"Miss Hart! Enchanted."
The portly old man attired in modest clerical garb greeted the flustered Kendall as deferentially as if she were his dignified sovereign queen. Yet Kendall found herself instinctively shrinking from his abrupt arrival. He seemed a specter determined to haunt her. But now, at least, he wasn't a specter only she could see.
"F-Father Clarence?" she managed.
Seemingly conscious of her agitation, the priest's ruddy cheeks plumped into a reassuring smile. He then removed his gaze from her startled face to that of the tall man standing beside her. For several seconds Father Clarence openly appraised Zach, who bore his scrutiny without a word. At length, as if satisfied by what he saw, the priest's head slowly swiveled back to Kendall. "Might I inquire, Miss Hart, if this fine gentleman is the betrothed of whom you spoke so fondly last night?"
In the background J.R. jibed, "Well, that's the current one, anyway. Right, Kendall?"
"Damn it, J.R.—," Kendall began hotly.
"Zach Slater," Zach interrupted, both introducing and identifying himself, proffering his right hand to Father Clarence at the same time his left arm snaked around Kendall's waist, his hand coming to rest lightly above her hip. "A pleasure to meet you." The conventional pleasantry was almost—not quite—belied by the words' level inflection.
Appearing to take them at face value, Father Clarence shook Zach's hand. "Ah, Mr. Slater. A pleasure indeed."
"Yeah, it's a pleasure," J.R. growled, rubbing his upper arm. "A real pleasure indeed to be assaulted by this sanctimonious old sneak thief."
Ignoring J.R. as Father Clarence had, Zach said to the priest, "My thanks for sheltering my stranded fiancée last night."
No, Zach, no—don't encourage him. To no avail,Kendall tried to telegraph a plea to Zach. Father Clarence seemed only too willing to continue the discussion.
"No thanks are necessary. 'Tis always an honor and a privilege to assist Miss Hart," the old man said, adding, "or any of her family."
J.R. let out a choked sound; Father Clarence smiled pityingly at him, and then thoughtfully regarded the entire group, as if only just realizing they were all together for some reason. "Is it intruding I am, then?"
"Isn't that what you do best, old man—sticking your nose in other people's business?" J.R. asked obnoxiously. "But I suppose Kendall had to line up a fake priest for her fake wedding, huh?"
"Did he say priest, Ryan?" Greenlee stage-whispered. "You know, there's been so much going on that I haven't had a chance to mention it, but I've been meaning to bring up the subject…."
Meanwhile, Father Clarence's face was turning just a shade ruddier. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Chandler? Have I somehow given you cause to doubt my particulars?"
"Pay no attention to Junior," Zach interjected. "He confuses his impertinence for wit."
Ryan joined in. "You think J.R.'s the only offender in this room, Slater?"
"Right," J.R. agreed, "so keep your phony two cents out of this, Slater. Speaking of fake, I'm waiting to hear which one of your names gets to go on the dotted line of the marriage license. I want to know what to put after 'Mrs.'—wouldn't want my condolence note to Kendall on her marriage to get lost in the mail."
"J.R., butt out! I haven't lined Father Clarence up for anything!" Kendall interrupted indignantly, finally finding her voice despite Zach's cautioning pressure against her waist. "Not that it would be any of your goddamn business if I did."
"Watch your language and keep your voice down, Kendall," Ryan scolded. "Remember Greenlee's condition."
"Me remember it!" she cried, whirling on him. "Don't put this on me, Ryan! I was sitting here minding my own business when J.R. waltzed in and started in on me. Now he's starting on Zach just when Zach and I were trying to leave. And I didn't invite Father Clarence. In fact," she turned to the priest, "what are you doing here?"
The priest smiled again. "Merely making my rounds before I depart on my next journey, my very dear Miss Hart."
"Your rounds?" she repeated in confusion.
"Brief calls on certain members of my flock who might be in need of my, er, intervention, shall we say," he explained.
Kendall stared. "But—but I've logged almost as many hours in this place lately as that clock on the wall above your head. I've never even caught a glimpse of you before."
"Pine Valley Hospital is a large facility, Kendall," Ryan put in condescendingly.
J.R. sneered, "Eh. Not big enough, I'd say. But old Clarence, he seems to really get around."
The priest's gaze and voice fell benevolently upon J.R. "Precisely. I go where I'm most needed, young man."
"But—," Kendall began again. Yet what was there to protest? She couldn't fault Father Clarence's explanation for his presence: He was a clergyman; members of the clergy routinely visited hospitals. And with all of its memorial wings and specialized medicine centers, Pine Valley Hospital was huge. She could easily have missed running into him.
So why was the back of her neck tingling in such a distracting way?
"…Ryan, are you listening to this? Let's talk to the priest while he's here," Greenlee pushed herself forward, her spectacular self-absorption erupting into a flood of words precluding anyone else getting another one in edgewise until she was done. "Father, um, Clarence?—like the angel in that movie, right?—well, as you can see"—she flaunted the roomy floral material perpendicularly draped against her midsection—"I'm Greenlee Lavery and this is my husband, Ryan, and we're expecting a baby, so we need to plan the details for our baby's naming ritual, and naturally we'll want the bishop or archbishop or cardinal—or whatever he is because I'm not really sure, but you know whom I mean—to conduct it at that big cathedral downtown, you know, the one with all those spires and stained glass windows. Can we go just ahead and put in a request through you now?"
"Congratulations to you and your husband, Mrs. Lavery," Father Clarence replied to her kindly, ignoring her remark about his name. "Why, such an important event warrants arrangement at a more exalted level than my own. Therefore, might I suggest you contact the diocesan administrative office for assistance?"
Greenlee looked crestfallen. "Oh, but Father Clarence, I really want to get moving on this, and I'm stuck here at the hospital for now. I won't have a chance to call them until after Kendall gets back, unless—unless, Kendall, you wait here while I go out and make a few phone calls."
Kendall stifled an urge to scream. "Please, Greenlee, you're not going to drop the baby today—you still have almost nine months to go!"
Greenlee's head snapped back on her neck, her chin jutted out, and the tendons in her neck visibly tightened. "Did you hear what Kendall said to me, Ryan?"
Attempting to stop Ryan mid-exhalation, Kendall was next stopped mid-exhalation herself when Zach said firmly, "Later, Greenlee. We're leaving for the courthouse now. Hold down the fort."
With an almost supernatural ease and economy of motion, Kendall found herself moving in concert with Zach toward the door, past the still smiling Father Clarence, leaving a startled Greenlee, Ryan still poised to speak, and a sulking J.R. in their wake. The last thing Kendall heard was Greenlee calling after her, "Black licorice, Kendall! Don't forget!"
Farther down the corridor to the elevator lobby, an elevator door was sliding open. Kendall gave in to the impulse to sprint forward to catch it, eager to make good their escape before they could be delayed again. With his longer stride, Zach got there first, holding the door for her as Kendall dove inside, delighted to see that the elevator was unoccupied. The door slid shut behind them just as Zach dove in behind her. For a few fleeting moments, at least, they were alone, cocooned in blissful, stainless steel-protected, silence.
Heedless of anything else, Kendall threw herself into Zach's arms, sighing as they surrounded her and pressed her against him. "Oh, god, Zach, I was never so glad to see anyone! If I have to tiptoe through many more minefields like that I'm going to twist both my ankles into pretzels, before getting blown into smithereens," she moaned upon his chest, taking full advantage of the support it provided.
"Not with me as your look-out. So you can do it, Kendall," Zach said quietly, lightly stroking her hair, "and you will do it, until Miranda is legally yours." His intense expression softened until he looked boyish, so boyishly appealing and irresistible that Kendall spontaneously wound her arms around his neck, brought his face to hers, and kissed him, the kiss begging to be delivered ever since Zach had walked into the waiting room. Thank god I have you. I need you so much. I want you so much, she thought shamelessly. If only we were back at home right now, I'd show you just how much but this will have to do."
He kissed her back just as devoutly, and her hands slipped down over his chest to join themselves around his waist. Through the fine wool of his tailored jacket Zach's body heat radiated, enveloping Kendall in the warmth and security that both tethered her to the ground and sent her soaring, so that even the tension of that brief contact was enough to make her melt inside.
With difficulty, Kendall lifted her face. "Not mine, Zach. Ours."
"Ours," he agreed.
"Besides, after what you've done for Miranda, she's more yours than mine anyway—Zach!" Suddenly, Kendall backed out of their embrace, staring at him in consternation with her hand clasped to her mouth.
His head cocked to the side, in what passed for puzzlement with the normally implacably self-possessed Zach. "What?"
"I forgot all about your—your punctures! How could I do that?" she asked in remorse, shaking her head. "Look at you, Zach, it's bad enough you're up and dressed and rescuing me from scenes here, when you're supposed to be resting at home—but I just made you run for the elevator—and I was all over you just now—"
"You should know the pain I'm in isn't that type of pain." He gave a wry smile, accompanied with a seductive tone of voice that was for her ears only.
But Zach still appeared bemused, even more so than before, and Kendall's heart did a flip-flop. Something was wrong, even if he thought he was keeping it from her or attributing it to a cause as much pleasure as pain. "You can't hide it from me—I did hurt you! Please, Zach. Let me take you home now. I don't want you to overdo it. We don't have to get the license today." Not to mention which, the back of her neck was tingling like crazy again. Was she coming down with some kind of weird virus, or was free-floating anxiety wreaking havoc with her too receptive nerve endings?
"Kendall…my sweet Kendall, you didn't hurt me. D'you know what"—looking down at himself, Zach's smile turned to somewhat of a puzzled expression—"The aching's stopped."
Before she could respond, the elevator doors sliding open again. Kendall realized she'd been too preoccupied with Zach to have even pressed the floor indicator button. Indeed, they were still on the same floor, as evidenced by Father Clarence standing framed within the two open doors' wide gap, blocking the light.
"Miss Hart. Mr. Slater. How considerate of you to hold the lift when you were in such a hurry," he beamed, stepping forward into the car—very lightly for his large size—despite Kendall's immediate withdrawal toward Zach. Was the old man was following them?
"We didn't—," she began rudely, but Zach interrupted. Reaching around toward the button panel, he asked, "Lobby?" When the priest nodded, Zach made the elevator descend without further comment.
Kendall's stomach lurched along with the downward motion. Her neck tingled even more abominably. Impossible to tell whether the abrupt end of her interlude with Zach, the drag of gravity, or Father Clarence's presence was the main cause, but she intended to share that discomfort with the priest , trying to pierce his composure with her angry gaze and some sharp words. "Why in the hell do you keep tailing us? Didn't you just announce to me last night you were leaving town? Or did you want somebody to throw you a bon voyage party? Because if that's what it takes, that can be arranged."
She felt Zach's alertness increase, as if he too wanted to know the priest's real purpose, but as usual his silence gave nothing away. The priest answered quite mildly, "To be sure, Miss Hart, did I ever say I was on a strict schedule? Paths have been known to cross quite innocently with one another, you know."
"Yeah? Well, I don't like the way yours keeps crossing mine, Father Clarence."
The priest gave a tiny bow, insofar as the narrow space between them would allow. "Would you deny an old man the rare pleasure of crossing paths with you, Miss Hart?"
"Oh, please, like it's random?" Kendall glared at the old man, whose manner remained one of such utter, bland, imperviousness, that she wanted to scream. Especially when the elevator ground to a stop to let several passengers board and she was forced to hold her fire. But when the elevator stopped again to disgorge the newcomers, leaving them alone again, she spat, "So you creep around town like an extra in a straight-to-video exorcism movie just for the hell of it?"
"Why, Miss Hart, you flatter me—"
Kendall pounced. "No, Father Clarence, I'm on to you. You always have a reason for showing up. You did with Bianca, you did with J.R. You did with me last year. So don't expect me to believe you don't have one now."
The shaggy white eyebrows peaked placidly. "Ah, and did I ever say it was random, Miss Hart? Could anyone, having made the acquaintance of your lovely sister Bianca Montgomery—as I did the Christmas before last—fail to take at least a wee bit of interest in her family's welfare—and her beautiful daughter Miranda's family, that would be, as well?"
Miranda's family. Again, Kendall sensed Zach's acute attentiveness.
Then he spoke. "Now I'm part of the family—will you enlighten me about this interest of yours, Father?"
The unmistakable challenge Kendall herself would have issued behind such a request was absent from Zach's low, carefully measured words: He was feeling his way very carefully. Too carefully, in Kendall's opinion. She said shortly, "You're asking the wrong person, Zach. Father Clarence doesn't do enlightenment. He does mysterious." But uneasily, she thought, I guess I'm not much better—because I didn't exactly tell you the whole story either, Zach. I held out on you last night about Clarence and Bianca, and about him and me—but—but it just weirds me out too much to talk about.
The elevator came to rest at the main lobby level. Once more the doors slid smoothly open on their tracks. Every bit as smoothly, as if he possessed the capability to have just read her mind, Father Clarence replied, "As we're such old friends, perhaps you would care to do the honors then, Miss Hart?"
"Me? Zach asked you," Kendall stammered. Turning her back on the priest and grabbing for her fiancé's hand, she didn't wait for Zach's input. She pulled him through into the hospital's common waiting area—theoretically, onto more solid ground. She pretended to ignore the clicking of Father Clarence's heels behind them…pretended that, even though Zach allowed her to take the lead, the answering grip of his fingers signaled the message that hers was not the upper hand. And, before they reached the main exit, Zach's footsteps slowed to a stop, forcing Kendall to do the same.
"Not so fast," he said quietly.
"But Zach, we can't afford to waste much more time. Come on, let's go, please, before Greenlee gets tired of waiting and gets it in her head to take off to—to Tokyo for sushi or—or Antarctica for roast penguin," she pleaded.
"I don't think that'll happen. Kendall—"
"Okay, all right, then, we can walk a little slower if you need to. You're still recovering." But she knew—and knew Zach knew she knew—he wasn't referring to their physical progress.
"Kendall, I don't need your help to walk," he said decidedly. "What I need is for you to fill me in on the beginning of that exorcism movie you mentioned. It started without me but you know how it began."
Damn, but her neck was tingling…the sensation was spreading to her shoulders. Like pricks from a thousand little pins jabbing in and out in waves of sensation, too sharp to count as a tickle, too fine to count as pain.
"Zach, if you really want to know I'll tell you," she sighed. "I'll tell you on the way to the courthouse."
"Good. Then let's go."
Now Zach took the lead. Her hand still in his, Kendall found herself trotting to keep up with his long strides. "Zach, I meant it! You're still recovering from your operation!" she huffed. "You are supposed to be taking it easy, remember?"
"I told you the aching stopped, Kendall," he assured her with an almost lightheartedness. "If you didn't keep reminding me of it, I'd forget I had an operation."
Behind her, Kendall heard the faintest of priestly chuckles. Her head spun around, a retort on her lips, but to her shocked surprise there was no bodily sign of Father Clarence. It was as if his unmistakable space-filling shape had vanished without warning into the wide open air of the cavernous lobby. Either that or he had snuck back the other way and reboarded the elevator.
In either event, just as quickly and mystifyingly as it had begun, the tingling in Kendall's neck stopped.