Curio Vignettes 02 Craving

BOOK: Curio Vignettes 02 Craving
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Craving

Cara McKenna

 

This is the second title in the Curio Vignettes series, follow-up stories to the novel
Curio
.

 

What a difference a season makes.

In the spring, Caroly arrived on Didier Pedra’s doorstep in Paris as so many women have—ready to buy an evening’s pleasure with a gorgeous man skilled in the craft of seduction. She was a trembling virgin then, but so much has changed. It’s summer now, and she no longer pays for his company…nor suffers from the delusion that he’s as perfect as he seems. He’s a shut-in with a crippling fear of the outdoors, but he’s also the kindest and most passionate man she’s ever known.

Having grown bolder with every visit and carnal lesson, Caroly’s ready to venture where she’s always feared—into the mysterious chest at the foot of Didier’s bed, filled with the accouterments to cater to the appetites of a hundred different women. Dozens of toys offering infinite delights…all hers to enjoy tonight.

 

C
RAVING

Cara McKenna

Dedication

 

For the ugly ducklings and the nervous wrecks. Pick your fruit from the highest, most improbable branches and leave those bruised, mealy cast-offs to the folks who aren’t willing to risk a fall.

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thank you, Bobbi and Ruthie. I have secretly named the perv-o pigeons peering in Didier’s bedroom window after you.

 

Chapter One

 


Excusez-moi—quelle heure est-il?

It’s twenty past seven, the young waitress replies. She eyes the empty seat across from me and the untouched second menu. I smile far too cheerfully as she refills my water glass.
He’ll be here
, I tell myself.
He’ll be here.

He’s late, but he’ll be here.

Ten minutes later, the server gently asks if I might prefer to wait for my companion at the bar and let another party be seated.

He’s nearly here, I tell her, praying it’s true.

As she walks away I think,
I could go and find him.
There are only so many places he could be, a small area to cover. What if he’s lost? What if he got hit by a car? What if he saw something that’ll undo all the progress he’s made?

No.

He’ll be fine. If I went and got him it would undermine the entire design of this date. Worse, it would make him think I have as little faith in him as he does. Never.

Plus I made a reservation. I bought a new dress and set aside money specially for tonight’s wine. Even if he keeps me waiting until midnight, I’m not leaving this table.

My waitress returns, her expression that mix of pity and contempt the French make look so stylish. Before she can suggest I’m a waste of space and free bread, I order a bottle of Grenache and two glasses. As she leaves, my date and I make eye contact across the restaurant.

My heart turns weightless and I smile, all forgiven in an instant. His own smile is tight as a sprung bear trap, but I knew it would be.

I stand as he arrives and we exchange cheek kisses, plus an extra one on the mouth. His hand trembles on my arm. He murmurs an apology but I don’t even waste the energy to acknowledge it. Normally I’d offer him the seat facing the room, with a clear view of every noise and movement that might unnerve him, but it’s a table for two, the wall at our sides.

As we sit, I admire my date. I’m not the only one. People will be wondering,
Is that…?
But they’ll fail to supply the name of a famous actor, because although Didier’s too handsome to be plausible, my date isn’t famous.

Infamous, perhaps, but only in small circles. A former artists’ model, presently a prostitute. Also a severe agoraphobe, though no one looking would likely notice the menu fluttering in his quaking hands, the way he swallows too often, the taut tendons along his throat buttressing a clenched jaw. All they would see is a striking face, lush dark hair, seductive brown eyes, a pleasing frame filling out a crisp dress shirt.

Before we met, that was all I expected to find in him—that, and a sexual education. And when we did meet, it was I who was frightened and out of her depth, thinking him some perfect, confident creature. He intimidated me just as the chaos of the outside world intimidates him, though I’m not naive enough to believe he’ll find ease with his disorder in a matter of weeks, as I have with my inhibitions.

I let him settle in silence, knowing the journey was tough. This is the first time I’ve asked him to meet me somewhere, as opposed to us going together.

I chose this restaurant because it’s only four blocks from his flat. A ten-minute stroll for most anyone, though Didier Pedra isn’t most anyone, and he was nearly an hour late. I drew him a map and listed useful landmarks along the journey.
Turn left after the store with the beehive on its sign. Keep going straight at the intersection with the Métro station.

I’m mindful to always be patient, because I know that when he ventures outside, the anxiety is so chemically intense he might as well be intoxicated. If you escort him, you have to speak clearly and calmly. You wait for a walk signal at every new street, even if there are no cars in sight and pedestrians are slipping past on all sides, safely jaywalking. When a crossing doesn’t have a walk signal and you have to rely on cars to halt at stop signs, I swear you can hear Didier’s heart beating, stark as a metronome.

The waitress returns, seeming surprised that a) I wasn’t stood up and b) my date is so undeniably worth waiting for. Suddenly friendly, she pours us each a glass of the wine. I know Didier won’t be very hungry, so I order three hors d’oeuvres for us to share, the waitress shooting my companion curious glances as she scribbles.

Part of me wishes he appeared a bit more enthusiastic to be here. From the outside we must look like a couple on the verge of a breakup, me the cheerfully oblivious soon-to-be dumpee. But fuck what people think. Behind closed doors in the safety of the familiar, he’s warm and kind and wonderful. Not my boyfriend—his occupation doesn’t allow such an easy label. But he’s my first and only lover, my friend, and what feels more and more like a partner as the weeks pass.

Just now he’s as comfortable as an arachnophobe crawling with tarantulas, but I look past the fear to find his beauty, and past his beauty to all the fascinating depths beneath his skin.

He stares at his glass for a long moment and takes a stilted breath, then another, and finally one deep enough to catch in his chest, always a good sign. He blows it out, smiling weakly, and meets my eyes.

“Hello.” I speak as though he’s just arrived, because in a sense he has.

“Good evening.” He nods around us, the gesture a flimsy imitation of ease. “This is lovely.”

“I’ve never been, but my coworker says the food is amazing.” Though as an American transplanted from a dirt-poor patch of northern New Hampshire, I trust everything I’m fed in Paris is delicious, as long as it’s overpriced and hard to pronounce and comes with a cloth napkin.

“You said we have something to celebrate,” Didier says.

I pick up my glass and he does the same, and for a moment curiosity distracts him from anxiety. That warrants a toast in itself. “I have good news. I got promoted.”

Oh, that smile. He’s forgotten the restaurant and its noises and sudden movements, beaming pure happiness at me.

“That’s wonderful!” We clink our glasses. “Do you get a new title?”

I swallow the first sip, shutting my eyes to savor the tart, sharp red on my tongue before speaking. Setting the glass down, I say, “I do. I’m going to be the assistant to the director.” It’s a funny diagonal step up from assistant curator at the museum where I work, but it means that in another year’s time, I may get to see my name listed as regular old unadulterated curator in an exhibit program.

“I don’t get my own office or anything, but they’re giving me a nice raise.” A
very
nice raise, enough to move me to a larger flat if I don’t blow it all on fancy food and fancy clothes and gifts for my fancy French not-a-boyfriend.

“That’s excellent news. Congratulations.”

“Thank you. And we’ve got something else to celebrate as well.”

“Oh?”

I gesture at him, sitting here before me. “No taxi, right? And no escort.”

He nods and I catch him blushing, a rare sight indeed. It makes my own cheeks heat in return.

“I was terribly late.”

“But you’re here. That’s enough. Punctuality’s a goal for the future.”

“I froze at the postboxes.” I picture him there, immobilized beside the bank of narrow brass doors in his building’s foyer. “For twenty minutes. Maybe thirty. Neighbors came and went, and I pretended to be checking my pockets for something. And when I did leave I got lost, though I couldn’t tell you how or where.”

“But you un-froze, and you got yourself un-lost.”

“I suppose.”

“So
salut
to that,” I say forcefully, and we toast a second time. “How do you feel now?”

He glances to his side, dark eyes darting at the activity all around us. “Better. Stable.” His hands have stopped trembling, though now they’re unnaturally rigid like his shoulders. Still, a good sign.

“What did you do today?” I ask. It’s a Friday, and I wonder if he woke with another woman in his bed.

I try not to think too hard about his clients and, when I inevitably do, to not find them threatening. I wonder what they do with him, or need from him. When I feel jealous I remind myself they’ve never crouched at the edge of the sidewalk, stroking Didier’s hair until he stopped hyperventilating. Many know he’s a shut-in—for years he’s relied on them to run errands so he could stay inside. He’s very easy to be kind to. But none of them have seen him as I do. They’ve seen him naked, seen him turned-on and watched him come, but I know him even more intimately. I’ve seen him so scared I swear I could hear his bones rattling, and I wouldn’t trade the shivering baby bird for its pretty shell, never in a hundred years.

“I did laundry,” he tells me.

I blink, surprised. “Did you?”

He nods and the food arrives. The second the waitress is gone I gape at him. “At the launderette around the corner?”

Another nod. It’s scarcely a thirty-second walk, but when we met he was lucky if he made it downstairs to check his mail twice a week. This is
huge
.

“Wow. You left two times in one day.”

His smile is full of shy pride. “I did.”

“That’s amazing. How was it, doing laundry?”

“Quiet. Nearly pleasant, I suppose, once I caught my breath.”

He tells me about a little girl who was there with her mother, how she helped him pair his socks. The vision sets dangerous creatures prowling in my reproductive jungle. That never used to happen, but since I turned thirty and discovered I can interact with a handsome man without getting sick to my stomach… It’s all very treacherous down there of late. But it’s nothing. Biological insanity. A byproduct of my age and overexposure to Didier’s pheromones or something.

Provided he never had to go outside, Didier would be a wonderful father—doting and patient and loving. Provided I… Well, in no scenario do I suspect I’d make a good mother. Karma would come collecting, landing me with a child as callous and volatile as I was growing up. I also worry it might be saddled with my mom’s bipolar disorder, my social awkwardness or Didier’s crippling anxiety, or his late mother’s depression, or all of these things.

Plus it’s only been a few months since I started seeing him without having to pay for the privilege. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s far from monogamous, exceptional as our relationship is. I’m stupid in love with him and not thinking straight, and theorizing about the children we shouldn’t have is an exercise in extreme delusion. Stupid brainwashing ovaries.

We sample the various hors d’oeuvres and moan our delight. Sipping his wine, Didier motions frantically with a hand, as if he’s remembered something important he meant to tell me. He swallows and blurts, “You look beautiful.”

“Oh, thank you.” I look down at my dress, all my guilt over its price melting away at his three little words. Three little words he needed to say so urgently he nearly choked.

“I noticed right away, but…”

“It’s fine. Your head was someplace else. You look nice too.”

He looks far better than nice. He looks as if he stepped out of the window dressing of a shop in the Rive Droite. I’ve grown so used to him barefoot and in jeans that seeing him in a dress shirt, open at the throat…I feel that same giddy excitement from the first night we met. He shaved today too. I love him all rumpled and casual, as if he’s just rolled out of bed, so he usually skips on days when we have a date. But I like how dapper he’s looking tonight. We both look nice, as if we belong in this fancy restaurant. I know we’re only playing dress-up, but I also know that everyone else here is doing just the same. Everyone’s a mess underneath, but it’s fun to put on costumes and play tourist in elegant places.

BOOK: Curio Vignettes 02 Craving
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