Warning: The following excerpt contains strong language.
From The Only Question That Matters:
“Do you find me attractive?”
Just like that, I ask him. And why not? We’ve been flirting a little lately, I think. Unless I’ve read him completely wrong.
It’s likely. It’s been a long time since I’ve flirted with anyone, and I’ve never found reading people as easy as others make it out to be. My friends have a knack for sensing the difference between a signal for affection and someone just being friendly. But not me.
The first boy who broke my heart was named Vaughan. His family was from the Aegis colony. He had those beautiful green eyes and high cheekbones his people are famous for. I was thirteen and too tragic. He was kind to me once when we both had detention, and I was too inexperienced to know how easily I could embarrass myself in the months that followed.
Finally, we both attended a Christmas party at the home of a mutual friend. I kissed him under the mistletoe. He hugged me with one hand on my ass. I skipped away, thinking he might ask me out. Later, I overheard him and a big-breasted girl from another school making fun of me when they thought I was out of the room.
The music stops. The whirring fades as twelve spinning wheels slow to a halt. At first, I think I’ve fucked up, and my face and neck are warm—warmer than they would normally be after a spin class. When he leans over the handles instead of looking at me, I think maybe he just didn’t hear me. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. I step off my bike, but before I can leave, his hand is on my arm.
The word falls out of him between breaths. He is drenched in sweat, and the heat emanating from him ripples the air around the surface of his skin. He squeezes my wrist, forehead resting on his other hand, shoulders rising and falling.
The studio walls glow with a dewy light. It’s morning, almost my last. By this time tomorrow, the AMS Celestial Dream will reach Planet Paradiso, the end of my journey. Or rather, the beginning. But Alexei will carry on and circle back home, wherever his home is. The universe is a big place. We may never see each other again. This is my last chance.
And so, even if I wait for the answer to be no, I suppose I'm glad to have asked. I could have opened by asking, will you go to bed with me? But we barely know each other beyond light conversation and laughter, three times a week or less. A spin class here, a yoga class there—quips and commiserations, captured in forty-five-minute aerobic snapshots, and passing glances in amenities around the ship.
After one final, deep breath, Alexei looks at me. His blue eyes offer the smile that connects us before it travels to his lips. His hand moves to my hand. He gives me another squeeze.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think that last hill would be so steep. I guess my cardio’s not that good.” He pauses, mouth open. I brace for a rejection, but he gets off his bike and continues. “I do find you attractive, Sofia, as a matter of fact.”
Now it’s my turn to smile. My body wants to turn away so my stupid face doesn’t betray my feelings, my secrets, my fear that he means to share this joke with one of the beauties in tomorrow’s Body Pump.
But I stand fast and hold his gaze. I let him see my eyes, my lips. I let him see me. I am thirty-two now, not thirteen. He is Alexei, not Vaughan. And despite my preparations for this moment, I stand here at a loss for words.
“Well,” I begin slowly, leaning on my bike so he won’t think me too eager, “that is good to know.”
A rustle at the door breaks the silence between us. It’s Danica from housekeeping. Two nights ago, we chatted while she refreshed the kitchenette in my cabin. I liked her then, but her eyes are black like the void and she has the face of a chocolate china doll. Her deep-red tunic fits her petite figure too well, with the cruise ship’s monogram stitched in a precarious position on the edge of her left breast.
She is pretty. And so I bristle now, even though she is the politest of polite as she waves to us.
“Hello, ma’am, sir.” She bobs her head in deference. “May I clean this room?”
I wonder if Alexei likes subservient women. Perhaps the old me would have been a better match for him. But I doubt Danica is subservient off the clock. Her eyes shine far too brightly when she smiles. There is cheek in her. Perhaps he sees it too. When he tells her we’re done in here, I listen for the hidden knowledge in his voice.
But when she wheels her cart inside, his eyes remain on me. He slings his towel over his neck and motions for the door.
“Come on,” he says, “let’s get out of here.”
Outside the cycle studio, the corridor is dim. All of the ship is like this: bright and warm where people gather, conservative where they merely transit. I hear the exclusive Diamond Deck is lush and bright wherever you go; opulence, perhaps for its own sake. An empty room doesn’t need light or comfortable heat. And neither do we, as we pad the shadowed wooden floors on the way to the showers.
I think to ask him, now, will you go to bed with me? But perhaps it’s still too soon? I’m not sure what I’m waiting for. All I can think about are my hours running out.
“Do I call this love already? I am almost disgusted with myself. How pathetic to fall so easily. Perhaps I was the cause of my past heartbreaks. Not stupid schoolboys or an arrogant rich man, but a gullible girl from a flower farm who opens her heart too readily and expects too much.”
Sofia is en route to Planet Paradiso, ready to start a new life after her divorce. But when she accepts Alexei's dinner invitation on her final evening, she realises she's in for more than she bargained for. As the AMS Celestial Dream arrives at its destination, and their one-night stand draws to a close, Sofia must choose between a newfound possibility with Alexei and the freedom she so desperately craves.
The Only Question That Matters by is an emotional examination of healing and resilience through sex and love. Available now on .