Angel and the Badman: The Story of Cort and Blanche
8: I’ll Stand By You
She’d been asleep when the phone rang and she fumbled in the dark to turn on the light, dread clutching at her heart. Her first thought was that something had happened to Maureen, and for a horrible few seconds, Blanche was on the verge of panic. She stared at the LED window as her racing heart stuttered and calmed. Cortland Davis. Not Maureen Donovan, not the Philadelphia P.D.
She believed she wouldn’t answer, even as she pressed the button. But she couldn’t bring herself to speak, not even to say hello. The silence stretched for long seconds and over muted music in the background, Blanche closed her eyes and listened to him breathe. Felt his need, the unspoken yearning that reached for her like a pleading hand. And she wondered if he felt the same from her.
A voice inside urged her to say something, anything…but her throat was frozen and the words wouldn’t come. Instead, her unguarded heart spoke in a silent stream of longing that she couldn’t hold back. It was so intense that she was sure he must hear and know, just as she heard him. And then it seemed a good thing that awkward conversation wasn’t getting in their way, that they were still and quiet, speaking in a language understood more clearly than a flood of words.
She ended the call before the spell could be broken. Expecting to lie awake until the sun came up, Blanche fell back on the pillow. But a sweet peace stole over her and she slept, certain that later she would go to the Café, and that Cort would be there, waiting for her.
* * *
He dreamed of black mustangs...the horses, not the
cars. Galloping over the badlands, graceful and wild, their manes and tails
streaming like ribbons. Dun-colored dust clouds billowed up behind them high
enough to obscure the sun. From a low rise, he looked up to see the silhouettes
of great birds wheel and ride the thermals against a molten sky, screeching a
cry that spoke to him of freedom. Before him lay miles of emptiness, miles of
mesquite and cactus and monolithic rock castles that rose from the desert. Cort
marveled at the untamed beauty, the glory of nature in the American West. To him
it would always be home, the place where his spirit was at peace, as free as the
winged predators soaring above him.
But as in all his dreams, the beauty faded and his sense of euphoria turned into something dark and malevolent. At the ominous rattle, he cast his eyes down to see a sidewinder coiled in the dust, poised to strike. Quick as lightning, Cort drew his pistol and fired. Nothing happened. The hammer fell on empty chambers, each revolution of the cylinder giving forth only a barren click. The snake struck as he pulled the trigger for the third time, and he twisted away and caught it by the tail. With a powerful flick of his arm, he threw it out and up, and watched in amazement as one of those great birds swooped and snatched the rattler in its talons. It flew up into the sun, powerful wings beating, the snake writhing to escape.
He woke with his heart pounding in his chest and sweat beading his forehead.
Cheated old Death again...
His dreams always ended this way, with a sense of doom and foreboding shadowing his spirit. It was why he never slept at night.
* * *
The day was unseasonably cool for March. An overcast sky turned the sun into a pale disk with none of its usual orange brilliance, and for a moment, it seemed like an omen. Blanche didn’t put the top down on the Mustang, didn’t bother with music. Enclosed in cocoon-like silence, she thought as she drove into Vegas, and in her head she kept hearing Maureen’s plaintive query, ‘Why won’t you let somebody love you?’
It was a hard question to answer. She wasn’t really sure why she was so hell bent on hanging tough, going it alone. Blanche suspected it was not one thing, but several things that had kept her from letting Cort inside, into that place where disappointment and rejection and pain had piled up like stones since she was a child. For a long time she’d been carrying their weight in her heart, but she was tired of it. Tired of being alone.
She reached the hotel and pulled up under the portico. The valet took her car and she tucked the stub into her purse as she walked through the revolving doors. As usual, the place was bustling, the atmosphere electric with the hope of gamblers looking for a big win. The familiar sense of excitement and anticipation stole over her, and she felt like she had come back to life after a long period of suspended animation.
Skirting the casino floor, Blanche strolled the wide marble-tiled mezzanine toward Café Biscotti. Upscale shops lined the way, their windows glittering sheets of polished glass. Baby spots meant to highlight shimmered on diamonds and gold and platinum in the Tiffany & Co. window. At Vendome, impossibly perfect mannequins dressed in designer clothes and lingerie enticed the eye. She passed Coach and Prada, Louis Vuitton. The sight of the distinctive logo on a ridiculously priced suitcase made her smile at the memory of Gina’s fifty dollar knock-off that had safely carried a fortune to the Bank of America.
The Café was just ahead, but the closer she got to it, the more her stomach knotted. Next door there was a shop that sold Waterford crystal and Belleek china. Blanche stopped, her eyes on a cut glass pitcher glittering with all the colors of the spectrum. She really wasn’t interested in Irish crystal, but now that she was so close to the Café, she began to have doubts. What if Cort wasn’t there? What if his call last night didn’t mean what she thought it did? What if this was a set up and he was playing her, just to see if he could make her dance to his tune?
Suddenly hesitant, she stared into the shop window until she sensed a presence behind her. For a moment she wondered...no, hoped...that it was Cort, and her eyes traveled up to catch his reflection in the glass.
Her heart seized, her breath caught.
"What’s the matter, Donovan?" His lips curled into a mocking smirk. "You look like you just saw a ghost."
She made herself turn, forced her face to go cool and blank. "If only," Blanche spat sarcastically. "I thought I’d seen the last of you the day I left LA." Expressionless, she gazed into his cold eyes. "What are you doing here, White? Gambling away your hard earned salary, or did you get lucky?"
Sliding his hands from his pockets, he shrugged and said, "Lucky enough. I found you, didn’t I?"
When White took a step closer Blanche knew he was deliberately trying to intimidate her. She’d used the same tactics herself, back when she wore a uniform and a gun. She knew she should stand her ground but she couldn’t help herself…he was too big and too close, and she felt as if he would suck in the very air she needed to breathe. She took a step backward until her shoulders touched cool glass.
‘Don’t panic, don’t let him see you scared...’
He leaned in, his face hovering inches above hers. She could tell by his eyes that he knew she was spooked. His voice came low and threatening: "What’s the matter, Donovan? Nervous?"
"Get out of my face, White. You’re so close I can smell the scotch on your breath."
She forced herself upright, closing the space between them.
"Yeah?" His grin was malevolently cunning. "Well, I can smell the scare on you, Donovan. You ready to come clean yet?"
He could smell the scare on her...she could smell it on herself. Blanche closed her eyes, fought down the fear and from deep inside, called up her temper. Anger would give her the strength to face him down, the relentless bastard. Mother of God, would he never let her alone? Let it go? What did he care if she’d taken a drug dealer’s money? It wasn’t as if she’d robbed a little old lady or stolen from the orphans.
Opening her eyes to stare at him coldly, Blanche sidestepped and said in a voice sharp as razor blades, "Let me by, White."
He stood unmoving and unmoved. Blanche thought she’d have to shove him away when a familiar voice drawled, "You heard the lady, mister. Let her by."
She felt as if she had been delivered from the gates of hell. Her eyes flickered to Cort standing not five feet away, his hands curled loosely at his sides. He appeared to be relaxed, but there was tension in the set of his jaw. His eyes snared hers and gratefully, she read their message of encouragement.
"This man troubling you, Angel?"
Barely bothering to glance in Cort’s direction, White bunched his heavy shoulders, seemed to grow even bigger and more menacing. He growled, "This ain’t your business, sport. Take off before I get mad."
Cort’s eyes narrowed and focused coldly on the man who crowded his Angel. "Now that’s where you’re mistaken, friend." His drawl came easily, but his tone carried a warning. "The lady’s welfare is my business…and it’s plain she don’t like you." He reached toward Blanche. "Come away from him, darlin’."
Her hand shaking, Blanche grasped his gratefully and slid past White’s solid bulk when he refused to give way. Cort wrapped his arm around her waist and steered her back the way she had come, toward the elevators that would take them upstairs to safety in his apartment. Neither she nor Cort had to turn to know White watched them go. Blanche felt his eyes burning into her back, but she didn’t care. Let him watch. She was safe; she had never felt so safe in her life. She relaxed against Cort’s side, grateful for the dogged strength that wouldn’t yield, not even to a man as physically intimidating as Bud White. She wondered if anyone could intimidate Cortland Davis. It didn’t seem like it.
He kept his arm protectively around her as they waited for the elevator. Blanche looked up at his handsome profile and told him quietly, "I was on my way to the Cafe to find you."
His fingers caressed her waist, comforting as gently as if she were a lost and fragile child. "I know, darlin’," Cort said, and he turned his head and kissed her hair. "I was on my way there to find you."
* * *
Just as before, she went first to the window to look outside. The sun had broken through and chased the clouds away, and Blanche stared down at the riotous colors of the Strip and the sun-glittered turquoise water in the rooftop pool of the hotel next door. But this time, Cort knew she wanted to be there with him.
"You want coffee or something stronger, Angel?"
She turned from the window, her eyes soft on his. She looked both terrified and fearlessly brave, if that was possible, and so beautiful his heart ached.
"Bourbon all right?"
She nodded. "Water back, please."
Cort went to the bar and as if she needed to stay close to him, she followed and waited while he poured. She sipped amber liquor under his piercing gaze, chased it with a sip of San Pellegrino.
His eyes were tender. "Feel better, darlin’?" At her nod, he led her to the sofa, dropped down across from her into a leather upholstered club chair.
There was a moment of strained silence. Cort rubbed his hand across his mouth as if reluctant to ask the question that burned in his guts. Finally he said, "You gonna tell me what that was about downstairs? Who was that jackass had you up against the window?"
"Unfortunately, he’s no jackass. I wish he was." Blanche shook her head. "It’s a long story, Cort. Long and ugly."
"I’m asking you to tell me, Angel." He paused, said softly, "Is he the reason why you won’t come to me?"
She gazed at him, her eyes considering. "Yes and no."
Hot blood stained his cheeks as jealousy flooded him, and his body tensed in the chair. "Is he your lover?"
Blanche almost snorted in disgust as she shook her head, wondering why all men immediately assumed the worst. "No," she told him. "He’s LAPD."
His reaction was almost comic. Shock, relief, curiosity...she read them all, and her lips curved into a smile. "Surprised?"
Recalling her secrecy, the air of mystery he’d always sensed in her, Cort realized the signs had been there, it was just that he’d misread them. "I reckon I shouldn’t be," he said. "But you always surprise me somehow." He asked the obvious question: "What’s a lawman from LA want with you, Angel?"
Too tense to sit still, Blanche stood and walked to the bar. She poured another drink as Cort came up behind her. He was close enough to touch her, though he didn’t. But his growing frustration was pure electricity, hovering and dancing in the space between them like St. Elmo’s Fire.
His fingers twitched as if he would grab her, force her to look at him. "Angel, goddammit!" he swore hoarsely. "Quit hiding from me and tell the truth. What the hell is a lawman from LA doin’ chasin’ you out here to Vegas?"
She turned and he saw it all in her face, the pain, the fear, the determination to fight back and win.
"He wants to put me in prison," Blanche said, and tossed back her drink in one swallow.
* * *
It took Blanche hours to tell Cort her story. After her fear-charged admission, he’d ached to touch her, comfort her. They sat together on the sofa and he held her with one arm, quietly listening as she told him of her childhood, her father’s murder, her sense of triumph on the day she graduated from the Academy. He asked no questions, fearing an interruption would halt the flow of words and when she finally fell silent, he urged her down to lie with her head in his lap. She stayed quiet as his fingers played in her hair, combing, twisting, scratching soothingly at her scalp, wondering why he had nothing to say.
Cort watched the expressions flit across her face like wind-chased clouds. She’d told one hell of a story. He’d always known she had secrets but crucified Christ, he never expected to hear that she’d been a police officer. His Angel came off as defiant and reckless, and her air of secrecy had made him believe she had a lot to hide. Cort had figured her for the opposite side of the law, and he’d been right.
And he reckoned he’d been wrong, too.
Words were one thing. He was sure she believed every word she said was the truth, but when she spoke of the night she’d crossed the line, her face told a different story. For once, she hadn’t hidden behind a blank mask. He’d seen the blush of shame at the perceived loss of her honor, read the pure defiance in the tightening of her lips, her glowering scowl.
Blanche wasn’t one to give in to guilt and let it consume her, but that didn’t mean she had no conscience at all. He understood her, knew the conflict she’d faced. Common sense against virtue...he’d struggled with it all his life. And like him, she’d seen a golden opportunity and taken it. Her dark side had won out.
In his case it had been purely selfish. He’d been rich when he rode with Herod, and he’d been poor during his days at the mission in Hermosillo. He shook his head, remembering his own words, ‘The Lord provides me with everything I need,’ and wondered where that blind faith had gone. Out the window, Cort reckoned, because when he got the chance to start over, he’d found that he didn’t have the disposition to wait on the Lord anymore. He’d cast his virtue aside, traded honor and virtue for power and a strong cash flow.
For Blanche, it was different. She’d acted on impulse. She hadn’t planned to steal, but when the opportunity arose, it was too hard to turn away from all that money. To him it was the smart thing to do, and yet her grief over what she’d lost was plain.
"Are you disappointed in me too?" she asked, when his prolonged silence seemed a judgment.
Cort looked down at her lying in his lap. Her face looked like a lost child’s, and his heart broke a little. "Hell no, I’m not disappointed. I’m proud of you, darlin’," he said, and meant it. "You did what I would have done. Saw the chance and took it. Stood your ground when they tried to bring you down, took care of your little sister. That took grit, Angel. Grit and brains, and loyalty to your blood kin." He traced the bridge of her nose with one finger. "Looks like I found me a one hell of a woman."
"From where I stand, it surely does." He leaned to kiss her, brushed his mouth and his soft beard across her lips. "Angel," he murmured, "it don’t matter to me that you crossed the line. I know you had your reasons." His hand tightened almost painfully in her hair as he confessed, "A man like me, I’m in no position to judge anyone."
He took a deep breath. "What you told me...well, it doesn’t change what I feel. What I want. I ain’t never been the kind to stay with a woman, Angel. I’ve used them for what I needed, but I never cared about any woman one way or another. Until you."
His eyes locked on hers, so intently honest Blanche caught her breath.
"I care about you," Cort said, his hand cupping her cheek. "And I want you. In my life, darlin’. In my bed."
"I want you too," Blanche whispered. "Beside me. Part of me." She caught his hand and brought it to her lips, held his palm against her cheek and kissed the reddened ridge of tissue that circled his wrist. He bore a matching scar on his other hand, and she had a good idea what they were. "Will you tell me someday how you got these?"
Cort lifted her to his lap and pressed his face into her hair. "Someday I’ll tell you everything, Angel," he murmured. "Right now, I want to talk about us."