Alexis pulled her sweater up over her head and shook the hair from her face.
She turned the cashmere right side out and carefully laid it down on the bed, smoothing out the creases with her palm before unzipping her jeans and allowing them to fall from her hips into a denim puddle on the floor. The sound of splashing water drifted in from the bathroom, carrying with it the intoxicating floral scent that she loved. She smiled and turned toward the door, the quick movement awakening her newly bare skin to the cool air within the room. It sent a path of goose-bumps along her arms, and the tingling feel of it drew her eyes down to the trail of healing scratches and puncture marks. The sudden sight of her marred skin made her chest tighten. She’d managed to forget them for the brief time that they lay hidden beneath her sleeve, and Alexis wondered if she would ever be able to look at her arms again without seeing those marks - even after they had physically disappeared.
Alexis smiled as she bit down on her lip. Sonny’s un-gilded words had made her feel brave and strong, as he said he knew her to be. It was easy to believe him when he looked at her the way that he did, as if he would stake his life on it…on her. He made her believe that she would survive was done to her - that she could survive anything. She didn’t quite know why, but his unwavering faith in her was bracing and she’d needed it like she needed air. She needed to have her fears both validated and vanquished, her limitations both accepted and challenged, her sense of self simply nourished. Somehow, Sonny seemed to know. He knew HER. And in spite of the dangerous life that he led, the man himself made her feel safe.
She lightly scratched at her arms as she followed the call of the coursing, fragrant water. She closed the bathroom door behind her and turned toward the sink with eyes lowered. For now, she didn’t want to have to think about being strong. Her hand reached for the medicine cabinet and pried the door open, pushing it back until the mirror reflected nothing but the wall. She could hear the distant sound of Stefan’s scolding voice in her head, but she just wanted to forget. To see bruises on her body made her feel like a child again - helpless and small. That was the last way she wanted to feel. She struck a match and lit the white pillar candle holding court in the corner of the tub, then turned off the overhead light. Right then and there, all she wanted was the refuge offered by that small body of water, the warm glow of a candle, and the smell of gardenias in the air.
She ran her fingers along the thin straps of her camisole and slipped them from her shoulders, allowing the thin piece of silk to slide down her body to the fluffy rug beneath her feet. The matching panties quickly followed in the camisole’s path and she turned to reach for the chrome handles, ending the water’s noisy splashing against itself. In the sudden stillness of the room, Alexis listened to the shallow sound of her own breathing as she stood, naked and alone in the flickering light. She felt truly at peace – in complete control of her mind, body and surroundings. Her world felt normal once again.
She smiled as she carefully stepped into the expanse of sparkling bubbles. The water that lay beneath was just a bit too hot, but she didn’t care. She slowly eased herself down and welcomed the clean, wet heat that enveloped her. And as Alexis closed her eyes and sank down into the bliss, an unexpected stream of tears began to fall from her eyes. To her weak and aching body the water felt like a loving embrace, and she was overwhelmed. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized how much she missed the feel of someone’s arms wrapped tightly around her. Alexis had missed being hugged. But she knew her back was too sore for anyone’s arms to be welcomed just yet. Until her bruises healed, the gentle arms of the water would do just fine. She turned her head and gazed into the steady, hypnotic flame of the candle as her tears continued to fall down her smiling face.
She was alive, she was safe, and she was home…and Alexis was truly grateful.
The steel blade froze halfway through the flesh of the fruit that Sonny held in his hand.
He suddenly wondered what Alexis was thinking and feeling in the privacy of her bath. She hadn’t even been in there an hour, but it was still the longest she’d been left alone since he’d carried her from Sorel’s lair. Sonny couldn’t quell his anxious mind and within half an hour had snuck back upstairs to check for any signs of distress behind the closed bathroom door. He’d taken with him the bottle of Vitamin E. His planned excuse, should she catch him in hovering mode, was that of reminding her to use it after her bath. She didn’t catch him – and of course, Alexis was just fine on her own.
But staring at that door sent him back to the night before, when he’d returned to her hospital room with his eyes still red from the release of emotions that drove him to turn Sorel’s face bloody, and left him drowning in the feelings for her that scared him to death. But in the quiet solitude of his shower, cloaked in the veil of steam and answering to no one but himself, Sonny felt safe to acknowledge, to feel…even to cry. There was something about the water - being naked and awash in a cleansing flood of purity - it touched the deepest place in his soul. He would have to be more mindful of the water. It could prove to be a dangerously innocent thing.
The sweet smell of ripe peach was suddenly joined by something new. As he took a deep, hungry breath, Sonny smiled at the dizzying spin the familiar fragrance sent through his head.
“How was your bath?” He kept his his back to the door.
Alexis cocked her head and rested her hand against the edge of the counter behind him. “How did you know I was here?”
“I just did.” Sonny looked up from his work and slowly turned to give her a sly glance over his shoulder. She hadn’t made a sound, but Alexis crept up on his senses in a light, heavenly cloud that commanded his full and immediate attention.
“Have eyes in the back of your head, do you?”
“Something like that.” His gaze drifted over her form. Alexis seemed so tiny standing beside him, barefoot and wrapped in a too-big terry robe the color of midnight. Her damp hair was tousled around her face, which still bore the light flush of the water’s heat. She looked somewhat sleepy and very content…and absolutely adorable.
“You look relaxed. Do you feel better?”
Alexis pushed the hair back from her face and nodded as she tugged at the collar of her robe. “And I DO feel relaxed - to the point of lethargy. I’ll have to remember this the next time I have a nasty bout of insomnia, because I think I could probably fall asleep standing up right now.”
“So go lie down and sleep.”
“No, I don’t want to.” She widened her eyes and blinked hard, trying to stave off the lingering drowsy effect of her hot bath.
“Lunch will keep – we’ll just eat it a few hours later and call it dinner instead.”
“But I’m kind of hungry now, so I think I should strike while the proverbial iron is hot.”
“You’re a wise woman.”
She grinned. “I know. What are you doing?”
Alexis rose up on her tiptoes and laid her hand down on Sonny’s shoulder, then rested her chin upon her hand. Her face was so close - he could feel her soft, warm breath floating against his neck. She peered down over his shoulder, then shifted her eyes to his.
“How did you find fresh peaches this time of year?”
As the light resonance of her voice drifted into his ear, Sonny felt the firmly held peach begin to weep its sticky tears between his fingers. He ran his tongue across his lips and turned away from her questioning face to gaze down at the delicate fruit in his hand. Sonny cleared his throat and smiled as he whispered.
“I’ll never tell.” He loosened his grip and rubbed at his forehead with the back of his hand before returning to the business of cutting.
Alexis moved to his other side and leaned on the counter. “Can I do anything to help? I freely admit to being the anti-Martha Stewart, but there must be something I can do.”
Sonny dropped the slices of peach into a bowl atop a colorful jumble of green and red grapes, orange sections, strawberry halves and chunks of bright yellow pineapple. His eyes found her eager face and he gave a quick nod of his head.
“Sure, you can help.” He hesitated, and her expression grew expectant. “You could hand me that can of beets right there.”
He pointed and she automatically turned to see nothing. Alexis could almost hear the evil grin spreading across Sonny’s face as she slowly turned back to him.
“Made ya look!” He playfully touched the tip of her nose with his finger.
Alexis rolled her eyes and leaned her elbows onto the counter, shaking her head as her chin came to rest within her cupped palms. She looked like a petulant child. “And once again, Alexis amuses Sonny. Am I even close to reaching my amusement quota for today?”
“Your amusement quota is infinite.”
“Lucky me. If this law career thing ever tanks, I guess I’ll always have the comedy club circuit to fall back on. And before you say anything, I’m fully aware of the fact that I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I did it on purpose - so there!”
Sonny laughed as he rinsed the peach juice from his hands, moving them under the light stream of cool water that flowed from the chrome faucet. Alexis sighed and his eyes roamed down to her face, watching her sleepy eyelids reluctantly close. The light scent of fruit still hung in the air, and as Alexis took a deep breath the corners of her mouth turned up in a languid smile.
“That smells amazing.” She murmured.
Sonny nodded in agreement as he lifted the dirty paring knife from the counter…but his hand held it back from the water. He stared at the steel as it glinted under the lights, then gingerly ran his thumb along the flat side of the sticky blade. As he listened to the sound of the pure, cleansing stream, Sonny’s eyes lowered to Alexis’ face and he softly whispered her name. With her chin still cupped in her palms, she opened her eyes and tilted her head up to meet his gaze. He stared down at her for a long moment, and Alexis stared back.
Without a word, he reached down and gently grazed his thumb back and forth across her bottom lip, drawing a wet trail of sweetness there. Alexis kept her eyes on his as Sonny finally pulled his finger away from her mouth and lightly brushed the back of his hand down the side of her face. She closed her eyes with a sigh, then raised her head up from her hand as she opened her eyes again. Her palm lowered to rest upon the counter, and Sonny watched her pull her lip between her teeth, as he knew that she would do. It shattered the last of his defenses.
“God help me…”
He dropped the knife into the sink and took her face in both eager hands, lifting it up as he leaned down to meet her. She was pliable in his hold, allowing him to lead the way and never taking her dark, inviting eyes from his. Sonny could see that she knew what would happen between them and she made no move or sound to stop it. He lowered his eyes to that beautiful, shiny mouth as his lips touched down upon it, whispering his own softness against hers. He pulled back for a brief moment, looking into her eyes before brushing his mouth against hers once more. The tip of his tongue darted out to part her lips and claim a small bit of sweetness that lay there – to taste her, feel her, tease her. She moved up to meet him, her tongue seeking the same tentative dance.
And then, with hungry impatience, their mouths took full possession of each other as they melded in search of the sweet, soft warmth they both gave and demanded all at once. She pushed herself into him, her one hand grasping the edge of the counter while the other slid up to curve around the smooth muscles of his arm. Sonny moved his own hands back, away from her face and into her wet tangle of hair. He opened his eyes to drink in her face as his lips caressed hers, over and over, kissing her endlessly. His mind was a whirlwind of sensory overload as he disappeared into the intoxicating smell and taste and feel of Alexis…God help him.
A cold shiver suddenly shot through him and he felt his body jolt.
Sonny blinked rapidly and swallowed against his dry mouth. The sound of the faucet grew more distinct as his bleary eyes re-focused on the knife still held aloft in his hands under the cold flow of water. He heard a small rustle beside him and turned his head to see Alexis stretching over the counter, her brow furrowed and her chin resting in the palm of her left hand. His eyes shifted toward the feel of something on his arm - her right hand lay settled there. A small giggle began to form in the back of her throat as she tilted her head toward the faucet.
“Sonny, I know how fastidious you can be, but I really think that knife is about as clean as it’s ever going to get.”
“Well…” He ran his tongue across his lips and swallowed again before laughing lightly to himself…at himself. His heart was racing and a dull tension lingered elsewhere, moving him to shift his weight. “You really can’t be too careful in the kitchen. There are all kinds of dangerous things that you can’t see with the naked eye.”
“Thank you for sharing.”
Sonny smiled and ran his wet hand over the top of her damp head. He was still a bit disoriented and needed to ground himself.
“Why don’t you go dry your hair while I finish up?”
She sighed and scrunched her shoulders as she shook her head. “No, that’s okay. It’ll dry on its own.”
“I don’t want you catching cold from sitting around with a wet head.”
She felt Sonny’s fingers gently untangling the tresses that lay across her shoulders. She didn’t want to tell him that attempting to run a wide-tooth comb through her hair proved to be a bit more of an effort than she could manage just yet. And the blow drier suddenly felt like a twenty-pound weight in her hands. A quick towel-dry was the best her hair would get. She cleared her throat and blinked her eyes back open. As Alexis began to stand back up straight, Sonny pulled his hand from her hair.
“I do believe that’s just an old wives’ tale, Sonny. Having wet hair won’t make me catch a cold.” She arched her back and stretched – the movement was accompanied by a small groan and grimace.
Sonny’s gaze ventured toward the small collection of bottles in the corner of the counter. He suddenly turned and moved to the refrigerator. As he opened it, Alexis leaned forward to peek inside.
“Good heavens! Are we having a party?”
“I’ve got a news flash for you, councellor – this is how most peoples’ refrigerators look on a regular basis.” He pulled out two bottles of water and handed one to Alexis. “You should see the cupboards. It’s anarchy.”
“How did you know I was thirsty?” She was also a little warm, and the cold water felt good as it traveled down her throat. Her body had absorbed too much heat from the bath water and she knew that probably wasn’t a very good thing, considering. A light film of condensation began to form on the bottle, and Alexis held it up against her face. The feel send a wonderful shiver down her spine and she smiled as her lids closed once again.
Sonny nodded toward the corner and Alexis opened her eyes to follow his. “I don’t mean to bug you, but since you’ve already got the water in your hands and you’re just about to eat something, it might be a good time for you to start on some of those.”
She studied the assortment of bottles that Tony had sent home with her, then turned back to Sonny with a bit of rebellion in her face. “What did you make for lunch?”
Sonny let her be. “I’m keeping it light, since it’s getting a little late. I’ve got a baby spinach salad with the traditional hard-boiled egg and bacon, and I added my own touches of shredded carrots and diced tomatoes. I also have French bread and, as you can see, lots of fruit. Sound good?”
Sonny grinned. “Good. Tonight, we’ll do protein – maybe grilled chicken, some steamed rice…”
“Sonny, you don’t have to cook every meal for me. I have a ton of take-out menus in that drawer right there and…” The stricken look on his face stopped her cold. “What?”
Sonny’s head snapped from side to side. “Uh-uh! I don’t think so! And don’t let me hear the words ‘take out’ from you unless you’re talking about something you want me to do to the trash. I WANT to cook – I LIKE to cook, and you know that I do. Would you begrudge me the opportunity to do something that I like to do…for you?”
Alexis shifted her weight to one leg and leaned an elbow back on the counter, propping her head up as she regarded him thoughtfully. “On second thought, you WOULD make a good house boy.”
Sonny chuckled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Just don’t ever tell me I’d make a good Helena.”
She grinned up at him and he noticed that the top layers of her hair had almost dried, and the wavy strands were gently framing her face. Her pink flush was gone and her skin now looked pale, as it did when they’d fist arrived back home. But the small prints on her throat and the marbled colors across her cheekbone looked like they’d be around a little while longer. And that scrape above her eyebrow drew his focus once again.
Alexis sighed. “You’re staring at my war wounds again. I wish you wouldn't.”
“Sorry. I was just wondering if you saw the Vitamin E that I left on your bed.”
“It was kind of hard to miss – as was your accompanying letter of instruction. And yes, I put it on. See?” She pushed up the thick, rolled cuffs of her robe to show him the light sheen of the oil along her forearms.
“But you forgot this.” Sonny pushed her bangs aside, suspecting that Alexis was still hesitant to look in the mirror.
“Oh - yeah, I did.”
“Do you want me to do it for you?” Her eyes darted away from his and Sonny knew he was right. “It’ll just take a minute.”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll do it myself, after lunch.”
Alexis sighed and rubbed at her shoulder as she turned to finally face the group of bottles on the counter. “So, what all is it that Tony wants me to take anyway?”
“Just supplements, like he said. Nothing you can’t get from a healthy diet. Your body’s been deprived of a lot of things that it needs, but after a few days of my culinary efforts I guarantee you’ll be feeling much stronger. But Tony wants you to take the supplements for at least a couple for weeks. Well, you already know that.”
“Yeah, I know.” Alexis picked up a bottle and examined it.
“That’s iron, which is also in the spinach.” She put it back down and Sonny pointed to a taller bottle. “That’s Vitamin C, which is in the oranges and pineapple, and you’ve also got B Complex, which is in everything, I think.” He picked up the last bottle. “And last but not least, we have Potassium.” He smiled and picked up the last piece of fruit that lay on the counter, waiting to be sliced and added to the bowl. “Guess what’s in this?”
Alexis gave him an innocent face. “Banana?”
Sonny stared at her blankly. “Harvard – GREAT school!”
She smacked him playfully on the shoulder and Sonny made a great show of trying to dodge her. “Hey! Those tacky aprons say “Kiss the cook”, not “HIT the cook.”
She tilted her head at him and grinned as she wrapped her arms around herself, looking once more like she wanted to be held…or curling up to fall sleep.
“Why don’t you go sit down and I’ll bring this out in a minute.”
“I don’t want to sit down.”
Sonny shook his head as he peeled the banana. “Stubborn…”
“Talk about your news flash.” Alexis deadpanned.
She casually reached for two of the vitamin bottles and began to open them. Sonny pretended not to notice as he took up his knife and began to cut the fruit, but inside he was smiling at how Alexis took control at her own speed. He was proud of her stubbornness, and celebrated her quirky need to question and debate even those things that she already knew to be true. She kept him on his toes, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Alexis finally caught him stealing a glance at her as she swallowed the second capsule. “I’ll take the other two tonight. I don’t want to take so many all at one time.”
She finished off the last of her water and watched as Sonny deftly worked the knife through the banana and up against his fingers, making precise, even slices. She cleared her throat and set the empty bottle down on the counter with a concerned frown.
“You’re going to cut yourself.”
“No I’m not.”
“But you’re supposed to put food down on the counter when you cut it.”
Sonny sighed heavily and paused to give her a look.
“Even I know you’re supposed to cut AWAY from your body, not toward it.”
“Alexis, you don’t even cook – you microwave. You told me yourself that you burn things.”
“Yes, I do. I burn things, but I don’t cut myself.”
“Neither do I.”
“You’re going to…”
Sonny raised his hand and held a small piece of the banana up close to her lips. She looked at him in silence for a long moment, then finally allowed him to push it into her mouth. He smiled.
“There. That ought to keep your mouth occupied with something besides bossing me around.”
Alexis narrowed her eyes at him as she watched him drop the last slice of banana into the bowl. She mumbled while she ate. “You said I could boss you, if it would make me feel better. It does.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. Please.”
She swatted him again and tried not to smile, but there was a decided twinkle in her eyes.
Sonny nodded toward the door. “Now go make yourself comfortable – at the table, on the couch, in bed – wherever, and I’ll serve you lunch like the good little house boy that I am.”
Alexis crossed her arms and bit her lip as she leaned back against the counter, clearly telling him she would not budge - at least, not on her own. So be it. Sonny took her by the shoulders and gently turned her around to face the doorway, then leaned his face in close beside hers.
“I said, remove yourself from my kitchen.”
The warmth of his breath against her skin and the breathy whisper in her ear sent a quick flash through her brain. Her body shuddered and her face tingled, but Sorel’s face was gone almost as quickly as it came. Sonny knew. He saw the look of mischief on her face give way to one of fear, and he felt her muscles tense under his hands. He closed his eyes and began to lighten the pressure of his palms against her shoulders.
“Alexis…” His voice was filled with apology. Alexis turned her head toward him and he opened his eyes to see her looking softly into his face. All fear had vanished and her body had once again relaxed.
“Excuse me?” Her dimples began to show themselves. “YOUR kitchen?”
Sonny sighed lightly, then gave her dimples a run for their money. “Possession IS nine tenths of the law, councellor.” He slid one hand down to the curve of her hip and gave her a slight push.
Alexis tossed her head and sauntered from the room. “Tyrant.”
He watched her disappear, then closed his eyes as he turned back to the counter. Sonny felt his heart began to pound all over again as the smell of fresh fruit opened his eyes. He reached out, his fingers lifting a small slice of peach from the top of the bowl. He couldn’t help but smile at the thoughts running through his mind as he brought it up to his mouth. Forbidden fruit.
Sonny would never be able to look at a peach in quite the same way again.