I’d been wrong.
I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I couldn’t stand up anymore. I tried. I locked my knees and clenched my teeth and sucked in deep breaths, in and out, in and out, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Dizziness washed over me. My breath came in panicked gasps, refusing my efforts to breathe evenly and regularly. My stomach twisted and rose up into my throat, hot and knotted into a rock-hard lump. I’d been as strong as I could be, for as long as I could. Now I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I couldn’t hold back.
My knees gave out, and I collapsed to the floor on my hands and knees, choking on my sobs. They were quiet at first, little squeaking rasps in my throat, but then my voice caught, a sob lodged in my throat, and I couldn’t breathe. My arms trembled, unable to support me any longer. I felt carpet against my forehead, chest burning, lungs aching with my inability to breathe. I fell once more, this time to my side, and I curled up. Something broke inside me then, and the silent heaving shattered, and a sob became a wail. I covered my face with my hands, tucked my forehead against my knees, heels to my buttocks, and wept.
Moments turned to minutes, and I couldn’t quiet myself, and didn’t try.
I felt the ground topple and tumble beneath me, felt hands beneath my neck and hip, rolling and lifting, and then I was airborne, and the familiar scent of Roth filled my nostrils, the achingly sweet sensation of his chest at my cheek, and we were on the bed and he had me cradled in his arms, clutched close.
“Kyrie…Kyrie….” His voice was a raspy, grating murmur, thick with emotion and pitched low, barely audible. “I’m here, love. I’m here.”
I twisted against his chest, looked up at him. His eyes were wet. Roth. My Valentine, the powerful, indomitable Valentine Roth…was crying. For me? For himself? For us? He didn’t wipe the tears away as they trickled down his cheeks. One tear…two. Three. Four. Unchecked. His eyes were red, unblinking, staring out over my head. His chest rose and fell as if he was fighting a battle he knew he couldn’t win.
I touched my palm to his cheek. “Valentine?”
“I fucked it all up. I gave in. I tried to fight it. I knew it was you. I knew what the drug was doing to me was wrong, but I couldn’t fight it. And I knew you’d do anything for me. Anything. And you did. You—you took everything I could do to you. I hurt you. I—violated you. Us. I did that to us.”
“It wasn’t you, Valentine—”
“I couldn’t stop.”
I sat up straighter, stared into his eyes. Looked deep into myself. “Valentine, listen. Please listen. What happened on the boat? Nothing happened that we haven’t done before, right? Did I ask you to stop?”
“No, not after—”
“Exactly. It wasn’t entirely you, and I get that. But I love you. I love you so much. I don’t hate you. I don’t feel violated by you.”
“I know.” He had to pause to breathe, to swallow, to blink. “And I love you. But…what happens now? With us?”
He was supposed to tell me that. “I don’t know.”
“I feel like…like something is broken between us.”
“No.” My voice was so small, I wasn’t sure Roth heard me. I said it louder. “No, Roth. You can’t think that way. You can’t let her win. You love me. I love you. That’s all that matters.”
“Is love enough?”
“It has to be,” I said. “It has to be. She can’t win, Roth. She can’t. We can’t let her.” I sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly. “I didn’t risk death and see men killed and cross the world to find you, only to lose you like this. Only to lose us to her fucked-up games.”
“Every time I close my eyes, I’m there in that room. I haven’t really slept since then. Not really. Every time I do, I dream of her. Of being water-boarded. Of being raped. Of feeling her on me, feeling her skin. I see her hair, and her fake breasts. I feel her fingernails on my skin. I probably have scars from her nails digging into my chest. I feel it all over again, all of it. I can’t sleep. I can’t even try.”
“God, Valentine. How could she? Why?” I let the tears slide freely down my cheeks.
He shrugged, faking an insouciance I in no way believed. “Because she could. She wanted me. She felt she owned me.” He rubbed at his chest. “She’s a fucking animal.”
I couldn’t help it. I touched my lips to his chest. Tenderly, with butterfly gentility, I kissed his skin, the scars where her fingers had left marks on him. I leaned over him, not straddling him, just lying beside him and kissing his chest. All over, inch by inch. I smoothed my palms over his skin, tracing the ridges of his ribs, the furrows of his muscular abdomen, kissed his neck. He was tensed all over, unmoving, not breathing.
“Yes, Valentine. It’s me. It’s me. Look at me. Feel me. It’s me.” I kissed his cheek. The corner of his mouth. His forehead. Beside his nose. His eye, so gently, feeling the lid flutter beneath my lips. Then the other corner of his mouth. “Did she do this, baby? Did she kiss you this way?”
He shook his head. “No,” he whispered, barely audible.
I kissed him, feeling the chapped surface of his mouth against mine. “These are my lips against yours. Do you feel me? Do you know me?” I pulled back, and his eyes were closed, expression taut and pained. “Open your eyes, Valentine Roth, and look at me. See me. Me.”
His eyes flicked open, haunted cerulean the same shade as the Mediterranean fixing on mine. “Kyrie. I see you, darling. I see you. But….”
“What? But what?”
“When you kiss me, when you touch me, it hurts. I feel her. I focus on you, but all I feel is her.” He shot up off the bed, strode shirtless across the room, and touched the panel beside the door to the balcony.
The entire wall of glass slid soundlessly aside into a pocket, letting in the blare and honk and shout and laugh and clamor of Manhattan dozens of stories below. The sun was setting, framed between the endless towers of glass and mirrored steel. Roth stood gripping the railing of the balcony in both hands, a familiar posture. His shoulders slumped, his head hanging.
I stifled a heart-wrenching, gut-wracking sob as the man I loved walked away from me, every line of his body hard and conflicted and taut. I stared at him, watched him, and refused to look away until exhaustion took its toll, pulling me under like a riptide.