Eliot pulled up in front of the ranch style brick house in a suburb of Ft. Worth. In the light from the streetlamp he could see that the place looked much as it had when he’d been there last year, the maple tree sporting a few red leaves, the grass still green.
Mary had been, as he’d told Leanne and Thurman, a nice person. In fact, he couldn’t remember why they’d stopped seeing each other. Like most of his relationships, it had just dwindled. Usually the woman became irritated that he had so little time for her and no room in his life for a commitment. Then he’d bow out of her life, knowing he couldn’t give her what she needed.
But that hadn’t been the case with Mary. He’d simply realized one day that it had been a long time since he’d called her—too long to resume where they’d left off. He’d never called again.
No bad feelings had come out of the relationship. He had no reason to be angry at her. Edward had no reason to be angry at her.
Unless something had happened with her that he didn’t remember. He could no longer trust his memory. Maybe Edward had reason to be angry at her.
He sat in his car staring at the house. He should have called first. If she didn’t answer the door, he’d know only that she wasn’t there. If she did, what would he say to her? Which was, of course, the reason he hadn’t called her.
It wasn’t an acceptable reason.
He flung the car door open and made himself walk up the path to her front door even though he seemed to be trudging through quicksand rather than along a smooth, concrete sidewalk.
The blond, attractive woman came to the door almost immediately, and he experienced a moment’s distress that he barely recognized someone he’d once been intimate with. She hadn’t changed. He merely failed to register her face among his memories that mattered.
Before he had time to analyze that revelation, her features twisted into a furious mask. “What do you want?” she demanded.
It was a good question. He wasn’t sure how to answer it. He’d wanted to know that she was safe, and now he knew that, but suddenly it didn’t seem to be enough. Suddenly he wanted to know about their relationship and why he’d failed to give her a place in his memory, why he’d failed to connect with her or any of the other blurred faces in his past.
She stepped back and started to close the door.
“Mary, wait!” he begged.
“For what? So you can use me, humiliate me and dump me again?” The wrath failed to hide the pain.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I did that. I didn’t intend to.”
She folded her arms and glared at him. “You didn’t intend to? You sure could have fooled me. You’re a cruel bastard. When I first met you, I thought you were a cold fish. I wasn’t surprised when you quit calling. When you came back and put the big con on me, the flowers and nice restaurants and all that bull shit about how much you loved me, I should have seen it coming. Is that the way you get your kicks? You’re sick, Eliot Kane. Very sick.”
He wanted to ask what he’d done to her...what Edward had done to her. But he really didn’t want to know.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled and turned to go. “He had no right to do that to you. I’m so sorry.”
"He? You did it! What is this he crap? How much more worthless can you get? At least take responsibility for your own actions!”
He backed away. Her curses followed him to his car and echoed in his ears as he drove away, but the imprecations paled beside her indictment.
Take responsibility for your own actions.
The pizza they ordered seemed dry and tasteless though it came from Leanne’s favorite pizza place. When the phone rang, she laid her fork on the table and gave up any pretense of eating.
Thurman went over to the kitchen counter and picked up the phone. “Hello?”
Only when he looked at her with a faint smile and shook his head did Leanne release her breath.
Thurman listened intently for a minute. “Sounds to me like the alternator, but you know I’m no mechanic. Tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you.” He made a note on a piece of paper. “Get back in your car and lock the doors. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He hung up. “It’s Shirley. She’s stranded over in south Dallas. Her car died.”
Leanne recognized the name as that of a friend and bridge partner of Thurman’s. “Do you want me to stay here in case Eliot calls before you get back?”
Thurman grinned wryly. “Do I detect a note of eagerness in your offer?”
She lifted her chin defiantly, the attitude directed toward herself as much as toward Thurman. “Eliot may be in crisis after everything that’s happened today. He’ll need to talk to a real person, not a recorded message.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “you may be right. Okay, stay here and answer the phone. If he calls before I get back, talk to him, do what needs to be done until I can get here.” He picked up his car keys and started for the door. Dixie stood and padded after him. He hesitated, looking from the dog to Leanne.
“Shirley’s in a rough part of town,” Leanne protested. “Take Dixie. You’re just going to be gone a little while, and Eliot’s only going to call, not come over. What can happen over the phone?”
Thurman motioned for Dixie to go with him. “Lock the door behind me.”
Leanne rolled her eyes. “I’m going to get a recording of that order so you and Eliot won’t have to keep repeating yourselves.”
He opened the door then turned back to her. “You’re right about someone needing to be here for Eliot, but you’re not fooling me about the real reason you want to be here. I hope you’re not fooling yourself.”
Before she could answer, he left, closing the door behind him.
No, she wasn’t fooling herself. She was concerned about Eliot’s welfare in a way that she shouldn’t be, in a way that was bound to hurt her and couldn’t do a thing to help him. A risk with every chance of failure and absolutely nothing to be gained.
If she recognized that, why couldn’t she back off? Was she, like the people she worked with and tried to help, doomed to repeat unhealthy patterns she knew could only result in unhappiness?
After cleaning the kitchen, she sat down in front of the television and tried to relax. However, by the first commercial she realized she had no idea what was happening in the sit-com playing out on the screen before her.
When the phone rang fifteen minutes later, she snatched it up before the first ring had finished.
“Leanne, it’s Thurman. Any word from Eliot?”
Her grip on the receiver loosened. “No. Not yet.”
“Well, we’re waiting on a wrecker to come after Shirley’s car. We don’t dare leave it here overnight. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Are you okay?”
“Good grief, Thurman. I’m fine. A little bored with the current television fare.”
“Turn that blasted thing off and read a book. I’ll see you before long.”
She did turn off the television. The noise had become annoying. Picking up a trade magazine, she tried unsuccessfully to focus on one of the articles.
Finally a knock sounded at the door. Tossing the magazine aside, she ran to let Thurman in. She had removed the chain and turned the deadbolt before it occurred to her to question who might be waiting outside.
“Thurman?” she called.
For a moment there was silence, and Leanne became chillingly aware that she was alone in the house. Eliot’s gun was across the street in her bedroom, Dixie was with Thurman, she’d already unlocked the door, and the person who’d knocked on the door wasn’t making his identity known.
“Leanne?” The voice that finally spoke belonged to Eliot. Or to Edward.
“Yes?” With trembling fingers she tried to lock the deadbolt.
“Where’s Thurman? Are you alone?”
“Thurman had to run out for just a minute. He’ll be right back.” She heard the frightened quiver in her own voice. Undoubtedly he heard it, too.
“Then I’ll wait in the car.” The words were terse, and she heard his footsteps leaving the porch. Edward, she thought, wouldn’t leave so easily.
Unless he’d perfected his imitation of Eliot.
She eased the door open a crack and peered out. His broad, proud back, still clad in his blue suit, headed down the walk toward his car. If she could only see the license plates, but he was parked directly in front of the walk.
“Eliot?” she whispered, then held her breath.
He whirled around and in the glare from the porch light, she could see the confusion and fear on his face, and she knew. “What are you doing here alone?” he demanded.
“Waiting for you,” she said almost giddy in her relief. “It’s okay. Thurman’s on his way back. Come in.”
He hesitated, but she knew his need to talk to someone must be great since he had come in person rather than phone. “Thurman has a hefty set of andirons.” She smiled. “I promise to keep one on my lap.”
“Where did Thurman go?”
“To pick up a friend whose car broke down.” She stepped back, holding the door open and extending a hand.
That gesture seemed to break through his remaining control. He moved slowly toward the house. “The good news is, Mary Lunden’s alive.” He reached the threshold and hesitated, then came in.
She closed the door behind him. There was, she thought, no need to lock it. The embodiment of her fears, the threat to her safety, was already inside. At her invitation.
“I went to her house,” he said, facing her squarely, daring her to deny his right to handle his own life.
She motioned for him to sit on Thurman’s brown plaid sofa, and he sank down stiffly.
“She wasn’t happy to see me.” His hands clutched his thighs, his knuckles white as he stared out into the room, avoiding her eyes.
Leanne didn’t want to hear about it, but she had to. “What happened?”
“She accused me of using her, humiliating her, then dumping her. I didn’t know what to say. I apologized. Then, without thinking, I said he had no right to treat her that way.” He lifted a hand to his eyes as if he would shut out the painful image. “She cursed me. Said I should take some responsibility for my own actions, not blame them on him."
Leanne laid a hand over his, and he looked at her then, his gaze tortured. “She’s a human being, a nice person,” he said softly. “She’s right. I had no right to treat her like that.”
His words sent a chill down Leanne’s spine, the way he linked Edward and himself. But then he continued in a quiet voice, almost as if he were talking to himself. “I was as inhumane to her in my own way as he was. While we were dating, I didn’t think of her as a real person.” He looked directly at her then. “Part of me is missing.”
Part of me is missing. The part of him he’d assigned to another personality?
“No,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. “Edward doesn’t have the missing part. It’s the part of me that ought to connect to other people. I don’t get close to anyone. I used to think it was an asset, but now I’m not so sure.” He shook his head and looked away. “Could I have a glass of water?”
“How about a beer?”
“I’d love a beer right now.” He sounded relieved that she accepted his dropping the subject of Mary Lunden, Edward and his own failings. She didn’t want to drop it; she wanted to hear more about his inability to connect to people. As a therapist, she wanted to explore that facet of him. As a woman, she wanted to overcome it. Perhaps it was just as well he didn’t seem to want to pursue it.
When she opened Thurman’s refrigerator to get a beer, she noticed the leftover pizza. Eliot had probably not eaten dinner. A little food couldn’t hurt. She zapped a piece in the microwave and took the snack in to him along with a can of Thurman’s favorite beer.
He smiled and accepted her offering gratefully. “I can’t believe I could be hungry after everything that’s happened this evening.”
She sat down across the room from him. “According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food is right there at the top of the list. Very basic. You can’t live on anxiety forever. Eventually you’ve got to come down and take a break.”
As Eliot consumed the pizza and beer, Leanne could see that he was calming down. His first few bites had been vicious, but now he chewed more easily. His shoulders lost some of their tautness, the lines around his eyes smoothed.
“My mother always said that a little food helped any situation,” Leanne said. “She came to the conclusion without any help from Maslow.”
He leaned forward and set his empty plate and beer can on the coffee table, then sat back and looked at her intently for a few moments as if he were trying to see inside her head, inside her heart.
“You know,” he finally said, “it doesn’t seem right that you know so much about me, and I don’t know anything about you. Where did you grow up? Here in Dallas?”
She recognized that he was making an attempt to break out of the shell he’d recently discovered. He was striving for intimacy, but his questions had the opposite effect on her. They reminded her of her father, of the pain his illness, his suicide, had caused her, of the fact that Eliot was ill, and she couldn’t afford to relax her vigilance.
Suddenly Eliot took on an added edge of danger. She had known all along without putting it into words that Eliot didn’t allow people to become close to him. She could trust him to keep her safely at arm’s length. Now he was trying to change that.
“No,” she said. “I’m not originally from Dallas. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. My father died when I was sixteen. My mother remarried and still lives in the same little town.”
“What’s the matter, Leanne? Why did you suddenly freeze up on me?” He grinned wryly. “If I’d done that, you’d be wanting to hypnotize me and find out what’s going on in my head.”
She forced herself to smile. “Are we switching roles? Are you trying to psychoanalyze me now?”
He didn’t return her smile or her light tone. “Maybe. Maybe I need to know as much about you as you know about me.” His gaze held a scorching intensity even from across the room. “Maybe I don’t like the idea of your having more of me than I have of you. Tell me about your childhood. Tell me how your parents died. Give me that part of you.”
This reversal made her distinctly uncomfortable. She didn’t want to discuss her childhood with Eliot. She shouldn’t discuss it with a patient. But he wasn’t a patient anymore. And somehow his compelling gaze drew the words from her as unerringly as his physical touch could draw her body to him.
“My father was a wonderful person,” she said. The words did not come easily. “He was an English literature professor, a gentle man. When I was a little girl, he held me in his lap while he read Dickens and Shakespeare to me. But then he got sick.” She tried to keep her voice an unemotional monotone, detach herself from the words, from the feelings of anger and sadness and fear. Eliot didn’t need her problem added to his. “My father became clinically depressed. He committed suicide when I was sixteen. With a gun. I was there when he pulled the trigger.”
Eliot leaned back and uttered a soft oath. “God, Leanne, I’m sorry.” He looked at her again. “I guess that explains why you didn’t want to take my gun. I shouldn’t have forced you to take it. I shouldn’t have forced you to tell me about your parents tonight.”
“It’s all right. It happened a long time ago.” The doubt on his face told her he didn’t believe her.
“Yeah, like my parents’ death happened a long time ago. But you and Thurman seem hell bent to prove that had a lasting effect on me.”
She gave a quick nod, admitting the validity of his comment. She could scarcely deny it. “My father’s actions left me with a desire to help mentally disturbed people.”
“And to keep a safe distance from them.”
She faced him boldly. He deserved to know the entire truth of why she had to avoid him. “Yes.”
“So you have more than one reason to stay away from me. Edward and what happened to your father. It seems my first foray into intimacy was doomed before it got off the ground.” He rose from the sofa. “Thanks for the beer and pizza.”
“No!” She stood with him, unwilling to let him leave like that. He might never attempt to open up again about his intimacy issues. She moved over to sit on the sofa, then took his hand and tugged. “Please sit down with me. Talk to me. Eliot, this could be a breakthrough!”
Still holding her hand, he sat beside her and turned to face her, his eyes ablaze. “Damn it, you’re not my shrink anymore. I don’t want to talk about breakthroughs and all that jargon. You’re the first woman I’ve ever wanted to be close to, and that’s not going to happen, is it?” He lifted his free hand and cupped the side of her face. “So maybe I have had one of your damned breakthroughs. Even if I never see you again, I know I’ll remember your face twenty years from now. I know I’ll remember the way you make me feel. I want you, Leanne.”
He lifted his hand to his mouth and turned his head, moving his lips across her palm, his tongue tracing the sensitive flesh. His other hand slid along her neck and pulled her closer, his lips moving up to capture hers, to move against them in a soft, dizzying rhythm of passion.
His strong arms pressed her against his hard body, and she wanted to dissolve into him, to let his strength carry her along, blot out everything but their desire and the wild, singing way he made her feel. Her arms wrapped about him, caressing his back.
His lips left hers to roam over her face, planting butterfly kisses on her eyelids, the tip of her nose, her cheeks, her throat, then back to her mouth. His breath on her skin was hot and fast sending surges of unbearably tantalizing ecstasy along every nerve in her body. Eagerly she returned the kiss, her tongue moving to join with his, to claim more of these intoxicating feelings, more of him.
Her breasts against his chest ached for him to touch them, to claim them, to take them along on this wild, out-of-control journey from the real world into a world of sensation.
He pulled away from her, scanning her face, the gold in his eyes liquid with heat. He lifted her onto his lap then leaned her backward onto the rough fabric of the sofa.
She could feel his fingers twisting the top button on her blouse, and she reached to help him, to rid herself of the clothing that kept her flesh from his, kept her from reaching the ultimate sensibility.
But suddenly he withdrew, pulling away from her.
She sat upright, blinking, buttoning her blouse, trying to orient herself, to think around the intoxicating hormones that Eliot’s kiss had sent raging through her.
Eliot laid his head in his hands and groaned. “What the hell am I doing?”
She moved closer to him, her senses returning, the insanity of the situation returning. “It’s okay,” she said, though they both knew it was far from okay.
Eliot shot to his feet, his eyes again blazing, but this time with anger. “No, it’s not,” he ground out, echoing her thought. “How could I put you I in danger like that?”
“Stop blaming yourself. We both acted foolishly.” Foolish as it was, though, she couldn’t find any regret.
He paced a couple of steps away. “I’m sorry, Leanne. Dear God, I’m sorry. You’re here alone with a man who could threaten your life at any minute, and I let myself lose control. I’ve got to get out of here.”
He started for the door.
In spite of knowing Eliot should leave, she didn’t want him to go. They’d been so close—emotionally and physically. Now he’d pulled away from her, leaving her feeling cold and alone. She wanted to call him back to her, but knew she couldn’t do that. “Eliot, calm down. You didn’t hurt me. Nothing happened.”
He whirled around, one hand on the open door. “But I could have. I can’t do this to you.”
“Then I’ll leave,” she offered, forcing herself to be logical. “Thurman’s expecting to talk to you. You need to talk to him. You stay here, and I’ll go home.”
“He’s only expecting me to call.” In an instant he was gone, closing the door behind him.
She ran outside in time to see him get in his car and drive away.