- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
She frowned. "Lover?"
"Yes." He saw her eyelids opening a fraction, and rested his hand over her heart. "Do not wake. Listen to me." For a moment he thought she might rouse, and then her breathing slowed and deepened. "I want you to dream of being in my arms. Of being with me. I will do the same. In our silences and our solitudes, we can burn for each other, Samantha. Would you like that?"
She sighed, shifting closer to him. "Mmmmmm."
He was massaging the full, ripe mound of her breast, Lucan discovered, and the rest of him ached to do much more. If he didn't leave now, he wouldn't until he had her a dozen different ways.
He caught the end of her breath with his mouth, brushing it back over her lips. "Come to me again, Samantha. Whenever you want me. I will fill every emptiness you feel."
Father Mercer Lane wound up the tour of the grounds of Barbastro Abbey by climbing the three flights of stairs in the back of the cloister so his friend could look out over his tiny domain.
"This was all alligator- and snake-infested swampland forty years ago," he told John. "Nothing but sawgrass and palmetto bugs, as far as the eye could see."
John went to the railing. "How long has the abbey been here?"
"We celebrate our thirty-ninth groundbreaking anniversary in November." Mercer took out his cigar case. "I don't suppose you've taken up the filthy habit since leaving the church?"
"No, but go ahead."
"This is the only place I can have one without worrying about Brother Ignatius sniffing me." Mercer used a pocketknife to trim the end before lighting the cigar and puffing on it until the end glowed crimson. "This land was supposed to be a great investment for the archdiocese of Miami. They bought up a couple hundred acres here in North Broward dirt cheap shortly before the Gold Coast and Miami were built out. Resold them twenty years later for millions."
John nodded. "Why didn't they sell this property?"
"I've only been here a few months, so I'm not really sure." Mercer shrugged. "We're right on top of the Everglades, so everything to the west is protected by the National Parks and can't be developed. Brush fires set by the Indians on their land have always been a pain in the arse, too. Whatever the reason, the church hung on to this parcel too long, and the developers passed them by. That's when they sent Bromwell, the abbot before me, down here to build the abbey."
John looked out at the zero-lot-lined communities that encircled the abbey's property. "And none of this was here. It must have seemed like the end of the world."
"Bromwell must have thought so." He pulled in a mouthful of smoke and released it in a series of small rings. "He insisted on naming this place after Father Luis Cancer de Barbastro, a priest sent to establish a mission in Tampa who was slaughtered by Indians in 1549. You Americans have barbaric taste in monuments."
"I suppose we do." John looked over the railing at the ground. "Maybe Bromwell meant it as a tribute."
"You can't jump off, old chap; it's not high enough," Mercer said, watching John's face for a reaction. "You'll only break your legs, your spine, or your neck."
His friend didn't twitch a muscle. "I wasn't thinking of jumping."
"Well, if you're going to push me off something, at least tell what the bloody hell happened to you in Chicago." Mercer waited, but John remained silent. "You know, according to some of the older brothers here, Bromwell was a joyless stickler for the rules. He ran this place like a dictator, and made sure every brother who came here suffered right alongside him."
John crossed his arms and leaned back against one of the roof supports. "And?"
"Bromwell hated people, but not even he could stop the march of progress. Housing developers invaded this place twenty years ago." Mercer nodded toward one of the crowded satellite communities. "Everyone with money stayed in the east, so this became a magnet for lower-income families, transients, and the like. Bromwell tried fencing off the abbey's land and built that bleeding monstrosity of a wall around the monastic buildings"—he nodded toward the seven-foot-high brick enclosure beyond the chapel—"but he couldn't keep the brothers cut off from the outside world any longer."
Mercer told John how property values had plummeted even further after the Mariel Boatlift of 1980, leaving the brothers in an ever-deepening melting pot of multiracial Cuban, Haitian, and Jamaican poor.
"I know from the paperwork Bromwell left behind that he had repeatedly contacted the head of his order to request reassignment. It never came." He looked out at the night sky. "Evidently he hated the immigrants and the fact that the other brothers wanted to become involved in the community, and started embezzling money from the abbey's funds. About a month before I was sent down, one of the younger brothers accidentally discovered it and confronted Bromwell." He nodded toward the chapel. "They found him hanging from a roof beam just before vespers."
"Is that why they offered it to you? Because of his suicide?"
"You know how superstitious the Benedictines are," Mercer said. "It tainted Barbastro for them, so they turned it over to the Franciscans. I was happy to take up the reins, as it were."
"So what are you going to do here, Mercer?" John was asking.
"The work," he said simply. "The brothers have become involved in dozens of community projects. They've raised the funds to help build and staff a low-cost day-care facility to help welfare mothers go back to work, as well as hiring a teacher for a halfway house for pregnant teenagers to enable them to finish out their schooling. They're also getting involved in programs at the local Catholic church to help keep young children from being lured into using drugs and joining gangs."
"What I meant was, what are you going to do out here, Mercer?" John asked. "Of all the places I imagined that you'd end up, this isn't even close. This is more like…"
"Mars?" Mercer laughed. "Maybe it is, my friend, but I'll tell you a secret: I don't mind playing the part of a Martian." He saw the doubt in John's eyes, but couldn't blame him for it. The last time they had spent any time together, he'd still been in one of his bleak moods. The Mercer Lane whom John had known had been a tired man. "To tell you the God's truth, I needed a place like this. With all that has happened to me since I joined the priesthood, I needed something good and simple, like this place." He didn't mind adding a small white lie. "That's why I came here. It doesn't get any simpler than this."
"If you wanted simple, you could have gone over to a third-world mission," his friend suggested.
"Like you did?" Mercer shook his head. "I'd have been bitten by a mosquito stepping off the plane and died of some horrid foreign disease. I couldn't have brought the Word to the ignorant savages anyway. My calling—my mission—requires me to dwell among the civilized unwise."
John's mouth flattened. "I wish I'd been that realistic before I went to South America."
"Well, now you're a ruddy private citizen, able to drop the beads and get on with your life. I don't envy you the prospect of dating. Women today are far more demanding than Mum ever was." He saw John flinch. "Is that what it was that drove you out? A woman?"
"I can't talk about it, and please don't ask me." John Keller, who never pleaded or showed weakness, sounded as if he were begging now. "Please."
"I'll remind you of something a very wise and exhausted young priest once told me: If you don't get it out, it will eat you up inside." Pleased to hit John with his own advice, Mercer turned and saw the gleam of a bald head. "Here." He thrust the cigar in John's hand. "Cover for me."
Brother Ignatius emerged from the stairwell and gave John and Mercer a stringent, sour look. "We do not permit smoking on the grounds of the abbey, Brother Patrick."
"Sorry." John ground out the cigar on the sole of his shoe. "I didn't know."
"Now you do." The older friar eyed Mercer. "Father Lane, it is after midnight. Shall I show Brother Patrick to his room?"
"Yes, thank you, Ignatius." Mercer slapped John's shoulder. "Get some rest. I'll see you at breakfast in the morning."
Mercer stood looking out at the abbey's grounds until John and Ignatius disappeared from sight, and then went from the cloister to the abbot's house, where there was always paperwork waiting for him to review and sign.
He was nearly finished with the day's correspondence when his guestmaster appeared in the open doorway.
"Brother Patrick refused a dinner tray and has gone to bed," Brother Ignatius said. "I have put him in the south hall of the hospitium."
"Call him John," Mercer said as he signed off on a purchase order for cleaning supplies. "He's not one of us."
"Yes, Father, I gathered that. May I have a word?" At Mercer's nod, he came into the office and closed the door behind him. "I know it is not my place to criticize your decisions, but is it entirely wise to bring one of the flock under our roof?"
Brother Ignatius prided himself on keeping close watch on the conduct of everyone at the abbey, and reporting any violations of the rules back to the abbot. He had never before questioned any of Mercer's decisions, but Barbastro had never before opened its gates to anyone outside the order.
"The sheep are safest when in the fold," Mercer responded dryly. He appreciated his guestmaster's vigilance, but sometimes Ignatius could be as annoying as a tattling five-year-old. "John is struggling with life and faith. God does not wish us to turn our backs on a brother in crisis, even after he has left the church."
"But still…" Ignatius clasped his hands together and twisted them as he sought the right words. "We were commanded to remain aloof. I am sorry to be the one to say this, Father, but you flirt with violating the oath."