In the furthest corner of Chatham, inside the brilliantly hidden, off-white brick house at the base of the mountain and the edge of the sea, Aurora Davis paces silently the along the wide halls, taking in her surroundings with wide eyes. It is 5:30 AM, but she’d long given up on sleep. This side of the hallway is darker than the other side, the one with Dominic’s room; small oil lamps line the walls on one side, providing minimal light but casting a glow like gold along the walls and along her hands and across the floors. The other side is a rail which overlooks the first floor all the way down to the front entryway. At the end of the hallway the ceiling opens up to a room which reminds her of what a conservatory might look like, except much, much larger: round walls, a curved, glass ceiling which forms a natural sort of chandelier with the light from the sun.
She is momentarily distracted from her mission to find Dominic, pacing quietly along the pattern on the tile which forms the figure of a sun at the center. If the sun were in the sky yet, it’s light would pour inside and reflect through the glass ceiling in all sorts of chaotic directions and illuminate the colored tile back across the walls. But it’s dark and empty now, which makes it all the more surprising when Dominic’s voice echoes faintly from a closed door at the other side of the conservatory-like room.
“Is that what he told them?”
Aurora freezes, her head turning toward the light which peaks out from the closed office door in the other hallway. His voice is muffled from inside, but despite its coldness there is still a sense of comfort in hearing it. She forces this odd feeling away.
“And you believed him, then?”
She paces slowly across the tile toward the second hallway. It’s a strange place for an office, she thinks, the edge of the house at its highest point. It’s separated from the rest of the house in a way that says he doesn’t want other people inside.
There are some things I am meant to know, and you are meant not to worry about.
A moment’s hesitation. She rests her hand gently on the wooden surface, pushing it open just enough so that she can peak inside without being caught.
“You believed the man with a minuscule revenue stream, no cash reserves, and an incarceration scheme of a contract which requires an approval process so slow it’s sedated. This man over the one who has been doing this shit since he was nineteen. Yes, nineteen... Because I went to college with him.”
Dominic paces back and forth in front of his desk, the phone lies atop a stack of papers, glowing red as he speaks into the device around his ear. His voice is eerily calm, but the veins in his neck pump angrily with the tension in his arms and jaw.
“Yes, he was informed of new investors. I was informed as well. No, I was informed that if new investors came along, then the shares would be diluted equally. And what were Calvin’s shares diluted down to?... Yours?... Do you understand my concern, Nick? Do you understand how that looks?”
He tugs angrily at the fabric of his dress shirt, in the moment it is an inconvenient restriction. His tie next as it hangs loosely around his neck. He tugs it off over his head and flings it against the leather chair. He leans his hands against the desk, his forearms tensing under the rolled sleeves of his dress shirt.
“I’m not signing those papers... I don’t care what position that puts you in- I don’t care what you tell your boss.” A pause. Dominic releases what sounds like a laugh but there is no humor in it.
“I take that back, Nick. I’ll give you something to tell him.”
He backs away from the desk and stares out the window with his back to her. His voice is quieter when he speaks, but Aurora hears each word as clearly as if he shouted them.
“You tell Harris that he doesn’t know who he’s involved with. And the next time he wants to issue eight million new shares of stock unapproved, then it better be eight million shares of his own fucking company.”
With that, Dominic turns toward his desk and presses a button on the screen. Then after a moment’s hesitation, he types in a name and hits call, backing away with an audible sigh as he waits for an answer. His posture is completely different than when he was talking to the other man. His anger is gone and replaced by intent. It’s enigmatic, how he switches so effortlessly between the two. She watches as he stares thoughtfully at the wall in front of him, his profile facing her.
“Caspar,” he says once the call goes through. It’s weird, she thinks, how neither says hello when they answer the phone.
“I’m fine... Aurora is asleep right now... because that’s her name, Caspar. Use it.”
Her heart stutters in her chest at the mention of her name. Dominic hates it when Caspar calls her princess, or angel, or baby. The last one though, that upsets him the most.
“We’re leaving for New York in a few hours... No... Because I’m locking up over here. If you need January forwarded to you, just text Carmen and she’ll send it.”
Dominic opens his mouth to continue, before closing it again. He thinks for a moment before settling on the words he wants to say.
“I need you to fly in on Wednesday. I’ll explain there. Just...” he clenches the bridge of his nose between his fingers, shutting his eyes tightly before speaking again. “You’re still in contact with Hanford, right?... From the Westgate case last year, the attorney... Hansen, whatever. Okay, good.”
A pause as Dominic listens from the other end. His voice is quieter when he speaks again, resonating so lowly in his chest that it takes all of Aurora’s focus to hear it.
“Not in months, Caspar. Completely clean. You know that.”
A pause. Her brows knit together thoughtfully as she tries to decipher the words which made his shoulders tense up so suddenly.
“On my life. Yes... Yes I’ll let you know. Bye.”
There is a brief moment between when Dominic ends the call and when his eyes catch her own from where she stands in the doorway of his private office. A moment so brief, that Aurora isn’t sure whether it happened. But it must have, because one moment he is facing his desk and ending a call, and the next he is looking right at her.
“This,” he says softly, a complete contrast to his tone just moments before, “is a beautiful surprise.”
She takes a step back and his eyes darken suddenly, enough to keep her in her place.
A pause. Her legs move toward him on their own, her hands fiddling nervously with the ends of her sleeves while her feet bring her closer to where he leans casually against his desk. She stops a few feet in front of him. His dark, tired eyes meet hers expectantly and she inches closer. And closer again until he is satisfied. He takes her hands in his larger ones and guides them to rest against his abdomen. Now he has her entire attention, but it is a detached sort of attention. She watches him as though she isn’t there, but rather watching from a distance. And it is a part of her beauty, he thinks. This quality of being not quite there, dreamlike.
“How long have you been standing there?”
She pauses, her mind scrambling to form a reasonable lie. A minute? Two? She was just walking by the door? Maybe she-
“You’re thinking too much,” he murmurs quietly, raising his hand to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. “That means you aren’t going to tell me the truth.”
“Is Caspar in trouble?”
The question comes tumbling from her mouth before she can stop it, but Dominic’s expression remains the same thoughtful and loving. But she can see the way his mind works behind his eyes, how the stress is plaguing him.
She lifts one of her hands to brush lightly against the stubble growing on his jaw, then pulls away quickly, embarrassed. She hadn’t realized he’d closed his eyes until she sees him open them again, that same thoughtful expression.
“You know,” he says softly, loosening the cufflinks from his sleeves and setting them beside him on the desk. His hands return to her waist, the warmth from them seeping through the fabric of the gray long sleeve he lent her. He smooths down the fabric gently before meeting her eyes again. “People don’t typically turn up in my office, unannounced, without a good reason.”
She bites her lip to try and fight back a smile. “I have a good reason.”
“I would love to hear it.”
She tries hard to match his intensity with her eyes. Three seconds in and a tiny smile is teasing the edge of her lips and soon she can’t stop the laughter which bubbles over. She tries to turn away from him as she laughs but his hands at her waist keep her in place. He smiles softly as she tries to recompose herself. Then suddenly she turns serious again and he matches her expression but with smiling eyes.
“I wanted to give you something,” she says, finally.
“Oh?” he struggles to maintain a serious expression. “What did you want to give me?”
A pause before she is smiling again, more mischievously this time. The next moment she is reaching out her hands and tickling his abdomen mercilessly.
His arms shoot out instinctively to defend himself but she just moves up to his neck. Then back to his sides. “Aurora!” he protests breathlessly, squirming desperately between her hands. The precious sound of her laughter is the only thing keeping him from restraining her hands completely.
“Aurora, why?” he breathes out between laughs, trying to step back only to hit the desk behind him. “What did I do?”
“Nothing,” she laughs, a sweet laughter he can feel in his lungs, so hard it takes his breath away.
After another minute of torture she lets up, backing away from him instinctively. She bites her lip nervously in an attempt to restrain her smile. Dominic’s chest rises and falls rapidly from where he stands a few feet away. There is an unmistakable intent in his eyes, but above anything else there is happiness.
“You better run,” he breathes out and her heart stops in her chest. “Fast.”
And the next moment she is sprinting down the hallway toward the stairs, with Dominic close behind. She grips the rail tightly and flings herself around the corner, taking the steps two at a time. When she reaches the first floor she takes off through the front entryway, the rising sun casting a glow like gold along the floors as she sprints toward the kitchen. She is laughing uncontrollably now, the thrill of being chased through a house which isn’t her own pumping rapidly through her veins. A small part of her knows that if Dominic really wanted to, he would have caught her by now.
As if reading her thoughts, two strong arms lace their way tightly around her waist, earning a scream from her which quickly turns into even more precious laughter as his impossibly large hands attack her sides. He lifts her up into his arms, restraining her little body firmly with one arm and tickling her stomach mercilessly with the other.
“Dom, s-stop!” she begs him through her laughter, tears streaming relentlessly down her cheeks.
“You want me to stop?” he asks, kneeling down to the ground as she slips from his arms onto the tile. She raises her arms to defend herself only for him to tickle her beneath her arms.
“I’m afraid that’s not how revenge works, baby.” The sound of her melodic laughter resonates throughout the empty house and part of him wants to never stop if it means that she’ll keep making that sound. For a moment, the tightness in his chest is gone. He can almost breathe it in.
“I’m sorry!” she shouts, her arms and waist spasming uncontrollably beneath him.
“Are you going to sneak into my office again?”
“Are you going to tickle me again?”
“No, no, no! Never again I promise!”
With this he lets up, lifting her limp body into his arms and up over his shoulders. He spins her around one, two, three times in the large kitchen, unable to help the smile which splits his cheeks as she grips tightly the fabric of his dress shirt and giggles happily.
Suddenly, the sound of clattering metal resonates around them. Dominic freezes, turning toward the doorway to face the source of the sound. A small, frail old woman with dark hair stands frozen in the doorway, her jaw nearly hitting the floor where the metal tray she dropped lies as well. He adjusts his grip on Aurora, lacing his hands together beneath her to hold her against him as he faces the woman.
“Good morning, Luisa.”
The sound of his voice snaps the woman out of her reverie and she rushes to grab the tray up off the floor, setting it carefully atop the counter. All the while, her wide eyes never leave the two of them.
“He started it,” Aurora’s breathless voice resonates between them.
“Good morning,” Luisa responds finally, her mind struggling to catch up.
“Aurora,” Dominic says, gripping her sides and setting her down in front of him to face the woman. “This is Ana Luisa, but she prefers Luisa. She takes care of the house while I’m gone. Luisa, esta é Aurora, minha alma.”
Luisa’s eyes light up at this. Her eyes shift from Aurora to Dominic and back again.
“Ela é bonita demais para você.”
“Isso é verdade.”
“Are you talking about me?” Aurora asks confusedly.
“Yes, Amada,” Luisa says happily. She shuffles over to the two of them, grabbing Aurora’s hands in her frail ones and dragging her further into the kitchen. “Go shower, filho. Aurora will help me with breakfast.”
“Are you sure-”
He hesitates in the doorway. “Go easy, Luisa.”
Luisa tsks under her breath, waving him away with the hand that isn’t grabbing pans from the cabinet above the stove. He raises his arms in surrender, backing away toward the stairs with one last look over his shoulder. Aurora is grabbing spices from the drawer beside the stove and giggling at something Luisa said. He smiles, shaking his head as he starts up the stairs.
⋯ ⋯ ⋯
“When are you going to sleep?”
Dominic turns to face her for a moment before focusing his eyes back toward the empty road in front of them. His brows knit together.
“What do you mean?”
“Because you didn’t sleep last night, and now we’re going to the city all day.”
“What makes you think I didn’t sleep last night?”
“You were wearing your work clothes this morning,” she faces him as she answers him, even though his eyes remain focused on the road. “When you were talking on the phone.”
He is silent for a moment after that. Then he is laughing quietly, shaking his head.
“Are you tired?”
“No. But I’ll sleep on the plane if it makes you feel better.”
He nods, a tiny smile teasing the edge of his lips.
“You didn’t tell me we were taking a plane.”
He says nothing; she watches with wide eyes as he pulls off into a side road which leads to a warehouse looking building. As they drive closer, she can just make out the ramp which connects to a jet bridge and a sleek, white private jet. Dominic parks in front of the building, killing the engine and circling the car to the passenger side. He opens Aurora’s door, then kneels down to face her when she makes no move to get out.
“Do we have to fly there?” she asks him quietly.
“We don’t have to. But I want you to have the full day today.”
She lifts her legs up onto the seat, clutching them tightly against her chest.
“I’ve never been in a plane before, Dom.”
“They crash, like, all the time.”
“You don’t know that.”
A pair of men in uniform begin unpacking the trunk of Dominic’s car, bringing their bags toward the jet bridge but Dominic ignores them completely.
“Hey,” he reaches out his hand, turning her to face him. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want. But I would never let you get hurt.”
Aurora looks at Dominic, then at the plane behind him. Then back at him.
“I’ll tell you what,” he grips her hand tightly in his, lifting her up out of the car and shutting the door. “Why don’t we just take a look inside? You can make a decision then.”
He doesn’t wait for her to answer, linking his fingers through her smaller ones and walking unhurriedly toward the warehouse-looking building. The sun is nearly completely risen now, and all the stars are gone. Dominic is murmuring something quietly in her ear, gesturing to something in front of them, but Aurora isn’t listening. She is thinking of drowning, holding your breath until you’re almost dead, the water burning in your lungs until you’re completely dead.
She doesn’t realize they’ve reached the platform until she is standing on the jet bridge in front of a man in a pilot uniform. On the front of his black suit jacket is a winged badge enclosed in a wreath, four gold stripes on each of his shoulders and a white officer-style cap with a golden insignia. He looks to be in his early thirties, though he could be younger or older.
Aurora meets the man’s eyes and blushes slightly when she realizes she’s been staring. She turns toward Dominic who looks down at her patiently.
“Good morning,” the man breaks the silence. He steps closer to Aurora, reaching out his hand for her to shake. “You must be Miss Davis.”
She grasps his hand and shakes it firmly like Caspar taught her. “You can call me Aurora.”
He nods. “I’m Aaron, and I’m your captain for this flight,” he looks up to Dominic then back to Aurora. “I’ve heard a great deal about you. Mr. Carter is a good friend of mine, I’m command pilot for nearly all his flights.”
She nods absently, fighting the urge to slip behind Dominic to escape this man’s gaze and forcing herself to remain in place.
The two men share a second look. Captain Aaron leans down slightly, removing his pilot cap and holding it against his chest. His hair is dark with hints of gray. Definitely older than early thirties.
“I hear you’re not too keen on flying today. Is that true?”
Aurora searches the man’s eyes intently for a moment before nodding hesitantly.
“Have you ever flown before, Aurora?”
A pause. She shakes her head.
Aaron smiles kindly, straightening up and returning his cap to his head. He holds out his arm.
“Mr. Carter has some details about our flight to straighten out. While he takes care of that...” he pauses, nodding his head toward the edge of the jet bridge which leads to the open plane door, “why don’t I show you around a bit?”
⋯ ⋯ ⋯
Thirty minutes later, thirty thousand miles higher in the air, Dominic is watching the movement of Aurora’s fingers intently as she reaches up and traces little patterns in the window beside them. She leans into him, tucked softly between his side and his arm which is draped around her shoulder, his right hand playing absently with the soft strands of her hair.
He takes this moment to lean closer, to lean his head down into her impossibly soft hair and breathe in deeply. There are so many things he wants to tell her, so many things he wants to say but sometimes it feels better not to talk at all. About anything. This is one of those times. To grow up in the system is to feel weightless, not the freeing kind, but the kind that feels like wasting away, all miniscule atoms and breakable bones. To be a magnate on Wall Street is to feel impossibly heavy, like there are a thousand galaxies exploding in every inch of you and you are burning too bright to ever be looked at directly. To sit with Aurora and breathe her in is to feel human. To feel everything.
Dominic looks down to see Aurora has fallen asleep against him. He turns to face the flight attendant who looks at them with twinkling eyes.
“I just wanted to tell you that we’re going to start our descent. Is there anything I can get you before we land?”
He turns toward Aurora, sliding the arm which lays draped across her shoulders down behind her back and shifting her gently so he can fasten her seatbelt. She shifts lightly but luckily she doesn’t awaken, tucked securely into his side.
“I have everything I need, thank you.”
The young woman smiles kindly. “Of course. Let me know if anything changes.” She walks away toward the bulkhead.
Dominic waits until they are alone again to lace his fingers softly through the dark hair just above her neck. It isn’t enough to hurt, but enough to wake her less abruptly than shaking her. He tilts her head gently toward him, pressing his lips against her temple while she stirs slightly.
“Dom, stop it.”
“You have to wake up, baby.”
“Five more minutes.”
“Five more minutes and we’ll be in New York.”
⋯ ⋯ ⋯
Winter in New York City is overwhelming, if you’re ready to look at it full on. The sound is feeling and the people are energy. To walk beneath the permanence of a city that is constantly evolving is to feel like out of place, but to have Dominic holding her hand and navigating the streets with a mindless ease is to feel like an integral part of it.
They had sandwiches for lunch at a tiny cafe on Bowery street, with glass windows which spanned the entire length of the wall. Dominic sat with his back to the window, while she sat on the side of the booth which faced it. The dark curls at the front of his head seemed to absorb the light from the early morning sun. She’d drawn him on the receipt without him knowing. (He’d picked up the drawing and tucked it into his wallet without her knowing).
“Where are we going, Dom?” She asks him finally, after a long walk through the heart of Midtown. He just smiles, gripping her hand tighter.
The smile is what had initially grabbed her attention, but now it is everything. For once he isn’t wearing a suit. He wears a dark blue sweater tucked into black slacks, a brown leather belt to tie it off. His dark hair is messy and curly in the front, but trimmed too short anywhere else to see the loose curls. He is tired. But it isn’t the kind of tired that sleeping can fix, but the kind of tired that results from the life being sucked out of you. He looks tired, in a dark, ‘I’ve seen some shit’ sort of way. But in this moment he also looks extremely alive.
“You like New York a lot, don’t you?”
“I can’t stand it, actually.”
Aurora’s brows knit together in confusion.
“Then why do you look so happy?”
He chuckles softly, raising her hand up to his mouth and pressing his lips against their joined fingers. “I’m holding your hand.”
She can’t dwell too long on this because the next moment they are standing in front of the rink at Rockefeller Center, and Dominic is guiding her through the crowd and renting them both a pair of skates.
Neither are bad at skating, but neither are quite good either. Dominic skates just behind her, his abdomen brushing lightly against her back, his arms shooting out beneath her own to prop her up each time she falls, which, by the end of the hour and a half, is not all that often.
They begin what they agree is their last lap around the rink, her hands trembling from the cold and her sides aching from all the laughing. Tears gather in the corners of her eyes from both. Dominic makes a joke about feeling like an ice princess and Aurora is laughing so hard that she nearly falls again before he reaches his arms out to prop her back up. The flutter of a camera lens sounds next to them and he sobers up immediately, scanning the crowd around them intently.
“What is it?” Aurora asks, looking around them in confusion. But Dominic is already skating toward a young woman at the edge of the rink who holds a polaroid camera. She is all smiles as Dominic approaches her, gesturing toward him and then to Aurora. She pulls out the picture and waits a moment before showing it to him.
Aurora watches in confusion as he says something to her. She nods in agreement. He opens his wallet, pulling out a few bills and handing them to the girl. She brushes some snow off of the photo and hands it to him for him to slide into his waller. The girl says something again, then waves kindly at Aurora from where she stands. Aurora waves back.
“What was that,” she asks Dominic as he skates closer. He grabs her hand and continues skating.
He doesn’t turn to face her, staring thoughtfully ahead of them. “That girl took a picture of us and I bought it.”
Aurora turns toward him curiously.
“You hate pictures. Why would you pay for one?”
“Because if I hadn’t bought it, someone else would have. And they would have paid a lot more for it.”
“Oh,” she says quietly. She doesn’t understand, but she doesn’t press the subject.
“Are you done skating?” he asks as they approach one of the exits. She nods softly, following him off the rink and onto one of the benches. He unlaces his own skates quickly before she even finishes untying one of hers. Her fingers are numb from the cold, shaking as they pry at the tight laces. Dominic kneels down in front of her, freeing the laces easily and sliding her converse back onto her feet and lacing those as well. He grabs her hand in one hand, their skates in the other and returns them to the window.
“What next?” she asks curiously, hoping to lighten the strange mood he’s fallen into. It works, and after a moment that excited twinkle returns to his eyes.
“It’s a surprise.”
⋯ ⋯ ⋯
They eat dinner while the sunsets in Little Italy, at a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant owned by a sweet old woman who sparks a conversation with Aurora in Italian. Dominic catches only pieces of what they say, but is content to listen to the cadence of their speech.
“Sei una bella coppia,” the woman had said at one point, making Aurora blush furiously. “Mi piacerebbe venire al matrimonio.”
Aurora shakes her head furiously. “Siamo solo amici. Ottimi amici.”
“Ah, vedo il mode in cui ti guarda.”
It’s a beautiful language, more beautiful when Aurora speaks it, though she hardly ever does. She tells him that she only ever spoke it with her father, and is always too nervous to speak incorrectly.
After dinner there is a large black car with tinted windows waiting for them outside. Aurora writes a little note on the receipt for the woman and leaves it on the edge of the table before following Dominic into the car. The driver navigates the streets effortlessly while sparking a casual conversation with him. Aurora watches the streets light up as they pass them, her brows knitting together in confusion as they pass the more busy parts of the city and into a less urban area. After around forty-five minutes of driving, Aurora turns toward Dominic curiously as he types something into his phone. When he senses her looking at him he looks up from his phone and returns her gaze, knowing her question before she asks it. He smiles and shakes his head
“I’m not going to tell you where we’re going,” he says, looking back down toward his phone and continuing with whatever he is typing. “You’ll know when we get there.”
“When will we get there?”
“When we get there.”
Aurora throws her hands up in exasperation, sinking lower into her seat and causing her hair to bunch up around her shoulders. Not even a minute later they are pulling into a large roundabout with an ornate marble fountain and a glowing glass building at the end of it. She maintains her position stubbornly, arms crossed and body sunken low into the seat, but he can see the way her eyes scan intently the scene outside from where she sits. He can see her mind working behind her eyes, rushing to comprehend everything all at once. To see something beautiful is one thing, to watch Aurora see something beautiful is another entirely.
All too soon the car is pulling to a stop and, despite being the one doing the work, the driver is thanking them and wishing them well and they are returning the formality. Dominic grabs her hand tightly in his own, lacing his fingers through her smaller ones and guiding her toward the entrance with excited eyes.
She takes in the scenery all around them, the fairy lights which line the canopy above them which circles toward the front entrance to a building made almost entirely of glass and marble pillars.
“Where are we?” she asks, her breath clouding the cold air.
“A really big garden,” she corrects him.
He nods. “The New York Botanical Garden.”
“No one is here.”
Dominic looks around them, his eyes widening as he looks down at her. “You’re right, baby.”
“Are they closed?”
He nods, gripping her hand tightly as they walk up the paved steps toward the front entrance.
“I guess they must be,” he says.
“Should we come back tomorrow?”
For a moment so brief, Aurora thinks she must have imagined it, a tiny smile teases the edge of Dominic’s lips before it is gone and he is looking down at her with a serious expression.
“No. I think we should sneak in.”
Before she can protest he is pulling her with him, around the building toward an unlit portion of the pavement.
“Dominic!” she whisper-yells, shoving at his arm to try and loosen his grip on her hand. He presses a finger to his lips and begins walking faster. On one side of them is a glass wall that is connected to the locked glass building, on the other is a pool that connects to the fountain at the entrance. It is snowing lightly, the golden light from inside the glass building reflecting off the little flakes of ice.
She nearly runs into him, so focused on looking around them for any sign of security that she hadn’t noticed he’d stopped walking and paused to stand in front of a panel of glass. He releases her hand to feel around the edges, pausing when he finds whatever he is looking for and the panel of glass detaches from its binding and swings back like a door. Aurora’s eyes widen in disbelief and she turns to face Dominic.
“We are going to get in so much trouble, Dom,” she whispers nervously.
He shakes his head, leaning down to unlace her shoes and then his own.
“Not if we don’t get caught.”
He lifts her up into his arms, gripping her shivering body against him with one arm, her shoes in his other as he steps inside the glass building. He sets her softly back onto the ground, handing her converse back to her
“Hold them,” he whispers, though not as quietly as she’d like. “We’ll be quieter that way.”
She grips her shoes in her left hand and holds tightly onto Dominic’s with her right. For the first time tonight, she takes a moment to look around them, and her heart stops in her chest. The view from inside is better than from outside. Above them is the curved glass ceiling, ridden with ivy plants, wrapped in lights that hang from every inch of the surface like falling stars. Beside them are flowers, everywhere. Everything outside is dead from the harsh winter, but inside here is alive. She can see the snow falling all around them, as clearly as if there was no glass around them at all, but rather an invisible energy shielding them from the world outside.
The sound of footsteps resonates from the other end of the room. Aurora’s eyes widen like saucers and she turns to face Dominic, who is already watching her intently.
“Did you hear that?”
His eyes knit together and she is quiet as he listens. There is a brief silence before the footsteps sound again, quicker this time. Dominic faces her with wide eyes before gripping her hand tightly and running with her in the opposite direction.
Their surroundings fade into a blur of green and gold as they sprint past, their shoes gripped tightly in their hands. Seconds turn to minutes, and soon she is smiling, biting her lip tightly so that she doesn’t burst out into laughter. Eventually, they reach another door. Dominic drops her hand smiling down at her and pressing his finger against his lips before he starts fiddling with the lock. This continues for a few moments before the door slides open with a resonant creak. He pushes her gently inside before closing the door behind them, gripping her hand again and sprinting with her through what looks like a small rainforest. Water rushes down the sides of the walls, disappearing beneath the ground and collecting into a long reservoir in the center. The lights beneath them make the water glow like gold. Aurora reaches out to touch the water before the sound of a man speaking loudly from the other room echoes throughout the giant walls. They both turn in the direction of the voice. The next moment, Dominic is lifting her up onto his back and sprinting toward the opening at the end of the forest. She buries her head into his neck to muffle her laughter.
He grips her tightly against him, running for what seems like forever. She holds onto him just as tightly, hoping silently that he never stops running.
Soon they reach a giant circular garden. Giant trees tower around them, covering most of the ceiling with only small gaps in between. The golden light from overhead pours through these tiny spaces, covering their faces and their hands in little specks of light. He walks through the trees toward the center of a room where there is a small white pavilion, glowing with lights and flowers wrapped all around.
It is here that he finally stops, adjusting his hold on Aurora so that she sits against his side. He kneels down and sets her softly back onto the floor, lacing his fingers gently through her own.
“Dominic,” she whispers quietly, her eyes fixed intently ahead of them. “Where are we?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he pulls her along with him in the darkness toward the steps which lead to the pavilion. He watches her expression change beneath the tiny streams of light which dance along every inch of her skin and hair like tiny golden freckles, and only stops walking when they reach the space beneath the canopy where a large wool blanket covers the tiled floor, along with a dozen pillows around it. At the center lies a gift, one with red and gold paper and a neat ribbon to tie it off.
“What’s this,” Dominic asks softly, but it is less of a question and more of a prompt for Aurora, who stares down at the gift in a daze. He brushes her hair away from her face and neck while a million thoughts seem to rush through her head at once. A small part of her had known they weren’t actually sneaking inside the garden, that he had planned everything.
“That’s my birthday present,” she says quietly, more to herself than to him. He nods.
“How strange,” he says. “What is it doing here?”
She shakes her head in disbelief. Slowly, Dominic releases her hand and stands behind as she walks over to the present and sits down beside it. Folding her legs beneath her, she turns to look up at him. He watches her from the entrance of the pavilion, leaning against the stone pillar with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his trousers. A tiny smile teases his lips and he nods toward the gift.
“Open it, baby.”
She does. Her trembling hands pull open the ribbon, pulling it out from under the gift and setting it beside her. She tears at the paper next, revealing a wooden, box-like chest. Her eyes meet Dominic’s in curiosity, but he just smiles, staring down at the chest.
“Is it locked?” he asks. He already knows the answer, but watches anyway as she fiddles with the latch on the front. She nods. He pushes himself off the pillar, walking silently over to where she sits, kneeling down in front of her and pretending to search around the chest for something.
“There must be a key somewhere.”
Aurora’s eyes widen in understanding and she begins to search as well until Dominic rests her hand on her shoulder and looks at her intently. She watches in confusion as his eyes focus in on something besides her neck, before he reaches out his empty hand and pretends to pull something out from behind her ear. He holds it in front of her. Inside of his open palm is a tiny golden key.
“Found it.” A smile teases his lips as she checks behind her ear before looking up at him and grabbing the key hesitantly from his hand.
The key fits perfectly inside the lock. She turns it until she hears a click and lifts the lid of the chest. Her heart freezes in her chest.
“Dominic,” she breathes out his name. She can’t manage any other words so she says it again. “Dom.”
“Do you like it?”
She reaches inside, sliding out each layered shelf to reveal more jars of pigment. And a set of Winsor and Newton brushes which spans the entire length of the chest twice. She reaches inside and slowly pulls out one of the metal canisters, holding the label in the light so she can read. She lifts her eyes back toward the open chest, lifting her hand slowly to slide open another drawer to find a set of oil pigment. And another beneath it. Every drawer holds more color, a set of palette knives, then more brushes. She had only ever touched a sample of Charvin Maison paint before, in her art teacher’s classroom at Concord Prep, and here were one hundred and eight full-sized jars of it right in front of her.
“Dominic,” she says again, setting the canister back in its rightful place. She lifts her face slightly, and the light catches her eyes just so that he can see the silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
“It’s the paint Ambrogiani used his entire life,” he says.
She nods, wondering how he could have known that, how he got his hands on this, how he could have known-
“Dominic, I can’t-”
“It will break my heart, Aurora,” he says before she can finish, “If you don’t accept this.”
She looks down at the chest, running her fingers lightly along the brushes at the bottom. The air is warm and she doesn’t realize she is crying until the tears are running down her neck. She wipes at her cheeks with the back of her wrists only for more to bubble over.
“Do you like it?” he asks more quietly this time.
She meets his gaze suddenly. It is clear in this moment that, although she may have decided to regret him, as long as he was there with her she could not. Not while he looked at her like he put every single star in the sky and named each one after her.
Her eyes do not leave his as she grips the wooden chest with both hands, moving it gently beside them and shifting closer to him. She falls into him, clutching him tightly. He wraps his strong arms around her, gripping her just as tight and running his hands soothingly up and down the length of her little back.
“Why are you crying, baby?” he asks softly.
She shakes her head, clutching him tighter.
“I don’t hate you, Dominic,” she breathes shakily into his neck. “You know that, right?”
He nods against her head, running his fingers gently through the soft strands of her hair.
Love is not a feeling, he thinks to himself. It is a static, inescapable reality.