I wanted desperately to tell her what I’d learned long ago. That I wasn’t a good guy.
The thing with Jameson, it was a tiny, confined little war with only two combatants. Two bad guys. In war, there are no good guys. Or maybe they’re all good guys, only on different sides.
But I didn’t want to risk explaining all that, not with her history. And I didn’t want to tell her how I came to realize it. So I only shrugged. “I’m the one still standing, that’s all.”
She quickly reached across the table and lay her left hand on my forearm. A little too quickly, she said, “Oh, but I’m glad, Nick. I’m very glad you’re all right. It’s—I only wanted you to know—” She hesitated as color rose in her cheeks. Then, barely above a whisper, she said, “In my case there was nothing for him to talk about.” She paused. “Ever.”
Why is she telling me this? And why now? I’m leaving.
I looked at her. I felt my head cant slightly to the right and my brow knit a little. And I nodded as if my head was loose. “I, uh— Well, good,” I said. “That’s good.” I quickly added, “But I never thought so. I mean, I wasn’t jealous or—”
No. That was going in the wrong direction. Aside from having no reason to be jealous, I had no right. I let the sentence die.
She only looked at me for a moment, the fingers of her left hand still on my forearm. They flexed, squeezing slightly.
It was a wonderful sensation. I didn’t want to it to end. Even if I was leaving tomorrow. Or tonight. Maybe I should go tonight.
I picked up my remaining beer with my left hand and turned it up, but only for a sip. It was more for something to do than because I was thirsty. The action gave me an excuse to avert my eyes.
I had to be misreading things. And I couldn’t afford to misread things.
She patted my forearm lightly, then let her fingers rest there again. “Nick— you and I, we are the same in many respects.”
Her fingers felt wonderful on my arm. Warm and cool all at one time. I nodded. “Yes. We have some things in common. For instance, both of us are—”
Out of the blue she said, “I don’t blame you, Nick.” Quickly, she added, “Not because it was about me. I only mean I know you had no choice. When things had gone so far, like you said.” She hesitated, and color rose in her cheeks. More quietly, she said, “And I’m glad you stood up for me. I mean, I’m glad it was you.”
“Thank you,” I said, unsure what other responses were appropriate.
“No, I mean—” She pulled her hand back from my arm and clasped it with the other one on the table. The fingers of one hand worked in and out of the fingers of the other. “Oh, I’m getting it all confused. And I think you know what I mean but I can’t be sure.”
I knew what I hoped she meant.
Except that it was too late. I was leaving. I was going to find “jobs like that.”
She paused, then looked steadily into my eyes as she said, “I’m very glad it was you who stood up for me.”
A hundred responses fired through my mind, but I was unable to decide whether any was appropriate.
If she meant what I thought she meant, what I hoped she meant, I should stop her. I was leaving, after all. My time here was done.
I hoped for her sake she would stop, and I hoped for my sake she wouldn’t. And at the moment both of those were my greatest fear.
And I waited too long to say anything at all.
She looked down at the table. Quietly, she said, “I—I haven’t spoken frankly with a man since Ian.”
My stomach knotted. So I hadn’t known what she meant after all.
She only needed a friendly ear.
She was glad someone had stood up for her, as her husband would have done. She was glad it was me. Maybe I reminded her of him in some way.
I tried to disguise my disappointment. This wasn’t about me. But that was all right. After all, I was leaving anyway.
Maybe I could manage to utter something wise and leave her with a good memory. I nodded. “I’m sure he was a good man. I know you must miss him a great deal.”
She looked up sharply. “What? No. No, you misunderstand.” She paused again, then took a breath. “What I spoke frankly with him about— When he left that day, I wanted to go with him.” She quickly added, “Not because he was my husband, but because I am capable.”
And just like that, I was confused again. “Capable?”
She nodded. “For three days before he left, I talked about going with him. To defend our country. I’m very good at—certain things. I am not a typical woman. I would be of more use in battle than sitting at home waiting for— Well, frankly for someone I didn’t care about.”
Before I realized I’d said it aloud, I heard, “You didn’t care about him?”
She stared at me for the duration of a heartbeat, then audibly released a breath of air. It sounded like a great relief. “No. No, I didn’t care about him. Is that terrible of me? I wouldn’t have wished harm on him, but otherwise I was indifferent. But I cared very much about the nation. Understand?”
No, not really. Not at all. I didn’t understand.
But I nodded.
Why? Because all of this was neither here nor there, especially where she and I were concerned. There was no she and I.
I was leaving. And where I was going, she couldn’t go. Not that she would want to anyway.
She watched me nod, then said, “No, I think you don’t.” She straightened in her chair, raised one hand and shook it side to side in the air. “But that’s my fault. I’m getting sidetracked, and maybe for no reason. Let me try another direction.”
She took a sip of her beer, and after a moment, she leaned forward again. Again she allowed her left hand to rest on my forearm. “Nick, the last thing Rodrigo said was that he thought you would be fired. Were you fired?”
I couldn’t begin to understand why she was asking me such a personal question. But somehow I didn’t mind. Probably it had something to do with the point she hoped to make.
At least it was something to which I could respond plainly.
I nodded. “Yes, Mr. Morgan let me go.” The look on the man’s face when I asked whether he’d get the door flashed through my mind. I laughed lightly. To explain away the laughter, I said, “And he was concerned I might go to work for his competitors.”
She didn’t smile. She sipped her beer again, then set it on the table and looked at me. “But you won’t, will you? You’ll return to a profession for which you are better suited. Will you at least wait awhile so your leg will heal?”
I only looked at her, but my mind was racing. What did she know about professions for which I was better suited?
Old Man Morgan’s words came back to me. A cop or something. Jobs like that.
Had I ever mentioned to her what I’d done in the past?
I was certain I hadn’t. In fact, I’d safeguarded against it. It wouldn’t be fair to tie her in knots with something like that. Not a woman like Mary. Not after what she’d been through.
But maybe Rodrigo— No. I hadn’t mentioned it even to Rodrigo, had I? Or to anyone before Old Man Morgan?
I didn’t think so. So how did she know?
And more importantly, how could I respond to her question without lying and still keep my secret?
But I had to say something. I said weakly, “Well, I’m not going anywhere at the moment.” And I heard it as it came out. It was too guarded, too pat. Too deceptive.
She caught the confusion on my face and almost huffed. Her fingers slipped off my forearm as she sat back in her chair. She crossed her arms over her chest, and something akin to a smirk crept across her lips.
When she spoke, it was in that tone women usually reserve for sentences they begin with “Puhlease” as an admonition. Like when they want to dismiss nonsense. But she only said, “I know you were a warrior, Nick. I’ve always known. And I know you will be again.”
* * *