by Jackee C.
"What are you going to do now, child?"
Christina Belcuri's tear-filled eyes went wide at Mabel's question. Mabel Jenkins was the matronly postmaster for the small town of McAllister, and as usual, she had known precisely what to do to bring Christina back to her senses. On this day, when Christina thought that she might drown in her own grief and helplessness, Mabel's abrupt words were just what she needed.
Pulling herself together, she glanced down at the small bundle that slept in her arms, oblivious to all but a pair of loving arms, a dry diaper and a bottle of milk when the time was right. Three-month-old Jason Raven, it seemed, was to be her responsibility now. Never mind that somewhere out there he had a father and grandmother -- neither of whom seemed overly concerned with the matter. Despite the fact that Christina had sent a certified letter to the address that Jeannie Raven's address book had listed as her mother's, neither Georgiana Stanton, nor the mysterious Mr. Raven who had 18 months previous claimed Jeannie as his bride had put in an appearance at Jeannie's funeral.
"I sup-suppose," Christina said tentatively, "that I'll be caring for Jason now."
"Supposing isn't good enough, girl. A child needs more sincerity than supposing." Mabel's tone threatened to bring fresh tears to Christina's eyes, but she straightened her shoulders and spoke more firmly.
" But I am sincere, Mabel. I'll take care of Jason just like he was my own. I'll love him just like Aunt Elise loved me, and like Jeannie's aunt Cara loved her."
"I know you will," Mabel's voice softened as she placed a plump hand on Christina's shoulder. "I know. " Then turning her gaze to the pink casket that had been partially lowered into the ground, she went on, shaking her head, "Such a shame. That one was too young and too beautiful die. And she had so much to live for." At that Mabel's eyes rested on Jason.
Then turning again toward Christina, a frown crossed the woman's stern features. "I'm not surprised at the mother. But still no word on the father?" Her tone of voice suggested that there was more behind the questions. But Christina was too exhausted to do more than to answer it at face value.
Christina sighed. "No. When Jeannie showed up on my doorstep a year ago, she was a mess. You know that Mabel. She didn't want to talk about her husband. I didn't even find out that they'd only been married for seven months until she found out she was pregnant. Even then she wouldn't tell me his name. All she would say was that Georgiana was evil, and that he wasn't to blame. And that she wouldn't let him suffer for what she had done."
Mabel sighed along with her. "A body can understand why Cara told the child that her mother was dead. Shame that she had to find out different after Cara passed."
"Yeah, she said that, too," Christina confided. Privately however, she couldn't understand why Cara Meridon, the woman who had raised Jeannie would lie to her niece, telling her that her mother was dead. Or why a mother would go along with the game, never visiting or even writing her child.
"She probably found out the truth after that woman got her hands on the money Cara left the girl."
Christina looked up in surprise. Jeannie hadn't told her much about what had happened during the six years she had been away from McAllister. All that Christina knew was that the only person she'd called best friend and 'sister' had changed dramatically in that time.
Having both grown up in a small town environment under the care of Aunts, they'd become fast friends, even to the point of declaring one another family. A year after graduating high school, Jeannie's aunt Cara died suddenly. Those had been difficult days for the both of them, then news had come that Jeannie's mother, Georgiana Stanton was alive and well and living on the West Coast. Jeannie had been ecstatic to learn that she might have a 'real' family. Shortly after, she decided to finish college on the West Coast nearer her newfound family.
During the initial months of their separation, Jeannie had written quite often. Greenich was a big city in comparison to McAllister, and she'd had a lot that she wanted to share. But eventually Jeannie's letters became shorter and further apart. Within a year they had stopped writing altogether. When Christina's Aunt Elise died, the letter Christina sent to Jeannie was returned unopened. No such person as Jeannie Meridon resided at that address.
And then, after more than three years of silence, Jeannie showed up on Christina's doorstep. The once happy-go-lucky young woman had been come a nervous, tearful and sometimes hysterical woman perhaps near the brink of a total breakdown. Christina hadn't known what to do for her. But she could not, under any circumstances, turn away her friend. Once again, they were their only family. A week after her arrival, Jeannie discovered that she was pregnant.
Halfway through her pregnancy, Jeannie seemed to calm down and settle into a routine. And then after Jason was born, it was as if the old Jeannie was back. She was happy again, and had a purpose for going on. Christina had thought that it was only a matter of time before she opened up and confided all that had taken place after she'd moved to Greenich.
But then, suddenly, there was no more time. Jeannie Raven, once vibrant, witty and beautiful, was no more. Just before her twenty-fifth birthday, Jeannie was killed by a hit and run driver while returning home from a shopping trip in a neighboring town. In one careless act, an as-yet-unknown, driver had taken one life, and changed another forever.
"Well, well, well. What have we here?"
Christina was pulled from her thoughts by Mabel's words. Following the woman's gaze passed the thinning crowd of mourners, she caught sight of something sleek and black pulling to a stop along the dirt road that led to this part of the cemetery.
All eyes remained glued on the vehicle as a man dressed in a dark suit got out of the driver's side and then moved to open the passenger door. Christina was sure that even the birds ceased to make a sound as the form of a tall man dressed completely in black, down to the black glasses that obscured most of his features was assisted from the vehicle. She wondered for a moment if he were hurt, because even after he was out of the car, the driver continued to offer his arm. It wasn't until he rounded the front of the vehicle that she noticed that cane clasped in his right dancing above the surface of the ground. This man was blind. And he wasn't from around those parts.
The two men stopped near Jetty Burke and asked him a question. Christina noticed that while the driver had talked to Jetty, the blind man had gazed absently skyward. But when Jetty had begun speaking, he had turned intently in the direction of the Jetty's voice.
Christina felt pretty sure that the conversation was either about herself or Mabel, because Jetty pointed a crooked finger in their direction before getting another eyeful of the sleek black sedan that the two men had driven up in. Cars were Jetty's fascination, and this was probably the type that he had only seen in magazines.
There was no more time to ponder the men's purpose in coming because they were already near enough for Christina see that the driver was of medium height and build, while his charge was tall, slim and dark. Dark was the description that suited him best; dark hair, dark coloring, dark clothing, and a mouth set in a thin brooding line.
"I am Oscar Desmond," the driver introduced himself. "And we are seeking someone by the name of C. Belcuri." His gray eyes wore an expression of sympathy, but also something else. Something that bothered Christina deeply.
She blinked, attempting to hold the feeling of trepidation at bay. But the small gesture of drawing Jason a little tighter against her shoulder, almost in protection, was unconscious. "I'm Christina Belcuri," she said. "Is there anything I can do to help you?"
The driver made a gesture against the blind man's arm, who then turned his attention toward her with an intensity that caused Christina to question his blindness. "I am Michael Raven," the blind man spoke, extending his hand toward her. "You sent a telegram concerning my wife, concerning Jeannie?"
Christina gaped. It wasn't until Mabel nudged her that she glanced down and saw that Michael Raven had extended his hand toward her. It was slightly off, but Desmond gestured that she should take it, anyway.
Moving quickly, too late to conceal her shock, Christina reached for the man's hand and briefly clasped it in greeting. "I'm sorry, Jeannie was a good friend," she managed, having no idea what else to say to the man who had been Jeannie's husband, to Jason's father. Jason's father! The thought struck fear into her heart. It wasn't until that moment that she began to realize how much she didn't want to lose the little guy. The child was as much a part of her as he was of Jeannie. And of, she admitted reluctantly to herself, Michael Raven.
As if beginning to sense some of the turmoil around him, Jason began to whine and fret. Tiny hands clinched as his body wriggled fussily against Christina's shoulder. Immediately, Christina began to make comforting noises. Locating the pacifier that had been tied to his shirt front, she placed it into his mouth. The child took it, but continued to make unhappy whining noises.
"I'm sorry," Raven apologized. "I didn't realize... Perhaps we can set up an appointment. I'm going to be at the..." His voice trailed off as he turned slightly toward Desmond.
"The Howard Johnson, Sir," Desmond informed him.
"The Howard Johnson. If I may contact you, there are a number of things I would like to discuss."
"There will be a gathering tonight...for Jeannie," Christina found herself saying. "It will be above Elise's Olde Time gift shop, on Main Street. Everyone knows where it is. The entrance is in back. Everyone will probably be arriving around six."
Raven seemed to consider this for a moment. "Thank you," he said, finally. "I will look forward to talking to you later."
After mutual good-bye's, Christina watched the two men head slowly back toward their car. Mr. Michael Raven was not at all what she had expected. Handsome, yes; well spoken, perhaps; blind, definitely not.
Jason was sleeping soundly at six o'clock when the guests began to arrive. Angela Kater was first. She was a plump middle aged woman with a cherubic face and an incurable knack for gossip. "Am I first?" she'd asked as soon as she crossed the threshold.
"Um hum," Christina nodded taking her jacket. "Thank you for coming Angie, I know you and Jeannie didn't get on so well." Christina spoke honestly, leading Angie into the living room with a light touch on her back.
"Yeah well, that's no secret," Angie responded good-naturedly. "She always said I was too nosey and she was probably right, but she came back here so mysterious and all." Angie took a seat on the long sofa and picked up one of the little cakes some of the neighbors had made. Taking a bite of the cake Angie changed the subject to the one Christina was sure had been on her mind all along. "Who was that man who arrived late? I saw you talking to him when we left."
"That was Michael Raven." Christina answered reluctantly. There was no sense in hiding it, especially since she'd invited him to the gathering as well. In hindsight, however, she wondered at the wisdom of such a thing. More than likely Michael Raven and Oscar Desmond would be the only men present.
"Raven? As in Jeannie Raven and Jason Raven? Husband of and father to?" Angie's eyes had grown wide. As far as gossip went, this was probably the mother lode. "Did you know all along that Jeannie's husband was blind?!" Without waiting for a reply, Angie went on, practically bouncing on the sofa.
"Oh my goodness, it's no wonder she was so secretive. Do you think she was ashamed for some reason? Maybe he wasn't born that way and it happened later and she couldn't handle it. Oh my goodness! Chrissy! Maybe it was her fault that he's blind!"
Christina had had enough. "Angie, stop it," she told her friend, forcing her own voice to be calm. "You're getting carried away with yourself and I won't have you spreading these ideas. Besides, Mr. Raven and I will be talking soon enough so I suppose we will find out some of the true answers that we've all been craving."
Angie, used to people trying to calm her imaginative, gossipy mind, simply continued on, ready with the next questions as soon as Christina finished speaking. Christina sighed in relief when the doorbell rang.
It was Mrs. Janis Belevedere, a woman who had been an old and dear friend of Christina's Aunt Elise before she had died nearly two years earlier.
"Hello, Mrs. Belevedere," Christina welcomed her with a hug before helping her down the hall to the living room. The arthritis in her legs was obviously bothering her. "I'm so glad you could come tonight."
"Hello, dear," Mrs. Belevedere returned the greeting. "You are such a sweet child to take care of that baby and helping Elise like you did."
Christina smiled and thanked her, and helped her to settle on the sofa. Before Mrs. Belevedere had gotten comfortable, Angie had chimed in with her latest supposition concerning Michael Raven.
"I never said that!" Christina objected.
"Well, are you going to give him the baby or not, then?" Angie asked, pressing the issue. It was then that Christina realized what she had done. And it was too late to turn back because Angie's words had gotten Mrs. Belvedere started.
"Surely you're not going to just turn the baby over to a strange man you know nothing about and blind to boot. He can't take care of a baby. Why the baby doesn't even know him!" The older woman was outraged.
"I may not have a choice," Christina tried to defend herself. "He is the child's father, after all."
"Listen, honey. You just keep real quiet about whose baby that is. We'll never tell!" That from Angie. Christina doubted Angie could keep anything quiet. But Janis Belvedere backed her up, even stomped her foot on the floor.
Sighing, Christina pointed in the direction of the doorbell. Soon the entire group was there save for Michael Raven. Christina was relieved that he hadn't because she fully suspected that along with planning the conspiracy to prevent Michael Raven from learning about his child, the townswomen of McAllister were quite capable of running the poor man out of town that very night.
Michael Raven rolled over and came groggily awake. Opening his eyes, he suffered mild panic when the darkness did not abate. He hadn't yet adjusted to the fact that darkness was his domain. He wasn't sure that he ever would.
Feeling for the edge of the bed, he pushed himself carefully to a sitting position. Resting his elbows on his knees, he ran a hand along the back of his aching head; exhaustion clung to him like a second skin. For once, he thought, the doctors may have been correct. This trip had been too soon. But nothing could have kept him away after he'd received the message about Jeannie's death.
"Desmond?" he croaked, calling to his assistant. Oscar Desmond had been with the Raven family for nearly thirty years, since Michael's own father was a young man. Desmond seemed to have developed a sixth sense of when Michael needed him. Most of the time. This time, however, no approaching footsteps responded to his plea.
"Desmond?" he called again, louder this time. No response. The ensuing silence was heavy, alerting him to just how still the room was, how lonely. He was alone - in a strange place. Mild panic washed over him. He pushed the unwelcome sensation forcefully away. This was ridiculous! He was reasonably intelligent. How difficult could it be to find the bathroom in a Howard Johnson Motel?
Moving slowly, carefully, he rose to his feet. Arms spread, he took several cautious steps away from the bed. The plan was to find a wall, from which, theoretically, he could find anything. He found the dresser, or rather his toe did. It was painful, but it was also progress. Sliding along the dresser, he found the wall.
Moving more confidently, he felt along the wall in what he hoped was the proper direction. The cool, slightly embossed surface of wallpaper slid beneath his seeking palms. A light switch. He had no idea whether the lights were on or off, not that it mattered. He continued along the wall, feeling the coolness of a tile floor beneath his stocking feet. Suddenly, his foot hit something round, hard and plastic. He became entangled, and once he began to lose his balance, it was over. He felt that plastic warp, then pop beneath him as he went down.
The sounds of his own swearing and assorted falling items were dying down when he heard the room door slam open. "Mr. Raven!," Desmond's worried exclamation only added to his irritation.
"Are you injured?" Desmond's hands went beneath his arms to steady him as he assisted him to his feet.
"I'm fine!" Michael snapped defensively, shaking his arm from Desmond's grasp. He hated being helpless. "If I'm to be stuck this way, I may as well start getting used to it. I can't just depend on you for the rest of my life."
"You're going to have to depend on me, or someone, for the time being," Desmond replied reasonably. His voice sounded as if he'd turned his back and were attending to something else.
"Maybe 'or someone' would be better?" Raven muttered, though it was more his own hurt pride and frustration speaking than anything else.
"If that is your desire," was Desmond's smooth reply. He was used to the Raven moods. Continuing as if the discussion was of little importance, "I've brought dinner. Seems this...town has no inkling of delivery or room service. I did however find a quaint establishment: Granny's Nibblins. If I may direct you to the table?"
Michael sighed, his irritation leaving as quickly as it had began. He was too tired to hold on to the emotion anyway. Besides, whatever Desmond had found at Granny's Nibblins smelled delicious. He allowed the older man to lead him to the table.
A sudden thought occurred to him. "What time is it ?"
"Ten minutes of seven, local time." Desmond replied. Then touching his hand to a utensil, "This is your fork. Your plate is directly before you. Enjoy." Then continuing without missing a beat, "And before you began to fret, I've left a message with Ms. Belcuri, making her aware that your arrival will be later than expected."
"Thank you," Michael said softly. What would he do without Desmond, indeed. "You should have waken me. I told her that I would come. I should have gone."
"You needed your rest," Desmond said. "You know what the doctors said as well as I."
"Desmond," Raven warned.
"Yes I know. Don't 'mother' you," Desmond said the words in a way that suggested he'd said them many times before. A silent moment passed, and he continued. "I did try to awaken you, Michael. I suspect that perhaps your body was simply too tired to awaken fully."
There had been other instances in which he had been difficult to awaken. But the frequency had decreased. The doctors had explained that it wasn't unusual with the type of head injury that he'd sustained. His exhaustion had no doubt exacerbated the problem.
"Well," he said, with forced cheerfulness, "I'm rested now and I'm starving. What else have you got besides country fried something or other?"
At half past seven, Christina found herself in the doorway saying her good-byes to what she privately considered the lynch mob. One thing was for sure, Angela Kater was definitely out of control. And the rest of the group had been far too willing to follow her lead. Christina had to admit, though, that the discussion of Angie's 'plan' had diverted everyone from the true sadness behind the gathering. For that perhaps, she should thank Angie.
Hugging each one of them with renewed appreciation, Christina felt the beginnings of a genuine smile. In the midst of a half dozen commands to call if she needed absolutely anything, she closed the door. The care and concern of the townspeople touched her. Closing her eyes, she forced away the tightness that began in the back of her throat. She'd shed enough tears.
Opening her eyes, she allowed them to trail over the only home she'd ever known. The apartment was still decorated as it had been when Aunt Elise died. Christina hadn't changed a thing. Elise had been fond of knickknacks as evidenced by the many figurines which decorated the apartment. If Jason was to be hers, Christina would definitely have to give some thought to child-proofing.
Finding surprising comfort in the thought, she pushed away from the door to check her messages. The phone had rang several times during the gathering. No doubt Mabel was checking up on her. She paused mid-stride when the doorbell rang.
Thinking it to be one of the women from the gathering, or even Mabel, Christine threw the door open without looking out the peephole. The tall, darkly clothed form of Michael Raven, accompanied as usual by his manservant, was not at all what she was expecting to see.
"Oh Mr. Raven and...Mr. Desmond," the name came to her at the last minute. "Please come in."
Desmond thanked her politely and escorted Raven into the apartment before stepping back onto the landing. "I will await your call," he spoke softly.
"Thank you, Desmond," Raven replied, equally softly. After a nod in Christina's direction, Desmond was gone, leaving her to face Jason's father alone.
"Uhm, should I take your arm?" she asked, feeling extremely uncomfortable. Michael Raven was tall and lean, looming nearly a foot taller than her. Dressed in dark clothing, his face set in harsh lines, he posed a very daunting figure. Jeannie was such a gentle creature at heart; this man didn't seem at all the type to which she might be attracted.
"That would probably best easiest," he said. "Unless you'd prefer that I stumble around your home. I'm very likely to break a few things." Christina wondered if a small, ironic smile crossed his lips. She couldn't be sure as it was more a breaking of the thin line of his mouth than anything else.
"All right," she breathed, then tentatively took his arm. He turned his head slightly in her direction at her touch. Christina looked up expectantly, wondering if he meant to say something. Then she realized that he was simply acknowledging her. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, she took in the landscape. If the knick-knack shelves and little odds and ends were off-limits as a child's domain, they were a virtual mine field for Michael Raven. "This could be interesting," she found herself saying aloud. "I didn't realized just how cluttered this place is. We're going to move slowly here."
It took several minutes to make their way to the den, which she figured was safer, considering. She offered words of warning when they reached the sofa. Raven seemed to be listening very carefully as she directed him, his movements only becoming jerky when she put a hand on each of his arms to maneuver him backward so that his legs gently brushed the chair. She was sure his lips twitched this time.
"Thank you," was all he said as he lowered himself carefully to sit.
"Would you like a drink or something to eat?" she asked, noting the way he turned his head as if his ear were following the sound of her voice. "There are a lot of things here that the neighbors brought. I could even make a sandwich if you're hungry."
"No, thank you. I've eaten already," he answered. "But I would like to apologize for arriving late. Have I missed everyone?"
"I'm afraid so," Christina said. "And it's no problem. I realize it was unexpected." She looked down at her hands. He and Angela Kater would not have been a good mix. But, Jeannie had been his wife...
She went on, "I was a little surprised when I found out who you were, though. Jeannie never told me that you were blind."
Raven shifted uncomfortably in his seat, "That's probably because she didn't know."
Christina wasn't sure how to reply to that. "I'm sorry," was all that she could think to say.
Raven cleared his throat. "I was injured in an automobile accident, or so they tell me. I only just awakened from a coma a couple weeks ago. You can imagine my...surprise at receiving your telegram." He spoke the words in a measured monotone.
"I'm so very sorry," Christina said, sure that words were inadequate. Despite the fact that her best friend had found it necessary to leave this man, she could very well understand the shock he must have felt.
"How long were you in a coma?" she asked him.
"One hundred and twenty-seven days," Raven said. "I was the resident miracle patient; they didn't think that I would live, much less wake up. There was a price to pay for breaking the medical rules, however. I lost some short term memory. The events in the months prior to the accident are vague and unreliable at best. And of course, my vision was forfeit as well. Although there is some thought that a series of laser surgeries may help me regain a measure of vision."
"What about your memory?"
"That," he signed heavily, "Is open to debate. I remembered a lot in that first week after I awoke, but the new memories have slowed down now. The doctors aren't very hopeful."
"I'm sorry," Christina said again and reached across to touch his arm. "It must be very difficult for you."
"Yes," Raven nodded. "It is difficult. But I didn't come here to burden you with my problems. I came here to see if you could help me understand what happened with Jeannie."
Christina frowned. "What would you like to know?"
There were several moments before he uttered the softly spoken words. "Why she left me."
Christina's heart wrenched. The simply spoken words told of his sorrow and pain. And he was exposing himself to further pain by asking such questions of a stranger. He hardly seemed daunting anymore as Christina could sense what lay beneath the harsh facade he displayed. And she wished desperately that she had an answer to his questions. For his peace of mind, and her own.
"I don't know why she left you," she told him. "She never said, and I never asked because she was so upset. I always thought we had....time."
Raven deflated. "Can you tell me how she...died? I've been trying to get the information, but the investigators haven't gotten back to me yet and I would really like to know."
Christina swallowed. There was no way to buffer the truth so she simply gave him the facts. Jeannie Raven had died without reason. And the irony that both Jeannie and Michael Raven had been injured in similar fashion was not lost on Christina. "She was killed in an automobile accident in a neighboring town. Hit and run. The police suspect that it was a drunk driver."
Raven gasped and paled.
"There's more," Christina pressed on, having come to a decision. His investigators would learn of the truth eventually. "You have a three month old son. His name is Jason Michael Raven." She enunciated each name carefully to be sure he understood. "And he's sleeping in the other room."
Raven froze completely as the news went through him. "A...s-son?" he stuttered. Chris felt horrible at the necessity of the one-two punch she'd just given him.
"I...have a son?" Hesitance turned into disbelief. "The baby from the funeral...that can't be true." He turned away and moved to get up from the sofa.
Christina rushed to help him. "I'm sorry, I know this is a shock to you, especially after all this time. Maybe if I got you a drink you would feel better." She grasped his arm as he stumbled into the coffee table jarring the lazy Susan that had been left from the previous visitors.
"I'm sorry," he apologized, struggling to control powerful emotions. "I - I'm not...." He ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. I can't..."
"If you could just see him --" she began, then bit her tongue. Her choice of words hadn't been the best. "Look why don't you have a seat?" She tugged slightly on his arm.
"If I could see him what?" Raven asked.
Christina tugged again on his arm. "Would you like to sit?"
"No, tell me what you meant 'If I could see him'?"
"It was nothing." She gave up trying to move him. "I didn't mean to..." her voice trailed off .
"No," his voice softened. "Please tell me what you meant. I know that your choice of wording wasn't intended to be hurtful. I'd just like to know what your thoughts were."
"If you could see him, you would love him," she said. "He's a beautiful little boy."
"If I could see him," he repeated very softly, almost to himself. "What does he look like? Like his mother I'll bet." A sad smile hovered around his lips. He extended his arm, allowing Christina to lead him once again.
"He has lots of curly dark hair and the longest lashes you've ever seen. Actually..." Christina stopped for a moment in thought. "He has pale blue eyes, not at all like Jeannie's. What color are your eyes Mr. Raven?" she asked.
Raven silently reached up and removed his dark glasses. His eyes were the same pale blue as Jason's.
"He probably looks a lot like you did when you were a baby," she said. Just as if Christina had timed it, Jason began to whimper. It was time for his last feeding of the day. "Would you like to feed him?" she asked.
Raven shook his head nervously. "No, I can't do that. What if I dropped him?".
All you have to do is support him and hold the bottle," Christina said. "I'll help you," she added knowing she had him. "I'll be right back." She put the bottle in the warmer on the way to the baby's room. By the time she'd changed him and gotten back out to the den the bottle was ready.
She spoke softly to him as she carried him over to his father. Ordering Raven to curl his arms, she gently laid the baby in them. He turned his face down towards the little bundle as if searching for an image of his son. His face turned back up to Christina, his blue, sightless eyes, full of awe.
"He smells good," he said, turning his head back toward the child.
"Here's the bottle," she placed it into his hand and guided it toward Jason's mouth. The child immediately began to suck vigorously. Raven seemed to find awe in that, too.
Christina smiled as she watched the two of them. At first Raven was stiff, as if he were afraid he would drop the baby. But gradually he began to relax. It looked and felt right, seeing them together. Perhaps little Jason Raven could heal Michael Raven's emotional wounds.
Raven smiled in the general direction of the child. "I wish I could see him."
"I'd like to ask a favor of you," Christina said, her voice turning serious. She waited until Raven turned his head slightly in her direction. "Would you keep in touch with me so I'll know how he's doing, maybe let me visit sometimes?"
"Visit?" Raven said. His voice became edged with something akin to panic "I can't take care of him, I can barely take care of myself. He needs someone to love him right now. Not a house full of strangers. I wouldn't fight you if you wanted to keep him. You are much better for him than I am. There are no guarantees on my vision. One blind parent is not good enough for him."
"Mr. Raven, I have no claim to him. He is your child. Even though I love him I know I have to give him to you. You are his father and he's going to need you. The longer he's with me the harder it is to give him up because I know after he's gone it's just me and this house. I know what it is to have no family. But you are his family. He should not have to grow up feeling that you didn't want him or that you gave him away."
"Are you saying that you won't keep him?" Raven asked. "What would you do if I didn't take him? If I left him here with you?" He dared her to deny she would take care of him rather than let him go to a foster home.
Christina's voice hardened, "If you leave him here, then you're going to have to give up all claim to him. Forever. You'll have to sign over your parental rights. I don't want his life torn apart in a few months or years whenever you decide you're ready for a child in your life."
Raven held the baby silently for a few moments. She began to wonder if he were going to answer her at all. He had to be reeling from all that she'd hit him with that night. And she hated adding one more thing to the list. But she needed to know. For herself, and for Jason. There could be no middle ground.
"I'll need help," he said finally, looking up. For a moment, she almost believed that he could see her and then his gaze drifted. "In my home there is my mother, but she is an invalid and not capable of caring for an infant. I'll need a nanny. Would you consider interviewing someone for the position. I trust your judgment. And you already know Jason. I'll reimburse you for your time and any work that you are lost here."
Christina let out a breath that she hadn't realized she was holding. A knot was forming in the back of her throat. That Jason would grow up with his true family was wonderful. But she would be left alone as before. She didn't trust herself to speak.
"If you need some time to think about it..." he offered.
"No," Christina spoke up sharply, then cleared her thought. Forcing her voice to steady. "I don't need time to think about it. I'll do it. I need to see the person who'll be taking care of...him. All I ask in payment is a place to stay and travel arrangements."
"Very well then, I'll have all the arrangements taken care of." He carefully placed the bottle on the table in front of him, feeling with his fingers where the table was, also careful not to disturb the then sleeping child.
"Would you like for me to put him to bed?"
"If you don't mind I'd just like to hold him for a while," he replied. "It's very new to me I hope it isn't a bad thing to hold him like this."
Christina smiled, "My Aunt would say that your could never spoil a child by loving it."
"Your Aunt sounds like a wise woman."
"Yes, she was."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Raven said. "I didn't realize..."
"It's really okay," Chris said. "She was wonderful, I still have all of her memories her in this house. I grew up here, she took me in when I was very young." Chris's affectionate gaze wandered around the room, cluttered with the remnants of her past. She loved this old house. "We used to run the shop together. She left it to me...after..."
"What happened to the rest of your family?" Raven asked.
"My parents died in an accident when I was about 2 years old so I really don't remember them. When we were kids, Jeannie and I always felt like it was the two of us against the rest of the world. Jeannie's Aunt Cara took care of her and Aunt Elise took care of me. Jeannie's mother left her with her aunt shortly after she was born. Jeannie thought her mother was dead most of her life. But you probably know all of that already."
Raven nodded his head. "Yes, I've met Georgiana on several occasions. She lives near Greenich, and is rather an odd woman. She and Jeannie had a strange relationship, from what I can remember."
Christina had never met Georgiana Stanton, and didn't think she wanted to. Jeannie had had nothing good to say about her mother.
Raven continued, "I'd better go and let you get this little guy in bed. Thank you again. For everything. For taking care of Jason. I'll be in contact about the arrangements."
Christina removed the sleeping child from his arms, and showed him out.
"Are you certain?" Michael Raven asked in surprise.
"I'm quite certain," was Desmond's calm reply.
"Has she been informed?"
"No. But she may already be aware of the situation if Jeannie informed her. The insurance company will likely notify her within the next thirty days that she is beneficiary."
Raven rubbed at his brow. "Well, it does make sense that Jeannie would change her policy. Especially after Jason was born. But it also means that she had no intention of ever telling me about my son." He was quiet for several moments, while he tried to come to terms with the situation. "What did I do wrong, Desmond?"
Desmond sighed. "I don't know what happened between the two of you. You...kept your own counsel back then. She left and you became very distant. No one could reach you, Michael."
"I can barely remember her Desmond," he whispered. "How could I fall in love with and marry a woman and then barely remember her?"
Desmond remained silent, allowing Raven to talk.
"That's what bothers me the most. I'm here mourning a woman I don't know anymore, a woman who ran away from me. A woman who has, in a round-a-bout way, given me the gift of a son. He's the one who is important now. He's the focus."
Christina sighed, and again demonstrated how to work the temperamental mechanism on the safe. "See, if it sticks, then you have to do it this way."
"Oh, I see," Angie Kater smiled apologetically. "I thought you meant... Oh, never mind what I thought. I got it. So how long are you going to be gone with this Michael Raven?"
Christina wondered just how much of what Angie did was an excuse for digging up juicy information. As far as she was concerned, if Angie didn't have a need to know, she wouldn't be hearing it from her. Her answer was to the point. "Two weeks is what I have planned. Are you worried about the extra hours?"
"Oh, they're no problem," Angie assured her. "If you would let me, I'd take over the shop full time. This is a great old place. Your Aunt had a good eye."
"Yeah, she did," Christina relaxed, gazing around the area.
"Have you told Larry yet?" Angie asked next.
"Not exactly. I left a message asking him to call. It'll probably be a day before he gets back to me."
"How do you think he's going to take it?"
Chris shrugged. "Doesn't really matter."
Angie seemed to digest that for several seconds. "So, when ya leaving?"
"In two days, if all goes as planned," Christina replied.
"You're not worried?" Angie's voice dropped to a whisper, though there was no one else in the shop.
"About what?" Chris copied her tone.
"Being dragged off into the woods and getting roughed up." Angie replied as if she were surprised that Chris hadn't come to that conclusion herself.
"By a blind man?" she asked skeptically.
"You never know. It's the ones you least expect."
"I'll be careful," Chris assured her. The doorbell jangled, announcing the arrival of a new customer, and Christina's release from Angie's interrogation. "Listen, why don't you get that while I finish up back here?"
"Sure thing," Angie bounced happily out of the room.
Chris sighed and returned to her task of bringing the books up to date. She wanted things to go as smoothly as possible while she was away. She'd only tapped in another set of digits into her calculator when Angie's head appeared around the door.
"There's a woman here to see you." Angie informed her.
"Does she have a name?" Christina asked, barely glancing up from her ledger.
"She said her name was Ms. Stanton."
Christina nearly dropped her pen. Georgiana Stanton?! Here? Quickly marking her place, she passed around the desk and went toward the front of the store.
"I'm Christina Belcuri," she extended her hand to the perfectly made up woman on the opposite side of the counter.
"Georgiana Stanton," the woman responded, disdainfully ignoring the hand Christina had offered. Christina uncomfortably brought her hand back to her side. It did have a bit of leftover wood stain on it.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Christina offered. "And I'm sorry to say that you missed the funeral. It was the day before yesterday."
"What right did you have even burying my daughter?" Georgiana demanded, ignoring Chris's proffered sympathy. Her eyes and tone were cold.
Christina's eyes narrowed slightly as she studied the woman. "I wasn't able to contact you," she said. "If you would like, I can show you the grave site."
"She doesn't need me interfering with that. She's probably better off where she is, silly girl. She certainly was unhappy enough in this life. But what I would like, is to know why my daughter named you as beneficiary to her life insurance policy."
Christina blinked, stunned at the woman's callousness. "What?"
"Her policy," Georgiana spat as if talking to a particularly dim child. "Why did she leave it to you?"
Chris was too stunned to do anything more than answer. "I didn't know she had. Are you sure?"
Georgiana rolled her eyes nastily. "Thanks for absolutely nothing." With that the woman slammed out of the shop.
"And that was Jeannie's mother?" Angie asked, stepping up beside her.
"Yep," Chris said.
"She didn't look very happy."
"No, I don't think she was."
"She didn't look too sad, either."
"Why didn't you tell her about her grandchild? Might have mellowed her--though I kinda doubt it."
"She didn't really give me a chance."
Christina stared at her reflection in the mirror and nervously fidgeted with her hair. She rarely wore it in any other manner than a braid down her back. Even on Sundays. But in just a few minutes, Michael Raven and Mr. Desmond would be arriving to gather she and Jason. She decided that a trip to Greenich required something more.
Her long dark blonde hair had a natural wave and hung half to her waist. She hadn't really needed the liner to accentuate her dark lashes and brows, but Mabel, of all people, had insisted on it. She'd said that it gave her a more 'put together' look. Whatever. And it was Angie who had insisted on the lipstick. Christina simply wondered if all of it hadn't been a big mistake.
With lipstick, she couldn't kiss Jason, and what if her hair fell over her shoulder and bothered him? She hadn't really found a reason to dislike the eye make-up, but she was sure she would come up with something.
"Chris, are you coming out of there or not?!" a voice yelled through the door.
"I'm coming!" she called back, making a wry expression. She could just wash her face...
The phone rang as she continued to contemplate her newly forming plan. Mabel and Angie would have no time to get her back into the horrid stuff.
"It's for you! Larry!"
All thought of washing her face and braiding her hair vanished. She'd left Larry a message two days earlier, and he'd chosen the worst of all possible times to call her back. Leaving the bathroom and heading for her bedroom, where she hoped to find at least a modicum of privacy, she picked up the line.
"Hi Larry," she replied cheerfully into the phone. And then, upon hearing Angie's breathing on the other extension. "I've got it, Ange."
"Sure thing," was Angie's disembodied reply, but no tell-tell click of the receiver being replaced.
"Angie," Chris warned.
The phone clicked without another word. Chris sighed.
"What's going on?" Larry asked, his deep drawl echoed over the phone lines bringing to mind his handsome features. His usual easy-going smile was no doubt plastered over his face.
"I'm leaving," Chris told him. "Just for a little while. Two weeks."
"You? Leaving?" Larry laughed. "I thought I'd never hear of that day. Taking a vacation? You ought to, you know. 'specially after being saddled with that baby and all."
Christina fought the irritation that was beginning to rise. Larry had never approved of her wanting to assume responsibility for Jeannie's child. "No, Larry," she replied. "Jason's father showed up at the funeral. He's taking the child home, and wants me to help him find a nanny."
There was silence for several moments.
"Larry?" Chris spoke into the quiet.
"You sure that's such a good idea, Chris?"
"Well, he needs the help. He's blind. And his own mother is an invalid. He just woke up from a coma for heaven's sake."
"You're kidding me. You believe that?! That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of in my life. No one is that unlucky --"
"Larry..." Chris tried to cut in.
"It's probably just some story to try to --"
"Larry..." Chris's voice rose.
"You're too naive for your own good! Let him find his own nanny! I forbid you to go!"
"You what?" Chris demanded. "You can't forbid me to go anywhere. In case you haven't noticed, you're 1000 miles away and have been for the past month! I talk to you once a week, maybe! What gives you the right?"
"You've been waiting for me all your life, Christina Renee Belcuri, and you know it. That's why you called me. If you ever want me to ask you to marry me, you'll do what I say."
Chris gasped in outrage. Of all the Neanderthal...! She was beyond words. After sputtering several times into the phone, she simply slammed the receiver down.
"Is everything all right?" Mabel and Angie came rushing into the room.
Chris wiped at her eyes. The fool man wasn't worth crying over. "Everything is fine," she told her friends. "Larry just wasn't very happy."
Mabel looked thoughtful, but Angie looked like she was trying to decide which obvious question to ask first. Both didn't have an opportunity to speak because the doorbell rang. It was time.
"I've gotta go," she told them, retrieving Jason from Mabel's arms. Suddenly nervous at the impending trip, she glanced over everything hoping that she hadn't forgotten anything. Everything seemed to be in place.
"It's fine," Mabel told her, seeming to understand. "We'll take care of this place. You just go."
Chris's eyes teared for a whole different reason as they settled on Mabel. She hugged both women and headed for the door. Mr. Desmond greeted her formally and gathered her luggage.
As the car pulled around the storefront of Elise's Olde Tyme Gift Shop, Christina wondered if she'd ever see the place again.
Christina gazed down at the lakes and highways and developments that were the city of Greenich. It was beautiful from the air and she had no doubt that it would be equally beautiful when they landed. They flew in a small chartered craft that had met them at a neighboring airport. The pilot, a Johnny French, had been very friendly, and described all of the areas that they had flown over.
Michael Raven and Desmond had sat quietly in the back while Christina soaked up the geography lesson. Jason had slept in a baby carrier for the first half of the trip, and then lain contentedly through the last leg. That had eased one of her fears. She'd worried that the unfamiliar noise and motion would upset him. But it seemed Jason, like she, were born to fly. She decided that she would have to find time to go on vacation in the future.
As the plane descended toward the runway at Greenich airport, she held her breath. The wheels gently bumped the ground, bringing a delighted smile to her lips. Johnny French grinned over and gave her the thumbs up sign before tending to several gages on the very full control panel.
A car was waiting for them when they exited the plane. She saw Raven speaking quickly with someone who quickly loaded her and Jason's cases in the trunk. Desmond led her toward the back seat and helped her load Jason and his carrier into the vehicle. Michael Raven was soon settled beside her.
"That was wonderful," she smiled over at him, though she knew he couldn't see her. A return smile broke out on his face.
"It appears that you love to fly as much as I do," he replied. "And little Jason, my son, you were wonderful as well," he spoke in the direction of Jason's carrier. The child was making happy gurgling noises, so Chris was sure that no one would have any problems finding him.
Christina laughed at him, "I think he's a natural," she whispered conspiratorially.
Raven's smile broadened. "He would have to be."
Christina watched as the smile lingered on Michael Raven's face. The lines she'd remembered from three days past, were less deep. And his coloring was better as well. She was beginning to understand what Jeannie may have seen in this man.
The car began moving as Desmond climbed into the front seat. Trees of many varieties lined the lane that led from the airport out onto the local highway system. Greenich was nothing like McAllister. Yes, McAllister had lots of trees, but none had the lush greenness of Greenich.
Finally the car pulled into a driveway that seemed to go on forever. After some minutes, they pulled around a curve and a sprawling white-pillared home appeared. Christina's mouth dropped at the sight. This was possibly the most beautiful home she'd ever seen.
"Welcome to Raven's Rest," Michael said at her side, and he was smiling again. "Everything should be prepared for our arrival."
"Right," Chris said, awestruck at the sheer size of the place. Dragging her eyes away from the site, she gathered Jason from the carrier and followed Desmond and Raven up the wide steps.
The foyer was just as breathtaking as the outside. A giant polished staircase stood off to one side and a marble fireplace on the other. An ocean of polished parquet flooring stood between the stairs and the front door. A room off to the left, near the fireplace, was occupied. Chris heard voices.
Georgiana Stanton accompanied by a curly haired gentleman carrying a briefcase stepped into view. Chris had a sinking feeling as the gentleman retrieved something from a pocket. His manner screamed lawyer.
"Hello Michael, Christina," the woman said. Then resting her eyes on Christina, "I appreciate everything you've done for my daughter. Especially for carrying for my grandson. And I think it's wonderful the way you, Dear Michael, are trying to care for him, now. But really, you must see that the child would be better off with me and family who can love and care for him?"
"No," Chris muttered, tightening her arms possessively around the child. "Jeannie left Jason in my care. You don't have any right to the child."
"Grandparents do have rights, young lady. In the eyes of the law, it is you who are the interloper." Then waving a hand at the gentleman at her side. "This is my lawyer, Mr. Lunari. He is here to protect my rights, and those of the well-being of the child. Michael is quite well meaning, but he is unfit."
Michael spoke up for the first time since they'd entered the house. His voice was deceptively calm. "Ms. Stanton, I ask that you and your attorney leave my home immediately. You are not to enter it again without my express permission. Any other communications you would like to make on this matter are to be made through my attorney."
Georgiana smiled wickedly. "I'm just here as a courtesy, to inform you of my intent," she said. "Wouldn't want you to have to try to find someone to read it to you."
Chris glanced between the retreating duo and Michael. He was shaking with rage. Christina wasn't doing much better. How a person could be so mean, she couldn't understand. The woman hadn't wanted to raise her own daughter and now, she was trying to gain custody of her grandson. And during the entire time that she'd stood making her threats she hadn't once looked at the child.
Raven stood very still for long moments after the front door closed. When Jason began to whimper, Raven fidgeted slightly; a helpless gesture for assistance. He'd gotten angry and lost his bearings. Chris imagined that angered him even more.
Desmond cleared his throat. "Would you like to show Ms. Belcuri to the nursery?"
Raven seemed to relax by force of will. "Yes, thank you, Desmond." He allowed himself to be lead as the four of them slowly made their way through a side hall and to a door on the lower level.
"This will be your room, Ms. Belcuri, " Desmond said. "It adjoins the nursery." Opening the door he led them all in. The room was breathtaking, done in yellows and creams. A large king sized bed looked small in this room. Glass doors at the side of the room opened to a patio that led to a garden beyond.
"Will it be suitable?" Raven asked. Desmond looked on smiling, as he could see her reaction.
"It's perfect," Chris breathed. "Your home is very beautiful."
Raven smiled then. "Thank you. The nursery is through the other door." Desmond led the way.
The nursery had every modern convenience. There was a new crib and a rocking chair and music boxes and wall hangings -- all the things Chris could possibly have wanted for her baby. If she had a baby, she reminded herself. She couldn't forget that Jason was Mr. Raven's son. But not for long, if Georgiana got her way. Chris fervently hoped that she didn't. Because then, Chris knew for a certainty, she would never see Jason again.
Chris put the child in the crib that had been prepared for him and wound the music box. As a lilting melody tinkled out of the device, small airplanes flew in circles. Jason was transfixed, and delivered several kicks of delight. Chris couldn't help but to laugh at him.
As the music continued on, his eyes began to drift closed. His breathing evened into the steady patterns of sleep.
"Thank you Desmond." Raven whispered.
"Yes, sir." Desmond replied, then immediately left the room.
"There's a monitor in your room that you can take within a certain range." Raven told her. "If you'll lead, we can go into the other room and talk."
Chris gave him her arm and led him out of the nursery. "Could we go into the gardens?" she asked. It was so beautiful, she wondered what it would smell like.
"Of course. My mother used to like to sit out here when I was younger."
Chris opened the doors and led him out. "There's a bench to the left where we can sit," he said.
Chris, copying motions she'd seen Desmond make, led him to the bench. At first they sat silently, listening to the gentle sounds of birds singing and the flow of the wind. The smell of many flowers flavored the air, adding to the general serenity of the place.
After a time, Michael Raven began speaking. "I'm sorry you had to witness that scene. When I told her about Jason, she'd seemed happy - like you'd expect any grandparent to be. I should have known better than to take Georgiana at face value."
Chris wasn't entirely sure what to make of his last sentence. "What I don't understand is why she is doing this. You said that she lives in a nearby city, so she could always visit. And from the way she simply left Jeannie with her sister, and the fact that she didn't even look at Jason, I wouldn't imagine that she has some great longing to mother. She probably wouldn't even know him if he turned up in a basket on her doorstep."
Raven chuckled mildly, "You're probably right. But you could say the same of me."
"No you couldn't," Christina objected.
"I'll bet you'd know him, by the way he feels, by the way he smells and sounds. I've seen you take in all those things about him."
Michael smiled, pleased. "Thank you," he said softly. "I really want what is best for that little boy. But, I'm afraid I know why Georgiana is doing this. If she were to gain custody of Jason, then she could also file for me to pay child support. That could prove very lucrative for her. I believe she may be especially upset since Jeannie left her life insurance to you."
"I'd give her the money if it would make her stop." Chris said.
"It won't," Michael shook his head. "She's probably decided that she can get more out of me."
"She won't take care of him, Mr. Raven," Chris insisted. "She'd treat him just like she did Jeannie, just leave him behind somewhere. You can't let her get away with this."
"I don't have a lot of choice in the matter. If I can't prove to a judge that I would be a fit parent, then she could win her case. Despite how much I want it to be so, I haven't recovered from my accident. I have several more surgeries to go through, and there is no other family available to care for him."
"What would you have to do to prove you were a fit parent?" Christine asked. She wanted to help in any way she could to save Jason from the life Jeannie had had.
"In my present condition the only thing that would convince a judge would be if I were married, then there would be no problem at all and Georgie would have no basis for her claims."
"I don't suppose you have a girlfriend?" Chris asked.
Raven grinned. "You're going to help me find a wife now, are you?"
"Sure," Christine said, "Now what type of woman do you like?"
"Sweet, gentle, kind, loving, someone who will love Jason and take care of him as if he were her own. Someone who would be a good mother to him. Someone like...you. If you could find someone just like you, I'd be willing."
"Well, it's just your luck I happen to be free," Chris responded, thinking briefly back to the argument she had earlier with Larry.
Raven sat silent for a second. "Are you really? Free?" he asked finally. "No boyfriends back home, waiting with bated breath for your return?"
Chris squelched the image of Larry that cropped up. Their relationship had been going nowhere for years. And the situation with Jason had brought many of the reasons why to the fore. Larry would never settle down to a normal life with a home and a family. She was alone.
Shaking her head, she answered, "Nope, it's just me." She held her breath.
"Would you really consider it then? For Jason?" He asked.
"Yes, I would." She answered without hesitation.
Raven let his breathe go, before answering, "If you do decide to go through with this, it would have to be soon, Georgie would probably want to have a hearing as quickly as possible."
"I understand," Chris said suddenly feeling very self conscious. She was definitely getting the better end of the deal. She could have Jason as her own son and also, this beautiful home to live in... Raven cut into her thoughts.
"After the issue is settled and I am able to take better care of Jason, you could be released from the marriage. Or earlier if you desired, as long as Georgiana was no longer a threat."
Chris paused in her imaginings. Because that was all they were. Jason would not be her son. But, she couldn't allow Georgiana Stanton to use Jason to get money for herself. Marriage was a very serious step, not something one planned on leaving at a set date. But if Raven didn't want to remain tied down to her... For Jason, she would do this. But she couldn't let it be for nothing.
"What happens if you never regain your sight?" Chris asked.
"I'm confident that I will." He said, "If there's some unexpected problem, we can cross that bridge when and if we come to it."
Chris nodded, "I'll do it, but I have one request first."
"I want equal custody of Jason, no matter what happens."
"Okay," Raven sighed. "I promise you that. I'll have my lawyers draw up a contract if you like."
Chris considered him. She trusted him, but people changed. "Okay, that'll be fine." The sunshine had gone out of the day for her. She was now involved in a business arrangement of a kind she had never expected.
"You what?!" Christina put the phone away from her ear. When Mabel's very loud reply to her news quieted, she put it back to her ear.
"I have to do this Mabel. I explained about Georgiana."
"Yeah, I know honey," Mabel said. "But is this a wise idea? And what about Larry?"
Christina sighed. "It's the only thing I can do. He's a good man --"
"You barely know him! You met the man five days ago! Your best friend left him, remember?" Mabel was never one to mince words. "You're gonna get yourself hurt, child. And poor Larry..."
"Poor Larry, ha!" Chris replied, quickly filling the woman in on the conversation they had. "I think we're pretty much broken up, don't you?"
"Chris, you can't just do this to get back at him. Not where a child is involved."
"I know what I'm doing Mabel. I do. If you could just send the papers for me, I'd appreciate it."
"All right," Mabel said. "But I'm coming out there to see it done. And I've got a few other things too that came for you."
"Thank you, Mabel," Chris said, sighing.
"Yeah," the woman hung up.
Chris carefully replaced the phone back into the cradle. That had been a little easier than she'd expected. Twelve days between meeting and marrying probably was some sort of a record. And she hoped Mabel wasn't coming just to try to talk her out of it.
"How are you, Sir?" Desmond asked.
"I don't know," Michael said. "Because I want to do this? To give Jason a whole family. But what if she decides that she wants out."
"I believe her to be a reliable young woman," Desmond said. "She cares well for your son, and I believe that in time there can be more between the two of you."
Michael cocked his head sharply at that. "What do you mean?"
"She wants this as much as you do."
"Only for Jason," he replied. "She just wants to make sure Georgiana doesn't win."
"Hmmm. Maybe. She and her guest are shopping for a dress for tomorrow's ceremony. She seemed very excited."
"Really?" Michael was surprised.
"Yes. You would know that if you had talked to her at all in the past few days."
"I was afraid that she might change her mind."
"Don't underestimate yourself."
"Do you, Michael Kenneth Raven, take Christina Renee Belcuri to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love and to cherish, in sickness and health, till death do you part?" the officiator asked.
"I do," agreed Michael Raven with a smile. The couple stood before the officiator on the gazebo in the garden at Raven's Rest. Desmond, Michael's mother and Mabel stood by as witnesses. Michael still wore the dark glasses that signaled his blindness.
"Do you Christina Renee Belcuri, take Michael Kenneth Raven to be your lawfully wedded husband, to honor and obey, in sickness and health, till death do you part?" Chris experienced a moment of uncertainty. Would it really be till death did they part if Michael might want to end this relationship after he retrieved his vision? Then she realized, she did mean those words. If Mr. Raven wanted her, she fully intended this to be a lifetime commitment. "I do," she said.
"I now pronounce you man and wife," the official said raising his arms into the air. "You may now kiss the bride."
Chris stood very still, willing herself to breathe normally, as Michael Raven reached searching hands up along her shoulders, along her neck and to her face. Her pulse kicked into triple gear as he gently ran his thumbs across her lips. Her eyes drifted closed as he lowered her head to bestow her with a soft, lingering kiss.
His hands remained on her face after the kiss ended, and he looked as if he would kiss her again when the official's voice rang through the garden. "I now present, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Raven. What God had yoked together, let no man put asunder."
The ceremony was over, but Chris felt that she would never be the same. She and Michael Raven were quickly surrounded by those who had attended the private ceremony. Mabel, holding Jason, was the first to hug her and whisper congratulations in her ear. A light buffet luncheon would serve as reception, after which Mabel would be leaving as she had to return to her post office.
"He slept through the whole thing," Mabel told her, smiling. "I think I'll go and put him down."
Christina thanked her, and turned to Michael's mother who smiled up at her from a wheel chair. The woman seemed in and out of reality. That day she was more out. She continued to call Christina Lulabel.
As the meal was drawing to a close, Raven made a gesture toward Desmond. The man got up and directed Michael toward Christina and placed his hand on her arm. After a nod, and a wink, he was gone.
Christina didn't know what to make of that. Desmond had always been so calm, composed. She turned to Raven. "What's going on?"
He ran his hand along her arm until he found hers. The warm brown hand that gently engulfed hers captured her full attention. "I have something to show you," he said. "Could you lead us to the front of the house?"
"Of course," Christina said, wondering at the mysterious smile that lingered at the corners of his mouth. Moving through the gathered group, she led him around the house. When they were halfway there, he reached a hand into his breast pocket and withdrew something that jingled. He held it out to her.
A key ring with several keys was placed into her palm. She stared at them dumbly, for a moment. It wasn't until they rounded the house that she realized what he intended. A cream-colored Mercedes sat in the driveway with a big pink bow tied around it.
Chris drew in her breath. "Oh, Mr. Raven! You shouldn't have!" she cried.
Raven smiled at her excitement. "Michael," he whispered conspiratorially. "We're married now. Why don't you go on and try it out?"
"You're sure? It's okay?" Chris asked excitedly.
"Of course it's okay," Raven said. "I bought it for you, Christina. It's your car. You can drive it whenever you like."
"Thank you," Chris said once more before she dashed across to the vehicle and climbed inside. The sweet smell of newness assaulted her. Soft leather seats and rich interior spoke of comfort and expense. She hugged the steering wheel and closed her eyes tightly. This all had to be a dream.
Chris opened her eyes at the crunch of tires against asphalt Moving quickly out of the car, she went to Michael's side. Their first guests as husband and wife were non other than Georgiana Stanton and her attorney.
"Well, hello," Georgie greeted them. "Did I miss the party?" Her eyes drifted over toward the new sedan tied with a huge ribbon, and narrowed. "Did I missing something?"
Michael smiled coldly in the direction of Georgie's voice. "Why yes, Georgiana, you did and I don't remember inviting you to our home." The way Michael stressed the word 'our' was not lost on Christina. Her eyes widened in surprise.
If Michael's meaning wasn't lost on Christina, it certainly wasn't lost on Georgie. Her eyes went immediately to Chris's left hand. The woman's jaw dropped. "You move fast, don't you, you little vixen!" she spat in Chris's direction. Chris was at a loss as to how to respond. "Anyone can see through this little farce."
"I'm sure you're not here to trade niceties, Georgie. State your business." Michael said.
Georgie shrugged artfully. "Oh, it's just this little 'ol subpoena." She grabbed Raven's hand where it lay against Chris's arm and placed the folded papers in it. "Be there or be square," she threw over her shoulder as a parting shot.
Michael held himself very stiffly for long moments after Georgie and her attorney had left. Chris felt the muscles of his arm clench. Michael was furious; that much she knew. But what to do about it, she had absolutely no idea. She simply didn't know the man well enough.
The enormity of what she had just done hit her. She was married to a man who was practically a stranger. The only thing she really knew about him was that he had married her best friend, who had then left him. Was she so desperate that she'd marry a man she didn't know to abate the loneliness that she feared would be her only existence?
"Let's not allow her to ruin this day for us," Michael finally said with effort. "We should go in and enjoy our guests. And then, later, I'll make reservations for us at a restaurant that I hope you'll enjoy."
"Okay," Christina looked up at him in surprise. Of all the responses she might have expected from him, this wasn't it. She filed it away, determined to get to know this man.
"Chef Henri is an experience not to be missed," he told her, his smile becoming more genuine. "And I've heard that I could stand a few more pounds on these bones. Now, if you can show me to the study, we can dispense with this... item."
"Study..." Christina pondered that. Did she know where his study was? "You wouldn't happen to have one of those maps that say, 'You are here', would you?"
Michael laughed. "No, but perhaps one is in order. Why don't we rejoin our guests, and I'll have Desmond handle it."
When they reentered the garden, Desmond zeroed in on them. He seemed to have a sense that Michael needed him. Michael murmured several words to him, and took his proffered arm. Desmond immediately removed the subpoena from his hand. "Shall we proceed to the study?"
"Yes," Michael responded, "And I'd like a reservation for two at Le Bohemme."
Desmond placed the offending sheaf of papers in an inner pocket, and continued the conversation without missing a beat. "Shall I request Chef Henri as well?"
"Yes, that would be nice, Desmond. But don't bother him if he's busy. In fact..."
Chris stood and watched as the older man led the younger up into the house. She followed slowly, and then stopped. There was obviously more to the relationship between the two men than that of Master/Servant. She sensed that they genuinely cared for one another. Perhaps it was better that she not interfere.
"Something wrong?" a voice asked behind her, causing her to startle.
"Oh. No, Mabel." Christina turned to speak to her friend. "I was just thinking."
"About what, honey?"
"Just that... I have a lot to learn. That maybe you were right..."
"Oh, don't go having second thoughts, now," Mabel chided her. "Besides, I've questioned everyone I could get my hands on."
"And?" Christina was curious to what conclusion the woman had come. She seemed mildly abashed.
"I think you did okay," she said. "Everyone seems to respect him. Most want to protect him, and are worried that you are taking advantage of him."
"They told you that?" Christina was shocked.
"Well, not in so many words. They just worry about him, I suppose. He does have that vulnerable boyish thing going on."
Chris's brows went skyward. "Mabel? What have you been drinking?"
"Ginger Ale, thank you very much," the older woman shot back. "Listen, I hope this all works out. I think in the long run the two of you could be good for one another. Regardless of how it all started."
"I hope you're right." Christina said, softly.
"I'm always right," Mabel assured her. "Now, come with me to the airport so I can cry at the gate."
Chris left Mabel at the gate with a teary promise to call as soon as she arrived home in McAllister. Once again at Raven's Rest, she went directly to the nursery where she found Jason having a nap while Maria, one of the house maids, read.
"Hi," she whispered across the dim room. "How's the little guy?"
"An angel," Maria smiled and whispered back. "He's a wonderful little boy."
Chris smiled proudly down at the warm bundle beneath the thin blanket. She couldn't have been prouder if she'd given birth to him herself. Her attention changed when there was a tap at the door of her room.
Gesturing to Maria that she'd get it, she left the nursery and walked through her room to answer the door. She was surprised when she opened the door to find Michael Raven standing there alone.
"Uh...Mr. Raven," the surprise was evident in her voice. "Is something wrong?" she searched the hallway to be sure that Desmond wasn't nearby.
"No," Michael replied, a small smile playing at his lips. "And it's Michael, remember?" When Chris repeated his name in response, he continued, "Should something be?"
"No," Chris returned, her voice lost someplace between confusion and amusement. "Where's Desmond?"
"I gave him some time off. He deserves that every now and then, you know." After a moment longer of standing outside of her door, Michael cleared his throat. "You know if you keep me standing out here like this, people might start to talk."
"Oh! I'm sorry," Chris exclaimed. She took his arm and carefully led him in, "after all this is your house."
"Our house," Michael corrected her.
"Our house," she blinked, off guard. "So, how are we gonna get to the restaurant?" Chris asked in the quiet that followed.
"Oh, you're gonna drive," Michael smiled. "That is, if you want to, you can drive. Otherwise we can take a taxi."
"No I don't mind driving," Chris smiled. "Only I don't know the way."
"Oh, it's easy. I'll talk you through it. Unless they've changed something major about the streets, I should be able to get us there."
And get them there, he did. Le Bohemme was a very elegant restaurant with excellent food. Chris enjoyed the place immensely. Michael seemed to be going out of his way to make her happy. At the end of the meal he surprised her with a serenade by a gentleman who sang something French to her. By the time they were in the car going home, she felt pleasantly happy.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" Michael asked as she car turned into the drive.
"Very much," Chris smiled. "Thank you."
"You're very welcome," Michael returned, fingering the elegant brown walking stick he'd carried tonight. "There is a matter we must discuss, however." His tone had definitely sobered.
"What is it?" Chris asked worriedly. The quiet engine died away as she turned the key to off.
"The subpoena means the Georgie has every intention of going through with this lawsuit. Our marriage must appear real. If it were discovered that we do not share a bedroom, then a judge might doubt the seriousness of our commitment. So, I'm asking if you would share my bedroom with me? Now before you answer, I have a sleeping bag stowed in the closet, and I have a really big sofa in the room. You wouldn't have to be uncomfortable."
Chris sat speechless for a moment. She had wondered just how much of a marriage he had planned on having over the past few days. When there had been no move made to transfer her things to his suite of rooms, she considered the matter settled. But now...
"I don't mind," she heard herself saying softly.
"You're sure?" Michael asked, head still down and finger fiddling with the walking stick.
"I'm sure," Chris replied more firmly. It was obvious that Michael had had no intention of making this a real marriage. But then, perhaps that was best in the long run. Feeling as if some of the happiness had gone out of the evening, Chris moved to open the door.
"Are you ready to go in?" she asked.
"Yes," Raven nodded and opened his own door. He'd almost made it to the front of the car when he made a misstep and stumbled into the car.
"Are you all right?" Chris rushed to his side.
"I guess I'm really not very good with this thing?" Michael responded good-naturedly. "Hope I didn't hurt the car."
Chris laughed at him. "No, I think the car survived this time. Come on, I lead you to the house."
Michael lightly held Chris's arm as she led him into the front door and up the stairs. Instead of continuing along the hall that led to the nursery, she went up the winding staircase and along another hall that led to Michael's rooms.
At the door, she hesitated. "I need to check on Jason," she murmured, "And gather some things."
"I want to come with you," he responded. "We should probably bring the monitor back with us since you won't be in the room with him tonight."
"Yeah," Chris murmured nervously. This was going to be more difficult than she thought.
Maria was still in the nursery when they arrived, dosing.
"Maria," Chris called her name softly. "We're back."
Maria looked sleepily up at the two of them and smiled her thanks.
"You didn't have to stay here the whole time," Chris told her. "He sleeps through the night pretty well."
"Oh, I didn't mind," Maria told her with an indulgent grin. "I like to just look at him. He's so beautiful." A moment later the young woman was gone. Chris hesitated, unwilling to leave the child so far away.
Michael, seeming to sense her mood, placed a warm hand along the side of her arm. Its warmth infused her, seeming to spread to all parts of her body. "We can spend the night in this room, if you want," he told her. "You'll just have to give up your blanket."
"You know, the bed is huge. There's really no reason for you to sleep on the floor," Chris found herself saying. "We probably wouldn't even have to touch one another."
Chris could practically feel his smile. "I like that idea."
That settled, Chris led him back into the bedroom proper and pulled the door to the nursery close, but not all the way closed. "Is there anything special you need? Do you want me to get Desmond?"
"On vacation, remember," Michael smiled again. "And, nothing special. Although, you're gonna have to tell me where I can put these." He had removed the dark glasses he customarily wore, again revealing those startling blue eyes that were so like Jason's. He seemed to be looking directly at her.
Chris blinked a moment in confusion. "Um, can you see me?" she asked.
Michael shook his head sadly. "No. I wish I could. I only have a few impressions, from before, at the ceremony." He reached his hands toward her, again running them up her arms and to her neck and face. "Would you tell me?"
Christina found it difficult to control her response. Couldn't he feel her heart pounding, and the way her breath caught in her throat. "I have dark blonde hair," she told him, forcing the words out. "Uh...it's...wavy."
His hands tangled in her hair, trailing the long length down her back, tracing her form along the way. He made another path up along her arms to her face.
"My...my eyes are gray," Christina continued. "I suppose my features are...even. I think my...lips are... too full and..."
"Beautiful," Michael whispered, his fingers now tracing a path across her mouth. "So warm, lovely." His head descended slightly. "May I?" he asked.
"Yes," she breathed in response.
His fingers were soon replaced by his own lips moving sweetly and gently over her own. The gentle, searching kiss quickly changed to something deeper. The dark glasses fell to the floor behind them, as Raven buried both his hands in her hair and pulled her body into his. Wandering hands gently searched her form, first questing, then with an urgency as he sought to know every part of her.
Chris's head buzzed at the intimacy as Michael drank of her innocence. That he wanted more was obvious, and she was helpless to stop him. She didn't want to stop him.
The phone rang.
They jerked slightly apart. Then Michael touched her face again, and covered her lips and she was lost. The machine picked up. Mabel's voice was like a bucket of ice water.
"Hi there, just want you to know I'm back. Our resident gossip is wanting to know how you're making out." Mabel sighed heavily. "Silly girl. Well, enjoy yourself. Give me a call when you can. Bye."
Michael dropped his hands away from her when she stiffened. "I'm sorry," he said, breathing heavily. "I didn't mean for that to happen."
Christina drew in a deep cleansing breath, and moved to pick up his glasses from the floor. Her emotions were in such turmoil, she didn't know that she could speak rationally on the subject. She simply placed his glasses on the bed side table.
"Perhaps we should get some sleep," she managed.
"Yes, you're right," Michael nodded his agreement. Why had he risked kissing her again? Especially in light of his growing attraction for her. It hadn't helped to spend a week hearing whisperings of the staff of how well she did with Jason, or Desmond's high praise of her. She seemed so tailor-made to fit him and his life. Only, he was blind and they'd made a deal. He could not strap her with his problems. He wouldn't. She deserved more than a life of servitude with a man who couldn't see.
But she'd responded so sweetly, his traitorous heart reminded him. It would have been so easy to draw her closer, to taste again of her sweetness. In an effort to stifle his frustration, he began to undress, tearing at the tight knot in his tie. The more he pulled, the tighter and more tangled the garment became.
When gentle fingers settled on his hands, he couldn't prevent the way his body went absolutely still, tensed as if responding to some ancient fight or flight reflex.
"Let me help," Christina said softly. Her voice was like a balm, relaxing some of the pent-up energy. Even Desmond, who knew him better than anyone, couldn't do that. Despite the fact that he knew close proximity was dangerous, he allowed his hands to fall to his sides so that she might have better access. She moved deftly, her fingers brushing every so often against his neck.
"Thank you," he replied, when she pressed the garment into his palm. His next problem would be to figure exactly where in the room he was. Amazingly, Christina solved that one for him, too.
"There is a chair by the bedside. Would you like me to lead you there?" Her words were spoken politely, clipped. Did that mean that she was unhappy? That she was angry or dissatisfied?
"I would appreciate that, thanks."
"You're welcome." Unhappy, he decided.
"Christina?" He called her name as she released him near at the bedside.
"Yes?" He could tell her back was to him.
"I'm... I'm sorry. Are you okay?" There was a long pause, followed by a strained, "There's no need to apologize. I'll just be in the bathroom. Call if you need anything." In a flurry of motion she was gone.
Long minutes later, after he'd climbed beneath the covers, he heard her exiting the bathroom. He kept as far to his side of the bed as possible, least she feel crowded, but most of all, least he feel the warmth of her body and be tempted.
She moved silently and slid in alongside him. Her slight weight barely disturbed the mattress, but her every movement conjured images in his mind. Desmond had described her features for him, his hands and body had filled in the rest. He ached to learn more.
The soft click of the light being shut off, startled him, but neither spoke. It was a long time before he heard her breathing settle into the gentle rhythms of sleep. It was even longer before he did.
Christina opened her eyes. It was morning -- early judging by the dimness of the light echoing through the curtains. The first day of her life as a married woman. Well, a pseudo-married woman, she reminded herself of the conclusions she'd come to the night before. She turned her head to look at her husband. Pseudo-husband. He slept deeply, one arm thrown across his forehead, obscuring the top portion of his face. Only slightly parted lips were visible.
He tossed his head slightly, and uttered a small sound, barely an exhalation. Suddenly his arm flew out, as if in defense, and his eyes shot wide. Pure panic was what Christina read across his features.
"Michael!" She touched him, hoping to draw him from whatever terrors haunted him. He jerked slightly, and then the emotion faded away to acceptance.
"Are you okay?" She asked him.
"Yeah, bad dream," he murmured, fumbling for the covers then tossing them aside. "Sorry if I woke you."
"You didn't," Christina replied, but she wasn't sure he was listening. Moving determinedly, he'd sat up on the side of the bed. Here, she got her first look at him. Despite a, not unpleasant, thinness about him, there were signs that his body had once been full of lithe muscle. He'd come to bed dressed only in green boxer briefs, and was currently moving carefully toward the bathroom.
She wanted to offer assistance, but judging from the tense set of his shoulders, she was sure that was not what he would have wanted. So she pulled the covers over her shoulder and snuggled back down into the bed, hoping that he had no way of knowing that she followed his every move.
When the door closed behind him, she sighed into her pillow. What in the world was wrong with her? She was lying there in bed, mooning over the man to which she was temporarily married. He'd made it clearer than clear that this wasn't to be a real marriage. She could not loose her heart to him. Already, she was on a slippery slope.
Her mind continued to replay remembrances of the tender care he showed his son. Though he and she had spoken very little since their 'business arrangement', he had always made time to spend with Jason. Most often she saw the two of them in the gardens, Michael holding the cooing child on his lap whilst Desmond or some other member of the staff spoke earnestly with him.
Deciding that sleep was not in her future, at least for the next 12-15 hours or so, she, too, got out of bed. Pulling on a robe, she went into the nursery to check on Jason. He was sleeping peacefully. Unsure what her next move should be, she went back out in the bedroom. Michael was still in the bathroom; the sound of the shower echoed faintly through the door.
Well, he had to be hungry. And he would no doubt want some clean clothes when he came out. Maybe one of the maids would be up and about and could retrieve some for her. With that mission in mind, she headed down the hall.
In the kitchen she found Liza. Liza was the most colorful of the household staff, and by the time Chris had accomplished her goals and headed back to her room, her mood was significantly lightened. No one could not smile when Liza was around.
Re-entering the bedroom, she noticed that the sound of the shower was gone, but the bathroom was still occupied. She placed the clothes on the edge of the bed, arranging them in the manner that Liza had described, and moved toward the french doors that led into the garden. The beauty beyond enticed her to open them.
The smell of morning flowers poured in, lending a sweet, slightly damp aroma to the room. Smiling as she took in a lungful, she wondered how the cool grass would feel under her feet. She was considering finding out by experience when the bathroom door opened.
"Good morning," she said. Michael's body jerked.
"Sorry," she apologized, with a smile in her voice. "I got you some fresh clothes. They're on the bed. Breakfast will be ready in about 20 minutes."
Michael relaxed slightly. "You don't have to wait on me. I don't want you acting as my personal servant." Irritation colored his motions as he moved toward the bed, a towel clenched around his waist.
Christina frowned. "I didn't feel like a personal servant when I was doing it," she told him evenly.
Michael relented only slightly. "I have to learn to do these things for myself. If I forget to gather my clothing before I go into the bathroom, then I must suffer the consequences. The consequences are an excellent teaching aid."
"Mmm," Chris murmured, beginning to recognize something about him. He used anger as a defense mechanism. "Do you always wake up this grumpy?" she asked sweetly. Perhaps it was time to take the bull by the horns.
He paused, stunned. Then, struggling to conceal a smile, he muttered a half-hearted 'yes'.
"Good," Christina smiled. "I like to know what I'm in for. Now, if you don't mind just this once, your clothing is on the bed and breakfast will be ready soon. I'll be in the shower. Hope you didn't use all the hot water."
Breakfast was a very pleasant affair. The meal was served on a sunny patio where the smell of spring, and the whistle of birdsong had its affect, lifting both their spirits. Christina told Michael of the many summers she and Jeannie had daydreamed about living the life of Rizzo. Michael had been completely puzzled by the reference, but had laughed anyway.
Christina proceeded to educate him on the value of the movies and play "Grease" in the life of an adolescent girl, which lead to unmerciful teasing about greased hair and sweat socks.
After breakfast, they spent the day wandering the grounds of Raven's Rest. With Jason in a stroller, Michael showed her around. He seemed to surprise even himself with what he could show her simply based on memory. All in all, in Christina's mind the day seemed magical.
In late evening, they enjoyed a delicious meal and having talked Maria into renting the video cassette of "Grease", Christina had dragged a pseudo-reluctant Michael to enjoy it with her. She didn't think she had ever enjoyed the movie so much. Michael insisted that she describe the outrageous hair colors during the beauty school number, and even teach him to do the hand jive. That had ended with both of them falling over on the sofa laughing.
As time drew near for them to go to bed, Christina could feel a mild tension building between the two of them. Still they managed to chuckle over the days events as they traversed the hall that took them there. As the door closed behind them, the tension edged up couple notches. Michael's smile faded away, and Christina did not need to be a mind reader to know what he was thinking, because she was thinking the same thing.
After several moments of silence, they both began to speak at once. Michael gestured that she should go first. She told him that she'd check on Jason, and Michael informed her that he wanted a shower before bed. Exchanging hesitant responses, they went their separate ways.
Later, Michael stepped out of the bathroom into the darkness. The fresh scent of soap clung to him as he settled in. Her mind's eye supplied the image that the darkness hid. It seemed only natural that she should reach out and touch him. But that was too dangerous. Far too dangerous.
Though they had touched many times during the day, any touch she bestowed now would be of the lingering variety, the kind that led to other things, other places that she could not go. Not if she wanted to come out of this situation with her heart intact. She thought that she had managed to bring her heart's traitorous pounding under control when Michael tentatively called her name, asking if she were awake.
Chris squeezed her eyes shut, hardly daring to breathe. She could not speak for the consequences if she answered. Hadn't Michael said that the consequences were a teaching aid? Did she want to learn this lesson? The seconds ticked past, and eventually Michael released a light sigh and fell silent.
The next day, Christina arose to find that Michael had risen early and vanished into his office. She had learned from the staff that he was the owner of Raven Imports Corporation, a company that he had inherited from his grandfather. That became the pattern for the days that followed.
Christina spent her days with Jason, or working with Ezra the gardener. Occasionally she received calls from Angie Kater on running the antique shop. She never saw Michael until the evenings when he appeared for dinner as he generally had lunch in his office. The dinners were normally quiet affairs, in which Michael didn't seem inclined to talk beyond softly spoken pleasantries.
They both went to bed early, Michael usually falling into an exhausted sleep right away while she wondered what she could do to regain the friendly camaraderie that they had shared on that first day. Her attempts to draw him into watching the sequel to Grease had failed with Michael apologizing that he was too tired, and perhaps they could watch it some other time.
She had wanted to yell at him, asking when some other time would be, but shamed washed over her, locking the words in her throat. She really didn't have the right to make demands of his time. And he was so exhausted lately, deep hollows seemingly permanently etched beneath his eyes. Who was she to add to that? So, she had quietly backed down, and allowed him his space. That was the night the dream returned.
Christina woke to the sound of muffled moans. Turning to her side, she caught the image of Michael Raven tossing frantically in his sleep. From the whimpering sounds he made, it seemed as if he were pleading with someone.
"Michael!" she touched his arm, gently shaking him. "You're dreaming, wake up."
His head continued to thrash as he fought in some reality created in his dreams. A muffled, "no" slipped past his lips before she shook him more forcefully.
"Michael, wake up!" she called, leaning over him now. His eyes shot open, searching frantically in the dark. The panic that she'd noticed before was clearly present. His hands reached up and grasped her upper arms, holding on tightly. Slowly the panic leeched out of his gaze, and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut, matching the heightened pressure of his grip.
He began to breathe again, his breaths coming in time to the frantic racing of his pulse. Christina wanted to soothe him, tell him that everything was going to be all right. But something stopped her. Whether it was the way something in his grasp changed, becoming more of a caress or the way he drew her toward him or the way his fevered skin burned through the thin material of her night shirt, Christina didn't know. She only knew that she would not push him away; she knew what was coming.
He ran his hands up her shoulders to frame her face, finding her lips. She gazed back mutely in the dimness, barely registering the curious mix of confusion and desperation that marred his features as he raised his head up off the bed to meet hers.
He was frantic, his lips devouring hers as if she were the very source of his existence. Christina was powerless to do anything other than respond passion for passion, drawn along as she was on a wave of desire like none she'd ever known. Nothing mattered but his touching her.
"...dreaming," Michael murmured breathlessly in her ear. "I never want to wake up."
"No dream," Christina responded between his kisses. "I wanted--" Michael stiffened, and a horrible dread washed over her. "Michael?" she breathed warily, her blood running cold.
"My God," Michael choked, pushing himself away from her. "I'm...I...." He didn't finish the sentence, but made his way unsteadily to his feet. Without another word, he left her alone against the rumpled bed covers, struggling to keep from crying out at the bloom of pain that settled itself in the region of her heart.
Neither Chris or Michael got any more sleep that night. Michael disappeared into the bathroom, while Christina drew comfort from the small child who slept in the adjoining room. She sat near his bed and simply watched him until the dim light of sunrise edged around the corners of the curtains.
The day was spent outside, trying not to relive those sensuous moments before Michael had pushed her away. She wasn't the only one having a bad day; Jason seemed to have picked up her mood and didn't want to eat his lunch. Rubbing the bottle's nipple temptingly against his mouth didn't help. The child continued to fuss.
Christina lifted him against her shoulder, gently rubbing his little back. Maybe he had an air bubble. Jason continued to fuss. She checked his diaper. She could find nothing that should have caused the child's displeasure.
When she was near giving up, she caught sight of a familiar form moving toward her. Dressed though he was in casual attire, Oscar Desmond could be mistaken for no other man. His nearly completely gray head seemed to glint in the noontime sun.
"Good afternoon," he smiled. "You've certainly chosen a wonderful place to take a rest."
"Hello," Chris smiled wryly up at him. "Wrestling would be a better word. But you look refreshed."
Desmond waved a hand in laughter. "Grandchildren will do that for you," he reached for little Jason, beckoning the child into his arms. "How's this little fellow doing?"
"Sleepy, I think," Christina said, allowing him to take the child. "I've tried everything to calm him down, but nothing seems to be working today."
Oscar cuddled the child close and made a face at him. "Perhaps he just needs someone to act the clown," he chuckled, continuing the playful motions with the child as he continued to talk. "To go back to such innocent times with the knowledge we have now." He shot her a teasing look. "We'd probably make the same mistakes over again."
Christina shot him a cheeky grin. "Mistakes? Speak for yourself."
"Indeed," Desmond said, sighing. "I wouldn't change a thing."
Chris smiled slightly, her expression troubled. On most days she would have been inclined to agree with him immediately. But recent events in her life were giving her second thoughts. Instead, she reached for an already drowsy Jason, and rose to her feet. "I'd probably better put this little one down," she said.
"Yes," Desmond watched her curiously, and followed her into the nursery.
"How many grandchildren do you have?" Chris asked over her shoulder.
Desmond's face broke into a grin as he fell in step beside her. "Five, 3 boys, 2 girls."
"Wow. Full house." Chris was amazed.
"Not really," Desmond replied. "I have 3 children. They split the task."
"Oh," Christina grinned sheepishly. By then they had reached the nursery. "I would have loved to have had brothers and sisters. Many of the other kids at school hated it, or so I heard. But I think it would have been great to know that there was someone else there." She looked longingly in Jason's direction as she spoke. She wanted for him what she hadn't had.
Desmond smiled knowingly at her. "I was one of four, and despite all the fights, I have to agree with you. Through all of the ups and downs, in the end, we could count on one another."
Chris wanted to ask him more about his childhood. He seemed in a very relaxed mood, and she felt certain that he would share his stories with her. "Have you had lunch?" she asked. It would be nice not to have to take the meal alone.
"Ah, no, I haven't..." He gave her a startled look. Then, glancing around, "Where is Michael keeping himself these days?"
Christina couldn't prevent the flush that suffused her face at the mere mention of his name. "In his office, working," she managed to reply, turning her face idly toward the window.
Desmond was too observant by far. A frown deepened across his brow. "Working? How long has he been doing that?"
Chris didn't answer right away, feeling decidedly uncomfortable about ratting out her own spouse. "Just a few days." She thought she'd made a fair go at nonchalant.
"I've only been gone a few days," he replied dryly. "I mean no disrespect to you Christina, it is simply that he has not fully recovered, despite what he would like to believe. Has he at least been taking his medications?"
Christina wasn't sure she could feel more completely in the dark. "Medications?" she asked.
Desmond released a huge sigh, resting his forehand in his hands. Looking up, he leaned across to give her a conspiratorial look. "I didn't feel it was my place to tell you before, but as you are now married, you have a right to know the details concerning his health. Besides that, I know a thing or two about circumventing the infamous Raven moods."
Chris smiled wanly at his obvious attempts to ease her feelings, and lift her mood.
Desmond seemed pleased with that small response. Extending an arm, he continued. "Shall we go take him on?"
Christina balked, backing a few steps away. "Oh, no, I c-couldn't do that."
"Why not?" Desmond eyed her.
"Well, just...because." Chris offered ineffectively.
"Just because," Desmond repeated, half to himself, allowing his arm to drop. A frown settled momentarily over his features.
"I've been with the Raven family a very long time. I knew his father, you know. I've always felt that I was a part of the family. Michael and my children grew up alongside one another. I feel as if he were one of my own. You are now a part of that family, Christina. If you would ever like to talk, I'll listen."
Christina's eyes misted over slightly at the simplicity and honesty of his words. She very much wanted to talk to someone about the conflicting emotions that invaded her heart, but she hadn't even been able to broach the subject with Mabel, merely continuing on as if things were going along normally.
As Desmond watched and waited, Christina remained silent. She couldn't do it.
Desmond nodded, accepting. "I'll join you for lunch," he said, "If you still would like to when I return."
Michael was listening intently as his computer software read the contents of a new contract for him. Pressing a command, he set the program to begin again. He was tiring, and had missed most of the last paragraph. He blinked quickly several times, his eyes felt irritated as well. Where had Desmond put those drops? He rose his head sharply as the door opened.
"Ah, so you're hiding out in here, are you?" Desmond's voice.
"So what if I am?" he asked irrationally, as he opened one of the desk drawers, rifling through its contents.
"You have a lovely young woman out there preparing to have lunch all by herself. Is that the way you should be acting on your honeymoon?"
"This isn't a real marriage and it isn't a real honeymoon." Michael shot back, continuing to rummage through the drawer.
"Oh," Desmond said after a few moments. "Then you must be quite wound up, because I'm positive that I saw a number of your things in her room."
"Go away and leave me alone," Michael said. He really didn't need this right now. He had to make it through the rest of the afternoon and then through dinner and he could get some sleep. He'd start the whole process all over again the next day.
"What happened, Michael?" Desmond asked quietly. "I would have thought that you would be compatible."
Michael blew out a breathe. Desmond didn't know the half of it. The air fairly buzzed when they were in a room together. They were too compatible by far.
"Things were progressing well when I left. Did she push you away? Does she intend to end the marriage once the question of custody is resolved?"
Michael paused in his search, ran a hand through his hair.
"Have you thought to ask her?" Desmond pressed.
"What would be the point?" Michael asked moodily. "What could she possibly see in me, anyway?"
"If you want to make her wonder that very thing, then by all means, continue to ignore her."
"I can't ignore her, no matter how hard I try. Even in my dreams, she haunts me. Do you know that I can see her in my dreams." Michael threw up his hands with a humorless laugh. "How can I possibly see her in my dreams?"
"I don't know, Michael," Desmond responded. "I can't answer that for you."
"Well answer this, then. What could a young woman with her whole life ahead of her see in me, a thirty-seven year old blind man with an uncertain future and an even more uncertain past? I can't even remember why my first wife left me. Hell, I can barely even remember my first wife. What if she left me for a good reason, Desmond?"
"I know you, Michael. And I remember that time in your life. I assure you, the memory would not be pleasant for you. I do not believe she left because of something you did. As for Christina, I think that you should allow her to make her own decisions. Have a little faith. Better yet, have lunch. Better still, with Christina."
Michael considered Desmond's words. What did he have to lose? They certainly couldn't go on like this.
Slowly nodding, he moved to his feet and started around the desk. "Where you looking for this?" he heard Desmond ask as he neared the door. A small round bottle was placed in his palm.
"Eye drops?" Michael asked incredulously. "How did you know?"
"The way you were fumbling through that drawer? What else could it have been? And while you're enjoying the delicious lunch that Erma is no doubt preparing, be sure to take your medication."
Michael found himself chuckling. "Freedom was good while it lasted. You sure you don't want another few days?"
Christina sat on the east patio, attempting to enjoy the happy twittering of the birds and the gentle, sweet scent of Ezra's roses. But the anxious trip-trip of her heart would not allow her to relax. She was too afraid of what might be happening between Desmond and Michael--afraid that it might work; afraid it might fail. What did she want anyway?
She ran her hands nervously along her arms, hoping to calm herself before Desmond returned. . . or Michael. Was it possible that Desmond could work some subtle magic and convince him to put in an appearance for lunch? Would he be angry? Happy? Would he simply refuse and tell her that this just wasn't working out?
So caught in her anxiety was she that when a sharp step sounded against the patio, announcing two new arrivals, she was audibly startled. Desmond made a production of apologizing, but Michael remained stiffly silent. Her heart began to sink.
She only partly heard the polite conversation Desmond made about the weather, and the delicious lunch that they were soon to be served. Somehow in his diatribe, he managed to convince them that a walk in the garden would be a wonderful thing after lunch, and that he would not be able to join them because of a few odds and ends that needed to be taken care of. Whatever else he'd said was completely lost.
Christina found herself watching his retreating back almost before it had registered that he was leaving. With more than a little trepidation, she found herself staring across the table at a very silent Michael Raven. He seemed intensely uncomfortable. And unless she was confused, he was blinking more than usual. In fact, he was practically wincing.
After a few moments of tense eye manipulations, he made a soft sound in the back of his throat and pushed both his hands beneath his glasses and began to rub at them. The frantic action could not possibly be good for him.
"Uh, should you be doing that?" Christina felt moved to ask.
Michael's hands stilled, and he blinked brilliantly blue eyes across at her on reflex. His expression was that of a child who had been caught red-handed. Christina couldn't help it; she laughed.
"I'm sorry," she apologized, continuing to giggle. "It's just that, for a moment there. . ."
Michael began to see the humor in the situation, and laughed as well. "You're right," he told her, placed the heels of his hands over his eyes as if the action would somehow soothe them. "I really shouldn't be doing that. But simply having the urge is a good sign."
"Really?" Christina was curious. "Does it mean that your eyes are healing?"
"It means that chances are better that they can be healed," Michael corrected. "It means that certain functions are becoming active again. The doctors gave me drops for it, but. . . uh. . . It ain't pretty."
"Does it burn?" Christina wanted to know.
"At first," Michael admitted, then turned away in embarrassment. "I. . .make a mess if I do it myself. I was trying to wait. . ."
Christina breathed a softly empathetic sound. "Let me do it," she offered. "Just tell me where to find the drops."
Michael seemed to carry on a silent battle, but then smiled ruefully and felt around in his blazer jacket pocket. "It's here," he told her.
Christina pushed back her chair and moved around the table toward him. She could feel a mild tension building as she approached and took the small bottle from his fingers. The only safe place she could find to stand was behind him.
Michael turned his head slightly at her motions, but said nothing. He merely rested his hands on his thighs beneath the table.
Reaching upward, she placed her hands on either side of his head and leaned it back unto her midriff. "I'm gonna remove your glasses," she told him, remembering the way her doctors had always spoken.
"Okay," Michael said softly.
Christina's eyes dropped to his mouth as he spoke. And suddenly she was remembering the way that he had kissed her. The way. . .
She shook herself mentally and reached for his glasses, gently sliding them from behind his ears. His eyes were closed beneath them.
"Ready?" she whispered.
"Yeah." He opened his lids and blinked several times. Christina unstopped the small bottle and read the label. Two drop in each eye, it said. She held it over one of his eyes. The small drops found their mark and she felt Michael tense beneath her. Both his hands clenched in his lap.
"Go ahead and do the other one," he said in a strained voice. Christina obliged him, but she had to hold his eyelid partially open so that the medicine could penetrate. When she was done, Michael leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. Then, breathing deeply, he sat up, wiping away tears.
"That's better," he told her, half out of breath.
Chris felt her own eyes watering in response to his. She reached unconsciously for a napkin and began wiping his face.
"You don't have--" Michael began.
"I want to," Christina insisted. She carefully patted away the moisture before gently replacing his glasses. It was a struggle not to allow her hands to linger there.
"How often do you have to do that?" She asked. The initial moments of the treatment seemed horribly painful. It was difficult to watch him struggle with it even for so short a time.
"I'm not sure," Michael's shoulders had slumped slightly. She wondered if he were tiring. "I haven't felt the need for it until this morning. The doctors said that it would probably happen soon if there were any hope. They didn't say how often."
"This is great news, then," Chris said. "It's a positive sign for your vision!" Why wasn't he more happy about it?
"What if it isn't?" he asked. "What is it's just allergies?"
Chris frowned. "Don't you want to get your vision back? You won't have to worry about Jason then, or Georgiana, or any of that."
"I want my vision back," Michael said. "More than I can communicate to you, I want for this to be a temporary condition! It's practically all I think about. But what if I want it too much?"
"There's nothing wrong with wanting." Chris told him. "There's no rule that says because you want it you can't have it."
Michael sat stonily across from her. "We can't have everything we want."
"You know what I've always wanted," Christina began softly.
Michael's features relaxed slightly. "What?"
"I've always wanted a family," she said. "My aunt was very nice, and she was always there, but I longed to have a mother and a father and brothers and sisters. I always thought it would be so wonderful to be a part of something like that.
"Jeannie and I made a pact that when we grew up, we would marry and have lots of children so that our kids wouldn't have to be alone. So that we could be a part of a 'real' family."
"Is that why you agreed to do this?" Michael asked.
Chris looked up at him, fully prepared to tell him 'no', that she'd done it simply because she'd wanted the best for Jason. But she realized that wasn't entirely true.
"Yes, partly," she admitted, realizing what she might be getting herself in to if he looked for deeper meaning behind her words. "I didn't think of it then. But, you're right."
Michael was quiet for long moments, then, "Christina, I'm not sure what you're saying. Did you do this so you could hold onto Jason longer? Or. . ." he trailed off, not saying the crucial words.
"Both," Christina murmured softly, the word coming out on a breath.
Michael's mouth opened as if he meant to speak, and then he closed it. "I--You want to be married. . . to me? For real?"
"Yes," Christina's voice shook slightly as she spoke. "I do."
Michael made a clumsy move to get up from the table. Christina met him halfway. Nevermind that they were on the patio, under the noon-day sun for all the world to see. Their arms went about one another in a crushing embrace. Michael's hands were in her hair and then on her face and then he found her lips and he kissed her with a desperation that told her all she needed to know.
Long minutes later, Michael suggested urgently that they go inside. Christina agreed completely, and without another thought toward the table bearing two plates of untouched food, led her husband inside.
"Dr Ironside, please?" Desmond watched discreetly from the library window as he awaited his party on the other end of the telephone link. "Yes, I'll hold."
He would feel no shame when it came to taking care of Michael Raven, and by extension Christina and Jason Raven. If that meant peeking at them through half-closed blinds, then so be it. And right then, things seemed to be going quite nicely for the pair.
A sound on the other end of the phone caught his attention, and he turned from the window and began to greet the doctor. After exchanging pleasantries, he informed the doctor of the new development in Michael's condition.
Ironside was very interested, and made several suggestions, one of which was an appointment the next day. He asked Desmond if that were possible. Desmond would have answered in the affirmative, but the view from the window drove the reply from his mind.
Yes, Michael and Christina were getting along just fine. He made a mental note to have something special prepared for them.
Michael Raven opened his eyes, and for the first time the darkness didn't cause him panic. The woman lying in his arms was like sunshine to his world. He closed his eyes and allowed the sensations to flow over him.
The smell and sense of her hair against his shoulder meant that it was unbound, no doubt in a complete disarray. He lifted a hand and gently stroked it, loving the soft feel of it between his fingers.
The even rise and fall of her chest suggested that she was sleeping. Regaining her strength, he hoped. He was recharged enough for the both of them.
The hand that stroked her hair ran along her shoulder and down the side of her body, experiencing her feminine curves. Sight unseen, and he felt that he would know her anywhere. He continued further down, before making an exploring journey back up. Before he'd gotten very far, to his delight, Christina was beginning to stir.
He knew the moment she looked at him and remembered, took delight in her slightly indrawn breath when his fingers passed over a particularly sensitive point on her neck.
"You're so beautiful," he told her, again tasting her lips. Her arms went up and around his neck, welcoming him, loving him, drawing him home.
Christina woke first the next time feeling pleasantly rested. She remained still for a few moments, simply enjoying the experience of laying cradled against Michael's chest. But nature could not be held off any longer. Moving carefully, so as not to disturb him, she got out of the bed and disappeared into the bathroom.
When she returned, Michael lay spread eagled on the over-sized bed, the lower half of his body partially covered by flowered sheets. A rush of affection washed over her as she gazed at him, looking so innocently abandoned with hiss dark hair mussed and an evening shadow beginning to appear on his jaw.
Christina felt the urge to run her hands along the rough surface, realizing with wonder that she could. This passionate, attractive, caring man was truly her husband, and little Jason was truly her son. She finally had the family she had always wanted.
Smiling, she looked beyond the man on the bed toward the room that was the nursery. Jason lay beyond that door, sleeping. . . . Suddenly, Christina began to realize how late it had become. Glancing at the clock as if to confirm her suspicions, she was stunned at the time. Five hours had passed since she and Michael had left the patio! All she could think of was Jason.
With a panicked gasp, she grabbed a robe and tore through the nursery door. The crib was empty, and the room was dim. But not so dim that she couldn't make out the metal serving cart that sat in the middle of the floor.
Frowning slightly, she approached the cart, and carefully lifted the lid. Beneath it was a large assortment of breads, cheeses, fruits and sandwiches. Attached to the small basket of cheeses was a note that had been signed with Desmond's hand, offering his services as 'grandpa' for the evening. There was a post script about beverages chilling in the lower portions of the cart.
Christina was undone. She didn't know how to feel about the man's high-handed manner. But when she had run the gamut from embarrassment to gratitude, she decided to smile and enjoy the gift that had been offered. Scrolling a quick 'thanks' across the bottom of the note, she placed it into the crib, careful to set it where Desmond would see it immediately if he entered through the door that connected the nursery to the hallway.
The quiet rattle of the cart being pushed into the bedroom, drew Michael into wakefulness. Feeling around on the bed, he called out to Christina.
"Over here," she told him, then laughingly filled him in on what Desmond had done. Michael sighed and laughingly shook his head at the older man's tactics. Then Christina sought a place to set up the food while Michael answered a call from nature of his own.
Michael stepped into the bedroom amidst Christina's warning to not move. He froze to the spot, wondering if something was the matter.
"Okay, let me."
Michael felt her fingers close around his as she led him carefully around the perimeter of... something. Then he realized the food smells were coming from a lot lower level than he might have expected.
"A picnic?" he asked, mildly surprised. It wasn't a bad idea. And considering where he wanted to end up fairly soon, he was liking the idea better and better. He obediently followed Chris's instructions on where to sit, taking note of the areas he was to avoid.
It didn't take them long to consume the food and Champagne, even, that had been prepared for them. They talked and laughed over the meal, thoroughly enjoying the unorthodox manner in which it was served. He owed Desmond another one.
He sat, leaning against the side of the bed, listening as Chris told him about a silly misadventure from her childhood. He could hear her absently clearing away the remnants as she spoke.
He found himself smiling bemusedly at her naivete. Even then, as a woman of 25, she was still naïve in her own way. She obviously believed in 'happy-ever-after'. He wondered that she might someday make him believe it too.
After those dark days that had proceeded his waking from his accident, and the nebulous dark days that had taken place before the accident, he wasn't sure that he could ever have a happy ending. He had felt himself doomed to an ever deepening spiral of depression and frustration.
And then he had met Christina and almost immediately formed a helpless attraction to her. Despite the 'hands off' policy that he'd inflicted upon himself, it had still helped to know that she was there. And of course there was Jason. His son. He so wanted to see the little boy that was his own flesh and blood; that everyone said looked so much like him.
And now there were signs that his vision might be repairable. Perhaps there was a happy ending in the works for him, after all. Almost as if the thought of his eyes brought on the itchiness and irritation, he felt a few twinges beginning behind his lids.
If it proceeded like it had earlier in the day, there wouldn't be too much longer before he wouldn't be able to ignore it. Making surreptitious motions with lids in the hopes of easing his discomfort, he lost track of what Christina was saying.
When the room fell silent, he paused, hoping that whatever it was that it wasn't overly important.
"It's happening again, isn't it?" Christina asked knowingly. He hadn't exactly been trying to hide it, he just wasn't ready to do battle with those eye drops.
"Unfortunately," he admitted. "At least we have a time ratio, now."
"Seven hours," Chris told him. "It's been about seven hours since your last dosage." He could feel her reaching past him as she spoke, and one side of her robe brushed along his bare shoulder.
"Ready?" she asked, her voice coming from slightly above.
"No," he answered honestly. "And I know you didn't sign on for this, taking care of me and everything. So, I'm--"
"But I did sign on for this," Christina said earnestly, reaching for his hand and gently squeezing. "I want to help." And then he could hear a smile and a tremulous quality in her voice. "Families, remember?"
Michael felt something swell within himself. "Yes, I remember. We're a family." How he wished he could see her just then.
A moment later, he felt Christina's robe brush him again as she stepped over his legs and straddled him. That certainly got his attention. Almost of their own volition his hands began to wander.
Christina tsked him. "Medicine first," she said.
Michael put up a mild fuss. "Not even a kiss for strength?' he asked, teasingly.
"No, no, no," Christina told him. "If we start kissing, I'm not going to want to stop. Now be still."
"Yes ma'am," he obliged, privately warmed by her words. Any low self esteem on his part was quickly going out of the window with Christina around.
He moved his head obediently as she pushed it back unto the bed. The meds went in more quickly this time, but the pain was equal. The drops went into his eyes like burning liquid spears. His entire body tensed, frozen in a struggle against the immediate agony.
But then he felt Christina's hands on either side of his face, and then her lips were on his, gently coaxing a response. He could do little else. Lifting his head from the bed so that he was sitting up properly, he slid his hands inside of her robe, making them both forget that anything existed outside of the cocoon that they had created for themselves.
Chris left Jason cooing happily in his playpen while she straightened the bedroom, clearing away the remnants of the previous evening's activities. She rolled the large silver cart into the kitchen, hoping desperately that no one would be present and that she would be able to leave the thing unseen.
The cart rolled smoothly from the service hallway into the main kitchen area, its motions covered by the sound of oldies music trickling from the kitchen sound system. Feeling very much the coward, Chris stopped just short of the door and poked her head into the room. Empty. But the bowls on the counter, as well as several measuring utensils and cooking odds and ends suggested that this would not be the state of events for very long.
Chris almost tripped over herself pushing the cart to the middle of the floor and turning to make a hasty retreat. A cheery, "Mornin' Christina!" stopped her in her tracks.
Her heart fell and her face flushed deep ruby. It was bad enough that the entire household knew what she and Michael had been doing for the better part of the day, yesterday. But, now, only barely adjusted to her situation, she was going to have to face Ruth, the most outspoken member of the household first.
Chris turned slowly, grimly, feeling as though she were to face a firing squad, and pasted what she hoped was a pleasant good morning smile on her face. To her utter amazement, Ruth wasn't even looking at her, but had taken hold of the cart and was moving it toward the sink area. As she went, she managed to simultaneously chastise and thank Chris for bringing the cart back.
Feeling mildly guilty for her previous thoughts, Chris told her honestly that it was no bother and that the food had been wonderful.
Ruth, making a big show of clearing off the cart, laughed heartily and told her that since the compliment properly belonged to Erma, she would gladly accept. Erma got enough of the good food compliments as it was!
Chris smiled, and found herself relaxing, thinking Ruth a doll for her sensitivity. If her thank you was a little more heartfelt as she turned to leave, it was because she was beginning to realize truly what a gem of a household staff Michael had. It was no wonder that most of them had been there for many years.
"Christina," Ruth called her back before she could pass through the doorway.
"Yes?" Christina turned, mildly confused at the quietness to the normally boisterous woman's tone.
"Thank you," Ruth smiled gently at her. Her gaze was warm as she held Chris's for several moments before returning to her scrubbing of the cart.
Christina stood confused for several beats. Jason's happy babbling piped through the baby monitor that she'd strapped to her waist, and filtered across her mind. "You're welcome," she finally managed. Perhaps Ruth really appreciated her bringing back the cart.
Ruth shook her head amusedly. "You don't even know why, do you? Well, I'll tell you why. For making him happy. It's been so long since we've seen him smile, even before he was sick. This morning, he was laughing."
Chris looked away, embarrassed at the unexpected compliment. "Jason. . . " she murmured, unwilling to subscribe such credit to herself.
Ruth disagreed. "Of course a baby always brightens a home, and your little Jason has surely done that. But you Christina, you've brightened its heart. He's very tender just now, but I know that with your loving touch you will treat him kindly."
"Oh, Ruth. That's what I want to do," she said, the words a wavering breathy exhalation. As she stared mistily at the other woman, sporting a goofy smile, she realized just how true her automatic words were.
"Aww shucks," Ruth gave up on an attempt to conceal her own watering eyes. With quick strides, she approached Chris and engulfed her in a hearty hug, before firmly but politely kicking her out of the kitchen.
Michael settled tiredly into the passenger seat of his car with Desmond's aid. Back to back doctor's visits had left him exhausted. Releasing a breath, he rested his head back against the cushioned rest, and closed his eyes.
An easy listening station flowed softly through the speakers when Desmond started the car. Michael heard him turn the device off with a distinct click.
"No," he raised a hand. "You can leave it on. I'm awake."
There was a gentle chuckle in Desmond's voice when he replied. "You certain? Jasper Keaton would love to know that he tired you out."
"I'll bet he would," Michael laughed along with his friend. The deep-voiced physical therapist had seemed determined to make him beg for mercy during their session. Michael felt that he could hardly blame the man--he had been such a space case that morning. It was probably the only way Jasper could get his attention as he had been so preoccupied with Christina that he had found it difficult to focus on much else.
His tendency toward distractedness seemed all the impetus Jasper needed to give him an extra difficult work out. But in the end, there had been good news. Jasper had declared him no longer in need of his services, and prescribed exercises at home. A fact for which Michael was eternally grateful and he told Desmond so.
"You have made remarkable improvement," Desmond responded. "But that doesn't mean that you need to immediately jump back into your old schedule. And of course, you'll need to continue your walks, although, I'd imagine that you'll want a different companion."
Michael tried to cover a grin at Desmond's attempt at subtlety. "I imagine I will," he agreed. Then, turning more serious. "I don't know if I thanked you before," he began, not knowing quite how to finish.
"Your happiness is thanks enough," Desmond replied softly, understanding. "She's a lovely girl. I believe that under her careful ministrations you can truly heal. I could not have chosen better myself, actually."
Michael rolled his eyes, and gave a longsuffering sigh. "I never noticed what a romantic you are, Desmond."
"Oh, I'm a lot of things." Desmond's reply was dry. "Chief among them is your schedule keeper. So, I hate to bring this up but the hearing with Ms. Stanton is scheduled for next week. Your appointment with your attorney is this afternoon. Are you up to it?"
Michael sighed. "I supposed I'll have to be. Although, as the doctor's prognosis on my vision has improved, I think that her case will be weakened. But then again, Georgiana seems the type who always has something up her sleeve."
"I won't argue that statement."
"Tell me, Desmond. Was Jeannie anything at all like her?" Michael felt compelled to ask. Though his psyche was more at peace than it had been in a long while, the uncertainty about his life with Jeannie remained hauntingly in the back of his mind.
Desmond seemed to mull the question for several moments before speaking. "No," he said finally. "She wasn't like Georgiana, but there was always something mysterious about her; something that she wasn't willing to share."
Michael nodded. "Were we very much in love?"
Michael blinked, not sure he wanted to hear more. But he pressed on. "I was?"
Desmond chose his words carefully. "I think the important factor was the time in which she came into your life. You remember how precarious the company was after your father and grand father died. It took years of hard work for you to overcome those losses. You did that Michael. I watched you work yourself to the brink of exhaustion everyday trying to make it work.
"And then, one day, you were there, you'd succeeded. But you didn't know how to slow down. And then you met Jeannie. I must admit, you and I weren't quite the great speaking companions that we are now." Desmond chuckled. "So, I really wasn't aware of all of the details. But she filled a place in your life. And for a time, you seemed happy."
"Both of us were happy?" Michael wanted to know. Why couldn't he remember what had gone wrong?
"I regret that I never came to know Jeannie very well," Desmond said. "She was rather a quiet sort, and you doted on her. And she seemed to depend very much on you. Near the end, though, she was more quiet than usual. I wonder now in retrospect if she weren't afraid of something."
Michael frowned. "What would she have had to be afraid of?"
"Nothing, that I am aware of," Desmond replied. "It was just a thought out loud, nothing more."
Michael nodded and sighed. "So, she was different from Christina, then?"
"Yes, very much so." Desmond's answer came more quickly. "Christina is very caring, open, and nurturing, yet independent, capable, steady. I like her very much."
Michael chuckled. "Really? I hadn't noticed. Although, I don't know very many women who'd want their stand-out qualities to be capableness and steadiness."
"Well, she is quite lovely as well," Desmond said. "And, I believe that she likes you very much. Or at least she seems to tolerate your company admirably," Desmond teased.
Michael couldn't hold back a smile. "I like her very much, too."
"And eventually something more?" Desmond pressed shamelessly.
"Someday soon, my great speaking companion," Michael admitted softly. Then, realizing what he'd just said, he cleared his throat and quickly changed the subject. "What time is the appointment?"
Desmond chuckled, not one to be put off so easily. "Oh there's plenty of time before you'll have to be there. Just enough time I think for a nice long lunch."
Chris ran into her bedroom, carefully coddling Jason in one arm. The phone was ringing, and though she normally let it ring if she was feeding Jason, she was hoping that this call was from Michael. He had been gone all morning, and she was beginning to wonder when he would be returning. His doctor's appointments in the past had not taken so long.
She carefully cupped the receiver against her shoulder and shifted Jason to her other arm and uttered a decidedly breathy 'hello' into the phone. Several moments of silence greeted her.
"Hello?" She tried again.
The sound on the other end of the line so surprised her that she forgot to put the bottle into Jason's mouth. The little boy fussed and whimpered, letting her know his displeasure at her lapse. She quickly put the bottle into place, and answered the caller.
"Yes, Georgiana. This is Christina, and as a matter of fact I was expecting someone else."
"Mmm," Georgie seemed to enjoy that bit of information. "So married life is going well, then? I have it on good authority that he's--"
"Is there something I can help you with?" Christina cut her off. She did not want to embark on a war with this woman. All she wanted to do was protect Jason, after that, Georgiana's business was her own.
"Actually, dear. I called to ask a little favor. You see, I've been missing my grandson, and I merely wanted to pick him up to take him on an outing."
"No." Chris's response was reflexive. "I don't think that's such a good idea. Besides, he's having lunch right now and will be going down for his nap soon."
Georgie laughed a dry, forced sounding cackle. "I didn't mean today, dear. I was simply speaking in loose terms. Perhaps we can plan something--you and I together."
"I--I don't know. . ." Chris didn't like this at all. Georgie was the child's grandmother. But, odds were, she wouldn't be good for him. Chris felt in her heart that the woman was up to something, but she couldn't figure what it was.
"Oh, come on," Georgie coaxed. "Michael won't mind. He wouldn't even have to know a thing about it. Or are you playing the little servant to his master?"
"Don't fall for it," Georgie continued. "He'll do you just like he did Jeannie. He'll take what he wants and then he'll move on."
"That's not true," Chris denied the woman's cruel statements. "We're a family." Georgie was simply angry because she wasn't getting her way quite so easily.
Georgie burst into laughter. "Oh you poor little unsophisticated country mouse, you. Do you really think that after he gets his vision back he'll remain with you? You are completely not his type. Do some research, dear. Michael Raven dated only the most sophisticated, the most worldly of the female species. I taught my Jeannie to be that way so that she could catch him. But in the end, it did her no good. He threw her away just like he does all the rest."
Christina couldn't listen anymore. "I'm going to hang up now, Georgiana."
"You do that. But remember what I--"
Christina settled the receiver back into its cradle, and breathed through the initial pain and uncertainty that swept her. Michael wanted to be a family, too. She had seen it in the way that he touched and held her, in the way that he held Jason. But had he ever said it? He had said it. . . hadn't he?
She looked down at the baby in her arms. His motions had stilled and his eyes, so like Michael's, had drifted shut in sleep. It was time to put him down. But then what would she do? Would she take Georgie's advice and spy on her husband? Or would she simply trust in what her heart told her?
Moving slowly, almost reluctantly, she took the child into the nursery. When she returned to her room, her eyes caught the keys to her car sitting on the bedside table. She hadn't driven it since the day that Michael had given it to her, nearly two weeks earlier.
She could very easily look into the phone book and find a library. But what if she found that Georgiana was right? What if he had only dated 'the best'? Then what? Would she simply leave? Give up? Would she stay, knowing what the odds were?
Her mind in an utter turmoil, she settled on the edge of the bed and buried her face in her hands. What could she do? It was too late for her. She'd gone and fallen in love with Michael Raven. She'd given him her heart, and if that meant she had to walk a painful mile later, then so be it. She would enjoy what she had, while she had it. She would--
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of laughing just outside of the door. The knob turned slowly then, and in stepped the subject of her mental anguish. A wide smile was spread across his features. She was sure that if he weren't wearing dark glasses his eyes would be dancing with humor.
As he entered the quietness of the room though, his smile faltered. "Christina?" he called uncertainly.
Christina stared, frozen to the spot by guilt and uncertainty as Michael's smile faded to a frown. Sitting quietly while he called out to her felt dishonest, cruel even. Christina couldn't do it, even in the face of her desperate need of a few more minutes alone so that she could think, could sort through the ugly accusations that Georgiana had made.
"I'm here," she said, reaching out to his grasping hands.
"Is everything all right?" He asked, turning his head down toward her as if actively seeking a glimpse of her. His hand tightened convulsively about hers when she took a moment too long to respond.
"Things are fine," Christina managed, sounding breathless to her own ears. Why oh why couldn't she pull it together? Hadn't she decided that she would stay and love him no matter the outcome? She needed only to shove those cruel words aside and put on a smiling front. She could do it. She would do it. But that was dishonest too, wasn't it?
"Are you sure?" Michael's hesitant words interrupted her tormenting thoughts. His hands were concerned, gentle as he slid them along her arms and up to her shoulders.
Chris stiffened, and a mild panic fluttered through her heart. Should he bring his hands to her face, he would surely feel the wetness there. How could she explain the reason for her tears? Almost subconsciously, the took a self-preserving step back and blurted something about how wonderful a morning that Jason had, hoping that the words would somehow conceal the motion.
It didn't work. Michael was left standing, his hands still outstretched toward her. A curious little frown marred his brow before he slowly allowed his arms to drop to his sides. The small flicker of pain that crossed over his features stabbed Christina to her heart. Oh, if only Ruth could see her now, she would no longer think that she was a blessing to this household. Michael Raven was doing anything but smiling now.
"Why did you pull away?" He finally spoke, subdued.
Christina swallowed, wondering that herself. Why hadn't she done something different? Hurriedly scrubbed at her checks; burrowed her face in his jacket? Put on that elusive happy face?
Michael didn't wait for her answer. "Have you ever heard the phrase: 'reassured by a glance'?" he asked.
Christina stared across at him, utterly lost. "I think so, yes," she murmured. Her self-deprecating thoughts were put on hold as she tried to puzzle out where he was going.
"I can't glance at you," Michael explained quietly. "I can't look at you. I can't stare in your eyes and gain a clue as to what you're feeling. I can't reassure you with a glance, Christina, and I can't be reassured by yours."
Chris nodded, her eyes again filling at the earnestness and pleading behind his tone. When he reached a questing hand toward her, she grasped it, drawn along by the spell he was weaving with his words and emotion.
As their fingers touched, he continued speaking but making no attempt to draw her nearer. "But I am reassured by your touch. It helps me to know you, to feel you, see you. Love you," his voice dropped to a whisper and Christina felt herself melting, affected beyond words.
"I'm reassured by your touch, Christina and I'd like to reassure you with mine." His hand closed more fully around hers, warm and caressing. With a gentle tug he urged her closer. Christina went with little resistance, for she hadn't any against this man.
Almost from the minute she'd set eyes on him, she realized with sudden clarity, she had felt an indefinable pull toward him. Perhaps it was because he was Jason's father at first, but then, when she had talked with him, his situation had tugged at her heart drawing out a myriad nurturing instincts that she hadn't even tried to explain, much less acknowledge. And so she'd followed him here to his home.
But Michael Raven wasn't a child in need in nurturing, he was a man in need of reassuring, maybe a little help for the moment, but most of all he was a man in need of loving. The loving she could do, for her heart was irretrievably wrapped up with his, his needs, his wants. Loving him, this she would do--for the rest of her life.
And for her first test: "Please tell me what's bothering you." Michael's softly spoken words entered the haze that had settled around her mind. Such longing and vulnerability colored his tone that Christina wondered how she could ever have allowed Georgiana Stanton even a minute of her worry. She trusted Michael. His happiness was important to her. She gently squeezed his hand.
"It was nothing," she told him, sniffing past her tears and meaning it. "Georgiana called, and I was foolish enough to let her get to me. That's all. I'm so sorry I pulled away, Michael. I just didn't want to upset you."
"Oh, Christina," Michael's arms closed around her and his chin rested on the top of her head. "Upset me. If something bothers you, then it is our problem. Always know that you can come to me. I promise I'll try to listen."
Chris sniffed again and chuckled a little. "This from the man determined to learn from consequences. Consequences which would have meant that he had to wander through the house in the nude?"
Chris could feel the grin that burst across his face like sunshine. "I'm told I have a cute bottom."
Chris sputtered with laughter, but she certainly didn't refute his statement. "Sounds to me like you're digging for compliments, Mr. Raven."
"Oh, I'm definitely digging for something, Mrs. Raven," Michael said, drawing back so that he could kiss her, soft and lingering.
"Mmm. More." Chris leaned into him. Michael seemed more than happy to oblige. Unfortunately, a discreet tap at the door interrupted.
Michael sighed, moving to settle his face against the side of her neck. "That would be lunch. And then I have another appointment." He then began to plant little kisses there.
"Really?" Chris had to force herself to concentrate around the way his lips were affecting her. There was also a healthy shot of disappointment in her tone. It seemed that they'd only truly just found one another, but the honeymoon was over already.
"Yeah," Michael told her, sounding non-too-happy about it himself. Sighing resignedly, he straightened away from her and allowed Chris to lead him out of the door. "It's an appointment with our attorney. The hearing with Georgiana Stanton is next week."
"Oh," Chris answered, suppressing the tiny pang of guilt that arose at the mention of the woman's name. She vowed never to let the woman interfere with her relationship again. "Will it be a very long appointment?"
"I don't know," Michael told her. "This is new territory for me, although Greenbaum has been more than competent whenever I've needed him."
"Is there a chance that she might win?" Christina wanted to know. She couldn't understand how any just government could take a child from loving parents and turn him over to a grandparent that he didn't know. But then, she'd read of stranger things happening.
"Not a very good one," Michael told her. Whatever he might have added was cut off as they had reached the small patio where they'd lunched the previous day. Michael settled across from her, in the same position. Only today, his expression was clear and happy, devoid of the dark, haunted look he'd worn the past few days.
Chris quickly told him the position of each food item, wondering at the difference a day of loving made. She was drawn out of her happy thoughts as Michael continued to speak.
"Since, I am no longer a single, blind, possibly recovering father," and a small smile lit his face at that, "as well as a few other reasons. The odds are greatly in our favor."
Chris noted that this was the second time he had said 'our' in the past few minutes. She liked it. "Other reasons?" she asked. Hadn't he pretty much covered them all?
Michael responded by reaching into his jacket pocket and withdrawing a small eye drop container. Chris wondered briefly if he was seeking a replay of the previous noon, or even that morning. Her heart fluttered when she remembered the things that they had done after that most recent dosage.
Since he wasn't showing any of the signs that she had come to relate with his eyes being irritated, and because he was wearing a sly little half-grin, not to mention the fact that she couldn't get the seductive images out of her mind, either, Chris wondered if something else were going on. Still, she asked the obvious question.
"Are your eyes bothering you?"
"No," Michael shook his head and waited placidly as if that were all the information that were needed.
"You want the drops, anyway?" Chris asked, her tone mildly teasing.
"Well, if you'd like. . ." Michael murmured suggestively, his mind obviously traveling the same path. "Especially if having you dropper me is the only way a man can get--"
"Michael!" Chris laughed at him, loving the smile that he couldn't quite suppress.
"Okay, okay," Michael relented. "I visited the doctor this morning. He says that these drops won't be as painful as the others. And, for the reason why things should not go in Georgiana Stanton's favor: The doctors are very confident that a newly approved technique can help me regain my sight. If all goes well, I'll be having the surgery in ten days."
"Oh Michael! Oh, that's so wonderful!" Chris rounded the table and hugged his neck. "Why didn't you tell me as soon as you came in?" The words were barely out of her mouth before she remembered what had happened as soon as he had come in.
Michael chuckled, politely not reminding her of it. "Because I love your surprised reaction," he told her instead, pulling her back close when she would have returned to her side of the table. He maneuvered his chair back and pulled her down onto his lap.
"Let's go for a walk," Michael suggested when they came up for air long minutes later. "Otherwise, there's no way I'm going to make it to that appointment." Before they rose from the table, however, he leaned carefully around his plate and selected a daisy from the centerpiece that had been placed on the table and offered it to Christina.
Christina was touched. She thanked him in a way that put off their walk by another few minutes.
Later, as they strolled along the area known as the East Pond, Chris twirled the daisy lazily between her fingers. She laughed at the antics of a family of ducks who frolicked in the afternoon sun. Michael surprised her by telling her all of their names.
"It's been a tradition since I was a boy," he confided. "I can't tell you which name belongs to whom, but there they are."
"You'll be able to tell me that someday," Chris assured him, squeezing his arm.
"I want to," Michael stopped and turned toward her. "I want to be able to look you in the eyes and tell you so many things."
Chris looked up at him, and her heart did a little flip-flop at the intensity with which he spoke.
He traced his hands up her arm and shoulders, around her neck and into her hair. He gently tangled his fingers in the warm mass. "I love your hair this way," he said and brought several strands to his lips, his nostrils. "Lovely."
Replacing her hair, he found her lips.
"Appointment," Chris reminded him half-heartedly, a few minutes later.
"Right," he said, kissing her again. "We should reschedule."
"Michael. . . "
As it happened, Michael did make his appointment that afternoon, and Christina joined him. After that, she accompanied he and Desmond for most of his appointments. On occasion they also took Jason.
Michael continued to work from his office, conferencing with the managers that had automatically taken command of his company when he had fallen ill. But the time was still limited to 5 hours a day as he was still recovering his strength. Christina felt that he was thriving, though she didn't put it quite that way during her bi-weekly conversation with Mabel.
"I'm going to have to get out your way again so I can see that baby," Mabel's voice was echoing along the phone line. "I'll bet he's grown like a li'l weed."
"Yeah, he has," Christina admitted with a laugh as she watched the object under discussion gnawing happily at a chunky little dinosaur that Desmond had found someplace. She'd settled so into her life with Michael that she was amazed at how much time had passed. Nearly five weeks to the day since she'd met Michael Raven.
"Mmmm." Mabel murmured. "I'm not surprised. He's going to be a tall one like his father. You mark my words. Speaking of which. How is Michael getting on these days?"
"He's. . . fine," Chris said, unable to suppress a goofy grin as she recalled his affectionate nature, and the many ways he'd displayed it of late. It took several moments before she realized that Mabel was speaking.
'I'm sorry, Mabel. What was that?" she asked.
"I said good." Mabel told her. "For a while there I was a little worried about you."
That caught Christina by surprise. "Why?" She'd never mentioned much about Michael in her previous conversations with Mabel since they'd married. She'd thought she'd hid her discontent fairly well.
"Don't you know yet that you can't hide things from old Mabel? I tell you, you young people never learn." The woman's teasing tone turned more serious. "Are things really good between the two of you, Chris? An old woman needs reassuring from time to time."
"I love him, Mabel," Chris blurted the pure, unadulterated truth. Why indeed should she try to hide the fact? "So much so that if we were to part, I don't think my life would ever, ever be the same."
"Love does have that affect on one," Mabel said gleefully. "I'm so happy for you Christina. I truly am."
Christina laughed happily. "Thanks Mabel. It means a lot to me. Tomorrow, we'll have the hearing with Georgiana over custody. I'm really nervous about it, but our lawyer believes that she doesn't stand a chance." Chris was practically bursting with the rest of her news. Mabel told her that she would be praying for the both of them during the hearing, and on the day Michael was to have his surgery.
The conversation lasted several minutes longer, during which Mabel asked after Michael's mother and caught Christina up on the town's happenings. Things plodded on predictably it seemed in McAllister. There was reassurance in that.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~
Christina filed out of the courtroom behind Michael, his lawyer, and Desmond--the judge's words still ringing in her ears. Judge Edward William Forte of Greenich District court number 3 had granted Georgiana Stanton supervised visitation at the Raven domicile. Christina felt as if a raptor had been granted access to her home. She was stunned. Worse, her own conversation with Georgiana, in which she had told the woman that she would not meet her; the very conversation in which Georgiana had tried to undermine Chris's marriage to the child's father, had been used against them. Chris simply didn't know what to do.
The group exited the court area Michael and Greenbaum were speaking in low tones. Greenbaum promised to do what he could to have the decision changed, but for the time being he suggested that Michael heed the judge's ruling.
"I know. I will." Michael nodded grimly. "Thank you for all your help Phillip."
"Sure." Greenbaum nodded, resting a hand briefly on Michael's shoulder before turning to leave with a nod toward Christina and Desmond.
"Shall I bring the car around?" Desmond announced into the silence that followed.
"Yes, Desmond. That would be wonderful. Thank you." Michael responded tiredly. Christina automatically moved to his side, giving him her arm.
"I'm sorry, Michael," were Christina's first words since they had left the courtroom. She should have known that Georgiana was up to something more when she'd called. Hadn't her own daughter said that she was not to be trusted?
"Whatever for?" Michael asked her. "If it had been me she'd called, I would have told her no as well." Then, "You never did tell me what the rest of the conversation was about."
"It was nothing important," Christina reiterated, as she had earlier. "It was just a cruel woman's attempt to destroy something beautiful."
"Well, we have to give her credit for being persistent," Michael said. "Give her credit and never forget it."
Chris nodded, though knowing that he couldn't see her. Georgiana Stanton was proving herself a force to reckoned with.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~
Angela Kater spritzed cleaning solution along the glass display cases that sat along wall of Elise's Old Time Gift Shop, and quickly wiped it away. Then, as she stood back to admire the effect, the jangling of the door chime caught her ear.
The reflection in the shining glass so surprised her that she had to turn around to be sure that her eyes weren't playing tricks on her.
"Great day in the morning! If it isn't Larry Moore, in the flesh! When did you get back in these parts?" Angie's brain practically buzzed with the all the information she had to impart.
"Late last night," was Larry's friendly reply. "The mapping team decided to take a little break on account of the weather, you know. Thought I'd stop back around town, see how things are going."
"Oh, they go," Angie said, anxious to be done with the pleasantries. "And your father?"
"Same." Larry shrugged. "So," he leaned across the counter toward her. "Since when did you start running the shop during the week?" Though his gaze was friendly enough, Angie could tell that beneath the surface he sensed that something was wrong. He'd probably caught murmurings from his father and was seeking to check out the story for himself.
"Oh, since almost two months ago when Chris left."
"Right," Larry nodded. "With the blind fellow and the kid."
"Uh huh," Angie said, smiling patiently.
"I thought she was supposed to be back by now. I called her twice, but she never called me back."
"Well, there was a little change of plan," Angie informed him.
"Change of plan?" Larry sighed, tiring of the game. "Spill it Ange. I know you know the whole story. I want to know what is going on with my fiancée."
"Fiancée?!" Angie's jaw practically hit the floor. It took a full second before she could speak. "Well, that's certainly a surprise, but I don't think there is going to be a wedding--at least not between you and Chris."
"And why is that?" Larry asked irritably.
"Because her last name is Raven now," Angie said, "And unless you're thinking of polygamy, it ain't gonna happen." It was Larry's turn to stare slack-jawed at Angie.
Christina was a wreck. Her nerves on edge, she moved to gather a very whiny Jason Michael Raven into her arms. The child calmed considerably when she held him-but continued to be irritable. Unfortunately, she couldn't hold him. She still had to get herself dressed, after having spent twenty minutes or so getting Jason ready.
Michael had left not long before, his demeanor tense and aloof. In part, his own attitude was rubbing off on Christina, and probably little Jason as well. As Christina gently bounced the little boy on her hip, she mulled through the things that had to be done.
Michael's first scheduled surgery was to be the next morning. The procedure would be an involved one and would require an overnight stay in the hospital. Every medical detail had been planned for. Despite assurances, Michael was stressed over the situation. To make matters worse, Georgiana would be having her first supervised visitation in less than 30 minutes. Something that Chris was completely unprepared for, and she felt, the true nature of the majority of the stress that was taking place in the little room. Quite simply, no one knew what Georgiana would do next.
Somehow between Jason's crying and the ringing of the phone, Chris did manage to get dressed. With Jason settled down to a restless sleep, and Georgiana due to arrive any minute, Christina turned toward her phone to see if the last caller had left a message.
There was one message and it was from Angie Kater. Chris was a little surprised at that since she had spoken with the woman the day before. But, as Angie's words began to sink in, Chistina found new reason to be stressed.
Larry Moore, it seemed, was back. And he wasn't happy.
Chris glanced nervously at the receiver. She needed to talk to Angie to find out exactly how unhappy was. Larry was no doubt back at his father's place. She could just call him, explain the situation. She really should have at least written him about her marriage to Michael, but she'd thought that after their last conversation everything was settled.
Decision made, she picked up the receiver. She would call. A light tap at the door interrupted her motion. She quickly replaced the receiver and moved toward the door.
On the opposite side stood Georgiana Stanton carrying a shopping bag with gaily wrapped packages poking out. A formally aloof Desmond nodded briefly before turning away.
"Oh, he's sleeping," Georgiana observed, glancing briefly at Jason before allowing her eyes to trail over the room. Her gaze lingered over Michael's glasses, but she made no comment.
"He's had a fussy morning," Christina told her, hoping beyond hope that this meeting could be kept civilized. "Would you like me to take your bag?"
"Yes," Georgiana made a face before handing the bag over. The large one is for Jason, of course and the smaller for you and Michael. I need did quite get to congratulate you on your wedding. He always was one to make up his mind quickly."
Chris wandered what she'd meant by that but would not allow herself to ask. Instead she invited the woman to take a seat in one of the two armchairs that she'd had moved into the room for just this purpose. She and Michael had decided to limit Georgiana's access to the house as much as possible. And unfortunately, the weather had decided not to cooperate, delivering rainy gray skies where sunshine was sorely needed.
"Why don't you go ahead and open them," Georgie waved a hand. "It's not as if the child is going to open his himself."
"All right," Chris shrugged and pulled the package from the bag. The flat box contained a soft learning toy, and the other package contained a small tray. She thanked Georgiana for them, and then began to wonder how much longer it was going to be before she could get on with the rest of her day.
"Would you like something to drink?" she found herself speaking into the strained atmosphere. "I'm sure Ruth could whip up something if you want breakfast."
"Oh, I never eat breakfast," Georgiana stated, glancing disdainfully about herself again. Chris was beginning to wonder if the woman had any warmth at all.
"Would you like to see some pictures of Jason when he was younger?" she asked, sincerely doubting the woman would care.
Georgiana eyed her for several moments before shrugging. "Why not."
"Okay." Chris sat up straighter and immediately went into action. "A friend from back home packed up some things and sent them out to me. I got them just yesterday and haven't had a chance myself to look at everything."
Chris continued explaining how she'd come about the items as she dragged the box out from the closet. From beneath several smaller boxes she pulled out the photo albums and carried them over near Georgiana.
"This is. . ." She began with the images from right after the child was born. Jeannie was holding the small bundle, looking exhausted but content. Georgiana seemed removed at first, but soon began to actually warm to the images Christina was showing her.
"She actually looks happy." Georgiana's voice was tinged with surprise. "Was she?" She turned to Christina, genuinely wanting to know the answer.
"Well, yes," Christina nodded, frowning at the odd change that had come over the woman. "I think she was, especially after Jason was born. He was the light of her life."
Georgiana looked pained for several moments. "She never was with me. I only tried to give her the things that I never had. Security. A good life."
Chris felt a twinge of sympathy. Georgiana obviously had regrets. "What happened?" she asked gently.
Georgiana sighed and shook her head. "She wanted love and romance. I tried to teach her that those things couldn't save her. I once opted for those ridiculous notions and I lived to regret it. I tried to show her that. It ended up being her downfall."
"How was it her downfall?" Christina wanted to know. She'd given up any hope of ever knowing what had led Jeannie to the decisions she had made. Perhaps Georgiana could be the one to help her.
"Fool girl fell in love," Georgiana said with a shrug. "She fell in love with the wrong man. It was history all over again. And I here I'd thought that. . ." Georgiana trailed over, fixing a calculating eye on Christina.
"Look, the kid is asleep and well, I've got things to do. I'll come back around some other time." With that, Georgiana Stanton gathered herself and her things and walked out of the door. Christina watched her go, a curious expression crossing her features.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~
Mabel Jenkins walked into the small building that doubled as post-office, Western Union, and on occasion voting center for the small town of McAllister. As she passed through the glass doors that had seen better days, she thought she caught a familiar shadow in the corner of her eye.
Turning, she squinted to focus on the individual that stood haunched against the counter, talking softly with Betsy, one of the newer hires. Young and a little naïve, Mabel felt that the girl could handle the place during the 1 to 2 o'clock hour, which Mabel generally reserved as her own lunch hour as the place was practically dead during that time. Today, however, was obviously the exception to the rule.
Moving toward the familiar form, Mabel called out his name. "Larry Moore. What are you doing skulking around like you're up to no good?" She believed in calling them like she saw them. And Larry Moore looked guilty. So did Betsy, come to think of it.
Mabel pinned the girl with an extra firm, accessing look, before crooking a finger in Larry's direction, suggesting that he follow her. Larry followed somewhat meekly. Mabel's first clue that he hadn't gotten what he'd come for.
"What are you up to?" She asked him point blank when they were in her office.
"Nothing, Mabel," Larry said solemnly. Obviously those times she'd sat with him and his brother when his father had left town for several weeks still rang clearly in his mind. "I just wanted to know where Chris is. Angie wouldn't tell me anything."
"And just what makes you think that I'm going to?" Mabel asked, wondering if the boy had gone daft. "She's married now, and the last thing she needs is you nosing around where you don't have business being."
"It is my business. Mabel, you know how close we were. We've been seeing one another for years. The least I can do is wish her well."
"Go get her a card, then, and I'll send it to her." Mabel told him. She would not be putting up with this young man's nonsense.
"Mabel. . ." Larry complained. "You don't understand."
"I do understand," Mabel said, her voice softening. "You and Christina were an item for a long time and maybe you took her a little for granted. You were always gone, and I know you stepped out on her a time or two. But, it's over, Larry. She's someone's wife, now."
"But she can't be, Mabel," Larry said earnestly. "She wouldn't just leave me like that. No warning, no nothing."
Mabel sighed and her lips tightened. She wasn't sure what he called the fact that the girl had hung up on him in a huff when he'd ordered her to not to go, but then again young people were a little strange these days. "Larry you know what your problem is," she said.
"I miss Christina Belcuri is my problem."
"No," Mabel shook her head. "Your problem is that you never miss your water until you well runs dry. Your well is dry. Go dig another one, or you're gonna find yourself eating dirt."
Larry stared at her open-mouthed for several moments. "What do you mean, Mabel?" he cried. "Surely she didn't marry this guy out of anything more than pity? I won't believe that! And I can't believe you stood by and let her do it!"
"Larry Moore. I've loved you like a son, but you will not raise your voice at me. Now, what I suggest you do is take some time to think this through and you'll realize that this is all for the best. Christina is happy, and if you feel anything for her you will leave things be."
Larry grumbled under his breath for several moments and then shuffled out of her office. Mabel shook her head. Sometimes...
Making a mental note to call Christina, she headed back out to the counter. It was time to have a little talk with Betsy.
Michael Raven was useless. He'd spent nearly two and a half hours in his office, for the most part, pretending to be working. With so many upheavals on the horizon, he'd thought that some simple monotonous tasks would be just the thing to settle his nerves. No such luck. His mind continued to return to the thought that in 36 hours or so he might be a complete man again. He might actually be able to look upon his new wife and son. There were so many images that his mind teased him with: the exact color of the sunrise, the precise size of ripples made by the geese swimming in the pond or trees blowing in the breeze. He'd never paid more than passing attention to such things in the past, but now, he wasn't so sure that even what he did remember was correct. When he got his vision back, he would cherish every sight, every nuance of the things around him.
Then there were the things he had never seen. Jason, his son-with eyes as blue as his own. He wanted to experience that for himself. He wanted to see the toothless grin that lit the child's face when he was tickled, the tears he cried when he was unhappy, the innocent expression of contentment while he chewed at his favorite toy.
And he couldn't forget Christina, the one he wanted to be able to see most of all. To be able to present himself to her without impediment was his earnest desire. He wanted to be able to pick her up and carry her across the threshold of their home. Smile into her eyes and tell her just how wonderful he thought she was, how much he loved her.
They said that men where very physical creatures, being attracted to looks above all else. He'd fallen for Christina sight unseen, the smell of her, the touch of her, the sound of her. The taste of her. And the heart of her; she had a beautiful heart. Now, he wanted to add more to his picture of her. He knew the way she felt in his arms when he kissed her, or reached out for her. He also knew the sounds and feel of her when she was lost in their mutual passionate need. But he wanted to see with his own eyes the effect he had on her. He wanted to... He wanted...
Unable to sit behind his desk any longer, he shut down his computer, pushed himself back from his desk and made his way out of the door. Had he been able to continue for another half hour, Desmond would have been there to assist him to lunch. But, hadn't he grown up in this house? He knew it like the back of his hand. Finding his and Christina's bedroom would be no problem. 'Twas but a simple matter of making his way across the foyer and along the proper corridor.
Confident in his steps, and anxious to reach his destination, Michael began to move more quickly when he reached the corridor. His questing hands brushed over the door that was the outer entrance to the nursery. Jason would probably be just going down for his midday nap, he realized, pleased all the more that his not-so-though-out plan was coming together. Now if only the girl were actually in the room.
Sharply anticipating, he grasped the knob to his and Christina's bedroom and triumphantly pushed the door open. Christina called out his name almost immediately, her voice sounding as if it were blocked by something. Michael moved quickly in her direction, wanting only to be nearer, to touch her.
Something firm and unyielding sprung up directly in his path. Both his feet made direct contact before he felt himself grasping at empty air. He hit the floor with the most undignified thump, landing as he did first on his backside. His momentum carried the rest of him to the floor, leaving him staring sightlessly upward.
"Oh my God! Michael!" He heard Christina scurrying to his side, felt her brushing his hair back from his forehead, feeling over his body as if checking for injuries. And all he could do was laugh. He felt it wash up from deep within him, in waves. After the mornings tensions, and what, for him, amounted to a mad dash down the hallway, this was precisely where he deserved to end up. And he was happy. So happy.
Still chuckling despite Christina's tone of half-amused, half-confused concern, he lifted his arms up around her shoulders and dragged her down atop him. "I'm fine," he assured her. "Better than fine. Wonderful."
"Are you sure you didn't hit your head?" Christina teased, running her fingers through the hair at his temples. Even such a small motion sent a tremor through his body.
"Why don't you kiss it to make sure it's all better?" Michael asked suggestively, not even bothering to try to hide the way she affected him.
"I'm happy to help in any way I can," Christina murmured in return as she lowered her lips to his temple, barely grazing his skin as she trailed a slow path along the side of his face.
"Has anyone told you that you have a wonderful bedside manner?" Michael murmured hazily, anticipating the moment when their lips would touch. The instant was if the world had tilted on its axis, and Christina's only reply was a soft sound of surrender. Michael gloried in it. Christina was atop him, but he controlled the kiss, tasting and taking more and more. The more he took, the more she gave. Passion for passion. Need for need. It drove him wild.
The sound of the phone ringing tore through his senses, shocking them both back to earth. "Let the machine get it," Michael demanded, planting kisses along the side of her neck and across her exposed chest above the low vee of her blouse. "We're busy."
Christina's chuckled was cut off by a gasp, one that Michael wasn't responsible for. When she stilled expectantly, Michael sighed a deep, long-suffering sigh.
"I should get that," she said down to him. It was compensation that he could hear the reluctance in her voice.
He managed a game smile, tapping lightly at her back. "I know. I think I'll survive." She dropped a quick, firm kiss on his lips and before he had time to make much of a response she was up and dashing toward the phone. He thought he recognized Mabel's voice speaking into the machine. Christina caught it just before it sounded as if Mabel would hang up. He heard the distinctive click when she switched off the answering machine.
He remained stretched out on the floor, trying to calm himself, while Christina moved toward a corner of the room speaking softly. The call didn't exactly sound like it would be over soon. Reluctantly he pushed himself into a sitting position, and tried not to listen in on Christina's side of the conversation.
Where was he on the floor anyway? Moving carefully, his foot found the object that had landed on the floor in the first place. Curiously, he moved to his hands and needs so that he could feel it with hands. It was a large cardboard box. Perhaps it was one of the packages Christina had mentioned receiving from McAllister. He hesitated to go any further. Instead, he felt his way toward the wall and moved to a standing position.
Chris was winding up her call. He heard her telling Mabel good-bye and she moved toward his side of the room. Moments later, he heard the sound of the receiver being replaced.
"I'm sorry about that box," Christina told him as she approached his side. "I hadn't had a chance to look through it. I should move it out of the way." He could hear her moving to the floor and struggling to reclose the top and slide the box away.
"No wait. You don't have to put it away," Michael said. "What's in there anyway?"
He heard a smile enter her voice. "Lots of things that you'll probably be interested in a few days." She reached for his hand and pulled him down to the floor. She reopened the box and then began to riffle through the items. "There are pictures; lots and lots of pictures. Our little Jason is very photogenic." She took some more items from the box. "There some things I don't recognized," she said, opening what sounded like another, smaller box.
"Oh!" She laughed. "It's my jewelry box!" She opened the lid and the sound of tinkling music filled the room. Beethoven's Fur Elise if memory served. "It was my aunt Elise's favorite. She left it to me when she died."
Michael smiled at the softness he heard in her tone. "What else is in the box?" He was anxious to see what items of her past pleased her.
He heard her set the music box aside and search for more items in the box. "There's this," she said, opening yet another smaller box. He heard several objects sliding from the box into her hand, and then the sound of the box being set aside. Christina didn't speak.
"Christina?" Michael reached for her, sensing something different in her mood.
"I... It's... They were Jeannie's," she said, her voice trembling slightly.
"Really?" he asked, feeling a mild pang. It was odd that he thought of Jeannie as more Christina's friend than his former wife. "What are they?"
"They're...diaries." Christina stated, sounding as if she were still in a state of mild shock. "She used to keep a diary when we were children-we both did. I didn't know that she started again."
"Are there any dates?" Michael asked, suddenly anxious to know if there were any references to the time when she'd been married to him. Maybe there would be some clue as to why she had left.
Christina flipped rapidly through the pages. "One of them starts about the time she came back to McAllister and ends before Jason was born. The other picks up right after." She sounded slightly breathless. He wished he could see her, know what she was feeling at that moment.
His mind was in confusion. While he wanted to know more about his life with Jeannie, he was also afraid. What if the truth were something horrible? Something that might drive he and Christina apart? Did he want to risk that?
"Sounds like she was picking up where she left off," Christina murmured, interrupting his thoughts. "Maybe she has other diaries..."
"We could check my old rooms," Michael suggested, hoping that his trepidation wasn't obvious. Whether he was obvious was the least of his worries, as Christina moved quickly to her feet, drawing him along with her. He sensed the anxiousness in her steps as they left the room.
"Do you realize that I've never seen your rooms," she told him with a laugh. As they made their way slowly up the stairs. "That first night, we never actually made it inside."
Michael frowned. "Oddly enough, I can't remember what it looks like." He concentrated. How could he not remember his own bedroom. Then he remembered, it had probably been he and Jeannie's bedroom. Had it changed? Fighting the gloominess that was threatening to overcome him, he forced a smile and told her that if she liked it better they could move up there. Then they were at the door.
Christina paused at the entry into what had once been Michael's rooms. They were darkened, and held an unmistakable feeling of the past. Or perhaps that was her own imagining as that was what she was seeking.
Near the door was a small table containing several items and a small lamp. She reached in search of the one switched. It illuminated at her touch, it's brightness increasing with the length of time her hand remained.
Soon a warm glow spilled out over the room. The suite stretched out in both directions, a sitting area containing an entertainment area sat on one side down several steps. In the opposite direction were several doors and a bed, surrounded by two night tables, a couple chairs and heavy oak, free-standing mirror alongside a matching chest and dresser set.
She lead Michael further into the room. "Where should I start?" she mused, half to herself.
"Anywhere you like," Michael told her. "I don't know that I'll be much help." It was hard to miss the slight edge of frustration in his voice.
"Perhaps if I described it to you," she told him.
She led him first to the table near the door and began to describe the items there. She placed the items that she could into his hands so that he might feel them. She watched the myriad emotions that crossed his features as he examined the items. His mind was hungry for the information that his hands were feeding him.
"Didn't you sleep in this room before you came to McAllister?" Christina asked him, curiously. He should have had at least some sense of the room from before that time.
Michael grinned wryly, continuing to feel over the items on the shelf of the large walk-in closet. "I came to you almost directly from the hospital. When we returned here, I was a little too pre-occupied with other things, to pay much attention to what was in this room."
Chris enjoyed the warm rush of emotion that washed over her at his words. She had never had the nerve to ask him directly why he had wished to make their marriage permanent. She had, on some level, simply attributed it to his love for his son and the desire to keep him safe. She found that she still didn't have the nerve.
Something beneath his hands caught her attention. "What's this?" she asked, moving nearer to pick up the item. It was a wooden box bearing the initials JAS in a flowing script that had been worked into a vine pattern containing pink flowers. "Looks like I'm not the only one who had an interest in jewelry boxes." She smiled. "But whose is it? It couldn't have been Jeannie's."
Michael shrugged. "Perhaps it was mine?"
Christina shook her head. "Not unless you have a penchant for pink flowers and have the initials J. A. S. Jeannie's initials were J. A. M. I used to pick on her about it. Jeannie Ann Meridon."
Michael shook his head. "Are you certain? I do remember her last name from the investigation. It was the same as Georgiana's. Perhaps she changed it?"
The thought that Jeannie had changed her name somehow disturbed Christina. It didn't make sense that she would do such a thing when she was already an adult when she'd moved to live with her mother. Perhaps she hadn't known her friend after all.
Chris carefully opened the lid. Several pieces of jewelry were contained in the case, including what looked suspiciously like a wedding band. Hesitantly she reached for it, turning it so that she could better read the inscription that had been engraved along the inside of the ring.
All my love, Michael
The ring fell from her fingers and clattered to the shelf. Christina had to bite her lip to keep from crying out. She should have known that by entering this room, she would be awakening demons of the past. Now was no time to turn back. Steeling herself, she picked up the ring and placed it back into the jewelry box.
"What was that?" Michael asked, curiously from her side.
"Jeannie's---" Christina paused, something near the bottom of the case had caught her eye. There was a small drawer at the bottom of the box with a little button at its side. She pressed the button with a fingernail. The drawer slid open to reveal a small key on a chain.
"I think I've found something," she said, struggling to fish out the key. It and its chain took up most of the available area, not allowing room for her fingernail to slip in alongside to remove it.
"What?" Michael asked.
"Almost got it," she told him, turning her finger to the side so that she might hook the chain. No go. She tried to pull the drawer out father. To her surprise, the entire drawer pulled free of the box.
"It's a key," she said, pouring the contents into her hands. She turned it over, hoping for a clue as to what it might fit into. She looked up and around the shelves.
"A key?" Michael was confused to. "Can you tell what it goes to?"
"No," Chris moved around the closet, over the shoe boxes and garment bags. Then something near the back along floor level caught her eye. It was a lovely case, fashioned of what appeared to be pecan. She got down on her knees and pulled it out.
There were no markings which might denote whom the case might have belonged to. But Christina's money was on Jeannie as the box was of a very feminine design. The top portion of the case looked as if it opened outward, while there were two drawers along the bottom. The part of the box that most attracted Christina was the fact that there was a keyhole along the top section of the box. The key slid easily into the lock.
"I think I've found what it goes to," she said, staring frozen at the chest. Now that she'd found it, she wasn't sure that she should open it. What if it changed everything? What if Georgiana was proved right?
She turned her eyes toward Michael. "It's sort of a large jewelry case. But it has two door that look as if they swing open and there are two drawers beneath. Does it sound familiar?" She spoke softly, barely above a whisper. Somehow that tone seemed to suit the moment.
"No," Michael shook his head, matching her tone. "What's inside?"
Christina blew out a breath. There was truly only one way to know. She turned the key in the lock and opened the little doors. Several strings of pearls were placed neatly along hooks. A diamond tennis bracelet was there as well. Assorted smaller pieces lay in a small tray set one of the doors.
Chris reached out for the items, brushing her fingers across them. "Beautiful jewelry," was her belated answer to Michael's question. "There are three pearl necklaces, a diamond bracelet. Earrings."
Michael was silent for several moments. "Definitely not mine," he said with a little difficulty.
Chris nodded, acknowledging that he had probably purchased those items for his wife. His first wife. Evidently he loved her dearly in their short time together. She closed the doors on the glistening items. But she couldn't close the door on the feelings of intrusion that had crept into her heart.
She moved next to the drawers. She wasn't even surprised when she found that both contained diaries. "I found them," she whispered solemnly. Michael didn't have words. He settled to the floor in the closet alongside her.
Urging herself to do what was necessary, she opened to the first pages. "I think they're both from before your marriage," Christina told him. "The most recent dates to almost two years ago."
Michael released a breath and dropped his head into his hands.
"I'm sorry," Christina said and placed a hand on his arm.
"Don't be," Michael said, covering it. "It's not your fault."
"Would you like me to read them to you?" Chris asked. Perhaps that would give him some peace, or at least a clue as to what might have happened during the time that was lost to him.
"No." He raised his head from his hands. "No. It was in the past. I'd just as soon leave it there."
"Okay," Chris smiled gently. She could understand that, and she would honor his wishes. But she knew, that for herself, she couldn't not read those diaries. She desperately wanted to know what had happened to her friend after she'd left McAllister.
Glorious sunlight streamed through the curtains in the small breakfast room, casting gentle beams across the table at which Christina and Michael sat. An assortment of breakfast foods adorned the table, mostly untouched.
Christina's eyes drifted from the steaming plate of rolls to Michael's hand were it rested on the table near a glass of juice. A touch of the sunshine glinted off of the wide gold band that circled his fourth finger. It reminded her that he was married, spoken for. Legally, his life and her life were linked.
He moved his hand around the glass and moved it upward toward his lips. Then, seeming lost in thought, he stopped for several moments before slowly returning the glass to the table. He had been thus distracted all morning.
Christina would liked to have attributed his mood to the surgery that was scheduled for three hours hence, but his mood had changed after they'd found the diaries. He was still attentive, and affectionate but there were moments when it was obvious that his mind had drifted to some other place.
When they had been alone the night before, she had attempted to raise the subject but he had placed a hand over her lips and asked that they simply hold one another and forget that anything else existed in the world-just for the night. Christina had obliged him, wanting too the simple release that they could find in one another's arms. Later, she had fallen into an exhausted sleep.
Michael had waken her that morning with gentle kisses with the promise of much more. He had made love to her with a depth of emotion that left her feeling deeply cherished, and mildly frightened. She didn't know what she could do, or what she could say to ease his melancholy. She hoped it was enough that she was there.
Michael didn't know what to feel. All he knew was that he was lying on a gurney, surrounded by doctors, waiting for his surgery to begin. Christina stood by his bedside, her fingers linked with his.
Dr. Julian was explaining the procedure to him once again. Describing exactly what would be taking place during the next hours as they attempted to recover his sight. It has initially been thought that he would require several surgeries. But Dr. Julian was a specialist in the field and wanted to try a very new technique that would be able to accomplish the same task in a single surgery.
His doctor's had been very enthusiastic about the procedure, and so had he. He still was, actually. Only, he couldn't shake the depression that ate at the edges of his psyche.
Julian had finished his explanation and was asking Christina if she had any more questions. Michael felt a flutter of anxiety in his stomach. This was it. He pulled Christina's fingers to his lips and she gave his a light squeeze before releasing him.
"I love you, Michael Raven," he heard her whisper into his ear before placing a chaste kiss on his cheek. Then he felt the bed moving as he was pushed out of the room and into a corridor toward the room in which the surgery would take place. Later, when he felt the anesthesia entering his blood and consciousness slipping away, he could still feel the warm spot on his cheek where she'd kissed him, and he could still hear the whisper of her words echoing through his mind. Soon, hopefully, he would feel good enough for her.
I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know why I'm doing this. I don't know why I'm doing this. Except, Georgie says it's the right thing. She's my mother, family, my own flesh and blood. She should know what's best for me. Right?
Christina sat up from her reading and blinked her eyes. Three hours had passed since Michael had gone into surgery. But, as she had been so engrossed in Jeannie's early diaries-the ones that had been written before her marriage to Michael-that she had barely noticed the time passing. The diaries had been amazing. So much had happened in her friend's life after she left McAllister.
The diaries began several months after Christina had stopped receiving letters from her. In her letters, Christina had told her about the people she'd met and the things she'd done. And it was some consolation, that she did mention Christina in her diary, often in the context that Christina would not approve of something that she had done.
It seemed that Georgiana was actively seeking to pair Jeannie with a wealthy young man. At first Jeannie seemed to think it was fun, the fancy clothes, the parties, until she'd met one young man who had taken advantage of her. She had gotten away before things had gotten too bad, but Chris could feel the fear that still ached through her friend's words.
Her next entries had been very solemn passages, discussing her change of attitude about trying to catch a man through deception. Shortly after, Jeannie had transferred to a smaller school outside Greenich.
She continued her schooling, and Georgiana still seemed to be finding ways of introducing her to 'suitable' young men. But then Jeannie had met a young man named Steven Miller. It was the first guy she'd mentioned by first and last name. And Chris didn't think Georgiana had introduced the pair.
Through the next few entries, Chris discovered that Steven was a musician-a member of a local band. He had played at one of the clubs that the college students usually frequented. There were pages of lyrics from some of the songs Steven had written. Chris had to admit that some were very touching. While others were a trifle frightening; sometimes speaking of a dark, unforgiving type of love.
Georgiana found out and took an instant dislike to the boy. But Jeannie was defiant in her desire to see Steven. Georgiana threw more young men toward her daughter, some not so young. In those passages, Chris spoke with disgust at her mother's desperation. On her 22nd birthday, she and Steven eloped.
Their relationship remained a secret, until a month later Jeannie discovered that she was pregnant. Georgiana found out almost immediately. Jeannie wrote of a bitter argument between she and her mother in which her mother had told her a horrifying story of her own parentage. She told Jeannie of a boy just like Steven who had pretended he loved her until she got big with child, a child he didn't want, a child who didn't fit into his life as a musician.
Jeannie had wrote bitter entries about her mother's life not being her life of how Steven was gentle, was different. Georgiana had told her that if she couldn't live by her rules, then she would have to leave her home.
Jeannie had gone to Steven's apartment. Within a week they'd had an argument. Chris wasn't sure what the argument was about, she only knew that Jeannie was heartbroken because Steven was ready for a child. History seemed to have been repeating itself.
She went back home to Georgiana, who accepted her on several conditions. Jeannie did not state what those conditions were. But she wrote heart wrenching poems as an ode to her lost child. She even wrote an obituary to what she had felt had been a little girl. Jeannie had so wanted a home, a child and a family; she wrote of her doubt that she was worthy of either.
Many days of depression seemed to have followed that. There were dates with more young men. Jeannie's descriptions were all very subdued. Then, Christina had read an entry at odds with those that had come before. Georgiana's attitude seemed to have become Jeannie's. She wanted to take charge of her life. Be her own woman. Get the things that she wanted. Because she deserved it.
A few entries after, Jeannie wrote of her mother finding out about her secret marriage to Steven. Georgiana demanded that her daughter have the marriage severed. Jeannie's final despondent entry had spoken of her doubt at what she was about to do. Obviously, she had done it. There were no journal entries that followed.
Christina closed the diary and gazed down at it, contemplating the things that had taken place. Jeannie had mentioned none of it, and Chris wondered if Michael had ever had any inkling of Jeannie's past life. She began to wonder just how Michael and Jeannie had met.
All manner of scenarios washed through her mind, but none seemed to fit. She couldn't imagine that Michael was involved in some dating scam with Georgiana, at least not knowingly. As she continued to ponder, her eyes began to droop. She thought vaguely that in a little while she would get up and move around, or perhaps get some coffee. Yes, in a little while. . .
A sound from the opposite side of the waiting room brought her abruptly out of her slumber. Her eyes jerked toward the door where Desmond was entering with two cups. He beamed her an apologetic smile as he approached.
"I didn't mean to wake you. You were sleeping so soundly." He said, settling in the seat nearest her. "Although, I fear you may have a crook in your neck in this chair."
"You're probably right," Chris replied, rolling her head about in its socket. She should have known better than to have fallen asleep in those uncomfortable chairs. "You'd think they'd give you pillows, huh?"
"Most certainly," Desmond grinned at her. "I've brought you a beverage. Also, I've spoken with Maria. She says that Jason is doing wonderfully. He's playing happily in his pen and will be having his dinner soon."
"Dinner?" Chris looked confused toward her watch. Five hours had passed! "Oh my goodness. It's so late! I thought the surgery was to be over by now. Dr Julian said four hours."
"Yes," Desmond nodded. "Perhaps there were more things to do than expected. But I'm sure it won't be much longer. In fact. . ." he looked toward the clear window in the door. "I think I see Dr. Wilcott now."
Chris turned, seeing the Dr. approach with his mask pulled down and hanging around the neck of his blue surgical garb. She and Desmond stood to greet the man. He looked as if he had just come in from battle.
"Mrs. Raven, Mr. Desmond." Wilcott nodded toward the both of them. "We ran into a few complications, but we did manage to fulfill our objectives. We're going to have to wait to see the final result. He'll be going back to his room for recovery now, and probably won't regain consciousness for several hours yet. If you'd like to go in and see him, you may."
The doctor's guarded expression disturbed Christina, she felt as if there was something that he wasn't telling them. "So the surgery was a success, then?" she found herself asking.
"As I said earlier, Mrs. Raven, this is a very new technique and still in the experimental stages. Dr. Julian is the best in the field. But in spite of that, the degree of success cannot be determined yet. We'll be better able to gauge tomorrow morning when we remove the bandages."
"Of course. Thank you, Dr. Wilcott."
Chris turned, and allowed Desmond to lead the way down the corridor that would take them to Michael's room. Mentally, she felt as if more than a single day had passes since she'd risen. She felt as if she'd embarked on a long journey of discovery and that it wasn't quite over yet. Everything seemed so uncertain.
"What do you think the Dr. meant by 'complications', and 'wait and see'?" she turned to ask Desmond as they reached Michael's door. The more she thought about Wilcott's responses to her questions, the more anxious she felt. Desmond had more experience with the man as he had been accompanying Michael on his visits since the beginning. She hoped that he might have some reassuring insights.
"It doesn't help to worry about terminology, Christina," was Desmond's matter-of-fact reply. "It won't change a thing and will only leave you exhausted. What will be is what will be. We will simply make the best of it."
"But what if the surgery is a failure, Desmond? What if instead of making things better, they are worse?" Christina felt unable to control the mild panic that was rising within herself. She had seen the hope that had radiated from Michael when the doctor's had told him how good his chances were. She didn't want to see that light die.
Desmond touched her shoulder lightly and gazed pointedly into her eyes. "Then he will need you more than ever," he said quietly. "Can you be there for him, Christina?"
Christina stared back at him, calmed by the man's amazing stability. "I'll be there as long as he wants me."
Desmond smiled and released her. Turning, he pushed the door open slightly and peered into the darkened room. With a small nod of satisfaction he allowed the door to close. "You go on in. I'll be back in the morning. Feel free to call should either of you need anything."
Chris watched the tall, gray-haired man walk away. Oscar Desmond had a way of getting to the heart of things. And he had been much more than an employee to Michael. He had been a true friend. Sending up a prayer of thanks and of hope for the future, she pushed the door open to Michael's room and entered.
The curtains were drawn and the room was dim. Only a night light was turned on low in one corner of the room. Its light shown dimly across the foot of the bed, revealing Michael's shadowed from beneath the covers.
Chris moved further into the room and approached the bed. Michael's face, cast in shadow, was relaxed in sleep. Large white pads covered both his eyes and were secured in place by bandages that were wrapped completely around his head. An IV dripped a clear liquid into one of his hands and some type of monitor encased one of his fingers. Every so often, she heard the sound of air pressure being released as the blood pressure machine did its job.
Chris reached out and held one of his hands, careful to avoid the equipment. His skin was cool to the touch, so she took his hand into both of hers warming his flesh with her own. She kissed the hand as he had done earlier. Then she leaned over and dropped a kiss on his lips.
"No matter what happens, I love you." She whispered the words in the stillness of the room. Only the sound of the blood pressure machine responded.
Michael awoke slowly, groggily coming back to his senses. The surgery was over he felt certain, for he could feel something soft pressed against his eyes. And a dull ache emanated from behind his skull, piercing like two drilling rigs taking turns ploughing through his temples.
He raised his hands almost subconsciously, hoping that by touch he might relieve the agony. That was when he felt the pull of the IV and felt the tightening of something around his upper arm. Suddenly, he felt confined, trapped. He needed to get up, to move around.
"Christina," he called, though his voice came out more like a dry croak. "Christina!" He tried again, more loudly. Unsatisfied with the lack of response, he pushed himself up to his elbows, fighting the nausea that the headache brought on. A frightening sense of déjà vu washed over him, as he remembered waking up that first time, in the hospital, alone and unable to see.
Reaching over, he pulled loose the Velcro fastenings on the blood pressure monitor and made his way to a full seated position. Next came the thing on the end of his finger. Someone had explained the name of it to him before, but in his frenzy he couldn't remember it. He went a little more slowly in removing his IV.
"Christina," he tried again, reaching now for the bed rails. Someone had wisely raised them, ensuring that he could not fall out. For the life of him, he couldn't remember how to bring them down, so he did the next best thing. He scooted to the foot of the bed and climbed over, slowly lowering his feet to the cold floor.
He felt distinctly better now that he had some mobility, and was beginning to feel a little silly at panicking. But, still, he wondered where Christina had gone. Telling himself that perhaps she'd just stepped out to get lunch. . . or dinner? -he wasn't sure of the time, although it did feel late, somehow-he decided to take a trip out into the hallway to ask for a couple aspirin.
He rose slowly to his feet, using the bed to balance himself on shaky legs. If this was the room he'd been in earlier, the door was straight on ahead. Letting go of the bed, he took careful steps in the direction that he had decided upon. He reached the wall near the door, so far so good.
Pressing forward, he felt for the knob, pulled the door open and stepped on through. He stood there, allowing the hallway sounds to wash over him. To his left he could hear voices, several of them and the soft trill of a phone ringing. Probably the nurses station, he decided. Just where he needed to be.
Feeling along the wall, he started off. Each careful step brought him closer and closer to the sounds. Unfortunately, the loud sounds were doing nothing in a good way for his head. A wave of dizziness on the heels of nausea washed over him this time. As he pressed forward, perspiration broke out across his upper lip. He began to wonder that this wasn't exactly the best idea he'd had all day.
As he continued, now hoping that someone would notice him and offer assistance, he thought he heard the sound of a familiar tread. "Christina?" he called, his voice somewhat shaky now with his exertions. But the sound was loud enough that the footsteps faltered, and then began to pick up speed. Also, on some level, he noticed that the voices at the nurse's station had fallen silent.
His steps slowed out of necessity, and his knees were beginning to go out from under him. Thank goodness help was on the way.
"Michael!" Was he imagining things, or had he heard Christina's voice. "Oh, Michael." He reached for the sound, taking a step away from the wall. And then he felt himself falling, falling, falling. He felt hands touching him, heard a confusion of voices calling him.
"Christina. Help me," he murmured on a soft breath before it all washed away.
All was silent yet again in the hospital room, and Michael Raven was sleeping peacefully. Christina had been returning from the cafeteria when she'd heard him calling her name. She and several of the nurses had barely reached him before he had collapsed in the middle of the hallway. Leave it to Michael Raven to make such an impression.
The doctor had given him something to help him sleep and promised that he wouldn't be awakening until morning. Christina had settled down after that, ate what she could of her dinner and prepared to read Jeannie's remaining diary.
The third book had begun in fifth month of pregnancy, and discussed the things that had taken place in McAllister. She spoke of Larry, and Angie and the other residents of the town. Most of it was mundane stuff. Every now and then she would make a mention of the past that she had left behind. There was absolutely nothing there that gave Christina a clue as to why she might have left her marriage.
The fourth picked up where the third left off, shortly after Jason's birth. There were happy entries and funny entries. There were pictures pasted here and there of she and Jason and Christina. Her locket was there to. Christina had almost forgotten about it. She'd given it to Jeannie right before she'd left for Greenich. The locket contained a picture of each of them on either side of the enclosure. Across the back was engraved 'sisters forever'.
Also contained in the diary was a very candid picture of Michael. He was laughing as something that had blurred was being thrown toward him. His surprising blue eyes were looking affectionately into the camera lens. She supposed that she had always known that sighted, his gaze would be rather intense, but still she was shocked speechless. He looked so very happy. She found herself staring a long time at the picture.
There were other pictures: more pictures of herself from before and after Jeannie had left McAllister as well as pictures of another young man whom Chris could only guess was Steven Miller.
Steven's hair was dark, almost black and longish. He was gazing insolently into the camera as he wrapped one arm around Jeannie's shoulders. Jeannie was focusing on Steven with a look of complete adoration.
There were several more pictures of Steven and a little packet containing a thin wedding band. Chris did not have to guess who had given it to her friend.
In spite of all the photographs and all the trinkets and the words, Chris still hadn't found the answers she sought. Sighing, she put the objects aside and continued to read. She read on for several more entries, then she found one, dated just two weeks before Jeannie had died that was different than all the others. Instead of the obligatory 'dear dairy', this entry read:
I'm writing you this letter because you are the truest friend I've ever had. It's been a rather strange life so far, but I'm hoping that it will get better. But before I go on, there is something I have to tell you.
When I first came here, yeah, yeah, for the second time. You didn't ask any questions, didn't make any demands or conditions. You just took me in, hugged me and said welcome home. I'll never, ever forget that. That is something my own mother, Ms Georgiana 'call me Georgie' Stanton never did. There was always a condition with her. Always a catch.
But anyway. I'm about to tell you a story Christina. It's not something I'm proud of, or happy about, but I have to tell it. And you deserve to know.
A long time ago. Or so it seems like a long time ago when really it was only about three years maybe, I met a guy. His name was Steven Miller. He was a musician. A really good musician. You know the kind we used to sit around and moon about. His stage name was Stevie Blue. He was wonderful to me and I must have fell for him like a rock. But there was one problem. Georgie was trying to set me up with some rich dudes.
Most of them were sticks in the mud, Christine, let me tell you. It was fun at first until Albert. He was a pervert and tried to do things to me. But that's not the important part. The important this is that I hated it. I don't know where she found them, but she was good at it. Always telling me what to wear, what to say, what to do, how to act. Yesh! You'd think I was prime rib.
Well, I told Stevie all about what Georgie was trying and he empathized with me. He even wrote a song about it! Well, Stevie and I got married. Secretly, you know. Then, I got pregnant. Georgie found out and hit the roof.
So I left, went to live with Stevie. That's when I found out that his life wasn't exactly a bed of roses and that he didn't want a baby. Why did he have to go and prove Georgie right?
Anyway, I ended up back home and I had an abortion, Chris. Don't hate me. I hate me enough for two of us. Anyway, I started back with Georgie's dates. She made me change my name. That's when she found out I was married to Steven. She told me to get an annulment. And really, I was going to, but Stevie was out of town on some gig. I didn't know where he was or how to find him. So, I lied to Georgie and told her that I'd done it.
I don't know if she really cared if I had or not because she had found this guy that she said was prime. His name was Michael Raven. He seemed so remote and out of it that I thought he was like all the rest of them. He was definitely older than the rest, but he had a gentleness, kinda, you know. I was depressed and he had just gone through some pretty heavy-duty changes in his life. I guess for a bit there we were kind of kindred spirits. He was working hard to break himself out of his desperation and he made it his job to bring me out of mine. I actually grew to like him. A lot. I just enjoyed being with him.
Then he asked me to marry him. Oh Lord, Christina, I didn't know what to do. I didn't expect that. We'd only dated for three months. But I married him, hoping that no one would find out about Steven.
Well, on the good side. No one did. Steven found out about me. Some stupid picture in the society page. He came calling. He was so angry, said I'd destroyed his muse. He actually asked me to leave Michael and come be with him. I told him no. He started black mailing me, saying that he would ruin Michael. And heaven help me Chris I believed him.
Michael had only ever been kind to me and I didn't want him hurt that way. So I did what Stevie asked. He wanted a new guitar at first and then for things for the band. I was so afraid. I gave them to him. Then he started asking for big money, money that I couldn't get. Sure, Michael was rich, but that didn't mean I could get my hands on $10,000 dollars without him noticing. I tried to explain that to Steven. I told him that if I'd ever meant anything to him that he should let me go.
So he said, that he would release me. He swore it that if we could have one more night together, he would leave me alone forever. Chris, understand that on some level I still loved Stevie. I had a lot of affection and respect for Michael and I wanted our relationship to last, but I loved Stevie. Actually, I think Michael was more your type than mine. But that's neither here nor there.
I did it. I let Stevie make love to me. For a whole week, I didn't hear from him. Then I got the pictures in the mail. Now he wanted $10,000 dollars or Michael would be getting a copy. He came to the house. He had my locket, too. He knew that Michael would know that I always wore it. He must have taken it from me that night.
Anyway, I met him outside and begged him to leave me alone. Told him that I couldn't get my hands on that kind of money. So, he asked me to leave Michael and be with him-that he couldn't get me out of his system. I told him that I couldn't do that. That I had to stay with Michael. Well, seems that Stevie was always one step ahead of me.
Michael had gotten an invitation, too, to come home a little early. He pulled in right beside Stevie. Stevie just kinda looked at Michael with this evil grin and whispered in my ear that I was his forever now. Even if he had to kill to have me. Then he kissed me. Right there in front of Michael!
Michael tore out of that car, rushing to defend my honor. My honor, Christine. The last thing I deserved. But Stevie had more pictures and the locket and our old marriage license. Nice and gentlemanly like he handed it all over to Michael and then he got into his car and left.
I didn't know what to do. And Michael, he just kinda stood there in shock. Then he looked up at me, and all of it was in his eyes. I don't think I'll ever forget how pale, how hurt he looked. Then he got angry. Madder than I've ever seen any human. Then he just shut down. He dropped the pictures and stuff in front of me and just walked away. He never said a single word.
I burned the pictures and my old marriage license. And I went to Georgie, told her what happened. She laughed at me, and told me to go back to my husband. Beg for forgiveness, ask for a divorce, do anything just as long as I ended up with some money 'cause I certainly couldn't come back there penniless.
I couldn't believe her. And Michael deserved better than an adulterous wife who probably wasn't legally married to him anyway. So, I left. I drove all the way back here to you and you took me in. Right after I found out I was pregnant. So close to that family I'd always wanted, but not quite.
For the record: Jason is Michael's child. I'm torn with the desire to go back to him, to tell him that he has a son. But, I don't know if he'll be able to accept me as the mother. So, I stay here. I find I've trapped my son in the same situation I found myself, without a complete family. I can't ask you to sacrifice your life on my son's behalf to help me raise him because some day you're going to have a family of your own. But I wanted you to know, dear sister, that I thank you for helping me to get back on the right foot.
I take responsibility for the wrong I've done. And I thank you for the unconditional love you've shown me. I'd like to ask though, that if something should happen to me, that you would take Jason in and raise him as your own. And, also find his father and let him know that something good did come out of our union. Tell him, I'm sorry. And that he deserves someone to love him better than I did.
Whew! Now, if I can just get the nerve to give this to you. You know I love you Christina Renee Belcuri. CaRoB girl.
Christina turned the page with tears in her eyes. There were two more entries in the journal, but she just couldn't read them at the moment. She wanted to weep for Jeannie for all the things that had gone wrong in her life, for all the hurt and betrayal and wrong turns that she had made. It was no wonder that she had been so subdued, so frightened after her arrival.
She also wanted to weep for Michael for all of the pain he'd been subjected to. She now understood that air of vulnerability and melancholy that seemed to have hung around him. He'd been deeply hurt and betrayed, and though he had no memory of the event, his psyche reacted as if he did. But lately, with the exception of the occasional melancholy mood, he'd been much better. She looked down at the diary and wondered if she would ever share Jeannie's letter with him. She thought not. Hadn't he said that the past was better left in the past? Sighing, she looked across at him, so innocently vulnerable in sleep, and vowed to be gentle with his heart and to treat him kindly.
Desmond stepped back out of the way as Dr. Wilcott, the third of Michael's three doctors stepped into the room. There would be quite on audience on hand for the unveiling of Michael's eyes. Dr. Julian and Dr. Creedon stood on either side of the bed. Dr. Wilcott had just taken a position near Creedon. Two nurses stood by behind Julian, and Christina had found in unobtrusive position in the corner. The only other place that seemed available was at the foot of the bed, so that was where stood.
He turned his head in Christina's direction, thinking that she should be standing there with him. But she seemed so engrossed it in the goings on, that she didn't notice his glance. And then there was no more time as Dr. Julian announced that the bandages were off.
Desmond stood transfixed at the image of Michael's eyes, free of bandages, free of the dark glasses. But his lids were closed, their backs red and deeply bruised, no doubt from the surgery. For long seconds, Michael sat there that way, eyes closed as if he were afraid to open them.
"Open your eyes, Mr. Raven," Dr. Julian urged, and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Let us see those baby blues." A collective chuckle went around the room, noticeably lessening the tension. Indeed, everyone seemed to have been holding his or hear breath, waiting on the outcome.
Just as the smile that had appeared at Julian's joke was fading away, Michael opened his eyes. Immediately he blinked, then squinted as if the light hurt his eyes. Bravely, he tried again. Desmond could make out slivers of blue between dark lashes, and they appeared to be looking directly at him.
"Michael?" He stood up straighter and called to his friend. He had to know if what he thought he was seeing was true.
"Is that you, Desmond?" Michael asked, half-smiling, half-frowning.
"Yes, it's me, Michael," Desmond responded, surprised at the wave of emotion that welled up in him.
Michael squinted some more and tried to focus. "I think you have a lot more gray than I remember," he teased, causing a few more laughs around the room. Desmond found himself laughing as well.
"I most certainly do. And I'm forced to blame you for the quantity." Turning to where Christina stood in the corner of the room, Desmond beckoned her forward. "There's someone else here that I'll bet you want to see more than my gray hair."
Christina walked hesitantly up to the bedside. "Hello, Michael." She said softly through the tears that welled in her eyes.
"Christina." Michael's voice was equally soft as he turned toward the sound of her voice. He squinted again, seeming to have some trouble, but he reached for her hands and pulled her toward him and into his embrace.
Desmond was glad that Dr. Julian politely moved toward the door and suggested that everyone give Christina and Michael a few minutes, because if he hadn't, Desmond certainly would have done.
Michael settled back into the wheel chair as he was wheeled toward the hospital exit and closed his eyes. Finally able to leave the place, he still wore the dark glasses that had previously signaled his blindness. Today they were a protection for his very sensitive eyes.
Dr. Julian had explained that the blurring and the almost kaleidoscoping effect of his vision would pass, that it was simply a side effect of the surgery, due to swelling and disuse. Michael found the effect disconcerting, not to mention the fact that it made him nauseous and dizzy, allowing on moments of clarity before the effect returned. It was worse, he found, when he was moving.
Christina walked alongside his wheelchair, her comforting presence making him feel warm and proud. He risked a moment of dizziness to take another look in her direction. Her deep golden hair flowed over her shoulders loose and free. She turned toward him, focusing wide gray eyes on him and smiled. He returned the smile, cursing his vision as it again blurred.
Soon, he reassured himself. Soon he would be able to see normally and then he could look at Christina all he wanted.
Christina led Michael into the front entry hall of Raven's Rest. His eyes were tightly shut behind his glasses, but his feet were anxious. They'd learned rather through difficult experience that it was better for him to keep his eyes closed while walking.
To Christina's surprise all of the household staff was there to greet him. Maria held a contented Jason near the end of the line. There were many greetings of welcome and hugs. Christina decided that Desmond must have called ahead to warn them of his condition, because everyone was very gentle and when he asked to see Jason, someone appeared with a chair.
Michael settled into the chair and made some comment about someone having rearranged the room since he left to which Erma had responded with a saucy reply. Everyone had laughed and then Michael had thanked them all for their kindness. Finally, Maria handed the baby to Christina, who then placed the child in Michael's lap.
The child looked a moment at his father and then immediately reached for his glasses with a happy squeal. Michael allowed it, then squinted so that he might focus more fully on the little boy.
Chris saw the overwhelming emotion that appeared in his eyes before he had to close them. She stooped down near him, to offer assistance. He turned his head slightly, sensing her presence and reached for her hand.
"You were wrong," he whispered softly, so that only she could hear.
"I was wrong?" Chris asked, confused. "About what?"
"You said that if I could see him, I would love him." He opened his eyes and focused on her. Through strength of will, he continued to look at her. "I already love him. And now that I can see him, I love him even more. I love you even more."
Chris leaned in and kissed his lips. "And I love you, Michael Raven. With all my heart."
The birds were singing summer songs in the trees, and the sun was shining pleasantly over Raven's Rest adding nature's touch to the happiness of its occupants. Christina pushed Jason's stroller through the grass near Ezra's roses. They were beautiful today, their fragrances billowing on the wind, scenting everything with their gently sweet smell.
Her life had settled into a gentle rhythm after Michael had been released from the hospital three days prior. Her mornings were filled with caring for Jason and other activities involving the upkeep of the house. She also visited with Michael's mother in the afternoons. Sadly, the woman's state of mind had not improved, but she seemed content.
Her nights were filled with the passion that she shared with her husband. His vision was nearly back to normal, the dizzy spells happened only infrequently. Always having been a generous lover, the return of his vision added a deeper meaning to that aspect of their relationship. His intense gaze had the ability to pierce her through, even as it filled her with the desire to be with him and him alone. She loved him madly.
He was currently attending a follow-up visit with Dr. Julian, and would no doubt be returning home soon. She had never changed her mind about telling Michael about Jeannie's letter. It seemed unfair to subject him to such pain unnecessarily.
As she continued her turn around the gardens, she heard the sounds of a car pulling into the drive. Pushing aside her thoughts, she steered the stroller toward the front of the house. As she rounded the corner, she saw a car she didn't recognize coming to a stop in the drive. She halted Jason beneath and over hang and went out to greet the driver. She was stunned speechless when Larry Moore climbed out of the vehicle.
"Larry?! What in the world are you doing here?" she asked, her mind unable to comprehend his presence. How had he ever found her anyway?
"I drove all the way across country to see you and that's the way you say hey?" Larry strolled around the hood of the car and approached her. "I gotta tell you, Christine. You done yourself up good. I can see why you were in such a hurry to get hitched."
"Larry, I don't think I like what you're saying. I think you should leave." Christina didn't like the look in Larry's eyes. She wondered if he'd been drinking. As he took a few steps closer to her and she smelled the beer on him, she had her answer.
"Leave?" He looked around as if there were some audience who might laugh with him. "I ain't leaving until I have the answer to one, no two questions."
"All right then, ask them," Christina urged him, taking a step back. She needed to get away from the smell that surrounded him.
"'kay. Why? Why did you leave me for him? Why didn't you talk to me first?"
"Why?" Christina was exasperated, and she didn't think it was useful to tell him that that was three questions instead of one. "There wasn't any more to say. Things were over between the two of us. I think you made that pretty clear, don't you?"
"Oh, I was just bluffin' you, honey. I didn't mean that. I just didn't want you goin' off on your own. And it looks like I was right 'cuz look at what you've gotten yourself into!"
"I haven't gotten myself into anything, Larry Moore. I'm right where I want to be."
Larry snorted. "You know, you're beautiful when you're angry. You can do better than a blind man, Christine. You know how I feel about you. I would have married you sooner or later. You know that. The two of us were meant to be together. So why don't you just get out of this... situation you've got yourself into and come on home with me."
"No. I am home."
"Christine." Larry was beginning to get angry. "It's time to go. Look around. This guy is loaded. He doesn't need your pity. He could buy some from someone else."
Chris shook her head. "It's not pity, Larry. I want you to understand that I love Michael Raven with all the breath I have in my body for the rest of my life and nothing you can do will change that."
"We'll see about that," Larry murmured, determination in his face. Christina noticed the look in his eyes an instant too late and tried to back away from him but succeeded only in nearly stumbling over one of the bushes that lined the drive.
Larry caught her arms before she could fall and pulled her roughly to himself. "You love me, Christine. I know you do." Ignoring her fearful struggles, he crushed his mouth against hers. Fear and the stench of beer was stifling her, cutting off her air supply. She couldn't fight for much longer. Vaguely, she heard a soft thump, perhaps a car door, and the sound of Jason crying in the background. And then suddenly, she was free.
She fell helplessly to the ground, gasping for air, tears streaming from her eyes. When she looked up, she noticed a very stunned looking Larry on the ground near his car with Desmond standing over him. From the corner of her eye, she saw Ezra running to the front of the house. Maria was close on his heels. Michael was standing over her, emotions and expressions crossing over his features faster than she could identify them.
"J-Jeannie?" He whispered confusedly. His hands trembled as he ran them through his hair, squeezed his eyes shut.
"Michael. . ." Chris reached a hand toward him, but he backed away, shaking his head. Then he stopped and looked at her again, and then through her, beyond her as if he were seeing something else. And she knew what he was seeing. He was seeing the past.
Chris stood and moved toward him, but he didn't notice her, didn't move. He simply stood frozen in place, frozen in the past. And then his vision cleared, and he looked down at her, so utterly lost.
"Michael." She reached for his hand. He took it and numbly looked down at her, and she knew it was time. It was time for a change of heart. Desmond signaled that he would take care of Larry as they passed on their way into the house.
She led him along the corridor and into their bedroom. He seemed to be coming out of his shock. "Are you all right?" he asked her.
"I'm fine. The question is, are you all right?" Christina asked him.
"I'm okay," he said, taking a deep breath. "I was so worried when I saw that..."
"That was Larry," Christina said. "I should have told you about him. He was my ex-boyfriend. He's usually much tamer than that-but he was a little, well, drunk. Mabel warned me that he was upset, but neither of us ever expected that he would try to come out here. He'll feel bad about it in the morning and then he'll never bother us again. I'm sorry I didn't say anything about him before."
"It's okay," Michael said absently. Then forcing a smile, he pulled her into his arms. "I love you, Christina. I never want anything to happen to you."
"I love you, too," Christina responded confused. Wasn't he going to mention what had taken place in the driveway? Hadn't he been remembering?
"Michael?" she pulled away from him and looked up into his features. "What happened out there? In the driveway. You called me Jeannie."
"Right.... I. I was..." He was searching for words, then he stopped and looked her in the eyes. He looked haunted as he took her hand into his. And suddenly Christina knew what he was doing. He was trying to protect her from the truth. The same truth that she had been trying to protect him from. He didn't want to be the one to tell her that her best friend had made some very horrible mistakes in her life.
Despite the pain to himself, he was willing to keep it all in, in order to preserve her memory of her friend.
Touched, she put a hand to his lips. Moving away from him, she went to the closet and dug out Jeannie's diaries. She quickly flipped to the appropriate page and showed him the letter. He read it silently, one of his hands still holding onto hers. When he was done, he slowly closed the book and looked at her.
"I'm sorry, Michael. I know now that I should have told you about this letter days ago. But you were doing so well and you were so happy, I just didn't want to bring back old pains."
"Don't be sorry. I think I would have done the same in your position." Sighing heavily, he pulled her back into his arms. "I remember now that Jeannie was troubled when I met her. I should have suspected something deeper."
"Yes, she was troubled," Christina agreed. "But she was okay in the end. I think having and caring for Jason helped her in a lot of ways."
"It seems that little fellow has helped more than just Jeannie. He brought us together. For that alone, I forgive Jeannie. Because she was right, something good did come out of our relationship and that something lead us here, to one another."
"Amen to that." Christina smiled into Michael's chest.
"Now. Why don't we go find our little resident miracle worker and take care of the mess outside so that our family can be back to normal?"