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The Price of Love
Per aspera ad astra – Through difficulties to the stars
1987, Washington D.C.
"It's a very easy bargain, Laura," Richard told her, while she clung to her cigarette. Her hands were shaking slightly and everybody who would have looked into the Senators' eyes right now would understand why. There was a coldness in them that she had never seen before. Hate, disgust, hostility. She could read it all in them. He had just said he was ill, but in her eyes he didn't look very ill. He seemed more vital and determined than ever.
"What do you want?" she asked, sounding more steady than she imagined she could be.
"Once I'm gone, you'll get a divorce. Make it fair, easy, and without hard feelings. No scandal, no trouble."
The man was serious, that much she could tell, but she wasn't going to let him order her what to do. He was an impressive man, no doubt about that, but she decided to take her chance with him. She leaned back, inhaled deeply and took her time before she answered.
"And if I refuse... and as things look, you'll die anyway... how will you make sure, I'll keep my end of the deal?"
Richard laughed, humorlessly. "Oh, easily... see..." he pushed two envelopes over the desk. "One will be sent to a very good friend of mine. He's the editor of the Los Angeles Chronicle. And one will be sent to your husband. The contents are different, but the message is pretty much the same. Please, have a look and convince yourself."
Laura abandoned her cigarette and took one of the brown envelopes. She opened it, her hands shaking visibly.
"Ah, you chose well. That's the one for Perry. You see," Richard said in a dark voice. „I did some digging and there was one aspect of your... let's say extramarital life that astonished me the most. Do you remember New Years Eve 1985? You spent it in Aspen, didn't you?"
Laura didn't react. She felt his eyes on her, penetrating her skin, cutting her open, baring her inner self, her secrets. She was suddenly feeling very cold.
"You were alone, because Mason was busy with a case or something else more important than you and you craved male company... do I have to say more?"
She felt how the blood was sucked out of her veins and pumped into her heart that started racing, beating hectically. How could he know? No one knew... she had buried every memory of it.
As if he had been reading her mind, Richard answered her silent question.
"A friend of Ruben's remembered you... he was the only one who survived the avalanche. Of course, this information won't end up on the front page. I wouldn't do that to my wife, but your other affairs will become public knowledge in case you won't cooperate. It's your choice, Laura."
She nodded, shocked and discouraged. It was a choice between a rock and a hard place. She grabbed the edge of the desk and pulled herself out of chair.
Everyone who sinned knew that sooner or later, their sins would come to haunt them. That was the law of life, but she would have never thought, the price for her sins would be above everything she could afford.
Washington D.C., one day later
Laura woke up in a hospital bed with someone at her side. It was Perry, she felt his thumb stroking her hand, but she didn't dare to open her eyes. She was exhausted, but one thing was obvious: the mixture of vodka and an overdose of sleeping pills didn't do the job. She was still part of this world and the Lord was unwilling to allow her to leave it for good. Maybe because he thought she wasn't done paying yet.
Los Angeles, 1988
When Della arrived at the restaurant her dinner partner was already there, waiting for her. The man rose, as the waiter led her to the table, and greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.
"Good evening," she said, smilingly. "I'm sorry, but it wasn't easy to get here."
They ordered their drinks and the man leaned back in his chair, looking all content with himself. "Thanks for coming. I've been waiting an eternity for you to take my invitation."
Della crooked her eyebrow in amusement. Her dinner partner wasn't exactly known for his legendary charm. Quite the opposite was the case.
"What?" he asked, pretending to be innocently surprised by her reaction. "You didn't expect me to pay you a compliment?"
"Certainly not you," she answered coyly.
He laughed. "All right... I'm possibly not the perfect suitor, but I mean what I say. I admire you."
"And what for?" Della asked.
"You're a woman of class. You're an honest soul. Not many of us can say that about themselves and the world needs a few of them once in a while. Just to make sure things are going the way they're supposed to."
"And you're looking for someone to do something right?" she asked, more and more curious. If one could believe the gossip her dinner partner was divorcing his wife and so far no replacement for her was in sight. And his half-hearted flirting was hardly a serious attempt to make a pass at her.
The waiter arrived with the drinks and he made a toast. "To beauty, class, and honesty."
"So, what is it that you want from me?" Della asked, as she put down her glass. "You're not just here to flatter me."
"Who says I'm not?"
Della smiled. "Richard used to say that you never do anything without an ulterior motive."
"I guess he knew me too well... he was a good friend." For a moment the two of them fell silent, lost in their memories.
"He was right, you know. But I always have a good reason for what I'm doing. What if I tell you that you're just the person I'm looking for?"
"And you're looking for what? A secretary?" She asked with a crooked eyebrow.
He laughed, shaking his head. "Not exactly, though a good worker is never a waste. But I was actually thinking of another position, I wanted to offer you... how would you like to represent the Arthur Gordon Foundation as its new administrator?"
2 days later
Della hated hotel rooms with passion and this one seemed cold and lonely in particular. She didn't even know why she was staying in there. Her original plan had been to leave for Sacramento in the afternoon, but she simply hadn't left and extended her stay instead. The shady side of utter freedom meant it was meant to be spend alone. Not even the wind could tell her where to go, because there was no reason to listen to it. She was free of obligations or work. She was rich, healthy and still presentable for her age. And she was alone in a city she had once called home. Los Angeles hadn't been her home in decades, but only today she had realized how much she missed it. She even revisited her old apartment building, something that didn't make it easier for her to live with the memories. Maybe Arthur Gordon's proposal wasn't such a bad idea. If she took Arthur Gordon's offer, she could return to L.A. on a regular basis. It was tempting. In a way too tempting, because she had stayed away all those years for a good reason. How long could she be in L.A. and avoid Perry? How long would she want to? When it came to him she never trusted herself. Especially now that Laura was out of the picture. Laura, the one who had fought tooth and nail to keep him and who had divorced him some months ago. Yes, they were both free now, but she had given Richard a promise before he died and she wanted to keep it.
She feared the day she couldn't help but dialing his telephone number or just showing up at his office or his apartment. The night in Washington, when she almost slept with him, although both of them were bound to other people[,] had been like a warning shot for her. It was what her love had done to her. She had never been a reckless person, she had always played according to the rules and she had felt comfortable with it. Just when it came to him, it was different. It was far more than her heart could afford. It was too deep, too consuming, too painful. How would her life be when she came back to Los Angeles? Could she afford what it took to stay away?
In the end it was the ringing of her doorbell that forced her to interrupt her thoughts. She couldn't know that the visit would change her life. Forever.
The next morning
It was before 7 am when Mason sat at the table in his apartment, completely absorbed in the morning paper. His coffee was getting cold, as were the eggs on his plate, and the toast was hard as stone.
The murder of Paula Gordon and the arrest of her husband Arthur Gordon were the front news this morning. Not that he cared too much for one of the Gordons. What had alerted him was the mention of Della's name. He could hardly believe his eyes when he scanned the article and stumbled over her name. He had no idea she was back in Los Angeles, nor did he know that she had been the subject of gossip the last couple of weeks. According to the paper Della Street Carlisle had been rumored to succeed Arthur Gordon's wife as the administrator of his charity foundation and as her replacement in Gordon's private life. He couldn't even picture her at his side, nor did he believe it. Gordon wasn't Della's type and when he looked at the photo of the late Mrs Gordon, he couldn't believe Della was his. Yet, it bothered him to read that people were speculating about her private life like this.
The first time he had seen Arthur Gordon was when he attended Richard Carlisle's memorial service over a year ago. He had noticed the tall, gray haired man, but otherwise he hadn't paid that much attention to him. The day Richard Carlisle was buried his focus had been on Della. He had done his best not to stare at her, while he tried to find out how she really felt underneath her perfect surface that kept her tears so well in check. But he could hardly catch a glimpse of her, didn't find the chance to talk to her for more than a few seconds and she had never contacted him again.
All the years he had thought their connection, whatever it was, was special, unique, precious, but now that they both were free again, it seemed broken. Yet he still craved for a sign from her and now her name practically jumped in his face. She was back in Los Angeles. She was close, closer than he knew.
Before he could allow himself to realize the meaning of it, someone rang his doorbell. He looked up, alerted, sensing this visitor would change something. There was this hunch again, this feeling that had saved more than one client from a life in jail or worse. He looked at the paper again, stared at her name and knew who stood in front of his door.
To him she looked as beautiful as always. Even flawless, though something about her was different. She seemed tense, but he blamed it on the circumstances. They hadn't seen each other for over a year and the last time they really talked, instead of just speaking to each other, she had said, she couldn't have him in her life...
"Because we both know, it would never be enough..."
"I can't believe you kept this place," she said, as she entered his apartment and looked around.
"I've always liked this place. There was no need to sell it. And it has proven to be a good idea to keep it, wouldn't you say so?"
The true meaning of his words hung in the air. Since she knew where to find him, she must know he and Laura were divorced. She nodded, playing with the clutch in her hand.
"Seems so... I'm sorry about you and Laura."
He smiled, a little amused. "You're not... but knowing you, you won't say 'I've told you so'".
"I won't... because I never did."
"True. Can I get you something?" he asked, deciding it was time to ease the tension.
"No, thank you."
He followed her eyes that lay on the table where the Arthur Gordon's face stared at the ceiling.
"I see you already read about Paula Gordon's murder," she said and picked up the paper.
"Yes. Interesting read. You're friends with them?" he asked, trying his best to phrase things as vaguely as possible.
"Arthur was a friend of Richard's. They'd known each other since college. Paula was his second wife, I hardly knew her." She returned the paper and looked up to him. "She didn't like me," she shrugged, almost amused.
"Jealous?" he asked. He didn't like how Gordon's first name had slipped from her tongue.
"They say, you were going to succeed her. It's her husband's foundation after all."
"They were getting divorced. Their marriage had been a catastrophe for years. He didn't like how she handled the finances of the foundation."
"I read that, too," Perry said. "And why were you taking over the foundation?"
"He only asked me a few days ago, whether I'm interested. I haven't given him my answer yet and I doubt it's much of a concern for him right now."
"That's probably true. Looks as if the evidence against him is overwhelming."
"He didn't kill her," she stated seriously.
"And how can you know that?" Perry asked, curiously.
"He came to me last night after he found her," she explained slowly and he frowned. "He was devastated."
"He didn't call the police first?"
She shook her head. "That's what I asked him. I told him to tell the police immediately, but someone had already found her body..." she bit her lower lip and looked down to her feet. "What the press doesn't know yet is that he was arrested in my hotel room."
He looked at her, almost angry. But he wasn't angry with her, at least not as angry as he was with Gordon. He knew why she came to see him, knew what she wanted to ask him, and he felt outsmarted by her request. She wasn't here, because she wanted him, the man... she wanted the lawyer. She had her cause that drove her. And what would he do? Of course, he wouldn't decline Arthur Gordon's defense. He couldn't refuse when she asked him, because he couldn't refuse her anything.
He stared at her and waited for her plea. That much she owed him. "Please, Perry... he's innocent."
"You know, I won't be able to keep your name out of this."
"I'm aware of that."
"You know the press will haunt you, speculate about your relationship with him?" he asked grumpily, because he didn't want to have to ask her about it.
"I have nothing to hide," she answered. "Because there's nothing... there never was anything between him and me."
"Then we should go and see your Mr Gordon."
Los Angeles, 3 months later
How long could a woman lick her wounds? How long could she look in the mirror and feel sorry for herself? Laura sighed and turned away from her reflection in the mirror. She had been a quitter for far too long. But she was still there, still alive. She had survived the loss of her child and the loss of her husband. A man she had loved, but not for the man he was, but for the vision she had of him. She had seen so much in him and had overlooked him at the same time. And she had paid for it. Had paid with years, pills, and guilt. Now it was time to move on. She had seen it all and she had faced almost all. Facing Della Street again and one last time was her last task to accomplish. If she could face her, what was there left to fear for?
Life was full of surprises; that much she had always known and she had certainly learned not to take anything for granted. So it seemed rather natural that the day had to come, when Laura Mason appeared on her doorstep. But like every human who failed every now and then, Della was caught by surprise when she saw her.
"Hello Della," she said. "I hope I'm not disturbing..."
Della wanted to answer, she was indeed disturbed, but something inside her told her to ask the other woman in. Their paths had crossed many times and yet they had hardly spoken to each other in all those years.
"No, you're not... why don't you come in?"
"May I ask how you found me?"
Della asked, as she led Laura into her living room. She had bought the apartment only two weeks ago and the renovation works were still not finished.
"I have some useful friends in useful places," Laura answered cryptically as she looked around. "How have you been?"
Della crooked her eyebrow, unsure what to do with the question. She was sure Laura knew everything about her life in the last 25 years. "I'm fine."
Laura's eyes scanned the room until they had found, what they had been searching for. They came to rest on the framed picture of a young man. It stood on the piano, the only piece of furniture that wasn't covered with a protective sheet.
"Is that your son?" Laura asked, as she took the photo into her hands.
"Yes, it is," Della answered, now completely dumbfounded. Whatever Laura wanted, Della doubted she knew it herself.
"He looks very much like his father," Laura mused lowly.
"He was very much like his father," Della confirmed. "Maybe a bit more sensitive and trusting."
Laura smirked. "That's the privilege of youth... I've always envied you, you know."
How ironic, Della thought. Wasn't she the one who had envied Laura all those years? Because she had all Della ever wanted.
"You had all I ever wanted. A man who loves you and a son who adores you. I've lost both of them, before they were mine."
"I know I have a lot of reasons to be grateful," Della confirmed, after she had contemplated Laura's words.
Carefully, almost prudently, Laura returned the photograph back to its place and looked at Della.
"Why aren't you with Perry?" she asked. "You're both free. You can do whatever you like. I'm not an obstacle anymore."
"I'd prefer not to talk about it..."
Laura smirked. "I didn't expect you to. I took me a lot to understand it, but I think we all, and I mean including your husband, would have been better off, if we had been honest with each other. If we had only admitted what we really wanted, we all might have had a chance. And now we have to take the chances that are left for us."
"You're talking about honesty?" Della asked, slightly angry.
"Yes. And you know I'm right," Laura paused. "Perry used to say that the truth can save us all. If I were you, I'd know what to do."
"But I'm not you."
"And that's your advantage. Whatever your sin is, it can't be greater than mine."
Deciding it was her time to leave, Laura passed Della and made her way to the apartment door.
After the door had closed behind Laura, Della just thought about her late husband in his limited life in a wheelchair and that she wasn't so sure about Laura's last words. None of them was perfect and they all were to blame. And truth was, she loved a man who was free, like her.
Laura on the other hand was sure that some truths were better left untold; they weren't even worth a whisper and that they certainly couldn't save people. Some people are to blame for other people's unhappiness, but that didn't mean they had to speak out on it. Sometimes one just had to act to make things as right as possible.
Two days later
"Case dismissed." Della heard the words, but couldn't quite process the meaning of them. It was over. The case was solved and Arthur Gordon was free. It almost felt like old times. The relief when an innocent person could walk out of the courtroom as a free person was the same as 30 years ago. Only that she was not part of it. She had been sitting in the back, watching the trial, instead of assisting Perry and taking notes. Somehow she had felt useless and that was the feeling she hated with passion.
She waited for people to leave the room, waited until Arthur Gordon had thanked Perry, and told Arthur she would call him, before she approached the lawyer who was collecting his files. She jealously eyed his young secretary who picked up the things he passed to her and wished she could make the brunette disappear with a blink of her eyes.
"You did well, Counselor," she said with a bright smile, when they finally were alone.
"Thank you. You were right, he was innocent."
"Some people say I'm a good judge of character."
He smiled back at her. "You certainly are, Miss...," he paused and then he corrected himself. "Della."
A big, almost overwhelming part of her wanted to ask him for dinner, wanted to spend time with him, talk to him, have him back for good, but then she realized it wouldn't do any good. She wanted something else. More than the casualty of a date and a mention in the gossip column of the morning paper.
She stepped a little closer, cupped his face with her hand and placed a long, tender kiss on his mouth. Paper rustled as the file he had held in his hand, fell on the desk and his hand got hold of her elbow. He pulled her a little closer, but she broke the kiss, before he could deepen it.
"Thank you," she whispered and avoided his eyes, as she turned away and left the courtroom.
The next day
Perry arrived at his office shortly after 9 am and his mood was worse than ever. He was old and wise enough to admit that he didn't know women. He didn't understand them and their emotions. He knew they complained when men promised to call, but didn't, but why they kissed someone and decided to disappear afterwards was an even bigger mystery to him. He tried to track her down last night. Had called her new apartment, had gone there, but she didn't open. And after bribing and questioning the doorman he had learned, she had been picked up by Arthur Gordon for dinner. How was he supposed to read her behavior? What if the kiss meant really nothing more than 'Thank you'? It had certainly felt different...
He sighed grumpily, as he closed the door behind him. The antechamber was empty, but he heard his secretary talking to someone in his office. Apparently, some of the journalists wanted to pester him. No, the day ahead was not something to look forward to.
Not even the smell of coffee could raise his mood and he already had a snarky remark on his lips, when he opened the door to his office, but it got stuck in his throat. Somebody was already sitting in his chair and it wasn't his present secretary.
"Thank you. I'll tell him to call you back," Della said into the phone and hung up. He watched her, speechless, his jaw dropped.
"Good morning, Counselor. You're late," she greeted him, rising from his chair. "There is already a long list of calls that you've to answer and it seems you haven't been checking your mail very regularly lately."
"I was busy," he answered statically.
"No excuses, Counselor. You have an office to run, haven't you?"
He grabbed her wrist, as she passed him and pulled her close to him. "Tell me, I'm not dreaming," he demanded softly, as he kissed her forehead.
"You aren't dreaming. And I'm not going away... unless you want me to."
He shook his head, determined to keep what fate had just delivered to him. He knew only too well how high the price had been. It was just above what their could afford.
"Never. God knows, I've been waiting a long time."
He placed his finger under her chin and kissed her. First slowly and tender and then with the raising passion of a lifetime that he had spent yearning for the one woman he loved.