Hours later, Angel sat alone in his study, staring at the Da Vinci. The half-empty snifter of brandy sat on the small end table because his hands were shaking too badly to hold it.
It was done - sort of.
He growled under his breath. It was extremely draining fighting himself every step of the way. No matter how hard he tried to tamp it down, the part of him that saw Buffy as a threat was still there. It was telling him to destroy her, to push her away. But he couldn't. He wouldn't. The man in him had been supplanted by the Darkness in every arena but this. He could not abandon Buffy. He could not allow her to think that he didn't care, that she was just another of the nameless, faceless women who paraded through his life.
He could be strong in everything but this. He could isolate himself, feign indifference to his loved ones, deny the pain they caused him - except where Buffy was concerned. Preservation instinct or not, he could not deny himself her. He wouldn't. No cost was too much to pay for even a moment's happiness with her. Even if it meant losing himself.
He threaded his fingers together, willing his hands to stop shaking. There was no way this could end well, but even sensing the impending doom, he could not stop himself. Buffy would be his.
Buffy reached over and flicked on the lamp, illuminating the open commons area of their loft apartment with diffuse light. "I'm sorry, Wills," she said quickly.
Willow stood in the middle of the kitchen area wearing a pair of bright pink boxer shorts and a baby tee that said "speak no evil". Her hand was clasped over her heart and she was white as a sheet.
"I, uh, didn't mean to scare you," Buffy added guiltily.
"It's okay," Willow said, taking a deep breath. "I just wasn't expecting you to be here. In the dark. Here." She frowned at her roommate. "Buffy, why are you here?" she asked. "Not that I'm complaining," she added quickly. "I'm not. Complaining. I just ... when you left, I sorta thought it was for good. And you've been gone two days."
Buffy opened her mouth and then shut it again. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I shouldn't have spoken to you the way I did. It was completely out of line."
Willow padded softly into the living room area and sat down on the couch next to Buffy. "Are you okay?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know," Buffy said seriously.
"Did something happen?" Willow asked tentatively.
"I, uh ... " Buffy held out her hand and opened her palm. The silver Claddagh shined in the dim light. "I think Angel just asked me to marry him," she said tightly.
Willow blinked owlishly. "You think he asked you to marry him?" she repeated.
Buffy shrugged, drawing her hand back, curling her fist and the ring against her stomach. "It's a Claddagh," she said. "They're Irish wedding bands. Jenny and Angel's mother was an Irish gypsy. This ring has been in his family for generations."
"And he just gave it to you?"
"Without saying anything?"
"He's not exactly Joe-here's-what-I'm-thinking," Buffy said, frowning, "but this was cryptic, even for him."
"Rough night?" Gunn asked, eyeing Buffy suspiciously as she dragged herself through the Hyperion's doors early the next morning. She looked like hell, not having slept the previous night. She finally gave up on trying to rest and dragged herself to work, far earlier than usual. All of her emotions were jumbled up so tight she felt like she was going to explode at any moment.
Buffy blushed, frowning. "Not that it's any of your business," she said, "but I didn't sleep well."
"Uh huh," Gunn said vaguely, looking her over as if he expected to find a sticker that read "Nailed by Angel" on her forehead or something.
"Nothing happened," Buffy said through clenched teeth.
"Didn't look like nothin' from where I was standin' last night," Gunn countered. "What exactly do you and the boss got goin' on?"
With a grump, Buffy brushed past him and into the office area behind the check-in desk. She read through the pending cases on the board, disappointed to find that none of them looked too difficult. She really needed to lose herself in Slaying right now. Impatiently she grabbed the work schedule and scanned down the list for her name. She blinked, trying to concentrate on the list. She frowned. It was Monday morning, it should have been correct. "Is this the new schedule?" she asked Gunn.
"Lorne faxed it over just like he does every Sunday night," Gunn replied speculatively, obviously having already noticed the anomaly.
Turning, Buffy glowered at him. "Do you know why I'm not on the schedule?" she asked tautly.
He smiled. "Actually," he said, "I was hoping you could tell me."
Rolling her eyes, Buffy walked over to the check-in desk and picked up the phone. It took Lorne almost ten rings to answer. Buffy was too grouchy to feel bad about dragging him out of a sound sleep. The would-be interrogation was completely useless. Lorne would only tell her that if she had a problem with the schedule that she had to talk to Angel. Lorne assured her he was the merely the messenger, and his lust for "Sugar Muffin" aside, he wasn't about to get in the middle of any lover's spat.
Without bothering to say goodbye, Buffy hung up the phone and grabbed her jacket. She intended to find out exactly what Angel was up to.
She stared at the enormous double doors, swallowing thickly. The one and only time she had been here was a decade ago. Somehow, it didn't seem any less ominous now than it had then. Buffy steeled her resolve. She didn't know what was up with Angel, but she'd had enough of his erratic behavior and cryptic explanations. He wasn't going to push her out of a job. She was going to get to the bottom of this.
Taking a deep breath, she straightened her spine and opened the doors to his suite. The room was dark and she closed the doors behind her. She stood just inside the threshold, waiting for her eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.
In a sleep roughened voice, Angel muttered a few words, and a myriad candles burst into life. Buffy blinked quickly, adjusting to the change in light. Angel was in bed, propped up on one arm as he looked at her with heavy-lidded eyes. Buffy took a moment to appreciate the fact that he had obviously realized it was her. She gave a moment's thought to the grim fate that would meet anyone else intruding upon Angel's inner sanctum.
Looking away from him, her eyes scanned the room. She mentally noted with wry amusement that her perspective had definitely changed in the last ten years. Like the rest of his home, his bedroom was lavish and elegant. But unlike the other rooms, every inch of his suite seemed completely him. It hadn't been sanitized for public viewing. It was as primal and seductive as Angel himself.
The flickering candlelight glinted off the dark wood and stone with a sensual glow. The very atmosphere seemed permeated with the memory of private words whispered against sweat drenched skin. Just as before, the bed was the centerpiece to the room. The covers bunched around his hips were a dark, blood red. The carved ebony creatures adorning the bed's posters and canopy still seemed ominous, though for a reason completely different than the last time she had looked upon them. Their twisted little faces seemed filled with a wicked knowledge that made Buffy's stomach clench in a tight knot. The bed had belonged to the Borgia family centuries ago. Buffy heard Jenny mention that to her father. Rumor was that you had to pay for it with your soul, but that it was worth it. Buffy swallowed thickly. Looking at Angel and the bed, she believed it was worth it.
Angel, stared at her, a sly grin on his face. Ten years ago, he had been in that bed dying, now he was the picture of virility. She watched the light play over his bare flesh and reminded herself that she was angry with him. Very angry. It didn't do much good. All she wanted to do was climb underneath those covers.
Buffy ventured closer until she was standing at the side of his bed. It had to be a sin to look that good thirty seconds after waking up. But then again, Buffy had no doubt that everything Angel did was a sin. He would probably be the first to agree.
His gaze flicked to her hand and when he saw the ring on her finger, a smile of absolute satisfaction stole over his features. He raised his hand, holding it out in invitation.
Buffy took a deep breath, looking down at him. His chest was bare, sculpted, and begging to be licked. The sheet was pooled around his lean hips and she knew that he was naked underneath. This man was temptation incarnate. She willed her heart to stop pounding in her ears. "Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly," Buffy quoted, meeting his gaze.
Angel frowned, dropping his hand. "The ignorant little fly was wooed to her death with flattery and lies," Angel said bluntly. "You know what's going on here, Buffy. "
Buffy lifted her hand, looking at the ring. "Actually, I don't," she said. "I want a little clarification. You just gave me this ring and dumped me out of the limo without a word."
He glowered. In his opinion, his actions had been exponentially more suave than she was insinuating. "You know what that ring is," he replied tersely. "It's a Claddagh. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty... and the heart... " He almost growled. "You know!" he snapped. His face scrunched up in a scowl that Buffy found oddly adorable. "Wear it with the heart pointing towards you," he instructed haughtily. "It means you belong to me."
Buffy did indeed know that much. She had intentionally donned the ring with the heart facing inwards. But she still wanted to hear him say it. Obviously, he wasn't going to. Typical. Her mouth was dry, her voice catching as she spoke. "Belong to you? I thought you didn't want me as a lover," she said, much more petulantly than she would have liked.
He smiled wickedly. "I've always wanted you in that way, Ionuin," he said, his expression filled with unrestrained carnal appreciation. "What I meant was that I want more than your body, tempting as it may be."
Buffy swallowed harshly, her gaze meeting the glittering depths of his eyes. She realized for the first time that, as much as it irritated her that he was able to see through her, she had the same ability to see through him. She had no doubt that if she were any other woman that Angel would have fed her lines, impressed her with his wealth and status, let her think that he was madly in love with her. But he had done none of those things. He had opted, instead, for a near brutal honesty. And damn him if his honesty wasn't even more tempting than his lies. Angel was a lot of things, but forthright was not one of them. The fact that he had laid the situation so bare was a kind of aphrodisiac all its own.
He didn't want to want her. That much was obvious. What was also obvious was despite his formidable willpower, he couldn't stop himself. Buffy took pride in that. Angel hadn't mentioned love. Buffy doubted he possessed the ability to utter the word. But she couldn't deny that he did care. As aloof as he pretended to be, she had seen his tenderness, his hunger. She knew his devotion to her went far deeper than he was willing to admit.
Buffy's willingness to consider his proposal was based entirely on the fact that she did love him, faults and all. He was her other half and nothing could ever change that. He had already proven that he could deal with her Slayerness, that he reveled in it. Funny how the world worked; the man she swore to avoid was now the only one she wanted.
Buffy twined her fingers through his, allowing him to pull her down onto the bed. He smiled and cuddled her close, pulling her in for a kiss. Their lips met and hunger arched her through body, sharp and insistent. He licked at the seam of her lips and she gladly opened them, tangling her tongue with his. With the grace of a big cat, he crawled over her body, until they were face to face. Slowly, so as not to startle her, he lowered his nude body against her clothed form, his hips fitting snugly into the cradle of her own. Bracing the weight of his upper body on his elbows, he looked seriously into her eyes.
It wasn't like before. She wanted him; her fingertips hungry for the feel of his skin, her lips hungry for his taste. But still, it lacked the frantic need of their near coupling on the Hyperion's check-in desk. Buffy was not afraid, but she shivered, her entire body taut with nerves and need. Before it had been fun, playful even. The passion of a fight transmuted into physical lust. It was a moment in which they both lost themselves.
But there was no blissful haze of ignorance about this moment. With every touch, Buffy knew what was happening. There was intent behind his every move, intent to bind her to him, to make her his. The force of his will was a palpable presence and Buffy felt powerless to fight him.
A saying about possession being nine tenths of the law flitted through her mind. She groaned, turning her head to the side as she was swamped with doubt. He caught her chin and coaxed her to look at him. "What?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I'm just wondering how many other women have been in this very position," she admitted.
His expression was serious as he regarded her. "None," he answered flatly.
Buffy snorted, but his expression did not change. "You can't honestly expect me to believe that," she said.
"I've never lied to you," he replied soberly. "I've had lots of women. Dozens of them. More."
"On second thought - " Buffy began, trying to change the subject.
He cut her off. "I've had lovers, Buffy," he said. "I'm not ashamed of that fact. But none of them have ever been in a position even remotely resembling yours. None of them have ever been in this room, much less in this bed. None of them have ever worn the ring that has been in my family for more than a hundred years. And trust me when I tell you that I have never asked any of them to be my wife."
"You haven't asked me either," she said defiantly.
His gaze narrowed, but a small smile stole over his features. "I'm asking," he said, his voice low and throaty.
She swallowed thickly. "You've never brought any of them here?" she asked, avoiding his question.
His smile deepened, but he allowed her evasion. He shook his head slowly. "Not one."
He shrugged, obviously tiring of the subject. "As soon as I was old enough to survive on my own, I left my father's house. I went to Asia and tracked down the demon that murdered my mother. I reclaimed all of the power he stole from her." He grinned sardonically. "I took a lot of other power from Vocah as well," he admitted. "I was still weak from the battle when my father, on the other side of the globe, suffered a fatal heart attack. At eighteen, I was in charge of the Roarke fortune. Wesley brought me back here, to this house, to this room. I was dying."
"I remember," Buffy whispered.
He smiled enigmatically. "You saved me," he said. "In this room, in this bed, you saved me."
Her gaze traveled around the room, remembering the moment of which he spoke.
"I would never commit the heresy of bringing another woman here, Buffy," he whispered against her skin. "This is your room. Our room. I've been waiting for you."
Oh gods, there it went again. Her heart did that lurchy thing as she looked at his serious countenance. How on earth could somebody admitting so many horrible things be so endearing? But it was. The love she felt for him in that moment was nearly overwhelming. She placed her hand on his cheek and he turned into the embrace, kissing her palm wetly.
She watched him and in that moment knew. She knew she was going to go through with this and give herself to him completely, heart, mind and soul. Her voice was hesitant as she spoke. "Why do you want to marry me?"
He looked down at her, his expression shuttered before pushing himself into a sitting position. Buffy rolled over on her side, watching his face. "I need you," he finally admitted grudgingly.
"But why?" she pressed.
His expression became harder, colder. She could sense a fine trembling in his form and had the distinct impression that there was some internal war raging. "I can give you anything," he said sharply. "With my money and power, you can crush your enemies. You'll never have to bow to anyone or anything again."
She shook her head sadly. "I don't want your money or your power," she whispered. "I've only ever wanted you."
He was unreadable, watching her with dark, glittering eyes. Buffy opened her arms in invitation and he slowly approached. She needed him to understand that she would never betray his trust. She would never hurt him; she didn't possess the capacity to cause him pain. He wrapped himself around her, his manner tentative like a wounded animal.
"Yes," Buffy said.
Angel looked at her, his expression guarded. "You'll marry me?"
She nodded. "Yes."
"Tomorrow," he said dictatorially.
"Is that why you took me off the work schedule?" she asked.
"Yes," he said defiantly.
She knew he was testing her, trying to push the lingering intimacy back to manageable levels. She had no intention of making things easy for him. "Saturday," she said.
Angel scowled, but nodded. Buffy smiled, placing a large, smacking kiss on his lips. He couldn't help but smile in return. As she extricated herself from his embrace, he frowned. She giggled unrepentantly.
"Where are you going?" he demanded plaintively. No doubt he intended to consummate the marriage a little ahead of schedule.
She gave him her 'duh' look. "Shopping," she said. "I need a dress."
He rolled his eyes.
Expectantly, Buffy held out her hand. He arched an eyebrow at her. "You don't really think I can afford Vera Wang on my salary, do you?" she asked.
[End Chapter 16]
Feedback to indie
Back to Chapter Fifteen
On to Chapter Seventeen