MOM INSISTS ON COMING DOWN FOR LUNCH. she also insists she doesn't need help getting dressed and like Dad an hour or so before, shoos me out to check on how Frey and John-John are settling in.
The room next to Trish's has been set up for John-John, a small, comfortable nook of a room that shares a Jack-and-Jill bath with Trish's. When I peek in, Trish is helping him unpack and the two are chattering as if they've known each other forever. I catch bits of a conversation about horses and how Trish is learning to ride at the estate next door. John-John's thoughts are on accompanying her to her next lesson. They are obviously hitting it off.
I find Frey unpacking in the room that has always been designated as mine when I've come to visit. It's on the opposite end of the hall from my parent's, another corner room, this one overlooking side gardens of boxy shrubs and grass and an ancient oak, under which sprawls a large rectangular wooden table. Dubbed the "outside dining room," it's where my family takes most of their meals in nice weather.
Frey looks up when I enter and waits until I've closed the door behind me to ask, "How is your mother?"
I join him next to the bed and help him ferry clothes back and forth to an open dresser drawer, composing my thoughts before answering.
"In some ways, she doesn't seem sick at all," I say finally. "She's as bright and funny and excited about our being here as ever." I flash my ring. "You should have seen the smile on her face when she saw this." I sigh. "But she's lost a lot of weight and most of her hair. She seems so fragile. And you remember how she was at school."
Frey nods. "Strong as steel. Unbreakable." He draws me to him. "It's good that we've come."
The sob I swallowed back at first seeing my mother rises to the surface again. This time, I don't hold it back. I press my face into Frey's chest and give in to it. His arms tighten around me and he rests his head on the top of mine, holding me while I cry.
He knows me. Knows this will be the only display of emotion I'll allow myself. Knows only with him will I give in to despair. It's up to me to be the unbreakable one now. For Dad. For Trish.
The sobs send tremors through my body, tremors he steadies with arms offering support and consolation. When I can't cry anymore, when I'm spent and quiet, he still holds on. I don't let go, either, wondering why it took me so long to recognize that it is Frey, has been Frey, since the very moment we met.
I pull back a little, to wipe my tear-and-snot-smeared face with the back of my hand. "I must look great." But it's not what I want to say.
Frey is smiling at me, his hands touch my cheek and I know what he's about to say. He has the kind of look in his eyes that means he's getting ready to say something sappy like You will always be beautiful to me. I stop him before he can, wrapping my arms around him.
"Why did I waste so much time?" I ask, voice breathless with anger and frustration. "There have been so many men. So many trivial relationships. Why didn't I see what was right in front of me? Why didn't I know it was you from the very beginning?"
Frey's shoulders lift slightly. "Maybe we had to travel different roads to end up here. Maybe we weren't ready before now."
"You mean I wasn't ready." I push out of his arms and cross to the dresser to yank a couple of tissues out of a box sitting on top. After I've sopped up my dripping eyes and nose, I turn back to him. "I hope you never regret asking me to marry you."
He gives me a teasing smile. "Would it do any good?"
"Fuck, no. You're committed now."
"Ah." Frey closes the distance between us and pulls me back against his chest. "There's the romantic little lady I've grown to know and love."
"You want romance?" I glance at my watch. "We have half an hour until we have to go down to lunch." I cross to the bedroom door and lock it. "John-John and Trish are getting to know each other." I take his hand and lead him to the bed. "Mom says she doesn't need my help to get ready." I give him a push with both hands and he falls back. "I'm feeling a little insecure about our relationship. I think a little romance is just what I need, too."
I've lowered myself on Frey so that the length of our bodies press together
"Insecure, huh?" Frey says. In one smooth motion, he's reversed our positions, pinning me beneath him as he reaches down to run a hand from my thigh to my breast. "Let's see what I can do about that."
His fingers are in my hair and his mouth hot against mine. You'd think it would be difficult to undress each other, lying like that and unwilling to break off a kiss that has my blood raging. But we manage. I don't need to be coaxed or manipulated into being ready, either. When I feel Frey, his hardness, his heat, I take him right in. And when he nuzzles his neck against my lips, I know he's ready, too. I breathe him in, bare my teeth and find the spot.
His body tenses when I break through, just as mine tenses with the first mouthful of his blood. The rest is a tornado of desire and excitement, spiraling up and up, catching us in a whirlwind of passion that doesn't end until our bodies have nothing left to give.
* * *
WE'VE GATHERED AROUND THE DINING ROOM TABLE, A banquet of fresh breads and cheeses, fruit, olives, grilled salmon and Parmesan risotto laid out in a splendid array in front of us.
John-John's eyes widen. "Do you eat lunch like this every day?"
My father laughs. "Just about. What would you like to try first?"
He busies himself helping John-John fill a plate. I look toward the stairs where I expect to see my mother descend. For once, I won't have to pretend to eat. Nor will I have to feign not being hungry. Once the euphoria of lovemaking with Frey wore off, my stomach was once more in turmoil over Mom's condition. I couldn't eat a bite even if it were vampirically possible.
Frey and Trish are chatting about attending school here in France and how it differs from school in the States. I let my gaze drift around the table. It's remarkable how comfortable we all are, how ordinary this feels when the situation is anything but.
My folks, Trish, human. Frey, John-John and I, not.
Before we came down, Frey and I took a moment to let John-John know that my parents were unaware that I was a vampire and if I seemed to look like I was eating food that was why. He promised not to say anything, though I could feel his surprise and confusion that I wouldn't want to share something so important with my parents. We promised to talk to him about the situation later.
I hear a rustle from the hall and my mom is standing in the doorway, her eyes bright, her smile wide as she joins us. She has a scarf tied around her hair and is wearing a shift of multicolored silk over a pair of dark leggings. I jump up to hold out her chair.
She gives me the eye. "Don't fawn over me, Anna," she scolds. But she grabs my hand and squeezes before looking across at John-John. "And who is this handsome young man?"
Frey brings John-John over to stand by her chair. "Mrs. Strong, this is my son, John-John."
John-John holds out a hand, but Mom leans over and hugs him instead. "I am so pleased to meet you," she says. "Would you like to call me Anita?"
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you for letting me visit."
Mom pulls back and winks at Frey. "Daniel, you have a very polite son. Is he always so well behaved?"
Frey and John-John exchange conspiratorial grins and father and son return to their places.
Lunch goes smoothly although I find I can't take my eyes off my mother. She's relaxed and the conversation flows smoothly, touching on every topic except the one that brought us together.
She managed to avoid it when I was alone with her, too, diverting the talk from her condition to my engagement.
When lunch is over, Dad takes Frey on a tour of the property while Trish and John-John leave to see the horses next door.
Mom and I start to clear the table. The housekeeper, Catherine, appears to finish the job, sending us to the living room. In her heavy Irish brogue, she promises to follow with coffee, so I hook my arm in Mom's and we settle into comfortable chairs around a big window overlooking the vineyard.
Mom's chin is set, her back straight. When she meets my eyes, I wonder if she's ready.
Ready to finally acknowledge the elephant in the room.