Hey, dudes! Here's the latest chapter of The Arrangement. This one took me awhile, partly because it was extremely hard to write. These two are just such idiots, I swear. You will see what I mean. I didn't spend as much time as usual in the editing phase, so please let me know if I missed any errors. More notes at the bottom for those who enjoy babbling!
Many thanks to all those who have left comments so far. The feedback is very much appreciated. :D
How was it possible for life to be so changeable, from one moment to the next? Della hardly knew which way was up, and certainly couldn't be sure whether the flush in her cheeks was a remnant of her pleasurable activities with Bell or a reaction to the unwelcome appearance of Craig on her doorstep. Part of her wanted to lash out. She wished she could shove Craig back out into the corridor or give him a violent kick in the shins in thanks for interrupting what was shaping up to be a brilliant night, but her surprise at seeing him here after so long had paralyzed her. Before she could accomplish the complicated verbal feat of telling her obviously intoxicated ex-boyfriend to fuck off, he had pushed unsteadily past her and into the flat. Della turned, a ball of uneasiness squeezing in the pit of her stomach as Craig came hazily face to face with a stern and rather nonplussed William Bell.
Bell was leaning against the wall just outside the entrance to the kitchen, long frame exhibiting a degree of tension and arms crossed over his chest. Craig pulled up short, finally noticing the taller man. He frowned, attempting to square himself. "Who's this, then?"
It was by no means the appropriate time to contemplate the intricacies of her relationship with Bell, but Della still couldn't formulate an appropriate response to the question. After all, what was he to her? Lover? New boyfriend? Married man who was happily shagging her on the side? She honestly wasn't sure yet. The worst part was that Bell was regarding her with a searching cobalt gaze, clearly interested in her answer. Unable to tackle an issue of such magnitude, Della went on the defensive. "It's really none of your business, Craig. What do you want?"
Craig tilted his head contemptuously. "Well it has been three months- my mistake, that. Of course you would have started dating someone." He gave Bell an appraising once over. "Bit old for you, isn't he?"
Her lack of response coupled with Craig's drunken insults were enough to provoke an unhappy reaction from the chief inspector, silent up until now. He drew himself up to his not inconsiderable full height, pushing away from the wall. "I may be older than you, but I still know how to aim a punch."
Sneering, Craig took a step closer. "You wanna have a go, mate? Try your luck."
"Oh no. No no no. Don't even think about doing that." Della stepped between the two men, placing what was meant to be a calming hand on Bell's chest. She could feel the heat of his skin through the fabric of his shirt as he involuntarily pressed forward against the restraint. She turned her head to the side. "Craig, I think you need to leave."
"Come on, Del. We had two years together. Don't shut me out, I just wanna talk to you…"
Craig made a grab for her free hand, which she promptly snatched away. The startled motion made her stumble closer to Bell, falling into his chest. His solidity was very reassuring. Della released a breath, turning to face Craig with her back leaning lightly against the man behind her. She was gathering her courage, ready to tell the unwelcome visitor to take a long walk off a short pier, but the words caught in her throat when she felt Bell place his hands on her shoulders and gently push her aside. She looked askance at him, but he avoided her eyes and edged around Craig and toward the door.
"William, what-" She trailed off, watching helplessly as he donned his suit jacket and reached for his coat. She glared at Craig as he stood, between them now, looking very self-satisfied.
Bell turned at last, hand on the doorknob. "Obviously one of us has to leave, and you've got things to discuss. I can see I'm in the way here."
"Too right," muttered Craig.
Before Della could say anything, Bell had stepped out the door. She stood for a moment in shocked silence, feeling bereft and rooted to the spot. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. Looking at the place where Bell had been standing and then at the door he had passed through, she realized that her inaction had caused events to play out this way and she was the only one who could fix it- which meant she needed to go after him. Striding toward the door, she paused as she passed Craig.
Craig made to speak, holding up one hand. "I-"
Della poked him vigorously in the chest. "Shut it. I want you gone by the time I get back."
Reaching the corridor just in time to hear the door to the stairwell click shut, Della hurried along. She wished she could rewind the evening just far enough to slam the door in Craig's face the moment she found him there, but hopefully the situation could still be salvaged. Inside the stairwell Della could hear the sound of Bell's footsteps a flight or two below. Calling his name, she sprinted down the stairs, catching up to him on the landing.
A thick silence echoed through the uninhabited space, air tight and still. The narrow platform was small enough that the two of them more than filled the space before the shaft twisted around for the staircase to descend in another direction. Bell's large frame was magnified in the confined area, his dark clothing standing out against the whitewashed walls. Holding onto the railing for support, Della regarded his impassive face, enhanced as it was by a closed off stance. She was reminded of his demeanor on the night her flat was broken into, when she had all but accused him of being responsible for the act. He wouldn't quite look at her, whether out of anger or indifference she wasn't quite sure.
"I'm sorry," she began, "I don't know what he's doing here. We broke up months ago and I haven't seen him since."
Bell gave a small, dark smile. "Well you know what they say, hmm? Absence makes the heart grow fonder?" He shuffled his feet restlessly and stroked a hand over the lower half of his face.
Frowning, Della tilted her head sideways and tried to catch his eye. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Ignoring her question, he carried on with his puzzling monologue. "I guess I should have known, really. What with you still wearing his clothes and all."
"I- what? You're not making any sense. What clothes?"
Their eyes met, and his showed a distance. "This morning. When we were… together. That shirt was three sizes too big for you." He shook his head, making a disapproving noise. "I bet you don't even like Led Zeppelin."
Della crossed her arms, mouth dropping open in shock. "I do, as a matter of fact. Craig hates them, and it isn't his shirt." She couldn't bring herself to tell him that the shirt had belonged to her older brother Andrew, who had died when she was a teenager. Della had adored Andrew, and the shirt brought back memories of lying on the floor in his bedroom back in Glasgow after Sunday dinner, sharing a set of headphones as they listened to Led Zeppelin III at full blast. She swallowed back the wave of sadness, wrinkling her eyebrows.
"Look, this is all pointless. Why don't you come back up? I want you to stay."
Bell pouted silently, fixing her with his blue stare. "And what? Watch the two of you kiss and make up? No, I don't think so."
Thoroughly perplexed, Della took a step forward so that she could look directly up into Bell's face. "That isn't going to happen. I told him to leave!"
Their faces were close enough that Della could feel the turbulence as they both tried to breathe the same air. For a moment, his intense gaze drifted from her eyes to her lips and she was almost certain he was going to kiss her. Knees weak, she leaned against the pylon that ran up the center of the stairwell. Standing his ground, Bell looked furious and Della still couldn't pinpoint why. She wished that he would channel that anger into a kiss, press her body against the wall, dominate her, plunder her mouth until she was gasping for air. Instead he was alarmingly still.
"Yes, I heard you ask him to leave. Even I could tell you didn't really mean it. Fiver says he's up there making himself at home right now. Pouring himself a drink, putting his feet up on the sofa."
His words were surprisingly cold, and it made her realize how much she had come to care for him, the serious extent to which her affections had evolved. His manner was detached and inflexible, like it had been in that dim hospital hallway many months ago. The ease with which he could apparently turn off his feelings tripped something within her. Perhaps he never cared about her at all, and maybe sex was really all he wanted. How else could he so easily disregard her intentions?
"Well you clearly don't care whether I meant it or not." Face heating, Della tried to keep the tremble from her voice as she allowed her own anger to build. "I'm sorry this interferes with your obvious plan to get into my knickers again!"
Bell towered above her, eyes blazing. "Plan?" He huffed. "As if I'd need one! It was easy enough the first time." Pacing back and forth in the small space, he appeared to be wrestling with something. "Next time you're looking for a rebound shag do us both a favor and pick someone else, okay?"
The sound of Della's palm connecting with Bell's cheek echoed through the stairwell. His head snapped to the side, not expecting the contact, and she could feel a hot tear running down her own face as he slowly turned back to face her. "Don't you dare assume that you know how I feel. It's not like you've ever bothered to ask!"
For a moment he had the grace to look abashed. Della shivered when he raised one large hand toward her face, drawing back at the last moment as he watched the tears glide down toward her chin. There was a moment where she could have reached out, taken his hand, thrown herself into his arms. She let it pass, protecting herself from rejection with the blanket of fury that had settled over her. The next few words were out of her mouth before she could even think of stopping them.
"Anyway, you're one to talk. You're married but that didn't stop you from getting your end away. And poor naive little me, I just let you have whatever you wanted!"
A prolonged silence hung heavily between them as he absorbed her attack, his jaw giving an involuntary twitch. "And this is what you think of me? That I'm married. And what? Running around London when I'm off duty, fucking every pretty girl I meet?"
Della frowned, gesturing toward Bell's left hand. "What was I supposed to think? Of course I noticed your ring, but I started to feel like it didn't matter." She swiped at her face, stubbornly unwilling to acknowledge the tears. "I kept telling myself…"
"Let me guess. You told yourself that since I was so obviously married and up for it there was no reason to feel guilty about using me for sex. Then I'd be off home to the missus with all the blame lying squarely on my shoulders. Is that it? Cheers, Della."
This was all going horribly, horribly wrong. Della didn't know what to do or say, losing more of her footing with each barb they slung at each other. Bell was radiating anger, but there was an undercurrent of anguish to his attacks that she simply didn't understand. His eyes were swimming with it, darting across her face, a deep and drowning slate blue. She wanted to tell him that no, that wasn't what she wanted. That she wanted to be in his arms, that she wanted him to stay, that the only thing lying on his shoulder should be her head when they woke up tangled together. The words wouldn't come. Della hugged herself protectively, trying to dull the empty pain that was already settling in the pit of her stomach. "No, William. I didn't-"
The sound of a door opening and closing echoed through the stairwell and slow, deliberate steps could be heard approaching from the floor above. Della's thoughts were scattered, the moment broken as she tried to convey her feelings to Bell just through a look. He rocked on his heels, and there was a moment of hope where he looked like he would say something, stepping toward her. She could see his chest rising and falling, smell his spicy aquatic aftershave. He was close enough to reach out and touch, and she wanted to. As old Mrs. Jenkins turned the corner, however, Bell shook his head sadly and slid past her without saying a word. The sleeve of his coat brushed her arm as he turned away and she watched the back of his head until he was out of sight, with the futile hope that he would turn back.
Slumping against the wall as his tall form disappeared, Della felt utterly destroyed. What had she done? Surely this was all some sort of huge misunderstanding. God, why had they never talked about any of these things? His marriage, her failed relationship with Craig…they had been too busy talking about work, and then shagging each other's brains out. It had all happened so fast and it was too soon to quantify or categorize their relationship, but now she had hurt him and she didn't know exactly what was wrong or how to fix it- or even if he would let her get close enough to try.
As Mrs. Jenkins passed slowly by, smiling and greeting her with pleasantries, Della felt more than a little out of control. The old lady's sunny expression was like a harsh mockery of the turmoil in the younger woman's racing mind and wounded heart, and to make matters worse there was still Craig to deal with. Pushing away from the wall with a steadying hand, Della concentrated on moving her legs one at a time and studiously avoided thoughts of what she may have just lost.
What the fuck just happened?
William Bell had made it as far as the front door of Della's building, carried down the remaining stairs on a wave of pure adrenaline. He leaned against the cool stone façade, traitorous mind flashing with images of a rain-soaked kiss barely twenty-four hours earlier. Breathing unsteadily, he banished the thought from his mind. Bloody hell, how could he have been so stupid? He'd jumped into this with both feet, never even bothering to hear from Della's own mouth that her relationship was well and truly over.
As for himself, it was painfully clear that he wasn't ready for this kind of emotional upheaval. There was no room for bouts of lovelorn angst in DCI Bell's life; he couldn't show weakness and wasn't apt to make the same mistake twice. The fact that he had misjudged Della and imagined that she felt things for him that she obviously didn't? Well, it cut like a knife. How could he have got it so wrong? She thought he was married, for fuck's sake!
Bell looked down at his wedding ring, feeling a sense of betrayal to which he could assign no source. He couldn't betray his wife any longer, long gone as she was. Was it possible to betray her memory through his actions? He wasn't sure. Della may not have been above reproach, but she couldn't be blamed for getting the wrong idea- even if the fact that she could think him capable of such base adultery hurt more than he was willing to admit. They had never discussed their personal lives, their relationship overwhelmingly dominated by their two very demanding professions. He had obviously gotten carried away, thinking that their night together meant more than it did. But God, how he'd wanted her. He still wanted her in spite of everything, and had feelings for her that were dangerously strong. This was insanity… perhaps the only person he had betrayed was himself.
Straightening, he adjusted the front of his coat. Tamping down his wildly raging emotions, he ignored the tightness in his throat and headed off to find his car. Bell was not the type of man who typically approved of the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, but in this case he figured he could make an exception. After all, the evening certainly couldn't get much worse. Bell glanced up at the front of the building once more as he walked away. He forcefully refused to imagine what was happening in the flat he had just left behind, and resisted the urge to run back up the stairs and punch Craig until he bled. Surely a few drinks would calm him down, and soon enough he would forget all about Della Smith...
Ugh. You are such FOOLS! Della and Bell, that is. Not you, the readers! Talk about a misunderstanding. I know how to fix it, but it won't be easy... with all the hangups and insecurities these two have, they'll be lucky to get back together this century. Fortunately I, the author, can help them with that. ;)
I spent a lot of time listening to the Led Zeppelin song Since I've Been Loving You (from Led Zeppelin III! That should make Della happy at least) while writing this chapter, so if the angsty drama has a slightly blues-y tint to it, that is why.
Bell's aftershave was here described as 'spicy and aquatic.' Not sure if he's a cologne type guy, but I can sort of imagine him in something clean-smelling like Armani Acqua Di Gio or maybe even Polo Blue. Yum. Yes, I really do spend too much time thinking about these sorts of things. :P
Hope you guys enjoyed this update. Drop me a review and let me know what you think- anyone who does is invited to join me and Bell on an angsty, Scotch-fueled pub crawl. Surely we can cheer him up a bit. WHO'S WITH ME?