Damn those salty snacks is all I have to say.
I wake up at 4 am, my throat parched and my tongue desert dry. I consider manning up, rolling over and going back to sleep, but seriously, the discomfort is too ridiculously acute. I get up, berating myself for not bringing a bottle of water to the bedroom. I slip a flannel shirt over my back and head downstairs, hoping against hope that I don’t bump into Daniel.
And I don’t, actually.
But only because I don’t make it past the second step down the stairs.
I hear Daniel talking. Jesus, is he really spending all night on that couch?
I stop where I am and listen. It’s a phone conversation and from the easy, casual tone of his voice, the occasional lapse into French and the topic of conversation it doesn’t take me long to understand who he’s talking to. Jean-Michel is on the other end of that line, reporting news of what’s going on in Chicago in general and at the hotel in particular. After a lull in the exchange, I hear Daniel’s voice grow a little tense as he asks the concierge to get rid of the Christmas tree in his apartment before his return.
I’m amazed the sound of my heart imploding messily in my chest doesn’t reveal my position to my oblivious host.
“Because I don’t want to have to see it,” he explains a little defensively to the Frenchman.
“Je n’ai pas envie d’en parler, Jean-Michel,” he then murmurs grimly. And I wonder what he doesn’t want to talk about – though I can make an educated guess.
“Non, ça va.” Oh yeah, everything is peachy.
“Non, je…” And he gets interrupted by a torrent of long-winded French advice apparently, because a full minute goes by without him being able to get a word in.
“Il dit qu’il a des sentiments pour moi,” he announces. Like my feelings for him are second only to plague and cholera in the order of calamities.
“Ce n’est pas si simple, Jean-Michel. Tu ne comprends pas à quel point…”
“Eh bien tant pis pour moi, alors.” Which I think means something like ‘Well, too bad for me’.
“No need to get rude, I get it,” he grouches.
Thank you, Jean-Michel. No idea what you’ve just said, but I’m pretty sure you’re rooting for me.
“I’m independent,” he corrects. “Not lonely.”
“I don’t need anyone. And certainly not someone I’ve had to pay to be with me.”
“All the difference in the world!” he replies with a bitter chuckle. “He didn’t choose me: I hired him.”
I swallow past the sudden lump in my dry throat.
“And maybe he would never have looked at me twice if he’d had a choice in the matter. He had to take me to bed, so he had to at least pretend he fancied me. Maybe he would never have even wanted to hold a conversation with me, had we met under other circumstances.”
“I know but that’s for me to decide, don’t you think?”
“No, not yet.”
“Yes, alright,” he hisses pettily.
“Yes, I will.” A sullen promise. “Listen, I have to go.” Which is a complete lie of course, as I’m sure good old Jean-Michel knows very well.
“No, keep it valid,” Daniel says in a smaller voice. “Okay, bye, Jean-Michel. And… you know, thanks. I know you care. I just… This is something I need to do for myself.”
Silence descends on the living-room. And in my chest.
I feel foolish, standing there listening in on a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear. This is so clichéd. Not that it actually changes anything to my predicament. It merely serves to illustrate how very contrary, insecure and self-willed Daniel truly is. Still, I appreciate the concierge’s effort on my behalf. Good to know I’m not the only one who thinks we belong together – the little bastard was beginning to make me doubt.
A feather-light draft of cold air sends a shiver up my bare legs as I stand there at the top of the stairs. Technically, I’m still thirsty but there’s no way I’m going down to the kitchen now. Tap water from the bathroom will have to do.
“You have them all wrapped around your pinkie, Jack,” I hear Daniel murmur grudgingly as I turn to tiptoe back the way I came. For a second I freeze on the spot, thinking I got busted. He heaves a sigh and I hear the sound of his phone being dumped on the coffee table.
And then silence. A rustle of paper. And more silence.
I think he wasn’t talking to me. Well, he was, but he wasn’t aware I was there to hear it.
Wrapped around my pinkie? If only.
I go back to bed after the mandatory pit stop in the bathroom for a glass of Chateau Faucet. As I wriggle back into the comparative warmth of the covers, I mull over the possibility of salvaging the situation to my satisfaction.
Hope springs eternal, they say, and to be fair, all doesn’t seem exactly lost here. Just very, very badly engaged and precarious.
But still doable.
As doomed missions go, this one seems to be a doozy, but just hang in there, Jack. You have them all wrapped around your pinkie, remember?
I fall asleep, firmly hanging on to that comforting thought.
Breakfast is a quiet affair this morning. Daniel is being agreeable and evasive – and not meeting my eyes unless it’s absolutely necessary. As far as the activities of the day are concerned, we agree that we need to clear some of the snow from the courtyard – if only to allow the pick-up out of the garage tomorrow morning. He makes me take a frigging oath not to launch into a snow fight, though. Word of honor and everything. Spoilsport.
And so we start shoveling.
In a fit of undue chivalry, I give Daniel the broad, light-weight snow shovel, while I keep the heavy, bulky piece of crap that someone thought hilarious to label ‘snow spade’. As a result, he’s ten times more efficient than me and gets the job done in under an hour without breaking much of a sweat. The only thing that makes it worthwhile is the fact that he is now down to a black form-fitting thermal t-shirt.
He joins me by the garage door just as I stick the stray pinecone into the middle of my snowman’s face – my beautiful, 5’7”, aluminum-foil-eyed snowman.
“Glad to see you didn’t mind helping with the shoveling,” Daniel says dryly, apparently unimpressed by my masterpiece.
“I helped. It’s not my fault you only have one good shovel,” I reply airily.
He throws me a dirty look. Not the right kind of dirty if you ask me, but still. It’s interaction.
“I don’t suppose you have a hat, or a scarf or something,” I add, pushing my luck. “Or maybe a spare muscle shirt.” I let my eyes rake down his molded chest. “Wouldn’t want my snow buddy to catch a cold.”
“If I were you I’d be more worried your snow buddy got run over by a pick-up truck.” The mischievous glint in his eyes is disquieting.
“Road rage is a very ugly thing, Daniel,” I admonish his retreating back as he enters the garage.
“Better than a shovel up your ass,” he mutters to no one in particular.
“I heard that!”
We take turns in the much needed shower. Then it’s lunch, then it’s coffee, then it’s Daniel taking up yet another book and settling at the table for what promises to be 400 pages of deadly, boring, yet historically accurate blah.
What to do, what to do?
Apart from drive an insufferably stubborn man up the wall with my patented O’Neill fidgeting.
I slowly work my way across the room, touching, turning, analyzing every book, rock and knick-knack I lay my hands on. He keeps an eye on me from afar, I can sense it, but he doesn’t say anything. So after half an hour I have no choice but to come back to square one, sitting opposite him at the table.
“Can I see that picture of me you took yesterday?” I eventually ask ingenuously.
He frowns for a second but accedes to my request easily enough. He reaches for his jacket on the back of the chair and takes his smartphone out a pocket. He unlocks it, deftly taps and slides his fingertips over the screen this way and that a few times, then shows me the picture. I was right. It’s a nice picture. The shot is well framed, the composition is clever. I look… quite stunning. Which is humbling somewhat.
“Can I…?” I gesture to the phone, mutely asking for permission to take it and have a closer look.
The frown deepens, and the ghost of an indulgent scowl lifts the corner of his mouth, but in what I know is a genuine show of trust, he hands me device willingly.
I peer at myself on the hi-res screen. I look happy, carefree, in control. I should know better: so much can change in 24 hours. My thumb slips on the edge of the screen and the picture slides out of sight as the phone switches to camera mode. I now have the live feed of a tranquil Daniel on the screen, looking at me half-expectantly. I press the button before his candid expression turns wary. I smile at the photo I’ve just taken and brush an affectionate fingertip over a familiar cheekbone. Which somehow makes the phone’s picture gallery appear in thumbnail view.
I throw a quick glance at Daniel who’s already resumed his reading, soon engrossed in the written word. I briefly consider whether this would qualify as a breach of confidence. Then I tap the last picture in line. It’s the one I’ve just taken. A slide of the finger brings me the previous one of myself on the bluff.
Another swipe and I discover a picture of a cozy living room – more precisely, this living-room. The picture was taken yesterday or the day before, as the Christmas tree is visible sitting snugly in the corner by the fireplace. Actually, it’s not that the Christmas tree is visible in the picture, it’s that it is the reason the picture was taken I realize from the layout of the shot. The picture is taken close enough that the origami stars can be clearly seen. The scene looks good, with an almost bohemian chic air to it.
Another slide and I get the photo taken before that. Contrary to the others, its composition seems haphazard – almost like the shot was random. It’s at a strange lopsided angle for one thing, the focus of it being the solitary figure of a man that’s off center. It’s the picture of a guy walking towards the camera across an open expanse with a travel bag in his hand: there’s snow everywhere and a black helicopter in the background and… I suddenly realize I’m looking at a picture of me again.
My guts do a silly, self-conscious somersault.
Daniel took this picture as I got off the helicopter when I arrived in Megève four days ago. From the angle, I’d say he just slipped the phone out of his pocket snapped the shot without taking aim and slipped it back in. A sneaky paparazzo trick.
Another swipe and Daniel’s penthouse apartment comes into view. The lounge area – with its Christmas tree – in the full glory of a winter morning sun.
I revert to the thumbnail view of the gallery again. There aren’t many pictures in it – fifteen at most. And very few of those feature people in them. There’s just one group photo around a birthday cake in what looks like a restaurant’s kitchen, and a selfie of Daniel and blonde woman pulling a haughty duckface. The rest are pictures of landscapes, mainly taken at dusk or dawn. The oldest picture was taken almost two years ago apparently. Two years worth of pictures: fifteen shots. And four of those were snapped within the past ten days.
That stupid, ever-hopeful part of me wants this to mean something.
“Jack, what’re you doing?”
I switch back into camera mode and watch an attentive Daniel on the screen giving me a suspicious look over his wire-frame glasses
“Trying to figure out how this thing works to take some interesting pictures,” I tell him innocently. “Come on, give us a thrill. Take your shirt off.”
He snorts and I snap another picture of him. It’s achingly beautiful in its simplicity: the cute, shy scrunching of his nose, the slight, indulgent curve of his mouth, the soft glow of amused contentment in his eyes. This is the real Daniel: the man I finally got to meet here at the chalet. The man I fell in love with all over again.
A man who’s doing everything he can to push me away, but a man who took pictures of me and pictures of the Christmas trees I put up for him even though he repeatedly confessed his dislike of them.
I give him back his smartphone.
He checks the last pictures I just took, scowls a little for effect and slips his phone back into his jacket pocket before returning to his book.
So pray tell me, Dr Jackson… Asking Jean-Michel to take down the Christmas tree, but keeping a picture of it on your phone? How do you rationalize that?
“Do you want me to get rid of the Christmas Tree?” I ask a little out of field.
His head lifts slowly from the book – a mixed expression on his face. There’s badly hidden shock written into his wide eyes. And I think I also recognize wistfulness and guilt somewhere in there. He takes a good long fifteen seconds to figure out a reply. His voice is very soft and abashed when he finally answers.
“If you want to. You don’t have to. I mean, I can do it later.” An attempt at sparing my Christmas feelings?
I get up, and with more spring in my step than I actually feel in my heart, I grab a waste basket on my way to the tree. This should be quick anyway: it’s not like there’s all that much to take down, apart from the tree itself.
I pick the ugliest star of the lot, the one I wasn’t really happy with anyway and crumple it in my fist mercilessly before letting it fall into the basket. I hear Daniel get up all of a sudden.
“Jack, don’t… You don’t have to do this,” he flounders for a second, trapped in his own paradox as he joins me in front of the fresh-swelling Nordmann. “Don’t throw them away. You’ve…” He lays a hand on my forearm to stop me from destroying the next star. “You made them. And they’re nice… it’s…” he stumbles over the words, unable to decide what course of action is the right one now.
“You want to keep them?” I ask, cranking up the disbelief in my voice.
“Well… No, but… it’s a shame to throw them away.” His eyes are huge and lost as they plead with me to stop being so cruel.
“Daniel, be honest. If you’re never going to set up another Christmas tree in your life, you don’t need this useless stuff taking up space in your home.” Come on, work this out for yourself, sweetheart.
He blinks and remains dumbstruck, like I just blindsided him with some unexpected piece of awful news. The hand that was holding my arm slips away in defeat.
“Shit,” he curses under his breath. Takes a step back. And another. Standing in front of the window now, he looks poised to make a run for it, but I can’t let him go. Not when I’m so close to such a big breakthrough. I drop the basket and reach for him – take him by the elbow.
“Hey,” I prompt softly.
“What have I done, Jack?” he asks in dismay.
“I don’t know. What have you done?”
“I… I invited you here for Christmas and I made you come here and forego all the holiday things you obviously like doing and… How could I be so fucking selfish? Why did you let me do this to you?”
“Your house, your rules,” I shrug easily.
“That’s not an excuse to make you a hostage to my… my fucking neurosis!”
“Daniel, Christmas Eve was amazing.”
“No, I totally ruined the holiday. You told me what it meant to you and… God, I almost gave you the talk first thing on Christmas morning!”
“Okay, so Christmas was kind of peculiar,” I hedge, with a wince. “But it ended with a bang, in every sense of the word, so you shouldn’t feel bad about it.” I try to joke. “Boxing Day took the cake in the most appalling celebrations of the year contest, hands down.”
“Don’t… Don’t make fun of this,” he scolds, immeasurably upset.
I wrap a comforting hand around the nape of his neck and force him to look into my eyes.
“Daniel, it’s okay. I’m a big boy. I had a great time here, break-up notwithstanding.” I give him a wry smile and a warm squeeze.
“How can you say that? You could have been somewhere else with people you love, with family or friends who actually know how to make Christmas good and loving and special. And instead you had to put up with my fucking, self-centered, loveless crap.” I watch him gulp around the knot of misery in his throat. “I’m sorry, Jack,” he whispers. “I’m so very sorry.”
“Hey, don’t get all worked up about it,” I reassure him as I slowly enfold him in a hug – he comes willingly, if unhappily. Lays his head on my shoulder. And again, I’m overwhelmed by how wonderful it feels to hold the real Daniel so close. “I’m telling you it’s okay.”
“Why did you let me do this to you?”
I rub his back gently and catch the scent of his hair – I’ll take all I can get.
“I didn’t let you do anything to me, sweetheart. I’m not a powerless victim. I chose to come here. And I chose to come here because I love you.” He needs to get this: he may have hired me at first, and I may have resisted the mess of feelings I had for him for a while, but I did end up choosing him. “And I don’t regret a single second of being here with you, heartache included.”
“I don’t know how you can love me.” The edge of self-loathing in his voice is painful.
“I don’t know how I can love you either,” I grouse playfully, “what with the rotten attitude and the asymmetrical ass-cheeks.”
His shoulders give a little shake, and I hold onto him.
“I have asymmetrical ass-cheeks?” His resenting amusement is like a thread of sunshine breaking through the clouds.
“You never noticed? It’s disturbing. I like symmetry.” I let my hand just skim down his hip a little.
He snorts, then sighs. “I know what you’re trying to do,” he warns, his voice now warm with a smile.
“Yeah? Is it working?” A guy can hope.
“No, but I appreciate it.”
I tighten my arms around him – until it’s less friendly hug and more loving embrace.
“We could be happy together, you know,” I sigh low in his ear. “I mean, I’d have to teach you a thing or two about being happy, but I’m sure you’d get the hang of it eventually.”
“It would never work, Jack.”
“Says me, the rest of the universe and the laws of physics.”
“I’d still like to try.” I let my mouth nuzzle and nip at his lobe. “I know loving me wouldn’t be easy for you, but I’d like to be important enough for you to take a chance on me. The same way you were important enough for me to take a chance on you.” Hear me, goddamn it. I damn well fucking chose you.
“You shouldn’t have,” he notes sadly.
“But I did.”
“And look what it gets you. I’m a dead end.”
“Jesus, I don’t care if you’re dead end, a bypass or a fucking freeway – I love you! Why are you so fucking stubborn about it? What is wrong with loving someone?”
“I can’t do it, that’s what’s wrong about it. I can’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know how to do it. I just don’t know how to love you and not become weak. If I let you in, you’ll be the end of me, Jack. I know it. I can feel it,” he tells me dejectedly.
“But?” I prompt hopefully and watch him close his eyes in defeat.
“But…” he rasps, not sure he can finish that sentence and speak out his worst fear. “But I’ve come to need you so badly. Sometimes it feels like it’s already too late.”
It takes every ounce of control I have not to whoop, sweep him off his feet and twirl him around. Goddamn Hallmark movies.
“Is wanting me such a bad thing?” I whisper, instead.
“It’s like losing a part of myself, losing a battle.”
“Love is not a fight for dominance or survival,” I promise him, stroking the nape of his neck.
He drags himself out of my embrace and turns to the window. Turns to the white, numb, motionless world outside.
“Everything is, Jack. It’s the way of the world,” he says with dreary certainty.
“Is this really what you think?”
“I’ve known nothing else, and I’ve seen nothing to prove me wrong in almost 30 years.” His eyes are so hard and cold when he says it. Christ, what have they done to him?
And pieces of things start to fall into place before my eyes. Daniel sees everything as a fight for control: even what we’ve been doing. All his rules of engagement, paying for sex, ordering me around, keeping me hooked, keeping me guessing, hiding behind the cold persona… Everything is about coming out on top, about staying in control of himself and keeping me in check. Letting himself go, letting his guard down, letting himself enjoy and live his heart’s dearest wishes is the epitome of weakness to him. That’s the world he’s been living in.
Christ, how can I reach out to him now? How can I make him understand?
“Daniel, it doesn’t have to be this way. Not between you and me,” I tell him gently. “And if you really want to see the world as one large, merciless battlefield, well think of it this way: we can be a team. You can have my back and I can have yours.”
His eyes are trained on the landscape, but I can see his gaze is focused inwards. He’s analyzing what I’ve said, presumably trying to find the catch.
“I played you,” he reminds me. “I hired you and played you. The man you love doesn’t exist.”
“He’s right in front of me.”
“I have issues,” he says, throwing a mean sideglance at me. “Lots and lots of issues.”
“By the bucketload,” I agree.
“I’ll never be able to keep you,” he mutters.
“You’ll never be able to get rid of me,” I correct him, then come behind him, my hands itching to just touch him. A single minute away from his arms and I’m already twitchy with withdrawal. “Look what you’ve done to me, Daniel,” I breathe low in his ear. “I used to be a stray, feral bastard, but now I’m domesticated and house broken and I’ve grown to depend on you for happiness. It’d be cruel to send me away.” I want to trail my mouth up the side of his neck – and he shivers.
“You only have yourself to blame. It’s not my fault you fell for the wrong guy.”
“You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed, you know?” I murmur.
He turns to me, an eyebrow raised – a part of him indulging in fond disbelief, in spite of his better judgment.
“Are you actually feeding me a line from The Little Prince?”
“Maybe. Is it working?” I’m literally bleeding romanticism all over the place; he’s got to have a heart of stone if he doesn’t give me something. “The guy who wrote it was an aviator, you know?”
“I know,” he smiles at my artless come on.
“Little Prince,” I explain, pointing at him. “And fox. Well, silver fox.” Pointing at my noggin. Just in case he didn’t get it.
“I see. So I tamed you?” And I could swear there’s a hint of timid smugness in his soft–spoken, velvet voice.
“Foxy escort to lovesick puppy in under 8 nights.” Which is nothing but the depressing truth. Eight appointments was all it took.
“One runs the risk of crying a bit if one allows oneself to be tamed,” he quotes.
“Don’t I know it,” I gripe, taking his hand. I lock gaze with him and am again blown away by the amazing, doubtful ocean of ice blue. I bring the base of his palm to my lips, reaching for the addictive smell and taste of him. This is it. This is where I take the jump and pray that he takes it with me. I gather my courage and wrap an experimental arm around his waist, which he accommodates willingly, so I pull him close. I hear myself murmur, “But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me…”
“Pour moi, tu seras unique au monde. Pour toi, je serai unique au monde,” he finishes the line, his eyes closing and his pulse racing under my thumb.
I brush my lips over his mouth tentatively and feel my heart hammer and soar in my chest when he responds to the feather-light contact and kisses me back. One of his closed-mouth kisses. So achingly slow and tender. So ravagingly sweet.
I think the embarrassing, broken moan is mine.
He breaks the kiss and fights the smile that tries to break out on his face. He ends up leaning his forehead against mine.
“This is a big mistake,” he says quietly.
“Probably, but at least we’re making it together.”
“Wow, were you always so appallingly sappy?” he asks, a pained expression on his face.
“I would recite poems in my head every time I fucked you.”
“Oh do shut up,” he scowls.
“God, I love you,” I grouse, tightening my hold on him.
“I know. I… I guess… Same here.” He closes his eyes self-consciously, but there’s something appeased in the way he says it.
“You’re never going to say the words back, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” he agrees somewhat apologetically – with a touch of impish spark in his ice blue eyes. “Or maybe in the throes of passion.”
“That can be arranged,” I promise evilly, leaning in close again to capture his mouth.
This kiss is deeper and more thrilling. One hand sliding from the nape of my neck into my hair, he receives my tongue and shares his with increasing hunger.
We’ve kissed a thousand times before, but this… This feels like a first kiss. That dizzy, scary feeling that your heart, your head and your guts are going to explode with the overload of sheer fucking happiness. That delicious twinge of raw, pulsing need deep down in your balls. That slow-burning fire igniting deep down in your soul. The promise of a small, blissful eternity of headboard-rattling pleasure and stupid arguments.
Our love life is probably going to be a train wreck, but we’ve deserved each other.
And the following hour or so does prove that he can say – or roar – the words when motivated.