Sarah had been correct when she said that the Goblin King was not good at being inconspicuous.
He didn’t even have to move. Or say anything, though she could practically hear all the un-uttered jibes just waiting to fall from his lips. No, he just had to sit on her sofa in this apartment that really hadn’t felt cramped until he arrived, radiating a hundred different bad ideas that she wasn’t entirely convinced were bad at all.
She couldn’t focus on her writing. She’d write a paragraph, delete it, write a sentence, delete it. Jareth’s breathing was far too loud, she decided, though she knew it wasn’t any louder than mortal breath.
He seemed, of course, completely unruffled. At one point she glanced over to the sofa to see that he was reading her copy of Pride and Prejudice, one of the many books she’d stacked near the television set, turning the pages rapidly. Less than an hour later he had opened a different book, one with a rather salacious-looking cover. An hour later he was reading a contemporary romance novel with a colorful, pastel cover illustration. It seemed that his more-than-mortal abilities included speed-reading.
Dear God, I hope he’s not getting ideas.
Or…maybe I do?
She shook her head, trying with limited success to focus on her writing. The heat wasn’t as intense as usual but by late afternoon she could feel sweat trickling down the back of her neck. Sighing, she stood up and went to the fridge, pulled out the container of berries, and began chopping up ice and fruit to make a drink.
“Why are you reading those?” she finally asked.
He didn’t look up. “I find the mortal concept of attraction intriguing.” He gestured to the stack of books. “Regardless of the century or locale, it always seems to begin with animosity and end with marriage.”
She laughed and scooped ice and berries into a glass. “Yeah, well, the story wouldn’t be very interesting if there weren’t any obstacles to overcome.”
She could feel him smirking. “Indeed.”
Her urge to be hospitable appeared again, though she kept reminding herself that she hadn’t exactly INVITED him here. “You, uh, want a cold drink?”
He kept his eyes in his book. “I’m not sure,” he said, turning a page. “I’ve been warned about accepting gifts from mortals.”
Sarah gave a short laugh. “It’s not poisoned, I promise. Or, you know, full of hallucinatory peach juice.”
“A shame, mortal hallucinogens are delightful.”
“Do you want the drink or not?”
He closed the book. “Patience, Sarah. It isn’t as though we have a pressing schedule. ” He rose from the sofa. “And given that the heat is working against me…yes, I would love a drink.”
She poured club soda into a second glass as he came just a little too close, that delightful smell and slight sense of prickly electricity surrounding him. She mixed in mashed berries with a bit of syrup and ice and handed him the glass.
“Alla vostra salute,” he said, clinking his glass with hers.
She shook her head and took a sip, closing her eyes at the pleasant feel of the icy cold drink on her tongue. “It’s embarrassing that your Italian is better than mine.”
“I have had a few more millennia to study it.”
She smiled and met his eyes—and then quickly looked down, because those were definitely eyes you could get lost in. After a moment of silence, he slowly pressed his cool glass against her neck. Unable to stop herself, she sighed in pleasure, rubbing some of the condensation over her face and fanning herself.
When she opened her eyes again Jareth was gazing at her with fairly obvious thirst.
She downed the rest of her drink quickly. “I think I also need a snack,” she said, opening the fridge.
Miraculously, he refrained from making any sort of comment on her choice of the word “snack” and instead glanced over her shoulder. “Or perhaps we should cook something. This is a common theme in your contemporary love stories that I have been reading. And it usually leads to intimacy, which is an added benefit.”
She turned to look at him. “You’ve been speed-reading romance novels…and your main conclusion is that cooking leads to fucking?”
“Particular types of cooking. Usually involving a mess, a less-than-stellar result, and the opportunity to lick dough or cream off the other person’s fingers.”
Sarah laughed. “Yeah, well, we’re not baking anything in this heat, so don’t get your hopes up. Although…” She noted the container of leftover rice and several eggs in the fridge. “Rice pudding! Perfect.”
Jareth seemed disappointed that the recipe in question would not require long hours of trial and error or make a significant mess, but perked up when he was allotted specific tasks. Sarah heated the milk in a small saucepan and had him add the sugar slowly, then had him stir the mixture while she cracked an egg yolk into it. Finally, she dumped the re-heated rice into the pan and mixed everything together, then spooned two portions into small bowls and grabbed a small container of cinnamon from the cabinet.
“Right,” she said. “Now we just sprinkle on some cinnamon and it’s done.”
He examined the container and proceeded to pour a very hearty portion of cinnamon over both servings, so much that some of it spilled onto his hands. He smiled, looking triumphant.
“Aren’t you going to help me clean this up?”
She laughed. “I think you’re capable of washing your own hands.”
He reached up and smeared a trail of cinnamon over her cheek. “As always, what I’m capable of is not always what's most fun.”
She reached for the water faucet and he gently blocked her wrist, moving in quickly to kiss her cheek, his lips lingering just a bit longer than they should have. She forced her expression to stay neutral.
“Learn that from your research, did you?”
He pulled back to meet her eyes and smile, and yet again she felt like the ground beneath her feet was wobbly. “No, that was entirely my own invention.”
His lips were so close to hers. A familiar voice in the back of her mind told her to turn away, that she didn’t deserve this sort of thing, at least not yet, but it was much fainter than it had been.
His lips brushed hers, ever so lightly, and she tasted cinnamon. “Tell me no and I’ll stop,” he whispered.
When she didn’t speak he pressed against her and pushed at her lips with his tongue, and she felt herself opening, her body pliant as his arms snaked around her and reached up to fondle her hair. His tongue pushed and probed and hers pushed back, loving the taste of him.
In the instant that her own arms reached up to grip his hair and pull him closer, though, he abruptly stepped back, smiling an all-too-casual smile and picking up one of the dishes of rice pudding. “Our efforts are getting cold,” he said, raising a spoonful to his lips.
She stared at him, her heart pounding. “It’s supposed to be eaten cold,” she said, knowing that her attempt at nonchalance was failing.
“Hm. I prefer it warm.” He licked the spoon slowly.
She crossed her arms as her heartbeat gradually slowed. “What game are you playing?”
He took another bite. “I’m not playing a game, Sarah. But you are, it seems.”
“I haven’t quite determined all of the rules and conventions yet, but I do know for certain that you would have stopped me before things truly became…complicated,” he said. “And so I stopped things for you.”
She folded her arms. “You don’t know that. You don’t know me.”
He smiled, and it seemed genuine. “Not nearly as well as I’d like to, reginetta. But I do know that you’ve a wall up, and it’ll take more than rice pudding to bring it down, contrary to what your novels may believe.” He handed her the other dish. “You really should try this, though. It’s lovely.”
She took the dish. A part of her did want to tell him everything. But another part of her wanted to win, and winning meant that she didn’t give the Goblin King anything he wanted, at least not easily.
Winning was starting to feel a lot like losing, though.
She took the dish of pudding over to the window and looked outside, taking a bite as she looked over the colorful rooftops to the ocean beyond. A bicycle went by on the street below, the bell ringing.
“My mom died,” she finally said.
She turned back to look at him. “My mother. She died. You wanted to know why I’d been sad for a long time.” She gave a mirthless laugh and took another large bite of rice pudding. It was good. “Not a very interesting reason, I know.”
He was silent as she continued eating. “We weren’t even close. We hadn’t been, for years. She would call me up and promise some grand weekend getaway with some glamorous new boyfriend and then cancel at the last minute.”
She turned away again, feeling that familiar cascade of emotions that therapy had tried to help her work through. “That night she was walking somewhere in the city, maybe going to a bar or a party. A car ran through the crosswalk. They said she died instantly.”
“So in your dream…”
Images from that dream she’d been having for months flashed vividly through her mind—the woman in the white dress, the horrible feeling of helplessness as the car barreled toward her. “So yeah, I was sad for a while, and I was having bad dreams, and I know it’s not my fault that she died but I still feel like shit a lot. Like I don’t ever deserve to feel good again.”
She felt Jareth come up behind her. “You genuinely believe…that you do not deserve to feel good?”
She shrugged. The feelings were less raw than they’d been a year ago, but they were definitely still there. “Basically, yeah. I keep thinking about how it might have been different if I was with her. Lots of bad memories.”
She took another bite of rice pudding as he seemed to consider her words carefully. “I believe the solution to your problem is clear, even if you can’t see it.”
“Yes.” He ran a finger over cheek and it came away with cinnamon on it, which he licked slowly. “You should make new memories. With me.”
Sarah laughed and then stopped short as he casually took the spoon out of her hand and helped himself to her portion of pudding.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
He took a bite and smiled. “Taking what I want. Which I would advise you to do as well.”
“Something tells me this isn’t about what I want.”
“Oh, I don’t claim to be selfless in this arrangement. But sometimes people want the same thing.”
Sarah’s mouth twitched slightly. “And what do I want, exactly?”
He set the rice pudding on the table and leaned against it, appraising her. “I think you want…you deserve…an evening of indulgence. Good food, good wine, physical pleasure.” He took her hand and kissed it. “With someone who will, much to your relief, make no demands on you after it’s done.”
She laughed. “And you’re the one to provide that?”
He smiled. “I am, if anything, very good at giving people what they want.”
Sarah ran a hand through her hair. He’d offered her a gift once, and she’d refused it. Her dreams about him had certainly been memorable. And once he was gone, he would likely never come back.
You know you’ll always wonder if you don’t.
She cleared her throat. “Even if I did want you—“
“You do. Not much point denying that.”
“Fine, but we’re a bit low on fancy food, and the wine is—“
Sarah closed her eyes. “Buona sera, nonno,” she called out.
“Buona sera! More focaccia, and fresh Pecorino Toscano, a fresh bottle of wine, and Signiora Folliero’s cured olives!”
Jareth grinned. “Maybe I won’t turn your landlord into a goblin after all.”