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“I just have to grab some fresh clothes,” she says, still smiling. “Do you mind?”

I shake my head. I can only stare at her.

Somehow, my reaction is insufficient. She hesitates. Frowns as she looks at me. And then, finally, moves toward me.

I feel my lungs malfunction.

“Hey,” she says.

But all I can think about is what I have to say to her and how she might react. There’s a small, desperate hope in my heart that’s still trying to be optimistic about the outcome.

Maybe she’ll understand.

“Aaron?” She steps closer, closing the gap between us. “You said you wanted to talk to me, right?”

“Yes,” I say, whispering the word. “Yes.” I feel dazed.

“Can it wait?” she says. “Just long enough for me to change?”

I don’t know what comes over me.

Desperation. Desire. Fear.

Love.

It hits me with a painful force, the reminder. Of just how much I love her. God, I love all of her. Her impossibilities, her exasperations. I love how gentle she is with me when we’re alone. How soft and kind she can be in our quiet moments. How she never hesitates to defend me.

I love her.

And she’s standing in front of me now, a question in her eyes, and I can’t think of anything but how much I want her in my life, forever.

Still, I say nothing. I do nothing.

And she won’t walk away.

I realize, with a start, that she’s still waiting for an answer.

“Yes, of course,” I say quickly. “Of course it can wait.”

But she’s trying to read my face. “What’s wrong?” she says.

I shake my head as I take her hand. Gently, so gently. She steps closer, and my hands close lightly over her bare shoulders. It’s a small, simple movement, but I feel it when her emotions change. She trembles suddenly as I touch her, my hands traveling down her arms, and her reaction trips my senses. It kills me, every time, it leaves me breathless every time she reacts to me, to my touch. To know that she feels something for me. That she wants me.

Maybe she’ll understand, I think. We’ve been through so much together. We’ve overcome so much. Maybe this, too, will be surmountable.

Maybe she’ll understand.

“Aaron?”

Blood rushes through my veins, hot and fast. Her skin is soft and smells of lavender and I pull back, just an inch. Just to look at her. I graze her bottom lip with my thumb before my hand slips behind her neck.

“Hi,” I say.

And she meets me here, in this moment, in an instant.

She kisses me without restraint, without hesitation, and wraps her arms around my neck and I’m overwhelmed, lost in a rush of emotion—

And the towel falls off her body.

Onto to the floor.

I step back, surprised, taking in the sight of her. My heart is pounding furiously in my chest. I can hardly remember what I was trying to do.

Then she steps forward, stands on tiptoe and reels me in, all warmth and heat and sweetness and I pull her against me, drugged by the feel of her, lost in the smooth expanse of her bare skin. I’m still fully clothed. She’s naked in my arms. And somehow that difference between us only makes this moment more surreal. She’s pushing me back gently, even as she continues to kiss me, even as she searches my body through this fabric and I fall backward onto the bed, gasping.

She climbs on top of me.

And I think I’ve lost my goddamned mind.

JULIETTE

This, I think, is the way to die.

I could drown in this moment and I’d never regret it. I could catch fire from this kiss and happily turn to ash. I could live here, die here, right here, against his hips, his lips. In the emotion in his eyes as he sinks into me, his heartbeats indistinguishable from mine.

This. Forever. This.

He kisses me again, his occasional gasps for air hot against my skin, and I taste him, his mouth, his neck, the hard line of his jaw and he fights back a groan, pulls away, pain and pleasure twining together as he moves deeper, harder, his muscles taught, his body rock solid against mine. He has one hand around the back of my neck, the other around the back of my thigh and he wraps us together, impossibly closer, overwhelming me with an extraordinary pleasure that feels like nothing I’ve ever known. It’s nameless. Unknowable, impossible to plan for. It’s different every time.

And there’s something wild and beautiful in him today, something I can’t explain in the way he touches me—the way his fingers linger along my shoulder blades, down the curve of my back—like I might evaporate at any moment, like this might be the first and last time we’ll ever touch.

I close my eyes.

Let go.

The lines of our bodies have merged. It’s wave after wave of ice and heat, melting and catching fire and it’s his mouth on my skin, his strong arms wrapping me up in love and warmth. I’m suspended in midair, underwater, in outer space, all at the same time and clocks are frozen, inhibitions are out the window and I’ve never felt so safe, so loved or so protected than I have here, in the private fusion of our bodies.

I lose track of time.

I lose track of my mind.

I only know I want this to last forever.

He’s saying something to me, running his hands down my body, and his words are soft and desperate, silky against my ear, but I can hardly hear him over the sound of my own heart beating against my chest. But I see it, when the muscles in his arms strain against his skin, as he fights to stay here, with me—

He gasps, out loud, squeezing his eyes shut as he reaches out, grabs a fistful of the bedsheets and I turn my face into his chest, trail my nose up the line of his neck and breathe him in and I’m pressed against him, every inch of my skin hot and raw with want and need and

“I love you,” I whisper

even as I feel my mind detach from my body

even as stars explode behind my eyes and heat floods my veins and I’m overcome, I’m stunned and overcome every time, every time

It’s a torrent of feeling, a simultaneous, ephemeral taste of death and bliss and my eyes close, white-hot heat flashes behind my eyelids and I have to fight the need to call out his name even as I feel us shatter together, destroyed and restored all at once and he gasps

He says, “Juliette—”

I love the sight of his naked body.

Especially in these quiet, vulnerable moments. These brackets of time stapled between dreams and reality are my favorite. There’s a sweetness in this hesitant consciousness—a careful, gentle return of form to function. I’ve found I love these minutes most for the delicate way in which they unfold. It’s tender.

Slow motion.

Time tying its shoes.

And Warner is so still, so soft. So unguarded. His face is smooth, his brow unfurrowed, his lips wondering whether to part. And the first seconds after he opens his eyes are the sweetest. Some days I’m lucky enough to look up before he does. Today I watch him stir. I watch him blink open his eyes and orient himself. But then, in the time it takes him to find me—the way his face lights up when he sees me staring—that part makes something inside of me sing. I know everything, everything that ever matters, just by the way he looks at me in that moment.

And today, something is different.

Today, when he opens his eyes he looks suddenly disoriented. He blinks and looks around, sitting up too fast like he might want to run and doesn’t remember how. Today, something is wrong.

And when I climb into his lap he stills.

And when I take his chin in my hands he turns away.

When I kiss him, softly, he closes his eyes and something inside him thaws, something unclenches in his bones, and when he opens his eyes again he looks terrified and I feel suddenly sick to my stomach.

Something is terribly, terribly wrong.

“What is it?” I say, my words scarcely making a sound. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

He shakes his head.

“Is it me?” My heart is pounding. “Did I do something?”

His eyes go wide. “No, no, Juliette—you’re perfect. You’re—God, you’re perfect,” he says. He grips the back of his head, looks at the ceiling.

“Then why won’t you look at me?”

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