“You’ll want to take those off.”
I looked down at my shoes. “No. Not until you tell me where we’re going.”
“Fine, leave them on.” He shrugged, then reached behind him and lifted his shirt, tugging it past the sharply cut V of muscles diving just below the waistline of his jeans.
I looked back down at my feet before it came off completely.
“It’s okay, Ara,” David said, a hint of laughter in his tone. “You don’t have to look away.”
“No, course you weren’t.” He came to stand in front of me, the rim of his Calvin Klein’s showing just under the rise of his dark jeans; his tan skin covering every inch of him I wanted to see. And I could look, if I wanted to.
He held my hand firmly, like he was asking me to look, and when I finally braved it, a body like I’d never seen before, except on TV, gobbled up my heart, destroying me in the end with that cheeky grin.
“I’m not blushing ‘cause I think you’re hot.” I reached down and slipped off my shoes, then dumped them by a rock. “You don’t affect me, David Knight.”
“I know. You’re too sensible to be knocked off your feet by a guy without a shirt.” He grinned, reaching his hand out. I stared at it. “Come on.”
Reluctantly, I walked the five-pace gap and touched his fingertips. “I don’t see why you need to take your shirt off; it’s not that hot.”
“Didn’t want it to get wet.”
He nodded and led me to the cold, crisp water of the lake. “Do you see where we’re going now?”
I followed the direction of his nod. “The island?”
“Yes. There’s a small sandbar that extends all the way across. It’s only as deep as—” he considered my height for a second, “—probably your upper thigh.”
My breath caught in my throat as the cold water reached my knees, and my fingers involuntarily tightened around David’s. “How did you find this sandbar?” I asked. It was only wide enough for David and I to walk on, side-by-side, disappearing into the depth of the lake after that.
“Well,” he chuckled as he spoke, “let’s just say I kinda stumbled over it one day. It’s the only way out to the island unless you swim—or fly.”
“Is the water deep outside the sandbar?”
Above us, fingers of clouds blotted out the sun, and a cool breeze dragged the shivers in my body to the surface. David’s jeans were soaked—the water seeping all the way up to his pockets, but not anywhere on those golden ribs, or arms, did I see so much as a goosebump. “How come you’re not cold?”
He looked down at me, then let go of my hand and wrapped his arm over my shoulder. “You are?”
“It’s okay, I can think of a few ways to get warm.”
I bit my lip to stop from giggling, already feeling warmer.
Under the crystal clear water, I saw David’s feet for the first time, and smiled. It’s kinda funny how seeing someone’s feet can make them seem less mysterious; how it can make it easier to imagine them beside yours in a bed or in the kitchen while you make breakfast. But seeing his feet would only make it harder for me to cope when the winter came.
David’s toes kicked up a swirl of sand, which spread out like a brown cloud—hiding our feet completely. My fingers tightened around his again.
“Are you afraid?” he asked, looking at my hand.
“Please, don’t be. I won’t hurt you,” he said softly.
“I know. That’s not what I’m afraid of.” I laughed.
“I’m just afraid of what it’s going to feel like when I can’t hold your hand anymore.”
He sighed, and a hint of a smile angled the corners of his mouth. “Well, it’s not goodbye, Ara. Not yet.”
I moved my head in a nod—feeling detached and outside reality.
“Are you gonna let that get wet?” He motioned to the edges of my dress, slightly touching the water. “I won’t look if you want to lift it up a little.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, regretting it as soon as the water soaked in.
Ahead of us, a thick moss blanket smothered the lake at the base of the island. We waded through, parting it with our fingers, like cheese on a pizza, until the steep, muddy slopes of the banks halted us with warding trees, leaning out like diagonal spears. David curled his palm around a branch and hoisted himself onto it. I waited in the water, imagining all the slimy things that might be lurking under the green, sludgy moss.
“Don’t worry.” David reached down from his perch, grinning. “The worst thing out here is me.”
“Well, in that case—” I took his hand, “—maybe I should be worrying about my heart instead of my toes.”
“You just let me worry about your heart, mon amour.” He yanked me from the lake in one fluid movement, swinging me onto the sloped shore; the soil sunk and shifted into a small mound between my toes; I scrunched them together, looking up at the knitted crown of yellow and green leaves. I felt so closed in, with low-lying shrubs and ferns at my feet and flowering vines covering nearly every other surface from floor to canopy.
“I know.” David tucked his bunched-up shirt into the waistband of his jeans.
“I feel like I’m in my own little cubby hole.”
“Yes. It’s very hidden here. No one can see us, not even if they were flying over.”
He laughed. “Come on, I’ll take you to my favourite spot.”
As we walked, my toes tangled in the carpet of loose-leafed clover. I lifted my feet a little higher with each step and placed them flat over the creepers, stabilising myself with my hand on the mossy tree trunks. It all smelled so moist, in a hot but dry kind of way.
“Just watch out for these little terrors—they’ll give you a nasty scratch.” David reached forward to shift the furry, silvery arm of a fern from our path.
“Speak from experience, do we?” I said playfully.
“Yes.” He held it in place, dropping it softly back against the hip of the tree after I passed. “My brother and I used to play here as children.”
I could actually picture that, too; little David, with a companion of exact look-alike, popping up above the bushes, pretending to shoot each other. “I bet you were a cute little boy.”
“Stunning,” he said, then pointed ahead. “Look up there.”
My eyes followed the vertical columns of maples to a deliciously colourful display of twisting climbers, shrouded with palm-sized purple and white flowers. “Wow. They look like purple cherry blossoms.”
“Oh, no. It’s okay. They’re too high u—”
David grinned, then ran to the base of a tree trunk, took a small leap, wedging his foot against the bark, and plucked a flower from a vine six or seven feet off the ground. “For you,” he said, landing back beside me.
“Thank you.” I sniffed its sour, grassy fragrance. And it was only as I tucked my hair back, placing the flower behind my ear, that I really noticed the vibrant songs of possibly thousands of different birds and small animals, chiming through the treetops like a symphony. “It’s kinda noisy here, isn’t it?”
He looked sideways at me; I turned my face to the front and kept walking—well, shuffling, through the thick undergrowth.
“Would you like me to carry you?”
“I’m fine.” I straightened the flower behind my ear. “But, how much further do we have to walk?”
“Just to right…over…there.” He pointed to a small circle of long grass, centre to a ring of tightly packed trees, with a single beam of sunlight making the busy movements of tiny insects look like sparkles. “Come on.” He took my hand.
“Do you come here often?” I asked.
“I used to come here to reflect on the miseries of my life.” He kicked a few stones away from the grass and plonked down on his side. “Last few weeks I haven’t needed to.”
I sat down, too, hugging my knees to keep the moist, tickly grass off the backs of my thighs. “This would be a great spot to bring a book.” I could imagine that warm beam of sunlight overhead lighting the pages for me, just enough that I wouldn’t need to squint. It made me wish I’d brought one with me, but it was great just sitting here—with David.
“I have a box here, buried, where I keep books for when I visit unexpectedly.”
He nodded. “But, right now, it’s great just sitting here.” He sat up, resting his arms over his knees, leaning a little closer. “With you.”
“I was just thinking that.” I looked away from his ultra-cheeky grin. “Sometimes I feel like you steal my thoughts.”
“How do you know I don’t?”
I shook my head, smiling. “That’s just the thing, I’m starting to wonder if—”
“Wait!” He held up a finger, his secret smile spreading across his face. “I have a surprise for you.”
“Come on.” David offered me his hand, suddenly standing, when a second ago he so was not.
“Come on.” He reached down and grasped my fingers, hoisting me off the ground. All protest stopped instantly with the feel of his smooth skin on the side of my face, my collarbones, and the back of my forearms as he directed them around his bare waist. Little bumps rose over my cheeks and across my shoulders, making me shiver, but not from cold, though. I’d never felt them from touch, but I was sure—
“I didn’t say anything.” I rolled my face upward to smile at him, but the second I saw his tightly closed eyes and the ultra-still mask of concentration, it slipped away. “David, what’s wrong?”
“Shh.” He opened his eyes for a second, winking at me before closing them again.
I exhaled a laugh, burying my face against the small hollow at the centre of his chest, where that sweet, kind of chocolaty smell dominated the powdery cologne under his arms. And my cheek felt moist suddenly, the heat of the day slipping past the canopy, making the air damp and almost hard to breathe. “Wow, it just got really hot,” I said, looking up to see the rainfall I could hear all around us. But there was no rain, only the soft pattering sound.
“Stay calm, okay.” David pressed one hand to my lower back, rolling my hips toward his, and the other to the base of my neck, forcing my face against his chest. My cheek squished up into my eye, making my lip jut out. I really hoped he didn’t look down—this was so not my sexy face.
“Why do I need to stay calm?”
He didn’t answer; he just held me close, his eyes shut tight, his beautiful dark-pink lips, set perfectly into his golden brown skin, twitching. The pattering sound around us became louder then, drowned out for a second by a flock of birds bursting through the canopy above us—colouring the sky in reds and greens. When silence fell over the island again as the birds disappeared, I saw something move from the corner of my eye, yanking my arm back when a light feathery touch brushed my skin.
“I know,” I said, “I just thought I felt a spider on my arm.”
“My love.” He gently kissed the top of my head, tangling his fingers in my hair. “Look up.”
It took a second for my eyes to adjust, but as the blurry cloud of yellow and pale blue became the fluttering of hundreds of tiny wings, my mouth dropped. “Oh, my God.” I watched in amazement, the cloud filling the space around us like pastel snow. “How is this possible?”
I smiled back and reached out as the glowing sun filtered down through the leaves, lighting the winged creatures in a soft, misty glow. They flitted across my skin with tiny silk kisses, forming a circle around us, like we were in some magical orb of nature. But the gem-like green of David’s eyes stood out among the pale colours, as if he was backlit by the brightest star in the sky. His head turned, unlocking the hold of his gaze, and he nodded to the tip of my finger, held way up into the magic. I laughed, staying ultra still so as not to scare the blue and black butterfly there; it fluttered its wings for a single moment, before flying away.
“David, this is so beautiful.”
He cupped my chin, pressing the tip of his nose to mine. “I know.”
The heat stole my breath then, so humid and wet, but the distance of David’s lips to mine, just enough to slip a finger between, made the air hotter, thicker, scented sweetly with the taste of his honey breath blowing against my tongue every time I breathed him in. I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to let myself imagine the way his kiss would feel.
Then, the dream left my thoughts and touched reality. David’s lips skimmed across the surface of mine, so softly, so hesitantly, coming to rest just in front of my mouth as he breathed for the both of us.
The world stopped. Every sound, every brush of air disappeared until only he and I existed.