“Joyeux anniversaire, mon amour.”
Nile’s too-sweet voice tickled him awake far too early on the seventeenth of May and Sébastien groaned, rolling away from her and the threat of coming consciousness.
“Can we skip this part, please?” he mumbled into a pillow. “It’s just Saturday. Please, please just let it be Saturday.”
“It’s not just Saturday,” she replied, sliding her arms around his sides and hugging him tight from behind. “It’s the seventeenth. A good day. A happy day. Be happy, won’t you?”
“I’d prefer to be miserable.”
“Stop it.” She nuzzled her face into the back of his neck, breathing him in deep. She loved the way he smelled in the mornings, how soft and warm and homey he felt. “No misery today. Today is a beautiful day to celebrate.”
“Celebrate what? The fact that I’m one step closer to the grave?”
Nile jammed her knee into the back of his thigh. “Quit it.”
“Ow! That hurt,” he groused. He leaned his head back against hers. “Why are you beating up on an old man, huh?”
“You don’t look old to me.”
Sébastien closed his eyes. Nile must have said words to that effect well over a hundred times during all the years they’d been together, but still he never tired of hearing them. He did not much like that he was a man in need of constant reassurance from the person he loved most in the world, but he had learned long ago that some things simply could not be helped no matter how hard he tried.
Sébastien shifted until he was flat on his back. He watched as Nile moved closer, propping herself up with one elbow on the mattress while the other slung itself over his body. She held his gaze as she pressed a few kisses to his bare chest.
“You want me to say it again?” she whispered. “Is that what you want? Hm?”
He didn’t reply, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t need an answer. She pressed one last kiss to his skin before pushing herself up. Sébastien watched as she sat back on her haunches and then moved, placing one knee on either side of his body until she was kneeling above him. She kept her waist high, so they weren’t touching, but he didn’t mind. They still had the sheets and pajamas between them and he wasn’t in any particular rush this morning. He lay there and looked up at her and he waited.
She slid her palms from his abdomen slowly up his chest, taking her time to caress every bit of bare skin she came across. She loved when he slept shirtless and they both knew it. As her hands curled around his shoulders, she bent down, dropping kisses along his serum.
“You don’t look old to me,” she whispered, moving to his collarbones. “You’ve never looked old to me, baby.”
“You’re lucky you’re so pretty.” He sighed, tucking one hand behind his head as he watched her. “You’re able to get away with all kinds of blatant lies.”
She lifted her face just so he could see her raised eyebrows. “You’re calling me a liar now?”
“Mm,” he hummed. “I am, yes. And not a good one, either.”
She made a face, and for the first time all morning, Sébastien smiled. He lifted his head and kissed her once on the mouth, very gently. He traced a thumb along the curve of her forehead as he cradled her head with his fingertips. The thought What would I do without you? passed through his mind, but he refused to voice it. There was only room for one crisis at a time, especially on a day like today. Sébastien drew his thumb down from her forehead to her ear, and then lifted her chin with a finger. He liked the way she immediately leaned towards him for more, liked the muscle memory they’d cultivated together over the years.
Usually he would’ve drawn out the next kiss, and led them towards a decidedly different kind of morning, but today he couldn’t quite manage it. All he could think about was that number, that damn number, bouncing around in his head. Mocking him. He had to pull away and cover his eyes. He couldn’t look at her. He couldn’t touch her. Somewhere above him, he could hear her sigh. The sound traveled heavily through her whole body, but he didn’t spare a thought for her annoyance. He was in too deep in his own pool of self-pity.
“In five years I’ll be fifty.” He could hardly get the words out, but nor could he keep them in. “Fifty, Nie.”
“Well, you don’t look a day over forty-five to me.”
He dropped his hands only so he could glare at her. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
She was grinning. “I am funny.” She squeezed his sides. “You have to admit. Come on.”
When he didn’t smile, she groaned theatrically and slumped her shoulders in defeat. She gave him a minute to come to his senses and act like an adult, and when he didn’t, she slid off him and curled up on her side so they were face-to-face. When he continued to wallow, she leaned up and pressed a kiss to his forehead.
“I know it’s not a laughing matter to you,” she whispered, stroking his cheek. “But it isn’t the end of the world, either. And you have to keep some perspective here, because I can’t be doing this every May for the rest of my life, Sébastien. Understand?”
He frowned, looking for a moment like he might argue, before relenting with a nod. “Understood.”
“Good.” She pressed a quick kiss to his lips. “Now. Tell me something good about today.”
“Something good,” she repeated. “Tell me one good thing about today.”
“You’re here with me.”
One side of her mouth tugged in a brief smile, but she didn’t let him off the hook so easily. “What else?”
“Do I need anything else?”
She rolled her eyes as he wrapped his arms around her. “You know I don’t like it when you do this. The whole fake-charming thing? It didn’t work on our first date and it sure isn’t going to work now.”
“It did so work on our first date,” he argued, pressing kisses to her neck. “You were very charmed by me. You had stars in your eyes.”
“Yeah, because you spent more money on that one dinner than I ever had on a week’s groceries.”
“Ah, now the truth comes out. Knew you were only in it for the money.”
She snorted. “Oh, yes. All that money I was looking forward to… Where did it go again?”
“Mm, spent it all on that huge wedding we had. Don’t you remember?”
Nile laughed at the teasing, and pulled him close for a kiss.
Apart from their flights, first across the country and then across the Pacific, their wedding had cost next to nothing. That tended to happy when you eloped, which—Nile would be the first to admit—had never been the plan. The plan had been to bow to her mother’s every whim, from the enormous guest list to the traditional white dress to the full church service. Everything was going to happen just as Mrs. Freeman wanted it to happen.
They had been planning the wedding for eight months when one night it all became too much.
It was too much money, too much pressure, too many expectations, too many people—and suddenly Nile was breaking down in the middle of their kitchen at ten PM on a Thursday, unable to cope.
“I hate this,” she’d cried from the floor. “I don’t want any of this. I don’t want a big wedding or a million people watching. I don’t want the priest or the readings or the speeches. I don’t care about any of that. I just want you and I want to be married. That’s it.”
She waited for Sébastien to comfort her. To get up from his chair, drop down onto the floor, pull her into a hug, and promise everything was going to be okay. That was what a partner was supposed to do. Support you in the hard times, carry you through the bad times. That’s what they’d been doing together for years. But that night she crumpled to the floor, he didn’t so much as look up from his laptop, and it made her want to throw a dinner plate at his head. He couldn’t look away from work long enough to comfort her through a breakdown about their wedding? Was this what was their marriage was going to be like? How were they supposed to survive?
She had screamed as much at him, and when she stopped to take a breath between sobs, he asked calmly if she could wait until tomorrow.
“Wait until tomorrow for what?” she demanded, gearing up to shout at him again. If he was trying to insinuate that she calm down until the next day, she was going to kick him out of their apartment.
But then he finally turned his computer around so she could see what he was looking at. There on the screen was a single open tab, showing a flight path from O’Hare to Honolulu, scheduled to leave tomorrow morning and connect through Los Angeles.
Nile looked at the screen, looked at her fiancé, and looked back at the screen.
“I don’t understand,” was all she could say.
“Haven’t you always wanted to go to Hawaii?” He got up, crouched down by her side, and passed her the computer. “Look, there’s still room on tomorrow’s flight. Not too long to wait, is it?”
He pointed to the arrival time, and Nile began to shake her head frantically as the deeper meaning behind his words became clear.
“Not like this,” she whispered. “We can’t do it like this.”
But she’d stopped crying, and Sébastien could tell from the way she repeated the words over and over and over again that she just wanted to hear him say they could.
“My mother will kill us,” Nile continued. “This wedding is everything to her, Sébas, you know that.”
“But it’s nothing you want,” he pointed out gently. He reached for her wrist, and rubbed his thumb against the soft skin of her inner forearm. “It’s your wedding, love, it should be about what you want. Not what your mother wants. So tell me what you want. It doesn’t have to be this, fine, but please—just be honest with me.”
Instead of answering, Nile looked back at the screen. She took in every detail of the 11 AM flight, from the length of the layover down to the type of aircraft that—potentially—would take them halfway across the Pacific. At such short notice, the cost was not exactly ideal, but even she knew the moment she so much as considered the price, a decision had been made. Still, she sat there for a few seconds, running her eyes over the screen. She didn’t click anything. Didn’t search for anything. She just looked at that destination, closed her eyes, and imagined being on the beach. Imagined marrying the person she loved in an environment devoid of stress and expectations. Devoid of her mother, micromanaging every moment.
She bought the tickets.
And then she got up off the floor and started leaving messages with their vendors. They’d sort out all the details of the cancellation later, beg for refunds where available, but for now, Nile wanted the decision made and she wanted it to be irreversible. By the time they stepped on that plane tomorrow morning, she didn’t want to have a single thing to worry about apart from what her mother would say when they came back married. She’d never understand—Nile knew that—but maybe it wasn’t her job to make her mother understand anymore. Maybe she could just live her life, and trust that her mother would come around to accepting it on her own terms.
It was only after Nile left the final cancellation message with their last vendor did she turn to her fiancé. He was still sitting on the floor where she’d left him, legs stretched out in front of him, arms crossed loosely over his stomach. There was a smile on his face, brighter than she’d seen in months, and Nile couldn’t help but grin widely in return. Her face hurt from the strain of such happiness, but she didn’t mind. By this time tomorrow, they’d be in Hawaii.
Nile meant to say something about how they should start packing, but instead she found herself on the floor again. There were no tears this time, no screaming. There was just her and him and the two of them making the most of their last evening at home as an engaged couple.
It had been a little over three years since that night, and still just the thought of it could make Nile feel far too warm inside, as if her body might melt under the heat of such affection. She had thought the feeling might die out after a year or so, along with that honeymoon ease, but no. Three years on, and even the memory of that night consumed her body with the most delicious sweetness.
“I loved our wedding,” Nile whispered, curling close to her husband beneath the sheets as that familiar warmth spread through her body. “It was perfect.”
“Mm, I know you did.” Sébastien nuzzled his nose against hers, and then he drew in a breath, and Nile knew the stipulation before it came: “Though I’m still not sure it was worth getting on your mother’s bad side. I really did think she was going to murder me when she turned up at O’Hare.”
“She definitely thought about it.”
Nile could look back at the memory now with a smile, but at the time, she’d been as convinced as he had that her mother might never speak to either of them again. Mrs. Freeman had stood there in the arrivals hall, arms crossed, lips pursed, somehow managing to look down at both of them despite the fact that her daughter had a good five inches on her and her newly minted son-in-law had a full foot. Mrs. Freeman’s presence alone beat out their size, and they both looked at the floor like guilty children until finally she spoke. I suppose this is when I am meant to say congratulations.
But she didn’t say it. She just glared, first at Sébastien and then at Nile, before turning around and leaving the way she’d come.
She’d driven over an hour to get to O’Hare, just to tell them off. It might have been comical if it had been someone else—anyone else. But it was Nile’s mother, and her good opinion was everything. It was very hard thing to earn back once squandered.
“I don’t think she addressed me by name for a full year after that,” Sébastien yawned, shaking his head. “A year! And we live in the same city! Your mother’s ability to hold a grudge is truly astounding.”
“Yes, you were strictly that man in any conversation we had for a good long while after Hawaii.” Nile mimicked her mother’s disgruntled tone: “‘Is that man of yours ever going to cut his hair?’ ‘When is that man you married going to take me to France?’ ‘If that man you ran off with—‘”
“Ran off with!” Sébastien scoffed. “It was five days! And we came right back!”
Nile snickered in the face of his indignation, and snuggled close to him. “She cut her losses and got over it. My brother had the traditional wedding, and made up for my mistake.”
“Oh, I’m a mistake now, am I?”
“An old mistake.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Nile shrieked with laughter as he rolled on top of her, sneaking hands beneath her pajamas to tickle the vulnerable skin of her stomach. It wasn’t until she was gasping for breath that he finally relented, and held up his hands in peaceful surrender. She smacked his chest in retaliation, and rolled them over until he was on his back again, and she was crouched above him. She was closer now, and she could see the interest sparking in his gaze as he looked up at her. The laziness of the morning was gone now; his eyes were bright and his hands were eager, sliding along the undersides of her thighs and around her bottom.
Nile smiled indulgently at the hint, but didn’t give in immediately. She leaned over him until they were chest to chest, and as his hands slid up her back underneath her tank top, her forearms came to rest on either side of his head. She brushed one hand through his hair, mussing it even further, before bending down to kiss him. She could taste the hunger in his kiss, but she kept it slow, and when she pulled back, she cupped his cheek to hold him still against the mattress.
“You want to know something?” she whispered, brushing her thumb against his cheekbone. “A birthday doesn’t change anything. Two, three, four, five birthdays won’t change anything. Just like I promised in Hawaii, I’m going to love you no matter what.”
She could tell he’d tensed at the change in conversation, and she drew in a breath, letting it out easy before she continued. She knew he agonized over these things, but to her there was no question. No second-guessing. She had known what it meant when she’d first said yes to that ring, and again to those plane tickets. And she knew, too, what all the pretty words came down to: she knew what he worried about most, even if he never dared to say it aloud.
“I want you right now, just the same as I did yesterday. And I’m still going to want you when you’re fifty. And when you’re fifty-five, and sixty, and—”
“Jesus Christ, do not talk about me being sixty, Nie! What the hell?”
“Oh, stop being so touchy!” She smacked his cheek lightly. “You’re forty-five. Grow up already.”
“Can we have a moratorium on that number, please? For today?”
“You are a cruel, cruel woman.”
She shrugged. “You’re the one who decided to spend the rest of your life with me.”
“I did, didn’t I?” He sighed. He let his eyes travel lazily from her face down her body. “At least you’re not in your twenties anymore,” he murmured, adjusting his hips beneath her. “Felt downright dirty during those years.”
“And yet somehow that didn’t stop you from sleeping with me. Funny how that works…”
“A twenty-six-year-old wanted to fuck me. You really think I was going to say no to that?”
“I thought you would’ve played at least a little hard to get. We’d been on three dates.”
He smirked. “Baby, trust me when I say you won’t understand this until you’re older—“
“Oh, fuck off.”
“—but when a young person shows an interest in you, you do not ask questions. You smile and nod and you pretend you can hear whatever the hell it is she’s saying over the music—”
“—and at the earliest opportunity, you find the nearest bed and you fuck her like your life depends on it.”
Nile laughed. “Oh, is that what happened?”
“Don’t act like you weren’t impressed.”
Nile pursed her lips, but it failed to hide the smile peeking out. “I was a little impressed. A little,” she stressed when she saw the look of triumph on his face. “A little does not mean a lot. Are you listening to me?”
“Of course, dear.”
She made a face at the faux endearment. “I ought to kick you out of bed.”
“By all means, beat a man while he’s down. And on his birthday, too…”
“Speaking of birthdays,” Nile mused, “I had all these plans for you tonight. But if you’re so bent out of shape about getting older, maybe I should just scrap them and let you mope.”
“Plans?” Interest flickered across his face as he sat up. “What kind of plans would those be? Is there a wardrobe change involved?”
“I told you, I’m reconsidering them.”
“Hm.” He watched her face, pretending to consider his options. “Well, isn’t there anything I can do to convince you to stick to your original plans?”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
She couldn’t feign disinterest for very long, but it hardly mattered, because neither could he. They reached for each other greedily, shoving aside clothes and sheets and forgoing even oxygen in their quest to be as close as possible as quickly as possible. There was no drawing it out, no teasing—there would be time for that later—and in the aftermath of the race, they basked in the warmth and glow of another morning together.
“I love you,” Sébastien murmured after they’d come down, still holding her close. “You know that, right?”
Nile smiled, lifting her head from his chest to meet his eye. “If there’s one thing in this world I know for sure, it’s that.”