Mistakes were meant to be in the rearview mirror-not walking, breathing, and able to cup your cheek to stoke every single smoldering memory long buried for self-preservation.
He shouldn't whisper my name as if he never stopped doing so for the past two years.
Even now, my fingers itched to reacquaint myself with the beauty of his face, then to trace the slight cleft in his chin down his smooth throat, and ever farther down, to where our once shared intimacy implied permission and invitation.
"Camille, I never thought I'd see you again, let alone in London." The way my name rolled off his tongue and slid through his lips always elicited the same response-it felt like a hot kiss at the nape of my neck.
Ward Dunbar. The mistake I'd commit again and again even knowing that the result would always be heartbreak.
"Job interview. If I get it, I'll be moving here." I adjusted the neckline of my buttoned dress shirt, expanding the view of bronzed skin below my collarbones. My traitorous body always reacted to him when he was in physical proximity. Easier to shut down my hormones through the sterility of a black glass screen.
He brushed an errant dark blond strand off his forehead. "I'm here for the same. Though I've passed the interview part."
The skies overhead darkened-clusters of gray clouds huddling together in conference. It had been sunny five minutes ago. Late spring weather in London changed on a whim with wicked fickleness, and we were sliding into the heat of summer. I packed an umbrella and a cardigan in my lavender vegan leather tote, but I didn't account for him. My purse didn't contain what I'd need to cope with the nuclear fallout of a failed relationship.
Avoidance therapy was the only method that worked. Putting thousands of miles between us and preventing myself from checking his social media accounts fueled a comfortable sense of forgetfulness-the kind that allowed me to function on a daily basis, but didn't prevent an occasional damaging slipup. It didn't hurt that he hadn't had any long-term relationships since then. Moving to Manhattan helped, and London should have cured me completely.
I was wrong.
Two days ago, I slipped and checked his Instagram. The selfie at an outdoor bookstall on the South Bank caused me to stop breathing for a few seconds. He was here and in the same city. I wasn't thinking when I sent him a direct message asking to meet at this bookshop. It was pure instinct-I turned off my brain and my heart took over, grabbing the wheel and changing the direction of my life.
"I never thought you'd leave LA." I resisted the urge to straighten the bent corner of his collar. No tie. I'd been the one responsible for those. His long, elegant fingers had other talents.
"I needed a change. This opportunity was as good a time as any." He tipped his head toward the bookshop. "It's going to rain. Can we duck in and chat?"
I followed him into one of the most beautiful little shops in Westminster. These buildings reminded me of an eclectic bookshelf-the windows and architectural details were charming, decorated spines of antique leather. Weathered stone, traditional painted wooden signs mixed with flashy modern ones and clean-line aesthetics. The mix of old and new fitting together in seamless coexistence.
To me, the past and present were constantly at war when I thought about Ward.
As if on cue, the curtain of rain began as he stepped into the shop. I caught a bit of it at the ends of my long hair and the back of my shirt. Again, I was reminded of what I'd be getting into if I decided to have another round in his bed-because that was where it always began.
He headed for the science fiction and fantasy section. He plucked the newest N. K. Jemisin novel from the shelf, tucked it under his arm, and continued to browse the titles, tracing his finger downward on the ones that perked his interest.
"So how does this affect your job in LA?" I took a step forward but maintained a safe distance. The scent of his subtle cologne along with the aroma of Irish cream coffee would undo my crumbling defenses. "Are you on sabbatical?"
Ward's cushy position at a very exclusive and trendy art gallery in LA was everything he ever wished for-flexible hours, the heavy array of movie stars and wealthy client meetings, and the perfect conduit to maximize his appeal. No one was impervious. He disarmed you with his good looks and gentle tone, then went in for the kill with the way he could make you feel. Empathy combined with charm was lethal.
I almost fell against a nearby bookcase. "You did what?"
"It's . . . I needed a change." He reached for my elbow to help me regain my balance. The heat of his touch distracted me. "I accepted a job yesterday and I start tomorrow. Now knowing that you're here, I'd say it's a great move."
Ward didn't let go yet. The worst part was that I didn't want him to. Instead, his fingertips grazed the inside of my forearm, tracing lazy circles with his thumb. I placed my hand on his.
"Do you ever think that-"
I didn't let him finish.
I covered his mouth with mine, devouring his words-my hands pressed against his hard chest, fingertips clinging against the thin silk fabric yearning for the lean muscle lying underneath. He kissed me back as if the present never existed, as if the past two years were a hazy dream and that the truth was that we were never apart.
It was a lie, but we both wanted to believe it. My mistake to repeat and, yes, it was his as well.
Everything rushed back. The flood of every single reason why we were so good together: the Sunday picnics and walks in Humboldt Park to visit the ducks, the easy late-night conversations curled up on the couch dissecting what we watched on movie night, merienda at my parents' house on the weekends, and those spontaneous escape room dates.
I never forgot how we met-he helped calm my nerves heading into my exams. I had one of my usual panic attacks before finals in college. It didn't matter how much I'd studied, I always panicked. He recognized the signs right away. He led me into a quiet, unused workroom and talked me through breathing exercises while holding my hand. He told me that his younger brother had them and he could understand.
Before this, I chalked him up as one of those pretty white boys who had no substance. This was the first time I came to realize that he was one of those origami magic balls with infinite folds. Every time I peeled back a piece of paper, I found another reason why I liked him, and in due time, it turned into love.
Even now, I still loved him.
The marathon between the bedsheets was always the easiest part of our relationship. The language of skin against skin silenced any objections. The complications began as soon as the scorching kisses ended.
As I lay in bed with him, I didn't want to acknowledge the time; instead, I dragged my fingertips across the smooth muscles of his abdomen. When it came to this, I was the child who didn't want to leave a party because it was too much of a good time. Didn't want to deal with any consequences after the fun was over.
Through the slight part in the blackout curtains, the capsules in the London Eye hung static with the rising sun, marking the transition from dim blue to radiant pinks, violets, and eventually golds and oranges. If he'd been awake, he'd wax poetic about the contrasting palettes of sunrises and sunsets. His fascination with them fueled his need to highlight passages in his beloved books whenever they were mentioned.
"That internal alarm clock of yours is uncanny." Sleep still coated his voice. He drew lazy circles on my naked shoulder with his thumb. "Your interview isn't until closer to noon."
"I still need to prepare."
The wrong parts of him stiffened.
And there it was. Being with him didn't change me.
"Let's compromise. One more hour in bed and I can help quiz you after our shower."
The mention of the promised help melted the last of my resistance. The morning ritual of communal showers started off every day on the best note-precious time spent without words-and he gave the best massages.
He chuckled, noticing the dreamy smile on my lips.
His left hand dipped under the sheets, and again, I'd forgotten every thought in my head except us, and how well we fit together.
My job interview was later that morning. My rationality returned as soon as we left the hotel room and parted ways. Ward hopped into a black cab headed to Carnaby Street to pick up a last-minute item before his shift.
Lethe's Curiosities was an antique shop in the shadow of Westminster Abbey and a convenient short walk from my location. I planned the entire trip to provide for any contingencies, and one of them involved transportation failures.
The job was lucrative and paid well over six figures without even factoring in the conversion rate. I'd be in charge of acquisitions and running the shop on my own after a probationary period. The quiet, posh neighborhood felt safe for the night shift, which probably accounted for the high pay grade. My first impression of the building was that it was upscale-implying a top-line security system and all the amenities.
I stood before the midnight-black facade featuring gold-painted, serif capital letters. The tall windows showed two vignettes on either side of the door. A trace of camphor sprinkled the air. The heavy occult aesthetic prickled the skin at the back of my neck. It was subtle and tasteful, in line with the type of establishment I'd researched. No skulls, creepy porcelain dolls, or spooky clown figures in sight so far.
I couldn't shake the odd feeling that something very old was here-far older than Londinium itself. The last time I had this feeling was when I held a Babylonian fertility idol in my gloved hands during my stint at the Field Museum in Chicago. It was the palpable sensation of being an insignificant speck in the river of time.
The left was an arrangement showcasing a Napoléon III Gothic writing desk paired with a matching high-backed chair with raven-black brocade upholstery. Various ornate, gilded mirrors hung around the desk, hovering in the air, probably anchored by invisible industrial fishing lines or wires. My reflection in each mirror was different-almost as if I were aging in each one, a decade here, three decades there, all eerie enough that I had to avert my eyes.
Might not be a true mirror but some sort of high-end plasma screen with a rapid aging filter from Instagram or Snapchat. Even when dealing with antiquity, technology intruded like an unwanted visitor.
The other window was draped with a black velvet background with a Gothic Victorian double-door curio cabinet as the centerpiece. The top followed a pointed design reminiscent of church steps and roofs. The paned glass duplicated the motif-the design of leaded glass mimicked the wrought iron fencing surrounding grounds and graveyards.
Again my reflection splashed against many gilded mirrors floating against the velvet background. This time, I was aging backward, seeing my face as a teenager, a tween, a six-year-old, a toddler, and a baby. The results were fairly accurate.
The company must have contracted a tech firm for the display.
I checked my watch. Ten minutes before and the right time to make my entrance. I tugged on the polished brass handles and stepped into the shop.
"Ah, Ms. Buhay. You're early." My interviewer and potential supervisor greeted me at the door. "Welcome."
Mr. Samson was a septuagenarian expat with a soothing voice well suited for narrating nature documentaries. He was handsome in his old age and made me wonder what he looked like in his prime. Perhaps I could ask him to stand in front of those mirrors outside.
He pronounced my last name perfectly. Boo-hai. My Filipino last name often tripped up American tongues and created a mangled auditory mess. I could have gone as some of my relatives have, ignoring the mistake in order to conform. I was born and raised in Morton Grove, a suburb of Chicago, and the most American trait I could think of was to stubbornly correct people until they get it right, no matter how exhausting or tedious. My last name in Tagalog meant "life," and I refused to hear anything but its true pronunciation.
The minimalism of the window display contrasted with the cluttered interior, embodying the Victorian hoarder aesthetic. Every shelf, cabinet, and leveled surface housed a priceless antique in perfect condition free of dust. Thankfully, the polished wooden-paneled floor was clear, and the set paths throughout were wide enough to alleviate any anxiety of breakage or accidents from an errant limb.
Instead of an expected musty smell, the shop had the sterility of a museum, yet there was a faint trace of sandalwood incense lingering in the air. The soft hum of the air-conditioning vents kept the temperature comfortable, unlike some of the stores I'd been to. Taking the tube wilted me. Give me months of frigid winter and I'd be fine, but sweltering summer heat without air-conditioning was a deal-breaker.
Mr. Samson pulled out my printed résumé and tapped the sheet. "Your credentials are impressive. If it were up to me, I'd be ready to hire you, but I've been told to conduct the formal interview first." He gestured toward two Queen Anne chairs with golden brocade upholstery to the left of the cash register.
We took our seats.
I crossed my legs at the ankles and kept my hands stacked on my lap.
"This is by no means a rigorous inquiry. The owner of the shop insisted on only three questions." He withdrew his reading glasses along with a folded piece of paper from his inside jacket pocket.
My shoulders lowered. This was better than a multiday battery of pointless interviews with different department heads. One of the reasons I wanted this position was the appeal of dealing with fewer people, because the night shift meant minimal clients, and appraisals and acquisitions were the bulk of my responsibilities.
"How well do you adapt to change?" He squinted at the paper and then at me.
"I can manage it with ease. I tend to prepare for any scenario to be able to handle anything thrown at me."
Copyright © 2024 by Roselle Lim. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.