Authors: Antoinette van Heugten
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult, #Thriller
Danielle and Max sit on a bench in the hospital courtyard the next morning. He seems groggy from whatever monster sedative Kreng injected into him. Danielle puts an arm around his shoulders and gives him a squeeze. As she looks at him, so subdued and sweet, she believes that he must be terribly remorseful about his behavior yesterday. After considerable thought, she has dismissed the horrible incident as a fluke. She knows that Max is terrified that he may be like the other patients in the unit, and Jonas is, sad to say, the very worst example for him to see every day. Danielle is certain that when Jonas surprised him, Max’s retaliation was merely a knee-jerk response. That must be what happened.
“How are you doing, sweetheart?”
Max moves out of her embrace and turns to her, his face pale and anxious. “I feel—weird. Like things in my head are sort of scrambled.”
“What do you mean?” She keeps her voice nonchalant.
His face closes. “Never mind. It’s nothing.”
“Max, we need to talk about what happened yesterday.”
He glares at her. “What about it?”
“Why did you attack Jonas?”
Max’s face flares red. “It wasn’t my fault! The guy came at me while I was asleep. I just pushed him off of me and he fell. He’s a freak—always mooning around and driving everyone nuts.”
“But Marianne says you hit him.”
Max jumps up from the bench and points an angry finger at her. “Then she’s a goddamned liar!”
Danielle decides to switch the subject. They won’t get anywhere this way. “Okay, Max. Come sit down.”
He sits, but this time at the end of the bench, as far away from her as possible.
Danielle sighs. “Are you feeling okay physically?”
He shrugs. “I guess so. Kind of sick to my stomach.”
“It’s just the new meds.” She avoids mentioning the sedative. There is no need to set off another outburst. She pats his arm. “The doctor says you’ll feel better in a few days.” Max grunts, leans back, and closes his eyes. Danielle takes a deep breath and then asks the real question. “Are you feeling less…depressed?”
Max opens his eyes wide enough to glower at her. “Don’t go there, Mom.”
Danielle nods and tries to look as if everything is all right. She turns her face up to the warm sunlight, and they sit like that in companionable silence. Then Max moves closer and lays his hand on her arm. “Mom?”
“What is it, honey?”
His eyes are wide with a fear he can’t hide from her, although he’s trying to do exactly that. The piercing on his eyebrow looks particularly cruel above the dark smudges under his eyes. “Dr. Reyes-Moreno said she has some tests for me today—if I’m not too sleepy.” He is quiet a moment, hands folded on his lap. He raises sad eyes slowly to hers. “After I finish those, will they tell her if I’m nuts?”
Her spine stiffens as she fights to speak in a normal voice. “You’re not nuts.”
Max slumps down farther on the bench, refusing to meet her gaze. Danielle tries to take his hands in hers, but he pulls
away. “Yeah, right,” he mutters. “That’s why I’m here. Have you noticed how sane the rest of these geeks are? Not to mention that creep yesterday.”
Danielle cannot disagree, so she does what she usually does in such situations. She bullshits. “You’re different from those kids, sweetie,” she says softly. “All they’re going to do here is fine-tune your medication and get to the bottom of your…depression.”
Max lowers his head like a veal calf that’s been lied to about its imminent slaughter. “Sure.”
All Danielle can think about is how awful it must be for him to watch these terribly disturbed children and to worry if—or when—someone is going to tell him how screwed up he is. She holds out her hand, palm up, their secret sign of solidarity. He places his on top, and they link fingers. His hand is almost bigger than hers now.
She takes a deep breath. “Yes, baby?”
His green eyes stare directly into hers. “What do we do if they say I’m really crazy?” He turns away quickly, as if he can’t bear hearing the question out loud, much less the answer. Danielle takes him in her arms and holds him to her. His thin body quivers like a mouse caught in a trap. She squeezes him tighter.
She doesn’t have any answers.
Danielle manages to slip a twenty-dollar bill to the bartender and grasp the icy double vodka he offers. Anything more than this is beyond her physical or emotional capabilities. Witnessing Max’s fear and pain this afternoon proved more than she could bear. After they went back to the unit, Danielle deposited Max into the care of a chipper Reyes-Moreno, who bustled him off for testing. The backward glance Max gave her tore a fresh slash in her heart.
She takes a healthy sip of her drink. The cold and wet of it jump-starts her, the alcohol producing a welcome effulgence that shimmers down her body. She relaxes enough to take in her surroundings. Plano is a one-horse town, and the hotel is modest, but the bar is a thing of beauty. Soft chandeliers bathe the room in forgiving pools of light as soft music slips through hidden speakers. The carpet, thick and luscious, mutes the murmur of guests who sit around low, glass tables, conversing in small tribes. Danielle drinks steadily until the glass is empty and then holds it up, ice cubes tinkling. The bartender catches her eye and nods. Just as he slides the next glass of elixir across the slick wood of the bar, someone touches her elbow.
Danielle turns. A man stands before her. She puts him at about six foot three and fiftysomething. He has white hair at the properly distinguished places around his temples. All-starched white shirt, designer tie and custom suit, he is the
epitome of a successful businessman. It is only the kind, brown eyes that prevent Danielle from giving him her customary terse dismissal. “Yes?”
“This is a bad cliché, but may I buy you a drink?” His voice is deep, mellifluous. “I promise—if you don’t want company, just say so, and I’ll go sit in a corner and drown my proverbial sorrows.”
Danielle regards him for a long moment. Her choice is the same as his. Either she can sit here and run the miserable reel of her life over and over, or she can talk to someone else and try to forget about Max for a few minutes. She is suddenly aware that the black dress she slipped on after her shower clings closely to her body. She forces a small smile. “One drink—and then back to your corner.”
The smile he flashes back seems genuine. He takes the seat next to her and raises his index finger at the bartender. “One of what she’s having. When hers is empty, bring another.”
“This is already my second.”
He turns and fastens mesmerizing brown eyes upon her. “Then I’ll have to catch up.”
She holds out her hand and makes a split decision. “Lauren.”
“Tony. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” There is an awkward silence as they wait for his drink to arrive. When it does, he raises his glass to hers. “To a better evening than the day before it.”
“I’ll certainly drink to that.” They clink.
“So,” he says, “what possible reason could you have to be in Plano, Iowa? You’ve got big-city girl written all over you.”
She smiles. “Good guess. Manhattan.”
“Aha.” He reaches over the bar and relieves a plastic container of its olives. He lays a few on her cocktail napkin. “The question still stands.”
Danielle dodges his glance. “You first.”
“It’s too clichéd,” he says. “I’m going through a divorce. My wife prefers that I live elsewhere until it’s final.”
Danielle raises an eyebrow. He laughs. “No, really—it’s the truth. I have family and friends here.”
“So, what are you doing at a hotel?”
He gives her a wry glance. “Would you stay with family when you’re the one who wants the divorce?”
“Point taken.” Danielle takes a sip of water, flaming the small hope that it will cut the vodka already swimming around in her head. “Do you have children?”
“No.” His voice has something bitter and raw about it.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t pry.”
“Not at all. And you?” He takes off his jacket and folds it crisply over the back of his chair. Danielle catches a waft of something—Old Spice mixed with man, perhaps. It creates an urgent longing in her, one she immediately dismisses. She can’t afford these selfish thoughts, not while Max is in that terrible place. As if he reads her thoughts, he touches her hand. “Listen, if the subject makes you uncomfortable, let’s talk about something else.”
She looks at him gratefully. “Thank you.”
“Are you married?”
She laughs. “I thought you were going to change the subject.”
“I did,” he says. “Now we’re talking about you.”
She swivels a bit toward him and crosses her legs. “Let me try to cut right through this. I’m not married; I have a son; and I don’t want to be in Plano, either.”
“Hmm.” He slowly unknots his tie and leans back in his bar stool. Everything about him exudes a quiet confidence. “Which begs the question—why are you here?”
Danielle blushes. She set him up for that one. “Is it important?”
“No, not really,” he says. “Except for one aspect.”
“And what might that be?”
“Do I have to dazzle you tonight, or will I have another chance tomorrow?”
“I’m afraid not.” She is surprised by the playful tone of her own voice. “This is your only shot.”
He shakes his head. “Damn!”
Amazingly, she feels lighter than she has in months. She dismisses the possibility that she is also drunker than she has been in months. She doesn’t care. “Where do you live when you’re not hiding out in Plano?”
“Des Moines,” he says. “So tell me, what is it you do in Manhattan?”
Danielle is uneasy. She doesn’t want to talk about Max, her work, her problems—anything about her real life. Her grip on her emotions is a frayed thread. If she even mentions Max’s name, she will burst into tears. The alcohol is already fomenting feelings she hasn’t permitted herself to have in years—a yearning for intimacy with a man who could love and support her during these grueling times with Max.
She hasn’t had a real relationship since Max was born. Her short affair with Max’s father—an unhappily married lawyer at an ABA convention—ended in a pregnancy he never knew or cared about. Since then, no potential suitor was permitted entry into the inner circle reserved to her and Max. Tonight there is no possibility of complication—not with this kind stranger at the bar.
“Let me make a proposal,” she says. “No questions about the real world—kids, marriage or work. And no last names.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Isn’t that usually the man’s line?”
“Maybe, but those are my ground rules.”
“Then you’ve got a deal.” The brown eyes twinkle. “Are books and music okay?”
The tension in her neck subsides. “Absolutely.”
They spend the next hours in rapt conversation. He loves opera; Danielle has a subscription at the Met. She is an avid hiker; he goes white-water rafting every summer. They are both amateur chefs. Danielle’s specialty is Indian; his is Thai. His humor and warmth enchant and delight her. When Danielle finally checks her watch, she is shocked to see that it is almost midnight.
“It’s getting late,” she says.
“I think I should go.” Her voice is flat.
He leans closer and takes her hand. His touch is electric, synaptic. The air between them is dry powder hungry for the flame. Danielle can hardly breathe. His deep brown eyes are intent upon hers. When he speaks, his voice is hoarse. “Please don’t leave.”
Danielle hesitates. She should walk away—before she can’t. Those eyes, his caress—they mesmerize and enthrall. Her whisper is a feather in the wind. “I…don’t know what to do.”
He rises from his bar stool, still holding her hand. “Come with me.”
There is no question where he wants her to go. Spellbound, she stands before him. He grasps her elbows and pulls her lightly toward him. As if her body already knows his, she leans forward into his embrace. As his arms envelop her, she does not question or falter. She is lost, yet found.
The darkness is voluptuous velvet. Danielle hears the click of the lock and watches the smoky outline of his body make its way to the bed, where she lies under the sheets. As he removes
his clothes, the spicy ambrosia of his naked body reaches her before he does. As Victorian women swooned, Danielle reels from the essence of this man—unfamiliar, but known. There is no thought other than to have him touch her, know her, consume her. The moment that he lies next to her and their bodies cleave for the first time, she is aware only that she has never been so completely vulnerable, so friable. She simultaneously craves and fears.
Danielle can barely see his eyes, but what she sees is intense and yearning. She moves her hands to his face and holds them there, the roughness of chin against her palms, the softness of cheeks against her fingertips. He whispers something and moves his lips to her neck, throat, breasts. She wants to remember him—every detail of his body, his smell, the feel of his hands on her.
She runs her fingers down his body, shaken with a desire so strong it seems like molten silver streaming from her. His chest is covered with thick, fragrant hair. It is pure male, a luxurious field—all hers. She slides down farther, wanting to feel his pleasure and to have him feel her desire to please him. He stops her and lays her gently on her back. He lowers his mouth to the soft of her stomach. It continues its journey until he reaches the soft folds, the secret middle of her. She opens herself to him and closes her eyes, relinquishing all but the pulsing of her body and the sweetness of his tongue. It is a slow, maddening, upward spiral of sensation—an unbearable yearning and then a height, a reaching, an explosive burst at the pinnacle. She cries out, writhing and peaking, again and again.
As if he can wait no longer, she feels the thrust of him inside her as she clings to him, moving in time to the ancient dance, a single pulse. At the moment of release, she rises—hips, mouth, arms, thighs—to meet his arching abandon with
a fierce climax of her own. Afterward, they lie in each other’s arms. He holds her tightly to him, his breathing irregular, his heart beating strong against her own. As she meets his mouth, she tastes herself, him, them, on her lips. Something breaks inside her, and tears stream from her eyes. Her sobs are ragged, rough blows that rack her body. They are Max, her loneliness, her pain—her joy.
“Shh, shh,” he whispers. “It’ll be all right.” His words are a balm, his arms strong and solid around her.
“No, no, it won’t,” she whispers back, her voice thick, throttled.
“Then hold on to me.” He squeezes her tighter.
She clings to him as the dying cling to life.