From: "pas_20197" <psmoot43@h...>
Date: Sun Jun 9, 2002 9:30 am
Subject: Games Coroners and Detectives Play
Games Coroners and Detectives Play June 2002
By: Patty Costantino
Notes to reader: This fourth and final installment to my Games series has been inspired by the characters from the Forever Knight T.V. series and it follows my previous three stories Games Coroners Play, Games Detectives Play and Games Strangers Play.
Disclaimer and Characters: Nick, Natalie, Lacroix and others don't belong to me. I am just borrowing them to have some fun. The characters, Sam Case, Dr. Sinclair, and Detective Barnes are my own creation.
Dedication: I would like to thank my beta-reader, Phylis Sullivan for her tremendous help with my grammar, spelling, punctuation and getting the story to sound so much better. I couldn't have done it without her wonderful suggestions. M.L. Wirick, (Happy Belated Birthday- hope this meets with your expectations!) and K.C. for helping me with N&N's relationship. Laurel Bowman for inspiring me to continue this series. Hugs to all of you, ladies. :))
Content Warning: Adult for m/f explicit sexual content (Nick/Natalie). General warning: Very mushy times ahead for N&N.
Permission is granted to archive at FKfanfic2, FK FTP archive, N&N fic and adult sites, and Jadfe site. This story will be archived at my site at http:/www.expage.com/patty43. Please let me know your thoughts about this final segment. You can email me at psmoot43@h.... I would love to hear from you.
Games Coroners and Detectives Play
By Patty Costantino/psmoot43@h...
The rays of sunlight were producing a shimmering cast on the hardwood floor as the attractive woman's voice echoed through Dr. Maria Sinclair's office. "Doctor, I think I've really made progress, especially in these last three weeks with you. Therefore I believe I'm cured and ready to move on with my life."
Carefully the blond-haired psychiatrist studied her patient, sitting in the chair across from her, the large mahogany desk being the only barrier between them. "Yes, I agree you've made tremendous strides with your therapy, and I've been very impressed with your ability to face your fears. However…" She paused, allowing the last word to sink in.
The sudden emphasis on the word caused the woman to draw in an anxious breath. Was the doctor doubtful of her improvement? Was she going to suggest more soul-searching sessions? She hoped it wouldn't come to that. From the beginning it had been difficult to open up to this doctor or…for that matter… to anyone about her situation and now, she simply wanted to get on with her life, to put everything behind her.
She swallowed her momentary concern and asked, "However...what, doctor?"
The psychiatrist sighed, clasping her hands together on the cool smooth surface of her desk. "Look, let me give it to you straight. Most people who come to me with your problems say the same thing. After a few months of therapy, they believe their problems have been resolved, that they are cured of their trauma and can now confront it in the real world."
"And?" The woman asked tentatively. "Have they succeeded?"
"Sometimes, but even the strongest women have found it difficult to overcome the guilt, shame and fears of their trauma enough to sever their ties with therapy completely."
"What are you saying, doctor...that we need to continue with the usual three sessions a week?"
"No, that's not what I'm saying," she said. "Actually with your progress, I believe that once a week would suffice. However, you should be aware that confronting these emotions in my office, in this protective environment, is one thing. Facing them in reality is quite a different matter all together. You need to be sure that you can cope with your feelings in the real world."
Dr. Sinclair paused, allowing the meaning of her words to enter the woman's mind. Then, she continued in a soft, sympathetic tone.
"Rape...Natalie, is one of the worst experiences that a woman is forced to undergo."
Natalie's mouth went dry as the words reverberated in her mind.
"Rape. One of the worst experiences."
Was that ever the truth! As far as Natalie was concerned, nothing on this planet could have been worse than what she had endured six months ago. And if Nick hadn't arrived at the loft when he did, who knows what else would have happened to her.
At the grim thought she closed her eyes against the tremor racing through her, one of thousands since the horrible occurrence. Though unlike the others, this one was lighter in intensity, almost like a butterfly flutter. Did this mean she was getting better, that at last she was recovering and dealing with everything properly?
Natalie opened her eyes, as she again focused on the doctor's dialogue, "Rape traumatizes the victim beyond belief. It allows terrible feelings of debasement and defilement to live in that person's mind, where previously, those emotions had never existed."
Natalie shut her eyes again and crossed her arms as if to brace against the sudden onslaught of those very emotions.
"Debasement and defilement."
These feelings had frequently consumed her during her recovery period. There had been two instances, where they had become overwhelming. Once shortly after escaping the virtual world with her attacker had been one of those times. Thank goodness, Nick had been there to catch her when her breakdown had come. She'd crumbled into his arms, finding a brief solace in his tender embrace and loving words.
It was only a temporary reprieve. A week later the same feelings returned rushing forth like a tidal wave. At the time and at Nick's insistence, Natalie had been recuperating at his loft under his care when the emotions emerged with an unexpected intensity. Immediately, she'd had the urge and need to escape from Nick and his loft, to find a refuge, a safe place. Instinctively, she'd known where she had to go: her apartment.
That evening, upon awakening, Nick had surmised Natalie's intentions immediately, as the packed bags resting by the elevator were an undeniable clue. Without hesitation and masking her true feelings, Natalie had launched into her pre-planned explanation for her return to the apartment.
"Nick, I hope you can understand," she'd said. "For my well-being, I need to go home. I need to have a sense of normalcy again, to try to put my life back together with my everyday routine. Besides," she'd added in an attempt to lighten the mood, "Sidney misses sticking his claws into drapes. Since you only have shutters.... Well you see my dilemma."
Nick had smiled at her remark and said, "Fine Nat. Whatever makes you feel more comfortable."
At first she had been surprised that he hadn't put up more of a fight to have her stay. In fact, after dropping her off at her apartment on his way to work and kissing her goodbye, she could have sworn there was a mixture of disappointment *and* relief in his eyes. Yes, relief! She was not mistaken about it. He had definitely shown it. Why? The obvious answer was control or lack thereof.
Three days into her recuperation, it had become apparent Nick was experiencing restraint problems. After waking and finding an empty spot on his side of the bed, Natalie had gone searching for him, discovering him on the sofa in a deep vampiric slumber. Immediate concern had washed over her, wondering if control was the reason for his new sleeping arrangements. Later, when she'd tried to broach the subject, Nick had dismissed it as nothing. Sensing his impenetrable manner and chalking it up to a one-time thing, she'd let it drop.
In the next four days, however, it had become increasingly evident that Nick's lack of control wasn't to be a one-time incident. Everyday the couch had continued to be his haven. Furthermore, during an occasional video time together on the sofa, Natalie would catch his ravenous stares at her through amber colored eyes. These looks would be filled with such longing and desire; they would confuse and excite her at the same time. As soon as he'd notice her puzzled gaze, he would avert his eyes, quelling the vampire. A moment would pass, and then turning back, he'd regard her through his soulful blue ones, giving her one of his most charming boyish grins. Again nothing would be said about it. Instead, understanding Nick's reluctance to give into his needs in front of her, Natalie would quietly leave the room, making some excuse. No sooner would she disappear than the clinking sound of bottles on the kitchen counter would be heard, floating up the stairs to the bedroom, her normal sanctuary during these difficult moments.
Yes, control had become a real life issue for Nick, as self- debasement had for her, and it was rapidly tearing their already fragile relationship apart, a relationship that had been growing… blooming. Oh…If they could only salvage it!
Without warning, Natalie felt a nudge at her shoulder and a voice drifting into her consciousness. "Natalie, are you listening? Natalie!"
Slowly, she came back, giving Dr. Sinclair a weak smile. "I'm sorry doctor. I must have zoned out a bit there." She snickered. "Kind of like…" She was going to say Nick, but caught herself. No use bringing him into the conversation. It would only complicate things, she thought.
"Kind of like what, Natalie?" Dr. Sinclair asked.
"Oh nothing. It wasn't important. Please go ahead with your synopsis, doctor."
"As I was saying, moments after a rape is committed, self esteem can be obliterated. It can take months, perhaps years for a woman to feel better about herself and to come to terms with her ordeal."
"Are you saying that this rape may have crippled me for years to come?"
"No, I'm only saying that for some, it takes longer to recover than others, Natalie."
"For some.... mmmmm.... Does that mean I have a chance at a full recovery soon or in the near future?" She asked her face filling with hope.
"It really depends on a person's ability to confront the trauma. In your case, you have *two* traumas to face, the rapes and your grandmother's abuse during your youth. Natalie, that is a lot for anyone to have to deal with in such a short lifetime."
"It is a lot for anyone to handle," Natalie agreed, "but I now realize these violations were not my fault, only the victimizers should have been held responsible. And that's just it! For the first time in a long time, I know and understand that I'm not to blame!" Natalie said, the sudden conviction of her words spilling out into the room.
Dr. Sinclair nodded, respect for this woman reflected in her eyes. "Yes Natalie, I believe you mean it! Self-exoneration is a positive first step towards healing in cases of abuse and you appear to have cracked this emotional barrier. But have you torn it wide open and eliminated it completely?" She paused. "And what about the other barriers?"
Natalie's brow creased in confusion and worry. "What others are there?"
"For starters there is the problem with distrust…" She began.
"I don't think that's a problem any longer," Natalie said. "Again, with your help, I've come to understand that my distrust and consequently self-isolation from people stemmed from my grandmother's abuse. I used to think that if I didn't let people in, they couldn't hurt me like she did. I see now that I was wrong. Isolating myself from people wasn't the answer. As a matter of fact, in these last few weeks, I've been making an effort to open up more with my friends and coworkers," she volunteered.
"Natalie, friends and coworkers are one thing, and don't get me wrong, it's important to have healthy, trusting relationships with them. But how are your relationships with men these days?" She inquired, studying her patient with skepticism, as she added, "For instance, how about that handsome detective, who used to drop you off here?"
Natalie glanced at the doctor in surprise. She remembered Nick? All these months later? He'd only driven her to a few sessions at the beginning. Regrettably, she'd put a stop to it changing her therapy to days, the increasing frustration of their seemingly unattainable relationship taking a toll on her.... on them.
She sighed and asked, "You mean Nick?"
"Yes, he's the one," Dr. Sinclair acknowledged with sincerity. "Such a nice stable young man. He seemed to be so anxious about your well- being. What happened to him? Has he been in your life much recently?"
For a long moment, Natalie regarded the doctor's compassionate face, resisting the urge to break down into tears over the last question. Turning away, her eyes became distant, as she allowed her mind to drift. She began to imagine herself lying on Dr. Sinclair's couch, confessing the real truth behind Nick's scarcity these days, and not the half-truths she'd been telling her week after week.
`No, sadly he hasn't been in my life recently. You want to know why? Well...I'll tell doctor, but it's a long story and it goes like this.'
`Did I ever mention that Nick was a vampire and I'm a mortal? I didn't? Yeah.... I guess you could say it kinda put a crimp in our relationship. At least we thought so, until six and a half months ago, when Sam, a video owner, had offered us a way to be together in a virtual reality game. It was like a gift from the heavens. For three glorious days I played this game with a very mortal Nick. You see I had the ability to change his vampirism into mortality. And the great thing was, three nights later, when Nick came to the morgue, he was displaying these mortal traits! Yes, somehow, in the game, his mortality was carrying over into the real world. Nick was becoming mortal. Later at my apartment I gave him the game to play, hoping that he would continue to become mortal and we could finally extend our relationship into the real world.'
`But I guess it wasn't meant to be, doctor. As he was getting ready to leave my apartment, accidentally, I pricked my finger on a thorn from a rose, and mistakenly, allowed him to taste my blood. Though I can honestly say it was the most erotic experience I've ever known, the fleeting pleasure was bought at a price because it must have triggered Nick's darker impulses.'
`Soon after… when my I-so-want-to-be-mortal-and-seek-my-salvation boyfriend decided to play the game, he elected to have the best of both worlds, playing as a mortal in one virtual world, then switching to a vampire in another and sipping on me. As a result he reverted, and by sipping on me in the game, caused me to have temporary anemia. Needless to say, I was a bit peeved when he told me, but I forgave him. Yeah Dr. Sinclair, call me a sap, a pushover… but when he looked at me through those irresistible blue angsting peepers and explained his overwhelming desire to know me completely through a flesh and blood union, my anger fizzled and I forgave the big lug.'
`Unfortunately things only worsened. Doctor, have I ever mentioned my rapist's name to you? Lacroix? Oh...I haven't. It must have slipped my mind. Anyway he is Nick's controlling master and really dislikes me. Why, you ask? Call it a hunch, a woman's intuition, but after he tried to kill me at L'Azure last Valentine's Day, I got the distinct feeling that he didn't like me too much. Then six months ago, when he had Herman Muntz, a former morgue assistant, steal the game; so he could rape me repeatedly in the virtual world, I definitely got the impression that there was no love lost between us.'
`After that, Nick's and my relationship *really* fell apart. Because of his vampiric play in the game and taking a little of my blood in reality, Nick started to have control problems around me. Yeah, I've gotta tell ya doctor it wasn't a good feeling! I was beginning to think that I looked like a cherries jubilee to him. Although I'll admit that part of me found it arousing whenever he looked at me that way. Should I be worried about this? Is there something wrong with feeling that way, doctor???'
`Anyway restraint was a *huge* problem. So Nick did what he always does best when these things happen. He put some distance between us, probably convincing himself that this was for the best, that he would only end up killing me if he got too close.'
`But hey! That was okay. Because guess what? Gradually my desire for closeness with Nick stopped. I had my own demons to thwart, my feelings of degradation, my distrust and fears of intimacy with men, vampires included, all resulting from a rape that wasn't even real!!! So… looking back on all that has happened, I guess you could say that our relationship is even worse than six and half months ago. At least then, we talked, now we barely say two words to one another at a crime scene. So to answer your question, I would say no, Nick isn't in my life at all.'
Slowly, Natalie drew her attention away from her wandering thoughts and back to Dr. Sinclair. Regarding her closely, she replied, "Nick and I see one another at work, that's all." Her voice grew regretful as she added, "We're just friends."
"Really, I'm kind of surprised," she said, arching her eyebrows. "Seeing you two together a few months ago.... well.... I had a feeling that you were more than that. That there was something special between you two."
Natalie drew in a deep breath. "Six months ago, we attempted a relationship of sorts, but it didn't work out. I guess you could say it was an illusion." Her eyes became distant again, her voice thoughtful.
"An illusion?" Dr. Sinclair asked, perplexed. "What do you mean Natalie?"
"It wasn't real," she said. "I mean we thought it was the real thing, but our relationship has always been complicated, filled with many difficulties and.…" Her voice began to crack with emotion as she added, "I guess it just wasn't meant to be."
"Are you so certain of that?" Dr. Sinclair asked with compassion.
"Yeah...I'm fairly certain." Natalie replied, a trace of doubt in her voice.
"You don't sound convinced," she stated, and then added in a hesitant voice. "If I'm not being so bold, may I ask you a personal question?"
"You love him, don't you." Dr. Sinclair said. It was more a statement than a question.
"Does it show?" Natalie folded her arms across her chest, suddenly feeling uncomfortable.
"It's written all over your face," Dr. Sinclair smiled briefly.
"I told you my impenetrable facade was melting away." Natalie returned a weak smile unfolding her arms, and then reaching over, took a sip of tea from her mug.
Dr. Sinclair laughed, "You did, indeed."
Natalie's smile faded. "To answer your question, doctor, I love him so much that at times, it scares me!" Suddenly, her voice caught in her throat, and her eyes welled with tears, as intense emotions coursed through her. She pulled a tissue from her pocket dabbing at her eyes, and then took a deep breath. "But I don't know if loving him is the right thing to do anymore. Maybe it would be better to let him go."
"Is that what you want?" Dr. Sinclair asked sympathetically, seeing the anguish reflected on her face.
"No, of course not! But maybe it's for the best. There have been so many obstacles in our path, especially in the last year," Natalie explained, as her thoughts turned to Nick's numerous setbacks and LaCroix' interference. "Before, I used to think there was hope for us, that we would find a way to be together...to make the relationship work. Even this past year, in the darkest times, I tried to keep that hope alive pushing Nick in his quest, being strong for the both of us, repeatedly telling myself that if he obtained it, so would I."
"His quest?" She asked, a baffled look flickering across her face. "You make it sound like the Holy Grail."
"In a way it was, doctor. In a way it was." She echoed pensively.
"What was this quest of his?" Dr. Sinclair asked, curious.
"Oh.... Let's just say, it was a cure for a *major* impediment," Natalie responded surreptitiously. "Somehow I thought that if I could find this cure, our relationship could bloom. Six months ago I thought we were on the verge of finding it, that we had finally won, but I think it was only an illusion. We were fooling ourselves, doctor. After Nick's last failure and my own traumas, I found that I didn't have the strength any longer to keep trying."
"And now? Do you want to try again?"
"Part of me wants to keep trying with every fiber of my being." Natalie said with renewed determination.
"But...I'm not sure it will work out."
"Are you afraid of intimacy?" Dr. Sinclair asked tentatively. "I could understand if you were reluctant after what you've endured."
"No. I mean yes, a little. But the funny thing is I'm not afraid to try with Nick. I've always felt I could trust him. That he would *never* hurt me," Natalie said emphatically.
Studying this woman for a moment, Dr. Sinclair could see that she possessed all the characteristics of a rape victim who was healing. During her therapy, she had always displayed an uncanny ability to face her abuse and rapes head on, determined to put her nightmares to rest. Yes, Natalie was making great progress. She just needed a push. "Then do it," Dr. Sinclair said fervently, settling on her decision. "Don't be afraid to take risks. You'll never know what might have been if you don't try and you might end up regretting it. One thing I've observed about you, you're a fighter, not a quitter."
"I don't think you know me very well, doctor. There were many times I was on the verge of giving up, especially with Nick."
"But you didn't and I don't think you really want to now. After all, as they say, love does conquer all."
"Yeah, I suppose that's what they say. But perhaps…sometimes… love is meant to be conquered," Natalie pointed out, a slight resignation creeping into her voice.
"Sometimes, that may be the case. But you won't know until you've tried. Don't be like others, playing a game of denial, especially in matters of the heart. You'll only be sorry. Instead, take that plunge," she said in earnest. "You'll be glad you did."
"You might have something there doctor," she smiled with mounting excitement, the doctor's enthusiasm becoming contagious. "Maybe this game does need an ending or needs to come to an end."
A silence ensued as Dr. Sinclair gave her a shrewd nod of approval.
Natalie returned the doctor's nod with one of her own, feeling sudden optimism as she mused, `Yeah Nick, this game we've played does need a resolution.' All at once, though, her face creased in concern as she thought of something else, `But would the resolution be the right one?'
"Tonight's topic, gentle listeners, is about… Love. A profoundly tender, passionate emotion, to which we humans are incessantly, irrationally drawn. When should we deny it, when should we embrace it? For most, loving another is a sham, an illusion… a pretense like a virtual reality. It is false and deceptive, causing only heartache, pain, suffering and for some.... It can be quite hazardous to your health, *quite* deadly, indeed! Denying love for another is the truest safeguard, my friend."
"On the other hand, disallowance of love for *ourselves* is the utmost self-betrayal. True happiness can only be embraced if we are accepting of who and what we are."
"So dismissing love's folly with another and accepting love of yourself, embracing your true nature is the only way to *live*. Do you not agree it's the best way to go? The Nightcrawler would like to know." His smooth seductive voice purred through the night's airwaves.
Pulling the caddy up to the curb, Nick turned off the radio and frowned. This time, LaCroix' latest tirade about love had hit its mark. For once, Nick was beginning to believe his master was right. Giving into love with a mortal only caused heartache. Surely experience had taught him that. There was always a price to be paid. And this time with this particular mortal (Natalie) …would be the highest price of all. The heartache would be too unbearable. It would mean sure death for her and an eternity of pain for him. Who was he kidding? If anything happened to her, he would be embracing death, probably seeing his first sunrise in 800 years. Not a great outlook for either of them. So wouldn't it be best to deny their love, embrace their own separate lives and move on?
In many ways they already had, he thought with a touch of sadness. They hadn't been seeing much of each other recently, only at crime scenes and occasionally at the morgue. Whenever she was near, his cravings to taste her blood again would escalate, the scent of her tantalizing cinnamon nectar driving the beast into a near frenzy of uncontrollable hunger. It was almost like first hunger all over again.
Nick could tell it wasn't a party for Natalie either. The few occasions, where the beast did remain dormant, offering a rare opportunity for him to reach out with a caress to her face or a touch to her hair, would only generate a frightened shudder from her. Pulling away abruptly, she'd make some excuse to leave or get back to work. During those infrequent times, he'd try not to take it personally, understanding that rape could make her behave this way, but it still hurt.
The sad truth was the distance between them had grown insurmountable. It was probably time to move on…
All at once, there was a tapping at the window. Looking over, Nick saw Detective Barnes standing there, a frustrated expression gracing his brow. "Detective Knight.... Nick. Are you with me?"
Nick emerged from the caddy. "Sorry, Barnes. I was just thinking about something."
"Like about that hole in the ozone layer?" The dark-haired, blue-eyed detective gave him a sagacious smile. "Yeah...Schanke filled me in about your perpetual interest in it."
At the mention of his former partner's name, a brief flash of pain crossed Nick's features before the usual impassive facade fell into place. Ignoring Barnes' remark, Nick turned away and began walking across the manicured lawn towards a colonel brick home. "What do we have here?"
Feeling uneasy and suddenly embarrassed by his ill-conceived comment, Barnes cleared his throat and began filling Nick in with the details of the investigation. "According to the coroner's prelim report, a Mrs. Anita Carr was shot through the head and chest, probably with a 38mm at close range. Her body was discovered in the main hall by her husband, Mr. Roger Carr."
They had arrived at the entrance. The hallway had been cordoned off with yellow tape and Mrs. Carr's body had already been removed to the coroner's van. The medical examiner, Dr. Edgar was finishing up his prelims as the detectives approached. "Perfect timing, Detective Knight. You missed the whole grisly affair. As I mentioned to Detective Barnes earlier, TOD was approximately one to three hours ago. From the looks of her, the victim didn't put up much of a struggle. In fact, I would guess she was completely caught by surprise by the killer."
Barnes went on to explain to Nick. "The angle and the close proximity of the body to the front door would suggest she walked in on her murderer." He pointed to the chalked sketch of the body on the hardwood floor.
"By the angle, you mean her body was face up with her head near the front door," Nick added.
"That's right, Detective," interjected the coroner. "Another thing, the victim had considerable swelling from a nasty bump on the back of her head, which would suggest she was pushed backwards into the door by her assailant. Perhaps the impact caused temporary unconsciousness, enough time for the killer to shoot her and escape the premises. Anyhow, I'll get back to you with my final report."
"Thanks, doctor," Barnes added, as Dr. Edgar moved past the detectives and through the front door into the warm night.
Barnes' eyes moved from the departing doctor's form back to Nick, who was observing a very distressed dark-haired man, sitting in a chintz- covered armchair in the corner of the living room to the left of the hallway. "That's Mr. Carr. He's been sitting over there since we had him check the premises for burglary."
"Did he find anything missing?"
"Yeah…. there's a safe upstairs in the master bedroom. The lock was picked like a pro. Mr. Carr verified that all his wife's jewelry was missing from it. Forensics has been unable to lift any of the intruder's prints. From the looks of things, we're dealing with a professional cat burglar."
"So you don't think Mr. Carr did it?"
"Couldn't say," admitted Barnes. "But, if he did set this in motion, he's been putting up quite an act for us. He seemed so shell-shocked by it all. No one has been able to get much out of him."
"Let's see if we have better luck," replied Nick, moving towards Mr. Carr.
Approaching him, Barnes said, "Mr. Carr, I'm Detective Barnes and this is Detective Knight. We'd like to ask you a few questions, if it's all right with you."
Carr regarded the two detectives with a dazed expression. "What…oh yes.... Of course...please sit down. What do you want to know?"
Nick and Barnes took a seat on the sofa. "What time did you discover your wife, Mr. Carr?" Barnes inquired.
"I'd say it was about 9:00 pm. I was in a conference at work from 5:00 to 8:30 this evening. It then took me about 1/2 hr. to get home, so…yes.... I believe it was around 9:00 when I found my wife.... Oh God." His voice began to shake. "If only I'd been here for her, especially after what she'd been through last year."
Nick and Barnes exchanged questioning looks. "What happened to your wife last year, Mr. Carr?" Nick asked.
Carr wiped fresh tears from his face and ran a trembling hand through his thick dark hair. "A year ago, Anita had to work late. After leaving the office, she was assaulted and raped in the parking garage, trying to get into her car. Later, the police found the guy and he was convicted and sentenced to life."
"We'll need the guy's name to verify he's currently serving life at the penitentiary." Barnes stated.
"You don't think he escaped and came after my wife, do you?" Carr asked, his eyebrows rose in surprise.
"We need to check all possibilities, Mr. Carr." Nick said.
"Starkey.... His name is William Starkey," Carr replied. "So help me, if this scum did this to my wife, I'll kill him with my bare hands." His voice trembled in anger.
"Relax, Mr. Carr." Barnes regarded him uneasily. "Chances are it wasn't him, but rest assured, we'll do everything in our power to get this creep."
"I wish you could have used your power, your investigative skills to get Starkey before he'd brutally attacked all those women, including my wife!" He exclaimed. There was bitterness in his tone. "Do you have *any* idea what my wife…what *we*… have gone through in the last year? What it is like living with a rape victim? The endless therapy sessions, hoping that with each one, you're wife will finally heal. The endless efforts at trying to boost your wife's self-esteem, only to have her lock herself further into a world you can never enter. It's not a pretty picture and it's hell on the marriage." The wrinkles on his anguished face creased in pain.
"Last week, she'd wanted me to move out of the house. Naturally, I refused. I still had hope that we would make it. Our marriage had always been a strong one, built out of a deep love and respect for one another and I kept thinking, with a little patience and our devotion to each other, we could get through this insurmountable obstacle together. I was always a firm believer in love, true love conquering all and through our strong devotion we could conquer this barrier. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to…" Carr's voice broke on the last word as he wiped away more tears from his eyes. "There just wasn't enough time," he repeated, shaking his head in bewilderment.
There was a long uncomfortable silence as Barnes looked over at Nick and what he saw surprised him. Like earlier, Nick appeared to be staring off into space, a look of anguish on his face. Barnes jabbed him in the side. "Knight, are you communing with the cosmos again?"
Nick came out of his reverie, shaking his head. "What?" He asked, turning towards Barnes.
"Never mind." Barnes turned back to Carr and said sincerely, "We're awfully sorry Mr. Carr to dredge up all these painful memories about you and your wife. We need a couple more things from you if you don't mind. An inventory of the missing jewelry and the list of co-workers who attended this evening's conference." Barnes handed him a notepad.
"I'll have to get back to you about the jewelry, but I can give you the other list now." Taking the pad, Carr scribbled it down quickly and handed it back. "Anything else?"
"No," Barnes got up from the sofa. "Unless Nick has something to ask you." He turned to Nick and again saw him staring into space with the same tormented look. What was with this guy, tonight? Barnes shook his head in frustration and again jabbed him in the side. "Knight, are you with us?"
Nick shook his head. "Yeah, I'm here." He looked at Barnes, then Carr. "If we have any further questions, we'll be in touch. Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Carr."
Saying their goodbyes, Nick and Barnes walked towards the exit. As soon as they were outside, Nick began to rush towards his caddy when Barnes called to him, "Hey, Knight. What gives with the transcendental experience back there? Are you okay?"
Nick stopped in his tracks, spinning around as Barnes caught up to him. "Look, I'm fine...let's give it a rest, okay?" There was anger in his tone, but his eyes conveyed that same pained expression.
Barnes held up his hands in surrender. "Sure...whatever. I'll check out Carr's alibi. Although after seeing that touching performance back there, I gotta admit I felt sorry for the guy. I mean his wife was raped and they had to deal with all that. And then this…"
Nick interrupted him. "Yeah, it must have been difficult for them, but we need to stay focused on the case." He replied with an edge of brusqueness in his voice.
"You're right. When I get back to the precinct, I'll check out this list of Carr's coworkers and Starkey's incarceration."
"Thanks." Nick paused. "Hey Barnes, by the way, I am sorry about my actions earlier. Like I said, I've got some things on my mind," he explained, giving him a slight grin.
"Hey, no problem. We all have our moments."
"Yeah, we do," agreed Nick. "By the way, and don't take this personally Barnes, but why were you at this crime scene tonight and where is my partner?"
"Oh...didn't Reese fill you in?"
"No, he didn't. I came straight here from my place."
"Reese told me that Vetter had an appointment with a carpenter at her apartment and that she'd be running late and would meet us here." Barnes checked his watch. "Doesn't look like she's going to show."
They started walking again as Barnes resumed talking, "What gives with the service calls? It seems like Vetter's got one scheduled every other night. What's she doing over there? Building the Taj Mahal." He chuckled.
Nick shrugged in response, and then turning away, frowned. I wish that were the case, he thought grimly. But he knew otherwise. Nick got into his car, and turned on the engine. "See ya back at the precinct."
A warm balmy breeze passed through the establishment as the woman entered through the front door. Pausing for a moment, her blue eyes wandered over the rows of videos, stretching down the length of the room, and finally rested on the elderly man in the back of the store. At the sight of him, she gripped the item in her hand more tightly. You can do this…yes… you can, she thought with resolve. Letting out a deep breath, she began moving towards him slowly and quietly.
The man was placing the last video on the shelf when he had the distinct feeling there was someone approaching him. For an instant, he froze, the hairs on the back of his neck becoming rigid. Whoever was there was moving very cautiously down the aisle, trying not to make a sound. Sweat broke out on his brow as he clutched at the video still in his hand, bracing himself. He could hear and almost feel the person getting closer. All of a sudden, though, as if a light switch had turned on in his head, his fright was replaced with relief. Turning around on his ladder, he broke into a broad smile. "Ms. Vetter, what a pleasant surprise! It's always such a delight to see your pretty face in my store."
Standing next to the ladder, Tracy gave him a nervous smile. "You always have a way with words, Sam. My partner could learn a thing or two from you."
Sam put the last video on the shelf and climbed down. "You mean, Detective Knight? He strikes me as the type of guy who has had *years* of experience with women and could charm the socks off them."
Tracy let out a burst of laughter, her discomfiture forgotten for the moment. "You've got to be kidding! Nick Knight, charming the socks off women?" She let out another guffaw. "Now granted, he's handsome and does have this way of throwing that puppy dog look your way when he wants something… but… experienced with women? Sometimes I feel that he is *clueless* when it comes to knowing what women want. It's like he's from the dark ages."
Sam chuckled. You're not far off, he thought. "Maybe it just takes the right woman to provide Detective Knight with a clue," he suggested.
"Oh yeah right!" Tracy rolled her eyes. "If you are referring to Natalie, who is the right woman for him, he is still clueless. I mean anyone with half a brain can see they belong together. But does my thickheaded partner see it? No, of course not." Her smile faded, her face becoming serious. "At crime scenes, he now runs away in terror whenever Natalie is near. He always has some flimsy excuse to send me over to the morgue to discuss a case with her. It's obvious to me that he is avoiding her. For the life of me, though, I don't know why."
Uneasiness spread through Sam at Tracy's comment, but he pretended to shrug it off. "Maybe it isn't Nick who is doing the evading. With all that's happened to Natalie, she might be the one."
"Yeah... But Nick should try to make more of an effort to help her through it. Instead, he can't wait to get away, like he's afraid to get too close to her. I know they still have feelings for one another, you can see the longing in their eyes when they look at each other. But they don't do anything about it." Tracy blew out a frustrating breath.
All at once, Sam had an idea. "Maybe we can do something about it *for* them."
Tracy looked at him curiously. "What did you have in mind?"
"Well…My wife, Emily and I are celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary at the Four Seasons Hotel and I…."
Tracy interrupted as she broke into a wide grin. "Really, that's wonderful. When?"
"It depends on when Detective Knight and Dr. Lambert are on leave next." He gave her a knowing smile.
"What do you mean? Don't you have a date already set?" She asked, puzzled.
"No, Tracy. You don't understand. There isn't going to be a *real* anniversary party at the Four Seasons. Mrs. Case and I celebrated our fortieth last year. But Natalie and Nick won't know that, they'll think they've been invited to a real bash at the hotel."
"Oh...I get it." She nodded. "So you want me to find out from Reese and Natalie's bosses when they're off and you'll send them an invitation to this fake affair."
"Yes and if all goes according to plan, this fake affair will be a real one of their own making, if you catch my drift." Sam gave Tracy a mischievous wink.
Tracy blushed at the implication. "Will this affair take place in a particular part of the hotel? Say the honeymoon suite." Her eyes sparkled with amusement.
"I'm sure that can be arranged. You coordinate the schedules with their bosses so they're off at the same time, provide me with the dates and I'll take it from there."
"But the cost of this will be too much." Tracy insisted.
"Don't worry. If things go well, it will be my wedding present to them."
"If that's the case, count me in for part of the expense. I'll be happy to help out and I'm sure Grace would love to contribute too."
"Grace?" Sam looked puzzled.
"You remember Grace. Natalie's assistant."
"Ah, yes. Ms. Balthazar. She was such a charming woman and a devout friend to Natalie. Yes, by all means, let her know about our plans, but please...let's keep this a guarded secret from everyone else, shall we? We don't want to let the cat out of the bag."
"Mums the word!" Tracy gave him a broad smile, which faded when she saw where Sam's eyes were going. He was studying the item in her hand. Feeling uneasy again, Tracy averted her eyes from him down to the floor.
"Is that what I think it is, Ms. Vetter?" Sam asked with a trace of amusement in his voice.
"Ah.... Yeah. I was returning it to you." Tracy looked into Sam's amused face and handed the object to him. "I figured you'd want it back. I guess I kind of got carried away with it this last time. Sorry."
"Don't worry about it. As long as you received fulfillment from its use, that's all that counts." He paused. "Speaking of `counts,' how many times does this make it?"
With her hand, Tracy began rubbing under her collar as a sudden heat rushed from her neck to her face. "Oh...maybe ten times." She gave him a weak shrug.
Sam's eyebrows rose in astonishment. "Ten times! I had no idea. Ms. Vetter I guess I'm going to have to cut you off from your virtual reality. It's time to face the real world."
Tracy's shoulders slumped. "Really? I was hoping that I wouldn't need that reality check for another week and you'd let me borrow the game one more time? Please?" She pleaded.
"Afraid not, Tracy." He looked at her sternly.
"Oh…all right!" She voiced in dismay. "I suppose I'm becoming obsessed with it and should back off for my own good. Thanks Sam, for being my rock of strength." Tracy turned around and began to head towards the front of the store, Sam close behind.
"Glad to be of service. It's for the best, you know." He remarked over her shoulder.
"Yeah...I know." She agreed reluctantly, as she arrived at the exit.
Sam started to open the door for her, when without warning; she turned around and seized the game from him. Sam froze, her actions surprising him, but only for a split second. Recovering, he reached for it and managed to grab a hold, but Tracy held on stubbornly. A tug of war ensued between them, each pulling back with the game partially in their grasp.
"Sam, just one more time! Pleaaaasssse!" Implored Tracy, pulling with all her might.
"Now Tracy, NO! Give it to me!" Sam's voice was becoming agitated. "We don't want to break it." He could feel Tracy's grasp slacken. Finally, with a look of resignation on her face, she let go completely.
"Jeez...I'm *so* sorry about that! I don't know what came over me! I'm so embarrassed!" Her face flushed a bright red.
"That's okay." Sam put a comforting arm around the young detective and opened the door. "It happens to all of us. You just remember: live one day or *night* at a time with that friend of yours and everything will turn out fine."
Tracy gave him a baffled look as she exited. What did he mean by living one *night* at a time? Did he know about Vachon and what he was, a vampire? He couldn't, could he? Nah, it was her mind working overtime again. Still, this guy seemed to know intuitively about people.
She shook off the thought. "I'll do that. Thanks again." She waved and started to walk away, and then as if forgetting something turned back around. "And don't worry, I'll be in touch ASAP about our little scheme." Tracy winked at him and departed.
As the door closed, Sam sighed. Glancing at the game in his hand, he frowned. "I think I'd better lock you up for save keeping my little treasure." He marched to the backroom, and opening a safe in the corner, placed the game on a shelf. Closing it and assuring the combination lock was secure, he headed back to his desk. "And now that the door has been shut on their virtual realities," he mumbled, thinking of his three friends, "it's time to give *two* of them, a reality check!" With a final determined nod of his head, he picked up the phone and dialed.
Three Nights later:
Natalie was wheeling Mr. Samuel Haines through the opened steel door into the refrigerated vault when Tracy strolled into the autopsy room. "Hey there, Trace." She called over her shoulder. "Just tucking one of my patients in for the night. Be with you in a sec."
"Okay, Nat." Tracy called back in her usual perky voice. Standing there in the sterile cold room, though, her cheerfulness soon turned to uneasiness. Instinctively she took a step backwards towards the door through which she had just entered, a distasteful grimace appearing on her face. For all her visits to the morgue, there would never come a time when she would ever grow accustomed to the smells of decay laced with formaldehyde and disinfectant, and the sights of the mutilated cadavers sprawled on an autopsy table like a slab of meat in a butcher shop. Morgues would always be her one weakness in her line of work. How Natalie could endure it day after day and night after night was beyond her comprehension. It took a special kind of person to be a pathologist.
Coming out of her reflective musings, Tracy turned in the direction of the vault as she detected Natalie's voice drifting into the room. She seemed to be speaking to someone. The words were flowing out soft and gentle. "Rest in peace." She heard Natalie say.
She must be talking to the corpse. A momentary sadness gripped Tracy at Natalie's eulogy in the face of another violent, unnecessary death at the hands of a madman. A second later, Natalie emerged from the vault, and shutting the steel enforced door, marched over to her desk. Sitting down, she began jotting notes. "What brings you here, Trace?" She asked. Her forehead was creased in concentration, her eyes focused on the case file in front of her.
Tracy shook her head in wonder. If there were a person more suited for this job, it was Natalie. In a moment's time, with ease, she could shift from light humor to gentle eulogies over bodies to staunch professionalism, always remaining detached from the death and violence all around her. "I came by to inquire about the Lombardi Case. Have you done the report, yet?" Tracy queried.
Natalie stopped writing, and retrieving a file from a stack, handed it to her. "Here you go. It's pretty cut and dry: a brain aneurysm. I found traces of aspirin in the lining of his stomach. I would guess that he'd probably taken some Bayer for a headache, gone to sleep it off and never woke up."
"So I guess Nick and I can eliminate Mrs. Lombardi as a suspect even though she was having a flagrant affair with her husband's law partner and stood to come into a sizable inheritance from his estate." Tracy stated. There was an edge of suspicion in her voice.
Natalie leaned back in her chair, twirling the pen around in both of her hands. "I know it seemed kind of coincidental, but that's what it was: a huge coincidence. It was clearly an aneurysm, not a homicide. There was a massive rupture to a blood vessel in the right temporal lobe of the brain. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say he'd probably had it since birth and over the years, it increased in size until it finally burst."
Tracy glanced down at the report. "That's great news. It means we have one less case to solve. If Nick and I could only wrap up this Carr investigation, we'd be able to play catch up on all our reports. And you know how that partner of mine loves to do paperwork." She chuckled, but her laughter soon dimmed when she caught Natalie's despondent look.
As quickly as the raw pain appeared on Natalie's face, though, Tracy saw it disappear as she reined in her emotions.
At the mention of Nick's name, unfulfilled yearnings threatened to consume Natalie, leaving her to feel so alone and empty. God, she missed him. Missed those times watching a video with him, laughing together at the funny scenes in a movie or crying on his shoulder over the sad ones, always welcoming the comfort and safety of those strong arms wrapped so protectively around her. Missed the old easy- going camaraderie between them, so natural and effortless like taking in a breath of air. Missed those compassionate blue eyes gazing down on her with such love while in the throes of passion in the virtual world. Missed those beautiful expressive eyes that seemed to look into her very soul. Missed those firm hands…exploring…
…`Enough already Lambert! Get a grip!' She scolded herself. `You're the one who decided to keep the relationship *still* in limbo, after your hope fizzled into uncertainty and fear. So live with it!'
Yeah…that was rich! After visiting Dr. Sinclair, her hope at a resolution had lasted until she'd picked up the phone to call Nick, only to hang up a second later, her faith dissipating into doubt and fear. Fear about their endless problems, all their many obstacles. Maybe they were just kidding themselves; their problems were probably too insurmountable even for their strong love to conquer. So in the end, out of fear and uncertainty, she'd decided not to call, keeping their relationship unresolved.
Sighing, and with effort, Natalie dragged her attention back to Tracy. "What about the Carr investigation?" She asked, trying to sound curious.
Embarrassed, Tracy slapped her forehead. "I forgot you weren't involved in that case. At first, neither was I. Barnes and Nick did the preliminary investigation while I was preoccupied with something." She lowered her eyes to the tile floor, as she began shifting uncomfortably.
Already aware of Tracy's preoccupation with *the* game, Natalie asked anyway, feigning ignorance, "Preoccupied with what?"
"Oh…I was running late because I had something important I needed to do," Tracy answered mysteriously, giving Natalie a slight grin, her face becoming flushed.
"Ah…I hope it turned out well for you, Trace." Natalie replied, a teasing glint in her eye.
Tracy smiled, her eyes denoting the same sparkle. "Yeah…let's hope so, though, only time will tell," she said, her voice still conveying that inexplicable tone.
For a long moment, Natalie considered Tracy's strange comment. What did she mean by that? She wondered, shaking her head in bewilderment, and then she turned back to the case. "Now I remember the Carr case. The woman was shot twice in the hallway of her home. Dr. Edgar and Grace were working on it."
"What case was I working on?" Grace asked, breezing into the room carrying a tray of test tubes.
Natalie glanced at her and smiled "The Carr autopsy?"
"Oh yeah…that one. Poor woman. Since the prelims, nothing new was found on the body." Grace pointed out, and then turned to Tracy. "Any developments in the case?"
"No, Barnes has been doing most of the investigative work. The husband's coworkers corroborated his story. He was at work at the time of his wife's murder, so he couldn't have done it."
"Could he have hired someone to kill her?" Natalie asked in a suggestive manner.
"According to Barnes, it's not likely." Tracy explained. "He told me about Mr. Carr's emotional state at the crime scene. He was a regular Niagara Falls. Evidently, Mrs. Carr had been raped last year and they'd already been dealing with that when this happened and…" Suddenly, Tracy's words tapered off as her hand flew to her mouth in horror, realizing what she'd said and to whom she'd said it. There was an awkward silence, and then she continued, "I'm so sorry Natalie. I don't know why I said that."
Natalie smiled, and leaning over, squeezed Tracy's hand in reassurance. "Tracy, don't feel you need to apologize. You can mention the rape word to me. I'm not that fragile." She paused as a sudden thought occurred to her, her bright smile fading. She averted her eyes away and continued in a soft murmur, "What did Nick think about this investigation?"
For one instant, Tracy was tempted to say,
`Natalie, if the truth be told, his only contribution to this case has been his insufferable moodiness. At times this week, I've wanted put him out of his misery shooting him with my gun. But I'm glad that I refrained, because yesterday, he'd finally accepted Sam's invitation to the Four Seasons. I say "finally" because I had to spend an entire hour convincing him to go. It was very stressful! I'm warning you, Nat if you two don't resolve your relationship by the end of this weekend, there will be a homicide in the precinct. And it won't be mine!'
Instead she replied, "I don't know what his thoughts are about this case. He hasn't said much about it."
Grace's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You mean Nick `first at the scene, first to know everything' Knight hasn't already wrapped this case up."
"No, there's not much of a case to solve." Tracy confessed. "We suspect Mrs. Carr unwittingly caught a professional jewel thief in the middle of a burglary and whoever this guy was he didn't leave his calling card: no prints, no fibers, no weapon, nothing. So at this point, we've reached a dead end…and…"
All of a sudden, Natalie interrupted with a sudden reply, "Oh my gosh! I almost forgot!" She bolted to her feet, glancing at her watch. "I'm sorry if I startled you both, but when Tracy mentioned the stolen jewelry at the Carr residence, I remembered that I need to get over to Birk's at the Eaton Centre before it closes to pick up some specially ordered jewelry for a party on Saturday." Natalie raced to the door, and then whirling around, regarded her assistant. "Grace, will you finish up the Haine's DNA profile for me? I should be back in an hour."
"No problem Natalie." Grace said. A brief smile flashed across her face as she cast a sidelong conspiratorial glance at Tracy. "Have you decided on the dress yet from The Bay?" She asked.
"I don't know. I'm unsure of the color," Natalie admitted.
"I think it looks stunning on you. That shade of blue accents your eyes. You should buy it." Grace said emphatically.
"What does the dress look like, Nat? Tracy asked innocently.
Natalie shrugged. "Oh…it's a long royal blue dress and comes with a satin wrap. But it is kind of …It is sort of…" she stammered, as a blush began to creep up her neckline to her face.
Grace rolled her eyes. "What she's trying to say is that it's a little low in the neckline and dips slightly in the back."
Natalie chuckled and shook her head. "Yeah…right! A little low cut and dips slightly? That's an understatement! What Grace has failed to mention is that the dress shows so much skin it leaves *nothing* to the imagination. I may as well jump out of a cake at the party naked for the little that it hides. And besides I'd feel funny doling out all that money for a dress that has so little material."
"But it looks fantastic on you, and honey if you've got it, flaunt it." Grace declared, giving Natalie a stern look. "After all, you can't hide under those unflattering scrubs forever."
Tracy laughed. "What is it you're going to attend where this revealing dress might be on display?" She asked, trying to appear nonchalant.
"Sam Case, from Sam's video, and his wife are having a fortieth wedding anniversary bash at the Four Seasons this Saturday evening," Natalie explained. "At first, I wasn't going to go, but Grace talked me into it."
"Yes, Natalie's stubbornness was shining through. She was making all sorts of excuses for not going, but I was able to find a way to knock some sense into that hard head of hers."
"What did you say?" Tracy asked.
Before Grace could continue, Natalie piped up, "Oh…she threatened to fix me up with her friend's cousin from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan so I relented."
"I'm glad you did." Tracy said, meeting Grace's barely concealed smile with one of her own. "And I hope you have a great time."
Natalie started to leave again. "Yeah…me too. I suppose it's time for me to get out there, live a little, and mix with people," she said. There was a look of thoughtfulness on her face as her voice filled with regret and doubt. Standing in the doorway, though, hope began to return as she straightened her shoulders and gave each woman a determined smile. "Yeah…it *is* time to mingle with people again." She nodded firmly, and then disappeared down the hall.
As soon as they heard the slam of the door to the morgue, and were certain of Natalie's departure from the building, Tracy turned to Grace and sighed. "For our sakes Grace, let's hope she *mingles* with one very lonely brooding detective this weekend or I will not be held responsible for my actions."
Grace returned the sigh. "Yeah…me too. And for their sakes, they better *mingle* more than their minds together, if you know what I mean!" She voiced, and then exchanging knowing glances, they burst into laughter.
Early Saturday Morning: The day of the big bash.
Nick slid the door open to the lift, and throwing his duster over the soft leather sofa, marched to the refrigerator, pulling open the door. Reaching in, he seized a green bottle of steer from the top shelf, and removing the cork, gulped down the cold unappetizing blood in a few deep swallows. He took out another bottle, considering briefly before drinking the distasteful bovine, then went ahead. What was the point in denying himself any longer? It wasn't like Natalie would be around for a visit any time soon, so why bother to curtail his cocktail hour of unappealing cow's blood?
But he did want to curtail it. That was just it! After listening to Roger Carr's speech the other night, he'd begun to have some renewed hope about him and Natalie, that their situation wasn't too impossible to overcome. If he could only stop feeling these incredible urges, these incessant cravings to taste her blood again, maybe he could see her, talk to her, possibly iron out all their problems before it was too late, like it had been for the Carr's. But how could he find a solution?
Nick's introspective musings were shattered by the presence of another vampire lurking nearby. Looking up through the skylight, he saw the dark familiar figure of his visitor. His pensive face turned to one of disdain. LaCroix! What was he doing here? It had been some time since he'd seen him. Ever since…well, since six months ago when Nick's violent confrontation with him at the radio station had triggered a strange appearance by a ghostly figure. LaCroix had been warned by this mysterious spectral being never to interfere with Nick's life again or there would be dire consequences. Thus far, LaCroix had kept his word, not even venturing over to his loft to offer taunts or teasing words. In fact, Nick had suspected his sire had gone away for a brief sojourn, as the waves of their connection had grown faint recently.
"Are you going to come in or stay out, LaCroix?" Nick regarded him cautiously through the clear glass.
"I thought you would never ask." LaCroix gave him an amused smirk, and in the flash, stood in front of him.
Nick turned away and moved towards the kitchen. Retrieving a glass from a cabinet, he poured some of the bovine into it, offering it to LaCroix. "Would you like some?"
In response, LaCroix removed a dark Raven-labeled bottle from behind his back, giving him an objectionable look. "No thank you. I prefer my own flavorful vintage to that deplorable swill you insist on drinking."
"Lucky for you that you brought your own because it's not on the menu here." Nick met his master's offensive gaze with one of his own.
"Well…maybe it should be." LaCroix' meaningful words seemed to hang in the air as he fixed Nick with a piercing stare, and then moving over to the kitchen counter, opened the bottle. He poured a healthy amount of the ruby red blood wine into a glass from one of Nick's cabinets.
"What do you mean?" He asked suspiciously as he pushed back a chair, sitting down at the kitchen table.
"Let us examine the facts, shall we Nicholas? Six months ago, you proclaimed with utter fervency that you had found your savior, so to speak, that the good doctor represented your `anchor' your `hope' your `life' and what was it?" He teased. "Ah yes, your `love.' Such a touching pronouncement it was, indeed!"
"Get to the point LaCroix!" Nick demanded, his tone becoming impatient.
LaCroix spread his arms across the spacious room. "My point being that this time your love nest does not reek of death, but emptiness. It is such a…" He paused, his eyes denoting amused smugness. "Tragedy? To use one of your favorite expressions."
Nick glanced at LaCroix' complacent look, then looked away. "I don't know what you're getting at."
"Oh come Nicholas. You know what I am implying. Your delectable little mortal toy has flown the coop. Although I can't say I blame the doctor for doing so. Your insufferable guilt-ridden state must have been intolerable even for her, and sent her packing." He chuckled, and then lifting the glass to his lips, took a sip of the dark, sparkling liquid.
"Natalie likes her privacy and independence, so she stays at her apartment."
"I think not. You never could lie very well, Nicholas," he said. "Even at L'Azure." His light blue eyes bore into Nick's, his meaning clear.
Nick regarded his sire with caution. "Believe what you want, Lacroix. But the simple fact is it is really none of your business."
Lacroix moved behind Nick and dug his hands into his shoulders. "Ah… but that is where you are wrong. Your business will always be my business as we belong to one another, joined at the hip so to speak."
Flinging him away, Nick gulped down his cow blood, and then pouring another glass, drank some more. "Then I give you permission Lacroix to disassociate yourself from me, you don`t have to make it your business any longer."
"Ah…but what would be the fun in that. Your business has always involved such delightful mysteries, such intriguing puzzles, such… quaint, charming games." He smirked. "And the game now is to figure out the good doctor's motive for her expedient departure from here…" He paused, swirling the red liquid around in his glass, and then added, "From your life, such as it is."
"She's still a part of my life, LaCroix. But no thanks to you, Natalie has had some major issues to overcome these last few months." Nick said, his jaw clenching, his eyes flashing in anger at the sudden memories.
"Ah…yes, but I don't believe she is the only one who has had problems to quell."
"If you mean me, you needn't concern yourself. I'm fine."
"Are you?" Lacroix asked. "I think not, Nicholas. What I feel from you is pure insatiable hunger. And I believe I know why?"
"It's just the case I'm working on." Nick explained, lack of conviction evident in his voice. "I'm just a little on edge about it."
"For months at a time?" Lacroix' eyebrows rose in surprise, his eyes reflecting doubt. "No, Nicholas. You've had this unappeasable craving for longer than this latest sleuthing folly. No, this case isn't the reason. But I think I know *who* is the cause. Dr. Lambert…Natalie. And because of your unrelenting thirst for her, she is now in grave danger."
"That's ridiculous. She has nothing to fear from me." Nick said, forcing a confidence into his voice that he wasn't feeling. "I would never harm her."
"Yes, you keep telling yourself that and you know from past experience how it will end," he said gravely and then added, "You don't exactly have a good track record with your female conquests, now do you?" He gave Nick a discernible gaze.
"Natalie is not just another conquest." He spat out angrily.
"No, I can see she isn't. But if you truly love her, then you should let her go. Isn't that something you taught me?" Lacroix asked, understanding.
"Lacroix, I…don't…know if I can. It's just so difficult to let her go. I…" Words failed Nick, as overwhelming feelings roiled to the surface. He turned away, attempting to hide the emotions threatening to consume him.
"Nicholas, I understand. I truly do!" LaCroix said, his voice actually betraying sympathy. "And believe it or not, for once, I don't want this to end badly for you or Natalie."
Nick looked up in disbelief. "Really! And why this sudden change?" He asked warily.
"Because Nicholas it is quite evident that she means a lot to you. And, if you hold her in such high-regard, then I must do the same… although I must admit this time it is easier to do so. She does possess extraordinary qualities not found in most mortals. And, I suppose I don't want you to suffer the same agony I endured with your sister, so I came to give you advice."
"I don't need your counsel, LaCroix."
"Stop being so irritatingly stubborn and listen! Either you move on and leave your mortal love behind, which doesn't appear to be in the cards at the moment, or you do something about it."
"Yeah… do something about it! What do you suggest? Take her… consummate my deep feelings for her in the most intense way possible. Kill her. Is that what you had in mind?" Nick inquired, his voice laced with sarcasm.
"No, Nicholas. It isn't! And if you would let me finish, I will explain what you need to do."
A long moment of silence descended on the room as Nick waited to hear LaCroix' suggestion. Finally, clearing his throat, he continued, "First of all, you must stop drinking that vile concoction of cow in which you insist on partaking. I know you keep telling yourself that going on a drinking binge with that insufferable bovine will sate your hunger for the good doctor, but it won't!" He said, his voice becoming louder than normal as he brought his fist down on the kitchen table. The sudden pounding on the wooden surface caused Nick to jerk back in surprise.
Disregarding his reaction, LaCroix went on, "Your desire for her blood will only grow stronger until you lose control and things will only end badly for you both. So I'm afraid Nicholas that you must change that despicable menu on your dietary regimen."
Nick shook his head giving LaCroix a derisive look. "If you mean drinking human blood, forget it."
"Nicholas, my patience with you is wearing thin," he said with exasperation. "Only human blood will suppress those cravings for the doctor's blood, affording you the opportunity to be around her more often. I'll have a shipment of my finest sent over from the Raven."
"Don't bother. It won't be opened," came the steadfast reply.
"Oh Nicholas! When will you ever learn?" LaCroix voiced, his temper flaring. "Your righteous convictions in this matter are only going to result in deadly consequences for Natalie. For her sake and yours, heed my advice." He paused. "Or… move on. Paris is lovely this time of year. In fact, I've spent the last six months there. Such an enthralling rush of humanity races through that glorious city of lights. It just sizzles with life. I wouldn't mind returning. We could meet up there and forget about this entire episode here."
"If I move on, it will be alone." Nick stated vehemently, swallowing the rest of his drink.
"Suit yourself Nicholas. But just in case you change your mind, I'll have my bags ready." Lacroix drank down the remains in his glass and placed the crystal on the table. "However, since I don't believe you will be starting another life anytime soon and will feel the need to tie up loose ends here, I'll send the Raven-labeled bottles over to do with them as you please."
Nick reached out and seized LaCroix' arm. "Why are you *really* doing this for me…for Natalie and me?" He asked, his tone dubious.
"Ah…always thinking I have an ulterior motive in mind. I suppose after my last little scheme, I can understand your distrust. So I will be candid with you Nicholas. I have grown attached to your mortal friend since playing the game, and as a result, felt she would be quite an asset to the community if you would choose to bring her across. And I would hate to see her suffer fatal consequences if you don't take the necessary precautions." His mouth twisted into a self- satisfied grin. "So you see I really do have Natalie's best interests at heart. Take heed, Nicholas and see that you do the same." He warned.
"But LaCroix…I'm afraid of what might happen, especially after Alyssa. I loved her very much, but the feelings I have for Natalie run so much deeper. Do you really think this will work?" Nick asked, his voice carrying traces of hope, his eyes showing desperation.
"So you are seriously considering bringing her across?" LaCroix' eyes reflected surprise.
"Yes…but it's her choice," he murmured in a resigned voice.
"Well, this is a surprise! And yes it should help you tremendously in the control department. Your mortal wife was after all your first attempt. Just don't get swept up in your ardent emotional state." All at once, his mouth curled into another grin. "After all, Nicholas you're almost 800 years old, you can do this properly without failure!"
Before Nick could respond, LaCroix was gone, disappearing through the skylight into the warm night air.
Nick stared through the window, from where Lacroix had disappeared, into the pitch-blackness of the night. Yes, he was almost 800 years old, but after all these centuries, when it came to women and matters of the heart, sometimes he felt like a fledgling, like a novice barely keeping his head above water. Shaking his thoughts from his mind, he stood up, and headed towards the stairs. As he ascended to his bedroom, he mused, `now if I can make it through Sam's party tonight, then I'll be able talk to Natalie.'
Reaching the bedroom, he stared at the white wall behind the bed. All at once, an uneasiness swept over him, as another thought came to him: the near certainty that Natalie would be attending this affair and their discussion would be coming sooner than he might wish.
Emerging from the brown sedan, Natalie sidestepped the attendant, allowing him access to her vehicle. He slid behind the wheel, and shifting into drive, steered the car into the underground parking lot of the hotel.
For a few seconds, Natalie remained under the awning of the Four Seasons Hotel, and then taking a deep breath, stepped up to the doorman. He tipped his hat, saying "Good Evening" and opened the door. Forcing up a confidence that she wasn't feeling, Natalie strolled through the double doors and across the wide expanse of the elegant lobby, past the Louis XVI armchairs, the magnificent palms and the Grecian Urns filled with colorful hydrangeas, to the front desk.
As she approached, the desk clerk glanced up, and then refraining from letting out a gasp, observed the vision before him. She was dressed in a long vibrant blue gown, which clung to her figure in all the right places, and accentuated her deep blue eyes. Her hair, in the soft dim light of the room, resembled flaming rivulets of reddish gold fire, which flowed around her lovely face and shoulders.
As he continued to stare, Natalie pulled her satin wrap more tightly around her shoulders, hugging it to her chest, while she asked, "Could you please tell me where I might find the Samuel Case anniversary party?"
For a moment longer, the desk clerk's eyes remained on her, and then moved to the register. "Yes, here it is. It's located in one of our Executive Suites."
"And where might that be?" Natalie inquired, surveying the lobby to see if she could find it.
The clerk, watching her eyes scope the room, realized her immediate assumption. "Our Executive Suites aren't located on this floor. They are our guest rooms."
Her eyebrows arched in surprise. "They are regular rooms? Oh, I wasn't aware of that. I assumed this party would be held in one of the ballrooms."
"Actually, a member of the Case family is staying in one of our suites and decided to have it there," he explained.
"Oh, isn't that kind of unusual? " She asked her face reflecting bafflement, her voice skeptical.
He shrugged. "Not really. Especially when the affairs are small like this one."
"So this is a small group?"
"*Very* much so. Quite intimate in fact." He gave her a broad smile, but his eyes were cloaked in mystery.
What did he mean by that? She wondered, giving him a puzzled look. "Okay, could I have the room number?"
"Certainly, may I have your name?" He asked, his leering eyes wandering over her again.
Feeling uncomfortable under his close scrutiny and incensed by his leading question, Natalie turned angry eyes on him. "Why in the hell should I give you my name?" She asked, her hands traveling down to rest on her hips in an indignant fashion. Simultaneously, as she spoke, the wrap fell from her shoulders, exposing the deep décolleté neckline of the dress.
Like an involuntary reflex, the desk clerk's gaze traveled from her flushed incensed face to her deep neckline, drawn like a magnet to the rounded fullness of her breasts, the lily-white softness of her peaches and cream skin. He said with a slight stutter, "It…is…a…re… quir…ed.…poli…cy… of… th…is …ho…tel."
Again, noting the spot where his eyes had ventured, Natalie slid her wrap back up and around her shoulders. She then leaned over the desk, and asked in an icy tone, "Is it a required policy to stare like a hungry wolf at the patrons of this fine establishment?"
Flustered, the clerk glanced at her glaring eyes and nervously slid his hand under his collar, a sudden dampness appearing on his skin. "No, it isn't the policy to behave in this manner. I'm terribly sorry, ma'am." He paused clearing his throat. "But I must insist on checking to see if your name is on the guest list."
"Oh…a guest list?" Natalie asked, and suddenly felt discomfited as she realized her mistake. She gave the clerk a weak smile, drawing away from him as her temper cooled. "I guess I jumped to conclusions. I must apologize as well," she said. "My name is Natalie Lambert."
He ran his finger down the list and stopped by her name. "Ah…here it is. Dr. Natalie Lambert," he stated, regarding her with a renewed respect over her title. "It's room 518."
"Thank you very much."
"Your welcome. Have a lovely evening," he said, and still clearly embarrassed, looked away from her.
Natalie headed towards the elevators. Once there, she pushed the button and waited until one of the doors opened. Entering, she discovered the lift was empty and sighed in relief. At least, for now, no one else would be ogling her in this dress. She could shoot herself for allowing Grace to persuade her to buy this one. Natalie reached over, and pushed the button for the fifth floor.
As she began to watch the doors close, all at once, she saw a hand shoot between them, and instantly they reopened. As they did, Natalie moved to the side. A few seconds passed and no one got on. Bewildered, she glanced up. Immediately, her eyes widened and her mouth gaped. There was Nick, standing in an elegant black tuxedo outside the lift, his incredulous eyes peering back at hers.
For a long moment, they stared at one another, their eyes becoming less surprised, and more intense with yearning. An eternity seemed to pass as they continued to gaze at one another, and then without warning Natalie jumped at a sudden humming sound. The elevator doors were closing. Without another thought, she scrambled to push the "open door" button. For a moment longer, Nick remained rooted to his spot, still gazing at her. She was so ravishing, so beautiful. It was all he could do not to sweep her up into his arms.
As he continued to regard her, Natalie began to shift uncomfortably under his intense stare, and then managed to find her voice. "Nick, are you going to stand there all night or get into the elevator?"
With some effort, Nick forced his eyes away, and entered the lift. "Sorry, Nat. You took me by surprise. I didn't expect to see you here…" he said and then added quickly, "On the elevator, I mean."
Natalie pushed the button to the fifth floor again. As the doors shut, she looked at him. "I suppose that means you expected to see me at Sam's party?" She asked, surprised at the external composure in her demeanor as a slight tremor coursed through her.
"Yes, I was hoping…" he started, the slightest hint of desire creeping into his voice, which turned to casualness as he went on, "I mean…I thought I might see you at the party…talk to you…catch up on things."
Before Natalie could respond, the elevator bell chimed and the doors swung open on the third floor. Standing there, anxious to get into the lift, were at least fifteen people. Nick moved out of the way, behind Natalie, as the group started to board. They seemed to be all- together as one young man yelled across to Natalie, "Sixteenth floor, to the Landry suite, let the drinks pour, so we can all soar."
There was a sudden burst of laughter as the last person got in, pushing everyone including Nick and Natalie against each another. The doors closed and the laughter subsided into low murmurs of conversation. As the elevator began to move upwards again, Natalie was becoming aware of her close proximity to Nick, his firm cool body being pressed up against hers, and the smell of his wonderful aftershave drifting up to her nose. She closed her eyes and sighed softly as an unbearable desire for more closeness washed over her. Like a moth to a flame, she moved backwards molding her body against his, as her heart began racing like a jackrabbit.
Her action surprised and delighted Nick at the same time. Immediately, he heard her elevated heartbeat, sounding like music to his ears. He couldn't refrain from smiling, pleased at the obvious effect he was having on her. Resisting the urge to snake his arms around her, he stood there savoring her warm body next to his, admiring the view of her alluring curves in the dress while he inhaled the sweet intoxicating scent of her perfume. Incredibly, for the first time in months, the scent of her blood no longer called to him. Perhaps Lacroix was right. Maybe, the consumption of three bottles of human blood before coming here had weaved their magic on his control.
All at once the dinging of the elevator bell and the abrupt stop of the lift at the fifth floor shattered their musings. With reluctance, Natalie pulled away as the doors opened. As she moved out of the elevator into the hall, Nick felt a sudden emptiness come over him, as he followed. The brief tantalizing moment of closeness had come to an end.
Standing there, an awkward silence descended around them, while intoxicating memories from their close contact in the elevator lingered in their minds. Discomfited, they looked away from each other. At last, Nick took the initiative, clearing his throat and speaking up, "I believe room 518 is that way." He motioned with his hand down the long hallway. They began walking, still avoiding eye contact, not saying a word, until they arrived at the room.
Nick knocked. A few moments passed and nothing happened. Baffled, they looked at one another. Nick knocked again, more firmly this time, and with his vampiric hearing, attempted to concentrate on any heartbeats beyond the door. None resounded back, except Natalie's, strong and still slightly elevated. He met her puzzled gaze with one of his own.
"Nick, what's going on?" She asked.
He shrugged. "I don't know Nat, but I can't seem to pick up any heartbeats from inside the room."
"What?" Her eyes denoted surprise. "There must be someone in there." She looked over at the room number to be sure. "Yeah…according to the hotel desk, this is the right room. There have got to be people in there. Maybe it's the composition of the door."
He looked at her, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Superman had a problem seeing through lead, maybe you can't hear through thick metal doors." She grinned slightly.
He gave her a look. "I don't think so."
"Oh come now, there's got to be a logical explanation. Try the door," she suggested.
Reaching over, Nick grabbed the doorknob, and opened the door….
As the door opened slowly, exposing the interior room, the looks on their faces became increasingly more confused. Gradually, while the bewilderment started to fade from their faces, their minds began to grasp the concept that no one was there. Nick was the first to speak again, "Do you suppose the desk gave us the wrong room by mistake?"
"I don't think so. Otherwise wouldn't the door be locked?" Natalie asked in a logical way.
"I guess you're right." Nick gave her one of his irresistible smiles. "Should we enter the premises and investigate?"
She grinned her eyes sparkling with amusement. "Why detective, I can't resist an offer like that. After all…exploratory techniques have always been my specialty." she said, and then realizing the possible implication of her words, blushed all the way to her hairline.
The blush didn't escape Nick's notice. For a long moment, he gazed at the deepening flush on her face, as physical and emotional stirrings threatened to surface. God, she could have such an effect on him. Suppressing his feelings, he motioned for her to enter. "In that case, after you Nat. Maybe we'll find some answers."
Natalie walked into a spacious living room, furnished in an English, eclectic style of blues and greens. Against one wall, there was a long sofa, surrounded by several armchairs and a marble topped coffee table. To the right, a small dining area could be seen next to a large bay window, overlooking the city. Adjacent to the living room, there was a large bedroom with a king size bed, a writing desk and end tables, also decorated tastefully in the same colors and style. Frosted-glass French doors, which offered seclusion from the living room, were pushed to the side.
As Natalie continued to examine the suite, she noticed two full bathrooms, one off the living room, and the other next to the bedroom. Venturing into the one off the bedroom, she saw it contained cool marble accents around the double vanities and warm apricot tiles along the floor and the whirlpool bathtub wall.
After looking around, Natalie stepped back into the bedroom, moving towards the bed. As she got closer, her eyes caught a glimpse of several items, spread across the bedspread. In an instant, she was holding one of the objects in her hands, a look of bewilderment creeping into her face. For a moment longer, she looked at it, still in her grasp. It was a silky white nightgown. What was going on here? She put the negligee down and looked at the other items on the bed. There was an assortment of more frilly nightgowns mixed with revealing underwear. As she was sorting through the sea of lace, her eyes focused on a card, lying on the bedspread. Curious, she snatched up the fine stationary. Opening it, she began to read the words silently.
Dear Natalie and (indirectly) Nick,
Thanks to Sam's generosity, Grace and I took the liberty of buying you a trousseau for what we hope will be a memorable weekend. Now, please don't get mad at our little deception, but I'm sure that after you calm down, you'll realize we only had yours and Nick's best interests at heart! Now for heaven sakes, put these items to good use, would ya!
Disbelief shone on Natalie's face as she reread the card. Well…didn't that just take the cake, she thought, breaking into a wide grin. Those two were really something!
Still holding the card in her hand, Natalie spun around and walked into the living room. She saw Nick next to a large basket of fruit, reading another note. As she approached, he met Natalie's stunned look with one of his own while he handed the card to her. "I think we found our answers," he stated.
Still dumbfounded, Natalie could only muster enough energy to toss hers to him. As shock faded into curiosity, she began to read the other message silently.
Dear Nick and Natalie,
Sorry about the little sham, but I felt it was necessary to get you both together. Now listen up! The *games* must stop! You need to realize that and get on with *reality*!
A few things you should know:
1. I've reserved the room for the entire night.
2. In the fridge, there is champagne for you, Natalie, and some special bottles for Nick. Please, Nick, for both your sakes, don't be obstinate about drinking them and Natalie encourage him to do so.
3. A limousine will be picking you up at 8:00 pm to take you to the Pantages Theatre. I've reserved box seats for The Phantom of the Opera. Enjoy!
P.S. Remember love does conquer all!
Natalie put the card down on the coffee table. "Nick, I can't believe neither one of us saw this coming. They can certainly keep a secret," she acknowledged, and then catching Nick's sudden frown, asked, "What's the matter?"
"What do you suppose Sam meant by "some special bottles" in the refrigerator?" He questioned, worry creeping into his voice.
Natalie shrugged. "I have no idea, but I suppose we should look." She marched over to a small refrigerator next to the dining area. Opening the door, she pulled out a fine bottle of champagne, scrutinizing it. "Good choice of champagne." She rested it on the dining room table, and then reaching into the fridge again, pulled out a dark bottle. "And, a sparkling red wine," she commented, impressed.
At the sight of the bottle, Nick's face became grim. "Let me see that bottle, Nat."
"Sure." She handed it to him. "Anything wrong?"
"Nat, this isn't a vintage wine," he stated. There was mounting agitation in his voice.
"Oh come on Nick. If it isn't red wine, then what is it?" She asked giving him a wry smile. "Blood?" She chuckled.
"Yes," he said, clearly disturbed. "And it's human."
"Human?" She asked her eyes widening in surprise. "How do you know?"
"By the label and …" He opened the bottle, and inhaled, his eyes closing and his nostrils flaring as his face took on almost a blissful expression. He could tell by the smell it was a robust youthful vintage, probably donated. He opened his eyes, and seeing Natalie's surprised gaze, corked the bottle with quick deftness. "And the aroma," he added, giving her a sheepish grin.
Natalie disregarded Nick's embarrassment. "Sam knows about you? How?" She asked, puzzlement and concern climbing in her voice.
"I couldn't say," he replied, just as bewildered and worried as she.
"He does seem to know a lot about people," she admitted. "And vampires," she added with a slight grin, which disappeared quickly as her expression turned serious. "Nick, if he does know something about you, isn't he endangering his life? The Enforcers?" She inquired, becoming anxious. "Oh Nick. He's such a kind soul. I'd hate to see anything happen to him," she stated, distressed.
"Relax, Nat. If he's known about vampires for a while, he's probably had sense enough to keep quiet."
"So you think he's safe for the moment?"
"Yeah …I think so, besides if the Enforcers wanted to dispose of him for his knowledge of us, he would have been eliminated by now."
"Oh...that's a relief!" She emitted a huge sigh. "Then I'd say we should relax and celebrate." A smile spread across her face, her eyes beaming with sudden exuberance as she uncorked the champagne bottle and poured a glass. Taking it with the basket of fruit, she moved to the sofa, and plopping down into the comfortable cushions, took a sip. Reaching over, she pulled a ripe strawberry from the mound of fruit and bit into it. She sighed contently as she took another sip of champagne.
Nick watched the scene in stunned silence, and then began to chuckle.
Natalie stopped eating and drinking, and looked at him. "What is so funny?"
"Oh… you, over there on the sofa, eating fruit and drinking champagne like you don't have a care in the world."
She shrugged. "Well…I guess I don't since I came here tonight to *try* to have a good time. And…damn it! I'm going to!" She said firmly. "After all, I had to put up with Grace's insistence that I buy this dress, pay a small fortune for it and tolerate leering stares from the desk clerk."
He laughed. "After all that, I suppose you are entitled to have a good time and enjoy yourself." He paused, becoming serious, as he added, "Ah… Nat, there's just one more thing I wanted to ask you?" His voice was growing uneven and husky.
"What's that?" She asked with feigned calmness, as a delightful shiver ran up her spine at the seductive quality in his voice.
"I could understand why you wouldn't like the desk clerk's stares, and if I'd known, I would have ensured he'd never do that again. But, by chance, would you tolerate a leering gaze from someone, who admires, respects and… loves you so?" His voice shook with emotion, as his eyes regarded her with longing.
For a moment, Natalie returned the same gaze, as a powerful urge swept over her to run into his arms and say the hell with it. Let the chips fall where they might. But she hesitated as common sense took over and her passionate yearnings were replaced with sobering logic. For the time being, what he needed from her was abstinence to gain control, not a passionate interlude. At least… not yet!
Still staring into those compassionate blue eyes, she replied, "Nick, that's one of the sweetest things you've ever said to me." There was gentleness in her voice and love in her eyes. Her expression changed to concern, however, when she saw him moving towards her.
When he reached the sofa, kneeling beside her, he seized one of her hands, and looked at her with such intensity, it took her breath away. He began to lean forward, his lips seeking hers. Seeing his intent, she swallowed her emotions and pressed her other hand against the fine textured fabric of his tuxedo, stopping his progress. "Nick… I think we need to take things slowly. At least…for now," she said. There was firmness in her tone, but devotion in her eyes.
Leaning over, Nick brushed a tender kiss across her temple, and then looked at her in a thoughtful manner. "I know we need to go slow. But you look so radiant tonight…that for one second I forgot who and *what* I am. I wanted…I…" His words trailed off as he looked down at her hand still cradled in his. He began to rub his thumb across her knuckles.
With her other hand, Natalie drew his face back to meet hers, peering into his sad eyes. "Nick, I want the same things you do. And I truly believe that it is possible for us to be together, but for that to happen, you've got to stop thinking of yourself as some kind of monster."
"But Nat, I am a monster, who would kill you…"
Natalie stopped the flow of his words with her hand. "Will you let me finish?"
He nodded as she removed her hand. "As I was saying, you've got to stop believing that you are a monster. You need to realize that you are a man…a good honorable man…who has this slight problem."
"Slight problem?" Nick regarded her in amazement, as he released her hand and sprang to his feet. "That's an understatement. My slight problem could kill you in an instant." He began to pace, clearly agitated.
"Calm down Nick," she said. "Okay I was wrong. It's more than a slight problem, but in my opinion, it's not so huge that you can't control it. In fact…" She paused.
At her hesitation, Nick stopped pacing and stood in front of her. "In fact…what, Nat?" He asked curiously.
"You seem to be more in control tonight than I've seen you in months," she remarked. "When you looked at me earlier, it was with hunger, but not the kind you get from my arteries or in the house special down at the Raven." She smiled despite the seriousness of their discussion.
Nick returned the smile and then it dissolved into a frown. "Tonight is the first time in a while since I've not craved your blood, Nat…I mean…that I still want to taste you again, but it isn't with the same intensity as before," he admitted, breaking into an embarrassed grin.
"What can be accounting for this transformation?" Natalie inquired with curiosity.
"Umm…well…Nat." Nick looked away from her questioning glance and down at the floor.
"Come on, Nick," she said. "Spit it out. What gives?"
Glancing up, he drew in a deep breath, and began to explain, "Before I came here tonight, I figured I might see you at this party."
"Well…I took the advice of someone, and drank down three bottles of human blood," he confessed, nervously running his hand through his golden locks.
"Ah…I see. I suppose this "someone" was LaCroix?" She asked. There was casualness in her tone. Her face was betraying nothing to him.
Observing her immobile façade made him more upset. Again, he ran his hand through his tousled hair, and then went on, "Yes …But Nat, before you say anything about him, I would like to explain that initially, I was skeptical about LaCroix' suggestion, wondering if this was another way to get me to return to my nature. But, for once, I saw he had my best intentions at heart and…"
"Nick…" She said calmly. "You don't have to explain anymore to me. I understand."
"You do?" Nick gazed at her in astonishment.
"Yes, and what I'm about to admit may astound you," Natalie declared. "But I think, for once, I agree with LaCroix."
"Really?" He asked, still surprised.
"Yeah…really." She shook her head, not believing it herself. "I didn't think the day would come that I would agree with him. But, look at what those three bottles have done for your control."
"Are you saying that I should continue with this treatment, doctor?" Nick asked in a teasing manner, giving her a tentative smile.
"Yeah…and for starters, you should take advantage of Sam's generosity." She motioned to the dark bottle, and then gave him a profound look.
She was met with silence as Nick stared at her, uncomprehending and dazed.
"Nick, go ahead and try Sam's specialty. It's okay." She nodded towards the table. "I know you need it. I finally understand that." She gave him such a beautiful smile, his heart almost melted. Reaching over, she grabbed another strawberry and plopped it into her mouth, leaning back into the couch. "Why don`t you pour yourself a drink and we'll talk for a few minutes before the limo gets here?" She patted the cushion next to her.
Still speechless, Nick remained in his spot. At last, he walked over to the table, and then lifting the bottle, turned back to her. "You don't mind me drinking this in front of you?" He asked, his voice still carrying disbelief.
"Unless you drink it straight from the bottle." She teased. "Besides, restraint is the important thing here, right?"
Pouring some into a glass, Nick walked over to the couch and sat next to her. He reached over and ran his hand across her cheek. "Yes…very important. After all, we are talking about your life, Nat. This is the real world now, not some game." He drew his hand away, concern evident in his voice. "If we are to be together, which I'm beginning to think is possible, I need to drink *a lot* of this stuff. " He gestured to the glass in his hand, and then raising it, tapped it against her champagne flute. "Here's to a memorable, but *controllable* evening with the woman I love."
"Yes. To a fabulous evening with the man I love. And let's hope if things progress, I'm more the appetizer than the dessert." She gave him a mischievous smile.
"Exactly." He leaned over and as his lips drew near to hers, whispered, "Nibbling on you rather than consuming the whole delectable delight is my preferred choice."
******************************************** The black limousine pulled up to the curb's edge, and without hesitation, the driver emerged from the dark interior of the car, and opened the back door. Nick and Natalie got out and regarded the regal- looking palace in front of them. A former 1920's, vaudeville and pre- depression motion picture theatre, The Pantages had been restored in 1989 and converted to a legitimate theatre. At one time, it had been home to the Pantages Circuit, and for the last few years, to The Phantom of the Opera, the longest running, present day show with no ending in sight.
As they heard the closing of the car door, Nick gestured to the bronze-colored double doors ahead of them. "Come on Nat. We better hurry or we'll miss the beginning."
Earlier in the hotel room, anxious to catch up on news in their everyday lives, they'd waited until the last moment to ride the limousine over to the theatre. Now, they only had minutes to get to their seats. Natalie smiled over at Nick, allowing him to lead her into the interior of the theatre. Once there, Nick motioned to the stairs at the right of the grand hall. "I believe the box we're looking for is this way."
Climbing the steps in a hurried fashion, they arrived at the top, where an usher escorted them down another hall to their seats. Once inside the box, as if on cue, the lights from the chandeliers dimmed and the overture began. Sitting down, immediately the haunting quality of the music seemed to capture them both in a hypnotic spell… even Nick… as he reached over and grabbed Natalie's hand. She smiled, and then leaning over, murmured in his ear, "I've always wanted to see Phantom, to get swept up into all the mystery and darkness of the story…but only with you." On the last words, there was a slight tremor in her voice.
At her sweet admission, he squeezed her hand, and whispered back in a husky tone, "Same here, Nat. But we'll have to be sure to bottle some of that mystery and darkness and save it for later." Pulling away, he brought her hand up to his lips and kissed each fingertip with deliberate slowness, gazing at her with desire.
Nick's words, the tone of his voice, his gaze and the soft feel of his lips on her skin were beginning to produce warm, sensuous feelings inside of her. She returned his hungry stare with one of her own, but she soon forced down the stirrings as she tried to pull her hand out of his grasp.
His lips curled into a smile at her actions, but instead of releasing her hand, he brought it down to rest in his lap. "Don't worry Nat. I'll behave." He winked.
"You better. Or I'll make you the worst protein shake of them all." She threatened, but her tone was light and teasing.
Nick grimaced, and then whispered in her ear. "No thanks." He brushed his lips over her earlobe, and then turned back to the stage as the overture ended and the show began.
For a moment, warmed by the lingering memory of his kisses on her skin, Natalie regarded him with a dazed expression and then snapping out of it, also turned back to the show.
Instantly, the passionate but heartbreaking story weaved its black magic on her, holding her completely entranced, as the dark stirring lyrics and music captured her soul. By the end of the first act, raw emotions had seized her in such a way that she was gripping Nick's hand very tightly. If he had been human, he would have had to be concerned about broken bones.
Sometime during the second act, when the Phantom and Christine began singing The Point of No Return, again, the lyrics and music seemed to grip her, holding her spellbound. But unlike the other songs, this one had a special place in her heart, as the words seemed to be stating the obvious about her and Nick's relationship, that they too had reached the Point of No Return.
The Phantom sings:
You have come here In pursuit of your deepest urge In pursuit of that wish Which till now has been silent…silent
I have brought you that our passions may fuse and merge In your mind you've already succumbed to me Dropped all defenses, completely succumbed to me Now you are here with me No second thoughts You've decided…. Decided
Past the point of no return No backward glances The games we've played `til now Are at an end
`My goodness, this is uncanny, this could be us,' she realized with amazement. And, like Christine and the Phantom, who were masquerading as two potential lovers, would the games be coming to an end for her and Nick? As if he could read her mind, she felt Nick's arm slide around her, drawing her near. Glancing up, she caught his eyes staring at her with total devotion. He smiled, and then giving her shoulder a quick squeeze, turned back to the scene unfolding before their eyes.
Past all thought of "if " or "when" No use resisting Abandon thought and let the dream descend What raging fire shall flood the soul? What rich desire unlocks its door? What sweet seduction lies before us?
A warm, languid sensation was beginning to build within her, becoming increasingly warmer with every desirable word uttered between the lovers on stage and gentle caress made by Nick along her shoulder. She sighed in contentment as his hand loosened the wrap around her and then traveled lightly down her arm.
Past the point of no return The final threshold What warm unspoken secrets will we learn Beyond the point of no return
What warm unspoken secrets would she and Nick learn? Would tonight be the night? Would they reach the point of no return? A shiver of delight coursed through her at the thought and Nick's touch, as his hand caressed her arm, the fine hairs on her skin standing on end.
You have brought me To that moment where words run dry To that moment where speech disappears Into silence…. Silence….
I have come here hardly knowing the reason why In my mind I've already imagined our bodies entwining Defenseless and silent And now I am here with you No second thoughts I've decided…. Decided
Past…. the point of no return No going back now The passion play has now at last begun
Sensing her growing excitement at the suggestive lyrics and his soft caresses, Nick cast a sidelong glance at her and smiled. Her breathing had become erratic, as he watched the soft, alluring roundness of her breasts rising and falling. The words and her mounting arousal were having an effect on him as well. Reaching over with his other hand, he moved her hair to the side, and then began planting light kisses along her neck.
Past the thought of right or wrong One final question: How long should we two wait before we're one? When will the blood begin to race? The sleeping bud burst into bloom? When will the flames at last consume us?
Natalie closed her eyes, allowing the words and Nick's slow, delicious kisses to envelope her in a soft veil of joy and pleasure. In her mind, she wanted this moment to go on forever.
The Phantom and Christine sing:
Past the point of no return The final threshold The bridge is crossed, so stand
Drawing away, Nick tilted her chin towards his questing lips. Moving his hands around to cup the sides of her face, at first he captured her mouth in a tender, cherishing kiss. But soon, as with the feverish anti-climatic ending to the song, Nick's kiss became more passionate, more intense. Moving his hand around her head, he pressed her closer, as he parted her lips and deepened the kiss.
And watch it burn We've passed the point of no return
As the song came to its fiery conclusion, so did the kiss. Pulling away, they stared into one another's eyes with intense hunger, their breathing heavy with desire. Leaning forward, Nick rested his forehead against hers while their breathing and emotions settled into a calm repose.
At last, he leaned back and cradled her face in his hand, rubbing his thumb across her soft cheek. "Nat, I think we are about to pass the point of no return, ourselves," he whispered and gave her a charming smile. "So I think this calls for reinforcements." He pulled a flask out of the inside pocket to his tuxedo jacket, and giving her a look as if asking permission, waited for her response.
Natalie's response came in acceptance, as she returned the smile, and seized his hand in hers, squeezing it. Without hesitation, he loosened the cap, and drank the sweet ambrosia down. For a moment, he sat there with his eyes shut, savoring the exquisite aftertaste. 'One things for certain, Sam knew how to pick his vintages.' He mused, tilting the flask again, allowing the rest of the rich nectar to glide down his throat. Capping the bottle, he slid it back in his pocket.
Natalie leaned close to Nick's ear. "Better?"
"Much…" he murmured. "After all, as we agreed earlier, I…we…need to keep the situation between us "controllable."
"But I hope not too controllable." Her voice shook with emotion.
He brushed another endearing kiss along her temple, as he began to stroke her hair. "I think that can be arranged," he acknowledged, his voice becoming seductive. Saying nothing more, he let his hand fall away, as he resumed watching to the show.
Sitting there, a warm tingle of anticipation spread through Natalie at just what `arrangements' he had in store for them. Forcing down her emotions, she too turned her eyes back to the stage.
Back in the hotel room, Natalie sat on the sofa nursing a club soda, while she gazed at Nick, who was consuming his third glass of the house special. "Nick, for heavens sake, you're making *me* nervous! Will you come over here and sit down…and if you want, bring the whole damn bottle with you."
"Okay…Nat." He grabbed it, and with glass in hand, made his way over to the couch. Plopping down into the soft cushions, he poured himself another glassful, and without hesitation, gulped it down. Then poured another.
He repeated the action several times, before Natalie stopped him with her hand. "Nick…relax…we don't have to do anything, if you don't want to." She said softly. "I'm content to spend the time with you…. to talk with you… to have it be like old times again. It's what I've missed most about our relationship."
Nick regarded her with wonder, setting the glass down on the coffee table. Every time he thought he knew how much he loved her, she managed to touch him even more deeply. "Me too," he agreed, his voice becoming thick with emotion. "But… I'm also ready to cross that bridge if you are. To broaden our relationship." Sliding closer, he scooped up her hand, and brushed a kiss across her knuckle.
"I'm ready Nick…more than ready. But I don't want to pressure you. We can take things slowly, discovering our own limitations and stopping if need be. And Nick…" she hesitated, as fear threatened to surface. She swallowed it down as she continued. "I've also been wondering if you've reconsidered about bringing me across?"
"As a matter of fact, I have. And, honestly Nat, I love you so much that I loathe the idea of condemning you to this existence," he said fervently, tightening his hold around her hand.
"But Nick…" she started, becoming exasperated.
He held up his hand. "Let me finish," he declared. "What we are about to do …what we are contemplating doing…will result either in me sipping on you every time we're together, eventually leading to death, or …bringing you across. And, since I can't bear the thought of releasing you into death, as I don't think I can live without you. I..." He couldn`t finish, as fresh emotions swept over him.
"It's okay, Nick," Natalie soothed, squeezing his hand. "I understand. So you're saying you would be willing to bring me across?" She asked, her eyes becoming hopeful.
"Only if you're absolutely certain about this, Nat."
"Yes, I'm positive. I want us to be together. And if this is the only way, I'm more than willing to go into the darkness with you. Besides, if you bring me across, think of all the centuries I'll have to search for a cure for you…for me…for us."
"Okay then…there's just one more thing we need to discuss," he stated quietly.
"What?" She gazed at him through curious eyes.
"After what happened six months ago, are you okay with this?" He asked gently.
She smiled at his obvious concern over her past problems. "I'll be fine Nick," she assured him. "As long as you love me, as much as I love you, I'll be *more* than fine. I'll be great. I'll be on cloud nine. I'll…"
"Okay, Nat…I get the idea." He grinned.
"All right then!" She sprang to her feet. "I guess I have a trousseau to look over, so could you give me a little while?"
"Okay, but not too long." He warned, but his voice was light, as he watched her go.
Natalie turned back. "Just drink and be merry and I'll be back soon." She winked and slid the glass doors shut to the bedroom.
Thirty minutes later, Nick looked over to see the doors opening a crack, as Natalie's head appeared. "Are you ready, Nick?"
"More than ready, Nat," he said with eagerness, his eyes endeavoring to see through the frosted glass doors.
Noting where his eyes had roamed, she laughed. "Just as I thought. You don't have all of Superman's abilities. You can't see through *this* glass."
Nick got up and moved rapidly towards her. "But I have his strength," he acknowledged. As if to prove a point, he slid the doors back with more force than necessary, allowing them to hit the walls with a loud bang.
For a second, the sound echoed through the room. As it began to fade, so did Natalie's laughter. In its place came an abrupt silence as she saw where Nick's eyes had ventured. A tingle of anticipation crept up her spine. "Well…do you think I made the right selection?" She asked in a breathless tone.
"Oh Nat," he said, his voice growing husky. "I think you made the perfect choice. You look exquisite in that nightgown."
After some deliberation, Natalie had gone with the silky white nightgown, the first one she'd seen, because it accentuated everything without being too revealing. The top was scooped in the neck and sleeveless with small beading around the bodice and the lower half clung to her hips, trailing downward to a side slit, which ran up to her knee.
Feeling uncomfortable with his glowing praise and intense stare, she flushed a deep crimson. "So, I take it you like my choice?" She asked in a shaky tone, as a warm sensation began to spread from her stomach to her extremities.
Nick took a step closer to her, his eyes moving to her face. "Oh…yes. I like it very much, Nat." His voice was still thick with emotion as he stood within inches of her. He could almost feel the intense fire building within her, the same flame that was spreading through him. Not wanting to move too fast, he suppressed his mounting desire, and reaching over, brushed his fingertips across her cheekbone. "In fact, you are really testing my control with that outfit." He said his voice still rough-edged.
Natalie smiled, and then taking hold of his other hand, led him over to the bed. "Well…I can always go retrieve my pink bathrobe from my apartment, if that would help."
Nick sank onto the bed, pulling her down beside him. He chuckled. "Nat, I'm afraid that would only be a temporary solution. It would be discarded quickly and then we would be back where we started." His eyes gleamed mischievously, as he gathered her hand up, interlocking their fingers in a loving hold.
She lowered her gaze to their hands. "Well…then…Nick, what do you want me to do?" Her voice was soft and slightly breathless.
"Well…I can think of one thing."
"What's that, Nick?" She asked with a slight tremor, as excitement began to bloom.
"Well…for starters, can I just hold you?" He asked quietly.
The tone of his voice, so earnest and pleading, took Natalie completely by surprise, her heart nearly melting. She looked at him, and reaching over with her other hand, began caressing his face. "Nick, you need never ask," she murmured, and then reaching around with her hand, entangled her fingers in his soft locks, bringing his head down to her shoulder.
An instant later, she felt his arms snake around her waist in a careful, almost reverent hold, his head nestling in the hollow between her neck and shoulder. She leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Nick, I'm not going to break, if that's what you're worried about. You can hold me tighter than that."
He raised his head and grinned. "Sorry, I don't want to hurt you."
"Well…Nick…I know that I'm a fragile mortal, but I don't believe a firmer hug is going to hurt me." She smiled back, her tone light.
"Mmmm…. You mean like this…" All at once, he gathered her up in his arms, pressing her close to his chest.
"Ummm…Nick…maybe that's a little too firm," she admitted.
He smiled, feeling her pull away. Leaning forward, he brushed a kiss across her lips, barely grazing them. "Was that too firm?" He asked, nuzzling his nose against hers, his lips remaining tantalizingly close. There was a low, sensuous quality to his voice.
Natalie swallowed hard. "No, that was just right!" Her heart began to pound with excitement.
Nick lifted his hand, and cupping it around her cheek, drew her lips towards his. This time, he kissed her deeply and with more intensity as he lowered her onto the bed. Natalie moaned beneath him, tightening her arms around his neck, as the kiss seemed to go on indefinitely, their tongues dueling in a fiery dance. Nick's hand traveled down to her shoulder, then lower, to one of her full breasts. He cupped and kneaded it, stroking the peaked nub of her nipple through the soft fabric of her nightgown. He heard a low groan in the back of her throat as he continued to touch and kiss her ardently. Then, abruptly he stopped, rolling away to his side.
Natalie moaned with frustration, arching her back. Through heavy- lidded eyes, she gazed at Nick. "Why did you stop?" She gasped.
Nick reached out with his finger and ran it down her cheekbone to trace the outline of her swollen lips. "Don't you need to catch your breath, Nat?"
In response, Natalie pulled him towards her, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. "What I need is your tender loving care." She said fervently.
She drew him into another deep, passionate kiss, and then entwining her fingers in his hair, molded her body to his. For a long moment, Nick kissed her back with the same intensity, giving in to the alluring warmness of her very essence, the incredible softness of her lips hungrily seeking his, the enticing scent of her perfumed hair and skin, and the sensuous feel of her body beneath his. Then, as before, reason returned, and with reluctance, he drew away.
Natalie regarded him with a concerned expression. "Nick, what's the matter? Too much love all at once?"
He kissed her fingertips. "No, I'm fine…actually great." He gave her a sheepish grin, as he leaned forward to kiss her lightly on the lips.
"Then what's the problem?" She inquired curiously.
"Well… before we go any further, there are a couple things we should discuss." His tone was serious.
"Well…for one thing Nat, it's inevitable that I will change. If this frightens or makes you feel uncomfortable, you can tell me to stop … at least up to a point."
Natalie turned on her side, facing him, and reached over with her hand to caress his cheek. "Nick, I understand and besides I could never be afraid of you." Catching his chin with a finger, she made him look into her eyes. "Because…I…trust…you. I…love…you," she said emphatically, and then breaking into a smile, added, "So what do you say?"
For a moment, Nick was overcome with emotion as he marveled at the level of trust and faith, which she placed in him. Her unconditional love was uncanny; that she could love him despite everything he had done simply amazed him. He didn't deserve her. But regardless, with sudden resolve, he matched her smile with one of his own. "Okay, what are we waiting for?" He leaned forward to kiss her.
Natalie covered his mouth with her hand. "Nick, wouldn't you like to get more comfortable?" Her eyes traveled over his now very rumpled tuxedo.
Noting where her eyes had gone, he turned back. "Yeah…but I'm going to need your help." He gave her a mischievous grin.
"I thought you'd never ask." She replied, and then reaching up with her hand, slid his jacket off, tossing it across the room. Next came the bow tie and ruffled shirt as they floated in the air, and then landed on the floor near the crumpled jacket. Eager to be rid of his other clothes, Nick then stood up, discarding his cummerbund, pants, shoes and socks with a quick deftness. Finally, came the black, silk boxers, as he slid them down and away.
Now completely naked, he stood there, allowing her eyes to wander over him. After a long moment of silence, a wave of self- consciousness began to wash over him. Embarrassed, Nick cleared his throat. "Well…I take it this abrupt silence means that you approve?"
"Oh…I definitely approve." Natalie peered at him, admiration pooled in her eyes. And love. She lifted her arms in a silent invitation. Nick didn't need anymore coaxing. In an instant, he was beside her, his arms slipping around her waist as he pressed her close. Bending over, he captured her lips in a cherishing kiss, as his hands caressed the curve of her back.
Drawing away, he smiled. "Nat, as much as I love to see you wearing that beautiful nightgown, I think it's time to let me see the whole package."
Natalie flushed in embarrassment. "Sure Nick. Only…I have one request."
"What's that?" He asked, reaching over to run his finger along her jaw line, then upwards, to touch her nose.
"Maybe you could do the honors and help me with the unveiling?" She asked with a touch of shyness in her voice, her face turning a deep crimson.
Nick grinned wickedly. "I'm more than happy to oblige." With expert agility, he slid the silky material over her head, casting it to the floor. Next came her panties, as he slipped them off in one fluid motion. He leaned over her and let his eyes travel down her body, his expression one of wonder.
Also feeling self-conscious, she shrugged and asked, "Well…I certainly hope that this *real life* viewing meets with your expectations."
He looked at her, his eyes swirling with adoration. "Oh…Nat. I think it far exceeds them. Virtual reality was nothing compared to what I see before me now. You are so beautiful." He whispered, his voice trembling with emotion. "You are gorgeous, magnificent…."
"Okay…. Okay…enough already! I get the general idea." She chuckled and unable to stand his embarrassing proclamation any longer, pulled his mouth down on hers. With earnest, Natalie began to explore his body, running her hands across his broad shoulders, and over to his taut, muscular chest. At her delicate touches, he moaned deep in the back of his throat, and parting her lips, deepened their kiss, as his hands stroked down her neck, over her collarbone and lower, to cup her breasts in a reverent hold.
Natalie moaned against his lips as Nick began tracing circles around her nipples and then releasing her mouth, worked his way down her neck, over her shoulder and to her collarbone, blazing a trail of kisses. Rolling slightly on top of her, his mouth kissed lower as he sensed the fullness of her breasts not too far away. Placing kisses down her front, he came to them and taking each aroused nipple into his mouth, suckled gently, and then traced his tongue around each aureole.
She uttered a soft whimper at the sheer pleasure Nick was producing on her body. Arching her back, she pushed against his questing lips while she continued her own explorations. She ran her hands down his broad muscular back to his waist where she stroked his hips, then across his backside to his firm rear where she wrapped her soft hands around him, squeezing each cheek. All at once, she heard a low guttural growl and felt his attentions stop. Looking up, she was met with amber colored eyes, staring back at her. "Are you having fun?" Nick asked, his voice hoarse, his golden eyes filled with desire.
Forcing down her own mounting desires, she brushed her hand across his face. "Too much, Nick?" She inquired, concern evident in her voice.
Nick smiled down at her through his amber eyes, his gaze amazingly tender. "Just give me a minute, Nat. I'll be fine." After a moment, as his eyes returned to their normal blueness, he leaned forward finding her lips again in a languorous kiss. As their tongues danced slowly around each other, one of his hands slid down to cup her breast while the other one moved lower, finding the soft spot of her inner thighs. Slipping between her legs, he dusted his fingertips over the silky smoothness of her skin, and then wandering up, brushed his fingers over the wiry curls of her mound. Releasing her mouth and resting his hand against her lower side, he whispered against her lips. "Tell me if this becomes too uncomfortable for you."
Deeply touched by his unexpected concern, but also aroused by his actions, Natalie could only sigh back against his lips. "I will… Nick." She managed, as she pressed against him, feeling his arousal around her legs, the intoxicating sensation nearly driving her over the edge.
In the meantime, Nick resumed his delicate explorations, as he slipped a finger into her sensitive core, probing and finding her center of desire. In and out, with slow deliberation, he began to move within her causing a soft moan to escape from her lips. Delighted with her response, he began teasing and touching one of her nipples with his other hand while he rained kisses over her face, down her neck and over to her shoulder blade, whispering tender endearments along the way. Intensifying the pressure, he began easing his finger in and out of her, faster and faster while he swirled his palm around her peaked nipple and kissed his way up to her earlobe, nibbling on the soft skin.
Natalie felt sure she was going to explode as he shifted his movements and began rubbing and massaging her with another finger, simultaneously moving the other one inside her, faster and faster, all the while blazing kisses and caresses across her feverishly warm flesh. Feeling her grow tense beneath him, and sensing her approaching orgasm, he found her lips again as he began to kiss her deeply and passionately. It was enough. A second later, she reached the ultimate crest, crashing over into spasms of rapturous delight. Her body was lost to the incredible sensations as tremors coursed through her.
Some time passed, while she drifted back to reality. The kiss became less intense, their tongues dancing together in a more languorous motion as she caressed his backside with the same slow movements. At last, cupping her face with his hands, he drew back. She opened her eyes to see his pleased boyish grin. His eyes were still blue with only flashes of gold. "How did I do?" He murmured against her cheek.
"That was incredible, Nick…stupendous…sensational…" She whispered against the slightly rough stubble on his chin, dusting her fingertips along his back, and up his arms.
"I aim to please," he replied, his voice low and uneven.
Concerned by the tone in his voice, Natalie turned her face towards him. She was guessing that he was on-the edge, fully aroused. Seconds later, her hypothesis became a far gone conclusion as he began raining kisses over her eyelids, nose, cheeks and lips while he pressed down, grinding his hips into hers. His kisses and the power of his arousal against her were sparking a desire to feel him inside her. But first, she wanted to touch him, to give back some of the pleasure he had bestowed so unselfishly on her. Her hand started drifting downward, but soon she felt his fingers move to stop her, catching her wrist.
"Nick, let me touch you." She implored.
"Nat, I can't wait any longer. I need you…I want…" He said, his voice raspy and deep.
Natalie smiled at him with adoration. "I want you too," she said ardently, as she turned her hand to entwine her fingers with his. At the same time, her legs parted, opening like a springtime flower, her hips rising to meet him, pressing against him.
Nick gazed at her, matching the same expression as hers. He reached over to cradle her face with his other hand. "Nat, I promise I won't hurt you. Everything will be okay," he said. There was a strange fearless calm in his voice, and a rare untroubled look in his eyes.
It warmed her soul and calmed any fears that she might have had up to this point. Now, she knew without a doubt that this could never be wrong, that loving each other was the right thing to do. Squeezing his hand, which lay nestled in hers, she looked back at him with a firm resolve. "I know Nick…we need only to love one another." She murmured.
Her words were like a balm, spurring him on. He slid inside her easily, as they came together in a wondrous union, moaning against each other, the slight friction causing a ripple of pleasure to rush through them. At the same time, it also unleashed the vampire. Nick lifted his head and regarded her through amber-colored eyes as he caressed her cheek. "Don't be afraid, Nat."
In response, Natalie locked her arms and her legs around him, holding him close, while she gazed up at him with unconditional love. Momentarily overcome with emotion, he leaned forward to brush a tender kiss across her lips, as his hands slipped around her back. "I love you," he said simply, and then leaning forward, his mouth found hers again. He kissed her with care, mindful of his fangs, as he began moving within her.
From the first, they moved as one. At the beginning, with slow deliberation, as Nick eased in and out of her, taking his time, then faster, as Natalie's hips moved with him, increasing the pleasure, taking them higher and higher toward that point of no return.
Natalie's senses were reeling as she felt his firm body pressing down on hers, his coolness moving inside and against her, touching and rubbing, while his hands and mouth worked their magic, covering her burning flesh in delicious kisses and gentle touches.
The world around them seemed to grow distant, as they became aware only of each other, moving together in a sensual fluid rhythm. Incredible sensations were bombarding Nick as he felt her lightly sweat-laden skin pressed against him, her satiny smooth legs and arms around his hips, and her moist heat surrounding him like a warm cocoon. He continued to move in and out, faster and faster with more intensity as Natalie pushed against him with her hips, rocking together in a continuous fluidity.
At one point, Natalie felt sure she was going to explode, and then the world began to shatter around her in a kaleidoscopic brilliance of colors, while she catapulted into a sea of utter bliss. Time seemed to slow down, as the exquisite sensations went on, rushing through her like a never-ending tidal wave.
Nick could feel her quivering spasms beneath him while he began to smother kisses along her throat, brushing his lips over her smooth supple skin. With measured gentleness, he penetrated her flesh with his fangs, while he completed one final thrust into her heat-filled core, falling against her as he shuddered in climax. Drinking her sweet nectar, he became increasingly overwhelmed with the magnitude of her love and faith in him. It seemed to envelope him like a warm blanket. Oddly, sudden calmness followed, something he had never experienced.
Natalie was settling into voluptuous ease, feeling Nick's kisses against her neck, his hips pushing against her flesh as he continued to thrust into her, when pain swept over her. Though sudden and sharp, quickly, it faded into ecstasy, flooding her body and senses in a way she'd never known. The pleasure was almost too unbearable as intense images began assaulting her. She saw Nick on horseback in the bright sunlight, his numerous conquests, his crossing, their first meeting, and their memorable times together, bantering in their old ways. She sensed his moods, his compassion, his fear of hurting her, and his guilt. But most of all, she felt his recent fearless resolve and devoted love to her, as their thoughts and emotions merged into one soul, one mind. Never before had she felt such completeness as she did now with him at this moment.
Natalie felt him drawing away from her throat, as she wrapped her arms more tightly around him, holding him close while shudders continued to pass through him. She could feel his lips pressing kisses along her throat and sighed in contentment. Lifting her hand to his head, she began stroking and entwining her fingers in his tousled hair.
Minutes passed, as they continued to kiss, stroke and hold one another, and then drawing away, Nick raised his head, and gave Natalie a warm satisfied smile. "Have I told you how much I love you?"
"Yes, but you can always tell me again." She locked her arms around his neck, pulling him down into a tender kiss.
The kiss went on, and then cupping her face with his hands, Nick pulled away. "I love you so much," he said, his voice shaking with emotion as he drew her into his arms, hugging her to him. "You mean everything to me."
"Nick, I love you too," Natalie replied, her eyes brimming with tears, as emotions roiled to the surface. She buried her face in the crook of his neck.
Feeling the dampness on his skin, Nick looked up, anxious eyes meeting her tearful ones. "Are you okay, Nat? Did I hurt you? I'm so sorry if I did." He blurted out as he brushed the tears away with his fingertips.
"Nick I'm fine. In fact, I'm more than fine" She said, breaking into a wide grin.
"Then, why the tears?" He questioned, still concerned, as he continued to rub his hand across her wet cheek.
"It's just that I'm so happy." She said, as fresh tears formed in the corners of her eyes. "*You* make me so very happy." Her voice was quivering with emotion.
"Oh, Nat…" he began, his voice catching in his throat. Swallowing hard, he managed to continue, "You've brought me so much happiness. I can't begin to tell you."
"Well…. Then I guess we can say we're happy, happy, happy." She laughed, trying to lighten the mood.
Nick smiled and gathered her in another embrace. A few more minutes passed, as they remained locked together, and then Natalie pushed away as a sudden idea came to her. "Say Nick, do you realize what happened?" She asked, her voice filling with wonder.
"You stopped in time." Natalie gaped, mystified.
"I did, didn't I?" His expression and tone were betraying disbelief. "In fact, I was kinda surprised," he admitted.
"Because when I drank your blood, I felt a calm descend on me. That's never happened before," he confessed, gathering up her hand. He began to kiss each fingertip.
"Well…you did consume a lot of Sam's special brew before we…" She responded, allowing the words to trail off as he continued to dust kisses around her fingers.
"Yes, but I don't think that was the reason," he replied, drawing his lips away from her hand and interlocking his fingers with hers.
"What then?" She asked.
"I don't know. But in 800 years, I've never felt that way before," he admitted, his voice becoming thoughtful.
"Maybe, my blood has some magical ingredient in it for calming vampires," she said, a touch of wryness in her tone.
"I didn't think you believed in magic, all that mumbo jumbo." He teased.
"Normally I don't, but at one time I didn't believe in vampires either." She smiled.
Natalie's smile faded as a thought occurred to her. "We should run tests on you to see if my blood has affected your physiology," she said, her manner becoming serious.
"Okay, but for now, let's go to sleep." He suggested. "We can discuss this later." He rolled to her backside, pulling her against his body.
"Okay. Sleep sounds good. I can do sleep." She agreed, snuggling close to him.
She felt his hand stroke her hair, as her eyes grew heavy. "Goodnight, Nat." She heard him say as she began drifting off.
"Goodnight, Nick." She managed before succumbing completely to sleep.
Slowly, Natalie awoke to the rays of sunshine caressing her skin, casting golden beams of light on her legs. She stretched and then smiled as she began to recall the events of the night before. Had it really happened? Had she and Nick finally broken down those barriers and made love? All at once, as if in answer, she felt a small twinge of discomfort in her leg muscles, as a spasm hit. She smiled. Yep, it had definitely happened.
Content to mull over everything for a little while longer, Natalie remained, sprawled on the bed, as the sunlight continued to pour down on her. She closed her eyes and sighed in contentment. The rays felt so good against her skin. So inviting…so warm…Warm! Oh my gosh! She opened her eyes as she shot up to a sitting position. The sun! Nick! We forgot to close the drapes!
Natalie glanced over at him with concern. She could see that the sun's rays were creeping towards his feet. In an instant, panic swept through her as she scrambled out of the bed, moving faster than she thought possible to the window. Pulling on the cord, she closed the drapes with quick agility, and as the beams of sunlight began to diminish, so did her anxiety. Once the room was shrouded again in a grayish darkness, she turned back to the bed, closing her eyes in relief.
A moment passed as calmness returned, and then opening her eyes again, she regarded Nick. He was lying on his back, his hands drawn to his chest. Smiling, she stepped closer, allowing her eyes to travel over him, to savor the moment and look at him undetected. He was magnificent, even in his vampiric slumber.
Gradually, as her eyes continued to roam over his body, her smile started to fade into a puzzled expression. Moving closer, she could see there were obvious changes in his physiology. His chest was rising and falling at faster intervals, still too slow for a mortal, but assuredly far more regular than before. And she could actually hear him emit a light snore every few minutes.
Surprised, Natalie sat down on the bed. After a moment, she slid next to him and began to study his face. Even in the dim light of the room, she could see that his cheeks were flushed in color. Although her knowledge of vampire physiology was limited, Natalie knew vampires only appeared this way for a couple hours after feeding. It had been at least six hours since Nick had fed from her and Sam's vintages, so what did this mean? Was it what they had been hoping and searching for? Was he becoming mortal? All at once, her heart began to race at the possibility. Calm down, Lambert. It may be nothing! She thought as she swallowed hard, forcing down her excitement, and then turning back to Nick, continued with her examination.
Reaching out, she brushed her hand across his cheek with care, trying not to wake him. She could tell his skin was warmer to the touch, again not as warm as a mortal's, but certainly warmer than before. Now, too excited to conduct her examination in a slow, painstaking fashion, she moved her hand swiftly downward to his neck, checking for a pulse. She could feel the slow, intermittent beats under his skin. Again, not a normal human pulse rate, but faster than his usual one.
Her own pulse rate began to quicken as she continued to work her way downward. This time to his chest, pressing her ear against his taut muscles. Like his pulse, his heart rate was slower than normal human, but the intermittent beats were more frequent than before. From the looks of things, he was becoming human. But was this only a temporary situation? Would he revert? And what was causing this transformation: Sam's special bottles? Her blood? What? Her mind was a jumble of questions, coming fast and furious like a train down the tracks.
Unexpectedly, Natalie's thoughts were interrupted as she felt a pair of hands reach down, and pull her up, sliding her across warm flesh, while she heard someone calling her name. She looked up to see Nick staring back at her, a warm smile flickering across his face. "Nat, I must say this is a wonderful way to wake up in the morning with your soft hair on my chest. Do you know what that does to me?"
She returned the smile. "No, what?" She asked, feigning ignorance.
"This." He pushed against her with his hips.
"Oh," she responded, blushing.
Nick reached up with his hands to cradle her face, pulling her down into a searing kiss. The kiss went on for a time, deep and passionate until Natalie finally pushed away from him. "Nick, I have something exciting to tell you."
"What can be more exciting than what we are doing now," he answered, as he pulled her towards him and began kissing his way down her throat, while his hands wandered down her back.
Again, Natalie drew away from his demanding lips. "Nick, I want you to listen now!" She voiced. This time, there was a bit more firmness in her tone.
It got Nick's attention. Concerned, he looked up at her. "What is it?"
She took a deep breath and began, "Nick, I've discovered something… something unbelievable."
"What?" He asked, trying to remain composed, as he heard the excitement building in her voice.
Natalie seized one of his hands and placed it over his heart. "Do you feel anything?"
An eternity seemed to go by, before Nick spoke again. "Nat, I can hear my heart beat!" He exclaimed, his eyes widening in astonishment. "I'm mortal?" He asked with a mixture of confusion and incredulity in his voice.
"I don't want to get your hopes up," she began, trying to remain calm. "But while you were asleep, I conducted a brief examination and I gotta tell ya, you seem to be crossing back over. Your metabolic rate is still slower than the norm, but you are definitely showing shades of mortality."
"I can't believe this, Nat," he declared, still dumbfounded. "How can this be happening?"
"That's the million dollar question," she responded, her expression reflecting bewilderment. " I don't understand it either unless it has something to do with the consumption of Sam's bottled variety. Maybe he put something special in it that we know nothing about. We should ask him."
"Okay, but I don`t think he's the reason I'm changing."
Natalie shrugged her shoulders. "It could be my blood. You did mention that mine had a calming effect on you."
"It did and it has never happened to me before," he confessed, sounding baffled.
"Well…we won't know until I run those tests on you." She declared, her voice becoming serious.
"Okay. We'll do that, but for now…I have a better idea." He gave her a wicked smile, slipping his hands around her backside.
"Oh… And what did you have in mind?" She grinned back.
"Come here and I'll show you." He reached up and pulled her down, bringing her lips towards his…
The gray haired man swung his head in the direction of the front door as two people, a man and woman, entered, their faces combing the room in search of someone. "Can I help you?" He asked placing his newspaper on the desk.
The woman came closer. "Yes, we are looking for Sam. Is he here tonight?"
"No, he isn't," he replied.
The man approached. "Will he be in later this evening?"
"Fraid not. He's gone."
"The woman stared at him, confounded. "What do you mean…he's gone?"
"Look lady. He's left…he's gone for good. In fact, he sold me this place. I've been after him for a year to buy it, but he said he wasn't ready yet for retirement, that he needed to take care of a few things." He leaned in closer to them. "Between you and me, I believe he was trying to help someone. But, whatever it was, Sam must have resolved it yesterday because he called me to say he was ready to sell and move on."
He saw the man and woman trade confused glances. Turning back, the woman then asked, "Do you have a forwarding address for Sam? We really would like to get in touch with him. We are friends of his," she explained. "I'm Natalie Lambert and this is Nick Knight." She said gesturing to the man next to her.
The elderly man's face broke into a wide grin. "Oh… Sam said you might be dropping by. When you did, he wanted me to give you this." He handed Natalie a sealed letter. "He wanted me to tell you that it would explain everything."
Natalie took the envelope. "Thanks…Mr.…"
"Oh…excuse me. I'm Charlie…Charlie Madders. I've been a friend of Sam's for a long time. He's a terrific guy. Always seems to have this uncanny ability to see the true nature in people, like a sixth sense."
"Yes… he does appear to have that special ability." Nick agreed and then added, "Well…thanks for everything."
"And if you ever hear from Sam, please send our regards." Natalie said. "Tell him, that he was right. That faith and love do conquer all."
"Okay…I'll mention it if I ever see him." He opened the door.
"Well…. it was nice meeting you." Natalie said, as she started to exit, and then caught Nick's immediate hesitation at the desk. Curious, she walked over. He was looking at a newspaper. "What is it?"
"Look at this, Nat." He gave her the paper. "Read it," he said, a touch of surprise in his voice.
Natalie looked down at the headline, as she began to read aloud.
`International Jewel Thief Has Been Caught.
`The Renowned Jewel Thief, Sir Benjamin Hastings, a fugitive for the past six months, was apprehended last evening, while attending a performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the acclaimed Pantages Theatre. At the time of the arrest by Detectives Tracy Vetter and Edgar Barnes, Hastings' escort, a Miss Pamela Rose, was wearing a rare blue diamond necklace, thought to resemble the Hope Diamond. It was considered a valuable piece, recently stolen from the Anita Carr collection. In fact, "it was this jewel that led to Hasting's arrest," quoted Vetter, who had also attended the show.'
`Sitting two rows behind Hastings and Rose, the necklace caught the Detective's eye immediately. Certain it was the same one listed on an inventory, provided by Mr. Roger Carr, Mrs. Carr's husband, the Detective left to call for backup. "During the intermission, my friend and I detained Hastings and Rose for questioning," explained Vetter. "When Detective Barnes arrived, Hastings attempted escape, but was apprehended by the police four blocks away." '
`Later, a search of Hastings' home led to the discovery of more jewels, valued in the millions. Hastings and Rose will be held with no bond, pending trial. I guess you could say even fake Hope Diamonds can lead to ill fortune, bringing down the most elusive criminals.'
Natalie glanced up from the newspaper. "Tracy is turning out to be an astute detective, isn't she?" She commented, wonder in her tone.
"Yes, she is." Nick agreed, still amazed.
"But how did we miss all the commotion at the theatre?" She asked, perplexed.
"Well…Nat…At the time, we were kind of occupied, weren't we?" He gave her a telling look.
Natalie blushed. "Yeah…I guess we were." She turned to Madders, offering him the paper. "Sorry to take your newspaper. Nick is a detective and his partner, Tracy Vetter, is the one mentioned in this story," she explained.
"And quite a story it is," Madders commented, taking his paper. "You ought to be very proud of your partner, Detective. She sounds like she possesses good investigative skills."
"Oh…Among other things." Nick acknowledged, exchanging another understanding look with Natalie.
"Yes…She also possesses unbelievable conspiracy skills." Natalie added wryly.
"Well…Mr. Maders…We've kept you long enough." Nick said, opening the door for Natalie, as he added, "Thanks again."
"No problem," Madders replied as he watched them exit.
Natalie watched Nick as he turned the envelope over in his hand several more times. "Aren't you going to open it?" She queried anxiously.
Nick peered at her, as she sat across from him in the Caddy outside the video store. "Yeah…" He gave her a broad grin. "Sorry to keep you in suspense." He slid his finger along the seam of the envelope, pulling out the letter. Unfolding it, they could see it was written on fine stationary in an elegant handwriting. Nick began to read aloud,
`Dear Nick and Natalie,
`If you are reading this letter, you are aware that I've moved on, as my work is done here. And, when I say, `here,' I mean on earth. You see, I'm what you might call an angel, specifically a guardian angel.'
`Now I know this information must be difficult to grasp, especially for you, Natalie. (Always the scientist, aren't you my dear.) But it is true.'
Putting down the letter for a moment, Nick chuckled as he looked at her. "He knew you well, didn't he?"
She gave him an embarrassed grin. "Well…I suppose I can be a skeptic sometimes," she said and then prompted, "Keep reading Nick."
He looked at the letter again and read on.
`When I became a seraph 200 years ago in the year 1798, a council of elders allowed me to choose one person to help. Naturally I chose you, Nick. Why, you must be asking yourself? Well… I saw your steadfast determination to choose your own path in regaining your mortality and seeking redemption even under the captivity of Lacroix' dominance and control. Sometimes, as I watched you these past two centuries, I was amazed at your ability to endure the relentless taunts and the incessant deceptions. Each time, you seemed to bounce back, trying to remain hopeful and optimistic. And, I knew that one day, you would find the right person to renew not only your hope permanently, but to give you the most special gift of all, her love and faith. Of course, as you may have guessed that person was Natalie.'
Nick reached over and squeezed her hand as he resumed reading.
`Also, by returning this love to her, you must realize that your faith has been reclaimed and you are changing. Yes, that's right Nick. You *are* slowly becoming mortal again.'
`Let me explain. When a vampire meets the mortal destined for them, the ingestion of their blood will transform them back to mortality. Each time, the vampire drinks, he or she will take less and less until the conversion is complete.'
Natalie regarded Nick with a look of astonishment. "So, it is my blood that is crossing you back over."
"Yes, it seems that way," he answered, just as stunned as she. He resumed reading.
`So…you see Nick if you stay the course, you will ultimately receive your long awaited wish. And now in closing, I would like to wish you both a long, happy life together and remember that the greatest thing you'll ever learn in life is to be loved and to love in return. Treasure your moments together.
Nick placed the letter down on the seat, as a long silence ensued, the air thick with their turbulent emotions. Minutes passed and as their feelings settled into a quiet calm, Nick reached over and grabbed Natalie's hand. "Nat…I can't believe this is happening. Why me? I'm not worthy of any special treatment. You only have to look at my tarnished past to see why I don't deserve this…I…don't deserve you… I…"
Natalie leaned forward, and pressing her lips against his, kissed him long and hard and passionately. After a while, she pulled away. He broke into a broad smile. "Why did you do that?"
"I knew you wouldn't listen to reason, so I had to find a way to get you to quiet down." Her lips curled into a wide grin.
"Well…you succeeded," he said, still smiling.
"Nick…" She began quietly. "Don't question why you've been given this gift. Just accept and enjoy it. Live for today and tomorrow." She reached over and squeezed his hand.
"Okay…I'll try Nat…but…"
"No…buts…Nick," she stated firmly.
"All right." Nick agreed as he turned on the engine. "Where do you want to go? My place or yours?"
"Well…that's a line I can't refuse," she commented. "How does my place sound? At least I have food at my apartment."
"Okay, that sounds good because …believe it or not…I think I could actually eat an egg," he admitted with surprise, as he shifted into reverse and drove the caddy out the parking lot.
Natalie placed her hand on his forehead. Her eyebrows arched in surprise. "You are much warmer than this morning. I don't know Nick, but I think your conversion is imminent." She said, excitement climbing in her voice.
"If that's the case, you'll have to make me a big breakfast when we get to your place."
"You're *really* hungry for food?" She asked, clearly excited.
"Nick. That's great news! Okay… I'll make you breakfast, but don't get used to it." She warned in a teasing tone. "You've got to learn to cook for yourself. After all, I'm not your beck and call girl." She smiled at him, her eyes lit with amusement.
"I know you aren't." Nick smiled back as he reached over to turn on the radio. They continued to drive in a comfortable silence, as Celine Dion's voice filtered through the airwaves:
A New Day Has Come. …
I was waiting for so long For a miracle to come Everyone (you) told me to be strong Hold on and don't shed a tear
So through darkness and good times I knew I'd make it through And the world thought I had it all But I was waiting for you
I see a light in the sky Oh it's almost blinding me I can't believe I've been touched by an angel With love
Let the rain come down And wash away my tears Let it fill my soul And drown my fears Let it shatter the walls For a new sun A new day has come
Where it was dark now there is light Where there was pain, now there's joy Where there was weakness, I found my strength All in the eyes of a boy (girl)
As the song drew to a close, and they approached Natalie's place, Nick knew in his heart that his new day…his new life…could now begin with her, his true angel of love…(even if she wouldn't be his beck and call girl!) (g)
Notes to reader: I didn't want to divulge the songs until they were used in the story, so I thought it would be okay to mention the disclaimer now rather than at the beginning. Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Point of No Return and Celine Dion's A New Day Has Come don't belong to me. I was just borrowing them.
Also, the Pantages Theatre changed its name to the Canon Theatre a few years back. I gained all my information on the Theatre and the Four Seasons Hotel from a Toronto Tourist web site.
Thanks again for taking this journey with me through my series, especially if you made it through my lengthy installments. I really had fun writing this piece of fiction. I hope you had fun reading it. Let me know what you thought. Did you like the outcome? Nick's mortality versus Natalie's conversion to vampirism? Since this story took place between the episodes of Games Vampires Play and Human Factor, I thought it would be kind of neat for N&N to discover the cure before Janette. Anyway, thanks again for reading.