Free Read - Circles Interlocked - chapters 1 - 6 - Bk 3 - Circles Trilogy

Circles Interlocked



by  Victoria Adams




copyright © 2011 Victoria Adams 2011



Chapter One

Five years - Julie hadn't seen or thought about him in all that time, and now in the middle of nowhere, he stood on the beach drying off from a swim. Droplets flew as Robert shook his hair. His black mane was shorter than the last time she saw him. The wet ends dripped water on his bare, muscular shoulders. Tricia, an old high school friend once said he had the body of a male stripper - time hadn't changed that.

Julie stepped back onto the beach path, transfixed by the sight of the one person she hated. Her repulsion and loathing of him ran so deep; she'd repressed all memories of him. She thought he'd loved her, and had taken a chance, opening up her heart and body to him. But instead of returning her love, he proved himself worthy of the gutter from which he'd crawled.

Her body said run, but her feet refused to move as she watched a long-legged, svelte, golden blonde rise from the beach chair. She trickled her fingers down his rippled stomach. His voice floated across the sand. It was a calming sound, which had brought a smile to Julie's face when he whispered words of love and passion.

Details she thought she'd long forgotten surged forward. She remembered the way his dark eyes smoldered with anger and his sly, innocent grin. His joyous laughter had made her feel the abandonment of a child frolicking in the year's first snowfall. She moved along the path, distancing herself from the lovers as the blonde undid the strings on her bathing suit top, and let it fall to the sand.

With an unexpected shiver, Julie hurried along the meandering path, and returned to the cottage, and to the man she accompanied - who was nothing like her betrayer. Vincent's sad brown eyes reminded her of a basset hound's - loyal and true.

"Julie." She looked towards Vincent standing on the deck. "Jean-Marc's on the phone. Shall I take a message?"

"No, I won't make him suffer. He has few hairs left to pull out of his head." She took the cell phone and sat on a deck chair. "Hello, Jean-Marc."

"How's the knee?" he asked. As always, Jean-Marc, Artistic Director, was direct to the point.

"Better."

"Have you been following your doctor's orders?"

"Yes, all I've done is sit on the deck, stare at the ocean and get fat. We leave this afternoon, and if the doctor says everything's okay, I'll be back on Tuesday. Sound good?"

"Great. Bye."

She placed the cell phone on the table, and the other hand slid down to her knee. Two weeks ago, it was grotesque and painful. During a simple rehearsal, Julie posed in an elegant arabesque held tall on her pointe. Her leg was lifted high above her head, back arched, and her arms suspended in the air, as if frozen in time. Until she collapsed on the floor.

At first, only her dignity was hurt. Then the pain shot from her knee to her brain. The doctor said she was lucky there was no serious damage He urged her to take a vacation to let the knee mend.

Julie gazed out at the ocean, listening to the waves splash against the shore. Had it really been that long ago? Five years since she'd left her friends, her family and the longhaired, scruffy guy who snuck his way into her heart. Notorious gang member or not, he still portrayed a sense of vulnerability and innocence. Then in true gang style, he stabbed her heart - figuratively. She shook her head. "No, don't think of him."

"Hmm?" Vincent peered over the top of his Financial Post.

"Nothing, just mumbling to myself. I can't get over this view." Julie waved a hand towards the ocean and inhaled the headiness of the salty air, sighing in contentment.

Now, it was time to get back to the harsh realities of daily class, rehearsals and performances. She was a dancer, and that's what she must do – not lie on the beach, making love. She slapped the wooden arms of the deck chair, stood and followed Vincent into what he called a rustic little thing tucked among the trees.

"Which would you prefer?" He held out two plates. On each was a light meal of vegetables, a creamy dip, fruit wedges and low-fat cheese. Julie carried hers to the dining room where she found a pitcher of ice tea and a tray of crackers.

"Rustic little cottage. The dining room seats eight. It has five bedrooms, four baths, and you could roast a pig in the fireplace." Her gaze settled on the expanse of sand and seawater stretching to the horizon. "But you could begin to believe you're the only person alive. So different from my life at home - people at rehearsal and hundreds of people in the audience. It was nice to be alone, just you and I. If only for a little while." She turned to face Vincent. "Hello? Humph, I make a great impassioned speech about my place in the universe, and I'm talking to myself."

"Pardon?" Vincent entered the room and sat at the far head of the table. "I'm sorry I didn't realize you were speaking to me. Please, continue." He folded his hands.

Julie dipped a broccoli bud into the dressing. "Short version, it's been a great week."

Vincent nodded. "It'll be great to get back to work."

"You never left work." She raised her broccoli and shook it at him. "If you weren't texting someone, you were calling them."

"I can't be expected to be away from work for a whole week. I'm the boss." Vincent straightened his linen napkin. "But I did this for you. And look at you - all tanned and healed. I've a notion you're biting at the chance to get back to work."

Julie munched a carrot stick and stared out the window.

With the last bit of lunch consumed, Vincent carried the remains of the meal to the kitchen. Julie wandered back to her deck chair, and let the warmth of the sun relax her soul. Immobile, she listened to the clatter of Vincent as he cleaned the few dishes they had dirtied.

Bartholomew, Vincent's personal assistant/body guard, had been sent back to open the estate, and now Vincent's compulsion for neatness forced him to assume butler duties. "Robert wouldn't have done that." Julie lurched up, clamping her hand over her mouth.

"Your chauffeur's here." Vincent's sister, Cheryl, bounded onto the deck. "I've come to rescue you from the wilds of nature, and return you to smog filled civilization." Cheryl's eyes scanned her friend. "Don't take this personally, I hate you."

Julie gasped.

"Look at you," Cheryl flipped the car keys in her hand. "You're gorgeous. That ponytail ends in a perfect little flip. Your eyelashes go on forever, and your legs stop at your neck. I have paintbrushes fatter than you. And you've got a gorgeous tan." She stepped closer. "So, did you and Vincent...you know?"

Julie shook her head. "We haven't been dating that long. This was just a vacation. I think he needed an excuse to get out of the office."

"Luggage is in the car." Vincent held the door for them. As he settled into the back of the long, white, company limousine Julie sat next to Cheryl.

"Why are you here?" asked Julie. "I thought the chauffeur would be sent when Bart left."

"You don't like Bart?"

Julie turned to check on Vincent. He was involved in a cell phone conversation. "No," she whispered. "He's creepy."

"Well, knowing my brother's lack of a driver's license and your sore knee, I thought we could spend the time chatting."

"Vincent doesn't have a license?"

Cheryl shook her head.

Julie continued, "I never thought about that. His not driving us was because he's rich enough to have a chauffeur. Why drive?"

"I think he's scared of driving, and prefers to hide in the back seat."

The roar of a motorcycle caught everyone's attention as it sped past to take the lead. "There's a guy I'd like to get to know." Cheryl nodded in the direction of the motorcycle. "He's dating Corina Kroft, the stunning blonde who owns the blue Cape Cod cottage up the beach. Heiress to a small fortune. Estimated to be in the several billions. Vincent says she's lethal in business. The dumb blonde theory didn't rub off on her. There have been marriage rumors about motorcycle-man and her."

"Would you like to know his name?"

After veering to the left, Cheryl put the car back on the pavement. "You know him? Details!"

"We went to high school together."

"But you went to a rich bitch school?"

Julie nodded. "Westland Prep."

"I heard he was a biker. You know, gang member and all that."

"Long story. Unhappy ending."

"I've bumped into him on the path a few times. He doesn't talk much. I swear he's the handsomest man on the planet. His smile makes my knees weak. And his eyes. There's such intenseness about them. Just once I'd like to..." A soft sigh finished her sentence.

"His name's Robert Holiday." A chill ran down Julie's spine.

"So like, did you know him really well?" Cheryl popped her eyebrows up and down. "Didn't happen to date him did you?"

"Vincent tells me you got the job to paint the mural for the new Arts Centre."

"Change of topic. Ooh, this has to be good. Sleep with him?"

Silence.

Cheryl glanced over at her friend. "Okay, I'll let you off the hook for now, but don't think I've given up. Someday I'll get you to talk. I suspect there's a great story here."

Julie knew Cheryl's determination, but her friend didn't know her stubborn refusal to talk about this topic.

Addressing her friend with a false air of pompous sophistication, Cheryl said, "Yes, I, Cheryl Foster, have been commissioned to design the lobby of Langston's new multimillion dollar Arts Centre. This piece of artistic mastery will be surpassed only by What's-his-name's Sistine Chapel."

As Cheryl rambled on about her latest project, Julie glanced back. Vincent was engrossed in work-related papers. He was the head of his family's import/export business. Import and export of what Julie didn't know. It was his job, and his job was his life.

As the limousine neared the turnoff for Westland, both women watched the motorcycle bank to the right, speed past two cars and head onto the southbound highway. "Still drives like a maniac." Julie mumbled. She heard her friend sigh. While he was a fantasy to Cheryl, it was relief for Julie he was gone.

When his taillight disappeared in the distance, Julie's clenched fist relaxed. She shook her hand, surprised to find her anger and hatred still so strong. Did she have any regrets? She turned and smiled at Vincent.



Chapter Two

Julie froze. Her foot hung in mid-step. Her hand clasped to her mouth to avoid blurting out, "What is he, the repeatable curse?" Three years earlier, he'd been on the beach dripping wet looking like an advertisement for men's cologne. Now, he stood half a room away wearing a tuxedo, and impersonating the latest James Bond. Was she to spend her life bumping into this character every few years? She'd returned home, to Westland, to think about her future. Not to be haunted by her past.

Dragged by her best friend, Francine, to the Murran Estate to volunteer at a Summer Charity event, Julie spent the afternoon pouring tea, and making small talk with what seemed like the entire population of Westland. Her legs ached more than after a week of performing. Brittany, who had organized the event, had invited some volunteers for a drink and snacks as a thank-you for their help.

Now Julie hid in the dining room while the scene unfolded before her. Tricia, Jennifer and Francine, former classmates, sat in the elegant main room of the Murran mansion. Their hostess, Brittany, was delighting everyone with her charm and graciousness. Two people joined their soiree, Robert and his stunning date.

"You should've seen him," said his companion, the tall, svelte blonde. "He cut his opponent down to size. He destroyed all possible arguments. He put forth his case succinctly and with charisma. He—"

"She's had way too much champagne," Robert said. "Come on Cori, sit before you collapse." His hand slid down her bare back. Shivers ran up Julie's spine.

"I have not had too much champagne." It took two attempts, but she composed herself on the closest chair. Her golden blonde hair was immaculate, not a strand out of place even after celebrating for hours. Her makeup looked as fresh as early morning. She appeared to be a woman in control even when intoxicated.

Robert smiled. "She started celebrating about noon. Closed a three point seven billion dollar deal with the Chinese. At the Mayor's reception, I, unfortunately, lost my temper and had a disagreement with—"

"Disagreement!" Corina pointed at Robert. "You...you verbally destroyed..." She continued her praises of her lover's verbal exploits while ignoring his attempts to defend himself.

Julie slipped from the dining room into a polished chrome and white oak kitchen. Is he ever going to leave, or will I have to spend the evening examining Mrs. Murran's appliances?

Emily Murran, legendary in her generosity, was almost a recluse. Today there were hundreds of people on the grounds of her estate, but no sign of the matriarch. Instead, Brittany had assumed the role of the missing woman.

Julie was surprised to see Robert in the main room. As a young man, he was a ranch hand on the estate grounds. When questioned, he'd stated he never went into the mansion.

As she rubbed her hand along the cold, granite counter top, Julie allowed the banned and painful memories to flow. Robert arrived at Westland Private Preparatory Institute as an outcast, but soon shone as a knight in shining armour when he rescued her from a date rape attack. Two days later, at a riding party on the Estate grounds, he surfaced as her horseback riding instructor. After helping her overcome her initial fear of horses, Robert taught her to ride, and escorted her on a romantic walk along a path.

"It's all right you can come out now. He's gone." Francine peaked around the corner. "He had to go to the stables."

"He still works there?"

Francine nodded as she directed her friend back to the main room.

Julie sat. "Do you remember the day we went horseback riding here?"

Her friends all laughed and nodded except the woman seated on Julie's right. From the length of the legs stretched out on the thick carpet, and with Robert taller than 6'2", they would make a stately pair. His lion's mane now cut to a short, clean length was more professional, less rebel. Her blonde strands and steel-blue eyes would contrast with his dark hair and eyes. They were the perfect couple. Romances could be written about them.

Brittany, who paled in her plainness when near the presence of Robert's date, passed a tray of hors d'oeuvres. "Francine, please do the introductions."

Julie glanced at her friend, Dr. Francine Paulin. Maturity suited her. She ran an abuse clinic in the economically depressed district of North Shore. What a change from the self-centered, credit card maniac she'd been during their teens.

Before Francine spoke, Robert's date turned and her gaze met Julie's. "Corina Kroft."

"I believe we have a mutual acquaintance," Julie said. "Vincent Foster."

With a small sniff, Corina replied, "Ah...a pleasant man." Her voice matched the cool steeliness of her eyes.

"Before you two go off about your crazy lives, may I introduce a lifelong friend of Trish, Jennifer and myself, Julie Anderson."

"The Julie Anderson?" Corina's anger was visible in the flash of her eyes, and the set of her furrowed brow. "You...you—" She walked out of the room.

"Would anybody like coffee?" Brittany squeaked.

Shaking her head, Julie asked, "What was that about?"

"Robert was right. She's had too much champagne. I've never seen her lose it like that," Francine said.

"That's losing it?" Jennifer's eyebrows rose.

"For her it is."

Brittany sat in the vacated seat. "Corina loves him. They've been together, off and on, for years now. She's tried numerous times, but she can't get him to marry her. I think he loved someone long ago, and it didn't end well. I can't see him settling down though he's too—"

"Why blame me?" Julie sat straight-backed on the edge of her chair. "He cheated on me. He used me...he—" broke my heart and my trust in men.

"You don't understand do you?" Tricia's voice was low, but insistent. "After all these years." She shook her head. "You've been so caught up in your life that you've blinded yourself to reality."

Julie placed her hand on her chest. "I had to work extremely hard to get where I am. Dance is a competitive business. You get tied up in obligations, and if you aren't perfect every time...the pressures are unreal."

"But you forgot about us. Your friends." Jennifer shifted in her seat. "We've all lived busy lives. Francine got her doctorate and runs a clinic. Tricia's raising a family with four children. I started my florist business. All of us worked hard and dealt with pressures, but we kept in touch. We didn't forget our roots."

Tricia sat upright on the edge of her chair. She was more alive now than Julie had witnessed all day. "We've followed your life, but you cut yourself off from us. You never even looked back to see what happened and why. We always knew you were the dreamer of the group, but we also thought you were the smartest one. You may be the dancer, but our feet are the ones on the floor."

"He was your friend and lover. He was your first," said Jennifer.

Julie tried to verbalize a response, but Francine spoke first. "Before this boils down to some petty bickering, I suggest we head for home. It's two in the morning. It's been a long and successful day. Let's not ruin it."

Tricia stood, picked up her purse, put it down then cleared her throat. "You were wrong you know, Julie. When you left, you had no right to treat Robert the way you did. Even that would've been excusable had you had the—"

"Patricia-Ann!" Francine's voice was sharp. Understanding her signal for silence, Tricia and Jennifer said goodnight.

"You shouldn't have cut her off." Julie's voice rose half an octave. "I don't understand what I'm accused of."

"Neglect," said Francine. "Trish is feeling nostalgic and dowdy. We've been listening to your free and romantic lifestyle. She's tired and jealous. Forgive her. Tomorrow she'll be the Tricia we all know and love." She turned towards Brittany. "Another successful Summer Tea."

"Yes, this is turning into quite a fund-raiser for the Children's Hospital." As they walked to the front door, Brittany said to Julie, "It certainly was a pleasure meeting you. I've always enjoyed your performances. Will you be dancing while you're visiting Westland?"

"No, I'm on vacation." Julie opened the passenger door on Francine's Nissan Leaf, sat and clicked her seatbelt.

Francine punched in her ignition code then looked at Julie. "I know these new electric cars are quiet, but I think this one's a little too quiet. And my gas tank's on empty. Again."

Julie snorted. "Been there. I just got a Chevy Volt"

Brittany tapped on the window. "There's a long extension cord in the barn. We could plug you in then you could drive home."

"Wouldn't that be nice?" Francine glanced at her watch. "It's 2:15, guess we'll have to get a cab."

"No. Stay." Brittany opened Francine's door. "The house is disorganized with all the renovations, but we have four functional bedrooms."

"I don't have a cat to feed," said Francine.

"I don't have a curfew." Julie nodded towards the house. "Wouldn't we be imposing?"

Laughing as she closed her car door, Francine said, "It's ok. Brittany's the housekeeper here. Looks like you've got guests." Francine and Julie followed their hostess back to the house.

"Would anyone like a coffee or a late night snack?" Covered yawns were her answer. "I'll take that as a no. Follow me, and I'll get you settled in."

As they ascended the curved staircase, Julie examined the bare walls and floors. "Who's the interior decorator?"

Francine led the way. "Brittany's the jack-of-all-trades here. She's been trying to update the place to somewhere between modern and old elegance. You know things like up-to-date wiring and security while keeping its old-fashion charm."

"The house was built in 1833, and things've changed a bit since then," said Brittany. "Three days ago the walls here, around the staircase, were just wood two-by-fours. I'm going to have the steps stripped down to their bare wood, and stain them."

"This whole project boggles me." Francine chuckled. "I had trouble deciding what colour towels to buy for the bathroom in my apartment. This one?" Francine paused by a door.

"No, this one's ready." Brittany opened a door to a spectacular bedroom suite.

"For the tenth time, can I tell you how much I love this room?" Francine walked across the wood and carpeted floor to the lace, curtained balcony doors. She flung them open letting in a soft, summer breeze. A sharp whistle attracted her attention. She waved at the dark shape across the yard. He waved back, and shooed a dog into the barn.

Julie followed her onto the balcony. Stars filled the sky, and the air resonated with the evening animal chorus of clicks and grunts. Turning back into the room, she sighed. "It's feels so peaceful."

"Brittany hunted for that four-poster bed for a couple of months. The two dressers and the night table are over a hundred years old."

Opening a drawer, Brittany pulled out a floor length nightgown, and handed it to Julie. "There should be fresh toiletries in the bathroom cabinet." She opened the carved wooden door, which led to a sumptuous private bath.

"Is this somebody's room? I wouldn't want to..."

"No, it's a guest room. Always be prepared isn't just the Boy Scout's motto." She handed a second nightgown to Francine.

"This is the guest room?" Julie's eyebrows popped up. "It's beautiful." She picked up a perfume bottle from the dresser and sniffed. Her brow crinkled for a moment. The scent was familiar.

"If that's everything you need," Brittany paused. "I'll be in the room next door, if you think of anything."

A questioning look crossed Francine's face.

Brittany halted by the door. "The floors in the housekeeper cottage have just been varnished. They need a few days to dry, and a bit for the fumes to disappear. Then there is some wallpapering. It's a mess. So, I'm sleeping in the big house for the moment. Good night." She stepped through the doorway.

"I'll be right across the hall." Francine pointed in the direction of her room. "I have a bed, but no wallpaper which is better than the master bedroom. I hear it has no walls. Consider yourself lucky. Sleep well."

"`Night Francine." Julie entered the grey marble bathroom, opened her purse and placed her array of prescription bottles on the vanity. She swallowed four different coloured pills then slipped into the soft silk nightgown. Lying on the bed, she felt the breeze as it drifted across the room.

What a day. Everyone was curious about her career. She'd discussed places she'd visited, people she'd met, and roles she'd danced. She'd had a wonderful time until the outburst.

What's Corina's problem with me? And what did Tricia mean? She insinuated that it was Robert who'd been mistreated. He didn't catch me in bed with someone else. He did the cheating, the lying and the heart breaking. Maybe I'm wrong in not forgiving him—Christian charity and all. But what's past is past.

She twirled the ring on her finger. Did she want to stop dancing, and become Mrs. Vincent Foster, socialite wife? Did she have to stop? She reached down, and rubbed her ankle. Was this latest injury a warning? The life of a professional dancer is physically stressful.

Sedated not only by the medication, but also by the intoxicating aromas and sounds of the evening, she drifted off to sleep.

***



As Robert walked to the stables, he glanced at his watch, and shook his head. "1:45 A.M., why can't horses deliver in the middle of the afternoon?"

As he crossed the lawn, he reached into his pocket, and pulled out an engagement ring. Marry Cori. He'd have to ask first, and he hadn't had a chance all day. He could wake her when he went to bed, and pop the question. A grin crossed his face. Should make for an interesting time after that. Can't remember, did she say she was staying?

He entered the ranch hands' quarters, and pulled his tie from around his neck. Are you staying here or having the limo take you home? She said yes. Hmmm - yes to which? He chuckled. Like you're going to make sense out of a conversation with someone who's had how much champagne?

Robert changed out of his tuxedo and into his barn clothes then went in search of his latest prodigy. After checking the birthing stall, and finding only his mare, he entered the kitchen and paused. Sitting at the table, sat a young male with a glazed look on his face.

"Hey Andrew."

The young man looked up.

"Think you need a cup of coffee."

"Yea, she's taking her time." He rose and stepped to the counter and plugged in the kettle. "The vet's on his way."

"I'll be in the office, getting caught up on some stuff. Call if you need me." Robert settled into his chair in the barn's office, and picked up a report. The veterinarian knocked on the door, waved a greeting then left to find the pregnant mare.

A continuous and excited barking brought Robert out of the papers he'd been reading. Damn dog. Chasing that raccoon again. He walked out of the barn and whistled. A light came on in one of the bedrooms in the main house. A dark silhouette of a woman appeared on the balcony. She waved. Robert waved back. Why didn't she go to my room? Probably can't deal with all the renovations. Dust'll ruin her manicure or something Shaking his head, he directed the dog into the barn, and went to check on the horse.

"Congrats Andrew, your first delivery." Wonderstruck, the teenager sat on the bloodied straw watching as the mare nuzzled her foal. Remembering the astonishment of his first delivery, Robert slapped his latest prodigy on the back. "Come on, I'll drive you home."

After parking the truck, back at the ranch, he picked up his tuxedo, and headed for the main house. While he walked across the yard, the horizon began to lighten. Dawn would arrive soon.

Walking past his bedroom, Robert opened the door. As he slipped through the room's darkness, her shape stirred, then nestled back into her dream world. Reaching into his tuxedo pocket, he pulled out a small jeweller's box, opened it and stared at the diamond ring encased in the rich blue velvet. Deciding to wait until morning, he clapped the box shut, and tossed it on the chair. He threw his tuxedo on top, stripped out of his barn clothes and climbed into bed.

Snuggling close, he wrapped his arm around her body, and nestled his face into her hair. Her scent and the softness of her skin were as familiar to him as his own face. He placed a soft kiss on her shoulder and closed his eyes. Content with himself, Robert slept more peacefully than he had in eight long years.


Chapter Three

The cool evening breeze had died to a quiet calm. Julie lay awake, eyes closed, listening to the early morning silence. Not even the sound of a car, plane or a lawn mower violated her ears. The clicks and grunts of the evening creatures were slowly being replaced by the whistles and chirps of the morning gossip line. Mother Nature was getting ready for a new day.

Julie rested. Her mood was serene. The tranquility of the room's atmosphere and the protectiveness of his arm curled around her, had given Julie the most refreshing sleep in a long time. Even the barely audible buzz of a mosquito didn't irritate her.

Eyes still closed, Julie imagined the rose and blue coloured bedcovers and the soft silver-grey carpet. Their colours muted in the evening shadows would now glow in the sun's brilliant light. She thought about the rose beds that mimicked the walkway to the front entrance. Last night the fading smells of the roses were heady. Today, the flowers would be a joy to see.

She'd lived too long inside theatres and big cities. She needed peace and some reality back in her life. The joyous whinny of a horse, probably let into a pasture, brought a smile to her soul. Such freedom. Such intense childlike joy. Such privilege at being able to play all day.

Julie had always wanted to dance, but it was no longer a love. It had grown into a duty. She must dance to prove she could do it. Still do it. Only twenty-six, why was her body failing her now? She could see the younger dancers in the company watching her. The faces signalled their thoughts. Her position would be open soon, and they wanted it. Had she been that obvious - that vulgar - to an aging dancer? "You're old - go away," their eyes said to her.

Pride forced her to stay even when common sense told her the knee wouldn't take the constant abuse much longer. She loved to dance, and learned to cope with the chore of performing, but now the persistent pain made it difficult to look as wistful or joyous as a part may demand. She'd never wanted to perform. She—

"Oh my God!" Her feet hit the floor as she spun around. Heart pounding, chills racing up her spine, she stood staring, eyes disbelieving. Her mouth moved. Words unable to tumble out. "You! You?"

"Julie." Francine burst through the door, and skidded to a stop. "Are you all ri…." Before her stood Julie, shoulder length hair wild from her night's rest, her chest rising and falling in deep breaths, and her chestnut-brown eyes open wide.

On the other side of the bed, equally deshevelled, eyes darting between Francine and Julie, Robert gathered his wits about him. "You're not Corina."

The morning gossip line of chirps and chatters filled the room as the once lovers mutely stared at each other. One not comprehending the other's existence.One not believing the other's presence.

"What's wrong?" asked Brittany as she stumbled into the room. "I thought I heard someone scream."

"That's not Corina." Through the fog of fading sleep, Robert was unable to verbalize the volume of questions, which raced through his mind. He ran his fingers through his hair, and stared at Julie.

"I think I can explain a few things," Francine was the first to regain composure. "When Julie and I went to leave last night my car battery was dead. Brittany suggested we stay, rather than call a cab at two-thirty in the morning. I guess we all assumed Corina would've told you she was leaving."

"Cori never goes to the barn. You know that. I expected her to be here...there." He pointed at the bed. His head raised, and for the first time in eight years he spoke to his former lover, "I thought you were Cori."

"I don't look anything like her." Julie's peaceful serenity shattered into shocked indignity.

"It was five in the morning when I crawled in here. There was a body in the bed. I really didn't pay much attention. I was asleep before I hit the pillow."

"So you just crawled into bed with a stranger? You didn't check who was in the bed?"

"No. Cori was in the bed. Who the hell else would be here? I went to bed." The rush of adrenaline was wearing off. Robert scratched his chest, slipped on his barn pants and grabbed the pile of tuxedo and small jeweller's box off the chair. "Any other surprises I should know about?" Brittany and Francine shook their heads. With one last glance, Robert walked into the hall.

"Julie, I'm sorry." Francine placed her hand on her chest. "I thought she'd have gone to the stables to say good night."

"I'm not angry, Francine. I think I'm in shock. I was thinking about how wonderful it was here when I suddenly realized someone else was in the bed. I was reacting to that more than it being...him."

Brittany covered a yawn with her hand. "Time for more sleep." She returned to her bedroom.

"Are you okay?" asked Francine.

"Yes, but I don't know if I'll get any more sleep. My heart's still pounding."

As the door shut, Julie looked back at the messy bed. The light sheets wildly pushed back in both of their frenzied attempts to get out. Julie smiled in sympathy at the memory of Robert's confusion and shock. She hadn't meant to scare him. Obviously, he hadn't known it was she he'd snuggled up against. She knew that of all the women on the planet, the last person he'd have guessed he'd slept with was her.

Julie settled herself back into bed. He's still lean. Being almost thirty hasn't settled on his waist. But his eyes. Somehow his eyes are different.

In her mind, she pictured Robert as he'd been, her youthful, arrogant, sensual lover. Mentally focusing on his eyes, she compared them to now. The intense glow of black coal faded against the eyes that now resembled dirty paint water. She'd seen that dull look before. Then caused by a deep emotional pain. Shaking her head, she stopped herself from wondering what was causing it. There were too many problems in her life to worry about someone else's. Especially his. Should she retire or continue dancing? Bigger question, what about Vincent's proposal?

Vincent, the man who'd asked her to marry him. The person she'd had a comfortable relationship with for part of the past three years. It was difficult trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, but her career came first. When the Moscow Dance Company asked her to be a guest artist for two years, how could she say no?

Yet, when she and Vincent were together, sex wasn't a priority. They communicated well on many topics except that one. While apart, she'd taken lovers to satisfy a deep emotional hunger, but none had satiated her like the owner of the once coal-black eyes.

***



The sensual aroma of fresh coffee roused Julie from her musings. She yawned and stretched her lithe body. She might be older than the new dancers, but she was still in excellent shape. When Julie had finished showering, she found someone had placed a cotton dress with large bright flowers on the overstuffed chair where Robert picked up his clothes.

With a rush of youthful enthusiasm, Julie dressed, and bounded down the stairs following the smell of roasted coffee beans until she found Francine, Brittany and ... him on the outdoor terrace. They sat around a glass and wrought iron table on which rested a plate of croissants and a pot of coffee. "Good morning," Brittany said. "Would you like something to eat?"

"Coffee, please." She sat next to Francine, but across from Robert. Remain calm. Just breathe. Don't think about him.

"Still not eating?" Francine asked.

"It's bad enough getting old, but a fat dancer is a dancer no more."

"You're not old, and definitely not fat." Brittany jealously eyed Julie's thin frame.

"Twenty-six, almost twenty-seven, is old when the eighteen year olds want your job. They look so young, like babies. Did we look that young, Francine?"

Robert stood and tilted his head towards the barn. "Sorry, gotta go. Scott's either going crazy or he's signaling he wants me in the barn."

Julie looked at her coffee cup.

"You should've said good morning to him." Francine tracked his exit with her gaze. "Or at least looked at him. You have to admit he's still pretty easy on the eyes."

"He didn't say anything to me." In response to Francine's rolled eyes she said, "Okay, childish I know, but I'm feeling rather defensive about being so close to him. And I wasn't totally ignoring him, I just didn't know how to say good morning to someone I've hated for so long and yet—"

"With whom you slept so peacefully the night before?" Francine finished Julie's unspoken sentence.

Brittany dropped her butter knife. Francine turned her head, and her gaze met Brittany's. With eyes shifting between Julie and Robert, Brittany tried to ask a question. Francine winked.

Desperate to change the subject, Julie smiled at Brittany. "This dress is adorable, and it fits me perfectly." She smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle.

Stifling the question she wanted to ask, Brittany said, "I sent a message to the morning girl suggesting she stop and purchase something for you and Francine."

Julie looked at Francine's dress; same style except bright blue birds adorned it.

Brittany continued, "I thought after wearing what you'd on all day yesterday, you'd like something a little fresher. And please, don't thank me, consider it a gift from...the Estate." She placed her coffee on the glass table and stood. "Now, I'll go call one of the ranch hands about your car." She entered the house, leaving Francine and Julie alone.

"Did you sleep well until?" Francine poured herself another cup of Brittany's excellent French Roast brew.

"Yes." Julie took a sip of her coffee "I didn't mean to wake up the whole household. I was lying there quite contentedly with him holding me when I realized there shouldn't be a him holding me. I'm a little on edge, and I guess I overreacted. Did you see the look on his face? I shouldn't exist, and yet there I was."

Francine chuckled. "It'll probably take him a week to stop saying, `That's not Corina'."

"Have they been dating long?"

"About four years. They met at a party, and have been off and on ever since." Francine shook her head. "Corina's trapped, and she knows it. She knows he'll never love her. They break up but she goes back to him. She told me she's the moth and he's the flame, and there's nothing she can do, but fly in and let him consume her."

"He's very good at manipulating people."

"Yes, he is, but that's not what he's doing. He's been straight with her all along. She just can't let go. He's one of the most eligible bachelors around. In the past few months every son-in-law-starved mother has tried to arrange a date for her daughter."

"Westlanders are trying to arrange a date for their daughter with a North Shorer?" Julie held out her cup while Francine poured more coffee. North Shore was low as a town could be. Robert grew up there and ran with a gang. Its dirt was in his blood.

"Things have changed since you left."

"I'll say. Where's Mrs. Murran? Away on vacation? I remember how she dislikes crowds."

Francine was silent for a moment. "She died last winter. Plane crash while on vacation. Few survivors."

Julie lowered her head, closed her eyes and bid farewell to the respected matriarch of the Murran estate. "So, Brittany's renovating the estate for the heirs."

"Yes, she says it's been a challenge to keep the old charm, and yet update it to modern standards. It had fifteen bedrooms and two bathrooms. I think at last count she had it up to five bathrooms."

"Well, if they're all as spectacular as the brass and grey marble heaven I showered in this morning…." The sound of a horse's whiny floated across the expanse of green lawn. "Let's go for a walk," suggested Julie. "I was thinking this morning that I've been locked up in cities or theatres too long. I need some green grass between my toes."

"You want nature, go to the stable and step in a pile of manure."

"No thank you. I think I'll keep my return to the great outdoors on a less earthy nature. Grass and flowers suit me fine. Besides," she confessed. "The barn's where he is, and I can't face him again today."

Julie followed Francine around the side of the main house. Far away from the barn. The softness of the grass changed to the crunch of pebbles as the friends walked along the paths that edged the well-tended flowerbeds. "Are these more of Brittany's handiwork?"

"No, Brittany's abilities lay inside a house, decorating and cooking. Neither of which do I possess an ounce of talent in. The horticultural section of the college has done the flowerbeds for the past few years. They get paid for the work, and can list working for the estate on their résumés. It was one of Robert's ideas." There, Francine had done it. She'd said his name. Julie would have to deal with his presence.

"How is he?"

Francine tilted her head and smile. "Who?"

"Robert. How is Robert James Holiday?"

"He's doing okay. Been a busy boy, but it's paid off. The ranch has an organic rating. Difficult to get and very prestigious. The racing stables have been successful. Two Grand Champions in the past three years."

Julie glanced back at a corral. "He's still at the stable?"

"Yes, he'll never leave. But you know Robert, always doing more than one thing at a time."

"Like what?"

"Let's see, he has a couple of degrees. One in Business Administration and the other in Math."

Julie was silent with her thoughts as they strolled among the rose gardens. Holding a blood-red rose, labelled Sacrifice, Julie took a deep breath. Not to inhale the rose's perfume, but to build a moment of courage. Trying to sound nonchalant, she turned. "So what did Trish mean that I was wrong about Robert?"

"She meant you hadn't thought about what it was Robert did, and why he did it. The reasons you made are the same you've kept for all these years, and those reasons are wrong."

"But I caught him in bed with another woman. What possible reason could he have? Besides...you know, sex?"

"Melissa was a friend. What you saw wasn't what happened."

"What did happen?"

"I don't know if I should answer that. I think you should think about it or let Robert explain it. Eight years is a long time to carry around the garbage of an old grudge. You have to resolve this."

"Is this friend Francine talking or Dr. Paulin?"

"Try friend Dr. Paulin, noted psychologist and expert in the affairs of the heart."

"I suppose in February you run around in a diaper, and shoot people with arrows."

"How did you know?" Both women giggled as they watched a baby blue sports car drive up, and the long-legged Corina emerge. Head held high, she didn't seem to be suffering from her excesses of the day before. She marched towards the house without as much as a glance in Julie's direction.

Both women turned as they heard footsteps approaching. "Excuse me, Ms Paulin, your car's recharged. You should try to remember to plug it in," said the estate's teenage ranch hand.

Francine replied, "I promise to try. Thank you." As he walked away Francine said, "I think it's time we collect our things, and head back to the real world."

In her room, Julie found the bed made, the bathroom spotless, yesterday's clothes folded and waiting for her on the bed. She met Francine in the hall, and together they looked for their hostess. "I think I hear voices on the terrace." Francine reached for the doorknob.

Julie caught her friend's hand. "That's not Brittany. I think it's Robert and Corina."

"She's back ten minutes, and you fall into bed with...with... her." Corina's voice was edged with the contempt.

"I knew I shoulda kept my stupid mouth shut. I thought she was you." Confused defense was Robert's tone of voice. "It was an accident. Come on, who the hell else would be in the bed?"

"So you jumped into bed with a stranger?"

"I said it was an accident. My room's still a mess. I saw you wave from the guest room window."

"I had the limo drive me home."

"Damn it, Cori! It was late. I was tired. I went to bed."

"You couldn't tell the difference between us?"

"Jesus Christ! How many times are we going to go around this stupid conversation? I didn't know Julie was on the property. Hell, I didn't know she was on the planet. It was dark in the room. I didn't turn the light on. I got into bed and crashed. Thank God I didn't do anything else."

A cold jolt shot through Julie's body. Her eyes widened as she glanced at Francine.

Robert's voice continued through the closed doors. "Don't look at me like that. We didn't do anything. She still hates my guts. It's pretty damn clear in the way she doesn't look at me."

"She may still hate you, but do you still love her?"

After a brief pause, Robert growled, "Damn it, Corina! If you want to carry on with this stupid conversation, you can do so on your own." He jerked open the terrace door, stepped between Francine and Julie and slammed it shut. "You're the last person I expected to see here."

Julie's head dropped, but she forced herself to look up at him. "Sorry."

"What the hell do you have to be sorry about?" Tilting his head towards the terrace he said, "She's the one who's being ridiculous." He turned to leave then paused. "Sorry about last night, but I didn't know it was you." Facing Francine, he continued, "Nice set up, Fran. Now, I've got my old...and my current pissed at me. Hmmph and believe it or not," He glanced at Julie. "I'd rather have Cori pissed at me than you. She's got the ability to forgive." He walked halfway across the room and shouted back, "Actually a pit full of cobras is probably more forgiving."

Julie blinked and shook her head. "Well, that was a cold slap in the face."

The sound of a slammed door confirmed his mood.

"The shock of seeing you, then sleeping with...next...to you, and now Corina's jealousy, he's overwhelmed."

Not listening to Francine's defense of Robert, Julie shook her head to her to own thoughts.

"What?" asked Francine.

Julie's eyes widened and she shook her head.

"Come on tell me. I'm a trained psychologist remember. I can make you confess your deepest, darkest secrets."

"His eyes are all wrong." Julie paused. "I noticed it this morning. They're the wrong colour. When he turned on me, his eyes scared me."

"His eyes do get intense."

"No, they're dead. They looked like his eyes when I first met him. When he was leader of the Shoresmen. For a lack of a way to express what my mind's trying to figure out, I'd call those his gang member eyes. That's how he kept the gang in line. He could intimidate them with a glance or a stare down. The fury...the passionate fury... no..." Her hand rose to her lips. "That's what's missing. There's no passion in his eyes. Just existence."

"His eyes've looked that way since you left."

Julie stared at Francine for a few moments. "What're you trying to tell me?"

"Have you looked at your eyes lately?"

Brittany stood near Francine. "I hear I missed a good fight."

"No blood this time," said Francine. "But I thought he was going to have a coronary. Corina can sure push his buttons."

Talking to the air, Julie said, "She'd better be careful about doing that. I've seen him angry. I know what anger does to him, and what he's capable of doing. He could hurt her so easily."

Brittany hesitantly smiled. "Well, on a more cheerful note—" All three women jumped out of the way as the terrace door opened. Head high, eyes averted, Corina passed through and exited the house. Soon the high whine of the sports car's engine signalled her departure.

"We came looking for you to say thank you and good bye," explained Julie.

"No, I should be thanking you." Brittany embraced Julie. "You were sort of roped into pouring tea yesterday. It was a pleasure meeting you." The loud roar of a motorcycle engine broke through their conversation. "Oh drat. I guess the shock of seeing you and their little spat's going to make him do his famous disappearing trick."

As women walked along the rose-lined walkway to the parking area, a lone taillight faded into the distance. "He's been doing that for years. No one knows where he goes." Brittany shook her head. "Drive carefully. When the little light says EMPTY do something about it."

"Hey, I'm a Doctor of Psychology. I'll help my car through all of its emotional problems, but after that it's on its own." Within moments, Francine and Julie were on their way. Thirty-five minutes later, Julie entered her parent's house on Crestview Avenue.

Throughout the day, Robert and Corina's disagreement haunted Julie. After supper, she feigned tiredness, and retreated to her room. Drying her face, she caught herself staring at her reflection. Have you looked at your eyes lately? Francine's voice echoed through her head. Sad. Tired. Lost. Alone. Afraid? Tossing down her towel, Julie grabbed her prescriptions, poured the pills into her hand and swallowed them.

Pulling the cotton sheet over her shoulders, she nestled down in her bed. Eyes closed, her mind wandered back to Corina and Robert's argument. "She may still hate you, but do you still love her?" Corina's voice had been as sharp as a knife's edge. Robert's silent reply startled Julie. Her eyelids popped open. Why hadn't he answered her? He hadn't known she and Francine were eavesdropping.

"Eight years is a long time to carry around the garbage of an old grudge. You have to resolve this." What did Francine mean? Resolve what? She'd come to terms with her hatred of Robert. He was a jerk. She hated him. What else was there?

A tiny seed of confusion sprouted inside Julie. Maybe Francine was right. Maybe they should talk. But about what? She could visualize the scene of her catching Robert in bed making love to…. Julie placed her hand on her chest. She knew what she'd ask him. Why he'd cheated on her. Betrayed her?

Francine had said, "Melissa was a friend. What you saw wasn't what happened." So what did happen? She should find him, and ask - no - demand he tell her.

Sitting up she tossed back the covers, and slipped on her robe. Brittany said he was off on his disappearing act, and no one knew where he went. She knew where the place was. It seemed she was the only one. She wondered if she could find the place. After all, it had been eight years.

Julie searched through her father's maps. If things hadn't changed too much, she should be able to find the cabin, in the woods, next to a lake, where she and Robert had spent the day making love.


Chapter Four

Robert yawned, stretched his arms over his head and sighed. The mid-afternoon heat of the third of July had reduced him to a lethargic state. Walking from the deck to the refrigerator, for an ice-cold beer, and back to his hammock was exhausting. He decided to read another chapter before having a nap.

These past few days were spent in blissful laziness. Not one thought of work, life, Corina...or Julie. Such was his life when cut off from the rest of the universe. No radio, BlackBerry, television, or laptop with Internet access existed at the cottage. Strange how he'd spent so many years incarcerated in juvenile detentions dreaming about being free, yet now his greatest pleasure in life was to lock himself away from society.

He'd bought Morgan Stratton's latest murder mystery - Be Wise. Be Wicked. Be Dead. He liked Stratton's style, but had to confess he'd rarely solved the mystery before the last chapter.

The hammock, where Robert spent most of his mornings, afternoons and occasional warm summer's evening, was suspended between the front wall of the cedar cabin and the deck railing. Settling down, he placed his beer on the deck, opened his book and read until - "Damn." He tossed the book on the deck, closed his eyes, tucked his hands behind his head and pondered his shrinking list of suspects. The hammock swayed like a cradle.

***



She let him sleep. He looked calm and relaxed, not like the last time she saw him.

 Julie drove around cottage country looking for the lane, which led to this cabin. By chance, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the entrance, hidden by bushes and pine trees.

The cedar-log cabin hadn't changed since her last visit. Surrounding it was a forest of blue spruce trees. Its soft scent perfumed the air. The denseness of the trees created a cocoon barring the intrusions of the outside world. It gave an atmosphere that all troubles or concerns and every little ache or pain would fade once in the realm of those evergreens.

The serenity of the area heightened her travel weariness. Staring down at the comfortable and relaxed Robert, Julie decided a nap was a perfect idea. He won't mind. At least, I don't think he'll mind. She entered the cabin, located the bedroom, put her luggage at the foot of the bed and lay down.

Okay, you're here. Why are you doing this? To settle something? Settle what? My past. His and my past. Can you do it? She bit her bottom lip. I don't know. I'm scared. Scared of the truth.

With a sigh, her eyelids fluttered shut.

***



Hot cheese and pepperoni invaded her dreams. She awoke to see Robert standing next to her, with a pizza and a bottle of Chianti. "Supper?"

She stretched, hopped off the bed and followed him into the living room. He placed the pizza on the coffee table, cracked open his beer and opened her wine.

He handed her a slice of double cheese and extra pepperoni pizza and a coffee mug of wine. "You know Julie, this is the second time this week you've almost given me a coronary. How'd you find me?"

Julie took a moment to savour a bite of her pizza. "You brought me here a long time ago. Brittany said you were pulling your disappearing act. I guessed you'd come here. Went down a bunch of wrong lanes, but I found you." She took another bite. "Good pizza."

Forcing himself to separate from the scent of her perfume, the closeness of her body, and the heat of his desire for her, Robert went into the kitchen. He returned with two oil lanterns. Lighting them, he placed one by Julie, and the other near where he sat. Dancing flames cast hypnotic shadows about the darkening room. "So, what're you doing here?"

Julie sipped her wine, and thought about his question. "I don't really know. I took some time off to think. I'm at a…a crossroads in my life…." She twirled her ring around her finger. "And my career. And I can't seem to read the direction signs."

"Home's that way." He pointed over his left shoulder.

Ignoring him, Julie continued, "I have to make some decisions, and somehow – I don't know how – but at a low gut level those decisions are connected to me and you." She wiped the pizza grease from her mouth and fingers. Pouring herself another mug of Chianti, she leaned back on the couch. "I tried to think at home, in Westland, but there were too many distractions."

"Didn't bother thinking that maybe I'd come up here for a little peace and quiet, and didn't want any human invasions."

"Do you want me to leave?"

"Yes." His response surprised even himself. Robert swallowed the last of his beer, laid it next to the pizza box and grabbed another. Shaking his head, he said, "You're sitting there looking shocked at my rudeness. Here you are, politely making conversation, and I rudely ask you to leave. Your hypocrisy has grown."

Julie's brown eyes darkened as she glared at him.

He chugged a couple of mouthfuls of beer "Oh don't be so damn annoyed, you still hate me to the point of barely being able to look at me. We were lovers, and yet you couldn't even say good morning to me, and I'd just spent the night sleeping with you."

She slammed her mug on the floor. "You did not sleep with me."

"Slept next to you." He laid his drink in the pizza box and opened another.

"There is a difference."

"Yea, don't I know it. From one I get a good night's sleep, and from the other I get frostbite." Robert stared at his beer.

Julie watched the shadows dance on the wall.

"I don't see how after all these years you…forget it." He chugged the last of his beer, and tossed the empty bottle into the pizza box.

"What? No, ask me. What were you going to say? Damn it. After all those years – what?"

His lips curled as he snapped the words at her. "Nothing important." Robert returned from the lone bedroom with a pillow and some sheets. "I'll sleep on the couch. Don't forget your lantern."

Understanding his signal, Julie walked to the bedroom. Opening her luggage, she picked out everything she needed then passed from the bedroom through the living room and into the bathroom. Out of the corner of her eye, the motion of Robert tossing his shirt on the floor snagged her attention.

She remembered his body with his strong, sculptured muscles, not massive like a weight lifters, but big enough to inspire a rapid pulse and heavy breathing. And his serious brow with a face softened by killer eyes and a passionate mouth with kissable lips. His long fingers spread fire through her body, and his arms wrapped around her like a protective blanket. Her stomach tingled when she thought about his strong chest a flat, rippled stomach that narrowed to a slender waist, and hips that lowered to….

A shiver ran up her spine as she recalled the sensation of his hands pulling her down to him. She shook her head. Turning on the water, Julie let the cool wetness splash against her flushed face. As she prepared for bed, her mind wandered back to that past, painful memory.

Running up the stairs to the second storey apartment, she'd been surprised to find the door locked. Robert didn't lock his door when he was home. He was home. His pick-up was parked next to a car she didn't recognize. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out her personal key, and stepped into the kitchen. Bags and take-out boxes from a local Chinese restaurant, two plates and three empty beer bottles lay abandoned on the kitchen table. Julie paused – a new sensation passed through her body. She was trembling. Her palms were clammy. Despite her straining not to hear, muffled voices came from behind his partially closed bedroom door.

As she crossed the living room floor, she spotted Robert's shirt tossed onto the floor, and another – obviously feminine – pile of clothing lay on the couch. With fingertips only, she lifted a pink blouse. Repulsed by its existence, she released it. Her stomach churned. Nausea rumbled inside her. Trembling fingers pushed the door open. Partially covered by a sheet lay – as Julie called her – the Bitch! The single noise was the soft moans escaping from the Bitch's lips.

Robert's head emerged from the covers as he pressed tiny kisses up her belly and chest until he reached her lips. "Sorry babe," he whispered. "This is gonna have to be quick. She'll be here soon."

Finding her pride and her voice, Julie said, "She's already here." Both heads snapped in her direction. The Bitch's grin was….Julie never found words for it. It wasn't embarrassed or evil. It was almost victorious.

Julie turned and tried to flee, but her feet had turned to lead weights. In two heartbeats, Robert stood beside her. She'd never understood the expression on his face. Many times in the past few years, she'd awoken to it, but always considered it part of a nightmare. His face was full of pain, fear and yet accomplishment.

The next moment was as vivid now as then. One move, a single statement and an exit. She slapped her hand across his face with a solid crack, screamed, "I hate you!" and fled the apartment, slamming the door with such force that the building shook. As she stomped down the wooden stairs, each step took her farther away from the man, she thought, loved her. Was there ever a moment's reflection on what happened? She never allowed it. One last picture flashed in her mind – Robert standing, shirtless in his jeans, watching her leave.

Blinking, Julie looked at her reflection. I loved him. I thought he loved me. He did. He loved me. Then why…?

Dismissing all past thoughts, she set up her array of bottles. First was one yellow pill to keep down the swelling in her knee. Next, the two tiny pink ones to make her sleep, a blue tablet to keep the pain away, and the brown one to help keep her healthy. She placed those bottles back into her case, and set the morning medication on the bathroom sink.

Having recently awoken from her nap, Julie wasn't ready to sleep. She decided to read one of the many books that lined the shelves in the living room.

Trying to ignore Robert stretched out on the sofa, she scanned the bookshelves. She remembered a friend of Robert's telling her how he used to lose himself in books to escape the hell he was locked in. A young life incarcerated – repeatedly. Julie had witnessed glimpses of Robert's wild and vicious character. She wondered if maturity had tamed that part of him.

Why would a gang member have such an eclectic reading collection? Before her lay books of various genres. A murder mystery lay next to a romance that was on top of a biography, which had a Calculus text stuffed in beside it. The writers ranged from little known to Pulitzer Prize winners, and paperbacks were scattered among hardcovers.

Julie found a Kathryn Bilmer romance, Wild Winds. She usually didn't read romances. The hero, the passion and the happy endings irritated her. She'd wanted a dark, silent hero to sweep her off her feet, and she thought she'd found one, but he'd betrayed her.

Vincent wasn't dark and seething, or overflowing with sexual presence. He was stable and mature and…and sensible. She didn't want to think about Vincent. She grabbed the book. She needed a little freedom, a few moments living someone else's life. Book in hand, she returned to her room and closed the door.

As she settled herself into bed, a photo slipped out from between the pages of the book. It was his copy of a picture taken long ago, when she and Robert had attended a wedding. They'd been in love then. That was obvious from the passion of the kiss, and from Robert's inscription on the back. Within the bounds of this fantasy, I thee wed. Love, R.

He did love me. A moment of fond memory was drowned by a surge of anger as she stuffed it back into the book, sipped her wine and began to read.

By chapter seven, the voluptuous maiden and her muscle-bound hero were losing the battle with Julie's sleepiness. She closed the book, and lay back looking up at the open window. Through it, the cool night breeze drifted across her skin as she listened to evening sounds. She thought about this evening, Robert's request that she leave had taken her by surprise. Why was he angry with me? I'm not the one who did anything wrong.

A noise startled her from her reminisces. Yawning, she peaked out of the bedroom door. The couch was empty. Through the darkness, Julie could just make out Robert's shape on the deck. She crossed the room, and stepped outside next to him.

Having had time to recover from the shock of seeing her, and being sleepy, Julie hoped he'd be accepting of her presence. She wanted to stay. She wanted time to think. Something told her, she wouldn't be happy until she'd discovered the explanation of that last expression on his face.

Julie leaned on the railing and stared out at the scenic nighttime splendour. Before her lay the lake, frozen in its stillness. Somewhere nearby an owl called. The sound of hundreds of bullfrogs and crickets welled up, died and welled up again in a chorus. The sky above was a mass of stars. "They really do look like jewels on black velvet," she said.

"Yea, but none of them are as big as yours."

She shifted her hands, and let her right hand cover her ring. "Couldn't sleep?"

"Consider the fact that twice in the past few days I've been spun around and punched in the face by you, no I couldn't sleep. Memories I thought were gone keep popping up." He hit his fist on the deck railing. The frogs and crickets silenced themselves. "Why the hell did you have to show up now? What lousy timing. I was about to propose to Cori. She's tried so hard to…and now you show...aw shit."

Julie looked at his broad back. Something deep inside longed to run the tip of her tongue down his muscles. She shivered in the warm night air and returned to her bed. What had happened in his apartment would lie there forever buried under unanswered questions. Corina was lucky. He loved her. A glimpse of her future began to unfold. She'd marry Vincent, Robert would marry Corina, and that would forever end the depressing story of Robert and Julie.

***



Still staring at the lake, Robert sighed. Poor Corina, she'd tried to get him to love her, but his heart was closed. Yes, he was going to propose, but it wasn't because of love. He'd make her happy, and that was good enough. Now with Julie's sudden appearance, months of wonderful memories forced their way into his brain. Memories like the first time they'd spoken in school, her first smile aimed right at him, each kiss, every touch - so many moments.

With a sad shake of the head, he wandered back into the cabin. Tomorrow she'd be gone, then he could begin the painful process of forgetting her. Again. In the dark, the hoots, ribbets and clicks echoed through the night, but neither Julie nor Robert heard them. As they slept, visions of their past affair replayed in their minds.


Chapter Five

Dawn broke, the sky lightened, birds sang, but Julie and Robert slept. The morning rays crept across the cabin floor and over the edge of the couch. Robert rubbed his eyes then checked his watch. As he entered the bathroom, the evidence of Julie's existence stood like decoys at a shooting gallery – four little brown bottles. He discovered more prescription bottles in her case, which sat on the floor. Shaking his head as he looked inside, he counted the combined dosages, five pills to be taken each morning, four each night. There were stimulants and sedatives, some to get her going and some to knock her out. He closed the case and turned on the shower.

Refreshed, he strolled out on the deck, coffee cup in hand, sat on the railing, and wondered whether he'd finish his book or cut some firewood. While he debated the pros and cons of both, Julie stepped beside him. "Good morning," he said.

Blinking in the brightness, she slipped on her sunglasses and forced a smile. Mornings weren't her time of day. Her body ached and complained until the pills did their job.

"Would you like some breakfast?"

She shook her head.

"Don't let my inhospitableness make you starve. At least have a cup of coffee."

"I don't usually feel like eating until noon."

"Noon was fifteen minutes ago."

"No way." She glanced at her watch. "I haven't slept this late in a long time. It must be the silence. Doesn't anybody else live around here?"

Robert looked around the rolling hills, so thickly covered in tall trees they appeared to be a pine carpet. The lake shone like a polished mirror. Not a man-made sound was heard – no rumble from the highway or high-pitched engine whine from an airplane. "Carl...remember Carl?"

Julie nodded as she yawned.

Robert continued, "He planned it this way. He bought a huge section of land then worked to get the rest of the area declared as a protected park. There are hiking paths, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone on one."

After an invigorating stretch, Julie said, "I remember you're a loner, but not to this extent." She walked over to the railing, and looked down towards the lake. "It hasn't changed much. The big rock we sat on is still there."

"I remember bringing you here. It was a cold November day, and you pulled both of us into the lake."

"Was it ever cold." Julie rubbed her arm. "I've got goose bumps just thinking about it. We were fighting about something."

"I said you didn't know which end of a hammer to use, and you challenged me on it. I threatened to throw you into the lake. You conceded then pulled us both in."

"That was the only day I cut a class. I still feel guilty." She hung her head in false shame.

"So go serve a detention. I probably still owe a couple...dozen."

She put her hand on her stomach, to muffle the rumblings. "I think a glass of orange juice would be good."

"There are donuts on the counter."

"Dancers don't eat donuts."

"Non-dancers do. Bring me back one."

Exiting the cabin with a glass of orange juice and two chocolate donuts, she handed one to Robert, and sat on a deck chair.

"I thought dancers didn't eat donuts?"

"I may not be a dancer much longer, so what the hell." She sank her teeth into the chocolate glazed sphere. "Mmmm, this is great."

"The bakery, in town, home cooks everything."

"There's a town?"

"Where do you think the pizza came from?" Robert turned to face her. He tilted his head to the left. "If you head up the main road, another fifteen minutes you'll reach Dorchester Lake."

Julie pointed to the water. "Dorchester Lake?"

"Sunset Lake. The actual Dorchester Lake's on the other side of the town. Most of the towns around here are call something lake."

Having finished his coffee, Robert placed his empty mug on the table, and leaned back on the railing.

Julie picked up her glass of orange juice, and walked over next to him. She'd enjoyed their conversation. They weren't dealing with world-shattering events, but they were communicating which was more than they'd done since high school. The sound of an airplane made Julie look up. "Civilization still exists."

"It manages to intrude every now and then."

"Was that a subtle hint? Are you reminding me to leave?"

"You can't go."

A tingle charged through her body. With forced casualness, she asked, "Why not?"

"I figure your car must be one of those new electric ones, because I didn't hear you pull up."

Julie stood facing straight ahead. Robert had her attention.

"And you've been driving around trying to find this place."

"That's two for two. Get to the point."

He sighed. "Have you noticed anything unusual about the cabin?"

Julie thought about it for a moment then shook her head.

Robert tried another tactic. "There's no TV, radio, or lights. Dinner was by lantern last night, right? The place isn't wired."

"Not on the same page as you yet."

"I can't charge your power cells."

"My battery," Julie said, as the problem presented itself.

Robert raised his eyebrows and pointed at her. "Bingo."

"But how'd you...oh yes, we heard you leave on your bike."

"Gas powered engine. I always come up on my bike, or in the pickup."

"How am I going to get home?" She suppressed a smile.

"When I go into town, I'll get an adapter, and charge your car from my solar cells, but that'll take all of the stored energy."

"Which means?"

"I'll have no electricity until the cells refuel. Which leaves me without a fridge or hot water heater. A hot shower I can do without, but warm beer, forget it." He flashed that familiar sexy grin which used to make her knees weak.

Feeling the heat of his nearness, Julie collected her thoughts before speaking. "So...how long are you planning on staying?"

"Until I leave. If you can hang around for a few more days, I'll drain the cells into your car, and then let them recharge while I'm away."

"I have no commitments. I guess I can stay as long as you can." Julie paused, opened her mouth then closed it.

Robert waited. You gonna ask me about Melissa or not? Can't believe you haven't figured it out yet. After having a mental argument with himself, Robert meant to dive into the conversation about Melissa, instead he said, "How come you're not dancing?" His brow knitted together in concern.

"I'm getting too old."

"Excuse me. You're twenty-six."

"And the new girls are eighteen. My body's starting to fail me. My knees are weak. The doctor says if I stop now I may not be crippled when I get older."

"Is that why you have a pharmacy lined up in the bathroom?"

She half smiled. "It does look bad doesn't it? Between my morning and evening pills I can survive the day feeling like a regular human being."

"Regular human beings don't need to take nine pills a day to cope. Hell J, you used to get pissed at me if I took more than two aspirins."

"A dancer needs a lot of rest to re-energize the body."

"If you need the pills to re-energize yourself then why do you take the stimulants in the morning?" He wondered if Julie had faced the answer.

"To shake off the effects of the sleeping pills. I can't crawl into class." Her voice rose. "The younger ones are biting at the chance to take my job. One slip and I'm out."

Robert cautioned himself. Julie's anger and hysteria were surfacing. "What would happen if you stopped taking them?"

"I can't. I mean, I can, and I will when the doctor says to. I'm just following doctors' orders." The tension began to suffocate Julie. She walked back to the picnic table, swept the donut crumbs off the table and dumped them into her empty, orange juice glass.

He turned and leaned back on the railing. "You're taking five pills to start functioning in the morning. Doesn't that seem strange to you?"

"You add quite well, but then I hear you have a degree in mathematics. Well, that's not medicine, so stay out of my bottles."

Pushing off the railing, Robert said, "I'm going to chop wood. Have a nice afternoon." He walked towards the small woodshed on the right side of the property.

Julie stomped off the deck and walked down the path to the dock. Just who does he think he is? Sticking his nose into my medication. I need those pills to function. I'm not abusing anything. They're all perfectly legal prescriptions. If my doctors say stop taking them, then I will.

The air seemed cooler, not as threatening at the water. Three deep breaths later, she was able to think less emotionally. He was expecting me to ask him about her. Why did I chicken out? What am I afraid of? I came here to settle this. She stared out over the lake listening to the silence. Maybe I need some time to think. Map out my future.

She looked back at the cabin. The crack of an axe hitting wood floated down to the water's edge. Confronting him now would be the intelligent, mature, rational thing to do. But why do it now? The sun's shining. I've got a book to read and that hammock looks inviting.

***



Swoosh. Crack. Thud. Three hours of swinging an axe had left Robert with a sizeable pile of split firewood. Every winter one of the locals brought a load of logs, and offloaded it into the woodshed. Robert spent part of his summer cutting, splitting and stacking, so it could be used the following winter in one of the cabin's two sources of heat, the wood stove or the fireplace.

Sweat trickled down his face, neck and chest as he stacked the last few pieces. A swim in the lake would do wonders for his temper and his temperature. He'd managed to concentrate on what he was doing, and not think about Julie, but he was aware the power of his swing was coming from the anger burning inside him.

The water was icy as Robert crashed through its surface, and submerged himself into its watery world. His skin contracted in response to the temperature differential. It was early July. The lake wouldn't warm up until August. The cold water turned a long swim into a quick dip. Climbing on the dock, Robert let the warmth of the sun dry him.

His thoughts drifted back to the conversation with Julie. Having read the names of seven different doctors on the various bottles, he knew what she was doing was wrong. He'd been involved in the drug world - dealing and abusing. There were many different ways to get addicted, but prescription or not, an addiction was still an addiction.

Didn't Julie know how stupid that was? He could try talking to her, but she wouldn't listen to reason. An addicted person could be very unreasonable. He knew that from first-hand experience. There was a solution - one way to prove she was dependent on her prescriptions. Should he? After all, he wasn't her knight in shining armour anymore. He was a scorned and hated ex-lover.

Robert returned to the cabin. He passed Julie napping in the hammock. He changed, scribbled a note, placed it on the kitchen counter, exited the cabin and drove into town.

***



Julie opened her eyes. Trees, birds and fresh air were all she saw, heard or smelled. No wonder Robert liked to isolate himself here. It was a form of meditation. Every detail awakened an awareness in herself, and replaced her inner stressed-out tension with a mellow outlook. Julie wandered about looking for Robert. She may be feeling serene, but she was also hungry.

The note didn't say when he'd left, how long he'd be gone or when he'd be back, it read - "Gone for supper. R". Julie crumpled it and threw it into a corner.

Temper quick to rise, Julie mumbled as she paced the living room floor. Why the hell didn't he wake me? Didn't want to be seen with me. His precious hiding spot wouldn't be a secret. This place is more important than I am. Well it certainly isn't the first time he's thought more about himself than me.

From the direction of the lake came a long, low rumble. Rolling over the top of the hills were swollen, ominous storm clouds. Although early in the evening, the day was darkening. Julie searched for the lantern Robert had used to light last night's supper. At the time she thought it was...cute, now she thought the lanterns were omnipotent. Finding two of them on the counter, she grabbed one and looked for matches, a lighter...two sticks to rub together.

Julie searched every drawer, cupboard and bookshelf, in a fruitless attempt to find anything with which to light the lantern. "Okay, be creative. If you were Robert, where would you put the matches? And why the hell doesn't he have any electricity!"

Snap. Crack. A bolt of lightning with a rapid clap of thunder violated the cabin's silence. The rain fell as if the sky split open. "Ignore the storm. Find the matches." Heart pounding, breaths in small forced gasps, hands trembling, Julie fought the urge to throw up, and instead tore through the cupboards and shelves. "Ignore the storm. Find the matches."

Summer storms are fierce in their strength, and it sounded like this one was going to live up to that reputation. No sooner had one rumble of thunder faded than the next explosive brilliance streaked across the sky. Fleeing to the security of the bedroom, Julie sat on the edge of the bed rocking and hugging the cold, dark lantern.

***



From town, Robert looked in the direction of the cabin. The storm had already reached there. He hoped Julie got out of the hammock before the rain fell. Storms often rose so swiftly over the hills that there was little warning. Several times, he'd been caught swimming or asleep on the deck, and had to rush for cover.

Finished with his conversations at the drug store and local clinic, Robert glanced at his watch. Another ten minutes before his supper order was ready. That was enough time to finish his last errand.

Soaked to the skin, he cursed Mother Nature as he secured his packages. He strapped on his helmet, kicked-started his bike, and blinded by the force of the driving rain, cautiously headed out of town.

It took an hour to complete a simple fifteen-minute trip. The storm hadn't abated. The cabin was black except for the sporadic illumination from the lightning. Robert dropped his purchases on the counter, lit his lantern and looked around for Julie. The bedroom door was shut. He tried knocking, but a crack of thunder nullified any sound he made. Not wanting to scare her if she was sleeping, he cautiously pushed the door open.

Her piercing scream assaulted his ears. A moment later, she entrapped him with her arms. He placed his lantern on the dresser, pulled her closer, and held her. Julie sobbed into his wet shirt. "Scared...you g-gone...hate storms."

"I went to get supper. You were asleep. I didn't know a storm was coming."

"You could've woke me up." She punched his arm.

"Ow. Don't. I could've, but I couldn't take you with me."

"Why not? Didn't want to be seen with me in case your secret hiding spot was found out?" She pushed away. "Well, who says I'd have gone with you? I'd have just liked the decency of being asked." She knew it was childish, but her relief poured out. "It wasn't very nice of you to leave me alone, you know. What took you so long? You said the town was fifteen minutes away. You were gone for hours." The vice grip which clenched at her chest loosened, and she could breathe.

Robert picked up his lantern, and motioned for her to follow him to the kitchen. When she entered, he was striking a match. She lifted her glass shade and turned the awaiting wick towards him. In a moment, she had a light-giving lantern. In the glow of the two lights, she saw Robert was dripping wet, and his left arm, the one she'd punched, was bleeding. "You're hurt."

"I wiped out. A deer cut me off. My headlight startled it. Roads are slick. I skidded then lost it on a curve. I was going slow, which is why it took me so long. 'cuse me, I gotta change."

Truth was he was cold. A warm summer shower was much more pleasant to be in than a violent storm. The raindrops had stung as they'd hit him. Now that he was in the cabin, he'd begun to feel the chill of being wet. He wanted supper, warm clothes and something for his headache.

In dry clothes, he returned to the kitchen, and put the dinner plates and silverware on the table to avoid having to comment on Julie's puffy eyes and tear streaked cheeks.

Julie sat on the couch, knees drawn to chest and lantern by her side. "Why couldn't you've taken me with you? I could've worn a disguise if you were worried someone would recognize me."

"The law demands that all passengers on a motorcycle wear a helmet. I've only got one" Robert pulled out a black helmet out of a bag and handed it to her. "And now, so do you."

The colour rose in her cheeks. "I'm sorry. I..."

"Take your lantern over to the table. I'll bring supper. Hope you haven't turned into a vegetarian. The restaurant has great roast chicken." Robert put the boxes and containers on the table. Julie opened, peeked into and sampled all of them.

They ate in silence, listening to the clatter of the rain on the roof. Julie soothed by its calming sound. Robert irritated by it, as every drop reverberated in his head. "You look as if your head hurts," she asked.

"It does. I bumped it on the road. No concussion. The helmet did its job. It just hurts."

"Maybe you should go to a hospital."

She may have forgotten about his phobia, but he hadn't. "No I think I'll go to bed."

"Uh, before you do, where do you hide your matches?"

"In the fridge."

"Pardon?"

"In the refrigerator." He pointed over his shoulder. "Little white thing over there with beer in it."

She hit her hand on her forehead. "Stupid me for not thinking of there."

"Fridge has solar electricity. The light goes on when you open it. It's easier to find matches in the light." Robert rubbed his temples. Opening the fridge, he reached in, turned and handed her a small box. "Here, your own personal box of matches. The fuel's in that cupboard. I'm going to bed. Gonna sleep this off. You should be ok. It sounds as if the storm has moved off."

Julie walked to her bedroom, holding her lantern, and her box of matches. Without a glance back, she shut the door between them.

Robert closed his eyes and heaved a sigh of relief. His head hurt half as much as his body ached. Not from the crash, but from the need to hold Julie. His arms wrapped around her had brought back a wave of sensations and physical memories.

Swallowing two painkillers, he stretched out on the couch. He'd have to do something about the sleeping accommodations. A few more nights on his couch and he'd be feeling like an old man. He'd like to climb in next to Julie. Strange after all these years he still desired her. Why had she never figured out the stunt he pulled with Melissa? Shaking his head in puzzlement, he yawned and fell asleep.

***



Finishing the chapter, Julie closed her book and settled down into bed. Today had been a tiring day, but now the storm was gone, she could relax. She hadn't meant to jump into his arms, but oh how good it had been to be held by him. She blinked. How could it feel right if she hated him? She was too tired to think about it. This was getting confusing.

***



Through the dark depths of sleep, Robert opened his eyes to see a wild-eyed Julie standing next to him. Before he asked what was wrong, a violent crack of thunder boomed. She cringed. "I...I know this...is wrong, but please...storm came back."

Robert didn't move. He wasn't awake enough to understand. Julie bit her trembling bottom lip. "I know you love Corina and I have Vincent, but the storm's so loud. I need someone...aah!"

Julie closed her eyes and hugged herself while a lightning bolt illuminated the room. Her chest heaved in rapid breaths. She placed her hand on his bare shoulder. Compared to his warm skin, it was clammy and cold. "I need someone near me. I need..." Tears poured out of her eyes and dribbled down her cheeks.

Unable to refuse those tears, Robert picked up his pillow and followed her to the bedroom. He knew he should be ecstatic at the thought of sleeping next to her, but he understood she was scared to the point of begging him for help. He'd do nothing, but offer silent comfort.

***



Julie pulled down the sheet on his side of the bed. Robert placed his pillow on it, his head on the pillow, his arm over Julie and fell asleep. The warmth of his bare chest pressing against her back and the security of his arm wrapped around her stomach calmed Julie's frazzled nerves.

She yawned. Why does it feel right having him beside me? Because you once loved him. Did he ever love me? She yawned again. You know he di...


Chapter Six

Sputtering as the cold water hit him in the face, Robert opened his eyes. Julie stood over his bed, empty glass in hand. "Robert James Holiday, you son of a bitch! What did you do with them?"

He knew why she was angry, but he wasn’t about to trap himself. Instead, he wiped off the water.

Her chest heaved and her nostrils flared. "Don’t play dumb with me. I knew you were an addict, but I never thought…." She paused to take a breath. "I thought you stopped doing drugs. Need a fix? Couldn’t afford to buy some, so you stole mine?"

Robert pushed back the cold, wet covers. "That’s not why I took’em, and you know it. Settle down—"

"Settle down? You stole my medication, and you expect me…." Slamming the glass on top of the dresser, she turned to face Robert. "This has something do with our conversation yesterday, about my little pharmacy. You think I’m taking too many prescriptions. Who gave you the right to make decisions about my life? You gave up that option a long time ago. I need those pills. My knee’ll start to swell, and I’ll become crippled. How could you?"

Robert rubbed his head as Julie vented her anger. His whole body ached from the crash. Damn that deer. Why did it have to pick that moment to cross the highway? He looked over at the still complaining Julie and sighed. It was going to be a long day. He focused his attention back on her.

"...Lefebevre, the company’s doctor, and my specialists are respected physicians, if they say I need to take those pills then I do."

He climbed out of bed. "Well from the way you’re ranting you sure as hell don’t need the stimulants."

She stood within his personal space. "Give. Me. Back. My. Pills."

Robert pushed her away. Don’t lose your temper. Fight it. Stay calm.

She swung a wild slap at his head.

"Hey." He ducked out of the way. She swung again. Robert threw up his hand to block the hit. Julie let loose with a swift kick to his left shin.

"Ow." As Robert bent over to rub his leg, Julie backhanded him across the face.

"Oh my God!" She froze with her hand in the air.

Robert closed his eyes, counted to twenty-five then extended it to fifty. When he opened his eyes, Julie had backed across the room. Her hand was on her lips, her eyebrows raised and her eyelids were wide open.

His words were slow and controlled. "I think I need a cup of coffee." He dressed and headed towards the kitchen.

After tossing some crumpled papers, kindling and a match into the wood stove, Robert cranked the handle on the water pump, filled the kettle and placed it on the stovetop. He'd liked the old-fashioned simplicity of the cottage, but today its slowness irritated him. He needed his coffee. Now!

Taking some ice cubes out of the freezer, and wrapping them in a dishtowel, Robert grabbed a can out of the cupboard and smashed it on the towel. He placed the crushed cubes alternately between his bruised left shin and his sore right cheek.

Turning towards the large living room windows, he looked out at the lake. He could barely see through the rain-splashed windows. The deck looked slick with water. No quiet afternoon nap. The hammock would need a bit of hot July sunshine to dry it.

Robert sighed. Shoulda drained the damn solar cells into her car battery. Gawd, her whining's getting annoying. I want the old Julie back. The one whose lips tasted sweet. And who smelled so good. I must've been crazy to let her stay. Yea, but holding her last night—  His whole body trembled. He turned his attention back to the room.

Julie had ceased her complaining. Now she sat on the couch glaring at him.

A shiver ran down his spine. If looks could kill. And why the hell does she have to be the most beautiful woman on the planet? Those perfect legs, so wonderfully long and…. He moved the ice pack back to his bruised shin. …and fuckin’ strong. Closing his eyes, he relived the memory of caressing her calves and thighs. He shivered as he remembered the silkiness of her skin as his hands ran down her back, and along the gentle curve of her hips.

Her voice snapped him back to the present. "What are you looking at?"

Shaking his head, Robert turned. The kettle demanded attention. Opening the coffee jar released a burst of fragrance, which was to be the only ray of sunshine that morning.

Walking into the living room, he sipped his coffee. A small fire might ward off some of the chill in the room, but it wouldn’t melt the freeze he was experiencing from Julie.

"Where’s mine?" Julie looked at Robert’s coffee.

"Get your own. I’m not your servant."

"You’re my host."

Robert snorted. "I didn’t invite you up here, lady. You don’t like the service, walk to town, and get a cup of coffee. And find a mechanic while you’re there."

"Well, if you’re going to be that way about it, I may just do that." She walked into the kitchen. "I may go into town, and get my car fixed, so I can get out of here. And out of your life. You think you can just take my pills. Ha. I have the prescriptions. I keep a copy of them with me in case I lose one of my bottles. And you didn’t even think of that. Big tough guy, thinks he knows every—ah!" She dropped the teakettle on the stovetop.

"Be careful. It’s probably hot," he called from the other room.

Julie blew on her fingers, picked up a cloth from the counter, and poured the steaming water over the coffee granules. She picked up the milk container and shook it. "You’re out of milk."

He counted to ten. "Excuse me for not stocking up for two."

She opened her mouth to speak.

He put his hand up to signal stop. "Don’t speak. I’m outta here." If I stay, I’ll ...get control. She’s just angry. Yea right, she's f'in pissed. And when she calms down she’ll start reacting to the medication leaving her system. Go chop wood.

In the woodshed, Robert picked up his axe, and vented his anger on hapless pieces of wood. On the bright side, if she keeps pissing me off I’ll have this wood chopped in no time.

***



Julie sat on the edge of the couch, staring out the front window. She watched the raindrops run down the glass then form little rivers which puddled on the window ledge and dripped over the edge like a miniature Niagara Falls. The day was grey. Her mood was black. She hated Robert.

Sipping her black coffee, she grimaced. Instant. With as much contempt as an angry teenager, she rolled her eyes. No civilized human being would try to survive in such primitive conditions.

Julie laughed at the duality in the cabin. Robert’s water and stove were nineteenth century, but he’d moved up to the twenty-first century with his solar- powered refrigerator. What did he say yesterday? He couldn’t drain his power cells because he wouldn’t put up with warm beer. Running water and hot food were minor priorities, but cold beer was one of life’s necessities.

Life’s necessities - her pills. Her eyes focused on the bookshelf across the room. He’d have to have hidden them inside the cabin. The muffled whack of the axe let her know he was still busy. She crossed the room, and pulled three paperbacks off the top shelf. Nothing but dust behind them.

With a swift move, she cleared the shelves leaving a jumbled mess at her feet. Jerking open a kitchen cupboard door, she pushed aside dishes, glasses, coffee mugs, cans of food and boxes of cereal. Ripping the cushions off the couch, she searched in and under every piece of furniture in the room. Nothing remained untouched or undisturbed.

Frustration fueled her as she took mere seconds to scour the tiny bathroom. Turning into the last room, she stood in the doorway and stared at the bed. How could I ever have imagined...? A repulsed shudder jolted her body. She tore apart the bedroom. Sheets, pillows, and the contents of the dresser drawers lay scattered on the floor. Looking at the mess, she kicked a pillow. I was right leaving him. He never loved me. I should go into town, refill my prescriptions, and get a mechanic to fix my car. What a stupid idea to try to clear up some nonsense from the past. Like I ever really cared.

Julie opened her purse and pulled out her wallet. The prescription papers were gone. She pulled apart the remaining papers in her wallet, tore open all the little side pockets, and ripped out the contents. Dumping everything on the floor, she scattered the papers. I’ll kill him! I will absolutely kill him!

She ran back to the living room, desperate to find a spot, which hadn't been searched. Books and cushions were flung in all directions until she collapsed on the floor in the middle of her mess. Now think. If I go into town, I can get my car fixed. Back home I can go back to the doctors and get some new prescriptions - those Halla? Hallit? - little blue pills weren’t working anyway. I’ll just get a stronger dosage.

She picked up her wallet, opened the cabin door and ran to her car. After popping the trunk lid and rooting through the contents she slammed the lid in frustration. Where the hell is my umbrella? I’m gonna get soaked. Glancing back at the cabin, she had a brief mental debate. Go back and face him or ignore the rain and get to town. With a sigh of determination she turned. Damn him. I’ll deal with the rain. She rounded the car, and hurried in the direction of the main road.

She'd no idea how long she’d walked when she sat on a rock, shirt plastered to her skin, and streams of water running down her face. He said fifteen minutes to town. I’ve been walking for hours. Where the hell is it?

With her focus on finding the town, Julie hadn't noticed the building storm clouds. A flash of light snapped her attention to the weather. She waited, cringing. The clap of thunder cracked above her head.

Julie jumped. A small river of water flowed down the dirt road making it slick. She slipped as she turned to return to the cabin. Another crack of thunder. Julie got her feet beneath her and ran. She saw a path. Panic blocked her common sense as she left the road and followed it.

Rain splashed in her eyes temporarily blinding her. Branches slapped her face and arms. Objects loomed out of the shadows, but vanished as she looked their way. A snakelike vine caught her shoe. She screamed and tried to free her foot. The vine won. She fell to the leaf-strewn ground.

Scrambling to stand, she tried to wipe off the mud, but it smeared on her drenched skin and clothes. Tears rolled down her cheeks as large as the raindrops, which fell from the sky. Another bolt of lightning followed a crack of thunder. Julie continued to run. It can’t be far now. The cabin must be just ahead.

Her heart pounded. She couldn’t catch her breath. Her head spun. The path she was following stopped. Julie didn’t. There was pain, then darkness.

***



Dripping wet and cold, Robert pushed open the cabin door, carried Julie across the room, and laid her on the couch. He placed a pillow under her head, a blanket across her then changed into some warm clothes. He grabbed an old sweatshirt and a towel.

He removed Julie’s wet clothes, and towelled her body dry. Twice she stirred, but didn't waken.

Robert dropped the towel. Ok body shut up. Stop looking at her, and stop thinking about her.

He wrapped his arm under her back, and raised her then wrestled his sweatshirt over her head. As he pulled the shirt down, his hand brushed the side of her breast.

His breathing quickened. His fingers reached to touch her again. The white mound of flesh had a magnetic pull stronger than Jupiter’s. Stop it. Stupid. Don’t. Jeez, get over it. You aren’t some horny high school kid. Go make some coffee or something.

He tucked the blanket around her then lit the fire in the kitchen stove, put some soup in a pan, water in the kettle, and put both on the stove to heat. Ten minutes later, savouring the warmth from his mug, he settled down in a chair, and waited for her to awaken.

Her brow crinkled. She rubbed her head and yawned.

"Want some aspirin?"

Julie opened her eyes. Robert tossed her the bottle. Pouring two into her hand, she tossed the bottle on the floor and mumbled, "What happened?"

"You and the ground had an argument. You lost." Ignoring the embarrassed blush on her cheeks, he asked, "Like some soup?"

She rubbed her face and nodded.

***

                         

While Robert was busy in the kitchen, Julie tried to figure out what had happened. I was running. I slipped. Someone was carrying me. Duh, that would've been Robert. He put me on the couch and... Am I wearing anything? This isn’t mine. She read the name on the sweatshirt, North Shore Raiders. This is his. He was rubbing the towel over me. It felt so good. His hands are strong. I wanted him to keep touching me.

"Wanna talk?" Robert returned with a large bowl of clam chowder and crackers.

Not wanting to admit what she'd done was stupid, Julie shook her head.

Ignoring her response, Robert said, "I figure you redecorated the place ‘cause you were pissed at me. Can I tell you why I took your prescriptions?"

Julie amused herself by making circles in her soup. I don’t want to talk. I want to remember the feel of your hands.

"Plain and simple, you’re addicted to—"

"I am not." She sat up, almost spilling the soup. "Addicts are lowlifes who live on the streets. Like you. How can you compare my physical need for a medically prescribed drug to your...your cocaine and...and...whatever days?"

"A person who craves a drug is an addict. Whether she legally bought it or not."

"Crave? The pain and swelling in my knees are real. The anti-inflammatory is to keep the swelling down so I don’t damage my knees. The painkiller's to help…well…relieve the pain I feel because my knees hurt." She slammed the bowl on the coffee table. Soup slopped over the edge as the spoon clattered onto the floor.

"It’s the stims and sedatives I’m worried about." He forced his eyes to stay open as he tried to stifle a yawn. "You’ve got quite a collection of uppers and downers. Hallitave and Dalalide are sedatives to calm you. Condectrix and...and...shit I’m too tired to remember the other one…are stimulants to wake you up and keep you coordinated."

"I’m a dancer. I don’t need a drug to keep me coordinated."

"A side effect of Hallitave is loss of muscular coordination. Or didn’t your doctors tell you that." He rubbed his eyes. "Having been there already, the cycle gets worse, not better. Drop the stimulants, and you won’t need the sedatives. You’ve got like seven different doctors giving you prescriptions. Isn't that a hint you’ve got a problem?"

"I do not. If I was addicted, I’d be turning into some withdrawal freak. Well sorry to disappoint you. It’s been twenty-four hours since my last dosage, and I’m not screaming and begging for my drugs."

***



 "When I went cold turkey, I didn’t go through that." He did go through hell though. He didn’t hit rock bottom. He’d crashed way past that. Then he spent three days staring at a bag of cocaine. His life poured out in painful memories, anguished cries and tears with no one there to hold him. Never anyone to hold him.

Abandoned, he’d grown up alone until a beautiful young dancer broke through his protective armour and loved him. He held onto that thought, crawled his way back to reality, and handed the bag of cocaine to Julie. His gift and his promise that never again would he fall victim to the lure of a drug. Now he had to make Julie face the same situation.

He glanced up at her. Although her face read contemptuous anger, her eyes showed fear. "Ok, we can get technical and use lots of psychological babble, or we can do this the hard way." He tilted his head back on the chair. "I’ve hung around Francine so long I can speak psych-talk."

"I’d prefer you kept your mouth shut, and gave me my–"

"That wouldn’t be begging, would it?"

"If I admit I want the drugs, will you give them to me?"

"No."

"Then why should I?"

"So you can hit bottom." Robert yawned and rubbed his face. "It’s easier to cure an addiction if the addict wants to."

"I'm not an addict."

"Ok." He stood. "I’m taking the bed. I’m gonna need a good night's sleep ‘cause tomorrow’ll probably be hell."

Robert almost made it to the bedroom door when she softly asked, "Why?"

He returned and knelt by the couch. Julie reached out to touch the faint bruise on his cheek, but changed her mind and scratched her nose. She knew she should apologize for slapping him, but a bigger fear occupied her thoughts.

Robert slowed the pace of his sentence as if explaining something to a child. "I don’t know how you’re going to react to the loss of stims and sedatives. I don’t know how dependent your body is. The nurse told me what symptoms to watch for, and what to do if it gets serious."

He waited for a reaction, other than the stunned-deer-in-headlights look she was giving him. Nothing. "Tomorrow your body's gonna notice something’s missing. I promise I’ll be here to listen to your complaints, and hold you if you need it, but I won't be your punching bag. Hit me again Julie, and I’ll knock you across the fucking room."

Julie flinched as he walked away. The speaker wasn’t Robert - lover. It was Robert - leader of the vicious Shoresmen gang. That Robert would hit her.

After checking to see if Julie was settled, he crawled into his own bed. Last night, with his arm around Julie, he ignored the pain in his head. Tonight, all alone, it demanded respect. Minutes dragged to hours. He stared at the ceiling, listening to the rain, and wondered why the boredom of one or the monotony of the other hadn't put him to sleep. Julie'd be awake soon, and the harassment would begin again. Did he want to be her knight in shining armour? It had sounded like a good idea when his head didn’t hurt, but now he wasn’t sure.