For one reason or another the woman claiming to be Charity’s mother kept putting off actually meeting her. Ryan had the unwelcome idea that she was hoping to find a time when Charity would be alone. Deciding to test that theory he had Charity tell her she would meet her at the coffee shop by herself.
Finishing the call Charity lifted worried eyes to him, “she agreed. No problem once she found out you weren’t going to be there.” She frowned “do you really think she’s up to something?”
Nodding he sat down beside her “I do. This only confirms it. Most people would understand needing someone else there for support. This woman seems to want to keep you off balance.”
Drawing circles on the table top with her fingers Charity sighed “why would she want to do that? What’s the point?”
“I haven’t figured out her angel yet. She wants something though I’d bet on that,” Ryan took her hand “be careful. She’s not what she appears to be. If she wanted to meet you she had plenty of opportunities. In my opinion if she wanted to get to know you she would want to meet your friends too. If she wanted to do this the right way she would have arranged something with your Dads.” He sighed wishing he had the words to voice his concerns “she’s doing everything possible to get you alone. It doesn’t feel right.”
She nodded “I’m not going to be alone though am I?”
“No of course not,” Ryan assured her “I’ll be there out of sight. So will Hannah and Donovan” He chuckled a little “they’re making it into a date, at least, he is.”
Charity giggled at that “Hannah really likes that guy you know. She might deny it but I can tell.”
“I know she does,” Ryan smiled sharing the joke “Donovan seems to be an ok guy.”
“He better be or he’ll have to deal with Rory,” Charity shifted in her seat giving the appearance of being uncomfortable “I know everyone thinks we’re, you know a couple….”
Shrugging Ryan cut her off “we’re just friends right? So their talk is nonsense.”
“I guess,” she said sounding doubtful “you don’t think we….” Sighing she continued “you’re right we’re just really good friends.” She gave him a big smile relieved that she hadn’t stepped over that invisible line they had drawn for themselves. It could have ruined everything they had. She’d do anything to keep that from happening “So friend how about you and I go for a walk?”
Ryan gave her a brief smile his eyes crinkling at the corners “sure why not?” He stood up offering his hand to help her up. Why hadn’t he said he was ok with them being a couple? He had wanted Charity to be his girlfriend for years now and he couldn’t bring himself to cross that line.
“Is something wrong?” she asked looking up at him concern in her eyes and voice.
“Everything’s fine,” he lied. Chicken a loud persistent voice in his head taunted him. Just tell her you want to widen your relationship out beyond the friendship zone. How hard could it be?
They walked for a couple of blocks in silence. Charity kept stealing glances over at him. She had always felt warm and safe with him by her side. She never felt pressured to be anything she wasn’t. Was it so wrong to want to keep that? What if they tried and things got weird between them? She didn’t want to lose what she had.
They stopped at the little park they liked so much. Walking onto the little wooden bridge, the tiny stream gurgling beneath them. “It’s so peaceful here,” she murmured.
“Mmm hmm” he said distracted. Leaning against the railing with the setting sun lighting his features catching a certain unreadable expression in his green eyes.
“Do you remember when we were kids you would always pretend to be my knight?” she asked slipping an arm around him.
Nodding Ryan sighed “it always seemed you needed protecting.” Looking down at her he asked “would it be weird if I said I’d still be your knight if you needed protecting?”
She gazed up at him shaking her head “I don’t think so.” She found her eyes focusing on his full lips. She leaned in closer inhaling his cologne wondering what it would feel like wrapped in his arms with his lips pressed up against hers.
As if caught in a slow motion picture Ryan couldn’t take his eyes from her. He breathed in her aroma letting it fill his senses. He bent his head down as if to meet her questing lips with his when a shrill baby’s cry broke them from their daze. He pulled back cheeks flushing with heat “um we should um probably be going” he mumbled.
Nodding Charity turned and led the way from the bridge thankful he couldn’t see her flaming cheeks. What had she been thinking? They were friends. That’s all she wanted them to be. Her stomach lurched with the realization that just maybe she wanted more. But how could they get from friends to couple? If they did and things went sour how did they go back to being just friends? She didn’t want to lose what they had.
A firm loud knock on her dorm room door startled Teasha from the book she was reading. Dazed she wondered when Divia had left. Smiling when she remembered her friends excitement over the phone call she received from the girl she was so hung up on. Teasha couldn’t help but hope Divia got everything she wished for. Walking to the door she noticed it was about 8:30 at night. Not as late as she thought it was. Opening the door she stood open mouthed at who was standing in front of her.
Phoenix stood in uniform with a bunch of red roses. A huge grin spread across his even features ad Teasha stood stunned before him. “Surprise” he said laughing “these are for you.”
Taking the flowers Phoenix held out to her, Teasha tried to stop the tears that had formed behind her eyes from falling. “Thank you” she said unsure what else to say or do as she stepped aside allowing him inside her room.
He followed her inside watching as she decided to put the flowers down on her desk beside a book flopped open marking the spot she had last read. “Were you studying?” he asked instantly regretting not calling before just showing up at her place.
Yawning she nodded “I could use a break though,” she sat down on her bed patting the spot beside her “sit. Talk” she invited.
Smiling he did as he was told “sorry I should have called first.”
Waving off his attempts at an apology she asked “why are you here? Not that I’m not happy to see you but I thought you were on assignment.”
He looked away cheeks turning a deep rosy red “I um asked if I could withdraw from the detail.”
Frowning she sat forward “I didn’t think you could do that. I thought when you received orders you did as you were told.”
“Normally that would be true but um,” he sighed “I kind of volunteered for this tour of duty.”
The corners of her mouth quirked up “so you unvolunteered yourself.”
“Something like that,” he agreed nodding “it took a lot of maneuvering and groveling with my CO but he finally let me off. I have latrine duty all of next week thanks to you but it’ll be worth it.”
“Does that mean you’ll have to clean all the latrines on the base?” she asked holding his gaze with hers. He nodded. “Good” she grinned.
“Good,” he gasped “how is cleaning latrines a good thing?”
Teasha leaned in close “it shows you like me…a lot.”
He leaned as far back as he could without falling flat on his back on her bed. Images of the two of them snuggling each other made his pulse race. “Um yeah I do,” he admitted. More than he probably had any right to he added to himself.
A tiny frown flickered across her brow “you don’t sound too sure about that.” She sat up the would be seductress gone “are you breaking up with me?”
“What?” he cried unable to contain his shock. He sat up reached for her hand before she could snatch it from his reach “what gave you that idea?”
Shrugging she stared at the floor “the flowers. The unexpected visit. You.”
Tilting her chin up to him he smiled down at her “I am not breaking up with you. We do however need to talk. I can’t guarantee, however that you won’t be breaking up with me afterwards.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she chided “there’s no way I’d be doing that.”
“You say that now” he sighed as if a great weight was on his shoulders “you don’t know what we need to talk about.”
“Sounds ominous,” she mumbled looking at her hands folded in her lap waiting for him to begin.
Sighing he took the hint “I want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into when you become involved with a military man. I travel a lot to places I might not be able to tell you about. I’ll have to do things I won’t be able to talk about.”
Nodding she gulped “and you might not come back from” she finished for him. Tears formed in her eyes but she refused to let them fall “don’t you think I’ve thought of those things?” She drew in a shaky breath remembering the nights she had lain in the dark wondering if he was alright whenever she heard of another hot spot in the news. Each time she wondered if he’d be deployed to help cool things off and if he did go would he come back?
“I know you probably have,” he pulled her close “I just need to be sure you understand what kind of life I’m asking you to have if you still want me. Can you handle this? I have no right asking anyone to live on pins and needles. I know how difficult that is. I know how hard it was for my Mom to hide the fear and the tears from us kids when we were growing up.”
“What got her through those days?” she asked.
“Love for my Dad and us kids” Phoenix shook his head “my Mom’s a tough cookie.”
“So am I,” Teasha told him a firmness in her voice that wasn’t there before “I’m willing to stick by your side if you’ll let me. I can’t promise not to worry because I’d do that regardless of what you did for a living.”
“You mean that? Really, really mean that?” he asked pulling a stray strand of her hair and tucking it behind her ear.
Nodding “I do” she leaned into him wrapping her arms around him “If you let me I could even fall in love with you.”
“Hello” Divia called into the silent studio. Her feet echoed off the cold cement floors. “Marzia are you here?” she called fear prickling her spine. All she wanted to do was turn around and run. Go down the stairs back to where the sun was still setting and the spring evening air was crisp and fresh. She turned to leave thinking she must have misunderstood Marzia’s message. A sound like a half strangled sob reached her ears making her stop in her tracks and her heart to race.
Taking a step forward she strained to hear that strangled cry again. Feet tip tapping on the cement floor she moved in the direction she thought the sound came from. “Marzia” she called again worry making her stomach hurt. “Marzia honey if you’re here please say something,” she requested to the silent chilly room. As if in answer to her request the strangled sob repeated itself again a tad bit louder.
Standing still Divia surveyed the interior. There was a faint light coming from the far corner where she knew Marzia had a small sitting area setup. Walking in that direction she wondered what had happened. Paintings had been strewn everywhere like someone playing fifty-one pick up.
Her breath hitched in her throat upon sight of the blonde beauty curled up on the floor sobbing. Sitting beside her Divia said “what happened? Are you hurt?”
“I’m not good enough,” Marzia sobbed “I’ll never be good enough.”
“What are you….” Divia’s voice trailed off “you heard from the art critic didn’t you?”
Nodding Marzia sobbed louder “she said I had promise. I had potential…”
Divia put a gentle hand on Marzia’s shoulder “that’s good isn’t it? She liked your paintings…” She knew that Marzia was a perfectionist when it came to her paintings but that was just one of the many things she liked about her. She couldn’t fathom why Marzia was so upset over receiving what sounded like favorable critique from a reputable art critic.
Looking up with anger filled eyes Marzia elaborated “I’m not good enough. Promising and potential are not the words you want to hear when you want your own show.” She sniffed “I didn’t get it because I’m not good enough.”
“Oh” was all Divia could come up with to say. Her heart ached with understanding. The art show had been all Marzia had talked about for weeks. Divia knew she had wanted that coveted spot in next month’s art show of all up and coming artists.
“They gave it to her,” Marzia spit the words out as if they left a bad taste in her mouth.
“Her who?” Divia asked dumbfounded until it dawned on her who her was. The girl who Marzia always compared herself to her. The one she always felt inferior to. The one that had driven her to hate all her art. Feeling it wasn’t good enough and never would be. It was that thinking that had driven Marzia to quit art school. From what Divia understood Marzia had come here and hadn’t picked up a paintbrush until that fateful night the two of them had met. Divia loved Marzia fiercely but here was one aspect of the girls personality she couldn’t comprehend. No matter how long she knew Marzia she couldn’t fathom her intense jealousy of other people and comparing her self-worth with their accomplishments.
Pulling her close Divia stroked Marzia’s long blonde hair. Kissing the top of her soft fluffy head Divia said “honey sometimes things like this happen. It’s not because you weren’t good enough. It’s something that you just need to work a little longer for…”
“The show should have been mine” she wailed as if she hadn’t heard a word Divia said “I wasn’t good enough. I’ll never be good enough.”
Shaking her head Divia knew when Marzia was like this there was very little she could say or do to change her mind. It didn’t mean she’d give up trying to dissuade her though. All she could do at this point was ride the tide of self recrimination and hope Marzia didn’t do anything stupid in the meantime. “It’ll be ok,” she said keeping her voice soft like she was soothing a baby back to sleep.
“I’m never painting again,” Marzia cried getting up and stomping towards her nearest easel. Muttering to herself she tossed her paint supplies to the floor forming an untidy heap. Open paint containers splattering their contents staining the floor. She tore off the canvas revealing the painting beneath it. She held the painting she had made of Divia after she first met her. She swayed a little getting ready to toss it to the floor to join the other debris.
“Please don’t” Divia begged “do what you want with everything else just don’t destroy that one.”
“Why?” Marzia demanded her eyes wide with incomprehension “it isn’t any good.”
“I think it is,” Divia said keeping her voice low without pressure as she walked up beside the woman she loved “you painted it. That makes it priceless to me. This is what you see when you look at me. I never saw that girl until you painted her.” Grasping the painting with her hands she pleaded “please don’t destroy her.”
Marzia’s face crumpled into tears as she released her hold on the painting. Divia easily took it from her relaxed grip. Smiling she peered at the image of herself. It still brought her to tears to look at it and to know Marzia saw this beautiful creature when she looked at her. Divia always thought of herself as an ugly duckling but not anymore. Not after meeting Marzia and seeing this painting. She carefully covered it with a clean covering the beginnings of an idea forming in her mind. She would need courage to carry it out but Marzia was worth it if it worked the way she thought it would.
Deciding not to mention anything of her idea to Marzia she took the painting outside and carefully stowed it in her trunk. She took her phone out dialed the familiar number “Mom it’s me” she said when her mother said hello. “I need a favor,” she smiled as her Mom dropped her pretense at small talk. It wasn’t something they did and it was even less with her Dad. Divia learned early with both of them, get to the point early otherwise they’d lose interest. “Do you still have connections in the art world?” She smiled as her Mom gave her an affirmative yes “good can I have his number? I have a painting he might be interested in…” She rolled her eyes as her Mom tried to pry into her private life “yes Mom it’s for that friend and no I haven’t told Daddy yet.” She smiled at her Mom’s response “I’ll think about it and thanks for the number.”
She put her phone away thankful for once that her Mom was the way she was. No questions meant no fuss. She wasn’t ready yet to trust that her Dad was ready to find his only daughter was gay. She’ll have to tell him eventually but until then she was happy with the way things were. Right now she had other concerns like making sure Marzia didn’t hurt herself.