Listed: Volumes I-VI

FOURTEEN

 

Paul jerked awake with a painful throb in his lower back.

He’d fallen asleep in the chair beside Emily’s bed, and his eyes cut immediately over to where she lay. She was pale, damp, and tossing restlessly, and Amy was bending over the bed and trying to wipe her face with a cool cloth.

Emily had been too sick for the last three days to fly back to Philadelphia, so they were still in the hotel suite in Hawaii. She’d had a fever now for over seventy-two hours, and Paul couldn’t quell a heavy weight in his gut that seemed to signal they were nearing the end.

Her fever wasn’t getting better this time because it wasn’t going to get better. Ever.

He had to force down the insistent toll of warning in his mind. If he thought about it, he wouldn’t be able to function at all.

And Emily needed him.

“She’s not any better?” he asked, his voice cracking with fatigue and emotion.

Amy shook her head. “She still seems to be getting worse.” The woman sounded strained, which was disturbing in someone as no-nonsense as the nurse. “I’m going to draw her another bath.”

Paul forced himself to his feet, although his sore back and his neck both resisted the motion. He took Amy’s place wiping Emily’s hot face as the nurse went into the bathroom to turn on the water in the tub.

Emily squirmed in evident agony, throwing off the sheet that had been covering her. She was dead white, and perspiration streamed off her skin. “Paul,” she gasped, arching up as her eyes flew open.

“I’m here, baby,” Paul murmured. He tried to sound comforting, but his voice cracked again. He felt groggy and heavy and like he couldn’t think clearly. He hadn’t slept more than a half-hour at a time in three days, not willing to leave his wife for so long.

She didn’t appear to hear him. Her eyes stared blindly up at the ceiling. “Paul, don’t! Please, no!”

Paul couldn’t tell what she was seeing, what she was imagining in her delirium, but it must have been a nightmare scenario. He only hoped he wasn’t the one hurting her in her fevered dreams.

She kept mumbling and occasionally crying for him to stop. To stop doing something.

“It’s okay, baby,” he murmured, reaching toward her with the washcloth again. “It’s okay.”

It wasn’t okay, but there wasn’t anything else he could say.

She jerked away from his touch, her blue eyes still wide and wild. Before he could pull back his hand, her arm flung up toward him, her fingers tightened in a fist.

It connected hard with his cheekbone, just under his right eye. He grunted at the sudden impact and pain.

“Are you all right?” Amy asked, emerging from the bathroom and hurrying back over to the bed.

Paul blinked dazedly through a shock of pain. His eye watered reflexively. “I’m fine. She’s delirious again.”

Emily was writhing frantically now, her legs and arms flailing with aimless motion, and she kept crying for Paul to stop.

Amy had pulled out the thermometer and was trying to hold it against Emily’s forehead, but her head was tossing too wildly against the pillow. “Can you try to hold her still?”

Paul reached back down to the bed, his face still throbbing from where Emily had punched him, and he grabbed her shoulders tightly enough for Amy to take her temperature.

When Amy pulled back the thermometer, her face changed. “Oh God,” she muttered, staring down at the digital numbers of the tiny display.

Paul swallowed hard, a wave of cold panic overwhelming him. Amy had never been anything except calm and professional, but she looked scared now at how high Emily’s temperature had spiked. Paul couldn’t bring himself to ask how high it was.

“We need to get her into the bath,” Amy said, putting down the thermometer and looking calm again.

Together, they managed to take off Emily’s clothes, and then Paul fought through her struggling until he was able to gather her up in his arms. She landed one more punch—this time to the side of his jaw, but he barely felt the pain.

The pain in his chest was much, much worse.

“Paul, no! No, no!” Emily screamed hoarsely, her voice loud and piercing in his ear as he carried her.

He managed to lower her into the tub without hurting her, although she was writhing and flailing so frantically that the bathroom floor was soon covered with water. The cool water seemed to soothe her a little, and her screaming soon subdued to mumbled pleas.

Paul knelt down beside the tub, his trousers and t-shirt soaked through with water. Every part of his body ached, but none as painfully as his chest. He took a clean washcloth, dampened it with cold water and wiped at Emily’s face as she squirmed and choked out incoherent words.

Emily tossed her head a few times, and then her wide eyes landed on Paul. For just a moment, she appeared to see him. “Paul, help!”

Paul closed his eyes briefly, swallowing hard over the tightness in his throat that just wouldn’t go away. “I’m trying. I promise I’m trying.”

Amy took Emily’s temperature again. After checking it, she left the bathroom without explanation.

Paul was too distracted to even wonder what the nurse was doing.

“Please help!” Emily gasped again, arching up in the tub. “Paul, please!”

He wiped at her face with the cool cloth. “I don’t know what else to do, baby,” he choked, his throat almost too tight to even speak.

For a moment, he was swallowed up by the helplessness. His wife was dying. She was dying in front of his eyes, and there was nothing in the world he could do to stop it.

Amy returned to the bathroom then with a bucket of ice in her hands. Paul watched blankly as the woman dumped it into the tub.

Evidently reading his look correctly, Amy explained, “We need to bring her fever down.”

“I thought ice baths weren’t good for fevers.”

“In general, they aren’t, but her fever can’t stay this high for long or it might…damage her brain. We need to bring it down quickly.”

Paul froze.

Amy’s expression was still composed, but there was a brief flash of pity in her eyes. “Keep cooling her down. I’ll get more ice.”

Paul fought through the bleak despair until he could move again. He swished the ice around in the bathwater and then cooled down the washcloth again with the freezing water.

The drop in temperature seemed to have an effect. Emily stopped writhing and let out a long sigh. “Paul,” she breathed.

With a painful gulp, Paul kept cooling her down. When Amy came in with more ice, he said, “It seems to be helping.”

Amy checked Emily's temperature again and looked relieved at the result. They kept her in the bath until she started to shiver, and then Paul gathered her small, wet body up into his arms again. She seemed to weigh nothing at all, which was terrifying and heartbreaking. It felt like she was slipping out of his grip for good.

When they dried her off and got her into bed, she drifted off into an exhausted sleep. Paul’s chest could finally unclench, at least for the moment.

“Why don’t you get some sleep?” Amy suggested. “You’ve been awake for days.”

Paul shook his head. “I’m not going to leave her, but you need to rest too. I can sit with her while you get some sleep.”

Amy started to object, but Paul insisted, “I mean it. I’m not expecting you to work around the clock.” He should have hired another nurse to relieve Amy, but he wasn’t willing to risk his precious wife with a stranger. Not at this point. A doctor stopped by twice a day, and they kept in regular contact with Dr. Franklin. He’d had another treatment he wanted to try, so the local doctor administered that yesterday and then again this morning.

The new treatment obviously wasn’t working any better than the other ones had.

“All right,” Amy relented. “If you’ll take a shower, change clothes, and get something to eat first, I’ll rest for a couple of hours.”

It was a reasonable compromise, and Paul agreed. It was ridiculously hard for him to even leave the room, though. He showered quickly, put on clean clothes, and then swallowed down a sandwich and soup that room service had brought up. He barely tasted it, but he finished it quickly so he could get back to Emily.

When he returned to the bedroom, he saw that she was still sleeping peacefully. Her fever hadn’t broken, but at least it had lowered enough for her to sleep. Amy went to her room to rest, saying she wouldn’t be more than a couple of hours, and he should wake her if anything changed.

Paul sank into the chair where he’d spent most of the last three days.

“Paul,” Emily gasped, her eyes opening without warning after several minutes of silence.

“I’m here,” he said, leaning over to cool down her face. Her hair was still wet from the bath, and it clung to her hot skin.

Emily turned to look at him, and it was clear she knew who he was now. She smiled at him weakly. “Hi.”

He smiled back, almost choking on a surge of emotion. “Hi.”

“You should get some sleep.” She shifted beneath the covers and pulled her arms out from beneath the sheets to rest them on top instead.

“I’m fine,” Paul lied. “This chair is comfortable.”

Emily snorted, but her expression changed when she looked at his face again. “What happened to you?”

Paul frowned, confused and worried by her flare of anxiety. “What do you mean?”

“You…you’re…beat up.”

He remembered that she’d punched him twice earlier. He’d barely noticed, but his face must be starting to bruise from the blows. He gave a nonchalant shrug. “It’s nothing.”

“I did that,” she said, licking her dry lips.

Paul reached for the bottle of water beside the bedside and helped her take a few sips. When her eyes still studied him anxiously, he quirked his mouth. “I’m sure I deserved it. Don’t worry about it, baby.”

She fumbled for his hand until he offered it to her. She brought it up to her lips and kissed the palm.

The fond little gesture was almost too much for Paul. He looked away and breathed shakily.

She gave him a moment to recover, but, when he looked back at her again, she asked, “Do you feel up to reading more Hamlet? We just have the last act to go.”

“Of course,” Paul agreed immediately, standing up to get the book from the top of the desk in the room. He'd been reading to her from it in her lucid moments for the last three days.

He didn’t actually feel up to reading. His mind was so blurred with fatigue and emotional strain that he could barely focus on the words, and his voice rasped painfully as he spoke.

He would deny Emily nothing that was in his power to give her, however, and this was one of the few things he could.

So he began to read Act Five out loud, and he continued to read, even when Emily started to shift restlessly in the bed with discomfort. He paused a few times to cool her down a little and give her more medication, but otherwise he read straight through.

He tried not to think much about what he was reading, particularly when characters started to die. The reflections on death at the end were almost too much, and he could barely get through Hamlet’s dying speech.

Tears were streaming down Emily’s face when he finished the final lines of the play, with Fortinbras's instructions for Hamlet's body to be carried away in honor.

He had to look away again for a moment, but then he managed to ask, somewhat casually, “So what did you think?”

She was pale and incredibly weak, and obviously in a lot of pain, but she smiled at him through her tears. “I loved it. It was the right one to…to end with.” Her face twisted with another surge of grief.

Paul couldn’t stand. He just couldn’t stand it. Every instinct in his body was screaming at him to escape. It hurt too much. He couldn’t remember anything hurting more.

He couldn’t leave her, but he couldn’t answer. So he distracted himself by checking her temperature and wiping her face again. Her fever was still high—almost 103—but not nearly as high as it had been earlier.

Emily didn’t say anything. She just gazed up at his face with an expression that looked like understanding.

When he was able to speak, he said, “Don’t talk that way. This isn’t the end.”

But it was the end. He knew it. She knew it.

It just was.

Emily smiled at him but didn’t argue or respond.

She moved around in the bed, evidently trying to find a cooler spot. “What a work is man…what was it?”

Paul knew exactly what the garbled question meant. “‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!’”

She nodded as he quoted the lines from Hamlet. “How old was he when he wrote this play?”

 “I don’t know. Mid-thirties or something, I’d guess.”

“Imagine doing so much before you were forty. Writing something so true and beautiful and…and good. Something that lasted so long. All I’ve done is my list.”

“You’ve done a lot more than that, baby.”

Tears streamed out of her eyes as she nodded in acknowledgement.

On the verge of total collapse, Paul focused enough to pull the list out of the nightstand drawer and unfold it. Only one item remained. He knew what she would need without her having to ask, so he found a pen.

She was too weak to hold the pen, so he positioned it in her hand and guided it as together they crossed through the last item on the list.

They both stared down at the worn paper—fourteen items, now all crossed off.

The fulfillment of twelve-year-old Emily’s dreams for her life.

The pen dropped out of her hand, and she closed her eyes with a smile. “I love you, Paul. Thank you so much for helping me do all this.”

“You’re welcome, baby. I love you too.”

After a brief pause, she added, “I can’t believe you had those lines memorized.  You really are kind of a geek, you know.”

The amusement surprised him into a choked laugh. “Just don’t tell anyone else.”

She didn’t reply. Paul stared down at her, and the amusement disappeared in an instant. Something dark and heavy and awful started to rise up in his chest.

Her body had relaxed. Her eyes remained closed. Her skin and lips were as pale as the white sheets beneath her. She looked satisfied, at peace.

Finished.

“Emily,” he rasped, pushing the pen and list out of the way and grabbing her hand. “Emily, don’t you dare give up!” His voice was rough, insistent, absolutely desperate.

She didn’t respond. Didn’t react. She let out another long breath, and her body seemed to grow limper. It was as if she were letting go—of everything.

Panic swallowed him up, and he fell on his knees beside the bed, clinging to her hand.  “Emily, baby, please don’t leave me. I mean it.”

She didn’t even seem to hear him. Maybe she had just fallen asleep in absolute exhaustion, but something had changed about her body, about her face. Paul was terrified she wouldn’t wake up again.

He fumbled for her pulse, and it took a minute before he could feel that her heart was still beating faintly.

“Emily, please.”

She didn’t respond in any way. And he knew—he knew—she was leaving him.

The room, the whole suite, was silent and empty around him. The future—alone, without Emily—rose up before him like a dark, gaping maw. He couldn’t take it. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t stand the thought of all those endless days of living without her. He gripped her pale, little hand with both of his and clung to it desperately. He might have been hurting her, but he couldn’t seem to let it go.

She didn’t react. She didn’t open her eyes.

She’d always been tough, unrelenting. Years ago, she’d lectured him for cutting in line in her dad’s store. Several months ago, she’d agreed to testify against a powerful mob boss, when no one else was brave enough to do so. She’d fought every battle in her short life without flinching.

There were some fights you just couldn’t win.

He buckled under the weight of his grief and buried his face in the bedsheet beside her. His shoulders shook helplessly for a minute, and he strangled on emotion he just couldn’t force down.

His face was damp when he finally raised it, and he stared down at Emily in a blurry, throbbing haze.

She was dying.

With a rough sound in his throat, he heaved himself up and got into the bed beside her. He wanted to pull her into his arms, but he didn’t dare let his body heat raise her temperature.

So he lay beside her, clinging only to her hand. Her left hand, on which she still wore his rings.

Only a few months ago, she'd approached him with a ludicrous proposal, and he’d accepted it because he had pitied her, having no idea that he would love her, that he’d be remade and then broken by it.

He lay beside her and closed his eyes, listening to her faint breathing as it became slower and slower.

Hamlet had believed that a divinity shaped the ends of human lives. His mother had believed it too. It had been over ten years since Paul had believed in any such thing, but he prayed now anyway—instinctively, in final desperation, to whatever or whoever had any sort of power in this bitterly unknowable universe.

He needed Emily to live, and he had no power to make her live.

She was leaving him breath by breath.

* * *

Paul woke up with a jerk, his aching body jarred painfully.

He must have fallen into an exhausted sleep on the bed beside Emily. He had no idea how long it had been. He had no idea what day it was, what time it was, what room this was.

He lifted his head and stared down at her pale face.

Then he pressed his palm against her forehead, her cheek.

She was cool.

Terror seizing him, he fumbled for the pulse in her neck, and he let his breath out with a whoosh when he felt her steady pulse. Then he saw her chest rise and fall slowly with her breathing.

She was asleep. Her fever must have finally broken.

She hadn’t left him yet.

***

Paul felt like he was drugged, like he couldn’t even open his eyes.

He fought through the dark fog of sleep until he was able to blink in the dim light of the room. He was in his own bed in their Philadelphia apartment, where he’d collapsed in absolute exhaustion after they’d arrived home late the previous night.

He’d slept like the dead for several hours, and now he was waking up alone in the big bed.

Last night, Emily had insisted that she sleep in her own room so he could get some rest too. She’d been so weak after her prolonged fever and the long flight that he hadn’t had the heart to argue with her, no matter how much he would prefer to be close to her.

If she’d slept with him, he would have kept waking up throughout the night to check on her.

A glance at the bedside clock told him it was already eight in the morning. He couldn’t believe he’d slept so late. He jumped out of bed and hurried down the hall to Emily’s room.

The door was partway open, so he pushed in. He let out his breath when he saw Emily sleeping peacefully in the darkened room. When they’d landed last night, he’d sent Amy home to rest, and Lola, their regular night nurse, had sat with Emily through the night.

When she saw him, Lola got up from her chair and walked over to where he was standing. “She’s been sleeping fine,” she said softly. “No fever yet.”

Paul nodded, his eyes devouring the outline of her Emily’s body under the covers. He wanted to touch her, to check on her, but he was afraid of waking her up. “Thanks,” he murmured. “She can sleep another hour.”

He’d made an appointment for them to meet with Dr. Franklin at ten that morning. He was prepared to use any means necessary to ensure that they pursue more aggressive treatments against the virus. Clearly, the initial experimental treatments weren’t working, and they only had a very small window of time to do anything at all. It wouldn’t be long before Emily’s fever returned, and Paul was almost certain that the next fever would kill her.

He went to shower and dress, and then he took his coffee and a protein bar to his study to get through some email. He was woefully behind on his work at Simone’s, which was not a good way to prove himself worthy of the added responsibilities they’d given him.

He couldn’t bring himself to care, though. It was almost impossible to think of anything but Emily.

He exerted all the force of his will and was able to focus enough to work through a lot of his email quickly and efficiently. He was actually surprised by how much he’d done when there was a tap on the office door, and he checked his watch to see it was almost nine o’clock.

He turned and smiled at Ruth when she came into the study with a pot of coffee to refill his mug.

“It’s good to have you home, Mr. Marino,” she said with an answering smile as she poured the coffee.

“Thanks. I’m glad to be home.”

He meant it. The familiar surroundings were deeply reassuring. He didn’t let himself think about how sterile and empty they would be without Emily.

“How is Mrs. Marino?” Ruth asked. “She seems to have slept good.”

“I think she did. She needed it. She’s had a hard week.” He sighed and took a sip of coffee. “She’s been really sick.”

“Well, I hope you don’t mind, sir, but I’ve been praying. I think she’s looking a little better.”

He didn’t argue, but he knew that was only wishful thinking on Ruth’s part. Emily had lost more than five pounds in just one week, and she was still as white as a ghost. She didn’t look better. She looked worse.

He tried to smile in response, but he couldn’t manage any words.

Ruth’s face softened. “Don’t give up, Mr. Marino,” she murmured. “Not yet.” Then, as if she was afraid she’d overstepped her boundaries, she turned around and hurried out of the room.

Paul swallowed and turned back toward his computer. He breathed, tried to clear his mind again so he could work for a few more minutes.

Before he’d succeeded in focusing again, he heard another knock on the door. When he turned toward it, he was surprised to see Jonathon Marks, the head of the security firm he used, standing in the doorway of the office wearing a tailored suit, with a newspaper folded under one arm.

Marks was eminently professional and discreet. He stopped by occasionally to inspect his security team, but he never bothered Paul for anything less than an emergency. “Good morning, Mr. Marino,” he said with a polite smile.

“Good morning.”

Never one to waste time on small talk, Marks got down to business. “Have you seen this yet?” he asked, unfolding the newspaper as he approached the desk.

Paul shook his head. He hadn’t read a newspaper, watched the news, or checked any news sites for at least four days. The world might have gone to war, and he wouldn’t know about it.

“I’m sorry,” Marks said soberly, laying that morning’s edition of a local paper out in front of Paul and pointing out a picture on the front page beneath the fold. “I don’t know how they were able to get the shot. The area should have been secure.”

Paul focused on the image, and his chest tightened as he saw a picture of himself, carrying Emily to the car after their plane landed the night before. Emily looked limp in his arms, and Paul’s broken expression was more revealing than anything he would willingly have shown to the world. The caption beneath the picture called him “young” and “devoted” and talked about him spending his last days with his “brave, dying bride.”

“Who has this?” he asked, his voice a little hoarse.

“Everyone. I’m sorry, sir.” It was Marks’s second apology in less than two minutes—a record for the competent man.

Paul cleared his throat. Marks and the team had done an excellent job over the last months in keeping the press at bay. Paul knew better than to think it was possible to close them out completely—not when the trial and his marriage had made him such a tempting target.

Besides, he had more important things to be concerned about right now than having his privacy invaded.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It happens.”

Marks blinked. “Thank you, sir. We’re working on—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Paul interrupted.

Marks's face grew still for a moment. Then he said again, “Thank you, sir. May I ask about how Mrs. Marino is doing?”

Paul’s jaw tightened reflexively. “Not well.”

“Please tell her that we’re all thinking about her.”

Paul swallowed again as the other man left his study. He had never realized that people cared about him—at all—until Emily came along.

He let out a long breath and gave up on his email. He needed to get Emily up anyway if they were going to be at Dr. Franklin’s office by ten. So he forced himself to his feet and went to wake up his sick, exhausted wife.

* * *

Paul leaned his head back against the cushy leather sofa in Dr. Franklin’s office and closed his eyes for a moment. He couldn’t remember ever being so tired in his life. In a way, it was a relief. He was so tired even the pain was somehow muffled.

Emily was sprawled out on the sofa with her head in his lap. He stroked her hair gently, but he thought from her breathing that she’d already fallen back to sleep.

He’d had a hard time getting her up. She’d been so listless and lethargic that he and Lola had practically had to dress her. He’d called and asked Dr. Franklin if the doctor could come to the apartment instead. Dr. Franklin had been willing, but he’d suggested they come to the hospital as originally planned since he wanted to do some tests to see how the virus was progressing, and they’d be able to get results more quickly that way.

So Paul had carried Emily to the car, and she’d fallen asleep on the ride over. She’d been barely conscious as Dr. Franklin examined her, took blood, and asked them questions, and she’d fallen asleep as soon as he’d left the office. He had returned again after a while and had taken more blood and performed a few new tests.

Under normal circumstances, Paul would have demanded to know what was going on, but Dr. Franklin and the nurse had both looked sober and concerned, and Paul just couldn’t bring himself to hurry along any more bad news.

So he and Emily were waiting alone in the office, while the medical team examined the test results and determined the best course of action.

If Dr. Franklin returned in a few minutes and told Paul there was nothing else they could do—that they would just have to wait for the end—Paul would have no choice but to punch him in the face.

He was getting more and more concerned about Emily. She didn’t have a fever. Her head was warm in his lap, but her skin wasn’t unusually hot. He didn’t understand why she couldn’t stay awake.

As he was stroking her loose hair, his fingers accidentally got caught in a tangle, and he pulled on it before he realized what he was doing.

Emily jerked and sucked in a sharp breath.

“Sorry,” he murmured, gently untangling his fingers.

“S’okay,” Emily mumbled, evidently trying to pry her eyes open. “What’s going on?”

“We’re still waiting for Dr. Franklin to come back and tell us what treatment we’re going to try next.”

“Oh.” Emily groaned as she made herself sit up. She sat very still for a moment and breathed, as if she felt dizzy, but then she twined her arms around his neck. “I’m not sure I’m up to any sort of major treatment. I don’t seem to have any strength left at all.”

“You won’t have to do the work on whatever treatment he tries. You’ll do fine.” Paul wrapped his arms around her and pulled her gently into his lap so he could hold her. He tried to sound encouraging, but his stomach dropped like a rock. It sounded so much like she was giving up.

He tightened his arms instinctively and tightened them even harder when he felt her begin to shake.

“I can’t stand to leave you alone, Paul.” Her face was pressed against his shoulder. "But I'm so, so tired."

“You haven’t left me,” he said thickly. “You haven’t left me yet.”

“I know, but it won’t be long. I’m trying to hold on for you, and I’ll try new treatments for you, but I’m just so tired.”

She sounded more than tired. She sounded battered. He wanted to beg her to stay with him, the way he had in Hawaii. There were limits, after all, to how far he could go, how much he could give.

Even if it might mean prolonging her pain, he just didn’t want her to die.

Since he knew that wasn’t what he was supposed to say, he forced out, “I want you to do what’s best for you. Don’t do anything for me. Think about you. Not me.”

She lifted her head and pressed a little kiss on the side of his mouth. “Silly. You know better than that. That’s not how love works. I’ll always think about you.”

He didn’t answer immediately. Just thought about what she said. Then his arms tightened around her again as he suddenly realized there were no limits after all to how much he could love, how much he could give, how much he would suffer to keep her from suffering.

“Don’t do the treatments for me,” he said hoarsely, this time meaning it. “I don’t want you to keep going just for me.”

Her face twisted and she would have responded, but Paul would never know what she was going to say. Dr. Franklin came back into the office.

The man looked a little uncomfortable at having interrupted what appeared to be an intimate moment, but Paul released his desperate grip on Emily and rearranged her beside him on the couch.

The doctor took the chair facing them.

When he didn’t speak immediately, Paul got impatient. “Tell us.”

“The results are not at all what we expected. That’s why we came to do the other tests. But the results were the same both times.”

Paul frowned. “What’s so surprising about them?”

“There’s been dramatic improvement.”

“What?’ Paul demanded, every muscle in his body freezing in a clench.

Dr. Franklin held out his hands and smiled vaguely. “This latest treatment we tried must be working. The improvement is…dramatic.”

Paul stared, breathless and disoriented. His mind couldn’t even process the significance of what was said.

“I’m going to call in for consultation from a couple of other doctors. I don’t want to draw conclusions too soon. We’ll continue this latest treatment, of course, and wait to see what happens, but these are better results than anyone anticipated.”

Paul just kept staring. Couldn’t seem to breathe.

“I don’t understand,” Emily mumbled, leaning against his side. When he looked down, her face was groggy and confused. She still barely looked awake.

Clearing his throat, Paul said, “He says the virus is getting better. That maybe you’re on your way to being cured.” Even saying the words didn’t make them feel real. It was too much—too much to even begin to wrap his mind around.

And he just couldn’t let himself believe it was true.

Emily blinked up at him, looking as dazed and doubtful as he was. “But I still feel like hell.”

Dr. Franklin said, “It could simply be the aftermath of having such a high fever for so long. Give it a few days, and we’ll see what happens. You may get another fever, but I wouldn’t expect it to be as bad—given what seems to be happening with the virus. If the improvement continues, then you should be feeling a lot better soon. There are no guarantees, of course, since this virus is such a mystery to us, but I would definitely say that there’s now more than a thin sliver of hope. We can think positively.”

They talked for a few more minutes and arranged for another appointment. Paul’s mind was fuzzy and disoriented, and Emily appeared completely out of it.

They were silent as they left the building and got into the back of the chauffeured car. They stared at each other for a few long minutes.

Finally, Emily said, “I’m too afraid to hope.”

“Me too,” Paul said, trying futilely to make his mind work with its normal quick, sharp efficiency. “Let’s just wait and see what happens in the next few days.”

 “I’m not dreaming or delirious, am I?

“Not unless I am too.”

“Oh. Good.”

* * *

When they returned to the apartment, Paul intended to work for the rest of the day until he’d caught up, but, as he helped Emily into bed, she pulled him into bed with her.

He intended to just hold her for a few minutes until she fell asleep, but he ended up falling asleep too.

As he woke up, he immediately realized something was different.

He was incredibly uncomfortable, one of his arms asleep, his neck stiff from its awkward position, and his eyes throbbing from too much emotion and fatigue. And he was hard, his erection pressed against Emily’s soft, sleeping body—another kind of discomfort and one that wasn’t likely to be satisfied any time soon.

Something had changed, though. It took a few minutes for his fuzzy mind to process what the change was.

For the first time in weeks, he’d woken up without the weight of impending doom in his gut.

For the first time in so long, he woke up feeling genuine hope.

***

Paul’s gut clenched when he glanced at the caller ID of his ringing phone. He snatched it up. “Marino,” he said curtly, his heart starting to race in his chest.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Marino,” Dr. Franklin said on the other end of the call. “How is Mrs. Marino feeling today?”

“She’s fine. Still tired.  Is everything all right with her tests?”

“It’s still good. There’s almost no sign of the virus now at all.”

Paul let out the breath he’d been holding. Dr. Franklin had called him every afternoon for three weeks to report on the blood sent over by the nurse in the mornings, but Paul got anxious every time, still unable to fully believe that Emily’s virus was gone for good. “Excellent,” he said, since Dr. Franklin was waiting for him to say something.

“We’re going to keep close watch on her,” Dr. Franklin said, sounding relaxed and pleased. “But at this point I think we can be optimistic. Although the virus is so new we’ll never have any guarantees, all signs are pointing toward the idea that it is gone for good. I think you and Mrs. Marino can start acting as though she's not going to die from it.”

Paul swallowed. “She’s still not feeling up to par.”

“That’s to be expected. The fevers took a lot out of her physically, particularly the final ones that were so high for so long. But there’s no permanent damage, and she’s slowly regaining her strength. In another couple of weeks, she’ll be feeling like herself again.”

They talked for a couple more minutes before Paul hung up. Then he sat and stared at his computer screen, trying to make himself feel happy.

He was happy. Of course he was. He’d wanted nothing more in the world than for Emily to live, but his relief was so deep and the miracle so unexpected that he was having more trouble processing it than he’d expected.

He still expected it to be snatched away at any minute.

And he still wasn’t sure what the future held for him and Emily.

He cleared his throat and made himself stand up. He’d been working in his office since early morning, and his stiff muscles protested the move as he walked down the hall toward Emily’s bedroom.

According to Ruth, who’d brought in Paul’s lunch an hour or so ago, Emily had gotten tired and gone to take a nap.

She was gradually gaining strength, but she still tired easily. However, that didn’t worry him as much as the way she’d been so quiet for the last couple of weeks. Paul kept telling himself it was natural. She’d been sure she was going to die, and the transition would take a while to sink in. She had her whole life to live now when she hadn’t expected it.

But, despite his attempts at rational thinking, he couldn’t help but wonder if she was pulling back from him.

She loved him. He believed that. But she’d fallen in love with him when they’d been living in a fragile, intense bubble of crisis. Now that the bubble had burst, he might not be what she wanted or needed for the long, normal years of her life.

He kept brooding on it, and every time Emily acted distant or seemed distracted, he brooded about it even more.

But she liked to know immediately when Dr. Franklin called with her results, so he tapped on her bedroom door and pushed it open.

Emily had been lying on her stomach with her face away from the door, but she rolled over kind of clumsily when he entered.  She was flushed from her nap and looked a little annoyed with him, maybe for waking her up.

“Sorry,” he said, coming over to sit on the edge of the bed beside her. “Dr. Franklin called. Everything is still fine.”

“Oh. Okay. Good.” She blinked at him and scooted up so she was leaning against her pillows, pulling her arms out from under the cashmere throw draped on top of her.

Paul’s brow lowered as he studied her. Her cheeks were red, and she looked like she might be hot. Her breath was a little shallow, and she seemed to be having a hard time focusing.

Maybe it was because he’d woken her up, but he reached over to feel her forehead just the same.

She jerked away from his touch, frowning at him grouchily. “I don’t have a fever. Stop doing that. Dr. Franklin just told you the virus is still gone.”

Paul frowned back at her, dropping his hand. She didn’t normally snap at him for no reason. He wondered if she was stressed about how to tell him her feelings were changing.

“Sorry,” she said after a moment. “Didn’t mean to bite your head off.”

He shook his head and smiled, moving over to lean back against the pillows beside her. “Don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t have woken you up from a nap.”

“I wasn—” She cut off her words abruptly and dropped her eyes.

Paul studied her, deeply confused and worried again. He tried to work up the courage to ask her directly, to let her know she wasn’t obligated to stay with him, to tell her she could leave if she wanted.

But the words stuck in his throat. The truth was he wasn’t sure he was capable of letting her leave.

“I’ve been thinking,” Emily said into the silence, her voice wobbling slightly like she was nervous.

Paul froze, and it took all his control to keep his voice casual as he asked, “About what?”

“About…about us.”

Something started to shake inside him as he realized it was happening—everything he’d secretly feared was, at this moment, beginning to play out. He opened his mouth to reply but couldn’t. He literally couldn’t say anything.

Emily didn’t seem to need him to. She was staring down at her twisting hands as she continued haltingly, “When we got married it was because I was going to die. And when we…when we fell in love it was when I was going to die. So…so…I just wanted to say…I know that, if I don’t die, it might change things.”

She sounded pained and almost heart-broken, as if she knew how much this would crush him. But she was making herself say it anyway, so Paul made himself listen. It felt like he’d gone dead white.

“So I just wanted to say I understand if it does. I mean, if your feelings change. I mean, I know we weren’t supposed to be married for the rest of your life. So if you…if you decide…” She made a little sound like a sob and raised a hand to cover her mouth.

Paul was so primed for agonizing pain that it took a minute to orient himself to what Emily was actually saying. Then it took a moment to process it, to recognize the significance.

“What?” he gasped, when he finally caught up. “What?”

Emily finally looked up from her clenched hands and stared at him with despairing blue eyes. “I just mean that I never really expected you to love me the way I love you. And it’s okay.”

“You think I don’t love you?” He was too flabbergasted to recognize the hope that had clenched in his chest.

“No, no. I know you love me. I wasn’t doubting that. But I know it was…it was…I know things might change if I live. And it’s okay.”

“Why would you think I don’t love you?” Paul asked breathlessly. He reached over and grabbed her by the shoulders, turning her to face him. “How could you possibly think that?”

Emily looked shocked and just as breathless as he was and then just a little awed. “I…I don’t know. I just thought, if you really wanted to be married to me for decades and decades, you’d be…you’d be…”

“I’d be what?”

“You’d be more happy.” She dropped her eyes, her voice cracking as she continued, “That I wasn’t going to die.”

He swallowed so hard it physically hurt. “You don’t think I’m happy?”

She lifted her eyes to meet his. “Are you?”

“Oh, baby, your living is the best thing that will ever happen to me, but it’s so good I still can’t really believe it. Things never work out miraculously for me. They just don’t. So I kept thinking that—if you’re really well—then you’re not going to want to stay with me.”

She stared at him, her eyes enormous in her flushed face. “Why wouldn’t I want to stay with you? I love you more than anything. But you were starting to act kind of standoffish. And you've been working all the time these last three weeks. And you didn’t seem to want to have sex with me anymore, so I thought…” She trailed off, something joyful awakening in her eyes. “So you still love me and want me to be your wife?”

“Of course!” The two words were embarrassingly thick, but he was too relieved and elated to care. He pulled her into a hug so fierce he might have hurt her. “Of course, baby. I’m never going to let you go.”

Emily shook against him, in his arms, and he finally allowed something like joy to wash over him completely. Maybe it was true.

She was going to live, and he was allowed to love her for the rest of his life.

After a few minutes, Emily finally pulled away. Her face was a little damp, but it was beaming. “Okay,” she said, a little sheepishly. “That’s good then. I’m glad we got that cleared up.”

Paul couldn’t help but laugh. “Now, why the hell would you think I didn’t want to have sex with you?”

“Well, you haven’t tried. Not for ages.” She glared at him.  “You haven’t made a single move.”

“I thought you were still recovering. I didn’t know you were up to it yet.”

“Of course, I’m up to it. I’ve—” She cut the words off unexpectedly, cutting her eyes down and looking strangely embarrassed.

Paul grew suddenly still as his mind started to put pieces together. After a moment, he asked in a low voice, “What were you doing when I came in here just now?”

“Nothing!” Emily burst out, her face blazing red. “I was doing nothing!”

Suddenly, more pieces started to fit themselves together in his mind in a crystal-clear revelation, filling him with gratified hilarity and awe. This wasn’t the first time he’d barged in on her in a room, catching her looking flushed, breathless, and grouchy. “Back in Egypt,” he breathed, “when I—”

Emily practically tackled him, trying to cover his mouth with her hand. “I was doing nothing then too. Nothing!”

“I had no idea,” he gasped, half-laughing and half-struggling against her weight and the clasp of her hand on his mouth. Her body was soft and wriggling, and she was practically lying on top of him now. All of it was giving him some very particular ideas. His body tightened in anticipation.

She managed to muffle his words with her palm, and she glared down at him hotly. “I was doing nothing. Both times. And, even if I was, it was all your fault.”

Paul’s heart felt like it was overflowing—with love, with amusement, with understanding, and with the warmest kind of hope he could remember. He tried to talk, but he couldn’t through her hand. So he gently reached up to pull away her wrist. “Of course, you were doing nothing,” he said, his voice thick with many things. “But, now that I know, maybe we can do nothing together.”

She tried to sustain her fierce frown, but her lips kept trembling into a suppressed smile. “I guess that would be all right,” she said, feigning disdain.

With a laugh, Paul adjusted his legs and used them to lever himself up and flip both of them over, so he was lying on top of her, his lower body settling between her legs. She was flushed and shaking and clinging to him, and her face was filled with humor and intelligence and excitement and something he couldn’t fail to see was love. “Oh baby,” he murmured. “I love you so much.”

She reached up to cup his face with one of her hands. “’Til death do us part?” she whispered.

She was everything he'd ever wanted, and she was his. Paul said, “’Til death do us part.”

They gazed at each other for a minute. Then he finally prompted, “So did you want to have sex?”

 “Yes, please.” She smiled as they started to fumble with each other’s clothes, muttering when she couldn’t get his shirt unbuttoned quickly enough and giggling when her pants got twisted up around her ankles.

When Paul’s watchband got snagged on a strand of Emily’s hair, he frowned as he carefully untangled it. “We seem to be a little out of practice at this,” he grumbled, although he felt warm and aroused and as close to anyone as he’d ever felt in his entire life.

“Well, it’s been a while,” she replied, although she was shaking with laughter. “Don’t blame yourself. You’ll get the hang of it again soon.”

When she beamed up at him, teasing and fond, a new wave of affection washed over him. Laying his watch aside, he took Emily’s face in his hands and leaned down into another kiss.

Their naked bodies moved together as the kiss deepened, and both his heart and his body reacted to the eager pliancy with which she responded to his embrace.

For a long time, they drank each other in, caressing and gasping with increasing urgency as their skin rubbed against the covers and each other. When Paul felt Emily pushing gently against his shoulder, he willingly allowed her to roll them both over, letting her drape herself on top of him.

Her soft breasts pressed into his bare chest, and her hair spilled all around him as she trailed kisses along his face, jaw and neck. He loved her sweet attentions, loved the way her hands fluttered greedily on his shoulders and then down his sides to his waist.

He palmed the curve of her butt, pushing her down into his pelvis. She felt as good as anything ever had, but he wouldn’t be able to take much more of her foreplay before the pulsing in his arousal forced him into action.

When her wanton wiggling on top of him caused his erection to get squeezed between their bodies and she started to grind herself against it, Paul tensed and couldn’t hold back an animalistic grunt. “Damn, Emily, please say you’re ready for me.”

She laughed huskily against his lips. “God, yes, I’m so ready.”

Paul exhaled in relief as Emily raised herself up and took him in both of her hands. She stroked him a few times, making him gasp and shift beneath her. Then she lifted her hips and carefully, with a few adjustments, sheathed him in a tight clasp.

They both groaned at the penetration, and then Emily leaned forward to claim a deep, sloppy kiss.

He couldn’t keep his hips from rocking up into her, needing the motion, needing the friction, needing her to match his deepest rhythm.

“So good, Paul,” she whispered, still pressed against him fully. “You always feel so good.”

Paul was so focused on trying to restrain his urge to thrust that he could only make a wordless, guttural noise.

Then Emily took his earlobe between her lips. Sucked it a few times. Every time he felt the wet tug from her mouth, his pelvis bucked up involuntarily.

Letting his earlobe slip out, Emily murmured huskily into his ear, “Let go, Paul. Let go.”

He released a long moan—like some kind of primitive creature—and he held her hips snugly against his as he levered them both over without pulling out.

His flesh sank deeper inside her as she wrapped her legs around his middle. Emily arched up with a pretty cry of pleasure, and Paul’s whole world narrowed down to the soft strength of her, the warm, perfect shelter of her body, the depth of love he could see in her eyes.

He pulled back and thrust—long and deep—propelled by the need to love and be loved. Both of them at once.

Emily gasped and rolled her hips, digging her fingers into the back of his neck. “Paul!”

The sound of his name on that taken breath was so intoxicating he reared back and thrust again, rasping out “Emily” on the in-stroke.

She lifted her hips to meet his, their flesh slapping together deliciously. They built up a shared motion that was urgent, hungry, and almost primal in its rhythm.

The blanket slipped down around his ass, baring his back to the cool of the room. But the contrast between the cool temperature of the room and the heat he was generating with Emily only added to his stimulation. When he felt a climax starting to coil in his balls, he accelerated the pumping of his hips, grunting in rough bursts of instinctive sound.

Paul knew Emily was with him. Her breathless whimpers, her shameless writhing beneath him, and her eager, clutching hands proved that she needed this as much as he did.

“Eh, Paul!” she gasped as they moved together almost frantically. “Love you.” Her neck arched and her eyes fell shut briefly. “Love you!”

“Me too,” Paul choked, barely leashing the momentum of his impending climax. “Love you too.”

The tension inside her broke visibly as she came.

Paul released a rough exclamation, freezing inside her as the deep, coiled pressure shuddered with unbearable intensity.

Then he heard Emily breathe, “Love you, Paul. Let go.”

He let go and came hard. Whispered her name like a secret.

Then her arms were gathering him in, and he’d collapsed into her embrace.

He wondered what he’d ever done to be allowed such a thing—soft, shuddering, warm, loving Emily in his arms.

Maybe for the rest of his life.

It was a long time before either one of them could speak. Even wanted to speak.

 But eventually Emily began to shift beneath him and, with a groan, Paul rolled them both onto their sides to relieve her of his weight. His erection had softened, and he’d slipped out with the motion of the roll. Her legs were still tightly wrapped around him, though, and he wasn’t about to let her go.

Finally, the lingering edge of insecurity in his soul prompted Paul to murmur diffidently, “Do you feel okay?”

“Well,” Emily teased, “You are a very fine lover, but you haven’t yet sexed me into a coma.”

He couldn’t help but laugh.

***

An hour or so later, Paul woke up from a light doze at the feel of Emily’s moving behind him. He’d rolled over on his side at some point, and now she wrapped an arm around him from behind.

She lightly kissed his shoulder, then the back of his neck, then his shoulder again.

It felt more tender than sexual, so Paul enjoyed it without feeling any particular urgency.

After another minute, he felt her lips trailing lower down his shoulder blade. When they started to trace a distinct pattern, he immediately knew what it was.

She was kissing down the line of one of his scars.

“Don’t, baby,” he murmured, rolling over onto his back so she couldn’t continue.

His tone had been gentle, but she was still frowning when he met her eyes. “Why not?”

He wasn’t capable of explaining how much he hated the idea of those scars, of all they reminded him of. He never should have said anything about it, though, so he tried to make light of his objection. “You can kiss any other part of my anatomy that you get the urge to. That’s a standing offer.”

“Nice try. Why is your back off limits?”

“You know why.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your scars.”

He just shook his head.

“Paul?” she prompted.

“I hate them.”

She leaned over and pressed a soft kiss on his shoulder. “I know you do, but I don’t. I love them.”

He slanted a dubious look over in her direction. “That’s just weird.”

“It isn’t weird.”  She rolled over until she was almost on top of him. “I know they’re painful for you to think about, and I’m really sorry you got them. But I can’t hate them.”

“Why not?” Despite his discomfort with the conversation, he was genuinely curious.

“Because they’re part of what made you…you.”

Touched despite himself, he pulled her down into a deep kiss. When she pulled away, however, her expression was thoughtful rather than passionate.

“What is it?” he asked, having a feeling he wouldn’t like what she was thinking.

He didn’t.

“I think you should go see your father again.”

He let out a rough exhalation. “Emily—”

“I know it wouldn’t be any fun for you to do, but I still think you should.”

“Why exactly?”

“To talk to him. To find out…I really think he’s the reason I’m alive today, Paul. He was the one who made sure we found that report.”

“He also could have been the reason you got sick in the first place.”

“Maybe. But maybe not. We just don’t know about that for sure. I know you disagree, but I still don’t think he was responsible for me getting virus. Either way, I really think he was trying to help you by leading you to that report. And I think…I think it would be good for you to see that.”

He knew she was serious, so he didn’t want to just blow her off with the sharp retort that sprang to his lips.

But going to visit his father was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. He was just finally starting to feel good about things.

“I’ll think about it,” he said at last. Even that gesture was harder than it should have been.

She leaned down to kiss him again. “Good. Please do.”

***

Two days later, Paul went to visit his father in prison.

He wasn’t sure what to expect—except more of the same. His conversation with Emily was nagging at him, though, and he figured he could survive another visit with his father. However badly it turned out, he could at least be satisfied that he’d done the right thing.

But when his father was escorted out to the visiting room and sat down across from him, Paul was suddenly frozen. He’d thought over some ways to begin this conversation, but he couldn’t remember any of them at the moment.

He couldn’t think of anything to say at all.

He didn’t even know why he was here.

Vincent Marino had always been in the habit of letting others begin conversations, since being the first to speak meant needlessly giving away the advantage. Today, however, he didn’t hesitate to begin. “You don’t look like a husband in mourning.”

“I’m not, as I’m sure you’re very well aware. Emily’s virus has been effectively treated.”

“Good.”

Paul didn’t reply.

“If you aren’t here to share your joy at her miraculous recovery, then why exactly are you here?”

 Even the wording of that question itself was uncharacteristic of Vincent Marino. It gave away too much.

Since his father was being so unusually blunt, Paul decided he would be as well. “Were you the one responsible for us finding that report on Emily’s virus?”

His father almost smiled. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s entirely possible you did it. It would be just like you to hide the report where we’d be likely to find it rather than just giving it to me directly.”

“Perhaps. But that doesn’t really answer the question.”

Paul let out a tired sigh, wondering why he was even bothering. Nothing was going to be accomplished by this conversation anyway. “Do you really expect me to play this game with you again?”

Vincent stared at him intently for a long stretch of time. “It was never a game.” He paused before he added, almost as an afterthought.  “I’m glad your wife has gotten better.”

Paul could almost believe he meant it.

Since his father had as good as answered the first question, he asked another one. “Were you responsible for her getting sick in the first place?”

His father’s expression didn’t change, but something changed in his eyes. “You’re really asking me that?”

“Why wouldn’t I ask it?”

With a half-shrug, his father said, “It occurs to me, son, that you don’t really know me at all.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that, whoever you think I am, you don’t really know me.”

“I do know you. I’ve known you for years. I’ve never been surprised by you.”

“You just asked me if I tried to kill an innocent teenage girl in some sort of half-hearted retaliation for perceived wrongs.”

When put that way, it did seem a horrible thing to accuse his father of. “You’ve killed before.”

“Only soldiers.”

That was what Emily had told him—months ago now.

“And that’s supposed to be okay?”

“I’m not trying to justify myself to you. I was merely answering a question.”

Paul exhaled deeply. “So the answer is no? You weren’t responsible for the virus?”

“It’s obvious that I’m responsible in some way, since it was engineered in my research facility.”

“You know what I’m asking.”

“What I don’t know is why you’re asking.”

Conversations with his father always went like this—one strategic bypass after another.

“I have no idea why I’m asking. This whole conversation was a mistake.”

“It’s only a mistake because you began it with a preconceived notion about how it would end.”

“If you’re not the one who gave Emily the virus, then who did?”

“Have you not considered that’s a question I’d like answered too? The virus came from my facility, which means someone in my company was responsible—either intentionally or accidentally.  I would very much like to know who.”

Again, Paul almost believed him. He wondered if he was changing his opinion or if he was just growing weak and gullible.

“Why should I believe you,” he asked, “when you’ve told me lies before?”

“I’ve never told you lies. I’ve only told you truths you don’t want to hear.”

Paul shook his head and slumped back in his chair. “Can you answer something plainly for once in your life? Did you do this to Emily or not?”

It was silent—too silent—for a long time. Then, “I didn’t.”

Paul believed him, despite all the reasons he had not to.

“I wouldn’t do that to her,” his father added.

“Okay.”

“Or to you.”

Paul sat perfectly still.

His father’s face was old, grizzled, so tired. “It might be time to admit that you’ve never really known me.”

The world was spinning around Paul—slowly and inexorably, disorienting him completely.

He couldn’t think of anything to say, so finally he just stood up to leave.

“Okay,” he muttered, knowing he needed to say something before he left.

He took a step toward the exit, but turned around one more time to look back at his father.

“I’m glad she’s okay,” Vincent Marino said.

Paul nodded, a little jerkily.

“She’s brave. And, beneath all the prettiness, she’s strong.”

Paul nodded again, a strange pain tightening in his throat.

“She’s been good for you.”

Paul nodded one more time before he walked away.

***

When he got home, he went to his home office immediately, sitting at the desk and staring at the computer screen blindly.

He knew Emily was home, but he also knew she would ask him how things went. He wasn’t sure what to tell her.

She found him there a few minutes later.

She propped herself up on the edge of his desk and looked down at him without speaking.

He met her eyes. Saw understanding, sympathy, affection, love. And all of it was stronger than the discomfort in his gut.

After a minute, he told her, “You were right.”

He watched as the realization processed on her face.  “That’s a good thing, right?”

“Yeah.”

“He loves you.”

For the first time in as long as he could remember, those words weren’t followed by an instinctive internal resistance. He didn’t feel happy, satisfied, or at peace, but at least he didn’t want to bite out an automatic objection.

“Maybe,” he replied. “He’ll never be a good father, though.”

“I never thought he would be, but it means something. Knowing it, I mean. Doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “It does.”

That was all they needed to say.

***

For the next two weeks, Paul went into the office every day. There wasn’t any sort of requirement for him, as long as he got his work done, but now that things had settled down with Emily, he thought it might be a good idea to be a more regular presence in the corporate offices.

To his surprise, he actually liked it. Spending more time in the office allowed him to get to know his coworkers better. At first, they’d seemed rather suspicious, likely thinking he was entitled and useless, but they warmed up pretty quickly as he went out of his way to be both accommodating and efficient.

After the first week, he had a pretty good sense of what work life might be for him, doing work he enjoyed, work he was good at, for the company his mother’s family had built. He liked the idea of it.

He could spend his life doing this.

He got home late on Friday evening, and he found Emily in the kitchen. He wasn’t sure how long she’d been fixing dinner, but every single counter surface was a mess, and she appeared to have used every bowl and pan they possessed.

“I think I was too ambitious,” she told him with a grin.

“What is it?” He studied the bowls and pans, trying to puzzle out what meal they added up into.

“Portobello Chicken Piccata. But we didn’t have all the ingredients, so I had to improvise a bit.”

He laughed and wrapped his arms around her from behind, pressing his body into her back as she pushed chicken breasts around in a pan.

She turned down the temperature on the eye and then turned around to wrap her arms around him. “How was work?”

“Good.”

“Did you get that report done? “

“Yeah. What did Dr. Franklin say?” She had a faint dusting of flour on her jaw so he gently brushed it off.

She frowned up at him. “I told you in the text I sent. Everything is still fine. The virus is gone, so you don’t have to stress about every check-up that way.”

Paul was pretty sure he was going to be anxious every time she went to the doctor, for at least a decade or so, but he’d have to work on hiding it better so she wouldn’t get annoyed by it. “I was just wondering if he said anything else.”

“He said he was going to publish on this virus, and it would be the best work of his career.” After he laughed, she added, “He said I would probably be fertile again soon, so he prescribed me birth control pills.”

“Ah. Good thinking.”

They smiled at each other for a minute, and he tried to process the relief, joy, and awed gratitude. It made him feel kind of silly—like the kind of sap he’d never been—but there was no other way to handle the miracle that had been given him.

Emily must feel the same way. She actually looked a little emotional, but naturally tried to hide it. “I never thought it would happen. Any of this. It gives me hope that everything that is broken has the chance of being fixed. I never thought it could happen.”

“Me either.”

Her expression changed then. “I’ve been thinking.”

“What about?”

“I want to ask you something, and I don’t know how you’re going to feel about it.”

He gaped at her. “What are you talking about? Ask me anything you want. I’ll do anything you want.”

Her face softened with affection momentarily before she pulled it together. “How would you feel about having another wedding ceremony. Kind of like a renewal of our vows.”

“It hasn’t even been a year.” While he was fully prepared to give Emily anything in the world she wanted, this was the last thing he expected, and he wasn’t sure he liked the idea about it. “Our marriage was always real, Emily. It’s not like we had a fake wedding the first time. I don’t think we need to act like we’re just now married for real.”

“I know it was real. I wouldn’t change our first wedding for anything. But I just wanted to have a wedding in the neighborhood. It’s fine if you don’t want to. It was just an idea.”

He drew his eyebrows together. “Why did you want to do it?”

She shrugged and looked a little embarrassed.

“Tell me.”

“You remember right after we got engaged, and you told me you didn’t think it was good that I was pulling away from everyone. All my friends and stuff.”

“Yeah. But that was understandable. People react in different ways to grief.”

“I know. But you were right. It wasn’t healthy. I feel like I’ve been living in this…I don’t know…this bubble or something because I didn’t want to let anyone in. Anyone but you.”

He reflected on this for a moment and realized she was right. He also realized that he kind of liked the bubble since it meant that he was the only important person in her life.

It wasn’t good for her, though, so he wasn’t about to indulge the feeling.

“I can see what you mean. So you think having another wedding ceremony would help with that?”

“Yeah. I could invite everyone I know from the neighborhood. And Stacie and her mom could be there. I just think it would make me feel like this marriage is part of my real life. The life I’m going to be living for a long time now. Is that okay? I didn’t mean to imply that our marriage was ever fake or that what we have wasn’t real all the time.  I just—”

“Emily,” he interrupted. “I get it. I really do. I’m happy to have another wedding.” He leaned down to kiss her. “I’d marry you every day for the rest of my life, if I could.”

She kissed him back, hugging him tightly. Then she said, her voice muffled by his shirt. “For a notorious bad boy, you’re really kind of sappy, you know.”

“I thought I was a geek.”

“You’re a sappy, bad-boy geek.”

He huffed with amusement. “Just don’t tell anyone else.”

So, a month later, they had another wedding ceremony in a church in the neighborhood. Paul had to admit it ended up being a good idea after all.

***

Paul wondered if the idea of Emily's being interested in sex again that evening was overly optimistic.

Probably.

This morning, Emily had been sore and exhausted and hadn't wanted to get up, and she’d teasingly told him that she’d been happy to indulge his primal nature the night before but he shouldn’t expect caveman sex again any time soon.

Paul had drawled that he’d be happy to indulge her primal nature whenever and as often as she wanted. She’d laughed fondly, but then she’d winced as she’d gotten out of bed.

It wasn’t really that long ago—less than six months—when he’d been absolutely convinced Emily was too young to think about sexually. She'd been completely off-limits to him, forbidden.

Many things had changed in these last few months.

They’d had rough, wild sex the night before. He supposed he shouldn’t hope that she would want to have sex again tonight. Just thinking about her was getting his body excited.

He glanced at his watch and saw it was after nine o’clock. Emily would probably be home soon from her dinner with Stacie.

He felt bored and restless and hoped she’d get home soon.

But he forced himself to focus on the email message on his computer screen and managed to type out a reply. Then he made himself focus on the next email.

“Are you ever going to stop working?” a lilting voice demanded from the doorway of his office.

He whirled around in his desk chair, his spirits brightening immediately at the sight of Emily’s casual prettiness and her deep frown. “You’re the one who abandoned me all day to go to class and then have dinner with Stacie.”

“And I’ve been back a full fifteen minutes, and you didn’t bother to emerge from your cave.”

He couldn’t help but smile at her grumpy tone. “Why didn’t you tell me you were home?” He got up and walked over to greet her.

“I was on the phone.” She returned his smile and was still smiling when she grabbed his shirt with both hands and pulled him into a light kiss.

“Anything important?”

“Chris. He’s dating someone seriously, and he wants us all the have dinner together.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Is that all right?”

“Of course,” he said. “You know I’ll do anything to make you happy.”

She curled up her lip. “Anything except let me stop getting tested for the virus every week.”

Paul narrowed his eyes at the abrupt shift in topic. “Do we really have to fight about that again tonight?”

“No,” she said, smiling again. “Not tonight. But it would make me very happy if you’d stop working for the night and come hang out with me.”

Paul chuckled. She didn’t have to know he’d already intended to do just that. “For you, I’ll make that sacrifice.”

They went to the media room to watch television, after making a stop in the kitchen because Emily wanted some ice cream. When they’d settled on the couch, Emily picked up their previous conversation. “So you’re really okay with the four of us having dinner?”

“Yes,” he told her, meeting her eyes so she’d know he was sincere. “He’s a decent guy.  I don’t mind at all.”

 “Okay. Good. Thanks.” She gave a conclusive nod—a clear sign that this part of the conversation was done. She took another spoonful of her ice cream and, when she saw him watching, she asked, “You want some?”

“No. I’m good. How was class?”

“Fine. Kind of boring.” She made a face, staring at the television screen. “Biology isn’t what you would call the most interesting thing in the world.”

“It’ll be required at any university you want to attend.”

“I know that,” she said with a sneer. “That’s why I’m taking it first thing.”

This semester, Emily was taking a couple of classes at a local university, just to ease the transition into college full time.

Paul had told her many times that she could go to any school she wanted. She wasn’t limited to one in Philadelphia just because she was married to him. They could make it work wherever she wanted to go.

“And don’t think I don’t notice you trying to pick another fight.”

“I’m not trying to pick a fight,” he objected, turning to her in surprise. “And when did I try to pick one before?”

“First,” she began, counting off items on her fingers, a move that was somewhat hampered by the spoon in her hand. “You tried to pick a fight about my getting tested for that damned virus every other day for the rest of my life.”

Paul stiffened in outrage. “You were the one who brought that up, and it’s not every other—”

“And second,” she cut in, blithely ignoring all of his facts, reason, and fair corrections. “And second, you tried to pick a fight about my going to some other college, when I’ve told you over and over that, of course, I’m going to a school here in Philadelphia. Like I’m going to live in a different city from my husband if I don’t have to.”

He relaxed back against the sofa and smiled at her, feeling inordinately fond despite the woeful injustice of her earlier claims. “I just want you to know that you can, if you want.”

“I know that, but I don’t want.” She scowled at him until she couldn’t hold the expression any longer and broke into a smile instead.

“I know it makes it awkward for you here,” he murmured. “That everyone knows who you are because of all the stories in the news, that you can’t feel like a normal student.”

She shrugged. “I’m not a normal student. I mean, I just don’t feel like the rest of them. I feel ancient or something.” She sighed and stared down at her ice cream. “I’m the same age or younger as everyone else in my classes, but I still feel…I don’t know.”

He understood exactly what she meant, and he understood why. What she’d lived through in the last months had changed her, and there was no going back from that.

He wasn’t the same either. A lot of his friends were still playing video games until late at night and getting drunk every weekend. He felt miles away from all that now.

He wanted to encourage her, so he said, “Give it a little time. You’ll start to feel more yourself eventually.”

She shook her head and slanted him a different kind of smile. “I feel like myself. Just like I’ve been through a war. Plus, most girls my age aren’t married to such a demanding, unreasonable man who constantly tries to spoil my fun.”

He chuckled. “That’s their loss.”

Her expression changed again, softened. She leaned into him until she was sprawled against his chest. “It certainly is their loss.”

He put his arms around her and held her against him. She felt clingier than normal somehow. “You all right, baby?” he asked, after a few minutes.

“Yeah. I’m good.” Her cheek rested against his chest, which rose and fell with his breathing.

“I mean it, Emily,” he murmured. “It won’t take you long to feel like you fit in at college. It won't matter who you're married to. People always like you…if you let them.”

She snorted against his shirt. “I guess.” She lifted her head and met his eyes. “I know it’ll be fine, Paul. I was just feeling kind of weird and lonely in class today.”

“I know.” He stroked her hair when she leaned her head back on this chest.

They sat together in silence for several minutes, Paul holding her as the voices on the television babbled on incomprehensibly.

After a while, she lifted her head and kissed him on the lips.

“What was that for?” he asked, since it had felt more like a gesture than a sexual advance.

She frowned. “Why do I need a reason to kiss you?”

“You don’t. It just seemed like there was a reason.”

“Just because I love you.”

“That’s a good enough reason for me.” He pulled her into his lap so he could kiss her more deeply.

The kiss was very nice, and his body was getting some definite ideas. So when he tore his lips away, he asked, “Are you still sore?”

“Yes,” she admitted, stroking his neck with her fingers in a way that made him want to howl. “A little. But maybe if you’re gentle, we could…”

“I can be gentle.” He leaned his forehead against hers and tried not to let the building tension in his groin cause him to buck up against her weight.

She paused on her way into another kiss. Her voice broke as she whispered, “I know how gentle you can be.”

He kissed her hungrily and was just getting into it when she suddenly broke away. “Oh! I have a great idea!”

“For sex?” he asked, confused and disoriented as she scrambled off his lap.

“No, this is something else. But it’s a great idea.”

“I thought sex was a great idea.” His body was definitely feeling her loss.

“That can wait for a minute.” She stood up and ran over to a desk on the other side of the room. Her worn jeans emphasized the lush curve of her ass. Her blonde hair was rumpled, and her neckline was askew. And she was completely absorbed in whatever she was looking for in the drawer.

He loved her more than anything in the world.

“Ah ha!” she exclaimed, straightening up and holding a pad of paper and pen victoriously.

“What are we going to do with that?” Try as he might, he couldn’t figure out how paper and pen would be a good accessory for any kind of sex he wanted to engage in.

She ran back over to sit beside him. “We’re going to make a new list. One for both of us. What we want to do. For the rest of our lives.” She beamed at him.

Despite the pulsing of his arousal, he couldn’t help but smile at her fondly.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” she asked, peering at him closely.

“Yes. It’s a good idea.” He let out a breath, trying to will his arousal down. “I thought sex was a good idea too, but…”

Emily laughed and pulled him into a hug, accidentally poking him in the back with the pen. “How about sex first. Then we make a new list for us.”

Paul thought—and told her—that this was an excellent plan.