Quick A/N before we begin. This story is the continuation of our other stories: The Forfeit Daughter, An Unforeseen Occurrence, and The Courtship of Helen Thurlow. We would like to recommend that you read those first, if only to spare yourself any confusion. Thank you so much! -- Aeryn (half of aerynfire)

The Rules Of Engagement

Chapter One: Uncharted Waters

13th December, 1889

The hoar frosted snow on the pavement crunched underfoot as Sherlock Holmes stepped from the hansom out into the chilly London night. Stopping to brush off his heavy black overcoat, he regarded the fine Berkley Square residence of Sir Nicholas and Lady Margaret Sotherby with seeming impassivity.

It was 7:46 precisely.

He knew this for a certainty and without recourse to the timepiece nestled deep within the fob pocket of his white dress waistcoat, for the bells of St. George's Hanover Square had sounded exactly one minute before his arrival. And in their doing so, they had heralded a second already certain fact -- he was late, considerably late…some forty-six minutes so.

His meeting with his most recent client, a Mr. Arnold Swaine, at their home had delayed him greatly. On setting out from Baker Street, his tardiness was already a fait accompli. The details of this latest burgeoning case, involving organised swindling, confidence tricks, and fraud of the most elaborate sort at the very highest levels, had consumed his mind utterly. So much so that he had forgotten all about the time. Ironic, considering that up to his meeting with Watson at their client's residence, he had thought about nothing but this seven o'clock rendezvous.

7:47 rendezvous, he corrected himself.

It was quite clear that his first assignation as suitor to Miss Helen Thurlow of St. Albans and Brown's Hotel, Mayfair was not off to an auspicious start. Still, he thought to himself, she was sure to understand. His work was his work, after all. Other than Watson, she understood that better than anyone. She knew how intrinsic it was to his nature and how large a part it would play in every aspect of what was to come. His work would always be a hindrance of some magnitude to her and in truth, a danger to her as well. Which is why, of course, they would have to be most circumspect in their dealings as a couple.

All of his acquaintances of any long standing, even friends from his past, were open to danger simply by association with him. As his particular lady friend, however, she would be automatically the most high profile target. The one regarded as being his most vulnerable spot. So for that reason, on the day he had secured their courtship, he had made mention to her before leaving St. Albans of the need to approach their changed circumstances 'quietly.' And she had readily agreed with little more than that single prompt that 'quietly and carefully' was indeed the way to proceed. It was necessary, obviously so, and a goodly part of the reason he was allowing himself to be here tonight, planning to do what he had sworn time and time again he would never ever do…court a woman.

Despite his outwardly calm appearance, the thought sent yet another ripple of apprehension through him as he stood outside the Sotherby's home…and quite literally at the threshold of an entirely new venture. He was in uncharted waters here. In these seas, it was Watson who was Master and Commander. And it was Watson who had sent him off tonight with all the insufferable air of a smug Papa.

Doctor, inveterate ladies man, charmer. His gentlemanly conduct and affability made him as comfortable in these moments as Holmes himself would be in the midst of a chemical experiment or delivering a paper on forensic advances to a room full of select experts.

The detective suppressed the edginess with a surge of irritation and a crease of his brow. He had been out with her alone many times -- there was no need for idiocy. This was no difference in essence to any of those. Just because he had professed his…emotional attachment of some depth…to her, it did not mean things had to descend to foolishness.

Perhaps, though, he might have stopped to bring her something. Men had a tendency to bring gifts, he noted, as a token of their esteem.

No. He huffed slightly. Foolishness. She knew he esteemed her. He had told her so in detail just days before. She hardly required flattering reassurance so soon. There was no need of such actions. Was there? His frown deepened. Did she even expect such things from him? She had come to care for him as he was. If he took to such actions now, would she find it mundane, twee, and annoying to be so fawned over?

He didn't even know what he should say in presenting such a token to a woman. As he had told her, sentimental expressions were most definitely not his forte, and the last thing he wished was to make a fool of himself in front of her through either words or actions.

Already, he had discovered there were entirely too many different paths and actions to take in this field of romance. One could tie oneself in knots and spend hours trying to make the simplest of decisions. Each one decided by guesswork, based solely on instinct and what you thought would please the other person best with no guarantee that it would. After he had found himself dwelling over two white ties that were in essence identical, he had derided himself and deemed it to be a ridiculous way of carrying on. Far better to just be himself…act as he knew best -- pragmatic and level headed in all things.

Telling the young cab driver who had brought him there to wait, he strode up the few wide, shallow granite steps to the black high gloss panelled front door. Its brasses immaculately polished and gleaming under the twin lamps lit on either side, the portal issued a welcoming warmth.

On drawing on the black iron bell pull with one white gloved hand, he stood back to wait. Turning away, he took a reflective moment to entertain the lamp lit, Plane Tree-lined immaculate surrounds of the quiet square and the low hanging leaden grey skies above it. The heavy snowfall of the previous week had lingered, gleaming white, upon the ground and the clouds above threatened a fresh fall this bitter December night. As he pondered upon the chance of it doing so, a tall, steel-grey haired butler with an impressively large set of fluffed out mutton chops opened the door behind him.

"May I help you?" the servant enquired politely but as the visitor turned, the servant instantly recognised the man upon the doorstep as the gentleman who had caused such a stir at the costumed ball a few weeks previous. For turning up to such an event as oneself did have a tendency to make one stand out that way. "Ah, Mr. Holmes, sir, good evening. Come in, you are expected."

Removing his top hat, the detective stepped into the warmth. "Good evening, Bronson -- isn't it?"

"Indeed, sir." The Butler inclined his head. "Good of you to remember."

"I never forget a man who affords me a quiet undisturbed place to smoke," Holmes replied. "Your assistance on the night of the ball was much appreciated, Bronson. I am here to escort Miss Thurlow to dinner, is she ready to depart?" He glanced at the ornate clock upon the wall with some irritation, the time indicated there only serving to admonish him.

"For some time now, sir, yes." Bronson inclined his head slowly after following the detective's eyes to the Swiss chronometer. "I believe Miss Thurlow is waiting in the drawing room with her Ladyship. If you will wait here, sir, I shall announce you."

"Thank you, Bronson." Holmes nodded as he took in the décor of the small atrium in which he stood. Clasping his hands and hat behind his back, he moved to look at an Alpen painting that had caught his eye, his demeanour all nonchalance and ease. Though as Bronson slipped away, there was little the older man could do but notice how their guest's hat was dancing over his fingers in something of a merry jig.

"Helen, do sit down." Lady Margaret Sotherby looked up from her book and nightly indulgence of a glass of whiskey and soda stolen from her husband's stock. "Nicholas had that Persian rug shipped back here at some considerable expense. He really will be most disagreeable if he gets back from the club to discover you've worn a trench in it," she chastised even as her lips twitched upwards.

"What time is it?" Helen paused and turned once more in a rustle of satin from her deep blue puff-sleeved gown.

With a barely restrained sigh, Margaret glanced at the clock and then back to her best friend. "It is precisely one minute and fifteen seconds later than when you asked me the last time. Three minutes and forty-five seconds from the time you asked me before that…and five minutes and…"

"Very well, Maggie, I see your point," Helen interrupted quickly. Moving back to the chair she had sprung in and out of more times in the last thirty minutes than a perennially wound up jack in the box, she sat down rather ungracefully. "I am sorry for irritating you," she groused before catching herself and frowning her behaviour. Letting out a long breath, she gave her friend a rather apologetic look. "Am I irritating you?"

"Only on the wider laps of the room," Margaret replied teasingly her to which Helen gave a small contrite grin and dipped her eyes with a wry chuckle.

"I'm sorry…it's just…he's late."

"Yes." Margaret's smile grew wider. "I had noticed."

"Yes…but…you see," Helen tried to explain, glancing back to her, "he used to do this when we had appointments to meet before, that is, when we were merely concert partners." She frowned at finding herself feeling this way. She should at this moment be away for the evening, overjoyed at her first outing as a bona fide couple with Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Instead, here she was sitting in the drawing room of her oldest friend's palatial London home, feeling the tell tale and very familiar emotions of again being forgotten. "I understand that his work is, of course, of the most paramount importance and that has not changed, but I had hoped that should this happen again…"

"He might show a little more consideration for your changed circumstances?" her friend finished for her.

The auburn haired woman sighed. "Am I being too sensitive, do you think? It's just…well before he left for London last week he suggested, and I agreed, that we take things quietly and carefully. I had thought that signalled his intent to approach our new state on a step by step basis, paying more attention to each other's sensitivities. But now…" She grimaced slightly before sagging a little. "Am I being a little over sensitive, do you think? He is only…" She glanced at the clock and despite herself, frowned again. "Fifty minutes late."

The door to the drawing room opened precisely as she finished, and Bronson stepped inside with a light cough even though both women's eyes were already firmly and expectantly upon him. "Excuse me, your ladyship. Miss Thurlow?" he said softly. "Mr. Holmes has arrived and is waiting in the atrium."

"Well…" Margaret said cheerily, taking a sip of her drink, "better late than never!"

Helen rose slowly from her seat, glancing at the clock again as she tried to decide whether she should just be pleased that he was here at last, or allow herself to fully feel the deep annoyance that he could not be bothered to send word that he would be late. "Very well, Bronson. If you could send him in?" she asked, resuming her seat again and deciding to give the detective the benefit of the doubt.

"Yes, Miss." The butler turned to go back to the door and paused. "However, Miss...I believe he has a cab waiting; shall I arrange for it to be sent away? Will you be staying in?"

She bit back a groan. Of course he had a cab waiting. They were now late for whatever he had planned, so relaxing and talking, easing into this rather nerve wracking evening was completely out of the question. "No, Bronson, I believe I shall just follow you out," she replied smoothly but with a hint of irritation at being so rushed. "Tell Mr. Holmes I will be with him directly."

Casting a mildly exasperated glance at her best friend, Helen caught the tiny smile upon Margaret's face as she raised her glass again. The dark haired woman in turn noted the accusatory glare she received in return for her treacherous grin. "Oh come, Helen…" Margaret chuckled and tried to assuage her, "you did choose to attach yourself to such a man, knowing how he was and how his mind worked. Can it come as any surprise when he behaves just that way? He's here and eager to be off with you! Look on the bright side!"

Inhaling deeply, Helen let it out in a short dry sigh and nodded with a small smile. "You're right, of course. The evening begins here."

Rising from her seat, she retrieved and slipped on her heavy fitted wool coat with its high fur collars and cuffs and affixed her fur hat to her head before picking up her matching muff. The two friends kissed their goodbyes, Margaret declining to meet Holmes so as not to hold them up further but not allowing Helen on her way until she made a promise to wake her friend upon her return and tell her 'absolutely every little detail.'

Walking sedately and taking great care to keep her face composed, Helen stepped out into the atrium and regarded the back of the tall, dark man whom she loved and who was currently deeply engrossed in one of Margaret's rather fine paintings of Switzerland. "Good evening, Mr. Holmes."

Turning from his scrutiny of the painting to observe her presence, Holmes gave her a small but notable smile. "Good evening, Miss Thurlow." Crossing the atrium towards her, he took her outstretched gloved hand and bowed over it. "I trust you are well?"

Seeing his smile and feeling it warm her heart, she pushed aside the doubts that had been plaguing her over the past week and smiled softly in return. "Quite," she assured him. "And how fare you?"

"Exceedingly well." He straightened, releasing her hand. "I apologise for my tardiness. Work," he told her simply in what she thought was a rather offhand manner -- the single word being conveyed as if it alone was sufficient explanation. Not that he gave her any time to dwell upon it as he pushed the conversation along in that rapidly direct manner of his. "It's a remarkably cool night, but I see you are sensibly well fortified against its effects," he noted approvingly, regarding her becoming outfit but making no other comment upon it or her than that. "Excellent. I suggest, however, unless you have something further you need to do, that we delay no longer."

"No. Nothing further," she replied with a smooth nod, though finding fault with his choice of words and what felt like the implied suggestion that she was somehow holding them up and internally commenting, as he waved her forward with a slight bow, that he should remember the delay was entirely one-sided.

"Good evening, Miss, sir, I hope you have a pleasant time," Bronson said as they passed.

"Thank you, Bronson," she returned with a smile. "I expect to return here by ten thirty. Eleven at the latest, given our start." She pointedly added extra time for their delay.

Outside, after helping her up into the hansom, Holmes looked to the cabbie as he put a foot on the step. "Take us to Holborn, cabbie...to the Holborn Restaurant." The driver nodded as the detective slipped into the seat beside Helen, reaching for the thick blanket that was used to keep customers warm on nights like this and spreading it over both their laps.

"Holborn?" she enquired once they were underway, mildly surprised that they were heading away from the centre of the city.

"Yes. It makes sense and is perfect for our requirements. It's not too far away. We should be allocated a table with little bother. The food is good if not luxurious...and most importantly there is little by way of society fuss or press to intrude upon us. We should be virtually incognito."

She endeavoured to keep her smile demure, feeling rather pleased at his evident desire to be uninterrupted whilst with her. "I am sure it will be most acceptable. After all, it is the company that I wish to spend time with; the food is merely a pleasant addendum, and you know my feelings on society hubbub. A nice quiet dinner sounds just wonderful."

"Splendid." Holmes nodded, content that she continued to appreciate the need for them to be low key about their relationship. "I think you will enjoy the Grill Room there," he observed before there was a slight lull, during which his mind rather alarmingly went blank and began searching swiftly for something else to say. "Watson sends his regards."

She blinked a little at the rapid shift in conversation. "Please give him mine as well," she replied. "Mary informed me that his practice has been booming as of late."

"Yes, it is increasingly difficult to pry him away to come with me on cases," he agreed while looking out as the cab moved through the streets of Mayfair. "It's a shame you're not a man, then I could ask you to come with me instead," he pronounced before immediately wondering what on earth had prompted him to say that.

Turning to him, she stared at him with an expression of both shock and pleasure. "That...that is most gratifying to hear, Mr. Holmes," she returned, her eyes shining. "Though I fear I could never, even if I were a man, fill the good doctor's shoes."

"No, your feet would need to be considerably larger," he noted in an attempt at dry humour that came out a little more seriously then he had intended. Clearing his throat, he glanced about them once more. "So...how fares your mother and brothers?"

She frowned a little, trying to decide if he was being literal, humorous, or actually thought of her such a great deal less than John Watson. She knew she had not performed well upon the one case she had been involved in with him…but still. "They are all well," came her reply after a moment. "My mother has taken to hosting a whist night every fortnight for herself, and a few friends and my brothers continue to get up to as much mischief as possible. Though Matthew has progressed considerably in his piano playing, and though it is far too early to be taken seriously, he has hinted on pursuing a path with it." She smiled a little in remembrance. "He practices for three hours each day...which suits Andrew well, as he takes the opportunity to strengthen his riding skills."

"Your brothers, for twins, do have remarkably differing temperaments and interests in some respects," he observed.

"Some," she agreed. "But remarkably similar in others. They still talk as one, finishing each other's sentences. I confess it was a little disconcerting at first, but now if they do not, I get nervous as it usually means they are arguing."

"Do they argue often?" he enquired as a breath of cold wind wafted her perfume over him. A scent which was quite intriguing -- amber and vanilla, a hint of labdanum and honey with a maceration technique obviously using an ethanol base. A Guerlain creation no doubt, he mused.

"Oh no!" she replied, shaking her head and turning back to him. "Hence why it is so disconcerting when it occurs."

"Yes, I'd imagine so. Boys, especially brothers, will argue. I..." he continued, starting to make mention of him and Mycroft before stopping, remembering that he had not as yet informed her of the existence of the elder Holmes, and concluded that a cab ride through the streets of London was not the proper time to suddenly make that most private of revelations to her. Naturally, the conversation died again. "So, a pianist?" he asked with sudden quickness, reverting back to the earlier topic.

"Yes?" she asked, mildly confused at the shift again in the conversation and trying not to show how awkward she was beginning to feel. Why was he not acting like his usual self? His conversation was generally thoughtful and fluid...now suddenly it was choppy and unfocused.

"You said Matthew was keen on playing the piano as a future career path?" He glanced over at her. "Would you be approving of such an endeavour?"

"Oh...well, he is only nine...but if he shows continued commitment and it doesn't interfere with his responsibilities when he comes of age, I do not see why not. Having musical talent is rare and it should be treasured and savoured," she mused, her eyes meeting his. "I suppose I just want him to be happy."

He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of that. "Still, who can tell? If talent and luck hold true, perhaps he might play upon some of the concert stages we have visited in the past. Which reminds me..." he added, "we should consider falling back into those companionable habits again. Picking up where we left off."

She stiffened ever so slightly. Companionable? And considering the outcome of the last time they had been to one of those concerts, picking up where they had left off was not something that was high on her priorities. "Is that what you want?" she asked softly. "To resume old habits?"

"Most certainly." His brow creased a little. "You did not enjoy our concert going?"

Forcing her body to be calm, she betrayed none of the anxieties that, despite her eagerness to start this new phase of their relationship, had still been tugging at the back of her mind over the past week. "No...I did. Quite a bit actually," she replied truthfully, carefully omitting any commentary about that being when he was actually in attendance with her.

"But you don't wish to resume the habit?" He gazed at her keenly, unsure of why she seemed to be reacting to the suggestion so tentatively. They had a public track record as platonic companions at these events; it would be an ideal way to be seen in society without gossips' tongues wagging.

Helen appeared thoughtful for a moment, taking great care not to show how she was actively trying to find a diplomatic way of voicing her concerns. "I would rather create new paths and memories...than simply be content to resume an old companionable habit."

He looked away somewhat disconcerted, as he'd been looking forward to resuming their concert activities. "I see well...perhaps, galleries and museums, then?" he suggested.

She bit back a sigh of frustration as he missed her point...again. "Sherlock," she began, using his proper name to emphasise her need for him to understand, "it is not the location that I would wish to change. I would and do greatly enjoy going to recitals and operas with you. I merely wish to...that is…we were simply on friendly terms when we went on such outings previously. It is different now...we are different now. I suppose I wish our relationship to grow and develop...not stay where it once was."

He shifted uncomfortably as the topic moved unexpectedly towards the choppy waters of emotionalism, not truly understanding why. "Well, of course, naturally in reality that would be the case. But I fail to see why such...deepening...circumstances should or would change what was, to my mind, an enjoyable regular aesthetic appreciation of musical talent. Especially when it affords us the opportunity to walk about as companions."

Her face betrayed nothing at the use of that word again, but her eyes dulled for a moment as she again turned her head away. "Of course," she replied softly. "But Sherlock, while companionship is important, if one finds all one desires in friendship, what is the motive to have anything more? It is a building block certainly, but also reasons to allow stagnation. What of love in a relationship? Should that not also be a most important and vital point?" she challenged, her tone reverting to the debates of old.

There was no escaping it. He was utterly bewildered and his frown grew deeper as he gazed at her, unable to understand why she seemed so offended by the suggestion of their using their old concert going ways as a cover for their new situation and moreover, why she insisted on redefining that new situation. Why was she so insistent on bringing up the subject of love? His eyes dipped away as he grew even more uncomfortable. "I believe I did not suggest otherwise," he murmured. "Love," he said slowly, "is, of course, a fundamental part of any long lasting relationship."

His mind ticked over rapidly...what did she want him to say? That love was the most important factor in a relationship? Did she need him to declare it? Did she want him to say that was what he wanted? Or declare again that that was what he felt for her? All of a sudden instead of one clear cut discussion, there seemed to be a dozen hidden ways of progressing on this...but which one was the one she sought from him? He'd only suggested they start going to concerts again and now this maze was laid before him!

She gazed at him a moment longer before nodding, her posture the same but inwardly feeling rather defeated. His body language was telling. He was uncomfortable, possibly regretting his decision. That, or he was simply content for things to be as they once were. She had no doubt he loved her, he would not have said so if he didn't. But was it the same as she felt for him? Was it simply a deep affection...not the passion she felt for him? Had she merely exchanged places with William Edwards in this new affair? He seemed intent on having his companion back. Was that all she was...a habit?

Her inner voice was again chastising her that she was over-reacting, but her anxieties were merely gaining more momentum and proof with each word. Calm...enjoy your dinner. Perhaps it is not as bad as you think, she told herself.

They arrived at the out of the way restaurant soon enough and were escorted to a private booth in the comfortable Grill away from prying eyes. On being given their menus, Holmes ordered a bottle of wine and then glanced at her, noting her dress and how its form and the rich deep blue colour suited her and how well her auburn hair looked with the curls at the side of her face framing it softly. There was no denying how attractive she looked in the candle light.

"You look..." he began, only for her eyes to move from the menu to his at his first word and his throat to constrict suddenly, "chilled still. Perhaps you should try the Clear Turtle soup to begin with. It is rather good."

She nodded slowly, turning her eyes back to her menu. "I will keep it in mind," she noted, her back stiffening ever so slightly, feeling foolish that she even dared to hope that he was about to say something personal. Her eyes scanned the menu, trying to find something that appealed, but in truth her appetite had waned considerably.

He watched, trying to fathom her thought processes. Not once in all the times he had sat with her or talked with her had he ever felt as awkward as now...and it was obvious she felt the same. He was trying hard to live up to his earlier decision to be level headed, but it was difficult when there was a disconcerting air of expectancy surrounding her that was as impenetrable as any mystery he had ever investigated.

She appeared to be waiting for him to say or do something, and he hadn't the vaguest idea what it was, never mind how to articulate it or do it. If he said or did something and it wasn't it, then it would only serve to make him look even more clueless in her eyes.

"I believe I will have the Virginia Quail," he said merely to break the silence, which was becoming oppressive. "Does anything seem inviting to you?"

"I think…the Whitebait," she replied, glancing briefly at him before allowing her eyes to take in their surrounding, finding it a small but charming place indeed.

On placing their orders, discussion of the decor and the food on offer helped ease things somewhat, and to Holmes's relief, they relaxed still further while they sipped on their wine and he recounted the tale of how he first came to this restaurant as part of a case.

By the time their entrées arrived, he was in the midst of regaling her with the story of the mysterious message that had brought him to this discretely placed restaurant, the Albanian man with the black eyed patch he had met here who claimed to know of a plot against Mr. Gladstone, and his subsequent disappearance from the gentlemen's W.C. from which there appeared no exit save the way he had entered.

As they ate, they settled into an easy discussion of who she thought might have been the possible plotters and the available evidence he had to work with. He was just about to inform her of what he had discovered about his vanishing informant when someone stopped by their table and addressed him. Looking up, Holmes took in the face of one Robert Fortescue, an old client. Putting down his napkin, the detective stood as the old acquaintance held out his hand. "Mr. Fortescue," he greeted him as he shook the proffered hand. "It's been a long time."

"Indeed, Mr. Holmes, indeed." The tall, blue-eyed, brown haired man smiled and returned the hand shake vigorously. "It's been eight years now since you helped me with that..." he glanced at Helen, "little problem I was having with a former investor."

"Yes, I remember." Holmes nodded. "How is your business these days?"

"Thriving, thank you," Fortescue replied. "I'm here with a client for dinner." He glanced at Helen again and then back at Holmes. Helen, fascinated by the interaction, also looked to her dinner companion, waiting to be introduced as was only polite, and Holmes obliged…after a fashion.

"Your pardon. Miss Helen Thurlow. Mr. Richard Fortescue, an old client of mine as you have no doubt deduced. Mr. Fortescue...Miss Thurlow," he said quickly and resumed his seat.

Fortescue waited, and once he realised Holmes wasn't going to be more forthcoming about the woman with him, bowed slightly. "Charmed, Miss Thurlow."

"How do you do?" she asked with a courteous incline of her head and a small smile while privately admitting to being more than a little irked that she'd been so hurriedly and scantily introduced. What would this man think of her? She smiled again at the former client, glancing at Holmes, wanting him to say something...anything.

He did. "You must drop by Baker Street some time and catch Watson and myself up on your progress since last we met...sometime when we are both not so similarly distracted."

If she had been irked before, Helen was suddenly erect with indignation. Similarly distracted? What was she? A client such as the one Fortescue had with him?

"Of course...I will be happy to, Mr. Holmes," Fortescue replied, realising that in so many words he was being dismissed. "I shall call upon you and the doctor soon. In the meantime, I shall leave you to your business." He glanced at Helen again, inclining his head towards her. "Miss Thurlow."

"Mr. Fortescue," she returned, a civil smile plastered upon her face. A smile that faded to a mask of placidity as he turned away. She gazed upon her plate, thanking heaven that she had long ago learned to not show her emotions too greatly...because in truth, she wanted nothing more than to hurry from the restaurant and cry. To be thought of as a friend...or even a habit...was one thing. But to be publicly introduced and therefore dismissed as a client with no more connection to him than Fortescue… It felt as though she'd been smacked in the face.

Holmes picked up his napkin and laid it in his lap before returning to his meal, pleased that Fortescue, who had connections with the press, had left under the impression that Helen and he were here only on business. "Interesting chap. I must tell you a little of his case some time...a matter of fraud and deception, quite intricate." He received no reply as she continued to look at her plate, her face paling the more her stomach and her hurt churned within her. Glancing up as he went to lift the forkful of roasted quail he had accumulated, he noticed her pallor and her silence. "Are you quite well?"

"I fear...not," she whispered, summoning the strength to look at him.

"You are ill?" He frowned in concern. "Would you care to return home?"

Her mind reeled, every nervous thought she had had over the past week seeming to take on life. It was a hideous mistake. She should never have accepted his offer. She wasn't what he needed. William had been right; she needed more from Sherlock than the detective could ever give her. She had to leave...get over this gnawing hurt...find a way to end this...yes...that would be best. "I think that would be best," she agreed with a nod.

He observed her for a moment more before rising to his feet. "Of course," he agreed, moving to draw her chair out for her and escort her to the cloakroom to put on her coat and hat while he went to settle the bill. Dressing slowly, she felt as though she was submerged in molasses, every move simply adding to the ache. Once she was ready, though, she crossed over to the doorway to wait for him, half desiring to simply hail a cab and return back to her friend's home alone.

It wasn't until they were in that cab and on their way back that he realised her silence was not borne of illness but of solemnity, and her refusal to look at him no matter what he said or did only convinced him further that her malady was not of the body. She was angry with him. Or upset. Or both.

The realisation caused him to fall silent in his attempts to take her mind off her 'illness' and instead fall into a reverie about what it was that he had done to offend her. It had been awkward, yes…but aside from Fortescue's interruption, which he had dealt with as quickly as he could, everything had gone quite well within the restaurant, he thought. And yet obviously something had upset her.

He wracked his brain the rest of the way until the moment the horse pulled up outside the Sotherbys' home a mere hour after they had left, and he turned to her to ask her his offence. "Helen..." he began, the situation demanding his use of her Christian name.

Turning to him but still not looking him in the eyes, she mumbled a quick but polite farewell before fleeing the cab, and upon Bronson's appearance at her rapid knock upon the door, disappeared inside the house.

Holmes stared after her, startled by the rapidity of her exit. He had stopped half way out of the cab in pursuit of her when he saw her rap upon the door in so urgent a manner as to be obviously in flight from him. It was quite clear that she did not want him to follow her. Confusion and irritation, both at her and himself, reigned supreme and his chin sagged to his chest as he began to replay the night's events in vivid detail.

"Pardon me, sir?" the cabbie hedged from up above, still waiting for instructions about what to do next.

Holmes glanced up and straightened, his jaw tightening as his confusion gave way to annoyance. "Take me to Kensington. Queen Anne's Street, post haste!" he ordered, his eyes flinty as he stared out at the road. "Quick, man!"

Some twenty minutes later at precisely 9:34 at night at the serene home of Dr. and Mrs. J. Watson, there came a dreadfully loud hammering at the door. Upon the fifth round, a rather flustered maid opened it. "Mr. Holmes, sir!" She stared at him nervously, knowing her master and mistress were at the moment not wanting to be disturbed.

Holmes marched straight by her, heading for the drawing room. "Be so good as to inform your master that I am here, will you, Mildred, there's a good girl."

She stood there, gaping like a goldfish for a moment before hurrying after him. "But Mr. Holmes, sir...the doctor and the Missus said they were not to be disturbed tonight!"

"Then convey my apologies to them as you do so. But now, Mildred, if you please." Turning on reaching the centre of the room, Holmes fixed her with a gaze that brooked no argument whatsoever as he sat down and crossed his legs, his fingers beginning to thrum on the arm of the chair. At the tone of his command, the poor girl, who was already terrified of him in any case, practically dashed from the room and up the stairs.

His fingers drummed to the beat of the maid's retreating footsteps as he sat by the slowly dying fire in the hearth, trying once again to make sense of his baffling dinner engagement. This...this...was why he had sworn off women so long. Why he distrusted the sex so completely.

Their minds were like Daedalus's labyrinth -- twisting, tricky, unfathomable, and at the heart of it inevitably lurked a creature not wholly recognisable as human! They made no sense! There was nothing rational about them when their emotions were called into play. They could be gentle, sweet creatures for the most part...but rile their unstable emotions in any way and they could outwit, out manipulate, and generally shred a man who did not entirely have all his wits about him. And to be involved with one generally meant one's wits were automatically halved!

He had convinced himself that she might be different in this regard...that she might not be quite so given to over emotionalism. Her patience, intelligence, and quiet undemonstrative style had won him over and made his interest and ultimately his affection for her grow. Grow to the point where he had broken his own unwritten rule and allowed heart to rule head. And in doing so...in unleashing his own emotionalism, it seemed he had unleashed hers.

Under other circumstances, he could simply coolly and calmly ignore such an outburst, roll his eyes and walk away from it. But now he could not...would not even contemplate it because his own emotions were also engaged. Walking away from this meant walking away from her. And as much as his head might tell him that to do so was a wise thing, his heart was too much in command and his curiosity too aflame. What in Hades had gone wrong in the first place?

Why had he been so on edge? Why had she? And what on earth had he done to upset her so? Women and their effects were inscrutabilities he was most certainly not equipped to unravel. His fingers thrummed a little faster in impatience as he waited for the appearance of the one he hoped could tutor him in this regard.

"I really am sorry, sir!" came the voice of the maid as two sets of feet, one stomping, the other rushing, made their way down the stairs.

"Mildred...it is all right. Calm yourself," came a soothing, deeper reply, and a moment later the door opened as Watson entered the room. He looked very much as though he had been in bed, dressed in a nightshirt, slippers, and dressing gown, his hair mussed, and skin flushed a rather pale shade of pink. "Holmes, my dear fellow! Whatever is the matter? Mildred said you sounded most anxious that you should see me."

Standing immediately, Holmes pointed a long finger at his friend. "I shall tell you what the matter is, Watson. In one word I shall tell you...the matter, sir...is women!" he pronounced loudly, stripping off his overcoat. "The gender as a whole and tonight, one of their members in particular! That is what is the matter!"

His friend stared at him with a completely perplexed expression, having no idea what he was talking about. "You rushed down to Kensington to discuss...women?" he ventured.

"Tea, if you please, Mildred," Holmes ordered of the maid as if at home there before turning his gaze back to her master. "I came here to talk to you, Watson, as a proponent and architect of my particular downfall, about the utterly perplexing night I have just endured in the squiring of one Miss Helen Thurlow about town."

The doctor looked to his anxious maid and after giving her a quick nod, she dashed from the room to see to tea. Turning back to his friend, he caught sight of his hair in the mirror and quickly ran his hand through it to smooth it. "I take it, it didn't go well?" he enquired with a sigh.

"Your perceptiveness astounds me, Watson," Holmes returned as he paced around the room.

With a resigned air and aware that Mary was not the least bit thrilled at their being interrupted, Watson sat down in the armchair opposite his friend and consoled himself that at least she would be more sympathetic, knowing it was her good friend Helen's plight as well. "I think you'd better start at the beginning, Holmes," he said, forcing back another sigh.

Holmes crossed to the fireplace and back again. "As you know, I was delayed in my travelling to Berkley Square by our dealings with our client this afternoon. My late arrival was, it seems, to be the high point of the evening...in the event I was some fifty minutes or so behind schedule when I arrived."

"Which, of course, she was expecting," Watson stated with an affirming nod but then blinked at the blank expression on his friend's face. "The runner you sent?" he reminded him. "I saw you talking to one of the boys after we got back to Baker Street."

"Ah." Holmes nodded. "No, that had to do with our case. I required some immediate information and sent Max to seek it out for me."

Watson stared at him before closing his eyes momentarily and drawing a deep breath. "So…despite your history of leaving her to her own devices during your previous engagements or indeed not showing at all, you decided it was a fine idea to begin your new relationship by not informing her of your imminent delay?" He opened his eyes to look at Holmes, who frowned, fully aware of his own past deficiencies in that regard. "You apologised profusely, of course?"

"I apologised," he answered after a moment before adding quickly. "And explained!"

"Yes." Watson smiled weakly at him. "I can imagine. What of a gift and a compliment upon her appearance?" he enquired, already knowing the answer, which came in the form of silence. He shook his head. "I knew we should have talked more beforehand, Holmes; these are the very basics," the doctor commented, his voice soft as if explaining to a child.

Holmes bristled at the tone. "I am well aware of that, thank you, Watson. I merely fail to see the reasoning behind constant overt flattery in action or words and I…" he faltered a little, "am not well suited to commenting upon such things."

"Well…" the doctor said with a smile as he sat back and relaxed, "you will find that you must become so. I tell you now, reason plays little part in these affairs." Holmes frowned at that and made to answer, only to be stopped by Watson's upraised hand. "A small action and a few words pour oil upon the roughest waters, my friend. If you admire her, show her." He cleared his throat, the gleam in his eyes a little sly, knowing his friend's propensity for flattery himself. "We, all of us, enjoy our compliments, Holmes." He waved his hand at him. "Go on."

The detective crossly folded his arms but continued, "I greeted her and suggested we make haste for the removed restaurant in Holborn I had picked to avoid prying society eyes. I will admit to being a little tense as we set out...but this was borne, I believe, out of the heavy air of expectancy I encountered as soon as she met me."

"Expectancy?" Watson queried.

"Yes." His friend gave him a brusque nod. "Normally she is full of questions and queries, Watson, but tonight, not once did she ask me anything." His brow furrowed. "It was most unlike her. It was as if she was waiting for something."

"A bad case of nerves," Watson murmured and at Holmes's sharp look, gave him a smile of solidarity. "On her part, of course," he assured him, never deigning to suggest that his friend might obviously have been anxious about the whole thing and allowed such a thing to become a weight upon him -- which it obviously had been. "Please continue."

Moving back to the fire, Holmes gazed down into it. "In any event, in order to keep the conversation going on the journey, I suggested we should once again begin to take up our old habit of attendance at musical events. As you know, we spoke of the need to keep her name from being associated with mine beyond friendship, for her own sake."

"Of course," Watson readily agreed before Holmes continued.

"Thanks to our past history of these outings, they afforded us another avenue of egress into public view as companions without inviting too much commentary. They were also to my mind, and I thought to hers, mutually pleasurable events." He leaned against the fireplace. "However, instead of the happy acceptance of the suggestion, the reminiscence on entertaining times past or indeed an alternate suggestion…I was suddenly confronted with the assertion that love should be the future of our relationship!" He threw a sharp gaze at the doctor. "How one leads to the other, I am quite at a loss to understand. She was quite vehement on the subject and I was, needless to say, quite confused by it all."

A slight frown crossed the older man's brow. "That does sound like a leap," he concurred before standing and moving to the sideboard to pour himself a scotch, feeling the need for something more substantial than tea. "Drink?"

"Certainly," Holmes agreed quickly. "And so, after a little more silence on her part, we reached the Holborn Grill and were quickly seated. Things improved somewhat there."

"Well, that's good." Watson smiled a little, urging him on.

"We talked, and as we were eating, I was approached. I picked the Holborn in keeping with our cautious approach and the hope that we would not be disturbed. It is a quiet, middle class establishment, discreet and frequented mostly by businessmen with booths that obscure the outside viewer's vision well and mute the occupier's conversation excellently. But an old client of ours chanced upon us…you remember Richard Fortescue and that whole business with the Crystal Skull?"

"Yes, of course, fascinating case," Watson replied, bringing him his drink.

Holmes nodded in gratitude. "He was there entertaining a client. I was glad to see him but had no wish to expose Miss Thurlow to any undue speculation about the nature of our engagement. I greeted him, introduced them, and invited him to Baker Street so that you and I might talk further with him about how things have advanced for him." He took another sip of his drink. "He accepted, said his good evenings to us both, and retreated to his table. It was but a moment or two later that Miss Thurlow informed me that she was unwell," he told the doctor. "I, of course, immediately suggested that I take her home. However, I soon realised as we travelled and I tried to put her at her ease, that she was not ill at all, but angered!" He shook his head in bewilderment. "Angered! She would not speak so much as a word to me, Watson! And then when we arrived at Sir Nicholas and Lady Margaret Sotherby's, she bolted from the cab as if it was to be struck by lightning."

Watson frowned as he resumed his seat. "She did?" he asked, his mind now focusing on that conundrum. "So, she was well before Fortescue's arrival and upset after he left? What was said during the conversation? Did he say something to her that would upset her? How did you introduce her to him?"

"Fortescue said nothing untoward at all," Holmes answered with a shrug. "And I merely introduced one to the other, allowed him to believe through omission that we too were there on business."

"I see." The doctor frowned, leaning forward and finding this to be a puzzle. "I have to admit you do have me stumped. It doesn't sound like anything at all."

"Thank you!" his friend replied in happy vindication.

Watson grew mildly concerned, "Are you quite sure she really wasn't unwell?"

"At the rate she disembarked the carriage, Watson, she seemed fit enough to me to play in next summer's All England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon," Holmes remarked with some acerbity. Silence descended before he looked to the doctor again. "Well?"

Watson's crystal tumbler paused midway to his lips. "Well?" he echoed.

"Your diagnosis, Doctor," the tall man demanded.

His friend blinked. "You expect me to solve this little mystery?"

"It is your field of expertise," Holmes insisted as he moved to sit.

The older man laughed. "Holmes, my field of expertise is medicine. No man is an expert in women and any one that says he is is an abject fraud and mountebank. I am as blind as the rest of us," he pointed out before allowing himself a small smile. "My touch is just a little surer."

Holmes issued a snort and putting aside his drink, folded his arms and crossed his legs. "Very well, Doctor, lay hands upon this matter," he challenged.

Starting to answer, Watson paused and took a swig of his scotch, swallowed, coughed and then replied, "I am at a loss, old man." He shrugged. "I can plainly understand her being peeved with you for not sending word ahead to let her know that you had not forgotten her and thought highly enough of her to let her know that she was in your thoughts. I can also understand her being aggrieved at your omitting to bring some token of your esteem or compliment her upon her appearance…" he ruminated.

A short impatient sound emanated from his friend across the room. "Yes, Watson, I both peeved and aggrieved her, but it doesn't explain what happened, does it?"

"Only in conjunction with something else," the doctor replied. "And it is that we appear to be missing. Let us apply some logic. Your evening had improved before the appearance of Richard Fortescue, correct?" he enquired to which Holmes nodded. "Then disimproved dramatically upon his withdrawal. So rationally, it follows that that is our moment."

Holmes's brow creased. "I've told you everything that was said and why."

"Yes…" Watson nodded. "It really does seem odd. You moved him along as quickly as possible…and knowing as she does the need to proceed judiciously in terms of your public appearances, I confess I can find no fault there at all, Holmes. Unless it was that she found the subterfuge distasteful. Sometimes reality belies the idea of a thing," the doctor said thoughtfully before glancing back at his friend. "You are sure she was in full agreement with what you proposed."

"Completely. She agreed to it with little more than my initial suggestion that we proceed carefully and quietly upon our new course."

Watson, rising to open the door on hearing the clank of the tea tray, paused half way up, frozen in place as a dreadful thought occurred to him. "Following on from which, you discussed the situation further, correct?"

"No." Holmes gave him an amused glance at his odd stance as he moved to open the door for Mildred himself. "It was late and I was on my way back to London at that stage, and she had agreed readily enough, understanding the situation. I had spoken to her a time or two previously about the dangers of an association with a man in my profession; you were there as I recall. It is a most obvious state of affairs, Watson," he reminded him. "So naturally, she was content to accept the idea of keeping our new status inconspicuous."

The doctor lowered himself back into his chair as Mildred hurriedly set out the tea things and left, remembering those times and how long ago they were. "Holmes?" he said quietly as the detective poured them both tea. "Did it occur to you that she may not have understood the situation?"

Holmes, having not eaten for most of the day and with his dinner cut short, took a sandwich and some fruit cake upon his plate before resuming his own seat. "Understood? Of course she understood…she agreed, Watson."

"Yes…" his friend replied, "but to what?"

"Watson, you are wandering about in circles. The point!"

"What you said to her, Holmes," Watson said with a pained expression upon his face, "it could be construed as taking the relationship itself quietly and carefully." Holmes's blank expression greeted him and another sigh escaped. "Not others' perceptions of it, but how the pair of you proceed with each other."

Holmes snorted and scoffed at the idea a moment before he lowered the sandwich in his hand back to his plate. "No." His voice was soft as he shook his head in disbelief at the idea of such a basic misunderstanding, but Watson's head nodded slowly in counterpoint to his own.

"Consider it, Holmes. It explains a great deal. The discussion in the carriage? How she responded to it? Her reaction to how you introduced her to Fortescue?" The older man reached for his tea and shook his head slowly. "Holmes, if I had to guess, I would suggest that you've both been talking at cross purposes the entire evening. While you were talking about appearing companionable and old habits as a means to proceed forward, she was perceiving it as a retrograde step in your attitude, nicely topped off with…"

"…my intimating to Fortescue she was nothing but a client," Holmes finished before falling silent. "But this is ridiculous!" he suddenly blazed, rising to his feet and putting aside his tea. "How could she not have known what I meant?"

"Holmes," Watson said quietly, using his voice to bring his friend down from his frustration and incredulity, "you do sometimes have a tendency to assume that people should naturally see and understand the things that you do. And that assumption is never more dangerous than when dealing with matters of the heart.

"A woman may be practical and pragmatic to a fault. But if she is involved in a love match, frequently her first thought will be for the wellbeing and maintenance of that match. Oft times, she wouldn't care if the hordes of Gog and Magog were bearing down upon her for her attachment to a man, as long as she knew that the tide of affection and esteem was returned in equal measure by him." He rose to his feet and crossed over to his friend to lay a hand upon his shoulder. "Helen is a loyal, brave, and loving woman…I dare say she would follow you in penury to Timbuktu and back as long as you cared for her."

"That may be comforting to know," Holmes huffed, "however, I remind you that any such journey would be conducted entirely in silence as evinced by her refusal to speak to me!" A small sound of disgust issued from him. "Believe me, Watson, never in all my life have I felt a quarter as off balance as I did tonight…and you know I do not admit to such things lightly. Women…love…" he scoffed. "What was I thinking? I tell you now…if I could excise these traitorous emotions from my being I would!"

"No." Watson chuckled. "You wouldn't. That's why you're standing here with me, instead of walling yourself off in Baker Street. You," he said pointedly, "came here to find out how to fix this. You may be frustrated and annoyed, but you have no intention of walking away. There are a great many rules and lessons to be learned by you both, it would seem." The doctor shook his head. "And chief amongst them is to learn to talk, Holmes.

"Nerves, unbalance, and uncertainty of the sort you had tonight are all natural, but all of your problems tonight stem back to the same source. You will have to be a bit more forthcoming than you are used to...and learn to be comfortable with it. As for preventing it in the future?" He looked up at the tall detective with an almost beatific smile that belied the glint of near glee in his eyes. "Well…for that to occur…I'm rather afraid, Holmes, that you are going to have to learn how to think like a woman."

"But why would he do that?" Margaret addressed Helen from across the breakfast table, her knife and fork poised delicately over her kedgeree and sausage. Her friend went to answer but was halted as Margaret put down her cutlery and continued on, "You yourself told me once that Mr. Holmes never says or does anything without a reason…so why would this man, who at all previous times when you were out together never shied away from introducing you as a friend, suddenly decided to slot you into the category of client?"

"Because he is ashamed of his own feelings," Helen answered in annoyance. "And ashamed of being with me."

The noble woman laughed. "Helen, men who are ashamed of the women they are with do not take them out in public." She gave her a knowing look. "They do not take them out at all."

Helen cleared her throat, her cheeks flushing a little as she turned her gaze away.

"Did you not think to ask him why?" her friend enquired with a mixture of curiosity and sympathy.

"I…thought it was obvious…" Helen answered. "I'm not entirely sure I still don't."

"Helen…if you are to continue on associating with men, you will simply have to learn to start thinking like them. Admittedly it's not a difficult thing. They are simple creatures for the most part, driven by a childlike selfishness and a need for adoration and comfort," she added, placing her utensils down before dabbing at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. "You will find it comes in handy. Even with as pointed a man as Sherlock Holmes."

Helen shook her head slowly, her eyes still feeling heavy from the weeping she had done the previous night. "I admit I don't understand it, Maggie, truly…last week before he left The Birches to return home, he seemed so willing…talking about how we should proceed."

"He did?" Margaret reached for the tea.

"Yes," the auburn haired woman confirmed with a nod. "He started to say that we…" Her voice froze in her throat.

"He…?" her friend prompted, pouring herself some more tea -- an action she ceased when a pair of wide grey eyes turned to her. "What is it, Helen?"

"Oh heavens, Maggie!" the young woman exclaimed, rising from her seat. "He wasn't talking about us…he was talking about how we appeared!"

Her friend's gaze upon her was protracted and unblinking, until she collected herself quietly and put the teapot down. Clearing her throat and smoothing down her dress, she gazed back at her friend. "I beg your pardon?"

The door opened to the breakfast room and Bronson stepped inside. "Excuse me, your ladyship, but Mr. Sherlock Holmes has arrived and is wondering if Miss Thurlow is at home?" His eyes turned to the auburn haired woman.

Helen's reaction was profound, spinning away from the table in a rustle of taffeta with panic in her eyes before she turned her eyes back to her friend.

"Helen," Margaret enquired, rising from her seat, "whatever is the matter?"

"Maggie, I fear I have just made the most amazing error. You were right, I should have been thinking more like him." Her hand went to her forehead as she tried to collect herself. "Of course he would not think to suggest that we needed to be considerate in our dealings with one another! His emphasis was not emotional, but practical. He was being literal!" She threw her eyes to heaven. "He was talking about our need to be careful…he was talking about how we looked to others…everything he said before about the dangers of being deeply associated with him, that's what he meant by careful. Maggie, he was attempting to shield us."

The noble woman tried to follow her friend's rapid fire stream of consciousness before turning to Bronson. "Be so good as to show Mr. Holmes to the library, Bronson. Tell him that Miss Thurlow will be with him directly." She turned to Helen with a firm look, who swallowed and nodded. And with an incline of his head, Bronson left the two women to carry out his duties.

"Oh Margaret…I find myself in a horrendous dilemma. I hope to heaven I am right. But if I am right…" Helen sank back into her seat. "If I am right…my behaviour…what am I say to him?"

"I admit, Helen, I have not the slightest clue," Margaret replied, moving to her side. "Chiefly as I'm afraid I have not the slightest clue what you are talking about. However, you do…and so the best advice I can give you is to go and talk about it with someone who does." She held out her hand to her, and as Helen took it and stood once more, her friend sighed and gave her an affectionate smile. "One thing is certain, Helen, you both are a pair."

Holmes, his hands once again clamped firmly behind his back, turned swiftly from his cursory perusal of one of the shelves of the long library of Sir Nicholas Sotherby to the door and young lady he had come to see. His eyes falling on her, he locked his gaze with hers a moment before their eyes moved apart -- hers to her feet, his to a point above her head, the air around them thick with apprehension.

"Good morning," he said quietly. "Forgive my early intrusion upon your day. I hope I did not disturb you in the midst of something important."

Closing the door behind her, she crossed over to one of the couches and took a seat. "No, not at all."

"Good," he replied, taking in her body language and tone before moving to sit in a chair opposite her. "Then my early arrival was in fact well timed."

Stretching one long leg out in front of him as he leaned forward, he tapped his hand on his knee lightly a few times in silence, gathering his thoughts before drawing a deep breath. "I suppose it is best that I come straight to the point."

Helen nodded slowly.

"I owe you an apology," he told her, his tone soft but sure.

"No…I…" she started before pausing and reining herself in. "You do?"

"Yes. Several, in fact. First, I should have been more considerate in my dealings with you when I first arrived. I spent some time considering the matter last night after you…"

"Fled from you in a most uncivil and childish way?" she offered.

He blinked, a corner of his mouth turning up a little at her attitude, and found himself relaxing a little. "Not how I would have put it," he replied, for which he received a bashfully grateful smile. "My work," he continued, "is important. Tremendously so, but that does not give me licence for rudeness. I should have been more contrite for keeping you waiting…or at the very least informed you when it was clear I would be delayed. Believe me…" He stood and took three steps to the fireplace before glancing back at her. "It is not my intention to fall back upon old habits."

She looked up at him, noting his use of those particular words, their context nowhere near as threatening as they had been before. He inhaled softly before continuing, "Which brings me to the main thrust of the matter…it is clear that you were deeply angry with me when you left."

She winced a little and nodded helplessly, unable to deny it.

"I am not entirely sure, that this is the case, but I believe that the cause of your anger might be a conversation…"

"…we had at St. Albans?" she finished quietly.

He regarded her for a moment and she him. His tone was wry when he spoke. "I never meant to suggest anything save that we be cautious in our outward appearance to the world. Your words were confusing to me last night, but it seems we both understand now why that was. It is apparent we spent the evening together on entirely different paths. Not an auspicious start."

A stab of alarm ran through her at that final remark. She had spent the night convinced the entire affair had been a mistake and that she should be glad it was over before things had gotten even more complicated. Now, though…

"It is my fault, Sherlock," she said hurriedly. "I misconstrued your meaning and overreacted terribly. I know it was a poor start to our keeping company, a foolish mistake on my part."

"No," he interjected, taking several gradual steps to her side. "One of a series on mine." He sat down once again. "It was my place to make such an important issue clear to you, when you agreed I thought you had understood my meaning. I…have been told I presume a great deal with regards to others following my thoughts. I have also been informed that I need to converse more and…alter my thinking somewhat."

She held a small smile upon her lips at that, imagining who had been the deliverer of such news to her beau.

His confident and calm outward appearance belied his words. "I confess that which you have known for a long time...I am no lover...I have trained all my instincts so far away from such notions that I cannot now seem to find a way to access the kind of behaviour that other men, like Watson, seem to find so natural.

"I had been awaiting our dinner engagement for many days but when the time arrived, I found myself with a certain degree of unease about how I should behave...what I should do...what was expected of me."

He clasped his hands in front of him, steepling his fingers as he continued, "This…series of blunders…has highlighted to me that I cannot afford to make assumptions in this newly evolved relationship of ours..." His gaze was earnest as he looked at her. "Helen, I know a million facts, a thousand applications for most of them, and yet, I am a fledgling...a novice in this area. I cannot afford to blindly lumber forward without a map to guide me. I need guidance about what is expected of me...what you expect of me."

She nodded silently and looked down at her hands, folded in nervous tension in her lap. "You are not alone in shouldering the blame for what occurred last night. I allowed myself to become consumed by my own anxieties this week. After you were late, I let my own fears get the best of me and began to read unfavourable signs into everything that occurred. Labouring under a misapprehension the entire evening did not help."

"Understandable," he agreed with a nod. "But you may rest assured, Helen, while I hope my behaviour towards you is always friendly...being your friend and only that is not amongst my desires."

"That...that is good to hear," she replied, her tone soft but warm.

"I hope..." he intoned with equal softness, "that you will always keep that in mind. I am not an expressive man. There are many things I must learn to say...many things I would already wish to say but find them difficult to articulate..." Rising to his feet again rather sharply, he made his way to a bookshelf and with his back to her, fingered a leather-bound tome idly.

"I am, for instance, not used to giving ladies compliments on the attractiveness of their appearance. On the way their gowns flatter and suit them so well, or the way the soft ringlets of their hair frame their faces like burnished copper..." His back still turned to her, he fidgeted slightly at his roundabout way of paying her the compliment he had wanted to the previous night.

Her eyes widened, a warmth washing over her at his appreciation of her, and she found herself rather intrigued that it was her hair that got the most notice. Again, she felt rather silly for forgetting and not taking into account his personality, inexperience with women, and reserved nature. "Thank you," she replied.

"I can only hope," he said, still examining the books, "that should I fail to express these kinds of things sometimes in the future, you will realise that it is not because the esteem or value is not there...but rather because the fault that prevents me from doing so lies within me and not in that which I behold.

"Such value and estimation is why I raised the issue of our need to be careful and quiet in our proceedings in the first place." He turned back to face her. "I have said this to you before I know, but I reiterate, mine is a dangerous life.

"Watson is my friend but he, too, has come to share in that danger. Mrs. Hudson's home is also mine, putting her in jeopardy as well. And now...there is you. I felt, therefore, it wiser not to advertise the fact that you and I are courting. That is why I took you to a restaurant free of the usual society columnists, so we could avoid their speculations...and why I did not give a greater account of who you are to Richard Fortescue when he approached us."

Shaking her head, she met his gaze once more. "I deduced as much shortly before you arrived. And I cannot believe I did not do so before now. Of course, had I been more alert to your meaning, I would have gladly helped form a cover story of some sort." She paused. "You have mentioned it before, I know, but…do you really think your enemies might do that...come after someone who was not involved at all in their predicament?"

"The criminal mind is not above anything which it believes to be to its advantage," he replied with a nod. "And should they feel cornered or pressured by me, like a rat they may strike out at the most vulnerable point. Not me per se, for they know that my own life is dedicated to their capture and I have long ago accepted the risks that went with it. No, not me...but those I might inadvertently bring into the scenario. They could use them to make me back away from them...or use them as a warning."

She straightened and nodded. "Very well, then the knowledge of our relationship should be kept to the minimal number of people. My mother and brothers know, Mary Watson obviously, and of course, Nicholas and Margaret. I have not told anyone else and will refrain from doing so."

She paused, her tone becoming more firm and adamant. "Sherlock...if...if anyone tries to use me in some way to hamper you...don't let them. I will not be the cause of justice failing another. Promise me this."

His gaze was most serious as he looked upon her. "I will not allow you to be hurt," he told her. "But if I can help it, neither will I allow justice to be subverted by threats...if I can help it," he warned.

She shook her head. "No...there are more important things in this world than my life. Justice is one of them. Please...I need to know that you will not let anyone use me as a deterrent."

"I can make no absolute promises, Helen. No one can," he answered before giving her a small smile. "You forget, I have already compromised on such an issue of safety over justice...as have you."

Her expression became even more solemn. "I know..." she said softly, her gaze haunted for a moment at the thought of the outcome of her father's death before she shook her head and smiled just a little. "Though it is rather gratifying that you place me so highly as to be worthy of such a compromise."

"Every man has his bargaining price," he said with a reciprocal smile. "I am wise enough to know when I have found mine."

Her cheeks flushed a light shade of pink as she nodded.

He held her look for a moment before standing and moving across the room to stand nearer to her, gazing down at where she sat. "So we are in agreement? For now, our involvement remains as private as we can make it."

Rising smoothly to her feet, she inhaled softly as his proximity and cologne made her senses tingle and her heart beat just a bit faster. "Very well," she agreed, her eyes meeting his...her mind swimming as she watched the light glint off the green and gold flecks in his hazel eyes. "Apart from those that already know...our...arrangement shall be a private one...for now."

After a moment's hesitation, he reached out and took her hand in his. "Thank you," he said, holding her soft small hand gently in his. "And thank you, too, for your patience with me, both now and in the future."

Her smile was gentle as she squeezed his hand. "I would also hope for your patience, should I misinterpret your intentions again," she returned, the touch of his hand creating a pleasant hum and tingle that washed over her skin.

"It seems we shall have to divert our inquisitive natures towards each other." His thumb brushed over the back of her hand. "If we do not understand each other or are confused or perplexed by our actions, let us apply a little rational logic to a fraught emotional situation and make a pact to ask, rather than merely blunder on. Data...it seems is always the key, even in matters of the heart."

Her smile widened as she nodded in agreement. "You and Maggie have a great deal in common." She chuckled. "She advised me to something similar just a few minutes ago. It does indeed sound the most appropriate course of action," she replied, her eyes continuing to take in his and feeling more relaxed at that moment than she had in weeks.

"Well then..." He released her hand. "Is there anything in particular you expect of me? Anything you would have me keep in mind?"

Her face grew thoughtful as she pondered that. "Well, apart from you keeping me more informed as to what your chain of reasoning is...just a word every now and then to let me know that I am still in your thoughts. Nothing grandiose...I know that is not your way. I suppose I like to know I am not alone in my hopes and feelings."

A slight smile touched his lips. "Yes…I was informed of that last night."

"John?" she enquired, her smile growing wider, and she chuckled as he nodded. "We shall have to start paying Maggie and John consultancy fees in the short term."

He loosed a sharp bark of laughter. "I fear you may well be right." He paused and glanced at the clock above the fireplace. "I must leave for Scotland Yard in a short time. I have some questions I must pose to Inspector Lestrade with regards to our newest case. But…I know of a small inn near Regent's Park that serves an early luncheon...should you come strolling past at, say, a quarter after one. As I recall, we did not finish our meal last night and it would prove an excellent place to continue this conversation."

"Regent's Park?" she enquired with a very pleased smile on her lips. "How odd…I was just of a mind to go for a stroll there."

"Then, Miss Thurlow," he said quietly, "let us walk there our separate ways in order to discover how it is we might better run on together."

Authors' Notes: Greeting all! We're baaaack! (grins) Sorry for the long delay, but we had to take a little break, write some Snape fic, and relax a bit, but now we have returned with our promised fourth story. (dances) We hope that you all continue to enjoy this one as much as the others and stick with us through the trials and tribulations of a courting Sherlock Holmes and Helen Thurlow. We do have a Rules poster but due to spoilerish line we will not be posting it for the public until the story is half over. Sorry! Anyhoo, enjoy and thank you for reading and/or reviewing (please do...the bunnies love to be petted and given feedback). -- Aeryn (of aerynfire)