Breathe Me Page 4

THE SWAYING OF the fountains at the Bellagio was hypnotizing, sparkling brilliantly in the twinkle of the underwater lights. The classical ballet they performed for the onlookers was mesmerizing and distracted me from Sasha’s proximity. The soft spray of water hovered in the air, misting it in its cooling assault before it dissipated in the evening heat. Everything evaporated in the hot, dry air of Vegas. It sucked the moisture of everything living in sight, and I was pretty sure the lotion companies were making a killing here.

“Enchanting, isn’t it?” Sasha’s cool tone vibrated in my ear, making me turn toward him and almost bump noses.

“It is beautiful, but I’ve seen it a dozen times.”

“Still, you can’t say it isn’t a sight.”

I nodded. “It’s pretty amazing.”

“I missed the lights of Vegas. There’s nothing quite like it in all the world.”

Furrowing my brow, I stared at him, confused. “What do you mean, you missed Vegas? Did you leave?”

He nodded, still gazing upon the coordinated water show. “Yeah. Actually, I went back to my home in Moldova. My father fell sick, and I had to help my mother take care of him for a while. Hate to say it, but I wished he’d gone quicker. He just suffered so much, and I was there a while until he died.”

I let my arms fall to my sides, feeling a bit uncomfortable by the subject. “What did he die of?” That wasn’t too direct, was it?

“Terminal lung cancer. He was a smoker. Not many in my village smoked like he did. Still, it did him in and made for a long, miserable death. I was relieved when he finally passed.”

I rocked on my heels. They’d already begun to ache from standing around. I leaned over the cement banister as the show burst into its finale. “And your mom? How’d she take it?”

He let out a small huff. His laugh disguised the anguish he was trying so hard to not show. “She died not long after, bone cancer. In her lungs, initially, but hers traveled to her bones. Did her in faster than him. She’d been quite relieved when he’d finally kicked the bucket, though. She was fed up with his demands and attitude.”

“Sounds really awful. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, I was glad I could be there for them. It was the least I could’ve done. I missed them, and seeing them at the end brought me a lot of closure. We rarely got along when I was younger. Hence the move to America when I turned eighteen. I do miss my brother, though. He’s still back there.”

I nodded, turning back toward him as I leaned on the wall. The show was over, and the crowd of people had begun filtering out of the area. Voices filled the air, and the bright lights of the casinos on the Strip lit up the night sky. It was so bright, not a star could be seen over the halo created by the lights.

“How ‘bout that sorbet now?” He winked, bringing a smile to my face. He seemed so much more relaxed now than he’d been in college, like he’d cut strings off his limbs and now could stroll along easily, without boundaries. It made me wonder just what had changed with him. Even so, I was alert to the fact that it could just be a façade, something he’d slipped on to put me off guard.

“I think that sounds mighty fine,” I said.

He held out his arm, and I slipped my fingers into the crook of his elbow. It felt odd, out of place, but made me feel like a lady. He’d never had such mannerisms before. I decided I was going to search out the reason for his transformation if it was the last thing I ever conspired to do.

Chapter Five

Sasha

“HOW ABOUT THOSE choices! I had no idea they had every flavor crepe and sorbet you could imagine there!” The glowing lights of the Bellagio gardens lit up Piper’s eyes like soft caramel rounds. I was licking the small drips attempting to roll down onto my fingers from the waffle cone in my grasp. The lemon and cherry sorbet was amazing, and I tried to slow down as I ate it, not wanting to look like a pig without manners.

“It’s pretty impressive.”

“We’ll have to come back for breakfast.” My eyes landed on her lips as her soft, pink tongue carefully licked her ice cream, but she trained her eyes ahead. I remembered kissing her lips, soft and sweet, always willing to let me devour them. It sent a longing surging through me, and I bit into the cone to extinguish the desire. We were just leaving the gardens at the Bellagio, where Jean Pierre Patisserie was located. The variety and colors of the flowers were extravagant, especially with the small ponds and fountains slowly flowing and making trickling, gurgling noises. Though it was crowded, it somehow felt like the most serene place on earth.

As we walked into the registration area, I glanced up at the glass flowers dangling precariously from the ceiling. I paused. The array of colors and shapes formed by the blown glass baubles was a sight, but I wouldn’t want to linger under the mass of glass art if there was an earthquake. Thank goodness there never really were any in Las Vegas.

“Pretty impressive.” I stuffed the last of my waffle cone into my mouth, crunching it into tiny bits. I was pretty sure my cheeks stuck out like a chipmunk stuffing his face with food. Piper seemed to find it amusing and almost spit out her ice cream, quickly covering her mouth as a giggle slipped out.

“You might want to chew some more before you choke.” She cleared her throat and pointed to her face, indicating I had a smear of ice cream on mine. Wiping the stickiness off, I couldn’t help but smile at her mannerisms, so proper yet still wary of things. She offered me her bottle of water, which I had just gotten her at the sorbet shop.

“Thanks.” I coughed, clearing my throat before gulping down a few mouthfuls of water. Breathing in deeply, I focused on Piper, handing the bottle back.

“Didn’t backwash, did you?”

I laughed. “Nope. I promise.”

“What do you want to do now?”

I could tell she was hoping I had some sort of plan. I hadn’t been on a date in ages, let alone explored the Las Vegas Strip. I’d avoided it for the most part.

“I have tickets for a comedy show. How about it?” Reaching out, I offer my arm to her, which she swiftly took. She was more comfortable than before, not so stiff and nervous. I liked that about her though, so apprehensive. I was looking forward to easing the leftover knots out of her body. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She was gorgeous, and her confidence made my insides burn with a lustful fury. Glancing down at her fingers as they laced through mine, a soft flutter in my chest momentarily made me forget to breathe. She still had it, that paralyzing charm.

“Um, yeah. Sounds great.” She forced a smile and sucked in a breath. I knew she wasn’t yet sure if she was making a mistake or not by hanging out with me, but I was going to make sure I didn’t lose her a second time around. I was here to stay, whether she knew that or not.

I gently pulled her toward the front doors of the Bellagio, and we made our way to the sidewalk where we waited in line to hail a taxi. Her curiosity was written all across her face, wondering where I was taking her. I was just as nervous as she was, my mouth dry as a desert, even though it now tasted of lemon and cherry sorbet. I hoped that after that night, I’d have more of a chance to atone for what I’d done. My self-doubt was already creeping into my mind before I’d even had a chance to realize it was there.

“You alright?” I inquired. She was chewing adamantly on her lower lip, certainly losing her own nerve. I could kiss those lips for you, I thought. Make it all better.

My voice pulled her back to the present as we slipped into the back of the taxi cab. I scooted in after her and told the cabbie our destination. Piper was already hugging her arms in the cold of the AC blasting from the vents, so I slipped my arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. She froze, not sure what to do about me putting the moves on her. Relax, relax, I mentally told her. I couldn’t afford to let her chicken out now.

“Better?” I whispered, my warm breathe tickling her ear just slightly. She nodded, throwing me a small smile. In the dark of the backseat, her eyes shined, reflecting the flickering lights of the casinos. My gaze didn’t leave her face, and she let it linger a while longer. Her lips were the lightest pink and were probably still as soft as I remembered. Flashes from long ago, of kissing her, made me want to lean even closer to brush mine against them. It seemed to be flitting across her mind, too, and a soft blush warmed her cheeks.

I tilted my head, bringing my lips to her skin, softly lingering on her neck as I placed a silent, tender kiss on the area right under her ear. My heart was racing, and I was pretty sure she could hear its thumping against her skin. It was no longer cold inside the taxi but stifling, and her fast, shallow breathes were not enough to keep the world from spinning. She shifted away, giving me a hard glare, stopping me in my tracks. But my hand lingered, gracing her cheek as my fingers slid down to rest on her hip bone. My other hand still embraced her shoulders, comfortably cupping her small frame. I was invading her space, but her skin was hot and smelled amazing. The calming scent of her perfume filled the air around me, like she was on everything I touched. I was pretty sure she could see the fear and desire flickering in my eyes. Surely we were both done for now.

“Piper, you look even more beautiful than I remember. I know you still don’t trust me, but that’s okay. You’re worth the wait. You’re that amazing.” I pulled my arm from around her shoulders, leaving a cold draft where the warmth of her body had just been. I didn’t move away, though, but remained seated snugly next to her, our h*ps and thighs touching, pressed against the fabric embracing our bodies. “I don’t want to push in any way. I’m very patient, and I can wait. Until you’re ready, I’ll be right here, next to you.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered back, low enough so the cabbie couldn’t hear her speaking.

Confused, I scanned her face as I calmly waited. “For what, Piper?”

“I don’t know if I can do this.”

“What do you mean? The comedy show? We can go somewhere else if you want.”

“No.” She sucked in a breath and leaned back, letting her head drop, and stared at the dingy roof of the taxi. “I can’t do this. This thing you have in mind for us. I can’t do this.”

Sitting up, my panic spilled over. I wanted to scream. Her words stung my chest like a hot poker.

“Stop the cab, please,” she called out.

The cabbie glanced at us in the rear view. His eyes darted from me to Piper and back again before settling back on the road.

She hit his seat, not hearing me protesting next to her, trying to coax an explanation out of her. “Stop the car now!” she hollered, hitting the back of the driver’s seat again. The tires came to a screeching halt, and she spilled out, not realizing we were in the middle lane of traffic. A white Caravan swerved away from her, its horn screaming in our ears as it barely missed her, and the car behind it also squealed to a stop. She dashed past it and made it to the sidewalk, a trail of cursing and threats echoing behind her. She stumbled away, holding her chest as though it hurt something awful. I scrambled to throw the cabbie some money and carefully hopped out of the cab. Making it across the two lanes of traffic, still halted from her interruption, I hurried after her.

I spotted her on a park bench and slowly made my way to it. But first I paused at a street vendor selling cold bottles of water out of a cooler and tossed him a dollar for an icy bottle. Approaching the bench, I wasn’t sure what to say at all. I watched her bend over, trying to calm the tight crushing pain in her chest. Damn those panic attacks. I hadn’t seen her have one in so long, I’d forgotten about them. She’d almost gotten herself run over and killed because she’d let it overtake her at the most inopportune moment.

“Breathe… breathe….” I could hear her whispering the words to herself.

She coughed, letting the calm slowly work the knots out of her as it came wafting in. She was slowly settling, and I could physically see the blood rushing back into her head as she leaned forward, letting her long brown hair drape over her knees like a shroud.

“Piper?”

She didn’t look up, and I hoped she wouldn’t run away again. Tears spilled from her eyes, and she squeezed them tightly shut. The tears dampened her legs, bare underneath her skirt, until they slid silently onto the sidewalk. Whispers sounded off as the crowd dispersed from around us, no longer entertained by her breakdown. I threw them a challenging glare, sending the few who were still there scurrying away. I’m sure they thought we were both crazy.

“Here, Piper.” I offered her the dripping wet bottle of water, sweating from the heat. When she didn’t respond, I bit my lip and pressed it softly to her skin, hoping to shock her out of her trance. She flinched and turned to watch the drops of water slide down the clear plastic. Finally, she slipped a hand around it and sat up straighter. The cold had done it, pulling her back to the present. She took a few sips and calmed down even more.

She glanced toward me as I knelt in front of her, slowly caressing her arms. She hadn’t swatted me away, which was a huge step. She shivered, and I could feel the goose bumps flare up under my fingertips.

Suddenly, her shyness returned, and she quickly handed the bottle back to me. She wiped her hands on her skirt then rubbed away the mascara streaks from under her eyes.

“I’m sorry.” She smiled weakly, embarrassed.

“Don’t apologize.”

“I get these attacks. They sneak up on me, and I….”

“You don’t have to explain. I remember.”

She pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes, watching me sit quietly next to her. I diverted my own gaze to land on the cars racing by. Bunches of people flocked on by, as though nothing had ever happened, and as though we didn’t even exist. That was okay, though. One thing I liked about Vegas was the way a person could stand in the thick crowds on the Strip and fade away. It was easy to disappear, blend into the faces of tourists, performers and families. It was the place to be someone, and yet be no one, all at the same time, if you wished it. Forgotten within minutes, anonymity at its finest.

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