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Now, as rain began to beat on the roof and windows with renewed force, Carol sensed that he was staring at her, and she opened her eyes. They were so brown that, from a distance of more than a few inches, they looked black. She smiled. “I love you.”


“I love you,” he said.


“I thought you were dead.”


“Wasn’t.”


“After the lightning stopped, I called you, but you didn’t answer for the longest time.”


“I was busy with a call to Chicago,” he said, grinning.


“Seriously.”


“Okay. It was San Francisco."


“I was scared.”


“I couldn’t answer you right away,” he said soothingly. “In case you’ve forgotten, O’Brian fell on top of me, Knocked the wind right out. He doesn’t look so big, but he’s as solid as a rock. I guess he builds a lot of muscles by picking lint off his suits and shining his shoes nine hours a day.”


“That was a pretty brave thing you did.”


“Making love m you? Think nothing of it.”


Playfully, she slapped his face. “You know what I mean. You save O’Brian’s life.”


“Nope.”


“Yes, you did. He thought so, too.”


“For God’s sake, I didn’t step in front of him and shield him from the tree with mine own precious bod! I just pulled him out of the way. Anyone would have done the same.”


She shook her head. “Wrong. Not everyone thinks as fast as you do.”


“A fast thinker, huh? Yeah. That’s something I’ll admit to being. I’m a fast thinker, but I’m sure no hero. I won’t let you pin that label on me because then you’ll expect me to live up to it. Can you just imagine what a hell on earth Superman’s life would be if he ever married Lois Lane? Her expectations would be so high!”


“Anyway,” Carol said, “even if you won’t admit it, O’Brian knows you saved his life, and that’s the important thing.”


“It is?”


“Well, I was pretty sure the adoption agency would approve us. But now there’s not the slightest doubt about it.”


“There’s always a slim chance—”


“No,” she said, interrupting him. “O’Brian’s not going to fail you after you saved his life. Not a chance.


He’s going to wrap the recommendations committee around his finger.”


Paul blinked, then slowly broke into a smile. “I’ll


be damned. I didn’t think of that.”


“So you’re a hero, Papa.”


“Well.. . maybe I am, Mama.”


“I think I prefer ‘Mom.”


“And I prefer ‘Dad.”


“What about ‘Pop’?”


“Pop isn’t a name. It’s a sound a champagne cork makes.”


“Are you suggesting a celebration?” she asked.


“I thought we’d put on our robes, mosey down to the kitchen, and whip up an early dinner. If you’re hungry, that is.”


“Famished.”


“You can make a mushroom salad,” he said. “I’ll whip up my famous fettuccine Alfredo. We’ve got a bottle or two of Mumm’s Extra Dry we’ve been saving for a special occasion. We’ll open that, pile our plates high with fettuccine Alfredo and mushrooms, come back up here, and have dinner in bed.”


“And watch the TV news while we eat.”


“Then pass the evening reading thrillers and sipping champagne until we can’t keep our eyes open.”


“Sounds wonderfully, sinfully lazy,” she said.


More evenings than not, he spent two hours proofreading and polishing his novel. And it was an unusual night when Carol didn’t have some paperwork to catch up on.


As they dressed in robes and bedroom slippers,


Paul said, “We’ve got to learn to take most evenings off. We’ll have to spend plenty of time with the kid. We’ll owe it to him.”


“Or her.”


“Or them,” he said.


Her eyes shone. “You think they’ll let us adopt more than one?”


“Of course they will—once we’ve proven we can handle the first. After all,” he said self-mockingly, “am I not the hero who saved good old Al O’Brian’s life?”


On their way to the kitchen, halfway down the stairs, she stopped and turned and hugged him. ‘We’re really going to have a family.”


“So it seems.”


“Oh, Paul, I don’t remember when I’ve ever been so happy. Tell me this feeling’s going to last forever.”


He held her, and it was very fine to have her in his arms. When you got right down to it, affection was even better than sex; being needed and loved was better than making love.


“Tell me nothing can go wrong,” she said.


“Nothing can go wrong, and that feeling you have will last forever, and I’m glad you’re so happy. There.


How’s that?”


She kissed his chin and the corners of his mouth, and he kissed her nose.


“Now,” he said, “can we please get some fettuccine before I start chewing my tongue?”


“Such a romantic.”


“Even romantics get hungry.”


As they reached the bottom of the steps, they were startled by a sudden, loud hammering sound. It was


steady but arrhythmic: Thwsk, thunk, thunk-thunkthunk, thunk-thunk...


Carol said, “What the devil’s that?”


“It’s coming from outside.. . and above us.”


They stood on the last step, looking up and back toward the second floor.


Thunk, thunk-thunk, thunk, thunk...


“Damn,” Paul said. “I’ll bet one of the shutters came loose in the wind.” They listened for a moment, and then he sighed. “I’ll have to go out and fix it,”


“Now? In the rain?”


“If I don’t do anything, the wind might tear it clean off the house. Worse yet, it might just hang there and clatter all night. We won’t get any sleep, and neither will half the neighborhood.”


She frowned. “But the lightning. . .Paul, after everything that’s happened, I don’t think you should risk climbing around on a ladder in the middle of a storm.”


He didn’t like the idea, either. The thought of being high on a ladder in the middle of a thunderstorm made his scalp prickle.


She said, “I don’t want you to go out there if—”


The hammering stopped.


They waited.


Wind. The patter of rain. The branches of a tree scraping lightly against an outside wall.


At last, Paul said, “Too late. If it was a shutter, it’s been torn off.”


“I didn’t hear it fall.”


“It wouldn’t make much noise if it dropped in the grass or the shrubbery.”


“So you don’t have to go out in the rain,” she said, crossing the foyer toward the short hall that led to the kitchen.


He followed her. “Yeah, but now it’s a bigger repair job.


As they entered the kitchen, their footsteps echoing hollowly off the quarry-tile floor, she said, “You don’t have to worry about it until tomorrow or the day after. Right now, all you’ve got to worry about is the sauce for the fettuccine. Don’t let it curdle.”


Taking a copper saucepan from a rack of gleaming utensils that hung over the center utility island, he pretended to be insulted by her remark. “Have I ever curdled the sauce for the fettuccine?”


“Seems to me the last time you made it, the stuff


was—”


“Never!”


“Yes,” she said teasingly. “Yes, it definitely wasn’t up to par the last time.” She took a plastic bag of mushrooms from the big, stainless-steel refrigerator. “Although it breaks my heart to tell you this, the last time you made fettuccine Alfredo, the sauce was as lumpy as the mattress in a ten-dollar-a-night motel.”


“What a vile accusation! Besides, what makes you such an expert on ten-dollar-a-night motels? Are you leading a secret life I ought to know about?”


Together, they prepared dinner, chatting about this and that, bantering a lot, flying to amuse each other and to elicit a laugh now and then. For Paul, the world dwindled until they were the only two people in it. The universe was no larger than the warm, familiar kitchen.


Then lightning flickered, and the cozy mood was broken. It was soft lightning, nothing as dazzling and destructive as the bolts that had struck outside of


O’Brian’s office a few hours ago. Nevertheless, Paul stopped talking in midsentence, his attention captured by the flash, his eyes drawn to the long, many-paned window behind the sink. On the rear lawn, the trees appeared to writhe and shimmer and ripple in the fluttering storm light, so that it seemed he was looking not at the trees themselves but at their reflections in the surface of a lake.


Suddenly, another movement caught his eye, though he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. The afternoon, which had been gray and dark to begin with, was now gradually giving away to an early night, and thin fog was drifting in. Shadows lay everywhere.


The meager daylight was deceptive, muddy; it distorted rather than illuminated those things it touched. In that penumbral landscape, something abruptly darted out from behind the thick trunk of an oak tree, crossed a stretch of open grass, and quickly disappeared behind a lilac bush.


Carol said, “Paul? What’s wrong?”


“Someone’s out on the lawn.”


“In this rain? Who?”


“I don’t know.”


She joined him by the window. “I don’t see anybody.”


“Someone ran from the oak to the lilac bush. He was hunched over and moving pretty fast.”


“What’s he look like?”


“I can’t say. I’m not even sure it was a man. Might have been a woman.”


“Maybe it was just a dog.”


“Too big.”


“Could’ve been Jasper.”


Jasper was the Great Dane that belonged to the


Hanrahan family, three doors down the street. He was a large, piercing-eyed, friendly animal with an amazing tolerance for small children and a liking for Oreo cookies.


“They wouldn’t let Jasper out in weather like this,” Paul said. “They pamper that mutt.”


Lightning pulsed softly again, and a violent gust of wind whipped the trees back and forth, and rain began to fall harder than before—and in the middle of that maelstrom, something rushed out from the lilac bush.


“There!” Paul said.


The intruder crouched low, obscured by the rain and the mist, a shadow among shadows. It was illuminated so briefly and strangely by the lightning that its true appearance remained tantalizingly at the edge of perception. It loped toward the brick wall that marked the perimeter of the property, vanished for a moment in an especially dense patch of fog, reappeared as an amorphous black shape, then changed direction, paralleling the wall now, heading toward the gate at the northwest corner of the rear lawn. As the darkening sky throbbed with lightning once more, the intruder fled through electric-blue flashes, through the open gate, into the street, and away.


“Just the dog,” Carol said.


Paul frowned. “I thought I saw... .


“What?’


“A face. A woman looking back. . . just for a second, just as she went through the gate.”


“No,” Carol said. “It was Jasper.”


“You saw him?”


“Clearly?”


“Well, no, not clearly. But I could see enough to tell that it was a dog the size of a small pony, and Jasper’s the only pooch around who fits that description.”


“I guess Jasper’s a lot smarter than he used to be.”


Carol blinked. “What do you mean?”


“Well, he had to unlatch the gate to get into the yard. He never used to be able to do that trick.”


“Oh, of course he didn’t. We must have left the gate open.”


Paul shook his head. “I’m sure it was closed when we drove up a while ago.”


“Closed, maybe—but not latched. The wind pushed it open, and Jasper wandered in.”


Paul stared out at the rain-slashed fog, which glowed dully with the last somber rays of the fading twilight. “I guess you’re right,” he said, though he was not entirely convinced. “I better go latch the gate.”


“No, no,” Carol said quickly. “Not while the storm’s on.”


“Now look here, sugarface, I’m not going to jump into bed and pull the blankets over my head every time there’s a little thunder—just because of what happened this afternoon.”


“I don’t expect you to,” she said. “But before you start dancing in the rain like Gene Kelly, you’ve got to let me get over what happened today. It’s still too fresh in my mind for me to stand here watching you while you cavort across the lawn in the lightning.”


“it’ll only take a moment and—”


“Say, are you trying to get out of making that fettuccine?” she asked, cocking her head and looking at him suspiciously.


"Certainly not. I’ll finish making it as soon as I’ve gone and closed the gate.”


“I know what you’re up to, mister,” she said smugly. “You’re hoping you will be struck by lightning because you know your sauce is going to turn out lumpy, and you simply can’t take the humiliation.”


“That’s a base canard,” he said, falling easily into their game again. “I make the silkiest fettuccine Alfredo this side of Rome. Silkier than Sophia Loren’s thighs.”


“All I know is, the last time you made it, the stuff was as lumpy as a bowl of oatmeal.”


“I thought you said it was as lumpy as a mattress in a ten-dollar-a-night motel.”


She lifted her head proudly. “I’m not just a one-simile woman, you know.”


“How well I know.”


“So are you going to make fettuccine—or will you take the coward’s way out and get killed by lightning?”


“I’ll make you eat your words,” he said.


Grinning, she said, “That’s easier than eating your lumpy fettuccine.”


He laughed. “All right, all right. You win. I can latch the gate in the morning.”


He returned to the stove, and she went back to the cutting board where she was mincing parsley and scallions for the salad dressing.

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