Arjun by Fionn Jameson

I needed a Christmas tree.

I had to get one.

Don't get me wrong. It's not like I can't live without them. In fact, I've lived through quite a few of my "Bohemian" holiday seasons without one of those prickly things, and it didn't make much of a difference if I had one or didn't.
Arjun by Fionn Jameson
Unfortunately, my mother was the type of woman who subscribed to all the different McCall home-making periodicals, and for her, a home without a Christmas tree, was not a home at all. I saw several things wrong with the way she thought, but she had tunnel vision; it was impossible to get her to concentrate or think about anything else. It wouldn't have been so bad if she wanted an ordinary tree, the sort of tree that you can get, already cut and trimmed, at the empty lot next to supermarkets. But no, she had to be different. Which would explain why I was standing in front of a tree, in the middle of nowhere, with a chainsaw in the trunk of my car, because Victoria Kent had to have a real tree. But since she was stuck in a wheelchair, due to a skiing accident a few weeks back, guess who had to do the deed? If the police caught me, she was going to have to pay for my bail, because I wasn't going to waste my money on her foolishness. I had to admit, though, there was something oddly beautiful about a perfectly formed fir tree. Maybe it was the way the branches reached up, almost as if the wooden fingers tried to touch the moon, but as I stood there, snow melting in my sneakers, I sort of saw why Mom was so asinine about getting the perfect tree. The tree stood alone in a clearing, lit only by the light of the full moon. It had snowed a few hours ago, and with the snow clumped on the branches, the entire scene looked like something off of a Christmas card. I half expected to see a deer stepping out from the underbrush, her doe tagging along. But no deer came, and the wind picked up. I shivered in my heavy parka. "No time like the present," I muttered and hefted the surprisingly heavy chainsaw. For such a small thing, it weighed quite a bit. It seemed like such a shame, though. To bring down something so beautiful seemed positively sacrilegious. It was a good thing I wasn't religious. "Right," I said. "Next Christmas, I don't care if she's in a full-body cast. She's fetching her own tree. No more acting like the perfect little daughter anymore." Why did this feel so dirty? Finger on the safety throttle, I was ready to disable it and then flick on the power button. I'd push through the trunk of the fir tree, and that would be that. So what was stopping me? I had the feeling something was fundamentally wrong, but I couldn't seem to figure out as to why I was feeling this way. Just a feeling…. "And the day when I let my feelings rule my head will be the day I dig a grave and knock myself in." I'd always thought I was a very level-headed woman, not the sort given to flightiness or flippancy. Taking a deep breath, I pulled down the safety throttle and clicked on the power button of the electric chainsaw. The shrill metallic cry of the saw cut through the air, piercing and so out of place, I almost turned it off. But I didn't. I'd come this far and I was going to do the deed. Holding the chainsaw steady, I braced myself against the initial resistance of metal meeting wood. Don't. The chainsaw stopped a few inches away from the bark, and I very nearly dropped the saw in shock. What the hell was that? Stop. Oh. Wonderful. Now I was hearing voices in my head. Please don't do that. Please stop. But the voice was not in my head. I didn't know how I could possibly have heard it over the deafening whirl of the saw, but I'd heard it, almost as if someone had whispered right into my ear. A film of cold sweat formed on my brow, and I turned off the saw. I was going to be sick, I knew it. My stomach rolled, and the acidic taste of bile rose in the back of my throat, disgustingly thick. The sudden quiet of the night hit me as abruptly as a drunk driver hits an unsuspecting deer on the highway, and the saw fell from my nerveless fingers. Please. I told you to stop, did I not? My head spun, and I was so afraid my head would roll off my shoulders that my hands went up, just to hold it in place. No use. I was about to disgrace myself in front of a tree that possessed a very strange defense mechanism. I don't want to hurt you anymore. I don't like to hurt people. But you give me no choice. I must protect what I can. The fact that I was talking to a tree didn't seem to matter. All that mattered was that my stomach had to quit rebelling, that my head had to stop spinning around in manic circles. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry! I won't cut you down, I swear!" A few more seconds, and I was going to be very, very sick. It was quiet, just for a moment. Do you promise? Do you swear? At that point, I would have said anything just to stop myself from throwing up the meatloaf I'd eaten earlier. "Yes! Yes, I promise! I promise! Please, just make it stop!" And, slowly but surely, mercifully, the world stopped spinning, and my stomach settled down enough for me to take a few breaths that hurt my chest, as if something was stabbing me with tiny needles. I am sorry I had to do that. It is...not often that I resort to such violent measures. Usually, you humans turn away when I say no, when I tell you to leave this place. But you're quite different. Snow soaked the knees of my jeans, and I sat back, heedless of the wetness seeping through the denim. "Jesus mother…I don't know what the hell you did to me, but it worked. Don't worry. I'll definitely go elsewhere." Thank you. No. The voice wasn't in my head, as I'd thought, but in the air around me, carried by the soft, cold breeze that ran along my exposed skin like frozen silk. Dementia? Something that I ate last night? Paranoia? It couldn't be. The experience I'd just felt, the sickness that threatened to overwhelm me, made it clear that whoever this person was, whoever the speaker was, he was not a figment of my imagination. For one thing, it was far too vivid, and besides, I'd never really had much of an imagination to begin with. "Yeah, sure, whatever." I felt like I was trying to learn how to breathe all over again. "You know, if you really didn't want me to cut a tree down, you could have just said so, instead of turning my stomach into mush and my brain into a carnival joyride." Ah, but would you have listened? I caught the faint strum of amusement in the timbre I somehow recognized as male. "Hah, most likely not. Then again, I can't believe I'm talking to you now. If anyone ever walked in on this, they'd probably have me locked away for a very long time." You humans. Always thinking. Always wanting to know more. It was both your gift and your undoing. Why must you always have to have proof? Why must you always have to doubt? Why can't you just take things as they are? A regular old philosopher this guy was. "Yeah, well, that's us humans, all right. Hell, I know people who'd cheat their own mothers if they thought they could get away with it," I said, wishing I didn't sound so jaded. Once, Christmas had been all about giving cheer, about extending goodwill to the fellow man. Now, Christmas was a businessman's dream with lots and lots of sales, an abandonment of the ideals we'd once held dear. Almost made me ashamed of the very human race I was a part of. Jolly Old Saint Nick would have been embarrassed to set foot outside the North Pole, that was for damn sure. My ass was starting to get numb from the cold, but that all seemed so materialistic. After all, it wasn't often one got to hear a disembodied voice echoing around them, buzzing in their ears. The silence stretched on, heavy, weighing me down. "By the way. My name's Evelyn. Evelyn Kent." I would have extended a hand out, but there really wasn't anyone for me to shake hands with. Evelyn. That is a most beautiful name. It begins with "Eve" and ends with "Lyn." If your mother named you, she must be a very wise woman. My mother? Wise? Well, she did have her merits, but being particularly clever wasn't high on her list of desirable traits. "Actually, it wasn't my mother who named me. My father was the one who wanted me named after my grandmother." Then your father is a very wise man. Mr. I Save Trees from Devastation didn't know how right he was. "Yeah. Dad was a good guy." I refused to think too long about the car accident seven years ago. Come to think of it, it was around that time when Mother started going a little kooky. "What's your name?" My question hung in the air, as crystalline and sharp as the icicles hanging from the fir tree I'd almost cut down. My name? "Yes. Your name. You do have a name, don't you?" Silence was my only answer, and I tried again. Never say die until one was actually dead, that was my motto, and it had never served me wrong. Not yet, at least. "Hello? Are you still there?" Arjun. They call me Arjun. "They? Who're they?" Things were starting to get a little interesting. But to us, names are not so important. We do not talk like you humans do; there is no need for us to converse with words. I suppose it's best to say we communicate through feelings…ideas…. "Uh-huh." As much as I enjoyed talking to a tree, it was really time to go back. I was shivering and didn't want my ass amputated due to frostbite. "Look, it's been great talking to you, but let's face it, you're a tree, and I'm not all that keen on sharing a deep and meaningful conversation with one. Some people, yeah, they do that all the time, but I'm not them, so I'm afraid this is where we exchange our farewells." His tone took on a rather offended note. I am not a tree. I am not an unmoving object. I move as easily as you move. I dusted off the bottom of my pants. His voice carried in the wind, encircling me, before whispering away. "Oh, really? Well, if you're not a tree, then what the heck are you? A bird?" Now you mock me. Clearly, I was losing my mind. "No, I'm not making fun of you. You tell me you're not a tree, but I'm pretty much convinced that you're just a part of the imagination I never knew I had until I attacked a Christmas tree. So, if you will excuse me, I do have to get back home and take a dip in some hot water so that my butt will defrost." Wait. If I show you…will you stay? He sounded almost hopeful; meanwhile, I was completely incredulous. "What?" Just as I said. I realize that a talking voice could perhaps be more than a little disconcerting. That is why you are leaving, is that not so? "Actually, no, the reason I'm lea—" Then I will appear for you. And despite it all, I was curious. If someone, anyone, showed up, at least it would point to the rather evident fact that I wasn't just hearing voices in my head. "Well…I suppose, but I do have to leave. It's really cold out, and that's not even mentioning that it's past eigh—" Before I could finish my sentence, a flash of white and the glint of a green so vivid appeared and reminded me of a pasture fresh after a spring shower. Pulling himself from behind the tree, as if he'd been standing there all along…but his skin had gone transparent right before he stepped free from the foliage that littered the top of his blond hair like it had snowed Christmas tree needles. As if he was a part of the tree…but that wasn't what made my breath catch short, wasn't what made my jaw drop almost all the way to the core of the Earth. "Oh…Lord," I breathed out, a hot flush running across my face. I stood face to face with one of the most beautiful men in the world. 2 Or maybe the more correct term was face to chest. To give credit where it was due, he did have a very lovely chest. Well-defined, broad well-shaped shoulders, sun-brushed skin, nipples slightly puckered in the cold. He was the culmination of every woman's fantasy lover come true. He was also bare-naked in twenty degree Fahrenheit temperature. I couldn't help it. I just couldn't stop my eyes from going down, down, down, further down. Either the cold didn't affect him, or he was…truly not of this world. Ignoring the way my face heated as though someone had placed a branding iron over it, I tried to act as though I saw naked men all the time. "So, er, you would be Arjun, I suppose?" I asked, surreptitiously pinching myself on the arm. "A bit cold to be walking about in the buff, wouldn't you say?" Not only was I completely deluded, but I was seeing mirages. Never mind that mirages were only seen in the desert, and the mirage was not an oasis but a positively gorgeous man. His voice pitched lower than what I'd heard echo in the clearing before he…appeared. But in essentiality, it was the same person. "The elements do not affect me as they affect you, Evelyn." My name rolled over his tongue as if savoring the most expensive chocolate. I could have died happy; I was convinced that any woman would have felt the same. But a jolting pain in the lower regions of my body, mostly in my frigid bum, brought me back to reality. I blinked. He still stood there, looking very male-like, despite the fact that ice started to frost on his shoulder-length, almost-white-blond hair. Impossible. It couldn't be…. No, no, I was still seeing things and people who were not there…. What sort of person can merge with and out of a tree, for Pete's sake? Too many late-night, low-budget movies had finally taken their toll on me. "Arjun?" An exquisitely drawn brow quirked as he crossed his arms. "Yes?" I reached out and realized that my hand shook so bad I was almost seeing double. But try as I might, I couldn't remain steady. I tried to tell myself it was because the temperature was rapidly falling, but deep inside I knew that was not the reason why I shook like a shell-shocked victim. His skin warm against my cold, frozen fingers, I felt blood pumping through the body I could not longer deny…through the body I could no longer call a delusion. This was real. All of it. I wasn't dreaming. This man before me, Arjun…. He wasn't an illusion, not a fancy my mind concocted on a cold winter night. "Jesus bloody Christ!" I snatched my hand back, unable to lie to myself anymore. "You're real!" He smiled at me, a slow widening of the crimson lips the same color as holly berries, and heat washed through my body, made me feel as though I'd suddenly stepped into a fire. "Yes. I am real." A wind blew through the clearing, turning my breath misty. He shivered, and I made up my mind. Clearly, he wasn't human. There was just something about him that screamed otherworldly, but what that otherworld meant, I didn't know. Whatever the case, he felt the cold, maybe not as acutely as I felt it, but he felt it all the same. I might've been struck dumb by a handsome man, but that didn't mean I was going to stay stupid and stand around like an idiot, gawking at him as if he'd sprouted four arms and six heads. I always carried around a thick flannel blanket in the trunk of my car, although there'd never been any use for it. Well, it looked as though it was finally going to be of some sort of use now. "Come on. I'm not going to have you show up, only to have you freeze to death on me." I could have sworn he laughed silently at me, but as I proceeded to drag-prod him to my car, I couldn't help but wonder…. Who the hell was he? No. What the hell was he? Because sure as the sun set and rose every day, I was willing to bet my life savings he was most definitely…. Not human. * * * * "Yes, Mother. No, I couldn't get the tree," I huffed and watched Arjun struggle into a pair of Michael's spare flannel pajamas. "Look, you're my mom and all, and God, I do love you, I really do. But, Mother, let's face it. You're driving me completely insane." Over the line, she clucked, and I was sorely tempted to hang up. But then she'd just call again, and I didn't want to deal with that. "That's not fair, Evelyn. You promised me a tree. A good tree. I absolutely refuse to get a tree from those common lots. Do you have any idea how the trees from those horrid places look? They're almost hacked into bits! If you really think I'm going to allow something looking like that to pass my doorstep…." The gorgeous man almost pitched head-first into the fire, trying to balance on one foot to slide a slim leg through the pajama bottoms, and I knew it was time to go. "Mother, I'll get Michael to do it, okay? He's so much better than me at that sort of thing anyways. You know how he's got an eye for that kind of stuff. With my luck, I'll probably end up sawing my own leg off. You know how clumsy I can get sometimes." "Now, see here, Evelyn. You know your brother's not going to be home until three days before Christmas, and I'm afraid that—" Time for drastic measures. I knocked an inexpensive vase I eyed for just the occasion off its perch next to the phone and even pulled the receiver down so she could hear it shatter on the hard wooden floors of my tiny living room. "Evelyn? What was that?" "Oh heck, that must be the new cat someone gave me. Anyways, I love you and I'll be by to see you soon. Tell Herbert I wish him happy holidays. Bye now!" I dropped the phone back on the hook with a relieved sigh, glad to not hear the screeching tone in my mother's voice that had got worse ever since Dad died in that car accident. "These clothes, they are very restricting." A Nordic god stood on the tatted rug in front of the fireplace, and I had to look away for a moment so he wouldn't see the way I bit my lip, trying to suppress myself from laughing my head off. "You are smiling. You think this is funny," he said, his tone almost accusatory, and I tried to wipe the grin from my lips, even though it was easily one of the hardest things I'd ever done. "This is my first time wearing modern human clothing. You cannot expect me to wear them perfectly the first time. I am not a God." Oh, wasn't he? For a moment, he'd almost had me fooled. The buttonholes were lined up with the wrong buttons so the pajama shirt hung off his shoulder at a crazy angle, and the pants scrunched on the left side of his body. All in all, he looked very, very foolish, and I found myself wishing that I had a camera handy. "Here, you've got the buttons in the wrong holes." Adjusting the shirt and his pants took a lot more effort than I thought. He smelled fresh, fragrant, almost similar to balsam. Yes, he was like something out of a dream, and while I wanted to throw myself on him, no questions asked, the rational part of me knew that would be the most stupid thing to do. And I was not a stupid woman. He sniffed at the sleeve of the green-and-white pajama top and wrinkled his nose distastefully. "This has another man's scent. I do not like it." I busied myself with straightening out the embroidered pillows on the small sofa Herbert, my stepfather, had bought for me as a house-warming present. "Yes, well, considering it's my brother's, of course it would smell like another man. And it's the only thing I have, so you should quit complaining, unless you'd rather go around naked." To be honest, I was privately entertained by the notion of him going completely nude. But then I thought about how distracting it would be. Knowing me, I'd probably end up burning the house down while staring at him cavorting around in the bathroom. He fixed a glance at me with the jade eyes that had captivated me the first time I'd seen them. In fact, they still fascinated me, although I was careful not to let it show. Too much. "You live with your brother?" I shook my head and perched on one side of the couch, painfully aware of the eyes that could have burned a hole straight through my body and out the other side. "Not live with him, per se. He lives in another state, but when he comes to see our mother, he stays in the spare room, and because it's a lot more convenient than lugging around suitcases all the time, he keeps some spare clothes here. He could stay with her, but she would drive a saint to do some pretty bad things." I wasn't exaggerating. He nodded, and the leaping flames in the modest-sized fireplace turned his hair a fiery crimson that made me think of poinsettias. "I see." The blood beat loudly in my ears, and as he padded silently to the window, where outside, snow started to drift lazily from the dark skies, I admired the grace in which he carried himself. He almost reminded me of a tree swaying gently in the breeze. Which reminded me of the most important question that had been lying dormant in my mind since I'd had to strap him into the car. "Arjun?" "Yes." He didn't turn from the window, but kept his eyes forward, almost as if he was looking for something. I nearly got distracted to pieces letting my gaze rove over his perfect profile. No, he certainly wasn't human. No man could have been shaped so beautifully, like a Raphael statue come to life. The logs crackled in the hearth, and I turned away from him, unable to stare at him for too long; I was half-afraid I'd be rendered blind, just like the way people can't look at the sun directly when it hangs high in a clear sky. "What are you?" I asked and then wished I hadn't, because ignorance was bliss. If I didn't ask, then I could just pretend he was some poor guy who was slightly crazy and didn't mind strolling out in the nude in the middle of winter. But if I asked…and if he said something completely out of this world…I would probably be questioning my sanity. Not that I wasn't doing it now. He shook his head and put his back to the window. "It does not matter. I am Arjun, and that is the only thing you need to know. Other information would be superfluous, unneeded." And maybe he was right. But as I watched him watching me from beneath those heavy-lidded emerald eyes, the breath caught painfully in my throat, and the palms of my hands started to sweat. After a horrifying experience of getting left at the altar by my then-fiancé almost three years ago, I'd sworn off any sort of relationship. Sex and the release that came with it seemed completely useless. I didn't need a man anymore. I didn't want to deal with that again. But Arjun made me think of things I hadn't thought of in a very, very long time. The silence in the living room felt stifling, as if someone had placed a bag over my head and was slowly but surely closing off the air. I needed to do something, anything, just as long as my thoughts didn't wander in that direction. It was far better not to have something, not to know about something, then have a taste of it and know that you'll never get to have it again. There is nothing more torturous than that. But Arjun didn't move from his spot at the window, standing still, almost like…like a…. A tree. I couldn't help but laugh, although it was more from sheer giddiness rather than something funny. "You know what's funny? For one second I almost thought you were a tree." Anyone else would have laughed, or at the very least, cracked a smile. Arjun didn't, and the fact that he didn't, scared me, if just a little bit. "A tree?" I covered my mouth and tried to stifle my giggles. "Well, yeah. I mean, there I was, about to cut down a tree, and then the tree starts to talk to me. And then, as if that's not weird enough, said tree says he'll show himself to me. And, lo and behold, guess who walks out! Butt naked, I might add!" His eyebrows furrowed, and if I wasn't mistaken, a faint glimmer of concern flashed in his eyes. "Evelyn, you are in shock." "No, I am not!" My last word came out a bit more forceful than I'd meant it. "Now, if I was totally off my rocker and completely insane, I'd say you're a dryad, but that's just plain myth, so I'm still trying to figure out who or what the heck you are!" I'd shouted again, but I couldn't help it. Better out than in, Dad always said. "A dryad." His lips curved into an utterly beguiling smile. "You think I am a dryad? A nymph?" Why was I blushing? "No, I don't think so! Only females are dryads and nymphs." The gleam in his eyes was definitely playful. Nice to know he regarded this as a joke, while I fretted over my sanity. "Then you believe in those beings, Evelyn?" "What? No, I don't believe in them! Well, that is to say that I don't usually believe in them, but then I just can't—" I clapped a hand to my mouth before I made even more of a fool out of myself. What the hell was wrong with me? "You know what? I'm going to shut up now." "Evelyn." He pushed away from the window and sauntered toward me, looking more dangerous than a man wearing Snoopy pajamas ought to look. "Wh-what?" I hated how my voice trembled. "Are you scared? You look as though there is something that greatly disturbs you. As if…." His grin widened. "As if I disturb you." I stood but refused to back up. That just wasn't me. "I'm not scared of you, Arjun. I'm not." I took a deep breath and realized that doing that was a mistake—a very big and a very bad mistake. The scent of evergreens, the crisp bite of pine needles caught at me, leaving me breathless and unable to think clearly. His hand, strong and lean, reached for me, but he didn't touch me. Instead, his fingers extended out, only an inch away from my face. I couldn't move, even if I wanted to. I didn't know what he was, but he held me completely, utterly spellbound. And I didn't care. "You asked what I am, and I say it does not matter." He no longer sounded so amused. I didn't know if that was good or bad. "If you know what I am, will it change anything?" I didn't know what to say. "Well?" he prompted, hand still hovering inches from my skin. "You're not human." He shrugged. "That depends on how you see it, Evelyn. What does it mean to be human? I look human, therefore, am I not human? There are those who look human but act like beasts. Should they be considered humans as well? Or are they merely animals?" My throat was painfully dry, and when I swallowed, it only made it worse. "What do you want? Why are you here?" "Because you brought me here." "That's not what I'm asking." Dropping his hand, he turned away then, face toward the fire. Shadows leapt from plane to chiseled plane on the beautifully formed countenance. "Arjun?" A silence ensued, the type of silence that seems to extend for centuries, even though in reality it's only a few seconds. "Lonely." "What?" He closed his eyes and sighed. "I was…lonely. It's been long, too long since I had the opportunity to talk to someone." "What, no one was coming around trying to cut down trees?" I tried to inject humor into my question, but it fell flat. Arjun's lips thinned into a bitter smile. "You wouldn't understand what it's like. To be alone for so long…when everything you knew has faded away, when the only being who chooses to survive is you." He spoke in riddles. Either that, or I was completely stupefied by his unearthly beauty. "I cannot remember how long I have been alone. There was no one to talk to, no one to speak to. After a while, I stopped trying." His eyes flashed open, and he smiled ruefully. "It's rather odd. How I finally communicate with someone, and it's a woman trying to cut down a tree. My tree." "Your tree?" I tried to lessen the heavy atmosphere, tried to stop the breath from catching in my throat. "I didn't think I saw a sign around the base of it, stating as Arjun's Property. Touch me, and he'll give you a headache you won't forget in a hurry.'" He laughed softly, and I felt vaguely relieved. "So long, so long since I've heard someone else's voice echoing in my ears." His voice grew hushed, and I felt every syllable like kisses down my body. "Since I've felt someone's skin against mine, since I've breathed in someone's scent…." He reached a hand to me, and I was tempted, sorely tempted to take it. I wanted to touch him, wanted to so badly that my hands shook. "Beings like me, we cannot survive in this age the way we'd survived hundreds, thousands of years ago. Humans say one must adapt or die. Many of my brethren chose to fade away because they could not adapt. But I did not." "Arjun, I don't know what you're trying to say." But I did. My heart knew, but my brain refused to comprehend it. He quirked a brow and dropped his hand. "Don't you? Beings like me; we don't live like you. Sustenance is what keeps you alive, isn't it? What keeps us alive is touch. Feel. To hear someone's cries of pleasure ring in our ears. To see ourselves in their eyes, to know we mean more than anything else to them, if only for that moment. We may abandon them after a while, but for that time, we feast." "Sex? Sex keeps you alive?" Incredulity couldn't even being to describe the state I was in. "You're an incubus or something?" "No, no, no." He shook his head, vehement. "It's not sex. That comes, but sex is not the key. Incubi are demons. I am not demonic in any way." "Then, what are you?" The crucial question. Would he answer to my satisfaction? But the more important question was: Would I believe him? "Again, we come to that. You insist you must know, that without knowing, you cannot do anything." Slowly, he lifted a hand, and this time he didn't stop, and I didn't pull away. His touch was soft against my cheek, and I snuggled deeper into the curve of his hand, loving the winter snow tree scent of him. "This one night, I do not want to be alone. I would like to be with someone. Will you not be that person?" This whole night, there was something magical about it. I didn't know what, but I would've been stupid to break it. Come tomorrow morning, I may regret it, but for now, I wanted this. I wanted him. I would take the chance. 3 "Come." Just one word, drifting in the air like a lost feather looking for a place to rest. But just that one word held more significance to me than a million poems ever written, a thousand love songs ever sung. Now that I let myself enjoy the moment, I found that it was easy. Too easy to lose myself in him, with him. "What do you want?" "Nothing," he breathed and then stared at the zipper of my jacket. "This is metal? How does it work? Is it very difficult to undo?" Another question: How could a man not know about something as mundane as a zipper? A man would know…but someone not human wouldn't. "Here. Try for yourself." I guided his fingers to the zipper tab and realized something odd. "You're shaking." His brow furrowed in concentration as he drew the zipper down. He brushed the jacket off my shoulders, and his eyes widened. "You're wearing something more!" He sounded both astonished yet offended at the same time, and I didn't know if I should have laughed or pretended like I didn't hear him. I tugged him down in front of the fireplace, wanting to see his body bathed in the warm yellow light of the fire. "Of course I'm wearing more. You can't expect me to walk around with just a jacket on in snowy weather, can you?" "I wasn't wearing anything," he said, sounding proud of himself. Human or no, a man will be a man. "Of course, you weren't." It struck me as rather silly how only a few minutes ago I was doing up the buttons to the pajama top. And now, here I was, undoing them. I should have just done myself a favor and left them unbuttoned. Of course, then I had no idea things would come to this…. I was halfway done with undoing the buttons when he pulled away from me. "What are you doing?" Sitting back on my heels, I quirked a brow at his sudden reticence. "What do you mean, what am I doing? I should say it's pretty evident, isn't it?" He huffed, obviously perturbed about something. "Arjun?" "It has been so long. Perhaps too long since I've done this." Every syllable came out slow, thoughtful, as if he measured the efficiency of every one of them before putting them forth. "Before, I did not have to bumble my way into doing this. I knew how to please a woman. I knew how to make her cry out for me. But now…." His words trailed into nothingness, and I was left with a man who stared at the palms of his hands, who couldn't believe what he was seeing, what he was doing. "But now? Arjun, speak to me." "And now, I don't know." He laughed quietly, like there was a joke only he knew. "I don't know. I don't know how to give a woman release. I don't remember how to please her. I've forgotten what it feels like to have her arch under me, over me. I've forgotten how a woman looks when she throws her head back and lets the pleasure eat away at her soul. I cannot remember a thing." His hands grabbed mine and squeezed until I thought he was going to break the bones in my fingers. "I cannot remember a thing." The despair in his eyes was all too plain to see, and my physical pain took a back seat to the hurt I saw in him. "So?" He looked at me, a question in those beautiful eyes. "What do you mean, so?" I shrugged, trying to act as if I encountered lovers every night who didn't know how to make love. Meanwhile, the tantalizing peek of bronzed skin from the gaping pajama top distracted me so much I had to worry about looking at his face rather than his chest. "So what? So what if you don't remember? So what if you don't know how to give me, um, release?" "It means that I—" But I cut him off. Time was ticking fast, and I wanted to touch him badly. But I couldn't do that until we'd straightened out a few things first. "What's wrong with learning? You know, you can relearn things you've forgotten. It's not like once you forget it's the end of that." "Learning?" Wary hope crept into his voice. "Learning how to pleasure a woman again?" I smiled. "It can be done." On my hands and knees, I advanced the last six inches of distance between us and laid a hand on the bared skin that I wanted to kiss, that I wanted to taste. "They say in order to be a master, one must learn first. And since you're merely a master who's lost his touch so to speak…." My mouth was only inches away, but I wasn't going to kiss him. He would have to do that himself. He would have to take the next step. "I'm sure you'll pick this up in no time." His lips moved over mine. "You place such trust in me. If I should fail?" "Try, try again?" His lips curved into a broad grin. "I think I would like that very much." Pushing off from the floor, Arjun closed that last inch between us, and his mouth covered mine. Hot, possessive, yet gentle and utterly sweet at the same time. Now that I was almost positive of what he was, I found myself falling in love with the crisp, pine taste of him that embodied everything winter had to offer. For a man who claimed he couldn't remember how to satisfy a woman, he learned fast, and I moved away, breathing heavily, heart pounding like I'd just dashed a hundred miles. "Wait, wait, that was, that was…." I couldn't find the right words to say. Every possible word just seemed so clichéd and fake. "That was…er…." A wholly male smile wreathed his face, the kind of smirk a man shows when he is insanely pleased with or at something. "I have pleased you?" I felt as weak as a newborn, my laugh unsteady. "Arjun, I don't even think the word 'please' is enough to express what I'm feeling and thinking right now." The warmth from the fire blazed across my bared torso as I pulled my turtleneck off, and he reached for a bra strap, wonder in his eyes. "This is called a bra. It's a modern substitute for the outdated corset," I said, feeling a bit foolish, but enjoying the heated look on his features immensely. His fingers trailed the raised bumps of my collarbone, and I shivered, feeling that touch as acutely as if he'd touched that area, not with a forefinger, but with his tongue. "You're beautiful. Uncommonly so. Evelyn…even your name is beautiful," he said quietly, and I rolled my eyes mockingly at him. "You're just saying that because I'm the first woman you've seen like this in…how long? A couple of years? More than that?" "No." He shook his head. "I have seen many women, have been with many of them, and they aren't…they don't…." He stopped, apparently at a loss for words. Which was completely fine by me. I didn't want to know about all the other women in his life. Talk about a mood-killer. I tugged at the open neckline of the pajama top. The remaining small buttons popped free from their buttonholes, and one of them was ripped completely free, ricocheting off the fireplace mantle with a faint ping. "Oh, Lord." I knew he was beautiful. I'd seen him nude, standing there in the midst of the white, white snow, but that was then. Here, in the glowing light of the fire, tossing shadows back and forth on the concaves of his body, he was magnificent. Divine. I trailed my fingers down his chest, starting from the hollow of his neck to the waistband of the pants, right underneath his belly button. He shivered under my touch. This wasn't enough. Touching wasn't enough. I wanted more of him. I wanted his hands on me, I wanted to feel him inside of me, and I wanted to give to him as much as he gave to me. He was clumsy in tearing off the rest of my clothes, but that was all right. A hunger replaced the wide-eyed curiosity in him, and I responded to that hunger with a voracity of my own. When I finally managed to tug off those ridiculously colored pajama pants of his, I was wet. Almost embarrassingly so, considering that he hadn't done much except for some touching and lots of excellent kissing. But I wasn't the only one. He was hard, thick, and ready to burst, and I was relieved to know he wanted me just as badly. Rigid under my hand, I squeezed him gently. He let out a slow breath, and I ran a hand through the silver-yellow hair that felt like cornsilk beneath my fingers. "I can't. I need to wait, but I…." The rug was smooth underneath my back, velvet against my skin. "You want me. I want you. Why do you need to wait?" I raised my arms out to him, and he laid his body on mine, his warm skin slick with the sweat of his ill-restrained desire. I wound my arms around his neck, wanting him closer than was humanly possible. "Do it." He thrust into me, and I cried out at the force of it. Vaguely, I heard him catch a breath, but by then, I was far gone. There was nothing but the constant push, pull of his strokes, in…out…and I ground against him, close, getting so close, and the only thing I heard was the pulse pounding in my head. "Evelyn…," he murmured and braced himself up on his palms. "Too fast, too soon, not yet…." He threw his head back, the muscles rigid in the strong column of his neck, hips quickening, and I was lost. He brought me, screaming, and I fought to get closer, to get farther away, nails clawing at his back. Couldn't think, couldn't form a single coherent word; there was only this, only now, and when I pulsed around him, he thrust one more time, body straining, heaving, tensed. I was re-learning how to breathe, and he lay upon my chest, almost as if dead. But I felt the slow, rhythmic pulsating of his heart against my skin, and I knew I had given him as much as he had given me. Aftershocks continued, coursed through my body, and I closed my eyes, wanting to stay in this position until the world collapsed around our ears. Sleep came to me, and I let it wrap me in its silver cloak, resting assured in the knowledge that when I opened my eyes again, I would not be alone. No. I would not be alone. 4 The warm prickle of sunlight slanted across my skin, and I smiled. "Great dream. Wonderful dream. Dreamt I met up with a male nymph and had the best sex in my life," I said to myself, reluctant to open my eyes. Who would? I wished to prolong this feeling for as long as I possibly could. "Wish there was a man like that in real life. A nymph. A dryad." "Evelyn?" "And he tasted like—" An arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me toward a warm body I recognized even just by the scent. Not a dream, then. Reality. "He tasted like?" I heard the barely restrained laughter in his voice, and when I finally opened my eyes, it was to meet his emerald gaze, just as sharp and startling as the night before. "What did he taste like?" Feeling a bit like I was back in grade school in the throes of my first love, I tucked a lock of hair behind his ear and let my hand rest on the curve of his face. "Hmmm, he tasted like everything good in this world. Something clean, fresh, earthy." I kissed him and found there were advantages to him being what he was, the most distinct of those being he didn't have such thing as morning breath. Crisp like spearmint, but not as cloyingly sweet as peppermint. The floor hard under my hip, I noticed that somehow during the night we'd rolled off the rug to end up on the floor, him almost underneath the beige coffee table. My body ached, and as I shifted so my hipbone wouldn't grate on the wooden floor, I winced. Arjun saw it and sat up, eyebrows furrowed in concern. "Are you well? I did not hurt you…." His eyes drifted down to my legs, and I followed his gaze. A bruise marred my upper thigh. "Too much, did I?" "Don't talk stupid," I said and then, suddenly aware of just how naked I was, especially in such unflattering light like the weak sunlight, I tugged at the rug and pulled it up to my chin. It seemed dumb to worry about being naked after I'd had sex with him, but I couldn't stand being nude unless I absolutely had to. Meanwhile, he looked completely at home, but then again, he didn't have anything to worry about. If men looked like that all the time, we women wouldn't have had a chance in hell in resisting them. "I thought you were a dream. Either that, or you'd already left." He tilted his head to one side. "Really? And why is that?" Now was the moment of truth. And to be honest, it didn't feel as hard as I thought it would be to spit it out. "You're a dryad. Or something to do with nature. Trees. Whatever. But you're not human." I was proud of how logical and calm I sounded. A corner of his lip quirked up in amusement. "Is that the conclusion you've come up with?" "Well, yeah." Unable to meet his eyes anymore, I turned my gaze to the window where the sun peeked from behind a cover of thin gray clouds. "But here's what I don't understand. If you're a dryad, or a nymph or whatever, why are you still here? Shouldn't you be gone when you've gotten what you wanted? Which in this case would be sex, by the way." Arjun took a deep breath, his chest rising under my hand. "You're right. About everything. I'm a dryad. Legend mentions nothing of male dryads, but we exist. There are far more females than males, and the stories were told of them. But never of us," he said. The corners of his eyes crinkled. "I can only surmise that the poets were all males and far more interested in the nubile female nymphs." I didn't know what to say. I'd braced myself to accept it, but now that I'd actually heard it, words absolutely escaped me. He rose to his feet, golden, like a thing of the sun, and my mouth went dry all over again. "Would you like me to leave?" he asked, and I'll be damned if his face didn't color a delicate pink. And when he blushed, he blushed everywhere. I know. I checked. "What? No! Why would I want you to leave?" "I realize that perhaps last night was lacking in many respects and it was entirely my fault, but I just couldn't…." His voice trailed away, and I felt the urge to start laughing hysterically. Thankfully I didn't, but it was a very close call. "Didn't you hear me when I said that it was the best sex I've had? Mind you, it's not that I'm a very experienced woman when it comes to matters like this, but I'd like to think I know enough to judge what is bad from what is good." Now came the tricky part. "But it just wasn't the sex, although that was excellent." I ducked my head, feeling a bit like a girl confessing her feelings to someone completely unattainable. "And it's not the fact you're not really supposed to be real. I don't know how to explain it. It's like…." How to explain I wanted him? More than anything. Because when we touched, I wanted more. When we kissed, it wasn't enough. His body called to mine in the most primal way, and all I could do was respond. I took a deep breath and stood up, feeling like an idiot with the rug still tucked under my chin. "But what I'm trying to say is…I don't want this to end. I don't want a slam bam, thank you, ma'am sort of deal, you know?" His facial expression didn't change. "Slam bam, thank you, ma'am? And that would mean…?" "I mean, I don't want you to say, 'Hey, that was great. Come by my tree if you feel like doing that again.' Can you understand?" I realized just how close I was to begging him to stay, but I couldn't seem to stop the words from coming out. I was completely disgracing myself, but I couldn't have cared less. "I can't. If this is all we were meant to be, if this is your exit and your stop to leave, then that's not fair. I felt…I feel…." He held up a hand. "Wait." "What?" "I don't recall ever saying that I wanted to leave." Rendering me completely nonplussed, graciously he allowed me time to pick my jaw up from where it rested on the floor. "I'm sorry?" The sunlight washed over his skin as he took a step toward me, so close that I felt heat radiating from his body and I had to tilt my head back to meet his eyes. "I said, I don't recall ever saying I wanted to do the slam-bam thing that you seemed to fret about." A smile started to curve those beautiful lips, and my heart took an odd veer down to my feet. "I don't want to be lonely anymore." "But you're a dryad. You can't go far from your tree or trees or whatever, right?" Odd how easily I was taking to this idea that I was talking to someone not quite of this world. But that didn't matter anymore, did it? I wanted to be with him, I wanted to know everything about him. I wanted to see him smile, I wanted to see him laugh, and I wanted everything he could give me. So what would be wrong with me giving up my heart? If I could call him mine, if just for a while, even if this should end, it would be worth it, wouldn't it? I wouldn't regret it. His smile deepened. "Evelyn?" "What?" I decided not to trust the teasing glint in his eyes. "You talk too much." He reached out and cradled the back of my head. His lips touched mine in an infinitely soft kiss that was barely there, and I sagged against him, the strength gone from my knees. The rug fell from my fingers as I rose on my tiptoes and wound my arms around his neck, tugging him closer, so much closer than I thought could have been possible. He pulled back after what seemed like an eternity and leaned his forehead against mine in a move that I found surprisingly intimate. "I don't have to be there. Even with a garden, if it's with you, I'm sure it will be fine. That is…if you will let me stay. I would like to stay with you." I was at a loss for words, so I ended up saying the most stupid thing of all. "You're just with me because I'm the only woman who's been around you for the past God knows how long." I immediately regretted it. "Is that what you think? You think I haven't been with someone for centuries?" His shoulders shook with laughter, and my face heated. Great. Now he knew I was jealous of the other women who got to have him, even if they'd died at least three hundred years ago or something. "Will you stop laughing? I think I got the point now." I sounded as perturbed as I was, and his laughter only grew. By the time he was done having his giggling fit, I was all but ready to push him back out into the snow where he belonged. "You think that I haven't tried? You believed I'd been standing in that meadow, waiting for a fair maiden to come and rescue me?" he asked. I squirmed with embarrassment. "Well, put that way…." He laid a quick kiss on my forehead, and it lingered after his lips pulled away. "You listen to me, and you listen well, Evelyn Kent. I have walked these lands for longer than I care to remember, and there was no one who called to me like you did." "Really?" He traced my lips with his thumb, and again, I felt like a little kid, about to confess to her first love. "You're different. I cannot say how. I do not know, but this is not normal, and I would have to be a fool to let you go." His gaze flicked behind me and widened slightly. "Look." I followed his gaze, and he whispered, "It's beautiful, isn't it? Almost as if the world has given us permission." Outside the window, snow fell like scraps of paper being blown from above, and the entire scenery looked as though we were in a winter kingdom land, just the two of us. "You know, most people would get to know each other first before hopping into bed," I said nonchalantly and caught a playful spark in his eyes that was impossible to mistake as anything harmless. "But we haven't hopped into bed. Although, doing that sounds like an excellent idea." His hand drifted down the curve of my back, and he drew me toward him, a determined expression on his ethereally beautiful face. "I think you humans say: There's no time like the present," he said, and I couldn't agree more. There'd be plenty of time for talking later. Plenty of time to do all the things I wanted to do with him. To him. For him. Everything was clear in Arjun's eyes, and he bent his golden head, kissing me breathless. No time like the present, indeed.


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