"Detective Brigatti speaking." Toni tilted her head, tucking the phone between her shoulder and ear as she reached for another file.
"Good afternoon, Brigatti."
Toni straightened, then relaxed back against her desk chair. A smile spread across her face at the sound of the low, husky voice on the other end of the phone. Curling her body slightly, she swiveled her chair so that it angled towards the wall, affording her a sense of privacy. "Good afternoon yourself, Hobson."
"I…um…I just wanted to say hi and…um…see how you're doing today."
Toni chuckled. "I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, it was just that last night was a pretty eventful evening. I wanted to make sure you were okay with everything. I woke up and you were gone. I saw your note, but…" His voice trailed off.
The smile faded as Toni thought about last night. Eventful certainly was an understatement. Their conversation and all its revelations had been intense. "Yeah, I'm okay. How about you?"
She heard him take a deep breath before he continued.
"Last night was…it was incredible, Toni."
Toni felt a blush creeping up her neck and took a quick peek over her shoulder to see if anyone was near. Thankfully, Winslow had left early to go to a dental appointment and everyone else in the office was engrossed with their work. Out of habit, a smart comment formed on her lips, only to die as she remembered everything that had happened in the last few days.
Their new relationship, less than twenty-four hours old, was as fragile as spun sugar.
Biting her lip, she responded from her heart. "I thought so too, Gary. I only left because I didn't think it would be a good idea to walk out of there this morning dressed in the same clothes I was wearing last night. Not with all of those photographers hanging around outside."
"Yeah, that was probably a good idea." There was a pause. "I only saw a couple hanging around this morning, so hopefully, they'll move on to more interesting things soon."
Toni smiled at how those reporters would react if they knew the real story. Talk about interesting! She didn't know if she should ask about the paper. She still wasn't exactly sure how it all worked, but her curiosity was piqued.
"So, have you been busy with the paper today?"
For the space of three heartbeats there was silence, and Toni cringed. Just because he told her about the paper didn't mean he was ready to talk about it all the time. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't--"
Gary began speaking at the same time. "No, not really. I had a few easy jobs to—No, it's okay, Toni. I'm just not used to talking about the paper with anyone except Marissa."
"Marissa? Oh. I didn't realize she knew about the paper." For some reason, Toni felt a little letdown. Of course Marissa would know about the paper. Gary had even mentioned last night that Marissa and Chuck were his only real friends.
"Yeah, she's known from the beginning." Gary cleared his throat. "What I really called about was to see if you wanted to go out for dinner tonight. I…I'm sorry about waiting until almost three o'clock to ask, but I wasn't sure if the paper would be free."
"Yeah. It's…it's kind of complicated. I was hoping we could discuss the whole issue of the paper over dinner."
Toni hesitated, not because she didn't want to go to dinner with Gary, but more because she wasn't sure she was ready to hear any more yet. She was still digesting what she had learned last night.
"That's okay, Toni. I understand. You probably already have plans." His voice was flat. "Maybe another night."
Toni shot forward in her chair. "Hold on, Hobson! I didn't say no! I was just freaking out for a moment, okay?" Toni ran a hand through her hair; then let out a sigh. "I still have to get used to this whole thing."
"Yeah, thing, Hobson. You. Me. The Paper." She bit her lip. "I would like to go to dinner with you. What time?"
Gary set the phone down gently. He propped his elbows on the desk and rested his chin on his folded hands. He still couldn't believe it. Toni had listened to him last night. Not only that, but she had opened up to him about her father and her own self-doubts. Gary had a feeling she didn't share that information often. He felt honored and humbled that she trusted him enough to share it with him.
He smiled as he remembered what else she had shared with him. When he had finally fallen asleep, he had been curled around her and it had been the best feeling in the world. When he woke up and she was gone, he was devastated until he saw her note. Even then, though she had explained why she had left, he had felt uneasy about it. He wished he'd had time to call her before now. Though the saves in the paper had been fairly straightforward, they were still time consuming. One had been way out in Cicero and travel time alone had been over two hours round trip in the morning rush hour.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he started when Marissa entered the office from the back door.
"Gary? Is something wrong?" Marissa moved to the other side of the desk and stood with her hands balanced on the top of her cane.
Gary chuckled. "No, nothing's wrong. You just caught me daydreaming."
Marissa's face broke into wide smile. "Well, I'm sorry I interrupted you. I was just passing through." She turned to leave.
"Wait! Don't go. I want…I want to talk to you for a minute, if that's okay."
She cocked her head, the smile stretching into a grin. "Is this about what I think it's about?"
Gary straightened, feeling his face heat up. "What do ya mean by that?"
Smiling sweetly, Marissa sat in the chair opposite Gary. "Oh, I just heard some things this morning when I came in to work."
Gary flashed an annoyed look towards the bar area., so much for having a personal life when you lived above your work. "Yeah, well what did you hear?"
Marissa wasn't intimidated in the least by the irritation in Gary's voice. "Oh, I heard that Brigatti's car was out front until past closing time." She grinned.
Gary was in too good a mood to keep up the annoyed act for long. He toyed with a pen, a silly grin plastered on his face. The smile faded a bit. What he had shared with Toni had been special. "We talked half the night."
"Sure you did." Marissa wore an angelic look.
"Aw, come on…I'm being serious here."
She stifled a laugh behind her hand then said, "I'm sorry, Gary. It's just been awhile since we could relax and just talk."
Gary nodded. Marissa had been put through as much hell as he had. "Yeah. It's…it's nice." He sat back in the chair and took a deep breath. "I told Toni about the paper, Marissa."
Marissa's expression grew serious. "What did she say?"
He scratched the back of his neck. "Not a whole lot. She took it better than I expected, actually. I mean, she…she was skeptical at first, but I showed her some stuff in the paper and then she believed me."
"I just meant, where do you guys go from here?"
Gary cleared his throat in embarrassment, thinking about where they had already been. Marissa didn't need to know those details. "Um, well, we're going out to dinner later tonight. I guess I'll know more after that."
"Nice place." Toni nodded as she took in the tasteful caramel and maroon décor. Tables covered with snowy white linen nestled against walls adorned with old black and white photographs of Chicago. Soft jazz music played in the background and muted lighting further enhanced the ambience.
"Yeah." Gary looked up from his menu, taking a quick glance around, and then smiled at Toni. "I haven't been here since I worked at Strauss and Associates. Our office was right down the street on Wells. Sometimes we'd come here for lunch." Closing the menu, he laid it on the table in front of him. He gestured towards Toni's menu. "They have a great filet mignon."
Toni dropped her gaze and studied the menu. She had met Gary at McGinty's after she finished work. Gary had been speaking to his bartender and hadn't seen her arrive initially, so she felt free to observe him for a moment. He had on a simple black sweater and casual black slacks. Over those, he wore a rich brown suede coat with a forest green scarf draped around his neck. A slow smile had spread across his face when he spotted her standing by the entrance. The restaurant he had chosen was only a few blocks away and they had decided to walk the short distance.
Now that she knew about the paper, her whole perception of him had changed. Oh, he had always been attractive, but his attractiveness had been overshadowed by his…oddness. That was the only way she could classify Hobson. He was odd. Weird even. He had shown up everywhere in crazy situations with unbelievable stories. She remembered feeling embarrassed that she had felt any attraction at all. How was it that she felt drawn to someone like Hobson? She wondered if that was the reason she had so readily believed his story about the newspaper. Maybe she just wanted to believe.
Of course, he had shown her the article and the picture from today's paper. Only he had revealed them to her last night, before the newspaper had even been printed. That was pretty strong proof. That proof, together with all that she knew about him, suddenly seemed to pull everything into focus. Hobson didn't seem odd any more. Now, he was…special. That revelation made her feel strangely shy around him.
"You okay, Toni?"
Toni's head shot up, her gaze meeting Gary's. "Yeah, sure. Why?"
Gary's eyes searched hers. "I just asked if you were ready to order, but you were about a million miles away."
Toni glanced back down at the menu. "I'm sorry, I was just debating whether I wanted the pork chop or the filet mignon." In truth, she hadn't read a single thing on the menu and it might have been written in Japanese for all she knew.
"Oh." Gary sounded unconvinced, but graciously let the subject drop as their waiter approached.
Toni chose the filet mignon after all and watched Gary as he ordered the Delmonico. He asked about the wine list and ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir, then kidded the waiter about the best year for that wine. She smiled. It was great to see him looking relaxed and at ease for once.
When the waiter had left, Toni leaned forward. "So, you said you used to work around here?"
Gary nodded. "Just down the street" He took a sip of his water.
"Do you miss it?"
Gary looked surprised. "Do I miss being a stockbroker?" He smiled and shook his head. "No, not at all." His smile dimmed. "I only did it to put Marcia through law school."
He spoke without bitterness, but Toni sensed an undercurrent of sadness or regret. She wasn't sure which.
"I didn't like my job as a stockbroker, but I liked being married. I was ready for the whole experience, ya know? A wife, a few kids and happily ever after. Marcia…she didn't want the same things." He scratched the back of his neck, his expression pensive.
Their wine arrived and Toni took a sip. She wondered if his ex-wife knew about the paper. She hoped not. She shook the thought off. What difference did it make whom he had told? "So, you're happier with the bar and the paper?"
Gary set his wine glass down and folded his hands in front of him. He looked thoughtful. "Happier probably isn't the right word. The paper..it…it can be crazy and unpredictable, but when something goes right, I can't think of anything more satisfying."
Toni took a deep breath, thinking back over the last week. "I guess I know what happens when things don't go right. Has anything like that ever happened before?"
She reached into the breadbasket and chose a soft, warm roll. She almost missed the fleeting look of pain that crossed Gary's face before he looked away and took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry, Gary. I ask too many questions." She felt like kicking herself. What she should have ordered was a big heaping helping of her own left foot. At least then, it might taste good when she stuck it in her mouth.
"Aw, no, that's okay." Gary shrugged. "There was one time I tried to save a…a guy from falling off a roof. I couldn't hold onto him and he fell." Jaw clenched, Gary met her gaze for only second. "That was the day I met Armstrong for the first time."
Toni remembered hearing about the incident and vaguely recalled Armstrong mentioning some guy he thought had a syndrome. Munchkin syndrome or something. At the time, she had pictured a short little man singing, "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead."
She couldn't stop the chuckle that bubbled forth. She knew it was totally inappropriate in relation to the subject matter, but she couldn't help it. She clapped her hand over her mouth. It was too late. The more she thought of it, the harder it became to contain the laughter. In her mind's eye, instead of a short little man, it was Gary singing the song, dressed in striped stockings and curly shoes.
A hesitant smile settled on Gary's face. "What's so funny?"
She tried to tell him, but every time she opened her mouth to explain, all that came out was another giggle. "I'm sorry!" she finally got out before another round overcame her. She swiped at her eyes. "Armstrong said you had Munchkin syndrome." She dissolved yet again.
Gary grinned. "It wasn't Munchkin Syndrome. It was Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy."
Toni sat up straight, gulping air as she tried to control herself. She almost made it as she squeaked out, "You had Munchausen's Syndrome by…by proxy?"
"No!" Gary laughed. "No. I didn't have…I…that's only what Armstrong suspected."
Toni finally managed to regain her composure. "I'm so sorry, Gary. It's just that I had this mental image all this time and then to find out it was you."
At that moment, their dinners arrived. Toni sliced into her filet, still smiling. She glanced up at Gary. Every once in awhile Gary would chuckle and shake his head. Toni could have sworn that he muttered something about a crazy Italian munchkin.
She bit back a smile and focused on her meal. This light-hearted teasing was a side of Gary she had never seen before. She hoped to see a lot more of it.
The walk back to McGinty's was chilly, but Gary pulled Toni close, enjoying the feeling of her nestled close as he tried to shield her from the biting wind. "You want to catch a cab?"
Toni shook her head. "No, I don't mind the walk, plus, it hardly seems worth it."
The Loop was quiet, the office workers having already made their way home and the theater crowd not yet out. The occasional blare of a car horn echoed through the damp night air, and fog horns bellowed from ships on the lake, sounding eerily close. It was a lonely sound and Gary shivered, remembering his night spent in a warehouse near the docks.
"Are you cold?" Toni stopped and looked up at him, her eyes dark and shining. Her arm went around his waist.
"No." Gary pulled her close. Suddenly he wasn't the least bit cold. The warehouse forgotten, he dipped his head, bringing his left hand up to cup her cheek. Her eyes widened. He paused, his head tilted, their eyes only inches apart. His gaze asked permission, she answered by lowering hers to his mouth. Her tongue flicked out ever so slightly, wetting her lips. He needed no further encouragement.
Warm. She was so warm...her lips, her tongue…especially her tongue. His hand smoothed her hair back, his fingers cradling her head while his other arm went around her waist, pulling her firmly towards him.
His tongue tasted hers, gently at first, savoring the sweetness, but he groaned when her hand wrapped around the back of his neck. She pulled him with her as she backed up against a building.
Gary felt her breathing quicken along with his own as their breaths mingled into a small white cloud that spun away with the wind. His hands longed to feel more than just the rough wool of her coat. Toni's hand had found its way between the buttons on his coat, and he barely stifled a moan as it slipped under his sweater and began caressing his back.
"Yo! Buddy! Get a room, why don't ya!"
The blare of a horn punctuated the shouted comment and Gary and Toni jumped apart as though doused with a bucket ice cold water from Lake Michigan. Gary looked over his shoulder, ready to send the man a blistering reply, but the car had already sped away. Turning back to Toni, he couldn't help grinning at the embarrassed expression on her face. She tried to hide behind her hands before breaking into a bashful smile. He didn't think he'd ever seen her act this…girlish before. He found it completely charming.
A sudden icy blast made Gary turn his collar up and reach for Toni's hand.
"Come on. It's freezing out here."
Gary ushered Toni into McGinty's ahead of himself, then he almost tripped over her when she stopped abruptly, her way blocked by a group of woman dancing their way around the bar.
A bachelorette party. Just great. Gary hated bachlorette parties. With a passion. More than a few times he'd been goosed by tipsy women who thought he was part of the entertainment.
One of the women, presumably the bride, wore a long apron over her dress. The front of the apron was decorated with a life-sized drawing of Michelangelo's David--in all his anatomically correct glory. Toni turned back to look at him over her shoulder, her eyebrows raised and a smile quirking the corners of her mouth. Gary could feel his face heat up. Maybe he should go ask them to remove the apron.
Or, better yet, get the bartender to ask them. First, he planned to claim the one empty booth in the far corner.
"This way, Toni." Gary wound his way through the crowd, standing aside when they reached the table. He reached out and helped her with her coat, tossing it over his arm as he motioned for to take a seat. "I'll be right back, okay? I just want to have a word with Tom. Would you like a drink?"
She smiled up at him and Gary fought the urge to kiss her right there in the middle of the bar. "Sure. A Diet Coke would be great." Her face was still pink from the cold and amusement lit her eyes as she watched the antics at the women's table. He settled for a brief touch on her shoulder before crossing to the bar.
Gary nodded at a few regulars, glad that they had returned despite the crazy happenings over the last week. He had been worried that the scandal would cost McGinty's its reputation of being a fun, but low-key place to come and have a drink or two.
Gary had lost count of the time's he'd asked the guy to call him Gary, but the bartender never had yet. It was either 'boss' or Mr. Hobson. "Hi, Tom. Hey, could you pour me a Diet Coke?" He helped himself to a bottle of beer.
"It's looking busy out there tonight." Gary popped the top off the bottle and grabbed a cardboard coaster and a few napkins.
"Yeah. It's been steady all night. A real nice crowd. Those women have been a lot of fun." Tom grinned and handed Gary the soft drink.
Gary looked at the table, glad to see that the apron was nowhere in sight for the moment. "Yeah, I noticed. They…uh, they haven't been too rowdy, have they?"
The bartender shook his head. "Oh no. They're just having a good time. Tipping a lot too. Women are the best tippers. They're way more generous than the guys."
Gary guessed that Tom's blond hair and model good looks made lots of women feel generous. He smiled and headed back to Toni.
Toni watched Gary approach and out corner of her eye, she saw several of the occupants at the bachelorette table make their way toward him and block his path. Toni almost laughed out loud at the look of panic on Gary's face. The first woman to reach him held out the apron and said something Toni couldn't hear. Gary's eyes darted to the apron and even from where she was sitting, Toni could see the blush shoot up Gary's face. He shook his head, but the women began pleading, their voices rising. "Oh come on! Please?"
Gary closed his eyes and nodded, his face turned an even deeper shade of red. Toni loved it.
With a loud whoop and cheering from the rest of the bacheolorette table, the woman looped the apron around Gary's neck. With his hands full of drinks, he was helpless to remove it before the bride snuggled next to him and the first woman snapped their picture. The bride said something to Gary, his face breaking into a grin as he glanced at Toni and shrugged. He nodded and they removed the apron and gave him a quick hug.
Toni couldn't suppress the snicker of laughter as Gary returned, his approach accompanied by catcalls from several tables.
He set her drink in front of her and slid into the booth. His ears were a bright pink.
Toni crossed her arms. "Have fun?"
His eyes widened. "Sorry about that. I…they…"
Toni laughed. "Stop! I'm just teasing."
Gary laughed and ducked his head.
"So, what did she say to you?"
"Uh, nothing really. Just, um, silly stuff." His ears were now a deep red and he took a long swallow of his beer, evading a direct answer.
Toni decided to end his suffering. "That's okay, Gary. You don't have to tell me." She grinned at his obvious relief. "Anyway, I thought you were going to tell me more about how the paper works." She sipped her drink.
Gary's face sobered instantly and he looked down. She was sorry she had changed the subject.
For a little while, she had seen a light-hearted, fun side of him. She reached over and touched his hand. "We don't have to talk about it, you know. We can talk another time."
Gary shook his head. "No. That wouldn't be fair to you." He rubbed his hands down his face and took another sip of his beer. "It's probably better to talk about it before we…we go any farther."
Toni sat up straight. "We've gone pretty far already, don't ya think?" Now she could feel her own face heat up.
Gary nodded, his eyes meeting hers. "Yes, Toni. We have. Which is why you need to know exactly what you would be getting yourself into if…if we continue this…this relationship."
She bit her lip. Toni couldn't imagine not continuing a relationship with Gary now. "Okay. I'm listening."
He took a deep breath. "The paper, it's… it's my responsibility. Every day. I don't get holidays or vacations. No sick days. Nothing. I can't make plans more than a few hours in advance, and even then, I may have to cancel." His voice was low and his eyes never left her face. "My life isn't really my own, ya understand?"
Toni sat back. For the last twenty-four hours she had fantasized about how incredible it would be to receive the paper a day early. In her mind, she had glossed over all the problems it had caused Gary in the past; the misunderstandings and danger. He had more power at his disposal than any man in the country!
With a sinking feeling, Toni realized the truth. That far from being a master of the universe, Gary was, instead, a mere slave to cosmic forces. Not that she thought any less of him for that. In fact, she was in awe of his dedication.
She tucked her hair behind her ear and examined her feelings for Gary. His eyes swept over her face, questioning. She smiled at him to ease his mind. The return smile nearly stole her breath away. There was no denying that the attraction she felt for the man opposite her had nothing to do with the paper. It had been there long before she knew the truth. And knowing the truth had only deepened the feeling.
"Yes, Gary. I do understand."