She was sitting toward the bottom of the grand staircase, her small blonde head leaning against the banister rails, the heels of her old Nikes tapping softly against the bottom riser. "Hi, Mr. Arnold," she called out, straightening into a sitting position as Richard entered the foyer. "You guys almost done?"
"Done?" he asked. He'd been down in the lab working with Magnus for what seemed like hours, trying to figure out what was making the new Araxies Pyranta Encephalopod ill, and for a moment he couldn't recall what she was doing waiting in the hall.
The child sighed, her gaze dropping for just a moment as she picked at something on her jeans before she looked back up to explain, "She was supposed to be taking me to the museum. Remember? Today's the last day of the..." Her voice trembled slightly and she stopped talking. After a moment, her voice stronger and steadier, she continued with a half-hearted attempt at a smile as she pulled herself into a standing position on the stair, "Never mind. It's not important. How's the little guy?"
"Well, we've stabilized him for now. Your mom thinks she's may be on to what's really wrong with him, and she sent me to go look something up for her in the library."
"Good. That's good." He wasn't sure who she was trying to convince. "Well, if by some miracle you guys get done on time, can you let her know I'll be upstairs doing my homework?"
"Sure, Ash. And who knows... maybe we will."
She snorted under her breath, so quietly he was certain he hadn't been meant to hear. "Yeah, sure. " And, with a final watery smile, she turned and headed up the stairs. Near the top, remembering herself, she turned back around and called down to him. "But thank you very much anyway, Mr. Arnold."
"My pleasure, kid." For all the good it would do.
Helen looked up from her desk at the knock on her office door. "Come in."
Nurse Cooper opened the door and shuffled into the room, her long skirts rustling against the narrow threshold as she moved . "Sorry to disturb you, ma'am, but we just received word from her nurse that Mrs. Carter Smith has begun her labor. I knew you wanted to be informed..."
Helen cut her off more abruptly than she'd intended. Honestly, could the timing have been any worse? "Yes. Most definitely. Did she mention how long it has been?"
"Less than an hour, I'd think. She sent the messenger as soon as she was certain."
Less than an hour. Helen glanced down at the neat stack of paperwork sitting on her desk, the pen set next to it in its fountain. She'd somehow managed to get everything finished and had been ready to leave the hospital on time for once. It was a first labor, though, so despite the potential complications she ought to have several hours before her presence would truly be required. And Hillary Edwards, the nurse who had been with Mrs. Smith throughout her confinement, was, if Helen were to be honest, probably as qualified and certainly more experienced than Helen herself. All of which were, of course, merely excuses she was giving herself to justify her decision. "Have Nurse Edwards send word directly to my father's house once delivery appears imminent."
"Then you won't be going there immediately yourself?" The other woman didn't even attempt to hide the surprise in her voice.
For once, Helen had a more pressing engagement.
"My dear, I've told you. Honestly. I have no opinion either way."
"Oh, please, you must. Now which do you prefer, the rose?" she asked, gesturing with the plate held in her right hand. "Or the blue?" she concluded, waving the one in her left.
He looked again at the plates she was holding before him. "The blue?" he answered after a long moment.
She turned the plate in her left hand around to look at it. Well, the thin blue lattice pattern was certainly more masculine than the small pink rosebud one. She looked again at the other plate. But what if he didn't want masculine tonight. What if...
Laughing, her father reached forward and lifted both plates out of her hand. "Helen, I don't suppose Mr Druitt is even going to see the china this evening. Frankly, I'd be surprised if he even noticed what we were eating. He has been out of town for nearly three weeks..."
She could feel the blush spread across her cheeks. "Father!" In truth, though, her embarrassment was due more to the very real memories her father's words elicited than to what had actually been said.
Gregory chuckled without apology. "Well, you are his fiancee and he is, despite the many fine attributes I am never allowed to forget, merely human."
His words only reminded her further of what her father didn't know. Of what he couldn't possibly know. Still, while it hadn't actually been weeks since she had been with John, dinner with her father was important enough that she wanted everything to be perfect. "The blue china it is, then," she concluded, choosing to ignore his last comment. She turned sharply on her heels and headed back toward the kitchen to inform the staff of her decision, her father's laughter echoing down the passageway behind her.
Returning upstairs after briefing the servants, she heard masculine voices coming from the front parlor. John wasn't expected for another hour and her father usually saw business associates in his private study. Before she could open the door and step in to join the speakers, it was flung open and her father rushed out, followed by a gentleman – to use the world loosely – she vaguely recognized as one of her father's contacts from the streets.
Father pulled up sharply at the sight of her. "Ah, Helen. I was coming to find you. I'm sorry to say there's been a bit of a change in plans. Mr. Hendricks here - you remember him? - has just informed me of a situation desperately in need my expertise."
"No, my dear, I'm afraid it can't." He took both her hands in his. "I'm dreadfully sorry to miss Mr. Druitt. Please give him my regards. I'm sure he'll understand."
She attempted a weak smile. It wasn't her father's fault, after all. "Yes, I'm certain he will. He is marrying a physician himself."
He returned her smile, not seeming to notice the effort hers was taking. "Good. Then I'll see you later, dear."
"If you'll recall, I'm expecting a summons later tonight myself. So its most likely goodbye until tomorrow."
"Ah, that's right. So, good night, Helen, and I'll see you tomorrow. And good luck, too, my dear. I know you'll make me proud." And then, after a final squeeze of her hands, he followed Mr. Hendricks out into the night.
She was at the door before the final echoes of the bell had faded from the hall. "John!" she exclaimed, forgetting proprietary as she threw open the door to let him in. It might not have been three weeks, but it had been several days, and any period without him seemed far too long.
"Helen." He slipped quickly into the hall, his eagerness matching her own. Catching her hand in his, he pulled it to his lips, his smile growing almost imperceptibly wider at her answering blush. After a long moment he dropped their hands but kept hers clasped firmly at his side. Only then, finally looking around, did he notice they were alone. "Where is your father?"
"He was called away last minute on urgent business."
"So... We're alone?" The corners of his mouth twitched knowingly.
"With a household of servants. Who know you are here. And should have supper on the table within the half hour," she quickly explained before he could take that thought too much further. Or convince her against her better judgment that some things shouldn't wait for later.
He chuckled and the mood was broken. Slipping her hand under his arm, he gestured toward the parlor. "A game of cards, then, while we wait? Though we're barely enough for that. And certainly too few for Charades. Though I have been longing to play Hare and Hound with you and your father." He cocked an eyebrow at her suggestively. When she steadfastly refused him a reply he continued, "Or perhaps chess? I believe there is enough time for me to take your Queen before we eat."
She shook her head, laughing as they passed into the other room. "John..."
"Cards it is then," he replied smoothly, settling her into a chair at the room's small table before pulling a deck from his coat pocket and sitting down across from her.
He began to shuffle the deck. "Old Maid?" he asked, too casually.
She snorted. "You know better than that. Cribbage?"
"Ahh…possibly. Only, beware of the Jack."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "Why? I've grown rather fond of him."
His smile hadn't wavered, but there was a sharpness in his tone and in the sudden intense steel-grey of his gaze which, for a moment, froze the blood in her veins. Then he chuckled and the shadow fled as quickly as the mere trick of imagination she knew it to be. The warm familiar timbres of his voice were there, resonating through her, melting something deep within as he promised, "Just wait until later tonight, darling." And this time, he made no attempt to hide the intent behind his smile.
She bit her lip nervously. "About that…"
"I'm afraid I'm expecting to be called out later this evening. A physician's work, you know…"
He glanced up, and she caught a glimpse of the shadow behind his eyes, her guilty conscience at work once more. "Tomorrow, then?"
"Yes, tomorrow," she promised.
His smile was like a ray of sunshine slashing across his face. "Until tomorrow, then," he said and, handing her the shuffled cards, "Your deal."
She remained standing in the hall for several minutes after his departure, staring at the deep mahogany of the entrance door. It was still shortly after supper, but the tension which had been building in John all evening and which, if she were honest, she herself shared, had made prolonged parlor games awkward. To say the least.
However, while her professional obligations might be intrusive, they also provided her with resources unavailable to most women of her class. Even left alone, Helen would not have to spend the evening in solitary pursuits before retiring to an empty bed, held only in the arms of her dreams. She had important work she could be doing.
Calling for her hat and for a carriage to be sent for, she prepared to depart for Mrs. Carter Smith's bedside.
And tomorrow morning she and Father could share accounts of their evenings adventures over breakfast, and tomorrow night...
Yes, thank goodness. There was always tomorrow.
It was well past midnight be the time Helen and Richard finally emerged from the depths of her laboratory, but by then the encephalopod was firmly on the mend. The Big Guy, who had caught a few hours of sleep earlier, was sitting up with it in just in case it took a turn for the worse overnight.
As she was turning to go up the stairs, Richard gestured toward the living room. "I was going to grab a quick drink before going up to bed. Sort of a celebration for a job well done. Interested?"
"No. Really, I couldn't." Not that a glass of Chardonnay would be unappreciated. She just had something more important to do before retiring.
"All right, suit yourself," he said. "See you tomorrow morning, then, Doc."
She chuckled. "Not before noon, you won't."
He snorted. "Sure. I'll believe that when I see it. The day you sleep in past five..."
"That's not fair and you know it. I've been known to sleep as late as five-thirty."
His laughter joined hers. "Exactly. Night, Doc."
"Good night, Richard." And, turning, she headed upstairs.
The reading lamp was blazing away on the nightstand, but at least this time she'd remembered to turn off the overhead light. Stepping quietly so as not to wake her sleeping daughter, Helen moved to the side of the bed. She gently lifted the paperback spread open on the bed and set it down on the small nightstand before adjusting the covers more securely about the small shoulders. Bending down, she placed a small kiss on the smooth forehead, taking a minute to breathe in the sweet warm smell of her child. Then, straightening, she clicked off the bedside light and moved back to the door.
As she was stepping into the hall, though, a small voice called her back. "Mom?"
She turned to see her daughter awake in bed, eyes shining brightly in the moonlight spilling through the window. "Yes, Ashley?"
"We missed the exhibit."
"Don't worry, darling. We can always go tomorrow."
And if Helen had stayed in the doorway just a moment longer, she would have heard Ashley's softly murmured reply as she turned into her pillows to go back to sleep. "No. We can't."
But she didn't. She had already left the room.