You Know the Queen of Hearts is Always Your Best Bet

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What a horrifying picture."

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

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

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

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

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

"Is it that obvious?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's tomorrow night?"

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

"The Refugees?"

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

"And Julliard approves of this?"

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

"And who, pray tell, is Brass?"

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

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

"I know interesting people?"

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

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

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

"Excuse me?" she blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They could be a country band."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Much better," Ann said contentedly.

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

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

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

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

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

"Really?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What song is this?" he asked softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What an attractive metaphor."

"You know what I mean!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Movies!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I think so."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Of course."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Flatterer."

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

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

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

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

She blushed, giggled and kissed him again.

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

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

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

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

Ankh jumped on the bed, startling them both.

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

"I doubt she'll tell tales."

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you?"

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

"No independent corroboration?"

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

"Too long."

"Too long," she agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You."

"And what did you see?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't do that."

"Excuse me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What's that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

She didn't ask what kind of cad he was but remembered the look on his face 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.