I finished reading the proposal and laid it down with a sigh. There was passion in the theory and the experiments done up to this point. The request for my help would be answered in the affirmative but I wondered what the repercussions would be. The scientist was high-profile and highly controversial but in a very real sense he was quietly asking for sanctuary.
His passionate words had a faint underline of despair that spoke to my father's heart.
Flicking on the intercom, I spoke to my assistant. "Sandy, we're going to open up lab three. Tomorrow morning, let's meet there so we can see what Dr. Alexander needs."
"Cool! We're going to have a visiting doctor?" Her throaty alto came from the door and she smiled at me.
I grinned at her. "Dr. Alexander has reached a point where he needs a bigger lab to work on his poly-resin. He doesn't have the resources he needs in the small town where he's currently living. We're not going to advertise it but he's coming here to start the next phase. His health isn't the best at the moment so I'm hoping that he'll take some time for a little vacation here."
"Old and frail, huh? I can pamper with the best of them." She volunteered quickly.
I chuckled. "He's a year younger than you, Sandy and I don't think he'll allow you to pamper him." I thought for a moment, pondering the subterfuge that should probably start now. "He's been trying to juggle his science and his family obligations to the point where he's on the verge of a breakdown. The little cottage near the lab should be just the safe haven that he needs to recoup."
"Poor guy, it's too bad that he doesn't have a great family like the Quests and the Goodalls." She said with another grin and a wink.
"The difference in families could not be greater." I said fervently, counting my blessings. "Why don't we call it a day? There's a barbeque with our names on it setting up on the beach."
"Good call," she started removing her lab coat while I got up and put the proposal into the safe. No one would learn of this from me. I could only imagine what Alexander was going through at his end.
The comics were packed up and on their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The books in my library, except for the ones I was taking with me, had all taken up their new residence in the local library. Miss Clark was overjoyed with the donation and they were one less tie to my old life. The clothes and shoes were off to the nearest Goodwill. The antique furniture had all been shipped to a dozen museums. The wine cellar was empty, the wine all shipped to Bruce over in Gotham.
I walked through the empty rooms. Everyone had been sent away with bonuses so the only echoes were mine. Good memories and bad, they were all still here, lurking in the corners of the castle that my mother had left to me, ready to leap out at me. But I was numb from my head to my toes so even if they attacked, they could no longer hurt me.
Nothing could hurt me anymore. I was about to be disinherited. I had no friends to care what happened to me. I was sick of my life and tired of living. My experiments were the only solace I had and they were going to be taken from me if I obeyed my father. It was time to give up. Give in to the inevitable and leave.
The six boxes of things I was going to keep had gone on a circuitous route to Palm Key. I had a suitcase in the 2002 Chevy Malibu that I'd bought for cash in Tulsa. My high priced cars had all been given away. The truck that I'd bought for my almost-friend but had never been allowed to give him had been donated to the high school. Someone would get some good out of it.
I looked out of the study window at the desolate landscape. While my mother lived it had been home, once she died, I descended into hell. Part of it was my own fault; part of it was fate or destiny or what ever the world wanted to call it. I didn't care any more. I was going to throw myself on the kindness of a man that I'd met once four years before but had been corresponding with ever since.
It was time to give up the fast-paced, cut-throat world of business. Science had always been where I'd retreated when life got to be too much. If I was very lucky, it would take care of me for the rest of my life. Checking my watch, I took one last look around before walking out the front door and down to the car. Getting in, I drove down the lane. Just before I got to the stop sign, I stopped and looked back.
With the push of a button, I watched the great pile of stone implode with a small rumble of sound, the first red gold flames beginning to glow. Sighing, I drove on. The past was dead and now, so was Alexander Luthor.
Dr. Alexander had been ensconced in lab three for almost two weeks and I still hadn't laid eyes on him. We'd cleaned it all out and put in the supplies that he'd requested. Race had disappeared one day and come back really late that night. I'd seen the little Lear jet land from my bedroom window but I couldn't see who got off. I hoped that the new scientist would like the flowers I'd put in the cottage to welcome him.
For six days, there were no signs of life in the lab or the cottage. The window shades stayed closed and I wondered if the poor man had slept the whole week away. But the next Monday morning, a stack of computer readouts appeared on the back step with Dr. Quest's name on them. I'd looked around but there was no one nearby so I'd shrugged and carried them in.
They appear inside now, on the corner of Dr. Quest's desk. He must have given the doctor a key. I was beginning to think the guy was a vampire who worked all night before seeking shelter at dawn. It was kind of creepy but Dr. Quest never batted an eye, just adjusted some of our experiments to include the data from the silent doctor.
I would have been more curious, but one thing stopped me. The second night after he arrived, I was strolling on the beach near the cottage. Yeah, I was trying to catch a glimpse of him. Instead, I caught the sound of sobbing. Hoarse, deep sobs that sounded like they hurt. For just a moment, I remembered hearing my grandmother cry like that when my maternal grandfather had died.
And I couldn't keep from crying myself. Who ever he was, he was in pain. That curbed my curiosity completely and I put it aside and decided to do all I could to help his experiments succeed. The poly-resin was amazing stuff. The molecular structure was almost alien. We had a piece of green rock that Dr. Quest all but salivated over. He said it was from a meteor shower that had landed in the Midwest a few years back.
We had a lot of it though. Dr. Alexander must have shipped it all to Palm Key when he knew he was coming. He'd made one stipulation - it all had to stay in lead lined boxes when we weren't working with it. Dr. Quest had shown me some news stories about weird mutations and all kinds of eerie happenings. He said the rocks were somehow connected.
I wondered if Dr. Alexander had lost a loved one to them. That thought made me even more protective of the poor man and I made sure that I snuck something chocolate into the supplies that Lazlo, our cook, boxed up for the cottage. It wasn't ever returned like the mushrooms and strawberries were so I figured we shared a little addiction.
One of these days, I was going to see him in person.
Security was tight and that's just the way I like it. I'd had some misgivings when Benton told me that we were taking in a stray but he'd settled in like he'd always lived here. He sent nothing off the island and the only thing that came in for him was the occasional delivery from bookstores. I'd been a little taken a back at the lengths he'd gone to sever all ties but they'd worked. To the outside world, he'd been dead and buried for ten months.
His father, the cold hearted bastard, hadn't even pretended to mourn the loss of his only son. He'd buried him and then announced that his new wife was carrying their first child. Off with the old and on with the new seemed to be his attitude. Benton and I had both hugged Jonny to within an inch of his life when we read that. I wished that someone had taken the time to hug the young scientist just once with love.
"You're thinking about Alex, aren't you, love?" Benton's voice came from just over my shoulder. "He's slowly healing, Race. But . . . damn, he's at rock bottom. Science is all that's keeping him going. If I hadn't said yes, I think he would have killed himself. How could his father not love him?"
I turned and pulled him into my arms. "I don't know, Benton. He's bright, intelligent, well read. Did I tell you that our portfolio has doubled since he's been advising me? It's like you do the crossword puzzle every morning, only he does the stock market. If you want to buy that cyclotron you wanted, we can afford it now."
His lips nuzzled mine before he slipped his tongue inside my mouth and kissed me silly. After all these years, he can still bring me from lax to hard in about two minutes. I'm a very lucky man to have such a talented lover. Finally we had to breathe and I rested my forehead against his.
"We've got that delegation from CalTech coming in two days. Are you going to tell him or should I?" I asked quietly.
"I will. He'll probably barricade himself in the lab until it's safe to come out. I wish he felt comfortable enough to come and have dinner with us." Benton sighed. "Sandy has curbed her curiosity admirably but it would do him good to talk to someone other than me. She would cheer him better than that chocolate he loves."
I brushed back the lock of hair that was always falling onto his forehead. "She told me that she heard him crying one of those first nights he was here. She said he sounded like a lost soul in the deepest layer of hell. I think she'll curb that curiosity for as long as he needs. He's so young to be that tormented. It's a good thing that he's got a spine made of titanium. It may be the only thing that bastard father of his passed on to him."
"He got his strength from his mother. Lillian was one of the most beautiful women I ever met. If she hadn't died when he was young, I think his life would have been very different. He and Jonny have a lot in common but the differences there are . . . well," I hugged him a little closer.
His warm lips brushed my throat. "The difference was definitely the fathers they had. Maybe when Jonny comes home from college, he'll be able to draw Alex out into the light of day."
"Maybe. I think he needs time, time to heal and time to finish grieving for what he left behind." I'd done my best to interest him in something outside of the solar experiments but he was intently focused on the science. "I think that people kept telling him that he was going to be just like his father to the point that he might have actually followed that path. But something happened or someone said something that led him here. For as long as he wants or needs to stay, he'll have the sanctuary for which he asked."
"You're a good man, Benton Quest." Race's callused fingers traced my lips. "I love you more today than I did twenty years ago. Maybe there'll be someone like you for Alex one of these days. For now, you'd better go tell him about our impending visitors. I'll take a last check of security then I'll meet you back at our hot tub." He winked at me and I shivered.
"Good thinking, love, I'll meet you there." I brushed a kiss over his lips. "There, that's a reminder of what we'll be doing a little later."
He just laughed and let me go, striding towards the marina to check on the new launch we'd bought with some of the royalties of my last invention. I followed the path to lab three and rang the bell to alert Alex to my presence. The security camera showed him it was me and the door slid open with an almost silent whoosh. The lab was basically one room divided by work tables and steel shelving into three work spaces.
Alex was working in the 'wet' section today, experimenting with various liquids to see how the poly-resin would react. He looked up with a question in his eyes when I walked over to see what he was doing.
"Sorry, Alex, we've got a class from CalTech coming on Wednesday and staying until Saturday. I wanted to give you a heads up in case you'd decided to finally accept Sandy's invitation to dinner." I teased him gently and his lips crooked up a millimeter.
"She's tenacious, isn't she?" His voice was low and husky, reminding me of hundred year old whiskey. "Tell her that I'm thinking about it."
Benton chuckled and peered at the reagents I had lined up. "For what it's worth, Alex, I think she'd be safe to see you without your disguise. Sandy loves her job and she's dedicated to science."
I shook my head. "I'm sure she is, Benton. It's . . . just too soon. I'm enjoying the silence, the reprieve from having to play a part."
His hand gently patted my shoulder and I didn't even flinch. "Think of it as a Christmas present then. Another month and we'll be celebrating that festive holiday."
"Will Jonny and Hadji be home for the holidays?" I really was a masochist, I decided. Happy families were rare and knowing they existed was like a knife wound to my heart.
"They will." He lit up just thinking about it. "Maybe we can coax you into celebrating with us, too."
I shivered and dropped my eyes. "Not yet, Benton, maybe not ever. Christmas doesn't hold many good memories for me. I'd just be the skeleton at the feast." I managed a smile for him. "I will take the day off though. Lazlo promised to give me the makings of gingerbread and I'll bake some in honor of my mother. She used to take over the kitchen once a year with me as her helper. Then we'd eat every bit of it over the next few days. No one . . . no one else liked it. I'll make sure that Sandy gets a piece."
"She'll love it." Benton radiated warmth from where he stood next to me. "Whatever you're comfortable with, Alex, that's what you should do. You're still healing and I'll help in any way I can to help you with that process."
He would, too. I was constantly amazed by his gentle but fierce spirit. I had to swallow the lump in my throat in order to answer. "Thank you, Benton. Someday I'll wake up and be ready to come out of the shadows but not just yet."
"All right, the class will be here from Wednesday through Saturday. They'll be working with us on assembling the solar panels into the new configuration during the week. Then we'll have a barbeque on Saturday down on the beach near the cove with games and swimming." He grinned. "And probably music and dancing. Race has his ear plugs ready."
I couldn't help but smile. The tall security expert had mentioned his dislike for modern music on more than one occasion when he stopped by while I had some CD playing. I'd kept all my music when I left, shipping them down earlier with the sound system that I didn't want to give up. Sooner or later I was going to have to mobilize the alternate personality I'd created and order some of the new albums that had come out since I'd left.
The class came and went; I traveled home for Thanksgiving week while the boss and Race left for the mainland to celebrate with Jonny and Hadji at MIT. Dr. Alexander spent the holiday alone, I guess. I'd begun thinking of him as a phantom or an inter-dimensional being working through some kind of nexus point to our universe.
Read much science fiction, Sandy? I'd brought back some of Mom's white chocolate fudge, sent it in to him via the grocery run with a little note wishing him a happy holiday and gotten an e-mail thank you.
I grinned and fed in more data to the computer. A ding told me that I had e-mail and I clicked on it. //Miss Goodall, do you like gingerbread?//
Gingerbread? //Yes, Dr. Alexander, I love it.//
//Good.// And that was it - he logged off.
Shaking my head, I thought about the old-young man in lab three. I wanted to shake whoever had made him so afraid of being himself that he couldn't act naturally. Hadn't anyone seen the sweet soul who lived inside of him? I'd caught a glimpse of him walking on the beach at midnight one night, his black hair every which-way and the dark clunky glasses perched on his nose. He looked like every geek I'd ever known except for one thing.
His body moved like a sleek jungle cat in a way that made the inner-me purr. I'd just bet he was dynamite in bed. But when he stood for a moment looking out to sea, all I saw was the slumped shoulders and the almost wistful way he turned back to his cottage. I had the urge to go and hug him. Well, that and get him some mousse for his hair.
I went back to my number crunching with a faint anticipation of gingerbread to come. But three weeks went by and I'd forgotten all about it when Jonny and Hadji came home from college. Jonny still made my heart beat a little faster when he swept me up in a bear hug. He looked more like Race than Benton now that he'd finished growing although he had his father's chin and a look about his eyes that echoed his dad's.
But the blue eyes and white-blond hair was pure Race. I wished I'd met Jonny's mother before she died. Pictures just didn't do it when it came to wondering what she'd been like. I wished for a lot of things lately but tamped them down into my brain for later.
Hadji had shot up another six inches and added some muscle to his already sleek body. I had a sudden wish that I could see him and Dr. Alexander together. They moved almost the same. A vision of them naked and swimming in the ocean made my panties dampen. I love my life and this job.
It was good to have the boys home. Jonny was more grounded than the year before and he looked like he'd come to some decisions about his life. If the way he was looking at Sandy was any indication, we were going to be celebrating more than just the end of another year.
Hadji had grown into his body and I watched him watching us with a little wrinkle of thought between his eyes. Benton had formally adopted him years ago but at the moment he looked like he was weighing us. He had something on his mind and I waited patiently for him to come to us with what was worrying him.
Three days later he asked me quietly if I'd walk with him around the island. I accepted at once and we began to circle the island on the path that paralleled the beaches and coves of Palm Key. He was a little tense but his shoulders gradually relaxed when I didn't say anything.
"I'm gay, Race." He finally said.
I blinked. "I see. Have you found someone that you want to bring home?"
He smiled at me then a frown took its place and he shook his head. "I thought I had. He's a little older than me and a computer engineer. I wanted to go slow but he . . . he wanted it all. One night we'd been drinking a little more than I usually allow and a wrestling match ensued. If Mike hadn't come back to the apartment early, I think he would have forced me."
A white-hot anger made me go rigid. "He tried to rape you? Thank god for your roommate."
Hadji rubbed his arms, crossing them in front of his body. "Simon apologized the next day but something wasn't right and when I asked Mike his opinion of him, he hemmed and hawed until he finally broke down and gave me the truth. Simon had been bragging that he was fucking Dr. Quest's mongrel son."
"What?" I stopped dead and wondered if Alex knew of a good assassin. "That bastard!"
Hadji stopped too and I saw the tears in his eyes. "I left campus early and took the train to Miami so I had some time to think."
I opened my arms and hugged him close. "Hadji, being gay is fine with us, you have to know that. And somewhere there is a man who'll love you for the wonderful man that you're becoming. You never have to settle for anyone less than your soul mate."
Race was making everything better just the way that I knew he would. I'd been such an idiot that all I'd wanted to do was run home and hide. How could I have been so mistaken? Simon had snowed me completely. I'd believe every soft word and declaration of love. I was nothing but a fool.
"Hadji, you are not an idiot." He echoed my thoughts the way that he usually did. I was so lucky to have him and Benton for foster fathers. "Remember Carrie-the-hurricane-Withers? We all have mistakes in our pasts. Well, except for Benton who got lucky the first time around."
"And the second time around, too." I dried my eyes on his shirt before looking him straight in the eye. "I look at the two of you and I want that with all my heart."
"We're very lucky, I agree." His big warm hand cupped my cheek. "It will happen for you, Hadji, it will. Don't let Simon the Shit make you gun-shy or afraid to try again. Let your heart rest and heal over the holidays. You'll be graduating in May and then you can tell us what you want to do next. Take your time, we'll back you whatever you decide."
I nodded and pulled far enough away so we could start walking again. "I can't decide between botany and writing. The best of all possible worlds would be a career that combines them both. I just don't know what that is."
He chuckled but kept an arm around my shoulders. "Maybe you'll invent a whole new field?"
We kept walking and talking almost all the way around the island. I felt a lot better by then and finally noticed something that I should have seen earlier. "Race, the cottage is occupied. Do we have a visiting scientist?"
Nodding, he sighed a little. "Not a visitor, Hadj' but someone here permanently. Dr. Alexander is someone that Benton has been corresponding with for the last four years. He's a bit of a recluse so I doubt that you'll meet him this time. He went through a bad patch himself although we don't know all the details. When Alex wrote asking for sanctuary, Benton gave it to him. He's a good man with a horrible family."
"The Quests are still taking in strays, I see." I teased him and he tousled my hair.
"Only the best for this family," he reminded me with a smile.
When Race told me Hadji's sad tale, I wanted to track his bastard-would-be lover down and eviscerate him. I made sure that we hugged our foster son everyday he was home and told him how much we loved him. Jonny knew something was going on but he didn't push and finally Hadji told him, too. My son rallied around at once and together they plotted a way to make sure that Simon the Shit, Race's nickname for him, got what was coming to him.
I made sure that Race and I didn't know a thing. Plausible denial ability is a wonderful thing. Christmas Day came and went with a cookout on the beach with everyone except Alex. But he sent gingerbread that was dark, rich and gummy. With some of Lazlo's whipped cinnamon crème, it was delicious. There wasn't a crumb left and Sandy wrote him a thank you note, tucking it into the gift we'd gotten for him.
Race and I had ordered six of the newest music CDs of the groups we'd heard him play in the lab. When I took it to him, he held it for the longest time, not opening the box and looking as if he wanted to cry. I wanted to hug him in the worst way but he just wasn't someone with whom you took that kind of liberty. Finally he carefully removed the paper and ribbon, opening it and then smiling delightedly.
"Thank you, Benton." His silver-gray eyes blinked at me. "I was going to order them after the holidays when the shopping fever went down. Please thank Race and Sandy for me, too."
"I will if you'll accept a dinner invitation once the boys have left to go back to college. Your gingerbread was such a success that Lazlo is willing to trade you his recipe for cinnamon crème for your recipe for the gingerbread. It was a great success, I'll have you know."
He blushed and looked flustered. "It . . . it's just plain gingerbread. I'll think about it."
I nodded and left him to his work. When I found Race, he hugged me close. "We're this close to getting him out of his funk. I think he's going to say yes. Eventually."
Race kissed me then we went to find the boys. It had been a great Christmas.
End part one