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ALEX CRACKED his sore knuckles and stared blankly at the bathroom door. His wife, Tiffany, was on the other side, taking one last moment to check her appearance before they finally left the secure ward near the intensive care unit of Sibley Hospital.
Only a few days had passed since the night his once secure world had flipped upside down. The night of his deadly showdown with his father-in-law, Mayor Simon Blake, on the murky waters of the Potomac River.
Since that night, Alex had stayed with Tiffany, refusing to leave her side while she recovered. Curled up in a chair beside her bed, he barely slept. He was too focused on Tiffany's breathing and movements to relax. And it showed. Alex looked like a prisoner of war. Tall, fit, and handsome, his normally bright, flashing eyes were now bloodshot with dark circles under them. One of his muscular arms was bandaged and wrapped. He was achy and bruised but determined to put his best foot and face forward for Tiffany's sake.
Dressed in wrinkled khakis and a periwinkle blue polo shirt, Alex gathered his shirttail and tucked it into his waistband. He tapped his fingers on the steel railing of Tiffany's hospital bed and tried not to seem impatient. "Are you all right in there, Tiff?" he asked. It seemed as if a lifetime passed before she replied.
"I'm okay, baby," she said slowly. "It's just taking me a minute to get myself together."
Tiffany Renee Blake Baxter was an extremely beautiful woman, and Alex knew there was no way she was going to be seen in public appearing less than her normally gorgeous self. The swelling in her face had gonedown significantly, and her bruises were fading slightly, but Tiffany had still summoned her personal consultant from MAC cosmetics to ensure that the bruises on her face were covered.
Their life was out of control, and Alex really didn't know to whom or where to turn. He thanked God that he'd had the wherewithal to contact Lisa Adams, one of his closest friends, who also happened to be the head of the investigation department of her family's insurance company. An experienced, semiprofessional private eye, Lisa was a wunderkind and a true ally. She had arrived from Atlanta on the day Tiffany had been admitted to the hospital, and she had single-handedly commandeered every facet of his and Tiffany's shredded lives. Alex had even entrusted Lisa with his knife until he could think more clearly. It had been his brother's knife, the same one that had surfaced during the most critical times of Alex's life. He'd used it to defend Tiffany's honor when they were college students at Hilliard Institute, when her boyfriend Sid tried to rape her. And it had saved Alex's life in his deadly battle with Simon.
In the smoking remains of what was left of his former life, there were few people Alex could trust. Lisa was one, and Fortune Reed was the other.
Fortune was an old childhood friend of Alex's older brother, Ivan. For years Alex had hated Fortune because he'd blamed him for Ivan's murder, an event that had influenced everything Alex thought and did from age thirteen to eighteen. Determined not to let the streets claim him, too, Alex had buried himself in his books and become isolated from those around him. That was until Mayor Simon Blake took him under his wing and miraculously exorcised the past demons from Alex's life, introducing him to a world of wealth and privilege.
Under Simon's tutelage, Alex had blossomed, and even fallen in love with Simon's daughter, Tiffany. Alex lived a lavish life beyond his wildest dreams. He became an attorney and was given a cushy position in Simon's administration, where he was clearly being groomed for bigger things. For years, Alex had lived in ignorant bliss, until Fortune reentered his life and shattered all of those lofty dreams. Through Fortune, Alex found out that Simon had an alter ego named Moses and was a two-faced, double-dealing, low-down criminal and murderer. Moses was the top drug dealer in Washington, D.C., but more important, Moses was the person who had really been responsible for murdering Ivan. Initially, these revelations had been difficult for Alex to believe, but Fortune managed to rip the shroud of obliviousness Alex had thrived under and forced him finally to accept that Mayor Simon Blake was nothing more than a heinous thug who had systematically crafted, manipulated, and then tried to destroy Alex's life.
"How do I look, darling?" Tiffany emerged from the bathroom wearing a long-sleeved pale yellow linen jumpsuit with a colorful silk scarf tied loosely around her neck and a pair of two-carat diamond studs glittering in her ears.
Jarred from his thoughts, Alex looked at his wife, taking in her honey brown skin and shapely figure. "You look wonderful, Tiff. Absolutely lovely." He opened his arms and walked over to her. He kissed her gently on the forehead. "I love you, Mrs. Baxter."
"I love you, too, Mr. Baxter," she said, and hugged him gently around his solid abdomen. "I just want to get out of this place and see my babies. And my fa"--she paused mid-word--"ther."
Tiffany fell silent, and Alex caressed the back of her head. As he held his wife, tears stung his eyes. But he forced them back in and held Tiffany close. He placed his chin on the top of her head and saw their reflection in the mirror.
Alex felt dishonest, because he couldn't disclose the full truth about what had happened between him and her father on that fateful night. Tiffany's doctors had warned him that she needed calm and peace in order to fully recuperate, and he wanted to ensure that she did get better. It bothered him to have secrets from her, but in the tight crevice where he now resided, which was between a jagged rock and a hard place, Alex's options were few. How could he tell Tiffany that everything she knew about her beloved father was a lie? And that her own husband was responsible for her father's death? A father who had plotted against and even tried to poison her, his only child?
Tiffany had seen the newspaper headlines and was aware that there had been an accident on her father's boat, but was sketchy about the details. She vaguely remembered being at Simon's fund-raiser, and not much after that. Howard Norman, Simon's public relations man, had concocted a story to protect Simon's reputation. His version was that the mayor's yacht, The Masquerade, had experienced some major engine problems, and that Alex and Tiffany narrowly escaped while Simon gallantly tried to save the vessel. Both he and the boat went under, and after countless hours of search-and-rescue attempts, the mayor's body had not been found.
For the unsuspecting public, their beloved mayor had died a highly revered, unblemished hero. To them, Simon Blake was a visionary whose mission had been to bring statehood and a new football stadium to D.C. He left behind a legacy of being the "people's mayor," which now would be preserved in history. As much as Alex hated this deception, he had to admit that Simon had accomplished a lot for the city.
Nonetheless, Simon Blake was as dirty as they came, and if the truth was ever divulged, Alex's close association with him would make Alex appear just as soiled. Alex had worked hard to get where he was, and he wasn't about to throw it all away so easily. Ironically, that was one of the many lessons he'd learned from Simon. Nothing worth having comes easy, and never give anything away unless it gets you more in return.
Alex was determined to extricate himself from his involvement in Simon's disappearance, even if it meant having to momentarily get in bed with Howard, a man Alex completely distrusted and despised. Although they both served Simon in different capacities, there was almost a sibling rivalry between Alex and Howard. Howard always vied for Simon's attention in an imperious manner that made Alex's skin crawl. But Simon seemed to trust Howard implicitly, and evidently Howard would still go to any length to protect Simon. And for right now, that protection was covering Alex and his family, so he decided to let Howard's lies stand. When the police interviewed him, Alex claimed that he couldn't remember anything except the boat malfunctioning.
"Things are going to be okay, Tiffany. I promise you," Alex said, hoping that he sounded assured and confident.
"I-I just don't understand," Tiffany said, pulling away, her face clouded with confusion. "How could this have happened? My father's gone?" She rubbed her temples and sighed. "I can't remember anything from that evening. Nothing." She sighed again and then groaned. "I think I'm getting another headache, baby."
Alex patted his pants pocket. "I have all of your prescriptions ready to be filled. As soon as we..." Now his voice trailed off. He was about to say "get home," but then he remembered they weren't going home. If it was possible, he never ever wanted to step foot again in the place that he and Tiffany had called home for the past five years. Especially after finding out that Simon had had it bugged the entire time they lived there. Lisa's security folks were doing a thorough sterilization of the house, but Alex still didn't feel comfortable.
"Um, Tiff. We need to talk." He grabbed her hands and led her back to the bed, where she sat on the edge. "I thought it might be best for us not to go back home right now. I'm sure that the media is camped out there, and you know, the house might have too many memories for us."
"But that's why we should go back. Because that's where all of our memories are."
Alex caressed his wife's hands. "The doctors aren't too sure if that's a good thing for you right now. They actually think that we should get away for a while, and try to get some R and R. I was thinking about maybe going to Europe or the Mediterranean."
Tiffany shook her head. "I don't think so, Alex. We can't go that far away. What if my father didn't die that night? What if he comes home and I'm not here for him? I need to be here."
"Tiffany, it's not that I don't understand--" Alex began, but she cut him off.
"No, you don't understand. What if my father really is dead? He's the mayor of this city, and he deserves to be remembered as such. He's done a lot for this city, and the least we could do is give him a memorial service. I'm not even going to consider leaving until we do that. And wherever we go, I want you to make sure that if my father is found, I'm notified immediately."
Alex reached for her shoulders and tried to keep his tone level. "Okay, baby. You're right. We shouldn't leave until we have at least a memorial service for Simon. And I'll be sure to make the appropriate folks aware of how to reach us when we leave. But I'm asking you to trust me on this. There are enough people still searching for Simon so that if he has survived, they'll let us know. Immediately." Alex breathed slowly to keep his true feelings in check. "I realize that you can't give up hope, and anything's possible, but you can't let what happened deter you, uh, I mean us, from going on with our lives. Right now, you've got to get better, and get stronger. You know that's what Simon would want you to do."
Alex's words felt hollow and artificial, and they burned in his throat as he uttered them. He could barely stand to say Simon's name, let alone defend him. Now he had to support a memorial service that he didn't even want to attend, much less help plan. But he had to, at least for Tiffany's sake. The last thing Alex wanted to do was stand up and say kind words about Simon.
"I don't know, Alex. Going away now just seems so selfish." She paused. "This is all so much. So sudden. I can't believe that my father's gone." Tears sprang to her eyes. "Oh, I just can't bear to think about all of this right now."
Alex grabbed a tissue and placed it in his wife's hands. "I know, it is hard to believe. But, unfortunately, we have to accept the information we have right now. Your father is gone, and now we have a number of challenges to face. And getting away for a short while shouldn't be viewed as a bad idea."
Tiffany carefully wiped her eyes, and kept her makeup intact. "I guess we do have a lot to consider, Alex. But how can we just up and leave? We have jobs. What about the house? Who's going to manage that?"
JUST THEN, Lisa, wearing an olive-colored trench coat and shades, burst through the door. She was followed closely by a hospital orderly pushing a wheelchair.
"Hey, you two. Let's get this show on the road. The car's waiting down by the service entrance, and my men will make sure that you two get out of here unnoticed," Lisa said, peeking over her shades.
Tiffany shot Alex a look of death, and her eyes spoke volumes. She and Lisa had barely spoken during the many years Alex and Tiffany had been together, and now Tiffany was obviously bothered by Lisa's presence.
"Alex? What's going on here? Lisa? What are you doing here?"
Alex cringed, thinking now was not the time for an argument. Lisa and Tiffany politely tolerated each other, and he had asked Lisa to be careful around Tiffany, and she had reluctantly agreed. But Alex knew Lisa could be vicious when she felt she was being attacked.
Lisa smiled and motioned for the orderly to help Tiffany with her belongings. "I'm here as a friend, and to provide a service for you. Alex asked me to help him take care of some security matters, and I was more than happy to oblige. Right, Alex?"
Alex nodded, relieved and grateful for Lisa's calm response. "Yes, Tiffany. Lisa's here to help us out for a while."
"Why didn't you just call Daddy?" Tiffany cut her statement short and rubbed her temples. "I'm sorry. I know. You couldn't." She smiled weakly. "It's going to take me a minute to get used to this, you two." Tiffany stood up and reached for the wheelchair. "Thank you, Lisa. And I'm sorry. I'm just all over the place right now. I know we need the help, and we really do appreciate it."
Lisa winked at Alex and mouthed the words "You owe me big-time," to him. She turned to Tiffany. "No problem, Tiffany. That's what friends and handsomely paid consultants are for."