I want to kiss you, he thought. Right now.
Helania blinked. And then laughed out loud. “I’m sorry, can you try that again?”
“Naked when you called. Ran to get dressed. Back by the bed, tripped on a pillow. Stubbed toe, sprained ankle. Man-card revoked. Tragedy ensues.”
As she laughed again, he decided he was going to take classes in stand-up. Just so that he could hear that sound.
“So you were naked?” she said.
“Yeah.” Okay, now he was doing the blush thing. “I didn’t want to disrespect you.”
“We weren’t FaceTiming. I couldn’t see anything.”
“But I knew I had no clothes on.”
He meant to keep the tone light and funny. But something in his voice changed, and she picked up on it instantly—because that lovely little smile drifted away from her expression.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she said roughly.
“Walk down this alley, you mean?” He tried to bring the mood back around. “I think you’re better suited to the job than I am—”
“No.” She motioned between them. “This.”
Instantly, Boone got serious. “So you feel it, too.”
Her eyes went to the open end of the alley, where the traffic was stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper. There must have been a basketball game that had just gotten out, he thought. Or a concert. A show.
Maybe this had been a mistake to drag her into the human world.
“I don’t want to misrepresent myself.” She shook her head. “Isobel would do something like this. Not me—”
“You’re the one I want to share a meal with. Not anyone else.”
“I just don’t want you to have high expectations. A lot of the time—even before I lost Isobel—I didn’t feel right with other people. It’s like a gear that can’t quite engage. It’s always been that way and I don’t want you to think it’s you. I’m a little off—”
Boone reached out and took her hand. The instant the contact was made, Helania fell silent.
“I’m not expecting anything more than dinner,” he said. “On my honor.”
There was a pause. Then that smile came back even wider, and what do you know—it brought a friend. A dimple popped up, sweet as could be, on one of her cheeks.
Crocking his elbow, he grinned. “May I have your arm?”
Ducking her head, she put her hand through the space he made for her, and then they were walking down the alley together once again.
“You tripped on a pillow?” she murmured.
“At least it was after I’d gotten dressed or God only knows what else I could have hurt on that bedside table.”
Her laugh made him feel taller and stronger, even as his physical dimensions did not change.
And what do you know, Helania was still smiling as they got out onto Main Street proper and entered the Remington’s famous courtyard. Courtesy of the hotel’s two wings, there was a vast open mall created by the embrace of its stone extensions, the main entrance a majestic anchor with its hanging flags and Art Deco details. Illuminated by old-fashioned gas lanterns and marked by rows of trees wound with thousands upon thousands of Christmas lights, it was a fairy tale in the heart of downtown’s steel-and-asphalt anonymity.
“This is so beautiful,” she said as she looked around.
“Yes,” he murmured as he focused on her face. “You are.”
She was so taken by the spectacle that it appeared she didn’t hear him. Probably just as well. Right under his surface was an intensity that he didn’t want to reveal to her. Yet.
“It’s magical.” She reached out a hand and stopped just short of touching one of the lit-up branches. “Something out of a book.”
“The hotel’s famous for this courtyard.”
“I’ve only seen pictures of it before.” She paused and then turned in a slow circle. “The glow reminds me of sunlight back before my transition.”
She was right, he thought as he followed her lead and glanced around. All the little bulbs threw off a mellow, banked illumination similar to a summer sunset’s.
“Did you sneak out of your parents’ house to look at the sun, too?” he asked.
“Isobel told me I had to do it.” Helania smiled. “She said I absolutely had to see the sun before my change. As the older of the pair of us, she’d been through the change already. She showed me where to go through the basement of our family’s house, how to follow the crawl space and get out through an old storm door.”
“I always thought that humans smoking cigarettes behind their parents’ backs was like us with sneaking out to see the sun.”
“Exactly.” Helania shook her head. “I didn’t stay long. It was July when I did it and . . . yes, that’s what the color of this light reminds me of. It was right at sunset when I went out. My parents were making First Meal, and Isobel distracted them in the kitchen. I’ll never forget the feel of the warmth on my face.”
Boone thought back to when he and his cousins would duck out and watch the sun set and rise. They had done it so many times. Right up until their transitions. After that, everything had been different. No more sun.
“Isobel was so proud of me. She hugged me and told me I had to do it again and again. But that was her. I never went out another time.”
“You miss her.”
“Every night.” Helania glanced at him. “You must feel the same way about your father.”
Boone shrugged. “I have certainly noticed his absence, that’s for sure.”
They started walking again, heading for the formal entrance with its bank of glass doors and silver and brass flourishes. Hanging above it all, there was the American flag as well as the ones for the State of New York, the United Kingdom, and Spain.
“Welcome to the Remington,” a uniformed doorman said with a brief bow.
“Thank you,” Boone answered as the human gave the revolving door a shove and Helania went through first.
Inside, the cavernous lobby was all black marble, gold and silver carpeting, and burnished metal fixtures. Seating areas clustered around the bases of broad square columns were like presents under human Christmas trees, and discreetly dressed staff whispered by as they attended to the hotel’s guests.
“Oh . . . wow.” Helania slowed again, her eyes lighting up. “It’s a palace.”
“This way.” As he took her hand, he felt the network of scars and wished he could have helped her bury her dead. “Remi’s is down here.”
Over in the far corner, there was a theater-worthy heavy velvet curtain with gold tassels, and as he drew her behind it, the first strains of jazz could be heard faintly. The staircase that was revealed was cramped, the marble steps worn in places where a century’s worth of feet had trod. On the glossy black walls, hundreds of framed, vintage photographs of flappers and dandies from the twenties and thirties were hung so closely together, they formed a mosaic of black and white tiles.
Down at the bottom, the mellow music was louder, and at the maître d’ stand, Boone slipped the gentleman a hundred-dollar bill and was rewarded with one of the best tables in the house, right in front of the small stage. He sat with his back to the trio who were playing so Helania could have the better view.
As she stared up in wonder at the piano player, the clarinetist, the guy on the bass, he felt something warm bloom in the center of his chest.
There was nowhere else on the planet he wanted to be. And the happiness he felt, the sense of connection and communion, was a shock that illuminated how lonely he had been.
For such a very long time.
* * *
Helania felt like she was under a heat lamp. And not in a bad way.
As she took off her parka and sat across from Boone, the sensual music wrapped them in an embrace, bringing them closer together than they actually were. The dim lighting and thoughtful staff offered little to no interruption, and even the small table, as well as the chairs that were tilted in, seemed to encourage the intimacy.
Before she knew it, plates of cheese with fruit appeared, and then heartier fare, a stew with meat and vegetables, which quite possibly could have been the best thing she’d ever eaten. Or maybe the company was the spice that turned a humble dish into a gourmet masterpiece: In spite of the fact that she often felt tongue-tied with other people, that was not the case with Boone. There seemed to be an endless array of topics for discussion, everything from favorite books and music, to current affairs, to happy childhood memories, shared along with the common bread basket.
It was all quite remarkable. And then even the dishes of dessert had been cleared, and they were still talking.
Running her fingertips over the belly of her wineglass, she stared into the chardonnay she’d been nursing . . . and wondered how the night was going to end.
“What are you thinking about?” Boone murmured.
Shaking her head, she was curious if he’d guessed that she’d been with a male before—and whether or not that was going to be a problem. He was obviously from the aristocracy, and there were a lot of rules for them. Well, there were rules for civilians, too. But Isobel had urged her to break out of her shell and get herself a male, and so she had done that about a decade ago. The relationship had lasted about a year and then fizzled, a social experiment that had failed in the lab.
“Talk to me,” he murmured. “Whatever it is, just talk to me.”
It was a shock to realize she actually wanted to tell him everything. But she couldn’t exactly find the right words.
Deliberately, she pictured Isobel’s face, and took a deep breath.
“I was born hearing-impaired.” She touched one of her ears. “I wasn’t completely deaf, but I couldn’t hear much more than low sounds. Speech was difficult for me, and that was why communicating with other people was so hard. I learned sign language back in the sixties, and I’m still very good at reading lips, but you know . . . things were different back then. Physical problems in young were not as well accepted. So it was hard for me. Hard for my whole family.”