He whispered, “No,” as he withdrew. Yet she did not let him withdraw altogether. She caught his hand as he sat up and gripped it like a lifeline.
He rolled over and sat back, feeling his heart booming in his chest. “Too fast?” he asked, and his voice cracked with the urgency of his need.
Carmen shook her head. “I have to talk to you first,” she said.
“I’m not really in the mood to talk right now,” he answered, and bit his lip to control the shaking of his voice.
She took both his hands in hers and said, “I’ve been holding something back from you. You have to hear it now, before we go any further.”
He shook his head in pain. Not again. It wasn’t fair. How much could one man take?
“Neil,” she cried, shaking him. “Please.”
“Tell me,” he said through set teeth.
“Neil, I love you. I’m not going to tell you that I don’t. Just listen, please.”
The world turned over for him in that moment; she had never told him that she loved him before.
Now she released his hands and sat back. She said, “Neil, when you first came here, you must have noticed that I acted badly toward you.”
“You froze me out. You were the only one who did.”
“I was the only one who knew about Alice Hamilton.”
“How did you know?”
“Bill told me. I was the only one he told.”
She moved about uncomfortably on the couch. “Bill is an old and dear friend. He probably trusts me more than anyone else in the school because he has known me longer. And I trust him. You see, he was my teacher in high school; he arranged for me to get a scholarship when I graduated. If it weren’t for Bill Campbell, I would be an ignorant housewife with ten kids and no education. So when he asked a favor of me, I had to say yes.”
“And the favor was . . . ?”
“To watch you. To make sure that you were as innocent as James Watkins said you were.”
Neil sighed and shook his head. “That is one hell of a job to take on.”
“I didn’t want it, but I couldn’t refuse. If you had been an abuser, we had to know it.”
Neil said, “I understand. But do you know what? I’m sick and tired of understanding. I never did anything to deserve all this, and I’m just about ready to pack it in. It isn’t worth it. It just isn’t worth it.”
She reached for his hand again, and said, “Neil, I’m sorry.”
“You did a lousy job, you know. If you were going to spy on me, you shouldn’t have acted like I had the plague.”
“I couldn’t help that. I have never been able to conceal my feelings. With me, what you see is what you get.”
She had taken both his hands and moved in close again. He looked at her, wondering how she had meant that last phrase, when she took away any doubt.
“Neil, if you want me, I am yours. I love you. I began to love you even when I didn’t trust you, and now I love you without reservation. I would never have agreed to spy on you if I had known what you were like. If you can forget that — if you still mean what you said when you said you love me . . .”
Neil stood up. He raised Carmen up and drew her into his arms again. Then, with their arms around each other, they walked to her bedroom. more tomorrow — and check out today’s short post in A Writing Life for a take on Neil and Carmen.