Perry Mason rubbed his eyes. His powerful frame slumped slightly over his desk as he flipped through the photographs Paul Drake had brought in earlier that evening. The photographs accompanied a sack of hamburger sandwiches which had comprised dinner for the attorney and his secretary, Della Street. Refusing to give in to frustration, Mason stood and began to pace the office. Della followed him with worried eyes.
"I'm missing something, Della. It's out there, but I just can't grasp it."
Della did not reply, but instead rose and crossed the room to the coffee pot. She inspected the dregs and decided to pour them out in favor of a new pot. Mason continued to pace as she listened absently to the percolation of the water through the grounds. "One thing that doesn't make sense," she mused, "is why Aldrich Maines made the coffee himself. Why did he bother? The receptionist was still in the office and Maines strikes me as the kind of man who would balk at such domestic duty." Della deftly slid the pot out from under the stream of dark liquid, replacing it with a cup to catch the last of the fresh brew. When she'd filled the cup, she turned back to face him, while bringing the steaming mug up to her lips. The cup stopped halfway up at the look on Mason's face.
His darkly expressive eyes bored into hers. Somewhere in the back of her mind she marveled at how those normally gorgeous blue eyes could go so dark as to be almost frightening when Mason's intellect wrestled with a particularly difficult problem. His gaze held her frozen for a long moment until a slow smile broke across his face.
"Della – you're a genius!" With that pronouncement, he whirled with easy, cat-like grace and scooped his coat up over his arm then grabbed his hat from Blackstone's head. "Call Paul. Tell him to meet me at Maines' office right now. We're about to blow this case wide open!"
"But Perry …" she protested.
Mason grinned at her. "Go home Della. Get comfortable. I promise I'll stop by and let you know how this turns out." With that, he was out the door and gone.
Della sighed as she closed the door of her apartment behind her. She leaned back on it for a moment. It was late – almost midnight – but she was too keyed up to be tired. Too bad she hadn't dropped the coffee cup and took off after him – even waiting in the car while Mason and Drake confronted the murderer would be better than waiting around at home until everything was said and done. Della hated not being in on the action, but even the great Perry Mason still had some old fashioned ideas about the fairer sex. He thought her much more fragile than she actually was, but, alas, what was a girl to do? Although that attitude irritated her, she couldn't deny the warmth she felt at the knowledge that he worried for her safety.
Puttering around the apartment, she made a few half-hearted attempts to straighten her already immaculate surroundings. Finally, she sat out a tray with a couple of glasses and a bottle of scotch. She would at least be ready with a drink for Perry when he finally showed up at her door. She smiled at the thought before making her way into the bedroom. 'Get comfortable' he'd said. Normally that would entail her changing from a business suit to a softer, more casual dress … or even Capri slacks and a soft sweater. Della stood, debating her options, in the closet doorway.
Her eyes moved from the center of the clothes rack to the far side. She bit her lip and contemplated a length of burgundy silk. Reaching out, she let her fingers slip down the cool material. This was certainly comfortable, but did she dare?
Della observed her reflection in the mirror. Her face was slightly flushed. She picked up the brush and quickly tamed the dark curls that had been mussed by the clothing change. The ankle length gown hugged every curve, accentuating all the important ones. The fabric gathered into a knot in front. It was accented with rhinestones which helped direct the eye to her cleavage. Della smiled at her reflection. She was certainly comfortable. How comfortable would Perry be? She slid her bare arms into the matching robe, leaving it open so that it billowed out around her like a cape when she moved.
Returning to the sitting room, she settled down on the sofa and tried to interest herself in a detective novel.
The sound of a knock at the door startled her back into wakefulness. She jumped up, knocking her book to the floor. "Coming!" she called. She picked up the book and tossed it on the coffee table, then pulled the robe tightly around herself, belting it securely as she crossed the room to the door. Her earlier courage seemed to have evaporated in her sleep and she groaned inwardly at the realization that she was about to let a man – not just any man – into her apartment at almost 1:00 A.M., and she was wearing only a nightgown.
The knock sounded again as her hand closed over the knob. Drawing the silk tighter across her breasts, she pulled the door open, a smile of greeting forming on her lips.
"Hello, Beautiful!" Paul Drake said.
Della swallowed hard, fervently thankful she'd knotted the robe. "Hello, yourself," she managed to say, stepping aside for him to enter. It was only then that she registered the presence of Perry Mason just behind and to one side of the lanky detective. Her eyes sought his as he made his way through the door. He seemed distracted – brow still furrowed and head thrust slightly forward as if still wrestling with a problem or an adversary.
"Where's the booze?" Paul asked as she closed the door behind them. "We have celebrating to do!"
Della crossed the room and poured two scotch and sodas. "You got a confession?" she asked over her shoulder.
"And how!" Drake replied. "Perry was great – he badgered Maines into a corner then sprung the coffee trap on him. Maines used the coffee to camouflage the taste of the arsenic. Maines finally broke down and confessed all. It was a thing of beauty to watch, eh, Perry?"
Della stole a glance at her employer. He still appeared distracted and hadn't yet spoken. When Della crossed the room to hand him his drink, he finally met her eyes. "Use your phone, Della? I want to make sure my client has been released."
"Of course." She nodded and gestured towards the instrument. Perry swallowed his drink quickly before dialing police headquarters. As he spoke to the desk sergeant, Drake complimented Della on the scotch.
"Good stuff, Beautiful. Much better than that swag I've got in my desk drawer. You've got expensive taste." He grinned at her.
Della managed a smile. The nervousness she'd felt when she'd discovered Paul at her door was beginning to fade in the face of Perry's distraction and Paul's easy good humor. "I don't like cheap scotch," she said. "If you're going to deplete my stash, don't try to replace it with that hooch you drink."
Drake laughed and Della stood to pour another drink which she handed to Mason. Perry was just hanging up the phone. His shoulders relaxed just a bit and a smile was playing at the corners of his mouth.
"I take it she's been released?" Della asked.
"Her fiancé picked her up from the county lockup. They'll be on their way to the airport by now. By this time tomorrow, they will have been married on the beach in Hawaii." Mason replied. He crossed the room and all but collapsed onto Della's sofa. Della, seating herself in an armchair next to the sofa, crossed her legs as she settled back into the cushions. "Sounds like fun," she said musingly.
"Mm-hmm," Mason agreed, his eyes following the line of her robe which had fallen open from Della's knee, revealing a long slit up the side of the gown underneath.
"Not to me," Paul quipped. "Your client may be free, but now the fiancé is the one in prison."
Mason chuckled indulgently at the comment. Della threw a pillow at Paul. The phone rang.
Della answered, and then motioned to Drake. "Your service," she said and handed him the phone. Paul groaned as he set his drink on the coffee table and took the phone. Della slipped into the kitchen for a moment. When she returned, a glass of red wine in her hand, Drake was hanging up.
"Sorry to break up the party, Beautiful, but I've got to run," he said. "I've got a man on a stakeout that needs a backup ASAP. You coming, Perry?"
Mason got to his feet. "Yes, but just drop me at the nearest cab stand. I'm headed home." He turned to his secretary and placed a hand on her upper arm. He looked deeply into her warm, dark eyes. "Thanks again, Della. None of this would have been possible without you. And I'm not just talking about the coffee comment." Della felt as if she would melt at the look he was giving her. She managed to smile up at him. "See you Monday, Chief." Mason hesitated, seemingly intent on saying something more. Drake cleared his throat loudly from the doorway. Della rolled her eyes and Mason grinned.
And with that they were gone.
Della closed the door behind them and gave voice to a lengthy sigh. As she crossed the room and retrieved her wine glass, she felt as if she'd made a major miscalculation. Evidently her employer considered her a valuable asset to his practice, but little more than that. Certainly he'd been grateful for her assistance, but that was all. A rueful laugh caught in her throat as she surveyed her reflection in the sliding glass door that opened onto her balcony.
'Not bad,' she thought, turning slightly to inspect the lines of her figure. 'But evidently nothing that impressive either.' She chuckled at herself and took a sip of wine. Her eyes refocused on the view outside the door. It was a beautiful night, and she stepped outside to take in the stars. Still holding the glass in one hand, she untied the belt of her robe with the other, allowing the breeze to push the silk back and away from her body. The air was just heavy enough and the breeze warm enough that thunderstorms were starting to build in the distance.
Della leaned out over her balustrade and watched the distant lightening, fascinated, as always, by the building storms. It was a hold-over from her Midwestern upbringing. She remembered long summer nights spent watching the clouds at her father's side, scouring the skies for tornadoes, while staying within running distance of the storm cellar.
A slow smile curved her lips as she ran a hand through her hair. The wind was starting to pick up just a bit and tousled her short curls. The sights and sounds of the soon to be stormy night had a soothing effect and her thoughts began to wander. Memories of moments with her employer tumbled through her mind. There were so many times when she'd caught him watching her or times he'd touched her arm, holding it just a moment longer than necessary. She loved the feel of his hand when he would rest it on the small of her back as they made their way through a crowded hallway or courtroom. There were times she knew he'd been tempted to kiss her. She could read it in his eyes when he looked at her just before handing her into the car, or when he dropped her off at her apartment after working at the office late into the evening. He'd never acted on that temptation. Tonight she'd planned to push the issue. If he wouldn't take a step, she would.
Della breathed deeply. She could smell the jasmine growing in the courtyard two floors below. The approaching storm seemed to have sharpened the air and made the smell more intense. Intense – that was the perfect word for Perry. It made her think of his eyes. Those expressive blue orbs fascinated her – so dark, so watchful, never really at peace. Reading his eyes was one of her favorite past-times. She wanted to see them just before he kissed her. What would they reveal to her then?
Unfortunately, that wasn't likely to happen. Paul or no Paul, Perry had barely spoken to her. Perhaps she'd overestimated his level of interest. He didn't seem to have paid any particular attention to her this evening. He was just there to fulfill a duty as quickly as possible and then jumped at the chance to make a getaway. He'd probably anticipated that she had designs on him and had arranged for Paul to accompany him as a social buffer. 'Fine,' she thought, raising her wine glass to her lips. 'Evidently all he wants is a secretary. I can live with that … makes things easier in the long run, actually.' Della hadn't been hurting for lack of male companionship before going to work for Mason. There was no reason she couldn't find someone else to date now. No reason at all other than the fact that, since meeting the attorney with the broad shoulders and striking features, she just hadn't been interested in anyone else.
Della cast a last look at the sky before turning and making her way back inside. She did not notice the dark figure that exited a taxi at the end of the block. The form followed the shadows down the street and moved towards her building. Once inside, Della decided to pour herself a second glass of wine. The night air had an intoxicating effect of its own, but she still didn't feel relaxed enough to sleep. Perhaps she could actually make some progress in the book she'd been trying to read before going to bed. She was just about to sit down when a knock sounded at the door. She stared at the door for a long moment before crossing the room and peering out the peephole.
It was Perry.
She slowly opened the door and stood in the opening, allowing her eyes to travel down his form and back up again. "Counselor," she drawled when her eyes met his.
Mason stood in his characteristic pose – feet shoulder width apart, hands thrust deep in his pockets, his weight carried slightly forward on the balls of his feet as if he were a fighter sizing up an opponent. A slow grin broke the grim lines of his mouth. "Miss Street," he answered languidly.
She didn't speak, but raised the wineglass she was still holding. She looked at him over the rim as she drank, raising an eyebrow in silent question. Mason cleared his throat. "I don't mind standing in the hallway, but at this late hour, your neighbors are sure to talk." Della stepped back and allowed him to enter. He took a long stride into the room and turned to face her. She stood with her back to the door.
"It cost me a whole dollar to take a cab from that taxi stand back here. And that included a fifty percent tip." Mason said.
She laughed shortly. "Why did you come back here? I thought you were going home."
"I forgot something," Mason said, his voice taking on a slightly husky tone.
"Oh?" she asked, still not moving. "What did you forget?" Her pulse pounded in her ears.
Mason took a step forward and reached out, placing his palm flat against the door next to her head. She met his eyes and didn't flinch. "I promised to thank you properly, Miss Street. And I believe I neglected to do so." His voice was softer.
She toyed with the stem of her wineglass, dropping her gaze to the swirling liquid inside. "What does a 'proper thank you' involve, Mr. Mason?"
He laughed low in his chest and placed his other hand flat against the door, trapping her head between his hands. He leaned in closer. "Are you sure you want to find out?" he whispered.
"Yes," she managed to croak in reply.
He reached down and took the wineglass from her hand and sat it on the table next to the door. She was afraid her knees would buckle when he leaned in close. He stopped just inches from her lips. "Tell me to go unless you want me to stay, Della," he said seriously. "I can't just kiss you and leave. I'm not that strong."
Taking his face in her hands, she managed to look him full in the eye. "Stay with me, Perry," she replied.
He needed no further encouragement.
Branding her lips with hot hungry kisses, Mason drove any doubts she had as to his feelings out of Della Street's mind. She'd never been kissed like this before. This was no tentative, exploratory first kiss. He was making sure she knew exactly how he felt, and what he wanted. A low moan escaped her as his lips began a slow journey down her neck. Her arms encircled his neck, drawing him closer.
"Della," he whispered against her heated skin. "I need you. Do you know what you've done to me?"
She tried to speak, but his lips brushed a particularly sensitive spot just behind her ear. All she could do was gasp. Mason pulled away slightly and her hands slid down the sides of his neck to grasp the lapels of his jacket. His glittering blue eyes drank in her features, settling on her moistened, swollen lips. "I've wanted to kiss you for so long, Della. And cold showers don't work as well as you might think."
Della collapsed into his chest, shaking with laughter. "I … I thought …" she wasn't sure what to say. Perry ran a hand up her spine and grasped her curls lightly, bending her head back so he could look down into her face. "I know what you thought, you little minx," he laughed. "You thought you weren't making me suffer. You thought you weren't driving me crazy day in and day out. You thought … " he cut himself off in mid-sentence. "Oh, hell, woman!" And with that, he pinned her body to the door with his and smothered her with kisses.
Several long minutes later, Mason reached down, ran his arm behind her knees and swept her up off her feet. She gave a small cry of surprise which he stifled with another long and burning kiss. When he finally released her lips, he walked purposefully into the bedroom, evidently unfazed by the weight of her body in his arms. His eyes burned hungrily into hers. Once inside the room, he glanced back over his shoulder, caught the edge of her bedroom door with his foot, and slammed it shut behind them.
She couldn't help but smile. 'This,' she thought, 'is going to be good!'
It was her last coherent thought.