A Wonderful Life

by Linda Cornett

(Appeared in Eyes Only #2)

The frosty road shone like a metal runway into the darkness, sliding under the fast tires of the silver BMW. Mesmerized by the endless track, she pressed harder on the gas. The car gobbled up the gleaming ribbon.

A lone tree, surviving by the roadside, whisked by with a sound like a sudden sigh. Mercedes glanced at the speedometer and lifted her foot – 80 miles an hour was no speed for a 45-year-old grandmother to be driving. What was she trying to do, join Brooks? The thought chilled her and she tapped the brake as the speedometer swung below 60, 45...

Suddenly, from the darkness on the right, something pale flickered in her vision and was left behind. It was slight, but she was sure she had felt a thump.

Stamping the brake now, she stopped the car and sat, hands shaking, staring ahead into the headlight beam. A deer? No, it had been too small. Something else, some other wild creature thinking it was safe in the night.

She pushed the car into reverse and slowly backed down the deserted road, keeping well to the left side.

There, gleaming pale on the gravel shoulder. She stopped, staring in disbelief. It was a man, lying on his side facing her, unmoving. He was naked and the high beam of her headlights bleached his blond hair as white as his skin.

Climbing from the car, she stepped carefully toward the man. He still didn't move. Edging closer, she winced at the sight of the many bruises and cuts on his body. Surely hadn't hit him hard enough to do that.

His arms were behind him, at an awkward angle. Broken? She stepped around him, keeping her distance from the bloody damage she feared she would find. His arms didn't appear broken, but bound cruelly. His wrists were fastened with handcuffs.

She stared, unbelieving. Had he escaped from the police? But, why was he naked? Who would do such a thing? This sort of thing didn't happen in real life, not her sedate life.

She stared into the surrounding darkness. Was someone here, watching, somewhere just out of the beam of light?

She shivered and took an instinctive step toward the car. She could leave, drive home, put it all out of her mind. It really wasn’t her fault, after all. What on earth was he thinking, rushing onto the highway in the middle of a dark night?

But what about the man? She could see his breathing now, the scraped side rising and falling in short, shallow breaths, the long pale hair spread out on the asphalt. She couldn't just leave him alone.

She ventured close and touched his arm. He moaned at the touch, but when she peeked over his shoulder, his eyes were still closed, his eyelashes casting spidery shadows over bruised cheeks.

There must be something she could do for him. Unfasten the cuffs? There were no tools in the car, she hadn't worn a hairpin in years and wouldn't know how to pick a lock if she had one. She scooted around on the gravel, shredding her stockings, to take his head into her lap, but when she slid a hand under his cheek he moaned again and she withdrew it. Finally, she settled on slipping off her coat, the mink Brooks had bought for their last anniversary, and spreading it over him. Shivering, she waited beside him for someone to come.

Finally, lights appeared in the distance, spreading over the road until they reached Mercedes and the man. The car, a blue Mustang with five young passengers inside, skidded to a stop beside them, the teenagers subdued by the unexpected tableau. Get to a phone, Mercedes told them with uncharacteristic firmness. Call the police and tell them to send an ambulance. Hurry. The Mustang leapt away with a roar, racing toward town. In the renewed silence, Mercedes stroked the man’s hair comfortingly. “Help is coming,” she murmured. “It’s going to be all right.”

The county officer who arrived first cast a startled glance over the naked man covered in mink, but produced a pair of bolt cutters from his trunk when she showed him the metal cuffs. By the time he had the lengths of chain snipped through, the ambulance arrived, wailing, and the road was suddenly crowded with efficient-looking people hurrying back and forth, talking into radios, pushing her aside.

Finally, the officer asked her a few terse questions, studied her closely and apparently satisfied himself that she was not drunk. He took her name and address and phone number and suggested she go home. At the last minute, he thrust her mink at her, its satin lining spotted with blood.

She drove away, very slowly, watching in her rear-view mirror as the paramedics lifted a stretcher into the ambulance. She could see a pale arm, the metal cuffs and short lengths of chain still circling the wrist and elbow and gleaming, in the unreal light, like expensive jewelry.

She slept badly and woke early enough to catch Aracely with no coffee waiting.

Nell called, to make sure she had enjoyed herself at the gathering of old friends the night before. She lied briefly that she had, and distracted Nell with the story of the accident. "Is he alive?" Nell demanded. "Who is he? What happened to him?"

Mercedes realized suddenly that she wanted very much to know the answers to those questions herself. It was the first time since Brooks' death 14 months earlier that she had cared much about anything and she gratefully welcomed the tingling sign of returning life.

The young officer wasn't on duty until the afternoon, but a friendly records clerk read the accident report. The man had been taken to Memorial Hospital with superficial injuries, it said. No name was listed.

Mercedes was somewhat surprised to find herself, half an hour later, driving to the hospital. She asked a harried nurse about the blond young man injured in the accident the night before and was given an odd look and a room number.

The door was open. A tall, stern-looking woman in white uniform stood beside the still form on the bed, writing on a pad. She jerked her head up at Mercedes' knock. "Are you a relative?" she barked impatiently.

"Um, no," Mercedes answered. "I…found him. Actually, I hit him with my car and I wanted to make sure he's okay."

"He's going to be."

"Can I see him?" The doctor motioned her to the bedside.

He was asleep, curled on his right side. Flat white bandages circled his wrists and arms just above the elbows. Bruises and small wounds were livid against his pale skin. The long hair gleamed, silky smooth, as though someone had brushed it for him. He looked fragile and vulnerable and lonely.

"How much of this did I do?" Mercedes asked, dreading the answer.

"There's a bruise on his right hip and a bump on his head," the nurse said. "You can probably feel guilty about them. As for the rest... " She shook her head.

"I don't even know his name," Mercedes said.

"Neither does he," said the nurse. "He was awake early this morning – woke up screaming from a nightmare, actually, and half the ward with him. Anyway, he says he has no memory of the accident or what happened to him before it or anything, really. We expect it to be temporary, but there's no telling how long temporary will be. Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office is checking his fingerprints.”

As if aware he was being discussed, the young man stirred and his eyes fluttered open. He stared at Mercedes as though trying to recognize her.

When the stare and the silence became uncomfortable, Mercedes heard herself making bright, dutiful conversation, as she had learned at the country club.

"Hello. I'm Mercedes Stafford. I ran over you last night. Well, at least I grazed you with my car. I was on my way home from a dinner party and you ran onto the road…” She stopped at the recognition in his eyes.

"You loaned me your mink," he said with a flicker of a smile, "Someone told me that. Thank you." His voice sounded vaguely English.

He rolled onto his back with a grimace and fumbled for the controls to raise the bed. Mercedes pushed the button for him as he turned to the nurse. "Ah, Nurse Crippen," he said dryly.

"Mr. Doe," the nurse responded with a nod and a hint of a smile.

"Please call me John," he said.

"Nothing?" she asked.

He frowned in concentration before answering, "Nothing."

The nurse drew a thermometer from her pocket and shot Mercedes a glance that said plainly, "Visiting hours are over," so she made hasty goodbyes and left them.

In the afternoon, the officer called to say there would be no charges against her, that there were no further questions, thanks for her cooperation.

That's over, she thought, and that is the way she described it to the children when they made their weekly calls the next day from their homes, one on each coast.

But the memory of the accident and images of John Doe intruded on her thoughts. The next day, and the next, she called the hospital to check on him. As far as memory went, no change, he told her, but he was healing quickly and would probably be released soon.

"Where will you go?"

He sighed. "I guess I'll stay in the area, since I don't know where to go. The Sheriff hasn't learned anything from my fingerprints. They tried the British Embassy, too, because of my accent. No luck. They were going to put my picture in the paper but then decided it might not be safe, since someone around here apparently doesn't like me." The attempt at lightness was undone by the edge of fear in his voice.

"You could stay with me," Mercedes said, startled to hear herself making the offer. There was a long silence. "I mean, I have this huge house and it's not too far away and there are live-in servants."

"It sounds very proper," he said, "but...you shouldn't feel responsible for me."

"But I do," she said. "After all, I did hit you. It would make me feel a lot better. Please come."

"All right," he finally answered. "I would be delighted. And relieved. I was feeling a bit unanchored. Just for a while, though."

The next day, the same road stretched ahead toward home, bright in the morning sunlight. John Doe sat beside Mercedes, wearing jeans and a sweater that she had dug out of Brian's abandoned clothes. The jeans had required rolling up – John Doe, when she had first seen him upright, had proved to be just a bit taller than Mercedes herself – and the sweater left plenty of room for him to fill out. He looked more substantial in real clothes, however, and Mercedes realized suddenly that this was no lost child or injured animal. She was bringing a man, a stranger, into her home.

She gauged, from surreptitious glances, that he was at least 10 years her junior and he was, in fact, quite attractive even with the bruises and cut lip. She felt a moment's dread, imagining the speculation that would be shared at the next dinner party she did not attend. It was quickly replaced by a shiver of…excitement?

"It was just past that tree that I hit you," she said, to distract her own thoughts.

He asked her to stop and stood by the side of the road staring across the high plains prairie. He scuffed along the shoulder in the too-big tennis shoes she had brought and crouched to peer closely at the road. "What did you find?" she asked when he slid back into the car.

"Blood." he stared out the window, the tenseness of his body warning her off of any further questions.

Mercedes drove on.

When she stopped in the circular front drive, John Doe looked over the imposing building with interest but no awe and Mercedes was ridiculously proud of his apparent sophistication, as if one of her children had performed well on a test.

She gave him an abbreviated tour of the house before tackling the hardest part – Aracely. Aracely's dark eyebrows had arched beneath her graying bangs when Mercedes told her a man would be staying for a while. Aracely immediately decreed he would stay in Janet's old room, and Mercedes realized with amusement that it was the farthest room from her own.

John dubiously eyed the lacy curtains and stuffed animals piled high on the bed but said nothing. He was politely distant when she introduced Aracely, quickly assessing the older woman's reaction to his presence.

His hearty appetite and compliments about her cooking did not move Aracely, who accepted such praise as her due. But when he spoke to her in fluent Spanish, looking quite astonished himself, she gave him a dimpled grin and a second helping of flan.

John Doe slept quite a bit during the following days and Mercedes soon realized that he slept little, if at all, at night.

The first night, Duke's barking woke her. She lay, listening intently, thinking about the unknown people who had hurt John. The chattering of an enraged squirrel reassured her that the intrusion was of a different sort, but she decided to check on her guest anyway.

Padding on bare feet down the hall, she was surprised to see light streaming from the half-open door to Janet's room. She froze in the hallway; John stood with his back to her. He was wearing a pair of the boxer shorts she had bought for him, facing the full-length mirror that Janet had used so much during the vanity and self-consciousness of her teenage years.

John stared at his body, raised fingers carefully to touch a large bruise on his ribs. He raised lost eyes to search his battered face, then sighed and turned from the mirror.

Mercedes slid away from the door and tiptoed back to her room.

Rising early on the third morning, she found him in the library, sitting on the floor wearing yesterday's clothes and surrounded by books – books lying open on tables and chairs and all around the floor. He was hunched over one of Brooks' business journals.

John looked up at her bleary-eyed. "I'll put them all back," he said guiltily.

"What are you doing?"

"Looking for something familiar."


"Well, I read German pretty well. I have been to the Middle East, or seen a lot of pictures. I don't care much for novels, with the exception of Dostoyevsky, and the books you have on science seem pretty elementary."

"A Renaissance man," she offered and he smiled thinly. He pulled himself painfully to his feet and began replacing the books with her help.

That afternoon, Nell came to visit. Mercedes was, frankly, amazed at the restraint that had kept her away so long.

John was napping when she arrived, but by the time Mercedes and Nell were starting their second margarita and were dissecting a third friend's marriage, he stepped into the sunroom. At the sight of Nell, he shot Mercedes a questioning look, but she welcomed him enthusiastically and introduced him as her roadside victim, Nell as her best friend. Mercedes found herself wickedly enjoying Nell's reaction – a combination of curiosity and flirtation.

Mercedes felt again that flash of pride, as though she were showing off a new piece of art or a bargain that no one else had found. Nell gaped obligingly

Mercedes passed him her glass and went to fetch another from the kitchen. When she returned, Nell had coaxed onto the couch next to her and was staring at his face assessingly.

"Maybe you're an actor, or a model," she suggested.

John smiled indulgently, going along with the game. "Too short," he said.

"A jockey?"

"Too old."

"A teacher?"

"Too impatient."

"Well, you must be married," Nell said, indicating the gold band on his left hand.

John frowned at the ring. "I…don't think so," he said hesitantly. "I don't feel married."

"A lot of married men don't," Nell said wickedly.

She picked up his hand and turned it palm up. "Nice long lifeline," she murmured. "I bet you're a musician," she added suddenly, stroking his long, capable-looking fingers. Still holding his hand, she pulled him to his feet and over to the grand piano.

Obediently, John sat and spread his fingers above the keys. He lowered his hands, and began to play. It was a classical piece, something vaguely familiar, and to Mercedes' inexpert ear, it sounded skillful.

"There, I was right," Nell said with satisfaction. I bet you're supposed to be performing at Carnegie this weekend and your manager is simply frantic."

"I'm not Carnegie material," John said, still playing "More likely a second-rate cocaine-snorting jazz pianist from a Soho dive." He switched smoothly to a blues piece.

The rest of the afternoon flowed away on a stream of music and margaritas and bantering conversation. Occasionally, the talk would bring up a subject on which John was completely blank, like a stone wall thrown up in front of meandering strollers. A look of loss and embarrassment would flutter suddenly across the blue eyes and John would fall silent for a moment.

Nell stayed for supper, since David was out of town on business. They ate casually, still in the sunroom, using their fingers more than their silverware and drinking margaritas at a rate that left Mercedes feeling fuzzy and self-indulgent.

John, whose appetite had not tapered off, slipped the last bit of chicken skillfully from Nell's plate and her surprise at its absence was comic.

"I know!" she said, as John guiltlessly downed the morsel, "you're a thief, faking this whole thing just so you could steal Brooks' art collection."

The joke fell heavily and the moment for a witty reply came and went. The silence stretched on while John glanced at the costly paintings Brooks had collected for resale value rather than because he liked them.

Looking at his sharp profile, Mercedes was filled with sudden panic. Nell could so easily be right. What did she know about him? Was it chance that he stumbled into her car that night?

John turned back in time to see the suspicion in her face. "No," he answered the look, holding Mercedes' eyes with his own, "Mercedes is a good friend; my only friend, at the moment. I couldn't do something like that."

Mercedes smiled at him, filled with a warm reassurance. Brooks would have scoffed at her gullibility; she coldly ignored his warning voice in her head.

Half an hour later, when she gave Nell a ritual hug at the door, Nell whispered in a tequila-scented breath, "Be careful, just the same, honey." A small worm of doubt deftly inserted into her happiness.

John was at the piano again – a rather sad ballad, this time. Defying Nell, Mercedes stepped up behind him and began massaging his shoulders – a friendly gesture, nothing more.

"I'm going to bed," she said, leaning to brush his cheek with a motherly kiss.

He turned at that moment, and met her lips with his own. His mouth was soft, and tasted of salt and the tartness of lime. Her knees trembled and she ended up sitting beside him on the bench, touching his tongue with hers and sliding her hand across his stomach, leaning into him.

He pulled away abruptly, looking at her with troubled eyes. "This is a mistake. I'm sorry," he said. He tried for a smile, but didn't manage well. "What would Nell think?"

"I don't care," she said defiantly, but he shook his head.

"You know you do," he murmured. "Good night."

She watched him walk stiffly out of the room before following.

That night, as she masturbated, it was John, not Brooks, whose image she used.

In the morning, still muddy-headed from the tequila, she trailed into the kitchen late to find John alone, pouring coffee into a large mug. With a sympathetic smile, he pulled down another cup for her.

"Where's Aracely?" she asked.

"She and Henry left early to visit their daughter in Nogales. She said you knew."

"Oh, lord, I forgot all about that. She's going to be gone for five days." Her eyes locked on his as the implications began to surface.

"I think this would be a good time for me to leave, too," John said.


"Mercedes, I don't belong here. Things are getting complicated."

"You're not leaving," Mercedes insisted, hearing the desperation in her voice before she was aware of it. "You don't have anywhere to go, or any way of getting there. What are you going to do, stay at the Catholic mission? Besides, I truly don't want you to go. Nell's an idiot sometimes and I don't care what she thinks."

He stared at her assessingly for a moment, and then sighed in surrender and took another sip of coffee. Mercedes smiled with relief and did the same.

As they ate breakfast, she watched him repeatedly shove up the sleeves of another borrowed, too-big shirt. "We are going shopping today," she said, firmly.

Ignoring his protests, she ran upstairs to change and drove them to the mall.

John drifted toward the jeans and T-shirts, but Mercedes tugged him insistently toward the sort of clothes she had always admired on mannequins.

"I haven't had this much fun since I was a little girl dressing my Barbie," Mercedes shouted with calculated volume into the men's dressing room. John glared at her over the door to his stall.

When they left the men's department, John was wearing narrow black trousers with a thin snakeskin belt, a white shirt with a band collar and low black boots. He looked so self-conscious that Carol broke down and bought jeans and T-shirts, for later.

At the window of a women's store, he stopped and pointed to a dress, flame red, with swirling skirt and wide, brightly embroidered belt. "That, for you," he said. Carol looked down at her beige and white suit. John pulled her into the store and she walked out wearing the red dress and carrying bags filled with brighter clothes than she had worn in years.

As they strolled on, Mercedes slyly pointed out the three teenage girls who had stopped across the mall from them and were opening ogling John and whispering.

A few minutes later, John nudged her and nodded toward a man who gave them a visual going over as he passed them but Mercedes insisted, "He's looking at you too."

John snorted, then said, suddenly serious, "Suppose I'm homosexual."

"I have reason to think otherwise," Mercedes said, and shot him a glance from beneath her lashes.

Before heading home, they shopped for dinner – thick steaks, big Idaho potatoes for baking, lettuce and tomatoes for salad, and vanilla ice cream.

They donned two of Aracely's copious aprons over their new clothes, working together as easily as if they had been doing it for years. They set the dining room table with the best china and silver and candles. It was a celebration, clearly, but Carol wasn't sure of what.

Accompanied by a robust red wine from Brooks’ cellar, the meal was wonderfully satisfying, but John seemed set on destroying the casual mood.

"Tell me about Brooks," he said suddenly, the blue eyes intent across the table.


"I feel like there's somebody else in the house that I haven't been introduced to yet. Brooks' art and Brooks' books and Brooks' wine. I've even been wearing his clothes, haven't I?" He sounded, unaccountably, angry.

"He was my husband for 24 years. Of course his things are here; he's only been dead a year," she flared back. "What do you expect?"

"I expect," he began, then paused. "I expect you are right. I'm just trying to understand where I fit here, well, where I fit in the world. I seem to be an intruder here, yet you want me to stay. I need to understand why."

She looked away from the blue eyes, into the scarlet wine, swirling it up the sides of the goblet like a psychic looking for the truth in the patterns it made.

"Brooks was a good man," she finally began. "He wasn't well-educated, but he read a lot, taught himself things. He, oh, he had a gift for making money at everything he tried, and he loved it, putting together a deal, winning."

She sighed. "And he liked to take care of things. To take care of the kids and of me, to solve all our problems. Impatient. He couldn't seem to relax. He was just always so busy. No time to talk or have fun or just be alone together. He had a heart attack, a big one, and died in the hospital a month later. That's all."

She looked at him again, relieved that it had been so easy.

"Did you love him?"

Her stomach clenched. It was the question she had dodged round in her own mind for the past lonely year. She had thought of leaving Brooks, long before the heart attack, but had never found the will to do so. She had raged at him and turned away from him sometimes, pleaded and demanded...something, something more. Something, possibly, that he couldn't give.

His response had been alternately anger and cold passivity, never the emotional surrender she had wanted. Then, there had been the heart attack. She had been so furious with him, and so frightened. And then his death, that final retreat, and the long cold months when she had managed, had taken pride in her ability to keep her life full, or at least busy, and make cheerful conversation and keep track of the many investments.

And all the time, Brooks had been sitting across the table from her asking the question he couldn't ask in life, even at the end – Did you love me?

She was almost surprised to find blue eyes instead of brown staring at her through the candle glow.

"I am so mad at him for dying and leaving me," she said, her voice tight with a fierce anger that clenched her hands into fists. "I know when I talk about him, he sounds awful, and he wasn't. We had some wonderful times. We were going through a bad time, like most couples do. The kids were grown and we needed to get used to being alone again. And, then he died before we could work it out. It just seems like such a waste."

John reached across the table, enclosing her hand in his. She stared into his eyes, letting her heart ease open. She gasped as pain flowed in like a blow to her chest. "Oh God, I miss him. Brooks!"

Suddenly, John was kneeling in front of her, pulling her against him, stroking her hair. Her body shuddered with sobs that painfully forced their way through her tight throat. It went on for quite a while and John at one point used her linen napkin to wipe her nose and brush her damp hair back from her face.

She leaned back to look down into his solemn face. "You know, I feel a lot better. Maybe you're a psychiatrist," she said with a smile."

"Shrink, heal thyself," he responded with a fleeting smile of his own.

"It will come back," she said firmly.

He didn't answer, staring down at the rug.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure I want it to," he said.

"Of course you do. Why not?"

"Somebody hated me enough to do what they did," he said. "Why would they do that? What if I deserved it? We joke about what I must be, but nice, normal psychiatrists and musicians and teachers don't get beaten up. Maybe what I have to remember is shameful."

Carol put her hands on his cheeks and tilted his face up to meet her eyes. "I don't know what you do for a living, but I know what kind of person you are and I know, I know, you did not deserve what happened to you."

She slid off the chair to kneel on the carpet in front of him, pulling him close. She turned his face to hers, brushing the pale hair back, and staring into the unreadable eyes. There was a heartbeat of time before their lips were touching, their bodies pressing tight.

He didn't retreat this time. His kiss was rough, almost frantic. Strong fingers twined in her hair, held her head still for the bruising kiss. The firmness of a stirring erection nudged against her belly.

Deliberately, as though all the rule-makers who had governed her life were watching, Carol jerked the shirt free, slid her hands inside along his chest and stomach. His skin was smooth, marred by the thin lines of scars. Her right hand slipped between his legs and she felt the stir in response, heard his moan. Cupping her hand gently, she smiled at the heady feeling of power and control. She had made his happen. She could take it further.

John's hands on her back had her dress unzipped, tugged the bright fabric off her shoulders. She slid her arms free and guided his head to her breasts; his soft lips nuzzled as he dragged the bra away. His tongue swept round her nipples, teasing them erect. Abruptly, he closed his lips around the nipple of her right breast, sucking hard. Carol clutched his hair as the spark of pleasure darted from her breast to a spot deep in her belly.

She pulled his face up to hers again, nipping at his lips and teasing his tongue with hers. Her fingers fumbled at the buckle of the stiff new belt, then the button, the zipper.

Sliding her hands flat against his hips, she pushed down the pants and underwear in one smooth stroke, releasing his manhood.

He bumped against her, demanding attention, and she curled her fingers tightly around his penis, smiling at rediscovering at the softness, and the hardness beneath, and at the heat. He nuzzled his face into the curve of her neck as she began a slow pumping motion with her right hand and with the left massaged a taut buttock.

His tongue left a cold trail along her neck and up to her ear. His hands, cupping and massaging her breasts, slid down over her ribs and belly to lift her flowing skirt. Impatiently, he tugged slip, pantyhose and panties away roughly. One hand slid between her legs, a finger slipped into the wetness and began a trembling massage that made her squirm.

By unspoken agreement, they broke their embrace to skin out of what clothes remained in place. As she looked at John's lean body, Carol was reminded of that first night when he stood before the mirror examining his wounds. John's eyes, coming up to meet hers, showed his thoughts were elsewhere. His eyes slid back down over her body.

"You are so beautiful," he whispered. She reached out to touch his arm and he pulled her close again, into another kiss. The feel of his body, muscle and bone, against the length of hers, was dizzyingly exciting.

Suddenly, Where are we going to do it? The thought popped unbidden into her head, the product of a lifetime as hostess. Her bed? No, not yet. She might be ready for another man, but not in that bed. Janet's? Visions of herself tucking a very young daughter into that bed rose to dissuade her.

John answered the unspoken and distracting question by pulling her down beside him on the soft shag of the dining room rug. A hand slid down her back, pressing her against his body. A strong leg pushed its way between her legs. She was lowered onto her back, her legs pressed apart.

She lay passive for the moment, letting him do what he wanted, staring almost entranced through the glass tabletop above her to the blood-red wine in her glass reflecting the golden flicker of the candle flame.

She felt his hands sliding feather light along the insides of her thighs, then resting on her hips. When he thrust into her, the trance ended.

To feel this again, the hardness of a man inside her, the petulant and self‑centered probing of his manhood… She arched her hips, inviting him deeper, then wrapped her legs around his thrusting buttocks to pull him close.

His arms were braced on each side of her shoulders. She closed her fingers hard around the long muscles of his forearms.

He had dropped his head between his shoulders so all she could see was the top of the blond head.

"Look at me," she demanded, her voice harsh. He jerked his head up, the startled expression quickly fading to the unfocused look of impending orgasm.

Sliding a hand between them, Carol expertly massaged her clitoris to practiced arousal, wanting to keep pace with him. His thrusts were faster now, bruising in their impatience. For those last moments, the rhythms of their bodies matched, meshed and when he trembled and forced himself against her with a cry of release, Carol's body was waiting.

Surprised, she heard her own voice cry out, as she spasmed with pleasure so intense it seemed to burst through her body like an explosion.

"Pleasure Bomb," she murmured with a smile.

John, still inside her, gasping against her shoulder, looked up with puzzled eyes.

"Nothing," she said. "I just feel so good."

He smiled at her crookedly and eased his body to lie beside her.

"Well," he said, "I don't think I'm homosexual."

They lay exhausted and silent, stilling one another's bodies with gentle caresses. When air‑conditioned air on sweaty bodies became uncomfortable, John padded across the hall to the sunroom for a soft afghan Aracely had made.

Nestled against his shoulder, warmed by his arm and leg draped over her, Carol was soon asleep.

The golden light in the wine had grown so bright it shattered the wine glass. The tinkling sound of the glass was still in her ears when she opened her eyes foggily and realized that the glass breaking had been a window.

John had pushed himself up on one hand, his body tensed like an animal's. The candles had guttered into waxen pools and moonlight was the cold illumination. She started to speak, but John's hand silenced her. He slid down beside her and whispered in her ear, "Is there a gun in the house?"

The question chilled her. It's nothing, she wanted to say. You're over‑reacting. If anyone came near the house Duke would... Suddenly she realized the big dog had not come snuffling around for scraps as he always did after dinner. And she remembered the unknown people who had brutalized John.

While she lay, frozen by the rush of realization, there was another sound from the back of the house. A door opening? John turned his head toward the sound, his face intent. He turned back to her "Gun?" he mouthed.

"Desk. Sunroom," she formed the words silently.

Motioning her to lie still, John slipped from under the table, hugged the wall and peered into the hallway before disappearing without a sound.

Carol curled into a ball, grasping the afghan around her, trying desperately to silence the breath from her tight chest.

Footsteps now, cautious. More than one. Down the hallway, toward the stairs. Where was John? Suddenly, the massive shadow of a man's body spread across the floor beside her and up the wall behind. Involuntarily, Carol cried out, and the shadow turned toward the dining room.

"Hold it!" It was John's voice, hard and competent. The shadow spun away, toward the sunroom. There was a confusion of sounds, footsteps and a grunt, a thud and a cry of pain, more blows.

Carol scrambled to her feet and rushed to the dining room door. A man, dressed in black, lay across the hallway, unmoving. Beyond him, John's pale body seemed locked in battle with a shadow, rolling in the doorway of the sunroom, struggling with another man in black. Something glittered in the moonlight. There was a gasp. John's forearm pounded twice, viciously, against the other man's throat and the battle was over.

Slowly, John pulled himself away and stood up, holding onto the wall for support. Blood washing across his side was black against his white skin.

He raised his eyes to Carol. "I think you'd better call the police," he whispered, before dropping to his knees.

It was like a nightmare repeated. The first officer to arrive was different, but there was the same moment of disbelief, the same rough rush of lights and noise.

And John was on the stretcher again, naked and pale.

"And me without my mink," she thought, inconsequently, and began to laugh. That brought the attention of one of the ambulance attendants, who urged her into the sunroom to sit. He looked vaguely familiar and Carol remembered he had gone to school with Brian. His name was Jimmy, she remembered, and grinned with happiness that she’d remembered it. That must have been peculiar, because he gave her a worried look before he brought the afghan and wrapped it around her shoulders. Carol realized with a start that she had been kneeling by John and then standing against the wall completely naked. She felt a flush heat her face and neck.

The police officer was standing in front her now, asking her something, but she couldn't seem to understand his words. He went away, and the Jimmy was holding her, encouraging her through the front door and into the waiting ambulance.

John was there already, lying on a stretcher with a thick bandage pressed against his side. He turned to look at her. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

"I thought you were going to shoot them," she said, accusingly.

"The gun wasn't loaded and there weren't any bullets," he said matter‑of‑factly, "and they wanted to push the issue."

Jimmy eased Carol back onto the second stretcher, strapping a blood pressure cuff around her arm. She looked past his shoulder at John, trying to identify the subtle something in him that had changed.

At the hospital, they were separated. Doctors and nurses flowed in and out of the small curtained cubicle where Carol lay, asking questions and prodding and testing her. Beyond the curtain, she could hear the murmur of voices as they bent over John.

Someone had given her a shot and Carol found it increasingly difficult to keep her eyes open. She slid into unconsciousness, relieved to leave the confusion behind.

She woke to find John sitting beside her in a hospital room. She realized with a sense of unreality that he was wearing the gray slacks and black shirt, as though none of it had happened. "One of the police officers grabbed our clothes," he said, looking uncomfortable at the oblique reference to their lovemaking.

"Are you okay?" Carol asked, her voice a dry croak.

"Fine. Just a few stitches," he said, with a reassuring and superficial smile. "You are too. It's just shock."

"There's something wrong with your eyes," Carol mumbled. "What happened?"

The smile disappeared. "I…remembered," he said. He looked as though he would like to say more but wasn't sure where to begin.

"Is it awful?"

He smiled slightly. "No, not awful, just hard to explain."

"How did you remember?".

"When I heard the window break, I just knew what to do and how to do it and suddenly it was all back. Like waking up from a dream."

The words chilled her as much as the look in his eyes. She was the dream, and reality had reclaimed him.

The door to the room opened and a dark‑haired man in a suit stepped in. He gave Carol an apologetic smile. "Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but we're needed at the satrapy, p.d.q., Illya."

"All right," John said. He turned to Carol. "I'll call you," he said awkwardly. "I'll come back..."

"No," Carol said. "Don't." She was too tired to explain the reasons why.

John nodded his understanding, and bent to give her a chaste kiss on the cheek.

Carol caught his hand. "I know,” she said with a bleak smile. "It's like in that movie where Jimmy Stewart gets a chance to look at his life and see all he has to live for. You're a guardian angel, aren't you?"

John smiled and walked out with the dark-haired man.

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