"Mommy, look! I made!" Laura suppressed a small sigh and poked her head back into the living room where her son crouched over his scattered snap-together blocks. He held up a small, multicolored stack for her approval.
"That's wonderful! You did that so good. Can you do more?" She heard the strain in her own voice, but her small son was oblivious. His head bobbed in energetic agreement as he dived down among the little plastic pieces once more.
It was impossible to get anything done around the apartment when her offspring was in his look-at-me mode. If she was lucky, she could actually wash the breakfast dishes with no more than say, three interruptions. This morning she was on her sixth interruption and hadn't even gotten to the silverware yet. And she was over-tired from the lack of sleep that didn't seem to faze her son in the slightest. If she could get the kitchen and living room into some semblance of order, she might just make the beds, skip the laundry and the vacuuming for once and take him to the park where he could run off some of his excess energy.
"Mommy, look!" he called from behind her. "I made!" She dropped the spoons back into the soapy water and headed back for the living room. He held up another multicolored stack, the same size as the first.
"Oh, pretty! Make me another one, o.k.?"
"O.k., Mommy." And he scrabbled again at the little plastic pieces. She turned back toward the kitchen but hadn't taken more than one step when the doorbell rang.
Laura slowly unclenched her fists before stepping carefully over and around an intricate obstacle course made up of little plastic blocks, toy cars and an empty juice glass scattered liberally across the floor between the kitchen and the front door. Some days, she mused, wiping her hands on her jeans before yanking at the front door (which had a tendency to stick), she understood artists who chucked it all to go live on a warm island somewhere inaccessible. It almost made her want to take up painting.
"Hi, kiddo. Where's my little guy this morning?" And Mildred stooped down to meet a small, rushing charge.
"Auntie Mildred! Hi! Hi!" The squealing two-year old was suddenly enveloped, swathed in the folds of Mildred's tartan cape.
"Hi, there, Little Chief! How's tricks today?" He extricated himself from the voluminous material, grabbed her hand and began tugging on it.
"Come see I made!" he demanded authoritatively, if ungrammatically. Mildred cheerfully allowed herself to be led across the floor to admire his handiwork.
"Hey, that's great! You must have worked hard at it," she said with a commendably straight face as she held up the small stack of six multicolored blocks.
"I work hard," he assured her earnestly.
"Well, then, I'd say that deserves a reward! Who wants to go to the zoo with me today?" She smiled at him confidently and she wasn't disappointed.
"I do! I do! I go zoo, 'kay?"
"Mildred..." Laura prepared to present a sincerely half-hearted argument. It sounded wonderful to her, a whole morning to actually get the place clean, and maybe drink an entire cup of coffee without interruption, but the older woman had a life of her own, for heaven's sake.
"Oh, kiddo, he's the best excuse I have to enjoy a trip to the zoo. Joe never wants to go and when I go by myself, I feel funny. I just woke up with a weird urge to see a wildebeest. Sue me. The kid's good camouflage."
"I kamfaj, Mommy!"
She regarded his brown head and sighed. "That you are, son." She offered Mildred a wry smile. "Hope you have more energy than I do. He's all wound up for some reason. I know it's Saturday, but he's been running on overdrive all morning."
"Great! Sounds like the guy for me!" Somehow, Mildred managed to look as if she hadn't a care in the world. She'd have to check with the Academy people about award eligibility later. "Come on, guy. Let's blow this joint." She held out a hand and he grasped it eagerly, then suddenly twisted away to look at his mother.
"You come!" he demanded.
"No way, Jose," she said, offering him a wan smile and helping him into his jacket. "Got to get stuff done this morning. You and Auntie Mildred have fun."
"You come!" His forehead was beginning to pucker, a bad sign. But that was easily sidestepped and his mother knew just how to do it.
"Hey, where's Joji?"
This, as always, worked like a charm. Distracted from the impending tantrum, he looked wildly around the room. "Joji! Hey, Joji! We're goin' to the zoo! Where are you?"
Joji was found a few minutes later, hanging casually face-down over the arm of the couch, half-buried under a throw-pillow and staring blankly at the empty juice glass on the floor. All ten-inches of stuffed monkey was lovingly gathered up and hugged almost flat before the zoo-bound expedition headed for the door.
"Listen, kid," Mildred said, turning back. "I might just keep the little guy for the whole day. I have this craving for cookies and you know I never bake anymore without my favorite assistant. So don't worry if you don't hear from us for awhile. We might even rent a movie and make an evening of it. Tell you what, I'll give you a call later this afternoon or early evening and give you an update."
Laura considered the possibilities. She might even get in a bubblebath if she were lucky. "Are you sure you want to do this? What about Joe?"
"Oh, he's up to his eyeballs in work, he says. Otherwise he'd be joining us, at least for the cookie-baking part of the day," Mildred said, her fingers crossed defiantly under the cape she wore.
"What is it, honey?" She bent down, alarmed at the sudden panic in his voice.
"You not go work, o.k.?"
"No, I'm just gonna clean up around here, sweetie. I'm not going anywhere today," she said giving him a quick squeeze and thinking of maybe taking a long nap that afternoon.
Laughing, Laura promised and saw the dark clouds vanish from his blue eyes, leaving them clear as the morning sky. "Now, about that hug you owe me."
Minutes later she was shoving the recalcitrant door closed behind them and making plans for her suddenly free day. First the kitchen, then the living room, then the beds, then a long, hot soak and then, maybe, a three-hour nap.
But, as the poet said, the best laid plans of mice and men
gang aft aglay. How aglay, she would never have guessed. It was
going to be a far more interesting day than anything she could
have planned in her wildest dreams.
"We go zoo, 'kay? Go now!" Mildred twisted sideways and gave him a quick smile before turning back to peer anxiously out the windshield.
"In a minute, kiddo. I have to wait for something," she said vaguely.
"No! Go zoo!"
"Hang on, honey. We'll go soon." Where was he? She'd seen his car follow hers, but it wasn't in sight now.
"I wan' go zoo," came the defiant mutter from behind her. "Me an' Joji wanna see the aminals." If she'd risked a look, she knew she'd see his lower lip jutting out at a dangerous angle and his brows lowered to an extreme point as well. If she didn't start the engine soon, his tantrum would explode and she wasn't sure one small car seat could contain it all. Where in heaven's name was the insufferable man?
There. At last. She spotted a tall, familiar figure coming up the sidewalk to slowly mount the outside staircase up to Laura's second-floor apartment door. But, once there, he stopped and didn't move for several long minutes. She found herself twisting her fingers anxiously.
"Come on," she whispered softly, "ring the bell. You can do it, just reach up and ring...that's it! Good for you."
She leaned down and briskly turned the key in the ignition, hearing a small, happy cheer from behind her.
"Joji! We're goin' to the zoo an' see the aminals!"
She straightened her shoulders as she pulled the car out into
the roadway and headed out for the highway. The zoo would be a
long enough morning, but she had to remember to save her energy
in case everything she was leaving behind her now went as badly
as she prayed it wouldn't.
Laura put the last piece of silverware in the drainer and looked longingly at the coffeepot steaming on the counter. But there was still the living room to pick up and the vacuum to get out and the beds to make and--
This was her day for doorbells, it seemed. Snatching a dishtowel off the back of a chair, she twisted her dripping hands through it as she headed for the front door again. With their owner not around to see and object, she casually kicked toy cars and small plastic blocks aside with one moccasin'd foot. She half-hoped it was Mildred coming back for something forgotten. With the apartment in this disarray, she reflected, grasping the doorknob and yanking hard, it was a bad morning for company to drop in.
"O.k., what'd you for...get..."
It wasn't Mildred after all.
She found herself foolishly twisting at the dishtowel, helpless to say anything or to move. He didn't seem to want to say anything, either. So they stood for a very long moment and just stared at each other, silently.
"May I come in?" he said at last. His voice was soft and hesitant. Not knowing what she was about to do or say, Laura felt herself step back, pulling the door open wider as she did. He stepped over the threshold and there he was. Inside. Her hand suddenly numb, she let go of the doorknob and he closed the door for her. Now both her hands gripped the dishtowel and she experienced a sudden, wild urge to scoop up all the litter on the floor, tuck it away and not look up again for a very long time. Instead, she backed up until she bumped against a chair and sat down.
"I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing here after all this time," he said, after clearing his throat a few times. Her eyes dropped to the toys on the floor.
"No, not really," she heard herself say and looked up in time to see a fleeting, sad smile cross his face. "I'm sorry, that was uncalled for."
"No, it wasn't." He looked down at her hands. "Would you rather I left? I could come back later, if you'd like. Or call."
She stared down at her own hands. The knuckles were white. "No. That isn't necessary. You're...here now. I should make some coffee. No, I have some coffee. It's in the kitchen. I'll get it." She stumbled to her feet and started toward the kitchen, but somehow got twisted up with the little plastic blocks and nearly fell. His arm shot out and steadied her. When he released her arm, the spot his fingers had touched felt unreasonably warm.
She turned suddenly to face him. "Where have you been? Why did you leave?" The words seemed to have been propelled out of her by some force she wasn't in control of, and the way her voice shook embarrassed her, but it was out there now, hanging in the air between them. And nothing else mattered except his answer.
"No. I need to know. What happened? Please?"
It was his turn to sit. She watched him move over to the couch and sink onto it, his eyes suddenly glazed. Her stomach clenched.
"I'll get the coffee." She moved past him into the kitchen and he made no move to stop her. When she came back, he was still sitting, exactly as she'd left him, glazed look and all. She held out the mug.
"We don't have any creamer. I'm afraid it's just milk. No sugar, right?" When he didn't respond, she pressed the mug into his hand and his fingers closed around it. But he didn't drink, only stared down into the depths of the mug as if it were a crystal ball.
"You honestly don't know, then," he said finally.
"No. I honestly don't have any idea." She went back to the chair and sat facing him. It took a moment, but he wrenched his gaze up from the mug to look at her and she found herself recoiling from the pain in his eyes.
"Tell me about Roselli," he said.
"Roselli. Antony Roselli."
She had to think a moment. "Tony?" His only answer was a deep wince. "What the hell does he have to do with this?"
"You honestly don't know?" He stared at her with a look of growing horror. "You really don't, do you? Dear God, what have I done?"
Though his voice was barely a whisper, the intensity of his pain was palpable, reaching across the room toward her like a physical blow. She almost ducked.
"All right, just slow down a minute," she heard herself say. "This obviously has something to do with Tony Roselli. And it's something I'm supposed to know. But I don't. And, until I do, none of this is going to make much sense to either of us. So why don't you start at the beginning, if you can, and fill me in?"
"That would probably be easier if I knew exactly where the beginning was," he said with a small sigh, putting his untouched coffee down on the end table next to him. "Mildred told me you'd been drugged and that you didn't have any memory of at least some period of time."
"That's right. It was around the time you vanished."
"What do you remember from that time, Laura? It might give me a place to start," he added, looking almost apologetic.
Her forehead wrinkled in an unconscious parody of her son's face earlier. "I remember moving in with you. I remember, I guess, the first few months or so. After that...well, it gets scrambled. I remember a few cases, like the jewel heist in Beverly Hills and the smuggling ring and the forgery case. I think that's the last case I really remember clearly, the forgery case. After that..." she shrugged helplessly. "I've read all the files, but I have no real memory of the cases themselves."
"How many cases can't you recall?"
"About four in all," she said. "The first three, Mildred tells me, you were involved with. The last one you weren't there for. The last one I wasn't much there for either, as I gather."
"So there's a period of, say, four to six months that's missing for you?"
"I think that would be about right," she told him, and frowned. "I never thought about it like that. Four to six months. Ouch."
"I see you're still enamored with understatement," he said with a small, off-kilter smile. "Of the vague period, what do you recall?"
"I remember being in the office and at home. It's like snapshots, almost, or one of those avant garde cinema things, you know, all flashes and sequences, nothing that connects with anything else," she said. "I remember both of us going over something like a financial statement, or something technical anyway, at a table littered with what seemed like dozens of empty vending machine coffee containers. I remember being really tired and looking up at you and you were just working like a madman and didn't seem tired at all. I remember thinking of how you used to hate paperwork and, yet, there you were."
This time his smile was broader. "Oh, I still hated paperwork. I remember that day, too. They were financial statements we were using to try to establish an embezzlement trail. Mildred was home sick and we were trying to decipher the records on our own. You were doing much better than I, as I recall. A former math major on the warpath. Our coffee maker was on the blink and we were drinking coffee from the machine down the hall. You kept referring to the empty coffee-cups as dead soldiers. Each time we'd finish another one, you'd give it a salute and promise it a proper burial with full military honors when we were finished. I drank a hell of a lot more coffee that night than I should have, but I just couldn't help myself. You were..."
"I was what?"
"You'll hit me."
"You were cute."
She found herself laughing outright. Cute was not a term he had ever used in reference to her. Somehow, she found the image absurd. Then she sobered again.
"But I don't remember that, about the 'dead soldiers' and the salutes. I just remember a snatch of sitting there working and looking up at you."
"What else do you remember?"
"I remember being at home, in the dining room. We were lighting candles, or trying to. The matches kept going out. I think there was something wrong with them. You were getting so exasperated and I was laughing at you. I forget what you finally used, but it was something absurd."
"I lit the only piece of paper I could find -- an unsigned, blank check -- on the electric burner in the kitchen and used that. Burnt my bloody fingers and damn near scorched the table top. I had to drop the remains into a water glass. Yours, if I recall correctly," he said, with a fond, half-smile. "What else can you remember?"
"Not much," she admitted reluctantly. "I have a weird memory of coming into my office and having a strange conversation with you, something about shoes. As I recall, you kept asking me where the shoes were. It seemed terribly important to you. But I can't for the life of me figure out what we were discussing."
"I know precisely what we were discussing," he told her, his face darkening into gloom. She felt a clutch of fear. This wasn't something she was sure she wanted to hear.
"I kept feeling that something was wrong," he said slowly. "You were acting oddly. But I kept telling myself that I was being foolish. It was always little things, but it kept getting worse." His voice sounded both thick and strained at the same time. She wanted desperately to make this easier for him somehow, but it wasn't possible. "Maybe it really started in Ireland, that first night."
"The night we arrived?" she asked, knowing that wasn't right, but dreading the alternative.
"No, the night of Daniel's funeral, when the phone kept ringing."
She looked down at the floor, her face flushed. That night was vivid for her in all its awkward complexity and glorious wonder. Daniel Chalmers, con man extraordinnaire and errant father, had died and been given a hero's burial in two different countries at the same time. She had watched both funerals with his grieving son and then, with an entire Irish castle empty save themselves, they had headed upstairs, to the elegant master bedroom, to finish something they had started weeks before outside a seedy hotel in a Mexican jungle.
But the phone had interrupted them, before they'd gotten halfway up the staircase. And even after she'd hung up and turned her back on it, the infernal machine had gone on ringing. And ringing.
"But I don't know about that," he added, making her flush even deeper, because she did know and wished she didn't. "What I do know is that, eventually, my suspicions got the better of me. Lord knows, I tried to keep them in check. I knew you didn't like the suspicious, accusatory type. You wanted to be trusted almost as much as I did. But I couldn't help myself. It was everything piling on top of everything else."
"What do you mean?"
"You'd take off work early, saying you were going to get your hair done, and you'd come home hours later, not one strand rearranged. Or you'd go shopping and come home with nothing to show for it. Or you'd go to the gym, but you wouldn't take your workout bag with you. You were always going somewhere, but never really going there at all."
"The shoes," she said, with a horrible realization of what was coming.
"Yes. You were going out to buy a pair of shoes. You left at ten in the morning, promising to be back in time to meet with a client at one that afternoon. But you never got back until four- thirty. And you didn't have any shoes with you. And you wouldn't tell me where you'd been."
She drew a deep, shaky breath. She had been right. She wasn't enjoying this at all.
"Whatever else you'd done," he continued, "you'd always been there to meet with the clients. Suddenly you were even missing them. And you didn't seem to remember at first that you'd even told me you were going out for shoes. It was just too much."
"It was the straw that finally broke me," he added softly.
"You left me over a pair of shoes?!?"
"No. But I finally stopped telling myself I was being foolish for worrying. And I finally broke down and did something truly reprehensible. I followed you." It was his turn to look at his hands.
"Followed me? Where? When?"
"The very next day, to the park, as it turned out. You remember, the park with the formal gardens and the greenhouses? The park with all those wonderful, wandering paths?"
She remembered the park. They had taken many picnics there. She had read and he had painted for hour upon hour during seemingly endless summer afternoons. They had jogged and strolled the various paths and gardens and had enjoyed each other's company there. This definitely wasn't something she wanted to hear. That park had always held fond memories for her. She suspected it wouldn't any longer. She drew a deep breath.
"What was I doing in the park?"
"Meeting Roselli." His voice was flat and his eyes had gone dull. "I followed you across the park. You were on the outside looping path, the one that goes under all those tall trees and over the two bridges. I lost you at one point and when I spotted you again, you were just coming up to the first bridge. Roselli was there, waiting for you. You walked straight into his arms and then the two of you walked on together."
"Where did we go?" Her voice had thickened as well.
"I really don't know. I stopped following you at that point." He fell silent looking at something she couldn't see and wasn't sure she wanted to.
"I finally went home and waited for you," he said at last. "It was a very long wait, as I recall. Maybe not long enough though."
"Because if it had been a little longer, maybe I would have had time to talk some reason into myself. Instead I just stewed. I'd been a ways off from the two of you at the park, but not so far that I couldn't see the way you came together at the bridge. Like old friends. Or lovers. It was just so...intimate." The pain in his voice seemed to be almost choking him. "He put his arm around you as if he were claiming you. And you let him. I just couldn't get past that. I couldn't get past the way you seemed to look up at him. God, I wish I'd thought a little harder. Or followed close enough to hear what was being said. Maybe I wouldn't have been such a damned idiot."
"What happened then?" she said, wishing she could avoid the question.
"You finally came home. It was late. Past ten, anyway. I'd been sitting there all day, trying to think of what to say, how to approach it. Then you walked in and my mind just went blank and my mouth took over." His voice sounded shaky as the memory unfolded. "I told you exactly what I'd seen. You never said a word. You just stood there with your mouth opening and closing and no words coming out. I suppose you weren't really reacting to what I was saying at all. Your face was blank, stunned almost. I thought it had to do with being caught off-guard, but now I wonder..."
"I didn't even hear the door when it opened, but he was suddenly right there, behind you in the doorway. God, he must have been waiting just outside the door, listening."
"He just stood there, grinning at me, like he'd just been handed the checkered flag and was ready to take his victory lap. And I guess I sort of...snapped, and ended up handing you an ultimatum. I told you it was either Roselli or me. And if it was me, then Roselli had to go. For good. And if it were him, then I was gone for good. No compromise, no halfway measures."
"What happened?" This was an answer she really didn't want to hear. But this was the answer she had to hear.
"You never said a word, you just kept looking at me and blinking. I couldn't make out your expression at all. God, if I'd known!"
She couldn't bear the pain in his voice and hers was almost harsh in response. "What happened?!"
"It was Roselli who finally spoke, and he only said one word. Your name. And, without a word or a look backward, you turned and walked straight into his arms."
"Oh my dear God, no." She stared at him in horror. "What did you do?"
"I left. The bastard made me squeeze past the two of you to get out the door. I thought I was going to be sick right then and there, but I was able to wait until I got all the way outside. I don't remember much of the rest of that night. But I remember coming back in the early morning and waiting in the coffee shop across the street until you, the two of you, had left the building. Then I went in and collected my things and left."
"No wonder you never got in touch," she said softly, looking at his pain-ravaged face. "You thought it had all been said."
"But it hadn't, had it?"
"No, it hadn't."
"God, Laura, I'm so damnably sorry. You must have hated me and you had every right to. If I hadn't been such a fool. All those bloody movies!"
It might have seemed callous, but his sudden outrage caught her off guard and she laughed. "Movies? Of all things to blame! What do movies have to do with any of this? What am I saying? This is you. Movies have to come into it somewhere, don't they? Which one this time?"
"None. All of them. Damn me. I've lived my whole life sitting in the dark watching other people's love affairs. I can't tell you how many I've watched, how many starry-eyed actresses falling into the arms of some leading man who would sweep them up and carry them off into the sunset. I know there's a drug problem in Hollywood. Always had been. But I never realized..."
"Never realized what?"
"That look. God, if you knew..."
"What look? You know, you're driving me crazy! Would you finish a sentence, please? If I knew what?"
He laughed with no trace of joy and offered her a sad smile. "I used to watch the women up on that screen, how they'd look at the leading man, and I'd dream, someday...someday someone would look at me that way." He looked down at his shoes sheepishly. "After I met you, I actually used to daydream about it being you. Silly of me. I never really thought about it, I suppose, but you're not the blind adoration type. I don't think I'd care half as much for you if you were."
"But what does that have to do with Roselli?"
"That was the look, you see." She must have looked as confused as she felt. "That was the look you were giving Roselli. And I was too big a fool to see it for what it was. I thought you were really, finally in love. With the wrong man, of course. But, instead, you were probably drugged out of your mind."
"Drugged? You mean Tony...oh, but that's impossible!"
"Not if you were given what Mildred says you were given," he told her gently. "It's a psychotropic drug, used by the military and the intelligence communities. Well, it used to be, anyway. But it hasn't been used since the mid-70's. It can create a compliant, malleable state, useful for extracting information and for short-term control of the subject's actions. It works sort of like hypnosis. But the side effects were too much. The drug was banned by every civilized country I know of. It just doesn't leave the bloodstream fast enough. And when used too often, which isn't very often at all, it builds up to toxic levels fairly quickly."
"He could have killed you," he added softly. "In fact, he damn near did, I suspect."
"But why? I don't understand."
"It was probably to get rid of me. He wanted you, he'd always made that clear, and I was in the way. If he'd done anything to me himself, your sympathies would have been with me. He knew that. He had to get me to leave on my own. Or get you to get rid of me for him. Then, once I was gone, he'd have the field to himself and a clear shot at you."
"Then why didn't he take advantage of it after you left?"
"That I don't know. You never saw him after Ireland?"
"Well...he did come to the office once or twice after we got back from Ireland. We had coffee and talked and..." She saw his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. "O.k., he could have drugged me then, but it still doesn't make sense. What about later? After you were gone."
"Did you see him then?"
"Yes..." she was reluctant to admit it, but it was, after all, the truth. "He came to the apartment one day. It was about two weeks after I came home from the hospital."
"Nothing! That is, we talked. And I asked him..."
"You asked him what?"
"I asked him to find you for me."
It was his turn to laugh. It was a bitter sound. "That must have made his day. What did he say to that?"
"He was a perfect gentleman about it. He promised to do everything he could."
"And did he?"
"I never heard from him again," she admitted.
He paused a moment to consider this. "Did he know you were pregnant at the time?"
"The subject never came up," she told him with as much dignity as she could muster.
"Then I'm really at a loss to explain. Maybe his...people...sent him off somewhere and he just never got back."
"You mean he's dead?"
"In his line of work.." he shrugged, "I'd say it's a distinct possibility."
"That's pretty cold."
"Sorry. I haven't much sympathy to spare for him after all these years. Maybe later, after the shock wears off, I can work up a few crocodile tears, but don't hold your breath waiting." His voice sounded far more bitter than she had ever heard it before. How badly had all this hurt him, she wondered. That was yet another question she wasn't looking forward to learning the answer to.
"Do you think he really was with the CIA?"
"Not a chance in hell," he told her flatly. "I believe he worked for a group that worked the same sort of game, but far less officially. If it's the group I'm thinking of, most of the legitimate intelligence community despises them. But they get around and they do have some sort of quasi- official position with certain factions of your government. Roselli is just the type they'd use. A screw-up, but so desperate to be part of the game he'll do whatever he's told and believe whatever they choose to spoon-feed him. And if they sent him anywhere really dangerous, yes, it's possible he never came back. I'm sorry, Laura." He looked sad and a bit tired, and she could have kicked herself.
"I don't really care, I suppose," she said as offhandedly as possible. "I was never involved with him. Oh, I made noise at first, but you know damn well I was trying to get your goat. Unfortunately, it seems I got his as well," she admitted sadly. So many mistakes. So many missed steps. Missed opportunities. Was there any way back from the mess she'd made of it all?
"Oh, I don't think you really did much of anything to Antony," he told her. "He's the type that operates on pheromones, testosterone and pure ego. You could have told him flat out to go away and never come back and he just wouldn't have heard you."
Laura smiled gently. "Oh, I told him exactly that. Several times, in fact. I guess I just wasn't as convincing as I should have been." He looked at her quickly. Too quickly.
"Laura...were you...that is, did you really...I mean...?"
"No," she told him decisively. "I was never, ever, at any point in time, in love with Tony Roselli. He was attractive in a way. And, when you and I were getting a little too close for comfort, he represented an out of sorts. But it wasn't an out I was willing to take, although, God knows, he offered it openly enough."
"Why didn't you? Take him up on it, I mean. I knew you felt trapped, especially right after Mexico and all."
"Because," she said softly, suddenly unable to meet his gaze, "I was in love with you. And, no matter how scared I was, and how hard I tried, I couldn't seem to get around that little fact. Tony was a way out of being afraid, but it would have meant leaving you and I just couldn't quite do that. I guess..." She drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I guess I sort of...needed you. God, I hated that. I think I still do, in a way. I don't like needing people. It never works out for me. I'm not very good at it."
She kept her eyes focused on her hands and fell silent. It was a few minutes before she became aware that nothing was breaking the silence. Finally, she forced her gaze up to focus on him. His eyes were hooded, dark and swimming with a pain more intense than anything she'd seen before.
"And when you needed me most," he said, finally, "I wasn't there for you at all."
"No," she said, "it wasn't like that. You didn't know..."
"I might have," he said, his voice suddenly harsh, his mouth drawn in anguish. "I might have at least tried to find out how you were, what you were doing, if you were all right or not. But I didn't, did I? I just crawled off and licked my wounds and felt bloody sorry for myself. Jesus, I'm a great one to depend on. Trust me, I kept telling you. God, and wasn't that a joke?"
"No, you can't do this to yourself." She left her chair to crouch down next to him. "You had no way of knowing about the baby and every reason for believing what you'd seen. You can't blame yourself for what happened. If anyone's to blame, it's Tony. Not you. Hell, you can blame me, even. I'm a lot more responsible for all this than you ever were."
His eyes widened in disbelief. "How do you figure that? You, of all people, are the innocent victim in all this."
"Innocent my Aunt Fanny," she commented bitterly, rising to her feet and beginning to pace. "If I'd been different, if I hadn't spent all those years game-playing and protecting myself...if I just hadn't been such an ass, you'd never have believed what Tony pulled." Her hands clutched at her elbows, hugging them to her as if a chill had struck her.
When she was finally able to speak again, the words had to wrench themselves from her frozen throat. "I thought I was being so clever. I was going to be in complete control of the situation. I was going to call all the shots. Never give an inch. Never let them see how you really feel, because that leaves you wide open. Never let them in close enough to see past the mask. You knew that. You used to complain about it, remember? How I was this incredible control freak, afraid to let myself be even the slightest bit vulnerable? Well, you were right. And I paid the price for it, didn't I? Didn't we both? Oh, God, I'm so sorry!"
"Don't, Laura, don't do this," he begged. He was on his feet as well, standing behind her. "You weren't to blame. You didn't sit me down in all those cinemas for all those years. You weren't the one that found it easier to watch pictures of people pretending to love than to go out and find it for myself. You didn't do this! Don't you understand? I'm the one who couldn't see past my own sodding star-struck fantasies! I'm the one who should have known. Hell," he added, his mouth twisted bitterly, "I did know some of it, enough so that, no matter how you felt, I should never have left you alone with him. I knew it wasn't safe. I knew what he was involved with. Dammit, I almost got you killed and you're trying to blame yourself?!?" His voice broke and she turned in time to watch him bury his face in his hands.
In an earlier time, she might have thought the gesture overly-dramatic, done merely for the staged effect. But she knew this man well enough to know that some gestures, which would be theatrical with anyone else, were quite genuine with him. Like a small child, during moments of extreme emotional stress, he hid behind his hands in a vain, probably unconscious hope that what he couldn't see wouldn't see him.
But she didn't want him to hide from her, so she reached out and gently tugged at his fingers. Behind them, his eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. She didn't realize what she was doing until she tasted the salt from his tear-soaked palms. Shocked, he tried to pull his hands away, but she held fast and dropped another kiss on them.
She paused and looked at him. His face was twisted in pain. "What's wrong? Tell me!" Something inside told her this answer would be the most important he'd ever given her.
"I can't...you don't understand...please..."
She dropped his hands. "There's someone else."
"No! God, no. There couldn't be. Laura, there's no one else. There's never been anyone else. Unless you..."
"Me? Hell no. Francis and Mother keep trying to set me up on blind dates. I even went out on one once, just to get them off my back. What a disaster. I left the poor man sitting in the middle of a restaurant. I told him I was going to the ladies' room and instead I caught a cab, went home and scrubbed the sink for an hour."
"The sink? What was wrong with him?"
"Nothing that I could tell. He just wasn't..."
"Wasn't you." She looked at him. "Sounds dumb, doesn't it? I keep trying to turn you into someone you're not, and as soon as you're gone, what you were to begin with turns out to be all I ever really wanted. So much for Laura Holt, Phi Beta Kappa and all-around keen judge of character. And now--"
She drew a deep breath, afraid there was no turning back from her next words. "And now I've screwed it up for keeps. It's over, isn't it? We can't go back. We'll just...make arrangements and act polite and never...never..." She felt her own hands cover her cheeks, brushing at the fresh moisture there.
"Laura, don't!" It was his turn to grasp her fingers and pull them away from her face. But she didn't have the strength he'd had to keep his eyes open. Hers were twisted shut, still trying to hold back traitorous tears.
"Stop, Laura, please!" His hands were fumbling towards her, twisting in her hair, brushing the tears from her face. She felt herself swaying into him, her face suddenly burying itself in his chest, sobs welling up from somewhere deeper inside than she'd had the strength to explore until now.
"Oh, God, I'm sorry! I just--"
"No, Laura, it's not you! Please!" He tipped her head up towards him, but she kept her eyes tightly shut. She didn't want to face that pain again, the pain she'd put in eyes she'd loved so much. When she felt his lips brush hers, she almost didn't recognize the sensation.
"Laura..." She felt his breath, warm on her face, then his lips again. Hers opening in response. A sudden inrush of breath and her arms were wrapped around his chest. Salt trickled into the corner of her mouth, but she couldn't tell whose tears she was tasting, his or her own. It didn't matter anymore.
She felt his hand, warm against her back, then both arms strongly
encircling her. Suddenly breathing was so much easier, easier
than it had been in years. She could hear his wristwatch (or was
it her own?) ticking off the minutes, or hours, or days. It didn't
matter. She was where she wanted to be and if the moment lasted
a year, it wouldn't be nearly long enough. She only wanted it
to last forever.
He made up his mind as he wiped the last of the blood spatters off the edge of the tub, watching it swirl in red streaks down the drain. It hadn't been her. It hadn't been her at all. She'd eluded him once more, slipped from his grasp like a chimera.
It just wasn't fair.
But it wasn't over. He was strong that way. She could hide and evade him and taunt him from the shadows, but she would never break him. He would finish what he'd started and he would find closure. It was what she'd never understood, what no one had ever understood. He was strong that way. He would see it through to the bitter end and he would find closure.
And nothing she could do would stop him.
He was whistling tunelessly as he wrung the damp, bloody washcloth out and began cutting it in strips, preparing to flush it away with the other remnants of his failure. He would just have to start over again. But he could do that. He could.
He was strong that way.