A/N: Somehow a good portion of this story disappeared, along with much of the formatting. I'm pretty sure it was correct on this site some years ago. I apologize to anyone who might have read an incomplete story, believing that was the end of it.
A Fraction of Time
"This is so much better than being stuck alone in my apartment," Caroline commented, glancing out Annie's window at the many couples and families rushing towards their various destinations.
"Hmph," was the only response from her rather bored assistant. Arms crossed over his chest, he watched the same scene Caroline did, only from a drastically different perspective. She saw happy people, rushing to restaurants or gatherings where they intended to have a wonderful time. Friends, relatives, strangers, all celebrating this time of love together. He saw poverty, the pain of people struggling for life which was covered up by too-bright smiles. He saw the freezing homeless people, the heart-broken lovers, the unloved children.
In other words, she saw light and he saw dark. It was the way they always saw things, and the other's perspective was as unnatural to each as breathing underwater.
"Oh, Richard," Caroline sighed and glanced sideways at him. As always, his clothing was black, draping his slender body in too-large folds of darkness. His thick, dark blonde hair was arrayed in masses of waves, each seeming to fight to move in a different direction. Eyes squinting behind wire-rimmed glasses, the edges forming into creases of pain, he watched the scenes going on around him. With a sinking heart, Caroline realized that Richard was miserable. She had expected it of him, truly she had, but a small part had kept hoping he would relax, enjoy himself a little. To that end, she had plied him with wine, begging him to have drink after drink. He accepted twice, which was obviously not enough to relax him from his rigid posture, his cynical thoughts. "More wine?" she offered, suddenly realizing her own glass was nearly empty.
He refused once again, eyes still trained on the scene below. "No. I think I've had enough," he said, his voice soft and quiet. Caroline had to strain to hear him, leaning almost too close, her face tilted up to catch the words. He studied her as she nodded and moved away, intent on getting herself another drink. An almost sad smile touched his face, one corner of his thin mouth curling up into an unnatural position, the eyes showing humour for just a fleeting moment. The look passed so quickly over his narrow features that those around him never even knew it was there. This was the way it always was. No emotion. He must show no emotion. Or he would be hurt...again. But worse than that was the fact that he could hurt Caroline. It was something he wouldn't have, something he couldn't tolerate. And so his face became stoic once more, the look bland and bored.
Annie shook her head. The party was in full swing. Everyone was dancing, laughing, having a great time. As the night had worn on and the celebrants had become drunker, the music had been turned up louder and louder. And yet here she was, standing off to one side, her dark eyes following one hurting couple. There was Caroline, pouring herself another drink. Her eyes were still on Richard, as they were most of the time lately. Lately, Annie had begun to notice Caroline's penchant for sticking by Richard. Even at a party, where she could mingle, meet new people and chat with old, she stuck by Richard. Why? she wondered. What hold did the cynical artist have over her?
And then there was Richard. Annie had been the only one to see that wistful smile cross his face, the only one to really understand what it meant. There was no doubt that he was still in love with Caroline. His eyes followed her everywhere she went, that same yearning look playing about his features whenever her back was turned. But what were Caroline's feelings for him? More and more Annie was beginning to realize that Caroline might feel the same way as he did. She couldn't pretend to understand why, but she had never seen such intensity in Caroline's eyes as she had when Richard was around, or even when his name was brought up. It was obvious she cared for him, and deeply, but how far did her feelings truly go?
Annie watched as Caroline returned to Richard's side immediately after obtaining her drink. She didn't pause to talk to anyone else, just moved right to him and handed him the other glass of wine she had in her hand. Richard snapped something at her, and Annie was surprised to see Caroline do nothing more than look sadly at her feet. That certainly wasn't like Caroline, Annie noted with some alarm. Usually she would just smile cheerfully, even when hurt. Had she had too much to drink, or was there more going on there?
"I...I'm sorry Caroline," Richard said quietly, his eyes closing for a moment. "I don't intend to get drunk tonight. I have too much on my mind for that." He opened his eyes and looked at her, watching as she slowly lifted her face to him. She was beautiful, stunning in the simple red and white dress she had chosen for the night. The myriad of lights around the room bounced off her skin, creating patterns of colour across her face and neck. As she smiled up at him, he suddenly had the urge to paint her like this. No. Better yet, he'd love to paint her with nothing but those colours draping her entire body. The light in her eyes at that moment, the way they sparkled with tender emotion. She would be perfect, the memory would be with him forever, something he could pull out at any time and study, relive in all its glory. Someday he knew they would have to part ways. Someday she would stop drawing, or she would no longer need an assistant, or he would do something horrible and she'd wish him out of her life. It was the way things always were with him, his miserable life never ending. Shivers traced down his spine as he tried to imagine his life without her and he took a large gulp of wine from the unwanted glass she had brought him, hoping it would calm his heart and numb his mind.
"Richard, are you okay?" Caroline asked, placing a hand lightly on his arm. Something was wrong. She had seen the transformation happen quickly, as it often did with him. One moment he had been angry, the next...something else entirely.
Richard nodded, giving her a tight smile. Almost...he had almost slipped up, allowed part of himself to surface. That couldn't happen. She would dismiss him then and there, ask him to leave his job as her assistant. And he couldn't let go so soon. The job he had taken with her was now about so much more than solely money. He knew he could find another job, someplace else, doing something else. But now it was about Caroline. She was his only friend, the only person who had ever truly cared about him. And he loved her. Even though she could never love him, he loved her. "I'm fine. Just a little out of sorts. Too many people, you know?" He gave her a rueful grin and turned away, the sight almost too painful.
"Do you want to leave?" she asked, her voice still light, the tone reedy and unsure. She could feel the tenseness in his arm, the way the muscles bunched up in anticipation of some blow. As soon as she released him, he seemed to relax slightly. Whenever she touched him, even in the smallest way, he acted like this. Why? He was her friend, and she had always been that way with friends, lending support when she felt they needed it. But Richard? The sad truth was that even when surrounded by others, he was so painfully alone. It made her heart ache, whenever she saw him like this. No friends, no family, no one to turn to when the world came crashing down. Time and again, she had tried to get him to open up, to talk about his pain, his misery. And each time his sarcasm had come to the forefront, slithering out and attacking her like a starving beast. It always managed to chase her away, to make her go running to safer havens than the dark recesses of his mind.
"N...no," he said, the word stuttering out of his mouth as it often did. "I'll be fine." He was lying, Caroline knew he was, for she knew Richard as no other did. That particular tenseness was still causing his eyes to squint in agitation.
"Are you sure?" she asked, worry evident in her eyes. She refrained from touching him again, for it was obvious he didn't wish her to.
"Yes," he reiterated, the word coming fast and tight. Another lie. He would never be "fine" again, as long as he felt this way for her. If this were any other Valentine's Day, he would be in his apartment, the door closed tightly, a depressing opera engulfing his senses. And he would be alone, not surrounded by Annie's partying friends, but wonderfully, blessedly, sadly alone. "Maybe you should go mingle," he said quietly. "Go see your friends, meet some new people." She was so good in crowds, so easily adaptable. So unlike him. She belonged out there, on the dance floor, having fun as the others were. Perhaps if she left him for a little while, he could slip away and return to the peace and quiet of his lonely apartment. He would miss her for the remainder of the night, but it would be better than watching her eyes, full of sadness and longing like they were now, following the revelers as they wound their way around the small room in a pathetically unorganized attempt at a conga line.
"No." She shook her head. She would not leave Richard alone this night, though it was quite obvious he wished to go home. His eyes looked into hers, intense and with something strange in them that she had never seen before. Longing. Did he want to flee so strongly that the urge to run was ingrained into his entire being?
The conga line came to an abrupt halt as a slow song came on over the speakers. Men and women fell into quick couples and the entire mood of the room changed with surprising suddenness. Richard closed his eyes in dread as he saw the look on Caroline's face soften. Now would be the time she'd leave him. He knew she couldn't possibly resist a slow dance.
"Um...Richard," Caroline said, the words coming tentatively, biting her lip with worry.
"Yes, yes, go ahead." He waved a dismissive hand in the air, anticipating the question, knowing what was on her mind. He could almost hear her voice in his head. "Richard, do you mind if I go dance for a bit?" She'd leave him there and find someone to dance with. She would claim she'd return to him after that one dance, but he knew it would lead to others and soon she'd be on the other side of the room with Annie, celebrating with everyone else. He would be alone... again. That was what he wanted, wasn't it?
"Really?" Caroline was shocked. Richard never wanted to dance. He hated to dance. She remembered when she had dragged him to that awards ceremony. It had taken so much persuading, soft sighs and pointed looks, for him to finally agree to dance with her. And now? He had agreed without her even voicing the entire question. Perhaps that third glass of wine really had worked.
Richard nodded, the look on his face turning sardonic. "Of course...I...I'll be fine." One hand swept outward to punctuate the gesture. Surprise hit him like a physical blow when he felt Caroline's small hand grasp his. What the...? He snatched his hand back as if burnt. "I told you, I'm fine."
Caroline stared up at him in utter confusion. What did he mean? A moment ago he had...No, wait. Perhaps he thought she had intended to ask him something else. "Go ahead..." Did he think she wanted to leave him there? "Richard, I thought you were going to dance with me," she said, eyes downcast, for some strange reason almost afraid of the answer.
It took almost half the song for Richard to finally join Caroline on the dance floor. Annie, still intent on watching them, still curious about the odd developments taking place, found amusement in the awkward way Richard held her at first. She knew this wasn't the first time the two had danced together. Not too long ago, there had been an awards ceremony that Caroline's then-boyfriend, Joe, had refused to go to. When her date, a man she had dated for a short time ages ago, had shown up and treated her with incredible condescension, she had been crushed. Richard had been there, though, to save the moment. Surprisingly enough, without Caroline ever having to ask him, he had agreed to go. Later that evening, Caroline had told Annie everything that had occurred, from her too long speech to Richard's asking her to dance with him.
"He actually asked me to dance, Annie," Caroline had said, a strange amount of wonder evident in her voice.
"Richie? Seriously? I can't imagine the Lord of Depression asking anyone to dance." Well, except perhaps Caroline, Annie had amended. Richard would truly do anything for Caroline.
"Well, not asked exactly. But he did initiate it...well, after some rather obvious hints on my part...But he didn't have to..."
"Caroline, you're babbling," Annie had said, patting her friend on the shoulder. Another oddity. Caroline had a tendency to babble like this, but she certainly never had before about Richard. "So, spill the beans. Did he step on your toes? Knock you over?"
"Neither," Caroline had said, another small smile playing about her lips. "He was awkward at first." A small laugh. "But once he got into the swing of things...no pun intended. He was actually quite good."
"Did ya slow dance?" She had to test it, to completely understand what was occurring here. An odd look at graced Caroline's face the entire time she was speaking about him. It was the first time Annie had considered the possibility that her best friend might be falling for Richard.
Caroline had nodded, that same soft smile on her face. "It actually felt..." She had paused, obviously looking for the right word, or perhaps for one to cover up her rather confused thoughts. "...nice. But then Joe showed up and Richard left."
"Caroline, tell me something," Annie had said in one of her rare serious moments. "Do you have feelings for Richie?"
"No...no...I have Joe and I really like him. I...Richard's a good friend..."
Annie had nodded, knowing that Caroline would have told her if she did.
Honestly, what had she been thinking?
The truth was that the more she had studied Caroline after that incident, the more she had begun to realize that there was a definite possibility that Caroline was denying her true feelings. But why? Couldn't she see the way Richard looked at her? Even Annie, who tried to avoid being around the cynical man, could see the intense passion he attempted to cover up every time Caroline was around.
"See, Richard, this isn't so bad," Caroline said, looking up into his eyes. Strangely enough, it really wasn't. Though he held her far from him, so that their only points of contact were her hand in his, and her arm about his waist, it was still nice dancing with him. Unlike that dog Joe, Richard was taller than her. She knew if she drifted just a tiny bit closer she could rest her head in just the right position on his chest.
The last time they had danced, she had been amazed at how right it felt, the way their bodies fit together perfectly. Her head had been in the perfect position upon his chest, his chin easily resting on the top of her head.
"Whatever," Richard muttered darkly. Wasn't so bad? It was torture, pure torture, holding her in his arms like this, keeping her away and yet wanting to drag her in close, to fit her body to his. But he couldn't. No...itwouldn't be right. He had done it once, held her like that, cradled her small body in his arms. It had been wonderful and, as always, it hadn't lasted. Joe had interrupted and Richard had left.
On the long walk home that particular night, Richard had thought long and hard about the occurrences of the evening. He analyzed his feelings for her, tried to rationalize them to himself. Yet, all he could come up with was "I love her..." And desperately at that. This, however, was one emotion he would bury deep, never allowing it to surface except in vulnerable moments when he was alone. Those were the times he would hold every memory of her close: the time she told him he was one of the best people she had gotten to know, the time she crawled into his lap, drunk and frightened, and had allowed him to hold her, the time they had delivered a friend's baby, their heads close together, the awe they both felt. Most of all, he would remember when he had kissed her, all the pent-up passion from months of working near her without expressing any emotion coming out in one rush. The embarrassment of the next moment, when she had told him she didn't know anything about his letter, he shoved aside. In his fantasy, she had clung to him as she had, kissed him as she had, but she knew about the letter and felt the same as he did.
Annie watched as the couple drifted closer and closer together. It was obvious neither of them realized how they swayed towards each other as they danced. Each had their eyes closed, most likely to secretly enjoy the sensations they were feeling.
Caroline's face held a soft smile, one which radiated throughout the entire room, bright and beautiful. Did she even know how she looked when she was with Richard? To anyone who happened to glance their way for more than a few seconds, it was incredibly obvious how she felt about him. Annie was shocked that it had taken her this long to catch on to that fact. Perhaps she had been hoping, praying even, that Caroline's feelings would focus on someone else. After all, Annie and Richard hadn't gotten along since the first moment they met.
Now, however, she attempted to study him from Caroline's perspective. Tall and blonde, a little too thin for Annie's tastes, but surprisingly, she realized that he was a handsome man. The pained expression he usually wore didn't help her impression, but right now, the contented look on his face smoothed away the wrinkles of cynicism and misery and left her with an impression of sensitivity and caring. Caring? Richie? Well, perhaps there was hope yet.
"Hey Del!" Annie called across the room to Caroline's rather shallow ex-fiance. Richard and Caroline were still dancing, still drifting closer together. They weren't quite touching just yet, but it was only a matter of time before they did. And she wanted Del over with her before it happened. She wanted his opinion on it. After all, if Del could see what she thought she saw, then it was extremely obvious and Annie wouldn't feel so bad about the possibility of interfering.
Del ignored her. Truly, what else did she expect? His back was to her, which meant that he was most likely chatting up his newest conquest. Which is what I should be doing right now, instead of watching my best friend dance with the Prince of Darkness. And normally, she would be with her latest conquest. But this was more important. She had a feeling that Caroline's happiness hinged on this, and that maybe, just maybe, so did Richard's. She wondered if being with Caroline would make the cynical artist happy. So far, nothing really had. The closest he had come was when that gay couple had bought one of his pieces of artwork. He had been, in his own Richard-like way, ecstatic. And what he done? He had gone running around the museum, searching frantically for Caroline. No one else had mattered at that moment, for he had wanted to share his joy with her and her alone. Oh my God. Even then, even way back then, just a scarce month after he had first come into their lives, Richard had been in love with Caroline.
The letter hadn't been the writing of a man who suddenly found himself with feelings for his boss. Quite the contrary, the letter was the direct result of months of hidden emotions. All that time, well over a year and a half now. Richard had loved her since...the beginning?
Annie forced her mind to go back to the first days of Richard's employment with Caroline. It was hard to remember anything but what a pain in the ass he had been. She had to peel away his layers of indifference, of cynicism, of anguish, in order to see everything clearly. And that was perhaps the most difficult thing she had ever done.
"Del!" she called again as her thoughts began to wander backwards in time. "Get your ass over here!" Let's see...When was the first time I remember him doing something nice for Caroline? Hmmm...
There had been the time he had accompanied her to her home in Wisconsin. That was certainly something he hadn't been looking forward to. And yet he had gone. Annie remembered clearly Caroline's description of how he had sat with her outside in the freezing cold, of how he had brought her coat to her, the way he had put his arm around her and held her while she was upset. Annie hadn't really thought much at the time, figuring the cold air had gotten to the artist. But perhaps there had been more there already?
Her mind went back further, searching for clues, trying to understand the situation in its entirety. There had been that lovely painting he had done of Paris for her, when Del had been his typical insensitive self and their relationship had ended yet again. Caroline had later told her how Richard had so sweetly pointed out the scene he had painted, staring into her eyes and smiling. Smiling? Annie hadn't known what to make of it. Caroline had also talked of how she had actually kissed him on the cheek and he hadn't retreated. According to Caroline, it was the first time he had really allowed physical contact between them. Of course, Annie hadn't considered there could be more there than just the beginning of a friendship.
There has to be more clues...Like when he agreed to march in the parade with her, or when he took care of her when she injured her back. That time he even went so far as to draw her strip for her. Wait... All of a sudden it hit her, like a freight train coming in at full speed. The answer she had been looking for. She couldn't believe how obvious it had been.
A conversation she had had with Richard during his first week of working with Caroline.
"Hello." He had said, his voice coming rushed and almost a little angry.
"Richie, it's me, Annie..."
"I know who you are." Still that angry tone. He always sounded that way and Annie wondered what, exactly, was wrong with him.
"Look, Caroline's in trouble down at the pharmacy and I think..."
"You never think, Annie. And I'm already on my way," he had snapped at her and slammed the phone down.
Later, Annie had learned of Richard showing up to bail Caroline out, reluctant as always, claiming that Annie had been the cause of his showing up at the pharmacy that night. He had actually gone on his own, with just the call from Caroline being enough to send him out in the dark.
Almost six days before that, too, he had played the part of Caroline's date when the man who was supposed to be turned out to be a married jerk. He had been wonderful, Caroline had said, even going so far as to kiss her when Del had shown up.
"Oh, Anne, he was amazing!" Caroline had said, a look of admiration on her face. "He was going to leave me there, but then Del came over. Almost instantly, Richard took up the role of my date..."
"He didn't?" Annie had asked, surprised to say the least. Richard had been an obnoxious ass all day, making comments about Caroline's unorganized lifestyle and Annie's numerous conquests. She just couldn't see him taking on the role of "romantic date." It just didn't work.
"He did," Caroline had said with a smirk. "I was going to introduce him to Del as my new assistant when he told Del he was my date." Caroline had laughed suddenly, the look in her eyes going slightly fuzzy. "And then he kissed me..."
"What?" Annie had screeched.
"I know, I know...It seems odd. I can barely believe he did it..."
"Was it any good?" Annie had asked, already guessing the most likely answer to that.
"Annie!" Caroline had exclaimed, a blush creeping up her cheeks.
"Well, was it?" Annie had wanted to hear that it was awful. It gave her more leverage over the annoying man. She could mock him for it the next day.
"Oh, Annie, it was rushed and I was a bit too surprised to think anything at that moment." A pause and an obviously inward look. "But I wouldn't say it was bad, no..." Her eyes cleared suddenly. "But it didn't mean anything. He even charged me overtime for the night."
Annie had laughed, wanting to push for more details, though she had decided to let it go.
Now she wished she hadn't. The look in Caroline's eyes when she talked about the evening, about Richard's concept of Sincere Amore, had been one she hadn't seen before.
Del sighed as he heard Annie's distinctively loud voice come from across the room. Why now, of all times, did she have to disturb him? Rolling his eyes, he looked down at the beautiful woman he had been talking to.
Amber wasn't brilliant, by any stretch of the word, but with her long blonde hair, pale green eyes, and rather large bust-line, she was the exact kind of woman he was always looking for. Her mind was obviously on anything but intellectual pursuits as she chatted quietly with him. She certainly seemed quite impressed that he owned his own company, even though her head most likely swam when he talked about the intricacies of owning and running a company.
He had been so close to taking the beautiful woman back to his place, for he could see the wine and the conversation were wearing her down. And then Annie had shouted to him, sounding quite insistent. What could she possibly want? She must think it quite important if she were parting ways from whatever man she was talking to and forcing him to leave Amber.
"I'll be right back," Del said with a smile, trying to look his most sincere. Amber just smiled and waved her perfectly manicured nails at him. With that, knowing she'd move on in mere moments, he crossed the room to Annie.
"What is it?" Del asked, his voice sounding incredibly impatient.
As Annie watched him look over his shoulder several times, she said, "Del! This is more important than that blonde bimbo you're trying to get into bed with! Look." She pointed in the direction of Caroline and Richard.
They still weren't quite touching, but they were so close that even Annie ached with it. The look on Richard's face was an exact mirror of the one on Caroline's face. A slight smile, eyes closed, they were both obviously enjoying the other's presence.
"Wow," Del said, finally seeing what Annie was looking at. "Richard's dancing? That must be a first." Annie struck him on the upper arm, her eyes looking murderous. "Ow!" Del exclaimed. "What was that for?"
"Just watch," she said, her eyes still on the couple.
"Richard?" Caroline said, glancing up at him. His eyes were closed, and she sincerely hoped it didn't pain him to dance with her like this. There was no response from the man and Caroline leaned in closer, resting her chin on his chest, face still pointed upwards.
His eyes flew open and he looked down at her without moving away. Their lips...they were so close. All it would take was one slight motion, just his head moving an inch or two further down and he could capture those smiling lips with his. No! he admonished himself. He mustn't think that way, to consider the possibility that more could be there than an employer-employee relationship, or perhaps even friendship at the most. "What Caroline?" he asked, trying to regain the cynicism that was usually a requisite part of his personality, trying so very hard to remain indifferent.
Caroline studied him for a few moments, wondering about the look that had appeared in his eyes for just a second. It had been a gentle look, one she had rarely seen on his angular face. It surprised her, that look did, for the expression in his soft brown eyes was one she could never have imagined seeing there. "I'm sorry I dragged you here..." Her voice trailed off. She didn't know what else to say. Her plan to get Richard to relax, to enjoy himself, was obviously a complete failure. He held her almost awkwardly, keeping her body just far enough away from his that they didn't touch. Her chin on his chest obviously disturbed him a great deal, and so she shifted slightly away from him.
"No. Don't apologize," Richard said, grimacing. In truth, she hadn't really dragged him here. After all, he had wanted to spend this evening with Caroline. This wasn't exactly part of his fantasy night with her...well, the dancing was perhaps...but he hadn't imagined them surrounded by people, walled in on all sides by drunken celebrants. He sighed, one long drawn out and agonized sigh. "I...just don't handle parties well..."
"I know." Caroline smiled up at him, still holding herself slightly away from his body. It was strange, really, how Richard had agreed to accompany her to Annie's party. She had been dead set on going alone, even though Valentine's Day was a night intended for love and romance. She and Joe had broken up over a month ago and she hadn't felt ready to try another relationship. After all, the last couple had been complete disasters. Well, not disasters perhaps. She and Del were still friends, though the spark of intense desire they had felt for each other had gone out long ago. Their unstable relationship had finally come to an end after several uncomfortable break-ups and tentative reconciliations, which both had felt was absolutely for the best. How they had ever planned to get married, she still couldn't figure out. That kind of committed relationship just couldn't be based on sex alone, as hers and Del's was. There had to be more. There had to be Sincere Amore.
A worried look crossed Caroline's face as Richard watched her. Trepidation coursed through him, the ever-present fright that he would give himself away. Or that Annie would tell her about the letter he had written months ago. "What?" he asked, looking away from her, tilting his head up and away from the temptation of kissing her.
"Hmmm?" Caroline asked. "I'm sorry...Was I staring at you?" A sheepish smile made its way onto her face as she looked away from him. She hadn't meant to stare, but that look she had seen was still firmly implanted in her mind. Simply put, she just couldn't stop herself from wondering what it meant.
"Yes," Richard answered her with, his voice harsh and uncompromising.
Caroline smiled, unperturbed. It was so like Richard to dislike her looking at him. No matter what she did, no matter what he did, it always made him uncomfortable. "Well, I'm sorry, Richard. I just wanted to thank you for coming with me. You didn't have to, but I'm really glad you did." Without thinking, she moved closer to him, wrapping her arms around him in a gentle hug.
Finally, Annie thought, watching as Caroline wrapped her arms around Richard, pulling him closer to her. How had it been possible that she had never noticed how right Richard and Caroline looked as a couple? The way their bodies fit together? They truly gave new meaning to the phrase "opposites attract". Richard...dark, cynical, always dressed in black, even at a Valentine's Day party. Caroline...peppy, cheerful, wearing a stunning outfit in shades of red and white that was both softly flattering and devastatingly sexy at the same time. They were a study in contrasts and Annie could see why the artist in Richard was so drawn to Caroline. The differences, the light versus dark, must truly call out to his soul.
Wow, I'm being so poetic, she mused. For some reason, the situation brought out the romantic in her. That part was usually buried deep, pushed aside so that she could enjoy sex without any of the emotional baggage most people associated with it. She knew, somehow, though, that it was different for both Richard and Caroline, that love and sex were intertwined for them, rather than separate as they were for Annie. In that way, at least, the two artists were alike. Perhaps that was what tied them together, she realized, that devotion to true love. What had Richard called it? Sincere Amore ...
Annie continued to watch the pair as Richard's arms came awkwardly around Caroline, encircling her body but barely touching her. He held her so tentatively, the look on his face a strange mixture of contentedness and fright. For a moment, his eyes opened and his gaze skirted the room around him, finally coming to rest on Annie. As soon as their eyes connected, she looked away, afraid that he would know she was watching him during such a tender moment. But in those few seconds of eye contact, she saw all the emotions he had been trying to hide from Caroline, from Annie, from everyone. The cynicism and obvious misery of his existence was still there, but mixed into it she could see his caring side, the pain of too many things gone wrong, and his intense and overwhelming love for Caroline.
It was hard to believe that he had actually verbally denied his feelings for Caroline. Somehow, he had managed to say it to Annie in such a way that she had actually let the entire thing go.
What exactly had he said to force her into silence?
"Alright, look, Annie. When I wrote this, I was going through some things, okay? I
thought I had feelings, but I don't! Or if I did, I don't anymore, so all you're going to do with this is cause people needless pain."
The tone in his voice, the look in his eyes...Though Annie hadn't been completely convinced that Richard was over her friend, she had allowed herself to believe that he thought he was over her. But there had been those lingering doubts.
Caroline closed her eyes as she felt Richard's arms come around her, amazingly holding her close to him and yet, at the same time, barely touching her body. It was the strangest feeling in the world, like she was floating next to him, there and yet not quite there all at once. She could feel the strength and warmth of his arms around her and yet there was no real contact between them.
Somehow, Richard always managed to hold himself apart from everyone. Mostly from her, Caroline was surprised to note. Why was he so afraid to allow physical contact between himself and others? "Richard?" she suddenly asked, the word quiet and tentative.
"What?" he responded with, the word cut off in that harsh way he had of speaking, each letter perfectly articulated.
"A...are you okay?" Once again, she tilted her head upwards to study him, noting the quick downward movement of his eyebrows. Was he even aware of that look? Or was it so natural that he never realized the way he managed to look hard and standoffish even when with someone he considered to be a friend?
"I'm fine," he bit off, his head turning to the side once more, breaking eye contact with her, hoping she wouldn't see the look in his eyes. His defenses were down, his emotions near the surface, raw edges of pain that caused his stomach to lurch whenever he got closer than a foot to Caroline. Now the butterflies had taken to mad flight within him, his heart in his throat, his eyes, truly the window to his soul, displaying all the emotions he longed to bury so deep that they'd never see the light of day. If she saw...if she looked into his eyes and saw at that moment...She'd run far away. It would truly be the end of any relationship he had with her, and he couldn't face that. She could easily move on, one less friend in her life, her optimistic outlook on life still intact without him, most likely more intact without him. But could he? Closing his eyes against the mere thought, he knew he couldn't survive without her. And so he would never do anything to jeopardize their rather tentative friendship.
"Caroline," he said, threat evident in his voice.
"Richard," she responded with and laughed slightly. She knew him well enough to recognize that tone of voice, to know when to drop the subject. If she didn't...Well, he'd leave, storm out of Annie's apartment and into the night. And on Monday, he'd walk into her apartment as he did every other morning, and never speak of it. It was what he always did, the way he handled things he had trouble dealing with. Ignoring them, repressing them, wishing they'd go away.
So Caroline knew she had no choice. She just moved closer to Richard, moving tighter into his embrace and wrapping her arms tightly around his body. "Just relax a little," she whispered against his chest, strangely thrilled when she felt his arms finally come into contact with her body, pulling her tight against him, molding her body to his in a way that felt strangely, and yet absolutely, right.
Annie almost cheered out loud when Richard and Caroline finally closed the distance between them. It had started to annoy her, the way Richard so obviously kept that one sliver of space between their bodies, keeping his arms just rigid enough to cut Caroline out of his personal space. How could he do that to Caroline? To himself? He loved Caroline, of that she was certain, even though he had denied it again and again.
"...so all you're going to do with this is cause people needless pain..."
His pain? That was surely what he meant by that! He couldn't have thought that an admission like what was in the letter would cause Caroline pain, could he? Even if she didn't love him, which Annie was almost positive she did, it would only cause a bit of awkwardness for Caroline.
Of course, Richard seemed to think it would destroy their friendship completely. She would truly never forget the look on his narrow features when he had pulled the letter out of her hand, the way his voice had tightened up and his eyes had become shuttered. He had been blocking everything out: his emotions, the possibility of any sort of relationship, the imagined pain.
He had even cut off any chance of his having a true friendship with Caroline. Ever since he came back into their lives, Richard's sarcasm had been riding right under the surface of every situation, often coming out to blister Annie, and even Caroline, with its icy darkness. How could he do it? she wondered. How could he keep his love for Caroline so deeply hidden that no one, not even himself, recognized it? Was that even possible?
It most likely wasn't. Annie had a good feeling, from the way Richard's eyes fell on Caroline with an intensity she rarely saw in the artist, that he was all too aware of his feelings. But he was excellent at hiding them from the unaware. Annie barely recognized the signs, and she was the one who had actually read the letter.
But there were signs...
"Wow. " Annie turned and looked at Del as the word came out of his mouth once more. Del? Had he actually recognized their friends' mutually-denied attraction?
"Del?" she asked, turning shocked eyes up at him.
"What?" The word was defensive and Annie realized that he was talking about something else entirely.
"I still can't believe Richard's dancing," Del said, adding his typically insincere laugh to the end of the sentence.
Annie rolled her eyes skyward. There was so much more going on here than just simply Caroline's getting Richard to dance. That was certainly part of it, but it was not the complete story.
"Del," she ground out, her voice turning slightly harsh for the moment. "Do you ever pay attention to anything but your bimbos?" She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, amused to watch the defensive light come into his eyes.
"I like those bimbos." Annie shook her head. Leave it to Del to say something as stupid as that.
"Then forget it, Del. This is over your head. Go back to Bambi over there." She waved her hand in the direction of Amber's bubbly voice and girlish laughter.
Del drew himself up a little higher, trying so very hard to look more impressive than he was, to make himself look slightly more intelligent. "Her name is not Bambi." When Annie rolled her eyes with obvious sarcasm, he finally gave up. "Fine...I will."
Annie was almost relieved to see him wander away without another word. She had hoped for some degree of sensitivity from him. Who on Earth was she kidding? That was obviously never going to happen, so, perhaps, it was better that he had left. She could now turn her covert attention back to the developments occurring on the other side of the room.
Richard was shocked when Caroline wrapped her arms around him, molding her body to his in a way that was incredibly seductive. Did she not realize what she was doing, how she was tempting fate to destroy his fragile world? With little thought or intention, he found himself responding, following her lead and wrapping his arms tight about her. He was helpless now, a slave to his own unrequited emotions. She could break him at this moment. With just one word, one movement, she could tear him down and leave him locked into his pain and anguish. She couldn't know that, of course, for she had no idea, no thoughts skittering around inside her head on that front. He was her assistant, her friend, and nothing more. But the possibility of it was still there.
Caroline relaxed against Richard, allowing her arms to loosen slightly, trying to move in a graceful sway that was hard to accomplish when Richard was still so tense. As the song continued, the melody wrapping tightly around her mind and heart, she found herself looking back up at him.
Richard felt her shift in his arms, felt the point of her chin dig into his chest. Without having to look down, he knew her eyes were on him, for he could feel the weight of her gaze burning into him. Quickly masking his face with indifference, horribly frightened that she would see some sort of emotion there, he looked down at her once again.
Caroline couldn't look away as his dark eyes met hers. The pain, the anguish he so obviously tried to hide behind his veneer of apathy, was prevalent even though she guessed he was trying to hold it somewhere deep under the surface of his emotions. Her eyes searched his, silently begging him to open up, to let her into his world. There were times when she felt as if he were her closest friend and yet she still couldn't get close enough to him to truly say she knew the man. He was an enigma, a strange sort of puzzle that would come together only if she could figure out where to place the fragmented pieces. She had laid some of them down with careful hands: his unhappy relationship with his parents, the somewhat tragic loss of his Sincere Amore, the artwork he couldn't sell and had therefore shoved under his bed. It all added up to create who he was today. But there were missing pieces in the puzzle, things that had never been explained, like that strange letter he had referred to in Remo's the night before her wedding to Del was supposed to happen. That piece was still missing, hidden away somewhere in the box, amid a variety of others she couldn't quite understand. What else was there? What was he hiding so deep within himself he couldn't bear to bring it into the light of day? She whispered his name again, not sure what she planned to say to him, not sure where her confused thoughts were leading her.
He whispered her name without thinking, his voice catching slightly on the last syllable. He had seen the emotions flit over her face, the way her eyes would darken for a moment, a shadow falling over them, and then lighten back up in the next. He watched the changes in her brow as it furrowed with some particularly vexing thought. It was fascinating, watching her mind work from this close. He couldn't have looked away if he had really wanted to. It was at that moment that he realized she knew he was watching her, because the entire time those thoughts had been moving through her mind, her eyes had been locked with his. He took a breath to steady himself, to stop his heart from beating so loudly that all in the room could surely hear it. Finally, at long last, he cut off the contact, shutting his eyes and moving his head away from her.
"Richard?" Her voice was tentative, one hand reaching up to slightly stroke his cheek. His eyes flew open, meeting hers once again. The smile on her face was radiant, a sight almost painful to look at while his emotions were so close to the surface. This close proximity to her, the feel of her body pressed so tightly to his was beginning to make him dizzy. He had never felt quite this intoxicated before and he had only had two glasses of wine.
"Richard?" she asked once more, her voice becoming slightly worried. What was wrong with him? He had been staring at her for quite some time now, his eyes never wavering, never looking away. No words had passed through his lips, except her own name, whispered softly, the sound pained in a way she had never truly heard his voice before.
She expected him to say something... anything. Richard's mind worked frantically to think of something to say, preferably something witty and sarcastic, something to break the incredible tension he felt. Her hand was still on his cheek, her eyes still locked onto his, a worried frown creasing her brow. Without thinking, he reached one hand up and smoothed away that crease, words still beyond his grasp at the moment. She smiled at his touch, the sweetest vision he had ever seen, so much more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined. He whispered her name once more, knowing that was the only thing he could possibly get out of his mouth, his rational side going on hold at that moment. Finally, thoughts and words fleeing him completely, he crossed the final barrier. Leaning down, drunk on sensation and feelings, he touched his lips lightly to Caroline's, his eyes shutting for a moment. It was only fleeting, just the brushing of her lips with his, but it was truly the most profound thing he had ever done, ever felt. Shocked by it all, he suddenly opened his eyes.
Reality sprang upon him abruptly, sound and light returning to create a cacophonous noise ringing loudly in his ears. The world around him warped strangely as everything ground to a halt, colours blurring into one another, sounds becoming one loud wail. The only thing still clear in his vision was Caroline, her shocked face upturned as she looked at him in what surely must be disgust. His world was crumbling about him, the foundation destroyed and everything else following shortly thereafter. What had he done? How could he? It was a barrier he had vowed to never cross. What he had done?
With clarity he thought had deserted him forever, he suddenly saw the situation for what it was: the end. The end of everything he had held dear to his heart. He had fled to Paris thinking he could put a stop to his impossible love for Caroline. And, instead, he had returned to her when nothing had gone right. Thinking he could hide it from her, thinking that he would eventually get over her and be able to feel emotions properly again, he had taken up his old job as her assistant. Who had he been fooling all this time? Himself? Annie? Caroline? Apparently, he had been fooling everyone.
"Caroline," he whispered once more, as he stepped back and his hands flutter nervously outward, creating intrinsically odd patterns in the air. He was shaking, truly shaking with what he had done. Such a simple gesture, really, a kiss...But not for him. Reaching out to another person, touching them in such an affectionately personal way was as alien to him as his sarcastic demeanor was to Caroline.
He knew what he had to do then, the only recourse still available to his limited mental capacity of the moment. Flee. It was the only thing he could imagine, truly the only thing to do. Without another word, he turned from her, from the only woman he could ever love, and bolted for the door. There was no possibility of his staying, not now, not after he had crossed all boundaries of propriety, not after he had destroyed his world with such carelessness. It was over. Completely over...
Caroline stood rooted to the spot, hand to her lips, eyes wide open in shock. What had happened? She could barely piece together the puzzle, but somehow it was all coming together, the pieces beginning to fall into place, although she still couldn't quite make out the picture.
"Caroline?" The voice that reached her ears was vaguely familiar, and she found it took some time to focus on the person now standing near her. Finally, though, Annie's face swam into view, followed closely by Del's.
"Richard." Caroline whispered, his name the only word she found she was able to utter.
"I know." Annie said, her look sympathetic, and yet angry at the same time.
Caroline shook her head to clear away her muddled thoughts, finally being able to articulate what she was thinking. "What happened, Annie?"
"He ran," she said simply. It didn't surprise Annie, not really at least. He had run once before, after the last time he had kissed Caroline. Within a couple hours, he had been gone, with no word of explanation, nothing at all. He had just disappeared from their lives as quickly as he had come into them.
"For good?" Caroline asked, her eyes meeting Annie's darker ones. Had he gone for good, just now that something was coming out in the open, now that her mind was churning with thoughts of him, of what was possible.
"Not if you go after him," Del said with a strange amount of understanding. Both women turned and looked at him for a moment, shock written in the way their eyebrows were raised high. "Hey," he said, a defensive note creeping into his voice. "Sometimes I can come up with a solution."
"He's right," Annie said, grimacing as she said the words. "You need to go after him." She was already moving to grab Caroline's jacket from her bedroom when Caroline next spoke.
"And say what, Annie? What can I say to him?" Frantic, Caroline darted after Annie, nearly running into her as Annie turned back around, coat in hand.
"It doesn't matter, hun. Just say whatever's on your mind, whatever you need to say. Anything. If you don't, he's gonna to leave again, and most likely for good this time." Annie held out the coat to Caroline, the look in her eyes saying it all. Caroline didn't want Richard to leave like he did the last time. He was a close friend, and perhaps a close friend who she was on the way to more with. She had to stop him from making a terrible mistake. That look in his eyes right before he had quit the room, the wide-eyed look of a man in the throes of a terrible dilemma, frightened of his own actions of the moment before. She had never seen that look of horrible intensity on anyone before. It was terrifying to behold, for it spoke of some disaster surely looming on the horizon.
Quickly grabbing the coat from Annie and throwing it on in a haste she had rarely felt, Caroline thanked her friend and darted through the crowd to the door. This was it. The moment that whatever truth was lurking in the shadows was going to come out.
Richard trudged through the cold outdoors, the wind causing his open black coat to flutter out and about him like a cape. Snow lightly drifted down from the sky, creating lazy patterns in the dim light from the street lamps. The scene around him was utterly breathtaking. But he wasn't capable of seeing it. His mind was focused inwards. The only sight he saw was the horrified look that crossed Caroline's face after he had kissed her. Kissed her...What had possessed him to be so bold, to throw all caution to the wind and put his heart on the line in such a way? It had been crazy, perhaps the most utterly moronic thing he had ever done in his entire miserable life.
But the way she had whispered his name, the tentative sound of it, the sweet way her lips had formed the syllables. It had almost seemed like...no...he knew now it was impossible. That look...
Pausing for a moment to rest his head against the pole of a street lamp, he let the humiliation wash over him. How many times before had he told himself that pain was good for art? Countless times as misery piled upon misery, one terrible tragedy blurring into another.
But this time...this time was different. Somehow he sensed it. This time it was more profound, more painful than anything he had previously gone through...This time he had lost his true Sincere Amore.
The cold hit Caroline like a slap in the face as soon as she stepped out of the building, bringing necessary coolness to her burning cheeks. Richard ...Where was he? Where had he gone? It was obvious he hadn't been thinking too clearly when he ran from Annie's apartment and out into the night. So he would most likely run to the only shelter he could imagine. His apartment, his one sanctuary from the world...
Pausing for a moment, Caroline tried to get her thoughts back in order. Would he have taken a cab? The subway? No...she highly doubted that. He was too frantic, too nervous to think of the obvious. She knew he would walk the entire way there, freezing in his light jacket, most likely hoping the cold would just swallow him up in its uncaring grasp.
And so she turned to her left, rushing down the street, barely noticing anything around her. Her eyes were trained on every shadow, wondering if one of them was Richard hiding in the dark from her.
Annie paused at the window and watched as her best friend in the whole world emerged into the freezing cold of the outside world. Somehow she knew, deep down, that this was the deciding moment in Caroline's happiness. She could see it in the resolute way Caroline carried herself as she trudged down the street, her shoulders squared against the driving wind, her head held high.
Del watched with her, one hand placed upon her shoulder as they studied the scene. Richard was nowhere to be seen. He had a good head start on Caroline, but she was moving quickly, her steps hard and slightly angry. With a smile, Annie realized she could almost hear Caroline's muttering to herself about the situation, her rambling on when no one could hear her, just to keep her spirits up. "Go for it girl," she whispered quietly, surprised when Del responded.
"She really loves him, doesn't she?"
Annie turned and looked at him, one eyebrow cocked in surprise. Choosing not to say anything derogatory, her smile just widened a bit. "She always has, Del."
Caroline paused in her tracks, frustration evident in every line of her body, fright beginning to permeate her frantic thoughts. What if...No, she couldn't think about that possibility. To lose Richard now, after things were finally coming into the open? The thought was truly unbearable. The last time he had left without a word had been difficult enough, but this time there were so many more things left unsaid.
Starting to walk again, she was surprised by the muddled emotions she was feeling. Where had they come from? What did they mean? Richard had kissed her. He had done that before and she hadn't felt like this.
"...guy...I'm Caroline's guy..."
He had kissed her then, but she had felt more surprised by it than anything. It had been so unexpected, so truly strange. She was only capable of looking back on the memory with a mixture of shock and amusement.
"...You got the letter?..."
He had kissed her then, too...Shocked once more. What had been in that letter? she found herself wondering for perhaps the millionth time in the past months. He had said something about being more free the night the kiss had happened. And when he returned, he had said it was a wedding limerick. He had lied... He had lied! Caroline was sure of it now, as sure of it as she was of anything in her life. There was something so much more profound in that letter. Why else would he make up stories about it, and two different ones at that? They were equally unfeasible. Richard, being more open, more free? No...That wasn't something he would ever do. And writing a silly poem? No...That wasn't Richard either. So it had to be something that would explain the kiss, and the months away without even one word. But what was it?
She was beginning to get anxious. There was something there, something she just wasn't seeing. A fog obscured it, mocking her with its gross indifference. What was she missing? It all tied together somehow. Each kiss a different piece of the puzzle...
The kiss tonight, though...That one had been different than the others. Why? Because a part of her had been expecting it. Because a part of her had wanted it somehow? Yes...She had wanted him to kiss her; she had wondered what it would be like, to feel his lips on hers like that. So tender, so sweet...So right...
I have to find him...now...
The only way she would find out what she needed to know was by confronting Richard.
It was hopeless...absolutely hopeless. His world had come tumbling down around him and he just couldn't bring himself to care anymore.
No...That wasn't quite true. His emotions were so strong, so terrible, that he was numb with the pain of them. He wanted to feel nothing, truly he did. This wasn't something he had wanted, dreamed about. Alone. Now that was something he had dreamed about. Alone and lonely...forever. But with one strange twist of fate, he had ended his days of not needing anyone. If only he hadn't answered that ad a year and a half ago. If only he had disappeared from her life forever six months ago. But he had answered that ad, opening himself up to a pain he had never felt, and he had returned to her, allowing his love to become stronger with each moment he spent in her presence. And now...well...look what had happened.
Finally, he slumped to the ground, his reserve of strength from his inwardly-directed anger dissipating as if it had never been there. Crawling into one of the abundant snow banks, he sought to hide himself from any who might pass by. He could die here now and no one would know, no one would care. Caroline might shed a tear for the friend she once had, but she would easily move on. Without a doubt, she would simply hire someone new for his position and move on with her life.
Just when you thought you couldn't go on, just when you had finally given up hope...That always seemed to be the moment when you found what you were looking for, when God opened up the sky and showed you what you sought. Caroline's body ached from her frenetic starting and stopping, listening intently and then moving on quickly. Her mind was numbed to everything but the moment, her eyes strained from looking into every shadow for any sign of Richard's presence. He had to be there...somewhere. He was on foot, there was no doubt of that, for she had followed his tracks occasionally, somehow sure that they were his and not some stranger's.
And then...The flutter of fabric off to her right, a street lamp illuminating the black edge of something, moving slowly in the wind. As everything slowed down once more around her, her eyes coming to focus on that one lifeline, her hope soared. It had to be him, hidden somewhere behind the lamp and snow bank. It just had to be.
"Richard?" she asked tentatively, watching for any sign of movement, eyes strained for any noise coming from that direction. There was nothing. She repeated his name again, louder this time, trying to sound less tentative and confident. Still...nothing.
It cannot be him.
Sighing, hoping that the next corner might bring a sign, she turned away and moved on.
"Caroline?" His voice sounded hoarse and unnatural even to his own ears. Crawling out from behind the snow bank, he turned his face upwards to hers.
This was going all wrong. His life wasn't supposed to be this way. She should have kept walking, moving past him, allowing him to die of misery on the street as he surely deserved. But she didn't walk past him, because in his idiocy, in his need, he called to her.
He watched as she stopped dead in her tracks, turning slowly to face him. He was still crouched by the street lamp, balancing precariously on the brink of some great precipice, looking down into the void as he contemplated jumping.
"Richard..." Her voice, even hushed and tentative as it was, was a balm to his ears, bringing him out of his dark thoughts. He remained quiet, without a clue as to what to say. His heart was scattered out around him, words he couldn't say coming fast and furious into his mind. He was unable to articulate anything, unable to speak anything he felt. This was it. The end.
She had found him. And now...now that she had, she had no idea what to say. Just say whatever's on your mind...Annie's words. It was easy for Annie to tell her that. She was holed up in her warm apartment, surrounded by friends and men that she looked at like she would tissues, something to use once and then discard. But that wasn't Caroline. She knew that wasn't. And having to face Richard in this moment was perhaps the most difficult thing she had ever done in her entire life.
She spoke his name again, softly, tentatively and held out her hand to him. Words wouldn't be enough in this instance. Somehow she knew that. It would take so much more than words to coax him to her.
He looked at her from his vantage point by the lamp, like a wounded animal, wanting to come out to join her, but so afraid... so very afraid. She took a step toward him, her hand still outstretched, a small smile beginning to form on her lips.
It was that smile that convinced him, at long last, to stand and move closer. One hand still rested on the street lamp. It was, in a way, his refuge, something to hold onto, to cling to when the world came crashing down. For some reason, he just couldn't move away from it, though he managed to take one small step away.
"Richard...I...don't know what to say." Caroline laughed nervously, biting her lower lip as she continued to watch him.
"Then don't speak." His crooked grin resurfaced suddenly, a testament to the sarcastic humour that often lurked just beneath the surface.
Caroline crossed her arms over one another and entwined her fingers. The look she gave Richard made him want to gather her into his arms then and there. She looked so terribly vulnerable, standing out in the cold with the snow falling down upon her, covering her hair and coat with small white flakes. He didn't move towards her, though. Instead, he kept his vigil by the lamp post, frightened of her next words, so very afraid of the pain he knew must be coming soon. Richard, I don't feel the same...Richard I don't think we should see each anymore...
"But I have to...the kiss..."
"Forget about it!" he snapped at her, his eyes becoming hooded, the expression unreadable.
"I can't." She turned away from him then, forcing him to look at her back as she moved slightly away. The hand she had offered him moments ago was tucked away, out of his line of vision. It was like a barrier between them, as so many things were. She had offered…again. And he had stayed away, kept his distance for fear that his heart would splinter into a million tiny little pieces…again. He knew that if he crossed that distance and she told him it was never meant to be he would never be able to fully repair that steadily-beating muscle. It would heal, perhaps. But pieces would always be missing, scattered on the street underneath the very light he held so tightly onto at the moment.
"No." Her back was still to him as the word was spoken, quietly. He had to strain to hear it.
"Caroline?" She turned back to him, her brows pulled together in a confused look, lower lip still firmly held onto by her teeth. He would have smiled at her then, but his facial muscles seemed incapable of doing that. So, instead, he just looked at her, his gravity hanging low over his shoulders like a shroud. "What do you think of me?"
She watched as he looked away from her, his eyes falling on the ground somewhere near her feet. What could she say? She truly didn't know what she thought of him...Well, not really... "Richard...I...You..." She paused, regrouping, trying to pull some sort of coherence back into her mind. "You're a very special person..." Another pause...what else was he? She had known this was the moment of truth, when she had to face up to all the confused and rather puzzling emotions that had been running through her since his return to her life some six months ago. "I...When you left before...No...That's not a good place to start, is it? Richard...I...You're one of my best friends and I don't want to lose you..."
He nodded, his eyes finally coming up to meet hers. There was something in their dark depths, Caroline noticed, something she couldn't quite figure out, something she knew she needed to figure out. "I see..."
"You do? Because I don't..." That nervous laugh again. She couldn't control it, couldn't control anything she was feeling at the moment... "What was in the letter?" She blurted out the words, shocked at the effect they had on Richard.
The letter...Not the letter... He sprang back from her a little, the one hand that he had taken away from the street lamp wrapping around it, pulling his whole body in close connection with it. "N...nothing," he whispered, resting his forehead on the cool surface, wishing he could sink into the snow at his feet, allowing it to swallow him up, rather than face up to what he had written in that letter.
"Something was," Caroline said. "You kissed me because of that letter. You lied to me...twice ...about what was in that letter. And you left the city because of it, too, didn't you?" Another piece had fallen into place. The letter was the connection between everything...between Richard's strange behaviour and his leaving the country suddenly on the eve of her later-canceled wedding to Del. "We've been going in circles ever since you returned from Paris. And it's all because of what was in that letter, wasn't it?" The look in his eyes confirmed it all. Resolutely, she continued. "The circle needs to end."
She took a step towards him and deftly pried him away from the lamp post he was hugging so tightly. She gripped both his hands in hers as she almost roughly pulled him out of the snow bank so that he was finally standing on solid ground near her. "The letter," she whispered.
"Fine." Richard ground out, exasperated. In one quick breath, the words coming out quickly and almost unintelligibly, he muttered, "It was about my feelings for you."
Rather than feeling shocked at what he had been hiding, Caroline suddenly felt relieved. There it was, out in the open."Richard? Do you think there's a chance for us?"
His eyes opened wide, fear evident in every line of his body as he stiffened, his hands trying to pull away from hers. "Us?"
"Yes...us." She released his right hand, bringing hers up to cup his chin, stroking his cold cheek lightly. "Perhaps we should give 'us' a try..."
Something that was almost, but not quite, a smile crossed over his serious features. "Us..." He leaned down to brush his lips gently across Caroline's, whispering the word again against her soft lips.
"Us." Caroline wrapped her arms around him and pulled him against her, holding his almost stiff body tightly as they stood beneath the glow of the street lamp, the snow making lazy circles as it cascaded its way down to them.