Chapter 20 - The Art of Walking Away
Tom stood there, in the VIP suite, looking at the view. Just when he thought that they couldn’t hurt him anymore, they knocked him down again. He’d come in late to the conversation, but he’d heard enough. He closed his eyes. He’d never felt so humiliated in his whole life.
He could feel the moisture burning in his eyes. He was angry. He was cut. He felt like a child. How could they do that to him? How could they treat him with so much contempt?
Every muscle was locked in place as he fought for control. He felt overwhelmed by his pain. It burnt every fibre in him, his throat was raw, and breathing was difficult. He couldn’t focus on anything. His eyes flicked from one random point in front of him to another as they blinked the moisture back.
He couldn’t cry. Not in front of her. He hadn’t cried for years. Maybe that was it, he felt like a small child and he was about to cry like one too. He just couldn’t fall to pieces in front of her. He just had to hold it together for a little longer.
Jill was still in the room, still sitting behind him. What must she think of him? What sort of man did all of this make him? He wasn’t handling this. He was barely in control. But that wasn’t the half of it. If his parents had so little respect for him, why should anyone else?
He’d foolishly thought himself a man, but what they’d done reduced him to something less than a juvenile. Their treatment of him left him with no qualms about how they viewed him. He would never have their respect, that wasn’t going to happen. Everything he’d done to earn their approval was in vain. Why would she want someone so inept?
And forty-two? There was no way he’d slept with that many women in three years. He did a quick telly and, although he counted more than he expected, the number fell well short of forty-two. Why had they lied like that? Were they trying to make his relationship with her look trivial? Jill must think him a pervert for sleeping with forty-two women. How could he convince her that this wasn’t true?
The wheelchair creaked as she moved. He didn’t open his eyes. He wanted to give her the opportunity to leave, to walk away from his pathetic life. She’d seen the ugly side and he knew how much she valued family. Why would she want ‘that’ in her life? Why would she want him in her life?
Two arms thread themselves around his waist as she held herself to his back. She didn’t say anything, but she stayed. He felt a weight lift off him. He looked to the ceiling. The concern he had that she would leave him seemed to be the only thing holding the tears at bay. Now that she was holding him in a way that implied that she wasn’t going anywhere, the liquid in his eyes overflowed and trickled down in cheeks.
He scrunched his eyes together as he fought the pain in his body. He didn’t know what to do. He clenched his teeth to stop the rawness in his throat escaping as a wrenched sob, he fisted his hands to stop them shaking, and he fought the need to crawl into her arms. He just stood there, the tears dripping off his jaw, his body shaking with rage, shame and gratitude.
They were right, he was a child. He cried and hurt like a small boy. He wasn’t a man at all. He wanted to be her man but instead he was crumbling in front of her. What must she think of him? Why was she still here? Why was she still holding him?
She silently twisted him in her arms. He let her manipulate his body. He felt like a waxwork replica as she pulled his clothing and encouraged him to face her. He didn’t fight the movement, his feet shuffled as his body complied with her wishes. Only when he was directly facing her, with her head in his chest, did he allow himself, trust himself enough, to pick up his arms and wrap them around her. He let his head fall forward and he held her and just breathed.
He closed his eyes and held her. All the questions that plagued him vanished. What did it matter why she was here? The fact that she stayed was enough. She was holding him and that was all he needed.
He let himself breath, she didn’t lessen her hold over him as they stood there wrapped around each other. He tightened his arms as he felt himself healing. Her touch made him feel strong. The tears dried, the ache diminished, and his tight muscles started to relax. He breathed in and let himself just be with her. She wasn’t running from him. She wasn’t judging him. She was just holding him, being there for him. She didn’t say anything, didn’t look at him with pity, didn’t expect anything more from him, and for that he loved her even more.
As the humiliation lessened, something else flooded into his body. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to lock his lips with hers and kiss her until he forgot about everything but how good her body felt against his. He needed her. He needed the treatment that her body offered. He wanted to lose himself within her. Sex was the therapy he needed.
He nuzzled her head, nudging her, tilting her face towards his and giving him access to her lips and his hands sought to find everything he wanted. His eyes closed as he found her lips and claimed them. He channelled all his raw emotions into the kiss. He picked her up, his hands within her clothing, and carried her to the bed.
“Tom,” her voice was breathy.
With her underneath him and pinned to the bed, he latched onto her lips and kissed her again, pushing his body against her, his hips in rhythm with his tongue that plundered her mouth. He needed to taste her, to feel her against his body, to have her skin against his skin. His head emptied of everything other than his need to have her, be a man for her. Sex with her would show her how much of a man he was. He needed to be her man in every way possible.
“Tom,” this time she had her fists on his chest as she pushed away from him, from his kiss, from his need, and from what he was offering, “Tom, no, not now.”
“Not now?” He breathed as he blinked back the rejection, “Why? Don’t you want me?”
“Tom,” she pushed herself out from under him and up to a seated position, legs crossed on the bed, as she looked at him, “Why are you asking that? The fact you are asking that is why we can’t be doing this. You shouldn’t even have to ask that. You know the answer to that. You’re doing this because you’re angry.”
She was right. He lay there. She was correct, he’d just tried to have sex with her to alleviate his anger.
“Don’t do that,” she was looking at his face, “I can see that you’re punishing yourself. I won’t let them destroy you. What they did was inexcusable. But it doesn’t define you. You are not that person, not the person they accused you of being. I wouldn’t love you if you were that man.”
He looked up into her eyes, “Are you saying that you love me?”
“Oh, Tom,” she smiled as she shook her head, “I thought you were arrogant, confident and big-headed enough to know that!”
“Not today, not right at this moment,” he whispered, “Say it again.”
“I will but first there is something I need to tell you,” she grimaced, “The timing is bad but, given what they did, I can’t keep this a secret any longer. I don’t want to lie to you anymore.”
“What are you talking about? Lying?” He sat up so that he was eye to eye with her, “What are you saying?”
“I haven’t been entirely truthful,” she looked at her hands, “I wanted to tell you, but he said I couldn’t tell you. But now, I’m not like your parents. I don’t want to keep anything from you. I want you to know everything about me.”
“What are you lying to me about?” his voice was cold, “Who told you to lie to me?”
“I’m sorry,” she bit her lip, “I wanted to tell you but Derek, Detective Salter, wouldn’t let me. He told me I couldn’t. But, I can’t do this anymore. Please don’t be angry with me?”
“Derek?” his voice was a growl when he said that name, “What is it, Jill?”
“It’s the case,” she tried to explain, “He told me that I couldn’t tell you because it would blow the case. He said that we had to keep it secret from everyone until they caught the guilty party.”
“You’re in love with Derek?” he threw the accusation at her, “You’re in a relationship with him? That’s why you were crying this morning?”
“No! Derek? No, I’m not involved with him,” Jill said with genuine surprise, “It’s always been you. Derek just wants to solve the case.”
“Then what? What are you not telling me? Tell me, now,” he demanded.
“Tom, please don’t be angry,” she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, opened her eyes and extended her hand as if offering it in a handshake, “Pleased to meet you, I’m Gillian Arnold.”
“Gillian Arnold? What’s that mean?” he looked at the hand hanging in the air without touching it.
“I means that I know my name,” she withdrew the hand and dropped it back onto her lap, “I know who I am, where I live, what I do, and everything in between.”
“You’ve remembered? When? When did this happen?” his voice was softer but not gentler.
“After the attack,” she closed her eyes, “Doctor Peters thinks that that the trauma of it might have brought them back.”
“Doctor Peters knows? He knows, but you didn’t tell me?”
“I couldn’t tell you, I’m sorry Tom, I’m not supposed to tell you.”
“Why shouldn’t I know this?”
“The thing I supposedly witnessed, that put me into the coma, another party came forward and is testifying. I’m not needed for that case and I can’t remember seeing anything useful anyway. Derek thinks that the assault, what happened to Stan, the guy you fought, all of that isn’t related to that original case. He said that the guy they have in custody was hired by a hospital employee, and that I need to pretend to still have amnesia because that will help with catching the person responsible for Stan’s injuries.”
“How? A hospital employee? Explain?”
“I don’t really understand either, Derek won’t tell me much. He said that the less I know the better,” she bit her lip, “He didn’t want me to tell you this. He wanted me to get close to you.”
“Me? Am I a suspect? Is that why you’re here? Are you here to get close to me?” he edged away from her.
“No, Tom, at least I don’t think so,” she shook her head, “But that’s not why I’m telling you. I refused to do what Derek wanted me to do because I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m not here because of him. I’m here because I love you.”
“Really? You love me? You kept secrets from me? How is that love?”
“I didn’t have a choice,” She mumbled.
“I find that hard to believe. We all have a choice.” he wasn’t looking at her. “It sounds like you did exactly what Derek wanted. You chose to do what Derek asked instead of telling me the truth.”
He pushed himself off the bed and straightened his clothing as he looked out the windows at the view of the city.
“Derek is Detective Salter, Tom,” Jill snapped, “I did what he told me to do because he is a law enforcement officer and he’s trying to catch the person responsible for what happened to Stan. I didn’t do this because of any other reason. I understand that you’re jealous, but there is no reason for you to feel that way.”
“Jealous?” he said incredulously, “You lied to me and you’re accusing me of being jealous?”
“I’m sorry, please don’t be angry,” she took a deep breath and tried again in a calm voice, “Why would I tell you all this? Why would I be here? I’m not using you. I’ve never done that. I’m telling you this because I can’t lie to you. I’m doing this because I trust you. Can you trust me? Do you trust me?”
“I don’t know,” he exhaled as he spoke, but he didn’t look at her, “I’m not sure I can.”
“Oh,” she stood up and took a step towards him, “What I did, wasn’t done maliciously. I didn’t tell you my identity, but I thought you said that you loved me irrespective of who I was? You said you loved me because of my personality, because I was who I am. I’m still me. Jill Doe is the same person as Gillian Arnold.”
“You are right,” his jaw muscles tightened, “The timing is bad.”
He didn’t want to hear anymore. He felt claustrophobic. He needed space. He needed to get out of this room. He turned towards the door.
“Don’t you walk away from me Tom Layton,” she said, “You wanted a relationship with me. You don’t get that by walking away. Relationships are about working out problems.”
“Problems? Is that what you call this?” he shook his head and continued.
“Yes, that’s exactly what this is,” she said as he neared the door, “Don’t walk away Tom. If we are going to make this work, you can’t walk away.”
“What exactly do you want from me, Gillian Arnold?” he said with his hand on the door handle.
“I want to work this out. I don’t want you to be angry with me,” she was standing looking at his back as he stood facing the door, “We can fix this.”
“Can we?” he exhaled.
“Yes, we can,” she whispered as she moved to stand behind him putting her hand on his back, “We want the same thing. Love isn’t something that you walk away from. Please don’t go.”
He closed his eyes. He knew his pride was wounded. He felt the injury. It ran him through. His parents were the start of it and the root cause of the pain, he knew that. What she’d told him had only added to the insecurities he felt. He knew he was overreacting, but he didn’t know how to take back his words. He was in a corner and he didn’t know how to get out of it.
He been here before and he knew what would happen if he walked out of that door. He was good at walking away. He’d step over that threshold and he’d keep walking. He’d lose her. He’d walk away and keep walking. He was standing on a precipice, he could swallow his pride or lose Jill, that’s what it came down to. How important was his pride to him?
With his eyes closed he could see her standing in her father’s office. She had stood up for him. His parents were intimidating people, but that hadn’t stopped her from defending him. No one had ever done that for him. She’d done it not knowing he was there. She’d done it because she loved him.
His mind flashed through all his memories of her. She was right. Gillian Arnold was still Jill Doe. She was the same woman that he loved. She might not have told him everything, but did that change how he felt about her? He could feel his heart in his chest. He could feel the need her felt for her. He knew that he still loved her. So why was he standing here?
Pride. It all came back to his pride. That was what was injured. He was a man and his pride was in tatters.
“I don’t know,” he said the words with his hand still on the door handle, his eyes still closed, and his pride still preventing him from doing anything else, “I don’t know how to do this.”
She was standing right behind him, he could feel the breath on his shirt. His hand tightened on the handle, he was such a fool. He’d cried in her arms, he’d just effectively thrown a tantrum, his parents thought him a child, and he’d done nothing to prove them wrong.
“Why would you want me,” he dropped his head, “I’m not much of a man. You deserve someone better, someone who knows what he’s doing.”
“Your smile,” Jill interrupted as she whispered the words and put her arms around his waist, “The way you hair is always messy, the way you look at me like you can see right through me, your laugh, the sounds you make in your sleep, they way you hold me, the way you kiss me, the colour of your eyes, the way you argue with me and how you pretend to be all arrogant. That’s ten reasons why I love you and it’s not an exhaustive list.”
He closed his eyes as he breathed out. He still couldn’t turn around. She might love him but that didn’t mean that he had a right to face her. He didn’t deserve her.
“My parents are right, I’ll only end up hurting you,” he whispered, “I don’t know how to do relationships.”
“Those two,” her voice shook with emotion, “Don’t rate a mention. Don’t let them influence you. You are Tom Layton. You are arrogant and confident. You don’t give up.”
“And yet, here I stand,” he looked at the surface of the door once more before he turned to face her, “I can’t guarantee that next time I won’t walk out of that door. I’m good at walking out.”
“There are no guarantees with any relationship,” she looked up at him, “My mother always said that trust was the key, not love, to every relationship. I trust you, and I want you to trust me. I’m going to prove myself to you. I want you to trust me enough not to walk away from me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
He looked into her eyes and, as she said those words, he felt himself unravel. She wasn’t going to hurt him. That was it. That was his fear. That was what had his chest constricted and his body on alert. Despite everything she’d said and done, he was afraid that she was going to work out that he wasn’t worth the effort. That she’d see his baggage and turn from him, leaving him more broken than he’d been before.
But now, looking into her eyes, hearing her say those words, he felt the fear fall from him like an old coat. She was worth the risk. He wanted to trust her. He wanted this.
He didn’t know the words to say, so he caught her face and kissed her with gentle kisses which he hoped spoke of his love and trust. She kissed him back with melted away the last of his resistance. She did love him.