MATT AND OLIVIA were alone in Marsha's guest room.
Nine years ago Matt had spent his first night as a free man in this room. Bernie had brought him home. Marsha had been outwardly polite, but looking back on it, there must have been some serious reservations. You move into a house like this to escape people like Matt. Even if you know he's innocent, even if you think he's a good guy and got a bad break, you don't want your life enmeshed with his. He is a virus, a carrier of something malevolent. You have children. You want to protect them. You want to believe, as Lance Banner did, that the manicured lawns can keep this element out.
He thought about his old college buddy Duff. At one time Matt had believed that Duff was tough. Now he knew better. Now he could kick Duff's ass around the corner without breaking a sweat. He wasn't being boastful. He didn't think that with any pride. It was just a fact of life. His buddies who thought they were tough- the Duffs of the world- man, they had no idea.
But tough as Matt had become, he'd spent his first night of freedom in this room crying. He couldn't exactly say why. He had never cried in prison. Some would say that he simply feared showing weakness in such a horrible place. That was part of it, maybe. Maybe it was just a "saving up" outlet, that now he was crying for four years of anguish.
But Matt didn't think so.
The real reason, he suspected, had more to do with fear and disbelief. He could not accept that he was really free, that prison was really behind him. It felt like a cruel hoax, that this warm bed was an illusion, that soon they'd drag him back and lock him away forever.
He'd read how interrogators and hostage-takers try to break spirits by holding mock executions. That would work, Matt thought, but what would undoubtedly be more effective, what would unquestionably make a man crack, would be the opposite- pretending you were going to set him free. You get the guy dressed, you tell him that his release has been all arranged, you say good-bye and blindfold him and drive him around and then, when they stop and take him inside and pull off his blindfold, he finds that he is back where he started, that it was all a sick joke.
That was how it felt.
Matt sat now on the same queen-size mattress. Olivia stood with her back to him. Her head was lowered. Her shoulders were still high, still proud. He loved her shoulders, the sinew of her back, the knot of gentle muscles and supple skin.
Part of him, maybe most of him, wanted to say, "Let's just forget it. I don't need to know. You just said that you love me. You just told me that I am the only man you ever loved. That's enough."
When they arrived Kyra had come out and met them in the front yard. She had been concerned. Matt remembered when she first moved in over the garage. He'd noted that she was "just like the Fonz." Kyra had no idea what he'd been talking about. Funny what you think about when you're terrified. Marsha looked concerned too, especially when she saw Matt's bandages and noticed his tentative step. But Marsha knew him well enough to know that now was not the time for questions.
Olivia broke the silence. "Can I ask you something?"
"You said something on the phone about receiving pictures."
"May I see them, please?"
He took out his cell phone and held it up. Olivia turned and took it from him without touching his skin. He watched her face now. She concentrated in that way he knew so well. Her head tilted a little to the side, the same as it always did when something confused her.
"I don't understand this," she said.
"Is that you?" he asked. "With the wig?"
"Yes. But it wasn't like that."
Her eyes stayed on the camera. She hit the replay button, watched the scene again, shook her head. "Whatever you want to think of me, I never cheated on you. And the man I met with. He was wearing a wig too. So he could look like the guy in the first picture, I guess."
"I figured that."
Matt showed her the window, the gray skies, the ring on the finger. He explained about the drought and about blowing up the pictures in Cingle's office.
Olivia sat next to him on the bed. She looked so damn beautiful. "So you knew."
"Deep in your heart, despite what you saw here, you knew that I'd never cheat on you."
He wanted to reach out and take her in his arms. He could see her chest hitching a little, trying to hold it together.
Matt said, "I just need to ask you two questions before you begin, okay?"
"Are you pregnant?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "And before you ask the second question- yes, it's yours."
"Then I don't care about the rest. If you don't want to tell me, you don't have to. It doesn't matter. We can just run off, I don't care."
She shook her head. "I don't think I can run again, Matt." She sounded so worn. "And you can't just do that either. What about Paul and Ethan? What about Marsha?"
She was right, of course. He didn't know how to put it. He shrugged and said, "I just don't want things to change."
"Neither do I. And if I could come up with a way around this, I would. I'm scared, Matt. I've never been so scared in my life."
She turned to him. She reached out and cupped the back of his head. She leaned forward and kissed him. She kissed him hard. He knew that kiss. It was the prelude. Despite what was happening, his body reacted, began to sing. The kiss grew hungrier. She moved closer, pressed against him. His eyes rolled back.
They turned a little, and Matt's ribs suddenly screamed. Pain shot down his side. He stiffened. His low cry chased the moment away. Olivia released him, pulled away. She lowered her eyes.
"Everything I've ever told you about me," she said, "was a lie."
He did not react. He was not sure what he had expected her to say- not this- but he just sat and waited.
"I didn't grow up in Northways, Virginia. I didn't go to UVA- I didn't even go to high school. My father wasn't the town doctor- I don't know who my father was. I never had a nanny named Cassie or any of that. I made it all up."
Outside the window a car turned onto the street, the headlights dancing against the wall as it passed. Matt just sat there, still as a stone.
"My real mother was a strung-out junkie who gave me to Child Services when I was three. She died from an OD two years later. I bounced around from foster home to foster home. You don't want to know what they were like. I did that until I ran away when I was sixteen. I ended up near Las Vegas."
"When you were sixteen?"
Olivia's voice had taken on a strange monotone now. Her eyes were clear, but she stared straight ahead, two yards past him. She seemed to be waiting for a reaction. Matt was still fumbling, trying to take this all in.
"So those stories about Dr. Joshua Murray…?"
"You mean the young girl with the dead mother and the kindly father and the horses?" She almost smiled. "Come on, Matt. I got that from a book I read when I was eight."
He opened his mouth but nothing came out. He tried again. "Why?"
"Why did I lie?"
"I didn't really lie so much as…" She stopped, looked up… "so much as died. I know that sounds melodramatic. But becoming Olivia Murray was more than just a fresh start. It was like I was never that other person. The foster child was dead. Olivia Murray of Northways, Virginia, took her place."
"So everything…" He put his hands up. "It was all a lie?"
"Not us," she said. "Not how I feel about you. Not how I act around you. Nothing about us was ever a lie. Not one kiss. Not one embrace. Not one emotion. You didn't love a lie. You loved me."
Loved, she had said. You loved me. The past tense.
"So when we met in Las Vegas, you weren't in college?"
"No," she said.
"And that night? At the club?"
Her eyes met his. "I was supposed to be working."
"I don't understand."
"Yeah, Matt. Yeah, you do."
He remembered the Web site. The stripper site.
"Danced? Well, yes, the politically correct term is exotic dancer. All the girls use that term. But I was a stripper. And sometimes, when they made me…" Olivia shook her head. Her eyes started to water. "We'll never get past this."
"And that night," Matt said, a surge of anger coursing through him, "what, I looked like I had money?"
"That's not funny."
"I'm not trying to be funny."
Her voice had steel in it now. "You have no idea what that night meant to me. It changed my life. You never got it, Matt."
"Never got what?"
"Your world," she said. "It's worth fighting for."
He wasn't sure what she meant- or if he wanted to know what she meant. "You said you were in foster homes."
"And that you ran away?"
"My last foster home encouraged this line of work. You can't imagine how badly you want to get out. So they told us where to go. My last foster mother's sister- she ran the club. She got us fake IDs."
He shook his head. "I still don't see why you didn't tell me the truth."
"When should I have told you? That first night in Las Vegas? How about when I came to your office? Second date? Engagement? When should I have told you?"
"I don't know."
"It wasn't that easy."
"It wasn't easy for me to tell you about my time in prison either."
"My situation involves more than me," she said. "I made a pact."
"What kind of pact?"
"You have to understand. I might have been able to risk it, if it was just me. But I couldn't risk it for her."
Olivia looked away and didn't say anything for a long time. She took a piece of paper out of her back pocket, unfolded it slowly, and handed it to him. Then she turned her face away from him again.
Matt took the piece of paper and turned it over. It was an article printed out from the Nevada Sun News Web site. He read it. It didn't take long.
Las Vegas, NV- Candace Potter, age 21, was found slain in a trailer park off Route 15. The cause of death was strangulation. Police would not comment about the possibility of sexual assault. Ms. Potter worked as a dancer at the Young Thangs, a nightclub on the outskirts of the city, using the stage name Candi Cane. Authorities said the investigation was ongoing and that they were following up some promising leads.
Matt looked up. "I still don't get it." Her face was still turned away from him. "You promised this Candace person?"
She chuckled without humor. "No."
"What I said before. About not really lying to you. About it being more like I died."
Olivia turned toward him.
"That's me," she said. "I used to be Candace Potter."