Sarah's child (Chapter 6)

Rome put his key into the lock and opened the door, step-ping inside the apartment with a deep sense of relief and an-ticipation. This trip had seemed to drag on unendingly, and he was deeply, utterly weary of hotel rooms and hotel food. Just stepping inside the foyer, he was instantly aware of the comfort and serenity that Sarah had brought to the apartment, a sense of being home, which was something that he'd been missing for a long time now. He couldn't say just what it was that she did, but somehow everything was more comfortable. Even though they'd only been married two weeks, he'd looked forward to the trip, feeling an uneasy need to distance himself from the soft, unseen bonds that were pulling at him. It wasn't that Sarah demanded anything; rather, she demanded nothing. But still he found himself thinking of her at odd times during the day, wanting to talk to her about some little detail of the job, or wanting to make love to her, an urge that could have embarrassing results when he was at work. It took very little to remind him of making love to her: hearing her name mentioned, or walking by Max's office. Any small de-tail could plunge him into the memory of how she tasted, how she felt, how she responded. She was so astonishingly sen-sual, he was still astounded by the contrast of her cool, quiet image and the moaning, writhing woman in his arms.

He'd wanted time away from her, but the trip had dragged on too long; what was originally to be a three-day trip had be-come eight, and Sarah hadn't seemed upset at all when he'd called and told her he'd be delayed. She'd simply said "All right; just let me know when you'll be home" and gone on to other subjects. He'd felt a little deflated by her lack of inter-est, and suddenly the trip and the myriad details he had to deal with had become tiresome. He wanted to go home.

The need to relax and be with Sarah had become so com-pelling that he'd pushed himself and everyone else to the breaking point, but he'd wound everything up a day earlier than he'd told Sarah to expect him, and now he looked around the quiet apartment, the sunlight streaming in the windows, a faint, tantalizing aroma, the smell of homemade apple pie, lingering on the air. He sniffed and grinned, because apple pie was his favorite.

"Sarah?" he called, dropping his briefcase and overcoat, suddenly anxious to have her in his arms again. What would she think when he hustled her off to bed? But it had been a long, frustrating eight days, and he wasn't accustomed to celibacy. He was, however, as he'd described himself to Sarah, a faithful husband, preferring domesticity and one woman to a multitude of brief tawdry encounters. Besides, he hadn't wanted any other woman. He'd wanted Sarah, with her cool reserve and comfortable silences, and her fairy-pale hair wrapped around his arms like silken ropes.

But she didn't come running out, and a frown drew his black brows together. Impatiently he searched through the apartment, already knowing she wasn't there. Where was she? Shopping? She could be job-hunting; she'd mentioned that she had a few interesting prospects. He checked his watch. It was almost four, so she should be getting back any-time.

He unpacked, then sat down to read the newspaper. He watched the evening news. As the sun went down, the tem-perature dropped sharply, and he turned on the heat and sat for a long time watching the blue flicker of the fire. The Oc-tober twilight was short, and soon there wasn't a hint of daylight left.

Keeping his irritation under control, Rome prepared his dinner and ate it alone, and he helped himself to a big chunk of the apple pie. As he cleaned up the kitchen a sudden black rage seized him, compounded in part by the unspeakable fear that he wouldn't name, even to himself. Diane had gone out and not returned; he wouldn't even let himself consider any-thing happening to Sarah.

But, damn it,where was she?

It was almost ten when he finally heard her unlock the door, and he got to his feet, a mixture of relief and pure fury filling him. He heard her say "Thanks, Derek. I don't know what I'd have done without you! See you tomorrow."

A deep, quiet voice said, "Anytime that you need help, Mrs. Matthews, just call me. Good night."

"Good night," Sarah echoed, and in a moment she walked into the kitchen, turning left instead of right into the living room where Rome was. At that moment she became aware of the puzzling fact that the lights were on, when everything should have been in darkness, and she stopped in her tracks. Stand-ing where he was, Rome could see her slender back stiffen; then she whirled, and her face lit up like the Fourth of July.

"Rome!" she said, and launched herself at him.

Her open enthusiasm disarmed him, and he found himself forgetting about being angry; instead he was just glad to see her. He opened his arms to her, then at the last moment grabbed her shoulders and held her back, away from him.

"Whoa!" he commanded, laughing a little. "I'm not cer-tain…who are you? The voice is familiar, but I've never seen this dirt before."

Sarah laughed ruefully, so happy to have him home again that she wanted to whirl on her toes like a child. She wanted very much to kiss him, but she was filthy and she knew it. She looked down at her jeans, blackened down the front with grease and grime and various other stains, including one ketchup stain where she'd dropped the hotdog that she'd had for lunch in her lap. Unfortunately the grease and grime extended from her toes to her head. She'd covered her hair with a red ban-dana and now she carefully pulled it off; beneath it, her hair was still in a pristine knot, and the contrast was incongruous.

"I'm a mess," she admitted. "Let me take a quick shower; then I'll tell you all about it."

"I can't wait," he said dryly, wondering what catastrophe could have turned his spotless, impeccable wife into that raga-muffin. Her shirt-sleeve was torn, he noticed. Had she been in a fight? Impossible, and there were no bruises or cuts, which also ruled out an accident.

He followed her to the bathroom. "Just tell me one thing: Have you been doing anything illegal, or has something hap-pened to you that will require police action?"

She gave the low, husky chuckle that always started a fire low in his gut. "No, nothing like that. It's good news!"

He watched as she stripped off her soiled clothing, her dainty nose wrinkled in distaste as she dropped each garment to the bathroom floor. Hungrily he gazed at her slender fluid curves, the body that was his, with the sweet honey nipples and pale gold curls, all his. He noticed the way she flexed her shoulders, as if they were stiff, and an unconscious sigh of weariness escaped her.

"Have you had anything to eat?" he asked.

"Nothing since lunch."

"I'll get something together for you while you're showering."

When she left the shower, feeling clean again, Sarah felt as if the warm water that had washed away the grime cover-ing her had also washed away the last dregs of her energy. She was so tired, she could have fallen facedown on the bed and slept through the next day, but Rome was waiting for her, and she had to see him. He hadn't even kissed her yet, and it had been forever since she'd touched him, felt his mouth on hers. She pulled on a robe, the only garment she bothered with, and went to the kitchen.

He'd opened a can of soup and made a grilled-cheese sand-wich for her, and that seemed like ambrosia. She stumbled into the chair, already reaching for the sandwich as he placed a glass of milk beside the plate.

"So, tell me your good news," he invited, turning a chair around and straddling it, propping his arms along the back. For a long moment she simply stared at him, unable to believe how good he looked to her. His thick dark hair was tousled, and his face was tired, but he was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.

"I've bought a store," she said.

He rubbed his cheekbone with a finger, a little surprised at how the news made him feel. He'd told her that their respec-tive careers gave them much-needed independence from each other, but when it came down to the nitty-gritty, he wanted Sarah's undivided attention. Reminding himself yet again not to push her, that she expected, and deserved, the right to make that decision herself, he hid his reaction and instead asked "What kind of store?"

"A combination do-it-yourselfer and handicrafts store. I bought it for a song, because the building was in ratty shape," she explained blithely. "The location is great; it's only a mile from here. But the stock is included, and most of it is hand-made. Just wait until you see the pottery! The pottery wheel is in a back room, and I might try my hand at it. I did some pottery in high school. I've been killing myself trying to get it ready before you saw it," she said. "We've cleaned and painted and put up new shelving, and Derek has put in new lighting fixtures – "

"Who's this Derek?" Rome interrupted, remembering the man who'd come with her to the door.

Sarah made an exasperated sound at him. "Derek Taliferro, Marcie's son. I've mentioned him to you. He saw me to the door."

"Thatwas Derek? I thought he was fourteen or fifteen."

"He is. Fifteen. Just wait until you meet him! He looks twenty, at least, and he's a great kid. I don't know what I'd have done without him. It's a school night, and he should have been at home studying, but he wouldn't leave me alone down there."

"Smart kid," Rome said, lifting his brows at her in a way that told her he didn't like the idea of her being alone in the store so late at night.

Ignoring that comment, Sarah devoted herself to her meal, demolishing it with well-mannered greed. Just as she finished, she looked up to find him watching her intently, an unreadable expression in his eyes. "You're back a day early," she finally said.

"I tied everything up this morning and caught the first flight home. I got in about noon, dropped by the office for an hour, and got here a little before four."

"I'm sorry I wasn't here," she said softly. "I wish I'd known."

He shrugged, and the indifferent gesture made her draw back. She'd been about to reach out for him, but now she kept her hands tightly in her lap.

"I ate half of that pie," he said, changing the subject. "Do you want a slice?"

"No. No, I – " She stopped, a wave of exhaustion sweep-ing over her. She tried to fight it off, but weariness over-whelmed her, and she couldn't keep going any longer. "I'm so tired," she sighed, closing her eyes for a moment.

She heard the clatter of dishes as he cleared the table, and with a supreme effort she opened her eyes to give him a sleepy little smile, one that sent a surge of electricity through him. "Let's go to bed," she invited.

Without waiting for a second invitation, he bent and lifted her into his arms, his mouth at last finding hers in a long pen-etrating kiss. He knew she was tired, and he'd meant to wait, but when she'd asked him to go to bed, all of his good inten-tions fled. After carrying her quickly to her bedroom, he pulled back the covers and placed her on the bed, leaning down to loosen the robe and pull it away from her, baring her to his gaze.

She sighed and closed her eyes, and he stripped quickly, dropping his clothes to the floor. It took him only a moment, then he slid naked between the sheets and drew her into his arms.

She snuggled against him with a little murmur, and her bare breasts pushed against his chest. With sure, hard fingers he cupped her breast, his thumb rubbing against the small tight nipple. Aching with desire, he bent his head to kiss her, and in that moment realized she was asleep.

A low growl of frustration rose to his throat, but he lay back against the pillow, cradling her to him because he needed to feel her silken flesh in his arms; he had to hold her, if just for a while. She was exhausted, and he could wait, but every fiber of his body, every masculine instinct he possessed, wanted him to bury himself in her. There would be times when his work would demand long hours of him and he'd be too tired to make love, he reminded himself, trying not to re-sent the unseen store that had already taken her away from him. It was just that…hell, she was so comfortable to have around! Everything was right where it should be, and organ-ized to the nth degree. He had the whimsical thought that, give Sarah a roomful of worms and within an hour she'd have the worms crawling in formation. The humor lightened his mood, and he lay for a long time, holding her while she slept, because he began to feel drowsy and reminded himself that if he didn't get up then, he probably wouldn't, and she'd made it plain how she felt about sleeping together. Making love with him was fine, and she obviously enjoyed it, but afterward she wanted her own bed and privacy. Easing away from her, he went to his own room.

Sarah woke several hours later, uncomfortable from the glass of milk she'd drunk at such a late hour. Automatically she reached out for Rome, but her hand encountered the empty pillow and fell back listlessly. He wasn't there, and no mat-ter how often he left her to go to his own bed, she couldn't become accustomed to it. Her body, her mind, just couldn't accept that he wasn't where he belonged.

She got up, feeling suddenly bleak, and wondering if she had any chance at all of ever winning any emotion from him other than mild affection. And lust, she reminded herself. But that wasn't an emotion – it was a physical reaction.

There was a bad taste in her mouth from the milk, so she brushed her teeth, then yawned, and stared at herself in the bath-room mirror. Her hair was a mess. She was too tired to worry about it right then, though, so she pushed it back and stumbled her way back to bed, where she promptly fell asleep once more.

In the gray light of dawn, she came slowly awake, stretch-ing under slow, warm caresses that roamed over her body and touched her with familiar intimacy. There was a magnetic warmth beside her and she turned to it, her head finding the hard pillow of Rome's chest, her arms wrapping around him without thought.

"Wake up," he crooned softly in her ear, nipping at the lobe with his sharp teeth, then kissing his way along her jaw to find her mouth.

"I'm awake," she murmured, sliding her palms up his naked back and feeling the hard ripple of muscle under his warm skin.

He took her immediately. She was warm and pliable from sleep, her body rosy, and she drew in a quick breath of pleas-ure as he moved with slow power into her. "I can't wait; I have to have you," he muttered.

The room was considerably brighter when he lifted his head from her breasts and said on a note of astonishment. "Damned if I'm not going to be late for work."

"You've been away for eight days," she murmured, snug-gling against him. "You deserve to sleep late."

"But I haven't been sleeping." His wry observance brought a sleepy smile to her lips, a smile of complete physical satis-faction. During the normal course of the day, he treated her as if she were an old, comfortable house slipper: easy to have around, but nothing to get excited about. He wasn't affec-tionate with her, didn't often call her by endearments, and in fact often seemed to discourage any signs of deepening emo-tional intimacy between them. But in bed there were no bar-riers, no polite distances. In bed with him, she could forget about everything else and simply savor their closeness. The world was blotted out by the grip of his hard, strong arms and the heavy pressure of his body.

His hand stroked slowly down her side and found the curve of her hip, his fingertips feathering over the smoothness of her buttock. He'd missed more than the startling passion of her lovemaking, he realized in astonishment; he'd missed the si-lences that so often fell between them, comfortable silences that held no sense of strain. He could talk with her, and he could also be silent with her. There was a sense of ease that enveloped him when he was with her, as if she were a very old friend who expected nothing but his company.

"If I don't get up," he announced five minutes later, when his stroking hand had begun making bolder forays that were already exciting him, "Max will probably come over just to pull me out of your bed."

"Then, I'll help you by removing temptation," Sarah vol-unteered, rolling away from his hand and carefully sitting up on the side of the bed. She'd have liked nothing better than to stay in bed with him all day, but she'd sensed that at any moment he'd have moved away from her and gotten up, and abruptly she couldn't stand to have him leave her lying in bed one more time. The thing to do was to call a halt to it herself, to get up first and make the decision, as if she had other things to do. She stood up a little stiffly, her muscles protesting both the heavy work she'd been doing and the vigorous exercise they'd had in the last couple of hours. As she walked across the room, Rome frowned when he saw the jerkiness in her usually fluid movements.

He left the bed and went to her, putting his hand on her shoulder as she selected her underwear from the dresser. "Are you all right?" he asked a little gruffly, and she understood the meaning of his question. He was a big, strong, highly-sexed man, and he dwarfed her in bed, in every way. He usu-ally handled her slender, fine-boned body with a great deal of care and patience, but there were times when his passions were too strong and he took her with shocking powerfulness. That morning had been one of those times.

"Yes, I'm fine," she said, and because he was still frown-ing, she added, "I'm sore all over from working in the store, which is where I need to be right now. You're not the only one who's late."

He dropped his hand, not liking the idea of her doing heavy physical work. Some women could handle it, but Sarah was too delicate, like a fragile, translucent piece of china. He wanted to see about this store himself, decide what had to be done, and hire people to do it. If Sarah wanted to supervise, she could do that, but he didn't want her to hurt herself. Only the knowledge that he didn't have the right to interfere kept him from laying down his strictures; if he used the dictatorial hand on her that he used at Spencer-Nyle, she'd merely give him one of those patented iceberg looks and remind him of their bargain.

"I'd like to see the store," he began carefully, following her into the bathroom.

She gave him a surprised look. "Of course. I'll probably still be there this afternoon when you get off work; why don't you come by? The name of it is Tools and Dyes, spelled with ay. "

"I've seen it," he said thoughtfully. "I always thought it was a machine shop. Hell, that placeis a dump!"

"Was a dump," she corrected cheerfully, turning on the shower. When the water was warm, she stepped in and closed the door, which opened immediately. He got into the shower with her, his big body taking up most of the room and mak-ing her feel inordinately small. She looked up at him, her green eyes questioning as he took the bar of soap and rubbed up a rich lather in his hands.

"Turn around," he ordered, and she did. He began sliding his hands over her back and shoulders, kneading her stiff, sore muscles, and she groaned aloud at the mingled pain and pleas-ure, her head hanging forward to allow him full access to her neck and shoulders. When she thought she couldn't stand it any longer, he knelt at her feet and gave the same thorough attention to her legs. She felt her muscles loosening as the pain eased, and she sighed in ecstasy. It was wonderful to have him pampering her, and not a day passed that she didn't pinch her-self to make certain it wasn't a dream.

She wanted him to make love to her again, but he didn't. He was already late, and she knew that although she could probably entice him back to bed, he'd resent it should she in-terfere with his work.

Rome had already left when Sarah went down to her car; he'd hurried through breakfast and gone without even kiss-ing her good-bye, an omission that totally destroyed the warmth left by their morning of passion. She reminded her-self over and over that she had to accept the limits of their re-lationship; they were married, but he didn't love her, so she shouldn't expect him to act like a lover.

Marcie hailed her as she opened her car door, and she paused, her eyes narrowed against the bright morning sun as the other woman crossed the small brown strip of grass between the street and the building. The weather was still cool, but Marcie was in her shirt-sleeves, an abstracted frown on her face.

"Good morning," she said, and that was Marcie's total nod to conventional chitchat. She plunged right to the point. "Sarah, were you going to hire anyone to help you in the store?"

"Of course," Sarah said readily. She'd have to, just to give herself time enough to eat lunch. One person really couldn't handle things, and even in its ramshackle condition, the little store had had a fairly steady stream of customers.

"Would you consider Derek? He can only help you after school and on weekends, but I'd appreciate it. I don't like that grocery store where he's working now," Marcie said wor-riedly. "One of the cashiers is chasing him."

"I'd love to have Derek," Sarah said, and meant it. The boy was so strong and efficient, he could do whatever had to be done after school hours. She looked at Marcie and saw that her friend was really worried about her son.

"How old is the cashier?"

Marcie grunted in disgust. "She's closer to my age than she is to Derek's!"

"Does she know that he's only fifteen? He looks so much older."

"I know, I know. Sarah, girls from his school follow him home! He takes it all for granted, but it's getting harder for me to handle. He was my baby!" she wailed. "He's still just a baby! I wasn't cut out to be the mother of a…a Greek god! Italian god," she corrected herself, with scrupulous adher-ence to the facts.

"If Derek wants to work at the store, I'll thank heaven for him every night."

"He'd love to. He likes you, and he likes that sort of work. You don't know how I appreciate it!"

Sarah smiled and waved away her thanks. Derek would take a huge load off her, and she liked having him around. De-spite his spectacular looks, there was a calm, capable air about him that made her feel more comfortable. The only person who gave her a greater feeling of physical security was Rome.

"Why don't you come by and see how the store's shaping up?" she invited Marcie.

"Thanks, I will. If you have time today, why don't I bring in lunch?"

"I never turn down lunch!"

She was proud of the store, she thought, as she pulled her little car into the parking area in back of the building. It sparkled under new paint, now pristine white, with crisp blue trim around the windows and on the door. The windows had been cleaned with a mixture of vinegar and lemon juice, and they literally sparkled in the morning sun. The diamond panes gave a homey air to the crowded little store, with its raw plank flooring and old-fashioned bins for the merchandise.

New shelves lined the walls, however, and the pottery took up one entire wall. Bright hues of red and blue, earth brown, and a unique salmon color, were splashed against the wall like an abstract design, because all of the pottery had been color-fully glazed. Homemade quilts were draped across a couple of ladder-back chairs, while others were neatly folded and stacked on the woven straw bottoms of the chairs. There were nails, hammers, screwdrivers, nuts and bolts, scissors, pins and needles, and scores of other small necessities, but already Sarah had ideas for expanding the selection. She would carry supplies for macrame, cross-stitching, candlewicking, and knitting, complete with patterns. Doll-making was very pop-ular, and that could be another section; there were two more small rooms in back besides the pottery room and the tiny of-fice, and she could turn one into a doll room, with everything necessary to make anything from a soft-sculpture doll to china dolls. Stuffed animals were another possibility. She had so many ideas, she feared she'd never have room for them all.

The small store brought her much more satisfaction than working in a large corporation ever had. She'd liked the de-manding work at Spencer-Nyle, but the corporate structure re-ally wasn't for her; it was far too impersonal. This small, homey, and homely store was very personal, uniquely hers even in the short length of time she'd owned it. The soothing colors, the comfortable display of items, all spoke of her per-sonal touch. She hadn't hesitated at all when she'd learned by chance that the store was for sale; some intuition inside her had recognized that this was what she'd wanted. She'd looked at the building, and at the stock and hadn't haggled. The price had been very reasonable, probably because of the condition of the building. Buying it had made a considerable dent in her savings, and the renovations had further depleted her funds, but she thought it was worth it. This washers , something she'd bought herself and shaped to reflect her own personality.

The old building was drafty, and she turned on the ancient furnace, thinking that here was something else needing re-placing. It was only October; what would it be like during Jan-uary and February? A new roof and insulation was a necessity.

The store had been closed while she'd been cleaning and painting, and Derek had been putting in the new lighting fix-tures. She'd been astonished that a boy his age would know how to do electrical wiring, but he'd explained it and made it all seem very simple. It was only after he'd done it that Sarah had gleaned from Marcie that he'd never done any wiring before; he'd sim-ply read about it and decided to try it. As she flicked on the lights she noticed how much better the merchandise looked with the brighter, better-placed lighting. What would she have done without Derek? She wouldn't be anywhere near ready to open.

But as it was… She took a deep breath and flipped the sign on the front door for the first time from CLOSED to OPEN FOR BUSINESS. Sarah's store was officially open.

The little store had its own regular customers, who were used to dropping in and puttering around whenever someone needed a pack of finishing nails or a skein of yarn. She was never overflowing with business, but the place was seldom completely empty either. There was a slow relaxed pace about it, with people comfortably looking things over, commenting on the changes. She kept a pot of coffee on the counter, which encouraged people to come up and talk to her while they drank a free cup of coffee. She especially liked talking to old people, who had fascinating tales of making almost every-thing by hand in days long past.

The time passed so quickly that when she looked up to see Marcie coming in the door, she was amazed to realize it was time for lunch. Past time, she thought; it was almost one o'clock.

"Sorry, I'm late," Marcie panted. "I was just leaving when I got a call from a magazine on a proposal I'd submitted."

Sarah's eyes shone warmly. "Do they like it?"

"They do," replied Marcie promptly. "Now all I have to do is think of something to write."

Marcie was so organized, she could probably put her hands on a thousand pages of research material, so Sarah didn't take the last comment seriously. "What type of article will it be?"

"It's for one of the slicks, a women's magazine. I've been doing a lot of thinking about it." Marcie began emptying the paper bag she'd brought, putting a paper plate in front of Sarah and then filling it with fried chicken and cole slaw, with hot rolls on top of it. " 'Marriages of Convenience – Past and Present,' is what I think I'm going to call it. I know you've read some-thing about them; at times they've been more the norm than the exception. You can call them arranged marriages. The fact is, people get married for a lot of reasons other than love. Con-venience is one of the more common reasons, which is prob-ably why they're called marriages of convenience. Two people combine their assets, support each other, rather like a business partnership, except it's a marriage and they sleep together."

Amusement made Sarah's eyes sparkle with a soft green. "You don't believe in marriages in name only?"

Marcie gave her a disbelieving look. "Do you honestly know a man who'd be content with a platonic marriage? I'm talking about a normal, healthy man."

"Usually, no, though I do think there are some situations – "

"Unusualsituations," Marcie put in.

"All right, unusual situations – "

"I still don't think so," Marcie interrupted again with blithe unconcern. "And you don't either, because I can see the way you're biting your tongue."

Sarah laughed, because she had indeed been trying to get an argument out of Marcie, who loved to argue. "I give up. Let's get back to your article."

"I got the idea from a get-together I had with six of my old high school chums. We'd been having a good time, and the martinis had been flowing freely, you might say. Now, these aren't unusual women, just your normal, everyday sort of female. Of the seven of us, two had gotten married be-cause of a pregnancy, one because she'd never had many dates and thought his proposal might be the only chance she'd ever have, one admitted that she just sort of drifted into marriage because she'd gone with him for so long that every-one took it for granted that they'd get married, and one was very open about marrying her husband because of his money. She liked him, but his money was the main attraction. That's five out of seven."

"And the other two?"

"One was married because they were in love, and they still are. They're almost embarrassing, even after all these years. The other one…well, I'm the other one. I got married because Ithought I was in love. If you could see Derek's father, you'd know why. But instead of love, it turned out to be sex, which was very good and remained good, but that just wasn't enough to hold the marriage together." For a rare pensive moment, Marcie rested her chin on her hand, thinking of her ex-hus-band. "Dominic and I had some good times, but in the end, we simply didn't care enough about each other. But I think I'd do it all over again, even if I knew we'd eventually divorce, because I'd want Derek."

"So, out of the seven, only one married for love?"

"Ummm. I haven't done any real deep research yet, but I've talked to some men, and I'd almost believe that even more men marry for convenience than women. Men are very straightforward in their needs, and they still have a lot of the cavemen instincts."

"Me Tarzan, you Jane?"

"In a way. They still want a fire and someone to cook the meat they bring home, bandage their wounds, do their laun-dry – which probably translates from curing the animal hides and making clothing – and a warm body when they need one. Simple, basic needs that haven't changed all that much in sub-stance; only the ritual is different. They marry to fulfill those needs."

"You don't paint a very romantic picture," Sarah com-mented, beginning to feel chilled by Marcie's precise de-scriptions. The conversation was reminding her too painfully of her own marriage. Rome had married her for all those rea-sons, and he'd been very open with her about them. He wanted a home, a stable relationship, convenient sex. In return, he'd be a faithful, dependable husband. A marriage of conven-ience for him. For her, a marriage of love.

"There's romance in it," Marcie continued thoughtfully, nibbling on a chicken leg. "Some people learn to love each other after they're married. Most care for each other to some degree, even if it never becomes love. Some marriages don't last. But I'm convinced that convenience is the basis for more marriages than most of us would like to admit."

"I wonder how many people do fall in love after they're married?" Sarah wondered aloud, unaware of the hint of wist-fulness in her tone.

Marcie gave her a piercing look full of awareness, and a hint of pity. Sarah caught the look and knew immediately that Marcie had guessed how lukewarm Rome was in his feelings for his wife. She went pale and looked down, and Marcie put her hand on Sarah's.

"I'm being such a pessimist," Marcie said with false cheer-fulness. "Probably men fall in love as readily as women, but they're just too contrary to admit it."

No, Rome admitted to loving. The trouble was, it was Diane he loved.

But again Sarah reminded herself that she'd take what she could. She couldn't afford to be proud and turn him away be-cause she demanded his complete devotion or nothing. The passing years had taught her that there'd be no other love for her, no other man to push Rome out of her heart.

Marcie tried to break the moment by looking around and exclaiming at the changes that had been made in the store since the last time she'd seen it. "Have you had many cus-tomers today?"

"More than I'd expected," Sarah said, gratefully accepting the change of subject and wrenching her mind away from Rome. She looked around the small cozy store and had the painful thought that, in years to come, the store might be all she had. Age and familiarity would dilute Rome's desire for her, and she could predict that his business trips would come more frequently and last longer. They'd achieved an easy physical intimacy and talked comfortably on a lot of subjects that never, never probed too deeply. Rome had set a limit on how close he would let her come, and he never allowed her to pass that boundary. He held her at an emotional distance, and Sarah shivered, feeling cold all over again.