Had he imagined her tenderness?
Was he that deluded, on top of the PTSD?
No, something shouted inside him.
Where did the absolute certainty come from? Maybe it was that crawling gut instinct that had repeatedly kept him alive during the war, or maybe he was just insane, pure and simple.
“Talia.” He chose his words carefully, afraid of getting everything wrong and driving her away by sounding like an arrogant jackass. “I thought we were developing something.”
She nodded, her gaze now fixed on some immovable point to the right of his eyes. “We were. Friendship. That’s all. I don’t have romantic feelings for you.”
Bullshit, screamed his gut instinct. Inside him, the frustration rose.
“If it’s that cut-and-dried, why aren’t you looking at me?”
That got her. Her gaze flickered to her fingers, which were twined and buried in her lap, then to his collar. She opened and closed her mouth. Opened it again. Finally looked into his eyes.
The utter darkness he saw there made him flinch. It was like staring into one of her black hole paintings. It leached the soul out of his body and left nothing but emptiness.
“I don’t want a relationship right now, Tony. I’m not sure I’ll ever want one. I don’t have room in my life—”
Her mouth worked and worked, but no words came out.
“I’m taking time off from work. I want to travel. I’ve hardly been anywhere in my life—”
“Travel, then. I’d never try to stop you from doing what you want to do, Talia—”
“—and I just… I can’t handle any complications right now.”
“Wow. That’s pretty much everything and the kitchen sink. Anything else?”
Her brows contracted into an indignant line. “Is this a cross-examination? Am I on trial? Is that what’s going on?”
“You’re not on trial. But I don’t believe anything you just said. Especially the part about not having feelings for me.”
She nailed him with a glare that nearly made his face bleed. “Nice. Arrogant, much?”
He ran a hand over his nape, trying hard to arrange his features into an expression that felt less intense. “I’m sorry. It’s just that…” He fumbled, struggling for words that kept skittering just out of reach. If he’d cut out his tongue with his boot knife, the conversation still would have been easier than this. “I can’t stop thinking about you. Your letters meant so much to me. And then when you refused the last one—”
“I didn’t think it was fair for me to give you mixed messages. That’s why I sent it back. You were reading too much into it.”
Funny she should mention mixed messages.
He stared into her face, seeing her turbulence, and he felt the ghostly imprint of her body fitted perfectly against his. He heard the echoes of her joyful cry when she had first seen him just now, and of her needy sigh when he’d almost kissed her.
Most of all, he remembered the unspoken subtext of longing in her letters.
Weighing all of that against her unimpressive denials, he decided that, while he might well be crazy, it was more likely that she was a liar.
Since he couldn’t figure out why she would lie if she wasn’t involved with someone else, he felt the first twinges of anger.
“You’re pretty good at giving mixed messages, Talia.”
Something flashed in her eyes, and he couldn’t tell if it was anger, fear or garden variety turmoil. He was still struggling to make sense of this giant and incomprehensible puzzle when she speared him right through the heart with the worst possible weapon against him.
“They were only letters, Tony,” she said coolly. “I’d’ve done the same for any soldier.”
Drenched in sweat and arms pumping, Tony sprinted around the Reservoir in Central Park for the third time, which meant he was flirting with three miles so far. He’d need at least three more before he had any hope of quieting the relentless chatter in his head, so he kept going, working harder and crashing through all the limits of his endurance. His lungs burned; his thighs screamed; his heart was a frantic beat or two away from exploding out of his chest.