How on earth did I get here? Derek wondered with a smile as he lay on his stomach on a pink, flower-shaped carpet in the middle of Cleo’s room. His sketchbook lay open in front of him supported by a wooden slate with stationary scattered around him. Cleo sat on a little chair in front of her dollhouse while combing through Barbie’s hair.
"How far are you?" She asked impatiently. Derek tried not to chuckle. "Almost done," he said and kept on sketching. Cleo had asked that question every ten minutes for the past hour or so. Promising to take a little girl for ice cream "later" might not have been the smartest thing to do. "Patience is a virtue, Cleo," Mrs. West said who was sitting on the bed with an easel supporting a canvas in front of her. Cleo’s little bedside desk was covered in jars of paint and paintbrush holders. "You’ve been drawing for hours!" She whined with a small pout on her lips. Derek gave in to his chuckle then lifted his eyes to hers. He set his pencil down. "It’s only been about an hour," he said and pulled out his phone. His brows lifted. "Or two and a half."
Cleo crossed her arms over his chest and gave him a smug look. He laughed. "Okay, fine. I did promise," he said and got up off the floor. Bad idea, he realized when he felt pain flood his neck and upper back. He probably shouldn’t have done his sketches on the floor. He stretched to try to get the necessary kinks out. "How about you, ma? Should we grab some ice cream for you as well?" He asked as he looked at his grandma. She shook her head, keeping her eyes on her work. "No, you two enjoy. I’m perfectly happy here," she said. Derek looked at Cleo. "Grab your coat. We’ll leave in five minutes," he said. She smiled brightly and rushed out of the room. "Go ask Uncle John if he wants anything," Derek called after her and started organizing his things on the floor. He closed his sketchpad, but not before catching sight of one of the pages that caused his heart to skip a beat.
"What was that?"
He stood slowly and turned in his grandma’s direction. She placed her pallet and paintbrush down. "Let me see that," she said gently and stretched out a hand. Derek almost groaned out loud. She had focused on her painting for hours and the one split second she looked up she had to catch that?!
He reluctantly handed it to her. He wasn’t getting out of this no matter how he played it. He put his hands into his pockets and watched as she began flipping through the pages. His heart hammered in his chest and heat had shot to his face by the time she reached the page she wanted. Her pretty blue eyes went even more transparent as she studied the sketch in front of her.
"These are . . ." her voice fell away in amazement. Derek dropped his eyes in embarrassment. He glanced at the sketch, or multiple sketches for that matter, of sets of green eyes rimmed with specks of blue. Multiple expressions he had seen Marie do fixed in pencil on paper. When she was upset, her eyes were always kept low, when she was happy they brightened slightly, excited and they widened, there was even one of when he had found her crying. These all surrounded one larger set in the center; her unfocused gaze right after they kissed and he could just hold her in the aftermath.
"You are truly besotted," he heard his grandma say and looked at her. His throat wouldn’t work. He felt like he was a child caught breaking an expensive vase.
"Uncle John doesn’t want anything. Let’s go, Derek!"
Cleo appeared at the door, causing them both to look at her. She grabbed Derek’s arm and tried to pull him out. He laughed half-heartedly at her attempt. "We’ll talk about this later," his grandmother said. He looked at her and gave a small nod though he was already dreading it.
Cleo chatted away in the car as they drove into town, which made him smile, distracting him from his thoughts. She would start school soon. They should really have filled in some applications. Derek rubbed the back of his neck. On the other hand, she wasn’t officially adopted yet. What the hell was his dad waiting for?
Derek looked over at Cleo who was staring at the passing mountains. Of course, maybe he was waiting to tell her.
They stopped in the street in front of an ice cream store and got out.
Derek’s heart instantly began to hammer in a mixture of suspense and excitement. He scanned around, but didn’t spot anyone who remotely looked like Marie. "What makes you say that?" He asked Cleo, forcing himself to sound calm. She pointed towards a jeep that stood on the other side of the street. His first reaction was to breathe but then he checked the license plate and realized that it was Marie’s. His eyes flickered up and down the street but didn’t see her anywhere. He released a breath slowly, willing his heart-rate to calm.
"She’s probably in one of the other stores. C’mon, let’s go get ice cream."
The moment he turned, he nearly crashed into a girl coming out of the store.
"Whoa– Derek!" Giselle smiled brightly and hugged him awkwardly as she tried not to crush the two cups of ice cream that occupied her hands. "It’s been awhile, stranger," she said and released him. She bent down and hugged Cleo. "Hey, sweetie. Coming out for ice cream?"
Cleo smiled and nodded. Giselle lifted the tubs in her hands to Cleo’s eyes. "Me too. I thought I’d surprise Marie with a little treat."
"How is she?" Derek couldn’t help but ask. Giselle looked up at him and studied him as she thought. She looked at the gold watch on her wrist and stood. "We’ve really got to talk," she said, her eyes more serious than he had ever seen them become. She looked down at Cleo and smiled. "Hey, Cleo, there’s a petting zoo right at the end of the street that doubles as a pet store. I heard Derek promised he’d get you a pet," Giselle said. Derek saw the moment the idea took in Cleo’s mind and smirked. "Go get your ice cream and we’ll go down," he said. Cleo ran into the store excitedly. He turned towards Giselle with a lazy smile. She lifted one of the ice cream tubs up to him.
"Hope you like hazelnut."
"How much did she tell you?" Derek asked as he rested his forearms on the rail of the pen Cleo was playing in. She wasn’t even aware of him and Giselle anymore. She was too happily distracted by all the little bunnies, guinea pigs, goats, lambs, ducks, turtles and other animals. Derek played with the empty tub between his fingers as he waited for Giselle’s response. So far, he was much more relaxed knowing Giselle had taken over for Prof Tech. According to Giselle, their rehearsals were going well. He could understand the relief that came with having some information about her.
Derek could tell she was opening up to Giselle. It wasn’t until Giselle asked him what was wrong with him that he realized how much Marie had opened up.
Giselle sighed and ran a hand through her loose hair. "Probably not everything. Which is how I know she cares for you much more than she’s letting on." He looked away. "Have you really not spoken to her once in the past few weeks? No messages, nothing?" she asked. Derek shook his head. "I figured she’d message me when she’s ready," he said and looked at her. Giselle dropped her eyes. "I just don’t understand. Anyone could see you were crazy about her."
I still am, he thought ruefully. "Are you just a complete ass or did you have any noble intentions at all? Why did you really end it?" She asked. Derek looked away and tried to focus on keeping an eye on Cleo as she chased after one of the bunnies, but his mind instantly brought up the memory of the last time he had spoken to Marie. The look in her eyes when she had told him he didn’t want to know the truth. She was right. There were three words he didn’t want to hear from her. Three words that might break him, not to mention her.
"I’m not the long-term type. She knew that from the beginning," he said.
"And, what, you’re not willing to try for her?"
"I’m not willing to break her heart because I can’t commit."
"It sounds to me like you want to," Giselle said. Derek stared intensely at nothing for a moment. When he didn’t respond, Giselle sighed again and looked to the animals. "Look, Marie’s more herself with you than I’ve ever seen her be with anyone else." She pulled up her shoulders. "Happier too. Do you want to know why?"
Derek looked at her. "It’s because you are different. You give her the space she needs to figure out who she really is. All the other guys she’s dated before were nice and charming, the perfect son-in-law, but they limited who she was to a certain extent." When he looked at her, Giselle’s eyes were low. "Everyone kind of does. Even me. I’m starting to wonder if she dated certain guys to please our parents. She connected with them but not in the way she connects with you." Giselle smiled. "It’s different for both of you, I can tell. She’s scared too, Derek," Giselle said and looked at him. Her words made him break out in cold sweat.
She checked her watch. "Shoot." She looked at him. "I have to get back."
"Please don’t tell her we had this talk," Derek said as Giselle took a step back. She held his gaze for a moment. "Alright, on one condition. Thursday is musician night. We’re performing."
"Good, then you’ll be there."
"I don’t have a ticket." It wasn’t a lie. He had given his ticked to his dad after Friday night’s events.
Giselle raised an eyebrow. "I’m insulted that you think that makes a difference."