Too many betrayals.
One last chance.
when the love of your life
is the last person you should love?
Chapter 18 – Falling Off the Edge
He came back. As she toweled off, she heard his car. As she rummaged in the closet for something to wear, the front door opened. As she covered up the last ravages of the night, she heard him moving around the kitchen downstairs.
She selected a pretty floral sundress from her wardrobe, all white roses and violets on a shimmery green background, and laid it carefully on the bed. Downstairs, she heard him talking. Max, that traitor, must have run downstairs to hang out for a while with another male. She wondered how long she could linger in the room, but nothing, after all, could keep him from coming upstairs to find her there hiding from him.
And she was hiding. I don’t know how to face him. I don’t know how to act the morning after. I don’t know what he wants or expects.…
I don’t even know what I want.
Oh, but she did know. She wanted to turn back time and tide, to make the great sea of their adult lives still uncharted before them. Passion and blood, rage and adultery and the most terrible of betrayals, all still ahead, and this time the iceberg seen in time to prevent the tragedy….
She wanted to wipe the slate clean, and her hands with it.
You will not find absolution in this room.
She stiffened then, and marched back to her dressing table. Her eyes looked better now, not so stretched-out. She said aloud, “All right now,” straightened her shoulders, and walked downstairs to meet her lover.
He’d gone out to get breakfast. A box of bagels lay open on the island counter, and he’d left a cup of fast-food orange juice for her beside a container of cream cheese. But the room, and the house, had an empty stillness. Not even the ghosts of last evening lingered.
Through the picture window, she saw an unexpected movement of a blue sleeve out near the pool.
For a second, she felt disconnected from all her knowledge of him, as if time had indeed run backwards on her. He appeared as a stranger. He had a book open on the table, and the sun glinted softly off his dark hair as he lost himself in his reading. One hand absently crumbled a bagel. He seemed alone, self-contained, as if he had nothing to do with a common past, a shared afternoon of blood and lust, a past night of anguish and discovery.
This was probably how he appeared to the rest of the world.
Then he turned a page, and that gesture summoned up a small memory, tucked away all these years.
It might have been long ago, a Saturday morning when she joined him for fishing or flying models, and they ate a light breakfast first to satisfy Peggy. So many times she had come across him like this, reading, lost in his own world, relaxed and peaceful. So many times he had looked up with an offhand smile and a “Good morning, Laurie.” Casual and careless always, dispensing the minimal attention due a bit player in his life.
But it wasn’t all those years ago, and he wasn’t her secret crush anymore, and he wasn’t a boy with all his life and loves before him. And she was no longer a girl content to settle for a careless smile and the honor of cleaning his catches or watching him crash a model into the lake.
The world had changed.
Hands shaking, she fixed a bagel and brewed a cup of tea. He lifted his head when she opened the back door, and his eyes met hers as she came down the terrace stairs and across the flagstones to the table.
He rose immediately, silently, his book forgotten. In the morning light, she saw further evidence that he was no longer a boy. She saw the remnants of their broken sleep around his eyes, she saw his eyes flare with an awareness she didn’t dare consider, and…
And the world shifted again. He stood there before her, no longer Diana’s boy knight or Francie’s young demon lover. In the darkness, this man had met her equal to equal on the vast plain of desire.
His voice, low, husky, “Good morning, Laurie.” And he took the bagel and tea from her, placed them on the table, and turned back to enclose her in his arms.
I have wanted you across these years, I have waited to step into your arms. Now you’re here, and you’re mine, and what do I feel? What do I say?
His hand rested warmly against the small of her back, stroking her. That lovely, reassuring gesture melted her body into his. She lifted her face to kiss him, and with that he too relaxed. Perhaps he had wondered too about this first meeting, perhaps for him also the world had shifted on its axis. She tasted coffee on his mouth; she felt the warmth of his body along hers, and a sudden glorious certainty glowed luminous in her blood.
“Good morning to you too,” she murmured against his shirt.
He smiled down at her. “I thought I was going to have to drag you out of bed. Did you get enough sleep?”
“No,” she admitted, and then it was all right. He guided her to the table with his hand still warm against her back, and she knew in relief that he didn’t know, the nightmare ending hadn’t happened after all. “But I got more than you did. Richard – you look so tired.”
He caught her gaze and held it as he sat down opposite her, an aware, knowing look that told her he well remembered the feeling of her body against his. “I’ll pay for it later,” he said, “but it was worth it, by God, it was worth it indeed.”
She felt the blush creeping up into her face at the frank look in his eyes, and she wanted to drop her gaze. But no, that was the reaction of a girl, and she had been a woman now in this man’s arms. She had told this man that she loved him, she had confessed her heart to him, she had welcomed him into her body. And in the light of day, face to face with him, she was not sorry.
She sipped her tea steadily. “Maybe you should grab a nap later today.”
“Or an early night,” he returned, equally steadily. Oh, what a wonderful idea… an early night together, and forget her failure of the night before. She’d make it up to him tonight. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. We need to talk, Laurie.”
We need to talk… No, no, no….
Dear God, was he going to tell her it had all been a horrible mistake, he’d changed his mind, had second thoughts… Let her down easy, because she was still the friend of his youth? But he was still looking at her gently, openly. It was worth it, indeed. He had meant that. He had kissed her this morning in welcome, and not as a friend.
She was not going to panic.
She made herself keep looking at him. “I’m here, Richard.”
Now it was his turn for silence. She watched as he bought himself time and space by pushing his book away, tasting his coffee, brushing aside bagel crumbs. What was he composing in his mind as he settled forward, shifting ever so slightly to get the sun out of his eyes?
“There was —” he began, and paused. “When I came back here last night, I didn’t intend,” he gestured, “what happened. That wasn’t my intention at all. I shouldn’t have left you, Laurie. No matter what had happened between us, I shouldn’t have left you alone, not after what you went through yesterday. I realized that once I got home. I just left you here, part of the debris of – this whole damnable mess, and I couldn’t let you face that by yourself.”
He stopped and waited for her. She had to say something. And the honesty in him demanded the same of her. “I thought,” she moistened her lips, “I thought – when you left – I thought it was the end.”
“And it nearly was,” he said. “I realized that, if I didn’t come back, we were finished. We’d never be able to survive the way we left things.”
She saw the truth of that. She’d laid too heavy a burden on him, she saw now, with that desperate confession. She had made it impossible for them ever to meet again, except…
Her heart was beating fast now. She took all her courage in hand. “Richard —”
He looked at her, and waited.
She gestured blindly, and to her horror she felt the burning of tears in her eyes. “But you came back. And you – you said that there was no going back. That sex changes things.” Oh, God, she was not going to cry! She was going to face this squarely. After everything else she’d endured, she would face this. She said desperately, “Has everything changed?”
Silence. She blinked away the sting in her eyes and stared hard at him, across the table, across the whole of their lives, and waited for the answer she could not read in his eyes.
He said quietly, “That’s up to you.”
She drew a painful breath.
Richard’s hands closed around hers, and she surrendered to the warm, firm touch of his fingers on hers. “I was wrong last night,” he said, “wrong for more years than I want to think. You were right, I never saw you. But I do know I’m doing the right thing, Laura, when I tell you that you can decide that last night changed nothing. If you want to write off last night as an experiment —”
“We can, you know.” He overrode her words, ignoring the way her fingernails were digging into his hands. “We can decide that last night we laid some old ghosts, satisfied some old curiosity. We grew up together, and it’s only natural that, after all these years apart, our friendship has turned into attraction. But we can take care of that. We can sit here rationally and decide that last night changed nothing, and we put it aside and go on from there. And, I promise you, we can make that work.”
Her heart sank.
“Or,” he continued, “we can decide that there’s no going back, last night changed everything. We can go forward, see what we have to give to each other. Laura,” and his voice made her look at him, “it is up to you.”
She wanted to look away, but couldn’t. She whispered, “What do you want to do?”
“What I want,” Richard said, “is to do what you want.”
“I don’t —” and now she had to look away. She couldn’t stand to keep looking at his unflinching gaze. “I don’t want last night to have been – some kind of casual sex – it wasn’t, was it?”
“No,” said Richard above her bowed head. “I’ve never had casual sex in my life. I’ve never made love with a woman I didn’t care about, and last night was no exception. Laura. Look up at me, Laura. It wasn’t casual.”
She regained her voice. She had to say it; she couldn’t let it languish unspoken between them. “Last night – last night I told you I loved you.”
The gift so long unclaimed… and did he claim it now? Or ever?
He took a deep breath, and his eyes turned grave and distant. “I know,” he said, “and of all the gifts you’ve given me, that one I deserve the least. I’ve abused your feelings for me for longer than I want to remember. But, after all that, you still love me. And – and of course you want it returned, don’t you? I wish I could say it, Laurie. But I can’t. I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
The morning stood still. She didn’t breathe.
“I was in love once,” he said, “you know that. I’ve been in love with one woman in my life, and what a disaster that’s been. I don’t trust being in love. I don’t trust feeling that the world is well lost for love, because I nearly lost the world for it, and it wasn’t worth it. Still —”
He lifted a hand and touched her hair. She lifted her free hand and held it to his, and she felt the lifeblood in his wrist against her face.
“It felt very right waking up beside you this morning.” And now the distance had dropped away from his eyes. “The world has seemed very right for the last couple of weeks, ever since you came home. Dear God, Laurie, I never realized how much I missed you, what a hole you left in my life. Maybe I’ll never be in love with you, maybe I’ll never be able to give you all that you want and deserve, but I do love you, you’re part of me and part of my life, the best part too. When I think back to the best moments of my life, you were always a part of those, you’re as interwoven into my life as the air and the sun here in Virginia, and that’s worth a lot to me, and we can build from there – if you want to.”
So it was up to her, as he had said. She thought, a wisp of a thought to tuck away and take out later to ponder, that he had laid his heart in her hands, no matter that he thought he hadn’t a heart to lay.
She didn’t trust her voice. She nodded vigorously, and held on hard to his hands.
“Then,” and she heard him controlling his voice, “we certainly owe ourselves a chance.”
Joy sparkled in her blood.
She wasn’t aware of her movement, that she stood up or that he pulled her towards him, but somehow she ended up in a rush in his arms, on his lap, her arms around his neck, her cheek against his hair, his head resting warmly against her breast. And for all that he could never love her – he held her tightly against him, as if he could never let her go.
About Lindsey Forrest
list. She lives in north Texas with her family and cat and has a five-year plan
for becoming a full-time novelist and editor of indie fiction. When she isn’t working or writing, she amuses herself with reading, needlepointing, tramping
around historical sites and houses, and outbidding everyone who gets in her way on E-bay