"So," Alonzo said, coming into the med tent the next morning. "Feeling better?" He'd waited till Melanie headed over to check on Devon. She'd smiled at him encouragingly as she passed him, and he hoped she had the good sense to take her time.
"I guess so," Julia said, packing away the equipment on her lab table.
"You don't sound so certain," Alonzo said, coming up next to her and leaning against the table so he could see her face.
She glanced at him, and she looked nervous. "I'm still a little sore," she said.
"That's not what I meant," he said gently.
"I know," she said very softly, looking intently down at the lab table.
"I didn't get a chance to say much to you last night," he said, and that was an understatement. Melanie had insisted on riding back in the rail with Devon and Julia, so he hadn't been able to talk to her then. And when they got back, Julia had gone right to the center of camp and spent nearly two hours answering every single question everyone had.
It hadn't been easy to watch. There had been some hostility, particularly from Hardy, Morgan and, of all people, Bill. By the time Melanie had called a halt to the grilling, Julia had looked like she was about to drop. But almost everyone seemed to have accepted her apologies, especially after Valerie had offered her wholehearted support. And Alonzo had been so proud of her for facing it all without hesitating.
But after that, Julia had retreated to the med tent under Melanie's watchful eye, and Alonzo had been left standing in the middle of camp, frustrated. The one thing that had kept him from charging into the med tent was Valerie. She'd taken him aside to tell him what had happened. But hearing what she'd said had only made him want to see Julia even more. Waiting for Melanie to leave the tent that morning had felt like an eternity.
"I'm sorry about that," Julia was saying, turning a hypospray over and over in her hands. "It's just, I couldn't—"
"Oh, no, I wasn't blaming you," Alonzo said quickly. "No, I just meant, I wanted to say it now. Well, not say it, exactly." He reached around to take her by the shoulders, turn her towards him, and pull her close.
She stiffened for an instant, then relaxed slightly, and after a moment, put her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder. She was shaking slightly, and he realized she was crying. He stroked her hair. "It's okay," he said. "You're safe now."
And the moment he said it, Julia knew that was why she couldn't seem to stop crying. She'd been so sure she'd never be safe again, but here, in his arms, she felt safe. He doesn't hate me, she thought wonderingly. How is that possible?
After a long time, Alonzo eased back to look at her. "Better?" he said.
Julia nodded, biting her lip and sniffling.
"So I've had a lot of time to think about things, and Valerie told me a little bit," he said, still holding her, and he felt her tense slightly.
Julia looked up at him, frowning slightly. "What did she tell you?"
He looked at her, and there was an intensity in his eyes that made her heart start to race. "Her theory about why you left," he said. "Was she right?"
"I'm not scared," Julia said, trying to sound confident, but Alonzo kept looking at her, and the longer he did, the faster her heart was beating. No, not scared, she thought. Terrified. How did I go from feeling so safe to this so fast?
"You don't have to be afraid," Alonzo said, putting one hand to her cheek.
"I'm not," Julia insisted, wanting desperately to pull away, but knowing if she did it would simply prove his point.
"Oh, then your heart must be beating so fast because you like me," he said, smiling rakishly.
"Like you?" she said, and her voice was shaky. "What are you, twelve?"
"All right, then," he said, and his smile became softer, "because you love me."
And there was the automatic shut-off again. Suddenly, she couldn't think at all. And then he was kissing her, and thinking wasn't all that important.
He pulled away after a long, wonderful moment and smiled at her again. "That wasn't so scary, was it?"
Julia looked up at him, her heart still pounding. "A…" She stopped, taking a breath. "A little bit."
"Well, you know the best treatment for phobias, right?"
"What's that?" Julia murmured, hoping he was thinking what she was.
"Constant exposure," he said, and kissed her again.