I always disliked being late for work, even if the reason had been explained to my employer. This morning it was an appointment to see my dentist, so it was almost ten o'clock before I entered the office.
He was standing in the hallway, so close to the door it almost hit him when I opened it. I jumped, and felt myself flushing slightly. "Oh! I'm very sorry, Captain Hastings!"
"Good morning, Miss Lemon. No harm done." He said cheerfully.
He was just reaching for his coat as I began to remove mine, and being the gentleman he is, he moved to help me take it off and hang it on the stand by the door; I accepted his help with murmured thanks and studied him as he reached for his hat. "You're looking very pleased with yourself, Captain Hastings."
He gave me a smile; he had that slightly enthusiastic, happy look that always made me think of a puppy that had learnt a new trick on his face. "I've managed to persuade Poirot to take a holiday." He said.
"A holiday? Well that is good news." Mister Poirot had been working himself far too hard recently, and both the Captain and myself had been suggesting to him that a holiday might be a good idea for a while. "Whereabouts?"
"Somewhere in France." He scooped his keys up from the table. "I'm just off to get the brochures." He touched a hand to the brim of his hat in polite salutation before departing, pulling the door shut behind him.
"Good morning, Mister Poirot." I called through the half-open glass doors of his office.
"Good morning, Miss Lemon." He beamed at me from behind his desk, and glanced at his pocket-watch. "Would you be so good as to bring me my tisane?"
"Of course; I'll do it now."
"Bon. Merci, Miss Lemon."
He was sitting in apparent thought, his fingertips clasped characteristically together when I brought his tisane into the office. He murmured his thanks in a distracted tone, and I turned to leave. "Miss Lemon - a moment if you please." He called.
I turned back to him. "Of course."
I thought he was going to give me some orders for the day, but instead he gestured to a chair. "Sit, please."
Slightly nervous, I accepted the seat, smoothing down my skirt and wondering at this unusual request. He took a small sip of his tisane and dabbed his moustache with his napkin before turning back to me. "How was your visit to the dentist, Miss Lemon? I trust all is well?"
"Fine, thank you. It seems that twinge of pain was an over-sensitivity to certain foods rather than a bad tooth."
"Bon. That is good." He was silent for a moment. I wanted to ask what he wanted, but held my tongue. After a long moment he gave me a grave look, his dark eyes were intense and serious. "Miss Lemon, I have a question that I am most anxious for you to answer: how long have you been in love with mon ami Hastings?"
I felt a jolt at his words – not a sharp shock of surprise, more a dull throb like the acknowledgement of something long privately known but never admitted. I sighed and gave a slight shrug, gazing down at my clasped hands. "I'm not sure. A long time, but I think I've only known it since the case with the Countess Rosakoff, when that tramp shot at him." I still remembered the terrible fear that had squeezed my heart when the tramp had produced a gun and fired at him, that hadn't eased until I ran my hands over his chest and reassured myself he hadn't been hit. I looked at Mister Poirot. "Does he know?" I asked directly; I couldn't bear it if he did.
"Non; Hastings is not the sort to notice such a thing under his very nose." Poirot sounded disgusted, but I gave a sigh of relief.
"Good." I said.
"You do not wish him to know, Miss Lemon?"
"No, certainly not." I said firmly. I met his curious gaze. "We've both seen the sort of women the Captain chases after, Mister Poirot; I think you and I can both agree I'm not of that sort."
Poirot gave a slight shrug. "Perhaps, but the tastes of a man may change as time goes by; does it not occur to you that mon ami seldom has much luck with the ladies he pursues?"
"Then they're fools for not seeing what a fine man he is." I said rather hotly, and saw the slightest hint of a smile curve his mouth under his moustache.
"Mais oui, d'accord." He agreed softly. "Nonetheless, it is true that Hastings chases that which he cannot attain, Miss Lemon. It may be that he will see what a fool he is being to ignore a fine lady such as yourself."
I felt heat burn my cheeks at the thought of Mister Poirot interfering. "I don't want you talking to him, Mister Poirot." I said sternly. "I don't want him to feel he may as well take second best."
He made a discontented face. "You would never be the second best, Miss Lemon." He said firmly. "But as you will – I will say nothing to mon cher Hastings about how you feel."
"Thank you." I said gratefully. I got to my feet. "Is there anything else, Mister Poirot?"
"That is all for now, Miss Lemon. "
It was early afternoon before Captain Hastings returned with the promised brochures. I was typing up some letters, but could hear the quiet murmur of their voices as they studied the choices available. I glanced through the small window in my office; Mister Poirot was sitting at his desk, Captain Hastings leaning over him, pointing at something. I studied him privately; Captain Hastings was a fine man in my eyes, honest and fearlessly brave, but I could list all the features that might be considered his bad points: his habit of carelessly leaving things lying around, his impulsive nature that led him to accept the most obvious explanations for Poirot's cases that he was involved with or hare off on car chases around the countryside without a second thought. These were traits that would drive me to distraction in many people, but they were such a part of the man they were almost endearing, and I knew that I'd forgive him anything. I gave a sigh as I removed the letter I'd finished typing and added it to the small pile that required Mister Poirot's signature, wondering how it was a simple emotion could turn perfectly rational people into complete idiots.
"I'll be going home then, Mister Poirot." I said much later, after delivering the evening post.
"Oui. Good night, Miss Lemon."
"Good night, Mister Poirot. Captain Hastings."
He gave me a lazy smile from where he was sprawled on the sofa reading and I felt my heart lurch in my chest. "Night, Miss Lemon."
The sight of the brochures piled up on the sofa reminded me. "Oh – have you decided where you're going on holiday?"
"Yes; Deauville, in the south of France." Hastings replied, the enthusiasm clear in his voice. "They have some marvellous golf courses there."
"Really?" I was surprised that Poirot would agree to visit such a place – Hastings loved golf but Poirot had a stated dislike of it as 'untidy'.
"Deauville is also known for its exquisite cuisine; that is what we go for, Hastings." Poirot said, his tone one of mild rebuke.
"Of course, Poirot; absolutely." Hastings agreed quickly. Out of Poirot's sight though, he gave me a grin. He looked so much like a mischievous boy that I coughed to cover my laugh.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
He's leaving; he is leaving, and not with regret, but cheerfully, with a smile. Their holiday was a disaster – a murder occurred, and Poirot was naturally involved. He solved the crime of course, but Captain Hastings lost his heart to one of the suspects, Isabel Duveen, and she was the one woman who he did 'catch' to use Poirot's expression. Earlier today I was one of the people watching as she became Mrs Hastings and now the Captain is leaving for the farm he dreamed of owning in the Argentine.
The door opens behind me, and I struggle to put on a happy expression before turning. It is Poirot. "Mon cher Miss Lemon; are you alright?" He says gently. I don't think he's ever used the term for me before; his dark eyes show sympathy and understanding, and I feel my fake happy expression crumble.
"I don't think I can bear it, Mister Poirot." My voice is a broken whisper and he moves to take one of my hands in his, patting it.
"I understand. Pauvre Miss Lemon." He replies.
"You were right; I should have let you speak to him."
"I have never regretted a thing I did not do more," he says quietly, and his tone breaks my heart; I am not the only one losing the man I love. Poirot is losing his closest friend in this country, and had to do it while agreeing to be Hastings' best man.
There is a light tap on the door. "Poirot?" Hastings peers into the room. "Oh, you are in here. And Miss Lemon." He give us both a smile; he looks so handsome in his wedding suit of grey trousers and tails with a lighter grey waistcoat I can't help but respond to his smile, even while my eyes still smart with unshed tears. "I just came to say goodbye to both of you. We're heading off now."
"Of course. This is au revoir then, mon ami." Poirot's voice holds a hint of something that might be grief, but he steps forward and takes the other man in a warm embrace.
Hastings turns to me, still smiling, but looks a little uncertain whether to shake my hand or offer some other sort of farewell. I move over to him, giving him a hug and kiss him on the cheek like Poirot, and feel his arms go round me in response. "Take care of yourself, Captain Hastings." I manage to say.
"I will; you too, Miss Lemon; and keep an eye on Poirot for me, won't you?"
"Of course." My tone is almost its usual self and he smiles.
Mister Poirot silently offers me his arm and I slip my arm through his as we join the others on the doorstep, waving and calling out farewells as Hastings and his wife drive away in his Lagonda in a scattering of rice and confetti.
The other guests turn back to the hall where we're celebrating the reception. I can't face it; I want to go home and just be alone for a while. "Shall I summon a taxi, Miss Lemon?" Poirot asks.
I manage to give him a sad smile. "You too, Mister Poirot?"
"Oui. Me too."
The taxi pulls up outside my flat, and I pause to say goodbye. "I'll see you in the office tomorrow, Mister Poirot."
"Non, Miss Lemon. Come back into the office when you wish; I understand." He raises a hand to touch the brim on his hat in farewell before calling "Whitehaven Mansions, driver."
I watch as the taxi pulls away. He looks so sad, somehow, sitting in the taxi alone, and it occurs to me that perhaps that's all we'll ever be from now on – two people, together on their own.
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