Programmed for Success, Part 2

Neither of them could remember how they made it to Siobhan’s room that night. All they remembered was shutting and locking the door behind them, and Siobhan’s hurried flight to pull the curtains. She turned from the window and discarded her dress in one swift movement. “Reasonable clothing,” he teased her. “Not like these damn buttons.” He pulled the shirt open, scattering buttons everywhere and dropping it to the floor.   “Some things I still recognize,” he admitted, removing his belt.

 

“Let me help,” Siobhan offered, her fingers suddenly nimble as she undid the fly button and zipper. Her lips traced their way down his chest as her hands pushed his jeans off his hips.   Within seconds he stood before her, completely nude. She stepped back to admire him.

Maximus was muscular and tanned, fit from campaigning and the Arena.   The tattoo was somehow restored, though several other scars marked his arms and chest. Her eyes strayed lower to his well-shaped thighs and his cock, proudly erect.

“You’re staring,” he teased her, closing the gap between them. He reached behind her and unhooked her bra, gathering her close as he did it. His skin felt hot against hers. “I’m not sure if I like this contraption or not,” he offered as he fumbled with the hooks. Her breasts spilled free against his chest. Panties followed, leaving a somewhat bashful Siobhan under his scrutiny. She blushed as she led him to her bed.

“Don’t be frightened,” he told her with a kiss.

 

“I’m not frightened.” Her eyes gleamed in the dim light as she pulled him down to her. Siobhan had never been with a man who wanted to kiss as much as he did, who could linger at her lips as if they were rare delicacies. His hand cupped one breast, then the other, teasing each already taut nipple into painful attention before slipping it between his lips.   Her hands entwined themselves in his soft hair

 

He followed the contours of her body, caressing breasts and belly, hip and thigh, finally stopping to dance in the curls. She captured the teasing hand and slipped it between her open legs, lifting her eager hips to meet it. He dipped one finger and then two into her hot moist center and found her clitoris. She gasped in delight and began to writhe slowly as he lifted himself on his elbow. The little sounds she made intrigued him as they changed timbre with his lovemaking. He began to trail kisses down the path his hand had taken, finally arriving between her legs. His mouth joined and then replaced his hand in driving her over the edge to orgasm again and again. When he lifted his face to see hers, it was tear-stained.

“I need you inside me,” she moaned. “Please, Maximus.” He entered her slowly, as if she were fragile, using his hands to hold her hips firmly still.   It was exquisite torture as he moved into her carefully and deliberately, watching her glassy eyes. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her hands gripped his ass, pulling him further into her with each thrust. His control slipped when she did that and he lost himself in her. Faster and harder until they came together and fell exhausted in each other’s arms.

Siobhan fell asleep in his arms, spooned against him, only to be awakened by a pleasurable ache between her legs. His beard rasped against the delicate skin on the back of her neck as he played with her. “You’re very wet.” She couldn’t answer for the orgasm that held her in its’ thrall. He slipped his cock between her legs and entered her from behind, keeping his hand firmly on her core, while his other hand caressed her breast. Pleasure swept over in her in waves, finally bringing him with her.

There is a moment between new lovers, a moment between the ecstasy experienced and the reality of life, that can only be called awkward. Some people sleep right through it, others blush and move on, and some talk through it. Each looks at the other and recalls the intimacies shared; shyness touches them.

For Siobhan it was a joyful moment, filled with the possibilities of being in love with the right man.

“I’ve wanted you since the moment I laid eyes on you. I’ve dreamed about it,” she told him, lifting her head from his chest to look in his eyes.

“And how did it compare to the dream?” he asked with a smile.

“You are beyond any dream I ever had.”

For Maximus, it was a bittersweet moment, filled suddenly with remembrance of another time and another place and another life, guilt at finding happiness at the Point, and not just in this moment.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, seeing the smile fade.

“Nothing,” he told her with a kiss. “Nothing.”

*           *               *

Morning came far too soon for Siobhan’s liking; she was loathe to pull herself out of Maximus’ arms for any reason. She was sore from head-to-toe, that exhilarating ache that came from making love till dawn. But being awakened by Maximus was definitely better than an alarm clock, she reasoned rolling over to cuddle closer. The spot was cold and empty; he wasn’t there.

“Time to get up.” His voice was different in the morning, deeper somehow.

“Uh-uh.”

“Get dressed and I’ll bring you coffee.” She opened her eyes. He was up and dressed, hair still wet from a shower that she’d hoped to share.

“How long have you been up?”

“Not long.” He kissed her. “Black, right?”

“Absolutely.”

By the time he returned with the coffee, she was showered and dressed in her favorite jeans and sweatshirt.

“Les Miserables?” Maximus read. “What’s that?”

“So glad you asked,” she grinned, sipping her coffee. “My very favorite musical of all time.”   She rummaged in a basket and came up with a DvD. “One evening I’ll bore you with it. It’s very sad and very beautiful. I cry through most of the second act.”

“It’s about this little girl?” he pointed to the image of Cosette emblazoned on the sweatshirt.

“Naw, she’s just the symbol of the show. Grows up to be a total wimp.” She finished braiding her wet hair. “Done. I’m starved.”

“Breakfast then.”

Siobhan was confused by how quiet Maximus had become and began to wonder if she had somehow offended him. Everything had seemed so perfect last night; how could it be so awkward now? Breakfast would have been unbearable if Cort and Tina hadn’t joined them.

“You done, Siobhan?” Cort asked. “We are still going out to Redemption today?”

“Old Tucson, actually, but yeah, if you got me a nice gentle horse. Tina, did you want to ride along?”

“Nope, got paperwork to finish. Thanks, though.”

Cort turned to Maximus, “You comin’?”

“I wasn’t asked.”

“I was just about to,” Siobhan told him.

He finished his coffee, kissed her cheek and stood up. “Have a good time. I’ll see you later.” Siobhan watched him leave the restaurant, her eyes filling with tears. She blinked them back determinedly. Tina leaned across the table and took her hand.

“Hey.”

“What?”

“He’ll get over whatever it is.”

“I just wish I knew what it was.”

Cort stood up. “Come on, once we get started, you’ll cheer right up.”

“This is the gentlest mare in the stable,” Cort reassured Siobhan as he helped her into the saddle. “She’s very sweet tempered, but she has spirit so once you get a little confidence, she’ll still be a good horse for you.”

“She’s mine?”

“She is,” East told her from his position at the chestnut mare’s head. “She needs a name.”

“I’ve never named a horse.” Siobhan shifted in the saddle, trying to get comfortable.

“Heels down,” East admonished. “Hold the reins gently, not like a steering wheel. Name her something special, Maximus went to a lot of trouble to find her.”

“Maximus found her?”

“Yeah, she’s been here a couple of weeks,” Cort drawled. “He just got this idea into his head that we needed this particular horse. Came down shortly after you got here and said he figured she must be for you.”   He mounted his own horse and turned toward the gate.

East closed the gate behind them and headed off to find some breakfast and Kath, not necessarily in that order. He chuckled as he watched Siobhan; he’d never seen a woman quite so nervous on a horse before. If Cort didn’t get her to go above a walk, they’d be all day getting past the English gardens, much less to Old Tucson.

“Siobhan…” Cort was thinking the same thing East had. “You afraid of horses or somethin’?”

“N..no, just nervous.”

“Relax. She’s a good horse, you’ll be fine.”

It took some coaxing to get her to loosen up and let the horse walk at its’ natural gait. Once she realized that she wasn’t going to fall off, a trot would be achievable. Cort was thankful for patience, not for the first time since he’d come to the Point.

Siobhan was terrified as her mare began to trot, but she was damned if she was going to give into it. Everything she’d done since she’d arrived at the Point had been a stretch, from programming Sid to riding a horse to everything about Maximus. Everything about Maximus.

They came through the pass and began to descend into the valley that led to Old Tucson. The Point was somehow larger and smaller at the same time. Siobhan thought she’d ask Tina about that tonight, if she got a chance.

“What makes this place so special to you?” Cort asked as they crossed the valley.

“You’re going to laugh at me probably, but when I was a kid, I loved westerns. I particularly loved this one called ‘The High Chaparral’ which they made in Tucson. When I found myself going to the University of Arizona, I was homesick a lot at first, but coming out here always made me feel better. It was my fantasy place. I could close my eyes and imagine the tourists were townspeople.”

“Looks like they are now,” he pointed.

The entrance gates, soundstage and fences that she remembered from her college days were gone. Now it truly was a town.

As they rode into town, they were met by a tall man dressed in western attire and sporting a sheriff’s badge. “Morning, folks. Welcome to Old Tucson. You must be the people from the Crowe’s Point. We been expectin’ you since that road opened.”

“You mean this isn’t part of the Point?” Siobhan asked.

“No, ma’am, this is our own little place. For people who long for the Old West. You’ll find all sorts of familiar faces here if you look. But you, sir, you look VERY familiar to me.” He studied Cort. “You’re Cort, from ‘The Quick and The Dead,’ aren’t you? We’ve been hoping to see you relocate here from the Crowe’s Point.”

Cort laughed. “Never happen. I’m fine just where I am. But I thank you.” He looked around. “Anywhere we can get a drink?”

“The Birdcage Saloon is right up the street.”

“Thanks, Sheriff.”

Cort enjoyed watching Siobhan as she gazed around her. She looked happier than she had all morning when she spotted not one, but three Wyatt Earps engaged in conversation on the wooden sidewalk outside the Birdcage. He helped her dismount, steadying her when her leg muscles protested the change in position.

“Go introduce yourself,” he encouraged her.

“I can’t.”

“Come on,” he pulled her by the hand. “Gentlemen, may I interrupt? This young lady would be honored to meet you. Siobhan…honey, I don’t know your other name.”

“Lawrence.”

“Siobhan Lawrence, gentlemen.”

“Wyatt Earp, ma’am,” this was the handsome Tombstone Wyatt Earp, Siobhan’s personal favorite.

“Marshall Wyatt Earp, ma’am.” The Costner Earp tipped his hat, eyeing Cort as he did so.

“The Legendary Wyatt Earp, at your service.” This last one was the O’Brien Earp of early television. Siobhan half-expected him to be in black and white.

“Can we buy you a drink, ma’am? If your escort will allow us?” the Tombstone Earp asked. “And of course, you will join us, sir?”

Siobhan was clearly enjoying her morning away with Cort. Several young women in the Bird Cage seemed to know him as well, and he had to decline the invitation to relocate several more times. He was sitting at a table with Siobhan and a man named Manoleto Montoya when the Kid came in.

“Cort! I heard you were in town. Good to see you,” the Kid held out his hand to the preacher. “How ya like the old place?”

“Not bad. Your old man here?”

“Naw, that SOB found the living a little too hot for him here. He got a small place back in the foothills. Never did get over being killed by a woman.” He tipped his hat to Siobhan, “Mornin’, ma’am. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. They call me the Kid.”

“Kid, this is Siobhan Lawrence, from the Crowe’s Point.”

“Pleased to meet you. Are you the one who’s been keeping our Cort from joining us here?”

“No, we’re just friends out for a ride. I’m fine where I am.”

The Kid pulled up a chair and sat. “‘Mornin’, Manoleto. So, Miss Lawrence, I’ve heard about the Point. You hooked up with anyone over there yet?” Siobhan almost laughed. He was appraising her, eyeing her every curve.

“Yes, I’m with Maximus.”

The Kid whistled low and long. “The General’s lady, are you? We saw the movie last year. Very impressive. Well, if it don’t work out, we have plenty of rooms over at the Hotel. It’s by the OK Corral, real quiet place. Unless you get the room near any of the Doc Holidays.”

Siobhan checked her watch. Like the Point, time went slower here, but there was still a lot to see and do before they went back. This was, after all, just a first visit. It took some time to excuse themselves, but eventually they wandered the streets again.

“Nice to be popular,” she teased Cort.

The preacher shook his head, laughing, “Nice place to visit, isn’t that the expression? No way I’d ever leave the Point. But I was flattered.”

“What is the Kid’s problem? I’m a little old for him.”

“He doesn’t think so. Hits on all the attractive women.”

“Ooh, attractive? I like that. Look!” she stopped suddenly and pointed. “The OK Corral. See? Fly’s Photography. I was surprised to see how much smaller it was when I went to Tombstone the first time. Which reminds me, can we stop at Boot Hill on our way out of town?”

“You’re a very strange woman, Siobhan. Why do you want to stop at Boot Hill?”

“Because I always do. I come from a long line of cemetery visitors.”

Cort was as good as his word, leading the horses up the slight rise outside the town, where the cemetery was clearly visible. They dismounted and tied the horses to the fence and went in.

The Tombstone dead had been joined by a number of others, minor characters from movies and life, unremembered enough to occupy the town. Cort joined Siobhan in front of one epitaph: “Here Lies Lester Moore, Two Slugs From a .44, No Les No More.”

“This is my favorite,” she told him. “Poor old Les, still gets visitors a hundred years later, all because of this great epitaph.”

“No wonder Tina has you reprogramming Sid. You’re a strange woman.”

“Agreed! Come on, I’ve stalled long enough. Let’s get me back on that horse.”

“So you ARE afraid?”

“A little. If anyone can convince me, it’s ok to ride, this horse might do it.” She patted the horse on her neck before letting Cort help her into the saddle.   “I need to think of a name for her.”

“Name her for something you love. Other than Maximus. This is a mare.”

And so the little chestnut mare came to be known as Cali, short for California.

They were very late getting back to the Point so Cort offered to see to Cali for Siobhan. “But you need to learn to do this yourself. We all pitch in with the horses.”

“I will. Thanks, Cort! For everything, really. I had a great time.”

“You better get back there. I see Andy waiting in the doorway for you.”

Sid and Andy were waiting for her in the lab all right with food and news. The food consisted of pizza and hot wings from the Tavern. “Brain food!” she exclaimed. “Lots of napkins, I hope?” she mumbled between bites. And the news?

“I did what you asked. I went 24 hours without calling anyone anything but their names.”

“Hey, that’s a great start, Sid. Hand me that printout. I thought we’d look at the hierarchy for reinstalling Pa Ingalls.”

“That means we’re going out tonight.”

“Who?”

“You and me. We had a deal, remember?”

Andy busied himself with the pizza. He’d been wondering how she was going to get out of this deal since Sid told him about it. Would she say she had to check with everyone first?

“Oh…yeah, that’s right. OK, but I can’t say I’ll be much fun. My legs are like rubber from the horse.”

“That’s not all I hear they’re sore from,” Sid muttered. He was rewarded by Siobhan’s blush. “Look, go take a nap then. I expect to see you all dressed up for a special night. I’ll meet you in the lobby at 6:30.” He giggled. Siobhan was definitely interested in a nap, but she was more interested in those hot wings. “Take the chicken with you.”

“Thanks!” She grabbed the platter and headed up the path to the hotel, munching as she walked. About halfway up, the light dawned on her. ‘Maximus isn’t going to be too thrilled with this plan.’ Exhaustion and hunger overcame her good sense. After all, she had promised this evening to Sid BEFORE she’d spent the night with Maximus; he’d be ok with it.

*         *             *

“Sid? You’re spending the evening with Sid? You spent the day riding with Cort and now you’re spending the evening with Sid?”

“Maximus, calm down! Please?” Siobhan pleaded, grabbing his hands between hers and leading him away from the people milling around. Maximus had been on his way to her room when he ran into her in the lobby of the Hotel. She was dressed in a long green velvet dress with a scoop neck; her only jewelry a gold Celtic cross on a box chain. It dangled invitingly just above the swell of her breasts. He immediately wondered if he had been supposed to dress; had he forgotten an event? His query produced the reply that the evening was promised to Sid, that she had dressed so beautifully at SID’s request. “I can explain.”

He was seething. “Explain then.”

Suddenly Siobhan knew exactly how an incompetent under his command would feel. She took a very deep breath and began, “I told Sid that if he could keep from calling anyone by one of his hateful names for 24 hours, I’d spend the evening with him. He did it, I’m keeping my end of the bargain.”

“By being alone with Sid all night?”

“No, by spending the evening in public places with Sid. Let me again emphasize ‘evening’ because you’re as bad as Sid.” He looked no happier. “I don’t owe you an explanation, do I?”

“No, you don’t,” he started to turn on his heel to go, but she still held both his hands.

“Maximus, wait.”

“There she is, my date for the evening….emphasis on evening.” It was Sid, no need to turn. He came up beside Siobhan and linked his arm through hers, enjoying the barely-repressed anger on Maximus’ face. “Unless I can convince her otherwise, eh, Max? Well, best be off. We have reservations. Ta ta!”

Siobhan’s last sight of Maximus was over her shoulder as Sid pulled her away and it wasn’t a happy one. “Geez, Sid, your specialty is screwing up my life, isn’t it?”

“He’ll get over it. But if he doesn’t, I’m here and waiting.” He turned for her. “Whatcha think? Am I beautiful tonight or what?”

Breath-taking was more like it. Sid was wearing a tuxedo of the darkest purple, so dark it was almost black. It set off the blue in his eyes and was a welcome change from the vibrant and often gaudy suits he usually sported.

“Very beautiful,” she agreed as they walked into the elegant restaurant, one of several housed in the Hotel. This one specialized in California Nouvelle Cuisine because Sid thought she might long for the restaurants of home. She didn’t have the heart to tell him her favorite restaurant was a teeny little Mexican restaurant down the street.

And the meal was one of the best she had ever eaten, with Sid behaving like a true gentleman to everyone from Siobhan herself to the waiters. The food was that unique blend of Asian-Pacific Rim dishes and haute cuisine that always confused her.   But the pork stuffed with Chinese sausage and greens was amazing. If only she wasn’t worried about Maximus and if only she could trust Sid. Oh well, Siobhan reasoned, nothing she could do about it right now so she might as well enjoy herself.

Several wines were followed by brandy, and Siobhan was beginning to understand where Sid was heading. He was trying to get her seriously drunk. It would have worked if he hadn’t ordered so very much food. By the time they wandered from the restaurant into the lounge, she was tipsier than she would have liked, but still very much in control.

Sid had kept the conversation friendly, even general, with a great deal of emphasis on current events in the outside world. Talking politics with Sid was an entertainment worthy of the Gods, she thought, as he could recall facts in an instant. His opinions were flexible and varied as he followed her own thoughts.

“Sid, you don’t have to agree with me on everything,” she finally told him. “In fact, a little disagreement would be fun.”

“I don’t understand. Don’t you want a man who agrees with everything?”

“You know better than that,” she said, looking down at their hands which were clasped together. “Look at Maximus, we hardly agree on anything suddenly.”

“Don’t talk about him, don’t even think about him, you’re with me tonight!” Sid burst out, then stopped himself suddenly. He looked sheepish for a brief second.

“Sid, nothing is going to happen between us, you know that, right?”

“Why not?”

“Because I love Maximus.” Sid looked annoyed. “Can I tell you something?” He nodded, but he looked skeptical now. “I have really been enjoying working with you. I have spent more time with you than with anyone else at the Point, you know, and I like you. I don’t trust you, but I like you.”

“Of course, I’m beautiful.”

“Sweetie, you’re all beautiful. I have never seen so damn many beautiful men in my life. No, I like you, Sid, pain-in-the-ass that you are. You’ve taught me a lot and you’re trying hard to be a better person, though God knows your idea of better isn’t always everyone else’s.”

“I am what I am.”

“Ok, now that’s just so much bullshit and you know it. You thrive on causing trouble. Look at the gleeful way you came up to Maximus tonight.”

Sid’s perpetual grin faded. “He needs to be reminded he’s just one of the Boys.”

“It really bothers you that ‘Gladiator’ is such a big film, doesn’t it?”

“Everyone comes here to see the General.”

“Don’t pout, Sid. It mars your beauty. Look, I thought ‘Virtuosity’ was a great film. I love sci-fi. But sci-fi films tend to be overlooked.”

“’Star Wars’! Look at ‘Star Wars’!”

“The exceptions to the rule. Sid, listen, I’d like to consider you a friend. Can you handle that?”

“A friend? Me?”

“Yep. But that means no nasty tricks. You can learn to be a friend.   And once you have one, you’ll have more.”

“OK. I can try.” The grin was back. “Do friends have sex?”

She swatted his arm playfully. “Nope. Not these two friends. But we can go to the Tavern and have a beer. How’s that sound?” She stood up and offered him her hand.

It was a warm evening, the scent of roses lingering on the breeze that slipped down from the English gardens. The Tavern’s door stood open as Sid and Siobhan entered, still holding hands and laughing. The place was packed with the usual denizens of the Point, a few weekend visitors, and strays. The voices seemed to stop suddenly at the sight of Sid, handsome in the purple tuxedo, holding Siobhan’s hand.

Andy looked up from behind the bar where he had been flirting with Jennifer. The look of astonishment on his face made Siobhan wonder exactly what she was missing. “What?” she mouthed silently. Andy looked away, obviously uncomfortable. Siobhan followed his gaze to see Maximus. He was sitting at the edge of a booth filled with several young women, all strangers to her. One particularly pretty long-haired blonde was tugging at his hand, trying to get him to the dance floor while he protested. As he looked over and saw Siobhan’s hand in Sid’s, his face changed and he pulled the blonde onto his lap.

“Sid, maybe this isn’t a good idea,” she whispered.

Sid was a stranger to the better emotions of his brothers, but he felt something akin to a protective urge. Siobhan had confided in him, treated him like a friend, and he liked the way that felt. He also knew jealousy when he saw it because it was an emotion he WAS familiar with. He could have a great deal of fun and still wind up the good guy for a change.

“It’s an excellent idea,” he told her. “Want a drink?”

“Scotch rocks,” she told Andy. “Don’t look at me like that, Andy. I’m old enough.” She regretted the words as soon as she said them; Andy didn’t deserve that. Sid ordered a beer and led her away from the bar towards the table where Maximus was holding court. “Sid, no,” she hissed at him.

The Crocodile must have smiled the exact same way when he was about to take Captain Hook’s hand, Siobhan thought. “Trust me, just this once.” Trust me? She had to be certifiable, but she followed. “Smile sweetly,” he whispered. “Maximus! Mind if we join you? Of course, you don’t. Move over, girls. If you squeeze in a bit, this nice lady will be able to vacate that rather uncomfortable seat.” He patted the blonde on the leg as the other women followed his request. Sid pulled up two more chairs, placing himself and Siobhan on the edge of the booth beside Maximus. “I’m Sid 6.7, by the way. And this is Siobhan Lawrence, my programmer and Maximus’ lady. Returned to you safe and sound, General.” Siobhan squeezed Sid’s hand gratefully as the blonde got up from Maximus’ lap.

The newcomers were first-time weekend visitors, filled with delight at everything and everyone. It was also obvious to Siobhan that the blonde – a name never did stick in her mind – was rather disappointed to find that Maximus was spoken for.

Or was he? His attitude since this morning was confusing the hell out of her. This morning he seemed to want to get away from her, this evening he was angry about Sid, and tonight…was ugly. He hadn’t said a word since she sit down.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Bud White feeding the juke box. The first song brought a smile to her face: Dean Martin singing, “That’s Amore.” An old favorite. The blonde seemed to like it herself. She leaned in to ask Maximus to dance when Sid stepped in. He jumped up, grabbed her hand and said, “Dance with me.” Siobhan almost felt sorry for her.

Three more women remained seated in the booth. The tall brunette from somewhere in Wyoming was slipping across the seat, closer to Maximus, when Bud walked up and asked her to dance. Steve and Alex claimed the last two in rapid succession, leaving Siobhan and Maximus alone at the table at last.

He turned to look at her, emotions playing across his face in such rapid succession that she was barely able to follow. Sorrow. She recognized sorrow as the final over-riding emotion. How could he look at her and feel sorrow? Or was it regret? Did he regret last night?

Tears sprang up into her eyes, the way they had at breakfast. She didn’t even try to wipe them away this time. “Are you still angry at me? About Sid, I mean?”

“I’m not particularly happy about it.”

“Would you please tell me what’s wrong?”

“I can’t.”

“Are you sorry about last night?” There! It was out. She clenched her fists tightly under the table, digging her nails into her hands to keep from dissolving into tears, and braced herself for the answer.

“No, of course not.” He smiled at her for the first time since dawn. “I would explain if I could.”

“Are we…spending the night together?”

“Not tonight.” It hurt him to say it; he wanted to carry her upstairs to his bed as he said it. But he knew he needed the time to think, to ask his ancestors for their guidance.

“Excuse me,” she muttered, pushing her chair back and standing to leave. Maximus grabbed for her wrist, just missing it.

“Siobhan, wait.” He snapped to his feet and caught her arm this time.

“Please let me go. I can’t deal with you right now.” She pulled away and walked towards the door without a backward glance. He followed, not certain what he was going to say. Halfway to the Hotel, he stepped in front of her, stopping her dead in her tracks.

“You don’t understand.”

“Damn right I don’t. Mostly because you won’t tell me. Look, I’m too old to play games with you. Whatever is wrong, if you won’t tell me, we have nothing left to say to one another.”

“Fine. Come walk in the gardens with me and I’ll tell you.”

“Tell me here.”

“I can’t. Do you want to hear this or not?”

“Fine.”

“Good.”

The gardens were beautiful at night, Siobhan thought, as she walked along. She carried her heels in her hand, enjoying the feel of the grass beneath her feet. They were silent until they reached the Moonlight Garden, a magical place Tina had told her needed to be experienced.

They found an arbor with a swing beneath it and sat. Siobhan moved as far away from him as she could and folded her arms in annoyance. Angry was better than weepy, she kept telling herself.

Maximus started to speak in a low voice, almost as if he was talking to himself. “Life,” he explained, “has always been black and white for me. Good and evil. Right and wrong. I lost the two people I loved most in the world and so I lived only to avenge their murders. That was right.” He turned to look at her. “I expected to die. I wanted to join them in the Afterlife. That was snatched away when I found myself here. So why did I never made an attempt to rejoin them? I became a part of the Point, enjoying this new family as if the old had never existed. Was that wrong? And you raise the stakes.”

“Join them? How? You mean die?”

Maximus nodded. “I just accepted being here, being alive. Rumor has it that we can’t survive long outside the Point so all I had to do was leave.” Without realizing it, Siobhan had slipped closer to him. He reached over and took her hand. “I lack a purpose here. I am neither soldier nor farmer. So why don’t I just leave? I’m not afraid to die.”

“Do you want to die?” A lump had formed in her throat, one that threatened to cut off her air.

“No, that’s it. I want to live. Look, I’m no stranger to arranged marriages, to the idea of love growing after. So what’s happened with us is very confusing. We just met. How can you mean so much to me?” He looked back at the ground beneath his feet. “It can’t be right to fill her place so quickly, can it?”

“I can’t answer that,” Siobhan told him. “I never expected to replace her. I would like a place of my own in your heart.” By now her tears were flowing silently down her face.

“The question’s been haunting me since I came here. And this morning it just seemed more important suddenly. Why am I still here, still alive, when my wife and son are dead? By rights, I should be dead and buried, but I’m here, surrounded by friends and falling in love with you.” His eyes were sad, darkened in the moonlight to a deep sea green. He pushed her hair off her face and kissed her. “Should I be trying to reunite with them when what I want is to stay here with you?”

Turmoil was engulfing Siobhan. His pain was worse than anything she had conjured in her imagination; she felt selfish and small for wanting him. Anything she said right now would be self-serving at best. She moved into his arms, holding onto him as if she could somehow absorb the hurt.

His own emotions were raw, fueled by the realization that he might lose her, and translated themselves swiftly into passion. His kisses began gently, turning rough in seconds, as he pushed her down on the swing. In an instant it was her turn to be the strong one; she pushed him away.

“No…Maximus, you were right. We need some distance.” She kissed him softly. “Lots of it,” she whimpered when he returned the kiss. “You have to make these decisions alone. But don’t ask me to watch you die, I can’t do that.”

“You make me happy.”

“Didn’t seem like I made you too happy today,” she ventured.

Maximus drew in a sharp breath. “I thought I wanted you to get to know the others. I don’t.”

She didn’t stop him when he began to kiss her again. It seemed to her that this might be the last time they’d make love. There was no good reason to turn from him and every reason to lose herself in the moment. He pulled away from the ear he was kissing to look her in the eye, to make certain she wouldn’t stop him again. Her eyes told him all he needed to know.

He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed first the back, then lingeringly on the palm, letting her fingers caress his cheek as he did.   He was holding back, forcing himself to go slow for her, and she knew it. She pulled his face to hers and kissed him as roughly as he had kissed her earlier. Her reward was swift and merciless.

The calm controlled facade slipped away to reveal the warrior, deadly and passionate, a man who had everything to lose on the brink of that loss. Her dress became a blanket on the soft green knoll. Clothes scattered across the ground. This was not a time for sweet exploration, but quick remorseless need.   Maximus rolled onto his back, his lover quick to understand. She slipped her leg over him and lowered herself onto him, eager for him. He reached up to touch her face, wiping away the tears that still lingered there. His hands grasped her waist, guiding her as he thrust into her. For long moments they moved together as one, trying to forget everything else in a pounding tireless act. Afterwards they lay tightly clasped in each other’s arms, only pulling apart when the air became cold. They dressed as they had undressed: quickly and wordlessly.

Siobhan broke the silence finally.   They were walking back to the Hotel, arms entwined around each other. “What happens to us now?”

“I don’t know. I can’t ask you to put your life on hold.” Siobhan didn’t answer; they started up the stairs to her room, quiet again. He didn’t have to ask.

Maximus opened the door to her room, switched on the light, and turned to say good-night, but found he couldn’t. He reached over and removed a blade of grass from her hair. “Tomorrow,” he whispered.

“Tomorrow?”

“There’ll be time to think tomorrow.”

“Are you sure?”

Her eyes glowed with happiness when he said, “Absolutely,” and shut the door behind him.

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