Forewarning: Hidden Swan is a mature love story with sensitive subject matter and nongraphic marital relationships.
“I can’t believe it’s only been two weeks since you dragged me in that door kicking and screaming.” Winnie’s voice was playful so Joel knew she was just teasing. Knowing that didn’t make it any easier for him to hear.
“Pretty sure you walked in on your own free will, my darling.” Joel clicked his seat belt into place and started the ignition on his Mustang. He enjoyed having his car back since his brothers-in-law had driven to California from Michigan.
“Barely.” She turned her face away from the eating disorder inpatient treatment center where she’d been locked away for the past fourteen days. She met his gaze before he backed out of his parking spot. “You know… my mom would have caved when I begged for you to take me home.”
“I know.” Joel braced his hand across the passenger side headrest and looked behind before backing up.
“How did you stay so strong?” she asked with awe in her voice.
“I bawled like a baby once I got in the parking lot,” he admitted.
“Why did you stay so strong?”
“Because I love you more than my own life.” He thought that was obvious but apparently he would need to do a better job showing her that. “And I knew the only way you were going to get healthy was if you stayed.”
“You probably saved my life, Joel.”
“You’re the one doing all the hard work.” He picked up her hand, kissed the back, and then laced their fingers together. She still hadn’t regained the weight she’d lost since the last time he’d been home to their apartment in New York City, so her hand felt very thin. He’d made a promise to the center’s director, and her drill sergeant, and his mom that he wouldn’t talk about her size, and that he would be extremely careful with her. Physically and mentally.
He needed to be her safe person. He needed to be the person who wasn’t in charge of food or making decisions. He needed to be the person who walked with her on the beach picking up starfish and sand dollars. He needed to be the one to cuddle with her and goof off and laugh. He’d accomplished the hardest feat of all of them. He’d walked away and left Winnie crying in the lobby of the treatment center.
His parents’ home was now to be her safe place. A place where she could relax physically and metaphorically and not have to think about her illness. A place where she would lie in his arms and look into his eyes and know that he’s not judging her.
And the most important thing he needed to do was be her person and create her safe place without her realizing that’s what he was doing.
They barely spoke as he drove down the coastline to his parents’ house and she gazed out the window at the ocean. He was nervous and wondered if she was also. Although he claimed he’d be fine with just snuggling and kissing, they both knew that wasn’t true. The minute they were in bed together and kissing and touching, his body was going to take over and muscle memory would pull him in the direction his hormones wanted to go. Which meant he had to have superhuman strength to resist what would come naturally.
“I wonder if this is how Edward felt taking Bella to Isle Esme.” The thought popped out of Joel’s mouth before he realized he’d thought it.
“What?” Winnie laughed hard and Joel wasn’t sure if she was laughing at him or with him. “Did you seriously just make a Twilight reference?”
“Yeah, I guess I did.” He shrugged, only a little embarrassed. “You gotta admit, that’s a good comparison.” In the final Twilight novel, Breaking Dawn, the vampire, Edward had married a human named Bella and had been afraid to make love to her on their wedding night because he was afraid he’d break her delicate body.
“And, like Bella, I’m not afraid.”
“You should be,” Joel said in his best Yoda impression.
“Are we having a movie marathon today?” Winnie asked in a playful voice, “Or lying in bed all afternoon naked?”
“You want to watch movies naked?” he teased as he pulled his car into the driveway and wound his way around the back end of the house near the entrance to the lower-level walk-out basement. He was thankful the lower level had a separate door so he and his bride wouldn’t have to walk down all those stairs. One, he didn’t want her to feel obligated to walk that far, and two, he didn’t want to see anyone else.
Joel was glad his parents and sister recognized his and Winnie’s need to be alone. There would be time for family another day. This day was for the two of them. Their first wedding anniversary. Their first time alone since Winnie’s diagnosis and start of her treatment. He vowed to be careful and not force this to be the first time they made love since her body had become so fragile. He vowed to be willing to wait, hoping his body got the message.
Later in the afternoon his mom planned to bring them a romantic meal and make herself scarce and then Joel would take Winnie back to the center. All he wanted was to tuck her into their bed and keep her there every night from now until eternity. Taking her back to that place would break his heart.
After leaving the car there in the driveway, Joel lifted Winnie into his arms to carry her over the threshold into the main family room then closed the sliding glass door behind him. He carried her into the bedroom, his eyes never leaving hers. She reached up and smoothed his creased brow. “Relax, Joel. I’m your wife. The same wife who made love to you a few months ago. The same wife who’s going to make love to you today.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he choked out.
“You won’t,” she said. “I trust you.”
He pressed his lips to hers slowly, carefully. She pulled him closer with more strength than he would have thought possible. He laid her down on their bed and climbed up next to her, propping himself on one elbow and gazing down into her eyes before lowering his face for another kiss.
She deserved his absolute best today of all days. There were many things he could do with her, and to her, that would feel amazing but not hurt her, and that’s what he focused on. Forgetting himself and his wants and needs, Joel focused on his wife, giving her every part of himself other than the one thing he wanted most. Until the very last second when she was ready, and he was ready, and they connected in one powerful moment that was almost spiritual. Afterward they fell asleep in each other’s arms content to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the afternoon.