Mantis, Alegria, and Dutch
Compared to some of the places he’d been forced to sleep during his career, the hospital recliner was damn comfortable.
Gehring “Mantis” Cassman shifted to his left side, hoping it would relieve some of the pressure on the right where a bullet had struck his hip, requiring pelvic reconstruction surgery. The good news was, it hadn’t been life threatening and none of his organs had been compromised. The arthritic pain, however, was unrelenting.
He looked over at the woman lying in the hospital bed, hoping her injuries wouldn’t result in a similar life of pain. No one deserved to live with the kind he had to, but Alegria deserved it less than anyone he’d ever known.
They’d met at the United States Air Force Academy when he was a senior and she was an international student, one year behind him. He remembered the day their Air Officer Commanding, AOC, introduced Manon “Alegria” Mondreau to the squadron. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Still was.
Her ebony-black hair was pulled back into the tight bun required by Air Force regulations, highlighting her mesmerizing, almond-shaped, gray-blue eyes.
How many times had he kissed her pouty, cherry-colored lips and ran his hands over her seductively sculpted nubile body? Hundreds.
“Any change?” asked Dutch, who’d known both him and Manon since those early days when they were all cadets, anxious to begin pilot training and get on with their careers.
Mantis shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Why don’t you take a break? I can sit with her for the next couple of hours.”
“Thanks, but I’ll stick around.”
He raised his hand. “I have to be here, Dutch. Don’t fight me on this.”
His friend nodded and sat in one of the other recliners the hospital staff had agreed to bring into the room.
“She’s out of intensive care. That’s a good sign, right?” Dutch asked.
It was, but they still had no idea whether the damage to Manon’s spinal cord would have lasting effects.
“What happened between you two? Last I heard, you were thinking about proposing.”
As Dutch well knew, he’d taken an assignment. One she didn’t want him to.
* * *
“You volunteer more than anyone else. Why?”
“It’s my duty, Manon. It’s what I signed up for.”
“It’s no longer a duty. You retired. We agreed—”
“No. Stop right there. We didn’t agree to anything. You demanded I quit, and I refused. That’s the way it went down.”
She shook her head and stormed off. There’d been a time he would’ve gone after her, but no more. She’d spent just as much time stateside as she had in France, yet she still lived by her native country’s work ethic. Or lack of it.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like to work, Manon was just able to compartmentalize better than he was. She could say no to assignments without thinking twice. He couldn’t remember ever turning one down.
A few minutes later, she was back. “If you go, we’re finished.”
“I won’t choose you over my country, Manon.”
* * *
What had made matters worse, the assignment required him to go deep undercover, and during that time, no one knew whether he was dead or alive, and if he was still breathing, when he might resurface.
He had come back, finally, but Manon was steadfast in her refusal to forgive him for what she considered a betrayal.
Mantis had tried to get in touch with her when he first returned, but she’d refused to answer his calls. He knew from Doc that she was still on the K19 team, but the boss hadn’t encouraged him to continue pursuing her.
“Hold back for now,” he’d advised. “She knows you’re back. Let her come to you.”
He’d questioned Doc’s advice, but in the end, abided by it. What choice did he have? She refused to respond to his calls, texts, or emails.
“Is she with someone else?” he’d asked.
“Not that I’m aware of. However, Mantis, the personal lives of K19 team members are none of my business.”
Mantis almost laughed at Doc’s proclamation given the man had his nose in everyone else’s business about as much as his best friend, Dutch, did.
He stood and walked over to the bed when Manon groaned. He stroked her forehead, willing her to open her eyes and look at him.
“Mon coeur,” he whispered when she did.
“L’hôpital.” He was reaching the limit of words he knew in French, besides the obvious ones everyone knew. “You were shot.”
She turned her head and looked away from him, noticing for the first time that Dutch was in the room. She reached out her hand for him in the way Mantis would’ve expected her to reach for him.
Mantis met Dutch’s eyes when he stood, and in them, he saw sadness and guilt.
The man who’d been his best friend for twenty years took his time walking the three or four steps it would take him to get to the opposite side of the bed.
Mantis felt his throat close up as his precious Manon clung to Dutch’s hand with her own. He realized then that he was the interloper, not Dutch. Not the man who, only minutes before, had asked what happened between them.
He turned and walked out of the room, cursing himself for being such a fool.
“That wasn’t fair, Alegria,” Dutch scolded her. “You made him think—”
“That I had moved on.”
She caressed the back of his hand with her thumb. “Haven’t I?”
“If I believed it’s what you really want…”
“It is what I want.”
“Listen.” Dutch scrubbed his face with his hand. “I know you still love him. You always will.”
There was no point in lying; she would always love Mantis, but that didn’t mean they could ever be together again. Both of them had said too many things that could never be taken back. She’d given him an ultimatum, and he’d chosen the mission over her.
That’s just who Mantis was. From the day she met him, he’d never wavered in his commitment to the Air Force, and then to the CIA. She’d never been first with him, and she’d made it clear that if he wanted her in his life, he had to change his priorities. When he refused, Alegria knew if she didn’t end the relationship then, she never would. And she’d be miserable.
“I’m with you now. What I had with him is…over.”
“I wish I could believe it was that simple.” Dutch shook his head.
“Why are you angry with me?”
He ran one hand through his hair while he grasped her fingers with the other. “Because I saw what just happened. Worse, I felt it.”
“You let him leave believing we were together. If you don’t want to be with me, why didn’t you tell him so?”
Dutch shook his head. “I didn’t say I don’t want to be with you, Alegria. As to why I didn’t try to stop Mantis from leaving, I can’t answer that. I guess it’s because as much as I care about him, I care about you too, and right now, you need me more.”
“I don’t want your pity.”
Dutch looked away from her. “What do you want?”
Alegria bit her lip. “I…I don’t know how to answer that.”
He turned back and met her gaze. “Ask me.”
“Ask me what I want.”
“What do you want, Dutch?” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears.
“I want to believe that someday you’ll love me half as much as you love Mantis. Just half as much.”
Dutch got up and walked out. Alegria knew he’d come back, and when he did, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to say anything that would convince him she could love him the way he wanted her to.