The poet dropped the note to the floor with a shaking hand. He sat for several moments, motionless as a statue. Then, with a great clenching of teeth, he stood to his feet and swept agitatedly through the house, ignoring tables and fragile items, disdaining the other inhabitants of his home.
There was only one person whom he wished to see.
He strode quickly through the city streets, almost breaking into a run on his way to the river. He stood at the end of the bridge, their bridge, his moist eyes eagerly scanning the adjacent riverbank for the barest glimpse of his beloved.
She was nowhere to be found.
She would never return.
His beloved Beatrice was gone.
“And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,
And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy.”
-Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto I.004-006.
Professor Gabriel Emerson was sitting in bed, naked, reading La Nazione, the Florentine newspaper. He’d awoken early in the Palazzo Vecchio penthouse of the Gallery Hotel Art and ordered room service, but he couldn’t resist returning to bed to watch the young woman sleep. She was on her side facing him, breathing softly, a diamond sparkling on her ear. Her cheeks were pink from the warmth of the room as their bed was bathed in sunshine from the floor-to-ceiling windows.
The bed covers were deliciously rumpled, smelling of sex and sandalwood. His blue eyes glimmered, traveling lazily over her exposed skin and long, dark hair. As he turned back to his newspaper, she shifted slightly and moaned. Concerned, he tossed the paper aside.
She brought her knees up to her chest, curling into a ball. Low murmurings came from her lips, and Gabriel leaned closer so he could decipher what she was saying. But he couldn’t.
All of a sudden, her body twisted and she let out a heart-wrenching cry. Her arms flailed as she wrestled with the sheet that shrouded her.
“Julianne?” He placed a gentle hand on her bare shoulder, but she cringed away from him.
She began muttering his name, over and over again, her tone growing progressively more panicked.
“Julia, I’m here,” he raised his voice. Just as he reached for her again, she sat bolt upright, gasping for air.
“Are you all right?” Gabriel moved closer, resisting the urge to touch her. She was breathing roughly, and under his watchful gaze, she fanned a shaking hand over her eyes.
After a long, tense minute, she looked at him, eyes wide.
He frowned. “What happened?”
She swallowed loudly. “A nightmare.”
“What was it about?”
“I was in the woods behind your parents’ house, back in Selinsgrove.”
Gabriel’s eyebrows knit together behind his dark-rimmed glasses. “Why would you dream about that?”
She inhaled, drawing the sheet over her exposed br**sts and up to her chin. The linen was full and white, swallowing her petite frame whole before billowing cloudlike over the mattress. She reminded him of an Athenian statue.
He ran his fingers gently over her skin. “Julianne, talk to me.”
She squirmed under his piercing blue eyes, but he would not let her go. “The dream began beautifully. We made love under the stars, and I fell asleep in your arms. When I woke up you were gone.”
“You dreamed I made love to you, then abandoned you?” His tone cooled to mask his discomfort.
“I woke up in the orchard without you once,” she reproached him softly.
The fire in his belly was instantly quenched. He thought back to the magical evening six years ago when they first met, when they simply talked and held each other. He’d awoken the following morning and wandered away, leaving a sleeping teenage girl all alone. Surely her anxiety was understandable if not pitiable.
He unwound her clenched fingers one by one and kissed them repentantly. “I love you, Beatrice. I’m not going to leave you. You know that, right?”
“It would hurt so much more to lose you now.”
With a frown he wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pressing her cheek to his chest. A myriad of memories crowded his mind as he thought back to what had transpired the evening before. He’d gazed on her naked form for the first time and initiated her into the intimacies of lovemaking. She’d shared her innocence with him, and he thought he’d made her happy. Certainly it had been one of the best evenings of his life. He pondered that fact for a moment.
“Do you regret last night?”
“No. I’m glad you were my first. It’s what I wanted since we met.”
He placed his hand on her cheek, tracing her skin with his thumb. “I’m honored to have been your first.” He leaned forward, his eyes unblinking. “But I want to be your last.”
She smiled and lifted her lips to meet his. Before he could embrace her, the chimes of Big Ben filled the room.
“Ignore it,” he whispered fiercely, his arm stretching across her body, pushing her to recline beneath him.
Her eyes darted over his shoulder to where his iPhone lay on the desk. “I thought she wasn’t going to call you anymore.”
“I’m not answering, so it doesn’t matter.” He kneeled between her legs and lifted the sheet from her body. “In my bed, there’s only us.”
She searched his eyes as he began to bring their naked bodies into closer contact.
Gabriel leaned forward to kiss her, but she turned her head. “I haven’t brushed my teeth.”