Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lost and Found by Marc Nobbs

Chris spent the afternoon wandering around the mall. He got himself some designer jeans for half the price he would have paid in London and brought Beth a diamond pendant on a delicate gold chain. Then he headed back to the hotel to get showered and changed. Beth was waiting for him outside Molly's when he strolled through the public garden at seven-thirty. She'd changed out of her work clothes and into a pair of tight jeans and white vest-top, and she had tied back her long blond hair in a ponytail.

"Where have you been?" she asked.

Chris looked at his watch. "We said seven-thirty. It's now seven-thirty-one. I'd hardly call that late."

"I know, but I got here early. I thought you might, too."

"You should have waited inside then."

"God, no. I couldn't go in alone. Come on."

"Hang on. I bought you something this afternoon." He held out the gift-wrapped box. "I hope you like it."

"Chris, you shouldn't have."

"I wanted to."

She took it from him, ripped off the wrapping and stared at the small black jewelry box. "What's this?"

"Open it."

She opened the box and gasped. "Oh, Chris. It's gorgeous. You really shouldn't have. It must have been really expensive."

"Call it two years worth of birthday, Christmas, and Valentine's Day presents wrapped up in one."

She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she said, then stepped back and fumbled to get the chain from the box.

"Here, let me." He took the box from her and removed the necklace. He told her to turn around and draped it around her neck.

She spun around. "How does it look?"

"Perfect." The diamond hung just above the swell of her breasts, drawing his eyes to her cleavage.

"Are you looking at the chain, or my titties?"

"Both," he replied with a grin. "What normal bloke wouldn't?"

Beth giggled. "I'll take that as a compliment. Come on, let's go in. I have to find a mirror."

She linked her arm in his and led them into the bar. They sat in a booth by the window. No sooner had they sat down than Mitch came over with the menus. "Austins, Chris Austins. Glad you came to see us again. And this must be the mysterious Elizabeth. Nice to meet you. How come I've not seen you in here before?"

"Er, I, er, don't go out all that much."

"Shame. Good-looking girl like you ought to be out every night. I must say, I'm surprised you're still on the market. I bet you were homecoming queen, weren't you?"

"Actually, no. Missy Marshall was queen that year. I lost out by six votes."

"Missy Marshall, eh? I remember her. Doesn't she do porn now? Anyway, what can I get you guys?"

They ordered and Mitch returned to the bar. "How the hell does he know who I am?" Beth asked.

"Mitch claims to know everyone in town."

"Mitch is notorious—that's why I wouldn't come in by myself."

"I was in here last night and asked if anybody knew you. I wanted to surprise you. I had this vision of turning up on your doorstep and you melting into my arms. Only trouble was, I didn't have your address."

Their meals didn't take long to arrive and took them even less time to eat. They ordered ice cream for dessert.

"I can't believe I've come all this way and wind up with steak and chips as a main and ice cream for dessert. It's shocking. On the Eurostar, I could be in Paris within three hours of leaving my house and find a more varied menu."

Beth laughed and playfully punched his arm. "If our food's not good enough, you can always get right back on the plane to merry old England."

"Only if you come with me. I'll treat you to fish and chips and an afternoon at the footy."

"You're on. But I can't tomorrow. I'm busy." She smiled weakly. "Lance would have liked you. You'd have got on well."

"You think?"

"Yeah. You have a similar sense of humor. I think that's what I'll miss the most, you know. His laughter. It was infectious." She paused. "It's not like he wanted to be the center of attention. You know how some people do and they scream, 'look at me, look at me.' But he had such a big personality that he just sort of wound up in the middle. D'you know what I mean?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah."

"I guess it was because he always went full tilt at everything he did. Always gave everything he had and then a little bit more. Our high school won the state championship for the first time ever when he was quarterback. And then they repeated it in his senior year before he went off to West Point. The Colonel was so proud of him. I was too."

"I'm sorry I'll never meet him," said Chris.

"He never wanted to go to West Point, you know. He wanted to follow me to Connecticut and study law—to be a lawyer like me. But the Colonel had other ideas. Lance only went along with the nomination because it's what the Colonel wanted. He never thought he'd get in. I knew better. I knew they'd snap him up. I also knew that when Lance decided on a military career, he'd give it his all. He was a brilliant soldier. A brilliant officer. But he'd have made an even better lawyer."

Chris stared at her as she spoke.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You come all this way and have to listen to me going on about Lance."

"Don't be sorry. Talk all you like. I'm happy to just to sit and listen to you. As long as I get to look at you at the same time."

Dessert arrived and they tucked in.

"Where are you staying?" Beth asked before spooning a mouthful of ice cream into her mouth.

"At the hotel across the square."

"River's Crossing Inn? That must be costing you a fortune. No, that'll never do. You can check right out of there and haul ass over to my place."

"Beth, I couldn't. It wouldn't be right. I couldn't impose."

"Don't go getting all stiff-assed Brit on me. You're staying at my place and that's the end of it. I have a spare room. Besides, if you're my shoulder to cry on, I do most of my crying at night. I'm gonna need you a lot closer than River's Crossing Inn."

After they'd finished dessert, Chris packed his bags and checked out of the hotel. Then he followed Beth back to her house. She gave him the dime tour and left him to unpack while she made coffee. He joined her in the kitchen when he'd finished. She handed him a cup as he sat at the counter and smiled at him. "Chris?"

"Yeah?"

"Will you come with me tomorrow?"

"To the funeral?"

"Well, I'm not planning on going any place else."

"Are you sure that's a good idea? What would people say? What would your parents say?"

"I don't care what anybody says! You said you were here for me, right? Here to support me? I'm burying my baby brother tomorrow, and my father has turned the whole thing into some kind of god-awful show. I need you there, Chris. I'm dreading it, but if you're there with me, I think I might just about be able to cope."

"I don't know. I didn't know Lance. It wouldn't be right."

"Most of the people who will be there didn't know Lance. What's not right is you coming all this way and then not being there when I need you the most. Please, Chris. Don't make me beg."

Chris looked into her eyes. They were so sad that he couldn't say no. He nodded.

"Oh, thank you. Thank you." She lent forward and kissed his cheek. Chris's heart started to race again. His breathing became labored. A tingle of electricity shot down his back and he shivered. She didn't pull away. Her face was close to his. He could feel her hot breath and smell her sweet perfume. She put her hand on his other cheek and kissed him again. She brought her fingers around and traced his lips, then turned his head until his lips met hers. Their breath was heavy and coarse. Chris could feel the rise and fall of her breasts against his chest. He lowered his hands to her hips and drew her closer. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, slipping her tongue into his mouth. She tasted like cinnamon—sweet and spicy.

Suddenly, Chris pulled away. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. Not with the funeral tomorrow. I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry, Chris. I've been waiting for you to kiss me like that all night."

"Maybe so, but it doesn't make it right. You're vulnerable right now. I shouldn't take advantage."

"It wouldn't be taking advantage. Not if it's what we both want." She put her hand on his face, cocked her head to the side and smiled. "You know, I always wondered if you'd be the same sweet guy in real life that you were on my computer. Well, you're not—you're a million times better. All the guys I know would be trying to get their hands in my panties right about now. But not you. Always the gentleman, eh? I'm so glad you're here." She walked to the door. "I'm going to bed. I have to be up early. I'll see you in the morning."

A Fall From Grace by Wendy Stone

"No, Princess. Your wrist must remain limber. Now, try it again."

Princess Alaina of Castle Normillian groaned as she took up the stance once again. She'd thought it to be a lark, having her personal royal guardian teach her to fence. But like everything else he did, Callan D'Ambrose took these lessons seriously.

Little did she realize he would have her practicing so religiously, or training every morning under his watchful and scrutinizing eye. So now, here she was in her private courtyard, dressed in men's breeches and a white tunic, her thick gold hair clubbed back in a tail at her neck to keep it out of her way, lunging and thrusting as he called out positions to her.

"Where is your head this morning, Princess? You certainly are not concentrating." Callan shouted the words at her, his blade coming up to ring against hers. He slashed faster than she could block, circling her with amazing speed and dexterity. And suddenly her hair was loose, curling around her face and into the green of her eyes.

"Be bloody well damned, Callan, if you continue to ruin my ribbons for me, I shall have to go to the market to purchase more!" she growled at him, her mood turned foul as he easily tore the light weight blade from her hand, sending it flying through the air to catch with his other hand.

"And if you would pay attention to practice, Princess, I wouldn't be able to do so as easily as I do. Now, do you wish to whine like the little girl that you are or do you wish to practice and perchance become good enough to best me?"

Alaina glared at her teacher and protector, her eyes narrowing as he handed her back her blade. "I will beat you, Callan."

He grinned at the anger in her voice, a sight little seen in the usually sober guard. It made her blink for it changed his face from broodingly handsome to boyishly good looking, lightening the darkness of his expression to make him look almost approachable.

Though no one who saw him could forget him. His long sable hair curled well past his shoulders. His eyes were amber, darkening to brown when his mood became foul. They sparkled at her as he teased her. His face was long, with a strong jaw and a dimple by his mouth she sometimes longed to touch. His cheekbones were slashes of strength under eyes that could have been termed pretty with long lashes if not for the determined look in them. He stood over her, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulders, forcing her to look up at him as he moved around her.

"I look forward to the day, Princess, but for now..." he moved quickly, his blade flashing in the light of the sun, almost too quickly to be seen. She was forced back, desperately trying to meet his thrusts, to parry and defend her position. But within seconds, she found herself upon her back, his blade resting easily under her chin, her sword once more in his hands.

He smiled again, a crooked engaging grin, flipping his sword up and easily sheathing it before reaching down and holding out his hand to help her up. "I think you've had enough for today, Princess. I know your father has asked for your presence in the royal dining hall for supper this afternoon."

Alaina took his hand, trying to ignore the small spark that flared between them. It had been this way for the past two years, since she was sixteen and finally allowed out of the school room. Sir Callan D'Ambrose was one of the High Guard of the castle, a position given only to men of rank and of certain background, for their duties were set from the day they were taken into training. They were the guardians of the royals, given the burden of protecting a member of the royal family from any and all until they were either killed or too old to continue with the task.

Callan had been hers from the moment she donned her first long gown and put her hair up, no longer wearing the braids of the school room. For now she was deemed an adult and soon a marriage would be decided upon between her and a neighboring kingdom. Callan would go with her; he would protect her until his death.

"I wonder which kingdom has sent notice this time?" she mused aloud, used to speaking freely in front of Callan.

"Another that you'll probably find fault with as you have the last three, Princess," Callan said, taking her sword and stashing it in the trunk. He stood to the side as Alaina went behind her dressing screen, easily doffing the boys clothing she wore while they practiced and slipping into a long sleeved chemise of leaf green, covering it with a bliaunt of emerald green.

She quickly tied the laces, making sure that her chemise sleeves were puffed as was the fashion of the day, to be seen between slits cut into the fabric of the bliaunt's short sleeves, before settling a silver belt at her waist, her eating knife in its sheath at her side. When she was dressed, she moved from behind the screen, going to her dressing table and picking up her brush. Pulling the bristles through the thick golden strands of her hair, she stared at her guard in the mirror.

"Do you blame me, Callan? Faugh, if you but had your way, I'd have married the first who made the proposal so that you could be rid of some of your duties to me."

"I do not wish you to be unhappy, Princess. Far from it, indeed, I only wish for you to be settled and to find the happiness that you so richly deserve."

Alaina's laughter filled the air with its musical trill. She set down the brush, carefully sectioning her hair and began to braid it loosely, tying it with another ribbon, this one green to match her gown. Then she picked up her gold circlet that bespoke of her rank within the palace, placing it with care upon her hair before turning in her chair to speak to Callan.

"Do you think I shall be happy with some man I do not know in some far away castle away from all that I care about and love?"

Callan stared at his beautiful charge, feeling that same jealousy he always felt when he heard her speaking of marriage. He'd take her as his own, but for the laws of the land that would have him killed as a traitor if he even spoke of his feelings. But no, better for her to be happy and him to still be her protector even if she was with another.

"What is love, Princess? Is it an emotion such as happiness or hatred? Cannot such emotions be contrived, and if such, does that not make love a fickle thing to flit here and there at a whim?"

Alaina, her green eyes wide as she thought of his words tapped a long slender finger upon her lips. "You have the sound of a cynic, Sir Callan, or one that has had his heart trampled once too many times. But that would be impossible for I have never seen you occupied with the matters of the heart before. Is there some fine lady who has taken your heart and kept it, leaving you without?"

"There is such a lady, but she does not know she carries my love with her. I have neither the nerve nor the ability to tell her. But we speak not of me, Princess, but of you and the marriage proposal your father most likely will bring up during supper."

"Who is she?" Alaina asked him, feeling jealousy sit like an evil imp on her heart.

"She is no one, Princess. And I wish not to discuss her or have you meddling in the matters of my heart. You should concern yourself with your own as they are coming home to roost in a timely manner."

"I am but curious as to what manner of creature could possibly break down the barrier that surrounded your heart, Callan. She must be an extraordinary person indeed."

"Are you ready, Princess?" he asked her. "Your father waits below with another contract to discuss with you."

"You but wish to change the subject, Callan. I will allow it for now but know you that I wish to meet your fair lady one of these days and give my blessing to the match, perhaps make her one of my ladies in waiting so that you might see her during the day when your duties are at their most stressing." She smiled as she saw him square his broad shoulders, bowing slightly before her before going to the door.

He checked the corridor, a habit of his that she always teased him about. She knew he did it to protect her. He always put her safety first, no matter what her wishes. He would give his life to save hers, this she knew. But where else could she be safer than behind the walls of the palace?

She moved to stand in front of him, knowing that he would keep the two steps behind her that society's dictate demanded, though if she'd had her way, he would walk beside her, allow her to take his arm, to talk with him. Instead she had to turn her head to speak to him and anyone close by could hear their conversation. It was a needless mannerism and one she tried to rid him of, but he refused, determined to protect not only her life but her reputation as well.

She walked leisurely through the palace, not anxious to fight once more with her father about her views of marriage and how they differed so vigorously from his. Instead, she paused before one of the opened windows that led out onto another balcony, this one used when her father would make his royal proclamations to the crowds gathered below. Sneaking a quick peek back at Callan, she slipped through the satin draperies and stood in the warm spring sunshine and cool air.

"Princess!" Callan yelled, charging through the draperies, his hand upon his sword. He turned and glared at her as she stood giggling at the look upon his face. He skidded to a halt, his eyes narrowing. "Do you try to get yourself killed?"

"No, but neither do I wish to become isolated in the Palace, Callan. There is no one here, no walls high enough to shoot from, no enemies surrounding me wishing to do my royal personage harm," she said. "I just wish to enjoy a spring day without thoughts of duties and safety constantly foremost in my thoughts."

"Those thoughts must be first and foremost in my thoughts, Princess. For if anything were to happen to you," he closed his eyes, swallowing heavily.

"It would distress you?" she asked him softly, her hand coming out as if to touch him.

"I should die," he said, his voice deep, his eyes blazing. Then it was if he collected himself, turning his head. "It would be my punishment for not doing my duty."

Alaina felt her heart drop and she sighed quietly, telling herself not to be foolish. She was but a girl and Callan, he was a man full grown and wanting more than what her meager experience with the males of the species had given her. Suddenly the spring sunshine didn't seem such a wondrous thing. Her heart heavy, she turned back towards the draperies.

He caught up with her as she took her seat at the long table, stepping back as was his duty, taking up his stance next to the King's personal guard, nodding his head at the man and then ignoring him as was their way. His eyes searched the room slowly, before resting upon her shining head.

As if she felt his eyes upon her, she looked up, gifting him with a small smile before turning back to her father and the meal that had been held up for her.

"I have accepted him, Alaina. I am sorry if he's not to your liking, but Prince Adair is the last ruling prince on this continent that is searching for a bride." King Damon held his hand up as if forestalling any arguments that she might make. "I do not wish to have to climb into a boat every time I wish to visit my daughter or worry about her out on the ocean if she comes to me."

"Do I even get the chance to see him first, father? Or do you plan just to ship me into his bed, to hell with the vows?" Alaina was more than upset. This was a bigger blow than she'd thought following so soon after her heart had been broken by Callan, it was almost more than she could take.

"Alaina, hold your tongue and quit your foolishness. You know your happiness is paramount, but I must think also of what is best for the country. Prince Adair has a huge army, mounted knights, more than I could ever hope to raise if needs be. His coffers are full to flowing over, he is generous to his peoples and seems a fair man. He is still young, enough at least to satisfy a young woman like yourself. It is time you were settled, Alaina and I've made my decision."

King Damon sat back in his chair, letting the servants fill his plate, picking up the tiny salt cellar that was unheard of at most tables in the kingdom and sprinkling some of the precious white spice onto his food. "Perhaps you will grow to love Prince Adair. He is a handsome enough fellow, I was told by his petitioner. It is of no matter now, though, for the deal has been met and the contract signed. You will be traveling to him in one month's time, daughter."

Alaina sat as if stunned, her eyes lifting to meet Callan's over her father's head. She wondered what he thought of this situation, though his expression was inscrutable. His eyes showed nothing of his thoughts and after a moment, he turned away, checking the room as was his habit.

"If it is done, then it is," she said quietly, wiping the food from her eating knife and slowly sheathing it at her waist. "I wish to retire, Father, if that is acceptable to you."

King Damon sighed, lowering his head into his hands. "I wish there were another way, daughter. I should have wed you off two years ago when you first were of age. You were much more biddable then." He peeked out at her from between his fingers, something that would have made her laugh before this evening. "I am sorry, Alaina. Perhaps, in my bid to keep you happy, I gave you too much freedom to choose? I know not."

He waved his hand at her when she cocked her brow, silently requesting permission once more. She rose, refusing to even meet Callan's eyes. She would go to her room. She had to think.

Alaina was alone in her chamber, her back against the softness of the down pillows on her bed. She was wrapped in a satin coverlet, separated by the thinnest of silk sheets imaginable. They were light and airy against her skin.

She wore only a tiny night rail, a gown that was mistakenly placed in one of her orders to the dressmakers, but after trying it on and admiring the soft amber color, with matching lace that covered the low cut bodice, she decided to keep it and sent around payment. It was thin satin, held to her shoulders by the tiniest of straps, it draped in long folds from the waistline to her feet.

There must be a way out of the predicament she was in, there must be, for she could not stand the thought of marrying anyone. The idea of a man's hand upon her flesh, a man's hand that was not Callan's was more than abhorrent, it was repulsive.

Callan! Why had she not thought of this before? She slipped from her bed, her feet finding the tiny slippers that went with the gown. Grabbing a shawl from off the edge of her bed, she left her robe where it was and opened the doorway leading out of her room. She knew where his room was, two doors down from hers where he would be ready to protect her in a moment's notice.

The room next to hers, a room very similar to her own, was reached by a connecting door into her room or from the hallway. It was for her husband if one had been found that wished to make his life with her here. She slipped by that door easily, carefully opening the door into Callan's room and making her way across the darkened room to the side of his bed.

He lay upon his back, his arm thrown across his eyes as if bothered by some light. His chest was bare, the thin sheet that covered him coming barely to his waist, exposing the lower part of his stomach. He was a magnificent sight, his daily training making him hard and muscled from the wide plains of his upper chest to the rippling muscles of his stomach, there was no softness on him anywhere.

She must have gasped for he rose with a move faster than she could see, grabbing her and throwing her to the bed, his hand at her throat.

"Princess?" he exclaimed, jerking his hand away, staring down at her as if she were some kind of specter or dream that was too familiar. "Why are you here?"

Alaina had problems breathing no matter that his hand was gone from her throat. His body pressed down upon hers, his hard plains angled into her soft curves. His body was warm and heavy, the sensations it caused had her pulse racing and her breathing ragged.

He seemed to realize it at the same time, for his eyes changed, seeming to glow with amber lights, they swept over her face and down to the bare skin of her collarbones, and lower. Her shawl had come off when he'd grabbed her, leaving her clad only in the thin gown. Her breasts were outlined by the soft fabric, her nipples hard little bumps against the shimmering material. She heard his harsh breath, felt the hand that still held her arm tighten before his eyes were drawn back to her face.

"God," he groaned, his hand tunneling into the silken softness of her hair. "If I am to die, at least let me taste your lips before I do."

Alaina felt his breath upon her mouth as her eyes fluttered shut. Even though his words had been harsh, his lips were gentle, brushing against hers with a softness that surprised her. His breath rushed over her, heating her skin. She inhaled of him greedily, wishing she could freeze this moment in time.

He heard the small moan that came from between her lips, felt the way she pressed up against him, her innocent response flaming his passions, drawing forth the barbarian in him, the one that his family had worked so hard to repress for over a hundred years. Now it battled with him, wanting to plunder her soft lips, to stroke the inside of her hot mouth with his tongue, to rip the gown from her body and feel the heated wetness of her pink flesh, taste her nipples in his mouth.

"I want you, Alaina," he growled. "I think I was born wanting you."

His mouth moved to her throat, his teeth nipping the tender flesh, suckling upon it. He found the soft hollow at the base of her throat, inhaled greedily of her scent. His fingers plucked at the tiny straps, slipping them from her shoulders, the silken material sliding slowly off her skin.

Her body responded to his lips, arching against him, her hands threading through the thick silky locks of his hair, holding his mouth to her. He moved on, kissing and licking, finding the edge of the neckline of her gown that still clung to the fragile peaks of her breasts. His tongue slipped under, stroking over one taut bud, hearing her breath catch, change to a moan even as her back arched, pushing her against him.

Alaina felt the heat of him, like an all consuming fire, it burned her body, creating a need that swirled within her, deep in her belly, creating an itch between her thighs that became maddening. She touched his shoulders with her hands, hearing his hum of pleasure, becoming bolder and stroking the long muscles on his body that had always fascinated her. His skin was smooth, his muscles hard and unrelenting beneath her fingers. She kneaded him like a kitten would, murmuring her pleasure in his caresses.

Callan pulled her gown down lower, exposing the rounded curves of her breasts to his eyes and his mouth. She was so beautiful, so perfect, with taut pale pink peaks that capped full breasts that filled his hands perfectly. His mouth worshiped her, his tongue laved over her beauty even as his hand slid lower, climbing slowly down the slight ladder of her ribs, touching the curve of her navel.

It slid further, huge and hot against her skin, his palm rough and calloused, creating tingles of nerve shattering pleasure. He skimmed it across her lower stomach, feeling her muscles contract, her hips jerk before he settled his hand between her thighs, his palm resting lightly on the crinkle of curls that covered her mons.

His mouth sought hers, pressing slow, sweet kisses to her swollen lips. His eyes gazed into hers, seeing the nervousness as well as the desire fighting for supremacy. He used his free hand to stroke her hair, his eyes never leaving hers as he slid his longest finger between her thick lower lips.

It was like immersing his finger in hot cream, thick and slick, her body wept its dewy moisture for him. "Ahh, God, love, you are so wet," he groaned, feeling his cock jump and thicken even more than before at the feel of her around him.

The scream, when it came, brought his head up from where he'd been about to kiss her again, to lose the last of his will to her. With that scream, came the sound of feet running, heavy ones, armored ones.

He was up in a second, racing silently to the door and opening it just a crack. As he did, a palace servant ran by, blood sliding down his face from some kind of wound to his head. He saw Callan, stopping only to scream out a warning before running once more.

"What is it?" Alaina said, coming up to her elbows on the bed, her breasts still bared to his gaze.

"We are under attack."

My Life as a Concubine by Robin Glasser

I'm no Steven Spielberg, but in my mind I'd gone through thousands of takes and the credits were now rolling. It was time for the big Q&A. I chose Christmas, when The Big Apple is aglitter and gay, to inquire if he'd given any thought to the future. How's that for being blunt? In that heavenly accent, Jean-Loup burbled merrily along about his apartment, his pension, his blah-blah-blah, until my eyes began to glaze. I interrupted this litany with a more direct query, something like, "Are you taking me with you when you leave?"

"Mais oui! You come avec moi this night."

"You're going to Paris tonight?!

The Frenchman gave me a puzzled look, then took a long moment to reply. "How I can go to Paris this night?"

Before I could respond, a wolfish grin split his face and he chortled, "You make the joke, no?"

"NO!" I just want to know if I am going with you--"

"Oui. You going with me this night to the, the fête," Jean-Loup spoke very slowly as if I were retarded, a two-year old or both.

Now I am a writer. I have an extensive command of the English language. I own a dictionary and a thesaurus. I used to compose word puzzles, for chrissakes! But no matter how I phrased and rephrased my questions, I couldn't get a straight answer. In fact, our Q&A was turning into that famous Abbott and Costello baseball routine--you know, Who's on First? I spoke slowly. I enunciated perfectly. I hit him point-blank.

"Jean-Loup, are you taking me to Paris with you when you leave New York City?"

He took my sweaty hand, stared soulfully into my eyes. I held my breath. His pouty lips parted in a no.

It felt as if I was suffocating until I realized that I'd better exhale. Although rejection was not part of my scenario, I did have a rewrite ready. Regarding my former paramour evenly, I coolly spat, "Get out!"

The tables had been turned. The worm was wriggling, demanding to know what I meant. I put it succinctly: "Adieu, adios, bye-bye!"

Jean-Loup looked dazed and confused--he still hadn't caught on. I translated for him. "It's over, finished, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year--have a nice life."

"Why you want I leave," the Frenchman persisted.

"Because I love you."

"You love me but you want not to see me? I comprehend not what you say me."

"Listen carefully, Jean-Loup. I've never felt this kind of love for anyone before. I'm afraid to keep seeing you. Afraid that I'll fall even deeper in love than I am now. Your rejection really hurt me. To go on as if nothing has happened isn't possible."

Grabbing hold of my hand, gazing into my eyes, he spoke soothingly, "Ma chérie, you must to know that I adore you. Why we suffer separate for the nine months? Can you say me what occur in this time? You can make la prédiction to the future?

"Of course not! But to keep on seeing you would only add more cracks to my already shattered heart."

Jean-Loup used all the charm he possessed to convince me--and maybe himself--that we could still have fun as a couple. But I was adamant. With a Gaullist shrug, he departed.
* * * *

I went out with friends, dated other men. I refused to answer his calls. At home, I screened my messages, steeling myself not to pick up the receiver whenever I heard his alluring voice. At the door to my apartment, bouquets of flowers tantalized. The Frenchman was on a mission and his pursuit was as hot and heavy as his breathing during sex.

I kept to my script for an entire month. The phone rang. I answered. Jean-Loup sounded utterly wretched as he begged and pleaded to see me. We made a rendezvous for the park near Gracie Mansion.

The bleak day matched Jean-Loup's face. He hadn't slept for weeks, was miserable without me, had given serious thought to us, and wanted me to live with him in France. I remained wary until the tears began to streak his cheeks, melting the chains surrounding my heart.

"You really want me to come to Paris?"

"Absolument!"

"How do I know you won't change your mind?"

"Say me what you want."

All I really wanted was him but I wasn't about to tell Jean-Loup that. Instead I said, "I need something tangible, some--"

"What means this tan-jay-bull?"

"It means real. I want proof of your commitment. Something solid. Hmmm ... Solitaire ... A ring!"

We picked one out together--a modest antique set with a sparkly but flawed sapphire. On his part, Jean-Loup took the initiative to have a contract drawn up that proclaimed we would live together in a State of Concubinage--a common-law never-never land that gives couples legal status in France--which was witnessed by his close friend and mine. Not exactly a marriage ceremony, but we did drink champagne afterwards. He also wrote my parents a beautiful, grammatically incorrect letter in which he declared that: "she gives me a grate proof of love, leaving ... her job, her appartment, her cat and everything, and I dont want she regrets this choice..."

At the end of summer, we flew to Paris. Did I mention that loup is French for wolf?