The rest of the day sort of passed in a blur. There was time, and there was stuff going on during that time, but for the life of her, Charlie couldn't recall a single detail of the last five hours. Part of that might have had to do with the subject she and Royce had left on right before he left. An even bigger part might have been the very light and very sweet kiss he left on her cheek right before that. Those were all rather strong contributors to her stupor as she finished her day and started toward the grocery store. It was a miracle in and of itself that she didn't come home with pancake mix and pineapples instead of the beef stew ingredients she needed.
At least someone was paying attention.
But it wasn't until she made it home and began setting things out on the counter that she finally understood what it was that had been nagging her all that day.
It was as if she had suddenly been struck by lighting. The hand moving the package of beef chunks froze over the counter, and the bag with the vegetables fell to the ground. And yet she did nothing but stare at the beef in slightly horrified shock as the truth became clear.
She should have known.
The beef package fell among the vegetables with a loud squish, and two grey-striped females, Toes and Lady Liberty, raced forward to enjoy their unexpected treat. But Charlie ignored them in favor of walking carefully to the living room and collapsing on the couch. She folded an arm over her face, and then proceeded to cry silently.
She was an idiot. All that nervousness, all that embarrassing behavior, all that making a fool of herself earlier- it was so obvious she almost wanted to laugh.
I'm falling in love with Royce.
Charlie was very, very stupid. How could she have missed this? The signs were clear and, only now as she looked back on them, unmistakeable. Her eagerness to see him at work, her unconscious awareness of him when he was there, the tongue-tied babble that came out of her mouth when she spoke. The crush was apparent, just not the feelings simmering beneath it. Charlie smiled beneath her arm at her own stupidity.
And, as she expected, here came the other voice with protests.
Why are you unhappy? You should be thrilled! You could do a lot worse falling for a guy like Royce.
I know... but... I... can't...
And, in a very uncharacteristic gesture, the other voice suddenly stilled as it began to understand.
Oh. Right. Sorry.
And, for once, it backed off.
The tears only came down heavier. It's true, she should have been happy. But instead, she was terrified. There was the logical part of her brain that knew Royce was nothing like her family so loving him would be nothing like loving them. But there was also the illogical (and considerably stronger) part that realized how many things could possibly go wrong if they went in this direction. Possibilities that she honestly didn't consider while she was busy being excited that he actually liked her. Now, she felt like kicking herself in the butt for letting this happen.
And outside of her internal fears, there was a single truth that she couldn't escape- if she gave in and pursued this love, Royce would no longer be her friend. That choked her and nearly produced a sob.
She wasn't ashamed to admit that Royce was currently the best thing her new life had, period. Him and his friendship made her happy beyond what she ever could have imagined, and if she changed anything, that happiness would be threatened. The thought of that made her heart squeeze.