If he caught me staring, he didn’t say. He was lost inside his head, lost deep, unreachable.
“How old are you?” The question blurted from my mouth. All this time, I’d never wondered. His face and body were a lie, a defiant snub at aging.
He never opened eyes, his mouth pursed, still in deep thought. I figured he’d ignore me, whatever played in the forefront of his mind more important. But he did answer. “I don’t know. This cycle? I think…eighty-three, give or take a few years.”
I gasped. Eighty-three? Without thinking it through, I moved to slide a finger down his smooth cheek, a few days’ beard soft and scratchy against my fingertips. “My beautiful old man.”
He said nothing, motionless as stone.
Not mine anymore.
Not mine, but I’d change that. I would. If only I knew how…
His rejection charred my skin. I pulled my fingers away from his face, my attention on his profile. “Ask another question?”
“Do I have a choice?’
“Well, then…” His eyes remained closed, jaw tight, and dimples a memory.
“When you came looking for me, if I were an eight-three-year-old woman, with wrinkles and a cane, would you have still fallen in love…you know…with me?” I pulled the blanket up to my chin, hating the heat, craving the shield.
“I’ve seen you at eighty-three years old.” He opened his eyes and glanced down at his lap. “I’ve seen you at a hundred fifty years old.”
“Yes, but I can almost guarantee that age looks a hell of a lot better on Exemplar, nothing like the old ladies back home.” The blanket stayed clenched in my hands, like a grip on a dagger hilt, hoping it’d save me. “But…if you hadn’t found me until later, like Oren did Grace, would you have loved me?”
An eternity passed, a lifetime. Finally, he turned to me. His eyes were alive, melting my heart, my blanket dagger useless. He slid closer and pulled the blanket down until his palm pressed against my heart. As he did all those years ago, when I demanded he answer another accusation: I’m not her. The thrumming echoed from my chest to his palm, breathing no longer necessary.
Those gray eyes stayed on his hand, the bridge between my body and his. “Your face…to me, the most beautiful creation, whether smooth with youth or lined with wisdom. But…your heart…you…both fill and empty me. I’d love you however you are, whoever you are.” His warm fingers kneaded my skin, branding me, burning. “Because in here is my life, my everything.”