Brayden gazed into the woman’s vivid blue eyes. Her blonde hair flowed down her shoulders, soft, silky. She curled her fingers around the hair at the nape of his neck, and brought her mouth close to his. His heart beat erratically in anticipation of the moment their lips would touch. He shut his eyes, then felt the softest, sweetest sensation of his life. He tasted her sweet lips, shuddered as her tongue played with his. He wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her closely, tightly. His entire body quivered as it was pressed against hers. She began to pull away. He held her to him. She broke the kiss.
She looked at him with sadness in her eyes. He could feel it — she was leaving. He felt like she’d left him a thousand times before. That they were endlessly reliving this moment. He tried to hold onto her, but she turned and began to fade from view. He grasped at her disappearing figure, but his hands clutched air. She was gone.
He stood there, sorrow consuming him. Then the faint sounds of bells twinkling, and her soft, sweet voice.
Brayden shot up in bed. His heart was beating wildly in his chest, then he sunk back down, sighing. He stared up at the slanted ceiling of his attic room, trying to control his breathing. Thirty nights in a row. Thirty nights in a row. The same dream, of the same girl. A girl he’d never met. A girl whose loss broke his heart so much, he walked around all day full of sadness.
He covered his face with his hands, wishing more than anything for the dream to stop. He wasn’t someone who received visions — there was no way this woman existed. But she was haunting him. She was in his dreams at night, in his mind all day. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. Mourning her. She was torturing him.
He rolled over and tried to force himself to sleep. He would be useless tomorrow if he didn’t manage it. He held his pillow, trying to breathe slowly and carefully. But he had the same problem he had every night. He could still taste her.
“You look terrible. Worse than yesterday. How could you look worse than yesterday?”
Brayden rested his head on his arms, leaning on the table in the kitchen. His employer pulled up a chair and sat across from him. The cook and her worker were busy making breakfast for the inn’s guests, moving between the fireplace and the wooden benches, stirring food in pots and turning it over in frying pans. The smell of meat cooking and fresh bread filled the large room. Brayden had to get to work soon serving breakfast, but he could barely move.
“What’s going on?” Alistair asked.
Brayden lifted his head to look at his employer. He couldn’t tell him. He would think he was mad.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “I’m just — tired.”
The middle aged man snorted. “You’re past tired. You’re practically dead. You’ve been moping around for weeks, working slower than I’ve ever seen you — tell me what’s going on, or I’ll have to get rid of you.”
Brayden looked at him in surprise. “I — I...I’m not doing this on purpose. I’m trying to sleep, honestly.”
Alistair’s expression softened. He scratched his dark beard. “Your problems are none of my concern, son, but the way you work here is. You have to sort this out — whatever it is. You’re better than this. I don’t want to have to turn you out.”
Alistair stood and left the kitchen, patting Brayden on the shoulder as he walked by. Brayden rubbed his hand over his face, desperately trying to snap out of his sleepy haze. He couldn’t believe it was coming to this. He had to stop thinking about her.
Alistair yelled at him that a new guest had arrived, and he rose to attend to them. He walked out of the kitchen and down the dark hall. He moved through the large, empty dining room, then pushed open the door to the front area where they signed in guests.
A young woman stood before the high wooden counter, surrounded by a large trunk and a few satchels. She wore a light grey dress, and her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head messily, loose strands everywhere. She wore thick, enormous spectacles, which made her look much older than someone who, Brayden assumed, was about twenty-three, like him. He stood there for a moment watching her, then quickly moved behind the counter.
“Hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“I’d like a room,” she said in a quiet voice. “I’ll need to be here at least a week.”
He nodded, picking up the guest ledger and placing it before him. He dipped a quill in ink, and held it over the paper. “Your name, please?”
“Ariel Williams,” she said. He wrote it down.
“What kind of room...”
“Any one is fine,” she said quickly. He glanced up at her, curious at her nervousness. He turned and picked up a key hanging from a board on the wall behind him, then handed it to her.
“Room three,” he said. “You pay when you leave.”
He pointed to the sign on the wall with the costs, and she nodded, some strands of her hair flopping down. Brayden suppressed a smile.
“Will you be joining us for breakfast?” he asked.
“No,” she said softly. “I just want to get settled.”
His gaze wandered over her belongings, thinking that would take a while, but he didn’t say anything. He walked around to her and picked up the trunk. He struggled not to drop it, stunned at its weight. She picked up the satchels, then he led her up the staircase at the other end of the room. They arrived on the first floor, and she unlocked the door.
They walked into the medium sized room, and Brayden put the trunk in front of the desk near the door. The room was plain but comfortable, with a large bed, soft rug on the floor, fireplace along the wall opposite the bed, and a large dresser with a mirror on top next to it. The walls were white, the curtains beige. Ariel placed the satchels on the bed, then sat down on the thick blanket.
Brayden stood there for a moment, knowing he should be saying something, but for some reason forgot what it was. Ariel was looking at her hands, fiddling with the folds of her skirt. He swallowed, he thought very loudly. She looked up at him.
“Do you need anything else?” he finally stammered. She shook her head. He managed a small smile.
“Alright. Let me know if you do.”
He began to walk from the room. “Thank you,” she called after him. He didn’t say anything, just shut the door behind him. He stood there for a while, a peculiar feeling coming over him. He didn’t know what it was. Shaking his head, he walked back downstairs. He had to focus on his job. He couldn’t let any more thoughts of women disrupt him.
But as he began to finish the ledger entry when he arrived downstairs, he kept reading the woman’s name over and over. Ariel Williams. For a reason he couldn’t understand, he smiled. He kept smiling. He looked up at the staircase. She was only up those stairs. He grimaced to himself, thinking he was the biggest idiot in the world. Was he mesmerized by anyone in a dress? He sighed loudly.
But he smiled again.
Brayden did his best to work well for the rest of the day, trying not to yawn too obviously, and stay focused. He served breakfast and helped the maid clean up afterwards, then went to the market to buy some food and other items for the inn. He stocked the larder, and made some small repairs to items in the guests’ rooms. He worked solidly, hoping not to lose his place there. That was the last thing he needed.
He was determined not to think of the woman from his dream, but found that easier than he’d expected. He kept thinking of Ariel. She didn’t come down for lunch, and he found he’d been waiting to see her. He felt slightly nervous, knowing he could run into her at any time. He didn’t know what it was about her. Something kept her in his mind.
Soon enough it was dinner, and Brayden began serving meals to the guests as they sat at the three long tables in the dining room. A fire was blazing in the fireplace, and candles were placed on the tables, giving the room a warm, cozy atmosphere. Brayden put two steaming plates of meat and vegetables before a large man and his wife, then looked over at the door, hoping to see Ariel walk through. He frowned in disappointment, then went back to the kitchen to get more plates.
When he returned to the dining room he noticed Ariel sitting at the table near the fireplace, a little away from everyone else. He felt his heart beat a little faster, his breathing become more rapid. Her hair was still piled on top of her head, but she’d changed into a light green dress. Brayden tried to calm his nerves.
He picked up the jug of water and a glass from the long cabinet by the wall, and went over to her. His hand was slightly shaking as he poured her a glass. She was fiddling with her napkin, and he hoped she didn’t notice.
“Would you like some dinner?” he asked her. She looked up at him.
“I just want a cup of tea,” she said, in her quiet voice. “Please.”
He smiled at her, happy to bring her anything. As he walked towards the door, he saw the large man he’d served earlier nudge his wife, and point to Ariel.
“Could have at least tidied herself up,” he snickered. Brayden gritted his teeth. The man was so bald you could practically see the candlelight shining from his head. At least Ariel had hair. He walked quickly past him, not wanting to say anything that could get him in trouble. He entered the hallway, then heard a loud scream.
“Richard, what happened!” a woman yelled. Brayden ran back into the dining room and saw the man standing up, his food splattered all down his shirt. His wife stood by him, desperately trying to wipe the mess off of him with a napkin. Brayden bent to pick up his plate, lying on the floor. The man growled.
“I didn’t do this — it was her,” he yelled, pointing at Ariel. Brayden looked at her. Ariel was sitting there, her hands over her mouth, a stunned look on her face. The large man growled again.
“I was just sitting here, eating my food, and next thing I know it’s all over me! She’s a witch! Is her kind allowed here? Is that who we’re expected to stay with?”
Brayden put the plate on the table, and tried to control himself. Magic haters. He had to be very careful. This could get ugly.
“I’m sorry for what happened,” he said slowly, “but you have no proof Miss Williams did anything. Do you?”
The man huffed and puffed, turning red. He shoved back his chair and stormed from the room. His wife scurried after him. Brayden took a deep breath.
“Just an accident, everyone,” he said, desperately wanting everyone to stop staring at Ariel. The guests muttered among themselves, then gradually went back to eating. Brayden walked over to stand before Ariel. Her head was down, and she was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief.
“Are you alright?” he asked her quietly. She nodded, not looking at him. He wanted so much to comfort her.
“He just had an accident, and blamed you,” he said gently. “It’s not your fault.”
She sniffed, then her gaze met his. Brayden had to stop himself from gasping. Without her glasses, he could see she had the most beautiful blue eyes he’d ever seen. Vivid, stunning. She looked away, standing up.
“I don’t need the cup of tea,” she said. “I’ll just go to my room.”
Brayden stood there, speechless. He could barely breathe. He realized something as she walked away.
He’d seen those eyes before.