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Not My Lover - Enigma by Deslea R. Judd Part 3 WIP
Summary: This is a WORK IN PROGRESS. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2. Prequel to Not My Lover, but stands alone.


The next couple of months passed without incident. I lived at The Den, mostly for convenience. Companionship, too, I suppose; for Diana stayed in Maxwell's suite - all the voting members had suites reserved for their exclusive use, and I convinced Edward that The Den was a nicer environment than their hotel. I might not have done that if Elizabeth had been older; but I thought - hoped - than an infant wouldn't pick up on the strange dynamics of the place.

I gradually searched Samantha Mulder's suite, but so far I'd come up empty. I saw to the administrative needs of the facility. I found reasons not to see my mother. I took care of the courtesans, put them through school, and was always glad when one left for a better life. I didn't employ any more.

The Dark Man trained me, and he connected me with a handful of undemanding submissives. There was Senator Matheson, who liked to masturbate while I demanded details of his escapades with his toyboys. That was a tough one for me; I felt fiercely protective of Diana, and Matheson had had a hand in her divorce from Mulder. There was an assassin named Fordham, who would answer any question as long as he was allowed to play with my hair; and Senator McKay, who had a foot fetish. An up-and-coming FBI executive named Kersh. And Edward Donovan, who played my favourite in public, and played Scrabble with me behind closed doors. He was the only one allowed to touch me, kiss me - invade my space in any way. That was all right, because I trusted him. More than that, I trusted his unwavering devotion to Diana and their children.

So I was chaste...untouched.

But after a while, it hardly mattered.

As much as the idea of being groped by those men repulses me, there is something about their very presence that affects me almost as badly. They don't touch me, but they still get under my skin. And so does the awful, tantalising, breathless wantonness of the place. I want to be - oh, God, it's hard to write this - I want to be pushed against a wall and fucked. I want to be taken and used and I want it over and over again, hot and hard and fast, and I don't care who by. The words offend me as I write them, affront me, confront me; and yet even now, some dark part of myself throws back her head and moans. I am surrounded by flesh, by sex stripped of meaning, and the incredible power of that arouses all my darkest instincts. It infects me like a drug.

It's insidious.

And it would be so easy to give in to it - to embrace the emptiness.

But that would be giving up on everything I believe and everything I dream of. To reduce lovemaking to sex - no, I can't do that. I can't surrender my dreams of something more.

Because right now, dreams are all I have.

He touches me.

Just a single touch, and I feel my body respond. His hands on my shoulders, his breath on my neck as he pushes aside my hair. I gasp, half pressing myself to him, half pulling away, right on the knife-edge of indecision. "Marita," he breathes, his lips brushing my ear, "beautiful Marita."

At the endearment I feel my resistance melt away. With a gasp of aching longing, I whirl around, pressing myself against him with a low sigh of need. "Oh - oh, God-" I blurt incoherently.

"Marita," he rasps again, his breath hot on me. His hands are on me, moulded to me, seeking me, knowing me. He holds me close, possessively, and I give myself up to it willingly, crying out his name.

I kiss him, hard; press my mouth to his and devour his taste and his scent ravenously. The only man I've ever wanted. The only one who brings those faint embers of instinctive need and sets them alight. How could I have ever thought those embers were desire? They are nothing to this. His hands cradle my face, his lips adore me, cherish me, take me and make me his. My legs buckle, and he pushes me to the wall, pressing me there, sinking to his knees, sliding warm, firm palms under my skirt, over my thighs, drawing my panties down, leaving my stockings and garter intact; and now I know I'm dreaming, because I've never worn a garter in my life; but, God, I don't care, do it, please - please -

So warm.

His mouth, so moist, so warm, kissing me, loving me, taking my most secret places, laying them open, treating them as something precious. I cradle his head with my hands, leaning over, curling my body to reach him, to kiss him tenderly. He takes one of my hands and lays it against his cheek, and he says my name and makes it sound like love. And I'm shaking, shuddering against him, his mouth still moving over me, still giving, still loving, and then I sink to my knees before him and kiss him once more. I want his mouth between my thighs, I want his warmth inside me; but more than anything I want to kiss him, want to hold him close and make him mine. With the miracle of dreams, he's naked, we both are, and he's so warm against me, his torso so effortlessly cradled to mine, fitting to me perfectly. I lay on my back, my legs twined around him, his body held close to mine, his arms holding me close; he seeks not to enter or to plunder, but to caress and embrace; and he slides into me almost as an afterthought, his eyes never leaving mine. His presence within me is nothing, it's insignificant, it means nothing in the face of what's within that shared gaze; and yet it's everything, binding us, joining us, making us one, making us whole. And as he moves, it seems to me as though he's been there all my life, waiting. At last, I hold him tight against me with my legs, pressing him into me as far as he can go, holding him tight within me, cleaving to him with my whole being. And then I'm shuddering, the blood in my veins ice-cold and white- hot all at once, and I can feel him spilling within me, emptying himself into me, giving me as much of himself as one person can to another. His seed is warm; it finds its way within me, seeking to join, seeking to grow, seeking to become more than it is now, to become something new, a new creation. And then I realise that the miracle of life is not conception, but unity; and whatever else becomes of that seed, it has made me his. And as we fall against one another, as we come to rest, still shuddering, still gasping, still clutching one another, I cry out his name.

"Alex -"

I woke up.

I stared at the ceiling, very still, unsure of where fantasy ended and reality began. My hands were fists, clutching bright handfuls of blue velvet cushion, and I was stretched out over crumpled sheets of satin. Tentatively, I reached down to touch myself, and then I drew back with a hiss: I was excruciatingly aroused, acutely painful to the touch. I was warm and slick there, but unnaturally cold everywhere else. And I was shaking.

"Jesus," I whispered.

I threw aside the covers and rose; ran to the basin on the elevated dais and splashed my face with water. I stared at my reflection, breathing heavily, disturbed by the harsh spots of colour on my face. I'd never seen myself like this. I'd never *been* like this. I hung my head in my hands, leaning there against the basin, breathing shakily. "Oh, God."

There was a knock at the door.

"Whatever it is, Connie, it can wait," I called absently.

"It's not Connie. It's Diana."

I was nearly weeping. "God, Diana, please, can it wait?"

She sounded concerned. "Let me in, Marita."

Pulling on a robe, I stalked to the door and wrenched it open. "What?" I demanded harshly.

A look of worry flitted over her features. "Rita? Are you all right?"

I tried to fake it, but the smile just wouldn't form. Finally, I said, "No, I don't think I am." I opened the door and let her enter. She did so, and I shut it gratefully.

She took her time, putting her cellphone on the dresser and dropping down into the overstuffed armchair by the bed. I started to pour myself a scotch, then reconsidered, remembering that Diana was nursing. I poured us both an orange juice. Probably a better idea for that time of the morning, dreams or not.

I handed Diana her drink, and sat on the bed; my composure slowly making a comeback. She said quietly, "Now, are you going to tell me what's wrong?"

"Diana, I can't," I said miserably. The very thought of finding the words I'd have to use chilled me.

"It will help," she said kindly. "Really, Marita. It will all seem a lot smaller once you get it off your chest."

I stared at her. "You know," I said with vague uncertainty.

"I have a fair idea," she said gently. "I've been where you are, Marita. I've seen what this place does to people."

I nodded slowly, accepting the truth of this. I wasn't the first to be screwed up by this place - male or female. I thought Diana was probably thinking of Samantha.

"I've been having dreams," I said hesitantly, at last. "Intimate dreams." I frowned. "They - they bother me. They - frighten me."

Diana sat back, shrugging a little. "Sex is a powerful instinct," she said easily. "And you're surrounded by it. All the aches and the loneliness of being suddenly single are magnified. It's really not surprising that it's getting to you. Marita, you wouldn't be normal if it didn't affect you."

"It's insidious," I blurted. "The more I stay here, the more warped my grip on what I need is getting. I - I feel like I'm splintering." I buried my face in my hands for a long moment. "Oh, God."

"You were at the right psychological moment for this, Marita. That's all. If you can ride it out without doing anything you'll hate yourself for, you'll be fine."

"I know." I sighed wearily. "The Dark Man said that if I was unavailable, I'd be safe - but he was wrong. It's no better than the alternative, and sometimes I think it might be worse."

Diana's expression was kind - and troubled. She rose and came over to me, and drew me close. She was warm and soft against me, and it was comforting. I leant my face against her shoulder. "Not everyone wants something from you, Rita," she said gently. "Some of us just love you." She stroked my hair tenderly, and I thought fleetingly that she must be a very good mother. "And there will be others."

She held me that way for a while; but at last, I pulled away. I stared down at my hands, opening and closing them compulsively. I said morosely, "You knew this would happen, didn't you?"

"I had a pretty good idea," she said softly. "It isn't worth it, Marita. Whatever you're trying to find, whatever ideology is driving you, it's okay to walk away. There are other soldiers. You've lost so much-"

"I had a sister," I burst out.

Diana looked at me, sitting very still. "What did you say?" Her face was suddenly ashen, confirming something I had already suspected: that she had already known.

I watched her steadily, but didn't repeat it.

"How the hell did you find out about that?" she demanded at last.

"So you did know," I said coolly. "I wondered."

She had the good grace to look shamefaced; but she remained resolute. "Let it alone, Marita."

"Oh, that's rich," I said in a low voice. "This, from a woman who kept the fact that I had a sister from me. A friend," I added scathingly.

She flushed, but she didn't back down. "Did you ever stop to wonder why?" she demanded in frustration. "Why your mother and Michael and I and the others kept it from you? Marita, I know how much you think you need to know, but I promise you, some things are best left alone. Some things can turn your world upside down, with no net gain."

"I think your view is coloured by what happened in your marriage," I said pointedly. She winced, but she didn't look angry, as I would have. In a way, that angered me even more. "I'm not Fox. And I have a sister I never even knew, whose very existence was systematically hidden from me."

Diana bowed her head. She said in a low voice, "Don't do this, Marita. Please."

I held her gaze, resolute. "I have to. Don't you see that?"

"I see it - that doesn't I think you're right."

"So does that mean you're against me?" I demanded.

She hung her head in her hands for a long moment. Looking up at me with a sigh, she said with genuine warmth, "I will always be on your side, Marita. But I will not help you do this."

I looked away. I said bitterly, "I think you should leave."



From the corner of my eye, I saw her nod. She rose; said finally, "Marita, please don't hate me."

I turned to face her, and I felt my features soften a little. "I don't," I admitted, reaching out to take her hand. And I didn't. We'd been through too much together. "But right now I need you to go."

She nodded reluctantly, and then she did as I said.

"How did the meeting go?"

The Dark Man stirred his coffee thoughtfully. "Pretty much as expected. Edward got Michael's place in the voting circle." He looked tired.

"So we still have a majority?" I speculated hopefully.

He shook his head morosely. "No. A lot of our votes were in exchange for CIA favours from Michael. We got some of them back with favours from you, as you know; but our faction is a minority now, I'm afraid."

I made a sound of disgust. "Dammit!"

"There's more bad news - not catastrophic, but inconvenient," he added at my look of alarm. "Edward has to go back to Tunisia in a couple of weeks. I believe Diana and the baby are staying for a little longer, but we have to find you a new squeeze." I made a sound of annoyance.

"All right," I said wearily. A passing courtesan waved in greeting, and I shot her a quick nod and smile. "Who did you have in mind?" I asked, putting my teacup to my lips.

"I'm not really sure," he said quietly, taking a long drink from his cup. "I'm thinking about Krycek, though."

I sputtered. "What? He's not even on the inside!" Not to mention the fact that I'd never met the man, never even heard his voice; and yet I'd heard him say my name in my dreams a thousand times over.

"He's further in than you think," the Dark Man said. Then, in an undertone, "He knows something about Larissa."

I was instantly on the alert, dreams forgotten. "How so?" I demanded eagerly.

"He's been asking questions about her whereabouts in 1971 and 1983."

I watched him, my brow furrowing thoughtfully. "I didn't realise you and he were on those terms."

"We're not," the Dark Man said dryly. "We're communicating by email. He thinks I think he's Mulder."

I looked at him with some admiration. "How do you know that?"

"He left me a note at Mulder's apartment one night. I already knew from my surveillance that Mulder was at Krycek's," he added. "Young Alex's car was a couple of blocks away. It wasn't a tough call."

I snorted. "You Consortium types obviously aren't training him too well, now," I teased.

"Subterfuge of that kind is not required of him at this stage," he said evenly.

"Just as well," I snickered, ignoring his reproving look. No sense of humour. "So what are you doing about it?"

"Feeding him scraps. He's worth having on side."

"What do you think he knows?" I wondered.

The Dark Man sat back, spreading his hands expansively. "I'm not sure. But I think you could find out."

I frowned. Diana was right, I supposed; he'd just happened to enter my landscape at the right psychological moment. The dreams didn't mean anything. They could be handled. Just because dream-Alex left me breathless, didn't mean it would translate into real life. He was probably a total jerk.

I asked finally, "Do you think he can be trusted?"

The Dark Man laughed mirthlessly. "Trust no- one, as Michael used to say. But I think he's willing to use and be used."

I nodded slowly at this. "I'll think about it."

"There's something else," he said quietly. I signalled a passing waiter for another pot of tea.

I looked at him curiously. "Go on."

He watched me for a long moment. "Your name was mooted as Michael's successor last night."

I looked at him in genuine disbelief. "Me?"

He shook his head in a clear, you're-missing-the-point gesture. "Oh - it wouldn't have eventuated. You're too young, too new. The nomination was a gesture of respect to Michael, that's all." I nodded in understanding, and waited. "Your being voted down was no surprise. What was a surprise was the vehemence of your most vocal opponent."

"Who was it?" I demanded quietly.

"Your mother." He watched me closely. "Marita, I'm beginning to think that you're right about Elena. I think that maybe she's the key to something bigger. She could be the key to everything."

The waiter came then, with my tea, and we broke apart from our huddled stance. I nodded, frowning, as the waiter moved on to the table behind me. "Would you like a refill, Mr Krycek?"

My eyes widened, and I worked not to turn around. Now that I really looked, I could see him dimly reflected in the glass partition at the end of the room. "He's here a lot lately," I said in a low voice.

"He's staying here for the moment," the Dark Man said calmly.

"Krycek is living here?" I demanded.

"He was involved in the Dana Scully abduction. He had to go on the run. I gather he doesn't have anywhere much to go."

"So he's a bit lost?" I asked, instantly on the alert.

He looked at me strangely. "I wouldn't put it quite like that."

I waved a hand in negation. "No, I mean - he's short on allies. He's ripe to commit to us - to take a role in our work. No conflicting loyalties."

The Dark Man shrugged. "Well, he's still on Spender's payroll, but Spender is only using him as a hired gun. There can't be a lot of job satisfaction there. I don't think Krycek would feel particularly bound to him. And after all, he knows I'm Mulder's informant and has never turned me in."

"That's a point." I met the Dark Man's gaze with a sudden sense of purpose. "All right - introduce me." I caught Krycek's reflection in the glass once more.

"It's time we reeled him in."


"Where are you up to?"

I look away from the laptop, up at Mare; and as always, her smile invites one of my own. "Just finished transcribing the blue journal." Then, more hesitantly, "The one just after Michael died."

Her smile falters a little. "Oh," she says in a husky voice. I hold out my hand, and she takes it, squeezing tightly. "Thank you for doing that - especially with your hands," she adds, looking not at my hand, but at the hand that is not. "I couldn't have done it. Not yet." I only nod and draw her down across my lap. We sit there for long, pensive moments, her eyes scanning the monitor. Part of me wants to close it, but I won't do that to her. Not when so many people have treated her like a child already.

At last, I say lightly, "So...just the right psychological moment, huh?"

She laughs a little, and it eases my mind to hear it. "Oh, Alexi," she sighs, "I got so many things wrong back then. And I nearly drove you away," she adds remorsefully.

"You didn't," I say quietly. "You won't."

She kisses me then, just once, and I hold her tightly. There's something clinical about writing in retrospect - everything becomes small and manageable. But reading her account as she lived it makes me love her, who she was and who she has become, so much more. I never thought it was possible to love one person more than I loved her, but apparently it is.

Because I love her more every day.

"You know," she says, pulling away with a knowing smile, "Gibson and the children are in Ksar el Kabir for the day."

"I knew that," I say mildly, teasing my hand over her leg, sliding it up under her skirt - just a little. God knows, I love making love to her; but in some ways, this languid, companionable touching is just as good.

"We could fool around a little," she tells me, stroking my cheek idly; then amends thoughtfully, "or a lot."

I begin weakly, "I should-" and then my resistance dies as her lips meet mine. When she presses herself against me, I slide my hand up her back, holding her there. We have lost too many precious moments over the years to let any slip away now.

I can write tomorrow.


Not My Lover: Enigma *NC17* 3/?
Formerly Love Will Keep Me Alive

Deslea R. Judd
Copyright 2001

DISCLAIMER: Situations not mine. Interpretation mine. Deal.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name and headers.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Season 1-2; mytharc spoilers to Closure. This instalment is Alex's version of the events after Ascension to just before Colony.
CATEGORY: angst, mytharc, romance - Krycek/Marita (explicit), Marita/Other (historical), Mulder/Krycek (a little).
RATING: NC17 for sexual situations and language.
SUMMARY: Prequel to Not My Lover. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2.
NOTE: This story can be read without reading Not My Lover, but if you haven't done so, it will be helpful for you to know that the Dark Man is X, Maxwell Donovan is the Well Manicured Man, Michael Harrington is Deep Throat, and Diana Donovan is Diana Fowley.
DEDICATION: This chapter dedicated to the late Lee Burwasser, with whom I engaged in many spirited exchanges. Lee, your wit and fire will be missed.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. deslea@deslea.com
UPDATES: drjuddfiction-subscribe@yahoogroups.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Finalist, 2001 Spooky Awards (Outstanding Unfinished Work, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation, Outstanding Marita Characterisation, Outstanding Krycek/Marita Romance).

The story so far: When Alex Krycek was assigned to partner Fox Mulder, he attended the funeral of Deep Throat, Michael Harrington, hoping to get more information about the assignment. He met Mulder's ex-wife, Diana Donovan, now the daughter-in-law of the Well-Manicured Man. He also saw UN aide Marita Covarrubias, Michael's young fiancee and a child prodigy. Diana gave him access to information and directed him to a sex club owned by Michael and inherited by Marita. He learned of a faction within the group that was opposed to hybridisation - including Michael, Maxwell Donovan (WMM), Marita's mother Larissa, and Bill Mulder - but he was not sure why they were opposed.

Krycek and Mulder became lovers. He learned that Marita, as Marita Ekaterinberg, went to college with Diana and Mulder at Oxford (she knew the former but never met the latter); while an imposter went to Harvard and became a scientist. Krycek began emailing X, posing as Mulder, pumping him for information about the Covarrubias family - a fact X was aware of but chose to play along with. When Scully was abducted, Alex had to decide whether to co-operate or walk away. He co-operated because he had new information that might blow the work open: Marita and her imposter were identical. Now, Alex is on the run, living at the club, determined to find out the truth about the identical women.

Meanwhile, Marita ? who had decided to find out what Michael died for - learned of the existence of a twin sister and, with her mentor, the Dark Man (X), decided to try to find her. X speculated that Elena had been surrendered with the hostages in 1973. Marita searched for the diaries of Samantha Mulder, a double agent who died by suicide two years before, as X seemed to think they might shed some light on what happened in 1983, when Marita was banished to England. Marita had balked at the idea of using The Den, the sex club she had inherited from Michael; but decided it was worth it to find her sister. Because she was inexperienced, X devised a plan to protect her (sexually) by making her a dominatrix; but Marita found over time that she was affected anyway. Diana counseled that it wasn't worth it, and, like WMM, warned her against searching for Elena. When Diana's husband, Edward had to leave the country, Marita needed a new "favourite" submissive, and when the Dark Man told her Krycek knew something about Larissa, she decided he might be a good place to start. It is clear now that Alex is writing in retrospect after the events of Not My Lover; but Marita's account is from her diaries at the time. Now, Alex takes up the tale.


No love story is complete without the first meeting.

That's what Mare says, anyway; and it has been a source of good-natured bickering for several days now. For myself, I remember our first meeting as a mildly amusing charade, in which we each gave a reasonable performance of knowing little about the other. There was curiosity, maybe a little attraction; but there were no longing gazes, and no precognitive flashes that, not too far down the track, she would be my world.

It was Gibson who finally broke the deadlock, suggesting that if Mare felt so strongly about it, perhaps we should transcribe her account of it from her journal. Well, she got it out and read it; then, a little shamefacedly, she admitted I was right. Score a small victory for the retrospective reporter. To ease the sting, I ask her where she thinks I should begin instead.

"That day in the spa," she says at once. And because I know exactly which day she means, I agree.

"What day was that?" Gibson asks with fascinated apprehension. He's afraid, in a way he wouldn't have been before the painful advent of adolescence, that the answer is something sexual. There's a perverse part of me that wants to jerk his chain a bit, and I would have done it once; but because he's my son now, I say instead:

"It was the day I called her Mare."


"It's a nonsequiter."

"What?" Diana said absently, taking aim. Her concentration was unwavering.

"It's a nonsequiter. Out of place." She squeezed the trigger, and in the same instant, a hole appeared in the cardboard target.

In the crotch.

She shot me a mischievous look, and I laughed, albeit with a slight grimace. I took the Sig from her and took aim.

"I know what a nonsequiter is," Diana said with a withering look. She nodded to the target. "What are you going for?"

"Groin. I'm gonna go straight through that hole you already made."

"Fucking showoff. What exactly is a nonsequiter?"

"It's something that's-"

"-out of place," she finished, stealing my line. "Stop being cryptic and tell me what you're blathering about." There was a residual British undertone to her voice that I found very appealing.

I fired. "The ice arena," I said, nodding to the building a little way off to the left of the shooting field. "It's out of place."

"Has it moved since we've been on the range?" she queried ingeniously.

"Don't be idiotic." I removed the empty clip from the Sig and put in a new one. "Try for a lethal spot this time."

"There are arteries in the groin, Alex. They're what make it possible for you to-"

"-rise to the occasion," I supplied. Diana had only a small number of punchlines, and by now I was acquainted with them all. "What's the feminine equivalent of misogynist?"

"No idea," she mused. "You think I'm one?"

"Fucked if I know. All I know is, you're having a grand old time shooting out the family jewels here."

"Fox had some Freudian theory about that."

"He would." I watched her curiously. "You're trying to distract me."

"From what? The ice arena? Look, if you want to play Ice Castles, go ahead." She took aim. "I'll go for the heart - happy?"

"I'd be happier if you stopped the ducking and fucking and answered the question."

"You didn't ask a question," she said, firing pensively.

"Implied question," I amended.

"Just because you imply, doesn't mean I necessarily infer." She handed over the Sig, her expression neutral. I didn't use it.


"Look, what do you mean, it's out of place?" she demanded in exasperation. "We run physical readiness courses for the Group. There's a pool, there's a gym, there's a track, there's indoor and outdoor firing ranges. Tell me why one more sports facility is out of place."

"It's not cost-effective," I pointed out. "What benefits are there, really, besides cardiovascular and muscular? Those are benefits you already get from the pool and the gym, without spending the gross national product of a small country every day in refrigeration."

"It's solar powered."

"Okay." The idea of a solar-powered ice rink struck me as pretty funny, but I didn't say so. I had bigger fish to fry. "But why bother?"

Diana sighed. She turned to face me, irritation evident in the lines of her face. "Look, if you must know, Michael built it for Samantha. When the Dark Man brought her here, she was miserable. No other kids and a lifetime of awful memories. So he built her an ice rink."

"Maybe he should have brought her her mother," I said in disgust. Had he really been as naive as all that?

"Maybe so." She nodded to the firearm. "You gonna use that thing?" I shook my head and handed it back to her. She turned back to the range.

"Diana?" I said after a while.

"What is it?"

"Why the hell are you living here? I'm sure you didn't envisage rearing your daughter in a glorified brothel."

She shrugged. "She's just a baby. She doesn't know."

"But it's not what you'd call ideal."

There was a pause then. At last, she said tightly, "It's convenient."

"No more convenient than your hotel in Baltimore. And you can't tell me money's an issue - that's my excuse."

"Marita asked us to stay. That's all."

"And what she wants, you do?"

"You knew we were friends."

"I know there's tension, too. If she just wanted a gossip partner, you wouldn't be here."

She made a sound of frustration. She turned to face me once more, one hand on her hip, the other by her side, Sig pointed at the ground. "Alex, you think too much. The woman's recently been widowed. She wants her friends around her. There's no mystery here."

"Yes, she's recently widowed. So what's she doing living here? Surely there were better ways she could live out his memory than holing up in his brothel."

"Recreational facility," she corrected, but the smile that flitted across her features was weak. "She says-" her brow furrowed.


"She *says* it's convenient," she said at last.

"But you don't believe her?" I queried, frowning.

She spoke slowly, as though choosing her words with care. "I believe that she believes it."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It's a seductive place."

"Now, that's a nonsequiter."

"Is it?"

I shot her a withering look, crossing my arms over my chest. "It's a weird place, Di."

"Don't call me Di."

"Diana. It's a weird place. It's too much of a resort to be a brothel, and too much of a brothel to be a resort. What the fuck is it?"

A sardonic grin flitted across her features. "It's Michael's ambivalence incarnate."

"Now who's being cryptic?"

She pursed her lips in irritation, raised her shooting arm, and emptied the clip into the tattered target's crotch without so much as a glance in the target's direction. Perfect shot. She was just fucking with my head now, and I didn't take the bait. I watched her steadily, and I waited. "Look," she said with a sigh. "Michael wasn't into this sort of thing, okay? He and Max came from very proper stock. It started out purely as a sex club, and then he started adding things. Things that made it more respectable. The sports facilities. The restaurant."

"Trying to redeem it."

"I guess." She held out the Sig. "Want to do any more?"

I shook my head, holding out my arm so she could see my watch. "Marita and Edward are expecting us."

She nodded, her expression weary, and we left the range together.

We were almost back at the main house when I aired the question that had been nagging at me.

"Level with me, Diana. What am I being drawn into?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"It's been nine days since the Dark Man introduced Marita and I, and my social life has taken a decided upswing."

"She's a social kind of girl."

"Bullshit. She's strictly a put-in-an-appearance type. Now suddenly she's doing dinner and evenings in the spa and friendly contests on the range. Peripheral figures come and go, but you and Ed and the Dark Man are always there. And Marita. Marita in the middle, even when she isn't there."

Diana snorted. "Marita in the middle? You better not start blathering about constellations, Alex. I'm still armed, you know."

I grinned at her amiably. "Can I have an eclipse?"

"No, you bloody well can't. Why are men so sentimental?"

We laughed a little, but then I said in a low voice, "I'm not a fool, Diana."

Her pace slowed, and she turned to look at me. "No, I very much doubt that you are."

I met her gaze. "I'm either being played or groomed. Which is it?"

"That's not for me to say."

"Did you suggest me to them?"

She hesitated; said at last, "No. The Dark Man asked my opinion of you."

"And what is your opinion?" I wondered with interest.

"That you're a sound man. That you're in it for the right reasons."

"You don't know my reasons," I retorted, but my voice was mild. In truth, I was flattered.

She shrugged. "True enough. Shall we say, then, I know you aren't in it for the wrong reasons."

"Okay." We began to walk once more. "Well, since the rules of the game are unknown, I've been working on getting to know my fellow players."

"I hadn't noticed," she said with more than a trace of sarcasm.

"Am I that transparent?"

"No - for a newcomer, you're rather good. I simply asked myself what I would do if I were in your place."

I laughed. "You and Ed are known quantities, at least as far as I need you to be for the time being," I mused, more to myself than to her. She didn't seem offended by the observation - I would have been surprised if she had. There was genuine fondness between us, but ultimately it was a friendship of utility, and she wasn't under any illusions about that fact. "But Marita is a mystery."

"Yes, she is," Diana agreed.

"You don't agree?" I challenged. I didn't really doubt her sincerity, but I hoped to draw her out.

We rounded the corner of the main house. "No, I mean it. She is - even to me. I don't think even Marita herself knows what drives her."

There didn't seem to be much to be gained from pursuing that line of discussion, so I made a noncommittal sound, and I let it go. I swiped my card and opened the door for her. "Walk with me to the spa?"

She shook her head. "Elizabeth's due to nurse. I'll meet you there shortly."

"All right," I said. "Tell me something, Diana."


"Are you keeping her with you because you're nursing, or are you nursing her so you can keep her with you?" It occurred to me just a second too late that that might be an intrusive question.

If she was affronted by me asking, she didn't show it. She looked at me, a little perplexed. "A bit of both, I suppose. Why do you ask?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I just wondered."

She nodded. "I just - I miss Shane, you know? If I'd known when he was born how little I'd get to see him - if I'd known how far the work would take me from him - I just think I'd have - I don't know." She shook her head, frowning.

"Given more?" I said gently.


Diffidently, I asked, "Do you regret having them? I mean, knowing what you know?"

"No. But sometimes I wonder if they'll regret me." She shrugged. "Still, that's one of those things you can't afford to think about if you want to stay sane. What's any of this for, if not for the children?"

I stopped, took her hand, turned her to face me, and kissed her cheek. She drew back, her expression a blend of pleasure and confusion. "Whatever was that for?"

"For being in it for the right reasons."

I laughed at her expression, released her, and I left her there.


A wrinkle of distaste rippled through me, but I suppressed it before it reached my face. I zipped my pants. "Hello, Luis."

Cardinale strode up to me purposefully. If he slapped my arm I thought I might have to kill him, but he didn't. "What you doing here?"

I shot him a withering look. "Same as you, asshole." I turned away from the urinal and washed my hands.

He called over his shoulder, "I thought this place would be a bit too heterosexual for your liking."

I looked him up and down in the mirror. "Well, there's not much male talent today, so I figured I'd walk on the wild side." I shook the water off my hands and headed for the door.

He zipped up and followed me out, catching the door behind me. He nodded to a couple in a corner and whistled. "That, my friend, is a walk on the wild side."

Dutifully, I followed his line of vision to a man in his thirties and a woman in her twenties. They were sitting together in one of the hot tubs, the man holding the woman across his lap. They were only kissing, but I saw what he meant. There are some people, I thought, who exuded steam.

For once, Cardinale had had an insight.

This was rare enough an occurrence to warrant a thawing in relations. "Not bad," I agreed. Who knew? If I were agreeable enough, maybe he'd go away. Miraculously, he did, mumbling something about the sauna. I waved him off absently, making a mental note not to go in there for a while. The thought of Cardinale naked was just too horrible to contemplate.

I turned and scanned the room. It was sparsely populated, though it would fill up as the afternoon wore on. A handful of people were congregated around the bar, about half of them house girls. In a corner sat Marita Covarrubias, her languid form stretched out over a luxuriously overstuffed armchair. She was in trademark black leather, blonde tresses tumbling in waves over her shoulders. Just for a moment I thought of the restrained young woman I'd seen all in white three months earlier. The contrast between then and now was marked.

I moved towards her, and as I did so, I saw that she was watching the same couple Luis had pointed out to me. Watching her in profile, I noted the way her lips were parted; saw the fast, shallow rise and fall of her breasts in time with her breathing. Her eyes were wide and bright. Watching the couple was erotic, in an oddly detached sort of way; but watching her watching them was hypnotic. I was transfixed.

I was just about to go over to her when Richard Matheson came around the bar and made a beeline in her direction. I wasn't in any mood to deal with him, so I retreated, my back to the wall. That wasn't a bad policy when Matheson was around in any case. Besides, I figured Marita would be pretty eager to drag him to her room herself in her current state. Mentally, I turned over polite ways of explaining her absence when Diana and Edward arrived.

That didn't turn out to be necessary. When Matheson touched her arm, Marita flinched, pulling away, crossing her arms over herself in an unconscious gesture of protection. Her whole body was stiff, and while I couldn't hear her, it was clear from her body language that his attention was unwelcome.

I watched the moment unfold with growing bewilderment. She had responded to him far differently to how I had expected her to. She was hot as hell - she ached to be touched. Her whole bearing had said so. Yet the moment Matheson had done so, she'd just shut down. I was willing to accept that her connection with him was based less in sex play and more in the exchange of information; nonetheless, with a certain sexual comfort zone between them, I had - without any prejudice whatsoever - expected that she would draw on that in her current state. There was something profoundly wrong with the whole picture.

I was debating whether to break the moment when she spotted me. Her features flooded with transparent relief. "Alex, dear!" she said in a high, clear voice. I didn't think she'd called me 'dear' before - or anyone else, either - but I took it for what it probably was, a gesture of favouritism to me, exclusion to him. I came over to the other side of the chair and sat on the arm, leaning over, intending to kiss her cheek. I found her lips on mine instead, and she lingered there a little longer than necessary.

I pulled away and nodded to Matheson. "Richard," I said by way of greeting. "Are you joining us?"

"Richard was just leaving," she said crisply before he could reply.

"Another time, perhaps," I said, not very enthusiastically.

"Indeed," she said with a winning smile at him, shifting close to me.

"I'll see you later, Marita," he said with a deferential nod. "Alex."


We watched him leave, and when the men's locker room door banged shut behind him, she relaxed visibly. She shifted away again with an apologetic look at me. I just laughed, and she laughed a little too.

"That guy gives me the creeps," I said before I stopped to think about it, then cursed my tactlessness. I waited for her to defend him - creep or not, he was still her submissive, and she was his protector.

She didn't defend him. "Me, too," she admitted. She turned to look up at me. "But how are you, Alex? Edward and I missed you this morning."

"I was out shooting with Diana. She'll be along shortly."

Marita nodded. "How'd it go?"

"On the range? I've discovered a deep-seated fear of castration."

She laughed. "Diana was in fine form, then?"

"As always."

"Did I hear my name taken in vain?" The voice of the woman in question resounded behind us.

"Diana!" Marita's voice was suffused with warmth. "How's Elizabeth?"

"Sound asleep," she said, coming around to stand before us, arms folded across her body. "It's so nice to know that the nanny will be able to spend the afternoon watching the soaps."

I snorted. "I'm sure she's filled with sympathy for your plight, what with all that time in the hot tub and all."

"Pure torture, Alex, dear. Speaking of which-" she waved a hand in the direction of the spas.

Taking the hint, I nodded to them both and headed towards the locker rooms to change. I half-turned at the men's door, expecting to see the women at the door to my left, but they were still where I'd left them, engrossed in conversation. I wondered what they were talking about.

I wondered if it was about me.

Shaking off a ripple of apprehension, I left them there.