Part 2

A chilly wind blew the rain under Annís umbrella, and she wrestled to keep the scant cover between herself and the storm.  Suzy had told her to wait, but the constant hovering was wearing thin.  They wanted to talk about it.  Or at least they knew about it, and gave her looks of mixed dread and pity.  They said they loved her and would help her.  But if she told them all the terror washing up in the tidal pools of her soul, would they still be so anxious to help?  Did they really want to know just how far the fear had crept in?  They thought she had been doing so well.  She hadn't been, no, she hadn't been.

The alley outside the back door was full of shadows.  It was foolish to be out here alone at this hour.  She began to suspect she was courting hazards so she could feel something beyond this numb dread.  Oh, to be as brave as they all thought her.  If a night predator appeared, would she even be prepared?

But nothing appeared as she left the alley and stepped onto the side  walk.  The street was deserted.  Streetlights reflected in the puddles, the images spotted by falling raindrops.  Clouds hung low over the city, bouncing light back from their gray bottoms.  The dark obelisks of the tall buildings rose into the mist, their tops lost in dimness.  The twin towers of the World Trade Center dominated the gap between high rises, like pillars of the heavens covered in runic patterns of lighted windows.  Faintly she heard tires running along the wet pavement, but the cars never materialized.  The neighborhood seemed abandoned.  Even the muggers had gone home.

She looked around at the cars parked along the street.  Rainy nights brought the blues nuts out.  A good turnout...

A large, black Jaguar sat across the street.  It gleamed in the dark wetness, streetlights striking sparks off the corners.  There must be hundreds of black Jaguars in New York.  But she knew his car almost as well as she knew him.  The Middle Eastern blue bead for good fortune she'd given him still hung from the rearview mirror.

He's here.  Run, her mind said, but her soul felt the way a deer must when caught in oncoming headlights.  She knew he was watching her from somewhere.  Adrenalin made her heart race, but the hunted part of her mind didn't know which way to go.  Finally she just gave up, tired of the chase.

A footstep splashed lightly in a puddle to her right.  She looked over and slowly raised the edge of the umbrella to see.

Robert stood there, silent beneath a tattered awning.  His dark over  coat blended with the shadows.  He could have stood there for hours unnoticed, waiting in his blind.  His face shuttered and wary, he walked slowly towards her and stopped several feet away, obviously wondering if she'd shy away from him again.

Her outer mind told her to go back into the club, to hide in the crowd.  Her inner mind wept to see him again, longing for the safety of his arms.  But did she have any claim to that safety any more?  She hadn't expected him to come back after his crisis of fear.  When he had, she'd tried to drive him away.  Now he was certain to want explanations, and she dreaded his reaction.

Shocked, Robert stared at her.  What hell had she been drug through and by whom?  Lines of grief and pain etched her face, making her look years older.  She didn't look like she had slept much, and when she did she must be pursued by demons.  But she wasn't running from him this time.  She just stood there looking at him with eyes full of sorrow and the faintest flicker of wistful pleasure.  It was as if she was glad to see him but didn't think she had any reason to believe he could do anything to help.  She had given up trying to get away, but it was more as an exhausted animal finally lays down when pursuit has gotten too overwhelming.

Suzy hurried through the door into the alley, cursing Ann's thoughtlessness.  What was that girl doing wandering around in the dark?  She looked around and saw her sister at the end of the alley.  She seemed to be looking at something.  Then Robert stepped into the light, and Suzy gasped.  She hung back to await developments and hope.

"What happened?" Robert asked softly.

Ann could only look away from the concern in his eyes.  She wished she'd hidden from him when she had the chance.

He took a step closer.  "Why did you run from me?  Why won't you talk to me?"

"Because I'm losing my mind," she whispered, not looking at him, "and I didn't want to bother you with it."

"Bother?" he gasped.

She met his eyes, remembering her anger and pain.  "You left.  You said you didn't want to have to worry about me."

He grimaced in shameful agreement.  "I thought leaving would be better for you.  But I worried about you anyway."

"Why?"

He met her gaze.  "Because I love you."

Once the sound of him saying that to her would have brought nothing but joy.  Now the cruel jest of it cracked her stoic shell, and she began to cry.

Robert hesitated, afraid he'd said too much.  But having admitted the overthrow of his emotional invulnerability, he wasn't going to be faint  hearted now.  Slowly he went to her, took the umbrella from her unresisting grip, and drew her into his arms, sheltering her as she huddled against him, still weeping.

Suzy tried to cry quietly, not wanting to disturb them.

The numbing desolation began draining from Ann's heart as she leaned against him, felt his hand stroking her hair comfortingly, heard that wonderful voice whispering her name.  It was almost enough to make her forget the black secret rotting her soul.

For now, he was content to hold her again.  So precious was she to him.  How could he have doubted this was right?  Whole sections of his soul re  awoke as he held the woman he loved.  Someone to cherish and care for.  It wasn't too late for him after all.  But why hadn't she called him when the horror had struck her life?  He'd told her he would always be willing to help her.  Why hadn't she believed him?  Had she been ashamed to admit she needed help, or was it something she only hoped would go away?

"Darling?" he said softly, glad to be able to say it again.  He felt her cringe, as if expecting a blow.  "Oh, my love, what's happened?  Who's hurt you so?"

Ann hid behind her ebbing tears, unwilling to answer.

Fear for her gripped him.  He saw no signs of physical harm, but in the shapeless clothes she wore, anything could be hiding.  Gently he tipped her chin up, trying to get her to meet his eyes.  She glanced away quickly.  Was his dreadful suspicion true?  If she had been--assaulted, she could easily be too devastated to face him.

"Whatever it is," he said softly, "it can't possibly change the way I feel about you."  He felt her tremble.  "Truly, my love.  So please talk to me."

Maybe, Ann thought, weakly hopeful.  Could it be any worse than dragging it around like Marley's chains?  She took a deep breath and looked up at him.  His smile took her words away, and she raised a shaky hand to his cheek.  "I've missed you," she whispered.  "Please don't leave me again."  Part of her hated the weakness of that plea, but the rest of her was too caught up in its utter truth.

He kissed her fingers.  "I won't," he said, knowing full well both the foolishness of the promise and how much he wanted to keep it.  He decided to make it a little easier on her.  "Who hurt you, darling?"

She winced at his implacability.  "My--my ex-husband," she finally murmured.

A chill took him.  Ex-spouses were not known for their rational behavior.  Even his remarkably level-headed ex-wife had her moments of unreasonability.  Women had been known to die from violent ex-husbands.  "What did he do?" he asked carefully.

She heard the taut concern in his voice, and she realized what she was about to set in motion.  "He tried to kill me when we were married," she whispered.  "I think he might try again."  Fear took her as his face became that of the man who had lost count of the number of people he'd killed.

"Where is he?"  Robert was proud his voice was still calm.  No other part of him was.

Ann shook her head helplessly.  "It's very complicated."

He relented, realizing how emotionally depleted she was.  "Then let me take you home."

That simple phrase, with its attendant assurances of care and safe-keeping, almost made her cry again.  But she still had a little hell to walk through.  "All right.  But my place.  There's something you need to see.  And I need to find Suzy."

She looked down the alley and saw Suzy standing by the door watching them.  How long had she been there and what had she seen?  But Ann could see she was smiling and more than a little tearful.  Suzy blew her a kiss and headed back inside the club.  Ann spared some tears of love and gratitude for her bloodsister.  Who cared about birth certificates?  Family was where you found them.

As Robert held the door for her, she remembered the first time she'd ridden in this car.  She'd been terrified then, too.  Now, as she had then, she wished she was strong enough not to need someone to help her.  But this was beyond her too, and, once more, all she wanted was for the fear to stop.

Robert paused before starting the engine to study Ann.  She sat hunched up on herself, gazing down at her feet.  Something more than fear ate at her.  He wanted to touch her, to comfort her some  how, but for now he knew the best way he could help was to try and defuse her fear.

As he drove towards Chelsea, he knew his abandonment of her still had to be settled as well.  The threat of her ex-husband must have been doubly terrifying coming on top of that.  Could he convince her his change of heart was legitimate?  He wasn't certain he'd completely convinced him  self.  The thought of harm coming to her because of him still filled him with sick dread.  But the courage that had made him return to his lonely life had been revealed as the lowest cowardice, and he'd come too far to go back.

Ann's thoughts had gone so numb that she didn't even notice they'd arrived at her house until Robert shut off the car engine.  She had to concentrate to get out, walk to her house, and unlock the door.

Robert quickly summed up her condition.  "I'll get the alarm," he said.  "You didn't change it, did you?"  She shook her head silently.  "Why don't you lock the door, then?"  Her mute obedience worried him.

It took an act of will to make her hands work enough to throw the deadbolt.  She was so tired, so drained.  The hallway into her house seemed much longer than usual.

The emptiness in her face made him afraid to touch her.  But at least she'd let him in.  Why did she seem far too close to giving up entirely?  "You said you had something to show me."

"In the library," she said listlessly, and she led the way upstairs.  The cats met them in the atrium, mewing and yowling in Siamese.  A very faint smile came to her face, and Robert knew he would never re  sent their demands for attention again.  The thought of what she might have done to herself if she'd been alone in this echoing house made him sick.

Ann was silent until they got to the library.  "There's a file on the table," she said, going to one of the window seats.  "That should tell you everything you want to know."

Robert watched her seat herself and stare out at the dark, rainy night.  Tut and Ankh leaped up next to her, the female cuddling in next to her knees and the male trying to make room on her lap.  Ann absently stroked Tut's narrow head.  Robert felt the shell rising around her, the crystal barrier between her and the rest of the world, including him.  But she had told him where to find the key.  He turned and looked at the thick manila folder on the library table.  He touched it reluctantly, dreading the secrets that would be revealed when he lifted the cover.  Reaching for his glasses, he sat down in front of the file and opened it.

"Police report," the top sheet read, and his eyes narrowed.  It was dated five years ago.  Horror grew as he read the uninflected facts of a domestic violence case, an aggravated assault, possibly attempted murder, by a husband on his wife.

Hands shaking, he laid the first page aside and read the statement of Ann's neighbor, who had heard a brief outcry from her normally quiet but pleasant neighbors--"that nice young couple"--and to whom Ann had finally stumbled, dripping blood and unable to speak.  The neighbor wanted to blame it on a burglar surprised when Ann had come home from work but reluctantly admitted that Randy Taylor had been home all day.  "He had said Good after  noon to me not an hour before.  He didn't seem any different, but then he's been so quiet since they lost their baby a couple of months ago.  Yes, I heard somebody leave their apartment not fifteen minutes before Ann came to my door--and if my heart didn't stop then, it never will.  Oh, yes, the person who left.  Well, no, I didn't see who it was, I just heard footsteps going to the elevator.  No, they weren't hurrying."

The statement was followed by a description of the weapon, a heavy oak sculptor's mallet that Susan Johnson identified as a possession of Randy Taylor's, purchased months before when he wanted to try his hand at a new art form.  The presence of a partially complete sculpture and wear marks on the tool supported the evidence that the mallet had not been purchased with the attack in mind.  Blood and bone fragments found imbedded--

He decided to forego further details and put the police report aside, absently wondering why there wasn't a statement from Ann included.

The medical report came next, and he found his answer.  The dispassionate medical terminology described a crushed left collarbone and a crushed jaw.  A description of the treatments that had been used followed, but Robert skipped over them, his eye caught by a white hospital envelope such as x-rays came in.  He braced himself to see the evidence of the attack on his lover's body and pulled the sheets from the envelope.

They weren't x-rays.  They were full-color emergency room photographs, taken as evidence of a crime.  The first one was a shot of Ann's face, most of the blood swabbed clean, the lower part of her face horribly misshapen, crushed bone and out-of-place teeth gleaming--

Robert slapped the photo face down on the table, tasting bile in his mouth and wondering if he really would be ill.  Ann glanced over.

"Oh, the pictures," she said calmly.  "Skip the first four."  She looked back out the window.

Robert stared at her.  The left side of her face was to him, illuminated by the warm lamplight.  He studied her jawline and saw the faint scar that ran along it, a scar he'd long wondered about but put down to a child  hood injury.  And he now remembered feeling the irregularities in the bone beneath the skin as he stroked her face.  He looked at the white back of the photograph.  Would it be cowardly to just put them back in their envelope without seeing them?  He reluctantly turned the picture over and forced himself to study it, reminding himself that he'd seen far worse in his life.  Though never to someone he loved...

The first four were the worse, shots of the wounds before treatment.  The last three showed the sutures, close up and full figure.  Only in the first was Ann's entire face visible, and after a moment's debate, Robert decided to avoid that one.  He gratefully slipped the pictures back in their envelope and turned to the next document.

This was Ann's statement, with a note saying it was a transcript of a written statement since the victim was unable to speak at this time.  Robert skipped the opening legalese.

"I came home from work and opened the apartment door.  I heard my husband tapping away in his workroom and called to him that I was home.  He didn't answer, but he frequently didn't if he was hard at work on some  thing.  I went to the bedroom and changed out of my work clothes.  I don't remember hearing Randy stop working.  I'd just finished hanging up my jacket when I heard a footstep behind me.  I turned to say hello to Randy, then he hit me with the mallet.  He didn't say anything.  He hit me in the shoulder first, then the jaw.  I fell as he swung again and that one missed.  It was aimed at my head.  I don't remember the rest clearly.  I stared up at him, and he looked down at me, then he turned around and left the room.  I must have passed out for a while, then I somehow crawled out of the apartment and to the neighbors.  Randy wasn't anywhere around."

Robert put the page down slowly and looked at Ann again.  Ankh was asleep on her feet and Tut had curled up in her arms.  She wasn't watching anything in particular, just gazing out the window.

The next few documents were letters from her lawyer and a police detective, saying that Randy's family had no idea where he was but that a warrant had been issued for him.  One of the letters from the police asked if Randy had had a history of abusive behavior that Ann had perhaps not admitted to, but a copy of her reply said he'd never been anything but considerate of her.  The third letter from the lawyer caught his eye.

"I'll be glad when you can talk again, I think you're being taken advantage of.  Your grandmother just called and says you want to drop the charges against Randy.  Was that your idea or hers?  I know she doesn't like having the Marshalls drug through the public dirt, but, Ann, Randy tried to kill you.  This isn't like you found him in bed with someone.  He's dangerous and needs to be found.  We both know his mother's covering for him.  But if this is really what you want, I'll do it.  You do still plan to go through with the divorce, don't you?  I've found several judges who say there shouldn't be any problem with the paperwork under the circumstances."

A few things became clearer to Robert.  If her family had pushed her to drop the charges in the interest of reputation, it explained why Randy Taylor might still be at large to cause problems.  Her use of the phrase "guilt present" in regards to her house came to mind.  An ivory tower to hide in, in return for not making a fuss.

The divorce paperwork followed, several pages of depositions in regards to the attack and the unlikelihood of reconciliation.  Special circumstances were declared because of Taylor's disappearance and Ann's fear of a possible repeat attack.  Documents sent to the Taylor family were returned with the message that no one knew where Randy was.  Ten months after Ann had been admitted to the hospital, her divorce was made final.  A last letter from the lawyer reassured Ann that the divorce was legal and binding even without Randy's involvement.

Robert sat back.  He'd never heard of a divorce being granted so quickly without both parties' agreement.  The lawyer apparently knew his business, though, and he seemed to be familiar with Ann's family and circumstances.  And, of course, there was the not-inconsiderable influence of the Marshall money.  Divorces had been bought for lesser reasons.

One last item was in the folder, an envelope.  Robert examined it and saw it came from the State Hospital in Albany and was addressed to Ann at the brownstone.  Puzzled, he pulled the sheets of paper out and unfolded them.  The top one was handwritten and began: "My sweet Sylvy-Ann."  Robert gasped a moment and looked at the closing of the letter: "I miss you so desperately, and I all want is to come home to you.  I love you beyond all words, Randy."

His hands shook as he pulled the other sheet on top.

"Dear Ms. Marshall.  I am unsure how you will react to this letter, but I beg you to give it all the sympathetic regard you can.  I have under my care your former husband, Randall Taylor.  He has been admitted to the hospital under unfortunate circumstances.  He speaks of you often, and his fondest desire is to be reunited with his wife.  Mr. Taylor's family has informed me that you and he are no longer legally married, but he has no knowledge of that.

"A few days ago he asked if he could send a letter to you, and as it was the most interest he'd shown in the outside world in months, I agreed.  Please rest assured that Randy doesn't know your address, he wrote the enclosed letter and presented it to me for mailing.  In the letter he asks if it would be possible for you to visit him, or he you.  Please give his request serious consideration.  His mental state is fragile and his grasp of reality can be shaky, but the one thing that seems to hold his attention is the thought of you.  I cannot help but think that his recuperation would be greatly enhanced by seeing you.

"Of course, I'm aware that your relationship with Randy did not end pleasantly.  He's never mentioned the details and becomes quite agitated when pressed on the matter.  I do understand, though, that the loss of a child is involved, for which you have my deepest sympathy.  How  ever, if you could find it in yourself to overlook the differences that caused you to separate, I believe you could be greatly instrumental in helping Randy back on the road to recovery."

If he doesn't know he's divorced, Robert wondered, why does he think he's in Albany and she's in New York?  But uppermost in his mind was shock and concern.  What was Ann's ex doing in a state hospital when his family could afford the finest in private care?  And could he contest the divorce if he wanted?  He gave every indication of wanting to be with Ann, and likewise every indication of having no memory of his attack on his wife.  Even more, what would he do if he got out?

He checked the postmark on the envelope.  It was dated nearly two weeks ago.  This, then, had caused Ann's panic and withdrawal.  Robert folded the letter carefully and put it in its envelope, replaced it in the folder, and closed the cover.

He had to take a few minutes to get his hands to stop shaking.  He couldn't get that first picture out of his head.  The violence in him re-awoke as he pictured her turning to say hello only to be met by a brutal assault.  He could hear bone crunching in his mind and tried to imagine what could be going through a young man's mind to pull his arm back for not one, but two more swings.  Madness deserved pity and an attempt at a cure.  But nothing could change the fact that Randy Taylor had tried to kill his wife, and Robert wanted nothing more than a few moments alone with him to ask very bluntly why.  He fought himself back from his own edge of violence.  One question still needed to be resolved.  He stood and went to Ann.

She had been listening to the turning of pages, the muffled gasps of horror, but she couldn't bring herself to comment.  He was going to ask her to talk about it, and all her soul wanted to do was stay in its gray cocoon.  She heard his footsteps coming towards her, but she didn't have the energy to turn from her regard of the street below.

Robert paused to look at her.  She was caught in the inertia of depression, her mind sunk to the bottom of a comfortable gray hole, unwilling to drag itself over the sharp rocks of pain to awareness.  He knew that hole, he'd been there himself.  It was so much easier to just drift, especially when you knew that the things that wanted to hurt you were only waiting for you to turn your head just a little bit.

There was room enough for two in the window seat, once one evicted the cats.  Ankh hissed at him when he pushed her off Ann's feet, then jumped down and stalked away.  Tut turned acetylene blue eyes on him accusingly, his tail swishing.  Ann had to move to keep the cat supported, especially when he sank claws into her arm to maintain balance.

"Is that letter why you wouldn't talk to me when I tried to come back?" Robert asked softly.

"Yes," she whispered.

The next question was hard.  "Would you have let me in if it hadn't been for that?"

She looked up at him, her eyes full of her need for him.  "Oh, yes.  Why didn't you call earlier?  What took you so long?"

He finally touched her, caressing her cheek.  "I had to realize what a fool I was to think I could go through life without you.  I never felt truly old until I woke up and knew I would never hold you again.  I thought you were safe here.  But why hide?  Why did you run away from me?"

Thinking was too hard, so she said the first thing that came to mind.  "I was scared."

"Of what?"

"Of telling you about Randy."

"Why?"

She began rocking, upsetting Tut, who grumbled something in Siamese and jumped out of her arms.  She wrapped her arms around herself and continued rocking, drawing her knees up closer.  "Did I marry a madman or did he go nuts while I watched and did nothing?" she whispered.  "I can't decide which would be worse.  I know there must have been something wrong with him or he wouldn't have hit me.  But they've locked him up.  He's really mad.  And he thinks we're still married."  Tears started running down her face as horror appeared in her eyes.  "He thinks he has the right to come back into my life.  I'm going to open that door some  day and he's going to be standing there and I don't know what he might have in his hands and he never said a word and he kept hitting me and hitting--"

Robert pulled her into his arms as she sobbed in terror.  His mind was working again.  "Ann, do you know why he's in that hospital?  Ann?  Darling, stop crying now, you're safe.  I won't let him hurt you.  He can't get to you."

"He can get my address," she choked.  "That doctor has it.  How did he get my address?"

"That's something I want to find out.  First, though, do you know why he's in that hospital?"

Ann shook her head.  "If he's sick, his family would have him in some private place where no one would know."

"That's what I thought.  Have you told anyone about this?"

"Suzy, Jordan, and my--my lawyer.  I'm so afraid I'm going to still be married to him some  how ..."

Robert kissed her forehead.  "Has your lawyer gotten back to you yet on that?"  Ann shook her head.  "Now, may I have your permission to make some inquiries of my own?"

She blinked at him.  "What kind of inquiries?"

He smiled.  "I don't doubt your lawyer is competent, but I undoubtedly have resources he doesn't."

"I don't know ..."

"Ann, do you think I can quietly go about my business knowing that a certified madman who tried to kill you wants to come visit?" he said in exasperation.  "That's asking a little too much of my self-control."

"But--I have to be able to handle this by myself," she said uncertainly.

He gently stroked her cheek.  "Why?  That's why I'm around."

"I can't let you solve my problems for me ..."

"Then why did you call me when the thugs from your company were following you?  My love, please, let me help.  You don't have to deal with this alone.  You told Suzy, you're letting her help.  Why not me?  I can protect you.  And I've already promised I'm not going to leave you again."

The dark, secret thought came bubbling up.  "But I think it was my fault," she finally blurted.

"I beg your pardon?"

"It was because of the baby.  He wanted that baby so bad.  He carried the ultrasound picture in his wallet.  But there was something wrong from the very start, and the doctor said I should be especially careful.  He kept telling me to take it easy, but I felt fine.  I didn't think it would matter if I did what I always did.  But the baby wasn't laying right or something, and the doctor said something about endometriosis.  There was an infection and I got so sick.  They said it wasn't my fault, but if I'd been more careful..."

Robert could only hold her as his own grief took him for a moment.  His little daughter, so very young.  To his dismay he barely remembered what she looked like.

Ann didn't notice, too busy trying to get that black rotting carcass of guilt out in the open.  "Five months along, he was," she whispered, remembering that blurry outline on the ultrasound screen, that little piece of herself that had been doomed from the start.  "I thought it was safe, he was so far along.  We named him Jeremiah.  And when it was all over and they knew I was going to make it, the doctor told us that we wouldn't have any more chances.  Randy looked at me with such hate in his eyes.  It was only for half a second, and I thought I imagined it.  He went home and kept working on the cradle he was making."

A touch of horror went through Robert.  "A cradle?"

"That's why he bought that mallet.  He wanted the cradle to be hand  made by him for his son.  He'd just started the carving when I lost...  That's what he was working on when I came home that day."

"How do you know?"

"I had to go back, eventually.  I moved in with Suzy and needed my stuff.  I was the first one there after the police unsealed it."  Her eyes went cold.  "I saw my blood on the carpet.  There was a trail of it to the door.  I went to his studio.  He always kept it so neat, but there was a pile of woodchips by the cradle.  It was almost finished.  And it was so beautiful.  He was a brilliant artist, despite it all."

"What did you do with it?" he asked after a moment.

"Had it burned," she whispered.  "If my child didn't use it, no one's would."

Robert thought carefully about what he said.  "Darling, it doesn't matter whose fault if anyone's your child's loss was, that doesn't justify Randy trying to kill you."

She started shaking again.  "His mother said I must have driven him to it."

"His mother is a fool," he said sharply.  "But, my dearest Anastasia, you haven't said whether I can look into this for you."  He made her look at him.  "And you should know that I might do it anyway even if you don't say yes."  The light caught in the tears on her eyelashes, and he gently brushed them away.

"I should be strong about this," Ann said softly.  "It's weak to need help."

"Ah, if that were the case, I would never have come back to you, for you see, as well as everything else, I need you to help me sleep."

Tears of a different nature appeared in her eyes.  "It scares me to need you so much."

"Believe me, I know.  Just when I thought I'd gotten used to being alone, you come along and disrupt everything."  He kissed her gently.  "What I was may not have been happy, but it got me through the day."

"I know the feeling."  She remembered the day he'd told her he was leaving, how he couldn't bear the thought that she might be hurt.  "What made you change your mind about us?"

"I realized I haven't really been alive for years.  I've just been existing.  I'm still terrified of your being hurt, but what scares me more is the thought of what I'll become if I turn my back on how much I love you.  I didn't even know how badly I was hurt until you healed me."

She blinked back tears.  "I know it doesn't make sense," she said shyly, "but I keep thinking..."

"That if you let yourself need me, one day you'll turn around and I'll be gone."

"How did you--"

He traced a curl of hair lying on her neck.  "The last person I loved left me too.  What's to keep it from happening again?" he finished sadly, finally admitting it.  "Especially since I love a young, beautiful woman whom I can't imagining truly loving an old man like me.  But I still needed to tell you how I feel, and I won't hold you if you find someone else."

"Oh, my god," Ann gasped and threw her arms around him, responding instinctively to the pain in his voice.  "Robert, I love you, I need you, I can't bear thinking of life without you.  When you tell me you have a client I get sick with fear.  I don't know why I love you, I just know I'd rather die than go through these past few days again, when I thought I'd never see you again."

Robert could only hold her, helplessly grateful for the gift of her love and trust and laughter.  From what he thought was the autumn of his life, spring had appeared.  His weariness with the world had disappeared, and there weren't enough hours in the day to show her everything he wanted to.  "I'll take the ad out of the papers," he whispered in her ear.

Ann jerked back to stare at him.  "No, absolutely not.  If you take it out I'll put it right back in again."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I will not be responsible for you cutting off half your soul.  You need to help people, and you'd never forgive yourself or me if you stopped."

He continued staring at her.  Her face was still tear-streaked, but she looked perfectly calm and sincere, in fact, disturbingly resolute.  "Is that why you never object if I have to break a date?"

"There are people out there who need your help as much as I did, and what would have happened to me if you'd been busy with some damn-fool selfish woman?"  She shrugged.  "It's a karmic thing.  I pay for the time we have together by not protesting when you have to be away."

"How very Zen," he managed, still taken by surprise at her sensibleness and moderately ashamed of himself for not thinking her capable of it.  But it was a matter of soul, not of years.  And Ann had a very wonderful soul, despite what one particular person had done.  He hated to bring her ex-husband back up while he held her so close and he was thinking of all the lovely things he wanted to do with her.  But it needed settled.  "Darling, about your ex..."

She shuddered as if anticipating a blow.  "I'd forgotten.  I was so busy being happy with you.  All right.  Ask any questions you want.  But I don't know if my lawyer will talk to you."

"Not if he's a good lawyer.  But I won't ask him anything confidential."  Now that she'd given permission, he was impatient to pursue the problem and make sure no one ever harmed her again.  "You look tired.  How have you been sleeping?"

"Rarely.  But you're here and I'm too selfish to waste time I could spend with you asleep."

"Later, my love."  He smiled at the return of life to those cold, empty eyes.  "Go to bed.  I want to use your phone."

"You're not leaving, are you?"  Her self-respect was nothing in the face of her fear of being alone.

"Oh, no.  Remember, I don't sleep well myself without you near.  If nothing else, I've missed waking up next to you."  He stood and helped her to her feet.  She was none too steady, and he let her lean on him as he helped her to bed.  She tried to look inviting, but she feel asleep in mid-sentence.

He sat beside her for a moment until the cats jumped on the bed, looked accusingly at him, and curled up beside the sleeping woman.  "Guard her well," he told the two pairs of blue eyes, then he went downstairs to use the phone in the kitchen.

 

 

He dialed a number he'd long since committed to memory, and it rang interminably.  "For god's sake, Mickey, turn on your answering machine," he muttered, then, just as he was about to hang up, something knocked the receiver off the hook.  "Mickey?"

Faint grumbles came closer.  "Huh?"

"Mickey, wake up, it's me."

"God.  Christ, McCall, I was asleep."

"It's only nine o'clock."

"So?  I just got in.  What's up?"

"I'm at Ann's house--"

"Is everything OK?" Mickey asked quickly, sounding wide awake.

"Yes," Robert smiled, "everything's fine."

"Thank god.  You've been hell to be around.  So what are you doing talking to me when you could be with the pretty lady?"

"I need you to look into something for me."

"Look, man, I was serious, I just got in and I've been up since Tuesday morning.  Can it wait?"

"I suppose so, but let me run it by you anyway."

"Oh, all right.  If I snore in your ear just hang up."

"I need you to help me find out about Ann's ex-husband.  He's currently in the State Hospital in Albany and I want to know why."

"OK.  Why are we interested in him?"

Robert took a deep breath.  "He tried to kill Ann."

"Shit!  When?"

"When they were married.  It's why she divorced him."

"Hell, I should hope so.  But are you sure?  I mean, people splitting up sometimes exaggerate--"

"There are some very unpleasant hospital photographs I can show you of what he did to her with a mallet," Robert snapped.  "Yes, I'm sure."

Mickey hesitated a moment.  "OK, just asking.  Well, if he took a hammer to her, isn't that why he's locked up?"

"Apparently not.  She dropped the charges against him."

"Good god, why?"

"I'm still working on that.  It seems her family had a hand in it."

"Oh, great, mustn't let the neighbors talk.  What's the jerk's name?"

"Randall Taylor."  Robert gave him the name of the doctor at the state hospital and very briefly summarized the letter.

Mickey was silent as he wrote.  "OK, I'll see what I can find out when I'm awake.  Is she OK?"

"I think so.  I'm not going to let her out of my sight until I'm sure she can deal with the world again."

"Sounds like a plan."  There was another hesitation.  "Look, if this guy got out of there, it sounds like he'd head straight for her.  What's the plan if that happens?"

"What do you think?" Robert said quietly.

"Right.  Count me in."

"I rather assumed I could."

"Well, she's a cool lady and she keeps you in a good mood.  I'd like to see you keep her."

"Go back to sleep."

There was a faint laugh.  "Yeah, right.  I can get a hold of you there?"

"Here or the cellular."  Robert remembered his last conversation with Mickey, how he'd thrown him out of the car for daring question his decision regarding Ann.  "Thank you, Mickey."

"For what?"

"For not letting me be a complete idiot."

"Yeah, well...  Can I go back to sleep now?"

"Yes, good night."  Robert smiled at Mickey's standard retreat from any  thing he called sappy.

"Okay, then.  G'bye."

 

 

Robert woke with a start.  He looked around, at a loss, then he recognized Ann's bed  room.  Relieved satisfaction flowed through him as he realized their reconciliation wasn't a dream.  The happiness was rapidly followed, though, by the remembrance of her terrified panic.  It didn't matter that her ex-husband was fairly safely locked up, her dread of him was real.  And it was up to Robert to help her deal with it.

He glanced over at the other side of the bed.  When he'd come in after his conversation with Mickey and a second, more careful reading of that appalling file, she'd still been deeply asleep, the cats nestled against her.  Grateful just to have her beside him in the night, he'd slipped in next to her.  He hadn't meant to disturb her, but she'd opened her eyes slightly.  The contented smile that had drifted across her lips upon seeing him was held safely in his memory to be cherished for the rest of his life.  She'd settled next to him with a peaceful sigh and drifted off again.

But she wasn't curled up on the other side of the bed.  The cats were gone, too.  No sounds came from the bathroom.  Robert sat up and listened to the sounds of the house.  Everything was silent.  He didn't want her to feel hounded, but considering her earlier state of mind it wasn't a bad idea to check up on her.  He reached for his pants when the chill air hit him.

Ann sat in the library window seat again, wrapped in a warm robe and staring out at the rainy night.  Robert paused in the doorway to look at her.  What had he done in his life to deserve the miracle of her?  He must have been a little mad to have admitted that he loved her, but he was grateful for that madness.  If he'd looked at it rationally, he'd never have done it.  He'd been terrified of her reply, dreading rejection or, more likely, her shock that he was taking a friendly relationship so seriously.  But she'd said those amazing words, that she loved him too.  He wondered, though, how much of it was true emotion and how much was reaction to the stresses she was dealing with.  She needed someone to lean on, and in her emotionally vulnerable condition, she might be misinterpreting her feelings.

Then again, he might be so tangled up in his own emotions that he was looking for problems that didn't exist.  He wasn't alone anymore.  She still wanted him in her life.  Apparently she had no objections to his continued presence in her bed.  Time would show if this love was real, time for Ann to feel safe again, time for Robert to get used to having someone around whose welfare he cared passionately about.

For now, he gazed at his lover and thought how wonderful she was.  Last night he'd spent alone with the taste of grave dust in his mouth.  This morning he'd felt every day of his age as a grinding weight on his soul.  Only the terror of the empty time to come had made him abandon his cautious self-preservation.  Now he looked forward to the future, and he was full of plans.  He hadn't felt this peacefully contented in years.

Ankh stirred on Ann's lap, looked up and chirped at Robert.  Ann turned from her regard of the view outside.  "Hi," she said with a sleepy smile.  "Did I wake you?"

"No," he answered as he walked to her.  "But you weren't there when I looked for you."

"I had a bad dream," she admitted.  "You looked so peaceful there I didn't want to disturb you."

"Instead you decided to come sit here in the dark."

"It's been a long time since the night hasn't been frightening.  You made the scary things go away.  But then you left, and they came back worse than before."  There was only the faintest accusation in her eyes.  She made room for him to sit down behind her, then she leaned back against him with a contented sigh.

Robert wrapped his arms around her and savored her warmth.  "I am sorry about that.  But I was scared.  It was bad enough that you were hurt during your problems with Cochran.  To have you at risk because of some  thing I asked you to do was more than I could bear."

"I volunteered.  You tried to talk me out of it."

"I shouldn't have given in."

She looked over her shoulder at him.  "Sorry, sweetheart, despite all your efforts, you're not God.  And I am a grown woman who can take responsibility for her own choices."  She reached back to pat his cheek.  "I love you desperately, but I'm not looking for someone to make my decisions for me."

It was hard to admit, but he knew he'd have to if he want  ed to keep her.  Besides, one of the things he loved about her was her strength.  "Yes, you are a grown woman who can make her own decisions.  Some I wonder about, like why you're willing to put up with me, but I'm glad you are.  On the other hand, I refuse to allow you to put yourself at risk because of what I do."

"Allow me?" she repeated in a dangerous voice.

"If I could finish?  However, it's perfectly possible I could need your assistance in the future.  I have a tendency to exploit those close to me," he finished bitterly.

"Or is it that the people close to you are the kind who are willing to do difficult things for you?  They could always say no."  She grinned at him.  "Even Mickey is capable of refusing you."

Robert thought a moment about Mickey.  They'd been friends for almost two decades, but Mickey had been willing to put that relationship to the test to make Robert see the truth about his feelings for Ann.  Not the actions of someone being exploited.  "I grant the possibility," he said wryly.  He tightened his arms around her.  "But you, my dearest, seem so fragile to me.  I want to tuck you away somewhere safe and never let bad things near you.  Yes, I know I can't," he said at her faint noise of offended independence.

"Well, it's sweet that you want to," she admitted reluctantly.  "I should be appalled, but I have to say I'm tremendously flattered.  I've never been coddled and treated like I was fragile.  It takes some getting used to."

"I'll try not to smother you.  But one thing I swear," he said seriously, "I will never involve you in something dangerous again."

"You may not have a choice," she said softly.

He was silent a moment.  She was probably right.  "Please God it never comes to that.  If you were to be hurt because of something I asked you to do..."  He tightened his arms around her and looked out the window.  "That fear is what kept me away.  I've ordered people to their deaths with less grief than putting you in the path of Sandahl's bullets.  And when he hit you..."

"Fate, my love."

"I don't believe in fate."

"I do.  You're here with me, aren't you?  If that isn't fate, I don't know what is."

He managed a chuckle.  "Please let me protect you, a little.  I can't wrap you up and tuck you in my pocket, but I need you to understand that I've done this sort of thing all my life and I know how deadly it can be.  There are some things that can't be dealt with by mad courage and trust."

Ann wondered if she should hold her tongue, but if ground rules were being established, some things better be said.  "As much as your impression of me as fragile is flattering, I'm not helpless.  If it should happen, by whatever perversity of fate, that I find myself in the midst of trouble, I'm not going to hide under a table.  Especially if I can keep harm from coming to you." 

She turned to look him in the eye.  "You're not the only one who wants to keep people safe from harm.  But I stand as much chance of wrapping you up in cotton as you do me.  Less.  I accept this.  I know you'd go to the wall to protect me.  Just know it works both ways."

The partnership she was offering was tempting.  "I don't like having you in that evil place I work.  I've seen worse than Sandahl.  Jefferson told me things that you won't get out of me with red hot pokers and threats of leaving me."  They were getting close to that dark place in his soul where lurked the things that had driven him from the company.  "And I am capable of things that I don't think you could ever forgive."

"I doubt that," she said sharply.

He smiled sadly.  "I don't."

She started to argue the point, but bit her tongue.  The government agencies had been exposed as being responsible for cold-blooded atrocities over the years.  People had done those things, had thought of them and planned them out.  She doubted the public had been told everything.  She thought of various things that would horrify her; somewhere someone had done them.  If Robert hadn't done the actual deed, he probably had approved of something like it.

"But you left that," she finally said.  "Maybe you were capable of it, but it sickened you.  And you said 'No more'."

He had to catch his breath.  "Maybe I do believe in fate.  How could chance have created some  one as splendid as you?"  For all her own fears, she could still take his troubles and make them over into something less horrible.  She'd listened for hours to his maunderings about the things he hated about his work, and in her concern, they became less of a torment.  As much as she needed a shoulder to lean on when her self-sufficiency faltered, so he needed her compassion and patience.  When he found himself believing the world was full of nothing but crooks and cowards, Ann gave him peace and rest for his soul.

"I'm not splendid," she said, embarrassed.  "I'm just me."

"Yes, that's what I said."

As thunder rumbled faintly outside, Ann snuggled closer.  Rain streaked the windows, and the chill outside seeped through the glass.  But inside she was held in a warm embrace.  She rested her head against the man she loved who loved her back.  In all her life, she'd never felt like this.  There were people she loved, but none gave her this sense of peace and refuge.  She didn't have to be the strong one, and somehow that gave her more strength.  And it was beginning to dawn on her that she could count on having the comfort of him for as long as she wanted.  Now that he'd confessed his feelings, he wasn't the kind of man to easily forego all that.  As for herself, she hadn't known she was searching for him until she found him.

"You're not going to go all honorable on me again and try to leave, are you?" she asked abruptly.

Robert chuckled.  "I don't think I'd have the nerve."

"Good.  Because I warn you, I know where you live.  Only the fact that I got real confused about things kept me from hunting you down."  She took a deep breath and prepared herself for telling truths.  "Maybe it's just as well that letter came.  I may never have had the courage to tell you what had happened elsewise."  She smiled at him.  "But now you know my worst secret, and you're still here.  The crazy part of my brain half expected you to write me off as a bad deal."

"My darling, if you haven't abandoned me after all the dreadful things I've told you, how can I do any less?"

"Ah, but that's different.  You are altogether wonderful and a pleasure to be around."

"There are those who would disagree, and, as you said, it works both ways."

Ann gazed up at him thoughtfully.  Why him?  What planets had combined to make this man the one for her?

"A penny for your thoughts," he asked, finding his own pleasure in merely looking at her.

"Well, among other things, if the world ended tonight, I could be happy."

"Not I.  There is too much I want to do with you.  And not just that," he added at the knowing smirk on her lips.  "I find myself wanting to wander Europe with you."

"I was thinking New Orleans with you would be a blast."  Everything she'd thought she was tired of seemed new and exciting again.  But melancholy filled her for all her wasted years and the lovers she'd cheated by not caring enough about.  She'd never felt like this with them.  She had doubted she was even capable of loving someone with this kind of depth.

"What's wrong?" Robert asked.

She looked at him narrowly.  "How did you know something was wrong?"

"Because, my heart, you are my favorite topic of study.  If you want to keep secrets from me, you're going to have to work harder at it."  He saw her file that away, but he didn't mind.  All women kept secrets.  It was the nature of the beast.  "But to repeat, what's wrong?"

"This time, not a lot.  I was just thinking it took me a damned long time to discover I really did know how to love someone.  At least I hope I do."

"I have no complaints."

"Did you ever wonder?"

"If I could love someone?  No."  He smiled sadly.  "I just never had the chance before.  I loved Kay as much as I could, but I couldn't do my job and give my family as much as I wanted to.  I would have gone mad.  So I locked that part of me off.  And I lost them for it."

Ann didn't apologize for bringing up the subject.  As for her, some things were never far from Robert's mind.  And great happiness seemed to invite comparison with less pleasant times.

She shivered a little as a gust of wind rattled the windows.

"You should be in bed," Robert commented.

"I'm happy here."  She muffled a yawn.

"I heard that.  I'm going to have to insist that you take better care of yourself."

"If you use the word fragile again..."

"What's wrong with that?  Many of the most beautiful things in the world are fragile."

"I don't like being fragile," she said grumpily.  "I wasn't fragile before I met you."

"No, probably not.  When something bad happened, you cut off the piece of your heart that hurt.  I know.  I got very good at it."

She snuggled against his shoulder and gazed up at him.  "But my heart is growing back, thanks to you.  And it doesn't hurt as bad as it used to."

He kissed her instead of answering.  He hadn't been able to for a week, and he wanted to make up for lost time.  It quickly changed from simple affection to passionate.  They'd both locked off their desires, certain they'd never have to chance to indulge them again.  Now that the first commotion of their reunion was past, their bodies were saying, "Oh, yeah, we're allowed to feel that way again."  But Ann's emotional exhaustion betrayed the return of her happy lust, and a yawn ambushed her proposal to go to bed.

"I quite agree," Robert chuckled.  "And sleeping alone has never been high on my list of favorite activities."  He kissed her again.  "Besides, I've missed waking up next to you."

"And I you," she answered, touching his face.  "I've missed you so much."  She remembered his promise never to leave again, but she filed it away under lovely things that might come true but if they don't we'll not hold it against them.  For now she would be content to hold him and say the words she'd also filed away for possible future use.  "I love you, Robert."

Wonder, joy, and a sense of wholeness ran through him as he heard those words.  He'd done the right and honorable thing, and this time it brought nothing but happiness.  "And I, my dearest, darling Anastasia, love you."  No catastrophes befell at those words, no ill omens ran shrieking through the streets.  "Let's get some sleep," he added, basking in the contentment brought by the peaceful, happy look in her eyes.

A cloud drifted across her face.  "If you suddenly find someone clinging to you in terror, it'll only be me having nightmares."

He helped her to her feet and stood.  "My love, that's what I'm here for.  Slaying nightmares is what I do."

   

 

Two days later, Mickey came by.  After telling him to stay for dinner, Ann disappeared towards the kitchen.  Mickey gestured Robert to follow him to the living room.

"I found out why Taylor's locked up.  I don't know if Annie should hear it."

Robert glanced out into the atrium to see if Ann was out of earshot.  "What do you have?"

"He's in the criminally insane section.  That's why his family can't get him hidden away in some private hospital."

"Oh, my god.  What did he do?"

"Almost two years ago he crashed a wedding reception in Albany, attacked the bride and hit the groom with a chair.  He was judged incompetent to stand trial and he's been there ever since."

"Why that wedding reception?"

Mickey looked grim.  "The bride's name was Angela Marshall."

Robert went to sit down.  "Close enough."

"Yeah.  In his mind it was his wife marrying somebody else.  He sounds like the real obsessive sort."

"If he loved her that much and he tried to kill her, no wonder he snapped.  He can't handle the dichotomy."

"I'll leave the psychology to the shrinks.  She's not going to go see him, is she?"

"No.  Her lawyer called the doctor and told him that under no circumstances did she want to see Randy.  They sent him the details of what he did to her."

"Did he hurt anyone?" Ann asked from the doorway.  Mickey and Robert jumped and looked guilty.  "I said, did he hurt anyone?"

Mickey looked at Robert and licked his lips nervously.  "Uh, no, not seriously."

"Good."

"How much did you hear?" Robert asked.

"Enough.  Oh, god, Randy..."  She looked off and shook her head.  "Maybe if I'd really loved you I could've helped you."

"If you didn't love him why did you marry him?" Mickey asked, and Robert glared at him.

Ann shrugged.  "Oh, I told myself I did.  I was young and stupid, and besides, I'd made him a promise and all our families were looking forward to it.  I couldn't see any way out of it."

"That's a stupid reason for getting married."

Ann glared at him.  "No shit, Dear Abby.  I figured that out."

"Mickey," Robert started.

"Hey, dancing around it isn't going to get anything settled.  Besides," Mickey grinned at Ann, "you look like you're ready to take the kid gloves off."

She studied him.  "Maybe you're right.  I'm only terrified half the time now.  The other half of the time I'm pissed as hell."

"Remind me not to get you pissed at me.  What are you, brown belt?"

"Yes."  She smiled faintly.  "You dance on land mines, don't you."

"Not on purpose," Mickey said, and Robert let out a snicker.  Ann glanced at him questioningly.

"Is this something I'm not supposed to ask about?"

"Nah," Mickey said, "just one of those times when we weren't in Cambodia not talking to locals."

"Thank you, stop there, I don't want to know any more."  She looked between the two of them and chuckled.  "Well, for those who care, dinner's ready."  She headed back to the kitchen.

Mickey hung back with Robert.  "She's taking it well."

"She has nightmares."

"Hey, man, who doesn't?  But you can't throw up in fear all the time."  Mickey grinned and headed for the food, thinking that he almost wished Ann hadn't preferred McCall.  He'd wanted to ask her out himself.

 

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