Only to freeze at the sound of a knock at the door.
"Sir Markus?" one of the maids called through the door. "Drinks for you and your guest."
I bit back a groan of disappointment. Markus cursed underneath his breath and dropped his hands, and his head, which had been moving closer to mine, landed on my shoulder instead.
Another knock. "Sir?"
He pushed away from me and headed toward the door, and I had to fight to keep from grabbing him and pulling him back. "Yeah, coming," he muttered, opening the door wide enough to let the maid come into the room and place a tray containing a pitcher of iced tea and two tall glasses on his desk. "Thanks, Annie. You can just put that there," he said, and I couldn't help but notice that he was avoiding my eyes.
She showed no signs of leaving just yet, though. "Ma'am Gina set out some snacks on the kitchen counter for you, since she said you're not interested in having dinner."
I started to shake my head to protest that it wasn't food I wanted, but Markus had his back to me. To my dismay, he nodded in agreement. "Uh, yeah, that sounds good," he replied distractedly, raking his hands through his hair. And over his shoulder, he said: "Ate, let me just—I'll go get some snacks. Just wait here, okay?"
"Wait, Markus—" I began, but he was already gone. Sighing, I turned to Annie, and only then noticed her eyeing me with unabashed curiosity. "Um, hello," I said, recognizing her as the maid who'd smiled at me earlier. "We haven't met yet. I'm Sienna, Markus' friend."
"Oh, we know who you are, Ma'am," Annie blurted out.
"Oh yes. Sir Markus talks about you all the time," she said in a chatty fashion. "I've been here for four months, and I already know that you're a great cook, you take care of your family all by yourself, you passed all the university entrance exams you took, you're going to college in UP, you like animals and sweets, you hate scary movies—"
"Wow, all of that?" I said faintly, taken aback at the unexpected flood of personal information. A sweet, happy feeling was spreading through me, leaking out in a silly little smile.
"Oh yes." She bobbed her head, then leaned closer to whisper conspiratorially: "Between you and me, Ma'am, I think Ma'am Gina's jealous of you."
"She's what now?" I choked on my laughter at the thought of the prim and proper housekeeper seething with jealousy like any of the girls in our school.
"Oh yes. After all, Sir Markus likes your house much better than here."
She leaned forward again, about to say more, but was stopped by the crisp voice of the devil—a.k.a. Ma'am Gina—crackling through the air: "Annie, downstairs please."
We both jumped, our gazes flying to the small speaker installed in one corner of the room. "I've forgotten about that stupid intercom system," I muttered. "Honestly, this house is insane."
"I beg your pardon, Ma'am. Please call us if you need anything." She bobbed her head again, her garrulousness transforming into an air of formality.
"Wait." When she paused at the doorway, I went on: "The reason Markus likes our house so much? It's because when he was younger, he stayed with us while this house was being built. And he's best friends with my brothers, so it's natural he'd like to hang out at our place."
The maid gave me a dampening smile. "If you say so, Ma'am. But you know, none of us are surprised that you're the first girl Sir Markus has ever brought home like this."
With that, she closed the door behind her, leaving me with the oddest sensation of free-falling. I'm the first girl he's brought here? Well, of course, Arianne and Shelly had been here before, but I knew what the maid had meant. So among all the girls he'd dated, he'd brought none of them here to his house? To his room? None, except me. And with his reaction to seeing me earlier… Could that mean—was it okay for me to hold on to a little bit of hope after all?
I sank down on his bed and let the emotions cascade through me. Markus had been right about me. Somewhere in the course of this weird little experiment, I went from seeing him as just another of my brothers to seeing him as a boy—a boy I was falling for so fast it made my head spin. I knew I couldn't go back, no matter how hard I tried. How I felt about him now…honestly, it was crazy. I cast back to the conversation in the car earlier, when I found myself facing the thought of him being with another girl. The pain had taken me completely off guard. I couldn't stand the idea of Markus holding another girl, touching her, kissing her, falling in love with her. It hurt so much, I didn't know what to do. What on earth happened? How could things between us have changed so fast? I'd known about him and his flock of girls for years. I'd even helped him court a few before, all without feeling that hot, tight band squeezing my ribcage until I didn't know whether to rage at him or cry or just give in to despair. But now…I could feel myself hurtling toward some unknown destination, unable to stop or reverse or swerve aside, unable to do anything except hold on and pray that I survived the inevitable crash with as much of me as possible left intact. Because I had a sinking feeling that after this experiment was over, the only one who was going to crash and burn was me.
Suddenly restless, I got to my feet and wandered over to his bookshelf. He had more stuff now than I remembered, including a surprising number of books. There were some graphic novels and a few textbooks that all looked as if they'd barely been opened. Among the more well-worn books was a world atlas, a few books of maps and biographies of historical figures, and a couple of college-level history books with several colorful tabs sticking out to mark pages. But the strangest ones were two large books that were so battered the titles on their spines had almost rubbed off. One was a coffee-table book entitled The Lozada Corporation: The Rise of a Philippine Industry. A history of the family business? Markus was interested in this? I shook my head in amazement, then pulled the other book out. It was a hardbound book, and on the cover were the words: Saturno Lozada: My Father's Journey By Leticia Lozada-Feliciano.
I studied the antique photograph of a dignified-looking old man in a suit on the cover. Markus had his great-grandfather's eyes, making his blood-tie to his family undeniable; the photograph was sepia-toned, but I had no doubt Great-Grandpa Saturno's eyes were the same gunmetal gray. This book had to be one of Markus' most treasured possessions. On impulse, I hugged it to my chest, silently thanking it for giving him a sense of connection to his family like nothing or no one else ever had, not even his actual family members.
Two picture frames standing on one side of the shelf caught my eye. Wow, talk about his treasures, I thought, going over to examine them. The first was a photo of his mom taken during a social event. I'd long since stitched the story together from Markus' recollections and the whisperings of the staff. His mother had been a reigning beauty queen when she and Markus' dad met, and for a time she'd been his mistress. The affair had apparently happened during a period of estrangement between Markus' dad and his wife. When husband and wife reconciled, Markus' dad cut off all ties with his mom, leaving her to raise her baby alone. But when she got sick and died when Markus was seven, his dad took custody of the boy, bringing him into the family and installing him in the ancestral home, much to the displeasure of his new stepmother and her two sons.
I stared at the photo of his mother, noting the many similarities between their features. Markus may have his great-grandpa's eyes, but he definitely got his good looks, his charm, and his gorgeous smile from his mother. Then my gaze shifted over to the other picture frame. It was a group photo taken of us as kids playing in the backyard of the old Lozada mansion before it was torn down and replaced with this monstrosity. The graceful, Spanish colonial-style manor stood guard behind us while we hammed it up for the camera. Dante and Daniel were trying out a wrestling move on Ziggy, and Zig was crying as he struggled to crawl toward the swimming pool. Our yaya at the time was half-huddled at the side of the photo, begging the twins to stop crushing their brother. I was sitting on the grass partly hidden behind the twins, peering solemnly at the camera. Beside me, Markus was posing like a bodybuilder and grimacing with comic ferocity, his scrawny legs spread apart and one twiggy arm flexed to show off non-existent muscles.
My gaze was drawn to a patch of white, yellow and dark fur on Markus' shoulder. Something skittered down my spine, and I took the frame down for a closer look. There was no mistaking it. The ball of fluff draped over his shoulder was a calico kitten with a tiny yellow heart on her chest. Her face was turned aside, but I was sure that if she'd been facing the camera, her eyes would have been a bright, mischievous green.
"Hello," I murmured, tracing a finger over the boy and kitten. "Once again, you turn up."
It was no great mystery why Mustard was here. Shortly before this photo was taken, Markus had found an abandoned kitten and adopted her, hiding her in his room whenever his father, stepmother and half-brothers came to visit. He named her Mustard after the yellow heart on her chest. Later, when the old manor was torn down and Markus was sent to live with his uncle, our high school principal, he brought with him nothing but a bag of clothes, his school things, his mother's picture, and Mustard. He hadn't lasted long at his Uncle Fred's house though; with seven other children, there simply wasn't enough attention left over to give to a rambunctious little boy. So after caving in to my brothers' pleas, my mother appealed to Markus' dad to let him stay at our house until the new manor was finished.
Markus and Mustard lived with us for little over a year, becoming part of our family. The Lozada manor had actually been completed a month or so earlier, but we'd all somehow forgotten that Markus and Mustard had to return to their own house eventually. The summons came abruptly—from his stepmother, no less, who regarded the fact that Markus had been allowed to stay with us as further evidence that that woman's brat was being unduly privileged. So my brothers and I helped Markus pack his things up and put Mustard in a cardboard box, and since Dad was out, we called up our cousin and got him to drop us off at the manor.
Only the maids, with Ate Gina in the lead, greeted Markus when he arrived. His father had a business meeting and couldn't come to see him settled in his new home, while his stepmother was somewhere inside entertaining guests. We had just finished carrying his stuff to the front door when a yellow sports car came roaring up the driveway, with one of Markus' half-brothers behind the wheel. Only then did we realize—too late—that Mustard had escaped from her box. There was a squeal of rubber against gravel, a sickening crunch, Markus' cry.
My memories of that day are vivid. I remember the smell of exhaust, the blinding gleam of the sports car's flank, my brothers' white faces, the glint of sunlight catching off Markus' half-brother's sunglasses as he emerged from the car. I remember the cloud of expensive perfume that announced the arrival of Markus' stepmother, who was elegant, glittery and handsome the way an ornamental dagger is elegant, glittery and handsome. I remember the roughness of the concrete driveway underneath my knees as I crouched beside Markus and put a protective arm across his shoulders as he gathered up the broken body of his cat.
I remember looking up into that cold, elegant face. "We need to take her to the vet." I said shakily. "Please."
"Why? It's only a stray," his stepmother sniffed. "Now stop this dawdling and clean up this unsightly mess before my guests have to leave."
"A what?" His half-brother laughed as he pulled his sunglasses off and glanced down at the bloodied heap in Markus' arms. "Jesus, for a moment, I thought it was something important. Tell the driver to wash my car," he ordered Ate Gina as he strode into the house.
Markus looked up, his eyes nearly black with the shattering realization of how little his family cared for him. I remember the hatred that flooded through me then, the fiery rush of anger as I glared at the disappearing backs of his stepmother and brother. We managed to make it to the nearest veterinary clinic, scraping all the money we had for a taxi and walking part of the way—with Markus clutching the box, oblivious to the blood on his shirt—only for the vet to tell us that Mustard was already dead.
Slowly, I returned the picture frame on the shelf. That was the first time I'd come to this house. I visited again once or twice after that, but the memory of Mustard's death, along with the remembered anger and hatred, tended to spoil any enjoyment I might have had in this house. And now, here was Markus' dad writing to tell him that his stepmother and brother were coming to visit, to represent the Board Chairman at our graduation ceremonies.
The same two people who'd killed Mustard and wounded Markus so badly.
I glanced at the wrinkled sheet of paper lying on the floor beside my backpack. "Is this why you've been hanging around me lately?" I said out loud. When nothing but the distant barking of a dog answered me, I sighed. "Fine, I get it, but what am I supposed to do?"
No flash of green eyes, no teasing meow, no fluffy body with a yellow heart popping in and out of thin air. Feeling foolish, I went to pick up my backpack and the letter from Markus' dad. As I bent down, my grip on the book loosened, and it flapped open before it tumbled to the floor. I picked it up, and as I did another photograph fell out.
My breath caught. It was a photo of me sitting amidst golden balls of light, turning toward the camera with a soft smile on my face. It took me a few moments to place the photo. It had been taken two years ago just outside the church, during the last Midnight Mass before Christmas Day, which explained why the church had been ablaze with Christmas lights. Markus' dad had sent him a fancy new smart phone a few days earlier, and he'd surprised me by calling my name then snapping the photo as I turned toward him. He swore back then that he'd deleted the photo, but obviously he hadn't.
Obviously, he'd printed the photo instead and hidden it between the pages of his book. To keep it safe? Or—since he said he'd cleaned up earlier—to keep me from finding it while I was in his room? And if he hadn't deleted that photo, was it possible he still had it in his phone?
He keeps a picture of me close to him. I bit my lip as the hope I was trying in vain to deny unfurled even more.
Giving myself a mental shake, I tucked the photo back into the book then went over to the shelf and slid the book back in its place. A second later, the door swung open and Markus came in, bearing several bags of chips and boxes of biscuits in his arms. "Sorry for the wait," he said. "I couldn't decide which ones to bring up so I just—don't touch that!"
He stared at me in alarm, his face going pale, then red. I realized how I must've looked, and pulled my hand back. "I'm sorry," I stammered guiltily, although some fluttery part of me sat up and started taking note of his reactions. "I saw this book and I remembered you talking about your great-grandpa earlier…"
I trailed off when he dumped the bags and boxes of food right where he was standing and quickly walked over, thrusting himself between me and the shelf with his back to me. When he turned around again to face me, he was holding out the book with one hand, while his other hand slid around to the back pocket of his jeans. "Here. You can read it if you want."
Giving him a look, I took the book from him, nudged him aside, and put it back on the shelf. Then I turned and held my hand out to him, palm up. "Okay, let me see it."
"See what?" he asked warily.
"That thing you put in your pocket. The one you obviously don't want me to see. Give it here." When his face registered consternation for an instant, I grinned mischievously and advanced upon him, forcing him to back away. Some time ago, I'd taken down Dad's bottle of brandy from the liquor shelf and drunk a bit of it, curious to know what all the fuss was about. The giddy, heated, light-headed feeling it gave me was nothing compared to what I was feeling right now as I stalked Markus. I'd never felt like this before—playful and happy, almost shivery with anticipation, yet unsure at the same time. The sensible, capable, no-nonsense Sienna that I and the rest of the world knew was making herself scarce; instead, this teasing, flirtatious creature seemed to have taken control of my body, and I was a little shocked by the realization of how much I was enjoying it.
"I don't know what you're talking about." Markus stumbled a little when the backs of his knees bumped against his bed, and he shuffled to the side so he could backpedal some more.
"Markus, I was right in front of you. Honestly, who do you think you're fooling? Just bring it out and show me already."
"I'm telling you, I don't have anything in my pocket."
"Okay then, if you don't want to show it to me then tell me what it is."
He backed up against his bedside table, then leaned back when I stepped close to him. With nowhere else to go, he raised both hands in surrender. "Fine, you got me. I'll tell you what it is," he announced with a long-suffering sigh. "It's a photo of a girl."
"A girl?" I squeaked. Honestly, I hadn't expected he'd cough up the truth so easily.
As though sensing the shift in the balance of power, he gave me a measuring look. "Yeah," he continued, a teasing smile lifting the corners of his lips. "A beautiful girl. Gorgeous, really."
"R-really?" I could barely hear my own voice over the thundering of my heart in my ears.
"Yeah. After all, she's considered a top adult-video idol, you know. That Maria Ozawa."
I frowned. "Maria who?"
"Maria Ozawa. Japanese porn star. Ask Dante, he knows all about her," he said, his smile morphing into a grin of pure evil. "In fact, he's the one who gave me this nudie pic of Maria, but considering how you reacted when you found out I've got a condom, I didn't want you finding this photo and having a heart attack while you're in my room, Ate Sienna," he added, stressing the Ate as a dig at my big-sisterly prudishness.
When I stared at him, he chuckled and flicked me lightly on the forehead, his entire demeanor relaxing. He'd actually turned aside and shifted his attention elsewhere—likely to the packs of food on the floor—smiling with an annoying amount of self-satisfaction at how he'd successfully derailed the interrogation.
Before he could take another step, I grabbed his arm and spun him around in a tight circle. Then I kicked his leg out from under him, and dropped him on his stomach right on his bed. Whooping in triumph, I pounced on him, intending to pin him down with a knee on his back and fish the photo out of his pocket myself, but he quickly flipped over so that I landed on an empty expanse of bed instead. Before I could regain my balance, he yanked me down then trapped me with his body, his hands clamping my wrists down at my sides.
Panting, we looked at each other for a moment, then we both burst out laughing. "Holy crap, I keep forgetting about those MMA-worthy moves of yours," he said. "Remind me again why you never joined the dojo yourself."
I grinned up at him. "Because I'd have kicked your collective butts. Your fragile egos couldn't have handled that."
He dropped his head to my shoulder, still laughing. "Oh yeah. Now I remember."
I froze, my own mirth dying away. Suddenly, all my nerve endings seemed electrified, making me hyper-aware of his scent surrounding me, his head on my shoulder, his hands on my skin, his body warm and solid against mine. My heart was pounding against my ribcage so hard I was sure he could feel it. My mind, on the other hand, seemed to be full of clouds. I forgot about forcing him to show me the photo in his pocket, I forgot about asking him about his stepmother and half-brother, I forgot about everything else. There was only him. Only Markus.
He tensed as well, sensing the same charge in the air as I did. He lifted his head, and I found myself drowning in warm, gray eyes. I want to kiss you. The thought was so strong, so clear, that I pulled my hand free and touched his lower lip, testing its smooth plushness. He responded by kissing my fingertip, his gaze never leaving mine. I want to kiss you, Markus, I thought, then reddened when I realized I'd spoken the words out loud.
He winced. "Sienna, I need to tell you something," he said, moving off of me and sitting at the edge of the bed.
The blood in my face drained away, and I pushed myself up as well to a sitting position. "Are you going to say you've changed your mind?" I asked in a tiny voice.
He looked momentarily confused. "Changed my mind?"
"About…you know." I shrugged, striving to maintain a semblance of composure. "Helping me with my wish-list. You can tell me if you don't want to—"
"No!" He twisted around to grab me by my shoulders. "No, it's not that. I haven't changed my mind. It's just—I need to tell you…The truth is, I've never done this before," he said in a rush. When all I did was gape at him, he released me and turned away again with a sigh. "I've never kissed a girl before, is what I mean. I—I just don't want you to keep having the wrong idea about me and expecting—well, expecting all sorts of stuff."
"You've never kissed a girl?" I echoed, completely perplexed yet pleased as well. "But you've had so many girlfriends. How on earth is that even possible?"
"It's possible, okay? I mean, sure, I enjoyed their company, but it never went beyond that." He sent me a reproachful look. "You make it sound like I've got a harem or something."
"But you—" I sketched a hand vaguely in the air, trying to form my thoughts into words. "You're like the school's Mr. Smooth Operator. And you're telling me you've never kissed anyone?"
"Yes, I'm telling you I've never kissed anyone. How many times do I have to say it?" he growled.
"But why?" I held my breath. I had to know. I needed to know.
He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "I never wanted to kiss anyone before," he admitted quietly.
I chewed on my lip. "Not even Cheska?"
"No," he replied, rolling his eyes.
"Not even Roselle from last year?"
"Not even Katie? You seemed pretty serious about her back then," I pressed on, fighting back a smile.
He gave me a half-amused, half-exasperated look. "No, no, and no. No matter how many names you come up with, the answer will still be no."
"Then what about me?" I asked breathlessly, lifting my gaze to his. "Do you want to kiss me?"
He nodded slowly, his eyes darkening. "Do you want me to kiss you?"
I gave him a small smile, and nodded back.
With no other words, and with no other parts of our bodies making contact, we leaned toward each other with excruciating slowness until our lips touched. That first contact was light and careful, almost hesitant. We didn't even close our eyes, and instead watched each other's faces, gauging each other's responses with cross-eyed intensity. We stayed that way for about a few seconds, then we pulled back and looked at each other.
He rubbed his nose, a flush spreading across his face. "D-do you want to try that again?"
I nodded again, unable to speak. He raised a hand and brushed my hair off my face, tucking the strands behind my ear before sliding it along the side of my jaw and cupping my face. His hand felt cold and it shook a little, but for some reason, this unconscious indication of his own nervousness helped to calm me down. Then he leaned closer again, tilting his head to keep our noses from bumping, only to stop a hair's breadth away from my lips.
"Close your eyes," he whispered.
"Why?" I whispered back.
His own lips curved upward. "I hear it's better that way."
"Fine." Obligingly I closed my eyes, and a moment later, his lips covered mine. Once again, he was right. With my eyes closed, only sensation filled me—the warmth of his lips and the gentle, unhurried way they moved over mine, sliding and stroking and pressing, grazing me with butterfly touches then catching my lower lip between his. My mind exploded, the clouds giving way to fireworks, and very soon I was leaning into him and imitating his movements, reveling in the combination of softness and roughness, wetness and dryness, and the taste of him that I couldn't seem to get enough of.
He drew back after a while. I opened my eyes, and found him staring at me. Dazedly, I touched my lips with a finger. "So that's what it feels like," I said with a dreamy sigh. "Now I understand what Lynne and the others were talking about."
At that, he seemed to relax. "Yeah," he murmured. "It's amazing."
"Our first kiss." I gazed into his eyes, letting him see everything I was feeling.
He went utterly still, his expression stunned, questioning, and suddenly, achingly vulnerable. I thought about the photo of me he'd stashed in his book, the same photo that was still burning a hole in his pocket. I thought of the years we'd known each other, and how the love I'd always felt for this boy who was practically my fourth little brother had transformed into something deeper and stronger, almost before I knew it. I thought about the possible consequences of following where these feelings led, and about how little I cared about them at that moment.
At that moment, all I had room in my heart for was the incredible rush of joy at knowing that it was Markus I got to share this with.
"You found the photo, didn't you? The one in my pocket right now," he asked, sounding so resigned that I had no choice but to admit to my crime. "You don't mind?" he asked shyly.
"As long as you don't mind this," I replied ruefully, glancing down at myself. "I'm not like the girls you dated before, you know. Also, I don't think your fan club approves of me."
In response, he placed his hand flat on my chest just below my collarbone, and gave me a firm shove, sending me falling backward on the bed with an indignant squawk. When I tried to push myself back up, he was already leaning over me, propping himself up on his elbow. "You think I give a shit about what other people think?" he demanded. "And I know you're not like those other girls. You're irritatingly dense, for one thing. If you only knew how long I've been trying to get you to notice me…" he added, shaking his head mournfully.
I grinned. "Tell me how long and I'll forgive you for calling me dense."
He grinned back. "Not a chance, sweetheart."
"Then how about we forget all that, and just go back to what we were doing before?" I purred, reaching up to twine my arms around his neck.
"Whatever you say, Boss," he replied, then lowered his head and proceeded to help me check off another item on my list.
Correction: Two items on my list.
To zzzeus11 - Thank you so much! Am still polishing this chapter, but I'm already on to the next one.
Also, please feel free to leave a review. Reviews are more than welcom. ^_^