I saw her first in the mirror. The same old mirror my mother gave me as a child to count the hundred brush strokes of my hair. She was washing, her skin ivory against the sun, her spine a perfect score down her back as she bent to rub soap in to her knees. A dirty kneed girl. A thrill in the watery glass.
You are beautiful, my love. He crept behind me, sneaked his arms around my waist and kissed the curve of my neck. I tilted with him, holding the mirror above my head, craning to see.
Who's in the bathroom? I asked.
He was not my husband, then. Just a man I spent too much time with, a man who had brought me to his home and let me settle in. I had not known he had a daughter. He was afraid, he said, of the word widower and stepmother, of making me a fable. Later, I stroked his hair and told him I did not mind his daughter, or being a fairy tale.
She used to skim stones. The garden, a small country compared to any I had known before, had a lake that stretched right out towards the edges of the woods. She would crouch, pebble in hand. I watched her fingers clench and release in preparation, testing its weight, its thickness. Then the stone would fly across the water and into the trees, and she would smile, thinly, and dip back to the ground again.
We drank tea, sometimes, like old ladies, and whispered about her father's younger days. By the time we were married, I knew every little bend in his path, every indiscretion. And I knew his daughter.
Wrong. It is a simple word. Like black, or white. Or easy. I thought I knew wrong, before her, thought I could see it coming and run the other way. But she snuck in like damp spots, creeping. It was my hair first, how she brushed it, counting one hundred the way my grandmother and mother did. Then she would lift it, very gently, so that her fingers curled at my neck and her lips hovered by my ears. She kissed me only softly, not like wrong at all.
But there were other times. Times when her hands and my skirts and her skin and my breath mixed, heather scent in the air and warm breath misting the windows. I could have said wrong, then, but it was beautiful and high and ecstasy that I thought instead, and wrong had no place in our haven.
He was a good man. A good man, the three words I had been seeking. He was kind, and gentle, but she was cut from the same as him and, more than kind, she was beguiling. If this was a different time, I might have said spells and magic, but I knew that it was all just chemistry, her molecules and mine, compounds. That is the chemistry that I know.
It was just a whisper. A secret wish that she pressed in to my shoulder. I don't want to share you. And I turned and kissed her and said hush because - what else could I say? She settled, turned herself in to me and rested her head, and I thought it was over, that she was happy. But it came again, that thought, in the darkness. It came to me when I was on my own, and when I was not she brought it to the forefront of my mind.
Wrong, again. Is one wrong worse than another? It didn't seem so. This was surely no worse than when we had started, stolen kisses and steamed bathrooms were not so innocent, so clean. It was she that made the plans. She knew her father better than I did, knew his weaknesses, his hiding places.
She said apple, pushed the words clean from her teeth. I shook my head. Too easy to refuse. But she put her fingers to my chin and smiled. He can't resist apples. She said it as if he were a horse she was preparing treats for, not her father. And so she found the perfect apples, red and full like lips are when they are just kissed. The needle broke their skin only faintly, not even bruising it. They shone, those apples, in the fruit bowl, and she and I curled on the sofa, waiting.
Apples? He smiled, and rubbed one against the fluff of his sweater, gleaming it. We watched silently, and her fingers curled around mine. This is it. Nearly mine, she whispered, you are nearly mine.
I woke with him next to me, still and cold, but smiling. She crept around the corner of the doorway, robe open.
Come to me.
Her bedroom was new blood, fresh chances. And no more apples.