Chapter Thirteen, Part 1
Deven's mind whirled, and the agitation was feeding a budding headache. She could feel the pain beginning at the base of her skull and removed the bottle of ibuprofen from the glove box. Swallowing several of the small pills, she willed the painkiller to quickly work its magic on the muscles tensing in her neck, but knew they could do nothing to ease her mind.
Fragments of thoughts darted into her consciousness and then retreated just out of her grasp before they could solidify and be contemplated. Settling her hands on the steering wheel, she gripped it tightly as if the action would help her get a grasp on the chaos in her head.
She cursed the emotions that sought some avenue of release. Her mother had purposely baited her. It's become some sort of sick game to the bitch! Push me until a react and then attack with her self-righteous condemnations. She was having a hard time believing that Patricia had been so nasty in front of Rhian. Well, what do you expect, Masterson? Once a bitch always a bitch.
She watched as Rhian approached the truck and waited silently while the younger woman placed Seana in the car seat. Why in the hell did I allow this day to happen? Why didn't I just excuse myself and let Rhian go home instead of bringing her here? You are such an idiot, Masterson!
She looked at her hands and saw that her fingers had become pale from the pressure she was applying to the wheel. Releasing her grasp, she settled her hands on her lap. Why in the hell did I allow Tiernan to do that? I knew better. I knew it was a mistake! The only thing that can possibly come out of that is for him to start to believe that I can be the mother he wants, and I can't. I can't! She sighed deeply. Why did you do it you moron? Because one look at Rhian's face, and you suddenly didn't want her to think poorly of you. What a fucking joke!
Deliberately keeping her eyes on the road ahead and off the woman in the seat beside her, Deven steered her thoughts to earlier in the afternoon as she drove the truck towards home. The echoes of laughter and a shadow of the happiness that had touched her briefly filled her again momentarily pushing the anger aside. Pressing her lips together, she fought not to smile at the memory of Rhian almost knocking them both to the ground to escape the bee.
As quickly as those good feelings came they were gone, replaced with the turmoil caused by their brief encounter with Patricia. Anger no longer held dominance. It was now replaced with despondency. Deven had spent the last fourteen years avoiding the complications of emotional attachment, and she wondered if all the emotional upheaval that had recently entered her life was healthy. What do I possibly need them for now? They're playing havoc with everything!
Rhian glanced at the martial artist and took in the tautness of the woman's features, and then glanced back at the road ahead. She was still irritated by how Deven had been treated by Patricia and Laura, and she was also deeply disturbed by how this woman had walked away from Tiernan. Turning her attention to Deven, she quietly contemplated the strong profile.
Do I really need this conflict in my life? Yesterday, I was beginning to face my growing love for her. Today, I have to question my sanity if I get involved with her. Come on, Rhian, what happened today wasn't Deven's fault. Well, the Tiernan part was, but how can anyone possibly be comfortable in an environment like that?
Bothered by the brooding silence, Deven switched on the radio. She'd never invested herself emotionally in anyone, and yet, she found herself unable to stop it now. I love her. But I'm no good for her. There's no excuse for anything I've done, and she doesn't deserve that. She doesn't need me in her life. She needs someone who is open and giving. Someone who's capable of filling her days with happiness, and I'm not that person! And why in the hell am I even thinking about this? She isn't interested in me! Idiot!
Deven was aware that the younger woman was no longer watching the passing scenery but was now staring directly at her. "Rhian, I'm sorry about all that back at Laura's. I tend to get very uptight around my family."
"I noticed that. They, um, are a bit disparaging when it comes to you. I didn't much care for that."
Deven glanced briefly at the blonde. "Perhaps, they have reason to be."
Rhian's gaze didn't falter. She is so ... complex. She noted the strain at the corners of Deven's eyes. She tries to hide it, but there are brief moments where she shows glimpses of such anguish. What is it, Deven? What caused you to hurt so much? It couldn't merely be because you unintentionally had a child. Obviously, your mother is a major contributor. Why didn't you tell the bitch to bug off?
Something painful lay deep within Deven, and Rhian wondered if she was strong enough to face it. "Perhaps. Someday you'll have to tell me why. In the meantime, I didn't appreciate it, and they best not do it around me again."
Deven's eyebrow raised in question and a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "So, you're into defending me now?"
The landscaper squared her shoulders and crossed her arms across her chest. "If need be, yes. Deven, one of these days I hope you will let me in." She watched as the woman's eyes took on a cautious quality. "I hope that you will come to trust me. I don't want to judge you. I only want to." She almost said that she only wanted to love her, but she bit back the words. Deven had been quite adamant with her mother today that they were only friends and nothing more.
Glancing at the younger woman, Deven didn't need to hear the words. The tender emotion radiated out from the verdant gaze. It unnerved her, and she looked away. "You're right, Rhian. You deserve to know the truth. I owe you that, but not today. Okay?"
"Okay. I'll accept that as long you remember something. You're my friend, Deven. I hope you understand that I'm your friend. I don't know if my presence in your life makes any difference, but we were destined to meet for some reason. I think I knew that the very first time I saw you. I felt a connection to you that was frankly ... scary. It was unlike anything I'd ever felt in my life. A feeling like I should know you, and something else that I haven't quite figured out."
Deven stopped the truck at a red light, and then turned and studied Rhian's face. "I felt it, too. I kept thinking I knew you from somewhere but couldn't figure out where. It was pretty disconcerting."
Reaching across the distance between them, Rhian placed her hand on the martial artist's forearm and gently squeezed the warm flesh. As she started to pull her hand away, Deven covered it with her own. That small gesture gave the younger woman a renewed surge of confidence. I know your demons run deep, Deven. But I also know my determination is stronger than any demon you may harbor. The light changed, and Deven released her hand severing the connection but not the resolve in the younger woman's heart.
Once back at Deven's house, with a little assistance from the martial artist, Rhian transferred her daughter to her truck and then walked around the vehicle to the driver's door where she stood silently facing the taller woman. Something had happened today. She wasn't certain what it all meant, but the connection they shared had grown a little deeper.
Rhian realized on some level that her life was forever changed - with or without Deven in it. She would have to face a new world in which her sexuality and perceptions had been shifted, and she understood that it wasn't going to be easy. There was her family to consider as well as how these changes would impact Seana.
She accepted she was in love with Deven, but understood that Deven wasn't likely to reciprocate that love. She believed that the tall mysterious woman cared for her, but wasn't naïve enough to believe in happy endings and fairy tales. If she were to write such a story, Deven would have already fallen for her and swept her off her feet. Not realistic and not going to happen, Rhian.
Shaking off those notions, she planted her feet firmly back in reality. Without further thought she stepped forward, and wrapped her arms tightly around the taller woman. "Thank you for sharing Tiernan with us today. I enjoyed our time immensely."
Surprised at first, Deven froze but then gave into the contact and wrapped her arms around the body pressed to hers. Holding Rhian steadfastly, Deven rested her cheek against the side of the blonde head. "I did, too."
Rhian stepped back and climbed into her truck. "I'll talk to you soon," she called out as she backed away. Once in the cul de sac, she gave one last wave to the martial artist before driving away.
Deven watched her go with a mixture of relief and sadness. Her life was changing so quickly it kept her off balance. The best thing in her life was the young blonde, but at the same time opening herself up to love Rhian was a catalyst for most of the emotional imbalance that plagued her lately. It was as if she suffered with vertigo of her emotions.
Deciding she'd thought enough for the day, she walked into the house and reached for the phone. She was going to hunt Jay down, and convince him a night out shooting pool was exactly what he wanted.
Friday evening found Deven in a tempestuous mood. For the most part she'd managed to keep it hidden behind a composed comportment, but occasionally her temper flared and anyone unlucky enough to be in the way got an ear full. She knew she was overreacting, but didn't particularly care. She didn't have to care. This was her little kingdom and if anyone didn't like it, they were free to go.
It had been a trying week with a multitude of unpleasant business issues on top of all the final preparations for the tournament. And as if things weren't bad enough, her mother had been trying to reach her for the past two days. But the true cause of her dark frame of mind was that Rhian hadn't stopped by or called the school once in the past five days.
By the end of the work week, Deven had convinced herself that Rhian had come to realize that the martial artist wasn't worth the time or trouble. As each day faded into the next, that assumption became more concrete and with it the stinging realization that the young blonde had slipped completely from her life.
Repeatedly, Deven berated herself. If she'd listened to the voice of reason in her head, she would have found a way to halt the awakening of long denied feelings, and never permitted the younger woman entrance into her life, let alone into her heart. She didn't blame Rhian. She blamed herself.
With each passing day, the loss of the woman from her life fed a deepening melancholy she couldn't begin to explain. She was no stranger to depression, but what frustrated her about this one was her inability to understand why. That Rhian was at the core was obvious, but what it was about the woman that had reduced her to her current state continued to elude her.
Though milder than the depressions of the past, she recognized the emotion from a time long ago, and endeavored to control it. She talked more candidly about her concerns with Dr. Martin, worked out excessively hard in preparation for the tournament, and engaged in much needed, though somewhat aggressive, sexual encounters.
Sitting at her desk, she absently spun a pencil in her fingers as her thoughts rambled in her head. You have got to let it go, Deven. You knew things weren't possible so why keep perpetuating the problem? Forget her. She's obviously forgotten you.
The door opened and she glanced up. The pencil flew out of her fingers, and she nearly fell out of the chair as she scrambled to catch the projectile.
Rhian cocked her head to the side and laughed. "What are you doing?"
Deven's chest tightened and her mouth went dry. "Uh, nothing? I just dropped my pencil." What in the hell is wrong with me?
Stepping into the office, Rhian gave her a gentle smile. The effect of that smile was instantaneous as the shrouds of depression and anxiety that had been plaguing her for days lifted somewhat. "Hey." Oh, you are a real piece of work, Masterson. Okay, relax. Just be cool, and noncommittal. Her presence doesn't change anything. You need to nip this. Now!
Rhian leaned against the doorframe and eyed the martial artist curiously. "Are you okay?"
"Sure. Why wouldn't I be?" She was aware that her tone was a little harsh, and chastised herself for not getting her emotions more firmly under control.
"I don't know. You just seem a little stressed. Bad week?"
Deven looked down at the surface of the desk. "It's been one of those weeks. You know Murphy's law in full effect." Keeping her expression neutral she looked back up at the woman. "What about you?"
Rhian beamed with excitement. "Oh, Deven, it has been so hectic. But good. Things are really going well. I've got more jobs coming in. We're already ahead of our projections for the year, and at this rate we'll have our best year ever."
The younger woman fairly crackled with enthusiasm and Deven tried to push her dark mood away. "I'm glad things are going so well, Rhian."
"Yeah. Me, too. When my father gave me the landscaping division, I promised myself I would build it up. I did a business plan and several forecasts. All that stuff. But I never figured we'd be where we are this soon. I might even have to bring on another crew. We'll still be able to get your project going, though. I don't want you to worry about that."
"I'm not worried about that, Rhian. You shouldn't be either."
Moving into the room, the younger woman sat down opposite the martial artist. "Are you sure everything is all right?"
Deven looked into the classroom. She couldn't bring herself to look at the open gaze Rhian was giving her. She was angry with herself for several reasons not the least which of was having allowed herself to indulge in self-pitying behavior. You could have called her, Deven. You could have stopped by the garden center and seen what was going on. But no. You had to sit around moping and feeling sorry for yourself. You're an ass, Masterson. Pure and simple.
"I'm." She shifted her gaze back to the landscaper. "I'm fine. Just a lot of stuff going on. You know how it is with business. And we've got the tournament tomorrow. It's always crazy the night before one of those." She gave a little shrug. "You should probably go get changed up. That's if you're here to take class."
Rhian couldn't put her finger on it, but something about the woman's behavior bothered her. It was remote, and she could feel the invisible barriers that Deven erected to keep people out. Or perhaps keep herself in. Maybe both. "I am. I've missed it. I just haven't had the time. I probably should have let you know what was going on so you didn't think I'd quit or something."
Deven kept her expression impartial. "Maybe next time you aren't going to be able to make it for a few days, you could just call and leave me a message or something. No big deal."
"Next time I'll let you know." Rhian rose from the chair. "I'll see you later?"
Deven nodded. "Yeah." She remained seated and watched the woman walk out of the office. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
This emotional behavior was so out of character for her that she felt she was becoming a stranger, and for the first time in a long time, she doubted herself. She didn't like it one bit. The incessant imbalance of emotion associated with Rhian made it near impossible to maintain a sense of equilibrium.
She often felt she was teetering on the edge of a great precipice. The voice of her heart told her to have faith and jump, that in letting go she would be free. The voice in her head mocked that notion. Logic dictated that to jump would be by far the most foolish and devastating thing she could ever do.
She allowed her thoughts to linger back over the past few days, and was amazed that she started to feel a kernel of guilt. Twice during the week she'd gone to the Pit for the sole purpose of getting laid. Why should I feel guilty? Because of what might Rhian think? Oh, give me a fucking break. We aren't together in any sense of the word, and neither of those women meant anything.
She glanced through the window at the cardio class that was beginning to warm up. Her eyes settled on the landscaper. They meant less than nothing to me, because I was thinking about you the whole time I was... Squaring her shoulders in a gesture of defiance, she finished the thought. ...while I was screwing their brains out. And they were... She realized she was having a difficult time even conjuring up images of the two women she'd had sex with as her mind's eye settled repeatedly on the young blonde she wanted. Ah, this just sucks!
She was growing weary of the constant internal struggle regarding this woman. She wanted Rhian, and found herself in an ongoing battle to deny that desire. While her heart fought to confess her feelings to the landscaper, her head steadfastly itemized all the reasons why she could never do that. And her body just plain lusted after the blonde.
Why am I even thinking about this? She's a friend, and a student. Nothing more, so for crying out loud, get a grip on yourself, Masterson!
A student seeking advice on the following day's competition broke her revelry. Everyone seemed to be practicing harder than usual, and sought out her instruction on how to most successfully compete. There was an almost festive feeling in the air as competitors looked forward with anticipation and nervousness to what the tournament would bring, and she was oblivious to it all.
For the next hour, Deven occasionally watched the cardio class while privately coaching some of the competitors. She couldn't seem to stop her attention from wandering to Rhian. The woman was unlike anyone the martial artist had ever known. Her laughter drifted to Deven over the din of the school, easing the conflicted emotions that troubled her of late. On some level, Deven recognized that whenever the younger woman was nearby, a sense of calm descended on her and she took it in greedily.
As the cardio class ended, Deven watched with an attitude of indifference as Rhian and Nicole walked to the locker room. You've got to get this under control. You have to. Even as she chastised herself, she felt disappointed that she wouldn't be able to spend anymore time with Rhian this evening. There's always tomorrow at the tournament, you big baby. That's if she's still going? She didn't say she wasn't, but. She shook her head and sighed. You are pathetic. Besides even if she does go, things will be so hectic you'll probably never get an opportunity to spend time with her.
You've got a job to do, Masterson, so get your butt out there and teach! Stepping into the main room, she forced her thoughts away from Rhian and centered her attention on preparations to instruct the next class. Over the years she'd grown adept at keeping her focus on the classroom while remaining cognizant of activity in other areas of the school. Even though her attention seemed to be completely on the class warming up in front of her, she was aware of when Patricia, with Tiernan in tow, entered the lobby.
Her mother had never stepped foot in one of her schools before. It was too far beneath the woman, and the cultural inanity her mother exuded irked Deven. Her mother had been born to an Irish immigrant and a Native American. Patricia had disdained her heritage, and had actively worked to rise above an ancestry she considered to be beneath her.
Deven on the other hand, had adored her grandparents and embraced who they were, an act that her mother could never comprehend. An act that did, however, provide her mother with further justification that Deven was, for her, a cruel joke of the cosmos. A cosmos that found humor in burdening her with a child that was an abomination.
Turning the class over to one of her instructors, she quickly ushered her mother and son into her office and shut the door. The last thing she needed was a scene with this woman in front of her students and their parents.
Stepping out of the locker room at almost the same time, Rhian saw Deven escort Patricia into the office. The anger that had been initiated by Deven's mother the previous weekend returned with a vengeance. She increased her pace, and crossed the classroom unsure of what it was exactly she was intending to do. 'I will smack the bitch if she so much as says one derogatory thing!'
"Hi, Mommy," Tiernan said with an almost hopeful quality to his small voice.
Deven glanced at her son. "Hi." She then turned her full attention to her mother. "What are you doing here?"
"If you ever took the time to return my calls, you'd know the answer to that."
Tiernan watched as a scowl settled on Deven's features. There were times when his mother could be a little scary. There were times when his grandmother was scary too, but in a different way.
"Look, I'm working. I don't have time for this."
"You're always working, Deven. Here are his things." Setting a small suitcase down on the top of the desk, Patricia turned and addressed the boy. "Give grandmother a kiss." Tiernan dutifully kissed her cheek, and then regarded his mother.
Deven looked from the suitcase to her son, and then back to her mother. "What are you doing?"
Patricia barely hid her disdain as she stared at her daughter. "Deven, you're many things, but stupid is not one of them. What does it look like? I'm leaving Tiernan with you. I have a show in Massachusetts this weekend."
"Well, what about Laura?" This can't be happening!
"Believe it or not, she has a life. She and Roger are going to Berkley Springs for a few days. The children are going to stay with Roger's parents."
"Why can't he go with them?" The emotional upheaval of the past few days had worn her down, and Deven was struggling harder than usual to maintain control of the situation. A control she didn't dare let evade her in the school.
Rhian crossed the lobby to the office door, taking several deep breaths along the way to gain a tighter rein of her anger. She was surprised by the protectiveness that enveloped her, but made no effort to eradicate it. 'I can't just barge in there! Why not? Well, because...I suppose it would be rude. Oh come on, Rhian. Do you really care?'
"I have to go," Patricia said as she turned to leave.
"Wait! I have a tournament all day tomorrow. What am I supposed to do with him?" If Deven hadn't been so upset, she might have noticed the look of disappointment on her son's face.
Patricia turned slightly and smiled. "Take him with you." With that, she opened the door and stepped out.
Rhian overheard the last of the conversation, and barely had a chance to move out of the way as Patricia departed. Attempting to be civil, she acknowledged the older woman. "Good evening, Mrs. Masterson." Patricia stopped only long enough to nod at Rhian before stepping out of the school.
Inwardly, Rhian screamed in frustrating. Outwardly she plastered what she hoped was a friendly smile on her face and poked her head into the office. "Can I be of any help?"
"No!" the martial artist snapped. Why are you yelling at her? She's just trying to help, you idiot! "Look, I'm sorry, Rhian. This just threw me."
The younger woman pushed her hurt feelings aside and nodded. Having experienced the Masterson family first hand, she accepted that Deven's outburst hadn't been truly addressed at her. She knew the effect Patricia had on her friend, and didn't deny it was infuriating. "Why don't you go finish teaching this class? Tiernan and I will keep each other company."
Deven looked through the window at the class in progress. "Okay." She rose and walked across the office and as she passed Rhian, the young blonde reached out and gently squeezed her hand. Their shoulders touched and she looked into soft green eyes, and the desire to brush her lips against Rhian's was almost too much to quell. She returned the gentle pressure of their joined hands before breaking the contact, and leaving the office.
Rhian led Tiernan back out to the lobby and over to where Nicole was waiting. "Hey, Nic. I want you to meet someone. Tiernan Masterson, this is my best friend Nicole. Nicole, this handsome young man is Deven's son."
The look of shock on Nicole's face would have been comical if it weren't for the seriousness of the circumstance. "You're kidding?"
"No. I'm going to keep him company until this class is over."
"But I thought she was." She lowered her voice. "You know."
"Nic, I don't think we should talk about this right now. Tiernan, let's go sit over there." She led the boy to two vacant seats near the door to the classroom and sat down.
"You want me to wait?' Nicole asked.
"Nah. You go ahead. I'll call you later."
"Okay." She looked at the boy. "It was nice meeting you."
He smiled at her. "Nice to meet you."
With a shake of her head, Nicole left them. Sitting side by side, Rhian and Tiernan watched Deven in the classroom. The landscaper learned that Tiernan had never seen his mother teach. More amazing to her was that he'd never seen his mother perform any martial arts.
He stared at the various pictures and plaques hung in the school lobby before turning his attention back to the classroom. Watching Tiernan watch his mother, and seeing the wonder on the small boy's face touched something within her. Oh Deven, he loves you! Why won't you let him in?
She turned her attention from the boy back to Deven, and was reminded of how much she'd missed the martial artist this week. All week long, her mind had wandered to this woman. She'd wanted to stop by the school if only for a moment, but her schedule hadn't allowed for even a cursory meeting. That she'd been able to get any work done at all this week surprised her as her preoccupation with the tall woman had made it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything for very long.
The nights had been worse. Each night she'd lain in bed thinking of Deven, and several nights her dreams had been filled with images of the tall dark woman. More and more often she was waking up aroused, and unable to take the tension anymore, she'd finally succumbed to self-gratification. She'd never been one to masturbate in the past. Her desires never seemed that strong. But now, the dreams that invaded her sleep were awakening cravings that she'd never before thought existed - at least, not within her.
She hadn't yet determined if this was a good thing or not. She felt as if a part of her was coming to life, and while that was enticing, it was also terribly frightening. The intensity of her feelings for Deven overwhelmed her at times, and she wondered if that was normal. She'd never known herself capable of such depth, and her inability to discuss her growing feelings with anyone was frustrating.
Any other time, Deven would enjoy knowing that Rhian was watching her. Admittedly, she had an inclination towards showing off when the younger woman was in audience. Tonight, however, the circumstances under which the blonde sat vigil made her uncomfortable.
She wondered what Rhian and Tiernan were talking about, and what Rhian was thinking. From what she could tell, the younger woman seemed to like the boy, and accepted his existence without judgment of his unintended conception. She hadn't questioned Deven about the decision to have Tiernan reside with his aunt. She suspected that some further inquiries would be forthcoming given how far Rhian's maternal skills exceeded her own. That is if you don't get a backbone and end this thing.
What are you thinking, Rhian? Can my offspring provide you with sufficient insights into my depraved personality? I doubt it, because by now, you've surely learned that Tiernan knows nothing about me.
You're an idiot, Masterson, if you believe for one moment that he doesn't hear all the comments Mother makes about you. You really think he doesn't know the truth? Deven really hated that voice. Besides sounding a lot like her mother, it usually left a dull ache in either her head or stomach. Sometimes both if it harangued her long enough.
Her ability to focus abandoned her and her thoughts continued to vacate the classroom, coming to dwell on the problem awaiting her. She scanned the large room and observed only a handful of students present for the next class. Deciding her staff could handle the rest of the evening without her, she gave them instructions on what curriculum should be covered before going to the locker room to change her clothes.
"What am I going to do with him? I can handle this. It's only a couple of days. It's not like he needs special care. Perhaps a bath, some food definitely, and sleep pretty much covers it. No problem. I did it until he was six months old. Okay, I hired someone to do most of it, but I did some. How hard can it be?"
You don't really want the answer to that, do you? He could get sick or get hurt. Or you could get mad at him, and who knows what could happen. SHUT UP! "Nothing is going to happen!" She took several deeps breaths. "Nothing is going to happen. Now get your ass out there."
As Deven passed through the lobby, Tiernan scrambled from his seat, and followed her into the office. He wished he understood his mother, and why she didn't want him. He couldn't remember having done anything really bad, but he knew that at some point in the first six months of his life, he must have. Either that or she just didn't like him.
He had asked his aunt once what he'd done to make his mother give him away, but the answer she'd given him was too confusing for his young mind to absorb. He sensed his aunt wasn't comfortable talking about his mother so he hadn't asked her again.
He never broached the subject with his grandmother. Her obvious dislike of his mother pained him, and he avoided any discussions that touched upon the subject of Deven Masterson. He did listen however, more than he should probably. He just wanted to know her, and figure out a way to get her to love him.
Sitting in her desk chair, Deven put on her shoes before shifting her attention to her son now occupying the chair directly across from her.
"Is this school yours?"
"Yes." She noted the look of wonderment on his face and frowned.
Rhian paused at the door to the office. She observed mother and child regarding each other across the desk as if they were complete strangers forced to share the same space. It was unsettling to her, and she found that there were moments, such as this one, when she was uncertain how to react. She had no experience to fall back on that would guide her in dealing with the martial artist. This woman was unlike anyone she'd ever met. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Looking up, Deven met the blonde's gaze. "Thanks for keeping an eye on him. Are you still coming to the tournament?"
"You're welcome, and yes, I'll be by as soon as I get off work."
"Good." She began to speak before she thought through what it was she was saying. Even when she realized what she was doing, she couldn't seem to stop herself. "Listen, I know this is real short notice, but tomorrow night is the finals where they determine the champions in each Black Belt division. They make a big show of them, and I'm supposed to be one of the judges. If Jay or I win our division's tomorrow afternoon, we'll be competing for champion. I was just wondering if you might want to go."
Rhian struggled for an answer as to whether it was wise to accept Deven's invitation. Her heart leapt at spending more time with the woman, but she knew that the invitation was an act of kindness and not something more. This isn't a date, Rhian. You have got to get over her before you say or do something really stupid. "I don't know. Nicole and I were going to go to the movies."
"Bring her. She might enjoy it."
Nicole would jump at any opportunity to spend time with Jay. "She might at that. I'll ask her."
Deven grinned. Things are certainly looking better. "Be sure to bring a bathing suit."
Rhian's brow creased as she attempted to ascertain why a bathing suit would be required at a martial arts tournament. "Excuse me?"
The baffled expression on the blonde's face caused Deven to laugh. "Let me try that again. The finals aren't really formal, but they are kind of dressy. Especially since you and Nicole will be sitting in the VIP seats. I was thinking that afterwards, we could all go back to my house and have a midnight swim."
"I got it now." She looked at the child. "Will Tiernan be going?"
Glancing at her son, Deven shook her head. "No. There's no way I can coach and compete and watch him too. I need to figure something out."
Stepping completely into the office, Rhian sat down in the chair next to the boy. "Tiernan? Would you be interested in going to my house tomorrow? You can play with Seana and my parents will be there. They love kids, and will probably spoil you rotten."
The boy grinned, and Rhian was struck again by how much of Deven was in this child. He had definitely inherited his eyes and smile from his mother. "Can I? Please?"
"I'm pretty sure. Let me just confirm it, okay? I'm sure it won't be a problem." She reached for her cell phone, pressed the speed dial, and spoke with her mother when she answered. Seana had babbled all week to anyone who would listen about her new friend, and Rhian's parents were eager to meet the young lad.
"Okay, we're set. I'll pick him up here tomorrow morning, and take him to work with me. When Nicole and I come to the tournament, we'll bring him along. Then tomorrow evening, I'll take him to my house, and if Nicole's up to it, we'll come to the finals. If not, we can make arrangements for you to pick him up."
"Rhian, I don't know about taking him to the tournament. Those things are always absolute bedlam, and you'll spend your whole time watching out for him."
She smiled at Tiernan before looking back at his mother. "I think it would be a good opportunity for him to see what you do."
Deven rose from her chair. "I still think it's a bad idea. You don't know what you're getting into. I would suggest you come see it for yourself, and then maybe when he's a little older, he can come to one." Picking up Tiernan's small suitcase, she indicated the door with a nod of her head. "Shall we?"
Deven opened the passenger door to the Pathfinder, and watched her son climb up onto the seat. She leaned in and buckled the boy in before placing the suitcase on the floor at his feet.
The taller woman was becoming almost an obsession with Rhian. She couldn't seem to stop herself. Aside from her feelings for the martial artist, she found Deven a puzzle she felt compelled to understand. "When was the last time he stayed with you?"
"When he was six months old."
"You're kidding." Deven looked away and her failure to answer spoke volumes of the rueful circumstances of this relationship. There was something about how Deven had chosen to deal with Tiernan that Rhian had been unable to resolve in her own mind. He could have been put up for adoption, but Deven had made a conscious decision to keep him in her life even if it was mostly at a distance.
"Hang on." Walking over to her truck, Rhian unlocked it and retrieved something off the seat. As she approached Deven, she handed her a video. "I bought this today for Seana, but you can borrow it. I suggest you see if he's hungry. I'll meet you here tomorrow morning to pick him up." Stepping past Deven to the front seat of the truck, she placed a kiss on the small boy's cheek. "Good night, Tiernan. I'll see you tomorrow." She paused a moment, whispered something in his ear, and then stepped back.
He looked at her and smiled brightly. "Okay."
"Bye." She turned to go back to her truck and home to the child that waited for her there.
"Rhian?" Deven reached out and touched the younger woman's arm. "What can I say? Thank you. I really do appreciate your help with everything."
Rhian gently patted the taller woman's stomach and gave her that full smile. The smile that seemed to radiate from inside and made her eyes shine. The smile that touched Deven's heart like a lovers gentle caress. "Any time."
Deven stopped at the local pizza parlor on the drive home for a carry out order. She knew her son liked extra cheese and a hand tossed crust, and decided it was an easy choice for their dinner.
Once in the house, she sat Tiernan down at the table in the sunroom, and placed a glass of milk and a plate with two slices of the pizza in front of him. She loaded up a plate for herself and poured a beer into a frosty mug. Sitting at the table opposite her boy, she ate while watching him. He finished most of his dinner before she made much of a dent in hers. "You like that, huh?"
He nodded his head vigorously. "It's good."
"You want some more?"
"When was the last time you had a bath?"
"Before I came," he said tentatively. "Grandmother made me take one."
That's a relief. At least, I don't have to deal with bathing him tonight. "Good. Let me finish my dinner, and we'll get you ready for bed."
"Can you beat up bad guys?"
Deven regarded him for several seconds wondering what it was he was thinking, but no clear answer came to her. "Why?"
His eyes grew large with wonder. "You kick really high. Rhian said you can fly through the air."
Deven snorted her beer almost forcing it up and out through her nose, and initiating a burst of laughter from her son. She coughed several times before she regained control and watched Tiernan as he enjoyed her reaction. He laughed so hard, she feared for a second or two that he would tumble right off the chair.
The sound of his laughter was melodic and uninhibited, similar to Rhian's, and she found it had the same affect in lightening her mood. She smiled at him. "She said what?"
"She said that you flew through the air and kicked a really bad man in the face. That you saved her."
She was going to have to talk to Rhian about that story. "Tiernan, I'm a martial artist. I can protect myself if I have to. I helped Rhian get out of a situation where a bad man was going to hurt her, but it was no big deal." She didn't want him seeing her as some kind of hero. She was far from it.
She placed their dishes in the kitchen sink, and then wiped his face and hands before cleaning the table. "Come on. Let's get your pajamas on."
He followed her up the stairs to the guestroom where she sat down on the bed and opened his suitcase. She unpacked his pajamas and toothbrush, and then paused. Tiernan reached past her and picked up the object that had caught his mother's attention. She watched him hug the stuffed bear. She hadn't seen that toy since he was a baby, and was surprised it hadn't been thrown away. "You still have that bear."
"I always sleep with it. Aunt Laura says you gave it to me when I was a baby."
"True. I got that shortly before you were born. It used to have a ghost costume on for Halloween."
He smiled and hugged the bear tighter. "It's my Boo Bear."
She didn't think he would still have the bear let alone remember what she'd called it. "That it is. Come on. Time to change."
He handed her the toy, and she watched as he undressed himself and put the pajamas on. She was struck by how much he'd grown. His body had changed quite a bit. He was still very much a child, but not a baby anymore.
Next she guided him to the bathroom and stood in the doorway while he brushed his teeth. She debated whether or not to correct his brushing technique, but decided to let him be. Maybe tomorrow. Once the toilet tasks were out of the way, he followed her into her room where she changed her clothes. Sitting on the foot of her bed, he watched as she unbraided and than brushed her dark hair. "Mommy?"
"Am I a bastard?"
She turned towards him so rapidly he visibly jerked in response. He involuntarily cringed, and looked at her in confusion. She was angry, and he didn't understand why, only that he had done something wrong. His cerulean eyes brimmed with tears and his lower lip trembled.
She regretted having scared him, and willing her voice to sound calm, she asked, "Who called you a bastard?"
He couldn't answer. The last thing he wanted was for her to be mad at him. The tears flowed over his dark lashes, and he began to cry softly. "I'm sorry, Mommy. Don't be mad at me."
"Tiernan. Don't cry. I'm not mad at you. I'm mad at whoever said that. Now, who called you that?"
The small boy's reply came out in a rush. "Grandmother was talking to someone on the phone. She said I was your bastard. Does that mean I'm bad?"
She closed her eyes and fought to settle the burgeoning rage. Damn her! Damn her to hell! Opening her eyes again, she looked at his tear-streaked face. Acting without thought, she closed the distance between them, and gently wiped away the tears from his soft cheeks. "No. That means that I'm bad, which is why you live with your Aunt Laura."
For the first time, she candidly questioned the prudence of having her son so close in proximity to her mother. She'd always tried to convince herself that it was good for him to have a sense of family. She'd tried to believe that her mother wouldn't pass her animosity from daughter to grandson, but obviously, that was not the case.
She ran her fingers through his soft dark hair. "Come on. I'll give you a ride." She helped him stand on the bed before turning her back to him. He eagerly scrambled up onto her back, and wrapped his small arms around her.
Shifting his body slightly, Deven ensured he was positioned securely before carrying him downstairs to the living room and depositing him on the sofa. Tiernan watched quietly as she put the video that Rhian had provided into the VCR and pressed the play button. "I've got some things to do for tomorrow. I'll be back in a bit."
"You have to watch. Rhian said so."
Her eyebrows lifted as she resisted the smile that teased her lips. "She did, huh? Is that what she whispered to you in the car?"
The boy grinned and nodded. "She told me to tell you there will be a test tomorrow, so be sure to pay attention."
In Deven's mind, she could hear Rhian's voice saying those words. Allowing the smile to emerge, she slowly shook her head in bemusement. Leave it to Rhian to try to sneak one past me. She's now engaging in subterfuge type activities with my son, is she? Well, paybacks, Ms. McKenna, are a bitch, and I am sure looking forward to it.
"So you have to."
"My boy, I am a lot bigger and stronger then you and Rhian put together. I don't have to do anything." Deven held up a hand to stop him from protesting. "But I will do this. However, don't think for a moment that you and Rhian are pulling something over on me."
Tiernan giggled as she flopped down next to him. Extending her long legs out in front of the sofa, she crossed them at the ankles, and turned her attention to the television. Rhian, you are too much.
She decided that the movie, an animated musical, was entertaining enough. She liked the music and actually enjoyed the tale. Eyeing Tiernan intermittently, she found he was engrossed in the fable of a lion that would be king.
As the story progressed, he migrated to her until he was curled up against her side, his head resting on her arm. What she found perplexing was that she hadn't noticed he was leaning against her until she heard him yawn.
Tiernan fought hard to keep his eyes open, but ultimately lost the battle and drifted to sleep. Deven turned the VCR and television off with the remote before shifting to lift the boy. She stood up slowly, taking his small form with her and cradling him against her. He murmured slightly against her shoulder, and she marveled that he remained asleep.
She carried him up to the guestroom, and laid him down on the bed. After placing the covers over him, she picked up his bear and carefully laid it under his arm where he would find it easily should he awaken in the night. Standing silently in the doorway, she watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest before gazing at his face. You look so innocent, and so small. It's hard sometimes to believe I brought you into this world.
It hadn't been a bad evening she mused. I can't allow this kind of thing to happen too often though. Otherwise, he'll begin to believe things are changing and want to spend time here. That is just not a good idea. With one last look, she turned, shut off the light, and walked out of the room.
Her thoughts drifted again to her mother and the woman's impact on Tiernan. There was no clear answer to that problem, but she was definitely going to have a serious discussion with the bitch and Laura when she took him home. That is a certainty.
She descended the stairs once more, retrieved her gear bag from the Pathfinder, and locked up the house for the night. The next hour was spent making last minute preparations for the tournament. She gathered a couple of starched v-neck uniforms from the closet and hung them on the door. Laying her sparring gear out on the bed, she ensured everything was accounted for and in good condition.
Walking back into her closet, she retrieved her black leather pants and matching vest, and black boots. She would wear that tomorrow night to the tournament party. She also selected a long sleeve white silk shirt just in case she was judging the finals instead of competing for champion. It would look good under the lights, which meant she would look good.
Of course, the more conservative among the tournament organization would expect her attire to be more professional. After 25 years, they should know me better by now. Fuck'em if they don't like it. They should quit inviting me to participate, and stop using my name on the promos.
She placed her sparring gear along with a water bottle, a spare uniform, and one of her black belts in the gear bag. She also added a towel, soap, and shampoo in case there was showering facilities on site. She then set the bag on the floor below where her uniforms and post tournament outfit hung on the closet door. Satisfied that everything was ready for the morning, she set the alarm, climbed into bed and shut off the light.
Turning on the television, she surfed through the channels several times before shutting it off in disgust. Why is there never anything good on when I'm home to watch?
Settling comfortably, Deven let her mind drift to the young landscaper that dominated her thoughts. Her life had changed drastically over the past few months, and Rhian was now an important part of her daily existence. She was a complete loss to explain how or exactly when that had happened.
She'd really missed the woman this week, more than she liked to admit, and the force of emotion she'd felt when Rhian walked into the school tonight concerned her. It was difficult enough learning to deal with emotions in the first place, but to have them so intense made it extremely hard. She often felt herself dodging one feeling just as another blindsided her.
Despite any reservations she had about her emotional state, she was truly looking forward to seeing Rhian tomorrow. You aren't going to have much time to spend with the woman. The tournament was going to be hectic and finding spare time to just spend with her young friend would be difficult at best. But at this point, some time is better then none.
Sleep eventually took her, and her dreams were filled with visions of the blonde imp that had already changed her life in ways she never considered possible. She was awakened some time later by the sound of a child screaming. How could that be? Why would a child be screaming in my house? Tiernan!
She was out of bed and in his room in a matter of seconds. By the time she reached him, his was no longer screaming, but sat huddled on the bed sobbing. Cautiously approaching the boy, she quietly called to him. "Tiernan?"
He didn't seem to hear her, and cried harder, calling out to her. "Mommy!"
She sat near him on the bed. "Tiernan, I'm right here."
His vision cleared as he reached wakefulness, and he regarded her through watery eyes. "Mommy." He crawled to her, and wrapping his small body around hers, he clung to her as if his life depended on it.
"Tiernan, it was just a bad dream. It can't hurt you."
"They took you," he cried.
"Who? Who took me?"
"Those men. They took you away."
"Tiernan, listen to me. I'm right here. No one took me anywhere. See?"
When his crying finally subsided, she carried him to the bathroom and gently wiped his face with a damp washcloth. Returning to the guestroom, she attempted to lay him back down, but he held fast to her. "No, Mommy. I want to sleep with you. Please?"
Her patience was beginning to wear a little thin. "Listen to me, Tiernan. It was just a bad dream. It's over now. Nobody took me anywhere. No one is going to take me anywhere. I'll be here in the morning. Okay?"
Despite Deven's attempts to reassure the child, he would not release his hold on her. She debated what to do about the situation, and finally figured neither one of them would get to sleep anytime soon if she attempted to wait him out, and forcing him would only make matters worse. "Okay, Tiernan." She waited until she had his attention. "But, just this once."
Rising, she walked back to her room with her son firmly attached to her. Once in her bedroom, he eased his hold and she was able to place him on her bed. "Do you want anything? Do you have to go to the bathroom?" He shook his head slowly.
"You okay now?"
He nodded his head, but his eyes still showed the last vestiges of fright produced by the nightmare. He watched her intently, as if afraid she would disappear.
"All right. Go to sleep." She climbed under the covers, and glanced at him. He blinked slowly in an effort to stay awake. "Tiernan, you can close your eyes. I'm not going anywhere, and nothing will get near you while I'm around."
He continued to struggle to stay awake despite her encouragement, but sleep quickly overcame him. Deven lay still, watching her son. She understood the power of nightmares, and wondered if he dreamed a lot. She'd been a dreamer for as long as she could remember, and the nightmares were always particularly vivid. Even now, they still plagued her from time to time though it had been weeks since the last one. As she sighed, Deven rolled over and soon followed her son to what she hoped was a dreamless night for both of them.
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