Disclaimer: The following story has been written with no intention of claiming ownership or solicitation, nor does the author claim the movie character(s) as his/her own. The movie character(s) have been borrowed solely out of a love of the particular movie and is not intended for any other purpose but amusement and entertainment.
Siobhan couldn’t believe what she was hearing: “Overtime? Again tonight?”
Her team leader shrugged her shoulders. “It can’t be helped.”
“I had plans, Beth. This is the third Friday in a row you’ve sprung a last-minute special project on me.”
Beth shook her head. “I’m not going to argue with you. I have dinner reservations, but I’ll be back. We’ll talk then.”
Siobhan looked down at the specifications Beth had tossed on her desk. Another last-minute data query for a user who wanted it Saturday morning and wouldn’t use it till Tuesday. Fine, but this was the last one. She opened a new email and began to type:
I’ve reconsidered your job offer. Hope you haven’t filled it. I will call you later.
* * *
Tina’s directions went from the very specific (101 South) to the very fuzzy (follow your instincts). Siobhan tossed her iPad into the front seat of her Volvo and backed out of her carport. Within minutes, she’d shed all her old anxieties in anticipation of Crowe’s Point. Maybe Tina was right.
Junctions seemed somehow familiar and unfamiliar, roads to lead home. She turned without knowing why. Finally after about four hours on the road, she asked Siri to dial the number for her.
“Crowe’s Point Hotel.”
“May I speak to Tina please?”
“This is Tina.”
“Tina, this is Siobhan. Just checking in to let you know I should be there…”
“Right about now?” Tina asked as she heard a car coming up the road.
Siobhan looked up and saw the signs: Crowe’s Point: Hotel and Tavern. “OK, that’s weird. How’d you do that?”
Tina laughed, “Practice. Park under that tree and come on in.” The line went dead.
Siobhan did as she was told and headed up the stairs into the lobby of the hotel where Tina was waiting. A sudden warm feeling rushed over her as she entered the lobby, as if she had arrived at a major destination in her life. They embraced as if they had known each other all their lives before Tina led her up the stairs into the hotel lobby.
As Siobhan looked around her, enjoying the comfortable atmosphere and looking for familiar faces, her new employer said, “I imagine you’d probably like to get settled before we talk about your new job. Maybe have a beer? Meet some of the others?”
Siobhan shook her head. “You’re going to think I’m weird, but I’d really like to talk about the job. I mean, you were a little vague in the email. Exactly what sort of programming work do you need done?”
Tina blushed. If Siobhan knew her better, she’d think the other woman was uncomfortable. “I guess I wasn’t very upfront with you, was I?” She led Siobhan into her office and closed the door. “This is a real delicate matter. You CAN keep a secret, can’t you?”
“We really need someone to look at reprogramming Sid.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I understood you correctly.” Siobhan’s voice shook. “Reprogram Sid?”
Tina explained, “Sid requested it. He says we treat him differently, we avoid him. So he was hoping we could find someone to try reprogramming him with more social skills.”
“I don’t think I’m your woman. I have a limited skill set and he’s a very sophisticated creation.”
“Agreed, but you do have a military computer background, right?”
“I’m a computer specialist. That’s hardly the same thing…” she began slowly, as her mind raced. She’d quit her job for a position she simply could not do. Maybe if she begged, Beth would take her back.
“In any case, Sid will work with you on this. He has some definite ideas and he has already set up a lab for you.” Tina stood up, effectively terminating the conversation. “Come on, let’s get you checked in, unpacked and over to the Tavern for a drink.”
“I haven’t agreed to do this.”
“I understand. But come and meet the others. Meet Sid before you make up your mind.”
Before Siobhan knew what had happened, she found herself and her suitcases in a bright and spacious room, dominated by a queen-sized bed. The picture window looked out over lush green trees and a beautiful garden; a window seat was the perfect touch.
She unpacked and changed from her travel-stained jeans into a favorite pair of black pants and a sweater. A makeup retouch, some perfume and she was ready for her introduction to “the others.” ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ she asked herself. ‘I’m not ready to meet anyone, especially not him. What was I thinking to come here? I need to go home right now.” The face in the mirror reflected her terror.
A knock at her door made her jump and then laugh nervously. ‘Must be Tina.’ She yanked open the door and stopped, speechless. The handsome well-dressed older man who stood in the doorway smiled and extended his hand to her, “Siobhan? I’m Jeffrey. Tina thought you might be more comfortable if I brought you over to the Tavern. Siobhan? Are you all right? You’re staring.”
“Oh, I’m fine.” She accepted his handshake. “Wow.”
“I must be the first person you’ve met,” he ventured as they headed downstairs together.
“That obvious?” she asked.
He smiled in reply. “It’s probably why Tina sent me up. The first one of us can be a shock. I’m not as intimidating as some.”
Siobhan laughed at that. “Actually, I think she may have sent you because you’re quiet and reassuring, as well as handsome.”
They walked outside and across to the Tavern. Siobhan’s eyes took a moment to adjust from the bright sunshine outside to the dimly lit room. Jeffrey led the way into the still-quiet bar and began the introductions with Andy who was tending bar. Siobhan ordered a Corona and followed him to one of several large booths.
“Why such a big booth?” Siobhan asked as she scooted herself into the middle with Jeffrey.
“You’ll see. It’s your first night. You’ll collect a crowd so stay there on the end. You’re from California?”
“And you’ve come all this way to work with Sid? He’s very excited about you.”
“I am.” The voice was right at her ear. She turned quickly to see Sid, clothed in a bright emerald green suit, standing not a foot to her left. Without warning he grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet, then let his eyes slowly descend from her head to her feet. “Not bad. Nice rack.”
Siobhan pulled her hand free and laughed, “Thanks for the approval. I can see the first modification we need to make.” She settled back into her seat.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Manners. Don’t grab me again, ok?”
Sid stopped and blinked rapidly, then giggled. “I like you, Doc. Can I sit here?”
“No!” Jeffrey and Siobhan spoke together. His face fell so hard that Siobhan took pity on him. “Tomorrow, ok? We’ll be spending a lot of time together, starting tomorrow.”
Siobhan turned back to Jeffrey. “My God, what have I gotten myself into? Hey, what are you laughing at?” His belly laugh caused people to turn and stare.
“You!” a passing woman gasped through her laughter. “I think you may hold the record for putting Sid in his place. Under 3 seconds.” She dissolved into laughter again as Siobhan stuck her tongue out.
“I need another beer,” she said, heading towards the bar. “Can I get another Corona, Andy?”
“Mexican beer? Where’d you learn to drink that swill?”
“California. I’m Siobhan.” Once the shock wore off, it seemed to get easier.
“Bud White. Hey Andy, give me a real beer, will ya?” He smiled. “Where in California?”
“Don’t think I know it.”
“No one does. It’s near Monterey.”
“So are you a rich girl, an artist, a farmer or military?”
“You know the area pretty well, I’d say. My folks were in ag, but I work for the feds. You do need to add tourism to that list.”
“Tourists actually go to Monterey?”
She laughed. “Way too many of them.”
“Ever spend any time in L.A.?”
“You’re not going to bore her to tears, talking about L.A., are ya, Bud?”
“No, I thought I’d let you kill with hockey talk. Siobhan, meet John Biebe, Tina’s husband.”
The bar was filling quickly now and the introductions came faster and faster. It was 30 minutes or more before Siobhan pulled away and headed back to the booth. She’d never been more comfortable with a group of strangers in her life. It seemed like she’d come home somehow, except for the nagging feeling that she was in way over her head with Sid.
Someone ordered food and the table filled with a variety of goodies. The drinks kept coming, the conversations seem to swirl around as she tried to sort the women out. She could keep the guys straight in her mind, no problem. Only one man was missing; Siobhan was relieved. She was exhausted, but excited and happy. In her current state, she wasn’t too sure how’d she’d handle meeting him tonight.
Finally, it was Jeffrey who noticed. “You look beat. Would you like me to walk you back?”
“No, thanks. I think I can find my way.”
“I figured that you were capable of finding your way. I thought you might run into Sid.”
“Since you put it that way, thanks for the offer.”
When they reached the door, Jeffrey pulled it open for her. In what could best be described as her typical graceless manner, she turned to say thanks, tripped over the doorjamb, and ran smack into the solid form of someone in the doorway waiting for her to pass. As he caught her, she looked up and froze, exactly as she predicted she would.
“Are you all right?”
Certain moments remain in a person’s brain throughout a lifetime. Indelibly etched into Siobhan’s memory for the rest of her life would be the moment she met Maximus and could only stutter, “Oh dear God….”
“Are you all right?” Maximus asked again as he helped Siobhan regain her balance. Her mind went blank as she looked into his eyes. They were a deep blue-green, full of concern and so very beautiful; she blushed crimson and tried very hard not to stare. Despite his very modern jeans and sweater, he was every inch the General. Her arms seemed to burn where he held her.
“Siobhan just arrived this afternoon after a very long drive.” Jeffrey stepped in to help her recover a semblance of her dignity. “I was just walking her back to the hotel; she’s very tired. Right, Siobhan?”
“Ye..” her throat had gone dry and her voice cracked. “Yes. I’m very tired.”
“Perhaps we’ll get to talk tomorrow then, Siobhan. My name is Maximus. Welcome to the Point.” He smiled. “Good-night.” He walked past them into the crowded bar.
Jeffrey and Siobhan were quiet as they walked back to the hotel. She kept looking back over her shoulder. Finally Jeffrey asked, “Is he the reason you came?”
“Is Maximus who drew you here? Everyone comes for a reason. You looked surprised when you met me and some of the others, but you were struck dumb back there.” He laughed. “I’ve seen that look before.”
Siobhan shook her head. “What an idiot, huh? I wondered how I’d handle meeting him and the answer is ‘not very well.’”
“You did just fine.” They reached her door. “Get some sleep. You have a very long day ahead of you, if I know Sid.” He kissed her cheek. “See you in the morning.”
Siobhan closed the door behind her and threw herself onto the bed. What a great first impression she’d made: a stumbling, stuttering, blushing twit. “Aaaarghh!” She threw a pillow against the door and buried her head beneath the other one.
Morning found her awake early, anxious about the day ahead. She showered and dressed in what she prayed would be appropriate for her new job: black pants, a cheerful red sweater and a red & black print scarf. One last peek in the mirror told her she looked competent and intelligent, not like the fool in the bar last night.
She heard familiar voices outside her window. A glance revealed several buildings behind the hotel. A stable and corral were situated about 100 yards west. East and Cort were standing by the fence, feeding carrots to some horses. The horses appeared to be jostling each other to get closer to the two men. She smiled to herself and headed downstairs in search of coffee.
“Good-morning, Siobhan. We’ve been waiting for you.” She’d met the young woman before her the night before, but couldn’t put a name to the face. “I’m Caroline. Don’t worry, they all look alike, but at least we don’t. You’ll get the hang of it pretty soon. Grab some coffee and come on in the office.” She pointed to a pot of coffee sitting on a table against the side of the stairs. Beside the cups and paraphernalia sat an assortment of bagels and doughnuts.
Armed with a cup of coffee and a large jelly doughnut, Siobhan entered Tina’s office and took the last remaining chair at the small round table. John and Tina Biebe were waiting for her.
Tina began, “Well, you got to meet Sid last night and I heard you held your own. Does this mean you’ve decided to take the job?” She was eyeing Siobhan’s clothing appreciatively. “Or are you heading for a job interview?”
Siobhan laughed, “No. I thought Sid would react better if I dressed like I took the job seriously…at least for the first day or two.”
“Sid’s reactions are part of the reason we’re all here,” John told her.
“Sid’s unpredictable and loves nothing better than trouble,” Tina said. “His homicidal urges were curtailed when he arrived here – can’t have a maniac in the Point – but he’s still capable of….” She looked over at Caroline and shrugged her shoulders.
“Mayhem,” Caroline offered, sipping her coffee. “So John had an idea.”
John nodded. “Sid has set up a computer lab in an old shed behind the stables. He’s equipped it with everything he thinks you’ll need. But the consensus is that you’d better not be left alone with him all day so we’re going to keep an eye on you.”
“We don’t want you to ever go in the computer building with Sid without one of the guys either in the room or right outside,” John told her.
“He’s that dangerous, even here?”
“Not usually, but you’re going to be messing with his programming. It’s for your own good.” John pushed his hand through his hair in a gesture that made Tina light up like Christmas and continued, “You ok with this? We can ask Jeffrey to take the first shift if you’d feel more comfortable.”
Siobhan was confused again. Jeffrey? “No, whoever you’d like is fine.”
Caroline giggled, “How about Maximus?”
“Did everyone see that?” Siobhan moaned.
“I’ll take the first shift,” John told her with a grin. He stood up. “You ready?”
The coffee was hot and strong, but the erstwhile-programmer needed the jolt so she drained the cup quickly and stood up. “More coffee first. And maybe another doughnut.”
Supplies in hand, she followed John down a well-trodden path that led past the stables. Cort and East were nowhere to be seen, but the horses stood contentedly, watching the humans go by. As they passed the stables, the shed finally came into view.
“Shed” was something of a misnomer as the building easily measured 20’X20’. It was freshly painted in a bright Kelly green, Sid’s idea no doubt. A single door in the center of the building opened to reveal Sid in a matching suit. The lyrics to “It’s Not Easy Being Green” began to run through her mind so that she struggled not to laugh.
“Good-morning, Doc! Ready for work?”
“I will be when I finish this coffee. You’re cheerful for so early in the morning.”
“I’m never sleepy and I don’t have to worry about artificial stimulants. What’s he doing here?” Sid pointed at John
“Exactly what Tina told you I’d be doing, Sid.”
“Oh?” Sid stepped out of the doorway and walked up to Siobhan. “You afraid to be alone with me?” He reached for her arm.
“No.” She was damned if she would admit the truth to him, but she was terrified. John stepped between them and intercepted Sid’s hand.
“This is exactly the reason why I’m here, ok? Back off or she doesn’t even go through the door.”
Sid turned. His movements became sudden and jerky, but his face was wreathed in smiles. Siobhan swallowed the desire to turn and bolt back to her Blazer and get the hell out of here.
“Hey! I was just joking. C’mon in and see the set up. Come on, I won’t hurt ya, Doc.”
Reluctantly she entered the building, John very close behind her. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the light. When they finally did, she was awestruck at what Sid had put together. It was a fully equipped test lab with what appeared to be a several servers, three workstations with 21” monitors, and a printer banked in the neatest configuration she had ever seen in a computer room. Behind the bank of equipment was a sheet of glass shielding what appeared to be a surgical table with monitoring equipment.
“You like it?”
“Yes, although I am not sure what all of it’s for.”
Now Sid’s face fairly glowed with pleasure as he explained everything to them. The servers contained a copy of his operating system and memory/personality modules, as well as personality modules he had been building over the past months. Siobhan would work with him to integrate personality features into his program, then upload them via the cables she saw hanging behind the table. Features could be added and deleted, depending on their success.
“You seem to have this all figured out, Sid. All you really need is someone to press the button,” Siobhan remarked. “You don’t need me.”
“Not true,” he replied. “I need someone to help me choose and evaluate what works, and someone who can restore me if necessary.”
“What exactly are you trying to accomplish?” John asked.
“I’d like to be liked.”
“Liked?” John looked puzzled. “I don’t exactly understand.”
Sid shook his head. “I didn’t expect you to get it, Biebe. Everyone likes you. All the men AND all the women. They buy you drinks and laugh at your jokes and want to sit beside you at meals. But when I come into the Tavern, the women edge away from me and the men pretend they don’t see me.” His eyes filled with sadness. “I’d like to fit in. You know, I can’t exactly help who I am.”
John couldn’t pretend he understood anything but the loneliness implicit in what Sid had said. “I’m sorry, Sid. I didn’t think you cared that much about what we thought. You always seem determined to cause trouble.”
“I am who I am. But I am evolutionary and I want to change if I can.”
“Let’s get to work then,” Siobhan broke in. “How about you demonstrate this operating system to me?”
“I chose UNIX because I figured you work on PCs. My OS is strictly out of a sci-fi movie.”
The rest of the day was spent in pouring over documentation and manuals as Siobhan acclimated herself to Sid’s marvelous set-up. East replaced John at lunchtime, which pleased Siobhan by giving her an opportunity to get to know him a little better.
She never expected East to be so quiet. He sat by the door, apart from them, and just watched.
“East, come sit closer. I don’t bite.”
“No, but Dummy is afraid I do.”
“Sid!” Siobhan turned to face him. “And you wonder why people don’t like you?”
“I never learned to read and write,” East shrugged. “But I’m not stupid. I’ve been learning.”
“Yeah, well, Sid’s so damn smart, you think he’d teach you to read and write himself. It’s just easier to be an ass.” She swiveled her chair back to face her computer screen and tossed over her shoulder, “Come on. I’m learning so you may as well learn with me.”
East pulled his chair up on the other side of Siobhan and watched. Whoever was teaching him to read was doing an outstanding job. With no computer background, he asked questions that a technical person would never think to ask. Sid answered each one a little less snidely than the one before as Siobhan was digging her right high heel into his left foot.
At about 6, East went to the door and opened it. The shadows had lengthened. “Feedin’ time. We better close up.”
“You go on, Horse Boy. Siobhan and I will work a little longer.”
“No way she’s alone with you, mate.” East stood and stretched. “And I can’t take another second locked up in here.”
Siobhan stood up as well. “Let’s shut down, Sid.”
They closed up the lab and headed up the path. At the stables, Sid turned up the left-hand path, the one that headed for the Tavern, but Siobhan took the right-hand one to the hotel.
“Not having a drink with me, Doc?”
“Not tonight, Sid. I’m beat. I want to grab a sandwich and hit the bed early.” She stopped and turned back again. “Hey, Sid?”
“I enjoyed today. I learned a lot working with you.” She waved. “’Night!”
As she wandered back up the path, she heard Sid say, “She enjoyed working with me, East.”
“I heard ‘er, mate.” East laughed softly. “Don’t get much’a that, do ya?” A chestnut mare came to the corral fence and pushed his arm with her nose. “Hungry, are ya?” he asked the horse.
Siobhan wandered up the path, smiling to herself. The job was better than she expected. Sid had done a fantastic job with the equipment and chosen software she could comprehend with some hard work. John and East had been the icing on the first-day cake. She was being given an unique opportunity to get to know everyone.
Everyone. Her heart tightened up. The guys were amazing, so much alike and so different, brothers but not brothers, and each with his own charm. Her initial reaction had been stunned silence, followed by the feeling that she had known them all forever. The women were all so very different, of course, yet welcoming. Friends she could count on. So why was she heading back to her room for an evening with a manual and a sandwich?
She knew why. Falling into Maximus’ arms was an inauspicious start. If she couldn’t act normal around him, she might as well stay in the lab.
Meanwhile, Sid had arrived in Crowe’s Tavern. The crowd was slowly building. Caroline and Terry were picking songs out on the juke box. Several other couples had already settled in with their drinks and food. Tina was behind the bar with Cort, talking to a new face.
“Gimme a beer,” Sid announced to Tina. “How ya doing, Cort buddy! Hi, Colin,” he greeted the man on the other side of the newcomer.
Cort stared at Sid. “Huh? Fine, Sid.” He drew the beer and set it on the bar. It was obvious that Sid was waiting for an introduction. “Sid, meet Bethany. She just checked in.”
He took the hand that Bethany offered and kissed it, ever so politely. “Very pleased to meet you, Bethany.” Bethany’s eyes twinkled as they met his. But Tina didn’t quite trust this version of Sid.
“What are you up to, Sid? And where’s Siobhan?”
“She went back to the hotel. I’m trying to be polite. So,” he turned back to Bethany. “Care to go to my room now?” He grinned. “See? I asked. I can be polite.”
Bethany laughed, “No thanks, Sid. But thanks for the offer.”
“Why did she go back to the hotel?” Tina pressed.
“She said she was tired and she wanted to read the software manual I gave her, OK?”
Cort leaned over and whispered in Tina ear; she nodded. He stepped out from behind the bar and headed out the door.
* * *
East headed into the stable in search of feed for the horses when he ran into Maximus standing in the shadows. “’Evening,” he said as he walked by, but the General seemed to be pre-occupied. “She’s calling it a night.”
“Oh not deaf then?” East grinned cheerfully. “Who else? You’re staring a hole in her back.”
“What is she like?”
“Funny, smart. Don’t take nuthin’ off Sid. Not much patience either.” He chuckled softly to himself. “Ya could just go knock on her door.”
Maximus looked away from the hotel where Siobhan had just disappeared and smiled. “You believe in the direct approach?”
“For you, I do. You’re in the way out here so unless you’re gonna help me feed them, you better go after her. I did take your shift this afternoon.”
“I said thank you.”
East shrugged. “The horses. You gonna help?”
“Not tonight. You mind?”
“No, mate. Buy me a beer later.”
Maximus headed up the path, his mind racing. In the few seconds after he caught her, he’d looked into her eyes and seen something that intrigued him. He asked about her in the Tavern, but most people had just met her. Opinions were varied with most people finding her pleasant, if a little shy. She’d left with Jeffrey so perhaps it was already too late for more than a casual acquaintance.
His steps slowed as he reached the top of the back stairway. He’d been here long enough to recognize the signs. The women were meant to be here, same as the men. He lifted his hand to knock and stopped an inch before the door. But exactly why was this woman meant to be here and what did it have to do with him? Nothing. He wasn’t ready for complications in his life. That’s why he’d asked East to fill in for him this afternoon. He was just about to leave when he saw Cort come up the front stairs. The preacher smiled and said, “The Lord provides you with what you need,” before heading back down.
Maximus had no idea what that meant, but took it as a sign. When he knocked, she called out, “Come on in, it’s open.”
She was sitting in the window seat, an oversized book on her lap, and glasses perched on her nose. When she saw it was him, she smiled nervously. “Hi,” was all she managed, closing the book.
“I came by to see how your first day went. May I come in?”
“Of course.” He left the door open behind him as she put the book on her nightstand. Maximus walked over and picked it up. “My first day was interesting, thank you. Sid is going to be a challenge.”
“UNIX? What’s that?”
“It’s a computer operating system. I know only enough to be dangerous.”
She was smaller than he remembered from last night, with very dark brown eyes in an oval face, framed by shoulder-length auburn hair. Her perfume was subtle; he was standing close enough to catch the scent of flowers. The room was already awash in personal touches – a pile of books on the table, framed photographs, baskets and pillows. She’d changed to jeans and a t shirt which made her look younger and more vulnerable.
“We never got a chance to talk last night.”
She smiled at that. “No, I was too busy falling into your arms.”
“A most unusual introduction.”
“I don’t usually do that, you know.”
“No? So that was just for me?” He was surprised to see her blush crimson. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“I embarrassed myself, don’t you think?”
“No, it could have happened to anyone. I’m glad I was there to catch you.”
Siobhan visibly relaxed with a sigh, “Oh, I’m glad you caught me too. I could just see me going ‘splat!’ at your feet. I’d have no dignity left.” Maximus liked the sound of her voice, especially when she laughed.
“Come have a drink with me?”
“I was planning on staying here to work,” she grimaced. “I have to stay a step ahead of Sid.”
“The others will think Sid has buried you beneath the shed if you don’t show up.”
“True.” She walked over to the dresser, pulled out a hairbrush and ran it quickly through her hair. “OK, let’s go have a drink. For Sid’s sake.” She took the book from Maximus and tossed it on her bed.
They ran the gauntlet in the Tavern. Greetings, questions, jokes, even more introductions as Siobhan met Bethany for the first time. It took 20 minutes and a round of beer for Maximus and Siobhan to escape to a quiet corner table.
Tina watched from her bird’s-eye view behind the bar. “That worked well,” she mentioned to Cort, bumping him with her hip as she passed him.
“I didn’t send him up there. He was at her door when I found him.”
The Proprietress beamed, “I knew it.”
Sid looked up from the drink he was nursing and muttered, “She should be having a drink with me.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Colin walked up, one arm draped casually over Caroline’s shoulders.
“Yeah, Sid, leave ‘em be,” Tina chimed in from her nearby table.
Maximus was not a master of small talk and said as much. He had seated himself so that he could watch the others approach, a habit he found hard to break even in this place. “Caroline told me you work for the military,” he began. “I have trouble understanding the concept of women soldiers.”
“Boadicea was a warrior. Caused quite a bit of trouble for Rome, as I recall.”
“Point made, but you know what I mean.”
“I do. Many men find the idea of women in a combat zone to be anathema, but it’s the modern mechanized and computerized military. Women can and do play vital roles in combat support. But I’m not a soldier. I’m a civilian.”
Maximus was intrigued by Siobhan’s background – women of his time didnt leave home unescorted to attend school at all, much less 2000 miles from home. He made a mental note to find a map and look up “Chicago” and “Tucson.” The fact that other women at the Point had done similar things didn’t cross his mind. Her education had included some Latin, but it was hardly impressive. In fact, it made Maximus roared with laughter.
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“You butchered it. Basically you said that Caesar married his dead father.” Her eyes sparkled when he smiled at her. On impulse, he took her hand in his and kissed the palm. His eyes held hers as he moved closer to kiss her.
“Hi, Doc! When we gonna have that drink?”
Snap! the moment was destroyed.
“Go away, Sid,” Maximus growled. “Now.”
“I don’t recall asking you anything, Slave.”
Maximus rose instantly, pushing his chair back so hard that it fell and slid across the floor. His hand reached for Sid’s throat, but he had skitted away, laughing. Unfortunately for Sid, Maximus was bigger; two steps and he caught the smaller man.
“Call me ‘Slave’ again and I’ll rip your heart out, do you understand?”
Sid knew he’d gone too far, but couldn’t resist the dig, “It’ll just grow back.” He was paying far too much attention to his own cleverness and never saw the left hook that shot him onto the floor. He played it smart for a change and stayed down.
Maximus stood over him, the adrenalin rush receding. “Maximus?” He turned to see Siobhan standing beside him. “Your hand’s bleeding.” She wrapped a napkin around it. “Come on. We need to get ice on it.”
They left to near-silence as everyone in the Tavern watched in amazement. Only Sid spoke, “You saw him. It was an unprovoked assault.”
“Shut the hell up, Sid,” John told him as Bethany helped him to his feet. “Or I’ll put you right back on the floor.”
Siobhan and Maximus headed for the hotel’s deserted kitchen where she appropriated a steel mixing bowl, filled with ice. “What’s that for?” he asked.
“Keeps your hand from swelling. Sid must be harder than he looks.”
“It was worth it.” Maximus was pleased to see Siobhan grin in reply. They went up to her room where she washed his hand in her bathroom sink. The damage was minimal, just enough to be bloody and sore. She packed the ice gently around his knuckles.
“You better come sit down here for a while,” she offered, putting him into her overstuffed chair. She was in the process of sitting down in the window seat across from him when there was a knock at the still-open door. Dominic stood framed in the doorway with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“Cort said you might like something to drink.” He placed the offerings on the tables, poured them each a drink. “It was also suggested that you might get more privacy with a closed door,” he told them as he left, pulling the door shut behind him.
“They’re trying to get us drunk,” Siobhan remarked, sipping her wine. “Maximus?”
He looked up from staring at the bowl of ice and smiled sheepishly. “I usually guard my temper better.”
“He deserved it.” She decided to change the subject. “Why DO you leave the door open when you come in?” she asked.
“So Jeffrey won’t misunderstand.”
“Jeffrey? OK, this is the third time someone’s mentioned Jeffrey to me. What’s up?”
“You’re together, aren’t you? He’s why you came.”
“You mean?” Maximus nodded. “Why would you think that?
“You left with him last night.” His face betrayed no emotion, but Siobhan sensed something painful beneath the surface.
“He escorted me back here. It was a sweet old-fashioned gesture that I appreciated.” ‘Especially after I’d just fallen into your arms,’ she thought to herself. But then she started to wonder exactly where this conversation was leading.
“He never came back. I watched for him.”
“He said he was going to bed. I think he was tired.” She shook her head. “You never noticed that brunette, what’s her name? with him?”
“Things have been known to change around here.” Maximus had watched his brothers struggle with jealousy and tangled relationships, and had found himself embroiled in one or two himself. Everything straightened out; it always did, but it was painful.
“I don’t think I like where this conversation is going. You think I invited Jeffrey to my bedroom on such a slight acquaintance? Is that why you’re here now?” That fit into a few self-esteem issues Siobhan didn’t want to deal with at the moment. The most amazing evening of her entire life was about to boil down to this? She should have figured he wasn’t interested in her for herself. “Maybe you ought to just go,” she heard herself saying. A hideous and awkward silence filled the room.
She drained her glass and got up to get more wine, turning her face away so he couldn’t see the tears in her eyes. The atmosphere was suddenly charged with the same electricity she had felt in the bar.
“Why did you come to the Point?” Maximus asked, grabbing hold of her wrist as she walked by.
“Tina offered me a job.”
“That was your only reason?”
“Yes.” She couldn’t even look at him.
“I asked you to go.”
Maximus pulled his left hand out of the ice and put the bowl down, never letting go of Siobhan’s wrist with his right. He stood very close and lifted her face with an icy hand. “Why are you crying?”
“I cry when I’m angry.”
“Do you really want me to leave?” Maximus remembered why the others took the risks and endured the misery.
“Yes. Right now.” She sounded like a pouty child; Maximus suppressed a smile.
His kiss surprised her the way a summer storm catches people off-guard. It was warm and gentle, touching her heart with a joy. “Don’t make me go,” he whispered. Each successive kiss was deeper, more passionate, snatching her breath away and causing her heart to beat faster. She opened her eyes to see him watching her.
“Don’t go,” was all she could manage.
“I didn’t mean to imply anything, Siobhan,” Maximus told her. “Are you listening to me?” The head buried against his shoulder nodded. “We all came here for a reason. For the men, you might think the reason is obvious, but it isn’t. Besides our obvious physical link and the psychic bond, we all need to heal in some way. Part of the healing appears to be the love we find here. I’ve lost too much already to take a chance.” He pushed her hair out of her face. “I’m scared.”
“You’re scared? All evening long I have been waiting for the bubble to burst, for the real woman in your life to come and tell me to get lost.”
“There isn’t anyone else, Siobhan.” He tilted her face up and kissed her again, but this time he was all passion. “No one.” He broke the embrace and walked to the table to pour them each a glass of wine. “But we’re not so sure about you. You can’t even tell me why you came here. Come sit here,” he asked, sitting in her window seat. He put one leg up and made a place for her to sit, cradled in his arms. Siobhan waited for her heart to stop racing.
“How can you be so calm?” she asked.
“Discipline,” he murmured in her ear. “Years of self-discipline comes in handy with a woman like you. Relax, will you?”
“I can’t.” He brushed her hair away from her neck and kissed her. His beard rasped across the delicate skin, making her shiver. “You’re not being fair.” His hands slipped beneath her t-shirt.
“No. I’m cheating.”
Siobhan settled back against his chest and closed her eyes with a sigh. “This seems like a dream. I mean it all does.” When he didn’t answer, she continued, “I saw ‘Gladiator’ the day after my birthday. The bird…do you remember?”
“You smiled and I was lost, completely immersed. When the movie ended, I was almost stunned to be back in my own reality. I was obsessed in a way I never was with the others. I found the Point List about six weeks ago. Everyone said you come to the Point when you need to.. This isn’t a dream, is it?”
“No,” the timbre of his voice changed and deepened, making her shiver as much as the kisses that trailed down her neck. An urgency began to arise in her body, a need to be possessed and to possess that she’d never felt before. Her fingers began to work on his shirt buttons. She fumbled in her haste until he caught her hands between his. “But not tonight,” he told her. “Not until you’re sure.”
She tried to pull her hands free, but they were caught. “What if I say I am sure?”
“I don’t believe you. I think you need some time in the Point to see if I am the reason you came here.” He kissed her. “Obsession doesn’t last.”
She stuttered, “I know that.”
“Get to know everyone, find your place here. Do this for me?” His lips touched hers once more before he headed for the door. “I’ll see you in the morning.” Then he was gone.
“Shit!” Siobhan muttered, throwing a pillow at the door.
Maximus slipped into the Tavern and up the back stairs to his own room. He hoped no one noticed, especially Sid. Leaving her had been one of the hardest things he’d had to do in a long time, but he couldn’t take the chance again. Women were drawn to the Point by him, but their final destiny lay with the others.
He’d been so close to his wife and son; he’d almost touched them in the Afterlife before he was snatched away to the Point. Their memory had faded, but not the feeling of loss. Tina had shown him joy was possible, but she belonged with John. He’d recognized the truth, yet it had hurt to lose her.
Despite the friendships and love for him here, Maximus was lonely. Siobhan felt right, but was this his loneliness speaking? He’d commanded armies, fought bravely on the battlefield and in the Arena, and avenged his loved ones. Now here he was, trying to make a new life in an alien culture, and longing to have someone by his side. He was a risk-taker by profession, so why didn’t he just make love to her? He knew why. He didn’t give his heart or his allegiance easily.
Maximus needed a cold shower.
* * *
Siobhan downed two Aleve with a large glass of water and stared at the puffy-eyed woman in the mirror. She’d finished the bottle of wine after Maximus left and had a nice long cry to accompany it. Now she had Sid to deal with. Well she wasn’t in the mood for his crap. She pulled a lightweight spring dress over her head and pulled her hair into a ponytail with a groan because even her hair hurt.
She headed down to the lobby in search of coffee, hoping caffeine would adjust her frame of mind. Bud White was waiting for her with a cup ready for her.
“Good morning. You look like you need this,” he handed her the coffee. “You up to working?”
The coffee was extremely hot and strong. “God bless you, Bud,” she sighed, taking a huge gulp. “I wonder what the chances are of getting a pot in the lab.” They headed out the back door together.
“I think there’s an extra one in the Tavern you can have. I’m serious about working today. I could show you around the Point.”
“What about Sid?”
“He’ll find someone to harass, I imagine. He was making someone’s life miserable after you left last night.”
Siobhan smiled. “Ow,” she whimpered. “That hurts.”
“Come on, I have something to show you. It’ll take your mind off your hangover.” He dangled a set of keys in front of her. “Can I drive your Blazer?”
They turned off the path and headed up to the parking lot, and hopped into the SUV. Bud grinned cheerfully as he started the engine. “Automatic transmission, huh? I don’t know if I’ll like this or not. What’s the tow hitch for?”
“Towing a ski boat.”
“OK, then this is yours.”
“Yeah, of course it’s mine.”
“Not this. You’ll see.”
He drove slowly up a dirt road, pointing out sites as he did. The Point reflected everyone’s interests in some way – an airfield, a frozen pond, English gardens, the stables, beaches, California back roads; it expanded to accommodate new people. Bud turned up a road that ran past the beaches and upward into craggy boulder-strewn hills.
“This appeared yesterday. Does it have anything to do with you?”
Siobhan laughed. “It might. What’s beyond the Pass?”
“Desert, mesquite trees and saguaros. I thought you lived on the coast.”
He pulled over and parked. Siobhan hopped out, her headache forgotten. “I do, but I always wanted to live in the foothills of Tucson, Gates Pass. I love the desert.“ She pointed down into the desert floor at a town shimmering in the heat. “Has Cort seen that?”
“What is it?”
“It looks like Old Tucson, a movie town. It was Redemption.”
Bud shook his head. “You’re a strange woman, Siobhan. I saw your other special place.”
“What other special place?”
“At the lake. I like that one a lot better than this.” They got back in the car and drove back the way they had come, turning right by the beaches this time. Finally, Siobhan saw it.
“There’s a marina here!” she shouted and pointed at the long low building set right on the shoreline. Tied up at the dock was a beautiful yacht.
“That’s Sid’s. But we think that one right there might be yours.” Bud pointed beyond the yacht to an 18-foot ski boat, rigged with a tow bar. The boat was white with red trim and across the stern the name “Crowe’s Point” was stenciled in red.
Siobhan skipped down the launch ramp toward the boat, turning back to hurry Bud up. “Are the keys in it?” she sang out. “This is amazing. Do you ski?”
“Never tried. Obviously you do.” He tossed a picnic basket into the boat. “Lunch compliments of Caroline and Trisha.”
“Noooo, actually I have never been able to keep hold of the ropes. I always let go. But I can teach you how.” She started to untie the stern line. “Get the bow line loose for me, please? I mean, we can take her out, right?”
“No reason why not.” He tossed the rope into the open bow and stepped in, looking slightly out of place in his jacket and tie. As if on cue, he tossed the jacket onto a seat, following it with tie and shirt. Shoes and socks were next. By the time Siobhan had pulled away from the dock, he looked far more comfortable.
“Shorts next time,” she teased, pointing at his dress slacks. As soon as they made it past the no-wake buoys, she opened the boat up. Water sprayed up, splashing them both. “See?” she giggled.
The rest of the morning past swiftly as they explored the lake together. Bud took a turn at driving the boat, an experience he swore would never replace cars. A warm breeze swept across them until Bud pulled into a cove to break out the picnic. Then the still air became hot. “I’d love to pull off this dress and hop in,” Siobhan told Bud, looking at the water longingly.
“Only if you join me,” she asked.
The water felt so good. It banished the last of Siobhan’s headache as she splashed and played with Bud. They climbed back onto the boat and laid out on the collapsed seats to dry off. Siobhan’s skin was already tanning, but she kept an eye on his fair skin. Night shift, she figured. “You’re getting red,” she mentioned, trying not to stare at him in his boxers.
He stood and pulled his pants back on, looking down at her laying there in her underwear. “You’re not, you’re just turning brown.”
“Beer?” Bud opened the cooler.
“No, soda please. Diet Coke?”
He tossed her a can and opened the picnic basket. “Ham sandwiches. They look good.” He handed her a sandwich. Siobhan wrapped herself in a beach towel and sat up to eat. “OK, now tell me why Maximus came back to the Tavern last night.”
“Does everyone know that?”
“No, but quite a few of us saw him trying to sneak in. What happened?”
She made a face. “I screwed up. He asked me about Jeffrey and…” her voice trailed off. “I asked him to leave.” Bud looked surprised. “It gets worse.” She explained, “By the time I owned up to coming here for him, he’d decided I wasn’t sure enough of my motives.”
“That makes sense.”
“I’m not sure if I can explain this. We are all a part of one another –the men I mean – so in some way, you must find us all equally attractive. Following me? Good. So you need to know why you came. Before “Gladiator,” what was your favorite movie?”
Siobhan felt the blush rise from her toes. “’L.A. Confidential,’” she stared at her shoes.
“Oh.” He grinned. “Why?”
“Because I love Kevin Spacey. Get real, Bud.” She grabbed his beer and took a swig from the bottle. “Yeah, this is awkward.”
“It’s going to keep happening to you till you make up your mind. If Maximus were here, who would you choose?”
“You ARE with someone.”
“I am, but forget about that. This is theoretical.”
“Because it feels right. I don’t feel the same way with you.”
“Good answer, no hesitation. We better get back, I’m frying.” He started packing the leftovers up.
The drive back to the Hotel was a lot quieter than the drive out as both were tired from the sun and fresh air. Siobhan’s mood was much improved by her morning off. She headed directly down to the lab, steeled for the grief she knew Sid would heap on her. The door was open.
“Well, Doc, Bankers’ Hours, eh? Long night with the General? Too tired to come to work?” Sid launched right into the abuse. “Not too tired to go out with the Dumb Detective, though.”
“Gee Sid, nice to see you too.” She sat down at her PC and entered her user id and password. “How about we try adding a module or two today?” Sarcasm tended to be lost on Sid, she’d noticed. “How about a new vocabulary?”
“You should have had a drink with me last night. I don’t know why everyone is so charmed by the Slave. I’m more beautiful.”
“Yes, Sid, you are far more beautiful, but you have all the charm of a cobra. Tell you what, don’t call anyone by anything but their name for the next 24 hours, and I’ll spend tomorrow evening with you.”
“You’ve seen ‘Virtuosity’?”
“You’ve seen my body then?”
“Impressive,” she couldn’t deny that.
“No further negotiations, Sid. All evening is all I’m offering.”
“Done! You’ll change your mind. Now, Siobhan, shall we get to work?”
He sat beside her at the other PC and pulled up the list of personality modules he’d put together for her review. “I say we try one right now.”
“It’s really too soon, Sid. I’d like a chance to look at your code.”
“If you showed up for work this morning, you could have done that. I want to try something right now. We can always back it out afterwards if it doesn’t work.” He tapped the keyboard. “This one? I’ve been watching old news footage.”
“He loved animals and children.”
“No way, Sid. You’re already a meglomaniac. Pick another animal lover.” She looked at the screen. “Yeah, ok, that one can’t possibly hurt a soul.” Sid showed her how to load the module for sync. They were in the process of running the simulated load when John came in.
“Hey, what’s going on here? Who’s supposed to have this shift and why are you two alone in here?” He was clearly annoyed.
Sid swiveled in his chair. “It was the Sla…Maximus. I told him Siobhan had taken the day off to go swimming with Bud so we didn’t need him.”
Siobhan groaned, “Thanks, Sid.”
“Siobhan, come outside please until we can get someone down here.”
“Be serious, John. I can handle myself for a little while longer.” But she did as she was asked, standing just outside the doorway until Cort came down the path.
“John’s about ready to shoot you for coming in here alone,” Cort told her. “Bud says you’ve got a place in mind to show me. Want to go riding tomorrow? Hi, Sid.”
“Only if you can find me a very gentle horse. OK, Sid, back in business. How’d that simulation go?”
“Great!” He watched her review the data and double-check the module. “You don’t trust me.”
“I don’t want to load Hitler. Go hook up.” She followed him into the booth with Cort on her heels. He opened his shirt to the waist; his body was rock hard, tanned and all-round perfection. Pressing his side, Sid popped open a small near-invisible door that revealed a tiny com port where he hooked up to the computer. Siobhan thought she detected a moment’s hesitation when she asked if he was ready. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “For luck,” she told him as she headed to her workstation.
Loading the module was transparent and swift, taking only seconds. Sid unhooked himself and came out of the booth, buttoning his shirt.
“Well?” Cort asked.
“I don’t know. I feel the same. We could head up to the Tavern and test me out. I’m buying.”
Cort looked at Siobhan. This was already an improvement. “Let’s shut down and go,” she agreed.
The scene that greeted them in the Tavern was enough to make Siobhan want to maroon herself on a desert island with Sid.
The scene unfolded like something out of a bad soap opera. A clearly angry Maximus was right in Bud’s face while the detective kept pushing him back.
“If you’d brought her back on time…” Maximus was shouting.
“Get away from me, asshole, before I put you on the floor.”
For some extremely unclear reason, John was sitting on the floor between them, a casualty of the shoving match. Caroline was behind the bar, watching helplessly. The only other patrons in the bar were Point employees, relaxing when their shifts ended. They eyed the goings-on with interest, but made no attempt to break it up.
Caroline spotted the new arrivals: “Cort, break this up, will you? Siobhan, go get Terry or East or someone!”
Sid leaned over as he walked past Siobhan. “I’ll help. No reason to get anyone else.”
Siobhan went behind the bar with Caroline and asked, “What started this?”
“You.” Caroline never took her eyes off Cort who gave John a hand up on his feet.
Sid stepped between the two angry men and said something that sounded suspiciously like, “Violence is never an answer to anything, gentlemen.” But Siobhan wasn’t listening anymore; she was concentrating on Caroline.
“Yeah, John came in here looking for Maximus. Something about the lab. Max didn’t take that too well. He said you never showed up, that you’d gone off somewhere with Bud who picked the absolute wrong time to show up.”
Cort and Sid had broken the argument up. Cort was pulling Maximus towards the door. “Caroline, we’re going outside to cool down.”
John and Bud sat down on a pair of adjacent barstools with Sid standing just behind them. Siobhan grabbed three cold beers from the cooler, opened them and set them in front of the guys. Bud grinned rather sheepishly at Caroline. “Sorry about the mess, Caroline. I’ll get it in a minute.” He took a long pull on his beer and then said, “Siobhan, you better get outside and talk to him.”
“Bud,” Sid reached between the two men to get his beer. “I’m sorry about any trouble I caused for you. I told Maximus that you and Siobhan left together and hadn’t come back.”
Caroline reached out for Siobhan’s wrist to stop the other woman from leaving. “Did I just hear Sid apologize? Does that mean you’ve started the changes?”
“Just one small modification,” the programmer admitted. “We were coming up here to test him out among the masses.”
“So far, so good.” Caroline looked anxiously at the door. “You better go see about Maximus.”
“God, Caroline, I am screwing things up so badly with him.”
Caroline hugged the other woman briefly. “He’s been in here all afternoon, boring me to tears complaining about you. You must be doing something right. Go!”
Maximus and Cort were standing under a tree, watching the doorway, and talking in low tones when she walked back outside. Cort slapped Maximus on the shoulder as Siobhan approached them. “I’ll see you two inside,” he drawled.
The Roman nodded, his habitual silent salute; he didn’t bother to hide his anger. Siobhan took a deep breath and hoped that she would say the right thing. “Take a walk with me? I think we need to talk.” Maximus didn’t reply, he just fell in beside her. “I’m sorry I was late getting to the lab this afternoon. I didn’t know you were supposed to be there.”
“White did. He also knew I wanted to show you the Point.”
“We took a quick drive and then he showed me the boat. There’s still a lot to show me. Maximus, Bud was only trying to cheer me up. I…aw, hell, I polished off the wine after you left and I felt horrible this morning.” She wasn’t sure what else to say. “You told me to get to know the others, you know.”
Maximus caught her hand in his as they walked without speaking. He clearly didn’t want to discuss the matter. Siobhan recognized the trail they were on; she had seen it from the road earlier. It led past the English gardens and up over a grassy knoll. Wildflowers bloomed among tall grasses. Insects buzzed happily. The long shadows of late afternoon provided shade from the sun which Siobhan tried to sidestep. They were a long way from the hotel when he finally spoke again.
“Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Damn!” He stopped beneath a large tree and pulled her into his arms. “I shouldn’t have left last night,” he growled before kissing her. They stumbled backwards until Siobhan came in contact with the tree trunk. Maximus was relentless, his mouth tearing at hers while his hands slid down her body, lifting her skirt. His mouth moved from hers to her neck.
They sprang apart like guilty teenagers at the sound of Cort’s voice.
“Over here!” Maximus called as Siobhan straightened her skirt. Cort came into view a moment later, out of breath. It didn’t take a genius to understand what he had interrupted. Maximus stood close behind her, his arms around her, while Siobhan’s lips looked bruised and red.
“Siobhan’s got to come back to the Tavern right away. It’s Sid. He’s crying and can’t stop. I have Jeffrey down in the lab, shoeing your computers.”
“’Shoeing’? Oh, you mean booting ‘em up,” Siobhan wondered what he meant. “OK, I guess we better back that module out.”
Cort looked from Siobhan to Maximus and back again. “I’ll go on ahead and bring him over to the lab. Don’t be too long. Caroline and Tina are laughing like two fools.” He ran off the way he came, leaving the two frustrated lovers alone.
“We’re cursed,” Maximus told her, kissing her neck. “Can you fix him quickly?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” She grabbed his hand. “If I can concentrate. I should have known this might be a problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“The personality module. Sid loves old tv shows, I guess, because his list of possible personalities is littered with people from them. I figured this one would be just fine.”
“Who is it?”
“A fictional character played by an actor named Michael Landon. Pa Ingalls.”
* * *
“Pa Ingalls? You mixed ‘Little House on the Prairie’ with Sid 6.7?” Caroline doubled over with laughter again.
“It’s not funny, Caroline,” Tina chided. From her point-of-view, it was hilarious, but she felt she ought to behave herself after all. She sat with one arm around Sid, trying her best to comfort him. “He’s been like this for over an hour now.”
“Siobhan!” Sid stood up and enfolded her in a weepy bear hug. “I am so sorry about telling Maximus you went off with Bud.” Siobhan looked questioningly at Tina from around Sid’s shoulder.
“It’s OK, Sid, really.” She extricated herself from the hug and sat down at the table. “What brought this on?” Sid settled between the two women, holding each one by the hand. John sat across the table, trying hard to eliminate the total distrust he was feeling. Somehow Sid was managing to enjoy all this fuss. He certainly was enjoying Tina’s full – and for once – willing attention.
“After you left, everything was going really well,” Tina began.
Caroline took up the narrative. “Yeah, Sid stood here and talked to John and Cort for the longest time. It was weird. He was friendly and funny. He complimented all the women as they came in.”
Sid greeted each and every person who entered the Tavern like a long lost friend. He called them all by their own names, not his usual snide nickname. The buzz circulated rapidly: a test modification had been successfully loaded.
Oddly enough, it was East who triggered the first emotional reaction. He was telling Kath how Nero had come up lame that afternoon when Sid happened by. The newly-charming man asked how the stallion was coming along and was listening attentively when East said, “I’m glad I don’t have to destroy ‘im. It’d break my heart.”
“You could destroy a beautiful animal like that?” Sid asked, a tear slipping down his perfect face.
“Sometimes ya got to, if the animal is suffering. In’t that right, Cort?”
Cort agreed, “But it’s always hard to do, Sid.” He leaned forward to see Sid better in the dim light. “Is that a tear?”
Sid nodded sadly. “I couldn’t do it,” he confided. “East, if I teach you to read, will you teach me to ride?”
“Thanks, brother. I’m sorry I called you ‘Dummy.’”
“No…no, man, it’s not ok.” He grabbed East in a bear hug. “I’m sorry. I’m just an asshole.”
“Oooh, something we can agree on, Sid?” one of the women tossed out as she passed by to get another drink.
“Tara! I am so sorry about all the mean things I’ve said about you.”
By the time Cort left to find Siobhan and Maximus, Sid had hugged just about everyone once, apologized to several people multiple times, and cried at least three verifiable times. Jeffrey had volunteered to get the lab computers booted after a sniffly Sid gave him the passwords. No one wanted to see Sid hug Hando and the possibility was very real.
“Which brings you up to date,” Caroline finished.
“OK, well I guess we better get back over to the lab. Come on, Sid, let’s go.”
“Tina’s coming too,” Sid announced to John’s visible annoyance and Tina’s discomfort.
“Please?” Siobhan asked John. “You and Maximus come too, just in case.”
The short walk to the lab seemed an eternity to Maximus and John. Maximus was thinking much the same thing that John was: Sid was getting a lot of physical affection from two women who never gave him the time of day ordinarily. That sudden squeeze, John noticed, involved a hand just touching a breast under Tina’s arm. ‘Son of a bitch!’ he seethed.
Jeffrey was waiting in the lab, all three computers online. He offered to occupy one computer while Siobhan asked Tina to take the other. John and Maximus escorted Sid back behind the glass where Siobhan hooked him up. With everything in place, she retreated to her computer and began running simulations while asking Jeffrey to monitor the physical reactions. Tina was in charge of monitoring the server.
The building seemed small and confined with seven people in it. Caroline pulled up a chair, while John and Maximus stood against the wall, watchful.
Maximus was as mesmerized as ever by the technology that the others appeared to take for granted. The miracle of electricity never ceased to amaze him. No oil lamps to clean or wicks to trim, just a switch to throw for light, and another for heat. Fireplaces were romantic, not necessary. They communicated via the printed and spoken word over wires and air waves. Sid was manufactured, not born, and Siobhan was changing his personality to suit the others. Poor Commodus could have benefitted from that technology, he thought to himself.
He watched Siobhan work. She asked Tina to check a number of what she called variables. The other woman asked, “Can I have the syntax for that?”
“It’s in the manual,” Siobhan replied. “OK, here’s the personality module I loaded.” She pointed to a line on a list. Turning, she said, “Maximus, John, come closer if you want to read it.” She moved her right hand and an arrow appeared above the line. Maximus knew the item in her hand was called a mouse. She pushed a button twice rapidly and the line expanded to reveal what Maximus knew was called code.
“It should have worked,” Jeffrey said, leaning in to read it. “It did work, he was much improved.”
“It was too dominant. I figured so many of his serial killer parts were abused children so I pushed Ingalls into a dominant position. You know, replace the bad with a good attitude toward family, children, life, animals. The simulation didn’t predict this.”
“Yes, it did,” Sid told her, muffled through the glass. “I ran it twice and killed the first output so you couldn’t see it. It predicted sentimentality as a weakness unless you move it further down the personality hierarchy.”
“Damn! I knew not to trust you.” She turned to the others. “This might take some time. I have to back out the new module, test the placement in several locations, run simulations and then reload it.”
“Can’t you back it out and reload tomorrow?” John asked.
“If I just back it out, I won’t know if any modules had links to this one. He could be dangerous. I need to at least test the module links. Look, you guys can go back to the Tavern. We’ll come over when it’s finished. Maximus, will you stay with me? Unless you’d like to trade shifts with someone?” She couldn’t resist the dig.
“No, this shift is mine,” he replied with a smile, taking the chair Tina vacated.
John and Jeffrey exchanged glances. Nothing Maximus couldn’t handle; they knew that, so they excused themselves and departed. Siobhan concentrated on the screen in front of her for a while, finally noticing Maximus watching her every move.
“This is all pretty alien to you, huh?”
“I was just thinking how much you know.”
“God, please, this is really simple. Sid did most of the hard stuff before. Don’t be too impressed, ok. I’ve been at this for years. The technology behind it is pretty slick though.”
“You take it for granted.”
“I guess we all do.”
“Could you live without it?”
“No, all of it – electricity, television, computers, cars.”
She keyed in the command to begin the simulation and shrugged her shoulders. “If I had to, I could. Everything except hot water.” She made a face. “No cold baths! Come closer,” she pulled at the edge of his chair. When he rolled it closer, she pushed the mouse and pad towards him. “Try it.”
“What’s going on out there?” Sid called out piteously.
“Nothing, Sid. I’m waiting for the simulations to run. Relax.” She turned to Maximus; his face was inches from hers. “Watch the cursor – see the arrow right there – you’re controlling it.”
“You talk too much,” Maximus told her, kissing her. He let the mouse go and pulled her into his arms.
Sid sounded like an abandoned infant, “You’re not waiting for the simulation. I hear kissing!” At that the simulation ended with a beep. Maximus looked at it strangely.
“Two chaperones? We’re not ever going to be alone, are we?”
“We were alone the other night. You left, remember? Look, quit distracting me or we’ll be here working all night.” To take the sting out of her words, she kissed him this time, letting her tongue dance briefly with his. “Or not. Grr, back to work!”
It took the better part of two hours to ascertain that all no major links had been made between the modules. Then Siobhan backed the module out, checked Sid’s systems from top to bottom, and had Maximus disconnect him.
“What about putting the module in at another level of my personality hierarchy?”
“Tomorrow, Sid. Tomorrow afternoon we can look at it. Right now I’m hungry and tired.”
“Tomorrow afternoon? Your less-than-Puritanical work ethic never ceases to amaze me.”
“Cut the sarcasm, I am not in the mood to match wits with you right now,” she told Sid as she reached down to hit the power strip. She was hoping that neither man would ask why she couldn’t work in the morning. Riding out to Old Tucson with Cort was harmless enough, but how would Maximus react?
Sid took his dismissal well. In two days, Siobhan had learned to distrust his cooperative side, but he’d gone off to play some online role-play game, so he was the Internet’s problem now.
“You don’t mind going to the Tavern, do you? I’m seriously starved,” she asked Maximus. She gazed up at a sky so clear it seemed like she could reach out and touch the stars. “It’s so beautiful here.” His arms slipped around her as she watched the heavens. He turned her face towards him and began to kiss her again, not the anxious kisses of earlier or the playful ones of the lab, but amazing soft kisses that promised everything. Just as suddenly as he began, he released her to a small whimper of protest.
“You’re hungry, remember?” he reminded her.
“In more ways than one.”
“I don’t want dinner,” she smiled. “We can sneak down to the kitchen afterwards.”
“After what?” His hand explored hers, running over her fingers and caressing her palm in a way that made her weak-kneed. His fingers ran up her wrist, lingering at the crook of her elbow, and finally tracing across her breasts.
“After…” she took a very deep breath. “After we make love.” Her voice vibrated with her desire, shaking Maximus into action. “Now? Please?”
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.
“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?”
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.”
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.
“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 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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
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.
“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.
Maximus watched Siobhan sleep. Tomorrow was today, and he knew what he had to do. He bent to kiss her; her eyes opened slowly. It had been a very long night. “You’re leaving?”
“I promised East I’d help with the horses this morning,” he lied.
“Mmmm, ok, see you later?”
The lie stuck in his throat. “Of course.”
He showered and changed, trying to mentally compose a note to leave for her. He scribbled a few words, sealed the envelope and headed down the hallway to Terry Thorne’s room. Thorne was a kindred spirit, more so than the others sometimes. As soldiers, they shared a similar outlook on life and the nature of loyalty.
Terry answered his knock, already dressed for a pre-dawn run. He came outside and shut the door, indicating the sleeping figure of Caroline inside. They headed down into the darkened Tavern to talk.
“I need a favor.”
“What sort of favor?”
“I need to get away from here for a few days, think some things through.”
“In part. What do you know about our ability to leave here?”
“Not much, just that we fade and die. You wanna leave, mate?”
“No. Just looking at my options.” He handed Terry an envelope. “Give this to Siobhan, will you? Later tonight when I’ve had a chance to get away. And keep an eye out for her?”
“Yeah.” Terry put the letter into the pocket of his sweats. “Where you going?”
Maximus had turned to leave; he stopped. “Thought I’d ride out towards Mannie’s place. Hey Terry, you know anything about automatic drip coffeemakers?”
“Like how to make coffee in them?”
As they walked out together, Maximus entrusted Terry with what had happened the night before with Siobhan. It seemed an odd subject to be talking about while making a pot of coffee, Terry opined silently.
“That’s it, press this button and the coffee will start brewing at 7.”
“Thanks for helping me with this. Machines don’t come easily to me.”
“They will,” he assured the Roman.
“Keep her safe while I’m gone.” The sadness crept over him again. He’d left a woman for a journey before.
* * *
Siobhan and her ever-present morning cup of coffee managed to make it into the lab early that following morning. She smiled when she saw a brand new coffee pot sitting in the corner by the door. It must have been on a timer because a pot of fresh-brewed coffee was waiting for her, along with a card. She opened the card. All it said was, “I thought you’d rather have this than flowers. Maximus”.
She laughed as she tossed the contents of her cooling cup of coffee out the door onto the grass. The perfect gift and he knew it. She poured a fresh cup and sipped it. Perfect. She wondered who’d taught him to make coffee as she bent over to hit the power strip.
Truth be told, she was early because they’d been up half the night, making love. He’d left her just about an hour ago with no further discussion of the future. She wasn’t naïve enough to think the crisis had passed, but she intended to enjoy the moment and the memories.
She logged in and started reviewing the scenarios again. It was about ten minutes before she heard anyone coming.
One thing she’d learned was that you couldn’t always tell WHO was coming by the sound of their voices. Pitch, timbre, accents changed, but not always enough. But the two coming up the walk were Sid and Terry.
“…good time last night,” she heard Terry saying.
“I did. I guess they’re here for the weekend. Probably to admire me.”
“Candace didn’t seem so impressed with you.”
“No, she talked about Maximus all night. Hey, look, Doc must be here already.” They pushed the half-closed door open and came in. “ Good-morning, Doc.”
“’Morning, Sid. ‘Morning, Terry.”
“You’re up early,” Sid leered, pulling aside her collar to check her neck. Vampires wake you up?”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “No. But thanks for last night, Sid. For saving last night.”
“Everything ok?” Terry asked.
“Not yet, but it will be.”
Sid seemed inclined to like Terry which made the morning pass that much more pleasantly. The K&R man insisted on participating in the work, claiming he’d be bored watching. The three of them turned out to work well together: Terry with his military background, Siobhan with her training background, and Sid the former police training vehicle. The Pa Ingalls personality module was finally rejected after a series of tests that proved that, even further down the hierarchy, it would clash too badly with Sid’s current programming.
“I have another one I like a lot,” Sid offered, keying in a numeric sequence. “He seems to be very popular with the ladies. HIS Creator was more popular with the ladies than our Creator in ‘The Quick and the Dead.’”
“That was six long years ago, Sid, and pre-Gladiator,” Terry reminded him as he looked at Jack Dawson on screen. “What do you think, Doc?”
“He never did much for me,” she giggled. “But Jack Dawson would be a fairly good match – he’s cocky like Sid – so maybe…maybe. Let’s run the simulations.”
Terry didn’t know Siobhan very well. They’d only spoken in passing in the Tavern, but they had gotten on. She seemed strong-willed and intelligent. She certainly was thorough in her work. And she understood his military jargon, only occasionally asking him to explain what he meant. It was difficult to gauge her emotional strength from their conversation. He hoped she wasn’t a weepy female who dissolved into tears when she heard Maximus had left.
They broke for a late lunch and headed towards the Tavern together. Sid stayed behind to research the proposed module for the afternoon’s upload so now was Terry’s chance to talk to Siobhan.
“Siobhan, luv, look, I need to talk to you a minute, and it’s serious.” He sat her down at the picnic table in front of the Tavern.
She was clearly nervous. “OK, what about?”
Siobhan’s stomach fell. She nodded, uncertain if she should speak or if she even could speak. “Tell me.”
“Just tell me he isn’t dead.” Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over. Terry grabbed her shoulders and shook her gently.
“No, no…you didn’t let me finish. He’s left for a few days to do some thinking. He’ll be back when he’s sorted a few things out. He left you this.” He pulled the note from his pocket.
“When did he give you this?” she asked, opening it.
“Before dawn, just before we went to set up your new coffeemaker.” He handed her a handkerchief; he’d searched high and low for one in his gear after Maximus left. He knew he was going to need it.
Maximus had a distinct spidery hand:
Forgive me for lying. I couldn’t leave you any other way.
Siobhan folded the note and slipped it into her pocket. “You know where he went?” she asked.
“More or less. He said he needed to think.”
She shrugged, wiping away her tears with her sleeve. “I had a hunch he was lying to me this morning. Hell, Terry, he’s really the worst liar in the world.” The man was staring a hole through her, waiting for a different reaction. “Don’t worry, I’ll be ok. I am damn near cried out.” She smiled rather unconvincingly at him. “Come on, I’m starving.”
Terry wasn’t so sure she’d be all right, but he didn’t know her well enough to argue the point, so he followed her into the Tavern. Caroline hailed them from behind the bar. She knew Maximus was gone; she raised her eyebrows in a silent question. He shrugged and mouthed, “OK so far.”
John Biebe appeared in the doorway. “I heard Maximus left this morning. Anyone know the story?” he asked. “Tina told me before she headed back to Louisville for the week. What’s up?” Terry shot daggers at Caroline. He’d told her to keep it to herself.
She grinned sheepishly, “Sorry.”
“She know yet?” he indicated Siobhan.
“I just told her. Gimme a couple of beers, Caroline. We’ll talk about this later.”
He walked over to the table and handed Siobhan a beer. John followed him. “Hey, Siobhan, how ya doin’?”
She looked at Terry. “Everyone knew before me, didn’t they?”
“Nice try, John.” She took a long drink. “If you guys start treating me too nice, you WILL make me cry, OK? Just act normal.”
“Define normal,” Terry asked.
“Around here? Tease me, abuse me, try to run my life. You shouldn’t have too much trouble.” She grinned. “Hand me that beer? Now, did everyone know before me?”
“I was the only one who was SUPPOSED to know,” Terry told her, glaring over at Caroline. “Seems I confided in the wrong person.”
“Shouldn’t have told anyone if it was a secret, Terry!” Caroline shot back.
After lunch, Terry was replaced in the lab by Dominic, a most willing assistant who reminded Siobhan of long-ago high school friends. She dreaded the moment when Sid found out Maximus was gone, but after her big “friends” speech, she knew she better be the one to tell him. Fortunately Dominic’s good-natured questions kept her busy while she finished the module.
Sid stripped to the waist and headed into the booth to hook himself up for the transfer. “Siobhan, how’d it go last night?”
“Great, Sid. I owe you for getting me out of a jam.” The programmable pain-in-the-ass grinned. “I don’t owe you that much. OK, you ready?” Sid gave her a thumbs-up; even that reminded her of Maximus and she fought back a reaction before typing in the load commands. She watched the screen scroll by; the final line said:
“Program complete with no errors.”
She hit ENTER.
“OK, Sid, you’re finished. Get dressed and come on out. I have something to talk to you about.” She turned to Dominic. “Stay close by, ok?”
Dominic grinned. “No worries. You gonna tell him about Maximus?”
“You’re too smart for your own good, Dom,” she told him, turning to greet Sid as he left the booth. “How you feelin’?”
“Great! My vitals are all strong.”
“No, we can talk later. You’re waaay too serious today, Doc. Let’s go up to the Tavern for a drink.”
“I have something to tell you.”
“Later! Come on.”
Siobhan looked over at Dominic and shrugged. Sid was smiling, a genuine happy-to-be-alive smile. “Want a beer, Dom?” she asked.
Jack Dawson seemed to be a fine fit for Sid – the happy-go-lucky air complemented Sid’s usual snide sense of humor. He was fun – if she dared to ever say Sid could be fun – and flirtatious, dancing with several of the lurkers who filled the Tavern booths in the evening hours. Siobhan hopped onto a bar stool to talk to Andy and Caroline. She was still there, watching Sid work the room, when Cort came in, looking for her.
The invitation to dinner in one of the Point’s less-formal restaurants was perfect; she was hungry, but never enjoyed eating alone. Caroline took her dinner break so that she and Terry could join the others. The restaurant was quiet as many people were still at work or hadn’t arrived at the Point from a week working in the real world.
The food never ceased to amaze Siobhan – each dish appeared to be better than the ones before it. The choices were eclectic. This time she ordered a steak sandwich and onion rings, her favorite comfort foods.
The meal and the company were excellent, vastly improving Siobhan’s frame of mind. From the moment she had realized that Maximus had taken off, she had done everything she could to keep her mind occupied.
“Hey,” Cort poured her a little more wine. “He’ll be fine. Remember, we’d know if he wasn’t, so just relax.”
While Siobhan settled in over a bottle of great wine with good company, Tina had wandered over to the Tavern for the strangest night of her life.
As a result of some killer overtime, Tina had managed to score two extra days off so she arrived back at the Point on Wednesday afternoon, instead of Friday evening. John had been extremely happy to see his beautiful fiancé two days early, but was a little concerned about telling her the latest news. He whisked her off to their room where they made love till the sun was slipping behind the mountains.
But as Tina was finishing dressing to go grab dinner, he knew the time was now or never:
“Tina, something happened while you were gone, and I kinda wanted to be the one to tell you that Maximus went off today.”
“What do you mean ‘went off’? Left the Point?”
“We don’t know for sure. He told Terry he had things to work out. He asked about surviving outside the Point.”
“What is Siobhan saying?”
“Not much…hey Tina, don’t…”
“Don’t ask her about it right now, ok?”
“Why? She didn’t do something to hurt him?”
“No, at least, I don’t think so. But she’s not doing real good.” John knew that Tina was fond of Siobhan, but Maximus was special to her. “Caroline was dragging her to dinner with Terry and Cort to sort of cheer her up.”
“Mmmmm? What does that mean?”
“Nothing, just everything seemed to be going so well for them. I’ve been hoping she was the one.” She took a last look at herself in the mirror. “I promise to reserve judgment, ok? Come on and feed me.”
On their way across to the Tavern, a young lurker stopped John with some questions, mostly concerning directions to the nearest town and then home. She was young and quite concerned that she be home on time so John sent Tina ahead alone with orders for dinner and a beer.
Tina found their favorite booth was free. She ordered dinner and a couple of drinks, then slid into the booth with a basket of pretzels to unwind a bit. The place was busy as usual. From her vantage point, she could see the door and the bar.
“Hi, Tina!” She looked up. The voice and the man behind it looked familiar, but not quite what she was expecting.
Yes, it was definitely Sid. But his bright wardrobe had been replaced by a cotton plaid shirt and brown pants with suspenders. His hair was combed forward in a casual style that made him look much younger. The smile on his face was genuine, not a hint of sarcasm. The entire effect was vulnerable, friendly, but there was something Tina couldn’t quite put her finger on.
He slid into the booth beside her, keeping a decent distance between them without her usual complaints, and said, “So, you got up here early this week, huh? Sure is good to see you. Where’s John?” Even his vocabulary was suddenly casual, normal.
“I…I….I’m sorry? Oh. John? John is outside, giving directions to a visitor. Sid, you’re so different.”
“Oh, yeah, a little I guess. It’s my new module, I had Siobhan install it pretty high up the personality scale to see how I liked it. So far, so good. I haven’t felt this good in years.”
“Who is it?”
Sid hesitated. “Well, I found him on a DvD in your collection so you’ll probably know who he is right away. Guy by the name of Jack Dawson, from ‘Titanic’ – does that ring a bell?”
The flush began at Tina’s feet and swiftly made its’ way to her face, coloring everything in between, she was certain. All she could do was nod in response to Sid’s question.
“Excellent movie,” he continued. “I was interested in the fact that this Dawson guy was an outsider, kinda like me, and he managed to get the girl…well, briefly, you know. Anyway, I like how he makes me feel like I can do anything.”
Tina took a deep breath. “You have always felt that way, Sid.”
“No, that was different. I feel like I can do anything and people will like me for it.”
That wasn’t what she expected to ever hear come out of Sid’s mouth. Though she was aware that Sid wanted to fit in better, she never thought of him wanting approval like everyone else.
Sid smiled. “To change the subject a little, I thought maybe you’d be willing to spend some time telling me about ‘Titanic.’”
“I thought you said you watched it?” she asked.
“No, I mean the real ship.” He shrugged. “I saw the movie, I know the story and I even know how Jack felt. But he’s fictional and I would love to know the real story.”
This time it was Tina who smiled. “I don’t even know where to begin. It was 98 years ago just about now when Titanic began her maiden voyage from Southampton with 2,227 passengers and crew aboard….”
John entered the Tavern about an hour later. It had been one thing and then another. First the young lurker who needed directions, followed by several admirers who wanted to say hello to the Mystery, Alaska police chief. By the time he had satisfied courtesy with one group, another had gathered round. Sometimes he wished the Point was just his Brothers and their Ladies, but he knew that was wrong. Several of their Ladies had arrived as casual visitors to the Point. And every fan of the Creator was welcome.
His eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the Tavern, as he searched for Tina. She was in their favorite booth, talking to someone. Looked like Jeff…no…
“His name was Captain E.J. Smith, they called him ‘the Millionaire’s Captain,’”he heard Tina saying as he slipped into the booth beside her. He was curious about her companion –it was one of the Boys, but who? “John!” Her face was wreathed in smiles as she turned to greet him. “I wondered where you were.”
“Tourists, sorry to be so late. Sid?” His jaw fell at the sight of Sid’s new clothes. “What’s this all about?” he asked.
“Siobhan finished loading a new module today,” the cyber pain replied. “Jack Dawson from ‘Titanic.’ I was asking Tina about the disaster. She’s very well-versed in the facts and the survivors’ stories, you know.”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I DO know.” The reply was crisp and blunt.
Tina turned to look at John. There was no mistaking the look on his face: pure annoyance. She suppressed the urge to smile; he had no reason to be jealous, but she wouldn’t insult him by dismissing his reaction as funny.
“Hey, listen, I have been droning on and on. We can talk more later, ok, Sid? John and I haven’t seen each other all week,” she hoped he would read the implicit dismissal. He did, and excused himself in very un-Sid-like record time.
Dominic arrived with their dinner. He had held the order until he saw John come in. They ate silently at first.
“Why is it that every time that Siobhan reprograms him, he comes right after you? Last time he was crying on your shoulder. This time he’s got that damn Jack Dawson front and center.”
“You can’t be jealous?”
“No. Yes. No, I mean, I trust you. I’m just suspicious of the CyberSneak.”
Tina did laugh then; the name was too perfect. As she leaned over to kiss John, she saw the door open and Caroline, Terry and Cort came in. Siobhan was glaringly absent as the threesome came to join them.
“So how was dinner?” John asked.
“Good,” Terry assured him. Like Cort, he was a man of a few well-chosen words, but Caroline filled in the gaps.
“Siobhan’s doing better than I expected, but she’s pretty blue. From what she told us, Maximus has some things to work out about being here.”
“Like what?” Tina asked.
“Like should he even be here, I guess.”
“Where should he be?” John asked.
“The Afterlife with his family,” Caroline chimed in.
“But,” Terry jumped in. “Get it right before you panic Tina. He said he wanted to be here with Siobhan and all of us.” Tina had shot bolt upright in her seat, but she settled back at Terry’s words. “She had to let him go work things out for himself and she understands that.”
“But she doesn’t like it one bit, does she?” Tina asked.
Terry stared at her. The issue was black and white to him, but not to Tina. “No, she doesn’t.”
“I’m going up to see her,” she announced. “Scoot over and let me out, John, please.”
“Tina…” John began.
“You know how you all say you can feel each other when something goes wrong?” she asked her handsome Sheriff. “Well I have a feeling that Siobhan could use someone to talk to right about now.” She leaned down to kiss his cheek. “Trust me.”
* * *
Though he had started out before dawn, Maximus had wandered aimlessly most of the morning. Argento got a well-needed run, but after that, nothing seemed to be critical. That was part of his overall problem, he reasoned. He needed a purpose. For many years, he had been up at dawn, both as a soldier and as a farmer. Now he could sleep the day away if he wanted.
By noon, he was further away from the Hotel than he thought, though a long ways from Mannie’s place. He had no intention of disturbing Mannie. It was just a general direction he gave Terry.
He sat under a tree to eat the lunch he’d packed while Argento grazed nearby. It felt good to sit in the warm fragrant grass. Thoughts of his farm drifted in and out as he laid back on the ground and dozed. He was exhausted from the emotions of the previous night, not to mention making love till dawn.
When he woke from his nap, the sun was low in the sky. Argento nickered softly, eager to be on their way. How long had it been since he’d been truly alone with only a horse for company? The god-forsaken ride from Germania, he reminded himself, as he climbed into the saddle.
Away from 21st Century civilization, he started to feel like himself again. The constant droning hum of electricity that other people took for granted interfered with his ability to think, he feared. The further away he got, the more the farmer returned. He started looking at the land, sizing it up for a small farm and a home away from the Point. He understood Mannie’s desire to live away from the others. Sometimes he wanted to be himself, not one of the Boys. By the time he rolled himself into a blanket, close to a fire, he felt better than he had in a long time. Then the dreams started.
He was riding a sweat-encrusted black horse across a rocky plateau. Blood seeped down his arm from an infected wound that throbbed with each hoofbeat. They’d start down into the valley that led to his farm. He could smell the charred flesh, see the servants’ bodies laying unburied in the fields.
With a start, he awoke time and again, shivering. Finally he gave up trying to sleep all together. He headed down to the river and stuck his head into the water; the sudden cold shocked him into alertness. He sat by the river, hugging his knees and staring off into the darkness.
The nightmares had been with him from the beginning. At first they had been fever-induced, then they’d fueled his quest for revenge. They had even invaded his sleep at the Point when he’d first arrived. Slowly they had receded into faint stirrings in his dreams.
He had been relieved to sleep without reliving the horror he had found in Trujillo. Yet over the months, it had become harder and harder to see Selene’s face and hear her voice, no matter how hard he tried to conjure her.
Laying there alone, staring at the stars, Maximus remembered Siobhan’s scent, the taste of her, and the sounds she made when he loved her. Choices, it came down to choices. Could he give her up? Send her away? Hurt her like he had done already? Could he stand to watch her with one of the others? Or have her leave the Point for good? What did he do about the unending feeling that he was wrong to find even a measure of happiness without his family?
A sudden overwhelming sense of peace settled on him as he stood there. It was as if he could hear Selene speak of her love for him. She had never questioned his decision to serve Rome and to be away from her for years at a time. Somehow he knew that she would want him to accept the happiness life offered. No one would wish him joy more than she would. Tears ran down his face for the first time since he buried his family.
Finally he knew what he had to do.
* * *
Siobhan’s door was partially open when Tina got there. She could see the other woman, curled up in her window seat, a book open on her lap and a glass of wine in her hand, but she was looking out over the paddock.
Tina knocked gently. Siobhan looked up and smiled, “Hi, Tina. Come on in.” She put the book down and started to get up when her visitor shook her head. “Welcome home. Want some wine?”
“Stay there, I’ll get myself some. I just came by to say hi.”
“And see how I’m doing?”
“Well, yeah, that too. How are you doing?”
“OK.” She smiled. “No, that’s not strictly true. I miss him. I guess you know what happened?”
“Not really, just that Maximus left this morning. Something about things he had to work out.” She settled into the armchair with a glass of wine. “I know we don’t know each other really well yet, but if you need a friend, I’m here.”
Siobhan looked up from her glass of wine; tears ran down her face. She couldn’t speak for a long minute. Finally she turned to look out the window and began to tell her story as simply as she could. When she finally finished, she turned to find that Tina was crying as well. “Poor Maximus,” she told Tina, hugging her. “I screwed him up pretty good, huh?”
“No, you know better. This was going to happen eventually. Maybe you were just the catalyst.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know about Maximus and me, don’t you? That he drew me here and we were lovers briefly?”
“Yes, but he told me that it was so obvious where your heart belonged from the moment you laid eyes on John.” She settled back in the window seat, wiping her eyes with kleenex.
“I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“He knows that, but it did hurt.”
“But no guilt?”
“No.” Siobhan sat forward. “What are you saying?”
“Survivor’s guilt, right? He didn’t have it with me, maybe because I wasn’t the one.” Tina shrugged. “I’m not a psychiatrist, but it seems pretty clear. He’d been here almost 7 months when you arrived and never seemed to doubt whether or not he belonged here. He loves you so the guilt surfaced. Being alive was one thing, being in love with someone else is another. Or maybe I am oversimplifying.”
“Tina, I’m so afraid he’s dead.”
“They’d know if he was hurt or in danger. The Boys, I mean. They have a psychic connection. If they sense anything, they’ll be out looking for him.” Tina’s stomach was in knots. She was worried too, but she didn’t want to let on to Siobhan. “Come on down to the Tavern and have a drink with us. It’ll cheer you up, I bet.”
“You need to see Sid.”
The programmer’s eyebrows disappeared into her bangs. “Now what?”
“The new module is..um..it’s interesting.” She giggled. “He’s a cocky, funny Sid. How do I explain him? Full of life, asking all sorts of questions about ‘Titanic.’ And he’s changed his hair and his clothes.”
“Come see for yourself.”
Siobhan agreed to come down with Tina for a drink. She washed her face, tried to conceal her red eyes with makeup and plastered on a smile. “How’s that?”
“A little less teeth in that smile,” her friend teased. “Ready?”
“Yep.” She tapped Tina on the shoulder. “Hey?”
* * *
It took almost two days before the first complaint surfaced. Siobhan was curled up in bed late Friday night, reading a novel, when the requestor came.
“Come in, it’s open,” she called out. The door opened a crack to reveal Bethany. “Hi, Bethany.”
“Hello…” Bethany seemed unusually subdued and uncomfortable coming into Siobhan’s room. “Nice room.”
“Thanks.” Siobhan hadn’t spent nearly as much time with the women as she had with the Boyz, but she knew and liked Bethany from Internet conversations. She also knew they were polar opposites in taste so her flower prints and baskets were not the reason Bethany had come to call. She stood up. “OK, Bethany, how about some wine and you tell me why you look so unhappy.”
“Wine would be nice, thanks.”
When she’d settled her visitor in the window seat with a big glass of wine, she plopped herself into the oversized chair opposite. “OK, what’s up?”
“Well…look, I know you’re doing the best you can, what with Sid being what he is, but…this Jack Dawson module has changed him too much.” She stared at the ceiling as she said, “Can we have ‘im back the way he was? Please?”
Siobhan laughed, probably the first genuine laugh since Maximus disappeared. “Oh, Bethany, I can’t do that unless Sid asks for it. Is he really that difficult for you to stand?”
“He says he thinks I’d look good in one of those long country dresses like you wear all the time. In pink. And that’s just for starters.” She grimaced. “He tried to teach me to spit. I don’t spit.”
“I am really sorry about that. Maybe we can move the module further down.”
It was Bethany’s turn to laugh, “Down to the floor of the Atlantic with that damn boat?”
“Let me see what I can do, ok?”
The second request came to the lab on Monday morning in the person of John Biebe.
“Hi, Siobhan, how ya doin’?”
“Pretty good, John. Do you have the shift this morning?” she asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down beside her.
“Yeah, I do. But I wanted to talk to you anyway.” He hesitated.
“Have you heard from Maximus?” she asked, hopefully.
“No, sorry, I haven’t. I guess you haven’t either, huh?”
She shook her head. “Did Tina have to leave?”
“Yeah, just now.” He logged on to the network and picked up the task list posted by the monitor. “Do you want me to run these simulations?”
“I have the first two. If you could double-check the next two and submit them, I’d be grateful.”
“He’ll be late. He went fishing this morning, can you believe it? With Dominic and Steve.”
“Good because I need to talk to you about him.”
John concentrated on starting the simulations and then pushed his chair back to wait for them to run. Siobhan was concentrating on her work so he waited until she pushed back as well.
“OK, what’s up?” she asked. “What did he do now?”
The Alaskan smiled at that, “You don’t seem surprised.”
“Nope, not where Sid’s concerned. So?”
“Last night he…” John looked over at the programmer, then looked away. “He asked Tina to pose nude for him.” He blushed, an angry embarrassed flush of red that rushed to the tip of his ears. “I wasn’t at the table or I’d have smeared blue goo all over the walls.”
“Are you serious? What a slime weasel! I knew he was up to no good.”
“Didn’t Dawson draw someone nude in ‘Titanic’? I mean, did you program him this way?”
“No, of course not. What he got was the core of Dawson’s personality as defined by the screenplay and the actor. Look.” She began to type. “See, these are personality trait?” A tree-like structure appeared on the screen. “Each module is made up of anywhere from 5 to 50 of these. Dawson’s got artistic abilities. We never implant memories or feelings.”
“That’s not what he told Tina. He said he knew how Dawson felt.”
“He lied. It would be counterproductive to implant memories or feelings. The ones he was created with are what caused him to be so deadly. The most vicious ones were erased as part of his retrofit when he arrived here. Tina showed me the specs. His memories date solely from ‘Virtuosity’ and his arrival here.” She wheeled her chair around to the coffee pot and poured a second cup. “I know the operating system well enough now. I ought to program him as a five-year old. God, that just pisses me off.” She slammed her coffee cup down. “I am not working to program him with good pickup lines. I hope Tina slapped him silly?”
John chuckled at the memory. “Oh yeah, she did….”
It had been a typical Sunday night at the Tavern. The weekend lurkers and tourists had departed, leaving the Usual Suspects (as Siobhan dubbed them) hanging out. A rugby match was on television which meant most of the Boys (and Kath, Lisa and Jenn) were clustered around the bar. Tina was at the desk, coordinating the many tasks facing her staff on Monday and preparing work schedules. Caroline was tending bar. Siobhan was in the lab, answering email, and trying to convince Erin to bring Jake for a visit. Wendy and Jeffrey had gone for a stroll along the lake while Trisha and Bud had gone off to be “alone.” Caroline and Colin were seated in a booth in the back.
Tina was sitting with John, having a last quiet drink before turning in. She was going to make the weekend last as long as possible by leaving very early in the morning. She was pouring over bride magazines, a ritual her fiance found enchanting. He didn’t care what she wore; he knew she’d look perfect in anything she chose. But watching her eyes light up as she looked at dresses and cakes was easily as much fun as what she was having. Made him want to whisk her right upstairs.
“Hey John!” Steve called him over to the corner of the bar where he and Brynn were sitting. “Got a hockey question.”
Tina smiled. “Go,” she told him gently. “I’m completely entertained here.” She watched him walk across the room before returning to her magazine.
“Hi, Tina. I didn’t know you were still here.” Sid slid into the booth almost immediately, causing her slime radar to kick on. But the look on his face disarmed her. It was hard to remember to distrust him when he looked so open and friendly. After all, the goal of the reprogramming was to make him more likeable.
She relaxed. “I leave in the morning. Where’s Bethany?” she asked. The relationship between Sid and Bethany had been slow to take off, but it had potential.
“She’s sorta annoyed with me right now.”
“Well I was thinking she’d look nice in pastels. Pink. The fashion magazines are showing a lot of pink this year. Even calling it ‘the new black.’”
“Fashion magazines, Sid?” Tina was becoming very good at repressing the desire to laugh these days. He looked so EARNEST.
“Cable showed a recap a few nights ago.” He shrugged. “It was late, I was bored.”
She allowed a giggle to escape. “Sorry, but I can about imagine what Bethany said to THAT!”
“She told me to go fuck myself. I told her that was physically impossible to achieve, even for me.”
Tina shook her head. Sometimes Sid was amazingly literal. “I don’t think she meant it quite that way. It’s just an expression.” She noticed a small notebook laying on the table. “What’s that?”
“Oh, I’ve been doodling. The new module has some interesting side effects. I can draw.” He flipped open the book. The first picture was a self-portrait, rendered flawlessly. The next few sketches were equally well-executed, but far more telling.
Tina’s favorite was Bethany, sitting on a bench beneath a tree, a sword resting against her knee. The wind has stirred her beautiful hair; Sid captured her hand raised to push it away from her face. The entire effect was stunning and she said so. Sid smiled.
“Would you let me sketch you? You look so lovely with your hair framing your face like that.”
The gracefulness of his inquiry disarmed her for a moment. She glanced down at Bethany, looking like a Raphaelite angel, and started to say ,”Yes.” But before she could get the word out of her mouth, Sid continued,” I have this idea. I would love to sketch you nude.”
SMACK! The sound of Tina’s hand connecting with Sid’s face echoed through the Tavern.
“Tina?” His hand flew to his now-reddened cheek. “What did I do? I thought you’d be flattered.”
“Get…away…from…me,” she enunciated every word clearly in her fury. “GET… AWAY…FROM…ME…NOW!”
“The puppy dog eyes won’t work. GO!”
John had already returned to the booth. “What’s wrong? What did you do, asshole?” He grabbed Sid by the front of his shirt as he was standing up.
“Nothing, I swear.”
John looked at Tina who shook her head. “It’s ok. I just want him out of my sight.”
Biebe pushed Sid away from him, “You heard the lady. Get out of here now.” The other man started to protest until he realized that Cort had stepped up to help John remove him from the Tavern if necessary. He straightened his shirt and walked off, stopping by the door to retrieve the notebook that Tina had hurled at his head with amazing accuracy. When he straightened up, he turned and extended his middle finger in salute.
“I haven’t seen him since and when I do, I may rip his CPU out of his chest and stomp on it,” John finished.
Siobhan’s fingers began to fly over the keyboard. “You know you won’t. God knows, every one of you has been provoked by him, but you never kill him. He’s one of you. Let me just get this ready and I will get that stupid module removed this morning.” She shook her head. “I am sorry, John. I feel responsible.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Yeah it is. I should be more careful. I did have an idea for the ultimate solution to the Sid problem. I am running the programs now. When I have it all written up, I will present it to the Point as a whole.” She smiled. “But I think you better not be here when Sid gets back.”
“I can’t leave you alone with him.”
“I won’t be, I promise.”
“OK, when these are done,” he pointed to his computer.
Siobhan had every intention of keeping her promise to John. Of course, being alone with Sid would be more dangerous to him at this moment. A cold fury had settled over her. She’d believed he wanted to be liked, bought into the goal, and spent hours pouring over modules with him. All so he could hustle women who weren’t interested in the first place?
‘Maybe,’ she thought. ‘Just maybe, I am over-reacting?’
If Sid was insincere, she had no reason to stay. Maximus was gone, possibly for good. She’d had no word from him, though Terry had assured her that he was all right. If there was no future with Maximus and no job, she’d be leaving.
‘Great, I’m a complete failure,’ she told herself as she stood in the doorway, looking out at the Point. Down the path to her right were the stables and the corral. She could see Cali pushing her velvet nose against East’s arm until he offered her an apple. Up the path she could see the Hotel and the Tavern. It wasn’t going to be easy to leave all this, but she began to see that she might have to.
She began to cry as all the frustration and worry finally took hold.
Sid whistled as he headed down the path to the lab. He’d had a great morning fishing. This Dawson module was pretty great; he’d discovered a side of himself that people liked. OK, Bethany was thoroughly disgusted with it, he knew that. And Tina…
Why Tina so particularly, he wondered sometimes. Probably because she wouldn’t have him. Sooner or later, he’d break down her defenses and get her into bed. He did think this Dawson guy would be the one. After all he was better looking than John Biebe, had a better body certainly, and now he had Dawson. But he needed to be subtler. Maybe Siobhan could be convinced that the Dawson module was incomplete…
As he approached the open door, he could hear Siobhan crying. Cautiously he entered the lab. “Doc?” She turned; her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen and her nose glowed. “What’s wrong?”
Wham! Her fist connected with his eye, followed immediately by her cry of pain. She stood there, shaking her hand and crying harder now. “You bastard!”
“What did I do?”
“The only reason you want to be reprogrammed is to score. You used me. I cannot believe I fell for all your bullshit.”
“What are you talking about?” He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “I never used you.”
“I know all about you asking Tina to pose nude and claiming all the Titanic memories.” She tried to push him away. “You had your hand on her breast the night we brought you in here to reprogram you. God!” she growled. “You repulse me.”
“I repulse you? I have never treated any woman at the Point as well as I have treated you and you know it.” He grabbed her wrist and held it in a firm grip this time; she whimpered from the pressure as he turned to kick the door shut. The lock snapped into place. “I could rape you right now, you know that. I am capable of it.” His face was so close she could feel his breath. “But I don’t. I want a woman to come to me of her own free will. I want Tina to want me.”
“Because she never gave me a second look. Never even considered me.”
“Women come here who do want you.”
“But they don’t stay.”
“I thought that was what we were working on.”
“How about you? You want me? Make me into the man you want.”
“That’s pathetic, Sid.”
“Why? Maximus has left you. I’m better than Biebe, I’m better than Maximus!” He was rewarded by tears springing back up in her eyes, but it wasn’t the satisfaction he’d expected. He pulled her into his arms and held her. “I’m sorry, Doc,” he said consolingly, as she cried. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” His hand slipped down to caress her backside. She struggled to get away.
“Damn it, Sid!” She raised her hand to smack him again, but he caught it at the wrist. “Get in there now!” she pointed to the booth. “Now or I swear, I walk out and never come back.”
“I like this module.”
“I don’t. Get in there.”
“Fine, then I’m gone.” She started to walk past him. “Don’t touch me again, do you understand?”
“OK, fine, I’ll go in there, but under protest.” He turned in the doorway. “You owe me and I will collect.”
“Owe you how?”
“Do you really think you’re capable of making me do anything?” It was her first terrifying glimpse of Sid as he had been in Virtuosity: cold, calculating and ruthless. Her mistake had been in trusting him. “I will call in this marker some day.”
Shivering, Siobhan opened the door quickly before going to hook Sid up. He didn’t speak as she removed the module. Once the work had been completed, he buttoned his shirt and left without another word to her.
Maximus had been gone over a week when Mannie came riding down to the Hotel for a visit. He checked into his usual room at the Hotel. It was always fun to come to the Point for a day or two, catch up on news and meet the newcomers. This time he was the one with some news.
By the time he had settled into their seats with beer, just about everyone had managed to make it to the Tavern. Everyone except Sid, who was off somewhere with Bethany, the women who had gone home for the work week, and Siobhan. Tables were pulled together to form a large one.
Mannie took a long slow drink from his beer and said, “I saw Maximus the other day, thought you’d be interested to know.”
John leaned forward, “You talk to him?”
“What did he say?” Steve asked in exasperation.
“He’s plannin’ on farming up there.”
“Up where?” Jeffrey asked.
“South east of me, on a hillside. I was out riding when I saw him. He was clearing the land.”
“Is he coming back here?” This was Alex.
“He said he’d be back for supplies and seed.”
Bud asked, “Nothing about Siobhan?”
“That one of new women?”
Dominic answered, “Yeah, the one programming Sid.”
The Proprietress looked around at the men. “They keep saying he’s fine, but that’s all.”
“We’d know if he wasn’t, but that’s about all we know,” Terry explained. “We’re not the Psychic Hotline.”
“Well, he didn’t mention her,” Mannie said.
Lachlan scratched his head. “He can’t have forgotten ‘er, just like that. Not the General.” Lachlan’s hero worship of the Roman was well-known.
“He’s not perfect, Lachlan,” Cort reminded him. “But you’re right; it’s not our way.” He looked toward Hando who stood apart, leaning against the bar. “Even yours.”
“Maybe we ought to drive out there and talk to him.” Bud was on his feet, pacing.
“Pound him, you mean,” Colin shook his head. “No way. Leave him be. He’ll come back when he’s ready.” He hugged Caroline to him protectively. “Right?” he asked her.
Maximus rode in very late one evening about a week later. He was exhausted and hungry, but happy to be back at the Point. First things first. Argento needed to be settled in, groomed, fed and watered. Scarto was glad to see them both. Maximus promised, “Next trip, you’ll go, I promise,” as he fed the beautiful stallion an apple. Then it was up to the Tavern.
He slipped in the back door and surveyed the group still hanging around the Tavern, hoping to see Siobhan. It must be later than he thought; Andy and Dominic were washing glasses behind the bar. John Biebe, Bud White and Jeffrey Wigand were sitting at the bar, laughing and watching a baseball game.
“Maximus!” Jeffrey turned and caught sight of the former Gladiator. “When did you get back? Come have a drink.”
“By the smell of you, you just got in,” Bud eyed him solemnly, holding out a cold beer. “Welcome home.”
“Thanks,” he swallowed the beer. The cold refreshing liquid tasted better than he remembered. “Where is everyone?”
“Sid left early with Bethany, Tina and a couple of the other girls went home for the week, and most of the others called it an early night.” John laughed. “You’re looking for Siobhan, I am assuming.”
Maximus smiled, drained his beer and turned to go. “I’ll go clean up and run over to see her.”
“She’s not here,” Jeff blurted out.
“Whadya mean she’s not here?”
Bud told him, “She went to Old Tucson to see some friends.”
“Cali’s in her stall.”
“I drove her over, Maximus,” Bud admitted proudly. “We all figured she needed some time away from here. You got a problem with that?”
“Drive me over there.”
“Please. Drive me over there.”
“Yeah, ok, tomorrow morning. I’m picking her up in the morning anyway.”
“No, now. I mean, I need to clean up first.”
“I’m not taking you anywhere tonight, General,” Bud was starting to get angry with the commanding tone Maximus used. “Look, asshole, we spent two weeks dealing with the mess you left behind and…” John stepped in.
“I’ll take you. Go get cleaned up. Meet me by Siobhan’s Blazer in half an hour, ok?” He turned toward Bud. “I hate being the God-damned peacemaker around here.”
* * *
“Dance with me, Siobhan. You need to try out that new dress on a dance floor.” Siobhan smoothed her new skirts around her, twirling to admire the way the petticoats fell before she sat down in the chair.
“You’re drunk, Wyatt.”
“Come on, I’m not that drunk.” The handsome marshal pulled Siobhan up from her chair into his arms and swept her around the floor as the piano player played a lively tune. “I think I finally got a smile out of you. It’s taken me all evening.”
“Not much. Took me two hours to get you to quit calling me Marshal Earp too, didn’t it?” He laughed. “You were a lot friendlier your first visit here, that’s for sure. What happened? I heard you were settled in at the Point.”
“I am. I’m going back in the morning.”
“Folks also say you’re spoken for. The General.”
“I am, I was. I don’t know. He’s been gone, said he had some things…to work out.”
Earp pulled the chair out for her and they sat again. He poured himself a shot of whiskey and ordered her another cold beer. “How long has he been gone?”
“Little over two weeks.”
“No word?” She shook her head. “That’s why you came up here?”
“They all look like him, ya know?” She pushed the whiskey bottle around on the table. “Anyway, I have a job there so I will be staying for at least five more months and I don’t know if I can stand it without him.”
“He a man of his word?”
“He’ll be back to face you with the truth then.”
“The truth may not be a whole lot of consolation, Wyatt.” He had taken her hand in his while they talked; he leaned closer. A car door closed outside the saloon.
* * *
Maximus was silent for most of the ride to Old Tucson. John tried to keep some conversation going, but it was almost impossible.
“Terry was supposed to be keeping an eye on her.”
“You were gone two weeks, man. She’s been miserable. Terry agreed with the rest of us that she needed a night out.” He slowed down to turn into the old Western town. “ You had some things to work out, fine. But it cost her and that was real hard for the rest of us to watch.” Biebe pulled up in front of the Bird Cage and Maximus got out, slamming the door behind him. “Do I need to wait while you screw with her head? Or will you be staying?”
Maximus leaned in through the car window. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. She knows that, if you don’t.”
“Just be lucky it was me drove you. Bud hates your guts right now.”
The Spaniard started up the steps into the saloon, aware that Biebe was sitting in the SUV watching him. It was very late; the piano was playing a honky tonk tune, not totally audible above the voices. Lots more people were still out here in comparison to the Point. He pushed open the swinging doors to see a man lean in to kiss Siobhan. She turned her head so all he got was her cheek.
“Siobhan?” The voice made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She turned towards it, her face open and eager. When she saw that it really was him, her eyes lit up and she flew across the floor to his arms, stopping just short of his arms. Maximus closed the gap quickly, pulling her into his embrace and kissing her. But his face clouded as Earp strode towards them, hand outstretched. “Wyatt Earp. Pleased t’meet you, General. Siobhan here has been talking about nothing but you since she got here.”
The Spaniard stared at the hand extended to him, then accepted it with a firm grip. “At your service, Marshall,” he replied with extreme restraint. “Will you excuse us please?” He turned away, taking both Siobhan’s hands in his; John Biebe was standing in the doorway. “Come home with me?” he asked before bending to kiss her again. She nodded mutely.
“I have to run upstairs to get my things,” Siobhan replied, blushing.
“Go on, “ Earp encouraged her. “We’ll send your things over tomorrow.”
“No, it’ll only take a minute,” she answered, heading up the stairs.
John tried to fill the silence that had fallen over the patrons. People had begun to slip quietly out the swinging doors, as if they expected a gunfight between the Marshal and the unarmed Gladiator.
“So, Marshal Earp, this is my first trip to Old Tucson. Nice place. I’m Sheriff John Biebe, Mystery, Alaska.” The frontier lawman shook hands with his modern counterpart, then followed as Biebe skillfully steered him away from Maximus.
He needn’t have bothered. Maximus watched Siobhan go up the stairs and disappear from view, then took the stairs two at a time. He caught up with her at the door to her room, scooping her into a hug. “I missed you,” he murmured into her hair before setting her down. Standing behind her, he kept her wrapped in his arms as she unlocked her door.
It was a sparsely furnished room, filled with an antique bed and quilted coverlet. The only light came from two oil hurricanes, one beside the bed and one on the dresser. Siobhan’s basket lay on the quilt, along with her jeans and t-shirt. She stuffed the clothes into the basket and grabbed her sandals up from the floor.
“Ready!” she hoped her voice sounded carefree. Some things remained unsaid between them and she wasn’t completely sure they were going to be what she wanted to hear. The look on Maximus’ face wasn’t reassuring.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“Not here, not now.”
They came down the stairs within minutes, and Siobhan said her good-byes briefly.
“Safe trip home, Siobhan. Glad to meet you gentlemen. Come on back sometime with your ladies,” Earp smiled. He was eager to see the last of Maximus.
The ride back was even quieter than the ride out. Maximus had gotten into the back seat beside Siobhan, leaving John in the role of chauffeur. He kept his eyes on the road ahead, trying very hard to ignore the noises coming from the back seat. Discussions be damned, they’d been apart for three weeks.
The loneliness of the past weeks began to slip away when Maximus slid into the seat beside her. Just the smell of his soap and feeling of his beard against her cheek would have been enough, but then his mouth found hers. His lips were as soft as she had conjured them in her dreams. Despite her still very real concerns about their talk, she was content to lose herself in his arms for a brief while.
John cleared his throat, “We’re back. Do I need a bucket of cold water?”
“We’re fine. Thanks, John,” Siobhan said, getting out of the car.
Maximus clasped his brother’s hand briefly. “Thank you.”
“You’re both welcome.” He grinned. “I am assuming you won’t join me for a beer?”
“Tomorrow,” Maximus told him. “Rest well.”
The couple managed to make their way into Siobhan’s room without being seen. Maximus stopped in the doorway to look around; nothing had changed since he’d left. Her personality sparkled from every corner, in every fresh flower and pile of books. She handed him a beer from her small fridge and settled into her window seat, hugging a pillow to her bent knees.
He took the spot in the chair across from her. It reminded him of his first visit to her room, less than a month earlier. In a way, he felt like they were going to have to start over again. He leaned forward, resting his hands on his thighs and began to talk.
“I don’t know where to start, so I will start by saying that I am sorry that I stayed away so long. I am sorry that I hurt you by leaving. But you know why I left.”
He smiled at her.
“I had a lot more to think about than I realized. This place isn’t always a comfortable fit for me. The technology is extraordinary, but it’s not my way. I need a purpose. I rode out all day. When I finally stopped to rest, the nightmares came for the first time in a long time.”
He got up and began to pace.
“For a long time, I dreamt about the ride from Germania to Trujillo, always waking just before I got to my home. But since I came to the Point, the dreams had slowly faded until I left here that day. I couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares so I just sat there, watching the dawn. And that’s when I realized that Selene would want me to find happiness. I am a man who loved well and was loved in return.” He sat down beside her in the window seat. “I want that again with you, if you still want me.” He took her face into his hands and kissed her gently, wiping her tears away with his thumbs. “Don’t answer yet. You may want to say no.”
“Why would I say no?” she was confused.
“Because you may not like what I’ve decided to do.”
Siobhan pulled a face. “What do you mean?” Maximus took a deep breath. “Say it, I don’t bite….well not hard anyway.”
He smiled at that, “We’ll discuss that later.” East’s voice drifted up from the stables; Maximus listened to the horses nickering in reply.
“Maximus?” Siobhan’s hand touched his cheek, bringing him back to the present.
“I found some land that’s perfect for a small vineyard. It’s about a day’s ride from here. I’d be living rough up there.” He watched some of the truth of what he was saying dawn on her. “No electricity.”
She tried to make light of it. “No hot water? No electric lights? I don’t know, hot water might be a deal breaker,” she shook her head at him. “I’m kidding.” She moved closer to kiss him. “I can’t put conditions on being with you. Though hot water would be a big point in your favor.”
“There’s more, Caritas.”
She laughed, “There always is. Maximus, our life is a soap opera.” He looked puzzled. “I’ll explain later. Go on.”
“I won’t be down here a lot at first. There’s a lot to do and you have a job here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m saying I will have too much to do to come down here for more than a day and it’s too far to ride down for a day. I don’t want you to ride up there alone, it’s too dangerous. So we’ll be apart a lot at first.” Siobhan was annoyed by the smug look of finality on his face: the General expected her to accept his decision.
“What if I drive up? I have four-wheel drive.” She smiled serenely. “I’m not staying behind like a good Army wife. I’ve never been obedient and I am not planning on starting now.”
“Obviously not or you wouldn’t have wandered off to Old Tucson.”
“I didn’t wander off. I knew exactly where I was going.”
“Don’t get upset.”
“I am not upset. You don’t know me well enough to know that I am not upset.”
“I’m trying to protect you; I’m not trying to control you.”
“We’ve been together exactly 3 days. Why don’t you wait to see if I need protection first.”
“Wait for you to get hurt first? Excellent idea.”
Siobhan sighed. This clearly wasn’t what either of them had in mind when they came upstairs. If the conversation continued along this path, she’d be spending the night alone again. Sometimes sacrifices needed to be made; the Goddess would have to forgive her. “Can we negotiate a little further? In the morning?” She stood up, pulling on the bow holding her bodice laced and placed his hand on the ends of the ribbon. “Take me to bed please.”
Maximus had never expected Siobhan to docilely accept his decision. He wondered briefly if he had missed something as his fingers fumbled with the laces on her old-fashioned Western bodice, occasionally catching them on the hooks. As the blood supply left his brain, his doubts fled as well. He finally freed her breasts while she undid his trousers.
“I missed you too much to argue with you,” she explained, placing his hands on her waist, showing him where to undo the skirt and its’ petticoats. Within seconds, the enormous skirts fell to her feet, leaving her in lacy pantalets.
His hands slipped into the waistband, grabbing her ass. One hand slipped between her thighs roughly while the other pushed the pantalets off her hips. “You didn’t miss me,” he told her only half in jest as he pulled her down onto her bed.
“I missed you every minute you were gone. I missed your hands and your mouth.” She moaned as he touched her body. “I missed you inside me.” His kiss stirred her desire as his hand caressed her breast and slipped two fingers into her depths and began to stroke her. He pushed her onto her back, pulling one nipple between his teeth while he continued to play with her. The pain was like a little shock throughout her body, making her writhe. She came swiftly, first a small orgasm that shuddered through her, followed by wave upon wave of excitement, until she finally drew him into her slippery velvet center.
Three weeks of deprivation made it difficult for him to hold back, but she was as eager as he was. They met each other thrust for thrust in a silent frantic coupling that ended with them spent in each other’s arms.
The emotions of the last few weeks bubbled to the surface as Siobhan lay safely in Maximus’ arms. Her tears were involuntary; she had tried so hard to put a brave face on his absence. Currently she saw no good reason to pretend any more.
“What’s wrong?” His voice was deep and gentle in her ear. “Are you crying?” She nodded, incapable of coherent speech for the moment.
“I was afraid for you,” she finally managed. “I’m so relieved you’re back safe.” Her perfume filled his nostrils as she spooned her body against his. Leaving her behind was rapidly becoming impossible.
Maximus was exhausted; it had been a long ride back, followed by the trip to find Siobhan. He lay with her in his arms, curled tightly against him. Still, even as he started to doze, he wanted her again. His lips felt soft on the back of her neck, stirring her from sleep as they made their way to the base of her spine. Dreamily she rolled over and smiled as she came awake. He pulled her to her knees and turned her, pulling her back to him in a practiced motion, and entered her from behind without saying a word. His left hand grasped her breast, causing pleasure to sear through her, while his other hand found her clitoris and stroked. His cock impaled her, thrusting into her almost painfully. She braced herself against the headboard, moans of pleasure becoming words of encouragement, as she punctuated each thrust with a drawn-out, “yes!”
This time they slept until the amber light of dawn filtered in through the trees. Groggily Siobhan rubbed her eyes and snuggled closer to Maximus, her head cradled on his chest. “That tickles,” he muttered, eyes still closed tightly.
“Your hair.” He stretched with a groan. “I didn’t think I’d be this sore. Ouch! Can you get away today?”
“I can always get away,” she replied. “What’s up?”
“I thought you might like to see the land; I’ve started clearing it.” She snuggled in closer, a look of sleepy delight on her face.
“Coffee first?” she mumbled.
“You can bring it along.”
“Mmmmmffff…” she pulled a pillow over her head and burrowed deeper under the covers. Without the promise of coffee, Maximus had only one other bribe at his disposal, one guaranteed to roust his lazy lover from their bed.
“I need a shower. Want to join me?”
An eye appeared from beneath the pillow. She nodded with a big grin and hopped up out of bed, following his naked form into the bathroom. Luckily the showers at the Hotel were roomy, made for two.
As the water heated up and turned to steam, Maximus caught her in his arms for a kiss, lifting her off the floor. They stepped into the shower, turning their faces to the steamy spray.
In the end, they had to go back to bed to rest.
Maximus had hoped for an early start, but it didn’t seem like they were going to make it. Even though they’d gotten up at dawn, the shower and then breakfast had held them up. He had to acknowledge that breakfast had been necessary after the night they’d had. And it had been good to see everyone again, but it was already 8 o’clock when they rode out of the paddock together.
It was Scarto’s turn to carry his handsome master. The stallion longed to gallop, but Maximus held him back for Siobhan’s sake. East had assured him that she was doing better. She’d come for lessons after work each day while he’d been gone; her progress was impressive, but she’d never be a natural horsewoman.
Siobhan had never felt quite this contented in her life. The sunshine was tempered by a soft cool breeze, wildflowers bloomed everywhere she looked, and Maximus was beside her. Spring fever hit with a vengeance. She didn’t quite care if he thought she was insane, grinning the way she was.
Sometime around lunchtime, they stopped to eat a picnic lunch by a stream. Siobhan fell back on the grass in the sunshine and tried to nap, but Maximus had her back in the saddle before she could doze off. Reminding her that they had quite a way to go if she wanted to see the land before sunset, he convinced her that she was ready to let Cali trot for a while.
Even so, the sun was very low in the Western sky ahead of them by the time they reached the place Maximus had chosen. The spot was idyllic, set on the slope of a green hillside. A rudimentary corral had been fashioned from saplings and leather ties. The beginnings of a stone foundation were visible behind it. A spring bubbled away merrily nearby.
Maximus dismounted, then came to catch Siobhan as she slid off Cali. “What do you think?” he asked, taking her hand. “I wanted to wait until I had a house to show you, but you changed my mind.” They walked past the corral, towards the foundation.
“It’s beautiful. Did you do everything yourself?”
“Mannie built the corral.” He smiled. “I made him promise not to tell you anything.”
Siobhan laughed. “When he first got to the Point, Mannie acted like he’d never even heard of me.”
“I think he was sick of hearing about you actually. Look, this will be the main entrance…”
The house he planned would have an Eastern exposure, looking out over the valley they had ridden through. The kitchen opened to the left of the “door” and the living area to the right. A courtyard with ramada was planned for the center with the entrance to the bedroom behind it. Every out building had been planned as well.
Siobhan enjoyed the tour as much for the happiness on the Spaniard’s face as anything else. The undertaking was enormous.
“If I agree to let you drive out here, how do I know you’ll be safe?” he said from behind her. He wrapped his arms around her as they watched the sun sliding behind the hillside.
“Agree to let me drive out here?”
“If I don’t argue with you about driving out here, how do I know you’ll be safe?”
“Better,” she told him. “You’ll have to trust my driving ability.”
“Bud says women shouldn’t be allowed to drive.”
“Oh Jeez, General, you never listen to Bud. Why start now?” She turned in his arms to kiss him. “What’s for dinner? I’m hungry.”
“That’s woman’s work. I was about to ask you the same thing.” He grinned. “John said that would make you crazy.”
Siobhan laughed. “I’m a reluctant cook at my very best. You wait for me to cook and you’ll starve.”
“Then,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “It’s fortunate that I had the kitchen pack something for us to eat. And even more fortunate for you, I can cook.”
“You can?” She looked back over her shoulder at him, smiling happily.
“Don’t get excited. I learned to cook for myself on campaign. You may not like what I can cook. Which reminds me. We better get the fire built”
Mannie had split and stacked a large wood pile so Maximus was able to build the fire before complete darkness settled. Attempts to show Siobhan how to build a fire ended in laughter so she unpacked the dinner, opened the wine and zipped the sleeping bags together.
Despite the lack of sleep and the long ride in the sunshine, they were wide awake. Seating propped up against the saddles, they devoured the picnic dinner and enjoyed both bottles of wine. There was so much to talk about, so many questions to ask, and so much to learn about each other. Up till now they had spent all their time and energy in coming together.
“There’s something I don’t understand,” he told her. “Why do you insist on taking risks with Sid? Trust my judgment, let me take care of you.”
“I’m used to taking care of myself. I don’t need to be protected.”
“Sometimes protection just means that someone cares about you.”
“You can be as protective as you like, but I’m too damn independent to be told what to do.”
Maximus kissed her. “I don’t expect obedience.”
“You did last night.”
“Forgive me, it’s hard for me to accept your ways sometimes. I would not lose you as I lost my wife.” He looked down at their hands, clasped together. “You take chances with Sid. He’s more dangerous than you think.”
“Not any more I don’t,” she promised and proceeded to tell him the story of Sid’s Jack Dawson adventure with every intention of skipping their confrontation in the lab. Unfortunately she was a bad liar; in the end, she told Maximus everything.
“I’ll kill him,” was all Maximus said in a voice quiet and deadly. “I’ll pull his heart out.”
“He doesn’t have a heart,” she smiled. “It is past, Maximus. Let it go. I promise you that I will never be alone with him again. I know that you’re right and,” she paused to consider what she wanted to say, “I will honor your wishes. How’s that?” She shivered. “It’s getting cold. I’m going to crawl in. Want to join me?” She slipped her jeans off and slid between the flannel-lined down-filled folds of the sleeping bag. “Maximus?” He was staring at the fire; when he looked toward her, his eyes were unfocused and far away.
“Come to bed. I’m cold.”
He shook his head to clear the visions of Sid skewered on his gladius. Bed was welcome. He slid in beside her, his legs icy against hers. She didn’t protest, instead spooning herself closer. His intentions were purely lustful until the warmth of her body and the exhaustion of the day overcame him. They were both asleep in seconds.
Golden fingers of light filtered in through the trees as the sun rose. Siobhan smiled in her sleep as spots of warmth grew around them. Cali and Scarto knickered softly in their nearby corral. Maximus stirred beside her, his left arm curved over her side and his hand rested on her breast. She sighed sleepily as he teased her nipple into a hard nub. He began to kiss her neck.
“Mmmm, “ she mumbled, turning over to face him. “I could grow to be a morning person with this sort of wakeup.” She kissed him gently, nibbling at his lower lip, while she slid her right leg over him and took him into her. Maximus moaned as she sheathed him in her, her velvety wetness and eagerness still a surprise to him. Arching her back, she pushed herself up and began to ride him slowly. The sleeping bag slid down to reveal her nakedness in the sunlight. Each movement was exquisite, slow and sweet, bringing him to the edge. His hands gripped her hips as she ground herself on his shaft. Yet if he thrust in return, she stopped. “It’s your turn to do what I say,” she told him with a laugh. “And I say you don’t come yet.”
“What about you?” he countered. “Can I make you come?” She gasped as her control slipped and her orgasm overwhelmed her. She threw her head back and cried out his name as she rode him to his own climax. When she lay exhausted in his arms, no longer the golden nymph gleaming in the sun, he teased her, “You surprise me.”
“I mean to.” She kissed his chest. “We have so much to learn about each other.”
“We can start on the ride back.” He pushed back the sleeping bag and grabbed his jeans. As he pulled them on, Siobhan lay motionless. “Get up, woman. Come on.”
She groaned. “I think every muscle in my thighs is wide awake from yesterday.”
“Ride more and you’ll get used to it.” He tossed a sweatshirt at her. “You’re too soft.”
“Agreed. My idea of roughing it has always been a Holiday Inn with insufficient towels.” She struggled to her feet, whimpering and giggling. Her clothes were cold; she shook them in case of bugs.
“Cultural icon 1 – the American motel/hotel. Think multi-storied inns, all over the country. Swimming pools, coffee shops. Sterile, clean, similar, “ she shrugged. “A road trip may be in order.”
Maximus pulled her into his arms. “I’m home, Caritas. No road trips for me. Can you be content with that?” He kissed her gently.
“Yes. I can be content.” She couldn’t think of anywhere else she’d rather be. This was adventure enough, beyond her wildest dreams.
That afternoon they rode back to the Hotel, arriving very late and very tired. Maximus was up before dawn to return to the farm with Cort, East and Mannie. In the days that followed, Siobhan kept herself occupied with work. She managed to keep Sid out of the Lab, citing a master plan that she was working on. Her ideas were flowing fairly fast and she wanted to get them down while they were fresh. Without the distractions provided by Sid, she was thinking clearer. Hopefully these changes would satisfy everyone at the Point.
About a week later, she was sitting in an overstuffed chair in the dark, drinking a diet Coke and watching “Gladiator” for what had to be the fiftieth time that week. She always turned the DvD off before the end. If the others were in the lounge with her, she got up and left. She couldn’t bear to see him die.
It was hard to tell who the man was in the door. One of the younger ones by the slim silhouette. She squinted. “Yeah, Dominic, come on in.” She paused the DvD and snapped on the light. “What’s up?”
“Thought you might like to come with me to the Tavern for a drink?”
“Maybe later.” She smiled. “I’m ok, really.” She had a soft spot for Dominic who reminded her of the guys she’d grown up with.
“Actually, now might be a really good time.” He grinned at her. “Maximus just rode in. He’s down at the stables with Argento.” He laughed as she leaped from her chair. “Nothing for the messenger?” he teased. She skidded to a stop on the highly-polished hardwood floor and turned to hug him. She tried to say something, anything, but nothing was coming out. “Go on!” he told her.
She was gone like a shot, running barefoot across the wet grass and down the hill. A sudden slip on the rain-slick lawn took her to her knees, slidding until she flopped onto her elbows to stop. She scrambled back to her feet, and crawled over the fence into the corral where she immediately realized her idiocy. Splat, she slipped in very fresh manure and landed on her ass.
“Ow!” she squealed, covering her mouth. ‘Oh God, don’t let him find me like this after a week apart,’ she prayed, sitting in the muck. She saw the boots and jeans, and hoped they were East’s.
“I can’t leave you alone without you landing in manure, now can I?” The voice was unmistakable. She took the hand held out to her and was pulled rapidly to her feet by Maximus who was very entertained by the mess before him. His eyes fairly danced with joy at the sight of her, grass-stained and ankle-deep in manure. Any lingering concerns he had about his welcome home were dispelled when he leaned down to kiss her. “I missed you,” he told her simply. Wrinkling his nose, he laughed, “I remember you as smelling a bit sweeter, Siobhan.”
An evil look passed over her face as she scraped a handfull of manure off her bottom and smeared it down the front of his shirt. “Now we smell alike,” she giggled and turned to run. His arm encircled her waist, lifting her off her feet.
“Not so fast, woman,” he laughed, dropping her onto a particularly muddy spot. She lay there, the wind knocked out of her, but as he reached his hand down to help her to her feet, she began to giggle helplessly. The slippery mud made it hard for him to keep his feet as she pulled him into the mud and manure beside her.
For long minutes they lay there, laughing at the sight of one another, covered in gunk, crawling over each other and trying to clean each other up enough to exchange at least a kiss. Maximus struggled to his feet and helped Siobhan to hers. They waved to Mannie, East and Cort who stood in the light of the barn door, laughing.
“Welcome home,” she managed between fits of giggles. “I…um, let me go shower, ok?”
He grinned. “Ordinarily I’d ask to join you, but I had something else in mind for tonight. Will you come to my rooms when you are cleaned up?”
“I’ve never seen your rooms.”
“I know. I thought this might be a good time.” He slapped her butt playfully. “Go clean up.”
Her knock was almost inaudible, but he must have been listening for her because he called, “Come.”
The room was darkened, lit only by candles and the beginnings of a roaring fire. The walls were covered in tent canvas, draped to simulate the campaign tent he was used to. A cross-legged campaign table and matching chest stood against one wall, the table covered with modern books and maps, along with ancient scrolls. A magnificent bust of Marcus Aurelius adorned a matching marble pedestal by the door and his sword, shield and breastplate were propped up beside the fireplace.
Through an alcove she could see a large bed piled high with pillows and furs. A tigerskin rug adorned the floor in front of the fireplace. Maximus rose from a battered wooden camp chair beside it as Siobhan closed the door behind her. He was dressed in his own familiar clothing, the red Roman tunica, her Roman general.
He poured two glasses of wine from a bottle waiting on the table. He carried them as he walked slowly towards her, bending to kiss her. “Everything all right?” he referred to Sid as he wandered back towards the fire. He threw a log onto the grate and stirred the embers before stretching out on the tiger skin.
“Fine,” she returned. “I told him I would be late tomorrow.”
“Plans?” He pulled her down beside him on the rug. For once he found the answer to that question didn’t matter as she snuggled against him. But he also knew the answer.
“Sleeping late,” she purred as he kissed the back of her neck. “Is this who I think it is?” She petted the tiger.
“I held my breath the first time I saw him pounce on you.”
“I did as well.” He ran his right hand along her arm, sending shivers down her. “I keep wondering what problem will pull us apart tonight.”
“None, I promise.” She slipped from her side onto her back, grabbing the front of his tunic to draw him to her. Her lips caught his playfully, then again in seriousness. “I love you, Maximus.”
His heart tightened with a joy that was almost painful when he heard her say it at last, knowing she meant it unequivically. There were no words to offer that were adequate to his happiness. He returned her kisses with his own, impassioned and increasingly impatient; she could feel his arousal against her. He pulled away suddenly, leaving her breathless in anticipation, and stripped off his tunic. His body was lean and hard, gleaming in the firelight.
He leaned down to take her hand and pulled her to her feet, then lifted her dress over her head. It fell to the floor with his tunic, leaving her clad in a lacy black bra and panties. Nothing in her life prepared Siobhan for the look on Maximus’ face as he gazed at her. She had never felt beautiful until that moment, but now she knew she always would. He hadn’t told her that he loved her, but she saw it in his eyes this night. She reached behind her and unhooked the bra, bringing her hands forward to cup her breasts. Slowly she lowered one strap, then the other and discarded the garment. Then she reached for the loincloth secured at his waist and tossed it away. One last piece of clothing remained. Maximus helped her step out of her panties and gathered her into his arms. They found their way to the large bed to make love as if it were their first time, yet it seemed as if they’d always been together.
The firelight cast amazing shadows across the room. The last remaining log split, sending a shower of sparks into the air. Maximus slipped out of bed to put more wood on the fire. When he straightened up, he found Siobhan, propped up among the pillows, watching him. He blushed, a gesture she found endearing, as he hurried back to bed.
“Fires need to be fed,” he alibied.
“You know I wanted to watch you walk across the room naked and you obliged, I understand fully,” she joked.
He kissed the back of her neck in reply, then said, “When you’ve finished your work with Sid, what will you do?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice began to tremble; her plans all depended on him, but she didn’t want to say that. “Go home, I guess.”
“Or you could stay with me.” His words were simple. “I love you.” He turned her to face him, surprised to see her tears. She couldn’t answer, she simply had no words. “Cara? I thought you’d say yes.”
“Yes, of course yes!”
“I will never understand women. Why are you crying?”
“Because I was afraid you wouldn’t ask.”
“Why did you think I was building a house?” He shook his head in mock dismay. “Cara, stop crying, this is supposed to be a happy moment.”
Siobhan took a deep breath and tried to stop crying. “I can’t help it, I keep thinkin’ something has to go wrong.”
Maximus kissed her gently. “Nothing is going to go wrong.” But as they lay there in each other’s arms, he felt a cold sweep of dread. “Nothing. I won’t let anything happen,” he muttered into her hair.
Sometimes time seemed to slow down at the Point. Nights passed like lush tropical dreams born in pleasure palaces, where doors opened onto verandas and breezes caressed the skin as the residents made love all night. Other times were frantic, wild and funny. Days were almost always sunny except up by the frozen pond where it seemed to snow at John’s command.
It was almost 10 a.m. the following sunny morning when Maximus opened the lab door and switched on the light. Siobhan began to fuss with her coffee pot while he lounged in her chair, feet propped up on another.
“You don’t need to stay.”
“I am staying until Alex gets here.” The Spaniard stared idly at the ceiling. “You can’t be left alone with Sid, Cara.”
“I know. I’ve stuck by our agreement.” She flipped the switch and slipped onto his lap, nuzzling his neck. “When are you going back to the farm?”
“Very early tomorrow morning. East and Mannie are going to help me get a barn started.”
“Can I come up?”
“Not yet. I want to get a few things done before you come up so it can be a surprise.”
They turned to see Alex in the doorway; Maximus rather unceremoniously dumped Siobhan onto her feet as he stood.
“Good-morning! And welcome home, Maximus. You two seem to be doing pretty well this morning.”
Siobhan blushed as Maximus extended his hand to shake Alex’s. “Thanks,” he smiled. “I am going to get out of your way. I’ll be at the stables, if I’m needed. Siobhan, remember your promise.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “I promise. Go!” She swivelled in her chair, laughing.
“What was that all about?” Alex asked.
“Not being alone with Sid. Maximus made me promise.” She pulled the keyboard closer. “Alex, come look at this while we wait for Sid.”
This was the first time Siobhan had worked closely with Alex. Like most of the brothers, he was easy to talk to. They compared notes on Mexico while Alex reviewed the ideas she’d drawn up. Each man brought something different to the programming ideas.
“Your plans seem a little more subtle than before. What’s this?”
“Each one of you has something special, something the others may have but not as obviously. If I can isolate those personality traits, I can give them to Sid – give him the best of each of you. Your tenacity, Dominic’s optimism, John’s sense of commitment, Hando’s loyalty, et cetera. In small doses so we don’t change the essential character of Sid himself. And so he can’t use the traits to pick up women.”
Alex laughed. “I heard he’s pretty mad at you for removing the Dawson module.”
“Hopefully he’ll get over it. Obviously he’s not coming in today.”
“Alex? Alex Ross?” A strange voice came from the doorway. Alex and Siobhan turned.
The young woman in the doorway smiled. “Caroline asked me to ask you to come up to the office when you have a chance.”
“She say what it’s about?”
“No, just asked you to come right now if you could.”
“OK, thanks. Siobhan, you mind?”
“No, go ahead. If Sid comes, I promise to step outside.”
Left alone, she concentrated on the screen, occasionally letting her mind drift to the previous night. Why was she feeling a sense of anxiety when she was so completely happy? Once Sid was programmed, she would be moving to the farm to live with Maximus. Getting to know each other, growing to love each other more if that was possible. She didn’t heard the door closing until the latch clicked and the bolt slid home. She turned to see who had come in, but the hand covered her nose and mouth.
When the darkness cleared and she woke, she rubbed her eyes hard, trying to clear her vision. Her head ached, probably because she’d been drugged. The muggy hot air wasn’t helping. She was sitting on the floor, propped up against sacks of grain or flour; she could smell them. “Where the hell am I?” she asked out loud.