Welcome To The Harem
Not My Lover - Enigma by Deslea R. Judd Part 7 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.
THIS CONTINUES CHAPTER 4.
"I bet he'd fuck you hard."
Inwardly, I cringed, but I strove for neutrality. "That may be. But I thought we were talking about your fantasies, Richard." Matheson's hands drifted over my shoulders, squeezing them in a mediocre attempt at a massage. His palms were clammy and sticky. I could feel his stale, cloying breath on my neck as he peered over my shoulder, down to the gap between my bikini and the flesh between my breasts. I could feel him groping me with his gaze, and I hated him.
"Oh, but this is, Marita," he said, shifting closer to me. The wiry hairs on his chest itched at my back, and not even the bubbling water could quite disguise the way I arched away from him. "This is a personal favourite, watching you and Alex. Maybe with Diana thrown in for good measure. What do you say, Diana?"
Diana peered at him sidelong over her drink, her features wrinkled with distaste. "Screwing Marita and Alex, I can handle. It's the audience I have a problem with."
Matheson's voice dripped mock reproach. "Be nice, Diana. Fox is ancient history for both of us."
Diana turned to face him in a single, sharp movement. Water flicked off the ends of her hair. "You screwed my husband - in every possible way. Don't tell me to be nice." She muttered into her drink, "Asshole."
I intervened. "Richard, back off. Diana's off-limits."
I felt him shrug. "Then I guess that just leaves you and Alex."
That hurt - God, that hurt. I hadn't even been able to make love to Alex, and I had to listen to scum like Matheson talk about it. Talk about it like *that*. "Richard, it will be a cold day in hell before you get to see me fuck anyone."
"Then I'll have to settle for fantasy, won't I?" he said, squeezing my shoulders. He leaned in, his breath hot and humid in my ear. "Do you want to hear it?"
"Not particularly." Oh, please, no. No. I closed my eyes.
"I think he'd push you down over the side of the spa there," he said, squeezing harder. "I think he'd strip down those leather pants you wear and leave them around your ankles so you couldn't move. I think he'd put his hands on your ass and spread that pretty pink cunt-"
I tuned out. It took every ounce of will that I had, but I managed to reduce his voice to a buzzing hum in my mind. Now and then, fragments would register, progressively more ugly and coarse as time wore on. I felt my face grow hot with humiliation. I didn't want him to think of us that way. I didn't want anyone to think of us that way. I felt soiled.
Diana was watching me; obviously, acutely uncomfortable. Whatever disagreements had passed between us, I was so grateful that she stayed. Her hand closed over mine beneath the water, and I held it tightly. It wasn't until I tasted salt that I realised that there were tears slipping down my cheeks.
Finally, I pushed his hands off my shoulders and pulled away. "You're boring me, Richard. Go away."
"But we have an appointment-"
I cut him off. "I don't care. Go away."
"If I'm boring you, perhaps I should be punished-"
I turned to face him and hissed, "I said, go away."
I don't know what he saw in my face, but whatever it was, it brought him up short, made his arrogance falter. He stared at me, compelled to silence for perhaps the first time in all the time I'd known him. He held my gaze for a long moment, and then he did as he was told, pulling out of the water in a rush. I sank back, shivering uncontrollably as he stormed off to the men's locker room.
"Rita," Diana began.
I looked straight ahead, breathing deeply, willing my body to stop shaking. "Diana, I'm fine."
"No, you're not."
I opened my mouth to argue; but she shifted closer to me, leaning in, propping her head up with her hand like a schoolgirl about to whisper some girlish confidence. She said in a low voice, "Marita, do you know what Alex asked me a few months ago?" I shook my head. "He asked me if you were raped."
It hit me like a fist to my belly. "Oh, my God," I whispered, my hand pressed to my mouth. I sat there, shock coming over me in waves. "What did he tell you?"
"Nothing. He was very discreet," she said. "But I can read between the lines." Her look was kind. "You've got to get out of this, Rita."
I shook my head wretchedly. "I can't."
"Why not? Just walk away, Marita. Move back into Michael's apartment. Leave the house to Connie - I'll watch her, make sure she looks after the girls. We'll put around that this whole dominatrix kick was a bizarre grief response. We can say there were drugs involved."
"And what about Alex?"
"What about him?"
"We can be together here. We can do the work we need to do here. It's a controlled environment. We can't do that outside." At least, not without turning rogue, but that was too frightening to contemplate. "We're from opposing factions. If Spender gets wind that there's something between us - something important - he'll kill him."
"Maybe we could barter for him," Diana suggested. "Edward could use him. We could spare one of our scientists."
"No. In other circumstances, maybe, but Spender was grooming Alex as a potential successor. He'd take it as a personal slight."
"Maybe if you were careful-"
"You know better than that. We find listening devices nearly every day."
She nodded, her face grim and resigned. I was right, and she knew it. "Look, Marita," she said, "I have three men in DC that I can trust, and I can probably scrounge another two from Max. Do you want me to bring them in? They can be your submissives - purely for show. You wouldn't have to take any of this crap from them."
I grasped at her hand. "Would you?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I would."
I breathed out, a shaky sigh of relief. "Thank you, Diana." She sat there, waiting, while I grew calm. At last, I released her hand, and I shook my head. "Do you know, I'm only just starting to realise how surreal it all is?"
She looked at me, brow furrowed with confusion. "How do you mean?"
"Diana, we're sitting here talking about bartering for the man I-" I faltered, meeting her gaze and finding sympathy. I started again. "It's like he's a trinket in a shop. And I used to take that for granted - all the assumptions about people's worth and people's freedom and the value of life and all that - I bought into it all." I shook my head incredulously. "I believe in the work, Diana, but there's all this other baggage that goes with it, and I used to buy all of it. Completely." I looked away, ashamed. "That probably sounds very naive to someone who came in from outside."
"It does, but it's understandable. You were raised in it."
I looked at her once more. "And you came in. I had a part in that. I'm sorry about that, Diana."
She bowed her head, regret lighting over her features, but then she looked up again with a bittersweet smile. "I'm not. The work is hard, but it's worthwhile. And I found Edward - he's a good man. He's worth it."
"Alex is a good man, too, Rita. Please don't let this place take him away from you." I shook my head.
"I don't intend to."
I made my way to my suite, my mind whirling.
Alex had asked if I was raped.
Of course he did, Marita. What the hell was he supposed to think? Did you really think he just blindly accepted all this? Did you think he didn't wonder why you are the way you are?
Did you think it didn't hurt?
In truth, I hadn't thought much about it. I worried, of course - I worried that he thought badly of me; I worried that he would tire of me with my stupid, stupid limitations. When he held me so chastely in the bed we shared, I wondered whether he resented me for what I couldn't give him, but it had never occurred to me that he might grieve for me. I had totally underestimated the depth of his compassion.
I had underestimated his worth.
An ugly realisation, but I owed him the recognition of its truth. I couldn't give my body - not yet - but I could give him that. I could give knowing what he was. I watched him with new eyes that night, thought about all the little ways that he accommodated me; and I wondered how all that looked through his eyes.
When we were getting ready for bed, I sat at the dresser and began to brush my hair. He came and sat behind me, taking the brush from me without a word. We didn't do this so much anymore - sharing a bed had gradually supplanted this as intimacy - but just once in a while, he would see me sitting there, and he would come and be with me.
What was he thinking, I wondered, as he brushed my hair? It wasn't a masculine gesture, but a feminine one - one he did very much for me rather than him. Did he make love to me in his heart when he touched me that way? Did he do it because that was the only way he could? The thought pleased me and saddened me in turns. He looked peaceful, sitting there - perhaps, then, this was the time to draw him out.
"You asked Diana if I was raped."
He looked up, meeting my gaze in the mirror. His eyelids flickered. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I did."
I watched him, and I thought that he looked sad. "I don't blame you for wondering why I am the way I am."
"It hurts you," I said. "I never realised that before."
He looked back to my hair, evading me. "Mare, we don't need to have this discussion. This is something that's happening to you, and I don't want to take away from that."
"I think we should. We should because it's happening to both of us." It shamed me to think we had been together this long without me realising that. I insisted, "This hurts you. Doesn't it?"
He frowned, staring at my hair. He didn't brush it, though; just stayed there, very still. At last, he said, "I hurt because you hurt. And because you don't know how good it could be for us. I don't just mean the sex - I mean that part of you that just can't let me in - that part that shuts down and shuts me out."
I said nothing, but only waited, watching him in the mirror. At last, he looked back at me, meeting my gaze in our reflection. "You don't know how I could touch you." His voice was tinged with sadness. I turned to look, not at his reflection, but at him. "I would touch you the way a woman should be touched. I would revere you," he said, putting the brush aside. He smoothed my hair with his hands, and, sighing, I put my head back, turning it a little, longing for his touch. I felt some deep hunger in me break free of its bounds, growing lazily as he leaned over my shoulder. I turned my face to him, and his warm breath hit my cheek as he said hypnotically, "I would worship you."
He slid his hands down over my arms, his palms catching on the fabric, dragging it torturously across my aching flesh. His fingers reached my wrists, tracing tiny, lazy, gossamer-soft circles there, sliding languidly over the backs of my hands to cover them, teasing back and forth over the clefts between my fingers. He entwined his fingers with mine, holding me from behind, clasping my hands with gentle relentlessness, and I found myself holding him, responding to his pressure with pressure of my own. "I would let you touch me - really touch me," he breathed into my ear, laying his head on my shoulder from behind, "and maybe I could touch you. If only you'd let me in." I could taste salt - salt from tears I hadn't realised I'd shed, because how I wanted that; and I hated myself for my weakness. We stayed there for a long, long moment, holding one another; but then there was a hitching sound, a sudden catch in his breathing. He said thickly, painfully, "But you never will."
His arms broke free of me in a rush, and I flinched as he left me. I felt naked and cold - and alone. He kissed me, just above my ear. "I need to skate, Mare," he murmured into my hair. "I'll be back." God, he was going to weep for me. He was going to take his pain and release it alone. To spare me. Oh, dear God.
He rose abruptly, stalking to the door in long strides; and I felt some dam within me break. I wanted everything he'd said, and I wanted it with him; and at last, my wanting outstripped my fear. I got to my feet, and I cried out, "Touch me, Alex."
He turned, his hand on the doorknob, his expression shocked. I spoke nakedly, without artifice, my voice low and raw with pain and need. "Please touch me."
He watched me for a long, long moment, throat twitching, face working, lips slightly parted as though to speak. And then he came to me, his hand outstretched, raising it to my cheek but stopping just shy of me. I closed the gap, pushing my cheek into his palm, taking his skin there between my lips, cherishing it because it was his. He made a sound of need, low and raw and keening, his breaths shaky through parted lips. "Oh, Mare," he whispered, lifting his other hand, cradling my jaw with it, leaning in to lay his mouth on mine.
He paused just as our lips met, his breath hot, his eyes wide and shining and fixed on mine. He was trembling, and his chest rose and fell in rhythm with mine. "Alexi," I whispered into his mouth, and I kissed him, slow and adoring, my mouth opening beneath his. His lips were soft and caressing, his mouth warm and engulfing. I drank him in, sliding my fingers over his neck, teasing them through his sweet, soft hair. He touched my face reverently, as though I were something precious, and I felt adored.
I tasted my own salty tears, and so did he; and he pulled back a fraction. "Okay?" he asked gently.
I nodded. "I never knew it could be like this," I whispered, my lips brushing his.
"It should always be like this," he said wistfully. He smoothed back a tendril of my hair. "Like-"
"Worship," I breathed, and he nodded.
"Worship," he agreed, his mouth on mine once more. He took the lead this time, searching my mouth, tasting me, his arms sliding down to press my body against his, one hand warm and firm at my waist, the other between my shoulder blades. This kiss was masterful, possessive; and I gave myself up to it, and found that I liked it. I wanted to be his. I was his. I am his. And that realisation was not the hateful one I'd expected, because I knew that he was mine.
I slid my hands up over his shoulders, pushing back his jacket, and he released me long enough to let it fall to the floor. Holding his gaze, transfixed, I traced the contours of his arms with questing fingertips - first through his sleeve, then, lower down, skin to skin. He was warm and silky and substantial under my palms, and he made a raw sound of pure longing, the sound escaping him in a rush of breath. My senses were alive, and everything entranced me - the texture of his skin under my fingers; his oh, so long eyelashes framing eyes of mahogany, flashing as they watched me watching him; the exaggerated shape of his lips, slightly parted and inviting.
He raised his hands to my shirt, unfastening the buttons there, and I caught his hand, tracing patterns on his wrist with my fingertips as he did so. We gazed at each other, spellbound, and suddenly, we were pressed hard against one another, kissing once more, undressing forgotten, mouths tender and insistent, a lovemaking of its own. "Mare," he gasped out between kisses, "oh, God, Mare."
"Alexi," I said, huskily, my voice heavy with need. "My Alexi." He nodded agreeably, but anything he might have said was lost as our mouths met all over again. I unfastened the buttons he'd missed on my shirt, wanting to be naked to him; but then he was guiding me to the bed, kneeling on the floor before me, and I sat, sliding my fingertips over his face - forehead, cheeks, eyes, nose, jaw - memorising every contour. His eyes were unnaturally bright, and I wondered how long it had been since anyone had loved him this way - really loved him - or if anyone ever had. Could it be that he'd been as alone as I? The thought of it moved me, and I kissed his eyelids, first left, then right, lingering at each, cherishing the feel of paper-thin flesh and feathery eyelashes. He gave a low moan, thick with need. "You touch me somehow, Alex. You always have."
"You touch me," he whispered, eyes still closed, as though in concession. "I've been yours all along." Our lips met, this time hesitantly, tenderly, and he said against me, echoing my words, "Touch me, Mare."
I touched him.
I pulled his shirt over his head, and I drew him to me, pressing his body to mine, flesh against flesh. We sank back on the bed, fumbling with waistbands, casting clothes and weapons aside. Rolling him onto his back, I explored him in awed fascination, tracing the lines of him with my hands and my lips. I loved the way my palm caught on his ribs as I ran it up his torso. I loved the way the light caught the fine hairs on his arms. I loved the salty taste of his skin in the little crevice at his throat. I was enthralled.
His arm tightened around me, and I let him draw me up beside him to face him once more. His hand drifted lightly over my body, languid and teasing. I thought he would devote his attention to my breasts or between my thighs, and part of me craved that; but he didn't. Instead, he found other places - the crook of my elbow; the place where my belly was slightly curved. He held my hand with his and traced the lines of my palm with his thumb, as though fascinated by this minute detail that was uniquely mine. He looked at me, mahogany eyes gleaming with wonder, and leaned in to kiss me once more, his hand still holding mine. This kiss was slow and searching, tinged with awe, growing more and more insistent until my wanting consumed me.
He eased me onto my back, covering me with his bulk. I arched my body beneath his, sighing, relishing the way he filled my vision, the way his warmth spread over me. His intensity was contagious, and suddenly I was kissing him, hard, my mouth questing, aggressive. The heat was building within me, filling my body, radiating through my limbs and my head. It was the heat of sex and lust, but it was more - it was *him*. He filled my senses, enveloping me, body and soul; and I needed him to make that possession complete. I wound my legs around him, sliding them up his body, pressing his hips to mine. He was hard against me, and I made a low sound, long and raw. "Alex, I can't wait - please -" I broke off with a sigh of exquisite need.
"You're sure?" he breathed, and the tightness was there in my chest, just a little, but I nodded.
"I want this," I said. "I choose it."
"Oh, Mare," he breathed, and then he slid into me, melding with me, bodies becoming one; and I gasped at the precious joy of it. He moved with me, one arm curled around my shoulders, his torso pressed to mine, flesh meeting flesh, hearts beating side-by-side. He cradled my cheek with profound gentleness, with awe. "Oh, Mare."
I kissed him, so tenderly, so reverently. "My Alexi," I whispered, meeting his body stroke for stroke. With every stroke I felt freer and lighter, less afraid, less alone. The warmth gathered in my belly and radiated out, flooding my body, and then I was shaking, crying out his name, holding him deep within myself as he filled me. He sighed out my name when he came - not Marita, but Mare - and afterwards he rested his head against my neck, breathing it over and over in an erratic melody.
We didn't speak, but he gathered me up in his arms, and we stayed there, cherishing one another in the silence. There were no endearments, but he kissed my hair and stroked my face and he made me feel loved. I felt great peace, great joy.
He owned me now, and we both knew it, and that seemed like the most dangerous thing in the world to me. But a small fire within me burned, one that cared nothing for the danger, and that fire blazed in celebration.
Because, God help me, I loved him.
And I know now that I will love him until the day I die.
We spent our first Christmas together in Boston.
Ostensibly, it was a business trip: we went to Harvard, and I met with some of Elena's old professors under the guise of a holiday. The only one who remembered her on any personal basis was a Dr Charne-Sayrre, but even that, ultimately, turned out to be a pointless exchange of social niceties. I filed away the fact that Charne-Sayrre was a variola expert, but that was about the extent of my knowledge gain for the day. Simply too much time had passed: Marita Covarrubias, the scientist, was remembered as a brilliant mind, but no one knew or cared what had become of her. I supposed I would have had the same experience had I returned to Oxford as Marita Ekaterinberg; still, it struck me as sad.
I didn't allow myself to be too discouraged. Harvard was no longer a major lead - not in comparison to the diaries. Alex and I made the best of it: we made love by day and walked hand-in-hand through the city by night. Those were good times. Boston was the first real holiday I ever had, and it felt so good to be normal, to do normal things without looking over my shoulder all the time. It felt good to be with him - to feel his hand in mine as we walked along the Charles, or to lean against him on the steps of Sander's Theatre, or to feel him inside me, whispering that I was beautiful, that he was mine. Boston was his world before he'd joined mine, and I loved being there with him, hearing him reminisce, his eyes far away, back in a time when he was free. We stayed there for three weeks - much too long, long enough to exhaust my vacation time, long enough to be missed by the group - but it was good.
"Was it like this with Mulder?" I asked him one day. It was an idle thought spoken aloud - an ill-considered one - and when he looked at me, surprise apparent in his expression, I said hastily, "I'm sorry - I don't mean to put you on the spot-"
He squeezed my hand, shrugging off my apology. "No. It wasn't like this with Mulder. It wasn't like this with anyone."
He shook his head. "Mulder had too much baggage."
More baggage than me? Dear God. "I have baggage."
"So do I. But we deal with it together. Mulder was hell-bent on being just him against the world."
"Whereas we're together against the world?" I said, arching an eyebrow.
I expected him to laugh, but he stopped, releasing my hand, and turned to face me. He stroked back my hair and tucked it behind my ear. "Yeah."
I smiled, slipping up my hands between us to rest on his shoulders. "I like that."
He leaned in and kissed me. "Me too." He took my hand, and we walked once more.
We were silent as day melded into dusk, but finally, he said with more than a trace of regret, "You know, we're going to have to go back to Westminster sooner or later."
"Yeah, I know," I said. "I hate that place."
His voice was heavy with venom. "One of these days, you and I are going to torch it."
"I like the sound of that."
We heard clattering footsteps behind us, and we both turned. Alex's hand went into his jacket, to his shoulder holster, but I grabbed onto his arm and tugged it down again. I said in an undertone, "It's Bonita Charne-Sayrre."
"Marita?" she called out. "I thought it was you."
We waited for her to catch up. "Dr Charne-Sayrre, hello," I said. I turned to Alex. "This is Bonita Charne-Sayrre. She was one of my professors in college. This is-" I broke off.
Neatly, he filled the gap. "Nicolai Arntzen. Good to meet you, Dr Charne-Sayrre."
"Please - Bonita."
I wasn't quite sure what to say. I was caught unprepared. "Would you like to walk with us, Bonita?"
"Oh, just for a moment. I'm meeting someone at the clock," she said, nodding to the Cambridge bank a little way off. "I'm glad I saw you, though. After you left the other day, I pulled out some of your old papers. I wondered whether you did any follow-up work into variola and thymine nucleotides - you had some interesting theories there."
Elena's research. Shit. "A little," I said cautiously. "I got some promising data, but I'm under contract to a pharmaceutical company. I can't discuss it."
"Oh, I understand. It's a sad day when knowledge is a commodity, don't you think? Still, it's the world we live in. Interesting work - I'll look forward to seeing it published."
"Thank you." I glanced sidelong at Alex, a little unnerved.
"Do you still see any of the other alumni, Marita? I remember during your last semester you spent a lot of time with that professor-in-residence - what was her name? The one visiting from Yale? Sally Kendrick?"
"I remember," I fibbed, "but no. We lost touch."
She shrugged, smiling. "I suppose it's inevitable these days. Oh - there's my friend. Be sure to stop in next time you're in Boston, won't you, Marita?"
"Oh, of course," I said. "Good to see you again."
"You too. Mr Arntzen," she added with a nod.
He nodded, smiling ingeniously. "Bonita."
We waved her off, and I breathed out in a rush. "Thank God that's over. I need to prepare for things like that." Alex shot me a sympathetic grin, his fingers tightening over mine. I mused, "Sally Kendrick from Yale. Might be worth following up."
"I don't think Elena would have maintained any of her old contacts when she went off to work for Strughold. We'd be better looking into that thymine nucleotide business - didn't Samantha mention it in her diary?"
I considered. "You're probably right. Thymine's got something to do with DNA, I think - it's like one of the building blocks. That would fit with the cloning and the hybrids."
"It would. I'll spend some time online when we get back - see what I can find out." Alex nodded to the retreating figure behind us. "That Charne-Sayrre woman knows her stuff. She might be useful down the track."
I snorted. "Yeah, as long as I can continue to pass myself off as a scientist."
"That pharmaceutical contract guff was good."
"I think fast on my feet."
"And such beautiful feet they are," he said, turning to face me, linking his free hand with mine. "You know, if we went back to our hotel I could rub them for you."
"You want to rub my feet?"
He gave a mischievous grin. "For starters."
I turned and led him back the way we came. "Let's go."
"So," I said, dropping onto the bed in exhaustion a couple of hours later. "Nicolai Arntzen?"
Alex sidled up beside me, running a hand over my thigh, teasing it up over my belly. "My middle name and my grandmother's name." He lowered his mouth to my shoulder and kissed it, sucking on my flesh there, and I felt myself wanting him all over again.
I ran my hand idly through his hair. "Nicolai isn't patronymic, though, is it?"
He looked up, resting his chin on my arm. "No. It was for my sister. She died before I was born. Her name was patronymic, but when they had me it was more important to them to honour her. My father was Czech, so it wasn't really his tradition anyway." He leaned forward to kiss me.
I drew back. "Her name was patronymic?"
"Yeah. Nicola Petyrovna."
"I never knew girls got patronymic names, too." My brow furrowed. "I don't have one."
He shrugged easily. "Your mother defected when you were three days old. She probably wanted you to have an American name."
I sat up, crossing my arms over myself. "No, that doesn't make sense. What about Elena's name? Ekaterina isn't American."
Alex sat up, too. "No, but it can pass for German. It's not in-your-face Russian like a patronymic. Remember, people weren't kind to Russians here in the seventies." I wasn't convinced, and he went on, "Look, maybe she was missing your father. Maybe it hurt too much to give you his name."
"You'd think that would make her want to honour him more. She adored Papa - she still carries his picture in her wallet, even now. And my mother isn't given to sentimental gestures."
"You'd think so - but grieving people do strange things. Anyway, maybe he didn't care for the tradition either - Covarrubias isn't a Russian name."
"No," I conceded. "It's Mediterranean. A few generations back, though."
"Well, there you go."
I searched his face for signs of doubt, and found none. "Do you really think that's all it is?"
"Absolutely," he said. "What else could it be?" I shrugged, and he leaned forward, cradling my shoulder with his palm, drawing me close. "Besides. I love your name."
"You love my name?" I said dubiously.
He eased his hand down my body, and I arched my back a little, getting closer. "It rolls off the tongue."
"You know, you shouldn't smooth talk. You don't do it very well."
He grinned. "Made you smile, though."
I grinned back. "Yeah, you did."
He lowered his head to my throat and kissed me there, and I sighed, sliding my leg between his. His thigh was up high, pressed hard against me, and I shifted, relishing the feeling. He murmured, "So are we heading back, or are we just going to elope and be done with it?"
All my arousal, all my good feeling fell away in an instant. The tightness in my chest was suddenly back at full force. My smile faltered a little, but I forced myself to stay neutral. "We should go back. Want me to ring for a flight?"
"Sure." He looked a little disappointed, but he didn't protest when I extricated myself from his arms.
Suddenly, him touching me was the last thing that I wanted.
I hated Westminster.
In fact, between Michael's murder and The Den, I was willing to extend that feeling to the whole of Maryland. That wasn't exactly a newsflash, but after nearly a month in Boston the feeling was acute. Gazing out over the rolling hills and the trees to the distant walls that fenced the compound, I felt imprisoned. For the first time in my life I had tasted freedom, and it wasn't enough. I wanted more. More time, more space, more Alex. Especially more Alex.
Diana's voice came from behind me. "They're just like little old women."
I turned away from my stance at the window. "What?"
She nodded towards Edward and Alex. "Look at them. They're like little old ladies with her."
I looked, and I couldn't resist a smile despite my disquiet. Alex was holding Elizabeth, grinning broadly. Edward was pointing at her cheek and laughing. "What the hell are they doing?"
"I don't know. Pointing out dimples or something. I left when the words got down to two syllables." We laughed, softly, in that indulgent way that women do about their men. She sighed, her gaze lighting on Edward. "It's good to have him home."
"I'll bet. When does he fly back to Tunis?"
We were silent for a few moments, watching them. I said hesitantly, "Diana, this wasn't just a courtesy to me, was it? Having Alex as godfather?"
Diana stared at me, surprise apparent in her face. "Not at all, Marita. I know we haven't known him that long, but he's decent. Edward and I don't know many decent people."
I supposed that was true enough. "It means a lot to me. To him, too, I know." Presently, I said, "It's a big commitment."
"Being a godparent?" she said quizzically. "You know, it's not the whole guardianship thing people think it is. You talked to the priest - it's a formative responsibility, that's all."
"No, I know - I don't mean that." The idea of me having a formative influence on a child was laughable in its own right, but I had bigger fish to fry. "But going into it together - I mean-" I broke off, my brow furrowed.
Diana's voice dropped a level. "Rita? What is it?"
I glanced up at Alex, then away again. "He - he mentioned marriage."
"Alex proposed?" She didn't sound particularly surprised at the idea, and that sent my fears soaring.
"No...no. It was just, you know, a throwaway line. But men don't joke about marriage - do they? Not unless they're thinking about it."
Diana looked uncomfortable. "Look, Marita, normally I'd agree with you; but Alex isn't your typical man. I don't think you can apply conventional women's-column wisdom to him. It might not mean anything."
"Maybe," I conceded. A shiver rippled through my body, and I shifted my shoulders, crossing my arms over my body.
Diana watched me, her brow furrowed, concerned. "Marita, this has really got you spooked, hasn't it? I mean, look - even if he is thinking about it, you must have known he was serious about you. He waited, what, four months?" I nodded. "Men don't wait like that unless it matters to them. It's a little fast, maybe, but we're all on a reduced lifespan here." I passed my hand over my brow and back over my hair. It was a nervous, clumsy gesture. "Don't you want him to be serious? I mean, am I totally misreading this? I thought you loved him."
"No - I - it isn't -" I fanned my hand over my face, feeling it grow red and warm. I tasted tears in my throat, and I could feel the tightness rising in my chest. "It's just all too much - I can't-" I broke off, my hand clasped to my mouth.
Diana's arm was around my shoulder. "I've upset you. I'm sorry." She turned me away from the men and pulled a tissue from her jacket pocket. "Come on, quickly. Before they see."
My breath caught in my throat, a pathetic, hitching sound. "I'm so afraid." I pressed the tissue hard to my eyes, stemming tears before they fell. "God, Diana. Why is this happening to me? Why can't it just be - be easy? Like for everyone else?" She passed me her wine, and I downed it in a single gulp. "I just want-" I stopped, unable to finish.
I heard Edward's voice behind me. "Hey, Alex, let's see what Diana and Marita-" and then I saw Diana look over her shoulder, shaking her head. "-bought for the baby. Come over here." Hurriedly, I dried my eyes and glanced to the mirror on Diana's dresser for reassurance. There was no sign of the recent storm.
"Come on, Rita. Don't do this to him. He doesn't deserve it." The words were harsh, but her voice was kind.
"I know," I said, breathing deeply. "I know that, Diana."
"You ready to go over to them?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Come on."
The men looked up at our approach. Alex was still holding Elizabeth. She was playing with the zipper on his jacket, steel inching along leather. He looked up from child to mother with real fondness. "She's lovely, Diana."
Diana laughed. "You're biased." She looked pleased anyway.
"I deny that. I've been saying it for months."
I still felt shaky, but I forced myself to join in the banter. "So you're merely endowed with good taste, then," I said. He held out his free hand, and after a moment's pause, I went to him and settled into the crook of his arm, letting him sling it companionably around my shoulders.
"Yeah," he said, squeezing my shoulder a little. "I am."
He went back to fussing over Elizabeth, and I watched him in profile. I could feel myself smiling. Just for a moment, what Diana had with Edward - what I had with him in that fragment of a moment - seemed so right. So warm. I could sense the peace and the companionship that life could bring me, and when he looked at me once more, I kissed him, impulsively tender. In that moment, the unreasoning terror ebbed away, cold countered by warmth, and all I knew was that I longed to be warm like that all the time.
But that night in his arms, when I thought back on it, the old, familiar fear rose in my chest and tightened around my heart once more.
I wondered whether I would ever be warm again.
"The Den saved me."
I look up at her, closing her journal and setting it aside. She's been reading over my shoulder - for how long exactly, I'm not sure. No-one else could do that - not even the children - but she's so much a part of me that she doesn't even trip my sensors anymore. I can't distinguish her scent from mine, except when I really breathe in and decide to do so. All the senses that kept me alive for all those years go by the boards with her.
Now, I turn away from the laptop, and she slips down onto my lap. I curl my arm around her waist. "How so?" I say, leaning in to kiss her cheek.
"I'd have just found another protector, Alex. If I hadn't been put somewhere that took all my fears and all my needs and stirred them up the way that place did, I would have just continued along the path, and I'd have died inside."
I agree with her, but I'm surprised that she recognises it. It's something I've never said to her - indeed, there are a lot of things about this time that we've never talked about. I wonder, sometimes, whether she resents me for dredging it all up. She's never asked me not to, but she's fidgeting a lot lately. If she weren't nursing, if we weren't trying for another baby, I think she'd be smoking again.
"Do you mind me doing this?" I ask her.
"Sometimes it's hard," she admits, "but no. I think you need to do it."
"And I think you need to read it."
That makes her pause. Slowly, she says, "Maybe that's true. Maybe I need to face up to who we were and who we've become as much as you do."
I don't know what to say. I'm competent on a laptop, but now, when she really needs me to say the right thing, the words all dry up. I tell her lamely, "You don't have anything to face up to," but I know that isn't really true.
She bows her head. "I'm not proud of the person I was then. When you met me - I was a prostitute, Alex. It doesn't matter that it was for information rather than money; it doesn't matter that they didn't really touch me. I was a whore. I was so much a whore that when someone came along that really mattered, I almost couldn't - couldn't-"
I'm floored, listening to her. Eight years together, and I've never heard her speak like this. I'm starting to think we should have talked about these years much sooner. "Mare, you were beautiful then. I worshipped you - every bit as much as I do now." If there was any question in my mind about going on with it, that question is settled now. I will finish it so that she can see what I see. So that she can embrace the woman I love, the woman that is herself.
Her voice is heavy with pain; the words come thick and fast. "No, but you don't understand, Alex; you think it was all done to me, but I made choices! I chose all of that!"
It makes me angry, hearing her bear their guilt like that. "No, don't you do that. Don't you take their manipulations and their rationalisations and say they're more truth than our truth. Their truth is dead! It died with them. And ours lives on. It lives in our marriage and our children and the life we have here. Ours endures, Mare. That counts for something."
I don't know if she's convinced, but her eyes are bright, and the beginnings of a smile flit across her features. She puts her arms around me, fiercely tender. "I love you, Alexi."
"I love you too, Mare." Suddenly one arm doesn't seem to hold her close enough.
She draws back to look at me, her forehead touching mine. "Some of the things you write about us...they're beautiful, Alex. It's like reading a love letter."
"You don't mind me doing it, then? Even though it hurts?"
She shakes her head. "No." She leans in and kisses me, warm and slow. "But will you leave it for tonight? Will you come to bed? Please?"
I stroke back her hair. "Okay. Do you want to-"
She pre-empts me. "Not tonight. Will you just hold me? Like you did back then?"
The words, 'come walk with me outside for a while' die in my throat. She thinks I was about to ask to make love to her, and that disturbs me somehow. I nod, not trusting myself to speak. She rises and holds out a hand, pulling me up, leading me to our room. I hold her as I said I would hold her, but lying there with her in the dark, I'm afraid.
Please don't pull away from me over this, Mare. Please.
COMING IN CHAPTER 5: MARITA AND ELENA - ENDGAME (ALEX)