He cupped her chin with his hand and caressed her cheek. He hushed her softly. “I’ve been thinking the same thing about myself. What have I done to deserve someone like you?” His dark eyes remained steady on hers through their tears. “I never had a chance to hide anything from you, Wendy. You found me out from the beginning and you made up your mind about me anyway.”
She nodded. “That’s why the doctor will think I’m sick.”
He shook his head slowly. “No. You didn’t judge me.”
“But I did, Joe. I was very angry when I found you. I have little sympathy for anyone who would do that to himself.”
“But you helped me.”
“You’re a human being. I had to help you.”
“Why do you want me, Wendy?”
A tear rolled down her cheek and wet his thumb. “There’s more to you than drinking, Joe. I can see that. There’s a whole wonderful person in there that I’m attracted to. But that night all I could see was hurt. You were hurting on that kitchen floor, and hurting in bed with that fever. You were hurting when your sister accused you. I wanted to help you.”
“You did help me.” He made her look at him by lifting her chin.
She closed her eyes because the truth hurt too much. “I wanted to help Nana, too, but she wouldn’t let me,” she whispered. “Nothing I did made her happy. Everything could have been done just a little better. Staying only reminded her of Trish and that made her miserable and leaving would have only caused her to become more ill. If she had lived twenty more years I would have stayed with her, hating her and myself and always trying to make her happy.”
“Wendy, look at me.” She opened her eyes. “I’m not your grandmother.”
“But you’re an alcoholic.” The desire to convict herself overwhelmed her. She looked at Joe, desperately. “I killed her. I know it sounds stupid, and I know I didn’t really kill her, not physically, not with my hands, but I wanted her dead. I wished it.” There, she’d finally confessed it. “I killed her, Joe, and I don’t want to end up wishing you dead, too.”
He held her. “You didn’t kill her, Wendy. You were dealing with an on-going tough situation the best way you could.”
“Was that what it was like for you, Joe? Did you ever wish your father dead?”
His throat went dry. “I must have wanted it on some level.” He would have torn his father apart if he could’ve gotten the car door open that night.
“Do you ever feel guilty about it?”
Joe sighed. When in his life had he not felt responsible? He’d tried to make himself perfect, a saint, but even that couldn’t change things. Worse, the saints were more human than he, they felt things like real remorse, or joy and love. He felt nothing, save guilt, so he gave up the idea of a religious vocation. He turned his back on heaven and pursued hell—all this, his interior drama.
“Wendy, I’m not your grandmother.” He made her look at him. “I don’t expect you to make my life any better.” He smiled. “That’s just a natural consequence of our friendship.”
She stared at him. “What do you expect?”
How many times had he wondered about his father’s expectations? “I don’t expect anything but honesty, Wendy. Keep being honest with me. If we can settle these issues and you find out that we really are good for each other, will you marry me?” The words came so naturally, so easily, as if he were meant to speak them at that very moment since the beginning of time. To hell with convention, he waited on the brink for her answer. He wanted this friendship to grow and last forever.
She closed her eyes and more tears slipped down her face. She whispered, “It’s a dream to me.”
He hugged her, tightly. “It won’t be, Wendy,” he said, and lifted her chin to study her silent features then bent his head and kissed her lips softly. She spoke his name against them, wound her arms around his neck and returned the sweet gesture, but the kiss quickly turned urgent and they were both overcome by an unexpected desire of a depth they hadn’t anticipated. He couldn’t deny her and his chest swelled, his mind muddied as if drugged, this first experience of Wendy more potent than any past dalliance and he cupped her chin to kiss her fully. He could have fallen back against the bar, cradling her with him. That wild current that tugged at him could have pulled him under. His instincts begged him to yield to it knowing that if he persisted she might not refuse him. I could carry her up to the office.
He tore his mouth away pressing his cheek to hers, breathing deeply to quiet his disturbed body and only aroused himself more with each ragged breath. She kissed his ear and the warmth of her breath took him down again into that hot circular whirlpool of sensation. He raised his chin to disengage himself and closed his eyes when she kissed his throat, bargaining now with himself, promising that he would end the contact in just a few moments…
She locked her arms around him and pressed her body fully against his and he thought his solar plexus was a ball of fire. He shook from the heat and force of it.
“Wendy.” He held her by her shoulders and tried to ease her away. “Sweetheart…”
She resisted him and he had to struggle with himself as well. He couldn’t push her away. He didn’t want to and she wouldn’t let him, so he pulled her to him, tightly, and held her so her arms were pinned between them. He held her head against his chest where she could hear his heart beating. He held her until he could think again and then he held her a little while longer just to be sure.
He stroked her hair. She said, very softly, “How come you’re so damned honorable with me?”
He laughed quietly and closed his eyes, kissing the top of her head, and breathing her scent deeply. “Because I want much more than just your body, Wendy,” he said, a revelation to himself as much as it was to her. And then he lifted her chin and smiled at her. “Because we’re friends and much more than that.”