Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction strictly for entertainment purposes. Please do not copy, publish or alter this work in any way without the written permission of the author.
“But mamma, what if Santa comes while we’re here? You said if I wasn’t in bed….”
“Santa will know that you are in church.”
The little girl voicing her concern dug her patent leather shoe into the snow, refusing to move forward until her fears were appeased. “But mama-”
Dr. Anthony Girardeau turned his head slightly to the right, glancing at the woman beside him to see if she had caught the exchange. Her smile revealed that she had.
“I’d better get you back early too…” Anthony said in a whisper. “You won’t get any presents if you aren’t asleep.”
Stephanie Bailey spread her lips into a grin.”I don’t think that Santa is bringing me anything this year.” she answered, “I haven’t been a very good girl…”
Better than you think. The doctor thought to himself, trying to ignore the nervousness that churned in his stomach and concentrate on negotiating his way through the throng of parishioners moving toward the church.
He swallowed hard, as he thought about the present waiting for Stephanie beneath his tree at the Clinic, wondering if he would have the courage to give it to her tonight. It’s too soon…He worried. Biting his lip, he slipped his hand into hers. The easy familiarity with which her fingers blended with his own reminded him again of how magical the past four weeks have been. Or maybe its not…
“The building is really incredible…I didn’t get a good look when we were in town to see the lights. ”
The sound of the woman’s voice brought Anthony’s attention back from his thoughts. “What?”
“The church…the decorations.” Stephanie gestured toward the paper luminaries that lined the sidewalk to the front steps, and the boughs of evergreen and holly that adorned the churchyard wall. “It’s like a Christmas Card with the snow.”
Anthony nodded his head absently, drawing Stephanie closer as they reached the line to enter the building. He crossed in front of her, purposefully placing the woman between himself and the priests who were greeting the congregation inside the door. Maybe they could slip past…
He was a minute too late.
“Good evening Anthony.” The Doctor froze almost guiltily as the pastor’s voice reached his ears. The tone was warm and even, but the doctor could not prevent the grimace that formed automatically on his lips. Was the minister trying to be ironic? Insinuating something? It’s all in your head. Anthony soothed himself, but to no avail. In spite of the calm, unquestioning manner with which he had always been treated, the doctor could not escape the feeling that, behind their cool eyes, the priests here were judging him. They had to know about Girardeau’s former vocation. They would have read it the file when the doctor transferred into the parish. What must they think of me? Anthony chastised himself for allowing the question. Why do I even care?
“And this is Miss…?” The assistant priest, asked brightly. Once again, Anthony stiffened. I didn’t concern them if he chose to bring a date.
“Bailey.” Stephanie supplied, seemingly oblivious to her escort’s sudden tension. She smiled at the man, noting that he was even younger than Anthony.”Merry Christmas, Father.” She said sweetly, then, noting that their pause was creating a traffic jam, tugged on Anthony’s hand to lead him inside. She paused beside him at the baptismal as he made the sign of the cross, and then turned to peer into the main hall of the church. “Where do we sit?” She asked as her eyes roamed the crowded room.
“Wherever we can find a seat.”
“Are we supposed to do anything before we sit down?”
Anthony frowned, not understanding the question.
“Cross ourselves or…kneel?” The woman looked around purposefully, trying to find someone’s behavior to copy. Anthony knew that Stephanie’s mother had taken her to church every Sunday for the first eighteen years of her life but she had been raised Pentecostal. From the expression on her face, he could see that she felt completely out of her depth.
“You don’t have to.” He said quietly, steering her to a seat along the left wall. “- and I promise that nothing happens if you don’t get it right….” She was worried about embarrassing him. He placed a light peck on her cheek to let her know that he appreciated her efforts. “Besides, I’d bet that actual Catholics are in the minority tonight.”
The statement drew a look of relief.
“Thank you for bringing me with you.” Stephanie whispered as they slid into a pew.
“Thank you for agreeing to come.” Anthony squeezed her hand tenderly, swallowing the rest of his words. Because I couldn’t do this alone… Not tonight.
Anthony toyed with his tie, wishing there was some way to hold back the flood of memories that had threatened to overwhelm him since they had stepped inside the sanctuary. I wonder who is standing in my place at Holy Family tonight… ? This church was so like the one in costal Maine at Christmas: the same red tapered candles in every window, the same scent of cinnamon in the air… I wonder if Mrs. Eaton had another baby this year….Charlotte is nearly two now, would she remember me? Only last year it was Anthony standing in a doorway, greeting parishioners.
A year? It had to be more. It was another world. Another life-
A life that he was trying to forget.
“…For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life…This is the gospel of the Lord.”
“Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”
Stephanie mumbled the response along with the rest of the congregation, then sat down again. Her eyes remained respectfully on the priest, even though it was a struggle not to turn them toward Anthony.
“Our presence in this church is itself an act of faith, a profession of belief in God’s promise…We have made our way here as the shepherds made their way to Bethlehem so that as they, we too might look upon the Christchild, the Word made Flesh, the all powerful God who for us has become a tiny infant…”
What was he thinking? Stephanie found it hard to concentrate on the words of the homily. The doctor had been acting edgy all night. Was something wrong? Had she displeased him in some way, or was he simply concentrating on the service?
“…God reveals Himself in the humility of a baby. His beauty and splendor shine from this Child and we learn that God does not force His glory upon us. He invites us gently to gaze upon this Child and believe His promise…”
She was in love with him. He was in love with her- she knew the truth even if he had never spoken the words, but he did not belong to her completely. Here, within the walls of the church, was a part of Anthony that she had never seen, a part that he had never offered to show- a part that she was half-afraid to question…
“…The manner in which God reveals Himself is the pattern of our own lives for in Him we live and move and have our being. God’s Son was born in a traveler’s inn so that we might learn from His example that we are travelers on this earth and that our homeland is in heaven…. ”
She tried to imagine Anthony in the somber robes of the pastor, his gentle voice carrying through the night.
“…The Son of God was put in a manager. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes that we might be content and satisfied to have just enough to cover us. The worst that we might do is to remain indifferent before this Child, full of grace and truth….”
Her Anthony- but not really hers at all- God’s Anthony, surrendered to a cause above his love for a woman. Sacrificed for it. Broken.
“The Son of God was put in a manager. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes that we might be content and satisfied to have just enough to cover us. The worst that we might do is to remain indifferent before this Child, full of grace and truth….”
Stephanie let the words of the priest melt in to incognizance as her eyes drifted around the church, drinking in the hushed beauty of the night. The lights had been dimmed, but the yellow tongues of candles burning in the windows and at the altar illuminated the room. The gently wavering pinpricks of light were like a starscape reflected in the hardwood paneling of the walls and floor, and in the smooth brass pipes of the organ. In the semi-darkness, the colors of the pine boughs and poinsettia that decked the room were muted, but their heavy scent permeated the air. It was so lovely here….so peaceful…
“Let us pray….”
Stephanie’s eyes jerked forward once more as the worshipers began to speak as one, her unpracticed lips stumbling over the words of the prayer. It had been so long since she had spoken them-so long since she had been to church even for Christmas Eve.
“…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…”
She turned to Anthony at last, seeking guidance as the prayer progressed beyond the words she knew. Stephanie frowned to find that the man’s lips were still. He was staring forward, his eyes resting on the priest, but looking through him in the wavering shadow of the cross that the candlelight had cast against the wall. His stare was distant and unfixed, focused on something that Stephanie couldn’t see- a ghost- or the shade of a memory from long ago. She shivered as a sense of foreboding dripped along her spine.
What did they do to you, Anthony?
When would she ever know?
Stephanie leaned drowsily against Anthony’s shoulder as the truck wound the final curve into the Point. The snow had begun to fall again, covering the road with a fine white powder.
“Can we stop at the Clinic before I take you back?” Anthony’s voice broke the stillness of the night. “I want to give you your present…”
The woman smiled, at the suggestion. The physician had been silent since they left the church. He seemed lost in the same trance that had gripped him during the Mass, and not knowing his thoughts had troubled her.
“I’d like that, Anthony.” She said quietly, trying to banish the sleepiness from her voice.
“-But I left your gift in my room. I thought that we were going to exchange them tomorrow at the party.”
“That’s alright.” The man said gently, lifting his hand from the gearshift and lightly patting her hand. “I’d just rather give you this one in private.”
At last, the Clinic came into view. It had snowed harder at the Point than in the outside world, and the drive leading up to the building was blanketed in a layer of white. The doctor found the road by memory. The heavy tires of the truck crunched solidly over the gravel until they finally came to a stop directly in front of the medical facility.
Anthony shifted the vehicle into park, and then came around to lift Stephanie from the cab. “Careful.” He murmured, maintaining his grip around her waist as they walked to the door. “The steps are icy.”
“I’m fine.” The woman insisted, but secretly pleased at the excuse for physical contact.
The doctor’s grip tightened into a quick hug. “Well, with your ankles, I don’t want to take any chances.”
After fumbling for a moment to find the right key, the door to the clinic slid open, and the pair slipped inside, welcoming the rush of heat that met them at the door. Stephanie stood in the dim hallway while her companion checked his answering machine for messages, then followed him through the door that led to his apartment.
Stephanie was struck by the difference between the appearance of Anthony’s kitchen this evening, and the way that it had been a mere month ago. The sterility of the space- once as pronounced as in the Clinic proper- had been softened by the thousand tiny touches that the frequent presence of a woman had inadvertently carried with it. Stephanie hadn’t set out to transform the apartment. She had learned long ago the dangers of insinuating oneself too quickly or too deeply into a man’s life, but the “I had two canopeners and thought you could use one”, “I found these pictures in my basement and didn’t have anywhere to hang them”, and “these curtains were on sale and I knew that you didn’t have any.” had gradually accumulated, so that the dwelling was slowly transforming into a home.
In the far corner of the room was one of Anthony’s newest acquisitions: A weary, but serviceable artificial Christmas tree, rescued from the basement of the Inn. Stephanie grinned to recall the Saturday afternoon, that she and the doctor had spent draping the tree with surgical gauze and ornaments that they had fashioned from paperclips, aluminum foil, and string. The homemade trinkets were so different from the delicate Belleek china, Waterford crystal, and Radko glass ornaments that hung on her tree at home- but they were more precious than the expensive baubles because of the memories that they represented.
The doctor walked toward the tree, and Stephanie noticed, for the first time, the package that was sitting beneath it. The physician retrieved it gesturing her into the living room.
The woman and the doctor sat side by side on the couch. Stephanie tried not to appear too curious about the present. She could tell, from the heavy, embossed wrapping paper and velvet bow that the gift had come from an expensive boutique. It didn’t matter, of course, how much he had spent, but it was still a thrill- and it pleased her to know that he was willing to go to so much trouble.
“I didn’t want to give you this with everyone standing around.” He mumbled, the box sitting in his lap as though the doctor still hadn’t decided whether or not he was willing to hand it over. “I mean…this may seem a bit soon and….if you don’t like it…..”
Too soon. The lawyer swallowed, trying not to let her imagination run away with her. Anthony had been awfully preoccupied tonight, had he really been thinking of asking her…? No! She refused to let the flight of fancy carry her away. There was no sense getting worked up before she knew what the present was.
“I’m sure that I’ll love it.” The woman reassured him, looking at the doctor expectantly until he handed her the gift.
The blue velvet ribbon slid away easily, and Stephanie lifted away the top, parting the tissue paper only to discover another box.
A blue box.
Stephanie’s heart was hammering in her chest as she lifted it up, removing the smaller lid, and extracting the velvet case that it contained.
What would she say? It was soon. He was right – this was unexpected- but she was so sure that she loved him. You were sure before… She reminded herself sadly…but Anthony is different. He would never hurt you. He would never go away.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Anthony’s voice was almost as breathless with anticipation as her own, and she nodded her head quickly.
Yes. I’m going to say yes. Trembling hands eased open the box.
It was earrings.
The woman released her breath slowly. “Oh, Anthony. They’re beautiful.” She said quickly. They were exquisite:: sterling sliver and gold, twisted together around a single pearl.
“It isn’t too much?” He seemed genuinely concerned. Stephanie shook her head, blinking her eyes rapidly even as she berated herself for the disappointed tears that the action held at bay. “They’re perfect.” They were appropriate- the perfect gift for a man to get a woman that he had been dating for a month.
“I want to try them on.” Thank God for law school. The Kentuckian’s mouth had retained its ability to keep talking even in the absence of thought. She took a few deep breaths, calming herself as she removed the gold hoops that she usually wore and fastened the new earrings into place.
“How do I look?”
Anthony smiled sweetly, leaning forward to run his fingertip along the ridge of her ear.
“Beautiful, as always-surely you don’t think that my earrings could ruin that?”
Stephanie warmed to the teasing, leaning forward to plant a kiss on his forehead, admitting to herself that an engagement ring wasn’t really what she wanted. She had rushed into a marriage before. It wasn’t commitment she craved- it was reassurance. In spite of Anthony’s tenderness- or perhaps because of it- she still wasn’t sure how he really felt about her. There were moments- like this evening at church- that he seemed so far away. He was new to everything. She understood that she had to be patient- but that realization did nothing to quell her fears.
The doctor accepted her friendly caress, and then turned his green eyes toward the ceiling. “Look! A mistletoe!” He said in mock-surprise. Stephanie laughed, her doubts melting as she felt his warm arms thread around her waist, and draw her tightly against his chest.
The first brush of his lips against hers was like a whisper- a cool brush of soft skin against her own- but the second touch was more pronounced. His left hand traced the line of her ear again, and then traveled along her jaw and under her chin, lifting it to draw her mouth more fully against his own. His other hand rested briefly against her neck. Then, easing her forward so that her weight was against his body, it trailed downward along her spine to the small of her back.
Making a sound of approval, Stephanie slid her own arms into place- one beneath his shoulder, and the other settled lightly on his hip. She spread her lips beneath the doctor’s own, inviting him to taste her more deeply. The offer was accepted, the moist heat of his tongue invading her almost instantly and she closed her eyes to brace against the quick stab of longing that pulsed through her core. Anthony worked in slow, deliberate strokes, unwittingly mimicking the object of her craving. His hand moved along her back in synchronization with the rhythm and then, as she twisted in his arms, slid along her belly, aggravating the furious longing that churned beneath her skin.
Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Stephanie fought the urge to seize his hand and draw it to her aching sex. She needed him. Every touch made her desire more fevered- but she knew that Anthony was offering nothing more than a kiss. It wasn’t time to press him for more, in spite of how badly she wanted to.
The doctor released her mouth, and moved his kisses along her jawbone, making a trail along the soft plane of skin until he reached the hollow beneath her ear. He lingered there, nuzzling the indentation tenderly, before parting his lips to draw her earlobe into his mouth.
Stephanie groaned as she felt him suckle the tender skin and again as the muscle of his tongue slowly circle the new earring with its wet tip. The hand on Anthony’s hip clenched in frustration. How could he maintain such damnable control?
At last, Anthony’s mouth drew away from her ear, and she sat up, letting his hands slide down along her sides, his fingertips trailing over the ridges of her ribs, then up again, as close to her breasts as he dared.
Touch them… Her nerves cried out against his restraint. Even without his contact, they were on fire. Her nipples strained against the slick satin of her bra. Take me…
The doctor could resist, but she could not. Ignoring the self-admonition of restraint, the hand that had settled on his hip moved forward, grazing the front of his pants.
He was hard.
A growl of equal parts triumph and fear formed in the back of her neck as she lightly caressed the bulge of his erection. At last she knew that she was not alone in her longing…Her strokes grew firmer, and she was gratified when his hips rolled forward to receive the pleasure, then crushed with disappointment when he finally pulled away.
“Stop!” Anthony’s plea was breathless but firm. “Stop…” He slid from beneath her, gasping as he ran his fingers through his hair.
“I’m sorry…” Stephanie began timidly, but the doctor patted her knee to dismiss the apology.
“It’s okay…” He panted. ” I just.. got a little carried away.”
“We both did.” Anthony reassured her with another kiss, and then rose unsteadily to his feet. “It’s getting late.”
Stephanie bit her lip in frustration. “Yes.” she acknowledged reluctantly. “I have to be up early tomorrow to help with dinner.” Moving to a stand, she arranged her clothes and looked around to collect her belongings. “My purse is in the kitchen…”
Anthony nodded his head, still looking flushed and addled- and grateful for a temporary escape. “Go and get it. I’ll bring the truck around back to get you.”
Stephanie walked back to the eating area, retrieving her bag and donning her coat. She stepped toward the door to wait ,frowning as her eyes noticed an envelope taped to the screen. It was plain yellow manila- the sort that Michelle used to file receipts at the Inn. Scribbled across it in the proprietress’s handwriting was a brief note: “Received today. Looked Important so I brought it down.”
The rumbling engine of the truck caused Stephanie to look up. Debating for just a moment, she plucked the paper off the door and then raced off the deck into the snow.
“Did you see this, Anthony?” She said as she climbed into theseat beside him. She offered the envelope for inspection. “It was taped to the back door.” The doctor shifted the truck to neutral, then scanned ‘chelle’s words.
“I must have missed it since we came in through the front.” He murmured as he opened the package. A smaller envelope slid onto his lap.
The lighting in the truck was dim, but Stephanie could make out the dark script of the return address. “The Josephinium.” It said in bold, archaic looking print. Curious, Stephanie squinted over Anthony’s shoulder to scan the rest of the envelope. “Father Anthony Girardeau. Personal and Confidential. Return address requested. Please open immediately.”
The Josephinium- wasn’t that where Anthony had gone to seminary? Stephanie felt a shiver of foreboding as she waited for the doctor to read the letter. Her brows knit when his hands remained still.
“Anthony?” She asked quietly.
The doctor didn’t answer. He tucked the letter above the sunvisor and shifted the truck roughly into gear.
“It’s late.” Anthony mumbled at last. “We have to get you home.”
Anthony’s hand hesitated in midair above the door to Stephanie’s room. She had been exhausted when he had dropped her off, and it was still insanely early. He should either leave her a message about where he had gone or wait until she woke up on her own- but in his heart, Anthony knew that neither proposition was an option. He couldn’t leave without telling her goodbye- and he didn’t have the time to wait until morning. He had wasted enough of that precious commodity already.
It had to be now.
Anthony knocked lightly, leaning his ear against the door for any sound of movement within the room. Hearing none, he rapped louder.
At last, he heard the groan of mattress springs, and the padding of footsteps across a hardwood floor. The doctor stepped back as the lock was drawn back, and the door was pulled open as far as the security chain would allow.
“Anthony?” Stephanie’s voice was heavy with sleep. Her pale grey eyes took in his appearance and then flashed with concern. “Are you alright?”
Before he could answer, the door snapped shut, reopening a second later with the chain removed to let him inside. “Has something happened? Is someone hurt?”
“Everyone is fine.” Anthony said quietly. “At least, everyone here.” He took a deep breath, looking nervously at his hands. “I came to tell you goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” The word hung in the air between then, seeming to echo in the stillness. “I… I don’t understand.”
Anthony opened his mouth, his words rushing forward like an un-dammed stream. “I have to go. I have to see… someone in Columbus. A friend.”
“Christmas?” The doctor had almost forgotten. After realizing her meaning, he continued. “Yes. Today. Now.” Agitation was evident in his voice. “I spoke with NJ on the phone. She and Mannie are going to come down after breakfast so that she can watch the clinic. Dr. Gussler in town is on call if there’s an emergency, I don’t know if she’ll understand this place, but….”
“Anthony?” Stephanie interjected, her features still twisted in confusion. “Why?” She rubbed her eyes, looking suddenly helpless and lost. “Is this about the letter?”
The doctor bowed his head, nodding after a pause. “Yes. It came from… the seminary in Ohio.” He stopped speaking for a moment, as if the revelation had been difficult to muster, and he needed a moment to gather his strength. He chose his words carefully. “A… friend- a dear friend- is very ill. He’s dying, and he asked for me. I have to go… I promised.”
“Immediately.” Anthony’s tone was unwavering. “They- the school- tried to reach me in Maine but….” His face fell ashen. “But I wasn’t there.” His mouth remained open for a moment, as if he had more to say, but thought better of it.
“Do you even know that he’s still alive?” Stephanie asked tentatively.
The doctor nodded. “Yes. I called the hospital this morning. He’s weak, but conscious. If I hurry…”
Stephanie nodded her head, finally seeming to understand the situation. “You’re going alone?”
His jaw twitched. “I have to go alone.”
“No, Anthony, you don’t.” Her grey eyes met his evenly.
“Don’t.” Stephanie blinked as though she were surprised with the forcefulness of her own voice. “Don’t tell me ‘no’. You’re in no state to drive- and I promise to stay out of the way.” She took one of his hands in both of her own. “Please.”
Anthony sighed heavily, looking at the clock, and then over his shoulder at the door.
Thank you for agreeing to come with me… Because I couldn’t do this alone… not tonight… His thoughts and words from a few hours before returned to his mind. It was going to be a long journey. Perhaps he didn’t have to make all of it alone.
“Alright.” He said at last. “But we have to hurry…”
Stephanie regained consciousness slowly, her senses awaking one by one. First, her ears focused on the steady thrum of the windshield wipers and the *shusshh* of melted snow beneath the wheels. She noticed that the surface her head rested against was soft and warm, but firmer than the pillows of her bed. It was scented faintly of… Drakkar? Her eyes opened slowly.
She was in the passenger seat of the Maxima, her head leaned against Anthony, and a winter coat draped over her shoulders like a blanket. She had been asleep. What time was it? Without moving her head, the woman’s eyes turned to the clock in the center of the dashboard. 8:43… They had been driving for nearly five hours.
“Anthony?” Stephanie sat up slowly, grimacing at the stiffness in her neck from resting at such an awkward angle. The man’s eyes flickered briefly to the side, acknowledging that she was awake, but nothing more. “Merry Christmas.” She said brightly, but her features fell as the comment drew only a distracted pat on the knee.
Frowning, the woman turned to peer outside the window, her eyes drifting over the dreary piles of dirty snow pushed into banks on either side of the road. What was she doing here? The memories of the night before returned in a rush, a sense of nervousness growing as she recalled their destination. She should be at the Point, opening presents… or at home in Kentucky fixing breakfast before church.Stephanie sighed. No, that wasn’t right. She should be here, with Anthony- only it shouldn’t be like this. His expression reminded her eerily of the one that he had worn in the church- vacant and serious, his attention fixed on something far away. But on what?
They continued in silence for half an hour, before Anthony finally spoke. “There’s a sign for a rest area. Do you want some coffee? I don’t think that there’s going to be any place else to stop…”
Stephanie nodded her head, grateful for the chance to go to the restroom and stretch her legs. She rummaged a brush and lipstick out of her purse, trying to put some order to her appearance as the doctor eased the car onto the exit ramp.
The stop was deserted, and from the thin layer of snow that coated the parking lot, it was clear that they were the first travellers who been there for hours. Even the commercial trucks were gone. Pulling on her coat, Stephanie went to the ladies room, pausing in front of the mirror to apply some fresh cosmetics and clip her hair into a casual updo before returning to the car. She lingered in the lobby to consult the highway map that hung on the wall. The “You are Here” sticker indicated that they were just outside Pittsburgh. There was still a long way to go.
I wonder what they’re doing at the Point right now? Stephanie smiled wearily as she thought of the presents that she had tucked beneath the tree in the main hall, wishing that she could see the faces when they unwrapped them.On an impulse, she took her cell phone out of her purse and dialed the front desk. After a dozen rings, she was about to give up, and was in the process of flipping the phone closed when she head a familiar voice ask “Hello?”
Stephanie concentrated for a moment, trying to place the voice. Finally, she answered. “Lisa?”
There was another pause, this time from the other end of the phone. “Stephanie?” the voice said at last. The Kentuckian could hear the puzzlement in the other woman’s voice. “Where are you?”
Stephanie’s grey eyes drifted back to the map. “In Western Pennsylvania.”
Lisa’s breath hitched a little in surprise. “We thought you were sleeping in….”
“Well, that’s what I was intending to do.” She peered through the windows as she made her explanation. “Something came up. Anthony’s had to go to Columbus, Ohio and I’ve come with him.”
“Ohio?” Lisa echoed. “Where did the Point let you out?”
The unspoken “oh” in the woman’s voice only aggravated the attorney’s sense of unease. It was… peculiar. Usually the Point magic worked so that a person’s destination was only a few hours away. It had been as close for her to go to Scotland with Lady in search of Kaz when Terry was injured as it had been to drive from Ashland the week before. But this time things had been different. They had emerged only a couple hundred miles from the seaside Connecticut village where she and Anthony had attended Mass- with their destination still a hard day’s drive away…
It was as if they weren’t supposed to go.
Stephanie tried to shake off her apprehension, nodding into the receiver. “I don’t know how long we’ll be gone. One of his friends is very ill… he’s spoken with NJ and a doctor in town, so there’s coverage for the Clinic…” Stephanie’s voice trailed off.
“Did you need something?” Lisa asked plaintively.
“No.” Just the sound of a friendly voice. “I just didn’t want anyone to worry… tell Tina for me, will you?”
“Sure thing… Steph?”
“Are you okay?”
Stephanie swallowed, “I’m fine, just tired.” And Anthony has me worried sick… “Tell everyone that we said Merry Christmas.”
Stephanie closed the phone and hurried back outside. Anthony was already in the driver’s seat again, the motor purring like a cat. The woman tapped on the window. “You want me to drive for a bit?” She asked when he opened the door.
“You’re exhausted.” Stephanie was firm. “Try to take a nap, or at least rest your eyes. You may not get a chance when we get there.”
Reluctant, but cognizant of the truth in her words, the Doctor moved to the passenger’s seat. Stephanie slid behind the wheel and closed the door. Sitting in the driver’s position of her own car made her feel instantly more at ease. She flicked on the seat warmers, turned on the wipers, and moved back onto the road.
“Can you tell me who we…” She chewed her lip before rephrasing. “Who you are going to see?”
“Father Hardesty.” Anthony replied.
“And he is…?”
“A teacher at the seminary.” The words were polite, but pointedly brief. Anthony didn’t want to talk about it.
Fine… Stephanie had used all of her courage to invite herself along. She would let the matter drop for now.
Using the controls on her steering wheel, she turned on the radio and scanned to a station playing Christmas songs. If she had been alone, she would have been singing aloud, but in the circumstances she merely hummed them in her head, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel in time. Anthony had bought her a coffee and a packet of powdered donuts. She ate her breakfast eagerly, grateful for the rush of sugar and caffeine.
It wasn’t too long before a low buzzing sound caught her attention. Turning her head she found that, despite his protests, the doctor had in fact fallen asleep.
At the border with West Virginia, the weather began to break, and by the time they crossed back into Ohio, it had stopped entirely. Coming out of the Mountains, the interstate was surrounded by endless plains blanketed in white. Overhead, the sun was trying to peek through the clouds, its rays almost blinding where they sparkled on the snow.
From a distance, Stephanie could occasionally see little towns and farmhouses, smoke was curling cheerily from the chimneys and snowman-building children frolicked in the fields. The terrain began to look familiar. Without looking at a map, Stephanie knew that she was no more than a hundred miles from Kentucky. On the exit signs she recognized towns she had visited in the past. This was where, unknowingly, the couple’s lives had first overlapped.
They were getting close. Stephanie debated whether she should wake Anthony or let him sleep. She knew how to find the Josephinium on her own. She had travelled U.S. 23 to Michigan a hundred times – and the towering brown-brick spires of the college had always marked the midpoint of the journey- but perhaps he needed time to prepare. Glancing over at his exhausted features, the woman chose the former course of action. She didn’t have the heart to wake him now. She had a sense that, no matter what the outcome of his visit with Father Hardesty, Anthony would not find sleep easily that night. It was better to leave him in peace while she could.
The final hundred miles passed quickly, and at last the lawyer made the turn onto the campus. She didn’t have any idea which building they were going to, so she drove to the church parking lot and pulled into a space.
Removing her seatbelt, she twisted in her chair for a final look at Anthony. He seemed so peaceful and content that she hated what she had to do. Leaning forward, she planted a light kiss on his cheek.
“Anthony…” She said softly, tenderly smoothing his hair away from his face. “Anthony…” She kissed him again as the jade green eyes opened, stroking his cheek as he fought a moment of disorientation. “Wake up, Anthony- we’re here.”
Anthony stood outside the door of the hospital room, clenching and unclenching his hands. He wished that he had something for them to hold. They felt empty and purposeless as they hung at his side.
“Father Hardesty will see you know.” The ICU nurse bustled through the door, leaving it open for him to step inside.
“Thanks.” The doctor murmured, sliding past her into the room.
It smelled of death. Accustomed to hospitals, Anthony had learned the scent. It was the sweat and heavy bouquet of tart antiseptic medicine and wilting flowers whose scent had disappeared long before when hope was new. It was hard for him to bring his eyes to the figure stretched across the bed, but he forced himself to do it. He felt tears pricking at his eyes, barely recognizing the shriveled man who had once been his dearest teacher.
Out of habit, the physician plucked the chart from the edge of the bed. His eyes scanned the page quickly. Pulse. Blood gases. Temperature…The numbers swirled on the page, as his mind rebelled against the attempt to pretend that his interest was clinical. This wasn’t a patient. It was a friend.
The doctor’s eyes rose slowly at the sound of his name. He had thought the old man was asleep, but he could see now that the soft brown eyes were partly opened. Dr. Girardeau’s posture relaxed somewhat. The look, at least, was unchanged: warm, yet neutral…. wise.
“Anthony…” the man repeated, his voice wheezing strangely from his chest. “You came.”
“Of course I came,” the younger man echoed quietly as he knelt beside the bed. “How could I stay away?”
“They said they couldn’t find you…” The childlike confusion in the elderly priests voice pricked at Anthony’s heart. “They wrote to Maine. They called, but they said…”
“I’m not there anymore.” Anthony comforted. He collected Father Hardesty’s hand in his palm, pressing the bony fingers between his own.
“They said you were gone…. they said….”
“I’m in Connecticut now.” He explained, trying to project a confidence he didn’t feel. “At a Clinic…” His hand tightened as he forced out his confession. “I left the church. I’m not a priest anymore…. I…I left.”
Anthony let the hand slide back against the sheets and turned his head away. He braced himself for the rebuke that he knew must come.
“You left?” Pain, rather than anger was in the voice. “Anthony?”
“I had to leave.”
“You know why.” The doctor’s tone was clipped. “You of all people know why…” He swallowed the rest. You’re the only person who knows…. and soon you will be gone.
The kind dark eyes widened slightly, and the bony fingers reached forward once more. “I know why, Anthony- but I don’t understand it…you had so much faith.”
“Faith.” Anthony’s lips twisted at the bitter taste of the word.
“Just because something bad happens doesn’t mean the good is gone. Anthony sometimes-”
“Don’t preach to me!” the doctor hissed, then instantly repented the words. A tear slid down his face as he held the priests icy fingers to his cheek. “I’m sorry…” He whispered. “Father! Forgive me. I didn’t mean to…. I…. I’m sorry I let you down…but I can’t go on pretending anymore. I can believe in things that I can’t see- but I can’t ignore the things that I can. I can’t follow blindly anymore.”
“Anthony, if you would only try-”
“I did everything right!” Anthony’s eyes were rimmed in red, but he stubbornly refused to cry. “Everything- and what did it prove?”
“It proved that there are no rules to life. Only God knows what is meant to be. All-” A cough interrupted the remarks. The exertion forced the priest to rest before he could continue. “Everything we have is by God’s grace. There is a reason, if you wait for it. In time you will understand.”
“Understand? I don’t want to understand.” Anthony’s voice wavered with emotion. “I want to forget.
“I’m a doctor! I want to help people!”
“You’re a priest!”
The doctor looked at the floor once more. “I was a priest.” He mumbled. “A long time ago…”
Silence fell between the men.
“Time to go,” the watch nurse said gently as she returned through the door. Anthony’s face betrayed his relief. “Father Hardesty needs his rest. You can see him again in the morning.”
The doctor nodded his head reluctantly. There was still so much left unsaid…but he barely knew how to begin. Father Hardesty was stable, for now. God had granted them a few more days… but would it be enough?
Stephanie shook the final cluster of peanuts from the bag she had bought from the vending machine and washed the down with a swig of diet Coke.
“Merry Christmas,” she murmured to herself, looking over the discarded wrappers that represented her Christmas feast. There was no ‘room service’ because of the holiday. There were, undoubtedly, a few restaurants open in the town, but she had waited too long hoping that Anthony might return… and at any rate, it seemed pathetic to eat alone at a restaurant on a holiday. She thought, wistfully, of the feast the Annabella had planned. Her mouth watered at the thought of the buttery potatoes and moist turkey… She thought of her friends as well. She could picture them gathering around the table in the main dining room, sharing joy and thankfulness that they could be together.
Together without me.
Stephanie sighed glumly and took out her cellphone again. She had absolutely no reason to call. She was certain that Lisa had relayed her message- but she wanted to hear a friendly voice.
She dialed the Inn, letting it ring longer than usual.
There was no response in the kitchen either, or the dining room.
Growing concerned, Stephanie keyed in the number to the Tavern.
On the tenth ring, Stephanie sighed in frustration. Someone should have picked up by now. Where were they?
Probably out having fun. She admitted to herself glumly.
Stephanie stared at her phone, not knowing any other numbers to try – well, no other numbers save one.
The woman stared at her phone. She had barely spoken ten words to the man since their breakup. It wasn’t that they bore each other ill will – Stephanie loved Kaz and was happy that Terry had found her- things were simply awkward. They had tried so hard to fall in love with each other, but it simply wasn’t written in the stars. Now, every meeting with Terry was a reminder of what could have been, and she wasn’t sure that she trusted herself alone with her imagination. She loved Anthony desperately, but sometimes he was so distant and unreadable. With Terry, she had always known where she stood. That fact still held a powerful attraction. Well, that and the fact that he puts out…In spite of herself, the woman smiled at the memory of the ill-advised but memorable night of passion that they had shared.
Finally, she picked up the receiver and dialed the Point.
A twinge of nervousness returned as she heard ringing on the line.
She was about to hang up when a groggy voice asked: “Hullo?”
There was a pause. “Stephanie?”
“Hi.” She whispered. “How are you?”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Stephanie felt a twinge of jealousy as a voice in the background murmured, “Steph? She okay?”
“Am I interrupting something?” She said sharply, hating herself for being so childish.
“Actually…” The Australian began slowly. He must have caught the embarrassed intake of breath from the other end because he hurried to add. “Where are you, luv? It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
Stephanie glanced at the clock. It was only six in Columbus. She had forgotten about the difference in time. Since she didn’t know where, precisely, the Point was, there was never any way to judge the difference in time zones. She had been lucky this morning- their timeline had seemed to converge.
“I’m sorry!” She said quickly. “I’ll call back later.”
“No… No!” Terry sounded as if he were slowly coming awake. “It’s all right. I’m awake now.”
“I’m bloody not!” the third voice called, sleepily. “Steph, you owe me a bloody whisky!”
Stephanie heard the creek of mattress springs, and then footsteps on a hardwood floor as Terry moved across his room.
“What is it, luv?” He said quietly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Stephanie answered quietly. “Just…. lonely.”
“Isn’t Anthony there?” The tension in Terry’s voice indicated that he, like her, was still a few inches from complete comfort with the situation.
“No. He’s gone to the hospital.”
“Lisa said his friend was sick.”
“I don’t know. He’s at the hospital now.”
“Did he say how long you would stay.”?
“No…he hasn’t talked about it much at all…he….” The suddenness of her tears took even Stephanie by surprise.
“Shhh…shh….” Terry whispered awkwardly. “What is it, luv?”
“I shouldn’t have come.” She blubbered. “I thought that he needed me, but now….”
“He does need you.” Terry insisted. “He wouldn’t have asked you to come if he didn’t.”
“He didn’t ask me to come.”
“Then he wouldn’t have let you come. Anthony doesn’t play games.”
“He isn’t like the Anthony we know…something’s wrong Terry… something strange.”
“Strange…” Stephanie sighed. She didn’t really know how to explain it to herself. “This has something to do with why he left the Priesthood… and its something terrible- but he won’t let me know. It’s killing him, Terry…and I feel so helpless.”
“He’ll let you know in time.”
“He loves you, hon. He just needs to sort things out for himself….”
“He’s never told me that he loves me.”
“Do you need to hear it to know that it is true?”
Stephanie fell silent, turning over her thoughts in her mind. “No.” She said at last. “But I want to…” She sighed. “Why can’t things just be simple?”
Terry laughed tenderly. “Because then you’d be complaining about life being boring!” he teased. Though he couldn’t see her, Stephanie nodded her head, acknowledging that he was right.
“Terry…” A disgruntled voice drifted toward the receiver.
“I’d better let you go.” Stephanie replied. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“I can handle Kaz,” the K&R expert assured her. Stephanie didn’t reply, but thought to herself how lucky he was that Kaz hadn’t heard that comment. “…But I am pretty tired.”
“Go to sleep.” The Kentuckian answered. “Sweet dreams.”
“Sweet dreams to you too, luv… Just be patient. This is going to work out… And I’m here if you need me- even at 3 AM.”
“I know Terry… thanks.”
“It’s nothing.” He hesitated for a beat. “I still love you, you know.”
“I know…” Stephanie smiled, interpreting the remarks as they were intended – as a declaration of friendship, not an offer to dally on Kaz. “…And I love you. I’ve missed you Terry. Take care.”
“You too, Gracie.” He whispered. “Goodnight.”
By the time Anthony returned to the hotel room, it was after nine o’clock. He had left the hospital at seven, but he hadn’t been ready to return. He had driven through the streets of Columbus for almost two hours, trying to order his thoughts, and work away some of his nervous energy before her faced his girlfriend.
The doctor lifted his hand to knock on the door that separated their hotel rooms. It was slightly ajar, and so he pushed it open, stepping back when he heard the sound of the shower running in the bathroom. She was getting ready for bed.
For a moment, he considered stepping into the room. He balanced his desire to be held and comforted with the knowledge that she would require an explanation – an explanation that he wasn’t ready to give. Slowly, his disappointment at not finding her in the room was replaced with relief.
He eased the door closed again and returned to his bed. They could talk in the morning. In the morning, things would make sense.
Anthony sat in the middle of the bed, staring into the darkness of his room. He was so tired… but he didn’t trust himself to sleep. All through his time at the hospital, and the hours of aimless driving that had followed, his unwanted memories had edged closer and closer to the surface. The ghosts that had haunted him for nearly a year were all around him now. They were waiting in the shadows to consume him once more. He wouldn’t give in.
The doctor switched on the TV, hoping for a distraction. “A Miracle on 34th Street” was playing – the new version.
“Non-believers…” Dylan McDermott sighed to Santa, turning a jewelry box over in his hands. It was a Tiffany’s box… a box like the one that had held Stephanie’s earrings…
He blinked in surprise when he glanced at the screen again. The movie was almost over. He must have dozed off.
“In God We Trust…” the judge was delivering his final speech acquitting Kris Kringle of insanity. Anthony liked the Post Office version better. When he was a boy they had watched it at home. He had asked his mother about how they delivered his own letters to Santa… Did Santa have a mailbox? How was it big enough? Did Santa know God? Is that where he found out who was good and bad? Did the priests tell him?
I’m falling asleep… Anthony felt a sense of panic as his mind drifted into unconsciousness, but he was too exhausted to resist.
How did the priests learn who was bad and good? Did they hear it in confession? Why do people have to confess?
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
I don’t want to remember!!! Anthony was screaming inside his mind, but no one could hear.
“It has been…I guess it’s been years since my last confession….”
Please God, let me forget.
“I had to tell someone…I’ll go crazy if I don’t.”
Don’t make me live through this again.
“Go on, my child.” Anthony slipped a finger beneath the collar around his neck and tugged nervously. The clerical band seemed too tight. It was choking away his air- or perhaps it was merely a physical manifestation of the discomfort he felt inside. He hated hearing confession, especially when he was all alone- but Father Carter was away from the Parish, and Pastor Pinkerton was adamant that regular hours be observed.
Sometimes no one came.
Tonight, Anthony had been unlucky.
“I’m listening.” He encouraged, trying to calm his nerves and concentrate.
“I’m…I….God, father- I mean!… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say-”
“That’s alright.” Anthony rubbed his hands on his pants, grateful that the parishioner couldn’t see him. He could tell from the man’s voice that he was older than the priest. The confessor needed help, and probably hoped that he was talking to someone qualified to offer it. “It is acceptable to use the Lord’s name if you are really calling out to him…” the priest soothed. “You may continue.”
There was a short period of silence, and then a heavy sigh. “I’m….afraid. I’m so afraid…I’ve really messed up this time, and I don’t know a way out.”
“What have you messed up?”
“My practice. My family….my life.”
Anthony’s ears pricked instantly to attention as he realized that the voice sounded familiar. He had heard it at the hospital. Was the man a doctor there?
The young man struggled against the impulse to push aside the curtain in the confessional and take a look. He wasn’t meant to know who was speaking to him, but still… “What are you afraid of?”
“Myself.” The answer seemed flat and ominous. “I’ve tried to stop it, but I can’t. I don’t know how much longer it will be a secret?”
“Is there a woman?” Anthony’s voice wavered as he tried to emulate the “concerned, but not too curious” voice that he had been trained to use. When there was no answer, he continued. “Money?…” He took a deep breath. “Have you hurt someone?”
“I don’t know….I mean, I don’t think so. Not yet…God.” This time the man didn’t apologize for the omission, and continued as if he had forgotten he was speaking to a priest. “This is fucked up. This is so fucked up….”
Anthony licked his lips, unsure of what to do. He decided to wait until the man continued on his own.
“No one at the hospital has noticed.”
“That its missing.”
“It?” Girardeau felt a chill along his spine. For a moment, there was silence, and he was afraid that the other man wasn’t going to go on, but at last he spoke.
“Sufentanil.” The man said quietly.
Anthony’s breath came out in a slow shudder.
He wasn’t suppose to know what it was.
“Is that a drug?” he asked, hoping that his voice sounded steadier to the penitent than it did to him. He knew the answer all to well. Anthony’s heart raced as his mind recalled his medical training. Sufentanil was an opiate, 700 to 1000 times more potent than morphine. It was used as an analgesic during surgery. Since it didn’t trigger a histamine release, it was safe for use in large doses during the marathons that open-heart surgeries and transplants sometimes became.
“Yes.” The voice was wavering again. “I…” Anthony could hear the beginning of panic in the other man’s voice. He could almost sense the doctor’s thoughts: What have I done? “I shouldn’t have told you, but I-”
“You were right to tell me. We need to find help.”
“No! I can’t do that. No one can know…” Apprehension oozed from the words.
“You have to get treatment. The state licensure board can…”
“I don’t need help, I need forgiveness.”
The anger in the words silenced Anthony, who looked at his hands. “Forgiveness is freely given to the truly penitent….”
“Truly penitent? You don’t think I’m sorry enough?” There was a snort of bitter laughter, then silence. When the words began again, they were softer. “I’ve already been forgiven once. When I was a resident, I…” the voice trailed off, allowing Anthony to fill in the story for himself. “I’ve used up my chances. I have a wife and kids now…a practice….father, I can’t tell them. I have to find a way out on my own.”
Anthony bit his lip, wishing he knew what to say. The two areas of his training, healing, and the church, were pulling him toward opposite answers.
“I already had my license on suspension. When I moved here from Maryland, I-”
A second too late, Anthony realized that he had said the name aloud. It was the natural reaction to a final puzzle piece falling into place. He had met the cardio-thoracic surgeon only a half-dozen times at the hospital, but had heard his story many times. Dr. Forster was a brilliant doctor, well-known for his skill in performing bypass operations- but also a recovering addict. He had received special permission from the state to practice at St. Mary’s Hospital for as long as he remained on a board-sponsored monitoring program….
But Sufentanil wouldn’t show on the screens…It had a dissipation curve of 30 minutes.
No one would ever know.
No one except for Anthony.
“How do you know my name?” Dr. Forster sounded slightly menacing as his words carried into the cubicle.
Anthony didn’t answer.
“How do you know who I am?” The man demanded again before changing tactics. “You can’t tell anyone. You won’t tell!” There was an edge of panic in his tone.
“What you say to me is kept in confidence.” Anthony said reluctantly. “But I beg you to let me help you.”
There was another derisive sniff. “What could you ever know about my life?” He sneered.
In his mind, the priest responded. Probably more than you know…
“Scrubbing in again, Dr. Girardeau?” Dr. Michaelson, a portly, silver-haired man winked at Anthony as he stepped in front of the scrub sink. He stepped to one side, giving the younger man room to reach for the soap and begin to wash. “We’d better be careful, Bob.” Michaelson tilted his chin at Dr. Forster. “He might be planning to declare a new specialty and start competing with us.”
“It’s just something that interests me right now…” The youngest doctor said gamely, rubbing the soap under his fingernails as the warm water continued to flow over his skin. “The techniques that you use are fascinating.” Anthony offered the two men a forced smile.
And I don’t have to let Dr. Forster out of my sight.
For a week and a half, ever since the confession, Anthony had made a point to attend as many of Dr. Forster’s surgeries as possible. He had decided, after a struggle, that he couldn’t divulge the information that he had received in private- but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t report a well-founded suspicion on his own.
Luckily, Dr. Forster didn’t seem to know who he had been talking to. Anthony doubted that he even realized his fellow physician was a priest. Although the man’s wife and daughters were regulars at Mass, he seldom accompanied them. He was always too busy working.
Or otherwise engaged.
Anthony forced the thought from his mind. He knew better than to judge others- especially when he was operating on incomplete information. Since his surveillance had begun, he had failed to notice any unusual behavior from the other man. Perhaps the confession had been triggered by a one-time relapse. Maybe the terror of what he had done had been enough to foreclose a new addiction. It could be, that things were going to be okay on their own.
But Anthony wasn’t ready to believe that yet.
The part of him that had been trained as Father Anthony counseled him to put his faith in God and to hope for the best, but Doctor Anthony rebelled at the notion of leaving well enough alone. He had seen, too often, the price of a single, careless error. What if one of Dr. Forster’s patients was injured by a drug-induced mistake? What if they died? Wouldn’t their blood be on his hands as well?
“Are you coming?”
Anthony blinked. He had been staring. “Sure.” He responded, accepting a pair of latex gloves from the nurse and following Dr. Michaelson into the OR.
The patient was already lying on the table with a white sheet draped over her body. The anesthesiologist stood at the end of the table, monitoring vital signs and the administration of drugs while a few nurses completed the last minute preparations before the surgery could begin.
“Do you want to do the incision, Girardeau?” Dr. Forster offered as he perused the tools laid out by the table.
“No thanks, I’m just here to observe.”
“You can’t bill for observation.” The man joked, flashing a grin at the younger man.
Dr. Michaelson broke in before he could respond. “Oh, Anthony doesn’t have to worry about earning a living like the rest of us.”
The grin on Forster’s face deepened. “Rich parents?” He inquired.
“Vow of poverty.” Dr. Michaelson supplied, his bright eyes disappearing into the creases of his smile. He seemed unaware that the effect of his teasing had been lost on his companions. The smile on Robert Forster’s face disappeared, and the look on Anthony’s features was one akin to terror.
“Poverty?” Forster asked tightly. “I don’t remember that option from medical school.”
“Anthony is a priest.”
Dr. Girardeau didn’t want to meet the other man’s eyes, but he felt powerless to resist. The steel grey orbs burned into his skull until he finally lifted his gaze.
“A priest.” Forster pretended that he was still speaking to the older doctor. “Well that explains a lot. No wonder he is interested in…matters of the heart.”
“Matters of the heart.” Michaelson laughed again, mistaking the veiled statement as a pun. “That’s a good one, Bob.”
“A very sudden interest.” There was accusation in his look, and Anthony felt guilty, even though he had never tried to hide who- or what- he was.
“Well…I just want to make sure that people get the best care possible.” he murmured weakly.
“Are you ready to begin?” Relief flashed across Anthony’s face as the anesthesiologist interrupted.
Dr. Michaelson nodded. “Well, Gentlemen.” He said to the other surgeons. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“Let’s.” Forster said brusquely, and he lifted his scalpel to begin.
“Dr. Girardeau, could you sign these charts?” The priest winced as one of the floor nurses bustled forward with a stack of papers.
“Actually, if it could wait until tomorrow…”
He had hoped to make it to the truck before Forster could follow him. He needed time to think, and plan, before the confrontation that he knew was coming. The nurses, however, were not cooperating. Ignoring his protest, the woman transferred the bundle into his arms. “And Kevin wanted me to remind you to get the rest of your dictation in. They’re still waiting on the progress report for the gallbladder you did yesterday.”
Anthony nodded his head, lunging toward the nearest flat surface to scratch his name on the required sheets. He looked up as a shadow fell across the page.
“Aren’t you even reading those?” The temperature in the room seemed to drop as he heard Dr. Forster’s voice. “That’s hardly best medical practice…” it scolded. “And I know that you want your patients get the best medical care possible.”
“Bob.” The priest turned slowly, his eyes moving to an empty patient room across the hall. It was unlikely now that he would escape their conversation. He might as well get it over with. “I suppose that you would rather talk to me in private.”
The man followed him to the room, and Anthony shut the door.
It was barely closed before Forster lashed out. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing following me around?” He hissed. “I’m not your little med student!”
The priest settled gingerly onto the edge of the bed. “I’m just trying to make sure that you’re alright.”
“If I needed your help, I’d ask for it.”
“You did ask!” Now Anthony was getting angry. He hadn’t asked to be put in this situation, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to apologize for his actions.
“Then I’m retracting the request.” The other man raked his fingers through his hair, “I’m fine.”
“If you were fine, then you wouldn’t have been reaching out.” Anthony folded his hands in his lap. He sighed. “There are solutions here. The fact that you recognized that you have a problem is…”
“My only problem is you, Girardeau.” Forster seethed. “I want you to leave me alone.”
The cardio-thoracic surgeon stared into the darkness for a moment before he turned around. When he did, his voice was quieter, but just as venomous. “You will leave me alone.” He started pacing forward. “Don’t ever try to scrub in with me again. Don’t read my fucking charts and don’t ‘pop in’ on my patients during rounds. If you do, I swear to God I will destroy you. I will rip you apart, Girardeau, do you hear me?”
Anthony stiffened at the threat.
“I almost lost everything over this once before. My wife. My kids. My respect. If you think I’m going to let some goody-two shoes busy-body take it from me, then I’ll warn you that there are a lot of fucking altar boys willing to say a lot of shit for a few hundred bucks.” He eyed the priest coldly, naked hate shimmering behind his eyes. “That’s a promise ‘Father’ Anthony. If I go down, you are fucking going with me.”
Dr. Girardeau gasped as he came awake, the sharp, pained sound echoing through the stillness of the room. Beside him he heard another, softer intake of breath, and movement beside his head.
“Anthony? Are you okay….”
The doctor blinked several times before his eyes found their focus. “Stephanie?” He murmured hoarsely.
“Are you alright?” He felt her hand against his cheek. Until its touch, he didn’t realize how cold his own skin was. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat, and his pulse was racing. “You were screaming, and I….”
Anthony slowly sat up, squinting at the face in front of him. The door that separated the two hotel rooms was open, and the pale light that filtered through illuminated one side of her face. Her pretty features were scrunched in concern. “Is it Father Hardesty?”
“No.” the doctor sat up, blinking his eyes, as he tried to get his bearings. “I mean- he’s as well as can be expected.”
“Something else then?” The woman tilted her head expectantly. Anthony could sense that it was an offer for him to open up to her- but he could not accept.
After a moment, the woman’s shoulders slumped. “You’re tired.” Stephanie mumbled. “I’ll let you go back to sleep.”
“No.” Anthony felt a flicker of terror at the prospect of being left alone once more with his thoughts. He reached forward anxiously. “Don’t go.” he whispered.
Frowning, Stephanie turned back around.
The doctor reached for her hand.
“Stay with me tonight.”
Stephanie lingered in the doorway of the Clinic, stalling the return to her car. “You know that I can stay if you need me.”
“No.” Doctor Girardeau gave his girlfriend another gentle kiss and nudged her toward the parking lot. “You have to work. Father Hardesty is stable for now. I said what I needed to say to him – and I’ll only have to go back again if…when the end comes.”
Stephanie dipped her chin in acknowledgment. “I’m here if you need me, Anthony. If you want to talk…”
“I’m fine.” Anthony foreclosed the conversation with a quick kiss on her forehead. “I’m just… tired and have a lot of work to do.” His expression softened as he traced a fingertip across her cheek. “I’m sorry that I ruined your Christmas.”
“You didn’t ruin it,” Stephanie assured him. “And besides, we’ll have more.”
Anthony brushed a lock of her hair away and answered with another kiss. “Next year will be better,” he promised.
Sliding his arms around her waist, the doctor stepped out of the Clinic for a final goodbye. He leaned forward to inhale the flowery scent of her hair before tilting her chin upwards for a farewell kiss. “Call me when you get home.”
“I will,” she responded.
“Will you be back next weekend?”
“I love you, Anthony.” Stephanie spoke the words in a breathless rush and then waited for him to respond.
There was a moment of stillness.
Stephanie tried to bury her disappointment long enough to pick up her overnight case. As she turned back towards the car though she allowed her features to show her dismay. Anthony stayed on the porch until she had pulled her silver Maxima back onto the road.
Glancing in the rear view mirror she saw him turn back into the clinic and she let her breath come out in shudder.
Well, he hadn’t acted upset by her own declaration of love, at least.
He had spoken barely three-dozen sentences on their journey back to the Point. His silence was maddening, but at least she knew that it wasn’t directed at her. Sadness hung about him like a heavy cloak- a sadness not entirely explained by Father Hardesty’s weakening condition. She had watched Anthony’s face the night before as he lain in her arms. He had struggled not to fall asleep, almost as though he were afraid of what his dreams might bring.
What filled his dreams though? And why wouldn’t he let her inside? Stephanie sighed heavily. The pain that was tormenting Anthony reverberated somewhere deep within her own soul. The ache was compounded by her sense of helplessness. She wanted to soothe him, to help him, to comfort him. As long as he kept his secrets bottled up inside, thought, that was impossible
Stephanie reached the fork in the road and pulled her car to a stop. Instead of heading west, away from the Point toward home, she made a U-turn and drove back toward the stables. A few moments later, the wooden structure was in view. She pulled the car over to the side of the road and got out.
“Hello?” Stephanie called, blinking as she stepped inside the dim enclosure. It was warmer here than outside. The scent of a hickory fire mingled with the peaty smell of horses and earth. “Is anyone here?”
“Who’s that?” a voice called out. She heard the sound of a shovel begin leaned against the wall, and then one of the brothers poked his head out of a stall.
“Yeah. Who’s asking?”
The girl waved at the youthful incarnation of the Creator. “It’s me, Stephanie.”
“Looking for someone?” the Australian frowned. Although the Kentuckian liked to boast about her home state’s exports of bourbon and thoroughbreds, he had only seen her drink one shot of whiskey- and she had never been to the stables before.
She nodded in response, “I have to find NJ. I thought I would check here before the hotel.”
“Sorry. I haven’t seen her… Kath?”
Stephanie took a step back as the blonde Welshwoman stepped into view. She had a bridle in one hand and a rag in the other, and continued to polish the tack as she responded. “Sorry Steph. She’s not here. You won’t find her up at the Inn either. She and Mannie headed home when they caught a break in the snow.”
The American’s shoulders slumped in disappointment. “Oh. Okay. I’ll try the cabin then.”
“In this weather?” East eyed her with concern. “There’s no way that you are going to get that car up the mountain.”
“Then can I borrow a horse?”
East’s lips clamped shut abruptly, his face betraying his wish that he had kept his mouth shut. “I… uhm….” He shuffled his feet and looked at Kath.
“Is it something urgent?” his girlfriend asked calmly. “You seem upset.”
“It’s about Anthony,” Stephanie said, sensing that the pair weren’t going to help her, and feeling a suddenly, illogical desperation to find Norma Jean and to learn the truth about what was going on. “Something happened to him before he came here, and I… I need to know what. He and NJ were friends in Maine, and….” She let her voice trail off, aware that her words weren’t making any sense, but helpless to improve her explanation.
Something of the urgency she felt must have shown on her face. The other woman spoke in a low but determined voice. “Let me find you something warmer to wear and East will take you up.”
“Now…” wait just a damn minute. The Aussie swallowed the words that he had been about to speak and glanced warily at Kath. Still, Stephanie could almost hear his thoughts.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to take an inexperienced rider on the slopes,” he attempted. “She could break her neck. Or worse- the horse might snap its ankle.”
Kath sighed at his prioritisation, refusing to back down. “Well, then, she can ride with you.”
The pair locked eyes, a fierce gaze passing between them. Stephanie felt a flicker of hope as East’s posture softened slightly, hoping it was a sign that his resolve had faltered.
“Well, I don’t like it…” he muttered. “And Mannie won’t like being invaded neither.”
“Well, East Driscoll, ” Kath pronounced, “as I am sure that NJ will say to Mannie &endash; tough!” The Welshwoman slid her arm behind the other girl’s shoulder, giving her a sympathetic smile. “Lets find you a scarf and some gloves. You two will need to leave soon to make it up to the cabin before dark.”
I’m going to get fired.
The absolute certainty that she was going to miss work the next day- again– buzzed in the back of Stephanie’s mind like an itch that she couldn’t reach, but there was too much to concentrate on in the present to devote her full attention to the worry. Horseback riding was far more strenuous than she remembered. The muscles around her pelvis and thighs were already screaming with exertion and, by East’s calculation, they still had a half-hour or more of trail to go.
Their mount, a dappled Mare named Ceres was one of the sturdier horses that Max and Massimo favoured. The animal seemed untroubled by the snow but stumbled slightly on a patch of ice. Stephanie had to tighten her arms around East’s waist to hold her seat. The Australian did not react, but Stephanie felt a faint blush slide across her cheeks as her fingers felt the hard ridges of his abdomen through his shirt.
In spite of the age difference, East unavoidably reminded her of Terry Thorne. With his mouth shut and his rugged features scrunched in concentration he looked exactly as the hostage negotiator must have done before life and time had sculpted the subtle differences in his face. The pseudo-intimacy of their position, Stephanie’s arms twined tightly around the man’s waist, made her acutely aware of the similarities. Inevitably, the proximity of his body conjured memories of the single night of passion that she had shared with his “younger” brother.
The blush deepened.
Damn, it had been a long time…
“That smoke is from the fireplace.”
Stephanie jumped guiltily as East’s voice jarred her back to the present.
“Over there on the ridge.”
The woman followed East’s gaze, pleased to see that they had almost arrived.
“Thanks East. I know that you didn’t want to do this…”
“Thank Kath,” he countered, then glanced over his shoulder to give her a look of apology for his earlier reluctance. “Ceres here needed the exercise… and Anthony is a nice enough guy.” He seemed to sense that he was bungling his attempt to deflect her apology and so he drew to a close. ” I do hope you find what you are looking for.”
Anthony unpacked his suitcase and then walked from his apartment into the Clinic. There weren’t any messages on the answering machine, and there weren’t any notes to indicate that anyone had needed him while he was gone.
That’s because there weren’t any patients.
With a sigh, Anthony shuffled through the short stack of case files behind his desk. Nothing. Nothing. Sprained wrist. Nothing…
Anthony knew, intellectually, that when the Point needed a doctor, they really needed a doctor. He understood that he was mostly around for emergencies, and that neither NJ, nor anyone else expected him to carry the patient load of a normal practicing physician. It simply wasn’t possible with such a tiny, relatively healthy population. Still, on nights like this one, sitting alone in an empty office, the boredom made it harder to deny that, no matter why NJ had chosen to ask him to come here, he had accepted her proposal because he wanted to hide.
But how much longer was that possible? Why did he still refuse to deal with what had happened?
The doctor closed his eyes in an attempt to block out the memory of Stephanie’s hurt expression when he had once again refused her offer of confidence. She loved him so much… and he had never even told her that he felt the same. He couldn’t – or wouldn’t- find the words to tell the attorney how much she meant to him. She was the light of his whole world… but he was still too wary of the short distance between love and pain to take a risk and let her know. Only hours ago he had sent her into the snow without acknowledgment of his feelings. The depth of his emotions was one more thing that he was afraid to face.
Allowing himself to love Stephanie was the first selfish thing that he had done in his adult life. Sometimes, he wondered if he carried the sense of indulgence too far. He dictated virtually all of the terms of their relationship: when they met, the boundaries of their physical intimacy, what they could discuss…
He knew that Stephanie wanted more.
She wanted him to ask her to stay at the Point. She hated her job in Kentucky. She had hinted more than once that what she really wanted to do was to set up shop on her own in a small town where she could get to know the people whose lives she touched. The little village in Connecticut where they attended Mass was perfect.
He also knew that, at least subconsciously, Stephanie wanted him to make love to her. Anthony closed his eyes again, this time to savour, rather than avoid a memory. He recalled the warmth of her hands on Christmas Eve. Even though his comparisons were based on the backseat groping of half a lifetime ago, he knew that their bodies were made for each other. Sometimes, simply lying close to her as he had the night before, he saw that his inhibitions were a dam holding back flood-raged waters, and that it was only a matter of time before it broke.
Most importantly, she wanted to know the truth about his past. He didn’t even know, aside from their first meeting, if he had ever discussed what it was like to be a priest. Even the happy days had been pushed aside in his attempt to pretend that eight years of his life had never happened.
Stephanie had never asked for any of those things in words. She wouldn’t. Anthony wanted all of them as well – but not until the timing was right. He simply needed time.
In spite of the teasing she sometimes endured from Tina and Ilaria about her allegedly impulsive nature, Stephanie had been incredibly patient with him… How much longer would it last, though?
Anthony held onto the thread of thought as long as he could. He knew that other, even darker memories were converging once more onto his mind. They hovered like ghosts on the outer edges of his consciousness, waiting for a chance to slip inside…
“Mama! Mama! Where are you? Mama!!!” A little boy in a red parka wandered aimlessly in the waiting room. A dazed expression was on his face, and a crust of dried blood smeared his cheek. “Mama….” As Anthony crossed the floor, a dozen voices assaulted him at once:
“Dr. Girardeau, they need you in surgery.” “How many more are there?”
“God, did you see the woman who just came in on seven?”
“This one’s coded.”
“Could you give us a hand?”
“Anthony, in here. Now!”
At last, Dr. Michaelson’s command broke through the fog, and the younger doctor waded through the chaos toward his colleague.
“Thank God you’re here!”
The priest nodded evenly. “I got the page. What happened?”
“A bus accident on the freeway. A greyhound clipped a fuel tanker.”
Dr. Girardeau sidestepped a stretcher as he continued to listen.
“They diverted the non-critical cases to County, but this is all hands on deck. I’m calling everyone in.”
The older man turned as a nurse peeked her head around the doorway, her expression grave. “We need you-”
“On my way.” He returned his attention to the other man only briefly. “Scrub in on two …punctured lung I think, I’m not sure what the hell you’re going to find in there.”
Without waiting for more, Anthony dashed toward the operating room, adrenaline surging through his veins as the urgency that surrounded him finally began to sink in.
The patient on the table was a woman in her late thirties. In addition to the punctured lung that Michaelson had mentioned, Anthony could tell at a glance that her left leg was nearly crushed, and he guessed that there would be considerable internal bleeding as well. The nurses were cutting away her clothes to expose the wounds, and he noticed a crumpled Teletubbie sticker on her jacket pocket.
He thought briefly of the little boy in the red parka in the waiting room.
Then he pushed all his conscious thoughts away and went to work.
Despite years of training, he gasped as opened the chest to an immediate rush of fluid and blood. His first objective was merely to stifle the bleeding, but even at that he hardly knew where to begin.
It quickly became apparent that he was fighting a losing battle.
“Her blood pressure is falling…”
Anthony glanced at the nurse. “I know. Two more units….”
“She’s flatlining.” The second nurses’s comments seemed redundant as the eerie whine of the heart monitor filled the room. “Paddles?”
Anthony hesitated, then nodded. “No. It’s too late. She bled out. I’m calling.” He touched the woman’s face briefly, then turned toward the clock on the wall. “Ten fifty-four. I have to go to the other OR.”
Anthony was already shedding his gloves as he rushed out of the room. The hospital was still in pandemonium: lights, screaming, movement…
The other operating rooms were already full. He simply picked one and hurried inside to assist. The patient was another woman, this time elderly. She had also received head injuries, but seemed to be stable.
The attending surgeon glanced up briefly, accepting Anthony’s help with a silent gesture of thanks. The priest recognized his colleague as Dr. Hain. She looked tired, and he wondered how long she had been on duty.
“Dr. Forster’s been called in.” She said, too intent on her movements to notice the change on Anthony’s expression. “He finally answered his page…”
As if on cue doors swung open again.
Something was wrong.
Anthony felt his stomach lurch as he noticed the distant, unfixed look in Dr. Forster’s eyes. He knew that the cardio-thoracic surgeon had not been on call that night, and probably hadn’t expected to be called in to the hospital. His gait was uneven, and his skin seemed flushed. Although someone who wasn’t looking might not notice, Anthony saw the telltale signs of a high.
The two men met each other’s eyes, and younger man’s blood ran cold at the look of pure hatred he found in the bloodshot orbs.
Dr. Forster had been caught in the act at last, but now that he had reached the moment of truth, Anthony was strangely uncertain how to proceed. He stared for a long moment, and then murmured. “I don’t think that Dr. Forster is feeling well.”
Dr. Hain frowned. “What?”
“I’m fine.” Dr. Forster snapped.
“No, you’re not.” Anthony’s own voice wobbled as he tried to find the courage to do what he knew he must.
“I’m am fine!” The other man insisted more vehemently. His anger made the flush on his skin seem more pronounced.
Anthony braced himself for action. “Doctor, I insist that you dismiss yourself from surgery.”
“And I insist that you shut the fuck up and try to save this woman’s life!”
Dr. Hain had fallen silent. She and the nurses stared in disbelief at the scene that played out before them.
Dr. Forster glanced over their faces, then said casually. “I’m sorry about this ‘outburst,’ Dr. Hain. Doctor- or should I say Father? Girardeau has been under a lot of stress at the church. Some nasty accusations floating around, as I understand it.” His voice was thick with menace. “Perhaps he should leave.”
At last, Dr. Hain snapped out of her shock. “This is a surgery, not a pissing contest!” she spat angrily. She signalled her attendant for another tool as she returned her attention to her patient. “This can wait until later.”
“No, it can’t.” Girardeau insisted, even as Dr. Forster’s threat: “I’m taking you with me” echoed through his mind. Anthony felt as if he was going to be sick as visions of the possible future rushed through his imagination. He had no doubt that Dr. Forster was deadly serious in his intentions. Still, he knew what he must do. “I can’t assist on this surgery if Dr. Forster stays.”
The female surgeon sighed. “Why?”
This was it. Anthony’s own hands were shaking now. He wasn’t sure that the other man was under the influence of drugs- and he couldn’t articulate his suspicion without revealing the information he had received at church.
“I can’t say.” He mumbled miserably at last.
Dr. Hain’s features twisted in disgust. “Then, if you can’t work with Dr. Forster, I suggest you leave.”
Anthony flushed. “This man is not capable of-!”
“Out, Doctor!” Dr. Hain jerked her head angrily toward the door.
Anthony’s mouth opened and shut. There was nothing left to say. Without a word, he did as he was told and stormed out of the operating room.
“Dr. Girardeau, could you-?”
Anthony ignored the nurse and kept walking: Through the hall… Down the steps… Out the door… Across the parking lot… He didn’t stop until he reached his truck, ignoring the stares that his glove-encased hands and blood splattered scrubs attracted.
He climbed inside the cab and laid his head against the steering wheel, trying to contain the sob he felt gathering in his chest.
“God-!” Anthony began, but he didn’t know which prayer to say.
He felt that his whole life was crashing down around him, and he didn’t know where to turn for help.
Anthony looked out the frost covered window of the Clinic and tried to recall Father Hardesty’s exact words of advice, but they eluded him. He was sure that it had been something about “everything happens for a reason.” It was the elderly priest’s constant theme in life.
But they don’t, do they? Anthony thought bitterly. Apart from the phone call to his mentor, every second of that sleepless night was still burned into his consciousness like a brand. Even from a distance, the churning fear of the unknown had almost overwhelmed him.
“Anthony, we’d like to speak with you in the office.” Father Pinkerton, the Parish pastor, had called him on the phone. Why hadn’t he simply walked down the hall? The illogic of the action made it even more foreboding. “There are some gentlemen here from the hospital, and an attorney…We’ve had a call from Dr. Forster’s wife.”
“I’ll be right there.”
He heard the words, but couldn’t feel them leaving his lips, compounding the feeling that he was no longer inhabiting his body, but watching from somewhere far away.
What would happen now?
“A good name is to be preferred above great riches.” He mumbled the Bible verse as it flittered across his mind. How could he possibly bear what was to come? How could he face the eyes of people who used to love him full of accusation and fear? And even for those who didn’t believe what Dr. Forster had said, they would always suspect…
A knock on the door recaptured his attention.
“Anthony?” It was Father Carter. “Pastor Pinkerton wanted me to tell you to hurry.
Dr. Girardeau searched the other man’s gaze for some hint of how the others would react, found only curiosity and concern. He didn’t know yet.
“I’ll be right there.” Anthony reached for the shirt he had discarded the evening before, but his hands balked when they touched the stiffly starched collar. His fingers slid over it reluctantly, then he dropped the garment to the floor. Rising to his feet, he went to the chest at the foot of his bed and rummaged until he found a shirt like the ones he wore when he visited his father at home.
It was wrinkled, but it would do.
Father Carter arched his eyebrow curiously at the choice of attire, but said nothing. They walked down the hall in silence, stopping outside the Pastor’s door.
Anthony knocked, and then stepped inside.
The tiny office was crowded, so Anthony remained standing by the door. Father Pinkerton was behind his desk. Dr. Michaelson was there, along with Dr. Manez, the Chief of Staff, and Burt Edwards, whom Anthony knew as the hospital attorney. A young, suit-clad woman was sitting behind them with a legal pad spread across her knees. She offered him a sympathetic smile.
“Anthony.” Doctor Michaelson began. “We’ve come to talk to you about Doctor Forster. I had noticed some tension between the two of you a while ago and now, of course, we all know why…”
The older man’s voice was calm and non-accusatory. His eyes seemed full of genuine pity, and Anthony felt a sudden surge of affection. One person, at least, might believe him- or at least give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Did the woman die?” Anthony asked hollowly, hoping to postpone the inevitable as long as possible.
Dr. Manez and Mr. Edwards exchanged a look.
“Yes, she did.” The attorney said quietly. “There were…complications after you left. But that isn’t why we are here today.”
“I know.” Anthony closed his eyes, feeling the sudden, desperate urge to save himself. “It isn’t true!”
“Not true?” Manez frowned.
“Everything he said is a lie. I can’t prove it, but, if you give me time…” He was blathering like an idiot, and it probably made him seem guilty. He saw the look of disbelief on the other men’s faces. Only the woman seemed unconcerned by the denial. She was writing something on the paper, her hand moving in slow, even motions across the page.
“Everything ‘who’ said?” Dr. Michaelson asked calmly.
The frown on Mr. Edward’s face deepened. “You’ve spoken with him since last night.”
“N-no.” Anthony stammered. “Why?”
The lawyer and the Chief of Staff turned to Dr. Michaelson, who seemed to have been silently elected their spokesperson. The elderly man twisted the wedding band on his finger and then looked up. “Haven’t you heard, Anthony?”
Dr. Girardeau shook his head in confusion, as the other continued.
“Dr. Forster is dead.”
“How did he…..what….I…” for several moments, Anthony’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly as a mish-mash of thoughts and emotions swarmed through his mind. Relief. Curiosity. Fear. Were they accusing him of having something to do with it?
“It was an overdose of Sufentanil” Doctor Michaelson supplied, lowering his gaze to avoid the darkness that spread across the younger surgeon’s features. “The nurses noticed it when they were counting back the surgical cart. When they went to find him….”
“We think it was an accident.” Mr. Edwards inserted quickly.
Anthony shared a skeptical look with Dr. Michaelson.
“A very unfortunate accident.” Dr. Manez stated firmly. “And one that the family, and the hospital, would like to handle as sensitively as possible. I don’t need to tell you Doctor- father.” The physician’s gaze wavered between Anthony’s medical and ecclesiastical colleagues. “how litigious bereaved families can become. If people were to begin to speculate that Doctors Forster’s death was…”
“He’s a recovering addict!” Anthony said vehemently. “He was using it to get high. That’s why I asked him to leave. He was high during the surgery.”
“And how do you know this, Anthony?” Pastor Pinkerton finally entered the conversation, the tone of his voice warning the younger priest to mind his words.
“During the surgery, he appeared to be….acting under the influence of a chemical substance.”
“But you didn’t see him take anything?” The attorney queried.
“You didn’t administer any tests to see if your suspicions were correct?”
“You didn’t ask him if he had taken any drugs.”
“No!” Anthony bit his lip, trying to contain the fury that was slowly replacing his shock. He hadn’t done anything wrong! Why did he have the impression that he was being placed on trial?
“How long had you been at the hospital prior to the surgery?” This time it was the young woman with the legal pad who asked the question.
“24 hours. I had been on call and was heading home when I got a page that I needed to return.”
“You were tired?”
“Couldn’t the fatigue have affected your perceptions?”
“I’m used to long shifts.” Anthony looked to Doctor Michaelson for assistance. “I wouldn’t have operated if I was–“
“Had you worked with Doctor Forster earlier that day?”
“No. We never-“
“So, you didn’t have a chance to observe him prior to your collaboration on the surgery of Mrs. Thompkins.”
“So, you admit that your belief that Dr. Forster was in an altered state is based entirely on your own suspicions.”
“No, a few weeks earlier he had-“
“Anthony.” Pastor Pinkerton’s voice interjected in warning once more.
Mr. Edwards lips spread thinly as he prepared to rephrase. “You don’t have any proof, that you are free to share with us, that Dr. Forster was using drugs.”
Anthony clenched his jaw.
Dr. Manez and Mr. Edwards shared a look of satisfaction before the physician returned his attention to Dr. Girardeau. “In light of that, Anthony, I think you’ll agree that it would be best to keep your suspicions to yourself. Mrs. Thompkins was an old woman. There isn’t any evidence at all that Dr. Forster’s care was deficient, or that it contributed to her death in any way. Dr. Hain assured us that she was present for the entire operation and that it went as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Nothing that you can say will bring her back and nothing that you could have done would have prevented her death. Gossiping about Dr. Forster’s personal-“
“It isn’t gossip!” Anthony started to rise out of his chair, but Pastor Pinkerton’s arm held him in place.
“Consider how it would affect the Parish.” The older priest spoke softly. “Dr. Forster was a respected member of our church and a role model for our youth. His wife and daughters are going to need our support. What good will be served by…voicing your suspicions?”
“You think that I should lie?” Anthony was dumbfounded.
“I think that you shouldn’t speak at all.” The old man soothed. “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
Anthony took a deep breath, his eyes widening as he looked around him at the calm, insistent faces. All of them were sworn, in some way, to righteousness and justice…but no one was interested in the truth.
“I suppose you are right.” Was all that he had managed to say.
But in the end, he hadn’t been able to let it go.
Stephanie tossed and turned on the hard wooden floor of the cabin, hoping that she wouldn’t awaken the dwelling’s other occupants. In spite of the thick quilts that Norma Jean had laid down on the planks, and the warmth of the crackling fire, her dreams refused to come. Nearby, yet far enough away that there would be nothing to report to Kath, East slept easily. Through the thin door that led from the common area, she could hear NJ and Mannie’s slow, even breathing in slumber.
The lawyer bit her lip to contain the moan of pain and frustration that threatened to spill out. The trip had been for nothing- NJ had only a sketchy idea what had driven Anthony from the church- nothing that the Kentuckian had not pieced together on her own-and now she was trapped, snowbound until morning, miles away from home and the man that she loved.
Norma Jean’s suggestion had been for Stephanie to ask Anthony herself. The tone of her voice had been heavy with the suggestion that, if she had known what had happened to the doctor, she would have offered the Kentuckian the same advice, but the remarks made Stephanie wonder if the woman was really acquainted with the doctor as well as his girlfriend had always assumed. Surely NJ knew that Anthony never talked about anything. He talked around it, leading his audience in endless, pleasant circles until the original point was abandoned. How could she make him let her inside?
At the first ray of dawn, Stephanie threw the blankets back and changed into her clothes. She moved noisily in the kitchen, hopeful that she might “accidentally” awaken the others.
It worked. East began to stir. In a few more moments, Mannie and NJ ventured back outside.
“Shall I make breakfast?” The nurse asked, rubbing her eyes, but clearly used to rising early.
“I’m not hungry.” Stephanie said quickly. “I’ve treaded on your hospitality long enough. I think I’ll go outside and saddle up the horse.”
As she had hoped, the remark brought East fully awake. “I’ll do it!” He said quickly, pulling on his boots and bounding into the snow. In less than half an hour, they were on the trail again.
Anthony reached automatically to answer the phone, keeping his attention on the journal article that he was reading as he spoke: “Medical Clinic, Anthony speaking.”
There was hesitation on the other end of the line.
The physician pushed the magazine aside, frowning when he failed to recognize the voice. “Yes.”
“This is Becky Winston…”
There was still no recognition.
“The….uhm….partners wanted me to call and see if she was going to make it into work today. Is she there?”
Anthony’s eyes widened. “No. She left yesterday afternoon.” The coffee cup in his hand began to shake, so he sat it on the table. “Have you called her house?”
“Yes. One of the runners went by to see if she had overslept and she wasn’t home. He said that there weren’t any tire-marks in the snow on her driveway, so we thought…”
“Have you called her parents?” A knot of fear began to twist in the physicians gut. “I have their number.”
“They hadn’t heard from her either. They told me to check with you…”
“No. I haven’t seen her.” The doctor fought to control the modulation of his voice. “I’ll let you know if I do.” He hung the phone up quickly, already reaching for his jacket and his keys.
Anthony tried to stifle the images that flashed through his mind: Stephanie stranded in a snowbank or worse! plowed against a tree. The cold manner that he had sent her away came forward to haunt him: Drive safe.
The doctor jumped into the cab of the truck, pounding his fists in annoyance as the frozen engine resisted the call to life.
Please God, Anthony murmured his own makeshift prayer. Let the stupid truck start. Let me find her. Let her be okay. I promise I’ll never take her for granted again. I’ll even buy a new car… At last, the engine caught. Without waiting for it to warm, the doctor slammed it into gear, sliding down the driveway and onto the road.
He would check the Inn first. He should have telephoned ahead. Stephanie might have run in to trouble on the road and been too embarrassed to call. At any rate, the boys could organize a search of the Point. He, the ladies, and Rick could scour beyond its bounds- though the knowledge that the Point might have let her out anywhere made the prospect more daunting. It didn’t matter. He didn’t care if he had to drive in and out a thousand times, he wasn’t going to rest until….
A car horn brought Anthony to attention, and he swerved from his position in the middle of the road just in time to avoid plowing into a silver Maxima. A curse word slipped past his guard as he continued down the road.
Then he slammed on the brakes.
A sliver Maxima: Stephanie’s car.
In his rear-view mirror. He could see that her vehicle had also come to a halt. He saw the attorney watching him in her rear-view mirror until she finally turned her engine off and stepped out into the snow.
The doctor met her half way.
Stephanie studied her boyfriend’s features with apprehension. She had expected him to be annoyed to find that she had never left- even more so when he learned what she had been doing, but the look on his face was one of outright rage, and it quailed her into silence.
For a moment, they stared at each other wordlessly.
“What in God’s name are you doing here?” Anthony thundered at last. The unexpected menace in his voice prevented any answer. “Do you know how worried I was? They called me from your work!”
“I- I didn’t mean…” Stephanie stuttered, but Anthony continued.
“Your parents didn’t even know where you were. I thought you were dead in a ditch!”
Stephanie looked at her feet. “I didn’t know that I would be gone so long. I went to see Norma Jean.”
“Norma Jean?” The unexpected explanation momentarily stanched the flood of bile. “Norma Jean? What were you doing there.”
“I wanted to see….I wanted to ask her…” Stephanie swallowed as she felt Anthony’s gaze burning into her skin. “Talk to him about it.” Norma Jean had admonished. Easier said than done. “To see if she knew….Oh, Anthony. I was worried about you!”
“Worried about me?” The physician looked puzzled. “Why?”
“You’ve been so….distant. So strange. I thought she might know what was wrong.” The Kentuckian gathered her courage. “Anthony, you haven’t been yourself since Christmas. I need to know why you-“
Abruptly, the fading fury returned with a vengeance.
“You were spying on me?”
Stephanie shrank a step backwards. “I- that’s not what I…”
“Then what were you doing?”
“Asking Norma Jean about…”
“About why I left the church.” The doctor stated nakedly. For several long seconds, the words hung between them. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”
“I wanted to ask you.” Stephanie insisted desperately. “You won’t talk to me.”
“We talk all the time.”
“Not about anything important! Anthony, why won’t you let me get close to you?”
This time the doctor did not have an immediate answer. He turned away. “Why do you have to rush things?”
“Why can’t you trust?”
Stephanie raised her eyes to watch his face as she waited for a response. The cold air had tinged her cheeks a ruddy pink, and unshed tears bulged at the rims of her eyes. “Anthony, I love you.” She said quietly.
“That isn’t my fault.”
Surprise made Stephanie’s breath came out in a slow shudder. It swirled visibly between them in the frosted air. Not your fault? Is it anyone’s ‘fault’? She thought incredulously, but was unable to muster any reply.
Anthony met her eyes briefly, “This is just moving too fast. I never expected….I never wanted…the kind of commitment that you obviously expect.”
“Commitment? I haven’t demanded any promises, Anthony.”
“Love is a promise.”
“And you don’t love me?”
His hesitation said enough. Stephanie turned toward the car, fighting to contain the sobs that had already boiled to life. She wouldn’t let him see her cry. She had given Jack far too much satisfaction on that account. She was stronger now. She had survived before….
“Stephanie….” Anthony took a step after her. “I don’t know how I feel! I haven’t ever been in a serious relationship before. I don’t know how I feel, or even what I want. What if you aren’t the one?”
But what if I am? Stephanie held the words inside.
The doctor shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I do care about you.”
Even before the word was spoken, the word stabbed into her heart. A tear dripped from her cheek and she turned her cheek to hide its fall. “I should go.” She said quickly, lunging for her car. “Take care, Doctor Girardeau.” She said quickly, the forced cheer on her face betrayed by her clipped and wounded tones.
Anthony stood in the road, watching as the Maxima sped away. In the back of his mind, a voice chimed in warning. He was making another mistake. Driving Stephanie away wouldn’t heal the pain he was feeling, it would only slash a new wound in his tender heart…but what was done was done- and wasn’t it for the best?
If Anthony did stay with Stephanie. If he loved her, married her, lived with her happily ever after- wouldn’t he always wonder “what if?” What were the chances of finding true love on the first roll of the dice? True, he had a dozen examples around him every day, but the boyz were part of the magic of this place. Anthony was only hiding here.
Yes. It was all for the best.
Raising his chin, Anthony trudged back to the truck, waiting a few minutes until the desire to go after Stephanie had passed. He was doing her a favor, really. She had been just barely divorced when they met. Surely she needed to play the field as well…There was no sense trading one prison for another. He continued to lobby himself as he completed the short drive back to the clinic.
It was the right thing to do.
But then again, maybe there was no “right thing”. Hadn’t he learned already that bad things happened no matter what? Too emotionally weary to resist, Anthony picked up the thread of memories from the day before&endash; of Doctor Forster and the aftermath of his death.
In the end, Anthony’s own silence had not been enough. Nurses talked. Janitors talked. Other doctors talked. In the end, the circumstances of Dr. Forster’s death had come out after all. As expected, the lawsuits had started pouring in.
Doctor Girardeau, isn’t it true that, on the night of Dr. Forster’s death, you believed that he was acting under the influence of a chemical substance?
Doctor Girardeau, isn’t it true that you left surgery even though you reasonably believed that the patient’s life was in danger?
Even now, he could hear the attorney’s voices. In spite of the pressure, he had steadfastly refused to lie….and what did it help?
The hospital had taken its worst quarterly losses in 20 years. He could take pleasure in the fact that his earnestness had resulted in a deficit that caused the underfunded nursing clinic to close. Doctor Foster’s malpractice had denied coverage- washing it’s hands of “intentional acts” and the heirs had gone after his estate, stripping it of anything with value, leaving his wife and daughters destitute and, he had also suffered personally for his candor. He had stopped short of revealing what he had learned in confession, but that did nothing to assuage his Monsignor’s obvious displeasure. If Anthony had acted courageously, then he had acted too late. Rather than stopping a problem, he had created more. He had done everything right…and nothing had worked out as it should. He was left only with questions, and a terrible ache that even time seemed unable to soothe.
Maximus rolled his head from side to side, loosening his muscles as he walked through the heavy snow toward the training area where he would meet Kaz for their morning practice. The General had been reluctant to adopt modern clothes, but he had to admit that the supple, lightweight boots that Laura had given him did a much better job keeping the cold, wet snow at bay than the heavy, furlined Roman version that he was accustomed to wearing.
The general turned off the main path toward the building that they used for shelter in the winter. Of course, sometimes he and the Scotswoman practiced “in the elements” to make sure that they stayed on their toes, but most of the time it was easier, and more comfortable, to work out someplace warm and dry. He let his mind wander ahead to his morning routine, and then past it to the lunch that he had planned with Laura, and the supplies that he had promised Kim that he would help unload before meeting Terry and Hando after dinner. He wondered if he would be able to convince Laura to watch Rambo with him again, and worked out a bit of his plea as he tramped over the snow.
The Roman had just rounded the final bend toward the low, barnlike structure when he noticed that something was amiss.
There were footsteps ahead of him in the snow. Someone had already been to the training area that morning. Since there was no matching set of prints leading away, he assumed that they hadn’t left.
It wasn’t unusual for Kaz to arrive first, but he could tell by the size and shape of the print that it wasn’t her. It wasn’t one of his brother’s either. His own bootmark lapped over the other impression by at least an inch. Frowning, the General assumed a more guarded posture as he continued along the trail.
Whomever the intruder was, they had already gone inside. The door had been left partially ajar, and the soldier slipped inside noiselessly. The heat had not been turned up, and none of the lights had been illuminated, leaving the space dim and frigid. The Roman’s eyes struggled to adapt to the sudden darkness, so he concentrated on sounds instead. Straining his ears, he discovered that the visitor was in the far left corner of the room. He could hear shuffling feet, then a muffled grunt of exertion, and finally the thud of metal against the wood and straw-stuffed mannequins that lined the wall.
Maximus stalked forward, keeping low and silent as he moved. He could make out a shape now, but still could not place its owner.
He paused momentarily as the figure parried once more, knocking its target off balance with an inexperienced slice. The wooden model clamored to the floor, and its attacker moved after it, pummeling it with a series of clumsy, but vigorous blows. Outside, the sun moved from behind the clouds, and a pale ray of light fell through the window and across the swordsman’s face.
The Spaniard sucked in his breath, every fiber of his body suddenly alive and shimmering with horrified energy.
It was Commodus.
Maximus’ heart hammered in his chest as his rival once again raised his sword, then sent it smashing against the wall. The technique was poorer than the General remembered- in spite of his hatred, the soldier owed a grudging respect to the emperor’s talents with a sword- but the look of rage- of passionate hate tinged subtly with self-loathing- was impossible to mistake. Where had he come from? The Roman barely afforded himself the chance to consider the question. He didn’t have time to think. He needed to act.
Holding his breath, Maximus oozed toward the wall, extracting a sharpened gladius from a rack, then moved anxiously toward the intruder once more. He prepared himself to step into the light- to reveal himself to his sworn enemy once more, but was frozen by the sound of Kaz’s voice.
“Anthony, is that you?”
As she spoke, the Scotswoman flipped on the light, snuffing the General’s illusion in the sudden glare of fluorescence.
“Anthony?” She said again, hurrying forward as the man flung his sword once more against the floor, then slumped bonelessly to the floor.
“Anthony! Are you alright?”
At last, the alarm in Kaz’s voice brought Maximus back to the present. He was able to believe, at last, that the man was not Marcus Aurelius’s son, but the gentle doctor, and the look in his eyes was not hatred, but a profound sadness for causes the General could not begin to guess.
The doctor blinked at them without speaking, acting as if he had just been awoken from a vivid dream, and then he turned toward Kaz’s voice.
“What happened? What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I was just…..I came here to think.”
The pilot and the soldier exchanged looks of disbelief. “That’s how you think?” The woman asked. “What set you off?”
“I just…..a lot of things.” Now that he had dropped the sword, the doctor looked exhausted. Dark circles marred his handsome features, and his eyes were puffy and red from a mixture of sleeplessness and tears. The green spheres drifted over the Roman’s face, and then they looked away.
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“It?” Maximus asked warily.
“Life.” The former priest said simply. “There aren’t any rules.”
Kaz and Maximus glanced to one another again before sliding into the floor beside their guest. “Do you want to talk about it?” The girl inquired.
Anthony shrugged. “I did everything right. Everything….” He looked upwards quickly- a gesture meant to hide an escaping tear. “There should just be….certainty. You can do everything right. You can be brave and selfless and loyal. You can actually believe what you preach…and it doesn’t matter. Things end exactly the same.” Once again his gaze drifted to Maximus,”I suppose you do know how it feels.” He said, laughing hollowly, before staring vacantly into space.
The General’s lips twitched uncertainly, and he turned to Kaz for guidance.
“Do you want us to call Steph, honey?” She asked quietly. “You’re acting as if you aren’t well, if I could…”
“She’s gone.” Anthony said quietly. “We broke up.”
This time it was Kaz’s turn to be astonished.
“And it wouldn’t help anything anyway. I’m being punished, Kaz…..and I don’t even know what I did.”
“You didn’t have to do anything.” The General’s voice broke in. The Scot widened her eyes a little- though Maximus and Anthony had mostly laid their differences to rest, there was still unspoken tension between them. It was unusual to see the general offering commiseration. “The Gods sport with us as they will…”
“Gods.” Anthony echoed, but otherwise was still.
“Everything happens for a reason.” Kaz added softly. “You may not see it at first.
This time Anthony smiled- the desperate, half-crazed grin from a moment before- “People keep saying that.” he conceded. “But when are they going to prove that it’s true?”
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty.”
Stephanie rolled over and winced as, she heard the sound of the blinds being flung open, and garish sunshine flooded her room. Squinting into the over-bright light she met her ex-husband’s expression with a scowl. “Go away, Jack” She moaned, pulling a pillow over her head.
The man shook his head in apology. “Not today.”
The attorney’s former spouse plucked the pillow out of her hand and prodded her to a sitting position. “It’s a beautiful day. You need to get out of the house.”
“I don’t want to get out of the house.”
“Well, I’m not offering it as an option.” Turning briefly to look inside her closet, he retrieved a Terry robe and thrust it toward her. “Why don’t we go somewhere for lunch, and then we can work on your resume?”
“I don’t feel like it today.”
“You never feel like it.” The man reminded.
Stephanie merely shrugged.
Jack heaved a mighty sigh and sat down on the edge of her bed. “Kitten, it’s been two months….”
“And someday it will have been two years. Your point?” The woman asked savagely.
Her ex sighed. “My point is that you have to move on with your life. You’re stronger than this, and it hurts me to see you so….depressed. You need to take charge and-”
Stephanie interrupted him with a laugh. “Since when were you the responsible one?”
Jack didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he mumbled something about running her a bath and ambled out of the room. Stephanie watched him go, half of her wishing that he would mind his own damn business, and the other half grateful that he was making the effort to tell her what to do.
Two months. Had it really been so long since her life had decided, finally and completely, to fall apart?
Breaking up with Anthony had been only the initial blow. Returning home to Kentucky, she had found her office neatly packaged in a cardboard box, and a note from the partners telling her to turn in her keys.
They were justified, she knew. She hadn’t been herself since the divorce, and being with Anthony at the Point had given her an excuse to slip away as much as possible. Predictably, she had fallen behind. Her hourly billing was so low that the firm was employing her at a loss. They had warned her time and time again, but the day she had blown off to talk with Norma Jean at the cottage had been the final straw. She wouldn’t want herself as an employee, why should they?
Still, it could not have come at a less opportune time. Instead of burying her pain over the doctor in long hours at work, Stephanie had only long hours at home (a home that, quite frankly, she didn’t know how she was going to pay for anymore) and the distractions of soap operas to fill her time. At first, she was astonished to learn that, in the ten years since she had started undergrad, Bo still hadn’t made up his mind between Billy and Gina?/Hope. Sammy was still trying to scam her sister’s man. Was Marlena still possessed? But the captivations of Days of Our Lives could not keep her emptiness at bay for long.
Her ex-husband, Jack Foley, was the only human contact that she had enjoyed for weeks. He had discovered her state almost by accident- her firing, apparently, the “big gossip” at Motion hour that week in Court. Jack had stopped by the house to hear her story and offer her a job- or at least finding another one, only to find his ex-wife on the verge of emotional collapse. To his credit, Foley hadn’t treated the weakness as an opportunity to get into Stephanie’s pants. He had sized up the situation, taken charge, and proceeded to care for her in a way that he had never managed to master while they were actually married. With Jack, though still unemployed and despondent, Stephanie was at least adequately fed and occasionally bathed.
“Kitten, you have to start looking for a job today.” Her unexpected benefactor admonished when he came back into the room. He was carrying a pretty gray suit and matching scarf that he had selected from the closet. “If you won’t work for me then you have to start thinking about somewhere else. You don’t want a big gap on your resume haunting you years down the road.”
“Not yet.” Stephanie insisted. “Jack, I still don’t know what I want. Maybe I don’t want to be an attorney at all anymore. I’ve got some money saved.” And you are still paying my alimony…Tactfully, the woman kept the final thought to herself.
Jack sighed. “Another week.” He pronounced definitively, “But then you have to start moving on. Kitten, he isn’t worth it. No one is worth it. You’re too good to let this drag you down.”
“Apparently, not good enough for Anthony.” Stephanie replied woefully.
Jack opened his mouth to say something in reply. Instead, however, he sat on the edge of the bed and gathered her into his arms. “You’re wonderful, Stephanie Bailey.” He said tenderly. “Don’t think for a second that you’re not. If Doctor Anthony Girardeau can’t see it…well then, he’s a fool! A fool that is going to realize his mistake.” His chocolate eyes lowered. “God knows that I have….”
At the final remark, Stephanie pulled away slightly, not wanting to let Jack spoil his tenderness with actions that could be mistaken for something else. As if sensing her thoughts, he rose to stand again. “Perhaps a change of scene would do you good.” He wondered aloud. “You could go up to the cottage and sail the boat.”
“It’s too cold.”
Jack’s ex-wife wrinkled her nose.
“Maybe you should go and visit a friend. Tina’s been awfully anxious about you- she’s called here twice a week.”
“That’s because she doesn’t trust me with you!” Stephanie retorted, finally smiling a little. She fell silent as she considered the idea. Seeing Tina would be wonderful: She had so much that she needed to say to her friend- things that couldn’t be communicated over a phone. Of course, there were obvious disadvantages to traveling to the Point. Anthony would be there. Anthony and…Kari? Maya? Jane? He had been out with a lot of girls since Stephanie had left. Tina had refused to tell her- pretending that she had no idea what Anthony was up to these days- , but Terry had kept her informed. Her Australian ex-boyfriend understood, as Tina did not, that Stephanie’s imagination would conjure up images far worse than the truth if she were consistently left in the dark….Well, there was no reason that she had to run into Anthony. She would be careful with her health, and avoid the common areas like the Tavern and the Inn. It was Tina that she wanted to see. The pity of the others was still more than she could bear. “Yes…maybe I should go and stay with her for a little while.”
Jack blinked in shock at her agreement. “Kitten, are you sure?”
“I think that I am.” Stephanie said slowly. Jack was right. She had to shake her funk. Maybe seeing Anthony one more time- even if from a distance- was the shock she needed to make a final break.
“I’ll take a beer.” Anthony said quickly, avoiding the disapproving gaze that he was sure to find in the other man’s eyes. “And she’ll have….”
“A Manhattan.” The doctor’s date supplied quickly, then turned her attention back to the man across the table. “I had fun tonight.” She said meaningfully. “There’s a side to you that I hadn’t seen before.”
“Thanks.” Anthony turned his head slightly to scan the rest of the bar. As Michelle had informed him, most of the “younger” RC incarnations- Maximus, John, Terry, Bud, and Jeff- were on a fishing trip in the woods. It was only the younger men, and their dates, who lingered in the Points favorite haunt now. As he had anticipated, the woman who accompanied him was too distracted- or too obtuse- to note their likenesses to each other or, more importantly, to Russell Crowe.
“Here you go.” Rick’s voice recaptured Anthony’s attention as the waiter set the drinks between the couple. “Anything else I can get you right now?”
“No.” The doctor answered, lifting the bottle and taking a slow swig of the beer.
Across the table, the woman stirred her own beverage with her straw. Anthony used the opportunity to study her.
Her name was Willow Parker. She was an RN in intensive care who had started working only a few months after Dr. Girardeau. She was remarkably pretty, with the naturally blonde hair, blue eyes, and fine boned features of a classic American Beauty. She was still young as well….What was she? Twenty three? Twenty four? The physician decided that it was probably better not to dwell on the number. Aside from work, they hadn’t discovered much in common, but she was a pleasant, friendly sort of woman who was fun to be around. He was probably going to ask her out again.
They drank a few moments in silence, before Anthony glanced at the clock on the wall.
“It’s late.” He said reluctantly, “I should probably get you home.”
“Surgeries tomorrow?” Willow asked, arching a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.
Anthony shook his head in the negative.
“Then what’s the rush?” She flashed her pearly teeth. “I don’t have a curfew you know…” She leaned over the table, favoring him with a warm smile. “Why don’t we head back to your place and watch a movie?”
Anthony flushed faintly and set his beer on the table. “I don’t have a VCR.”
The look on Willow’s features changed perceptibly. “Well then maybe we could just sit on the couch and talk.”
The doctor’s hands twisted nervously in his lap. No longer naive enough to miss her meaning, he hesitated.
The glimmer in Willow’s eyes deepened. “Surely you have a couch…or at least… a bed?”
Anthony swallowed hard, and then moved clumsily to his feet, throwing a few bills on the table to pay for their drinks. “I’ve got a couch.” He said slowly, unwilling to commit to more.
They moved outside to their car.
Anthony still had trouble remembering which one was his. The battered old Ford pickup had been permanently consigned to the driveway, and a Honda Accord had taken its place. The black car wasn’t flashy, but the new car smell and flawless interior seemed luxurious after so long in the truck. It was about time he had moved on to something else- he had only hung on to the battered vehicle because Stephanie loved it so much.
Anthony forced the name out of his mind, determined to keep thoughts of the Kentuckian at bay. He had promised himself that he was going to be rid of her once and for all by the end of the Spring- a task that was proving harder than he had expected. Still, he was convinced that he was making progress. With any luck, the next few hours with Willow would do the trick.
The pair didn’t speak as they drove down the road. At last, they reached the gravel drive to the Clinic proper, and the doctor hopped out to open his companion’s door.
“It’s nice.” She remarked of the low, simple structure. “It looks new.”
“They built it when I got here.”
“And what is this place? Some sort of asylum?”
Anthony’s lips curved upwards at the characterization. “Sort of.” Stepping past her, they unlocked the door.
Maggie was waiting in the laundry room. Her daughter, Eve was there too, the two felines curled in a puddle of moonlight that splashed across the floor. The younger animal had belonged to the Kentuckian, but she had been left behind in the woman’s final flight from the Point, and had given no indication that she intended to return. Stepping over the animals, Anthony shut the door, then he reached for the light.
Willow stopped him.
“Leave it off.” She whispered silkily, stepping closer in the darkness.
Startled, Anthony obeyed.
The doctor’s felt his skin flush as the nurse slid her fingers along his sides, ending at last around his neck. The subtle weight of her body urged him forward and he obeyed, catching her lips in a gentle kiss.
Willow’s soft mouth molded against him, massaging tenderly before parting to invite his tongue. When the doctor failed to take the offensive, she took control, flicking her velvety muscle over his lower lip, then between his teeth to explore him more deeply.
Anthony exhaled slowly, trying to release conscious thought and concentrate on the way that she was making him feel. Her hands had begun to move again- tracing in circles along his back, dipping boldly toward his hips. He strained his nerves toward the touch, trying to savor the sparkling pleasure that such ministrations must necessarily incite- but he felt nothing. His body was numb. Even the enthusiastic murmurs of his partner failed to ignite his passion.
The doctor broke away.
Apparently, sensing nothing amiss, Willow leaned forward and purred against his ear. “I need to go to the washroom…Will you wait for me?”
Anthony nodded his head, then directed her to the appropriate room. He sighed in relief at the break, walking to the sink to splash some water on his face. What was the matter with him?
Stephanie was the matter.
In spite of all of the time that had passed, and in spite of his concerted efforts, he still hadn’t managed to shake her from his mind. He didn’t know if it was because things had ended so badly- and abruptly, leaving no sense of closure behind- or if, as he was beginning to fear, the lawyer really had been his perfect match- a gift from the magic of the Point that he had thrown away through his own foolish cowardice and indecision. Was she going to haunt him for the rest of his life?
He had to beat this thing and move on. God knew Stephanie already had.
It had been barely a week after their quarrel that the doctor had ventured out of the Point to find Stephanie and recant his mistake. He had rejoined the real world just outside of Frankfort- a mere twenty miles from his ultimate destination- and he had taken it as a sign that he was destined to succeed. Once again, however, fate had other plans in store.
Anthony had found his lover’s address in the phone book, and her house was easy to find.
Jack’s Escalade was parked in the middle of the driveway, easily gutting the doctor’s final, desperate hopes.
It hadn’t taken Stephanie long to find consolation. What was the matter with him?
“Now, didn’t you say that you had a couch around here?”
Willow’s voice hauled Anthony abruptly back to the present, and he spun around.
In spite of his former immunity to the woman’s charms, he felt a shudder along his spine at the sight that greeted his eyes. The short denim dress that she had worn on their date was gone, replaced by a pink lace garter ensemble and matching stockings. She looked luscious, and at last she was earning a response.
“…Or maybe we could move straight to the bed.”
Like a sleepwalker, Anthony followed the nurse into the bedroom, but not without a pang of guilt. He was at war within himself: fully aware that, in spite of Willow’s charms, this wasn’t where he wanted to be- but still so desperate to prove that he had moved past his former lover that he was willing to do almost anything.
Willow sank into the wide mattress, her golden hair spilling back over the pillowcases that Stephanie had selected. “Nice.” She murmured huskily. She grasped Anthony’s tie and pulled him over her body, the nascent evidence of his arousal resting against her thighs. “Nice…” She said again in reaction.
Uneasily, Anthony remained in her embrace, forcing himself to dip forward and plant a kiss on the exposed curve of her creamy bosom. The skin felt cold and unreal- like the covering of some exotic doll- and he pulled away instantly in distaste.
“Shhhhh…..” Willow soothed, capturing his head in her hands so that he couldn’t go far. She rearranged her legs between them, making a space to stroke her hand against the front of his pants. “I like you doctor Girardeau.” she said playfully, reaching for his zipper. When he remained quiet, she protruded her lip in an attractive pout. “Don’t you like me?”
“Yes.” He answered hollowly, clenching his eyes tightly to gather his strength. Then he sat up.
He wasn’t going to do this just to prove a point.
Willow’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “Anthony?” She said incredulously. “What’s wrong?”
Doctor Girardeau’s mouth open and closed several times without making a sound before the ringing of the telephone spared him a reply.
“Anthony, this is John.”
Abruptly, the physician set up. “John! What is it? Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Mostly– I took a tumble on the ice and wanted to know if I could swing by and get you to take a look at my wrist. It’s nothing major, but if Tina sees-”
“Who is it?”
Anthony’s face flashed annoyance as Willow interrupted. The brief flash of color in his face faded at the sound of silence on the other end of the line.
“I….I’m sorry Anthony! It can wait until tomorrow. I didn’t know that you had…company.” The embarrassment in the other man’s voice was palpable as he hurried to get off the phone.
“No! It’s okay.” Anthony stood up from the bed, studiously avoiding Willow’s gaze as he paced to the window. “I can be there in twenty minutes!”
“Here?” This time it was the sheriff who sounded elusive. “Uhm….I don’t think that’s necessary. Really. I can stop by tomorrow and…”
“It’s no trouble.” Anthony insisted.
“I don’t want you to suffer all night.”
The Alaskan hesitated before finally relenting. “Alright, but I’d rather come over there…you know- no sense worrying the girls.”
“Give me thirty minutes.”
Anthony hung up the phone and reached for his keys. “I’m sorry.” He said to Willow, scanning the floor for her dress, “But I’ve been called in.”
“Tonight?” She asked petulantly.
“It’s an emergency.” He replied, his fingers crossed behind his back. “Get dressed and I’ll drive you back.”
Ten minutes later, the pair was headed back onto the road that led to the real world. Willow was sulking prettily in the seat beside him, her lower lip slightly extended, and her arms crossed beneath her ample bosom.
The doctor couldn’t care less.
It seemed strange to him that the sense of attraction that he had felt for the woman only a few minutes before could have turned so suddenly into aversion, but it had. Something about kissing her had been so….wrong…that none of her charms held any beguilement now.
“Here we are.” He said, trying to hide the relief in his voice as he pulled into a space in front of her apartment building. “Shall I walk you up?” He didn’t want to offer, but it didn’t seem gentleman-like to dump her in a parking lot in the middle of the night.
At last the blonde’s features thawed. “Please.”
The doctor followed her to the second floor landing, then waited as she fumbled for the keys in her purse. She stopped before inserting them in the lock.
“I had fun tonight.” She whispered.
“Yeah.” Her date replied noncommitally. He stared at her awkwardly for a moment before forcing himself to bend forward and kiss her cheek.
“You’ll call?” She queried, the edge returning to her voice.
Anthony didn’t reply.
Returning to the medical facility, Mr. Biebe was already waiting in the lobby. A bag of frozen peas was draped over his wrist, covering a nasty bruise. He stood as the doctor entered the room.
“Sorry I made you wait.” Anthony said, walking to the sink to wash his hands.
“No trouble….I…uhm….I’m sorry I interrupted your date.”
“No, it’s alright.”
“If I had known-”
“Really. It’s okay.”
“I would never interfere.”
“Yes you would.” Anthony had meant to make the remark under his breath, but the sudden change in his patient’s expression indicated that he had overhead.
Anthony sighed. “John, I’m sorry.”
The burly man shrugged. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t seem strange to think of you with….someone other than Stephanie, but if you’re sure that she isn’t the one…”
The doctor looked miserable, thinking aloud again:”I’ve never been sure about anything.”
Biting his lip, he returned his attention to the Sheriff’s wrist. He moved his fingers gingerly along the bone, searching for a break while silence hung between them.
“How is she?” He said at last.
Anthony made a sound of exasperation. “Stephanie. You’ve seen her?”
John turned away, uncertain what to say. “Yeah. I have. She’s…” He breathed out slowly. “She’s….well- not good. She misses you.”
Light flashed in the young doctor’s eyes. “She does?”
“Of course.” John’s expression softened. “She loves you, you know.”
For a minute, Anthony smiled, and then doubt crept back across his handsome face.” She used to love me.” He said firmly. “That’s over now.”
“Is that really what you think?”
Ignoring the question, the doctor moved to the supply cabinet and took out a roll of gauze. He began to wind it around his patient’s wrist.
Something of his wife’s incurably romantic disposition must have been rubbing off on him, because John struggled to contain his frustration. He wondered what, short of a sharp blow to the head would shock the doctor into sense. In the end, he could only formulate a question: “How are you?”
Anthony swallowed. “Good. Fine…busy.”
John wouldn’t let him off so easily. “You know its not too late.” The sheriff placed his hand on the other man’s shoulder, forcing him to meet his eyes.
“Too late for what?”
“For you to be happy.”
The physician laughed bitterly. “It was always too late for that.”
Finally, patched up and ordered to take aspirin for the swelling, John rose to leave. Anthony followed him to the door, then listened to the truck move back along the roadway before he switched off the clinic lights and returned to his apartment. The doctor was glad to see him go.
Of course, the sheriff meant well- everyone here meant well, but he couldn’t understand that going back to Stephanie was the worst possible thing that he could do. Letting her go was like making a child take a shot, or amputating a leg with gangrene: temporary pain for long term benefit. Someday, they would understand.
Feeling exhausted, the doctor returned to his room. A single strand of golden hair clung to his pillowcase, looking stark and alien against the deep blue linen. He plucked it away like a distasteful bug before allowing himself to collapse into the bed.
Forgive me father for I have sinned…
I think you’ll agree that it would be best to keep your suspicions to yourself
That isn’t my fault.
The tormenting ghosts of his memories swirled around him once more in the night. In spite of the fact that he was still fully dressed, Anthony shivered, burrowing under the blankets and, when even that failed to chase the chill away, went to get another quilt.
Her sweater was hanging there. He had found it on the floor one afternoon after she returned to work, and he put it in the closet until she returned. Long forgotten, it had scented the entire closet in Obsession, and her smell drifted toward him now. Closing his eyes, it was almost as if she beside him once more.
Forgetting the coverlet, Anthony pulled the garment into his arms and carried it into his bed, holding the soft cotton against his cheek as he blinked away the silent tears that filled his eyes.
I love you, Anthony.
That isn’t my fault.
But that wasn’t what he had meant to say at all! He meant to say “I love you, but-”
“I love you but I’m not good enough.”
“I love you but I don’t know what to do.”
“I love you, but I’m afraid.”
Everything he touched, he destroyed.
It looked as if Stephanie was no exception.
There were two hundred and fifteen separate swirls in the plaster of the ceiling above her bed. Stephanie had spent the morning counting them. Her task complete, she was preparing to shift her attention to repeats of the pattern in the paper that lined the walls, but a knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.
“Yes?” she answered with annoyance.
Tina Biebe poked her head around the door. “Oh, good. You’re already awake.”
The younger Kentuckian kept to herself the fact that she had never slept at all.
“Are you hungry?” Mrs. Biebe said hopefully.
“I’ve made your favorite: Belgian waffles with butter and syrup…or we could probably find some strawberries and creme if you’d prefer.” She turned sideways, revealing that John was standing behind her with a tray.
“I’m still full from last night,” Stephanie insisted.
Tina refused to admit defeat. “You didn’t eat last night either.”
Tina exchanged a look with her husband, who trudged dolefully back down to the kitchen with the food. She decided to try a different approach.
“A bunch of us are going into town today to look for furniture. There’s a big sale at Lazarus. It’s free bonus time at Estee Lauder too….”
Tina regarded her friend with a mixture of exasperation and pity. The four days that she had spent as their guest had been some of the most trying of Tina’s life. The woman holed up in one of her guest bedrooms seemed not even a shadow of the stylish, vivacious woman she had known from school. A passing acquaintance wouldn’t have recognized the woman who sat in the bed. Her eyes were dull and empty, her skin pale and grey, and the severe ponytail that she wore at the nape of her neck accented the dangerous thinness of her face
Stephanie was not coping well.
“John is going down to the lake with Bud and Terry….Do you want to tag along? Teo would love to see you. He was asking about you the other-“
“No.” Stephanie truncated the converastion. “I’d rather just stay here.”
At last her hostess relented. “Okay, but I won’t be back until late. There’s supper in the freezer if you’re hungry — or they’d love to see you at the Tavern,” she said, her voice rising with hopes that were efficiently dashed by the other woman’s impassive regard. “Well, call up to the Inn if you need anything….and I’ll have my phone.”
Stephanie nodded her head, relieved when the other woman finally left. She went to the window to watch the Sheriff and his wife walk outside. They exchanged a kiss, then climbed into their separate cars.
She was alone.
The lawyer let out a sigh of relief. The only thing worse than being alone was being stifled under a blanket of pity. She knew that Tina was trying to help her out — and she appreciated it, well aware of the extreme patience her friend was demonstrating- but that didn’t change how miserable she felt.
Turning from the window, Stephanie caught sight of herself in a mirror.
What’s it called in novels when the physical environment reflects internal conflict….?
I am the human equivalent of a Dark and Stormy night.
Stephanie made a sound of frustration. She was nearly as fed up with herself as Tina was. Just because she felt like hell didn’t mean that she had to look that way&emdash;and it wasn’t as if she had anything better to do.
With a heavy sigh, the lawyer drug herself from bed, found her suitcase, and went rummaging for a brush.
Anthony made the final turn onto the road that led back to the Point. The late winter sun was beginning to set, and gray shadows had already begun to creep across the road. The doctor was relieved to be heading home. Ordinarily he didn’t set off on rounds until after dark, but today he had made an exception. He had already avoided two phone messages from Willow.
He definitely didn’t want to meet her on shift.
At last, the distant outline of the Clinic appeared on the horizon, and Anthony slowed the car. The building looked dark and uninviting, and he quickly convinced himself to head on to the Tavern for a drink.
Arriving at the bar, however, he changed his plans again. Sophy’s car was parked outside, and he was seized with a sudden sense of aversion.
The night before, he had the strangest dream. One moment he was lying in his bed, and the next he was writhing blindly in what felt like clammy mud.
A sensation like enormous pinchers gripped his stomach, which had threatened to heave as he was carried swiftly into the air. Then a voice- very loud and high above- had laughed at him. It was Sophy’s voice.
“Maybe androgyny would work out better,” she had snipped spitefully.
Then he had woken up.
Anthony shuddered at the memory.
He certainly hoped it had been a dream.
No. He wasn’t in any mood for the Tav…but what did that leave? The Ice rink? The stables? The Inn…
The doctor bit his lip, almost regretting that he had gone to the hospital early. If only he had work to do, then the hours wouldn’t feel so empty.
That was it! There was one patient he had neglected to see.
With a faint smile curving at the edge of his lips, Anthony turned the Honda down the road that led to the Biebe’s.
Stephanie ran the brush through her chestnut hair, the tresses crackling with energy as the action drew them taught then smooth. Eighty seven…eighty eight…once again she let her mind wandering into compulsive counting as she stared vacantly into the mirror. She had meant to make only a cursory attempt at hygiene, but she had quickly been caught up in the comforting mindlessness of her tasks. She had been at the project for hours, barely noticing as the dim winter sun crawled slowly overhead and then began its descent. It was nearly nightfall now. Outside, she could hear Apollo baying at the rising moon.
A knock on the door caught her attention, and she lowered the brush. Who could that be…? Biting her lip, she walked to the window. Drawing back the gauzy curtain, she squinted into the fading light.
Stephanie had never seen the car before, and wondered whom it might be. Maybe Massimo and Ilaria had come to visit, and it was a rental…but surely Tina would have mentioned if the Italian and the Roman had come to visit? Perhaps Aurore had bought a new car. The Frenchwoman had mentioned the possibility the last time Stephanie had been to the Inn. She remembered Bud and Colin pouring over Motortrend debating the merits of a V-8 versus all-wheel drive while the policeman’s lover looked on with amusement.
“Mais Bud….” She had lilted in semi-french. “Il y a plus de la vitesse…I do not need…”
The reminder of how much things had changed was upsetting. After all, she had only been gone two months. Stephanie’s frown deepened as the doorbell chimed and the knocking repeated again.
Whomever it was, they had probably been sent by Mrs. Biebe to make sure that Stephanie was not crying/eating something/not hanging by her pantyhose behind the bedroom door.
If I don’t answer, they’ll call her and she’ll worry…
With a sigh, the Kentuckian gathered her bathrobe around her shoulders and started down the stairs.
They weren’t home. Anthony had suspected as much when he saw that the Biebe’s vehicles were missing from the driveway, but he hadn’t been willing to consign himself back to the clinic just yet. Peering through the leaded glass windows at the sides of the door, he could see that the interior of the house was dark.
The doctor had only postponed the inevitable: a frozen dinner and television on the couch, as he passed the hours until he could reasonably go to bed. Then again, maybe John and Tina would be back soon. He pressed the bell again.
Through the door, Anthony heard the distinctive sound of movement on the stairs. He ran his fingers through his hair, preparing a quick apology for his intrusion…but nothing could have prepared him for her.
Stephanie was standing in the doorway. Her soft gray eyes were wide with astonishment.
Stephanie –the very vision that he had been fleeing, was braced against the doorway now, regarding him with haunted eyes.
He wasn’t certain, at first, that she was real. She seemed so pale and insubstantial, as if his longing- and his regrets- had coalesced into a ghost.
She was so close.
A silent energy flowed between Anthony and his former love, sparking in frustration as they remained apart. The doctor could almost sense the charge between their bodies. His lips and fingers shimmered in anticipation of the touch he would not give. What would it be like to take her in his arms? To forget that he had hurt her? To ignore that he could only hurt her again? To yield…
He had forgotten how she spoke the name. Her subtle drawl stumbled over the joined consonants, then lingered on the vowels. And-thooo-nee…Losing himself in the cadence, he continued to stare.
What are you doing here? He could read the question in her eyes. It remained unasked, as her expression wavered between hope and fear.
“John. I came for John.” He said quickly, hoping- if he spoke quickly enough- nothing more would tumble out.
Of course. Stephanie’s features dimmed.
“He isn’t here.”
Anthony swallowed. “And Tina. Is she…?”
“She’s gone too.”
What was left to say?
Surely there are words for a time like this. Anthony racked his brain. He wanted to smile. He wanted to talk. He wanted, desperately, not to feel, but in all the heartbreaks of all the lovers in all the centuries of the world no one had answered the question that haunted him now: What comes after goodbye?
“Tell him I stopped by?”
Who was talking? Anthony felt his lips move, but didn’t recognize the voice.
That isn’t what I want to say.
Anthony’s lips parted slightly and he took a breath to speak. The air felt heavy as the world ran suddenly slow.
This is the moment. This is the point of no return. Now… A dozen declarations danced on the tip of the doctor’s tongue, but none of them would step to the fore.
A second chance.
A last chance.
I want to tell you…I want you to know…
“You too.” With an almost perceptible force, time rushed forward again.
Stephanie was closing the door.
She was going away.
Anthony watched in unvoiced horror, as her figure drifted away. The night breeze caught the edge of her hair, lifting it. The scent of her shampoo carried toward him, along with the smell of her perfume.
His thoughts returned to the loneliness of the night before, when he had curled with her sweater as his only comfort. This was what he deserved.
But it was not sometime that he could accept.
Clarity descended in a cloud of Obsession. Anthony realized, at last, that loving Stephanie had never been a choice. It was a fact— a fact that persisted in spite of his denials and doubts. She had been a flickering candle in the darkness of his life, guiding him forward and defying the chill and shadows of his past. He had snuffed out the light she had brought for…for what?
Anthony clenched his eyes, wishing he could block the image of the hollow sadness he had witnessed in her face. He had done this. In his own headlong rush toward self-destruction he had shattered the woman who taught him to love.
Was there still any chance to make things right? He would make a chance. Filled with a certainty he had never known, he wedged his foot in the door.
“No.” Anthony pushed past the startled woman, squeezing inside the narrow opening which was all that remained. He tried to look into eyes. They were pleading, and faintly rimmed with tears.
Go. They seemed to say. I can’t bear to let you see me cry…
But Anthony would not obey.
“I…” He tried to begin again. “I….”
It was hopeless. There was nothing he could say. There was no miracle that he could work to undo the past. He could only seize the present.
Moved by a force that transcended mere physical will, his lips descended on her upturned face.
It was more than a kiss. It was a key turning within a lock. His passion, the long prisoner of self-restraint- was finally free, and it claimed the woman with all of its might.
Uncertain, the woman twisted in his arms, but Anthony didn’t break their embrace. He lessened the pressure of his mouth, but twined his arms around her waist. His fingers moved restlessly over the rough folds of her robe. They touched her back and then her bottom, urging her forward against his chest.
I love you. I need you. I want you.
The words were embedded in the kiss. He lingered until finally satisfied that the message had been conveyed. The woman was still uncertain, but she wasn’t going to run away. Joining hands, he led her to the parlor, settling onto one of the white leather couches before drawing Stephanie into his lap.
“I love you.” He whispered tenderly against her ear. “Always. Still.”
Stephanie still hadn’t spoken, and so he looked for an answer in her face. He was frightened to see the trails of tears.
“Say it isn’t too late.” He begged.
“It’s not too late.” Her voice was a breathless whisper as he lowered her against the couch.
With four simple words she had granted him new hope, and he worked quickly to solidify their truce.
With his index finger, Anthony followed the shiny glimmer of moisture that crossed her cheek, then he retraced the path with his lips. The salt of her tears was bitter on his tongue. He wondered how many more of them he had caused in the preceding months, wishing that it was within his power to move backwards in time and kiss them all away.
When he was satisfied that her face was dry, Anthony once again claimed her mouth. He molded tightly against her, flicking his tongue against her lower lips to gain admittance, then boldly probing the moist cavern within. Beneath him, her body stirred. The motion of her rounded hips, bucking upwards against his stomach stirred his lower body into life. He was suddenly aware of her nakedness beneath the robe. The heat of her unclothed skin radiated through the cloth.
“Do you love me?” She asked softly.
This time he replied without hesitation. “I love you…”
“Not tell, show.”
Instantly silenced, the doctor acceded to her demands. He claimed her lips again, then tended her body with his hands. He loosened the knot at her waist, exposing the curves to view.
“So beautiful.” he murmured, alluding to more than her physical form. In truth her appearance had dwindled since she had gone away. She was thinner and grayer- muted, but Anthony’s lovesick eyes were blind to imperfection. He was certain that no woman had ever been so marvelous as the one that sprawled beneath him on the couch. His only hesitation was where to begin to bestow his worship first: her lips, her thighs, her chest?
Deciding at last upon what was directly ahead, he bowed against her bosom, tenderly cupping one breast in his hand as he drew it against his mouth. His tongue transversed the mound it in velvet sweeps. The delicate pink skin around her nipple was, at first, soft and loose, but he coaxed it to a throbbing bead. Anthony grazed the rubied pebble with his teeth. Gratified to hear a murmur of approval, he intensified his efforts, drawing her fully into his mouth with wet and greedy sucks.
“Anthony…” Beneath him, Stephanie’s body trembling., and the knowledge of his own power excited him further. He could feel his manhood straining against his pants, swollen with desire for his undeserved prize. He pressed it against her without restraint, knowing that there was no way to stop the process that had already begun. He would have her. Complete possession of her body was the only act that could quench his ache.
“More.” He grunted.
Already his hands were moving between her legs. She was naked beneath the robe, and there were no barriers to his explorations. He found her wet and ready, her thighs trembling in an echo of his need.
Stephanie’s own hands, hobbled until now with uncertainty, came to life, fumbling with the zip of his pants. She freed him eagerly, sighing in relief as his erection sprang forward into her eager hands.
God, that felt good. Any guilt for his pleasure was forgotten as Anthony surrendered himself fully, for once, to the moment at hand. There was no future and no past- only this moment, and he wallowed in the barely tasted ecstasy that her experienced actions wrought. He held his breath as her soft fingers caressed his shaft. A smooth, cool nail gliding over the throbbing vein that ran to his tip, then swirled around the bead of moisture at his opening. She lingered for a heartbeat, then returned to her point of origin, finally dipping lower to massage his balls. The doctor reciprocated enthusiastically, his tongue plunging into her mouth, demonstrating the object of his desires, as his fingers continued their wanderings.
Anthony worked to translate his apologies into touch. “I was foolish” was hot breath against her ear. “I didn’t listen” was a kiss along her side and “Please forgive me” careful stroking of her folds. There was never any way to make up for the pain that he had caused, but he was certain that he could spend a lifetime here attempting to undertake the task.
Stephanie bucked as the doctor’s fingers slid inside her sheath. She was nearing release, and the doctor debated whether he wanted to let her come alone. They had done too many things apart…
“I need you.” He said roughly, then bent forward to kiss her lips.
The woman nodded her assent, dropping her thighs apart in age-old gesture of invitation, then gasping as he thrust.
Anthony hadn’t guessed that the sensation would be so intense. Her body closed around him like a velvet glove, and he moaned in satisfaction as she received his cock.
All conscious thought was abandoned as the couple began to move, lost in each other and within themselves. Anthony burrowed deeper into her hollows, forcing her bottom harder against the couch before he withdrew and began the cycle again. Their bodies rocked together in ageless rhythm, growing faster, then slower, then breaking beneath a final wave.
He felt her breath against his cheek. Repositioning his own mouth over hers, he captured the exhalations, breathing in as she breathed out, captivated by the sense of oneness.
At last, they met release. A tremor of climax began deep in Stephanie’s womb, and it radiated outwards, drawing the doctor to his own jagged, ecstatic peak. He buried his head against her shoulder as his muscles spasmed in pleasure, spurting his seed between her thighs.
Exhausted, he collapsed. With his ear tucked against the pillow of her breasts, the physician heard his lover’s heartbeat begin to slow. “I love you.” He whispered again, just in case the demonstration had no been enough. “You can punish me any way you want, but please don’t go away again.”
“I don’t want you to go away.” The woman’s arms threaded tenderly around his shoulders. “I want you here. With me.”
“Don’t let me screw it up again. I know that I’ve made mistakes in the past- a hundred mistakes but…”
He was silenced with a kiss. “You and your Catholic guilt…” Stephanie sighed under her breath. “Anthony, I don’t need you to be perfect. I just need you.”
Tina leaned her head against John’s shoulder as their truck turned into their driveway.
“Thanks for the ride.” Mrs. Biebe said sleepily. “I hope Colin can get the car fixed tomorrow.”
“It’s just a flat, Sunny.” John grinned, briefly diverting his eyes from the road to nuzzle the top of his wife’s head. “I don’t think that it will give him any trouble.”
Tina smiled and snuggled closer, deciding that being forced to bum a ride home with her husband wasn’t so terrible. She blinked in confusion when he suddenly stiffened.
“What the-!” he gasped.
Tina looked up, following his gaze. A Honda Accord was parked in front of the house. “It’s only Anthony.”She grinned, rolling her eyes at his concern.
Then she thought about what she had just said.
“Oh my God- it’s Anthony!”
She didn’t have to tell John to put his foot on the gas. In no time they were pulling to a stop at the back porch.
“Do you think that he’s seen her?” Tina whispered, hoping against hope that the doctor had simply let himself inside, and Stephanie had ignored him.
“I don’t know.” John helped his wife out of the truck and led her to the kitchen door. “But just stay calm. It will be better if we act like it’s no big deal. I’ll tell him that my wrist is still hurting or something and get him to drive me back to the Clinic.”
Tina nodded her head.
The lights in the kitchen were off. The former evidence tech left them that way as she crept toward the doorway that led to the hall.
There were voices coming from the living room.
Well….something voices. She thought that she could hear Anthony murmuring something that she couldn’t quite make out.
Oh God! That was Stephanie’s voice. Tina stepped back from the door, colliding with the Sheriff with a soft *oof*. “She’s in there John! They’re both in there!”
As if on cue, the sound that had confirmed her fears repeated: a muffled sob.
Tina put her hand on the door. “I’ve got to help her, I-!” She frowned when John put his hand on her shoulder to block her progress.
“I don’t think that you want to do that Sunny!” he said, covering a grin.
Tina blinked. “What do you mean? I can’t leave her alone with him when-”
“I, uhm…think they made up.” The Alaskan’s smile widened as his wife continued to stare at him cluelessly. He gestured that she should put her ear to the door. She bent forward to follow his suggestion when a moan in no way resembling a sound of despair echoed from the other room.
“Oh, MY GOD!” Tina gasped, her face flushing bright as a taillight. She blinked in disbelief for several seconds and then turned to face her husband. “My COUCHES!”
John meant to be quiet, but it was impossible to keep from snickering at the remark. “Your couches?” He chuckled. “Four months of despair and frustration comes to an end and you’re worried about your couches?”
John laughed at his wife, his volume increasing as another sound of passion drifted in from the other room caused her to cover her ears in embarrassment. “What are we going to do?” She gasped in mortification.
The sheriff shrugged before offering, in mock sincerity. “You want me to go outside and get the hose?”
Anthony listened to Stephanie’s breathing grow soft and deep. “Are you asleep?” He whispered against her hair as his long fingers stroked the length of her back.
The doctor’s lips curled upwards. “I see.” His eyes glittered dangerously. “Well, since you are asleep, I suppose you won’t mind if I…” His voice trailed off as he let his wandering hands assume communications.
Stephanie grinned. “Mmmm…” she hummed. “Yes, definitely sleeping. This must be a dream.”
Anthony rolled his eyes. “Sweet.” he commented, planting a kiss on her cheek. “But also very cheesy.”
“Well, I’m out of practice.”
Anthony caught her hand in his, bringing it to his lips. “We’ll have to remedy that.” His soft lips pressed tenderly against her knuckles, and fingertips, then inwards to her palm. Stephanie inhaled sharply as his breath moved against the moon-white skin of her wrist, surprised at the sensitivity of the area. She let the doctor continue his kisses until he reached her neck, and then she twined her arms around his shoulders, pulling him close as she luxuriated in his attentions. The months without Anthony had been so desolate. Now, with his body cradled against her own, she didn’t want to let him go.
A sound on the stairs made Anthony freeze. He caught Stephanie’s eyes.
There was another squeak of wood and the sound of shuffling out in the hall.
“I think that we have company.” The doctor said warily as his face scrolled through a range of emotions: terror, guilt, and finally amusement. “I think that we’d better finish this somewhere else.”
Stephanie drew the bathrobe more tightly around her shoulders as she waited for Anthony to unlock the Clinic door. She probably should have taken a moment to dash upstairs for her clothes before leaving Tina’s house, but she was too caught up in the moment to be practical. Truth be told, there was probably a part of her that was still afraid to let Anthony out of her sight.
The answering machine on the ledge outside the physician’s apartment was blinking. Anthony looked at it and started to move forward out of habit. He hesitated.
“You’d better check it.” Stephanie said, dipping her head in the direction of the machine. “Someone might need help.”
The doctor was relieved by her understanding. “It will just take a second.” he replied.
Anthony pressed “play” on the tape.
“You have ˆ twoˆ messages.” A pleasant, computerized voice intoned. “Message One: Anthony? This is Wil-”
Stephanie arched an eyebrow as her boyfriend quickly pressed “delete”.
“Message Two: Fa-…Doctor Giraudeau? This is Father Prentice in Columbus. I’m sorry to leave a message on the machine, but…”
The lawyer’s heart twisted in her chest as she watched the merriment drain from her lover’s face. He picked up the receiver, listening to the rest of the message in privacy. She didn’t need to hear the words to know what the message conveyed.
“Father Hardesty?” She asked, already knowing the answer.
“Is he…?” She began gingerly when Anthony finally lowered the handset.
“Not yet…soon.” The doctor suddenly looked very tired. “I’m sorry but I-”
“I know.” Stephanie buried her disappointment, knowing that Anthony needed her support. “Do you need me to help you pack?”
“No. It will only take a second. I won’t be staying long. We’ll swing by John and Tina’s and get your clothes and then-”
“My clothes?” Stephanie exclaimed.
“You…you are coming?” Anthony stammered. “I mean…”
“Of course!” the woman answered quickly, not giving him time to change his mind.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be.” Anthony crammed his hands in his pockets and looked reluctantly at the door to Father Hardesty’s room. “You can come in if you want.”
“No.” She squeezed his hand. “It’s probably… a little crowded in there.” The tone in her voice implied that she had picked up on Anthony’s anxiety about introducing her to the other priests.
“I’m not ashamed of you…” He said quickly, but Stephanie foreclosed the declaration with a soft kiss.
“I know.” She said quietly, “But you have enough to deal with right now. Next time, okay?” She brushed her hand across his cheek. “Take your time. I’ll wander around.”
Anthony nodded, trying not to look as grateful as he felt. He watched his girlfriend disappear down the hall before he pressed on the door to Father Hardesty’s room.
The lights were dim, and the air was almost uncomfortably warm. A young priest that Anthony didn’t recognize was dozing at the side of the bed. He stirred as the doctor entered the room.
Anthony nodded to the Holy Father, but kept his attention on the patient in the bed. His worried eyes glanced toward the displayed that bleeped and hummed beside the bed. Father Prentice had not exaggerated. It wouldn’t be long now.
In a way, it was a blessing, Anthony thought as he peered at the tiny, shriveled figure curled in the middle of the bed. Father had lingered for longer than anyone had guessed. He had been in the hospital since Christmas, and ailing since the summer before. His ending would be a relief.
The figure on the bed stirred. Anthony stepped forward as Father Hardesty’s eyes came open. They widened in recognition, and the old priests lips moved in greeting, though the breathing tube prevented any sound. Anthony smiled, taking a leathery hand inside his own he leaned forward to place a kiss on the old man’s cheek. “Hello.” He said quietly, then felt tears well up in his eyes as he was answered with another smile.
From beside the bed, the third man watched the exchange between the old friends. He rose from his chair. “I’ll leave you two alone for a moment. I’ll be outside if you need me.”
Anthony nodded. When the door had opened and shut once more he claimed the abandoned seat at the head of the bed.
For a while, he simply stared, anything he could think of to say seeming small and insignificant cast against the shadow of eternity. Finally he blurted out. “I wanted to tell you goodbye.” Anthony bit his lip. The words sounded hollow and stark in the stillness of the room, as if speaking them had made the certainly of the old man’s death suddenly all too real.
“And I wanted to tell you ‘Thank you’.” Anthony surprised himself as he continued . “Thank you for…trusting me to find my way.” It felt cruel to dash the hope that flared in the dimming gray eyes, but he continued. “I’m not going back to the priesthood.” He averted his eyes, unable to face the reaction. “I can’t go back. Even if they would have me. Too much has changed…I don’t want to go back. That isn’t the path for me.” Unable to bear the suspense, he let his eyes drift sideways, astonished to find Father’s face still placid and content. “You aren’t angry?”
The invalid could not muster the strength to answer with movement of his head, so he spoke with his eyes instead. Looking into his mentor’s eyes, the former priest could hear the words that the man had spoken so many times before: Everything we have is by God’s grace. There is a reason, if you wait for it. In time you will understand.”
It was over.
Anthony left before the nurses had time to swoop in and disconnect the monitors that had wailed their alarm at Father’s passing. He didn’t want to witness the medical minutiae which would transform what had happened into “just another day at work.” He wanted to hold the feeling of awe that descended in the chasm between life and death and experience it not as a doctor, or a priest, but simply as a man who had lost someone that he loved.
Behind him, he heard the door open. The priest who had been at Father Hardesty’s bedside when he arrived- the same man who had performed the last rites- poked his head outside the door.
“Anthony, are you alright?”
The doctor nodded. “Fine.” He mumbled. “I need to go.”
The other man opened his mouth as if intending to say more- then firmly clamped it shut. After a moment, he said simply , “You should be able to contact the school tomorrow about arrangements.”
Anthony acknowledged the comment with a dip of his head, then turned toward the waiting room. Stephanie wasn’t there. Glancing at his watch, Anthony was surprised to find that nearly eleven hours had passed since they first arrived. He hadn’t intended to make her wait so long. At least a dozen times he had risen from his chair intending to leave, but a wheezing breath or dissonant bleep from one of the machines would warn him that the end was near, and convince him to change his mind.
Stephanie’s magazines, and the coffee cups they had drank from that morning were still sitting beside the bank of chairs where he had left her, but there was no sign of the auburn-tressed attorney. Where had she gone?
He contemplated asking one of the nurses for help, but he was all-too-aware that they would have been too busy to notice her as they completed their tasks. Tucking his jacket under his arm, he decided to wander. It would give him time to clear his thoughts.
He felt like he ought to be crying, but Father Hardesty’s death, rather than sadness, had left him with a sense of peace. He was in heaven now. At times like this, Anthony was grateful for the certainty that his beliefs supplied. He had forgiven Anthony before he died.
No, that’s not right. The former priest corrected. He had never been angry or disappointed after all.
Anthony wasn’t paying close attention as he walked down the hall, but he vaguely noticed that the colors of the ward had grown brighter, and the smell of antiseptic and medication had lessened. The voices around him were laughing now. Looking up, he realized that he had wandered into the maternity ward.
The nursery was at the far end of the hall. Proud faces were peering through the glass at their progeny. He joined them, watching as the nurses carried in a baby that was only a few minutes old , still splotchy and molded from birth. The doctor was struck by the symmetry of the moment. Only a few yards from death, a new life had taken root.
The pair of beaming grandparents standing beside him stepped away, revealing a lone woman standing on the other side.
The woman hadn’t noticed her boyfriend’s arrival, and she continued to stare at the newborns as though she were unobserved. Her eyes were soft and unfixed, as though she were lost in private contemplation.
She’s imagining her baby…Anthony thought.
Anthony was shocked with the realization that it was possible-The implications of his leaving the priesthood had never been fully explored- but he could picture it now almost as clearly as the woman who stood before him.
He wanted it.
Who could imagine how different his life would be after merely two years of time? Before heading to seminary, he had reconciled with the fact that he would never have children or a family of his own. He understood that he would share a house and car with others- and that he had surrendered the right to dictate where he would live and work. Even though he had renounced his vows to the priesthood, his expectations had remained unchanged. He was like an animal that had lived so long in a cage that it didn’t know when it was free.
Suddenly, things made sense.
All of the trials that he had endured had been necessary to bring him here to this woman. To this life. To this hope. If not for the loneliness and struggle that he had endured before, he would not know the comfort and peace that he had now. He would be complacent, safe, and perhaps less jaded by the worldˆ but….happy?
Father Hardesty’s words echoed in his mind once more.
“Everything we have is by God’s grace. There is a reason, if you wait for it. In time you will understand.”
He finally did.