So, this part is reeaallyy long. But I didn’t like the thought of leaving off halfway through the chapter since I’ll be off for two weeks.
Giselle was driven. Ambitious. A little scary. She’d come because of her curiosity, and wound up being picked by me. She was starting medical school in two months, so insisted she couldn’t stay. We had an…interesting time together. Not playing doctor and patient, but with her lecturing me on human anatomy over every meal. I planted the __ for her because I couldn’t think of anything else.
Before they knew it, Rose had been gone for a week and no one had heard a peep from her. Elaina knew Robert was worried, but they’d agreed to not talk about her. For one, there was nothing to say. For another, she’d cast enough of a shadow on them.
Instead, they’d filled their days with the carefree fun they thought normal couples had. They’d poked around in some of the rooms Robert didn’t remember, only to find lots of dusty furniture. Though he did find a foot stool he quickly nabbed and carried off to his study. And she did find a wide brimmed straw hat that would be a quick replacement for the bonnet (though Robert did try to convince her otherwise).
They’d also explored the grounds, finding neatly kept gardens full of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Elaina was delighted and took handfuls of sage, oregano, basil, rosemary, lavender, and mint. Robert couldn’t have said what, exactly, he’d eaten for dinner, but it had been delicious. With Rose gone, Elaina had decided to co-op the kitchen and Robert had given the chef the evenings off.
In childish fits of giggles, they even attempted to test the security line. Robert wasn’t quite sure how far the estate went into the woods, so they attempted to wander past and wait to see if anyone stopped them. Rose would have been pleased that the security team worked like a charm. No matter where Robert and Elaina tried to breach them, someone would seemingly materialize out of thin air to politely turn them around. Elaina was sure they were irritated after the fifth time, but they didn’t dare be rude.
A week later, after a long breakfast during which they yawned a lot since they’d stayed up half the night watching old black and white movies they’d found lying in a deserted room, Elaina suggested they rest and relax in the library.
Robert grinned at her, and then winked. “Right. Rest and relax. I can see it now. You’ll find the perfect book on the ninth shelf and I’ll have to swing the ladder around. But then you’ll spot an even better read on the other side of the room, this time on the seventh shelf-“
Elaina cut him off with a spoonful of yogurt to his mouth. “Oh, hush! I just think the library is the quietest and most peaceful room in this place.”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding, “you’re probably right. You’re the only one who ever goes in there.”
She rolled her eyes and gently dabbed at her lips with the cream napkin. “Well, I’ve enjoyed wandering all over Roderick Hill and the grounds, but I think I’d like to pick up my feet and just relax.”
“Well, I can’t argue with you there. And maybe a good book will kick off a good nap.”
Elaina shook her head, but a small smile played around her lips anyways. “You’re hopeless.”
With hands clasped, they made their way to the library after finishing their breakfast. Elaina’s sapphire gown swished quietly over the floor, and Robert went out of his way to not step on the hem. It wasn’t one of the one’s Rose had commissioned for her, so it was a little long. She’d liked the color, though.
“Any reason why your mother dresses all of your companions in ball gowns?” she asked as they turned a corner.
Robert shook his head. “Nope. Not a clue.” He shrugged. “It’s not like she would have told me anyways.”
Elaina shot him a crooked smile, but didn’t say anything as he was reaching forward to sweep open the library’s heavy mahogany door. With a gallant bow, he ushered her into the hush of the books.
Elaina’s eyes swept over the books, a small smile playing around her lips, as she moved into the room. She heard Robert settle into his favorite armchair, separated from her own by just a small round table, with a loud, pointed sigh. Her dress whispered across the carpet as she turned away from the bookcases and settled herself into her chair.
Robert, already reclining with his hands behind his head and his feet propped up on an ottoman, raised a questioning brow. Elaina took her time arranging her skirt just so before leaning back and folding her hands in her lap before smiling up at him.
“What,” he said, “no books? Are you sure you’re Elaina?” He narrowed his eyes, though she could still see a playful twinkle. “You’re not an alien disguised as her, are you?”
Elaina laughed and lifted her own feet onto her ottoman. Without the threat of Rose barging in on them, she let herself slink down in her seat and sigh into a comfortable, casual position.
“It’s been a while,” she said. “Tell me a story.”
“Little Red Riding Hood?”
“Eh,” she said, tilting her head. “Why not?”
Robert straightened and his hands moved away from his head. “Are you sure?”
She shrugged. “Why not? After all the weirdness you and your mother have introduced into my life, it can’t get much worse, can it?”
“Well, I don’t know. It freaked me out when I was a kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” she said pointedly.
“That’s true,” he conceded. “Okay, then. I hope you enjoy my mother’s crazy tale.”
Her name wasn’t Little Red Riding Hood, and she didn’t wear a red hood and cape.
Her name was Tala. She was raised by her widowed mother whose late husband had moved her far from her mother. Tala had never met her grandmother. It was safer that way, her mother promised.
Tala never knew her father. He had died shortly after her birth, and her mother would say no more about him. The girl only knew her mother, and no one else. Her mother kept her on a tight leash, never letting her near anyone else. She heard rumors they called her a wild girl, but she never saw a soul other than her mother.
One day, when she was ten, Tala was curious. Her mother was out for the day and had left a beautiful pie to cool. It was a long walk to her grandmother’s house. All she knew was it was in the middle of the woods. At one time, her grandmother had been surrounded by people, but they had slowly moved away as the town had died. Her grandmother, though, was old and frail, so decided to spend her remaining time in her own home. Tala was sure she could sniff out her grandmother.
Tala slipped the pie into a basket and quietly slipped out of the house. With leaps and bounds she vanished into the woods, the basket tightly clasped so she wouldn’t lose her snack.
She had to be careful, though. Her mother had warned her of dangers lurking in the woods. There were creatures that would hunt her down without a second thought. Tala remembered her mother always becoming tearful when she begged Tala to never wander into the woods.
The woods were quiet. Birds quietly chirped, but silenced themselves as her quiet feet passed over the ground. Small rabbits and squirrels ran from her path. Even lizards hurried away from her. But Tala didn’t notice or care. She had her pie.
With her nose to the wind, it was easy for her to find her grandmother’s house. It was small, but cozy. Bright curtains fluttered in the open windows. Flower boxes brimming with red, blue, and purple blooms rested on either side of the door. White smoke wafted out of the squat chimney. Tala smiled. Her grandmother was at home.
Lightly, Tala rapped on the door and called out, “Your granddaughter has come to see you.”
“Come in, child,” came a weak voice.
Without a thought, Tala pushed open the door. Her grandmother’s home was a single room with a kitchen in one corner and a bed in another. A woman with curly gray hair lay in the bed, the covers drawn up to her waist. A book rested on her lap. A smile was on her lips.
“Come closer, Deirdre,” her grandmother said.
Tala frowned. That was not her name. Quietly, she stalked closer and set the empty basket on the floor.
“No, grandmother. I am Tala. Your granddaughter.”
Tala saw her grandmother pale and her hands grab at the covers. She cowered into the bed.
“Grandmother, are you afraid?” Tala asked, confused and hurt. “I am your granddaughter, and I have finally come to meet you.”
“Away, beast!” her grandmother screeched.
Tala let out a low howl full of pain and hurt. Why was her grandmother acting this way?
And why was her tummy suddenly rumbling?
The pie had been delicious, but little more than a morsel. Her mother had gone out for more ingredients to make more pies for herself and her daughter.
Tala’s eyes sought out her frightened grandmother’s. But she didn’t see her grandmother.
The scream was cut off in the middle. Claws slashed the bed covers. The bed splintered beneath Tala’s weight.
A gunshot rang out and a wolf whimpered before it went quiet. A strangled cry broke the silence as Tala’s mother rushed to the blood red bodies resting in the broken nest of blankets and wood.
“I warned you,” the huntsman said.
Tala’s mother bowed her head. “I know. I warned her, but she could not listen.”
Robert offered a small smile and shrug at the end of his tale. “I did warn you.”
“You did,” Elaina said, blinking rapidly at him. “I hope you won’t be offended if I prefer the, uh, more widely known version.”
He laughed. “Not at all. I prefer that one as well.” He shook his head. “My mother would have a fit, though. She insists her’s is true.”
“Of course she would,” Elaina said dryly. She sighed and stretched her arms up over her head. “Well, I did claim I was ready.”
“Now that that is out of the way, how else can I entertain you?”
Elaina drew in a deep breath. It was now or never. Or, actually, a lot later. The whole reason why she wanted to come here, to the library.
“Actually, I’d like you to kiss me.”
Slowly, Elaina let her eyes drift back to meet his. He was leaning forward, his eyes wide, his hands clasping the arms of his chair. His expression told her he either wasn’t sure of what she had said or didn’t believe her.
Elaina dropped her gaze for a moment and licked her lips. Her hands went to the folds of her dress, her fingers nervously playing with them and how the light reflected off the silk. Her heart was racing. She’d never asked a guy to kiss her before. Actually, a guy had never asked to kiss her, either. It figured she’d experience this new…experience with Robert.
“I’d like you to kiss me,” she whispered.
“Are you sure?”
She forced a smile. “If I have to keep saying it, I’m going to lose my nerve. I’m not actually this bold in real life.”
He frowned and sat back. “So the you I’ve gotten to know isn’t really you?”
Elaina groaned softly and buried her face in her hands. This wasn’t going how she’d thought it would and now she didn’t know what to do or say.
“I don’t know,” she muttered, her voice muffled by her hands. “I don’t know anymore.” She dropped her hands and shook her head, not quite able to look him in the eye. “I don’t even know me half the time. Being with Brad and being crushed by Mary-Grace regularly for two years did things to me. And then you picked me to be your companion and future wife. And now your mother seems to have given her blessing? I just…don’t know anymore. But I do like you, and I’d like to kiss you.”
“Elaina,” Robert said softly, his voice urging her to look at him. Reluctantly, her eyes did. “I get it. I’ve been stuck here for so long, isolated from everyone, I don’t even know me anymore, either. It just hurt to think you might not have been forthcoming about yourself with me.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He smiled. “Don’t be. I sometimes secretly think we’ve all been sucked into a vortex and nothing is actually real.”
She laughed, and then a few odd tears began to form in her eyes. It was just like him to do this, to make light of something heavy. It was one of the things she loved about him. Sometimes the world just rested too heavily on her soul and his crazy ability to put a smile on her face did things to her.
She heard more than saw Robert rise from his chair and come over to her. She looked up into his soft features and he extended a hand to her. Without a thought, she rested her hand in his and let him pull her up.
“Why the library?” Robert asked. “Of all the places we’ve been around here, why do you want our first kiss to be in the library?”
Elaina shrugged. “It’s the first room you showed me. It’s the room we’ve spent so much time in. It’s the room where I think I felt you started to understand me.”
Robert slowly moved his arms around her, pulling her ever closer. “I’ll do anything to make you happy. Even if it means having to do all the painting myself.”
That made her laugh again, but, as she did so, her arms wrapped themselves around his waist.
“Are you sure, Elaina?”
“If we wait any longer, I will lose my nerve,” she said, a slight tremor in her voice.
He nodded once. “Point taken.”
Slowly, hesitantly, he moved his head closer to hers and just barely brushed his lips against hers. It was a soft flutter, a brief moment of warmth. Then he pulled away slightly, but she kept her eyes closed, her head tilted up. He must have noted the continued invitation because she felt his lips back on hers, warm and dry, but firm.
She’d had very few first kisses, just a couple, and she really preferred to not remember the one with Brad. As a first kiss, this one had the same hint of awkwardness, the same sense of not being completely sure of what to do or how to respond. But it also felt comfortable, a bit like her heart had finally decided to settle down and get cozy. She just had to choose to not figure out how many other girls Robert had kissed.
It lasted seconds. It lasted years. Elaina wasn’t really sure, but it was the pressure of Robert’s lips lifting off hers that finally had her eyes fluttering open.
He was looking at her expectantly. It was making her nervous.
“Well?” he said softly.
“Well?” she repeated.
An uncertain look filled his eyes and his arms relaxed a little, giving her some space. “Do you think you’d like to keep kissing me?”
She relaxed into his arms, letting her cheek rest against his chest. She was a little startled by how quickly his heart was pounding, but maybe he hadn’t actually had as many first kisses as she thought he must have had. A soft smile came to her lips.
“I’d like to,” she said softly.
Robert didn’t need to say anything; just tightened his arms around her again.
Catch up on the story here.