Laura Resnick is the author of a dozen fantasy novels, including the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series (Disappearing Nightly, Doppelgangster, Unsympathetic Magic, Vamparazzi, Polterheist, The Misfortune Cookie, Abracadaver, and the upcoming Goldzilla). Before turning to fantasy, this award-winning author wrote more than a dozen romance novels under the pseudonym Laura Leone. You can find her on the Web at LauraResnick.com.
by Laura Resnick
The summer faded and passed away, though Riley barely noticed, and autumn breezes gusted through New York, swirling into the narrow streets and down the big boulevards. August had been relatively quiet, but now people returned from vacation, and the city renewed its usual frenzied pace. Riley just continued avoiding people, working at night and sleeping by day.
She filled his thoughts, his dreams, his every moment, awake or asleep. He was used to the obsessive passion he felt for an important piece of work. But this time there was something new, something strange that he couldn’t get used to. When he looked at her, he felt an unbearable, gnawing ache of loneliness.
She had taken shape at last, the excess stone chipped and peeled away through months of painstaking work. Even most of the fine details were done now. He had already used his files and rasps to smooth down her surfaces, and he had spent endless time going over her with abrasives again and again, polishing off the rasp marks, until her figure took on a glossy, gleaming finish.
He was with her in the cavern one night that autumn, studying her as usual, looking for more tiny details he wanted to change, when he realized that nothing more need be done. She was perfect as she was. She was finished at last.
She was precisely as he had seen her in his imagination on that first strange night in this cavern. She was also precisely what the president of Natural Woman had described as their ideal for this commission: the embodiment of lush, uninhibited, sensual womanhood.
Arms stretched above her head, fingers tangled in the careless pile of her long, thick curls, back arched, naked breasts thrust forward, and belly smoothly curved, she stood in a pose that was somewhere between languor and ecstasy. Her lovely limbs were slightly bent, and she leaned a little to the right, as if she were just about to step forward onto her left leg. The suggestion of motion flowed through her, making the viewer tense in expectation of her first step; it seemed inevitable, it seemed just about to happen.
Even he, so critical and demanding of his own work, knew the finished piece was exceptionally good.
Searching her painstakingly, going over her inch by inch, unwilling to believe the process was at an end, that his involvement with her was over, finished, he looked for something—anything—that was wrong or awkward or not quite right. But there was nothing. Finally, he sat down and just gazed.
He adored her. She was more perfect, more beautiful, more desirable than any woman of flesh and blood. She was both innocent and erotic, both delicate and voluptuous. She was temptation and fulfillment, desire and satisfaction. Her upturned face radiated joy; her half-closed eyes hid secret promises.
He slipped out of the cavern at dawn, reluctant to leave her, wishing he didn’t have to go. For the first time, he was glad, though, that she was down there rather than in his studio. There was no chance of Lisa finding out that the sculpture was finished. He wasn’t ready to share her yet, let alone part with her. For just a little while longer, she could be his—only his.
He paused to talk to Mama Strega the next day. She sat in her usual spot, absorbing the brilliant autumn sunshine, bemoaning the approach of winter. Some of the “children” greeted Riley as they passed by, their arms loaded with bags of colorful paper decorations that they carried into the restaurant, La Strega.
“Having a party?” Riley asked Mama.
She rolled her eyes. “Next week it will be my ninetieth birthday. The children want to make a big fuss over nothing.”
“Not everyone makes it to ninety, Mama.”
She grunted. “There will be too many daughters-in-law in the same place at once, too many bottles of wine given away for free, and too much loud music. My grandnephew believes he is a musician.” She tilted her head. “Will you come?”
“You make it sound so irresistible,” he said dryly.
“There will also be pretty girls there. I have not seen any pretty girls come to visit you lately.” When his only response was a shrug, she said firmly, “I would like very much for you to attend my party. Who knows? I may not make it to one hundred.”
“I don’t believe that, and neither do you. But I’ll come, Mama.”
“Good. Maybe you will eat something, then. You’re getting too thin.”
“Why do all women have this insatiable desire to feed me?”
She wisely changed the subject. “How is your work coming?”
He knew it was not an idle question. “It’s the best work I’ve ever done,” he said.
She studied his face, her black eyes reflecting the sadness in his expression. “And yet you look so unhappy.”
“I…. It’s going to be hard to give her up,” he said.
“Yes.” She nodded her head sagely. “Yes. I can see that.”
It became torture to wait night after night until the restaurant was closed so that he could descend to the cavern to see her. It was like dying of thirst when you could see water just a few feet away. He ached with a continual hunger that couldn’t be satisfied even when he was with her. She had been finished, complete, ready for over a week, yet he hadn’t told Lisa.
As if she had guessed his guilty secret, Lisa phoned that evening. “How’s it going?” she asked without preamble.
“When will you be finished?”
“No pressure, Riley. There’s still time.” When he didn’t respond, she asked delicately, “You still intend to make your deadline?”
“Yes….” His voice was hollow.
“Because if not, there’s still time for me to tell them.”
“They want the sculpture for their grand opening. They’ll postpone it a bit, if need be.” She waited. “Riley?”
“No.” That would just prolong the agony. “No. It’ll be ready.”
“It’ll be ready,” he repeated. But I won’t.
“Soon.” Just as soon as he could think of a way to get it out of the cavern.
“Are you all right?”
“You sound funny.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say that something had upset you. However, since your work is going well, I know that can’t possibly have happened.” After another silence, she said, “Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
She let it drop. Instead, she talked to him about plans for his next exhibition. He hadn’t worked on anything but the Natural Woman sculpture since first laying eyes on the marble. He made vague noises and insincere promises, then got off the phone.
He waited like an anxious lover for midnight to come, for La Strega to grow dark and silent. Then he crept into the cellar, opened the secret door, and descended the long, winding staircase to the waiting chamber below. The moment he saw her, gleaming palely in the dim light of his hurricane lamp, he sighed with the relief of satisfying his longing. Yet even stronger needs were clawing at his insides.
He swallowed as he gazed at her, feeling desire flow through him like physical pain. This was pathetic. How could this be happening to him? How could he, a grown man, have become infatuated with a sculpture? He finally admitted that his obsession had grown beyond his usual passion for his work. It had been more than a week, yet he wasn’t ready to move on to the next project. He felt no sense of completion or satisfaction. He still couldn’t think about anything else. He was more preoccupied with her now than he had been while actually working on her.
Somehow, after years of indifferently watching women walk out of his life, years of not understanding their obsession with him, he had fallen hopelessly in love. And the object of his devotion was a hunk of marble.
“Oh, please….” He couldn’t stand it.
Or rather, he thought she moved. He gasped in shock and mad hope, and took a step forward. For the brief flash of one crazy moment, she seemed to breathe.
With all the skill at his command, he had made her pale surface look as lifelike as flesh; and for one bizarre instant, it seemed to pulse with a woman’s warm blood.
But no, it was only the flickering light of the lantern that made it seem so. And only a lunatic would think otherwise.
“I’m going insane,” he muttered, sitting down shakily on the little wooden stool he’d brought down here months ago. He set the lantern on the floor and buried his head in his hands, plowing his fingers into his rumpled hair—which felt too long. When was the last time he’d had a haircut? And, as much as he hated to admit it, Lisa and Mama were right—he was getting too thin. His clothes felt bigger and his cheekbones had become more prominent. He was a wreck, and he was getting worse. For more than a week he had spent all night, every night, staring in lovesick longing at a sculpture.
He raised his head and looked at her, wondering why she had this power over him. Could Mama have been right? Could this hunk of marble have been preordained for him? Was this karma? Was it his destiny, after obsessing about his work and rejecting the love of so many women, to go insane in this dank underground chamber, hankering after his own sculpture? Would he wither away into a gibbering madman, unable to live normally or ever work again? Or would he starve to death down here, losing all track of time as he waited for a chunk of lifeless stone to return his love?
His gaze drifted to the inscription he had chiseled on her pedestal: Natural Woman. But that wasn’t the right name for her. She had bewitched him, like the statue in that old Greek myth. But when Pygmalion had fallen in love with his statue, she became a real woman for him, and they lived happily ever after. That wouldn’t happen to Riley.
What had Pygmalion named her? He tried to remember, and after a few moments, it came to him.
“Galatea,” he whispered.
He supposed it was the height of artistic egotism that, unable to return the devotion of any real woman, he had finally fallen in love with one of his own creations. Now he knew that, despite the words he had mouthed to Lisa and Carla—and a few others over the years—to keep them happy, they were right about him: he had never loved before. He had never spent this amount of anguish, thought, and heartache on another person. He had never ached like this before. He had never felt so empty, so hollow, so alone.
What was he going to do? How could he give her up—even assuming he could find a way to get her out of here? And how could he have any sort of a life if she remained here? He admitted to himself now that he would continue to come here night after night, for as long as she remained in this cavern.
“Galatea,” he repeated softly in the dim, echoing chamber.
Feminine promise flowed through every line and curve of her pale body. The plump curves of her thighs promised strength in the act of love and comfort in its aftermath. The lush cheeks of her buttocks made his mouth go dry. His hands trembled with the urge to stroke the fecund swell of her belly.
Well, why not? He could touch her all he wished. She was his. She belonged to him. He had created every inch of her. He had chiseled, carved, scraped, filed, sanded, and polished every lovely, erotic feature, but he had never once indulged in the sheer pleasure of caressing her. He rose to his feet, eager to embrace her—then froze.
“No. This is demented.”
In his haste to escape, he kicked over the stool and left the lamp behind him, still burning. Frightened by his own emotions, he ran from the chamber, fled that eerie place which sheltered his most secret desires. He lurched up the stairs two at a time, stumbling in the darkness. Halfway up, dizzy, breathless, and trembling, he sank to his knees.
Shame and revulsion washed over him. There was no pretending that he had wanted to touch her with artistic appreciation. He wanted her like a lover. He banged his forehead against the stone wall in anger and denial, trying to banish the images in his mind. Failing at that, he scrambled to his feet, head throbbing, and tried once again to outrun them. Dark images engulfed him, fantasies of touching her, of handling her like some impassioned fetishist, of grinding against the unyielding marble of her groin in solitary ecstasy.
“No.” At the top of the stairs, he slammed the door behind him and slid to the floor, leaning against it in a panting heap. His head throbbed with pain, his lungs burned from the strain of his frantic climb, and his loins ached from desires that humiliated him.
He staggered to his feet at last. Realizing he’d left the lantern down there with her, he began feeling his way through the cellar, tripping over bags and boxes of dry goods as he searched for the stairs to the main floor. Then, unable to bear returning to his silent loft, he walked aimlessly through the streets of Manhattan, half-hoping one of the city’s many menaces would end his life that night. But, come dawn, he was still achingly alive.
“You are not having a good time?” Mama asked him at her birthday party the following night.
“Yes, I’m having a good time.”
“Neither am I.”
“Mama, I said I—”
“You should only lie to young women, my dear. Old women know better.”
“So do young women, actually.” He downed half a glass of red wine in a single gulp, avoiding her knowing gaze.
Promising himself he would get interested in a flesh and blood woman at the very first opportunity, he had flirted desperately with one of Mama Strega’s pretty grandnieces. But his heart and mind were elsewhere, and the woman had seen through his mumbled compliments and half-hearted invitation to have dinner with him. His spirits sank when she turned him down. Not because he longed for her company, or anyone else’s, but because she had been unable to lure his thoughts away from the secret passion that lurked underground, far beneath this festive gathering in La Strega.
“You take no pleasure in women anymore,” Mama observed.
“After Carla, I decided to keep to myself,” he said without looking up from the dregs of his glass.
“No, that is not what I mean. You used to look at all women with…something like passion. With pleasure, with appreciation. But no more.”
He shrugged. What she said was true. Ever since going down to that secret world, he had taken pleasure in nothing except Galatea.
“Your glass is empty,” Mama said. “Come with me.”
“I don’t think I should have any more, Mama, I….” I’m afraid I’ll lose my strength of will and go down there again. And he had promised himself he would never again return to that cavern unless it was to bring her out of there and give her away. His throat tightened even as he repeated that silent vow.
“This is a special drink, only for a very special occasion,” Mama said, pushing him away from the revelers and toward the back of the restaurant.
“You will drink it. It will help you. I promise.”
He sighed and agreed. What did it matter? But he balked when they approached the cellar door.
“Come,” she urged.
“I’m not going down there.” He resisted her tug on his hand.
“We’re not going all the way down,” she soothed, as if she understood his alarm, as if it weren’t strange for him to fear a place in which he had been spending every night.
“Just the wine cellar?” he asked warily.
“Yes. No further. I promise.”
He followed her down, his heart pounding as his footsteps retraced this familiar, well-worn route to his destiny. But true to her word, Mama merely led him into the wine cellar. Fumbling in the pocket of her perennial mourning dress, she pulled out a key and used it to open an old cast-iron case at the very back of the room. She extracted a bottle so covered with dust that even wiping it down with a cloth didn’t improve its appearance. There was no label, no indication of the bottle’s contents or age.
“Home brewed?” Riley asked, watching her small, wrinkled hands open the bottle with trembling strength.
“Yes. Long ago. My grandmother brought this from Sicily when my family came here. It’s a special brew. A love potion.”
She smiled as she poured some of the thick, golden liquid into his glass. “She was a witch, you see.”
“Of course, you are too modern to believe in magic, but in the old days, and in the old country, they took such things seriously. That’s what la strega means, you know—the witch.”
“No kidding.” Her accent made the words sound like a joke.
He peered at the contents of his glass. “So will this make me fall in love with you, Mama?”
Her chuckle was rich and deep. Mama was in a very good mood. “No. I did not need potions for that in my youth, and I am a respectable widow now.”
“So why are—”
“Drink,” she urged. “You will find it is bittersweet and intoxicating, like love.”
He hesitated, then shrugged and drank, letting the thick, golden wine of another era flow over his tongue with a flavor that was exactly what Mama had promised. Just a few sips made his head swim.
“This is amazing stuff,” he said. “I could almost believe it really is a love potion.”
“Oh, it is,” she assured him serenely. “You have only to kiss the waiting lips of she whom you love, and no matter who she is, she will then give her love to you.”
“If only she could,” he said bitterly.
“She will,” Mama promised. “No matter who she is, your kiss will now awaken her heart.”
“That’s nice story Mama, but my life has become so….” His voice choked off. In sudden anger, he said, “Why the hell did you ever take me down there in the first place?”
“Surely, by now, you know why.”
His eyes flashed up to her face. She returned his gaze steadily, her black eyes opaque and mysterious. She couldn’t know, he assured himself. She couldn’t. Who would even guess such a thing? After a long moment, Mama smiled sympathetically, touched his hand, and left him alone.
He hung his head. Yes, she knew. Hot embarrassment flooded him. He wondered if his recent behavior had given him away, or if she was a witch, like her grandmother. Crazy. He was entertaining the craziest notions lately.
He finished his wine, put down his empty glass, and rose to his feet. Then, as he stared at the light playing on the amber film left in the goblet, the craziest notion of all seized hold of his mind.
His heart started to pound. It couldn’t hurt, could it, just to try? No one would ever have to know.
No. He wouldn’t risk going down there again. He might never come back up. Besides, it was ridiculous. Childish.
You have only to kiss the waiting lips of she whom you love…. And Galatea’s lips were so ripe and ready for kissing. He had fashioned her mouth for kisses. Full-lipped, wide, and soft….
No. That was a fantasy. Her mouth was cold and hard, made of marble, nothing more than crystallized limestone.
He wiped sweat away from his upper lip. He had to get out of here, get away from that ancient door and the fruitless temptations that waited beyond it. He rose to his feet, swayed dizzily as the full impact of Mama’s special brew hit him like a physical blow, then climbed the cellar stairs. The noise of the party seemed like the din of a midtown traffic jam, and the press of bodies made him tense and restless. He didn’t bother to say goodbye; he knew Mama would understand his desertion. He escaped into the night, seeking a relief he feared he would never find.
He tossed and turned half the night, lying naked between hot, damp sheets in the hollow privacy of his bedroom. Mama Strega’s rich, weathered voice haunted him, her words echoing through his mind like a prayer, a promise, a chant.
You have only to kiss the waiting lips of she whom you love, and no matter who she is, she will then give her love to you….
Maybe he should have tried harder with that woman at the birthday party, the one he’d asked out. If he could have kissed her after having that strange drink, then he could get this nonsense out of his head. But he didn’t want to deal with women. Hadn’t he sworn off them after Carla left?
As he stirred restlessly in his empty bed, he also recognized that no living woman could take his mind off Galatea, anyhow. Seeking comfort in another woman’s arms wasn’t the answer. But what was? What would free him from this unbearable yearning for a statue?
No matter who she is, your kiss will now awaken her heart.
“No,” he muttered, even as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his jeans. No, he thought, appalled by what he was about to do. He mustn’t go back down there!
Riley thought of a dozen good reasons why he must steel himself against the impulses racing through his body and directing his footsteps to the door. He called himself harsh names as he crept through the restaurant, now quiet and dark. And for the first time in many years, he prayed fervently, begging for help and for strength, as he unlocked the heavy, hidden door Mama had first revealed to him months ago.
But as he descended the dark winding staircase, finding his way by touch and by instinct, his heart pounded with the eagerness of a lover going to meet his beloved. And whether it was a sixth sense or simply the first flowering of fatal madness, he believed that she awaited him just as eagerly.
She was indeed his beloved, whether that was right or wrong, absurd or pathetic. His final capitulation to the dictates of his heart left him dizzy with relief, because the struggle was over. He approached her in the dim light of the flickering flame, which still burned miraculously after a whole day in this chamber, and let himself worship her without shame.
She was tall, and her pedestal was high, so he wrapped his arms around her thighs and leaned his cheek against the lush mound of her belly. Cold. She was so heartbreakingly cold to the touch. He wanted to warm her. He turned his face into the unyielding hardness of her stomach and kissed her softly.
“Oh, God,” he whispered, but it was no prayer for salvation. He wouldn’t leave her again. He had been a fool to run from this last night. There was no escape from something this powerful.
Trembling with passion, he stepped up onto the pedestal, bracing his feet between hers, and buried his face between her marble breasts. Her buttocks were solid and lifeless beneath his questing hands, but so plump and ripely curved that he groaned as he cupped and caressed them. He rubbed his cheek against the chilly globe of one rigid breast, whispering her name, wishing he could give her pleasure. His palms slid up over the smoothly textured length of her back, and his belly pressed against hers in bittersweet, intoxicating longing. He looked into her face, marveling at the beauty of her high cheekbones, her strong jaw, her delicate nose, her wide, sensual mouth.
Your kiss will awaken her heart….
“Galatea.” He murmured her name with all the love that tormented him day and night. “Please. Please….”
Her marble lips were cool and slightly dusty beneath his. He closed his eyes and tightened his arms around her, wishing, yearning, dreaming, believing…. Believing that, for a magic moment, he could feel her mouth soften beneath his and return his kiss. Believing that her lips parted slightly to let her breath mingle with his, that her neck relaxed its eternal pose to let her head tilt slightly, that her skin warmed beneath his hands, becoming soft and pliable as a woman’s flesh, that her arms lowered from her own hair to touch his…. Her fingers brushed his cheeks and rested on his shoulders, squeezing lightly as she opened her mouth beneath his. He tasted her, delirious with pleasure as she shifted to get closer to him and slid her arm….
Riley’s eyes flew open at the same moment he flung himself away and fell off the pedestal. Sprawled on the hard floor, he propped himself up on his elbows and gaped in shock as she came to life above him.
She stretched languorously, her smooth, pale arms reaching out to either side, her fingers extended, her head thrown back as she embraced the breath of life. She rotated her head, easing the muscles of her neck, then moaned slightly as she shifted and stretched again.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners….” Riley intoned unthinkingly, shielding himself from this sorcery with the half-remembered chants of his youth. “Our Father who art…art…. Oh, my God….”
Upon hearing his voice, she lowered her arms and looked directly at him. “Riley.” She smiled.
His jumbled prayers died on his lips. Their gazes locked, and his mind went blank. Her warm, thick-lashed, dark brown eyes glowed affectionately as she stared at him. Her long hair was black and lustrous. Her lips, the lips he had just kissed, were pink and smiling.
After a long moment, she sighed and looked down at her naked body. “Oh, it’s beautiful,” she said in wonder, touching her belly, rubbing her palm over her smooth midriff, her round breasts, her delicate pink nipples. “Just beautiful, Riley. You knew exactly what to do.” She smiled at him again. “Thank you.”
“It’s…. I…. You….” He tried to think of what he most wanted to ask. “You know me?”
She looked sweetly amused at his question. “Of course. You’ve been here every single day for so long.” She watched her right hand stroke her left shoulder and arm as she murmured, “You were so late tonight, I wondered where you were.” After a moment, she met his gaze again, and he saw that her eyes had grown misty. “I was afraid you weren’t coming. So afraid. I miss you terribly after you leave, Riley.”
“You do?” he croaked.
“It’s so lonely here without you.”
He blinked at last. “How long…. How long have you been down here?”
She frowned slightly, her dark brows furrowing in concentration. “I don’t know. I don’t really remember anything before the first time you saw me.” She shrugged, a graceful gesture. You’d never guess she’d been a piece of rock three minutes ago.
Still sprawled on the floor, he got his sluggish tongue to ask another question. “Are you…human?”
She looked uncertain. “I don’t know. Do I look human?” She ran her hands over her body and studied it more critically than before. “Do I look like other women?”
“No.” Seeing how upset that made her, he amended, “I mean, yes. I mean…. Well…. You do, only you’re more beautiful.”
Her cheeks flushed and she looked pleased. “Do you think so, Riley? Really?”
He swallowed. “Yes. Really.”
Smiling, she stepped off the pedestal and knelt beside him. “Did you get hurt when you fell?” She reached out to stroke his hair. He flinched involuntarily, and her face crumpled. “What’s wrong? Do I repulse you?”
“No, you….” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I must have gone insane already. And it happened so fast.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
When he opened his eyes, she was still there. “Are you real?”
Her distressed expression eased into one of womanly calm and understanding. “Of course I’m real. I’m here, aren’t I? You’re not imagining me. Riley, you created me.”
“I don’t know how this can be happening.” His voice was hoarse.
“Does it matter?” she asked serenely. “To know is nothing at all. To imagine is everything.”
“But I don’t understand—”
“Do you understand the secrets of the universe, the birth of the sun, the death of the stars?” She touched his hair, and this time he didn’t pull away. “Do you understand love?”
“I’ve never understood love,” he admitted.
“You called me into this world with your love. That’s what brought me here, that’s why I came.”
He rolled slightly toward her, hearing the heavy pounding of his heart and the roaring of his blood in his ears. She had come for him, she had come because of his demented, desperate love. “Galatea….”
She cupped his cheek in the palm of her hand. Warm, her skin was so warm, so supple and soft and human. He placed his hand over hers and pressed a kiss into her palm. “You’re real,” he murmured, his voice breaking.
“Yes.” Their gazes locked. Hers was intent, passionate, yearning. “Please, Riley….”
“Yes. What? Anything.” He hadn’t made her this lovely. He couldn’t have. The light in her eyes, the satiny perfection of her skin, the raven splendor of her hair were her own miracle. They were beyond his powers of creation, as was the tingling sound of her smooth, honeyed voice.
“Show me why you made me a woman,” she whispered. “Show me why you called me out of the marble.”
He hesitated, searching her eyes, still wondering how this could be happening. She leaned forward slowly, and when he felt her breath, soft and warm, on his mouth, he surrendered to the unknown. She was as artlessly sensual as the figure he had sculpted, and the kiss she pressed upon his lips was innocent but eager. He returned it fervently, his body vibrating with passion, his heart flooding with joy.
“Yes,” she murmured as he gently pulled her down to the floor with him, laying her upon the worn dropcloths that were crumpled all around the pedestal she had just vacated.
Her skin was almost as pale as the marble that her life force had melted away. Her black hair smelled of night winds and earthly secrets. Her mouth was hot and sweet, and the passion in her kisses sent his senses reeling. He explored her body with slow, avid hands, delighting in the soft sighs of pleasure he had never expected to hear from her lips. He taught her to enjoy his body as thoroughly as he enjoyed hers, and, with their arms locked around each other, they discovered that she was as real and as human as a woman could be. With their bodies joined together, arching and writhing in the erotic ritual of love, they soared together to the heaven from which Riley’s love had called Galatea forth.
He managed to sneak her up to his loft just before dawn, wrapped in the sheet upon which they had made love. He had feared that she wouldn’t be able to leave the underground cavern, that she was somehow bound to that magical place, but this was not the case. Instead, she was eager to see the brave new world into which she had just been born.
“Oh, look!” she cried, gazing down upon the street from Riley’s window. She pointed to the dingy yellow light at the end of the street. “How beautiful! Can we go outside?”
“Let’s wait until it gets light out. It’ll be safer.” It was four o’clock in the morning. He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She leaned back against him and let her sheet slide to the floor. He kissed her neck and murmured, “You probably shouldn’t stand naked in the window.”
“The neighbors won’t mind,” he admitted dryly, “but I’d rather you didn’t.”
“All right,” she said as he led her away from the window. She smiled a moment later, as if recognizing the look in his eyes. “Where are we going now?”
He guided her over to the ladder leading to his bedroom. “I thought you might want to get a little rest.”
“Oh, Riley! That’s all I’ve done is rest!”
She laughed. “Well, rest and that.”
“My bed is up there.”
“I thought you might want to do a little more of that. But, of course, if you’d rather not—”
“What’s a bed?”
“Ah.” He grinned and wrapped his arms around her waist, ridiculously happy. “If you liked that the first time—”
“Two times,” she corrected. They had stayed in the cavern for quite a long while.
“Then wait until you try it in bed.”
Her gaze flicked up the length of the ladder. With an enthusiastic expression, she seized one rung and began climbing it. Riley followed her up, and they scarcely left the softly shadowed privacy of the little room for the next twenty-four hours.
She was filled with childlike wonder for every new sight, sound, and sensation. When their passion was finally sated, he helped her dress in some of his clothes and took her outside, where each crack in the sidewalk, each blade of grass, each lamp post fascinated her. It took them almost two hours to get as far as Spring Street, just a few blocks away, where he bought her lunch.
The aroma of food delighted her, and he got aroused all over again when he watched her eat. She threw herself into it, enjoying her cheeseburger more than most people enjoyed sex. Then they took a long walk, stopping every few seconds so she could look at buildings, shop windows, streetlights, cars, and people.
More than anything else, people thrilled her.
“They’re all so different!” she enthused, sitting with Riley on a bench in Washington Square. “So many hues, shapes, sizes, scents. I’ll never get tired of watching them. Aren’t they wonderful, Riley?”
“Wonderful,” he agreed. Today, it seemed true. Today, even the grimy streets of New York seemed like paradise. He saw everything in a new light. The world was full of beauty, promise, and potential. But most of all, his world was full of happiness. Now he didn’t question how or why. He only knew that a miracle had occurred, and he was in love. He slid his arm around Galatea and snuggled her close to his side, brushing her black hair out of her eyes as they cuddled.
“Let’s go home,” he murmured.
She smiled, recognizing his tone. “Yes, let’s go home.”
When passion was spent, the magic remained. Everything about her delighted and fascinated him. The way she examined the clothes she wore as they puttered around his kitchen together; the way she sniffed and sampled food; the way she strolled around the loft, admiring his sketches and pieces of sculpture.
“Why can you speak English?” he asked her that evening as they lay together on his couch.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe because you created me.”
His arms tightened around her as a sudden fear chilled him. “Are you staying? I mean…. You won’t have to go back, will you?”
She smiled and rubbed her cheek against his chest. “I’m staying,” she said firmly. “For as long as you want me, I’m staying.”
“I’ll always want you.”
“Are you sure?”
He glanced down at her face. She didn’t sound like she was teasing. “Yes.” When her uncertain expression didn’t clear, he asked, “You believe me, don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” she said pensively. “I don’t know what people are like. Do they love forever?”
“I’ve never loved before.”
He kissed her forehead. “I’ll love you forever,” he promised.
“That’s all that matters,” she said, looking content again.
They slept peacefully that night, wrapped in each other’s arms. In the morning, they made love, then he took her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Art is everything to me,” he told her. “I want to share it with you.”
“What about….” She gestured vaguely, searching for the right words. At last she pointed to a group of people: a man, a woman, an old granny, and two youngsters.
“Family?” he guessed.
She nodded. “Yes. Family. Aren’t you…connected to other people?”
He sighed. “Yes. Too damned many other people.”
“Don’t you like people, Riley?” She looked sad.
“Only sometimes,” he muttered. Seeing her confusion, he said, “I have a family, Galatea. Mother, father, brother—the usual. Luckily, they all live far away.”
“Luckily? I don’t understand.”
The absurdity of this situation suddenly struck him. He smiled and shook his head. “I’ll see if I can explain. My mother wants to know everything about every woman I get involved with. I don’t know what we’ll tell her about you, but I’m sure of one thing—telling the truth is out of the question.”
Galatea’s steps slowed as they approached the English Gallery. “You’ve been involved with other women?”
“Yeah.” He saw her expression and turned to face her. “What’s wrong?”
“I…I thought you said you’ve never loved before.”
“Well, I’m thirty-six years old. You can’t expect me never to have been involved with a woman.”
“But what does that mean—involved?”
“Did you….” She looked around before saying in a low voice, “Did you take them to your bed and make love with them?”
“This isn’t really the place to—”
“Yes. All right?”
“Did you tell them you loved them?”
“Did you?” Her voice rose.
“Yes.” Trying to get control of the conversation, he put his hands on her shoulders. “That was all before you. You don’t need to be jealous of my past.”
She took a shaky breath, struggling with new feelings, feelings for which she was obviously unprepared. “I’m not…jealous, Riley. I’m confused. I’m scared.”
He gathered her closer. “What are you scared of?”
“You don’t love them anymore. Maybe you won’t love me forever.”
“I didn’t love any of them in the first place.”
“But you made love with them, and you told them you loved them,” she argued. “What was different?”
He took her hand and placed it over his chest, letting her feel the heavy beat of his heart. “This is different. The way I feel about you, the things I want to give you, the things I want you to give me.” Frustrated by her unworldliness for the first time, he sighed and said. “It’s different this time. Just trust me.”
After a long, tense moment, her expression cleared. “I do trust you, Riley.”
He believed she did, but the serpent had entered Eden so much sooner than was fair. He’d hurt her already, just by the reality of being an experienced adult while she was…something else entirely.
But despite that moment of disillusionment, several more days passed in the same happy, golden glow of love they had enjoyed before. Galatea learned quickly, becoming accustomed to the strange sights and sounds of Riley’s world, getting adjusted to the excitement and confusion that always lay just beyond his front door. Within the safety of his loft, they found peace, harmony, and many shades and flavors of passion together.
“Are there any others like you?” he asked her one day as they strolled through Central Park, admiring the autumn foliage.
“Others? What do you mean?”
“Someone…not born the same way as the rest of us.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Will you get old and die?”
“I don’t know. Will you?”
She started to cry, and it took him some time to calm her down and assure her that it wouldn’t happen soon.
That day, they encountered Mama Strega on the front stoop of Riley’s building when they returned home. The old woman’s gaze was casual and pleasant when Riley introduced Galatea, but he wasn’t fooled. He asked Galatea to go upstairs ahead of him, and he stayed to talk to Mama.
“You know, don’t you?” he challenged.
Her expression didn’t change. “Her nature? Yes.”
The old woman’s casual attitude annoyed him. “Her nature? That’s a hell of a phrase for it. Do you understand how this happened? Where does she come from? Can she stay? Can she be left alone for twenty minutes? Is she in danger from anyone? How—”
“Oh, Riley, sometimes you make me laugh.” And, indeed, Mama laughed until tears misted her eyes.
“It’s not funny,” he snapped. “And if you say that I’m young, I’ll—”
“No, no, I suppose it’s not funny. But it is wonderful. Don’t you see? You have love where love should have been impossible. Accept the gift.”
He stared at her. “Is that all you’re going to say?”
“What else should I say?”
“Aren’t you going to….” He gestured vaguely, gave up the idea, and tried a different approach. “Do you do things like this all the time, Mama?”
“Dio, no! Not many people can keep a secret.”
He shook his head. “So that’s it? I just…keep it a secret, go on loving her, and live happily ever after?”
“Perhaps,” Mama said.
“What are you not telling me?” he wondered.
“You have been given the gift. What you do with it is up to you.”
“She’s not an it, she’s a woman now.”
“Yes. Exactly. And you may find, my dear, that she will be harder to love as a woman than as an unattainable and undemanding chunk of marble in my cellar.”
He shook his head and said with a confident smile, “She’s easy to love, Mama.”
“Oh, my dear.” The old woman looked at him sadly. “Love is never easy.”
“You’re wrong.” Her gaze made Riley feel prickly, so added, “I know now just how easy it really is.”
“As you wish,” she said with a shrug.
“I know what I—”
“I’m just an old widow who shared more than fifty years with my husband. What could I tell you about love?”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Time, life, and pain—these are the true teachers,” Mama Strega said. “And they will have their way with you.” With a twinkle in her eye, she added, “Now go upstairs so your young lady can have her way with you.”
After gazing at her for a moment, he went—and he made a conscious effort to leave her warning behind him.
To be continued in Issue Three…
Copyright © 2017 by Laura Resnick
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor