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Other Colors -- Ch. 11

A D/s romance set in Montreal
I ran. Honestly, I hadn’t intended on it. And yet at the earliest opportunity—as soon as I was dressed, and could put a closed door between us—I found myself clambering, almost methodically, out through the bathroom window, and down a cold, ivy-covered column into the snowy garden below. I ran by reflex. And looking back, it was just like me—the way my wheels worked. Like a Swiss watch. I didn’t go just because he broke me. I went because, afterward, he’d started to gather up the pieces. Because he wanted to put me back together.

All the king’s horses, all the king’s men… Like a serpent shedding its skin, I peeled my jeans and panties away, turning slowly in the mirror until it revealed the pale, half-moon of my backside, and the blue shadows of my bruise. Icarian. Prelapsarian. Before the fall...

My intervening days were dark, and jagged—altogether, I’m not sure how many hours passed. As if caught in the throes of an unrelenting fever, I spent most of my time tossing and turning and trembling in a cold sweat beneath the afghan on Marie’s sofa. At night, the air in the apartment seemed barely above freezing. Sometimes I wonder whether it was all in my head; or if I really did fall ill for a while. Neither would surprise me.

Marie, mercifully, was not around to witness my embarrassing and enigmatic suffering. She and Renault were together around the clock, either rehearsing fiendishly for their new production, or fucking each other silly over at his Habitat 67 loft. And I was glad for it—I felt far too fragile to bear the weight of her inquisitions. Had she seen me, I’m sure she would have shattered me.

Worse still, I’d been dodging Peter’s calls for days. He even showed up once, rapping gently at the door, off and on, for almost a quarter hour. I stayed silent, pretending to be out, or asleep perhaps, and breathed a long, quiet sigh of relief when he finally gave up, and left. I didn’t think I could stand the shame of facing him just yet—he’d warned me so many times about Dmitri. Now, at least, I think I understood why.

But it wasn’t just Peter and Marie. Really, I’d spoken to no one since it happened. And apart from Peter’s, made bulbous by the peephole lens, I don’t believe I’d seen another proper human face.

Right after I left Lacoste and shambled those ten, sleeting blocks down to Place-Saint-Henri station, I went out of my way to avoid eye contact with each person I passed. Ridiculous as it was, I felt afraid that if I didn’t, they might take one look at me, and guess my secret—as if my whole body broadcasted some simulacra of my sin; glaring as any scarlet ‘A’. Though I suppose I wore my scarlet elsewhere… And though the car was almost empty when I boarded, I didn’t sit down on the slow ride north to Saint-Michel.

I was back in the better part of an hour. My key fit in the lock. My clothes were right where I left them; still scattered around the floor. Nothing looked, or smelled any different. My shoes and socks were soaked through. I stripped them off, and flipped on the lights—but flipped them off again when I caught sight of my tear-smeared makeup, and disheveled hair. Knowing well before the thought took shape that it was a lie, I told myself that everything—all of it—meant nothing. That nothing had changed. That I hadn’t changed. That he hadn’t changed me.

But like a trembling Common Blue—Polyommatus icarus­—when at last I laid down that night, I dreamt of spinning myself into a lonely, silken chrysalis. I had not the slightest idea what I was turning into; my metamorphosis took place in total darkness. And if, when the time came, my wings were still too weak to break free, I knew through that sinuous strain of logic peculiar to dreams that I would expire there; just half-emerged, my body bound in cords of fresh-spun silk. Aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte…

And that was days ago. Am I still dreaming?

I stood very still in Marie’s drafty bathroom, naked from the waist down, revisiting those final moments for perhaps the trillionth time. Rotating slowly, I inspected my other cheek in the mirror. The red had long faded, and the bruise was just now coming to the surface. Dim, violet dots demarcated the lingering phantom of his fingertips. Across my milk-white skin, it was like a constellation in negative—I traced one dark star to the other, outlining Andromeda.

It had shocked me a little to see the damage just afterward. It wasn’t that I was frightened, really. Though it looked awfully painful, it was a pain I’d already endured. It was a very, very strange sensation—I felt almost…proud, I think; proud that I hadn’t cried out or squealed, proud that I’d taken his terrible blows so gracefully. At the time, I could even make out his individual handprints, overlapping in variegated shades of red. I thought of the ancient, ochre handprints in the caves at Lascaux. I wondered how long they would last.

‘I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art…my Lolita…’ I spun, blushing slightly, back to my other side. It always disturbed me that a man’s monstrous perversions could be paired with such pretty words. Worse still, that the two could seem—by some evil trick of their proximity—so natural. Almost lovely... ‘Amor Sacro e Amor Profano’—I remembered Titian’s infamous oil.

Laying one fingertip over the bruise, I closed my eyes. I could still feel him; still taste him, in a way. I’d barely eaten a bite the past few days—I think I wanted to keep him on my lips as long as possible. I pressed deeper, until I winced. His touch, I’d quickly learned, was toxic—when the venom hit my bloodstream, just a little bit was enough to daze me, to make me drunk. But a larger dose was dangerous. I whimpered, pressing just a little harder. Maybe deadly.

A fresh chill cut through the room. My teeth chattered as I unfastened my plaid, and began drawing hot water for a bath. The window was still broken after my keyless crisis a week earlier, and though I was fairly certain I’d rid the floor of splintered glass, the slapdash replacement Marie’s landlord fashioned out of tape and cardboard made for sorry insulation whenever temperatures dipped in the early evening.

I sank into the water without testing it. Already, I’d taken three hot baths that day. I still felt cold. And I didn’t feel clean. But I don’t think ablutions had much to do with why I kept finding my way back there, jeans already unzipped.

I hit you too hard, Penny…You’re going to bruise.’

The truth was—I liked touching it. I liked looking at it; and watching it change. I liked…how it made me feel near to him again, if only for a moment. And I didn’t want it to fade.

Plus jamais ça... I closed my eyes, and leaned back against the icy, porcelain rim of the tub. I was sure. I was sure that I would never see him again; and sure, moreover, that it was for the best. He didn’t have my number. He didn’t know where I lived. And we definitely didn’t run in the same circles. Besides, I couldn’t imagine he’d go terribly far out of his way tracking down the psychotic girl who lied her way into his house, slept with him, and snuck out again through a second-story window. No coming back from that one… It was, perhaps, not the cleanest of breaks, but at least it was a definitive. Panglossian—tout est pour le mieux…

So. Why am I crying again?

Without opening my eyes, I smothered a pair of tears before they could escape, and threw my arms angrily back under the water. For fuck’s sake, Penny, I scolded myself. Enough. I ran a thumb, half-consciously, up along my smooth, pale surgical scar; starting near the elbow, and stretching all the way to the bony crescent of my shoulder. Enough…

I jumped a little—my phone rattled noisily on the tile floor below. Again, it was Peter.

*for reals, Foster -- call me, or i’m calling the cops*

I smirked, though it wasn’t exactly funny. Go on. They know just where to find me…  I recalled both my relief and my humiliation as the officer loaded me into his patrol car, just minutes after shattering Marie’s window. I remembered the cold, unyielding steel of his handcuffs on my wrists. And I remembered how grateful I’d been when Mr. Caine came to my rescue. I frowned. I’d called him perhaps a half dozen times, but Peter was nowhere to be found that night.

*under the weather* I texted back, a little tersely, *just need some rest*

The phone buzzed—he was calling. I lay back and watched the poor thing ring, and ring again; crying out for me six or seven times before it succumbed to silence. Another text followed, like a poorly punctuated epitaph.

*glad yr not dead Pens; i’m bringing some soup -- stay put.*

I sighed, and rolled my eyes. Whatever. He knows I’m here. Suppose there’s no stopping him this time. Dropping the phone back to the floor, I submerged myself beneath the clear, still-steaming water; my hair fanning out siren-like over top of me.

I held my breath, and wondered which was worse—to freeze to death, or drown. I remembered all the lovely, waterlogged maidens—Pre-Raphaelite, and Raphaelesque—floating angelically downstream, their bodies strewn with water lilies. Wrists tied…’La Jeune Martyre’ of Paul Delaroche, the famed ‘Ophelia’ of John Millais. Musée des Beaux Arts—did Icarus die when he hit the water? Or did he drown? Pulled under by the weight of his own wings… ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes.’

And then I remembered Millais’ young model, Lizzie Siddal—how she came down with a midwinter pneumonia, and nearly died after posing for him too long in a tepid bathtub. I reemerged, gasping a little, opened the drain, and dried off as quickly as I could. The temperature outside was in freefall. Winding one towel around my torso and another through my hair, I’d already trotted halfway to the closet to select a fresh set of flannel pajamas, when there was a knock at the door.

I stopped, and glanced to the clock.

Well, that was fast…  I tiptoed over, wondering partly how Peter had managed to find soup and make his way over to Saint-Michel so quickly, but wondering mostly what I would say to him when he asked, inevitably, what happened after leaving me at Lacoste. Suppose I can tell him anything, I knitted my brow. Anything but the truth.

I cracked the door, and my blood ran cold. It wasn’t Peter.

Staring back at me through the slit were two glacier-blue eyes belonging to the one man I most did and did not want to see at that moment. I watched them widen slightly when he caught sight of what I was wearing—or rather, what I wasn’t—but he recovered quickly. I didn’t. God… How? How the hell did he ever find me? My heart beat chaotically in my chest; and my skin, already rosy from the bath, flushed crimson.

“…Excuse-moi, Madame,” he cocked his head, “is Miss Foster home?”

My lips parted, but pointlessly—they’d forgotten how to speak. And his little jest didn’t help to restore me to my senses. The brass chain was still on the door. I left it where it was, warily following his lead.

“Um…qui?”

“Penny Foster,” he smirked wryly, apparently pleased. “Wisp of a girl. Brunette. Tea green eyes. Always walking on her toes. Et…” his gaze leveled off coolly, “un penchant pour évanescence.”

The last one stung a little. I suspect it was his intention.

“May…I ask who’s looking for her, Monsieur?” my words quavered.

His eyes flashed as he leaned a little farther into the aperture.

“Oui. Un grand admirateur, Madame.”

Tensely, I drew the towel closer across my chest. To my ears, it sounded as much a threat as a flirtation.

“Of her work, Monsieur?”

“Quoi d’autre?” He lifted one leaden arm into view, revealing a snow-dusted bouquet of red poppies.“ S'il vous plait—nous avons soif.”

I glanced at him, then at the blossoms, and then back to him. He wiggled his eyebrows at me à la Groucho Marx, and I felt my lips split into an involuntary grin. I could have cursed myself for cracking.

“Un moment, sir,” I raised my own brow at him, still skeptical. “I’ll see if she’s in…”

I shut the door and scampered off; dropping the towel en route to dress myself in the darkness of Marie’s bedroom. I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry—whether I was afraid if I let him wait too long, he might channel his inner big, bad wolf, and just break the door down. Or more likely, and—to my mind—far more dreadfully, I just plain didn’t want to keep him waiting. I was warned outright not to let it happen; but the truth was, he had his claws in me. I’d let it happen. And there was a sliver of me, however small and sinister, that liked the way it felt.

I delayed only long enough to throw on some obligatory blush and mascara before making my way back to him, my hair still sopping. But I froze a moment before releasing the chain. Should I? Should I really let this happen again? I shivered. ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ Our last encounter left me so fragile; I could barely get myself out of bed for several days. I was still in recovery, really. His presence at the door, I knew, meant fresh malignancy for me—and here I was, inviting metastasis.

It's alright, I seduced myself. Its fine. Peter will be here any moment—what’s the worst…

I took a breath, and drew open the door. And, Christ. If looks could kill. Perhaps I imagined it, but his hair looked a little wilder, and the wiry stubble along his jawline just a tad rougher than usual; underscoring all his lupine innuendos. But his eyes were cool and clear as ever. Today he’d traded the charcoal suit for a pair of dark jeans, and a shawl-collar sweater of grey lambswool. A wolf in sheep’s clothing…

He stepped forward, bringing both his valise and the invisible poison his scent inside with him, and I felt my senses start to unwind. No. No, no. I caught the loose thread, and cut it off before he could unravel me completely.

“So here you are, Mr. Caine. With me. Where I live,” I crossed my arms, carefully echoing his forbidding words when he’d caught me in his study several days ago. “You’ve made it this far with your little plan…”

“Fill a vase, Penny.”

I tried to stand my ground, though I could feel myself shrinking as he stalked closer, and planted the flowers in the fold of my arms. Glancing down at them, I shivered a little. But I didn’t budge.

“What…are you doing here, Dmitri?” I spoke slowly, staring at the blossoms to disguise my nerves. “If memory serves—it was you who said we’ve got nothing more to say to each other.”

He nodded, “Perhaps we don’t. But I’ve been wrong before.”

Almost absently, he reached out to move a wet tress of hair that had fallen in my eyes, but I parried, and backed away a pace. He lowered his hand, letting me keep my distance.

I wasn’t scared of him—or at least, not terribly. But I was terrified of what his touch might do to me. If I turned myself over to him again, I’d lose myself—and in more ways than one. Because really, the girl he laid his hands on wasn’t me. She was my doppelgänger . A creature controlled by her senses; inhabiting my body, but more salacious, more enslaved to him than I could ever allow myself to be.

And in a haunting way, I think she was always around—our shadows overlapped at the very edge of my consciousness. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye, I’d catch her winking at me in dusty, half-reflective window; and each time I felt the unsettling tingle of déjà vu, I knew that she was near. I suppose she’d been following me since I was thirteen years old—hovering all the while a half-step behind—biding her time until my mind, at last, went dark; and she could slip inside me without a struggle. I’m not sure where I went during those periods of possession—some violet oblivion, I imagine; akin to purgatory, or a Tibetan bardo—but each time it happened, I sensed a little less of me returned intact.

“A vase, Penny,” he repeated, his words cutting coolly through the air between us.

I glanced again to the poppies, still lying stiff and redolent in my arms, and frowned. Not that a lot of boys over the years had brought me flowers, but he was certainly the only one to do so, and make me feel ruled by him rather than romanced. But still… the bouquet really was quite lovely. I lowered my head, breathing in a deep whiff of its intoxicating aroma.

I sneezed. And sneezed again. I caught my breath. But then I coughed. And I coughed some more—all the while, trying vainly to shield both my mouth and face from him. And when I could finally open my eyes after the fit, he was scowling at me.

“You’re sick.”

I smirked inwardly. Not half as sick as you, Monsieur.

“Its just a cold. I’ll live.”

He moved closer, this time ignoring my meager efforts to evade him.

“And you look thin. Have you been running a fever?” his eyes narrowed, scanning me mechanically up and down. “Chills? Muscle aches? Have you vomited, Penny?”

I flushed. My, he does know how to woo a girl. Growing up, it had irritated me to no end whenever Doctor Foster brought his work home with him—if I skinned my knee, I just wanted him to kiss it; not tell me I had a superficial abrasion of my left patella. He snatched my wrist, and held it; glaring at his watch while he took my pulse.

“No,” I shook my head, and made a half-hearted attempt to pry myself loose—I knew he wouldn’t let me go. “I’m better than yesterday. And the day before that…”

He finished his count, and released me gently; the scowl still cutting dark crevices across his brow.

“Penny,” he straightened, “do you remember what you promised me?”

What I…what? I squinted back at him, bewildered. What promise?

“When I picked you up from the police station,” his eyes flashed, “you swore to me you’d be more careful with yourself.” He paused sharply, “Would you say that you’ve kept your promise, Penny?”

Ah. So I’m the one on trial here, am I? I felt my blood begin to simmer. Sure. Why the hell not? After what you did to me? After you hit me, and humiliated me? After you made me beg? Like a dog, Dmitri? For the sake of my ire, I ignored the part where he also made love to me, and gave life to the two most intense petit morts I’d ever shuffled off this mortal coil. 

“Well?” his tone darkened.

I was shocked he was going to make me say it. Or at least, I wanted to be. I wanted to break something. I fantasized about decapitating his flowers; shouting at him until he retreated to the snowy stoop, where I could throw the ruined stems at his feet, and slam the door on him for good.

But I would do nothing of the kind. I couldn’t.

And in that moment, I despised no part of him so much as I did my own paralysis—because I knew. I knew that all my frustrations with him, however fiery and emphatic, were worthless. Signifying nothing… I didn’t have the power in me to turn him away. And that—more than anything—made the difference. Twice now he’d looked me dead in the eye, and told me it was all wrong; that I needed to leave him. And when my turn came around, I lost my nerve—ducking out the upstairs window; running away from him like some stray house pet.

I thought of wretched Helena in the Dream—‘Even for that I do love you the more. 

I am your spaniel. And Demetrius, the more you beat me, I will fawn on you.  Use me but as your spaniel—spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me…What worser place can I beg in your love, than to be used as you use your dog?’

“No,” my eyes fell, “No, I didn’t…” I could feel my cheeks, burning so hot they nearly blistered. “I broke it.”

But only because you broke me first. I didn’t say it. I didn’t need to. He nodded stiffly.

“Please,” I pleaded now, stripped of all the steely sangfroid I’d worn, like armor, when he first entered, “why did you come here, Dmitri? How do you even know where I live?”

“Fill a vase, Penny,” again he reached to tuck a damp strand of hair behind my ear, and this time, I let him. “And I’ll answer.”

He was testing me—my pliability, and my brittleness. Even back then, I knew it; though I couldn’t have begun to say to what end. Holding me like a green twig, he wanted to see how far and how frequently he could bend me before I snapped.

And I bent. My eyes dropped to the floor as I shambled into the little galley kitchen, rooting through Marie’s lower cabinets until I found something suitable, and filled it up beneath the faucet. He stood at the counter, gazing down over top of me.

“Madame d’Aulnoir,” he spoke dryly, keeping his word, “I asked her for your address. And she gave it to me.”

Madame? Seriously? I shut off the water. What the hell is she thinking, handing that out to any strange man who asks for it? I glared at him. …Handsome. Very. But strange.

“Do…you two know each other?”

By shear reflex, I set a tea kettle over the burner, and lit it. I’d been living off the stuff for several days already.

He nodded to one side, “In a way. Her husband was an art dealer. I bought a pair of Schieles from the collection when he died.”

“Schiele…” I sniffed in amusement, recalling her absurd and harrowing anecdote of the porcelain palette—perhaps she wasn’t making it all up…

“When we spoke, Penny,” he set his palms on the counter, leaning closer, “she said she was worried about you—that you hadn’t come into work the past few days.”

I pivoted, pretending to scrape a bit of slag off the stovetop; my cheeks and chest blooming redder than the petals of his poppies.

“Like I said,” I breathed, still showing him my back, “I wasn’t well.”

“That…doesn’t surprise me.”

An ominous silence followed, like the interval between lightning and advancing thunder.

“It turned a little cold that evening,” I knew he meant the weather—and I knew, at the same time, he didn’t, “And you left without your coat, Penny.”

Without letting his eyes leave me, he leaned down to his valise, and removed from it my pitiful pea coat. I gazed over my shoulder, brow furrowed, to survey the carnage. I remembered vividly how he’d torn it open, shank-to-shoulder almost; and the chilling edge in voice when he’d warned me—‘Tell me no…’

I stepped closer, trembling a little at the memory of it, and took one sleeve in my hand.

What the..?

I blinked, and flipped it over. The hole had vanished. He held the arms open for me, and I slipped myself inside. God. Good as new… I spun to face him, straightening out the soft lapels. He watched me silently, his head slightly slanted.

“Not perfect,” he ran an appraising thumb along his jaw, “but it will do. That’s a lovely look for you, Penny.”

I blushed, and drew the coat closed across my chest. In my rush to get dressed earlier, I’d unwittingly donned the same skirt and blouse he’d sent me home in seven days ago. I touched the fresh seam of the jacket, inspecting its stiff, shimmery black thread—the texture was oddly familiar.

Surgical sutures?

“Is this?” I squinted, “Is this Jules’ handiwork?”

“Mine,” he took a paring knife from the block, and began meticulously slicing the lower stems off my flowers.

I cocked my head at him suspiciously, “you sew?”

“Kettle’s boiling, Penny.”

What? I spun, and snatched it off the burner just as it began to bubble over. He tossed me a towel to sop up the mess. But as I did so, the back of my knuckles brushed roughly across the scalding surface of the kettle.

“Ah! Damn it,” I hissed.

He moved fast. I didn’t even get a look at the burn before he had me by my wrist again, thrusting it to the sink beneath a stream of cold water. I shook my head, reorienting myself—the speed of his reflexes was dizzying.

“It um…It doesn’t hurt. Just surprised me,” I tried to wrench my arm away—the cold water was far more agonizing than the burn, “Really, it’s not bad. Probably won’t even leave a mark.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he frowned, and lowered his head to examine the skin. “No. Its not bad.”

Gee thanks, Mister. He let go of my wrist with a smirk and a shake of his head.

“The finger, the ankle,” he stepped behind me, his breath sweeping across the back of my neck, “the cold, and the burn—I’m at a loss. What will it cost me to keep you out of harm’s way, Penny?”

For just a moment, I felt his hands lingering at the edges of my throat before they took hold of my collar, and he helped me back out of the coat. I shuddered.

“…More than your money, Mr. Caine.”

I don’t think I meant to say it out loud. But I did. And he heard me. I winced. It was several moments more before he spoke, and when he did, I could tell he was going to make me regret it.

“Your flowers are dying, Penny,” he nodded to the poppies, still freshly amputated on the cutting board before us. “Don’t be cruel. Either put them in water, or put them out of their misery.”

Oh. You think you’re real clever, don’t you? I shut my eyes. His lips almost grazed the upper curve of my ear. Why? Why does everything have to be a goddamn riddle?

“I—” I breathed steadily, “I don’t think the flowers care one way or the other.”

He reached around me to select one; then stepped away, still watching me wolfishly.

“You don’t think your poppies feel pain, Penny?” he twirled it deftly by the stem. “I do. I’ll bet they feel more than most flowers…”

I stared, a little apprehensive, as he plucked one petal from the corolla and let it float down to the floor. À la folie, pas du tout…

“Why else,” he cocked his head at me before ripping off a second, “would they drown themselves in opium?”

Those are pearls that were his eyes… He tore another petal, and then another; his eyes locked on me all the while. I wished he would quit it. I knew they were just flowers, but they were pretty, and they were mine. And he didn’t need to make such a show of mutilating them. It was profane.

I glanced away just as he severed the last petal. And when I turned back, the poor thing was stripped bare—just anthers, the ovary, and a little pile of shredded, blood-red petals below. Catherine Howard. Marie Antoinette. Madame du Berry. Charlotte Corday… My cheeks heated as he reached for another.

“No. Wait,” I shook my head, and he halted. “Wait. I’ll put them in water…”

He nodded darkly, suppressing a grin, “Good girl.”

I ignored the diminution, and gathered the fallen petals from the floor before scooping up the surviving blossoms; stuffing them in the vase, and fluffing them out in a pitiful pastiche of ikebana.

“Now,” again, he moved behind me, “that’s better, isn’t it?”

I shut my eyes, trying very hard not to let the twin demons of his scent and voice dissolve me. He still hasn’t said what he’s really doing here, Penny. He’s just playing with you. But…there’s always a plan with him. Always a strategy. Clumsily, I made my own little gambit.

“Are you staying for tea, Mr. Caine?” I turned, rising up onto my toes, “I know you’re very busy…”

“…I am, Penny,” his tone chilled me to the bone. “I’ll pour.”

Why is a raven like a writing-desk? I turned, trembling, to fetch the tea leaves, and he opened a cabinet for the mugs.

“Get three,” I caught his eye pointedly over my shoulder. “Peter’s dropping by soon.”

He made no remark, though for a split second, I thought I saw his face twitch; a short, sharp tightening of the muscles around his mouth. But either way, the news didn’t seem to faze him nearly so much as I’d hoped. Instead, I felt my own composure unravel a bit further as he set three mugs out, and finally removed his topcoat.

Christ… I clenched my teeth as he draped the garment overtop of mine. I would never, ever get over of those shoulders—now exposed, and tautly outlined in the smooth, grey wool of his sweater. ‘The Boxer of Quirinal’ …Theogenes. Or Damarchus, more likely.

We stood, steeped, and sipped several times in silence, tête-à-tête there in the kitchen; two, perhaps three paces apart. The fine hairs of my forearms stood on end, drawn upward by a deepening voltage in the air between us.

“Alright,” he took a deep swallow, and set his tea aside, “let’s talk about it, Penny.”

I nearly dropped my mug. Just? Just like that?

“…It?” my jaw quivered.

“Why I’m here,” he leaned back against the counter. “I wanted you to know—I never planned on it happening the way it did.”

I faced him, my breath bated. I’d been obedient. I’d played his games. And I let him win. Now, I thought, now its my turn… He proceeded.

“It was a lapse. Normally, Penny,” his fingers crept over to the cutting board, and began muddling the petals from my ruined flower, “I never would’ve taken things so far without first talking to you. Normally,” he waited until my eyes met his, “I would never have pursued someone like you in the first place…”

“Someone,” I held my tea in both hands to keep them from shaking, “…like who, Dmitri?”

He leaned closer, his fingers still softly pulverizing the petals.

“I won’t say ‘innocent’. We both know that would be a lie. But I believed certain things about you—about your inclinations, and experience.” He paused, “I was wrong. But not entirely.”

Looking back, I had very little concept of what he was really telling me in that moment. Compared to what I understood a month later, I was like a child—and he, some sly parent; sidestepping a tricky inquiry on the physics of Santa’s sleigh. Had I known what questions to ask, I might have asked them. But I didn’t. I was still blind. I was still, in some ways—though he’d never concede it—innocent.

“What…” I dropped my eyes, “what made you think I was like that?”

“In principio…” he refilled our mugs from the kettle, and dropped several muddled petals in to steep with his tea leaves, “erat Verbum—there was a miscommunication. It’s how I got your name. And in part, it’s why I bought your watercolors. But in my defense,” he took a long, slow sip, “you were already on your knees when we met, Penny.”

I blushed, “Yes. I’d dropped my file.”

“At the café,” he went on, “you told me you were afraid not to suffer.”

“I think…that’s out of context,” I breathed.

“You rarely argued when I told you what to do. It seldom incensed you to be scolded.”

I frowned, “Perhaps I’m too polite.”

“And just now, when I was at the door,” again, he sipped, and swallowed, “you called me sir.”

I squinted. I did. But what does that have to do with anything?

“Mother raised me to respect my elders,” I channeled her Savannah parlance; though under the circumstances, it made me cringe even more than usual, “…sir.

He chuckled darkly, “I imagine she did.” He plucked a sodden poppy petal from his tea, and wrung it out. “But either way, Penny—by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late,” he dropped it back, and drew the edge of his thumb, discreetly, across his tongue, “You might say I was addicted.”

“…A-addicted?” I narrowed my eyes, trying to look incredulous, but my words quavered. “Addicted to what?”

Before he spoke, his gaze—frosty, piercing, and impossibly deep—had already given me my answer.

“I have no religion, Penny,” again he set his tea down, and closed the space between us. “No philosophy. No politics, or ethos. I’m a simple, and obsessive creature. I was obsessed with you.” He let the weight of his words sink in, eyes flashing. “And still that’s no excuse. But it is the reason. It’s why I did it, and it’s why I tracked you down today.”

“You mean…” my breath was shallow as I tried to retreat, but he’d backed me clear against the icebox, “to…get your fix, Dmitri?”

He smirked coolly, and shook his head.

“No. To apologize. Which is not a custom of mine, Miss Foster.”

He stepped away, allowing me to breathe. To? To apologize? My head was spinning. I felt relief, but also, I think, a strange, dark vein of disappointment. I’d thought for certain he was going to attack me again; to keep taking, and taking from me, without ever giving anything back—without a moment’s reprieve for me. But here he was instead, settling a debt.

“Then,” I was still shaking, “is that what the flowers are for?”

“That,” he nodded, and again reached down to his valise, “and so you don’t get the wrong idea when I give you this…”

He set a sealed envelope on the counter between us, and slid it toward me. I lifted it as if handling Dr. Faustus’ contract with Mephistopheles; as though at any moment the paper might burst into flames. I tore it open. I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I breathed much easier when I realized it was only a check. Until I read it.

No. No, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

I stared, my anxiety growing by gravitational accretion. He’d written it for four times what he owed me.

The other day at Lacoste, it was afterward, when he sent me off to the bathroom—which in itself struck me as rather weird; he’d told me outright to go clean myself up, that I might avoid a UTI—he’d mentioned offhand that in the meantime he’d fetch my payment for me.

And honestly, I suspect those words contributed as much as anything to my flight. After what happened, I really couldn’t bear the thought of receiving any money from him. To my mind, it skirted very, very close to the already blurring line between ‘mélange les affaires et le plaisir’, and outright whorishness.

But rather cunningly, it seemed he anticipated my dilemma. Plucking another poppy from the vase, he held it out by the stem.

“The flowers are for you, Penny,” its red sepals swept across the crisp, black ink of his check. “And the money, for your painting. Not the other way around.”

I nodded. I was surprised—it actually did make me feel a bit better about the circumstances. But it did nothing to resolve the numbers.

“You’ve made a mistake, Mr. Caine,” I took the flower, and glanced up from my monstrous remuneration. “Twenty-five hundred. That was our deal.”

“And this is our new deal,” his tone darkened. “Twenty-five for the chapel, as we agreed. Plus an advance on your next project.”

I chewed my lip. This. This was his plan all along. The hairs on my neck stood on end. He won’t let go of me. He’s just going to keep me on his leash. Forever, if I let him.

“…Why?”

His eyes flashed.

“You impressed me, Penny. And I want more from you,” he drew a thumb slowly across his jawline, “Three pieces. A triptych, if you like. Size and subject are up to you. But I want them each in a primary monochrome—red, blue, and green.” He stepped nearer, “No other colors. Understood?”

His breath blew cool across my face. After what happened with my first, I couldn’t fathom what such a project would do to me. What it would require of me. How it would alter me.

“Do you understand, Miss Foster?”

“…No,” I shook my head, “I really don’t. But…I’ll do it, Dmitri.”

You knew that I would. I dropped my eyes. You knew I wouldn’t have a choice.

“Good girl,” he nodded, almost imperceptibly. “And—with the advance—you should have enough to get yourself out of this hovel.”

I glared at this boots, “Its not so bad here.”

Admittedly, the thing he was handing me was what I’d been dying for all along—to earn my own keep; to support myself with painting. But somehow he’d twisted that long sought-after symbol of my sovereignty, bringing it under his dominion. He made it his. He made everything his.

“Well it isn’t good, either,” he glanced around. “You know its not the best neighborhood for an attractive young woman. And by the looks of that sofa, I’m guessing you don’t even have a real bed here.”

At that moment, a deadly, vindictive chill passed through the room. I crossed my arms, and my teeth began to chatter.

“…And it’s too cold for you, isn’t it?” he frowned. “Is your furnace running, Penny?”

I shrugged, still shivering, “I think so. Its old though—has trouble keeping up.”

His frowned deepened as he turned toward the washroom.

“That draft…”

For just a moment, I considered trying to divert him—all my clothes, bra and underwear included, were still lumped on the floor beside the bath—but I knew once he started moving, there was little I could do to stop him. Unstoppable force. Immovable object… He stalked over to the door, and pushed it open. The whole apartment seemed to drop another half dozen degrees. He turned back to me.

“Why is this window still broken, Penny?" 

I sighed, feeling the shadow of defeat close in around me.

“Marie’s landlord wants us to pay for it.” I glanced down to his check, “I can afford it now. I’ll get it fixed soon.”

His scowl deepened.

“Does this building have a cellar?”

I nodded, “I think so.”

“Tools?”

My brows arched. The hell is he scheming now? 

“I’m not sure. I’ve never been down there…”

“Show me.”

My nostrils flaring in confusion, I led him out into the little corridor to a low, grimy door beneath the stairs. He drew it open, leaving a shredded lacework of cobwebs dangling in the doorway. I wrinkled my nose. The smell was sickeningly musty—like old laundry, or wet straw.

“Wait here,” he touched my shoulder, and disappeared down a creaking flight of steps into the darkness.

I didn’t wait. The moment he was out of sight, I darted back to the bathroom, stashing away all of mine and Marie’s various toiletries and tampons, and scooping up my clothing to hide away in her bedroom. I was panting a little when I returned. He was halfway back up the steps already, carrying a storm window under one arm, and a few sundry bits of hardware on the other.

I rose nervously onto my toes as he passed.

“I um—I don’t think it’ll fit in there,” I followed him, like a spaniel, back into the apartment. “Its too big.”

He paused, glancing back to me wryly over his shoulder, one brow arched. Oh, come on. I didn’t mean it like that…

“Bring my bag, Penny,” he nodded to the valise.

I blushed, and obeyed. Setting down his supplies, he knelt near the window, and tore away the tape and cardboard. I crossed my arms to stay warm, and sat myself at the edge of the tub, watching anxiously as he withdrew from his back pocket the same folding knife he’d used to sever my wires at the gallery ten days ago. He sank the blade into the putty around the broken pane, and scraped the frame clean.

“There’s a glass cutter in there,” he nodded again to his valise at my feet, setting a few large shards of glass beside the sink, “Looks like a skeleton key.”

A glass cutter? I bent down.

“Careful,” he warned, “Its very sharp.”

I spotted it almost immediately, but struggled a little longer with the temptation to keep digging, and see what else turned up in Mr. Caine’s mysterious briefcase. Sighing, I closed it up, and surrendered the tool.

“Why…on earth are you carrying around a glass cutter?”

“A sample. From one of our buyers,” he set the storm window down across the tile, “I like to know what’s done with the diamonds after we dig them up.”

“So, the blade,” I watched him measure meticulously the length and breadth of the window, “It’s from your mine?”

He nodded without looking up, “Cover your ears, Penny. This part is unpleasant.”

I did. And I watched in muffled amazement as he scratched a pair of perpendicular lines into the glass, tapped the edges free, and fit a fresh cut window, precisely, back into the frame.

“Wow…” my eyes widened, “Where’d you learn to do that?”

“My Father made stained glass,” he set the brace points back against the pane, covering them with fresh putty. “I didn’t learn much from him, but I learned this.”

Holy hell… I held my breath. Did he? Did he just tell me something about his Dad? I grinned down at the floor, genuinely thrilled. Without interrogation? Or torture? Or sodium pentothal? Under all his inquisitions, I’d probably relinquished to him about half my life story already, but he barely ever said a word to me about his own. Every time it started to come up, it seemed he spun the spotlight back around on me.

“So he was a…” I paused—shit, what’s the word?—“…a glazier?”

His lips drew to one side in a wry smile, but eyes stayed cool.

“No. A priest.”

Wait, what? I nearly did a double-take.

“But not…not Catholic, though?” my brow wrinkled.

“As Aquinas and Augustine,” he made a few final touches to the window. “They made him Bishop of Bayonne before he died.”

“But,” I watched him stand, and gather up the remaining glass, “How is that possible?”

“Apud Deum, Penny,” he dumped the shards roughly into the wastebasket, “omnia possibilia sunt.”

Normally, sarcastic scripture made my skin crawl. It was a visceral reflex; instilled in me, I suppose, by all those early years of parochial school. I’d learned the rules well, and whenever I needed to break them, I still did my utmost to keep it straightforward. But somehow here, from his lips, the ironic blasphème seemed so much more apropos than the honest one.

His Father. Was he really a priest? And a bishop? I couldn’t begin to guess what any of it meant. But I had the distinct sense he’d shown me something in him that very few people would ever see. I raised my eyes to him, blushing a little, and gasped.

“You’re bleeding…”

He’d sliced his palm on one of the shards. A few crimson droplets already speckled the white tiles between us.

“Its nothing.”

It didn’t look like nothing.

“Let me help,” I moved near him, my eyes widening, “Please.”

He stiffened. For a moment, I thought he wasn’t going to let me touch him. But after a few beats his stare thawed out a little, and I took him by the wrist just as he’d done to me.

I knelt beside the bathtub, and he leaned down over top of me as I ran warm water from the faucet, cleaning out the cut. Before long, his bleeding slowed, and I shut it off. The drain lagged, leaving a reddish streak and a swirl across the porcelain floor of the tub.

Mort de Marat…” I breathed, still grasping his hand.

“I’m afraid, Penny,” with the back of his fingers, he brushed the side of my face, “I’m more akin to his eulogist.”

…To who? I turned his hand over to take another look at the gash. It was long, but not awfully deep. I didn’t think he’d need stitches.

“Does it hurt?”

“Does it matter?”

He was still standing. And I was still on my knees—buried by the cold, blue katabasis of his gaze. And he watched me closely, sternly, as I leaned my lips in, and kissed his hand. A long-drawn and silent moment passed—the entire time, he didn’t break his star—until without a word, he took my head in his hands, and guided me gently against him.

I shut my eyes. A chill traveled slowly down my spine, dissipating with a diffuse tingle between my hips. Through the rough, dark denim of his jeans, I could feel him start to swell against my cheek. I waited.

I wasn’t certain of what to do next; of what industry he expected of me. But I believed whole-heartedly that I knew where we were headed. It wasn’t something I was especially good at; nor a thing I ever particularly enjoyed. Still I was certain, any moment now, it would have to happen. ‘It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds…’ But just as I had been so many times already in Dmitri Caine’s hands, I was wrong.

It never came. Instead, he just ran his unbloodied hand through my hair, and softly stroked the side of my face. We went on like that for quite some time, and very gradually, I let go—not just of my nerves and anxiety, but of time and space as well. There was nothing else; only him, above, and me, beneath. It was such a strange and tender moment for me. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to remain there, kneeling at his feet, forever if I could. I felt safe. I felt warm. I felt him…

That he was hard was not a thing I could ignore. There was a marble column beneath my cheek. There was heat. There was a scent that sent my senses whirling. I nuzzled a bit closer, and felt him throb. And like an obscene item left in a hotel drawer by some faceless former occupant, I found a thought in my head that had never before belonged to me.

I want it. My lips parted, sighing softly into his jeans. I do. I want his cock in my mouth…

By some sinister, synchronized reflex, my hand ascended angelically to his belt just as my lips opened up a little wider, and I lowered myself, slowly, to the tip of him. But he stayed me—catching my wrist, and gripping my hair. It mortified me beyond words, but a soft, pleading, and involuntary whimper left my lips before he lifted my chin to look at him, and they closed.

“Have dinner with me, Penny.”

What? I flushed crimson, my senses suddenly flooding back to me. I shook my head, struggling to stand up, but found myself trapped between him and the rim of the bath. He made no motion to release me. I flushed deeper, embarrassed by my helplessness, and acutely aware of his keeping me there.

“I um, I shouldn’t…” I dropped my eyes, glaring again at his boots, “Like I said—Peter’s coming by. He’s bringing soup.”

“Yes,” he nodded, “And where is he?”

My blood returned to a simmer.

Why?” I asked acidly.

He cocked his head, “Why what, Penny?”

“Why dinner?” my words came through clenched teeth. “Why not—why not just take what you really want? I mean…” I steadied myself carefully—I didn’t want to let him to see tears in my eyes again, “You obviously know how to get it. Why are you wasting your time with me?”

“Penny,” his voice could have frozen me solid, “You have not the slightest idea what I want. And that’s not what’s happening here.”

“What the hell is happening here, Dmitri?”

I should have shoved him in the shins, and stood myself up. I doubt anyone arbitrates all that well on their knees. But I didn’t. The whole time, I let him keep me there—right where he wanted me; right where I belonged. He watched me for a while before he spoke, three creases cutting through his brow in triplicate.

“Its not easy to articulate.”

I stared forward, blank and pale as white canvas.

“You want to hurt me…”

He stepped back, at last, letting me free, “…I do.” He knelt down, offering his hand, and hoisted me gently to my feet, “I also want to keep you from being hurt.”

I shook my head, blushing furiously. His eyes repelled mine like a pair of rare-earth magnets.

“I’m…not the girl you think I am, Dmitri.”

“No,” he took me by the shoulder, and drew me closer. “But you could be. If it was what you wanted, Penny.” His voice dropped lower, “Have dinner with me. Tomorrow. And I’ll tell you how.”

At that moment, I was probably more aware of my own body than I was of my surroundings—I heard blood rushing in my ears; I felt my heartbeat accelerate on a fatal, curvilinear arc. I could feel every hair on my body, pointing like tiny, downy daggers in his direction.

“…Yes.”

The word left my mouth without ever having entered through my brain—it was already on my tongue, as if he’d put it there himself. I shivered in his arms; and not at all because I was cold.

I was, quite frankly, terrified. But I think some dark part of me knew this was inevitable. Yes, I’d run from him. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I’d run, and it didn’t matter that he’d tracked me down. Sooner or later, I would have returned to him. When he made love to me that first time; when he first marked my skin with his hand, he’d set in motion a metamorphosis in me. I couldn’t be the person I was before, but I didn’t know how to be the person I was becoming. I needed him. I needed him to finish what he’d started.

“Good girl,” his hold on me grew tighter.

I blushed again beneath the infantilizing sobriquet, already so familiar to me; and felt his hand wrap around the back of my head, sharply bending my lips toward his. Yes. My eyes fell closed, and my entire body slackened against him. Yes. ‘Thus with a kiss—’

A loud pounding at the door ripped me from my trance.

“Pens!” Peter’s muffled tenor called out from the stoop, “Hey, Pens! You in there?”

He knocked again.

I sighed loudly into Dmitri’s chest, poorly masking my disappointment, then pulled away; bracing myself for a rebuke. None came. But the flash in his eyes bordered on bestial.

“I’ll get it, Penny,” he squeezed my arm tightly, and released me.

Tabarnak.

“I don’t—” my brow wrinkled up in desperation, “I don’t think that’s a good idea…”

But it was too late. Already, he’d stalked his way to the front door, and threw it open.

“Mr. Mulgrave,” he spoke the name like an anathema.

I blushed painfully on Peter’s behalf. When he saw Mr. Caine standing there doorway, he nearly lost his hold on two Styrofoam tubs of soup. Even after he recovered, they didn’t shake hands.

“…Mr. Caine,” Peter returned the chilly salutation, and stood on his toes to get a look at me over Dmitri’s undulant shoulder, “I uh…I didn’t know you had company.”

“I was on my way out, Mr. Mulgrave,” his voice remained icy, and he still stood in doorway, blockading Peter’s path. “I dropped by to check on Miss Foster. And to discuss her new project.”

Peter’s face sank, “…new project?”

“Yes,” Dmitri turned back to me, “I expect to keep her very busy this time.” Finally, he stepped to one side, and let Peter through, “So don’t overstay, Mr. Mulgrave. She’ll need her rest.”

Now my face sank. Is he? Is he really going? Just like that? I felt a violent stirring of frustration in my muscles, like the last, smoky throes of a fire before its extinguished by rain. Peter didn’t even acknowledge me, but glared his way into the kitchen; loudly setting out some bowls on the counter. And I watched helplessly as Dmitri gathered up his topcoat and valise.

“…Are you sure you won’t stay?” I breathed.

I knew he wouldn’t. And I knew it was an awful idea, but I didn’t care. I had so many questions still. I wasn’t nearly prepared for him to leave. He stood over me, very close.

“You enjoy your soup, Miss Foster,” he smirked, and cocked his head. “You look as though you’re due for a decent meal.”

I winced as he pinched a little skin around my wrist. And then I frowned—his hand was still bleeding a little.

“Well, let me get you some gauze at least…” I started to make for the medicine cabinet, but he stopped me cold.

“Leave it, Penny,” he growled, and pulled me back to him. “Tomorrow. Dinner. Be ready at eight—I’ll send a car.”

I nodded unsteadily, and stood still as a statue while he leaned forward, laying a light kiss at the top of my forehead. The skin still tingled long after his lips left it.

“I’ll…understand if you change your mind, Penny. And I won’t come after you again,” he still hadn’t released me. “Just promise me from now on you’ll use the door. You could’ve killed yourself climbing out that window—or climbing in this one, for that matter.”

I flushed scarlet, embarrassed beyond words.

“Promise me,” he repeated coolly, “say ‘I, Penny Foster, promise to use the god damned door.’”

I stifled an awkward giggle. I figured I probably didn’t have to do it—it seemed highly unlikely to me that Dmitri would pull any further funny business with Peter so close by. But I gave in anyhow.

“…I, Penny Foster,” my cheeks and chest were on fire, “promise to use the goddamn door.”

He nodded, his smirk resurfacing, “Good girl.”

Once final time, he squeezed my arm, then turned abruptly and left me; pausing just a moment as he passed the kitchen.

“I’ve left your mug on the counter, Mr. Mulgrave,” he contemned; then continued on toward the door, whistling what I realized with another fit of flushing was the melody to ‘She Came In through the Bathroom Window’, and with rush of cold air, was gone.

…Tomorrow? I trembled. I couldn’t decide whether it felt too far away for me, or altogether too soon.

“Alright, Pens,” Peter emerged brusquely from the kitchen carrying the mug, and thrust it toward me with a scowl, “The hell is this supposed to mean?”

I squinted. Inside was a role of about five hundred dollars in large bills, and a little note scrawled in Dmitri’s fastidious and unmistakable cursive.

‘Pour le chauffeur-livreur. Merci beaucoup – D.R.C.’

“I think…” I frowned, “I think its because your truck got towed. I doubt he meant anything by it.”

I wasn’t convinced, and neither was Peter. Not that I was any specialist in knowing what was going on in Dmitri Caine’s head, but I’d hazard that the implicit slight was not only intentional, it was strategic. Either way, my interpretation did nothing to brighten his mood.

“I came by yesterday, you know,” he shoved his hands into his pockets. “I know you were here. Why didn’t you answer, Pens? Why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone when I called? And what the hell was he really doing here? There’s no way he wants another painting.”

I cocked my head at him, “Why’s that, Peter?”

He dropped his eyes, but I kept mine steady.

“I mean—you know, because,” he fumbled, “Because you’re—you’re a…”

“…A nobody?” I offered, perhaps a little sharply—but I knew it was what he wanted to say.

“I wouldn’t put it like that…”

“No?” I narrowed my eyes, “How would you put it?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, “I’m sorry, Pens. I really didn’t mean any offense. I’m just—I’m really worried about you.”

I sighed, and felt my umbrage begin to melt. Well…with good reason, Peter…

“There are flowers in the kitchen, Pens,” he took off his glasses, and wiped the lenses nervously at the base of his flannel, “are they yours?”

“Marie’s,” I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could manage. “Renault sent them over this morning.”

He leaned a little closer, attempting to catch a look in my eyes. But I couldn’t do it—and he knew I was hiding something. He shook his head, replacing his glasses.

“What happened after I left, Pens? And please,” again, he shoved his hands diffidently into his pockets, “don’t lie to me.”

“…Nothing,” I lied to him—I lied right through my teeth, “nothing happened, Peter. I promise.” 

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than Lushstories.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © © M. Thomas Ashe, 2016. All rights reserved.

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