illustration by John Berry
by Diane Long
This story takes place one year after the events of Undone.
Blue light saturated the room as dusk faded into evening. The flickering images of the television made the shadows dance as Trent watched another evening of sitcom reruns. He dug his spoon into an open jar of crunchy peanut butter. Scooping out a large glob, he nibbled at the nuts while he half paid attention to the story playing across the scene. It looked like the cast of "Friends" was still living their perfect, beautiful lives. He frowned as he worked some peanut butter out from behind a wisdom tooth with his tongue. Real people didn't have it so easy. What a stupid show. Why did he watch this crap? He grabbed the remote and thumbed off the TV. He let the gloom encase him. He was so lonely, that's why. This apartment had become too big and too silent anymore.
He closed his eyes and tried not to think about the empty office down the hall. An office still filled with her things, as if she might come back someday. She had only taken the bare necessities with her the night she had left and never come back. He had tried, through Jane, to arrange to have the rest of her things moved to her new place, but she had refused, and he couldn't bear to get rid of them. So, all of her dictionaries, pens, and favorite books languished unused in a forgotten room. He hadn't been in there for months now. He couldn't bear it, not even for the Zinnias she had loved so much. After that night, he couldn't bear the garden anymore. He had gone out there only one time since she left. The damp shred of fabric that had mutely corroborated her story almost did him in. Thinking of that, an imagined image of her, wet and shivering on the ledge enveloped his mind's eye. Trent shuddered and flipped on the TV.
That was why he watched so much television. To occupy his mind. To keep from thinking of her. It had been a long year, but still he suffered. Janey was now bluntly telling him to get on with his life. To get over her. To move on. But how could he? He knew he should. Daria wasn't coming back. Ever. Maybe he should at least put all of her things in storage. Maybe then he could move on. As he toyed with this thought, the telephone rang once before the answering machine picked up. He didn't answer the phone much anymore. There were very few people he wanted to talk to. He listened to see who the message was from.
"... Umm... hi Trent. This is Angie. The band just told me that Monique finally let you buy her share in the musical. I bet that's a relief... uh... hope she didn't make you pay too much. Uhh... look... hmmm... I'm going to go get some dinner later... you... you want to come?" She laughed shyly and the message ended.
Trent sighed. Angie was interested in him. And she was cute too. And smart. Here was his perfect chance to start over again. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. But maybe he should. He looked over to the phone. One call and he'd have himself a date. It wouldn't be easy, but it would be a start. And maybe that's all he needed... a start on living his life again. Trent reached for his acoustic and strummed a chord while he considered. Angie was the manager of the blues club he played in three nights a week. She was simple and uncomplicated, her life revolving around the club and not much else. Ever since the musical had begun regional touring Trent hadn't had much to do, and he had started spending more time on his small blues band. It felt like a refined version of his life with Mystik Spiral, and that comforted him. Besides, the blues fit his mood. Angie gave him a good gig there, not that he needed to worry about money anymore. And now it looked like she wanted to give him something else. Something he really ought to accept.
The phone rang again and Trent's arm shot out to answer it, determined to say yes if it was Angie calling again.
"Hello? Yes, this is he. Yes, she's my sister. She broke her what? Yes... I'll be right there, doctor."
Trent looked down at Jane's sleeping form in the hospital bed. In sleep her face lost the tight look of pain that had stretched across her features earlier. Opiates were good for that. Satisfied that she was resting comfortably, he settled into a chair and flipped through a magazine. He had known this was coming. That scaffolding was ancient and clearly dry rotted through in many places. If he had told her to replace it once, he had told her a hundred times. It wasn't as if she couldn't afford a new one. But did she listen to him? No, but of course she rarely did anyway. She was just lucky that she hadn't broken anything worse than her leg. Like her neck. Despite himself, he smiled softly. Little sisters... heh. The older ones had bossed him around, and this one just ignored him when he tried to boss her around. That made her extra special to him. Protecting Janey had become a time-honored tradition. He got out of the chair and kissed her softly on the cheek. Of all of his family, she meant the most to him.
The door to the room opened and a cheery nurse walked in. She looked down at her notes and then over to Jane. "Out like a light? Good." She scribbled something down on a chart and looked closely at a post-it note. "Oh, Mr. Lane? I just wanted to let you know we accidentally phoned the second emergency contact person on Jane's wallet list... a um... Daria Morgendorffer. She should be here soon. Sorry about any confusion." She dimpled at him and rushed off to tend to her next patient.
Trent sat heavily into the chair. Daria was coming. What should he do?
. . .
Daria anxiously surveyed the crowded emergency room. Somewhere in this mess, her best friend was either waiting, or receiving treatment for something. Not seeing Jane amongst the throngs of miserable people waiting on hard plastic chairs, Daria waded over to the intake clerk.
The clerk, a young woman of about twenty years, stopped filing her nails and looked at Daria boredly. "Yeah?"
"I'm looking for Jane Lane," Daria said slowly and carefully, not too hopeful about this young woman's intelligence.
The woman put down her file with an annoyed sigh and typed the name into her computer. "Jane Lane... hmmm... looks like she was admitted to the floor." The woman took out a form and scribbled Jane's room number on it. "Room 450b. Follow the map on the back."
Daria took the form. "Thanks. Can you please tell me what happened? I just got a call saying she was hurt?"
"Sorry, that's confidential information. For family members only," the woman said in an indifferent voice as she picked up her file.
"But they called me at work because I'm her emergency contact person."
The woman shrugged and was clearly ignoring Daria now.
Feeling too worried about Jane to administer any of her award-winning sarcasm, Daria just sighed and looked at the map. Seeing that the route was pretty straightforward, Daria hurried towards the bank of elevators that would take her to her friend.
When the elevator reached the fourth floor, Daria popped out at a brisk walk and found Jane's room in no time. The door was closed so she paused and knocked lightly. The door opened more quickly than she expected... and... dear God... it was him. She suddenly lost the ability to breathe. It was him. Her mouth went dry and she couldn't move. She hadn't seen him in over a year. She hadn't wanted to either. Daria took a step backwards and fought to keep her expression neutral. Overcompensating, she glared at him.
Trent's eyes widened and the old hurt flared as he looked at her hard eyes. She still hadn't forgiven him. His heart had never really healed, but seeing her expression shredded the small progress he had made. Trent looked at the ground and stepped aside so Daria could enter. "She's in here, D-daria," he said, almost choking on her name. It had been a long time since he had said it out loud.
Daria remembered to breathe and walked through the doorway, and went immediately to Jane's bedside. Jane was sleeping soundly, but looked terribly pale.
Not looking at Trent, Daria tightly asked, "What happened?"
Trent walked around to the other side of the bed and looked down on his sister. "She'll be okay. She fell off of a scaffolding at her studio and smashed her ankle." Trent tenderly brushed a lock of hair out of Jane's eyes. "She's just high from the morphine right now. She comes in and out."
Daria sneaked a look at Trent while he was watching Jane. "How did she fall?"
"I'm not sure. You know how old that scaffolding is. I think some of the wood rotted through. I think she tripped and lost her balance."
Daria crossed her arms and grumbled, "I keep telling her to replace that damned thing."
"Yeah, me too," Trent risked a small smile at her. Daria frowned coolly at him and he quickly shifted his attention back to Jane.
Jane chose this moment to drift back into wakefulness. She rolled open two bleary eyes and took in her visitors. "Daria and Trent. It's about time you patched things up. You were meant for each other! Give me a hug you two!" Jane weakly flailed her arms around in an approximation of a hug.
Arms still crossed, Daria rolled her eyes and said nothing. Trent coughed nervously and blushed.
Jane was still again and looked confused. "What? No tapioca? But you promised!" Jane's eyes started to tear up.
"You'd just vomit it up in this state anyway," Daria comforted in her own way. "It's for the best."
Trent took Jane's hand. "Shhhh... it's okay, Janey. I'm here. You're just confused. It's the medicine. Do you hurt?"
Still weeping a bit, Jane nodded. She looked at Daria and said, "She's mean."
Daria looked exasperated.
Trent chuckled a little and grabbed Jane's PCA (patient controlled analgesia) pump and slid it into her hand. "Remember this? Just press the button when it hurts too much."
Jane pressed the button with her thumb and soon a peaceful look stole over her face and she fell back into slumber.
Trent let go of her other hand and straightened up. "She didn't mean that, Daria... you know... sometimes people say things they don't mean," he said significantly.
Daria stiffened, and walked over to the window. She turned her back on him and looked out, ignoring his comment.
Trent winced; he shouldn't have said that. But how could he not? It was killing him to be in the same room with her after so long, after so much had happened. It took all of his self-control not to march over there and throw his arms around her. "Look, I..." he began, then lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. What could he say that wouldn't anger her? Begging for forgiveness hadn't worked in the past. He tapped his foot and tried to ignore the hostile silence. Fortunately, a doctor came into the room before too long.
The doctor looked from Trent to Daria curiously as he sensed the tension. "I have some medical information to share. Family only please."
Daria started towards the door.
"Daria's family," Trent said firmly. Well, she should have been, in any case.
Daria nodded her head slightly in thanks and looked at what the doctor was carrying. "Are those X-rays?"
"Yes." The doctor put them up on a small, lighted panel in the wall. "As you can see, Jane has a highly unusual break. Instead of breaking across... the fracture goes up into her fibia ... see here?" He pointed. "As a result, we had to put in three pins to stabilize the bones."
Daria peered closely at the films. "So, practically, how does this affect Jane?"
"Well, with a normal break, it usually only takes a couple of months before the person has their mobility back with a walking cast. In a case like this, however, any weight at all could cause further fracturing. She won't be able to bear weight for about six months. It's a good thing she has some family, she is going to need a lot of care. Since she can't move around she will need help with daily living. Feeding, bathing, toileting... that sort of thing."
Daria looked ill and glanced at the doctor. "Aren't there nurses that can come in and do that sort of thing?"
"Usually, but it seems as if Ms. Lane let her insurance run out. She isn't covered right now. She will need someone with her 24 hours a day till she can bear weight on that leg. Good thing there are two of you. You can tag team and it won't be so bad."
Jane lurched awake and crowed, "Slumber party at my place! I'll take the couch so you two can have the bed! Whoopee!" She started giggling and pressing her PCA pump.
Looking seriously annoyed, Daria said to the doctor, "I think she is abusing that narcotic. When do you cut her off?"
The Doctor, having assumed Daria and Trent were siblings, wondered just what kind of family this was.
Daria brought a tray bearing grilled cheese and tomato soup to Jane's bedside. Jane, busily using markers to decorate the cast that stretched halfway up her calf, paused in her work and smiled. "Oh hey, Daria. When did you get here?"
Daria set the tray on Jane's lap and took a seat on a chair. "Just a few minutes ago. Trent had to go to practice so I told him I'd finish up your lunch."
Jane picked up the sandwich and looked worried. "Yeah. How is that going?"
Daria looked particularly stony. "How's what going?"
Jane peeled the crust off of her sandwich and said delicately, "You know, being around Trent."
Daria just looked at her.
Jane tried again. "It must be tough. Umm... I mean, it's not been that long, and..."
Daria broke in. "Don't make me break your other leg."
Jane meekly bit into her sandwich and kept her focus on her cast. This was going to be a hard six months for all of them. Maybe she could get some of her art students to rescue her.
Daria got up. "Do you need anything else? I'm going to go downstairs and write for a while."
"I'm fine," Jane said tiredly. "Thanks for taking time to help me."
Daria smiled tensely and went to find the refuge of her muse.
She had been writing in the kitchen for several hours when Trent came in the back door. He set his soft guitar case on the floor by the door and busied himself with taking off his jacket and hanging it on the coat tree.
Daria, while acutely aware of his presence, strove to not pay him any mind. But his presence had destroyed her train of thought. She took a bite of a pretzel, and to keep up appearances, she wrote random words onto her legal pad. She wrote: "music," "hurt," "windows," "sad," "lonely."
"Hey, Daria," Trent said, sliding self consciously into a chair at the table. "Whatcha writing?"
Daria frowned slightly and kept scribbling. She wrote: "jerk," "moron," "reprobate," "varlet."
Trent screwed up his courage and said quietly, "Aren't you going to talk to me?"
"No." She wrote: "requite," "castrate," "crucify," "flog," "impale."
A look of deep sadness fell over his face. "Oh."
"Daria? Can you come here, please?" came Jane's voice from upstairs.
Looking relieved, Daria flipped her pad face down and rushed off without a word.
Trent picked up the note pad and turned it over. His look of sadness grew heavier. It seemed as if he was wrong. A year ago, he thought she had cut herself off from her emotions. When he saw her at the hospital he had thought she was angry with him. But reading this, it was clear that she hadn't cut herself off from her emotions after all, and she wasn't just feeling anger either. She was hurting as deeply as he was. She was just better at hiding it. And he should have known that. A whole year of their lives had been wasted. A year of her life that he could have shared if he had had the balls to fight for her. Maybe it was time to start fighting. He eyed her note pad. Well, there was no time like the present.
When Daria came downstairs, Trent was gone. She shook her head in annoyance. He wasn't going to be very much help. Then again, he wasn't here to try to talk to her, either. She settled on being annoyed at him for both things simultaneously and reached for her notepad. She immediately noticed a new stream of words at the bottom. They were written in a hand that was even more illegible than her own, a hand she recognized too well.
He had written: "regret," "remorse," "just plain sorry," "please forgive me?."
Daria's heart started hammering in her chest. Damn him for opening this up again. She ripped out the page and scrunched it up into a tight ball and threw it away. She opened the cabinet where Jane kept her booze. Shaking, she poured herself a gin and tonic. She was over this. Over this. She threw back the drink in one gulp and waited for it to calm down her autonomic nervous system while she mixed another. Trent Lane was just a horrible mistake from her past. She had left him far behind. Too bad if he wanted her back. She didn't want him.
She looked at the clock. It was almost time to make Jane some dinner. She pulled open the fridge and rummaged around. She selected some sandwich fixings and set them on the counter. She heard the kitchen door open and stiffened, knowing who it was without looking. She grabbed the romaine lettuce and viciously tore off a couple of leaves, pausing only to grab the chef's knife and the butcher block cutting board. She chopped the lettuce vigorously as she listened to the sounds of Trent taking off his jacket and locking the door. Her heart twisted as she remembered how his door-locking compulsiveness had always been about her safety. She heard a paper bag crackling and was a little curious despite herself.
He came over and stood beside her. "What are you doing?"
"Making Jane a sandwich." Daria continued chopping, still avoiding looking directly at him.
Trent rattled a paper bag at her to get her attention. "No need. I stepped out and got us some Chinese carry out. You still like beef broccoli, right?"
"Not since the food poisoning," Daria said dryly and looked at the bag. "Jane can't eat spicy food while on Morphine. She'll puke."
Trent smiled. "Oh, yeah." He set the bag on the counter and put his hand on the knife, stopping her motion. "True. Then you and I can eat it. Here, let me finish this up. You made lunch."
Daria jerked away from his hand as if his touch had burned her. "Fine."
She sat back down at the table and stared at her hands. She sensed Trent readying himself to bear his soul. She couldn't stand much more of this.
Trent unwrapped some lunchmeat and cleared his throat. "I've been thinking, about us..."
"Just make the sandwich," Daria snapped.
"I..." Trent faltered.
Daria lurched to her feet. "I'm leaving. Stay with her tonight." She opened the door, without pausing to collect her coat and legal pad, and hurried through, not even bothering to shut it.
Trent started at where she had been sitting mere seconds ago. He put down the salami and gently shut the door. Well, that was disaster. Sighing, he quickly finished constructing Jane's sandwich, grabbed a soda, and took it up to her.
Jane looked excited to see him. "Hey! I didn't know you were here. Cool." She hugged him after he had set the tray on her nightstand. She eyed the food. "I'll eat that later, okay? My stomach feels weird."
"That's cool. Want some company?"
"Yeah. Daria kept to herself today." Jane paused as she saw a flash of hurt dart across Trent's expression. "What? You okay?"
Trent gnawed on his thumb. "Yeah."
Jane adjusted her broken leg so it didn't throb quite so badly. She was trying to lay off the PCA pump if she could help it. She didn't like the constant drug haze. "Yeah?" she asked in a voice that reminded Trent that it was useless to lie to a sister.
"Aw, Janey. It's Daria. I really hurt her."
Jane just arched an incredulous eyebrow.
Trent didn't miss the look. "Well, yeah, I knew that. But... I just didn't know she still hurt."
Jane's expression grew kinder. "That part's not your fault."
"She hates me Jane. hates me," he whispered.
Jane patted his hand and looked sad. "It wasn't supposed to end this way, was it?"
Trent handed her the tray. "Here, try to eat a little."
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He flipped it open and pulled out a picture. After a longing gaze at the image, he set it on Jane's tray. "Did I ever show you that?"
Jane looked at the wallet-sized photo of Trent and Daria smiling in front of a carnival Ferris wheel. "What's this?"
Trent smiled. "A picture from when we went to France. Let me tell you about that moment..."
... "Come on, Daria, it'll be cool."
Daria looked at the ornate Ferris wheel dubiously. "This thing looks about 100 years old. No way."
Trent took her had and gave it a squeeze. "Hey, it's safe. And look how tall it is. Think how great the view will be."
"Right, and as we come crashing down, we will really appreciate the view."
"Just think of the headlines... 'Famous writer meets her doom at carnival.' They might even put a bronze plaque here to commemorate the moment."
"'Next on Sick, Sad World.'" She smiled quietly.
"Please?" He smiled charmingly.
"Oh, alright. But you'd better make it up to me later."
He smiled archly. "I can think of a few ways." He tugged on her hand and they walked over and took a place in line.
Soon they were settled into a festively painted compartment and were traveling in a slow vertical circle. The wind created by their passage was pleasantly cool and ruffled Daria's long hair.
"Look... Versailles!" Trent pointed. Off in the distance, the sun winked off the many gilded windows of the baroque palace.
Daria craned her neck and took it in without comment. She leaned back and settled her head on his shoulder.
Trent smiled lovingly and draped his arm around her shoulders. He kissed the top of her head and rested his cheek on her head. They rode the ride in silence.
"I love you so much."
She sighed contently and snuggled closer.
"I can't imagine ever being without you."
She tilted her head and smiled up at him.
"I mean... I'm saying... that you are everything to me."
"You're not about to tell me you're dying, are you?" Daria teased, still not particularly comfortable with prolonged mushy conversations.
"No. It's just, when are we going to get married?"
"What's wrong with the way things are now?"
"Nothing. But don't you want to be Mrs. Lane someday?"
"I want to be Ms. Morgendorffer."
Daria scooted away and regarded him seriously. "Meaning my name isn't changing."
Trent breathed a sigh of relief. He had taken that another way. "So you will marry me?"
"Maybe someday. I'm not ready for that."
"Trent, it wouldn't change anything. I'm not going anywhere."
Daria took his hand. "Not unless you screw up really big," she said with a laugh.
Trent laughed too. "I'm smarter than that. So you might marry me?"
"Why is this so important to you?"
"It's romantic. I want wedding pictures. I want to cram cake in your face. I want a real honeymoon."
Daria flushed and shook her head. He was hopeless. She looked in his eyes and got lost there.
Trent looked serious. "Daria Morgendorffer. Will you marry me someday?"
"Someday," she agreed, and laid her back on his shoulder...
Trent finished his story and lapsed into silence.
Jane looked sick. How could two people be so connected, so in-tune, and end up the way they had? It wasn't fair. "Trent..." She really didn't know what to say.
"I blew it Janey. I was the one who was unbelievably stupid."
Jane frowned. "Wait right there. Okay, true, you were, but it wasn't just you. Monique was the real problem." Enough time had passed for Jane to be able to forgive Trent for his role in this. "Hell, even Daria isn't blameless."
Trent smiled stiffly. "That doesn't really matter anymore. I'm going to get her back."
Jane massaged her leg; this tension was making the ache worse. "I don't know if that's a good idea."
Trent leaned forward. "Look, I thought I'd never see her again. I can't waste this chance."
"She'll eat you for lunch. She doesn't want this."
"Come on, Jane. I know you hear us talking downstairs. If she didn't care, why is she getting so worked up? Something is still there."
Jane was silent.
Trent grinned. "Come on, think you can still play the Yenta after all of these years?"
Jane looked uncomfortable. "Trent, she's seeing someone else."
illustration by Amy Whisenhunt
"Go fish," Daria said boredly, reaching for a tortilla chip.
Jane pulled a card from the deck and muttered, "I can't believe this is the only card game you know."
Daria peered over her fan of cards and tilted her head to one side. "I'm not that much of a game player. You know that."
"Yeah, you just work yourself into the ground and pretend you don't have a soul. What does Dominic think about that?" Jane couldn't even say his name without frowning.
A strange look passed over Daria's features before she asked, "Ace of spades?"
Jane handed the card over and searched Daria's face for clues before she casually asked, "And how is Dominic?"
"Does he still want to you to move in with him?" Jane's frown deepened.
Daria silently examined her hand of cards, frowning slightly.
"Have you decided what to do?"
"Daria. You aren't going to move in with him, are you?" Jane asked worriedly. Dominic was not what Daria needed. Now or ever.
Daria frowned, but said nothing.
Jane proceeded very carefully. "Daria, are you sure you're ready for a big move like this?"
"What?" Daria asked in a dangerous tone.
"At least admit to yourself that this is a big step." She took a deep breath and plunged on. "You don't want to be hurt again."
Daria's expression didn't change. "Two of clubs?"
"Two. Of. Clubs?" Daria asked severely.
"Go fish," Jane sighed, wondering if Daria saw something in this guy that she had missed.
They both paused as they heard the front door open and close and listened to the sound of footsteps racing up the stairs.
"Hey, Jane," Trent puffed as he jogged into the room. "Sorry I'm late... oh... um... hey, Daria."
They all felt a sharp pang of nostalgia for this moment. This was a scenario that reached into the past, a situation they all used to be in frequently. But this hadn't happened for about a year. It was achingly pleasant to experience it again.
Daria collected her wits and folded her hand. "You win, Jane. I hate this game." She looked coolly at Trent. "Her meds are due in fifteen minutes. Other than that, everything is fine."
"Thanks," Trent said warmly. "You staying for dinner?" To his surprise, she seemed to be considering his request. But before Daria could answer, the phone rang.
Jane picked up the cordless receiver beside her on the bed and pressed the talk button. "Hello? Oh..." She looked uncomfortably at Trent. "Hi Dominic... yeah she's here... hold on..." She passed the phone to Daria.
Trent picked up on the look and figured out just who this Dominic was. He felt a black surge of jealousy.
Daria took the phone and walked to the other side of the room. She kept her back to them for privacy, but Trent could still hear her.
"Hi... fine... dinner? That sounds nice. No you don't have to pick me up here... oh... it's okay, then... bye..." She hung up the phone and turned around, looking vaguely embarrassed. She blushed and explained weakly to Trent, "That was my... publisher."
Trent's back was rigid and he stood with his feet wide apart. His hands had unconsciously curled up into fists at his side. "Oh," he said crossly.
Jane looked back and forth between Daria and Trent, and wondered if this was going to be high school all over again. Only worse. She decided it would be best if all of the cards were out on the table. "Dominic is the CFO of the multi-media conglomerate that owns the New Yorker," she clarified.
Trent pursed his lips and nodded.
Daria picked up on Trent's tension and flushed a little. "He's coming straight over here from the office. I'd better go wait in the kitchen." She hurried out of the room.
"CFO?" Trent asked incredulously when she had left the room. "I've read about this guy in the 'Times. He's evil; all the writers in the city are scared of him. He's been axing people left and right. Besides that, I bet he's boring as hell."
Jane put her head in her hand and nodded. She wondered what Daria saw in him too. In a way that only she could, Daria was punishing herself with the worst rebound possible. And it had way outlasted its usefulness. But still, it was Daria's life. "I guess you gave her more than enough excitement for one lifetime."
Looking chastened, Trent backed towards the hallway. "Hmmm. Well, I need some dinner myself. Be right back."
Jane watched him go and shook her head. She turned down the radio so she could hear if things got out of hand down there. If only she could get down the stairs. This meeting of the minds should be something else altogether.
Trent rushed halfway down the stairs, then tiptoed the rest of the way. He forced himself to be quiet as he crept to the kitchen doorway and peered inside. Daria was letting in a man who looked to be just about her age. He was dressed smartly in an olive Armani suit, shiny patent leather shoes and a dark trench coat. His hair was a closely cropped copper and he wore small lensed silver wire framed glasses. He still had a leather briefcase in one hand as he leaned over and placed a brusque peck on Daria's lips.
Trent's stomach lurched at the sight of another man's lips touching Daria's. He leaned heavily against the doorframe and continued to watch.
"Hi darling, ready? Good, let's go then," Dominic said without really waiting for her answer.
Darling? She never would have let him call her darling. Trent narrowed his eyes. Something about this didn't feel right.
Daria calmly accepted the kiss, but didn't actively participate. "Hi, Dominic." She grabbed her coat and preceded him out of the door. "Where are we going?"
"Don't worry, you'll like it," he said absently.
Daria sighed. "It's not sushi again?"
"It's my treat so don't fuss, sweetheart. You'll like it."
"Oh, sorry," Daria said quietly as she let him herd her out the door.
Trent leaned against the wall. This was weird. Why was she letting this guy boss her around?
Daria carefully spread a thick coat of peanut butter on some slices of apple. Finished, she screwed the lid back on the jar of peanut butter, took the plate back to the kitchen table and sat down by her notepad. She crunched a slice thoughtfully and fiddled with her pen. She hated this kind of pen. It was cheap and bled all over her fingers. But it was all she had found at the bottom of her purse this morning. Where had all of her good pens gone to? She looked at the indigo smudges on her fingertips and smirked. She was probably eating the ink. That's all she needed these days.
She looked out the window and noted the deepening twilight. Where was Trent? He was supposed to be here an hour ago. She didn't really like walking the streets after dark. She wished he would hurry. She rubbed her fingers on her pant leg and started writing. Might as well get started; she had a deadline for the New Yorker to meet, and she knew better than to be late. She focused on her editorial and let the hours slip over her as she worked. As she wrote she felt the hairs on the back of her neck tickle. She looked up to see Trent standing silently in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, watching her with hungry eyes. He started when her eyes met his, and an unreadable look fell into place over his features. Neither spoke for a long moment.
Daria broke the gaze first and rubbed her cramping hand.
Trent edged into the kitchen. "No laptop these days?"
Daria shook her head. "I don't like lugging it around on the subway."
"That's probably smart."
Daria clicked the pen unconsciously. "I didn't know you were here."
Trent grimaced. "I wasn't supposed to be. I had practice today... I took a nap earlier and slept through it. I just woke up."
Daria watched him silently.
He shifted uncomfortably. "Some things never change, huh?"
Daria said nothing.
"It was a joke, Daria."
"Ha," she said dryly.
Trent crossed his arms. "Wow. For a second there I thought you were actually going to talk to me," he said jokingly, trying to coax her into a conversation.
Daria's eyes narrowed. "I guess I slipped."
"Well forgive me for trying to be civil." Trent's voice took on an edge.
"Civil or sober?" Daria shot back.
"I can't believe you just said that," he said incredulously.
"Proves how little you ever knew about me," she said crossly.
Trent opened his mouth to retort, but stopped himself with great effort. "Look, this isn't good for either of us."
Daria gathered up her papers. "I agree. So I'll be on my way." She moved quickly so he wouldn't see how much her hands were shaking. She slipped on her jacket and walked briskly towards the door.
"Daria," Trent said as she passed through the door.
She paused and looked back at him coolly.
She looked at him for a long time. "I know." She made as if to leave, but stopped and slowly turned towards him. She paused, obviously trying to find the words to say something.
Trent waited, rigid with anticipation. What would she say? Would she forgive him?
"Umm." A pained look passed over Daria's face. "Jane asked me to pick up a big list of art supplies on my way over tomorrow... and... ummm... my credit card got demagnetized. Do you have any cash?"
Trent disappointedly dug into his pockets and pulled out his wallet. "Oh, cash. Yeah... will 60 bucks do it?"
Daria took the cash and slid it into her purse. "Yeah, it should. Thanks, Trent." She started to walk away, but stopped when Trent laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Goodnight, Daria." He looked her full in the eye, trying to will her to forgive him. "Be careful walking home."
A ghost of a smile toyed at her lips. "I will." She firmly walked out of his grasp and into the night.
Daria balanced on one foot so the heavy bag of art supplies could rest between her other raised knee and the door. The bag was so huge she couldn't see the keyhole, and she was navigating the key by touch alone. She leaned forward to give herself better leverage. She smiled with relief when she felt the key slide into the slot. She turned her wrist and felt the bolt click back. Just then the door swung open and she found herself, now completely off balance, falling through the doorway.
"Whoa! I've got you!"
Her forward descent was halted by a strong pair of hands gripping her shoulders. The art supplies spilled from the bag with a loud clatter of plastic on the linoleum floor of the kitchen. As she regained her balance, she looked into her rescuer's eyes and froze. Their faces were inches apart, so close, that she could feel the warm current of his breath. She had known immediately who it was and had resolved not to have any physical reaction to being this close. But despite her cool logic, her heart seemed caught between seizing and beating spasmodically. She couldn't seem to breathe. She couldn't tear her gaze away, either. Now free of the bag, her arms hung uselessly at her sides. She was drowning in his gaze. She saw his lips in her peripheral vision and wondered why she couldn't have fallen forward just a few more inches.
Trent looked down at the raw need in her eyes and felt his own eyes tear up. She missed him, too. She really did. Just look at her. As much as he wanted to shift his hold into a hug, he restrained himself. If he wasn't very careful with her, he would scare her away. He broke eye contact and removed his hold on her shoulders slowly. Confident she had her balance back, he went about collecting the scattered art supplies. He scooped up a handful of brightly colored markers, set the empty bag on the table, and dropped the markers inside. The sharp rattle they made seemed to snap Daria out of a trance. High color rose to her cheeks as she also started picking up the art supplies. She avoided looking directly at Trent as she did so, and vehemently wished she was anywhere else.
Trent carefully put a leaking bottle of turpentine in a zip-lock bag and said softly, "This was too big for you to carry. I'll take it up to Jane." He placed the bagged turpentine into the large bag, which he then hefted into his arms and set off for the stairs without another word.
Daria sat down slowly at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. A deep shudder racked her slight frame and, to her surprise, she felt warm tears pressing against her tightly closed eyes. She inhaled deeply through her nose and held the breath for a long moment. She would not cry. She would not cry. Not for him. Not anymore. She was over him. She didn't miss him so much that she hurt from the longing. That was a long time ago. She had Dominic now. Dominic, who was so different. He was safe, stable, secure. And cold, whispered a stray thought. Daria reflected on the warmth of Trent's love, the passion and the physical ways he showed affection, then contrasted it with Dominic's more cerebral devotion and intellectualized ardor. Still feeling the heat of Trent's hands upon her shoulders, Daria sought refuge in cooling thoughts of Dominic. The faint distaste she had always tasted in the back of her mouth when she thought of Dominic grew more bitter. Pursing her lips, she reminded herself that non one was perfect. Dominic was acceptable in all of the ways that really mattered.
"Matters," she muttered as she wiped the slight moisture from her eyes with the backs of her hands.
"Daria?" Trent asked coming into the kitchen.
"Yes?" she whispered, still shaken.
"I was wondering if you would like to watch a movie with me and Jane?" Trent stood quietly by the refrigerator, taking unspoken notice of the moisture on her eyelashes. "I could make us some popcorn."
Daria looked over at him for a long moment. She wondered if he could see her tears and hoped he couldn't. If he tried to talk to her at this moment, she wasn't sure what she might say.
"I..." she started then stopped. What did she want?
She met his eyes and felt her heart rate rise again. Suddenly she wanted to be with him, to be part of the Lane family again. A shy smile slipped to her lips. "Sure."
She got up from the table just as there was a rap on the kitchen door. As she was already on her feet, Daria padded over to answer it. It was Dominic.
"Hello sweetheart," he said strolling in, placing a peck on her cheek as he walked past. "I was working in this area again and thought I might find you here."
Hand to her cheek, Daria closed the door behind him and said, "A call would have been nice."
"Yes, I know. The damn cell phone battery is dead again. I tell you... oh, hello there old chap!" Dominic noticed Trent for the first time. He took in Trent's ragged denim and worn tee-shirt. "You must be one of Jane's art students!" He smiled and quirked an eyebrow at Daria. "A bit soon for her to be 'on her feet again,' isn't it dear? She'll wear herself out. You really should talk to her."
"This is Trent, Jane's brother," Daria introduced awkwardly.
"Brother? That's odd, I thought I remembered you saying Jane was an only child?"
Trent raised an eyebrow at Daria. Only child?
"Well, anyway, Trent, nice to meet you." Dominic held out a polite hand for Trent to shake.
Trent took it firmly, but still noticed the neatly buffed and trimmed nails. He also was keenly aware of the crisp figure Dominic cut in his pressed suit and shined shoes. Trent was just as aware of his grungy clothing. He fought a rising wave of insecurity. He was a slob compared to this guy.
Dominic continued his own introduction. "I'm Dominic Greyson, financier of Miss Morgendorffer's career and pursuer of her heart. Assuming she's got one buried in there, eh?" Dominic clapped Trent heartily on the shoulder and laughed at his own joke.
Trent didn't look amused.
"Yes, my aloof darling," Dominic looked fondly at Daria. "She is perfect, really. I'm a lucky fellow, don't you think?"
A sour expression clouded Trent's face. "Yes, perfect," he echoed, looking hard at Daria.
"But since you've known her longer, I suspect you already knew that." Dominic leaned against the kitchen counter, seemingly unaware of the tension that was arcing between Daria and Trent.
Trent crossed his arms and said evenly, "I know her well enough to know she has a big heart." His eyes drilled into Daria's.
Dominic snickered. "Dear heart, I do believe this man has insulted you."
Daria sighed and lifted her coat from the rack. "Very funny, Nick. Let's go out to dinner." She needed out of there.
"Daria, dear, it's Tuesday. What do we do on Tuesdays?"
"Go for wine and cheese at the Algonquin?" Daria almost recited.
"Exactly. Now shall we?"
Daria nodded and opened the door. "I could use a good drink."
Dominic hooked a heavy arm around Daria's shoulders and steered her out the door.
Trent watched this exchange and felt his earlier suspicions rise to his thoughts. Daria was not acting like herself. Something was wrong here. Concerned, Trent slipped out the door and followed Daria and Dominic, being careful to stick to the shadows. They didn't walk particularly close together, but from time to time Dominic would reach out to Daria and touch her in some small way. He would rub her back or tug on her hair. Daria seemed to tolerate this public display of affection, but Trent noticed with some satisfaction that she wasn't reciprocating.
"So, anyway, I told Garrison Keilor that his Little House on the Prairie shtick wasn't selling anymore," Dominic said with a cruel edge to his voice.
"I met him once when I worked for NPR. He was doing his American Radio Company type of show then. Those were better. Ever since he left New York for Minneapolis, he really lost his sophistication," Daria agreed.
"Exactly, Pet. So I told him we would have to prematurely severe his contract."
Daria stopped walking. "You what?"
"Darling, publishing is a business and this man isn't making us money anymore."
"He is an artist," Daria said, her voice shaking.
Dominic laughed. "Such an emotional display! I truly am amazed." He took her arm and tugged as he started to walk again.
Daria shook off his arm and said flatly, "What's so amazing? That I have emotions, or that I don't agree with throwing the artists you support to the wolves?"
"I really don't know what has gotten into you tonight. Of course we will throw the bastard to the wolves! That's what we do."
Daria sighed and started walking. When Dominic tried to take her hand, she stiffly moved it out of his reach.
"Ah," he said knowingly. "I know what this is all about. This is too similar to what your editor at the New Yorker did to your contract after you signed on, isn't it? Too close for comfort?"
"Of course not," she snapped.
Dominic chose his words carefully. "They cut your pay to, what, 30 percent of what they promised?"
Daria whirled around, and Trent ducked into a dark doorway to avoid being seen. "Shhh! I haven't told anyone about that."
"Daria, that's why I want you to come live with me. That... that tenement you live in isn't fit for a dog."
"I can take care of myself."
"No. You live in your head and cannot see the world for what it is. You need someone practical to take care of you."
Daria was silent.
"Besides, who knows how long I can keep protecting what's left of your contract. Maybe you should have your priorities straight."
Daria frowned. "Is that a threat?"
"A threat? Oh, you wound me. No, I am merely saying that if you were to live with me, I'd have more leverage with my colleagues. If you were... shall we say... under my protection, they wouldn't dismiss you altogether."
It was a threat. He was pushing harder these days. "Just let me think about it a little longer," she asked softly, trying to buy herself more time.
"Of course. Just don't think too long." Dominic put a possessive arm around her shoulders and this time she let him.
Appalled, Trent followed them to the Algonquin hotel and kept watch from across the street until they came out again. That bastard was strong-arming her! Trent wasn't sure what Dominic had meant about Daria's contract, but this sure didn't sound good. Thirty percent? He knew what her contract had promised. No one could live on thirty percent of that in this city. Things made much more sense now. Daria was tolerating this jerk because she was totally screwed. She was afraid of him. Damn, this guy was controlling her. Well, he was going to do something about it.
Stewing and pacing, Trent kept his watch for a couple of hours. His attention was caught by a pair of raised voices. He looked across the street and saw Daria and Dominic come spinning out of the hotel's revolving door. Neither looked happy.
Dominic hailed a cab and gestured for Daria to get inside. Daria shook her head no.
"I said, come home with me now."
"And I said no," Daria said hotly.
Dominic pointed angrily from Daria to the cab. "You will come home with me. And you will stay there. I'll have my man fetch those few things you have worth bringing with you."
Daria stubbornly shook her head no. Dominic grabbed her arm and tried to physically drag her into the cab. Daria, looking desperate, hooked her arm around a lamppost and resisted. "Let go!"
Trent agitatedly clenched and unclenched his fists as he watched. That bastard had better take his hands off of her. Taking a deep breath, he strove to stay calm. If he could help it, he didn't want Daria to know he had followed her. But if things went much further he would have no choice. He tried not to think about how satisfying it would be to tear into Dominic's face.
A gaggle of women drifted out of the hotel, and Dominic quickly released his hold on Daria. Smiling stiffly at Dominic, Daria allowed herself to be swept away with the crowd. Scowling, Dominic jumped into the cab and sped off.
Trent followed Daria, wanting to make sure she made it home okay. He also wanted to see if her home was as bad as Dominic had made it seem. It didn't take long for Daria's path to leave that of the well-dressed women, and even less time for the streets she walked to become the ghetto. Boarded up storefronts and shuttered windows graced nearly half of the buildings she walked by. Those stores that were still open seemed to be an endless mix of corner liquor stores and adult entertainment establishments. Daria walked briskly and kept her eyes to the ground, ignoring the lecherous stares of the men that were clustered around the entrances of the strip clubs. She dodged puddles of refuse and stepped over sleeping winos with such unconscious skill that Trent wondered how long her luck had been down.
Daria stopped in front of an old six-story brownstone and jogged up the stairs of the leaning stoop. Trent watched her go inside and fought the urge to march in and make her leave with him by whatever means necessary. This level of poverty frightened him. Then he thought of the struggle in front of the cab tonight. Daria already had enough people trying to force her to do their will. As awful as this was, she was a grown woman and could make her own choices. But now he felt a new resolve to win her back. If he could only make her want to come back with him, this would all go away.
Daria sat on the kitchen counter at Jane's house and munched on some tuna out of the can. She kicked her legs loudly against the doors of the cabinets below and scribbled something on a legal pad.
Trent walked in from the living room carrying a big vase of flowers in his arms. They were from one of Jane's many admirers and were sorely in need of fresh water. He looked closely at Daria, last night's revelations giving him new eyes, and was shaken by the changes he had missed before. While her face was normally a perfect oval, her chin now was a sharp point and her cheekbones were more prominent than before. He also noticed that her clothes hung very loosely on her now. Dear God, was she eating regularly? The knife of his guilt twisted deep in his gut. If he hadn't lost his cool last year, he could have been her safety net. Instead, it seemed if she was hanging on only by inches. How could Janey not know this? He noticed Daria was now looking at him curiously, and hoped his face didn't show his distress. His eyes slid to her old boots and he covered, "I remember those."
She blinked at him and went back to her writing, surreptitiously sliding the can of tuna behind the toaster. Trent didn't miss this and thought back to all of the times they had interacted here. There hadn't been a single time that Daria wasn't eating something. And she was embarrassed about it, too. The knife in his gut dug in a little deeper. Feeling his eyes moisten, he walked over to her and stood with his back to the toaster. He set the vase of wilted flowers next to her and smiled as best as he could. "Hey, Daria. What's new?"
She covered what she was writing with her hand and looked at him tiredly. "I didn't realize you had this shift. I'll come back later."
Trent thought quickly, "Wait... Jane wanted some pizza for lunch. I bet she would like it if you stayed. I was just about to order some. Will you stay?"
Daria looked thoughtful for a moment. She laid her pad face down on the counter and pulled a crumpled five dollar bill out of her pocket and handed it to Trent. "Sure, count me in."
Trent waved away the money. "It's my treat."
Daria didn't argue. She slid the five back into her pocket. She looked at the floor and said lowly, "Look, I'm sorry that I've been such a bitch."
Trent winced as he emptied the sour flower water into the sink. He turned on the tap and let fresh water run into the vase. "Daria, you will never need to apologize to me." How much guilt could he bear?
"Hmmm." She looked up at him sideways. "Well, I would like to try and get along, for Jane. When we bicker... I think she can hear it. I don't want to worry her."
Just for Jane? Well, that was a start, anyway. "Sure, Daria. I hoped we could be friends again someday," he said softly.
Her expression told him not to push it, so he hurriedly finished filling up the vase and promptly took the flowers back up to Jane's room. He set the flowers on her dresser and scooped up the cordless phone. "Feel like pizza for lunch, Jane?"
Jane looked away from a "Sick, Sad World" rerun. "Sure. Can you believe they still show this garbage?"
He smirked. "I can't believe you still watch it."
"Hey! If Daria were here she would be watching it, too."
Trent rolled his eyes and spoke into the phone. "Yes, that's the correct address. Three large deluxe pizzas. Yup. An hour? Cool." He hung up the phone.
Jane looked at him oddly. "Three? Who else is coming to lunch?"
"Okay... but she's not that big an eater."
"Well, I though it would be nice to have leftovers."
"You are so weird," Jane said with a laugh.
"Janey, is Daria doing okay?" He couldn't believe that Jane didn't know.
Jane's expression closed. "What do you mean?"
"I mean... is she alright... this is a tough city."
Her expression cleared. "Are you kidding? She has the New Yorker in the palm of her hand."
So she really didn't know. He wanted to ask if her if she knew Daria was living in Harlem, but couldn't think of a way to ask that wasn't suspect. He had a feeling that he wouldn't be doing himself any favors if he let Daria's secret slip.
"Well, I'd better go down and wait for the pizza." Trent sauntered out of the room and left Jane with her thoughts.
She herself had been wondering how Daria was doing. She wasn't looking like herself these days. A pale, washed out look had replaced her friend's usual solid stoicism. Daria looked worn out these days. And miserable. Jane couldn't help but wonder if Dominic was behind it somehow. In business, that man was callous and cruel. Everybody in the arts scene knew it. How could he be any different in his personal life? When Daria had started dating him a few months ago, Jane had just been relieved to see Daria was moving on with her life. As this was supposed to be a typical, brief rebound, she hadn't cared who it was. But it hadn't been brief. And now it was clear Dominic was pressuring Daria to move in with him. All of Jane's internal alarms were screaming danger. Given the changes in Daria's personality and what she knew about Nick, it was entirely possible that Daria was getting sucked into an unhealthy, if not abusive relationship. She knew the signs after watching Summer make the same mistakes. Jane picked at the edge of her cast and thought back to all of the times she had been around Dominic. He was pushy and self-centered, that was for certain. But one time stood out in her mind. It had been at one of her more recent gallery openings...
... Jane stood with Daria and Dominic as she tried to dodge the art critic for some Podunk Midwestern newspaper. She had been interviewed enough tonight. She needed a break, and besides, she was famous enough now to not need that kind of exposure.
Dominic had one arm firmly wrapped around Daria's waist, and a double martini crowing the hand of his other arm. "Seriously, darling, green and orange just aren't good colors for you. Right Jane?"
Jane arched an eyebrow. "Daria likes those colors." She looked over Daria's party dress. It looked so much like one of Daria's old uniforms that it was almost funny. It was fancier, but had the effect of taking a decade away from Daria's appearance. At least for Jane, who knew the back history. There was no way Daria could have passed this number up. It was too perfect.
"Yes, yes... but the colors wash her out. She looks sallow. She should've worn the nice blue frock I bought her for tonight if she wanted to look fetching for me." He said it with a smile that didn't quite touch his eyes.
Daria had a mouthful of shrimp, so only rolled her eyes.
Dominic took advantage of her silence and added, "And if you eat anymore of that shrimp, you'll turn into one."
"That's what the buffet and bar are here for," Jane remarked carefully. "I'm glad you two are enjoying them."
Dominic drained his glass and smirked. "Exactly. Then, Jane, why not be a dear and fetch me another drink?"
Jane's other eyebrow shot up to join the first and she made a soft barking noise.
"Excuse me?" he asked, not understanding.
"It was a bark, because only dogs fetch," she said firmly. "You know where the bar is. Help yourself."
"Cute," Dominic muttered and went off to get his own drink.
Jane shook her head and turned to Daria. "Anything else you want to tell me about your 'master'?" she joked.
Daria swallowed her shrimp and looked at her feet. Her hollow laugh made the hairs on the back of Jane's neck rise. What the hell was going on here? She was acting just like Summer did...
Jane came back to the present when she heard the pizza delivery person knock on the door. She had tried and tried to get Daria to talk about this, with no luck. Daria was being silent as the grave. All she could do was keep a vigilant eye out. Maybe it was all her imagination. And she really hoped it was. But as it stood right now, there wasn't anything she could do without driving Daria away. And if that happened, she wouldn't be able to help her at all.
Daria sat on the edge of her desk and dialed the phone. "Hey Jane? It's me. I'm stuck at a party with Dominic... yeah some publishing thing. Will you be okay if I'm a few hours late? Cool. See you then." Daria hung up the office phone and steeled herself. These parties were so boring. She smoothed down the blue cocktail dress that Dominic had purchased for her. It showed more cleavage than she was comfortable with, not that she had so much to show anyway. Still, it was a pretty dress, and it had been a gift. She really ought to wear it from time to time. Feeling resigned to an evening of boredom, she left her office and headed for the building's atrium.
A fancy buffet was spread out at the far end of the room, and a full bar dominated the other end. In between the two, liveried servers offered guests flutes of champagne and platters of elegant appetizers. The guests themselves were mostly businessmen, most of them from the publishing industry and advertising. They strutted about in tailored suits, shined shoes, golden cuff links, and male pattern baldness. The testosterone was almost palpable. The few women present were obviously trophies, long and lean and curvy in all of the right places. The scraps of clothing they all wore were obviously tailored to show off as much flesh as possible. Daria took a glass of champagne and tugged up the bodice of her dress. Where were the other authors?
"Ah, there you are, my darling!" Dominic swooped down on her and embraced her showily. "I was beginning to wonder if you had started a new book."
The group of men clustered about him laughed good-naturedly and eyed Daria curiously.
Dominic released his hold on her and twisted an arm around hers, getting a good hold on her hand. "Gentlemen, let me introduce my lady: The one and only Daria Morgendorffer."
Looks of envy passed along the group's faces as they all muttered polite greetings and introduced their dates. A dreadful certainty passed over Daria as she nodded her head and smiled. She wasn't here in her company writer capacity tonight. Tonight she was an ornament. She was here to enhance Dominic in the eyes of the publishing world. Her jaw tightened. She was willing to put up with a lot given her present circumstances, but this was too much.
Dominic tweaked her nose fondly and said, "Why don't you join the other girls for a while and let us discuss some business?"
"Far be it from me to disturb the boys," she said, putting venomous emphasis on the last word, and stalked off.
As she went she heard Dominic chortle, "She's so temperamental. She acts just like she writes."
Fuming, Daria made a wide circle around the crowd, clearly noting she was the only writer there. Dominic had lied to her. This wasn't a new book launching. This was a purely business function. She had known for sometime that he was interested in her for the reflected glory she could cast upon him with her literary fame. This had been a small price to pay when her contract had unraveled. He was certainly in place to keep it from going away all together.
She paused in her walking and took a guilty sip of champagne. She had used him from the start, but at some point, he had gained the upper hand and begun using her. By controlling her contract, he was controlling her. And it was getting out of hand, too. He was dead serious about her moving in with him, and when that happened, his control would be nearly complete. She had convinced herself that she could put that off indefinitely, but after last night's display at the Algonquin, it was becoming clear that it was either time to give in or set herself free. Only it wasn't as simple as that. He would take revenge on her if she left him. She was certain of it. She could kiss her contract good bye. Then what?
It was kind of late to go running to Jane at this point. She should've done that a long time ago. Now it was just too embarrassing. How could Jane ever understand what had driven her to this point? Particularly since Daria didn't really understand it herself. She hung her head in shame. She never thought this would happen to her. She had tried to rationalize it away as it was happening, but somehow she had fallen into the grasp of a terrible man. She could either break free and starve, or give in and see how bad it really was. Maybe she was jumping at shadows. There were nice things about Dominic, after all. In many ways, he reminded her of herself. And she wasn't a monster. Not yet anyway.
Confused and pained, she started walking again, and her path took her behind Dominic and his business partners. Sliding behind the concealing foliage of a large planting, Daria listened in on their conversation. It seemed as if the "business" they were discussing was their partners' sexual prowess.
Dominic pulled the olive out of his martini and chewed thoughtfully. "I've got you all beat with my Daria. She is just as hot on the inside as she is cold on the outside."
The men hooted softly and wanted details. Which Dominic happily provided, expanded, and elaborated upon.
Daria's cheeks reddened and she covered her mouth with her hand. He was discussing her like an object, like a possession. Like a thing.
"But Nick," one of the men asked. "Isn't she too busy with her writing to do too much of that?"
"Very good question. And the answer is: Not for long. I've almost convinced her to move in with me. And when that happens, we will dissolve her contract. Why would she want to get paid for her work, when she can do it out of love?"
"That is cold," another man said approvingly. "But isn't that getting you into the sexual harassment zone?"
"Absolutely not. The New Yorker wanted to dissolve the contract ages ago. I've been prolonging it out of the goodness of my heart. Without me, it would have happened anyway. So I'm in the clear."
The men toasted him. "You are the master."
"Thank you, lads. And best of all, I get a famous little lady who will do as she is told in private."
Daria's outrage cut through her confusion and focused her thoughts into a cutting clarity. She pushed out from behind her leafy hiding place and splashed the remainder of her champagne in Dominic's face. "You bastard."
Dominic recoiled and a nasty expression twisted his face. "That was a mistake." He roughly grabbed Daria and pulled into a nearby office. He locked the door behind him and advanced on her menacingly. Daria, feeling real fear, backed up until her thighs bumped up against the edge of a desk behind her.
Dominic wiped his face off with his hand then grabbed her shoulders in a painful grip. "You will not embarrass me in front of my peers."
"You're hurting me," she whispered.
He shook her. "This is nothing. Do you have any idea what you just did to my career?"
Daria just shook her head.
"I'm a laughingstock now. I brought you here tonight to help me, not make a fool out of me," he barked.
Daria eyed the door. She needed out of here. Out of this relationship. This was a dangerous game. More dangerous than she had realized.
"You are going to march right back out there and apologize in front of everyone." He spun her around and pushed her towards the door. She tripped and landed on her knees, sprawled humiliatingly at his feet. Taking a deep breath, she slowly got to her feet and gathered her dignity close about her. She laid a hand on the door and unlocked it surreptitiously. "No."
"You heard me."
Enraged, Dominic lifted his arm and backhanded her. As her head snapped back, her glasses flew across the room, cracked from where his MBA ring had connected with one of the lenses. "You will know your place!"
Her vision cloudy, and her head spinning from the blow, Daria opened the door by feel, exposing any further abuse to the public scrutiny of the crowded room. "My place is far, far away from you. Get out."
Dominic had no choice but to leave, as already people were casting curious stares in their direction. "You're finished," he promised and stalked out of the room.
The side of her face throbbing, Daria retrieved her glasses. As she slid them over her nose, the world snapped into focus, both literally and symbolically. She had once told Jane that her glasses were a symbol of her perceptivity, and so they were. The crack in the glass was a further symbol of how she had momentarily lost her judgement. She understood everything now. She thought she had been so strong, so clever in using Dominic. In reality, she had done the weakest thing possible, and was almost destroyed by her own game. She may be over with the New Yorker, but she was free. She would manage somehow. Feeling light on her feet, Daria left the party and headed for Jane's. While she would never tell Jane the details of this mess, it wouldn't matter. Jane would help her without asking hard questions. And maybe she wouldn't need to ask for help. She had enough money to hold her Spartan life style for a few more months. Something might turn up. And being with Dominic had taught her how to hold her tongue well enough that waitressing might work for her if it came to that.
Later that night, Trent let himself in the back door of Jane's house and quietly laid his guitar by the coat tree. The kitchen was dark, which surprised him. Usually he came home to find Daria writing at the table in here. He hoped that she was here and that they hadn't gotten their wires crossed about scheduling. It had happened once before, and poor Jane had been in agony because her pain medications had worn off. Better go check on her. He walked into the living room and stopped. Sitting in a small pool of light, Daria was reading a book. She had her back to him, the lamp light gleaming softly in her rich, brown hair, picking up tawny, golden highlights.
Trent stared at her hair, mesmerized. He longed to gently run the tips of his fingers through it. He imagined how soft it would feel on his palms. Without meaning to, he took a step closer. The silence was only broken by the dry sound of paper rubbing on paper as Daria occasionally turned a page. Trent imagined what might happen if he gave into his impulse and touched her. Would she lean into his caress, or would she storm out? He stepped closer. He missed her so much. Her hair looked so silky and warm. Touching her hair used to be one of his favorite things to do. Sometimes in the mornings, before she woke up, he used to lay beside her and stroke her hair, gently working out some of the tangles. Trent took another step forward. Watching her sleep was wonderful, too. She always flushed the sweetest shade of pink as she slept, and her face would hold a fragile, open expression in repose, as if she were completely vulnerable.
illustration by Amy Whisenhunt
Trent looked down at Daria, so close now and took another step. He remembered how he used to stroke her cheeks as she slept, and the way she would rub against his hand in her sleep, sometimes waking up to regard him with open, honest, eyes and a small smile. Some mornings she would reach for him without a word and they would start their day with an hour of tender lovemaking, so sweet and slow they often felt drugged and drowsy for the rest of the day. He looked down at her now. She was so close that he would be able to touch her if he reached out. Her hair glimmered in the lamp light like countless strands of honeyed thread. He lowered a hand and stopped just above her head. Should he? Swallowing, he slowly lowered his hand till his fingertips brushed through her hair. She started, obviously afraid.
"It's me," he said softly.
She relaxed, and to his surprise, she didn't turn around or tell him to stop. Trent carefully traced his hand down her hair and brushed the base of her neck. She shivered and leaned back towards him. Trent sent his second hand to join the first, and soon both were twined in her hair. With her head tilted back as it was, Trent could see that she had her eyes closed. He leaned in to kiss her, but stopped when he noticed a small crack in one of the lenses of her glasses. He traced the crack with a finger and breathed in distressedly. "What happened?" He gently touched the faint bruise along her cheekbone, a worried tear rising to his lashes. "Daria?"
At the painful touch to her bruise, Daria's eyes snapped open and she pulled away. "Nothing!" She panted a little and closed her book firmly. "I... I... need to go. It's late."
"Daria." Trent held a hand out towards her, silently begging her to stay. That monster was hurting her. His hand trembled as he fought tears. This couldn't be happening. Not to this wonderful woman.
"I..." She looked at him in confusion. Things weren't as concrete anymore. Trent wasn't a villain. He never was. What did she want? What did he want? Her scalp tingled from his touch and she couldn't think clearly.
Trent saw the confusion in her eyes and lowered his hand. He didn't want to cause her anymore pain. But how to help? She needed help. "You need a ride home? It's really too late to walk," he said without thinking.
"No!" she said quickly, looking panicked.
"Whatever," he said, trying to play it cool while mentally kicking himself. He wasn't supposed to know where she lived. "See you tomorrow then. I'm cooking for Janey. You're invited." He needed time to think.
Daria inclined her head in acknowledgement and darted from the room, but not before he saw the red blooming across her cheeks. But what stood out in his mind was the bruise. How had she come to this, and how was he going to help her get out?
"So the subway door caught you in the face?" Trent asked dubiously. Yeah, right. He glowered, imagining pulling Dominic's limbs from him. One at a time. Slowly. This was going to stop.
Daria heard his tone clearly and eyed him suspiciously. She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms, resting most of her weight on one foot, aggravatedly tapping the other. "What is it with you and food these days?" she asked bitchily, hoping to distract him.
Trent looked up from the salmon he was searing in a well-buttered pan and contrived to look innocent. "Hmmm?"
Daria bit her lip and considered. When she spoke, her voice was thick with doubt. "You never used to cook." As she said this, the remembered smell of burnt pancakes touched her nose.
Trent flipped the salmon and tried to be casual. "Things change, Daria." Should he? "People change, too." He looked up at her sideways. She was examining her shoes very carefully, obviously ignoring him.
"Don't they?" he pushed, not sure if he was referring to himself or Dominic.
"Yes," she muttered.
Heavy silence hung between them.
Trent snapped the burner control to the off position and set the pan on a counter trivet. He wiped his hands on a dish towel and regarded her seriously. "Dinner's ready," he said in a low voice.
"You don't have to feed me," she said testily, finally looking at him.
He chose his words with care. "Daria, this is the only way I can thank you for helping me with Janey. I couldn't do it alone."
Her eyes traced over the pan longingly. "I ate before I came."
Liar. Trent sauntered over to the refrigerator and took out a small, but heavy, pottery bowl. It was still warm. He set the bowl on the counter and took off the plastic wrap covering the top. He went back to the fridge and removed a clear bowl of perfectly scarlet strawberries.
He plucked up a large berry by its green hull and held it up to her. "I hope you saved room for dessert."
Without realizing it, Daria licked her lips and shifted her gaze to the berry.
Having caught her attention, Trent made a show of slowly dragging the strawberry through the warm chocolate fondue, making sure to thoroughly coat it.
Still holding the bowl of berries in his left hand, Trent advanced on Daria holding the dipped strawberry at her eye level.
She uncrossed her arms and placed the heels of her hands on the counter top, as if she might scramble aloft if he came too close.
Trent stopped inches away from her and held the strawberry close to her mouth. "Come on, you don't know what you're missing."
She looked at it hungrily as a drop of chocolate sauce came free from the tip. Her eyes followed the drop as it fell to the floor with a wet splat. When she looked back up, her eyes caught Trent's. Her focus narrowed on the love that still showed there, and the sadness that danced with it. She couldn't tear herself away. He still... he really did...
His eyes widened and held her gaze. For a moment, he saw a different sort of hunger fleetingly pass across her face. Her lips parted and the pink of her tongue peeped out at him. She was breathing harder, and the collar of her shirt shifted with every breath, drawing his attention to the flush spreading up from her neck.
It was happening. The moment was here. The walls were down. Don't screw it up. His hand shaking, Trent moved the strawberry to her lips and brushed them with the moist chocolate. Daria closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and opened her mouth slightly.
Trent pushed the strawberry gently between her lips and stepped closer. Daria bit down slowly and her lips closed around the tips of Trent's fingers. Trent took a shuddering breath, and the bowl of strawberries fell from his nerveless fingers.
Closing the remaining distance between them, Trent took her face in his hands and kissed her deeply, taking in the taste of her, the strawberry and the chocolate. He kept kissing her over and over with loud, wet, kisses that were only punctuated by little gasps of breath. Wrapping his arms around her, he lifted her small frame so she was sitting on the counter. She hooked her legs around his waist and ran her hands through his hair.
Trent kissed her enthusiastically, causing her head to slam back into the kitchen cabinet with a loud crack.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he murmured, rubbing the back of her head gently. "I'm sorry for so much. Sorry for screwing up your life, sorry you had to live like you have been."
She stiffened but he didn't notice.
"But that's over now, you don't have to worry anymore."
Daria pushed him away and, panting a little, asked, "Worry about what?"
"I know about what the New Yorker pulled on you, and..."
"The food. You've been feeding me." She glared and kicked him away savagely. "I don't need your pity, Trent Lane."
Daria jumped down from the counter. "I don't need your help, either!" she shouted.
Trent rubbed his shin and snapped, "But you will let Dominic beat you to save your job?"
The loud sound of Daria's slap was her only reply.
Trent rubbed his stinging jaw and watched her leave him yet again. He felt suddenly helpless, and sagged back against the counter. What had just happened? His lips throbbed from the kisses and he could still taste the chocolate. One moment he was drinking her in deliriously, and the next, she was gone. Why had he said any of that? He should have known how she would react. But he had been so worried. It just slipped. What had he done?
He walked to the kitchen door and threw it open... and stopped. Should he go after her? Would it help? He breathed in the sharp autumn air and pondered. No. He should let her cool off.
He closed the door and sat at the table. The kitchen was so quiet that he noticed the low hum of the refrigerator and the clicking of the furnace as it switched on. He drummed his fingers on the table agitatedly. Had he blown his one chance to fix things? With an effort he stopped tapping his fingers. He worried his lower lip with his teeth as he thought of her recklessly running home, not paying attention to danger as the neighborhood got worse and worse. That thought took him to unpleasant places and soon his foot began to tap nervously. Damn it. He sat back, ramrod straight. She wasn't getting away this time. Not without a fight, anyway. Suddenly focused, Trent got up from the table and grabbed his jacket.
Roughly a half hour later, Trent felt the small hairs on the back of his neck prickle as he neared Daria's row house. The denizens of the block had noticed his presence. Clustered in loose groups around stoops, light posts, and alley entrances, these people paused their conversations and watched Trent with unwelcoming eyes. Trent shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the ground while he edged his way around a cluster of hard-eyed children perched on Daria's stoop. He slid into the entryway, wincing at the strong mix of the odors of cooking and urine. Daria was leaving with him tonight if he had to carry her out kicking and screaming. He peered at the mailboxes. Standing out in its neatness was Daria's firm hand writing... box 615. Trent looked for an elevator, but all he found was a dimly lit stairwell. On foot, then. Looking determined, he stepped over a sleeping old man and marched towards the sixth floor.
Trent paused at her door and collected his thoughts. The first challenge would be to get her to answer the door. He lifted his hand to knock, then paused. Daria used to have a bad habit with locks. He quietly wrapped his hand around the filthy doorknob and twisted. Bingo. It twisted easily. He gulped and, quietly, pushed open the door and stepped inside.
illustration by Rey Fox
He looked around the small room and his throat seized up. Water stains stretched down from the ceiling to meet ugly cracks in the walls. The hardwood floor was gouged and ruined. A few pitiful items marked the room as Daria's. There was a stack of library books and a collection of legal pads clustered near a bright blue beanbag chair, over which hung a much worn Kafka poster. Nearby, a hot plate and several cans of soup made a rough kitchenette. The one window was covered with a sagging shade hand decorated with a Thoreau quote written in bold, black magic marker: "If misery loves company, misery has company enough." A terracotta pot with a sickly Zinnia plant graced the window ledge. Under the window was a single mattress made up neatly as a bed. And that was where she was, hugging her knees. Unaware of his entrance, she had her face pressed into her knees and was rocking slowly, back and forth.
Seeing his beautiful muse surrounded by such ugliness pained him. But her sad attempts at making this hole a home unglued him completely. His hands flapped uselessly at his sides as he tried to speak. Instead of words, a strangled cry left his lips and his eyes brimmed with tears.
Daria's head snapped up and a look of fear quickly slid to one of rage when she saw him. "What?" she snapped.
Tears spilled from Trent's eyes as he gestured weakly. He gulped a wet breath down and moaned in the back of his throat.
The anger drained from her face as she watched him. "Trent?" she asked, confused.
Trent steepled his fingers and pressed them against the bridge of his nose. He looked at her with stricken eyes, shaking his head in denial.
Daria scooted over to the edge of the mattress and looked uncertain. She didn't know what to do. "Do... do... you need to have a seat?" She gestured towards the bean bag chair.
Trent nodded and set down by her on the mattress instead. Daria sighed and inched away. Before she could get far, Trent's arms shot out and caught her in a rough embrace. He buried his head in her neck and cried unashamedly.
"Uh... Trent? Let go."
Trent held her tighter. "Oh, God. I did this to you, Daria."
"Shhhh... let me say this," he begged.
Daria held her tongue and patted his back awkwardly.
"Look at you living in this... this filth. This is my fault. I drove you away... right into the arms of the wolves," he said into her neck.
"And the whole time I was feeling so sorry for myself. I missed you so much I couldn't eat or sleep for months. I wanted to die. I hoped I would. Instead, you were dying."
"That's ridiculous," she said thickly.
He lifted his wet face and looked at her piercingly. "Is it? How much weight have you lost? When was the last time you went to the doctor? What price have you had to pay?" He rubbed a gentle finger across her bruise and sniffed.
Daria looked guilty and said nothing.
"If I hadn't been such an ass, you would have been safe at home with me when this happened. You wouldn't have had to take desperate action."
Daria closed her eyes.
"Yes, I was wrong. Wrong, okay? I know it doesn't matter, but I thought you had left me that night. I was hurting. I made a mistake, but I tried to apologize. Why couldn't you forgive me, Daria?"
Daria started to tremble. "Because I loved you too much. I couldn't tolerate the pain."
Trent groaned at the past tense.
Two tears seeped out from Daria's tightly shut eyes. "I still do."
Trent rubbed the tears away with his thumbs. "You still love me?"
Hiccuping a little, Daria nodded her head without opening her eyes. "I tried not to. I tried and tried."
Trent kissed away her tears as they fell. "Even after all that I did to you?"
"Trent... I was a coward. I ran away from the pain. From you. This is my fault, too." She pushed away from him. "And look what happened to me. I was so confused I let that asshole take advantage of me. How could I have been so stupid? I always thought I was so smart. How could I let myself do that?"
Trent patted her leg tentatively. "Daria, you had to survive. You just tangled with the wrong guy. He outfoxed you, that's all."
She opened her eyes and cried openly. "I'm so sorry. I threw you away like a piece of trash, when you were the best thing that ever happened to me. I deserve to live like this."
"No, no, no, no," he soothed. "You do not." He rubbed her back gently. "You can leave him."
She jerked away from his caress and glared self-righteously. "I already did. I wasn't that far gone. He only had to hit me once."
Trent looked impressed. "Way too many women couldn't have been that strong."
"Good women, you mean," said a nasty voice from the door.
Daria and Trent looked up to see Dominic lounging casually in the doorway. They both awkwardly scrambled to their feet from the floor level mattress. Trent stepped in front of Daria, shielding her, looking combative and eyeing Dominic with hatred. Daria scrubbed the tears from her cheeks and look back and forth between the two men uneasily. This could get ugly.
"My, my. Jane's 'brother.' I might have guessed you were a slut. The quiet ones always are."
"Take that back!" Trent lurched forward, but Daria held him back.
"It's not worth it, Trent. What do you want, Dominic? You know it's over." Daria stepped out from behind Trent and approached Dominic. This was her battle, and she needed to face it.
Dominic held out a thin envelope. "Yes, it is over. It's all over. You can read about it. Hope you have a taste for cat food."
Daria snatched the envelope away from him, not at all surprised. "Fine, now leave."
Dominic eyed her bruise. "You know, it's really too bad you weren't alone. I was planning on giving you a matching set."
Trent snarled and barreled past Daria. He planted his feet and punched Dominic square in the nose. Dominic flew out the door and slammed into the hallway wall. Blood spurted everywhere. Trent advanced on him, happy to be wearing his steel-toed boots.
Dominic moaned and took a linen handkerchief from the breast pocket of his blazer. He held it to his nose and sputtered, "You'll be hearing from my lawyer."
"I'm wealthier than you, suit-man," Trent countered. "Don't let the clothes fool you. Just try it. And, if you do try it, count on a sexual harassment suit. Did you cover your tracks carefully enough?"
Trent towered over him. "Are you leaving now, or do I get to show you what happens in a mosh pit?"
Dominic scrambled to his feet and ran down the hall. Soon they could hear him racing down the steps.
Daria joined Trent in the hall and tentatively took his arm. "Is there a genetic history of sucker punching in your family?"
Trent hugged her. "Only when you're involved."
More tears fell from her eyes and she smiled softly.
She sniffed and looked at him questioningly.
A true smile bloomed on his lips. "You said you still loved me. Did you know I still love you, too?"
A look of heart-rending relief crossed Daria's face and her watery smile matched his own.
Still smiling, Trent held her shoulders gently and lowered his lips to hers in a gentle, salty kiss. It lingered as they silently agreed to give things another try.
After a long time they broke apart and embraced, taking in the sensations of being so close again.
"Will you please come home now?" Trent whispered in her ear.
Daria handed him the brief letter typed on Dominic's letterhead. She had been officially cut free. "I'm broke. How can you be sure of my motives, particularly now? You know it started out with me using him."
Trent smiled. "I'm sure. If we had kept out heads about us a year ago, this wouldn't have happened at all. Consider it a bad dream."
"The worst nightmare of my life."
Trent kissed her again. "Then it's time to wake up."
Finally it's finished! Whew! I royally wrote myself into a corner with this one! Note to self: Never do this again! Thanks to everyone for their patience and brain storming. There was some great synergy on #Daria+ while I conceptualized, and also great were the unsolicited ideas that I found from time to time in my mailbox. The turning point for me was a horrible business trip to Texas. I was so stressed out that I turned to the barely begun story for solace and relaxation. So lounging in my bathing suit, by a palm tree and classical statue surrounded pool, a Cosmo by my elbow, my CD-man spinning tunes into my headphones, I fleshed out Dominic on my laptop. Then the story just exploded from there. Evil business trip, a villain crafted, a connection? You decide. Maybe it was just the cute liveried waiter that brought me fresh drinks. Inspiration takes many forms after all! ;-)
As always a big thank you goes to my partner in crime Jon Kilner. Couldn't have done this with out your detailed and thoughtful feedback. Jon-o, you're simply the best. Just as many thanks go out to all my pals at #Daria+, particularly rich, Chad, Crazynutso, Canadibrit, Ben, and Yui. Thanks for the feedback you guys! And last but not least a heartfelt thank you and smooch goes out to Martin J. Pollard for taking the time to fix the grammar and spelling on the final draft. This story is pretty and squeaky clean (and better) because of his hard work.
Super smoochy thanks go out to the very talented John Berry for this fic's "dust jacket" illustration! It is just wondermous!
And you know what? Every one of my stories is put into HTML by my darling husband Robbie. Doesn't he do a great job? Thank you Sweetie, I love you more than the cats!
Update 12/19/2010: Did I really write all of this melodrama? :-)