So much has happened during the day. So much is still happening and so fast that it’s difficult for Alaine to process everything. She simply tries to keep a handle on the volatile shifts in her emotions.
Right now it feels like she is about to get caught in a downward spiral. Needing a moment to regroup lest she loses her composure with Lucas watching, she slips off the bed.
Immediately, his hands are there to aid her.
“I’m fine,” she assures him, the short words causing him to step back.
Reading the hurt in his eyes, Alaine softens; but at the moment, she can’t be in the same room with him. Not if she doesn’t want to descend into hysterics.
“I’m sorry,” she tells him. “I’m just…”
“It’s fine. I understand,” Lucas says, giving her a wide berth.
She hesitates briefly and looks at him to communicate her regret before walking to the bathroom. After closing the door behind her, Alaine falls back against it.
What had she just agreed to?
She’s never done anything so impulsive in her life. Spending an evening at a hotel with Lucas was one thing. Going home with him is something completely different. It seems far more personal, especially since it doesn’t fall within the purview of their deal.
Of late, her decisions, her words, her actions regarding him are incongruent with the methodical, guarded person that she knows herself to be.
Since meeting Lucas it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the more time they spend together, the looser her grip on her sensibilities.
It was the beseeching in his eyes; the gentle plea in his voice; and the tenderness with which he handled her that did her in this time.
There was no charm infused in his actions tonight. Only raw and genuine emotion. He was being so achingly sweet and unlike anything Alaine has ever experienced before. How can she not crave that? Him? Who would blame her for falling?
This is a bad idea, she warns herself. She should go home; keep vigil over the small portion of her family that she has.
It’s impossible to understand why he would open his home to her; a virtual stranger. She should be grateful for the protection he is willing to offer. As a matter of fact she is grateful. But Alaine is predisposed to finding a hidden motive in the actions of others. It stands in the way of her ability to fully trust Lucas.
What if he expects something in return for this generous offer? Would she be willing to give it to him? The fact that she isn’t sure of the answer to that question is even more troubling.
Finding the strength to pull herself off the door, Alaine moves to stand before the mirror hanging on the wall. Wide panicked eyes return her stare. They are reddened and inflamed, straining against the bright, humming overhead fluorescents, that make them smart and tear.
Her flare of panic is short-lived with the reminder of her near demise glaring back at her.
A dark gray film, that seems embedded in her pores, coats her skin. The heavy odor of smoke and whatever had been used to fuel the flame still clings to her. Replaying the images of the time spent battling the blazing inferno, makes her shudder again.
She’s still so frightened. When she closes her eyes all she can see are the leaping flames reaching for her and Mona. The thought that someone had deliberately done this is terrifying. Who would do it? Why? The more she thinks about it the more Delah’s ex seems a stretch.
Although Alaine tells herself that they’re wrong and it was merely an unfortunate accident, she is still genuinely afraid. This would not be the first time she’s experienced first-hand the depravity of humanity.
Weakened by her thoughts, she sags against the sink and fights back a sob. This is her second close run-in with the angel of death. On its wings tonight, it carries hurtful, terrible memories to haunt her. Violent tremors begin to rock her body as she loses the battle to suppress them.
It’s been years since she’s really cried. A sad commentary when she thinks about it. One that speaks to how lonely her life is. Her near-death experience tonight puts that into perspective.
What would happen if she had died tonight? Who would have mourned her?
On the other side of the door is a man she doesn’t want to witness her pitiful breakdown. As an afterthought, she locks the door with an unsteady hand.
Finally, her wobbly knees give up, sinking her to the floor.
Clasping her hand over her mouth, Alaine tries to silence her hoarse and broken wail.
A sudden knock on the door and Lucas’ urgent voice alerts her that her efforts weren’t good enough.
He’d heard her and the soft whimpering calls to that part of him that needs to see her well.
“Ali?” he says, knocking on the door again. “Ali,” he repeats, this time jiggling the handle only to find it locked. “Open the door, baby. Let me in,” he requests softly. “Please, Ali.”
“I’m fine,” she declares, trying to sound resolute.
All Lucas hears is the fragility in her voice.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” Alaine adds.
Reluctantly, Lucas heeds her request for privacy. He steps away from the door, resisting the urge to shoulder the flimsy material in.
At the sound of his retreating steps, Alaine feels relieved but remains on the white, cold, tiled floor trying to pull herself together.
She inhales deeply against the constricting in her chest. Slowly, her anxiety begins to recede.
Someone does care for her and right now only a thin strip of wood and her own hang-ups stand between them.
Lucas’ beautiful face floats behind her closed eyelids. She often wonders about him. Who is he? Why does he care?
New tears stream from her eyes but for a different reason. It shouldn’t matter who he thinks he is. What she has is evidence of who he’s been to her since they met. That’s all that matters. She will worry about the rest as it comes.
Shutting the door to her haunting past, Alaine lifts herself off the floor. She’s held on to those memories for so long, feeling that it is her right to do so. Maybe it is. Maybe she shouldn’t allow herself to forget. But it’s no way to live and she wants to live.
Her epiphany gives her a new purpose. Using her shirt – heavy and black with ash – to dry the wetness off her face only sullies it further. Alaine huffs. She’ll just have to wait until she is able to properly clean herself. In Lucas’ bathroom.
Giving her reflection a decisive nod and taking a deep breath, Alaine turns to the door.
“Are you okay?” Lucas asks as soon as she steps outside.
She squints her eyes at him thoughtfully and cocks her head to the side. “Did you just call me baby?” she rasps.
Lucas tries to cover his shock that she’d noticed with nonchalance. “That’s your big takeaway from the entire evening?” he asks.
Though she remains silent, Alaine crosses her arms over her chest and struts back to the bed. She likes the term of endearment, she decides. She likes Ali, coming from his lips as well. Of course, she can’t tell him that.
Following her from a safe distance, one Lucas figures she won’t find imposing, he mentally berates himself for yet another mistake – calling her baby. It had just slipped out. Whether it is a reflection of his feelings he doesn’t know. What he is aware of is that he can’t keep blindsiding her this way.
“Are you afraid of me now?” Alaine asks when he stops a few paces from the bed.
“I don’t want to overwhelm you more than you already are,” he explains.
Silently, she pats the empty spot on the bed beside her in invitation.
Lucas smiles. She’s so small the two of them can easily fit. Rolling his eyes because of the ridiculous fluttering in his heart and stomach, he closes the distance. Still, it is with a level of uncertainty that he slides in next to her.
Unsure of how comfortable he should allow himself to get, he remains rigid. Alaine looks at him confused. It was the attitude she displayed earlier that’s chased the easiness out of the room.
With that in mind, she makes an attempt to rectify it by laying her head on his shoulder. These little gestures always catch him unawares. After a momentary delay in his reaction, Lucas leans back against the bed to ensure her comfort.
“Is this okay?” she asks him.
“Perfectly,” he replies. Then he tells her, “I got you something.”
"I’m taking you directly to my apartment to rest, Alaine,” Lucas admonishes, sometime later.
Alaine shakes her head and whispers, “not without my sister.”
Stubborn little woman, Lucas thinks. “Someone is going to bring them…”
Again, Alaine shakes her head, cutting off his argument.
“Alaine it is late,” Lucas tells her. “Once we leave here, it will take us over an hour to get back to your apartment and cross the Manhattan Bridge. You heard the nurse. You need your rest.”
“I don’t mind,” she answers with a shrug.
“Alaine,” he implores softly. “You’re putting on a brave face but I can feel you tremble every once in a while. You’re tired and still shaken. We are going to my apartment,” he says firmly. “What is the problem? Do you want your niece to see you covered in soot and ash and smelling of smoke? You’ll scare the poor girl.”
That seems to do the trick since she opens her mouth to speak but closes it again. Lucas is happy that there is no need to reveal that he is about ready to drop. He is hungry and fatigue is settling in his bones.
Listening to Alaine’s resigned sigh, he smiles. When she lifts her eyes to his again, he chuckles at the way the defiant fire fizzles out of those green and gold irises.
“If it will make you more comfortable, Seth can be the one who picks them up but only after he takes us home,” he suggests. “That’s the best I can offer you, Ms. Knight.”
A smile tugs one corner of her mouth.
“What?” he asks.
“I didn’t realize this was a negotiation,” she tells him.
“It’s not and you shouldn’t be talking,” he reminds her.
“Aren’t you two cozy,” Seth announces when he reenters the room to see Alaine curled up next to Lucas with her head resting over his heartbeat.
Ignoring the remark, Lucas asks, “have you heard anything new?”
“I should hear something by tomorrow,” Seth responds. “If it’s not Harlan then we…”
“Let’s not have this conversation right now,” Lucas interrupts with a quick glance down at Alaine’s crazy hair. Even so, she makes a fetching picture covered in ash in a hospital bed.
What really turns him on right now is the fact that she is immersed in a tech infomercial on the television hanging on the wall and feasting on the chocolates he'd bought for her. A woman after his own heart. “It’s been a long night,” Lucas tells him.
The truth is, he doesn’t want to scare Alaine any more than she already is.
“Let’s get out of here, then,” Seth suggests.
The roads are mostly clear at this hour. For that they are thankful. Seth pushes the speed limit as much as he can so the drive to Lucas' apartment is over in quick time.
Once they pull into the garage, Lucas steps out of the car and lifts Alaine in his arms.
For the entire time they’ve been together tonight, all he’s been able to smell is the residue of smoke. He wishes instead for the light fragrance she usually wears that tickles his nostrils and heats his blood.
“This is the second time I’ve had to carry you, Ms. Knight,” he says. “One more time and it will be a habit.”
“Good habit or bad habit?” she asks.
“Hmmm,” Lucas hums thoughtfully. “The jury’s still out on that,” he jokes.
As he walks beside them, Seth rolls his eyes and pushes the elevator button.
They ride the way in silence until it stops on the top floor. As soon as the door open to Lucas' penthouse, Alaine gapes at the sheer size and magnificence of the space. He walks inside and places her gently on the gargantuan off white soft sofa and she all but disappears in it.
Alaine leaps to her feet and bumps into him.
“Ow,” he groans, rubbing his cheek. “What is wrong with you?” he questions with a pained chuckle.
“I’m dirty,” she says, pointing to the sofa.
Rolling his eyes at her, Lucas commands, “sit down.”
He never thought he would have her in his apartment and certainly not this soon after meeting her. Something in him cannot stay away from the little fey. There’s an innate need in him to protect her, to possess her, to be with her and now that he has her here, he is not about to make her feel unwelcomed over preserving the appearance of his material possessions.
Instead of compliance, Alaine remains on her feet, her eyes admiring her new surroundings.
Tall floor to ceiling glass windows with chrome edges gives her a spectacular view of Manhattan’s twinkling skyline.
“You’re resting,” Lucas orders softly when she tries to step around him. “You can sightsee any other time.”
Deflated, Alaine pouts and he laughs.
A feeling filters into Lucas. A feeling he’s only ever experienced when with Alaine. Joy is what it is. And it is incredible. He is joyous that this woman, who is short-circuiting his entire system, is alive and with him in his apartment.
“I’ve never had someone pout at me before, Alaine. You are quite a refreshment,” he confesses.
Using his thumb, he smooths the black film covering the flawless skin of her cheek. She looks tired but he imagines a warm bath might go a long way in washing away not only the blackness of the ash, maybe some of the tension as well.
As he continues to stand so close to her, touching her, the lightness between them suddenly fades away, leaving room for something intense.
“I’m guessing you’d like a bath?” Lucas offers softly.
Although she nods, Alaine says, “ I don’t have anything to wear. I’ll just wait until Delah gets here.”
“Nonsense,” Lucas tells her. “You can wear something of mine. Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Before turning on his heels to head for the floating stairway to the second floor, Lucas leans down and kisses her forehead.
In his bathroom, he runs the hot water for her bath and for a soothing fragrance, adds the aromatic shower gel Jackie supplies him with.
Walking back to his bedroom, Lucas sets out one of his larger, black t-shirts to offer her some modesty and an unused pair of his boxers. Wondering what Alaine will think of the items, he looks at them thoughtfully.
Christ. The woman he wants to sleep with is going to be here wearing his clothes. He never imagined something so simple could be so erotic. God, he can envision it.
Lucas gives himself a stern warning to rid himself of those wayward imaginings. No matter what, he is a rake, thorough and through. The poor girl almost lost her life tonight and all he can think about is burying himself inside her right here on this bed. Or in the bathtub. Hell, he’d take her in the shower against the wall if she lets him.
Lucas groans at the pleasurable thought and in frustration. It’s going to be a long night. After getting his hopeful male anatomy back under control, he returns to the living room to find Alaine peering out the window at the city below.
He creeps up behind her and sweeps her off her feet. She squeals. The rough, broken sound makes him laugh. “That’s your punishment,” he tells her. “I thought I told you to stay put.”
“Your view is spectacular,” she says.
“Indeed,” Lucas responds, his eyes locked on her.
“Do you live here alone?” Alaine manages to ask as her breathing picks up.
“Mhmm,” Lucas answers.
“It’s a lot of space,” she notes. “Don’t you get lonely?”
Terribly, he thinks but says, “I like peace and quiet,” which isn’t a lie. “I guess now it’s a habit,” he says as he carries her up the stairs.
Entering his bedroom, he ignores the large bed where he would like to lay her down. He walks into the bathroom and sets her down beside the tub.
Already aware that she likes this side of him – the side that seems to care for her – Alaine lays a hand on the front of his shirt. Lucas’ heart kicks in response to the soft touch and the smile playing on her lips.
“You came for me,” she says while looking into his eyes that sparkle with an emotion she cannot name.
“What?” he asks.
Reaching for his hand she repeats, “at the shop. You came for me.”
Rendered speechless, Lucas simply looks at her. It’s not often Alaine makes these gestures. Small as they are, they extend to his soul. In an automatic reaction, he maneuvers their fingers until they are laced together.
“It smells great in here,” Alaine notes.
Severing their connection, she leans down to run her hand through the hot water. “It smells like you.”
Lucas dares not speak. Or move. If he does it will be to tell her that he wants her. He will pull her against him, lose his fingers in her hair and kiss her until she surrenders everything to him tonight.
“Are you alright?” Alaine asks to his frozen form.
To distract himself he takes a small washcloth and runs it through the water in the bathtub. Very gently, he begins to wash the soot off her face. A lump lodges in his throat. He works silently and she lets him. Satisfied with his work, he sets down the soiled cloth and palms her face.
“I’m glad you’re okay Ali,” he says softly. “There’s a towel right there when you’re done and I set some clothes for you on the bed.”
The air around them pulses with an electric charge, lust and longing its fuel. Alaine’s tongue peeks out to run over her lips. Desire – hot and hungry – claws at Lucas. The look in Alaine’s eyes are almost his undoing. It’s innocence and something far more potent. The rise and fall of her chest signify that she feels it too. She wants him and he knows it.
He wants her too. He wants to strip her bare and climb into the tub with her; wash away the soot and horror of the night. He wants to make love to her in the warm water until there is no memory of her brush with death. Until all she knows is him.
Lucas takes a determined step back. Not tonight. Not after what she’s endured, he reminds himself. He'll just have to wait.
Broken out of the enchantment weaved around them, Alaine blinks away the tears clinging to her eyelids.
“Thank you for this,” she tells him.
Unable to resist and needing her to understand that this is by no means a rejection, Lucas steps to her again. He presses his forehead against hers before placing a kiss on her cheek.
“I’ll come for you anywhere, Alaine” he admits. How could he not?