Chapter 13: Strangers in the Dark

The delicate sensibilities of women are best left behind closed doors where they don’t distract working men from their duties. — Windorlis de Gabkin

Lily rolled over to her side with a groan and jammed the pillow underneath her head. Her nightgown tugged at her hip, the bunched fabric drew a tight line against her sweat-slick skin. She made a token effort to pull it down, but couldn’t do it without lifting her body off the moist sheets. She was too tired to move any further. After a second attempt, she gave up. Pulling her upper knee up to relieve the pressure, she closed her aching eyes and prayed that sleep would finally come.

As soon as she relaxed her body, a maelstrom of emotions rose up: guilt from cheating on Mindil, her desire for Hasan, and even curiosity about Kendrick and Relik’s deal. Blended with the emotions was the half-formed plans of how she was going to finish Nirih’s and the other dresses before the looming deadlines ruined her business. There were too many things going on in her life and, for the second time that night, she wished that Hasan and Kendrick had never reentered her life.

She didn’t know what to do about either of them.

Lily craved Hasan’s attention like a drug. It was addictive. When she was with him, it was almost impossible to think of anything or anyone else. She had to pry her thoughts away with a crowbar, forcing herself to sink into working on a dress in fear that her mind would drift back to his embrace.

Despite her lust for one man, Kendrick had also wormed his way into her mind. Occasionally, she would start to fantasize about Hasan but then her mind would replace him with Kendrick. She thought about the strange encounters in her store or the suggestion that he was waited outside her window at night. She thought about his dark eyes and wondered what it would be like to kiss his full lips again. What would it feel like to brush her hand along his scruff or press her thigh against his own?

Her body began to warm at her thoughts. She squirmed with flush of moisture that gathered between her legs and the way her pulse quickened. She tried to rip her thoughts away from Kendrick but Hasan slipped in to replace him.

There was no fuzzy feelings when she remembered Hasan’s hands against her body, his mouth against her neck. They were real and she could feel Hasan’s touch as electrical fire along her skin. She could easily recall the heat and pressure of his hands, the insistent way he stroked closer to her sex.

With a whimper, she struggled to stop thinking of either man and failed. Her thoughts bounced from one to the other, drawing curls of lust to flutter along her body and an aching heat to gather along her nipples and clitoris. She needed one of them, either of them, both of them.

Trembling, she reached down to cup her pubis. She was already wet and swollen underneath her lace panties. She drew her fingers up along the line of her nether folds and moaned at the touch. Drawing her fingers back and forth, she worked the fabric deeper into the furrow to rub the rasp of fabric against her clitoris. It was a slow, building pleasure that pulsated in time with her heart.

She started to worm her finger underneath the fabric when she froze. In her half-awake state, guilt at cheating with Hasan and the vague images of Kendrick pushed the desire away. She couldn’t pleasure herself on either man, one was unobtainable and the other mercurial. Clamping her eyes closed, she rolled over to a cooler part of the bed and tried to force herself to sleep.

Oblivion refused to claim her and she let out another sigh of frustration. She reached down to cup herself again, then clamped her thighs around to both stop herself and also increase the pressure of her finger caught between her folds.

A creak outside caught her attention. She cracked open her eyes and peered at her window. Relik said that Kendrick was watching her from her yard. With fresh fantasies in her head, she wondered if he was back there. Her mind focused on Kendrick, once again wondering what was between him and the Martins.

In the distance, a dog barked a few times before it was silenced.

She yawned but couldn’t rip her thoughts away. She decided to satisfy her curiosity. With a groan, she slipped off the bed and dropped to her knees. The cool boards were a balm against her heat-slicked skin. She splayed her fingers along the floor and crawled over, afraid that he would flee if he saw her approaching.

Trembling, she lifted her head over the windowsill and peered outside. Her yard with a tiny square of grass and flowers. Hasan had set up a small pond in the corner, with a few crystal lights that pulsed softly in different colors. A stone bench sat in front of the pond and along a path that wound around the yard until it reached her back door.

Her eyes scanned along the path but she didn’t see Kendrick standing there. She expected to see him still in his suit, it was the only outfit she had seen him wear since he returned to her life. She tried to remember what he wore before he disappeared, but the years had faded her memories until all she could remember was the way his eyes looked into hers when they kissed in the gazebo.

Lily sighed and leaned against the cool window. “Just your imagination,” she whispered to herself. “You don’t need him in your life. Just stop thinking about him. He won’t be there.”

She took a long, deep breath. “Just go back to bed. He won’t—”

Movement along the path caught her attention. It was fog rolling in from the dark shadows near the back of the lot. It moved unnaturally, a thick blanket of rolling pale moisture that only followed the stones that marked the path.

She closed her lips as the ache returned to throb at her nipples and clitoris. Spreading her fingers along the glass, she stared at the path.

When the dark silhouette of a man stepped out from the back of her lot, she inhaled sharply. She knew it was Kendrick long before she could distinguish the bowler hat and patched suit. It was the way he moved, feral and stalking. She couldn’t remember if he moved like that before prison, she thought she would have remembered if he had.

The idea that he spent seven years in jail frightened her. Did her father sentence him to prison for starting the fire? Or was it something else? She had heard horror stories of men who came out of sentences changed. Two of the popular plays that season were about imprisonment twisting men into evil murderers.

Her heart thumped faster. She curled her fingers against the pane of glass. Her breath fogged it as she reached out for the handle to the door leading the balcony over the backyard but stopped. What if he had become a monster?

Kendrick looked straight at her as he headed up the path. The mist surrounding him wavered like wings as the fog spread out across the rest of the yard. He had both hands in his pockets.

Lily wanted to see his eyes but the shadows made it impossible. She grabbed the handle of the door and levered it open. Unable to take her eyes away, she stepped sideways into the cooler air and drifted to the railing.

“Lily.” It was only a single word, low and quiet but she heard him clearly. It pulsed inside her and her heart fluttered at the sound of it.

“Kendrick, why are you here?”

He sighed, his shoulders rising and falling with his breath. “I want to stay away.”

A breeze rippled through the neighborhood. She could hear dogs barking and the wail of an upset child. It was quiet, peaceful.

“Why?”

He glanced to the side, toward the sound of the child. His eyes shone in the moonlight. “Seven years. I’ve been trying to come back to you for seven years. Every day, I rattled the door. Every night I dreamed of you as I listened to the ocean crashing against the rocks. You were my obsession but also my anchor.”

She breathed deep as she clutched the railing. Her body trembled as she listened to him.

“There were thirty of us on the boat when they caught us. It was supposed to be just a fishing trip, out to the ice floes and back again with a season’s worth of fish. We were riding low with the weight and couldn’t afford to take damage. Twenty-two men were caught, the others drowned.”

Tears began to burn Lily’s eyes.

“We had drifted into Kormar waters. Broke a treaty on accident. The trial was fast, almost twenty minutes. They sailed us directly to Noctor’s Point and threw us in.”

The mist around Kendrick boiled up, moving against the wind as it responded to his thoughts. She spotted a squat building on top of a cliff before it faded away. Then the mist rose up around him to form the walls of a cell. It was small mapped out against the grass of her backyard.

“Six feet by nine, seven bars across the door and two on the window.” His voice grew haunted in remembrance. “There were eleven stones that made up the floor and three hundred and six in the walls. For seven years I sat in that cell. Seven years the twenty-two men became twelve.”

When he looked up at her, she could almost feel the sorrow.

A carriage rolled down her street. She could hear the clatter of the wooden wheels against the stones.

Lily toyed with the railing as he paused to speak. Guilty and sympathy warred inside her as she watched him struggle. He was different at night, baring his heart.

“Men were twisted by fear and anger. They lashed out at crew, at the guards, at others. I started down that path but then realized I left something at home. You.”

“Kendrick,” she whispered.

He sighed again and removed his bowler. His dark hair was plastered against his head. “My apologies, Bedame. I didn’t mean burden—”

“Kendrick? Shut up.” Lily was talking before she could think.

He stopped. The mist sank around him, dissipating as he stared at her. His mouth was slightly open and she couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to kiss him.

Tearing her thoughts from her fantasies, she sifted through her thoughts for what to do. She didn’t know how to handle Kendrick anymore than she fumbled with Hasan. The only thing Lily knew is that he couldn’t stand in her backyard and talk.

“I-I,” she stammered, “come inside.”

“Bedame Kasin?”

A flush crept along her cheeks as a heat seeped from further below. “You… I… I… let me fix your suit.” The last words came out in a rush.

“Bedame?”

Her pulse beating in her ears, she gestured down. “I’m a seamstress now. Your suit really needs help. Please?”

He smiled, or at least she thought he did. “Well, my appearance is shameful. I wouldn’t dare meet my own father looking like this.”

She smiled broadly, knowing full well that he was looking at her in the light wearing nothing but a sleeping gown. “Through the kitchen door, I’ll put on some tea.”

“As you wish.”

Lily didn’t think she had ever taken the stairs so quickly before. Less than a minute later, she was holding her back door open as Kendrick stepped inside.

He smelled of fresh rain, a tingle in the back of her nose as she drank in the scent. As she remembered, his suit was haggard and torn. He wasn’t not living well judging from a few extra cuts and rips.

It was also hard not to look at his muscular form that strained his suit. Even though she wanted to see more of him, she also started to notice where she needed to take it out to account for his fitness. It also needed to be pulled in around his waist, it hung down the wrong way.

“Thank you, Bedame.”

“Lily,” she said softly while clutching the door. Her heart continued to pound in her chest and she found it hard to concentrate on anything besides his backside as he passed her.

Kendrick stopped in the middle of the kitchen and looked around. “Hasan did a good job, didn’t he?”

Stunned, she stared at him.

Kendrick chuckled. “Kind of hard to miss him with bad blood between the two of us.”

“It’s been nine years.”

“And yet both of us are visiting you late at night.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “None of that in my house. I don’t want to fight.”

Kendrick pulled one hand from his pocket and pulled off his bowler to bow deeply. “Of course, Bedame. I have lost any chance to claim your hand when I was forced to abandon you.”

She leaned against the frame for a moment. She didn’t know how to respond because she didn’t know if he was being sarcastic, sardonic, or honest. After a moment, she realized it didn’t matter. She was practically a kudame and there would be no formal requests for her hand from anyone.

Stepping away from the door, she let it swing shut. “Put a pot of water on the cooker. Do you still drink Felig?”

He straightened. He held his hat as he looked around for something. “Sadly, I’ve lost the taste for most of the green leafs. The prison didn’t have much except to enjoy except for a bland black tea that tastes like dirt.”

She pointed to the small table in the center of the room.

Kendrick nodded and then swept to her sink to shake the moisture off his bowler before setting it neatly in the center of the table. His shoes, worn leather with a hole along one side to reveal to his toe, squeaked on the polished tiled floor.

“So, how about a San Germin? Or a Dosel?”

He smiled, his eyes lighting up as he turned to her. His black scruff glistened with moisture from the fog. It somehow matched with the angles of his face and the way the liquid gathered in the lines around his smile. “San Germin would be fantastic, but twice as strong without sugar or cream?”

“Black?” she inhaled. She didn’t know anyone who drank tea like that. It was a lower class style.

He hesitated. His hand gripped the back of a chair.

Realizing that she was making him uncomfortable. “Oh, no problem. I just never made it that way.”

“It’s easy. Just have add two of everything. Twice as much, twice the flavor.”

The smile he favored her with sent a bolt of heat rushing through her body. There was something in his words that appealed to her, even if it was just the low rumble of his voice.

With a faint blush on her cheeks, she started the tea.

Lily didn’t know what to do so she leaned against the counter.

Silence filled the room except for the faint hissing of the fire chamber heating up the pot. She started to inspect Kendrick but then realized he was doing the same for her. His eyes were focused but not as intense as Hasan. It didn’t feel like he was stripping her with his eyes but there was some of the same curiousness; she wondered if he was thinking about kissing her.

With her thoughts, the world spun around her for a minute. She gulped and felt vulnerable. “I-I should fix your suit.”

His face darkened. “I… do you have a robe I can wear?”

Lily didn’t, there were no clothes that would possibly fit him. She didn’t even have much spare materials to repair the suit in her house, she would have to scrounge. She blushed realizing she may have offered something she couldn’t provide. “Why?”

“I’m… not wearing anything under this.”

She stared at him, her mind spinning furiously. Her eyes focused on his suit, seeing bare skin the narrow gap between the buttons.

A heat blossomed inside her, surging through her veins before puddling between her legs and dripping off her nipples. She grew moist as she continued to stare. Words somehow refused to rise up in her head as she tried to think of some response.

Kendrick looked bashful as he looked around. “Maybe some cloth? It would be unmannerly to be naked as a babe in your kitchen?”

She opened her mouth but the words refused to form in her head. She kept thinking about what he would look like underneath his jacket. He already strained the fabric and she could see the lines of his pectorals. She already knew that his ass looked carved from stone from when he passed her.

“Lily?”

The heat surged inside her.

“Bedame Kasin?”

“I… I…”

He chuckled. “Do I need to come back tomorrow?”

“No!” The word came out a little more forceful than Lily intended. She blushed hotly and looked away. Seeing steam rising out of the vent of the chamber, she rushed over to it and opened the door. Heat rolled out and she almost put her hand directly into the oven. She stopped at the last minute and grabbed a thick cloth to pull the steaming pot out.

She could feel his eyes on her back as she focused on pouring tea. As she did, she tried to find words to respond properly to his revelation. They didn’t come but the effort of making his strong tea gave her a chance to calm her breath and let her think more clearly.

When she turned around, she spotted his smirk. Flustered, she almost threw the cup at him. Instead, she held it out for him. “P-Please?”

He looked down at her hands as he picked it up. His fingers caressed against her own. She expected an electric tingle like with Hasan but nothing prepared her for the swelling of heat that rose up from the caress of his rough fingertips.

The cup slipped from her hand but he caught it. Pulling it close to his chest, he stepped back. The mist followed after him, curling over his right shoulder instead of straight up.

She turned to prepare her own cup.

“You don’t have to fix my suit.”

“I want too.” It was easier to talk to Kendrick with her back facing him.

“Tonight?”

“You might not come back.”

“I’ll always come back.”

She smiled to herself. “I thought you were trying to walk away?”

Kendrick chuckled. “Haven’t been doing a very good job of that. Right now, I seem to be stalking you more than doing anything useful.”

Lily almost asked about the Martins but didn’t. She finished pressing the tea leaves to the bottom of her brewing up and then poured the rest through a sieve into a proper serving cup. “It’s okay.”

“Tell me if I ever step too far.”

That caught her. She thought about Hasan’s intensity and how they both struggled with their passions. “I-I will.”

It only took a few more moments before she had to turn around. Taking a deep breath, she breathed in the citrus scents wafting from her tea cup before doing so.

Kendrick sat on one of the chairs, nursing his cup. The steam rose in a neat curl that followed his shoulder. It looked like a bandoleer but also disturbing as it refused to follow the natural swirl that lifted from her own cup.

It was almost peaceful. She didn’t feel pressured by him but at the same time, there was a growing hunger as her fantasies began to intrude on her mind. She pried her thoughts away and focused on her task. “Maybe… if I promise not to look?”

He smiled. “For your assistance, I will thankfully do the same.”

Her sex fluttered with heat as she remembered their touch. Taking a deep breath, she caught the fresh rain scent that followed him which only made it word. “I-I can work in the dining room. If you remain here…”

Her voice trailed off as she realized there was an archway between the two. She would be able to see him sitting in a chair as she worked. For a moment, she considered changing to upstairs but then realized she wanted to see more of him. With a delicate cough, she continued. “I can sew on the table. I have enough fabric I can scrounge that it will look proper.”

“Thank you, my dignity will never stop thanking you.”

Her cheeks burning, she stepped away from the counter. “If you… then I’ll get material… fabric. Just put it on the dining room table?”

“As you wish, my bedame.”