For one shocking second, I feel a hot tide of jealousy sweeping over me. Maria . . . He’s dreaming of another woman.
Then my rational side reasserts itself. Maria could easily be his mother or his sister—and even if she’s not, why should I care that he’s dreaming of her? It’s not like he’s my boyfriend or anything.
So I swallow and reach for him again, suppressing the residual pangs of jealousy. “Julian?”
As soon as my fingers touch his arm, he grabs me, his motions so fast and startling that only a small gasp escapes me as he pulls me toward him. His arms around me are inescapable, his embrace almost suffocating, and I can feel him shaking as he holds me tightly against him, my face pressed into his shoulder. His skin is cold and clammy with sweat, and I can hear his heart galloping in his chest.
“Maria,” he mumbles into my hair, his fingers digging into my back with such force that I’m sure there will be bruises there tomorrow. Yet somehow I don’t mind because I know he’s not doing this on purpose. He’s in the grip of his nightmare and he’s seeking comfort—and I’m the only one who can provide it right now.
After a while, I can hear his breathing easing. His arms relax a little, no longer squeezing me with such desperation, and his frantic heartbeat begins to slow. “Maria,” he whispers again, but there’s less pain in his voice now, as though he’s reliving happier times with her, whatever those may be.
I let him hold me, not moving lest I wake him from his now-peaceful rest. He’s not the only one receiving comfort here. Despite everything he’s done to me, I can’t deny that a part of me wants this from him, this feeling of closeness, of safety. He’s the only thing I have to fear; logically, I know that. It doesn’t matter, though, because right now I feel like he’s holding the darkness at bay, keeping me safe from whatever other monsters may be lurking out there.
Just as I’m keeping him safe from his nightmares.
When I wake up the next morning, Julian is gone again.
“Where is he?” I ask Beth at breakfast, watching as she cuts up a mango for me. I still feel an occasional twinge of discomfort when I move, a reminder of my captor’s more exotic proclivities.
“A work emergency,” she says, her hands moving with a graceful efficiency that I can’t help but admire. “He should be back in a couple of days.”
Beth shrugs. “I don’t know. You can ask Julian that when he returns.”
I look at her, trying to understand what motivates her . . . and Julian. “You said I’m the first girl he brought here, to this island,” I say, keeping my tone casual. “So what did he do with the others?”
“There were no others.” She’s done with the mango, and she’s placing the plate in front of me before sitting down to eat her own breakfast.
“So why is he doing this to me? I know he’s got peculiar tastes, but surely there are women who are into that—”
Beth grins at me, showing even white teeth. “Of course. But he wants you.”
“You’ll have to ask Julian that.”
Again that non-answer. Her evasiveness makes me want to scream. I spear a piece of mango with my fork and chew it slowly, thinking this over.
“Is it because of Maria?” I’m not sure what makes me ask this, except that I can’t get that name out of my head.
It’s apparently the right question, though, because it stops Beth in her tracks. “Julian told you about Maria?” She sounds shocked.
“He mentioned her.” It’s not really a lie. Her name did come up, even though Julian doesn’t know it. “Why does that surprise you?”
She shrugs again, no longer looking so shocked. “I guess it doesn’t, now that I think about it. If he’s going to tell anyone, it would probably be you.”
Me? Why? I’m burning with curiosity, but I try to keep my expression impassive, like none of this is news to me. “Of course,” I say calmly, eating my mango.
“Then you understand, Nora,” she says, looking at me. “You have to understand at least a little bit. Your resemblance to her is uncanny. I saw the photo, and she could’ve been your younger sister.”
“That similar?” I struggle to keep the shock out of my voice. My heart is pounding in my chest. This is so much more than I could’ve hoped for, and Beth just handed me this information on a silver platter.
She frowns. “He didn’t tell you that?”
“No,” I say. “He didn’t tell me much. Just a little bit.” Just her name, uttered in the throes of a nightmare.
Beth’s eyes widen as she realizes that she probably revealed more than she should have. She looks unhappy for a moment, but then her expression smooths out. “Oh well,” she says. “I guess now you know. I’ll have to tell Julian about this, of course.”
I swallow, and the piece of mango slides down my throat like a rock. I don’t want her to tell Julian anything. I don’t know what he’ll do to me when he finds out that I know about Maria—that I saw him when he was at his most vulnerable.
“Why?” I say, trying not to sound anxious. “You’re the one he’s going to be upset with, not me.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Nora,” Beth says, giving me a slightly malicious smile. “And besides, I don’t ever keep secrets from Julian. He’s very good at prying them out of people.”