She paced back and forth for several minutes. She knew he watched her as he clicked his pen. She stopped in front of him. “Trent, how do you see our relationship?”
Trent swallowed and dropped the pen on his desk that mirrored hers, “I want us to be friends.”
She jerked her head back as if she had been slapped and blinked back the tears. “Friends.”
“Yeah, we’ve worked together for so long now. You’ve been a partner and a friend and I would hate to mess with a winning combination.”
She took a deep breath and swallowed the shudder of pain that threatened her composure. She turned away and looked out the window to the panoramic view of the city spread out before her. A city they patrolled together. A city whose dark secrets taunted their skills as detectives.
“Why do you even ask such a thing? Valerie, what’s this about?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.” Her shoulders drooped. She had been in love with Trent for years, but the recent diagnosis from the doctor reminded her that life was finite. She wasn’t willing to settle for less than she desired anymore. She couldn’t imagine life without Trent in it. He had been her past, her present, and she hoped, her future. That hope died a tragic death with his words.
She picked up her coat, put it on and moved to the door.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” He asked.
She glanced back at him and didn’t answer. She wanted to imprint the memory of the way he looked: dark eyes under thick bushy brows and almost black hair trimmed close to his head. He looked younger than his thirty-five years. She felt much older than her own thirty.
“I don’t . . . no, you won’t.” She saw the question in his eyes, as his head tilted to one side. She owed him an explanation didn’t she? “I handed in my notice today. I’m on medical leave.” Before he could ask questions she slipped out the door, turned right and headed down the back stairs knowing he would think she had gone through the office cubicle area if he tried to follow her.
She reached her car, got in, drove out of the parking garage and headed into the country. She wanted to hide and lick her wounds. Her body was defeating her. Her emotions ran riot from anger to despair to depression to futility. What was the point in going on? Why fight the inevitable? She didn’t have the money and she didn’t have the courage on her own. But was it even fair to ask that of a man? To love her at her lowest point and be there for her? How selfish was she anyway? She brushed away errant tears and pulled over into a wildlife preserve and parked.
She exited the car, threw her holster and gun in the trunk and left her phone on the dash. She locked the vehicle and hiked up the trail into the shadows cast by the tall oaks, maples and pines surrounding her. The temperature was cooler here and she hugged her jacket a little tighter to her chest. The woods were silent with the exception of the sound of her feet crunching leaves and branches that had fallen on the dirt path.
She reached the top of a cliff and sat on a rock that was perched just a few feet back from the ledge. She leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and looked out at the meandering creek bed below as it appeared in between gaps in the trees. The sun shimmered off a particular tree making the leaves look white. She had never figured out what kind of tree that was. It had always fascinated her. She shook her head at her errant thoughts.
How had she come to this pass? Thirty years of age, single and in love with a man who didn’t want to be more than a partner and friend. The struggle she had ahead of her though required more than that. Her best friend, Danielle was a town away, but she had her hands full with her husband and two kids. She couldn’t ask for Dani’s help. Val shook her head. She could and Danielle would be torn by the desire to say yes and the reality that her life was already full beyond bursting. Dani didn’t need the added burden.
Her parents were too far away. They had their own health issues and were not capable of dealing with hers as well. They had never really understood her. She’d probably shoot herself before a week was out if she went to live with them. Her church? Who could be there day by day through the weeks and months ahead? No one person. No team of many and she would be uncomfortable with that. Was she too independent to lean on them?
Suicide? She looked up to heaven. So, Lord, who is there for me besides You? I don’t know if I can face this alone and that’s all I feel right now. Alone. I’m too young to be placed in a nursing home for care as I battle but that’s what the future seems to hold and I can’t bear it or afford that kind of care. Why even fight if that’s what I have to look forward to?
The heavens were silent as fluffy cirrus clouds floated past looking like cotton candy, tinged pink with the rays of a sun descending along the distant horizon. She had always believed that suicide was wrong. Allowing the disease to claim her without intervention was an option, though. Even with insurance she didn’t have the resources to fight. Without the prescribed treatment, she may be able to have a pretty decent, although shorter, life with the help of the pain medications they would give her, but wasn’t that just a passive way of killing herself?
She stood up and looked over the cliff. She remembered repelling it with Trent as part of a recertification exercise. She had never feared falling with him by her side. She had rarely felt fear even in the tensest circumstances when he was there.
But he wasn’t here now and wouldn’t be. She couldn’t bear the thought of him watching her slow death. But isn’t that exactly what she had wanted?
It’s not fair, Jesus. It’s just not fair. She had read the research. She knew that those who had a close support system, like a spouse, fared far better though treatment and had a greater likelihood of eventual healing. For months she prayed that God would heal her and yet the latest blood work had shown progression. She would never return to her work. She would never enjoy coffee in the mornings with Trent as they discussed their current cases. She would never celebrate with him when one was solved and justice brought for the victims. She would never know the love of a husband for a wife. She would never be a mom.
She sat on the ground with her back leaning against the rock and let the tears fall again as grief twisted her dying body like a washcloth being squeezed of its moisture.
If only she had the courage . . .
* * *
Trent had searched everywhere. He panicked. Valerie was not answering her phone or returning text messages. That was not like her. He called Danielle.
“Have you heard from Val?”
“No. Why?” Dani sounded rushed and he heard a baby wail in the background.
“She asked about our relationship. I told her I wanted to be friends and she left the office with a throwaway line about medical leave. She’s disappeared. I’m worried about her, she didn’t seem herself.”
“She hasn’t been herself for months, Trent.”
“I know. Every time I’ve asked she’s changed the subject. She’s lost weight too.”
Dani sighed, “Listen, Trent, if you want my opinion, you are a fool to not move things forward with her. She has to be in love with you to have put up with you these past few years.”
Trent rolled his eyes. This was why he tried to avoid contacting Dani. One, he hated going behind Valerie’s back and two, Dani was so in love that she thought everyone else should be as well, especially him and Val. “It’s kind of a mute point right now. She’s missing.”
“Since you are not her husband I guess you should go home and wait for her to call you when she’s good and ready. She’s an adult, Trent. She can take care of herself.”
For some odd reason, that’s what he was afraid of.
He parked the car in front of her apartment complex and went to the interior hallway. He knocked but there was no answer. He suspected as much since her car was absent from the lot. He sat down on the floor by the door and waited. And prayed.
Why was he reluctant to take things to a next level with this woman? He’d been in love with her long before they had become partners. Every time he lay alone in bed at night he wished that she was there to share his hopes and dreams with. The image of his mother crying when his father had left and the pain of the divorce had left him fearful of ever considering marriage. His mother had aged overnight and never recovered from the rejection by her husband. He was the spitting image of his father and that alone also reminded her daily of her loss and pain. How could he ever do something like that to Val? The risk was too high. He felt that staying single was better than hurting someone he loved.
But it seemed like he had hurt her anyway. Was his refusal to move things forward a form of rejection to her? He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. And waited some more.
The cool blast of air hit him as he heard the back door to the apartment complex close. Soft footsteps came towards him and in the dim lighting he saw her stooped shoulders. He glanced at his watch. It was past ten. Her head lifted. She saw him and stopped. Her solemn expression didn’t change. Her eyes were bloodshot and her blonde hair escaped her ponytail. She looked—worn.
He watched as Val took a few more steps to the door and put the key in. Trent rose to his feet and stood behind her. She pushed the door open and stood aside, head bent, as he entered. The door shut and the bolt found home with a solid thunk.
Neither spoke. She dropped her purse and keys on a kitchen chair. Trent reached forward to help her take her coat off. He hung the coat up on the rack by the door, and took two steps back to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. She looked up into his eyes and he saw bleakness there.
He bent his head forward and tentatively placed his lips to hers. How many times had he dreamed of doing this? Her arms came up around his neck drawing them closer. He tasted the saltiness of her tears. He pulled his head back and wrapped his arms around her as she cried. His heart cracked.
“Where’s your gun?”
She hiccupped and backed way. “Locked in my trunk. I didn’t trust myself to have it close right now.”
He closed his eyes for a moment and silently thanked God. He opened them and watched as Val walked into her cozy living room and sat down on a chocolate suede loveseat. She picked up and hugged a teal pillow to her chest and patted the seat next to her. He did not hesitate to join her there.
“I’ve looked everywhere for you,” he whispered.
“I’m sorry to have worried you, but I’m not your responsibility.” She rested her chin on the top of the pillow.
“Maybe that should change.”
Her head jerked up to look at him. “You made it clear . . .”
“I’ve been an idiot, Val. Blind and afraid. I don’t know what’s going on but whatever it is I want to be there for you as you go through it.” He reached over and grabbed a hand, surprised that she allowed him to.
“I was wrong, Trent. I was wrong to insinuate I wanted more from you than to be friends. You’ve been one of the best. I couldn’t ask you walk my journey with me. It would not be fair to you.”
“What journey? Shouldn’t I be able to decide what I’m willing to do?”
Her hazel eyes were grey, with flecks of green and looked sadder than he ever recalled seeing her, with the swollen lids from the tears she had cried. “I’m dying, Trent.”
He shook his head. No. Not this vibrant, beautiful woman sitting in front of him. A vice gripped his heart. “No.” It came out harsher and stronger than he intended and she startled at the sound.
“Very much so, yes. With treatment I might have remission, but it’s expensive and beyond my means. Without it, I may be have six to nine months left.”
“Then we will marry right away.”
“Wow, Trent, now there’s a proposal to sweep a girl off her feet.”
“I’m sorry. You deserve better than that, and a much better man as well.”
“Don’t say that. I could never have picked a better man to be my partner and friend. I’m going to miss seeing you every day.”
She started to rise but he held her fast and pulled her onto his lap and trapped her in the circle of his arms. “Valerie, I have loved you, I think, from the day I first met you. Your hair was braided down your back like twists of sunlight and your bangs swept to the side. Your eyes lit up when you smiled. You were never intimidated by the guys and treated them all like your brothers, which is odd because I know you don’t have any. Every guy wanted to get close to you but I managed, somehow, to gain your favor and I’ve always treasured that. I don’t want to lose you as a partner or a friend. I want to talk to you after a long day of work as I hold you in my arms. I want your kiss to be the last thing I experience before I walk out the door in the morning. I want to hold you when you cry and be the one to make you laugh. However long we have together, please, be my wife and make all the other officers insanely jealous of me.”
She giggled and put and arm around him and their lips met.
Home was found in Trent’s arms. This was what she had always dreamed and hoped for, only reality surpassed her fantasies. She broke the kiss and leaned her forehead against his. “It’s not fair to ask you to marry a dying woman.”
“Who said I’m going to let you die?” His voice was a growl and his eyes were as dark as Turkish coffee. She could feel the stubble on his chin as her hand came to caress his face.
“You have enough pull with God to stay my execution?”
“No. But if love and prayer can keep you with me for the next fifty years, you had better believe I’m going to bathe every moment in both of them.”
She looked into those eyes and felt hope again. “Then, yes, Trent. I will marry you.”
Fifty years, three children, eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren later, Valerie sat next to the man who looked as handsome as when she first met him even though his hair was now a distinguished silver. They held hands as their family celebrated around them. When the music played he stood and helped her to her feet and they walked out onto the dance floor.
“I’m so glad I married you, Valerie.” She heard a huskiness in his voice as he drew her into the circle of his arms.
“I love you, Trent.” She whispered as she relished the touch of his hands on her.
His eyes shone with love for her as they often did. A love that had given her courage for a battle she had never asked for. A love that had won. She swayed with him and turned her face up to his. He knew what she was asking for. He bent his head and their lips met and time stopped. Her heart welled with love and gratitude for an illness that brought them together as more than partners and friends, but as lovers as well.
When the kiss broke she winked at him and he grinned. The room around erupted in applause and somehow she knew God was smiling too.