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Other Colors -- Ch. 13

A D/s romance set in Montreal
Part 2 - Blue (continued)

Chapter 13

I’m not quite sure what I expected—some asphyxiatingly formal ballroom perhaps, complete with a canopy of blown glass chandeliers, bone china chargers, and tables set with more cutlery than Marie and I had stashed in our entire kitchen. I just figured the place he picked for us would be polished, bright, grotesquely opulent—and definitely not a dungeon.

But from where the driver let me out, I trailed a small coterie of well-attired women and men not through the flashing brass doors of a grand, Old World hotel, but instead down a tight flight of stone stairs toward the gloomy and unremarkable entrance of a rathskellar.

I descended carefully several steps behind the last girl in their party. She wore an elegant cocktail dress of cream jacquard, and a rabbit fur stole over her bony shoulders. I cringed, though my anxieties about being overdressed diminished almost entirely. At the foot of the stairs, her towering companion held open the door for her. And then he held it for me. I bit my lip, gazing forth into the darkness as she disappeared. Au fond du terrier, Penny… I stepped in, and the door slid shut behind me.

…The hell?

For a moment, I thought I’d gone blind. The restaurant was hazardousy dim; illumined only by orange globes of candlelight, scattered sparsely across the tables and bar. I squinted, impatient for my eyes to adjust, while my ears pricked to the faint click of women’s heels, and the clinking of crystal and silverware. Somewhere nearby, I heard the haunting, bluesy arpeggios of a baby grand piano, and the maître d ' , with a put-on Provençal accent, leading away the giant and the girl in the jacquard gown.

I drew my fingers nervously along the necklace he’d sent me, scanning the shadowy forms at the bar for some sign of him. I doubt he could have picked a place any more imposing. Or more apropos. I strained my eyes harder. He’s not here, is he?

I’m not sure whether what I felt was cut more from disappointment, or relief. Maybe he’s not coming at all. I folded my arms, almost trembling. Maybe he got stuck at work. Or forgot. Or just chose outright to stand me up. None of them really seemed any worse than the other, nor did one seem any more likely. But I indulged myself with false hopes anyhow—just so long as I didn’t have to stand there, all alone, in that strange, dark spot a moment longer.

Alright, I clenched my jaw, resolving to go, you were here, Penny. You had the guts to show up. And that’s enough. I took a half step backward toward the door, and struck something immovable with my shoulder.

“You wore your hair up.”

I staggered a little, and my entire body stiffened. He stood right behind me. I shuddered as his hands closed around my collar, stripping away my coat. How is he always sneaking up on me like this?

“…Do you like it?”

I didn’t turn to face him. And if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I could still barely see a blessed thing.

“If I didn’t, Penny,” his breath bristled coolly over my ear, “you’d let it down, wouldn’t you?”

My chest flushed. Some other time, I might have rolled my eyes at the bravado. I was growing gradually accustomed to these imperious little games of his. But tonight, he’d raised the stakes on me. I could hear it in his voice—the freshly sharpened edge, and the bone-dry irony. TonightAgain, I shivered as his hand slid down to the small of my back. Tonight he’s playing for keeps.

“Come on,” he pressed me gently forward. “Table’s waiting.”

I nodded, tugging discreetly at the lower hem of my dress. It really wasn’t riding up at all, but the decision to go sans unmentionables—which seemed more and more psychotic to me with each passing step—left me really quite painfully self-conscious of my lower half. And as he walked behind me, I became sincerely grateful for the restaurant’s awful lighting.

A few steps further, and my eyes finally acclimated. He led me through a low, arched corridor with tables set on either side; recessed into identical stone alcoves. Inside each one, another pair of fashionable diners formed their own unsavory tableau vivant for us as we passed—faces obscured, or else made strange and startling by the dance of candlelight. The tenets of Tenebrism… I thought of the lost Susannah by Caravaggio, and the oft forgotten Susannah of Artemisia Gentileschi.

“Unique, isn’t it?” he bent his head to speak to me.

I nodded, glancing anxiously past him to a heavy, half-corroded pair of hinges bolted on the stone. We stopped at an empty alcove, and he helped me to my seat. I slid my legs beneath the burgundy table linen, relieved to gain a little extra covering.

“What was this place?” I knitted my brow.

He took his time, settling in beside me. I watched him. He watched me back. Between the hair, and stubble, and his trim, black suit, he looked like he might’ve been sculpted right out the shadows surrounding us. Erebus, begat of Chaos. I shuddered. Does that make me Nyx tonight?

“A women’s prison,” he unfurled his napkin without breaking his stare. “Oldest one in Montreal.”

He’s joking . My ankles locked together nervously. He is. He wants to rattle me.

“Liar,” I breathed.

“Possibly. I suppose you would know. You spent a little time locked up in this town.”

My face flushed hotly. Never going to let me live that one down, is he?

“Only a few hours,” I shifted uneasily, “…thanks to you.”

He made no answer; just went about his usual fastidious straightening of the flatware. When he finished, he looked up.

“You know the night we met, Penny,” he moved his fork a few more imperceivable degrees, “I gave you a task that I thought was impossible. Honestly. One week?” he trained the tines on me. “I didn’t think you could pull it off. I thought you’d crawl back to me. Penitent. Defeated. Pleading for more time. Imagine my surprise,” he perused the menu for what seemed less than a second, and snapped it shut. “You would’ve worked your fingers bloody for me. Why?”

“You,” my gaze sank, “you didn’t really leave me much choice.”

His eyes narrowed, “It may not feel like it at times—but you always have a choice with me.” He smirked darkly. “Keep that in mind tonight.”

Now. Remind me, Miss Foster… Beneath the table, my toe tapped on the flagstone floor like a telegraph key. Exactly what idiot part of you thought this was a good idea? It tapped faster. What the hell are you doing here? My body tensed as his as his palm clasped down on my thigh, putting an end to its tremor.

“Relax,” he squeezed, “I didn’t mean to intimidate you.”

“…liar,” I breathed again.

With his other hand, he raised my chin to face him.

“If frightening you off was all I wanted, Penny, I wouldn’t need to lie,” tracing the course of a lone, pulsating vein, he let his fingers glide down to the base of my neck. “I’d just tell you the truth.”

My brow furrowed; his touch singed my skin like an electrical current, “The truth?”

“About why I asked you here.”

I stifled a gasp as his other hand, in subtle increments, twitched just slightly higher on my leg.

“And what I intend to do to you later.”

Oh, no. No, no. Why didn’t you just wear the goddamn thong, Penny? I shut my eyes tight, struggling hard to hold my nerves together as his grip slid still higher.

“…Not here. Please,” I shook my head, my voice about as coarse as crushed glass. “Please. People can see.”

“Can they?” he paused, and I winced as he slipped two fingers beneath the silver setting of my necklace. “Then paint me a picture, Penny. What do they see? Is it Vronsky seducing Anna? Tourvel and Valmont ?” His fist closed around the chain, drawing me, by the throat, a little closer. “Or just a couple of friends,” he smirked wryly, “sitting down for a nice dinner together?”

Had I wanted to, I couldn’t answer him. My vocal cords were cut. He held me there a moment longer, embarrassed to the edge of absolute aphonia, then released me. I sank back in my seat; heart thundering, but still silent.

“Two reasons I picked this place for us tonight,” he went on, smoothing his napkin casually across his lap. “There’s a Metro stop not half a black north of here. If you’re getting cold feet, you can leave any time you like.”

…Is that so?

My heart was still thumping wildly. I straightened out my necklace. He’d left it hanging a little cockeyed. He really thinks I’m that scared of him. I glared. He was right, I was. But more than that, I was profoundly and insubordinately stubborn—perhaps just a little spiteful too. And if I’d walked out right then, he’d have known. He’d have known just how much fear he filled me with; how tightly it controlled me when he was near. And I categorically refused to give him that satisfaction.

“And why, pray tell, would I leave,” I crossed my arms churlishly, setting my elbows on the table, “Mr. Caine?

His eyes flashed.

“Because, Miss Foster ,” he returned my frostiness in triplicate, “you run. You ran from your family. From your home in Nags Head. You ran from your graduate program. You’ve run away from me once already. It’s what you do,” his eyes narrowed. “It’s your instinct.”

I didn’t argue. His indictments of me were neither wrong, nor any great revelation to me. But I didn’t really care to hear them so neatly summarized by a man I’d met barely ten days ago. His tone sort of infuriated me—it was so detached, and clinical. In the very worst ways, it reminded me of Doctor Foster. He had his algorithm. He plugged into it a few disparate details he’d gathered. And suddenly, he seemed to think he knew the color and shape of every last thought in my brain. I gritted my teeth.

“You know I’ve only run, Dmitri,” my words were soft, but barbed, “when I had a damned good reason to.” Some water simmered at the edges of my eyes. I let them lose focus, gazing at the glass-globed candle between us. “Are you going to give me one?”

“…Yes,” he nodded, tilting his head wolfishly. “You might not like what I have to say tonight. You might not want to see me again after. That’s fine,” He smirked, though only from the mouth down—the look in his eyes could have cut glass. “Say no. Say nothing. Say you need to powder your nose, if you like. You can be out of here, and back safe to Saint-Michel in twenty minutes. I won’t come after you this time,” he paused, still smirking darkly, “cross my heart.”

And hope to die. I fought back another shiver, recalling how he’d hunted me down the day beforehand; how angry I’d been with him at first—and by the time he left, how much I’d wished that he would stay.

“Now, the other reason I picked this place for us,” he leaned in, smirking in earnest now, and adjusted the crisp knot of his tie, “Discretion. They have a keen reputation here.”

I stared blankly, brows raised. And after a beat, he pitied me.

“That, for instance, without looking, he gestured to the dim forms of two diners seated in the recess nearest ours, “is the French Consul Général. And the man she’s with,” he nodded to one side, “c’est pas son mari.”

Not her husband? I squinted. Just barely, I could make out the candlelit outline of her bearded companion, kissing his way brazenly from her ear down to the pale crest of her shoulder.

Cripes.

I blushed on their behalf, and stared a bit longer than I really should have; listening between rests in the piano’s dreary etudes to her coy Parisian protests, and wet, coquettish laugh. It’s not an easy thing to articulate—but I sort of liked spying on the two of them. Stranger still, I think I wanted Dmitri to scold me for it. To watch, and be watched… I thought of keyholes, and prison bars—Foucault’s panopticon à la Surveiller et Punir’, and the voyeur vignette of Jean-Paul Sartre.

“That’s enough,” he touched my cheek, and turned me back toward him, cancelling my little trance. “But feel assured, Penny—whatever happens tonight, should someone here turn up in the tabloids tomorrow morning,” he ran his thumb across my lower lip, “it won’t be either of us.”

Oh, no? There was an sharpness in his voice that set me on edge again.

“At the gallery,” I murmured, trembling a little beneath his touch, “you and Emily made Le Devoir .”

His nostrils flared slightly when I said her name, but he shook it off.

“Maybe so,” he nodded slowly, “but the Mayor I’m not, Miss Foster. I sell rocks.”

He winked slyly, and flicked a bit of hair behind my ear. I didn’t want to. I didn’t. But I couldn’t quite help myself. I covered my mouth, and giggled. It was funny in a way; to hear him talk so flippantly about himself, and whatever precisely it was that he did with Estoty. But I stopped cold as he took my hand away, and held it.

“Don’t,” he spoke coolly, “You have such a pretty laugh, Penny. I’d rather you didn’t hide it from me,” his eyes flashed, “Understood?”

My cheeks flushed crimson. And he stared, unblinking, until I nodded.

“Good girl,” he squeezed, and signaled a passing server in from the corridor.

Bonsoir, Monsieur Caine. How nice to see you again,” the waiter tipped his sandy head, grinning amiably—I squinted at him. He was freckled, and skinny; he looked to be about the same age as me. “Please. Comment puis-je vous aider?”

“The tasting menu,” Dmitri spoke for both of us, handing off our heavy, leather-bound menus. “Five courses. And the ninety reserve to start.”

“Magnifique, Monsieur,” he nodded, gathered them against his chest, and vanished.

“…Five courses?” I repeated him, eyes wide.

It seemed excessive—especially as in the stress of sitting there with him, my stomach kept knotting itself into the size of a walnut.

“Small ones. Would you prefer the twelve?” he turned. “No trouble to change it.”

Twelve? For real? I shook my head emphatically.

The waiter returned swiftly, carrying two crystal flutes and a bottle of champagne. He poured a small splash for Dmitri, who promptly slid the glass in front of me instead. I grimaced at him for putting me on the spot, but sipped it anyways. I was hardly surprised. It was by far the best stuff I’d ever tasted. The bubbles danced warmly on the back of my tongue.

“Do you approve, Miss Foster?” he cocked his head, and I almost choked as, mid-swallow, his fingertips swept softly across the skin of my inner thigh.

Oh là là,” the waiter’s eyes widened. “Is something wrong, Mademoiselle?”

I shook my head, eyes watering, and unable to speak.

“No. I think she likes it,” again he caressed me, and again, I nearly choked. “But my friend had a few questions about the menu. Would you mind?”

Oh my God. Oh my God. I made a stalwart effort to draw my legs together, but he held me fast.

“But of course, Monsieur, not at all,” he grinned at each of us, relieved, and recited the elaborate meal in what seemed like flowery but unaffected French.

Though in truth, I could hear very little over the deafening rush of blood between my ears. Whenever he turned his eyes to me, I tried hard to look like I was listening—I really didn’t want to be rude—and wound up catching every third word or so that left his lips. All the while, Dmitri surreptitiously menaced me beneath the table.

Fire morels. With white asparagus. Frisée. I smothered a worried sigh as his hand crept higher, almost up to the hem of my dress. Turbot. The hell is that? And bone marrow. And, and, and… Snowshoe hare? Yes, roasted. With Dijon. And wild thyme too. And. And, um… Jesus, Mary, Joan of Arc.

I couldn’t listen any longer. I shut my eyes, fists clenched together in my lap. Any moment, I expected him to take his liberties, and discover what was missing from my outfit. Then all at once, the waiter stopped. And so, thank God, did Dmitri.

“Does that please you, Mademoiselle?” the boy stood by, still oblivious, still smiling.

Dmitri watched cruelly, awaiting my humiliating answer.

“…Yes,” I swallowed my ire, “Thank you, Monsieur.”

“Magnifique,” he nodded pleasantly, turned once more, and disappeared.

Again, we were alone. I swear to God, my heart was still rattling like a hummingbird’s, if he ever does that to me again, I’ll murder him. I will. I had to fight hard to keep from trembling as he slid his palm very slowly back down to my knee, and let go. An with that same hand, he raised his flute, pretending to study its effervescent column champagne.

“This wine,” he spun the bottle to face me. “It’s about your age, isn’t it?”

Cuvée Dom Pérignon. Vintage 1990. I read, blushed a bit deeper, and nodded. Dom… Why not?

“You know, in the past,” he narrowed his eyes at the amber fluid, “I never much cared for the younger ones. Too sweet. Too simple.” He cocked his head, “But then they say nineteen-ninety was a rare year. Some nonsense about the dew point. Or the storms in the spring.” He rolled the flute back and forth while he spoke, “They say the tastes were deeper. More subtle. Bitter—but still fresh. And just a little darker than anyone expected.” His eyes locked on mine, “And just lately, Penny,” he slid the second glass back in front of me, “j'ai soif pour elle…”

Timidly, I grasped the stem just in time to brace it. The glasses clinked.

“Your health,” he sipped, staring darkly.

I bit my lip, and followed suit, “vous êtes vraiment un connaisseur, Monsieur .”

“No,” he brushed the stubble on his chin with one thumb, “but after a taste, I know what I like—and whether I want more.” He caught my gaze again just above the flickering candle. “Do you?”

“Do I—” I squirmed in my seat, “do I what?”

“Do you know what you like, Penny Foster?”

I stared into the flame. I do. I like it when you say what you mean to me. I like not having to talk to you through nine stinking layers of metaphor. Or metonymy. Or whatever. Admittedly, it wasn’t true. And if he’d spoken to me plainly, graphically, I would’ve been entirely too embarrassed to look at him, much less converse. But I was still flustered from his stunt with the waiter, and I sort of wished I had the backbone to call him out on all his artful bullshit.

But I didn’t. I just shrugged shyly. And I let him have his way with me. In the end, I always did.

“Well, let’s try this then,” he set down his glass. “You studied the Hellenics in school?”

I nodded. Where the hell is this headed?

“Pick a Venus,” he numbered them with his fingers, “de’ Medici, de Milo, or Callipyge.”

I frowned. The Modest Venus. The Broken Venus. Or the one lifting up her skirt.

“de Milo,” I drank again. “Definitely.”

His lips curled, “Why?

Why? I hesitated. My first impulse was to lie to him. Objectively, I suppose the stakes were low enough. He wasn’t asking for my passport number, or for power of attorney, or about how I got the scar on my shoulder. But offering up my thoughts to someone, the real ones, always made me feel very, very vulnerable. To me at least, my ideas about art weren’t theoretical. They were emotional. Intimate. And delicate. They didn’t always hold up under someone else’s cold, critical scrutiny—which is probably why I never felt cut out for grad school. My frown cut deeper.

“I know it’s trite,” I ran my finger up and down the flute’s smooth stem, “but I like the mystery. Her missing arms...” I glanced up, “de’ Medici is a Venus Pudica. Callipyge is classic Anasyrma. But de Milo—no one can really say for sure,” I simpered cloudily. “She might’ve been anything.”

His brow tightened, “She’s better off broken?”

“Yeah,” I breathed, uncertain, “I think she is.”

“So once upon a time,” his gaze darkened, and I listened as, each in its turn, he cracked his knuckles on the edge of the table, “Miss de Milo either vainly bared her little body to us—or else she was shy, and tried to hide it. But now,” he cracked the last, “Now she’s got no choice in the matter. And she’s far lovelier to us because of it,” he raised his searching eyes to mine. “Unable to invite our gaze. Unable to fend it off. Objectified. She’s become an object of beauty.”

My face tensed, “I didn’t say that.”

“No,” he touched his jaw roughly, “but you agree.”

I didn’t nod. But I didn’t fight him either. I remembered Dalí's unsettling erotic send-up of the sculpture—Venus de Milo with Drawers—and naughty little Lynch, penciling his name onto the buttocks of the Venus of Praxiteles. ‘Was that not art?’

I drew my mouth to one side. He was right in a way. Her body lacked arms, so her nakedness lacked context. And it made her, I guess, a little more and a little less than human. A symbol of sex. A sexual object…

“…objectified,” I turned the word over on my tongue.

“Mais oui,” he raised his glass. “And what I wouldn’t give to make an object out of you, Miss Foster.”

“By breaking off my arms?” I smirked simply to hide my nerves.

He drank, swallowed, and shook his head, “By binding them.”

I felt my lips twitch, and the hairs on my neck and forearms stood on end. Otherwise, I think I kept my panic from showing too plainly on the surface. Inside it was shredding me to pieces.

“Does that arouse you? The thought of a man tying your wrists together?” he cocked his head at me, “Or are you just frightened?”

The latter. I think… I think his tone chilled me almost as much as the words themselves. He sounded so blasé , so matter-of-fact. I’m not quite sure how, but with one single question, he made me feel more cornered, more preyed upon by him than I had only a few minutes prior, with his hand about halfway up my dress.

“…both,” I breathed, almost inaudible.

He nodded, “I’m glad. I’m glad that it frightens you. Because if you let a strange man tie your hands, Penny, what’s to stop him from taking it further?” He sipped, and set his glass aside. “What’s to stop him from putting a blindfold over those lovely green eyes of yours? Or a gag between those pretty, pink lips?”

This, my toes curled rigidly inside Marie’s lace heels, this would be an ideal time to run, Penny. But I didn’t budge. Perhaps my legs were temporarily paralyzed. Perhaps not.

“Nothing,” very slowly, I shook my head, “…I couldn’t stop him.”

“You could,” he snapped, “But you wouldn’t. Not yet. We haven’t found that line, Miss Foster,” he stared coolly, and rubbed his jaw. “Now suppose he undressed you. Imagine it. You lie there. Bound, blind, silenced. Naked. Vulnerable. He lashes another rope around you. Across your chest. Just tight enough to make you swell.”

I swallowed, barely breathing, as he reached over and laid my hand supine upon the tabletop, tracing a pale, blue vein into my wrist.

“Compression—the right amount, in the just the right places,” he pushed, “opens up the capillary sphincters. Beds flood. Sensations amplify.” With his other hand, he followed the three creases of my palm in a soft and tortuous zigzag. “Just his breath,” he leaned closer, “would feel like an open flame against your skin”

Falò delle vanità. Auto-da-fé. A chill, cold enough to burn, moved very slowly up my arm, igniting and cauterizing each nerve it crossed. My eyes, my tongue, my breasts… Saint Lucy, Philomela, and Saint Agatha.

It should have bothered me more. A lot more. I should have been indignant. Aghast. Scandalized. But I wasn’t. I was entranced. With him, the boundaries of what was proper were blurred from the very start. Now they seemed to have vanished outright, swept away like lines drawn in the sand. He curled my fingers in to form a fist, and released me. My palm kept tingling well afterward.

“Next train leaves in eleven minutes,” he glanced sharply to his wristwatch. “You’ll just make it if you leave now.”

I don’t know. I really don’t. In a quarter hour, he’d given me about a thousand fresh reasons to run. But none of them removed me from him.

I thought of Eve, and Pandora, the Fitcher’s bird, and the bride of Bluebeard. And Psyche… always Psyche. Each tragic girl, entrusted with the key to her own undoing—and all she ever had to do was do nothing. But hey, that’s not a girl's nature, now is it? All acted, even if it spelled disaster. And here was I, the funhouse reflection of that unfortunate sisterhood. To save myself, all I had to do was do anything. And I didn’t. I sat there before him. Passive. Silent. Submissive…

The waiter arrived with the first course. He laid out our dishes, refilled the flutes, and went away without a word. This time, I think he could sense that he’d interrupted something. The air around us was thick with it. When he went, it faded some—but not entirely.

“Ever had one of these, Penny?” he lifted his fork, and impaled a strange, wrinkled mushroom on the plate.

That’s…a morel? I shook my head, trying hard to look as comfortable as he did with our sudden non sequitur from fetishes to fungi.

“Taste,” he handed me the fork.

I squinted a moment, unsold. It looked like charred brain coral. Or just plain, old brain. But the smell seduced me, and I took a bite. Wow… I rolled the gills over on my tongue, swallowed, and almost reflexively reached for another.

“You like it.”

I nodded. He grinned.

“This type…they’ll only grow in scorched earth. We used to go hunting for them,” he pushed one to the center of his plate. “After the harvest, a few farmers set their brush on fire. And they’d pop up all along the Volga the next spring.”

I stopped chewing mid-bite. So…he did grow up in Russia. But his father—he was the Bishop of Bayonne?

I lowered my fork slowly, studying him while he sliced into the cap. ‘A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ I craved clarity. But it seemed to me each modicum of his history that I dug up only served to further obscure him. Each answer, inevitably, raised about a dozen new questions. Not the least of which, for me, was what the hell we were really doing there together—why he still insisted on wasting his time with me.

I sighed. Now or never.

“I…” my voice was dry, and fragile “I really do need to know, Dmitri. Right now. Or I walk.” With a Sisyphean effort, I raised my eyes to face him. “Why did you ask me here tonight?”

He, too, lowered his fork, “The truth?”

My gaze fell down again. The truth was, I was bluffing. He had his claws in me. My limbs were leaden. I may as well have been chained to my chair. Andromeda on the Rocks. Rubens, Titian, Delacroix, Doré—I wondered how many men had painted their tiny shackles on the poor girl’s wrists.

“So long as you trust me,” he spoke coolly, almost contemptuously, “my motives really shouldn’t matter to you.”

Had I been holding my champagne glass, it might’ve been crushed back to silica dust. He didn’t even look at me. He didn’t need to. Because however fiery my scowl might’ve been, I was still sitting there. He had me. He knew it. And I had hardly a card left to play.

“What should matter,” he went on, unbidden, and his tone unchanged, “is the offer I’m about to make—and whether there’s any part of you I can tempt with it.”

“…Alright,” I was taken aback. Was he really just testing me? To see if I’d leave?  I struggled to maintain my glare, “and…just what is that, Mr. Caine?”

“Deus ex machina,” he folded his hands, and leaned forward. “I can take you away from everything, Penny. And it can start tonight.”

“Um,” I sank deeper into my seat, “come again?”

“I want you,” his voice was dark and deliberate, “to stay with me at Lacoste for a while.”

What? My mouth fell open.

“You won’t worry about your food, your bills, your bed,” he tilted his head, and dropped his eyes to my bare shoulder, “or any other thing that might trouble you. Your only decisions will be what to paint, and which books to read.” He took up his knife and fork, slicing smoothly into a morel, “everything else is spoken for.”

I felt a few cold beads of sweat gather near my temples.

“You want me,” I repeated him, wondering if a second time around the proposal might sound any less ludicrous, “to come and live with you.”

He nodded solemnly, “I do.”

“Are you…” I squinted, dropping my voice to a whisper, “are you asking me to your mistress?”

He smirked, apparently amused. If he’s teasing me again, my nails sank into the table linen, I’ll die. I’ll kill him first. But then I’ll die.

“Play the ingénue all you like, Miss Foster. I think you have more than an inkling of what my intentions are with you. But this—” his smirk ebbed, “this isn’t about sex. And I’ve no interest in purchasing you. All you’d consent to is to stay at Lacoste, and let me handle all your affairs for a while. No strings attached,” for a moment, the irony flickered in his eyes again, “at least, not until you request them."

I wore my skepticism like an ugly perfume—so thick and aromatic, it was almost visible.

“You’d like me to move in with you,” I tipped my head at him, straining hard to see inside his brain, “and you really expect me to believe it’s not about sex?”

“It will sound strange to you, but not even sex,” his voice fell to a grave and dulcet growl, “is really about sex for me, Penny. What I want is to control you. What you eat, and when. The way you dress and speak. When you come. And when you go…” he trailed off, giving me a slow, painful once-over; my skin began to burn beneath his gaze. “Consent tonight, and I’ll be making your decisions for you. But I will never force you outright into anything. Understood?”

No. No. He can’t, cannot, could not possibly be serious about this. I crossed my legs tensely beneath the table.

And yet, for the first time of the night, he was wrong about something. That last part—he said it would sound strange to me. It didn’t. Not really. It scared me, certainly—the austerity when he spoke, and the dreadful way he looked at me. But still, I could sort of see how it was...sexy.

One at the other’s mercy. To surrender oneself… I remembered Rodin’s Eternal Spring. There was a kind of romance to it—a perverse, and twisted one perhaps; but a romance nonetheless. I gazed back at him. I wondered.

No. No. Knock it off. And get you shit together, Penny. I shook my head. It’s not a game. And it’s not a book. Or a movie. Or some dirty story you heard from Marie.

It was funny. I could almost hear the whole thing in my head—Marie recounting to me her kinky weekend escapade with the handsome and wealthy art collector. I would try to empathize. I might even offer her a little half-hearted affirmation at the end. At least, if she went looking for it.

Well, maybe sometimes it’s like, therapeutic to feel powerless or whatever. Doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you can’t be a feminist anymore…’ I could hear myself scraping around for the right words, and not believing a single thing I said.

But that wasn’t what was happening here. And this wasn’t some erotic daydream I'd stolen secondhand from my roommate. It was a man—a real one—who through some absurd comedy of errors had come to think that I, Penny Foster, should to play leading lady in this dark, blue theatre of his mind.

“No,” again, I shook my head, "I don’t understand. But...” I wrapped my fist tightly around the flute’s stem, “I think I’d like to.”

He nodded as I drank. I watched him, half-obscured, through the clear base of my glass.

“During the day,” he topped us off, and set down the bottle, “you’d rarely see me. I keep long hours. I travel often. Jules would be around for anything you might need. You’d have your own quarters. Studio space. The library, gardens. The whole estate at your disposal. But you wouldn’t leave,” he stopped, “without my permission, Penny.”

I blinked, believing I must have misheard him. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us broke the stare. The Rackham illustrations, rapid as butterfly wings, fluttered about in my head. I saw the lovely, limpid eyes of Briar Rose, and Belle, Clarissa, and Emily St. Aubertsome five hundred years of lonely damsels, locked away in their lonely towers.

“So…you really don’t want a mistress,” I drew a clear circle, like a cuff, in the condensation around the rim of my flute. “You want a prisoner.”

He smirked, “I prefer ‘artist-in-residence’. But let me make it completely clear,” he set his hands splayed on the tabletop, “you’re free to go at any time. There are no locks on the doors. You walk out the front gate, and go on your merry way. Doing so,” he curled his fingers to a fist, “will only terminate our agreement.”

“…Just like that?”

“Just like that,” he echoed coolly. “Nothing messy. No love lost. Each of us move on.”

Move on. I almost laughed. I wondered whether he knew how manipulative it truly sounded—to literally hold me hostage, ransoming my only chance to be with him. Yes. Yes, of course he knows. My skin prickled, and I crossed my legs a little tighter.

“Alright,” my breath was shallow, “And hypothetically—suppose I stayed,” I dropped my eyes, and pretended to inspect the mortar between roughhewn flagstones on the floor, “For how long?”

“As long it takes,” he raised his glass, “for you to finish your three paintings. A few weeks. A few months. A year, maybe. It’s up to you,” he tapped the flute with one finger. “I’ll set you up in the glasshouse. It’s warm. Plenty of light. Breakfast is at seven, dinner at nine. You won’t be disturbed while working. And if you leave Lacoste only when I allow it,” he drank, “you’ll stay for as long as you like.”

As long as I like… Suddenly, I saw a montage of all the inexplicable women’s provisions I’d discovered in his guestroom the morning after he bailed me out of Saint-Michel. So that’s why then...

“You’ve done this before,” I bit down on my bottom lip until it stung, “haven’t you?”

“I have. It sounds trite,” he recalled my words for Miss de Milo, “but I’m a busy man. Divorced. Away half the year in the Territories. No time or patience to date. Strippers and whores do nothing for me. And as I’m sure you’ve realized, Penny—I have complicated tastes. This,” his eyes flashed, “This is what works for me. And I’ll understand if you want no part of it.”

I trembled visibly in front of him. How many? I wondered how many poor girls over the years he’d let fall for him, and then let fall apart. Three? Ten? One thousand and one? I thought of Scheherezade, distracting her king from dusk to dawn just to keep her head from rolling. And you’re no Scheherezade. Just another notch on his chopping block…

But then, when it all boils down, I crossed my arms to stop the trembling, does it even matter? A little blue demon descended, and perched herself on my shoulder; sinking her tiny talons into my scar.

I mean, you’re not in love the guy, right? Right? He’s good-looking, sure, that’s a perk. Probably he’ll fuck your brains out once in a while. Might be good for you, for a change. But just listen to what he’s giving you, girl—a chance to paint. All day. Without a care in the world. All this time, isn’t that just what you said you wanted? He’s footing your bills. You won’t even have to work. And that doesn’t quite make you a whore, now does it? No. No, of course not. After all, he says whores do nothing for him.

“It’s tempting,” I cut the cold voice off; flushing so warm that my skin might have blistered, “But I’ve been in debt to you before, Dmitri. You took…more than standard interest.” I tried to raise my eyes to him, and failed, “And you know, when I left school, I never imagined things would be easy. They shouldn’t. Or—why do it?” I knitted my brow, “does that make any sense?

“Mais bien sûr,” he nodded stiffly, “the starving artist? Coldwater tenement. A moldering garret in the Latin Quarter. Rats. Bread crusts. Tuberculosis. Selling your blood for paint brushes. That’s the dream, isn’t it?”

I glared, “You’re mocking me.”

“Only your methods,” he brushed his jaw roughly. “You told me once that you thought the greatness of artists was proportional to their suffering. I think you’re right,” his lips were tight, “But Michelangelo was one of the wealthiest men in Italy. Do you imagine he didn’t find time to suffer?”

“…You’re no Medici, Signore,” I murmured, still cross.

“And you,” he raised a brow, slicing smoothly into the last morel, “are no Lavinia Fontana. Not yet. But I’m rich. And you’re talented. So please,” he slid one half onto my plate, “trust me when I tell you, Penny—it isn’t worth it. You don’t need to freeze. You don’t need to starve. And letting me fulfill your basic animal needs won’t make your work any less impressive.” He leaned nearer, “Come live with me. I’m sure you’ll find far better ways to suffer.”

I kept glowering, but blushed, “You know I hate it when you do that.”

“I do,” he smirked, taking the last half for himself. “You flush when you’re embarrassed. You walk on your toes when you’re nervous. And when you’re frustrated,” he took a bite, and tapped his nose with the knife, “your nostrils flare.”

“They do not,” I covered my nose with both hands.

“They do,” he swallowed. “We all have our little idiosyncrasies. I’m told my eyes dilate, and I quit blinking,” he leveled the full weight of his gaze on me; cold, and blue, and impossibly piercing, “whenever I see something I want.”

He stared, silent, and I shriveled a little lower into my chair.

“I can’t quit my job,” I breathed shakily, turning away. “Madame’s old. She needs me.”

“You’re also an awful liar, Penny. You can never seem to look me in the eyes,” he waved one hand through my line of sight, and brought me back to him. “Madame d’Aulnoir was getting along fine before you. She’ll get along well after. But I understand your hesitation.” He drew his jaw to one side, “Keep the job. I’ll have her cut back your hours. Eight to noon. Three days a week. My driver will drop you off, and pick you up.”

“How..?” I stuttered, “How will you?”

“The west parlor flooded last spring. I’ve been meaning to have it refurnished,” he folded his hands, “I think an old lady’s rubbish will suit it nicely, no?”

Ah. You’ll buy her off. I frowned uncomfortably. ‘Money answereth all things.’

“Anything else holding you back, Miss Foster?” he raised his wrist, “Tell me. Or else, there’s another train leaving in nine minutes.”

Christ. I felt my heart thumping in my throat; drawn up by its strings like a pail from a well. This is really happening, isn’t it? I blinked, and blinked again. No. Wake up, idiot. I resisted an urge to slap my cheek, or hold my hand over the orange, flickering flame until it burned me back to reality. Wake up.

“You might still make it if you run,” he needled me, knowing full well that neither my shoes nor my crippling attraction to him would allow anything of the sort.

“I just—I don’t get it. I don’t,” I dropped my elbows on the table, and rubbed my temples in exasperation. “You’ve had me once. It can’t be the thrill of the chase anymore.” I quit rubbing, “Why me? When you could have anyone? I’m not special. And I’m not—”

“You are special,” he bared his teeth at me, “Very. You may not realize it yet—but you’re a natural. I noticed it the first time we spoke. And I’d be a fool to let you out of my sight, Penny.”

A natural? I knitted my brow.

“What are you really getting out of this, Dmitri?”

He was silent a little longer than usual before answering. Made to guess, I’d say he was deciding whether or not to tell me the truth. And to this day, I couldn’t really say for certain if he did or not.

“At the very least,” he touched his crisp, white napkin to his lips, “peace of mind. I want you out of that neighborhood. Out of Saint-Michel. The sooner the better.”

I frowned, “It’s not as bad as you think.”

“No. Probably not,” he drummed his fingers heavily on the table. “Probably. I’ve lived in slums from Saint Petersburg to Paris. Saint-Michel’s a paradise by comparison. But imagine how inconvenient it would be to me, Penny,” he dropped his soiled cloth to the table, “if walking home late from Madame d’Aulnoir’s one night, some unfortunate man laid his hands on you, and I had to murder him.”

I think my eyes might have tripled in size.

“You shouldn’t,” I scolded him meekly, “you shouldn’t joke about that sort of thing,”

“Who’s joking?” the frost on his voice chilled me clear to the bone. “Listen. I know I’ve no right or reason—but I’ve become hellishly covetous of you. Chalk it up to something ugly, and instinctive in me. Something basal. Bestial.”

Beastly… I shuddered, drawing in my shoulders. Would he really hurt someone? If they attacked me? I remembered the mysterious, blue bruise on his face the morning after the gallery, and the scabs on his knuckles.

“And…that’s the reason you want me to stay with you?”

“That,” he nodded darkly, “among others. You’re through the looking glass, Miss Foster. Now eat. Marrow’s nearly here.”

I glanced down to the last half morel, still lying limp and lonesome on my plate. ‘One side will make you grow taller,’ I slid it’s smooth, fleshy head into my mouth, ‘the other side will make you grow smaller’. No sooner had I swallowed, than the waiter appeared, cleared the plates, and served us a second, grisly dish.

“Turbot rôti à la moelle,” gingerly, he laid out fresh forks and long, slender spoons. “Bon appétit, mes amis.”

I sat still until he left us, though inside I could feel my stomach turning summersaults.

“Not quite what you expected?” a teasing half-grin flickered over his face.

I stared down at the plate. In terms of color and composition, it was compelling; like a Rothko painting—a delicate sliver of white fish, black foam, and a tall, scorched cattle bone; cut in cross-section, and brimming with yellow-green gelatin. And if all we intended to do was look at it, I wouldn’t have been the least bit fazed.

“Some are put off by the appearances,” he lifted his spoon, and slid it into the bone’s narrow cavity, slicing out a bit of marrow, “things that look lurid or violent from a distance. Try closing your eyes,” he cocked his head, “It might startle you, how much you like it.”

I fought back a powerful urge to grimace.

“But then, if it’s really not for you,” he slipped the spoon between his lips, and drew it out clean, “say so. I’ll drop it.”

“No,” I shook my head, and with more than a few misgivings, stabbed out my own viscid spoonful. “I…don’t mind trying new things."

He smirked, and I saw his brows arch just before I shut my eyes, and set the spoon’s silver bowl onto my tongue. I swallowed.

Sweet. Salty. A bit metallic. Like blood.

“Well?”

“…Yes,” I opened my eyes. “I like it.”

But you already knew that, didn’t you? I took a blind stab through his curtain, hoping no dead Polonius would fall out on top of me.

“And yes. I’ll do it,” I replaced the spoon tremulously to the table, “with one condition.”

He leaned forward until his shadow fell off the table, and into my lap.

“Name it,” he leveled his gaze, “But take your time, and think carefully, Penny. You won’t have this opportunity again.”

I didn’t need to take my time. And I didn’t need to think it through. It was all I’d been thinking about since we sat down that night—it was all I’d been thinking since the night before, when I made all my bloodcurdling discoveries. Are we going in circles? I ran my forefinger nervously around the rim of my glass.

“Just tell me why.”

He frowned slightly, “We’ve been through this.”

“No,” I stopped drawing my rings, and looked at him, “not why me. And not why here,” I stared. “Why this?” I pinched the center stone of my choker, “Why are you like this, Dmitri?”

He withdrew coolly.

“It’s just…” I pressed, expending my last modicum of courage, “you don’t really strike me as a deviant. Or a sociopath. Or anything similar. But I don’t think normal people do this sort of thing,” I tugged the necklace tight against my throat. “They just don’t.”

“I’ll grant you the latter,” he sipped his champagne. “I’m no sociopath.”

“Please,” I pleaded softly, “I can’t. Not until you tell me.”

He held out a moment longer, probably to see if I would fold. I didn’t. His leer subsided, and he sighed gruffly.

“Jung. Spielrein. Skinner. Lacan,” he refilled our flutes, and handed me my glass, “and all the drugstore psychology here and hereafter will get you nowhere with me. It’s always been like this. I’ve always been like this.”

I clutched the crystal stem, “…always?”

“Always,” he nodded tightly.

 It was hard to imagine. I saw a boy with black hair, and terrible blue eyes. I saw his apple-cheeked scowl, and his dimpled smirk. I tried to see those sinister thoughts in his head. I couldn’t.

“So,” I stared into the crisp, amber bubbles of my glass, “even you and Emily. When you were with her…”

“Yes,” he interrupted, “much the same.”

But you married her… I dropped my eyes, silenced. My second champagne began to vaporize inside me, forming a heavy, sweet haze in head. It was silly. I wasn’t sad exactly, but in that moment, there was a fragile, painted part of me that kind of wanted to cry. Not a lot. One, clean tear would do the trick, really—slipping off my cheek and onto the rim of my glass. I needed it. I needed something. And it must have shown on my face.

“I understand why you’d want to know, Penny,” his words were heavy. “I did too, at one time. But the most I can really say,” his voice darkened, and dried out, “is that fetishes are like phobias. A handful are quite common. Others, more obscure. Most are harmless. And just a few…”

He trailed off for a moment, and his eyes lost focus.

“I once met a young woman. A girl, really. She was patient in the psychiatric ward of St. Brendan’s,” he gazed straight through me. “She was so afraid of choking on her food, that before she was admitted she’d very nearly starved herself to death. All skin and bones.” He raised his fork, and deep chill sank through me as he dragged its tines over the remaining marrow. “She died there. In her room. Getting all her nutrients through a needle—her whole life. No one could help her.”

I flinched as he dropped the fork to his plate with a clatter, and lowered his cold, blue eyes to mine.

“There are kinds of madness that can’t be cured,” he glared. “They get in there too deep—right down to the bone. If I could tell you where it is they come from, I would. Believe me. But I can’t… And neither can anyone else,” he grabbed the fork again, and stabbed the little sliver of turbot. “When I was younger. A little more foolish. And a lot more arrogant,” he bit, “I thought maybe I could solve that riddle myself. It’s the only reason I went to medical school.”

Come again? My own fork fell to the plate, landing loudly against the porcelain.

“You…” Christ in heaven, you’ve got to be kidding me. “You’re a doctor?”

“No,” he shook his head, and drank his wine, “never finished. I left. About halfway through my last year.”

“But…you went,” my mouth fell open into an oblong zero, “Why did you quit?”

“So I could sit in dark bistros. And seduce pretty painters,” coolly, he echoed my smart assed line from the café. “So here we are, Miss Foster. Just a couple of shiftless dropouts.”

The hell… I rubbed my eyes with both hands, disregarding the damage to my mascara. In some uncanny ways, it made more than a little sense. And I think there were times I might’ve even suspected it. Foggily, I summed together the how he’d handled my sprained ankle, the odd way he scolded me when I’d been out in the cold too long, and his clinical inquisition when he discovered I’d been ill.

Even at the gallery, I gazed down to my left hand. That first time he touched me—it was because I’d pricked my finger.

I crossed my arms guardedly. As a rule, I kept at arm’s length anyone who reminded me too much of my Father. That included physicians of any ilk or flavor. And even when I was little, no one—least of all, Doctor Foster—had ever mistaken me for a Daddy’s girl. I was relieved to know Dmitri didn’t finish. But still…

It skirted a line for me. I was wary. Very. And before we moved any further, I needed to know more. Not just because of the medicine—but because Dmitri Caine was a man with secrets. Lots of them, probably. I was literally about to hand myself over to him; to willfully make myself his hostage. And this set in stark relief how very little I truly knew about him.

Well. Where else than the beginning?

I drained my glass once more, and set it down, “So where did you study?”

“Dublin,” he answered shortly, “at Trinity.”

‘St. Brendan’s, Grangegorman.’ Clears that up, I guess… I recalled the perplexing article I’d uncovered in the British Journal of Medicine, tagged with his name, and one other.

I nodded slowly, “you did research?”

“I did,” he cocked his head, I think, a little leery. “The senior psychiatrist there—his area of focus was peculiar,” he impaled the last bit of fish on his fork, “I wanted to work with him. It’s why I chose Trinity."

I bit my lip “…Adam White?”

For a second, he stopped chewing.

“It seems you came prepared, Penny,” for the first time that night, he didn’t look at me when he said my name. “You read the article?”

“I tried,” I nodded cautiously, “didn’t really understand it.”

“You’re in good company,” he smirked, but so wryly that it looked more like a lopsided sneer. “It took me much longer than I care to admit before I realized it, but the man was a charlatan.” He shook his head, “Though I suppose he left me with a certain business savvy. I know when someone is lying now.”

“And that’s why you quit?”

His face darkened, “No. I can’t say that it was.”

An uncomfortable silence passed between us. The thing I wanted to ask him definitely wouldn’t make our words any less uncomfortable. But I figured it was far better than not talking at all. Discreetly, I pushed the cattle bone toward the edge of my plate.

“Emily’s Irish, isn’t she?” I poked it again. “Did you meet her at school?"

His eyes narrowed, “in a manner of speaking.”

How enlightening. I tried once more.

“So…she was what?” I knitted my brow, “An art student?”

Like me, maybe? Like who-knows-how-many poor girls you’ve tried using to replace her?

“No. Emily never went to university,” it was his turn to drain his glass. “But sometimes she'd sneak into the anatomy lab to watch dissections. Thought it helped her when she painted nudes—knowing what was there under the skin,” he tipped the bottle, pouring out the very last of the Dom into our glasses, “That’s how we met.”
Seriously? I felt a little wave of nausea bubble through me. Formaldehyde in air. Harsh fluorescent lighting. Half-disemboweled bodies all about. I tried hard not to look at the cattle bones we’d scraped clean. Who wouldn’t fall in love?

“…wow,” it was about all I could think to say, “she um, she sounds pretty…” wincing, I remembered her self-portrait at the gallery; the nude one, with her wrists bound, “…unafraid.” My heart was in my throat again, “Did you like that about her?”

“This fixation of yours, Penny,” he voice was rough and low, “Why do you care so much about her?”

You’re kidding, right? I bit my tongue. She’s more talented than me. Prettier. She knows you. Knows what you like. You only ever took note of me because of something she said. Oh, and you were married to her, Mr. Caine. Did I leave anything out?

In truth, I left all of it out. But I suspect what I did say may have cut almost as deeply.

“Why do you?” I murmured. “I mean, at the gallery. You seemed so close.”

“…I see,” he drew his mouth to one side, and cracked his neck violently before answering. “Understand, Penny, I still support her. Her work. Certain expenses. I have means, and she has need. Beyond that,” he stopped cold, “there’s nothing. There’s no one. And listen carefully when I tell you that I would not have asked this of you tonight if there were.”

I had my doubts. And I made little effort to conceal them. It was preposterous—that he had picked me, and only me, out of the long, winding line of young women who must crumble at his feet on any given evening. No. If anything, I was one of some several dozen irons in his fire. I had to be. Things like this, my toes curled, they don’t happen in real life. They don’t.

He was still watching me. I felt a felt a chill as he reached over, and set his hand tightly on top of my wrist.

“Look. I don’t play nicely with the other kids, Miss Foster. Never learned to share,” his grip grew tighter. “If you come to Lacoste, you won’t be seeing much of other men. I intend to keep you to myself. Because that’s just the sort of selfish bastard I am. But you need know,” his gaze leveled darkly, “I never involve myself with more than one. I’m given to tunnel vision—the girl I choose gets the full brunt of my focus,” he stroked the soft, thin skin over my wrist, “And that’s her burden. Until it isn’t.”

That’s what worries me. I knitted my brow. In Emily, I saw every paltry thing I could possibly offer him refined, redoubled, and a thousand times magnified. And if even she was not enough, how could I honestly hope to last an hour in his house?

“Fine,” I breathed, “that’s fine. But just tell me—and I’ll let it go. What happened?” I dropped my eyes to the table. “Why did it…end?"

His jaw locked, and his eyes flashed white.

“It ended. And that’s enough, Penny. I don’t expect you to understand it. You’re very young. And you’ve never been married.”

There it is.

“No,” I pulled away, and ran a quivering finger over my bare shoulder. “I haven’t. But I was engaged once, Dmitri.”

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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