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       The Saint, p.45

         Part #5 of The Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz
 

  “Who is it?” Nico asked.

  “Saint Monica. My mother wore it all her life. Monica, patron saint of mothers of disappointing children.”

  “Is that why she wore it? She thought you were a disappointment?”

  “Monica was also patron saint of women in abusive relationships.”

  “You said she thought Søren abused you. Is that why she wore it?”

  “No.” Nora looked Nico in the eyes. She remembered her father slapping her, shoving her, choking her. “She gave it to me before she went into the coma and told me something I never knew, but should have. Father Greg gave it to her two months after she got married. Only he knew the truth. She wore it because of my father. That’s why she’d hoped for a miscarriage. Not so she could become a nun, but so she wouldn’t have to marry my father who beat her. It wasn’t that she didn’t want me. She didn’t want him. And all this time I thought she regretted having me….”

  With a shaking hand, Nora reached out over the water and let the necklace go.

  But before it could break the surface of the lake, Nico caught it.

  She looked at him in surprise.

  “I never told you this, but you were my nightmare,” Nico said to her, clutching the medal in his fingers. “I counted ten men my mother had affairs with. Those were the ten I saw. I know there were others. I also knew I looked nothing like my father. I knew someday someone would tell me the truth, the truth I didn’t want to know. And that person was you. Even if this medal feels like a weight, don’t let it go. Your nightmare might turn into your best dream someday.”

  Nico turned his hand and showed her a tarnished gold band that he wore around it.

  “My father’s wedding ring,” Nico said.

  He took her wrist and poured the silver chain and pendant into her palm.

  “If you stood outside the circle that is Søren and me and our love for each other, you would see me sleeping with dozens of other men in the past twenty years. You would see him loving someone else, another man who Søren loves as much as he loves me. It makes no sense to anyone outside our circle. But step inside it and you’ll find nothing but love there. You don’t know what secrets your parents kept from you. You don’t know what their marriage was. If your father didn’t judge her, didn’t hate her, you shouldn’t, either.”

  Nico nodded and put his arm around her. They walked away from the water, away from the ashes, away from her grief, away from her past.

  “You’re leaving now,” she said once they reached the cottage. “I feel bad for keeping you up all night. It’s a long drive on little sleep.”

  “I’ll be thinking of you all the way home. You’ll keep me awake.”

  “Thank you for listening to me. I needed to talk last night.”

  They held each other for a long time. She felt Nico’s body trembling under her hands.

  “Are you laughing?” she asked him.

  “Trying not to,” he said. “I’m laughing at Kingsley for giving you Sutherlin as a last name.”

  “I told that asshole if he called me Eleanor Sutherlin again I’d slap him into the next century. When I became a dominatrix and needed a new name, he pulled that out of his memory banks.”

  “What did you do?” he asked, as they walked to his car.

  “I slapped him into the next century.”

  Nico grinned at her.

  “What happened to your Wyatt? Did you keep in touch with him?”

  “No,” Nora said, her smile fading. “We looked good on paper, Wyatt and I did. And Søren and I made no sense at all. But here it is, almost twenty years later and Søren and I are still together, still in love. And Wyatt …”

  “What about him?”

  Nora swallowed hard. “Four years after we graduated, they found him dead in his apartment in Chelsea.”

  Nico’s eyes widened.

  “Turns out Wyatt had bipolar disorder. Explained how he had so much energy he could talk circles around me, which takes either talent or a manic episode. A college friend of mine told me. Apparently they changed his meds and he …” She paused and tried to imagine her life had she stayed with Wyatt. Would they have married? Could she have helped him? Would she have been a widow at age twenty-six? “They published his poetry after he died. He was good.”

  “Nora,” Nico said. “So much lost.”

  “So much found.” She took his face in her hands and kissed him. “Do you believe in God?”

  “I’m a grape farmer. My whole life I’ve watched water turn into wine. Of course I believe in God.”

  She took a deep shuddering breath and looked up at Nico. Last night had meant something to her, meant so much that she couldn’t bear to sully it with a secret.

  “Ten years ago I got pregnant. It was Kingsley’s. I didn’t have the baby. I should have told you this months ago, should have told you before you even kissed me. I’m telling you now. I don’t regret my choice, but all this time I haven’t been able to shake the feeling I was supposed to have Kingsley’s child. When I learned about you that feeling finally went away.”

  Nico only stared at her a moment, and then he did something she never expected he would do. He kissed her on the forehead.

  “It went away, because I am Kingsley’s child,” he said. “And you had me, Mistress Nora, and you will always have me.”

  “Nico …”

  “Kingsley is my father. Søren is your ‘Father.’ We were meant to find each other. And that is my theology.”

  “I appreciate your theology,” she whispered.

  He kissed her then, a final kiss, a goodbye kiss. The worst kind of kiss.

  After the kiss, Nico didn’t speak. He turned away, got into his car and drove off. He didn’t look back when he left her, and she watched him until he disappeared from view.

  Nora returned to the cottage, crawled into bed and slept the day away. When she awoke it was nearly night in the Black Forest but still evening in America. She found her phone and walked with it until she picked up a signal.

  It rang only once before he answered.

  “Eleanor?”

  “God, I’ve missed you.”

  “Where are you?” Søren asked, sounding more relieved than she’d ever heard him.

  “Bavaria,” she said. “I’m in the Black Forest.”

  “Bavaria? It’s been two weeks and no one’s heard a word from you. What are you doing—”

  “Mom died.”

  On the other end of the line she heard nothing but stunned silence.

  “It was lung cancer,” she said, as if it mattered. It didn’t.

  “Little One, I’m so sorry.”

  “She only had days or hours, they didn’t know. That’s why I left so fast. I had to be there before she was gone.”

  “Were you?”

  “She was lucid for a day before lapsing into a coma for four days. I held her hand while she died.” Nora closed her eyes. Her mother had clung to life with terrifying tenacity. On the fourth night of the watch, Eleanor had fallen asleep bedside, holding her mother’s hand. Her mother’s hand was warm when Eleanor fell asleep. By the time she woke up five hours later, it was cold. “She wouldn’t have wanted me leaning on you for comfort. She wouldn’t have wanted you there, even for me. Out of respect for her …”

  “I understand,” he said. “I know how she felt about me. And I was always grateful that she kept our secret even though she hated me.”

  “I owed her because of that. Before she died, she said she wanted her ashes spread here in the Black Forest. This was her favorite place as a little girl.”

  “How are you, Eleanor?” Søren asked, and she heard the concern in his voice from an ocean away. “Tell me the truth.”

  “We’re all orphans now—you, me, Kingsley,” she said, and she didn’t know why. “I wonder what that means.”

  “It means we must love each other even more because all we have is each other.”

  “I’m sorry I missed our anniversary, sir.”
<
br />   She broke on the sir and cried into the phone.

  “You shouldn’t be alone right now,” Søren said. “I hate that you’re alone.”

  “I’m okay, I promise.”

  “When’s your flight home?” he asked.

  “I don’t have one. I bought a one-way ticket.”

  Søren went silent on the other end.

  “Eleanor,” he finally said, “you are coming back, aren’t you?”

  “I’m coming back. I always come back to you. Eventually. And you know how much trouble I get into in Europe anyway. Better get out before I do something I regret.”

  “I don’t think you’ve ever regretted anything you’ve ever done in your entire life, Little One. And that is why I love you so much.”

  “Will you love me if I stay here a little while longer?”

  “What’s keeping you in Germany?”

  “Nothing,” she said truthfully. “Nothing at all.”

  “Is something keeping you in France?”

  Although his words were as neutral as his tone, she knew that he knew. He might not know she and Nico had spent the night together, but he knew what they were to each other. She could hide nothing in her heart from Søren.

  “It is beautiful there,” she said.

  “You’ve been through so much in the past few months. Take all the time you need. But know I will miss you every moment until you come home to me.”

  “I love you, sir.”

  “I love you, too, Little One. And you should know, your mother loved you, too. She told me that in the days before I became the enemy. She told me how much she loved you.”

  “I miss her, Søren. I didn’t think I would miss her this much.”

  “You miss her so much because you lost her twenty years ago, and only now are you letting yourself grieve.”

  “She turned her back on me the night you sent me away.”

  “I came back for you.”

  “She didn’t,” Nora said.

  “That was her loss, and my eternal gain.”

  Nora didn’t speak. And into the silent void of her pain, Søren prayed aloud over the phone.

  “‘Therefore once for all this short command is given to you—love and do what you will. If you keep silent, keep silent by love, if you speak, speak by love, if you correct, correct by love, if you pardon, pardon by love—let love be rooted in you, and from the root nothing but good can grow.’”

  “Amen,” Nora said. “That’s beautiful. Whose prayer is that?”

  “Saint Augustine’s.”

  Eleanor smiled. “Monica’s sinner son.”

  “Monica’s sainted son,” Søren said, ever the pedant, ever the priest.

  Nora told Søren she loved him one more time before hanging up and walking back to the cottage.

  She hadn’t slept well for two weeks. Now she surrendered to her exhaustion and slept through the night. When she woke up, she knew exactly what do with her mother’s Saint Monica medal.

  In no hurry whatsoever, Nora cleaned up last night’s mess in the cottage. The cottage had treated her well, given her and Nico sanctuary—she would return the kindness. She packed and dressed and put her things in the car.

  She drove all day, leaving Bavaria far behind her. Her mother had been born in Germany and Germany was part of Nora’s ancestry, her past. Now she looked to the future.

  At dusk she finally passed through Marseille. At nightfall she stood in front of a French country house that stood on dusty soil in the midst of rolling acres of grape vines.

  She knocked on the door.

  “Sanctuary?” she said to Nico when he opened the door.

  He narrowed his eyes at her.

  “If I let you in, I’ll put you to work.”

  “I’ll earn my keep.”

  “Not in the vineyards. I want stories.”

  “Stories I have. And it’s you I want.”

  He took a step back and let her in the door. He dragged her into his arms and brought her to his bed. They made love in a frenzy and when the frenzy passed, Nora pulled the Saint Monica medal from her bag and clasped it around Nico’s neck. The silver shone against his skin like moonlight on water.

  “There are three eternal truths about me you have to know, Nico,” she said. “I love Søren. I belong to Søren. And I will go back to Søren.”

  “Wine and women should always be allowed to breathe. You own me. I would never try to own you.”

  “I’ve never owned anyone before.” She touched the medal where it hung next to his heart. “I’ve done everything else, but never that.”

  “I’m honored to be your first.” Nico kissed her to make it official. If a promise couldn’t be sealed with a kiss, it wasn’t a promise worth making.

  She stretched out on top of him, her head on his shoulder and his arm around her, not to keep her but simply to hold her.

  “Where’s my story?” Nico asked.

  “Which one do you want? I have so many stories …”

  “Tell me the one that you said would make me love Kingsley.”

  “That’s a fun story. It involves a lesbian bartender in a three-piece suit, your father in a corset and high heels and a televangelist with a dirty secret.”

  Nico’s chest rumbled with his laugh.

  “Tell me,” he said. “Tell me all your stories.”

  “This is the story they told me. And now I’m telling it to you.”

  She settled in closer to Nico, as close as she could get. She would return home to America and to Søren eventually, but now this was her home—Nico’s bed, Nico’s body, Nico’s heart. Søren owned her and Kingsley. Kingsley owned Juliette. And now that she owned Nico it was as if the final tumbler had turned and the one locked door in her life opened. Time to walk through it.

  She took a breath and began her tale.

  “Once there lived a King without a kingdom …”

  *****

 
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