No matter how hard her subconscious struggled against it, sleep receded, gradually pushing Rhian up into a state of resented wakefulness. Didn't I just fall asleep? With a great deal of umbrage, she allowed her eyes to flutter open but finding them dry and gritty, she quickly shut them again. "Not yet," she whimpered while pulling the bed sheet over her head.
"Mama? Are you awake?" Seana whispered.
"No." The sound of children’s laughter filtered through the thin covering causing Rhian to smile despite her exhaustion. Funny thing. Their laughter can be as light and pleasant as the twinkling of chimes on a summer breeze or as irritating as nails on a chalkboard. Oh Rhian, way too much thinking already. She blinked her eyes slowly, clearing them of the last remnants of an unfulfilling sleep and lowered the sheet. "Why don’t you wake up Aunt Nicole?"
"Cause I’m already awake, thank you very much," her friend complained from the other side of the bed.
"Yay!" Seana squealed as she clambered up onto the bed and plopped down happily between the two women.
"So much for sleeping in." Rhian glanced over to where Tiernan stood watching, his tentativeness not allowing him to advance to join them. She found his bashfulness endearing but heartbreaking as well. He should be playful and curious, not so afraid of doing something wrong. Sitting up, she leaned her back against the headboard and patted the bed. "Climb on board, Master Tiernan. Dis boat will be sailing soon, and if’n you aren’t on board, you’ll hafta swim. I hear tell dat dere be sharks in dat dere water."
His face brightened perceptibly and, with only a slight hesitation, he advanced to the bed and climbed up to sit next to her. Wrapping an arm around each of the children, she hugged them. "Good morning, my angels. Did you two sleep well?"
"Yes," they answered in unison.
"Rhian?" the young boy asked shyly.
"Yes, little man?"
"Was Mommy okay?"
Rhian looked at his sweet face and smiled. "She was great. And you know what?" He silently shook his head. "She won."
The room was suddenly filled with a racket as both children expressed their exuberance. Rhian winced at the volume. While she appreciated their excitement, she wasn’t quite conscious enough to appreciate their enthusiasm. "Guys, please tone it down a little. We’re all happy Deven won, but I’m not completely awake yet and Aunt Nicole is apt to punish us all if we don’t hush up."
Rolling over, Nicole glared at them. "You got that right." Undaunted, Seana pressed her forehead against her mother’s friend and returned the woman’s scowl before dissolving into giggles.
"All right you two," Rhian said. "Let’s go upstairs and see what’s for breakfast." The children were off the bed and out the door before her feet settled on the floor. "Guess they’re hungry. What about you, grumpy?"
Nicole rolled away from her. "Not yet."
Rhian stood up and stretched before following the children. Her body protested the lack of rest but she ignored the fatigue, forcing herself towards the kitchen. As she neared the top of the stairs, her stomach rumbled in response to the unmistakable aroma of cooked bacon and she lightly patted her belly. Just like Pavlov's dogs. How can I possible be hungry after all the pizza and ice cream I ate? Was that last night or early this morning? A small grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. I suppose it doesn't really matter which it was cause it was great.
Taking her seat at the kitchen table, Rhian eagerly dug into the breakfast her mother had made while listening to her family’s easy banter. Her eyes settled on Tiernan and she mused at how relaxed he seemed to be with her family. Let's hope it all comes together this easily. Her eyes widened in alarm and she quickly curbed her thoughts. Wow, hold up!
"Rhian, are you okay?" The concern in Kate’s voice was obvious and everyone around the table grew quiet, shifting their attention to the young woman.
Glancing at each face in turn, she noted the questioning looks. "Sure. Just tired." Bowing her head, she returned to eating, hoping that everyone else would do the same. Slow down, Rhian. It was just a couple of kisses. Nothing more. Don’t start making it into something else. I mean, come on. She might have changed her mind already. But, even as Rhian cautioned herself to steer clear of such wishful thinking and stay rooted in reality, her excitement grew.
As the morning progressed towards noon, Rhian’s restlessness increased substantially, filling her with excessive energy. The anticipation made it near impossible for her to stay still for long and her nearly incessant motion did not go unnoticed by Kate. "Rhian, I do not know what has gotten into you but if you don’t get out of my way right now, I will take my wooden spoon to your backside. Now out of my kitchen!"
The young woman made a hasty retreat just in case her mother decided to make good on the threat. What has gotten into me? I've never acted like this. But then, I've never felt like this. I feel. I feel great! She wandered over to the front window and looked out at where Nicole’s car had been parked. A wee bit of guilty relief caused her to sigh. A lot of the tension from the previous night had dissipated but that did nothing to quell the concern that a confrontation between Nicole and Deven would have been inevitable if her friend had stayed.
Too tired to deal with that possibility and not wanting to risk it happening in her parents’ home, she’d been glad when her friend had left. She wasn’t ready to disclose to her family the changes taking place in her life, and another antagonistic encounter between the two women was sure to raise a lot of questions. Questions she was only beginning to contemplate and was nowhere near ready to answer, even within herself.
The Pathfinder pulling into the driveway caught her eye and derailed all her negative thoughts. In her haste to get to the front door, Rhian almost collided with Kate. The scowl her mother gave her didn’t go unnoticed and she quickly apologized. "Sorry, Mom. I was just going to get the door." With deliberate intent, she reined in her eagerness and slowly walked to the front door, reaching it just as the doorbell rang. Opening the portal, she cheerfully greeted the martial artist, aware that she was grinning like a love struck nitwit but unable to stop.
Deven took a few seconds to just consider the blonde haired woman. All morning she’d been worried that Rhian would be anything but pleased to see her again, but the smile she was receiving made it obvious that was not the case. "Good morning to you. Are you okay?"
"Me? I’m great. How about you?"
"I’m good," Deven replied coyly.
Stepping back out of the way, Rhian opened the door wider. "Come on in. Tiernan isn’t here at the moment. Dad took both kids to the store with him." Placing a hand around the underside of Deven’s upper arm, she directed the tall woman down the short hall to the kitchen. "Mom, this is Deven Masterson. Deven, my mother, Kate."
The martial artist crossed the room with two long strides and extended her hand to the older woman, and Rhian bit her lip to keep from laughing outright as she watched her mother take in the woman’s stature. "It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Mackenzie," Deven said. "Thank you for watching my son. I hope he wasn’t too much trouble."
Two things struck Kate immediately. The first was how strikingly beautiful the woman was despite her size, and the second was how much Tiernan favored her. "Please call me Kate. And your Tiernan is a delight. He was no trouble at all."
Deven nodded and smiled politely. "I’m glad to hear that."
"Deven, can I get you something to drink?" Kate asked.
"No thank you, ma’am." She spared a glance at Rhian, and the slight look of discomfort on the martial artist’s face mobilized the younger woman to step forward. Creating an opportunity to spend time alone, she offered Deven a tour of her living area downstairs. No sooner were the two women out of Kate’s sight then the younger woman slipped her hand into Deven’s. She felt the longer fingers coil around her own, and smiled at the pleasant warmth that the connection kindled in her chest.
Deven allowed herself to be led down the stairs to the lower level of the house. She found the space to be cozy if a tad cluttered and smiled inwardly with the realization that it was relatively close to how she’d pictured it in her mind. Strolling over to the drafting board, she studied the design that lay there, silently acknowledging that the landscaper’s talent was truly impressive. She thinks I'm an artist? I can't draw anything straight unless we're talking women or poker. "I will never understand how you can do this."
Rhian was bemused and asked, "What? Draw?"
"Well, that, but more importantly how you create the image. How you see the design in your head and then transfer it to paper."
Rhian shrugged. "I don’t know. I’ve always been able to do that. My father says I used to sit in the office at the garden center and draw for hours. When I got old enough to wander around the nursery, I would find a quiet spot among the plants and sketch what I saw."
She gently tugged the taller woman towards the other rooms. "This is Seana’s room. As you can see, it’s a mess. I haven’t had time to get in here and shovel it out." Looking up she saw that Deven’s expression had turned thoughtful. "What are you thinking about?"
"I was just noticing all the toys and wondering how many Tiernan has. I don’t really know what all he owns." Her eyes settled on her son’s stuff toy. "I was shocked that he still has that bear. I think I need to have a closer look at his stuff when I drop him off today. That is, I’ll take inventory right after I ream my mother."
"Ream your mother? Why?"
Deven's eyes narrowed slightly. "Apparently she was talking to someone on the phone and referred Tiernan as my bastard. I don't mind that so much, after all it is technically the truth, but she did it where he could hear her and that I can't forgive."
Rhian found the thought that Patricia would refer to the child in such a way offensive and to have done it where the boy could hear her was cruel. "What a bitch! May I come with you and kick her butt? Please? It would give me an opportunity to use some of the kicks you’ve taught me."
The tension lessened and Deven laughed at the younger woman’s bravado. "Not this time, tiger. Besides you have to work today, don’t you?"
"Unfortunately. I have a survey this afternoon. Lucky for her."
"I’m sure." Deven lifted their joined hands and placed a small kiss on Rhian’s knuckles.
"I have a feeling that one of these days your mother and I are going to have a serious talk." Oh yeah. I've got an earful for that woman!
The martial artist looked around at Seana’s things once more. "I’m not really very good at this, you know? The mother thing."
Rhian gave the woman's hand a slight squeeze. "You just need some practice. Your mother is terrible at it and shouldn't be allowed within thirty miles of children. Or you for that matter."
Their eyes met and Deven was dumbfounded by the compassion she saw there. "Yeah, well, I’m a big kid now," she stammered. "I can take care of myself."
A smile teased Rhian's lips. "Kid being the operative word."
Deven scowled but her eyes twinkled with mirth. "Is that your polite way of calling me childish?"
"Who me? Would I do that?" she asked innocently while giving the woman’s hand a slight tug and leading her toward another door. "This is my room." She paused uncertainly for a moment and then pulled the martial artist across the threshold and pushed the door almost shut. All reason vanished as her world narrowed to Deven’s lips upon her own.
Rhian felt the long arms wrap around her waist, drawing their bodies together. Acting on impulse, she lifted her hands and settled them behind the martial artist’s neck. Deven’s lips and tongue began a sensual exploration while strong hands kneaded the muscles of her back and she leaned into the taller body.
Breaking the kiss, Deven followed the line of Rhian’s jaw, kissing and nipping the skin before settling her attention lower on the blonde’s neck. Rhian’s head tilted back and she hissed when Deven bit down on a sensitive spot. Goose bumps rose up on her flesh but before she could consider the reaction, she felt as well as heard the martial artist’s growl of frustration as footsteps sounded on the stairs.
Her response to this woman fascinated her. The rapid beat of her heart, the shallowness of her breathing, and the pervasive flush drawing warmth to her flesh, especially between her legs, piqued her inquisitive nature. Resting her forehead against Deven’s shoulder, she concentrated on calming herself back down. How does she do that?
"Yes, Seana." Lifting her head, Rhian loosed her hold to caress Deven’s face. Reluctantly, she stepped away from the other woman and opened the door. "I’m right here," she called out to the child.
"We’re back!" The little girl ran forward and wrapped her arms around Deven’s legs. "Hi, Deben."
The child's affectionate manner took Deven off guard. "Hi, Seana," she managed to reply.
"Hi, Mommy," Tiernan said.
Deven shifted her attention from the child attached to her leg to her son. "Hey, T. Did you have a good time?"
"Yes," he answered while nodding his dark head. A broad smile brightened his features. "Mommy, Rhian said you won!"
Deven ran her fingers through his tousled hair. "Yeah. Now I reckon we need to get out of Rhian’s way so she can go to work. I need to drive you to Laura’s." She watched his smile fade. You don't understand, son. One of these days I hope you will know this was for your own good. She knew that Rhian didn't understand any more then Tiernan did, and she shifted uncomfortably under the woman's watchfulness. "Go on, son. Go get your things, and don't forget the bear."
Seana looked up at Deven. "Does Tiernan have to go?"
Rhian swore her daughter appeared just as disappointed as the boy did. Hugging Tiernan, she addressed both children. "Unfortunately, he does. But he can come back to visit, and maybe, we can go with Deven to visit him. Would you like that Tiernan?"
He gave her a small sad smile. "Yes," he answered softly.
"Good." She patted his back comfortingly. "Now get your things together."
Seana took his hand. "I’ll help you."
As the children moved into the little girl’s bedroom, Deven leaned forward stealing a brief but erotically enticing kiss. "Thank you. I’ll call you later."
"I’m counting on it." Rhian cocked her head slightly and grinned. I could get real used to those kisses.
Ten days later, Rhian stepped back from her drafting board while critically eyeing the design that lay there. She’d been working on this simple plan for nearly a week, and progress thus far was inconsequential. Her inability to concentrate and the loss of creative inspiration was growing increasingly annoying, and she had no qualms about blaming that problem on Deven.
The more she tried to understand what was happening between them, the more the anger and hurt deepened. She knew that her behavior was baffling to her family but couldn’t conceive of any way to explain the situation to them without telling them about her fondness for the martial artist. As confused as she was about everything, she at least had the benefit of understanding that the reason for her bad temper lay with Deven.
Nicole had born the brunt of much of her foul mood and Rhian regretted that she sometimes took her frustrations out on her best friend instead of directing them where they should have gone – at Deven. Instead, Rhian avoided talking about the situation. She just couldn’t face hearing the proverbial ‘I told you so’.
The sadness that seemed to always be lurking nearby settled in her heart as she thought back over the past week. Deven had steadily backed away from her. She spoke little and when she did it was generally no more than absolutely necessary. Deven was not much of a talker to begin with but she had grown more reticent.
"I just don’t understand," she said to the empty room. The situation was almost constantly on her mind, and she’d convinced herself that she’d done something wrong. During one of their brief telephone conversations, Deven had said that the problem wasn’t with Rhian but wouldn’t say any more on the subject. Not me? Right. It's always me.
When we kissed that first time, it was incredible. And stupid me believed that Deven felt the same. Apparently not. Reaching up she wiped away a single tear. Rhian, you are such a stupid ass!
The breach between them continued to grow, and Rhian felt certain that Deven was creating it on purpose. The martial artist spent most of her time at her other schools as if to ensure they couldn’t run into each other. On the two occasions Deven had been at the location near the garden center, she’d been uncommunicative.
They spoke on the phone only if Rhian initiated the call. The conversations had no depth and this inability to reach Deven was weighing heavily on her heart. I'd prefer she just tell me to get lost than this treatment.
"If she doesn’t want you, Rhian, she doesn’t want you. Grow up!" Refusing to give into the tears, she shut off the light and headed for her bedroom anticipating another restless night.
Deven fought to break free of the terror. Wake up, Deven. Wake up! She shot up off the mattress as her consciousness finally severed the bond her nightmare had held. Standing next to the bed, her heart pounding painfully in her chest, she struggled to breathe. "FUCK!"
With her voice still echoing off the walls, she examined her hands fully expecting to see them covered with blood. When she turned on the bedside lamp and saw no crimson stains, relief surged through her veins making her almost dizzy. Slowly flexing her hands, she felt no stiffness or pain, confirming that she’d had yet another dream.
Running a trembling hand through her dark hair, she sat down on the bed. Tomorrow morning she would be seeing Dr. Martin but in the meantime, she knew there would be no more sleep for her this night. There hadn’t been much sleep at all for the past week. Each night the nightmares had grown more vivid and frightening and each night she had grown more certain that the dreams were a warning. I can't be with Rhian. Not now. Not ever.
Pulling the blanket off the bed, she wrapped it around her body and headed downstairs. In the kitchen she started coffee, and on impulse she picked up the phone. Selecting a number on her speed dial, she waited for the call to connect.
"Hello?" a weary voice answered.
Deven spoke softly. "Hi."
"Deven?" Kelly asked.
"Did I wake you?"
"Actually, no. I was just finishing up on some work." The lawyer looked at the clock on her desk. "Are you okay?"
"I’m okay, Kelly. Just having a hard time sleeping."
"Wouldn’t have anything to do with a petite blonde landscaper would it?
"What?" Deven almost shouted.
The other woman laughed. "I ran into Jay and Nicole the other day. He said that you and Rhian seemed to be hitting it off. I don’t think Nicole is too taken with you though."
Deven snorted. "As if I care. Nicole can bite me." Then her voice softened again. "As for Rhian, I think it’s best if we don’t see each other."
"You know me, Kelly. I’m definitely not a one woman…woman."
The lawyer thought for a moment before replying. "You could be if you let yourself. I think you’re getting cold feet, my friend."
Deven chuckled. "I think you’re nuts, my friend."
"Perhaps." She had known Deven for several years and what Rhian roused in the woman went far beyond anything anyone else had ever even touched. "Deven, don’t give up on this. Rhian is special."
"I know that, Kelly. That’s why this is definitely a bad idea. I’m no good for her."
"Oh, stop it! The only one you’re no good for is yourself." She waited for Deven to retort and was nearly stunned when the martial artist said nothing. "Deven, don’t do anything rash, okay? Give it some time. To build something, anything, with someone takes time and a concerted effort. That there’s a bond between the two of you is obvious. Give that bond a chance to strengthen."
Deven examined her reflection in the kitchen window. You look like shit, Masterson. "Yeah. I guess you’re right. I’ll think about it." Not!
"Why don’t I believe you?" Kelly asked.
"I don’t know. Look, I’ll talk to you later."
"Fine, Deven. Blow me off but if you end this now, you’re making the worst mistake of your life."
Not the worst, Kelly. "Yeah…yeah. Night."
"Good night, Deven. Give me a call if you need to talk, or come on over. Whatever. And try to get some sleep."
"I’ll try. Bye." Hanging up the phone she wondered what Rhian was doing. Sleeping most likely. I hope so anyway.
Pulling the blanket tighter around her body, she walked into the living room and flopped down on the sofa. The television would be her company through another long night.
Sarah Martin scrutinized Deven. The martial artist’s posture was rigid, and she stood staring out the window. It occurred to Sarah that the younger woman’s current behavior was more reminiscent of the woman she had been long ago – not the woman who had been opening up over the past few weeks.
They'd been talking for over thirty minutes, and yet, Deven hadn't said anything about what was truly bothering her. She was obviously distraught about something and seemed to be operating on nervous energy. The dark circles under her eyes indicated she wasn't sleeping, and Sarah pondered at what could have happened to cause such a set back. "How are things going with Rhian?" she asked.
"I need to end it with her." The stiffness seemed to ebb out of Deven’s back and her shoulders slumped.
"Why?" Deven didn’t move nor did she make any attempt to respond. "Deven, why?" she coaxed gently. The younger woman’s torment was evident to the doctor but Sarah still wasn’t sure of the exact cause. "What has happened?"
"I allowed myself to love someone." Deven rested her forehead against the glass. "How could I let that happen?
"I don’t know that you had a choice there. What has happened most recently? The last time we spoke you were almost happy with the way things were going."
The martial artist whispered her answer as if afraid that to speak it out loud would make the torture real. "The nightmares."
Sarah nodded in understanding. The dreams, one in particular, had a substantial hold on this troubled woman. It alone had been responsible for some of the biggest choices Deven had made in recent years. "You’re dreaming again. The same dream?"
"Yes. I have the damn thing every night now! It starts out as always but then in the end it’s Rhian."
"Like before when it would turn into Tiernan," the doctor prodded.
Sarah leaned forward in the chair. "I think we should look at this a bit more before you make such an important decision." From what she understood, Deven hadn’t had the dream in some time, and Sarah found its resurgence to be significant. "When do you usually have the dream?"
"When I’m asleep."
"Deven," she reproached.
This is what you came to talk about, Deven. So start talking. "Off and on. After I left here the first time, I didn’t have it much at all until my father died. Then maybe once or twice a year. After Tiernan was born it got worse and much more often. When he went to live with Laura, it stopped. Over the past four years, the dream comes and goes. Not very often really, until now. In the past week I haven’t had one night that wasn’t plagued by the damn thing." For the first time since arriving for their appointment, Deven turned and faced the doctor. "It scares the fuck out of me. Don’t you see? If I don’t end this, something bad will happen."
Sarah held up her hands. "Whoa there. Slow down. I don’t see that at all."
"How can you say that?"
"I can say it because your interpretation and mine are decidedly different. I see a woman who is afraid she might repeat a mistake she made in the past. I see a woman who is afraid to move forward emotionally. This dream is not a premonition, Deven. It is a manifestation of your fears and guilt. I see it as a justification for you to run away from feeling, from loving and allowing someone to love you. Seems like a mighty convenient way to not have to face anything."
She studied the younger woman. It was so difficult to read this woman at times, but today, Deven’s emotional confusion made her unusually receptive. "What are you afraid of, besides those points I’ve already made?
Deven released a resigned sigh. "I’m afraid to tell her everything. I’m afraid of how she’ll see me."
"And those are legitimate and very human fears."
"If I end it, I don’t have to tell her. If I tell her, she ends it and forever sees me as a monster. I guess it’s the lesser of two evils."
"Or," Sarah jumped in, "You don’t tell her and you end it, you break her heart, and she forever hates you. However, what if you tell her and she stays? What if she learns the truth of the past and decides you’re not some sort of monster, but someone who once made some bad choices? If you don’t give her the chance to make up her own mind, you’ll never know the answer. And you may well end the best friendship of your life for nothing."
Silence hung in the small office, but Sarah believed that the young woman was listening. "Deven, she’s already seen you in situations in which you were not your most civil and still she chooses to be with you. She could have left at the tournament after the altercation with Karen, and instead, she put her hand in yours and went with you. She did. She chose. Let her continue to do so."
"I love her, you know? I’ve…I’ve never felt like this about anyone before."
That plaintive declaration was the most honest and heartfelt Sarah had ever heard from this woman. "I know. It’s hard. You should be honest with her but more importantly, you need to be honest with yourself."
Deven crossed her arms across her chest and leaned back against the window. "I was kind of hoping you would give me some pointers."
"I was of the impression that I was."
"No, I mean about how to tell her. How to end it."
"Are you listening to me?"
The aggravation was evident in the doctor’s voice, and Deven flinched slightly. "Yes, I’ve been listening. I should tell her and let her decide whether or not to stay. But what if she leaves me? What then?"
Sarah took a deep breath. "Well, then you’ll have the answer and we can work through the rest. I’m not going to leave you floundering. I’m not sending you out there to face this challenge lightly. I understand the ramifications and I’m here for you." She watched the younger woman nod slightly. "Deven, try not to write the story."
"People have a propensity to make up stories in their heads of how things will play out. About what they believe will happen. Most times, those stories are far removed from reality. If you must write what you think will happen then write it so that you win. Write it so that Rhian stays. Don’t assume the worst."
"Huh." Deven considered the idea. "I’ll try but I’m not making any promises."
"Fine, as long as you give it an honest effort. That’s all I ask."
For the first time that day, Deven grinned. "You’re always asking more and you know it."
Sarah returned the smile and nodded her head. "I suppose you’re right." She contemplated the woman’s dilemma. "Deven, are you prepared if Rhian stays?"
The martial artist simpered. "Doc, I’m always prepared."
"Very funny, Deven. I’m asking if you’re prepared to build a relationship with this woman? No more one night stands. No more lone wolf behavior. The me thinking replaced with we thinking. Are you willing to work through all that?"
The woman's eyes widened in dismay. The thought of entering into something with Rhian and all that it entailed hadn't occurred to her. She'd always believed that Rhian would leave, not stay. "I don't know. I don't know how."
"Maybe you should give that some thought." Sarah laughed at the look of near panic that crossed the younger woman’s face. "Good lord, Deven, it isn’t the end of the world. I happen to believe you can do it."
"Most definitely but I caution you that it won’t be easy. You have a lot to learn about loving someone and allowing that person to love you. Now, go find the woman and get on with things. I’m here if you need me. You know that."
Deven took a deep breath. "Yeah." She stared at the exit as if what lay beyond was unfamiliar and in a sense it was.
Sarah easily read Deven's hesitation. "Whatever happens, please call me."
Deven nodded. "I promise. Later, Doc." She knew that she would deal with the situation somehow. She would face this as she had faced every challenge in her life. She just hoped that when all was said and done, the future, her future, included Rhian.
Riding home from Dr. Martin’s office, Deven was unable to clear her mind and instead of finding the peace the Harley usually provided, she became obsessed with determining how and when she would talk to Rhian. Part of her, a substantial part, continued to rebel against disclosing the past, but she figured that with a concerted effort she would be ready to face the challenge head on in a day or two.
She finally decided she'd call Rhian sometime later in the evening to set the process in motion. What exactly she was going to tell the woman hadn't come to her yet but the phone call would be a start. At the least, she'd explain what her intentions were and suggest they meet at her house. That would open the door and allow her time to think about how to actually proceed. Hopefully by the time they did meet face to face, she would have formulated a plan on exactly what she was going to say.
Deven drove up the street and coasted to a stop in the cul de sac. Parked on the center of her driveway was a large truck, and scanning the scene, she noted several people milling around her yard. "What the?" She carefully drove around the truck, noting the Mackenzie logo as she passed it, and continued into the garage. Her stomach tightened as her devised plans vaporized. While the truck wasn’t proof that Rhian was nearby, Deven’s gut told her the woman was there.
After removing her helmet, her eyes settled on the landscaper. I am so not ready for this. Yeah, but ready or not you can’t just ignore her. Squaring her shoulders as she stepped out of the garage, she walked over to where Rhian was spraying a white line on the lawn. "What’s going on?" she asked amiably.
From the corner of her eye, Rhian watched the woman approach. The anger she’d been suppressing rose up, and though she wanted nothing more at the moment then to release the emotion, she knew that she couldn’t afford to do that in front of her crew. Focusing her efforts on maintaining a professional manner, she turned to fully face Deven. "Good day, Ms. Masterson. We’re beginning the installation you’ve paid for."
The martial artist stopped. "Ms. Masterson?"
Rhian walked towards the driveway aware that Deven was following her, and once near the truck she addressed the woman a second time. "I’ll just finish up what I’m doing and be on my way. The crew knows what needs to be done. They’re quite reliable. The crew chief is Greg Rodgers. He’ll be able to answer any questions you might have. If there are any issues, he knows how to reach me."
Deven looked at Rhian warily. The younger woman’s stiff carriage and the flash of her verdant eyes warned of the anger brewing beneath the controlled façade. "Can we talk?" she asked the landscaper.
"I thought we were. I believe that the exchange of words is a dead giveaway."
Deven took a deep breath and released it slowly. "I mean, will you please come inside? I need to talk to you."
"Why?" The struggle to remain civil was growing more difficult. Rhian was aware that her employees were near enough that if she failed to maintain her composure they would be privy to an earful of very personal information. Even though she kept her voice low as she responded, the vehemence in her tone grew with each word she spoke. "What for? You haven’t wanted to talk to me for a week now, and suddenly out of the blue you feel inspired to communicate? Do you think I’m some sort of puppet? That when you feel like playing with me, you just pull the strings and I’ll do what you want?"
Nonplussed by Rhian's anger, the martial artist whispered, "No, I don't think that."
"You’ve obviously been avoiding me. So why now? Because you happened to drive up and find me here? How convenient for you, Deven. You can go straight to hell!"
Stunned by Rhian's fury, Deven turned and took two steps towards the house before stopping herself. Since when did you become such a chicken shit? You’re just going to crawl away like a whipped dog with your tail between your legs? She’s right, and if it were me, I’d take your head off and shit down your neck. You pushed her away and you did it on purpose without any explanation. How would you expect her to react? Did you for one moment think about how she must feel? "No," she said.
She challenged the landscaper. "I said no. I’m most certainly going to hell, but before that happens, I will not leave things between us like this." She stepped back towards the smaller woman rapidly closing the distance between them. "I’m sorry. You’re right. I have been unfair to you."
Rhian found that she wanted to believe Deven, but didn’t dare allow herself to give in. "It hurt, Deven. One day you act like you care and the next you brush me off. You told me this wasn’t a game, but then you treat me like I’m nothing more than a pleasant diversion for you. If you don’t want me in your life at least have the courtesy to be honest about it. You can’t even do that."
Tears strove to be released, causing Rhian to want to flee. I won't give her the satisfaction of seeing me cry, damn it! "So, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do." Spinning away abruptly, she misjudged her proximity to the company truck, striking her fingers against the tailgate. Quickly grabbing the injured hand, she pulled it to her chest. "Son of a bitch!"
"Let me see," Deven said.
"No! You probably think it’s funny. Rhian the uncoordinated strikes again."
"I don’t think it’s funny, and you aren’t uncoordinated. Well, maybe a little." Deven took a step closer and watched Rhian retreat. "Let me see." She reached out her hand and waited. "Please." Taking another step forward she gently took Rhian’s hand and examined it. "You did a number on that knuckle. Do you have a first aid kit?"
The young landscaper stared at the martial artist’s face as if seeking a clue to unraveling the confusion this woman brought into her life. I just don't understand you.
"Do you have a first aid kit? If not, I have some stuff in the house that you’re welcome to use."
"There’s a kit in the truck," Rhian mumbled.
"Do you want me to get it for you?"
"No. I can do it."
Lifting her gaze from Rhian’s hand, Deven locked eyes with the woman. "Please stay. I just want to talk to you. For some time now I’ve been telling you that there were things you didn’t know. Things you need to know about me. If you stay, I will tell you. No more postponements. No more evasion."
"And then what? You let me in a little then push me away again?" Rhian removed her hand from Deven’s. Damn you for coming into my life!
"I can’t make any guarantees, Rhian. I wish I could. I promise you that I’ll be as honest as I can be with you. Believe it or not, I’m trying here."
The blonde shook her head. "How can I possibly know that?"
"Because I give you my word, and I never do that unless I intend to keep it. Other then that you don’t know." She was aware that their conversation wasn’t as private as it should be. While she didn’t care what the crew thought, she was concerned for Rhian’s sake. Stepping closer to the other woman, she lowered her voice. "I have never been in this situation before. I’ve never cared for anyone the way I care for you. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing! But I am trying. I’m trying to be honest with you. I’m trying to consider your feelings. I’m not doing a very good job, but I’m trying." She was suddenly aware that her tone had taken on a pleading quality, and almost stopped. I'll beg if I have to. "Please give me an opportunity to talk to you."
Rhian examined the face before her. The dark circles beneath Deven’s eyes stood out in stark contrast to the paleness of her normally bronze complexion. "You look terrible."
Deven gave her a small smile. "Thanks."
"Okay, I’ll stay. But if you don’t come clean, I’m gone. If I think for one moment that you’re lying to me, I’m gone. Forever. No second chances. Understand? I will not go through this again."
Rhian sighed. "Let me finish up out here. I’ll give my crew their instructions and then I’ll send them home."
The martial artist's flicker of relief was quickly replaced with uneasiness. She realized that this journey had merely begun and the hardest part was yet to come. "I'll be inside. Make sure you take care of that hand." She turned on her heel and strode to the house.
Rhian watched her go. What am I doing? No longer angry, she grew anxious about what Deven would tell her and whether or not she could face it. She makes it all sound so terrible. It can’t be all that bad. Can it? She probably had a scrape with the law at some point, and built it up in her head into something worse than it really was. Yeah, I’m sure that’s it. I can deal with it. No problem.
Deven entered the house, moving towards the refrigerator with the intention of fixing herself a strong drink. "No. I need to do this sober." She walked out to the sunroom instead and then sat staring off into the woods. How am I going to do this? Where do I even start?
If she'd learned nothing else over the years, she'd come to understand that the past in one form or another followed her everywhere she went. In waking or dreams, it lurked on the fringes of her consciousness, and her constant struggle to avoid it didn't stop it from invading the present. As it should be. I should never be allowed to forget.
"Time to let Rhian know and in so doing set her free. And if she leaves, I’ll at least know that I did the right thing." She rubbed her damp palms on the front of her jeans, and realized her stomach was beginning to feel queasy. Focusing her vision on the treetops, she deliberately slowed her breathing and concentrated on calming the turmoil in her gut. "The right thing."
Entering the house through the garage, Rhian stepped into the kitchen and stopped just inside the threshold. Deven was walking around the room in what appeared to be an aimless pattern. The younger woman watched for several seconds, trying to decide what this scene reminded her of. It finally came to her. She looks like a caged animal.
Deven moved from one point in the kitchen to another, constantly in motion and apparently oblivious to the fact that she was not the only occupant of the room. Rhian announced her presence with a faint clearing of her throat.
The dark head snapped up at the sound and pale eyes settled on the blonde. "I didn’t hear you come in."
Deven's startled expression indicated to Rhian just how deep in thought the woman had been. "Sorry. I guess I should have made more noise."
"No. I was just thinking. Can I get you anything?"
Rhian tried to read the woman’s body language. One of the things that she’d always admired about the martial artist was how comfortable Deven was with her own body. How her motions always seemed fluid and effortless, but at the current time they appeared somewhat awkward. "No, thank you."
"All right. Shall we go into the living room?" Rhian nodded in assent and walked past her without a word. She followed the younger woman into the other room, and watched as she settled on the sofa. A thousand memories scratched against the thin veil between conscious and unconscious thought, setting Deven’s nerves on edge. Her stomach rippled with nausea, and she took several seconds to regain control of herself. Willing herself to stand still, she faced the younger woman. "Before I get into everything, I want to say that I’m sorry. You were right. I was avoiding you, but not for the reasons you think."
Rhian studied Deven's mannerisms. It wasn't that the woman was clumsy or ungainly. She didn't believe that the martial artist was capable of such gracelessness. It was more that they lacked the smoothness and economy of motion she'd come to expect from Deven. It was as if the woman had grown uncomfortable with herself and as a result her movements were somewhat uneven.
It appeared to Rhian that Deven didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands and her gaze shifted from one place to another in the room as if seeking something on which to focus. Deven’s facial expressions changed rapidly in response to her thoughts making it difficult for the blonde to gauge what the woman was feeling. She observed Deven’s jaw muscles constrict and relax over and over, and she swore she could hear the faint grinding of teeth. Most disconcerting to her though was the woman’s complexion. She would not have believed that Deven could turn so pale.
Rhian was certain that given half a chance, this woman would bolt from the room. The contrast between Deven’s current behavior and the confident woman she’d come to know was troubling, and it made her uneasy. "How do you know what I think? Have you bothered to ask me?" she finally replied.
Deven stopped fidgeting and stared at the landscaper. "No. But based on what you said outside." Her voice trailed off. "I do care deeply for you, and that scares me. Before you came into my life, the words afraid and scared didn’t exist in my vocabulary. Now it seems like they’re a constant." Rhian didn’t respond, and her intent gaze increased the martial artist’s discomfort. "Anyway, I’m sorry. And maybe after this talk, you’ll understand." She paused while gathering her courage. "There is so much I need to tell you, but in doing that, I know that you will leave. I also know that it would be the best thing for you."
She quickly held up her hands to ward off any further comments. "No, Rhian. Please, let me do this. I’ve never told anyone this story except for Dr. Martin, and with her it took months to get it all out."
"Who’s Dr. Martin?"
"Your what?" Rhian was sure the shock showed on her face. She had no idea that Deven saw a psychiatrist and was uncertain exactly what that bit of information indicated. The possibilities were numerous and not all of them positive. Don't jump to conclusions, Rhian.
"That’s part of the story and I’ll get to her." Deven tried to swallow only to find that her mouth had gone dry. "I’ll be right back."
Rhian watched her leave the room. The woman’s behavior was beginning to spook her.
Deven walked back into the room carrying a bottle of water. "You sure you don’t want anything?"
"Okay." She paused again. God, this is hard. "I want you to understand that I’m not making excuses for anything, because there aren’t any. What I did, everything I did, I accept responsibility for." She took a long draw from the bottle of water as she began to pace the room.
Allowing her thoughts to dredge up the past, Deven’s mind became flooded with visions. Images formed and faded as she dismissed them, seeking one on which to begin this dialogue. "I’ve been trying to figure out where to begin, and I think to understand why things turned out the way they did I need to go back a long way. So bear with me, okay?"
Rhian nodded. Sitting back on the sofa, she watched Deven walk back and forth across the room. She hated the haunted look that had captured the woman’s eyes.
"I was very close to my father while I was growing up. My mother and I have shared a barely tolerable existence for as long as I can remember, but my dad…I always believed that he understood me. I grew up believing that he was the most amazing man alive. He was the one that got me into the martial arts. He attended all my graduations and my black belt exams. He coached me and pushed me when I needed it. Even after my parents divorced, my father and I spent a lot of time together. I had wanted to live with him, but he told me it wasn’t possible. He told me that the courts wouldn’t allow it."
Deven smirked and looked at Rhian for the first time since she’d started to discuss the past. "It wasn’t until I got much older that I understood that seeking custody of me was never an option for him. The truth was that my presence in his daily life would have put a serious crimp in his life as a single man. Anyway, he was the one who got me involved in competing and took me to the tournaments. I can’t remember a time he wasn’t there during those years. To me he was the greatest and I really loved him. I guess it’s fair to say that my father was my champion."
The manner in which Deven spoke of the man was decidedly positive, and yet, Rhian could detect none of those feelings on her face. If anything, the woman’s features were grim, and she found the contradiction between what was being said and Deven’s posture and facial expressions confusing.
"By the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I’d grown bored with the martial arts. I’d been practicing and competing for six years by then and I’d won everything I’d set out to. My interest in the whole thing began to fade. My father sat me down and we talked about the options. He always treated me like a thinking person. He usually didn’t come right out and tell me what I had to do. He asked me what I wanted to do, and then he suggested what he thought I should do." She glanced at Rhian again. "He helped me to see the big picture, you know?"
The blonde nodded.
"We decided I would continue to compete as I had been, but that it was time for me to learn something new. He suggested I train in traditional Tae Kwon Do. I preferred the flashier forms of American Tae Kwon Do, but loved the fighting of the traditional style. Some people refer to it as Olympic style fighting."
For the first time since she’d started talking, Deven smiled. "I enjoyed the challenge because Olympic style required so much more precision and strength than the fighting styles I was used to. I was already tall for my age and adept at the martial arts so learning wasn’t difficult. I worked doubly hard on my speed and perfecting my technique. It was fun again, and we traveled all over the world so that I could compete."
She sipped her water. "It was pretty much a given that I would make the USA team going to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea." Her smile faded and she shook her head. "My father thought it was great. Everywhere he went he told everyone his kid was going to the Olympics."
The muscles in her face became taut and her eyes turned more austere then Rhian had ever seen them. "By the time I was ready to secure my place on the team, I no longer cared. Oh, I trained harder and longer than ever before in my life. Not because of the Olympics, but because I was never going to be a victim. No one was ever ... going to have control over me ... again."
Deven walked the floor but remained silent. The internal battle as pain and anger vied for supremacy was reflected outward from her pale eyes. Eyes that bore a look of anguish from deep within the woman, and Rhian wanted nothing more than to erase the memories and eradicate the suffering.
A short time ago, she had entered this house still upset about the way Deven had treated her during the prior week but now that all seemed so insignificant compared to the agony that emanated from the tormented figure before her. She ached to reach out to the woman in the hopes of bringing some level of comfort to her – to them both.
Rhian knew something deplorable had happened to Deven, and if she were honest with herself, she didn’t want to know what it was. Her emotions were making it difficult for her to remain composed, and she was beginning to find that Deven’s constant motion was adding to her struggle.
To truly understand Deven, she knew it was necessary to hear the whole story no matter how dreadful it might be. And yet, she questioned whether or not she had the fortitude to listen to everything and remain emotionally detached from it. How in the hell can I possibly be detached? I love her. I can’t stand the thought that someone hurt her. And what of those she might have hurt? Can I refrain from judging her? What a minute. Who said she hurt anyone? You’re already jumping to conclusions. "What happened?" she asked in as even a tone as she could manage.
"It’s strange. When I finally got around to telling Dr. Martin this stuff, it wasn’t this hard. I didn’t feel so much."
Rhian returned the small smile Deven gave her, and then watched as the woman’s vision turned inward again, switching her focus to the past.
"When I was sixteen years old, my father and I were at one of the bigger tournaments on the circuit. I’d been on the top for so long, I was incredibly cocky and arrogant, and disgustingly naïve. I had begun to believe I was invincible." She lowered her head and closed her eyes.
Reaching out, Rhian gently took Deven’s hand, pulling her towards the sofa. She felt the long fingers close around her smaller hand at the same time she detected the woman’s hesitancy to close the distance between them. Increasing her grip slightly, she coaxed Deven to sit next to her. "Go on."
"After the finals, there were parties for the competitors – one for the minors and one for the adults. Needless to say, the primary difference was the alcohol served at the adult party. My father never paid much attention to what I did after the tournaments. He was always sucking up to the promoters and advertising people or looking for playmates. It’s funny that in all those years we traveled together, I never realized what a player he was." She grimaced slightly. "Like father like daughter I guess."
"Anyway, he must have heard that I normally attended the adult parties and had been known to drink some. That night he told me under no circumstances was I to go near the adult party. He didn’t discuss the issue. He dictated his will, and that didn’t settle too well with me. We got into it. I had never seen him like that, so totally inflexible. When I considered it all later, I realized that he had been steadily growing more demanding and strict about what I did."
Deven appeared to shrug slightly but the action was so small, Rhian wasn’t certain it had happened. "I guess he got fed up with my arguing with him, and shoved me against the wall. Then he got in my face and told me that I wasn’t going to do anything to screw up our chance for the Olympics." She shook her head sadly. "Before that moment I can’t remember him ever laying a hand on me. It really surprised me, and it hurt. Not physically so much, but inside and I stormed out of the room."
Deven glanced at Rhian and the misery etched on her face touched the blonde deeply. "I just never believed that anything could possibly happen to me. Not there. I was Deven Masterson the indomitable. I truly believed that I was able to handle anything that came along, and worst of all I believed I could trust those people. We were all part of the same world. A world that I’d been a premier member of for ten years. I was very stupid and so very wrong."
Rhian felt Deven's fingers tighten slightly around her own and was amazed at how cold they were. She wanted to speak words of wisdom and comfort, but couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound frivolous or placating. Instead, she kept quiet and returned the slight pressure of their joined hands.
"I don’t remember all the details. Some I remember like it was yesterday. Others were gone before it was over." She finished the last of the water from the bottle and set the empty container on the table. "A group of us made the rounds at the adult party like we did at every tournament. We targeted the people who had already consumed too much, because they tended to be more inclined to share. I was so pissed at my father, and guess I figured I’d show him. I drank quite a bit that night. We all did."
Deven's brow furrowed and Rhian fought the urge to reach out and smooth the flesh. "We were invited to a party in one of the hotel rooms, which wasn't unusual. There were always parties going on all over the hotel, and being the hot little shits that we were, we crashed them. We got to the party and there was champagne flowing and someone had pot. Maybe there was something more...I don't know."
Her eyes narrowed at the memory of that fateful night. "Normally, Jay and I kept an eye on each other, but that night I lost track of him. I wasn’t feeling very well, and decided to find him and go back to my room. So, I started asking around if anyone had seen him. This guy told me he thought he’d seen Jay in one of the other rooms, and that my bro didn’t look good. So, I went with him to get Jay and take him back to my room."
The younger woman watched Deven’s face closely. Her nostrils flared and her lips were drawn in a tight line. Small muscles beneath the surfaced rippled and twitched and her eyes narrowed further at a vision far away, a vision that was steadily pulling the woman backward in time.
"We got to the room. He opened the door and I went in looking for Jay, but he wasn’t there. Something told me I was in trouble and my gut told me to sober up, but I couldn’t."
Rhian looked down at their clasped hands. I can't do this. I can't hear this. Tears filled her eyes and she blinked several times to clear them. How am I going to help her? What can I possibly do or say? She struggled to restrain her rising distress. Come on, Rhian. If you love her as much as you say you do, than you can and will listen! She sat straighter, and squared her shoulders. Lifting their joined hands, she gently kissed Deven’s knuckles. She wasn’t sure whether or not the woman noticed as she seemed so far away, trapped in a time of suffering.
"I tried to fight back. I just couldn’t get my body to function. My whole life I’d trained to have control of my body, but it wouldn’t listen to me. He pushed me down on the bed and I kicked him in the chest. I hurt him but not enough to stop him. All I managed to do was piss him off. I fought as hard as I could, but I just couldn’t … nothing was working right! He grabbed the front of my shirt, and I heard it rip as he pulled me back to my feet. No sooner was I standing again then he slapped me several times across the face. I tried to block the blows, but my reflexes were too slow. The room started spinning and my head hurt. I thought I was going to be sick. I wish I had." Deven’s eyes squeezed shut and her free hand covered her stomach.
"Deven?" Rhian watched as she took several deep breaths.
"It’s okay. Just my stomach has been giving me fits today."
"Are you sure? Can I get you anything?"
"No." After several more deep breaths, she blinked and continued speaking. "He forced me back onto the bed, and I punched him in the face. He was getting really angry. I guess he thought I was going to go along or pass out. I don’t know. He pulled me up by my shirt again, tearing it the rest of the way and threw me against the wall. I hit my head and started to fall, but he put a hand around my throat and pulled me back up. Keeping his grip on my neck, he pulled me forward then slammed me back against the wall again. He did it over and over, and each time my head contacted with the wall. I don’t know how many times. I must have passed out, because the next thing I remember is being back on the bed, and it took me a few seconds to realize that my pants were gone." She expelled a ragged breath.
Rhian could feel the tautness of the muscles where their bodies touched and the slight tremors that shook Deven’s body. She stroked the back of the strong hand in hers. Oh God, how do I help her? She could not imagine what Deven had suffered. The helplessness she’d experienced when Mace had attacked her was beyond any she’d ever known. He’d failed in his attempt to hurt her only because this woman had intervened. Had Mace succeeded, she didn’t know how she would have dealt with the whole situation. The pain, the fear, and the humiliation would have been horrific, but to have faced it so young seemed impossible.
"I tried to get loose. I tried to throw him off but he was too heavy, and I couldn’t seem to think past the throbbing of my head. I couldn’t seem to think clearly at all."
A faint sheen of perspiration coated Deven’s forehead and upper lip, and in stark contrast, her hands were freezing. Rhian blinked and felt tears flow down her cheeks. She quickly wiped them away.
"I realized I couldn’t stop him. I took a breath to call for help, and he put a hand over my mouth. He was pressing too hard. I couldn’t breath!" She paused and Rhian could see her nostrils flare. "I was concentrating all my efforts on moving his hand so I could breath, I…I didn’t realize…I didn’t." Her voice caught. "I didn’t realize what he was doing."
Deven took a deep breath as if she actually had been starved for air. "I remember the pain. I remember the feel of him inside me. I remember the sounds he made and the smell of his breath. I remember feeling helpless." Her stomach cramped again and she let out a groan. She took several slow calming breaths while concentrating on the feel of Rhian’s hand, the closeness of the woman, her anchor to the present. "When he finished, he laughed. He told me he knew I’d be fun, and then he just left." She looked down at their joined hands again. "I lay there for some time. Crying and despising myself for it."
Rhian could hear the disdain in Deven’s voice. Oh, Deven. It wasn't your fault.
Time trickled by and both women remained silent, lost in their own thoughts. Deven lost in a world of suffering long ago and Rhian at a loss as to how to help her. "I eventually got dressed and went back to my room. My father was waiting for me. He’d apparently learned that I’d disobeyed him about the drinking, and he was furious. He either didn’t notice or chose not to see the marks on my face or the condition of my clothes until I started to cry. I think it shocked him as much as it did me. I told him what had happened, and watched as he stormed out of the room. Stupid me thought he was going to be my champion and take care of things. That he was going to make sure this guy paid for what he had done."
Deven swallowed and a lone sad tear followed the planes of her cheek. "He came back an hour or so later. And do you know what he said? The best thing for everyone was to just forget it." She shook her head and clinched her jaw. "It seems the guy told him I had instigated the whole thing, and now that it was over, I was claiming rape when in fact it had been consensual." Her lip curled and her eyes went hard. "And my father went along with it. He was more concerned that my martial arts career would suffer if anyone knew what had happened. That I would be blacklisted or something. He told me that he’d put too much time, effort and money into my career, and he wasn’t going to allow everything he’d worked for to be destroyed because I couldn’t keep my pants on! Before he left my room he said it was my fault because if I’d just done what he’d said, none of this would have happened."
As if a thermostat had been turned on, Rhian felt warmth seeping into Deven’s hand. She had no way of knowing it was caused by an old rage that was rising up within the woman. "I didn’t know what to say or think, but from that moment on I hated him. I thought he loved me. I thought he was proud of me. Until then, HhHHeI didn't realize it was all a lie. That what he saw in me was the champion not his daughter. I was nothing more than a commodity to him like a prize bitch groomed to win best in show."
The look of hatred in Deven’s eyes caused an involuntary shiver in Rhian. She now understood why Deven showed no love for her father. He’d betrayed her trust and love for him. When she needed him most, he’d turned from her. He’d helped destroy the girl she was, and the woman she was destined to become just as much and perhaps more so than the man who had assaulted her. That man had violated her body and her innocence. Her father had raped her heart and her spirit.
Poised precariously between past and present, Deven unconsciously clung to Rhian through the connection provided by their joined hands. She’d never forgotten what had happened to her, but she’d managed over the years to separate the incident into two perspectives - intellect and emotion. If ever she had to consider that time in her life, she did so intellectually leaving the emotional aspects buried away somewhere deep inside.
She'd convinced herself that it meant nothing and that she was over it, but the emotional turmoil elicited from discussing that night with Rhian proved to a large extent that she'd been deluding herself. The scars left on her might continue to fade over time, but they would never be completely gone, and if tonight was any indication, it was possible for them to open even after all these years.
Besides the woman to whom she now clung to and the man who had done it, there were only four other people in this world who knew she’d been raped. Her parents had provided no support at all. And there hadn't been anything Jay could have done to help. After the way her father had reacted, she’d never again discussed the details of that night with anyone except Sarah Martin and then only with grudging intellect.
The doc is going to just eat this up. That’s quite a breakthrough, Deven. Why yes, Dr. Martin I sure as hell reckon it is. Yep. After all this time, I’m just having all kinds of breakthroughs, aren’t I? Yep. Just call me the breakthrough queen. Fuck! Closing her eyes once more, she turned her vision inward and focused her efforts on putting the pain of that night back in its box within her psyche.
For her part, Rhian was trying to come to grips with what had happened to Deven and in so doing, find some rational explanation for why things had happened the way they had. She knew that making sense of such an act of violence was irrational, and yet for her it seemed a necessity. She hurt so much for Deven it was almost overwhelming and turning her head away, she sought to hide her tears. She’d never known feelings this profound before. Everything about Deven was that way. If she had to pick one word to describe this woman, it would be intense, and somehow that intensity rubbed off on her, at least emotionally.
She didn't know what to say to the woman. She felt she needed to say something, anything, and yet there were no words. Unable to think clearly amid the jumble of emotions, she steered her focus to that one emotion she clearly understood - the fury that she felt for Deven's father. If the man weren't dead, I'd find some way to make him suffer! She tried to envision what Deven had been like as a teenager, and found it pained her deeply to consider what had happened to the girl she’d been. In the span of a few hours, her world was violently turned upside down and she was left to face it on her own. When she turned to her father for solace, he shattered a lifetime of perceptions with his callousness and selfish disregard.
Yes, she disobeyed him, and she paid a disgustingly heavy price for that disobedience. But he destroyed her at her most vulnerable time because of one moment of bad judgement. He used his daughter to live some sort of glory through her, and when he thought he might not get what he wanted, he sought to destroy her spirit. God forgive me for feeling this way, but I hate him!
She revisited the story as Deven had told it, and she found that Jay’s absence that evening bothered her. Why wasn't he there? He couldn't have been involved, could he? He wouldn't have set her up, would he? Given what she knew of the man, she didn’t want to believe he would have done anything to hurt Deven. "Did Jay know?"
"He showed up at my room not long after my father left. You should have seen his face when he looked at me." She shook her head. "He freaked and started asking me a bunch of questions. I had to tell him to shut up. I just couldn’t deal with it, you know? It was too much all at once."
"Where had he been?" Rhian asked.
"Where any normal testosterone laden seventeen and half year old would have been given the opportunity. He’d hooked up with a girl and was hoping to get lucky in one of the hotel rooms. He said he hadn’t thought he would be gone so long, and he’d been looking all over the hotel for me."
"And you believed him?"
She looked at Rhian. "Yes. Why wouldn’t I believe him?"
"Well, you said you two normally looked out for each other, and he just happens to not be there the one night you needed him to be."
"You think he had something to do with it?" Deven asked incredulously.
Rhian sighed. "I like Jay. I don’t want to believe that."
"Then don’t!" Deven rose from the sofa and put some distance between them. She turned and faced Rhian, the hurt clearly etched on her features. "When he heard what had happened, he wanted to call the police. I told him what my father had said, and that the police weren’t an option. He cried. He tried to hide it from me. To keep it in, but he couldn’t. I went to take a shower and he insisted I leave the door open a bit so he could hear me if I needed him. He sat on the floor outside the bathroom door and cried. I guess he thought I couldn’t hear him."
She looked out the window not seeing the world beyond, but seeing her friend as he had been. "He stayed with me that night. Hell, he stayed with me until I got to my mother’s, and even then I don’t think he wanted to let me go. In the car to the airport, on the plane, in the car to my mother’s, he managed to maneuver himself between my father and I. Constantly creating a buffer for me. The only time he wasn’t by my side was when I used the bathroom, and even then he wasn’t that far away. He became my shadow. Until I left for college, he kept a silent vigil over me, and in a way, he still does."
Her gaze shifted and she looked at Rhian. "We had stopped sharing a hotel room when I was twelve, because my mother threw such a fit about it. But whenever we traveled in the two years after the assault, he stayed with me. I think he’d move in here now if I let him."
"Are you sure his solicitous behavior wasn’t just out of guilt?"
Deven expression softened and she returned to sit on the sofa. "Rhian, of course he felt guilty. Knowing him, he probably still does. He blames himself for not protecting me and that is why I could never tell him who it was."
Rhian's eyes widened in surprise. "I don't understand."
Deven let out a soft sigh. "Jay has a strong sense of honor. He would have felt that it was his duty to defend me, and I couldn’t let him do that."
"He would have gotten his ass kicked and it wouldn’t have changed anything."
Rhian looked down at the floor suddenly feeling ashamed for having suggested Jay’s involvement. "I’m sorry I thought that he might have been mixed up in it. I guess it’s easier for me to believe that there was some sort of conspiracy behind what happened to you then to believe that the timing was convenient. A moment of opportunity in which you were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"What about Mace? Wasn’t that a moment of opportunity for him to hurt you?"
"Yes." She looked back up at Deven. "But somehow that doesn’t help me accept it, and it wasn’t that simple."
"I know," Deven said. "Mace wanted to get back at me for showing him up in front of you and his buddies. He was provided with a random moment of opportunity to do that. Sometimes that is all the explanation there is."
Rhian nodded slowly, still unable to accept such a simple rationalization. "What did your mother do?"
"Nothing. She listened to my father’s spin on what had happened. When he left, she came to my bedroom and she just stared at me for a long time. I think that was the moment I realized just how estranged we really were. She asked me if it had been consensual. When I told her no, she looked away, muttered she was sorry, and left the room. We never talked about it again."
Wrapping her arms around herself, Rhian tried to find some level of comfort from within. There was too much to consider all at once, and she knew it would take time to sort through everything, especially the emotions. She couldn’t begin to understand how Deven had survived all that had happened.
"After that tournament, I did whatever I wanted. I trained and competed harder then ever before in my life. I got stronger and faster, and … I got reckless. I craved power. I needed it. I needed to feel free of my father and what had happened. I needed to know that no one was ever going to take control away from me again, and so I sought out any way I could to break though my limitations. When I trained, it was hard. When I fought, it was ruthless. When I drove, it was fast. When I played it was extreme. My father and I just barely tolerated each other’s presence, and for the most part, I ignored him. He became nothing more to me than my cash flow."
Deven's sat quietly for several seconds, slowly rubbing the palms of her hands together while she sorted her thoughts. Her shoulders slumped under the weight of her memories, and she released a heavy sigh before continuing. "A year later, a buddy of mine brought his motorcycle to one of the tournaments. I took one look at that machine, and I knew I had to ride it. So, I talked him into teaching me. I did okay, but the problem was that I was too eager for speed. It wasn't enough to ride the bike. I needed to push it to the max. I...I totaled the bike, and destroyed any chance I had to go to the Olympics."
Her vision blurred as her memory propelled her back to a miserable night thirteen years ago. Another in a long string of nights that would take her deeper into the abyss of darkness she’d stopped fighting and embraced instead. "When I woke up in the hospital after the accident, my father was standing at the window. I don’t know how he knew I was awake but somehow he sensed it. He turned, and the look on his face." She gritted her teeth as her stomach constricted. "He looked at me with such contempt. Then he told me that nothing in his life came close to touching what a disappointment I’d turned out to be and that I’d destroyed everything. He said he could never trust me again and wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Then he just walked out of the room. He never came back. The whole time I was in the hospital and then doing rehab, he never came. I rarely saw him after that, and when I did, he always avoided looking at me."
She took a shaky breath. "I believed him. He was right, you know? I was a disappointment to both my parents, and I was to blame. I could never take any of it back. I could never repair the damage."
Rhian felt anger glowing deep in her belly and didn’t try to stop it from taking purchase. "No! No, no, no, no! Please, tell me you don’t actually believe that what happened to you was your fault. That son of a bitch turned his back on you when you needed him most. The first thing he should have done was call the police and have that bastard arrested."
The younger woman's reaction was not what Deven had anticipated. "Rhian, it was his word against mine."
An overpowering fury propelled the blonde to her feet. "Wrong! You were a minor. That not withstanding, the damage inflicted on your body and clothes showed it was a vicious attack. I don’t think it would have been that hard to prove. But even if it would have been, damn it, your father should have sought to protect and defend you! So, you disobeyed him and had too much to drink. Big whoop! It isn’t the end of the world! If it were, half the kids in this country would be discarded in their teens for disobedience! I would have been one of them!"
Deven sat with her head bowed. Leaning forward, she rested her forearms on her thighs, and Rhian found the posture defeatist. How could that man have turned his back on his wounded child – not once but twice? How dare he use her and then throw her aside because he couldn’t accept her being human? She could not imagine doing that to Seana. She could not imagine her parents treating her that way.
The dark head slowly lifted, and the anguish in the martial artist’s eyes was enough to almost drive Rhian to her knees. "Why are you still here?" Deven whispered.
The pain reached out to her, teasing the shaky grasp she still had on her anger. "I’m here because I choose to be." She walked over and caressed the other woman’s cheek, smiling slightly as Deven leaned into her touch. "Nothing you’ve told me changes that. How could you think that I’d leave because of what happened to you?"
"It’s just… complicated. Rhian, you don’t understand." She shook her head slightly. "I didn’t mean to upset you like this. I haven’t even gotten to the rest of the stuff yet."
"What? Look, I’m sorry I’m so upset, but damn it Deven, I’m furious with your father and that man who hurt you!" Her whole body trembled from the rage coursing through her blood and she unconsciously pulled back as her hands balled into tight fists. "I’m so angry that your father blamed you for what happened instead of seeking to help you heal. That he created in you this sense of misguided guilt instead of accepting responsibility as your father and for his part in what happened. That he failed you and then blamed you for it! That he allowed that bastard to get away with it!"
Rhian turned away from the dark haired woman and concentrated on repressing her wrath, a wrath unlike any she’d ever known or believed herself capable of. Lifting her clinched hands, she slowly opened them revealing indentations in her palms where her nails had dug into the flesh. The guilt that she carries is wrong! It was her father who failed her not the other way around. "Did you ever see the man again?"
Deven laughed maniacally, and the sound caused Rhian to turn back around and face her. "Oh yeah. His name is Bill Cole. I saw him at the last tournament. So did you as a matter of fact. He was the judge who gave me the 9.95 score."
Oh my God. The shock that this man was still a visible part of Deven’s life forced the air out of Rhian’s lungs in a single gust. "How can you stand to be anywhere near that man?"
The eyes that now bore into Rhian’s conveyed a deep-seated ruthlessness. "Well, for one thing a lot of time has passed. But there is more to it than that. Let’s just say that in the years that followed the rape, I made some interesting and formidable contacts." A cruel smirk altered Deven’s features, and the younger woman shuddered. "I arranged with some of my associates for Bill to get a taste of what it was like to be on the receiving end. To have no control over what was done to his body. To know the humiliation and pain."
To Rhian's amazement, Deven laughed for several seconds, a spiteful resonance that tickled the hairs at the base of the blonde woman's skull. "Two videotapes were made of the...exercise. The first tape shows what actually happened to the man. It is truly amazing how creative some people can be when it comes to sexual acts. I mean, I learned a lot from that tape." She chuckled slightly and Rhian cringed at the implication.
"The second tape was professionally edited. If it were to be put up for sale, it would be touted as a hard core porn video with good old Bill as the star, an all male cast, and an assortment of tools." The revulsion on Rhian’s face broke through her amusement, reminding her of the gravity of the current situation. "I sent him a copy of the edited tape, and kept both originals."
"You’re…you’re blackmailing him?"
Deven's eyes locked on hers, gripping them with an unwavering focus. "Not exactly," she replied in a harsh tone. "I informed old Billy in no uncertain terms that if I ever found out he did that to anyone else or laid a hand on a minor whether or not the act was consensual, I would do more than destroy his career. I'd make him wish he were dead."
The depth of emotions rising up in the wake of Deven’s confessions was making Rhian lightheaded. A lifetime of perceptions and ideals were being severely battered in the clash of two worlds, Deven’s and hers, and she was having a difficult time keeping her thoughts and feelings from running rampant. There were so many facets to this woman. Rhian felt like she was observing a kaleidoscope of human fragments as aspects of Deven separated, merged, and then separated again. Each came and went so quickly, she had little opportunity to understand what she was truly observing before Deven changed again.
She had no doubt the martial artist had done exactly what she said. Nor did she doubt that Deven was quite capable of exacting such vengeance. She was glad Bill Cole had paid somehow for what he’d done, but did the end justify the means? Was it the act of revenge, or how retribution had been inflicted on the man, or the obvious pleasure that Deven displayed when speaking of it that bothered her most? She wasn’t sure.
The discernible conflict in Rhian’s eyes pierced Deven in the chest, filling the cavity with an oppressive sorrow. Knowing in her heart that this woman would probably never be able to forgive her violent and malicious nature, she girded herself for the inevitable end to this brief happy interlude in her life. She crossed to where Rhian stood and led her back to the sofa. "Please sit down." Steeling herself, she knelt before the now seated woman and took the smaller hands into her own. "I haven’t even begun to tell you what you need to know. I just wanted you to understand where it all started. If I hadn’t been such an arrogant brat, and had I listened to my father, I never would have been assaulted."
"You don’t know that for certain! If that man wanted to hurt you, he would have found a way."
"Perhaps, but you have to admit I put myself in that situation in the first place."
"God, Deven. That bastard needed to hurt you to fulfill some sick need within him. He had to make himself bigger by somehow making you smaller. What makes you think that he wouldn’t have found a way?"
"I understand that, but I also have to accept that I gave him the opportunity."
"He would have just created some other opportunity, Deven! Why can’t you see that?"
"Rhian, please! You might be right, but that isn’t how it happened. Listen to me, okay? I’m not debating this with you. It happened, and it happened the way it did. If you’re still here later, we can debate the issue all night. You need to know all the things that occurred afterwards, and I have to accept my responsibility for what happened that night and for what I did over the years that followed."
In complete exasperation, Rhian sought to pull her hands free but the larger ones held firm and Deven continued in a rush. "If I had paid more attention to what I was doing, I wouldn’t have put myself into a situation I couldn’t control. I would not have been raped, and things between my father and I wouldn’t have gotten so hateful. I never would have gotten into that accident and I would have gone to the Olympics. I never would have taken the path I did and so many people would not have been hurt because of it."
Her gaze dropped, coming to settle on their joined hands as her mind sought a way to proceed without drudging up everything. But that isn't possible, is it? "That said, I did choose my path, and I’m not proud of how I behaved or the things that I did." Looking back up at the woman seated before her, she found within the depths of the eyes that met hers the love she had come to value so much. The love I don't deserve. The love I'm now going to lose. "The worst was yet to come."
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