The queen, p.38
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       The Queen, p.38

         Part #8 of The Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz
 

  walk away with our secrets still safe. Fair enough?”

  Milady rubbed her temple with two fingers. In her vanilla clothes in this vanilla setting she looked nothing like the fierce whip master Nora had seen that night at the Body House. She looked weary and scared, human. Nora almost pitied her.

  “You have it so easy,” Milady said, dropping her hands to her sides. “You have no idea how hard I had to work to get where I was. And you show up out of nowhere with the King of the Underground at your side. You punch a man in the nose like a fucking brute and suddenly you’re the queen? I spent two years learning how to work whips in tandem. I apprenticed at a dungeon cleaning cum stains off carpet and blood off needles to learn my trade and you just waltz right in and take it all. You’re not even a domme. You’re a switch. A spoiled switch. Your priest sold his hair to buy you a gift. What have you ever sold for anyone?”

  “I certainly never sold my clients’ secrets to save my own ass.”

  Milady gave her a threatening look. She took a step forward but Nora didn’t step back. She held her ground. She hoped and prayed this wouldn’t turn into a fight. But if it did...well, it was a good thing Nora kept those brass knuckles on her. She might need them.

  “Wait,” Milady said, raising her hand. Nora waited.

  Milady walked back into her house and came back out with a padded envelope. She passed it to Nora.

  “Thorny’s phone. I will forget everything I know about him, you and your priest, as long as you conveniently forget everything you know about me. The minute a process server shows up at my door, I’m making phone calls. Deal?”

  “Deal,” Nora said taking the envelope from her. “Have a lovely day. I’d say I’ll see you around but you’re banned from King’s clubs.”

  “Your ‘king’ can go fuck himself.”

  “He probably would if he could figure out how. You could try being a little nicer. You know, not blackmailing your clients. I like my clients even when I’m beating them and calling them pathetic little boys. I respect them, and they respect me.”

  “I loved my husband. I respected him. Every other man is just a paycheck.”

  “Now you know.”

  “Now I know what?”

  “Now you know why your clients keep coming to me. They’re not paychecks. They’re people.”

  “I might believe you if you didn’t charge two thousand dollars an hour. Go top somebody for free and then lecture me about treating clients like people.”

  “I did top somebody for free,” Nora said with a grin. “Today even.”

  “Who?”

  “You,” Nora said. “Now behave. I wouldn’t want to have to punish you. But I will if I have to. Say ‘Yes, Mistress’ if you understand.”

  Milady’s entire small frame vibrated with barely concealed fury.

  “Yes, Mistress,” she said.

  “Good girl.” Nora winked. Then she turned and started toward her car.

  “What’s it like?” Milady called out after her. Nora turned around.

  “What is what like?”

  “Being loved like you are.”

  “I told you. I take care of my clients and they—”

  “Not your fucking clients. Him. Your priest. He sold his hair to me to buy you a gift. My husband had a fetish, and I was the embodiment of it. But he didn’t really love me. He respected me, cared about me. But it wasn’t love. What’s it like being loved like that?”

  Nora answered in a word.

  “Exhausting.”

  Once in her car, Nora called Juliette and had her dig up Thorny’s address. She arrived a little after nine and prayed he was home and not out on a job with a client. She tried not to think about how much it hurt knowing he’d fucked her solely to blackmail her. He’d used her and Nora wasn’t a fan of getting used. Not like this anyway. She did the using, not the other way around. It wouldn’t have hurt nearly so much except she’d enjoyed it, enjoyed having a boyfriend for a day, enjoyed waking up with someone in her bed and cooking breakfast together and changing the sheets and watching TV on the couch. It had all been an act, but it had been a good act and maybe she was just angry at herself for wanting something she couldn’t have so much she’d fallen for the act.

  She knocked on the door to Thorny’s apartment and waited. He opened it and she saw the fear on his face when he looked at her.

  “Crisis averted,” she said, and handed him his phone.

  “Oh, thank fuck.” He kissed his phone and shoved it into his pocket. “Thank you.”

  “Take this, too,” she said. “It’s Milady’s driver’s license. It’s expired but that’s still her address. Don’t use it to hurt her. She’s agreed to back off all of us. But it’s insurance.”

  “You’re a goddess, Mistress.”

  “Tell me something I don’t know.”

  “I’m leaving? That’s something you don’t know.”

  “Leaving?”

  “I told Nadia what happened. She was freaked out but not angry. She said that the big hospital out in Seattle offered her a job a while back. They still want her. She’s going to take it so we’re moving out there. Fresh start where nobody knows who I am.”

  “Good idea. Seattle’s beautiful. Just watch out for volcanoes.”

  “I already have this waiting to erupt in my head,” he said, tapping his temple. “What’s one more volcano?”

  “I’m glad you’re going with her. Gather ye rosebuds, right?”

  “Well, you know that old Bible verse—I go where she goes—or whatever it is. I haven’t been to church in a long time so don’t quote me on that.”

  “You’re butchering the poor Book of Ruth. She and Naomi deserve better than that.”

  “Were they fucking?”

  Nora pursed her lips at him. “No. Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law. Naomi’s husband died, and both her sons. She told her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah—”

  “Oprah?”

  “Orpah. She was a Moabite, not a talk-show host. Anyway, Naomi told Ruth and Orpah to go back to their families and find new husbands and start new lives. Orpah went away but Ruth refused to leave Naomi. What she said to Naomi was, ‘Do not ask me to leave you or forsake you / For wherever you go, I go...’”

  “What?”

  Nora stopped. She cocked her head. She laughed.

  “That’s it,” she said.

  “What’s it?”

  “Nothing.” She looked at Thorny and grinned. “I mean, everything. I just figured something out. Thank you. Couldn’t have done it without you, Thorny.”

  “Couldn’t have done what?”

  “I hope you and Nadia have a very long and sexy life together. I have to go.”

  “Don’t go. I owe you...so much. I owe you a ton. I can pay you or something?”

  “You just helped me figure out how to save my priest.” She patted him on the cheek and resisted the urge to slap it just once to punish him for fucking her over. Considering how many men she’d used for sex the past couple of years, she gave him a pass. It had been very good sex after all.

  Nora left Thorny and ran to her car. Tomorrow Søren was taking his Final Vows. The day after he’d leave her for Syria and for the rest of his life.

  She turned on her car but she didn’t drive home.

  Søren had told her two years ago to finish her Ruth story.

  Tomorrow she would finally write the ending.

  33

  Final Vows

  ON THE MORNING of the last Sunday in August, Nora stepped into the two-hundred-year-old Jesuit church in Harlem where Søren and fourteen other veteran Jesuits would take their Final Vows that day. Half an hour before the service began the pews already creaked with the weight of friends and family packed shoulder to shoulder waiting to watch their priests take the last vows they’d ever take in their lives. If they made it this far, they weren’t likely to leave the order. They’d been in it for twenty years at least, each and every one of them, and they’d decided to
stay in the Jesuits until the end. Søren would die a Jesuit. That was what she wanted for him, because that’s what he wanted for himself. But he could be a Jesuit here, close to her and Kingsley. He didn’t have to go across the world to a war zone to do it. She’d give everything to keep him here, keep him safe.

  And if everything was what he asked, everything was what she’d give him.

  Nora walked nervously down the center aisle, the red carpet runner beneath her feet muffling the sound of her kitten heels on the hardwood. She looked for a seat somewhere close but not too close, where she could see but not be seen. Too late. A hand snaked out from a pew on the right and grabbed her wrist. Nora started and looked into the eyes of a young woman with dark hair cut in a stylish bob and a wearing a dress that cost more than Nora’s monthly mortgage payment.

  “Don’t you dare act like you don’t remember me,” the woman said, her voice stern and imperious—exactly like her brother’s.

  “Claire.” Nora felt the profoundest sense of relief when Claire wrapped her in a near painful embrace.

  “Elle,” Claire breathed. “Too long.”

  “Way too long,” Nora agreed, swallowing hard.

  “You have to help me.” Claire sounded scared, desperate.

  “I will,” Nora said.

  “You will?”

  Nora nodded against Claire’s shoulder.

  “I do love him,” Nora said. “I didn’t leave him because I stopped loving him.”

  “I know,” Claire said. “No could stop loving him once they start.”

  Claire released her from the crushing hug, but held on to Nora’s hand. She didn’t seem ready or willing to let it go and Nora was grateful to her.

  “I’m so glad you’re here,” Claire said. She had tears on her face. “I can’t do this alone.”

  “I didn’t want to come.”

  “Neither did I,” Claire said. “But I can’t tell him no.”

  “Did you ask him not to leave?” Nora asked.

  “I didn’t ask, I begged.” Claire stared straight ahead. She and Søren both had similar profiles—the same ears, the same cheekbones, the same ironic tilt to the mouth when they smiled. But Claire wasn’t smiling.

  “Did he tell you anything about why he’s going?”

  “One of the priests who visited him after his motorcycle accident is going, too. He’s the one who asked him to go. I can’t believe he said yes.” Claire squeezed Nora’s hand harder.

  “I can,” Nora said. She didn’t want to believe it, but she could. She’d left him. Kingsley had staked his claim on her. She’d refused to return to him. What was keeping him here? Nothing.

  “What are we going to do?” Claire asked.

  “Pray.”

  “Will it help?” Claire asked.

  “It won’t hurt.”

  The music started, a hymn Nora recognized. “Be Thou My Vision.”

  All at once the entire assembly rose to their feet. Nora glanced around as everyone sang the hymn looking for any familiar faces. At last she found a row of them standing in the balcony.

  “Did he pick the music?” Nora asked Claire.

  “I don’t know. Why?”

  “This is his favorite hymn.”

  “His church seems to know it well.” Claire turned her head and looked up to the balcony. “I can hear them up there singing it.”

  “Who?”

  “Sacred Heart,” Claire said. “They’re all in the balcony. Over a hundred of them came.”

  Nora looked back and up and saw faces she recognized including Diane’s and Diane’s family. She should be up there, Nora thought. She should be with Søren’s church. But she couldn’t be. She hadn’t just left him, she’d left them, too.

  “That’s a third of the entire church,” she whispered to Claire.

  “See?” Claire said. “Told you. Once you start loving him, you can never stop.”

  Nora did love him and she would never stop loving him, which was why when he and the other fourteen Jesuits walked down the aisle and he turned his head to look at her, she smiled for him. He didn’t smile back, but she could tell he wanted to. She wished Kingsley were here to hold her other hand, but she didn’t blame him for not coming. He’d had to stand idly by and watch Søren marry Kingsley’s sister years ago. He couldn’t and wouldn’t stand idly by and watch the only man he’d ever loved pledge himself to yet another rival.

  The Final Vows ceremony involved a full Mass and all fifteen priests assisted. They looked almost angelic in their off-white vestments lined up side by side. They were a motley crew from all over the world—Africa, Asia, South America, Mexico and the United States. Søren was one of the younger ones but not the youngest. Most definitely the handsomest. At least her in opinion.

  When it came time for Communion, Nora went forward. She hadn’t taken Communion since before she left Søren. So it was fitting that she walked to his line and when he held up the wafer that was the Body of Christ, she let him place it on her tongue. When she swallowed it she felt an old wound she’d forgotten about. Then the old wound was gone, healed. The fissure in her heart sealed itself up and scarred over. The church sang a new hymn and the words spoke to her heart—Come home, come home...ye who are weary come home.

  Old words. Trite words. And yet they cut Nora’s soul to the quick.

  Nora was weary. And Nora did want to go home.

  One by one each of the fifteen priests made their vows. When Søren knelt to speak his vows, Nora breathed in at the sight—the rare sight—of Søren, penitent and humble. When he spoke the vows, his voice was strong and clear and unwavering. His words carried throughout the church like an updraft and if Nora had wings she would have been able to fly.

  “I, Marcus Lennox Stearns, make my profession, and I promise to Almighty God, in the presence of the Virgin Mother, the whole heavenly court and all those here present, and to you, Reverend Father Haas, representing the Superior General of the Society of Jesus and his successor and holding the place of God, perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience...”

  The vow recitation continued until every last priest had said his final commitment. The rest of the Mass passed in a haze. In the heat and the humidity and the fear she would fail at her task, Nora could barely concentrate on the words. Not that it mattered. She knew the Catholic Mass by heart. The words were tattooed on her mind and branded on her soul. She rattled them off without thinking.

  When the final hymn was sung and the time came for everyone to leave, Claire put her arm around Nora’s waist and together they walked down the aisle. A few minutes later the fifteen priests who’d taken their public and private vows appeared on the street to be greeted by their loved ones.

  “Go,” Nora said to Claire. “You’re the only family he has here. He’ll want you to meet his church.”

  “Can I see you again?” Claire asked. “He’s leaving and I don’t...” She stopped and swallowed hard, catching her breath. “I’d like to be around someone who knows him and loves him. I know it’s not the best idea but would you consider it?”

  “Maybe lunch?”

  “I’d like that.” Claire smiled and Nora could see her fighting tears.

  “So would I.”

  “Are you going to talk to him?” Claire asked, desperation in her eyes and hope in her voice.

  “I’ll wait until he’s alone. Go. He needs you.”

  “He needs you,” Claire said. “But I’ll go tackle-hug him in my own special way. He probably needs that, too, even if he won’t admit it.”

  “But be gentle. He’s still recovering from the accident.”

 
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