Karma Ch. 03byWine_Maker©
Chapter Three: Blindsided
I laughed darkly at how impulsive and out of character this was, even for me.
Tony looked up from tying on his skates and grinned. "What?"
"This," I said, waving my hand at the small crowd of kids and adults filling the rink. "What the hell am I doing here?"
My subconscious supplied its own answer. My ex-husbands had been right about one thing regarding me; I was a hedonist. I had a weakness for doing things that brought me pleasure, even when it hurt others. Or me. I liked to luxuriate in pleasure and comfort.
Sex had always been a part of that. So was the cocaine. Perhaps especially the cocaine. Hard knocks had finally shown me that I had to have limits in seeking my pleasures, or else risk losing everything worthwhile in my life.
"Getting away from Conrad before you do something that you'll regret," Tony said, letting the grin slip away. "You were ready to tear him to shreds and, however much you might have enjoyed it at the moment, you would have regretted it later."
I used anger to cover the shock I felt at hearing him echo my thoughts. "They can all go screw themselves," I said bitterly. "If Conrad ever loved my mother, I never saw it. All he wants is her money and he'll probably get it. The rest of those vultures care more about their gossip. They've never cared about me. I was the 'failure' they all had to put up with."
Tying off his laces, Tony hobbled over to me and sat down, using his hand to lift my chin so I was looking directly into his eyes. "I know all about being the 'black sheep', remember? Just ask my Dad." His eyes grew distant and he smiled. "Oh, the things I've done to make him pull his hair out. I can't imagine a nice girl like you even being in my league."
I laughed with an abrupt shot of genuine humor and amazement. I tried to restrain it, but the laughter took on a life of its own and I couldn't stop. I laughed until I couldn't breathe.
When I finally managed some semblance of control, I saw he was quirking a smile at me. I shook my head. "You have no idea. Unless you're a lot wilder than I think you are, I can top your antics on your best day."
"We'll see. After we skate a bit, we'll have lunch - on me - and we'll trade war stories," he said as he stood up, helping me to my feet. I prayed that I didn't fall down too often. It had been twenty-five years since I'd last been on skates and I didn't want a sore butt.
Taking advantage of his help, I stumbled onto the ice and clumsily began to move. He skated backwards in front of me slowly, as though he were just out for a stroll.
"You're doing great," he encouraged.
"I haven't fallen and been cut to sausage, you mean," I said, windmilling my arms to keep what little balance I had. Then an eight-year-old menace blew past me at warp four, dressed from head to toe in blinding fuchsia. At this rate, I'd be lucky to survive. "Graceful, I'm not. How did I let you talk me into this hare-brained idea?"
"It's my smooth negotiating skills."
"Hah! You threw me over your shoulder and carried me off," I objected. "How smooth is that?"
"You're here, aren't you?" he asked with another innocent grin. "There's an old saying, 'if it works, it ain't stupid.' Following that logic, I think I was smooth enough."
It was hard to argue with that. Screw it. If I was here, I might as well have a good time.
For an hour, Tony taught me how to skate all over again. At times, he was so close I could feel the heat of his body as he showed me how to move. I tried telling myself that it wasn't doing anything to me, but I hadn't been that good at lying to myself since I was a teen. It slung-shot my hormones like a teen-aged boy watching Julie Newmar as Catwoman.
By the time we were ready to get off the ice, I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I'd managed to trade my worries about the funeral for worries about what I was getting myself into with Tony. Every touch of his hands and body made the next touch seem less intrusive and more welcome. I wondered if that was how one tamed a wild horse. Did you touch it until it was used to your hands, caress it until I wanted more? It, I told myself, not I. That was an embarrassing slip to make, even in my mind. Caress it until it wanted more.
I sighed in resignation. This was getting more complicated and I was losing control of where it was going. Already, I felt some kind of connection between us that was nebulous and hard to describe. Disturbing, too, in a way I couldn't quite put my finger on.
We turned in our skates and walked to the car. The sky was darker than it had been earlier and the snow was coming down more heavily.
Tony took my keys out of my hand and jumped in the driver's seat with a possessive grin. I shook my head and smiled, taking the passenger seat. When we were secure, he took off in an almost uncontrolled spin.
I squeaked and grabbed the dashboard, glaring at him. "Tony! You stop that this very second!"
He laughed but slowed down and brought the SUV under control. "Yes, Ma'am."
"Men! You're all just little boys under the skin."
Tony didn't go for the bait and just drove silently until we pulled into a Pizza Hut.
As he parked the car, I looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "Pizza Hut is your idea of a romantic lunch?"
He smiled smugly back at me and opened his door. "I just said lunch. Romantic is your add-on. Thanks for the insight, though. I promise I'll start thinking romantically."
I cursed under my breath as I climbed out and walked slowly to the back of the vehicle. Where had that come from? He was right. He'd never said a romantic lunch, but somehow that's what it had morphed to in my mind when I wasn't thinking about it. What was I doing to myself this time?
We shed our coats and hung them when we got inside, then a hostess led us to a booth. Shortly, I had a tall glass of iced tea and the promise of a hot pepperoni pizza to hold my grumbling stomach at bay.
Tony sat across from me watching me intently, as if he expected me to say something. Not having any idea what that might be, I smiled and stared back at him. After a minute, it started becoming almost comical.
I couldn't take it and shook my head. "We're just being silly," I told him. "I think we had a miscue somewhere."
"Maybe," he agreed. "I don't believe in rushing things faster than they need to go, so let's just forget the word romantic, for now."
I let my breath out in a sigh of relief. "Thank you. I'm not ready for that yet." Yet? I winced. What the hell possessed me to add that damned word?
Tony's eyes twinkled at me, but he let it go. "So, we've talked about our childhood. What did the next twenty years bring you?"
I snorted. "Nothing but trouble. Two nasty ex-husbands, a lifetime full of regrets, and a bunch of people I've hurt or disappointed over the years."
"Come on," he said, frowning, "it can't have been that bad."
I laughed dismissively. "Oh yes it could."
With little nods and an interested expression, he slowly drew me into talking about college and leaving Tennessee for UCLA. Again, I found myself amazed at the things I told him. We only barely knew each other and I was complaining about how like my father my ex-husbands were. I even found myself telling him about some of the higher and lower points of my days in pre-med, including Rod.
"So, you're a doctor?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No. I didn't really want to be one. That was for Daddy." At least that was part of the story. Having seen a real doctor up close and personal, I had finally realized that I'd never had the drive to be one.
Thankfully, Tony didn't dwell on that. "This Rod guy sounds like a real piece of work," he said with a scowl, "though I can't throw stones. I've had my share of relationships, but I've never been married. I think I'm too ornery for any woman to want," he said with a grin. "I'm too much of a pirate."
That grin did things to my insides that I forced aside. I firmly reminded myself that I needed another man in my life like I needed another hole in my head.
Using my confused state against me, he kept digging. "So, with all that behind you, what do you do to keep busy now? Did you ever go back and finish your degree?"
I ignored the last part of his question and smirked at him. "Don't I get to ask questions about your mysterious past?"
"It's polite to talk about the lady on a date," he said piously.
"Is this a date?" I asked, my eyebrows rising almost against my will.
"You're the one who said it was a romantic lunch. We can quibble about the details later," he said, his tone falsely dismissive. "Back to you."
I shook my head but smiled. "I do charity work." I proudly launched into my list of charities I raised money for.
Tony listened and nodded. The small frown between his eyes made me wonder if I'd said something wrong.
"That's a lot of charity work," he agreed, "but are you satisfied by it? What you do for yourself? You know, to feel like you've made a personal impact."
I blinked in surprise. "What? Of course I'm satisfied with it. What gives you the idea I'm not?"
The arrival of the pizza disrupted my rising anger, and I forced myself back from letting the emotion overtake me before I could think.
Once Tony had a few bites inside, leaving a string of cheese on his chin, he continued.
"I hear how much money you've raised, but it doesn't seem like you're getting much personal satisfaction from it. Don't get me wrong," he added before I could object. "Giving money to charities does help people, but it's not very personal. That always seemed to me like helping the hypothetical needy."
What did that mean? I let the silence drag on as I thought about it and ate slowly. He didn't interrupt me.
When I kept running into brick walls of incomprehension, I looked back up and shrugged. "I must be missing something. What are you getting at? I'm satisfied with it." At least the thinking had derailed my initial angry reaction.
"Have you ever served food at a soup kitchen or helped a complete stranger because it made you feel good?"
I stared at him, confused. "Why would I do that when I can fund an entire kitchen? My money works much harder than I ever could by myself. I assure you that I help plenty of needy people."
Tony shrugged. "Maybe it's just me. I like getting my hands dirty. Things like the Habitat for Humanity. They build houses for people that couldn't afford to build or buy their own. My personal satisfaction comes from seeing them come home for the first time. Nothing beats that feeling. That lets me use the skills I learned for work to help others."
I heard what he was saying, but I didn't see how the two were different. Instead, I changed the subject by zeroing in on his work. "Speaking of your work, do you mostly work around here or do you travel?"
His smile told me that he saw right through my conversational shift, but he agreeably switched topics. "I travel every few months; when one project doesn't need me anymore, I go to one that does. Not just in this state, but all over the general area."
"You said you'd never married, but what about other long-term relationships?" I asked. A part of me wasn't sure what I wanted to hear him say.
"Some," he admitted. "They never lasted, though. We just never seemed to mesh."
"I'm sure that one day you'll find the right woman."
He nodded, his eyes dark and expressive. "I think you're right. Timing is everything."
I felt a shiver of something I didn't understand shoot through me and I hurriedly looked at my watch. "Just look at the time! We need to get a move on." His expression told me I wasn't fooling anyone, but in truth, it was already late in the afternoon and I needed to get back to the funeral home.
While he paid for lunch, I went to the ladies room and scrubbed my hands across my face. What was wrong with me? Maybe I should just give in and have a fling with him, because this itch was getting very distracting. Stubbornly, I shook my head at my reflection in the mirror. I didn't do casual. When the little devil's voice told me that I should be thinking about making it more than casual, I covered my eyes and groaned. I didn't need this!
I washed my hands and composed myself. As I came out, the woman sitting next to the bathroom made me stop in my tracks. Or rather, what she was saying into the pay phone made me stop. She was younger than me and very, very pregnant. She was also slumped over the table with her face buried in one hand.
"I don't know what to do, Mom," she said, dispiritedly. "He took everything. He quit his job and just took off with everything. No one knows where he went." Then her voice took on a bitter tone. "What everyone knows is who he ran off with. Why couldn't they have bothered to tell me before he left me like this?"
Smothering a dark and knowing smile, I slipped back into the bathroom. I listened to her through the barely open door. I could have told her some places to call to get help, but she seemed too proud to take advantage of them. Her pain bothered me. I didn't want to leave her in despair.
"I know you can't help me very much," she continued, "but can you wire me just a little? Fifty dollars? Oh, thank you!" She sounded almost pathetically grateful. "I'll pay you back as soon as I can. I've got a week before the landlord comes looking for the rent and that'll buy me food and give me some gas money so I can find a job."
I blanched. Dear God, she didn't need to be working. She looked like she was due any day. She needed to be off her feet.
"No," the woman said with a little heat. "I can't come home. I love you but he's still there. I can't live with him. I just can't. I'd rather starve. Please try to understand."
What about her baby? Her next comment told me that I wasn't the only one asking that question.
"I don't have much of a choice, do I?" she said bitterly. "As soon as he's born I'll take him to the fire station or give him up for adoption. I don't want to, but I can't afford to keep him. He deserves better than me," she said, almost in tears.
My heart ached. I wanted to help her, but she sounded as stubborn as me. I'd never had a baby and I doubted I ever would, but her plight still struck a chord in me. I thought furiously. What could I do?
"Yes," she continued. "Please wire it to me at the Western Union office down on Main Street. And if you're going to send him to do it, could you make sure he at least spells my name right?" She spelled out Williamson. "At least he remembered Joan last time," she said tiredly. Then she slowly recited her address. I repeated it silently several times while I set my purse on the counter and dug through it looking for something to write on. The first thing I found was the card Tony had given me with his number. That was ironic.
I counted out what I had in cash and it totaled out to almost four hundred dollars. Not very much, but I mostly paid for stuff with my card. It would just have to do.
Now I just had to figure out how to give it to her without her being able to turn me down. I folded the bills up and walked out of the bathroom. She was listening to her mother and still had her face buried in her hand, her elbow propped up on the table. Her purse was beside her elbow. I could see her open change purse inside it. She was probably using the change for the call. I deftly dropped the bills into her purse and walked out.
Tony had the SUV idling by the curb. I climbed in feeling light inside. I grinned at him. Who said I didn't know how to get personal satisfaction?
Everyone had deserted the funeral home by the time we arrived. All the family was gone, even Conrad. That made me boil inside. How dare they just leave her like this?
I went to stand beside my mother. Looking down at her, I realized how badly having them leave her here alone hurt me. After tomorrow I'd never see her again. That brought on a fresh onslaught of tears.
I'm not sure how long I stood there holding her hand, feeling like every tear that fell made me somehow emptier inside, when I felt someone beside me. I looked up, ready to chew off Conrad's head for bothering me again, if he'd had the balls to come back, and only barely cut off my attack when I saw it was Tony.
"Regan, the viewing is over and it's time to leave," he said gently. Were construction workers supposed to be gentle? They should be tough and decisive, sure, but gentle?
"I'm not going," I said with a willful toss of my head. "I'm staying here with Mother."
I expected a condescending smile, but he didn't smile at all, he just nodded. "I know, but you can't. We have to go."
"She's my mother and I won't leave her," I shouted, abruptly angry with him. "I won't! She needs me here!" I waited for him to either walk away or counter-attack, perversely glad for the outlet for my pain.
Following his developing pattern of behavior, he did neither of those things. He instead reached out, pulled me into his arms and held me tightly.
My body stiffened in shock and tried to shove him away but he was too strong. "Let me go!" I wailed. "Just leave me alone!"
As quickly as it arrived, the anger fled my body. I felt grief for my loss and a deep and abiding fear of never seeing my mother again flood through me. "I don't want her to go," I cried, suddenly clutching him. "Please, don't let her go."
"I know you don't," he whispered, "but she's already gone."
I sobbed and half-broke away from him and started pounding my fists on his chest. "Liar! She's right here!"
He didn't resist my attack, but it was like hitting a brick wall, except I had a better chance of knocking down the wall. When the tears pushed the anger away, he pulled me back into his arms and this time I didn't resist. "It hurts, I know," he whispered. "But she's already gone to a better place; a happier place."
"But I don't want her to go!"
He turned me away from the casket and pulled me along toward the door while I cried and railed against him. By the time he put my coat on me, all the fight had gone out of my body. I just stood there and let him slip it on and lead me out to his Land Rover. I didn't even object when he strapped me in like a child.
Tony belted himself in and took the Rover out to the street, leaving Conrad's SUV behind. "Left or right?" he prompted.
When I looked outside, snow was falling heavily and the wind had picked up. I took a deep breath and pulled myself together enough to give him directions out of town and up the mountain.
He didn't try to talk to me on the drive, other than occasionally to prompt me for directions. I didn't understand, but I was grateful. Weren't men supposed to try to fix everything? Not all of them, apparently. At least one could listen without judging. I felt wrung out. I'd lost both my control and composure again, and I was glad that Conrad and Daddy hadn't seen me. I couldn't do anything right, it seemed.
The interior of the Rover finally sank into my awareness. Tony had packed it with tools and the Rover smelled like... like him, I realized. It didn't smell bad, just male. I rolled my eyes and laughed inside at myself. This was just perfect. I really didn't have the time or emotional energy for this.
Tony glanced at me and smiled before returning his eyes to the road in silence, giving me time to get myself back under control.
By the time we pulled up in front of the chalet, I'd regained enough of my composure to get out of the Rover and wait for Tony to meet me by the door. He had his overnight bag in hand when he joined me.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly.
He made a throwaway gesture. "You've done nothing to be sorry about, so don't worry about it."
I smiled and nodded gratefully. "Come on inside and let's get you settled." I led the way, saw to taking off our shoes and coats, and gave him the same short tour that I'd given Melissa yesterday.