The young blonde sat quietly, waiting for the anxiety that had gripped her stomach to ease and the tension in her body to melt away. Now that Deven was done competing, Rhian felt herself slowly beginning to relax, and her thoughts shifted from what was to come to the performances she'd witnessed. The competition had been more exciting then she'd anticipated it would be, and far more nerve wracking as well.
Whether the result of years of training or because she was just naturally gifted or perhaps a combination of both, Deven's presence was impressive and pervasive, and her talent was obvious. No one Rhian had seen at this tournament came close to matching the woman's prowess.
Rhian accepted that her opinion was in all likelihood biased, but that did nothing to diminish the fact that Deven was respected. The support shown by the woman's peers, her students, and the audience as a whole, gave Rhian's perceptions of the martial artist some credence.
The MC stepped up on the stage to thank the competitors and the audience for their support of the tournament, and officially announced the end of the competition. As the lights within the venue were turned on, Jay directed the two women towards the exit. They were stopped several times by people offering their congratulations to Jay on the schools good showing and on Deven's victories. Eventually, they reached the door and Nicole looked at Jay expectantly. "Where to now?"
He flashed her a smile. "Now we go on to the tournament party. Deven will get cleaned up and meet us there." Once in the main corridor, he steered his companions towards the party. "So, what did you two think of the evening?"
Rhian shook her head slowly while seeking the words that could express what she thought and felt about the spectacle. None seemed adequate. Her mind's eye filled with images of Deven and how she moved, and Rhian found she was at a loss to articulate the experience.
Nicole filled the silence for her. "It was great. I wish we could have seen you compete though." A brief look passed between Nicole and Jay, and Rhian smiled to herself at the obvious attraction.
"I saw several people from the school here. They seem to think a lot of you and Deven," Rhian added.
Jay nodded his head in agreement and smiled with pride. "We have a good group. They work hard and display a positive attitude. Well, most of the time anyway." Their path was suddenly blocked by a large group of the students, and Jay was pulled into various conversations as memories and interpretations of the evening's events were shared.
Rhian and Nicole stood to the side, listening to the praise expressed for Deven and Jay. It quickly became apparent that in the eyes of these students, their instructors were champions, and the hero worship was undeniable. The young teenagers were the most lively, and Rhian found herself chuckling at their exuberance and colorful dissertations. A couple of the older female students began to openly flirt with Jay, and Rhian sensed Nicole growing uncomfortable.
"They're young, Nic. They've got nothing on you."
"I don't know what you mean."
Her friend's feeble attempt to feign ignorance wasn't lost on Rhian and she grinned. "Right, and I'm completely blind. I know you like him. And I know he's attracted to you."
Nicole looked down at the floor. "Would it do any good to deny it?"
Lifting her head, Nicole looked back over to where Jay stood. "Okay. I like him. He's a nice guy, and funny. Good looking. What's not to like?"
Rhian placed an arm around her friend and laughed softly. "I don't know. You tell me what's not to like."
Nicole sighed. "Nothing."
"Good. I'm glad."
Deven entered the women's locker room, and found a relatively calm space to change. She stripped out of her uniform, grabbed a towel and her bath kit from her bag, and walked to the showers. The hot water relaxed her shoulders and she stood immobile under the steady flow, allowing it to wash away the remnants of the day.
It had been a long day, and though tired, she hadn't felt this good in a long time. The tournament had been a huge success for the schools as well as for her on a personal level. But the best thing of all had been having Rhian there. Knowing that the woman was nearby had made competing fun again. And, yes, I was showing off.
When she'd looked down during the last fight, she'd seen the anxiety on the younger woman's face. Then when she'd won, she'd glanced at Rhian again and the expression of delight that had replaced the one of tension made her heart beat faster. In that moment, she'd felt strangely humbled by the tenderness and depth of Rhian's gaze.
Her musings were suddenly shattered as a naked body pressed up against her back and an arm snaked itself around her stomach. Grabbing the offending appendage, Deven whirled, locking the intruder's shoulder. She applied steady pressure, forcing her assailant to the floor of the shower.
"I give, Deven!" Karen rasped out in pain.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Deven growled. She eased the pressure on the woman's shoulder, but didn't release her hold. Her heart pounded in her chest and the blood flowed rapidly through her veins. You know the answer to that question already, Deven!
"Fulfilling our bargain."
Deven looked at the naked woman at her feet and a wave of desire shot through her. The wager they'd made a few years ago had never been forfeited on. Until now. "Forget it." Deven released the woman and shut off the water.
Karen slowly stood while flexing her shoulder. Stepping closer to the taller woman, she rubbed her breasts against Deven. "Come on now. I never go back on a bet...especially this one." Karen's hands began a slow exploration of Deven's stomach rising up to cup her breasts.
"No more, Karen." Deven could hear her heart beat in her ears, and her body screamed at her to allow this release. The tingle in her groin turned into a raging fire as the flesh swelled, and her nipples hardened in response to the woman's touch.
Karen's other hand moved down between the taller woman's thighs. "Come on, Deven. You know you want to. What shall it be this time? Quick and simple? Kinky?" She grinned. "You want to punish me for that cheap shot?"
Deven felt as if she were fighting a rip tide of pure lust seeking to drown her. In the past, this would have been nothing. She'd always taken great pleasure in Karen, knowing that whatever she demanded of her, the younger woman would do. But things were different now. She was different, and still the desire coursed through her. Taunting her. She grabbed Karen's hand and pulled it away from where it teased her body. "I said no! Things are different now."
Karen looked closely at her mentor. "Different how?"
"Just different. I've changed, Karen. This bet no longer exists, so leave me alone."
The younger woman stared at her in disbelief. "What is wrong with you?" She lifted her hand to her nose and inhaled deeply. Her fingertips glistened with Deven's essence and she made a show of licking them clean. "You want it. You always want it." She smiled wickedly while regarding the taller woman. "So, I'm thinking you must have someone else waiting close by to take care of your needs. Of course, that's never stopped you in the past."
Karen studied the martial artist's face while her mind worked through the possibilities. A thought struck her and her eyes widened at the preposterousness of her idea. "Don't tell me you've fallen for someone!" Her laughter echoed off the walls of the shower, mocking Deven. "How that could be possible is beyond me."
"I'm going to give you a little advice. Shut...UP!" Deven gathered her things, turned and left the shower before she gave into her longing to strike the woman, or worse, take her forcibly. She'd sure as hell like that! What, and you wouldn't, Deven? Her heart raced and she felt each beat mirrored in the throbbing between her legs.
Toweling off quickly, she fought the urges of her body and the turbulence of her mind. It's never going to end. Everyday and everywhere I go, there will always be the past to slap me back to reality. I deserve it. There isn't any doubt about that, but. But what, Deven?
The jubilation that had filled her only minutes earlier now lay in shatters around her. I'm a fool for believing that someone like Rhian could possibly be interested in a fuck up like me, and that I could have a little happiness in this lifetime! For the first time since giving up her son, Deven felt tears threatening, and quickly clamped down on her emotions forcing the pain back into the dark and forbidden recesses of her heart.
She dressed hastily and stormed out of the locker room. Stepping out into the hallway, she walked off in the opposite direction from the tournament party. She wasn't ready to face anyone just yet, especially Rhian. What she felt for the young blonde terrified her at the same time it tended to lift her spirit. She'd never known herself capable of feeling love for another. She'd never considered that someone might actually be capable of loving her.
When she looked into Rhian's eyes, she felt a pull that was almost beyond her control to stop. Almost beyond her desire to stop, and truth was a part of her didn't want to. She wanted to give in to her feelings. To profess her love and hear Rhian repeat those words back to her.
You're an imbecile, Masterson! You're a miserable excuse for a human being, and nothing will ever change that! People like you don't get to love, and be loved. If you've learned nothing else in your life, there is no such thing as a happy ending for you!
Her past and her pain lay upon her like a shroud, and she struggled to free herself of its confines. Her father's voice reached out from the grave. "Crying never made you a winner. Fighting did. Quit feeling sorry for yourself! Pull yourself together, and get back in that ring." Yeah? Well, fuck you, Dad. I'll see you in hell.
Walking the quiet corridor, she willed her mind to calm as she pushed all thoughts of the past to recede. By the time she reached the entrance to the party, her composure was back though her heart remained heavy. Karen's words echoed in her mind. "How that could be possible is beyond me, too," she murmured.
The sound of cheers and whistles heralded Deven's entrance to the party, and the martial artist strode into the room with her head held high and her attitude of confidence firmly in place. The turmoil initiated by her run in with Karen in the showers had been firmly, if only temporarily, forced back in the recesses of her mind. Slowly negotiating her way through the crowd, she nodded to her peers, shook a few hands, and politely signed autographs.
Rhian watched Deven maneuver her way across the room, and was surprised by the force of her reaction to the woman. Deven was dressed similarly to the way she'd been the first time they met, with the exception that the tall woman wore only her leather vest with no shirt underneath, and the cut accentuated the curve of her breasts.
Her eyes slowly tracked up Deven's smooth throat to her face, and Rhian paused, overcome with the feeling that something was not quite right. She stared more closely at the dark haired woman and studied her movements. Though Deven appeared at ease, her carriage was somewhat stiff. Her normally graceful motions seemed contrived. What is that about? Did she get hurt?
Rhian's eyes met Deven's briefly, and though the martial artist smiled at those around her, the smile never reached her eyes. Instead, Rhian saw the flicker of a shadow lurking in the blue depths where before they'd been clear and bright. Now they held a slightly haunted look, reflective of the demons the hid deep inside the woman. What happened?
Deven glimpsed Rhian staring at her, and the look on the younger woman's face added to her sense of melancholy. Maybe I made a mistake. She didn't want Rhian to see her only as a martial artist, and yet, she understood it was a fundamental part of who she was. She was good at it. She'd been doing it most of her life, and had succeeded beyond the expectations of many.
But seeing the younger woman look at her now, she feared that Rhian would limit her vision to the hero worship so often displayed by her students and the circuit groupies. What does it matter, Deven? Hero worship or disdain. Take you pick. You don't actually think there will be anything more, do you?
Forging a path through the crowd, Deven made her way to stand in front of the blonde. "Hi."
"Are you okay?" Rhian asked.
"Nothing," Deven said. "What makes you think something is wrong?"
"I can sense it, and I can see it in your eyes." Rhian reached out and took Deven's hand. "So, tell me. What's wrong?"
Deven stood, debating with herself whether or not to continue to deny that anything was wrong. Why is it so hard to just shut her out? She looked around the crowded room, everywhere but at the woman holding her hand. She grew concerned that if she looked directly into this woman's eyes, the compulsion to divulge everything would take over. "I'm...it's really nothing. I've just been thinking about some stuff."
"Obviously, it isn't very happy stuff." Deven's evasiveness didn't go unnoticed. "What can I do?"
Deven slowly shook her head. "Nothing. I need to sort through some things."
Rhian continued her quiet observation of the martial artist. She couldn't begin to explain why she was compelled to ease the things that seemed to torment this woman. "Can they wait until tomorrow?"
Deven looked down at their joined hands and then at Rhian's face. "Yeah. I suppose they can."
"Good. Then put them from your mind and enjoy yourself. If you decide you want to talk about whatever it is that's bothering you, I'm a pretty good listener." She gave Deven's hand a small squeeze. "You were great by the way. Though you had me nervous with that last fight."
Deven chuckled to Rhian's delight. "Piece of cake."
"You could have fooled me. Why didn't you just kick her ass and get it over with? Not enough drama for you?"
The martial artist smiled broadly at her. "Now where is the fun in that?"
Their eyes met and held causing Rhian's breath to catch, and she knew with certainty that she was in trouble. Her love for this woman seemed to grow with each passing moment, and she was no longer certain that she could just walk away.
Deven swallowed back the words that struggled to be set free. She leaned forward and brushed her lips against Rhian's cheek. "Thank you."
The blush rose quickly, and Rhian searched the other woman's face. She noted that Deven's normally strong features seemed tempered with tenderness. "For what?"
"For being you. And for caring enough about me to ask if I was okay."
Forgetting where they stood or the resolve she'd made earlier in the evening, Rhian reached her hand up and lightly stroked a small scratch on the taller woman's cheek. "Anytime."
Leaning slightly into the touch, Deven smiled. "I just might hold you to that."
Okay, a change of subject would be good right about now. Rhian looked closer at the abrasion. "Did you get this in the fight?"
"What?" She ran her own fingers along the scrape. "I guess so."
"Does it hurt?"
"Nah. I didn't even realize it was there." What she did realize was that she actually felt better. Rhian had a way of touching her as if she was caressing her on the inside. Her spirits lifted and she smiled a full smile that lit up her eyes and chased the demons away.
"Ah, there you are, Masterson." The head judge from the evening's events approached them.
Deven looked at Rhian and rolled her eyes. "Yes, Dan, here I am. Dan Evers, this is my dear friend Rhian McKenna. Rhian, this is Dan Evers."
Dan took Rhian's hand and shook it firmly. "Nice to meet you, Ms. McKenna. Deven, I was wondering if you would do me a favor and settle an argument for me?"
Deven laughed. "Please, tell me you don't want me to hit anyone?"
The older martial artist laughed as well. "No. I have my own students for that." He winked at Rhian and she saw the merriment twinkle in his eye. "This is school policy stuff. I could use your input especially if it concurs with mine."
Deven was preparing to decline when Rhian spoke up. "Go ahead. I'm going to find Jay and Nicole and see what they're up to."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. I'll catch up to you later."
"Okay. Make sure Jay takes care of you. I'll see you in a bit." Deven smiled at her before turning to follow Dan.
Rhian didn't go in search of Nicole right away. Instead she stood quietly for a moment watching Deven walk away. I'm in trouble here. Big trouble.
Standing to one side of the large room, Rhian waited for Jay and Nicole to return from the dance floor. She'd spent most of the past couple of hours observing people dance, talk and drink while her mind sought to assimilate and understand the unexpected turn her life had taken.
She loved Deven. Heck, I'm in love with her. Who would have ever guessed I would find myself in this situation and with Deven Masterson no less? How do I walk away from her? And if I don't walk away, how do I pretend my feelings don't exist? I don't know that I can. So, what do I do?
She was truly at a loss and regretted that there was no one to talk through her thoughts and feelings with. She had considered approaching Nicole, but fear stopped her. She didn't think Nicole would stop loving her, but the uncertainty of how her friend might react kept her mute.
Since Deven had walked away with Dan Evers, Rhian hadn't had an opportunity to speak with her again. She' d caught glimpses of the woman periodically conversing with one peer or another, her students and their parents, and various other fans. The tall martial artist stood out in the crowd more from her extraordinary presence than her actual physical stature.
The evening had afforded her an opportunity to surreptitiously watch Deven. The woman was beautifully proportioned not in the least gangly despite her long limbs and height, and she moved with a fluid grace. Years of honing her martial arts skills had created a person who was comfortable with her body. Something Rhian envied.
Deven knew that Rhian had been observing her throughout the evening as she'd made it a point to keep an eye on the young woman to ensure she wasn't bothered by anyone. Now she stood slightly behind Rhian struggling to get the emotions this woman provoked under control. It was a struggle she was beginning to grasp was perhaps a losing battle. You're going to have to make a decision soon about what to do with this woman. Whether or not to surrender to or retreat from all these feelings. Surrender? Retreat? Can I just end this and never see her again? Deven ran a hand across her chest, feeling the pounding of her heart beneath the skin. Apparently not.
Deven stepped up behind the younger woman and whispered into her ear. "Hi there. I have a feeling I know you from somewhere, but for the life of me I can't remember where. Have we met?"
Rhian jumped slightly and then laughed as Deven's words brought up memories of their first meeting. The woman's chest lightly brushed against her back, and Rhian wasn't sure if the sudden wave of heat she felt came from the martial artist or her own body. That most definitely didn't happen the first time. "No, I'm sure we've never met," she answered innocently.
"Well, I think I can fix that." Deven leaned in closer. "Dance with me," she whispered.
A tremble made it's way through Rhian's body. "What about your students?"
Stepping around the smaller woman so they were face to face, Deven settled her hands at the swell of Rhian's hips. "I suppose that could be a problem. Are you ready to leave all this excitement?"
Rhian's arms rested easily on top of the taller woman's. "I think the question should be, are you ready? You've earned this."
Deven glanced around the room. "I've had enough." She looked into Rhian's eyes and smiled. "What do you say we go back to my house, order something to eat and have that midnight swim? Though I suppose it's well after midnight now. You did bring a swim suit with you, right?"
"We could do that. Actually I'm starving. Can we get a pizza? And yes, I did bring one. You seemed adamant about it."
Long arms encircled Rhian, drawing her closer, and Deven's lips twitched slightly. "Pizza, huh?" I can do pizza two nights in a row, if it makes this woman happy. "Okay, you have a deal. Thank you for coming to the tournament tonight. It meant a lot to me to have you here. "
Rhian was acutely aware of where the martial artist's body touched her own, and the sensations she was feeling from that contact were playing havoc with her ability to think. "I'm...uh, I'm glad you invited me. I truly enjoyed it."
Deven studied the blonde's face, taking in the slight flush of Rhian's skin and the sparkle in her verdant eyes. If I just dip my head, I can kiss her. Tracing the outline of the blonde's lips with her eyes, Deven felt her mouth suddenly go dry. You have no idea what you do to me. Taking a deep breath, she released her hold on the smaller woman and took a step back. "Let's go find the other two and get out of here."
They caught up with Jay and Nicole on the dance floor. Both friends were just as eager to depart, and after retrieving Deven's gear, the four headed to the exit. Flanked by the two martial artists, Rhian and Nicole each carried one of the Championship plaques Deven had won.
Jay glanced at Deven several times. Her normal post tournament cockiness wasn't present, nor was the relaxed state that a romp with Karen usually produced. Perhaps it hadn't gone well this time. "So, did Karen fulfill the bet? Sometimes I almost think she loses on purpose."
Deven chose to ignore him in the hopes he'd just drop the subject. Jay, please don't. Not now.
"Bet?" Nicole asked.
He laughed easily. "Years ago Deven and Karen made a bet."
"Shut up, Jay," Deven snapped. This isn't happening!
The man's attention was completely on Nicole, and he was oblivious to the dangerous glint Deven directed his way. "Whenever they fight, whoever loses has to perform whatever sexual act the winner wants. Of course, Deven never loses." He lifted his gaze then and the look in his friend's eyes chilled him. "What?"
Deven could feel Rhian's stare. This night had been a roller coaster of emotional energy and sexual tension, much of which remained pent up inside her. Jay had no idea how close he was to being the focal point on which that energy would be released.
Her hands closed into tight fists as visions of striking the man in the mouth filled her head. Stopping abruptly, she stepped behind the other two women, and grabbed Jay's arm spinning him around to face her. "You have a big mouth," she hissed.
Instinctively, Jay held up his hands. "What? It isn't like everyone doesn't know about it."
Deven grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him forward until their noses were almost touching. "Not...EVERYONE...knew about it until you shot off your mouth."
He swallowed audibly. What is she talking about? She's never made a secret of her exploits. In many ways, he'd always been jealous of her ability to seduce women, but he'd never envied her inability to fall in love. Fall in love? That thought triggered something in the back of his mind. Understanding slowly seeped into his conscientiousness. His conversation with Deven months ago about the way she overreacted to Rhian came back to him along with the subtle changes in Deven's behavior since the young blonde had come into her life. And finally, the vision of the two women hugging this morning entered his head.
He looked over at Rhian and then back at his friend. He could see the pain in her eyes, and wished that he'd never mentioned the bet. How could I be so stupid? "I...I'm sorry, Deven."
Releasing her hold on his shirt, she spoke only loud enough for him to hear. "Just as well. She needs to know the truth about me. Thanks for the reality check, bro." Brushing past him, she resumed her journey towards the exit. She needed to get out of there quickly. The crowd was closing in on her as the past continued to nip at her heels, and she sought escape with a desperation that was foreign to her.
"Deven, wait!" he called out.
Ignoring him, she continued to distance herself from Rhian. The one person in her wretched life that had unintentionally taught her what it felt to love someone and how easily a heart could break.
Rhian had watched the heated exchange between the two friends. The cold anger that filled Deven's eyes was more unsettling than the revelation that the woman had just had sex with one of the competitors. Bets for sex were beyond Rhian's comprehension. She didn't doubt that such things existed, but never had anything like that entered her world - until now.
Deven was a stranger to her no matter how familiar she might seem or how much she'd learned about the woman so far. There was no doubt Deven was a powerful woman. She possessed the unyielding focus of a hunter one moment and the confused rage of a wounded animal the next. Both were dangerous, and yet, Rhian never sensed that she was in any danger from this woman. If anything, she felt safer with Deven then anywhere else.
Forcing her feet to move, she started after the tall martial artist. "Would you slow down a bit, please? I don't have your long legs, remember?"
Deven slowed her pace but didn't look at Rhian. She couldn't bring herself to do so. Once again she poised on the verge of tears and it disgusted her. She felt betrayed by her inability to control her actions and emotions. This had never been a problem for her before and the confusion and conflict was building within her. I'm losing it. Get control of yourself, Masterson. NOW!
As they reached the lobby, Karen halted their progress. She stood between Deven and freedom from this growing nightmare. Karen's sights were locked on Rhian, and she slowly scanned the shorter woman from head to foot and back again. Sneering, she looked at Deven. "So, is this the little piece of ass you turned me down for? She doesn't look like much. I sure hope she's worth it."
Deven moved so rapidly, no one could have intervened. She grabbed Karen by the throat with one hand and slammed her body up against the nearest wall. Her tone when she spoke was clear and clipped. "I told you to leave me alone. I won't tell you again. What I do and with whom I do it is none of your fucking business. Do I make myself clear?"
Karen rasped out, "Yes."
Rhian placed a tentative hand on Deven's arm. She could feel the muscles rigid beneath the skin, and her fingers started to gently stroke the martial artist's forearm. "Deven?" The woman didn't respond, and she tried again. "Deven, look at me please."
Slowly turning her head, she fixed your eyes on Rhian's. She expected to see loathing, but instead the blonde's soft eyes gazed back at her with a gentleness that struck her harder than any physical blow could have.
"Let's go, okay?" Rhian asked as she continued her slow caresses.
Deven nodded before shifting her eyes back to Karen. "Before we go, you owe this woman an apology, and I hope for your sake it's sincere."
Rhian tugged slightly on the angry woman's arm. "She doesn't have to do that."
Deven stared into Karen's eyes. "Yes, she does!"
The captured woman turned her head as much as Deven's grip would permit. "I'm sorry I said what I did."
"Apology accepted." Again she pulled on the taut arm and was relieved when Deven released her hold on the woman's throat. Slipping her hand into Deven's, she led them towards the door.
Once outside, the martial artist inhaled deeply of the fresh night air. How could everything have gone so wrong so fast?
Rhian's hand held tightly to hers as they walked silently through the parking lot. Deven realized that the contact had a profound settling effect, and she allowed the younger woman to lead while she focused her efforts on regaining control of the emotions that still rebounded within her.
She was ashamed by her behavior, and couldn't remember the last time she'd allowed that emotion into her world. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be feeling it now. Rhian's presence in her life was by far the best thing that had happened to her and yet, it was the most difficult challenge she'd had to face in a very long time.
There were moments, such as this one, in which Deven felt as if her damaged soul was laid bare in the illumination of this woman's bright spirit, and dealing with her past was becoming more painful each day Rhian remained in her life. Truth is, before Rhian I didn't deal with it. It just was. No explanations and no apologies to anyone. I didn't care who knew and what they knew. And I sure as hell didn't care what they thought. But Rhian? Damn it, I care.
Rhian stopped as they reached Nicole's Jetta. "Where's your truck?"
Turning slightly, Deven gestured over her shoulder to the next row. She stood awkwardly, unsure of what to say. In all the years she'd faced adversaries inside and outside of the ring, she'd never failed to look them square in the eye, and yet, she could not bring herself to look directly at this woman. Instead, her eyes settled on their joined hands, and she swallowed in an attempt to ease the tautness in her throat. "I suppose you'll want to head on home."
"Not yet. You owe me a pizza and a midnight swim," Rhian replied simply.
Lifting her head and gazing off across the parking lot, Deven nodded her head slightly. As Jay and Nicole neared where they stood, Rhian relinquished her hand, and the emptiness of her grasp was echoed in her chest. I can sure screw things up.
Deven's current behavior bothered Rhian. It was in such sharp contrast to the assured woman that displayed unrelenting confidence, and it confused the younger woman. I will not allow this night to end like this.
She turned to face Jay. "You have Deven's keys, right?" He nodded. "Give them to me please." He reached into his pocket and handed the keys over. "Let's get her things together and follow me." Jay did as she asked, and after she opened the back hatch of the Pathfinder, he carefully put all of Deven's things inside. "Okay. You ride with Nicole, and I'm going to ride with Deven. We'll see you back at her house."
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"Yes. She owes me dinner and I intend to collect," she replied matter-of-factly.
Jay looked over at his friend and then back at Rhian. "I'm sorry. I never should have said anything. I didn't realize. I mean, Deven doesn't talk much about her feelings. Never has. I just thought." He found himself at a loss to explain his mistake. "Well, it doesn't matter what I thought. I should have kept my mouth shut. I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
Rhian acknowledged his apology with a slight nod of her head. A part of her was angry with him for having been so callous though she knew it wasn't entirely his fault. She admitted to herself that she was relieved to know that what Jay had suggested hadn't occurred. Rhian was confused that Deven had apparently turned Karen down because of her. She was having a difficult time understanding why Deven had done it and what it meant.
Knowing that she had no hold on Deven didn't lessen her irrational feelings of jealousy. Accepting that Deven was free to sleep with whomever she wanted did not stop the idea of her doing so from being painful. I need to get over this woman and soon. Otherwise I'm going to spend a good part of my time getting my feelings hurt.
Deven and Nicole stood some distance from each other watching Rhian and Jay load the truck. Neither spoke. The martial artist had nothing to say to this woman, and she could tell Nicole was afraid of her. Why wouldn't she be? You really screwed this up, Masterson.
Rhian turned towards them, and called out, "Let's go, Champ." The martial artist slowly walked towards her truck followed by a wary Nicole.
"What's going on?" Nicole asked her friend.
Rhian handed Deven the keys. "Deven and I are going in the Pathfinder, and you and Jay are going in your car."
"Where are we going?"
"Deven invited us to her house for pizza and a swim, remember? So, we will meet up there."
Nicole regarded Rhian with disbelief. "Can I speak to you for a moment?"
"Sure." She faced Deven and was disappointed that the woman still would not meet her eyes. "Don't leave without me." Turning back to Nicole, the two women walked off a little ways.
"Rhian, I don't think this is a good idea."
"Sure it is. Everything's going to be fine."
Nicole was trying to control her temper, but the anger was still evident in her voice. "What makes you think she won't go nuts again and turn on one of us?"
Rhian glanced over at Deven and then back at Nicole. "Because she wouldn't hurt us."
"You don't know that!"
Rhian looked at her childhood friend with unwavering resolve. "Yes, I do. I'm going with her. You can follow or go home." She walked over to the Pathfinder and climbed into the passenger seat without looking back.
Nicole was dismayed by her friend's behavior. What is wrong with you, Rhian? She was struck with a pang of jealousy as she realized that Rhian, without so much as a backward glance, had chosen Deven over her.
Jay gently took Nicole's arm and moved towards her car. "Let's go."
"No! Are you out of your mind? I'm supposed to just idly stand by while Rhian puts her life in that lunatic's hands." She watched as Deven slowly climbed into the driver's seat and started up the truck. Frozen by uncertainty, she watched as the Pathfinder pulled away.
Nicole's jealousy turned to fury. The more Jay attempted to placate her, the angrier she got at him. "Deven Masterson is a lunatic, and Rhian has no business anywhere near her. For some reason, Rhian is completely blind to that woman's aggressive and dangerous personality."
"Nicole, please listen to me." Jay knew she disliked Deven. She hadn't attempted to make her feelings for his friend a secret, and over the past few minutes, the level of her animosity had escalated substantially. She was not listening to him, and he was getting frustrated. "I agree that Deven can be less than pleasant at times, but she won't hurt Rhian. Or you."
The woman put her hands on her hips, and glared at him. "How do you know that, Jay? She turned on you quickly enough, and you claim she's like your sister."
"Maybe that's why," he replied. "You know how siblings are."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Nic, I've known Deven most of my life. She's been through some very tough times, and yes, she has one hell of a temper. You have to remember that Deven and I have fought each other in and out of the ring since we were kids. No matter how angry she gets, she would never really hurt me."
She shook her head in exasperation. "How can you stand it, Jay? She treats you like dirt, and you let her walk all over you."
"I suppose it's because she's my family. I love her. I don't understand her most of the time, but I can't imagine my life without her in it. I accept who she is, Nicole."
"I don't trust her, Jay! And I don't like the fact that Rhian seems oblivious to how dangerous the woman is." Why am I the only one who sees that Deven is a nutcase?
He reached out and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Look, just do me a favor and trust me on this. Deven will not hurt you or Rhian. I can't prove that, however, if we don't go join up with them."
Nicole sighed heavily while shaking her head. "I don't know."
"She can be a lot of fun when she relaxes. You'll see. Please. If not for me, then for Rhian?"
Nicole looked at his hopeful expression. She liked Jay, quite a lot in fact. Enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. "All right. But if she so much as shows an iota of anger or aggression, I am hauling Rhian's butt out of there."
He smiled. "Deal." Placing an arm across her shoulders, he walked her to the car.
Deven stared through the windshield while her mind tried to comprehend why Rhian was acting like nothing had happened. It doesn't make any sense. This day started out so promising and then progressed into the nightmare that would not end. Every time Deven thought things couldn't get any worse, they had, and still despite everything, Rhian was sitting mere inches away from her.
She should have gotten into Nicole's car and sped away without a second thought. Instead, she's insisting that we follow through on the plans for the evening. I just don't get it! And I sure as hell don't get her.
Rhian openly studied Deven's strong profile. She discerned that the woman's features were pensive, and she supposed hers probably were as well. Who are you, Deven? Who are you really under all that anger?
The martial artist felt Rhian's intent gaze. What are you seeing? She cleared her throat before speaking. "I had a little chat with Tiernan last night and it seems that he now has the impression I'm some sort of hero. Did you tell him I could fly?"
Rhian tried not to smile. "Not exactly. I mean, I did tell that him that you flew through the air and kicked my attacker."
Deven glanced at the younger woman. "Please don't do that again. You should know enough about me by now to know that I am far from the hero type. If anything, I am the type the heroes set out to defeat."
"That's not true."
"Yes it is!" The adamancy in her voice startled Rhian. "You don't know!" She took a deep breath. "You have no clue what I've done."
"You keep saying things like that, but never tell me anything," Rhian shot back. "So, let it go or tell me."
Deven snorted. "That would take some time as it covers a lot of sins over a long period."
"I've got lots of time, and I'm more than willing to listen. You're the one who can't seem to get the words out."
Deven felt the anger rising and struggled to keep it confined within her. "Are you so blinded by
this hero worship thing you have going for me that you can't see the truth?"
The younger woman felt her own ire rise. "Whose truth? Yours or reality?" she snapped. "Put your damn ego away for a bit and take a good look around!" She took a deep breath but it didn't quell her anger. "Do you really think so little of me that you believe the only reason I'm here now is because I have a case of hero worship? For you? Give me a break!" Rhian sat back against the seat and crossed her arms across her chest. What a freaken ego! She tried to be patient with this woman, but there were times when Deven just pissed her off.
Deven opened her mouth to retort, but shut it again without uttering a sound. "Why are you here?" she finally managed to ask.
Deven's anguished tone dissipated Rhian's anger. Cocking her head slightly, Rhian examined the other woman's face. Why won't you let me in? Why won't you let someone help you with this pain? "When we left the tournament, it was because I liked you. Now I'm not so sure. I'm not one of your little groupies, Masterson, who hangs on your every word. Hero-worship my ass. If you took your head out of yours once in awhile, you'd know that."
Deven laughed despite herself. This woman continued to amaze her, and no one had ever been able to change her moods like Rhian could. Well, no one since Grandmother.
Unable to maintain the stern faŃade, Rhian laughed as well. "You know, you really have a beautiful smile. You should dust it off and use it more often."
"Oh yeah." She was pleased that Deven appeared more relaxed. "Look, I'll be honest. I did suffer with a case of hero worship. I think all your students do. For me, you're my personal hero because you did save me from Mace, but believe it or not that does not blind me to who you are. I am not so na‘ve." Rhian reached out, and said, "Give me your hand."
Deven allowed the younger woman to take her hand and enfold it in her own. She immediately felt grounded again. How do you do that?
Rhian looked at her intently. "Deven, please let me in."
She attempted to extract her hand, but Rhian held it firmly between both of hers. "You don't know what you're asking," she murmured.
Rhian heard the quiet desperation in the other woman's voice. "I think I do. I'm asking you to do something you haven't allowed yourself to do in a long time, perhaps never."
"Please don't push me now, okay?" Deven asked, her voice barely veiling the underlying plea. "There is so much you don't know. There are things that Jay doesn't even know."
Deven's expression changed, and the deep hurt within the woman seeped out to settle on her features. Rhian found it painful to watch. "You think that by telling me these things, I'll run away from you. Or think poorly of you. Or perhaps hate you." She shook her head as she said, "I don't believe that. What you've done is in the past, not in the here and now." She held firmly to Deven's hand while her thumb strokes the back of it with her thumb. "I will tell you, Deven, you have a temper on you that's downright scary. But I also know, that you won't hurt me."
"You don't know that!"
"Yes, I do!"
Dark eyebrows rose in question as she regarded the blonde woman. "You seem mighty sure of yourself."
Rhian smirked. "Oh, I am. And I'm sure of you - at least in this regard. I keep telling you that I'm your friend. So suck it up, Masterson, and accept that you've met your match," she replied smugly.
Deven released a rich full laugh. Her head was telling her to stop this right now. To end this conversation and this 'friendship', but she couldn't. She was finding that on some level she was growing to need this woman. That discovery terrified her and made it difficult to sever their growing bond. She gave Rhian's fingers a gentle squeeze. "I'm glad you decided to come over, friend."
Rhian caressed the back of the larger hand in her grasp. This was the same hand that had only minutes before held Karen in a death grip, but with Rhian, it was gentle. Deven was gentle. She felt her resolve to put emotional distance between them fade once again. "You're going to have to work a lot harder if you intend to get rid of me."
Deven walked out to the darkened sunroom, and stood quietly. She could see Jay and Nicole sitting side by side on the edge of the pool down below. Their lower legs dangled in the water, sending gentle ripples across the otherwise placid surface. The atmosphere had been strained, and Nicole made no attempt to disguise her obvious dislike for Deven. Can't blame her. She's pretending to be civil. At least whenever Rhian is nearby.
Looking up, she gazed longingly at the full moon. Grandmother? I could sure use your help here. I know I don't deserve it, and you're probably wondering where I get the nerve to even ask. But I'm having a real hard time these days. I don't know what to do. I love her. I didn't intend to. I never thought I was capable of feeling like this. I think she might love me too, and I sure as hell don't deserve that.
Her pale eyes closed, turning her vision inward. I'm afraid, Grandmother. I'm afraid of all the things I'm beginning to feel. I'm afraid of what I feel for her and at the same time that I'm afraid of losing her. I'm afraid to let her know how much I love her, because I know she will come to despise me.
A wave of despair rose up from deep inside the woman, and Deven was almost overcome with dread. Her heart rate increased and her palms grew damp as she struggled to diffuse the emotional chaos that threatened to sweep her away. Opening her eyes once more she stared at the moon. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't bother you."
Allowing her eyelids to close once more, she concentrated on calming the turmoil, focusing her mind on a time in the past when her grandmother had taught her how to soar. She lifted her arms seeking to leave the earthly confines through the gateway of her imagination.
"What are you doing?"
Deven's eyes popped open and stared into soft green orbs. "I didn't hear you come in."
"Sorry." Rhian's curiosity grew with the realization that Deven appeared embarrassed. "Mom says that the kids had a great time, and Tiernan was a perfect gentleman. He seems to have taken a real liking to my father. Anyway, both kids went to bed without any fuss, which is amazing. I guess they wore themselves out playing all afternoon."
"Good." Deven cleared her throat. "I'm glad he wasn't any trouble."
"None." Rhian studied the woman's strong face. Tiny creases were visible at the corners of Deven's eyes, an indication that the woman was bothered about something. "Are you okay?"
"Sure." She gave the smaller woman a weak smile.
"So, tell me. What were you doing?"
Deven reached a hand up and rubbed the back of her neck. "Uh, well, ...it's a game my grandmother taught me when I was a little girl."
Rhian's face lit up and her eyes twinkled. "Really? Show me."
"Oh, I don't know. It's silly. I think she taught it to me because it was a way to get me to slow down for a few minutes."
"Please, show me."
Rhian's entreaty was more than Deven could deny, and she sighed with resignation. "Okay. I'll try." She turned Rhian around so they both faced the windows, and stood directly behind the smaller woman. Placing a hand on either side of Rhian's waist, she stepped closer and then spoke softly in the blonde's ear. "Have you ever seen an eagle fly?"
Rhian shook her head. "Only on television." She found Deven's voice mesmerizing.
"Lean back against me and close your eyes, and breathe slow and easy. Inhale slowly...exhale slowly. Again. Inhale... exhale. Just keep doing that, and don't think about anything else." She felt Rhian's breathing even out into a slow and steady rhythm.
"Good. Just concentrate on breathing." Lifting her arms, she settled her hands on Rhian's shoulders. "Relax. Breathe and relax." Deven gently massaged the muscles in the woman's neck and upper back.
Still using the same soft tone, she slowly explained to Rhian what she wanted her to do. "You're going on a small journey. You're going to fly with Eagle, and see the world as Eagle sees it. Clear you mind of everything except Eagle." She paused allowing the other woman time to absorb the concept.
"Imagine your spirit is inside Eagle. Extend your powerful wings and lift your body into the air. See the earth recede beneath your feet as each stroke of your wings lifts you higher. Feel yourself rising up past the trees as you find an air current on which to rise higher and higher above Mother Earth." Deven slowly brought Rhian's arms out to either side of her body. "Feel the wind beneath your wings and soar. Let your mind see what Eagle sees."
She released Rhian's arms and smiled as the smaller woman's body dipped slightly to one side and then the other as her imagination soared. She waited patiently, allowing Rhian to fully embrace the imagery. "Rise higher. Feel the wind rush under your body lifting you up, and feel it flow across your face."
Rhian tilted her head back, and her body leaned more solidly against Deven's. "Soar over the treetops and watch the world pass below." The blonde head lowered, and Rhian's body moved forward slightly.
Deven realized that given the landscaper's strong imagination and spirit, this game was easy, and she wondered what Rhian was seeing.
She stood quietly watching as Rhian's body responded to the mental images, instinctively placing her hands on the woman's hips when she swayed too far forward. Time ticked by unnoticed by either woman, as they both were lost in the experience.
"You need to return to earth, little bird. Feel yourself slowly circling, getting closer to the ground." She waited, allowing Rhian to follow the image that would bring her back to terra firma. "Lower your feet and tilt your wings to slow your descent." She detected the subtle straightening of Rhian's body. "See the earth getting closer. Watch as your feet touch the ground and your weight settles. Feel your wings fold back in against your body."
Rhian slowly lowered her arms bringing her hands to cover the larger one's on her hips. Taking Deven's hands in her own, she pulled the tall woman's arms around her, and her body leaned back against the martial artist's. "That was incredible," she whispered. "Your grandmother taught you that?"
Deven inhaled deeply, her senses rising. Rhian's perfume filled her nose, and the feel of the woman in her arms fed the temptation to spin Rhian around and kiss her. She mentally shook her head to clear it. "Yes. When I was a child. She was amazing, and my grandfather was quite a character. When I was growing up, I visited them at least once every year, and it was the best part of the year for me." She sighed sadly. "My grandmother taught me many things. She tried to teach me much more, but you know when you're young you believe there's all the time in the world. It was hard for her to get me to sit still and pay attention. I wish I'd listened better."
"Where are your grandparents now?"
"They passed away a few years ago. My grandfather died of cancer. My grandmother passed away shortly after he did. She loved him deeply." Her sight lifted again and settled on the moon. "She always said they were like a mirror in that they reflected one another. Not the same, and not opposites. She said that they complimented each other. I guess she was equating them to soul mates or something."
"Do you think they were?" Rhian asked. "Soul mates?"
Deven shrugged. "I don't know that I believe in such things, but they did."
Rhian gave the arms around her a squeeze. "I'm sorry, Deven. They obviously meant a great deal to you."
"My grandparents were the only ones who never wanted anything from me. They loved me just because of who I was." She took a deep breath, and stepping back a bit, she swallowed with some effort the hurt of having lost that love. "And I loved them very much." She distanced herself from Rhian as if the gesture would also distance her from the past. "How about that swim?"
Rhian turned to face the taller woman. "What about my pizza?"
"If I'm not mistaken, it just arrived." Deven grinned as the doorbell rang.
"Oh, you are good, Masterson."
Deven laughed and wiggled her eyebrows at the younger woman. "My dear, you have no idea."
The laughter trailed off as their eyes met and their gazes held. What passed between the two women was subtle yet more powerful than any passion or desire as they moved beyond the realm of mortal emotion to the ethereal domain in which two souls join in a gentle embrace.
Rhian looked deeply into Deven's darkening eyes, and her stomach quivered. She was certain that the look of surprise on the martial artist's face was mirrored on her own.
The intense feeling was unlike anything that Deven had experienced in her life. A sensation of warmth flowed outward from the center of her chest, and she began to feel a little lightheaded. For a brief instant, she feared something was actually wrong with her physically. A slight uneasiness touched her, as something inside her seemed to burst free and disintegrate. It was replaced by a deep sense of comfort.
The doorbell rang again, and Deven blinked several times as the feeling receded. Were it not for the confused expression on Rhian's face, she would have convinced herself it hadn't happened at all.
The moonlight washed over them, illuminating the smaller woman's fair hair. Rhian's eyes shone brightly in the subdued light, and Deven studied her face as if trying to memorize each of her fine features.
She was reminded of the day that Rhian had stood in this room bathed in a beam of sunlight. The light had seemed to encompass the blonde as the moonlight now did, and Deven felt that the moon's light was not merely reflected off Rhian but was somehow intermingling with her very essence and flowing from within. Her rational mind knew that didn't make sense, and yet, that was how it appeared to her.
The quiet moment was broken by the sound of the incessant doorbell, and the illusion faded. "I need to get that."
"I guess you should." Rhian watched as Deven walked away to answer the door. Turning back to face the windows, she looked up into the night sky. The moon crowned her in soft light, and she felt drawn to it. And as she stared at the bright orb, tranquility filled her.
What just happened? She'd felt a connection to Deven the first time she laid eyes on the woman, and over the past few months that bond had proceeded to increase in strength and intensity. She'd thought it to be an extension of the developing awareness of herself and her feelings for Deven. Until a few minutes ago, she'd believed those feelings to be completely one sided. Now she wasn't so sure.
So much is happening so fast. I should be terrified of all this, but for some reason, I'm not. She smiled up at the moon. "I'm not."
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