The High Water Mark.
continues from Beauty and the Beast: Crossroads of past Present and Future: Book 12
Hélène sat very still. She hardly allowed mind or body to feel. In her heart, the worried grandmother knew Cathy would be fine. Every possible support was there to help but still Hélène felt bereft, not for the granddaughter who gave so much love to everyone, but for herself, a sad and lonely old woman content to give up any chance of happiness.
Why do I need perfection? Can I not be happy just knowing? Isn't a little, better than nothing?
Questions raged through her mind. She paid scant attention to the drive or the route. Hélène had complete confidence in Rob. He would drive the safest and quickest route to the bus station. The sooner she was back in Montreal, the better. In the alone-ness, safety and comfort of the small bungalow she could redefine her life and set aside any dreams still percolating below the surface of her psyche.
When the SUV came to a screeching halt, Hélène was startled out of her thoughts.
'Sorry Ma'am. Don't know what's going on up front. I'll try to work my way around it.'
Hélène shook her head. It was a moment of déjà vu. Less than six weeks ago she had been in the back of different version of the same vehicle, comforting her labouring granddaughter when Carl, the family's other driver, swerved off the road to avoid a major collision. Thinking back, she realized how lucky they had been. Carl had been mindful of Cathy's advanced stage of labor. He did everything possible to keep them safe until Jacob arrived, by helicopter, in the nick of time.
Cathy and Jacob had so much love between them. To bask in the aura of their happiness was truly a gift but it brought home the painful truth of her own empty life. Hélène's reflections held no rancor. A few years ago she did not even know that her granddaughter existed. Now she was a small part of one loving family, so different from her children and grandchildren in Montreal. The contrast was stark.
She turned her attention back to the situation at hand. There was a slow crawl for fifteen precious minutes. Time was important. She had a bus to catch. Hélène had not researched alternate bus times or other viable routes. She had her mind set on leaving New York City with enough time to get home the same day. Overnight travel did not suit her at all but she began to squirm when the minutes ticked by.
Rob peered out the window. He kept checking his route using the sophisticated tracking systems in the car.
'We are coming up to an exit. It'll need some maneuvering but I'll try to get around as best I can.'
'I know you will. Thanks Rob.' Hélène sat back. It was out of her hands. In truth, she also had little control over many things in her life.
The detour did little to speed things up. Every light was red! The sun was just coming up on the horizon when they finally pulled into the Bus terminal. Hélène had less than two minutes to make her bus! Ticket in hand, she quickly thanked Rob and ran out hoping against hope that she might make it on time. In her haste, she failed to hear Rob's 'I'll wait just in case.'
Hélène wasted precious seconds searching for the right loading gate among the numerous departures flickering on the massive notice board. She arrived at the departure point just in time to see the bus pull out. Disappointment hit her like a rock. She was prepared to be uncomfortable on the long ride but she was not prepared to sit and wait for the much slower local bus instead of the express. The idea of reaching home 24 hours later weighed her down even further.
Frustrated, she dropped her bag on the walkway and leaned against the railing. Tears threatened to overflow. She was deeply tempted to call Cathy and ask Rob to come back. He wouldn't have gotten far but she couldn't do it. Instead she took a deep breath and thought through her next action.
'Can I help you with something lady?'
Hélène hardly glanced at the figure off to her left. 'No, I missed my bus. If you can bring it back that would be helpful, otherwise, please leave me alone.'
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted her sarcasm. She turned around to apologize but no-one was there. Off to her other side, she heard another voice. Fearing that two men were stalking her, Hélène turned around fully. There was no mistaking the man in the dark leather jacket and NY Yankees baseball cap.
'What are you doing here? Where's your guy?' she hissed under her breath.
Howard tilted his head in some vague direction. He tried hard to suppress a smile. Hélène first words weren't personal. She expressed only concern for him and his protection.
'I thought you might need a lift. Am I right?'
'If I didn't know better I would think that you set this up.' She frowned. 'You shouldn't be out here.'
'This is New York. No one cares. People are used to seeing well-known faces all over.'
Hélène felt weak. She had not seen Howard since their dinner date. Everything she had ever wanted was fulfilled on that beautiful night. Music, delicious food, dancing, flowers and words of love resonated to the core of her being. It wasn't an entirely unique experience. Stored in her memory bank was a delightful trip to California. She shared a few delightful dates with Alejandro Zamora. The memories percolated to the surface but she did not love the elegant, soft spoken, man. The uncommon experience, of losing a child, drew them together but it was not enough to sustain intimacy. Her hours with Howard remained unforgettable, left her yearning for more. Each and every shared moment flitted through her mind, pulsating with a life of its own. However, love and desire alone could not make right, their clandestine relationship. Too much was at stake in his life and career.
'Give me your suitcase.' Howard interjected into her thoughts, stopping the rise of fear. 'As it happens, my date has disappointed me by refusing to join me for dinner. I am returning to Albany and would enjoy your company on the drive.'
Hélène felt chastened. It was not a sensation she liked. It would also be foolish to pretend that she didn't want to share the intimacy of the drive with Howard. Giving in didn't mean giving up on her resolve to distance herself from a relationship, which on balance was beautiful but still morally wrong.
As soon as Howard moved towards the exit, his security came forward. It wasn't someone that Hélène had seen before, nor was the car his usual vehicle. Howard explained that he was using his own resources over the holidays to enable the normal security detail to have the time off. In fact, 'Ledgy', as he was called, frequently brought Howard to Montreal, unseen by Hélène. He had worked with the Governor for decades and was fully trustworthy.
'Doesn't he need time off too?'
'We're family. Where I go, he goes.'
Howard noted yet again that her concern was for him and a complete stranger. So if she loves me….what the hell? Puzzled and concerned, Howard waited patiently while Hélène retrieved a refund for the portion of the journey that she would not take by bus. He didn't argue. Years of poverty had made her thrifty. She would waste nothing. He had seen it over and over.
They left the terminal building, walking as if strangers. While Howard might have been concerned, her behaviour was much like the night they first met at the Governor's Ball. She fought him tooth and nail for months before acknowledging their love. He would have to woo her again. As they crossed to the parking area Howard sighted Rob waiting in the distance. The two men nodded and waved.
'I thought he left. Why is he still here?'
'Rob wouldn't leave until he was sure you were on the bus. He must have said so.'
Hélène couldn't remember, didn't want to remember anything. She was tired and dispirited. It wasn't just her ambivalence about a relationship with Howard. Too much had happened and not just in the past few weeks. In a few short years she had found and lost her daughter again, come face to face with her past, lost her father, gained a granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Her ex-husband was revealed for the scum that he was but she was no closer to a meaningful relationship with Howard or her children.
The weary traveller settled herself in the back of the luxury car. The soft depths held her firmly. With the seat belts in place, the odd trio was on their way.
'We don't have to talk. I'll just play some light music and do some reading. Let me know if you need anything.'
I need you. That's what I need. I need to reconcile my two worlds. I need to find myself again. Everything I have ever known is, was a lie.
Hélène did everything she could to hold in the sobs threatening to overwhelm. She nodded 'yes' to Howard's instructions and turned her head away in case a few droplets escaped from her weary eyes. Her last happy memory, before leaving the Brownstone was singing to her great-granddaughter Aislyn. She recaptured the feel of the babe in her arms, planning ahead to the day when she would sing the song co-written with Philippe. Smiles and tears rested simultaneously on the gently lined cheek.
Miles and miles flew by. Hélène slept on hardly aware of any movement. Her subconscious recognized song after song in Howard's playlist. Indeed, his choices, conveyed a persistent message. The musician in her could hardly fail to be moved. Some tunes were easily recognizable, others she could sing by heart, very seldom was one a complete unknown. It was in one of those moments that she returned to her conscious space, listening intently, trying to place the song in her memory. She turned her head to ask Howard but he was also sleeping, a book open on his lap. If it wasn't for the passing scenery she would hardly have known that the car was moving. It felt surreal. The music only added an odd dimension of weightlessness and timelessness.
Hélène recognized the voice as Sting but it was the words that played in and around her head.
'I still love you, I still want you' sent her heart chakra spinning. It was exquisite. She leaned over and rested her head against Howard. He stirred slightly and captured her hand. She didn't move again until they were near the border.
'Purpose of your visit, Sir?'
'I'm giving my friend a lift home.'
'Thank you, Sir. Good evening.' Howard retrieved his passport, smiled and closed the window. 'Your guys are always nice to me.'
'And why wouldn't they be nice to you?' she responded sleepily.
Once clear of the border, the trio stopped for a short break. Hélène and Howard took a short walk around the rest stop. Despite the abundance of snow, which covered the ground they managed not to fall.
'Howard, the music, it was beautiful. There is one song I didn't recognize. I believe the artist was Sting. Do you know it?'
'A Thousand Years! It's one of my favourites.' He paused and smiled at her. 'That's at least how long I have loved you.'
'Howard, you say the most beautiful things. Did you set the playlist?'
'Yes. It took me weeks to get it right. I wanted everything to be perfect if we ever got this chance. I believed we would, just didn't know when.'
Hélène stopped in her tracks and faced him head on. 'Did you orchestrate this whole thing?'
'Will you be mad if I tell you the truth?' He waited for her acknowledgement. 'I called Rob last night. I asked him to get caught in traffic and arrive just a little late. He promised to help me, only if I promised to drive you all the way home.'
Hélène was speechless. Once again she was hijacked in a conspiracy but somehow, this time, she didn't mind. Howard loved her. She knew that. For the few hours remaining in their journey, she would savor the time. In the back of her mind she knew the days after Howard returned to Albany would be difficult but in her own philosophical way she felt that perhaps snatches of happiness were much more in keeping with her needs. Whether right or wrong, she would make the most of it.
It was clear that Ledgy did indeed know the way. He was not deterred at all by the increasing amounts of snow falling. They drove on steadily. Hélène didn't think that Howard would want to return immediately. She hoped to share a full meal at the very least. They didn't discuss it. He remained pleasant and affable, joking and sharing stories from his unusual childhood. The beautiful car ate up the miles with ease. Hélène often forgot where they were and commented on the marked difference. Howard explained the workings of an electric car versus the gas powered. The details muddled her mind but the conversation just felt normal.
Nearing Montreal, a heavy snowfall kept the pace to a minimum. All the occupants were happy to see the bungalow come into sight. The automatic porch light reflected off the falling snow. At least eighteen inches had fallen leaving no clear path to the front door.
'I'm sorry about the driveway. I thought my son would have shovelled it.'
'Don't worry. Ledgy will take care of it.'
Indeed, it didn't take long for the surprisingly strong man to clear a pathway. Hélène went ahead to open the door and make sure her house was presentable. By the time she turned around Howard stood at the door, bags in hand, his and hers.
'Are….are you staying?'
'If you'll have me?'
Hélène dared not give voice to the 'how long' on the tip of her tongue.
After a hastily prepared meal, the tired but happy couple retired to the music room. Sleep would be impossible until they sorted through the myriad of questions and answers. Hélène sat and listened while Howard played softly on the piano. Strangely he asked her to sing. Hélène obliged. The song was a favourite of hers.
When he was finished, he did not change places as they had done in the past. He turned to face her instead.
'I have something to share with you. I can't ….. not tell you any longer.'
'What is it Howard? You have always been able to share anything. Is it bad news?'
'Rose is … dead. She passed away peacefully in her sleep.'
'It was over a month ago. I called to tell you in November but Cathy had just arrived here and I knew you would be busy. It wasn't a burden I wanted you to carry. Your mind and heart were fully occupied.'
Hélène sat and studied the face of the man she loved so desperately. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. An odd assortment of feelings ran through her mind and body. Anger, to her credit was not one of them.
'I'm sorry for your loss Howard. No matter how you felt about your relationship now, you once had something special.'
'You're not angry with me?'
'No mon amour. I am overwhelmed though. What are you going to do?'
'I put a small announcement in the paper asking for privacy and requesting donations in lieu of flowers to one of her favourite charities. I asked my staff to keep it as quiet as possible. I just didn't want the publicity. We haven't been seen together since...since the wedding of Catherine's friend Terry.' Howard paused. His mind was filled with memories.
'I saw pictures of the event while I was in California. I didn't see you though.'
'We didn't attend the wedding. There was a party the night before. Rose's feet were so swollen she could hardly walk.'
Hélène listened while Howard poured out his heart.
'She had no family. That's why children were so important to her.' Howard sighed deeply before continuing. 'She was cremated. I have her ashes at home. My plan is to bury her in the spring next to her parents. I can't pretend not to care Hélène. I did once.
Hélène rose from her chair. She did not embrace him but fell to her knees. It was not a gesture meant to signal a prelude to intimacy. She longed to rest her head against his chest and listen to the tattoo of his heart. He held the long silvery-tray strands of hair for a moment before stroking it gently from the top of her head down her back. The moment was strangely sacred as if they had both stepped back to a time when a curious event precipitated a similar response.
Hélène rocked her body and hummed softly as if aware of the heart's need for healing. 'Tell me about the long road you travelled together.'
For a moment Howard couldn't reconcile the feisty and fiercely independent, woman who haggled for every penny but hated to give an inch, with the soft, tenderly supportive being in front of him. Nestled in the core of those two sides was a treasure. The most exquisite voice was tenderly encased in the depths and often rose in a compelling entreaty. It was a dichotomy, which excited him, even as it rendered him helpless in her arms.
He spoke gently about his late wife, explaining how they met. It wasn't a huge romance. 'I had been head over heels for a couple of women. Neither relationship went anywhere. Nicole in particular devastated me. I was shy. You already know, my life story. I had three mothers. My nieces and nephews were my siblings. I was a mess.'
'And look at you now….'
'Rose's steadiness helped to get me on course. She was always supportive, working hard with the groups and committees. She loved it but our failure to have children became her obsession and I lost her. She lost herself.'
'But you carried on. Everything you have done, especially with the children's charities is a testament to Rose and your mother, the two women who had such a big impact in your life.'
'But the man in me, who wanted so much in a relationship … I found that only with you. '
Hélène rose from her kneeling position and drew Howard up with her. She wrapped her arms around his waist and reveled in the feel of his body so close. Tears poured from his eyes. Enough words had been said. It was simply time to begin the healing.
Their night together was not spent in might-have-beens. Howard had issues typical of men his age. A prolonged period of abstinence, due to his wife's illness, further seemed to deplete the energy needed. Since meeting Hélène, he had hoped and tried to be the complete lover, without much success. Howard had swallowed his pride and consulted a physician but Hélène was not agreeable to him taking any artificial drugs. They agreed long ago to do what was possible and not be stressed about the details.
Hélène refused to engage in any prolonged discussion. For the very first time Howard would be staying, not just a few hours but perhaps even a complete day. It would have been an opportunity to rehash many things but she declined. Her body, heart and mind felt free. She just wanted to revel in the knowledge that her spirit did not need to apologize for loving Howard and wanting him to be a part of her life.
It took much convincing but the man who simply loved a woman allowed his mind to be at peace for the first time in as long as he could remember.
'My darling woman, I can't remember the last time I felt such release from the pressures of my life and work. Your love has allowed me to see such possibilities. I am so grateful.'
Later that night, in the comfort of her bed. Howard buried his face in her hair, inhaled the lovely scent of her body and fell into a deep and satisfying sleep. Long after his rhythmic breathing lulled her into a comfort zone, Hélène's mind pondered the many issues yet to be faced. If he remained true to his word, their relationship could not continue to be a secret. She knew he would want to stop the clandestine aspect of their love. It meant being honest with her family.
Howard knew and liked her granddaughter, had been friends with Cathy's mother in law for years. He did not however know her other children or grandchildren. At best, they tolerated the few times when the family gathered. It would be embarrassing to have to deal with their indifference. Hélène's only hope would be for Howard to return to New York before Boxing day. She couldn't imagine that he would or could stay longer. How ironic if the very thing she had always wanted, would have to be denied. Was she bent on saving herself or her family? She couldn't decide and trusted Howard to follow his normal routine.