The sun was shining brightly in this particular spot. Proof that it was doing its job was right here beside where Sarah had picked. There was not one, or even two, early-blooming tulips, but a handful of them had chosen to bloom before anything else in the garden.
They were pretty, and it was peaceful, which Sarah wanted after listening to Toby scream for ten minutes. Out here, the air smelled clean. Like fresh starts, new beginnings, better things.
Sarah was ready for all of those things. She counted the days until she no longer had to live in this house.
There were times when Toby was having one of his tantrums that she wanted to be anywhere but here. New York winters didn't allow her to walk to the park as often, or for as long, as she'd like. Being stuck inside with them was too much.
A time or two she almost wished…
But she was very careful about what she wished for these days. She knew better now and, tantrums aside (something Toby just had to grow out of eventually), she loved her baby brother.
She focused on the tulips. They were a different color this year. They were an orangeish-yellow. And despite blooming early they were extraordinarily vibrant. Beautiful. Their color reminded her of, well, peaches.
And that made her think of one peach in particular.
That led to her thinking of the prettiest dress she'd ever worn. To this point in her life anyway. She'd danced and been led on the dance floor by a king. A man so graceful he knew how to guide her through the throngs of people without bumping into anyone along the way.
She smiled, her eyes fluttering closed as she pictured that particularly fairy tale-like moment. He'd deceived her, she knew that, but she still looked upon that moment with longing. Wondering if she'd ever get the chance to dress and dance like that again.
Dance with a king.
That she wouldn't be able to do again, but the rest of it … Surely.
She'd been asked to dances at school. Unfortunately, none of the boys who'd asked her looked at her the way he had at that moment. As if she was his world and she wanted to see that look again one day.
Graceful? Attractive to her?
Forget it. No one could come close to him in those areas either.
And that was a huge problem.
In one night he had set the bar so high that she was doomed never to find someone who could come close to comparing to him. Somehow she knew that no matter how many years she took to search she wouldn't find it again.
And she wanted to find that again. That feeling of being swept away in the moment. Being on a dance floor when it happened was completely optional.
Her breath hitched as she felt a feather-like brush of something against her cheek. She smiled, moaning softly as she pressed into whatever it was. It happened again and her lips parted as she let out another moan of pleasure. She licked her lower lip as the object passed over her upper lip. She knew then what it was by its smell.
She must be dreaming, because tulips didn't pick themselves.
She smiled at that thought because she knew someone who could probably accomplish such a feat. He wasn't here in her backyard, though.
Down along her chin the tulip traveled so so slowly. Lower along her jaw and then her neck and throat. The petals were soft against the tender skin there. It felt good in an odd sort of way.
Her mind was cloudy, swirling with images that aroused her. Made her want more. Made her want to feel good. Made her want him to do those things to make her feel good.
He would be sure they did.
She knew somehow that his hands would be softer than the petals of the tulip currently drifting along the edge of her ear.
She started to become more aware of her surroundings, wondering why her step-mom wasn't out here stopping him. Not that she wanted him to stop. At all. Stopping would make the thoughts go away and she didn't want that. It was the first time in a long time she'd felt much of anything.
"No," she whispered in protest as he lifted the flower away from her ear as if in tune with her thoughts.
"Let me in, Sarah," he whispered huskily.
She fought against giving into his request. She didn't want to let him in completely. If she did, she'd discover she was only dreaming. That what she was feeling was make believe, an illusion. She had been trying so hard to live her life in reality since the night she beat his labyrinth.
She didn't want this to be a dream. She wanted it to be real. Him here, with her, in her world, touching her.
Only she didn't want the flower in the way anymore. She wanted to find out just how soft his hands would be. How thorough he would be in touching her.
She gasped as she felt something against her lower lip and she knew this time it wasn't a flower.
"Let me in," he prompted again.
If she gave in to him, there would be no going back this time. If she looked at him, let him in; he would see how much she wanted him.
And she couldn't let him see that about her. To see how often she'd thought on where she'd be. What would she be doing if she took him up on his offer? What would she be doing right now if she'd agreed? Surely she wouldn't be living in a house with a bitchy step-mom, a father who was too busy to notice her most of the time, and a half-brother who was spoiled beyond belief by both of the adults in the household.
She didn't want to be anyone's slave, though. She was too strong-willed for that. What would be expected of her as queen to his king? Would he ever be able to see her as an equal and not as a conquest? Would he grow tired of her once the novelty of being with the one who'd outsmarted him and his labyrinth had worn off?
All these questions she'd gone over more than once with no answer she was convinced was true one way or the other. If she had come up with an answer showing he could accept her as she was without trying to shape her or change her into someone she would no longer recognize … Well, she would have made another wish between then and now in a heartbeat.
Because, really, she doubted she'd even be missed here. Not really anyway, though she supposed her dad would. Toby would distract him, though, keep his attention from being focused solely on Sarah and where she'd run off to.
She grew dizzy and light headed. For a moment, she felt as though she was floating through the air like one of the big puffy clouds Toby liked to look at and find shapes in. And then just like that, the dizziness stopped.
Beneath her, the ground was no longer damp and cold. She spread her fingers out and instead of the stiff spring-grass and hard dirt of her backyard she felt something soft and smooth. Satin or silk, she guessed.
What have I done?
She couldn't ask the actual question because her voice wouldn't work. Her mind, still fuzzy, seemed to prevent her from doing anything just then.
There it was again, his finger sliding along her lower lip. And it was, as she imagined, smooth. Her eyes fluttered open and she knew she was no longer in her backyard, even without seeing the room around her.
"I was beginning to worry I'd compelled you too deeply, my dear."
His finger was no longer at her mouth, but he hadn't moved it very far. His hand was resting against her cheek and she pressed into that hand. She said nothing, though, wondering still why he'd come. And what she was doing here.
"You know why you're here. You wished it to be so."
"I didn't," she protested.
"Your dreams, your thoughts say differently."
"Dreams don't count."
"When they call to me as strongly as yours have been lately, they do."
"Oh," she said, realizing it was a stupid response but she didn't know what else to say. She could deny it, but he'd know she was lying. So what was the point?
She reached for him then, fingertips brushing his cheek as her thumb grazed his lips. She expected him to feel different. Not human. And yet he didn't. Not really. In fact, he was even dressed like anyone she'd see walking on the street in her town.
"I am very much alive, Sarah," he said with a bit of a grin creeping to his lips.
"I know," she whispered.
"Let me show you what we could be like together, Sarah. You and I. No wishes, no time limits."
"I'm not ready."
"I will take you back to your home so that you can think on just what I'm offering."
Her eyes widened, surprised that he would give her that.
"Is there a time limit once I get back home?"
"I should hope you wouldn't need one."
She closed her eyes once again, her heart and her mind at war with one another. She knew if she did this, agreed to this, that she would never be happy anywhere else. He'd already set the standards so high and she had no doubt he would only set them higher.
She could say no and she knew he wouldn't push, wouldn't force her. But there was a reason he'd come here today when she had been in a rather contemplative mood, which probably left her wide open to thoughts of him. His world had been the focus of her attention for years and then upon meeting the man she'd read about … Well, he was everything she'd imagined and then some. So, whenever her mind wandered, thoughts of him and the labyrinth were never far.
He took away the ability for her to make any other decision other than the one he wanted by kissing her. And while she'd been kissed before, she couldn't remember anyone literally taking her breath away by doing it. Her lips parted, welcoming him into her.
Her heart was hammering away in her chest as he kissed her. She knew with his magic he could make her do anything he wanted her to, could have had her wake up here naked in his bed. He hadn't, though. She wasn't sure she would have totally minded, but he had to know the choice had to be hers completely. No tipping of hands on his part and seeing him naked would tip the scales in his favor.
He chuckled softly, as if reading her mind. Her eyes flew open. Could he do that?
And why should she care if he could? She wasn't thinking anything wrong and judging by the feel of him pressed against her, he didn't think she was either.
Her arms slid around his neck, drawing him closer to her on the bed with soft satin sheets. She'd probably regret making this decision later, but she didn't want to think about that now. In fact, she didn't want to think about anything again for a while.
She woke the next morning with a smile, stretching as she shifted on the bed. The guilt she'd thought would come with what she'd done wasn't there. She felt relieved, like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
He was everything she'd thought he'd be. Kind. Gentle, yet not too gentle. Unselfish. Entirely too pleasing and pleased with himself for being so.
The spot beside her was vacant and cold she realized and found herself upset by that.
Her eyes flew open when she didn't feel the satin under her, which meant he had shipped her off to another room. That did more than upset her. Where had he taken her? And why was she back in her clothes?
She didn't need to look too hard to know that what she felt was disappointment at seeing she was back in her own room. Her eyes rested on her spare pillow, spotting the tulip there with a ribbon tied around its stem the exact same color as its petals.
And that peach that had given her a glimpse of something she never even knew she could possibly have.
She picked the flower up and smiled, remembering how it felt against her skin yesterday. Affixed to the ribbon was a note. It was small in size, his handwriting as flamboyant and bold as she imagined. It read simply:
I ANXIOUSLY AWAIT YOUR DECISION.
As if there was any other decision to make. He'd captured her long before they'd even met, she'd read about him and her imagination had made him larger than life. Fittingly, her image wasn't too far off.
She clutched the flower in her hand, walking to the window to look outside. She'd be leaving everything behind. Her family. Her friends.
She wasn't sure what it said about her that she didn't mind that thought so much. She'd never really belonged here. And maybe she could come back from time to time and see Toby, who she'd miss the most.
Her eyes fell on the garden she'd begun her day in yesterday, expecting to see more tulips had joined the others in blooming.
There were none.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com