For three years Fraser had mourned his bride in the privacy of his own soul. The pain of her death, a mere three weeks before their wedding day, like his grief for his father, was best left frozen in the Arctic wilds. There was no reason to burden his new Chicago friends with the knowledge, nor himself with their pity. But that restraint bore a price tag. He could not explain to two worthy women why it was he could neither accept their love nor give his own.
Time after time he had taken Francesca to some quiet place in his mind and explained to her that her volatile nature reminded him of the quick temper of his lost love. And whenever he stood on the proverbial carpet and endured a reprimand from Inspector Thatcher, he imagined another stern face framed in straight, brown hair.
Her intelligence was equal to his own. No comment he ever made would go over her head. Raised in a library, Fraser had never, before or since, found someone able to understand his bizarre speech and even more bizarre thoughts as she could. She matched him thought for thought, quote for quote and, most amazingly, paid no attention to that annoying alignment of his features for which other women followed him around. She used to quip that if she wanted a handsome man, she could afford to buy a better one.
Francesca and Margaret were lovely brunettes, each in her own way more beautiful than Miranda at her best could ever have been. But the harsh northern climate wore beauty away quickly. Like many northern men, Fraser looked past this in the search for a life-partner.
They planned a life together, against all the objections of Miranda's family and friends. And then, suddenly, she was gone. He spent their wedding day crying at what he thought was her grave.
Now, incredibly, he sat in Ray's living room and here she was beside him, alive and well. It was like a fairy tale, with Ray as fairy god-father, waving his shield and hand-cuffs, bringing Fraser and his princess together again to live happily ever after.
To the absolute amazement of the Vecchios, the two re-united Canadians were so incredibly polite that they sat all the way through dinner across the table from each other and actually ate the endless array of courses Ma Vecchio put before them. Only after dessert was finished did Miranda remark that she might as well call a taxi and head back to her hotel. It had been a long day.
Ray could barely contain his snickers when Miranda turned to Fraser and said, ever so casually, "Can I give you a lift home, Ben?"
As Fraser and Miranda stood in the vestibule waiting for the cab, it occurred to Ray that Benny might actually go home and let Miranda go back to her hotel room alone. Steps needed to be taken to prevent that from happening. He ran upstairs to his own bedroom, took a handful of items from his bureau drawer and went back downstairs again. He drew Fraser into the living room where they could be alone and handed him the items, hoping he would get the hint.
"Here Benny, so's you won't have to stop off at the drugstore."
Fraser regarded the things in his palm.
"Well you haven't seen each other in a long time."
Fraser handed the packets back to his friend. "Thank you kindly, Ray, but we won't be needing these."
The blare of a car horn told them the taxi had arrived. As Fraser followed Miranda out the door, Ray slipped the items into his friend's jacket pocket.
Canadians, he thought in disgust.
First Fraser directed the cab driver to his own apartment. Miranda sent him upstairs alone while she waited in the taxi, declaring she'd just as soon not set foot in any kind of hovel he would choose to live in.
Fraser hastily stuffed some basic toiletries into his backpack, followed by some clean underwear and socks. Then came the dilemma. Miranda's airport hotel was far from downtown. He didn't want to have to come home again tomorrow morning before going to work. That meant he would need to take his uniform with him. If he folded it up and put it into the backpack, it would get wrinkled. If he carried it safely over his arm, the cab driver would know he was intending to stay the night with Miranda. After a little reflection he realized that Miranda would not stay in anything other than a five-star hotel. There would therefore certainly be an iron available. Modesty won out and the uniform followed the other clothes into the bag.
During the whole long drive out to the airport strip they leaned as closely to each other, in the back seat of the cab, as their seatbelts would allow, his arm around her shoulder, getting re-adjusted to the feel of each other's bodies. They said very little during the ride, in the lobby of the hotel or in the elevator. At last Miranda closed the hotel room door behind them and they were alone.
"You got a room, not a suite," said Fraser, looking around.
"I wasn't expecting company."
It had been a good three hours since he had last had her in his arms in Ray's living-room. He wrapped himself around her again now, and they melted together.
"I'm not company, am I?"
"My husband, then?" Miranda started one of their favourite quotes.
"Ay, with a heart as willing as bondage e'er of freedom: here's my hand."
"And mine, with my heart in't."
They started their kiss standing up in the centre of the hotel room, and the intensity of it carried them to the bed. For a little while they just kissed, fully dressed. Then they sat up and Miranda reached over to undress him. The jacket came off first. As she tossed it aside, Ray's donations to the evening's entertainment fell out of Fraser's jacket pocket and onto the bed. Miranda held one up for inspection.
"You carry these around now? Chicago's changed you, Mountie."
"Oh, Ray must have put those there. He must thought we'd need them."
Miranda laughed and stretched out on the bed, pulling Fraser down with her. "I guess he figured we'd people Chicago else with Canadians," she half-quoted.
Fraser shared her laugh. Oh God, to be able to talk, really talk with an equal again! How lonely he had been! Ray was a good friend and they did talk, as friends. But here he was with Miranda, chatting, quoting and sharing thoughts as if those whole three nightmare years had never happened. This was what having a life partner was all about.
"Little does he know that was the whole idea all along," he said, mischevously, "We should have had three children by now; we're behind schedule by a significant margin, Ms. Green."
He leaned over her and started unbuttoning her dreadful grey suit.
"Miranda, I really do hate your clothes. I'm going to improve the décor of this room considerably by the simple act of divesting you of this particular outfit right now." It was something he could never say to Francesca - it would go right over her head. To Miranda he could say anything he was thinking and she was right there with him. And Margaret, she'd only be insulted. Only Miranda really understood him.
He undressed her first, and then himself. For the rest of the night they reveled in being alone together and the details of that is nobody's business but their own.
A cluster of people sat around the tiny table at the bar in the airport. Miranda's flight home was almost ready to board and she had her new friends gathered for last minute instructions. Fraser sat beside his bride-to-be as quietly and unobtrusively as any good consort should, enjoying her every word and move.
That expensive pen, it's much too wide for her delicate fingers. Look how she holds it poised over that agenda book, counting off the days. Was there ever anything so feminine?
"I'll book a flight for, let's see, March third." Miranda was saying. "We'll have the wedding the next day. Don't want to be too rushed, but why waste time, right?"
Her usual charming precision. She hasn't changed at all. At Ray's house she said she wanted to go home for a couple of months. March third is exactly sixty days since that night. It was so sweet.
"Now, Ray, for the house."
Ray took out his police notebook from his breast pocket and consulted his instructions: "Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, one fireplace, two-car garage. Close enough to my house not to have to take either car."
Miranda beamed her approval. "You and Ben should open a joint account with the money I left you. There should be enough for the house, the clothes for the wedding and any other odds and ends that come up before I get back. If you need more, have your bank contact my office." She shoved one of her business cards across the table towards Ray.
"Aye, aye, sir," Ray muttered.
Fraser raised his eyebrows sharply at him. Ray grimaced and pocketed the card without another word.
"Margaret. Francesca." Without thinking, they sat up to attention.
"About the dresses. You two, please pick out something nice for yourselves. My treat. Anything, really. I was thinking maybe green - but bright, not too pale, you're both winters. Of course if you want some other colour. . . "
"Green's fine," they answered in unison.
Was there ever a woman who knew her own mind so clearly? The Inspector and Francesca are marshmallows beside her.
"Now the men, you're easy. Dress uniforms all around."
"What about a dress for you, Miranda?" Francesca piped up.
"I still have the dress and veil I was going to use the last time I planned to marry this Mountie."
"You kept the dress? I'd have burned it!" declared Thatcher.
"Oh, I was going to burn all of it - the dress, the veil, all Ben's letters, all his poetry, (Fraser flinched slightly at that revelation), everything. I was going to make this big bonfire, set it all ablaze and dance around the flames." Her grim expression told everyone this was no joke. "But, there are fire regulations . . . "
I'm the luckiest man in the world.
"Miranda, who picked the dress out?" Francesca raised this delicate issue on behalf of everyone at the table. Miranda's taste in clothes was atrocious, and Miranda herself knew it.
"Melinda picked it out. My ex-best friend. So, it should be safe. I think that's everything, except the wedding itself. Look, you're all so sweet for making this wedding for Ben and me. I never imagined I'd get married in a consulate; that's quite the honour. But, I feel bad about all of you going to so much trouble and expense. Are you sure you won't at least let me pay for . . . "
"Miranda, they are giving us this wedding as a gift. The correct response would be 'Thank you', not 'Let me pay.' "
It was the first thing Fraser had said since thanking the waitress when she brought his coffee. He put his hand over Miranda's to soften the rebuke.
"You're right. I'm so sorry. I'm just not used to being on the receiving end. But please, not too many people. Just us and the rest of Ray's family. I wouldn't be comfortable with more than that. And nothing elaborate either. Dessert and coffee. I don't want everybody making a fuss."
A disembodied airport voice called Miranda's flight for boarding. Everyone else stayed at the table, leaving Fraser to escort her to the gate and she joined a line up of passengers waiting to board. Fraser caught sight of the jumbo jet just outside the huge plate glass window and it suddenly hit home that Miranda was about to go through that gate and that jet would take her away. In sudden panic he grabbed her wrist and yanked her out of line.
"Ben! What the . . . "
He clutched hard at the wrist of the hand that held the plane ticket.
"Don't go back. Stay here with me!"
"Ben, you're hurting me!"
He released her arm as if hit by an electric shock. "I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry . . ." he stammered.
"It's all right, Ben, you didn't hurt me that much," she tried to soothe him, "What's the matter with you?"
Miranda's flight was called for boarding a second time. She glanced at the steadily diminishing line of passengers.
"Don't go back. What if something happens to you? What if I lose you again?"
She rubbed her wrist where Fraser had squeezed it, and the gesture only made him want to keep her close and protect her all the more. "Ben, it's only for a couple of months. I have to go back, there's so much to arrange. I have to pack . . . "
"Hire somebody to do it. You can afford it. Please, don't leave."
"Ben, it's not just the packing. I have an obligation to my staff. I can't just disappear."
Fraser grabbed her by the shoulders and stared straight into her eyes. "They'll do without you." He pulled her over to one of the plastic airport benches and sat her down. "I'll call your office and tell them you died. It'll be poetic justice. I thought you died, and I left you alone, and you were so hurt. I'll call your secretary right now. They'll never know, and . . . "
He spoke faster and faster. Miranda took his face in both her hands and adopted her firmest, managerial voice. "Benton Robert Fraser! Breathe!"
"Miranda . . ."
"Stop it, or I'll slap you!"
He fought for control. The airport voice insisted that all the passengers on Miranda's flight should now be on board.
"Ben, it's only for a little while. I just need to get my affairs in order and get a successor settled in at the bank. I'll be back in two months, and I'll take up a brand new job - full-time Mountie wife."
"Will that be enough for you? Full time wife? You're used to being a big business woman. Oh, Miranda, I'm so afraid that once you get back to your office you won't want to come back and be just a Mountie wife. It won't be enough for you."
Miranda realized that this was the real fear behind the outburst. So closely were their minds attuned that he actually calmed down when he saw that she understood.
"Of course it won't. But that's not all I'm going to be. In a little while we'll diversify and I'll be the manager of all the subsidiaries. That will keep me plenty busy. Everything will be fine, Ben. I have to go now, I'll miss my flight."
She gave him a hurried peck on the cheek and dashed for the boarding gate. He watched her go down the passageway toward the plane for as long as he could see her, then turned to the window and stood, at parade rest, gazing out at the plane.
"I'm going to make sure you have everything you want," he promised through the window. "I'm going to make sure you are never hurt again."
Ray and Francesca drove home together from the airport.
"I've got to hand it to you, Sis. You're really taking this in stride."
"What, Fraze getting married? It hurts but I'll live. You know at least now it makes sense. I mean, I'm an attractive woman, right?"
"Right." It was the only safe answer.
"And so's Margaret, I have to admit. So why wouldn't Fraze ever give one of us a chance? It never made sense. Now we know. He's been pining for Miranda - now he's got her back."
"I guess. Anyway what are the two of you up to?"
"You and the Dragon Lady. I saw you looking at each other all the time Miranda was talking about the wedding."
"Oh, that. Fraze deserves a decent wedding, not that piddley thing she wants. And we're going to give him one, Margaret and me."
"Frannie, I talked to Miranda a whole lot more than you did. She's used to having her own way. You two better not start something."
"Oh, pooh. Every woman wants a nice wedding. She'll be thrilled, you'll see."
Ray's choices were to try to talk the women out of their plan, or say nothing and hope Miranda wouldn't be too angry. What was the worst that could happen if Miranda were displeased with the wedding prepared for her? Ray's shins still hurt from the kicking he had endured when he had tried to stop Miranda from beating up on Fraser. Pity any poor bank robber that ever tried to hold up HER bank, she'd fry him. For Benny's sake, the wiser course would certainly be to make sure everything went exactly as Miranda ordered.
There was one small problem with that. It would require him to stand up against both his sister and the Dragon Lady together. This was a frightening prospect. On a deeper level he realized he'd probably be unsuccessful even if he did try to stop them.
The tuxedo was the most elegant suit of clothes Fraser had ever worn. It was far more elaborate than the outfit Huey had lent him to play poker with Denny Scarpa. Ray had to fasten the groom's cummerbund, install his studs and tie his tie, as Fraser had no clue how any of these items should be attached. And tails. What was he supposed to do with them when he sat down? And what if he had to run somewhere? Wouldn't they flap ridiculously behind him? He voiced all this to Ray, who assured him he'd be unlikely to have to run, jump or climb at his wedding. And as for the tails, just flip them up when you sit down, like Diefenbaker does.
But these were minor worries compared to Fraser's larger concern, as he, Ray and Turnbull dressed upstairs in one of the guest bedrooms at the Consulate on the day of the wedding.
"Ray, I'm not entirely convinced these outfits are a good idea. Miranda was quite clear about wanting all the men in dress uniform."
Ray actually agreed, but he repeated his sister's reasoning, hoping it would sound convincing. "When she sees how good we all look, she'll be glad. You'll see."
"And she only wanted a few people and light refreshments. There's a whole crowd down there, Ray, and all the food and drink and flowers. I don't think Miranda is going to like it."
"I'm trusting Frannie and the Dragon Lady on this one, Benny. Weddings are woman-things. They say she'll love it."
Fraser was not convinced. "They don't know Miranda as I do. She doesn't like her will to be thwarted. Maybe just you and Turnbull should wear the tuxedoes, and I'll change . . . "
"Too late, buddy." Ray gave Turnbull a significant look. Turnbull shook his colleague's hand, excused himself and went downstairs, giving the two best friends a last moment of privacy before the women arrived. Ray gave the Mountie's bow tie a final tug.
"There. Now let me have a look at you." Ray took a couple of steps back to get the total picture and felt better. Miranda couldn't possibly object to this. Hell, it's a good thing I'm not gay, I'd be drooling.
Ray consulted his watch. "So, this is it. Our last few minutes together as two single men. Benny, can I ask you something?"
"Of course, Ray."
Ray shrugged, embarrassed. "I wouldn't ask, only, well, I'm Italian and . . . Benny, can I hug you?"
Fraser stiffened. "Would you settle for my firstborn child?" He wasn't joking. He had, in fact, been thinking at that moment that his own vast vocabulary had no word for his debt to Ray for bringing Miranda back to him. Nor could Miranda's enormous wealth ever buy a fitting tribute.
"Do I look like Rumplestiltskin?" Ray quipped.
"I mean it, Ray. We have no way to thank you for all you've done for us. Our first child will be Raymond or Ramona."
"Well, I'll expect you guys to get started on that right away, but I still want my hug."
Fraser extended his arms and endured the embrace. Sounds of female voices started coming from downstairs.
"She's here, Ray." There were tears in the Mountie's eyes. "I have you to thank for everything. You've been married. Any last minute advice?"
That's Benny's gift to thank me, thought Ray. He's letting me be the wise old friend and give him advice. He doesn't say I screwed up my own marriage, so my advice is worth squat. "Ma always said, don't go to bed angry."
"Better not tell that to Miranda," said Fraser, taking a last look at himself in the mirror before they went downstairs. "When she sees this, she'll be so angry, we won't sleep for a week."
"Another piece of advice, partner. Not supposed to sleep on your honeymoon."
Fraser blushed and his face contrasted attractively with his white tie and black satin lapels.
"Come on, Benny. Let's get you married."
Miranda exchanged vows with her Mountie in a happy haze, unaware of her surroundings. She kissed him for the first time as his lawful wife blissfully unconcerned with what he was wearing or how many people were watching.
After the ceremony, as the afternoon went on, Miranda found herself biting first her lip to hold back her annoyance and then her tongue not to let that annoyance show. Who WERE all these people? Ray explained that they were all Chicagoans whose lives Benny had changed and wasn't it wonderful how they all cared. Miranda hung around mostly un-noticed while everyone pumped Ben's hand, kissed him, hugged him, wished him well. She wondered why she needed to be there at all.
She watched Ben move through the crowd of well-wishers, who broke off their attention to the cheap, greasy food and dreadful wine to worship him whenever he passed. And that tux! Did he HAVE to look THAT handsome? She already knew he was better looking by far than she herself was, did she have to have her nose rubbed in it on her own wedding day?
Miranda kept a smile on her face but it was only operating between the nose and the chin. Anyone looking carefully at her eyes would have seen she was miserable, but nobody was looking that carefully except, of course, her new husband. They had little time alone, this was a public performance, but he finally managed to get away and steer her into one of the Consulate's guest bedrooms.
"I know this isn't what you wanted. Be gracious. They meant well."
She was insulted. "I don't need you to tell me to be gracious. What do you think I'm going to do, stand up and curse them all - not that they don't all deserve it."
"It's only for a little while longer. Please. They're my friends."
"And where's your dress uniform? Ben, I've dreamed of that - seeing you in all that stuff, gloves, yellow belt, and knowing its all for me. How could you even think of dressing up like this. You look like one of the musicians."
He sighed and glanced down at himself. "I just knew I'd rue the day I agreed to wear this."
Mollified, she pulled a piece of fern out of her bouquet and tucked it behind his right ear. "Then, you must wear your rue with a difference," she quoted. They laughed together.
"Be brave. Soon it will all be over and we'll have our whole lives to do whatever you want."
"A miserable afternoon in exchange for a lifetime of obedience? I get the better of that deal. You always were a bad businessman. Part of your charm."
"I mean it, Miranda. I've suffered, but you've suffered more. For three years you thought I abandoned you. I'm going to make sure nobody named Mrs. Fraser is ever hurt again."
"I take thee at thy word. Call me but Mrs. Fraser and I'm new baptised," she quoted. "Just how many Mrs. Frasers did you have in mind, by the way?"
"Two, "he said, in a very low, faraway voice.
"Your mother. Don't go there, Ben. You were just a little boy. It never was your job to protect her."
"It's my job to protect you, and I will."
"Don't strain yourself, Mountie. I'm pretty good at taking care of myself. Come on, MISTER Fraser, let's get you back to your adoring fans."
They came back to the reception arm in arm but it wasn't long before Welsh and a gaggle of detectives carried Fraser off and she was left alone again. Miranda wandered through the crowd of strangers and imagined the conversations she thought were going on: 'What does he see in HER?' 'Didn't you know, she's got money.'
Ray, Fraser, Welsh and Huey were huddled around Huey's desk examining some cigarette butts. Other detectives stood around, watching and listening, while Fraser explained the origin of the different tobaccos. Elaine pushed her way through the crowd.
"Fraser, your wife called. I forgot to tell you this morning. Sorry. You were supposed to call her back right away."
Fraser went as white as Arctic snow and made a dash through the detectives for Ray's desk and telephone.
"If I ever go to Canada, remind me not to get married," said Huey.
"We've got a pool going at my house: me, Frannie, Maria and Tony, what day Fraser's finally going to stand up to her."
"I want in on that," said Welsh, "but how do we know when anybody wins?"
Elaine had the answer. "Are you kidding? You'll hear her howl clear across town."
Welsh dug into his pocket. "Twenty bucks says he blows on Labour Day." For the next few minutes Ray did a brisk business. He hastily stuffed money and slips of paper into his pocket as he saw Fraser returning.
"I was supposed to get milk," the Mountie explained, sheepishly. "I think I better just be on my way now." Everybody watched his hasty exit.
"He'll never make it to Labour Day. Change mine to the Fourth of July," said Welsh.
"Good day for fireworks," observed Elaine.
"Come on in, Ray. Dinner's almost ready. What's that? Another present?"
"For your six-month anniversary, Fraser. Half a year as a domesticated animal. Where's Randy?"
"In the kitchen."
Ray put a large box on the coffee table and Dief came over to sniff at it. Fraser lifted the box, shook it carefully to hear what might be inside, then opened the silver foil and pink ribbon. The present was an elegant china soup tureen.
"Miranda will love this. Thank you kindly, Ray." Fraser got up and went to the door connecting the living room to the kitchen. They layout of the Fraser house was almost identical to that of the Vecchio's, not surprising since they were barely two blocks apart.
"Miranda, come here into the living room, please."
She appeared in the doorway.
"The fring-ed curtains of thine eyes advance, and see what Ray brought you."
Ray had long since stopped trying to understand what Constable and Mrs. Fraser were babbling about when they were quoting Shakespeare. They always provided a translation for anything they felt he needed to know. For all the game was incomprehensible to him, they seemed to enjoy it.
Miranda came in and stood looking at the gift. She wasn't pleased. The two friends knew she'd let them know shortly who was at fault and what the transgression was, so they waited.
"It's lovely, Ray." She could have been describing a cockroach. But the tureen actually was lovely, so they continued waiting for the explanation.
"But Ben, if that present is for me, why didn't you let ME open it?"
Ray had a respectable amount of money in the pot for tonight being the night. He watched Fraser hopefully. But Fraser only looked away and seemed to be focusing on some dust specks dancing in the evening sunlight.
"I'm sorry. I should have let you open it."
Damn, thought Ray. Oh well, the night is still young.
"You know what, Ray? I'm going to inaugurate this right now. Give me five minutes, gentlemen, and then report to the table." She carried her gift off to the kitchen.
Ray, Fraser and Diefenbaker followed her in at exactly the specified time. Why take chances?
As she dished out their soup, Ray said, "We've got a bust planned for tomorrow night at that gambling joint on Thirty-seventh Street. That one you tracked down last week."
Miranda's ladle paused in mid air. "Ben, I thought we talked about this. You weren't going to take any more risks. I don't want you getting hurt."
Ray rooted silently for his friend.
"I'm sorry, Miranda. I won't do it anymore."
"And you, Ray. You should know better. He's a married man."
Dinner continued without more incident. After dessert Miranda let the three males out onto the verandah to relax and enjoy the autumn evening with a mug of coffee, a mug of bark tea and a bowl of milk, for each according to his taste, while she tidied up the kitchen.
"I wanted you in on that bust, Fraser. You did the work, you should get the glory."
"I'd better not. Miranda's a little bit on edge lately. Best not to upset her."
"What's new lately?" Ray cared too much for his friend to put any sarcasm on the word 'lately'. He kept his question completely straight.
Fraser looked into the setting sun and took a deep breath. "What you said about me becoming a domesticated animal, Ray. Well, it seems not all of us domesticated animals can actually breed in captivity."
"Nothing happening on the little Raymond front yet, I take it?"
"Nothing, and we're getting worried."
"Tough break." Ray had been wondering about this. The Frasers, for all they were both modest about things physical, never hid from Ray that they were trying hard for a child as soon as possible.
"We're going to go see our doctors," Fraser went on. "Maybe there's something wrong with one of us. Or both of us." The friends sipped their drinks and looked out, watching Chicago darken around them.
Fraser left work a little bit early to stop off at the doctor's for his test results. Miranda, he knew, had gone for her results earlier in the afternoon. The plan was for the two of them, policeman and banker, to meet home and give their comprehensive reports and then, based on this, determine a logical strategy.
Fraser came home jubilant. He found his wife just finishing putting groceries away in the kitchen.
"My count's normal!" he announced to her happily. "So that's one thing out of the way. How about you?"
Miranda grimly produced a small bag from the pharmacy from among the larger grocery bags. One by one she pulled items from it and explained their use. "I have to take these pills. I have to take my temperature every morning with this. It's a basal thermometer. It shows smaller changes in temperature than a normal thermometer. I track my temperature on this graph, according to the days of my cycle. If the pills work, my temperature goes up around day fourteen. That's when we're supposed to, you know, make a baby. Oh, and we stop doing anything, and that's anything, Ben, around day ten, just in case. Save our strength or something, I don't know. If nothing happens after three months, the doctor says he'll increase the dosage."
"Don't be upset, Miranda. What's a few pills after all? A minor acquisition price for all those subsidiaries we have planned."
"The glass is always half full with you, isn't it, Mountie? You know something? I was almost hoping it was you that was to blame."
"Why are you thinking about blame? We're in this together. Why not see this as a good thing? Now we know just what to do."
"And I always thought I knew what to do to make a baby. Wasn't I the fool?" Fraser took in the paraphernalia on the table. It wasn't the most romantic way to proceed but he was actually pleased to have a logical explanation of their failure to conceive and a tangible method of solving the problem. But Miranda was so distressed, he felt obliged to reassure her somehow. He took her in his arms.
"Be collected. No more amazement: tell your piteous heart we'll have a baby soon," he mixed quote with reality, "We'll just have to work at it a little more than some people."
"Work? Is that what it is to you now? You used to want me, Ben, just for the wanting. Now it's work! What's happening to us?"
He hated to see her like this, but nothing he ever said or did seemed to make a difference anymore. He had given his solemn oath that she would never be hurt again. I know, he thought, when in doubt, go with the obvious.
"So, when does all this start. The first day of your cycle, I imagine?"
"That's not for another week. In the meantime, let's rehearse day fourteen."
The doctor increased Miranda's dosage after three months, then three months later increased it again with Miranda's temper increasing each time. Shutting up and doing what he was told made for outward peace but Fraser's nerves were wearing thin.
Never in his life had Fraser needed to adapt his behaviour based on another person's feelings. As a child there was nothing to think about. He obeyed his grandparents, and whenever his father was around he obeyed him too. There was nothing to feel about it, one way or another. It simply was the right thing to do.
When he left home for RCMP training he discovered that the discipline of the Force operated just as simply - except he had the option to disobey. For this he was sometimes punished, but there was no emotional component. Once the punishment was done, it was done and nobody cared anymore.
After that came years of patrolling the wilderness settlements, only Diefenbaker and himself. Two lone wolves, who always acted in concert.
But life with Miranda was a minefield. As an engaged couple they talked for hours, for the sheer pleasure of it. Now? One wrong word triggered an explosion and he seldom ever knew what word it was that was wrong. Fraser knew that something had to be done to change the situation. He tried something one night over dinner.
"I was thinking, if we're not going to get pregnant right away . . ." Choose your words carefully, Benton. Say 'we' not 'you' so she won't think you're suggesting it's all her fault. You might live longer. " . . . maybe you should get a job. It would fill your days."
"I've looked into that already. I'll need at least eighteen months of courses before they'll even let me apply to take the CPA exams. I know nothing at all about American tax law. Then there's studying for the exams. It could be up to two years before I could even think of applying for anything decent. Even then, the Americans probably won't recognize my Canadian experience. I'm nothing here, Ben. Nothing in the business world and nothing at home."
Don't react to this, just carry on. "You know, two years from now you'll be two years older, whether you're a CPA or not. In the meantime maybe you could do a job a little less important?"
"A McJob? Me? With my experience? Ben, what can you be thinking!"
Fraser spent the rest of dinner concentrating on cutting his potatoes into very small and very symmetrical pieces.
Ray pulled up in front of the Consulate for their regular Tuesday lunch. As Fraser climbed into his usual shotgun seat and laid his Stetson on the dashboard, Ray had a chance to take a close look at him, from less than a foot away.
"Fraser, have I told you lately you look like hell?"
"Thanks, Ray. That's just what I needed to hear."
Ray gave him five blocks to start talking, but the Mountie was in full clam-up mode. Nothing was forthcoming.
"Want to talk about it?"
Ray let it go until they were sitting in the restaurant waiting for their pizza to arrive.
"Could you tell Miranda I might be a little late tonight."
"You're coming over?"
"Yeah. Miranda's trying a new stew recipe and she ordered . . . asked me to come over tonight. I'm supposed to bring the Italian bread. She didn't tell you?"
"Ray, maybe you could just call her yourself. I've got a meeting with the trade delegation this afternoon."
"And you can't take two minutes to call your wife?"
Fraser sighed. "It's not the minutes, Ray. I could call her but I need my head on my shoulders this afternoon. If I called her to say her plans will be going in any way awry this evening . . . "
"She'll bite your head off. I hear you."
It was as good an opening as Ray figured he was going to get, so he took it. "Just how bad is it, Benny?"
The pizza arrived and Ray put a slice on a plate for him and shoved it across the table. Fraser shoved it back to him, shaking his head.
"Bad enough. Ray, lately I've begun to think . . . I mean, lately I've begun to feel, that maybe we need a little time apart."
"It's only been a year, Benny!"
"Only a year? It feels like forever."
Miranda lay in bed, thermometer in her mouth, while Fraser was dressing for work. She took the thermometer out after exactly the right interval, read the result and noted it precisely on the graph she kept on the bedside table. Fraser sat on the edge of the bed lacing up his right boot.
She cleared her throat. "Ben . . . "
"Do you have time? It's supposed to be better first thing in the morning."
Fraser consulted his watch and measured the interval between now and his first morning meeting. "I have time." He started unlacing his boot.
Ray had bad luck in the past with going home and talking to wives at lunch time. When he and Angie had been in their last stages, trying to keep themselves together, he had tried this approach and it hadn't helped. But this was the only time he could be sure that Miranda would be home and Benny wouldn't.
He appeared at the Frasers' back door and Miranda let him in.
"Ray! You should have told me you were coming over, I'd have made you something nice for lunch. There's nothing defrosted. You'll have to settle for a sandwich."
"Didn't come to eat, Randy. Came to talk."
"Well, Ray, I'm glad because there's something I want to talk to you about."
Ray rejoiced. This was going to be easier than he had dared to hope. She was ready to talk. Maybe . . . maybe . . . she was ready to listen.
"Ray, I want to ask you something. I hope you won't be upset." She sat down with him at the kitchen table. "Could you please not call me 'Randy' anymore?"
"I didn't know it bothered you. Why didn't you say something?"
"Ray, you've been so good to Ben and me. I didn't want to upset you. But you see, my parents used to call me 'Randy', when I was child. I don't want to hear it now."
Miranda had cut off all ties with her family when she learned how, four years ago, they had conspired to keep her and Fraser apart .
"You could have told me if it bothered you."
"It didn't so much before, but things are so hard now. I don't have the tolerance I used to."
Oh my God, she thinks she ever had tolerance? "How do you mean hard?"
"Ben doesn't talk to me anymore. We used to talk all the time, but now he's shutting me out. I used to think it was just over the baby thing, but it's more. Ray, he hasn't quoted Shakespeare for months now. He just never seems to open his mouth."
"Ra... Miranda. Do you think maybe its because every time he opens his mouth, you jump down his throat?" There, he said it. He had plenty of insurance, so what-the-hell, he may as well go for it.
"Benny's my brother. You know that. And you're my brother's wife. That makes you my sister, kind of. I have to tell you the truth. You're too hard on him. You have to let up. He can't take anymore."
She stared at him, speechless. There was no comprehension in her face, she just screwed up her forehead and eyes, as if trying to figure out a foreign language. It was amazing to Ray how clearly he could see her struggling with this bizarre concept.
"You think I should let him just walk all over me? No, Ray you're wrong. Ben likes me to be strong. I think that's what attracted him to me in the first place. I'm tough. I've had to be tough all my life to survive. You know, sometimes I envy Ben his childhood."
"Are you kidding me? Benny grew up in cabins and traveling libraries. He didn't have a mother . . . "
"I had a mother. She betrayed me in the worst way. I know Ben's childhood wasn't exactly happy. But he never did without and he always had grandparents who loved him. And Ray, he always had respect. All the while he was growing up, people respected the Frasers."
"You saying they didn't respect the Greens?"
"They respected our money, but not us. When you're rich, people want to get at you, they want to make you smaller. I've always had to fight for respect. I studied harder than anyone else at school. I worked my way up at the bank. Don't you see, I had to prove I was more than my family's money. Ben respects me. He may not love me anymore, but he respects me."
"Of course he still loves you. And he respects you. Why can't you let him help you? You're not one of those rich Greens anymore. You're Mrs. Fraser now, with a big strong Mountie to take care of you. Let Benny do his job."
"Only once, Ray. Only once did I ever ask Ben for help. I lay in my hospital bed and begged him to come to me. I cried for him. He never came."
"You know that wasn't his fault. Your parents tricked him."
"I know that now. That doesn't mean it hurt any less back then."
She leaned against his shoulder, biting her lip, trying not to cry. "I want to be a mother, Ray. I want to be good mother. Not like . . . " She gave up and wept against his jacket. He patted her on the back. A single heart-to-heart wasn't going to change the patterns of a lifetime, that Ray could see. 'Poor little rich girl' had been a cliché he'd never really believed was true. Surprised as he was at himself, he actually pitied her.
A Saturday morning respite. Francesca and Miranda had gone shopping at some mall far enough out of town that they would be gone for hours, and Ray was on a stakeout. Fraser and Diefenbaker had the day to themselves. In the quiet mid-morning hours, Fraser sat thinking over a cup of chamomille tea while Diefenbaker lapped up a bowl of the same, but the wolf's was heavily sweetened.
Mountie, you need help, Fraser was thinking. You simply have no skills here. It's no shame to admit it. You just have to find someone who has the skills you need and ask her to teach you.
"Come on Dief, let's go talk to Ma."
Within ten minutes they were in the Vecchio kitchen, still consuming liquids, thick espresso for Fraser and a bowl of warm milk for Diefenbaker. Ma Vecchio fussed about at the sink, thinking about what kind of food would get Benito to open up. Carbohydrates - comfort food? No, she didn't want him too relaxed. Wine and cheese? Too stimulating for the morning. Then she hit on it. Manly food! So he'd feel macho and in control, just confident enough not to feel threatened and be willing to let down his guard and show his distress. Many years ago Ma Vecchio had figured out this male paradox and having accepted it, gave it no more thought.
She got out her fattiest cold cuts and her sharpest cheese from the fridge and cut up big manly slices of Italian bread. She put all this on the table in front of Fraser and then fetched out her brownest mustard to go with it. She hadn't spent all those years matching food to mood for nothing.
She watched Fraser construct a sandwich, meat and cheese all carefully aligned along the same axis, then push it aside and lower his head to the table with a moan. She came around behind him and put her arms around her shoulders.
"Tell me about it, Benito. Tell Mama all about it."
"Maybe we should have lived together first, back home. She wanted me to move in but I couldn't live in her big house."
"And where do you live now, Benito?"
His head was still down but she felt his shoulders bounce as he chuckled. "In her big house."
She hugged him tighter.
"Living with a difficult person, it's . . .well, it's . . . difficult. But if you love him . . . "
Fraser noticed the change in pronoun. "You stayed with Mr. Vecchio all that time."
"In my generation it wasn't a choice. You marry a man, you stay with him. Today you have choices. Stay. Go. Have children. Don't have children."
"We don't have that choice. The children part, I mean."
"But that's not all the problem, is it?"
"No, Ma. I know she's under stress about getting pregnant. She's getting madder and madder at the universe and she's taking it out on me. She thinks she has to be strong all the time. She won't let me be a man for her. She won't let me help. I love Miranda but no matter what I say, she explodes. Ma, I'm afraid in my own home!"
Don't I know that feeling all too well, thought Ma Vecchio. Don't I know what it's like to wonder what mood he'll be in when he comes home, what he'll do if I say the wrong thing, pray he'll hit me and not Raimondo.
"Some people aren't comfortable to love, Benito. But I wonder if those aren't the ones who need it the most."
"Miranda could learn a lot from you about being strong, Ma. If she would only let up on me just a little. If she would only let me take the reins once in a while. I really don't know how much more of this I can take."
"You must tell her all this, Benito. I know it doesn't seem like it, but she wants you to talk to her."
"Talk to her. And eat that sandwich. You shouldn't waste food."
Fraser knew he could survive the second part of that order at least and started in to comply. The distraction of chewing and swallowing calmed him enough to allow him to focus.
"You know, Ma, sometimes I think I understand. She can't get pregnant and I think she sees that as some kind of failure. Miranda's not used to failure. This has to be hard for her."
"It's no easier for you, Benito."
"I think it is. I think she feels defective. I'm sure she thinks I blame her. But I don't, Ma. I know its not her fault."
"Tell her all this. It will help, you'll see. Pick a good time and tell her."
"Ben, are you awake?"
He lay in bed with his back to her. She shook his shoulder.
"You don't really want to sleep, do you?"
"Um . . . what time is it?"
"Time for a little fun? It's been so long, Ben." She pulled down the neck of his long johns to expose a bit of shoulder and kissed him there.
Fraser shifted away from her and sat up in bed. "Today's day eleven. You know we're not supposed to do anything so close to when it counts."
"But Ben, I want you NOW."
"Well, maybe it's time you realized you can't always have everything you want."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Mistake, thought Fraser. She caught me half asleep, unprepared. I said the wrong thing. Pick a good time, Ma said. This isn't a good time. She's frustrated. She's angry. No matter how carefully I say what she needs to be told, she'll take it the wrong way. Stall. Must stall.
"Let's talk about it tomorrow when we're not so tired."
"I'm not tired. I'm horny. That doesn't seem to be a condition you're suffering from too much these days."
"Miranda, do you think I like pushing you away? Do you think I like making love to you on a schedule? I'm a man, not breeding stock. But we have to be strong."
"So you're calling me weak."
I'm never going to get out of this conversation in one piece. "Miranda, please. I just think it's not a good time to talk right now."
"You never want to talk. I know you don't like talking about your feelings but you can't keep shutting me out like this. Talk to me, damn you."
"I'm trying to avoid an argument."
"Well that mission's a failure, Mountie. You've already made me mad. I'm sleeping downstairs!"
Ray's advice from the wedding day came back to Fraser: Don't go to bed angry. They were already in bed, but the principle still seemed valid.
"No, stay here." Fraser protested. "All right, you win."
That only made things worse. "Don't say that! This isn't a contest!"
"I mean, I agree to talk." He drew a deep breath. Inwardly he called on every deity he had ever heard of to give him patience and help him choose the right words. "Miranda, you're used to having your own way. At the bank your employees had to obey you. Outside of work, if you wanted something, you bought it." Even me, he was thinking but he knew better than to say it out loud. "You always expect people and things to go your way, and when they don't you get angry."
"That's crazy." She was getting angrier by the second.
"Don't you realize people are afraid of you?" Don't you realize I'm afraid of you, he added silently to himself.
"So that's how everybody sees me. I'm a fire-breathing monster. Then I guess it's good we'll never have children. I might fry them in my all-consuming wrath! Now could I drink hot blood, right?" She quoted at him for the first time in months, the most hurtful quote she could think of.
"Miranda, please calm down. Didn't the doctor say stress will decrease your chances of . . . "
She was no longer listening. "You want me to be weak! If I were weak, Mountie, I wouldn't have you, now would I? I'll never be weak! Never! People despise you when you're weak!"
This is new, thought Fraser. What is this about?
"Who told you that?" he continued aloud.
"Life told me that. You don't know what it's like, Ben, growing up filthy rich. Everybody figures there's nothing to you but your money. If you're not strong as a person nobody ever respects you. You have to come down hard on people, or everybody thinks you're just a drone."
In the insect kingdom, Fraser was thinking, drones are male. Maybe in their kingdom, too. What was he, except the drone and she the queen bee?
"I just mean that you have to let up sometimes. Can't you do that for me?"
He took her in his arms and cuddled her. It being day eleven, that was all they were scheduled for. Fraser felt her breathing slow down as she relaxed against him.
"You know, that day I was talking to Ray, when we got together again, and I was telling him about us, I told him I was no Little Nell. I meant it, Mountie."
"I don't know any Fenwicks."
"Dudley Do-Right's girlfriend, moron."
"Oh, him I know. So tell me, why aren't you Nell?"
"Because she's weak. She's a simpering little twit who gets tied to railway tracks and waits to be rescued. That's not me!" She grabbed hold of the fabric of his underwear, clenched it tightly in her fists and started to cry. "Don't ask me to be weak. I'll never be that, never. Not for you. Not for anybody. You're an intelligent man. Why can't you understand?"
She's an intelligent woman, he was thinking, why doesn't she get it?
Ray, Miranda and Francesca shopped their way through the mall. After more than a year, Francesca was still enjoying picking out Miranda's wardrobe and they never finished any shopping trip without something nice for all the Vecchios, Miranda always saw to that.
Miranda was so perfectly average in height and build that she could wear just about any style. For Francesca it was like having a live Barbie doll to dress. For Ray it was a challenge worthy of Henry Higgins, to get this rich woman to stop looking like a boring banker and more like a rich woman. Ray's taste for the classic and Francesca's more outlandish eye balanced each other out. The rule was, if both Vecchio's liked a garment, Miranda was to buy it. The only choice she was allowed was which credit card to use. This was her bargain with Fraser: in exchange for his agreeing to let her buy them a house, she had to promise never again to buy an article of clothing on her own.
As they drifted down the mall, Miranda stopped outside a maternity shop and looked in the window. Francesca came up beside her and slipped her arm around Miranda's waist.
"Should we be shopping here now, Honey?"
She so much wanted to tell them. How could she keep secrets from these of all people?
"Don't tell Ben."
Ray and Francesca were outraged.
"Don't tell him! Are you out of your mind? This is the best news in the world!"
"I'll tell him in my own good time. Don't say anything to him. Promise me. Swear on my sword."
"Sword? Oh, Shakespeare again. Honey, you and Fraze need a lot less quoting AT each other and a lot more talking TO each other."
"We're having problems. You know that."
Francesca said, "But this will solve all the problems. It's all just stress over the baby. Everything should be fine now."
"I'll talk to him when I think the time is right." Miranda balled her right hand into a tight fist and thrust her arm rigidly out in front of her. "Here's my sword. Swear."
Something seemed wrong to Fraser as he sat with his wife at breakfast. Mentally he reviewed the events of the mornings since they got up, and realized what was missing.
"Miranda, you didn't take your temperature this morning, did you?"
"No. I've stopped."
A brass band started up in Ben's head. It was over! The suffering was over and the happily ever after was about to start! Rockets went off and he soared into the air with fireworks bursting all around him. "You're pregnant!"
"I never said that. I just said I've stopped it. The temperature. The 'work'. Everything."
The music first went flat and then died away. Fraser plunged back to the earth in darkness as the fireworks fizzled out.
"You can't make that decision on your own. I have a say in this."
"Are you going to force me, Mountie? That's a crime on both sides of the border."
She saw the hurt so clearly on his face. Why was it so hard to tell him? I want to tell him but I can't. I don't know who he is anymore. I can't tell a perfect stranger I'm having his baby.
"We'll talk about this later, Miranda, okay?"
"Talk? Since when do you ever talk to me anymore."
He wiped his mouth with a napkin then squeezed the napkin hard in his hand. She had no right to do this. What was the point of all these months of suffering, letting her have her way so she wouldn't be stressed, if she had the right to just call a halt to it on her own? He had kept his promise to her, done everything in his power to prevent her from being hurt. In exchange, she had taken away first his self-respect, then his self-confidence, then finally his ability to even enjoy life. All this so they could have the greater good of a family. If she gave up on that, there was no point in his putting up with this anymore.
She came in with one bag of groceries under her arm and the rest left, as usual, in the trunk.
"Ben! Groceries!" She called out as she came into the kitchen.
He didn't appear. Miranda went looking for him and found him in the bedroom. He was stuffing clothes into an old backpack. She stood looking at him, saying nothing. He became aware of her and straightened, looking back at her.
"I see," she said, finally. She bit her lower lip and nodded. "I see. Well, would you at least bring the groceries in before you leave me."
He had been searching in his mind for the right words to say to her all the time he was packing, and hadn't yet found them. He had to say something to her. She deserved that.
"I'm not leaving you, Miranda. I just need some time to think."
"You've been watching too much American TV, Ben. Time to think? Bullshit." She had to stay calm, she had to be strong, she couldn't be weak, especially not now. "If you want to go, go."
Fraser took the business card of a cheap motel from his jeans pocket and handed it to her. "I'll be staying here, if you need me."
"I won't need you. You're free to go." She looked at the card. "You really can't stand living anywhere but in squalor, can you?"
"I just need some distance, Miranda."
"Yes, Ben, you just need. You always need." She was finally speaking what she really felt. It hurt her as much to admit it as to see him go. "You can need if you want to, but I can't. Needing just isn't something I can do. So, you go out there and need, Ben. Have a great time - needing. But please don't forget about the groceries."
She turned and went to the kitchen and started putting away the groceries from the single bag she brought into the house.
Fraser did his husbandly duty and brought the rest of the bags to the kitchen. She didn't look at him. When the last bag was dumped onto the kitchen counter, he went back to the bedroom for his backpack and left without another word being said between them.
"Where is he?" Ray came into the Fraser kitchen. "Turnbull said he never showed up for work today. Where is he?"
Miranda picked up the card of the motel and handed it to him.
Ray stared at it, not understanding for a moment. Then, the rage began to build. "Bastard. . . the bastard. . . "
"Ray, it's not his fault. You were right. I drove him out."
It never would have occurred to Ray that Fraser still didn't know about the baby. A man who could leave a pregnant wife - this was no brother of his.
"Bastard." Ray repeated. "I'll kill him. I'll drag his ass back here first, and then I'll kill him!" He shoved the card into his jacket pocket and headed for the door. "You stay here, Miranda. You just stay right here and if there's anything left of him by the time I'm finished . . . " Ray headed for the door but Miranda grabbed his arm and clung to it.
"No, Ray, wait! You don't understand! I never . . . " Miranda stopped mid-sentence and gasped in pain. Her hand tightened against Ray's arm. She cried out again and sat down on a kitchen chair, clutching at her abdomen. Blood spread out from under her, and trickled down to the marble tile floor. Ray scooped her up and carried her to his car, not caring about his clothes or the Riv's upholstery.
The neighbourhood was so seedy that Ray was afraid to leave the Riv there. If I wasn't armed, he was thinking, I wouldn't have the nerve to go near this place. He parked the Riv, hoping it would be all right, and went to the motel office. He flashed his badge at the desk clerk and found out the room number he wanted.
The interval of getting Miranda checked into the hospital, waiting to make sure she was in no danger and then installing his sister to keep her company had allowed him to cool off. He was no longer going to kill the Mountie on the spot. Fraser would have a chance to talk first.
He picked his way among the shards of broken beer bottles, used syringes and crumpled condoms, stopped at Fraser's door and knocked. The door was answered by a strange man in Fraser's red long johns. The man was unshaven. Ray had never seen Fraser unshaven. Blind in the wilderness, he had still managed to shave before Ray awoke, during those two weeks in the cabin he shaved every day, even in the hospital he had somehow managed to get someone to shave him. Fraser unshaven. It was like seeing him naked.
"My God, Ray, you've got blood all over you!"
"He didn't like it here. I took him back to Miranda's house. But the blood . . . " Fraser stood in the doorway, blocking it.
"Are you going to let me in?"
Fraser stood aside. Ray came in and glanced around the room for a surface he might venture to sit on. There was nothing promising, anything soft had springs showing, anything hard seemed to promise splinters, and everything most likely had bugs. Ray remained standing. Fraser closed the door and leaned against it, arms folded over his chest, watching him.
"You can afford better than this, Benny."
"Miranda says I like to live in squalor." There was an edge in the Mountie's voice that set off warning sirens in Ray's head. Had he been in a dark alley with this man at this moment, he'd have pulled his gun for protection.
"Benny, you're some piece of work. You speak eighteen different languages, but you don't speak 'woman'."
"And you do? Is that the language you used with Angela?"
The cruelty of this showed Ray how crazed with hurt Fraser really was. Sane, he could never have said it. Ray swallowed all offense.
"I didn't walk out on Angie. We made the decision to split up, together." The absurdity of that sentence struck him, but it was true. Ray and Angela, two volatile people, fought themselves to exhaustion and then agreed to call it quits. "Come with me. I'm taking you to Miranda now."
"You know better than that Ray. I won't go."
"Look Benny, a year ago she didn't want to come to see you, remember? But I made her."
"Well, maybe that was a mistake." Fraser turned away and went over to sit on the rickety old bed.
Ray made out a strange shape under the crumpled, threadbare bedsheet, about a foot from where Fraser was sitting. He lunged for the shape, while Fraser, seeing where Ray's attention was drawn, tried to grab at it himself. Fraser was closer, but Ray was faster. He reached under the sheet and drew out Fraser's RCMP issue .38. He flipped it open and found it fully loaded.
"And this is going to solve it, Benny? This is your idea of a way out? This?"
Fraser snatched at the gun and got it loose. Ray countered with a right upper cut that sent the Mountie-turned-madman sprawling onto the floor. Ray jumped down onto him, straddling his chest, and wrestled the gun from his hand. He tossed the gun to the far side of the room.
"You son of a bitch," he muttered. Ray found himself with his fist upraised over Fraser's head, ready to strike. Then he made the mistake of meeting the prone man's eyes. They were the eyes of a trapped, panicked animal. Ray first sagged, then rolled back onto his heels. His murderous rage cooled.
"This is your wife's blood I'm wearing," he said, dully. "She lost the baby."
The animal eyes went wide, as a universe full of news exploded in Fraser's brain. She . . . lost . . . the . . . baby. There had been a baby. Miranda hadn't told him. All in the same sentence, the child was gone.
"What's it going to be, Benny? Does she have to call out for you and you not show up - again?" Ray stood up.
The mad eyes blurred with tears and became human again. Fraser reached out his hand and Ray pulled his friend to his feet. Fraser scooped up some clothes from the floor and started getting dressed.
"Take me to her."
Francesca was sitting with Miranda in her hospital room. A private room, of course. Two silk pillows from the Fraser bedroom were beneath Miranda's head, and two IV bags, one with nourishment and one with blood, were attached to her arm.
"She's not in any danger, but she's weak. She was hemorrhaging before. They're keeping her another day for a D and C, then they'll let her go home." Francesca reported to Fraser, as he and Ray came in.
"Don't talk about me in the third person, Francesca. I'm right here, I can tell him what's going on myself."
"Okay, so were you going to tell him?"
"I'd rather die." Miranda turned her head away from Fraser's gaze. "Go away, Ben. I don't want you here." Her words were sharp but she was too drained to deliver them with the venom she wanted to.
"Miranda. How could you not tell me?"
"So you could stay out of - what - chivalry? You wanted out. You got out. I can take care of myself." She said this to the window, not to her husband.
"Miranda . . . "
"I told you before, you're free to go. Get out of here."
Fraser shrugged. What was he supposed to do? He had no idea anymore. Obedience was the most familiar option. He headed for the door of the hospital room but found his way blocked by two angry siblings.
"Fraze, you gotta stop listening to what she says and start listening to what she's trying to tell you!" declared an exasperated Francesca. "Ray! Talk to him! Beat him up! Do something!"
"YOU talk to HER! She's an idiot!" Ray shouted back, waving his arms about. "They're both impossible! What am I supposed to do? I don't have any handcuffs on me!"
"Okay, okay, I'll talk to her." She turned to glare at Miranda, so hard that Miranda shrank involuntarily. "Honey, if you don't get off your high horse you're going to lose him for real. You can't keep whipping him. He can't take that much punishment. Nobody can."
Ray grabbed his friend, spun him around, and marched him back to his wife's bedside. "And you. Make nice. She's weak."
Miranda and Fraser just looked at each other for a long time.
"I'm not weak." Miranda said, weakly.
"You bet you're not weak, Honey. You're driving him into the ground!" cried out Francesca.
Miranda looked astonished, first at Francesca then at Fraser. "Ben, am I driving you into the ground?"
"Tell her," said Ray.
"Tell her." repeated Francesca. "Now."
"Well maybe not exactly into the ground."
"Madonn'!" shrieked Francesca, throwing her hands upward in pure exasperation. "Fraze if you don't speak up for yourself now, I'll give up on you two."
Ray shoved his friend between the shoulder blades. "It's now or never, Benny. Tell her."
Fraser looked first at his friends, then at the grey hospital linoleum, and finally at his wife. Now was indeed the time to tell her. The only safe time he might ever have: she was weak from loss of blood, and her friends were around. Maybe, this was the time to tell her the truth and also live to tell the tale.
"Miranda, I'm in the ground so deep I've got ants crawling all over my chin."
"But I . . . you don't want me to be weak?"
I can do this. I can take control. I can tell her. "Miranda, how did you get to the hospital?"
"Get here?" She was confused. "Ray drove me. Is that what you mean?"
"Yes, that's what I mean. Ray, you helped Miranda. Do you despise her now?"
Ray caught on . "Oh yeah. Miranda you're totally useless, you realize that."
Miranda had to smile, just a little.
"And those pillows, did you bring them from home yourself?" Fraser continued.
Francesca raised her hand, like at school. "I brought those for her, Fraze."
"So, then you despise Miranda too, right?"
"Oh, for sure."
As if scripted, a nurse came in, checked Miranda's IV and prepared to attach a new bag. Fraser squinted to read the nurse's name tag and addressed her:
"Ms. Carmichael, would you please let my wife do that herself?"
"That intravenous, would you let her attach that and hang it herself."
The nurse shook her head and went on with her work. Fraser took the bag from her hands. She resisted but he was easily stronger than she was. He tossed the bag onto Miranda's stomach.
"Do that yourself. You don't need anyone's help."
"Ben, I . . . "
"What, you mean you're going to let this nice nurse despise you?" Fraser gave the IV bag back to the nurse, and they waited while she finished up and then left.
Fraser sat down on the bed with his wife. She twisted to get away from him but the bed was too narrow and she was too encumbered by tubing to get far.
"You can't keep being afraid of weakness, Miranda. It was my weakness that brought us back together. Ray saw me when I sick and feeble and lost. He didn't despise me, Miranda, he helped me. You must let people help you sometimes. They won't respect you any less for it." He stopped and thought for a moment. "They will wear you in their hearts' core, ay, in their heart of heart, as I do thee."
"No more Hamlet, Ben. I'm tired of him."
He allowed himself a smile. "Okay, how about Dudley Do-Right. You can't expect me to be Dudley Do-Right unless you play my Little Nell at least some of the time."
"I know its hard for you to be weak. But you can do it. You're strong enough."
"Oh, no. Paradox. Please, no, Ben. I'm too tired."
He stroked her hair as she lay there. "Why don't you get some rest, then. Sleep. I promise I'll be waiting right here when you wake up."
She did, and he was.