That O'Connell was homeless was a terrible thing.
That she was currently homeless in his cabin might well be considered a disaster.
"How long is this going to be for, exactly?" Joel asked, watching as she deposited her three bags of donated stuff—all her worldly possessions, not including her truck or her plane—in a corner of his living room.
"Just until my claim goes through with the insurance company, then I'll be out of your hair. A week at most." She settled the last bag and spun around to face him.
He'd had to admit, when she'd told him that morning that she would be staying with him until she could move into the cabin she was planning to buy, that her right was unassailable. She did own the place, after all, even if her performance as a landlord left much to be desired. But theory was one thing; having her actually here, in his living room, glaring at him, was another all together.
"Well," he said, full of fake nonchalance. "I made up the sofa bed for you, and I'm sure you know your way to the bathroom, so if you'll excuse me, I have a seven-thirty appointment tomorrow, and I need to get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning."
"Probably not," she said. "I have a six-thirty charter."
"Oh. Okay, then, tomorrow night. Unless the claim adjuster comes through."
She rolled her eyes and turned to get some pajamas out of one of the bags. "Good night, Fleischman," she said, her tone indicating she wished him exactly the opposite.
"Sweet dreams, O'Connell."
True to her word, she was gone when he woke up the next morning, the only evidence of her presence the pile of blankets folded neatly at one end of the couch and the mug dripping in the dish rack. Perhaps the country club politeness he knew was bred into her would actually rear its head, and she would be the perfect houseguest who stayed out of the alleged house except to sleep and bathe.
Unfortunately, his dream of an O'Connell-free cabin except for the barest possible amount of time was not to be. After a day that had run long thanks to an eight-year-old coming in with a broken arm right as he was closing up, he came home to her truck in his driveway, the rattle of pans in his kitchen, and what he had to admit was an absolutely delicious smell emanating from said kitchen.
"Fleischman, did you know two of your burners don't work?" she called as he closed the front door.
"I told you about that three months ago," he shot back.
"Oh," she said, sounding surprised. God, what he wouldn't give to be able to take her to a tenants' rights board. "I'll look at it tomorrow. It's probably just a faulty connection somewhere."
He blinked. O'Connell actually volunteering to fix something in his cabin? Maybe he should invite her to stay here again if it actually led to things getting repaired. "Uh, thanks." Walking into the kitchen to peer into the frying pan, he said, "What are you making?"
"Chicken with tarragon and mustard. It's almost done, if you need to use the stove."
"Smells good." He stood over the pan, inhaling ostentatiously. He'd had no idea she could cook like this.
Eventually, she sighed. "Do you want some?"
"Me?" He headed for the fridge. "No, I was looking forward to my turkey sandwich."
She sighed again, more dramatically this time. "Fleischman...look, there's plenty for two. I always make too much. Consider it payment for sleeping in your cabin. Even though technically it is my cabin."
"Well, with an offer like that..." He changed course and went for the dish cabinet, retrieving two dinner plates.
The meal was unsettlingly domestic. Seated across from each other at his table, they talked about the vacant cabin O'Connell was going to buy when her insurance settlement came through, Ed's latest cinematic efforts, and Maurice's newest business venture, a salmon farm several miles down the river. She laughed at a joke he made at Maurice's expense, and he actually found himself enthralled by her treatise on fish farming's effects on the Alaskan environment. The whole experience was so at odds with how he usually related to Maggie O'Connell that he nearly picked a fight with her over the health benefits of eating fish, just to inject a bit of normalcy into the evening. Instead, he offered to wash the dishes.
She seemed as aware as him that their current truce was fragile and abnormal, and when he said he had some issues of the New England Journal of Medicine to catch up on, she didn't protest. He retreated to the couch, and she stayed at the table, plotting her charter flights for the next week on an airspace map. It was oddly pleasant; moreso even than several similar evenings he'd spent alone in his cabin.
They made it the entire night without descending into acrimony and bitterness, which he was pretty sure was a new record. Okay, Joel thought as he got ready for bed, maybe this won't be the hell on earth it sounded like yesterday.
But the next morning brought things back to status quo by the time he was through with his shower. His hair still damp and his tie untied, he cornered her in the kitchen before she could finish her coffee and sneak out without acknowledging her crime. "O'Connell, you used all of my shampoo! I had to use yours, and now my head smells like a fruit salad."
She shrugged and continued sipping from his MOMA mug. That mug was his favorite. "Sorry, I grabbed your shampoo by mistake."
He made a face. The bottles were the same color, and it was pretty dim in his bathroom, so he could, he supposed, understand the mistake. But with O'Connell, he never ascribed to absent-mindedness what he could put down to malice. Still grumbling, he reached over her shoulder to get his own mug. At least she'd made coffee for both of them. "What even possessed you to buy this particular brand? Seriously, it smells like that horrible fruit cocktail in a can."
A disbelieving huff came from her direction. "Do you really think I'd buy that for myself? Someone in Marilyn's tribe gave it to me. You know, because mine burned down along with my house?"
He almost winced at the reminder of the fact that she was temporarily homeless. He supposed a little sympathy was called for. Of course, she was milking it for all it was worth.
"Besides, if you hate the smell so much, you've got about ten bottles of cheap cologne in your medicine cabinet to cover it with."
In his...? "What were you doing in my medicine cabinet?"
She stared at him as if her blatant invasion of his privacy meant nothing. "I was looking for an aspirin."
"So you took it upon yourself to rummage through my personal effects?"
"I woke up yesterday with a headache, and my charter left before Ruth-Anne opens. Are you seriously going to begrudge me two aspirin?"
"Not at all, but were our situations reversed and I a guest in your home, I would have asked first."
She rolled her eyes. "Fleischman, get over yourself. It's not like I read your diary."
"Let me guess, that was next on your list."
She began washing her mug. "If you think making life unpleasant is going to convince me to go back to sleeping on the pool table at the Brick, you're wrong. Even you can't be worse than the week I've had."
Actually, that wasn't a bad... "Of course I'm not trying to do that. But since you are staying in my house, my personal domain, against my will, I think it's only appropriate that you respect my privacy and my stuff."
"What stuff? You've barely even unpacked."
"What does that have to do with anything? Whether my things are in boxes or not, I still have the same right as anyone else to not have my life invaded by a woman who thinks property is communal."
"What, you want to draw a line down the middle of every room, my side, your side?"
"There is no your side, it's my cabin!"
"No, it's my cabin, which I made the incredibly stupid decision to rent to you!" She was waving the mug around now as she gestured wildly in an attempt to express her distaste for him. He was afraid she'd drop it, but instead she slammed it on the counter. "My house burned down! I've lost everything I own, and all you care about is that it's putting you just a little bit out of your routine for one week!"
Now he needed an aspirin. "That's not what this is about at all and you know it. It's about—"
"Just forget it, Fleischman," she spat. She stormed out of the kitchen, stopping only to grab her coat before stomping through the front door, slamming it behind her.
During a lull between appointments that morning, Joel went to get breakfast at the Brick. He stood in the door and scouted the room for O'Connell, and only when he saw no sign of her did he enter, sitting at a bar stool and moping his way through a bowl of oatmeal.
"Is something bothering you, Joel?" Holling finally asked.
Secretly glad of the chance to talk, he detailed the whole dust-up with O'Connell for the other man, as well as for Ron, Erik, and Chris, who were sitting on either side of him. "And to top it all off," he groaned, "I'm still stuck with her for at least four more days."
"Tough break," Chris sympathized. "When I was in juvie, I had a cellmate who kept stealing the books I checked out from the library."
"Yeah? What did you do?"
"Gave him a swirlie every day after dinner until he stopped. He was pretty small; couldn't fight back very well."
Joel's face fell. "Ah. Well, as appealing as that sounds right now, I don't think it's quite the solution I'm looking for."
"Well, the important distinction is, is she a roommate, or a guest?" Erik said. "Given the limited duration of her stay, not to mention the circumstances behind it, it seems to me she falls more on the guest side. And like it or not, there are certain basic expectations of hospitality across most cultures, including ours."
"Even without that," Ron chimed in, "biting your tongue to have peace in your home is often preferable to standing on a principle." Erick gave him a sharp look; Ron smiled guilessly back.
Holling nodded. "I'd have to agree with that, Joel."
Joel was no schmuck; he could tell which way the winds of this conversation were blowing. "So you think I should make amends."
"Yeah," the four men chorused.
O'Connell was deep in the innards of his stove when he returned to his cabin that evening with a bag from the Brick in his hand. He didn't quite resist the urge to stare at her bent-over form as he walked into the kitchen. "O'Connell," he said.
She lifted her head from the stove to glare at him. Her hair was askew, and she had a swipe of grease along her cheek. The pliers in her hand looked awfully threatening. "Fleischman, I'm busy here, so if this is about this morning..."
He held up the bag, as well as the video he'd rented from Ruth-Anne. "Peace offering. Holling's lasagna and Raiders of the Lost Ark."
"Really?" She relaxed her grip on the pliers; they now looked less like an instrument of death and more like a harmless tool.
"I even got some popcorn."
Somewhat hesitantly, as if she believed he was trying to trick her somehow, she smiled. "That sounds nice." She motioned toward the stove. "I'm almost done here. Five minutes, maybe?"
It was actually pretty entertaining, watching a movie with O'Connell. She didn't talk too much, like Elaine sometimes had. And when she did speak, it was generally to make some sarcastic comment he often found funnier than whatever was happening on the screen.
Once the credits started to roll, Joel reached up and turned on the floor lamp next to the couch, throwing soft light over both of them where they sat beside each other, the empty popcorn bowl between them. She had claimed to be cold when they started the movie, and had borrowed one of his Columbia sweatshirts; with the light, he saw her in it for the first time. The sleeves hung down over her hands, and the hem fell halfway down her thigh. The effect was, he was somewhat dismayed to discover, sexy as hell.
He swallowed against the sudden dryness in his mouth.
"Let me just get the..." He leaned over her, fingers stretching for the cardboard video case that lay on the end of the couch. When their faces were mere inches apart, some devil on his shoulder made him look her in the eye. How had he never noticed the streaks of blue in the green irises, or the exquisite arch of her eyebrows?
His hand faltered before reaching the video case. "O'Connell," he murmured, just as she breathed, "Fleischman..."
He was never able to remember who leaned in first. One moment he was staring at her, transfixed, and the next, her lips were on his, her hands in his hair and wrapped around his back, and half her body pressed against him.
It was like holding his own personal wildfire. He thought he might actually be consumed by the kiss. O'Connell's mouth and hands seemed to be everywhere at once, and she was so warm; everywhere they touched, he felt like he was burning. When she fisted her hand in his hair, she clutched it almost to the point of pain, not that he would have really noticed at this point. She somehow maneuvered her way practically onto his lap, knocking the popcorn bowl off the couch in the process, while he slid his hands under the hem of the sweatshirt that had sort of started all of this and tugged—well, more like ripped—it upward, desperate to get it off her body. She left off kissing him just long enough to help him fumble it over her head and arms before diving back onto his mouth.
The kiss they'd shared in the Brick's kitchen last spring had been intense, but it was nothing compared to this. This was way more than just making out; this time they both had a definite goal in mind, one which involved a lot less clothing than they were wearing at the moment.
She let him up for air eventually when she began to kiss her way towards his neck, but it was only a prelude to shoving him down toward the couch. Of course O'Connell would want to be on top. He was of no mind, at that moment, to object. On the way down, though, his head just barely missed the pillow, cracking against the wooden arm of the couch.
"Sorry," she muttered against his jaw before returning her mouth to his skin.
But the pain was enough to penetrate the pheromonal fog that had enveloped him. This wasn't a lowering of inhibitions caused by the spring thaw, or any other kind of insanity perpetrated by some bizarre effect of the Alaskan environment. This was all them. Which meant... "O'Connell," he said. "O'Connell!"
She finally raised her head, and her tousled hair and fevered expression nearly broke what little willpower he was clinging to. Still, he managed to move his hands to her shoulders and keep her at something resembling elbow's length. "What are we doing?"
She instantly narrowed her eyes. "I thought it was pretty obvious."
"Which is exactly why we should figure this out."
She let out a wordless moan of frustration. "Fleischman, why do you always have to make everything so complicated?"
"Because it is complicated!" Wiggling under her—not the smartest move for certain parts of his body, which took the friction as a sign that the momentary pause in excitement was over, but this was not a conversation he could have while O'Connell was lying on top of him—he managed to sit up, prompting her to fall back a little. She was still straddling his thighs, but at least he wasn't inhaling her intoxicating scent of laundry soap and a tinge of airplane fuel (and when had that become erotic, anyway?) with every breath any more. "First of all, you've had a hell of a week, and I don't want to take advantage of you."
He'd rarely seen her look more scornful. "I'd like to see you even try to take advantage of me, Fleischman."
Time for another approach. "Even without that, I think we have to acknowledge that this—what we were about to do just now—is a big step."
"I don't believe this," she muttered. "What, you want us to go steady before we sleep together?"
"Not at all!" Perish the thought. "But this is going to change how we relate to each other on a fundamental level. Irrevocably. And since this is a very, very small town, and we're going to see each other every day until my sentence is up, I think we should consider what we're doing."
For a moment, she continued to look at him as if she thought he was nuts, but finally she sighed and said, grudgingly, "Fine. So...what should we consider, exactly?"
He hadn't really gotten that far in his thinking. "Well...is this a one-night stand, or does it mean something more?"
"Yeah." He started warming to his subject, beginning to gesture for emphasis. "After the past year and a half, I think one would definitely have to say there's something between us. Obviously we aren't friends, or, or romantic partners, but neither are we mere acquaintances. There's some kind of relationship that extends beyond just sexual tension. So if we were give in to our obvious desire for each other, it would mean more than just a release of that tension."
O'Connell didn't look convinced. His stomach did a backflip. Oh, God. If he'd just admitted...and she didn't... "Having sex with me would mean something to you, right?"
Silence. If she didn't say something in the next two seconds, he was going to melt into the floorboards and not come back out for...well, pretty much forever.
Finally, she twisted her mouth in a grimace. "All right, yes, it would mean something. A very small something. Miniscule. You'd need your microscope to see it."
"I get the picture." He managed to avoid a sigh of relief.
More silence. He watched her fist her hands a couple of times, and hoped she was just doing it because she was still tense and not because she was preparing to punch him. "Now what?" she eventually asked.
He'd been wrestling with that very question. "I think...we shouldn't do it."
"You don't." If she was disappointed, upset, or even relieved, she didn't show it. The woman's face might as well have been a blank sheet of paper.
"It would upset the balance. Right now, we know how to relate to each other: with bitterness, antagonism, and general hostility. It's all held in check because we want to sleep together, but we haven't. If we do, what then? If we wake up tomorrow and realize we made a horrible mistake, what is there to keep us from killing each other? I mean, especially since you're living in my cabin until your insurance agent actually starts doing his job."
She was nodding now. "And if we like it, we'll drive ourselves crazy because we'll want it, but because we actually can't stand each other, we'll just wind up hating ourselves for wanting something that comes in such a despicable package."
They stared at each other for a moment longer. Joel felt a wild urge to take back everything he'd said and kiss her again, but she shook her head and hopped off his legs in a neat, graceful little move. Running her hand through her hair, she said, "Um, I think I'm just going to...get ready for bed." Despite the fact that it was barely nine o'clock. She chucked her thumb toward the back of the cabin. "Do you want the bathroom first?"
"Ah, no. You go ahead."
"Okay." She paused to grab her donated pajamas from one of her paper sacks, then disappeared into the bathroom.
Joel released his breath in a long sigh, then scrubbed his hands across his face. They'd averted potential disaster tonight. He should feel relieved, accomplished. And for the most part he did. He and O'Connell could continue their policy of mutual disdain without feeling like they had violated their principles, and the remainder of the time she camped out in his living room would still be barely tenable. This was absolutely the best possible outcome for a moment—well, quite a few moments, several minutes, even, if he wanted to be specific about it—of indiscretion.
Still, in some back corner of his brain, he couldn't help feeling like the world's biggest putz.
When Joel emerged from his bedroom the next morning, a zombie desiring only coffee after a sleepless night replaying his aborted encounter with O'Connell, he noticed too late that she was still sleeping. After the racket he made digging the coffee pot out from under the dishes in the strainer, she wasn't sleeping any more.
He turned and saw her squinting blearily at him from the sofa bed. "Oh, sorry. I forgot you don't have a charter this morning."
She rubbed her eyes and swung her legs out from under the covers. "No, it's okay. I should get up. I have some errands to run anyway."
They dodged each other in the kitchen as the coffee brewed, and they eventually settled, silently, at opposite ends of the room. Every time he came close to catching her eye, she glanced away, apparently finding the floor or the countertop absolutely fascinating. He returned the gesture when her gaze wandered his way.
As soon as he had gulped his coffee, he retreated to the bedroom to get ready, leaving O'Connell to whatever morning routine she had. He took his time dressing, cowardly hoping she would be gone by the time he finished.
She wasn't. When he left the bedroom the second time, she was still there, doing up the last couple laces of her boots. She stood up as he headed for the front closet to get his parka. "You're leaving?" she asked, as if it weren't patently obvious. After last night, though, he supposed there would be a period of awkward small talk, which was all the more reason to make a quick exit.
"Yeah. I guess I'll see you later."
"Later," she echoed. "Wait, hang on." She took a few steps closer, so that she stood in front of him. "Let me fix your tie." She grabbed the knot and began repositioning it. "It's always a little...crooked..." She trailed off as their eyes met for the first time that morning.
Without getting permission from his brain, his right hand found its way to her waist, and his left to her cheek, cupping it and bringing her forward so that he could kiss her, as softly and slowly as last night had been ragged and desperate. After a moment, she looped her arm around his shoulder and eagerly reciprocated.
He noticed different things about her this time, things he'd missed in the fevered rush last night. The fine hair at the back of her neck, where his fingers had wandered, was incredibly soft. He could tell from the way she wrapped her arms around him and held on that she was stronger than she looked, presumably from all the wood chopping and mailbag carrying she did. Tracing a fingertip along the shell of her ear made her smile against his mouth.
The memory of their conversation from yesterday finally intruded on the unexpectedly blissful experience, and with a jolt of horror and a piercing sense of disappointment, he let go of her and pulled away. O'Connell made a tiny noise of regret before she opened her eyes.
He put his hand to his mouth, wide-eyed and embarrassed at what had just transpired. Hell, maybe he should go sleep on the pool table at the Brick. "O'Connell...I don't know what happened. I...it was my fault, I'm sorry. We were just—"
"Fleischman, stop," she cut in. "Stop. Look, I was thinking about what we talked about last night. You know, about balance and hostility and tension and all that?"
She clasped her hands in front of her, locking her elbows. He could see her knuckles turning white. "Well, I was thinking, the thing about balance is that there are two sides of the scale, right? So we aren't limited to changing just one side."
"I don't follow you."
Her voice turned imploring. "You said it yourself last night: take away the unresolved part of our sexual tension, and what's left to balance the hostility we have for each other? But that's not the only option we have. It's like an algebra equation: if you can't do anything to one side, you work on the other."
He was starting to see where she was going with this. "So if we..."
"If we don't hate each other, then not sleeping together isn't as important."
"Huh." He had to admit the idea was logically sound. "You know, this has potential. Maybe if we spend time together, talk to each other..."
"I'll try to give you the benefit of the doubt when you do something annoying and incomprehensible..."
She grinned at him. "And vice-versa."
"O'Connell, are you suggesting we start dating?"
She raised one perfect eyebrow. "There's a dance at the bingo hall tonight."
Marilyn had mentioned it a few days ago. A dance with canned music, in a town where formal dress equaled clean blue jeans and maybe a white button-up instead of a flannel one. It was hardly the kind of thing he would've done for a first date with someone in New York. If they were in Manhattan, he could've suggested a dozen different up-and-coming bistros, little arthouse movie theatres, or avant garde theatre productions.
Of course, New York didn't have anyone quite like O'Connell to share them with.
"Pick you up at seven?" he asked. "By which I mean meet you here at the front door."
She laughed. "That sounds good."
He smiled back at her. "Great."
She quickly sobered, though, and he saw her bite her lip in a nervous gesture he suddenly found incredibly endearing. "Fleischman, do you think this is really going to work?"
It was a pretty tall order. They disagreed about almost everything, and they'd spent the past year and a half sniping at each other without pause. If he were laying odds on the success of this venture, they would be very low.
But for the first time since setting foot in Alaska, he was starting to feel lucky.
He took her hand, lacing their fingers together. "Hey," he said. "Anything's possible."