she’d be out of line. And this is hardly a mansion.”
“How many rooms does this thing have — thirty? More? That’s a mansion.”
The door swinging open ended our debate. One of the servants came up short when she saw the two of us standing in the middle of the room.
“Don’t mind us, Charity,” Gibson said. “We’re on our way to the dining room.” He looked at me and motioned to the door. “Shall we?”
I nodded and gave Charity a quick hello as I passed her. She was an introverted, shy young woman, who I’d met during previous forays into the big house.
Gibson told her she could go ahead and serve our meal as soon as she was ready. I led the way out the swinging door and down the hall to the dining room.
I liked the dining room. It wasn’t an ornate formal room, but instead, like the rest of the home, of a rustic design. Everything may have been modeled along the lines of historical Italian villas, but in a rural, farm-like sort of way.
Xavier told me that Gibson’s father built the house, but that he hadn’t completed it at the time of his death. Gibson finished what his father began, furnishing many of the rooms with treasures from his travels.
The dining room, for instance, had a huge, rough-hewed table that must have weighed a ton. It had all the gouges and flaws that come with great age. It was gorgeous, and suited the exposed beams in the high ceiling, the unpolished patina of the picture frames and bureaus.
Gibson pulled out a chair for me. “I hope you don’t mind that we’re eating right away. I’m starving and haven’t had a decent meal since I left home.”
I assured him I didn’t mind, and busied myself with laying my napkin on my lap.
He poured us both some wine, then sat at the end of the table near me. He sipped his wine and appeared contented with it. “I hear I should thank you for our dinner tonight. Xavier said you were kind enough to catch our main course.”
“I only caught one. Xavier caught the others.”
“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a fisherwoman.”
“Good question. I’m not sure.”
“Well, you were right,” I said. “I’ve never been big on outdoor stuff.”
“You seem to be taking to it now.”
“I like fishing, anyway. I’ve been trying to figure out what Xavier puts in his special bait.”
Gibson gave a wry grin. “Good luck with that. I’ve been trying to get that secret out of him for more than a decade and he’s never even given me a hint.”
“I might as well give it up, then. If he hasn’t told you, he sure won’t tell me.”
“I don’t know. He’s taken a liking to you.”
“I like him, too. He’s … well, he’s good company. Easy to be with.”
“True. How are you liking everyone else? And the estate? Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Everyone’s wonderful. And you know how amazing this place is.”
He nodded slowly. “Good. You look better. Your color is improved and you’ve filled out again.”
I sat my glass on the table and arched an eyebrow. “I suppose I should accuse you of calling me fat. Consider yourself accused, and me offended.”
“Done. And I hope you’ll consider yourself groveled to, and that I’ve thoroughly regretted ever mentioning it.”
We grinned at one another.
I realized that for the first time in a long time, I was happy.
Charity broke the moment by bustling into the room and delivering a pair of salads to the table. She poured some water into our glasses then rushed back out again.
My plate was loaded with crisp, mixed greens and vegetables from Paulina’s greenhouse, and the dressing was made with fresh herbs from Paulina’s gardens. During my time at the estate, I didn’t believe I’d ever eaten as well.
Gibson and I kept our conversation light during the meal, mostly commenting on the food, on Xavier’s cooking talents, on Paulina’s green thumb, and on the bounty of the estate. I entertained Gibson with the tale of the first time I caught and gutted a fish, and about how many omelets I burned before Xavier managed to help me make one that was edible.
Gibson, in turn, told me about the biggest fish he ever caught and how Xavier had long since given up on him ever being able to cook anything that wasn’t on a barbeque grill. Apparently, Gibson was a mad griller.
The trout was delicious, as was the desert of fresh compote made from the fruit that was picked in the orchard. Everything we ate that night was grown on the estate.
When we finished, Gibson led me into one of the sitting rooms. I sank into the soft, aged leather sofa and drank the coffee that Charity served us before Gibson told her he wouldn’t be needing her any more that night.
I knew something was coming, of course. I didn’t imagine that Gibson had invited me over for a simple dinner and chitchat. And I didn’t dare to dream that he had brought me here to seduce me. He hadn’t even so much as kissed me since the day I accosted him in my apartment and basically demanded that he service me.
Gibson leaned back in his big easy chair, one ankle crossed over his knee, a pose that was becoming familiar to me. He set his coffee on the side table and looked at me.
Here it came, I thought. Whatever it was, it was coming now.
“I thought you might want to know that I decided not to purchase Linton Cosmetics,” he said.
“Huh,” was my only response. I was surprised. Was this news the reason why he invited me? Didn’t seem important enough to warrant a dinner invitation. Still, prior to being forced to quit because of the pornographic videos Michael Weston had made of me, I had worked for Linton Cosmetics for many years, and I was close to several people there. Or at least, I had been close to them, once upon a time.
I studied Gibson’s face. He seemed relaxed, no sign of that enigmatic mask of his. “What made you decide against it?”
“It turned out the Linton family had only one thing I wanted, and once I got that, I found I wasn’t interested in the actual business anymore.”
One thing he wanted. He meant me, perhaps. But he didn’t actually have me. “I imagine the Lintons are disappointed, and I’m not sorry for it. I’m sorry for Isabel, though. She wanted the sale to go through. Now she’ll be forced to keep dealing with the Linton family.”
Isabel Vinson was my former boss and mentor. She hadn’t wanted to let me go, had fought to allow me to quit instead of being fired. She promised to rehire me when the sale of the business went through. That wouldn’t be happening now. Not that it mattered. Too many people at Linton Cosmetics knew about my videos, making it impossible for me to ever work with them again.
“Isabel is fine with my decision,” Gibson said. “She put in her notice, and she’ll be heading up the cosmetics division at Roundtree Holdings by the end of next month.”
“You didn’t! You hired Isabel away from Linton?”
“That’s fabulous, Gibson. The Lintons must be furious. Oh, I wish I could have seen their faces when Isabel told them. That must have been epic.”
“I can only imagine.”
“I’m so happy for Isabel, and you, too. You’re lucky to get her.”
“Wow, well, that’s great,” and I trailed off as a thought occurred to me. Isabel was the one thing he wanted at Linton Cosmetics. Not me. Well hell. Still, it was great news.
“I also thought,” Gibson said, “you might want to know that we believe all the DVDs of your videos have been confiscated and destroyed. Also, there’s been no evidence of your files floating around the Internet. It’s likely we caught it early enough that no one had a chance to back up their purchases. Regardless, your files remain on a watch list. I think that for all practical purposes, we can call this a positive final outcome, and you don’t need to worry about it anymore.”
The smile had fallen from my face with this news. It wasn’t that I wasn’t pleased to hear it. I was. It was simply that I tried not to think about those videos. I had become adept at pretending the videos didn’t exist, that nothing bad had happened, and I could maintain the delusion for hours at a time.
Nonetheless, I was grateful. “Thank you. What you did is remarkable, and I’ll never forget it.”
As was usual with him, Gibson waved off my thanks. “I have more news, and I’m sorry that it isn’t all good.”
“Oh, okay. Well …”
“We’re still unable to pinpoint Michael’s location, though we’re narrowing it down more and more.”
“I don’t care about that. I told you. There’s no point.”
“I think there is,” he said, his voice low and firm. “I haven’t told you, but Michael isn’t the only man I’ve been seeking. I’ve been looking for the other men in the video as well.”
I forgot to breathe for a moment, felt the room tilt.
He noticed my reaction. “Just hear me out. I easily tracked down the cameraman and the audio man. It didn’t take much to convince them that their futures would be best served by pursuing new careers in another part of the country. They’ve been gone for a while now.”
I didn’t know what to say. Wasn’t sure what to feel. So I just sat there, letting this new information sink in. I played out the scene in my head.
I imagined Gibson in full, dead-calm force explaining to the two pieces of cowering scum that they’d worn out their welcome in the city. I pictured the two men scrambling home, throwing a few things into a bag and running away before Gibson … before Gibson did what? I didn’t know. Something awful. Before Gibson did something awful that they’d dearly deserve.
And then I knew how to feel. Gratified. That was the only word for it. Gratified that Gibson made them run away. And relieved. Relieved that I would never see them on the street, or in a store, or a club. I’d never see them again. Gibson would make sure of it.
I was glad he’d run them off. I hoped they were terrified. Hoped they stayed terrified.
If Gibson and I were still lovers, this news would have earned him whatever the hell he wanted from me. Of course, I was pretty much willing to do that anytime. As it was, I couldn’t recall a time when he looked sexier.
Gibson eyed me closely. “Unfortunately, I’ve been less successful finding the third man, Kamun.”
With that, whatever I was feeling changed into a sick twist in my gut. Kamun. It was foul on the tongue and revolted the ear. Kamun.
“Are you okay?”
“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled, not trusting myself to speak.
“From what we’ve pieced together,” he continued, “Kamun went on the run not long after Michael left town. He was on his own for a while, then he met up with Michael in Brazil. As far as we know, they’re traveling together now. Kamun’s only family is an elderly father and a younger brother, both of whom he’s estranged from. They say they haven’t heard from him in years, and I’ve no reason to doubt them.”
God. Kamun was with Michael. The two filthy fuckers together, roaming who knew where, doing who knew what. I couldn’t stand the thought of it. Didn’t want to think of it. I wished Gibson had never told me.
Gibson rose from his chair and sat beside me on the sofa. “Look at me.”
I did, but not without hesitation.
He reached out and took my cold hand into his warm one. “I don’t want to upset you with this. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe it was necessary. You’re doing better now. You’re stronger. I think it’s time that you face what happened.”
I tried, unsuccessfully, to pull my hand away. “I’ve done nothing but deal with what Michael did. I don’t have any choice but to face it.”
“You’re not, though. You’re in limbo. You won’t be able to move on until you understand what happened, until you face it head on.”
“That’s ridiculous! I know what it was.”
“What was it?”
I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat. “Don’t make me say it.”
“You have to say it. Not saying it gives it power.”
“Fine then. It’s betrayal, Gibson. That’s what it was. It’s shame. Degradation. Humiliation. Is that enough? Have I said enough?”
“Yes, that’s plenty,” and he tried to hug me.
I held up my free hand to stop him. I couldn’t be hugged right then. He didn’t push me, but he still wouldn’t let go of my hand.
“I don’t want to do this,” I said.
“I know, but it’s important. It’s not just about betrayal and humiliation, Nonnie. Yes, it’s what you’re focused on, but you need to see what else it was if you’re ever to get beyond it.”
I didn’t respond.
“It’s time,” he said, “that we watch your video together.”
With one swift pull, I yanked my hand out of his hold. Then I was on my feet and walking away from him. I didn’t know where I was going, just away. “No. I won’t do it. I won’t watch that video. Not with you, not alone, not ever. I’ve told you that before.”
“I know,” he said, his voice calm, a masculine attempt to soothe that only served to grate on my nerves. “You don’t want to. You need to, though. I don’t see how there’s any other way. You’ve got to know what happened. What went wrong. How and why it did.”
I stood behind a chair and gripped the backrest. I glared across the room at him. “I know all of that already.”
“No you don’t.”
“You don’t. You can’t. You’re not experienced enough. You weren’t then and you aren’t now. Whatever conclusions you’ve come to, they’re likely wrong.”
I shook my head. No, I wasn’t wrong. I knew what happened. Gibson wasn’t making any sense. “I won’t watch that video with you. Period. Don’t ask me again.”
“Let’s find a compromise. Why don’t you take the night? Think about it. Think about what I’ve said. Maybe you could talk about it with Xavier or Paulina tomorrow. Get their thoughts on it. Or Elaine. Talk to her or Ron.”
I continued to shake my head, but I was beginning to suspect that I was behaving unreasonably. After all, he was only asking me to think about it, to possibly talk about it with Xavier or Elaine.
He took a deep breath. “Just consider the idea of it for now. We can talk more about it tomorrow.”
I looked down at my hands, the way I was digging my fingernails against the wood of the chair back. That wasn’t right, was it? I shouldn’t be so worked up by this conversation that I was on the verge of snapping off all my fingernails. I closed my eyes. Willed myself to find calm.
I opened my eyes and looked at Gibson. He watched me with concern, a sympathy on his handsome features that made me blink back an influx of emotion, a push of self-pity.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
He smiled then, a smile of released tension.
“It’s late,” I said. “Time for me to go.”
I turned to leave and heard Gibson rise behind me and follow.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said.
“That’s not necessary. It’s perfectly safe, as you know.”
“I do. But I’ll walk you anyway.”
I shrugged. If that’s what he wanted, fine. It wasn’t worth arguing over, not when there were much larger issues in contention.
It was little more than a quarter mile between the big house and my cottage. We walked in silence. The chirping insects and tree frogs, a hoot from a lone owl, and our footsteps falling on grass, stone and even gravel, were the only sounds accompanying our journey.
We stopped in front of my door, stood under the yellow porch light.
I reached for the doorknob. “Thank you for dinner. It was delicious.”
“Thank you for catching it.”
But I had no lingering playfulness to share with him. It had dried up with talk of Kamun and Michael and the damnable video.
Any other time, I would have wanted Gibson to kiss me. It was a beautiful night, and he was so appealing standing there, his hands in his pockets, looking awkward for a change, and this would have made me want him. Would have.
He took a long look at me. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Really. Good night.”
“Good night,” he said, though he looked like he wanted to say something else.
It didn’t matter. I opened the door and slipped inside, quickly closing the door behind me as if it shut off any options I had for how this evening might otherwise end. As if anything other than loneliness were in the offing.
I locked the door and leaned against it, listened to the sounds of Gibson’s footsteps fading away.
I went to my bathroom and took a quick shower, followed my usual nightly rituals. It wasn’t even ten o’clock when I crawled into bed.
I was exhausted. I couldn’t think about what Gibson wanted me to think about. I was too tired. I needed sleep. I was worn out, that was all. I couldn’t be expected to go over all that crap when I was so exhausted.
Excuses. That’s all it was. I knew it. Knew there was no reason for me to be so tired, knew I hadn’t done anything that day to warrant the bone deep swell of fatigue that was spreading a foggy veil over my thoughts.
Tomorrow. I wouldn’t be tired tomorrow. That was the excuse.
I couldn’t fight it. I let it have its way with me, let it float me off into safety, even if that safety were an illusion. The escape of sleep.
At least my dreams were kind. Too kind, perhaps.
I was back in the condo with Gibson, the last night I spent with him. I lay naked on the big bed, on my stomach, hips raised by pillows, arms and legs stretched to the four corners of the bed, secured in place with lengths of white, nylon rope.
He was going to give me a choice, he said, but then he couldn’t go through with it. He had to have it all. And so I was tied to the bed, the rope pulling my limbs taut, leaving me little room to do more than wriggle in place.
And he held a long, thin dildo, an anal probe, he called it. He wanted to adjust me to deeper penetration.
And he said he must spank me, thoroughly. Said he’d been needing it for a long time.
So no choice. All three. The ropes, the probe, his hand. His desire was mine, and when he spoke of what he would do, it was as if he were already doing it.
He straddled my bound body and slipped his hands between my chest and the mattress. He palmed my breasts, squeezed my nipples between his fingers, nipples that were over-sensitized from a weekend of sweet abuse.
My breath quickened when he leaned down over my shoulder and I felt the fall of his warm breath on my ear.
“I want you,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, a threat I feared and craved. “All of you. You don’t know what I would take, if I could, if you were ready.”
I shuddered, tremors flitting down my body. I might have spoken, but knew he wanted no words from me.
Words belonged to him, and again they came, warm and resonant against my ear. “You don’t know how completely you can surrender. You can’t yet imagine what you will offer up some day. But I know, and I can imagine.”
His arms tightened around me, and one hand slid up between my breasts, up to my neck, where he grasped my jaw and held my head tightly. His teeth closed over my ear lobe and he nipped the flesh until I gasped.
He kissed where he had bitten. “I’m your guide into yourself, Nonnie. I can’t wait to show you where you can go, what you can feel.”
And then he rose up off of me, his motions smooth and controlled, like everything he did. He stroked down my back with a gentle touch and then trailed on down over the curve of my buttocks to the tops of my thighs.
He rubbed his palm over my ass, around and around. I tensed in anticipation, knowing he was readying me for spanking. His other hand left feathered shivers in its wake as it traveled up the inside of my thighs, fingers playing at the bare flesh of my labia, the tips dipping into my slit and teasing past my clitoris.
I relaxed, sighed. He squeezed my ass, his fingers tenderly spread me and slowly sunk inside my pussy and I groaned I was so ready for him to take me.
“Mmm, you know this feeling well,” he said. “Know exactly what it is. If I touched your clit right now, you’d come within moments.”
I had no doubt that he was right. I tightened and released myself around his fingers, silently invited his invasion.
“But what about this?” he asked.
He raised his other hand and swiftly landed a sharp smack on my ass. I cried out mostly in surprise, which is not to say that it didn’t sting. It most assuredly stung.
“That feeling,” he said, “you don’t know very well.”
Then something cold and firm pressed against my asshole. The probe.
I heard his arousal in his voice. “You don’t know this feeling very well either, yet.”
He chuckled lightly. “Just think, after tonight, you’ll be much better acquainted with these sensations.”
“Get ready, beautiful girl,” he said with a hint of menace and promise. “This is only the beginning.”
And then, he began.
I woke up, sweaty and breathing fast. Damn. How many times had I dreamt of that night with him? Too many. And how often did I wake up at the exact wrong moment? Every single time. It was maddening.
I looked at the clock. After midnight.
I briefly considered getting dressed and going to the big house, waking up Gibson and telling him I had needs that he should attend to. For the craziest of seconds, I believed I might actually do it. But then reason returned and reminded me that I wasn’t an overwrought nymphomaniac. At least, I didn’t think I was.
I imagined what Gibson’s response might be if I actually did go accost him. Well, technically speaking, I had already accosted him once, and his response had been to oblige me, more or less. Would he oblige me again?
It didn’t matter, all the speculation. I wasn’t going to do it, so I told myself to quit thinking about it. I stomped into the bathroom and got a drink of water. By the time I settled back into bed, I had myself under control, was in no danger of throwing myself at Gibson’s feet.
Gibson’s big, sexy feet, that were attached to his long, muscular legs, that led to his narrow hips and firm ass and toned, defined stomach and …
I yanked the pillow down over my head. No more. This was ridiculous. Stupid dreams. Stupider memories. Stupidest … me.
It took a long time to fall asleep.
I had to remove my sunglasses when I entered the building. It was dark inside, even now at noon. Elaine Hoyte loved her dive bars, I thought, as I waited for my eyes to adjust.
I heard her before I saw her.
“Nonnie! Over here!” she called out, her voice carrying easily through the joint.
I felt a brief surge of panic at her calling public attention to me. I nearly crammed my sunglasses back on my face and raced out the door. But I took a deep breath. I told myself no one in the place had seen my videos, and if they had, they wouldn’t recognize me with my new short hair.
It helped, too, once I was able to see clearly, that the bar wasn’t crowded. Elaine sat in a booth about halfway down the long, narrow room. She leaned out into the aisle and merrily waved an arm at me. I gave her a quick nod, acknowledging that she was seen in the hopes that she wouldn’t shout again.
I kept my eyes on the booth as I walked what felt like a gauntlet. I had tried to convince Elaine to come to the estate for lunch, but she’d said she didn’t have the time for the trip. Hence, her selection of meeting place, another vaguely skeezy bar that still smelled faintly of the cigarettes that were once smoked here, a plus for the ex-smoking Elaine, or so she said.
I slipped into the booth with no small relief that nothing happened, that no one recognized me or said, “Hey, look, there’s that slut who was in that filthy porno.” Always a good day when that didn’t happen.
Of course, that had never happened, and it wasn’t likely that it ever would. Yet I couldn’t stop fearing it, dreading its eventuality.
Elaine smiled and greeted me. She looked expensive that day, her shining brown hair twisted up into an immaculate do, her petite full figure tucked snugly into a tailored suit and silk blouse. She had come from work.
She patted my hand. “Isn’t this fun? Girl’s lunch out.”
I smiled and agreed. The waitress was on the ball that day, and handed me a menu before I had a chance to find a place for my purse.
“Just order the cheeseburger and chili fries,” Elaine said. “It’s what they do best here.”
What the hell. I’d been eating so healthy of late I could afford the splurge. I nodded to the waitress and added a beer to the tab.
“So, how are things on the fancy-pants estate?” Elaine asked after the waitress left.
She laughed. “And how’s Xavier?”
“He’s fine. We went fishing together yesterday.”
“That’s good.” She studied one of her manicured nails. “And Mistress Paulina?”
“She’s fine. I saw her right before I left to meet you.”
“Did you now?” Elaine futzed pointlessly with her nail. “And what was she doin’?”
“It’s actually a good story. I was walking to my car when I heard something strange behind me. I turned around and you’ll never guess what was coming down the gravel path in front of my house.”
“You’re right. I won’t. Just tell.”
I grinned. “Okay. It was Paulina and she was driving the cutest little cart I’ve ever seen. She was perched on top of this bench seat and cracking the reins like nobody’s business.”
“Was she? What was she wearing?”
I stared at her. “Seriously? That’s what you want to know?”
“Just tell me what she was wearing.”
Well now. Elaine’s strange interest was setting off warning bells. And what was with the “Mistress Paulina” thing?
“I don’t remember exactly,” I said. “She had on one of those long, flowing skirts she likes to wear. It was dark blue, or purple maybe. And she was wearing a thin blouse that was loose over a fitted corset kind of top thing. I don’t know, Elaine. She looked like her usual self. Except for one thing. She was wearing a hat. A ladies hat, like back in the day when women rode around in carriages and wore white gloves and hid under parasols.”
Elaine looked a little dreamy. “Mmm. I can picture it.”
My eyebrows shot up a full inch. “Can you?”
“Just go on. Tell me what she did next.”
“All right. So there was Paulina driving this little two-seater pony cart, and it wasn’t just that it was odd to see Paulina driving the thing. It was the oddity of what was pulling it. Or I should say,” I paused for dramatic effect, “who was pulling it.”
Elaine didn’t seem to grasp what I was going for. She looked at me blankly.
I held my hands out. “Toy! Toy was harnessed up and pulling the cart. I thought I was going to lose it.”
She didn’t react how I expected. She frowned. “Toy, huh?”
“Yeah. It was a hoot. And he was smiling like crazy, proud as anything. Paulina told me she special-ordered the cart and had the tack custom-made to fit Toy. I don’t know how I managed to keep a straight face.”
“Okay, that’s it. You don’t hear a story about a man harnessed up like a pony and your only reaction is ‘hmm.’ What’s going on? She wasn’t hurting Toy, if that’s what you’re thinking. He loved it.”
“No, I’m not worried about him. I’m sure he loved it.”
It was the way she said “him” that made things click into place of a sudden, especially when contrasted with the way she said “Mistress” earlier.
I think my mouth fell open a little with the realization. “Elaine — have you got a thing for Paulina?”
Naturally, the waitress chose that moment to deliver our beers. I wasn’t about to let Elaine off the hook, though, and as soon as we were alone again, I repeated my question about Paulina.
Elaine shrugged, tried unsuccessfully to look casual. “I find her attractive, I guess.”
“I had no idea you, you know, went that way.”
“I don’t, actually. Or, at least, I haven’t. Not until now.”
“Wow. That’s crazy.”
“You’d think at your age you’d already know if you … went that way.”
“It might shock you, Miss Young Thing, to learn that we older folk do have a few surprises left in us.”
I laughed. “I can’t believe it. You’ve got a thing for Paulina.”
Elaine actually blushed a little. This was too precious.
“Oh my God,” I said, “Have you told Ron? What did he say?”
She took a long drink of her beer. “No, I haven’t told him. No reason to. Paulina’s not interested in me. She’s got Xavier and Toy. I don’t even think she’s interested in women.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I drank my beer and gave the situation some thought. Elaine and Ron had been out to the estate three or four times since I moved out of their house and into Gibson’s cottage. They had met with Xavier and Paulina each time.
Ron had gone fishing with Xavier a few times, and Elaine had talked gardening with Paulina more than once. I hadn’t noticed any sizzle between my submissive friend and the platinum-haired switch, but then, I hadn’t been looking for it, probably hadn’t been paying any attention.
“Well, anyway,” I said, “Paulina kept me standing out there next to her carriage talking for a long time. I wanted to get away because the sun was hot and I didn’t want to be late to meet you, but she didn’t care. You know how bossy she gets when she’s on a mission. She wouldn’t stop going on about the picnic she’s having on Sunday.”
“She’s having a picnic on Sunday. What fun,” Elaine said, a lame tone in her voice.
“I don’t know about that. She wouldn’t quit listing the preparations that need to be done, and you can bet she’s got me roped into helping. It’ll be a lot of work, but I guess that’s okay. She invited a lot of friends.”
“Oh, I see.”
“She’s calling it an Indian Summer Fete. She loves old fashioned words.”
“She does,” Elaine said, kind of goofy.
It was hard not to laugh. “Oh, and I almost forgot. She told me to invite you and Ron. She said to tell you she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if you should read too much into it.”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t.”
Elaine stared off into the distance behind me, obviously lost in contemplation of what Paulina’s invitation might or might not mean, undoubtedly reading too much into it.
I could only sit and wonder if I had walked into bizarro world that morning. Elaine with a crush on Paulina? And jealous of the muscle-bound Toy? Beyond bizarre.
I couldn’t help myself. “Maybe on Sunday if you play your cards right, Paulina will harness you up next to Toy and the both of you can pull her cart. Not exactly a matched set, but …”
Elaine looked confused for a moment, then she smiled, laughed and smacked at my hand. “You’re a bad girl, Nonnie Crawford. You know I’m not into that sort of thing.”
“I don’t know anything right now, Elaine.”
She chuckled, and I shook my head.
The waitress delivered our food and we tucked in. The cheeseburger was horrifically greasy and the chili fries could have burned their way through cast iron. In all, a pretty fabulous plate of food.
During the meal, we chatted about lighter topics than Elaine’s current crush. Near the end, though, she asked about Gibson, and I told her he had arrived home the night before.
“What’s up with Gibson?” Elaine asked. “I’m betting he’s why you asked me out to lunch.”
“No, I wanted to see you, too.”
“I know. So tell me what’s going on.”
I took a final few bites and pushed the plate away. “He says I’m not facing what happened. He wants me to do something that I don’t want to do.”
“What is it?”
“Watch my videos with him. He says I need to, in order to understand what happened. But it doesn’t make sense. I know what happened.”
She sent her own plate off with the waitress who stopped to pick up mine. “Tell me exactly what he said.”
“He said I only think I know what happened that night, and that I’m wrong about it. He said I don’t have the experience to understand, but that he can help me understand it.”
“I’m not sure I’m following, honey. What happened that night is in the video, right? So, I’m not clear on how you see it one way and he sees it another.”
“Me either. I don’t get it. I mean, this is all about Michael’s betrayal and how he … did what he did.”
She patted my hand gently. “There must be more to it than that. Maybe Gibson’s talking about the things that Michael did in the video. Could that be it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You should talk about it with him. This could be important. He wouldn’t ask you to do something like this if it weren’t.”
She was right, but I wasn’t ready to admit defeat yet. “I can’t watch that video with him. I’ve never watched it all the way through.”
“Oh, honey. I wish I could take it all away. I’m so sorry Michael did that terrible thing to you … I just …” tears gathered in the corners of her gentle eyes.
“No, don’t do it, Elaine. If you start, I’ll start, and then, ugh.”
She sat up straight and blinked a few times. “You’re right. The bottom line is this — Gibson Reeves is a smart man, and if he says you need to understand somethin’ about that night in order to move on, he’s probably right.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Find a way to compromise. Maybe you two can just talk about it, talk about what happened together instead of watching the video.”
“Maybe. It’s a possibility.”
“Ask him. Explain that you want help, but there are some things you can’t do. He wants you to heal, so he’ll listen and work with you.”
I gave her a little smile. “I doubt Gibson knows how often you’ve spoken for him.”
“No reason why he should. Let him help. I can’t say that often enough.”
“Okay. Thanks. I feel better. It’s a good idea, talking instead of watching.”
“You’re welcome, honey. Now what time’s that picnic on Sunday?”
We finished our beers, me thinking of Gibson, and picnics and how someone could suddenly become a lesbian in middle age. What Elaine was thinking, I wouldn’t have dared to guess.
Later that afternoon, I hid out in my cottage, trying to avoid meeting Paulina, who was currently terrorizing nearly everyone on the estate. From what I could tell, when I dared a quick peek out my windows, only Xavier and Gibson had escaped being drafted into her service.
I assumed Gibson was at work, which gave him an easy out. Xavier, I knew, would be the only person in residence who would tell Paulina no. Lord knew, I wasn’t up to it. Hence, the hiding out.
I read for a while, then did a bit of housework. While putting some things away in my closet, I noticed I’d never sorted through a pile of boxes I brought with me when I moved in. No time like the present, I thought, and sat on the floor in the middle of the walk-in and began digging through my stuff.
Most of it was papers and keepsakes I hadn’t wanted to leave in my old apartment in case someone broke in while I was gone. I still had many things in the apartment, mostly furniture and kitchen stuff. Rent was due soon, and I needed to decide if I would pay another month’s rent, or move my belongings into storage.
My savings would last longer if I let the apartment go. It wasn’t like I ever planned on moving back there, regardless of what I eventually wound up doing. I made a promise to myself that I would call my landlord Monday morning and give notice. Then I wondered if I would actually do it.
I pawed through a box of assorted accessories, handbags, scarves, a few winter caps … and there, on the bottom, folded neatly, a blue striped necktie. The Businessman’s tie.
I held the slinky silk in my hand and let it drape over my fingers. I didn’t remember putting it in that box, and wondered what possessed me. I stared at the thing as if there were some secret to it, as if it were more than an expensive piece of clothing.
It was more. It represented the beginning. I wouldn’t be sitting on the floor in that closet if it weren’t for that tie. Without that piece of blue silk, I never would have gone looking for the Businessman and found Michael Weston instead, the man who ruined me.
As I shoved the tie back into the box and crammed the lid on top, I remembered that no Michael would have also meant no Gibson. If I could do it all over again, I wondered, would I sacrifice knowing Gibson to escape knowing Michael?
I opened another box. There wasn’t much in it. I pulled out a few items and for a moment didn’t recognize them. A sweater, an old lipstick, a hand mirror, a desk calendar. My stomach tightened. These were my belongings from my old office, from my former job at Linton Cosmetics.
My boss, Isabel Vinson, had packed all of these things up for me, then had the box delivered to the Hoytes’ home where I was staying at the time. I didn’t do more than glance inside it the night I received it, finding the prospect of sorting through the sorry leavings of my career more depressing than I could bear.
I folded the sweater and set it aside; fall was coming, and I might need it. I extracted a few other items that might be of use and tossed them next to the sweater.
I pulled out something that, oddly enough, was wrapped in tissue paper. I carefully pulled back the paper and found a small figurine tucked inside.
It was small, about three inches tall, delicate and adorable. An exquisitely-carved kitten dangled from a stubby branch of a tree, hanging on by the claws of one lone paw. The kitten’s eyes were circles of surprise, its mouth open and rounded. A single line of text ran across the base of the figurine: “Hang in there, baby!”
This figurine wasn’t mine, but I knew its owner. It belonged to Isabel, and always sat in a prominent place on her desk.
I remembered how once, many years ago, she noticed me looking at the figurine. She’d picked it up, studied it, gave a little laugh then handed it over to me to inspect more closely.
She smiled. “Corny little thing, isn’t it? My mother gave it to me. She knows my sense of humor. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at that cat and laughed.”
I thought it was cute, but I couldn’t see what was so funny about it. To me, it was a standard inspirational kind of knickknack. Hang in there, you can do it, rah rah rah. That kind of thing. I handed it back to Isabel, who set it on the desk, facing me.
She pushed her glasses up, one of her habitual gestures. “Look at how hard that cat’s hanging on, doing everything it can not to let go. Seems like a heroic effort not to fall. But here’s the thing, Nonnie. Its hind feet are almost on the ground, and there’s nothing waiting underneath that might harm it. So why is the cat afraid of letting go?”
I studied the silly piece. She was right. Why didn’t the cat just let go?
“It’s a lesson for us,” she said. “Sometimes we hang on to things in defiance of all reason and sense, simply because it’s familiar. We wear ourselves out allowing our fears to keep us clinging to illusion.”
Isabel tapped the head of the kitten. “Our challenge is to know when the time for hanging in there is over, when simply holding on is no longer good enough. The trick is knowing when to let go.”
That had been years ago when she told me that. I sat on the closet floor in Gibson’s cottage, holding the goofy little figurine and thinking about how Isabel had wrapped up her favorite kitten sculpture and given it to me. All this time, it had been waiting in the box for me.
I felt a burning behind my eyes, and a lump rose in my throat. I studied the kitten that clung valiantly and pointlessly to the branch. Hang in there, baby.
I heard Isabel say again, “The trick is knowing when to let go.”
A gift, for me.
And that’s when it happened. Everything, all of it, swelled fresh inside of me, filled me, overflowed, the fear, the hate, the frustration, the anger, and most of all, the unbearable sorrow of everything that had happened to me.
I felt as if it were a fresh wound. My humiliation. My loss. My fear. My grief. It was a burgeoning force that wouldn’t be restrained. It demanded acknowledgement, release, wouldn’t accept even a moment’s hesitation.
It would have its day, its overdue moment. No more delays.
And so, at long last, I cried.
For the first and only time since I learned my life was indelibly damaged, I cried. Sobbed. Loud wracking cries. Great gulps of air. I sobbed and held nothing back.
Wretched, wretched sadness. My head pounded and my stomach ached and I gasped for air, gasped for what I had lost and would never recover.
I hung my head, letting the tears run unchecked, dripping onto my chest, splashing in fat drops onto my hands and legs. I clutched the tiny cat figurine as if it could hold me in return. I shook all over and hugged myself.
Then, miraculously, other arms reached for me. Strong arms came from nowhere and folded around me, pulled me against a sturdy chest and squeezed me tight. I knew him from his spicy scent … Gibson.
I didn’t ask how he got there, how he knew I needed him. I simply accepted that he was there, wrapped around me, allowing me to fall apart while he held the pieces together.
He tucked my head under his chin and rocked me gently, side to side, side to side. He didn’t shush me, or tell me it was okay. He simply let me cry.
And so I did. On and on. I mourned my loss. Finally.
I let go.