The starless sky coupled with her lack of familiarity with her surroundings feed into her disorientation. She can’t see an inch in front of her and has no idea why they are walking around the side of the house in the dark when they could have just gone in the back.
“Do you only have keys to the front?” she asks.
He laughs. “I admit I haven’t gone about courting you the way I would have liked, but that makes you no less entitled to be treated properly. Backstairs are for whores, hired help, and other tawdry individuals who are never to be seen coming and going. You don’t belong there.”
His explanation is strange to her, but she doesn’t give it a second thought—she’s too focused on gripping his arm so she won’t trip in the darkness. He fumbles with the lock on the double front doors, giving her a moment to observe his neighborhood. Dim streetlamps illuminate a quiet, tree-lined street that backs up to Long Island Sound. The homes are large and well-maintained with a sort of wholesomeness to them she can’t quite explain. Despite his beauty and old-fashioned sensibilities, his presence here feels wrong.
Then she remembers he used to be married, and the idea that this man who embodies everything carnal would develop black-and-white pictures of sexual perversions in a house surrounded by a white-picket fence no longer seems strange to her. If anything, it endears him to her further.
He pushes the doors open and stands aside, gesturing to his home’s interior with a graceful flourish of his hand.
“After you,” he says.
With slight trepidation, she crosses the threshold. He closes the doors behind them, leaving them in complete darkness. She stands motionlessly, waiting for him to turn on a light.
Except he doesn’t. Though she can’t see much, she knows the ceiling is high, and the room is large. She doesn’t see outlines of furniture she could walk into or trip over, but she remains frozen in place, nervous about the unknown.
“This is it,” he says. “Would you like for me to give you a tour?”
“Doesn’t the fact it’s dark sort of defeat the purpose?”
“Right. Sorry.” He flicks a switch, illuminating a pair of wall sconces flanking an Art-Nouveau hall tree. They cast a warm glow to the walls, making the space inviting despite it’s formality.
Which is exactly how Bella would describe the entryway—formal. There’s white wainscoting, rich parquet floors, and wallpaper so luxurious it looks as if it’s made of silk. She takes a few steps toward a large staircase and sees there are arches on either side of her—one leading to a living room and one to a dining room.
Edward places her overnight bag on hall tree and extends his hand to her.
“Let me show you around,” he says, leading her into the living room. “The house was built as a starter home in 1905. My father purchased it when he decided he wanted a residence outside of the city, and I inherited it from him when he passed.”
“A starter home?” she asks in disbelief.
“Yes. With the exception of a room meant to serve as a nursery, there’s no consideration for a family.”
This seems odd to her given the size of the home, but she doesn’t comment on it. Instead, she nods, taking in her surroundings. The focal piece of the living room is a grand piano, and the seating is arranged accordingly. It’s how she always pictured parlors while reading nineteenth-century novels.
“Where did you find all this stuff?”
“You mean the furniture? The older pieces belonged to my father; the rest of it was purchased when I married.”
She nods, starting to understand. Given the amount of time he’s spent around antiques, it makes sense that some of Edward’s mannerisms are…well…antiquated.
“What’s through there?” She points to the french doors on each side of the fireplace.
“An enclosed porch.”
“And more antiques?”
“I don’t think of them that way,” he says, shrugging. “To me, it’s just furniture. Come. I’ll show you the rest of the house.”
She follows him back into the foyer with her arms held stiffly at her sides. “I feel like I’m in a museum. I’m almost afraid to touch anything.”
“I assure you, a hundred years ago, things were much more solidly made than they are now. Everything here is meant to be touched, to be used. It’s foolish to assume fragility based solely on age and beauty.”
“In other words, I shouldn’t be afraid to break your furniture, and you shouldn’t be afraid to break me. We both need to get over ourselves.”
“The latter is far more likely.”
“Whatever you say, Vlad.”
“Yes, well. Antiques may be rare, but they can be replaced. You, on the other hand…”
He strokes her cheek with the back of his hand, and she leans into him, smiling devilishly.
“Why don’t you show me your bedroom?”
She takes his hand and starts to lead him up the winding staircase, but he holds her in place.
“What?” she asks, turning to look at him.
He lets go of her hand and takes two steps backward, taking in the sight of her in his home. It’s right and almost familiar, and all he can think is how much he wants to keep her here, how much he hopes he’s able to resist eating her. The ensuing intensity in his gaze makes her shiver.
“I want you to feel as if you belong here,” he says. “That you belong with me.”
“That you belong to me, that you know I could hurt you, but choose to give yourself to me anyway.”
She doesn’t recognize her voice as she answers. “I already have.”
He scoops her into his arms, and with boyish enthusiasm, carries her upstairs.
Though Bella doesn’t expect him to ravish her immediately, the idea that he would deposit her onto her feet in front of his bed then give her private time to freshen up certainly never occurs to her, either. He takes his leave to retrieve her bag, and she uses the time alone to see if his personal effects provide any insight into his psyche. In other words, she snoops. When she finds nothing but more antiques, she gives up. Standing at the foot of the bed, she runs her fingers along the coverlet absentmindedly.
The fabric is sumptuous, and she realizes Edward has the most finely appointed bedroom she’s ever encountered. It’s so beautiful that if she didn’t know he’d been married, she’d think he was gay. All of a sudden, the thought of sleeping in the same space Edward shared with his wife makes her uncomfortable, and she feels as if she’s borrowing another woman’s things.
She’s being ridiculous, and she knows it. After all, when Edward presses his lips to hers, she doesn’t feel as if she’s kissing another woman’s husband. The contents of the house should be no different, but they are, and she doesn’t understand why. She suspects Edward’s wife chose most of the home’s furnishings, but that in and of itself isn’t causing Bella’s unease. Besides, Edward’s wife didn’t only select the majority of the contents of the house; the man of the house was also of her choosing.
“Is something troubling you?”
She turns to find him at her side. She wonders how long he’s been standing there, and why she didn’t notice his presence.
“You’re going to make fun of me.”
She looks back toward the bed with a blank stare, avoiding his question.
“Please tell me.”
“I’m just feeling overwhelmed by your history.”
Her admission does nothing to encourage him. After all, there’s a still a great deal she doesn’t know.
“You lived here with your wife…” She stops, hoping she won’t need to elaborate.
“So she slept here, too. I know I’m being ridiculous. I don’t even really know you, and you and I don’t even have a relationship. I mean, on one level, I know why I came here. At the same time, I don’t know why I came here. This isn’t me.”
He nods. “If it makes you feel better, this is out of character for me as well.”
“You bring random women home with you all the time, get them naked, and take pictures while they jerk off. I think it’s safe to assume casual sex isn’t outside the realm of normalcy for you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I bring them to my rentals; I’ve never brought anyone here. And while I’m not going to deny to that I take pleasure from them, I don’t have relations with them. I haven’t done that since I was married.”
“What, did your divorce go through like six days ago?”
“I don’t believe in divorce.”
Bella covers her mouth as she realizes her gaffe. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize–”
“It’s fine. Though I wished her no ill-will, we weren’t exactly a love match.”
“But you did make love.”
“We fulfilled our marital obligations.”
“I assure you, it wasn’t.” He crosses the room and opens a door beside the armoire, then steps aside, gesturing to an adjoining bedroom. “Separate sleeping quarters.”
There’s a sadness to his voice that makes Bella regret mentioning her insignificant insecurities.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Don’t be. I fully expect you to ask questions; I want you to ask questions. I want you to understand exactly what you’re inviting into your life. That’s why I brought you here—so you could make an informed decision.”
She looks at him confusedly. “I thought I already decided. Besides, nothing you could say could make me change my mind.”
“Nothing?” he asks.
“In that case, I see no reason not to do this properly. After all, I am a bit of a traditionalist.” Taking her hand in his, he drops to one knee. “Would you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”
As if she’s about to die, her mind plays a montage of her most significant memories from her early childhood to her grandmother’s last living moments. Though only a split second passes, she relives each of them completely, until she sees her grandmother lying in a bed at Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital. She feels her grandmother’s soft, wrinkled skin against her own as she tells her it’s okay to let go, that she should walk toward the light. She hears herself whispering, “I love you, Nana. I’ll see you when it’s my time.”
She could take this as a warning—that for all intents and purposes, she’s seeing her grandmother again now. After all, the memory of her grandmother’s passing is so real that she feels as if she’s living it again—but she doesn’t realize its significance. Instead, she sees a chance to live and to love, to not be alone anymore.