Uncovered Bridges Affair
by Linda Cornett
(Appeared in Eyes Only 4)
(A sequel to the popular novel “The Bridges of Madison County”)
This late in the summer the beans were getting large, but they still broke with a satisfying snap. She moved the swing slightly with the tip of one bare foot. It squeaked plaintively, as it had for some time now, but today the noise was irritating. She would have to get Richard to oil it when he got home.
Richard, not Robert. She would not think about Robert. That was past. Forever past. She would concentrate on the beans and the squeak and on this evening when her husband and children would be home. She would live her days here, concentrating on getting through one day at a time, concentrating on not thinking about Robert, day after day after day. She felt the weight of that future dragging her down into a despair too deep even for tears.
The sound of tires on the dirt driveway brought her head up, her stupid heart instantly ready to hope again. Robert! But it wasn't his battered Chevy truck. It was a Ford sedan, dust coating its shine.
And, the man who got out bore no resemblance to Robert. He was short, with a leanness that reminded her for a moment of her father-in-law. Except Dad would never have sported that mess of long blond hair, and the first time she'd seen him in a suit was when he lay in his coffin.
The man had parked at the side of the drive on the struggling grass. He shook his legs slightly, easing stiff muscles and unsticking the suit pants from his legs. He was looked down at the dirt of the driveway with interest and then nodded once, as though well satisfied.
Something in the smooth face finally raised to hers, something in the pale eyes, made her uneasy, as though she had been found out and the time for confession had arrived.
"Good afternoon," he said, walking toward the house. "Mrs. Johnson?"
“I’m Francesca Johnson.”
"I'm looking for Robert Kincaid," he said. "I'm hoping you can help me find him." He spoke with a vague, foreign slurring of the words and for a moment Francesca wondered if he was slyly mocking her own faint accent, a holdover from her native Italy.
"I don't know the name." She heard her voice say it, felt the stiff muscles of her face make the appropriate movements.
As soon as the words were out, she realized what a mistake it was. It had been panic, born of guilt and fear and the jealous desire to keep the past four days untouched. Now she realized how innocent the question could be. Maybe Robert had told someone he could be reached here, before "here" became a secret to be guarded. Maybe one of the neighbors…
"A gentlemen down the road told me he saw Mr. Kincaid's truck here recently," the visitor said, as though reading her mind.
He was standing next to the porch now, looking up at her quizzically, letting the silence stretch out. A cicada whirred in the nearby field. What would she say? She had already lied. If she continued with it, he would know; in the innocent beginning, they had made no attempt to hide Robert's visit from curious eyes.
"He's gone," she said, her dry throat turning it into a croak, and was startled by the stab of pain the words produced in her heart.
"Where did he go?"
He was walking up the steps, onto the porch, without being invited. That meant he was from the city; a country dweller would understand the etiquette. His movements were slow and graceful, almost languid, as a panther might move with casual purpose in some dark jungle.
"I didn't get your name," Francesca said firmly. He pulled a thin, black leather wallet from his jacket and held it open in front of her. There was a gold card there, with a picture of a globe and a man next to it holding something her eyes couldn’t make out without her glasses. "U.N.C.L.E.? Is that a publisher? Was Robert taking pictures for you?"
He pronounced it like a name: "U.N.C.L.E. is an international organization dedicated to maintaining peace around the world," he said primly.
"And Robert works for U.N.C.L.E.?" She was pleased with the exotic touch this added to his appeal, however improbable it sounded.
The man hesitated. "Actually, quite the opposite," he finally said. "He works for another supranational organization, one bent on conquest and subjugation through whatever means comes to hand."
Francesca snorted out a laugh. "I don't know what TV show you're from," she said, "or what funny farm, but I don't have time for any more of your nonsense. Robert Kincaid is not here. I don't know where he is. I have things to do. Get off my porch and off my property.”
"Mrs. Johnson. . ."
"Off!" Francesca managed to put all her loss and frustration into the word, and the man backed away. He shrugged and walked down the steps and got into his car. He drove down the drive and parked on the edge of the road.
Francesca carried the beans inside, rinsed and covered them with water, tossed in a piece of salt pork and got it all cooking before allowing herself to think about what the man had said.
It was ridiculous, of course, all of it. But, he hadn't looked crazy, had looked all too ordinary and serious. If he wasn't crazy what was he? The card had looked real, but probably anybody could have one made up to order. What else had it said? There had been a funny-looking name on it, but she hadn't paid it much attention.
An international peace-keeping organization. Wasn't that what the U.N. was supposed to do? She thought of the James Bond movies Richard liked to take her to see. Could something like that be real? She supposed it was possible.
What was not possible was that Robert was on the side of the bad guys. She remembered suddenly and intensely the feel of his hands on her breasts, his breath against her ear, his voice murmuring, “This is why I'm here on this planet, at this time, Francesca. Not to travel or make pictures, but to love you.” She shivered. No, not Robert.
Perhaps it was a misunderstanding. Maybe she could convince the strange, cold visitor in his suit that Robert was the gentle man she knew him to be. When she tried to imagine it, though, the thought of sharing their time together with someone else, of disclosing their intimacies to those unsympathetic ears horrified her. How could she do that? It would be easier to tell Richard ... Richard!
She glanced at the clock set into the old stove: 6:45. The truck would be pulling into the drive in a couple of hours at the most. And the first thing Richard would want to know was what the stranger was doing parked out by the road. And, who knew what the man would say about Robert.
About her and Robert.
Francesca tiptoed into the dim and quiet living room and peeked through the lace curtains. Still there. She would have to talk to him, somehow convince him to leave.
She hurried back to the kitchen and began to make a fresh pot of coffee. She started to pour the dregs from the old pot down the drain and stopped Robert had made the coffee early this morning, before he left. She poured it carefully into the mug he had used and drank it down, cold and bitter like a ritual libation, and felt it warm her. A bit of Robert, giving her courage.
When the fresh pot was perking, she combed through her long dark hair, letting it hang loose, then straightened her clothes and walked out to the car. The man climbed out of the driver's seat when he saw her approaching. “Listen,” she said, “l think we'd better talk. Want to come in for a cup of coffee?”
He stared at her for a moment, with a caution that was somehow reminiscent of Robert, before nodding.
“Why don't you move your car around back,” she said. “I think the neighbors have enough to talk about already.”
He sat at the yellow Formica table with Michael's old Roy Rogers cup between his clean, strong-looking fingers. He had studied the picture of Roy and Trigger for a moment without comment, then turned the cool eyes around the kitchen, cataloguing unsympathetically.
Francesca followed his gaze, trying to see the familiar room with the eyes of a stranger. Nice and roomy, the way farm kitchens needed to be. Maybe a little shabby and old-fashioned to someone from the city the wallpaper was faded on the wall next to the window and the trusty old stove looked its age. She shrugged. We like it, she thought at him fiercely; who cares what you think. She flushed when she found his eyes now on her face, apparently performing the same encompassing assessment he had given the kitchen.
“I apologize for earlier,” he said abruptly. “My partner tells me I have a tendency to be too blunt.” He smiled slightly and she realized with surprise that he might be considered nice-looking.
“Well, you're wrong about Robert,” she said. “Maybe you've got the wrong man. The Robert Kincaid I know is a photographer for the National Geographic magazine.”
“The Robert Kincaid I'm looking for claims to be a photographer for the National Geographic,” he said firmly. “He is, in fact, an agent for the organization I mentioned, Thrush. At present, he is working on a rather nasty project with one of their researchers. I'm afraid I can't give you a lot of information about it.”
“Do you know how crazy all of this sounds?”
He sighed. “Yes. Mad scientists, sinister secret plots, charming villains. Unfortunately, it's true. I wish I knew how to convince you.”
“Let me see your card again”
He handed it over this time, and Francesca examined it closely. It looked authentic. “Illya Kura. . .”
“Kur-ya-kin,” he said slowly. “I am Russian. As I mentioned, U.N.C.L.E. is an international organization.”
Francesca studied him more closely. Russian! If Richard were here, he'd be pulling down the shotgun. Some resigned frustration in his face told her that he knew what she was thinking, was wearily accustomed to it, and Francesca felt vaguely ashamed. “I've never heard of U.N.C.L.E.”
“No. It's kept rather quiet. The member nations prefer it that way.”
“Are you from around here?”
“I work out of the New York office, but we do have offices around the world. There's a small office in Des Moines and the resident agent is assisting us with this particular case.”
“And this ... Thrush?”
“The Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity,” he rattled off.
Francesca laughed aloud. “I may be just a dumb farmer's wife from Iowa, Mr. Kuryakin, but that one's too big for even me to swallow.”
“I know it sounds ludicrous. I've often wished they had selected a more discreet name,” he said. “Perhaps it was wisdom on their part; it is difficult for those outside our business to accept the reality of such an organization. And yet, it exists. And it is capable of great evil.”
Evil. She couldn't remember hearing the word outside of church, and yet this earnest man in a dark suit used it like it was a technical term. Evil was breaking the Commandments. Killing, stealing, lying. Fornicating.
Her eyes were drawn to the stairs leading up to the bedroom. Had it been evil, what she and Robert had done? Never! Never. And she felt an unquestioned certainly shift within her and with it, others, all those long-held beliefs and attitudes fluid now and untrustworthy. When she had told Robert to leave, she had intended to continue with her life as before, to protect Richard and the children, to keep her secret separate, like a jewel hidden in a box. Now, for the first time, she wondered if any of that was possible. Could she continue with the same life when she was no longer the same person?
“Mrs. Johnson?” The disconcerting eyes were watching her curiously.
She licked her lips, swallowed. “Don't call me that. Please. Call me Francesca.”
“Francesca,” he said, “Robert Kincaid is not the person you think he is. I am sorry, but that is the truth.”
“You don't know him,” she said. “You don't know him.”
“He calls his truck Harry. He told you he was lost, that he was looking for something he was to photograph...”
“The covered bridge,” Francesca whispered.
“He doesn't eat meat. He drinks Budweiser and recites bits of poetry. He says, with a certain noble sadness, that he was born a hundred years too late. Perhaps he let you help him with the photography, took your picture and promised not to publish it. Did he turn on the radio and dance with you here, in the kitchen?”
She had no idea she was going to do it; it was as though her body reacted instinctively in self-protection, but suddenly her coffee cup was flying toward him.
He jerked away, the chair clattering to the floor, his upraised arm sending the cup smashing against the refrigerator. He stood on the far side of the table, frowning at her warily. A large brown stain covered the front of his while shirt.
“Oh my god. Oh, I'm sorry,” she gasped. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I needed for you to stop.”
He nodded, but still watched her the way Richard watched the old bull, the one that might suddenly interrupt its placid grazing and charge.
“You better take that off,” she said, nodding at the stained shirt. “I can wash it for you before the stain sets.” Her vision seemed narrow, unable to take in anything but the irregular brown pattern. He wasn't wearing an undershirt; the wet material was plastered against his skin. Smooth. Robert’s chest was covered in a thick mat of curling gray hair. Richard's was...
“It's all right. I'll have it cleaned when I get to town.”
“Winterset? There's no cleaner in Winterset.” Somehow, it seemed very important to deal with this one problem, to make things right again. Francesca stepped around the table and tugged at his jacket lapel. “Come on, I'd better sponge off the jacket, too.”
He caught her hand and pulled it away, but not before she saw the strip of black leather over his shoulder. With her free hand, she jerked back the jacket and saw the gun.
Suddenly, she was sitting in one of the kitchen chairs, her head between her knees, watching the linoleum swirl crazily. Something cold was on the back of her neck. She raised her hand and felt the rough texture of the wet dishrag and the warmth of his fingers and the cold band of metal around one finger. He flinched slightly at her touch as though he would withdraw his hand, but she held it in place. The reality of it was somehow comforting; just fingers, just a hand, somewhere a wife waiting for his return. Gradually, the linoleum sorted itself out and settled down.
Cautiously, she sat up. He was standing beside her now with the rag in his hand, watching her as though he wondered what crazy thing she would do next. What he said was, “Do you have any brandy?”
Of course she had brandy. She and Robert had shared drinks from the freshly opened bottle that first night. Didn't he know that? It seemed he knew everything else. Silently, she pointed toward the cabinet.
The brandy burned going down. It made her eyes water, and once started she couldn't seem to make it stop. Kuryakin kept his distance, only once coming close enough to hand her the kitchen towel.
When it finally stopped, she scrubbed the towel roughly over her face and wiped her nose. She leaned against the vinyl chair back, feeling heavy and weak and numb.
“How did you know all that about me and Robert?” she asked. Kuryakin stood near the sink, leaning on the counter just as Robert had done.
“I know very little about yourself and Kincaid,” he said, “but a widow in Illinois has been very helpful to us, as has a young woman in Michigan.”
“And an unmarried young woman.”
“They know Robert?”
“They each took him in, briefly, while he photographed the local sights.”
“Overnight?” What a stupid thing to ask. What a pitiful, stupid question.
Kuryakin nodded, watching her.
“He travels a lot,” she said, fumbling for an explanation.
“Maybe he gets tired of staying in motels.”
“Apparently.” His tone was dry.
“Oh, God.” She sagged, feeling her body collapse in upon itself. A widow, and an unmarried woman. And a middle-aged farmer’s wife. Three dissatisfied women, whose need made them easy to use.
She pulled herself erect; it was a terrible effort to do so. “I suppose everyone will have to know? Richard, the children ...”
“Not necessarily. They will not be home tonight.”
“What are you talking about? What's happened?”
“They are quite well. They,” he paused and looked at his watch, “have had trouble with their vehicle. Fortunately, it happened just outside Lafayette where I understand Mr. Johnson's aunt, Jane Traylor, lives. No doubt she would be glad of the company until the engine can be repaired. Probably the day after tomorrow.”
She stared at him with a kind of fascinated terror. “Who are you?” she whispered.
“I have told you the truth, Francesca,” he said, “about myself and about Kincaid. Our Des Moines agent arranged your family's delay. I needed time to talk to you, to try to find out what Kincaid was doing here.”
Francesca shook her head. “This is too much. It's too much to think about right now. I need to get ... I'm going for a walk.”
She stood abruptly on stick-stiff legs and walked out the back door. She followed their path across the field, remembering Robert stopping here, staring up at the emerging stars, reciting Yeats. “He quotes bits of poetry,” Kuryakin had said. A black-eyed Susan nodded at her feet and she remembered the bouquet Robert had brought her. She bent and ripped the flower from the ground.
She straightened and turned slowly around, surveying the open fields stretching away on all sides, imprisoning her. “You son of a bitch,” she growled through gritted teeth, and wasn't sure to whom she was talking. Richard, who loved her completely and understood her so poorly. Robert who crept silently into her heart, supplying all the pieces she didn't even know were missing, and slipped silently away again. Kuryakin, who had arrived with his unsympathetic mirror, murdering romance.
She turned back to the house, and saw him standing there in the backyard, watching her.
“You son of a bitch,” she repeated under her breath.
He watched her slip through the strands of the fence.
“Are you all right?” he asked. The warm light of the sunset put a little color in his pale face.
“Just fine,” Francesca snapped.
“Good; in that case perhaps you could answer some questions.”
“Mr. Kuryakin, there is nothing I can tell you. He came here, he took pictures at Roseman Bridge, we ate and talked and... well, I'm sure you know everything that we did in graphic detail. He left and you came. And that is the end of the story.”
He was looking at her, the failing light softening his face and his eyes, gently outlining the curve of his upper lip. But beneath the tender surface she sensed in him, as in Robert, a hint of the predator, a wild thing carefully contained, claws hidden in velvet pads. The blue eyes were deeply into her, now, pinning her painlessly. Something was going to happen, something interesting. She felt her body soften, waiting...
“Francesca,” he murmured in a voice soft as a touch, “do you know anything about aircraft guidance systems?”
Aircraft guidance ... Jesus. “No, Mr. Kuryakin, I do not,” she said stiffly.
“Without getting too technical, I will just tell you that we have come upon evidence that Thrush is providing financial backing for a renegade physicist who has long made such systems his interest. When last he went public with his work, he was having some luck in developing a focused beam that could severely interfere with such systems. We believe his work has progressed.”
“How interesting,” Francesca snarled.
“Yes, we thought so. You remember the United Airlines crash near Lansing two months ago?”
“Sort of. There was a storm. A little girl survived, didn't she?”
“She is still in hospital; 134 others, her parents among them, died. The cause of the crash has still not been satisfactorily explained.”
“That's too bad. I don't see what that has to do with Robert. Or me.”
“The young woman who has been assisting us lives 50 miles from the crash site. The widow I mentioned lives in a houseboat on the Mississippi River. An Air Canada jet en route from Montreal to Denver lost all electronics in a storm 73 miles from her dock site. The pilot managed to land safely in Minneapolis, but it was a close thing.”
“There are storms. Planes do have problems, they do crash. Besides, what's the point; what do they get out of it?”
He shrugged. “Extortion, eventually. Or the ability to bring down a targeted flight with someone aboard whom they want to be rid of.”
“Well, even if someone did cause it somehow, what makes you think it was Robert? There are a lot of people in a 73-mile area.”
“Only one that we know has been working with a scientist whose specialty is aircraft guidance. How would you feel if a plane were to 'have problems' somewhere near here? Could you honestly dismiss that?”
The light was going now; Robert called this near-dusk illumination “bounce,” a gift to allow an experienced photographer to capture one more image. Well, she was not experienced at this; what she needed was light.
“Come on.” Francesca led the way back to the kitchen. She turned on the overhead light, replacing the muted dusk with harsh illumination.
Kuryakin bent to pick up the pieces of the shattered cup. “Trash?” he inquired, rising with full hands.
Francesca pointed to the sink cupboard and began mopping up coffee with the towel. When she turned around, Kuryakin was standing by the sink, blood running across his fingers.
Tsking, Francesca pulled the Band-Aid box from the jumble cupboard, peeled a strip with practiced ease. How many times had she done this for the kids, for Richard? Clasping his wrist, she pulled his hand under the spigot, turned on the cold water and watched it swirl down the drain until the pink tinge was all but gone.
She released his wrist and, one-handed, opened the drawer and pulled out a clean towel. She cupped his hand in hers, gently drying it; the small cut was welling again with blood and she quickly wrapped the plastic strip snugly around the finger. She stared at the hand in her grasp, the fingers curved easily, strong and graceful at once; it reminded her of a photograph she had seen on a hand sculpted by Michelangelo. Which made the gum-pink Band-Aid pretty funny.
They both jerked at the shrill jangle.
“It's the phone,” she told him unnecessarily, and turned to pick up the earpiece. It was Richard, his voice reassuring. There had been trouble with the truck, he was saying. Something weird that he couldn't spot. The mechanics thought it would take a couple of days to repair. He and the kids would stay with his Aunt Jane. She mumbled something by way of response.
He was apologizing now, for the long absence, assuring her they would be home as soon as possible. Poor Richard, thinking of her home alone and lonely these last few days. “I love you,” she murmured at the end, an unaccustomed endearment. She owed it to him; did she mean it?
“You certainly are good at fixing things, aren't you?” she said, sinking into one of the vinyl chairs.
“I am sorry,” Kuryakin said. “I don't like interfering with people's lives. It was necessary.”
“Yes, so we would have time to talk. To make the skies safe for people who have someplace to go. Tell me just what it is you think Robert did.”
Kuryakin slid into the chair across from her. “We don't know. Some sort of electronic device, but we haven't been able to find anything at any of the other sites.”
“Any? I thought there were only two.”
He hesitated. “There was a body found. A 35-year-old woman from Evansville, Indiana. She had been strangled.”
Francesca was shaking her head. “No. He wouldn't do something like that. He would not.”
“She liked to go fishing while her children were in school. Kincaid's truck was seen parked next to her car near the Ohio River in the morning. Her body was found in the river nearby.”
“Why would he kill her? He didn't hurt me, or the others.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps she saw something she shouldn't have. Perhaps she resisted him.”
“Robert wouldn't. . .” She stopped, remembering how, even in her own compliance, she had been aware of his strength. “Robert, you're so powerful, it's frightening,” she had whispered to him, meaning something different. But what would he have done if she had said No?
“My God, it just gets worse and worse,” Francesca moaned, her face buried in her hands.
“You know the worst of it now,” Kuryakin was saying. “The important thing is to stop him. Are you sure you have no idea where he was going?”
She shook her head, then straightened. “Could he come back here?”
“I doubt it. He's probably done what he needed to here, and we're close enough now that he is no doubt aware U.N.C.L.E. is on his trail.”
Francesca stared out into the dusk. Maybe it didn't make sense, but he could come back. He could.
“Will you stay here?” she demanded.
“It really is unlikely he will be back.”
“I am not staying here alone tonight. If you won't stay, I'll go away.” Even as she said it, she knew it was impossible. How could she go to the Winterset Motel or beg a bed from one of their neighbors? What possible explanation would satisfy them?
“Very well,” Kuryakin said. “I will stay tonight.” The words echoed, radiating implications they both ignored.
Suddenly energized, she stood up. “Well, if you're going to get cleaned up before dinner, you'd better get started.”
Kuryakin glanced down at his stained shirt. “I'm afraid I left in rather a hurry,” he said. “I don't have any other clothes.”
“Give me your jacket and shirt and go take a shower,” Francesca ordered. “Top of the stairs on the left. I'll see what I can round up for you to wear. You stand out like a sore thumb in that suit, anyway.”
Carefully, he peeled off his jacket, watching her face as the shoulder holster was revealed.
“I'm okay,” she said. “Really. Richard has guns. It was just a surprise and then so much other stuff on top of it... I'm really not like this. I've never fainted in my life. It's been an unsettling few days.”
He smiled. “I can imagine. You've had dinner with the devil; that is always disturbing.” He peeled off the holster and his tie and began working on the shirt buttons.
Francesca watched, fascinated. “And tonight?” she murmured. “Who am I having dinner with tonight?”
He looked up, startled and uneasy. “Just think of me,” he gestured around the kitchen, “as a piece of the furniture.” He quickly tugged his shirt from his pants and pulled it off, handing it over to her.
His skin was pale, his chest smooth. Muscles moved in his shoulders and arms as he picked up the holster. His nipples were dark rose. Francesca raised her eyes to find him watching her. He shrugged and turned to go up the stairs.
The box she was looking for was in the cedar-lined hall storage closet. “Dad's Things” was printed on the side in Richard’s careful penmanship.
She opened the flaps and bent to draw in the fading, familiar smell of her father-in-law Old Spice and cigar smoke and the pack of Wrigley's he always kept in a pocket for his grandchildren to find and plunder. What would he think of the mess she'd gotten herself into? No question what her mother-in-law would think that she had disgraced her family and defied her God. Her father-in-law, though... Francesca closed her eyes and remembered his crooked grin. He might have been intrigued by the mystery, excited by the adventure of it all.
She rummaged through clothes, a pipe, some old pictures, and pulled out a worn pair of overalls. She considered with amusement offering them to her visitor from the city. No. A pair of jeans was underneath. She laid those aside with a long-sleeved blue shirt and a pair of white cotton socks. Kuryakin would have to make do with his own underwear.
She packed up the box and set it back on the shelf, giving it a gentle pat as she closed the door.
The shower was running. She remembered how her stomach had fluttered at the thought of Robert in the shower, naked. But, this wasn't Robert. She would just leave the clothes; there was nothing more to it than that.
She eased the door open and tiptoed across the floor to lay the clothes and a clean towel on the counter. She didn't mean to look, but the water spattered suddenly against the plastic shower curtain and she turned, and couldn't seem to turn away.
Kuryakin was visible as a lean, pale shape behind the curtain. His head was buried under the shower. There was the curve of his back, tapering toward his waist, the shape of one buttock and the thigh. He must have felt the air through the open door, for he spun toward her. Francesca could just make out in the pale oval of his face, the dark hollows that were his eyes. There was the triangular shape of his shoulders and chest, the straight columns of his braced legs, the darkness low on his belly. What that his…? Yes. She laid a hand over her fluttering stomach.
"I just brought you something to wear," she called.
He was silent for a moment. “Thank you.” The words were warbly, distorted by the water.
Cold fried chicken, fixed this morning before the day heated up. A plate of sliced tomatoes, picked along with the beans. Watermelon pickles canned last summer. A pitcher of iced tea. Cornbread was baking in the old cast iron skillet in the oven. Francesca lifted the lid from the beans, releasing a cloud of steam. She fished out a bean and rolled it around her mouth until it cooled before biting down. Just about done.
When she turned to pull down the plates, she found Kuryakin standing there. He smiled shyly and stepped back, as though inviting inspection. His damp hair was combed back from his high forehead now, although Francesca suspected it wouldn't stay that way for long. He had left the neck of the shirt open and rolled up the sleeves, for coolness. The jeans were a little big; Dad had liked his pants roomy.
“Supper's ready. I hope you're hungry,” she said.
“It smells wonderful.” He began setting the table. Francesca let him find silverware and glasses while she pulled the cornbread from the oven and cut it and poured the beans into the big, chipped blue bowl.
Her mother-in-law always said, “I like a man who eats like he's hungry.” She would love Kuryakin, Francesca decided, watching him reach again for the fried chicken.
He froze, suddenly aware she was watching him, and withdrew his hand. Francesca forked a thigh onto his plate. “They don’t feed you very well at this U.N.C.L.E., do they?”
He shrugged. “When the trail is hot, I forget to eat sometimes.” He bit into the thigh with white teeth. Predator's teeth.
“Is someone after Robert now?”
He nodded and swallowed. “My partner. They think alike, in many ways. He will find Kincaid. And I will find the machine.”
Francesca glanced around the kitchen. “Here?”
“The bridge, I think. He seems drawn to water. I believe it may serve as an amplifier to the transmitter beam. I will see what I can find tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll come with you,” Francesca said. “I can show you where he was.” As simple as that, the shift of allegiance.
He nodded, understanding.
They did the dishes together, in silence, and afterward as Francesca tidied up the towels, he disappeared. She heard the creak and smiled; after dinner and dishes, the front porch swing always called to her, too.
He started to get up as she slipped into place beside him, but she restrained him with a hand on his forearm, intensely aware of the soft brush of hair, the hardness of muscle. “Don’t worry, it will hold us both,” she said.
The creak, so annoying this afternoon, was now a pleasant part of the chorus of night sounds.
“It is very beautiful here,” he said. “Peaceful.”
“Peaceful,” she repeated, and sighed. “You can get a little tired of peace. What's it like where you live, in New York?”
“Busy. Noisy. Crowded.”
“But people still go out at night and look at the stars, don't they?”
“Not unless they are armed,” he said dryly.
“Are you? Now?”
She turned to squint at him by the moonlight. “Where is it?”
“In the back waistband of the trousers.”
“That sounds uncomfortable.”
“One gets used to it. I’d be more uncomfortable if I didn’t have it.”
“But do you really use it? Shoot people?”
“When necessary.” He said it matter-of-factly, as Richard might tell her he would have to put down one of the cows that was injured.
“Just like that? You just shoot people when you think it's necessary? Have you killed anyone?”
“Yes,” he said. “I have killed. I have not enjoyed it, no matter the target, but I have done what is necessary.”
Francesca considered it, then nodded. Doing the necessary was so often a part of farm life, of her life. And, accepting the unthinkable was, these last few days, becoming a part of it.
Robert had killed; Kuryakin had told her so. Maybe it had been necessary... No, there could be no excuse for murdering that young mother.
“Francesca?” He was looking at her, inquiringly.
“I was just thinking about, about what happened. You must think we're awfully stupid, the three of us.”
“No. Kincaid was the stupid one, for failing to honor what was offered.”
Francesca drew in a deep breath and felt her body settle into balance. “Yes,” she whispered.
Kuryakin pushed himself off the swing. “I believe I will have a look around and go to bed. May I use the boy's bed?”
“Sure. I changed the sheets after they left. See you in the morning.”
“Good night, Francesca. Sleep well.”
She watched him stroll down the stairs and around the corner of the house, his hands thrust into the pockets of the jeans, then gave the swing a push with her bare toes and sat in the dark for some time.
He had left the hall light on for her. Francesca tiptoed up the stairs, avoiding the one that creaked, and took her nightgown into the bathroom with her; it wouldn't do to meet him in the hall when she was naked. She pictured the scene and felt her face glow with excitement. “Shame on you,” she murmured, and tried to mean it. But there was something wrong with her, as though Robert had infected her with some virus that had left her feeling ambiguous about right and wrong, left her body sensitized and vaguely, constantly wanting something. It would go away. It would have to go away so she could resume her nice, peaceful life.
When she had showered and brushed her teeth and combed her hair out smooth against her back, she padded into the hallway. The door to Michael's room was ajar. Silently, she eased it open.
He lay on his side, facing the door, just as she expected a spy would. Was the gun under the pillow? She could see his bare shoulder and side; beneath the striped sheet there was the slight roundness of his hip, the angled line of his leg. The moonlight through the window picked out the fragile line of his cheekbone, the strong jaw. One hand was curled into a fist, tucked under his chin; the way he liked to sleep. She smiled, inexplicably pleased at knowing this small, intimate detail about him.
Abruptly, Francesca shook her head and backed out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her. But when she slid into bed, she lay on her side, facing the door, and tucked her fist under her chin. She fell asleep that way.
For the second day in a row, she woke in the morning to the smell of coffee. She pulled on a sleeveless shirt and the tight pair of jeans, the ones she didn't wear often because Richard teased her. She pulled her hair smoothly back into a braid and slipped on her tennis shoes.
Kuryakin was sipping coffee and reading the Winterset Weekly at the kitchen table. She was surprised to see glasses perched on his aristocratic nose. “I didn't know spies wore glasses,” she said.
He glanced up. “Of course,” he said. “We are only human. I understand that James Bond has a hairpiece.”
Francesca smiled appreciation of the joke. “So, what's the big news?” she asked, pouring strong coffee into her cup.
“Henry Kent broke his leg jumping down from his tractor. Hot and dry until Thursday, when there is a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms. Watermelon is on sale at the market.”
Francesca smiled. “See what I mean? Peaceful can get pretty boring.”
“There is much to be said for an ordered existence,” he said, still reading. “Do you know Sherlyn Gassaway and Norris Stallings? They are to be married. Apparently they met in high school. Like you and your husband?”
He looked up to see her shake her head. “I grew up in Naples. He came there as a sailor, during the war.”
“Romantic,” he pronounced.
“Yes. And we were young and ready for romance. He wasn't tall or particularly good-looking, but there was a gentleness in him. We had a wonderful courtship. Then I came back to America with him. To Iowa.”
He was still watching her, as though waiting for more. “He's a wonderful father,” she said. “And a good husband. He works hard, doesn't drink or gamble, comes home to me every single night. It's real peaceful.”
“Millions of people would be very glad of such peace,” he pointed out.
“How about you? Could you be happy here?”
He smiled ruefully. “No. But mine is not a lifestyle I would recommend to most people.”
“What about your wife?”
“My…wife?” He looked puzzled until she nodded toward his left hand. “Ah. I am not married. It’s a long story.” He stood. “Shall we go to the bridge?"
They took his car. Francesca kept her fingers crossed that they would not meet a neighbor. There was the old bridge, peeling red in the early light, just as it had been when Robert was at her side.
Kuryakin was walking along the bank, studying the weeds and the ground. He stopped and slid down the bank just where she remembered Robert doing the same, clutching his cameras against his chest to protect them from banging.
He stopped at the edge of the river and pulled off his city shoes and the white socks, rolled up the jeans. As he bent forward to do that, the shirt pulled taut across the wide muscles of his back.
He was wading into the water now, slow and cautious, with something in his hand, something he moved back and forth in front of him while he studied it intently. Kuryakin slowly crossed to the far bank. He moved up and down the bank, studying the weeds again, before he climbed out.
He sat on the river bank, staring back across the water, up at the bridge, back to the water. Then he was up again and into the water, moving the small black box over a route upstream of the first, until he was standing just below her.
"What are you doing?"
He held up his hand, showing her a small, black box, like a transistor radio. "Looking for an electrical signal," he explained.
"He went in the bridge, too. And up the road."
"Yes, I will get to those, but there is something about water. . ." He turned and began another crossing.
This time, he sloshed straight to a flat rock nearly in the middle of the stream. Suddenly and vividly Francesca remembered Robert standing on the rock, waving up to her as she peered from the bridge. The vision, and the emotion that came with it, was so complete and unexpected she staggered back a step from it, shaking her head.
Kuryakin was at the rock now. He walked slowly around it, staring at the little machine in his hand. He stopped on the far side of the rock and squatted as he slid his hand slowly down the rock and into the water.
Suddenly, he was up and running toward her, kicking up great sprays of water. "Down!" he shouted. "Get down!"
Before she could understand what was happening, a blast of noise and wind and water shoved into her, knocking her flat onto her back. She lay still, feeling the prickly cushion of weeds beneath her and staring up at the blue and empty sky above. A roaring filled her ears and although nothing hurt, it seemed best, for the moment, just to lie here and try to figure out what had happened.
She closed her eyes and saw it again, the tight S-shaped curve of his body as he squatted, the sunlight glittering on the water, his hand moving over the curve of warm rock as a man might caress a woman's hip. The sudden noise and the force.
Illya. Arms flopping clumsily, Francesca pushed herself upright. The water flowed, the sun glinted on its surface, everything as before except that the rock was gone. Illya was gone.
With a sick dread, she swiveled her head carefully, looking for some unspeakable sign of what had happened to him. Instead, she saw him, whole, just downstream. He was sprawled half on the bank, half in the water. The old blue shirt was torn in two large rips down the back, but there was no blood. Half walking, half crawling, she made her way to him.
“Illya!" she called out, and was startled at the muffled sound of it, like a very bad long-distance connection. He didn't move. She knelt and carefully tugged on his shoulder. His weight was heavy and inert in her grasp, then he moved, mumbling and jerking. He ended on his back, his head flopped heavily against her knee. The blue eyes stared up at her blankly.
There was no damage she could see. She let him rest, as she had rested, returning to stasis. Eventually he blinked, and licked his lips, and shifted his limbs experimentally.
He tried weakly to sit up and she helped with a palm on his back, feeling his warm, wet skin through the torn shirt. "Are you all right?" she asked, and he turned to stare at her lips. "Are you all right?” she repeated, pleased that, from her perspective at least, the long-distance connection was much better.
He nodded carefully and turned to stare out across the stream. "Booby-trapped," he murmured.
They sat in silence for a while. An angry crow shrieked a challenge from across the stream, demanding to know what all the disturbance was about. Kuryakin stirred at the sound and pushed himself to his feet, holding out a hand to her.
"We're just going to leave?"
"There's nothing left to do here," he said, "and your neighbors will have heard the blast."
Francesca led the way to the car. She directed him on back roads and they met no one, although she could see the dust plumes from two trucks hurrying to the bridge along a parallel road.
Back at the house, with the car parked out of sight, Francesca pulled down the brandy and poured two generous doses. He took the cup without comment and they drank it down. The brandy burned, a clean and straightforward heat that flowed comfortably into her arms and legs and up along her spine.
She set the empty cup on the counter. “Well," she said, surveying the droop of the torn shirt, the soaked jeans, "I guess I'd better find some more clothes for you.”
Kuryakin shrugged carefully. "I might as well put my own clothing back on. I suspect we've just seen the last of whatever device Kincaid planted here."
"What exactly happened?"
"He knew U.N.C.L.E. was close and he rigged a bomb to prevent us, or someone else, finding the transmitter. I stupidly triggered it when I was trying to loosen the machine."
“Robert did that, left that bomb to kill you? My kids fish in that river. Everybody's kids fish and swim there. If one of them had. . ." With the image of it, she felt the hatred balloon up in her chest, pressing painfully against her ribs. "That son of a bitch. That dirty son of a bitch." The unfamiliar words, male words, felt harsh on her lips, and wholly unsatisfying.
She looked up and found Kuryakin watching her. "He could have killed my kids," she said. It seemed very important that Kuryakin understand. "He stood on that rock and waved to me, and smiled. The son of a bitch smiled at me from that rock."
She wasn't sure what she needed to hear, but that wasn't it. Angrily she pushed herself away from the counter. "I'm going to clean up," she growled and headed for the bathroom.
The hot shower pointed out scrapes, sore muscles she hadn't been aware of. Running the soapy cloth gently over her breast, she remembered suddenly the feel of Robert's lips there, the sight of water streaming through is gray hair, his hands possessively grasping her waist. She jerked the bath brush from the plastic hook on the wall, scrubbing fiercely here, and here, and down to her thighs where his lips and hands had touched.
She wrapped one of the yellow flowered towels around her and padded damply to her bedroom. Sitting at the old vanity that had belonged to Richard's grandmother, she surveyed herself in the spotted mirror. The makeup from before had run, making raccoon smudges under her eyes. She wiped them away with cold cream. How barren her face looked. How old.
The scattered silvery hairs above her left temple seemed so numerous now, a gross sign of her aging. She hadn't even thought to take down her hair; she flopped the wet braid over her shoulder. The rubber band tangled and she pulled at it savagely, enjoying the sound of her hair tearing.
A warm hand closed over hers. "Francesca, don't."
She looked up into the mirror and met his solemn gaze. He pulled the braid back and began gently untangling the band. Francesca studied his intent face, the clever fingers. When the band was off, he unwound the braid. Looking up into her face, "Brush," he said, and she handed it to him over her shoulder without taking her eyes off him.
He knew to start at the bottom, gently working out the tangles, until he could make a broad, smooth stroke with the brush from her forehead to the tips of her hair, the sort of movement an artist might make with bold color. She couldn't remember when she'd last had her hair cut, when someone else had last touched her hair in this careful way. Each small tug seemed to pull at a string buried deep inside her.
"You should wear your hair down," he murmured, still brushing. "It's lovely." As he said it, he lifted the gray strands, letting the sunlight shine on them.
Francesca reached up and caught his hand. He raised his face and she stared into his eyes in the mirror. He tried to pull away, but she held tight.
"Francesca," he began.
She tugged his hand forward and pressed her lips against his knuckles.
"Francesca, don't. This is a mistake. I'm no more permanent than Kincaid was. Less so. You're upset, confused. . ."
“Do not tell me how I feel," she ordered. "My husband will be home tomorrow. I will spend the rest of my life here with him. Peacefully. But before I can do that, I have got to get Robert out of my head. Off my body. I can smell him on me. I tried scrubbing it away, but it’s still there. The taste of him is still in my mouth. I need something to replace that. I need you to help me recover myself."
"I will be gone soon - this evening or tomorrow morning. I will not be back and I will not write or call." It was a warning, and he meant for her to take it seriously.
"Perfect,” she said.
He looked at her assessingly for a moment. Very carefully and deliberately, Francesca loosened the towel, pulled it away from her body, let it drop to the floor. His breath came out in a soft sigh.
She tugged his hand down and laid it against her breast. After a moment's hesitation, he slid the other hand over her shoulder, down to cup her other breast. Francesca closed her eyes and leaned back against him, feeling. She rocked with the rhythm of his hands gently massaging, his fingers teasing deliciously at her nipples. Clever fingers. Behind her neck, she felt the nudge of his hardening flesh.
She slitted her eyes open; in that indistinct focus it was like looking at one of those old-time, erotic postcards she had found tucked secretly in with Richard's Navy uniform the fall of dark hair on bare skin, strong masculine hands on soft flesh, the voluptuous curve of her thighs, the dark patch of her pubic hair. He was staring at her. Slowly, she spread her legs, feeling surprised and wanton and ecstatically aroused.
She pulled his hands away, kissing each palm, before turning around on the stool. With a growl of aggression, she hooked fingers through the belt loops of the soggy jeans and pulled him close, between her thighs. She rested her cheek against the rough cloth and the tender swelling beneath. He rumbled low in his throat and she felt it in his belly and smiled.
Reaching around his waist, she tugged the gun loose. It was heavier than she had expected, warmed by his body. Black, with a white "K" embossed on the handle. She ran her hand over the phallic shape of it foreign and deadly and remorseless and wholly a part of who he was.
With a shiver, she laid it on the vanity, next to her jewelry box.
Her fingers were nimble with the snap and the zipper, as though she had done this a thousand times. Beneath, he wore plain white boxer shorts. The pants slid from his hips, landing in folds around his ankles with a wet rustling sound. She slid the shorts down, too, and he stepped free with bare feet, graceful as an animal discarding an ill-fitting skin for a new, supple, taut one.
Francesca grasped the bottom edges of the shirtfront and jerked them apart, sending buttons flying, and tugged the damp material off his shoulders.
His penis, flushed and erect, was just before her face. She licked at the swollen vein gently and he grasped her shoulders. She tugged it down, sliding her lips around the hot head of it, teasing gently with her teeth. Richard loved this, and she felt a twinge of shame at how infrequently she was willing to indulge his desire. She eased forward, taking him as far into her mouth as she could and then sliding away. Over and over. She caught his hips in her hands, her palms sinking into the hollow at each side, her fingers digging into the tensed muscles of his buttocks, controlling his movement.
She felt his hands tightening on her shoulders, his muscles tensing further beneath her hands, and she released him. He gasped at the sudden withdrawal, opening his eyes to stare down at her in a lost way.
Then he pulled her up and flat against him, his penis, her breasts, crushed between their bodies. His hand cupped the back of her head, fingers tangled in her hair and he kissed her lips, soft and salty and opening easily for him. She might forget the rest of it, hoped that she would, that it would fade to that remote place where dreams go upon waking. But she knew she would remember the kiss.
When he finally released her, she staggered dizzily, and he swept her up into his arms and carried her to the bed. The coverlet, she thought, and immediately forgot about it.
He was warmly beside her and over her at once, pulling her into another kiss. Her fingers spread over the muscles of his back, curved around the clipped wings of his shoulder blades.
She tugged him on top of her, spread her legs around him and pulled him into her. She moaned. How many times had she made love in the last four days, and it felt this time as though she had been waiting years.
They moved together perfectly; the old bed obliged with a gentle rocking motion that brought out every creak. Francesca laughed into his mouth. Beautiful old bed.
He moved, an exotic, undulating motion that somehow managed to reach every part of her and she sighed with satisfaction. Sometimes, with Richard, she couldn't help thinking of the old bull, grunting over his labors with the cows. It hadn't been like that in the beginning. She smiled to herself, remembering their clumsy and exuberant love-making, in the hills outside Naples, in a tatty hotel room. They had made this bed creak, too, in the earlier years, and laughed aloud and then shushed each other so the children wouldn't wake.
Illya slid an arm behind her back, shifting her and she gasped at a whole new sensation.
She was close now. She dug her fingers into his arms, wanting ... wanting ... It was like the ocean, from so long ago, lifting her perfectly. She spasmed. Again, higher. Again. Again, blissfully, before she settled, languid on the sand.
He had finished just after her, and Francesca had opened, drawing him fully into her and cradling him through the tremors.
They lay now, limbs tangled, the coverlet stained and lumpy beneath them. He was gasping still. Francesca laid her palm against his chest and felt the thunder of his heartbeat like an ancient drum. He pulled her close, nuzzling into her hair. "You are a dangerous woman, Francesca," he murmured, with a smile in his voice.
She kissed his neck and bit his shoulder and rocked, dreaming, in his arms.
A shrill and sudden two-tone beeping shattered it. Illya thrashed himself free of her and the bed and stumbled to the discarded clothes. He fumbled a pen from a pocket, flipped its cap, which shut up the beeping, and put it to his lips.
"Kuryakin," he snapped.
“Well, hello to you, too," an amused masculine voice said. "Did I interrupt a meal or a nap?”
A flush spread along Illya's cheeks. "Neither," he said briefly. "What happened?"
"Bad guy's in custody. A lonely lady in Lansing is wondering what's happened to Mr. Wonderful. I am on my way to the airport filled with the satisfaction of a job well done. What about you?"
“The device was booby-trapped. It was destroyed in the explosion." Illya's voice was flat. His eyes didn't turn toward her, but she knew the next question was for her benefit. "Was Kincaid injured?"
“Tsk, Illya, you wound me. It was a smooth take-down. I didn't even bruise him. And I'm fine, too, thanks for your concern."
“You are always fine. Has there been any luck at the other locations?"
“The teams are still looking. Daryl said you were most insistent on looking around the water. We'll find the fiendish thingy. Don't you worry about blowing up the best lead."
Illya snorted. “Thank you. I will see you in New York."
"Right. I'll let you explain to Waverly what happened at your end. Solo out."
Illya slowly reassembled the pen and laid it beside the gun before turning to her. “You heard," he said.
She nodded. "What will happen to him?"
He slid back down beside her, leaning against the headboard and she pillowed her head on his stomach. "He will be questioned, held in one of our detention facilities until Thrush offers a worthwhile trade, or he asks to be detrained.”
"Umm. His memories of his time with Thrush can be blocked, a form of induced amnesia. It is permanent."
She tried to imagine it Robert endlessly pacing a tiny cell like the tiger in the zoo in Cleveland, maybe for years. Robert set free, but lost and confused about where, who he had been.
Either alternative seemed impossibly cruel. Until she remembered the explosion. "Good," she said.
After a while, they were hungry again, so she pulled on her old chenille robe and handed him one of Richard's, and they sat at the kitchen table spooning rocky road ice cream out of the carton.
"Do they have ice cream In Russia?"
He shrugged. "No doubt. I haven't lived there for some time.”
"Do you miss it?"
"Do you miss Naples?”
The question brought her up short. Did she? If he suddenly produced a plane ticket and laid it on the table before her and told her she could go back for good, would she take it? Francesca shook her head. "No, this is my home. Here. What about you? Where is home?”
"New York, I suppose.” He smiled ruefully. “Like Kincaid, I travel a lot."
She smiled with sticky lips. "I'm glad you do. I was beginning to wonder, though, if anything was going to come of it. But then there were a couple of times when I thought you were going to kiss me," Francesca went on.
"So did I."
"When you gave me that piece of chicken."
She loaded her spoon with care and suddenly flipped it at him. He gasped in surprise as the blob smacked against his cheek, then glared at her murderously. Laying his spoon aside, he scooped the dregs of half-melted ice cream from the bottom of the carton and advanced on her menacingly. With a squeak of alarm, Francesca scrambled for the door.
A firm hand on the back of her bathrobe stopped her and his arm was around her, pinning her against him while his other hand spread cold goo over her face. She struggled without success until he turned her around and shoved her against the refrigerator.
Her eyes firmly squinched against the ice cream, Francesca felt him press closer and then something very soft brushed over her eyelid. His tongue, she realized, and trembled. He took his time, carefully cleaning her. When he reached her mouth, she opened her lips and drew the cool, efficient tongue inside.
When he moved away, she caught his hand and carefully sucked the ice cream from each finger. Chocolate-scented breath sighed from between his parted lips. When she had finished, Francesca slid a hand behind his neck, pulling him close again and carefully licked the sticky trail from his cheek. "You need a shave," she said, making a face, and tugged him upstairs to the bathroom.
She ran a tub full of steaming water. There wasn't any bubble bath, so Francesca poured half the bottle of Wind Song under the tap. The sweet smell filled the bathroom. Illya grimaced, but lowered himself gingerly into the water with her.
Francesca slathered up lather with the shaving brush and soap Richard had abandoned when the kids bought him an electric razor for Christmas. He held still while she knelt between his legs and carefully painted it over his cheeks and chin and neck. She hadn’t realized how much she missed this very masculine ritual; she would have to persuade Richard to switch back.
She had put a fresh blade in the razor when she shaved her legs during Robert's visit; it slid smoothly over the angles and planes of his face. She felt him tremble when she tilted his head back and began on his throat. She was suddenly aware of the pulse beating vulnerably under the blade, and finished very carefully.
When she was done, she wiped his face tenderly with a washcloth and kissed his wet lips.
He nudged her back against the porcelain and tugged her legs up to rest on his knees. He soaped first one of her feet, then the other, carefully washing each toe. Then her calves, her knees. Her thighs. Until his hand, slick with soap, was between her legs, touching with sure knowledge just where and how she wanted. She floated, lost in some sensuous lagoon.
With a slosh of water, he slid silkily up her body, covering her warmly. Bracing his arms on the sides of the big tub, he lowered his face to her, kissing her tenderly.
When he pulled away, she opened her eyes in time to catch the expression on his face he was preparing to leave. The look was there, regret and apology and a chilling remoteness as his mind turned to the next ... task? He opened his mouth to say it, to make it real. He would say the words and slip from the tub and help her out and dry her gently and drive away.
"No," she growled before he could speak, and wrapped her arms and legs around him and dragged him down into the water, twisting so he ended up lying beneath her. Instinctively, he started to struggle and she tensed, expecting him to strike her.
Instead, he forced himself to lie still.
"We are not done,” Francesca informed him, straddling his hips and pinning his shoulders against the tub. "You can leave tomorrow morning, not before. Until then, you are mine. Understand?"
His expression surprise and anger shifted slowly to amused interest. He nodded.
Francesca felt her lips curving into a smile. What a glorious feeling, to know what she wanted, and demand it, and get it. And now?
She leaned forward, her breast close enough to feel the coolness of his breath against the nipple. Obediently, he closed his lips softly around the erect bud. His tongue raked softly across the sensitive flesh and she shivered. His teeth closed gently, a tiny pain that magnified the pleasure.
One of his hands was sliding between their bodies, between her legs, parting the soft lips there. His fingers were there again, rubbing in just the right place, and she began to rock her hips back and forth with the movement.
His other hand was there, too, busy with his own pleasure. Pulling away, she bent to look down, to watch him pumping at the firm column of flesh. He was close, she realized, eyes nearly closed and lips parted. Pulling his hand away imperiously, she slid forward and impaled herself. He moaned aloud and arched beneath her. A few strokes, no more, and he flooded her with heat. Francesca felt her muscles flutter, clench, rhythmically beat out her own orgasm.
She lay stretched out, boneless, along his body, the water lapping coolly at her hips. His hand was stroking over her wet hair, his lips brushing against her ear, an excruciating tickle.
In the end, it was Francesca slipping from the tub, giving him a hand out. She dried him, and he dried her, carefully and slowly. She smelled of soap and Wind Song and sex, but not of Robert. Not of Robert.
They crawled beneath the covers and sank like exhausted children into sleep.
When Francesca woke, the room was dark except for the moonlight. Illya, had turned, facing the door again, and she was spooned against his back. She raised up and peeked over his shoulder; his fist was nestled under his chin, just as she had known it would be.
She sank down, pressed warmly against him. When did the little bits of intimate information lose their magic? When did they become so numerous they had no value? If she concentrated, how many such secrets could she conjure from her years with Richard? The nod of his head that told her it was time to nudge him off to bed before he fell asleep on the couch. The rasp to his voice that meant he had spent too much time cleaning out the dusty hayloft. The overlong touch on her shoulder that meant he would want sex that night.
But, too, there was the shy grin whenever she glanced over and found him staring at her with possessive pride. The unintelligible mumbles that she nevertheless knew was the sound of Richard talking to her in his sleep. The more and more frequent lost and frightened look in his eyes when she shifted away from his touch or ended a conversation with a toneless and terse response.
And, surprisingly after all this time, there were all the things she didn’t know. What would he be doing, if he didn’t have the responsibility of a wife and children? What did he say to her in those dreaming conversations? What would he have done if he’d come home and found her with Robert? He was a gentle man, but firm in his beliefs, built rock-hard by his work on the land. If they fought, he would win. She gathered warm satisfaction from the image of Robert on the kitchen linoleum, bleeding, with Richard standing over him. But he wouldn’t know about Robert. He must never know, because he might stop loving her and the thought of that was unbearable.
She shivered and pressed close against Illya, wishing for the first time in a long time for the familiar smell and feel of her husband. It was odd, wasn’t it, that her worry and her shame was all focused on her time with Robert? She had betrayed her husband with two men, not one, but she felt that only one had soiled her. The other had washed her clean. When he left, it would be like the stream flowing on, leaving her here in her solid life. She slid an arm around his waist and pressed a grateful kiss against his shoulder, chaste as the kisses she gave her children as they slept.
She woke early in the morning and slipped carefully out of bed. Illya might want to make love again if she woke him, and the time for that was past. Richard would be home today.
She pulled on the robe and tiptoed from the room, noticing as she passed that the gun was not on the vanity. She paused for a moment, panicked. Robert! Then she realized, Illya must have woken and gotten it during the night. His hand was tucked under the pillow now and she felt a tug of sadness that he should feel so unsafe, even here.
Homemade biscuits. Fried eggs. Sausage from Jim Duff’s farm. Jam from last year's crop of strawberries. Coffee. Juice. She was floating the embroidered tablecloth onto the table when she looked up and found him in the doorway. His hair was neatly combed. He was wearing the suit pants and carrying the leather holster, looking for his shirt.
His eyes moved over the kitchen, taking in her preparations. He nodded, understanding that this was a farewell, and agreeing.
Francesca brought the shirt from the sun porch where she had set up her ironing board. He nodded appreciation of the snow white, crisp cloth and pulled it on. He hung the holster over the back of a chair and turned familiarly to the cupboards while she tended to the eggs and sausage.
As they ate, they talked of neutral topics the source of the sausage and eggs, the already building heat, the best route out to the highway.
Francesca cleared the table, watching from the corner of her eye as he pulled on the holster with the casual ease of much practice. She held his jacket as he turned so he could slip it on. She leaned forward, pressing her cheek for a moment against the warmth of his back, then smoothed the cloth over his shoulders while she blinked away tears.
It all seemed to be happening so fast. A hard hug, a chaste, brotherly kiss, a wave as he drove past her, a last glimpse of the blond hair lifting in the wind through his open window.
She sat on the steps for a few minutes, running it all over in her mind. Then she got up and did the dishes and put the tablecloth and coverlet into the washer.
Pouring herself another cup of coffee, she wandered out to the porch swing, staring down the long, empty road. There was a distant lowing, and her eyes traveled over the smooth sweep of the land. Their land. In a little while she would take a long walk through the fields, making sure that all was well. Then, Richard and the kids would be home.
She smiled, remembering Illya's voice soft in her ear: “Richard is a lucky man."
Well, he was about to get luckier. They both were.