He unearthed the heart-shaped box from under a pile of sweaters that had been in a grimy cardboard box in his spare bedroom. It was fourteen years ago, he’d given this particular red silk box to his wife, Sarah. Their seventh married Valentine’s Day. Shaped like a heart, it had been filled with Godiva truffles. His impeccable memory recalled that Strawberry Crème Tarte Truffle and decadent Black Forest Cake Truffles were a couple of flavors. How she savored those chocolates! Only allowing herself one or two a night while she read to make them last. She was like that, a conservator of things small and romantic. The card was still inside; she’d been buried in the necklace that had accompanied the chocolate. My darling Sarah, My forever Valentine! Yours, always, Andy. He was always hers, had been since the day they’d met. Forever. Although their forever was short-lived.
The door to the room had been locked tight for over a decade. It had been Sarah’s office, and he couldn’t bear to walk into it until today. Today it had become necessary—he was moving. It had been a tough choice to make in his small New York City apartment. Closing a whole room. That had been a very long time ago. She’d been murdered a scant six months after receiving that red silk box of chocolates; at the hands of a ruthless and random killer. Even when the murderer had been brought to justice, it made barely a dent in the way Andy had begun living day-to-day. He was closed off from the world, his colleagues, and his own emotions. He went into therapy. It helped to the extent that he could go back to work and earn a living. What a joke. Earning a living for a life he only existed in, waiting for the day he could join his wife in the ground, often behaving like he already was there.
Finally, a year or so after Sarah’s murder, one of his oldest friends found a practical nurse, a no-nonsense woman who needed work and who he thought might help Andy find a way back to his life, a way back to really living. She was a tough girl from Brooklyn; the gentle Andy found her fascinating like he found his collection of forensic memorabilia. Exotic, esoteric, puzzling sometimes, and always colorful. Eventually, she married and moved away. They parted friends, each having learned something from the other. He realized having an assistant was a necessary part of his life now. He searched for a long time, then fate brought a young woman to see him. A woman who needed his particular skill set, he was a forensic lawyer, she was being accused of killing her husband. Once exonerated, thanks to him, Laurie Mason went to work as his assistant. That was eight years ago. He sighed. She had been one of only a handful of people who understood how it felt to lose a spouse in the way they each had.
He looked around the room. He’d packed away so much when Sarah died; all he’d left around him were pictures of her and her books. Ones she read and ones she’d written. She’d been a writer of some renown. Her murder had left him soulless. She’d been the soul of their home, their marriage, and of him. He pushed the life they had so far away, so far behind him into those boxes, but it was time to look through them now.
Laurie came into the room, seeing it for the first time. She noted the thick layers of dust on everything. She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, knowing this was hard for him, knowing she had to try to help make it easier.
“What can I do to help you, Andy?”
“Can you… can you do her clothes? Put them in the bags for Goodwill?”
“Yes. Do you think… do you remember if there is anything you want to keep?”
“No. The pictures are enough. Someone should wear this stuff. Someone needs it more than it needs to be collecting even more dust.” She nodded, proud of him. Proud of the progress he’d made in the years she’d known him. She knew she’d had a hand in it, but the hard work was his. She also knew both of them would be sneezing and coughing before long, so she opened the window that looked down onto a small courtyard. Children’s laughter filtered up to them on a warm breeze from twenty stories below. As she worked, Laurie thought about the day that prompted this change in Andy and how they’d arrived here today.
Laurie had been settled on a hard stone bench beside a familiar gravestone made of black and gray marble and granite. Chiseled on it were familiar words, “Sarah Anne Deacon, 1967-2002, Beloved Wife and Daughter.” Laurie made this particular pilgrimage possibly more often than Andy Deacon, the widower of the late Sarah did himself. After visiting her own late husband’s grave on the other side of the cemetery in the military section, she would drive around and visit Sarah. Laurie never brought anything with her, although she wanted to. But she never wanted Andy to know she’d been there.
It had started after a particularly harrowing case many years ago. Andy and Laurie had nearly died. Maybe it was the need for catharsis; perhaps it was that Laurie hoped to let Sarah know that Andy was really doing better. It had started as a whim that had now become a habit. So, frequently, Laurie used the time that Andy went to therapy to visit both of their late spouses.
On this lovely May morning, Laurie summarized the previous few weeks of cases she and Andy had worked, detailing how brilliant Andy’s findings had been and other things in their daily lives that she might want to know about.
“Sarah, the real reason I’m here today, and why I haven’t been here in a few weeks, is because I have to tell you something. It’s a secret I’ve been keeping. Something I’ve been avoiding saying out loud to you. Or even to myself. It may be something you don’t want to hear, but I need to get this off my chest, and I think you deserve to know. I love your husband. I mean, of course, I love him, we’ve been friends forever now, and we’re like family. But, I mean to say that I’m in love with your husband, and I just don’t know what to do about it. I have felt this way for a very long time. Maybe since that case I told you about when we nearly died together. I just can’t keep hiding how I feel. I can’t keep dating other men hoping they will be ‘the one’ to break me of these feelings.” She began to cry.
“That’s never going to happen. Never. I am so sorry if this hurts you. I didn’t mean for it to happen. It started as a job. Just a job. One I thought I’d get tired of, just like all the others I’ve ever had. But I never got tired. It just got more interesting. He got more interesting. The more time I spent with him, the more I understood him. I grew to care about him. Now look at me. I’m desperately in love with a man who won’t, or can’t, love me back.” She was really bawling by then. It became an ugly cry, or as ugly as the beautiful Laurie Mason ever became.
“I’m so scared, Sarah. I’m scared I’m going to live the whole rest of my life never feeling his arms around me, except for when he’s saving my life from a lunatic. That I’m never going to know how it feels to have his mouth on mine. I know it’s probably a huge faux pas to say this to his dead wife, but you must know how I feel - you loved him yourself!” Laurie rooted blindly in her purse for a tissue but found a note from Andy instead, making her cry even harder. “He can be so sweet, and he is loveable, although he disagrees. I’d like to prove him wrong for once. I wish I could see you and talk to you like he does. Maybe you’d be able to offer me your wisdom. I tried to push these feelings away, push them down, ignore them.” Laurie continued to sniffle, and she hiccuped once for good measure as she sat and contemplated Sarah’s headstone and her own life.
Unexpectedly, Laurie felt gentle hands on her shoulders. She craned her neck to look up. “An-Andy! What are you doing here? Isn’t it a therapy morning?”
“Yes, but it was so nice that I wanted to take a walk, and I rescheduled for later. I thought I’d bring Sarah some flowers, but I think you might need them more.” He handed her the bouquet of roses, white with pink edges. Laurie looked down at her lap.
“Yes?” She asked hesitantly.
“Why would you pour your heart out to a piece of marble and granite instead of telling me how you felt?”
“Oh, God! You heard all of that?”
“That would be affirmative.” He tried to get her to look at him, but she hung her head, and her hair fell on her face. He put two fingers under her chin, brushed away her hair with his other hand, and lifted her face until her watercolor green eyes met his. They were rimmed red from crying, but they were still beautiful. “Laurie,” he began as he sat next to her on the bench, “how long have you been coming here?”
“A long time. Maybe four years or so.” She sniffed. Finally finding a tissue in her purse, she dabbed her eyes. “I visit Logan on the other side of the cemetery, and then I come here for a while to catch Sarah up on your life, your work.”
Andy looked at her in awe and admiration. He’d known for a while how lucky he’d been to meet Laurie. Well, really, from the time they’d met, he’d known he was fortunate to find such a feisty, intelligent, kind, happy, funny, and brave woman to have as his assistant. What he’d only come to realize recently was that he was lucky because, for a second time in his life, Andy had found someone he could love, a true love, one that would last forever. So he decided he trusted her with his most important possession, his battered, bruised, and imperfectly healed heart.
He repeated her name, his voice rough with emotion and longing. “Laurie.” She startled at the sound. “Look at me, please.” She complied because the tone of his voice was one she’d never heard before.
“I love you, Laurie. I didn’t imagine that Sarah’s graveside would be the first place I said this to you, but here we are, and there it is. I am madly, passionately, crazy in love with you and how we’ve made it this long without me kissing you is beyond me. But I think I will hold off on that until we are someplace less public, less depressing, and much more appropriate.”
Laurie choked out a short laugh then. As quick as it was, the laugh was filled with relief and happiness. Andy Deacon loved her! As in, in love, not just as a friend. Her mind was reeling. Andy stood and held out his hand to her. She took it gratefully and rose from the bench. She touched Sarah’s headstone after she placed the roses in the holder next to the monument before they turned and left, and she whispered, “Thank you,” to her predecessor in Andy Deacon’s life.