Here we go with my latest puppy that's very dear to me. It's the AU of the AU, so to speak. I know many of you didn't really like "The evening of Life". Well, this one is the alternative version of it. I can promise you, Della won't die in this one, but there'll be some heartache... so beware :-)

And before you ask about "The returning revenger", I've been having some creative problems with it, but I intend to finish it very soon! So for now have fun with this one and let me now what you think!

The Price of Love

Part One

"The price of love is always just above that what your heart can afford"

New York, August 1964

Perry Mason stepped out into the large hall and inhaled deeply. He stood at the top of the stairs in the Waldorf Astoria and looked down into the large, overwhelming foyer. Under normal circumstances the beauty of the vibrant hotel with its noises and its lights would have taken his breath away. But right now he could have stood on the surface of the moon itself and it had meant nothing to him. He felt numb. The world was numb. A lonely place in the middle of the universe.

So this was it what it felt like when the center of one's universe was shaken and turned upside down. Not even his heartbeat had increased. All he felt was emptiness. He thought he had known the feeling all along, but he had been foolishly wrong.

Dramatic people could compare his situation to a famous movie. In "Casablanca" Humphrey Bogart called it "the wild finish". The moment a man's heart was torn out of his chest and cut into pieces. Some kind of a "wild finish" had happened to him tonight, but his flaw was, he couldn't admit it to anyone, not even himself, because if he did, he pain would tear him apart, the lie of his life would become a fact and not just a shadowy foreboding.

The evening had started as expected. He and Laura had arrived at the banquet, they had shaken hands, listened to political gossip and half truths and then she had arrived, had entered the room and re-entered his life. From the moment his eyes had caught hers, his ears had turned deaf to every platitude and polite lie around him.

They hadn't spoken to each other, but of course people were watching them and the last thing he wanted was to compromise her or his wife in front of the press and his political friends and enemies.

What he had dared was to establish eye contact between them every now and then. Across the room while she was chatting to a Senator's wife and sticking to her first and only glass of champagne for the night. The other woman had been oblivious to the wandering eyes of her chit chatting partner and so they had enjoyed a few moments of silent interaction. It was something he had instantly felt guilty about, because he was, after all, a married man whose wife had mixed with the other party guests. Laura would hardly be amused when she noticed him staring at another woman. The other woman in his life.

And then the speeches had started and suddenly the repressed joy of being in the same room with even that woman had changed into something that almost choked him. A bad gut feeling. The hunch that something was absolutely wrong. How right he had been.

2 hours earlier

When Laura stormed out into the tepid summer night, her finger nails left painful marks within her hand, but she had no choice if she didn't want to start screaming. The physical pain she caused herself was the only antidote she had. Happiness was indeed fragile. The afternoon she had spent in utter bliss, because the upcoming event was such an important milestone on Perry's way into politics and a few hours later, her dreams were shattered to a cloud of dust. Dust this woman had whirled up with her mere presence. With the smile and the grace no ordinary secretary should have. Wasn't that what she was after all? A secretary? She took phone calls, ordered supplies and made coffee. Laura scoffed and searched her purse for her cigarette case. She needed a dose of nicotine to calm down her nerves.

Men were strange individuals when it came to women. They just never knew when they were used and the more attractive the woman was, the harder it was for men to see through them. Della's latest conquest, a District Attorney with political ambitions seemed as blissfully unaware of her true intentions as Perry had been all those years ago. Della Street was sleeping herself to the top and the men she chose for her mission didn't mind, because they couldn't look past her beautiful face.

"I have to do something," Laura mumbled frantically with tears in her eyes. "Dear God, I have to do something." The way Perry's eyes had hung on Della for the last hour made her sick. He seemed to believe that Laura hadn't noticed it, but just as his eyes had never stopped to focus on Della, Laura's eyes had never stopped to watch him. And watching them interacting like this hurt. So much.

Rumor had it, Richard Carlisle intended to marry Della and he had good reason for it. It was always hard for a bachelor to succeed in politics. But once he could present a wife, he got more credibility and the better the woman looked, the better were his chances to win. The rules for the game were simple... very simple...

It took a moment for the idea to manifest itself, but the longer she thought about it, the more she relaxed. It was so obvious and she was so blindsided.

She finished her cigarette and helped herself to the next one. Her hands were shaking with anticipation now.

Of course, Carlisle wanted to marry Della. That's why he had brought her to the banquet. He was already showing her off and rubbed it under Perry's nose. It was no secret both men weren't exactly friends; both were ambitious and wanted a seat in congress. They had experienced their epic encounters in court and usually agreed to disagree. Laura knew that Perry didn't like the idea of Della dating Richard Carlisle or any other man, and she could perfectly picture how much he hated the idea of Della marrying his biggest political enemy. Her husband had a possessive attitude at times and even though she hardly got a taste of it, she knew Perry had reserved most of it for his former mistress.

So far the two of them hadn't had the chance to talk to each other and as long as the dinner went on, there was no way, Della could find a way to involve him in a conversation, but later, after the speeches were over, it would be harder for Laura to control them. But what could she do about it? How could she make sure Perry and Della wouldn't get a chance to sneak away for a secret rendezvous?

Laura smiled. Of course. It was easier than she had thought. All she had to do was writing a note and make sure the right person got the message.

1 hour later

Richard Carlisle was hardly a man who was easily shocked or lost for words, but he had to admit the boldness of Laura Mason astonished him.

When someone had called him away, because he had a phone call waiting for him, Richard had expected a lot of things, but not Laura Kilgallen Mason waiting for him in the foyer of the hotel. She was sitting in one of the gigantic armchairs, a cigarette in her hand and for a moment it looked as if he was arriving for an audience with a queen.

"Have a seat," she invited him and after a short hesitation he sank into the opposite armchair. The foyer was deserted, the noise of the banquet far away behind them. He had met her once before, but aside from a hand shake, they hadn't exchanged words. What could she want from him?

Richard wasn't sure he wanted to know the reason for her unusual approach. She had an aura that gave him goosebumps - the negative kind of feeling. His inner alert was shrilling in his head. The woman meant trouble.

"What is this all about?" Richard asked, skipping the ceremony.

"I think you know why I wanted to talk to you."

"No, I don't," Richard answered frankly. Of course, he had a hunch, but when the woman wanted to play games, he had no intention to make it easy for her.

"Mr. Carlisle, I don't think we have to play dumb with each other. Don't tell me you like the idea of Della Street and Perry Mason being in the same room together."

Richard didn't react. He didn't move a muscle, while he watched her closely.

"People are already talking behind your back... how long have you been dating her? Why aren't you married yet? People will see them together tonight and tomorrow the gossip columns will be full with speculation."

"Aren't you a little bit melodramatic?" Richard asked. "Perry and Della are over. For a long time now. I have enough faith in Della to know that one little encounter won't ruin what we have – as for the press - I don't care and the reporters know it."

Laura returned his speech with a smirk. "Are you really that confident or are you just trying to convince me of it?"

Richard rose and smiled. "You'll never know. That's what a politician's life is all about. Never let the other side know what you think."

"That's what I am to you? The other side?"

"I'm on Della's side, which is hardly yours. Does that answer your question? You see, Laura, life is so easy at times."

Laura didn't answer. She looked as if he had slapped her in the face, but she pulled her calm façade back on quickly. The smile reappeared on her face and it was as icier than ever.

"I hope Miss Street appreciates your loyalty."

Richard nodded softly and smiled mysteriously. "Oh, she does."

"You're getting married, aren't you?" Laura asked, her eyes sparkling with anticipation.

"No comment." Richard rose and buttoned his jacket. "Have a good evening." He nodded at her and left.

"So it is really happening... Della is getting married," she thought, the triumph dawning on her face. "In that case," Laura mumbled. "I have to talk to somebody else."

90 minutes later.

Della had known from the very beginning the evening would be difficult, but she hadn't expected it could turn out that awful. She hadn't seen Perry in years and being with him in the same room, in the midst of all these strange people, without talking to him was heart wrenching for her.

It was painful for her and it was painful for Richard, the man who loved her more than anything in the world. Sometimes she wished, she had never allowed herself to give in when he started to ask her out, but there was something about him that had captured her heart. He and Perry had a lot in common. Both were persistent, loyal and stood up when they sensed injustice, which was as attractive as their physical presence once they entered a room. Being with both of them in the same building was tearing her apart, but what made the sour feeling about it complete were the gazes that Laura shot at her. Laura Mason had always hated Della. She knew it and she accepted it, even understood it.

Jealousy was a bad adviser, but Laura had never understood how to control her feelings. They always ate her up and chewed her out. Della knew jealousy, but for Perry's sake she had always done her best to make sure it wouldn't control her. Ignoring Laura was the better way to cope with her, but Della had to admit that it wasn't easy to ignore someone whose devious manner poisoned other people's life. Like tonight.

Richard had regularly asked her to marry him for the last couple of years, but it was only last week that Della had finally agreed to marry him. They were engaged now, which was the reason why she had joined him tonight, but it hadn't been the plan to officially announce their engagement at this banquet.

"Good evening, Counselor," Della said lowly, as she stopped next to Perry at the balustrade.

"Miss Street." He slowly turned his head and gave her a smile and corrected himself. "Well, Miss Street for the time being."

She blushed. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be."

"I had no idea the Senator knew about our engagement and would be bold enough to announce it without asking us. I wanted you to learn about it... differently."

Mason shook his head. "Forget it. It doesn't matter who announced it." Della nodded.

"I guess you're right." The result was the same, as was the heartache. Some things couldn't be delivered mildly.

For a while her eyes searched for nothing in the range of the big foyer. People were passing and chatting and she felt some eyes on them, observing and questioning.

"You look beautiful as always," Perry complimented her after a while.

"Thank you."

"Richard must treat you well."

"He does."

"I'm glad you found someone like him."

She gave him a look. "Last time in court you weren't so jovial."

"That was work, but this is you." He took her hand and placed a short kiss on it. She smelled like roses. Perhaps the same perfume he gave to her years ago.

"Don't," she said lowly and pulled it back quickly. "People are already talking." She lowered her eyes and cleared her throat, as a couple of women passed them. They chuckled, but Perry took Della's elbow and led her away.

"Let them talk. What counts is your happiness... are you happy, Della?"

"I'm happy I found someone like him." They exchanged a shy smile.

"You should go back inside," Della said, looking over her shoulder and to the ball room where they were supposed to be right now. "Laura must be waiting for you."

"She's talking to some of her charity ladies. She won't be bored without me."

Richard Carlisle's grip around her elbow hurt. Laura gasped, as he pulled her with him and forced her into the corner of the room.

"What were you thinking?" he hissed angrily.

"What are you talking about?" Laura asked and tried to shake his hand off.

"Don't lie to me! You told the Senator to announce mine and Della's engagement!"

"So what?" Laura shot back.

"Our engagement is a private matter and hardly belongs here!"

"Nothing is private in politics," Laura explained coldly. "And that way, your beautiful, little fiancé won't have a chance to change her mind. You should thank me!"

"Are you that scared of her?" Richard scoffed. He released her arm and shook his head. "Well, I'm glad I know my future wife better than you know your husband! The next time you want to pull off one of your schemes to keep them apart use your head and think, before you make a real fool out of yourself!"

Drawing a deep breath he looked disgustedly at Laura and turned away. On his way out he passed some people, shook hands, and asked himself where Della was. So far the outcome of the evening was more than just disappointing and he wanted to leave the banquet as fast as possible.

He searched for more than fifteen minutes before he came to the conclusion that he just lost his fiancé.

"So what are your plans for the rest of your life?" Perry asked, as they stepped out on the terrace.

"I guess we'll just continue doing what we're doing now... living day by day," Della answered. It was true. They had never wasted too much thought of the future. The past was burden enough, why bother with something they couldn't control?

"What about children?" Mason asked, persisting.

"Children?" Della laughed. "I feel a little too old to become a mother." She slowly sobered up and added, a little sad. "No, I don't think we'll have children."

"A pity... you' d be a wonderful mother." He breathed in. "It's me, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"If I hadn't left you, we would probably be married... you would be a mother, had all the things you deserve."

She bit her lip and shook her head. "Don't say that. It's hypothetical. We can't know what would have happened if..." It broke her heart to realize that he blamed himself for something, he couldn't have prevented.

"I don't blame you for anything. I made my choices, you made yours." Her eyes were soft and somehow her gentleness was the worst punishment for him. Would it be easier for him to stop loving her, if she weren't this graceful creation God had placed in his office all those years ago?

"How's Laura?" Dell asked. "Why don't you have children?"

"It's not that we didn't try, but..." he paused, reluctant to go on. He hated to be reminded of the day Laura lost her baby. The baby was the reason he had left Della in the first place, because he wanted to do the right thing. He married the mother of his child and then she lost the baby in an accident that wasn't even her fault. "The doctors blamed the car accident, you know."

"I see... I'm sorry." Her gloved hand gently squeezed his arm and he took it, returning the tenderness in her gesture.

"I know you are... I just wished..." he broke off again. "Just forget what I said."

She wished she could hug him, involve him in a tight, secure embrace, but there was no way, she could cross the line. Still, it shocked her to realize he felt so unhappy.

"Are things that bad between you and Laura?"

"No, things are not that bad.. just different."

"I hope you can resolve your problems."

"We probably will and if not, it's not your burden." He released her hand and gave her an encouraging smile. "I wish you all the best, Miss Street. May you be well."

"And you too."

"May I add one last request?" he asked lowly.

"Anything, Counselor."

"May I kiss the bride?"

She was lost from the moment his fingers gently touched the back of her neck. The gesture felt far more intimate to her than words could express. Her heart started racing in her chest, as she feared and anticipated what had to come. His lips touched hers and suddenly all the years of separation were forgotten. They just didn't exist. Instinctively she moved closer against him and his arms tightened around her body...

Richard's hand blindly searched for the door frame, seeking for something to hold on since the world around him was crumbling. The room he had just entered was dark, another ball room with a large balcony on the other side, on which he could see Perry and Della kissing passionately. He swallowed, sick of the sight. So he had finally found his fiancé in the arms of another man. He should have known better than doing this to himself, but until tonight there still had been the corner of this heart that believed that one day she would love him just as much as he loved her. Now that room in his heart got slowly destroyed. He had really thought Laura was paranoid and exaggerating, but what if he had been too blind to see the truth?

He withdrew when he Della, finally, finally, pulled away from her ex-boss and hoped the darkness would cover him so that they wouldn't notice him. He couldn't face them right now. He needed time and light to deal with them. He watched the couple breathlessly while they entered the dark room and slowly walked, side by side.

"Have you already set a date?" Mason asked, just because he had to break the silence between them.

"We were thinking about next spring..." she answered. "But we haven't fixed a date yet."

"At least something the Senator didn't know," Perry mused ironically.

"I guess we don't have argue about the person who told the Senator about this."

Mason stopped dead.

"Excuse me?"

Della pursed her lips.

"Oh, please, Perry... I saw Laura and Richard talking just half an hour before, before the Senator made the announcement. Not that it matters anymore."

"Why should she do something like that?" Of course, he knew it and he also knew Della was right, but admitting his wife's flaw would be the admission that she had been right in her assumption... that Laura's jealousy was justified.

"That's something you have to ask her," Della answered, fully knowing he wouldn't.

After refreshing and restoring her makeup, Della returned to her table and was surprised and a little relieved to find Richard gone. Her hands were still shaking a bit and so she welcomed the glass of champagne the waiter offered her. The banquet was coming to an end, people were leaving and she hoped she could flee the hotel as soon as possible. So far Della's eyes hadn't detected Laura, but she didn't want to cross paths with her tonight. The woman must already have her field day and Della wasn't interested in watching her victory.

"There you are, Darling!"

She startled a little when she felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up. "Richard!"

"I was searching for you," he said and sank onto the chair next to hers.

"I'm sorry," she said, without adding any other explanation. "Quite a party, wasn't it?"

"You may say so," he answered and caressed her cheek with the back of his hand. "I hope you don't regret saying yes... the cat's out of the bag, I'm afraid." A shadow crossed his face, as he asked his question and for a moment, she was scared he knew about the kiss, she had shared with Perry, but then the twinkle in his eye was back and her fear subsided just as quickly.

She smiled tenderly and shook her head, "I could never be sorry to be with you." She placed a soft kiss on his mouth and asked lowly, "Can you take me home now?"

"If that's what you want."

"I do want it. Very much."

Satisfied with the result of her little scheme, Laura watched Della and Richard, as they left the hotel arm in arm. Richard Carlisle might not have the guts to protect what was his, but she had and one day he would thank her for it.

Loving someone came always with a price and paying it was never pretty.

~End Part 1~