By Monday morning Claire had nearly convinced herself that she had never really cared that deeply for Cameron anyway - but when the automatic doors in front of her desk slid open just before nine, her stomach twisted into a hard knot. She took a deep breath and stared at her computer screen, stubbornly refusing to look up even when she heard the sound of a wheelchair crossing the wooden floor and coming around behind her desk.
“So how was your hot date with Doc Alex?”
Claire’s breath rushed out of her in relief at the recognition of Tyrone’s voice, but at the same time she was annoyed that her date with Cameron was obviously public knowledge. She was about to tell him sharply to mind his own business, but her anger left her when she glanced up and saw his face was pale and drawn, and his eyes were more darkly circled than ever.
“So?” he prompted, regarding her steadily.
“How do you know about Friday night, anyway?”
“Everyone knows everything that goes on around here, Claire. Told you it was only a matter of time till he asked you out,” he explained with an air of condescension, “And Skinner heard Chris talking to someone about it on Friday afternoon. So I’ve waited all weekend to find out how it went.”
Claire sighed, “It was a disaster, Tyrone. Okay?”
He frowned at her, “No! You can’t be serious - I’ve seen the way you two look at each other. How did it really go?”
“It was really a disaster,” she repeated flatly, “and we certainly won’t be going out again. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. So, how was your weekend?”
He didn’t answer for a few minutes, and when he did his voice was bitter.
“Rotten. Spent the whole time on my face in bed because of pressure sores on my backside. Thought things couldn’t get any worse . . .” he flicked his fringe out of his eyes. “Only out of bed today because I let the head nurse have it - had more than enough of it by this morning, and there was no way I was going to take another day of it!”
“I’m sorry Tyrone - I do know how bad that can be - David’s in the same boat with sitting in a wheelchair all day long. He has trouble with his skin from time to time too, and it’s always a hassle until it clears up.”
He’d been frowning hard at the floor, but looked up at the mention of David’s name.
“Couldn’t get to the computer on the weekend, so I’ll try to catch up with him today. Long as those nurses don’t try to stick me back in bed.” he scowled for a few moments and then looked curiously at her, “Can’t believe you’re not seeing Doc Alex again . . .what could go so wrong on a first date?”
“Tyrone, I’m not going to talk about it, okay?” she said firmly, and then jumped as the sliding doors opened and Cameron came into the reception area.
His jaw was firmly set, and his expression hard as he crossed the floor. He looked at though he was coming towards her, but when he noticed Tyrone beside her he stopped in front of the reception desk and regarded Claire with stony eyes.
“Good morning Claire . . .Tyrone,” he said, his voice cold.
“Good morning, Doctor.” Claire replied stiffly, lifting her chin and meeting his eyes squarely. Tyrone said hello, and then Cameron turned and disappeared down the corridor.
Claire stared after him, dismayed that despite her anger his coldness toward her hurt deeply. She looked quickly back down at her desk, hating herself for the way she was trembling now that he was out of sight.
Tyrone gave a low whistle, “You were telling me the truth! What on earth happened for things to be that bad between you . . . Didn’t think he was the kind of bloke to try to take advantage of a girl.”
“What?” Claire demanded, shocked from her thoughts, “Where did you get an idea like that from
Tyrone shrugged, “Why else would you suddenly be so cold toward each other?”
“Believe me, it was nothing like that, Tyrone, and I’m offended that you could even suggest such a thing! If that’s how you think, I’m glad we weren’t even alone - David was with us the whole night - so you can forget your sordid ideas and mind your own business!”
“Ah, David was there?”
Claire could guess from his expression what he was thinking, and pointed her finger at him accusingly, “And don’t you even consider asking David about what happened . . .I promise you I won’t ever talk to you again if you do!”
“Relax, Claire - won’t ask him anything about it, okay?” he grinned and held out his hands in surrender, “Won’t need to anyway - way everyone talks around here I’ll find out soon enough anyway.”
“Isn’t there somewhere else you should be, Tyrone? I’ve got work to do!” Claire snapped, realising her situation was much worse than she’d anticipated. Cameron had been so open about his interest in her, that it would now be obvious to everyone that things had changed between them now.
“Yeah, suppose it’s about time I went through to the gym.” he answered, pushing back from her desk, “Oh, Claire - I was planning to take my lunch into the computer room today - one of the other guys told me about some internet sites and chatrooms put together by quads. D’you think you could come and give me a hand getting online and finding them?”
“Sure, Tyrone - I’d love to.” she smiled, touched that he was trying to cheer her up, and giving her an excuse not to have to face Cameron in the dining room, “I’ll see you at lunch then.”
She watched as Tyrone made his way down the corridor, and tried to suppress her growing anxiety. She’d been foolish to hope that she’d just be able to carry on with her job as though nothing had happened.
It was clear that Cameron was still as angry with her as he had been on Friday night, and from his expression she had no doubt that he’d intended to take it up with her the moment he’d arrived. Thankfully Tyrone had been with her and he hadn’t been able to speak to her then - but it was inevitable that she would have to face him alone sometime.
And after the way she’d felt seeing him just a few minutes ago, Claire realised that not even her anger could protect her from the unnerving effect he so obviously still had on her
Cameron tapped his pencil impatiently on the conference table. He’d know soon enough if Claire was going to arrive for the afternoon conference early or whether she was going to wait until the others came as she’d done on Friday. He clenched his jaw - she’d been avoiding him all day, and his frustration at not being able to resolve things with her had nearly pushed him to breaking point.
Despite spending the entire weekend going over and over things in his mind, he was still no closer to making any sense of either his own confused emotions, or understanding why Claire would first force him into such an impossible situation and then cut him off cold, rejecting him completely.
He desperately needed to know how she really felt about him - whether she had ever responded to him out of anything more than compassion or pity - before he could accept the destruction of a relationship which had been incredibly precious to him. The uncertainty was driving him to distraction, and even though it seemed that Claire had deliberately crushed his hopes for a future together, seeing the inner beauty of her nature in the way she cared for her brother had only increased his admiration and deep longing for her.
He was disappointed in himself for reacting so badly to meeting David, but what did Claire expect by throwing him into the deep end without any warning?
Why is she doing this to me? he thought in anger and frustration, She avoided admitting what was happening between us for so long and then suddenly invited me out on Friday night. . .was setting me up to fail like this her way of telling me to forget any ideas about a relationship with her?
He heard footsteps in the corridor, and looked up as Claire walked in through the open door.
“Good afternoon,” she said breezily, going straight over to the computer and sitting down without looking at him. For a moment Cameron believed that she was as relaxed and unconcerned as she appeared, but as he stared at her he noticed that her smile was stiff and that she was breathing slowly and deeply like she always did when she was uptight.
“I looked for you at lunch,” he said, rolling the pencil between his fingers, “I hoped we could have had some time alone to talk.”
“Did you? I’m sorry, Tyrone had asked me to meet him in the computer room for lunch, there were some things he wanted me to help him find on the internet,” she answered as she continued to tap at the computer keyboard.
“Claire, we need to talk about Friday night,” he demanded, fed up with her feigned indifference.
“There is nothing to talk about,” she said evenly, without looking up or pausing in her work.
“There certainly is!” he exploded, slamming the pencil down hard against the table, “You subject me to one of the most humiliating experiences of my life, and yet you refuse to give me any kind of explanation! If you think I’m just going to forget what you did because you don’t feel like talking about it, you can think again!”
“What I did?” she repeated incredulously, rising to her feet in one quick movement and glaring at him over the computer, “After the way you behaved, I can’t believe you have the nerve to speak to me about something you think I did!”
Cameron met her accusing glare without flinching, strangely gratified that he had pushed her past her cool reserve. Her face was flushed, and her shoulders were rising and falling rapidly with shallow breaths.
“I just wanted to forget Friday ever happened, ” she continued, her eyes blazing, “but if you really insist on talking about it all - you can hear exactly what I think! I have never been more disappointed or embarrassed by someone’s behaviour in my whole life, and short of an apology or some kind of explanation of your ignorant attitude I have no desire to speak with you at all!”
“I don’t care what you desire!” Cameron answered harshly, “For some purpose which I can not fathom, you manipulate the total destruction of our relationship, and then you have the hide to cast me as the villain! You wouldn’t give me the courtesy of an explanation of your scheme on Friday night, you’ve avoided me all day today, and now you tell me you still have no desire to talk about it! This has gone on far enough, Claire - it’s time we . . .”
Cameron’s head snapped up as he heard the tell-tale jingle of Lynette’s bangles as she entered the room. She paused in the door way and looked from Cameron to Claire and back again.
“I’m sorry - am I interrupting something?”
Cameron let out a slow breath, and began tapping his pencil again in frustration. Their voices had been raised and he had no idea of what Lynette might have heard.
“No, Lynette - you’re not interrupting anything,” Claire said sweetly, as Lynette took her seat at the table, “We were finished talking.”
Cameron stared at her in amazement. Her face was instantly calm and relaxed, and she was breathing evenly. He could barely contain his own emotions - and yet here was Claire looking as if nothing had happened, and the strength of her self control incensed him even further.
“Did you find the letters I put on your desk, Lynette?” Claire began conversationally as she resumed her seat behind the computer.
“Yes - I did, thanks,” Lynette answered, seeming to accept her manner as perfectly normal.
Cameron felt the pencil snap between his fingers. How could she so lightly dismiss what had happened - was what they had between them so unimportant to her that she could so calmly accept its destruction?
Lynette glanced sharply at him as the broken pieces of pencil fell to the table. Cameron turned his chair away from them, and stared out of the window. Claire might be able to switch off her emotions at will, but he couldn’t!
Cameron was relieved that Lynette didn’t say anything to him, and an uncomfortable silence fell over the room as he glowered at the tranquil view, struggling to regain his composure. A few minutes later, he turned back around when he heard Chris’s heavy footsteps entering the room.
“Is it cold in here?” Chris asked as he took his seat and glanced around the silent room.
Lynette sighed, “Have you ever been to Antarctica, Chris?”
“Oh, I see.” he looked from Cameron to Claire, “So Friday night wasn’t a big success then?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” said Lynette, “but no-one’s saying anything.”
Cameron thumped a file down onto the table in front of him.
“Let’s just get on with the meeting, okay?” he said, opening up the file, “We were right about Eric the Viking - when I compared his medical history with Tony’s I could see exactly the same pattern emerging with their injuries. I’ve arranged for some more scans for Tony, but that will take another few weeks until they’re done. In the meantime, I suggest we follow through with the same approach we took with Eric the Viking - Chris, would you mind going over Eric’s physio plan and adapting it for him?”
“Sure,” he answered, and took the file that Cameron was holding out for him. He looked inquiringly at Cameron, but Cameron turned to Lynette.
“What does the nursing team have to report on Tony’s progress?”
The meeting began to flow more easily as they moved from patient to patient, but Cameron was uncomfortably aware of the speaking looks that were passing between Chris and Lynette. He could not see Claire’s face because of the way she had positioned herself behind the computer, but whenever she asked for clarification of some point, her voice was even and professional.
Although he had seen the anger that was lurking just beneath the surface of her serene exterior, it continued to grate him that she betrayed no sign of it at all. He determinedly pulled his eyes away from her, and tried to keep his mind on the meeting.
They were discussing Tyrone’s file, and his ongoing problem with pressure sores that weren’t responding well to treatment. After much consideration of the matter, he decided to take Lynette’s recommendation that Tyrone be kept out of his wheelchair until there was clear evidence that his skin was healing.
“That’s not a good idea,” Claire said quietly, but unequivocally, “I don’t know if anyone else noticed how bad Tyrone looked today after spending the weekend in bed - but it’s the most demoralised I’ve known him to be. Putting him back in bed again already would be the worst thing you could do for him.”
“Thank you for pointing that out - but I’m perfectly aware of that side of things, Claire,” Cameron answered with forced patience, “But we can’t neglect his physical health just because he’s not accepting the situation. At the moment getting his skin healed is our greatest priority. I don’t think you’re taking into account the seriousness of pressure sores, Claire, it’s certainly not something that can be dismissed lightly because it’s inconvenient for Tyrone.”
“For goodness sake! As if I didn’t realise the seriousness of pressure sores!” she exploded, and as she pushed her chair back from the desk to glare at him, Cameron recognised the same fire blazing in her eyes that he had seen just before Lynette had arrived.
She continued angrily, “How can you be so arrogant to suggest that I would say anything about his condition if I didn’t know what I was talking about!”
“Hey, time-out, Claire!” Chris interrupted, looking at her in astonishment, “What the blazes has happened between you two to make you jump down Cameron’s throat like that? This is ridiculous!”
“Leave it, Chris.” Cameron commanded quietly.
He felt incredibly relieved seeing Claire lose her cool like that - it was obvious that she was still as worked up about things as he was. But he regretted that he hadn’t stopped to think before he spoke - he was still coming to terms with her relationship with her brother, David, and he realised now that his comment could only have been insulting considering the first hand experience with pressure sores she inevitably would have.
“My apologies Claire, I certainly had no intention of insulting you in that way. I was thoughtless.”
“No - please don’t apologise - I’m sorry. I should never have spoken to you like that.”
Claire took a deep breath, and Cameron could see her determinedly rebuilding her composure.
“It’s just that I’m very worried about Tyrone - I know his skin has to be treated - but I’m frightened of the consequences of him lying around on his own, with all the time in the world to contemplate just how miserable his life is. I really think it could be too much for him right now.”
“And that’s why we have already let things go on longer than we should have.” Cameron explained.
“I know,” Claire nodded. “But if it really is the only option, can we arrange for as much extra support as possible? Perhaps he can still be kept involved in some kind of activities . . .and maybe you should even consider keeping him under close observation.”
“You’re that worried?”
Claire nodded, and Lynette expressed that although she could see no alternative but bed rest, she had the same fears for Tyrone as Claire did. She offered to arrange for Tyrone’s nurses to attend to him more frequently and to report back to her with even the slightest concerns.
“I’m sure we can roster on a couple of extra occupational therapists to spend some time with him too,” Chris suggested, “and it might be worthwhile seeing about hooking up a computer to his room - he seems to have taken up quite an interest in that. I could hardly drag him out of the computer room this afternoon.”
“Good idea - I’ll see to that tonight.” Cameron said, grateful that Claire’s outburst had shocked them all into more serious action about Tyrone.
Like Chris he’d initially assumed she’d only reacted so strongly because of her feelings about their own relationship - but now he wondered if it was more to do with her deep concern for Tyrone. She had always been extremely sensitive of Tyrone’s moods, but only since Friday night had he realised just how profoundly compassionate she was.
Remembering that side of her revived that same feeling of insecurity and worthlessness that had plagued him all weekend. Did she ever feel anything more for me than pity?
“Is there anything else?” he asked quickly, his heart beginning to pound again. Somehow he had to get to the bottom of how Claire really felt about him.
Lynette shook her head, and Chris said something about having to get a set of keys back from a workman - but Cameron had become too distracted about talking to Claire to really pay attention. It’s still early - if they’d just go, I’d finally have a chance to speak to her. . .for once she has no excuse to be somewhere else.
Chris and Lynette seemed to sense his thoughts, and after exchanging meaningful glances, quickly took their leave. Chris looked back over his shoulder at him as he left the room, and Cameron had no doubt that Chris and Lynette would be heading straight to Chris’s office to discuss the situation between him and Claire.
A heavy silence descended as soon as the door closed behind them, and as he waited for Claire to finish up on the computer the atmosphere in the room was just as tense as it been before Lynette had cut short their argument before the conference.
A few minutes later Claire snatched the completed minutes from the printer, and as she brought them over to him it was clear that she was still as angry with him as she’d been before the meeting. That gave him some degree of comfort - at least she had finally dropped the calm pretence.
“Sit down Claire,” he said as he took the minutes and put them on top of the files without even glancing at them, “Let’s finish what we started before the meeting.”
Claire hesitated, her eyes narrowed. “I’d rather stand, thank you.”
“And I’d rather you sit. Now, do I have to lock you in here - or will you finally do me the courtesy of talking this thing out?”
With obvious annoyance she sat down on the edge of the chair and glared at him. He felt his own anger rise in response to her animosity towards him, but he caught himself before he began to speak, his conscience pricking him about his unchecked temper.
Oh, Lord, how did things go so wrong between us? he prayed silently, Please help me control my temper so we can somehow sort this all out . . .
He was surprised to feel his frustration subsiding, and for the first time noticed that Claire’s hands were trembling, and realised that beneath her antagonistic attitude she was just as upset as he was.
“We’ve already said everything that needed to be said before the meeting!” Claire said, the rapid gestures of her hands emphasising her annoyance as she spoke, “There’s nothing more to discuss.”
“Claire, we’re both angry at each other, but that is not going help us solve anything. It’s time we finally got to the bottom of things,” he said gently, “I need to know the real reason you invited me to come out with you and you brother on Friday night.”
His question caught her off guard, and she blinked in confusion a couple of times before she recovered herself.
“You had said that you wanted to take me out! So I thought it was a good chance to get to know each other. You gave me the impression that you actually cared about me, but the way you acted on Friday night made it perfectly clear that I was mistaken.”
“I’m not proud of the way I behaved on Friday night, and I know I hurt you, Claire. I regret that very much, but you put me in a very difficult situation by the way - ”
She cut him off angrily, “I put you in a difficult situation? What - by forcing you to be in the intolerable company of me and my brother? I’ll tell you what was a difficult situation - spending the evening with a person who didn’t even have the decency to try to hide how ashamed he was to be with us!”
“Claire - I was anything but ashamed to be with you! But I was angry at you for not giving me even the most basic consideration when you made the arrangements for Friday night. Has there been any point in this whole thing where you’ve stopped for a moment to take my feelings into account?”
“No - why should I? You showed such little regard for David’s feelings on Friday night that I really had more than enough to concern myself with without worrying about your feelings! You’re more than able to look after yourself, and if you can’t cope with being seen out with someone like David, then that’s your problem! I really don’t care how you feel about it!”
“Claire -” he started again, but she cut him off again.
“This is how my whole life is, Cameron! How hard would it have been for you to have put up with it for my sake for just one night!” Her voice had risen and her hands moved expressively as she spoke, “For goodness sake - why did you agree to come with us if it is such a problem for you?”
“Because I had no idea.”
“What are you talking about? No idea about what? If you didn’t know if you could handle it, why didn’t you have the decency to say something before-hand?”
Cameron took a deep breath - for the first time it occurred to him that she had expected that he’d known about David’s disability, and what was going to be involved on Friday night. He didn’t know why she had made that assumption, but it seemed to make sense of why she’d arranged things the way she did, and why they’d both ended up so upset with each other.
“Claire, I didn’t know before-hand that I was going to be in a situation I would find so difficult to handle,” he explained slowly. “You told me nothing about David, or the wheelchair van or what would be involved in going out with the two of you. I’ve been trying all weekend to work out what your purpose was in keeping me in the dark, so that the first I knew of David’s disability was when you introduced me to him on Friday night.”
“Don’t be ridiculous - of course you knew!” she snapped, although her wide eyes betrayed her surprise, “I know I told you about getting the van from the rehab centre the day I started here!”
“You simply said a van . . .I had no reason to suspect it was anything but a normal family van. It all makes sense now that I know about David - but by not being open about him you put all three of us into a very difficult situation. If only you’d prepared me in some way, I’m sure I would have been able to handle the whole thing better.”
“How could you not know! I’ve been completely open with everyone about David from the very beginning. I don’t know how you can pretend you didn’t know - all about his condition and the fact that I’ve cared for him for the past ten years was in black and white on my job application. That experience and working at his day centre was the whole reason I got this job in the first place.”
“Now I understand why you assumed I knew . . .” Cameron was tremendously relieved to be finally getting to the bottom of it.
“But Claire, I didn’t really read your application. I told you the first day we talked that I only glanced over it - all I noticed was that you didn’t have any formal qualifications, and then I saw the reference from Pastor Muxlow - but that was as far as I looked at it.”
He could see that his explanation had taken Claire completely off guard, but she answered back so quickly he was sure she hadn’t really understood the significance of what he was saying.
“Yes - I see! You saw I had no qualifications and you were ready to cull my application without reading any further! I’m lucky the people on the panel were a little more open-minded than you - or I wouldn’t be here now. Though it’s probably not too late for you to rectify that either!”
“Claire, you are not listening to me,” he caught her rapidly moving hands in his, forcing her attention.
“I did not give your application - or anyone else’s - much attention simply because there were dozens of them, and I was so busy getting ready to go overseas that it was a job I could leave to someone else. But you are missing the point. I know you’re upset, but we’re not going to get anywhere unless you slow up and hear me out.”
She regarded him warily, but did not try to interrupt as he continued.
“You are angry at me because of the way I reacted to David on Friday night, because you thought I knew all about his condition and should have been prepared to deal with it. I did not know about anything him - I had no idea. All I knew was that you had a brother who was about my age, whom you wanted to have as a chaperone on our first date. When I met him I had no idea how to handle the situation and I was angry at you for unfairly throwing me in at the deep end without any kind of warning. I didn’t know what you were trying to acheive, I could only assume you’d arranged things that way on purpose.”
“You really didn’t know?” she asked, and he could feel her hands trembling in his.
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry I reacted the way I did, but seeing your brother like that was the last thing I expected. I know I should have handled it better - but I didn’t know how to act toward him - I didn’t even know anything about his condition. I thought it was probably something like cerebral palsy. Is it?”
Claire nodded, her face pale. She was clearly shaken, but still held her chin up defiantly as she met his eyes, unwilling to give up her anger. “Yes - but he’s still a human being Cameron - there was no excuse for treating him like a vegetable. Have you any idea how insulting that was to both of us?”
“I assumed he was mentally retarded, Claire - I know that many people with cerebral palsy are - especially when they’re as severely affected as he is. I tried to speak to him when you went to get the drinks, but I couldn’t understand a word he said. I didn’t know if he was even aware of what was going on, and from the moment you introduced us you didn’t even give me two moments alone with you where I could have asked you about him.”
“And even if he was retarded it still wouldn’t have given you the right to treat him like you did! But you couldn’t have been more wrong about him - David is the most intelligent person I know! I learnt a long time ago that I’m no match for him intellectually, and I wouldn’t be so sure that you were either!” she replied hotly.
“Just because he can’t speak doesn’t mean he can’t understand perfectly! And even if you didn’t know that, I told you all about the kind of things he’s involved in with the internet - and you saw the way I spoke to him - why couldn’t you at least take that as a cue?”
“You’re his sister, and the fact that you spoke to him as you did indicated nothing more to me than that you love him deeply,” he said, squeezing her hands between his, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about the way it all happened, Claire, but I just didn’t know. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt you or your brother - and after Friday night I can see just how much he means to you. I’m really sorry.”
“So David was right . . .” she murmured to herself, frowning hard at the floor. When she finally looked back up at him the anger in her eyes had been replaced by regret, and her voice was soft.
“I’m sorry too, Cameron, I was so sure you understood about David, and that when you agreed to come out with us that it meant that you were perfectly comfortable with everything it involved. I couldn’t understand how you could be so angry with me, but I certainly never intended to make everything so difficult for all of us. I’m so sorry.”
Cameron looked at her intently as she spoke, and as he noticed how pale her face was beneath her freckles, and saw the sadness in her large brown eyes, he knew without a doubt how deeply he cared for her. In feeling the full force of her anger unleashed against him, she had completely dismissed his fears that her feelings for him had been based only on her own sense of pity for him.
Claire was furious with me - she told me that she was so concerned about David that she didn’t even care how I was feeling! If her care for me was only on the same level as her care for David and Tyrone, surely she would have tried to protect me too, not attack me the way she did, he realised, his body suddenly warm with incredible relief.
She’s made it clear that she thinks I’m quite capable of fending for myself . . . and she certainly doesn’t see me as disabled! It didn’t even occur to her that being out with David in the wheelchair van would be any harder for me to deal with than it is for her. Her attraction to me is every bit as genuine as mine is to her!
“Oh, Claire - I’m so relieved we’ve finally got to the bottom of this,” he said, leaning closer so that his eyes were level with hers, “You are so important to me, and I can’t believe we nearly let this misunderstanding destroy our friendship.”
Claire looked away quickly, but not before Cameron saw that her eyes were shining with tears. She pulled back from him, and stood up and went over to the window, and her back was still towards him when she spoke a few minutes later.
“I’m sorry, Cameron, I know it was wrong of me not to give you the benefit of the doubt and hear you out on Friday night when you wanted to speak to me, and I really appreciate that you insisted on talking about it now. Our friendship is very important to me too . . .”
Her voice was quiet and he could not see her face as she continued after a long pause.
“I know I gave you the impression that I was interested in our relationship going further than just friendship . . .but I know now that it’s not the right thing. I want to make sure you understand that.”
“No, I don’t understand that, Claire,” he answered, frowning. “What exactly are you saying?”
She took a deep breath but still did not turn around, “I understand now that when you agreed to come out with us you didn’t know about David . . . but that doesn’t change anything . . I still saw the way you reacted to him, and it’s obvious that his disability is not something you can cope with. I really think it’s the wisest thing for both of us to not take things any further.”
“So that’s it? From one night you’ve made your final decision that everything is over?”
“Please understand, Cameron . . .” her voice was strained as if speaking was difficult, “After God, David is the most important person in the world to me. . .surely you can understand that now, that this is the way my life is . . .how it will always be . . .that’s why we can only ever be friends. . .I was wrong to think it could be any different.”
Cameron’s heart was pounding as he struggled to accept what she was saying. Now that his doubts were gone, and he had seen so much more of who Claire truly was, his feelings for her were stronger than ever. No - it can’t really all be over!
As he stared at her in disbelief, he noticed how tensely she was standing and that her shoulders were rising and falling rapidly with uneven breaths.
She’s very upset, he realised, she’s trying to break things off with me . . . yet she can’t even look me in the eye. She’s trying to hide from me how she really feels . . .I don’t believe for a moment that she doesn’t still feel as strongly about me as I do about her!
“Please Claire, sit back down and talk to me.” he said, reaching out and taking her hand firmly, “You obviously don’t realise how serious I am about you if you think I’m going to let you go so easily.”
She did not protest as he pulled her slowly back into the chair, but she still did not meet his eyes, looking down intently at the polished wooden floor.
“Claire,” Cameron reached across and gently tilted her face up towards his, “How do you honestly feel about me?”
“That’s not the point, Cameron . . .” she moved her head away from his outstretched hand and avoided his eyes, “. . .my feelings aren’t relevant . . .”
“Your feelings are incredibly relevant to me. Since the day I met you I’ve been falling in love with you, and I really believe you feel the same way. Can you look me in the eye and tell me that’s not true?”
“Please Cameron, you’re only making this harder . . .” she tried to pull back from him, but he was not about to relinquish his hold on her hand.
“It doesn’t matter about our feelings. . . I saw the way you were, Cameron, you couldn’t handle being with us. You couldn’t take the wheelchair van, being out with David, the way people were looking at us and talking about us. It will always be like that - and you and I both know you can’t cope with it. Now that you know what’s involved, can’t you see it’s better this way?”
“No, I can’t. I know I failed your test concerning David - but it was hardly a fair test considering you gave me no warning. A few minutes ago you accused me of discarding your job application without fair consideration, but that is exactly what you are doing to me now. You’re not being fair to either of us.”
He watched her closely, his heart pounding. She was biting her lip and blinking hard, and he guessed she was trying not to cry. Lord, please don’t let me lose her now, he prayed before continuing.
“Claire - you are the most beautiful and loving young lady I’ve ever met, and I can’t tell you how much I admire you for the way you were with David on Friday night, especially when I couldn’t even talk to him,” he said gently, “but you’ve had all your life to learn how to do that - how can I possibly measure up to that when I was thrown straight into the deep end without any warning or prior experience. You are incredibly important to me Claire, and that means that learning to relate to David is important to me too. I can’t pretend it will be easy, but I’m prepared to give it my best shot. But you have to give me a chance. Will you, Claire?”
She shrugged forlornly, her face clouded with uncertainty, “I don’t know . . .I just don’t know if I can take that risk. . .”
“Oh, Claire!” Cameron saw that her determination to end things between them was weakening and he risked slipping his arm around her shoulders.
“I’m not asking you to take it on alone - I want us to work together - for both of us to lean on God and seek His will for the future. I know you’re frightened that I’ll let you down again - but it’s not fair to either of us to just cut me off like this. I’m only asking that you give me time, I can’t learn what you need from me overnight.”
She nodded thoughtfully, and Cameron’s hopes rose when she offered no resistance as he drew her closer against him. She closed her eyes tightly, and leant her face against his chest as she gave a shuddering sigh.
His heart was pounding crazily with the closeness of her as he brought his other arm around her, cradling her head against him with his hand, feeling the softness of her hair beneath his fingers, and breathing in the delicate scent of her perfume. He could feel her ragged breaths gradually evening out as he held her in his arms, and he was sure that now she would let go of the defensive barrier that she kept between them and finally let him reach the vulnerable young woman he had always sensed behind her indomitable facade.
Slowly he leant his face down toward her, but as he pressed his lips against her hair, he felt her take a deep breath and tense up against him, as though ready to pull away. Realising with disappointment that the barrier was still there, he straightened up quickly, and gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze to reassure her that he had registered her hesitation.
“It’s okay, Claire.” he whispered, relieved as he felt her relax against his chest again, “On Friday I agreed with you that beginning this might be awkward - I don’t think either of us then knew quite how awkward, but more than ever I believe that it’s worthwhile. If we can just be open with each other and keep praying and seeking God’s will . . .”
He stopped short, his head snapping up as he heard the door open.
“Well, I’m glad to see you two are talking again!” Chris chuckled, his huge frame filling the doorway.
“Ever heard of knocking, Chris?” Cameron asked dryly, without releasing Claire from his arms.
“There’s never been any need to before!” he replied with a cheeky grin, “Besides, I told you I was bringing those keys back up for you . . .but I didn’t think you were really paying attention. Here - catch.”
As Cameron let go of Claire to catch the keys that Chris was tossing towards him, she jumped to her feet, discreetly brushing her eyes with the back of her hand as she crossed the floor to the door.
“If you’ll both excuse me, I have to go - it’s five o’clock already,” she spoke as calmly as if Chris had merely interrupted her typing at the computer.
Although he detected the hint of a tremor in her voice, Cameron was amazed how quickly the insecure young women he’d held in his arms only moments earlier had been completely swallowed up by Claire Williams, the efficient receptionist. He breathed out slowly, wishing his own heart would stop pounding so wildly.
As Chris moved inside the doorway to let her pass, she paused and turned back to them, her expressionless face betraying nothing.
“I’ll see you both in the morning, Cameron . . .Chris,” she nodded to each of them and then disappeared down the corridor just as Chris’s digital watch beeped to mark the hour.
“So Antarctica’s thawing?” Chris teased as he straddled a chair, and sat down facing Cameron.
“I might never know now, Chris! I’ve always said that I don’t think much of your timing!”
“Heh, heh, heh! You haven’t got anything to worry about - what I just interrupted seemed a whole lot friendlier than what Lynette walked in on before the conference!”
“I suppose I should be thankful that I know that you and Lynette talk about me behind my back,” Cameron sighed as he shook his head at his friend, wondering if his two senior staff might have had more respect for him if they weren’t both years older than him.
He wasn’t really surprised at their close interest in his relationship with Claire - both Chris and Lynette had been stirring him for years about finding someone - and although he knew that they really had his best interests at heart, it certainly made things awkward.
“I haven’t got anything to rush home for tonight,” Chris said, “what do you think about skipping your disgustingly healthy dinner in the dining room and calling in pizza?”
Cameron leaned back in his chair and grinned, “You know Chris, that’s just what I feel like. If you’ll go and sneak a couple of cokes from the machine, I’ll phone for it now. I’ll see if they can send the unmarked car again!”
© R Brown 2005