Intallment 16-Lions Pride
Camille’s heart was in her throat and beating there a mile a minute. The primary concern wasn’t the physical impossibility of that particular organ migrating itself to her wind pipe. She was a trifle more focused on, now that it was there, how to bring oxygen into her lungs. Now, everything about the house seemed too big and too small. The hallways, though long before, now seemed as vast as the Champs-Élysées abandoned in the twilight hours. Each doorway was as imposing as the Arc de Triomphe and she as insignificant speck of dust briefly suspended in mid-air, caught by harsh light, before floating to the next surface continuing its aimless travels.
All too soon, she found herself at her destination. This door was the worse. If all the other entrances seemed monumental, this felt like the entryway to the Temple of Doom. Anjae words flittered through her mind again, no tricks-the truth…the truth… the truth.
She stared at the solid oak door that rose high above her head. Somehow she doubted that any truth that she was seeking or giving would be found in the complications that resided in this particular room, but she would give it a try. This might be her only, last, chance to find whatever it was that always seemed to elude her. So she took a deep breath, twisted the knob and pushed opened the door.
She just prayed she wasn’t making a fool of herself.
When the door to the library suddenly opened, Carrick was ready. His mind was made up. It was time for Camille to go and he resolved to explain it to Malcolm later. It was clear that Camille did not want what they were offering. He wasn’t sold on offering it anyway. He simply wasn’t in the begging business. Over the few weeks, he had believed that they had achieved some type of truce-one that evidently meant more to him than her. The constant push and pull, on top of being in this mausoleum of a hose was literally driving him crazy. He confident that threats to her safety were under his control now and in a few days would no longer exist. He had a team out there making sure that Camille remained in the clear. Camille could go back to whatever life she wanted and she could keep Mal and himself out of it.
The sound of her voice abruptly drew him out of his musings.
“Carrick, if you have a moment, I would like to talk to you.” Camille was in front of his desk acting almost…demure.
This is it. If she wanted leave then he wouldn’t fight her. She had changed into a pair of black jeans and a matching over-long black sweater with ballerina flats. Her version of moving attire. He hoped. He gritted his teeth in an effort to stop himself from commenting aloud.
Camille didn’t know where to put her hands. She noticed the tension in his face and watched him settle back to study her like she was some type of rabid animal that he wasn’t sure would attack him, or run screaming away from her own shadow. While he might be right, as everything in her told her to run, she stood her ground in front of his desk ready to lay herself on the line.
“I…” She cleared her throat. It seemed that her heart was still wedged in there pretty tightly.
Carrick arched his eyebrow in impatience as she faltered, but didn’t comment.
Camille balled her hands at her side to stop their incessant rubbing and straightened her spine. Taking a deep breath, she tried to find a modicum of encouragement in his impassive eyes. She couldn’t help but feel the sting from her position, standing there in front of him, a hot mess and he was giving her dead eye. Anjae swore that this would be worth it, Camille knew what she had to do.
She swallowed and tried again.
“Carrick, I owe you an apology. You’ve allowed me to stay here. You’ve offered amazing hospitality and I’ve been giving you a hard time. I’m sorry.” She watched for his reaction, ready to flee if he made a joke of her at that moment.
There, I did it. Heaving a silent sigh in satisfaction while waiting for his reaction.
Carrick continued to scrutinize her, aware of every second he let the silence stretch between them. He eyed her to gauge her veracity. Truth be told, he was floored. He expected her to come to him angry, maybe even irate, but he never saw an apology coming and he didn’t buy it.”Can’t you be the same person for more than a few hours at a time? Earlier in the hall you were doing your best to be Mata Hari and now…What? You’re trying the urban version of Anne of Green Gables on for size? Did Anjae help you put this character together?” Disdain laced his every word.
He hates me. She thought emptily. Who could blame him, from one minute to the next she felt like that kid on that animated show that turned into different aliens at will, and all with the help of a watch attached to his arm. She wished she could blame all her ebbs and flows on a simple watch.
Where’s technology when you damn well need it?
Camille instinctively took a step back, ready to turn and run for her life. The voice of a woman stopped her cold. It wasn’t the sassy
worldliness of Anjae’s, but the soft southern lisp of a voice she’d thought she’d forgotten. Honey, rarely does anything worthwhile come easy. In the same moment she caught the scent her mother had worn. It was as if mama had just passed in front of her. Camille had to close her eyes against the overwhelming sensations and scent, physically weakening at the memory.
As her eyes flashed open, not quite steady on her feet, she uttered the first word that popped in her mind. “Ghosts.” Camille made a grab for the high backed chair that was standing a few feet from her, simultaneous turning her body from Carrick. She could feel his striking eyes on her back, She could only imagine that she looked as unsteady as a drunkard with her wooden lifeline tightly in her grip. The barely remembered past that she had so carefully locked away seemed to want to come out and play. Her senses tricked her in believing her mother was close to her, the same way they did before she passed out in her hidey hole on Lucien’s boat.
When she failed to respond Carrick exploded. “Now ghosts are to blame for your behavior.” Carrick asked incredulously, slamming his hand on his desk as he pushed away from the desk, disgusted and annoyed that he was bothering to waste time entertaining a conversation that was going nowhere.
Then he saw it. Sure she seemed nervous when she entered his office, but now she seemed to fall into herself, becoming smaller almost right before his eyes. His eyes focused in on the death grip she had on the back of the chair. He had no doubt that it was the only thing holding her up. Carrick let out a string of profanities, cursing himself all kinds of fool. Just a few weeks ago they were hoping that she would survive. She constantly pushed herself too hard and he’d spent just as much time reminding her of her limitations while she healed. Here she was probably suffering the consequences from wearing those damn high heels, and he was sitting there pissed that she wasn’t giving him the answers he wanted. Maybe that was the bigger reason why it was best she leave. They couldn’t seem to stop hurting each other. Rising from his seat from his seat, he moved to Camille’s side as quickly as it takes to a breath. “Let me help you get to the bedroom. You need to rest. You had on those boots on earlier today and you have probably been on your legs too long”
Camille took a little hope in his concern, but shook her head. “I just need to sit for a minute.” She knew full well that her moment of weakness had little to do with her legs. It seemed the long dead were putting in their two cents about the situation between Carrick and herself, and she was unprepared for taking advice from the residents of the underworld. Maybe Carrick was right, she might want to check out a nice quiet sanatorium.
Oblivious to her train of thought, Carrick tried to help her into the chair that she holding onto so fiercely. She shook his hands off and instead turned to him and looked to his eyes.
He was real. That she forced her mind hold on to. His eyes were like Japanese Katana Swords, they held a beauty and workmanship that was unparalleled, there was no doubt at the slightest provocation, they could bring a swift and deadly end. They were creased with concern for her now, but she knew she was facing an uphill battle to get him to understand her, trust her. She realized that she quite desperate for his understanding. Acting like a crackpot right now was not going to help her cause.
Slow and steady, she reached up to cradle his face in her hands. She savored the feel of his skin against her palms. Unlike the time on the balcony with Malcolm, the moment was not fueled with lust, but her need to get him to understand. “Carrick, please hear me when I say this….I’m sorry. “ She held her steady look into his eyes. She saw when wariness crept into them. Her resolve cracked a little more, he didn’t believe her.
Was he worthwhile? God she prayed he was. Camille held her resolve together with a hope and a prayer then tried again.
“You know why I really decided to take a break from working?” She didn’t’ wait for his response; she just concentrated to trying to stop that damn carefulness from overtaking his eyes. One thing they had never been was careful with each other. Camille somehow knew that if they started something precious between them would be lost.
Maybe that was the biggest reason that she had fallen in love with him. He broken open her reserve as easily as one cracked an egg. A few moments in the room with him and he turned her into a screaming banshee. Camille closed her eyes and let herself lean into him. That was the truth-she loved him she loved how alive she felt when she was with him. Now the question was whether there was any hope that he could ever feel the same for her. She smiled a little when she felt his hands brush the sides of her waist. If he kept touching her like that, she knew she could find the strength to tell her truth.
“My past keeps on catching up with me, Carrick.” She still saw the doubt clouding his countenance. “At ten year’s old my life went up in flames.” She laughed grimly to herself at how literally she meant those words. “Everybody was gone and I was left alone. For a while Abbey took me in.”
Carrick frowned, trying to remember an “Abbey” in her background check. Then he remembered that the document found little record of Camille before her late teen years.
Camille was lost in the past, heedless of Carrick’s confusion, “Abbey worked for my parents and helped my mom with her classes. Mama was an amazing pianist and any musician worth their salt, where I grew up, wanted to learn from her. She had me propped up at a piano at two. The family joke was that I knew my keys before I knew my ABC’s,” Camille stated with pride and monitored Carrick’s eyes, breathing a little easier when she saw inquisitiveness overtake some of his initial guardedness.
“Everything was always crazy at our house, my parents were both professors at the college, mom just had my sister…my parents had an open door policy for all their students, they come for dinner and hung out on the weekend. It was complete mayhem every day, and we were the happiest family on the planet…”
Carrick could almost fill-in the words she couldn’t say until the fire.
She probably had him at her second “I’m sorry,” but that accompanied with her opening up about her life and “That look,” she might as well shove a check at him representing all his worldly assets for him to sign-and sign he would. He hadn’t known it but this is what he had been waiting for all these weeks. Her piano look turned toward him and not watching while, what he now understood as grief delayed, was poured into an inanimate object that couldn’t comfort her back. That vulnerable introspective look was evident on her face and making mincemeat of his resolve to kick her out. That damn look was sexier to him than any of those outrageous outfits he found in her private, locked room. He shook his head in disgust and defeat with himself, simultaneously allowing all thoughts of handing her walking papers to flee his mind.
If she was setting him up or having some type of mental health moment, he would kill her. It was as simple as that. As much as his feelings for her were so contradictory he couldn’t help the flare hope that was nudged back to life that she might share that private place of hers with him, without the piano between them. She was a jigsaw puzzle. Tonight he might finally figure out how to put the incongruent pieces known as “Camille” together.
More likely, he was just getting soft with age. He couldn’t help but push his face in her hair, inhaling her intoxicating scent laughing silently to himself.
She had never told another human being about her life before she met Anjae. After tonight there would nothing in this world that she held to herself. She prayed Carrick appreciated that she was giving him all she had to give, for the chance at something new.
Still hidden in his chest Camille bit her lip before she continued. “You know, as a kid, you don’t recognize that people get older. I realize now that Abbey had to be about fifty when our world changed. She had never been married or had any children and I don’t think she even thought twice about taking me in.”
Camille looked up at Carrick and stated quietly, “Some people don’t have children for a reason.” Carrick began to stiffen as he instantly thought the worse of Abbey, but Camille brushed away his fears with her next words. “Not because they are bad or mean, but because they know a child wouldn’t fit into the life they planned for themselves. Abbey was a creature of academics, she made sure that I had clean clothes, food to eat, but she had no idea what to do with a kid. She had loved my parents and she loved me, but there wasn’t a maternal bone in that woman’s body.” Camille grinned at the picture in her head of Abbey trying to explain the basic application of a maxi pad after her period began for the first time. After starting and stopping a hundred times, the older woman just gave up and pushed a box of the tiny mattress like rectangles at her and told her to read the instructions.
“After the fire, we never spoke another word about my family and she moved us here, to New York. She got a job teaching music theory at a community college. It seemed my life started over and I got busy trying to forget what happened before.” Lost in her own thoughts she unconsciously pushed away from him. She walked backward until she came against his desk, the rested the edge of her bottom on the surface and grasped the wood on either side of her thighs. Camille knew if she looked at him she wouldn’t be able to go on. She focused on the pattern on the rug.
“For three years Abbey tried her best and I am grateful to her. Then one day, around four in the afternoon, a lady and a man came to the door.” Camille could almost see her teenage self standing at the door trying to make a decision to let the couple in. The results of that decision she knew marked the end of what was left of her childhood.
Carrick watched as she lost herself in her recollections of the past, not daring to move or interrupt her from stopping what she had begun.
Camille continued in a voice laced with pain.“It was in the days before being a latch-key kid was a sign of child neglect. Back then it was a sign that parents had to put food on the table and a kid could be expected to have enough common sense to get their behinds’ home, lock their door and wait for a parent to show up after work. I gave the Department of Family Services people a hard time and for a while refused to open a door. If Abbey ingrained anything in my head, it was that I was not supposed to open the door to Jesus himself.”
Camille’s voice caught as if she wished she had the chance to do it all differently, and her eyes strained to hold back her tears. “That day I found out that Abbey had had a massive heart attack after one of her classes. I officially had nothing and no one, but lucky me, I was introduced to the social service system.”
Installment 16-Lion's Pride Page 2
Camille seemed to shake herself out of her memories, then looked away from Carrick only to cast him a furtive look under her lashes. “God, I thought I had forgotten this stuff, buried it where it belonged. I’m sorry. I’m probably boring you silly.”
Carrick didn’t move. He knew she had to let it all out. So he said the only thing he could, “What happened next?”
Camille tilted her head, as if she was considering if he could take all the ugly things that could happen to a child that was suddenly tied to no one or nothing. She must have made a decision because she continued, her eyes growing colder with every word, “I was a perfect storm; a teenager, a girl and at the system’s mercy. My first year, I was placed in five different homes. One, a little worse than the other, but each an accelerated education about how ugly life could really be. In the last one my foster mother…” Camille said those words like they were the very definition of an oxymoron. The words were filled more disgust and antipathy than Carrick had ever considered a few syllables strung together could possibly contain. “When her boyfriend tried to get into my bed at night, I’d had enough…I decided to try my luck on the street.”
Carrick only realized then that he had been holding his breath. The sound of his exhalation seemed to roar through the quiet room. He could help but move closer to her and touch her hand at the mention of her attempted rape. Physically reminding himself that she was here, with him, safe.
Camille barely acknowledged his touch, except to finally look up into his face. Her eyes held no pity for the child she had been.“I’d been following Anjae for about a week before I finally sat next to her in a diner. She seemed nice. She wasn’t strung out. Frankly, I was too tired to care. Surviving on the street is a full time business, not a lot of time or safety to sleeping.”
Camille watched Carrick’s eyes darken at the mention of Anjae’s name. “Why don’t like her? You don’t even know her.”
“I have a problem with people who don’t take care of those they claim to love. She has let you down at every turn. Then she sneaks into my house trying to undue her damage. Too little, too late.” He announced. With his words he waited for the Camille to appear that unreasonably defended her sorry excuse for friends and almost got herself killed for her trouble.
Camille gave him a sad smile and sighed, no longer annoyed by his uncompromising arrogance. A few weeks before his high handed belief in his own “rightness” drove her crazy. Now, his arrogance comforted her in its consistency. She now realized that it wasn’t so much arrogance as much as loyalty, and his was completely selfless. He expected no less from others he counted on. If only the world could be redrawn to meet Carrick’s Caudwell’s own unique exacting standards.
Camille’s idea of loyalty was a bit more flexible. “She gave me all she had to give. A scared hungry kid sat next to her in a diner and she let that stray follow her home. For the first night in months I was able to sleep without one eye open. She gave me the tools to look out for myself. Yes, some of the time I had to look out for her too, but if she hadn’t left her door open all those years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
“She led you into prostitution.” Carrick cut in. “Stop trying to sell her as your fairy godmother, she sure as hell didn’t help you find your glass slipper”
“My life choices were not her responsibility. I made a certain set of decisions based upon what was in front of me. It’s not a bad life and I am not ashamed of it.”
“If you weren’t ashamed of what you did, why hadn’t you told Malcolm what you did for a living.” Carrick could help pressing his point.
Camille couldn’t help the exasperation in her voice. “Because I was helping out in a high school, working directly with minors. I didn’t gain the status of being one of the highest paid escorts in the country by being indiscreet. The FBI was watching every move I made and I didn’t need to borrow any more trouble. Malcolm seemed like a straight arrow and I didn’t want him to thinking I was some hooker. I liked him and I wanted him to like me,” her voice clearly asking Carrick to take his pick of choices.
Carrick returned a doubtful look.
“She didn’t owe me anything and she still stepped up.” Camille countered, getting back to the point.
“Barely” Carrick retorted, dropping his hands and stepping back. “With her being an adult, she owed you something the moment she decided to take you, a child, in.”
The world according to a Caudwell. Camille had no doubt that he completely believed everything he said. In his experience, people had responsibilities and were expected to meet each and every one. In his universe there were expectations that no one dreamed of falling short of, for the consequences were immediate and swift. A nice, clean, perfect world.
Nothing about her was nice, clean or perfect and she was scared that she would never fit with Carrick and Malcolm. She was shaking in her ballerina flats, but she knew if she wanted them, or even a chance at being with them, she had to move past her fears. Though Carrick wouldn’t believe it, Anjae was trying to teach her that too. It was time to put it all out there. “Is that how your world works, where people do as they ought? Is there a place for anyone who has dwelled within the seamier side of life? You know a person who may have never had a chance to wear the glass slipper, but has been hit in the head with it at every opportunity?” She couldn’t bear to look into his oddly lit eyes as she asked her questions. She didn’t want to see disgust at the idea of being with her, or worse, pity.
Silence invaded the room and seconds slipped by, with only the elegant Chinese Chippendale clock in the corner giving accompaniment to the passage of time. Her heart wasn’t doing such a bad job at providing a back beat either. “This is ridiculous.” She half murmured to herself.
She was suddenly desperate to fill the silence and avoid the ways his silence was making her freak out. Her eyes caught sight of Carrick’s reading glasses resting on the corner of the desk, bringing to mind another memory from her past. Unconsciously, she slid her hand down the side of the desk and picked up the glasses. She spoke to the air, lost in more memories that she thought she’d forgotten. Now she had opened the Pandora’s Box to the past, it seemed that she couldn’t quite get it to close again. “Mama used to get so upset with my daddy for leaving his glasses everywhere. He needed them for reading. “
She looked up at Carrick with a wavering smile. “Just like you.” Camille pressed the glasses to her temple, as if the thought brought her pain.
“He could never keep track of them. It was funny because he had a bunch of pairs and every day he would lose a pair at least once.” Again she smiled to herself, “He would pay me a quarter each time I found a pair and brought them to him before my mom found them. “ She gave a half laugh, “My candy fund was enormous.”
She still held the glasses to her temple. She brought her other hand to the other side of her face as she quietly laughed at herself. Laughing at the pathetic picture she knew she must make. She had never shared this part of herself with anyone else and of all people she chose Carrick.
All of the sudden she felt him shift in front of her and cradle her hand on either side of her face. How a man large could touch her so gently she couldn’t tell, but that special electric connection between them heightened. She had no doubt if she could bear to look up, he would be close enough to kiss.
“Camille, what do you want?” She was killing him. The fondness and heartbreak entwined within her voice, as she remembered her family, rubbed at a place in his heart he didn’t know existed. His large hand enveloped hers as he stepped even closer and guided them from her face.
He was also a pretty sick puppy, because he was also unbelievably aroused.
In the small act of his touch she felt supported. She didn’t think. She desperately pressed herself into him and rested her forehead on his shoulder, then tilted her head so she could whisper her secrets directly in his ear. “I want to be with you and Malcolm. I just want somebody to see me. To want me, not for how I can fix them, figure out their problems, or make reality fade away. I’m scared to death that if I’ve found love, I’m too messed up to recognize and return it.”
At her heartbreaking words he simply wanted to give her everything he had. Her scent surrounded him, as he tucked his head into hers slightly and spoke barely above a whisper, “It’s so hard when you lose a parent. I know how that feels.” He pulled her to him, laced her fingers with his and rocked her gently.
This was uncharted territory for them. Camille knew that Carrick’s father had died early in his life, but he always was careful not to mention his father even though his presence seemed as alive as any living, breathing, occupant of The Pride. “Do you miss him?”
Carrick took a deep breath before he answered and holding her hands a little tighter. “His standards were impossibly high, he couldn’t show a simple emotion like love to his only child and he required the complete and utter devotion of my mother. When he died I was lost. It was like with him dead I lost my chance for him to ever know me, see me.
They understood each other perfectly.
Camille lifted her head from his shoulder and looked into his eyes. Carrick returned her look with one of utter understanding. His golden eyes seeped with warmth and something else. It took her a second to figure out what it was, something about the eyes remind her of the times she caught him looking at Malcolm. Those moments when Carrick obviously thought no one was watching and he cast Malcolm a look of possessive utter openness. This time it was directed at her. She suddenly realized how badly she didn’t want to screw this up. He felt so good against her. They felt like the only people in the universe. Ducking her head, she smiled into his shoulder. Her cheek brushed the skin on his neck. Pushing back so that she could see his eyes again she asked, “How can this work? I imagine having a relationship with one man is hard enough, but two? With men as different at you and Malcolm, how the hell does that work?”
Carrick didn’t have the answers. Twenty minutes ago he didn’t even have hope that there could be an “us”. He could only answer, “We’ll figure it out.” Their arms were at their sides with just their hands clasped. Camille still held the glasses, laced among their fingers.
He had a question of his own. “Do you think we can trust each other? Let down our guard enough to become more than two people who are attracted to each other and too stubborn to get out of their own way?”
Her heart leaped at his admission of attraction. She hadn’t realized that she was so unsure of his true interest in her. But at the same time attraction was a long way from being in love with her, not that her time at his house had provided any encouragement. Could his loving her even touch the devotion he had for Malcolm. She didn’t want to compete with that relationship, but she also didn’t want to be presented at a table full of a feast and only allowed its leftovers. Under his chin, she shook her head at her thoughts. They had barely taken the first steps and she was already considering how it wasn’t enough. What did he call it?...Getting in her own way. So she answered honestly. “I don’t know, but I do know that I am scared to death that what left of my heart is going to get shredded.”
Carrick stood back and looked deeply in her eyes. Her stories of her past was her effort to begin to take the walls down around her heart, now she opened the doors in her eyes so he could have a chance to see her soul. A smile flickered on his face and he pressed a light kiss to her lips. “Sit with me?” Carrick asked. He let go of one of her hands and gestured toward the sofa, placed under one of the room’s enormous windows.
Camille felt shy, they had entered a new plane of existence with each other and she no longer knew how to act around him, not that she ever did. She hesitated.
“Come on.” Carrick gently pulled her after him. He seated himself and pulled her to him. She felt like another puzzle piece that slid home. Almost immediately she curled her body around him, drawing her legs us so they rested half under her.
“This is so weird.” She snuggled into his warmth as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. The house again fell into silence, like to world stopped to listen in on their conversation.
“What little I know about being in love with anybody I learned from Mal.” He told her faintly embarrassed. “Being with him opened me up to being someone a lover could count on. If we do this, I promise to do my best not to let you down.
Camille’s head was resting on his chest, his words ambled along her spine and nestled in her heart. As he spoke, her head gently rose and dipped with every breath, she could also hear the strength of his rhythmic heart beat. It was a cadence she could get used to. He felt like the safest place on earth. All those elements that allowed her to ask her next question,“Carrick, do you think you could love me?” She didn’t dare look at him. Once she said the words her nerves suddenly appeared. She couldn’t bear to look into his eyes and seeing any sign of mockery of her need within their depths. Instead she traced the patterns of ripples in his shirt while she waited for his response.
His reaction was immediate. He chuckled while he spoke, “I think I was half in love when Mal opened the door to the bedroom and I saw you in your brilliant red between another woman’s legs. I think I was completely done for when you told me off, in your own unique way, and left that night.” His hand embraced the curve of her hip. “Everything after that has been me trying to figure out how this all fits with everything else.” He pushed her up so that she could see him as he offered his apology, “I’m sorry for hurting you that night and on the balcony with Mal. I was angry about how you affected him and the compulsion I felt to be near you. But I was mean and heavy handed. I won’t do that again.”
Camille giggled. She was startled at the youngish sound coming from her own mouth, but couldn’t help herself. The thought of Carrick NOT being heavy handed was ridiculous. He was a man used to getting his way. Taking that away from his personality was like Earth suddenly orbiting the sun in another direction. The Earth’s orbit around the Sun is as old as time itself. Carrick could change his nature no more than the Earth could. Carrick silently revolved around the people he loved protecting their light and love. She giggled again. A few hours ago nothing in the world would have forced her to think that Carrick Caudwell was a good man, let alone say it.
He nudged her with his hand, smiling in reaction to her own mirth. “What’s so funny?”
Her eyes melted into the private smile on her lips. She kneeled in her seat and climbed across his lap so that she straddled him, rested her bottom on his lap, then looked her fill at his face; the softly curling hair with a sparse helping of gray, the carved face-a man’s face, and those oddly lit golden, glittering, incandescent, eyes. He had bandaged her when she was banged up, harassed her into thinking about more than her circumstances, protected and held her when she was imprisoned by her nightmares. She offered with a quiet assurance, “You are a good man.”