Sarah's child (Chapter 1)

Dear Reader,

My grandmother died in 1977. The reason this is significant is (hat, in handling the grief of losing her, I needed to know more about the stages of grief, the very nature of grief, so I could understand it better. I'm positive (here are guardian angels, because whenever I need to know more about something, no matter what the subject, I am suddenly flooded with articles and material about that subject I can pick up almost any magazine and find a pertinent article. It's weird, but I've stopped questioning it. I guess my guardian angel knows that, since I'm a writer, this is the best way to reach me, and the easiest way for me to understand something.

In the process of learning about grief and how it can affect you, a germ of an idea was born. This germ took several years to grow, but one day the thought was crystal clear in my head: what happens when a really strong man is dealt a blow so devastating that most people wouldn't be able to bear it? How does he bear the grief?

This is Rome Matthews' story; he's (he center of the book, because he's the man who lost his entire family. I remember, when the book first came out, some readers didn't like it because he had been attracted to Sarah even while his wife, to whom he was faithful, was still alive. To me, it shows more character for a man to remain faithful even though he does find another woman attractive, than it does if there had been no temptation. After all, it's always easier not to eat if you aren't hungry in the first place! Rome is a man of strong character, a man who is trying to deal with his pain and a man who finds the strength to love again.

Rome is a hero, and Sarah is the woman who was special enough, understanding enough, to pull him out of the darkness of his grief.

I hope you enjoy the book.

Chapter 1

It was the end of a long week, and Sarah knew that she should go home, but just the thought of facing the broiling late Au-gust heat was enough to keep her sitting in her chair with the air-conditioning humming pleasantly overhead. She wasn't working; she'd swiveled the chair around and spent the last fifteen minutes simply staring out the window, too relaxed to really care that it was getting late. The sun had dipped low enough that the Dallas array of dazzling skyscrapers of glass and steel was outlined against a bronzed sky, which meant she'd missed the six o'clock news yet again. It was Friday evening; her boss, Mr. Graham, had left over an hour before. There was no reason why she shouldn't join the mass exodus on the streets below, yet she felt reluctant to go home. She'd taken such pains with her condominium; made it as homey and comfortable as she could, but lately the emptiness of it had been haunting her. She could fill it with music, rent any movie and watch it on the VCR, lose herself in reading and pretend that she was in any other country in the world, yet she would still be alone. Lately it was becoming a state of loneliness, rather than one of solitude.

Perhaps it was the weather, she thought tiredly. The sum-mer had been hot and humid, wearing everyone down, but she knew inside that it wasn't the heat that was bothering her. It was the inevitable sensation of time slipping away, as sum-mer died once more and became another autumn. It seemed that even in the fierce heat she could feel the chill of winter in her bones. It was more than the passing of another season: it was her own youth slipping away, inexorably draining from her grasp. The years had passed, and she'd devoted her-self to her work, because there was nothing else, and now she realized that all the things she'd wanted had passed her by. She hadn't wanted riches, or material things. She'd wanted love, a husband and children, a home filled with laughter and security, the things she'd never had as a child. She'd stopped even dreaming about them, she realized, and that was the saddest thing of all. But then she'd never really had a chance: she'd fallen in love with the one man she couldn't have, and it appeared that she was one of those women who loved only once in their lifetime.

Her phone gave a muted ring, and a slight frown of puz-zlement touched her brow as she reached for the receiver. Who would be calling the office at this hour?

"Sarah Harper," she said briskly.

"Sarah, this is Rome," a deep voice said by way of identi-fication.

Her heart gave a jump and hung in her throat. She didn't need to hear his name to know who was on the other end of the line. She knew his voice as well as she knew her own, and the clipped accent that hadn't softened despite years in the south would always give him away. But she swallowed the lump, straightened her spine, and pretended this was just an-other business call. "Yes, Mr. Matthews?"

He made an impatient sound. "Damn it, don't call me that! It's all right in the office, but this… this isn't business."

Sarah swallowed again, but she couldn't say anything. Had she conjured him up? Had thinking about him produced this call? After all, it had been months since he'd said anything to her other than a polite "good morning" whenever he came into the office to talk to Mr. Graham.

"Sarah?" He was really impatient now, and his rising ire was revealed in the way he barked her name.

"Yes. I'm still here," she managed.

"I'm selling the house," he said abruptly. "I'm boxing up Diane's things…and the boys'… I'm going to give them all to the Salvation Army. But I found a box of things that Diane had kept from high school, stuff that the two of you did to-gether, pictures, and I thought you'd like to go through it. If you want any of it, you can have it. If not…"

He didn't finish the sentence, but she knew. If not, then he'd burn it. He'd take all of those memories and destroy them. She winced inside at the thought of going through the box and re-living the years she'd grown up with Diane, because the loss still hurt, but neither could she let him burn Diane's mementos. Per-haps she couldn't go through the box yet, but she'd keep it, and in later years she'd be able to take the things out and remember without too much pain, with only sadness and nostalgia.

"Yes," she said hoarsely, forcing the word out. "Yes, I want it."

"I'm about to leave now, to go to the house and finish packing. You can get the box anytime tonight."

"I'll be there. Thank you," she whispered, and he hung up, leaving her with the phone still pressed to her ear and the dial tone buzzing.

Her hand was shaking as she replaced the receiver, and sud-denly she noticed that she was no longer sitting. At some point during the conversation, tension had propelled her to her feet. Quickly she leaned down to get her purse from the lower drawer of the desk, then locked the desk and turned out the lights, locking the door behind her as she left.

It wasn't only her hand that was shaking; her entire body was quivering. Talking with Rome always did that to her. Even after years of training herself not to think about him, of not allowing herself to even dream about him, just hearing his voice had the power to reduce her to jelly. Working for the same company was bad enough; she'd even transferred to a different department so she wouldn't see him as often, but that had eventually backfired on her: He'd been promoted steadily through the ranks and was now one of the corporate vice presidents. Her position as secretary to the senior vice presi-dent threw her constantly into contact with him; the only sal-vation she'd had was that his attitude toward her was strictly business, and she'd forced herself to treat him in the same manner. What else could she do, when she'd been foolish enough to fall in love with her best friend's husband?

Even though the shadowed multilevel parking deck was at least ten degrees cooler than the street, the heat still slapped her in the face as she walked quickly to her car, a late model, low-slung Datsun 280-ZX. The car was, she feared, an ex-ample of her growing tendency to collectthings to replace the emptiness at home. All her life she'd sworn to avoid the cold hollowness of her parents' home, yet as she grew older she tried harder and harder to fill the empty places withthings. The car was gorgeous, and it got her where she was going faster than she needed to be there; she enjoyed driving it, she liked it, but she hadn't needed it. The car she'd traded in had been a good car, and it hadn't been that old.

Rather than drive straight to the house where Rome and Diane had lived, in one of the posher Dallas neighborhoods, Sarah deliberately drove to a restaurant and wiled away an hour and a half, picking at her seafood while all of her instincts screamed at her to hurry, to see Rome as soon as she could. But some part of her was reluctant to enter the house where he'd lived with Diane, where she and Diane had laughed and played with the babies. She hadn't been inside it in two years…it had been almost two years since the accident.

When her watch told her it was eight o'clock, she paid her tab and drove slowly, carefully, to the house. Her heart was pounding again, and she felt a little sick to her stomach. Her palms were damp; she clutched the steering wheel more se-curely to make certain it didn't slip in her grip.

How did she look? She hadn't checked her appearance. Her lipstick had worn off surely, but she didn't bother to replace it. With one hand she felt to see if any strands of hair had es-caped from the severe twist she wore while working, but it still felt reasonably tidy, so she sighed and forgot about it.

Rome's dark blue Mercedes was in the driveway, so she parked behind it and got out, walking slowly up the sidewalk to mount the five shallow steps and press her finger to the doorbell. The grass had been kept mowed, she noticed, and the shrubbery was trimmed. The house didn't look empty, but it was. Heartbreakingly empty.

After a moment, Rome opened the door and stepped aside to let her enter. After a brief glance at him, Sarah felt as if she'd been punched in the stomach. She hadn't expected him to be wearing a three-piece business suit, but somehow she'd forgotten how powerfully he was built, how impossibly vir-ile he looked in tight jeans. He wore track shoes, no socks, an old pair of jeans, and a white T-shirt that clung to his mus-cled torso, and he looked absolutely beautiful to her.

He glanced down at her, taking in the trim business suit she still wore. "You haven't been home yet?" he asked.

"No. I stopped to eat dinner, but I haven't gone home." It was uncomfortably warm in the house; he'd opened some windows but hadn't turned on the central air-conditioning. She pulled off her light linen jacket and started to hang it in the closet as she'd always done when visiting Diane, then caught herself and instead simply tossed it over the stairway railing. As he led the way upstairs she loosened the collar of her white tailored silk blouse and rolled the sleeves up to her elbows.

Rome paused before the doorway to the bedroom he'd shared with Diane, and his dark eyes were shadowed, his mouth grim, as he looked at the closed door. "It's in there," he said briefly. "In the closet. I'll be in the boys' bedroom pack-ing their things. Take your time looking through the stuff."

Sarah waited until he'd gone into the other bedroom be-fore she slowly opened the door and entered Diane's bedroom, turning on the light and standing for a moment looking around. Everything had been left as it had been the day of the accident. The book she'd been reading was still lying on the bedside table. Her nightgown was tossed across the foot of the bed. Rome hadn't spent a night here since Diane had died.

Sarah pulled the box out of the closet and sat down on the floor to go through the contents, tears blurring her vision as she picked up the first photograph of her and Diane together. God, if it hurt her this much to lose a friend, how did Rome feel? He'd lost his wife and two sons.

She and Diane had always been best friends, all the way through school. Diane had been a human dynamo, laughing and chattering, propelling the quieter Sarah along the way. Her blue eyes had sparkled, her honey-brown curls had bounced, and she'd infected everyone who came into contact with her with the enthusiasm for life that brightened every day for her. Oh, the plans she'd made! She was never going to marry. She was going to be a famous fashion designer and travel all over the world. Sarah's dreams had been only of a real family, one with love in it. Somewhere along the way their plans had been switched. Diane had fallen in love with a tall dark-eyed young rising executive who worked for the same company where Sarah had gotten a job, and from that moment on Sarah had known that her dream would never come true. Diane considered a glamorous career as a fashion designer well lost when she could have Rome Matthews, when she could give birth to his two adoring and adorable sons and bask in his love. Sarah quietly devoted herself to the job that was her only solace.

She'd tried not to love Rome, but she'd discovered that emotions weren't easily controlled. If she hadn't loved him before he met Diane, she might have kept her feelings from growing into anything serious, but she'd been his from the first. From the moment she'd met him, she'd known, deep in-side that he would be more to her than just a colleague. It was his eyes, she thought; they were so deep and dark, eyes with a burning inner intensity. Roman Caldwell Matthews was no lightweight. He had drive and ambition, coupled with a light-ning intelligence that had carried him through the ranks of middle management like a meteor. Oh, he wasn't handsome: his face had a rough-hewn, slightly battered look to it; his cheekbones were too high and sharp; his blade of a nose had been broken once; and his jaw was as solid as a piece of granite. He was a man who would reach out and grasp life, and shape it the way he wanted. He'd been friendly enough to her, but Sarah knew she was too pale and quiet to interest a man with his force-ful personality.

Still, the summer when she'd invited Diane to the company picnic she hadn't expected him to take one look at Diane's vi-brant beauty and claim her for his own. But it had happened, and Diane and Rome had married five months later. Three months after their first anniversary Justin had been born, and two years later Shane. Two beautiful little boys, with their mother's looks and their father's determination, and Sarah had loved them because they were Rome's children.

She'd remained as close to Diane as before, but she'd al-ways been careful not to infringe on the time Rome spent with his family. He traveled a great deal, and Sarah limited her vis-its to the days he was out of town. She couldn't say just why, but she sensed that Rome disapproved of her close friendship with Diane, though to her knowledge he'd never said any-thing. Perhaps it was that he simply didn't like her, though she'd never done anything to earn it. She'd tried to stay out of his way, and she'd never, never told Diane anything about how she felt. There was no point in it; it would only have dis-tressed Diane, and hurt their friendship.

Sarah had dated, and still did, but only casually. It wouldn't have been fair to some other man to encourage a closer rela-tionship when there was no way she'd be able to return any love offered to her. Everyone who asked, teasingly, when she was going to marry, had received the same reply: She loved her work too much to wash dirty socks for some man. It had been a lighthearted, stock answer, and it had served the pur-pose of protecting her vulnerable heart, but it had been a he. She'd never wanted a career, but it was all she had left, so she'd given it her best. The charade had fooled everyone but herself.

Rome had been devoted to Diane and the boys. The free-way accident, almost two years before, had almost destroyed him. Ithad destroyed the laughter in him, the fierce-burning fire in his eyes. Diane had been driving the boys to school, and a drunk weaving his way home in the early-morning traf-fic had crossed out of his lane and hit them head-on. If he had-n't been killed immediately, Sarah felt that Rome would have choked the man with his bare hands, he'd been so insane with grief when he'd been told. Justin had been killed on impact; Shane had died two days later. Two weeks after the accident Diane had died without ever regaining consciousness or knowing that her sons were gone. During those two weeks, Sarah had spent as much time as she could at her friend's bed-side, holding the limp hand and trying to will her to live, but fearing that Diane wouldn't want to wake up from her death sleep. Rome had been a permanent fixture on the other side of the bed, holding the hand that bore his ring, his face gray and drawn, locked inside himself. Diane had been his only hope, his only remaining bit of sunshine, and her frail light had flickered and gone out, leaving him in darkness.

Gently Sarah went through all of the snapshots, seeing her-self and Diane in various stages of their childhood and ado-lescence, mixed in with photographs of the boys as babies, toddlers, and rowdy little boys. Rome was in some of those pic-tures, romping with the boys, washing the car, mowing the grass, doing all of the normal things that fathers and husbands do. Sarah lingered over a picture of him lying on his back in the grass, wearing only a brief pair of denim shorts, holding Justin dangling over his head. His strong brown arms were steady as he held the toddler up, and it was evident that the child felt secure in his father's hands. Justin had been shrieking with laughter. On the grass beside them, Shane had been trying to climb to his baby feet, and one tiny plump hand had clutched the hair on Rome's chest in an effort to pull himself up.

"See anything you want?"

The question startled her, and she jumped, dropping the picture back into the box. She realized that he was asking in general and hadn't noticed her staring at his picture with sick longing, but her shadowy green eyes were wide and wary as she scrambled to her feet, smoothing her skirt.

"Yes. I'll take the box. There are a lot of pictures in here of Diane and the boys…if you don't – "

"Take them," he said curtly, walking into the room. He stopped in the middle of the floor and stood looking around, as if he'd never been there before, but his eyes were bleak, and his mouth looked as if it would never smile again. He did sometimes smile, Sarah realized, after a fashion, but it was merely a polite movement of his lips rather than an expres-sion of humor. Certainly the smile never reached his eyes and lit the dark fires that had once smoldered there.

He jammed his hands into his pockets, as if he had to do something to keep them from knotting into fists. His shoul-ders were tense, braced against the impact of memories that this room must bring to him. He'd slept in that bed with Diane, made love to her, wrestled with the boys on early Sat-urday mornings when they came running in to wake him up. Quickly Sarah leaned down to pick up the box, turning her gaze away from him to keep from witnessing his anguish.

The anguish was as much in her as it was in him. She loved him enough to wish Diane back for him, so he could smile again. He would always be Diane's anyway, because her death hadn't stopped his love for her. He was still grieving for her, still hurting from her loss.

"I'm finished in the boys' room," he said remotely. "Every-thing's packed up. I…I – " Suddenly his voice broke, and Sarah's heart broke with it. He drew a ragged breath, his chest heaving with the effort it took to control himself.

Suddenly his face twisted with rage, and he whirled to slam his fist against the dresser, rattling the bottles of perfume and cosmetics that still littered the top. "Dammit, it was such a waste!" He cursed violently, then groped for the dresser as his body sagged under the weight of his anger and grief. He'd never known defeat until his family had been taken from him. Death was final, permanent, striking without warning and de-stroying the life he'd built for himself.

"In some ways, losing the boys was worse than losing Diane," he said in a muffled tone. "They were so young; they hadn't had a chance at life. They never knew what it was like to play high-school sports, or go to college, or kiss their girl-friends for the first time. They hadn't made love, or seen their own children born. They never had a chance."

Sarah clutched the box to her breast. "Justin kissed his girl-friend," she said shakily, a tiny smile breaking through in spite of the pain. "Her name was Jennifer. There were four Jennifers in his class, but he told me very firmly that his Jen-nifer was the pretty one.' He kissed her right on the mouth and asked her to marry him, but she got scared and ran away. He told me that he 'spected she just wasn't ready for marriage yet, but he'd keep his eye on her. That's practically verbatim," she added, laughing a little. She'd imitated Justin's way of talking, drawling and tough for a seven-year-old, and Rome's mouth twitched. He glanced at her, and suddenly his dark brown-black eyes were dancing with golden lights. He made a choking sound, then he was laughing, throwing back his dark head on the deep healthy sound.

"My God, he was a tough little nut," he chuckled. "Poor Jennifer wouldn't have had a chance."

Neither had poor Sarah. Justin had received all of his tough charm straight from his father.

Her heart jolted at his laugh, the first genuine laugh she'd heard from him in two years. He hadn't talked about the boys, or Diane, since the accident. He'd bottled up all of his mem-ories with the pain, as if he had to keep them locked away in order for him to function on even a basic level.

She shifted, still clutching the box. "These pictures… if you ever want any of them, they're yours."

"Thanks." He shrugged his wide shoulders, as if trying to ease the tension in them. "This is rougher than I thought it would be. It's still… almost more than I can handle."

Sarah ducked her head, unable to answer or look at him without crying. This was so traumatic for her that she was be-ginning to doubt her ability to get through it, but she couldn't do anything to make it any harder for him. If he started to cry, she'd probably die on the spot. Part of the agony she'd felt after the accident had been for Rome, knowing how he was suffer-ing. She hadn't even been able to put her arms around him at any of the services; he'd held himself stiffly erect, his face ut-terly white and withdrawn, sealed off by his grief from every-one around him. Rome had been alone, unable to share his pain.

When she looked up again, Rome was sitting on the bed where he'd slept with Diane, her silk nightgown in his strong hands. His head was bent, and he pulled the silk through his fingers over and over again.

"Rome – " She stopped, not knowing what to say to him. Whatcould she say?

"I still wake up at night and reach for her," he said in a rough tone. "This is the nightgown she wore the last night we spent together, the last time I made love to her. I can't get used to her not being there. It's an empty pain that won't go away, no matter how many women I take."

Sarah gasped, her Nile-green eyes widening and becom-ing shuttered; he glanced up, his eyes bitter. "Does that shock you, Sarah? That I've had other women? I was faithful to Diane for eight years, never even kissing another woman, though sometimes when I was on a trip I'd lie awake all night, wanting a woman so much that I hurt all over. But no one else would do; it had to be her. So I'd wait until I came home; then we wouldn't sleep that entire night."

Sarah's throat tightened, and she retreated from him as an unexpectedly savage pain slashed at her. She didn't want to hear this. She'd always tried not to think of him in bed with I Diane, trying not to envy her friend, eternally striving to keep jealousy from ruining their friendship. She'd succeeded while Diane was alive, but now Rome's words were tearing at her, forcing images into her head that she didn't want to see. She turned away from him, her face averted as she tried to avoid hearing his words. The bed squeaked as he left it; then sud-denly his hands were gripping her arms with a hard grip, jerk-ing her around to face him. His face was white and full of rage, a muscle jerking in his temple. "What's wrong, Saint Sarah? Are you so buried in that mental convent of yours that you can't stand hearing about normal people who enjoy the sin-ful activity of sex?" He was snarling at her, and Sarah was frozen in his grasp, stunned by the anger that had erupted in him. Dimly she realized that he wasn't angry at her as much as he was angry at the fate that had taken his wife from him and left him with only emptiness in his arms, but still, Rome in a temper was a man to fear.

He shook her, as if he wanted to punish her for being a warm, living woman, when Diane was forever gone. "I still can't sleep with another woman," he rasped in a voice harsh with pain. "I don't mean sex. I had sex with another woman only two months after Diane died, and I hated myself for it the next morning…hell, as soon as it was finished! It felt as if I'd been unfaithful to her, and I felt so guilty that I went back to my hotel room and threw up. I didn't even particularly enjoy it, but I did it again the next night, so I'd feel guilty again. I tried to make myself suffer, to make myself pay for being alive when she was dead. There've been a lot of women since then; every time I…need sex, there's always a woman who's willing to lie down with me. I need sex and I've been taking it, but I can't sleep with them. When it's over, I have to leave. In my mind, I'm still Diane's husband, and I can't sleep with any woman but her."

Sarah felt suffocated, suspended in time by his hard grip on her arms, his hot breath on her cheek, and his enraged face so close to hers. She wrenched away from him, her hands tightened into fists. She couldn't hear about his intimacies with another woman, with any number of other women. She gave Rome a wild, desperate look, but he didn't notice. With a groan, he sank to his knees on the floor, burying his face in his hands, and his shoulders shook.

There wasn't enough oxygen in the room; she gasped at it, feeling her restricted lungs strain in an effort to drag enough air into her body. Her senses whirled, as if she might faint, but she didn't. Somehow she found herself on her knees beside him, and she put her arms around him as she had longed to do so many times. Instantly his strong arms locked around her, holding her in a grip that threatened to crack all of her ribs. He buried his face against her soft breasts and cried, harsh sobs that tore out of his body in great shudders. Sarah held him, stroking his hair, letting him cry; he was entitled to it, and he'd gone for too long without letting someone else share in his grief. Her own face was wet, but she didn't notice the hot tears that blurred her vision. All that mattered was him, and she rocked him gently back and forth, with no words, but only her presence to shield him from the bitter loneliness that had turned his heart into a winter land of desolation.

Gradually he quieted, and he moved closer to her, his hands moving up her back. She felt the deep breaths he was taking as they expanded his chest, then the warmth of the expelled air on her breasts. Her nipples tightened in automatic, shame-ful response, hidden beneath her silk shirt and lacy bra, and she clenched her fingers in his hair in a movement that was beyond her control.

He lifted his head, his eyes still damp, and the darkness of his pupils had become so total that there was no brown in them at all. He stared at her, then reached out and tenderly wiped the moisture from her cheeks with his thumb. "Sarah," he said on a whispering sigh, and touched his mouth to hers.

She went still, all breath suspended in her body, as thou-sands of her prayers were answered in that light touch of his lips. Her hands moved to his shoulders, the nails digging into the layers of muscle that corded his frame. It was just a sim-ple kiss of thanks, but the bottom dropped out of her stom-ach and the blood rushed from her head, so intense was the pleasure that assailed her. She sank against him, her soft body melding to his from shoulder to thigh, as they knelt there on the floor. Automatically he supported her, his hard arms around the female curves of her body, holding her to him.

He drew back and looked at her again, and now the ex-pression in his eyes had sharpened to a look of glittering awareness. He was too much of a man not to recognize her feminine response. His gaze dropped to her tremulous, gen-erous mouth, her lips softly parted, and instinct drove him to dip his head to drink from her sweetness again. This time there was nothing light about the touch of his lips; it was a kiss that was man-hungry and fiercely demanding. She gasped, and he thrust his tongue into her mouth with masculine need and command, an intimate kiss that almost shattered her with de-light, and she whimpered softly into his mouth. His arms cra-dled her to him, his body controlling hers as he took her down to the floor.

Her senses reeled; it was so like the few forbidden dreams she'd had that she forgot where they were, forgot everything but the man who leaned over her, his mouth hot and tasting of passion. Her digging nails telegraphed her response to him, her body warming and arching to his, seeking the intoxicat-ing heaviness of his weight.

There was no sense of time or location, nothing but the spiraling physical need that had flamed between them, un-expected and out of control. She felt his hands on her body, touching her breasts, dipping down beneath her skirt to rub her thighs and stroke intimately between them, wringing a wordless cry of need from her lips. No word of protest sur-faced in her mind. She let him do as he wanted, mindless of everything but the delight his knowledgeable hands were bringing to her. He knew women, and his expertise made her wild. She offered her slim body for his delectation with no conscious thought of anything except how sweetly, hotly satisfying it was to be in his arms, to know his kisses and his caresses.

He surged to his feet, lifting her in his arms, her slight weight no trouble at all for his powerful muscles. In a few swift steps he was at the bed, lowering her onto it, coming down to join her with a low growl on his lips as he pulled her under him, spreading her legs with his and settling himself against her in a movement as natural and as basic as breathing.

Sarah clung to him, dizzy with the need he was arousing in her, her mouth tender and fervent under his. She'd loved him for so long, and at the moment she felt as if all of her wishes on falling stars were coming true. She was willing to let him do anything with her, and she knew what he wanted She could feel the virile hardness of his body as he pressed against her. The layers of clothing between them were too much, unbearable barriers that kept their fevered flesh apart.

Then suddenly heaven ended. He stiffened on top of her, then rolled away and sat up on the edge of the bed, bending over to drop his head in his hands. "Damn you," he said thickly, his voice full of disgust. "You're supposed to be her friend, but you're rolling withher husband, inher bed."

Dazed, Sarah sat up and straightened her clothing, push-ing her hair out of her eyes. She heard the accusation in his voice and found that she couldn't get angry with him; she un-derstood how guilty he was feeling, and how emotionally vulnerable he was after the emotional storm he'd just experi-enced. "I was her best friend," she said shakily.

"You're not acting like it!"

She slid off the bed, standing on wobbly legs. "We're both upset," she said to his bent head, and her voice was wobbly too. "We both went a little out of control. I loved Diane like a sister, and I miss her too." She began to retreat, unable to stand there any longer, feeling as if she'd borne all she could for one night, and her tongue was out of control, babbling without her choosing the words she'd say. "There's no need to feel guilty about it; there wasn't anything really sexual about it. It was just that we were both so upset – "

He shot off the bed, his face wrathful. "Nothing sexual, hell! I was between your legs! Another minute, and we'd have been having sex! What would you have called it then? Would we have been 'comforting' each other? My God, you wouldn't know sex if it bit you on the leg! You're too much of an ice-berg to know anything about men, or what they want!"

Sarah spun around, her face white, her green eyes stricken. Her generous mouth trembled. "I don't deserve that," she whispered, and bolted for the door, flying down the stairs before he realized that she was leaving. With a roar, he started after her.

"Sarah!" he yelled furiously, reaching the front door just as she turned the ignition key and started her little red fire-ball of a car, jerking it into gear and reversing out of the drive with the squeal of rubber on pavement. He stood in the door-way, watching the red glow of the taillights until they disap-peared around the corner; then he slammed the door shut and cursed violently for several minutes. He noticed that she'd left the jacket to her suit, and he picked it up.Damn! How could he have said that to her? She was right; she hadn't deserved it. He'd lashed out at her because of his own guilt, not just over what had happened that night, but over the years he'd spent looking at her and wanting to take her to bed, even though she was Diane's best friend.

Rome stared at the linen jacket in his hands, and his mouth tightened. Didn't Sarah realize what a challenge she was to men? She was so cool and pale and distant, so complete unto herself. She was devoted to her career, and she made it pretty plain that she didn't need a man for anything beyond casual companionship. It had been rumored for years that she'd been the mistress of the chairman of the board, but Diane hadn't thought so, and he trusted Diane's judgment. Instead Diane thought that Sarah must have had a love affair that had gone sour, but as she'd said more than once, Sarah was deep and kept a lot of things to herself.

He remembered the first time he'd wanted Sarah; it had been at his own wedding. He'd been impatient to leave with Diane, and then he'd seen Sarah, standing a little alone as she so often seemed to be, her white-blonde hair twisted up on top of her head, her pale face wearing a polite mask. Was she never hot or mussed, he had wondered. Never fidgety? He'd thought of how she'd look if he'd had her in bed with him, that pale hair tangled by the wildness of their passion, her mouth red and swollen from his kisses, her slim body dewy with perspiration. His own body had suddenly become taut, swollen with need, and he'd had to turn away to disguise his condition. How he'd resented her, because even at his wed-ding to Diane, he'd been lusting after Sarah.

The years hadn't changed the situation. She was always aloof, cool to him, and she never stayed around if he came home while she was visiting Diane. He loved Diane and was faithful to her, totally satisfied with her in bed, but there al-ways remained, in the back of his mind, the knowledge that he wanted Sarah. If she'd given him the come-on, would he have remained faithful to Diane? He wanted to think so, but he couldn't be certain; look what had happened the first time he'd kissed Sarah! He'd been ready to take her right then, on the floor, but he'd had a moment's concern for her soft skin and he'd lifted her to the bed, a break in his concentration that had eventually stopped him. But she hadn't been cool and re-served in his arms; she'd been warm and responsive, and her legs had parted for him without hesitation. Her cheeks had been flushed, and a few fine tendrils of hair had escaped then-confinement to curl enticingly around her temples.

That was how he wanted her: with that neat, aloof image of hers shattered. He'd come home early from a trip once, and she'd been in the pool with Diane and the boys. She'd been laughing and frolicking like a child herself, her long hair loosened for once and floating around her like a fairy cloud. He'd changed into his own swimsuit and gone out to join them, and as soon as he'd appeared, Sarah had stopped laughing. She'd been very casual about it, but she'd made her excuses to Diane, hauling herself out of the water, and swiftly dried off before pulling on a ragged pair of denim shorts that only accentuated her long lovely legs. The sight of her in a pale yellow bikini had so aroused him that he'd had to take a fast dive into the water, and when he surfaced, she was already walking swiftly away.

A man couldn't have asked for a better wife than Diane, or a more loving one. But as much as he loved her, as much as he still ached for her, he still wanted Sarah. It wasn't a question of love at all; the finer emotions didn't enter into it. His attraction to her was purely physical. He'd lashed out at her because, with her, sex would be more of a betrayal than it had been with those other nameless, faceless women. They'd been only bodies, with-out personality. But he knew Sarah, and he couldn't wipe her identity out of his mind. He wanted sex withher; he wanted to watch her when she went wild beneath him, he wanted to hear her call his name during the throes of passion. And she was Diane's best friend.

Hours later Sarah curled numbly in bed, her tears finally exhausted, but she couldn't sleep. She felt battered, her insides torn apart with hurt. When the phone rang, she was tempted to ignore it, because no matter who it was, she didn't feel like talking to them. But any call at two o'clock in the morning could be an emergency, and finally she reached over to lift the receiver. When she said hello, she winced at the sound of her own voice, which was still thick with the tears she'd shed.

"Sarah, I didn't mean – "

"I don't want to talk to you," she interrupted, the sound of that deep voice shredding the fragile control she'd gained over her emotions, and she began to weep again. The soft sobs were evident in her voice despite her efforts to hide them. "I may not know anything about men, but you don't know anything aboutme! I don't want to talk to you anymore, do you hear?"

"God, you're crying." He groaned softly, a harsh, masculine sound that filled her with equal portions of pain and longing.

"I said I don't want to talk to you!"

He somehow divined her intentions and said "Don't hang up on me!" in sudden wrath, but she did anyway, then buried her face in the pillow and cried until her eyes were dry and burning.

"You don't know anything at all about me," she said aloud into the darkness.