She needed to think. And she wouldn’t be able to until she was away from the Wraiths. It wasn’t their fault that they had a way of making her forget the mundane details of life…But she could only forget for so long.
When she was sure Ton and Face were ensconced in their suites, Erin headed for the main floor. She passed the slots and gaming tables, ignoring the lure of supposedly instant riches. Instead, her focus was on the large glass case that housed the MGM’s lion exhibit. Usually it was crowded with children, but so late at night, the area was completely empty of visitors. Erin settled herself on one of the benches beside the glass, watching the drowsing lions.
As she expected, the cats could not hold her attention long, not when she had so much to consider. The past twenty-four hours had been the best time of her life. She had never felt so free. She had never expected to find herself singing Disney songs in the middle of a busy casino or running away from irate security guards. Or matching wits with Ton and laughing as Face ogled the Follies’ trademark showgirls. The fact that she had enjoyed ever second of it made her briefly wonder about her sanity.
She has always seen herself as someone very serious, never expecting to find herself liking the sort of misadventures that the Wraiths had dragged her into. But she had enjoyed them and now that she was alone, settling back into her old worn persona, she realized how unhappy she truly was.
She didn’t know how they had done it, but somehow Ton and Face brought out aspects of her personality that she barely acknowledged let alone let alone exhibited to the rest of the world. Their antics brought out a side of her that she always wanted to set free but never had the courage to accept.
And now that she had a taste of the freedom that was possible, she didn’t want to go back to the mundane life she had been "enjoying" before her plane landed at the Vegas airport. She didn’t want the tedious routine that she had become ensnared in. But there was no choice. Erin Hart was the boring college student, not the wild child that was running amok in Las Vegas. No matter how much she wanted to be someone new, it wasn’t possible.
And she’d just have to learn to accept that fact…
There was more she had to accept, and the thought wasn’t pleasant. In a few wonderful, adventure-filled days, Ton and Face would be returning to the THX galaxy. They’d leave her life forever. Oh Gods…
The thought almost had her in tears. They would be gone forever. With luck and Lisa’s help, she might be able to message them occasionally via the communications systems that were a vital part of an ambassador’s work. But those holos would be her only glimpse at the men who had become such an integral part of her life.
Idly, she wondered how they could become so important to her in such a brief span of time. But did the details really matter? Was it truly important HOW they became such a vital part of her life and heart?
Soon they would be gone and she would go back to her mundane little life, nursing a broken heart…
Ton knocked on Erin’s door, unsure what he would say to the woman when she finally opened the door. IF she opened the door. He had been knocking for over ten minutes and still hadn’t roused her.
He wasn’t sure what impulse had dragged him out of his suite and to Erin’s door, but something had been nagging at him since they had left the Follies. Both he and Face had expected her to hate the show, but she had enjoyed it just as much as they had. She had seemed entranced by the spectacle. The lights and costumes enthralled her. As did the idea of having the courage to walk onto a stage and entrain an audience. Ton was sure she would never admit to that fascination, but the questions she asked about Face’s lost but not lamented acting career made her interest obvious. He doubted that she has some deeply hidden desire to become an actress, but something about the experience did spark some sort of longing in Erin. Ton had seen it in her eyes.
If she had been asleep, I would’ve woke her by now and she would be howling like a mynok to get me to let her be. If she was in the shower… Ton decided thinking of Erin naked and wet was NOT conductive to rational thought. Or at least rational thought that would not result in him getting slapped by the red head. Correction, if she was in her room, she would have answered by now or told me to go away. She would have told us if she was going out. So she’s somewhere in the hotel.
Too many years as a Wraith…Too many years as a cynic made it impossible for him not to begin searching for her. Especially after seeing that look of longing in her eyes. It was too familiar for him to ignore.
He took the elevator down to the main level, trying to figure out where Erin would have wandered off. Or if his guess about her emotional state was correct, where she would go to brood. There weren’t many quiet corners in the hotel, but there was one place he thought might appeal to her.
It was amazing how bright her hair could appear in the dim lights of the casino. It shimmered warmly in the false sunlight of the lion cage, instantly drawing the eye. He wondered if Erin realized how many men were watching her as she sat enraptured by the huge cats. But, as usual, Erin seemed to be oblivious to the men around her. Including me…
The sound of his footsteps on the tile surrounding the cage broke through her revere. The tenseness of her body told him that she knew that someone was near, but she did not bother to turn around. Ton sat down beside her waiting for her to speak, but she was too intent on the drowsing lions and her own thoughts to notice him.
"Pretty aren’t they?" he asked quietly.
Finally, she looked at him. Longing still illuminating her gray eyes but there was something almost bleak about her expression. A terrible resignation that shook him more than he cared to admit. Slowly Erin traced one of the smudges on the glass. "Sometimes I feel like one of those cats."
"Sleek and powerful?" Ton knew it was the wrong answer but he wished it was correct. The woman beside him had so much potential. She was beautiful and intelligent. There was no reason for her to feel inferior. But then, wouldn’t he be a hypocrite to give Erin a lecture on self-esteem? He could barely see himself as anything but a metallic freak who should have died long ago. Not exactly the best person to be giving Erin advice on how to improve her self-worth.
"No," she sighed. "I wish I could see myself that way. I feel like I’m stuck in a glass box. Unable to get out. Unable to be what I really want to be. Unable to do what I want instead of forever fearing the consequences."
He couldn’t help saying it. "Fear leads to the Darkside."
"Didn’t know you were a Jedi," Erin said, eyeing him with something that resembled humor. Maybe this discussion wasn’t going as badly as he thought.
"I’m not, but I do know that fear cripples a person." He shook his head at the memories that were beginning to creep up on him. "I know that from experience. After I…" His voice hardened as he tapped the left side of his face. "After I was injured, I didn’t want to leave the med centers. I didn’t think I could. I should have died but I was too stupid to quit living."
Erin swallowed hard, unable to look away from the pain in Ton’s eyes. Part of her wondered how the optic could convey emotions since, technically, it was just electronics. But somehow it could. The remembered pain that was reflected in his blue eye tore at her heart. The intensity of the light illuminating the optic strengthening her resolve. She said the only thing she could think of. "I’m glad you lived."
He smiled sheepishly at her. "Well, at least someone other than me is glad I survived."
Erin blushed and Ton decided he’d better continue with his lecture before embarrassment caused her to bolt. "For months fear and humiliation kept me from interacting with the rest of the galaxy."
"But you had nothing to be humiliated about," Erin protested. "You were a hero. It’s not your fault that you were hurt."
"And what is it about yourself that humiliates you? What do you have to fear, Erin?"
She stiffened, then turned away from him, staring at the golden cat snoring beside the glass. "Nothing, everything. I don’t know."
He touched her shoulder, patiently waiting for her to relax beneath his hand. "If I had let fear lead me, I would never have become a Wraith. I would have stayed locked up in some med center, despairing for a life I could never have. We all have our place, Erin. We just have to find it. You know what you are. You know you can be the person you want to be. But you have to find the courage to seek what you dream of. You’ll find your place."
"My place," she ground out, "Is stuck in a glass box, wanting what I can’t have. Being forever afraid to be the person I want to be."
"Who do you want to be?"
"I…" Erin let out a frustrated growl. "I don’t know. I just know I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy for a long time. But I know that the person I want to be wouldn’t be so damn afraid of…"
"Afraid of what, Erin?" Ton asked, trying desperately to find some words that would bring her comfort. But he was sure he was failing miserably. After all, he had never found the words that had convinced himself his injuries did not make him less of a person. Didn’t he have the same problem as Erin?
"I’m afraid of trying. There’s so much I want to try but I can’t find the nerve to act."
Ton tried to keep hold of his temper; becoming angry with her would not help the situation. Especially when he was angry that she reminded him so much of himself, not because of her words. "Erin, you have to try. If you don’t, then you never will be happy. You CAN get out of that box if you wish to."
She seemed unconvinced, answering his words with silence. Ton shook his head in frustration. Face should be doing this not me. He’d say something humorous or throw some innuendo out at her. She’d smile and then…
…And then soft lips touched his and Ton forgot about the past and possible futures, focusing on the fearful, beautiful woman who was kissing him.
She didn’t know where she found the courage. Perhaps Ton’s words had dispelled her self-doubt, words that seemed too familiar to him to be just a hastily thrown together pep talk. Perhaps the thought that he would soon be leaving her life forever caused her to act. Or maybe it was the simple fact that despite the injuries that Phanan seemed to think were such a handicap, he was one of the most desirable men she had ever met.
But somehow she had found the courage to close the small distance between them, leaning upward to hesitantly press her lips against his. She expected him to pull away, to reject her as so many others had. But instead, he matched her uncertainty with gentleness. The softest of kisses, breath barely shared. Her body a tentative whisper against his.
She let out disappointed moan as he pulled away from her. He smiled when he saw the soft, dazed look in her gray eyes. "Trust me, Erin." He brushed his thumb against her bottom lip, "Please."
Erin fought for focus, but it was nearly impossible as he traced the curve of her lips. How could she think while he was unraveling every bit of control she possessed with those gentle touches? Fear screamed for her to run, to return to the mundane existence she knew was safe. The reckless nature she tried to hide urged her to act. Trust him, Phanan asked. Did she really need to give Ton her trust, or did she finally need to finally trust herself?
The answer startled them both….
Suddenly she was straddling his legs, pressing herself against his chest as she desperately tasted his mouth. The wildness inside, so long denied, swept her up, conquering doubt, pounding through her veins, mixing with desire until she COULD NOT deny her hunger. The yearning that was overwhelming her heart and mind could not be eased by the feather-soft kiss they had shared only moments before.
More…Oh Gods, she wanted more. The taste of him was almost too much for her heightening senses. Erin was sure that madness was only one ragged breath away, but she didn’t care. She wanted, needed more. She felt his surprise as her hands tangled in the softness of his hair, as she reached deeper into his mouth, her tongue teasing his.
Then she felt his arms wrap around her waist, dragging her closer. Desire sang through her as her hips locked against his, her cries swallowed by the ravenous kiss. If only, her mind desperately struggled for coherent thought. If we were alone. If we were in my suite…
But they weren’t…
Erin pulled away, gasping for breath as she struggled out of his grasp. What the hell was I thinking? We’re in PUBLIC! Somehow she managed to stand, though it felt like all of her strength had seared away by the desire still aching through her. "I uh…" She stopped before her addled mind made her look more foolish than she already did. Ton, thankfully, was not looking at her as if she was a fool. He seemed as breathless as she was while he stared at her in astonishment.
Ton couldn’t seem to find the energy to breathe. Or perhaps he was breathing but one of the systems keeping him alive had been short-circuited by the intensity of the woman trembling in front of him. Not that he cared. Dying from a kiss was an infinitely better death than being vaped in a dogfight. Especially a kiss like that…He had known there was more to Erin than anyone save Loren believed, but he hadn’t expected…
"What the hell was that?" he rasped, the words spoken before he had a chance to think. As if I could think clearly without the aid of a cold shower…
He expected her not to answer, but instead she smiled wryly, "You told me to try…"
He tipped his head back, staring at the casino’s ceiling as he attempted to steady his ragged breathing. "If that was what you can do while only trying, I’m terrified of what would happen if you succeeded."
A snicker caused him to look at the tour guide. She still seemed a bit tipsy but there was also something almost arrogant in the look she gave him. "Don’t worry, you’d die a happy man."
He shrugged, running a hand through his mussed hair. "Not exactly a horrendous fate. Perhaps we could…"
Instantly, Ton knew he should not have spoken. Her blush was spectacular. Until that moment, he would not have believed anyone could turn that bright a shade of pink without injuring herself. But somehow Erin managed. Awkwardly, she fidgeted from one foot to the other, cheeks flaming as brightly as the desire still lingered in her stormy eyes. "I shouldn’t have…um…And in public! I’m sorry" Her voice was edged in a panic that Ton could not understand.
Somehow a tentative smile broke through her embarrassment. "Uh…Thank you.." The longing returned, replacing the panic that tattered her words. The sound hurt Ton far more then he imagined. "I want to, but I…" She looked down, her vibrant hair hiding her wistful eyes. "But I’d better go now."
She moved faster than he expected. He tried to catch hold of her wrist but she was too quick. The sound of heavy boot heels striking tile punctuated her escape, leaving Ton alone with his thoughts and a longing of his own.
Continued in Part Thirteen