I took a break from a longer story I'm writing to try and cope with the bitter disappointment that was Cal's behavior in "Fold Equity". Here's the result.
Gillian Foster was angry.
Cal could barely see her, across the aisle on the other side of Reynolds, staring out the small window of the plane, but he could feel her rage filling up the first-class section of their flight back to D.C. It was palpable and actually a little frightening. Imagine if he hadn't doubled their earnings with that stupid bet.
Of course she was angry. That had been his plan, hadn't it? He couldn't deny the seductive pull Vegas held for him, but he had really played it up on this trip. Thrown himself headfirst into the kind of reckless, chaotic behavior he knew upset Gillian the most. Even slept with Poppy after having seen the jealousy on Gillian's face. Cal had done everything in his power to alienate Gillian, to remind her of what a bastard he could be. All because seeing contempt, even disgust, on her face was a hell of a lot easier than what he had been seeing more and more lately. Love.
He was a bloody coward. So terrified of that ultimate gamble, his friendship with Gillian for the possibility of more, that he was willing to treat her like shit and break her heart rather than let their relationship continue to progress toward romance. Better to push her away, full stop. Like it would hurt less than having her and then, inevitably, losing her. And maybe this did hurt less.
But it still hurt like hell.
Cal glanced across the aisle when Reynolds put his hand on Gillian's shoulder and leaned to murmur in her ear. Gillian's face was barely visible, but Cal saw a smile. One that barely reached her eyes. Gillian covered Reynolds's hand with her own, squeezing gently, then released him and looked back out the window.
The two of them seemed intimate, but Cal couldn't decide if that meant they'd slept together. When Gillian had found Cal at the roulette table last night, looking as gorgeous as he had ever seen her, she had been on her way out for an evening with Reynolds. And after Cal won his bet—God, that was a rush—she had pulled him away from the table and unleashed her fury on him until Reynolds came to find her. Ben Reynolds, standing at her back, hand on her elbow, supporting Gillian even as Cal was breaking her heart. It would make sense if they had ended up in bed together. Reynolds fancied her quite a lot. Cal had seen that for a while. Though he had figured his own complicated relationship with Gillian would keep Reynolds away, after the way Cal had treated her during this case, Reynolds might have decided that Gillian was fair game, after all.
A sharp pang of jealousy tore at Cal's gut. Irrational and unfair, given his own recent indiscretion, but there it was nonetheless. But then Poppy had been a meaningless fling, a distraction, a strategy to get Gillian to back off before she crumbled all his defenses. Reynolds was a good guy, someone who could probably make Gillian very happy if she let him. And wouldn't that be a kick? Cal had a lot of practice putting elaborate plans into motion, but he hadn't accounted for Reynolds's presence when he decided to show Gillian why loving him was a mistake. He could have just sent her straight into the arms of someone who would be far better for her than Cal could ever be.
It should've been exactly what he wanted. But it just made him angry, too.
Cal looked over at the sound of Gillian's soft voice and watched her make her way into the aisle. She didn't meet Cal's eyes, but bent to murmur quietly to Reynolds. Cal watched Reynolds touch her arm briefly before Gillian walked away, toward the bathroom at the front of the plane.
Bloody hell. He couldn't stand the thought of three more hours in the air without being able to talk to her. Not letting himself second-guess the vague sequence of events he was already putting together in his head, Cal unbuckled his safety belt and stood up.
"She doesn't want to talk to you right now." Reynolds looked him straight in the eyes. Disgust flashed over his face, and Cal felt an answering surge of the same. For himself. "Just leave it alone, man. At least until we get back."
"That right?" Cal said. He stepped into the aisle and looked toward the bathroom Gillian had disappeared into. "I appreciate your opinion, mate, unsolicited as it was."
"You're a real idiot, you know that?" Reynolds shook his head and snorted under his breath. "That woman would do anything for you, and you just treat her like garbage. Like an annoyance who's spoiling your grand fun."
Cal leaned his hip against his seat, staring Reynolds down. Hoping to intimidate him so he wouldn't sense the remorse that gnawed at Cal's insides. "Did you fuck her?"
Reynolds flinched. Surprise. But no guilt. "Excuse me?"
"Did you have sex with Foster last night?" Cal tilted his head and studied Reynolds's face, needing to know. "I see the way you're looking at her."
"She's a beautiful woman," Reynolds said tightly. "And I had hoped we would have a good time last night, yes. But she was too busy being upset over you, if you want to know the truth. You and your goddamn double-zero bets and sleeping with suspects—"
"You want to fuck her, though? Right?" Cal could see that he was getting a rise out of Reynolds and almost hoped Ben would haul off and punch him. He deserved it. "Gonna keep trying?"
Reynolds fisted his hands in his lap, but didn't stand. Probably only because he didn't want to make a scene on the plane. "I don't know what she sees in you. I really don't."
"That makes two of us," Cal said. He raised his eyebrows at Reynolds, then strode down the aisle toward the front of the plane. Though Reynolds didn't call after him, Cal could feel pure rage burning into his back. Reynolds cared deeply about Gillian, and Cal respected him for that. Loved him for it, a little.
The bathroom door opened just as Cal approached and Gillian flinched at the sight of him, faltering for a moment. Cal took advantage of having thrown her off balance and stepped into the cramped room with her. He had to move forward into her space, brushing against her tense body, to close the door behind them.
Gillian flattened herself against the wall as though she couldn't stand to be near him. "Let me out of here. I mean it."
He'd never seen her so angry. He tilted his head, fascinated by the emotion and what it did to her normally bright, open face. It even excited him for an instant, until he thought about what it meant she was feeling. Hurt, disappointment, and more. Cal could see it all over her, because of him, and he felt an uncharacteristic rush of shame and regret. He was used to making hard choices to get the desired results, but maybe he had miscalculated this time. This was his desired result, all right, but now that the love in her eyes had been supplanted by heartbreak, Cal really did feel like an idiot.
"I'm a bastard." Cal blinked after the words were out of his mouth. That's not what he'd thought he was going to say. "I'm sorry, love."
Gillian looked up at the ceiling like she was trying not to cry. "You're more than a bastard, Cal."
Cal stood and watched her, waiting for her next move. He was done playing, done manipulating. Gillian was entitled to a reaction, and he more than deserved whatever she could dish out. She was his best friend and he had treated her horribly, all because he could see that she was in love with him. Because he loved her back, and he was scared. Pathetic.
"You're right." Cal nodded at her look of surprise. "I'm shit. I'm worse than shit. I gambled a huge chunk of money our firm needs right now. Doesn't matter that I won." He couldn't help a brief smile, hoping she could see the humor in that particular situation. "Well, I mean…it matters a little, right? I knew double-zeros would hit."
"It's roulette, Cal." Gillian's face showed him grief and anger. "You got lucky. That's it. You got lucky in Vegas, twice."
Cal knew she was talking about Poppy now. He had seen the jealousy, shockingly unguarded, on Gillian's face when they were interviewing the suspects. And yet he had flirted with Poppy more, genuinely intrigued by her, knowing she was playing him, playing her back. Cal had figured it served his plan, and it would also be the ultimate signal to Gillian to back off. Judging from the look on her face, it had worked all too well.
"You're upset I slept with her," Cal said, watching her eyes. He already knew the answer, but needed to see it anyway.
"She was a suspect." Gillian looked down and away for an instant, then met his gaze. "You were being reckless."
"Is that the only reason?"
Gillian flashed a look of anger so intense that Cal actually backed up, bumping into the door. "Let me out of here right now, Cal. I don't want to talk to you for the rest of the day. At least. Give me some time to cool off and maybe we can salvage our partnership. If we keep going while I'm feeling like this, I'm afraid we're going to say things we can't take back."
"You want to end our partnership?" Cal's throat went dry. He had known his behavior would frighten her away from a relationship, but he hadn't intended on jeopardizing everything they had together. "Because of a one-night stand?"
"This is about a lot more than Poppy and you know it." Gillian shifted to the side, stepping forward and reaching for the door handle, but he caught her arm and backed her up. "Goddamn it, Cal. Let me out."
There was a knock from outside. "Lightman? Open the door."
Reynolds. It figured. Cal watched Gillian's eyes as she listened to Reynolds's voice, noting her relief. "Your protector."
"At least someone cares about me," Gillian said tightly.
Another knock. "I mean it, Lightman. Don't make me get involved."
Cal raised an eyebrow. "Two minutes, darling. Let's talk it out for two more minutes and then I promise I won't talk to you again until tomorrow if you want."
Sighing, Gillian shook her head, then said, "I'm okay, Ben. We'll be out in two minutes."
Reynolds muttered some choice words loudly enough for them to hear. "Fine. Two minutes. And then I'm coming in."
"We'll meet you back at our seats," Cal called out. He waited until he heard Reynolds walk away, then looked into Gillian's eyes. "You interested in him?"
"I see the way he looks at you. Haven't read a lot from you, though. Not really sure what you're feeling about him. Lots of good things, no doubt." Cal watched her face as he spoke, trying to suss out her reaction. "Do you like the way he looks at you?"
Gillian raised her chin in defiance. "Yes. It's a nice change."
"You think he's attractive."
Clearing her throat, Gillian broke eye contact. "Of course he is."
"Do you want to fuck him?"
Gillian opened then closed her mouth, clearly flustered. "God, Cal."
"Do you?" Cal tilted his head and stared her down.
"I thought about it." Gillian threw her shoulders back, stepping into his space. "I'm thinking about it."
"No, you're not," Cal said quietly. He could see it written all over her face. "Not terribly seriously, at least."
"I should." Gillian's shoulders slumped and she suddenly looked so tired, it was all Cal could do not to take her in his arms. "I worry about your mental health far more than my own. I need to start taking care of myself."
"I agree, you do." Cal held his breath and touched Gillian's arm, waiting for her to hit him. But she didn't. She just stood there, eyeing him warily. "You know why I slept with Poppy? Really?"
"I'm not sure I want to know, Cal. I don't care anymore."
"You're a terrible liar, love." He let her see the genuine shame he was feeling, to catch her interest, then said, "I slept with Poppy to hurt you."
Gillian's eyes filled with pain and she blinked, looking away. "I told you I didn't want to know."
"To show you what a bastard I am."
"It worked." Gillian searched his face, almost as though she wasn't sure who he was anymore. "So did accusing me of smothering you. And gambling our company's future on the goddamn roulette wheel. It all worked. You're a bastard, Cal. Happy?"
"Not at all." Cal moved his hand to her face and she flinched away, but he didn't draw back. He cupped her cheek despite her obvious desire for distance, hoping she didn't decide to call for Reynolds. "I'm miserable, darling."
"Good." Gillian's eyes hardened. "You deserve to be miserable for a little while, I think. At least I won't be the only one."
"I'm sorry, Gill. I'm truly sorry."
"So am I." Gillian put her hand on his, taking it away from her face. "May I ask what I did, exactly, to make you want to hurt me? Why was it so important to push me away?" Something that looked an awful lot like tentative, fearful hope bloomed in Gillian's eyes, beneath the hurt and sadness. And Cal realized he couldn't lie anymore.
"Because I'm in love with you," Cal murmured. "And because I'm pretty sure you feel the same way. And it scares me to death." He gave her a helpless shrug, just as another knock sounded on the door.
"Two minutes are up, Lightman."
No way that had been two minutes. Cal opened his mouth with an angry retort on his lips, but Gillian held up her hand to stop him. "Ben, it's all right. Really."
"You're sure?" Reynolds sounded concerned, and Cal rolled his eyes.
Gillian frowned at Cal. "Pretty sure."
"She's sure," Cal said.
"Okay, well…people want to use the bathroom, you know?"
"We'll be out shortly," Cal called out over his shoulder. "Thank you." He could hear Reynolds muttering as he walked away. "He really fancies you," Cal said lightly. "Much nicer guy than me, too."
"That's probably true," Gillian said. "Only problem is that you're right. He's not the one I love."
"That is a problem." Cal covered up his self-loathing with a gentle smirk. "For you."
"Tell me about it." Gillian exhaled, shaking her head. "Seriously, we need to go back to our seats."
"Right," Cal said. "And as for what I just told you?"
Gillian's eyes filled with tears. "I've never been good at staying mad at you, Cal. I always want to believe the best when it comes to you, because I do love you. You're my best friend. But you really hurt me this time. You made me feel…like I'm nothing to you. Like my feelings don't matter. So if you think telling me you're in love with me will just make everything better, you've got another thing coming."
Despite her words, Cal could see that Gillian wanted to forgive him. Needed to. Just another of the many reasons she was too good for him. Taking a chance, he stepped closer and pulled her into his arms. She didn't protest, didn't struggle, just lay her head against his shoulder and let herself be held.
"I don't deserve you," Cal murmured.
Gillian shook her head, gripping his shirt tightly. "Am I really that scary? That you'd decide the best way to deal with me is to hurt me?"
"You're pretty scary. Or at least what I feel for you is." Cal drew back and tipped Gillian's chin up so he could look into her eyes. "But I was stupid. The thought that I could lose your friendship, our partnership, over this—"
Gillian sighed. "You haven't lost my friendship. And the partnership…well, we're not out of money yet. Luckily."
"And the chance to make things up to you? Have I lost that?"
"I've had a rough past few years." Gillian gave him a teary smile, full of pain. "The infertility, Sophie, Alec…I only just started feeling happy again after the divorce was final. Once you and I started getting closer. I thought…" She shrugged. "I thought maybe you were my chance to finally get things right."
"Maybe I am." As scared as Cal had been about the idea of a romance with Gillian, now he was equally as terrified that he really had blown any possibility of them being together. He wasn't used to being sorry when his plans worked. "What would you say if I told you that I thought my mental health would be improved immeasurably by finally sorting out what's happening between us? No games, no cowardice…just you and me, giving this a try."
Gillian laughed, weaker than he would have liked. But it was a start. "I told you I was done worrying about your mental health."
That wasn't true. "How about yours?"
Gillian closed the space between them and kissed the corner of his mouth. Cal moved to deepen the kiss, but Gillian pulled away. "Give me until tomorrow, Cal. We'll talk about this tomorrow."
"Fair enough." In truth Cal didn't want to wait, and had to resist the urge to force an answer now. He knew that wasn't the way to win back her trust. Giving her time to think was the least he could do. That she would even consider having him at all, after all he'd put her through, was a bloody miracle. There was just one more thing he needed to say. "You looked gorgeous last night."
"I didn't think you'd noticed," Gillian said. He saw pleasure, then sadness. She had wanted a reaction from him, he saw that plainly, and instead he'd barely glanced at her. "Seemed like you only had eyes for roulette."
"I always notice." Cal met her gaze. "Roulette could never compare to you."
Color rose on Gillian's cheeks, her pupils dilated, and she shook her head even as she fisted his shirt in her hands, pulling him closer. "Goddamn you, Cal." She pressed her mouth to his, kissing him so hard he stumbled back against the bathroom door.
Cal dropped his hands to her waist, glad that the door was supporting him. The kiss nearly took his legs out from beneath him. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt something so passionate, so satisfying. It was scary, just as he'd known it would be, but it was also life-changing. In a good way. This was Foster in his arms, his best friend, the person who meant more to him than anyone, save his daughter. It wasn't easy or uncomplicated, it certainly wasn't for the faint of heart, but at that moment, he couldn't see wanting anything else.
Yes, he had been a sodding moron in Vegas.
They were interrupted by another knock on the door. When Gillian tore her mouth away from his and backed up, clearly dazed, Cal groaned. "Bad timing, Reynolds," he said loudly. "Really bad timing."
"Sir? Ma'am?" The voice belonged to a woman, and Cal straightened up, smoothing his rumpled shirt. "Other passengers need to use the restroom."
Cal shot Gillian a mischievous smile, then whispered, "She thinks we're shagging in here."
Gillian's face turned bright red. She was going to look guilty as sin when they stepped outside. "Go, Cal. Now."
With effort Cal turned around in the cramped space and opened the door, once again brushing against Gillian's body as he did so. This time she didn't shy away. A flight attendant stood outside in the narrow corridor with her arms folded over her chest, a look of mingled amusement and annoyance on her face.
"Sorry about that," Cal said lightly. "Just sorting out a few things."
The flight attendant raised her eyebrow. "Why don't you take your seats?"
Cal grinned at her and walked down the aisle, chuckling when he heard Gillian's quiet apology as she exited the bathroom after him. He caught Reynolds's eye and sobered. Reynolds wore a look of tightly controlled disdain, as though he was struggling not to say something when Cal approached.
"Out with it, then," Cal said. He stopped in the aisle, leaning over so he could talk quietly near Reynolds's ear. "Say what you need to say."
"She's too good for you." Reynolds's face told him far more than his words ever could. "And if you hurt her again, you and I are gonna have a problem."
"You're right," Cal said. He found it vaguely amusing that Reynolds had suddenly appointed himself her guardian, but he appreciated the sentiment. "And understood."
Cal eased back into his row and watched Gillian give Reynolds an embarrassed smile as she brushed past him to her own seat. She sat and Reynolds whispered in her ear, eliciting a nod and a warm expression that told Cal she had indeed made a new friend. One who would be there for her if Cal mucked things up again.
Not that he wanted to do that again. He was pretty sure he was willing to do anything to never again see the kind of hurt and anger he had caused her over the past few days. Cal leaned forward and peeked around Reynolds's chest, pleased when Gillian caught his eye and blushed.
"Yes, Cal." Gillian was obviously trying to hold back a smile.
"Tomorrow is two hours sooner in D.C." Cal glanced at his watch. "In fact, by the time we get our bags at the airport it'll be damn near ten o'clock at night."
"Tomorrow tomorrow," Gillian said lightly. "Okay?"
Cal watched Reynolds roll his eyes. "Got it, darling." He waited until Gillian had turned back to look out the window, smiling only when she likely thought Cal couldn't see her anymore, then said, "Gill?"
Gillian turned her gaze back to him. She gave him an expectant look, but said nothing. Cal stared at her, remembering the feel of her mouth on his. He was a lucky bastard, all right. And roulette had nothing to do with it.
"You wanted something?" Gillian's voice dropped slightly, becoming even smokier than usual. Reynolds shifted next to her, then stared up at the ceiling before closing his eyes.
Cal shook his head. "No, love. Just enjoying the view."
The microexpression Gillian gave him before turning back to the window was brief, but Cal identified it immediately. For the moment, at least, Gillian Foster was happy. Cal smiled to himself. And left Vegas behind for good.