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Charlie’s balls-to-the-wall stupid gap year finally sputters to a grinding, inauspicious halt somewhere in the rural Tuscan countryside.

He grimaces when he checks his account balance, fingers twitching against the side of his phone—it’s pretty beat-up, the case dusty, the screen cracked and smudged—and then he tilts his head all the way back, squinching one eye shut as he stares up at the sun. He’s standing on an empty street corner in a functionally nameless village surrounded by picturesque grapevines and rolling green meadows and sheep. So many sheep. He came here to eat cheese and drink wine and—yeah. Mission fucking accomplished.

It’s quaint.

It’s quiet.

The roads are narrow, and the buildings are covered in ivy, and the sky is a bright, vivid, pristinely uniform shade of blue that he’s mostly sure doesn’t actually exist in New York. Sweat is beading along his hairline, his upper lip, the nape of his neck—but there isn’t any urgency to it. The heat is lazy. Comfortable. Undercut by a lemony, sweet-smelling breeze. His sunglasses are slipping down the bridge of his nose, electric purple novelty plastic rubbing against raw, peeling skin, and the straps of his ratty canvas backpack are digging into his shoulders, burrowing into the muscle, bruising the bone.

Time passes slowly here.

Seconds—moments—they can be savored, taste-tested, collected but not committed to.

He really doesn’t want to go home.

Not yet.

It’s a thought that he’s purposely shied away from in the past; a thought that makes him feel about as guilty as it does relieved in the present. Trudging back to Long Island with a dog-eared passport and newfound appreciation for silence—for expectations that have nothing to do with who he’s related to or how he’s related to them—just to be nagged about his career path or his tattoos or his decision to move out during undergrad or whether his motorcycle is safe or not or can he please pick Ginny up from soccer practice or did he talk to Ron about the eighth of weed Mom found under his bed because that’s a gateway drug, Charlie, don’t laugh, this is serious or has he considered calling the nice girl who volunteers at the library on weekends since he isn’t getting any younger and Bill’s already on his third kid and aren’t you tired of not being settled, don’t you care about having a family—

Charlie clenches and unclenches his jaw, scrubbing his hand over his mouth and heaving a tired, exasperated sigh as he looks up and down the street, trying to remember which direction the bus station is. Behind him, there’s a charmingly rustic café with a few cast-iron tables out front—a big neon ice cream cone and a matching neon wine glass are hung up in the window, while a faded handwritten sign is taped to the middle of the door.

It’s in Italian.

Charlie pauses so he can translate it on his phone.

“Help needed,” he mumbles to himself, prodding at his chapped bottom lip with the tip of his tongue. “Yeah. Okay.”

 


 

The woman who walks into Il Drago Rosso is—

Noticeable.

Like, Charlie notices her.

Immediately.

Instantly.

Irrevocably.

She’s dressed like an Audrey Hepburn impersonator, like one of those Roman Holiday tour guides he’s seen around—sleeveless white shirtdress, tightly belted at the waist, knee-length skirt swirling gracefully around her long, long, long legs. She’s tall. Slender. Immaculately groomed. A frosty, platinum blonde with cherry-red lipstick and oversized black sunglasses. He can’t tell how old she might be—thirty-something? Forty-something? Fifty-something?—but she’s so striking that he also can’t tell if it matters.

He stares at her from his spot by the sink, idly drying a stack of appetizer plates, just going through the motions. She looks imperiously around the inside of the café. Sniffs once. Tosses her hair back, and glides—fucking glides, truly, honestly; he’d bet a month’s worth of Friday night tips that she could walk a tightrope with a stack of encyclopedias balanced on her head and not even flinch—over to a table next to the window, dropping her summery orange leather handbag into an empty chair. And then she looks around again, dramatic, exaggerated, expectant—

“Hey, let me grab that for you,” Charlie says loudly, flicking his dishtowel over his shoulder and ducking out from behind the counter. She glances at him in surprise, her lips parted but not quite pursed, and he realizes his mistake. “Oh, uh—scusa fammi—”

“I speak English,” she interrupts. Her tone could almost be called polite, if it weren’t for the haughty, upper-crust accent. The haughty, upper-crust American accent. Up close, she’s taller than he is, even in her elegant suede ballet flats, but he’s acutely aware of how much broader, how much rougher he is. He reaches for the back of her chair and can’t help but compare his own deeply tanned, freckled forearm—the wiry red hair, the corded muscle, the thick, sturdy wrist—with the soft, sun-pink, impossible delicacy of hers.

It’s the contrast.

It’s mesmerizing.

He clears his throat, cocks a grin, huffs out a laugh. “Cool,” he says. “Don’t hear a lot of that around here.”

The chair squeaks against the hardwood floor as he pulls it out for her and takes a hasty step back, raking his fingers through his hair. She slides into her seat, posture rigidly straight, picture-perfect—her perfume is subtle, tart and rich and spicy, not the ultra-feminine cloud of concentrated rose water he was anticipating—and then she looks up at him, raising a finely-shaped brow. Her sunglasses are still on. He wonders what color her eyes are.

“You speak Italian, too?” she asks. Drawls. It’s a little funny, how patronizing she sounds. Deliberately doubtful. “I used to be fluent—art school, you know how it is—but it’s been so many years . . .”

She trails off, and he pushes her chair back in, the pad of his thumb—blunt, callused, coarse—just barely grazing the curve of her neck, where the collar of her dress is dipping down. Her skin is warm. Silky.

“Nah,” he says with a wink. “I mostly have no idea what anyone is saying to me, I’m just great at reading body language.”

Her breath audibly catches, like she’s startled, incredulous, affected—but she doesn’t blush.

He’s oddly disappointed.

 


 

There’s an old Roman aqueduct—or, well, the remnants of one, chalky and mostly dry and totally overgrown with grass, with moss, with gently flowering weeds—on the very outskirts of the village, about a mile away from anything else; about two miles away from anything noteworthy. A well-trodden dirt track winds through the surrounding meadows, snaking beneath a partially collapsed archway, circling back around the farthest pile of crumbling bricks and long-eroded sandstone.

Charlie runs on it, sometimes.

The track.

It’s peaceful, and it’s tranquil, and it’s teeming with simplicity. The insects buzz. The clouds drift. The jagged flecks of granite clotting the soft, moist earth trip him up, wiggle into the rubber clefts crisscrossing the soles of his shoes. History looms all around, days just like this one spanning years and decades and centuries, crowding each other, all elbows and knees, like he and his brothers fighting for morning counter space in the bathroom they all shared growing up—but it isn’t overbearing.

Narcissa Malfoy—and yeah, Charlie learned her name, and yeah, Charlie recognized her name—is standing in front of the aqueduct archway, right in the middle of the track. There’s a battered leather sketchbook tucked under her arm, and her sunglasses are pushed off her face, back with her hair, gleaming in the melted-butter sunlight. She’s wearing another dress. A sundress. A short sundress. It’s white with red polka dots, spaghetti-strapped, with a low-cut sweetheart neckline, snug around her torso and wispy around her thighs. She has a pair of plain canvas tennis shoes on her feet, and a shiny, loose-fitting, rose gold watch on her wrist.

She looks like a different person.

Like she’s trying really, really hard to look like a different person.

Charlie stops running, slowing his pace down to a leisurely walk, lifting the bottom of his t-shirt to wipe the sweat off his face; when he lowers it again, she’s staring at him, her expression almost clinically neutral. Impossible to read.

“Hey there, stranger,” he calls out, waving cheerfully. Mostly cheerfully. A little sarcastically. “You catch the sunrise?”

“No,” she says. There’s a sleek silver iPhone in her hand, and it’s vibrating. Repeatedly. She doesn’t check who’s calling. “Should I have?”

He blinks. “What?”

“Should I have caught the sunrise?” she asks, but she doesn’t sound curious. She sounds like she’s humoring him. “Is it particularly spectacular?’

“I mean, yeah,” he says easily. “Everything here is.”

She shakes her head, finally peering down at her phone, scrolling through what he assumes is a notification log—she snorts at whatever it is she sees there, uncharacteristically loud. Uncharacteristically expressive. There’s a tan line on her ring finger.

“Hey,” Charlie says, rocking back on his heels, speculatively eyeing both the tension in her jaw and the gentle, pillowy slope of her cleavage in that dress. “Do you like wine?”

“It’s eight-thirty in the morning.”

“Well, what time is it in New York?”

Earlier than eight-thirty in the morning.”

He shrugs, biting down on the inside of his cheek to reign in his laughter. “Yeah, not a big math guy, sorry,” he says, before pausing, tongue curled up and over his teeth. “Not really a big wine guy, either, now that I think about it.”

She just quirks her lips, closer to a smile than a smirk.

He counts it as a win.

 


 

Bears?”

“Bears.”

“Real bears?”

“As opposed to . . . fake bears?”

“But—why?”

“Why not?”

Narcissa purses her lips, either in amusement or disapproval; maybe both. “How does one even become a—” She looks at him askance. Assessing. Curious. “Bear biologist?”

Charlie scratches at the back of his neck and leans forward, propping his forearms on his knees, to absently pluck at the grass, the dandelions, the wildflowers. “Grad school, obviously.”

“Obviously,” she says with a flick of her wrist. It’s a gesture with implications; a gesture that asks questions she’s too polite to ask herself.

Except it’s not politeness, not really.

It’s avoidance.

She has a son—Ron’s age, fifteen or sixteen, smarmy spoiled shithead to the nth-degree. Charlie has a vague memory of one of Ron’s friends getting suspended for decking the kid at recess once. Breaking his nose. Does Narcissa remember that? Did she saunter into the principal’s office that afternoon and icily demand accountability? Did she recognize Charlie’s too-long Weasley-red hair the other day in the café?

“There was this trail cam,” Charlie says. “In Montana. Department of Fish & Wildlife. It used to stream twenty-four-seven, back when I was in high school. I watched it—a lot. And there was this grizzly—he was tagged—and he was always playing with something. Pinecones. Rocks. Tree branches. Rolling around in the creek to stay cool, yeah, but like he was having fun, too.”

“Adorable.”

“He was always alone.”

Narcissa stretches her legs out, her ankles neatly crossed, and then smooths her hands down the front of her dress. “Is that not normal?”

“Oh, no, yeah, bears are—” Charlie leans back, cracking his knuckles, craning his neck so he can meet Narcissa’s eyes. “Bears are pretty solitary. It was normal.”

Her gaze—an icy, crystalline blue—flits from the planes and valleys and angles of his face to the freckles on his arms, from the breadth of his chest and shoulders to the flat expanse of his torso, where his sweaty t-shirt is still plastered to his skin, where the drawstring of his basketball shorts—slung low on his hips, the waistband of his boxers peeking out—is double-knotted. He doesn’t move. Holds himself steady. She’s studying him; raking up the quirks, the details, the flaws, like a gardener sifting through fresh potting soil, getting it ready for planting.

“I didn’t attend my first gallery show,” she says suddenly. “Or, well. It was my only gallery show.”

Charlie blinks, taken aback. “Uh. Why not?”

“My wedding was the same weekend.”

“Oh.”

“Plus, the show itself . . . it was one of those things, you know, an old friend of the family owned the gallery, wanted a reference from my father for a club membership—” Narcissa breaks off. “The sketches didn’t sell. I didn’t miss very much.”

Charlie clears his throat. “Sketches?”

“It was a trio, yes.” She looks down, her fingers splayed, like she’s inspecting her nail polish. “A deconstruction.”

“Of what?”

“The beginning, the middle, and the end of a single drawing.” She takes a breath, the indent between her collarbones deepening, sharpening. “That was my favorite part of the sketching process. The layers. You start with lines, usually so faint they’re barely there, and then you just—keep drawing over them. It’s about fleshing an idea out, discovering what shape it might take, giving it dimension. Filling in the blanks.”

Charlie swallows, unable to stop staring at her. “Right.”

“And when you’re done, you’ve created something,” Narcissa goes on. “Finished something.” She glances at him again, making another gesture, fleeting and dismissive, with her hand. Less of a question. More of a dare. “Whether you like it or not.”

 


 

Charlie has never had sex like this before.

Quiet—unhurried—slow.

Sex that should be casual by any reasonable definition of the word—sex that is casual by any reasonable definition of the word—but doesn’t quite fucking feel like it. Doesn’t quite fucking feel like it meets the criteria, the threshold; doesn’t quite feel like it’s supposed to, like he’s already got one foot out the proverbial door, like he’s already got a halfhearted after-the-fact apology brewing in his lungs, even as he tears open the condom wrapper with his teeth.

I really shouldn’t, Narcissa had said, had whispered, the wistfully cultured cadence of her voice seeping into his mouth as she spoke, as her lips continued to brush and drag and catch against his in a not-kiss, in an almost-kiss, You’re so young.

He skims his palms up her legs, lightheaded, hot and hazy, like his blood’s been set to simmer rather than boil. He’s taking his time, pushing her skirt up and out of the way, gradually, painstakingly exposing her, marveling at the tension in her body, coiling tight, then tighter, her toes curling where they’re resting on top of the wine barrel, her fingers interlocked, twisting around—around nothing, but also something, because there used to be a ring there, and now there’s not.

Sunshine dapples through the leaded windowpane, worn and blurred, highlighting dust mote spindrifts, striping an unexpected assortment of shadows and colors and shapes all across the weatherworn stone floor.

He shifts the angle of his hips, widens his stance and notches his thumbs into the hollows at the very tops of her inner thighs, where the skin is soft and thin and fragile and glistening—and he hears her breath hitch, change, stutter, the plump cushion of her bottom lip just barely grazing the outer shell of his ear, and he hears his pulse thunder, hears his heart race, as she squeezes his cock like she’s about to come, like she’s inviting him to fuck her harder, to fuck her more, and he hears how wet she is when he complies, when he thrusts and grinds and rocks and arches back just far enough to be able to see, just far enough to be able to watch—

She comes with an artless, well-earned gasp.

And then he comes, too, his orgasm sneaking up on him, jarring and explosive, like the ebb and flow of a tidal wave.

And then he wonders—abruptly, absurdly—what he’d look like if she put him in her sketchbook. Would he be faded? Formless? A scattered assortment of whatever bits and pieces emerged from the practiced flutter of her charcoal pencil, a mess that doesn’t exactly add up to anything real? Anything meaningful?

“Well,” Narcissa says, her face pink, pearlescent, like her pores just naturally produce thousand-dollar-a-jar moisturizer, “you were right.”

Charlie chuckles, chest heaving, and presses a sloppy, instinctual kiss to her forehead. “I was?”

“Mm.” She relaxes, slightly. “Everything here is particularly spectacular.”

 


 

Narcissa isn’t staying in a hotel, Charlie learns.

She’s staying in a big, secluded, sixteenth-century villa—“Estate,” she corrects him with a wry, close-mouthed smirk—that’s fully staffed and immaculately restored and apparently belongs to some incredibly successful local shoemaker who once did “business”—whatever the shit that means—with her ex-husband.

It’s opulent.

It’s intimidating.

It’s fucking ridiculous, honestly.

There are frescoes painted on the ceilings, open-air atriums dotted throughout the ground floor, glass-boxed artifacts original to the house sitting on podiums in the hallways, like it’s a museum rather than a residence; in the master suite, next to the bed they’re sprawled out on, there’s a hammered bronze serving tray covered in slab slate platters of hard and soft cheeses, fat, juicy grapes and salted almonds and ripe stone fruits and hand-torn chunks of focaccia—there’s wine, too, in wafer-thin stemless glasses that probably cost more than Charlie’s pick-up truck back home, and tiny earthenware jugs of fresh-pressed artisanal olive oils infused with chili and basil and lemon and coriander—

“Does olive oil stain?” he asks. He tilts his head, hooking a finger around Narcissa’s long-discarded black lace panties, nudging them to the side, and then peers down at the drops of glossy yellow-green liquid currently soaking into the trillion thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. “I feel like olive oil definitely stains.”

She shrugs, her eyes closed, her hair fanned out across her pillow. Her indifference—and that’s what it is; an unfamiliar, almost daunting sort of apathy, performative in a way that makes him suspect she’s forgotten it’s a performance at all—it fascinates him. She’s spent her life being rich and being beautiful. Being unhappy, too, but that’s too slippery of a thought for him to really cling to, get a good grasp on. Her resentment is self-directed. Potent. It isn’t bitter, isn’t sour, doesn’t go down like a shot of cheap frat row vodka—doesn’t pucker his tastebuds, scorch the back of his throat.

It reminds him of buying a one-way ticket to Dublin, his hands shaking—with excitement? With adrenaline? With dread and fear and uncertainty?—as he typed in his credit card number and clicked the COMPLETE PURCHASE button and flipped through the then-empty pages of his passport.

“I’m flying back tomorrow,” Charlie blurts out. “To New York.”

Narcissa rolls over, turning towards him, propping herself up with her elbow. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

“You’re . . . sorry?” he repeats, bemused.

“I’d stay here forever, if I could,” she says, scooting closer, dropping her chin on his chest. She smells like sex. Like him. “Maybe I will.”

He huffs, slinging an arm around her waist, her hip, patting the back of her bare thigh and slouching against the tufted leather headboard. “I haven’t been home in over a year.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Why?”

“My, uh, my mom reacted pretty badly when I got accepted to grad school,” Charlie hedges. “Because of where it is.”

“And where is that?”

“Grad school?” he asks, playing dumb. Playing desperate. His answer is going to be the nail in the coffin of whatever this is. Narcissa lives in Manhattan. He cannot fucking believe he’s upset about that. “Montana. Bozeman.”

She hums, then presses forward, trailing a few leisurely kisses down his neck. He shivers, tightens his grip on her thigh; she straightens, throwing her shoulders back, and climbs into his lap, the pink-orange glaze of the sunset painting her skin, slinking through the gauzy linen curtains.

“You’re much less aimless than I assumed you were,” she says, like it’s a secret, like it’s a compliment—but she’s frowning. Considering. “I assumed we had that common, actually.”

“The aimlessness?”

“Yeah, see,” he says, “I think you’ve got it wrong.”

“Oh?”

“I think,” he manages to murmur as she rubs herself against his hardening cock, slow and sinuous, and he registers the heat of her, the slickness of her—as he watches, as he waits, as he brings his hands up to squeeze her tits, to pinch her nipples, the muscles in his stomach jumping, lurching, “that you have excellent aim.”

Her lips curve up at that, and her head falls back, and the laughter that tumbles out—of her, of him—it echoes around the room, bouncing between the rafters and the windows and the mirrors on the walls.