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Disclaimer: I don't own Orlando Bloom or any living person depicted in the story. They deserve my utmost respect.

 

---------------CHAPTER SIXTEEN------------

Chechnya, 1996

They had been thrown into a muddy hut, without windows or any furniture.

The door was locked behind them and they heard loud Russian voices yelling orders to keep them there until the commander arrived to interrogate them.

Verena crawled to the spot where she had heard Stephen's body fall.

"Are you okay, Stephen?" she whispered. It was completely dark; she couldn't see her own hand in front of her face.

"Yes, I am fine, love. Only a bump on my head, nothing more. Are you alright?" Stephen's calm voice whispered back. Verena reached where he was lying and sat next to him, resting her back against the muddy wall. She felt him reach out and touch her arm.

"I am fine, Mr. London Times, don't worry on my behalf, " she quipped, trying to make a joke.

"We Englishmen are ever chivalrous and polite, Miss Reuters. Pity I can't offer you a cup of tea right now," he continued the joke.

The easy bantering and instant friendship between Verena Devereaux, freelance photojournalist on assignment for Reuters and Stephen Alexander, war correspondent of the London Times, made dealing with the Chechnyan Civil War easier for both.

They had been collaborating ever since they had arrived in Chechnya and went into the red zone together. They were a team and watched each other's back. Since Vietnam, most journalists had learned the value of moving at least in pairs.

The war correspondents that weren't assigned to a specific country or army were in greater danger of being killed somewhere in the war zone with no one being the wiser; they'd just disappear and become a statistic.

Verena was the enfant terrible and favorite of the European press agencies and magazines. She had instant chemistry with the charming and respected British journalist since they had met a year ago during an investigation on the Columbian Contra.

Stephen had seen enough wars, revolutions, natural catastrophes and world changing events to recognize a top photojournalist when he saw one. Verena was top of her guild. In a profession where good looks were less an asset than a hindrance, she balanced being a beautiful woman with a will of steel and guts to match.

Now, in Chechnya, they had both been very lucky so far, gathering incredible material. But there was a down side to such professional success. They had seen more misery and death in the last weeks than normal people were supposed to witness in a lifetime. The easy bantering and instant friendship between them made dealing with the horrors of the Chechnyan Civil War easier for both and was the envy of many other journalists, who recognized a team well-matched for working under the duress of the line of fire.

Their luck had ran out that night: they had been taken prisoner by the Russian Army and charged with spying for the Chechnyan rebels. Experience told them that they would most likely straighten things out as soon as they were able to talk to a commanding officer. Meanwhile, their cameras and passports had been taken away and they had been thrown into the "Rustic Suite," as Stephen sarcastically called the hut they were kept in.

Hours went by, and they conversed in hushed tones about everything that came into their minds.

Verena told him about her life in America and how very much she loved her work, no matter how awful it was to document people's suffering and the ugly side of mankind. She thought that if you showed that face of the world, you could appeal to people's conscience and help to make changes.

Stephen told her about this being his last trip into the war zone. He was tired of it all and he had to think about his family back in England, so he would settle for less dangerous assignments. Verena laughed at that. She had heard the same from many of her colleagues, many times. But a few months away and they inevitably realized they just couldn't live without the rush. Either idealists or skeptics to the bone, all war correspondents were adrenaline junkies, herself not excluded.

After the first twenty-four hours in the darkness, both Verena and Stephen began to despair. Stephen tried to remain calm, while he sensed Verena's uneasiness though he still couldn't see her face. He reached out and laid an arm around her shoulders. She didn't say anything but he felt her trembling.

Well, at this exact moment there weren't many reassuring things he could tell her. He was scared as well; he had never been so deep at risk as he was now. Verena scooted closer to Stephen. He was a good friend and an amazing professional, and she was very afraid.

He pulled her closer; her head lay on his chest. She felt reassured by the steady beating of his heart and by his warmth.

"Don't worry, Rena. Everything will be fine. We will set our identities straight with the commanding officer soon and then we will have the privilege of enjoying those boring and ridiculously soft and comfortable beds at the hotel. Even those hot showers you dislike so much," he said, caressing her back, teasing her, knowing that she could even sleep on the floor and eat stale bread as long as there was a warm shower close.

But Verena didn't laugh at his teasing this time. "How long will it take until your team checks on you? How long until they take us for missing? Spencer be wondering by now Ö I check in every 24 hours, no matter what Ö" Verena tightened the grip on her fear. She preferred to be outside, dodging bullets on the battleground instead of in here, dealing with the uncertainty and darkness.

The Brit sighed loudly. "Same for me, love. Kathy knows better than to wonder before a whole day has passed if I don't report back to her. But don't worry, it's just a misunderstanding and we have had our share of them too, right? And the Russian Army has not made too many mistakes yet. Right, love?"

"Fuck, Stephen, stop the jokes. We are not getting out of this, are we?" she said softly.

Stephen sighed. "I sincerely don't know, Rena. I am afraid as well. But we have to think positive."

After a short while he felt her repressed sobs. She was crying silently.

This was so unfair. She wasn't even thirty years old. Young and talented, she deserved so much more. He took her chin in his hand and kissed her softly, to reassure her.

"Shhh love, all will be well, I promise." But his voice was trembling as well. Verena was surprised by his kiss, but she clung to him, needing to feel Stephen's closeness not to give into despair and panic. Stephen deepened the kiss; he needed to feel her. She kissed him back.

They needed each other; they needed to feel alive, even if it was for one last time. The primal need for comfort and reassurance was greater than the fear. Stephen moved so that they were both lying on the ground. He wished he could see her, but he imagined the bright look of her eyes he knew so well.

"Verena, I Ö Oh God Ö" he said softly, resting his forehead on hers.

She just said, "Yes, Stephen, please," and pulled him down on her.

This was being alive.

********************

By the time they heard the shots and loud, angry screaming on the outside, both were dressed again and crouching in the farthest corner of the hut, holding hands. Their senses told them to be alert. Something was going to happen soon; the place was under attack.

The door of the hut flew open and Verena saw a shadow in the doorway. The bright sunlight hurt her eyes. Before she could say anything, a hand-grenade clattered into the room.

Verena felt Stephen pull her arm and push her to the ground, his body covering hers. Then there was a loud explosion, as the whole world burst in a myriad of pieces, and debris and shrapnel fell on them, burying the couple under the fragments of the hut's roof and walls.

Verena was stunned and her whole body was hurting, especially her left knee and arm. She felt Stephen's body on top of hers, but neither could move.

Slowly, she tried to breathe, but the air surrounding her was filled with dust and smoke, burning her lungs and eyes. The woman commanded herself to calm down and try to gather strength to move. Atop her, Stephen seemed to be unconscious. Pain shot through her body as she managed to make a half turn to the side, and Verena knew by then that both her knee and arm were mangled. She bit on her lower lip, to avoid crying out loud as she managed to crawl from beneath Stephen's body and the debris.

Then she crawled back on her right side to where Stephen lay. He hadn't moved. Verena tried to turn his body with one hand and managed to see his face.

Stephen's lifeless eyes looked through her.

****************

Verena ran the hundred meters to the park blindly, as fast as her legs would carry her, seeking the protection of the dark and the trees.

Again, the whole weight of Chechnya fell on her. She stumbled and fell to the ground, crying out as her knees scraped the coarse ground. The physical pain felt good; it distracted her mind for seconds from the pain of reliving that day again.

Sobbing loudly, crying without tears, she crawled into the bushes, like a wounded animal, fleeing, hiding Ö and letting the waves of pain and panic break her, throw her back to the past, oblivious to where or who she was.

There was an angry beeping and vibrating from the purse dangling from her wrist. She never heard it.

************

The phone rang a fifth time, but still no one picked up. He heard the voicemail again. If Orlando hadn't known Verena better, he would have thought she left the cell phone somewhere or she didn't hear it. But if he had ever met a person who was addicted to a cell phone, it was V. Especially if she wasn't with ZoŽ.

The phone was her lifeline, giving her the security of knowing that if something ever happened to her child she would be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In fact, if he was honest about her cell phone dependence, Verena was a maniac.

When he got the voicemail message for the sixth time, Orlando recognized that he was worried. Something must have happened.

Verena was waiting for his call, she was waiting for ZoŽ, and she would have taken her cell phone and been keen on its sound no matter what. Fuck. What now?

ZoŽ was nodding off in the back of the car, quite comfy in her safety seat. He didn't want to worry the child, so he dug in his head for his best French and asked Sam, "Il y a des problemes. Peut-tu prendre soin de l'enfant ce soir?" (We are in trouble. Could you take care of the kid tonight?)

Sam looked at her brother in amazement. Orlando was dusting off his French? She followed his eyes to the back of the car and understood. She nodded and let him do the explaining.

"Love? I think your Mom's cell phone may be broken. I will have to look for her at the hotel. Meanwhile, could you please go to Sam's and wait for me and your mom to pick you up?" he asked.

ZoŽ was wide awake. "Mamma isn't picking up her cell phone? That is very weird, Orli. My Mamma carries her phone with her at all times, everywhere. She promised me she would, just in case I need to talk to her. Orli, are you sure all is fine with Mamma?"

Orlando cursed for once the fact that ZoŽ was such a precocious child. There wasn't much that went past her.

"ZoŽ, she promised and she always keeps her promises. I think that maybe her cell phone is malfunctioning. Would you please go with Sam? I will go to look for your mom. You trust me, don't you?"

His eyes met ZoŽ's in the rearview mirror. The girl looked at him with a worried expression on her little face. Her frown made her look like Verena more than ever.

"I trust you, Orli. You will find Mamma, and call me right away?" He could see the tears gathering; she blinked them valiantly away. ZoŽ was such a sweet, unique child that he felt his love for her grow even more in the last few minutes.

"I promise, munchkin, I give you my word of honor," he said solemnly to her.

Samantha had observed the exchange between them silently, wondering if anybody noticed the depth of the bond the young man and the child shared. A bond forged purely by love. These two persons adored one another. They deserved a chance.

"I am sure that ZoŽ and I will find a way to spend time until you call and tell us that you found Verena, Orli. Don't you think so, love?" Samantha said giving the girl the Bloom signature smile.

ZoŽ was very worried, but she managed a small smile for Sam. "Sure, Sam. Let's hurry so Orli can go look for Mamma very quickly," she said.

"Princess, your wish is my command," said Orlando, driving faster.

He hoped that everything was fine with Verena and that they were worrying for naught. But he didn't dare to believe it.

*******************

Orlando was close to pulling his hair out in desperation. Verena wasn't at the hotel, and the clerk told him she had gone out with a gentleman. He remembered her mentioning an appointment, but still it wasn't like V to ignore her cell phone or forget about ZoŽ's return. Fuck. What could he do now?

He wouldn't go home or to Sam's without knowing that Verena was all right. Who else could know where she was? One name popped into his mind and he almost balked at having to enlist help from that quarter. Spencer.

He would probably know where she was or what the appointment was about. Orlando went through the numbers in the memory of his cell phone, and though he didn't have Spencer's number he reasoned that he must have the number of George's office. Luckily, he had.

When Spencer answered his call, he could hear that V's assistant was surprised to hear from Orlando.

"Hey Orlando, how are you, buddy? What can I do for you?" Spencer said.

"Spencer, do you happen to know where V is?" Orlando asked right away, too anxious to exchange pleasantries. Orlando could feel the mood change on the other end of the line.

"At the hotel of course, she was waiting for you and ZoŽ to return from Kent. Isn't she there?" Spencer's voice grew tense.

"I am at the hotel, and she isn't here. She isn't answering her cell phone and the reception clerks tell me she went out with some unknown guy, a Lord who picked her up in a dark BMW. I am trying to find her, and I thought you might know where she is," explained Orlando. He was loosing hope.

Spencer, sitting in half a world away California, digested this. Verena not answering her cell phone was bad enough, but her going out with some Ö FUCK, the pieces fell together in his mind's eye. London, Jeffrey Thornton-Summers, Chechnya tribute. And Verena walking, most probably unaware, straight into it. FUCK.

"The goddammed sonofabitch! He found her. FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!!" Spencer snarled into the receiver.

Orlando reacted as if hit by an electric shock. "What is it?"

But Spencer was thinking further. If she wasn't answering her cell phone, things must be really bad. And he was thousands of miles away. But Orlando was there.

"I will tell you later. I have the means to track her down, but you have to go and get her. Verena may not be in a frame of mind to even answer her phone, let alone return to the hotel on her own. Listen, Orlando, listen carefully,"

Spencer said, getting to his PC and contacting the GPS-tracking. Verena's cell phone had a GPS sensor that sent signals to the satellite system. Spencer could, if needed, track her on a world map down to a mistake-probability of 50 meters. In moments like this, Spencer thanked God for technology. Once he had found Verena's signal, he started giving Orlando directions over the phone, hoping that Verena still had her cell phone with her.

*******************

Orlando followed Spencer's directions carefully, not even really trying to understand how he could actually track Verena's whereabouts over his PC. But as long as Orlando found her, he didn't really care. Spencer's comment about Verena's frame of mind was worrying Orlando, though. What had her assistant meant by that remark?

Spencer's instructions lead Orlando to the Green Park, close to the Four Seasons Hotel and Buckingham Palace. Once Orlando reached the park, Spencer left him on his own.

"Orlando, I can't give you more directions. She must be there somewhere. Listen, if I am right, most probably something happened that caused Verena to have an episode of PTSD. She suffers from a trauma related to her experiences in Chechnya. That's the short version. Once you find her, she may be hysterical or having a breakdown. She may even not recognize you. You have to get her to the hotel and call me back. I will lead you further. "

"But if she is hurt or having a nervous breakdown or something, shouldn't I be taking her to a hospital?" Orlando asked, shocked and overwhelmed by the situation.

"No!!! No hospital, buddy! She can't manage that. If you were closer, I'd go there myself. But I know you can handle this. You won't let us down, Orlando." said Spencer, desperate because there wasn't much more he could do from his office in LA.

Orlando gathered his courage. "I won't let you, Verena, or ZoŽ down, Spence. Trust me. I will call you as soon as I found her and I am able to, okay?"

"I will be waiting. You can do this, kid. It depends on you now. Good luck!" said Spencer.

Orlando cut the communication and focused on searching the surroundings. It was a moonless night, and the light of the lamps in the park didn't reach very far. He walked a couple of meters trying to discern any trace of Verena, but there wasn't anything he could see. This was insane.

He called out her name a couple of times but there was no answer. Fuck. Then he got an idea. If she was still carrying her cell phone, he could call her and might hear the beeping. It was worth a try. He called her number and listened intently into the night. Nothing.

He decided to keep on redialing and walking the whole radius in which Spence had pinpointed Verena's signal. On the fifth attempt walking in a different direction, just as he was almost giving up, Orlando heard a very faint beeping. He stopped and tried to orientate himself and get a fix on where the beeping was coming from. Again, it took him a couple of tries to find the direction that brought the sound closer.

He walked towards a mass of bushes and stumbled upon some cloth lying on the ground. As he inspected it, he recognized Verena's Manila shawl. He quickened his pace, now certain he would find her. But he didn't recognize Verena in the human bundle that was rolled up in a fetal position by the bushes, almost nestled under the branches, heaving silently with sobs that shook her whole body.

Carefully, so as not to startle her, Orlando kneeled on the ground and slowly crawled towards her, talking softly, to gain her attention.

"V, love, I am here. We were worried and I knew something was wrong when you didn't answer your phone. I don't know what happened, but I am here to help you. Honey, look at me, let me know you are fine. Come with me. Let's go back to ZoŽ. Verena, can you hear me, love?" he asked, approaching her slowly. He reached out and touched her.

Verena's head came up abruptly and she looked at him in panic and desperation. He had never seen such an expression of defeat and terror in anybody's face. And she didn't recognize him.

She started to try to crawl away as he threw himself towards her and managed to close his arms around her torso and arms, pulling her close and trapping her body inside a tight embrace. V struggled to free herself for a moment and then gave up.

Orlando rocked them both slowly and talked softly into her ear, to ease her. After a while, he felt her slump against him, and she began crying softly. He continued talking to her. When he sensed she was calmer, he heard her ask hoarsely, "Orlando?"

Orlando could have leapt with joy. He seemed to have gotten through to her. He turned her in his arms and looked into her drawn face.

"Yes love, I am here. And I will take care of you."

Verena gave him a weary smile and slumped back onto his chest.

Everything was going to be all right.

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