Sven Larsen was scowling as he emerged from the limousine. He should have been preparing for his next movie. It was an independent film, a small budget thriller. He’d intended to spend the next few weeks watching past hits in order to become fluent in the conventions of the genre. Then there was casting. He needed unknowns and that always took more time. Then tweaking the script. He had a desk full of work and no Misha to help organize his life. She was in St. Barts to be with Bliss and the baby.
He should be in L.A but instead he was here in godforsaken Manitoba. He could never say no to his mother. She’d been insistent that he was the only one who could help this stranger who meant so much to his son. Surely he owed Lennon that, asked Judith.
Yes, Sven thought, and much more. He’d tried countless times over the years to bridge the gap between them. Visiting Lennon in godforsaken countries. Inviting him to premieres. Trying to include him in his life. His son resisted. Sven knew despite his best efforts Lennon felt he’d preferred Bliss. It wasn’t a matter of preference. Bliss was his little girl. He knew how to deal with women. But sons?
And besides, Lennon was so much like Sunny. The same easily wounded innocence. The same trusting nature. The same generous spirit. Sven tried not to let the resemblance bother him but it had, at first. Once he was over the worst of the grief, it was almost too late. The barriers had been built up and Lennon grew used to seeking comfort and companionship from his sister and Misha, not from his father.
It was late fall on the Prairies but felt like winter. He saw a coating of frost on the fields of harvested stubble as they drove out of Winnipeg. The sky was endless. It reminded him of Norway. So did the light. The sun would never burn brightly here. The light was watery. The air was crisp with the promise of snow. He felt his spirits rise slightly at the hint of the familiar.
The houses were sturdy. Mostly bungalows, built squat as a bulwark against the weather. There was a sprinkling of Craftsman-style two-storey homes on wide lots under a canopy of now denuded trees. Taking in the stucco exteriors, he guessed they’d been built by the merchants or well-off farmers. They whispered ‘look at me’. But their obvious statement of wealth was muted, unlike the blowhard excesses of Hollywood. It reminded him of Oslo, where conspicuous consumption was a misnomer. The people were probably much the same- modest, hardworking, honest. Neighbourly but not intrusive.
He stared at the house in front of him, double checking the address. A woman cycled passed and then hit the brakes so hard she almost went flying over the handlebars. He wasn’t sure what caused her shock- a limousine in such a small town or him. Sven didn’t wait to find out. He strode up the front walk and rang the doorbell.
“Eliza, I don’t want to go shopping. I don’t need clothes. It’s not as if I go anywhere.” Alex cuddled down further into the afghan by the fire. It wasn’t cold out yet, not in that teeth chattering, middle of the continent, Prairie way. The kind of cold that turns engine oil into sludge and flattens tires so that they kah-chunk when you first start the car and the rubber has to warm up before the tires resume their rounded shape. She missed fall. The autumn colours burning bright shades of yellow, orange and red of Toronto. The promise of Indian summer enjoyed on patios overlooking Lake Ontario. The potpourri of barbeques and burning leaves.
Her sister wasn’t giving up without a fight. “You do need clothes. You only brought summer things and you need a proper jacket and mitts and boots. It will be winter soon.”
“Stop fussing,” ordered Alex. “I’m not one of your kids. I don’t need mothering.”
“You need something. You haven’t left the house in weeks. You barely leave your bedroom. Are you at least writing again?”
Alex looked up surprised. “Why?”
“You should. Start writing again, I mean. You’re a good writer.”
Her jaw dropped. “How would you know?”
“I read your books, you idiot. Didn’t you think I would? Everybody was talking about them. One of the book clubs in town even discussed them. They caused a commotion.”
“I know. Mom said. And dad can barely stand to look at me.”
“Well, they’re older and don’t understand that kind of thing. But people our age do and women especially love your books. I even got lunch for free at the diner just because we’re sisters.”
“I heard mom say that I deserved what happened, writing about things like that.”
Eliza brushed her blonde strands off her face and came to sit opposite her sister. “That’s bullshit. Nobody deserves to be hurt. You know that, right? The therapist told you?”
Alex nodded. “Still, sometimes I wonder if I’d written something different. Less explicit.”
“You’re determined to put yourself down. You always have been. Why can’t you enjoy your success? You’re not even spending any money. If it were me, I’d be out there splurging, basking in the glory.”
“Really?” Alex flung the afghan aside. “I thought you loved your life. Small town. Fitting in.”
“I do. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fantasies about how things might be different. That what your books are, fantasies.”
Alex shook her head in disbelief. Her sister had complimented her. Envied her. Wanted her life? What life? Cocooned here at home, refusing to leave the house. Avoiding phone calls and emails from Louie. Nothing from Lennon, she reminded herself. Not a peep. Just as well, considering.
The doorbell rang and Eliza dared her with a glance to go answer it. When Alex showed no signs of moving, her sister got up with a sigh. Alex heard her ask, “May I help you?”
Somebody lost, or maybe it was a member of the Pentecostal church looking for lost lambs to save.
She turned to the door to see her sister take a step back as if she’d seen a ghost- or a celebrity.
A quiet, cultured, male voice asked if Alex Whitmore was home. Who could it be? A reporter who found out about what happened in St. Barts? An agent hoping to entice her back into touring? A strange man, at her doorstep. She remembered the last time she’d answered the doorbell to a stranger and her pulse raced, her breath came out in pants. She was about to run in panic to her bedroom to lock the door, hide in the closet when she saw the man. He was tall and blindingly beautiful with bottomless blue eyes and impossibly high cheekbones. His blond hair was shot with silver at the temples. He glanced up at her, surveying her from her top to bottom. For the first time in weeks, Alex was aware of her greasy hair, the pillow creases on her face, the purple circles under her eyes. He was the type of man who made a woman aware of her femininity. A gorgeous man. The face and body made for magazine covers and the big screen and…Oh. My. God. Alex recognized Sven Larsen. Movie star. Oscar winner. Bliss and Lennon’s father.
Eliza recovered first. “She’s here. Alex is right here. Alex!” she turned and the sisters exchanged a shocked look. “It’s…” Eliza started to make introductions and stopped as if she’d lost the power of speech.
The blond man entered in a fluid motion holding out his hand and grasping Alex by the wrist. “Sven Larsen. I believe you know my children.”
Alex felt her mouth gape open. Don’t drool, she told herself. Focus. Despite the admonition, it took a moment for her to answer, mesmerized by the incongruity of this larger than life movie star in the entry hall of her home in Manitoba. As the front door closed, she spotted a limousine parked at the curb. She could only imagine the neighbours wondering if there was to be a wedding or a funeral.
“What are you? How did you?” She shook her head trying to make sense of his presence.
“I’m here because of you. I heard about what happened. I want to help.” She could feel those blue eyes compelling her to answer but she was shocked into silence.
Eliza spoke up. “I’ll make tea. You two go sit by the fire. It’s chilly out today. I imagine you aren’t used to the cold,” she said to their visitor.
“I grew up in Norway,” he answered in a low tone familiar to moviegoers around the world.
The water boiled, Sven seated next to the fire, the tea steeping. Alex felt her sister take her arm. “We’ll get you dressed and be right out,” she said dragging her into the bedroom.
As soon as the door closed, the questions began. “You know his children? Bliss and Lennon? You never said a word. Holy shit! Sven Larsen in our living room. He’s even dreamier than I thought. Remember I had a crush on him from that movie in Russia?”
“Peter the Great,” Alex answered, her voice coming as if from a distance. She barely registered her sister rooting through her drawers, pulling out a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.
“And that documentary about him and his wife. Sunny. I remember the kids in that. The daughter was so pretty. I wanted curly hair like hers. The son was younger. Blond like his dad but I think his eyes were green.”
Like spring leaves. A cool, inviting pond. Alex swiped a face cloth over her cheeks and brushed her teeth, trying to tune out her sister’s chatter.
“Why do you suppose he’s here? Do you think he’d mind if we got a picture together? Maybe an autograph?” Eliza ran her fingers through her blonde hair. “I wish I’d worn a nicer top. I never imagined we’d be entertaining such famous company.”
Alex snapped, “We’re not entertaining anyone. You’re going home. And keep mom away for an hour or two. I want to talk to him alone.”
“But the picture? The autograph? Nobody will believe Sven Larsen came to visit if I don’t have proof,” her sister wailed.
Alex swore under her breath and held her tongue as her sister posed and flirted with their famous visitor. As soon as humanly possible, she hustled Eliza out the door, hissing she’d call her later.
Sven was waiting in the kitchen. Sitting patiently at the counter. He’d obviously rummaged around because the tea was poured into two of her mother’s nicer cups and matching saucers. There was milk and sugar and a fan of evenly cut lemon slices on a plate. Not a man to stand on ceremony, thought Alex. A celebrity is at home anywhere. So’s a sponge, she thought, splashing milk and sugar into her tepid tea and then putting it back down when the cup rattled nervously against the saucer. She looked up to find him staring at her intently. Neither spoke and then finally she couldn’t take the silence any longer and blurted, “They’re not photo shopped.”
“I beg your pardon?” Sven raised one eyebrow.
“Your eyes. The colour. They’re so blue. I thought in the posters and movies they were photo shopped.”
“Just me,” he answered stretching impossibly long legs with a shrug.
“Just you,” Alex added feeling hysterical laughter start to bubble up. “Just you,” she guffawed. “Just you. In our kitchen. Oh my!” She gave into the belly laugh, letting it roll through her body. Not caring if he called the men in the white coats. If he thought she was certifiable. Just sat at the kitchen counter in her hometown of Stonewall, Manitoba with one of the most famous actors in the world and laughed like a loon. When she finally settled and wiped the tears from her eyes, he was still watching her.
“Feel better now?” he asked curiously.
She nodded, putting chilled hands on her flaming damp cheeks. “It’s been so long since I laughed. It feels so good not to feel bad, you know. Not to think about…” to her utter horror, Alex burst into tears. After a moment, she felt his arms encircle her. Without a thought she accepted his comfort, weeping against his chest. Letting the terror and sadness and anxiety and loneliness and guilt of the past six weeks drain away in a torrent of tears. Alex couldn’t have said how long they stayed that way, her wailing against his chest. His one hand making soothing circles against her back. When the sobs abated and the tears ebbed, his shirtfront was wet. From hysterical laughter to hysterical tears to utter shame. What must he think of her?
“Done now?” was all he asked, pulling back slightly to wipe an errant tear from her cheek. He was gentleness incarnate, not at all what she would have expected.
She nodded, not wanting to meet his gaze, but he tipped her chin up and up and she was starting right into those blue eyes again. They were like xenon headlights that cut through the fog. Focus Alex. Sven was saying something about her needing to get out.
“I’ll pick you up at seven. Wear something pretty. You’ll feel better. We’ll go out for dinner and talk. Some place public so you don’t take advantage of me.” The last statement came with a smirk as a punctuation mark.
Alex found herself grinning in response and agreeing to dinner. With a movie star. Go figure.
“Don’t you want to introduce me to your parents?” asked Sven, nonplussed when she literally launched herself out the front door and into his limousine.
“No way. My parents do not understand me, or this. I confess, neither do I.”
“I told you, I’m here to help.”
“But why? Bliss and I are friends and Lennon and I,” she looked confused. “I’m not sure what Lennon and I are. But for someone like you to come all this way.”
“Someone like me,” mused Sven. He was wearing a bespoke tailored black suit with white shirt and blue tie. He looked every inch the movie star, at home in limousines and on red carpets. Alex had borrowed a dress from her sister. None of hers fit anymore. She hadn’t been very hungry the last few weeks. The dress was lower cut and shorter than she was used to and she had to stop herself from tugging it up at the neckline and down at the hem. It was bright pink, not her usual colour. She tended to wear black at least until someone invented a darker colour. But she’d admitted as she did her hair and make-up that the pink gave her cheeks a glow, replacing what life and tragedy had naturally drained.
“Someone like me,” Sven repeated. “Why don’t we cast aside all the preconceptions we may have about one another and just spend this evening talking, getting to know one another?” He was staring again, assessing her.
Alex blushed, thankful for the dark interior of the limousine. Sensing as much as seeing her assent, he reached forward and handed her a flute and filled it with a frothy white wine. Drinking in a limo, thought Alex, like a fancy prom. Except a movie star was her date. She stifled a grin imagining Sven Larsen in an ill-fitting rental tux and her with a wrist corsage.
“Where are we going for dinner?”
She started at the answer, eliciting a husky laugh. “I’m just old enough and certainly vain enough to be flattered. Don’t worry. You’re entirely safe with me. Tell me about your family.”
And so she did, leaning back against the cushy leather seat, sipping her wine, recounting tails of sibling rivalry, small town snootiness and narrow-minded parents.
“Gee, I can see why you’d come back here to recuperate.”
She giggled at his dry as dust sarcasm. “Stupid, I know, but when you’re hurting all you want is the familiar.”
“Even if you’ve out-grown it. After Sunny died,” she picked on the slightest hitch in his voice at those words, as if then been rehearsed to achieve the semblance of normalcy, “when she died all I wanted to do was go back to Norway. Pretend our time together had been a dream. But I had obligations and so I stopped acting like a child and behaved like an adult.”
“You think I’m acting like a child?” Alex asked, her voice rising in indignation. What did this man know of what she’d gone through? How dare he criticize her!
“You tell me. Running away without a word. And don’t tell me you left a note. My mother read me the goodbye letter. I’ve written more personal notes to the guy who washes my car. I don’t blame you for leaving right away. It’s natural to flee danger but not to have been in touch since! Bliss has been very worried about you. She expects you back for Abby’s baptism.”
Alex felt a wave of guilt. In the heat of the excitement of the baby’s birth she’d agreed to act as Godmother. An obligation she’d been willing to slough off. “I don’t know if I can go back. Ever.”
“If anyone understands, I do,” came his reply and she felt his hand take hers, entwining fingers and squeezing for comfort.
The car stopped outside a narrow, gold-tinged door with no address or sign.
“We’re here,” said Sven. The driver opened the door on his side and she sat there waiting, until her door opened and the actor’s hand was outstretched into the interior.
Beyond the unmarked golden door was a lobby with plush velvet chairs and ottomans. If it weren’t for the small desk with the discreet sign reading ‘Concierge’, Alex never would have known they were in a hotel. Her companion knew his way around because he led her through another doorway into a dining room.
One entire wall was glass and had a view of the river and the legislative buildings beyond with the iconic Golden Boy statue at the peak of the dome. The lights burnt brightly in the night sky and passers-by emitted puffs of frosty breath as they hurried and huddled their way home. Despite the lack of clouds, you didn’t grow up in the Prairies without being able to sense when it was going to snow.
They were settled at a table by the window, menus and linen napkins slid in place by silent staff. She stared at the writing without really seeing the words. Finally, Sven took her menu away, gestured for the waiter and ordered for them both. A bottle of wine was deposited with quiet ceremony, sparkling water poured and they sat there in silence. She wasn’t sure what to say not after the scolding she’d gotten in the limousine about not being in touch with Bliss.
“I just realized you didn’t say anything about me not contacting Lennon.” She dared to meet his eyes. They narrowed slightly.
“I was waiting until I met you, to see if I should encourage a reconciliation.”
“Well I asked for blunt,” she muttered and when he laughed he looked twenty years younger.
“My son is a rather unusual young man. It will take an equally unusual woman to make him happy. I don’t know yet if you are that person.”
“What if I don’t want to be? Did you ever think about that? Maybe I don’t want to be connected to a famous and rich family. Maybe I have other plans, other priorities.”
Sven didn’t rise to the bait, merely raising an eyebrow. “Do you?”
“I don’t know. Not yet, not after everything that happened. But I could.”
“Yes,” he said adopting a gentle mocking tone. “Heaven forbid someone be sentenced to live in paradise with a young, handsome, well-off, kind, intelligent and ambitious man who adores you. ‘Tis a fate worse than death.”
“Like you understand suffering. What it’s like to have your whole world turned upside down in the blink of an eye. Like….” she stopped abruptly at the flash of naked grief in his eyes. Then it was gone, replaced by that slight mocking calm.
“Tell me about your writing,” he said, nodding as the waiter delivered the appetizers. She was having some kind of soup. There were bits of mushrooms and scallops in the bottom of a small white bowl and the waiter ceremoniously topped them off with a rich, brown frothy broth, redolent of herbs and truffle oil. Wait. How had she known that? Cooking lessons. One morning. Late one morning, she amended, Lennon had made her scrambled eggs topped with the stuff and wrestled the bottle of ketchup out of her hands. The truffle oil was earthy and no, she agreed in between bites of eggs and demanding kisses, she didn’t need ketchup.
As she spooned up her soup, cleaning the bowl with a hunk of warm sourdough bread, she recounted how she’d fallen into her career as a writer and how ill equipped she was to deal with her newfound fame and fortune.
Sven handed her a slice of toast with some kind of meat spread. Pâté, she thought, remembering Lennon’s menu ideas. He’d be so proud of her trying new things. She was thinking more about him tonight than she’d allowed herself to do so for the past six weeks. It must be the presence of his father. They looked so much alike, though the son was a softer, sweeter version. Much less intimidating.
Sven was explaining how he got into acting, the years of dues paying, ass kissing. The type of thing celebrities slough over when they finally make it to the top, pretending divine intervention or fate was responsible for their success.
“You’re never really ready for fame. Fortune, sure. I took to having money nicely after not having much. But fame is the small print on the contract with Satan.”
“Is it worth it? Having people follow you? Go through your garbage?”
“That’s up to the individual. I imagine after what you’ve gone through the answer is no, it’s not worth it. No one’s safety ever is. But you have to remind yourself, no place is safe. You can be hit by a bus in your hometown too.”
“Safety is an illusion?”
“A necessary one,” he answered, swirling his wine. She was mesmerized by his hands. The fingers long and strong and tapered like his son’s but without the nicks and burn marks that were Lennon’s testament to years in the kitchen.
“You said your mother read you the note I left Bliss?”
“She and the rest of the family descended on St. Barts as soon as the weather cleared. You must have just missed them. I imagine mother and Raisa are fighting over who gets to change the baby. I put my money on Raisa. She may be small but she’s mean! Sorry, I assumed you knew who they all were.”
“Lennon told me about them. He talked about his entire family and Linus and Astrid but he didn’t talk much about you. Why not?”
“I told you to be blunt,” he said in a mocking echo. “We aren’t as close as I’d like. Part of that was circumstance. He was very young when Sunny died and he needed a mother so Misha stepped in. He and Bliss grew exceptionally close as a result. And then, when he got older, he was busy. Friends, surfing, cooking, school. I thought when Bliss went off to Paris, we would have some time to bond. I’d cleared my calendar. But he sideswiped me by joining a missionary group and heading off to Africa. It was just supposed to be for a few months. I thought it would be good for him to get away from L.A. but he never really came back. There was always another project, another country. He ran away from home and I let him. My bad,” Sven said with a grimace. “I finally tracked him down in Thailand, set up a surprise visit. I arranged to meet him for dinner. When I got to the restaurant, he’d taken off again. Backpacking through Laos or some such thing.” There was that flash of unspeakable pain again.
“But why would he? Did he blame you for Sunny’s death? It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
“He blames me for her life. For not being there enough. For working too hard. For not protecting her.” Sven gave a harsh laugh. “Ask my mother. She’ll tell you. Lennon has it wrong. Sunny protected me, not the other way around.”
“Protected you from what?” Alex asked, tucking into her pickerel with rice pilaf without thought.
“From life. From pettiness. From other women.” His eyes glinted. “She could sense when someone didn’t want to take no for an answer and move in like a stealth bomber and bombard them with kindness. Before they knew it, she’d co-opted the enemy. Instead of wanting to get into my pants, the woman in question wanted to share recipes with Sunny or pour out their tales of woe at the hands of unfeeling men. Hollywood has more narcissists per capita than any other place on the planet. People would give anything to have someone listen to them, and Sunny did. She made people feel real again, validated them. At her funeral service, the pews were jammed with strangers all claiming to be her best friend.” He stopped suddenly as if afraid he’d over shared. Unspeakably moved by his confession, Alex reached across the table and took his hand and turned it over and gently kissed his palm before putting it back on the table and returning to her meal.
Sven’s hand shook slightly as he sipped his wine and tried to calm the pounding of his heart. No one had kissed his palm so gently, so reverentially in years. Not since Sunny. He fed forkfuls of steak into his mouth considering the woman in front of him. Alex was not a standard Hollywood beauty. She had the complexion of fresh dairy cream. Her curls were the colour of hay stalks, a kind of golden brown. Her eyes were the kicker. Hazel. That sounded so boring when compared to Bliss’ exotic shade of turquoise or Liam’s black-ringed blue irises. Yet her hazel eyes were calm and lustrous. With flecks of gold like buried treasure peaking through rocky terrain. They were compelling eyes. Honest eyes. Like his mother’s. Like Sunny’s. He forced himself to return the conversation to his son.
“Bliss said you and Lennon had argued. What about?”
“No privacy in families?”
“You take on one Larsen, you take us all on. Ask poor Charlie.”
“I don’t think he’s complaining. When I saw him he was jumping up and down like on a pogo stick, so happy to see Bliss again and to finally meet their daughter.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“You’re annoyingly persistent.”
“Haven’t you heard, Alex? No woman on earth can say no to me.” The latter was said with the leer that belonged to a scheming landlord in old silent movies. Alex started to laugh and he joined in, savouring their easy camaraderie. Enjoying the conversational give and take.
“We argued about the future. He assumed we had one. That I would stay on St. Barts with him. He would run the restaurant. I would write. We’d only known each other for a short while. It was too soon. I didn’t know what I wanted, where I’d end up. I felt rushed and he accused me of using him. Of treating him like a boy toy. Not taking him seriously.”
“And did you?” asked Sven, watching her face. Like the other women in his life that he loved, Alex couldn’t lie, not even to herself.
“Okay. Yes. I didn’t take him seriously.” She explained about when they’d first met at the beach. The surfer dude who turned out to be her rude neighbour. Entrée done, she told Sven about their strange encounter in the grocery store.
His eyes alert, he reached for her wrist and inhaled delicately. He was transported back to another dinner, with another young woman. The innocent scent sent shivers up his spine. Alex yanked her hand away blushing. “I should have thought. I should have worn another perfume. I’m sorry. I know it was your wife’s.”
“It suits you,” was all he said, careful to erase any hint of longing from his voice and his face. “I guess the question you have to answer is whether or not you’ve changed your mind. If you do see a future with my son.”
“I might have,” she said toying with her coffee. “Before…” her voice trailed off and Sven read the regret, guilt and panic in her eyes. The emotions morphed so quickly, blink and you would have missed them. He didn’t miss them.
“Time to take you home.”
They were both quiet for the ride out of the city. The stars were now covered by a blanket of cloud. Stratus clouds, he remembered from long ago science lessons. Snow clouds.
“I’ll pick you up at noon tomorrow. You can show me Winnipeg.”
“That won’t take long,” she said with the disparaging tone of a native.
“We’re always attracted by the new. But sometimes, it’s the familiar that can hold hidden secrets. Let’s discover them together.”
“Don’t see me to the door. Please. Mom and dad will want to meet you and there will be an inquisition and I just couldn’t take it tonight.”
“Fine. But I’ll meet them tomorrow.” His tone indicated he would accept no argument. When the limousine door opened, Sven leaned over and brushed his lips against her temple, inhaling the intoxicating scent in her hair. “You need a good night’s sleep. Happy dreams, Alex.”
He endured the ride back to the hotel in a fog fighting off ghosts and obligations that chased him through nightmares of what had been and what might be yet again.
“I didn’t know you skated,” Alex said her eyes flashing, her cheeks glowing in the snow crisp air.
“A good Norwegian boy learns to skate as soon as he can walk. Sunny learned in Russia. She told me how her dad and Raisa put her on a bumpy homemade rink and made her push a chair for balance. This is much better,” Sven gestured around the rink and then glided away with balletic grace and then back to her, stopping with a showy eruption of ice shavings.
“I can’t thank you enough for last night. I slept like the dead for the first time in months.” Alex felt so much better. The purple circles beneath her eyes were barely visible and the worried crease had vanished from between her brows. The only drawback after the evening out had been her parent’s outspoken but evident disapproval. Still, she had to give Sven credit. He’d faced her dragons when he picked her up earlier, answering intrusively rude questions politely and almost charming a small smile out of her mother. Unthinkable in a woman whose natural mouth position was a disapproving thin, grim line.
He slid one arm around her waist and took her hand with the other, giving Alex a gliding grace she never achieved when skating solo. There were a few stutter steps and shocked glances but for the most they were allowed to move quickly, weaving in and out of fellow skaters with ease. A laugh caught in her throat and she remembered Lennon’s exuberance while surfing. The same rush of joy that came with physical exertion blossomed in her belly and out to her extremities making her almost giddy. She felt happy. For the first time in months, she felt happy. She glanced up gratefully to the man who held her so gently, yet firmly. Protectively. Who would have thought Sven Larsen would be so paternal and yet, that was how he was acting, as if she were an exquisite treasure. It was all because of his feelings for his son.
After the rental skates had been returned, they drove back to his hotel for a very late lunch, watching the river. The silence was as sweet as the conversation. Places he’d been. Places she wanted to visit. Soup and sandwiches hoovered thanks to a healthy appetite.
“Would you come back to my room for a few minutes? There’s something I want to give you.” Sven waited patiently for her answer.
“Of course.” Why would he even ask? As if there was anything untoward or intimate between them.
His room was a suite, with a view of the river and beyond. He left her in the living room with a desk, couch and TV, retrieving something from the bedroom next door. It was a box, big enough to contain a pair of boots but heavier.
“Should I shake it? Is it breakable?” she teased, flummoxed at the thought of a gift.
“Just open it,” he said pouring them each a glass of wine and sitting on a chair opposite her perch.
The object inside the box was wound with bubble wrap secured with tape. It took her a few minutes to unwrap the bundle and then she sat there, looking at it, wondering what on earth. It was an iron statue just over a foot high. It was bronze coloured. The figure of a woman with one arm outstretched, her palm facing forward. It looked Oriental.
“It’s a No Fear Buddha. It was Sunny’s talisman. Her father bought it for her in Cambodia. He said if a people can survive genocide, she could survive whatever life brought her way. It helped her get through some very difficult times.”
Alex stammered, “It’s obviously very important to you and your family. I don’t know why you’re giving this to me.” She was afraid to touch the statue, afraid to acknowledge the gesture.
“I’m giving it to you because you need it.” He sat next to her on the couch and took her hand. “Sunny used this to help her recover after she was attacked by a stalker.”
Alex couldn’t meet his eyes. “Bliss said something about that.”
“The kids don’t know the details. Mother does and a couple of others. It’s not something we dwell on. It was an old friend from university. He was stalking me and Sunny got in the way. He almost killed her. Left her to die at the end of Gouverneur Beach.”
“It felt wrong! That part of the beach.” Alex blurted out. “We were playing soccer and the ball went into the bushes and when I went to get it, the sand, the jungle, it just felt wrong.”
He nodded, one hand absentmindedly stroking the statue, the other holding her fingers gently. “She ran away afterwards. I didn’t know for months. Just that she’d left me. Mother finally ferreted out the truth. No one can keep a secret from my mother. She’s the one who figured out why you left without a backwards glance. Just that there was a stalker and you were attacked. Not what actually happened. Would you like to tell me?”
Would she? Alex didn’t know. She hadn’t discussed the details with anyone. Not the police, who had examined the evidence and drawn the obvious conclusions. Not Louie, who hadn’t peppered her with questions as he helped her run home. Not her therapist. She hadn’t wanted to say the words aloud. She knew the inherent power of words and feared them.
“Would you rather tell Lennon? You have to tell someone. Maybe he’d be best.”
Alex started shaking. “No, no.” She whimpered. “I can’t. He won’t look at me the same way. He won’t want me if he knows.”
Sven moved to the chair next to her, leaning forward, eyes intent. “You’re wrong. You underestimate him. And you underestimate the power of love. Never mind. You tell me. You can’t offend me and you don’t have to worry about what I’d think. Go ahead. Start at the beginning.”
He held her so gently, she felt walls of guilt crumbling and she started to speak. The beginning. The raccoon heart in Toronto. Seeking refuge in St. Barts. Happy times with Lennon and Bliss. And then, the doorbell ring that signalled the start of her nightmare. She held nothing back, shared all the gory details. The man’s bag of toys. His wifey, he said. The hood. Being bound. The knife against her skin. How grateful she’d been he hadn’t cut her. Then the cane. The whip. The spreader bar. The dildo. Some how it was worse he hadn’t raped her, she said. “He’d played with me but he hadn’t been able to…”
Sven’s hand stroked her hair. His chest rose in deep, steady inhalations as she poured out her secrets. How the man had read passages of her book back at her. How she’d been convinced her writing was to blame. That she’d inspired evil. That she deserved it. Her mother agreed, she started and then couldn’t finish. She felt Sven’s hand stop stroking for a second, then resume. She was cried out. Hollowed out. Empty.
He picked her up as if she were a bundle of rags and carried her into the bedroom, depositing her gently on the bed. She felt a comforter pulled up to her shoulders, a kiss dropped on her head and then heard him speaking softly into the phone before drifting off to sleep. She woke once from a familiar nightmare, to find herself in his arms. Both were fully dressed but there was warmth in his embrace. A steady solace. He held her as she sobbed herself back to sleep. And this time, it was dreamless.
She woke to the watered down light of a late fall Prairie morning. A sky more grey than blue. A dusting of snow coated the view from the bedroom window. She was snuggled in the comforter, trying to get her bearings when Sven appeared, hair still wet from the shower, holding out a robe.
“Get cleaned up. Breakfast has arrived.”
Alex rubbed the sleep-matted hair from her eyes. “My mother! She’ll be frantic.”
“I called last night. Sorry, I borrowed your phone and talked to your sister. Eliza told them that you spent the night at her place. She agreed there was no reason to upset your parents. She’s a nice girl, your sister. Loves you very much and has been worried about you.”
Eliza? Worried about her? That was almost as puzzling as this incandescent man watching her with grave concern, helping her up from the bed, turning on the shower and leaving her to gaze at her reflection in the steamy mirror. Her eyes were red and puffy but she felt strangely calm.
Breakfast was pancakes, with happy faces outlined in chocolate chips. She laughed at the presentation.
Sven explained, “My wife used to do this for the kids after a bad test or a dentist appointment.”
She smiled all through breakfast, her lips sticky with syrup when she finally paused to take a breath. “That’s the most I’ve eaten in months. Thanks for this,” she said gesturing at her empty plate, “and for last night. Can you tell me how long it took Sunny to get over the attack?”
“She didn’t ever, not entirely. She still flinched if somebody came up behind startling her and would panic if you grabbed her upper arms. And I’d find out later something had dredged up a memory and she’d be back on the phone or on Skype with her therapist. But she didn’t let fear run her life.”
Alex’s eyes darted to the No Fear Buddha on the coffee table. “I appreciate the gesture, but you really should take that back with you. I can conjure up the sentiment or find my own talisman.”
“You’re keeping it. You need it. Bring it to St. Barts for the Baptism.”
She shook her head slowly. “I’m not ready for that.”
“I’ve found the longer you put off something difficult, the harder it becomes. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll go back to St. Barts for the Baptism if you’ll come with me.”
She was flabbergasted but Sven looked completely serious. “You haven’t been back in years!”
“My kids need me. My granddaughter needs me. And you need me. I think we could help each other.” He pulled out her chair and she noticed the suitcases by the door.
“You’re going home?” She was sorry, amazed at how much she’d come to count on him in the past, was it only two and a half days?
“Work calls.” Sven helped her with her coat and purse. “The limo will take you home.” He handed her the box with the Buddha along with his cellphone number and email address.
“Alex, take your time to decide what’s next in your life but don’t let it slip away. If you want to go back to St. Barts, we’ll go together. It will give you a chance to see if there’s any future with Lennon and answer some questions.” He tipped her head up and fastened her scarf into some kind of fancy knot she would have need a tutorial to replicate. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Alex. I hope you’ll keep in touch,” and leaned down to kiss her cheek.
She turned her head at the last second, confused that this may be one of those Hollywood/European multiple kiss situations. Their lips brushed, for an instant. She felt a jolt and Sven stepped back as if he’d stepped on a live wire. His blue eyes burnt for a moment then instantly chilled as if plunged into ice water to stop the cooking process.
Alex stammered her thanks, grasped the box containing the statue and stumbled down the hall.
Sven stood there with his back against the hotel room door. Fuck, that was close. He wanted Alex so badly. He’d spent the night absorbing her warmth, trying to leech away the hurt of the attack, act as a charcoal filter to her pain. She was so like Sunny. Not in looks but that inherent strength and goodness. Another fucking Canadian!
He’d watched her sleep, pleased when her sobs abated, that he’d helped her through the worst of the pain. She made him feel worthy. He could love her, he knew. He could make her happy, he guessed. He could coddle and spoil her. Make her laugh. Help her navigate her newfound fame, learn to embrace and enjoy it. They could make each other whole.
Sven rubbed his hands over his face. Lennon. He owed his son, owed Alex a second chance. God knows he’d been given enough of them. He’d done all he could to give them theirs, even if it meant he wouldn’t have his. Sven picked up the phone with a sigh and requested a cab to take him to the airport.