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       The Saint, p.21

         Part #5 of The Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz
 

  She growled loudly, swore violently. And in the silence that followed, she heard a man laughing.

  “Do you need some help in there, Eleanor?”

  Søren? What the hell? She rolled her eyes and made another failed attempt to get the zipper down.

  “I’m stuck in my dress. Do you have scissors or knives or guns or anything?”

  “You need a gun to remove your dress?”

  “Once I get it off, I’m putting it out of its misery.”

  “Is it that serious?” Søren came back to the pantry. She glanced at him over her shoulder. He’d already beaten her to the jeans-and-T-shirt punch. In all the time he’d served as pastor at Sacred Heart she’d only seen him out of his clerics twice before. If the pope ever saw Søren in a pair of jeans His Holiness would probably order all the clergy to switch to that new uniform. Church attendance would skyrocket.

  “I’m trapped.”

  Søren cocked his eyebrow at her. “Turn around.”

  “Are you going to cut it off? Do we need to call an ambulance?”

  “Lift your hair up and hold still.”

  She dug her fingers into her hair and held it while Søren gripped the fabric of the dress and pulled it out from her skin. After a few seconds of tugging, the zipper finally budged.

  Eleanor tried to take over for him, but he seemed intent on pulling it all the way down. Who was she to argue with him, especially when his fingertips brushed the bare skin of her lower back?

  “Better?” he asked.

  “Thank God. I thought I’d die in this stupid dress.” Søren turned his back to her while she pulled the rest of her dress off, put on a bra and slithered into her white T-shirt.

  “It’s not a stupid dress. You looked lovely in it.”

  “Lovely? That bustier top pushed my tits up to my neck.”

  “But in such a lovely way.”

  Eleanor stuffed the dress into her bag and pulled her hair up into a ponytail all while glaring at him. She wanted to be happy he was here talking to her but she couldn’t get over her anger. Over a year of the cold shoulder could not be forgiven with one compliment on her tits.

  “What are you doing over here? Shouldn’t you be all snuggled up in bed with Jesus?”

  Søren watched her as she pulled out garbage bags from under the sink.

  “I have company. I noticed the lights were still on. What are you doing here?”

  “Cleaning.”

  “Cleaning?”

  Eleanor took the bags into the fellowship hall and started dumping plastic plates and paper cups into the trash bag.

  “Diane’s been nice to me,” Eleanor began. “She’s sweet. Drives me places since I can’t get my license until I’m off probation. I couldn’t afford to get her a real wedding gift so I said I’d clean the hall up so her family wouldn’t have to.”

  She balled up a paper tablecloth.

  “What?” she demanded.

  “I didn’t say anything,” he said.

  “You’re staring at me, Father Stearns,” she said with sarcastic emphasis on his title.

  “I am.”

  “Why?”

  “I’m staring at you because entirely without intending to you’ve become a very kind and generous person.”

  “You can shove kind and generous up your ass.”

  “And I’m staring at you because you are stunningly beautiful.”

  Eleanor dropped the bag on the floor.

  “Søren. Seriously.” Her stomach churned. She wanted to cry and scream and kiss him and kill him all at once.

  “When you aren’t trying to look beautiful, you look beautiful. When you are trying to look beautiful, you are stunning.”

  “I hate you.”

  “No, you don’t.”

  “Maybe not, but I’m trying to.”

  “I don’t blame you, Little One.” He stepped closer and Eleanor fought the urge to retreat.

  “So we’re back to this now?” she asked, sitting on the edge of a table and crossing her arms over her stomach.

  “Back to what?”

  “Back to us being honest with each other? You snap your fingers and the past year goes away just like that?”

  Søren held out his hand and snapped his fingers by her ear. She flinched at the sound.

  “Just like that,” he said.

  “You’ve been acting like I don’t exist for months. Why tonight?”

  “Two reasons,” he said. “First, there is something you need to know. Second, I have an entire bottle of wine in me.”

  Eleanor gaped at him.

  “You’re drunk?”

  Søren raised his hand. An inch separated his thumb from his index finger.

  “That much?”

  Søren slightly widened the gap.

  “That would be slightly more accurate,” he said.

  “Great. It’ll be easier to seduce you, then,” Eleanor said, seeing how much she could push him.

  “Later. We should talk first.”

  “You talk while I clean.” So what if he was drunk and here and gorgeous and she’d missed him so much her hands were shaking from simply speaking to him again? She had a job to do.

  “Can I help you?”

  She picked up her bag.

  “This is my gift to Diane, not yours. I have to do this myself or it’s cheating.”

  “I feel useless simply standing here.”

  “You are useless.”

  “Is there anything I can do to be less useless to you?”

  “Fuck me on the gift table?”

  Søren glowered at her so hard she laughed.

  “Fine.” She pointed to the corner of the room. “You can put on some music.”

  “This is a job I can do.” The DJ, otherwise known as the bride’s cousin Tommy, had left all the equipment and music behind. He’d come by in the morning to haul it all away. “Or not.”

  Eleanor watched him as he flipped through stacks of CDs.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “The music selection is shameful. What is this?” Søren held up a CD with a familiar-looking cover.

  “Dr. Dre.”

  “Is he a licensed medical professional?”

  “He’s a rapper.”

  “And this?” he asked.

  “4 Non Blondes. Obviously you would not be allowed in that band.”

  “I didn’t want to join their band anyway,” he said in a tone so dry her face hurt from swallowing her laughter.

  Søren dug through a few more CDs.

  “How does anyone dance to any of this music?” He sounded horrified.

  “It’s drunken reception dancing, not waltzing.” She knew it was a weak defense, but she didn’t have it in her to defend modern music tonight. Not when she’d been listening to the classical station every night in bed trying to learn something about the music Søren played so lovingly on piano. The last CD she bought had been a collection of baroque pieces.

  He held up a CD.

  “Finally,” he said. “Decent music.”

  “What did you find? Bach? Beethoven? Vivaldi?”

  “Sting.”

  Eleanor burst out laughing.

  “You like Sting?”

  “Who doesn’t? He’s a musician’s musician.”

  “I can’t believe you’ve even heard of him.”

  “I spent ten years of my life in seminary, Eleanor, not in a cave.”

  The music started and filled the room with cool blue sounds and Sting’s arching voice that always managed to speed up her pulse and lower her blood pressure simultaneously.

  “Music,” Søren said as he walked to her, “has melodies and themes. It’s not simply a collection of profanities and noise set to a bass line.”

  “God, you’re a snob.”

  “Guilty. Now stop cleaning.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I said so, and I never once said you were freed from your vow to obey me. So obey me.”

  “Can you please order me
to punch your face? I’ll obey that order.”

  “Later, perhaps. I have nothing but respect for your sadistic side.”

  With a growl Eleanor dropped the bag on the ground and put her hands on her hips. She hated how much she loved his orders, how much she’d missed them.

  He took her wrist gently in his hand and placed her hand on his shoulder.

  “What are you doing to me?”

  “Dancing with you. Not drunken reception dancing, real dancing.”

  He took her other hand and led her in the first steps of something like a waltz. He took her on one turn around the dance floor before stopping midstep. He studied her face, his gaze penetrating and intimate.

  “She’s gone,” Søren said, his voice soft with wonder.

  “Who?” Eleanor asked.

  “The girl. All of her is gone. Where did she go?”

  Eleanor gave a tired half laugh.

  “I killed her,” she said without apology. “You said grow up. I grew up. She’s gone. I’m here.”

  She held out her hand for Søren to shake. Instead he raised her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it before turning it over and pressing a kiss into the center of her palm. She felt the impact of that kiss all the way to her toes.

  “A pleasure,” he said, seemingly amazed by the change he saw in her.

  Eleanor pulled her hand away. Not because she wanted to but because she didn’t want him to know how much it affected her.

  “So … you know how to dance?” Eleanor asked as Søren led her on another slow turn.

  “I do.”

  “Is this something they teach in seminary?”

  “No.”

  He gave her a subtle smile as he let go of her hand and spun her gracefully.

  “You know this song is about adultery, right? You shouldn’t be dancing to it,” she teased, trying to hide how much she relished the touch of his hands on her.

  “Eleanor, I’ve committed adultery. Safe to say I can handle a song about it.”

  Eleanor stopped dancing.

  “Wait. You committed adultery? When?”

  Søren said nothing for a moment. He lowered his hands to his sides as Eleanor pulled away from him.

  “When I was eighteen, Eleanor. When I was married.”

  Eleanor lost all powers of speech. She took a step back from him, and Søren turned the music off.

  “You were married?”

  “Yes. Briefly and unhappily.”

  Eleanor’s knees went weak on her. She pulled a chair out and sat down.

  “Tell me everything,” she ordered.

  Søren pulled another chair out and sat a foot across from her.

  “The first thing I’ll tell you is that my marriage, such as it was, should never concern or trouble you. It’s simply a fact of my past. I have no reason to hide it and several good reasons to reveal it. This is what I wanted to tell you.”

  Eleanor didn’t have to ask what reasons he meant. Søren telling the church he’d been married to an adult woman would be like holding up a big sign that said I’m a Red-blooded Straight Male. As suspicious as people were of the Catholic clergy these days, she couldn’t blame him for wanting to spill those particular beans.

  “My marriage will be common knowledge in time, and I wanted you to hear about it from me and no one else.”

  “Go on.”

  “It’s a long and fairly sordid story, so forgive me for giving you the bowdlerized version. My best friend in school was half French. His parents had died in an accident outside Paris when he was fourteen. He came to Maine to live with his grandparents. They sent him to the school I attended—a Jesuit boarding school. His older sister, Marie-Laure, was a ballet dancer in Paris. Brother and sister missed each other terribly. Neither of them had any money between them. She couldn’t come to America. He couldn’t go live in Paris again. This might come as a shock to you, but my father had a great deal of money.”

  “Shocked. Stunned. Flabbergasted.”

  “I had a sizable trust fund I’d inherit when I married. I wanted my friend to be able to see his sister again. She wanted to live in America. Marrying her meant I would receive my trust fund, which I planned to give to them. Money and citizenship—I thought that would be enough for her. Everyone would win.”

  “What happened?”

  Søren’s lips formed a tight line. A shadow passed over his eyes.

  “Nobody won. Money and American citizenship weren’t enough for her. I had warned Marie-Laure in advance that ours would be a marriage in name only. I had no romantic interest in her whatsoever.”

  “Why not?”

  Søren sighed and gave a low mirthless laugh.

  “Let’s save that answer for another time. Suffice it to say she wasn’t my type. And I won’t speak ill of the dead.”

  “She’s dead?”

  “She is. She said she was in love with me. I don’t think she was. I think she considered my lack of interest in her a challenge. She pursued me obsessively and failed in her pursuit. She saw me kiss someone else and ran away in anger. She tripped and fell and died. Her brother thinks she committed suicide. I don’t believe she had it in her to destroy herself. She loved herself far too much. Either way, she was gone, and I was a widower mere weeks after marrying. Her brother took her body back to Paris to bury her near their parents and never returned to school. I traveled Europe the summer of my eighteenth year and in the autumn I started seminary. That is the story—as much of it as I can tell you tonight.”

  Eleanor leaned into her hands and breathed. She had no idea how to react to this news.

  “So you know how to waltz because of her?”

  “I tried to distract her from her painful attempts at seducing me by asking her about ballet, about dance, about anything that interested her.”

 
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