It's been far longer than I intended between chapters and I'm so sorry! (Leigh chose chapter 13 to become stubborn and refuse to do what she was told.)
Thanks to Sarah Blackwood for the endless amounts of cheerleading, deep character analysis, and the beta. (Go check out her stories; she's fabulous.) Thanks to everyone else for being patient, and for the reviews and the favourites and alerts.
Finally: this chapter is a present –much belated by now- for Gwen. Congratulations! and much luck and happiness to you!
Chapter 13- Nothing and Everything
That night might have been a mistake, it might have been something that should never have happened... but I couldn't get it out of my mind over the next week. Back at Winterhaven, surrounded by the familiarity of school and homework and classmates, it should have been easy to forget. Nothing should have reminded me of Tony.
But everything did. I brushed my hair in the mornings and thought of it fanned over us both in a pale shimmering veil, as we lay entwined on his couch. I heard hints of his laughter –that deep, amused chuckle- in the voices of radio presenters; and when I closed my eyes, I could see his smile. Soft, gentle, affectionate; not just on his lips but over his whole face, shining from his eyes. The one he seemed to reserve only for Troy, and for me.
And at night, shedding my uniform and standing only in panties before the mirror; I thought of Tony sliding my dress from my body, kissing each inch of skin he bared. It drove me to thrash around sleeplessly in bed until the covers were twisted around me, body aching with frustration as I thought about the joy I'd found in his arms.
"I think Leigh might have a sweetheart," Charity teased one evening, baring her teeth at me in a shark-like smile. "Have we ever seen her so distracted, girls?"
"I haven't got a sweetheart," I said automatically. "I would have said if I did."
"Would you?" she challenged. Her green eyes narrowed, sweeping over my face, down my body. "You've always been such a secretive one, Leigh." Her voice dipped lower, until it was nothing more than a seductive whisper.
"You're sure there's nothing you're hiding? Because you came back from vacation, and something seems..." She cocked her head, auburn hair trailing over her shoulder and a tiny smirk on her lips.
"Something seems so different about you."
"There's nothing different about me." I spit the lie out between clenched teeth, crossing my arms. Silently daring her to ask anything further.
"Seems to me, though," I said a moment later, fixing her with a challenging look, "that you've got some secrets of your own. But then again, I'm sure everyone has things they've done or been involved in that maybe they'd prefer to keep to themselves."
If I hadn't had my eyes fixed on her, if I hadn't gotten to know Charity as well as I had; I might have missed the look on her face. Surprise that I'd allude to that night we'd been together; and in front of our friends. I flipped my hair over my shoulder, gave a tinkling giggle worthy of Mother at her finest; and the conversation turned to other things until everyone filed out of the room toward their own beds.
Charity grabbed my arm as I made to walk past her, pulling me back inside and shutting the door firmly behind us.
"You promised," she hissed at me, her cheeks pink in anger. "You said you wouldn't tell."
"I didn't tell."
"No, but- you were acting as though- you said..." I'd never seen Charity like this. Flustered and uncomfortable. For an instant, she was nothing more than the fourteen year old schoolgirl that she was, instead of the slyly mature instigator I'd always known.
"I promised I wouldn't tell," I told her. "And I wouldn't. I keep my word, Charity."
"It didn't mean anything, anyway. Us. It was just practice. For fun."
I couldn't help the words that came out of my mouth as I leaned into her, closer and closer until our bodies were pressed together and my lips brushed against the side of hers.
"Apparently, it never does mean anything."
And I kissed her then. Fiercely. Recklessly. Slid my tongue into her mouth and ignored her grunt of surprise; trailed my hand over the curve of her waist and the soft round of her buttocks beneath a flimsy nightgown so I could yank her closer, my leg trapped between hers as I rocked my hips forward, hearing her breath hitch and her arms tightened around me.
I wouldn't have expected her to be the one to pull away; but she did. Rested her forehead against mine, both of us breathing heavily.
"You are different," she said flatly. "And don't tell me that you're not, because you are. What happened to you over vacation? It's like... It's like you grew up all of a sudden. You were this sweet little girl before Easter; and now it's like the Leigh I always knew went away and there's this new person.
"It feels," she faltered, "like I don't know you at all. What happened?"
Images flashed through my head, bright with colour and emotion. Tony's fingers pulling my top down to cover my breasts in the pool; his face close to mine as he asked if I knew about what wives do. The helplessness as I wandered Farthy's grounds, feeling ashamed, dirty; lying entwined on his couch that evening feeling the complete opposite. His face –blank, peaceful- as he delivered his speech about how we were stepfather and daughter, and it had all been a mistake; my own thrice-damned mind for not erasing those thoughts and continuing to dwell upon him.
What had happened to me over Easter? Was there anything I could say?
"I don't know what you mean," I answered instead, trailing kisses slowly down her neck, pushing the neckline of her nightgown aside. "I'm the same as I've always been. I guess you didn't know me as well as you thought."
I slept better that night than I had all week. Even after I crept back to my own bed, my limbs were pleasantly languid, my body sated and mind finally at peace. It had been ridiculous to think of Tony, I thought sleepily. Ridiculous to fall asleep with the memory of his kisses, to wake in the morning irritable and shaking because my sleeping mind remembered the exquisite feeling of his caresses. Charity was a good distraction against all that; because no matter what had happened with Tony and me, he'd said –and I'd agreed- that it meant nothing. I chanted the word to myself as I felt asleep. Repeated it again when I woke up, murmuring it in my mind like a mantra as I went through my day.
Nothing. It meant nothing, and Tony meant nothing except what he should mean to me. A step-father. The man I'd alternately hated or tolerated over the past two years. Certainly not the lover whose attentions I fought against remembering.
I'd expected our driver to pick me up that weekend to bring me to Farthy; but instead, it was him. Tony sat behind the wheel of the Mercedes, leaping out to take my school bag and usher me into the passenger seat of the car.
"I could have carried that myself," I told him as he stretched the seatbelt over me, placed the bag at my feet. "It's heavy."
"A lot of homework this week?" he asked, not even acknowledging my comment. "You've just got back from vacation."
"We've got finals soon." I fiddled with the window, not looking at him. My heart felt like it was inexplicably beating faster, and all I could smell was him. A hint of musk and the crisp scent of starch from his shirt. "We're promised a place at Winterhaven's upper school, as long as we've got good grades."
"Yes," Tony said. "I forgot that. It's your graduation isn't it? At the end of May, before you go into ninth grade in the autumn. You're getting to be quite grown up, Leigh."
"Stop calling me a child," I muttered, turning to glare at him. He shot me an amused look from the corner of his eye before looking back toward the road, effortlessly shifting gears before patting my hand. I could feel the warmth of his fingers on mine, even after he took his hand away.
"I didn't say you were," he chuckled. "Give me some credit, Leigh. I know better than to insinuate such a thing."
Miles passed in silence, with only the radio to keep us company. Tony played with the dial as he drove, stopping occasionally on songs and asking my approval before either letting it stay or changing it for something better. I drummed my fingers on the side of the door, head turned to watch the scenery flying past.
"I'm sure Troy will be waiting by the door for you," Tony said when I hadn't spoken for nearly half the ride. "He begged to come with me to pick you up; but he's not feeling well, so we decided it might be better if I came alone."
"Is he alright?" I asked anxiously. "Anything serious?"
"No," Tony shook his head. "Just a cold, I think. Might be an indoors weekend for him... though, if you've got that much studying to do, that would be best for both of you.
"I was good at math," he offered nonchalantly. "If you needed any help...?"
"It's mostly English. We're reading Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"Ah." He gave me a small, pleased smile. "I love that one. All the world's a stage..." He looked expectantly at me; and I shrugged, trying to remember the end of that quote.
"And all the men and women merely actors?" I finished hesitantly. Tony nodded approvingly as we drove through the gates of Farthy.
"Amazing how true that still is," he said absently. "The world isn't built on improvisation, Leigh. We play the roles we're given. No matter if they suit us, or not."
He helped me out of the car, swinging my bag onto his shoulder as we walked toward Farthy. "It sounds," I began, looking up at him, "like you think we have no input on our own lives. As though we're just moved around to suit someone else's will."
"Sometimes," Tony said, not looking at me, "I think that's accurate. We're not people at all, Leigh. We're just puppets in a fancy display."
There was a look on his face, twisted and sad, as the butler opened the doors. But I forgot it a moment later as Troy rushed into my arms, talking breathlessly as about what he wanted us to do that weekend; and Tony melted away toward his office without another word.
My school-time mantra was meaningless within the walls of Farthy. The air itself felt like it was full of Tony Tatterton, and no matter when I turned, I found myself inundated by his presence. But then, too, he was always there. Sitting in the library doing work as Troy played on the floor and I wrestled with Shakespeare. Smiling charmingly and enquiring about what I did with my friends over the breakfast table; asking about the books I had to read, the bands I liked over dinner. We watched Star Trek in the evening with Troy sitting between us, hiding his face in my lap when he was scared; and afterwards debated about the idea of travelling to distant planets.
"You're being very nice," I said, rubbing my eyes with my back of my hand. It had gotten late while we were talking; and I was getting sleepy. "Why are you doing this?"
There was a sudden, wary look on Tony's face; and I swore he shifted slightly away from me.
"Is there some rule that says I shouldn't be nice?" he asked mildly. "You're only home on the weekends, Leigh. I'm trying to be the-" he coughed "parent who spends time with you. The other ones certainly lack that ability."
"Mother is Mother. But Daddy is busy," I retorted. "He apologised for not being there when I was upset and needed him, when I called and called last week..."
It may have been a trick of the light, the fleeting worry that passed over his face. "You called Cleave, then? Last week?"
"There was something wrong with the ship, and he couldn't call me back until our usual time on Tuesday. And by then, I was..." My voice faded, as I tried to find the right words. Fine. Good. More filled with a silly obsession over how it had felt with Tony the second time, the slight hurt that he thought it was so easy to put away those feelings that I'd somehow forgotten how upset I'd been when I'd really needed to talk to Daddy.
"I was all right by then," I finished lamely. "And he told me he'll be here next week, anyway. There's an open house at Winterhaven, for us to see the upper school.
"He's going to come visit," I said excitedly, "he promised that he'll definitely be there."
"You miss your father," Tony said absently. "You don't talk about him a lot anymore; sometimes I wonder if you do miss him."
"I don't talk about him?" I couldn't keep the incredulous note from my voice. Daddy was Daddy. Always there in the back of my mind and central in my heart. But Tony may have been right. In the past two years, as I saw him less and less and he became a weekly participant in my life via telephone... he had faded from me. He was a bit of memory: spicy aftershave and greying hair, his deep belly laugh and that comfort I'd get when he would cuddle me close to his chest and I could count his heartbeats.
"It's nice that he's going to come visit," Tony said. "I'm sure you'll have a good time together." He had turned away from me and I studied his profile in the lamplight. Strong jaw and the smooth planes of his cheekbones, the softness of his lips... I could feel my breath catch in my chest, my cheeks flushing slightly until I looked away as well.
"This has been a nice weekend," I mumbled instead. "Thank you for it. I'm sure you were busy."
"I'm never too busy to want to spend time with you," Tony said. His voice was calm, polite; but his fingers were restlessly pinching the crease of his trousers, endlessly smoothing it down and tugging it back into place before he suddenly stood up. I nearly fell over without the warm comfort of his body next to mine; Troy had long since climbed into my lap and fallen asleep and we'd been sitting beside each other ever since.
"The driver will bring you back to school tomorrow." Tony's voice sounded distant, and I craned my neck to peer up at him. There was a coldness on his features, a blankness that was terrifying... and all the more so because he hadn't been like that all weekend. "I've got meetings all next week so I'll be too busy to drive you back.
"Good night, Leigh. I'll see you soon." He turned and walked away without another word, leaving me feeling oddly shaken by the change in him... and slightly chilled without him at my side.
It was rare that parents were at Winterhaven; and so when they were, the school seemed to sparkle as it never did during the usual school year. The floors were waxed and shiny, the halls filled with warmth and bustle and cheerful voices of girls greeting their families and introducing them around.
And I waited by the driveway for Daddy, my fingers clutched around each other as I watched and watched for his car. I'd planned it on Sunday night while I was still at Farthy, lying awake in bed after Tony had so suddenly walked away from me. I'd take him to meet the teachers of my best subjects: History first, then English. After that would be French, Geography and Math before we went to see the new school building I'd be in next year, and meet my new headmistress, Mrs. Mallory.
But I was the last one left on the driveway. Even Marian's parents –always notoriously late- had arrived, and still I waited... until a Mercedes pulled up and Tony got out, striding toward me with brisk steps. I could guess at the look I had on my face because he frowned, holding one hand out to me.
"He called Farthy but Jillian wasn't awake yet; so Perkins called me at work," Tony said simply. "Cleave got stuck in a traffic accident, Leigh. He's fine," he added hastily, mistaking the shock on my face for concern, "but by the time he would have been able to get here, the day might have been over. He really meant to be here."
"But he's not. And he promised." Anger was choking my throat, my eyes full of tears that I hastily blinked back. "I didn't expect Mother to be here. But Daddy..." My voice broke, and Tony pulled me into a hug, patting my back helplessly.
"He tried," he said again. "And I know that he called the Headmistress. When he comes to enrol you in the upper school, you can show him everything then... but for today, I'm here." Tony gave me a winsome smile, trying to distract me from my tears.
"Aren't I better than nothing?" he teased, drying my eyes.
Nothing. My mantra word.
"You're not nothing," I snapped. Tony didn't even flinch as he took my hand, leading me into Winterhaven.
"No, of course not. I'm your stepfather," he answered with a pleasant smile. "And I'm here to see your school, and to see you."
Tony Tatterton at his most charming was a force to be reckoned with. He chatted effortlessly with my teachers, awing them with how much he knew about my schoolwork. He made conversation with my friends and their parents, smilingly poked his head into every nook and cranny of my school and asked leading questions about the building and grounds from the administration. He was pleasant and amiable, a blend of old fashioned gentility and movie star good looks; and I should have been as enchanted as everyone else.
But I wasn't. By the end of the day, my anger over Daddy not being able to get here had faded to a dull irritation in the back of my mind, taken over by a faint concern with how Tony was acting. Cheerful and jovial. My real father could have done no better... except that Tony wasn't my father.
We had a history between us: bitter and passionate and wrong and thrilling. And each time he put his arm around my shoulder, laughingly kissed the top of my head and praised my study habits, my intelligence; I felt my stomach twisting into knots, my heart beating faster as I fought the urge to pull away from him.
"Why did you come here?" I finally hissed when we were alone at the end of the day. Around us, the other girls were calling cheerful farewells to their parents; but I crossed my arms, glaring daggers at Tony. "You're not my father and I hate you pretending you are! Trying to be nice and watch television with me, asking about the music I like or my homework!"
Tony shrugged. "Leigh," he said slowly, cheerful demeanour fading and smile falling off his face, "I'm not trying to replace Cleave."
"No," I said bitterly. "You're trying to be my stepfather." I injected the word with everything I felt, all the impotent rage and sadness that lingered within me. "Because that's all we're supposed to be, and it's easy for you to forget that night—"
There was a flash of anger across Tony's face, and he took a step toward me, grabbing me by the arm as he leaned over to whisper into my ear.
"If you must know, Leigh, I didn't just come here because Cleave couldn't. I wanted to see you here, in school, where you belong. Even in" he smirked "your uniform. You come home on Fridays and leave Monday morning in your pretty dresses, and it's so easy to look at you then and see only what I expect to see. What I want to see." He paused, brushing his hand over his face, his expression both furious and full of sadness.
"Seeing you here in Winterhaven reminds me of who you are, how things are. My innocent schoolgirl stepdaughter. I came here, because I thought it might make things right and be an apology for what happened in the past between us that I can't change.
"And," he continued, taking a deep breath and standing away from me, "I came here because I had a thought that you might like it? Having someone that cares about you enough to want to make you happy. Someone who wants know more about you. Forgive me, Leigh, for not realising you had so many other people in your life to do that, that you would take my interest for granted."
He didn't wait for an answer; just got into the car and drove away, leaving me staring after him with a suddenly bereft feeling in my heart and more tears pooling in my eyes. Because he was right. It's been so long since someone wanted to know more about me, was interested and concerned with me; what I want, what I dream about and hope for. Everyone wants something from me, expects something. Daddy was more interested in his work commitments than me, and Mother had long since ceased to care... and even Troy, little as he was, wanted his sister to play with and pay attention to him.
It's been so long since anyone treated me with affection that I forgot how it feels. And I don't want to let go of it. Of the person who makes me feel like that.
He sent the driver to pick me up on Friday, and when I got home I wandered restlessly around Farthy until Troy slept. Tony had come in from work simply to disappear into his office, and I slipped into the room as noiselessly as I could; but I know he saw me. The bright red of my dress stood out in that room of mahogany and blues, and my hair glowed almost white in the lamplight.
"I'm sorry," I said simply, holding my hands out entreatingly. He didn't look up at me.
"Tony." I spoke a little louder to get his attention, and he finally raised his head, surveying me. "I said that I'm sorry. I acted badly at Winterhaven."
"Yes," he replied flatly. "You did."
"I didn't think about why you might be nice to me. That it was such a noble motive. But it's probably because-" I checked my words as I looked away from him.
"Everyone wants something from me," I admitted. "They expect something from me, how they think I should act. My friend Charity said that I changed over the holidays; she felt that she barely knew me anymore. And maybe I have. Because I'm so tired of people thinking they can treat me however they want.
"I think," I whispered, my mouth feeling sandpaper dry, "that if I want something... then I should do something to have it."
My breathing was shallow, my heart fluttering in my chest as Tony came out from behind his desk, walking toward me to stop mere inches away; and a sound escaped my throat. Something between a whimper and a cry: a sad, tortured sound. His hands clenched into fists at his sides, lips pressed together.
"What is it that you want, Leigh?"
I want to have someone in my life who cares about me. I want to have someone think of me, for a change. I want to never be alone; and there was a faint thought in the back of my mind -an ephemeral, intangible thought- that I knew how to do that. To have what I wanted.
Everything I wanted.
"I can't forget," I said finally, looking up at Tony through lowered eyelashes, shifting my body slightly closer to him. There was no need for further explanation; his face was closed and shuttered from the moment I uttered those three words.
"Have you?" I put my hand on his arm, feeling his muscles tense beneath my fingers. "Can you forget?"
"I'm trying to," he muttered. He stepped closer, close enough to put his hand behind me to keep the door shut. How trapped I felt, his arm between me and the outside world... And yet, so excited. My heart beat faster, and my cheeks burned with a rosy flush at his nearness.
"What if," I swallowed against a lump in my throat, "what if I don't want you to?"
"Do you really know what you're saying, Leigh?" His voice was low and intense, sending shivers down my spine. "Can you understand what you're asking for?"
"I'm not a child," I insisted. "And I know what I want."
He waited for a moment to hear what my next words would be; but a slight shifting of our bodies toward each other, the warmth and nearness of him overwhelmed me and we were kissing. Again. Glorious kissing that made my body tingle and my heart pound.
You, I thought as his lips parted on mine, his tongue delving into my mouth with a furious intensity that I couldn't help but return. I leaned into him helplessly as his hands caressed down my body, pulling one leg up onto his waist so he could press me against the door; and tears ran down my face as I clung to him.
I want someone to care about me. And he was the only one who would.