Jack Robinson did not think himself a coward. Even before he'd gone to war, he'd dodged plenty of bullets, thrown plenty of punches. Thugs, murderers, and thieves were his constant companions. But now, as he fitted his hat on his head and covered the last few yards of Phryne Fisher's dark walkway, he knew he'd just done a spectacular bunk.
Jack let himself into his car and briefly tipped his head back against the upholstery, exhaling deeply. His life had been so much simpler, although miserably so, before he met the full assault on his senses that was Miss Fisher. If it wasn't the pale skin, gauzy fabric, and swinging earrings that seemed to be continually in his field of vision, it was the linger of expensive perfume, or the clacking of beads and heels. Occasionally, it was the feel of her fingers softly squeezing his arm, or her supple body pressed against his. And once, as his memory refused to let him forget, it had been the taste of her mouth. He hung his head with a small, rueful smile and started the engine. Yes, she was a very charming freight train indeed, and he had the feeling he lay decimated on her tracks.
Phryne had spent much of the Christmas in July gathering almost nestled into the crook of his arm, sharing smiles and jests both before and after that incident with the mistletoe. But as the rest of the crowd prepared to leave, he realized he hardly knew how to prolong his stay without looking absurdly obvious. If he'd had the foresight, he might have even stooped to the juvenile tactic of dropping a cufflink under the piano, if just to buy himself a few more minutes alone with Phryne. As it was, a drunk and jovial Bert had jostled him out the door anyway and swept him down the path with the others, and Jack was left to spend the rest of the evening cursing Prudence Stanley's name and his own ineptitude.
And so tonight, two days later, he had returned on the flimsiest of pretexts, to ask Phryne a question on the British aristocracy that he could have very well researched himself. Phryne had grasped his hand and pulled him through the door delightedly, but she had hardly been alone. The parlor floor was hid from view by souvenirs of Jane's trip to the Continent – drawings, photographs, books, a scarf she'd meant to give Dot... With genuine interest, Jack had joined them to examine the treasures, curious to see once-known places and read familiar names. Her hands never still, Jane had eagerly shared one anecdote after another, and Phryne had offered a few of her own, carefully moderated (Jack was sure, judging by the sly look she gave him) for Jane's ears.
Later, Collins and Dorothy had dropped into the parlor after a night at the pictures. While Phryne teased and fussed over them, Jane had sat next to him and peppered him with questions on Shakespeare. He had remained mostly on the sofa throughout the evening, but Phryne had moved about the room, her smile bright, and her eyes resting often on his. Cec and Alice had appeared last, as Phryne has asked earlier to see the fabrics that Alice was considering for her new curtains. After a rousing debate on the merits of two rivaling chintzes, they'd all indulged in one last round of Mr. Butler's finger sandwiches and punch, and the crowd had begun to dwindle.
Although there hadn't been chances for intimate conversation, or moments when she might have leaned in closer and let her fingers linger on his hand, Jack found to his surprise that he hadn't minded. His evenings had been silent and lonely even during those last few months when he and Rosie had still shared a roof. Just being near Phryne now, and laughing with those she loved, was a pleasure in itself.
But when the two of them had been left alone, Phryne had taken a step nearer, had even let her fingers graze his sleeve while she fixed an inquiring look on him. Even though his mind had been running to pleasures beyond conversation, Jack, to his utter dismay, had panicked. In his (meager) defense, the rattle of dishes had been still audible from the kitchen, and Jane had gone upstairs just moments before... But still, with mumbled thanks and a nod of farewell, he had left.
Now, halfway home, Jack gave a soft laugh as he pulled up recollections of their first meeting. Her frock – something red and floaty – had brushed his coat as she ducked under his arm. Her scent – flowers of some sort? – had wafted with her as she flitted throughout the room. A torrent of questions had sprung from her mouth, and surprisingly, they hadn't been a socialite's prattle, but highly perceptive observations. (Perceptive enough to inspire Collins to jot them down, blast the lad!) And then she had glanced up at him from under dark lashes, feigning timidity as a woman alone in Melbourne. He hadn't thought much of her claim at the time – after Rosie had left, the thought that any woman might want him was unfathomable – but now, Jack knew precisely how ludicrous her girlish simper had been. Phryne Fisher, with a pistol in her purse and a knife in her garter, did not fear much.
At one time, he had found it strange that someone so carefree could have had such a deep wealth of caring in her nature, but no longer. While he still might wish that she would limit her exposure to electrocution, strangulation, and other hazards, he understood now that Phryne lived, loved, drove her Hispano-Suiza, and upheld justice with equal vitality.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise, then, when Rosie mentioned – seemingly in passing – that she had received a card of invitation to the hospital board's Annual Gala, as a guest at Prudence Stanley's table. (After vandals had a go at George's office, Jack had cleared out the remaining personal effects to leave in Rosie's keeping.) Jack had been so sure the gesture had come at Phryne's instigation that he couldn't help but question her later, and continue to prod when she deflected his questions with glib retorts. Finally, in annoyance, Phryne had proclaimed that almost nothing enraged her more than to see the world censure a capable, intelligent woman over the idiocy of men, and that Rosie had no cause to hide her head.
Jack muffled a groan as he turned the car in the direction of Richmond, moving ever further away from Phryne's presence. What did it signify, then, that moment in John Andrews' bathroom when she'd asked for his card? Could she honestly have felt an attraction to him? He knew now that she hadn't been in Melbourne more than a handful of days at that time – he might very well have been the first man she'd batted her eyes at upon her return home. He wasn't sure if the notion made him want to crow in triumph, or wail in despair.
For the longest time, he'd actively tried to not think back to the days of their earliest acquaintance. Doing so always seemed to end with envisioning her clad only in a white towel, her shoulders bare and glistening. He'd managed to successfully keep the image mostly at bay, but now it – and a growing host of others – seemed to hide around the corners of his thoughts, ready to jump out without warning. Phryne, brushing feathers against the flawless expanse of her back. Phryne, softly pulling who-knew-what from her neckline. Phryne, perched on his desk and leaning ever more precariously towards him.
Sternly, Jack reminded himself of the mortifying possibility that she could be simply flirting, as it was her preferred method of interacting with most everyone and everything surrounding her. (For pity's sake, the woman even flirted with her food – the things he'd seen her do to an ice cream had left him short of breath before.) Against his direct orders and better judgment, his mind wondered exactly what might have happened if he'd gone back to her door that first night in the chalet. Would her brow have furrowed in gentle consternation as she depressed his pretensions and sent him on his way with a pat to the cheek? Or worse yet, would she have drawn him to her bed with dizzying smiles and beckoning arms, only to find him lacking? He'd rather find himself face-down in the Yarra than encounter that fate.
He couldn't even remember exactly when he and Rosie had abandoned the charade of intimacy. After time, the arguments had given way to cold civility, then just a shared existence in the same space, with no efforts to remember to kiss and to touch. And then before he knew it, he'd found himself in an empty home while Rosie cried into the arms of her sister.
The assignment to mentor Collins had been a welcome distraction – Hugh was hard-working and honest – but he wasn't exactly someone with whom Jack could discuss the intricacies of a case until the patterns and tangles began to make sense. He'd never imagined he might gain that sort of partner in the guise of beautiful, immaculately-dressed woman, always with a barrage of enquiries on her ruby lips.
Phryne never asked him about his war experiences, though, and though he couldn't quite articulate why, he was grateful for it. Despite their sincere desire to understand, he'd never found the words to describe the gut-churning stink of the trenches to Rosie and his mother, much less the sight of a mortar ripping into the stomach of the man next to him. How could he explain living with the sickening knowledge that he had probably inflicted that same agony on soldiers across the field? There was nothing heroic about that, nothing for which he'd ever want medals or acclaim.
No, Phryne never asked, and the thought occurred that it probably wasn't for lack of interest. She certainly wasn't one to keep her questions to herself under any other sort of circumstances. A jolt of pride shot through him as he contemplated her working with the ambulance brigade. Clever, tireless, compassionate Phryne. He may have witnessed the bullets that tore through so many men, but she had been with those who worked frantically to staunch the bleeding, who clutched agitated hands and whispered soft words as life departed. She had idea enough of what he'd witnessed. At least those lads were given her lovely face as their last sight on earth.
Now, so many years later, the outward Phryne Fisher was glossed and polished to perfection. But if Jack were honest with himself – he acknowledged as he turned onto his street – he was almost more taken with the big-hearted Collingwood girl who lurked not too far beneath. The girl with pluck and mischief in her eyes, who kicked bullies in defense of her friends and tore her stockings climbing over fences. His jaw clenched involuntarily. Surely the other men never heard those stories.
The car came to a squealing halt as it reached its destination, but Jack found himself unable (or unwilling) to leave its confines. Inside the car, it wasn't too difficult to imagine Phryne sitting next to him, as she had so many times before. One hand might trail across the top of her knee; the other might brush the unbearably soft curve of her cheek. Or he might simply pull her to him without apology, and show her with lips and tongue that he had more uses than as just a policeman. With a sudden movement, Jack tugged at his tie and collar, which were acting in collusion to choke him.
It seemed ages ago when he had brusquely told Collins to be a man and confront his issues with Miss Williams directly. Collins had followed his advice to the letter, with the result that the constable had now long enjoyed the smiles and caresses of his sweetheart, while he, the lad's wise and knowing superior, sat in a cold car outside of an even colder house.
Jack stared at his darkened front door for several moments longer and then, before the impulse could be quelled by the multitude of warnings in his head, started the engine once more. St. Kilda couldn't be reached quickly enough.
The car was barely parked before Jack exited it, crossing the walkway in long strides. He bounded up the few steps and gave a quick rap to the glass. As he did so, he realized the still-loosened state of his tie, and his eyes grew wide. Oh Lord, he hadn't meant to signal his intentions so blatantly. One hand shot to his open collar, but too late – Phryne had opened the door.
Author's note: I'm American, and I apologize for any language or period inaccuracies. I haven't written fanfic for ages, but Jack and Phryne are killing me. KILLING ME DEAD. Two more chapters ahead – the next from Phryne's POV.