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The stone-and-shingle house sat out of view of Banksville Road, secluded in the middle of twenty acres. It was the place where Michael could forget about the cares and troubles of his days.
He had bought the run-down house out of foreclosure two years ago as an escape from the world and the reality of the death of his wife. He had spent nights and weekends renovating the ranch-style home into a place of comfort. It had become his sanctuary, his refuge as he grieved. And as he worked upon it, as he brought the house back to life, so, too, did it bring him back to life, allowing the scars of his heart to begin to heal, helping him work through the cycles of grief: the pain and anger, the emptiness and rage, the sorrow and denial.
As Michael drove up the long driveway and parked in the gravel circle, Hawk, Raven, and Bear, his three Bernese mountain dogs, came running. They leaped upon him as he grabbed his bag from the rear of the Audi, fighting for attention, nuzzling and herding him until, with weary arms, he patted them as he did every night upon his return.
Michael was exhausted. He had crawled ashore in Italy, his body hypothermic, his muscles barely functioning as he climbed the rock-face stairs up to the castle. The lights were on in the dead of night, the warm glow emanating through the castle windows masking the horror within. Michael raced through the forest for nearly an hour, his legs cramping, his heart pounding as his body fought off the cold.
Simon was waiting in the small Renault, parked in a gravel lot that overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea. They drove through the night, arriving in Rome at dawn. Michael told Simon what had happened. He told him how he had torn up the three sheets of paper, scattering them at sea. He told him of the horrific deaths within the castle, the torture of the old man, and the subsequent death of everyone upon the yacht except the single survivor who sped away with the bodies of his dead comrades.
“I’m sorry,” Simon said as he nodded in sympathy. “For the family . . . for those killed on board . . . most of all, I’m sorry for putting you through this.”
Michael looked out at the moonlit sea.
“And the box?” Simon asked quietly.
“Broken open. It was empty.”
“But there was another box.”
Simon looked at Michael.
“Identical, but black, etched with dragons and a tiger,” Michael said slowly. “He held it before the old man. It scared him far more than torture, far more than what they had done to his family.”
Michael caught the first flight out of Rome, chasing the rising sun for eight and a half hours. He tried to sleep but couldn’t close his eyes without seeing the headless bodies of the three women and the young child. He tried everything from reading to music to movies, but the disembodied heads seemed to hang at the periphery of his thoughts, holding on, unwilling to let go.
As he stood in his driveway now, exhausted and aching, he admitted to himself what he had known before he had left. It had been a mistake to do this deed for Simon. He had a feeling it was a mistake that would haunt him for years to come.
And as he looked at KC’s white Lexus in the driveway, the guilt of deception began to settle in.
He was startled from his thoughts by the ringing of his cell phone. He looked at the screen and shook his head as he answered. “Hey, Jo.”
“Where are you?” Jo asked. Michael’s assistant hated small talk.
“You have a two o’clock.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You do now.”
“Not a chance. I’m wiped.”
“Take a shower, ’cause you’re heading into the city.”
“A big contract. That will buy you a bigger bed to sleep in later. And provide all us serfs with a bonus. It’s 300 Park, tenth floor. The guy’s name is Lucas. I’ll send the particulars to your BlackBerry.”
“If you were in the right frame of mind, you’d be thanking me, which you will do later.” And with a mock cheery voice she said, “Good-bye.”
While the exhaustion was getting the better of him, the thought of such a healthy contract helped to awaken Michael just a bit. He closed up the phone and looked at KC’s convertible. She wasn’t expecting him to return from “Chicago” until that evening and would understand if he had to run out for a quick meeting.
With the dogs trailing him, he walked into the house, dropped his bag by the door, and headed through the great room to the kitchen. “KC?”
Michael walked upstairs. The bed was made; the bathroom still held a touch of humidity from the shower. He checked their workout room in the basement, the laundry room. “KC?”
KC had become good friends with Paul’s wife, Jeannie, and on more than a few occasions, Jeannie would pick her up unannounced for shopping, a quick lunch, or just company when she took her two kids to the park.
Michael thought of calling KC’s cell, but as it was already after twelve, he decided to do it on his way into the city. He hopped in the shower, the hot water washing away the ache in his bones, quickly dressed in a suit, and grabbed a tie to put on in the car.
As Michael headed out of the bedroom, he finally saw her, sitting on the terrace in the back. He went downstairs and out the back door to the terrace where KC was sitting in a wicker chair, dressed in a heavy sweater, sipping tea, her blond hair glowing in the midday sun.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know you were back here.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek, but she barely moved.
As she slowly looked up, Michael knew that she knew.
“Hey, Jo just called, I’ve got to run into the city for a meeting,” Michael said, trying to start a conversation, but she remained silent.
Michael stood there a moment, knowing that a firestorm was coming. He sat in the chair across from her, leaned in, and tried to look her in the eye, but she stared off at the rock gardens.
“Why?” KC finally whispered.
Michael took a deep breath and spoke quietly, “Simon asked me . . .”
“Simon asked me, too,” KC said, still staring off into the backyard.
Michael rolled up his tie and tucked it in his pocket.
“That bastard asked me and I told him no. We made a vow.” KC finally turned and looked at Michael. “Your words. ‘A vow.’ And you couldn’t keep it for even two months.”
Michael paused before answering. “You don’t understand—”
“Did you do this for Simon or yourself?”
“Since when did I ever go off and do it for myself?”
“Seriously? We both know not to go down that road. What if you were killed, arrested?”
“But I wasn’t.”
“Look at you.” KC waved her hands up and down. “You’re exhausted. Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you lie?”
“To protect you.”
“To protect me? No, Michael, to protect yourself. How many other ‘out-of-town meetings’ were there?”
“KC, you know me better than that.”
The conversation fell to silence.
“No.” She was fighting back tears now. “I can deal with you not being able to fully commit, I can deal with the ghost of your wife haunting your decisions. But I can’t deal with being lied to, being deceived. And if you deceive me on this now, what else will it be? Didn’t you think about me? Does Simon come before us? Does everyone come before me?”
KC paused, holding tight to her cup of tea as a tear ran down her face.
“You’re so afraid of protecting your own heart, you forgot about mine. You know, a few months ago, when I found that small jewelry box in your sock drawer, my heart soared. I know I was being nosy, but for the briefest of seconds, I felt secure, I thought we had a future.”
“We do have a future.”
“I don’t know about that. Maybe we were both kidding ourselves. Maybe our relationship is based on the wrong things.” KC finally stood. “I think I need a break.”
“Where is my life, sitting around here waiting for you? Waiting to get married, waiting to have children, waiting while you’re off trying to come to terms with your own heart, waiting while you’re off stealing something?”
They looked into each other’s eyes as if examining each other’s soul, the moment dragging on until . . .
“I’ve got to go,” Michael said, standing up.
“Of course you do,” KC shot back. “Run away.”
“I have a meeting,” Michael said quickly.
“Where? Chicago, Italy . . . ?”
“Can we finish this when I get back?”
“I’ll be back by six.”
“I won’t be here.”
“What are you talking about?” Michael’s anger rose.
“I’m going home.”
“You are home.”
“No, I’m in your home. It seems I was just visiting.”
Michael couldn’t look at her. So he looked at his watch. “I need to go.”
KC walked past Michael into the house. “So do I.”
Posted December 26, 2013
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