IT SEEMS HARDER to keep track of what I’m spending when euros still feel like play money. Given how different things feel with Ansel from how they did in the States—and even though I’m in love with this place—part of me thinks I should stay for two weeks, see everything I possibly can in that time, and then fly home to make amends with my father so I don’t have to resort to prostitution or stripping when I move to Boston and begin apartment hunting.
But the idea of facing my father now makes my skin go cold. I know what I’ve done was impulsive and maybe even dangerous. I know any loving father in this situation would have a right to be angry. It’s just that everything makes my father angry; we’ve all grown desensitized over time. I’ve been sorry enough times when I didn’t need to be; I can’t find it in me to be sorry this time. I may be scared and lonely, not knowing whether Ansel’s schedule will let up, what will happen with us tonight, tomorrow, next week, or what will happen when I find myself in a situation where I can’t communicate with someone, but this was the first decision in my life that feels like it’s only mine.
I’m still completely lost in my head, overthinking my wake-up call with Ansel, when I step out of the shower. In front of me, the bathroom mirror dries perfectly, clear of any stray water droplets, any streaks, as if it’s been treated with something. I’d offer to clean to pull some of my weight but there’s absolutely nothing that needs to be done. The bathroom window gleams, too, sun shining directly inside. Curiosity prickles at the edges of my thoughts, and I walk around, inspecting everything. The apartment is spotless, and—in my experience—for a man, strangely so. Before I get to the living room windows, I know what I’ll find.
Or, rather, what I won’t find. I know I pressed my hand to the glass my first real day here, watching him climb onto his motorcycle. I know I did it more than once. But there’s no handprint there, only more unblemished, crystal-clear glass. No one has been here but us. At some point, in his sliver of time at home, he took a minute to wipe the windows and mirrors clean.
THE OLD WOMAN who lives on the bottom floor is sweeping the doorstep when I walk out of the elevator and I spend at least an hour with her on my way out. Her English comes in fragments, mixed with French words I can’t translate, but somehow we make what could be an awkward conversation into something surprisingly easy. She tells me the elevator was added in the seventies, after she and her husband moved in here. She tells me the vegetables are much better down Rue de Rome than in the market on the corner. She offers me tiny green grapes with bitter seeds that give me goose bumps but I can’t seem to stop eating them. And then she tells me she’s happy to see Ansel smiling so much now, and that she never really liked the other one.
I push this bit of information and the twisting, dark curiosity out of my head and thank her for her company. Ansel is gorgeous and successful and charming; of course he had a life before I followed him to the airport, a life that no doubt included women. It doesn’t surprise me to know someone was with him before. It’s just that I realize I’m still waiting to learn anything about him, other than what he looks like with no clothes on.
I SPEND MOST of the day looking around our neighborhood and making a mental map of the area. Streets go on endlessly, shop after shop, tiny alley after tiny alley. It’s a bit like diving down the rabbit hole, but here I know I’ll find my way out; I simply need to find the telltale M of the Métropolitain and will be able to get back to Ansel’s street easily.
My street, I remind myself. Ours. Together.
Thinking of his home as mine is a little like pretending a movie set is home or learning that euros are real money. And every time I look down at my wedding ring, it only feels more surreal.
I like this view of the street at dusk. The sky is bright high above me, but beginning to fade where the sun has started to slip low on the horizon. Long shadows cut across the sidewalk, and colors somehow seem richer, more saturated than I’ve ever seen before. Buildings crowd the narrow road and the cracked, uneven sidewalk feels like a path to an adventure. In daylight, Ansel’s building looks a little shabby, touched with dust and wind and exhaust. But at night it seems to brighten. I like that our home is a night owl.
As I follow the crooked sidewalk, I realize this is the first time I’ve walked all the way from Rue St.-Honoré to the métro, gotten off at the right stop, and then made it all the way home without needing to check the app on my phone.
Behind me I hear cars on the road, motorcycles, a bicycle bell. Someone laughs from an open window. All the windows are open here, balcony doors and shutters thrown wide to catch the cooler evening air, curtains billowing out into the breeze.
There’s a lightness in my chest as I near our building, followed by a distinct jump in my pulse when I spot Ansel’s motorcycle parked on the sidewalk just out front.
I fill my lungs as I step into the tiny lobby and walk toward the elevator. My hand shakes as I press the button for our floor and I remind myself to breathe. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Keep it together. This will be the first time Ansel has arrived home before me; the first time we’ll actually be in the apartment together without one of us half asleep or vomiting or working into the early hours of the morning. My cheeks burn as I remember him growling, “Don’t take it back,” only this morning after I got myself off with his hand.
Oh dear God.
My stomach erupts into butterflies, and a mix of nerves and adrenaline propels me out of the elevator. I fit my key into the lock, take a deep breath, and swing open the door.
“Honey, I’m home!” I bounce into the entryway and stop at the sound of Ansel’s voice.
He’s in the kitchen, phone pressed to his ear and speaking in such rapid-fire French I’m not sure how the person on the other end of the line can possibly understand him. He’s clearly agitated, and repeats the same phrase, louder and more irritated each time.
He hasn’t noticed me yet and although I have no idea what he’s saying or who he’s talking to, I can’t help but feel like I’m intruding. His annoyance is like another person in the room and I quietly set my key on the table and wonder if I should step back into the hall or maybe excuse myself to the bathroom. I see the moment he catches my reflection in the living room window: he stiffens and his eyes go wide.
Ansel turns, tight smile in place, and I lift my hand, offering a small, awkward wave.
“Hi,” I whisper. “Sorry.”
He waves back, and with another apologetic smile holds up a finger signaling for me to wait. I nod, thinking he means for me to wait while he ends his call . . . but he doesn’t. Instead he nods toward the back of the flat and then moves across the floor and into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
I can only stare, blinking at the simple white door. His voice filters out into the living room and, if possible, is even louder than it was before.
Deflating, I let my bag slip from my shoulder to land in a heap on the couch.
There are groceries on the counter: a bag of fresh pasta, some herbs, and a wedge of cheese. A baguette wrapped in brown paper sits next to a pot of water that’s just starting to boil. The simple wooden table is set in bright red dishes, a bouquet of purple flowers spilling from a small vase in the center. He was making us dinner.
I open a few of the cupboard doors, searching for a wineglass, and try to ignore the words I can still hear in the other room. To a person I don’t know. In a language I don’t speak.
I also try to tamp down the thread of uneasiness that’s begun winding tightly in my gut. I remember Ansel telling me his boss was concerned he’d become distracted, and wonder if that’s who he’s talking to. It could be one of the guys—Finn or Oliver—or Perry, the one who couldn’t make it to Vegas. But would he sound this frustrated speaking to his boss, or a friend?
My eyes dart to the bedroom just as the door opens, and I jump, startling slightly before trying to look busy. I reach for a bunch of basil and search in the drawer nearest my hip for a knife.
“I’m so sorry,” he says.
I wave him off, and my voice comes out a little reedy: “Don’t worry! You don’t have to explain anything to me. You had a life before I got here.”
He leans forward, placing a kiss on each of my cheeks. God he smells good. His lips are so soft and I have to grip the counter to keep myself steady.
“I did have a life,” he says, taking the knife from my hand. “But so did you.” When he smiles it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. There’s no dimple. I miss it.
“Why does your job kill your joy?” I ask him, wishing he would touch me again.
With an amused grin, he shrugs. “I’m very junior at the firm still. We’re representing a huge corporation in a very big case, so I have thousands and thousands of pages of documents to go through. I don’t even think the attorneys who have been there for thirty years remember being this busy.”
I lift a small tomato to my lips, humming against it and saying, “That stinks,” before popping it in my mouth.
He watches me chew, nodding slowly. “It does.” His eyes darken and he blinks once, and then again, harder, his eyes clearing as his gaze meets mine again. “How was your day?”
“I feel guilty I’m out there having so much fun and you’re stuck in the office all day,” I admit.
He puts the knife down and turns to face me. “So . . . you’re staying?”
“Do you want me to stay?” I ask, voice thick with awkwardness and my pulse heavy in my throat.
“Of course I want you to stay,” he insists. With a fumbling hand, he pulls his tie loose and off, dropping it on the far end of the counter. “On vacation it’s easy to pretend real life doesn’t exist. I didn’t consider how my job would affect this. Or maybe I just figured you were smarter than I am and less impulsive.”
“I promise. I’m fine. Paris doesn’t exactly suck.” I give him a bright smile.
“The problem is, I’d like to be enjoying you while you’re here.”
“You mean my sparkling wit and big brain, don’t you?” I ask with a grin, reaching for the basil on the counter.
“No, I don’t care about your brain. I mean your boobs. I really only care about boobs.”
I laugh, relief trickling into my bloodstream. There he is. “Who let you graduate from law school, you oaf?”
“It took some convincing, but my father is a wealthy man.”
I laugh again and he takes a step closer but as soon as he does, the moment explodes into awkward again as I reach for him and our hands collide in midair. We apologize in unison and then stand there, staring at each other.
“You can touch me,” I tell him just as he asks, “Why don’t you ever take the money I leave on the table?”
I pause for a beat before whispering, “I’m getting a weird prostitute vibe from that sequence.”
Ansel bends over, laughing with me. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to say everything I’ve been practicing all day.” He runs a hand through his hair and it leaves it sticking up and ridiculous and damn. I want to run my fingers through it, too. “I just have so much guilt that I’m not around much since you arrived, and I want to make sure you’re having fun.”
Ah. Guilt is making him the robot version of the adoraboy I married. “Ansel, you don’t have to take care of me.”
His face falls a little but he puts it back together. “I want to contribute somehow.”
“You brought me here,” I remind him.
“But I’ve barely seen you. And last night, I fell asleep . . . and you . . .” I watch as his tongue slips out and wets his lips. He stares at my mouth, lips parted. “This is so weird,” he whispers.
“The weirdest,” I agree. “But I’m not taking your money.”
“We aren’t that married.”
He laughs, shaking his head in mock exasperation, but amusement digs his dimple into his cheek and it makes my heart grow ten sizes too big for my chest. Hello, lover.
Legally, yes, we’re married. But I’m already relying on him for shelter, and food. There is no way I’m comfortable taking his money when I don’t even know his middle name.
Holy shit I don’t even know his middle name.
“I think it’s great you’re having such a good time,” he says, carefully. “Have you been to the Musée—?”
“What’s your middle name?” I blurt.
He tilts his head, letting a tiny smile tease at the corner of his lips. “Charles. After my father.”
Exhaling, I say, “Good. Ansel Charles Guillaume. A good name.”
His smile slowly straightens as he seems to catch up with me. “Okay. What is your middle name?”
I love the way he says Rose. The r sound comes out more purr than actual letter. “You say my name better than anyone ever has.”
“I should,” he murmurs, winking. “It’s officially my new favorite name.”
I watch him for a beat, feeling a smile slowly curve my mouth. “We’re doing everything backwards,” I whisper.
Taking a small step closer, he says, “I need to seduce you all over again, then.”
Oh, the flutters. “You do?”
His smile curls up, dangerous. “I want you in my bed tonight. Naked beneath me.”
He’s talking about having sex, and suddenly there is no way I would be able to eat a bite of food. My stomach crawls up my throat and my panties practically drop in anticipation.
“It’s why I wanted to start by making you dinner,” he continues, oblivious. “And my mother would skin me alive if she knew how much takeout I eat.”
“Well, I can’t imagine you coming home at midnight and making yourself something to eat.”
“True,” he says slowly, drawing the word out into several syllables as he takes another step closer to me. “I wanted to make up for last night.” He smiles and shakes his head before glancing down at me. “And having to leave so quickly this morning after you used my fingers so ingeniously.” He pauses, making sure he has my undivided attention before adding, “I wanted to stay.”
Oh. I wonder if he can hear the way my heart suddenly drops into my stomach because it feels like the crash it makes reverberates around the room. My head is full of words but there must be some disconnect between my brain and my mouth because nothing comes out. Every hair along my arms stands on end and he’s watching me, waiting for a reaction.
He wants to have sex tonight. I want to have sex tonight. But what was easy before suddenly feels so . . . complicated. Do we do it now? The couch would be nice, maybe even the table . . . Or should we finish dinner and go into the bedroom to be civilized? I glance out the window and see that the sun still filters through the skylight above the bed. He’ll see my scars. All of them. Logically, I know he’s seen them before—felt them along my skin—but this is different. It’s not spontaneous maybe-it-won’t-ever-happen-again sex. It’s not you-have-no-idea-who-I-am-so-I-can-be-anyone-I-want sex. Not lottery-ticket, just-happened-upon-a-perfect-opportunity sex. This is sex we plan, sex we can have whenever we want. Accessible sex.
All these thoughts and more flash through my head and he’s still watching me, waiting with unsure eyes. I’m thinking too much and panic that I’ll screw this up rises like smoke in my chest, my throat.
“Are you hungry?” he asks, hedging.
“I don’t have to be.” What does that even mean, Mia?
“But . . . you are now?” He scratches his temple, understandably confused. “I mean, we can eat first if you prefer.”
“I don’t. We shouldn’t. Let’s not? I’m okay not eating first.”
With a quiet laugh, Ansel shuts off the stove and turns. He takes my face in his hands, palms warm against my cheeks, and kisses me. His lips tease at mine, teeth gently scraping across. I feel his fingers thread in my hair and he tips my head back, pulling away just long enough to brush his nose along mine and tilt my chin up to him. Against my skin, his fingers tremble with restraint and his noises come out tight, barely controlled.
I suck in a breath as the tip of his tongue pushes inside and he moans into my mouth. My nipples harden as he begins walking us back to the bedroom, and I feel the heaviness of my breasts, the heat between my legs.
His foot lands on top of mine and he whispers an apology, wincing as I say, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” into his kiss.
My eyes are closed but I feel the moment he kicks off his shoes, hear them tumble along the wood floor. The edge of a wall connects with my back and he whispers another apology into my mouth, sucks on my tongue, and tries to distract me. His fingers run along my spine, under the hem of my shirt, and soon it’s up and over my head, forgotten somewhere behind us. My hands tug at his shirt until his skin is bare and warm and pressed against mine.
Clothes come off, he—literally—trips out of his pants, the room tips, and when I open my eyes again I see the ceiling above and feel the soft sheets at my back. He kisses down my neck and along my shoulder, licks a path down to my breast. It’s darker back here than I’d expected and I almost forget we’re naked until Ansel moves to his knees and stretches across me, fumbling with the bedside table and returning with a condom.
“Oh,” I say, pulling my eyebrows together. I guess we’re ready to go. Also, I guess the blood test results aren’t in yet. “Are we . . . ?”
He looks down to the foil packet. “I checked the mail and . . . we didn’t . . . I mean. If . . .”
“No,” I blurt. “Good. It’s fine.” And could this be more awkward? Is he thinking I have something? Does he think Vegas was, like, an everyday occurrence for me? And what about him? What about the other one? Miles of naked chest and arms are in front of me, his flat stomach, his cock hard as it juts out between us—how many other women have enjoyed this exact view? “We definitely should use one, to be grown-up about it until we know.”
He nods and I don’t miss the way his hands shake as he tears open the wrapper, when he reaches for himself and rolls the latex down his length. My legs are open and he settles between them, his eyes flickering up to me.
“Okay?” he asks.
I nod and choke on a little breath when his fingers find where I’m wet, moving in small circles before he replaces them with his cock.
And oh . . . okay. That feels . . . nice.
“Still okay?” he asks again, and this time I bring my legs around his hips and tighten, pulling him forward.
He exhales as he pushes inside, stilling when his body is flush with mine. His small sounds vibrate along my skin and I nod to tell him I’m good, to keep going. He pulls out, pushes back in. His hair brushes along my chest when he looks down between us, watching the way he moves in me. Over and over.
I’m aware of every breath he takes, every word and grunt as it leaves his lips, the sound of his skin where it slaps against mine. There’s a shout from outside and I look over toward the window. Ansel touches my chin, smiles as he brings my attention back, and kisses me. I can still taste the wine he must have had while he started dinner; I can smell the lingering trace of his aftershave. But I can also hear sounds on the street, feel the heavy, humid air in the apartment pressing down over us.
It occurs to me that I didn’t notice any of those things before, not when we were together in Vegas or his hotel room. I was so lost in the fantasy of where we were and what we were doing, pretending to be someone else with a different life, that I forgot to think or worry; all I wanted was him.
Ansel speeds up and reaches between us, his fingers slipping to where he’s inside me before moving up to my clit. And it feels good, it does. Being with him feels good and his sounds are amazing and it’s only been a few minutes but . . . oh . . . I feel something.
“Yes,” I breathe, and he curses in response, hips accelerating. And wow, that is definitely helping because there it is again, a flicker, a tightening deep in my stomach. Pressure builds, heavy and there again and I’m close.
. . . maybe?
I shift my hips and he shifts his in response, harder again and faster until the headboard begins tapping steadily against the wall behind me and . . .
That might be hard to tune out. What about the neighbors?
Ugh, brain, shut up. I squeeze my eyes closed and refocus, take a deep breath and look up. Ansel is gorgeous above me, whispering dirty little things in my ear, some of them I understand and others, hell, he could probably read me his grocery list and it would be hot.
“I can practically hear you thinking, Cerise,” he says into my ear. “Stop.”
God I’m trying. I slide my legs higher up his sides and try to guide him, silently begging my body to get back to that place where my limbs melt and I hear nothing but white noise and the sound of him coming and coming but . . . shit, that is so not happening. Stupid body. Stupid brain. Stupid temperamental orgasm.
“Let me hear you,” he says, but it sounds a lot like a question. Like he’s asking me. “You don’t have to be quiet.”
Am I being quiet? I groan at how awkward I feel and close my eyes, wondering if I should just tell him he doesn’t have to wait for me, remind him that sometimes my body takes too long or, I can’t believe I’m thinking this, if I should fake it.
“Ansel,” I say, and tighten my grip on his shoulders because frankly, I have absolutely no idea what’s about to come out of my mouth. “You feel so good, but—”
Apparently that’s all he needed.
“Oh God,” he moans. “Not yet, not yet.”
He bites his lip, twists the fingers of one hand into my hair while the other moves to cup my ass, lifting me to him. Closer. He leans down and groans into my mouth and if I wasn’t so lost in my own head dear God all of this would be hot.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he growls and pushes into me one final time, so deep I feel like I’m practically folded in half. The air escapes my lungs in a whoosh as he collapses against me and I blink up at the ceiling.
I’m familiar with this moment; it’s the same one I’ve had over and over throughout my life. The moment when my body didn’t quite get there and I’m left with this worry that there’s something wrong with me. That maybe I’ll never have routine orgasms with another person.
Ansel kisses me once on the lips, warm and lingering, before he grips the condom and pulls out. “You okay?” he asks, bending to catch my eyes.
I stretch, do my best to look thoroughly wrecked, and smile up at him. “Absolutely. Just”—I pause for a very dramatic yawn—“sorelaxednow,” I say sleepily.
I can see the words on the tip of his tongue, the question: Did you?
“Do you want dinner?” he asks instead, kissing my chin. His voice has a slight shake to it, a breath of uncertainty.
Nodding, I watch as he rolls out of bed, puts his clothes back on, and smiles sweetly at me before ducking out of the bedroom.