He seemed content. He looked content. He felt content. But, no, content wasn’t the right way to capture how, despite being nervous, he felt cocooned in warmth and security – he was blissful.
He looked down at the young woman grasping his elbow. As if sensing his eyes on her, she peaked up at him with a shy smile, a smile he felt nearly compelled to return. She was lovely. Innocent. The stray thought that she looked like his mother bounced through his mind—the jawline, her bright blue eyes—and, chasing it, a ringing admonition in the Lieutenant’s voice, “Cool it, Oedipus.”
A chilly horror invaded his bliss; he shivered.
“Is something troubling you, Ichabod?”
He stopped them and turned to face her, awkwardly fidgeting with the flowers she’d brought for him. Why in Creation had she brought him flowers?
“Not at all, Miss Corinth. Merely contemplating the pleasures of this afternoon.”
“Good thoughts?” She cocked her head and smiled again.
He could not help returning it—again. And the lie that followed it felt true this time. “Yes. Good thoughts.”
“Here,” she said softly, pointing toward a bench he swore had never been there before. “Let’s sit.”
After setting the flowers aside, she grasped his hands between hers, drawing them onto her knee.
“I’ve had a lovely time. I like this idea of old-fashioned courtship.”
He bit his tongue, stopping himself from correcting her presumption that modern dating was anything like the courtship of his own time.
Just go with it. “Indeed.”
The sense of bliss returned, the sense of warmth and security.
Miss Corinth bit her lip as she grinned, staring him straight in the face. How had she gotten so close? One of her hands went to his cheek and she pushed up to meet his height. “I know you won’t unless I ask. Kiss me?”
He was happy to oblige. It took a moment to find an angle, and she giggled as he pressed his lips to hers. It lingered briefly, pleasantly. He felt her grin through it.
She hummed. “I think you can do better than that, Mr. Crane.”
“I shall endeavor then to do so,” he whispered and shifted them both so she did not have to crane her neck. He closed his eyes.
This time was not so chaste. This time was not so pleasant. The soft bliss of their earlier walk was rapidly overwhelmed by a scalding zeal as they tangled together, flesh and heat against the cool wood, the cool afternoon air. Her soft, gloriously plump lips caressed his and there, her sweet tongue was sliding past them and into his mouth. Oh, the times he had imagined this—once so forbidden and shameful, but now with increasing frequency and fervor since his return from abroad. He could scarcely believe the reality was coming to pass, but he could not, would not, let go of this delicious fortune. Not with her suddenly open before him, ready and eager to accept every degree of his immense, consuming love for her.
His hand trailed up her shoulder, catching on the collar of her blouse, and onto her neck, the ends of her hair brushing against his wrist. She mirrored the gesture, sliding her fingers around the back of his neck, under his collar, and letting her thumb play against his ear. She moaned, deep and rich and wanting, and if he could spare any breath, he’d declare his feelings for her. But he couldn’t spare any of it. He was utterly consumed.
She pulled back first, shifting back onto the incredible curve of her backside.
“Wow. That was amazing.”
Wrong voice. Wrong voice. His eyes popped open—it was most assuredly not the Lieutenant in his arms. And the woman who was, despite her words, looked strangely unaffected by what they’d just shared—no rosy glow on her face, no soft breathlessness, no jumping muscles under the palm of his hand, still resting dangerous close to her breast. He was sure he was flushed, pupils dilated. In his fantasy, he had been more than ready to bear down on his Abbie, to press her back to the hard slats of their secluded bench, slide a hand up under her skirt …
Everything was wrong.
He pulled abruptly away from the woman with whom he was sharing the seat. “I’m sorry, Miss Corinth, I seemed to have been rather carried away by the moment.”
She smiled again and chirped, “There’s nothing to apologize for, Ichabod.”
“Yes. Still, I should have asked the lady’s permission before being so forward.”
Why. Why. She had felt like Abbie. He had held her enough times, knew the wicked curves of her petite body, the smell of her, the texture of her clothes, her hair. This was far worse—and far more real—than an ordinary dream.
“Don’t worry, I would have stopped you if I wasn’t enjoying myself. It was unexpected, yet quite pleasant.” She didn’t smile this time, though; instead, she furrowed her brows at him as if something were wrong.
Something, of course, was. And he probably wasn’t doing great work in hiding it.
He liked Miss Corinth, but whatever was between them was only developing. It would not have transformed into such an eager embrace so suddenly. He was not even certain he was attracted to her. He was certain, though, that he was not the sort of cad who would immediately fantasize about one woman—whoever she was, whatever she meant to him—while kissing another.
Trying to tamp down the intense passion that had erupted in the kiss, Crane ran through the catalog of demons in his head, and considered several, including another succubus. But that didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. She wasn’t trying to kill him.
Was she? Oh, certainly not. She was a historic preservationist, for God’s sake.
She reached behind her for the flowers she’d given him and pressed them into hands. “I’ll text you?”
His balance seemed to immediately return, and he shoved aside the paranoia. It had, after all, been ages since he had kissed anyone—and before that, years of his wife’s general disinterest. Surely it would be a bit confusing the first time.
“Yes. Please do. This was lovely.”
She hopped off the bench and gave him one final smile. “See you around. Mr. Ichabod Crane.”
Later, try as he might to focus on researching Pandora’s tree, Crane found himself staring off into the Archives’ fireplace.
He drifted back to his date with Miss Corinth. He considered her quick smile, sweet demeanor, genuine interest, her gentle sarcasm. She was pretty and easygoing. Thoughtful.
The kiss, though, surprised him. He had not recognized the spark of physical tension between them until he was running his fingers along her necklace and collarbone, with her slim hips rising under his hands and her small squeaks of delight driving him to wanting to take her there in the park.
It was unexpected but, indeed, rather pleasant.
“I take it from the blank look on your face that your date went well.”
He startled at Abbie’s voice. The image in his head of embracing Miss Corinth morphed suddenly into one of the Lieutenant. In immense discomfort, he shifted in his chair, resettling the book on his lap. It wouldn’t stop. He tried to shift back to the memory, away from the fantasy, but the only image he could now muster of Miss Corinth was before and after their kiss.
In a way that he hoped was surreptitious, he glanced at his partner’s beautiful mouth. He would truly remember if he had kissed her, right? And he couldn’t have. There was no possibility. He had kissed Miss Corinth. It was unexpected but quite pleasant.
Still. The memories didn’t fit.
Something was very, very wrong. But he would need to solve it alone. The only thing worse than sharing details of his date with Abbie would be sharing details of the problem with her.
So he deflected, as he was getting used to doing when questions about his feelings for this woman cut too close to the quick:
“I cannot recall of which great, great colonial thinker coined the phrase: ‘twas a tiny patch of paradise.”