DISCLAIMER: I don't own it and I'm not making money off of it.

Chapter 3 – Decisions

Joe found the reality of free time couldn't live up to its prospect. After meeting with Hennessey, he went back to his apartment and collapsed on his bed. He told himself he would just take a short nap, but the effect of two sleepless nights quickly overpowered him. He awoke abruptly the next morning, struggling against the bewildering dread that darkened his mind. Recalling the events of the past few days, he realized its source. Not only was Anne gone, the imprint she'd left behind was fading. Every hour he slept put more distance between them.

As he lay there staring at the ceiling, he remembered watching her wake up in his bed, her contented smile illuminating the dreary apartment. She'd made it so easy for him to play the nice guy. He wondered if she'd started her day yet, if she got out of bed just as usual or stopped to remember him as he was remembering her. Most of all, he wondered if she missed being in his bed as much as he missed having her in it. He imagined seeing that smile every morning, which led to more tempting speculations he knew he couldn't afford to indulge. Forcing his thoughts into a safer direction, he considered what to do with the day.

The desire to stay there, to salvage whatever might be left of her presence, made the small, stuffy room seem almost welcoming. But he sensed that if he didn't get out now, he might not want to leave at all. He sat up on the side of the bed, head in his hands, his resolve already weakening. She does this every day of her life, he told himself, whether she wants to or not. It was enough to get him showered, dressed, and out the door.

He took to the streets, wandering through a strange netherworld between his previous life and a future he had no idea how to navigate. He found himself retracing his steps to the places he and Anne had visited. She became so real in his thoughts that when he recalled his surroundings, he was startled to find she wasn't there. Entranced by the memories, he sought them out until he couldn't walk anymore – along with a few well-timed drinks to manage the pain.

Late that night when he fell exhausted into a chair at Rocca's, the waiter who'd seen him earlier that day knew what to bring. As he placed the whiskey glass on the table, Joe took a long swig and forced himself to admit what he already knew: that she'd left him alone and all the drunken hallucinations in the world wouldn't bring her back. He drained the glass, signaled the waiter for another, and looked out at the sidewalks around the café. Even at this hour, they were crowded with sociable, happy-looking people. He watched them with growing contempt, wondering why none of them noticed that the city had turned into a wasteland.

Just then, the unknown course charted itself: He could leave. He could escape it all and start over somewhere blessedly free of reminders. He'd complained for years about wanting to get out of Rome, but he'd never had a reason painful enough to act upon. Now the hazy half-wishes in his mind sharpened of their own accord into plans so clear that he wondered why he couldn't see them before. Even if he couldn't forget her, at least he could get away from everywhere she seemed to be but wasn't.

"Joe! Where have you been?"

Joe looked up and saw Irving coming over to his table, a wide smile on his face. He smiled briefly in return and took a sip of the drink the waiter had just brought. As he did so, Irving stopped and peered closely at his friend, surprised at the change in Joe's appearance. His clothes were rumpled and his eyes, bloodshot and shadowed by dark circles, belied the smile. As Joe reluctantly returned his friend's searching look, Irving understood. He glanced at the whiskey glass as Joe set it back on the table. No way that's the first one, he thought.

"How about some coffee?"

Joe hesitated. He didn't want his friend's pity, nor did he want to owe him any more money. Correctly sensing the latter, Irving raised his hand and said, "It's on me."

Still in no mood for company, Joe was about to decline when he remembered he had a question to ask Irving. He nodded his assent and gestured to the chair across from him. As Irving sat down and called the waiter back, Joe considered what to say. He felt Irving knew far too much already.

Seeing Joe's reluctance to speak, Irving started the conversation. "I'm glad I ran into you. I just came by to meet Carolina for a late drink – "

"What happened to Francesca?"

Trying to conceal his worry at the roughness in Joe's voice, Irving smiled and waved his hand.

"Last week's news…"

"I don't know how you do it, Irving." Preoccupied with tracing lines in the condensation on his glass, Joe missed Irving's disbelieving look. What do you mean, how I do it? Irving thought. You were doing it too, right up until last week.

The waiter brought the coffee and set it in front of Joe. He sipped it and looked up. "I, uh, need to ask you a favor."

"Sure. After you tell me why you missed the game last night."

What game? Joe thought. Then it hit him. For the first time during his three years in Rome he'd completely forgotten about a poker game. He made a halfhearted attempt to conceal the fact from Irving, speaking the first excuse that came into his mind.

"I'm a little short on cash right now…"

"Never stopped you before," Irving countered.

"Yeah, I guess not." Too drained to come up with any more excuses, Joe decided he'd settle for a half-truth instead. "I skipped it."

"You skipped a poker game."

"Yeah, I - "

"What the hell, Joe? Cleaning you out is the easiest money I make all week."

Joe smiled in spite of himself. "Sorry about that." Irving waited for more but Joe, who had a story for everything, was quiet.

"Guess you've been kind of…preoccupied…lately." Irving's voice was cautious.


"Not for nothing, but…maybe that stuff would help. Getting back into a routine – " He stopped as he caught the warning look on his friend's face.

"No." Joe hadn't intended to speak so forcefully. But how could he explain that there was no routine left – that he didn't want his old life, even if he could get it back? "I'm going home." As he spoke he looked again at the city streets, wondering how long he had left.

"Good idea," Irving said, nodding. "Dry out, sleep it off…you want me to walk you?"

"That'll be a pretty long walk."

"Nah, your place is just – " Irving's mouth dropped open as he caught Joe's meaning. "You're going back to New York." Joe nodded.

Irving still wasn't sure he'd heard Joe correctly. "Never thought you'd actually do it."

"Can't say I blame you."

"Do you really think this is the best time to decide - "



"As soon as I can. That's why I wanted to ask you a favor," Joe said. "I was hoping you could give me a little more time to pay back the fifty I owe you. I've got some other debts to square."

Irving rolled his eyes. "Couldn't possibly be another salary advance, could it?" Joe focused his gaze on his coffee cup, hoping his friend would take the hint.

"Hang on," Irving said as he remembered something. "Hennessey said on Saturday that you owed him $500, right after you told him…oh." He leaned forward, trying to catch Joe's eye. "You bet him, didn't you? You bet him you could get the story you actually got and told him you didn't get."

Joe glanced up at Irving and nodded, silently cursing his friend for his nosiness. Irving's eyes widened and he sat back in his seat, staring at Joe as though seeing him for the first time. "It wasn't enough that you spiked a $5,000 story? You had to go half a grand in the hole?"

Joe fixed him with a disgusted glare. "Yeah. Too bad I lost all that money." He hated hearing Anne described as a commodity, but he hated even more the reminder that he'd once thought of her that way himself.

He's a goner, Irving thought. It's even worse than I figured. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean it like that."

"This is not her fault."

"I know." They both fell silent, Joe sorting through his regrets and Irving pondering the change in his friend. Finally Joe spoke.

"Anyway, I won't be around for a while. I'll be working a lot of overtime, saving up so I can leave sooner."

Irving nodded. "That's good thinking." He watched Joe for a moment before he spoke. "Listen, don't worry about the $50 right now. Just…pay me back before you leave the country."

Joe nodded his agreement. "Thanks for the coffee." He paid for his other two drinks and was about to leave when Irving stopped him.

"One more thing, Joe…"

Joe turned and waited, watching as Irving struggled for the words.

"You might want to, uh, go easy on the…" Irving indicated the empty whiskey glass on the table.

Joe's eyes fell to the glass and then met Irving's worried gaze. But I don't want to, he thought. Not yet.

"See you later, Irving." He walked away, unaware of the patron a few tables away who was taking notes on their conversation in between bites of spaghetti.

Joe Bradley was troubled; of that much James was certain. Beyond that, he had no idea how to piece together everything he'd seen and heard today. He pushed aside his plate and flipped through his notes again, hoping to make sense of them before he had to report back to the Ambassador.

After their previous meeting James spoke with one of his local contacts, who got him Joe's address and a copy of his photo press credential. Later that night, he showed Joe's picture to the ticket taker at St. Angelo's, who confirmed that Joe came there with a young woman Friday night and bought two tickets. Early the next morning, James began his vigil in an alley near Joe's apartment building.

He didn't have to wait long. A couple of hours later, Joe left the building and set off on what James could only describe as an utterly directionless trek through the city. Following at a distance, James watched as Joe lingered in front of places like the Colosseum and the Wishing Wall, oblivious to the city noise around him. James saw too that despite a valiant effort, Joe couldn't drink enough to still the restlessness that drove him from one place to the next.

James strongly suspected that, given its price and what he knew concerning Joe's whereabouts on Friday, the story his friend referred to was in fact about the princess. But no reporter in his right mind would forfeit an exclusive like this one, which put James squarely back at the beginning. What does he want? James asked himself. And who was the "her" Joe mentioned? If it was Anne, why was he defending her?

He struggled with the questions until a waiter tapped his shoulder to indicate it was closing time. As he nodded and gathered his things, he realized there was no way to scale the brick wall in his thoughts without talking to Joe himself. In the meantime, he'd report on what he had and figure out the remaining steps. But first, he'd pursue a couple of new leads named Irving and Hennessey.

The next afternoon, Miss White knocked on the door of the Ambassador's office and opened it slightly. "Mr. James is here to see you, sir."

"Did we have an appointment?"

"No, sir."

The Ambassador sighed, knowing this couldn't mean good news. "Send him in." She nodded, holding the door ajar for James as he entered and shutting it behind him.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you, Excellency, but I've found him."

"Is he..."

"The reporter who wrote that article is the same man who was at St. Angelo's with Her Highness on Friday."

The Ambassador closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, trying to process the news. "That can't have been an accident." He opened his eyes and looked at James. "What does he plan to do?"

"For the moment, nothing. Apparently he lied to his boss about a story he was working on, saying he didn't get it even though he did. And he deliberately lost a bet over it."

"But he didn't say what it was about?"

"Not specifically, although he did mention a woman."

"Why do you think it had anything to do with Her Highness?"

"The story was worth $5,000."

The Ambassador got up and began to pace the room, becoming increasingly nervous as the implications sunk in. "You said he purposely lost a bet?"

"Yes, and that's on top of the significant debt he already had."

"Is he holding out for more? Planning to shop the story around?"

James frowned as he considered this. It didn't sound quite right to him. Whatever Joe's real disappointment might be, his finances had seemed almost an afterthought. Joe's sarcastic comment about the money he lost made it sound as if he had no interest at all in profiting at Anne's expense. It's almost as if he's… At first the thought seemed improbable enough that James was tempted to dismiss it immediately. But he needed to hold all possibilities in reserve until he could start eliminating them. "There's one way to know for certain."

"All right. Offer him $15,000, contingent on his telling us everything he knows and signing a non-disclosure agreement."

James recorded the instruction on his notepad. "There's something else. He was talking to a friend, Irving Radovich…" He paused, unsure how to break the news.


"He's...a photographer."

The Ambassador stopped pacing and turned to face James. "Evidence?"


Damn her, the Ambassador thought. Damn her for taking such a selfish risk and putting us all in this position. For a moment he was hard pressed to keep the treasonous thoughts to himself.

James waited until the Ambassador appeared more composed, then said, "I'm not sure yet if they were working together on this."

"It doesn't matter. The pictures would be damaging enough on their own. They – " Suddenly the Ambassador recalled something from Anne's press conference. He'd been so relieved to have the princess safely back in custody that he hadn't given the incident another thought. "One of the photographers at the press conference gave Her Highness a gift – an envelope of 'commemorative photos,' as he called them."

The press conference, James mused, during which she personally greeted the press corps – something she's never done before. "Do you remember his name or what he looked like?"

"Not his name; there were too many people introducing themselves. I think he was short. He might have had a beard."

"Radovich fits that description."

The Ambassador sighed. "Of course he does."

"In the interest of containment, I think an indirect approach would be better here," said James. The Ambassador nodded, wondering as he resumed his pacing whether the situation could end any other way than in disaster.

"I'll see if a search of his apartment and studio turns anything up," James continued, making a note to enlist some local talent for the task. "In the meantime, someone should look at the pictures he gave the Princess. We may have nothing to worry about."

What a change that would be, thought the Ambassador. "I'll see what I can do."

On arriving home from Rocca's Joe set to work, his newly-formed plans lending him much more focus than usual. He rifled through his desk for some assignments that needed outlining and worked steadily on them until well after midnight, temporarily driving Anne from his thoughts. Eager for another reprieve, he decided to pick up more work the next day.

He went back to the office at dinnertime the following evening, hoping to avoid his co-workers and Hennessey. But as he walked over to the secretary's desk to look for the stack of new assignments, his boss glanced up from the file cabinet he was searching and frowned.

"I thought you were on vacation."

There's a mug I didn't miss, thought Joe as he turned and saw Hennessey's contemptuous look. "Yeah."

"You didn't have to spoil mine, you know."


"My vacation. Or as I call it, any day you're not here."

Bet your wife feels the same way, Joe thought. But he didn't say it. He knew in losing the bet, he'd lost the privilege of telling Hennessey off. He took several assignments off the top of the stack and walked over to his desk.

"Why'd you take all those?"

"Just trying to get ahead on a few things." Joe sat down and began looking through the pile, wondering when his boss would tire of the game.

A slow smile spread over Hennessey's face. "Aw, I get it. Still pining for your lost princess? Trying to take your mind off your troubles?"

The stack of papers in Joe's hands instantly went still. "Which princess was that?"

"I'm glad to hear you've got some in reserve," said Hennessey, raising an eyebrow. "You'll need to cash 'em all in to square up with me." He leaned over the desk. "She was young, beautiful, naïve – the easiest mark you could hope for. That love angle would've been aces. "

"Yeah," Joe muttered. "Yeah, it would've." Looking up at Hennessey, he wondered how much jail time one good punch would be worth. It was a welcome distraction from the question of who he hated more – his boss or himself.

"And you still find a way to screw it up." Hennessey laughed, shaking his head. "The get that got away. Must've killed you to watch five grand go up in smoke."

Joe sighed. Get out, he thought. Just leave me here to be a heartless bastard by myself.

"Guess that smaller paycheck stings a little, huh? Well, I'll leave you to it," Hennessey said as he rose. "The wife's got dinner waiting." His smile was unmistakably smug.

Joe had often wondered how a pit bull like Hennessey could get a woman to say yes. It seemed even more unjust now that the only woman Joe had ever wanted to ask was halfway around the world, never to wear his clothes again. Biting back another sarcastic retort, he reminded himself the end was in sight. His time with Hennessey had an expiration date; he just didn't know yet what that date was. But maybe he could speed things up a little.

"Take a hundred," he said, stopping Hennessey in his tracks.


"We agreed on fifty a week. Take a hundred instead."

Hennessey's eyes narrowed as he walked back over to Joe's desk. "A hundred a week? You can't afford that."

"That's not your problem, is it?"

Hennessey glanced at Joe's outstretched hand and then back to his face. There was a hardness in his eyes Hennessey had never seen before.

"All right," he said with a nod. "A hundred it is." He shook Joe's hand and returned to his office, casting one last puzzled look at Joe over his shoulder. Joe ignored it and turned back to his assignments. The more time he focused on his work, the sooner he could tell his boss where to put his insults once and for all.

A few hours later, Joe stood up and stretched, rubbing his neck to try to work out the kinks. He'd gotten a lot of work done - especially since Hennessey had finally gone home - but he was finding it progressively harder to keep his eyes open. As he walked over to the coffee pot behind the secretary's desk, he caught sight of a familiar name in one of the wire reports on the teletype. Princess Anne Bids Farewell to Athens, Concludes European Tour, the headline read. The report briefly recounted Anne's time in Athens and her press conference there.

Joe tore off the paper and stared at it. She's going home. For a moment the thought hung suspended in his mind, refusing to let him dismiss it. She'd already walked out on him. Why did it matter where she went after that? Then the reasons pinned him to the spot, each stripping a section from the remainder of his heart. As long as she was away from home, he could keep a part of her for himself. He could daydream about another chance encounter. And despite the revelation he'd tried to drown with whiskey the day before, he could harbor some hope that she'd change her mind and come back.

He shook his head, frustrated with himself, wishing he could advance time to the point – six months from now? A year? Two? – when he'd accepted the loss and figured out how to live some semblance of a normal life. Maybe that time would come sooner for Anne. It'll be good for her to be back home,he thought. She can start moving on. Still he lingered, gazing absently at the paper in his hand and wondering how soon she'd forget him. He finally forced himself to lay the paper back on the desk and get his coffee. But a moment later he picked it up again for another read, this time from a different view.

What a waste, he thought as he re-read the section on the press conference. The questions were similar to those she answered in Rome – diplomatic and meaningless. She was intelligent, articulate, and well-educated. He was sure she could handle tougher material. So why didn't anyone ask? Remembering the careful choreography of the Rome press conference, he thought he knew the answer. Reporters probably had to get questions approved ahead of time so she could memorize her responses. He'd seen it before with public figures, and he knew most of them couldn't improvise as well as she did. He suspected she might even welcome the challenge.

He began running through a list of possible topics and composing questions in his mind. Before he realized it, he'd conjured an entire conversation between himself and Anne. But when one of the questions became "Why is Rome your favorite city?" he reminded himself that he wouldn't have the chance to ask. She'd made her decision clear and he wanted to respect it as far as he could. He was a little less certain, however, on the unlikely but troubling possibility of being assigned again to one of her public events. With my luck, it'll probably be her wedding, he thought. What if her feelings had changed? What if they hadn't? He didn't know which would be worse and he had no desire to find out. In any case, he couldn't stand the thought of her seeing in his eyes that he'd never gotten over her. I won't do it, he decided. Better to quit than to have her pity me. At that thought, he realized that coffee wasn't the drink he needed.

Later that night, when Joe was halfway through his whiskey – which one, he couldn't remember – he heard someone take a seat beside him at the bar and order a glass of ice water. He glanced at his neighbor, hoping it wasn't anyone he knew. Satisfied the man was a stranger, he turned back to his drink.

"Hello, Mr. Bradley."

Damn it. "Do I know you?" Joe asked without looking up.

Perfect, thought James. He's halfway sauced already. "You can call me James." Joe turned to get a better look and shook the hand James had extended. "I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time."

"Guess you've already taken 'em."

"I'm sorry. I'll be brief. It's about one of your stories."

"Which one?"

"One you haven't written yet."

Joe cast a sidelong glance at James, curious how he would know about an unpublished story. "If I didn't write it, I can't comment on it."

"I was hoping you could make an exception in this case."

Joe turned to see James holding out a newspaper clipping. He took it without thinking, his grip tightening on the paper when he saw what it was. Anne… Panic shot through him, bringing with it a surge of adrenaline that swiftly burned away the fog of alcohol and grief clouding his mind. How much did they know? Was she in trouble? Had James found the pictures? Was he trying to blackmail her? The questions raced through his brain, almost too fast for him to comprehend them, until one overshadowed the rest: Was it too late? The thought of her exposed and humiliated, forced to explain herself to the world, momentarily stole the breath from his lungs.

Cursing himself for getting caught off guard, he set his drink on the counter and studied the image, trying to buy himself some time. Even as he quickly ran through his strategic options – denial, pretended ignorance, silence – he couldn't help noticing something about the picture. The severe, unsmiling young woman who looked up at him from the photo seemed nothing like the girl whose laugh he'd found impossible to resist. They have her all wrong, he thought. They probably can't even imagine her laughing. He thought of the last time he heard her laugh, right before he kissed her. The memory of their shared happiness brought calm and focus to his jumbled thoughts, along with the soul-deep knowledge that protecting her was worth any price he could pay. He laid the picture back on the counter, and when he spoke his voice was steady.

"You're wrong," he said, looking up at James. "I already wrote this one. It ran a few days ago."

"You mean your report on Her Highness's press conference last Saturday?"

"That's it. You need a copy?"

"I have one, thank you. And – if you'll forgive me – I thought it a little…short on the facts."

What did Anne think of it? Joe wondered. He hoped for her sake that she hadn't seen it. He knew she'd understand his coldness, but it wasn't how he wanted her to remember him. He was quiet as he pretended to think over James's criticism.

"Well, you're welcome to take a crack at her next press conference," he said with a smile. "You'd probably get along with my editor better than I do."

"I think I would," James agreed. "Especially if I told him you were with the Princess last Friday." He took a sip of water, watching for Joe's reaction.

Joe's amazement was genuine as he stared at James, trying to figure out who had talked to him. "Yeah, that would do it, all right," he said slowly. "That's a hell of a story."

James smiled slightly. "I'd very much like to hear it…if you care to tell it, of course."

Not a chance, Joe thought. "What do you care?"

"Let's just say I…manage situations."

"For who?" Joe asked, trying not to laugh and wondering whether James had any idea how ridiculous he sounded.

"The royal family."

Joe's smile faded. So Anne wouldn't need to worry about explaining herself to the world, just to a very angry king and queen. The image struck him with the injustice he was powerless to cure. Why should she have to explain anything? Trading in her freedom isn't penance enough? His anger at the thought helped to clarify his approach. Might as well go all in, he decided. There was no need to make James's job any easier.

"And you think I've got the goods on a princess I've never even met?"

"You've…never met her," James echoed, surprised Joe would begin with such an easily disprovable lie.

"Well, I wouldn't really count the press conference," said Joe with a shrug. "Other than that, no."

"My contact tells me otherwise. Says you were with her at St. Angelo's that night."

"She was at St. Angelo's on Friday?" Joe asked, affecting a look of surprise. "I thought she was sick. Isn't that why they rescheduled her press conference?"

"You would know better than I," James countered. "But I'll venture a guess she wasn't too sick when you saw her."

"If I saw her," Joe corrected him. "Maybe your contact mixed her up with someone else."

"That could be, yes," said James, seeming to consider the theory. "Except that my contact says she introduced you to him."

Delani. Should've known that guy couldn't keep his mouth shut, Joe thought. His odds were getting worse and his drink more tempting by the minute, so he played the only card he had left. It was a long shot – James must have already accounted for it – but he had to try.

"Unless this girl and your contact are old friends, it sounds to me like you've got a proof problem."

"How so?"

"Let's say just for argument's sake that I was there and someone did introduce me to this contact of yours. How do you know that someone was the Princess?"

"I…" James broke off, unsure what tack Joe was taking. Why was he casting doubt on Anne's involvement?

"If she really was on the lam, I can't imagine she was broadcasting her identity to everyone she met," Joe continued. "And you're probably not flashing her picture all over town, either. So if she's not telling and you're not showing…how do you know you got the right girl?"

In the seemingly eternal silence that followed, Joe prayed he'd found a flaw in James's information. Or that James had overlooked some research. Or that he didn't have any witnesses and was just bluffing to see how Joe would react. James, for his part, was still trying to understand why Joe was covering for Anne. That was a pretty well-reasoned argument for someone who pretends he's never met her, he thought. In that light, the idea he'd nearly dismissed yesterday didn't seem ridiculous at all. As suspicion crystallized into fact, he realized he had a new problem on his hands.

"Those are good points," he said. "But I think my theory holds. Would you like to know why?"

Nope. "Sure."

"My contact also told me you and he fought with some men who tried to take the Princess back to the Embassy. Specifically, he said you ran over to her and pulled the first man away, then tried to fight off the others. Then you and the Princess disappeared – at the same time, oddly enough. So you see," James continued, "we already knew she was there and we have some idea of what she did. We just weren't clear as to your involvement, which sounds…extensive." He paused briefly, considering how best to incorporate the lie. "Once they saw your picture, our agents were happy to shed some light on the man who so vigorously defended their future queen."

I failed her, Joe thought. He'd tried everything he knew and it wasn't going to work. The only thing he could hope for now was to minimize the damage. "Like I said, it's a hell of a story. But if that's the one you want to tell, I'm not sure why you need me."

"I showed your picture to the ticket taker, who told me you bought two tickets. It stands to reason that you left with the person you bought a ticket for. That means you know what the Princess was doing before she arrived and after she disappeared, and that information is very valuable to me." He waited for a response, but Joe was silent. "And there's one more thing I'm curious about: why you don't seem plausibly surprised at anything I've told you."

"Nothing personal," said Joe with a smile. "After twenty years in this business, I don't get surprised by much. You did a great job telling it, though." He gave James a slap on the back and tossed some money on the counter, preparing to leave.

She surprised you, though, didn't she? James thought. "I have an offer for you."

"Can't wait to hear it."

"I want the truth, along with your signature on a confidentiality agreement, in return for $15,000."

Fifteen thousand? What do they think, that we – As the image came into his mind, he realized it could be exactly what they thought. The idea unsettled him. "You know," he said, clearing his throat, "for that kind of money I'd make up any story you wanted. But I can't sell what I don't have."

"This is the best offer you're going to get. After all, what's the going rate for a princess? Only about $5,000 on the open market, isn't it?"

A face that pretty would make an even better target than Hennessey's, Joe thought. "I wouldn't know."

"I understand you recently lost something very valuable. More so, by your own estimation, than that $5,000 story you – what was the word your friend used? 'spiked?' – and the $500 penalty you're paying on it now."

Of course, Joe thought as he held James's gaze. Of course he was spying on me.

"I've learned quite a lot of interesting things in the past few days," James continued. "Chief among them is that you are a man desperately in need of a new beginning. Once we transact our business, you can pay all your debts and buy a plane ticket home tomorrow. Start your life over. Find a new…something."

Joe had no trouble catching the implication. Someday, he guessed, he'd be able to picture someone else in Anne's place. But it seemed several lifetimes away.

"Good night," he said. "See? We just transacted our business."

James studied Joe's face, blank of all emotion. Yes, I see, he thought as Joe got up and headed toward the door. "My superiors thought you were protecting your story. I think you're protecting her."

On his way out, Joe stopped mid-stride. James walked over to him and spoke in a low voice.

"Whatever she was to you, whatever you had with her…it's over." He handed Joe a card with his contact information. "Ask yourself what's best for you."

But Joe was thinking of a different question. There's nothing else I can do for her, he thought as he stared at the card. Would it be better for her if I just decline the money and 'fess up? Tell them none of it was her fault? Then her voice came back to him, its measured tones speaking an affection he knew he didn't deserve. "I have faith in relations between people," she'd said, as though he were the only person in the room. The only way he could justify that faith was to leave the choice with her. No, he decided. It has to be her call.

He nodded and looked up at James. "Okay. I've figured it out." He tore the card in half, handed the pieces to James, and left. I'm sorry, sweetheart, he thought as he began the long walk home. I'm so sorry.

To those of you who have reviewed, favorited, set up story alerts, and checked back for updates - thank you so much! The next chapter is entitled "Consequences." (Meanwhile, back at the castle…)