If I was stunned before, that practically floored me. She knew I had deceived her.
I quickly leaned forward and the words rushed out. “I’m so sorry, Mary. I would have told you, I swear. But after what happened to your husband I was afraid to tell—”
An exaggerated hiss came from the direction of the bar. And I realized it was the second time in short order.
Mary shook her head, twisted around and looked toward the bartender.
I leaned to the right a bit and looked past her.
Then the double doors, both of them, opened and seven young people, laughing and talking, headed toward the dining area. No umbrellas, and they weren’t drenched. The storm still wasn’t here.
Just before the doors closed, though, the thunder pealed loudly. It sounded closer, maybe by half. Maybe the part that had come inland to the north was sweeping to the south.
I was too far from the doors to catch the scent of lightning in the air. But I would bet it smelled great outside. And for a moment I both wished I was out there in it and that I could back up and keep Mary from rushing off. Because that’s exactly what was about to happen.
I shifted my gaze to the bar.
The bartender, Arancio Aguilár, must have been the source of the hissing. He was gesturing to Mary.
She nodded at him, then turned back around. Again she leaned forward and patted my arm. “Nick, I know you don’t understand, but everything is all right. I promise. Your leg is okay for now?” Then she slipped her hand away. It joined the other one on the edge of the table and she began pushing her chair back.
Oh, yes, my wounded leg. I’d forgotten.
I nodded. “It’s fine. Really. Listen, Mary, I have to—”
She stood. “I have to go, Nick, but I’ll come back. There’s so much I want to say. Please wait for me so we can continue.” Her eyebrows drew closer together. Her eyes were intense. “Please?”
Before that, I was going to say I had to leave tonight and then add some lie. Something about having a job waiting for me or some such nonsense. My intention was to spare her anymore of the strangeness that seemed part and parcel of my life.
But the look in her eyes was deeper than sincere. She was pleading with me.
Staying, waiting for her to come back, listening to her after she came back—all of that would be torture.
But something about her made her worth that and so much more.
I felt a frown scrape across my forehead. And just as if there was any chance at all that I might leave, I said, “Yes, I’ll wait for you. I’ll be here.”
She smiled then, and started to turn away.
“But please, Mary, before you go—tell me, how did you know I was a soldier?”
She stopped and turned to face me again. She put her hands on her hips and looked down at me. Then she shook her head slightly and smiled. Her right hand left her hip and her fingertips drew across the side of my face.
And quietly, she said, “Nicolas, how would I not know? You wear it like a suit.” As she turned away, she said, “Besides, I am your woman.”
For the second time in the past few minutes, I was left all but speechless.
She is my woman? What could she possibly mean by that?
She didn’t know me. We’d never been on so much as a date. Before tonight, we’d talked only in short, hurried snippets of conversation.
I’d told her I would be here, that I’d wait for her.
But maybe I should cut my losses—well, cut her losses—and leave. Barney’s didn’t have a pass-through window from the kitchen. When an order was ready, she was back there long enough for me to sneak out.
Of course, she would be disappointed if she meant what I hoped she meant. But if I let this continue, that disappointment would pale in comparison to how she would feel when I went off to war. And even more so if I didn’t return. That had already happened to her once. And once was more than enough.
That’s what I should do. Without question, I should finish my beer and leave. I didn’t even have to go to the bar first. I could gesture to Arancio, let him know I was leaving and that I’d left the money on the table. That’s what I should do.
But if Mary was capable, whatever she meant by that, I was not.
I was incapable of simply walking away after I told her I’d wait. And yes, staying was more an act of selfishness than one of weakness or even chivalry. And yes, I was aware of that fact.
In the end, I decided I’d better wait.
A few minutes after she left, the bartender put a blunt point on the matter.
He came out from behind the bar and brought me two more mugs of beer. He set them down, then straightened, nodded and slapped me on the back.
When I looked up and offered him money, he shook his head and waved his hands side to side in front of his chest. “No no. Tha’s okay. Tha’s fine.” Then he laughed and headed back to the bar. He shook his head again as he walked.
It was almost two hours before I saw Mary again. I mean, other than fleeting glimpses of her swirling dress as she flitted from table to table. And that was all in the other end of the room.
Had she asked Arancio to bring me the beers? Perhaps so she wouldn’t have to?
Or had he brought them on his own, maybe out of sympathy?
He repeated the action about a half-hour later, and again a half-hour after that, then again.
By the third time he brought me beer, I was sure he was acting out of sympathy.
Mary had spoken too quickly, that’s all. She had allowed something to slip out that she should have kept to herself.
Something she hadn’t meant to say at all.
It was a result of the compassion she felt for me because of my bum leg. That and her being grateful I’d done the right thing in jumping Jameson, even if it did go too far.
Or maybe she had meant to say it, but I had missed an important emphasis. Maybe it was sarcasm.
When she said what she said, maybe she emphasized “am.” Maybe she said, “Besides, I am your woman.”
Maybe it was her way of saying I had taken that assumption on myself. That I hadn’t bothered even to ask her before I defended her honor.
Women can be touchy about such things.
Yes, that was it. Probably it was sarcasm.
Probably she was hoping I’d drink the beers and leave. Or forget. But how could I forget a thing like that?
Probably she asked him to bring me two more beers every half-hour until they had that desired effect.
When she talked with him earlier, before she came to my table, maybe she had even asked him quietly to call her back to the bar after a certain interval.
That was probably what she said that I couldn’t hear.
Except that right after the bartender gestured, before Mary even got out of her chair, that’s when the double doors opened and those seven people crowded through them.
* * *