The young woman before her should be unremarkable by Miranda’s standards. Average height, long chestnut hair, beautiful dark amber eyes, and full lips that easily stretches into a captivating smile, albeit adding up to a pretty creature, the sum of her parts is nothing Miranda hasn’t seen a million times before. Yet—she has to grudgingly admit that the fidgety young woman holds…something. Despite her ordinariness, emphasized by jeans, a gray t-shirt, and a black leather jacket, this girl possesses a quality that permeates the armor Miranda, out of necessity, has constructed around herself a long time ago. How peculiar. And how inconvenient.
“Andrea Sachs. What makes you think you are fit to do this job?” Miranda asks, easing up on the corner of her large oak desk. She lets her boot clad foot dangle slightly, noticing how Andrea’s eyes follows the motion for a few moments before returning her focus on Miranda.
“I’ve attended art school and have a degree in chemistry. I would consider an internship with your fine are conservation company a fantastic opportunity.” Andrea shifts from one foot to the other and the girl seemed to have a tendency to pull at her fingers when nervous.
“Of course, it is. It doesn’t explain why it would benefit Amaranthine Inc.?” Pursing her lips, Miranda took pity on Andrea and motioned at the antique leather visitor’s chair. Returning to her own office chair, an impressive piece that was even older, made from skillfully carved oak. Studying Andrea, Miranda folds her hands on the desk.
“I’ve dreamed of working for you ever since I discovered art restoration when I was fifteen. My first passion was drawing, then painting, and I lived for going to art museums when ever possible. The old masters mesmerize me, and I will find a way to work on preserving their art, no matter what, but doing it here would be perfect.” Andrea stops talking and blushes. “Sorry. I get very excited very fast, when it comes to this.”
“Well, being interested in the job is considered the baseline when seeking employment, don’t you think? What sets you above the other applicants, some, if not all, with more experience than you?” Miranda tilts her head and deliberately raises her perfectly groomed eyebrows, knowing full well what impact she can have on people.
Continued in part 2
“Interested? I burn for this. I live and breath art and conservation. They may have more experience, but as they’ve trained more in other places, they might have picked up more bad habits from your point of view. Are you their first choice like you are for me?” Andrea sits at the edge of the chair, gesturing emphatically.
Miranda can’t help but be impressed. The girl is nervous, yes, but she’s fearless and she’s not above fighting a bit dirty. Suggesting her competition might have learned methods that Miranda was going to have to make them unlearn is a valid point, but pretty audacious to bring up when you’re just—Miranda glances at Andrea’s application form—twenty-four.
Thinking back on the other eight that Miranda has interviewed over the last two weeks, a task so tedious and unimpressive, she is ready to push needled in her eyes just thinking about it, she can’t remember any of them catching her attention like Andrea.
“All right,” Miranda says slowly, leaning forward. “Three months paid internship. My assistant deal with the details and show you around. You start tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? I’m…You’re hiring me?” Andrea stands up, her entire body exuding energy as if she’s ready to burst.
“Don’t make me regret it. I’m not a patient woman and I hate repeating myself.”
“Whoops. Sorry. Okay. Tomorrow. What time?” Andrea smiles broadly and Miranda thinks she may even have tears in her eyes.
“Pay attention. My assistant will deal with that.” Rolling her eyes, Miranda stands up slowly. “That’s all.”
For a horrifying moment, Andrea looks like she’s about to start crying or, God forbid, hug Miranda, but then she merely nods, whispers a barely audible ‘thank you’ and is out the door.
Sitting back down, Miranda shakes her head, trying to judge if she just made a mistake or perhaps the best decision in a long time. There was nothing wrong with Andrea’s education and work samples that she had sent ahead digitally, but only time would tell if she had what it took to work at Amaranthine Inc. Looking around her office, taking in the brick walls, the oak shelving and beautiful antiques that she lovingly has collected for many years, it is as if Miranda sees it all with new eyes. Meticulously maintained, they have provided a backdrop for her, added to her reputation for being the best at what she does. Now, Miranda thinks of how Andrea looked when she entered the office, the exuberance on her features as she looked at one antique after another. Until she focused on Miranda. After that, Andrea hadn’t looked at anything else.
“I’m Emily Charlton and I oversee everything to do with administration for Miranda,” the thin redhead behind a less impressive desk than Miranda’s—though definitely antique—says in a posh British accent. She is about Andy’s age and wears her hair in an austere twist. Dressing in a charcoal skirt suit over a white blouse. Andy’s thoughts stray to the impression she just got of Miranda. White, short hair, blue laser-focus eyes, a long, aristocratic nose, and a soft-looking pink mouth that seems ready to spout scathing remarks. Where Emily dresses as a smart, young professional, Miranda wears all black, chinos, shirt, boots.
A recluse of sorts when it came to social media, Miranda Priestly barely has any digital footprints online. Amaranthine Inc. is represented on a classy, understated website, where visitors can read about the long list of art pieces that the company under Miranda’s reign has saved for posterity.
“This way, then.” Emily motions for Andy to follow her through the foyer and through a massive wooden door. Behind it, a corridor leads to locker rooms, a break room, and, and this is where Andy loses her breath. The reaction is similar as when Miranda challenged her reason for applying for the internship. Now Andy stares at the large hall where five people, three women and two men of varying ages, are working on canvases. Her eyes fall upon two empty tables, sitting by the far end of the room. The one to the left looks unused. The one to the right is empty, but bottles, brushes, and other tools are clearly in use.
“The left one will be your workstation, but I recommend that you don’t touch a thing before one of your supervisors tell you it’s okay.” Emily motions for Andy to walk with her to a sparsely built, bald man. “Andrea. This is Nigel Kipling. He is in charge when Miranda’s not here. Nigel. This is Andrea Sachs, our new intern.” The way Emily speaks, she makes sure it’s obvious how doubtful she is about this fact.
“Welcome, Andrea,” Nigel says and holds up his gloved hands, looking regretful. “We’ll shake some other time.”
“Please, everyone calls me Andy.” Andy peered at Nigel’s workstation where he had smeared a dissolvent on part of the painting that were so dark and yellow, it was hard to even see the motif. Squinting, Andy could make out enough details. “A portrait. And in pretty bad shape.”
“Yes, this has been maltreated over the years. Varnished with conflicting media, which makes removing it difficult. I may end up making it worse. Well, if it gets too hairy, I’ll ask Miranda.” Nigel smiled warmly. “I look forward to working together, Andy.”
“Thanks. Likewise.” Andy thought she saw Emily grimacing, but decided that she was going to be learning from Nigel and the others and what Emily thought of her didn’t matter.
After receiving an access card, Andy said goodbye to Emily and exited the building. Standing on the sidewalk, she looked back at the brownstone. Four stories high, it originated from the seventeenth century, or so it said on the web site. Amaranthine Inc occupied the two first floors, but the web site didn’t specify what the top floors were used for. The building was well maintained, and it was as if Andy could feel the vast history it represented. For Miranda to own such prime real estate on the upper East Side, her company was thriving.
Turning the collar up against the January wind, Andy began walking toward the closest subway station. She wanted to make sure she had everything prepared, even if she had spent weeks getting ready for this interview, and she was also itching to sit down with her sketch book and do some basic drawings. The tiny studio apartment she rented did not allow for her big easel, which she’d stored at her parents’ house in Cincinnati. Here she would have to settle for a table easel and her sketch books for now.
Before she turned the corner at the end of the block, Andy turned and watched the brownstone again. As it was getting dark, she thought the light from the first floors sparkled and moved in the wavy glass of the windowpanes. Lifting her gaze, she noticed that there were lights on at the top floors as well, but more muted. Did perhaps Miranda live up there? Not that it was any of Andy’s business, but the woman was captivating. And so damn beautiful, she should come with a warning label.
Snorting at herself, to change the course her thoughts had taken, Andy lengthened her stride as she saw the subway station up ahead. She had one last shift at the hole-in-the-wall deli to finish and a paycheck to collect. Tomorrow her new life would begin.
Thank you for all the encouragement! Appreciated - more than you know!
Miranda steps into the old elevator and pulls the gate closed behind her. It hums to life when she presses the only button, which glows an understated blue on the copper panel. She is used to the slow ascent up to her private two-floor dwelling where she had lived on and off all her life. The familiar scent of potpourri mixed with the scented candles she always lights as soon as she steps off the elevator wraps around her senses. Sandalwood, orange, and dark vanilla soothes her senses and calms her mind. She learned a long time ago that scents were part of the solution when she needs to simmer down. And after meeting this woman, Andrea Sachs, she must reel herself in.
Was it a mistake to hire Andrea as the new intern? Professionally, she has a feeling, and she is rarely wrong, that she has found a diamond in the rough. Andrea’s portfolio, education, and obvious passion for art and restoration set her apart from the other applicants. Two of the others have worked in the business for a decade, which they stated with such pride and even sounding condescending. Miranda had nearly scoffed in their faces. A decade? Try a lifetime.
Undoing her shirt, she tosses it over the back of a leather chair. Her boots end up on the floor halfway to the kitchen. She opens the fridge and pulls out a Carlsberg, drinking directly from the bottle as she goes back to the living room. She is tired, but not ready for bed. Knowing full well what a nights’ tossing and turning do to her, she instead settles into a familiar routine. Turning on the TV, she browses through the news channels, eventually giving up on the repetitive content and moving onto the cooking shows that often relaxes her. Miranda watches a Japanese cook at a food cart slice and dice with great precision. Each quick move with the knife makes a percussion sound that aligns her heartbeat.
In her younger years, the sound of the ax as her father chopped wood, or her mother and older sister prepared food, had the same effect. Miranda would sit by the fire in the cabin, watch the flames dance and listen to the thudding sound from outdoors, and the sharper, rhythmic drumming from the kitchen area. Mother kept the cabin meticulously clean, and especially the cooking area. Father would step in from the cold, his arms full of firewood, and Miranda would hurry to help him stack it neatly. He would wink at her and whisper about how important it was, to not anger mother. Miranda would giggle as he winked at her. They both knew Mother’s scathing tongue was all talk. Beneath the stern exterior beat a warm, loving heart, when it came to family matters. Father always said that annoying neighbors needed to watch out since Mother harbored no love for them.
After an hour of watching the skilled chefs, Miranda gets up, stretching her back until two vertebrae pop. She knows she looks good, but there are days, like today, when she felt every single one of her years. She goes through her evening routine, removing makeup and a quick rinse in the shower, and then tumbles into bed. Curling up around a pillow, which is a nearly forgotten childhood habit that manifests itself when she is tired or stressed. Miranda hugs the pillow as if it is a long lost lover. Golden-brown eyes appear for her inner eyes, plump, soft-looking lips smiled broadly, and hands flicker in the periphery.
“Goddamn it,” Miranda snarls and rolls over on her right. She forces herself to think of her next project in the workshop. She is going to restore a sixteenth-century portrait of an Italian contessa. Its male owner claims to be a descendant of the woman in the portrait and is paying a lot of money for Miranda to do the job herself. It strikes Miranda that it might be a great opportunity to use as an introduction for Andrea to observe.
Groaning, Miranda plunges a fist into one of her pillows. She has come full circle and her thoughts have returned to Andrea again. What the hell is it about this young woman that tugs at her this way? Miranda has met men and women of great wealth and beauty during her years, but this is a first. Attraction, at first sight, is one thing, but actually having visions of a girl she knows nothing about…? Ridiculous. It is also dangerous. Having kept her guard up for so long, Miranda can’t afford to lower it now. The few times it has inadvertently happened, nothing good has come from it. The word ‘disastrous’ comes to mind and it’s not an exaggeration.
Miranda hums as she pulls several pillows closer. Suddenly the pillow behind her is her sister, a vivid memory from when they shared the narrow bed in the corner of their humble cabin. Corinne would align her voluptuous body with Miranda’s and keep her little sister warm during the cold winter night after the fire died in the fireplace. Outside, the wind would whistle and howl, wild animals would pass by and some even scratched at the walls, which would frighten Miranda more than anything. Corinne would hum, much like Miranda does now, and whisper, “You’re safe, little sparrow,” in Miranda’s ear, and eventually, they’d both fall asleep.
Fortunately, it worked its magic all these years later as well.
x x x
Continued in part 3
* The painter I name in the story is a figment of my imagination.
* The methods of restoring fine art vary and I have researched it a lot. That said, I can have gotten some things wrong, so any mistakes regarding the process is purely mine.
Andy admits she’s nervous when she dons her apron and then waits by her workstation while Miranda talks to one of her other employees, a stunningly beautiful woman. Not sure what to do with her hands, she pushes them into the large pocket in the front of the apron, but then thinks it looks silly, like a kangaroo with cold paws, and pulls them out, opting to lace her fingers instead.
After a few minutes, Miranda approaches and waves Andy over to her table. “Serena is going to take over my ongoing project so you and I can start from scratch. Some of what I do is pretty universal, but some things might be new to you.” Miranda doesn’t wait for Andy to respond but walks over to the wall to where several wrapped packages stands. Andy doesn’t wait to be asked but hurries to help Miranda lift the large painting onto the table. Miranda merely nods and begins opening the wrapping carefully.
Serena comes up to them and eyes the new project in all its layers of wrapping. “That’s quite the undertaking, Miranda.” She turns to Andy and smiles warmly. “I’m Serena. I was in the zone when you walked the premises yesterday. I promise I wasn’t being deliberately rude.”
“I’m well acquainted with the zone,” Andy says and returns the smile. After trailing after Emily, who’s cool demeanor doesn’t exactly give her the warm-and-fuzzies, yesterday, she’s relieved that Nigel and Serena are more welcoming. When it comes to Miranda, she’s impossible to read. Not unwelcoming, but not exactly warm in her greeting either.
“I’ll just grab this painting and get it out of your way, all right?” Serena, whose accent suggests she may be from Brazil, or perhaps Portugal, slides her hands under the smaller painting next to the package. Andrea assists her and when she returns, Miranda has uncovered all but the last layer of protective packaging.
“Can you tell me about this painting?” Andrea flexes her fingers as she ends up perpendicularly to Miranda.
“It’s a portrait, painted in the late 1700s, by Serafina Natale. It’s of a woman, only known as Signorina Santo. The owner claims to be related to Santo.”
“I haven’t heard of Serafina Natale,” Andy says.
“Doesn’t surprise me. She’s not well-known these days.” Miranda pulls off the last layer and taps her lower lip at the state of the painting. “If she was as famous now, as she was back then, they wouldn’t have let this masterpiece come to this.” Shaking her head, Miranda pulls a magnifying glass and studies a few spots, pointing things out to Andy who had put on her own magnifier, which attaches to her head.
“That’s some thick varnish,” Andy mutters.
“Exactly. And to develop my answer about Natale, she was a renaissance woman if there ever was one. She was a painter, author, feminist, and ran a farm—among other things.”
Intrigued, Andy decides to Google the painter the first chance she gets.
Miranda goes over the canvas with her gloved hands, feeling gently along cracks. “Here’s penetrating damage. You’ll learn a lot from this piece, Andrea.”
The way Miranda pronounces her name, putting the emphasis on the e, rather than the a, sends shivers down Andy’s back. Forcing herself not to fidget, she watches Miranda go through the familiar procedure of turning the painting over on top of acid-free paper, and then remove it from the stretcher by pulling the old tacks out. She saves them in a glass bowl and Andy guesses she’ll reuse the ones that are intact. As all the tacks are removed, Andy sends Miranda a questioning glance, and Miranda nods. Carefully, Andy lifts the stretcher and sets it to the side, leaning it against the wall. Turning back, she joins Miranda in examining the back of the painting.
“What do you see?” Miranda asks.
“Some strange residue, probably from a previous restoration.” Andy leans in closer and manages to accidentally nudge Miranda’s shoulder as her boss does the same. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No matter.” Miranda is focused on the canvas, but Andy thinks she can see how she rolls her shoulder as if the touch hurt her, or something. “Some binder, but we won’t know until we attack it. I think scraping is our best bet. You’ve performed that technique, according to your credentials?”
“Yes. At one point, someone had actually glued the canvas to a piece of plywood. Once we got it off, we had to scrape off the glue.”
“Was it a large painting?” Miranda looks up, clearly interested.
“No, it was fifteen times twenty inches. This is thirty times forty, right?”
“It is.” Miranda examines the edges of the painting. “We’ll have to flatten the canvas first before we can do anything about the back. How would you do this?”
“I’d cut off a piece of silicon release paper and use it between the back of the canvas and a small tacking iron and flatten the edges that way.” Andy holds her breath as she waits for Miranda’s response, even if she knows her answer is correct.
“Exactly. Go get what you need.” Miranda lifts the stretcher off the floor. “I’ll give this to Paul. He’s our wood guy and works in another room with frames, stretchers, and such.”
“Should I wait for you before I start?”
“No. I’ll be right back. Just mind the heat setting.” Miranda walks off with the stretcher and Andy hurries over to the part of the room where supplies are stored. She finds what she needs and begins cutting off the silicone release paper when someone says her name. She turns around and a smiling Nigel is standing behind her, holding large scissors.
“Great minds think alike,” Nigel says and motions with his head toward the paper.
“Oh, you can have this,” Andy says and hands him her rectangle that she just cut.
“Thank you.” Nigel remains beside her as she cuts another rectangle. “I see you’re getting your hands dirty right away.”
“Um. Yes?” Questioningly, Andy turns around after finishing.
“Makes me wonder what skills you possess that no other newbies here did on their first day. Serena had to watch only, for several days. The other’s even longer. And here you are getting material and fetching tools.”
“Miranda wanted me to start the flattening process.” Confused, Andy blinks. “I did ask.”
“Hm. She’s not big on questions, our boss. So, let’s see. You get to start working on an important piece, and she didn’t bite your head off for asking questions…” He smirked, but his gaze was still kind.
Walking back to the table, Andy plugs in the tacking iron. “How am I suppose to learn if I can’t ask questions? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Exactly. Do share, Nigel, how that can possibly be the case?” Miranda showed up behind Nigel, making him startle.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Please. I’ve been here long enough to know where all the skeletons are buried, Miranda. You never let your interns work on a painting on the first day. I’m just curious what talents Andy has that the rest of us didn’t.” His eyes sparkle as he regards Miranda.
Instead of getting annoyed, which Andy feared she might, Miranda rolls her eyes and flicks her fingers at Nigel. “You ridiculous man. What skeletons?”
“There has to be at least one. Remember that intern that figured it was a good idea to use sandpaper from the woodshop on a painting? We never saw or heard from him again,” Nigel says and rub his chin. “Exhibit A.”
“He was fired. And I made sure he never worked in fine art restoration again.” Miranda speaks mildly as if she reminisces about inviting the unfortunate intern for tea.
“Right. Sure.” Nigel laughs. “I’ll get out of your hair. See you at lunch, Andy?”
“Yes, absolutely, thank you.” Andy nods and then checks the tacking iron. “It’s the right heat. Still want me to continue?” She wasn’t sure after what Nigel just said, joking or not.
“You heard Nigel. Don’t bore me with redundant questions.” Miranda watches intently as Andy begins the process of flattening the canvas.
Andy works in her usual complete focus, moving the tools along the edge of the canvas, careful to apply only the exact pressure required. She is almost done when someone speaks Miranda’s name in a curt, British accent, startling Andy just as she’s lowering the iron again. Afraid of dropping the iron on the back of the canvas, she fumbles to get a better grip and feels it singe her skin on the outside of her left index finger. Whimpering, she puts the iron down where it can’t hurt anything or anyone. She lifts her hand to examine the burn when someone yanks her by the arm, dragging her over to a sink.
Miranda lets faucet run and then shoves Andy’s hand under the cool water. “How bad?” she asks, her voice not cool at all anymore. Still on the lower register, it is a definite growl.
“I’m so sorry,” Andy gushes, blinking to get the tears off her lashes. “I wasn’t prepared. That’s never happened to me before, I swear.” So certain she had screwed up enough for Miranda to do what she had done to the guy with the sandpaper, she feels her stomach tremble.
“Emily should know better.” Miranda whips her head around and stares at her assistant. “What could possibly be so important that you couldn’t exercise caution?”
“You…you have a call from the Louvre. In Paris.” Emily stares at Miranda and then Andy’s hand. “I apologize.”
“I will call them back.” Miranda is still holding Andy’s wrist, forcing her to keep her fingers under the running water.
“I can manage, Miranda,” Andy says, knowing full well everyone is looking at them.
“I will call—them—back.” Miranda’s voice is barely audible and Emily scurries away.
“This is why we don’t have cell phones in the workshop. There can’t be any flinching or dropping things…or injuries.” Miranda bends to examines Andy’s fingers, but doesn’t remove them from the water. “We caught it in time, I think. A little while longer and then cool-spray.”
Eventually, Miranda lets go and tears off some paper towel and hands her. “Now let me see.” She is singularly focused on Andy’s injury and what can she do but hold up her finger to be examined. It stings a little bit, but not at all as it did initially.
“Here. First aid box.” Serena shows up with a large plastic container and then returns to her table, but only after a gentle pat on Andy’s shoulder.
Miranda applies the cool-spray that also holds lidocaine and aloe vera and then bandages it. “It’s pink, but no blisters as far as I could tell.”
“Thank you.” Andy leans against the counter. “That got way more dramatic than what was called for. I’m normally not clumsy around my work. May I finish?”
Miranda blinks. “But your hand—”
“Is much better thanks to your quick reaction.” Andy would have done the same for her hand, but to be honest, it would have taken her longer. “I’d like to finish it before we move on to the next step.”
“Very well. Just be very careful.” Miranda seems pensive as they return to the table.
“Not that it’s any of my business,” Andy says, as she remembers the reason for Emily showing up in the first place. “Don’t you need to go call the Louvre?” She checks her time. “I mean, it’s already four pm there.”
Miranda stops in her tracks. “Perhaps too much drama even for me,” she mutters and leaves the workshop.
“As I said,” Nigel calls out from his table. “What sorcery do you possess, Andy Sachs?”
Continued in part 4
Miranda disconnects the conference call with one of the curators at the Louvre and leans back in her office chair. She can hardly breathe. The was officially about a painting the famous museum in Paris just bought that was in poor condition, but a true find that would draw the masses of art and history aficionados from around the world. Unofficially, the call has yanked the proverbial rug from under Miranda’s feet. How hasn’t she known that Rosalee worked at the Louvre?
Miranda knows she’s well-known among her peers, but an unknown to everyone else. She needs it to remain like that—her entire life depends on it. She isn’t sure Rosalee, who now goes under another name, realizes whom she was talking to. Miranda remembers the skinny little girl from her childhood, even if it was so long ago, and how they had clung to their respective mothers as the ship they were on crashed into each wave. Rosalee had already been ill then and Miranda’s mother had kept her and Corinne away from the girl and her siblings during their journey.
Running her hand over her face, as if stroking off memories like cobwebs, Miranda then stands and walks over to the door and locks it. She opens her safe, which is hidden behind a desk that is connected to the wall on hinges. She pulls out the thick ledger with leather and gold cover. Returning to her desk, Miranda opens the ledger and runs her index finger along the beveled gold letter. The Amaranthine Law. She slowly turns the pages, some of them are quite brittle, until she reaches the spread that says The Carmichael Family. She steels herself and locates Rosalee’s name. Under it is a list of four other names in Rosalee’s column, Miranda uses a fountain pen and enters Vanessa Mercier. In the column next to the name, she writes down Rosalee/Vanessa’s location, workplace. Miranda glances at the other columns, holding the names of Rosalee’s three sisters. They are all dead, which she knows of course. Flashbacks of gaunt little girls huddling in a corner of a cot make her shudder. Miranda groans and rubs her cheeks more vigorously, trying to yank herself out of the past. If Rosalee recognized Miranda the same way she had known who she was talking to after only half a minute, so be it. It was in their best interest to not address it—ever.
Miranda puts the ledger back and pushes the desk back against the wall. Unlocking the door, she walks out into the foyer and finds Emily sitting rigid and typing up a storm on her laptop.
“Emily.” Miranda stops by her desk. “I took care of the call. Andrea is all right.”
Only a barely noticeable flutter of Emily’s mascara coated eyelashes shows her relief. Miranda knows her assistant so well and now understands that it will take more coaxing from her to soothe Emily’s easily frayed nerves. Very few people understood this austere British girl.
“Why don’t we ask how many will join us in an impromptu visit to Serena’s parent’s bar after work? They serve food nowadays, so I’m told.” Miranda has to dig deep to not wince at her own suggestion. Going to a bar is fine. Sitting alone at the counter and stare into a bourbon is all right. She’s done this many times. Going as a group, getting a table and eat typical bar food—not her thing. Still, for her business sake, and for Emily, and also to integrate Andrea quicker, it might be the smart thing.
Emily blushes and relaxes marginally. “I’ll as everyone at lunch and take care of it. It’s very popular, but Serena’s father has promised that her friends will always get a table, no matter what.”
“I’ll ask how many want to go. Give Serena’s father my credit card information. My treat.” Miranda walks into the workshop and over to Andrea who has swept loose debris off the back of the painting and now is scraping off the dried glue using a scalpel. She’s sticking to a corner and edge, probably not wanting to assume she's allowed to do too much. She’s wearing gloves and doesn’t seem to be in pain. This thought makes Miranda breathe a little easier. She isn’t used to feeling this protective of very many people and she truly doesn’t know Andrea. Miranda does know that she’s not ready to analyze her own reaction.
Miranda inspects Andrea’s work so far and is pleased with what she sees. “Acceptable. Keep going. I’ll start on the other side.” Willing her normally so steady hands to cooperate, Miranda pulls up a stool, puts on gloves, and puts a new blade on a scalpel handle. As it turns out, it is sitting across from Andrea, working in silence, and tuning out the voices from the others behind her, that finally settles her. Miranda scrapes with the scalpel and in the corner of her eyes, she sees Andrea’s hands slowly approach hers.
And finally, Miranda can breathe.
Andy is taken aback at how different Miranda seems when she returns to the workshop. Her movements are jerky and her eyes opaque. She pulls on the gloves and attaches the blade to her scalpel with unsteady hands, which makes Andrea worry about her cutting herself. Then, when her boss begins to scrape at the back of the canvas, it is as if she snaps out of whatever funk she’s in. Andrea keeps working and soon the actual canvas appears between them.
The minutes tick by and the work is as hypnotic as it is repetitive. Andy tells herself she can’t become distracted by the woman across from her. Imperfection might show up after being hidden under the glue, and she can end up damaging the painting further if she scrapes right into them.
“Emily is going to ask everyone if they’d like to go to an, well, I suppose, after-work thing, at a bar close to the workshop. I hope you can join us as it would be an excellent way to speed up getting to know your colleagues,” Miranda says quietly.
Andy is shocked, and not quite sure. Perhaps it’s the fact that Miranda said ‘us’. “I have no plans tonight. I’d be happy to. Actually, last night was my last shift at the deli.” Wanting to slap her hand over her mouth, as she’s certain Miranda hates small talk.
“A person has to make a living. I haven’t always done this, you know,” Miranda says absentmindedly, her eyes on the canvas.
Relieved to a degree that is absurd, Andy smiles. “I’m all for honest work that teaches a person great work ethic.”
Miranda nods. “Yes.”
The second silence stretches, but it is not uncomfortable. Andy’s thoughts make a beeline for what she’s wearing but then remembers that Miranda said they were going to a bar. Her jeans and white button-down shirt will do fine. She glances furtively up at Miranda, even if she knows full well what her boss is wearing. All black—again—and with an ornate, of course antique, gold necklace. No hoops in her ears today, but instead gold studs in the shape of a bird in flight. The gold looks amazing against her pale skin— Stopping herself right there, Andy bites down hard enough on the tip of her tongue to almost give a little yelp.
Focus. That was the plan. Focus.
Continued in part 5
Andy knows she’s begging for trouble when she takes the chance to sit next to Miranda at the round table. Serena’s father, who insists they all call him Raimundo, has placed their beverage of choice in front of them, and as Andy sips her beer, she sees Nigel across from her, winking. Raising her eyebrows and trying to look innocent, Andy knows he knows she knows. She decides to not let that get to her. Socializing with Miranda in a casual setting is golden in more ways than one. From a work opportunity way, for sure, but more than that, for getting to know this intense, enigmatic woman. Knowing that it is smarter to let the others keep the conversation going, to begin with, sort of listen and learn, Andy, leans back in her chair while nursing her bear.
“That painting you and Andy are working on,” Nigel says lightly, “looks like it’s going to be quite the task. Whoever decided to glue it to something?”
“Probably two restorations ago. Thought I wouldn’t call it a restoration. I think someone glued it to a board and then someone after that, tore it from said board and used a stretcher. This didn’t do the canvas any favors,” Miranda says, drinking her beer from a bottle. “It’s a damn crime.”
“Good thing you have one more person working on it,” Serena, who sits quite close to Emily, says. “All that scraping is a sure-fire road to insanity if you ask me.”
Andy forgets about her decision to watch and learn about the group’s dynamic before speaking. “It can be,” she says and places her glass on the coaster. “Then there are some days when you just get in the zone and time doesn’t matter.”
Miranda clears her throat. “It’s true.”
Andy nods. “When I was in college, the students were given a canvas to work on, free of charge for the client, and it turned out that the cracked layer on top of the painting wasn’t varnish…it was polyurethane. I had to scrape it off, in small pieces, and after talking to the client and explaining that it was impossible to not lose some of the paint underneath, they still wanted us to continue. I spent a lot of hours on it and that’s when I truly learned about the zone.” Suddenly a little embarrassed that she’s given a whole speech about her newbie foray into the profession that the others around the table, barring Emily, have worked in for years, Andy grabs her glass again and takes a large gulp. She doesn’t embarrass herself by choking, but it’s close.
“Polyurethane!” Serena makes a face. “I’ve had to deal with that a few times and it sucks. Ask Emily what I think of it. She’s had to witness my lamenting the last two times.”
“I will not take such words in my mouth,” Emily says primly and drinks from her white wine. “It’s unbecoming, albeit understandable.”
For some reason, this clearly sounds funny to everyone and they chuckle, making Emily raise her chin.
“I know, Em. I have a bit of an undesirable language when I’m frustrated.” Serena leans in and kisses Emily’s cheek, making her blush.
Nigel snorts at that but doesn’t elaborate as Raimundo brings in the preordered food. He hovers a bit, and then beams as they all dig in, humming around the Brazilian dishes. Andy cautiously eyes Miranda and when their eyes meet, she wonders if her boss is as taken aback by the strange sort of chemistry forming between them, as she is.
Andy carefully moves her injured finger and feels it sting, but not too badly. She can still feel the firm grip Miranda had on her wrist when holding the finger in place under the faucet. Not only that, their proximity, standing so close together, Miranda’s hip was pressed to hers, hadn’t made it easier. And what the hell happened that had Miranda looking rattled when she came back from her call? She had been pale, but with dark red spots burning at the top of her cheekbones. Her eyes had not given a single thing away, and yet it was obvious to Andy that Miranda was concerned. No, more than that, alarmed. It seems to have passed now, though. Miranda chats amicably with Paul, the ‘wood guy’ who takes care of stretchers and frames in the wood workshop, who sits on her other side. After a while, Andy starts feeling ignored, which is idiotic, of course. Perhaps it’s all in her head, but doesn’t Miranda seem to make it a point not to look at her anymore? This is truly odd.
Andy keeps light conversation going with the others and even Emily grants her a faint smile, which Andy suspects is no small feat. It’s obvious to her now that Serena and Emily are a couple and as different as they are, they send off good vibes.
“So, how was your first day, Andy?” Nigel asks. “And Miranda, you must be thrilled to have Andy on board as you gave her actual job to do today.”
Andy knows she must look totally put on the spot and a quick glance at Miranda proves she too has a look of concern.
“Um. Actually, I loved it. I know this is what I want to work with—it’s truly my passion,” Andy manages to say without sounding too gushing or reveal how out-of-breath she is. She turns to Miranda, expecting her to take on her part of Nigel’s questions.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Miranda says coolly. “Of course, Andrea’s here to work. The hands-on approach is the best way, wouldn’t you agree, Nigel?”
Nigel chokes on the fork of vegetables he just put in his mouth and reaches for his beer. Making a big production of swallowing, he then shakes his had and holds up his hands, palms forward, in mock defeat. “I yield. We won’t mention how the rest of us could only look at what you were teaching for at least several days, even more than a week.”
“That’d be me,” Paul says, raising his glass to Nigel. “I had to wait for six workdays before I was allowed to unbox a painting by myself.”
Miranda glares at the two men, but then she smiles, which turns into a chuckle. “You are both horrible people. Andrea must think I’m a true dragon.” She shifts her gaze to Andy, who can only stare at the now warm and sparkling blue eyes. Gone is the flat expression from earlier in the day and instead, Andy sees something that pulls her in. She’s not quite sure what it is, but images of candlelight, a soft bed, gentle voices, are mixed with passionate caresses, gasps of pleasure, and, oh God, moans and whimpers.
Is this what being struck by lightning feels like? Andy sits straight up, staring at Miranda, not sure what else she’s trying to deduce from those beautiful eyes and the unexpected softness of her features.
“Perhaps you better put the fork down. You look like you’re contemplating stabbing someone,” Miranda says, her voice a low purr now. She’s clearly teasing, but why? It's as if she's almost flirting all of a sudden?
Andy wills her hand to relax the grip of the fork, only now feeling her injured finger sting. “I promise, I’m not dangerous in any way, Miranda,” she says, trying to answer in jest.
Miranda tilts her head in a way that’s becoming familiar—and lethal to Andy’s peace of mind. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Andrea. I wouldn't say that at all.”
Continued in part 6
A/N: Tiny, tiny trigger warning - suicide mentioned in passing, one sentence.
Two weeks after the night out at Raimundo’s bar, Miranda has begun to realize she found a gem in Andrea. Interested, eager, and always quick to research their objects, Andrea is making herself irreplaceable. Miranda enjoys teaching her—and admits to herself, she likes it too much. There is something so alluring in those keen, golden-brown eyes, that looks at Miranda as if she possesses the answers to all mysteries. Thank God, Andrea isn’t of the puppy-love kind, Miranda’s had her fair share of experiences with young interns who’ve idolized her and indulged in some sticky, uncomfortable hero-worship. This isn’t what Andrea exudes. Instead, she challenges Miranda when it comes to a more unconventional method. Miranda knows that some of her techniques are not the most modern, but they work for her, she’s comfortable with them and she’s used them forever. When Andrea argues for the latest finds in fine art restoration, it turns out to be invigorating to spar with her.
Now, she meets Andrea in the foyer as the young woman comes in from the cold, carrying a tray of Starbucks.
“My turn to do the coffee run today.” Andrea smiles. “I couldn’t find you before I left and I wanted to beat the lunch crowd, but I took a chance and brought you your usual super hot and strong latte. Skimmed milk and all.”
“Very thoughtful. Why don’t you hand those over to Nigel and come join me in the office? I’d like to sum up how you’ve experienced the first two weeks here.” Miranda takes her latte and turns to leave when she catches Andrea’s panicked expression.
“Already? Two weeks?” Andrea grips the tray hard.
“Calm down. It’s just a talk. You’re fine.” Miranda expects her usual exasperation at emotional displays to appear, but instead, she wants to kick herself for startling Andrea unnecessarily. Oh, this is not good. She can’t go soft and mushy over this girl.
“Oh. All right. I’ll be right there.” Andrea nods and scurries over to the door leading into the workshop.
Miranda enters her office and leaves the door ajar. Her desk is cluttered as she’s been using it to clean and polish an antique sextant. She merely pushes the tray aside and sits down while pulling a pen and legal pad onto her lap.
Andrea stops in the doorway and hesitates briefly. She’s holding on to her hot beverage and after a few moments, she steps inside. “Should I…?” She motions behind her with her thumb.
“Yes. Close the door please.” Miranda makes sure her voice is non-committal and cool, which is her preferred approach. “First of all, how’s the unboxing of the Russian icon coming along?”
Brightening, and relaxing, Andrea sips her drink before answering. “I’m peeling off the last cloth layer. The client was afraid the paint would come off with the old fabric, but so far, I see no trace of that. I’m so excited to see what condition it’ll be in once we take that off.”
“And the final touches of the Natale painting?” Miranda taps the back of her pen against her lower lip. This seems to distract Andrea who doesn’t answer right away.
“Um. I still think we should airbrush a second layer of varnish and buff down the surface if you think it’s too glossy.” Placing her mug on a coaster on the desk, Andrea gestures for emphasis. “It would hold up better and since it’s not permanent, there’s really no risk.”
Miranda nods slowly. “Very well. I’m not a fan of the airbrush equipment. I was trained using classic techniques. Perhaps it’s time to join the 21st century.”
“A combination of the old and new technique is the best of both worlds.” She takes her mug again but doesn’t drink from it.
Miranda feels a twitch in her chest, painful enough to contract her muscles, at Andrea’s words. She is about to say something when her office phone rings. A bit rattled at her own reaction, Miranda picks up the receiver. “Miranda Priestly.”
“It is you, Sarah. Isn’t it?” a female voice says. It’s familiar, and cold dread runs down Miranda’s spine like beads of ice. It’s Rosalee. She sounds out of breath.
“Excuse me?” Miranda stands up but forces herself to remain calm. “Who is this?”
“You know. You recognized me. I realized that after we hung up, but you did. And in retrospect, I knew your voice.” Rosalee gives a strange, choppy kind of laugh. “I wish I hadn’t, but I did and that changes everything.”
Suddenly remembering Andrea, Miranda turns to dismiss her, but Andrea is right behind her, concern in her eyes. She indicates Miranda’s free hand, which is trembling. Miranda shakes her hand but can’t bring herself to tell Andrea to leave. It is as if Andrea’s presence help ground her. Later, she will examine this peculiarity, but right now she has to handle Rosalee.
“What do you want?” Miranda asks, hearing the menace in her own voice.
“Nothing that will hurt either of us. On the contrary. This…finding each other by happenstance, is a Godsend.”
“Godsend.” Miranda huffed. “Hardly the right word during the circumstances.”’
“Point taken.” Rosalee takes a trembling breath. “How many do you have on your list that are still with us?”
Stunned at Rosalee’s words, Miranda is transported back to when they lived in the same small town in Maine. Rosalee was still married and Miranda was a widow. Was it then they had begun their lists? They had looked up the ones from the ship they could find, traveled up and down the coast until they had located all but two who were dead. One, a man, by his own hand, and the other, a woman, from an accident in a factory.
Miranda had saved and bought the ledger she owned to this day. She worked as a teacher back then, and the pay wasn’t great, but the ledger had been with her ever since, the list of names changing. Rosalee had used a similar system back then, and now, should Miranda play ball and simply sit down and compare?
Slowly sitting down, Miranda feels Andrea’s hands on her shoulder, and she covers the steady hands with her cold and trembling one. “All right, Rosalee, what do you want?”
“We need to meet. There have been new developments for some of us during the last decade and as you always were the recluse one, you may not be aware. Come to Paris and collect the painting you’re going to restore yourself. As it’s a remarkable piece, nobody will think it strange if you decide to oversee the transport.”
Miranda looks up at Andrea. “It will take a few days to arrange it.”
“If this is some trap…” Miranda clenches her teeth around the words.
“Absolutely not. I would never do that.” Rosalee sounds sincere.
“I’ll be in touch.” Miranda hangs up, not bidding Rosalee farewell. She sits as if frozen until she feels Andrea’s hand gently squeeze her shoulder.
“Miranda? What can I do?” Andrea crouches next to her.
“Excuse me?” Blinking, Miranda isn’t sure how much time has passed after she hung up. She chuckles mirthlessly. “Oh, Jesus. Do you have a passport?”
“Yes?” Andrea’s eyebrows go up, but she doesn’t take her eyes off Miranda.
“Then I suppose you’re coming with me to fetch a painting at the Louvre in Paris.”
Continued in part 7
Andry has never flown first class before. She has he own little alcove in the center row, as Miranda prefers the window seat, and she’s taken aback by the amount of space. As soon as she sits down, a flight attendant offers champagne, or any beverage Andy might prefer instead. Not about to choose champagne, which, the few times she’s tasted it, has gone straight to her knees and has a tendency to give her a headache. Considering the slightly altered plans regarding the Louvre, she needs to not arrive with a hungover.
Miranda heard from the curator named Rosalee, who also goes by Seraphine, oddly enough, while packing for Paris. The Louvre has reconsidered when it comes to the risk of shipping the rare and priceless painting over the Atlantic and wants Miranda to restore it in their workshop. Andy wonders if not France have their own skilled fine art conservators, but of course, Miranda is the best, so that figures.
The plane levels out after taking off, and Andy takes a deep breath of relief. Flying isn’t her thing, and she’s not used to it. A lover of trains, she was once travelling with the Trans-Siberian railway, the Orient Express, and of course, crossed the US several times in both directions. As the only other means of travel to Paris is by cruise ship and train, she is realistic enough to accept air travel as the only reasonable option. And she was well aware that the chance of her traveling in first class, is infinitesimal.
“I overheard you tell Serena that this is your first transatlantic flight.” Miranda puts away her tablet. “Once they served the meal, I suggest you try and get some sleep. I always find traveling to Europe much harder when it comes to the onslaught of jetlag, then the opposite direction. We need to stay sharp, for many reasons.” Her eyes darkened and she adjusted the cuffs of her powder blue cashmere sweater, which she wore with black trousers.
“Can you tall me about Rosalee…I mean, Seraphine?” Andy asked cautiously.
Miranda doesn’t answer at first, but squints at Andy before shifting further toward the window. “Well, don’t just sit there. I’m not going to yell about my private life across the aisle for everyone to hear.” Miranda displays her regular annoyed-but-not-really expression.
When Andy finally catches on, she unbuckles and sits down next to Miranda. Even if the seat is comfortably wide, it is not really meant for two. Andy feels Miranda’s hip against hers and it makes her shudder, which she’s not sure she manages to hide.
“I’ve known Rosalee for many years. Longer than I care to remember.”
“If you don’t really like her, why are we heading to Paris?” Andy knows she’s pushing it, but she’s enthralled with Miranda’s story and the fact that she’s actually confiding personal details.
“Actually, I was fond of Rosalee when we were children. Our parents started out as friends when we met during a…trip. Rosalee was fun, full of mischief, and as my sister was a great deal older than me, we found each other, Rosalee and I.”
“Did you outgrow each other?” Andy shifts again, sitting more turned toward Miranda while trying not to push against her with her knee.
Miranda gives another one of her mirthless chuckles. “I suppose. It took a while. All through childhood, once Rosalee’s father decided to remain in the same area, we played and dreamed about our future. I suppose, all these years later, so much have change, and the two of us as well, nothing is recognizable. Though, I have to admit, there was something in Rosalee’s tone that reminded me of the young girl she used to be. I’m not sure, except for the art piece we’re restoring, she might want from me. I may have to rely on you more than usual to work independently. We’ll be working with some of the Louvre’s staff. You won’t be tossed to the wolves alone.”
Andy winces. “My French is not what it was in high school. I focused on Spanish and Italian in college.”
“You’ll be fine. They speak English, and there are enough similarities between those languages for you to understand and make yourself understood.” Miranda rubs her neck. “I hate sleeping on planes.”
“Need a neck rub?” Andy hears herself ask before she can harness herself. Maybe it is because Miranda looks done talking about Rosalee and her childhood, and to be honest, she has only managed to stir more questions in Andy with her reminiscing, but Miranda cocks her head and seems to take Andy’s offer seriously. “I’m sorry,” Andy hurries to say, “I’m overstepping.”
“I think you’re being quite caring.” Miranda shocks Andy by removing her sweater right then and there, and turning her back to her, wearing only a sports bra under a tank top. “If you injure me, we’ll have words.”
Andy looks at Miranda’s pale, perfect skin, her mouth going instantly dry. “I have no oil.” She wants to groan out loud at her meek words.
“Wait. Miranda opens her messenger bag and pulls out some hand cream. “Will this do?”
“Sch-sure.” Andy squirts some hand cream into her palm and warms it between her hands. The moment she lays them on Miranda’s beautiful shoulders, she knows it’s a mistake that’s going to cost her. Not now, perhaps not even in Paris, but afterward, when they get home—it’s going to cost her.
Continued in part 8
A/N: short update, but it will get me to where I need to be with the story when they get to Paris.
Miranda knows as soon as Andrea touches her bare skin, it is a huge mistake. Colossal. She’s been able to rationalize—somewhat—her feelings around this woman but to accept a neck rub, and in public, even if they are well out of sight of anyone but the occasionally passing flight attendant, is a miscalculation. Andy’s hands are warm as they lay still against Miranda’s knotted muscles on either side of her neck. She just keeps them there and it makes Miranda tremble. She hopes Andrea doesn’t notice, but maybe she does, since she starts moving, applying enough pressure to do something about the knots, but not so much it hurts. Or at least, it doesn’t hurt too bad.
“This good?” Andrea murmurs into Miranda’s ear. “Harder? Or too hard?”
“Hm. It’s adequate.” Miranda must clear her voice. “Like that.”
“Okay.” Andrea shifts and now both hands are on her left side. One hand holding Miranda in place with its palm just above her clavicle, the other gently needing the sore trapezius muscle. She keeps the movements going until Miranda wants to tip her head back and let out the moan that is hovering in the back of her throat.
Andrea moves her hands to the right side. She also shifts behind Miranda, sliding closer. This means that not only does Andrea’s perfume wrap around Miranda, but firm, round breasts press softly against the right side of her back. What is Andrea thinking? Doesn’t realize how that makes Miranda feel? Like raked over embers.
Perhaps she does. Andrea gasps and moves back enough for the contact to disappear and now Miranda acutely misses it and wants to press back against her.
“I apologize,” Andrea whispers the words, and they are caught in Miranda’s hair, sending tingles along her scalp. “This good still?”
“Mm-hm.” There is no way Miranda can talk without giving herself away. Her belly is on fire and the heat follows ever single vein in her body, is such a new feeling, Miranda doubts she can ever have responded like this—to anyone. If she has, it must be so long ago, she has forgotten it. She doubts she’ll ever forget this.
Eventually, Andrea stops the therapeutic kneading and Miranda thinks she’s done. She begins to turn, but Andrea’s hand on her shoulders makes her stop.
“Hey, I need to make sure you are all taken care of,” Andrea says. Her choice of words sends Miranda’s left hand up to cover her mouth. She clamps down hard, to keep the moan from actually escaping this time. “Like this.” Andrea palpates the muscles gently, sliding her fingers along them. “I don’t feel any knots. How does it feel when I do this?”
Like I could come if you keep touching me. “I think you managed to get them all,” Miranda says, her voice strained. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I’ll go back to my seat now. I think dinner’s about to be served.” Andrea stands, but before she has a chance to go, Miranda turns and takes hold of her wrist. Blinking in surprise, Andrea remains on her feet, looking down at Miranda.
Miranda studies her carefully. Andrea’s eyes are darker than usual. Her cheeks are flushed, and, having studied this face more than what is appropriate, Miranda can tell that Andrea’s lips are swollen and damp. Oh, thank God. It may not be convenient and definitely advisable, but it is such a relief to realize that Miranda isn’t the only one affected by the massage.
“Miranda?” Andrea looks concerned now.
“Nothing. Go eat and then get some sleep. We hit the ground running when we get to Paris.” Miranda lets go of Andrea, again missing the connection so much it pains her.
The way Andrea touches her wrist and holds it to her, suggests she might be feeling the same.
Continued in part 8
Rosalee looked the same as she had when Miranda saw her last, despite the many years that had passed. Tall, gangly, and with the bonus of looking utterly elegant, à la Paris, Rosalee, aka Vanessa Mercier, strides along the corridor toward them.
“Miranda.” She air kisses Miranda’s cheeks and then extends a hand to Andrea. “I’m Vanessa. Welcome to Paris. How was your flight?”
So small talk first. Miranda dons a polite smile. “Uneventful. We’re eager to get started as our time here is limited. The Louvre was supposed to send the painting to New York originally. All these last-minute changes have reduced the number of hours we’re able to spend on this project. If I hadn’t brought my intern, I don’t think it could have been done at all.”
“I had hoped we could talk first.” Rosalee/Vanessa pales.
“Why don’t we make it a working dinner tonight?” Miranda is entirely content with putting off whatever Rosalee wants to talk about.
“I don’t mean to be rude, Miranda, but I meant just between us.” Looking awkward now, Rosalee tugs at her long Chanel necklace. “I hope you understand, Andrea?”
“I do, completely,” Andrea says calmly. “I thought I’d take the time to go shopping a bit anyway, if it’s all right with you, Miranda?” She smiles broadly. “Not every day you have the chance to make a find in Paris.”
Miranda isn’t pleased but figures she might as well bite the bullet. Rosalee is going to have her meeting no matter what, before she and Andrea fly back to New York, and perhaps doing it the first day will reduce stress the rest of her time at the Louvre. “Very well. Travel only by taxi, Andrea. I will pick up the tab on that.”
Andrea blinks. “Oh. Okay. If you’re sure? I mean, the Metro…”
Andrea nods. “Got it.”
Rosalee guides them to the workshop where other restorers are working on their respective paintings. At the far end, a large work station is set up and the painting is sitting on an easel, covered with a cloth.
“Here it is. I’ll let you get sorted.” Rosalee checks her time. “It is 2 PM. When will you be done for the day, do you think?”
“Seven pm.” Miranda steps closer to the painting and removes the cloth. She has seen digital photos of it and it’s wear, tear, and damages.
“I’ll come by and collect you. We can drop off Andrea where she wants to go.” Rosalee remains by their side, looking uncertain, but eventually bids them a good day and walks off on her lethal heels.
Miranda casts a glance at Andrea and sees her looking puzzled as she studies Rosalee’s departure. “Andrea?”
“Yes?” Swiveling, Andrea joins Miranda by the easer. “Holy crap. It looks worse up close and personal. Perforations, at least four. The varnish looks thick. The frame needs a lot of woodwork. Is that on us?” She looks dismayed.
“No, not the frame. The Louvre has a wood workshop almost to my standard. They’ll deal with the frame. This, however,” Miranda says and motions toward the painting, is going to be baptizing by fire for you. I’m going to rely on your performance just like you have back at the studio. If you are ever unsure of what to do, ask me, all right?”
“Absolutely. I realize it’s a privilege to accompany you. You could have picked any one of the others with much more experience.” Andrea nods.
Now she couldn’t. Miranda’s abdominal muscles clench. She needs to spend time with Andrea, alone, to figure out what is going on between them. The whole neck rub scenario only emphasized things, it did little to explain why. And Miranda knows she’s a person who needs to know why.
They start in on the painting as they have worked on other projects, and once the frame and stretcher are removed, they are relieved to see that no strange substances can be found on the back. While Andy starts gently brushing away the debris with a special sponge, Miranda prepares the tools they need to strengthen the frail edges.
They work in silence and it is only after two hours when Miranda stretches and feel a vertebra in her neck pop, she acknowledges how pleasant the silence is between them. They have only exchanged a few words, and also greeted their French colleagues who have come up to introduce themselves. “We need coffee, Andrea.”
“I’ll go get some—no?”
“No. We’ll go get some. We need to stretch our backs. Or at least I do. Comes with age.” Miranda chuckles to herself.
“How is it that you move more elegant and with more grace than I ever could, no matter how tired you are?” Andrea shakes her head. Then she blushes and covers her forehead. “That sounded creepy. I mean, I’m not stalking you, even if it sounds like it. By knowing how you move. Damn. I’ll just shut up.” Now she looks up to the ceiling and groans.
Miranda’s chuckle turns into full laughter. “I take that as a compliment, even if it isn’t true. You move like a young panther.” Andrea’s candor is clearly contagious. Miranda notices how Andrea’s eyes grow wide, and lengthens her stride. She stops by one of their colleagues and asks for the break room and if you can get coffee there. The man makes a typical French gesture and answers, “Oui, Madame, biensûre!” sounding offended that she would even think to ask such a thing. “Any type of coffee imaginable.”
When they reach the break room, they find it empty. A somewhat intimidating espresso machine sits in the corner, but as they near it, Miranda is relieved to see it has options for preselected varieties. She presses a sensor that immediately makes a double espresso latte for her. Andrea chooses the same and they sit down in the corner where there’s a three-seater couch.
“Ah, padding.” Andrea sighs and sips her coffee. Her eyes widen again. “Oh, my God. This coffee…it’s…it’s insane.”
Miranda drinks from her mug and agrees. It’s incredibly good coffee. “Yes. Insane.”
Andrea enjoys some more of her latte and then places the mug on the coffee table. Turning toward Miranda, she tilts her head and studies her for a few unnerving moments. “Can you tell me more about Rosalee? About what’s wrong? And why the hell she changed her name?”
Miranda wants to. Only the horrific memories from her youth, when she trusted in someone enough to share, keeps her from doing so now. Granted, times have changed, but not that much. Not nearly enough. “Rosalee and I grew up under simple circumstances. I think we both wanted to shed that skin when we grew up and began making our respective plans. Now, Rosalee doesn’t know you know her original name. It might…startle her, to know, so may I ask you not to reveal this fact?”
Andrea’s eyes narrow, but then she nods. “Of course. I won’t tell a soul. We all carry baggage, no matter how old we are.”
“Do you as well, Andrea?” Miranda doesn’t like the pained expression that ghosts across Andrea’s face.
“Yes, but I’m working on carving out my future by doing this.” She motions in the direction of the workshop. “And by being here,” Andrea adds, making a smaller circle between them.
“I hope it will live up to your expectations,” Miranda says, clinging to her mug. She hopes Andrea takes that as she’s talking about the internship, but the truth is, a small, insistent voice keeps drowning out Miranda’s voice of reason, hoping that Andrea will find spending time together like this, appealing.
“It already has. More than you realize.” It’s time for Andrea to grab her mug and drink from it. She licks an errant drop from her lower lip and Miranda wants to go full throttle across the empty cushion between them and capture those lips with hers.
“Miranda?” Andrea whispers.
“We—we should go back.” Miranda stands up, drinks from her mug, and tosses the rest of the coffee in the sink. “We need to get a lot more done—oh!”
Andrea’s hand is on her arm, effortlessly making Miranda pivot. Sparkling, amber eyes lock on to Miranda’s as Andrea slides her hand down her arm. There, she gently squeezes Miranda’s hand before letting go. “I’m not trying to embarrass you. It wasn’t my intention on the plane, nor is it now. You have nothing to worry about when it comes to me. I promise.” Her expression is so honest, so guileless, Miranda thinks Andrea believes every word she is saying.
Miranda, however, knows better. She has everything to worry about when it comes to Andrea Sachs.
Continued in part 10
If anyone had told Andy she’d be strolling along the Seine and along Champs D’Elysee only a few days ago, she would have called them batshit crazy. And yet, here she is, in the early evening, after lovely dinner by herself, shopping. Well, mostly window shopping as the stores on the famous street is beyond her price range. She loved looking at the clothes from an artistic point of view and wasn’t at all upset that she could never afford a pair of Louboutin pumps. The height of the heels alone was enough to deter her if the price hadn’t already.
The street vendors are more her thing and she finds some beautiful custom jewelry that could have belonged to a woman a couple of centuries ago. The stones are made of glass, some even crystal, and the colors are amazing.
After strolling through the famous area, content in looking at the people, the beautiful lights, and taking in the feeling of being in Paris, Andy begin to lose momentum. Her thoughts go to Miranda and she wonders how the dinner with Rosalee is working out. She checks her cell phone for the time and sees it is time to return to the hotel. Flagging down a taxi, she gives him the name of the luxurious hotel where she and Miranda stay in a two-bedroom suite. Andy hadn’t expected this and Miranda’s assumption that she’s all right with the arrangement should perhaps feel arrogant, but it doesn’t.
Spotting three missed text messages, Andy clicks on them and her heart jumps when she sees they’re from Miranda. Shit. What’s wrong now?
Have you found a decent place to eat?
Andrea. Have you eaten? Are you all right?
Why aren’t you answering? If you haven’t texted me back in 15 minutes, I will call you
Damn it. Andy taps her screen furiously.
Sorry, Miranda. I’m fine. On my way back to the hotel in a taxi. All is well.
She sends it off, with one minute to go. It takes ten seconds before a ping lets her know Miranda texted her back.
Slumping against the backrest, Andy isn’t sure whether to roll her eyes at Miranda being so huffy, yet clearly worried, or strangely flattered that Miranda worried at all. She settles for the latter, even if the ‘Fine’ sounded pretty damn huffy.
She crosses the hotel lobby and heads for the elevators, her legs like lead now, and jetlag simmering behind her eyelids. It’s quite possible she might doze off in the elevator. Better not lean against the wall. Reaching her floor, she walks down the corridor, her steps inaudible against the carpet. Reaching the suite, she fumbles for her keycard, but can’t see it in her wallet. She goes through her pockets, and her bag, but there is no sign of the card. Groaning, Andy thuds her head against the door. She can of course take the elevator back down again and have the desk clerk make her a new one, but the elevator is so far away—much farther than it was just before.
Andy sits down on the floor, her back against the door. She’ll look up the phone number to the hotel and ask them to come up with a key. Yes, that’s a great idea. She’s not in anyone’s way here by the door as the suite is at the far end, and just around the corner of the main corridor. The only ones who have any reason to walk here are Miranda and her.
Leaning her head against the door, she taps on her phone, trying to figure out which number is for the desk. Or maybe call housekeeping? No. That’s not right. Has to be the desk. They can send a bellhop.
Andy’s thoughts go back to Miranda and the enigmatic Rosalee. Two women, both from similar circumstances, but so different. Miranda, strong, stern, and aloof. Rosalee, on the other hand, seeming jittery, bordering on nervous, as if something is very, very wrong. Andy wonders if Miranda will share anything with her. Of course, none of this is any of Andy’s business. Totally true. Yet, the way she and Miranda move around each other, in elliptical orbits, sometimes close enough to touch, sometimes, like now, at a distance.
Was Miranda worried or merely annoyed? Why’s that so important? You could argue that Andy’s merely in Paris with Miranda to assist her, but that’d be lying. At least on Andy’s part. What if Miranda has brought her for other reasons as well? Andy’s thoughts whirl, and soon she slumps sideways, barely propping her up against the door frame.
The next thing she knows is someone holding her shoulder in a firm grip, shaking her.
“Andrea! What on earth are you doing sitting on the floor? Are you all right?”
Andy blinks and looks up into blue eyes, now narrow slits, and it takes her a second to realize it’s Miranda crouching next to her. Miranda’s lips are pressed into a thin line as she shakes Andy again.
So, yeah. Annoyed and worried.
Continued in part 11
A/N: Mentions death and suicide, very peripherally.
Miranda walks into the restaurant, of course, the most hyped in all of France, according to her Google search. Rosalee always dreamed of flair and extravagance, even when they were young girls back in the outskirts of Newport. The very modern restaurant is decorated in bold colors and Miranda suspects the menu will entail everything from classic French cuisine to almost avant-garde cooking.
Rosalee gets up from the booth she’s booked when the maître d shows Miranda to her table. Tall, thin, and with tension written all over her, she greets Miranda with more air-kisses.
“Bienvenu, ma Cherie,” Rosalee murmurs and motions toward the booth. “Please, have a seat. I took the liberty of ordering drinks for us. I seem to remember you are fond of bourbon?” Fidgeting in a way that reminds Miranda of Andrea, Rosalee plays with the napkin-wrapped utensils.
“I do. Thank you.” Miranda sips the bourbon and approves. “All right. I’m in Paris, despite it throwing my entire schedule out the window. What can possibly be so important?”
“It’s beyond important,” Rosalee says quietly. “As of twelve days ago, almost to the minute, it is only you and I left.” She shudders. “It frightens me as much as it is a relief.”
Miranda grows rigid. “What do you mean?” She has an inkling and the idea of it all is indeed intimidating. “Who?” she asks, her voice strained.
“Iris.” Rosalee takes a large sip of her colorful, pink cocktail. “She used the name Rhiannon for the last twenty years.”
“How?” Miranda clings to her glass of bourbon.
“Actually, this time it does look like a genuine accident. A pileup in the Suisse alps. It was in the papers. I only found out because I have software that alerts me when anything remarkable happens to you or her.”
“Charming.” Miranda felt herself begin to tremble. She was also relieved, to a degree, about Iris’s fate. Still, her demise held some hope. Perhaps there would be a humane end for her someday. “And as tragic as that loss is, why am I here? What’s really going on?”
Paling, Rosalee cleared her throat. “There are people who know.”
Miranda flinched. “Excuse me?”
“That’s my theory at least. I’m not sure of who among us has broken the law.” Rosalee shakes her head. “I just know it wasn’t me—and I think I know you well enough to assume it wasn’t you.”
“It most certainly wasn’t,” Miranda speaks through clenched teeth. Her heart hammers in her chest as she tries to estimate the fallout if what Rosalee thinks is true. “Perhaps Iris, before she passed.”
“I doubt that. Iris was so private and quite the recluse, most of the time.” Rosalee frowned. “Did you bring your ledger? We need to compare notes.”
“I did, but it’s in the safe in my hotel room.” Miranda sighs. “If we’re the last one left, who can know? And, more importantly, who can prove anything?”
“Don’t be naïve, Miranda.” Rosalee snaps the words out impatiently, but then closes her eyes hard for a moment. When she looks over at Miranda, she has an expression of defeat on her face. Her complexion is more gray than white. “Aren’t you just so very tired of it all sometimes?” Rosalee whispers.
“Sometimes.” But not lately, Miranda realizes. “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?” She deliberately nails Rosalee with her best glare.
“I would lie if I told you I haven’t thought of it during the years. I bet you have too. But now, I’m not going to break the law. Those who did…the wounds will never heal for us. It’s bad enough to deal with the ones that passed accidentally. But to break the law. Never.” Rosalee regains some of her color and her voice is stronger. “So, who can know?”
“Wait…” Miranda thinks back to when she browsed her book of The Amaranthine Law. “You say we’re the only ones left, but that’s not what my records say. You’re here in Europe, I reside in the US. It would be easy for any of the others who moved to South America, or Africa, to fake their passing a little too well, don’t you think?” Miranda pauses as the waiter approaches to take their orders. Both women rattle them off. Rosalee flicks her fingers dismissively when they’re done. “Tell me what reason you have to think someone outside our group knows anything.”
“I received a letter. Then an email a few weeks before Iris passed. Granted they were posted in Melbourne, Australia. That means nothing of course.”
“And what did the letter and email say.”
“I didn’t bring the letter, but here’s the email.” Rosalee hands over her cell phone. “It’s short.”
Miranda took the phone. Putting on her reading glasses, she scrolled down the short text.
Enough is enough, don’t you think? After years of greed, it is time to put a stop to it all. I know who the three of you are—the last ones of the nine. You, Iris, and Sarah. I will deal with the abomination of the Amaranthine law. You all know as well as I do, that death should have come a long time ago, perhaps already on the ship.
I’ll be seeing you.
The email was unsigned, and the sender had used a common email server.
“I guess the ´regular letter you received was also anonymous?” Miranda hands the phone back to Rosalee.
“It was. The message was worded a bit differently, but the content was the same.” Rosalee shudders. “When I realized who you were, I knew that fate had stepped in, yet again…that you could help me.”
“How am I supposed to do that? I have no hidden computer skills that allow me to track this email.” Miranda frowns.
Placing her hands on Miranda’s, Rosalee leans across the table. “Listen to me. You used to have connections within the police force.”
Appalled, Miranda pulls her hand free. “Are you insane? That was so many years ago, and even if I still did, I would never use that by exposing us—and thus breaking the Amaranthine law. We all swore to uphold it. You half coerced me into flying here. It wasn’t my first choice, and you know it. We always risk exposure, but more so when we cross borders. IDs are getting harder and harder to forger.”
“I know. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t see any other way out. I need you here. We were close once. We were the best of friends.”
“A lot has happened since then. We’re not the same people.” Miranda winces as the waiter interrupts again, placing the starter dish before her. Once he leaves, and Miranda imagines he hurries away from the table as the tension is ominously thick, she catches Rosalee’s gaze. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I do, but I don’t accept it. We need to deal with this and what has transpired between you and me, is nothing compared to the damage this person can do.” Rosalee grips her utensils hard. “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist that we deal with this once and for all.”
“Insist?” Miranda merely glowers.
“Yes. With the best of intentions for both of us.” Rosalee speaks in a gentler tone. “Please, Sarah—Miranda. Please.”
“We will get together again tomorrow—and in private.” Miranda is curt. “Bring your ledger and we’ll compare. I agree that the email is worrisome, but I refuse to commit to something that sounds like a mere hunch on your part—not something to defend our law against.”
“Yet,” Rosalee said, slumping against the backrest.
Miranda keeps eating even if she has lost her appetite during their conversation. She needs the sustenance as it seems she might have double-duty on this trip. Her thoughts whirl, but eventually she manages to push them to the back of her mind. Only one thought remains and moves to the front of the rest. Andrea. How is Andrea doing in the center of an enormous city that is entirely unknown to her?
Miranda pulls her cell from her messenger bag and send off a text. When there’s no reply, she texts again. And then again, this time with caution. Just as she’s hovering with her finger over the call button, Andrea texts her back, seeming completely oblivious to how she worried Miranda. Wonderful.
After leaving Rosalee and hailing a taxi, Miranda is exhausted. Jetlag is creeping up and it’s relentless. She tumbles out of the taxi at the hotel and forces herself to lengthen her stride as she walks toward the elevators. She pulls out her keycard and holds it tight, wanting nothing more than a quick scalding shower and then sleep.
The corridor is ridiculously long and she feels foggy when she rounds the corner—and sees Andrea sitting with her back against the door to the suite. Asleep. Miranda crouches next to the young woman. What the hell’s she up to?
““Andrea! What on earth are you doing sitting on the floor? Are you all right?”
Andrea wakes up, her arms flailing as if she lost her balance. Staring at Miranda, her expression is a mix of embarrassment and fear. “I’m so sorry, but I lost my keycard.”
“Well, get up. Fortunately, I have mine.” Miranda realizes she is biting Andrea’s head off for no reason at all. Anyone can lose something. “You look as exhausted as I feel,” she says, making sure her voice is kind.
“I am.” Andrea opens the door after Miranda pulls her card. “After you.”
They enter the suite and when the door closes behind them, Miranda drops her bag on the floor and then turns to Andrea who is half out of her coat. Gripping her arms, she notices how slender Andrea is, but also with wiry muscles under the sweater sleeves. Pushing Andrea against the wall, next to the mirror, Miranda growls. “Don’t say a thing. Not a thing.”
Continued in part 12
The suite is prepared for the evening. The mood lights are on. The beds turned down. A tray holding fruits, crackers, tea, coffee, and a beautiful little vase of flowers, offers them a snack if they wish.
Andy couldn’t care less. She has only eyes for Miranda as she stands there, motionless, with her back against the wall. Miranda is well within Andy’s personal space, her eyes scanning every inch of her face. What is she looking for?
“You frightened me this evening. Twice,” Miranda says through clenched teeth. “You took your sweet time answer my texts and then I find you in a…a…pile on the floor. I can’t tell you the thoughts that went through my mind.”
Andy waits, knowing it will be a mistake to speak too soon. Miranda doesn’t look as if she’s done. And she isn’t.
“I have sat listening to Rosalee telling me things that might turn my life to shreds, and despite that, all I could eventually think of was if you were all right. Alone in one of the world’s biggest cities, unfamiliar to you.”
Thrown off by Miranda’s words, Andy fumbles in her mind before she finds her own voice. “Turn your life to shreds? How?” What could Rosalee possibly say to yank the rug from out under Miranda like this? And was that why she reacted in such a way to a few delayed texts?
Miranda gives Andy’s arms a small push and then lets go, only to place her palms against the wall on either side of Andy’s head. This brings Miranda even closer. Her perfume fills Andy’s senses and floods her entire system. It is tinged with a barely-there scent of bourbon, but Miranda is not intoxicated. Andy has no idea what that would look like but knows this isn’t it.
Not sure what her next response ought to be, Andy slowly raises her hand and runs her fingers along Miranda’s jaw. This turns out to halt time. Miranda even stops breathing. Her lips part and her stormy-blue eyes probe Andy’s.
“I’m sorry I worried you,” Andy says quietly. “I’m even more sorry that Rosalee upset you.”
If Andy thought her apology would reduce the tension between them, she was mistaken. Miranda places a hand over Andy’s before she has a chance to remove it and kept it there. “You’re sorry.” She takes a couple of deep breaths. “Apology accepted. Don’t do it again.” She still doesn’t let go.
Andy has lost her own breath, not to mention, what she was thinking just before. Wait. Yes. Rosalee. But it seems less important now. What matters is how Miranda keeps them connected. The warmth of her hand on the back of Andy’s. The incredible feeling of Miranda’s impossibly velvet skin against Andy’s palm.
“I can’t promise,” Andy says, gently moving her fingers to caress Miranda’s cheek. “But I’ll do my best. I can promise that.” The sensation of touching Miranda travels up her arm and into her chest where Andy’s heart picks up speed in a way that makes every single beat almost painful. She wants to reverse their positions, place Miranda against the wall and cover her with her body, shield her. Hold her.
“You better.” Miranda steps back, lowering her hand. Andy feels the loss of the touch acutely and doesn’t know what to do with hers. She pulls off her coat and hangs it and turning to Miranda, she sees that she’s still just standing there, looking lost in thought.
“Here.” Knowing it can backfire, Andy still helps Miranda out of her coat and hangs it next to her own. There is something about their respective coats hanging next to each other with no space in between, that’s remarkably touching. “I need mineral water. Can I get you anything?” Andy while she kicks off her boots.
“Pellegrino,” Miranda answers absentmindedly. She bends to unbuckle her boots and toe them off before placing them on the shoe rack.
Andy explores the tray of beverages and then the complimentary refrigerator content. “No Pellegrino, I’m afraid. Perrier? Evan? Badoit?”
“Badoit.” Miranda disappears into her bedroom and Andy hear the door to her ensuite bathroom close. She pours two glasses of Badoit, adds a few ice cubes, and makes a quick trip to her own bathroom. Catching her own reflection in the mirror, she sees how pale she is. The dark circles under her eyes are impressive.
Miranda sits on the couch, her legs pulled up, holding a thick, old-locking book, perhaps a photo album, on her lap. She drinks from her water and has already finished off half of it. If Andy’s dark circles are bad, then Miranda’s look like semi-circle bruises. She’s removed some makeup, so perhaps that’s why they’re more noticeable than only moments ago.
Andy takes a seat in the armchair perpendicular from Miranda, mimicking her pose. Pulling up her phone, she pretends to check texts while stealthily studying Miranda who at first glance seems relaxed, but who really is clutching the book hard. When she suddenly puts the glass down on the side table between them with a sharp bang that makes Andy jump.
Miranda is clutching the book to her chest, and her eyes are ablaze, but her body language radiates anxiety. Unable to just witness this in this formidable woman and not do something about it—anything—Andy also puts her glass down and moves to sit next to Miranda.
“Please. Let me help you if I can. I know it’s none of my business. I really do, but I can’t bear to see you like this.”
Miranda slowly turns her head, and when she meets Andy’s gaze, her eyes are flat, the fury is gone. “You mean well, but there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do. I’ve always known this day would come. In fact, it’s taken far too long. It has lulled me into a false sense of security.” Miranda tips her head back and draws a trembling breath. “What I should do is to put you on a plane back to New York and have Nigel take over the mentorship.”
“No!” Andy panics and closes the last few inches between them. Fully turned into Miranda, she places her hand gently on her closest shoulder. “Don’t send me back. You can’t deal with the painting for the Louvre and whatever’s going on with Rosalee at the same time. You…you need me here.”
At first it doesn’t look like Miranda has heard her. She seems to look straight through Andy, and it makes Andy wonder what she’s really seeing. Not anything good, that’s a safe bet. Wanting to break through this tormenting reverie on Miranda’s part, Andy does the only thing she can think of. Moving her hand over to the other shoulder, she tugs Miranda into her arms, book and all.
Continued in part 13
Andrea’s arms hold her so close the hard leather cover of her ledger digs into her. Miranda doesn’t move, despite the discomfort. It has been so long—too long—since someone held her like this as if they truly cared.
“Wait. Better put this aside,” Andrea says, her voice choked, as she pushes at the ledger until it ends up on the floor beside them. Miranda flinches and moves to pick it up, but Andrea’s arms are back around her and now she’s pulled into a much closer embrace. Groaning, she closes her eyes, not sure what to think, or how to respond. What is this? Pity? Or Andrea just being her caring self? Or, worse, is this a sign that this girl genuinely cares? If that’s the case, Miranda needs to pull back.
But, oh, how can she, when Andrea smells so good, when she’s all softness, curves, and… Miranda feels her arms move and she can swear she doesn’t make that happen. Then she does commandeer her arms and wrap them around Andrea’s neck and buries her face in the long, chestnut hair. It’s intoxicating. It’s like something she hasn’t had in such a long time, it can possibly never have happened. “I’m sorry,” Miranda murmurs. Of course, Andrea has no way of knowing why Miranda apologizes, especially since it’s in advance.
“You haven’t done anything wrong. I’m sure of that. And please, just let me hold you. It’s all I want,” Andrea says.
Miranda knows a lie when she hears one. Or, not a lie exactly, but more of a self-deluding statement. The goodness in Andrea tells her this is a platonic, comforting hug, which Miranda is sure it started out as—but it’s not just that anymore. She can feel Andrea tremble against her, how her breath catches every now and then, and when Miranda tests the waters by pushing her fingers into Andrea’s hair at the back of her head, the young woman whimpers.
“It’s not all you want,” Miranda says with a practiced calm and pulls back far enough to be able to read Andrea’s expression.
Andrea’s eyes are nearly black. Gone is the brilliant amber, the sparkling, brandy colored irises, and instead, there’s…well, the most alluring coffee-colored black. “No, that’s not true, I—” Andrea’s hands move restlessly against Miranda’s back. “Of course. You’re right. It’s what I want. To be there for you. But, it’s not all.”
“Could you leave it at that? Be ‘there for me’? Supportive in a way that doesn’t make you tremble or lose your breath?” Miranda tilts her head and she can see Andrea’s eyes mist over, and hates herself for it.
“I can. Not easy, but I can.”
“You realize why I could never allow that, don’t you? Why not even I could be so self-centered and never cross that boundary?”
“Oh, I can think of several,” Andrea says, giving a short, choppy kind of laugh. “I’m not your type. Or you’re not gay, or bi. You don’t like me. You have workplace rules. I realize all this.”
“And still…” Miranda wonders if Andrea has realized they’re still holding each other.
“And still, something in me has felt more from the start. I’m really careful with my feelings, I’ve had to be, but even so, they are what they are.” Andrea wipes quickly at her eyelashes before returning her hand to Miranda’s waist. “So, going to tell me, or will I keep guessing?”
“What…oh. Actually, none of the above. I don’t have a type. I have had been with both men and women. I do like you. Yes, I have workplace rules, but I make them, after all.” Miranda smiles at Andrea’s slowly parting lips.
“You—you like me?” Andrea has of course homed in on that part.
“I do. And I think you can feel it. I let you get away with more than anyone else in an exceptionally long time. In fact, I talk to you like I haven’t done in ages.” Sagging sideways, with her arms still around Andrea, Miranda makes them lean sideways against the backrest. “I should tell you to go to bed, Andrea. We’re both exhausted and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
“And yet you hold onto me like you really don’t want me to let go,” Andrea says slowly. “Despite your effort to verbally push me away, you haven’t let go once.”
Ah. Andrea does notice. “Yes.”
“I know we should sleep, but you’re here on the couch with that old book and it makes me think whatever Rosalee said to have you this worked up, has something to do with that. Or am I reading too much into things?” Andrea glances down at the ledger.
“No, not really. Rosalee has, for the longest time, had the ability to corner me and this time, though I can’t really blame her entirely, is no different. She brought me news and though not unexpected, I still wasn’t prepared for them now. I just want to work on the painting and then for us to return to New York.” Miranda rested her head on the top of the backrest. “I’m so jetlagged I can’t think straight.”
Andrea smooths back Miranda’s bangs and runs her thumb along her cheekbone. “So, let’s get some sleep then. I don’t want to keep you up by adding to the emotional turmoil. You obviously have enough on your plate.” Andrea shocks Miranda by pressing her lips to her temple. “Just don’t sit up here fretting over that family bible or whatever it is.”
Miranda has to smile. She supposes it can be looked upon as a family bible of sorts, though it has nothing to do with faith or religion. “I need to make a few notes, but I won’t sit up all night. For the simple reason that I’m already half asleep.”
“All right.” Before Miranda has a chance to react, Andrea bends and picks up her ledger, brushing along the beveled gold letter. “The Amaranthine Law. That’s an interesting title. And it looks like an antique.” She hands it to Miranda who barely stops herself from yanking it toward her. Instead, she calmly takes it and leaves it sitting on her lap. “It is. A family heirloom, you could say.”
“I see.” Andrea clearly don’t, but only smiles. “Well, call me over-protective, but I’ll be poking my head out to make sure you’re not still here, once I’ve brushed my teeth and texted a friend.”
Miranda nods. “Very well.”
Andrea stands and Miranda is suddenly bereft. The warmth of the embrace is gone, and she wishes she could pull Andrea back onto the couch again. She wants to curl up against her, feel the affection in the way Andrea’s hands move along her back and up and down her arms. Instead, she watches Andrea walk to her bedroom and disappear out of sight.
Opening the pages where she’s put the ribbon that marks them, Miranda plucks her fountain pen from the coffee table and writes down the gist of what Rosalee told her earlier. When she sees the information, as sketchy as it is, in writing, it emphasizes how uncertain her situation is. More so now, than usual.
Miranda closes the ledger and places it on the coffee table. She’s going to put it back in the safe in a moment once she persuades her body to move. She’s all set for bed, having taken care of her evening routine already, but it is as if those few steps over to the bedroom and the already turned-down bed is too long. Groaning, Miranda lets her head fall back against the backrest again.
She has no idea how long she’s dozed when gentle hands nudge her. “Miranda?”
“Hm.” Miranda recognizes the voice and all she wants is to roll over and make room.
The hands shift and something, hair, perhaps, caresses Miranda’s cheek. “Let me help you. The couch is great but too short. You’ll thank me in the morning.”
“Or now,” Miranda murmurs, feeling drunk. She tries to open her eyes, and on the third attempt, or maybe fourth, she manages to look up at the beautiful creature before her. At first, she thinks Andrea might be naked, but then she sees the tank top and sleep shorts, both of them quite skimpy, and she moans, cursing the fate that tests her this way. “You should stay away from me,” she slurs. “To be honest.” Standing on wobbly legs, Miranda pushes Andrea’s hands away. “Take my word for it.”
“I do—except when I don’t.” Andrea’s voice is like honey, reverberating enough to echo within Miranda. “I’m just going to make sure you end up in your bed, all right.”
Oh, God. Desperate to not fall into anymore trap set by this woman, whether Andrea realizes that’s what she’s doing, or not, Miranda tries and manages to walk into her bedroom. Only when she’s in her bed, covers up to her chin, does she realize she forgot the ledger on the table. By then it’s too late as a deep sleep claims her.
Continued in part 14
Andy is dressed and busy getting some coffee going. Black for herself, as she seriously needs it, and a strong latte for Miranda. Yawning, she stretches and glances out the window and finds that it’s still quite dark. It’s seven am, and they’re going back to the Louvre to continue working.
Miranda strides into the sitting area, snatching her large book off the coffee table. “How long have you been up? Did you look at this?” she says, her voice like a whip.
“What? Your journal? No. I’d never—”
“Are you saying you’re not in the least bit curious—not tempted at all?” Glaring, Miranda walks to the closet and Andy hears her open the safe. When Miranda returns, Andy gives her the latte in a tall mug.
“This is what I’ve been doing after I got ready. For us.” Not pleased with the sudden third degree and how Miranda’s eyes are piercing her, Andy calmly sits down in an armchair and pulls out her phone.
Miranda stands motionless with her coffee mug for a moment, both hands clutching it. Then she sighs and sits down in the same spot on the couch where she’d sat the night before. “Did you manage to get some sleep?” Her voice is quieter, but the nerves are still present.
“Yes. Thank you.” Not about to stir the dragon, Andy keeps her eyes on the phone, pretending to read the news.
“God damn it. I apologize.” Miranda presses her lips together. “You didn’t deserve that.”
Andy puts her phone down and moves to sit next to Miranda. All the feelings from last night flood her, makes her go molten inside. “What just happened? Why would you think I’d read a private journal?”
“Because I’m not a very trusting person. Normally. And, when I remembered I didn’t put it away, I…I panicked.” Miranda probed Andy’s eyes, making Andy wonder what she was looking for. Signs that Andy was not being truthful? She hoped not.
“Whatever you wish to share with me voluntarily, no matter how I’m dying to know everything about you, is only worth something if you do just that…share it. Voluntarily.” Andy places a hand on Miranda’s knee. “If there’s no trust or a certain amount of patience, then it’s meaningless.”
If it is her words or touch that relaxes Miranda is hard to tell, but her shoulders go down and she drinks from her latte for the first time.
Andy removes her hand reluctantly and adds some more distance between them. Reaching for her phone again, she spots a white square on the floor. Curious, she changes direction and picks it up. Turning it over, she sees it’s a photo of a woman in vintage clothing. Judging from the cut of the garments and the hairdo, Andy guesses the 1920s. She’s about to hand it over to Miranda who appears lost in thought when she catches a closer glimpse of the face. Pulling it closer again, Andy squints. The woman in the photo is so alike Miranda, it’s uncanny.
“This must have fallen out of your journal. It was half under the couch,” Andy says and holds the photo out to Miranda.
Miranda flinches and puts down her mug with one hand and yanks the photo out of Andy’s hand. “Yes. It’s mine.”
“All right. And before we go through the drama from earlier, part two, yes, I did look at this one. She looks like you. She’s stunning. Your grandmother, or even great grandmother?”
Miranda holds the photo to her chest and all color has drained from her face. “No. Please don’t ask me. I don’t want to keep lying. Just…can we postpone talking about the book and the photo until tonight? We have to leave for the Louvre in minutes.” For the first time since Andy has known Miranda, there’s a pleading tone in her voice. This doesn’t sit well with Andy. She’d never want Miranda to have to plead or beg for anything. Ever.
“Absolutely. Remember. You don’t have to tell me a single thing if you don’t want to. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested, because I am. Everything about you matters to me.” Was she giving away too much now, to reassure Miranda? Probably. Could it come back to bite her? Oh, for sure. That’s practically a given.
Miranda tucks the photo into her messenger bag and stands. When they both stand just inside the door, putting on boots and coats, Miranda stops Andy as she’s about to turn the door handle. “Wait.” She cups Andy’s cheek and slides her thumb along her eyebrow. “Thank you. I don’t deserve your understanding, but I appreciate it.”
Andy understands even less than before. Why is Miranda so hellbent on keeping her distance and of assuming Andy will eventually reach the conclusion that she’s a horrible person? It makes no sense and as it doesn’t, there’s no way Andy can stop herself. She covers Miranda’s hand with her own and pulls it down to her mouth. Gently, she presses her lips to Miranda’s palm, at the same time inhaling more of her scent. Their eyes meet and Miranda shakes her head sorrowfully.
“You’re going to make this so much harder than it has to be, aren’t you?” Miranda’s voice is as soft as the words are accusing. She pulls her hand away from Andy’s mouth and, after only a fraction of a moment’s hesitation, she instead cups the back of Andy’s neck. So slow, as if to give Andy ample time to object, Miranda pulls her close and kisses her.
Andy’s hands run up Miranda’s arms and circle her shoulders. She returns the kiss, moving her head to find the best angle. Trembling, she cannot believe how such a chaste kiss can send her into such turmoil. The world spins around her and she moves her lips gently against Miranda’s, and when Miranda reciprocates, Andy can barely breathe.
When Miranda pulls back, though still holding on to her, Andy tries to find her bearings by blinking repeatedly. “Oh.”
“Yes. Oh.” Perhaps Miranda aims for being facetious, but the tremors in her voice reveal she’s just as affected. “We have to go.” There’s more of her usual tone in the last four words, but Andy needs a few more seconds to process the kiss that, no doubt, will haunt her for the rest of the day.
“Is this part of what we need to table until tonight?” Andy says and reluctantly let go of Miranda to put on her scarf.
“I only now realized that it is.” Miranda straightens Andy’s bangs. “Tonight, Andrea.”
As they ride the elevator down to the lobby, Andy finds herself hoping Miranda won’t put her on any of the tasks that involve a scalpel.
She’ll be hard-pressed not to think of ‘tonight’.
Continued in part 15
The painting lays between Miranda and Andrea like some sort of neutral zone that serves to keep them from getting stuck in each other’s eyes, or, Miranda thinks, as a safeguard keeping Miranda from repeating the kiss from earlier in the day. She tries to push the memory away, but how can she? The taste of Andrea, the scent of her, and the way she made Miranda feel were all blazed into her soul, all swirl through her veins in a never-ending carousel.
The talk they’re going to have tonight…Miranda swallows hard at the thought of it. It’s not going to be what Andrea thinks, of that Miranda’s certain. The hope in Andrea’s eyes this morning, and the way she’s given Miranda warm, not to mention, heated, looks, whenever their eyes do meet, suggests Andrea hopes for more intimacy.
Wound so tight inside, Miranda fears her heart might rupture, she turns to her go-to emotion when she’s cornered. Anger. Annoyance. Coldness. She bends over the painting working on removing varnish from the lower left corner. Cursing under her breath, she realizes that her blend of chemicals isn’t strong enough. Snatching up the small jar, she walks over to the sink area where the bottles and cans of chemicals are stored. She pulls out her notebook from her pocket and browses through the formulas that she’s invented herself, and sees that the mix is correct, but the ratios are wrong.
“Can I help?” Andrea comes up to her.
“I need to remix this. Follow along in my notes and you’ll learn faster.” Miranda knows she sounds abrupt and standoffish. She doesn’t dare look at Andrea, or she’ll crumble. Why has she allowed the situation between her and Andrea to progress this way? Only heartache can come from it—for both of them.
Andrea merely takes the notebook and helps Miranda double-check the proportions, not commenting anything further. As they turn to go back to the table, Miranda’s cell rings. Pulling off a glove, she picks it, sees it is an unknown number. After hesitating briefly, she hits reply. “Miranda.”
“Sarah, it’s Rosalee.” Rosalee’s voice is strained and the fact that she calls her ‘Sarah’, is worrisome.
“What’s wrong?” Miranda walks into the corner of the room, still within earshot of Andrea, but not any of the others in the workshop.
“I received another letter. It came to the office.” Rosalee draws a trembling breath. “This is bad.”
“What did this one say?” Miranda straightens up so fast, her lower back smarts.
“Similar to the email I showed you, only this one had printed pictures of me. Of you. And of your intern.”
Miranda has to support herself against the table and is close to knocking over the jar of chemicals. She barely registers how Andrea rescues it at the last moment. Photos? Candid photos of her and Rosalee is one thing. But Andrea is just here by association and completely innocent.
“Where are you?” Miranda clenches her hand to a fist. “At the Louvre?”
“I’m driving. I’m on my way there. I’m going to pack up some things in my office and then I’ll go to a good friend’s country estate and work from there. This is more than I can take. Why now, after all these years? We’ve all been so careful. Or, most of us.” Rosalee gives a muted sob.
“Can anyone trace you to your friend estate?” Miranda is so used to thinking at least ten steps ahead and now it’s almost in overload.
“No. Nothing is even in my friend’s name. It belongs to a distant relative of theirs. It probably makes me a bad friend and calculating bitch, but it’s one reason I befriended this person in the first place.”
“Whatever it takes. Listen, don’t use your car leaving here. When you’re done in the office, use the least conspicuous exit. Have a taxi waiting and then take a bus or a train. You have to act fast, you know that, right?”
“I do. But what about you—and your friend?” Rosalee sounds marginally calmer.
“We will pack the painting up and you will have to sanction with your boss that we can take it with us and work on it on another location if they want it done by my company. If not, then we have to leave it for another conservator to continue the work.” Miranda’s heart picking up speed as well. What the hell’s going on? Living with the possibility of being discovered has always been a risk, but this, Rosalee receiving letters and emails, where Miranda was mentioned by her original first name, and the death of Iris…
“I won’t have time to find my boss and go into a lengthy discussion. Just pack up the painting and go, Miranda. Perhaps, if we get all this sorted somehow, you can return to finish the work, but…it’s just a painting.” Rosalee now sounded eerily calm, as if she’d reached a conclusion and her course of action was set.
“Very well. This number, is it a new cell?” Miranda squeezes her cell between her shoulder and ear and pulls off her other glove. She nods at Andrea to do the same and sees that she’s already begun.
“It’s an unregistered mobile.” Rosalee snorts mirthlessly. “Like in some damn spy movie.”
“I’ll start up one of mine as well. The number will end with 4434 when I call you, all right?”
“Understood.” Rosalee pauses and Miranda can hear the windshield wipers start in the background. “Be safe. And take care of the girl. Collateral damage…can’t happen.”
Oh, God, no. “I hear you. I’ll text you from my other phone once it’s charged. Take care.” Miranda disconnected the call. Taking a sharp instrument from the counter, she opened the small compartment on her cell phone and pulled out the memory card and the sim card. The latter, she broke in two, and the memory card went into her wallet.
“Miranda? Are we really packing up?” Andrea is wide-eyed and who can blame her.
“I’m sorry, but yes, we are. A new, unforeseen, development has shortened our stay in Paris. We’ll have to pack up the painting and go back to the hotel to pack instantly.” Miranda’s mouth is dry. “Can I ask you to just trust me on this, for now, if I promise to explain as much as I can later?”
Her brow furrowed, Andrea watches her closely, but then nods. “Okay. I don’t know your friend at all, but I trust you. Just tell me what you need.”
The relief that she isn’t going to have to waste time convincing Andrea of anything right this minute makes Miranda stagger. She had tenses up completely during her phone call with Rosalee. She rights herself and holds up her hand when it looks like Andrea’s going to try and help. “Go get some acid free packing material. I’ll make sure the woodwork people know they can still work on the frame, but then store it along with the painting.”
They hurry through their tasks and Miranda's planning like she always does. She, unlike Andrea, has a go-bag, a habit since she was young. The one she has back at her condo is larger, but the small one she uses for traveling fits in the safe in the hotel room. The bag can never be left for anyone, like a curious maid, to browse through, which means keeping it the right size. The concern now is that of course, Andrea doesn’t have anything like that. She’s just with her boss on a business trip meant to last a week, perhaps ten days.
They casually wave to the other conservators and hurry through the corridor. Miranda wonders if Rosalee is in her office, but it will take too long to check. Miranda has called an uber and it’s waiting at a side exit. They get into the backseat and the driver pulls into traffic.
Andrea startles Miranda by taking her hand. “Breathe,” she whispers, and Miranda realizes she must have been holding her breath for quite some time. She exhales and gasps for air. Tipping her head back, she feels Andrea slide closer on the seat. “That’s better.” Andrea presses her lips to Miranda’s jaw, just beneath her ear.
The kiss is reassuring rather than romantic, but Miranda still wants to forget where she is, hell, who she is, and kiss Andrea senseless. Drown in this girl and let all that pent up desire free, finally. There was a time when she wouldn’t have hesitated. She would have taken the chance to erase the thought that pained her and not considered the lover she was using. Not with Andrea. Never. Miranda understands in this moment that she’ll rather put an end to the gauntlet she’s been in for ages, than allowing Andrea to be…what was it Rosalee said earlier…collateral damage.
Continued in part 16
“Pack your things. Quickly.” Miranda barks the order and then disappears into the closet. Andy remains just inside the door, blinking at the sharpness in Miranda’s voice. “Now, Andrea. Please.” The last word comes out softer and makes Andy move.
Andy travels safely, which in this case is a double blessing. She has also a tendency to be neat with her belongings, which makes it even easier to just push everything into her carry-on, which is all she brought. Fetching her toiletries, she pushes them into their designated compartment, double-checks that she has taken everything, she goes back to the living room area and finds Miranda waiting, only carrying her messenger bag and a small, black backpack.
“But…your things?” Andy knows she probably sounds stupid, but how can they be in this much of a hurry, that Miranda leaves her clothes behind?
“No time.” Miranda looks up from her cell phone, which isn’t the same as before. This one is smaller. “I’ve bought tickets for us on the train to London. You’ll fly back to New York from there.” She opens the door after tucking the phone away in her inner pocket. “Come on. Another uber waiting.”
Andy walks into the corridor and has to lengthen her stride to keep up with Miranda as she rushes toward the elevator. “What do you mean, I will fly back? What about you?”
“I’ll explain more on the train.” Miranda presses the button to summon the elevator.
“No. Now.” Andy feels enough is enough. She’s gone along with crazy shit for long enough now and she’s not going anywhere until Miranda levels with her. She takes a step back, for emphasis.
“Andrea. You have to trust me.”
“Why? You have me jumping through hoops without trusting me with any information. You know I care about you, and you’re using that to get me to just trot along. No more. You have to tell me something.” Andy leans her back against the wall, folding her arms.
Miranda glowers, but then she sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. “I apologize. I’ve never had to worry about another person when I’ve had to depart quickly.”
“Depart quickly? You’re joking. Depart quickly is what you do if you’re late for the damn movies. This is like you’re trying to run from the cops.”
Miranda gapes for a moment and then snorts. “You have a point.” She walks over to Andy and takes her by the shoulders. “All right. Someone, and don’t ask me who, because I don’t know, has been writing Rosalee in a menacing way. This person now sent her candid photos of you and me as well. I can’t risk anything happening to you, so we’re leaving. So is Rosalee.” Miranda presses her lips to Andy’s in a brief, hard kiss. “And I promise to tell you more when we’re able to sit down without being overheard. Please, Andrea. Trust me.”
Not sure if it was the kiss, or the please, or the unfathomable fact that someone seems to spy on Miranda and having caught them on camera. Shuddering, Andy merely steps into the elevator when the door opens. Miranda joins her and seems a little less stressed.
“You destroyed your sim card.” Andy sucked her lower lip in for a moment. “Should I do the same?”
“I don’t want you not to be able to call for help if you need it. Why don’t you just remove it before we get into the uber, and tuck it away?” Miranda stops Andy from walking out of the elevator and exits first. “I hate not knowing whom to look for,” she mutters as she heads for the south entrance of the lobby.
Andy gives the handle of her carry-on bag to Miranda and then removes the sim card. Placing it behind her driver’s license, she puts her wallet and the phone back in her small cross-body bag.
The uber is there, this time a large SUV, and the driver looks baffled when they hardly have any luggage. “Mais, vos bagages, mesdames?” he says, looking behind them as if they’d hidden it from him.
“Pas de bagages, monsieur. Gare du Nord, s'il vous plaît. Nous sommes pressés.”
The driver made a gesture that Andy thought looked very French, though she realized it might be her biases talking, and merely pushed open the sliding back door for them. Miranda hoisted Andy’s bag in after her and climbed inside. “There.”
As the uber driver zigzagged through the busy Paris lunch hour traffic, Miranda took Andy’s hand, squeezing it. “You’re being more than patient, all things considered. I’ll do my best to explain later, but it’ll be difficult for you to understand.”
“Difficult?” Andy knew Miranda didn’t think she was slow on the uptake, which suggested she meant ‘difficult’ as in hard to grasp. “No matter what, I’m not sure sending me back to New York and staying behind alone to deal with things, is the best choice.”
Miranda sat in silence for a while, still holding onto Andy, and then the softest smile grazed her lips. “You say that now, and I know you mean it. Only yesterday, and even this morning, everything was still manageable. Now, it isn’t.” She raises their joined hands and kisses the back of Andy’s hand. “The truth is, I could never forgive myself if something happened to you, because of me.”
Andy doesn’t care of the uber driver has them in his back mirror, she pulls her hand free and grabs hold of the lapel of Miranda’s coat, tugging her close. She hears Miranda gasp as she hugs her tight.
“Andrea!” Miranda clings to her, and though it’s only for a few moments, the fervor with which she pulls at Andy as if she’s trying to merge them.
“No matter what, I’m here now.” Andy tips Miranda’s head back and kisses her, and there’s nothing remotely chaste about this kiss. Their tongues meet, caressing and tasting, and Andy knows she whimpers…or it might be Miranda.
After they end the kiss, they sit back, not even looking at each other, but they’re still holding hands.
Continued in part 17
Miranda’s shoulders are so rigid, she feels her trapezius muscles will rupture. She and Andrea sit in a part of the train to London where they’re alone. It has just started to pick up speed. The closest passenger is well out of earshot. This is why she’s so tense, Andrea expects to be informed about what’s going on and as they’re virtually alone, Miranda is running out of excuses.
To Miranda’s surprise, Andrea doesn’t jump at the first opportunity. She merely gets comfortable and settles into her seat after stowing her carry-on bag on the overhead shelf. Their trip will take about four hours, which means they will reach London around five pm.
The silence draws out between them, and it is Miranda who caves first. Not sure if this is Andrea’s plan all along, though Miranda doubts she’s that calculating.
“You have questions,” Miranda says, finally.
“I do.” Andrea shifts, almost sitting with her back to the outer wall. “It seems to have very little to do with me, but I’m clearly involved somehow, judging from the photo you talked about.”
“I already told you I know Rosalee since we were children.” Miranda has lowered her voice to be careful. “We had a friend, the same age, maybe a year or two older, named Iris. She died not long ago. Rosalee suspects that someone else among the ones we knew back then might be out to cause us harm. In what way, I don’t know, but if this is the case, they’re trying to intimidate Rosalee, and clearly, someone has followed you and me in Paris.” Miranda was hoping it was only in Paris. The idea of someone stalking her, or them, in New York, turns her stomach.
“And this person, were they a grownup when you and Rosalee were kids?”
“No. They will have had to be a child too. One of the girls we knew.” Her thoughts still on the horror of having to deal with this even in New York, makes Miranda speak before she edits her words.
“A child then who still holds a grudge?” Andrea frowns. “That doesn’t sound plausible.”
Oh, a lot about this didn’t sound plausible at all. Miranda pushed her fingers through her hair. “I know.” She doesn’t know what to say, and definitely not how to say it. “There are events in my past that defies logic, Andrea. I never share any of this because the only time I did…let’s just say, it didn’t end well. I know I can’t ask you for such a leap of faith, and it’s seriously ironic that not being able to tell you, requires just that from you, another leap of faith.”
“Okay.” But it’s not okay for Andrea, Miranda can tell. She’s still frowning and holds her arms tight to herself, her fingers laced hard. “So, what can you tell me? I mean, you did say you were going to explain.”
Miranda’s mind whirls. “This phone is a burner phone, you’ve realized that. I’ve also destroyed my old passport and I’m traveling under another name. If someone refers to me as Miranda St. John, don’t be too shocked.”
Andrea blinks but doesn’t speak. Oddly, her clasped fingers have relaxed some.
“This is because I’ve had to disappear before, change identities, and so on. I’m always traveling with three passports and three burner phones. It’s necessary. I have to be prepared at any given moment. Not exactly ideal, but after all these years, I’m used to it.”
“How long have you had to do this? Disappear?” Andy places a hand on Miranda’s knee. The touch is warm, and Miranda relaxes against the backrest. Her shoulders still hurt, but she can breathe better.
“For most of my adulthood, you could say. A long time.”
“Which means you’ve had to give up friends and family several times.” Andrea’s eyes well up. “That must be so horrible.”
“Yes. Several times.” Miranda has to fight back a burst of humorless laughter that wants to erupt. Several times is an understatement. “That’s why I normally don’t allow myself to go beyond casual friendship these days. Though I admit, my company and my employees are all more than that.”
Slipping her arm behind Miranda’s shoulders, Andrea tugs her closer. “And casual friendship, is that what we share?” Her voice trembles, but she’s not taking her eyes off Miranda.
Miranda leans in, fast and hungry now, and presses her lips to Andrea’s. She runs her tongue along those plump lips, wanting in, but still controlling herself enough to ask. “Andrea?” she whispers against Andrea’s mouth.
Andrea parts her lips and pushes the fingers of her free hand into Miranda’s hair, holding her in place. She takes over the initiative and Miranda finds herself completely devoured. She surrenders, what else can she, and for these precious moments, she allows the pretend world of ‘anything is possible’ to exist in her mind. She wants to sit like this with Andrea, kissing, caressing, and not think about anything else. Not work. Not the faceless individual who stalks them, and not the fact that even if this was the case, she cannot be with Andrea, or anyone else.
They slow the kisses down, passion turns to tenderness, and with that, reality sets in. “Darling,” Miranda says, only realizing how she began the sentence, after the fact, “this is unwise. You’re irresistible, but I can’t allow for you to—”
“As your explanations are so damn cryptic, and being on a train isn’t ideal, I insist on another attempt at an explanation.” Andrea smiles softly. “If you think I’m going to let you fend for yourself, even if you have throughout your life so far, you are mistaken. When we get to London, we’ll find a typically touristy, horrible youth hostel or something, and there you’ll tell me everything.”
Miranda is at a complete loss for words. This is the Andrea she’s only glimpsed before. The one who isn’t intimidated by Miranda, or anyone, she wagers, and who obviously is stubborn as hell. “You don’t understand.”
“Then you have to make me understand. Because until you do, I’m not going anywhere.” Andrea pushes Miranda’s bangs out of her face.
“But there’s no way I can explain things. You have to take my word for that.” Miranda is angry and frustrated now, but mostly because a part of her, a part she thought had died ages ago, has sparked the terrible, heart-crushing sensation of hope in her heart. Can she explain in a way that won’t turn Andrea’s look of affection, perhaps even more than that, into one of scorn or loathing? She doubts it. That scenario has played out a few times before, which Miranda doesn’t care to repeat—especially not with Andrea.
“Do you trust me, Miranda? I mean, do you have faith in my willingness to keep an open mind?” Andrea gives her a quick kiss.
Miranda’s breath catches. “I believe in your good intentions. This goes beyond that.”
“It doesn’t matter. I think you have carried this alone for far too long, whatever it is. I think this can be the turning-point. Please, Miranda. Let’s go to that youth hostel or a small hotel, and we can talk.”
There is honey in those soft, cognac eyes. Miranda wonders if Andrea has ever looked at another woman this way. She somehow doesn’t think so. “You will end up regretting this,” Miranda whispers, “and I will too. I had planned for the possibility that you might be this stubborn. I was going to slip away in the London crowd and leave you behind with the ticket to New York.”
“I think I guessed that.” Andrea’s lips tremble. “I tried to think of plans to stop that. Cuff myself to your wrist came to mind.”
Miranda smiles against her will. “We’ll go and continue the talk, but not at a hotel. I happen to have a small condo in London that is not in my name.” She clears her throat. “Now, I need you to promise me, that when you decide to leave, and you will decide that, you’ll go to Heathrow and get on a flight instantly.”
“When?” Andrea shakes her head. “I’ll go so far as to say ‘if I decide to leave’, I’ll promise to do what you ask. If.”
Miranda pulls Andrea closer and they settle into more comfortable positions. Fully relaxed now, as Andrea has promised, Miranda knows there is no if—only when.
Continued in part 18
A/N: Any mistakes about London, British slang, or infrastructure are mine. Don't shoot me!
Andy looks around the impressive Victorian railway station, St Pancras, as she and Miranda made their way toward one of the exits. Miranda’s expression had gone from soft and, well, loving, to stony and laser-focused as soon as the Eurostar train pulled into the station. She slipped on her messenger bag and the small backpack and merely stood there waiting for the train to stop and the doors to open, like a statue, not even holding on.
“Are we getting another uber?” Andy easily follows Miranda’s stride but maneuvers the carry-on bag among the throng of people rushing to and from platforms.
“No, a London taxi will do.” Miranda pulls up her phone and taps at the screen. She doesn’t slow down and from Andy’s perspective, it is like the people move aside as if Miranda’s royalty. Perhaps they sense her determination and they’re not prepared to play chicken with this woman. Probably smart.
The long row of taxis makes it easy to find a ride and they enter one of them. Miranda gives the address, and soon they’re in rush hour London traffic. Andy, who is used to New York’s version of this, finds herself jarred by the fact that the taxi is driving on the ‘wrong’ side. When they reach a large roundabout, she gasps when the driver takes a left, even if she realizes that’s how it works here.
Miranda chuckles. “First time in London, I assume?”
“First time in Europe, period. And this driving on the left feels weird. Yikes.” Andy slides closer to Miranda. “Have you been here a lot?”
“Many times. I used to live here once. I was born here.” Miranda bites her lips and looks away from Andy. “It was a different city then. A lot different.”
“You’re from here? Huh.” Andy thinks back to the bio of Miranda she had read in Apollo magazine before she applied for the internship. “I read that you’re from Philadelphia.”
“I know. That’s the official story. The truth is, I was born in London and my family and I emigrated to the US when I was six years old.”
Why was that a secret? Andy knows the back of a taxi is not the place to ask these questions but makes a mental note to ask when they’re settled in Miranda’s condo. Which is another secret.
The taxi pulls over and Miranda pays the sullen driver. Stepping out, Andy looks up at the office building, confused. “Here?” she asks, turning to Miranda.
“No. Two blocks from here.” Miranda looks around and then starts walking. Andy grabs the handle of her bag and catches up with her. The streets here aren’t as busy. A few people on the sidewalks and no gridlock at the intersections.
Then Miranda stops and abruptly walks over to a window displaying women’s clothing. She seems to be perusing skirts, which is odd since Andy hasn’t seen her wear anything but trousers, jeans, or chinos. Now her eyes dart all over the display in the window.
“Miranda?” Andy murmur. “What’s going on?”
“Shh. Give me a moment. Miranda remains focused on the items in the window, but not on any one in particular. Instead, she shifts her angle and squints, as if she’s trying to read the price tags. “Listen to me,” she says, her voice low and stark. “I’ve seen the same man behind us at the station and now he’s thirty feet behind us on the other side of the street. We’re going to have to lose him.”
Lose him? All this agent vocabulary makes everything surreal. “You sure?” Andy tries to find the man in the window’s reflection, only now realizing that this is what Miranda is doing.
“Quite sure. We can’t lead him to my condo. Around the corner, a block from here, is a small square, or used to be, I believe it’s a parking lot now. We need to get there, as it’s another good place to hail a taxi. We must run, which means you have to ditch your bag. Is there anything you can’t live without in it?”
Andy trembles now. Miranda sounds so collected and matter-of-fact; she doesn’t even consider questioning what’s going on. “Clothes and toiletries. Nothing I can’t buy again. I have everything important in my bag.” She pats her cross-body bag.
“Good. Follow me.” Miranda hooks her arms under Andy’s startling her and start walking down the street. When they reach the next building, she nods to the right. “There’s a place you can get rid of the bag. The cars shield us from view here.”
Andy nods and slips the carry-on up a few steps and out of sight. Once she’s done that, Miranda lets go and starts running. Andy wants to look behind them but knows she must keep up with Miranda. She can’t lose sight of her.
They run past several shops and then Miranda makes a sudden right turn and Andy follows. They’re in a narrow alley between two buildings and to Andy, it seems the walls are closing in. Old cobblestones make it hard to run without slipping or twisting an ankle, but Miranda doesn’t slow down. The ankle boots are not ideal for running either.
The alley leads to a courtyard. Has Miranda made a mistake? Are they trapped in here? Andy is filled with questions but is too winded to ask. It’s not because she’s not in shape, she runs in Central Park twice a week, but more a question of nerves.
“Don’t slow down.” Miranda runs along the wall and when they’ve crossed the courtyard, she turns right again and they’re in another alley. Before they turn, Andy risks a glance across the courtyard and sees not just one man, but two, rush in.
“Two of them!” Andy gasps as she and Miranda hurry down the new alley.
“Fuck!” Miranda lengthens her stride. “We have to get to the square and there better be a taxi.”
Andy’s legs are burning, mainly for struggling to keep her feet level on the cobblestones. The alley seems longer and narrower with each step, but eventually, they burst out on the next sidewalk. Twenty yards to their left is what could be described as a square if not completely covered by cars and vans. Along the far side, a row of taxis is waiting for passengers.
Miranda waves and a taxi begins moving toward them. They meet it halfway. Miranda stops as it pulls out next to them and yanks the door open. Andy throws herself into it and Miranda closes the door hard behind them. “Drive. Just drive. There will be a 100% tip if you get us to this address in less than five minutes.” She rattles off a completely different address than before.
“Will do,” the driver says, a young girl, and floors it.
Andy holds on to the handle next to the seat as the woman turns a corner, almost on two wheels. Miranda is half-turned on the seat, peering out the back window.
“You ladies being followed, or something?” the driver asks as she tosses the taxi to the left is another intersection.
“My husband hired someone to spy on me,” Miranda says easily. “I’m grateful if you can keep well ahead of whoever among your colleagues they’re about to use.”
“Ah, those tossers in line after me? No problemo.” The girl circles another building, throwing Miranda into Andy who catches her just in time to keep her from slamming her head into a window.
“You have to hold on,” the girl in the front yells. “We’re almost there.”
“Pull up to number four.” Miranda pulls a credit card through the machine on the acrylic glass between them and the driver.
“Here we are then.” The stunt-driver-wannabe slams the breaks and moves into an impossibly small spot between two cars. “Nobody is behind us yet, so hurry up inside.” She grins at them through the back view mirror.
Miranda exits and moves to the heavy wooden door in the industrial-looking building. Andy manages to remember to thank the driver when she steps out of the taxi.
“Be safe. I’m off now so they don’t spot me. They’ll think I’m still driving you, maybe.” The girl drives off so fast, the tires squeal.
Miranda is holding up the door. Going inside the building, Andy leans against the wall as the door closes behind them with a loud thud. Through the dark windows, she sees another taxi rush down the street, passing them without hesitation.
“Damn…” Andy whispers and then she’s in Miranda’s arms.
“I’m so sorry, darling.” Miranda presses her lips to Andy’s neck. “Let’s go up.”
“Yeah. I hope you have something strong up there because I need a drink.”
Miranda chuckles against Andy’s skin. “I do. I have everything we need, for now.”
They enter the elevator, which size suggests this really used to be an industrial building back in the day. Miranda presses the button for the fourth floor and they ascend to a place to finally feel safe.
Her small condo is as she left it when she had business in London a year ago. A firm has taken care of it and always kept it stocked with food in the freezer and pantry, stuff that lasts a long time and are rotated out as soon as their expiration date goes out.
“A drink, you said. There’s a fully stocked bar in the living room. Help yourself.” Miranda reluctantly lets go of Andrea and turns to the alarm console on the wall just inside the door. She switches it back on. When she turns around, Andrea is still there. Standing motionless in the small hallway. “Are you all right?” Miranda closes her hands around Andrea’s upper arms.
“I’m fine. Just trying to wrap my brain around what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into that makes people literally chase you through the streets.” The words are accusatory, but Andrea’s voice is soft, almost pensive.
“It’s not something I did. It’s what happened to me, and who I am,” Miranda says starkly. “I don’t know about you, but I need something to eat, and yes, a drink. Something strong.”
“I’ll make you something. I tended bar during my college years. I was pretty good.” Andrea pulls off her coat and hangs it next to Miranda’s.
“A Bloody Mary. There should be tomato juice in the pantry. Spices too.”
Miranda washes her hands under the kitchen faucet and then explore the freezer. She’s quite used to frozen dinners and as Andrea opens the pantry door behind her, she pulls out a few different boxes. “Anything in particular you like?” She motions to the counter.
“Anything with chicken. Nothing with potatoes.” Andrea disappears toward the living room, holding the items she found in the pantry.
Miranda places one box after the other in the micro and then plates the content on real china. They may be on the run, or in hiding, but they’re not going to eat directly on a cardboard plate. Miranda sets a tray and enters the living room where there is a small, round table with three chairs. She’s just done emptying the tray when Andrea brings their drinks.
“Bloody Mary for you and a gin and tonic for me.” Andy sits down and takes a proper gulp of her drink. She coughs and clears her throat. “Now we’re talking.”
Miranda takes a sip and winces at how strong it is. “This…oh, dear…the lining in my stomach will never recover.” Despite this statement, she drinks some more.
They eat in silence, both of them hungry, and Miranda is grateful for the reprieve. When they’re finished, they move to the couch, and now it’s entirely natural that Andrea curls up next to Miranda with her hand on her thigh. Miranda feels the warmth of the touch permeates her skin through the fabric of her black denim pants.
“You ready to tell me some more?” Andrea places her drink on a coaster on the small glass and metal coffee table.
“Yes.” Not really, but Miranda reaches for her go-bag. She opens the zipper to the largest compartment and pulls out her ledger and her wallet. Her heart has begun to drum faster against her ribs. “Open mind, remember?”
“Absolutely.” Andrea hasn’t moved and looks more at Miranda than the large book.
“May I ask a favor?” Miranda feels ridiculous, and Andrea probably thinks that she’s stalling. Perhaps she is. No. No she isn’t.
“Kiss me?” Miranda leans in, stopping just one breath short of Andrea’s lips.
Andrea doesn’t answer, but wraps her arms around Miranda and pulls her close. She begins with small kisses just below Miranda’s left ear. Then she creates a gently burning trail as she places kisses along Miranda’s jaw, down to her chin. There she slowly nibbles her way up to Miranda’s lips and after a few, ghastly long seconds, she claims Miranda’s mouth with hers. “Part your lips, Miranda,” she murmurs. “Let me in.”
Andrea must know that she doesn’t have to ask, and yet Miranda understand why she does. The request is hot and sexy, it makes Miranda want to give in fully, and Miranda complies eagerly. The kiss lingers, the intensity goes from fiery to tender and back again. Finally, Andrea pulls back, but the emotional heat just conveyed by her lips, now lives in her eyes.
Miranda draws a trembling breath, drinks from her Bloody Mary, and then pulls the ledger onto her lap. “I think it might be less confusing, if that’s at all possible if you read through this with me.”
Andrea shifts until they’re sitting hip to hip. “Okay.”
Miranda opens the large book, and the first page shows a ink drawing. The motif is of a small cabin among tall pine trees. Miranda runs her finger over the door to the cabin. “I drew this when I went home to attend my father’s funeral. All the shadows you see in the windows are the mourners. My mother and sister are in there.”
“But not you?” Andy leans closer as she can hear the forlorn tone in Miranda’s voice.
“Only for a little while. I left the next day.” Miranda turns the page. “Here are the names I’ve used over the years.” She points to the list of names that each a followed by a set of numbers.
“Sarah, Mary, Elizabeth, Anna, Virginia, Tyra, Paula…Miranda…” Andy reads just as many surnames in another column, which of course ends with Priestly. “What are those numbers?” she asks, pointing to several sets of numbers next to each name.
“We’ll go back to that. Now let me show you Rosalee’s page.” Miranda flips a few pages, and there it is. Rosalee McLeod. In her case there were seven names and the latest one was Vanessa de Claire. Miranda turns over one page and there is the name Iris Schmidt. Another set of seven names, but clearly this woman went back to using her original first name as that column says Iris as well.
Andy tries to fathom what this means, what the names and the numbers suggest, but she draws a blank. She glances at Miranda who is so pale now, her skin looks transparent. Andy takes her hand and it’s ice cold. “Miranda? Why have the three of you changed names so often? This is not making sense.”
“Three? Oh, right. Actually, there were nine of us, initially. All girls.” Miranda takes a deep breath and squeezes Andy’s hand so hard, it hurts. “You asked about the numbers. Well, when I show you how to interpret them, it’ll make a weird sort of sense.”
Andy waits for a few moments, but it is as if Miranda’s eyes have become stuck on Iris’s list of names. “Please.”
Miranda flips back to the page with her names. “Here.” She points to the first set of digits. “This is how long I waited until I changed names the first time. When Sarah became Mary.”
Andy leans in farther to read. “That number? Fifty-two? What?” Her throat dries so fast, Andy can barely swallow. “You’re fifty-one according to Wikipedia.” Andy feels a blush creep up her cheeks.
“No, Andrea.” Miranda raises her chin. “I was born in London, June 11, 1761.”
Continued in part 20
A/N: Any historical errors are mine--chalk it up to artistic license, please.
Miranda watches the expressions shift like water on Andrea’s face. Stunned surprise. Disbelief. Shock. Confusion. Concern. But what she doesn’t see is more important. There’s no scorn, mirth, or mocking. And even more important, Andrea remains by her side and though her eyes are huge at Miranda’s words, they’re focused on her with the same warmth as before.
“1761.” Andrea’s voice is without infliction.
“Yes.” Miranda’s not about to get into the ‘I know it sounds crazy and unbelievable, but I swear I’m not insane…’ litany. If Andrea is about to take a leap of faith, she will have to do it without Miranda begging her too. It’s the only way and Miranda knows the chances are infinitesimal for this to happen.
“Are you saying that this list of names, they’re not just some witness protection program, having tons of passports, thing? That you’ve actually been living the lives of all these people?” Still not raising her voice, Andrea looks down at the ledger and back up again. “Miranda?”
“In a nutshell, yes.” Miranda is cold now. She’s shivering and she wants to close the ledger and just be done with it. The risk of Andrea merely walking out the door and leave her obviously delusional boss in the dust is great. Why not get it over with?
“Tell me more. Just…tell me more.” Andrea strokes an unsteady hand across her forehead, messing up her bangs. Miranda absentmindedly lifts her hand and comb them down with her cold fingers.
“You’re freezing.” Andrea reaches behind her and tugs at a blanket. “Here.” She wraps it around them both, effectively creating a cocoon of them and the ledger.
Grateful, Miranda tugs it closer and closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, she has steeled herself against the onslaught of fear. “My family, my mother, father, sister, and I, were among a large group of people who left Liverpool for Plymouth in 1769. It was a horrible journey where old people and children died in the middle of the Atlantic. I, to this day, don’t know what illness spread among the most fragile on the ship, but the adults called it a plague. In retrospect, I think they named it that because of how fast it spread and how quickly people died.” Miranda reaches for her drink, making sure she takes enough to burn her throat. She needs the sting to focus as she’s taken back in time by her own words. “Our small corner below deck is right next to the McLeod’s, Rosalee’s family. She’s the first to get sick among them, and she turns into a shell of herself, wraith-like. I’m not allowed to visit with her, but it doesn’t matter. I get ill as well. My sister, Corinne, is sixteen, almost an adult. She and my parents are unaffected.”
Pausing, Miranda quickly wipes at her eyelashes, feeling as if her pent up emotions are right there, ready to burst through her skin and make her bleed. Andrea hasn’t said a word, but she also hasn’t cringed, winces, or made any sort of disdainful face at Miranda’s words. Now, she slips her arm around Miranda’s back, holding her. How incredibly strange this is. How unexpected.
“Among all the children that get ill, nine come through it, and they’re all girls. The affected boys and old people were not so lucky.” Miranda snorts unhappily. “Lucky. Well, I suppose that’s one word for it.” She tips her head back against the couch. “By the way, what’s with us and couches, Andrea? We seem to have a propensity for advancing our, eh, relationship on couches.”
“Where else do you think we should sit? The floor?” Andrea gives a tremulous smile.
“You have a point.” Grateful for the reprieve, Miranda turns her face into Andrea’s neck, so grateful that she’s not rejected yet. Yet. She shudders.
“Just take your time. I can tell how hard this is for you.” Andrea kisses the top of Miranda’s head. “When you’re ready, I’m listening.”
Which of course isn’t the same as believing, but that’s too expect too much of anyone.
Andy watches how Miranda straightens and turns a few pages in the ledger before she continues her incredulous tale.
“We arrived in Plymouth and my parents were thrilled to have reached our first destination. So was Corinne, but I was distraught over leaving Rosalee and the other little girls I met. It was as if we shared a bond after having lived through that plague. Little did we know what it might mean for us.
The upcoming years were hard. My father had a small capital he saved for the purpose of starting over in this new land. We settled in Maine. After a few years, we were joined by others we knew from the ship, including the McLeod’s. Mrs. McLeod had then passed and Rosalee’s father was alone with the children. My mother helped take care of them as they lived close to us.”
The details of Miranda’s story are minute and the emotions in Miranda’s voice, retrained and yet so raw, it grates on Andy’s nerves, are compelling.
“To make this story short, the years went by and our lives unfolded the way lives back then often did. My sister got married at eighteen. So did I. We worked hard. And it was five years into my marriage, that I noticed how Rosalee, who was married too by then, and I seemed to live parallel lives. No children. If we were injured, we healed fast and never succumbed to infections. And we looked a lot younger than our peers. Our husbands were frustrated with us not providing sons, and Rosalee’s husband abused her daily. Having a body that hides the bruises in a day was a blessing and a curse. Eventually, she ran away from her husband. I was forty years old, already a widow, and looked eighteen. Words like ‘witchcraft’ began to circle and that’s when my mother urged me to follow in Rosalee’s footsteps and leave our settlement in Maine. She and my father had saved up to give me enough to start over. So, I did. A first of many start-overs. I never married again.”
Andy looks down at the ledger, where someone, in small, ornate handwriting, has entered dates, names, locations. She turns the page. More dates and notes. Her eyes fall upon a longer entry.
New York, December 22nd, 1809 – I miss my family the most at Christmas. I envision my mother and Corinne, in their respective homes, preparing the food and helping at church. Mother will provide for the less fortunate whenever she can. I try to follow her example and God knows the need here in New York is great. Owning a restaurant makes saving scraps of food quite easy and it can mean the difference between life and death for a child living on the street.
Andy’s eyes fill with tears. She uses the blanket to dab them away and turns more pages. Sarah, and later, the new names show up, as the years go by. Andy notices that there is a pattern. Usually, there are about thirty or forty years between the changes.
Trying to think critically, Andy regards the pages with the art restorer’s point of view. The pages are fragile and the large book is clearly old. Leather bound, it shows cracks where the leather has gone dry, or become damaged. The ink changes throughout the pages, and so does the handwriting, to a degree. The choice of word changes as well, going from very formal to more casual. If Miranda has forged this document, she’s done it in an ingenious way. Of course, as an expert art restorer, she would have the knowledge. But why? What motive could a person possibly have to create such a ruse—and then keep it a closely guarded secret? That part simply doesn’t make sense.
“I can practically see your thoughts spin,” Miranda says quietly. She looks drained where she clutches her half-finished Bloody Mary. “You can probably guess why I never share this with anyone…at least not anymore. It’s not an easy pill to swallow. It’s an impossible pill.”
It was. But Andy homed in on the ‘at least not anymore’ part. “Who did you tell?”
Miranda flinches and returns the glass to the coffee table. “My second husband. He adored me and he was ahead of his time when it came to his outlook of life. Just not that ahead. I told him my true age, I was seventy-eight, and about being barren, and he laughed it off. Called me his eccentric angel, of all things. When time went by and he aged, and I did not, he was not amused. When people started pointing it out, he ended up doing what my parents had done—paid me off to go away.” The pain is evident in Miranda’s voice. “I left with my ledger,” she continues and strokes the pages of the large book, “and enough money to take me to Philadelphia.”
It is of course an impossible tale. And yet… Andy groans and takes Miranda’s hands in a firm grip between hers. Miranda's are still ice cold. “Are you saying you’re an immortal?”
“The title of my ledger would suggest that, wouldn’t it?” Miranda’s smile is more of a grimace. “Amaranthine. It means, among other things, undying, a flower that never fades, and a red, burgundy color.” She shakes her head. “The Amaranthine Law is something I, Rosalee, Iris, and the other six girls established in 1855. We all agreed to a set of rules to keep each other safe.”
“So…not immortal?” Andy persists, needing to hear Miranda say it, no matter how unfathomable such a statement would be.
“No. I have aged. I no longer look to be in my early twenties, do I? I look at the age I try to be. I can pass for anything between forty to sixty. That’s the best span for me right now, that and modern times allowing for nips and tucks that make seventy-year-olds look decades younger.”
“What does the Amaranthine law state?” Andy watches Miranda pale.
“It really doesn’t matter what it says. We have broken against several of the paragraphs anyway, starting by my meeting with Rosalee. We’ve become exposed. People have died. The Amaranthine Law that was supposed to protect us is crumbling around our feet. "Miranda yanks her hands free and stands up, rigid arms and fists at her side. Her blue eyes are nearly colorless and yet they sear like white flames. "I think this is the endgame and...oh, God, Andrea—you’re caught in the middle of it all.”
Continued in part 21
Pacing is all Miranda can think of right now. She’s told Andrea, well, not everything, but more than she’s told anyone in almost two centuries. She can’t imagine what’s going through Andrea’s mind. Anything from ‘let me get away from this insane bitch right this second’ to ‘let’s call an ambulance’, or better yet, ‘let’s call the police.’
“What are you thinking?” Miranda swivels, placing her hands on her hips as she has no idea where to put them. “Don’t just sit there. Say something.”
“Hey, give a girl a break,” Andrea frowns and stands up. “You just dropped a motherload of, let’s just say, unusual information and I need a moment to process. Or a drink. Preferably both.” Andrea takes her gin and tonic and empties it in two gulps. Coughing, she walks over to Miranda and takes her firmly by the shoulders. “You have to stop pacing. You’re driving me nuts. I can’t think.”
“Very well. Let’s sit down.”
“No.” Running her hands up and down Miranda’s upper arms, Andrea seems to look straight through her. “I…I can’t sit down either. Perhaps pacing is a good idea.” She doesn’t move, though, but pulls Miranda close. “If this is confusing as all hell to me, how strange mustn’t it feel to you, to be forced to share something like this? I’m so sorry you were forced to. That I nagged you.”
“You deserve to know.” Miranda can barely enunciate the words as raw emotions overwhelm her. How is it that this woman thinks of her more than herself? “You are involved and my main priority now is to get you back to New York, or anywhere in the States, safely.”
“Now, this is where we’re going to have words.” Andrea pushes her fingers into Miranda’s hair and gently tugs her head back a little. “We are going to see this through—together. You’ve told me as much as you can for now, I’m sure, but there’s tons more, I bet. I mean, why, for instance, someone’s after you and Rosalee? And why now? I realize I’m just accidentally involved, but who says that whoever is after you won’t think I know too much and keep chasing me once you’ve managed to ditch me in New York?”
Miranda grows cold. She has operated under the assumption that if she can get Andrea away from her, distance herself, then Andrea will be fine and Miranda can deal with what’s going on or disappear—again. “Goddamn it,” she groans. “You’re right. Of course, you are.”
“On occasion, yes.” Andrea smiles sorrowfully. “But look at it this way. Two minds instead of one. We’re smart people, both of us. We’ll figure it out.”
Miranda isn’t so sure. She feels maneuvered by the faceless person or persons behind the chase through the London streets. This makes her angry, but the fact that she’s wrapped up in Andrea’s embrace makes it impossible to start pacing again. For some reason, pushing Andrea away is impossible. They’re standing so close together, chest to chest, and Miranda buries her face in the long, chestnut hair.
“We need to rest. Once we’ve done that, we have to plan.” Andrea seems oddly comfortable with taking the initiative.
Miranda holds her breath for a moment before she dares to ask the question that burns beneath her skin. “Do you believe me at all?”
Andrea shifts her hands and cups Miranda’s cheeks. “I have two choices. Either I believe you, or I believe that you believe this to be true. Then there’s the fact that we were chased. Also, your childhood friend, no matter when she actually was your childhood friend, exactly, is really beside the point. She’s being stalked as well. That part, the stalking, is what’s important now.”
“In a way you’re right, but in looking at it from another perspective, you’re only half right.” Miranda takes Andrea by the hand and returns to the couch. “Let me show you something a few pages into my ledger.”
“Miranda…you’re exhausted.” Andrea tries to resist. If it’s truly because she’s mindful of them being tired, or if she’s had enough of the ledger, is anyone’s guess.
“I am.” Miranda rubs her neck after they sit down. “And it won’t take long, all right? Just humor me for a few minutes more.”
Miranda takes her bag and pulls out the photo that fell out…goodness, was it yesterday? She places it next to the ledger and opens the large book on a page further into it. She pushes it closer to Andrea. “Here’s a picture of me from 1851. It’s faded, of course, but it’s the original.” She looks down at the familiar photo of herself at the photographer’s studio in Boston. “It was my ninetieth birthday. I told everyone it was my twenty-fifth, and they still thought of me as a hopeless spinster. The women my age that I knew were married, most of them.”
Andrea bends over the ledger, squinting at the photo. “God.”
“Pretty sure God has nothing to do with any aspect of my life. Our neighbor’s in Maine were all the more certain that the eternal mine and Rosalee’s eternal youth, was a work of the devil.” Miranda turns a page. “This is from the boarding house I owned in Baltimore. My staff and I. 1869. I left the staff the boarding house when I ‘died’. They were kind to me.”
“Oh.” Andrea sniffles. “Is there more?”
“There is.” Miranda shoots Andrea a worried glance and sees how she wipes at silent tears. Another page shows Miranda sitting between two other women. “1883. I let myself inherit enough money under a new name, Virginia Knox, and moved to London. Here I started a fashion house. It became quite popular. I let the other two women be the face of the business.”
“Did…did they inherit the business as well? Later?”
“Yes. Or in one case, her daughter did.” Miranda closes the ledger. “So, either you think I’m a completely delusional woman who carries around a make-believe ledger of old photos to fool herself…or you are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.” Her head pounds and she rubs her temples.
“I was already giving you the benefit of the doubt.” Andrea stands abruptly and extends her hand. “And we’re not going to talk about this anymore tonight. I can tell you’re fading, and to be honest, so am I. I want a hot shower and to go to bed.”
“Are you willing to share my bed, Andrea?” Miranda slowly takes the proffered. “This is a one-bedroom apartment with a king-size bed. Will you share it with me?”
“Yes.” Andrea colors faintly but pulls Miranda to her feet.
Miranda makes the bed while Andrea showers. Bringing sleepwear with her, she then checks the door and the alarm system. Finding the bathroom empty, Miranda steps in under the hot spray of water, letting it hammer on her aching shoulders. Her ankles hurt as well. Running on cobble streets is insanity. After drying her hair, she finds Andrea sitting on the foot of the bed, dressed in a t-shirt and panties.
“I assumed it was all right to borrow some clothes.” Andrea tugs at the t-shirt. “This was the largest one I could find.”
“Of course.” Miranda is wearing a long sleep shirt. “Let’s go to bed.”
They crawl into bed and Miranda turns off the light. A faint nightlight in the hallway keeps it from going pitch black.
“Are you afraid, Miranda?” Andrea asks in a whisper.
“Only for your sake.” Miranda turns on her side, facing Andrea. “Are you?”
“Yes, but not because of anyone catching up with us. Not yet anyway.”
Miranda places a hand on Andrea’s shoulder. “Then why?” She doesn’t understand.
“I’m afraid of waking up and finding you gone. That you’ll decide that you need to protect me by disappearing after all. That I’ll…lose you.”
Miranda stops breathing for a moment. “I can promise you that I won’t leave you voluntarily. I will certainly not sneak out in the night in some misguided attempt at keeping you safe. You’re right about what you said—we need to figure this out together.”
“Okay. Good. But what then? Once we have figured things out?”
A cold fist squeezes Miranda’s heart until it can’t refill with the blood. Ironically, not even this sensation will come close to ending her life. There is still so much Andrea doesn’t know, or don’t understand, and one of those things are—there is no future for them. There never can be with a woman like Miranda.
Continued in part 22
Andy sits up in bed, disoriented about the unfamiliar room. She pushes long tresses of hair off her neck, feeling nearly suffocated. She must have tossed and turned. A soft whimper startles her and she glances to her right. Miranda is curled up on her side, facing away from Andy. Leaning in, Andy places a gentle hand on Miranda’s shoulder. Miranda’s trembling so much now, Andy can hear her teeth clatter.
“Miranda. Please. You’re dreaming.” Andy rocks her carefully. “Just a dream, okay?”
Miranda goes rigid and it is as if she has tied her body into a knot. Fearful now, Andy moves in closer and aligns her body with Miranda’s, hoping that some shared warmth will permeate the woman next to her. Effectively spooning Miranda, Andy tucks her knees in behind hers and worms her left arm under Miranda’s neck, and wraps her right around her upper body after tucking the covers tightly around them.
Miranda slowly stops shivering. Her breathing begins to calm down but is still shallow. She moves her arms restlessly until they hook around the one Andy has wrapped around her, pressing it to her.
“Are you awake?” Andy askes quietly. “You had a nightmare.”
“C-cold.” Miranda’s voice is stark and raspy, not at all her usual silky way of talking.
“I’ll have you warm in no time. Just try and relax.” Andy presses her lips behind Miranda’s ear.
“I was back on the ship to the colonies. So many faces around me below deck. Not the real faces of the passengers, but yours, Nigel’s, Serena’s, Emily’s…and yes, Rosalee’s, but not as a child, the way she looks now. You were all ill with the plague. I was the only one not affected by it—and you all blamed me. Called me a w-witch.”
Her heart aching at the raw pain behind Miranda’s words, Andy shifted and rolled Miranda toward her. She added a blanket from the foot of the bed, on top of the duvet, before taking Miranda in her arms again. “It sounds awful. Try to let it go. It was a dream.”
Miranda doesn’t reply but doesn’t pull away either. She rests her head on Andy’s shoulder and now her breathing is even and deeper. Andy wills herself to relax, only now realizing how Miranda startled her. She hates that Miranda is in such pain.
“What time is it?” Miranda asks huskily. She rolls onto her back and groans. “Damn, I did a number on my back.”
Andy’s gut reaction is to offer another back and neck rub, but she also knows that Miranda is proud and definitely not one to take kindly to being fussed over. “No idea. Wait.” Andy goes up on her elbow and glances over to the rather old-fashioned clock radio on the nightstand on Miranda’s side of the bed. “Two-thirty. Middle of the night.”
“If I didn’t know I’ll need all the rest I can get, I’d go up and make coffee,” Miranda mutters. “It’s what I do in New York when I…can’t sleep.”
Ah. Miranda has nightmares and disturbed sleep patterns on a regular basis. “I put on a podcast and let whoever’s talking lull me back to sleep,” Andy says lightly. “My mind just doesn’t know when to shut up sometimes.”
“Really? A podcast? I can sometimes go back to sleep on the couch in front of the TV. It’s almost the only time I watch the damn thing. If all else fails, I go down to my workshop and work on a project.”
“I’ve been known to paint or draw in the middle of the night.”
Miranda shifts and looks up at Andy, her eyes reflecting the night light from the hallway. “What has you so unsettled that you can’t sleep, Andrea?”
The way Miranda speaks her name…does she know how much of a caress it is? Andrea…like something exotic and beautiful. Not the harsh enunciation that everyone else uses, putting the emphasis of the first syllable. “I lost a lot when I moved to New York. My parents gave me a year to “get my act together” and then use the scholarship to Harvard. They’re both proud pro bono lawyers with quite the entourage in Cincinnati, and they have always expected me to join the firm. I do admire them. They’re working for the people who cannot afford legal representation and they do deserve all the accolades. No doubt about that.”
“But?” Miranda kisses Andrea’s neck softly.
”But it was never my path. For me, art and art restoration comes in at shared first place. If I can’t paint, or help rescue and restore paintings, I…I don’t know. I have no plan B, really.”
“And your parents?”
Andy sighs and hides her face against the top of Miranda’s head. “They were already looking for an apartment for me, and setting up an internship at the firm, when I called to say I was still not returning to Ohio.”
“And you hate disappointing them,” Miranda spoke in a non-committal voice.
“I do, but it’s not the first time. This is about my career, which is bad enough, I suppose, but when I came out and neither them nor most of my friends, understood or accepted, it really screwed with my mind. I suppose not wanting to be a lawyer was just another nail in the coffin.”
“I’m sorry they weren’t more understanding. Was it long ago?” Miranda smooths back Andy’s hair.
“Second year in college. I kind of knew it wasn’t going to go well, but hoped I was wrong. That it was just nerves.”
“And instead you were right.”
Andy is amazed at how easy it is to tell Miranda this. Perhaps because Miranda’s told her such a fantastical tale about her past, nothing’s off the table, pretty much.
Miranda nudges Andy over onto her back. “I don’t know when I realized I could find my own gender attractive. It was perhaps during the civil war. It’s been so long, I can’t remember…what?” Miranda stares down at Andy.
“C-civil war.” Andy tries to stop the slightly hysterical laughter from erupting. “I th-thought I was late in understanding things about myself…but you were a hundred?” She hiccuped. “I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. Honestly.” Snorting, Andy buries her face in the pillow, trying to calm down, but the irresistible laughter keeps coming in wave after wave.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that you find this so amusing,” Miranda says haughtily, but Andy can hear the smile in her voice. “Not to mention how wonderful it is to be the source of such mirth on your part.”
Andy flings her arms around Miranda and pulls her close. It’s as if the laughter has pushed them both past their respective ghosts…at least for now.
Miranda then pushes the anxiety even further away by pressing her lips to Andy’s. The kiss doesn’t allow for any other thoughts than how hard Andy is falling for Miranda, and how much she wants her. Slipping her hands under Miranda’s sleep shirt that has ridden up over her hips, Andy finds smooth, warm skin. She spreads her fingers wide, wanting to cover as much of Miranda as possible, and returns the kiss by parting her lips and letting Miranda deepen it. Miranda nibbles and caresses with her lips and tongue and Andy reciprocates by exploring Miranda’s mouth.
“You taste like some exotic fruit,” Miranda murmur against Andy’s lips. “You also make me forget about anything but you, and all I want is to drown in you. I want you to know that.”
Hearing traces of regret, Andy wants to press Miranda closer to her, to keep her from withdrawing, but she can feel it’s already happening. Miranda is too selfless to just take what she wants in this moment, and Andy understands but also hates this noble trait.
Miranda ends the heated embrace with sweeter kisses that calm, rather than ignite.
“I’d make love with you in a heartbeat if you’d let me,” Andy whispers as they settle down among the pillows, duvets, and blankets.”
“Oh, don’t tempt me, Andrea.” Miranda takes a deep breath. “You think too highly of my self-restraint.”
“No, I don’t. You’re a woman of principle, though part of me wishes you weren’t.” Andy kisses Miranda’s shoulder where the neckline has slipped and reveals the velvety skin. “And I’ll do my best to be good.”
Miranda doesn’t answer, but moves in behind Andy, much like she had when Miranda was stuck in her nightmare and places a hand on Andy’s thigh. Certain neither of them can go back to sleep, Andy settles for just enjoying being this closer to Miranda and relive the kisses in her mind, and that’s what she does until she falls asleep, two minutes later.
Continued in part 23
If the previous night was intimate and tender, the breakfast in the small nook in the kitchen is quiet and pensive. Miranda feels preoccupied, her mind running different scenarios of what might be the reason for the stalker—or stalkers. She has no idea if it is one person or several, that’s behind it all.
“I received a text from Rosalee last night,” Miranda says, finally looking up at Andrea who looks as lost in thought as Miranda felt a moment ago.
Andrea blinks and then her focus is back. “She okay?”
“She’s arrived at her destination. That’s all she wrote, but I would assume if she’d run into trouble, she’d allude to it.” Miranda drinks the last of her coffee and pours half a mug more. “More coffee?”
“No, thank you, I’m fine.” Andrea taps her lower lip. “Did you tell her about the people that were after us yesterday?”
“No. Or at least not yet. Why?”
“Because she may have had something happen, and reasoned like you do—keeping the information close to the vest.” Andrea stands and rinses her mug. “She might not trust you, or us, completely. Or at all. Or she may be the one behind it.” She turns around, leaning her hip against the counter. “Isn’t that one of the potential scenarios you were busy sifting through earlier?” The way Andrea tilts her head makes her hair fall like a golden brown waterfall over her right shoulder.
“You have got to stop reading my mind,” Miranda says dryly. In reality, she’s shocked at how accurately Andrea manages to reason in the same tracks. “And you’re right. Yes, I did worry that Rosalee somehow, if not maliciously, but for being careless, helped put us in this situation.”
“You don’t know her anymore, I suppose. I mean, tons of time has passed. She may have used us to throw the scent off herself. It’s not nice, but it’s human. I mean, self-preservation.” Andrea moves to stand behind Miranda, placing her hands on her shoulders. She doesn’t start a massage but caresses her gently.
“Yes. I thought about that too. Another possibility is if Iris’s death wasn’t an accident—but manslaughter or murder. One of the emails that was delivered to Rosalee held a very obvious threat and the reason was the Amaranthine Law, which the sender saw as an abomination.”
“This law…can you tell me about it?” Andrea sits down but remains on the same side of the table.
Miranda isn’t sure about pulling Andera further into this mess by sharing the details of the ‘law’ she and the other girls that survived the plague on the ship, once wrote. They were all around ninety years old and fully aware that the chance they might not die for a very long time. “If you’re certain.”
“I think the more I know, the more I can help you.” Andrea runs her thumb along Miranda’s cheekbone. “Please.”
“Very well.” Miranda pulls the ledger that sits at the other end of the rectangular kitchen table, to her. Opening one of the first pages, she looks down at the ornate, rather pretentious handwriting. “The Amaranthine Law. Paragraph one. It is forbidden to discuss our longevity with anyone outside our group of nine. The punishment of such betrayal will be delivered by the very people we live among, as their tolerance for the true nature of our fate will undoubtfully mean certain death.” Miranda hasn’t read through the laws in many years, knowing them by heart, there has been no point. Now when she does, the feelings of dread, of truly being an abomination in the eyes of the world, and mostly, in her own opinion as well.
“Want me to read? You’re shaking.” Andrea places a hand on top of Miranda’s.
“I’m all right.” Miranda can feel Andrea flinch and understands that she’s used her most lethally soft tone. “Truly.” She clears her throat. “Paragraph two. New identities must be obtained when a certain amount of time has passed and well before speculations among the people around us start to question our longevity. There can be no socializing or relationship with anyone from our former life. Paragraph three. Potential property and wealth should be donated to deserving individuals. If there are enough funds to not raise suspicion, the option to leave them to be inherited by our next persona can be invoked. Paragraph Four. We shall not interfere in each other’s lives or draw attention to one another. If it is at all possible to die, we must let each other know. Addendum one. At least seventy years must pass before we are allowed to return to a place we’ve lived in before. Addendum…two.” Miranda stopped reading and leaned back, away from the ledger.
Andrea moved closer. Placing her finger under the sentence, she continued reading. “Addendum two. Do not marry or put children into this world. We shall not bring this misfortune onto others.” The last words come out as a whisper.
“Exactly. Exactly that.”
Andrea wraps her arms around Miranda who finds herself in a tight embrace. “I don’t care. This was penned by women who were trying to survive a world that could banish or kill them at the drop of a hat. Times are different now—”
“And yet, someone is there to make sure I don’t forget. That Rosalee doesn’t forget. And perhaps that’s exactly what they taught Iris. And I can’t risk you. No matter what happens to Rosalee or me, we have lived long, rewarding lives in the midst of all the insanity, but you…are twenty-five years old, Andrea. You have your entire life ahead of you.” Miranda clutches at Andrea, her actions belying her words, but she means every single one of them, even if it shreds her heart to pieces.
Andrea is quiet, but holds on just as tight. Miranda has endured a lot of pain throughout her long life, but nothing has prepared her for the searing agony of pulling back from this embrace. When she puts enough inches between them to be able to think rationally, she suddenly knows what they must do. She lets her usual control slip back into place and she can tell the second Andrea notices it, as her face grows still and pale.
“The day to finally part hasn’t come yet,” Miranda says stoically. “How do you feel about going to Switzerland?”
Continued in part 24
A/N: Luton Airport's VIP section is a figment of my imagination. Artistic license! :-)
Andy is still not sure how fast they manage to leave Miranda’s London condo, catch a taxi a few streets away, and now they’re at Luton airport, where Miranda has arranged for a private jet. Torn between trying to act casual about this extravagant way of traveling and wanting to ask where the hell Miranda has stowed this amount of money, Andy just keeps in the background for now.
“We’re in luck. Not only do they have a jet ready to embark to Geneva in two hours, but we're also able to share it with some representatives of some IT company that apparently like sharing the expense. That way our names are not at the top of the contract.” Miranda looks pleased as she adjusts her scarf. “You’re looking a little pale. Hungry?”
Andy shakes her head and wishes she hadn’t. She is actually quite dizzy, but not from a sugar-low. “Things are moving fast.” And she was also trembling inside in a highly unpleasant way—and had been ever since they read through the damn Amaranthine Law.
“Well, we have two hours to kill. Let’s go to the VIP lounge and find a quiet corner. I’m traveling under the name Moira Parker and that woman is quite well off.”
“I guessed as much,” Andy mutters as she follows Miranda through the part of security where nobody has to wait in line, and they’re whisked through in minutes. The VIP lounge is nice and the sitting areas arranged to create privacy for work and rest. Dividers provide protection from prying eyes, and Andy sits down on a plush couch after pulling off her coat.
A host shows up and Miranda orders some snacks and hot tea. When he returns with a tray, she tips him and asks for privacy. The tip must’ve been good because the young man looks like he’s ready to post armed guards to accommodate Miranda.
Miranda sits down next to Andy and takes her hand. “You’re cold. Come here.” Wrapping an arm around Andy, Miranda takes their discarded coats and cover them both. “London can be damp and raw this time of year.”
Andy knows this is only part of the explanation. Her shivers are more likely a reaction to everything going on. She suspects Miranda is well aware of this, but if she doesn’t want to speak about this upfront, then Andy’s not going to bring it up. “Yes. Damp and raw.” Andy can hear the hollowness in her voice and obviously, Miranda can too, because she hugs Andy closer.
“Why don’t you have some tea? The cucumber sandwiches look all right. And there are scones with jam and clotted cream. Very British.” Miranda tips Andy’s head back by placing a curled ringer under her chin. “Please.” She kisses Andy lightly.
Yeah. Perhaps something to eat will help steady her. It’s ridiculous to be this taken aback, even if her entire view of the world, and, God knows, lifetime expectancies in general, has thrown her off her game. Secretly pinching her thigh through the jeans, Andy winces at the pain but manages to sit up and peruse the tray. She pours them tea, pleased to see that she’s not shaking on the outside, at least.
It’s amazing how food can, at least temporarily, settle you. Nutrition, warmth from within from the tea, and Miranda, who doesn’t remove her arm around Andy’s shoulders, all contribute to her feeling more like herself. And with that, the questions begin popping out.
“Moira Parker? Is that to keep the same initials?” Andy whispers the words after swallowing the last of half a scone and licks her lips to catch errant traces of clotted cream.
“Exactly that.” Miranda finishes off her mug of tea. “Having personalized luggage and other items etc.” She keeps her voice barely audible. “After a while, you learn these things.”
Anything to make things easier, if there was such a thing when it came to Miranda’s life. “Why Geneva?” Andy realizes how shaken she must have been since this morning. Normally, these would have been the first words out of her mouth.
“Iris died in Suisse alps. My plan is to find out what happened to her, exactly. Perhaps we can do that from Geneva, otherwise, we’ll rent a car and go there. Sound doable?”
Andy isn’t sure, but she’s seen Miranda pull strings several times now, so why doubt this plan? “Unless the stalker or stalkers have figured out your new alias, it sounds doable. We could start at the main library in Geneva.”
“Yes. Agreed.” Miranda leans back after checking the time on her phone. “We have another hour before our flight. I’ll set the alarm on my cell. We’ll need our strength later.”
Andy doesn’t hesitate but scoots closer and places her left hand on Miranda’s thigh. No matter what, she is going to keep the pain the future held like the sword of Damocles over her head, at bay. Knowing that Miranda, who lives and breathes the Amaranthine Law, is eventually going to withdraw, perhaps vanish completely, from Andy’s life, is beside the point right now. Andy isn’t going to let that discourage her from grabbing every single moment of closeness, and yes, happiness, that she feels when she’s close to Miranda. She turns her head toward Miranda and presses her lips against that soft, creamy skin, just below her earlobe.
Miranda sighs and puts her hand on top of Andy’s. “Andrea.”
Andy doesn’t care where they are or the risk that the host might appear at any time to remove their tray, she slides her hand up another few inches and kisses a trail along Miranda’s jawline until she finds her mouth.
Miranda is waiting for her. Her lips parted, her eyes half-closed, she studies Andy with fire burning in her blue eyes. Andy squeezes the inside of Miranda’s thigh and the heat under the fabric of Miranda’s pants, makes her close the distance between their lips. This is what Andy wants, this unrestrained, passion-filled caressing of lips and tongues. That together with the heat between Miranda’s thighs, is dangerous.
Slowly, Andy tries to take the fiery touches down a notch, but it’s damn near impossible when she can feel Miranda having the same struggles.
“You are evil,” Miranda wheezes against Andy’s lips. “Doing this here. In public. Is evil.”
“You may have a point,” Andy whispers and pulls back enough to avoid the risk of self-combustion on her part. “To my defense, we ignited more violently than I thought possible.”
“We did.” Miranda runs a hand over her face. “And until we’re actually alone, now we know better.”
Andy gapes, but then promptly closes her mouth. Does Miranda really mean that she is ready to let Andy that close when they are alone next time? They are already hurting because of their non-existent future, because of that ‘law’, and so far they’ve there’s only been kissing and some caresses. Is Miranda prepared for how it will feel after they make love?
Despite her bravado only a moment ago, Andy isn’t sure she’ll survive such an emotional hit-and-run.
Continued in part 25
Miranda manages to catch some sleep on the luxurious jet with Andrea next to her. Before she doses off, it amuses Miranda to see how the three men and one woman who originally chartered the plane all show interest in Andrea—and how oblivious Andrea is about it. Of course, Andrea is a charismatic, beautiful young woman, so why wouldn’t these people notice it? The fact that Andrea keeps Miranda’s hand in hers for the duration of the flight seems to finally hit home with the corporate crowd.
Reaching Geneva, they rent an unassuming looking car at the airport. On the way to the garage, Miranda pulls out her cell phone and hands it to Andrea. “When we get to the car, find us a hotel room for one night. We also need to shop for some clothes.”
“And locate the library.”
“Yes. Even more important.” Miranda stops by the white Toyota Yaris and can’t help but sigh inwardly, thinking of her sports car in New York. She places her go bag in the backseat while Andrea puts her bag between her feet on the passenger side. Miranda checks the time on the dashboard. “It’s too late to head to the library. Let’s do the other errands after you find us a hotel.”
“I’ll put the address into the GPS when I’m done.” Andrea is already focusing on Miranda’s phone.
Miranda pulls out of the garage and into traffic. Driving toward the center of Geneva took all her concentration. Being used to New York traffic, that wasn’t the issue, mainly that she didn’t know her way around.
“I found the library. Promenade des Bastions 1. There are several hotels not too far away.”
“Just pick one.”
“All right.” Andrea tapped at Miranda’s phone. “There.” She entered the address into the car’s built-in GPS.
Relieved at having a goal, Miranda follows the sonorous automatic female voice’s directions. “We’ll check-in and then take care of our errands.”
“Gotcha.” Andrea gently squeezes Miranda’s knee, making her clutch the wheel harder.
The hotel turns out to be a large, anonymous enterprise, geared toward visiting politicians and businesspeople. Miranda relaxes as they weaved through the crowd after checking in. Reaching the room, she’s pleased to find a large enough safe to place her ledger and pouch of documents in. It always irks her to have them out of her sight unless they’re in her safe in New York, but this is better than carrying them around all the time. When Miranda steps away from the safe, making a mental note of the code she chose, she flinches as Andrea is standing right behind her.
Andrea doesn’t answer but takes Miranda by the shoulders and tugs her into her arms. As Miranda, she’s taken off her coat and now she’s running her hands up and down Miranda’s back.
“Oh, God.” Miranda breathes the words in a whisper as her vocal cords have given in.
Andrea raises her hands until she gently cups Miranda’s cheeks. “Alone.”
“Excuse me?” Miranda’s head is spinning. She clings to Andrea’s hips, bunching up the shirt with her fists.
“We said we’d wait until we’re alone. We are alone now.” Andrea kisses her. Her lips are soft as they explore Miranda’s mouth.
“Mm. Yes.” The fact that they have errands to run and plans to make, fades into a mist when Andrea moves her lips down to her neck. Small, sharp nips and soothing caresses with a quick, agile tongue, has Miranda’s knees sagging. She shoves her fingers into Andrea’s hair. “Jesus…”
Andrea walks Miranda backward until her back is against the wall. There she stops, their body isn’t even touching now, but their lips are so close together that an intake of breath will mean their kissing. Andrea waits. For what?
Miranda raises a hand and whispers her fingertips along Andrea’s cheek. “It’ll mean broken hearts,” she says huskily. “The more I let you in, the greater the pain.”
“Too late.” Andrea sighs and her breath is sweet with traces of the coffee from the plane.
Miranda knows Andrea is right. They are far too deep with how they feel. And yet Andrea doesn’t know that there are degrees of how bad ‘too deep’ can become. How it can tear a person apart. It’s been more than a hundred and fifty years, but Miranda has stuck to her vow not to go through that again. And yet—here she is with Andrea so close, physically and, sweet Jesus, emotionally.
“Yes, it is too late, but it’s not too late to minimize collateral damage,” Miranda says, and she can hear how hollow her voice is.
“Collateral damage?” Andrea doesn’t move other than tipping her head back to meet Miranda’s gaze. “Is that supposed to be me?” There’s no anger, but her eyes are opaque.
“Collateral damage is when my actions, or any Amaranthine’s, cause pain or injury to someone who is not one of us.” Miranda clears her throat. “It’s the law. ‘We shall not bring this misfortune onto others.”
“That fucking law,” Andrea snarls, startling Miranda. “It’s not real.” She closes the distance between them. “It’s not an actual law. And I’d like to remind you that I’m my own person, perfectly capable to judge the risks I take, or choose not to take. I don’t subscribe or recognize this law of yours.” Her body fully aligned with Miranda’s, Andrea kisses her, not angrily, but with a tinge of frustration. She sucks Miranda’s lower lip in between hers and Miranda responds the way she must. The way she has to because Andrea is right, it is too late. Too late to regret anything.
Miranda shoves her hands in under Andrea’s shirt, finding smooth, warm skin. Growling low in her throat, she takes Andrea’s mouth, caresses her tongue with hers, claims this woman and feels her heart begin to shatter already. She doesn’t care. Right now, all she can feel is Andrea and how this girl, so strong, so loyal, burns against her.
“Oh, God,” Miranda speaks the words into Andrea’s mouth. “So be it.”
Continued in part 26
“So be it.” Miranda’s words, coming as breaths against Andy’s lips, leaves her trembling.
Andy kisses Miranda again, now slower, taking her time to revel in each caress, each sound, and to memorize how those elegant, strong hands feel against the skin on her back. There is something linger, searching, in the way Miranda moves her fingertips as if each new trail is part of a grid search. Knowing she’s fantasizing, Andy imagines being able to distinguish each swirl of Miranda’s fingerprints against her. Blunt nails draw patterns and Andy arches against them, as they don’t sting enough. “It’s like you’re painting me,” Andy says, her voice barely audible even to herself.
“In a way I am.” Miranda doesn’t stray from Andy’s back, seeming content, for now, to map out every muscle group, every square inch of her skin. “I think I’m drawing you in my mind.”
To not forget her? Andy draws a quick breath. “I have sketched you…on paper, I mean. From memory.” She didn’t mean to say that.
“May I see? Later?” Miranda nips at Andy’s lips, making it impossible to answer until she lets go, but by then, Andy has forgotten what she asked.
“May I?” Miranda repeats.
“Yes.” Who am Andy to deny Miranda anything? She won’t even be able to deny Miranda the option to leave Andy, should she choose to follow that horrible Amaranthine law.
They’re still by the wall, but now Miranda pivots them slowly, pressing Andy gently against the forest green wallpaper. She slides her hands along Andy’s sides, tickling her some before she pulls her hands out from under her shirt. “May I?” She tugs at one of the buttons in the front of Andy’s shirt.
“Yes.” Again. No denying. More than that, Andy’s ready to urge Miranda to go much further, to do anything she wants with Andy because she wants it all. Not one to remain inactive, Andy doesn’t even ask but undoes the top four buttons in Miranda’s shirt. Miranda’s wearing a thin tank top underneath and as the shirt falls open to her waist, Andy can see she’s not wearing a bra. Small nipples, mouthwatering hard, poke at the fabric.
“Beautiful,” Miranda says, making Andy raise her gaze to Miranda’s face. Miranda in turn has unbuttoned all of Andy’s shirts and now hooks her index finger around her bra, tugging gently. “There’s so much I want with you. So much I need.”
“Same,” Andy manages weakly, thinking she sounds entirely inadequate. “I want all of you. For hours. Days. For a long time.” For her entire life. Andy’s throat closes around the unspoken words and to her dread, her eyes well up.
“Darling?” Miranda flinches and lets go of Andy’s bra.
“No, it’s fine. It is. It’s just me being silly.” She tries to will the tears back into their ducts by blinking, but they roll down her cheeks, fat and seemingly never-ending as they made wet spots on her shirt. Furious at herself, Andy wipes at her cheeks.
“You are never silly.” Miranda takes over and uses her thumbs to stroke away Andy’s tears. “You are anything but. I can tell that I’ve already started on the journey of hurting you, and we have barely done more than embrace and kiss. If this causes the tears of a woman like you, so strong and independent, to fall, then what if we let it go further? What if we attempted to start something that is bound to fail? That is doomed to cause us unimaginable grief if we let it? Do you think so little of me?”
“What do you mean?” Andy sobs quietly, wanting to stop the horrible words from Miranda’s lips, but at the same time, needing to know.
“You don’t know what’s in store, but I do. I have lived through something similar to this, though I would argue that this,” Miranda says, flicking her fingers back and forth between them, “is far beyond that. And knowing that—it would be an act of unspeakable cruelty on my part not to follow the law. It was written for a reason, by the ones among us who actually possessed some resemblance of a conscience.”
Andy is about to object, frustration and sorrow warring inside her at not being given an equal chance to decide when Miranda pales and takes two steps back. There are now two feet between them and there might as well be the entire city of Geneva. “What?” Andy feels the last tears cool the skin on her face as they evaporate. Miranda is white now. “What’s wrong? I mean, what did you just think of?” Andy thinks back, trying to remember Miranda’s exact words, which is nearly impossible as Andy was busy being rejected, again. “Something about the law being written by people with a conscience.”
“Yes.” Miranda nods. “There were two among us who weren’t all that big on conscience, but…but they’re dead.”
A chill runs up Andy’s spine. “And, you girls being immortal and all, how can you be sure?”
Miranda’s eyes express nothing, but the shade has gone from icy blue to dark navy. “Because they were executed.”
Continued in part 27
A/N: Trigger warning for characters discussing the topic of death. Nothing graphic, I promise.
Miranda knows the mood, and, oh God, what an insufficient word to describe the turbulence of feelings, was gone. For now. Andrea’s huge eyes spoke not of passion, but of shock and confusion at Miranda’s words.
“Executed? How? Or, rather, why and by whom?” Andrea walks over to the window that can’t boast about much of a view, but she still presses her forehead against it.
“These two women, Caroline and Trudy, were sisters. I think about ages eight and ten, when we all got ill on the ship.” Rigid now, so much so, her back ached, Miranda turns on the light over the small table, sits down, and pulls out the ledger from her bag. “I couldn’t even make myself put them on the page of the other ones when I started my ledger. These girls had a mean streak from the beginning—I mean before the plague.”
“They were children. Kids can be mean.” Andrea turns around and seems to hesitate before she walks over to Miranda. She stops before sitting down and places a hand on the back of Miranda’s neck, giving her a quick caress. The touch is soothing.
Feeling ridiculous for wanting to say, ‘thank you’, Miranda pats the chair next to her. “Let me show you.”
Andrea sits down and leans in closer, looking down at the page. “These dates are mostly from the late 1800s.” She runs her hovering fingertip along the row of dates. “Until September 10, 1888, and September 14, the same year.”
“Yes. It was quite the scandal in Philadelphia.” Miranda shudders. “As I lived there at the time, I followed the trials from a distance. I felt obligated, but also, their actions…I admit I worried about the plague and what it did to us, being the reason for their…megalomania? Insanity?”
Andrea squeezes Miranda’s knee with her free hand. “Well, you know the answer to that by now. You possess neither of those traits.”
“No, perhaps not. There have been long periods of time when I’ve displayed blatant disrespect for my own life. That’s one thing that knowing your days are numbered automatically protects you against, or should, at least.”
“How do you mean?” Andrea leans her head in her hand as she rests her elbow against the table. She’s entirely concentrated on Miranda and her laser-focus settles something inside and makes it marginally easier to speak. To explain.
“When we are young, life seems endless, almost. Certainly, old age seems very far away. The older we get, the more people we lose, well, that reminds us of our own inevitable demise. It makes us value each moment—or it should. At least it keeps most of us from doing foolhardy things and brings self-preservation to the forefront. Now, enter a bunch of little girls from a ship in 1769. We all get seriously ill. Our parents let the ship’s priest give us the last rites. We are dying. And then we’re not. We all recover and live on. And on and on. When I, and the other girls, put two and two together, which naturally took us a while, nothing much changed at first. But then it did, for me. There were many decades when I was reckless. Perhaps I was challenging my fate, testing the ‘immortality’ in a manner of speaking. I drank too much, I took lovers left and right, of both sexes, I gambled, stole, went to prison, you name it. I disrespected myself and worse, the people around me.” Her voice so raw now, it hurts to speak, Miranda fully expects Andrea to withdraw. She doesn’t.
“What changed?” Andrea asks quietly.
“I reached a crossroad where I needed to once and for all decide what kind of human being I intended to be for this seemingly never-ending life of mine.” Miranda sighs. “I could go on being a callous bastard with a cavalier attitude to life and my place in the world, or I could take stock of what this meant, adjust accordingly, and make the best of it. I quickly found out that what was best for others, meant a lot of pain to me, eventually. I’ve come to accept that, until—”
Andrea waits patiently, gives Miranda time, but the words are stuck in her throat. Wrapping her arm around Miranda’s shoulders, Andrea pulls her closer. “Yes? Until?”
“Until you.” Miranda knows it’s a mistake, this honesty, this confession. “Until you, Andrea.” Oh, she’ll pay the price for this temporary relief in being completely honest. Miranda knows this, as this has been her reality for so long, that she’ll think back on the two of them, here at the small table in this boring hotel room. Her memory will depict Andrea and the way she looks at Miranda, accepting, with tenderness, and underneath that, the passion…and, Miranda hopes she’s wrong, perhaps even with love.
“Miranda.” Andrea brushes her lips lightly over Miranda’s. “How did you regain the appreciation for life, even after knowing in your case, it’s going to be a long, often lonely, one?” The question, spoken so softly, cuts deeply as they’re prompt and to the point.
“I looked for purpose. Sometimes from a humane angle, but mostly from an artistic point of view. Like my current endeavor. I’ve built Amaranthine Inc from nothing to one of the most reputable art restoring companies in the world. I know…” Miranda shakes her head “…choosing that name was foolish, but in all honesty, I saw it as a way of vanquishing the demons from my past. Nothing untoward had happened for a long time, and when I say long, you better believe I mean long. Apart from having to inevitably change my identity and relocating once I reached a certain age, I suppose I got complacent.”
“Because of Rosalee.”
“I’ve thought of that. I likely targeted before I recognized her and vice versa. Whether she had anything to do with it, or if she’s merely doing what I do, trying to stay ahead of the game, I just don’t know.”
“I only met her very briefly, but to me, she looked like a woman on the verge of collapse,” Andrea said, stroking Miranda’s back gently. “Thin, no, emaciated, pale as a ghost, and with enough nervous energy to charge a cell phone.”
Miranda nods. “Yes. Her fear is real. It still isn’t proof that she’s not involved, or under someone’s thumb.”
“God, I feel we’re talking in circles.” Miranda pinches the bridge of her nose.
“Perhaps, but you never know when what we say stirs an idea or a revelation.” Tugging the ledger closer, Andrea peruses the pages about Caroline and Trudy. “Back to these girls. I suppose they didn’t want to conform to the Amaranthine law?”
“Not even close,” Miranda says slowly. “They flaunted their youthfulness, attended balls, courted one man younger than the other. As the rest of us were treated horribly by certain people, the churches especially, Caroline and Trudy made themselves into celebrities. I don’t think most people believed the truth about their birthdates, but there were enough people who knew them from the plague incident on the ship, to keep a tinge of truth about them going.
Miranda can’t sit still. She stands and feels Andrea’s arm fall off her back. “The older they got, the more brazen they became. Trudy especially, who was considered the prettiest. They took such risks, and eventually, it caught up with them. I had no idea at the time that they had resorted to putting their longevity into a horrible system. They married older men, who really were their peers, and even younger, and I’m sure they waited them out in the beginning. You know, waiting for their husbands to die of natural causes. But soon that wasn’t enough. They began poisoning their men. Not only did they inherit their money and entire estate, but often they had made the man take out sizable life insurances.”
“Holy crap.” Andrea stood also, but walked over to an armchair and curled up in it. “Black widows.”
“In a manner of speaking. They were caught eventually and sentenced to death by hanging. I wasn’t there to witness any of this myself, but two other women from our little 'club' were. One of them wrote me afterward, poste restante, which is the only way we ever communicated. She saw them die.”
“And yet, you thought of something before, regarding Trudy and Caroline. Despite them being dead.” Andrea looks up at Miranda, leaning her head against the backrest. “What was that?”
“I was trying to figure out if one of the others could somehow be behind this. As far as I know, it’s just Rosalee and me left who are still breathing. And even if all of them had still been alive, I couldn’t think of anyone else who swears by the Amaranthine law to go after us…but these two never did adhere to the law. They spat at the idea since they obviously thought their own method to enrich themselves and social climb, was much better.”
Andrea nods. “The truly callous, ruthless ones.”
Miranda groans softly, she's nervous now, knowing full well she's pushing the boundaries of credibility, of the suspension of Andrea's disbelief. “If you think anything of what I’ve told you is crazy, you’ll think I’m certifiable if I share my theory. I have never discussed it with anyone.”
“If you want to, I’m listening.” Andrea pats the wide armrest next to her and Miranda fetches the ledger, gives it to Andrea before she slowly sits down.” Andrea takes Miranda’s hand and kisses it. Her lips linger. Warmth spreads from the caress to the deep recesses of Miranda’s chest. Before Andrea, she had the feeling of always cold, thinking it was due to her too-long life. That she was cold because she should have been dead a long time ago. Now, all Andrea has to do is touch her, even the most innocent of ways, and it is as if heat radiates from the connection.
“It was about fifty-some years ago that this theory gained a foothold with me.” Miranda pauses, leans over, and opens the ledger to a new place. “I think I was actually quite drunk, and therefore uninhibited when I jotted my notes down.” She looks down on the page. “See what I mean?”
Andrea’s hand trembles as she follows the title of the page with her index finger, reading the words out loud. “Circumstantial Evidence of Resurrection.”
Continued in part 28
Andy knows they’re not going out to buy clothes or anything else this evening. She feels drained after everything that’s happened and, damn it all to hell, she needs to process all this. “Resurrection? Surely this is…you said you were drunk?” She turns to Miranda who still sits on the armrest next to her. “I know. I said I’d keep an open mind, but this…is…” Her voice falters.
“You can accept that I’m more than two-hundred and fifty years old, but not this.” Miranda moves over to the couch. She’s pale, but her eyes burn like blue fire.
“That’s just it.” Andy looks at the page before her. “You’ve had all those years to take things in, little by little, and I have been spoon-fed it over a few days. I feel like I’m losing my mind!” She flings her hands in the air. “Then there’s the fact that I’d much rather jump your freaking bones than try to find who’s out to kill you!”
Miranda gapes and then the corners of her mouth turn up. Chuckling, she slumps against the backrest. “Now, there’s a complaint I can understand.”
Andy is appalled at how she just spoke to Miranda, but Miranda’s reaction makes her giggle. “This is a bit ridiculous, isn’t it? I mean, people talk about May-December romances, but this…” She points at Miranda and then at herself. “This is—”
“Ridiculous.” Miranda has stopped laughing, but the smile is still in place. “We approach all this from such different viewpoints. I try to protect you—from myself and those who are out to harm me—and, at the same time, I desperately want you to believe me. To understand. It’s all asking too much. I know this.”
“I just need some time to grasp things. This, what did you call it, ledger? This ledger is shock full of journal entries and theories, and facts, and it’s like opening a book that leads me into another world. The thing is, I want to be on this journey with you, to help you. My brain just can’t keep up, even if my heart does.” Andy grips the ledger harder.
“You did speak of romance. And now your heart,” Miranda murmurs. “Do you have any idea how painful the presence of hope is to someone like me?”
“What do you mean?” Andy can’t bear the physical distance between them. She takes the ledger and moves over to the couch as well, sitting down close to Miranda. Close enough for their thighs to touch.
Miranda places a gentle hand on Andy’s knee. “Hope is what we live for. Right? But I stopped taking such chances more than a century ago. I vowed to never fall into the trap of wishing for things that would ultimately shatter me. You see…you have to be selfish when you live a life like mine. You only have yourself because eventually, everyone else dies. And before that happens, when they age in the way you’re supposed to, they see that I don’t. They realize that something’s wrong, that I’ve lied about something essential. So I have to leave them—unable to stay and care for them during the last years of their existence.” There was only anger and sorrow written on Miranda’s face now.
“Okay, so there’s a major difference when it comes to us then,” Andy says and leans her head on Miranda’s shoulder for a few moments. “I already know. You have informed me more than you’ve done with anyone in ages. I go into this with my eyes open, even if I admit I don’t know every single intricate detail.” She opens the ledger to the page about resurrection and begins to read. “August 14, 1959. Circumstantial Evidence of Resurrection.”
Miranda’s grip around Andy’s knee grows firmer.
“Perhaps it is the booze talking, but all the facts I’ve collected, have put me on a new path when it comes to the sisters, Trudy and Caroline. To understand what sets them apart, I have to tell the story of how the plague hit us.” Pausing, Andy takes Miranda’s hand in hers. “Tell me if it gets too much, okay?”
“Very well.” Miranda’s voice shows little emotion.
“We left London for Liverpool in April 1770, Mother, Father, Corinne, and I, and I remember it was raining. The stagecoach was a nightmare, as the weather was so poor. The horses had problems on parts of the road that had suffered mudslides, and at one point, Father and another gentleman had to go outside and help push it out of the sludge. It took us one extra day to reach Liverpool, six days instead of five, and everyone was relieved when we finally reached the inn. My parents had taken potential delays into considerations and we had two days to rest before we were to go aboard the Fortune.
The ship was crowded with families with children, women, men. We were assigned small quarters, which really only consisted of a hard bed with a drape for some remnant of privacy. We had to sleep in there, all four of us, but we made do. The journey would end up taking thirty days. In the middle of the Atlantic, the first person became ill. Nobody knew why, or what it was, but soon I heard the adults call it a plague. High fever, a rash, loss of appetite, were the first symptoms. The ones who died did so after having been ill for five to seven days. They were all adults or boys. The little girls who got sick, like me, all made it, but it was strange, the adults said because we were the sickest of everyone. We didn’t even seem to breathe. My mother kept saying how she was certain I had passed away on the tenth day. I was rigid, cold, and my eyes wouldn’t close. She didn’t want me to ever learn of this, but Corinne told me after I begged her. So, nine little girls cheat death on the Fortune, and it slows our aging process.
Some facts are indisputable. No girl that had entered puberty was affected this way. No under the age of three either, as far as I know. We all went through the mock-death experience, wherein one case it went so far, my father said they had to stop a family from performing a burial at sea for their little girl.
What if we were in some suspended animation—a fake death—and what if something happened to us then? To our brains? To our entire system? Who knows what type of virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite this was? Perhaps I could find out if I allowed for medical science to draw blood and examine me? The thing is, of course, that they’d be much more likely to put me away in a psychiatric ward and throw away the key. I'll be damned if I'm going to spend eternity—quite literally—in such a place.”
Andy stops reading and just stare at the text for a moment, before turning to Miranda. “And now you wonder if Trudy and Caroline might have survived being hung in much the same way. Being fake dead, and then waking up again? But even so? Why would they come after you—and why now? It’s been a while.”
“It has. And your questions are valid. These two hated the rest of us. They didn’t want to ‘conform’ and they apparently blamed us for the fact they were arrested and tried for their crimes. According to the woman who wrote me poste restante, they swore to take us down with them. Back then I thought, what if they meant it? What if that became their agenda—if they survived the hangings?”
“It’s a theory. And I don’t blame you for grasping for straws.” Andy puts the ledger away and pulls Miranda into her arms. Feeling rigid at first, Miranda then melts into Andy, pulling her legs up under her. “We’ll figure it out. We’re going to run our errands in the morning and also visit the library. Why don’t we order room service and then catch up on some sleep? It’s been a long day.”
“It has.” Miranda seems reluctant to move. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this…lost? It’s as if I know exactly what to do one minute, and flailing the next.”
“I mostly flail. What I do know is that we need to eat. Let me order us something.” She kisses the top of Miranda’s hair and walks over to the desk that holds the binder with the menu and the phone. Miranda sounds uninspired when ordering her food, but Andy’s relieved that she’s going to eat at all, as it appears Miranda has reached some limit. Hopefully, it’s temporary. They’ll need to be able to focus tomorrow.
After their meal, Andy rolls her shoulders, so tired she’s aching all over. “I’m going to get a hot shower before bed.” She eyes the king-size bed, thinking it’s a good thing she’s exhausted. That way, she’ll fall asleep instantly and not pine for Miranda half the night.
“Go ahead.” Miranda is tapping on her burner phone, some of her focus back after the meal, apparently.
The bathroom is beige and white. The only pop of color is the small bottles containing shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and body lotion. They sit on the counter, a bright aqua. Instead of a bathtub, which is the norm in most American hotel bathrooms that Andy’s seen, there is a large glass shower stall. She gets the water running and soon the steam fills the bathroom. Undressing, she washes her underwear with hand soap, removes some towels from the rack, and hangs her bra and panties to dry. Andy steps into the shower and closes her eyes as the warm water pounds at her shoulders. She moans and tips her head back. Feeling the spray hit her face and soak her hair. She’s brought the small bottles with her and now she starts by lathering her hair. The scent is pleasant, on the fruity side, and she is just about to flip open the lid to the body wash when she hears Miranda’s voice.
“I’m exhausted, Andrea. Mind if I join you?”
Continued in part 29
Miranda can hear Andrea gasp through the mist in the shower stall. She certainly likes her water quite hot, which Miranda normally doesn’t, but right now, she can’t care less. All she wants is to get out of her clothes, shower, and curl up in bed. At least, that’s what she tells herself, because when Andrea has to clear her voice twice before responding.
“S-sure. Um. If you’re sure.”
“I am.” Was she? Was she really?” Miranda undresses, only now noticing Andrea’s underwear on the towel rack. Miranda has a couple of changes in her go-bag, but still washes her cotton panties and bra up as well. It gives her a moment to compose herself.
When she’s done, she cautiously opens the door to the shower stall and steps inside.
“Careful,” Andrea says huskily and extends a hand. “It’s more slippery than what’s advisable.”
Miranda takes the proffered hand and then she’s standing very close to Andrea’s naked body. Curvaceous, with full breasts, a flat stomach, and beautiful hips, she’s shimmers from soap and running water. Her long hair is glued to her shoulders and back. “God, you’re beautiful,” Miranda says before she even realizes she intends to speak at all.
Andrea’s gaze feels like hands as it runs all over Miranda’s body. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” Andrea murmurs.
This is when Miranda knows that stepping into the shower with Andrea is going to be the best—and the worst—thing she’s ever done. She frees her hand from Andrea’s steadying grip and wraps it around her waist. She tugs Andrea to her, gently, so neither of them slips. She was correct. Andrea is coated with soap. It accentuates every part of her that is now pressed against Miranda. The glorious breast, soft and firm, and with hard, wine-colored nipples, flatten some against her. Andrea’s arms are now around Miranda’s neck. They both moan as their bodies glide against each other, breasts cushion each other, and stomach muscles tremble where they press together.
Andrea fumbles to her left, and Miranda notices vaguely how she finds a handlebar and anchors them by gripping it. Miranda knows what she needs now and she cups Andrea’s cheeks and finds those full lips with her own. Standing under the spray of water, they kiss as if it’s the first time, but also as if they’ve been starving for each other for years. And perhaps they have because Miranda can’t remember ever feeling this way about anyone else. She slips her tongue into Andrea’s mouth and is met by its counterpart. The exploration, the caresses, make Miranda whimper. She presses Andrea to the wall where the handlebar is located. “Hold on, darling,” she whispers and feels how Andrea moves her free hand to grab onto the bar.
“What are you going to do?” Andrea says huskily.
“I need to touch you and I don’t want you to fall,” Miranda says and runs her hands over Andrea’s arms. She maps the skin and then move up, across the collarbones, and down over Andrea’s breasts. Miranda weighs them in her hands, feeling the nipples grow impossibly harder. Andrea tips her head back against the tiled wall, and now it’s her turn to whimper.
“Yes.” Andrea arches against Miranda. “Oh, yes.”
Bending, Miranda takes Andrea’s left nipple into her mouth. The water has thankfully washed away the soap and left is only the clean taste of Andrea. She flattens her tongue against the puckered surface, and it’s as if a current goes through Andrea who jerks and moves as if to push more of herself into Miranda’s mouth. Cupping the breast from underneath, Miranda lifts it for easier access. Using her other hand, she finds the unattended nipple and rolls it between her fingers.
“Ah!” Andrea cries out and wraps a leg around Miranda’s hips. “Oh, God.” Her voice echoes in the shower stall.
Taking advantage of Andrea’s position, Miranda lets go of the right nipple and slides her hand down between them. Slowly, she pushes it between Andrea’s legs, cupping her. “May I?”
“Yes…” Andrea trembles so much now, it is really starting to get a bit dangerous, as it is quite slippery. Miranda kisses the nipple she’s been licking and lets go of it.
“Will you change your mind if I suggest we continue this where we won’t risk our necks?” She draws the tip of her tongue along Andrea’s lower lip.”
“As long as you don’t change your mind…I think I’ll die if you do,” Andrea says.
“Oh, I won’t.” She would die too, longevity or not.
Miranda washes her hair and nearly loses her resolve when Andrea spreads body wash over her skin and seems adamant to not mis a single spot. Once they’ve rinsed off, Miranda pulls some bath towels into the shower, wrapping one around Andrea and the other around herself. After kissing Andrea again, she takes a smaller towel and wraps it around Andrea’s long hair. She doesn’t care about her own.
Miranda is glad she turned off all the lamps but one nightstand lamp before she walked into the bathroom. It creates a cozier mood, and she may have huffed at such a sentiment before, but now, with Andrea, it matters.
Andy reaches the bed first. When Miranda comes closer, Andy unfolds her bath towel and begins drying Miranda’s shoulders. She kisses each part she just dried off, and when she reaches Miranda’s breasts, she finds herself aching with need. Settling for kissing them chastely, she avoids the hard, pink nipples, and Miranda groans, sounding aroused and frustrated at the same time. Andy keeps drying Miranda until she eventually is kneeling before her.
“Spread your legs,” Andy says quietly.
Miranda separates her feet and Andy looks hungrily at the sparse tuft of silver strands at the apex of Miranda’s thighs. They barely cover the now swollen folds.
“May I?” Andy asks, much like Miranda did in the shower.
“Yes.” Miranda’s voice is barely audible.
Andy rakes her blunt nails through the pubic hair and lets her index fingers follow the crack between the folds. The dampness has another viscosity and Andy can’t hold back a moan at the thought of Miranda being this wet—because of her.
“Why don’t you lay down?” Andy stands. All she can think of now is how she wants Miranda underneath her on the bed—legs spread.
Miranda climbs onto the bed and Andy can clearly see how she’s shaking. It’s amazing how they respond to each other. As Andy quickly squeezes water out of her hair with the towel, she watches how Miranda gracefully moves onto the pillows and bends one leg at the knee, and lets it fall to the side.
“Oh…” Letting both her towels fall to the floor, Andy joins Miranda, parting her legs with hers. She lowers herself down onto her elbows, and now her mouth is all over Miranda’s breast. She moves back and forth between the two nipples, licking, tugging with her lips, and when Miranda whispers, “Bite me,” she does just that. Carefully, she tugs at the rigid flesh and Miranda begins to squirm.
“Yes. Like that,” Miranda says between gasps. “With your teeth.”
Andy pushes Miranda’s breasts together and is lost in the sensation of licking, kissing, and gently biting. When the nipples are more red than pink, she relents, despite Miranda’s objections, and continue her exploration after making a detour to Miranda’s mouth.
Nudging the slender thighs apart, Andy shoulders her way in between them, looking up at Miranda the entire time. Miranda has placed one more pillow behind her. Andy parts the glistening folds with her fingers and has time to think “This is making love,” before she lets her tongue plunge inside. Working it up to Miranda’s clit and back down to her entrance, she can feel the muscles in Miranda’s legs go rigid and tighten around her.
“Andrea!” Miranda is keening her name now. “Andrea, Andrea…”
Andy wants Miranda to come. She flattens her tongue against the swollen clit after pushing the hood up with her thumb. This makes Miranda push her hips off the bed. Andy starts flicking her tongue over her clit, faster and faster.
Miranda cries out, pulls her legs up, only to push with her feet against the mattress, raising them both off the bed. Andy is on her knees, her tongue still against Miranda, still working her.
Shaking, Miranda slumps back, but then Andy can feel something new happening. Wetness coat Miranda’s thighs and Andy’s cheeks when Miranda comes again. Now she whimpers and sounds half panicked and Andy finds it’s her cue to crawl up Miranda’s body and take her in her arms.
Miranda hides her face against Andy’s neck, whimpering, trembling, and gasping for air.
“Shh.” Andy rocks her gently. “That good, huh?”
“L-lethal.” Miranda pressed firm kisses against Andy’s shoulder. “You’re perfectly lethal, Andrea.” Her voice is unsteady and she’s shaking, but nonetheless, she seems on a mission. Reaching around Andy, she grabs her ass and squeezes her. Not hard, but hard enough.
“Oh.” Andy presses her hips against Miranda’s.
“Beautiful.” Miranda moves fast and Andy ends up on her stomach with Miranda on top. “Stunning.” Massaging Andy’s ass with both hands now, Miranda pushes one knee, then both, between Andy’s legs. “And wet.”
So, Miranda talks during sex. Andy knows she’s in trouble. Her clit has been on fire ever since Miranda came. It will probably only take one caress and she’ll go off like a rocket. Andy doesn’t want that, but this doesn’t keep her hips from moving, pressing her pubic area against the mattress.
“Oh, no.” Miranda pushes a hand in between Andy’s legs, pressing her palm against her and moving it in slow circles. “This is mine, wouldn’t you agree?”
Andy can only groan something resembling a yes. It’s as if she can see herself and Miranda from a distance and the fact that Miranda is nearly taking her from behind, makes Andy’s hips begin to buck against the slick palm of Miranda’s hand.
“Take me,” Andy whispers huskily. She wants Miranda to fill her up and claim her.
“You are certain?” Now it’s Miranda’s turn to sound out of breath. And even shocked?
“Then turn around.” Miranda moves to the side as Andy clumsily rolls over.
“And spread your legs for me.” Miranda runs a finger down Andy’s right leg.
Hearing how Miranda repeats Andy’s words from when she dried her off, makes her moan as she complies.
Miranda moves back in between Andy’s legs. She draws circles with her fingertips along the inside of Andy’s thighs, bypasses her folds, and continues up to her trembling stomach. Andy tries not to show how desperate she is, but of course, Miranda knows. She smiles down at Andy as she slowly slides two fingers into the wetness. Her smile fades and her mouth falls open. “Oh, fuck. You’re so…wet. Where do you need me?”
“In-inside.” Andy gasps.
Miranda doesn’t hesitate. She slips at least two fingers into Andy and immediately curls her fingertips up toward Andy’s stomach. Picking up a steady pace, she presses firmly against that elusive spot. Shocked at how fast her orgasm begins, first as small waves and soon like full-blown convulsions, Andy fumbles for Miranda.
Leaning against her elbow, Miranda starts to rub herself against Andy’s hip at the same pace as she pushes her fingers. She keeps the same pace and the first orgasm morphs into the second.
“Andrea! Oh!” Miranda cries out and pushes her pubic bone hard against Andy, undulating as she arches. “God…”
Andy’s heart is hammering so hard, she can barely hear anything else, but she has her arms around Miranda and can feel the fingers that took her so well, slowly withdraw. Andy pushes the damp, white hair from Miranda’s face and kisses her with all the tenderness she feels.
“I don’t know about you,” Miranda says after clearing her throat, “but I didn’t expect that.”
“Which part?” Andy nuzzles Miranda’s temple.
“I mean, I thought there’d be passion. I knew that. I didn’t know it’d feel as if I’d been dropped into a volcano.”
“Is that your way of saying we were on fire?” Andy smiles.
“Fire is not enough. Lava.”
“You have a point. And I knew there’d be passion too, but the lava was…a surprise.”
“Exactly.” Miranda shifts and groans again. “So was finding muscle groups I haven’t tapped into before.”
Andy can feel her own muscles ache. “Mm-hm.”
They settle into an exhausted and content silence and after a while, Miranda pulls the duvet around them, without letting go of Andy. As the exhaustion is getting the better of them, Andy closes her eyes. She hears Miranda turn off the last lamp.
As Andy is nearly asleep, she feels Miranda move to lay behind her. After getting comfortable, she wraps an arm around Andy and nuzzles her neck. “Sleep well, Andrea.”
“You too.” Andy manages to slur the words before she falls asleep.
Continued in part 30
A/N: I have never been to any library in Geneva - come to think of it - I haven't even been to Switzerland, so I took some real liberties with it. :-)
Walking into the vast library on Promenade des Bastions 1 with Andrea, Miranda finds herself doing yet another double-take when looking in Andrea’s direction. She can’t get over the change in her appearance. Gone are the young woman she has made love with repeatedly during the night, as they both completely disregarded how tired they were. Miranda easily confesses that on her part, it was also both because of a deeply felt need and a knowledge that the night in Andrea’s arms, will be the only one.
Now, in the early afternoon, after all their errands and a beeline back to the hotel to change into their new clothes, Andrea looks nothing like the girl who applied for an internship a while back. Next to her, dressed in an expensive trouser suit over an emerald green blouse, carrying a bougie looking tote bag, walks this auburn-haired beauty, wearing impeccable smokey-eye makeup.
“You’re staring,” Andrea smiles, but doesn’t turn her head.
“Can you blame me? I barely recognize you.” Miranda stops by an information board and begins to look for the newspaper archives.
“That’s the point, right? And you should talk.”
Miranda recognizes that Andrea has a point. Miranda hasn’t colored her hair but wears it in an austere, combed back do. For her clothes, she has changed her style to a more conservative look. Gone are her boots and leather messenger bag. Instead, she too wears a suit and carries a Samsonite briefcase. Where Andrea holds a high-end brand poncho over her arm, Miranda has settled for merely unbuttoning her trench coat.
A librarian guides them to the area that holds computers and even some of the older microfilm scanners, and they sit down together in the booth, Andrea by the computer and Miranda next to her. She pulls out the ledger and places it next to the computer. Opening the page to the McLeod page, she turns to Andrea who has used their temporary guest card to log in.
“This is the latest name I have for Iris. Anneliese Munck.” She taps the page.
“When did she die?” Andrea pulls up a list of newspapers.
“When Rosalee told me, it had been twelve days ago, according to her. Why don’t you set the date parameters to between five to three weeks ago?”
Andrea typed fast. “Done. She said accident, right?”
“Accidental death in the Suisse alps. Could be skiing, car crash, anything, really.”
“All right. Let’s cast a wide net and see what we find.” Andrea kept typing and then pressed enter. “Not much reported about skiing, but I would imagine they can’t report every time someone breaks a leg. Several vehicular accidents during this time. And…oh. Here. Fifteen days ago there was an avalanche. It surprised the drivers coming out of a tunnel and there was a pileup. Let’s check out that.”
Miranda leaned closer as Andrea pulled up articles of the accident that took two lives and injured several others. “Two women died. Does it say what ages? Anything?”
“Hang tight.” Scrolling down, Andrea murmured. “One lady was a backseat passenger and a mother of small children. God. The other was the alone in her car.”
“That could be her.” Miranda rubbed her neck.
“Let’s look at the obituaries,” Andrea said, typing in new commands. “If she had a family…I mean, she must’ve had someone to miss her.”
“One would hope.” Miranda grips the backrest of Andrea’s chair, as unwelcome thoughts of how many times in her life, she has wondered if anyone would ever truly miss her—and why. She shakes them off when Andrea stops scrolling and taps the screen.
“Anneliese Munck. The date is correct if it was twelve days ago, plus the four since Rosalee told you. Her burial was…hey, is, tomorrow.” Wide-eyed, Andrea turned to Miranda. “Which we should attend.”
Miranda blinks, her mind has stalled on details in the obituary and she’s not quite able to follow. The obituary speaks of a husband. It lists a long row of family members and friends. How can this be? How can Iris, sweet and soft as far as Miranda remembered her, have broken the Amaranthine law like this?
“What? Oh. Yes. You’re right, of course.”
“What’s going on in your mind right now? You’re pale.” Andrea takes Miranda’s hand that's is resting on the McLeod page of the ledger, in hers.
“I got sidetracked about the details. Her blatant disregard for the rules…the law…we set. Makes me wonder what happened to the timid young girl who was the last to protest or stand her ground. See? Married. Family.” Realizing she sounds stark and offended, Miranda squeezes Andrea’s hand too hard, but Andrea doesn’t even blink.
“She may have fallen heads over heels. Or she may have felt enough time had passed. That she felt safe enough.”
“And clearly that was an error in judgment.” Miranda lets go of Andrea. “I’m sorry.”
Andrea capture’s Miranda’s hand and kisses it gently. “This is hard for you.”
Miranda nearly chuckles at the understatement but settles for nodding. “You’re right. Is there a number to the funeral home?”
Andrea holds her gaze for a moment, but then finds the phone number at the bottom of the obituary. Miranda finds her burner cell and dials. A male voice answers politely in German. Miranda replies in the same language. “Guten Tag, mein Name ist Moira Parker, ich möchte gerne meine Teilnahme am Gedenkgottesdienst für Anneliese Munck anmelden.”
The man is polite and asks a few follow-up questions about how many are in Miranda’s party and if they will participate in the gathering after the funeral, which is taking place at the Munck residence. Miranda tells him there will be two of them and that they indeed want to join the family gathering. She takes notes of time and the addresses to the church and Iris’s home, feeling a pang of guilt as she does, but tells herself, Iris would have understood.
“I don’t speak much German, but I got the gist of it,” Andrea says after Miranda disconnects.
“Feels weird to crash a funeral like this, but I don’t see what other choices we have.” Leaning back in her chair, Andrea sighs. “I can tell you feel the same way.”
Miranda merely nods.
“Do you think there was foul play behind her death?” Andrea chews her lower lip. “I mean, the timing is suspect if nothing else.”
“I do. Not sure how, or why, or even if this old idea of Trudy and Caroline somehow surviving the hanging can be applied to this, but we have to figure it out.”
“The tone in your voice when you say their names speak volumes.”
Miranda scoffs. “That’s putting it mildly.” She rubs her neck again. The stress is making her muscles clench up and turn into knots. “Not that I should throw the first stone. I wasn’t much better than them for a long time.”
“How do you mean?” Her voice gentle, Andrea caresses the back of Miranda’s hand, her gaze unwavering.
“They were reckless. I was too, in the beginning. I displayed a blatant disrespect for my own life. Knowing that there were very few—if any—consequences, to how I chose to live my life, I pushed the boundaries. Normally, knowing your days are numbered, self-preservation sets in.”
Andrea pulls up a knee and hooks her free arm around it, resting her chin against her kneecap. She’s entirely concentrated on Miranda and her laser-focus settles something inside and makes it marginally easier for Miranda to speak. To explain.
“When we are young, life seems endless, almost. Certainly, old age seems far away. The older we get, the more people we lose, well, that reminds us of our own inevitable demise. It makes us value each moment—or it should. At least it keeps most of us from doing foolhardy things and brings self-preservation to the forefront. Now, enter a bunch of little girls from a ship in 1769. We all get seriously ill. Our parents let the ship’s priest give us the last rites. We are dying. And then we’re not. We all recover and live on. And on and on. When I, and the other girls, put two and two together, which naturally took us decades, nothing much changed at first. But then it did, for me. I was immensely reckless for a long time. Perhaps I was challenging my fate, testing the ‘immortality’ in a manner of speaking. I drank too much, I took lovers left and right, I gambled, stole, went to prison, you name it. I disrespected myself and worse, the people around me.” Her voice so raw now, it hurts to speak, Miranda fully expects Andrea to recoil. She doesn’t.
“What changed?” Andrea asks quietly.
“It wasn’t just one thing. It started when I found out my sister had passed at the age of ninety-one. She had lived a full life and left four children, sixteen grandchildren, and fifty-two great-grandchildren. This made me take stock. What did I have to show for my eternal youth? I was seventy-five and looked twenty. I attended her funeral and her oldest son, Laurence, somehow realized who I was. I was ready to bolt, but his reaction wasn’t based on fear, anger, or hatred, but in compassion. He pulled me aside and told me how much Corinne had regretted the shunning of me—and also of the rest of the girls—that had taken place when it became obvious, we weren’t aging. Among her children, he was the one she had confided in. Trusted to know the truth, I suppose. He begged me to stay in touch.” Miranda swallows, hating the tears filling her eyes, threatening to spill over. “I did until he passed away, eighteen years later. He was my last link to my family.”
Andrea’s tears are even less obedient than Miranda’s, flowing freely down her cheeks as she patiently waits for the rest of the story.
“Those decades, corresponding with Laurence, confirmed and became the basis for how I’ve lived my different lives since then. Carefully, consistently, and always looking over my shoulder.”
Andrea doesn’t offer any platitudes or sticky comments of attempted comfort, which is a relief. She merely runs gentle fingertips against the back of Miranda’s hand, showing she's listening intently.
“I don’t know the exact inner journey for the other girls from the ship, but it is safe to say that for Trudy and Caroline, it never reached the part where they ever considered their own safety or others. They notoriously flaunted their eternal youth and there should be old newspaper articles about them because of that.”
“But do you really think they can have survived the hangings? It sounds impossible. But so does a lot when it comes to your life, so who am I to argue. It clearly isn’t.” Andrea wipes her own tears away and then she gently brushes her thumbs against Miranda’s cheekbones. “So we have to dig deeper when we return to the US.” Andrea lowers her leg and then presses her lips to Miranda’s cheek. Lingers. Warmth spreads from that caress to the deep recesses of Miranda’s chest. Before Andrea, she was always cold. Now, all Andrea has to do is touch her, even in the most innocent of ways, and it is as if heat radiates in all directions from the point of the connection.
Miranda understands fully now that Andrea won’t back down when they come home to New York. She’s adamant about seeing this through with Miranda. Looking down at her ledger, Miranda reminds herself of the Amaranthine Law. She’s managed to heed it for so many years, by never straying from it, and when it comes to Andrea, she has to become even stronger in her resolve. For centuries, it has been to save herself from unspeakable pain, but now, nothing is more important to her than protecting this woman.
Continued in part 30
That evening, Andy immerses herself in the ledger. She merely places her hand on the embossed leather cover and looks over at Miranda, who doesn’t even hesitate, but nods. Miranda is by the small table, poring over a map that she got from the hotel concierge, and going online on her burner phone. Watching Miranda squint at the phone, Andy stops on her way to the couch.
“Miranda, I’m an idiot.”
Miranda snaps her head up, frowning. “Excuse me?”
“You’re killing your eyes trying to read everything off the phone. Why don’t you log onto the hotel Wi-Fi—”
“It’s not safe, darling.”
Andy nearly loses her trail of thought the term of endearment, but manages to remain focused. “I realize that. But you can use my VPN server. I use it back home and it’s one of the best. Anyway, that means you can use your tablet without the hassle of using your phone as a hotspot.”
Miranda smiles now. “I’ll gladly accept.” She pulls out her ten-inch tablet and boots it. Andy walks over and enters her password.
“There. You should automatically be logged in as soon as you have Wi-Fi access.”
“Oh, this is better.” Miranda goes into a browser and seems to forget about Andy standing right next to her. As Andy picks up the ledger again, Miranda’s hand shoots out and takes Andy’s by the wrist. “Thank you.”
Andy bends and presses her lips to the top of Miranda’s hair before heading over to the couch. Curling up in the corner closest to the window, she opens the ledger to the journal section. The handwriting changes slowly, and when Andy reaches the time around the hanging of Trudy and Caroline, it is far easier to read. She only skimmed over the passages about Caroline and Trudy’s executions, as she had already gone over that, but as she turned the frail pages, she came upon another entry that caught her eye. Here, the ink was smudged in places as if Miranda had cried while writing.
Philadelphia, December 24, 1888
I picture them, my nieces and nephews, and their children and grandchildren, especially the small ones, as they’re eagerly anticipating Christmas Day. Many of my memories of childhood are hazy, or so distant, that it is as if they belong to someone else, who kindly retold them to me. I do, however, remember my eagerness on this day, Christmas Eve, when I knew my parents were being deliberately secretive to heighten my and Corinne’s anticipation. I could barely sleep, even if I tried very hard, to make the night go faster. I listen to every footstep, trying to figure out exactly who put the presents out in the night. This was before the tradition of Christmas stockings or the Christmas tree, of course. My parents put our presents by the fireplace and that’s where Corinne and I sat and opened them, while having our oatmeal and hot tea. Mother would on this special morning put extra sugar in our oatmeal and if she could find it in the mercantile, some cinnamon sticks, for flavor.
My most precious present as a little girl and this was our first Christmas in the log cabin our father built with the help of neighbors, was a doll my mother made. Her body was sown of scrap fabric, and I found out later, one of Mother’s blouses that she cut to pieces for the doll’s dress and undergarments. Her hair was made of yarn, and this I believe came from one of my father’s old socks that she pulled apart, attached to the doll’s head, and combed until it looked like angel hair. Mother worked on the doll, whom I named Clarice, in the bad light from the candlelight, as soon as I was in bed. At the same time, she sowed a new dress for Corinne, also from an old dress of her own.
I loved Clarice. She proved to me that my strict and sarcastically inclined mother loved me. Not that I truly doubted it, but after the incident with the illness on the ship, I harbored a fear that my parents’ feelings toward me would change. It did, to a degree, but not in a way that truly mattered. They never berated me for the slow progression of my aging. They defended me against anyone who ventured a hostile opinion. And it was because of that, as they grew older, that I had to leave. I had to protect them from the onslaught of accusations and questions about my person.
I didn’t tell them or Corinne of my plans. I had saved up enough to take the stagecoach to New York where I planned to disappear into the anonymous crowd. I left them a letter. I’m afraid a rather lengthy and nostalgic letter that I fear must have upset more than reassured them.
Now that they’re gone and the only one left who knows the truth about me is gone for more than a quarter of a century. Why is it that it strikes me tonight, this year when so much time has gone by? Is it because, for the first time since the passing to our new and bright shining future ended in a way nobody could ever have foreseen, two of us have died? The sisters, Trudy and Caroline, were hung, and witnesses confirmed their deaths. And here I sit on Christmas Eve, coming close to wishing it was me who was laid to rest next to my parents, my sister, and her oldest, Laurence. I do leave that up to my maker. This is a private vow that I’ve once and for all made.
Again, my thoughts drift to the small group of houses that protect Corinne’s family. They’re hardworking, good people, but I have to admit, I don’t know them. If they come across any of my letters to Laurence, though I implored him to burn them, I hope they think they’re the ramblings of some stranger. I doubt anyone in that small Maine town remembers me, or the rumors about me.
Here, there’s a ink spot that makes Andy think Miranda stopped to consider her words.
But there is also a risk that if they do, they’ll make the connection with the rumors about Trudy and Caroline Jenkins. It’s enough of a risk, at least, to make me stay away. And what could I possibly say that makes sense to them, should I attempt a visit. Perhaps one day, once the speculations about the sisters have died down, I might visit my hometown incognito.
And now it just dawns on me. If I wait long enough, I can go back as Sarah Duncan, and nobody would be the wiser. I just have to learn to face facts.
I am once and for all erased from history in a way that’s even more efficient than death.
Andy’s chest caves in and she wants to rush over to Miranda and reassure her this is no longer true. That it never was. A voice inside keeps her from moving, telling her to calm down. They have more urgent matters to handle than this right now.
After another hour, Andy stretches, having to almost shake her head to shift out of the world Miranda’s journal has taken her to. Reading about her struggles and triumphs has been inspirational, heartbreaking, and Andy thinks the red thread throughout this part of the ledger, is how resilient and passionate Miranda has managed to remain. The fact that she’s done so amidst loneliness and bouts of depression, clenches Andy’s heart.
“I’m done,” Miranda says from the table, putting down her tablet. “Are you hungry?”
“Not really. I ate too much when we ordered room service.” Andy stands up. “Good timing, I’ve read a lot and I need to…process.”
“Oh? Miranda pushes the chair away from the table and leans back. “Something in particular?”
“Why don’t I mull it over before we discuss?” Andy walks over to Miranda and steps between her and the table, leaning against it. “You ready for bed?” she murmurs.
Miranda colors faintly and stands. Stepping in between Andy’s legs, she cups her cheeks and kisses her lips. “I have been ready for quite some time.”
Andy feels her own cheeks warm now and Miranda clearly notices and chuckles quietly, deep in her throat. Then she slides her lip along Andy’s neck, nipping lightly only to soothe the almost-sharp sensation with her tongue. “If you only knew how much I have thought of doing this. Despite everything, this…” Miranda captures Andy’s earlobe and tugs at it gently with her teeth. “Like this. Tasting you.”
Andy eventually regains control of her muscles and wraps her arms around Miranda. “Glad it’s not just me.” And relieved that, despite her words at the library, Miranda’s not rejecting her. Yet. Forcing that last little word out of her mind, as thinking about it will surely be a slide down a shoot to perpetual heartbreak, Andy wraps her legs around Miranda and kisses her. Deep, probing, the kisses are of the best kind. Just wanting to taste, caress, and lose herself in the sensation of being the sole focus of this amazing, beautiful woman.
“Andrea…” Miranda’s voice offers benediction, so soft, husky and filled with enough pent up emotions to bring far too much hope to Andy. Hope that Miranda will realize how amazing and unique this is.
“I’m here.” Andy parts her legs and Miranda’s hand is there, right at the junction, cupping her. “Ah!” Andy tips her head back, arching against Miranda who bends and closes her teeth around Andy’s left nipple, through the thin layers of fabric.
Miranda moans and the reverberations travel through Andy’s entire body. Suddenly, her clothes are stifling her. Her skin is as sensitive as if flames are licking her body and Andy is grateful when agile fingers are unbuttoning the blouse and pulling it off her. Miranda continues by unzipping Andy’s suit trousers and wrapping an arm around Andy’s waist, she tugs her up enough to shove the trousers down. Andy kicks them off her stocking clad feet, glad she’s wearing thigh-highs.
“Sweet Jesus,” Miranda gasps, and her hands are back between Andrea’s thighs. “So hot.”
“Right…there.” Andy leans back on her hands, her legs spread wide. She’s still wearing her panties, but that doesn’t stop Miranda who eases them aside. She pushes one hand under Andy’s bra and merely pushes it up above her breasts. At the same time, her fingers of her other hand finds their way in between Andy’s folds, feverishly searching and finding her clit.
“Yes. There.” Miranda’s narrowed eyes make her look entirely focused as she locks her gaze on Andy while starting maddening caresses. She fondles Andy’s breasts, one at a time, tormenting her erect nipples until they’re a deep red and screaming for Miranda’s mouth. Andy can barely focus on the onslaught of pleasure when Miranda’s other hand rolls her clit, lets go to dip into the moisture, only to return and start all over again. Over and over, she does this, keeps Andy on the precipice, until she’s sobbing.
“Please…” Andy can barely speak. Her arms can’t hold her up much longer.
“You never have to beg with me. Just tell me what you want,” Miranda says, breathing so fast now, she’s trembling.
“I’m so close.” Andy tries to put her need into words. “Go…inside.”
Miranda shifts her stance and moves closer. “Hold onto me.” She abandons Andy’s over-sensitized breasts and wraps her arm around Andy’s shoulders. Positioning her fingers at Andy’s entrance she goes inside. Slowly, and with enough fingers to make it burn in the best of ways. Andy wraps her arms and legs around Miranda, grateful to change position, and the closeness is really all it takes. Chest to chest, Miranda fully clothed and Andy in complete disarray, they kiss as Miranda starts moving her hand, faster and faster. She’s hitting all the right nerve-endings, and her thumb intermittently strokes Andy’s clit. Andy's world shrinks down to hosting only her and Miranda and how they're feeling right now. The pleasure, the way they move against each other, taste each other...nothing can compare to this.
And then she comes. Andy clings to Miranda and hides her scream against the damp, fragrant skin on Miranda's neck. She convulses, jerks, and inside her, the contractions pull Miranda’s fingers further in until Andy is spent.
“My God,” Miranda gasps, holding Andy tight. It’s impossible to judge who’s doing most of the trembling. They’re both shaking and Andy can tell, as she slowly calms down a little, that Miranda is so turned on, sweat’s beading on her temples and upper lip.
“So good,” Andy manages as her breathing is less labored. “And…my turn.”
“What?” Miranda looks up, glassy-eyed, and clearly unable to let go.
Andy shifts and turn them around. She makes sure Miranda is perched against the table, since there is simply no time for them to move to the bedroom, yet. Unzipping Miranda’s trousers, she does what Miranda did earlier and pushes them off her. She kneels before Miranda, who is still wearing her leather boots and helps her out of them, and the trousers. Single-mindedly, Andy pulls off Miranda’s panties and tosses them on the chair next to her.
Still kneeling, Andy smiles up at Miranda. “Open your legs for me.” She doesn’t make it an order, despite the words, more of a strongly desired request, but Miranda responds immediately and does as Andy asks. Without hesitation, Andy parts the folds with her hands and buries her mouth over the swollen clit that protrudes enough for her to wrap her lips around it. Caressing Miranda’s thighs gently, Andy makes sure Miranda knows she’s not going to stop until Miranda has come—or tells her too—whichever happens first.
“Andrea!” Miranda buries her fingers in Andy’s hair. She undulates against Andy, keening unintelligible words until she grows rigid. “Oh!”
Andy feels the pulsations and softens the way her tongue glide and flicks over Miranda’s rock hard clit. Eventually, as Miranda’s knees look like they’re losing cohesion, she stands, finding herself rather wobbly as well, and hugs Miranda close. “I have you.”
“You…sure do,” Miranda says, clutching at Andy. “Don’t let go.”
The last words pierce Andy's soul and fill her with tenderness at the same time. “I won’t,” she whispers and wonders if Miranda hears the resolve and sacred promise in her voice. “I won’t let go.”
Continued in part 32
A/N: Talk about death and funerals.
The drive to the north side of Lac Léman to Montreux, where the funeral is held, takes exactly one hour and forty-seven minutes. Miranda knows this as Andrea’s driving and she has very little else to do but check the time. Around them, the beautiful scenery of the lake and the Suisse landscape should attract some of her attention, but her mind only goes inward right now.
Miranda remembers the shy little timid girl that was Iris. How she clung to her mother’s skirts, how the raucous laughter of the men aboard the ship made her shrink and hide. How this child, later an ethereally beautiful woman, could survive the illness that tore through small bodies as if they were set aflame. But she did. She lived on to be almost two-hundred and fifty years old, only to have her life snuffed out by a car crash caused by an avalanche. Miranda balls her hands into fists, forcing herself to breathe calmly.
Apparently, this doesn’t escape Andrea who places a hand on Miranda’s left. “You’re nervous?”
“No.” Miranda wills the muscles around her jaws to relax enough to make it possible for her to speak. “Furious.”
“How she died. I’ve been injured in my life. On a few occasions, so badly, the physicians deemed it impossible for me to recover. How can a car crash injure Iris so badly that she doesn’t recover? Trust me, we’re not easy to kill, us girls from the ship.”
“What does it take?” Andrea asks quietly, her hand shaking now.
Miranda loathes this subject but realizes that going to a funeral for someone who is her peer, brings it center stage. “As there are only two of us left, that we know, obviously death is possible. Decapitation. Exsanguination. And gorier imagery that I won’t disgust you with.”
“I can…imagine.” Andrea swallows audibly but keeps her hand on Miranda’s. “Is this why you think hanging may not have been enough when it comes to Trudy and Caroline?”
“It’s a theory.”
They continue in silence for the next few miles. Then Andrea squeezes Miranda’s hand and runs her thumb over her knuckles. “Did you mean it…last night?”
Miranda blinks as the question takes her off guard and she’s not sure what Andrea means. “Excuse me?”
“Did you mean it when you asked me not to let go? Or was that…sort of in the moment?” Andrea’s tone is matter of fact, but the fine tremors in her hand show she’s not.
Miranda doesn’t know how to respond. No, that’s not correct. She knows exactly how she wants to reply to Andrea’s brave question but that’s not the same thing. A quick glance at the stunning, temporarily auburn-haired woman next to her, makes it impossible to lie. “I shouldn’t mean it.” Miranda’s not prepared to say more, but she can tell from how the tension around Andrea’s mouth relaxes, that she understands. Miranda wonders if Andrea also realizes that it’s a non-answer. Probably.
They find the church, which is beautiful and ornate, and parking doesn’t pose a problem. Together with Andrea, Miranda enters the building, and they find seats among the multitude of attendees. In front of the altar, Iris’s casket, white and adorned with white carnations, pink roses, peach tulips, sits. The color scheme is springlike, rather than wintery, which perhaps speaks of her taste, or maybe of her family’s preferences.
After a while, the organist starts playing and the ceremony commences. Miranda listens to the priest while stealthily scanning the faces in the crowd. She doesn’t recognize anyone, but she’s on age, and she trusts the instincts that she’s honed for so many years.
The priest pauses and motions toward the fire pew. “And now we’ll hear some words from Anneliese’s daughter, Camille.”
Daughter? Miranda flinches and sits up straight. Beside her, she hears Andrea gasp.
A woman in her mid-twenties walks up to the podium to the right of the casket. She is pale, her eyes watery, but she manages a wobbly smile as she smooths out a wrinkled paper before her. She gently clears her throat. “My mother, Anneliese, has to have had the gentlest soul in all of Switzerland. She never met anyone she didn’t like, or who didn’t end up adoring her. Mother could come off as very shy at first, but once you got to know her, she ended up being your best friend. Losing her has changed my life, and that of my family’s, forever, and…it is irreparable.”
Camille continues to talk about Iris, of her accomplishments, her humanity, and how she and her father had a long road ahead of them, learning to live without her.
As Camille goes back to her seat and the priest takes over, Andrea turns to Miranda, her eyes wide. “Daughter?” she mouths.
“Adopted? Miranda whispers back, shrugging.
The ceremony takes a little less than an hour and then the family and close friends begin walking out of the church. Miranda and Andrea follow among the last ones, and as they do, a man bumps into Miranda, making her stumble.
“Pardon, Madame! Je suis desolee.” The man apologizes but also grabs her arm rather brusquely.
Miranda yanks her arm free and glares at the man who dares to touch her, no matter the reason. She goes cold. This face is familiar. She can’t say exactly where she’s seen him before, but she has. Her mind is racing, but she maintains her composure as she moves along with the rest of the funeral attendees. “It’s quite all right,” she replies in French. “Think nothing of it.”
Andrea is by Miranda’s side and if looks could kill, the man would self-combust from the way Andrea’s gaze singes him.
They get out of the church without any further incident and watch as Iris’s casket is loaded into the hearse. It too is adorned with springtime flowers. Closest among the mourners, a tall, salt-and-pepper haired man stands with his arm around Camille. She’s weeping softly against his shoulder and he kisses the top of her head. This must be Iris’s husband. From the obituary, she knows his name is Mikael Munck.
Watching the hearse move to ready itself for the caravan of cars with mourners, Miranda takes Andrea’s hand. “We’ll to go the cemetery, but keep our distance. It’s enough that we’re going to infringe on this family at the house later.”
They walk back to the parking lot among the other people and wait until all the cars have left the parking lot before Andrea pulls out. Only then does Miranda realize that yet another car, a black BMW, has waited and now is right behind them. She pulls up a compact and directs the mirror to the back over her shoulder.
“I see them,” Andrea says calmly. “They drove slowly as if to let everyone else pass. I was going to let them pass, but they stopped.”
“Unsurprisingly, it’s the man who stepped into me at the church who’s behind the wheel.” Miranda snaps the compact close. “I suggest we week a little closer to the mourners than we originally planned. We can’t risk finding ourselves alone with anyone who might turn out to be the stalker.”
“Stalkers. Plural. If it’s that guy, he’s got two others with him in the car.” Andrea shakes her head. “Did we walk straight into a trap coming here?”
Miranda sighs. “Perhaps.”
Continued in part 33.
After shivering in the outer ring of the mourners around Iris’s grave, it is a relief to be indoors. The Munck residence is located in a wealthy neighborhood and with its Scandinavian interior design, it speaks of money. A fire in the double-sided fireplace warms Andy who stands to the side, watching Miranda exchange niceties with some of the other guests.
“Are you a friend of my wife’s?” A pleasant baritone voice asks in German, making Andy jump. She turns, clinging to her cup of coffee. Of course. Iris’s husband. For a startling second, Andy’s mind is blank, but then she manages a smile. “Herr Munck.” Moving over to English, Andy continues. “I’m so sorry for your loss. And no, I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing your wife, but my friend over there did.” She motions to where Miranda stands, noticing her slight alarm.
“I see?” Munck looks at Miranda who now is walking toward them.
“You must be Mikael,” Miranda says easily in German. “I’m Moira Parker. I’m so sorry for your loss. I had hoped to one day make your acquaintance under much more pleasant circumstances.”
“Moira Parker?” Mikael blinks as he takes in her person, his gaze stopping at her briefcase. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think Anneliese ever mentioned you.”
“Our contact was sporadic, at best, but when we spoke, it was like no time had passed at all. Guess that can be the case when you’ve known each other for so many years.”
“You were childhood friends?” Mikael goes rigid and there’s a light in his eyes that wasn’t there before. This is amazing.”
Andy can’t figure out what this means. She keeps her focus on the nuances and undertones of what is being said, not wanting to miss a thing.
“How so?” Miranda asks gently.
“My Anneliese was a very private woman. The kindest, most gentle person I’ve ever met, but…secretive. To learn of a childhood friend…I have so many questions!” Mikael gestures to a door to the left of the fireplace. “Can I persuade you to join me in the library? Just for a moment. I’ve greeted all the guests and, to be honest, I need a little break.” He did look exhausted and the blue semi-circles under his eyes spoke of sleepless nights and tears.
“But of course. Is it all right if my partner joins us?”
“Certainly.” Mikael motions for them to follow him. As they enter the library, Andy is impressed with the foot-to-ceiling bookshelves that line all the walls, even framing the windows. “Please. Have a seat.”
A set of four armchairs sit in front of the fireplace, which you can enjoy from this side too. Andy sits down to Miranda’s left. This puts her directly in front of Mikael Munck.
“Where did you meet Anneliese? Was it already in the US?” Mikael kindly provides Miranda with a clue about what Iris may already have told her husband.
“Yes. In a small village on the East Coast. We weren’t neighbors, but saw each other often,” Miranda says softly. “We went to church without families and any picnic, or church outing. And to school of course. I’m a year older than Anneliese, but she was very intelligent if you took the time to know her. She was shy already back then.”
“Oh, my poor darling. Yes, she was. I had to ask her our four times before she said yes, twelve years ago. She always used to say I wore her down. I suppose that’s right. It’s just…after I met her, there couldn’t be anyone else.” Mikael wipes at the corners of his eyes. “When did she leave for Europe?”
Andy holds her breath, wondering what Miranda would say. “Last time I saw her, we spoke of our futures and what we’d end up doing.” Speaking easily, Miranda’s tone tells Andy that there is some truth to what she’s saying. “I think Anneliese left the US when she was barely of age. She was set on finding a new life. Supporting herself, working toward a career before anything else.”
“That’s what I thought when I met het. She owned a set of art galleries and visited one with my daughter, Camille. Camille’s mother and I divorced when she was only two and after that it’s been the two of us until we met Anneliese. I think Camille fell in love with her at the exact same moment I did. And once Anneliese dared to trust me, the feelings were returned. She and Camille were inseparable.” Mikael reaches for a pack of tissues in his pocket and wipes his nose and eyes. “What was she like as a young girl?”
“As you say, shy. Painfully so, at times. Her father could be very strict, and I know that frightened her.”
“This correlates with how she was as a grown woman. I always wondered if there was an authoritative person in her past. Even some trauma. I suppose I may have been a coward for not asking, but it was as if she had this invisible wall around her. She gave so much of herself in other ways, it felt disrespectful and presumptuous to ask for more.”
“I’m so sorry you lost her through this horrible accident, Mikael,” Andy said softly.
His face changes as his mouth turned into a grimace. “Accident,” he growled. “I could have lived with it being an accident.”
Andy flinched. “I’m sorry. Wasn’t it an accident?”
“The police say it was, but it’s a ridiculous assumption and I finally reached out to my friend in Geneva who is a forensic expert. I demanded he'd examine her body before the funeral and he did so two days ago. He claims there is no way her seat belt could have strangled her the way it did without it being manipulated.” Mikael lowers his voice into a whisper.” She was murdered, and my friend is going to help me force the local police to finally start investigating.”
“Father.” Camille steps into the room. She’s tall, her hair a golden blond, perfectly coiffed. “Please, not today.”
“But Camille, you know it’s true. Your mother deserves justice.” Mikael’s’ eyes fill with tears.
“I know but come out to our guests. They want to talk to you, be of what comfort they can.” Camille tugs at his hand.
“All right, darling. Of course.” Mikael wipes at his eyes with his wrinkled tissue and then tosses it into a bin. “Thank you, Moira, for talking to me. And you, Andy. I’m glad at least one of Anneliese’s friends cared enough about her to come all this way.” He squares his shoulders and walks back to his guests.
“He’s right.” Camille speaks with tense, pale lips. “Mother wasn’t hit by the avalanche. A car behind her car slammed into hers, pushing her car into the one before her, but it was not a high-impact collision. And yet the seatbelt was found looped around her neck and…it was too late.”
Miranda nods slowly. “Can you think of anyone wanting to harm her?”
“My mother had no enemies.” Camille’s eyes harden. “But I think she had a stalker.”
Andy forces herself not to let her reaction show, but she sees Miranda’s hands jerk. “Did Anneliese say something about that also?”
Camille sits down and it is as if she has waited to talk about the matter of her mother’s death to someone. Perhaps it is easier for her, as Andy and Miranda are strangers. “She didn’t. And if she knew about it, she wouldn’t have. My mother kept many secrets, far more than my father ever knew.”
“But you know.” Miranda’s voice is softer yet.
“I made it my business to know.” Setting her jaw in a clear challenge, Camille looks firmly at both of them. “Before we met Anneliese, it was just my father and me. I love him and he did his best for me, but I missed my mother…or, perhaps I should say, I missed what she could have been.” She sighed. “You know when you do a jigsaw puzzle and you’re missing just one piece, the one that will make everything make sense and fit perfectly. That was Anneliese. She fit perfectly with my father and even more, I think, with me. I made it my business from the age of eight to protect her.”
Andy’s heartache for the eight-year-old, and for the young girl sitting in front of them. She could relate about the part of parents not being what you need and wish. In her case, they lived in Cincinnati, alive and well, but not ready to accept her sexual orientation or career choice. Andy wasn’t sure what hurt the most, some days. Now she saw her pain mirrored and emphasized in Camille’s eyes.
“What did you find out that led you to believe she was stalked?” Miranda asked, leaning forward.
Camille seemed relieved. Most likely because neither of them scoffed at her words.
“Her art here in Montreux was vandalized at one point. Nothing was stolen, but her office was ransacked. After that, she became what Father thought was paranoid. She bought stuff to protect herself with. You know. Pepper spray. Alarm for her keychain that could scream bloody murder if you pulled the pin. She upgraded the house alarm and insisted we should always park our respective cars in the garage, etc.” I figured, if she’s this startled, she must have a reason. Yes, my mother had an aura of being frail, but she was no fool. On the contrary.”
“And where was she going when the avalanche hit?” Miranda locks her gaze on Camille.
“Mother was on her way home from a client. She called as she was leaving and she was unusually angry…or irritated, maybe that’s a better word. After driving all the way up into the alps, bringing him the paintings to choose from as he wanted to do that in his home to get it right, he wasn’t there. She couldn’t reach him on the phone and eventually decided to drive back home.”
“And then the ‘accident’ happened?”
“Yes.” Now the tears spill over for Camille. Andy can’t take it and rounds Miranda’s chair and crouches next to Camille.
“Thank you for telling us. We believe you. We believe your father. Just so you know.” She gently strokes Camille’s arm.
“Thank you. Both Father and I have felt as if we’re going crazy. Especially since the police ruled it an accident so quickly. Which is insane as there was a witness that told the press they’d heard a rifle go off just before the avalanche. And the fact that the person who hit Mother with his car was nowhere to be found. The police spoke of how common it is for people to be so shocked after an accident that they simply walk home. In the middle of nowhere in the Alps, where an avalanche just happened.”
“Ridiculous,” Miranda says. “I agree with Andr—Andy. Your mother’s death is highly suspicious. And while there might be a new investigation, please, take it all seriously. Keep up your mother’s safety measures and don’t go anywhere alone as she did. That’s my best advice.”
Camilla gapes. “Who are you two? I mean, who are you really?”
“I did grow up near your mother. We are as eager as you to solve why and how she died. I can’t tell you more than that, I’m sorry.” Miranda shakes her head.
Camille stands. “All right. So, you’ve told us a few things but also created more questions. More secrets. Will I ever find out the whole truth about Mother?” She looks so forlorn and hurt, Andy wants to hug her.
Miranda is quiet for a few beats but then clears her throat. “If I feel the danger is over and the time’s right, I’ll return and speak with you and your father and answer as many questions as I can. This will entail the two of you keeping an open mind, but if this is what you truly want…I’ll try to accommodate.”
Camille nods slowly and then extends her hand. “Thank you for coming, Moira. Andy.” She shakes Andy’s hand as well. “I suppose it’s my time to tell you to be safe as well.”
“We’ll do our best,” Miranda says and then make her way out of the library and through the throng of mourners. They say goodbye to Mikael as they pass him on their way toward the hallway. There, she pulls on her coat and gloves before turning to Andy. “Now we just have to make sure we shake the men in the BMW. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re circling the blocks here.”
Andy follows Miranda out the door, the crisp air from the mountains filling her lungs instantly, making her gasp. “And if they catch up with us?”
“A BMW against our rental car? Let’s hope we can outsmart them because we sure can’t outrun them. You ready to keep driving, or should I?”
Andy pulls out the keys and is just about to hand them over when she detects fine tremors in Miranda’s hand. “I’ll drive. I need you on the map. You’re far better at that than I am.”
Miranda grips her briefcase harder. “All right. Shotgun it is.”
Continued in part 34
They drive back toward Geneva, but soon realize they need to stop and eat somewhere. The roadside taverna is enough out in open terrain to feel secure and Andrea pulls into the parking lot. Miranda has begun to loathe carrying around her briefcase as it isn’t as handy as her messenger bag but brings it with her as there is no way she is going to leave her ledger in the car.
Choosing sandwiches to save time, they opt for a booth in the far corner. Miranda makes sure she could see everyone coming and going, and she can tell Andrea is just as wary.
“Camille is a fantastic young woman,” Miranda says after eating in silence for a few moments. “Strong and observant. I wonder how much she truly knows.”
“Did you get the impression she was holding something back?” Andrea pulls a thick slice of cheese from her sandwich and puts it aside before taking a bite.
“I could be wrong, but what I did get was how incredibly close she was to Iris. It was as if she was the dream-stepmother, a fulfillment of a little girl’s desire for a mother. I doubt Iris broke any of the Amaranthine laws, by telling her the truth, but the girl’s not stupid. She can have sensed there was something, well, if not off, then different, at least.”
Andrea stops eating, her eyes darkening. “Do you think the stalkers will go after Mikael or Camille?”
Miranda thinks about it but then shakes her head. “What would they gain by that? The damage is done, whether it was a homicide or not. Iris is gone, if that was their goal. Still, I'm glad I urged them to be careful still.”
“Is that their goal for you? Death?” Andrea clenches her hand around her utensils, still wrapped in a napkin and Miranda doesn’t think she realizes it.
“Depends on who they are. The spookier the theory, the more dire the consequences, maybe.” Finishing her sub-par sandwich, having settled for fixing the hunger rather than having a culinary experience, Miranda pulls out her burner phone to check the time. “I think we have to go back to the US. There should still be flights available if we’re lucky. Here in Europe, we only have Iris, who’s dead, and Rosalee, who’s in hiding. If we go back home, we can try and go through records and find out how the rest of the more recent deaths happened. Before Iris, there were two more who passed in modern times, and by that, I mean, after WWI.”
“You don’t think we can find more useful information if we remain here, or go back to London, or even Paris?” Andrea is clearly not hungry anymore as she pushes the plate away, leaving a third of her sandwich.
“I can’t be sure, but logically, it seems safer as well.” Safer for Andrea, which mattered more than anything else.
“All right. Back to Geneva then. Will you get us tickets while we drive?”
“I wish I could wait until the last moment, in case they have a way of tracking bookings, but that will mean being vulnerable while waiting around at an airport.” Miranda takes her briefcase and tucks her phone into her pocket.
When they reach the car, they both study the parking lot, but it’s impossible to judge which one of several dark BMWs could be the one they saw in Montreux. Entering the car, Andrea pulls out before either of them is fully strapped in.
Back on the road, Miranda shifts in the seat, sitting half-turned toward Andrea. This way, she can keep an eye on who’s behind them. She sees no BMW, but after a short while, she frowns as another type of car, a silver metallic Mercedes, keeps a consistent distance two cars behind them.
“Change lanes and overtake a few cars.” Miranda doesn’t take her eyes off the Mercedes.
Andrea complies and weaves in and out between a few cars and speeds up. Miranda sends a quick glance at the speedometer, hoping Andrea’s not pushing it too far and thus attracting unwanted attention by traffic cops.
“I’m ten kilometers above the limit. I’ll slow down once I’ve passed this truck.” Andrea is calm and focused and now Miranda sees the Mercedes mirror their maneuver.
“That them?” Andrea asks after glancing in the outer rearview mirror. “Silver car. Mercedes?”
“Perhaps. It’s either that or they like your driving style and want to mimic it.”
“What’s our plan?”
“If we take the highway all the way into Geneva and to the airport, we tip our hand. If we exit at the nearest ramp, if it’s them, they’ll follow and we might be able to lose them. Unless they’re more of them and they have more units waiting to spot us along the highway, once we get back on again.”
“Can you find an alternative route to the airport? Or are they just as likely to have posted some lookout there, to potentially spot us? Fuck. We don’t know if this is a two-man job or if they utilize an entire army.”
Miranda smiles wryly. “Probably not an army, but perhaps more than we realize.”
“We have an hour or so before we reach Geneva. Perhaps less.” Andrea overtakes another tractor-trailer truck. So does the Mercedes and several other cars, but as some of the other cars overtake Andrea when she is back in the right lane, the Mercedes moves in behind them, again, two cars back.
Miranda pulls up the map function of her phone, rather than messing with the in-car GPS. “There’s a dense residential area coming up in a few miles. From what I see, it’s quite the labyrinth. If we’re going to be able to shake them, that’s it. Once we feel we’ve lost them, we can double back and go around the lake on the other side.” She is annoyed at herself for not thinking of this option before. It is unimaginative to use the same route back and this makes her and Andrea sitting ducks for those out to try and catch them. “It’s not this exit, but the next one.”
“Should I speed up and get to it quicker?” Andre glances over at Miranda. She’s gripping the wheel harder than normal but sounds calm.
“No. Keep the same pace, and if it’s safe, turn onto the ramp at the very last second. If they’re lulled into thinking we don’t know they’re there, they might just be too slow to react and that will buy us time.”
“All right. Be prepared, then.”
They kept going down the highway at the allowed speed, Miranda peering around the corner of her neck rest to keep an eye on the Mercedes.
“Coming up now. And there’s one car in the exit file, but they’re pretty far back. Here we go!” Andrea turns the wheel when they are already a bit too far gone, hitting the white paint describing a striped triangle on the asphalt. The wheels clatter loudly against the uneven surface.
Miranda is prepared, but still find herself tossed toward Andrea. Not wanting to push at Andrea’s arm and knock her off balance, she turns and clings to the driver’s chair’s neck rest with both hands, pushing herself away from it.
“They there? Did we lose them?” Andrea gasps as she struggles to curb a skid. Behind them, several drivers honk, understandably upset at their dangerous driving.
“Wait. I can’t see.” Miranda straightens and turns to look. Behind them is a large SUV with a couple in the front seat that is gesturing wildly at them in an unmistakable, universal way of saying ‘are you people insane’. The SUV obscures the ramp behind it and Miranda turns to try and look past the big vehicle in the right outer rearview mirror. “I can’t see them, but the way the ramp curves, I can’t be sure. Can you see anything in your mirror?”
“No. From my perspective, it’s us and the upset people behind us.”
Miranda began to slowly relax and righted herself in her seat. “Take a right at the top of the ramp. No matter what, that’s the direction we need to go in, back north, for now.”
After another hundred yards, they reach an intersection and as Andrea speeds up after turning right, a silver-tinted shadow passes them on screaming wheels and cuts them off. Not having a chance to stop in time, Andrea drives right into the Mercedes passenger door.
Continued in part 35
A/N: Thank you to my friend Annika who helped me with the sentences in German!
Andy can’t see. Something is in her eyes and she wipes furiously at them. The loud crash when she plowed into the Mercedes was been followed by a sharp sound and white dust now fills the air.
“Airbags,” she murmurs and coughs. She blinks and sees a half-deflated airbag hanging from the wheel. To her left, other airbags have deployed from the seat and in front of the side window. Flinching, she turns to Miranda, and the movement makes her neck smart. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. A look at Miranda’s slumped figure shows neither has she.
“Miranda!” Andy pulls her legs up and out from under the wheel, glad she isn’t stuck. Kneeling on her seat, she bends over Miranda. “Can you hear me?” Airbags have deployed around Miranda as well and Andy can’t see any blood. She feels along Miranda’s legs, but she doesn’t seem to be stuck either. Then Miranda moans and tips her head back.
“Careful,” Andy says and puts her arms around Miranda. Her own heart is thundering in her chest and she can feel her teeth clatter. “We hit the other car.”
“Mm. I…know. We need to get out of here,” Miranda says and then moans. “Fuck. My neck.”
“M-mine too. Careful.” Andy peers through the window and sees the two people in the car she hit trying to exit it. She has struck the passenger door and, as it turns out, pushed the other car into a lamppost, which blocks the driver’s door as well. As it was a two-door sports car, they couldn’t open them.
Miranda pulls at her door handle and to Andy’s relief, it opens. Miranda falls sideways toward the asphalt but Andy grabs her by the arm. Miranda rights herself, moves her legs out and manages to stand. “My briefcase,” she says, holding her neck with one hand and supporting herself against the door with the other.
“Got it.” Getting both their bags, Andy crawls out next to Miranda and hands her the briefcase. She casts a glance at the Mercedes, and sees one of the men, the one from the church, trying to push himself through the sunroof. “We’ve got to get out of here. Can you walk, or better, run?”
“I’m sure as hell going to try.” Miranda steps up onto the road and begins moving in the direction they meant to go.
Andy looks across the road. “Why not try for the residential area? It’s just over that divider.” She points at a raised, snow-covered area between this road and the local, residential road. “It gives us a chance to hide. They’ll catch up with us in no time if we’re out in the open.”
“All right. Let’s try that.” Miranda begins walking, but she’s obviously dizzy.
Andy takes Miranda’s arm. “Lean on me and move as fast as you can.” She pulls Miranda along, feeling horrible for yanking at her, but when the men in the Mercedes get out, they won’t stand a chance. They need to get as far away from the crashed cars as possible.
They reach the raised snowy bank and begin climbing over it. Their boots don’t gain much traction against the slippery surface and Miranda falls onto her knees twice. The second time, she can barely get up and Andy has to drag her over the top so they can slide down on the other side. The snow sends chills through Andy's trousers and she is shivering. Her hands are already numb from the cold, and perhaps from the shock of the collision. After a few frantic attempts, she manages to help Miranda to her feet. Stumbling onto the local street, Andy keeps a firm grip on Miranda’s waist and ruthlessly tugs her along.
“I…can’t…” Miranda gasps after another fifty yards, grabbing for a narrow trunk of one of the trees lining the street with her free hand. Her right hand is not letting go of her briefcase.
“You have to,” Andy begs. “Just a little longer so we can turn a corner. Get out of sight. Please!”
“Oh, God.” Miranda stumbles along for a few moments longer but then she was down on her knees again.
“Miranda!” Andy cries out and tries to pull her up, but it is as if Miranda’s legs have given in completely. “Please. Just a few more yards. Just a little longer.“ Andy feels tears of frustration and fear slide down her cheek.
The sound of a car pulling up and stopping next to them, makes Andy push Miranda in behind her, while still crouching. She stares up at the large, dark SUV, trembling in from what she realizes is mostly rage. If they’ve come to hurt Miranda, she’s not going to let them without a fight.
The front passenger door opened and a middle-aged woman jumps out. She’s tall and dressed in workout clothes.
“Oh mein Gott, wir haben gesehen was passiert ist, die haben Sie abgedrängt. Sind Sie verletzt?” the woman says, kneeling next to them. Her eyes are wide and she, like Andy, is looking back to where she and the driver of the SUV is coming from.
“Do you speak English?” Andy stands up and tries to get her arms around Miranda to help her stand.
The woman steps closer and with her help, Miranda manages to get her legs in under her and stand. She clings to Andy’s arm and to her briefcase. “Thank you,” she manages between gasps. “Are they coming? Do you see anyone after us, Andrea?”
Andy glances behind the SUV. “I don’t think so?”
“If you’re talking about the men in the other car, I think one of them was stuck.” The woman frowns. “I suggest you get in the backseat. You're shivering, both of you.” The woman opens the back passenger door. A dog, a Golden Retriever is bouncing on the seat. “Waldo! Move over!” The woman orders the dog in a firm voice and the exuberant Waldo backs up, wagging his tail.
They help Miranda inside and Waldo shows his appreciation by licking her cheek. Andy jumps in after Miranda and the woman closes the door after them. When she’s back in her seat, the man at the wheel drives off, while speaking in German to the woman.
Miranda straightens and attempts to turn around to look behind them. Instead, she flinches and stops in midmotion. “Damn. My neck. Can you see if anyone’s following?”
Andy manages, despite her sore neck to look out the back window. There are two cars in the street, but they are not hurrying to catch up with them. She can’t see the two men from the Mercedes either. “I think we’re good.” She turns forward again. “Thank you,” she says to the people in front. “You have no idea how grateful we are that you stopped.”
“We saw you pull that stunt on the highway first and I have to admit, Ulrich here cursed up a storm. Then the Mercedes overtook us, nearly forcing us off the road.” The woman shakes her head. “Ulrich said it was two men and one was holding what looked like a weapon. I thought he was seeing things, to be honest. When we came far enough to see you two speed off back north, suddenly, there was that same Mercedes again, cutting you off. It looked like a deliberate action if you ask me. When you were trying to get away, endangering yourselves by crossing the road, despite being hurt, well, we had to see if you needed help.”
“Again, thank you.” Miranda sounds calmer now and she is patting the dog next to her. “I’m Moira. This is Andrea.”
“As I mentioned, this is my husband Ulrich, and my name’s Naomi. The old boy slobbering all over you is Waldo. He’s also sharing his fur with you, as you can tell.” Naomi shakes her head. “He’s never met a woman he didn’t love.”
Miranda smiles wanly at the adoring dog. “He’s lovely.”
Andy sighs, trying to think of a new plan on the fly. “Naomi? Could we possibly impose on you to drive us to the nearest car rental or a hotel?” She turns to Miranda. “Or should we try for an uber or taxi?”
“You need a hospital, or at least, a doctor,” Naomi says, and her less talkative husband nods. “I suggest you come home with us and I’ll look you over.”
“Are you a doctor?” Andy asks.
“A vet.” Naomi grins. “But being a vet is my second career. I started out as a chiropractor.”
“We can’t impose and as you may have guessed, we are being followed by not-so-nice people.” Andy doesn’t care if she gives away too many details. She isn’t going to let their good Samaritans get into trouble because of Miranda and her.
“They were nowhere near when we picked you up. We have changed direction twice already and nobody is following us. Right, Ulrich?” Naomi doesn’t give her husband enough time to respond. “We have a guestroom with its own bathroom. And a washing machine and tumble drying. You can clean up and rest while we wash your clothes.”
Andy looked at Miranda. “You do need rest and if Naomi is a chiropractor, she can maybe take a look at your neck and mine too.”
“I absolutely can.” Naomi nodded briskly. “That’s settled, then. We’re only five minutes from our house by now.”
Knowing for certain that they just dodged a bullet again, Andy felt Miranda lean against her as Ulrich drove on. She wrapped her arm around Miranda’s shoulders, felt something warm and wet against it, and smiled, knowing without looking that she just got a stamp of approval from Waldo.
Continued in part 36