Sarah's child (Chapter 8)

Their life together settled into a routine, defined by the mun-dane details that gave things a sense of continuity; no matter what else, there was always laundry, and cooking, and clean-ing. He did as much as she did in the housework department, when he was there, but he was often gone, and when he was-n't there, she threw herself into work, trying to fill the empti-ness that came from his absence. He didn't call her every night when he was on a business trip; he always gave her the num-ber where he could be reached if she needed him, and he in-variably called her if he was delayed, or to tell her when he'd be home, but other than that she had no contact with him. She understood, though she missed hearing his voice, if nothing else. What could they say to each other every night? She couldn't tell him how much she missed him, how the time dragged while he was gone, how much she loved him, because he didn't want to know that. It was much safer not to talk to him except when necessary; she'd simply wait until he came home, and his initial sexual urgency would give her the chance to hold him, to silently give him the love that had been build-ing up in her. She always knew what to expect from Rome when he returned from a trip; he walked through the door ready to fall on her like a starving man falling on a feast.

When she let herself think about it, she admitted to herself that, while he did like her and to some extent care for her, she still hadn't replaced Diane in his heart. Their love life was fan-tastic: He was an experienced, virile lover, and she could never say that sex with him was routine. He often took her wherever they were at the time, not bothering to take her to the bedroom, and that more than anything told her that he still grieved for Diane. He preferred that their lovemaking beout of the bed. When the demands of his work forced him to come home late, after she was already in bed, then he'd come to her there, but when the act was finished, he always left. He'd hold her and pet her, waiting for her to go to sleep before he went, but she always sensed his uneasiness and had begun to feign sleep so he'd feel free to slip from her bed. When the door had closed behind him, she'd open her eyes and lie there, feeling the desolation of knowing herself unloved. Sometimes she couldn't prevent herself from crying, but for the most part she kept the tears at bay; they solved nothing, and she had a ter-ror of him hearing her weeping in the night.

Still, there was a lot of contentment in their life together. Cool autumn became winter, and there were cozy nights in front of the fire, watching television; other times, she read while he worked. There were shared lazy breakfasts, and cold, sunny Sundays when they watched the Cowboys play foot-ball. If he was at home, he went with her to the store every Saturday, and he and Derek became good friends.

Shortly before Christmas Sarah broached the subject of Derek's future with him. Derek was brilliant; it would be a shame if his potential was limited by lack of money. They'd become close enough that Rome caught her drift immediately.

"Do you want me to put him through college?"

"That would be nice," she admitted, giving him a sparkling smile. "But I don't think Derek would stand for it. He's very proud," she said thoughtfully. "But if you could arrange for a full scholarship from some foundation that won't limit his choice of college, I think he'd jump at that."

"You don't ask for much, do you?" Rome observed wryly. "I'll see what I can do. I think Max will have to be brought in on it; he's got some connections through his family that could be helpful."

Max had become a fairly frequent visitor, and though he never stopped teasing Rome about taking Sarah away from him, their marriage had made all the difference in the world in the way Rome reacted. He'd won, and he knew it. Max's heart wasn't broken; nor would he try in any way to undermine his friend's marriage. He frankly admired Sarah and saw no harm in letting her husband know it, and that was the extent of it.

When Rome decided to get something accomplished, he didn't wait around. The next day Max just happened to show up at the store with Rome; Sarah saw the stunned look in Max's vivid eyes when he was introduced to Derek. Derek had that effect on people. In a few moments, Max wandered over to Sarah and whispered, "Rome's lying, isn't he? Derek's twenty-five if he's a day."

"He was sixteen last month," Sarah whispered in return, smiling in amusement. "Isn't he something?"

"He's bloody impressive, is what he is. Give him wings and a sword, and he's my image of the archangel Michael. Tell him to decide which college he wants, and when the time comes, Rome and I will see to it that he gets a full scholarship."

Sarah told Marcie what Rome and Max were planning, and to her surprise, the other woman burst into tears. "You don't know what it means to both of us," she sobbed. "He's such a special kid, and it's been breaking my heart for him to have to work to save the money for college, instead of having a good time the way he should be doing. This is the best Christ-mas present you could have given me!"

With the approaching Christmas season, Sarah's business was booming – so much so that she had to hire someone full-time just to help her wait on customers. Rome was all for the idea; he hadn't liked Sarah being there alone during the day until Derek got out of school. She hired a young neighborhood woman whose youngest child had started school that term, and who wanted out of the house. It worked out nicely. Erica would leave shortly before her children were due in from school, and Derek usually arrived within the half-hour. Having Erica there during the day also gave Sarah an opportunity to have lunch, which had been limited to grabbing a bite from a sandwich be-tween waiting on customers, when she'd been by herself.

Three days before Christmas she arrived home to find that Rome was already there; when she reached his bedroom door, she stopped, staring at the open suitcase on his bed.

He turned from the dresser where he'd been taking out a selection of underwear and shirts. He looked at her wryly. "Emergency. We have a hell of a mess in Chicago."

She wanted to protest, to make the traditional wife's lament of "Why can't someone else go?" but she bit the words back, knowing he wouldn't appreciate the hassle. "When will you be back?" she asked, going into the room and dropping down to sit on his bed, sighing in resignation.

"I'm not hanging around up there; I've already booked the red-eye flight back. I should be getting in about four A.M. on the twenty-fourth."

"Well, all right," she grumbled, and for the first time in their marriage she pouted. He dropped a stack of shirts into the suit-case and looked at her sulky face. Her pouting lower lip gave her face an unexpected sensuality, as if she were begging to be kissed, and more. He grinned suddenly, and shoved the suitcase to one side.

Sarah was unprepared, and she gasped in surprise when he tumbled her back across the bed. He gave her a slow wicked smile as he bent over her and pushed her skirt to her waist, then calmly stripped away her underwear. She gasped again, this time with the instantaneous excitement that rose in her whenever he touched her. "Is this to tide you over?" she mur-mured teasingly, her eyes bright.

"Something like that." He unzipped his pants and shoved them down, then knelt on the bed, between her relaxed thighs. "You're my credit card; I don't leave home without this."

She laughed, twining her arms around his neck as he low-ered his weight to her. The laughter caught in her throat at the slow delicious shock of his entry, and he heard the little in-take of breath she always gave when he took her. It was music to him, and he buried his face against her neck in sudden need, pulling her legs up around his waist. "I miss you like hell when I'm gone," he said roughly, and with his confession he began thrusting deeply into her, reconfirming their partner-ship with the bond of their flesh.

Sarah didn't drive him to the airport; he preferred leaving his car there, so he'd always have ready transportation home or to the office without taking a taxi. Despite herself, tears glittered in her eyes as she kissed him good-bye at the door, and he swore softly, dropping the suit-case to take her in his arms again.

"I'll be back for Christmas, I promise," he said, giving her a hard kiss. "You won't have to spend the holiday alone."

As if she cared about the holiday! She hated for him to leave regardless of the time of year, or what holiday was com-ing up. She blinked back the tears and managed a shaky smile for him. "It's all right. I'm just being silly."

It had to happen: he called at midnight on the twenty-third. "Chicago is having a blizzard," he said with grim sarcasm. "All flights are grounded until this mess clears."

Sarah sat up in bed, clutching the telephone so hard that her fingers were white. "Any weather predictions?" she made herself ask with a fair amount of calm, though she'd been counting the hours until he'd be home again.

"Early afternoon. I'll call you when I have a definite flight."

She spent Christmas Eve moving restlessly around the apartment, adjusting ornaments on the small fragrant ever-green she'd put up for a Christmas tree, fluffing pillows and moving articles of furniture that seemed a fraction of an inch out of place. She'd worried about how Rome might feel about celebrating Christmas, when the holiday must bring painful memories for him of his two small sons and their wide-eyed excitement, their toys underfoot, the complete chaos they'd created every Christmas Day in their ecstasy over the pres-ents they'd received. So far, she hadn't detected any sign that he might be dreading the day, and she was keeping her fin-gers crossed that this would be a good holiday for him.

She couldn't wait for him to get home; she felt more on edge than she'd ever been before while he was gone, and she knew it was because of what he'd said while he'd been mak-ing love to her that last time. "I miss you like hell when I'm gone…" It was the only indication he'd ever given her that he might dislike leaving her while he went on a business trip. She'd always assumed that he even looked forward to the trips to give himself a break away from her. But if he missed her…

She tried to caution herself against hoping too much. Rome was so virile, he could have meant merely that he missed mak-ing love to her. But what if he was missingher , her compan-ionship, the things they shared? Her heart was thumping crazily in her chest at the thought. Christmas was the season of miracles, after all.

The waiting made her restless, and she thought of going down to visit Marcie, but she didn't want to intrude during the holiday, and she was afraid she'd miss Rome's call. She baked an apple pie for him and put clean sheets on their beds.

The phone rang, and she nearly broke her neck getting to it, tripping over her own feet. Snatching up the receiver, she said breathlessly, "Hello."

"My flight is supposed to be leaving within the hour," he said, his deep voice making her knees go weak even over the telephone lines. "But everything's stacked up, so it'll proba-bly be later than that. I estimate I'll be home close to midnight. Don't wait up for me, baby. Go on to bed."

"I…maybe," she stammered, knowing that she'd still be awake even if he didn't get in until midnight the next night.

He laughed, a low promising sound that made her swallow. "All right, then, stay awake. I'll be home as soon as I can."

It was just after eleven that night when she heard his key in the lock. She jumped up from the table, where she'd been sitting nursing a cup of hot chocolate, and ran to meet him. He dropped his suitcase with a thud and caught her as she launched herself into his arms; then he kissed her, so long and hard and thoroughly that she shuddered and pressed her-self against him.

His eyes glinting, he released her and rubbed his shadowed jaw with his hand. "I need a shower and a shave, in that order. I spent the night at the airport, so I'm pretty grimy. Go to bed; I'll be there in fifteen minutes, tops."

Sarah poured out the rest of the hot chocolate and turned out the lights, then went to her bedroom. She sat down on her bed and clasped her hands tightly together when she noticed how they were trembling. He was home. In only a few more minutes, he'd be in here, in the bed with her, and he'd make love to her as if he'd like to devour her. Then…then what? Would he make another tantalizing confession, another small indication that his feelings for her were deepening? Or would he silently hold her until she pretended to fall asleep, then go to his own solitary bed?

She sucked in a painful breath at the thought, and suddenly she knew that she couldn't bear for him to walk away from her again after making love to her. She was on her feet before she realized what she was doing; if anyone left afterward, it would be her. That way she wouldn't have to watch his back as he left. If, when the loving was finished, he didn't make any indication that he wanted more, then she could kiss him good night and calmly leave his bed without looking back. She couldn't lie there any longer, waiting for him to break her heart by leaving.

He came out of his bathroom just as she opened his door and walked in, and he lifted a black brow at her in astonish-ment. "In a hurry?" he drawled, dropping the towel that he held to the floor.

Sarah looked at him, at his tall hard body, and her mouth went dry. "Yes," she whispered, pulling her nightgown over her head and dropping it to the floor also.

He walked past her and threw the covers to the foot of his bed, then extended his hand to her in silent invitation. She walked into his arms.

He told her a lot of things: he told her how much he wanted her, what he wanted to do to her, what he liked for her to do to him. His whispers were raw, elemental with need. He told her how sleek and pretty her body was, how he wanted to bury himself in her, how it felt when he took her. But he didn't tell her the one thing she needed most to hear.

When his tumultuous passion had been satisfied, he lay sprawled on the bed, stroking her back with lazy possessive-ness. Quivering inside, she knew that she had to leave now, while he was still content and drowsy, before the familiar im-patience began eating at him. Lifting herself to her elbow, she kissed him quickly and whispered "Good night," then left the bed before he could react.

Rome's eyes snapped open, and he watched her scoop up her nightgown, then practically run out the door. Grim lines of tension settled around his mouth. As much as he wanted her, as crazy as he went when he was making love to her, he al-ways dreaded when it was over because he knew she would withdraw from him, curling away from him and pretending to go to sleep so he would leave. But at least she usually wanted to cuddle, and he could hold her in his arms a little longer; tonight, despite the wild response of her slim body when he'd made love to her, she hadn't even lingered for a mo-ment of gentle caresses. Sometimes, when her eyes lit up at the sight of him, when she clung desperately to him in the heat of passion, he'd think that he was making progress, slowly beating down her defenses and getting to the soft, warm woman behind them. But then she'd withdraw from him again, as if she had to compensate for any gains he might have made.

Sex with her was fantastic…more than fantastic. The phys-ical awareness, the passion between them, was so intense, it overshadowed every sensual experience he'd had before her –  but it wasn't enough. It just wasn't enough. He wanted it all, everything she had to give, her body and mind and, yes, her heart.

For Christmas, she gave him a hideously expensive designer briefcase. She'd outraged the clerk at the hideously expensive department store by having the designer's insignia removed and substituting Rome's initials in its place. He laughed when she told him the tale, then casually gave her a tiny box wrapped in gold paper. Her mouth fell open when she saw the diamond stud earrings; she tried to thank him, but no words would come. Each brilliant diamond glittered with icy fire; those stones had to be a carat each, and she was stunned by the magnitude of the gift.

Smiling at her reaction, he pushed back her heavy veil of white-gold hair and removed the earrings she was wearing, then supped the studs into her ears himself. She lifted her hand to touch them. "How do they look?" she asked nervously, find-ing her voice at last.

"You look fantastic," he said deeply. "I want to see you naked, with your hair loose, and the diamonds in your ears."

She watched his face, watched his eyes grow heavy-lidded with desire, and her body began to warm. A delicate tint rose to her cheeks. She knew, even as he reached for her, that he was about to get what he wanted.

He surprised her by swinging her up in his arms. "Where are we going?" she asked breathlessly, having expected him to make love to her on the sofa, as he'd done several times before.

"To bed," he answered briefly, and her eyes widened.

In the quiet aftermath, he kept her beneath him in his bed, settling himself on her and keeping their bodies together. There was no way she could get up and leave. He turned his face into the warm fragrance of her neck, feeling the heavy satisfaction of his body. He dozed, then came awake some-time later when she wiggled beneath him, seeking a more comfortable position.

"Am I too heavy for you?" he murmured, pressing his lips into the warm hollow below her ear.

"No." Deep pleasure was in her voice, and her arms tight-ened around his back. He was crushing her, and she could barely breathe, but that didn't matter. All that mattered was the warm, heavy feel of him against her, the almost tangible contentment that radiated from him. This was how she'd al-ways wanted it to be.

Outside, the short winter twilight was deepening into dusk, bringing a growing chill to the room because he kept the heat vents in his bedroom almost closed. He reached down for the sheet and pulled it over them, settling himself on top of her again, with his head on her breasts.

Lazily he kissed her nipples and the sensitive undersides of her breasts before finding a comfortable place for his head. He covered one breast with his hand, then sighed softly and went to sleep. Sarah put her hand on his dark hair, then moved it slowly down to his strong neck and wide, powerful shoul-ders, feeling the hard muscles beneath his smooth, warm skin. Feeling safe and protected, wrapped in the cocoon of his body warmth, she too slept.

He woke her for a late dinner, his eyes sleepy and satisfied as he watched her try to sort out the jumbled mess he'd made of her clothes when he'd taken them off. With her wild pale tangle of hair streaming down her back and the glitter of di-amonds in her ears, she looked like some primitive queen in her glorious nudity. In more barbaric times, she'd have been worshipped for the color of her hair, the incredible pale gold with streaks of almost pure white running through it. He'd often suspected her of bleaching her hair, until he'd seen her naked for the first time. His wife. The thought filled him with possessiveness, and satisfaction.

In the middle of February she caught a cold that lingered for an unreasonable length of time, her stuffy nose robbing her of sleep and making her cranky. Rome tried to get her to stay home from work and give herself a chance to get over it, but Erica had both children at home with the flu and Sarah had no one to open the store, so she had to work, though she felt listless and achy. Rome had to take another trip, one that could stretch into two weeks, and he frowned at her pale face as he kissed her good-bye.

"Take care of yourself, and stay warm. I'll call you tonight to see how you're feeling."

"I'll be fine," she reassured him, hating the congested sound of her voice. "Don't kiss me; you'll get germs!"

"I'm immune to your germs," he said, kissing her anyway. He folded her in his arms, gently rubbing her back. "Poor baby. I'd like to stay with you."

"I'd like for you to stay with me too," she grumbled, something she'd never have said if she hadn't had a cold. "Actu-ally I feel a little better today. I'm not as tired."

"Maybe you're finally getting over it." He surveyed her critically. "It's about time. If you aren't better tomorrow, see a doctor, and that's an order."

"Yes, sir," she said smartly, earning herself a slap on the bottom.

He called that night as he'd promised. She'd closed the store early when a cold rain turned into sleet, as she hadn't wanted to get trapped by bad weather, so she'd been home long enough to spend an hour lolling in a hot tub, with the steam clearing her stuffy nose, and consequently she felt much better. Her voice was almost normal when she talked to him.

The next morning, however, she woke with a terrible pounding headache, and every joint in her body felt as if someone were beating her with a hammer. Her throat was on fire, and nausea roiled in her stomach at the very thought of food. "Great," she told her bleary reflection in the mirror. "I've got the flu."

Having the flu was the very devil. She ached all over from the fever that accompanied it, but every time she tried to take anything for her temperature, her stomach revolted. She tried drinking hot tea, but that didn't work. She tried drinking a cold soft drink, but that didn't work. She tried drinking milk, and that was awful. She made Jell-O and tried to eat that, but she was gagging after the second bite. Giving up, she made an ice pack for her head and took a lukewarm bath, lying in water that felt cool to her feverish body, with the ice pack reposing on her head.

When a sudden chill swept over her, making her shake so hard that she could barely climb from the tub, she gave up try-ing to deal with it and simply went to bed, pulling the covers over her while she was having a chill, and throwing them back when she was feverish. Her head was aching so badly, she'd have sworn she'd never rest, but she fell into a deep sleep and woke only when her telephone rang.

"Sarah?" demanded Marcie anxiously. "Thank God! Derek just called me from a pay phone because the store wasn't open. He thought something must have happened to you."

"It has," Sarah croaked morosely. "I've got the flu. I'm sorry, I should've thought to call Derek this morning before he left for school."

"Don't worry about that. Let me call Derek back at the pay phone to let him know you're all right, then I'll be up to see about you."

"I'll be okay, and you might catch – " Sarah began, but Marcie had already hung up.

"I'm not going to die," she grumbled, as the knowledge that Marcie was coming up forced her to drag her weak, aching body out of bed to unlock the door. "Why does she have to see about me today? Why can't she wait until tomorrow? Maybe I'll be ready to die by then."

She walked like someone with a hangover, holding her pounding head with both hands, as if she were afraid it would fall off. The truth was the exact opposite: The way it was hurt-ing, shewished her head would fall off. Every step she took was torture, with her body aching and her head throbbing. Even her eyes hurt.

She unlocked the door and crept into the kitchen, thinking about trying another bite or two of Jell-O. She opened the re-frigerator door, looked at the green mass quivering wildly at her, and slammed the door again. No way could she eat some-thing that was moving.

The door opened, and Marcie called, "Where are you?"

"I'm in here," Sarah croaked. "Honest, Marcie, you don't want this. For your own sake, leave."

"I've had my flu shot this year," replied Marcie, entering the kitchen. "Ye gods, you look awful!"

"Then, I look exactly the way I feel. I'm starving! I want something to eat, but all I have to do is look at food and I start upchucking."

"Crackers," said Marcie. "Saltines. Do you have any?"

"I don't know," Sarah moaned.

"Where would they be?"

"Up there," she replied, waving her hand at the highest cab-inet.

"They would be," Marcie muttered, dragging over a chair she could stand on. She got down the box of saltines and took out a sealed pack, then replaced the rest of them.

"We're going to try the routine doctors give pregnant women: weak tea and soda crackers. Think you can manage it?"

"I doubt it, but I'll try."

Marcie hustled Sarah back to bed, dampened a washcloth in cool water and placed it over her forehead, then stuck a ther-mometer in her mouth. She came back several minutes later bearing a cup of tea and one lone soda cracker on a napkin. After plucking the thermometer from Sarah's mouth, she looked at it and lifted an eyebrow. "You definitely have a fever."

Sarah sat up and nibbled at the cracker, almost afraid to swallow even a crumb. The tea tasted good as it wet her parched throat, and for a moment she felt better. Then her stomach began to twist, and she hauled herself out of the bed. "No good," she reported, then had to bolt.

Derek came up to see her, and she groaned aloud. "What is it with everybody? Why do you want to catch the flu? I'm contagious!"

Derek gave her a serene look. "I don't get sick."

Of course not. What germ or virus would dare even sit on that perfect body?

The second day Marcie wanted to call Rome, but Sarah re-fused to consider it. What could he do from a distance of a thou-sand miles? All the call would accomplish would be to distract him. Marcie was concerned because Sarah's fever had climbed even higher and she had a wracking cough. She couldn't eat anything the second day either. Marcie kept her sponged off with cool water, trying to keep the fever down, but Sarah grew even more listless and pale. Marcie spent the night on the floor beside Sarah's bed, listening to the deep hollow-sounding cough, prepared to haul Sarah off to a hospital at any time.

The third night Rome called. Marcie snatched up the telephone on the first ring, because the noise hurt Sarah's head so much.

"It's about time you called, Rome Matthews!" she fumed, breathing fire. "Your wife is almost dead, and it's three days before you check in!"

Rome was silent for three full seconds, then barked, "What? What's wrong with Sarah?"

"She says it's just the flu, but I'm afraid it's turning into pneu-monia. Her fever is high, it's been three days since she's had anything to eat, and she sounds like a hollow drum when she coughs. I can't talk her into going to the doctor; she just lies there and says to give it time. Damn you, Rome, you get back here!"

"I'll be there on the earliest flight I can catch."

"I heard all that," Sarah said weakly when Marcie entered her bedroom. "I do not have pneumonia. I have a dry cough."

"Protest all you want; when Rome gets home, then you'll do what you should, instead of lying here getting worse."

"He's coming back?" she asked, and even as badly as she felt, her eyes got brighter.

"Of course he's coming back. He said he'd take the next flight out."

Sarah felt conscience-stricken. "Oh, no! He can't be half through all he had scheduled."

"It'll wait," Marcie said grimly.

Rome wasn't going to like being called back from a busi-ness trip, Sarah thought glumly. She was sick, but she wasn't that sick. Still, it was more Rome's place to tend to her than it was Marcie's, and she knew that Marcie had other duties, as well as her free-lance work to be done.

"Marcie, if you have work you need to be doing, I'll be all right by myself," she offered.

Marcie gave her an incredulous look. "Sure you will; you're so weak, you can't even get to the bathroom by yourself. Look, will you stop worrying about imposing on some-one and just let yourself be taken care of? You're not being a nuisance, and you're really sick. No one's going to think any less of you because you caught the flu."

Sarah didn't feel like listening to any logic. Her fever was rising again, making her bones and muscles ache, and she twisted restlessly on the sheets. Recognizing the signs, Mar-cie began to sponge her down again.

The fever made Sarah feel disoriented. Time became elas-tic, making a few minutes drag by like molasses in January; then all of a sudden several hours would telescope into noth-ing. She woke once to find Derek sitting by her bed reading, and she said, "Why aren't you in school?"

He looked up. "Because it's three o' clock on Saturday morning. I've made some tea; would you like to try drinking some?"

She groaned aloud, because for three days she'd been try-ing to drink tea, and for three days it had been coming back up. But she was so thirsty, she felt parched, and she said "Please."

He brought what looked like an ounce of tea in a cup, and Sarah drank it. "Is that all I'm allowed?"

"For right now. If that stays down for half an hour, I'll give you another swallow. I've been reading up on influenza," he said.

Well, that explained it. Because Derek tried it, it worked, even though Marcie had been unsuccessfully pouring tea down her for three days. Sarah's stomach rolled several times but remained under control, and she drifted off to sleep again before Derek could dole out her second ounce of tea.

She woke again several hours later to find Rome sitting on the side of her bed, his hand on her forehead and his dark face taut with worry. "You're going to catch it too," she said, feel-ing obliged to give her standard warning, though everyone else had ignored it and she didn't see why Rome should pay any attention to it either.

"I don't get sick," he murmured absently, and she made a disgusted sound.

"Not you too! All you healthy people make me sick. Derek doesn't get sick either. Marcie had her flu shot. I suppose I'm the only person in Dallas who gets sick!"

"Actually there's a flu epidemic," he said, noting how fret-ful she was. Her skin was dry and hot, her hair dull and life-less, and dark bruised-looking shadows lay under her dulled eyes. He lifted a cup to her lips. "Drink this."

She drank it, and the cool, fresh taste was delicious. "What is it?"

"Peppermint tea. Derek made it."

Her back was hurting so badly, she turned on her side, wincing as she searched for a comfortable position. "I'm sorry Marcie told you to come home. It's really just the flu, instead of pneumonia like she said, and I think I'm getting over it."

"You're still pretty sick, and I'd rather be here." He rubbed her back, knowing without being told that she was aching. She was soon asleep again.

She slept a great deal, and she was listless and cranky when she was awake. Her fever yo-yoed up and down, and when it was at its highest point, she sank into a stupor. Rome stripped her and bathed her in cool water, and when she'd roused a little, he risked giving her aspirin to bring the fever down. For an hour or so she seemed to feel better, and she sat in a chair while he put fresh sheets on the bed. He fed her a soda cracker and more peppermint tea, and she went to sleep.

He sat up until he felt he couldn't keep his eyes open a mo-ment longer. He didn't dare leave her, but he was afraid that if he slept on the floor, he might not awaken when she became restless with fever again. Without hesitating, he took off his clothes and got into bed beside her, lying on his side with one hand touching her, so he'd know if she started tossing around.

She woke him up twice during the night, twisting around trying to ease the aching of her body. Once she went into a paroxysm of coughing, and he winced at the deep, harsh sound. No wonder Marcie had been alarmed!

"I'm all right!" she said aggressively, her thin colorless face set in mutinous lines. He put his hand on her cheek, feeling for a rise in fever, because he'd said nothing to set her off. She glared at him. "I hate being sick."

"I know," he soothed.

"You're sleeping in my bed," she accused. "You lied. You told me you couldn't sleep with a woman. I've always wanted you to sleep with me, but you never would. Why are you here now, when I don't feel like fooling around?"

Despite himself, he grinned. Lifting the cup of tea to her lips, he held it while she gulped thirstily. "Just a case of bad timing, I guess. Boy, are you going to regret talking like this when you're feeling better."

"I know," she agreed, and pouted. "But it's the truth any-way. Rome, when am I going to be well? I'm so tired of hurt-ing all over. My legs hurt, my back hurts, my neck hurts, my head hurts, my throat hurts, my stomach hurts, my eyes hurt, and even my skin hurts! Enough is enough!"

"I don't know, honey. Maybe tomorrow. Do you want me to rub your back?"

"Yes," she agreed instantly. "And my legs. That makes me feel better."

He pulled off her nightgown and helped her to roll over on her stomach. Gently he kneaded her aching muscles, and even though she'd lost weight she hadn't needed to lose, he still found himself admiring the clean, delicate lines of her body. Her long legs were fantastic, so slim and straight and well-rounded. Her bottom was a feminine work of art, shaped just right to drive a man mad. He placed his hand on one satiny buttock, and even in her illness, she smiled a little.

"I like that. I like it when you touch me. When I'm better, will you make love to me again?"

"You can bet on it," he said under his breath. He moved up to massage her back, feeling the fragility of her ribs just under her skin.

"I've wanted you for years," she said, the words a little muffled by the pillow, but he understood them and his hands paused for a moment. "I had to be a little unfriendly to you to keep Diane from guessing."

"You did even better than that," he said ruefully. "You kept me from guessing too. How many years have you wanted me?"

"Since I've known you." She yawned, and her eyes closed.

"That makes us about even, then."

She smiled and drifted to sleep. Rather than wake her to put her back in her nightgown, he simply pulled the covers up over them, turned off the lamp, and settled down beside her. He smiled into the darkness. He'd hate for her to be this sick very often, but she carried on some very interesting con-versations when she was ill. She admitted to things that wild horses wouldn't have been able to drag out of her if she'd been thinking clearly. He knew he wouldn't forget them, and he hoped she wouldn't either.