Every Last Kiss

Page 31

Brushing my hair gently, she pulled sections from the front into a knot in the back, intertwining thin gold cords with the stands, and allowing the rest to flow freely down my back.By the time she was finished, I did look beautiful.

And sad. My grief and apprehension were painted on my face for the world to see. Cleopatra appraised my appearance and sighed.

“Smile, my love,”she whispered into my ear.“We are going to eat, dance, laugh and love tonight.And we will enjoy it.”

I was pretty sure that I could trick myself into enjoying the evening. I would just have to block out the events of tomorrow.But could I enjoy it enough to last for two thousand years?I gulped hard, trying to swallow the enormous hard lump that had once again formed in my throat.I guess all I could do was try.I rose from my seat and followed Cleopatra through the elaborate halls to dinner.

Standing in the banquet doorway, I gazed upon the feast.Table after table was loaded with roasted pheasant, succulent baked fish, glazed sweet potatoes, bread, figs, dates, nuts, fruit and honey.Rows of oil lamps adorned each table, lighting the room with soft, flickering light.Dancers danced, flutes played and everyone in this room was merry, even though they knew that tomorrow, Octavian would arrive.Perhaps they were merry because of that very thing.He hadn’t arrived yet.

It didn’t take long for me to locate Hasani.His handsome face appeared to seriously contemplate something Antony had said.And then Antony slapped his shoulder and laughed hard, a rippling belly laugh.Hasani’s beautiful dazzling smile stretched wide and I couldn’t help but smile, too.And at just that moment, he looked up and saw Cleopatra and I lingering in the doorway.He stood immediately, a sign of courtesy even though we were across the room.

God, I loved that man.Love flooded every cell in my body and I felt physically ill at the thought of never seeing him again.I wanted to run to him, shoving aside everyone who stood in my way, and hold onto him for dear life.

“Charmian?”Cleopatra prompted, tugging on my arm.“Let us celebrate.”

I nodded solemnly and let her pull me into the festivities.As we made our way through the swarming mass of people, I kept my eyes on Hasani’s bronzed face.He was the beacon that pulled me across the room.I couldn’t get to him soon enough, although I didn’t shove anyone.

Stepping to his side, I folded into his arms.He bent his head and kissed the top of mine, whispering “You look lovely tonight, my sweet.”

I gave him my best demure look.“Thank you,”I replied lightly.

As we mingled with the visitors around us, he kept one hand on my back at all times, his warmth searing into my skin. It served to remind me that right now, he was still vibrant and alive. I refused to let my mind think about tomorrow.

Throughout dinner, he stroked my leg or my back and I found myself missing his touch whenever he removed his hand to eat.As he spoke with Antony, I watched the curve of his strong jawline, the way the candlelight flickered against his face, the way his eyes seemed to melt into mine.

Dinner had never taken longer.

If I had a watch, I would have been watching it, counting down the minutes. Obviously, I didn’t have one because they hadn’t even been invented yet.We still used sundials and those were worthless after the sun went down.

So I just pasted a smile onto my face and patiently spoke with everyone around me.Inside, though, I was just thinking come on, come on, come on.I shouldn’t have been wishing my limited minutes away, but I couldn’t help it.I was living for the moment when I could finally get him alone.

And finally, it was time.Cleopatra stood and excused herself, along with Antony.Judging from the knowing smile on his face, it was clear that Antony had definite plans on how they were going to spend their evening.One of his massive arms kept her clenched tightly to his side, making her appear as fragile as a china doll.Cleopatra looked at me, her face an odd combination of sadness and anticipation.

“Charmian, my love, I won’t be needing your services tonight.I will see you in the morning,”she looked at me pointedly.Her way of giving me the night with Hasani, while she still gave herself a chance to say goodbye in the morning.

“Yes, my queen,”I agreed quietly.“At morning’s light.Enjoy your evening.”

“I plan to,”she murmured as Antony released his grip and held out his arm.

She took it and together they wove their way through the swarming crowd to the hall- every inch the regal queen and her consort. They exuded confidence and strength, even though they were painfully aware that Egypt would fall tomorrow.

Even Antony, full of swagger and arrogance, knew.It was inevitable. Yet, they both kept their chins up and their brave faces on.I desperately wished that the history books could see what I was seeing right now. 

I watched them disappear before turning to Hasani.I found him staring down at me in anticipation.

“Are you ready to retire also, my lady?”he asked knowingly, tracing my collarbone lightly with his thumb.

“Hmm.I don’t know.I had my heart set on watching the dancers for a while longer,”I teased, wrapping my arms around him and pulling him close.

“I think not, my love,”he replied huskily.“I find that I am quite tired.And I have a big day tomorrow.”

I swallowed hard as a sudden pain pierced my heart.Yes, he did have a big day tomorrow. No matter how hard I tried to block it out, it kept coming back. Tick, tick, tick.Our time together was slipping away.His hourglass was running out. 

“Okay, my warrior,”I smiled weakly, trying not to let him see my distress.“We should retire so that you can rest.”

“Oh, I’ll rest,”he confirmed.“Eventually.”

I smiled and led the way to the long side corridor that would lead us to my rooms.

With every step I took, my heart thudded harder and by the time we reached my bedchambers, it was racing erratically, pounding against my sternum.How was someone supposed to say goodbye to the person that they loved more than life, without being able to say the actual words?

We had barely made it inside the room before Hasani turned to me, grasping me to him tenderly.Leaning on my tip-toes, I tasted his lips, tentatively at first and then more urgently.He groaned into my mouth and I pressed myself into him as closely as I could.But honestly, it just wasn’t close enough.It never would be.

We collapsed onto my bed as he cradled my head with his palm.Lowering his head, he kissed me again, his soft lips ever-gentle.And then he was completely still.I opened my eyes and found him staring at me in the darkness.

“Charmian, I love you.More than life itself and I can’t wait until you are my wife.We are going to have an amazing life.”His handsome face was earnest as he spoke.

I tried to ignore the shattering pain emanating from my chest region as my heart silently broke into pieces.

“Yes, my love,”I whispered.

He watched me with concern.

“Charmian, there is such distress on your face.Are you worried about Octavian?I wish you would not.He will come, we will fight him and he will return to Rome with his tail between his legs like the cur that he is.”

I cringed at his confident tone.His warrior’s heart would not allow him to acknowledge that tomorrow was already lost.

Oh, yes.Octavian would return to Rome, but not in defeat.He would return in victorious splendor and have a triumphant parade.In fact, he wanted to drag Cleopatra and Antony through the streets of Rome behind his chariot in humiliation, but their suicides would prevent that atrocity.God, the thought of his arrogant face made me want to throw up.But obviously, I couldn’t mention any of that.

Hasani stared at me now with such trusting adoration in the lamplight that I almost couldn’t stand it.How could I send him off in the morning knowing what would happen to him?The knowledge was killing me.I bit my lip to prevent myself from blurting out a warning. And then bit it harder.This was unbearable.

“Hasani, please… promise me that you will be safe tomorrow.Please be careful and don’t try to be a hero.If Antony surrenders, I want you to surrender with him. Please.”

I rushed the words before I could change my mind and not say them.I wasn’t breaking any rules.Not technically. Except for maybe that last sentence.I felt a twinge of sudden guilt.

“What do you mean, Charmian?”He all but smiled.“Antony will not surrender and neither will I. We are warriors.”The humor was evident in his voice.

“And warriors don’t surrender?”I guessed.

“No, warriors do not surrender.”He nodded.

“What about fear?”I watched his face.“Are you afraid, Hasani?”

“My love, why are you asking these questions?I am only eager to get this fight out of the way so that you and I can begin our lives.My only wish is to defeat Octavian quickly so that Egypt can once again exist in peace.I look forward to a time when I no longer need to fight.”

“So, no fear then?”I couldn’t explain why, but I needed to hear the words.The thought of him being afraid made it all seem even worse.

“No fear, my love.Only acceptance.It must be done and I have trained for it my entire life.But I look forward to seeing your beautiful face at the end of the day.”

He trailed his fingers down the side of my face as he spoke, gazing into my eyes. The love that shone in his took my breath away.

Oh, God. I couldn’t continue this conversation.Not if I wanted to remain sane, because every ounce of my being was desperately screaming to warn him, to keep him safe.To shield him, to protect him… but I couldn’t.And I knew that if I opened my mouth, I might utter something that would change history.So instead, I reached for his warm body, enveloping his lips with mine, silencing any more dangerous words.

The night passed quickly.Much too quickly.I watched him sleep for hours, watching the even rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, tracing the outline of the muscle in his arm.I laid my head on his chest, listening to the rhythmic beat of his heart, sobbing silently as he slept blissfully unaware.

I memorized each plane of his face in the flickering torchlight.The cleft in his chin, the dimples that appeared when he smiled, the shiny silk of his hair.Picking up his hand, I intertwined my fingers with his, memorizing the weight and warmth of his hand within mine.I buried my face into his neck and inhaled his musky, masculine scent.And finally when I knew that I couldn’t commit another thing to memory, I drifted off to sleep in his arms.

When I awoke, it was not even daybreak yet.Hasani was dressing in the soft light of an oil lamp. Rising from bed, I helped him fasten his chestplate and pulled his hair into a sleek ponytail at his neck.Blinking hard, I kissed the side of his neck and then his mouth.I couldn’t stand to pull myself away…I wanted to hold him forever.He stepped away from me a few minutes later.

“Charmian, my love.Do not fear.I will be safe.I love you.”

He kissed me one more time.It was the last time.I knew that.Was every last kiss this difficult?I forced my erratic heart to calm as I looked into his beautiful dark eyes, clenching my fists so tightly that I was probably drawing blood with my fingernails.

“I love you, too, Hasani.Be safe today, my warrior.”

He nodded and walked out, pausing in the doorway to smile at me one last time. And then he was gone.Gone from my sight, gone from me.Forever.My entire world stopped.His absence was that profound.

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