Marcus had always tried to resist. He'd climb into her car and they'd talk about his flight, the weather, what her father had been up to, all while he put on a show of physical disinterest. Sometimes he even looked at his fingernails, which only made him feel ridiculous. They'd end up with nothing left to say, with her doing her best to lean against him, until he couldn't keep a distance between them anymore.
He lifted his arm and let it hover for a moment as if he were unsure or might change his mind. She closed the gap and snuggled against him just as she always did. Marcus lay his arm stiffly on the seat behind her, still trying to feign a certain detachment. But he did not relax. He never really could when he was with her. And it was only a matter of time before his arm moved around her, his hands in her hair, and he would be lost again.
It was wrong. He'd told himself that for years. He still believed it, but that certainty was less sharp every time he saw her. It no longer helped to think back on the things that made the wrongness clear to him. He could remember those times fondly and still come away from the thoughts wanting her as much as he ever had.
He tried now, thinking back so many years to a memory that had helped make it possible to keep his distance for so long.
Marcus stared through the glass at the six or seven babies bundled in their cribs. Vanity kept him from wearing his glasses, and his eyes had been dry and achy after hours of wearing contacts in meetings and client consultations. Without help, he had no hope of reading the placards proudly announcing the parents' names.
Charles beamed next to him, even bouncing on his toes a little. "Isn't she beautiful?"
He didn't want to ask which one is she, so he slipped his glasses out of his pocket and put them on just long enough to see. He found the right crib, but could only see a dark strip of hair among all the white swaddling.
"I can't even see her, Charlie. She must be bloody horrid for them to wrap her up and hide her like that."
Charles shoved Marcus, laughing. "You're supposed to say she's God damned beautiful. It's your job."
"I'm sure she is, as long as she looks like Allison more than you."
Charles kept smiling. "She does, thankfully."
Charles was apparently too head-over-heels in love with his daughter to bother with comebacks.
"Have you settled on a name? A week ago you had it narrowed to five, I believe?"
"Lea. That's pretty. Old family name?"
A nurse gathered Lea into her arms and smiled at them as Charles waved to his daughter.
"No. It's after Princess Leia--a strong, beautiful, independent woman."
Marcus wasn't surprised that Charlie would choose a name from one of his favorite movies. "Why not just name her Leia then, with an I?"
Charles grunted. "We wanted to give her a beautiful and symbolic name, Marc, not saddle her with an affectation."
The nurse brought her over to the glass for a closer view, holding her carefully and tilting her just enough so that they could clearly see her face.
The baby opened her eyes when the nurse was angling her to give Marcus a good view. She was beautiful, even when her face crumpled into the biggest baby frown possible just before she began to wail. Charles thought it was hilarious, and said that maybe she'd seen Marcus through the glass and thought he was bloody horrid.
Charles retold that story dozens of times through the years, every time all of them were together, after a few Christmas glasses of wine or a few cold beers at a summer picnic. If they gathered today, he'd tell it again, and even try to get Lea to admit that she thought Marcus was horrid. Marcus would laugh and look at her. She'd smile for her father's benefit, then frown for a different reason.
Focusing on Lea as a baby, a small child and an adolescent didn't help anymore. Those memories and the ones of her as a teenager only served to make the way he felt about her now even more intense. He'd struggled with it to the point of seeing a therapist. Two therapists, actually. The first one seemed to be trying to draw out of him that he'd desired her as a child and might be a closet pedophile even though he hadn't felt anything more than familial love for her until she was grown.
He'd even worried about this at one point, that he'd desired her when she was far too young and that was still leading him to want her now. He'd woken in a cold sweat more than once, plagued by dreams in which he felt that way. A second therapist had been much less intense on casting him as a predator and more concerned with discussing how he felt now. And Marcus had come to realize that his and Lea's relationship had been innocent and perfect as she grew up, and that he wasn't wretched or depraved despite trying to convince himself of it for years.
It had been Charles' idea for her to call him Uncle Marc. Charles had no brothers but considered Marc as close as one, and felt it would be good for Lea to have an uncle in her life. Marc had happily agreed. He'd had no idea how wonderful and terrifying it could be to be that close to a child and love one so much.
When she'd fallen off the swings at school and broken her arm, Marcus had dropped everything for the rest of the day to go and see her. It was only a broken arm, but the idea of Lea in pain and afraid tore at him. He'd been the first to sign her cast. He'd even drawn a little alien with antennae on it to make her smile--Charles had shown her Star Wars when she was old enough to properly focus her eyes, so she'd grown to love everything to do with outer space, aliens and spaceships.
When Charles and Allison were going through a difficult time and trying not to get divorced, Lea even stayed with Marcus for a long weekend to give them time to work things through. She'd only been nine at the time, but she knew things weren't right at home. She'd cried while Marcus held her, and then they'd gone to the zoo and the movies, and played Clue until she couldn't hold her eyes open any longer.
Lea's first dance at school had started with Charles, Allison and Marcus taking pictures of her and her date, and then with each one of them. She'd been so beautiful, but Marcus hadn't felt anything but familial love for her. He'd thought about it over and over again to be sure this was so.
Her last high school dance had no happy picture-taking and teasing beforehand, thanks to a boy who'd asked her to be his date a few months earlier, but who decided to take someone else at the last minute. Charles had offered to take her, which had made her laugh through her tears.
"I can't go with my Dad. That would be incredibly lame--no offense. Besides, what you consider dancing is just wrong."
Charles had looked mock-offended and began dancing. "There's nothing wrong with the way I dance!"
Marcus put his arm around Lea's shoulders and squeezed. "He looks like he walked through a spider web, doesn't he?"
"Well, if you don't want to go with your dad, you could go with Marc. Is going with an uncle better than going with your father?"
Lea leaned her head against Marc's shoulder and shook her head just a little.
"Not by much, Charlie," Marc said. "Not by much. But let's go out. We won't have you sitting at home and moping over some foolish boy who doesn't have the sense God gave the goose. Fetch Allison, and I'll take you all out to dinner. We can even go dancing, if you like. You're all dressed up for it, after all."
They'd gone to dinner, but Lea hadn't really been up for dancing. She made sure Marcus knew she'd enjoyed going out in her pretty dress and being rescued from moping around at home, though. He'd stressed that the guys at university in the fall would hopefully have better sense than the feeble young boys she'd gone to school with so far.
Marcus insisted on putting the top down on the way home--both Allison and Lea had protested it on the way because it would mess up their hair. But going home, he said it was necessary.
"It's the only fitting end to such an evening, your hairstyles be damned! We need the wind whizzing past our faces. No one can feel blue while driving at night with the top down. It's a physical impossibility." Lea's hair was styled and pinned firmly enough that she barely looked mussed by the time they stopped in Bordon for petrol. Allison screamed when she pulled her compact out of her purse and said that she'd have never come along if they were determined to make her look like that.
"You're beautiful--beautiful!" Charlie said as he grabbed his wife and kissed her, with her slapping at his shoulder and trying to finger-comb her hair and laugh at the same time. Marcus thought the night had ended up wonderfully, especially considering its somber beginnings. And then Lea turned the key and played the radio while he was pumping gas.
Classical music played, to which Charles started air conducting in the most pompous manner possible. "Marcus, is that really the station you listen to, or just the one you play when you've got a date you want to impress with your culture?"
"Call me an old fuddy-duddy, if you want. I like classical music." He raised his eyebrows and in a very refined voice said, "From which all other music sprang." He frowned when he heard the pounding bass beat coming from his usually sedate speakers. "Except that. That's not really music, is it? It's just a series of explosions, surely."
"It's rock, Uncle Marc. You've heard of that, yeah? Rock and roll?"
One eyebrow stayed up, but he started to smile. "You actually enjoy that?"
"Sure. This is a popular dance song."
"No way. You can't dance to that. That could only be a soundtrack for some kind of fit or fever dream."
Lea laughed and hopped out of the car, putting her shoes back on as she did so. "I'll show you." She grabbed his hand and started moving in a fast dance step.
"Lea." He laughed and looked around at the other people pumping gas. But she kept pulling him toward her and pushing him away, spinning in his arm and shaking her hips and head back and forth. She clearly didn't care if they watched or what they thought. He loved that about her. She was who she was, and damn the torpedoes.
He was sure he looked rather like Charlie dancing, or worse. He preferred ballroom dancing, waltzes and tangos.
When the song ended, she hugged him, laughing and out of breath. A few people clapped, including Charles.
"You're an insane young lady, you know that?" He looked down at her flushed face and her smile, and it was at that moment something changed. After a moment, he stepped away and smiled at her, then at Charles and Allison. "We've made enough spectacle of ourselves for one night."
Lea went to University and excelled, as Marcus suspected she would. They saw each other often, both with her parents and without, and he wondered if he imagined the touches that lasted a little too long or the difference in her smile. She stopped by his flat one day for an unexpected visit, and he didn't have to wonder any longer.
She sat directly next to him on the couch with the drink he poured her, and leaned a little too close against him as she talked. When she leaned forward as if to kiss him, he put his hand on her shoulder. "Lea."
She grinned. "Marcus."
"That's Uncle Marc, to you."
He stood and paced in front of her, the need to put a little distance between them an urgent one. "What you're feeling . . . it's probably natural, but it's wrong." He'd said the same thing then in a dozen different ways, while she sat sipping her drink, regarding him with a half-smile.
"And it's wrong because . . . ?"
He sighed. "I'm old enough to be your father. I'm your father's best friend. That makes you family, Lea, like a niece. Almost like a daughter."
She stood then, leaving her drink on the coffee table. "Age is irrelevant," she said simply. "That you’re my father's best friend could be tricky, but don't you think he'd be happy about it once he really thought it over?" She took his hand and squeezed it between both of hers. "And about being family, it's like we are, we're that close. I've loved you my whole life, Marcus. I'm grown up now, and I love you differently. Why is that wrong?"
He'd ended up with because it just is, Lea, it just is. He'd never quite convinced her.
They still saw each other frequently, but more in the company of her parents than alone, by his own arrangement. Anytime they were alone, however, Lea made her feelings clear. And all she had to do was be close to him for his own feelings to overwhelm him. After a while, he didn't even resist them, letting himself indulge in his attraction to her without ever acting on it. It became uncomfortable sometimes with Charles and Allison around, because Lea was much less discreet.
That was something he loved about her, though. That she so often didn't care what others saw, knew or thought. She went after what she wanted, and she enjoyed every moment to the fullest. By the time she finished at university, she started showing up at Marcus' flat with alarming frequency. And he felt almost impotent when she showed up. She seemed to take charge the moment she walked in, pouring them drinks, sitting too close on the couch, stroking her hand down his tie, leaning in to kiss him--he always stopped her before she could. He had Charles to think about, their friendship, Lea and what could happen if they did this. And he knew if he kissed her, he'd be helpless.
"Why do you keep letting me in when I come here?" she asked one day when he stopped her again with a firm hand on her shoulder. "Why do you let me sit here next to you, knowing what's coming, just so you can stop me? You're a masochist, Marcus. You enjoy torturing yourself."
She jumped off the couch, and for a moment he thought she was going to stomp out. Instead, she turned the stereo on.
"I'm not a masochist. I enjoy your company, and perhaps each time I hope you'll behave like you used to. I'm not going to turn you away. I could never do that."
She held her hand out to him. "Dance with me."
"Just a waltz, Marcus. I promise I won't try to kiss you?"
With a sigh, he rose and pulled her gingerly into his arms. They slowly waltzed, with Lea pressing closer against him than he thought she should. He didn't push her away.
"Behave like I used to . . . like a child? I'm not a child anymore. I'm a woman, you're a man. I don't understand why you don't give in to it. It could be so perfect, Marcus."
"I have been friends with your father since we were children. Losing that wouldn't be perfect."
"You don't know that you'd lose him."
"I don't know that I wouldn't."
She was quiet for a moment. Then she whispered, "If we both explain to him that you're in love with me, I think he'd be happy for us."
Marcus, despite his fears, chuckled at how very Lea it was to say assumed things so bluntly. "I have loved you since you were born, but in love with you? I've never said that."
She stopped dancing and looked up at him. "You don't have to say it. But I know you are."
He almost kissed her then, her upturned face so pale and perfect, her lips parted in anticipation. He even lowered his head to the point their lips almost brushed. He stopped himself and straightened.
She didn't hide her disappointment. "Masochist and sadist," she said, but she hugged him tightly and kept swaying with the music.
When she met Vincent at a gallery showing of one of her friend's paintings, the talk was they'd hit it off immediately. Marcus was both disappointed and relieved. Vincent doted on her. He showered her with gifts. And he proposed marriage faster than anyone expected. Marcus hadn't seen her for a few months, and suspected it was serious and that she intended to go through with it.
"What the hell is he again?" he asked Charles one day while they were out to lunch. "A prince or an archduke? Some royal something?"
Charles shrugged "It's an incredibly long title that means he doesn't govern anything in any real way, but he has an absolute insane amount of money."
"Is she honestly going to marry him?"
"I think she might."
She did. Marcus played the proud family friend/uncle at the wedding, which was a lavish affair covered by reporters, the paparazzi who used long lenses and found good hiding spots outside the huge gardens where the wedding took place, and expensive, hired photographers. At least a few hundred guests were there, most based on who they were and who they knew rather than any real, personal relationship with Vincent.
When Marcus hugged Lea, who was the most beautiful bride he'd ever seen, he almost cried. And when she held onto him for just a little too long, he did have to wipe a tear, grateful that no one but they knew the true reason. It wasn't as if he'd lose her--she and Vincent planned to live in London the better part of each year and travel the rest. But he knew a decision had been made for him, and that one day he may live to regret it.
He didn't see her for a long time after her wedding. When she did show up one day, he wondered if his dream or his nightmare had come true. Lea was a trophy wife. Vincent had lovers on the side, sometimes discreetly, sometimes not. In the way of some wealthy people who feel they're above the concerns that govern most human behavior, he saw nothing wrong with doing whatever he wished.
She didn't plan to divorce him. If he was going to put her on a shelf, so to speak, she planned on enjoying the benefits their lifestyle offered. Marcus thought she should leave him, but she didn't want the public scandal or the private embarrassment of being treated that way. Before he could make his argument for it, she'd thrown her arms around his neck and pressed her lips against the skin beneath his ear.
"I thought you'd come after me, or try to stop the wedding. Make some grand gesture like standing up in protest, or trying to pull me away after the ceremony. You didn't."
"Because I love you, no, I didn't."
"Aside from my parents, no one loves me more than you do. We would perfect together, Marcus. And for a while . . . no one needs to know. My father can't be upset about something he knows nothing about."
"Lea . . . ."
He held her like that for a while, but hadn't kissed her. She left more upset than when she came. Charles rarely mentioned Lea's marriage. Marcus suspected he didn't know that it was a sham, and it wasn't his place to reveal it.
Lea came by more often, and Marcus found her almost impossible to resist. So he traveled more, trips to New York on business, often without mentioning it. He bought a fine home there so he'd be more comfortable, and found himself staying more and more, even though part of him was miserable about it. He gave up his elegant flat outside London and rented one far less expensive--quite a rundown place, actually--to make him want to stay in America more. He barely needed luggage when he traveled, since he had everything he needed in America. He mostly took his hygiene products and a few changes of clothes in case he stopped during his trip there. His computers synced when he used them, so there wasn't even need to carry his laptop. He made his travel time his leisure time--no work, no contacting clients or making plans.
He typically spent it thinking about Lea, and why he felt the need to run this way.
And then Lea showed up at the airport one day when he returned. Charles must have told her when he'd come back. She was there with a driver, prepared to give him a ride home. They didn't go straight home, but drove around for a few hours while they talked and caught up. When she pressed close to him, Marcus looked at the driver with alarm.
"He's on my side, Marc. He's the one who told me about Vincent's affairs, in fact."
Despite her longing looks and clear invitation, he didn't kiss her. But he couldn't not hold her close. He stroked her hair, smelled her hair, rubbed his cheek against it, feeling somehow insulated from going too far by the presence of the driver and the fact that they were in public. And despite his misgivings, he felt better than he had in several months now that she was in his arms.
They dropped him at his flat, and he spent the rest of the night thinking about why he couldn't give in to his feelings. Lea came by less frequently only because he was there less. But every time he came home from the airport, she was there, waiting.
A few times, they were tailed by what appeared to be paparazzi. Always eager for scandal, they hoped to catch her having affairs or doing something unbecoming of the wife of even the most minor type of royalty. When Marcus realized, he gently pushed her away. She moved back and clung to him.
"Let them. You're a family friend, holding me to hide me from their cameras. Who cares?"
She didn't, and it hadn't surprised him. Not one to ever care what others thought, she actually smiled for their photographs sometimes, which had to disappoint them--someone doing something scandalous wouldn't stop and pose.
Each time she picked him up and they rode far longer than necessary to get him home, he came closer and closer to kissing her. That was the barrier he knew he couldn't breach--once he did, there would be no turning back. It was all right to indulge in holding her close, stroking her hair and feeling her body against him. It was all right to wear the pink shirt and tie she'd complimented enthusiastically. It was all right to bound off the plane, barely able to wait to see her face. As long as he didn't kiss her, it was all right.
Tonight, the top of the Bentley was off. "No one can feel blue while driving at night with the top down, right?" she asked. "We need the wind whizzing past our faces."
He wore that pink shirt and tie. She wore his jacket. He'd put it around her shoulders once at a garden party at her father's house because she was cold. She hadn’t offered it back. He hadn't asked.
After his usual attempt at propriety, playacting as if this time he could completely resist her, he ended up with his hands in her hair again, her body leaning against him. They hadn't been bothered the last couple of trips with photographers, but they were out in force tonight, following the car for a while. There was even a helicopter that spotlighted them--the tabloids must be short on scandal. He cradled her against him, her face hidden by her hair, his hands and his parka jacket. After a few moments, she must have grown tired of the lights. She leaned on the door, smiling at the motorcycles that passed to show them she was doing nothing wrong.
When they'd gotten their shots and gone, Lea moved back into place against him. After a while, she leaned up and whispered in his ear. "We're stopping at the Shell station in Bordon." He smiled at the memory of their dance there.
The driver went inside as Lea stepped out of the car. Marcus followed her. She lowered the jacket enough that he could see bare shoulders and a glimpse of her black evening dress, more mature and revealing than the dress she'd worn here when she was eighteen. Are we going to do this? Do this dance again? Then she walked away from him--no, she strutted. He knew why. I thought you'd come after me, she'd said, make some grand gesture.
He didn't waste his second chance.
He whipped the jacket away and pulled her to him, and then he was lost. They danced again, but without either holding anything back. There was no audience this time, and for that Marcus was grateful, though he knew a crowd of a hundred looking on wouldn't have changed a single thing. Their movements were charged, every touch almost an impact, every liquid movement meant to seduce. He shouldn't be doing this, but the moment he let himself give even a little, he was defenseless in the face of his want for her.
Then, in typical Lea fashion, she ended the dance with a seductive press of her body and then a shove before strutting way. He smiled at her sass, at that special something that made her who she was. And then he laughed when the gas pump she held ran out of hose before she could reach the car. She stood there, holding the nozzle at the end of its reach, still a few feet away from the Bentley. That was perfect--impetuous, spontaneous and quirkily flawed, so many of the things he loved about her. She laughed softly and turned her head a little.
He took the nozzle from her and wrapped his other arm around her waist, pulling her against him. He kissed her neck then, the softest brush of lips. He knew she could feel how hard he was. She pressed back. And the driver headed toward them.
She insisted on a walk before they took him home. The sun was rising and the weather beautiful, if slightly chilly. She kept his jacket around her, and he found the idea that she'd worn it often an erotic one, even though for all he knew she'd never touched it again until tonight. They didn't say much, but the looks they gave each other said all that was needed. He was still unsure and riddled with guilt. She still couldn't fully understand his resistance.
When he got out at his flat, he looked up at the crumbling building with distaste. God, he hated that place. But that was the point. It kept him away.
Like he'd done so many times, he pulled his duffel out of the trunk and looked at her with regret before walking away. Her disappointment hurt him, but it had to be this way. Didn't it? Did it matter that he'd never wanted anyone this much, and that he'd never wanted her as much as in this very moment?
Did it matter that the last two times she'd dropped him off he'd barely gotten to his apartment before racing back out, seconds too late, the car already disappearing down the road? Would Charles understand? Would Marcus if he had a daughter that Charles fell in love with?
The dance felt final. One last try. One last grand gesture.
He hadn't even started up the steps to his apartment when he spun on his heel and ran, ready to chase the car to the motorway if he had to.