When You Dance With the Devil
© by J. ‘Harley’ Elmore, 2003 – 2005
Shouldering open the door, Rhian stepped out through the portal into the fading daylight with a sigh of relief. After taking a few steps to get away from the building, she paused and inhaled deeply of the fresh crisp air before strolling across the parking lot towards her truck. “They’re all nuts,” she muttered, referring to the succession of uncommonly problematical clients she’d faced that day.
The holiday season was always incredibly busy at the garden center. Unlike the spring rush, this time of year was even harder in some respects because the majority of the patrons eventually found their way into the main building. It often became quite crowded, and consequently stifling, as customers rambled around looking at all the holiday displays while searching for decorating ideas. The whole situation was exacerbated if the weather was foul.
Not that Rhian minded the challenges. Most of the shoppers and staff were in good humors, and the festiveness always lifted her spirits. If anything, this year was even more special because there was so much to celebrate. She just wished sometimes that she had more time in the day to enjoy it all.
Once seated in the truck, she started the engine to warm it as she waited for Nicole. This would be the first time since Thanksgiving that they’d had any real time together. The passenger door opened and Nicole practically collapsed onto the seat.
“Let’s get out of here. I hear a beer calling me.”
“You got it,” Rhian replied and steered the truck toward the exit.
“Jay called awhile ago. He’s already over at your place.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean they’ll get themselves into trouble.”
“Nah,” Nicole responded. “He’s too afraid of you.”
“You know, Nic? I’ve really missed having you guys around. We’ve been so busy at work, and with Deven avoiding the schools she isn’t interacting with Jay. I worry about that sometimes. Like she’s isolating herself too much.”
“Why is she doing that? Jay has no idea. He hasn’t complained or anything, but I’m pretty sure that he misses her, too. They were inseparable.”
Stopping at a red light, Rhian turned slightly and regarded her friend. “I don’t think she knows why. Or if she does, she isn’t ready to talk about it yet.”
“How’s Tiernan adapting to his new home?” Nicole asked.
“Good. It’s a little hard for him at times. He’s happy to be with his mom, but there are times when he gets a little homesick.”
“That’s understandable, Rhian. He grew up with Laura, so it must be an adjustment for him to be completely away from her.”
“Gees Nicole, you make it sound like we’re cutting him off totally. Deven and I made a conscious decision that he’d have access to Laura and they talk on the phone often. But he won’t ever go back there as long as Patricia’s around.”
“Do you think she’ll really take Deven to court?”
“I don’t know,” the landscaper answered tightly. “I worry about it sometimes and I know Deven does, too. It would be so hard on everyone. But I won’t put anything past that witch.”
The conversation lulled as Rhian concentrated on maneuvering through rush hour traffic, and Nicole took the opportunity to study her friend’s profile. They hadn’t had a serious conversation in quite some time and while Rhian seemed happy, there was still a lot of unpleasant history lurking nearby. “How are things with Deven?”
“Good. She’s much more relaxed and open.”
“You aren’t sedating her, are you?”
“No. But I do keep a tranquilizer gun under my pillow just in case,” Rhian answered with a serious expression. Her friend’s eyes widened slightly and the landscaper smiled at the reaction. “Oh come on, Nic. I’m kidding. Actually, she’s trying really hard. You know that she’s seeing someone, right?”
“What? You can’t be serious?”
“Of course, I’m serious.”
“How can you be so casual about this?” the woman continued. “You mean to tell me that you’re just sitting at home while she’s out fooling around?”
“What? No!” Rhian burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Nicole asked indignantly.
The landscaper glanced at the peeved woman and tried to suppress a smile. “I’m sorry, Nic. It just,” she chuckled again, earning a glare. “I’m sorry. Really. Deven isn’t seeing anyone in that sense. She’s working with a psychiatrist. Her name is Sarah Martin.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Nope. Deven’s even asked me to go with her a few times and I have to tell you, it isn’t easy,” Rhian confessed. “Talking about some things is so difficult for her and doing it in front of me has definitely got to be a challenge.”
For the first time in her life, Deven had begun to honestly face her father’s ghost. The martial artist’s anger and hurt had become so intertwined that they now seemed impenetrable to the landscaper. While Dr. Martin led them both through the convoluted tapestry that was Deven’s emotional history, slowly unraveling the threads, Rhian felt utterly useless. She felt that there was nothing more that she could offer than to sit there and hold her lover’s hand, praying that it was enough support in such a difficult time.
“I had no idea. That just seems so out there for Deven,” Nicole commented.
“I suppose it would seem that way, but it isn’t really. Deven is willing to do the right thing no matter how difficult that is for her personally. For me, it’s hard to watch her struggle through things. All I want to do is comfort her but I can’t. For the most part I have to sit on the sidelines and watch unless Dr. Martin draws me into the conversation. Otherwise, I feel so helpless.”
As Rhian neared the house, she slowed. “Nic, please don’t tease Deven about this. It’s probably the most important and hardest thing she’s ever had to do, and she’s doing it for all the right reasons.”
“Of course, I won’t,” Nicole answered. “I have to admit that I actually admire her for doing it”
Driving the truck up the long driveway, Rhian found the garage blocked by an extension ladder, and Jay and the kids standing on the front lawn looking up. “What are you doing?” she inquired as she got out of the truck.
“Us?” Jay asked.
“Uh, yeah. I know what I’m doing. I know what Nicole’s doing. So that would leave the three of you. And where’s?”
“Just a second guys,” Deven’s voice rang out from somewhere overhead, and Rhian’s head jerked in that direction just in time to see the entire outline of the house illuminated by multicolored Christmas lights.
“How does it look?” the martial artist’s voice carried down to them.
Seana and Tiernan jumped up and down, squealing in delight while Jay nervously eased closer to Nicole. “Hey, Deven, I think you better either shut up and hide or get down here,” he called out.
“What?” Uh oh, Deven thought as she crested the roof and looked down. Strolling across the shingled surface as gracefully as if she were on solid ground, she then descended the ladder to the driveway and faced her companion with an optimistic smile. “Hi babe. You’re early. Surprise. How does it look?” she blathered.
A silent glower was the only response before Rhian stormed into the house, slamming the door shut behind her.
“Are you out of your mind?” Nicole asked in disbelief.
“Would it help my case if I said yes?”
“Mommy, it’s awesome!” Tiernan exclaimed in wonder.
Deven smiled at the boy’s reaction and turned to survey her handy work. “Not bad. What do you think, princess?”
“I love it! It’s so beautiful,” Seana replied gleefully.
“I’m glad you two approve. Now why don’t you hang here with Jay and Nicole? I’ll be right back.” Moving towards the garage, Deven added a muttered, “I hope” under her breath. Inside the house, she found the landscaper pacing in the sunroom. “Hey.”
Rhian stopped abruptly. “Are you out of your mind?”
Unable to help herself, Deven smiled, fueling Rhian’s anger. “You think this is funny?” she snapped.
“No. It’s just that Nicole asked me the same thing in exactly the same tone with exactly the same inflections.” Deven took a step closer. “Look.”
“No you look! You have absolutely no business running around on the roof of the house, Deven! In case you’ve managed to forget, it’s only been three months since you were practically beaten to death and left with a brain trauma.”
“I know,” the martial artist answered softly. “All the more reason to celebrate.”
“Ugh!” Rhian threw her hands up in exasperation. “I’m not talking about celebrating, damn it! I’m talking about you getting dizzy or having a seizure, and falling off. Why couldn’t Jay have done it?”
“He did do some. And I am so sick and tired of hearing the word seizure! It makes me feel like an invalid!” she shot back. “I hate it!” Eyes locked, they stared at each other through a haze of indignation though they both knew that it had little to do with anger and far more to do with fear. “I can’t continue to live like that, Rhian, because eventually I’m going to start to believe it.”
The frustration faded immediately, and Rhian stepped forward, placing the palms of her hands flat against the martial artist’s chest. “No, sweetheart. You are most definitely not an invalid. I just don’t want anything to happen to you. Please, Deven, I can’t stand the idea of you being hurt.”
“I’m being careful. It may not look like it, but I’m not taking any unreasonable chances. If I had felt the least bit dizzy or disoriented I would have sat down immediately. Baby, I have to get my life back to some semblance of normalcy.”
“We are,” Rhian replied.
“To some extent we are. But everyone is still treating me like I’m going to break. Everyone is still watching everything I do. I appreciate the concern. I really do, but I can’t live like this. Having everything I say and do examined.”
The landscaper felt the truth of those words. “I know,” she concurred. “I’m sorry that you feel that way and I’m sorry for my part in it. But I can’t just stop, honey. I worry. Not because I don’t believe you can’t take care of yourself. But because I love you and I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I appreciate that, Rhian, because I feel the same way about you.”
“Just do me a favor, please?”
“I’ll try,” Deven answered cautiously.
“When you want to break free and display your independence, please do it on the ground. Not the roof.”
“Okay.” Deven fell back onto the love seat and then pulled her lover down onto her lap.
“Hey!” Rhian shrieked in surprise.
“I want to go get a tree,” the martial artist declared.
“What? What kind of tree?”
“I don’t know. That’s your expertise.”
“Do you have a fever or did you bump your head?” Rhian asked while placing the palm of her against her lover’s forehead.
“No on both counts,” Deven answered with a smile. “I want to take the kids and you and go out to one of those farms and get us a tree.”
“You mean a Christmas tree?”
“Of course, Rhian. What other kind of tree would I possibly want?”
“Don’t start copping an attitude. You’re still on thin ice.” The martial artist’s small pout was more than the landscaper could resist, and she kissed her lover’s lips. “Besides, if that’s what you want, I can get it from the nursery for free.”
“I know, Rhian, but this is our first Christmas together and I really want to do this. When I was a kid, before my parents split up, we had a tree every year. As far back as I can remember my father would take me with him to pick one out and we’d decorate it together. When she got older, Laura would help. It was always kind of a special thing for me despite how much my mother complained about the mess.”
The shadows of childhood hurt captured Deven’s features for an instant before she pushed the ache aside. “Anyway, after they divorced, neither one of them could be bothered with it so we never had another one. I just always thought that if I did this at some point in my life, that’s what I wanted to do. Stupid, huh?”
Whenever Deven spoke of her upbringing, Rhian inevitably had one of two reactions, and quite often both at the same time. One was fury at what had been visited upon her friend, and the other was a deep sadness for the child that Deven had been. “No, honey, it’s not stupid at all. When do you want to go?”
“Now. Let’s pack up the truck and go.”
“Slow down, Champ. What’s the big hurry?”
“The hurry is that I’ve already wasted far too much of my life on things that don’t matter. Things that aren’t nearly as important as you are.”
“I have to say, Ms. Masterson, that you keep me on my toes. One minute I want to knock you silly and the next you have me in tears. Both because I love you so much.”
“Ditto,” Deven responded earnestly.
Their lips met and held as the kiss deepened into a pleasurable exploration that stoked embers of passion, causing them to flare. A deep moan of delight rose up out of Rhian, and she broke the contact to stay the ardor that was alight in her lower belly. “Oh, Deven, what you do to me,” she whispered, while soaking up the tingles moving throughout her body.
“Can we go get a tree now?”
Laughter bubbled up out of the landscaper. “How about this? The sun is already below the tree line, so why don’t we wait until tomorrow morning. That way we can take our time and actually see what we’re doing.”
“I suppose,” Deven replied pitifully.
“It’s just one night, you big baby.”
“I’m not a baby.”
The back door flew open and Seana ran in, her patience at waiting outside at an end. “Mama! You have to come see.”
“I do, huh? I suppose I should since Deven went to all that trouble to make it nice,” Rhian said. But before she could move to stand, she found herself held in place and the recipient of a kiss that took her breath away.
“Deven,” Seana whined. “Stop it. I want Mama to come outside now.”
The martial artist eased her hold and smiled amorously at her companion. “Let’s go. And just remember, this is the first time I’ve ever done this.”
“Oh honey, you do everything well,” Rhian attested while languidly standing back up and extending a hand to her lover.
“Don’t I know it,” Deven replied and slowly trailed her fingers up the inside of the landscaper’s thigh.
“You’re incorrigible,” Rhian whispered.
“And you love that,” Deven countered.
“I love you. Now come on, stud.”
“As you wish.”
The engine to the Pathfinder had barely shut down, before Deven grabbed the keys from the ignition and exited the vehicle. “Let’s go hunt us down a tree.”
The children eagerly clambered out and rushed to stand next to the martial artist. “This is so cool, Mommy!”
Rhian rolled her eyes and followed her family. Despite the fact that Deven had awakened her well before she’d hoped to get up, the landscaper was caught up in the woman’s exuberance. “Shouldn’t we wait for Jay and Nicole?”
“What happened to them?” Deven queried. “They were right behind us.”
“Oh gee, honey, I don’t know. Maybe it was when you ran that red light.”
“I didn’t run the light. It was yellow.”
“Right,” Rhian drawled.
The children’s attention was now fixed on a fortress made out of hay bales not far from where they stood. “Mama, can we go over there?” Seana asked.
“May we go over there,” Rhian corrected. “And if you promise not to go anywhere else without one of us, you may go.” Both readily agreed to the terms and ran off to explore.
Deven slowly scanned the area and Rhian watched her companion take in their surroundings. There was a definite change in the woman’s overall being. As Deven delved deeper into the past with Dr. Martin, the outcome was quite often bouts of anger. But more often, she’d grow morose for hours. Rhian didn’t begrudge Deven the time to work through the emotions and would leave her alone before gently easing her up out of the despondency. Which, she had to admit, wasn’t always as easy and conciliatory as she’d have liked.
There was also a childlike quality surfacing more and more that Rhian took great pleasure in. It was almost like having a playmate at times, and there was a level of fun that had entered their friendship unlike any she’d ever experienced. But that quality was bringing with it a certain innocence that made Deven vulnerable, which was a side of her friend that Rhian had grown very protective of.
And all of those behaviors were in stark contrast to the zealousness that was becoming more and more evident in their physical relationship. Making love with Deven had always been unbelievable for the landscaper, but there was a new level to that part of their union. She’d always felt that there was a depth to Deven’s passion that was hidden away no matter how intense their lovemaking became. But since Thanksgiving night, there were times now when the martial artist would open up that door.
What amazed Rhian was that it didn’t concern her. Given her past, she would have thought that any attempt to control her would have been an absolute disaster. Instead, she was finding that the more Deven guided her to explore her sexuality and break down the barriers of uncertainty and shame, the more she wanted the experiences.
She supposed that unlike with Sean, she trusted Deven explicitly and the martial artist had made two things quite clear from the beginning. The first was that if at any time she wanted Deven to stop whatever she was doing, all Rhian had to do was say so. The power and decision was always hers. The second was that no matter what they chose to do between them, it would always be an act of love. And despite the one bizarre confrontation in her old bedroom a little over a month ago, she believed that to be true.
Moving closer, she nudged the martial artist with her shoulder as she watched Nicole pull into the lot.
After parking Rhian’s truck next to the Pathfinder, Nicole got out and stormed over to stand in front of Deven. “You are insane! Do you know that?”
“Well, yeah. Everyone knows that,” Deven answered simply. “You had that figured out from day one. Don’t you remember?” She put an arm across Nicole’s shoulders. “I think you’re getting up there, Nicole. Your memory is starting to go.”
“Bite me, Masterson.”
“In your dreams, Mullens.”
Rhian covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. Then stepping closer, she linked her arm in Nicole’s. “Relax, Nic. No harm no foul. And I’ll certainly make sure she does better going home.” And she would. This was the first time Deven had driven at all since the abduction, and Rhian had thought the woman would be a little more cautious. Obviously, she’d been wrong.
“Does that mean I get punished later?” Deven asked innocently.
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Rhian responded. “Now make sure our children are bundled sufficiently so we can get going.”
The foursome strolled over to where Seana and Tiernan were crawling through a tunnel. “Come on younguns,” Deven called to them as they got closer.
Once most of the hay and dust had been brushed off both children, Deven lifted Seana up onto her shoulders. “Jay, take up Tiernan and let’s be off.”
“Don’t you think we should grab a saw before we go?” Rhian teased.
“Right.” Deven walked over to where the saws were neatly stacked and picked one up while Rhian grabbed a long bamboo pole. “What’s that for?”
“It’s marked off in feet so we can see how tall the trees are?”
“They charge by the foot,” the landscaper explained. “But more importantly, all trees look smaller out here in the open. This will help make sure we don’t buy a fourteen footer.”
“As if,” Deven snorted. Little did she appreciate the perception discrepancy until after the first few trees had been measured. Every one had seemed to be a reasonable height until Rhian stood next to it with the pole.
They trudged through the fields looking at a multitude of trees and each had been vetoed in turn. They were too sparse or too small or too tall or had a bad trunk or were the wrong species. “Now how in the heck am I supposed to know what species these things are?” Deven asked in frustration.
“Well, if you’ll stand still long enough, I’ll explain the differences,” Rhian offered.
“All right,” Deven agreed and managed to patiently listen to the characteristics of each tree. Setting off once more, she now easily recognized the preferred ones and walked right past those that weren’t on the top of Rhian’s list.
For the most part, Nicole and Rhian hung back and watched as Jay and Deven led them aimlessly around the farm, the children still perched on their shoulders. Despite the small moments of periodic frustration, everyone’s moods held though Rhian wondered how much longer Deven would physically be able to carry Seana without it taking a toll on her barely healed body.
Deven eased through another row of trees into a small clearing and stopped. “Rhian, check out this one.”
The landscaper stepped up next to her friend and critically regarded the evergreen. “Honey, that’s a big tree.”
“Where are we going to put it?”
“We could put it in the sunroom. We could move the furniture around and clear out a spot in the back corner. That way we’ll be able to see it from the kitchen and if we open the French doors in the dining room, we’ll be able to see if from the living room sofa.”
Rhian smiled at her lover’s enthusiasm. She didn’t need to measure it to know that it would barely fit. It was a nice tree, though. No holes. Solid trunk. She supposed they could trim it down at home if need be. “Okay. Cut down your tree.”
“Thanks,” Deven replied with a broad smile. She lowered Seana to the ground but made no move to get any closer. After several seconds of quiet pondering, she finally spoke. “Rhian?”
“Where do I cut it?” she whispered.
The landscaper lightly patted the martial artist on the back. “Let me have a look.” She eyed the tree. Separating the lower branches, she located a spot about a foot up from the ground. “Saw it off right above these branches. Push it slightly away from the saw and that will make it easier to cut.”
“Okay.” Deven paused, her eagerness fading into uncertainty. “I’m about to kill it, aren’t I?”
“In a sense, yes. But the farm will come along later and graft a new tree onto what we leave behind. So in a way, it will live on.”
Deven mentally apologized to the tree for ending this part of its life and thanking it for sharing what was left with them. After that, it took only a couple of minutes for it to be cut down cleanly. “Okay Jay. Help me haul this thing.”
He set Tiernan down, and took one end while Deven lifted the other. Halfway back to the parking lot, it started to snow and though the flakes were small, they were plentiful. Lifting her head to the sky, Rhian felt the chill as the flakes touched her skin and smiled.
As soon as they were in sight of the fortress, the children were off once again to play. Rhian and Nicole gathered four cups of hot apple cider while Deven paid for the tree and waited for it to be netted. “Okay, let’s get this home and decorated.”
“Honey, I hate to burst your bubble, but we won’t be decorating it tonight,” Rhian said while handing her lover a cup of cider.
“Why not?” Deven asked in confusion.
“We need to soak it overnight in a bucket of water and let the branches fall out.” Rhian tried to overlook how disappointed her friend looked. “Listen, I don’t tell you how to fight. Trust that I know what I’m doing here, okay? The tree will last longer this way and will be easier to decorate tomorrow. I’m not trying to upset you.”
“I’ll go get the kids,” she answered and walked away.
“Deven,” Rhian said, but the martial artist continued to move away.
“Is everything okay?” Nicole asked.
“Yeah, Nic. She didn’t know about the part of soaking the tree overnight.”
“I’ll go put this in the back of the truck,” Jay announced as he lifted the bundled tree.
“Thanks,” Rhian replied.
Nicole looked over to where the martial artist was standing. “She sure is into this isn’t she?”
“I don’t think she’s ever really had a Christmas before. Or if she has, I think it was so long ago.” Rhian watched Deven corral the children and lead them towards the truck. “I want to give her the best Christmas of her life. You up for giving me a hand?”
“Sure. What do you have in mind?”
With a sense of satisfaction, Deven placed the last of her packages on the back seat of the Pathfinder and closed the door. This wasn’t how she’d intended to spend the day, but now that it was over, it felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
Getting into the truck, she glanced at Jay who was sitting in the passenger seat with his eyes closed. He looked as worn out as she felt. “Hang in there, old man,” she teased him. “I’ll get you home soon.”
Not bothering to open his eyes, he grunted in response.
It had been Rhian and Nicole’s idea that she and Jay get out of the house and do so together. In fact, they’d been rather adamant about it. Deven suspected that there were hidden agendas there, and while she felt she had a handle on one of them, she was clueless about what else the women might be up to.
The martial artist believed that their girlfriends supposed spur of the moment idea was their way of forcing her to talk to her old friend. She’d realized some time ago that Rhian and Nicole didn’t understand that her relationship with Jay wasn’t nearly as complicated as all the other ones in her life. He was just Jay. Her Bro. Nothing more and nothing less, and that was enough. There weren’t any convoluted aspects to their friendship.
After some mild protestations for appearances sake, Deven had acquiesced knowing full well that pushing them to spend time together wasn’t going to have the impact Rhian was seeking. Still, being with her friend today had been almost comfortable again. The recent past had definitely made him more reserved around her, and she knew that some day in the not too distant future, she was going to have to talk to him about California and the beating if they were ever going to completely mend.
But the current reticence didn’t particularly concern Deven. There had been other times in their lives when their friendship had been strained for one reason or another and they’d always found their way back. She was confident that in time they would return to that comfortable camaraderie once again. Today was not that day, though she felt they’d taken a step forward.
Their excursion had begun with just driving around aimlessly, trying to decide what to do. The first decision they’d been able to agree on was lunch, and so they’d stopped at the Pit. But after eating and playing a couple of games of pool, Deven had gotten restless and so they’d returned to their directionless wandering.
Following the general flow of traffic, Deven had pulled into the parking lot of the mall. Without thinking about it, she’d parked in the first empty spot they saw and ended up doing what she normally considered a deplorable exercise. They’d gone shopping.
At first, it had felt truly hopeless as she’d tried to come up with ideas for gifts, and being just as clueless, Jay was no help. Not ever having had to buy presents for anyone other than Tiernan, or a token gift here and there for Jay, or some bottle of something or other for the Prestons, Deven felt a sense of pride at what she’d accomplished in one afternoon. By early evening, she’d managed to put quite a dent in her checking account but was now on her way home with a seat full of gifts.
Driving towards home, Deven looked at the decorated houses along the way. Funny, I never really noticed them before. “Hey, Jay?”
“Have you missed all this stuff? I know you go to your mother’s for Christmas dinner and all, but have you missed the trees and decorations and all that?”
“I suppose so,” he responded. “I hadn’t really thought about it before.”
“Me either. But I have to say that I’m getting a kick out of it.”
“No kidding,” Jay ribbed her.
“Jerk,” she countered with a grin.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this,” he said. “Even when we were little.”
“As you may recall, I wasn’t allowed to be like this or little.”
“I know. It sucked.”
Parking in the garage, Deven shut off the engine, stepped out of the truck, and headed towards the house. “So what do you think our ladies have been up to?”
Following behind her, he replied, “I couldn’t say.”
“Right. I’ve had the feeling all day that you were in on whatever it is they’re up to.”
“Me?” he asked in feigned innocence.
“Exactly,” she said with a chuckle, and then stopped so fast that Jay ran into her back.
Everywhere she looked there were holiday decorations. At first she thought she must be imagining things, but as she slowly made her way further into the kitchen she saw the lit tree in the sunroom. It was covered in small colorful lights and draped with gold garland. There were poinsettias and candles on the table, and a lighted garland framed the entire room along the edge of the ceiling.
The expression of awe on Deven’s face caused a happy feeling in the landscaper’s chest. “You like?” she asked.
Placing an arm across Rhian’s shoulders, Deven pulled her closer. “I like very much. I…it’s beautiful.”
A slight tremor ran through the marital artist as another small scar of the past festered once more. “It’s okay,” Rhian whispered and hugged her friend in quiet reassurance.
Deven didn’t fight the feeling as it rose up and then slowly ebbed. She still hated feeling vulnerable and weak, especially in front of Rhian. That was where she felt the most exposed, but it was also where she felt the most comforted. Dr. Martin had assured her that this was all part of the process and would eventually occur with less frequency, and Deven held onto that every time this happened to her.
When the anxiety finally released its hold, Rhian leaned back and smiled. “There’s more.” Curling her fingers around the martial artist’s, she led her companion to the living room.
Deven stood still as she took in all the ornamentation. A garland ran the length of the mantel with a red velvet bow on each end, and candles of varying heights were interspersed among the evergreen, casting a warm glow. Above it on the wall hung a large evergreen wreath, decorated with red berries and small gold glass balls. Another garland adorned the banister, and the whole room smelled of evergreen and cinnamon. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
Strolling to the center of the room, Deven looked through the open dining room doors at the lighted tree in the sunroom. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”
“You tried to pick me up in a bar?”
Deven laughed and the tension that had been gripping her chest and throat eased. “Tried being the operative word. This is amazing, Rhian.”
“We aren’t done, you know? We still have to decorate the tree, but we were waiting for you.”
“Rhian, can we give Mommy the surprise now?” Tiernan pleaded. “Please?”
“Sure,” the landscaper answered as they walked hand in hand out to the sunroom.
Nicole and Jay were sitting on the sofa, talking in soft tones as they entered. The smile the man gave her confirmed that he’d been in on this surprise. “My gut kept telling me all day that something was going on and you were in on it.”
“When we left, I had no idea they were planning this. I didn’t find out until Nicole called me later.”
“Here, Mommy,” Tiernan broke into the conversation before she had a chance to respond. “You have to put the star on top.”
“Yep. Mama said it’s your job,” Seana declared.
Accepting the star from her son, Deven turned it in one direction and then the other. It was made of small glass panes that reflected the lights on the tree, creating a prism of color in her hands. In a way if reminded her of Rhian – so many facets of light, reflected onto her, lighting the dark corners of her being and chasing the shadows away.
In some respects, everything that Rhian had done today was utterly frightening. It was so close to abandoned childhood dreams. Illusions discarded long ago. Deven wasn’t supposed to ever know what it was like to fall in love or have a family. There was never to be anyone in her life that would love her in spite of herself, but here she was in a home that was filled with so much love that it was often nearly overwhelming. And it was the possibility that she could wake up one morning to find it all gone that truly terrified her.
“If you prefer, we could get a Santa or an Angel,” Rhian offered as she rubbed Deven’s back.
“No. This is great.” Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, the martial artist stepped up and eased the star over the top of the tree. The children cheered her on and even Jay and Nicole applauded her effort, causing her to bow deeply in acknowledgment.
“Since this is our first Christmas together, we got some special ornaments for the occasion,” Rhian said. “Kids, you first.”
“Mommy, I picked this one for you.”
She accepted his offering gingerly and smiled both at the gift and his excitement. It was a mouse in a karate uniform posed doing a sidekick. “Thank you, son.”
“Go ahead and hang it,” Rhian said.
“What if I put it in the wrong place?”
“Deven, there is no wrong place.”
“Okay,” she answered in a tone that clearly said she didn’t believe that. But with a slight nod she hung the ornament as Tiernan proudly watched, and then kissed him on the cheek.
Impatiently, Seana tapped her on the leg. “Deven?”
“This is the one I got you.” She handed Deven an ornament of a small bear eating an ice cream cone, causing the martial artist to chuckle.
“We do like our ice cream, don’t we?”
“Yep,” Seana answered emphatically.
“Thank you,” she replied and then kissed the little girl before hanging that one on a bough low enough that the child could see it easily.
“And I picked out this one,” Rhian said as she handed her friend a wolf.
“What is this for?”
“Several reasons actually. The first time I met you I was so intimidated by you and the image that came into my head was of the big bad wolf.”
Deven frowned and looked at the ornament in her hand. “Why would you want to remember that?”
“Because a part of me fell in love with you that night. I’ve also learned that the wolf is considered by some Native Americans to be the totem for teaching or learning. And I’d say you’ve done an awful lot of both in your life.” Deven cocked her head and looked at her closely. “I’ve been reading up,” Rhian answered to the silent question. “And because of Lobo and that bond you had with your grandmother.”
That earned a small pleased smile, and Deven carefully placed the ornament on the tree. “I didn’t get you guys any.”
“That’s okay,” the landscaper replied. “Besides, in a way you did. I used your debit card to buy the rest of the decorations.”
“Wench.” Deven hugged her friend and laughed.
“Do you think she would have liked me?” Rhian asked.
“My grandmother? She would have adored you. I think she would have seen you as an ally, and my grandfather would have flirted with you mercilessly.”
“So, that’s where you get that,” Rhian teased while poking her lover playfully in the ribs.
“Perhaps,” Deven admitted as she watched Nicole and Jay slip out of the room. “Where are you two going?”
“To order take out. I’m starving,” Jay responded.
“I’ll buy,” Deven offered. “That is if Rhian left anything in the account.”
“Brat,” the landscaper chided good-naturedly. “I think there is just enough left for a couple of large pizzas.”
The two women stood in comfortable silence, looking at the sparsely decorated tree. Somehow it was still the best tree that Deven had ever seen. “So, are we all set for your party tomorrow?” she asked.
“Not my party. Our party. And yes, we are. Nicole was a big help with all of this. I think she’s finally warmed up to you.”
“Really? Will wonders never cease?”
“Be nice,” Rhian cautioned while swatting the martial artist on the backside.
“Yes, dear. So, what do we do now?”
“I think we should probably start decorating the tree while the kids are still enthusiastic about it. When the food gets here we’ll take a break and then finish up afterwards,” Rhian replied. When Deven didn’t respond, she grew concerned. “Does that sound okay?”
“Deven, are you okay?”
“I’m okay. When I was little, I used to wonder if this stuff ever really happened. I finally figured that it was all an illusion, just like everything else in my life.”
“Well, if this is an illusion then I’m delusional. If it’s a dream, we’re both having it and that’s just fine with me.”
“Rhian, I’m,” Deven started, but stopped and her brow furrowed.
“All this dredging up of the past and talking about everything is really messing me up. I feel like I’m becoming such a.” She frowned. “A weakling. I don’t like it.”
“I can understand why you would feel that way, but it’s not true.”
“No, it isn’t,” Rhian disagreed. “Dr. Martin explained to me that you’ll feel raw for a while. It’s to be expected.”
“Yeah? And how long are you going to put up with this? With me being such a wuss.”
“Trust me, Masterson, you are anything but a wuss,” the landscaper answered with a grin and then sought to lighten the mood. “Now, what were you and Jay up to all day?”
”I’ll never tell,” Deven responded smugly. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Really. Now show me what you got to go on this tree.”
“I’ll get the stuff ready and you go round up the offspring.”
“Okay,” Deven agreed and started for the doorway.
“Hey,” Rhian called out and the martial artist turned back around. “I sure do love you.”
Looking first at the tree then back at her lover, a look of childlike wonder crossed Deven’s face. “I know.”
To Be Continued in Chapter Twenty-Five
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