Marshal stared down at his cell phone, his expression blank as the screen dimmed and then blackened. He touched the screen and the white marred his face. His silver eyes didn’t loosen their focus of the number entered and ready to connect. Again the screen dimmed; the number still waiting.
The two-story house across the way drew his gaze, the flicker of the television seen through the window in the darkened living room. He could see her on the couch, huddled under a fleece blanket with a pink bunny and a Tonberry doll in her lap, her arms clutching them to her and her face hidden in their plush softness.
Releasing a slow breath, Marshal tucked his cell phone into the pocket of his black slacks and turned for home. After two steps, however, his feet refused to venture further. He fisted his hands in his pockets, his stoic expression darkening to a frown. He kicked at a tuft of brownish-green grass that peeked from the joining section of the sidewalk and the curb. Flakes of grass and soil speckled his black shoes, inviting one last kick before he about-faced. Zack Regal’s house loomed in front of him, mocking his purpose-driven stride. He rubbed at the hair on the back of his head and knocked.
The sound from the television dimmed – it sounded like a game – and then two sets of dead-bolts slid back. The door opened. Sally blinked up at him, her blue eyes wide and glossy with tears, with the imprint of a stuffed animal nose on the left side of her forehead. Her hair, in two braids, tousled. She wore pale pink sweats, a white sweatshirt with the black letters of ‘Timber Wolves’ across the front, and pink bunny slippers. To his chagrin, she held the Tonberry doll by the hand.
Marshal swallowed hard before he could trust his voice. “Hey.”
Sally’s gaze fell to the Tonberry, which she surreptitiously hid behind her back. “Hi.”
She peeked up at him with those gemlike eyes that never failed to remind him he did have a heart. Though vengeance would have been easier if he could forget that one fact…. Sally stepped back and gestured to the couch, her cheeks a sexy shade of rose. “It’s cold out there, Marshal,” she observed, and the quiet of her tone as she said his name felt like velvet to his ears. “You should come in.”
Every muscle in his body ached to do just that, yet that same ache kept him rooted to the spot. “I only wanted to….” He only needed to see her. “I know it’s late….” He hadn’t seen her for six months and couldn’t get the vision of her bolting out of Security from his head.
“Come in, Marshal.” Her hand reached for his arm, and the desire to allow her to draw him inside overwhelmed his sanity for a moment. He prevented that first, doomed forward step.
The smile he offered her was calm itself, though his insides rumbled in chaos. “I didn’t plan on staying long enough to come inside, Sally.” The words soured on his tongue, but he forced them out. “You–”
“Marshal. Don’t go.” Her smile waned as she stared up at him, a glimmer in her eyes hinting at tears.
Somehow Marshal smeared the smile on his lips with epoxy; it stayed. Words, however, were impossible.
Sally set the Tonberry just inside and pulled the door closed. When she turned toward him, the late-night breeze wafted a soft scent of vanilla from her hair. Marshal’s hands hurt with the bruising tightness of his fists in his pockets– Sally stepped forward and pulled his rigid form into a tight embrace, her cheek resting against him in such a way that he could feel the wet warmth of her tears through his shirt. His eyes burned as he lowered his gaze to the crown of her head, the moonlight glinting sparks of red from the rich brown of her hair.
“….I miss you so much…” she whispered, her voice choked behind the tears that wet his shirt.
His throat collapsed around any words he might have spoken. Instead, he drew his aching hands from his pockets and held her closer. The radiating warmth and the lush softness of her skin…. Damn, she feels good. He told her brother that the decision would be hers. Yet holding her close rose up old temptations to… persuade her choice.
Step back, Beita, he ordered. For he knew that much longer in her arms would erase any oath or promise he made to himself, Katie, and even Sally. Marshal shifted his hold to the trembling of her upper arms and drew them from around him, even against her resistance and a whimpered protest. She wouldn’t lift her gaze to meet his. “Sally, don’t.”
Even Marshal didn’t know how to answer.
She sniffed, wiping tears from her cheeks as she raised her gaze. “I haven’t seen you in six months. You never write. You never call. Or visit. I…. I….” She hiccuped through another wave of tears, and her nose began to match the soft rose of her cheeks. Sally made a helpless gesture with her hands, as if seeking the words to say in the tense air between them. Then her gaze lowered. “I’m trying to start over, but that… but that doesn’t mean I want to be alone,” she said, her tone hushed.
His hold didn’t release the bulkiness of her sweatshirt as he stared down at her, watching her lashes brush against her flushed cheeks as a tear escaped a swipe to drip from the end of her pert nose– “Don’t cry, Sally,” he pleaded, his voice rough with every accusation and shard of guilt he kept to himself. He loved this girl, but for him that wasn’t enough anymore. He needed her to love him; to want him; to need him and not Zell Dincht and his damn Tonberry.
The choice would be hers; just like he promised.
Marshal swallowed hard, grappling with his control once she lifted her tear-stained face with those blue stars for eyes….
She gave a single shake of her head. “I don’t want you to go.”
The breeze tickled her cheek with a stray lock of hair. He loosed his hold of her arm and brushed it behind her ear. The velvet of her skin tingled the tips of his fingers with sparks of flame. He was never far from her. Never but a door away each day. A torturous separation of but a few feet because she didn’t know. And because he wouldn’t tell her….
Marshal leaned in and caressed her forehead with his lips. Still unable to fully trust his voice to any number of confessions and admittances. The time wasn’t right. She hadn’t made her choice. She hadn’t found herself. He had only come to prove to himself that she was close. That she was fine. Healing. Seeking her new self. One that might not even want anything to do with him. It was a risk he was prepared to take as long as she had happiness.
I love you, Sally. But he wouldn’t let himself say it aloud. Not again. Not yet.
He straightened, opening his eyes to find her watching him. Her blue eyes so wide that the moonlight danced in their darkened depths. He offered her a small, comforting smile and felt a hypocrite for doing it.
Beita, walk away.
The order nearly elicited a cringe. Walk away from Sally a second time? Now? When she asked him to stay? When her eyes begged him to stay? Walk away?
“I need to go,” he said in a low, rough tone. “I’m on duty in the morning.”
Again, she shook her head. The action very slight. “Don’t go,” she whispered. “Please….”
A thousand and one phrases and arguments jumbled themselves in his head as his gaze fell into hers. The one that stayed his feet from trekking away from her was the one that should have motivated him in the first place–
“I think I love you,” she whispered.
Shock froze him to the core the same time his insides burned at the words.
“All my dreams and coma memories…. They were you,” she continued, still in the hushed tone of revelation. “I… I was falling in love with you, Marshal. That’s why I went into the T.C. before the attack. I was confused and a little scared. I was ready to be in love with Zell. Maybe because I knew there wasn’t really a chance he would notice me. But you… You and I were already friends. You already liked me. I knew that. So… So I was scared of ruining it all… but I could feel it. I was… I was falling in love with you.”
Her rambling faded into the breeze as he gazed down at her, his expression blank. “Sally…”
She shook her head against the argument, whatever it might have been, and stepped in, so close the merest hint of a breeze overwhelmed his senses with the sweet fragrance of vanilla. Then the soft sweetness of her warm lips touched his and his thoughts fled. He pulled her close, his arms moving of their own accord to enfold her into his protecting embrace as he returned her kiss.
She snuggled closer, burying her face into the front of his shirt. “…I love you, Marshal. I love you so much…” Then tears robbed her voice.
Marshal gathered her closer, caressing the silky smoothness of her hair in an attempt to console her. His mind and heart reveled in the feel of her heartbeat and the warm wetness of her tears through his shirt. They were the tears of happiness. “…I love you, Sally.”