“Neela, come on!”
Unable to ignore him once his hand grabbed her arm and pulled her around to face him, Neela looked up from the files she’d been studying intently.
It was only a ploy. She would hear Ray’s voice in a plethora of voices. It was that familiar to her. It was like her own voice.
“You gonna ignore me forever?” he asked.
“I wasn’t ignoring you,” she staunchly lied. “I didn’t hear you. I’ve got a very complicated case I’m researching, Ray. I have surgery this afternoon.”
“Right,” he said, the hand around her upper arm loosening only slightly, turning from a clamp to a caress. He smiled, his lips turning up, and his eyes dropped to her mouth briefly. His eyes were light, mischievous, and so typically Ray that Neela had to fight the responding smile on her own face. She had to handle this in the right way if she was going to come out of it intact. “Let’s get together after work. When does your shift end?”
Neela shook her head. “I can’t,” she said.
“Why not? You didn’t just come on, did you?” Ray asked, his thumb now running up and down the inside of her upper arm, and even through her lab coat and the sleeve of her shirt, she could feel the heat of his skin against hers.
“I have plans,” she said stiffly.
“Neela, come on, cut it out,” he said softly, tilting his head to the left. The look on his face almost melted her resolve. He was just so…Ray. Cocky, but endearing. Arrogant, but sweet. He knew she was thinking about nothing except the make out session they’d shared while in his car in front of her apartment the night before, and that was her only consolation as the warmth in his eyes continued to deepen, showing her he too thought of nothing else.
But, of course, she’d known for a long time what Ray wanted from her, because it showed so plainly on his face. Who would ever think the most irresponsible guy she’d ever known would end up being the one guy who loved her more obviously and earnestly than anyone before in her life? That was one thing she’d never doubted, though he’d never said it. She could look at his face, and just know. And that was why she ran away, every time.
“I have plans with Tony,” she reiterated.
Ray’s eyes flickered, moving around the busy corridor where he had caught up with her. Leaning closer, he said discreetly, “So it’s like that is it? One night with me, and my hand down your pants, and the next night with Gates? It doesn’t fit you, Neela.”
Squirming in discomfort from the sensations his words evoked, she pulled away from his touch and moved toward the elevator she had been hoping to reach before he grabbed her. She punched the button and looked away from him. “I’m with Tony,” she said firmly.
When the elevator doors opened, she saw her salvation in the form of an empty compartment, but all it did was possess Ray with a new tactic. He shoved her into the empty lift and hit the door closure button emphatically. “You’re not with Tony,” he muttered, disgust and anger alternating over his face. “You’re just afraid to be with me.”
Neela felt his anger and it fed her own confusion and angst. “The hell I am,” she bit off. “I’m not with you for a reason, Ray. For several reasons, as a matter of fact. Because I lived with you, remember? I saw all the girls you had in and out of that apartment. Remember Zoe? Remember the 15-year-old you were screwing? I know better, that’s all this is about.”
He didn’t even look hurt by her accusations, instead he came right back with, “You remember that guy, and now you’re with him. If Gates isn’t a version of me before you mattered to me, I don’t know what he is.” He moved closer to her within the private sanctuary of the elevator and crowded her against the wall. “You’re afraid of me, because you know we could have something real, and lasting, because I’ve already loved you for two years, and it hasn’t changed.” He studied her face intently. “It’s your fault I finally grew up, and now you’re afraid of it.”
Neela dropped his gaze, shaking her head as she clutched the file folder she held to her chest. “Screwing Katie-the-intern means you’ve grown up?” she asked.
“Don’t judge me, don’t act like I owe you my loyalty.” He put a hand on her shoulder, tenderness back in his touch, even though she could see the frustration in his eyes. “I’ve been waiting, giving you time, ever since Michael died. I thought, after last night, my wait was over.”
Neela felt tears prick her eyes at the mention of her dead husband. That Ray was the one to bring Michael up, when Tony had never even asked her about him, when she never even dared to speak his name to anyone except Abby because of the pain it brought to the surface just made her all the more certain that she had to keep things just as they were. She was with Tony, even if she had almost had sex with Ray the night before. Because it hadn’t been Tony’s image that prevented her from straddling Ray’s lap in a fit of passion, it had been that of her dead husband’s.
And it was Michael who had prevented her from being with Ray when that was all her heart desired, when her husband had chosen a second tour in Iraq over their brand new marriage, when all the comfort she could find in the world was in sitting next to Ray on the couch and watching endless reruns of Two Guys and a Girl. When laughter with her best friend was the only remedy to a heart unhinged by a soldier’s duty.
His hand squeezed her shoulder and his eyes dropped again to her mouth, only to ricochet back up to her eyes. “Neela,” he pleaded. “I love you. I want to be with you. I want to be that guy. The one you helped me realize I needed to be.”
Taking a shaky breath, Neela shook her head again. “I can’t, Ray. I can’t.”
The elevator doors opened again, though the elevator car hadn’t left the floor of the ER, since neither of them had selected a destination floor. Pushing Ray back, Neela moved across the small space towards freedom. “Neela,” he said, and his voice held her more firmly than his hands ever could. She looked over her shoulder, pressing her back against the elevator door to keep it from closing on her. “I never slept with Katie,” he said, and she saw the hope that that confession would be the deal breaker.
“I just can’t,” she said, pausing minutely before adding, “I’m sorry, Ray. I’m so sorry.” Then she walked away from what she couldn’t deal with, back to Tony and all the things their relationship would never mean.