I knew it was a dream, a nightmare, but still I couldn’t break free into consciousness. I kicked upward toward the surface, thrusting with all my might, until my lungs burst with a scream that wouldn’t release. Someone called to me: distant, urgent.
And then I emerged, sweating, with Julian’s arms around me and his voice murmuring in my ear. “Sweetheart, wake up. Kate, it’s all right.”
I turned blindly into his chest. “You’re here,” I said, between heaving gasps of air. “You’re still here.”
“Of course I’m here. Shh. Of course I’m here.”
He held me against his body, enfolding me with himself, and gradually the panic died down. I concentrated on breathing slowly, on grasping at the solid physical details around me, anchoring me to reality: the sheets, the faint glow from the nightlight, the cool air entering my nose. Julian’s skin pressed into mine.
“Better?” he asked, after a minute.
“Yes,” I said.
A low chuckle rumbled from his throat. “Your first nightmare already. Is it all so very dreadful?”
I snorted into his chest. “Terrible. A severe case of endorphin overload. I may not live through the night.”
“Rubbish,” he said. “My endorphins are jolly well singing in my ears, and I’m not moaning on about it.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” I snaked my hand along his side and administered a sharp tickle. “I definitely heard moaning.”
“Look here. Stop that. Stop it, I say. Kate!” He doubled over and tried to roll away without falling off the bed.
I began laughing. “Oh my God. You’re ticklish. Come back here.”
“I am not . . . Kate, you’re rubbish . . . stop that at once!” His frantic hands manacled mine at last; he flipped me onto my back and held my wrists above my head. “Minx,” he muttered, kissing me. “You’ll pay for that.”
“You’re just . . . full of lovely . . . secrets . . . aren’t you?” I giggled, around his kisses.
“Mmm.” His body began to transform, to mold itself to mine; his lips edged downward, damp and scorching, along my throat and breasts. He drawled: “But not nearly as many as you, sweetheart.”
What is it, really, that makes a man a good lover? Beloved, I’ll do my best, but I’m rather a novice at all this, he’d said last night, fumbling with the hooks of my bra, and yet he’d gone on as if he possessed the secret map to my body: discovering hidden points of sensitivity I never knew existed, touching my flesh with a preternatural sensual attunement, delivering himself to me with every stroke. He allowed no hiding under sheets, no closed eyes, no defense whatsoever. It was like falling backward into a pit of extraordinary depth, trusting him to catch me; the most exquisite, excruciating vulnerability, made bearable only by the certainty that he felt it, too.
We lay afterward in tranquility, in wordless communion, hardly able to move; I on my side, one leg buried between his, studying the pattern our woven fingers made against his chest. I could feel his other hand tangle through my hair. His flushed skin seemed to melt downward through mine, layer by layer. “So,” I heard myself say, dreamlike, “are you absolutely sure you haven’t had any lovers in twelve years?”
“Let me think a moment.” A dramatic pause, and then: “Yes. Yes, quite sure.”
“Kate!” His head tilted upward. “You’re doubting me?”
“I’m just saying, you seem to know your way around. How to please me.”
“Well, for Heaven’s sake, I want to please you. I want to maintain you in a state of perfect drunken bliss. A dizzy hormonal stupor. Anything at all, you see, to entice you to soldier on with a lonely benighted chap who can’t”—he kissed the tip of my nose—“quite seem to see his way without you anymore.”
“Idiot.” I curled a lock of his hair tenderly around my finger.
He drew his hand along the curve of my waist, his smile deepening as he went. “Besides, it seems to me, since my pleasure is more or less a foregone conclusion, the main object of the exercise ought to be your pleasure.”
“Hmm. I never thought of it that way.”
“A rather elusive creature, I’ve heard. Fascinating sort of quarry.”
“Wait a minute. You’re hunting down my orgasms?”
His laughter burst out like a rifle salute. “Kate. You damned magnificent creature.” He rolled onto his back, bringing me with him. “Yes, my darling. That’s exactly what I’d like to do, on and on until the end of my life.”
“Well, you’re off to a flying start, I have to admit.”
He said nothing to that, only tucked my hair behind one ear with a shadowed smile. His eyes had lost all color in the dimness, depthless and unreadable. “So do you mind telling me about it?” he asked at last. “Your dream?”
I folded my arms across his chest and rested my chin. “It’s stupid. Just an anxiety dream. I get them every so often. Kind of ridiculous, since you’re the war hero; I should be soothing away your nightmares.”
“What are you anxious about?”
“I don’t know. I usually only have them before a big meeting, some sort of performance.” I touched his lower lip. “I had one the night before we met.”
“You were nervous?”
“Oh my God. Was I nervous? Do you have any idea how intimidating you are?”
“I am? I thought I was rather a nice chap, actually.”
I shook my head, incredulous, and slid back down to rest against his side. “Julian, you have kind of a hard-ass reputation, in a business setting. No offense.”
“Oh.” I could hear the bafflement in his voice. “And I’m still giving you anxiety dreams?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s my subconscious, remember?”
“So I’ve managed to convince your conscious mind, but your subconscious still thinks I’m a bounder?”
I laughed. “Hold on. I’m the over-analyzer in this relationship, okay? Look, it’s no big deal.” I squeezed my eyes, forcing out the details. “I think it was like the one I had the night before our meeting. I can’t really recall it exactly. Just kind of panicky, trying to explain something to someone. Someone dear to me. You, maybe? And that person, that man, drifting slowly away from me, not understanding, and the panic sort of paralyzing me.”
“Explain what, exactly?”
“I don’t know. Something important. Something vital. Life or death.” I opened my eyes to Julian’s face, taut and intent beneath the shadows, and tried to push away the feeling of dread that insinuated itself into my brain as I spoke. “But it’s like we’re speaking two different languages, and the harder I try, the further away he floats. Bizarre, huh?”
He tucked my head under his chin and began to stroke my hair. “Kate,” he said hoarsely, “Kate.”
“Don’t,” I said, into the hollow of his throat. “It’s just my silly neurotic brain. Nothing to do with you. I trust you.”
He said nothing for a long time, only went on caressing my hair: long regular strokes to the very tips, letting the strands slip away from his fingertips to rest on my back and shoulders. I let my eyelids sink downward, savoring the tickle-soft sensation. Eventually I felt his voice stir the air above my head. “I won’t drift away, Kate. I won’t fail you.” He said it fiercely, as if he were trying to convince himself.
“I know that,” I said, more to comfort him than myself, and stretched myself luxuriously against the solid mass of his body. “You’re so hard on yourself.” I yawned. I was beginning to feel drowsy again, despite the clinging uneasiness.
“Way too hard.” I put my arm across his chest and closed my eyes. “I don’t need you to be perfect, you know. I just need you to be you. To be . . .”—my brain was beginning to float—” . . . to be mine.”
He made a noise of some kind; I couldn’t quite tell whether it was a chuckle or a groan. “Yours always, darling. Now go to sleep. No more nightmares. You’re safe, now. I’m here,” I heard him say, somewhere near my ear. It was the last thing I heard before drifting off, hoping sleep would dissolve the knot of foreboding in my belly.
He wasn’t there, though, when I woke up. My new BlackBerry sat on the pillow in his place, with an e-mail at the top of my inbox.
Beloved, I must be mad, to tear myself from your side like this. Sleep late and enjoy yourself. I left the Rover for you. Go find some alluring frock and meet me at the Lyme Inn at 8pm. XX