Like most days, the Orchard was quiet. I stood beneath the first tree I planted, hands in my pockets and lost in thought, watching the branches sway overhead. Hekate and I returned from the Gardens a few days ago, and since then, I had tried to give both of us some space. She – rather, we – crossed into new territory in that pool, and I required time to process it, and her. Today, I decided that spell needed to end.
I gave my Orchard a smile and left, taking the gated entrance back to the house instead of the side door. My feet took me along the long route through the gardens, giving me the opportunity to enjoy the growth and openness of the space. When I spotted the gazebo, I realized my feet took me this way for a second reason.
Hekate stood leaning against one of the marble columns, gazing out over the waters. An errant breeze drew strands of hair across her face. I watched the wind try to plait her hair for several long moments before approaching her.
“Am I interrupting you?”
Her smile was warm, genuine. “It’s a pleasant interruption.”
I leaned on the railings, watching the waters. “How are you feeling?”
“For someone so hard to read himself, you ask about my feelings a lot.” Her lips twitched when I didn’t rise to the bait. “I’m fine, Hades. I wasn’t sure coming here was the best idea when you offered. I’m happy to say I was mistaken.”
“I am pleased to hear that.”
“What? That I’m happy, or that you’re right? Again.”
“Well, both, of course,” I grinned, straightening. “Do you recall a deal we made a month ago?”
“I believe you asked for a night with me, a poorly negotiated settlement of a certain debt.”
“Oh, I do not know about poorly negotiated, Hekate.” I slid my hands in my pockets once more. “Are you free tonight?”
She smiled. “As free as the King’s command, it seems.”
I chuckled. “How does dinner at seven sound? I have a gift for you that will be in your room when you return.”
“Trying to spoil me, Hades?” Her voice sounded like she did not mind. “Seven is lovely. Where should I meet you?”
“The gardens, just past this spot. You’ll know when you see it.”
“I should probably think about getting ready, then.” She flashed a stunning smile. “First date with a god and all.”
Without waiting to see my reaction, she turned and headed back to the house. I waited until she disappeared inside, then followed her path. There was much to do before seven.
I finished the Eldredge knot in my tie, adjusting my jacket. I paired my outfit with the one I left in Hekate’s room. Black was my go-to for suits, and tonight was no different. Adjusting my pocket square, I checked the shine on my shoes one more time before teleporting to the garden to wait for her. I was…oddly nervous…or something akin to it. It left me somewhat unbalanced.
Standing in the garden, I admired the work done. Fairy lights, real ones, not the mortal version, glimmered above and around the obsidian platform where we would dine. A pair of wrought-iron and velvet chairs faced each other across a square table set for two. Place settings of bone china, wine glasses, and a fresh basket of bread sat neatly arrayed atop a stark white tablecloth. A lily tucked into a small glass vase graced the center. I took a deep breath, the scent of night-blooming flowers calming my nerves.
Hekate’s voice poured like honeyed wine, the sight of her going straight to my head. The long black dress I left in her room clung to every curve of her body, the neckline curving sinuously around her shoulders before plunging between her breasts. Diamond studs sparkled like stars beneath her dark hair, which she had loosely swept up off her shoulders and secured with a hair stick of ebony inlaid with silver. I watched her walk toward me, taking in the slow sway of her hips, her red velvet mouth, her smoky eyes.
“M—Hekate.” I caught myself, nearly letting it slip. I could feel my heart taking notice of this beautiful woman, but I silenced it. Not now. I strode to meet her halfway, bringing her offered hand to my lips. “You look stunning. As always. I trust you are pleased with your gift?”
“I am.” A flush of color warmed her cheeks. “Are you? Because I’m sure this was for our mutual benefit.”
I turned her around, enjoying the sight of her, and her soft laughter. “More than, I assure you.”
I gestured to the table, leading her over and pulling a chair out for her. She sat down and turned her face up, smiling at the lights in the trees, an enchanted look on her face. As I took the chair opposite her, I discovered her staring at me with dark eyes, their usual flames banked low.
“I’m sure I’ve been remiss in telling you, but I appreciate you allowing me to stay here these last few weeks,” Hekate said. “I know I was resistant, but…I needed it. The sanctuary.”
I poured us two glasses of white wine, handing her a stem before raising my glass to her in a small toast. “To sanctuary. I am pleased you took me up on my offer, Hekate.”
She took an appreciative sip and smiled. “Well, it was out of character for both of us. It’s turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise.”
“I did say I was relearning myself,” I reminded her, returning her smile. I broke bread for us, buttering it. She took my offering with a graceful smile. The fairy lights gave Hekate a glow that reminded me of Olympus during the evening: ethereal and laden with magic. “Are you lacking anything while here?”
“You ask me that every day. And every day, I say no. I should say no for tomorrow, too. Save you a question.”
I could not help but laugh. “My apologies. I must sound like a clucking hen. I just…find your company highly enjoyable. I do not want to scare you off.”
She tilted her head and smiled. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“That you are,” I acknowledged, as one of my staff appeared beside us.
“Sir, madam. What may I get started for you?”
I sat back, watching Hekate. “Crave anything in particular?”
Her gaze slid down my body as she lowered her eyes. When she looked up again, her smile was slow, harboring secrets. “Everything else has been delightful so far. Surprise me.”
“As you wish. Let us start with oysters on the half-shell, chilled, please.” Our waiter nodded and disappeared down the path. A soft breeze wafted through the garden, carrying the elegant sound of a piano and violin playing in concert. “So, I am curious. Tell me how this was a poor deal.”
“The date, you mean?” she asked, swirling the wine in her glass. “I would think the value of an immortal life outweighs that of an evening in a garden. You could have asked for anything. You chose this.”
I folded my arms, crossing my legs casually beneath the table. “And if I told you that an evening in a garden with you is worth an immortal life?”
Hekate averted her eyes, staring into the darkness. A flush of color warmed her cheeks as she smiled to herself, then turned back to me. “Is this what people talk about on dates, Hades?”
“I try to be original,” I replied, taking a sip of wine. “Feel free to tell me if I am not.”
She waved my concern away with a laugh. “I’m merely inexperienced with this whole…ritual. That’s not you. That’s me.”
I grinned, shrugging half-heartedly. “Well, it has been a long time for me as well, so you are not alone. I must ask, though. Do you…find yourself more comfortable not talking business as much?”
“It’s becoming easier. I have to remind myself that things have changed, that it’s no longer inappropriate to treat you so familiar.” She looked at me for a long moment, then leaned forward on the table, chin in hand. “I don’t like mixing business with pleasure. It’s messy and rarely ends well. If anything has come out of my stay here, it was the opportunity to step across that line and just be on one side of it, instead of constantly dancing back and forth, trying to figure out if I was dealing with Hades or the King.”
“And what do you think of being on just one side of the line?” I refilled her glass, then my own.
Her laugh was sudden, infectious. “Oh, I much prefer the treatment on this side! You can be quite the ass on the other.”
I could not help but join her, shaking my head. “Then, I am doing my job correctly. It is impossible to do what needs doing and please everyone.” I swirled the wine in my glass, contemplating the question that has teased my mind the last two days. “Have you considered staying below?”
“I haven’t spent much time in Propylaia since Zeus built that monstrosity upstairs. I probably should.” She smirked and took another drink. “Make sure they didn’t change the locks.”
I exhaled slowly and took another drink as our waiter returned. He set down two small plates, one in front of each of us, along with a larger oyster plate. Arrayed on a bed of greens, the oysters were plump and glistening on the half-shell, cradled in crushed ice to keep them chilled and unspoiled. He garnished the entire plate with a spritz of freshly squeezed lemon and set a delicate serving fork down for each of us to eat. With a quick Bon appétit, he departed.
“I…was not talking about Propylaia.” Her gaze drifted up to mine as I took my fork, teasing an oyster off its shell. “I thought perhaps you might benefit from extending your stay here.”
“That’s …tempting.” She picked up her fork and prodded at one of the oysters as she considered my words. “Especially since I’m just now learning not to feel guilty about it.”
Just ask her, you buffoon. “Would you consider it if I asked?”
“Is that your overly polite way of asking?” she asked, lips curving in a sultry smile.
I allowed myself to finish the first oyster before replying, mulling it over. “Yes. I suppose it is.”
Hekate took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, toying with her food. “I’m torn. On one hand, I love everything about being here. I know I should say yes.”
“And on the other hand?”
She gave me an unguarded look but said nothing.
I rubbed my jaw, staring out into the lake absently. “I would forego anything that puts you into a complicated situation, Hekate. I do not want you to stay out of obligation. You are free to say no.”
Hekate gracefully put her fork aside and stood up. I watched her glide around the table, fingertips trailing along its edge until she stood at my shoulder. Her body bent like a willow as she lowered her mouth to my ear.
“You are a complicated situation, Hades. Are you saying you wish to forego this?” She brushed her lips against the corner of my jaw. “Because if that’s the line your honor requires, I can say no and leave you alone with your civility.”
I closed my eyes briefly, a soft smile blooming. “It currently does not have a line. That is why I asked you.” I turned my head, letting my face brush her lips, just shy of my own. “Is that a yes, then?”
She straightened and smiled down at me, flames dancing in her eyes. “It is.”
We finished dinner under the cover of conversation and music. Our dishes were whisked away as we sat leisurely, sated by delicious food and wine. We fell into a comfortable silence, our first ever. I watched Hekate through stolen glances, wondering what was going through her mind as an idea started to form.
“Hekate, would you care to walk with me?” Her smile was all the answer I needed. Offering my arm, we took to the path, heading back towards the gazebo at a leisurely pace. I silently added slate stones where we walked, so her heels would not sink, allowing us to enjoy the atmosphere without worry. We spoke casually and meandered unhurried, which let me shape my idea into a more solid thing. Slowly, I steered us back to the house. When we reached my office door, she raised an eyebrow at me.
“Where are we going?”
“You have…been open with me. I wanted to return that.” I let her into the house, passing through the office and down the hall, stopping in front of the workshop door.
She gave me a teasing look. “The inner sanctum, hmm? Should I be worried?”
I gave her a half-smile, pressing my hand to the door. A skull and rose flashed over the surface, and a soft click indicated the door was open. I stood back, hands behind my back, and nodded to her.
She turned the handle and pushed the door open, tentatively, childlike, peering around the edge. I watched as she surveyed the space, feeling more vulnerable than I had in a long time. She said nothing as she took in everything. My paints and easels and canvases in various states of completion. Clay and stone and the tools needed to shape earth without the magic that comes naturally to me. She smiled when she saw the motorcycle I was still rebuilding and looked back over her shoulder.
“All of this…is you?”
I nodded once, entering behind her and moving into the room. “Yes. Most of it is old, but I have started one or two new pieces.” I took a few steps back, edging a statuette out of sight, before scanning her face. “Not what you expected of me, I imagine.”
Hekate strolled around the room, looking with her eyes, careful not to touch. “I’ll admit that I’m relieved your secret room is, um…”
“Not a dungeon?” Her laughter at my words was full-throated, warm.
“Yes. Not a dungeon. If only everyone’s secrets were so…” she paused, tilting her head to study the angle of a statue. “Lovely.”
The sound of her heels on the cement gave me chills, in the deepest of ways. “I am pleased to keep your sense of wonder alive. I used to create art whenever inspiration came to me, but my muse has been far more selective as of late. Now I create when something has happened.”
“Necessity is its own muse, I think,” she said, turning her eyes toward the paintings. “I wouldn’t worry. I believe you’ll find your muse more responsive once she realizes the reports of your death were greatly exaggerated.”
I laughed at that. “I hope so. I did miss being in here.” My face fell somewhat, eyes roaming over the dust and dry clay. “I do not need to say it, but please do not share this space with others. I am not ready to let that be in the open.”
Hekate fell still at my words, then stepped away from the painting she had been studying. Threading her way through the workshop, she returned to where I stood and looked me dead in the eyes.
“Don’t think I don’t know what this place is, Hades.” A smile brushed the corners of her mouth as she took my hand. “I will not tell them where you keep your soul.”
“Thank you,” I said with a gentle squeeze of her hand. I glanced down, then back to her. “It is late.”
Keeping her hand in mine, I led her back through the workshop, shutting and warding the door behind us. I drew her down the hallway after me, stopping at her room. She turned to face me, her hand nestled in mine. In the darkness of the hall, her eyes burned low and bright. She took a step toward me, closing the distance.
“I had an exquisite evening, Hekate. Thank you for not reneging on our deal.” I gave her a playful smile.
“You must have me confused with some other goddess,” she teased. “When I give my word, it’s good. Or I’m dead. One or the other.”
“Let us keep you away from the second option, then.” I kissed her on her cheek, before turning and heading down the hall. “Sleep well, Hekate.”