Stellan stood above me, his hands in his pockets, looking at me in a way that made me feel unsteady. “Kuklachka,” he said roughly.
I held out my hand. “Come here.”
He unbuttoned his tuxedo jacket and settled beside me, propping himself up on one elbow. That look was still on his face, the soft, quizzical one with a hint of apprehension behind it. He seemed to make a decision.
“I need to tell you something,” he said, lying back to stare up into the sky. Through the delicate web of metal filaments holding the pyramid up, I could pick out three bright stars.
A ball of nervous light sparked in my chest. Was this it? Was he going to tell me he was leaving—or he was staying? I thought he’d wait to see what happened tomorrow, but now I steeled myself. “What?”
I turned my head to see his throat bob with a hard swallow. “I need to tell you that I’ve been lying to you all night.”
My hand, on its way to grasp his, froze.
Stellan kept his eyes trained on the sky. “I think I didn’t know how to handle this, especially with what’s coming up. And so, I lied. I’ve lied to you over and over and over. For a long time.”
The floor hadn’t seemed cold before, but now it did, seeping through the lace of my dress. What was he saying?
Stellan propped himself on an elbow over me and I was paralyzed as he tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “I lied to you earlier when I said you looked okay,” he said. “The truth is, when I saw you coming down those stairs, I forgot how to breathe.”
That . . . was not what I’d expected. “What?” I choked.
“And it’s not just the fancy dress,” he went on. “That happens every single day.”
My head reeled, like I’d held my breath for too long.
“And I definitely lied when I said that I like you.” He looped his fingers through mine. The light in my chest trembled. “It’s just that I spent so many years persuading myself not to—persuading myself I wouldn’t be able to—feel anything real for anyone that I don’t think I quite believed it when I fell hopelessly, desperately, absurdly in love with my fake wife.”
The light exploded into a million stars.
He cupped my face in his hand. “Kuklachka. I know everything’s uncertain right now, and this is just about the worst time to be doing this. But it’s also the only time. So, I love you. I’ve been falling in love with you for a long time, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few days, but whatever it is won’t change that fact. I love you.”
My heart was thumping as violently as it had when we were being shot at. “No one’s watching in here,” I teased shakily, regretting the words before they were out of my mouth. As much as I was trying to learn, I didn’t know how to do this. I knew how to push people away. I knew how to convince myself something was less than it was. I didn’t know how to believe in it.
“I hope not,” he said. It was guarded. Answer him, I told myself, but the words weren’t working. It was like in the hallucination—all I could do was stare at him, silhouetted above me against the panorama of the night sky.
His hand fell from my face. “I’m not expecting you to feel the same way. And that’s okay. I just had to tell you, in case this is the only chance I have—”
I stopped him with a hand in the center of his chest. His heart was racing.
Footsteps thundering down stairs made me startle. “Hello!” Elodie called.
“Hi.” I had forgotten they were there.
“We’re going to eat snack bar chips,” Colette declared, gesturing across the lobby. “And drink snack bar wine.”
Stellan just waved, like it was the most normal thing in the world to be lying on the floor of the Louvre. My fingers tightened on his chest.
As soon as they disappeared around the corner, I pushed myself onto an elbow. “I—” The words still wouldn’t come, so instead, I pressed my lips to his.
Of all the times we’d kissed—the ones that were desperate and wild, and the ones that were halfhearted and artificial—I’d never felt one like this. This kiss was careful, slow—but fierce. Final. This was a kiss that left no doubt about what it meant. And when we broke apart, I saw it reflected in the softness and sparkle between us as clearly as if we were saying it out loud: I love you I love you I love you.
It felt dangerous. It felt amazing. It felt like of course the lights were out, because all the electricity in the city was in my veins.
I felt whatever was restraining us snap, and I was kissing him more deeply, my leg hooked over his, the floor hard under my shoulder. The only thing I wanted was to be as close to him as possible, saying everything I couldn’t seem to say out loud yet.
He pulled away, breathing heavily. And then he got to his feet, hauling me up with him, grabbed our candles, and headed without a word toward the sound of voices.
“What—” I said, but we rounded a corner.
There was a temporary baroque furniture exhibit off the Louvre lobby by the little cafe. Luc and Rocco were curled in an oversized gilded throne together. Elodie lounged on a rug, and Colette sat next to her, running her fingers absently over Elodie’s short, spiky hair. Jack and Nisha sat at a small table. “Want some M&M’s?” Colette held the candy out. “Or we have Snickers.”
I remembered Cannes, unbuttoning Stellan’s shirt, how he’d drawn that line I’d tried to cross. Wondering if he was drawing it again, considering the circumstances.
But he gave an exaggerated yawn. “I’m getting tired. Big day tomorrow. I think I’ll be going to bed.”
“Me too,” I said quickly. “Tired.” Stellan ran his thumb across the inside of my wrist, and I felt goose bumps rise on my arms. “Good night. Thank you, guys. For everything.”