Sarah's child (Chapter 5)

They were married three weeks later on a Friday evening, after work, by a judge who'd agreed to perform the ceremony in his chambers. To her complete surprise, Max was one of the witnesses, and he winked at her as she and Rome took their places before the judge. About fifteen friends from work stood behind them in the small chamber, their feet shuffling about and their discreet whispering providing a rustling background to the ceremony. Sarah had worked out her two weeks notice and had spent the last week driving herself into the ground trying to get their apartment ready and everything that they weren't going to use either sold or put into storage.

The apartment that they'd finally taken had seemed much too expensive to Sarah, but Rome had overridden her objections to it. It was a big roomy condo, as big as a medium-size house. It had seven rooms, and a large terrace-balcony where they could barbecue and lie in the sun, and where she could put her multitude of plants. It also had a gas fireplace in the livingroom, which she suspected was what had sold Rome on the apartment. He'd looked at the fireplace with an expression of almost fiendish satisfaction, and she'd had to admit to a few shivers of anticipation herself when she thought of the coming winter and the nights they would spend in front of the flames.

The best thing about the apartment to her way of thinking was the building manager, who lived on the bottom floor. Marcie Taliferro was a thirty-two-year-old divorcee, a free-lance writer as well as building manager, and she had the most fantastic fifteen-year-old son Sarah had ever seen. Derek Tal-iferro already stood six feet tall, and was a hard and lean hun-dred and seventy pounds, and not only was he shaving every other day, he really needed to, which was mind-boggling. His voice was a smooth, deep baritone, and he had inherited his father's classic Italian looks, from the dark curls on his head to his imperious Roman nose. He worked after school at a small grocery store and helped his mother around the condo, as well as being at the top of his class in school. Rome had yet to meet Derek the Wonder, as even Marcie called him, with a little awe in her voice as if she couldn't believe she'd really mothered that perfect specimen. Derek was saving his money to go to college, but from what Marcie had said, he'd still be a long way short, and unless he was lucky enough to get a scholarship, he was going to have a long, hard haul getting through college. Sarah didn't know if Rome had any strings to pull with any colleges, but if there was ever a kid who de-served a break, it was Derek Taliferro.

Marcie was a friendly, commonsense type of person; a lit-tle short, a little plump, but the plumpness was mostly mus-cle. She had red hair, and freckles dashed across her nose, but she lacked the temper that was usually associated with red hair. She tackled every job with a casual manner that made it seem much easier than it really was; she'd helped Sarah move their furniture in and arrange it, since Rome had left that Monday morning on a business trip and hadn't returned until Thursday night.

Sarah eyed him covertly as the judge ran through the cer-emony. He was dressed in a dark blue suit, with an impecca-ble pale blue pinstripe shirt, a discreet tie of navy and burgundy silk, and a burgundy silk handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket, the splash of color looking smashing with his dark coloring. Suddenly she found it a little difficult to breathe, and her heart began racing in anticipation of the night to come. They'd found the opportunity to make love only three times, as a spate of trips had taken him away several times, and her own natural functions had displayed the world's worst timing. She wanted him, and her body felt weak and warm.

He was tense, his arm rigid where her fingers lay lightly in the crook of his elbow. His deep voice was strained, and his hand shook when he slipped the plain gold band on her finger. As soon as the ring was on, Sarah closed her fingers into a fist, as if she could anchor it to her flesh. Then he was brushing her lips with a light kiss, and it was over. He drew back, his hand locking with hers, and he gave her a smile that merely twitched at the comers of his mouth, then faded.

Everyone came up to shake their hands and congratulate them. Max was the last of all; he shook Rome's hand, then framed Sarah's face in his palms and said softly, "My word, you're lovely! Are you so happy, then?"

"Yes, of course," she whispered, and lifted her face for his kiss, his mouth barely touching hers in the lightest of caresses.

"Damn it, Max," Rome said impatiently. "Why does it seem that you kiss her more than I do?"

"Maybe I'm just smarter than you are," Max returned, grinning.

Sarah clung to Rome's hand, wondering if he thought she looked good. Several people other than Max had com-mented on her glowing looks, and she knew that it was due as much to the new makeup job she had as it was to her hap-piness. She'd gone to a hairstyling and makeup salon, and the makeup artist had showed her some new delicate translucent shades that gave her color without being too harsh. Her eyes were made up only slightly darker than usual, but that small difference was a gigantic one. Her Egyptian eyes were more exotic, her lashes feathered, while shadows and secrets lurked in the green depths. Apricot color dusted her cheekbones, and her mouth had a soft, lush quality to it. That wasn't lipstick; that was the way she felt. Beneath the pale rose silk dress she wore, her body was quivering, aching, needing him.

But not yet. Reservations had been made at a swank restau-rant, and everyone went along. Lobster and champagne seemed the perfect feast, but Sarah was so nervous that she scarcely noted the snow-white meat of the lobster or the sparkling champagne that slipped down her throat. She wasn't aware that she was getting tipsy until she turned her head to say something to Rome and the room suddenly dipped. She blinked, surprised.

For the first time that entire evening Rome grinned, his dark face lighting as his teeth flashed whitely. "Were two glasses of champagne too much for you?"

"You let me drinktwo glasses?" she asked weakly, cling-ing to the edge of the table. "Rome, I wasn't joking about my alcohol tolerance. I won't be able to walk out of here!"

"We were just married; everyone will think it's romantic if I carry you out," he said calmly.

"Not if I'm waving the tablecloth like a flag and singing Highland ballads at the top of my lungs," she predicted darkly. He chuckled but moved the champagne glass away from her plate and signaled the waiter. Shortly thereafter a glass of milk appeared by her side, and she sipped it gratefully. Everyone at the table groaned and predicted dire results from the mix-ing of champagne and milk, but Sarah knew a lifesaver when she saw one, and she wasn't about to turn it down. Even with the milk slowing the rate at which the alcohol was absorbed into her bloodstream, she knew she wouldn't be steady on her feet when they left the restaurant.

She wasn't; Rome's arm was clamped around her waist like a vise as he helped her to his car. He settled her in the seat and walked around to get behind the wheel, calling out good-byes and acknowledgments to all the best wishes their friends were giving them. After he closed the car door, he sat for a moment, fiddling with the key ring in his hand. Finally he put the key in the ignition and turned to look at Sarah, who was lying back in the seat with her eyes half-closed and an intriguing smile on her lips. The streetlight caught her eyes, making them sparkle like moon dust. She was so soft and feminine, and her subtle perfume rose to his nos-trils, tempting him to search it out all along her satiny skin. She was his wife now, a legally intimate partner… hiswife!

He almost groaned aloud, thinking of another wedding, and Diane's radiant face as she came down the aisle to him, the hunger in the kiss he'd given her at the end of the ceremony. His wife! Diane had been his wife, and he'd never thought an-other woman would occupy that position, bear that title. Until the ceremony had begun, he hadn't had any doubts about this second marriage, but when the familiar, haunting words reached his ears, he'd broken out in a cold sweat. He didn't, couldn't, regret marrying Sarah, but suddenly the memory of Diane was haunting him. Diane was gone from him now, re-ally gone. He couldn't call her his wife now, because by the grace of the laws of Texas and the United States, and his own determination, the woman at his side was now his wife.

Sarah Matthews. He said the name in his mind, imprint-ing it there. Sarah Matthews, his wife. Pale, elegant Sarah, al-ways so distant, but now she was his. He knew that no other woman should be in his mind tonight, but he couldn't stop thinking about Diane, couldn't stop comparing her to Sarah. Diane had been so much more forceful than Sarah, capable of standing up to him and arguing with him toe-to-toe, chin-to-chin, then kissing him with all the fervor of her fiery na-ture. She'd glowed with color, her skin taking on the gold of the sun, her head full of bright gold-brown curls, her eyes as blue as the midsummer sky. Diane had been the sun, warm, shining, while Sarah was the moon, pale and cold and aloof. Sarah… what was it about her that made her so mysterious? Her veiled, shadowy eyes? Had he ever wanted anyone be-fore the way he wanted Sarah? Her mysteries only lured him on, making him want to solve them.

But when he walked Sarah to their new apartment, on this first night they'd both be spending there, he knew he couldn't make love to her. All week he'd been thinking about her, want-ing her, feeling her soft flesh beneath him, but now he real-ized he simply couldn't do it. The grief that had faded to the background in the past weeks now sprang to life again, as fresh and bitter as it had ever been. He had to say good-bye to Diane.

When the door closed behind them, Sarah turned into his arms, swaying against him, her arms going around his neck. He kissed her lightly, hating the stiffness of his body; then he took her arms down and put her away from him. "Let me take a look at this place," he stalled. "I haven't seen it since you put the furniture in it; it really looks great!"

He moved through the apartment, and Sarah weaved after him, confused by the way he'd turned away from her embrace. She swayed, then leaned down and took her shoes off, feel-ing much steadier in her bare feet than she had tottering on three-inch heels. Rome gave his approval to the decor, then seemed to run out of words. He sighed, running his hands through his hair. Finally reaching a decision, he came back to her and put his arm around her waist again, steadying her as he took her to the door of her bedroom. Despite his need to be alone, the fact that this room was off-limits to him with-out an invitation still angered him. He opened the door and reached in to turn on the light, then put both of his hands on her shoulders.

"I'm sorry," he said in a low, raw voice. 'Things have re-ally hit me hard tonight, and I can't…I have to be alone tonight. I'm sorry," he said again, waiting for her reaction.

There wasn't one. She simply looked up at him, seeming smaller than usual because she was barefoot, no expression at all now in the exotic eyes that had been sparkling only a few moments before. She said "good night" and stepped back, closing the door before he could say anything else, if indeed any other words would come to mind. He was left staring at the blank wood of the door, and he stood there, his broad shoulders slumping in defeat, painful memories winging through his mind for several long minutes before he turned and went to his own room.

He went to bed, but he couldn't sleep. The years he'd spent with Diane ran through his mind's eye like home movies, reacquainting him with every nuance of expression that had crossed her expressive face, the plans they'd made during her pregnancies, the bone-deep pride and adoration he'd felt when he'd taken his infant sons in his arms for the first time. Scald-ing tears burned the back of his eyes, but never fell. His sons. Justin. Shane.

The pain of losing them was so great that he tried never to think of them; it was something he still couldn't handle. They'd been a part of him. He'd felt each of them growing inside Diane; he'd been there when they were born, been the first to hold them. Justin's first wavering steps had been into his waiting arms. He remembered the two A.M. feedings, the lusty, grunting sounds as the infant mouths took the bottle. He remembered Justin's two-year-old perplexity when a new baby entered his world and took so much of Diane's time, but soon the toddler had become devoted to the infant Shane, and the two boys had been inseparable since then.

He remembered their laughter, their innocence, their fear-less exploration of the world, and the boisterous way they'd always greeted him when he came home.

Putting them in their graves had been the hardest thing he'd ever done.

Dear God, it shouldn't have been allowed to happen. A par-ent should never have to bury a child.

He couldn't think of a day when the sun had shone since then.

His head was pounding with a sudden fierce headache, and he pressed his fingertips to his temples. He wanted to scream his pain aloud, but he ground his teeth and soon the torment abated. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and slept.

In her bedroom, lying in the empty expanse of her bed, Sarah didn't sleep. She lay very still, feeling the effects of the champagne in the way the room seemed to whirl slowly around her, but it wasn't because of the champagne that she lay so motionless. She was filled with such pain that she felt as if she would crystallize if she tried to move.

She should have known, should have realized, how the cer-emony would affect him, but she hadn't until she'd seen the hell in his eyes. Rather than celebrating their marriage, he'd been regretting it, because she wasn't the one woman he loved.

Had she been a fool to think she could ever earn his love? Did he even have any more love to give, or had it all gone to the grave with Diane? There was no way of knowing, and she'd made her decision when she'd agreed to marry him. Whatever he could give, she wanted it.

Whatever it cost her, she had to keep him from seeing how she was hurt; she didn't want to add to his pain by mak-ing him feel guilty. She'd carry on as normal, as if this were the way every couple began their marriage. She didn't think he'd try to probe too deeply if she put on a nonchalant fa-cade, but rather that he would accept it with relief. All she had to do was get through the weekend; then he would go back to work and she could begin seriously looking for work, or decide if she really wanted to start a small busi-ness for herself.

Her weary mind seized on the subject with relief, wanting something, anything, to prevent her from thinking about Rome. There were really no plans she could make concern-ing him; she'd just have to take each moment as it came. So she put him out of her mind and tried to decide what sort of business would hold her interest, because she wanted some-thing that she liked as well as something to take up her time. She made a mental list of all her hobbies and interests, and several possibilities sprang to mind. She turned the ideas over and over, until at last sleep claimed her.

She woke early, the strangeness of her surroundings hav-ing prevented deep sleep. Her bedside clock told her it was six thirty. She got up and showered, then pulled on her nightgown again and a robe as well, as she didn't feel like dressing, and the early autumn temperature had taken a surprisingly sharp dip overnight. It had been so balmy the day before that she'd used the air-conditioning in her car, but now, with typical Texas unpredictability, the weather was distinctly chilly. She went straight to the thermostat and flipped it over to HEAT, and in a moment the comforting pop and crackle of the fur-nace told her she'd soon have the apartment comfortable.

Though she'd put everything away, the kitchen was still a surprise to her. She had to hunt for the coffee maker; then she couldn't find the dipper that she used to measure the coffee. She opened all the drawers and searched through them, slam-ming them shut in increasing temper when the search failed to turn up the missing object. She simply wasn't in the mood for anything to go wrong, and she muttered dire threats to the dipper for hiding itself.

Finally she found it in the can of coffee. She closed her eyes at her own stupidity, because now she remembered putting it in the coffee can where it wouldn't get lost… Shehated mov-ing! She hated turning everything topsy-turvy, with nothing where she was accustomed to finding it. The refrigerator was on the opposite side of the stove from where it had been in her old apartment, and she turned in the wrong direction every time she wanted something from it. This kitchen was larger than her old one, and she rattled around in it. She felt small and lost, just as she'd felt as a child when she lay in her neat, colorless room and listened to the bitter arguments her parents had.

She knew that Rome was customarily an early riser, so she started breakfast, trying to force herself to relax and perform the familiar routine even though all her cooking utensils were in the wrong places. As soon as the coffee had finished brew-ing, she poured a cup and sipped it, closing her eyes and try-ing to will herself to calm down. She knew that, in time, she'd become accustomed to her new surroundings. It was just a matter of adjusting herself.

But what about Rome? He was the cause of at least half her nervousness, because she didn't know what to say to him, and she knew she'd have to face him soon. What could a woman say to a brand-new husband who'd spent the night alone? Per-haps she shouldn't have married him; perhaps he simply wasn't ready to form any sort of permanent relationship with another woman. Should she have turned down his proposal and hoped that he'd ask again when time had healed him? But what if he hadn't asked again? What if he'd simply shrugged and gone his way, then eventually found some other woman and married her? Sarah cringed inside at the thought. It had been bad enough los-ing him to Diane. She simply couldn't have borne the idea of him being married to someone else, some stranger.

The smell of bacon frying was a universal magnet; soon Rome entered the kitchen, sniffing appreciatively. Sarah darted a glance at him, then just as quickly looked away, be-fore their eyes met. He'd taken a shower, because his hair was damp, and he'd dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, which he'd left unbuttoned and hanging outside his pants. He wore socks but no shoes. She was so used to seeing him in more formal clothing that his casualness that morning caught at her heart, for it was such a homey, comfortable thing. He was dressed the way husbands usually dressed on lazy Saturday mornings.

"Why were you trying to tear the kitchen down?" he asked, smothering a yawn and covertly watching her with more than a little uneasiness, wondering what his reception would be that morning. What he'd done would be unforgivable for most women, and he felt like a heel. He should at least have talked with her about it.

Sarah was tense, and she felt ridiculously close to tears. "Did I wake you? I'm sorry; I didn't mean to."

"No, I was already awake."

Quickly she poured a cup of coffee for him, and he took it, moving to the small breakfast table and dropping into a chair, sprawling his long legs out before him. Shewas upset, though she didn't seem to be angry. He drank his coffee, not knowing what to say to her.

Sarah took up the bacon, then turned to the refrigerator to get out the eggs, but once again she turned in the wrong direction. She made a choked sound, then jammed her fists over her eyes to hold back the threatening tears. "Oh, damn," she said weakly. "I'm sorry, but I can't get organized. I can'tfind anything!" she burst out, her voice cracking with strain. "I… I feel so lost!"

Rome sat up, his brows drawing together at the hint of panic in her voice. She was falling to pieces because she had to cook in an unfamiliar kitchen! It wasn't artifice, and she wasn't using it as an excuse; her panic was real, and she couldn't deal with it.

Without thinking about it, just knowing that she needed comforting, he got up and went to her, wrapping her in his arms and hugging her close against him. "Hey, calm down," he advised soothingly, stroking her moonbeam hair and press-ing her head to his chest. "What's all this about?"

He must think she was an absolute ninny. Sarah could feel herself trembling as he resumed his seat and pulled her onto his lap, cradling her against him as if she were a child who'd hurt herself while playing. He rubbed her back, his big hands moving slowly over her spine.

"Didn't you put everything up yourself?" he asked easily.

"Yes. That's what makes it so stupid!" She sought his warmth, her hands going inside the open shirt to clasp his ribs, and she burrowed her face against him like a cat. "It's just that everything's so turned around, and I'm not used to it. I hate for things to change!" she muttered. "You won't find me mov-ing the furniture around every month, or even every year. I like to feel safe in my own home, not a constant stranger."

Struck by her words, he rocked her gently, wondering why he'd known her for so long without realizing that she had such a strong need for a stable base. He tried to remember if he'd ever heard anything about her home life while she'd been growing up, but he drew a blank.

She was usually so serene and competent that it was a lit-tle startling to feel her cuddle against him, seeking the safety of his arms, but he liked it. She was so delicately built, she was only a puffin his arms, soft and light, but with the warm, beguiling curves of a woman. She sighed and moved her hands up the strong muscles of his back, and he quivered in delight, and something more. Her hair spilled over his arm in a pale cascade, warm and silky, and he could smell the sweet perfume of female witchery that came from the velvet curves of her breasts. She had a scent all her own, not based on per-fume but on the wondrous chemistry of her own sleek, soft skin, warmed by the coursing of her blood, and it wafted into the air with every breath that lifted her breasts like a tanta-lizing offering.

Desire, heavy and urgent, began tightening his body. He lifted her hair away from her neck and bent his head to trail his mouth down the slender column, taking his time, tracing the source of her female scent. "I promise not to ever move anything around," he murmured as he found the tiny betray-ing flutter at the base of her throat. He didn't deserve it, but she was responding to him without even commenting on his behavior of the night before; she wasn't going to reject him, or spend the day pouting and feeling hurt. She was accepting him for what he could give, and accepting him joyously, tilt-ing her head back to allow him better access.

He took advantage of her unselfishness, his greedy mouth plundering her flesh as he bared it. Sarah clenched her fin-gers in his hair, gasping as he pulled open her robe and dis-pensed with it, then rapidly slid down the straps of her nightgown until the silk fell away from her breasts. He bent his head and closed his hot mouth over one sensitive nipple, wringing a cry of pleasure from her.

"Do you like that?" he muttered fiercely against her, fill-ing his hands and his mouth with velvet mounds and firm jut-ting nipples.

"Yes…yes." Her answer was thin and faraway, and she tried to put her arms around him, but the strap of her night-gown prevented her from moving her arms. She struggled in mute frustration against the silk bindings, trying to draw her arms out, but he held her too tightly, and he was too close, the things he was doing to her too delightful to halt.

He kissed his way back up to finally claim her mouth with deep thrusts of his tongue. Breakfast was forgotten in the heated clash of their bodies, and she wouldn't have stopped even if she had remembered the meal she'd been preparing. She couldn't touch him enough, couldn't satisfy her need to press fully against him, and she twisted on his lap, seeking to nestle her breasts, so naked and sensitive, in the crisp dark curls on his chest. He aided her, lifting her and settling her astride his lap, grasping handfuls of silk and lifting it out of the way until her naked bottom pressed against him.

"You… make… me…crazy !" he growled jerkily, tearing at his jeans until they opened and he could push them out of the way. Sarah moved her mouth back to his, holding the kiss as he eased inside her, his entry taking her breath.

She moaned his name, moving against him, her skin so hot that it felt like wildfire. Shewas wildfire, her slender body dancing, searing, taking him until the only sounds he could make were incoherent words of passion and need, of rising sexual desperation that held him taut in the chair, on the edge of madness. She finally worked her arms free of the night-gown and lifted them to his bronzed shoulders, clinging to him. He held back, killing himself with the effort, but he wanted to feel her delicate inner shivering, feel her ripple against him in satisfaction. When she tired, he took over the motion for her, his hard hands on her hips. Tiny mewing sounds came from her throat, sounds that he caught with his mouth, urging her onward. Waves of pure physical ecstasy began to crash upon her, and she collapsed on his chest, sob-bing with joy and relief, and totally unaware of it, feeling only his body as he held her securely and took his own pleasure.

When the heated rush of her blood had subsided, Sarah lay tiredly against him, not wanting to move. She'd never thought that her marriage would be consummated on a kitchen chair, but the impatient desire with which he'd taken her was so re-assuring that she didn't care. Murmuring contentedly, she closed her eyes and brushed her lips against his chest.

"Rome," she said with aching tenderness, and he stood up and carried her to bed.

Breakfast became lunch, and they eventually ate the bacon on sandwiches. She was glowing from the hours of passion they'd spent together in a tangle of arms and legs on her bed. Not even guessing at the satisfaction he felt whenever she lost herself in desire, when her face revealed her need nakedly, she simply gave herself to him and in return took a physical sat-isfaction that she'd never before dreamed existed. He kept such a tight rein on himself, and devoted so much time and care to bringing her pleasure, that she never realized how rare it was for a woman to find such delight while she was still so inex-perienced. He lingered over her, deliberately stamping her senses and her flesh as his, using his expertise to make certain that whenever she thought of making love, she thought of him.

The day passed in a fog of sensuality, her mind dazed while her body greedily sated itself. Reality was that night, when Rome made love to her with mind-shattering intensity. Sanity returned only when he kissed her lightly on the mouth and left the bed and the room, quietly closing the door behind him as he sought his own bed to sleep alone because, Sarah knew, in his heart his only wife was Diane.

She lay willing him to return, silently begging that there not be a repeat of the night before. But the door didn't open again, and she curled up sadly, dying a little inside. He'd told her once that when the night came, he spent it alone, and she'd never reproached him with it, had even chosen their apartment with that in mind. But in the magic of the day they'd spent to-gether, for the most part in that very bed, she'd forgotten, and now she cried silently, not wanting him to hear.