The air left me in a huff but I held his watchful gaze.
“What – ladies?” I asked, my voice shaking.
He shook his head.
“They were not hired,” he said, taking a slow step forward. “They were not – escorts or prostitutes. I didn’t buy them. I didn’t even pay for their time.”
I was trembling slightly – I put my own hands into my pockets, all my muscles locked. I hoped he couldn’t see it.
“They came to me of their own free will, once they knew what they wanted – what I wanted.”
I blinked at him, my throat dry, a million dots connecting to a million other dots in my mind, too fast for me to process.
“What..?” I whispered.
He stepped even closer, but I was too high-strung to move, even though I knew I should.
How was I still feeling that residual arousal, even in the face of what he was telling me?
“Since I own the floor, everything is paid for in here,” he said. “Water, electricity, even the food in the fridge. A maid would come in and ensure that everything was in order.”
I nodded, seeing the logic there for a billionth of a second, before I was lost again.
He disappeared into his mind for a long moment – I was barely breathing – before his eyes refocused on me, sharply.
I was held there by them.
“When a woman was with me, she would not look outside of us to get what she was getting out of this,” he said carefully.
“I… I d-don’t…”
I didn’t understand what he meant.
“I didn’t date any of them,” he said. “They didn’t date me. It was not a courtship, you understand.”
“They could see whoever they wanted and so could I,” he said. “But…”
I waited, my breathing audible now, laboured and loud.
I could not slow it down.
I could not calm myself.
The fear was raw, like blood in my mouth, the hair on my skin standing on end.
My chest deflated and my eyes began to flood with tears and I leaned forward, putting my hands on my knees, closing my eyes and taking deep breaths.
In a hot second, I saw it – I understood it.
His bedroom and this bedroom, linked.
Two separate apartments – two separate lives.
He would come home and she would come home and they would meet here and –
And Hilda was one of them.
Gorgeous, beautiful Hilda.
He looked for it outside of us…
The words vibrated in my mind.
“You cheated on –”
“I did not cheat on her,” he said.
He was standing much closer now.
I did not trust myself to move.
“Sh-she said…” I stammered, forcing my eyes open.
He wouldn’t touch me – I knew that for sure now.
It was making me even dizzier. I had grown so used to his hands on me. Even the smallest stumble would have him reaching out to steady me.
Not so now.
I swiped at the slow, slow tears rolling down my face.
“She said that – you looked for it elsewhere…”
“I didn’t look for it elsewhere,” he said. “I was not dating her.”
And then I remembered us.
I remembered how he would openly approach me and how I was always wondering about her and how I always felt like I was participating in his infidelity somehow.
But – he wasn’t with her?
The whole time, they were not together?
What about her?
I pushed to my full height.
My head hurt!
He’d meant it then, that her opinion didn’t matter when it came to us – Dominick and I.
At present, he was looking down at me with his frown and I –
I couldn’t look at him!
I swayed away from him and moved to the wall of windows.
I pressed my head against one of them, feeling the instant soothing of its cold surface.
“Did she know..?”
“She knew,” he said.
I closed my eyes.
Was he lying to me?
At first I thought he picked up his girls that way – gym and track… but we’re all different…
“You were always together,” I reminded him, thinking back.
“She was always with me,” he said in response. “I suspect that she hoped for – more.”
I want – more. I want to know more – I want to know you.
“I believe she hoped that I would change my way of thinking, that if she waited a little longer, that I would relent –”
I spun around to face him.
“Did you make her do it? Sleep with you?”
“No,” he said instantly, the conviction clear in his voice. “I have never forced anyone to do anything. She knew exactly what she was getting into with me.”
I stared at him – I stared so hard, wishing that there was a specific colour that people would emanate when they told the truth.
I didn’t know this man.
I didn’t know what the truth was.
“I never forced any of them to do any of it,” he said. “It was all done at a leisurely pace. They could leave when they wanted to, even walk before anything happened. It was all about physical pleasure… Mainly sexual.”
His eyes sparked at me and I wanted to faint.
All the things he had done to my body – !
It hurt. Everything hurt.
Was this some kind of sick, twisted, cosmic joke?
Not only was this man – this man I believed that I loved! – not a Virgin, but he had had many sexual partners and all for the sake of pleasure? No girlfriends? Just sex?
“That’s all they wanted? The women? Sex?”
“It’s what we wanted. Pleasure. Physical pleasure. Basic. A release and nothing beyond that.”
I turned away from him, seeking relief again from the cold glass. My eyes were dry.
Heavy and itchy and dry.
“If you knew that she was willing to compromise herself for you, then why did you stay with her?” I asked. “Why did you let her?”
He was silent.
I turned my head and looked at him.
He was staring at his feet – he looked guilty.
“Answer me, Dom…”
He looked pained – but anybody could look pained.
Or happy or sad.
“I wanted what I wanted…” he said. “It was selfish of me… I’m sorry…”
I was angry now. “That’s not even for me. That’s for her. What you did was bullshit Dominick.”
I was angry because I felt it for myself – like it had happened to me.
I had wondered before what had happened to my idea of what I wanted a relationship to be, specifically, my boundaries. I had done things that I thought that I never would have done, even if I loved the man – for as long as he wasn’t my husband.
“Have you actually dated anyone before?” I asked. “Have you had – a girlfriend before? A meaningful relationship? Have you ever loved anyone?”
“Only two in my entire life…” he said. “One of them didn’t work out.”
I got the hint there, but I squashed it down.
“How many – Ladies – would you see, at a time..?”
“One,” he said. “They would hold the key until such time as the contract was over.”
My eyes snapped open.
“Contract?” I repeated.
“Yes,” he said. “For it to work, there are rules in place. One of which is to respect the discreet nature of the agreement.”
I looked at him. “But Hilda knows the others.”
He shook his head. “She thinks she does,” he said quietly.
He stood next to me, looking out into the night, lost in his mind.
“Did she sign one?”
I swallowed hard – that did not make any kind of sense.
“If she signed one, then how was she…” I shook my head. I didn’t understand. “If she signed it, then she knew exactly what it was about. So then why did she…”
He shrugged. “There’s always that risk… It feels so good that you think it’s more than it is. Some people are able to make that distinction. Give the body what it wants without drawing on the strings of the heart…”
He leaned against the steel frame of the windows and kept his eyes on me.
“Makes us all a little twisted… To be able to separate these things that are all so intricately bound to each other…”
I shied away from him when he reached out to touch me, tucking a random braid behind my ear. My body still wanted him – I still wanted him.
But this wasn’t right.
It wasn’t right!
His eyes were smouldering.
The pain was gone.
The sadness was gone.
The darkness was there, but it had shifted.
One shadow replaced by another.
“And – and the women?”
He inclined his head, his eyes narrowing.
“They put their feelings away as well,” he said. “I never knew of anyone who went into it with the wrong intentions like Hilda did –”
“The wrong intentions – wow Dom…” I said, feeling my head split wide open.
I closed my eyes.
“When did all of this start?” I asked. “How old were you?”
“I was eighteen,” he said.
I blinked, staring at him. “And how old were they?”
“The youngest I’ve been with was twenty-three. The oldest was thirty-nine.”
My head hit the glass with a dull thud. I snapped my eyes shut, processing all of this. “Wow.”
I was somewhat relieved.
But he’d been at this for nine years.
Nine – years!
He was quiet.
I opened my eyes, staring out at the night.
I turned slowly to look at him, keeping my head on the glass.
His features were gentle now, warm almost.
He looked like a little boy lost.
But he was looking right at me.
“I saw a girl,” he said softly. “She split her arm open from a freak accident with a bookshelf. The moment I saw her, I wanted her. But when I touched her, it all started to change.”
I swallowed hard, tears threatening.
“I met you, Dilia,” he said. “And everything – what I was doing… It all revealed itself to me, in its darkness.”
I could barely breathe.
“I was going to clean this place out –”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
His expression darkened.
“Because it would be a lie if I did, Dilia,” he said. “You can’t just – wipe that slate clean. Not with this. I could keep it from you, but I would always know. And I want you to know me…”
And the sadness and pain were back. He turned away from me then, facing the world beyond, staring down at his feet.
“I don’t think I want to know why I did it – any of it…” he said. “That doesn’t mean I should pretend that it didn’t happen.”
I faced my front again, thinking back to what she’d said.
“She said that she thought that you picked your – Ladies up on the track or at the gym,” I blinked. “Do you know how that makes you sound?!”
Like a predator…
“She thought wrong – she has it wrong,” he said. “I don’t pick them up. That’s not the way it works.”
“The way what works?”
I sat down suddenly and he was startled, but he sat down too, looking at me closely.
“What is that?” I pressed.
“It’s a – club.”
“The Ladies pick their mates based on their biographies…” he said. “There are various levels, represented by playing cards. You rise through the ranks based on the points you score.”
“Like votes,” he said, staring blankly ahead at the opposite wall. “If the Lady enjoys your company, she scores you high. There’s a criterion they use for advancing the Gentlemen to the next level.”
“Do you get paid for it?”
He skewed his face like he’d been stung by something. “We pay to register and they pay us to be of service.”
I was just about ready to crawl out one of these windows and die, the way my head was throbbing. And all this information…
But I had to see it through.
“She said that you were called –”
He snapped his head in my direction so fast that I flinched.
His expression was hard.
I swallowed hard, remembering what she looked like – what she sounded like.
She sounded like she was awed by this piece of information, like she was talking about some mythical creature that only few people had seen.
She’d called him a god, for goodness’ sake!
“You know what you’re called,” I said quietly. “What does that mean?”
He looked frustrated and wounded and I knew that whatever he was going to say next, he didn’t want to say it.
“She said there’s another card. A Black Diamond of Queens.”
“There is…” he said.
“She made it sound like it doesn’t exist.”
“It does,” he said. There was a long pause that followed these words and I thought he wasn’t going to speak again, but he did.
“At that level, you get to issue your companion card to any one of the Ladies of your choice, no matter what rankings they have. That means that you two become exclusive partners and neither of you is available for service to anyone outside the two of you.”
“So you’re like – a couple?”
“Of sorts…” he said.
And that was what she wanted.
Was that why she had gone and made love with him? Did she think that if she did, then he would make her his Queen?
I sat up, thinking this over.
“She said you met on the track.”
“Then what? She joined the club?”
“She was already in it – she still is, I believe,” he said, genuinely contemplating this.
“We only realized this later on…”
He rose to his feet and began to pace slowly around the room.
“I think that may have influenced her choice with me.”
“How? It’s a sex club –”
“It’s not that simple. Pleasure can be derived in many different ways, Dilia…”
I couldn’t look at him when he said this.
“So then why did she sign a contract with you? I mean – the way you make is sound is like you wanted a genuine connection.”
My eyes snapped to his, my heart stilling in my chest.
He returned to my side, facing me completely.
“When I met Hilda, I was looking to leave The Echelon,” he said. “I was looking for something real. I thought – for a second, I thought she would leave it too.”
“Okay,” I said. “And?”
“We got to know each other as friends… We were still friends when I met you that first time.”
My thoughts worked then, piecing things together.
“I wanted you, Dilia… I fell hard for a total stranger and I knew I wouldn’t find that connection with her.”
“But you still accepted her invitation,” I reminded him.
“I did…” he said, the guilt returning. “When it became apparent that I probably wouldn’t hear from you again, I accepted her invitation and I – I decided to try with her. Even with the added thrill of The Echelon, I didn’t feel that passion. If anything, she felt like even more of a friend than anything else.”
I stared up at the ceiling for a moment, swiping at the tears as they fell.
I closed my eyes, turning my head into the cold glass.
“So what did she mean that you looked for it outside of you guys?”
He shook his head. “I think she thought I was in service, but I wasn’t. My previous contract was eight months gone. I just had school and family to deal with… And then there was you – I watched and waited for you and when you finally arrived…”
A small smile crept across his lips.
“She finally had a face for my infidelities.”
“So it was my fault –”
“Dilia,” he said sternly. “Stop it, okay? You could have disappeared forever and Hilda and I still would have ended things because she wasn’t what I was looking for in a life partner.”
I blinked, startled by the outburst.
“We are still friends, selfishly, on my part,” he said. “But if she chose to end even that, I wouldn’t stop her if that’s what she wanted.”
He didn’t want it.
“Now you know the truth,” he said, his face falling to nothing, the shutters back up. “Let me take you back to your place.”
He moved so fast, I was left with no choice but to follow him back to reality.
We were halfway down the stairs in his apartment before I was able to grab his shoulder to stay him.
My brain was full and this was all dark and twisty but was I ready to end things with him now that I knew some of the truth? No.
I knew that it would be damn near impossible to determine what the full truth was and all I could do was trust that he wasn’t lying to me about any of it – trust that I wasn’t being just as selfish as he was, seeing what I wanted to see.
Because I wanted to be with him so badly that I wouldn’t even be surprised if I believed him if he said that he was the Archangel Michael himself.
But I didn’t want to be that girl.
If this wasn’t my life and I had heard this story from Imo, I would have told her to cut him loose because he was just no good for her.
It was all too complicated.
And I loved him.
And it was not conditional on him being exactly right and perfect for me.
Weren’t we all the way that we were because of decisions we’d made in our pasts?
Was I even fair to judge him for something he’d done long ago, if that thing had made him the kind of man I’d fallen for today?
Nothing was ever that simple…
All the same, I couldn’t just walk away and pretend that nothing ever existed between us. I couldn’t just erase that.
But I couldn’t just ignore this, either.
He turned and looked up at me.
The hope in his eyes was so intense, it tore right through me.
My heart thundered in my chest with love for this man.
And in the same breath, I felt like I’d been struck by lightning, my head splitting in pain.
Everything began to blur before me.
The fear on his face was the last thing I saw before everything went black.