Interlude I 

You Know the Queen of Hearts is Always Your Best Bet

(Act 2 of the Tales of Ann & Robert)

Part 1 

Robert paused before turning on the car engine. He shouldn't be doing this. He knew better. It was only misplaced gratitude on her part for his saving her life. He had no business thinking the thoughts he did about Ann Marshall. He was more than old enough to be her father, and he'd always laughed at men his age making fools of themselves with girls, trying to act like boys again. But deep in his heart he suspected this was his last chance to keep himself from turning into the bitter old man he saw lurking in the mirror on bad mornings. Her laughter and the smile in her eyes when she looked at him, they were like lifelines to his soul. He wanted to cling to them, but they could so easily turn to disgust if she decided to look at the calendar bluntly.

It wasn't possible that she could return his feelings. He was a fool to believe an aging cynic could be of interest to a young, vital, brilliant woman like Ann. But the thought of facing a day without hearing her voice made his heart lurch painfully.

He remembered holding her hand there in the park, the way her fingers had curled around his. She hadn't minded being seen with him. She had reached for his hand automatically after tossing that ball back to those children. It had been so hard not to pull her into his arms, just to hold her close to him. As for the rest of what he was thinking he'd like to do with her...

 

 

Suzy had accused her of looking for a father figure, but the thoughts Ann had about Robert McCall were anything but filial. She'd had a perfectly good father, she wasn't looking for another one. And she kept finding herself studying him when he didn't know it, wanting to run a finger along his neck, play with his hair--

She took a deep breath, counted to twenty, and thought about the cats' litter box. At least Robert was willing to go out and be seen in public with her. She was trying very hard not to appear like a teeny-bopper suffering from puppy love. Then again, teeny-boppers normally didn't have the uncomfortably realistic fantasies she had. So he wasn't some twenty-year-old superstud, he was still a damned fine-looking man. And that voice! Ann wished there were shots a person could take against British accents. The last time he'd started singing, she'd wanted to curl up in his lap and say, "Take me, I'm yours." Which wasn't a bad strategy to keep in mind if he continued being so bloody gentlemanly.

Unless, of course, all he was interested in was a pleasant friendship with a girl who could be his daughter. Dear god, how humiliating it would be to proposition him and have him only look at her with surprise and shock. Which he could easily do. He was probably looking for some elegant, gracious lady who remembered history the way he did, not a jeans-wearing tomboy whose only experience of the Vietnam War was a vague memory of seeing Walter Cronkite on television standing beside a blackboard. Sure, he treated her like an intelligent being, listening to her babble about things she'd only read about in books and acting like she had valid opinions, but how much of that was courtesy? He must be cringing inside to hear some of her sweeping generalities on life when she'd seen very little of it.

The only thing they had in common was divorce, but that was a tender subject. She tried not to mention Randy, and Robert's remarks about his marriage only reminded her that he had a son too damned close to her age. But she loved talking to him, exploring the world seen through the eyes of a different time and country. Everyone else she knew was so much like her that talking to them was sometimes like talking to herself. Robert made her feel both ignorant and fascinated. But being intellectually interesting was not the same as being emotionally engaging. She treasured his friendship, but her dreams were so much more than friendly.

She needed a strategy before he arrived. The street would be closed in an hour for the block party, and it wouldn't be open again until three in the morning. Unless Robert took a cab home, his car was going to be her hostage for the night.

Objective one: just enjoy herself in his company. Two blocks of 23rd Street were going to be closed off and filled with music, dancing, and frivolity. When she'd told Robert about the party, he'd been actively enthusiastic at the prospect. He didn't get enough silly fun. And, in the general mood of self-indulgence, it wouldn't be hard to make progress toward objective two.

A shiver of desire curled up her spine. Three days ago, on the way home from the park, she'd tripped on an uneven section of sidewalk. Robert had caught her, and when she'd looked into his eyes she'd forgotten about getting her feet back under her. His arms had been secure around her, and in no hurry to let her go. Ann remembered gazing up at him breathlessly, afraid of what she knew had to be written all over her face. But if he had seen the open invitation, he chose to ignore it. Though there'd been a warming in his eyes, and a seeming willingness. Thinking he just needed more encouragement, she'd started to reach up to touch his face, but the reserve had come back, even though cloaked in friendship and a growing affection.

But she remembered too clearly the feel of his arms around her, the utter rightness of leaning against him. Most distressing was her body's anticipation of how it would feel to wrap itself around him, to run her hands down--

Ann went to check the garbage disposal for anything clogging the system. If that didn't work there was always the litter box. And if that didn't work, she could always get him drunk and seduce him, consequences be damned. Anything to stop the sensory hallucinations her body plagued her with. Times like these she wished she was fourteen again with only the vaguest impressions of what it was men and women did together.

 

 

The street was beginning to get crowded as Robert pulled his car up in front of Ann's garage. A police car stood at the end of the block, its driver getting ready to pull the barricades across the street. Carts were pulled up on the sidewalk, the ones selling food already surrounded by people. A block away, a band tuned up, the squeal of feedback in the speakers rising above the muted roar of the growing crowd.

Ann answered Robert's knock quickly. "You'd better put your car in the garage," she told him.

A quick glance at the street confirmed her reasoning. "Good idea. I'll meet you inside." He didn't see her hidden smirk.

As the garage door closed and locked behind his car, she felt a pang of nerves and annoyance. Why did she have to feel like a damned teenager again? It hadn't been all that fun the first time, to want someone so bad it hurt. Maybe it was just lust. She kind of hoped it was just lust.

Robert found himself studying her figure with more than casual appreciation as he helped her secure the house. "I like your outfit," he managed to say calmly.

"Oh, thank you." Ann had dressed with only one thing in mind, and she congratulated herself for her apparent success. She wore the lowest cut blouse she could get away with in good taste and a floaty wrap skirt with the slit on the side. The liberated feminist part of her soul was thoroughly disgusted with her, but the realistic part only prayed it worked.

The sun had sunk far enough behind the buildings for shadows to cover the street. Heat still rose from the concrete, but it was enough to know that it would only get cooler as the night wore on.

Ann paused on the sidewalk in front of her house to lift her hair and let the evening breeze cool the back of her neck. "Every summer I wonder why I don't cut my hair," she groaned.

"Oh, don't," Robert protested. "I like long hair."

"Then I'll let it go," she smiled. "So where do we start?"

"With dinner, I believe. I suppose you want something appalling like a kraut dog."

"Not yet. An Italian ice, I think, to begin with, then maybe some kielbasa. And I think I saw a baklava seller down the block."

Ah, me," Robert sighed. "Well, it's only my stomach lining. Lead on."

They stopped at all the places mentioned, then Robert pulled her away from a pizza cart. The food was clustered at the west end of the two-block section and was followed by the cheesy games of skill and chance. To his chagrin, Robert failed to win one stuffed animal for Ann.

"It's just as well," Ann told him, valiantly swallowing her giggles at his exasperation. "Tut and Ankh vivisectioned the last bear I had. I found fluff in between Ankh's toes."

"What a horrifying picture."

There was a dunking booth next to raise money for the nearby private school. Ann was only too thrilled to blow five dollars for five chances to dunk the senior class president, her neighbor's kid Tom.

"You said you thought these were stupid," Robert told her.

"I know I did," Ann replied absently, too busy trying to remember how to throw a knuckle ball. Slow-pitch softball had not been a game played at her school.

The first ball missed, and Tom, his perfect coiffure still undampened, yelled, "Have to do better than that, Ms. Marshall!"

Ann rolled the next ball between her hands and contemplated her target. "No, you may not aim for his forehead," Robert said firmly.

"Is it that obvious?"

"Yes. Why do you hate him so? He's a nice boy."

"Nice," she muttered. "Popular, clean-cut, picture on every page of the yearbook." She ripped the ball downrange and nicked the corner of the target. Under the moans of disappointment from the crowd, she said to Robert, "I do this for every kid who was ever called nerd, who ever had their homework stolen, who ever got teased for knowing the answers before anyone else, who ever was ostracized for preferring a book to a clique. I'm doing this for the good of my soul." She threw the third ball so hard her shoulder popped. It hit the target dead center, and the kid dropped into the water.

"Two more balls for Sandy Koufax," yelled the barker, tossing her the next ball as Tom climbed back on the seat.

Ann glanced at Robert. "Surely there was someone you despised in school."

George Smythe. First boy, A-levels, a berth at Oxford guaranteed--"No, thank you, I like to think I got over all that."

Immature, she heard between the lines. That wasn't what she was trying to prove. But Tom was combing his hair out of his eyes and sneering like he thought it had been a fluke. Mary Alice Sanders had been Ann's chief tormenter, and Ann had never gotten the opportunity to finally deal with her. Ball four smacked the target high and left, but it was good enough.

"Shi--" Tom started, but it was cut off by the splash.

The crowd laughed and cheered, and Ann waited until Tom was settled, tossing the last ball into the air casually. She started her wind-up, saw Tom cringe a little, then paused. She looked at Robert. "No one?" she asked.

Smythe had never failed to make snide remarks about his American mother that stopped just short of actionable. The one time Robert had bloodied his nose, there'd been not-so-veiled threats of being sent down and whispers of "common." He took the ball and assumed his best cricket stance. Smythe had been good at cricket, too.

Ann applauded when Tom hit the water for the third time, then she took Robert's arm as they strolled away. "So what happened to the person you disliked?"

He liked the way she curled possessively around his arm, but he reminded himself not to take it seriously. "The last I heard he's a Conservative backbencher in the House of Commons."

"How annoying," she pouted. "Mine is currently the wife of an up and coming young oil executive. She runs the school reunion committee for my class. I don't go to reunions." That line of thought was dangerous. It led straight to Randy and the abyss.

Robert covered the hand on his forearm with his own. "My dear, neither do I." He saw one of those sudden shadows in her eyes, bringing undeserved lines to her face as something in her past brought her pain. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the fingers. Her gaze locked with his, and he felt a tremor to the bottom of his soul. She couldn't mean what her expression offered. It was only- -had to be only--an infatuation brought on by the drama of their meeting. "And if it's not?" whispered his heart. Oh, but the agony if he made a move and saw only repugnance as his reward. When had he become a coward?

Ann was all embarrassingly weak-kneed and mushy at the touch of his lips. Surely now he'd make some move. Or at least be receptive if she made one. By the look of him all his defenses were down. She took a deep breath and tried to get her words in order.

As she opened her mouth, a scream of feedback and roaring guitar chords ripped from the speakers a half block away. They both jumped, startled, their hands coming free of each other just in case.

"God damn it," Ann growled as she realized what had happened. "This isn't Meadowlands."

Robert rubbed his ears. "And they expect people to dance to that."

"I hope not. Maybe it's just to warm up the crowd." Ann couldn't bring herself to look at Robert. So blasted close! God, don't let it have been a hallucination, what she saw. Be damned if she was sleeping alone tonight. But the band was good, the song was one of her favorites, and she heard some chord progressions in the bass lines that made her want to get a closer look.

It's a good thing you're an honorable man, Robert told himself, grateful for the distraction of the band. Another man would have tumbled her into bed three weeks ago. How was he going to get her to stop looking at him like that?

On the bandstand, five young men were playing with every indication of professionalism. Their name was on the bass drum of the drummer's kit: Cover Boys. A banner on the front of the bandstand repeated the name with a phone number. Ann found herself moving in time to the beat. She made a mental note of the band's phone number; Caleb at the club might know someone who would be interested in them. Several people in the crowd were already breaking into free-form dancing, and more people were clustering around the bandstand.

Robert put an arm around her so as not to lose her in the crowd--at least that's what he told himself. She seemed more than willing to stay close by his side. He felt her moving to the music, and his thoughts took a disturbingly graphic turn. But this time he didn't let her go.

Ann was quite pleased with the way things were going. Good music, a handsome man--now if the band would only play something a tad bit slower. The keyboard player let loose a riff that made her shiver in envious delight.

Robert leaned down to her ear so she could hear him over the noise. "If you asked, I'm sure they'd let you play."

"No, it's their gig, I won't horn in. Besides," she grinned, "I'm saving myself for tomorrow night."

"What's tomorrow night?"

"The Refugees are playing the Blue Whale, and Cousin Jordan told me that only a broken arm will get me out of joining them."

"The Refugees?"

"What, I've never told you about Jordan's band? They're a bunch of guys he works with at Julliard, they put together an R&B band to keep their hands in, they call it Music School Refugees."

"And Julliard approves of this?"

She laughed. "Brass says what's the point of having a blues band if it's approved of."

"And who, pray tell, is Brass?"

"Brass Jackson, a real New Orleans bluesman Jordan found working as a doorman at one of his students' apartment buildings. My God, can he play the sax. Brass now teaches brass instrument theory at Julliard during the day and the blues at night."

Robert chuckled. "My dear, you know some very interesting people."

"I know interesting people?"

He didn't reply. "Since when do you play with bands?"

Her passing frown surprised him. "I played a lot in high school and college. It's been a while."

Another one of those facets she didn't want to explore. "What time?"

"Excuse me?" she blinked.

"What time?" He smiled at her amazement. "My dear, I will be there if I have to camp out on the doorstep. What are you afraid of? I've heard you play, you're marvelous."

Ann shrugged in delighted embarrassment. "Well, playing at home is different from playing for a paying crowd. I don't know if I'm still up to it."

"The management can't throw you out, you own the whole nightclub, don't you?"

"True enough," she laughed. "But really, I bought the place to have a place to put those capital gains, not as a vanity venue where I could play and force people to applaud."

"I'm sure you'll do fine. And I do intend to be there."

The Cover Boys went screaming into a loud, inspired version of some song about drinking, playing around, and who did what to whom. Ann and Robert both winced at the ripping guitar riffs. They left in silent agreement to get a little distance between themselves and the speakers.

"It could be worse," Robert said, rubbing his temples.

"How?" asked Ann, shaking her head to get rid of the ringing.

"They could be a country band."

"Oh, god. 'My woman done left me, took my truck 'n my dog, drank all my whiskey and beat me at cards.'"

The other end of the blocked-off street held a couple of crafts booths, three political candidates, and a miracle baldness cure. Ann had a rousing argument with a candidate for local councilman on the subject of garbage pick-ups, and Robert almost got talked into buying a crocheted toaster cover.

"Robert, do you even own a toaster?" Ann asked, still fighting the adrenal high of politics.

"Of course I do. Unlike you, I treat my English muffins with respect."

"You probably have to, being English. It's probably in the Magna Carta or something."

Perhaps her sense of humor was what he enjoyed most about her, Robert thought as they once more strolled along arm-in-arm. Her taste in puns was delightfully tortured, and she claimed to understand Monty Python. (He'd been uncertain of confessing his enjoyment of Python, then he'd discovered Meaning of Life, Life of Brian, two copies of Holy Grail, and bootlegs of the television show in her extensive video collection.)

They paused on the outskirts of the crowd around the bandstand. The band seemed in a mellower mood, playing Paul McCartney's "Baby I'm Amazed." Couples were dancing, and others in the crowd were singing along.

"Much better," Ann said contentedly.

"Indeed," Robert replied. "May I have this dance?"

"I would be delighted." It was what she'd been angling for, the chance to be in his arms. She blessed the dancing classes her mother had forced her to go to as she easily followed his lead.

Robert had forgotten that he'd been trying to avoid holding her. Anyway, it was only a dance. He signaled a twirl, and she spun into it flawlessly. She came back into his arms laughing in delight, and his heart lurched.

"Much better than dancing with fat Kevin Baker in class," Ann grinned. "Where did you learn?"

"A British Army remedial class when I enlisted as a very junior officer. An officer is a gentlemen, and all gentlemen must dance."

"Really?"

He freed his right hand raise it. "Scout's honor."

Ann raised a suspicious eyebrow. "And what merit badges did you earn?"

Robert laughed rather than answer, leading her into a turn to cover his failing resolve. He tried to remember the last woman he could freely talk about his life with. Ann knew what he had been, even if the finding out had been an accident, so that was no barrier between them. She was sensible enough to know there were things he couldn't tell her, so she never asked. She was fascinated by tales of growing up in Blitz-plagued England and post-war Europe. He'd been afraid to talk about things that had happened fifty years ago, not wanting to draw attention to the age difference between them, but she found the stories fascinating. He loved her mind, the relentless curiosity about how the world worked and why. She asked endless questions about European history and politics, cursing her classes in school for not mentioning the juicy bits.

The band segued into another slow number. The sky was full dark, and somewhere there were stars above. A cool breeze from the river snaked down the street, stirring the garbage on the pavement and lifting hair off the back of sweaty necks. Ann sighed in relief as the cool air swept by her.

"It's not that bad a city, is it," she said quietly, smiling at Robert.

"No, it isn't," he answered, gazing at her.

Dear god, it's not just lust, she said to herself. I think I'm falling in love with him. Her body was tormenting her once again with imagining the feel of his skin. Only force of will kept her hand resting lightly on his shoulder when her fingers positively ached to caress the back of his neck.

What if it was just an infatuation on her part? Robert thought. Is what I feel much different? Is being a fool that bad a thing? The words from the singer with the band came to him: "You're in my heart, You're in my soul, You'll be my breath should I grow old."

"What song is this?" he asked softly.

"'You're in my Soul,' one of Rod Stewart's." Suddenly Ann's heart was pounding hard against her ribs.

You could get hurt, Robert's practicality warned. She could get hurt. Keep it at friendship. Forget what you're wanting and what she's offering.

If I were afraid of pain I'd have gone into true retirement years ago and taken up gardening, his heart spoke up. Perhaps it will only be a short-lived fling and I'll only have made a spectacle of myself at the end of it. I've been stupider for less important things than the chance at love.

"I think I like this song," Robert said. He finally let himself feel her body against his as they danced, the muscles moving under his hand at her waist.

"I've always loved it," Ann replied more than a little breathlessly. Something had changed, he no longer seemed to be holding her at arm's length. "Especially the line about 'should I grow old.' It makes it sound like you don't have to be old."

"What a very reassuring thought, considering what I've been wanting to do with my life." He pulled her closer, from a friendly dancing distance to an intimate one. She came more than willingly, barely suppressing a shiver as his arm went around her waist. She reminded herself that Miss Manners frowned on behavior in the street that might frighten the horses.

They gazed at each other as the band accepted the applause and announced their last number before taking a break, "Desperado."

Robert chuckled. "This one," he said softly.

"You know it?" Ann asked with a smile.

"Oh, yes."

Softly Ann sang along, scared to be showing so much but unable to lose the chance. "Oh, you're a hard one, But I know that you've got your reasons." She lost the breath to sing when he drew her hand to his lips again.

Robert generally tried to avoid this song, with its weight of loneliness and last chances. He remembered being caught a few days ago in an elevator with Linda Ronstadt's version playing on the Muzak. If he'd had a telephone handy he would have called Ann and confessed all then and there. It was an omen that it should be played now.

He smiled as the singer continued. "Don't you draw the queen of diamonds, boy, She'll beat you if she's able. You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet."

Plots had been swept from Ann's mind. Finally, with shaking fingers, she touched his hair. She had been afraid that she'd forgotten how to feel this way. But nothing in her past was like this. Her secret romance with Jordan was tainted with their too-close relationship; Patrick in college, for all its passion, had been a last fling before marriage. And Randy--she had thought she loved her husband, but cold honesty revealed only friendship and habit. This with Robert was free of betrayed commitments, tainted only by the pain of past regrets.

She noticed that Robert was gradually guiding their dance to the edge of the crowd. The song was almost over, and the singer had reached the words she wished she had the courage to sing to Robert: "You'd better let somebody love you, You'd better let somebody love you, Before it's too late."

As the last note faded, there was applause for the song and the set. The crowd dispersed to the other attractions of the fair. Amid the bustle, Robert, still holding firmly to Ann's hand, led the way to the wall of an apartment house. They let the shadows to one side of the front stoop conceal them.

"I've been trying to avoid doing this," he said, putting his arms around her.

"I know," she smiled. "It's been very frustrating." She let herself lean against him, thrilled to be finally able to enjoy his embrace. Her imagination had not told her the half of it.

"I was afraid of leading you on, of hurting you--or being hurt," he admitted. Robert was determined to at least try to discuss his worries before the inevitable happened. His sense of honor would be appeased if Ann was willing to consider the potential hazards.

She looked at him seriously. "I don't think it's in you to hurt me, not after the hurt I've been through in my life. Oh, I don't deny that what I've been feeling isn't dangerous. But it's a sweet sort of danger I didn't think I'd ever feel again," she finished with a beguiling smile.

"You're young, my dearest, with a long life ahead of you. You don't need to throw yourself away on me."

"That long life has only looked like an endless grey plain to me. I was becoming a hermit in that glorious big house of mine."

Robert thought back to when he'd met her. "That's why I insisted on taking you out to dinner that first night. I could see you closing that door and not opening it again."

"Oh, you did know," she gasped. "For all that I'd been terrified out of my wits, it was the most alive I'd felt in years. I was so afraid that when you left I'd slip back into that trance I was in. Robert, there are stretches of weeks that I don't remember what I've done. What with being able to work from home and all the things you can get delivered in this town, it was getting harder and harder to find a reason to leave the house." She shook off the remembrance of grey lassitude and smiled. "Now people are beginning to complain that I'm never at home anymore."

Robert shook his head wonderingly. "And here I've been accusing myself of harming the natural order of your life." He raised a finger to stroke her cheek. "I'd forgotten how much pleasure there is in life. I was afraid I was stealing it from you." Ann's eyes lit at the word pleasure.

"Oh, no," she said breathlessly. "Any pleasure I have I'm willing to share, a gift freely given."

He noticed that his fingers had wandered all by themselves into her hair. "I can't help but find it hard to believe that you would give the gift of yourself to me," he whispered.

"Why?" His fingers had found the back of her ear, and eloquence was becoming difficult.

Robert smiled depreciatingly. "For reasons that don't speak well for my sense of self-worth."

"It's the calendar thing, isn't it," she said grumpily. "Robert, there are young, gorgeous, charming men out there by the metric ton. Men with brains and fascinating personalities, on the other hand, are rarer than virgins on 42nd street."

"What an attractive metaphor."

"You know what I mean!"

He tightened his arms around her in a close embrace. "Yes, I know what you mean." Not that he believed her, of course. One day he'd see her eyes start wandering towards those young, gorgeous, charming men, and the excuses would start. He had another qualm about the wisdom of all this. But now that he held her and saw the barely-cloaked desire in her eyes, he was willing to take what he could get while he could. He'd get out of the way gracefully when it was time. But for now...

His silence had made Ann wonder if he was reconsidering. "I don't understand you," she said plaintively. "Why is it so hard to accept something offered freely and happily?"

Robert finally surrendered, leaned down and touched her lips gently with his own. "Because something I want so badly must surely be wrong," he whispered. She slid her arms around his waist and responded eagerly to the kiss.

It was only supposed to be a brief kiss, but Robert's own desires got the better of him. Where had he ever gotten the idea that just because Ann was younger than he that she was necessarily physically inexperienced? The tip of her tongue was doing things that caused some very grown-up notions to occur to him. Romance was fast shading into eager desire, and he pulled her hard against him.

Ann was grateful for the support. Only the fact that she needed her hands to hold on to him kept them from wandering anywhere within reach. Certain ordinances against public lewdness also reminded her that there were better places for this. The taste and smell of him were delicious. She moved avidly against him, anxious to feel his body against hers. His left hand slid slowly down her back, and she shivered. Why had she ever thought him reserved? She'd wanted to be restrained and ladylike, but his touch ignited every pent-up longing, including some she hadn't known she had.

Ann was the one to break the kiss, but she made no move away from him. Her knees were shaking so badly she needed help standing. She stared at him a moment, savoring the passion she saw revealed in his eyes. "Where did the British get this reputation for being cold?" she asked breathlessly.

"Perhaps someone put his feet where he shouldn't have," was all Robert could think to say. Perhaps because he was imagining all too graphically how it would feel to do more than just kiss this surprising woman. He firmly reminded his hands that they were on a public street and someone somewhere was probably watching.

She laughed and grinned in anticipation. "I think I'm safe in saying you are welcome to put your feet anywhere you want." He raised a questioning eyebrow that dared her expound on the theme. "But not here."

"No. I'm surprised a policeman hasn't interrupted us before now." He allowed his fingers a brief foray across her cheek and smiled as she shivered again. He was amazed how eagerly she responded to him. More fools they, the men who had failed to win her, and he knew there had to be some. She was too lovely and too rich to be ignored.

Ann tried to school her face to a bland mask, as much for the requirements of a New York street as to keep her neighbors from pointing to her and saying to each other, "There goes a woman who has been alone too long." But her joy and anticipation were a bubbling stream that had no desire to be bottled up. She couldn't help grinning as she and Robert walked the block to her house, and her fingers longed to go exploring. She found herself studying his shirt buttons for future reference. Nervousness kept rearing its nasty head, though. Being forward and direct had its uses, but she didn't want to seem easy. Just quickly persuadable.

They paused for a rowdy bunch of teenagers to pass, Robert drawing her close as some friendly scuffling broke out. His fingers on her bare arm sent a delighted chill down her spine. He tried to stop himself, but the fingers, drawn like bees to nectar, reached out to caress the side of her breast through the thin shirt. Ann stared up at him for a breathless, heated moment, reminding herself of all the reasons they were restraining themselves out here on the street. Hoping to forestall other slips, Robert let his fingers go exploring a bit, and it slowly dawned on him that she wasn't wearing a bra. Only the thin cotton lay between him and...

"I hope you have your key handy," he said softly, forcing his hand up to her cheek.

"Oh, yes," she managed. "It's tied around my ankle." Oh, gosh, oh golly, she thought incoherently, if it's this bad with clothes on... I wonder if we'll make it past the front hallway.

As they resumed their walk to her house, she tried to imagine it, that probably in less than twenty minutes they were going to be making love. It was suddenly difficult to picture Robert being that uninhibited. It almost seemed beneath his dignity to engage in such wanton pleasures. Ann remembered a remarkable day when her mother, while talking with her and her sister, Becky, had confided that she didn't much like sex, that all that flailing around was rather common and sordid. Ann had replied, "Well, I don't imagine it gets much more sordid and common than sex," whereupon her mother wanted to know just what she knew about sex. Becky, who had been the recipient of several confidences regarding her older sister's adventures, quickly said, "Sex ed, Mom, in school. They show movies."

"Movies!"

"Yeah," Ann confirmed swiftly. "Movies. In school." And their mother was diverted into the less dangerous topic of what filth they were peddling in the public schools.

Picturing Robert in the grip of passionate abandon was difficult, but this was the same man who had just copped a feel on a very busy street. And she had thought she was going to have to persuade him. She didn't know what he would do when they were finally alone. It was both delightful and disturbing not to be in control.

Ann wasn't the only one who thought things had gotten out of control. Robert hadn't let his body overrule his head since he was a teenager, but his hormones were certainly trying to make up for lost time. Just because it had been almost two years since a relationship had progressed to the lover stage was no reason to become a rutting fool. But his finger tips tingled with the desire to go exploring again, and the hand he had around her waist kept slipping down her hip and trying to go lower. He wondered what she wasn't wearing under that skirt and how difficult it would be to get rid of.

Finally they reached Ann's front door. Ann wondered why she felt like she had to sneak into her own home. She really hoped that someday soon she'd start feeling like a grown-up. Robert was more than willing to support her as she stood on one foot to untie the key from around her ankle. He took the key from her when he saw how badly her fingers were shaking, caressing the palm of her hand and almost making her drop the key.

"Did you set the alarm?" he asked as he worked the lock. He was proud that his voice was still matter-of-fact.

"Oh, yeah, the alarm." Ann's voice had stopped being matter-of-fact a long time ago. "Yes, I set it. Thank you for reminding me."

"It would be embarrassing for it to go off just now."

"I think so."

Robert opened and held the door for Ann to go through, then closed it behind them. He set the locks carefully, barring the world from disturbing them. The voice of prudence made a last argument, but it was too late for logic. The taste of her was still on his lips, and he remembered all too clearly the feel of her body pressing against his. His empty hands craved to be caressing her skin, exploring her body, doing the things he should not, in honor, think about. But honor had been supplanted by old appetites he couldn't ignore any longer, not in the face of the seductive appeal of being wanted. He headed down the long corridor in the direction Ann had gone.

She was resetting the alarm, putting her total focus into making her fingers do the right thing. Luckily all the button pushing was done when she heard Robert's footsteps approaching, because a quiver of lust ran through her, pushing out all thoughts of security procedures. She looked up at him as he turned the corner, and smiled at the barely cloaked desire on his face. She'd been half-afraid he was going to change his mind.

For his part, he'd been wondering if she regretted her offer, but her eager smile dispelled his last doubts. He was looking forward to being her lover. She stepped up to him and raised a slightly hesitant hand to his face, as if she was afraid of being rebuffed. He took the hand and kissed each finger, never taking his eyes from hers. Slipping his other arm around her waist, he pulled her against him. Anticipation prickled her skin as she put her arms around his neck, melting into his embrace as he leaned down to kiss her. They both froze at the sound of a threatening growl.

Ann immediately identified the source, and thwarted lust made her turn her head with a glare. "Mind your own damned business, Tut," she growled in return.

The larger of her two Siamese cats crouched on the foyer table, poised to attack as his narrowed eyes shot glowing electric blue threats at Robert. A complicated yowl answered Ann, ending in a hiss.

"Trust me," she snapped. "I'm in no danger. Go away."

Tut rose slowly to his feet, tail thrashing. He grumbled something, gave Ann a disgusted look, then sat down to wash the base of his tail at them.

Ann turned to Robert in exasperation. "I suppose he thinks he's defending my honor."

"You haven't had him declawed," Robert noted uneasily, momentarily distracted from the view presented by her disarranged blouse.

"He's normally better behaved. However, if you're concerned," she said, drawing a finger down the portions of his chest she could reach, "the bedroom door will keep the cats out."

Robert relaxed and proceeded to ignore the cat. "I was just about to ask you your opinion of the floor."

"Handy but uncomfortable." Ann proceeded to unfasten the rest of his shirt buttons, humming absently under her breath.

He lifted her face with both forefingers and gazed at her. "You're very beautiful, Anastasia." She smiled in foolish delight at the way he said her full name. "It suits you. Ann is simply too paltry a name for a woman as intricate as you."

"I never really felt worthy of such a grand name. Anastasia belongs to someone with a great flair and style. It's a part of myself I didn't know I had. I never really dared let her out before."

"Thank you, then, for sharing this part of yourself with me," he said softly.

She wanted to say something clever, but the note in his voice left her tongue-tied. All she could think to do was lean up towards him. He met her more than halfway. There was still urgent desire in the kiss, but a deeper emotion was creeping in.

Tut looked up at them and muttered something disgusted in Siamese. Ann laughed softly up at Robert. "He's just annoyed because I had him and Ankh neutered."

"I would be I were him." The dishabille of her blouse drew his thoughtful gaze. He started to nudge the cloth off her shoulder, but he glanced at the cat, who still glared at him. "We should get out from under the accusing scrutiny of your chaperon."

"You're right." She purred as he ran a slow finger up the side of her neck, then reluctantly stepped away from him. "Excuse me a moment."

"Of course."

She went to Tut. "You're a silly cat," she told him, rubbing his ears and kissing his nose. Tut ducked his head and laid back his ears at such a display in front of someone else. "Sorry, get used to him."

"Indeed," Robert said, taking her hand and leading her away.

The neon Guinness sign above the small bar lit the way up the stairs to the second floor. Ann found the light switch at the head of the stairs, and a small spotlight near the skylight three stories up threw light on the iron bird sculpture attached to the brick wall of the atrium. She paused to gaze up and around at the three levels of the heart of her domain. Robert came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her.

"As ivory towers go, this isn't bad," she said, leaning back against him.

"No, it's not." He brushed her hair to one side and leaned down to kiss her temple. "But princesses can't stay in their towers forever."

"True enough. You make a very nice handsome prince to come to rescue me."

"Flatterer."

Quite a pleasant time later, Ann stretched in utter hedonistic delight and snuggled against Robert's side. Her bedroom was dark, with only a little light filtering through the Japanese paper screen that blocked the open side looking over the atrium.

Robert chuckled as he stroked her hair. "I'm glad you seem pleased."

"Now you're fishing for compliments? You already accused me of being a flatterer once." She scooted up to kiss him. "Not that you don't deserve flattered."

"Let me just say, my dearest, that you are not undeserving yourself."

She blushed, giggled and kissed him again.

A twinge in his shoulder reminded Robert of what would happen if he didn't shift position. "Forgive me, darling, I must move this arm." Ann waited patiently until he was settled again, then nestled against his side. He put his arms around her as she settled her head on his shoulder. Her sigh of utter content brought a glow to his soul. Beneath her ear, Ann heard something in his shoulder pop and settle.

"No, it was nothing you did," he said as she gave a start of worry. "I think there's piece of shrapnel in there. The doctors swore they got it all, but they were in a hurry." He felt a moment of dismay. Why on earth had he brought that up? But when he glanced at Ann, all he saw was cloaked worry in her eyes. "Very old news," he reassured her, "nothing to concern yourself over." She accepted it, but tightened her hold on him protectively all the same. He raised a hand to push her head back down to his shoulder when he felt she was trying to keep the weight off.

She chuckled and settled against him again. She wanted to ask what had happened but knew with complete certainty that questions would wreck their relationship. So she wouldn't ask them. If circumspection was the cost of holding Robert, that was coin she would willingly pay.

He waited for questions he would have to avoid, but none came. Instead she draped arms and legs over him and gave every appearance of being about to take a nap. It finally dawned on him that she had no intention of prying, that whatever raging curiosity she had was under strict control. More disturbing, he wanted to tell her some of the things that had happened to him. Maybe someday.

Ankh jumped on the bed, startling them both.

"Where the hell were you hiding?" Ann said, staring at the cat. "I'm sorry, Robert, I thought she was somewhere else."

"I doubt she'll tell tales."

Ankh glared at them, then stalked to Ann's leg and began walking up. She sniffed Robert's arm suspiciously where it lay around Ann's waist.

"No, I will not move it," he told the cat.

"The human as cat furniture," Ann said lazily. "I only mind when they stand on my tits."

Ankh stepped delicately over the arm and proceeded up Ann's side to finally crouch on her shoulder. The cat flicked her tail over her front paws and stared at Robert.

"She snores," Ann commented. "They both do."

"Do you?"

She chuckled. "My brother says I do, but I tell him he was only hearing his own snores echoing."

"No independent corroboration?"

What a delicately phrased probe for information. "It's been quite a while since anyone's been around to investigate the matter." She tried to think just how long it had been since she'd let someone share her bed. Jordan, just after the divorce was finalized, had helped her get her mind somewhat in order, but that had been... "Good lord, three years," she said thoughtfully.

"Too long."

"Too long," she agreed.

Robert gazed at the cat, who was still staring at him. She hadn't blinked yet. "Cat, you can't stay there." Ankh blinked slowly. "Yes, I'm talking to you." He listened to himself. "Darling, I'm talking to a cat."

"So? I do it all the time. A lot of backtalk I get, too. But you're right." She turned her head to look at the cat. "Go away, Ankh." The cat reached out a delicate paw and placed it on Ann's nose. "No, being cute will not change my mind. There's someone else here I like at least as much as you." Ankh hissed. "Don't take that tone with me, young lady. Excuse me," she said to Robert, who moved his arms as she began to carefully sit up. "Watch the claws, you."

Robert watched admiringly as Ann moved in the semi-darkness, carrying the cat to the door. He stretched leisurely and was surprised at how few joints protested. Then again, it was said that all the exercise a person really needed could be had in bed.

Ann shoved Ankh, protesting, out the bedroom door. Tut, sitting just outside, glared at her. "Tough," she said, and shut the door in their faces. Feeling Robert's eyes on her, she didn't turn around just yet, instead stretching her arms above her head to loosen her spine. Exhibitionist, she told herself. Well, if you couldn't show off for your lover, when could you? Lover, oh my. She hid a smile as she slowly lowered her arms and turned. He watched her quite blatantly and looked appreciative.

"If you'll excuse me a few more minutes," she said, "I'll just be in there." She waved in the general area of the bathroom, suddenly shy.

"Take your time, I have no intention of going anywhere." He smiled as she all but scurried away. He knew what was wrong with her. But he was content to rest in ebbing pleasure, in no hurry for anything else.

Ann didn't need the lights in her own bathroom. Besides, she wasn't ready for the truth of bright lights. So now what? You've been planning so hard to get him into bed that you haven't thought of what to do with him afterwards. She wanted to go lay back down beside him and enjoy holding him some more. As good a plan as any, but later?

Oh, god, did there have to be a plan? Let time and tides work as they would. A lovely man was in her bed and seemed happy to be there. That was sufficient for now.

She paused in the doorway and looked at him lying there. She'd always enjoyed watching men sleep. Their faces reverted to innocence, and the most amazing expressions would drift across them. Robert was smiling peacefully. Ann's stomach tightened at the thought that she was the cause of that smile. He seemed content in her company. She remembered a phone call late at night a week ago. A case had ended messily, with three bad men dead at his hand, and he'd needed to talk. She'd met him in an all-night diner, drunk coffee with him till dawn, and seen him home. He'd almost asked her to stay, she'd seen that in his face. But that would have been gloom and melancholy, so she'd told him she had an appointment and left, kicking herself the whole way. Now she was glad she had.

Robert opened his eyes, blinking back from being pounced upon by sleep. For a split-second he couldn't remember where he was, especially why he was in an unfamiliar bed. A familiar perfume reminded him, and he smiled in rueful delight. He'd finally given in, and Ann was suffering post-coital bashfulness. He was suffering post-coital loneliness and wished she'd come back and snuggle. A movement caught the corner of his eye, and he looked over to see her standing in the bathroom doorway, watching him. She smiled sheepishly at having been caught.

He held a hand out to her. "Come here." She went to him and took his hand, letting him pull her down next to him and into his arms again. "And what were you looking at?"

"You."

"And what did you see?"

She paused, considering. "A man who doesn't smile enough."

He nodded in agreement. "I rarely have much to smile about. You, however, make me very happy."

Joy and fear rocked her soul as he kissed her. She was falling in love with Robert McCall, she knew she was. She remembered the symptoms. And it had never ended well. What did she know of making a relationship work? To her utter horror, she began to cry.

"Darling, what's wrong?" Robert tried to think of what he could possibly have done to make her cry. She shook her head and started getting the tears back under control. "No, love, I don't believe you. Tell me."

Oh, god, how could she? Which truth to tell? Which pain to admit? Any confession ran the risk of revealing too much, but he wasn't going to be fobbed off by half-measures. She sniffed hard and choked back a hiccup. "I was just thinking about--about how many times I've screwed up in the past." There, that covered a lot of territory without being specific about any of it.

"Oh, mon chere," he murmured, holding her tight. He was only too certain he could match her regrets one for one and still have a lot left over. And he knew she didn't want to go into details, not yet. Neither did he, particularly, about his own mistakes.

She forced herself to smile. "I'm sorry, that was silly."

"Don't do that."

"Excuse me?"

He tilted her chin up and kissed her. "Don't pretend that nothing hurts you and everything's wonderful." He wasn't going to make the mistake of minimizing her pain on the grounds of inexperience. "But you needn't go into it if you don't want to."

She let her silence be her answer and snuggled in closer.

A muted roar of sound came faintly from outside. "What in the--oh, the band," she identified. "Second set. What time is it?" She looked at her watch, which she had neglected to remove.

"Does it matter?" he asked lazily. He was idly running his fingers along her arm, and he picked up her hand to lay a kiss in the palm.

"No, I guess not." She muffled a contented yawn.

Robert chuckled. "Darling, I don't want you to move, but your neck would probably not forgive you if you fell asleep there."

"There's a problem." Her voice was slurring.

"What's that?"

"Can't move." Her voice faded away. Chuckling, he pulled his arm free and made sure she had covers and a pillow. She curled around it and purred, stretching happily when he caressed her shoulder and kissed her. She started snoring mid-kiss.

But he had long ago lost the ability to drift off in peaceful confidence in strange surroundings with no one keeping an eye out. Quickly he reviewed the security of the house. The front door was locked, the alarm was on, the cats were somewhere else. Content at last, he let the languor take him, gazing at his lover's face as he fell asleep.

 

 

In the morning, the face he awoke to was not quite as pleasant. A cat perched on Ann's vacant pillow, staring at him intently. It blurted at him, and he recognized the female's higher voice.

"Good morning, Ankh," he replied, and she purred at him. "Where's your mistress?" The cat didn't answer.

He checked his watch. Nine thirty. He lay for a while, watching the sunlight on the painted Japanese screen at the far end of the room and thinking hard. How long had Ann been awake and why had she slipped out? Couldn't she bear the thought of lying next to him after last night? How big a fool had he made of himself? Last night it had made all the sense in the world to give in to desire, but now... She had been wonderful to hold, but was she now horrified at the thought of old hands on her body? What expression would he see on her face when he found her?

He quickly got up, visited the bathroom, then located his clothes. He did not want to be found lounging in her bed. Any assumptions were dangerous, especially ones regarding his welcome. Ankh watched him dress, head tilted quizzically to one side.

Out on the balcony, he paused. Morning light in Rapunzel's tower, glinting off the black baby grand piano in the atrium below, the terra cotta tiles of the floor, and the aged brick of the wall. The iron birds seemed to be flying for the sheer joy of it. Such a beautiful house, filled with all the lovely things money and taste could buy.

Robert studied the Art Deco print on the white wall next to the piano, its primary colors aglow in the sunlight. He remembered the evening Ann had first played for him, testing the responsiveness of her healing left arm. He'd had to coax her, but the smile on her face as she caressed the keys told him that creating music was her first love. As slow, mournful blues rose from the piano, Robert had sipped his brandy and gazed at the framed print. It was an advertisement for British Mail ships on the Transatlantic route, showing the solid prow of a ship churning through an impossibly blue sea. His father had told of traveling on such ships. The music and the memories had combined to form a well of tranquility in his soul, a well he was beginning to rely on and was refilling with Ann's company. If one night of lustful thoughtlessness had ruined the friendship they'd been shaping...

The smell of good coffee wafted by, and he decided to track it to its source.

 

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