Part 2 

He found her in her huge white kitchen. The place was ablaze with sunlight, and the two Art Nouveau stained-glass windows positively glowed with color. In the midst of all this stood Ann, wearing an emerald caftan that set off her hair to perfection. It hurt to look at her.

She stirred something at the big island in the middle of the room, her back to him. The radio played a song from last evening, and she was singing along, stirring to the rhythm. She sounded happy enough, and watching her move in time to the music made Robert relive some memories of the night, memories he was afraid he was going to have to cherish against long, lonely nights ahead. But she loved music, and she didn't know he was there.

Tut sat on the island, supervising her work. At Robert's entrance into the kitchen, the cat looked up and hissed.

"What--" Ann gasped, and looked over her shoulder. She smiled when she saw Robert. "Good morning," she said, but then she saw how neatly he was dressed. "Are you leaving?" she asked, an uneasy shadow in her eyes.

"It might be best." Should he dare to hope a hope? She seemed happy to see him, but was it true pleasure or mere courtesy? "What are you doing?" he asked, taking refuge in the banal.

Ann looked away, more to hide her dismay than anything else. "I thought I'd make us some breakfast," she said awkwardly. Oh, god, what is happening? He thinks last night was a mistake, that he said too much. He's going to go all polite on me and get out as fast and far as he can.

"That's very kind of you," was all Robert could say, hating himself for his cowardice. But if she was regretting letting him get so close, he couldn't give her any more ammunition to destroy his heart with.

Kind. She'd hoped to surprise him with breakfast in bed, among other things. All her hopes started slipping away on an ebbtide of self-preservation.

No, this was not going to happen. She stiffened her resolve and prepared her heart for rejection. Be damned if she was going to face her life alone, not when she might have found someone to care for and hold on to. She took a deep breath and turned to face him.

"If you don't have to, I'd rather you stayed." He stared at her in disbelief, and she was certain she'd presumed too much. Then he started to smile.

"I wasn't sure you'd have me," he said, wonder warring with delight in his voice. Instead of answering, Ann hurried to him to throw her arms around his neck. With a contented sigh, Robert wrapped his arms around her and kissed her.

So it was real, she thought beneath her happiness. He genuinely wants to be with me, to hold me, and I don't have to hide the way I feel from him and the world. A scraping noise slowly caught her attention, and she tore herself free from his arms in horror.

"Damn it, Tut, don't you dare!" She caught the bowl just as it reached the edge of the counter. Tut gave her a laser blue glare and bared his fangs. "Just get over it, and make it fast, buddy! Yeah, just go sulk. Damn jealous fur," she muttered, turning back to Robert. "He's very spoiled," she said sheepishly.

"He will have to get over it," Robert answered, coming over to put his arms around her again. "So what are you making?" he asked, looking over her shoulder.

"Scrambled eggs here, and there are some ham and cheese English muffins in the broiler." She grinned. "I almost put them in the microwave, but I could just picture your reaction."

"I am not quite the kind of cad who would insult a lady's morning-after cooking." He nibbled on her convenient earlobe.

when she'd first seen him. "Were you afraid that in the cold light of morning I'd be disgusted with myself?" she asked softly, turning to face him. "I know I was scared of the look on your face."

He kissed her gently. "The only thing I regret, my darling, is that I didn't get to wake up next to you." He chuckled at her delighted grin. "So why did you abandon me to the tender attentions of Ankh?"

"She didn't wake you up, did she?"

"No, she just sat there and stared at me, then chirped a very pleasant good morning when she saw I was awake."

Ann chuckled. "Well, I woke up about seven and laid there watching you for a while, trying to decide if I should wake you up. But you looked so content there, snoring happily, that I couldn't bear to."

"I will have you know, my lovely, that you snore, too."

She blushed and laughed. "Anyway, I got up, took a shower, checked you and you were still asleep, then decided to make you breakfast in bed."

"A gracious thought, but it's just as well you didn't get to deliver it." He stroked her face. "It would undoubtedly have gotten spilled."

"Probably so. Well, in that case, would you like to help me with the cooking? There's not much left to do."

"I would be delighted."

"Then if you would check the broiler, I'll finish the eggs."

As he went over to the oven, he looked around. "I've always wanted to ask you, why do you need such a huge kitchen?"

"Well, it makes a nice breakfast room, and I actually get to give it a good workout every now and then. I hold a big party on Halloween and have a pre-Christmas dinner for my family. And two or three times a year some cousin borrows it to impress somebody. Do you cook?"

"A bit. Where's a pot holder, these are done."

"Right there." She pointed above his head.

"Ah, if it had been a snake... My skills are enough to hold body and soul together."

"I'll have to see if I can make a good show-off dinner for you some time."

Robert paused after closing the broiler to watch her. When was the last time a woman had cooked for him? It felt odd to be so welcomed into her life. Oh, he could get used to this. He'd found a sanctuary, the kind of warm, happy refuge he'd given up on. There were no lies here, and the secrets were acknowledged and overlooked. They both had secrets, after all, and they both respected each other's privacy enough to let them be.

Ann poured half the eggs into the skillet and started stirring. A wistful smile went across her face. "I used to make scrambled eggs for my father," she said absently. "He liked hot peppers, ham, and lots of cheese. He never told us kids he had a bad heart. Two months before he died he asked for a double helping with extra cheese. I guess he got tired of being good."

"When did he die?" Robert asked softly.

"Two and a half years ago. I was twenty-seven." She shook her head. "Sorry, I don't often get maudlin."

"I don't mind." He went to check the coffee. "I was nineteen when my father was killed. He was a career officer in the Royal Army. I was very junior officer, and somehow he got me stationed with his unit. Well, that's a long, unpleasant story. I'll tell it another time." She gave him an understanding smile.

The phone rang. "Damn it," Ann muttered. She hesitated, then sighed and picked it up. "Hello. Oh, hi, Jordan. What do you mean, where am I? I'm here." A look of horror went across her face. "Oh, crap, that's right, the last rehearsal." She mouthed several bad words that Robert quite agreed with. She gave him a thoughtful look and grinned. "Stop yelling, Jordy. Look, we had a dress rehearsal yesterday, do we really need another one today? I don't want to wear out my hands with a show tonight. Yeah, but I'm out of shape. It's more than five years since I did a show, and I don't want to take any chances. Look, if you don't think I can do it, find a replacement! Change the song list and let Jerry do keyboards. I was fine yesterday, wasn't I?" She listened for a moment then grinned wickedly. "What else do I have to do today? Cousin, you do not want to know. Look, I'll be there at seven, we can go over anything then. Yeah, I'm gonna be that way about it. If you don't like it..." Robert started to speak, but she waved him quiet. "All right, six, then. The place doesn't even open till eight, that'll give us time. I'll be there. I'll even be ready. See you then. Bye." She hung up carefully and looked at Robert. "And it was mostly the truth."

"If you need to be somewhere..."

"I am somewhere." She accepted a cup of coffee and a kiss from him. "Let me finish the rest of the eggs, and it's ready." She paused and looked at him uneasily. "But is anyone wondering where you are?"

"Oh, dear." He looked at the phone unhappily.

"Go ahead, check. I don't want you sitting around here thinking you're shirking."

He quickly caressed her cheek. "You are a remarkable woman."

"A remarkably hungry woman. You call, I'll cook."

Ann watched out of the corner of her eye as he started punching in numbers and codes. If he had to leave, she wouldn't bitch. She'd made that promise to herself a long time ago. But she couldn't help hesitating as he listened to his answering machine. His smile sent her back to the eggs with a light heart.

"No new messages," he announced, "and the world is currently moving along without my interference."

"Good. Let's eat."

They sat by an open window and looked out on the shambles of the street while they talked. Ann pointed out neighbor's houses and confided juicy gossip.

"When you said this house was a gift," Robert asked, "did you mean outright gift or just a very good deal on a mortgage?"

"No, I got the deed free and clear from my grandmothers. I didn't ask how they worked the deal, but Grandma Jessie used to own a lot of property around here. Some deal involving her scandalous husband."

He munched on his last english muffin and shook his head. "Well, your taxes must be horrendous, but your children will thank you for such a wonderful inheritance--if they can afford death duties..." He looked up and was appalled to see tears starting down Ann's cheeks. "What did I say!"

It sneaks up on you, Ann thought wildly. You think you've got it cornered and locked away, then it crawls out and sinks its teeth into your throat. Well, do you want to tell him and let him avoid the topic or do you want to keep running the risk of him dumping salt on the wound by accident?

"Darling, what did I do?" Robert persisted. He tried to think what had triggered her grief. Had her mention of her deceased father knocked something loose? She took a shaky breath, and he handed her a napkin.

"Thanks," she whispered. "Oh, god, I've been wondering if I should say anything." She took a deep breath and dove in. "I can't have kids. I was pregnant once, when I was married, but I lost it. The scar tissue was real bad. It was one of the reasons my marriage went south."

"Ah." He carefully took her hand in his. "I understand. No, I do." The pain was more wistful now than anything. "I had a daughter. We lost her when she was two."

"Oh, no," Ann moaned. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you feel bad too."

"It's not your fault, love. Forgive me for causing you pain."

"Of course." She wiped her eyes again. "Does it get easier?"

"It always gets easier. But it doesn't go away."

"I don't ask that." She sighed and shook her head.

Robert did some calculations in his head. She'd said she married just out of college, when she was twenty-two. In only five years she'd suffered a miscarriage, a divorce, and the loss of her father. No wonder she'd been turning into a hermit. No wonder she looked older than twenty-nine. But he also remembered the delight on her face last night, and he hoped he could make her smile again.

"So what shall we do until six o'clock, when you have to be at the club?" he asked with a knowing smile.

Ann looked at him, and old pain slipped back into its niche. That smile lit too much happiness to wallow in guilt. "Well, I know what I'd like to be doing," she grinned, and his smile broadened. "But..."

He blinked. "But?" he asked uneasily.

She laughed ruefully. "I think I pulled a muscle. Nothing major, just very inconvenient."

"Hm. Well, there are various physical therapies that are quite good for muscle pulls. Some of them not very strenuous at all." He saw her hesitant interest. "However..." He sighed. "I know I pulled a muscle."

"Oh, god," Ann laughed. "What a pair we are. I think we're out of practice at this."

"The cure for being out of practice is more practice." He raised her hand to kiss it. "But pain is not something I enjoy."

"Oh, then you're not one of those Englishmen with the odd tastes that I've read about."

Robert rested his chin on his propped-up fist and studied her very intently. "My darling Anastasia, you might want to be careful about statements like that. I can think of any number of intriguing responses."

She blushed and grinned. "More eggs?"

"Thank you, yes." It was amazing how much she still blushed. More amazing still was that he could think of quite a few intriguing responses that he wanted her opinion on. He started assembling a list of things that wouldn't aggravate pulled muscles.

The phone rang again. "God damn it," Ann snarled as she got up. "Why is everyone after me this morning? Hello? Hi, Nate, what do you want? Yes, the show is tonight. Yes, I'm going to make you buy tickets. You don't have a tab, so don't start. Look, Nate, I'm kind of busy this morning. I'll talk to you tonight, OK? Yeah, thanks. Good-bye." She hung up the phone gently. "My brother," she told Robert. "My whole family's bound to check in now."

"Then perhaps the best thing for us to do is not be here," he proposed. "Let's go for a long stroll, perhaps play tourist at Rockefeller Center and have lunch there, go window shopping on Fifth Avenue."

"Good lord, the last time I was at Rockefeller Center I think I was fifteen," she grinned. "We went to see the Christmas tree, and I was being too sophisticated to care. What a brat I was."

"Then it's decided."

"Indeed." She glanced down at herself. "Well, if I'm going to be lunching downtown, I'd best change." She grinned at him. "Care to come help me pick out something?"

"My dear, if I do that, we won't be having lunch downtown," he told her.

His smile tempted her, and she was about to propose a change in plans when the phone rang again.

"Don't answer it," Robert said. "Go change. I'll stay here and finish my coffee."

Ann glared at the phone until it stopped. "How decadent that feels." She went to him to kiss him. "Give me ten minutes."

"That and the twenty you'll undoubtedly take." He pulled her into his lap for a longer kiss. Her caftan was silk, he realized as he stroked her shoulder. Only the certain knowledge of further interruptions kept his explorations limited. "Why don't you wear what you wore last night?" he asked softly.

"No, that served its purpose," she answered a little more truthfully than she planned. But his hands kept distracting her.

"And what was the purpose, if I may be so bold? Or do I really need ask?"

"Sweetheart, whatever works. I was getting terribly desperate." He nibbled lightly on her throat, once again tempting her to risk interruptions.

"What would you have done if it hadn't worked?" he whispered.

"Got you drunk and proceeded from there." She grabbed his head and kissed him hard.

He was contemplating finding out what lurked under the silk when he managed to stop. "Darling, I keep expecting a knock on the door," he said regretfully.

"Let 'em," she answered in a distracted voice as she nibbled an ear lobe. "We can proceed with what we're doing while they stand on the stoop and wonder where I am."

"Ah, my dearest, but who has a key?"

"Eek." Ann stopped what she was doing. Being caught in flagrante would only lead to bad jokes for the rest of her life. "Damn. And I just know somebody's going to come by to talk about the show." Thwarted desire curdled in her stomach.

Robert helped her to her feet and stood. "Patience, my dear. Go change. I've been meaning to check your security system anyway."

"Why? It's one of the best on the market."

He kissed her briefly. "You may believe that, but it's yet to be proven to me. And I'm not taking any chances with you."

With a bright smile, she went.

It took fifteen minutes for her to change, but only because she couldn't find strolling shoes suitable for summer in the city. After a moment's debate, she settled on a white linen sundress genteel enough for a nice restaurant. She studied herself in the mirror. She had to admit she looked better than she had in years. Nothing like a lover to improve a person's outlook on life.

She pulled the bedclothes into a semblance of order, grinned delightedly, then flitted down the stairs. "Robert?" she called in the atrium.

"Up here."

She looked up and saw him on the top balcony, frowning at the skylight. "What are you doing up there?"

"As far as I can tell, you have no detection devices on either the trap door or the skylight. Why not?"

"They're on the roof?"

"And how many of your neighbors have access to their roofs and thereby access to yours?"

"Oh. I never thought of that. But I have nice neighbors."

"But do your nice neighbors all have nice friends, and do they have nice friends?"

"OK, I get the point. I'll call the security company Monday. Anything else?"

"I'll let you know when I check the master panel." He headed to the stairs. "You should put sensors on the kitchen windows, too."

"I have a radical idea. You call the security company. I'll tell them I've asked you to do a security check of the place and that they're to do whatever you tell them."

"I was going to suggest that," Robert admitted as he reached the atrium floor. "That's real jade in the dining room, isn't it? Not to mention the Erte bronze over there. And need I point out the shelves of things in your parlour?"

Ann shrugged self-consciously. "Pretty things I've bought over the years. But the Erte was left to me by my grandfather when I was six. I had the good taste to admire it."

"I'm not being intentionally paranoid," Robert said, "nor ignoring the fact of how gauche it is of me to comment on the value of all these things." He kissed her. "You are the most valuable objet d'art here, and I won't have you harmed if someone thinks to come in and help themselves to the others."

She chuckled. "Go check the master panel, I've got to find my purse." When she caught up to him, he was studying the panel with a disapproving eye. "Did I get gypped?"

"No, no, it's fine for an off-the-shelf system." By his voice he was not impressed. "How much are you willing to spend?"

"I guess we should keep it under six figures."

He chuckled then realized she was serious. "Darling, I'm going to ask a very impertinent question, so feel free to call me a cad if you want. How much are you worth?"

Ann blushed again and shrugged nervously. "I can't get to most of it, it's almost all in trusts and things like that."

"A good enough answer."

She sighed. "Almost fifty million."

Robert was glad he wasn't holding anything as he gaped at her. "Dollars?"

"Better not be lira, or I'm going to have some words with my Uncle Andrew. He's administrator of the main trusts."

He still couldn't help staring at her. Incredibly gauche questions ran through his head, but he resisted. "Then I will make sure you have the best system money can buy."

"I thought I did. I don't have any Van Gogh's or anything."

"True enough, but you are even more priceless than a Van Gogh." He tried not to think of kidnappers. "Well, set the thing and let's go."

It was a gorgeous end-of-summer morning. Roller bladers zipped by in the street, but on the whole it was quiet this Saturday morning. A remarkable amount of garbage remained from last night, and one or two booths were still waiting to be trucked away.

"So how shall we get to Rockefeller Center?" Robert asked as they strolled along hand in hand. "I'm willing to walk, but that is quite a way."

"We can probably pick up a cab a couple of blocks up. There's a Barnes & Noble up there, too."

"Oh, lord," Robert moaned. "You and bookstores. Darling, you have dozens of books you haven't read yet."

"So? Barnes & Noble has three floors of books I probably haven't read yet. They're ahead of me."

"You're going to fill up that library of yours eventually."

"And when I do I go through and make a huge donation to the New York Public Library. I did it a year ago. But I've calmed down quite a bit in my book buying."

"Why is that?"

She grinned. "Men are much more interesting."

They didn't say a great deal as they walked, both pleased enough to be together. Ann wondered why she saw faint halos around the buildings. Did joy cause hallucinations?

Robert was reflecting on the miracle that had happened in his life. Why had she chosen him? Did his happiness show? A couple of people walking by had smiled knowingly at them. He didn't mind at all. As they waited on a corner for the light to change, he leaned down to kiss her. She smiled at him provocatively.

"Too bad we're in public," she murmured.

"You don't know how right you are," he replied. Just walking next to her made him think of various things that would have been better dealt with back at her house. He felt like a twenty-year-old once more, and parts of him were thinking they were anxious adolescents again.

It was a long light, and Ann leaned against him. "It was bad enough when I was a teenager and feeling like this," she told him softly.

Robert put his arms around her. "At least your discomfort is mostly psychological."

She looked puzzled until, shifting her position, she realized the state he was in. "We could go back to the house," she offered.

The light changed, and he took her hand to lead her across the street. "Fortitude is good for the soul."

"Damn frustrating, though," she muttered.

Traffic was heavier in the shopping district, and a substantial crowd moved in and out of Barnes and Noble. Ann took advantage of the press of people to make some non-verbal promises that did nothing for Robert's state of mind.

"You are lucky they don't have private reading rooms here," he murmured in her ear.

"One could hope," she replied, nibbling on an earlobe.

But three floors of books were almost enough to console her frustrations. "Where to start?" she said with a grin. "I wonder what's new in the art books?"

"I believe I'll look in history," Robert declared. "Shall I hunt you down or can I trust you to meet me somewhere?"

"I'll find you." She followed him partway into the history section for another kiss and whatnot, then drifted off to the Art Deco section. He decided history was far too boring this morning and went off to other areas.

Ann found a book on Erte she didn't have yet, several remaindered Sotheby's catalogs on Oriental furnishings, and a volume entitled "The Cat as Art." She located a basket and dropped them in. She headed for history via the computer section and didn't see anything she didn't already know. Several books on women in history, including a new biography of Elizabeth I, landed in her basket, then she realized Robert wasn't anywhere in the history shelves.

She found him in the health section, in the part reserved for the sex books. He had the latest Calvin and Hobbes anthology and something else under one arm, and he was leafing slowly through "Joy of Sex" with an intrigued look on his face. She sneaked up and peered cautiously around his arm. He was studying a pencil sketch of a gymnastically intimidating position. When he noticed she was there, he glanced a proposition at her.

"No," she said firmly.

"No?"

"No."

"Then what about..." He started flipping to another section of the book.

"Robert!" She yanked the book out of his hands and shoved it back on the shelf. He had an infuriatingly smug look on his face. "Sweetheart, I had a friend in college who said her life would be complete if she could achieve all the positions described in the Kama Sutra."

"What happened?"

"Several of us had to take her and her boyfriend to the hospital after an accident involving a swing. She had a dislocated shoulder, and he had a pulled back and a very unpleasant sprain. Apparently it will bend if you do it just right."

Robert winced. "Amateurs." He pulled the second book from under his arm and handed it to her. "This was in the art section."

"Images of the Floating World," she read on the tasteful Japanese-style cover. She opened it to the color plates and felt her jaw drop. Slowly she paged through the remarkably graphic illustrations, trying to figure out if some of these things were humanly possible. She paused at one picture. "Robert, there are five hands here."

He looked over her shoulder to study the picture. "I think there's someone behind her. You see, if someone were to..." He trailed off at the stupified look on her face. "Not this either?"

Her mouth opened but nothing came out. She managed to close it and had to look away, blushing furiously.

"Puritan," he said fondly.

"I am not."

"No, it's all right, Puritans are generally the most enthusiastic converts once they try new things." He smiled and stroked her chin slowly.

Ann found her voice. "If you have a swing in your bedroom..."

"No, cumbersome mechanical devices are more trouble than they're worth." He couldn't help laughing as her jaw dropped again, and he hugged her. "Darling, if you could see your face."

"Thank you, I'd really rather not." She got herself under a semblance of control. "Are you really going to buy that?"

"Oh, yes. It goes nicely with the three I bought in Japan." Her eyes went big. "I am going to enjoy watching your face when you see those."

The possibilities began to intrigue her. "Sir, are you inviting me home to see your etchings?" she asked with a wicked grin.

"I believe there are some etchings, yes. No, those are the French ones."

She laughed again, but with a slightly rueful note. "I am reminded of what that same friend said when she read "Joy of Sex" for the first time."

"And what was that?"

"She closed it and said, 'I'm so boring!'"

"Oh, my darling, you are not that." He kissed her slowly. "You are marvelous and in all ways delightful, and all I can currently think of is ways to make you very, very happy." She put her arms around his neck to kiss him back.

An impatient cough interrupted them. "Really," said a blue-haired old lady in disapproval as she reached past them, pulled "More Joy of Sex" off the shelf, and strode off.

Ann sighed reluctantly. "We'd better get out of here before we get in trouble."

Robert shifted uncomfortably. "Via the financial planning section, I think."

"Why financial planning?"

"It's the least provoking section I can think of."

"Oh, poor Robert."

Ann beat him to the draw on credit cards at the register, slapping her platinum American Express down before he could get his out. "Besides, I get a discount here," she told him.

He smiled and let her, but he carried the bag.

They joined the strollers on the street, walking arm in arm and looking at the windows. They wandered an antiques store for an hour and a half, and Ann entered into preliminary negotiations on a Georgian highboy for her dining room.

Robert wandered off while she discussed veneers and acceptable levels of restoration. His own negotiations were completed quickly, and he returned to Ann as she was finishing telling the proprietor that she might come back in a week or two to see if the price had come down. As she turned to smile at him, he draped his purchase around her neck, a chain of amethysts in Art Nouveau settings.

"Robert--" she started to protest.

"No, let this be the first thing I buy for you for no apparent reason." He kissed her as the antiques dealers smiled smugly.

"How can I refuse?" she finally said.

"I have no idea. So you're not getting it today?"

"Not today. Perhaps later. I'm starting to feel the call of lunch. Shall we find a cab?" She played with her new necklace and grinned. "It's beautiful, by the way."

"No less than you, my dear." Robert liked making her look like a little girl on Christmas morning.

She snuggled against him in the back seat of the cab to Rockefeller Center. She didn't notice the disgusted look on the cabby's face, too busy examining her new toy, but Robert noticed. The concern he'd been ignoring for the past several hours came back, his worry that somehow Ann would be so appalled by people's reaction to their relationship that she would want to end it. But for now she seemed happy to curl around his arm. He stiffed the cabby the tip.

At Rockefeller Center, they got a table on the plaza near the fountain. Ann looked around and smiled, at peace with the universe and all within it. Robert sat and watched her, delighting in the happiness on her face.

"It's good to be me," she abruptly said, turning to him.

"Why is that?"

"Because me gets to be with you and gets to come to lovely places like this where people who have to be nice to me will fawn over my every whim." She put her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her clasped hands. "But most of all because I'm with you," she added with glowing eyes.

He could think of no proper reply, and a handy waiter appeared just then to take their order. Afterwards they just sat and smiled at each other for a while.

"It's strange," Robert finally said, "to know that people can't find me if they want to."

"Does it bother you?"

"Oh, no, it feels wonderful. It's just that certain people have gotten used to being able to predict where I'll be at any given moment. You are a delightful monkeywrench in their preconceptions."

Ann was reminded of something that had been bothering her. "A question," she said, though asking him questions made her nervous.

"An answer, if I can."

"I get the impression that Mickey doesn't like me much. Am I imagining it or what?"

"Ah, Mickey." Robert pulled a daisy out of the flower arrangement and fiddled with it. "He is much like your cats. He dislikes disruptions in the order of his existence, and he tends to be protective of people he takes a proprietary interest in. He had me neatly boxed and labeled, and now I'm not in that box any more. He's not sure how he fits in now that I'm involved with you."

"Is he jealous?" she asked carefully. She most certainly did not want to disturb an old friendship.

"Jealous? Oh, no, I don't think so. I think he'll be quite pleased once the shock has worn off."

"He keeps giving me unfriendly looks." And more than looks, though she'd keep that to herself, that he'd made the standard threat to someone who jeopardized the well-being of a friend.

"He's not certain if your intentions are honorable," Robert smiled.

"What?"

"He's afraid you'll only play with me and throw me aside."

"How sweet!" He gave her a concerned look. "That he worries about you, I mean. Men so often try to pretend they don't care what happens to each other. So how can I reassure him?"

"I imagine by not doing what he's afraid of."

"Well, my intentions are honorable, though I doubt my conservative mother would agree."

They spent lunch gazing at each other and enjoying the play of light cast by happiness. People rushed in and out, in a great New York hurry, but they were content to hold hands and sit. They listened to arguments over movie deals and stock options, a complaint over the quality of cleaning women, and one man telling a woman that "He just doesn't understand me!" Ann almost went over to comfort him, being unwilling that anyone should be unhappy when the heavens were smiling on her.

When they left, they strolled over to Fifth Avenue and the very posh shops. Ann insisted on going into Tiffany's under the pretext of needing a battery for her watch. A necklace with an emerald the size of a walnut caught her lustful gaze.

"Where would you wear it?" Robert asked.

"Who cares? At breakfast, in the shower, watching TV. It's not the wearing, it's the having and fondling."

"So this is your weakness."

"One of them. The most dangerous one. I have yet to find the chutzpah to plunk down my credit card for something like this, but, oh, I love to touch them."

A saleswoman appeared. "Would you like to try it on?"

"Robert, stop me."

"Yes, she would," he said. The saleswoman began unlocking the case.

"Blasted pusher, would you make a junkie hold a kilo?"

"Darling, not even you can afford this." He saw the saleswoman glance up in surprised reassessment of the social dynamics. Why was he so certain she thought he had brought his mistress shopping?

Ann was too worried about keeping her cravings under control. "They take payments. They take American Express. My credit limit is dangerous."

"I won't let you, all right?"

"I'm holding you to that." Her eyes tracked the glitter of diamonds and the lush verdancy of emerald. With shaking fingers, she took it from the saleswoman.

Robert suddenly realized she was looking at the necklace the way she'd been looking at him. "It's only a mineral."

"A mineral people fight over, kill over, die over."

"But not you."

Ann closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "No. Thank you." She looked at it again and still felt covetous. But she handed it back to the saleswoman. "Get thee behind me," she muttered. She looked around the display cases and sighed.

"It's not as if they're inherently sinful," Robert mused. "Just impractical." He studied Ann's woebegone expression as she attempted restraint. "But I would like to see you in diamonds some day."

She relaxed and smiled. "Fiend. Thank you," she said to the saleswoman, then she walked away.

They glanced at men's jewelry, but Robert didn't see himself as the clunky ring type. A glance at the freshwater pearls tempted Ann's credit limit again, but Robert managed to restrain her as he took notes on her tastes. Finally they left, and she took a deep, shaky breath on the street.

"I shouldn't do that to myself," she said.

"I must admit to more than a touch of jealousy."

"Oh, dear, that bad, was it?"

"I'm afraid so." He took her arm and smiled at her. "Or at least you should start thinking more on the lines of achievable goals."

Ann started to ask what kind of achievable goals he meant, but his smile told her. "Where's a cab?"

Disco played on the cabbie's radio, and the cabbie, whose best years had obviously been in the seventies, boogied in his seat at the red lights. He paid no obvious attention to the back seat.

"I'm surprised you're not having a fit of outraged musical taste," Robert told Ann as he pulled her into the curve of his arm.

"I like disco," she said defiantly. "I did my share of the hustle in high school." She grinned in embarrassed memory of the clothes she'd worn back then. Were those platforms still in the back of the closet? But other memories of high school dances came back. Why had no one expected a nerd to know how to dance? Or to know how to defend herself when the right tackle from the defending state champion football team wouldn't take no for an answer? Great for kicks, those platform shoes.

"You're remembering something interesting again," Robert said.

"How can you tell?"

He traced the curve of her smile. "Because you get the most fascinatingly impish smile on your face. What mischief are you thinking of?"

"Beating up football players." She laughed as he raised an eyebrow at her. "He wouldn't keep his hands to himself. He had to sit out the next game. I got called to the coach's office and chewed out then he sent me to the karate team coach."

"You don't strike me as a player of organized sports."

"I'm not. The team got in the way of hacking and the piano. My mother tried to talk me into joining the team because she didn't think computer geeks and blues nuts were the kind of people I should be hanging out with. But my father was a natural klutz who was only happy his children could stay on their feet. He said if I didn't want to hit people competitively it was fine with him." The radio started playing something by Abba that triggered Ann's own boogying instincts. Robert only smiled to himself and enjoyed feeling her move.

The driver grinned knowingly as he dropped them off in front of Ann's house, and he roared off to the tune of "Stayin' Alive." As she locked the door behind them and headed for the alarm, Ann checked her watch.

"Crap," she said succinctly.

"What's wrong?"

"In less than three hours I have to be at the club." She pushed buttons with a disgruntled look on her face, then turned to Robert. "I don't want you to have to leave," she said pathetically.

He put the book bag onto the antique table in the foyer and went to put his arms around her. "It would have to happen eventually, my dear. Besides, I need a shower and a change of clothes and a chance to feel amazed at myself."

She grinned. "I thought it was my job to be amazed by you."

"Stop that, we're trying to be responsible people here. The show starts at nine?"

"Uh huh. Give the ticket booth your name when you get there, I'll put you on the list of people to sit at my table."

"Your table?"

"I own the place, I do get a few perks." She leaned her head against his chest, snuggling against him.

He rested his cheek against her hair. "Take a cab to the club," he said softly.

"Why?" she asked, looking up at him.

He kissed her. "Because I'm hoping you'll be leaving with me tonight." Her smile was his answer and her kiss his reward.

The cats appeared as she walked with him to his car in her garage. Ankh looked sad at Robert's leaving, but Tut only watched intently, as if to make sure this interloper was on his way out.

"Scat," Ann said, shooing them out of the garage. "You know you're not supposed to be in here." She closed the door to the house firmly and went to the driver's side of Robert's car. "I have to admit something."

Robert paused in opening the door. "And what is that?"

"I intended to hold your car hostage to keep you from leaving last night. That's why I suggested you put it in here instead of leaving it on the street."

"And what would the ransom have been?" he asked with a knowing smile.

She managed to keep back a blush. "Luckily that wasn't necessary. You saw the reasonability of my position."

He ran a finger along her chin. "Yes, I found your position quite reasonable." He chuckled at the escaping blush. "How did your Puritan ancestors manage to reproduce themselves?"

"With much prayer and penance, I imagine. And I'm not a Puritan."

He kissed her and didn't reply. "I'll see you at the club, my dear," he said, opening the car door.

Ann went to the garage door controls. "I may not be able to talk to you till after the show."

"As you will. Break a leg--or finger, or whatever musicians say." He started the engine, and she hit the button to open the door. Robert waved and backed the car out of the garage.

Melancholy warred with delight as she watched him go. Delight won, and she giggled as she raced for the phone to call Suzy.

 

 

There was a message from Mickey on Robert's answering machine, but it didn't sound urgent. Robert ignored it in favor of reminiscence. How amazing the world could be when it wanted to. He stared at himself in his bedroom mirror, wondering if he looked different. He certainly felt different. A relationship based on, of all things, honesty. He laughed disbelievingly at the face in the mirror, who looked rather shocked and blinked a lot.

One night, however lovely, could happen to any couple and mean little. It was the day together that told him that he had in his hands the threads of something very special. Fear warred with anticipation. This could turn into such a sordid mess, but he realized his joints didn't hurt nearly as badly as they had a couple of days ago.

The phone rang. Robert winced, then braced himself for dealing with a spanner in the works of his plans for the evening.

"McCall," he said, hoping he sounded patient.

"You're home," Mickey answered, a little surprised.

"I'm home."

"You haven't been."

Robert didn't bother keeping the smile out of his voice. "No, I haven't."

"Where have you been?"

"Why do you need to know?"

"Uh, yeah, good point, none of my business. You certainly sound like you've had fun, wherever you were."

"Was there a point to this phone call, other than keeping track of me?"

"Yeah, Jimmy found a place that does has better than average cheese steaks, real beer, and big screen TV. We're headed over later to watch the ball game. Wanna come?"

Robert felt a brief qualm. Twenty-four hours ago he would have agreed enthusiastically. He'd forgotten this angle of relationships, that old friends often took second place to the new woman. But in a contest between baseball and beer versus another night with Ann, a sports bar was the big loser.

"I'm sorry, Mickey, but I have a prior engagement tonight or I'd say yes."

"You got a case?"

"No, I'm going to watch Ann play with her cousin's band at her club."

There was a brief silence. "Ann Marshall?"

"Yes." Robert frowned, then decided to deal with the issue. "She said she wondered if you disliked her. I told her she was imaging things. Was I wrong?"

Across town, Mickey stared at his phone uncertainly. He'd known McCall was seeing the woman fairly frequently, but this was getting to be a habit. Just a week ago he'd gone to McCall's place to watch a World Cup semi-final match and found Ann Marshall mixing veggie dip in his kitchen.

The corollary sank into Mickey's mind: If McCall's usual habits were being shifted about willy-nilly, where the heck had he spent last night? A grin escaped, but Mickey fought to keep it from morphing into a full-fledged chortle. What would he himself have been up to, to sound so utterly smug, as McCall did now? "I thought you were just interested in her as a friend."

"Don't start with me, Kostmayer."

"So what's the name of this club?"

"Why?"

"Heck, I can eat cheese steaks and watch baseball any day, but decent live music doesn't come along that often."

"And you don't want to miss a chance to gloat? I'm beginning to think Ann was right about the way you feel about her."

"I just want to make sure her intentions are honorable."

"Damn you, Mickey--"

"McCall, relax. I'm not going to mess this up for you. Though I do reserve the right to snicker occasionally. So what's the name of the club?"

Robert sighed. "The Blue Whale. And if you embarrass either me or Ann, they'll find you in the river."

"Sounds fair. What time?"

"Nine."

"Got it. I'll look for the man with the smug look on his face."

"Good-bye, Mickey."

Robert hung up the phone, but not before he heard a chant of what sounded like "McCall's got a girlfriend, McCall's got a girlfriend." Stupid, juvenile ...

He finally laughed at himself and headed for the shower, grinning complacently at the aches in odd areas.

 

 

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