Monday, June 13, 2011

Chapter 36

Oct. 24 – 12:30pm

             By the time Miss Elliot and Captain Wentworth had sailed off into their happily ever after, Erik had left and the detective was flipping through the newspaper. Alex stood and stretched, cramped from sitting in one place so long, and replaced the book on the shelf. She was trying to decide between Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice when her name was called. Plucking the tale of the Misses Bennett from the shelf, she returned to the sofa with a questioning smile for Da’ud.
            “Alex, I know this is none of my business but, as his good friend, and possibly his only friend, how do you feel about Erik?” Alex stared at him for a moment in shock wondering where that question came from. For his part, the detective looked both embarrassed and uncomfortable about asking but she sensed only concern for his friend in his inquiry which is why she decided to be completely honest with him.
            “I’ll be honest with you, Da’ud. I don’t know,” Glancing at the doorway, she nevertheless kept her voice low. “He…fascinates me, I suppose, and has this magnetism that draws me like a moth to a flame. I know it’ll hurt but I can’t help but be drawn in.” With a sigh, Alex leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “He can be so sure of himself one moment and terribly vulnerable the next, violent and then gentle; he’s gorgeous, talented, and insanely sexy and so totally beyond my reach.”
            “But what of the mask and what lies beneath?” The detective was watching her closely, hope rising.
            “What of it?” Alex shrugged, confused. “It’s what he looks like not who he is. Wait here…I think I have something that might explain it better.” She rose and hurried to her room as best she could for her sketch pad, flipping it to the first picture she’d drawn of Erik without his mask. When she returned to the Library, she passed the pad to Da’ud. “There are several sketches in the book but that is the one I’m most pleased with. Tell me, what do you first notice about the picture?”
            “You mean beyond your astounding talent? The eyes. They draw you in and hold your attention.”
            “Exactly. As in the sketch, it’s not that I don’t see the scars on his face; it’s just that they are overshadowed by his beautiful eyes.” She watched the detective look at the other sketches in the book before he returned it to her.
            “Why do you think he’s, what was it you said, ‘beyond your reach’?”
            “Da’ud,” she bit her lip to stifle a sob that threatened, “as I’ve said, he’s rich and talented and gorgeous and I’m…well, not any of those. Besides, he loves another and, while I know she’s not dead, it’s the same theory. One can never compete with an ideal.”
            “You give yourself far too little credit, my dear, and are overlooking the important thing. Erik doesn’t need a mirror of himself; he needs someone who can accept him as he is, temper, scars, and all.”
            “Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that someone is me nor does it address the fact that…” Eyes as big as saucers, Alex nearly bit the tip of her tongue off in her rush to stop talking. There was Erik, relaxing against the door frame, his golden eyes boring directly into her soul.
            He watched the color race across her cheeks and wondered what she and Da’ud were discussing that had her so embarrassed. When he heard voices coming from the Library, he’d decided to stop and see if anyone else wanted lunch. If not, he’d make something quick and return to his bedroom to rest. But now, the guilty look on the detective’s face and the utter mortification on Alexandra’s had him extremely curious. What were they discussing?
            “I thought you were resting, old friend.” Da’ud finally managed to choke out a greeting which did nothing to curb his curiosity.
            “I was on the way to make myself some lunch and, since I heard the two of you, wanted to know if either of you wished to join me?”
The detective had finally masked his expression into one of calm politeness; Alex, on the other hand, looked as if the prospect of food would make her violently ill. His eyes never left her face as he slowly crossed the room to sit beside her on the sofa. Even without touching her, he could feel her trembling and see her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. Taking one of her hands in his, Erik eased her fingers open and caressed her palm with his fingers. When she started to jump up, he tightened his hold and held her to the sofa.
“Not so fast, ma petite.” His soft murmur slid across her skin like a lover’s touch. “You seem upset and flushed. You are not falling ill again, are you?” Like a drowning man, Alex clung to that life preserver.
“Actually, I was feeling a bit out of sorts so I think I’ll just take my book to my room and lay down for a while because I don’t want to get any worse and cause more problems especially when I need to…” Taking advantage of his distraction caused by her babbling she jumped up and practically ran to her room. Erik stared after her in confusion as her door closed behind her.
“What was that all about, Daroga?”
“I’m sure I have no idea, Erik.” Da’ud carefully kept his face and voice neutral. Though he was ready to smack the both of them, he knew there was really little he could do to bring his two friends together.
“And I’m equally certain that you do.” Erik finally pulled his eyes from the doorway to focus them on the detective. “What were you discussing that upset her so?”
“Nothing of consequence. Shall we eat?”
“No.” The golden eyes drifted back to where Alex had disappeared and a hint of steel crept into his voice. “I want to know what you said to upset her.”
“Truthfully? Nothing. What either of us said wasn’t what upset her, Erik, but I’m not at liberty to say anything further.” At the masked man’s nod, the detective fell silent watching his friend. There was a hurricane of emotion swirling in those amber orbs. After long minutes, Da’ud decided to take a chance. “Do you love her, Erik?” The question was quiet yet hung in the air like a living thing.
“I don’t know, Daroga.” Dragging his eyes from the doorway, he ran a hand through his hair and stood to pace. “It’s so different from Christine. She was so beautiful I’d placed her on a pedestal and worshipped the goddess that deigned to love a monster. I would have pulled the moon from the sky if that had been her wish. But Alexandra…she fascinates me, Da’ud. She’s feisty and argumentative and doesn’t back down from an argument which annoys and enthralls me equally; yet she’s so vulnerable and scared that all I want to do is hold and protect her from all the evils of the world. And unlike Christine, who claimed she didn’t mind my face and yet requested I keep the mask on, Alexandra looks at me no differently, masked or not.”
“Listen to yourself, old friend. Listen to what drew you to each woman. One lured you with beauty, but the other, lovely though she is, lured you with her character.” Having said all he felt he should, Da’ud left the brooding man in the Library.
Picking up the abandoned sketch pad, Erik returned to the sofa and studied every picture while thinking of the detective’s last words. He had been drawn to Christine for her ethereal beauty; she was young, radiant, and vibrantly alive. But the more he thought of her, the more he realized that had been her only attraction. They had nothing in common and, though she would attend with him, she loathed the theater in general and opera in particular. Alexandra, on the other hand, was full of fire and passion that rivaled his own; she not only listened to his music, she heard what he was trying to convey. She was compassionate and kind and oh so very beautiful in his eyes. Did he love her? He couldn’t be sure while they were involved with these murderers but hoped she would give him a chance to find out when it was over.

Stretched across her bed, Alex concentrated on the novel in hopes of shutting off her brain for a while. She found the story to be somewhat familiar to the situation between her and Erik only with the parts reversed. She was the one full of pride and trying to hide her feelings out of fear of being hurt and Erik was prejudiced against himself. She could only hope that, like Austin’s two protagonists, she and Erik would find a way to reach each other.

When night fell, three figures dressed in black quietly approached the lakeside cabin. Using only handsignals in order to maintain silence, one moved to the door while another took position in the trees to fire at whomever exited the building. The third eased around the cabin to prepare for his role in the raid: providing the distraction. Checking his watch, he waited for the seconds to tick down before springing into action. Using a well-protected elbow, the figure shattered the back window before reaching in to unlock the door. The sound of booted feet on the stairs was almost drowned out by the alarm that echoed throughout the house and across the stillness of the lake. The black-suited man at the rear watched worriedly as three agents rounded the corner and headed towards him. Their information had been faulty; they’d been told there was only one guarding the girl. Before he could alert his two compatriots, muffled gunfire sounded in the front of the cabin. Fading into the trees, the intruder moved to rejoin the rest of his team as quickly and quietly as possible. He arrived just in time to see the man by the door jerk several times as a hail of bullets struck his torso. As he slid down the wall, he left a bloody trail on the weathered oak.
Using the trees for cover, the hidden sniper returned fire as he readied for retreat. This whole mission had gone straight to hell and he wasn’t about to get killed no matter how much money the blonde man offered. Aiming carefully, he shot one of the agents dead-center in the chest and smirked when he fell and stopped moving. A second target entered his cross hairs and he fired a bit too quickly, causing the shot to go wide and merely graze the agent’s shoulder. His target dove behind the single car parked in the drive and the sniper cursed the man’s training and instincts. Abandoning the tree to move to a new location in case the agents had pinpointed his position, he nearly ran into the intruder from the rear of the house. Together, they began to work their way back towards their vehicle.
The sniper jumped into the driver’s seat and started the car while the rear intruder fired off several rounds to keep the agents scrambling for cover. As he was scrambling into the passenger seat, a round burned its way through his upper thigh and caused him to stumble onto the hard packed ground. Knowing he was outnumbered and outgunned, the sniper threw the car into gear and jerked forward. Gravel sprayed from beneath the tires as they sought purchase on the unpaved road and the slight hesitation was just enough for the agents to get a clear shot. The sniper never even heard the report of the weapon that killed him. His lifeless body pressed the gas and the car surged out of control until it flew from a steep embankment and into the murky waters of the lake below.
The agents quickly disarmed the wounded intruder, secured him, and carried him back to the lake house. Inside, one of the agents that remained behind with Lizzie called Devereaux and reported the attack as well as its outcome. Both the tracking and listening devices had been removed from Lizzie’s clothing prior to the raid and they, along with the wounded intruder, were sent back to agency headquarters for questioning and analysis. Once they were on their way, the remaining agents gathered Lizzie and moved her to a new, secure location. The lakehouse was compromised and they wouldn’t risk a better planned assault.

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