“What’s your name?” “Nora,” I whisper. My throat feels sunburned. Sweat soaks the hair covering my neck. Wind gusts hair across my face. Something drips from my head. Or onto my head. I can’t tell which. A blurry face appears over mine. Too close. “Nora, we’re going to lift now.” I stare at the gray sky. I shudder and worry about what might be watching from the thicket of woods nearby. I can’t nod and my mouth makes no sound. For a moment I feel weightless. Free. I imagine it’s how birds feel soaring through the sky. Gravity quickly reminds me that something’s amiss. My leg feels like it’s on fire. I wince when I’m jostled into some kind of metal box. An ambulance. The sterile hygienic odor hits me like a brick in the face. Everything is a watery blur from behind the rain-streaked windows of the ambulance doors. People have a deep-seated craving for a sense of family, belonging, identity. I squeeze my eyes shut. Looking back, I realize that he probably interviewed lots of different girls for the job and picked the one he thought would be easiest. It wasn’t just the girl he chose but the life she came from as well. “Nora, stay with me.” The paramedic’s voice is deep and oddly soothing. It pulls me from my thoughts. I open my eyes, slide my gaze from the ceiling to him. I want to know what he looks like but my eyes won’t focus enough to get a good look. He pokes at me with something as if I am a large bug to be inspected. My body screams with pain. It feels like there’s a noose around my throat so tight stars dance in my eyes. I’ve experienced this before though. I can survive. Life’s made me numb. I squeeze my eyes shut again. “Nora, can you hear me?” “Nora…” I jolt awake—disoriented. Lotte? Tubes snake in and out of me. I’m covered in soft blue and don’t feel gritty with dirt anymore. The steady beeps of nearby monitors hurts my ears. So much white noise. A symphony of electronic background sound that’s headache inducing. I’ve been too used to the quiet of nature for too long. The door to the room is closed. I don’t like closed doors. Panic jumpstarts my heart. I’m trapped. Again. My leg is hoisted up and in a cast. I squint trying to recall the proper name for the contraption. My sternum aches and I have white lights dancing in my peripheral vision. The door opens. Please be Lotte. A man in a gray suit enters the room. I lift my head slightly. “Hello, Nora.” I don’t know who he is. I squint at him as he surveys me while chewing a nail. It’s strange to think of the unexpected turns a person’s life can take. “I’m detective Salve. And I need to ask you some questions.” I feel my face wrinkle in confusion. “Do you remember what happened?” he asks. I drop my head to the thin pillow; stare at the ceiling as he pulls a chair next to the bed. “I was in a car accident.” My voice is a raspy whisper. When I chance a look at him again, he’s nodding. “Yes. That’s good. Do you need anything?” he asks. Not from you. “Water,” I answer. And Lotte. “Sure thing. Hang on.” He stands, the chair legs scrape across the floor and I cringe at the noise. When he returns he holds a small cup of water out at me, a straw plunged into it. He’s younger than Holden by maybe a few years from the looks of it. I wonder how long he’s been a detective. His brown hair is close cropped and his nose has a bump in the bridge. He has nice eyes and an easy smile. A nice face, Angela would say. I take the cup from him and chance a small sip. It’s hard to swallow but I manage. I set the cup down on the table next to the bed. “So, Nora, what’s your last name?” he asks. I sigh and say, “Robertson.” Detective Salve lifts an eyebrow at me. “Really.” I lick my dry lips. “Really,” I mumble. “How old are you?” “Twenty.” He eyes me then. Takes me in. “What’s your date of birth?” “March 19th, 1996.” I know what he’s thinking- I look younger than I am. I always have. And I’m only just twenty-one. “Do you want me to call your parents?” I shake my head. “I don’t have any,” I answer. Like most people who grew up without parents, over the years I have collected little tidbits of life knowledge, scraps and bits from friends parents, teachers, and employers. Anyone who offered up a touch of wisdom and I kept them like fabric remnants so that I could someday crochet them into a nonsensical afghan that might somehow make my life better—easier. But that is the problem with crocheting-it’s full of holes. Right now I’d kill to have a parent. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know where Lotte is. I don’t know if I’m close to home or close to the farm. “Is there other family I could call?” I stare at the ceiling again. A nurse comes in and explains that she’s taking my vitals, upping my fluids and asks if I need anything for my pain level. I want the detective to leave. He gives me an uneasy feeling. Men aren’t to be trusted. They have hidden dark needs they want filled. He wouldn’t want me talking to any men. Dara, the nurse, writes her name on a whiteboard and tells me to let her know if I need anything at all. She gives Detective Salve the side-eye as she leaves. I decide I like her. “Angela Clark,” I croak. “Sorry?” Detective Salve says. “Call Angela Clark.” I give him the phone number and wait for him to leave. We’re not done yet. He told me that. But at least the unidentified girl in the car wreck has been identified. I buzz the nurse. She’s quick. “My head is killing me.” Dara nods while simultaneously darting around. She reminds me of a butterfly with their erratic flight patterns. She’s dainty and delicate looking. Before I can blink twice she’s handing me pills and the cup of water from the table. I swallow them down quick. “You should really try and sleep. The Doctor will be around to fill you in soon.” I bite my bottom lip and try to make myself comfortable before I close my eyes. I shouldn’t close my eyes. I feel guilty for not getting up. For not finding Lotte or asking about her but if I’m here–safe, she’s probably here–safe. Scared but safe. When I sleep my brain doesn’t hurt. The world is quiet. At least it used to be that way. Sleep was a heavenly escape. I didn’t dream. Sleep provided me sweet escape for eight hours. It’s dark out when I wake. Rather, when I’m roused from sleep. “Ms. Robertson.” An unfamiliar voice. I blink a few times before rubbing away the sleep crusties. My mouth is dry again. My leg throbs. My chest aches. Is this a broken heart? I stuff the idea way deep down- for Lotte. “Nora,” I scratch out. He tucks my chart under his armpit and hands my water to me. I drink the remaining liquid. It’s not enough. I’m somnolent and feel desiccated. “Nora,” he says. “Yes.” “You’re aware of the car accident yes?” “Yes,” I answer. The road was uneven and icy. I remember screaming at Lotte to hang on as I yanked the wheel and slammed the brake pedal. “You’re lucky to be alive,” he says and a part of me wants to laugh but I don’t. “You shattered your femur and part of your patella. You sustained a nasty contusion on your sternum and a serious concussion. It was estimated that you were pinned under your truck for at least three hours before help arrived which is partly why you’re dehydrated and suffered moderate hypothermia.” “Okay. Where’s Lotte?” I ask. He stares at me a beat. “Who’s Lotte?” “Charlotte,” I say. “She was in the truck with me.” He pinches his lips closed. Swings his tongue around his teeth behind his bottom lip. “As far as I know, there was no one else recovered at the scene.” He looks everywhere but me. Recovered. The word doesn’t sit right with me. “That can’t be right. She was in the truck with me.” I close my eyes, recall what I can. I know she was with me. He stares at me intently now. Then, “Tell you what? I will ask around for you. Maybe I’m wrong.” “When can I leave?” I ask. “We need to do a couple more CAT scans, get your fluids up and monitor your break. But outside of that—soon.” Now I do laugh. “That doesn’t sound very soon.” “It’s all relative,” he says with an easy grin. “Also, the EMTs didn’t recover any personal effects. Do you have health insurance or an emergency contact you’d like on file?” I frown and shake my head. “I already spoke with a detective. He’s calling someone for me but I don’t have insurance,” I groan. “Is that a problem?” “Not at all. Just another step to take. I’ll send someone up to get you officially admitted and work out payment options with you. I expect you’ll be moved upstairs out of emergency shortly.” “How long have I been here?” “You arrived,” he looks at his watch. A big fancy one. One that looks expensive. I can hear the ticking from my bed. It’s amazing how much more you use your other senses after months living in the woods. “Fourteen hours ago. Most of that was spent in surgery to set your femur and get the screws in place.” “Oh.” “Do you have any questions for me, Nora?” My gut clenches. “No. I’m fine.” The better I begin to feel, the more rested I am, the worse my panic becomes. He’s still out there and Lotte is missing. I am in deep trouble.
Celeste smoothed the fabric of her dress. Her gown hugged her body in all the right places. The silk felt luscious against her skin. The gardens twinkled under the strand lighting as she walked through row after row of flowers, taking in their unique smells and blossoms. Her hair was massed on top of her head with a select few tendrils hanging down, framing her face. She had spent the better part of the afternoon at the salon with Mara perfecting their looks. Celeste felt like a princess at these affairs no matter how much she loathed wasting an entire night with the stiff crowds of the upper crust. She was used to it, yes, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t rather be elsewhere.
At twenty, she wanted to be at a pub with Matteo and Mara, singing karaoke and not caring if her shoulders were squared, which utensil to use or whether or not she was behaving in a ladylike manner. She wanted to live in the moment. Be whoever she felt like that evening. Instead, she was here, at the Garden Gala, where her parents were raising money for new pharmaceutical research. FogPharm was one of the leading research facilities in the world. Her parents, both scientists, were passionate about their work and their company. She had been required to attend these lavish parties since she’d turned sixteen.
She was thinking about her teenage years when he walked into the gala like he was walking the red carpet. Every woman in the room stopped and noticed him, no doubt hoping they’d be the one to catch his eye. Just the sight of him across the open space sent Celeste’s heart beating rapid-fire. He flashed a smile here and there as he walked. Smirking, showing a dimple, he shook hands with all the right people.
Then, just five minutes later, she watched as he grabbed a champagne flute and chugged the contents in an empty corner of the garden. Suddenly, he looked miserable. She read his tension in the tight, bunched line of his shoulders. Although she wanted to be out with friends having a good time rather than here because it was expected of her, she wondered how anyone choosing to be here could be tense at this event eluded her. Lights twinkled. Music played. Drinks flowed. It was magical here. Late spring in Paris offered nothing less.
Celeste was not short by any standard, but from what she could tell the man stood at least six inches taller than her five-foot-eight-in-heels height. His broad shoulders were encased in an expensive dove gray suit that tapered down to narrow hips. His dirty blond hair hung mussed, tucked behind his ears. Tan and lean and athletic, his body was damn near perfect looking with clothes on. She could only wonder what it looked like without them. Wealth, authority and virility rolled off him in great waves. His strong jaw added to the overall appeal. Green eyes landed on hers and she froze in her spot. The light captured them, making them appear to twinkle. Her breath faltered and heat warmed her cheeks. She darted her eyes to the floor quickly after she realized she was blatantly staring at the handsome stranger.
“He’s a looker,” Mara pretend-panted in her ear. Celeste jumped at the sudden break in the spell of the evening. “Didn’t mean to scare you, Cece.” Mara’s arm linked through Celeste’s at the elbow as she laughed.
“I was just…”
“Fantasizing. Like every other straight gal in this place,” Mara cut her off. Celeste slumped her shoulders as the truth of her friend’s statement washed over her. She was pretty, but there were far more attractive women here tonight to catch his eye. Plus, she wasn’t looking. She had two more years left at University and a career to map out.
“Who is he?” Celeste asked.
“That happens to be the Gabriel Fontaine,” Mara answered.
“The biochemist?” she squeaked. She’d wondered about him. Her parents had made him an offer to work for them upon his finishing graduate school. They were still waiting on an answer three months later. He was one of the most coveted up-and-comers in the biochemistry field.
“The very one.”
“I thought he’d look older and less hot. Aren’t biochemists supposed to be extra nerdy and unattractive?” Celeste joked.
“They are. He defies logic.” Mara laughed. “Come on, we need drinks!” Mara tugged on Celeste until she finally moved her feet. The hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention as they made their way to the bar. She felt as if she was being watched and she blushed thinking about whom it might be. She could feel his green-eyed gaze burning into her back.
“How’re your parents?” Mara asked. The two of them had been friends since high school. The best of friends. Mara came from an affluent background like she did. The pressures and perks were understood without words. Mara’s penchant for being somewhat of a wild child irked her parents but without her, Celeste would have drowned under the pressure of life long ago. Her parents loved her. They did, but the world they existed in was wrought with discipline, expectations and beliefs that were ironclad from years of breeding. They showered her with love and encouragement, yet that encouragement always seemed to come with a price.
“At table six,” Celeste said.
“Ahh, so are mine.” Mara nodded.
“You’d better behave, Mara. They’ll never let you room with me if you cause a scene again.”
Mara’s last stunt had sent both sets of parents over the edge. She’d streaked through campus last semester drunk. Her parents had threatened pulling her from school until she could learn how to behave appropriately. Her response to the situation hadn’t helped any: ‘If by behave, you mean find myself a suitable husband, then no thank you.’ We’d laughed and laughed, huddled in our dorm room together over their reaction. Their blood-drained faces, her mother’s gasp, her father’s look of disdain. It had shaken them both, and over the summer Mara had been nothing short of a model of finance-driven breeding. She had no choice.
“Oh, shut it, Cece. I’ll behave.” Mara lifted her wine glass and drained it as Celeste shook her head and giggled. “Where is Matteo?” Mara asked, drawing out his name to make a point. Celeste blushed, knowing that in another life, maybe Matteo and she would be free to explore their budding feelings for each other.
“He’s there,” she answered, pointing across the dance floor. Matteo, tall dark and brutally handsome, made his way through the crowd, offering up appetizers. She sighed at the unfairness of life. How some could be viewed as inconsequential simply because of their bank balance. How the world was built on dreams and iron and greed. Matteo was brilliant, handsome and going to make a name for himself. She knew it. She had unwavering faith in him.
“If you’re not going to take advantage of that fine work of art, I will.” Mara giggled. Matteo was absolutely beautiful. She slapped Mara’s arm playfully and laughed alongside her friend. The three of them were like three peas in a pod. It was rare that they spent longer than a day or two without seeing each other.
“He’s too important to me to do that. Have at it,” Celeste said. She, above all else, valued Matteo’s friendship. They’d met in their Intro to Horticulture class in their freshman year of university and instantly formed a bond, a bond that neither of them seemed willing to take further than friendship. It was odd in a way. They held hands when they explored the campus, he picked her up from parties when she’d had too much to drink, and sometimes they shared a bed, to sleep only, simply to ward off anyone else from doing so. They talked about their dreams, their goals, and their differences. He dated and she dated and there was no jealousy harbored between them. It just… was what it was. There was an understanding.
She looked to him now. His nose was perfectly straight, and his jaw was well defined. His lips were perfection. Mara winked at Matteo from across the floor and they both laughed when he dramatically winked back.
“Excuse me. What are you drinking?” It was a deep, lush male voice. Mara’s head whipped around and her jaw dropped. Using her index finger, Celeste pushed Mara’s chin up until her mouth closed again and suppressed a chuckle. Turning, she noticed the body behind the voice.
“Who were you directing that question to?” she asked. Mara snorted and started to back away. Celeste grabbed Mara’s wrist to hold her in place.
“I think your friend is quite observant.” He laughed as Mara released herself from Celeste’s grip and moved another step away.
“Me then?” she asked, smiling as heat warmed her body from her belly up.
“Yes. You,” he confirmed.
“White wine spritzer. But, as you can see, my glass is half full.”
“Witty.” He grinned, flashing her a row of dazzling white teeth.
“Perhaps.” She felt a flutter in her belly. What was his angle here? She tried to work it out as he took a step closer to her.
“I’m not sure we’ve met. Gabriel,” he said.
“The biochemist with the inflated ego,” she returned coyly. His reputation was no secret. He was said to be brilliant in his field and popular with the ladies, and was modest about neither. A bachelor at heart.
“Ah, so you’ve heard of me,” he laughed. It was a deep, carefree sound that resonated. She instantly liked it.
“Celeste Fogarty.” She extended her free hand to him. He took it, gently but firmly, and turned it over before placing a kiss on the inside of her wrist. A small move, bold in its intimacy, but not outright inappropriate. If she could stop the damn butterflies demanding to break free from her belly she could stop to analyze the moment.
“Fogarty…” he murmured. “Julian and Roberta’s daughter?”
“The very one,” she answered. He let his eyes roam her form—top to toe. His perusal made her squirm. She’d never been so blatantly stared at before. His gaze was appreciative though, not critical.
“I can see it now,” he said finally.
Celeste laughed. She truly looked nothing like her parents. Her mother’s blond hair and blue eyes were a far cry from her auburn locks and hazel eyes. Her mother was petite, while she was more athletically built. Her father, also blond, albeit a darker shade than her mother’s, was fit, but stocky. They loved to say she got her height, hazel eyes and brunette coloring from her grandparents. Celeste couldn’t be sure though, as she’d never met either set. Both were deceased by the time she was six and had never bothered to come to France from the States to visit.
“I hate it when people say that.”
“It was rather lame.” He shrugged. He looked to table six, where her parents were seated, and then back to her. “And, I suppose, not exactly true.” Celeste shook her head and grinned at him.
“So, Gabriel, what can I do for you?” she asked, feeling bold. From the corner of her eye she caught Mara and Matteo watching her. Suddenly she felt as if she were betraying them somehow. Leaving them out. They would bombard her with questions later tonight, no doubt.
“Épouse-moi,” Marry me, he said. Celeste felt her brows lift and her eyes grow wide.
“Very funny. I’ve only just met you!” she laughed. What a strange thing to say, she thought.
“What does that have to do with anything?” He grinned at her.
“Everything!” she replied, raising her hands in the air. His grin widened. She couldn’t help but be swept up in his dimpled smile. His carefree expressions were mesmerizing. Hell, everything thus far was mesmerizing about him.
“I’ll ask you every day until I wear you down and the only logical answer becomes yes.”
“You’re crazy,” she answered, snorting. She slapped a hand over her mouth and nose, embarrassed that she’d snorted out loud. Gabriel didn’t seem to notice or mind as he continued on.
“I’m many things. Taken by you. Frappe.” Smitten. The French word rolled off his tongue the way calm water lapped a shoreline. Provocatively. She loved the way the language here sounded. She loved listening to it. Matteo teased her love of languages by speaking his native Italian to her. Mara always joked that anytime a man spoke a foreign language, Celeste became putty their hands. Mostly, it was true. She could close her eyes and get lost in the gentle lilts and smooth sounding words of either French or Italian.
“That’s bold,” she scoffed, trying to remain unaffected by his words.
“No. Definitely,” she stated, chin raised.
“Okay, it is, but I know what I want.” Such conviction. Such allure. Curiosity to know if he was serious bloomed in her.
“What about next month? Next year? Twenty years from now?” she quizzed, deciding to play along. Her parents, still at their table, caught her eye, nodding their approval. Of course.
“Je vous veux.” I’ll want you, he answered. The conviction in his voice made her heart slam against her ribs.
“I can’t take you seriously right now, this is preposterous.” She laughed at the handsome stranger before stepping backward a step. He caught her wrist, stopping her movement. The rugged pad of his thumb grazed the delicate underside of her skin. Fire bloomed in her belly, swelling upward through her chest, warming her cheeks and surely staining them an obvious pink. Her eyes snapped to his.
“Settle for a dance with me then?” His eyes, stormy and serious, captivated her, kept her rooted in her spot. “Celeste, s’il vous plaît, juste une danse?” Just one dance. That damned French again, so fluid. So deceptively seductive. Her name sounded exotic they way he drew out the ending. She nodded her permission. He smiled a wolf-like grin, full of victory and blatant desire.
Sweeping her effortlessly into his arms and on to the dance floor, he promptly began to waltz. Looking back, that was probably the very moment he captured her heart.
His hand rested just above her rear, and low on the small of her back. He was dangerously skirting that invisible line between gentlemanly and lewd. His other hand kept her right palm captured and pressed to his shoulder. They were molded together, touching from chest to hip as he led her to the rhythm of the music. The quartet played flawlessly, and Celeste found herself entranced. The warmth of his embrace, the music a soundtrack to their moment, his grace and ease on the dance floor, she felt swept away. Lost in a moment of fairy lights, blooming fragrant plants, a stunning man and music.
“So, Celeste,” her name again drawn out, lustfully, “what are you studying?”
She tipped her head back to look him in the eye and smiled. The stars sparkled above against the navy velvet-looking sky.
“Horticulture.” It sounded so unbelievably pathetic. Not an ounce of sex appeal could be found in a word like horticulture.
“Ah, my girl likes flowers.”
“I don’t know anything about your girl, but most do.” Her comeback brought a devilish smile from Gabriel.
“You are quick. I’ll give you that.” He laughed. It was throaty and deep and it made her pulse race. The music slowed and finally stopped.
“Why, thank you,” she answered, grinning. She pried herself from his embrace and took a step backward.
“Where are you going?” he asked, stepping towards her.
“My dance card is rather full and your girl is probably waiting.” She took another step away and watched as his eyes grew large with understanding. She was leaving him on the dance floor. “Also,” she said with a smirk, “I don’t much like flowers; they die. I prefer perennials.”
Celeste turned and, she hoped, sashayed seductively away from Gabriel Fontaine.
“That was either the most amazing thing you’ve ever done, or the absolute stupidest,” Mara said as Celeste returned to her two friends.
“I vote most amazing,” Matteo said, and laughed. “Leaves him to do the chasing. Leaves him wondering if you’re the one woman here tonight who wouldn’t go home with him.”
“Thank you, thank you,” she laughed and curtsied dramatically for her friends.
“How did it feel?” Mara asked.
“Being pressed up against him. I mean, the man is a God. Look at him!”
“Hey!” Matteo chuckled and ruffled Mara’s hair. “I thought I was a God?”
“Shhh! We’ll discuss you later tonight.” Mara batted his hand away and kept her drooling, star-struck expression glued to Celeste.
“He’s dreamy,” she sighed.
“Dreamy?” Matteo barked out a laugh. Celeste bristled at his mocking.
“He was. It was. I mean, look around us. This place is magical tonight. He is handsome and smooth and yeah, dreamy, alright?” Matteo’s hand encircled her waist and he tugged her close. He kissed her temple. Her irritation waned.
“Aww, il mio fiore, scusa.” My flower, I’m sorry. The Italian somehow made everything easier to hear. Easier to forgive. His nickname for her, flower, always made it impossible to stay mad at him.
“Yeah, yeah.” She nudged him. “I don’t rain on your parades. So be nice.”
“Celeste, if the man makes you happy, then I’m happy.”
“It was just a dance. And don’t you have work to do?” She tsked.
Matteo gave her his best shocked-by-her-rudeness face before kissing her again on the temple and then kissing Mara’s cheek. “Sì. I do. Can’t lose this job. Veterinary school won’t pay for itself.” Celeste frowned at the truth in his statement as he strode away.
“Man, those pants sure look good on him,” Mara joked. Celeste rolled her eyes and smiled at her best friend.
“So, your glass is empty and I don’t even have a glass. Let’s rectify that, shall we?” she suggested with a wink. Mara nodded and hooked her arm through Celeste’s as they walked.
“Holy hell, he’s watching you,” Mara whispered.
Celeste turned her head a fraction toward Mara. Gabriel’s gaze was on her, and he smiled when he caught her looking in his direction. Heat bloomed and reddened her cheeks. A striking blonde patted his arm to get his attention, but Gabriel didn’t break eye contact with Celeste. He winked. She smirked and shook her head. Mara moved them along the perimeter of the dance floor until they reached the bar. Snapping fingers drew her head back in the right direction.
“You are so hooked.” Mara laughed.
Celeste wasn’t sure what to think. He intrigued her, sure. He was easy to look at, yes. Was he interested in more than a fling? She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. All she was sure of was that she didn’t function that way. A few dates here and there were fine, but she wasn’t the type to jump into bed with a man after the third date just because. Celeste was a relationship girl.
“He’s a ladies man. Look, he has three women surrounding him as we speak,” she said.
“He looks trapped. You should rescue him.” Mara nodded in his direction.
“Not my style,” she said.
“No, you’re right; you, Celeste, are a true lady. Make him beg you for a date.”
“Begging seems a little harsh, don’t you think?” she asked.
“To a man like him? No. I think he likes the game.”
“I think maybe you’re wrong. I think he’s used to the game, the chase, but that isn’t what he truly wants.”
“Here we go.” Mara laughed. Celeste had a tendency to do that often, to look deeper. To dig deeper into people and see past what they project all the way down to what secrets they harbor deep in their soul. Matteo said it was what drew people to her, that she beckoned all those with something to share to her like a siren’s call. He said she should be a psychology major, that it suited her more than plants. But Celeste loved plants. Flowers that bloom vibrant rich colors, shrubs that can be artfully arranged to create a labyrinth, the sight, the smell of a well-planned and maintained garden. It truly brought joy to her. Her parents didn’t understand it, they wanted her in a biology or chemistry field so she could carry on the family business someday, but she’d never had the interest. “We need two champagnes, please,” Mara told the bartender.
Three glasses later, Celeste was feeling lightheaded and warm. Her parents and Mara’s had stopped by the girls’ table to say their goodnights thirty minutes ago. Mara and Matteo were chatting near the bar as the party wound down. Celeste walked—shoes in hand, now that her parents were gone—through the dewy grass toward her friends. A large, warm hand clutched her elbow and spun her around.
“I got it,” Gabriel said.
“Perennial. I’m not great with plants. It took me a while to get your joke.”
“I’m still not following you.” She cocked her head sideways.
“You said my girl probably likes flowers, but you like perennials…as in you’re the sort of girl who prefers relationships to flings. Something that comes back year after year.”
“You got all that from my nerdy joke? You realize I’m a horticulture major, right?” Celeste laughed hard at the look on his fallen face. She hadn’t meant anything deeper by her comment earlier, but she was pleased that he’d been dissecting it the entire night looking for meaning. “Aww, don’t look so sad. I’m sorry.” She watched as he rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. His other still clasped her elbow.
“Tell me, si ce n’est pas indiscret, do you have a boyfriend? Did I step on someone’s toes tonight?” he asked. If it’s not too personal a question. Celeste willed herself not to melt at his use of French.
“Why do you ask?” She bit her lip to keep from smiling like a ridiculous schoolgirl.
“By the looks of you, you should have someone, but—” he smirked and plucked the straps of her shoes from her hand “—you’re tired and ready to leave.” He leaned in, placing his face next to her ear. “And by the looks of your friends, they’re not. A boyfriend would have surely noticed already that it’s time to bring you home.” His breath was warm and sent shivers down her spine. “May I give you a ride home?”
Spurred on by the thought of giving into this man for a single evening, Celeste nodded her head. Matteo and Mara were watching her when she finally found the will to look away from Gabriel. She waved twice and winked at them, the trio’s signal for: “all is right”. Mara’s face blossomed into a great grin and Matteo smiled, looking a little worried too. Celeste would speak with him later. He had to stop worrying over her so much. In some ways it prohibited him from living his own life to the fullest. She never wanted to become a burden to him.
Gabriel’s hand came to rest at the small of her back—such an benign area on the body. It never really got any attention, yet when a man’s hand rested casually there, it could cause the entire body to go on high alert. A simple gesture. A boring part of the body. He still clung to the straps of her shoes, carrying them for her. She smiled at the chivalry of it all. Her heart stuttered and in that moment she didn’t care where they went or what they would do, just as long as she was with him.
He stopped short at the entrance to the gardens. Kneeling, he cupped her left calf and brought it to rest on his thigh. Celeste shooed him off, telling him she could manage putting her own shoes on, but he wouldn’t relent. His fingers buckled the straps at her ankle. The rough pads of his fingers set her smooth skin on fire in the most impossible way. He repeated the process on her right foot before standing again. She stared at him in awe. Who does that?
He took her hand, threaded their fingers together and gently tugged. Her feet moved on their own, wanting to stay next to the Adonis-like man holding her hand. Walking along-side him she realized there probably weren’t many women who didn’t give at least a passing thought to the idea of him in their bed. It was a quality some men exuded that promised he knew where to linger and what to do.
Stopping at his car, he opened the door for her. Gabriel turned to face her. There was a magnetic energy between them growing in intensity that sent a tremble quivering through Celeste. Gabriel cupped her face, and his eyes softened while his thumbs stroked back and forth over her cheeks. His green eyes bore into hers. His hands swept into her hair and weaved through the strands—a primal, masculine move.
“I’m going to kiss you now, Celeste Fogarty.”
Celeste didn’t move. She didn’t speak. She was afraid to break the magical spell of the moment. She licked her lips in anticipation. He swallowed and took a breath, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Then, he did the simplest thing in the world. He leaned in and his lips met hers, softly, tenderly at first, and she swore the skies cracked open and swallowed the both of them whole. He tasted of champagne, wild nights and reckless desire. She relaxed into him and let impulse and passion fuel her. Celeste’s heart thumped, kicking her ribs. Their lips, mouths, tongues…danced together. Time was lost. The Spring air blew over them as he pressed soft kisses to the corners of her lips with reverence. Celeste had been kissed many times before, but none compared to the way Gabriel’s laid claim to her.
Annabelle had been dreading Tuesday for a week now. After last week’s kitchen duty she was sure her life was a nightmare. She’d left Glenview smelling like pureed spinach, bad breath and old people. It was a disaster. Her four hours had felt like ten.
As she walked down the brightly lit corridor toward the recreation room, a ruckus came from suite 208. She slowed her pace, eavesdropping. Her purple Converse sneakers squeaked on the sterile linoleum floor. She hated it here. She hated what volunteering represented in her life. Visit two, and she was already willing away the next twenty-three, mandated volunteer days.
“I’m not riled up, you fools!” A woman swatted attendants’ hands away from her. “I’m bored. This place is like hell,” she huffed, resigning herself to settle back down in the overstuffed chair behind her. The sight of this woman, scarcely as old as her own parents, struck her. Her skin was soft looking, her eyes clear and her posture self-assured.
“I’ll sit with you,” Annabelle boldly suggested from the doorway.
The woman’s weathered but clear hazel eyes shot to hers, and she smiled ruefully.
“Can you be trusted?” the woman asked, eyes narrowed.
What a strange question. Maybe this hellish punishment wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
Annabelle shrugged. “Sure.”
“And who, my dear, are you?” the woman asked.
Annabelle took the woman in now. Really took her in. She was tall, slender, and quite pretty despite being her parents’ age. Her salt and pepper hair was swept up into a French twist. She thought what a shame it was when dementia hit this young. Ten years in a nursing home seemed like torturous eons to her, but having to endure these sterile places for nearly half a lifetime was just cruel.
She straightened her shoulders. “I’m Annabelle Fortin.”
“Well, Annabelle Fortin, why on earth do you want to sit with a bumbling middle-aged fart like myself?”
“I don’t know, you seem kind of… spirited to me. Maybe you’ll have something interesting to say.” Annabelle peeled her eyes from the woman and glanced out the window near the woman’s bed while absently tucking her hair behind one ear.
“Oh, posh. You pity me. Think I’m lonely.” The woman huffed. “I’m not, you know. One can never be bored with a mind full of memories. I had quite the life before this.” Her hands splayed wide and gestured to the cold eggshell colored room. The attendants that lingered seemed to warm to the idea of Annabelle placating the woman.
“Is it alright that I sit with her instead of work in the kitchen?” she asked the nursing assistant.
“I’ll check but as far as I’m concerned you’re a godsend. If she gives you any trouble, holler. She’s a mean bird,” the nursing assistant stated as he exited the room. Annabelle wrinkled her nose at him.
Moving across the sterile room toward the chair opposite the lady, Annabelle cracked her knuckles, then sat. Unlike the other rooms she’d passed in the hallway, this woman’s was cold. Not homey at all. No pictures or decorations hung on the walls, no trinkets sat on shelves.
“So, am I allowed to stay?” she asked scratching her arm that didn’t even itch.
“I suppose.” The woman looked her up and down, weariness pulling heavily at her features.
“What’s your name?” Annabelle finally asked, desperate to break the silence between them.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” the woman answered with a smart-ass grin. The corners of Annabelle’s mouth kicked up into a smile. She chuckled and tucked her legs up under herself in her chair.
“I could probably just ask someone,” she returned.
“Where’s the fun in that?” the woman answered, a sour expression on her face as if she had just bitten into a lemon. Annabelle shrugged. “How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” she answered. The woman’s eyes lit up like sparklers.
“Eighteen was grand! You must be having the time of your life.” The woman clapped her hands together excitedly.
Annabelle frowned. She was definitely not having the time of her life. “It’s been less than awesome,” she answered dryly.
“Bullshit!” the woman squawked.
Annabelle started at the curse from the woman before noting the huge smile on her face. “Eighteen will be the best year. You’ll see. You’ll look back when you’re sitting in some home somewhere, like me, and think, damn, eighteen was fabulous.”
“I sure hope so,” she answered, frowning.
“You have quite the pout, you know that? It twists up your features and makes you ugly.”
“That’s not very nice.” Annabelle scowled. She eyed the old woman, a sudden wave of insecurity rushing through her.
“It’s not meant to be nice. It’s the truth. Truths are often ugly.” Annabelle blinked, unsure how to respond.
“Child, are you always this…this boring?” the woman asked.
“I’m not boring!” she squawked crossing her arms and pursing her lips in irritation.
“Well you’re not exactly riveting either, are you?” the woman volleyed back, revealing a half smile.
“What do you want from me?” Annabelle asked irritated. This woman was crazy but definitely not boring . She might actually enjoy some of her time if she got to sit with this mystery woman each week.
“Well, Annabelle Fortin, eighteen, let’s start with something easy.”
“Okay.” she answered.
“Why are you here?” the woman asked while pulling a blanket from the back of her chair down and placing it over lap. Annabelle looked at the woman’s sock clad feet. For the first time since her DUI she felt ashamed to admit why she was here. “This isn’t rocket science love, just spit it out,” pushed the woman after a pause of silence.
“I don’t have a choice. It was ‘volunteer for six months’ or serve jail time. I chose this.” she answered lifting her chin and meeting the woman’s gaze.
“A rebel. I like it. What’d you do?”
“I got pulled over for driving drunk.” Annabelle explained.
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Only my pride.” Her tone was laced with sarcasm.
“Oh posh, scandals and alcohol go together like peanut butter and jelly. That’s not all that exciting,” the woman tsked. Annabelle felt her face wrinkle in confusion. “There must be more to it…”
“Nope. Grounded until I leave for college. No phone. Limited computer use. No friends over and stuck here once a week for four hours.”
Stifling a snort the woman said, “Dear God, you mean that I’m to be your only source of entertainment for the next six months?” She slapped a hand to her chest dramatically. Annabelle cocked her head and stared at the nut job, hard. “Your life is definitely worse than mine,” the woman concluded with a roll of her hazel eyes.
Bubbles formed in Annabelle’s gut. Her rib cage started to shake and finally, she laughed. A loud, hearty laugh. A laugh that startled her. A laugh the likes of which was so genuine that she couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. The mystery woman promptly joined in, giggling right alongside her. It put her at ease. Her heart felt lighter.
“So tell me, do you have a boyfriend?” the woman asked as their laughter died down.
“Do you have a name?” she responded with a smart-ass smile.
“Touché, tiger, touché.” The woman grinned a dazzling smile revealing a row of straight white teeth.
“So, are you going to tell me?” she pushed.
“Not today,” the woman answered simply.
“You are strange. Very strange. And you don’t seem to be confused at all. Why are you here?”
“Ahh, life’s great mysteries. Confused – is that what you think dementia is?” the woman asked.
“Well, mostly. Forgetful and confused.” She shrugged.
“And does that come and go?” the woman pushed.
“Sure, like you’re fine for a while and then not. That’s why you need to live somewhere like this.”
“I think based on your definition I would be delirious. Dementia affects memory, thinking, language, behavior. Delirium is more of a sudden unexpected severe confusion and rapid changes in the brain’s function.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes. “How are those different?” Annabelle asked. She was struggling a bit to keep up with the woman. Her brows were knit together as she tried to work out what the woman was getting at.
“Exactly my dear! How are they different?” Annabelle huffed and shook her head in frustration. Having a real conversation with this woman proved difficult and tiring.
“Okay, I give up. New topic? You said you had quite the life before this. Will you tell me about it?” she asked.
“On what?” she sighed. Maybe the kitchen crew would be better.
“Whether or not you like love stories.”
Annabelle half-shrugged, “Sure. I usually like a little suspense or mystery with my romance but a love story could be alright.”
“Oh but my dear, every great love story has a twist. If there’s no twist, how does one ever know if their love can endure?”
“Endure what?” she questioned as she pulled at imaginary threads on her sleeve.
“Anything,” the woman answered as if that were the only answer.
Annabelle thought about her words for a moment. Let them sink into her brain. Did her parents love story have a twist? Surely not one that she’d heard about. Or was a twist just a tragic event? If that was the case then her family, her parents, had endured a twist and survived it together, even if just barely. Either way, she wanted to corral the woman into a singular train of thought.
“Okay. Tell me your story,” she answered.
“It might upset you, or perhaps I have no story to tell. We have six months! Let’s start with someone far more interesting. Celeste Fontaine.”
Annabelle’s face scrunched up. “Who the heck is Celeste Fontaine?”
“Oh she was a girl I knew. A caretaker for a large Chateau just outside of Paris, France. She had everything she ever imagined in life. Blissfully happy parents who spoiled her rotten. Friends she adored and a man that made every woman on the planet jealous of her. But let’s go back to the very start shall we?”
The woman had a mischievous gleam in her eye. Annabelle would be lying if she said she wasn’t a little bit curious about any story the woman might tell. She was a character for sure, and that meant she probably hung out with some interesting people before she ended up at Glenview. She probably had lots of good stories to tell. Hell, it beat wearing a hairnet and latex gloves in the kitchen. She shivered at the thought of cafeteria food, trays and dirty silverware. And hairnets.
“Are you cold?” the woman asked, head cocked to the side.
“No,” she answered, shrugging away the kitchen visual.
“Are you ready to pay attention?”
Annabelle nodded. “Excellent. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss things. Important things.” Annabelle cocked her head to the side and wondered what the woman was yammering on about. “Make sure you listen carefully, and try not to jump to conclusions until I’m finished telling you everything. What happens from here on out isn’t my responsibility. It’s yours so take notice.” Annabelle scrunched up her nose in confusion and shrugged. The woman stared a moment longer at her before she nodded saying, “Alright then. Remember kid, the devil is in the details. Paris. Nineteen eighty four.”
Her recent manicure bit marks into her palms. She fought the urge to squirm under the acidic looks currently directed at her. “Annabelle Fortin, you will listen to your father,” her mother snapped, hands resting on her hips. Annabelle stood defiantly before her parents, desperately wishing her life was someone else’s—anyone else’s.
“You don’t need to punish me more,” she retaliated. “I know how bad this is, and how bad it looks.” Her relationship with her parents was strained, at best. Gavin and Monica Fortin wanted their child to live a life of decadence. However, with that lifestyle came lots of fun things to experiment with. And experiment she had.
Recently eighteen, Annabelle had already dabbled in sex, drugs, and other extra-curricular activities of the sordid variety. And she now had a record to prove it. The DUI had been an extremely unfortunate event. She had been terrified sitting in the car, waiting for the police officer to arrive at her window. The blue lights had created a blurry strobe effect in her rearview. Madison is going to kill me, she’d thought. Not her parents – she had been worried her best friend would look down on her. Her parents only felt shamed by fellow country clubbers, and as a result, Annabelle’s life was being scrutinized.
Part of her punishment: a six-month court ordered volunteer gig. She was pissed that she didn’t even get a say in where she would volunteer. She’d been assigned to Glenview. Four hours a day, once a week, for six long months, at an assisted living facility for people with early onset dementia. She disliked old people in general… Great, old people who don’t even know they’re old. She snickered at her own jab.
“Annabelle, your phone. Now,” her father barked. His hand stretched out. Palm flat, waiting expectantly, his eyes boring into hers in that deep, intense way only a father’s could.
She forked over her phone with a pout and scowled. Annabelle’s friends joked that her dad was hot enough to be a GQ model even at fifty-four. She hated the way her girlfriends giggled at his slight accent—at anything he said—and ogled him. It was lame and disgusting. He was old fashioned and didn’t parent the way other kids’ parents did. He said it was how he was raised, but she hated it. When she was little, she’d thought it was cool that her dad was foreign—but now, she wished he’d accept the way things were done in the US and leave his European parenting skills behind.
“I hardly think losing your phone is worth all the dramatics, Belle.” Annabelle said nothing as she stewed in anger. “Your mother and I have talked, and we’ve decided that for the duration of your probation, your curfew is six p.m. You’re to be home for dinner every night. And no friends are allowed over.”
She threw her hands up in the air. “Six months? I drove drunk! I didn’t kill anyone. You’ve been letting me drink at home since I was fifteen—”
“Enough!” her father roared. He raked a hand through his hair, gripping the back of his head in frustration. Annabelle cowered slightly at his booming voice. “You got lucky. You were driving my car. Using my money to buy alcohol, and hanging out with that degenerate boyfriend of yours—not studying at Madison’s house as you led us to believe.”
“I’m eighteen, Daddy…I could just leave.” She crossed her arms over her chest. Her father’s face descended into an unusual shade of red. The back of his hand pressed to his mouth as he stifled his first train of thought. She thought for a moment that steam might start billowing out from his ears like they did in the cartoons she used to watch as a child. His breathing was ragged and his nostrils flared. Her resolve faltered slightly.
“You wouldn’t even know how to begin to support yourself. We’ve spoiled you your entire life. But if you want to go—” he gestured to the door “—you know the way out.” His tone was venomous.
A wave of guilt engulfed her. Annabelle was spoiled, she had to admit. She didn’t have a clue what she’d do if she walked out of the house. She had no car, had never worked, had never paid a bill of her own…and—outside of her trust fund—had no accessible money until, ironically, her twenty-first birthday.
Her parents owned her.
She turned and stomped to her room, feeling helpless and irritated. School would be over in three months. She’d graduate and spend her entire summer before college confined to the house. This house. A toxic display case they called a home. Her life officially sucked more than it had before, which was a feat.
She had known she was too buzzed that night to drive but quite frankly, she just hadn’t cared enough to not do it. It was a rash decision. It never should have happened. Throwing herself onto her bed, she flipped onto her back and then reached toward her pocket—only to remember that she didn’t have her phone. She rolled onto her stomach, stuck her face into her pillow and screamed so loud and hard her voice finally gave out. Tears of frustration and bitterness still flowed long after.
Hours passed. She got bored. She tried reading. After a chapter in, she gave up. She couldn’t concentrate. Restless, she tried listening to music. She tried watching TV but only managed to endlessly flip through the channels. She tried on all the clothes in her closet. Nothing distracted her. Nothing held her interest. She hated feeling emotions. She did whatever it took to avoid facing the issues that plagued her. Her apathy for her home life bordered on acute hatred. For years now she buried herself with distractions. She did anything to keep her head in the sand. It was easier not to feel. It was easier to get up every morning and ignore the disappointment, the aloofness. Finally, she trudged downstairs to beg her mother for her laptop back. She’d need it for school, anyhow. They couldn’t take away everything.
“Belle,” her mother answered absently and glanced at the clock on the stove. Typical, Annabelle thought, look anywhere but at her very own daughter.
“Can I have my laptop back? I need it for schoolwork.”
“I will talk with your father about it.” Annabelle’s shoulders sagged at the response.
“Please,” she tried. Her mother turned to face her, her eyes softened.
“One hour. Bring it downstairs with you when you come down for dinner.”
Annabelle didn’t dare utter a word for fear her mom would change her mind. She quietly waited while her mom unlocked a drawer and pulled her laptop out.
“Thanks,” she said quietly as she took it from her mother’s hands. Quickly racing up to her room, she smiled before she plunked down on her bed and fired up the machine.
After messaging Damon, her boyfriend, and Madison, on Facebook, to let them know she would see them tomorrow at school and what her punishment was, she Googled the Assisted Living Facility where she’d be volunteering. She wasn’t fond of old people. They smelled funny and their wrinkled, loose skin made her gag.
“We pride ourselves in being an assisted living community that promotes living life to its fullest. By providing a wide range of activities, amenities, and events, we encourage our residents to enjoy the greatness life has to offer. We encourage independence while offering safety and support. When you live at Glenview, you are more than a resident. You are family.”
She sighed and shut the laptop lid. Family. She laughed at the notion. Nothing good seemed to come from family. She glanced at the picture on her nightstand. Smiling faces. Hair blowing in the salty wind, the beach and ocean behind them. It had been an amazing vacation. It had been the last time she remembered family as something good.
Annabelle’s day was chaotic. She’d barely had time to make the bus from school to the assisted living facility. Change would come, she thought. Maybe not today. But it would come. It had too. Annabelle had to believe. She closed her eyes, and pictured a different world. Where people were fearless and unified. Free. Healed and cheerful. A place where nothing hurt. She drew in a deep breath and stepped off the bus in the direction of Glenview. Tuesday, the day she was to volunteer. Her time would be dictated by the staff and spent in the kitchen or sitting in a recreation room with senile senior citizens. Neither option appealed to her at all.
She was a ball of raw nerves. She hadn’t volunteered before. She had never been in real trouble before. She pushed through the doors of the facility and stopped short. It smelled funny. It smelled like punishment. It was days like these she felt like the world was against her. That everyone around her seemed mean. And ugly. There were times she burned with antipathy. In those moments, she was repulsive too. She didn’t want to hate. Annabelle wanted to be kindhearted but had a difficult time executing her wants as of late.
“Can I help you?” A dirty blonde haired woman looked her up and down and Annabelle stiffened.
“Annabelle Fortin. I’m here to volunteer.” Her voice wasn’t her own. It sounded meek and pathetic even to her.
“Ah yes.” The woman smoothed an errant tendril of her hair, eyes locked on Annabelle. “We’re short staffed in the kitchen today. Follow me.”
Annabelle wanted to find a dark corner and hide there. The kitchen? She knew nothing about cooking or serving food. Life was beginning to look like a bad dream. She inhaled sharply, put one foot in front of the other and followed the dishwater blonde down the kitchen where she was promptly handed a hair net and a pair of plastic gloves. Ugh, she thought- this was so much worse than she imagined.