The Cross

He had an intricate Celtic cross tattooed on the left side of his neck, the ever-present scent of tobacco and musk followed him, and a thin, clean scar ran through his eyebrow that would have been unnoticeable to most. But she had feared him for so long that she had long since memorized every facet of his being in order to detect his presence through any disguise. She had dreaded his finding her for so many years that just the aroma of a cigarette heightened her senses with adrenaline.

She had been ready to run. Prepared in every way. Bags packed and ready with necessities to last for weeks, contacts who did not need a call to welcome her, hotels scouted where she knew she could walk in and have a room and no one would say she was there. She had planned several escape routes to the smallest detail lest he surprise her when she was not looking.

There was a door to her left, a door that said "Employees Only", and it was swinging. She could easily slip through it and be gone; they knew her here, knew she was paranoid, knew she was prone to leaving suddenly through the least-used exits. They would not stop her from running through the kitchen, nor protest her presence if she sequestered herself in the walk-in refrigerator to hide. They would smile at her, they would tell jokes behind her back, and they would tolerate her seemingly overcautious actions.

She could leave, then and there.

But he was staring straight at her with his cool, calculating blue eyes; he was taking a drag from his cigarette and flicking the ashes onto the cheap carpet; he was picking a hair from his tongue. His eyes never left her as a few women admired his tall, muscled figure, as they took in the Gaelic proverb tattooed up his left forearm and the skeleton mocking from his right. The eyes burned into her skin and pinned her there.

Why had she not bolted at the first sight of him, when she had seen him just pushing through the door? He had not seen her at first; his eyes had scanned the crowd for several minutes, meeting the gazes of a few intimidated men trying to puff themselves up and challenge his steady glare. In her back corner, she'd been almost invisible to him. Almost. A less keen eye might have missed her completely, where she shrank into the slight shadows and turned her face away from inquisitive eyes.

His eyes, though, they did not miss anything. She could have run while he was searching. All he would have seen was the busboy merging into the crowded restaurant as the kitchen door swung behind him. He would not have been suspicious of that door, because of the busboy. She could have been in the back alleyway where the old drunk slept in his cardboard house with his rats. She could have been running to her hotel room with the cracked ceiling and leaky pipes. She could have been hailing the Indian cab driver whose English was limited to numbers and curse words.

Instead, she had remained in her seat, watching him. Fear coursing through her blood with the adrenaline urging her to run, brain racing with routes of escape that would hide her from his sight, hands clenching her purse so tightly she had strings of fabric beneath her fingernails. She had watched him turn his head, catch sight of her newly-dyed curls, and smile.

The unadulterated terror that coursed through her veins at that smile was almost painful. But she was finished running. For three years, she had run from him, and she was tired. Tired of living every minute of her day looking over her shoulder, tired of holing up in roach-infested cheap motels, tired of eating crappy food and sharing bathroom stalls with grubs and flies. He could beat her, he could scream at her, he could break her neck. She was done.

He leaned his palms on the edge of the table, smile roguish, stubble on his chin, circles beneath his eyes; he looked worse than she had ever seen him. But he was still menacing and smooth as butter. With a slighting glance around the shoddy restaurant, he slid onto the cushioned corner booth seat, glanced at her, and said, "I've missed you, Mae."

Three Years Earlier.

The day was a clear one, clear and warm, breeze just gentle enough to ruffle the guests at the outdoor wedding in a comfortable way as they sat with hushed anticipation of the bride's arrival. From his vantage point at the front of the crowd, standing beside the priest and his father, Jeremy watched as the bridesmaids kept time with the lone violin. They smiled at him as they took their places.

The maid of honor looked slightly less happy than the others, her smile pasted and her eyes narrow; Jeremy could not read her expression. Was it jealousy? Concern? Nerves? She tripped slightly as she took her place, and she did not meet his eyes. He shook his head. No matter. The small gathering of guests were rising; the bridal march played clear and strong.

And then, head held high, dark curls gracefully pinned, veil lifted slightly by the breeze, the bride stepped into view. Everything else faded at the sight of her; Mae, with her chocolate-brown eyes and peaches-and-cream complexion, her lively smile, her soft voice, her alluring gaze. He had fallen in love with her the day he heard her laugh, before he had ever seen her face. She had snorted, unexpectedly unladylike at the end of a particularly husky gale, and he had been hooked.

He was filled with a strange sort of pride as she walked towards him, as she reached the head of the aisle and stopped before the priest. Her eyes locked on his through the thin veil, and she blushed. When she looked away, he felt bereft. He loved her so much that at times it felt like a crime. It hurt. But she would be in his family forever, and he would love her forever.

As she said her vows after the priest, he mouthed them with her, caught her slightly unsteady gaze, smiled a little. A shot of doubt ran through him; could he do this? In his family, these vows were unbreakable, and he would never be able to walk away. They would all ask questions that he might not be able to answer without putting Mae in a position of embarrassment and jeopardy.

But she sent him a glance, an encouraging smile, and he felt courage. He would find the strength somewhere.

The vows were over and the reception had begun at his father's house before he could gather his thoughts, and as the reception line formed, he felt the hollowness of the congratulations. He could see doubt in their gazes as they passed him, hugged Mae, shook his father's hand, nodded to his brother. Already, they did not think it would work. That hammered at his previous courage and he sighed. If only the reception would end quickly; he was looking forward to two weeks of being away from everyone. The rumors and doubts and nay-sayers.

After the initial first dances, the mandatory toasts, he whispered an apology in Mae's ear, saw his father's questioning glance as he left the room to get some air. It was oppressing there; the small gathering was more intimate and intimidating than a larger group would have been. He stood on the porch in the swiftly cooling air and took a deep breath. This marriage was not a frivolous thing, a story of falling in love and happy endings. It was a serious undertaking full of unanswered questions and shaky future. His mind was filled with questions of "what if…?"

A hand touched his shoulder, and he turned to see Mae standing there in her wedding dress, smiling softly. The music inside was a soft waltz; he held out his hand, and she took it. Out here, where nobody was watching, he was able to hold her close and not worry about the eyes doubting and questioning and calculating. It was a simple dance, theirs; she leaned her temple against his cheek, and they did not speak.

The song was over much too soon; it was funny how he had been wishing the reception to end just moments earlier, but now that the guests called goodbye, he wanted it to go on. Mae left his side to wish the guests a last farewell before the honeymoon; he stayed outside to take in the evening. The guests did not need his farewell. So far as he knew, they could not care less what he said to them.

Mae called out to nobody in particular that she was going to finish packing her bags for the honeymoon, and Jeremy smiled. She would have fun in Italy. It would be good for her to get away as well; the disapproving eye of the public had been on her ever since she had been courted into the family. She would benefit from two weeks of sun and wine and music.

His father was inside somewhere; he was probably rejoicing over the marriage. He had been looking forward to this day, gaining another family member who might introduce little ones. The man missed having little feet pattering over the floors of the estate's mansion. Jeremy turned and leaned his elbows on the porch railing, watching the sun go down. The plane left in the morning, Jeremy, Mae, his father, and brother would all spend the night here before the grand sendoff.

The evening was quiet, other than a few snippets of conversation he could hear as Mae exchanged a few words with his father; he could hear she was tired and coming down from her wedding-high already. She'd gotten up much too early on too little sleep, as had the rest of his family. Yet that knowledge could not have prepared him for events he would never have predicted on such a day as this.

It took him a full five seconds to realize that the screaming was coming from inside; that it was Mae and his father arguing; that there was a voice of cool calculation and a voice of anger and threat in the fray. He bolted into the house, knowing that his father kept a gun in his room, knowing that the unstable emotions ran in the family. What could have sparked the argument, he did not know, but his mind jumped to suicide, a deed his grandfather had done, his uncle, his third brother.

This was just the problem he had worried about, just the problem he had hoped to prevent, just the problem that he'd feared Mae might have the tendency to set off with her slight overuse of sarcasm and deprecating remarks in times of irritation. His father had an unstable mind, an unstable heart, an unstable hold on his emotions. As Jeremy ran up the stairs and cursed the size of the house, every scenario ran through his head.

But he was too late.

A shot rang out, and he froze just outside Mae's room, dread filling his heart.

Three Years Later.

"Jeremy." Mae could hear her voice shaking as he idly looked over the menu brought to him by the cute blonde waitress. "I've missed you, too," she replied, her voice a little steadier. He was so cool and distant, so unlike the Jeremy of a little more than three years ago.

She closed her eyes briefly, remembering her wedding day when he had danced with her, remembering the way his Celtic cross just peeked over the stiff collar of his starched white shirt, the way his left eyebrow with its scar had lifted just slightly as he had smiled at her. That Jeremy, she missed. This Jeremy, she feared. Perhaps that was why she had not run again; somewhere deep inside, she hoped the old Jeremy still lived.

Opening her eyes, she studied the eyes that rested on her, and saw the slightest hint of what she hoped for. It was quickly smothered by the quick shake of his head when the waitress asked if he wanted anything, and the hard bite of his fingers as he grabbed her wrist and nearly dragged her out of the booth. She could feel the hate in his grip. That night had been boiling in him for three years now, three years of tireless, relentless hunting.

Well, he could do what he wanted with her now. She could do nothing with the life she lived now. She had no more money, no friends, no prospects for a future. She was tired and beaten, and she did not resist him as he shoved her out the door and into a small, dark car with a broken handle and no windshield wipers. She did not try to jump out as he got in. Defeat had settled on her and would not let go.

The car sped into the light traffic with ease; Jeremy had always handled his rides well, even junkers such as this one. She suspected the car was only a disguise to catch her off guard; there was no way she could have missed his Ferrari or Mustang. With a catch in her throat, she stared ahead as they sped through traffic. He barely made the lights, wove in and out of cars as the traffic became more dense. Never looked her way.

"Where are we going?" she ventured finally, noting the gun that lay in his lap. The sight of that weapon, the object that had begun this long, agonizing chase, sent chills up her back. Was he going to kill her with it?

"Home." He smiled and shoved his foot down on the gas. For such a beat up ride, the car went considerably faster than the other automobiles around it.

Mae bit her lips and swallowed. "Home…?"

She knew what he meant. They were going back to the estate that had been boarded up and vacated the night of his father's death. He was going to take her back to that moment in time, torture her with it, and then put her out of her three years of misery. Slowly, she sank back into the uncomfortable seat and let the shakes overtake her body.

She had been anticipating this moment for three years. Since the moment she knew he was on her tail, the moment she realized he meant to kill her. Now that it was come, now that she had let the initial fear rush through her, she felt strangely calm. Her mind ceased its scrambling, her body relaxed, and she swallowed the fear of dying that had plagued her for ages. If he planned to mimic his father's death, it would be quick and relatively painless. She hoped.

Her eyes strayed to Jeremy's knuckles; they were white as he grasped the wheel and steered the car in and out of traffic. Had she been sane, she should have screamed bloody murder the moment he grabbed her. Had she had a clear head, she might have run before he reached her, and there would have been a chance. Had she possessed that level of panic that she'd thought would plague her to her dying day, she might have gotten away. But somehow, the fear was gone, and she merely saw Jeremy as a man holding the grudge of his father's death for so many years it was all that was left of him.

The ride was not a long one. They pulled up to the mansion and Mae had little trepidation about what was going to happen next. Her mind wandered to the first time Jeremy had ever kissed her, out beneath the large maple tree as he had pushed her on the quaint little swing of rope and wood. The thrill of that kiss had been killed the next day, as Jeremy had come to her and explained that they could never be.

From that day on, she had longed for him more than anyone else, until her wedding day she had ached to be his. That night had changed everything.

He jerked her out of the car and shoved her up the porch stairs, over the porch, where he had held her close and she had breathed in his musky smell for the last time, and through the front door. The foyer was dusty and stale. Jeremy did not pause to look around his old home; he kept her moving right through the hallways and up the stairs that led to her room. The room where his father had died.

His silence was so unlike him. Mae remembered how much he had loved to talk and sing and laugh. She wanted him to talk, no matter what he said, just to hear that voice again. But she realized that the happiness in that voice had been slaughtered on her wedding day. Along with the life of his father.

Shoving her through the familiar door, Jeremy slammed it behind them and slapped her before she had a chance to recover from the memories that the bloodstain on the wood brought.

"Why?" he snapped at her, no longer cool and smooth but raging and harsh. Pointing at the dark stain on the wood, he asked again, "Why? I told them that he committed suicide. Why?"

Mae shook her head. "I told you… Three years ago I told you," she whispered, cheek stinging from his blow. She risked another as she tried to come close to touch his face and calm him.

He backed away from her outstretched hand and brought the gun out from his pocket, cocked it, and pointed it at her. "Tell me. Why? Why did he die?"

Mae blinked. She looked down at the bloodstain between them on the floor, looked up at Jeremy. He would never accept her story, her explanation. The three years had been years of not only chasing, but of messages left, questions sent through contacts, a game of tell-and-elude. Tiring. Unending. He had not given up the anger, nor would he, no matter what she said.

Slowly, she walked forward, coming closer to the gun, the stain on the floor, until her feet were centered in the dark circle and her neck was flush against the chilly metal of the gun's barrel. With a small, regretful shake of her head, she met Jeremy's emotion-wrought eyes, and smiled.

"Just end it, Jeremy," she said.

His hand shook a little as the cold barrel of the gun pressed against the artery in her neck. "I really loved you, Mae," he whispered. "I loved you so much."

The last thing she saw before the gun went off was the tears rolling down his cheeks, tears bleeding from his clear, aching blue eyes. And then he whipped the gun down to her heart, and there was nothing.

Three Years Earlier.

She looked up from the body at him, and there was no remorse in her dark eyes. Blood pooled beneath his father, blood that stained the hem of her white wedding dress and tipped her fingers with scarlet. Oddly, as she slowly stood and came to him, gun still dangling from her fingers, the only thought that ran through his head was of the policy on his father's rented tuxedo. The stains would be permanent. They would not get their collateral money back.

She cupped his face in her soft, supple fingers and gently kissed his lips. "Come away with me," she urged him. "He's no longer in our way. Come." She slid her fingers down over his neck, his shoulder, grasped his hand.

Dazed, he looked up. "What did you do?" She was tugging his arm towards the door.

Mae glanced at his father's body and shrugged a little. "I'll explain later, darling." She let go of his hand as he stared and gently closed the door.

Where was his brother? He looked up, but before he could ask the question, his brother's voice was calling from without, panicked and concerned. Mae was at the closed door with a bag in her hand, and she smiled.

"Don't worry, it was just a small accident. We're fine." Her voice was steady and calm, and his brother laughed a little and accepted the apology. "Goodnight!" Mae's returning laugh was as cool as it had been when Jeremy's father was screaming. He could not imagine what had happened here. She had killed him. Why?

He did not realize he had voiced the question until she turned, and she tilted her head a little, that coy move that subtly shifted one curl to fall next to her milky cheek and drew his attention there. He had touched that cheek in affection. In love.

"Why?" she shook her head softly, bemused. "Don't you see, love? He was in the way. You remember, Jeremy, you told me that he would disown you as an heir if we married. You and I. That we could never be together while he was alive."

Jeremy could not stop staring at his father's dead body. "But… why…? We could have… run away. I thought… today… you married him, I thought you loved him. Why?"

She came to him and cupped his face in both hands. The blood on her fingers was sticky. "Because I love you, darling. I did it for you." She kissed him.

Jeremy peeled her hands from his face and shook his head. Painfully, he asked yet again, "Why?"

With a sigh, Mae backed up a little and shoved a few things into the bag she had set on the bed. Her eyes were a little impatient, a little angry. "I'll tell you why. Because I grew up poor but pretty. When I was fourteen, that translated into cheap and easy, and I learned that prince charming is really nothing more than an overweight, balding bum once you marry him."

She shook her head, zipped the bag shut, slung it over her shoulder. "But honey, he was filthy rich, and I wanted that money. I wanted the money, I wanted you, and the two just could not go together. Until now." She shifted, and a small, pleading smile tilted her lips upward. "I'm leaving now, with or without you… please, won't you come away with me?"

Slowly, Jeremy shook his head, and she nodded. The expression on her face was knowing, as if she had expected him to say no. She picked up one more bag on her way, and she threw on a coat over her wedding dress, the front of which was spattered with blood.

He did not stop her as she blew him a kiss and walked out the door. He watched the trail of her bloodstained hem soften in the darkness and he felt dizzy with sickness. He loved that creature, that dangerous cat that sashayed down the driveway to the convertible his father had bought her, bag in hand, singing a bawdy song. She threw the simple wedding ring onto the cobblestones as she drove away.

It was then, as he watched his dead mother's inherited ring roll around in the driveway, that he felt the anger, the betrayal, the hatred, the bitterness, and the heartbreak. It was then, as he walked out to pick up the ring and hang it on a chain around his neck, that he saw the gun she had accidentally dropped on the grass as she had gone.

And it was then that he plotted his revenge.

END

A/N: A little vacation reading for y'all. I wrote this in two hours... after being completely exhausted because I only got three hours of sleep last night. Yay for my tired mind! So... I may one day take this and expand it into a novel, because I am in love with the idea of it. Of course, there would be a lot more to it than just these four scenes. More history, more explanation.

Let me know what you think. :)

Oh, and by the way... in case you were wondering, the title really has no significance to the story other than that's just what came to mind when I thought "Title". Maybe, when/if I ever expand it, I will add more significance to that.

~Mara