***Zane’s apartment, northern VA***
Katia sat at the end of the bed. Somehow she had managed to finish her shower, then mindlessly slipped on the t-shirt he had given her. His t-shirt. Zane’s shirt. Five years. And nothing made sense.
She had been confident that he would not recognize her. Hell, sometimes, she did not recognize herself in the mirror. The weight that no diet could shed had disappeared after the surgery. Whether that was from lower hormone levels after the total hysterectomy that had been the only way to save her life or the depression that followed, knowing that she would never have more children, never really be a woman.
She knew how ridiculous that sounded. Feminists would argue that her ability to bear children did not define her womanhood. And logically, she agreed. But in her heart, she had yearned for nothing more than a home, a man who loved her, and yes, the babies that went with that. She had spent five years trying to build a life that had some meaning to it.
She was persona non grata with her government. They might have tried to control her, but they had nothing to use as leverage. Her Babushka was dead. The only family she had was cousins that she did not really know. Those threats were useless. Of course, they had her children, but she had those files. It was a stalemate that allowed her some freedom to control her destiny. If such a thing even existed.
She had gone back to school. If she could not have children of her own, she would channel that need and love into other people’s. Then she had seen that notice. What were the chances? It almost made her believe in her Babushka’s god or at least Fate. A path that led from Oxford to this moment – just as the world was transitioning, as humanity was facing its most significant challenge in written history.
And she was sitting on his bed. No, he had said ‘our bed.’ That was what she was struggling to come to terms with the most. ‘You want to tell me again how it wasn’t real, Kate?’ His words played like one of her Babushka’s scratched old records in her head. ‘I would have traded it all for one more moment with you.’
None of it made sense. Men like Zane Rogers didn’t even look at women like her. Not then, not even now. She knew he was right. She had spent all those years wanting to lose the extra pounds, but honestly, her body then had been healthier and looked better.
“The pizza is here,” he stood in the doorway. His arms crossed over that spectacular chest like he was studying her, trying to solve some puzzle. Maybe he was. Hadn’t that been what she was doing?
“I’m not hungry,” but her stomach made her a liar with its rumble.
“I didn’t ask if you were hungry. It’s my responsibility now to see that you ate and sleep properly.”
“I’m not a child….”
“No, you’re the woman I’ve loved since the moment you ran into me. The mother of my children. But obviously, you need a keeper. Look at you, Kate.”
“It was the surgery. I can’t have children. I’m not….” The words had started out in anger. To push him away? But the pain and tears overflowed as her voice cracked.
His arms were around her. Her face buried against that chest. His smell overcoming all her senses. She thought she had cried away all the tears in that first couple of years. No amount of therapy had helped. She tried the drugs the doctors prescribed, but they didn’t work either. She’d sit in parks all day, watching mothers play with their children, wondering what hers was doing. She wasn’t even sure how she had survived those floods.
When she had finally pulled herself together enough to begin a new life as Katie Alexander, she had sworn that she was through with tears. They did not bring her children back to her. They didn’t give her one more moment in this man’s arms. They would not regrow her womb. So what was their use?
Now it seemed those years of unshed tears were all flooding out, soaking his t-shirt. Katia tried to pull back, but his arms only tightened. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t….”
He leaned back just enough that Kate could gaze into his face, “Yes, yes, you should. You need to get it out. We don’t know what the next few days will hold, sweetheart. But keeping all that pain inside won’t help you or them.” She half nodded as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hands.
“Now, let’s get some food in you. So you can get some sleep.” She thought he would perhaps help her to stand, maybe guide her back to the other room. But instead, he scooped her into those strong arms and carried her there. Okay, so there was one advantage to her more petite body. Being cradled in his arms like this felt better than anything had in a long time.
He had placed the boxes on the bar that separated the desks, shelves, and large screen computer monitors from the kitchenette. A couple of computer chairs were pulled up to it. “Sorry, I’m not used to having other people here,” he lowered her into one of the chairs.
Then he put two large slices on a plate. But instead of handing it to her, he scooped her back out of the chair and sat down, pulling her back onto his lap. Zane held out a piece of pizza. Kate took a bite without even thinking. As she chewed, he took a bite from the same slice.
Five years. It was only one afternoon. Less than an hour of their lives. Sure, it had changed her life irrevocably. But she didn’t understand. This man was acting as if nothing had happened. As if they were a couple. A normal couple. He held up the pizza for her, but before he could force another bite on her, she managed to get at least some of those thoughts past her lips, “What are you doing, Zane?”
Those eyes continued to pierce hers until she surrendered and took another bite. Only then did he speak. “The obvious answer is feeding you while the computer runs those simulations. But that isn’t what you’re asking, is it?” She shook her head as he forced another bite on her.
“I suppose I’m making sure you don’t run away again, Kate. For five years, all I wanted was an explanation,” he laughed and held out the pizza again. “Actually, that’s a lie. Yes, I wanted an explanation. But then I wanted you back. In my arms. My bed. My life. By my side where I knew you belonged.”
As well as she had chewed that piece, it seemed stuck in her throat at the sincerity in those eyes as he spoke those powerful words. “The thing is, I don’t think you believe me. Do you?”
She shook her head as he offered more pizza. “I don’t know if it is something your government did to you, some training. Or maybe it is that brilliant scientific mind that trusts facts more than feelings. I get that. Coming to terms with mine hasn’t been easy. Perhaps it’s even all that pain you’ve got bottled up inside of you.”
His fingers brushed a strand of damp hair behind her ear, “But whatever the reason, you don’t trust me. Don’t trust that this is real. I understand. I spent five years psychoanalyzing myself, trying to figure out how I fell in love with you in an afternoon. An hour.”
Katia swallowed or tried to, “But don’t you see, you didn’t.” Was it the tasteless food stuck in her throat choking what little life was left inside her or the tears which threatened to burst their dams again that made those words come out so weak and strangled?
He shook his head and held up the other slice of pizza, “Do you really believe that, Kate? It’s my job now to analyze data and research things, lots of different projects. Your government isn’t the only one that tries to manipulate people. But every study I’ve seen says that you can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do. All any of those things – drugs, hypnosis, or subliminal messaging – can do is lower someone’s inhibitions.”
“Freeing them to do what they want anyway. So, I’ll concede the point to you that your drugs did that. Cause I would never have unprotected sex with a woman, I just met. Hell, I can still count on one hand the number the women I’ve slept with.”
He held up a finger, “And that’s how many I didn’t use a condom with. Even my college girlfriend that I was with for three years. She couldn’t understand why I insisted on using condoms when she was on the pill. We broke up because she said it showed I didn’t trust her. She was probably right.”
“But I meant every last one of those things I said to you that day. Your drugs reduced me to those baser limbic urges to claim and breed, but my frontal cortex was still functional enough to know what I was doing and who I was doing it with. If you hadn’t run, if I had found you, I would have kept all those promises. Dinner, the movies, walks on the beach.”
“I spent five years allowing my frontal cortex to analyze all that information, to dissect every single thing that my limbic brain did and said. And I never could find my answers. Then you stepped off that plane, and it was like nothing had changed.”
His fingers beneath her chin forced Kate to meet his gaze fully, “No drugs this time?” She could only nod. “And I guess we can eliminate the fertility and breeding hypothesis altogether?”
She had not realized that she had lost the battle with those tears until Zane bent and kissed them away. He leaned his forehead against hers, “I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m more sorry than you know that I wasn’t there for you then. But if I had been, if I was your husband and it was my decision to make, I’d do the same thing those doctors did. Your womb was not worth your life. And trust me, it doesn’t make you any less a woman in my eyes.”
“My woman, Kate. We’ve lost five years. With our children and one another. We can’t change that. So maybe I should be angry or hurt by the decisions you made. But I understand command and duty, doing things you know are wrong because someone tells you they’re for the greater good. And I probably had a helluva a lot more choice about it than you did.”
“But I have a new mission now. To protect and defend my family. I know you have been alone all these years. No one to truly trust or rely on. No one to share those burdens. But you aren’t alone anymore. I’ve fought, and killed, and come close to dying a few times for what other people said was right, but I vow to you now that no one and nothing will harm you or our children as long as I’m alive.”
She wanted to believe him. With everything inside her. This was her dream. The secret one that she had hidden in her heart since she was a little girl. All she had ever wanted. But it was like those schools, holding some reward or favor. They always pulled it back at the last moment. If she just did one more thing, passed one more exam. The biggest prize of all had been a visit to her Babushka. She worked hardest for that one. Until it was too late. Delayed too many times, until the woman was gone, dead. That was how this felt. And she was just too broken to believe.
“Two more bites, Kate. Please?” Still, there was some tiny ember of hope inside her that refused to die, and the look in his eyes fed that futile flame.
“Katia. Katia Alexdranoff.” She took another bite of the pizza.
He smiled and shook his head as she chewed, “No. It’s Kate. My Kate. Kate Rogers now. I’d take you to the courthouse tomorrow when it opens. Make it legal and binding. But that’s just a piece of paper. And one that if the data is correct, we don’t have time to waste on. But it doesn’t change how I feel, sweetheart.”
He held up the slice of pizza, and she took another bite without questioning. “That’s my good girl.” He bent his head as she finished chewing and swallowing.
His lips touched hers, and for a moment, nothing else mattered. Not volcanoes. Nor earthquakes. Not even mini Ice Ages. Couldn’t the heat he generated inside her body melt them all? If the other kiss had been Mount St Helens, blowing her senses away, this was Kīlauea, slow-moving, red hot through her whole body. But both could be equally destructive to her sanity. Especially now. Zane Rogers might say all the right words, but Katia Alexandroff had been alone so long she couldn’t allow herself to fall for them. Or him.
She felt giddy and light-headed. Then she realized that Zane was carrying her again. She thought that he would lay her on the bed, go back to the computers, but instead, he followed her down, drawing her tense body back to cradle against his larger one. She had prepared for the manly smell that clung to the sheets and pillows. But not for the warmth that encompassed and absorbed her.
“I know you don’t believe me, Kate. I know that you still want to run. But I have skills you need, sweetheart. If we’re going to find our children in time and get them to safety. The rest… Well, it will come in time. This time my frontal cortex calls the shots. And when I make love to you next time, you won’t want to run.” His soft lips tenderly caressed the back of her neck, “Get some sleep.”
Oh, but he was wrong. Kate hadn’t wanted to run the last time. But what you wanted and what you had to do, were sometimes different things. She would have sworn that she could not sleep in a bed with someone else. Especially a man. Especially him. Katia had slept alone since she was just that little girl. But in her dreams, she could almost hear her Babushka singing sweetly as she held that little girl in her arms. It was the most peaceful sleep that Katia had known since they came for her.