Chapter 14 - The Zone
Jill fought the pain that seemed to be coming from her chest. She’d heard the whole conversation. She’d heard every insult and every accusation. His Father clearly thought she was an air-head slut. Although that was hurtful, it wasn’t what had cracked her heart open.
The man who was outside her room was rude, obnoxious and clearly Tom’s father. He was the definition of a ‘silver-fox’ with his full-head of thick grey hair, the man had aged well. Even though she didn’t see him up close, she expected that Tom would look similar when he was older. He had the same face shape, the same arrogant confidence, a similar toned and well-proportioned body, and, despite his age, she could see that he was just as attractive as Tom but in a more debonair statesman way than the bad-boy doctor vibe that Tom emitted. The fact he was handsome didn’t make up for his attitude.
Layton men and their attitude, she huffed. It was annoying and regrettable that his father had instantly formed a bad impression of her. But what really caused the pain in her was Tom’s continual and consistent insistence that they were friends. He had said it repeatedly, over and over again, and even implied that he would have to be an idiot to want to be in a relationship with her. That was what had her heart bleeding in her chest.
It was true that she’d fought him and argued with him. She’d been harsh, and he’d brushed it off, and stayed at her side. He’d brought her ice-cream, food and the flower in the vase next to the bed. When she had accused him and insulted him, he didn’t walk away, instead he’d asked for time to prove himself. He’d done everything right. She’d been starting to see a different side of him.
And then he’d saved her life. He’d protected her, held her and comforted her when she needed him. He’d even watched her movies without complaint. He didn’t ask for anything in return, was oblivious to his own safety and put her needs above his own. This unselfishness melted her, and she’d come to think of him as her Angel again. She’d forgotten all the reasons why she didn’t like him. She’d even invented reasons why he was there, holding her. Her imagination had gone wild and she’d started to think that he wanted her for more than friendship and that he actually cared for her. What an idiot she was.
He’d said it at every opportunity, he was her friend, but she didn’t listen. Instead she’d daydreamed up a fairy tale ending. But now he’d shouted it to the ward and the world, it was abundantly clear that he didn’t think of her in that way, that he was content being a mere friend, and that this dream was nothing more than another unobtainable fantasy.
With her heart shredded and tears budding in her eyes, she’d picked up her phone. Derek had asked her last week if she wanted to have dinner with him. He’d reminded her of that invitation yesterday. She’d shrugged and been non-committal because she thought that Tom might have plans for her, for them. But with that bubble burst she now acted without pausing. She texted Derek. There was no mistaking that Tom’s plans weren’t the plans she was hoping for, so she had no reason to say no to someone who did want a relationship with her. She might as well accept Derek’s invitation.
Derek had texted back immediately, and tonight was agreed upon. His interest was clear and not confusing. He had no intension of just being her friend. Derek Salter wanted more from her than friendship. He was an attractive man and she was lucky that he was interested in her. She should be flattered.
When she announced to Tom, that she was having dinner with Derek, she wasn’t able to look at his face. She didn’t want to see the indifference on it and she didn’t want him to see the pain in her eyes. She needed to steel herself to the fate that was hers. She needed to give up on Tom Layton. But that wasn’t something that she could do right now, so instead she avoided looking at him.
“You said you’d give me a week,” his voice was hard.
“That hasn’t changed,” she glanced up to see him staring at her with his jaw set hard, “You asked for a week to prove yourself as my friend. You wanted me to trust you. I am doing everything you asked. This is what friends do. Friends aren’t exclusive, being your friend doesn’t mean that I can’t see Derek.”
“I know that,” he growled, “But Derek isn’t interested in being your friend.”
“Yes, I know that,” she tried to be calm and confident, “Is that a problem?”
“He’s not right for you,” Tom’s voice was low and harsh, “I don’t trust him and I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“We are only having dinner,” she shook her head, “I would have thought you should be able trust me to make up my own mind as to that.”
Tom opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out. Instead he looked at the far wall and let the silence fall.
She sat there, unsure what to do now. Mrs Grant was out getting more scans. She wanted to disappear, vanish or at least run away. She didn’t want to have to make small talk with this man given how much pain she was in. She just wanted him to give in, admit that this wasn’t working, and leave. There was no point putting this off a week.
“Fine,” he breathed the word out, “You are correct. I should trust you. I don’t trust him, but you need to find that out for yourself. I’m not happy about it but I’m the better man, you’ll see that.”
“Sorry?” she looked at him to find him with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“You might be having dinner with him, but you’re having lunch with me,” his lips curled a little, “Let’s have a picnic in the garden?”
She looked at his face, there was something happening behind those beautiful blue eyes. She couldn’t help but search them as she questioned why he was doing this. He was doing what she asked, like a friend. He was concerned for her regarding Derek, like a friend would be. But now he wanted to picnic with her? That was confusing. Maybe that was how he treated his friends? Was a picnic the natural thing to do when you found out your friend was dating someone?
He produced the wheelchair. His face was alive with something that looked like a scheme. She could almost see a plan forming behind his eyes. But why? What could he be plotting?
He parked her next to a grassy place. He’d borrowed a hospital blanket and they’d made several stops at food places on the way here. He helped her out and sat her down on the rug. The stream was close, and the sound of the water was mesmerising. While she breathed in the fresh air and plucked at the grass, he spread out the lunch. There were lots of different dishes.
“For starters we have antipasto,” he pointed at a selection of cold meats, olives, artichoke hearts, and cheese, “Try everything, I want to see what you’ll like.”
He loaded up a cracker with salami and cheese and handed it to her. She didn’t hesitate. It looked so good and she was hungry. She might not understand him, but she couldn’t resist the food. It tasted so good.
After that he offered her bruschetta, prawn and coriander dumplings, savoury tarts, and wantons. As soon as she’d finished eating something, he was offering something else. Even though she knew she shouldn’t eat so much, he was so insistent and eager, and she couldn’t say no to him. She forgot about her hurt as his infectious enthusiasm surrounded her.
He might only want to be her friend but, right now, that was alright. She had unrealistic expectations. Having him in her life as a friend should be enough for her. If he was going to leave at the end of the week then she should enjoy the time they had left. She couldn’t hate him for doing exactly what he promised to do, be her friend.
“Icecream?” he laughed as she collapsed on the rug.
“No please, no more,” she groaned, “I’m going to explode!”
“Can’t have that,” he smiled a confident and somewhat knowing smile, “How about a stroll then.”
“Sure, can you get the wheelchair?” she pointed to where he’d parked it.
“No,” he got up and offered her a hand, “We are going to stroll together.”
“Walk? Me?” she looked at him nervously, “I’m not ready for that.”
“I think you are,” he smiled, “I’ll be with you every step of the way. I won’t let you fall.”
She put her hand into his and let him help her to her feet. Then he released her. He held her forearm on his and linked their hands, and then he let her dictate the pace and the direction.
“I can’t do this,” she stuttered as she stumbled on the first step forcing him to tighten his grip on her.
“Yes, you can,” he whispered, “I know you can.”
She didn’t answer him, instead she concentrated on her feet. She took the first step and then the second. He held her by the arm but didn’t do more than that. It was hard work on the uneven ground but as she looked back she realised that she’d come further than she expected.
“How about we walk to the small pond,” he suggested, “I like the fish.”
She looked in that direction. It was about ten meters away with a couple of turns. That was further than she’d walked before but, now that he’d mentioned the fish, she wanted to see them again too. She set out, determined that she could do it. It helped know that he was there. Although she lost her footing a couple of times and he’d had to steady her, the corners proved to be tricky, and she was exhausted, they made it there.
“We did it,” Still standing she turned to him as she did she overbalanced, and he stepped in to catch her.
“You did it,” he had wrapped his arms around her waist and their bodies were pressed together as he stabilized her.
With one arm around his waist, the other resting on his chest, she looked up into his face and instantly regretted it. He was looking down with a satisfied grin on his face. He was so beautiful, and his lips were so kissable, it was impossible not to want him. If only he wasn’t so satisfied just being her friend. Friends didn’t kiss, she reminded herself as she tore her eyes off his kissable mouth.
“I think I need to sit down,” she blushed, “I’m a little dizzy.”
He didn’t say anything, his eyes didn’t leave her, as he slowly swung her around and lowered them both to the bench but didn’t release her from his arms. She didn’t know what to do. Chuck was discretely not watching as he stood a couple of meters away, but she still felt her face heat up.
“You had better let go of me,” she whispered reluctantly, “The rumour mill will be going wild.”
“I don’t care,” his voice was soft.
“Well, maybe I do,” she closed her eyes as she said the words.
She didn’t want him to let go but she needed him not to hold her like that. If she started daydreaming again then the pain would be worse when she woke. Friend, she reminded herself, just a friend.
“Are you sure about that,” his eyes were serious.
“Tom,” she breathed out, she didn’t want to remind him that they were only friends so instead she asked the question that had been worrying her since this morning, “Why does your father hate me?”
“My father?” his moved his head back so he could look at her, “It’s not you he hates.”
“But he doesn’t even know me and yet he said those things.”
“I’m sorry,” Tom frowned as he loosened his hold over her, “My parents aren’t like other people’s parents. It’s me that they don’t like, not you.”
“Just because he’s overprotective,” Jill shook her head, his statement couldn’t be right.
“It’s alright,” he laughed with a sad grin, “You don’t need to make excuses for them. I’m used to it. They have never shown me anything other than what you witnessed today. Please don’t feel sorry for me, I came to grips with it, years ago.”
“But,” she frowned, “If your parents weren’t there for you, who did you have? Grandparents?”
“No, just a series of nannies, boarding schools and my own sparkling personality,” he laughed.
She didn’t know what to say to that. She’d had loving parents for most of her life until her father’s death. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to never have known that love. Her mother used to have a catch-phrase - ‘it’s my job to teach you to love’. She would say it when she was telling Jill off, trying to teach her something, or just comforting her. As Jill got older she came to recognise that it meant that love wasn’t just present during the happy times. Love wasn’t just the good, true love meant loving someone through the tough and hard times too.
If Tom had never had that from his parents, then he’d never been taught to love. She wondered if he’d ever loved anyone in his whole life. He might have fallen in love but that wasn’t loving someone unconditionally and accepting them. He was missing that from his life. That might explain why he went from bed to bed.
“Hey, no sad faces,” Tom chastised her with a smile on his face, “I’ve only got an hour left before you kick me out.”
“I’m not kicking you out,” she rolled her eyes.
“Then I can stay?” he smirked, “I’m sure Derek wouldn’t mind me tagging along? Where are you two going?”
“I don’t know?” She frowned and then realised what he’d said, “But you can’t come. Be good.”
“I’m always good,” he laughed, “Now, are you going to walk back, or do you want me to carry you?”
She pushed herself out of his hold and tried to stand up, failed and ended up falling onto his lap. She immediately pushed herself back and ended up almost falling off the bench before he caught her. That left her on his lap with his arms around her.
“I knew you couldn’t resist me,” he laughed.
“Shut up,” she growled as she tried again.
“Give up,” he was still laughing as he moved and repositioned her so that she was now on his back with her arms around his neck and her feet under his arms, “You are my prisoner now. I have you trapped.”
“Are you kidnapping me again? Or just misappropriating me? I knew you were sinister.”
“I should grow a moustache,” he chuckled as he carried her, “So I can twirl it while coming up with my sinister plans.”
“Yes, you should totally do that,” she nodded sincerely, “It would be a definite hit with the ladies too.”
“For that piece of sarcasm,” he laughed with a comically evil laugh, “You will pay the price.”
She laughed as he bounced her on his back as he walked towards the picnic and chuckled maniacally.
She was still smiling as he lowered her into the wheelchair.
“Next stop ice-cream,” he said as he scoped up the picnic and prepared to leave.
“No, please, no more food,” she groaned. He’d bounced her around and her full-stomach was now feeling a little queasy. With her head feeling a little light she added, “And I’ve got to get back. I’ll still have to make myself beautiful for my date.”
“You are already beautiful,” he muttered, “If he can’t see that then he’s not worth your time.”
“Was that payback?” she shook her head, “I’m just going to say it, my sarcastic remark was way better than yours.”
“Is that right?” he sighed as he started to push her, “I really think you need ice cream. I’m not sure you can get through the rest of the day without it.”
“Fine,” she threw up her hands in defeat, “Feed me ice-cream!”
Jill fiddled with her bedsheets. What was she doing? She’d asked herself this question at least twenty times and still had no answer. She glanced up into the face of Derek Salter and couldn’t help the feeling that the wrong man was sitting opposite her.
“You’ve hardly touched the ravioli,” he tilted his head slightly, “Is it not good?”
“No, I mean, yes,” she floundered, “It’s lovely. I’m just a little overwhelmed.”
She looked at the table between them. He’d brought in a table and sat it so that it split the bed into two. He sat at the foot of the bed and on the other side of the table to her. Then he’d produced a table cloth, two sets of silver cutlery, napkins, a small vase with a single pink rose residing in it, a speaker that played soft jazz, and two plates on which was their food. If she just concentrated on the table, she could have been at a fancy restaurant not in a hospital bed.
He’d gone to so much trouble that she didn’t have the heart to tell him that she wasn’t hungry. The ice-cream had been the final straw. She was now looking at the ravioli with genuine unease. She should eat it. He’d made so much effort it would be rude not to eat it. But she felt sick just looking at it.
“I couldn’t take you to where I wanted to go,” he laughed a soft chuckle, “So I did what I could to bring the restaurant to you. I’m sorry, on my Detective salary, I couldn’t afford to hire a waiter.”
“This is amazing,” she pushed a smile onto her face, “Thank you.”
“And yet?” one eyebrow lifted, “What’s wrong.”
“Nothing,” she looked away.
“I’m a detective Jill,” he huffed, “I’m not easily fooled.”
“Sorry,” she frowned and looked back at her bedsheets, “This is great. I really appreciate you doing all of this.”
“Continue,” he prompted.
“I don’t like lying,” she spat the words out, “I know what you said yesterday, and I know why I have to do it, but it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“I understand,” he smiled but his eyes didn’t show any humour, “So it’s not my company?”
“No, of course not,” she looked up at him then looked away before he noticed her expression, “I’m having a great time.”
“But,” she cringed, “So much has happened and Tom’s already asking questions that I can’t answer.”
“Ah, Tom,” he inhaled deeply, “I was wondering when he was going to come up.”
“Tom? Really? Why?”
“Let’s just chalk that up to my detective senses,” he said cryptically, “And the fact he’s asking questions bothers you?”
“Well, yes,” she glanced at him and found him eating and not looking at her, even so she looked away. “He saved my life, I feel like I owe him the truth. I want to tell him the truth.”
“You know why you can’t,” Derek sighed, “What is the exact nature of your relationship with Tom?”
“That sounds very official,” she laughed nervously, “He’s my friend.”
“Friend?” he raised his eyebrow, “What sort of friend?”
“I don’t know?” she made a face, “A friend-friend, a guy I’m not romantically involved with, if you want a definition.”
“Good,” he looked up and smiled while he forked another mouthful, “That sort of friend, I can deal with.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t play well with others,” he lifted his eyes to her, “What’s mine is mine, I don’t share.”
“Are you implying that I’m your possession?” she scoffed.
“No, of course not,” he laughed, “I’m just being open and transparent.”
She looked down at her food as she pushed it around the plate. His eyes watched her as she fought the urge to tell him to go to hell.
“I’d like to see more of you Jill,” he said without taking his eyes off her, “But I’m not interested in being in any love-triangles or being played off against another man. So, as long as the good doctor stays firmly in the friendship zone, then we can proceed.”
“I’m not exactly sure I know what to say to that,” she said honestly.
“No need to say anything,” he scooped up the final portion off his plate, “I wasn’t expecting a response, I was merely putting my cards on the table.”
She bit her tongue as she forced herself not to bite back. He wasn’t being serious, she tried to rationalise, if she said what she wanted to say he’d think she was over reacting. It would be better just to stay quiet and see where he was heading with this.
She forced down another bite of ravioli and wished she’d said no to the ice-cream.