It was the second time I had met him, though I couldn't remember the first. Lizzie had an interview for a job as an administrative assistant at the Museum of Modern Art. I tried to tell her that for someone so brilliant, who had a full scholarship to Yale, it was beneath her. But after years of her parents refusing to let her study art, she had to start somewhere. I hadn't seen her so excited in a long time. I wandered the first floor of the museum while she went in for her interview.
I wanted to understand what made these things special enough to be in a museum. I always thought that art involved some kind of skill, but the things I saw seemed ridiculous. In one corner, there were huge colored blocks stacked in a pile. People were looking at it from every angle and discussing the various meanings of the positions and colors. To me, it was something a toddler could have done.
I moved on to a room where a person's messy bedroom was on display. Next to an unmade bed was a pile of garbage, including used tissues, period-stained underwear, cigarette butts, empty vodka bottles, a pregnancy test, a half-used tube of lube, and used condoms.
Next to me, a woman taking notes said, "Striking in its vulnerability," to the man at her side.
"A brave self-portrait," he added. "Quite a contemplative atmosphere."
I couldn't help but laugh, and it came out a bit too loud. The couple turned to sneer at me, and I decided since I had already insulted them, I might as well have fun with it. "I never realized that the time I shit my pants in kindergarten made me an artist. I'll be exhibiting those underwear next month. I do hope you'll come!"
The woman looked me up and down and quickly spun on her fancy heels and stomped away. "Some people don't understand the power of symbolism!" the man hissed before joining his companion. I kept laughing and pulled out my phone to see if Lizzie had texted that she was done yet.
"It helps to know the background of the artist," a man's voice said. I put my phone away and looked up. He was so gorgeous that it disarmed me for a moment as he continued to explain the artist's background. "She grew up really poor, was raped at 13, and had to have an abortion. This is what her bedroom looked like when her boyfriend left her because he couldn't deal with her depression anymore." He held a sketchbook and pencil and kept glancing down to add detail to whatever he was working on.
"That's terrible," I stated. "And it does explain why her room would look like this. But I still wouldn't call it art."
The side of his mouth went up into a sexy smirk. "I agree completely."
I glanced at him with confusion before I moved on to the next room. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn't place it. The following installation was a gigantic tank with a dead shark suspended inside. The title had something to do with people's inability to fathom their own impending death. I stood there staring at it while people commented, "Oh, this is iconic!" and "Fascinating!"
"I don't understand," I said to them. "Did the artist make the shark, or is it real?" They stared at me like I was a pile of rotting trash.
"It's a real tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde," one replied.
"So, the artist didn't really make anything. He just put a dead shark in a tank and said it was his art?"
They turned away from me, and one mumbled, "You don't get it."
"So explain it to me. Isn't art supposed to involve some kind of skill? Couldn't I have taken a shark and put it in a tank and said it was my art?"
An amused voice from behind me answered, "But you didn't, did you?" I turned around and locked eyes with the beautiful guy from the last room.
The warm expression on his face told me he wasn't trying to dismiss me the way the others did. "That's how the artist answered critics when they said exactly what you just said."
"Is that right?" I responded, trying to hide how attractive I found him. He had the kind of face you just can't stop looking at, and he seemed to know it.
"It originally sold for $12 million," he added. The people next to me smiled smugly.
"Well, shit. I need to start putting random dead things in tanks and calling them art!"
"The thing is, you have to be the first one to think of it."
"Come on! You don't really think this is art, do you?"
He bit his bottom lip and contemplated for a moment. "I don't know if I'm qualified to say whether it's art or not. But it's definitely bullshit."
The people around us gasped in shock as I answered, "Exactly."
"Wait till you see the next one!" he exclaimed. We walked together into the next room, which had blank white walls and a white floor covered with brown mud or clay splotches.
"Oh, this must be the shit room!" I called out as heads twisted in my direction. He turned away to avoid laughing as I read a text from Lizzie asking where I was. "In the shit room," I wrote to her.
"Huh?" she wrote back.
"The room with the brown shit splashed everywhere- 1st Floor next to the sculpture garden."
"Gotcha. Meet you in five."
As I put my phone back in my bag, I peered at the same guy who seemed to be following me. He was fucking stunning, with perfectly tousled golden brown hair and the most incredible smile. I'm a sucker for nice teeth, and his were pristine. His facial structure was angular and defined, and even though it was obnoxious that he was wearing a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, his heavily-tattooed arms had just the right amount of muscle tone. When I saw that he was wearing a Jack White concert tee, my heart skipped a fucking beat.
He sensed that I was staring. His olive-green eyes darted from his sketchbook to my legs, then up to my hips, chest, and eyes. He squinted a bit like he was trying to see my face more clearly. "You seem familiar. I definitely know you from somewhere."
I shrugged, and he put his sketchbook in his bag and moved closer. "You hungry?" he asked. "They have a decent café."
"Unfortunately, I'm stuck in this shit room till my friend joins me." He nodded as Lizzie rushed in.
"They said they'd let me know by the end of the week," she announced.
"This is your friend?" he interrupted. She turned to face him, and I actually saw her eyes widen as she very obviously looked him up and down.
"Hi, I'm Lizzie!" She giggled nervously.
"Dante," he said as he held out his hand. She shook it awkwardly and glanced back at me with flushed cheeks.
"Your name is Dante?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes. And yours is?"
"Lizzie," he said as he moved closer to her, "I was just asking Jane if she would join me for lunch. I'd love it if you'd come too."
Lizzie immediately answered, "Of course!"
I cleared my throat audibly. "Lizzie, we can't. We have that thing we have to do, remember?"
She knew what I was doing and chose to ignore it. "What thing? I don't remember a thing. I'm free the whole afternoon!" He gave her that smirk, and she blushed.
I'll admit, he was one of the most stunning men I had ever seen in person, and I understood why she was so eager to spend more time with him. I tried to ignore his appearance, but it wasn't just how he looked. There was a confident, sexy aura about him, and it was magnetic. I started to get lost in a maze of conflicting thoughts and assumptions and concluded that he was probably used to getting any girl he wanted, and we weren't going to be his shiny new toys.
"I'm actually not feeling well, so we should go."
Lizzie's jaw tightened with irritation. "Come on, Jane. Just one coffee?"
He looked deeply into my eyes, and I had that intense déjà vu feeling I got from time to time. I felt like I knew him, and while it was a comfortable and intriguing familiarity, it was mixed with a panicky feeling as well. "Fine. Answer one question correctly, and we'll have lunch with you."
His eyebrows went up in surprise. "Okay. Shoot."
"Guess my favorite Jack White song." He studied my face for signs of trickery, and one eye squinted a bit. "Won't you just say I'm wrong, no matter what my answer is?"
"Gimme a piece of paper. I'll write it down."
He tore a page out of his sketchbook and gave it to me with a pencil. I scribbled a song title on it, folded it, and gave it back to him. He shoved it into his back pocket and started to ponder. Jokingly, he looked me up and down, and I rolled my eyes. His eyes closed for a moment then flew open. "Lazaretto!" he announced.
"Nope, sorry! Nice meeting you!" I took Lizzie's hand and yanked her away from him before she could say anything.
"Are you crazy?" she whisper-yelled at me.
As we walked away, he took the paper out of his pocket, read it, then chased after us. "Love Interruption! That was my second choice! I can play it for you!"
I turned my head and smiled inadvertently but kept my quick pace.
"Wait, please!" He moved faster and followed us out of the exit. Then he stood directly in front of us, blocking our path.
"Yes?" I said a bit bitchier than I meant it.
"I'm sorry. I know this must seem weird. There's just something about you. I can't let you go just yet."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean? You can't let us go until what?"
"Until you let me paint you," he said as he stared intensely into my eyes. "Both of you."
"Oh my god! You're an artist?" Lizzie squealed with excitement. "So am I!"
"I'm sure there are a lot of girls who would die to be painted by you," I offered. I can't say I wasn't flattered, but it seemed like a cheap pick-up line.
"I don't want other girls. I've had plenty of other girls-"
"Oh, I'm sure you have!"
"I mean, I've painted lots of other girls!" His face was inches from mine. Then he turned to face Lizzie. "You have one of the most stunning faces I have ever seen. It's like you just stepped out of a Florentine fresco. Your hazel eyes that change in the light, that pouty bottom lip you see so often in paintings of saints, and your dazzling blonde hair that shows a touch of copper when you step into the light… You are just what I've been looking for, and I've been looking for a long time." She swooned while I laughed out loud. But then he turned to me and stepped up so close that our noses practically touched.
"We have definitely known each other before, but where or when, I can't quite say. Your long neck, blue-gray eyes, graceful hands... You're so profoundly beautiful; it's startling. I want to paint you as a goddess or an ancient queen. Please, let me preserve your beauty forever in my art." He turned a page in his sketchbook and held it up. There was a sketch of me in front of a mass of trees, and he captured my likeness really well but made me look much prettier than I actually was. Stunned by his words and the sketch, I was locked in silence, unable to speak. "I'll admit," he continued. "I was drawing you for a while today before we spoke. I couldn't help it. You captivated me." It seemed sincere, and I almost leaned in to kiss him but shook it off.
"Look, this is really weird. We don't know you at all." I couldn't come up with anything else to say, so I crossed my arms and waited for his response.
"Have dinner at my house tonight. And if you feel comfortable, maybe after that I can do some sketches of the two of you."
"This is crazy. I don't think this is a good idea." As cliché as it sounds, my mouth was saying no, but my body was screaming yes. I knew there was no way I wasn't going to his house, but the sixth sense I had developed for bullshit was begging me not to.
Lizzie, who had a newly found habit of living merely on impulse, stepped in front of me and exclaimed, "We'll be there!"
He flashed that coy smile as he took out the scrap of paper with "Love Interruption" written on it and scribbled his address on the back, then handed it to Lizzie. He turned to me and whispered, "Isn't there something so familiar about this, you and me?" He looked so intensely into me that I couldn't even formulate a response. There was definitely something familiar about him. But I wasn't about to let my guard down just yet.
"I don't know about that."
"I feel like we've been here before. You feel it too, don't you?" If he weren't so fucking stunning, I probably would have laughed in his face. But instead, I was wholly riveted.
"I'm not sure what you're talking about, but we have to go."
"7 P.M. tonight," he said more to Lizzie than to me.
"Yes, we'll be there!" she called back as I pulled her away from him.
"Don't count on it!" I added.
We exited the museum in silence until we were far enough away. Then we turned to each other and screamed, "Holy shit!"
I swiped the scrap of paper from Lizzie's hand and studied it. I felt like I had seen his handwriting before. Suddenly, there was a premonition I will never forget. A flash of white light erupted behind my eyes. The sensation seemed to last for years, but it was only a few seconds. In that flash, I glimpsed the rest of our lives. It was a whirlwind of exhilaration and joy, but there was overwhelming anguish and misery too. There was a tremendous feeling of pushing and pulling between us, constant despair and uncertainty. But it was unbelievably thrilling, like living in a dark fairy tale. I turned my head, and the feeling was lost.
"Déjà vu again?" Lizzie asked.
"Yeah, a big one."
"Do you remember any of it?"
"Was it about that guy we just met?"
"I don't think so."
It was a lie. I couldn't recall the details, but I still had the knowledge that we had known each other before. It came with a vivid surge of warmth and need, but there was also the impression of impending doom. I shrugged my shoulders as she grabbed the paper from me. "I better put this somewhere safe," she said as she stuck it into her bra.
I let out a huge sigh. "I don't know if that's actually going to happen."
She looked at me like I was nuts. "Like fucking hell. Either we both go, or I go alone!"
I recognized her right away. We kissed at an Incubus concert in Amsterdam a few years ago. She was definitely high on something, which is probably why she couldn't remember. But it left a permanent impression on me. Under the dark blue lights, we crashed into each other in an ocean of bodies, with a magnetic force neither of us could deny. From the moment our eyes locked, there was a knowing that flowed between us, that we had known each other before.
There's just something about her. Aside from her body, which is fucking perfect, and her long dark hair and big blue-gray eyes... There's a fire in her that gets me going like nothing I've experienced before. I think she's my muse. I was sure of it back then, when I thought I'd lost her forever.
It's hard to see through that concrete veil she puts between herself and the world. Some might say she's bitchy, or maybe even frigid, but I'm pretty sure I've got her figured out. She wants more than anything to give in to the fire that burns inside her. Her body screams for touch, and her soul begs to get drunk on passion, drunk on life. But she judges her feelings and desires too much. She punishes herself for her raw impulses. She is her soul's own jailer, and I'm going to break her out.
I want to pull her into the rain and fuck her senseless in the mud. I want to rip her veil away and hear her scream my name and beg for more. I want to reveal her naked soul to her. It won't be easy, but I love a challenge.
We argued about whether or not to go to his house the rest of the afternoon into the early evening. Of course, I wanted to go. But the more that time passed since seeing him in person, the more contrived the whole thing seemed. I didn't need to be wooed in his cheesy little bachelor pad, where he had easily seduced dozens of other girls under the guise of art. And Lizzie couldn't be trusted in that situation at all. She had a habit of falling into those kinds of traps and relying on me to pull her out. But she looked at it as an adventure, and she was right about that. We were about to enter into the most exciting and intoxicating time in our lives.
I only gave in when she grabbed her keys and said she would go alone.
"Fine! Let's go. But only for a few minutes."
"Suuuuuuure, just for a few minutes," she mocked. "Did we meet the same scorching hot guy, or were you in some other reality this afternoon?"
I didn't answer.
We left way past seven, and we got lost a few times too. While arguing about how long we would stay, we didn't notice that we were entering a town we had heard about but never been to.
"This can't be right," I called out as we drove onto his block. "You've got to be kidding me." These were the most stunning old mansions I had ever seen. The word mansion doesn't even begin to describe these homes. They were estates, chateaus, compounds. We drove along a stretch of famous estates owned by some of the country's wealthiest people, and I felt like we didn't even belong on their roads.
We eased to a stop in front of an enormous iron gate with ornate scrollwork. There was a plaque attached to it that said "Red House" in fancy script. "This is it!" Lizzie announced. "This is the address."
"Well, how the fuck are we supposed to get in?" I pulled the car a few inches closer to the gate, and immediately it creaked open. "Woah," I whispered. "What the fuck? This is too creepy. We should go back."
"Maybe there's a motion sensor. Since when are you such a pussy?"
I gave her my middle finger as we slowly rode along the extensive driveway. Gigantic weeping willows lined the pavement, and old-fashioned lanterns hung from iron posts. It was something out of a fairytale.
A massive Gothic-style mansion came into view. With faint lights illuminating the facade, I could just make out the details of an old medieval-looking estate. It was bigger and more beautiful than any house I had ever seen. But there was something a bit sinister about it. The windows were sharply arched, many of them made of stained glass, and it had peaks, vaults, and several small towers. The strangest part was the red hue of the bricks. The effect was somber and weird but definitely romantic.
"Still want to forget it?" Lizzie teased.
"Well, I don't know. So who cares that he lives in a huge mansion? Besides, we're almost two hours late. He might not even be home."
"Jane, are you fucking crazy? Take a look around. It's worth knocking on the door!"
"Okay. I'll admit, this is pretty fucking amazing. It looks a lot like the haunted mansion at Disneyworld, don't you think?"
"It totally does! I hope we have the right address," she said. "What if he doesn't live here?"
"Well… What's the worst that could happen? Some weirdo answers, and we apologize for having the wrong address and make a run for it?"
"Right!" she called out as we popped out of the car.
"What if he's a fucking vampire?"
"Or a creepy-ass murderer answers the door and forces us in at gunpoint?" she added.
"Or maybe it's a Satanic cult that will sacrifice our bodies to the devil?" I joked as we approached the intricately carved wooden doors and looked at each other with apprehension. "If I scream for you to run- don't hesitate!" I warned. She rolled her eyes and banged the colossal iron ring that hung from the door. "Do you still have that little bottle of mace in your bag?" I asked. She pulled the mace out of her bag and held it up as we waited for someone to open the door.
"Should I knock again?" she asked. I shrugged, and she banged the ring a few more times.
"There must be a doorbell," she said as she searched the doorframe.
"I think we should go. We tried, right?"
She pushed a button next to the doorway and a loud chime rang out, but after another minute, there was still no answer.
We had just turned around to leave when he appeared in the doorway, hair soaking wet, with a towel wrapped around his hips. Holy fuck, he was hot. He had the perfect amount of muscle, like his body was well-defined and golden from a life spent climbing mountains, swimming across lakes, and trekking rugged landscapes. I couldn't quite decipher the tattoos on his chest, but they looked like dripping black paint.
"I didn't think you were going to show up," he said with a very pleased look on his face before he raked his hand through his slick hair.
"Sorry. We'll go!"
I snatched Lizzie's hand and tried to pull her towards the car when he called out, "No, please! Come in!" She yanked back her arm and flashed me a pissed-off look before she followed him into the house. I entered the doorway, trying my best not to stare at him.
The size of the house was ridiculous. The floor was made of white marble and had a black marble mosaic of snakes entwined with wild birds. There was an enormous staircase with ornately carved flowers under each step. Hanging above was a massive crystal chandelier.
"You didn't mention that you live in a fucking castle," I joked. He grinned as he sauntered past the staircase and through a doorway. We passed through a room with dark wood walls and a white ceiling carved with intricate designs that looked like a wedding cake. The atmosphere was dark and ominous.
“I made pasta earlier. I can warm it up,” he offered as we entered a huge solarium.
"We're not hungry," I answered. He ushered us through double doors at the back of the room, and Lizzie and I grabbed each other's hands. "Holy shit!" I blurted out.
We were gazing at an incredible expanse of land. The grass seemed to go on forever. There was a little table set up on the patio with a few lit candles and three empty wine glasses. "It's beautiful out tonight. Not too humid. I was hoping we could have dinner out here."
We sat down, and he excused himself and came back wearing jeans and a tight black t-shirt. He was holding a guitar and a bottle of wine. After filling our glasses, he pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a candle. "What's the guitar for?" I asked.
"I promised I'd play your favorite Jack White song," he said between drags of his cigarette. He finished it as we sipped the wine, and then he grabbed the guitar and began to play. I was hoping it would suck a little bit because why should someone get to be so good-looking and live in a castle and be unbelievably talented in art and music? But he played the guitar masterfully, and his voice was flawless. It sounded a lot like Chris Cornell, ranging multiple octaves.
He kept trying to connect with me while he sang, but I would glance down at his guitar or up at the house. Lizzie was dying for him to look at her as she leaned in closer and closer, but he kept his eyes on me. When he finished, we were silent for a moment, and I inadvertently murmured, "Shit."
"Not that good, huh? I haven't played that in a while."
I sighed deeply. "Actually, it was really, really good."
"Ya think?" he asked with that fucking smirk that equally frustrated and excited me.
"It was amazing!" Lizzie declared as she gulped down the rest of her wine. He held up the bottle. "More?"
She held out her glass, and he filled it to the top, then turned to me. I showed him my glass, which was still mostly full. "I'm good."
"I'm more into classic rock," Lizzie stated. "You have another acoustic in the house?"
"Sure do! You play? What kind?"
"The old workhorse! You have the vintage sunburst?"
"Any electric guitars?"
His face lit up. "I've got a 1963 Stratocaster owned by Jimi Hendrix."
"No shit! What does it sound like?"
"No idea. I've never taken it out of the glass case."
"I can't even imagine what that cost you."
"A lot. I've got a G-45 you can play. Not as nice as yours but-"
She finished a gulp of wine and exclaimed, "But still pretty nice! Yours is beautiful. I've never seen anything like it."
"It's custom," he said with a wink. "Lemme go get that acoustic. Jane, do you need anything?"
"Got a tambourine or a triangle, maybe?"
"I think I have some bongos!" he joked before he went inside. I immediately turned to Lizzie.
"So, five more minutes and we go?"
"You can go any time you want!"
"Lizzie, come on! You can't see what's going on here?"
"You mean how a gorgeous guy who lives in a medieval castle and plays guitar like a God wants to hang out with us?"
"Yeah. That. If by hang out, you mean hit and run!"
She guzzled the rest of her wine and answered, "Get in a car accident?"
"I mean smash and dash? Hump and dump? Hit it and quit it?"
"So what if we are just a booty call? Might be fun."
"Speak for yourself."
"I am speaking for myself, but I'm also speaking for your fuckstrated ass!"
"That's the wine talking, and just because it's been a while doesn't mean I'm desperate."
"I ain't no hollaback girl!"
She giggled and leaned in. "What about rail and bail? I just made that up!"
"That's a good one. How about slam and scram?"
"I like it. Wait, I got one. One night delight!" A snort slipped out of my nose before I cackled. "Wait, wait," I said through gasps. "It's on a need-to-hoe basis!" She spewed wine in my direction, and we were laughing so hard that we were practically crying as he joined us with a guitar for Lizzie.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
We struggled to pull ourselves together. "Nothing," I croaked, wiping tears from my face. He put his guitar back in his lap as Lizzie adjusted hers.
"So classic rock, right?" he asked, ignoring our residual giggles. "Umm, how about Guns N' Roses?"
"Guns N' Roses is not classic rock!" I insisted.
"Sure it is!" he responded. "It just needs to be 25 years old or older."
"No, that's what makes a car a classic. For rock, it's not just a 25-year time span because, by that logic, shitty rock songs from the late nineties could be considered classic rock."
"So what's your criteria for classifying something as classic rock then?"
"If it came out in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, and stands the test of time, meaning it's listened to by more than one generation."
Lizzie chimed in. "So what about rock songs from the early '90s that are still listened to, like Nirvana?"
"Just rock," I stated.
"Okay," he jumped in. "By your definition, Guns N' Roses would definitely be classic rock. 'Welcome to the Jungle' came out in '87. And it's still played on the radio all the time."
"Guns 'N Roses are early '90s," I maintained.
"Appetite for Destruction came out in '87. You're thinking of Use Your Illusion."
"I'll settle this," Lizzie stated as she searched her phone. "He's right. They formed in '85; their first album was in '87."
"I still don't think they qualify for the label classic."
"Why not?" he challenged as he put another cigarette between his lips and lit it.
"Would you classify Metallica, Motley Crue, or Bon Fucking Jovi as classic rock?"
He blew the smoke upwards, avoiding our faces. "Motley Crue- yes, Bon Jovi- maybe, Metallica- probably not. Well, maybe."
"Metallica as classic rock?" Lizzie asked. "That doesn't sound right."
He took another drag and put the lit cigarette on the table. "Well, I've got a mindfuck for both of you. Guns N' Roses covering 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door,' which was originally a Bob Dylan song. Doubly classic, in my opinion."
Before I could respond, he began to play. Lizzie, who also had an incredible singing voice, sang along with him. This time he didn't look at me once. The two of them played and sang together as they stared into each other's eyes, and both were glowing with joy. I swiped my wine off the table and drank half the glass. They finished the song, and I clapped and cheered to be a good sport and to hide my utter jealousy. I wasn't jealous of the attention he was giving her; I was envious of their talent. If I were as brilliant as Lizzie academically, and as gifted in music and art, I would have carried myself with a lot more confidence.
"You're really good," he told her. "How long have you been playing?" I could tell she had an intense buzz going on because her head was swaying a bit, and she couldn't stop smiling.
"Only three years. My parents forced me to learn the violin growing up. They wouldn't even allow a guitar in the house."
"They sound like scumbags."
"They're not scumbags. They're just very concerned with appearances."
"Lizzie." I leaned in closer before I continued. "Your parents are major scumbags."
"Yeah, I guess they are."
"You play really well if you've only been playing a few years!"
She grinned and played again. He listened for about ten seconds, then joined in. I wasn't sure what they were playing until they both started singing the first verse to The Doors' "Light My Fire."
They really seemed to be connecting, and I was jealous but also worried. Lizzie had developed a habit of leading men on and then freaking out when they actually tried to have sex with her because she was still a virgin. I saved her twice from practically being raped. The amount of wine she was drinking and the seductive little jam session they were having put me on edge. But I knew the more I tried to pull her out of the situation, the more she would want it. Her parents stunted her maturity so much that she seemed to be living through her rebellious teenager stage in her twenties.
They finished the song and complimented each other.
"How about 'House of the Rising Sun?'" she asked.
"I don't know that one."
She strummed the guitar and sang, and he listened for a bit, then joined in. I finished my wine and poured another glass. I began to feel stupid, like I didn't even exist in the same universe as them. Would they even notice if I left?
I brought my glass of wine with me as I descended a stone staircase that led to a walkway lined with lush pink peonies and bursts of white roses. I stepped out of my sandals and felt the damp grass between my toes. Turning back for a moment, I saw him pour more wine into Lizzie's glass before they played again. They didn't seem to notice my absence at all. I should have stayed with her, but I was sick of being the fucking babysitter.
I followed a faint glow of golden light peeking through the branches of a mass of pine trees. After a long trek on a worn dirt path, a lovely, still lake appeared. A small group of solar lanterns surrounded a stone bench. I sat down and swallowed a huge mouthful of wine while staring at the reflection of the lanterns on the water. A swarm of fireflies danced in circles near the surface, and I took in a deep, cleansing breath.
My thoughts swirled in every direction. It was so quiet, so still, and I had never seen so many stars in my life. All I could think about was why someone like him got to live somewhere like that, a place so beautiful and perfect. Why did some souls have to suffer so much while others seemed to be living in an idyllic dream? Perhaps I misjudged him, I thought. I didn't know his story. Maybe there was a layer of pain buried underneath the polished surface he presented? Had he suffered greatly, and was he still suffering? Did he bring us into his world to alleviate some great loneliness?
I felt a hand rest on my shoulder, and I jumped and flung it away.
"I didn't mean to scare you," he said softly as he sat next to me.
"Where's Lizzie?" I replied, looking back through the trees.
"She went inside to prepare."
"Prepare for what?"
"The sketches. I'd really like it if you would come too."
"Well, I kinda have to now. I'm not leaving my friend alone. She tends to get herself into these kinds of situations a lot."
"What kind of situations do you mean?" he said through that devious grin.
"And you don't like being in dangerous situations?" he asked as he moved a bit closer.
"No, not rapey situations. That's not the kind of thrill I'm into."
"So what kind of thrill are you into, Jane?" He took my glass of wine, sipped it slowly, and licked his lips.
"Fuck, he's hot," was all I could think. I took my glass back from his hand, drank the entire thing, and replied, "I think I'll keep that information to myself... for now."
My mood suddenly changed. I wanted to play his game, just a bit. I stood up, gave him the empty glass, and said, "It's warm out here tonight," before I slipped my sweater off to reveal a lacy little camisole. I wasn't wearing a bra, and I knew I looked good in that tank. Why was I toying with him when I was just chastising Lizzie for doing the exact same thing? There was no way in fucking hell I was going to hook up with him. But the wine was drawing out my flirty side. In truth, there was nothing I enjoyed more than teasing a fuck boy and leaving him high and dry.
I dropped my sweater onto his lap and asked, "So where are we doing this?" With a look of surprise, he took my hand and led me back up the pathway. His hand was cool, and his grip was just tight enough to send tingles up my arm. The wine was definitely kicking in, and I'm a notorious lightweight. When we entered the solarium, I glanced down at his hand and noticed a few tattoos. I stopped and pulled his hands closer to my face to examine them. One hand had an entire paragraph of Italian scrawled on it. The other had a black crow with the initials "M.M." under it.
"Who is M. M.?" I asked.
"It stands for memento mori."
"What does that mean?"
"Remember, you must die."
"It says memento mori, which means remember, you must die in Latin."
"That's kind of creepy."
"It's not creepy at all. It's truth. It's the only truth. The only certainty in life."
"Yeah, I guess. But why would you want to be reminded of that every time you look at your hand?" I swayed a bit as he stepped closer. I could feel his breath on my face, and it smelled like cigarettes and wine.
"You can't escape it. It doesn't matter who you are, how much you have, or what you do, you will die. For me, it's a constant reminder to make the most out of every moment. To not just exist, but to truly live."
He bent down a bit, leaned in close, and pressed his lips to my neck just under my ear. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt my legs turn to jelly. "You don't really think I'm dangerous, do you?" he whispered into my ear. I turned my head and said, "I wouldn't still be here if I did."
One of his eyes squinted just a bit and he started to bring one hand towards my hair. I backed away and cleared my throat.
"So what does this one say?" I gestured towards the paragraph on his other hand. He spoke in perfect Italian, without looking down at his hand.
"In quel libro che è la mia memoria,
Nella prima pagina del primo capitolo,
Che è il giorno in cui ti ho incontrato per la prima volta,
Appaiono le parole, Qui inizia una nuova vita."
"Okay. The most I can translate is nuova vita. New life."
"That's right. It's the introduction to Dante's La Vita Nuova. It says, ‘In the book of my memory, on the first page of the first chapter that is the day I met you, the words appear: here begins a new life.'"
"That's Dante talking about Beatrice, right?"
"So, who do you have that written on your hand for?"
"I don't know. I haven't met her yet."
There was a pause, and I thought he might try to kiss me. His eye contact was too intense, and I grasped for a way to continue the conversation. "Any other tattoos?"
He grinned and swiftly pulled his shirt off. The sight of his muscular, tattooed chest and arms and that warm familiarity between us made me lightheaded.
I'll be honest. If he had been just a bit more forceful at that moment, I would have given myself completely.
I tried to concentrate on the tattoos. There was a skull on his chest that looked like it was melting. On one shoulder leading down his arm were pieces of a broken clock, an angel, stormy clouds, a skull, roses, and a human heart. Scrawled across his hip was another line in Italian.
"la morte non è la fine dell'amore, la morte non è la fine"
I knew that morte meant death. "Wow. You're like, obsessed with death," I muttered.
"Quite the opposite really. I'm obsessed with life. I want to experience as much life as I can in every moment."
"Maybe your tattoo should say remember life?"
He stared at me and seemed to be searching my face for something. "You can put your shirt back on now," I commanded as I began to walk away.
"You haven't seen the tattoos on my back."
"I got the gist. Death and carpe diem stuff."
He put his shirt back on, retook my hand, and led me back into the house. Slowly, we went up the grand staircase and down a shadowy hallway. The walls were made of elaborately carved mahogany wood, and there were many painted portraits of women. The pictures were all different sizes, but each featured a gorgeous woman, and many were naked. I stopped to admire one. The woman had long auburn hair, juicy red lips, and was baring one breast with a delicate pink nipple. In one hand, she held an arrow. In the other was an apple. Pink and white flowers surrounded her.
"Venus, the Roman goddess of love," he offered. "See that arrow she's holding? Ready to pierce hearts. And the apple is, of course, for temptation." I tried not to look at him because every time our eyes met I felt like I would melt into a warm, gooey puddle. I kept my eyes on the painting. It had an inscription on the bottom of the frame with the name "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" inscribed in fancy script.
"You painted this?" I asked in shock as he nodded. "Did you paint all of these?"
"Only the good ones," he said playfully. "What do you think?"
"It's beautiful, but..."
"What? Tell me what you think. I really want to know!"
"She's a bit... manish."
"Manish?" he said with genuine confusion. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know. Like, her head, her chin, jawline... Seems a bit like a man to me."
"Shit," he pondered. "I've never noticed that before."
I wasn't even trying to be critical. I was just being honest. I don't think he had received any real criticism before. "Is her mandible that pronounced in person?" I asked. "Is she kind of like a dude?"
"Alexa? There is nothing manish about her. She is all woman!" His eyes glossed over like he was lost in a daydream. I'm sure he was thinking about Alexa, her pink nipples, and her man chin.
"Well, maybe you need to redo that part." He broke from his little reverie and stared at me with an expression I couldn't decipher. I studied the painting on the other side of me. It featured a pretty woman with a big feathery hat.
"Did you paint this too?"
"That boring piece of shit? No. That's John's painting. He's talented, but his choice of subject matter is definitely lacking. He's a bit of a prude." I wandered down the hall and stopped in front of another painting. It featured a man sitting at a piano with a pretty young woman sitting in his lap. She had a look of shock on her face. An inscription read, "An Awakening Conscience."
"This is interesting. Is it yours?"
"No, that's Will's painting. He's really into virtue and honor and all that shit. See, this is the man's mistress, but she suddenly has a moment of revelation that she's a whore and wants to seek redemption."
"It's not boring," I replied. "But if he's the married one, then he seems like more of a whore to me than her. Perhaps he should be the one seeking redemption?"
He looked amused. "Yes, I suppose you're right. But I don't believe in whores, or virtue, or judgment. There don't have to be so many rules."
"Interesting," I said as though I knew something he didn't.
"It's just interesting that you seem to look down upon chivalry given your interest in Dante's La Vita Nuova. I only studied it a little in college, but from what I remember, the entire basis was courtly love and a man's lifelong admiration for his wife."
"Yes, courtly love is about devotion and admiration for one's love. But not necessarily for one's wife. Since most marriages throughout history were arranged, courtly love was considered an escape from a loveless marriage."
"Isn't love supposed to lift you up to the highest level of spirituality? That's what Dante thought, right? So how does one attain such high spirituality when potentially causing another such pain?"
"That's exactly why marriage is completely insane." I scrunched my eyebrows together to show my disagreement, but he added, "Unless you marry your greatest love."
"But I remember one specific part about courtly love that was pretty important. And I have a feeling it would make things very difficult for you."
"Courtly love was meant to be unrequited, and had to remain that way, otherwise, tragedy would occur."
"Unrequited, as in…"
He paused for a few heavy moments, then said, "It's all just a bunch of fables anyway. Won't stop me from finding my muse."
"Well good luck finding her. And if you uncover a knight in shining armor or a guy in armor that isn't completely rusted to shit, send him my way!"
"You've been burned, have you?"
"Yeah, definitely not going into that with you. So who are these other painters? Friends of yours?"
"More than friends. We're partners. We're a brotherhood. They live here too."
"Wow! How many are there?" I was thrilled with the idea of a house full of artist guys. If they were half as attractive as him, I might never leave.
"There's five of us. They're in London at an exhibition, but I stayed behind. I don't need a bunch of asshole critics telling me what's wrong with my work." Okay, maybe he had gotten some criticism before.
"What do you mean by brotherhood? Is it like a cult?"
"No, I wouldn't say we're a cult. But we do have a set of shared beliefs that we live by. Come here."
He walked further down the hallway and pointed to a framed document. It read,
"In the modern age, beauty and spirituality have been lost. We seek a return to the freedom of simpler times in contrast to the slavery of the modern age. The fine arts have always relied upon truth, and truth must be unconfined, infinite, immaterial, and impossible of reduction into formulas or of conversion into machines. Society thinks itself more radically civilized due to its advanced technology, which it now uses to generate art. Digital art has a form and function unto itself and is still valid. But lost is the reverence for fine art that has forever defined all that is in man, the mysteries of the soul, thoughts and emotions, beautiful, vast, ponderous, gloomy, and awful. There is a power and a spirit that flows when man creates with his own hand. Poetry written pencil to paper while sitting under a tree, hundreds of hours spent painting a woman's form with soft brush strokes mere inches from her naked body, a song conceived note by note running one's fingers upon strings-, these are the forms that capture our genius, our souls, and preserve them well beyond our inevitable death. We seek a return to the creation and reverence of fine art in its simplest form, as nature in its simplest form is most perfect. We shall dedicate our lives to this noble pursuit."
There were five signatures at the end of the scroll.
"Shit. That's deep. Who wrote it?"
"So you hate technology?"
"Not at all. I'm grateful for it. I love flicking a switch and having instant light, but it can't compare to the warm glow of candlelight. I love my car, but it doesn't let me soak in the rain. I love my phone, but it cannot possibly capture the power of connecting with someone face to face."
"I feel the same way. I couldn't give up air conditioning, but a few months ago, my neighborhood lost electricity for three days. My phone was dead, and I was bored as fuck, so I started walking and I went further than I've ever gone in my town. I followed a stream to a little waterfall that I never even knew existed. I swam for hours and drank fresh water right from the falls. At night, I read a book by candlelight and fell asleep looking out my window at a sky full of stars that I was never able to see before because of all the light pollution. I was sweaty, but I slept better than I have in years."
"Have you ever had sex like that? Outside, covered in sweat, under a summer night's sky?"
"Umm, not that I can recall. I would worry about dirt and bugs crawling into… places."
"All you need is a thick blanket. I highly recommend it." He leaned in a bit closer, and I quickly backed away and cleared my throat.
He pointed down the hallway towards an open bedroom door. As I entered, I saw Lizzie sprawled out on the bed asleep, wrapped in a large white drape. The bed was a tremendous, carved mahogany work of art with curled feet and an intricately engraved headboard. The room smelled distinctly masculine, like leather, musk, burnt matches, and freshly chopped wood.
I could see that she was drunk. Her teeth were stained purple. I tapped her on the shoulder, and she sprung awake and self-consciously repositioned herself. He held out what looked like a white curtain for me. "You can change in the bathroom if you'd like." I took the cloth, wrapped it around myself, and then undid my pants from underneath and dropped them. I pulled my camisole off from under the sheet, handed it to him, and said, "How should I pose?"
He cleared his throat nervously. "I'm working on some Biblical scenes. I'd like to do a painting of Lilith and Eve," he said as he set up his easel and tools. "Lizzie, you'll be Eve. You should be lying back on the bed with your arm above your head on the pillow. Jane, you'll be Lilith. Please pose next to Lizzie, but keep your arms by your side. I'm going to paint snakes around them." He continued to set up his tools as we tried to get the positioning right.
"So, this painting doesn't really make sense," I stated. "Lilith and Eve were never together in the Garden of Eden. Lilith left after refusing to be subservient to Adam, then God made Eve for him instead."
He looked confused until Lizzie chimed in. "Actually, Lilith left Eden but snuck back in later after Eve was created. Some interpretations claim that the snake that tempted Eve with the apple was actually Lilith in disguise." He grinned and excused himself for a second.
"Figures," I said to Lizzie. "Not only did Lilith become a demon because she wanted to be on top during sex, but apparently she's also responsible for the fall of man."
Lizzie turned her head to me and winked. "I'd still rather be an evil temptress than made out of a man's rib!"
"Being an evil temptress actually sounds like a lot of fun!" I joked.
He came back in and handed me a shiny red apple.
"What's this for?"
"Just hold it. Like this." He moved my hand to my hip and put the apple into it. Then he made little adjustments to our arms and legs and the angle of our faces. Every time he adjusted my face or arm, I burned inside.
His eyes moving from us to the canvas with such intensity drove me mad, especially because we couldn't move. The way a small piece of hair hung down over his eye as he looked at us with a furrowed brow was turning me on. I wondered how he could see us in the faint glow of the candlelight as he stopped for a moment and lit a joint.
He took a few hits and stepped back to look at his work. Then he sat down next to me on the bed and asked if I wanted a hit. I sat up and nodded slightly, and he told me to open my mouth. I raised my eyebrows, not realizing my mouth was half-open. He leaned in closely, blowing smoke directly into my mouth. It took me entirely by surprise, but it was also really sexy, having his lips so close to mine. I pulled away, coughing, a bit embarrassed that I wasn't smoother about the whole thing.
"More?" he asked.
I didn't really answer, so he leaned in and blew smoke into my mouth again. Then he smiled and went back to his canvas. The weed hit me immediately, and the first thing I felt was extreme hunger. I glanced down to the apple in my hand and sat up. I bit into it and chewed slowly, really savoring the sweet and sour flavor. I asked Lizzie if she wanted some and she sat up as I held it out to her mouth and she took a big bite. She looked into my eyes as she chewed, and I took another bite and held it out for her again.
When I looked up, he had stopped sketching and was staring at us intensely. "What?" I asked. He shook his head a bit. "That was really sexy," he stated. My face twisted in confusion. "What was?"
He looked amused. "The apple…"
I shrugged my shoulders and took another bite. As he started sketching again, he casually said, "You know, I'd love to do this painting nude," without looking away from his work.
"So take your clothes off then," I responded, trying to remember the position I was supposed to be in.
"Not me, Jane. You. Lilith and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden before the fall of man. They were nude, and there was no shame." I instantly sat up, and the spell was over. The wine, guitars, candlelight, weed, posing in his bed in a piece of cloth? "How dumb were we?" I thought. I wasn't willing to play his game anymore.
"We are not getting naked! Are you fucking crazy? We don't even know you!" I cried, walking away from the bed. As I neared the bedroom door, I looked back and saw Lizzie carefully unwrapping her drape while trying to maintain her position on the bed. "What are you doing?" I yelled as I ran back to her. I tried to push her hands from her underwear, but she flung me away.
"I can make my own decisions, Jane. I'm a grown woman," she said with irritation.
"Lizzie, I know you can make your own decisions. I'm just not sure you've really thought this one through. You don't know him at all. Why are you willing to get naked in front of him?"
"I'm not ashamed of my body. It's for art."
"I'm not ashamed of my body either. But this feels sleazy to me! Lizzie, please! I don't trust him!"
"Leave me the fuck alone, Jane! You're not my fucking mom!"
"Fine. Stay with the pervert then!" I got close to his face. "If you hurt her, I'll rip your fucking eyeballs out."
"Understood," he whispered with a smug grin that I wanted to slap off his face. "You can trust me, Jane."
"Uh-huh," I muttered as I leaned across him and snatched the joint and lighter from his table. Then I picked up my clothes and turned back to Lizzie. "If you need me, I'll be nearby. Just scream." If she wanted to be used by this sleazebag, what could I do? I decided to smoke some more and explore the house.
I lit the joint and stepped slowly through the dark hallway, admiring all of the paintings. Many of the girls probably weren't even that attractive in person. Still, the way they were depicted, amongst wild roses and burning candles, draped in luscious silks tied with golden ropes, made them look like absolute goddesses. Dante had done most of the nudes, which wasn't surprising. He seemed quite adept at charming the clothes off of girls. "Not me," I whispered to myself. "Never me."
I entered the first open door I saw. It was a huge bedroom, and it was breathtaking. The domed ceiling had elaborately carved beams leading into the middle, where an eight-pointed nautical star was painted. In between the beams were windows, and white light from the full moon poured into the room. Across from the bed was a white stone fireplace, engraved with intricate leaves and flower buds and a coat of arms in the middle. I ran my fingers over the leaves and took a deep breath, noticing the fresh scent that filled the room. It reminded me of the smell of saltwater and warm sand that filled the little beach house my family used to own.
The crest had a ribbon below it that featured the words, "Virtute et valare luceo non uro." I assumed it was Latin, but the only words I recognized were virtue and valor. I approached the perfectly-made bed and lifted the pillow, inhaling the same enticing scent. It was strange, but I was getting turned on, dreaming of the man who inhabited that bedroom.
A framed picture on the bedside table featured a very tall, skinny blonde guy with a pretty little girl in a white dress in his arms. They were sitting on the stone bench near the lake. I felt like I was invading his privacy too much, and I left the room.
The next door was wide open and drew me in immediately. It was the loveliest bathroom. Everything was sparkling white, from the floor to the pedestal sink, to the gigantic claw foot tub. Above the tub hung a delicate crystal chandelier, and behind it was a floor-to-ceiling window. In the middle of the window stood a stained glass tree dripping with red flowers. Moonlight shone through the tree, casting a soft red glow across the room.
I unwrapped the fabric I was wearing, climbed into the tub, and re-lit the joint. I took a few hits, leaned my head back, and imagined Red House was my home. I almost caught a glimpse of the many times we would bathe under that tree, where he would whisper, "You have been mine before, and you will always be mine." I needed to hear it. I needed to hear that I belonged and would always belong.
When I stood up, I was so fucked up from the joint that I didn't even put my clothes on. I continued exploring the house in my underwear. A catwalk overlooked a vast living room, with sumptuous fabric chairs and elaborate curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows. It led directly to a fascinating wooden door that looked straight out of The Lord of the Rings. It was pointed at the top, and the hinges were made of intricate iron scrolls that stretched out to the middle. The door was slightly ajar, and I pushed it open a bit more to peek inside. There must have been motion-activated lights because as soon as I stepped into the room, it became illuminated. I called out, "Holy fucking shit!" when I saw what was inside. I was standing on the top floor of a massive library—row upon row upon row of books with ladders on wheels attached to the shelves. Several wrought iron chandeliers hung in the center of the room. The walls, shelves, and ladders were made of dark mahogany wood. The shelves were lit from inside and cast a warm yellow glow. I ran my fingers across row after row of books and looked over the balcony to the main floor. Amongst more bookshelves were cozy-looking armchairs and little mahogany tables with small candelabras on top.
The focal point of the room was a giant painted mural on four panels above a stone fireplace. The panels portrayed four versions of the same woman. Each seemed to represent a different season. The first was summer, and she was wrapped in a sheer cloth, revealing her curvy body underneath. Wild roses surrounded her, and purple wildflowers grew over her bare feet. Autumn wore cranberry-colored silks and looked quite tired. Not nearly as lovely as summer, which makes sense. Winter was covered in heavy blue fabric. Her hair and even her face had a blue hue. An ocean roared behind her, and she looked as though she was a moment away from a deep sleep. Spring held a branch of cherry blossoms and had pink flowers in her hair and on her shoulders. The scene was cheerful, though she did not look all that happy. I noticed each panel had an engraved plaque underneath, and I longed to see them up close. I spotted a small spiral staircase at the end of the row where I stood.
I stepped down and looked at the first plaque. It read, "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds." The second plaque said, "Love's not Time's fool." The third read, "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks." And the last read, "But bears it out even to the edge of doom." It was from a Shakespearean sonnet, one I always admired. "Who created this?" I wondered. "It couldn't possibly be that boy upstairs." He just did not seem that deep to me. But maybe there was more to him than I realized.
I felt cold, so I took a wool blanket from one of the armchairs and wrapped it around my body. Then I sprawled out on the ornate floral rug underneath the fireplace and stared up at the mural. I wondered about the woman in the paintings as I started to feel sleepy.
Being in that house was like stepping back in time several hundred years. I had never seen such beauty and attention to detail in my life. I imagined I was one of the women in the paintings that covered the walls- cared for, glorified, worshipped. While picturing myself clothed in those delicate fabrics and wildflowers, I fell asleep.
I awoke in the early morning, stunned that I had stayed overnight. There was a profound sense of peace as rays of early morning sun beat down on me through the massive windows. But I immediately stood up with a sharp pang of anxiety as I remembered I was in a stranger's house, in my underwear, and Lizzie had been alone with him the entire night.
I bolted up the spiral staircase, out the door, through the hallway, and back into the bathroom. I threw on my pants and camisole and dashed towards his bedroom. From the doorway I could see that Lizzie was asleep on his bed, tucked halfway under the puffy white blanket, and she was still naked. He appeared in front of me shirtless, his jeans hanging low on his lean hips. I could clearly make out a deep V leading from his hips downward. His hair was mussed just the right amount, and he held out a mug with a little grin. "Good morning, Jane. Coffee?"
"Did you sleep with her?" I growled while trying to avoid looking at his sculpted chest.
"Excuse me?" he responded softly, the same grin never leaving his face.
"You heard me! I asked if you fucked my friend!" I snarled, moving closer towards his face.
He cleared his throat twice and murmured, "I'd rather not talk about such private things. I consider them sacred."
I scoffed. "Yeah, I'll bet you do!" I gestured to the paintings hanging in the hallway. "I'm sure every one of these women you slept with is really super sacred to you!" His expression fell, and he stood motionless, waiting for my next move. I continued staring back with venom, and he gently put the mug to his mouth. That's when I asked, "Did you know that she's a virgin?" He choked on the coffee and began coughing like an idiot.
I shoved past him and tossed the blanket off of her. "Lizzie! Get up! Let's go!" She groaned and turned onto her stomach. I picked up her clothes and dumped them onto her back. "Get dressed! We're leaving!" She slowly sat up as he came into the room.
"Please don't leave yet! At least stay for breakfast," he pleaded.
"Fuck you!" I yelled as I shoved him over, so I could get to her shoes. All I could think about was him taking advantage of my best friend with his stupid, obvious tricks. As I gathered our things, I noticed that he had a very amused look on his face. "What are you so happy about?" I demanded as I dragged Lizzie out of bed.
"I've found you!" he announced. "I wasn't entirely sure last night, but there's no doubt. You are her!"
"What the fuck are you talking about?" I barked as I put on my shoes.
"You're my muse," he said, looking completely sincere.
"Yeah, I'm sure you have many, many muses. Lots of paintings of them in the hallway there!"
"No, no, no. You are Venus, Persephone, Astarte, Lilith, Beatrice! You are not a muse. You are the muse. When that irrational anger lights that fire in you... Fuck! It's breathtaking!" Before I could answer, we heard a door slam, and the sound of lively male voices entered the room from below.
"The guys are back," he said with almost no emotion. Then a knowingness lit up his gaze."I can't wait for them to meet you! Both of you!"
No, Jane, I didn't fuck your friend. I had planned on seducing you, but you proved to be much icier than I had initially judged. After you fled my room, I realized I had fucked things up pretty badly, but I didn’t want to look desperate chasing after you.
I figured I would get to know Lizzie a bit more. Maybe gain some valuable information. But she fell asleep, and I couldn't wake her. I tried to continue my sketch, but her snoring was constant and beyond irritating.
I searched the house for you, but I couldn't figure out where you went. I slept in the guest room. The night was a total disappointment. This will be harder than I thought, but I'm not letting you go just yet.
I dragged Lizzie down the long staircase by her wrist, and she protested by whispering, "Come on, Jane! Let go!" but I held on tighter.
"We need to get the fuck out of here before you get tangled up in more of this bullshit!" As we reached the bottom of the stairs, the group of guys let out all kinds of cheers and whistles.
"Oh shit! He had two here last night!" one called out.
Another added, "Only two, Gabriel? Are you having some kind of dry spell?"
They were all laughing except one, who had a serious, almost embarrassed look on his face. He was the tallest fucking person I'd ever seen. He had messy blonde hair and a plain, pale face. He stepped closer to us and said with a delicious English accent, "I apologize for my mates. They're not usually so rude. I'm Will." He held out his hand for a formal handshake.
"What are you, like eight feet tall?" I responded, not shaking his hand. One of them snickered, and Will replied, "6'7 actually. And you are?"
"I'm only about 5'4."
"She's fucking funny!" another cute blonde guy said as he moved closer to introduce himself. "Hey, my name's also Will, but everyone calls me by my last name, Hunt."
One of the other guys put his arm around Hunt. "And we call him Madman!"
"I'm sure there's a fascinating story behind that nickname," I responded.
"There definitely is!" one of them exclaimed.
But I cut him off. "But we were just leaving. Lizzie, let's go!"
I went for the door and heard Will say, "Damn it, Gabriel. What did you do to make her so angry?"
"I didn't do anything! I mean seriously!"
"Then that's why she's so mad!" Hunt joked.
"Dude, stop. It's not funny."
"Why did he call you Gabriel? I thought your name was Dante," I said. He looked uncomfortable. "Gabriel is my first name. Dante is my middle name."
Hunt cut him off. "Yeah, like one of ten of them!"
"Shut up, dick!" Gabriel said as he shoved his friend playfully.
"So you lied about your name?" I said, squinting my eyes in anger.
"I didn't lie. Dante is my artist name. It's who I really am."
I turned around to get Lizzie just as one of the guys stepped up to her. He was kind of short, with wild hair and dirty glasses. He had a nice face but looked like he needed a shower.
"Hey, I'm John. I've been working on a painting of Ophelia, and you would be absolutely perfect! Would you consider posing for it?"
"I love Hamlet. That would be fabulous!"
Then Hunt chimed in. "I've been working on a painting based on The Lady of Shalott, and you're just what I'm looking for! Your hair is perfect."
"Wow! You guys really like to paint suicidal women!" Lizzie exclaimed. Then Gabriel stepped in front of her and announced, "No one paints her but me! I'm the one who found her, and she belongs to me!" The guys were quiet, and Lizzie just grinned awkwardly.
I couldn't take it anymore. "She's not a fucking object! She's a person! She doesn't belong to anyone!" The guys all exchanged looks.
"You're right, Jane," Gabriel responded. "I didn't mean that she belongs to me in that way. I just meant that I didn't want anyone else to paint her."
"That's great, and I can assure you that no one will because we're leaving. Lizzie, come on!" She didn't move, and a guy with gorgeous brown skin and golden eyes stepped towards me.
"Hi, Jane. I'm Ed. It's great to meet you. I was just wondering… And don't take this the wrong way, but is Lizzie your girlfriend?"
I tried not to overreact and took a deep breath. "No, Ed. Lizzie is not my girlfriend. She's a very close friend of mine, and I care about her a lot. I don't like to see her taken advantage of."
Ed thought for a minute and said, "With all due respect…"
"Dude, don't!" Gabriel tried to cut him off.
"No, no, man. It's fine. So as I was saying, she does appear to be a grown woman and can probably answer for herself." Lizzie giggled and everyone was silent as a look of worry appeared on Gabriel's face.
"You know what, you're right. She is a grown woman, and so am I. I'm leaving. Lizzie, you want to stay here and be the center of this orgy or whatever the fuck this is, be my guest!"
"Jane, come on. Don't be like that."
I whipped around and flung the door open, and I didn't bother to close it as I marched to the car. We had been in so many situations like this where I had to bail her out later. I was over it.
As I reached out to open the car door, Will stood next to it and faced me.
"I'd just like to apologize again for my mates. They're idiots, but they mean well. They're good guys. And they genuinely want to paint your friend. It's not a trick or a ploy. We're artists."
"You know what, Will? I almost believed that last night when I agreed to pose for a painting, but then I was asked to remove all my clothes."
Will sighed. "Yeah, that's Gabriel. He's also not a bad guy. He does have a good heart somewhere inside. He's just really, you know…"
"Horny?" I offered.
He laughed. "Well, yes. But again, he would never do anything to hurt anyone or force a woman to do something she didn't want to do. I've known him for a long time. Please believe me."
He seemed very genuine and sweet, and I couldn't help but soften a bit. "Thank you for apologizing. I appreciate it."
"Can I convince you to come inside for coffee or tea? Please?"
My neck was hurting from looking up at him. "Make it breakfast, and I'll consider it."
"Absolutely. Painting is my first love, but cooking just happens to be my second. How about an omelet?"
"Eh, maybe. What else you got?"
"Hmm. French toast?"
"French toast? What kind of Englishman are you?"
"You're not saying you want an English breakfast, are you?" He seemed very amused.
"Never had one. Maybe I do."
"Eggs, sausage, back bacon, mushrooms-"
"What's back bacon?"
"It's from the pig's loin."
"Don't forget baked beans and blood pudding."
"Blood pudding? That's not literally what it sounds like, is it?"
"Pork blood, fat, and a bit of grain."
"I think I'll just go to IHOP," I joked as I reached for the door handle.
"Wait!" he called out as he put his hand on top of mine to stop me from opening the door. I looked down at his hand and then back up at him. I wasn't mad. It was just awkward. He quickly removed his hand and asked, "What's your favorite fruit?" I put my finger to my mouth like I was thinking. "Strawberries."
"I've got it! Strawberry and cream crepes!" I lifted my eyebrows and nodded slightly. "And mimosas!" he added. "Strawberry mimosas!"
"I'm in. Can we go sit down now? My neck is killing me from looking up at you."
"Sure. I just have to pick up a few things at the market. Not much in the fridge."
"I'll go with you," I responded without thinking. "Get in!"
We were laughing and flirting as we entered the kitchen with bags of groceries. I liked being with Will. He was easy to talk to, easy to be with. I was attracted to him, but nowhere near the intense feelings I had for Gabriel. I could tell he was into me, but there wasn't any overwhelming energy about it. It was sweet.
Gabriel was sitting at the table with Lizzie. When he saw Will and I flirting with each other, the muscles in his face tensed, and he squinted his eyes in anger.
"We were wondering what happened to you guys!" Ed stated.
"Just got a few things to make breakfast," Will answered.
Ed came closer. "Jane, I'm so glad you decided to join us." I was starting to think I misjudged Ed. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy.
"I couldn't say no to strawberry mimosas!"
"Strawberry mimosas?" Ed asked with genuine confusion. "We have those?"
Will answered, "We will momentarily!"
"Hope you like strawberries because we'll be having strawberry crepes too!" I announced.
"Crepes!" John called out. "Jane, you're making crepes?"
"I am," Will answered with a hint of irritation.
"Woah!" Ed blurted out as he approached Will, who was taking out pans and other utensils. "I didn't know you could make crepes, Will! I'm a little insulted that you never made them for me."
"Can you fuck off, please?" Will said playfully, shoving Ed away. Ed went over to John and leaned into his face.
"Did you hear that, John? Will is making crepes for us!" John giggled. "I know, I heard. I'm pretty psyched! I haven't had those since Paris!" It was cute how they were teasing him. Gabriel whispered in Lizzie's ear until Hunt draped his arm around his shoulders.
"Gabriel, did you hear about the crepes Will is about to make?"
Gabriel had no response. I joined the fun and announced, "Don't forget about the mimosas! Will, where are the champagne glasses?"
Hunt spoke softly into Gabriel's ear. "Strawberry mimosas will be served as well, Gabe."
Gabriel immediately flung Hunt off of him and called out, "Will! Can I talk to you for a minute? In private?" Will didn't even look up from what he was doing. "Can it wait? I've got my hands full at the moment."
"No, it can't wait!"
I turned from the champagne glasses I was filling and brought one over to Gabriel. "Champagne, Dante?" I batted my eyelashes at him, and he gave me a death stare and turned away.
Will sighed and called me over. "Would you mind whisking this? I'll be right back. I don't want it to get lumpy."
I happily took the whisk from him. "No problem at all!"
As I whisked, I looked up and noticed a punching bag hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the kitchen. I pointed to it and looked at Ed. "What's that doing in the kitchen?"
He grinned. "Just wait. You'll find out."
Will and Gabriel marched back in from the hallway, both looking pissed. Will took the whisk from me and thanked me for my help. He quietly continued whisking for a moment as I stood next to him, sipping my champagne. "If you want to blend up the fruit for those, the blender is in the cabinet above the fridge." I began to drag a chair over to reach the cabinet, but Gabriel stopped me.
"No need. I got it," he said.
I moved out of the way as he tried to reach the cabinet, but it was just a bit too high. He tried again and stood back in defeat. He went to grab the same chair I had just dragged over, but Will stepped in and quickly opened the cabinet and took the blender out. He handed it to me and went right back to cooking. Gabriel wasn't exactly short, but Will was ridiculously tall. The other guys looked highly entertained, and one even said, "Oh shit," under his breath.
"Thanks so much, Will," I said while looking right at Gabriel. I picked up my glass and gulped the rest of the champagne down.
"Lizzie and I were thinking about going for a swim," Gabriel announced. Hunt called out, "I'm in!"
"Let's do it!" Ed said with excitement.
"I can't. I've got a commission at noon," John told us.
"For who?" Ed asked.
"Oh shit! Will you be painting his hot naked wife?"
"No, his mother this time. Not naked though. I mean, I hope not!"
"Eww," Hunt responded.
"Look, money is money. And I'm getting 25 grand for this."
"Hot naked wife?" Lizzie inquired.
"Ruskin is our neighbor. Every morning at 6 o'clock, his hot young wife swims naked in their pool. If you go to the other side of the lake and hike up the hill a bit, you get an amazing view!" Hunt explained.
"What is a hot young thing with that body doing with that disgusting old man?" John wondered aloud.
"Money, John. Money," Ed insisted.
"I don't know. There's something about her that doesn't strike me as shallow. She just doesn't seem like the type."
Ed and Hunt started singing Kanye West's "Gold Digger" very passionately to each other.
"Alright! Alright! You made your point!" John called out.
"Just lemme know if you get to see her naked golddiggin' ass close up!" Ed remarked.
"Anyway," John continued. "I'm sorry I won't be able to spend the afternoon with you ladies. It's been lovely."
"Thanks, John. Good luck with your portrait. And let me know when I can pose for Ophelia!" Lizzie emphasized.
"I certainly will!"
Gabriel walked over to Lizzie and held out his hand. "Let's go."
"Not yet. I'm looking forward to this breakfast Will is making!" Gabriel took off his shirt and dropped it into her lap.
"Meet me there. I'm not hungry," he spat and strode out of the kitchen. Seeing him with no shirt on again sent a flash of energy between my legs. Fuck.
We sat around the island eating, drinking champagne, and laughing. The alcohol, combined with Gabriel's exit, helped me let my guard down and relax. At some point, Ed turned to me and said, "Jane, I know I might risk getting kicked in the balls, but I have to tell you that you are magnificent."
I rolled my eyes. "Magnificent? Come on."
"No bullshit. You're stunning. I can see why Gabriel is all fucked up over you!"
"He is?" I said innocently.
"Umm, yes. I haven't seen him wound this tight in a long time."
"I don't think I've ever seen him like this!" John added. "Must be love."
"Please! I just met him yesterday!"
"Then it's love at first sight!" Hunt announced.
"He seems pretty enamored with Lizzie as well," I offered. "Is it possible to be in love at first sight with two women, who, I might add, are complete opposites in every way?"
"Totally possible," Ed said matter-of-factly. "Though highly unusual."
"I always thought the idea of love at first sight was utter bullshit," I said. "Lust at first sight? Fine. But love? Without knowing the person? Come on! Didn't you guys read Romeo and Juliet in high school? That kind of shit can only lead to destruction."
"Or amazing art," Will offered.
"Or both," John added. "I'm pretty sure Madman over here could tell you a few things about love at first sight!"
"Fuck! Don't start, John!" Hunt spat.
"Come on, man! Tell them about Annie. You could use a woman's perspective!"
"I am really not in the mood to talk about this!" Hunt said through gritted teeth.
I couldn't help myself. "Come on, Hunt! I'd love to hear about Annie. Maybe Lizzie and I can give you some advice!"
Hunt stood up and yelled, "Thanks, guys! I hadn't even thought about her yet today!" Then he stalked over to the punching bag and started beating the shit out of it. I turned to Ed and nodded my head. Now I knew why that bag was there. Hunt started to sweat. He pulled his shirt off and beat the bag even harder. He was ridiculously ripped. It looked like he could compete in a bodybuilding contest. After he was sufficiently sweaty and flushed, he marched to the back door and announced, "I'm going swimming!" before he kicked it open.
Ed turned to me, "And that is why we call him Madman."
"Got it. Seems a little over the top. What did this girl do to him?"
"She just wants to fuck him really bad and is kind of unrelenting about it."
"And he likes her?" Lizzie asked.
"Likes her?" John said. "He's fucking obsessed with her!"
"I don't see the problem," I responded.
The guys looked at each other, and John jumped in. "He's saving himself for marriage."
"Oh," I said.
"It's so stupid," Ed said. "A total waste of energy. He could just pop his fucking cherry already, calm the fuck down, and refocus his energy back on his art. All he does is get angry and punch that fucking bag. He's created nothing good in months!"
"I don't think guys have cherries to pop," John pointed out.
"I don't think it's stupid that he wants to wait," Will said. "It's important to him, and she plays with him too much. If she loved him, she'd respect his decision and back the fuck off."
"Yeah, she's kind of a slag," John said.
"Brilliant word choice!" Will noted.
John grinned. "Okay, I have to get going. Lizzie, I'll be in touch!"
"I think we'd better head out," I said. "We don't even have bathing suits."
"Jane," Ed said. "Are you wearing underwear?"
"Come on," Will said. "Don't be a fucking wanker."
"Yes, I'm wearing underwear, Ed."
"Then you have a bathing suit! Let's go!"
"I'm gonna stay behind," Will said. "I'm exhausted." He got up and collected the dirty plates.
"Lizzie," I said. "I think we should probably go."
"Oh, come on. Don't be such an old lady!" Lizzie teased.
"I'm not being an old lady! I need a shower and clean clothes. And I don't feel like swimming in my underwear."
"Jane," Lizzie said, "It's almost noon. Gimme till 1 o'clock, and I promise we'll go!"
"Ugh, fine. Do you have chairs by the pool?"
"We don't have a pool. We have a lake. And no chairs. Let's go!" Ed flung the back door open and turned to Lizzie. "Last one there has to pose for my next painting!"
Lizzie answered, "It's gonna be a self-portrait then, bitch!" and they giggled and ran out. I sighed and turned to Will, who was doing dishes. "Don't feel like swimming?"
"The lake isn't my favorite place," he answered without turning to look at me.
"Oh," I said, unsure how to respond. There was an uncomfortable silence until I added, "Well, thanks for breakfast. It was fun!"
He nodded and continued washing. I slowly stepped towards the door, and he called out softly, "Jane." I turned back, and he was facing me. "I would be honored if you would consider allowing me to paint you. Fully clothed, that is."
I smiled warmly. "I'll consider it."
He smiled back and said, "Cheers."