Caroline & Richard's Little Secret

Caroline & Richard's Little Secret

Rated 'PG-13' for sexual content

By: Jana~

~~Disclaimer~~

*****~*****

--Richard sprinted through the door of Caroline's loft, hurriedly hanging his coat and joining an upset Caroline at the partner's desk.

"You know," Caroline started… "I'm trying to be understanding here, but this makes 4 days in a row now that you've been late! And you were late 3 times last week! What is going on with you?"

"Nothing." Richard replied, dismissing her quickly. He didn't want to tell her, she would only offer him a raise or something. He didn't want pity, especially HER pity.

"Fine. Don't tell me. Just try not to be late again." She knew it was futile to ask that of him, he would be late again, and she knew she wouldn't do anything about it. Not because she couldn't, but because she didn't want to. He was the best colorist she'd ever had, and she cared for him a great deal, despite, or maybe because of his distant personality.

"Ok. Sorry." He took his seat at the desk and began his work, sleepily but efficiently.

--As the day drug on, Caroline became aware, Richard was acting very drowsy.

"Didn't sleep well last night?" she asked, somewhat preoccupied with her drawing.

"What? Why do you ask?" He seemed on edge, and she looked up at him, giving him her full attention.

"Because you have been yawning near about every minute for the past hour."

"I have?"

"Yes. They're contagious you know. Yawns. I've been yawning right along with you!" she kinda chuckled, and Richard smiled politely. "Let's grab some lunch, ok? Maybe that will help wake you up."

"Yeah, sure, ok."

*****~*****

--They arrived at Remo's and had just sat down when a stranger approached their table…

"Hey! I know you!" the woman exclaimed excitedly.

"Oh, yeah, I draw 'Caroline in the City'. Always nice to meet a fan." Caroline politely replied.

"Not you…" the woman stated, then pointed at Richard… "You! I saw you last night!"

Richard's eyes grew wide and he looked to Caroline and noticed she was considering the woman's words carefully.

"You must have me mistaken for someone else." He said, hoping she would go away.

"No! It's you! I know it!" she exclaimed excitedly, handing him a piece of paper… "Can I have your autograph?"

"Autograph?" Caroline questioned, looking at Richard expectantly.

"Please, you really are making a mistake here. I'm not who you think I am." Richard was almost pleading with her, and Caroline sensed it was for her benefit.

Caroline smiled and asked: "Who does she think you are?"

The woman put the paper back in her purse and shook her head… "I'm sorry. I'm not so good with faces. Names either, but faces…" she trailed off… "I'm so sorry for bothering you." With that she left, and Richard sighed with relief.

"What was all that about?"

"I don't know." He lied… "She obviously thought I was someone else."

"Mmmm-hmmm.." Caroline wasn't so sure she believed that, but knowing Richard and his unwillingness to share, she let it drop.

*****~*****

--After the work day was over and Richard had left, Annie came over to brag about her last night's date and raid her fridge. She could tell that Caroline seemed distracted…

"Hey! I'm telling you this great sex story and you're acting as if you've just been to a funeral! What gives?"

"It's Richard."

Annie rolled her eyes… "Of course it is…"

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. Nothing. Continue…" She knew very well that Caroline had feelings for Richard, even if she wouldn't admit it. *Why they both avoid it is beyond me.* she thought to herself as Caroline prattled on.

"He's been coming in late almost every day for the last 2 weeks. He's always tired. And today, something weird happened."

"Oh yeah? What?"

"Some stranger came up to him and asked him for his autograph!"

"You're kidding! Why?"

"I don't know. He wouldn't say."

"Well, what did SHE say?"

"Just that she had seen him last night…"

"Seen him? What does that mean?"

"I don't know. He kept insisting that she had mistaken him for someone else, and she reluctantly agreed and apologized. Still, something about the way he acted…"

"You think too much. She probably WAS just mistaken."

"Yeah, maybe."

Caroline knew there was more to it. She could sense it. Asking Richard would give her zero answers to her questions… she knew that already. So, how could she get answers?

*****~*****

--"You're late again." Caroline said in a sing-song voice as Richard walked through the door.

"I know, I know. I'm sorry." He rushed to the coffee maker, pouring himself a cup before moving quickly to the desk. "What are we starting on?"

"We need to talk Richard."

He was dreading that conversation… "Well, ok, but I'm running behind. I need to get started…"

"That's what we need to talk about. You're running behind cause you're always late!"

"I know, it's just--"

"What? It's just what?"

He blocked off her inquisition… "Nothing."

Caroline shook her head in frustration… "Look, we need to talk about this so we can work something out."

"Work something out? Like what?"

"I don't know! I don't know what you need! I don't know what's wrong! You won't talk to me!"

"I don't have anything to talk about. I've just been tired lately…"

"Do you need a later start time?"

"A later start time?"

"Yeah. You can start at 11 and work till 7."

"No. That won't work…"

"Why not?"

He grabbed the panels and sorted through them, wanting to end the conversation… "It just won't, ok? I'll just, try harder to come in on time, alright?"

"That's what you have been saying for weeks. Why are you having trouble sleeping? Are you sick?"

"No."

"Are you upset about something? Are you stressed?"

"No."

"Do you have insomnia?"

"No. Stop trying to help me Caroline. I'm fine."

She threw up her hands, giving up… "Fine, Richard. Fine."

--Richard was sleeping sitting up at the desk, his face on the panels, a light snore escaping his lips. Caroline looked at him; she would have laughed if she wasn't so worried about him. She grabbed his shoulders, directing him out of the chair…

"Come on sleeping beauty…" She guided him to the couch, laying him down… "You sleep. The panels can wait." She covered him with a blanket and took his glasses off, setting them on the coffee table. Then she kissed his cheek. It actually startled her that she had done that, but it was reactionary. Something compelled her to do it. She stood staring at his sleeping face, experiencing feelings that were new to her.

"Hey, Caroline!" Annie exclaimed as she entered the loft.

"Ssshhh! Richard is sleeping!" Caroline whispered sternly.

Annie looked at Richard on the couch, then back to Caroline… "Now you're paying him to sleep?"

"Oh, hush! I think something is really wrong with him…"

"I coulda told you that!" Annie joked, receiving a dirty look from Caroline.

"Annie, what do you want?"

"Well, I was gonna go out shopping, and I wanted to see if you wanted to come. But NOW I think I want to wake Richard in a cruel way."

"Don't you dare!"

Annie couldn't help but laugh, and Caroline put her hand over her mouth to silence her. When Annie squirmed away, she smiled and headed for the door… "You comin?"

"Well, I don't know."

"Oh, come on!"

"It's just… Richard…"

"He's sleeping! What, are you afraid you're gonna miss watching him drool?"

"Well, I guess it would be ok… for a little while…"

"There you go! He'll be fine! Come on!"

Caroline took one last glance at Richard before walking out the door and leaving with Annie.

*****~*****

--"Maybe I should have left him a note…" Caroline said as they stepped off the elevator after shopping.

"He's been coloring for you for what? Two years?! I'm sure he's finished everything and is sitting there in his better-than-everyone way, reading something depressing and…"

She stopped cold when they walked in the door and saw that he was still sleeping… "Or, he could still be sawing logs!"

Caroline shook her head, sighing… "I don't think he's sleeping at night."

"Hmmm… I wonder what he IS doing at night then." The implication was clear, and Caroline scolded her.

"Stop that! I'm being serious!"

"So am I!"

"I'm worried about him, Annie."

"He's a big boy Caroline. Just dock his pay for being late and stop trying to fix him."

Just then Richard started to stir… "No-- Caroline-- Love--…" he said in his sleep.

"Love?" Caroline asked Annie, her eyes wide.

Annie just shrugged. She knew very well that Richard was in love with Caroline, but she swore she would keep his secret.

"Caroline?" Richard asked sleepily, stretching, then he sat up abruptly… "Caroline?!"

"What?"

"Oh my God, what time is it?" He jumped off the couch and looked around frantically for his glasses.

"It's 6 o'clock." Caroline informed, handing him his glasses.

"I'm late! I'm late!" he snapped, heading for his coat.

"He sounds like the white rabbit from 'Alice in Wonderland' when he says that." Annie teased.

Without even saying goodbye he rushed out the door.

"Richard!" Caroline called to him… "Richard! Where are you going?"

"I gotta go!"

"But you haven't finished the panels!"

"I'll finish them tomorrow!"

Richard disappeared around the corner and Caroline walked back into her apartment, shaking her head… "I just don't get him…"

"Who does?" Annie joked as she grabbed a beer from the fridge… "Beer?"

"Yeah, thanks." She took the can from Annie and opened it, taking a swig before putting it down on the bar… "I need to help him, but I don't know how. I mean, how can I when I don't know what is going on with him?"

"Find out."

"What?"

"Find out what's going on with him."

"No-duh! But, how do I do that?!"

"When he leaves after work, follow him."

"Oh, I don't know. I couldn't-- I mean, he likes his privacy. He would be mad…"

"Oh, please! You want to find out what he's up to, don't you?"

"Yeah, but…"

"No 'yeah-but's! Follow him!"

"Well, I WOULD like to know… and help him…" Caroline reasoned, so deep in thought she didn't notice Annie's smirk.

*****~*****

--Next morning, Richard was late again coming in…

"Oh, what a surprise…" Annie mocked… "Richie is late again!"

"Something you will be facing one of these days if you don't stop sleeping with everything that moves." Richard quipped as he hung up his coat.

"It just so happens, I practice 'safe sex'!"

"Yeah, well, I see you're living up to the old adage 'practice makes perfect'."

"Shut-up!" Annie barked, storming out of Caroline's apartment.

"Done messing with her?" Caroline asked Richard…

"For now."

Caroline shook her head and handed him the panels that needed to be done.

"Why are there so many?" he asked, disconcerted.

"Cause you went to sleep yesterday instead of finishing your job!"

Richard's expression changed from astonished to ashamed … "Caroline, I am so sorry. This isn't fair to you…"

"Just tell me what's going on, Richard. Let me help…"

He hesitated before answering… "I can't."

"Can't or won't?"

"Pick one." Was his distant reply, signaling to Caroline that he was done with the conversation.

"Fine, I choose won't!" she snapped, irritated… "I'm going out for a while. Finish those, I'll be back later."

*****~*****

--Caroline returned to a stack of finished panels and a sleeping Richard.

"Wow. He got those done quickly." She said to herself as she looked over his work… "These are fantastic." It was just confirmation to why she kept him hired on. Even though he was late a lot recently, and indifferent ever since he started working for her, he was talented, there was no question about it.

"Are they ok?" Richard asked as he started to wake…

"They're wonderful."

"Good. I'm sorry I upset you earlier."

"I just want you to feel like you can come to me if you need anything."

"I do feel like I CAN, I just don't need to… right now…"

"Ok. You know, you're all caught up, why don't you go home. Get some sleep."

"Oh, alright. Thanks."

*****~*****

--Caroline and Annie sat nervously outside Richard's apartment building, the unsavory neighborhood causing their uneasiness.

"Whatever it is he's doing at night, I hope he leaves to do it soon…" Annie complained… "I feel like a hooker standing here…"

"You look like one too." Caroline joked, smiling wide.

"Richie is rubbing off on you!" Annie grumbled, then pointed towards Richard's apartment… "And speak of the devil…" she said as she spotted him.

"There he is! There he is!" Caroline grabbed Annie's arm, shaking her.

"Ok, ok. He's broke, so he'll probably walk or take the subway…"

They watched as Richard walked off towards the subway…

"See?" Annie gloated.

They followed him to the subway and carefully got onto the same train as he did, but a different car. When he got off, they followed him stealthily. When he entered a cheesy club they stopped outside, staring at each other in disbelief.

"What's Mr. Starch-in-his-britches doing at a piano club?"

"I don't know." Caroline replied, confused…

"I got it!" Annie announced proudly… "He's working there! He's moonlighting!"

"That would make sense…"

"It makes total sense! He's probably some dishwasher or something!"

Annie's chuckling annoyed Caroline, and she nudged her to get her to stop. "It's not funny Annie! Why didn't he just tell me he was working a second job?"

"Probably cause he knew you'd offer him a raise. He's against making money, for some reason. He likes being broke… he thinks it makes him an artist or something…"

"I gotta go talk to him…"

"Oh, and THAT won't be at all embarrassing for him!" Annie smiled slyly…

"Go home Annie!" Caroline barked, then headed for the club.

"Fine. Tell me how many shades of red he turns!"

When Caroline was several steps away, she turned back… "Thanks for coming with me."

"You're welcome, hun. See ya later."

--Caroline peeked her head into the club, cigarette smoke and music drifting out the door. She stepped inside, adjusting her eyes to the dark and haze.

"Can I help you?" a young woman asked, approaching Caroline.

"Oh, no, I was just looking for someone."

"Well, would you like to take a seat till they arrive?"

"No, ummm… actually, I think he might work here."

"Oh. Well, what's his name?"

"Richard Karinsky."

"No… no, we don't have anyone here by that name."

"He just came in here a minute ago. Tall, good looking, blond, depressed…"

"Oh! You mean Del Cassidy!"

Caroline looked at her in shock, trying to put 2 and 2 together. "Del Cassidy?"

"Yeah." She confirmed, then pointed to the stage… "There. He's the piano player."

Caroline couldn't believe what she was seeing. There was Richard, playing the piano. He was obviously using Del's name to keep himself incognito. She watched him in utter fascination… she had never seen this side of him. He was playing the piano, and he was good. Very good.

"Ma'am?" the hostess broke through Caroline's reverie.

"You know, maybe if you have a table way in the back?"

"Of course. Would you like me to tell Del you're here?"

"No. No, he isn't who I thought he was."

"Oh, ok. Well, come this way then." She said as she led Caroline to a table.

--Caroline stayed several hours, purposefully remaining undetected by Richard. She was amazed by his talent. The songs were simple, but she could tell he was capable of more than that.

"Excuse me?" Caroline sought the waitress's attention… "When does 'Del' stop for the night?"

"He plays till closing… at 2 in the morning. Then he helps clean till 3 a.m., why?"

"Just curious."

"His break should be soon… if you want to talk to him…"

"Oh, no. No… actually… I should go."

"Ok, well, I'll be right back with your check."

"Thank you."

--Caroline left with a new appreciation for Richard, and an understanding of what his problem had been lately. He was exhausted from working a second job. She wanted to help him, but she didn't know how. She could offer him a raise, but he would refuse it. Whatever she wound up doing, she couldn't let on that she knew anything about his second job.

--At around 3 in the morning, while finishing up the task of cleaning, the hostess approached Richard, calling him by the name she knew him by… "Hey, Del, great set tonight."

"Thanks." Richard replied distantly.

"I mean it! You're even starting to get fans! Well, 'A' fan anyway."

"What?"

"Yep! You had a fan here tonight. Cute red-head. Stayed here till just before your break." She was so busy clearing off the table nearby she didn't notice his worried expression. "I don't think she wanted to admit it though… she said she was looking for Richard… Richard… ummm… Kinksky! Richard Kinksky! But when I pointed you out after she described you, she decided to stay."

Richard knew it was Caroline. The hostess got his name wrong, but it was most definitely Caroline.

*****~*****

--Richard dreaded going in. He stood outside her door, trying to decide what to do when she brought up his job at the club. He knew she would, she liked to talk about everything. He sighed deeply, knowing he couldn't wait any longer. No sense in prolonging the inevitable. He walked through the door, being greeted by a chipper Caroline.

"Mornin Richard."

"Hello." He hung up his coat as he always did, then headed for the coffee maker, like he always did.

"You get a good nights sleep?"

"What?"

"Well, you know, cause I let you off early so you could get some sleep…"

"Oh, right. Yes, I did. Thank you."

"Good. Here's what I need done today." She handed him a stack of panels, but it seemed a bit light.

"There doesn't seem to be that many…"

"What's this? Complaining cause I'm not working you harder? Usually you complain cause I give you too much to do. I can give you more--"

"No. Really. That's ok."

"Ok then, hush!" she joked, then wandered off into the kitchen.

He was baffled. She wasn't bringing up the club. It wasn't like her not to interfere. He thought ever so briefly… maybe it wasn't her at the club.

She had to be careful. He would be upset if he found out about her visit to the club… that she knew about his little secret. She would have to help in small ways… like giving him less work to do, and maybe slipping a little extra onto his paychecks.

*****~*****

--Richard had finished his work quickly… too quickly. He stacked the finished panels aside and looked at Caroline, awaiting… something. What, he didn't know exactly.

"Caroline?"

"Yes?" she asked without looking up from her work.

"I'm done with those. What else do you need me to do?"

"Oh. I'm not quite done yet. Why don't you go ahead and take a nap. I'll wake you when I'm done."

He looked at her with a slight scowl, one eyebrow raised… "Caroline, what are you up to?"

"What?"

"You're up to something…"

"What makes you say that?"

"This pitiful pile of work… but you're obviously not having writers block. And you sending me home early yesterday to sleep, and now you're telling me to take a nap…"

"I'm just giving you a suggestion. I'm not done with this stuff yet… you don't have to sleep. You could go do the conga with the neighbors for all I care!"

Richard smiled, then stood and stretched… "Ok…"

Caroline looked up quickly, an odd look on her face… "You're gonna go do the conga with the neighbors?"

"No, I'm gonna go take a nap. Got you worried though, huh?"

"Not worried, just surprised."

"Yeah, well, I'm full of surprises…"

"Yeah, tell me about it!"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

She smiled a bright cheerful smile and waved him away… "Go take a nap. I'll wake you when I'm ready for you."

He nodded and walked to the couch, lying down, but more interested in watching her than trying to sleep.

She could feel him staring at the back of her head, but she didn't dare turn around. She continued to work, distractedly but consistently, till she heard him start to snore. She turned around and looked at him; so peaceful, his face scrunched up into a concerned expression. She approached him and took off his glasses, carefully setting them aside before putting the blanket on him. She kissed him on his cheek, but very near his lips, lingering a while. Her mind raced with what it would be like to do that while he was awake, but she pushed the thought from her consciousness and walked back to the desk, resuming her work.

*****~*****

--Richard woke with a start, jumping off the couch…

"What time is it?"

He scared Caroline half to death, and she clutched her hand over her heart, gasping…

"About 4."

"Oh, good. Ok…"

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did you need to know the time?"

"Oh, I have something later…"

"Something? Like, flying to the moon on the space shuttle?"

Richard glared at her… "No."

"You know, I really don't think I'll have anything more for you to do today. Why don't you go ahead and get going…"

"You're gonna pay me for the entire work day? I only worked for 3 hours! And colored 4 panels!"

"Well, yeah. I asked you to stay."

He knew she was up to something… "Caroline, I told you, I don't need your help…"

"How am I helping you?"

He just shook his head and marched to the door, grabbing his coat… "Fine, Caroline. I'm working a full day tomorrow!"

"See ya tomorrow."

"Yeah." He stopped to look at her for a moment, then smiled and walked out the door.

*****~*****

--Caroline entered the club, disguised only by a scarf to cover her red hair. She asked to sit in the back again and she watched as Richard skillfully played the piano. When it was his break time, she quickly left, not wanting to take the chance of being spotted.

"Your fan is here again." The hostess informed Richard as he nibbled on pretzels.

"What?"

"Yeah, the cute red-head is here again tonight."

"Where?"

"Table 79… in the back."

When Richard got out there, the table was empty and the bus boy was clearing it off. He sighed and dropped his head, walking back to the bar.

"Well, if she was there, she's gone now." He said almost sadly.

The waitress looked at him for a second, then peeked out to see.

"Huh! She must've just left then. She was there a few minutes ago."

Richard raced to the club door and ran outside, looking around. There was no sign of her. He walked back into the club, his break almost over.

"I couldn't see her." He told the young woman, and she noticed he seemed a bit upset.

"Do you know her or something?"

"Possibly, that's why I wanted to see her."

"Well, maybe she'll come in again tomorrow."

"Yeah, maybe."

*****~*****

--Caroline stepped off the elevator and headed for her door, key in hand. As she opened the door, Annie stepped out into the hall…

"Hey! Where did you go tonight?"

Caroline spun around and smiled weakly… "Nowhere."

"Nowhere? Oh, come on! What do you take me for?"

"A nosey neighbor?"

"Spill it girl! Where were you?" Annie insisted as they entered Caroline's loft.

"I was out at a club."

"Hmmm… I see. It wouldn't by any chance be a club that a certain blond pain-in-the-rear works at, would it?"

"It just so happens…"

"So, what does he do there? Dishes? Bus boy? Waiter?"

"He plays the piano." Caroline informed proudly.

"The piano?!" Annie started to chuckle and Caroline glared at her.

"He happens to be very good!"

"You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not."

"Oh, this is too good! I can definitely use this to mess with him!" she rubbed her hands together, a wicked grin on her face and Caroline nudged her…

"No! You can't! You will NOT bring this up!"

"Why?"

"He doesn't know I know."

"How's that possible? You just said you were at the club!"

"I sit in the back. He can't see me. Please Annie, leave it alone."

"Fine, fine. Ruin all my fun…" Annie agreed as she headed for the door… "See ya!"

"See ya Annie."

*****~*****

--"Mornin Richard." Caroline greeted Richard as he walked through the door… "Only 20 minutes late today. Getting better."

"Sorry." He apologized, hanging up his coat.

"I know." She handed him a stack of panels… "I need these done by 4. Charlie is coming by for them."

"No problem."

"And here's your paycheck." She handed him the paper, and he looked at it… a little longer than usual…

"What's this?"

"It's called a paaaayyyycheeeeck." She said very slowly, jokingly.

He threw her a look and sighed… "I know that! Why is it so high?"

"High?" she asked innocently.

"There's too much money on this. Why?"

"It's just what it came out to."

"Oh, right. With as much work as I've missed? And it's higher than ever? I don't think so." He slammed the check down on the bar… "Caroline, I said I don't want your help!"

"I'm not helping you! I'm paying you!"

"You're purposefully paying me more than I earned!"

"You know what Richard? I'm the boss! I decide what I pay my employees!"

"Employees? Plural? You have more than me?"

"This is what I'm paying you! It's my decision! Now shut up and take the check!"

"It's too much. I can't accept it."

"Yes you can! And you will!"

"Or what?"

"Or…" she hesitated, trying to think of a good threat… "Or I'll…"

"You'll…??"

"Fire you!"

"Fire me?! You've gone from giving me too much money to firing me?"

Caroline sighed… "Please Richard… just take the check."

"I can't. I've already let you down so much these last few weeks. I can't accept this money."

Caroline grabbed the check and ripped it up… "Fine!" She grabbed her purse and pulled out her checkbook, writing a new check that more closely reflected his true earnings. "Better?" she asked as she handed the check over to Richard.

"Yes. Thank you."

*****~*****

--Richard finished his work before 4 and Caroline told him he could leave early, but he refused.

"I told you, I don't want your pity."

"I'm not giving you pity Richard. I honestly don't need you to do anything else today."

"Are you gonna pay me for a full day?"

"Yes."

"Then I'm staying!" he insisted.

"Well, if you're staying, make yourself useful."

"Doing what?"

"I have an awful kink in my neck. Could you rub it?"

"Oh, so, now I'm your masseur?"

"You wanted to stay!" She tapped at her neck… "C'mon! Start rubbing."

He sighed and approached her, nervously placing his hands on her shoulder he started rubbing.

"That feels good."

"Good." He quickly took his hands off her and started to walk away.

"Hey! I didn't say you were done! I said it felt good! Get back here."

Richard reluctantly went back to her, resuming his tender massage. She was almost humming as she moaned in satisfaction, and the sound was killing him. He closed his eyes briefly, letting himself get caught in the fantasy that played out in his head… her in his arms, kissing, touching, arousing… *Stop it!* he reprimanded himself… *Those thoughts are not conducive to good mental health!*

Caroline was enjoying his hands on her body, a lot more than she would have thought possible. She closed her eyes and drifted into a state of bliss… his voice too soon broke through though, bringing her back to the present.

"Good now?" he asked, wanting and needing space.

"Oh, yes. Good. Thank you."

"Uh-huh. Now, what else do you need me to do?"

"Ummm…" she tried to gather her thoughts, willing herself not to blush. "I… uh… have to go upstairs for a minute. Keep an ear out for Charlie and give him that envelope?" she asked of him, pointing to the envelope then heading for the stairs.

"Ok."

She walked up the stairs, knowing she had to release some of the sexual tension she was feeling before she could face him again. Seeing as how she had no man in her life currently, she would have to 'go solo'. It's not what she wanted to do… she wanted Richard, but since that wasn't happening, she needed to do something to squelch the desires he'd brought out in her. She imagined Richard touching her the entire time, finally achieving release, grateful for it, but wishing it had been Richard who'd given it to her.

--"Charlie was here." Richard stated with indifference as Caroline walked down the stairs.

"Oh. Ok, good."

Richard thought Caroline's tone seemed a bit off… "Is something wrong?"

"No. Why?"

"You seem… perplexed."

"Perplexed?"

"Yeah…"

Was what she had just done so obvious? She blushed as she looked away, embarrassed…

"I'm fine Richard. Look, I don't need you for anything else, why don't you go ahead and take off…"

He could've sworn he saw her blush, and he looked at her for a moment before agreeing…

"Ok. Till tomorrow then."

*****~*****

--Like the nights before, Caroline went to the club to watch Richard, hiding in the back and hoping remain undetected… but Richard was on to her. He'd asked the hostess to let him know as soon as she arrived… she did. She handed him a note when they were between songs…

'That cute red-head is back. Table 79.'

He nodded to her after reading it, then carefully caught glimpses of the table as he played. It was her, no doubt about it. It was hard to see into the dark club from the lighted stage, and he had to be careful not to look too long, but he would know her anywhere. Now, what to do about this new found information…

*****~*****

--Richard arrived for work on time and in a fairly good mood… something that was rare for him…

"Good morning, Caroline."

"Good morning! You're on time!"

"Yes, I am." He said as he hung up his coat, grabbing his coffee quick before sitting at the partner's desk. "So, how was your night last night?"

His question immediately put Caroline on edge… "What?"

"I was just wondering how your night was. What did you wind up doing?"

"Oh, I, ummm… I went to the movies."

"Oh yeah? What movie did you go see?"

"Oh, you know, one of those sappy 'chick-flick' love stories…"

"Ah." Richard inwardly smiled as he watched her try to lie. She wasn't any good at lying; she was as transparent as 'scotch-tape'. "What do you want me to start on?"

She handed him a stack of panels… "Greeting cards are due by tomorrow."

"No problem."

--After hours of silent work, Richard stood and stretched, yawning, moving his neck from side to side…

"Is your neck sore?" Caroline asked, putting her pen down, looking at him with bright brown eyes.

"A little." He admitted absently.

She got up from her seat and walked to Richard, taking him by the arm…

"Come here." She said, pulling him towards the living room chair, sitting him down. She started massaging his neck, and his heart leapt at the physical contact.

It felt wonderful… too wonderful. He felt his body respond and he jumped from the chair…

"Thanks." He blurted out, heading for the bathroom. He shut the door soundly and locked it, leaving Caroline staring in confusion.

Richard splashed water on his face, hoping to regain some control.

*Ok, think about something else. Something not sexy. Something not Caroline…* he thought to himself as he stared at his reflection in the mirror. *Annie. 'Cats'. Cats. All cats. Salty. Salty, sweaty skin. Caroline's salty skin, my lips all over her, licking her-- AARRGGHH!! No good, go back to cats. Dogs. Pets peeing on my feet when I come home. All animals. Zippity the hamster and Mr. Ears the bunny, dying at my house. Getting yelled at by Mrs. Fox. Mrs. Fox. That did it.*

He shook his head, relieved that his embarrassing state of arousal was shrinking. He took a deep breath, willing himself to calm his nerves so he could go back out into the living room and face her.

"You ok?" she asked as he came out of the bathroom.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

Caroline nodded, sensing he didn't want to talk about whatever it was that was bothering him.

"You could go ahead and go… if you wanted to."

"Yeah, good, ok." He was eager to leave. He needed space away from her to regain his composure.

*****~*****

--Caroline arrived at the club at her usual time, taking her usual table and ordering her usual drink.

"You must really like him…" The hostess said as she took her order.

"What?"

"Well, you've been here the last 4 nights to see him."

"Who?" Caroline feigned ignorance.

The hostess chuckled… "Ok." She said in a patronizing tone… "I'll be right back with your order."

Was she that transparent? That even this waitress could see her feelings for him? She didn't have long to think about it… the music started and her attention was soon focused on Richard.

--It was almost time for his break, and Caroline knew it, so she asked for the check and was preparing to leave when…

"Richard wanted me to give you this…" the waitress told Caroline, handing her a note along with her check.

"Richard?" Caroline asked… she thought they only knew him as Del.

"Yeah, you know, the piano player? Del to everyone else… but you know him as Richard, right?"

Caroline managed a small smile and looked down at the note…

'Don't run off this time. My break is coming up. I'd like to talk to you.'

She looked up at the stage and he was smiling at her. She smiled in return and nodded, holding up the note to show him she had received it.

--He approached the table slowly, pointing to the chair and waiting for an invite before joining her.

"I didn't mean to upset you, or let you down…" he started… "I just needed extra money."

"I wish you would've told me. We could've worked something out…"

"I didn't tell you for exactly that reason. I didn't want you to help me. To feel like you HAD to help me…"

"Friends help each other, Richard…"

"I understand that, but, I'm not used to having friends."

"I know." Caroline replied… "On the up side…" she changed the subject… "You are incredibly talented! I didn't know you could play the piano!"

"Yeah, well, I guess I'm what many would call 'naturally gifted'. At least that's what they said at that music camp run by Marvin Hamlisch that my mom forced me to go to when I was 9."

"Marvin Hamlisch? Wow."

"I have to get back…" Richard said, looking back towards the stage…

"Ok…"

"Can you stay?"

"For a little while, then I gotta get home."

He smiled… "Ok."

"And don't worry about coming in at 9:30 tomorrow. Whenever you can get in is fine…"

"Caroline…" he partly scolded… "I don't want special treatment…"

"It's not! You need your sleep. You're a better worker when you're well rested. You are more efficient when you're well rested. I know you'll be able to keep up… just get enough sleep, then come in…"

"I need the money. I need to work full time…"

"Well, how 'bout I put you on salary for now?"

"Salary?"

"Yeah, as long as you get the work done, you can keep whatever hours works best for you for the same amount of pay."

He started to shake his head, but she cut him off before he could refuse…

"Richard, a lot of people work on salary. It's not how many hours you're in my apartment that I'm paying you for. I'm paying you to color the strip! If you get your work done… if we keep the deadlines… I don't care if you're there for 8 hours or 4."

He seemed reluctant to accept, but slowly, he nodded his agreement.

"Good. Thank you Richard." She was grateful that he was being flexible, allowing her to help in some small way.

"Thank YOU." He replied, smiling.

"You're up!" the waitress informed as she approached the table.

"Ok." He acknowledged her… "Gotta go."

Caroline nodded and he walked away, appearing on stage a few moments later.

The waitress leaned in to Caroline… "He really loves you. You can see it in his eyes…"

"Oh, we're just friends…"

"Ok…" the waitress replied in that same patronizing tone she had used earlier in the evening. She walked away leaving Caroline to watch as Richard 'tickled the ivories', playing with just a tad more enthusiasm than before. Enthusiasm he found just knowing Caroline was out there.

THE END