Hi everyone! Sorry for the delay with this chapter; things have been a bit busy around here! General busy-ness, hurricane related zaniness, the works. Hopefully this chapter will be up to snuff- I know Hemingway says that we should write drunk and edit sober, but I may have done the opposite in this particular case! :P
Thanks to everyone for the lovely feedback on this story. I really hope you guys will enjoy this chapter!
Sergeant Cheweski was giving him a funny look.
At least Bell, a professional detective if there ever was one, suspected that this was the case. It could be that he was so desperate to avoid scrutiny, he had managed to convince himself that anyone within five miles could tell that there was something different about him. He did feel different. He was fairly sure he didn't look different, and a quick check in the men's room mirror had seemed to confirm this. Nonetheless, he could feel Chewy giving him the eyeball from the passenger seat as they drove back to the station.
Chewy looked startled. "No, sir. Why do you ask?"
Clearing his throat, Bell fixed his eyes back on the road. "Never mind."
He'd managed not to be tardy enough for anyone to really notice, although his usual iron-clad punctuality did make the event rather singular. His delayed arrival could have easily been ascribed to a worse than usual commute or forgetting to lock the back door, rather than the true cause- his apparent inability to keep his hands off of Della Smith.
Bell's house was down a quiet street somewhere in one of the less ostentatiously gentrified areas of North London, and was plainly too big for one lonely person. He had driven there in record time, utilizing back roads and small lanes to avoid the buildup of morning traffic. It took him mere minutes to quickly shower, shave, and find what he needed in his neatly organized closet. Choosing an outfit was a simple matter since his whole wardrobe consisted of dark suits, carefully ironed white or light blue shirts, and a series of tastefully uninteresting neck ties hanging from the inside of the closet door.
In the end Bell had been about fifteen minutes late, taking great care not to look like he was in a hurry while entering the building. Chewy had raised an inquisitive eyebrow, but they'd been called off to investigate an armed robbery before there was time to discuss his tardiness. They'd managed to grab a sandwich just before midday, only to have the Super phone up and personally request Bell's assistance on the case of a missing foreign national. Those interviews had taken up several hours of his time and turned up approximately zero leads.
"So what next?" Chewy tapped his fingers on his knee as they parked up, looking at Bell expectantly.
Upon exiting the vehicle, Bell tossed Chewy the car keys, which the sergeant swiftly pocketed. "I suppose we go back and trace her last known steps. Can't really do much more until we speak to the boyfriend- if he was the last to see her, he may know something."
"Is he a suspect? The roommate did say they were having problems."
Tilting his head to the side, Bell pouted thoughtfully. "We can't even be sure whether there was foul play of any kind at this point… though if he keeps dodging our inquiries that might be a fair guess."
Chewy nodded. "We should try and catch him at home tonight. Building manager said he's usually back from work by seven." He looked at Bell sidelong, hiding a grin. "Unless you've already got other plans, that is."
Pausing at the door to his office, Bell felt like he'd just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He shrugged out of his overcoat, hoping his countenance didn't betray him. For fuck's sake, I am too bloody old to be blushing like a schoolboy. Looking at the clock, about to strike four, he thought about Della. They hadn't even spoken yet today, but the plans were indeed already made in Bell's mind. "If I happen to have any plans, they'll keep. I assume the same can be said for you?" He fixed Chewy with a very pointed blue glare.
Having the good sense to look slightly abashed, the sergeant agreed. "Of course."
"Good. Go and get a start on the paperwork, and meet me back here 'round six. I'll take another look through these files in the meantime."
Bell settled down at his desk, and found his attention drifting away from the stack of case files, settling on the silent weight of the mobile phone resting in his inside jacket pocket. It was the first bit of peace and quiet he'd had today, and all he could think to do was to call her. Releasing a sigh, he pushed the files to the side and leaned back in his chair. Reaching for the device without thought, he gave into the temptation and dialed Della's number.
Della's workday turned out to be similarly hectic. She'd forgotten about the spate of local elections coming up next week, and two other stories had broken overnight. Upon her arrival in the newsroom, merely half an hour behind schedule, she'd been frantically waved into Cameron's office to join the roundtable discussion of the eighty-five tasks needing immediate attention from the six people in the room.
Pausing in the middle of a sentence, Cameron peered at her over the top of his glasses. "How nice of you to join us. Where exactly have you been?"
"I'm sorry, Cameron. I overslept…" The excuse sounded ridiculously weak even to Della's own ears as she slipped into her chair.
The others at the table glanced at her with varying degrees of skepticism. For a moment, she thought she was going to get off easy, but Cal apparently couldn't help himself. "Overslept, hmm? Why's that then, did somebody sleep over?"
Flipping her hair back from her shoulder, Della narrowed her eyes at Cal. "Why don't you just mind your own business?"
Dan leaned in from the opposite side, regarding her closely. "Eh, what's that mark on your neck?"
Della jumped in her seat, one hand flying up to the spot behind her right ear, traitorous mind replaying a delicious sensory newsreel of Bell's teeth sinking into her skin as they'd tumbled over the edge just a few hours ago. Any reply she might have made caught in her throat as the memory assailed her.
"I hope the good inspector at least bought you dinner before you let him have you for afters."
Pete snickered. Cal smirked knowingly. Helen examined her fingernails.
Cheeks displaying what might ordinarily be considered a very fetching shade of pink, Della ignored them all and turned her attention back to Cameron. "What do you want me to work on?" Silently she begged him: Please send me out of the office so I can get away from these tossers.
Raising an eyebrow, Cameron twirled his glasses and bestowed a disapproving look upon all occupants of the table before continuing with the briefing.
After the meeting adjourned, Helen had been rather helpful with a magic recipe of liquid concealer and packed powder during an impromptu conference in the ladies' toilets- even if she did withhold her evidence-hiding expertise until Della shared at least a few of the juicy details. Never really one to kiss and tell, Della found the whole thing rather embarrassing. Talking about Bell made her feel oddly nervous, and those butterflies combined with the teasing of the other reporters had set her on edge. Taking her time in the ladies' after Helen's departure, Della gave herself a long searching look in the mirror and took a few calming breaths before heading out to face the rest of her day.
Five hours later, Della had returned to the newsroom with a stack of notes and some other materials obtained during a longer-than-strictly-necessary trip to the Herald's archives. She had volunteered to assist Helen with some research relating to the upcoming elections, reasoning that she'd rather immerse herself in a sea of dry political material than risk being paired up with one of her unceasingly juvenile male colleagues. She was just settling in to start compiling the information when her mobile rang. Biting her lip as she saw Bell's name pop up on the call screen, Della fiddled anxiously with her pen as she answered. "Hello?"
"Hi," said the gruff, sexy voice on the other end of the line. The greeting was followed by a few moments of silence, tinged with the sense that neither party was quite sure what to say next. Eventually, Bell continued. "Errr. Having a good day?"
Della smiled at the innocent triteness of the question, delivered by a man who was normally so grim and uncompromising. "Not bad. You?"
"Busy." He paused again, seeming to consider his next words. "Been thinking about last night. About you…"
He trailed off uncertainly, leading Della to wonder if Bell might be just as nervous as she was. She was suddenly very glad that Cal was not currently at his nearby desk, as her sunny expression was sure to give her away. Glancing around to make sure nobody was in earshot, she aimed to reassure Bell and lighten the mood. "Me too, not that anyone around here will let me forget- next time you want to take a bite out of my neck, at least have the good grace to tell me I should wear a turtleneck to the office."
Bell's short burst of laughter made Della's guts twist, not unpleasantly. "Oh, dear. Are they giving you a hard time?"
"You've met them, haven't you?"
"Yes," he replied sympathetically. "I suppose I'll have to make it up to you. Tonight?"
Propping her elbow on the desk, Della leaned her head into her hand. "I've got a few hours' work left here. Then maybe you can give me a hard time in your own way."
"Hmm," he considered. His tone was suggestive, promising. "I can think of several ways I wouldn't mind trying."
Della's throaty giggle was cut short as she saw Cal and Helen approaching from the other end of the room. She schooled her face into what she hoped was an indifferent expression. "I'd best ring off before this turns into out-and-out phone sex. I'm in an office full of nosy journalists, you know."
He made a low noise in the back of his throat. "I prefer in-and-out myself, but I take your point." Della could almost hear him smiling. "I should be finished around eight-thirty. I could pop over to yours, maybe pick up some dinner?"
"Italian alright? I know a good place."
"Lovely. I'll stop off and get some wine." Della chewed on the end of her pen, glancing down at the file in front of her as Cal returned to his adjacent desk.
Bell exhaled on the other end of the line, sounding pleased. "Okay. Great. I'll see you later then."
"Yeah, perfect. Later."
The way he said her name sent a delightful shiver up her spine. "Bye."
Placing the mobile in front of her on the document-strewn desktop, Della tried her best not to let her elation show. Unfortunately for her, Cal knew exactly what to look for. He bent his neck, gesturing toward the abandoned phone. "Hot date tonight?"
Della had decided hours ago not to be bothered by any further teasing today. She shrugged, shuffling her papers somewhat imperiously and refusing to look him in the eye. "Maybe."
Cal typed his password into the desktop computer terminal, shaking his head with a small grin. "Good for you."
Pausing in her slightly exaggerated movements, Della peered across at the senior reporter. His attention was fixed on the screen, but he spared her a brief and earnestly friendly glance. Grateful for the apparent détente, she relaxed and settled in for a few very long hours of pleasantly distracted work.
Not for the first time, Bell was glad that he was on friendly terms with the owner of a very high quality Italian restaurant. He had first stumbled upon the trattoria owned by the Lombardi family about a year ago during the investigation of a jewelry theft at the other end of the road, and he'd been coming here ever since. The unpredictability of his profession and the state of his private life saw to it that a large percentage of his meals were eaten away from home, and although he could cook tolerably well for himself he generally preferred to leave the complicated stuff to the professionals.
In this particular case the expert in question was the eldest of the Lombardi brothers, Marco, who apparently fancied himself just as savvy in the language of love as in the art of fine dining. In spite of Bell's attempts to keep his questions about the menu discreet and to the point, Marco soon cottoned onto the fact that the inspector was ordering for two- and judging from the care he was putting into his choices, his dining partner was not the ever-present Sergeant Cheweski.
Bell was nursing a Scotch as he peered at the menu, propping up the end of the bar closest to the kitchen as Marco bustled to and fro, serving drinks and trying not to hover over his ordinarily stern and reticent guest. After Bell's third inquiry about wine pairings, however, the silver-haired proprietor took pity on him. "Inspector. You are dining with a woman, yes? Allow me to help you choose, or you will keep her waiting all night."
Unable to argue with such logic, Bell reluctantly permitted Marco to ask leading questions and direct his choices.
Take a chilled squid and tiger prawn salad to start. I'll pack it in ice for you. Don't order pasta or risotto, it will be overcooked by the time you arrive. How about Osso Buco? It reheats well and pairs with red or white wines- it won't matter what she chooses. I'll have the kitchen serve it over some of Pietro's beautiful mashed potatoes. You must bring tiramisu. No, no, never take food to a woman without offering something sweet for dessert!
Twenty minutes later Bell was laden with two efficiently packed takeaway bags, the cold items carefully kept separate. Marco looked on with satisfaction as his customer signed the charge slip, reaching behind the bar and bestowing a final distinctly bottle-shaped parcel. "Please accept this with my compliments." Peering into the narrow plastic-lined cloth bag, Bell found a very nice bottle of Champagne which Marco had selected and quickly chilled in a bucket while the kitchen worked its magic. It was wrapped in a white cloth and flanked by two small parcels of ice. Bell protested, but the older man would hear no arguments.
In short order he found himself being ushered out the door, with Marco soliciting a promise that Bell should bring his new lady friend here to dine in person at the earliest possible convenience. He felt like he had just been swept up into a tornado and dropped into Oz, such was the speed and effectiveness of the Italian intervention. For a moment, Bell could hardly remember where he'd parked the car, suddenly alone on the dimly lit sidewalk with the wind whipping around his feet. Shaking himself back into awareness he crossed the road and located the vehicle, driving the short remaining distance to Della's flat.
Della met him at the door, and Bell found himself enjoying the simple domesticity of the scene as she took the food containers into the kitchen. He hung his overcoat and his suit jacket by the door and followed her there, at which point they both had a laugh upon discovering that she hadn't known what he was going to bring for dinner and had purchased both red and white wine. She heartily approved of Marco's extravagant gift, so they popped the Champagne and each drank a glass as they spoke casually about their respective work days.
It seemed to Bell that she had a way of making even uninteresting things entertaining- unlike some journalists who treated facts like traded commodities, she appeared to be a natural storyteller. There was an energy about her that warmed him through and made him want to discuss the trivialities of every day life for the first time in a very long while. Della's eyes sparkled as she recounted the events of her morning, and he found himself content just to lean against the stove and watch her.
After a few more minutes, Della suggested that they start eating while the food was still at least moderately warm. Observing as she searched the cabinets for appropriate plates and cutlery, Bell noticed the infamous love bite he had left on the tender skin behind her ear. The sight made his heart beat faster, clear evidence of a passionate act he was suddenly eager to repeat. He approached her from behind, feeling a bit giddy with the Champagne bubbles, careful not to startle her into dropping anything breakable. Spying an opening as she set the tableware aside, he pressed in. Sweeping her hair to the side, he traced his fingers over the mark, replacing them with his lips as she tilted her head to grant him access.
Della made a contented noise, both of her hands braced on the countertop as he wrapped one arm around her waist and nibbled at her earlobe. Gasping, she turned her face toward his. "We should have dinner. You went to all this trouble." Her eyes fixed hungrily on his lips, and he knew they both shared an appetite for something well apart from food.
He kissed her with intent, blood fizzing, body already wanting more. "Mmm. Rather have you first. We can eat later." Their bodies molded together urgently, fitting like puzzle pieces as she turned toward him. Della's arms snaked upward, fingers brushing over his chest as their mouths battled. She tugged at his navy blue striped tie, involuntarily pulling him closer while her fingers worked into the knot. One small hand touched his face as they breathed each other's air, noses bumping.
"Want you…" she trailed off, seemingly unable to tear her lips away from his for long enough to form an entire sentence. That suited Bell fine. He pulled at the neckline of her knit shirt, taking the strap of her lacy bra along with it and revealing one pale shoulder. He caressed the skin there, teasing, lifting her further into his arms and angling his hips to grind into hers. Della trembled, trailing her lips over his jaw and biting gently at his chin as her feet left the ground.
The two were so wrapped up in each other that they didn't hear the sound of a key scrabbling at the lock of the door to Della's flat. The scraping noises continued for a minute or two, followed by a few moments of silence. What they did hear was the frantic knocking that followed, accompanied by a muffled masculine voice. Jumping apart, they were still and quiet, listening. More knocks followed and Della moved toward the door with uncertain steps.
Bell adopted a defensive stance, following a few feet behind her as she approached the entryway. The banging on the door continued, drowning out the insistent words of whoever was on the other side. Reaching the door and unlatching the deadbolt, Della's expression was oddly plaintive as she looked over her shoulder at him. He didn't have time to ask what was wrong as she opened the door.
Standing on the other side was a trim sandy-haired man, leaning against the doorframe. He looked significantly intoxicated, a hypothesis supported by the slur in his prominent Scottish brogue. "You changed the locks. I guess I shouldn't be surprised."
Della was frozen to the spot, breathing unevenly as she regarded the unexpected guest. "Craig, what are you doing here?"
Leaning against the wall, Bell watched the tableau unfold with a growing sense of dread. He crossed his arms over his chest, presence apparently unnoticed by the green-eyed Scotsman whose attention was squarely focused on the woman between them.
"What, I can't come see the woman I love?" He lurched forward, grabbing Della by the shoulders. "I should never have left, Della. Biggest mistake of my life."
So this was the ex-boyfriend Foster had mentioned. Bell noted Della's stiff and wary body language as she shrugged out of the man's grasp, and he expected her to lash out with a feisty retort at any moment. She was uncharacteristically silent instead, shaking her head back and forth and wrapping her arms around herself. Bell frowned, full of uneasiness at her lack of response.
Craig seemed to interpret her behavior as compliance, watery eyes pleading as he stepped closer. "Please, love. Take me back."
Oh Craig, you tosser. Looks like trouble here- we might know that Della's not remotely interested, but what is poor Inspector Bell supposed to think? There are a few chapters still left in this tale, even including something that might resemble a plot! Got any theories? Drop me a review! I promise I'll share my weekend wine stash if you do. :D