When You Dance With the Devil
© by J. ‘Harley’ Elmore, 2003 – 2004
“Rhian Quinn, slow down,” Kate scolded. “I didn’t go to all the trouble to fix you breakfast so that you could wolf it down without bothering to taste any of it.”
The landscaper swallowed and peeked guiltily up at her mother. “Sorry.”
“What has got you in such an all fired hurry anyway?”
“It’s today,” the younger woman answered in a subdued tone.
“Well, of course it’s today. Happens every morning,” Kate replied in annoyance.
“No,” Rhian said and set the fork down. “I mean today is the day that Deven gets the restraints off.”
“That’s supposed to be a good thing,” Kate observed and then sat down across the table from her daughter. “So, what’s wrong?”
“Mama’s sad,” Seana advised her grandmother.
“Is that so, baby girl?”
“Yep,” the child replied with a decisive nod of her head.
“Rhian, Deven is doing remarkably well considering how badly injured she was. The headaches are lessening in frequency. You know, Dr. Iverson isn’t certain if they’re being caused now by the head trauma, tension, or long-term use of analgesics. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of all three. But he’s quite pleased with her progress and expects them to completely diminish over time. Now, if we could just get her to sleep better she might be less crabby.”
“I know what you mean.” Picking up the fork, Rhian absently rearranged her breakfast on the plate. “You know that she’s sleeping with me most nights.”
“So I gathered. Are you two?”
“No,” Rhian answered quickly. “No. Sharing space is more like it. I believe that she does sleep better with me, but she’s still dreaming every night. Sometimes she cries. Other times she moans in pain. I can get her to calm back down without waking her up, but it’s got to be taxing her. I know it’s exhausting me.” She propped her chin on her hand. “I just wish she wasn’t so nasty when she’s hurting. It’s gotten to the point now that if I see her squinting or rubbing her temples, I’m looking for any excuse to get out of there.”
Kate was well aware that tempers still had a tendency to run high between the women. Deven’s was quick and often turned into a bad humor that lasted for hours, while Rhian tended to hold hers in check for as long as possible. But her daughter’s patience had worn down to the point that she now refused to cater to Deven’s ill tempers and attitude anymore. Most days she gave as good as she got.
“Well, at least those things serve as a warning,” Kate offered sympathetically. “Did you notice she’s using her hand more? Honestly, you should have seen her face the first time she took a shower and washed her own hair without any assistance. The look of satisfaction was marvelous.”
“I imagine it would have been. Pretty soon she won’t need either one of us.”
“What’s really bothering you, Rhian?”
The landscaper spread jelly on a piece of toast and handed it to her daughter. “Here, baby. Eat up.”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “I don’t know if Deven wants us to go with her.”
There was still a definite barrier between the two women, and both were guilty of perpetuating it. Each of them wanted to be able to reach out around the impediment, but they also wanted to it on their own terms thus keeping the other at a safe distance. And neither seemed willing to bravely step around it.
“Have you asked her?” Kate inquired.
“No. I.” Rhian paused and took a sip of milk. “Every time she talks about going home it’s always in the terms of I not we. Nothing she’s said or done indicates that she wants to resume our relationship. I just don’t know if she wants us to go with her. And I’m afraid to ask because what if she says it’s over?”
“I understand your concern, Rhian. I do. But you two are going to have to talk some time.”
“It’s hard, Mom. I know we haven’t been together all that long, but we’ve faced so much, shared so much. I don’t want to believe that she wants to throw everything away.”
“Then don’t believe it until you talk.”
“Maybe I’m just holding on because I don’t want to believe I screwed this up, too,” the landscaper admitted sadly.
“What do you mean too?”
“Sean. I made a royal mess of that.”
“Rhian, you did no such thing. There are two people in a relationship. Not one. If one has to bear the burden alone, it isn’t a relationship worth having.”
“Like Deven and me?” the younger woman asked, the hurt evident in her eyes.
“I didn’t say that. You and Deven seem to think that you have this extraordinary ability to know what the other is thinking and feeling all the time. You both are so sure of that talent that you refuse to recognize the obvious. You’re both human without any special powers. Just like the rest of us. The only way you’re ever going to know what’s going on with each other is to drop that confounded defensiveness you’ve both surrounded yourselves in and face each other truthfully.”
Rhian felt the sting of unshed tears. “I’ve got to get going. I’ll check with you later to see how it went with Dr. Hadari.”
“All right,” Kate replied as she watched her daughter place the breakfast dishes in the sink. There was nothing more she could think to say that would help the situation. “Have a good day, honey.”
“You, too.” The landscaper kissed Seana on the head. “Bye, baby. I’ll see you later.”
After grabbing her jacket from the hall close, Rhian dejectedly walked out the door, forgetting the designs on the drafting board downstairs.
Deven had been pacing the room since she’d returned from the hospital. With each complete lap, her patience dwindled and the pent up energy in her body multiplied. This was about the only physical activity she could do that wasn’t overly tiring and didn’t contribute to the hammering in her head.
Reaching up, she cautiously probed the bump just above her left temple. When did you become such a freaken klutz. You can’t even handle the simple task of getting into a car anymore without banging your head. You truly are pitiful!
Angry at her body’s betrayal, she pushed it into motion yet again and resumed walking. I have got to get home. I can’t take this anymore. It’s driving me crazy.
“Hey, Deven, when we’re done here, I think I’ll pay a visit to your girlfriend and finish what I started.”
Her body shuddered at the memory. Reaching out blindly, she gripped the edge of the sofa to keep from falling to her knees. Closing her eyes she could see Mace standing there, taunting her, and then she heard herself say, “You gave your word.”
Slowly walking around the end of the couch, she collapsed onto it and then cradled her head in her hands, begging the agony to ease its horrific grasp. “You’re dead, asshole,” she hissed through clinched teeth.
Stepping into the kitchen just as her daughter neared the top of the stairs, Kate called out, “Rhian, wait.”
“I need to get my designs.”
“That’s fine, but before you go down there, there’s something you need to know.”
“Is something wrong? Did they not take off the restraints?”
“It isn’t about that,” Kate replied.
“What did she do now?” Rhian asked with an aggrieved sigh.
“Deven had a little mishap this morning.”
Rhian’s eyes widened and she swayed slightly as visions of the martial artist’s battered face filled her head.
“She’s okay,” Kate quickly assured. “No damage done, but it was terribly painful.”
“What happened?” the landscaper asked in a tremulous voice.
“It was just one of those things, but I think Deven is terribly embarrassed about it and it’s got to be frustrating for her. Not to mention it had to have hurt like hell.”
“Mom, what happened?”
“We were getting into the car to go see Dr. Hadari and as she was easing down into the seat, her foot slipped on the wet driveway causing her to lose her balance. Before she could stop herself, she hit the side of her head against the doorframe.”
“Oh my God,” Rhian gasped.
Kate put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders to provide some reassurance and to keep her steady. “Dr. Iverson checked her out and had a scan done, and everything’s okay. Except for a massive headache, of course. I’ve tried to get her to take a pain pill but she’s quite anxious to get going and doesn’t want to risk getting drowsy. For what it’s worth, I think it would be a good idea to wait 24 to 48 hours just to be sure everything is fine before she leaves.”
“Are you sure she’s okay?”
“I doubt she’ll be agreeable to waiting, but I’ll see what she has to say,” Rhian replied as she walked through the doorway. Reaching the bottom of the steps, she found Deven pacing the room like a caged animal. “Hi,” she greeted warily.
“Time to go,” the woman responded.
“Hi, Rhian. Glad to see you. Why thank you, Deven. I’m glad to see you, too.” The landscaper lifted her hand and then let it drop when she noticed that the martial artist was squinting. “Are you okay?” she asked with deep concern. “Mom says you hit your head this morning.”
“I’m fine,” Deven retorted.
Biting her lower lip for several seconds, Rhian sought to keep calm. “That’s good.” Hoping to avoid another confrontation, she moved towards the bedroom, saying over her shoulder as she went, “Maybe you should take it easy for today.”
“I’ve been taking it easy for weeks,” Deven replied testily and followed after the woman. “What I want is to go home. Are you listening to me?” she snapped, her voice resonating with impatience.
“Of course, Deven. I hear you loud and clear. However, I don’t know that leaving today is a good idea given what happened this morning,” Rhian reasoned.
Seizing the landscaper by the upper arm, Deven pulled the woman closer. “I want YOU to take ME home now! You aren’t a stupid woman, so what don’t you understand?”
“Let go of me,” Rhian demanded. The grip tightened and fingers pressed into muscle.
“Why in the hell can’t you just take me home?”
“Well, excuse me, Deven, but I can’t just drop everything to do your bidding. I just came back to pick up the designs I forgot this morning. We’ll talk about everything when I get home this evening.”
“No, we’ll talk about it now!”
“Not with that attitude we won’t. Look, I’m sorry that you got hurt but don’t take it out on me.”
“I’m not taking it out on you. I just want to get the fuck out of here and get my life back.”
“Well, sorry but everything doesn’t revolve around you,” Rhian replied while tugging harder in an attempt to gain her freedom. “Heaven forbid the world doesn’t come to a complete standstill and everyone bow down to the great Deven Masterson.”
“Don’t go there, Rhian.”
“No? I’ll go anywhere I please,” she answered back. “Contrary to what you might think, you aren’t my boss. Now let go of me!”
Realizing that Rhian’s struggle was somewhat stimulating, Deven didn’t release her grasp right away. The anger, though, was poking awake something much darker in nature, and she freed her captive with a shove before turning away.
Massaging where Deven’s fingers had pressed into her flesh, Rhian allowed the repressed fury to take purchase. “That’s it, Deven! You don’t get your way so you run off and sulk. You’re getting real good at it and pretty soon you’ll be the indisputable champion of that, too.”
The martial artist pivoted back around at the taunt and moved forward until their bodies were almost touching. A smile pulled up one corner of Deven’s mouth as Rhian valiantly held her position though the woman had to tilt her head back to keep eye contact. The anger took an unexpected detour lower, and Deven acknowledged the first rise of sexual arousal she’d had since this nightmare had begun. Her gaze trailed down to Rhian’s neck, and she licked her lips at the thought of sinking her teeth in the flesh. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Stop trying to be such a bully and back off,” Rhian said in aggravation.
Oh, baby, the defiance is extraordinary. With a smirk, she trailed a finger down the landscaper’s chest to the top of her blouse and released the first button of garment.
Moving back a step, Rhian asked, “What are you doing?”
Deven unbuttoned another and halted briefly when her hands were slapped. It stung a little and for a second the throb in her head pressed to the forefront of her consciousness. But for the first time in a long time, she felt something other than her injuries and she wasn’t ready to give up that feeling. Determinedly, she moved forward, forcing Rhian to give ground until the wall became a blockade. A small voice somewhere far away was warning her to stop, but it was annihilated by the remembered scent of a stranger’s perfume.
In waking and sleep, visions of someone else touching what was hers had tormented Deven. With a growl she ripped open the blouse, tearing the remaining buttons free and sending them flying off in different directions. The shock on the landscaper’s face was mixed with something else, and Deven could feel the heat rising between them.
Lifting her hands, Rhian pressed as hard as she dared against the martial artist’s upper chest, but it wasn’t enough and Deven leaned in closer.
Mine, damn you! Never taking her eyes off the younger woman’s face, Deven covered a breast and increased the pressure until earning a gasp. “You want me.” Despite the attempts to stop her, Deven pressed her body into Rhian’s. “You want to fight? We can fight,” she whispered just before her mouth closed on the soft flesh just below her captive’s ear.
Straining hard, Rhian managed to gain some space between them. “Don’t.”
Deven gripped Rhian’s wrists and pinned them against the wall about her head. “Make me,” she goaded and insinuated her thigh between the woman’s legs. “I don’t think you really want me to stop.”
Despite the overt aggression, Rhian’s body was responding to Deven’s touch. But this wasn’t how she wanted it to be, because what the martial artist was doing had nothing to do with love. “Stop it!”
“Is this what you got at the bar? Did she do this for you?” Ignoring the protests completely, Deven leaned back in and covered the landscaper’s mouth with a vengeful kiss. Thrusting her hips, she drove her thigh forward again. “Did she fuck you good?“
“It. Oh God, it wasn’t like that.”
Deven pulled back and sneered. “No? Pity for you. Tell me, Rhian, did she take you from the front or from behind? Did she fuck you hard and fast, or slow? I can give you what you need. You know I can. And so much more,” she added seductively.
“That’s it. Beg. Did she make you beg? Did she make you scream? Doesn’t matter because I can. I can make you do both at the same time,” she said just before her mouth crushed against the landscaper’s again.
Indecision caused Rhian to hesitate. Learned behaviors from her marriage were creeping into the current situation, and she was rapidly nearing submission. But from deep inside rose up something else that called forth an adrenaline rush, and pushing hard against the martial artist’s body, she lifted her knee as fast as she could. “It wasn’t like that!”
Deven doubled over and brought her hands down to the aching flesh between her legs. “Shit!”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
Each beat of the martial artist’s heart was matched by a throb at her temples. What have I done? Filled with foreboding, Deven lifted her eyes.
What Rhian saw at that moment was a deep desolation. “You’re afraid,” she whispered.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes. Yes you are.” Quickly, Rhian gripped Deven’s forearm, stopping a retreat. “No! No more running away. No more hiding. What are you afraid of?”
“Are you afraid that they’ll come back?”
“Are you afraid that you aren’t going to completely heal?” Rhian persisted.
“No. Well, some. Maybe.”
“Deven, please, what is it?”
The martial artist closed her eyes for a long moment and when she opened them again, Rhian saw clearly for the first time in weeks, the woman’s tortured soul. “You!”
“Me?” Visibly shaken, Rhian released her grasp on the woman’s arm. “Me?”
“You. Me. Us. I fucked everything up.”
“It’s the truth, Rhian. And I don’t know show to fix it.”
“Me!” she answered anxiously. “Us.”
“You don’t need fixing. You’re healing fine.”
“Physically, I guess. I would never want to hurt you,” Deven said in desperation. “You have to know that.”
“Honey, I do know that.”
“Then you also have to know that I’m capable of it.”
Rhian’s first response was to refute that statement, but she stopped and gave it the consideration it deserved. “Yes, you are capable of it, Deven. But I also know that you won’t. I know that no matter how out of control you might feel, you always stop yourself.”
Touching the damaged blouse, Deven asked in anguish, “Do I?”
“You didn’t hurt me. Come here and sit,” Rhian said. Steering the woman towards the bed, she waited until Deven was seated and then knelt between her legs. When she spoke again, her voice came out low and sad. “Neither one of us has handled this particularly well. I don’t really know why. Maybe we went too fast. So much has happened to us; so much change, so much growth, and all of it in a very short period of time. But it felt right. It still does. At least for me.”
She cupped Deven’s cheeks with her palms. “It isn’t up to you to fix us, and quite frankly, I don’t think we need fixing. We aren’t broken but we do need to work through this. And we have to do that together.” Taking a nervous breath, she steeled herself to be rejected. “That’s if you want to.”
“Yes,” Deven answered in a strained whisper. “I just.”
Silencing the woman with a soft kiss, Rhian then wrapped her arms around strong shoulders, hugging her lover for the first time in over two months. “Before we can work through the issues we have, you have got to stop shutting me out. You put so much energy into beating yourself up over things you can’t change. I need you to put all that energy into the here and now.”
“I’m so sorry. I know it’s my fault.”
“You aren’t listening to me,” Rhian said in frustration and pulled back from the embrace. Dropping her hands to Deven’s shoulders, she waited until her composure returned before continuing. “We came so far and I don’t want to give that up, but I can’t do this all by myself. I love you. All of you. I need you. But I can’t live like this.”
“What do you want, Rhian?”
“I want you to want us. I want you to want me. You have to want it as much as I do. Do you love me?“
“Love me, Deven! Do you still love me?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Are you in love with me?”
“Yes,” Deven admitted.
“Good,” Rhian said with a relieved sigh. “Because I’m so very much in love with you.”
“If you love me so much, than why in the hell were you with someone else?” she asked bitterly.
Rhian cocked her head and quietly examined Deven’s anguished expression. “I wasn’t with anyone else. I certainly wasn’t looking for someone. Yes, I did dance with a woman that night. And yes, she kissed me, but Deven it was you I was thinking about the entire evening.”
“Did you want to sleep with her?”
“No. That would never have happened, “ the landscaper answered with conviction. “There’s only one person in this world I’ve ever wanted to sleep with and that’s you. It’s never been about the sex for me. Though that has always been amazing. It’s been about being with you, making love with you. Finding that intimate connection we share. Because I have always felt that I can be my most vulnerable with you and you will keep me safe. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. You’re the strongest, most courageous, beautiful soul.”
“How can you say that?” Deven asked skeptically. “You can’t possibly believe that.”
“Because it’s the truth. And I do believe it with all my heart.” The landscaper mentally braced herself for the next potential confrontation. “I think you should call Dr. Martin.” Deven started to pull back but Rhian held firmly to her shoulders. “Listen, honey, she knows you. She understands, and she can help you. I want to, I swear I do, but we can’t seem to stop fighting with each other and you’ve distanced yourself so much, I can’t even get close. I want to help you but I realize I may not be the best person for that job. And maybe, she can help both of us. Just think about it, okay?”
For several silent seconds, Deven searched the face of the woman who after everything she’d done, still claimed to love her. “I’ll think about it.”
“Thank you.” Rhian glanced at the clock on the nightstand and groaned. “I have a site survey. It shouldn’t take very long. Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Go on,” Deven answered. Feeling overly vulnerable at that moment, she welcomed the opportunity to regroup.
“I can cancel.”
“No, Rhian. I’m okay. Really.”
“You aren’t going to leave while I’m gone, are you?” the landscaper asked with worry.
Deven’s lips twitched into a sad smile. “No.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Standing up, Rhian walked over to her closet and quickly changed out of the damaged shirt. Tossing the garment at the seated woman, she teased, “I hope you know how to sew on buttons, because you’ve got quite a few to put back on that shirt.”
The garment felt heavy in her hands. “Rhian, I’m.” the martial artist began but was silenced once again by soft lips pressed to her own.
“I love you, Deven.”
“I love you, too,” she answered with a small break in her voice.
“Be good,” Rhian said and then walked out of the room.
Alone, Deven lay back on the bed. “What is wrong with me?” Placing a hand between her legs, she tentatively pressed against the bruised flesh through her jeans. “Damn, Rhian. You’ve got one mean crotch shot.”
“Yes,” the martial artist drawled as she turned her head towards the voice. Seana stood in the doorway with her head bowed. “What’s wrong, princess?”
“Are you leaving?”
“I’m going home. Why?”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“Seana, this was only temporary until I got well enough to go home. You knew that.”
“But I want to go.”
Sitting up, Deven opened her arms to the child. “Come here,” she said. Seana started to rush forward, but the martial artist put a hand out to stop her. “Easy,” she reminded the little girl.
Seated on the woman’s lap, Seana wrapped her small arms around Deven’s neck and held on as tight as she could.
“Princess, what’s wrong?”
“I want to go home, too,” she wailed.
“Hey, easy there.” Deven slowly eased Seana back so that she could see the little girl’s face. “Relax, okay?” She waited for the child to calm down enough to listen. “Why do you think you aren’t going?”
“Mama said,” she hiccupped. “You…you might not want us. Don’t…don’t you love us?”
“Oh, Seana. I do love you and your mama.”
“You do?” the child asked hopefully.
“Yes, I do.” Deven wiped Seana’s tear streaked face with Rhian’s shirt. “I want you with me. Both of you. Okay?”
“You won’t leave us?”
“No,” she said and kissed the child on the forehead. “Now come on, rugrat. Let’s go see what’s for lunch. I’m starving.”
The marital artist backed out of Seana’s bedroom and closed the door.
“Nice place. A little crowded but nice.”
Deven spun around at the voice. “Karen?” She’d heard someone come down the stairs but had assumed it was either Rhian or Kate. “What are you doing here? And how did you get in?”
“Just checking things out. That old lady let me in.”
“So, help me, if you were in any way rude to Mrs. Mackenzie, I’ll teach you what rude truly is.”
“I was perfectly charming,” Karen replied with a smile.
“Right,” Deven snorted. “You wouldn’t know how to be charming if your life depended on it.”
Sauntering closer, Karen looked closely at her mentor’s face. She’d heard that Deven had been almost beaten to death but aside from some faint thin scars along her jaw line, there wasn’t any sign that she’d been hurt. Still, she couldn’t help but get a dig in. “You look like shit.”
“She said a bad word!”
Deven looked over her shoulder at Seana. “Yes, she did. Aren’t you supposed to be taking a nap?”
“You take one with me.”
“Not right now, Princess.”
“Isn’t that cloyingly sweet?” Karen said derisively.
“Watch what you say around my kid,” Deven threatened and then neared the child. “Come on. Let’s get you back into bed.”
“I don’t want to.” Seana peeked at the stranger and then lifted her eyes to Deven. “I don’t like her,” she whispered.
“Yeah? Well, you’re pretty smart,” the martial artist whispered back. “She’s not very likeable. But you still need to go take your nap.”
“Seana,” Deven said in a no nonsense voice, and the little girl dropped her head. “Please. I’ll make it up to you later. But right now, if you don’t get back into bed, Grandma is going to paddle both of our butts.”
The tot giggled and wrapped her arms around the martial artist’s legs. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, Princess. Now go on.” Deven stood in the doorway and watched Seana climb up onto her bed and lie down. “Sweet dreams,” she called out softly and then closed the bedroom door. Her eyes settled on the other woman and squaring her shoulders, she moved away from the child’s bedroom before asking, “What do you want?”
“Same thing I always want from you,” Karen said seductively.
“So are you. Come on, Deven. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other.” Karen strolled around the room, stopping briefly at the drafting board. Unimpressed, she moved on and picked up a photograph of Deven and Rhian with the children. “How utterly domestic and sickening.” She set the frame back down. “So, what do you say we blow this joint? Go have a drink. Whatever.”
Deven started to decline but then considered the offer. Here was someone who could get her out of the house if only for a little while. “Sure. Wait here.” She went into the bedroom and got her leather jacket from the closet. Indicating the back door with an inclination of her head, she said, “Just keep quiet.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but if Mrs. Mackenzie hears us, she’ll make a big fuss about my going out.”
“Jesus, Deven. When did you become such a pussy?”
Just to prove that she could, Deven reached out and grasped a handful of Karen’s shirt. Tugging hard, she caused the woman to lose her balance. “Do not piss me off. Understand?”
Surprised by the sudden move, Karen gripped Deven’s arm to keep from falling. “Understood.”
“Good. Let’s go.” They walked around the house to the driveway in silence, and Deven tossed Karen the keys to the Pathfinder.
“Why don’t we take my car?”
“Because my truck hasn’t been run in months.”
don’t you drive?”
Because I haven’t been cleared to drive yet and could have a seizure or something. “Why don’t you stop with all the questions?”
“Fine,” Karen answered with a shrug and walked around to the driver’s side while Deven slipped into the passenger seat. “Where to?”
It was the first time she’d been in the vehicle since they’d driven to the carnival. It didn’t look any different, a little cleaner perhaps, but the same. Deven wasn’t certain what she’d expected. “The Pit.”
“Works for me.”
They sat side by side at the bar, sipping their drinks and playing a game of speculation. More accurately, Karen was pointing out women she believed could be seduced and Deven was participating just to pass the time.
Deven had no desire to bed any of these women. Until a few hours ago, she’d felt no desire at all. There was a great deal of compunction associated with her earlier actions. There was also a trace of curiosity. She was most certainly ashamed of how she’d treated Rhian, but at the same time, the landscaper’s responses interested her. They always had.
Scanning the half filled room, Deven was doing more than playing Karen’s game. She was searching for someone. Though she had no idea what the stranger looked like or her name, she was absurdly hoping to somehow determine who it was that had kissed Rhian. And then what, Masterson? Even if you could pick her out, what would you do? If you start a fight now, you’ll probably end up back in the hospital. Give it time. Then you can come back here one night and kick the shit out of her.
her?” Karen asked, bringing Deven’s thoughts back to the game. “She looks like
she’d be a good target.”
Inclining her head, Deven regarded the woman in question. “Nah. Too easy. Where’s the fun in that?” She surveyed the room again. “Ah, brunette at three o’clock.”
Karen looked in that direction and smiled. “Oh yeah. Bet I could.”
“Bet you couldn’t.”
“Deven, that’s one of the things I’ve always liked about you. You’ve always been so positive and supportive.”
“Realistic, Karen. You’re a good fighter. Cocky as hell, but you’re just too easy to dominate. That’s what made you so much fun in bed.”
The younger woman laughed and casually placed a hand on Deven’s thigh. Her fingers began to massage the muscles beneath the denim, gradually moving upward.
“I’ll give you one opportunity to get your hand off me.”
“Or what?” Karen asked brazenly.
“That’s the problem, Deven. Ever since you met that bitch, you’ve been serious. Way too serious. You need to have some fun, and I’m just the one to remind you how much fun there is to be had.”
Casually reaching behind Karen’s head, Deven caressed her neck and smiled. “You don’t listen very well. Never did.” Her fingers tangled in the blonde hair and pulled hard. “Don’t touch me!”
Gasping in pain, Karen lifted both her hands in a gesture of acquiescence. “All right! Let go!”
Hearing her name unexpectedly, Deven turned her head too quickly towards the sound and was nearly overcome with vertigo. Releasing Karen, she reached out blindly and gripped the bar; holding on tightly until the sensation passed and her vision cleared enough to take in the sight of the man standing just to her left. “Sali?”
Karen snickered at the name. “Go find something to do,” Deven commanded.
“I don’t think.”
“Fine. God, you’re bitchier than normal. Even for you.”
Deven waited until Karen had sulked away before focusing on the young man. “What in the hell do you want?” The muscles in her abdomen tightened and there was a slight ringing in her ears. I should have stayed home.
“I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d see how you were doing?” he said with a smile that quickly faltered.
“That shy act worked when you were a little boy. Right now it’s just plain obnoxious. What do you want?” He took a step forward and she rose to her feet with more vigor than she actually had. The sudden change increased her vertigo, but through sheer determination, she managed to remain steady on her feet. “You even try to lay a finger on me, and I swear on your brother’s grave, I will make you wish I’d killed you.” The hostility she felt towards Salvatore made no sense to her, but a finely honed instinct screamed of danger and she settled her body into a guarded stance.
“It’s not like that. I swear,” he said quickly. “Papa asked me to keep an eye on you is all. And well, he’s not going to like my being here, but I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Fuck! There was something nibbling at the back of her brain, straining to break through into her consciousness. She tried to reach out for it, but it just avoided her grasp. Her head was beginning to ache again, a deep throbbing at her temples and the base of her skull. “I’m fine,” she mumbled and sat back down.
He cautiously eased down onto the stool next to her. “I’m sorry, Deven.”
She brought her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes. Instead of easing the pressure, it intensified. It was a strange sensation, as if a veil lifted and then countless images flitted across her eyelids. Fragments of her dreams were coming together to solidify into an erratic string of imagery. Things that had been hard to pin down were now starting to coalesce, bombarding her with memories both emotional and physical. Her stomach churned and she groaned as the scattered bits in her mind came together.
There were the photographs and watching as Rhian burned them. The images jumped forward in time and she suddenly remembered saying goodbye in that dark field, knowing that she’d never see her loved ones again. Knowing that she’d chosen death, and that had led to the devastating way that Rhian had looked at her when she’d made the decision to not fight.
God, Rhian, I’m so sorry.
The back of her hand was starting to throb just as it had that night, and she cradled it against her chest.
“Manny,” she whispered under her breath. It wasn’t Tito. It was his bastard father!
The words the man had spoken in the car remained elusive, but she did recall his pompous self-righteousness and the backhand. Prick! What she couldn’t recall yet was why he’d hit her. Then skipping forward again, the dusty smell of the warehouse filled her nose, and she could feel the cuffs pressing into the flesh on her wrists. And then the beating had begun.
Deven shuddered and convulsed at remembered blows striking her body and head. Forcing her eyes to open, she hoped to still the deluge but found instead that the images didn’t diminish.
Mace was standing before her, taunting and threatening to harm Rhian, and she remembered the anguish of knowing that she was helpless to do anything about it. But then he’d been struggling to breath and that had brought a brief instant of satisfaction.
Much was coming back but pieces were still missing. Her head felt like it was going to explode from the pressure, and lifting her hands she pressed against the sides. The ache was so intense now that her eyes filled with tears and her vision dimmed.
“Deven? Are you okay?” Salvatore started to touch her but quickly withdrew his hand for fear of what she might do. I could take her to the hospital. Yeah, maybe. Papa is going to kill me. Glancing towards the doorway, his anxiety increased as he noticed two people rapidly approaching.
Rhian stepped up in front of the martial artist, her temper on a very short leash. Cupping Deven’s face, she lifted and stared into a face contorted in pain. “Oh, God, what is it?”
Manny had handed her a gun and asked if she wanted to live. I had the choice in my hand. Deven could actually feel the weapon, heavy and cold, and remembered the desire to just end it. But she also remembered the cowardice that had ultimately kept her from following through.
Breathing was becoming difficult as her body partially relived the agony. I wanted to remember but not like this. Not all at once. Blindly she reached out, gripping Rhian’s shoulders and holding on. There was so much. Too much and she thought she might pass out before it was over.
Wrapping her arms around Rhian’s waist, Deven pulled her forward, burying her face in the woman’s neck and holding on tightly as the nightmare revisited her, transitioning from the dreams of her subconscious to reality. Her body continued to quiver from the onslaught and hot tears escaped around tightly closed eyelids.
The rapidly moving images finally slowed and she eased her grip but didn’t let go. Deven could hear Rhian’s soft murmurings, and she clung to that in quiet desperation. The constant shuddering stopped, and pulling back slightly, she gazed at Rhian’s concerned face.
“What happened? Did you have a seizure?”
“No.” Another slight shiver ran through her, and Deven swallowed hard. “I remember.”
“I remember,” Deven repeated with more strength.
“Oh.” Rhian’s eyes widened. “Oh. You mean. Okay. Do you want to talk about it or do you want to wait until we get home?”
“No! I mean, not yet. I can’t. I need to put it all into perspective.”
“Okay. Okay,” the landscaper answered. Uncertain what else she could say at the moment, she settled for the tactile instead and embraced the martial artist.
The pain wasn’t nearly as intense now and Deven relaxed in the safe comfort Rhian offered. “Take me home.”
“Deven, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to the house tonight.”
“I don’t care where we go. I just.” Tears slowly trickled down her cheeks. Another wave of emotion rose up and Deven held tight until it diminished. “I need. I need you near. Even if it’s just in the same house, okay?”
Uncomfortable, Salvatore stood and waited to see if there was something he might need to do. There were aspects of this woman that were as he remembered her long ago but there was so much more to her now. So much he didn’t know, and he felt an interloper.
Jay never took his eyes off the younger man for long; unsure of what he had to do with Deven and her current condition. Rhian’s gaze lifted and she met the stranger’s without wavering. As she continued to stroke Deven’s back, she pinned him with a challenging stare. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Rhian McKenna. And you are?”
Salvatore blanched at the direct question. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He’d taken a simple task and screwed it up, and knew his father would find it unforgivable. “I’m, uh.”
Leaning back, Deven smiled at his slightly terrified expression. “Do you remember me telling you about my friend Tito?” she asked while wiping her tear-streaked face with a napkin. Rhian nodded. “Well, this is his younger brother Salvatore. Sali, you’ve just met Rhian and this here is my best buddy Jay.” Rising unsteadily to her feet, she added, “Now I’m going home.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Karen huffed.
“Let’s go, Champ,” Rhian said, ignoring the other woman.
“You’ve ruined her. Look at her. She’s pathetic.”
“You know what’s pathetic?” Rhian asked. “Pathetic is that you aren’t intelligent enough to understand she doesn’t want you.”
“Bitch,” Karen spat out the word and took a step closer.
“Believe me. You do not want to go there,” Rhian advised.
“Fuck you,” Karen replied and gripped the landscaper’s shoulder.
Before Deven could intervene, Rhian pulled her arm back and struck Karen in the face with the heel of her hand. The blow took the woman by surprise, causing her to stumble backwards. Her foot tangled with a nearby stool and she fell, landing flat on her back.
Deven and Jay exchanged looks of surprise. “If I were you,” he said to his friend, “I’d stop pissing her off.”
Back on her feet, Karen rushed forward, but her progress was halted as strong fingers caught her around the throat. “Back off,” Deven said.
Karen glared at the woman in challenge. The fingers tightened and she pushed her body to relax. “How am I supposed to get to my car?”
“I’ll take you,” Jay offered.
“Thanks, Bro,” Deven replied and dismissed Karen with a slight shove.
Salvatore stood uncertainly to the side of the commotion, and Deven felt a touch of compassion for him. He’d cordially come in to see how she was and in the process, given her back her memory. There was no doubt that he could be in deep trouble for it. Placing a hand behind his head and pulling him forward, she kissed him on the forehead as she’d done when he’d been a boy. “I think I’m going to be fine,” she whispered and then released him, giving his cheek a gentle pat. “If I were you, I’d keep this from Papa.”
He signaled his agreement with a shy smile and a nod.
“Be safe, little brother,” she added and then placed an arm across Rhian’s shoulders. “All right, wench, take me home.”
“Wench? You’re in such deep trouble, Deven, I wouldn’t be making light of anything right now.”
After a half a dozen steps, the martial artist stopped. “I know, but I remember and that made it worth it,” she solemnly replied. “Now I warn you. My head hurts like you would not believe, I’m nauseous and that good buzz I had a few minutes ago has completely vanished on me.”
“Great,” Rhian responded with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Just to remind you that if you throw up, it’s in your truck.” Wrapping her arm more securely around Deven’s waist, she let the woman lean on her for support as the walked towards the exit.
“I really don’t feel so good. It was…is painful.”
Rhian whole demeanor softened considerably. “Come on. I’ll get you home and tucked into bed.”
“She is so whipped,” Karen said in disgust.
“Nah,” Jay replied. “She’s just found someone she loves.”
“Whatever,” the woman answered with a grunt.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Shut up.” And with that he walked away not caring if she followed.
“I don’t suppose it would be possible to just sneak around back?” Deven asked.
Rhian slowed the truck and looked over at her companion. Deven’s eyes were closed, and her complexion was pale causing the thin scars to be more noticeable than usual. “You want me to?”
“I would sure prefer to skip the stairs.”
“Okay. But if this is just a plan to avoid Mom, it won’t work. I guarantee that she’s going to find you no matter where you try to hide.”
Deven’s lips twitched but she couldn’t quite manage a smile. “Please don’t let her beat me up tonight.”
Rhian laughed softly at the plea. “I can’t promise that but I’ll sure try my best.”
“Anytime,” the landscaper replied good-naturedly.
Deven opened her eyes just enough to squint at Rhian. They hadn’t bantered like this in a long time, and it felt good despite the miserable circumstances. “On second thought, it might just be better to let her put me out of my misery.”
Rhian coasted the Pathfinder through the double gate beside the house and parked just outside the backdoor. By the time she got around the truck to help Deven, Mac was already there.
“You sure know how to stir up a hornet’s nest,” he said reproachfully.
Deven knew it was preposterous to believe that things would go easy when she walked into the house, but there was a kernel of hope that she might ease through the rest of the day and face the music tomorrow. “You wouldn’t want to knock me out, would you?” she asked Rhian’s father.
“What? And take all the fun away from my wife? Hell no.” Wrapping his arm around her waist, he supported her as they walked towards the house. No sooner had they cleared the threshold then she found her passage blocked by a very angry woman.
“What did you think you were doing?” Rhian’s mother demanded.
“I,” was all that Deven managed to say before Kate started again.
“That was totally irresponsible not to mention just plain inconsiderate!”
“I,” she tried again but to no avail.
“Do you have any idea how worried we were? You have no business running off to some bar in your condition! And where do you get off leaving like that?”
The martial artist remained silent, uncertain whether or not an answer was expected. She did cast her eyes down though.
Rhian looked at Deven’s face and decided to intercede. “Mom, we can punish her later. In fact, I’ll help you but right now, she has a splitting headache.”
Some of the anger dissipated as Kate examined the contrite woman. “Hurts pretty bad, doesn’t it?”
“Serves you right. You had best get that butt of yours into bed and you best do it before I get back, problem child, or by the time I’m through with you, the past two months of recovery will seem more like a vacation compared to what I’ll do to you.” Turning abruptly, she walked across the room and up the stairs.
Rhian held back a full laugh but couldn’t suppress it completely and it came out as a giggle that earned her a partial glare from the martial artist. Mac merely shook his head and assisted Deven to the couch before he followed after his wife.
The landscaper went into the bedroom and returned with sweatpants and a tee shirt. Without protest, Deven accepted assistance with changing her clothes and then reclined on the sofa in relief. Rhian closed the draperies to block out most of the afternoon sunshine and turned the volume on the television down. “Are you sure you don’t want to lie down in the bed?” she asked while placing a cool compress on Deven’s forehead.
“No. Too quiet and I don’t want to think too much right now.” She opened her eyes a slit. “I just needed to get out for awhile.”
“How’d you know where?”
“To find you?” Rhian asked.
“Well, as soon as Mom mentioned that some woman came to visit you, I called Jay. We figured out who you were with from what Mom and Seana said about her.” The landscaper smiled smugly. “I have to tell you that Seana didn’t think much of her.”
“Yeah, I figured as much. Kid has good taste.”
“Anyway, then we decided to call the places that Jay figured you might have gone. Luckily, the Pit was the first place we called and they said you were there.”
“I didn’t invite Karen here.”
“I know that, Deven. Quite honestly, she’s not my favorite person.”
Seana made her presence known as she unhappily made her way down the steps, stopping on the last one with her head bowed and sucking on her forefinger.
Rhian regarded her daughter’s posture and the finger. It was an old habit the child had developed and only did now when she was deeply upset about something. “Seana, honey, come on over.”
As if the weight of the world rested upon her tiny shoulders, the little girl moved towards her mother, her lower lip pushed out as far as she could get it against the digit in her mouth. Once near enough, Rhian wrapped an arm around the child and pulled her close.
“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?” Deven asked even though she thought she knew the answer. For some reason it was easier to accept Mac, Kate and Rhian all being upset at her then to know that this child was.
Removing the finger, she pointed it at Deven. “You said you wouldn’t leave me,” she accused.
“I didn’t leave you. I just went out for a little while. I’m back now, see?”
“Mama had to go find you.”
“Well, she did go find me, but I would have come back anyway.”
The little girl’s lower lip trembled and Rhian placed a small kiss on the side of Seana’s head. “It’s okay. Deven only went out for a little while. She didn’t leave you.”
Seana leaned into her mother. “Are you sick?”
“Yeah. I have a really bad headache.”
Kate returned and making no effort to be quiet, moved across the room to stand in front of the sofa. “Where does it hurt?”
Deven squinted up at her. “Why? Is that where you plan to hit me?”
“Be good and I’ll make you something to eat later. Give me any more lip, and I won’t wait until you’re feeling better to take a spoon to your backside.”
Looking over at Rhian’s smug expression, Deven rolled her eyes. “My head. All over. It’s just pounding.”
Kneeling by the couch, Kate checked the woman’s pupil response with a small flashlight. “Do you hurt anywhere else?”
“No more than usual.”
“Yeah. It comes and goes.”
“Did you have a lot to drink? And no bs, Deven.”
“No. I swear. One beer was all and I didn’t even finish that.”
“Honestly, you are the worst patient I’ve ever had. I want you to sit up a little and take these,” Kate said as she shook two pills out of the prescription bottle in her hand.
“I don’t know if I can keep them down.”
“Some is better than none, honey. Come on,” Kate coaxed as if she’d forgotten why she was so angry in the first place.
Deven sat up and accepted the pills and then the water Rhian offered. She swallowed cautiously and then handed the cup to Kate. Lying back down with a groan, she then smiled inwardly as Kate reapplied the compress with a gentle touch. “Don’t fight it, Deven. Let the pills do their job.” Standing back up, she extended her hand to the child. “Come on, Seana. I need your help with something.”
After Kate and Seana were gone, the two women eyed each other in silence. Though something had changed between them, there was still a void there and they both felt it.
“Are you okay? With the remembering?” Rhian asked.
“Yes and no. I wanted to remember but I didn’t think it would happen like this. And now that I do, I’m not sure how I feel about it all.”
“You should call Alex.”
“No,” the martial artist answered softly but vehemently.
“Deven, they need to catch these bastards.”
“Listen to me because this is the only time we’re going to address this.”
Rhian wasn’t certain what stung the most, the words or the tone of voice that delivered them.
“I can’t and I won’t tell Alex or anyone else. You have to trust me, Rhian. This goes back a long ways, and I can’t betray them.”
“What are you talking about? They tried to kill you!”
“No. Maybe someday I can explain it to you, but right now, just let it go.”
“Have you lost what’s left of your mind? I can’t just forget it!”
“You have to!” The effort it was taking to talk was making her feel worse and she thought she was going to lose the pills she’d just swallowed. “You have to.”
“I don’t like this, Deven.”
“I know,” she replied and closed her eyes.
Feeling like she’d just been dismissed, Rhian resented it but didn’t say anything further.
When Deven awoke a few hours later, she was relieved that there was only a faint dull ache in her head. Sitting up and looking around the room, she found herself alone. She also realized that she was hungry.
Running her fingers through her hair, she smoothed out some of the tangles and then made her way up to the kitchen. Reaching the top step, she paused briefly before crossing the threshold, uncertain what kind of reception might await her. Suck it up, Masterson. Kate may still be pissed off, but you’re hungry and the food is in there with her. At the very least, you can grab some fruit and make a hasty retreat.
“Deven!” Seana squealed in delight.
“Well, she lives after all,” Kate jibed. “Sit. I’ll fix you a plate.”
“That’s okay. I can just grab something.”
“Deven, dear,” Kate drawled.
Rhian, Michael and Mac all exchanged looks that clearly spoke a silent, “uh oh.”
“Yes?” the martial artist valiantly asked.
“Would you be so kind as to have a seat at our table and partake in some of the meal that I’ve made especially in honor of your having had the restraints removed?”
The martial artist couldn’t think of a clever rejoinder and stammered, “Uh, sure. Um, I’d…I’d be honored.” She sat in the chair next to Rhian’s and smiled at Seana.
Placing a plate of food in front of the woman, Kate queried, “How’s the head?”
“Depends,” Deven answered. “On whether or not you intend to hit me. If not, the answer is pretty good. If so, the answer is it hurts real bad.”
Both Rhian and Michael looked at the bemused expression on their mother’s face and burst into laughter.
Recovering quickly, Kate leaned closer to the martial artist. “I just want you to know, Deven, that I’m keeping track of all the swats I owe you.”
“Good, cause I lost count,” she replied just before taking a bite of the first home cooked meal she’d had in months. The stiffness in her jaw made the process of chewing slow, but she found that the more she used it, the less taut is seemed to be. The textures and flavors of the food were pure pleasure, and though she couldn’t eat nearly as much as she used to, she managed to consume a good portion of her dinner while listening to the conversations around her.
During the meal, Rhian hadn’t seemed reserved in the least but since then, she’d been remote and not very communicative. It was rather late when Deven neared the drafting board. “Hey.”
“Yes?” the landscaper responded, her attention on the design.
“I was thinking. Well, more like wondering.” Deven hesitated and cleared her throat. “I was wondering if you were planning on coming with me.
Rhian looked up. “Where?”
Deven licked her lips nervously. “Seana thought you weren’t going to come back to the house. I was just.” She was uncertain how to ask what she really wanted to know. What if she doesn’t want to? Why would she after what I did to her?
“Do you want us there?”
“I know that things are still difficult, and they aren’t going to get better overnight. I know that there’s still a lot of stuff between us. But, yes, I would like for you to come home with me.”
“I don’t know if I can do this, Deven.”
The martial artist’s throat constricted so hard from the disappointment, she thought she might choke. Why would she? Especially after what you did to her today! You’re a jerk! Struggling to speak, she finally managed to say, “I understand.” Then taking a step back, she started to turn away.
Standing rapidly, Rhian gripped Deven’s arm gently. “No, I don’t think you do understand.”
“I’m sorry, Rhian. I.” She almost crumbled. “I never meant to hurt you. I swear. I’ve just been. All I’ve been able to think about is you sleeping with someone else.”
“I didn’t sleep with anyone, Deven.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” the martial artist asked.
“Why didn’t you ask?”
They seemed to be at another standstill, but this time, Rhian was relieved that the hostility and rage that had been so prevalent over the past two months was gone. “You’re right I should have talked to you. I wanted to. I lay in that room night after night wanting nothing more than to just talk to you. But Deven, you wouldn’t allow it. And I was afraid that if I told you, it would just make things worse.
“I’m very much in love with you and every day that you shut me out is killing me, Deven. You seem to think that all this heartache is the result of what happened to you, and a part of it most certainly is, but it’s not the worst. The worst part is that you’ve done everything you can to pull away from me. I can’t live like this anymore.”
A solitary teardrop eased over dark eyelashes and trailed slowly down Deven’s face. Rhian’s resolve almost dissolved at the sight, but she knew that she couldn’t back down now. “One minute you’re talking to me like this and the next you can’t put enough distance between us. You’re making me insane. I need you to understand that if I go with you, we have got to start communicating again. If we go forward, you can’t just be an active participant when you feel like it. You can’t shut me out just because you feel like it. You can’t run away every time things aren’t going your way or because you’re uncertain about something. Because I can’t do this again, love. I just don’t think I have it in me.”
Deven lowered her head. “Are you saying that you want to end this?”
“No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that I want to believe you. I’m willing to give us everything that I have, Deven. But I can’t do that if you aren’t willing to do the same. Convince me that you want this as much as I do.”
“I don’t know how,” Deven answered sadly. “I want us back where we were, but I can’t figure out one way to make that happen. I know that when you look at me now, you don’t see the person you fell in love with. I know that you’ll never see me that way again.”
“Deven, that isn’t true. I fell in love with the person that I’ve always known you to be. Not the person you project to the world but all the things that make you the woman you are. The problem isn’t that I don’t love you. It isn’t that I’m not in love with you. The problem is that I can’t reach you. You won’t let me!” Rhian replied in frustration.
“I’m not doing. I don’t mean.” The martial artist couldn’t seem to find a legitimate response to the accusation because even though most of the exclusion had been done without thought, some of it hadn’t.
“Like now that you remember. You’re shutting me out again.”
“No. It’s not that. I can’t tell you what happened. Not yet, but I will, Rhian. I promise. I just can’t do it yet,” she said, recognizing the desperate quality in her voice. “I need to be able to make sense of it all. I don’t remember everything. There are still some blank places there.” She dropped her gaze again. “But I do know that there are some things about that night that I’m not proud of.”
“That you’re not proud of? I don’t understand.”
“I know,” Deven responded. “I’m sorry.” Looking directly at the landscaper, she prayed her sincerity showed. “As soon as I can explain it all, I swear to you that I will. Please come home with me.”
Rhian quietly considered Deven’s promise. The one thing she felt certain of when it came to this woman was that Deven wasn’t a liar though she could be evasive. She could do and say things that were frustrating beyond measure, but when she gave her word, she meant it. “All right. We’ll go with you.”
“Why don’t we plan to got after lunch tomorrow? That way we don’t have to feel rushed in the morning.”
“Great,” the martial artist replied with relief. “Uh, do you want me to sleep out here?”
“What? Why? Would you rather?”
“No. No. I.” Once again at a loss for words, Deven fell silent.
Wanting to subjugate the uncertainties that had become an entity between them but not knowing how, Rhian chose instead to ignore them for the time being. She slipped her hand into Deven’s and tugged gently. “Come on. I’m exhausted.”
Reassured for the time being that there was still some hope for them, Deven followed the woman without hesitation. They had a long way to go, but it was with a lighter heart that she went to sleep that night.
Return to the Academy