With both hands, Jasper swept the shining dark hair from Brooke’s neck and shoulders. Holding it up, he took in the luster moving on the surface as well as every strand’s rich color. He inhaled her scent and kissed her neck, lingering along its warm, smooth length. She leaned into him and he reached for her wrists. Finding the ends of her sleeves, he tugged the delicate fabric out of place. He then slipped her provocative blouse, with its countless mother-of-pearl buttons down the back, over her head.

She laughed. “I didn’t know you could do that. Tara had to button it for me.”

“How patient of her. Didn’t she say, wear a T-shirt?”

“I wanted to look romantic.”

Brooke pivoted and stripped off Jasper’s shirt, tossing her bra beside it. He stared at her, unaware, until she pulled him to the ground. Holding her face, he whispered, “I try not to look at you, because if I do, I can’t stop.”

She touched his lips, saying, “So, you’re the romantic.”

Lying beneath the tree, he held her breasts and her tiny, hard nipples left an imprint. (He was always amazed afterwards that there wasn’t a mark in the middle of his palms.)

The ground felt damp and a tree root pressed into his hip. He stretched an arm, while the other held her so he could fondle her ear. His free hand found a bed of soft, dry moss. They rose and sat there, Brooke in front of him, facing away. He wrapped himself around her and began to untie the red sash knotted through her jeans—three tight knots, double-knotted. But his nimble fingers loosened them in no time.

“Bet you strip off an actress’s costume in seconds.”

“Hush,” he said.

And she smiled before lying down. He kissed her stomach. Her jeans required further manipulation. Although seeing her walking in them was worth a moment’s delay.

Finally, naked, they lay side-by-side. And paused in the same breath, listening to the big waterfall, which sounded farther than it was.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t risk it outside,” she said. “But we’re safe.”

Perfectly safe, Jasper thought, enveloped in Windfall’s dappled sunlight.

He and Brooke swam in the charged air they alone shared. Suddenly, his viewpoint rose, free of gravity. Part of him watched them making love from above. When he shuddered back to earth, life rushed through him and into her: Something out of nothing.

Brooke laughed and cried. Glowing and magical, she nestled beside him and drifted into a daze. Her eyes closed and he watched the light flickering through her lashes. Her dream was brief, however, and her wide eyes opened, bright green mixed with gold. Her voice floated, sweet and slow. Fletcher, she said, had postponed the play rehearsal. Tonight, after dinner—here she woke up—“he wants a private meeting with you.”

“Does he? He should contact me himself.”

Brooke rolled onto her stomach. “Jason’s play is awful. As the Mayor of London, you’re on stage the whole time, supposedly battling climate change. But it seems more like you don’t go home because you forget an umbrella. Tara’s your daughter who’s not surprised you never missed her. Fletcher will rant like lunatic at everyone. But I’m supposed to fix the play and make Jason think every change was his idea.”

“Sounds like a disaster.”

“It’s typical,” Brooke said. “Don’t worry.”

They got dressed. And when Jasper bent to tie his shoe, the reason he wanted to marry her struck him hard—he wanted Brooke to belong to him. (Ridiculous.) But what really struck him was: That always before he erred by not caring. Now, he was in danger of being possessive.

Brooke asked if she looked okay. He smoothed the blouse over her strong, supple body. She flew up and wrapped her legs around his waist–to whisper an urgent apology. “I didn’t have the nerve to ask you. And we both know what you would have said.”

“What?” (No—he looked around. Yes!)

Her bold vulnerability crackled like lightning. “Do you hate me?”

“Impossible,” he said. “Besides, protection was my responsibility.” Without saying so, Jasper, who didn’t believe in intuition, recognized a powerful one.

“I just wanted one chance,” she said. “I won’t trick you again.”

He sought the tree line to steady himself and saw the branches waving through the sunlight—a terrible certainty.

Still holding her, a hand under her butt, he said, “I have always loved you, Brooke. Nothing will change that.”

”But you must think I’m crazy. ‘Cause the reasons why not are like a ton of bricks.”

He put her down. They’d talk about this—at length. But Dex and Ivy with Chase and Jenny were due home any minute. Nearing the swimming pool, he saw Tara and pulled Brooke past the playground.

“If I’ve gotten you pregnant,” he kept his voice soft, “promise you’ll talk to me.”

Brooke covered her face with the straw hat. She lifted it away, saying, “Of.” And, “Course.”

Jasper put the hat on her head. With a finger under her chin, he willed her eyes to meet his. “Promise me.”

“On my honor.”

She could be a Girl Scout.

Until—he saw her run ahead. And her swift, liquid gait inside the faded blue jeans beguiled Jasper right out of his mind.

by Kathleen Maher