Author: Tiffany Reisz
"My teacher, yes." Grace laughed. "Every girl I knew was half in love with Zachary. He talked to us like we were equals." She smiled at a memory. "He wore the most dignified, scholarly ties every day."
Nora conjured the image last night of Zach blindfolded with her black tie.
"Zach in a tie is quite a sight to behold," Nora agreed.
"A suit and tie every day." Grace grinned. "He was so bloody proper and so handsome strolling the grounds with the ancient old profs hoary with beards quoting Shakespeare and Marlowe from memory…we'd all nearly faint when he strolled past, suit jacket over his shoulder and carrying that staid leather briefcase. We girls had our own ideas about what to do with those ties of his."
"You're a woman after my own heart."
"The first night with him-" Grace stopped. Her voice drifted far away. "I thought I was on a suicide mission. I went to tell him I was in love with him. I thought for certain he'd throw me out. Instead, he made love to me. I know I should have stopped it, should have warned him I wasn't on birth control, but I didn't want him to stop. The moment he kissed me I felt like I'd won the world. And even after all that happened, I still felt the same. But it isn't easy to be married to someone when you have this terrible banshee voice in your head screeching that he only married you out of guilt."
"There was guilt, I'm sure. But there was love, too, and more of that than anything."
Grace sat quietly for a moment and seemed to collect her thoughts.
"I know you may not believe me, but I've loved Zachary all this time. Even during the worst days. Even those awful nights with Ian…that's when I missed him the most."
"I believe you." Nora tried to give her a reassuring smile. "Five years ago I left the man who had been the center of my universe for thirteen years. Trust me, I believe you."
"Thirteen years." Grace sounded stunned. "How did you survive?"
"I wasn't sure I would. Sometimes I'm not sure I did."
Grace nodded her understanding. "Ever since Zachary left I've felt like a shade. I walk through the empty house and catch glimpses of myself in the mirror or the windows, and I'm surprised to find I'm still there." Her voice dropped to a whisper. Her eyes held unshed tears. "I scare myself sometimes."
Nora took a sip of her tea and found she could barely get it down.
"I scare myself, too."
"I suppose I should be glad Zachary and I stayed married as long as we did. I never believed he loved me. I wanted to. And he certainly did everything he could to show that he loved me. But even after seven years, eight years, I still doubted it. So I pulled away hoping-"
"Hoping he would come after you."
"And I let him go…"
"Hoping he would come back.
"But he didn't come back…" Grace finished the thought.
"I'm sorry," Nora said, not knowing what else to say.
"I think…I don't know what I was thinking at the time… . I believe I had the idea that we had to end before we could start again. Nonsense, of course. A romance novel fantasy, I see that now. No offense."
"None taken. I write erotica, not romance novels." Nora grinned but her smile faded from her face. "Ask me, Grace. I know you need to."
"I rang his flat. No one answered. I stopped by this morning and knocked. No one came to the door. Was he with you?"
Nora sensed her claws instinctively wanting to show themselves. But for some reason she harbored none of the hostility she usually felt for a rival.
"I won't lie to you, Grace. He was with me." She leaned forward to gaze earnestly at Grace. "But I won't lie to myself. I think he was with you, too."
Grace stood up slowly and walked to Nora's kitchen window.
"When I called him…" Grace began and exhaled. Her warm breath steamed up the cold glass of the window. "He didn't call me Gracie like he always had."
"Gracie," Nora repeated. "That's cute. You should start calling him George."
"For King George?"
Nora laughed. " For George Burns and Gracie Allen. They had a legendary marriage. Might work."
"I fall in love with him a little bit more every time he calls me that. We'd been married a year and one day it just came out-'Gracie, come read this.' It was the first time I felt truly married to him. And it was such a relief after a lifetime of being called 'princess.'"
"It gets worse. It's a terrible joke. My parents honeymooned in Calais so I'm Grace Calais. Princess Grace and Grace Kelly… Madness."
"Your middle name is Calais?" A memory came to Nora like a face remembered from a dark dream. She stood up and walked to where Grace still stood at the window.
How do you choose your safe word? Zach had asked.
Pick anything. The street you grew up on, your favorite food, the middle name of the long-lost love of your life…
"I did lie to you, Grace," Nora finally said and waited for Grace to meet her eyes. Nora reached out and put her hand on Grace's arm. Grace covered Nora's hand with her own. "He wasn't with me last night at all."
* * *
Long after Grace had left, Nora sat at the kitchen table and stared at nothing until her eyes watered.
Wesley and Zach…somehow without trying she had lost them both. Zach would turn from her and Wesley she had turned away. A realization came upon her with the unavoidable force of the night after the day. She rose from her chair and returned to her bedroom.
She threw open the closet door and pushed back the racks of clothes. On the back wall impaled on a nail hung a set of deep red rosary beads with a small key hidden behind the crucifix.
She took the key and dropped to her knees. From the farthest corner of her closet she pulled out a wooden box the size of a small Bible. With shaking hands she opened it and took from a bed of blood-red velvet the white leather collar that had once bound her to Søren, the collar she had not worn in five years.
Rising from the floor she left the key in the lock and left the box on the floor. She left no note for Wesley and she left on all the lights. She threw on her coat, found her car keys, and taking nothing with her but her collar, she left. She pulled out of the driveway at breakneck speed and not once did it occur to her to look back.
Zach had heard of sleeping with one's eyes open but not of dreaming that way. But after a two-hour wait, two hours with his eyes on the hotel entrance, he knew his mind must be asleep. And when Grace walked in, saw him and smiled as if the two years of the cold and quiet hell they'd been living in had vanished into thin air, he knew he could only be dreaming.
He stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets, afraid if he didn't he'd drag her to him.
"Hiya," he said, not knowing what else to say.
"Hiya." It was her, her voice, his Grace.
"I was waiting for you."
"I see that. I tried to call you. Several times. When I didn't hear from you, I called Mr. Bonner. I told him it was an emergency. He gave me-"
"He sent you to Nora's, didn't he?"
"Don't be angry at him, please."
"I'm not. So you met Nora?"
Grace nodded and hazarded a smile.
"Had tea with her. We talked."
Zach was afraid to ask, more afraid not to. "What did she say?"
"She said I should call you George.
"She would say that. Gracie, I-"
"About Nora," Grace said, cutting him off. "I think she might be the only woman in the world I could ever forgive you for."
"Say the word," Zach said, "and she'll be the only woman you'll ever have to."
Grace smiled, but the smile broke in two as she collapsed into his arms. He held her to him and pressed his lips to her hair. She said nothing and that was fine. The weight of her slight body against his, her head on his chest…it made him feel safer than any words she could have spoken.
"Forgive me, too," she said. "Please."
"No, Gracie." He swallowed hard. "Nothing to forgive. Tell me something, please."
Zach pulled back and held her by the shoulders. He searched her face, still unable to believe she was here.
"Did I lose you, or did I never have you to start with?" he asked.
Grace shook her head. "You never lost me, Zachary. And you always, always had me."
Zach's heart rose so high he thought it would burst from his chest.
"I lied to you," Grace said, and looked up at him.
Zach's hands went cold. "About what?"
"The day when I called about the blackout…the lights weren't really out."
"They weren't?" Zach almost laughed.
"No," she said and pressed her head against his chest again. "The lights were never out."
* * *
The sanctuary at Sacred Heart sat empty but for the heady air still radiating warmth from the hundred or more souls who had left barely an hour ago. Nora faced the altar and inhaled the familiar smoky scent. She thought of the book of Revelation and how in it the prayers of the church rise before God in the form of incense. She said her own silent prayer and released it like smoke into the sky.
"I'm afraid you've missed Saturday morning Mass," a voice as familiar as her own said.
Nora turned around and found Søren with a pewter pitcher refilling the fount of holy water at the entrance to the sanctuary.
"But we celebrate Vigil mass at five o'clock this evening if you'd like to come back."
"Søren, you are ubiquitous." Nora came to him. He set the empty pitcher aside.
"I prefer the term omnipresent," he said.
Nora didn't bother attempting to fake a smile for him. She knew him, knew he would see right through it. She waited and let Søren study her. His knowing eyes on her face felt as intimate as a touch.
"You look tired, little one," he said.
"I am tired."
"I have such a great gift for ruining things. It even impresses me sometimes."
"Self-pity does not become you," he chastised her in the same tone he used to silence unruly children in the hallways. "And while you have a gift for creating chaos, I have never known you to be willfully destructive. Now, what is this about?"
Nora gave him the faintest of smiles.
"I finished the book."
"I had no doubt you would."
"Zach even signed the contract. Then we celebrated."
"Of that I have no doubt, either," Søren said with a wry smile. "So why is there so much sadness in your eyes?"
"I met Zach's wife today."
"Ah, the once and future Mrs. Easton. What did you think of her?"
"I think he'll go back to her."
Søren nodded. "That was inevitable."
Nora swallowed. "And last night meant nothing."
"I'm sure your night together meant a great deal to him. More than you may ever know. The same wind that blows us off course can turn and carry us home."
"She is his home. I could see that in her eyes. She's perfect, Søren."
"Perfect for him perhaps. To me, Eleanor, it is you who is flawless."