“I told you, Jack,” his new bride said, dropping gracefully onto the bed and looking up at him with an amused smile. “This is perfect.”
Jack hung up his hat and leaned against the door. The opposite wall was floor-to-ceiling glass; with the curtains drawn back he could see the surf lapping at the beach. The sunshine flooded the room, bathing his bride in dappled warmth, and he resisted the urge to swallow hard at the sight.
“I’m not so sure, Miss Fisher,” he said, then repeated for good measure, “I’m not so sure.”
It had been Phryne’s idea, of course. Could an idea like this have belonged to any other person?
Still, even Jack had to admit that it made some sort of sense. Phryne’s friend Mary had called to ask her for help, but had died before Phryne could investigate (or even collect more details). Under the circumstances – the circumstances being that Mary had lived with her sister Edith and her brother-in-law at their honeymoon hotel, and that whatever she had wanted Phryne to investigate must have had something to do with the hotel – Phryne had suggested going undercover. Usually Jack wouldn’t have considered it, but the local sergeant, when consulted, had admitted that the ‘honeymoon people’ were a strange lot, and barring an official reason to intervene (Mary’s death had been ruled due to natural causes), he wasn’t sure they’d get very far.
Jack wasn’t sure how much farther they’d get posing as a honeymooning couple, but the subterfuge would hopefully present opportunities for discreet questioning. If Mary had been right, and there’d been funny business of some sort going on, they could at least try to get to the bottom of it. And whatever the official word was, Jack wasn’t sure that Mary’s death wasn’t suspicious. Yes, she’d been ill, and the doctor hadn’t been surprised, but when people died shortly after calling a private detective, Jack was inclined to narrow his eyes.
“Now Jack,” Phryne said, leaning back on her elbows, “you know you can’t call me Miss Fisher here.”
The problem with going undercover wasn’t the going undercover bit. The problem was his company.
“I’ll try to remember, Miss Fisher,” he said, not bothering to try to suppress his smile.
“I’ve just been talking to Lily in the powder room,” Phryne said, joining him on the terrace.
Jack nodded, holding out a glass of champagne. “Anything interesting?”
Before he could blink, she had smiled at him, taken the champagne, and insinuated herself fluidly into the curve of his arm, pressed up close against his side. “Thanks, darling,” she said, loudly, then, more quietly, “She thought Mary and Mr Griffin were having a fling. She says they exchanged heated glances, and that everyone knows what that means.” She sipped her champagne thoughtfully. “Lily must watch a great many Hollywood films.”
Jack barely heard her. Intellectually, he knew that honeymooning couples were not known for their respect of personal space, and that standing so close meant she could speak to him without being overheard. Realistically, he had all of Phryne pressed up against his side, and his brain was having minor difficulty interpreting words. Duress, that was it. Under duress.
Phryne looked up at him from the corner of her eye. “I’ll tell you more about it in the room later. I’m going to go talk to Elizabeth before she disappears with that rogue of a husband again.” She drained the glass and handed it to him. “You go talk to Mr Griffin and find out if he and Mary were really having a fling.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he murmured, keeping his voice low. It came out sounding more like a rumble.
Phryne leaned in to kiss his cheek, with a merry flash of her eyes, then stalked off in search of her next interrogatory victim.
Jack watched her for a moment, then went in search of Mr Griffin.
“This is convenient!” Phryne said, making a beeline for the bed. “I approve of all cases that have built-in allowances for private consultation. Remind me to structure them into our next case.”
“I doubt you’ll forget,” Jack said, dryly.
Phryne pulled the covers back, jumped in, then began to roll about.
Jack watched her for a moment. “Phryne,” he said at last, “what are you doing?”
Her face emerged from the sheets, grinning. “Rumpling the bed. It has to look convincing. The maids gossip.”
Jack sat down in an armchair, crossing his arms repressively. “What did Elizabeth say?”
Phryne made a face. “You’re no fun.” Still, she didn’t push it. Jack liked that about her; for all her dalliances and flirtation, ever since he’d drawn a line, she hadn’t gone beyond it. She respected his boundaries – and this was a mental conversation he was stopping right now, because he was sounding like an innocent maiden, which he certainly wasn’t.
Phryne hadn’t noticed his absentmindedness, or if she had she was choosing to ignore it. “All Elizabeth wanted to talk about was the party tonight, and how glad she was that Edith hadn’t cancelled it when Mary died.” Her mouth quirked. “I don’t think Elizabeth cared much for Mary – she said all the right things, oh how awful it was and so sad, but it was all lip-service.”
Lip-service … Jack was a policeman, he was an inspector, he was a professional. He could concentrate on his job. He could.
He cleared his throat. “Griffin was vague about his past. He might be using an alias – he seemed slow to answer to his name, although perhaps he’s just hard-of-hearing. He’s chatty enough when you get his attention, but he hasn’t noticed anything unusual. Though I’m not sure if he’d notice much in the first place – he’s entirely caught up in his wife.”
“Ruby,” Phryne said, then sighed. “The problem with honeymooners is that they’re criminally unobservant.”
“Well, one of them’s just criminal, perhaps,” Jack offered, and shared a smile with her.
Despite the fact that she contributed a never-ending series of complications to his life – and despite the fact that she could be seriously detrimental to his reasoning capabilities – Jack did like Phryne. She was funny, smart, clever, generous, openhearted; he liked sitting with her in moments like these, neither saying much, the camaraderie and affection humming in the air between them. He could be himself with her, and he knew by experience just how precious that could be.
This particular harmonious moment, however, was interrupted.
“Did you hear…” Phryne started, her head jerking up from the pillows, but Jack was already moving.
She gaped up at him for a moment as he settled on the bed above her, surprise widening her beautiful eyes, but it never took her long to catch up. (Partly because she was often ahead.) “Putting on a show for the stealthy step outside our window?” she murmured, slipping a hand up to the back of his head, her voice pitched so the sound but not the words would carry.
“We shouldn’t blow our cover,” he agreed, trying to ignore the scent of her perfume.
“Never,” she said, her face alight with mischief. There was a question in her eyes, though, and he made himself give an imperceptible nod, mouth dry.
She smiled at him – that little real soft smile, the one he loved even more than her usual sharp grin – and then she was pulling him down into a kiss, her leg curling around him, her heel digging into the small of his back.
And Jack realised what a risk this had been. Oh, there might be a murderer lurking about, masquerading as a honeymooner or perhaps as a proprietor (being related to the victim was no exoneration). They might be looking down the barrel of a gun at any point – they’d done it before, they’d no doubt do it again. But the greatest risk was here, where he’d never let himself be before – in Phryne Fisher’s bed, in Phryne Fisher’s arms, his entire body thrilling to her touch.
The part of him that had dreamed of this – for yes, Jack had dreamed, he was only a man – was dancing a jig of joy somewhere, and his blood was racing in his ears, even though Phryne was keeping it remarkably chaste under the circumstances. To the spy outside their windows, peeking through their blowing curtains, they must have looked properly intertwined, caught up together in the rumpled sheets, their arms full of each other. But the kiss was light, the leg around him gentle, the hands barely resting on his skin – and abruptly Jack wanted more.
Oh, he’d always wanted more, and he knew that he was the only one standing in his way. Phryne had made that clear long ago. He’d held back, somehow, all these months, but now, here in this moment, he let himself go, let himself want.
He kissed Phryne the way he wanted to kiss her, deep and sweet and fierce, pressing her into the pillows, feeling his heartbeat spike as she opened to him, as her hand tightened in his hair. Her other hand slipped underneath his shirt, and he broke away with a gasp, as her cool fingers roved across his skin. She looked well-kissed, her cheeks rosy, and his eyes met hers – less calm now, those eyes, less amused and fond. Had he ever realised how deep her eyes were?
She reached up gently, almost shy – Phryne Fisher, shy? – and he went willingly, letting himself be drawn down again into her embrace, kissing the breath from her mouth. It seemed silly, suddenly, that he had held himself back so long. He had thought it self-protection – he already cared too much for her, he couldn’t let himself fall yet further, not when she put herself into danger so readily and fearlessly. But she would do that whether he loved her or not, and if there was to be sorrow in the end, he found he wanted the joy first.
“Jack,” Phryne said against his lips, the breath tickling.
“Mmm?” he asked, letting his hand rest on the silk covering her hip.
“I think our intruder has gone,” she said, and released him.
Jack was half-expecting amused sidelong glances at dinner – it felt as though he was wearing a brand on his forehead, although the only outward sign of their activities was his slightly damp hair (from his cold bath). Phryne looked none the worse for wear, her dress this evening as beautiful as the one they’d crumpled on the bed. Perhaps her eyes sparkled a bit more than usual, but Jack knew from experience that he wasn’t an unbiased observer in that regard.
Should he have said something rash like, “Damn the intruder,” and drawn her back into his arms? But he wasn’t a rash man, not usually, and she’d withdrawn from him with such a finality, springing up from the bed and going to wash her face, that he hadn’t known quite what to do.
And now there was this damned party tonight. Good for the case – mingling on the beach with everyone nursing glasses of alcohol was a perfect setting for collecting rumours and gossip. Bad for his nerves, though. Which, considering there might be a killer about, wasn’t the best thing.
“Cheer up, darling,” Phryne said, covering his hand with hers. “I promise to dance as many times as you like tonight. Jack loves dancing,” she confided in Mr Griffin, who sat to her left, and Elizabeth, who sat across. “I sometimes think he should have gone on the stage.”
“You must dance with me, Mr Robinson,” Elizabeth said. “I love a good dance myself.”
He kicked Phryne under the table – she knew what he felt about dancing – but she kept smiling, her hand warm over his.
The night passed in a bit of a blur. He danced with every woman there, curse it, although Phryne’s intermittent dance lessons had made him at least a passable dancer. Nobody seemed to know anything. He hoped Phryne was having better luck. Of course she was a complete hit with every man in the place; in that dress – a dangerous dress if ever he’d seen one – she couldn’t have been otherwise.
He wondered if he was supposed to act jealous. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull it off, though, so he pretended he didn’t notice, and danced until his feet were sore, and tried to remember that he was a police officer conducting a covert investigation, not a lovesick fool.
Most of the people around him – whether the women he danced with or the men he talked with when he wasn’t dancing - were lovesick fools, so his investigations stalled somewhat. Edith, the dead woman’s sister and one of the proprietors, seemed to be the only other sensible person about. She told him what she could about Mary – she’d lived in Perth, apparently, until last year, then moved down to stay with Edith. They hadn’t been close, Jack gathered; probably something to do with their mother’s will, if the awkward way Edith explained having inherited the hotel was anything to go by.
He claimed Phryne for a dance, and told her under the cover of the music. She barely seemed to hear, caught up in the rhythm of the dance, her face open and warm, but he knew better. She’d be putting everything in a pattern. “Dance with Ruby Griffin next,” she told him, leaning intimately close, her hand pressed against his chest. “See if she noticed any tension between Edith and Mary.”
Ruby hadn’t. She was as caught up in her husband as he was in her. Love at first sight, she told Jack – could you believe it, she and Griff had only known each other for three months, but she’d known the minute she saw him that she was the one for her. Did you believe in love at first sight, Mr Robinson? Did you fall in love with your wife the first time you saw her? You know, your heart gives a terrific thump, and then they get under your skin, and everywhere you go you keep looking for them.
He and Phryne danced together three times more, sharing information each time. He was beginning to see a pattern emerge, but there was still a piece missing.
After their last dance, as the party was winding down, Phryne wandered off to talk to a maidservant, under the pretence of refilling her glass. Jack watched her.
Did he believe in love at first sight? A silly sort of thing. It went with ‘soul mates’ and all that rubbish. And yet, he had known the first time he saw Phryne Fisher that she was someone very special. Did that count?
After the party, as most of the honeymooners headed back inside, Phryne found him at the edge of the beach. She was carrying a bottle of champagne under one arm, and her dancing shoes in her other hand. “Hello, husband,” she said, lightly.
He tilted his head back, watching her silhouetted against the stars. “Have you solved the case?”
“Nearly,” she said, cheerfully, setting the champagne down. “Only one thing left.”
“And what’s that?” he asked.
For answer, she grinned at him, then undid some sort of fastenings and stepped out of her dress, leaving it huddled on the sand.
It felt like it all happened in a moment, as he stared at her. Surely he was dreaming! But she was laughing and running into the water, naked as the day she was born, and then all he could see was the shimmer of her hair in the faint moonlight.
“Playing at being a mermaid, are you?” he asked, when he was sure he could speak without his voice cracking. It still sounded a little dodgy, but under the circumstances he forgave himself.
“Ah,” she said, “but a mermaid needs a merman. Come along, darling.”
It was the darling that tipped him off, as she’d no doubt meant it to. So this was all a show for someone, and she’d expect him to play along. But she couldn’t seriously think he would strip and get in the water with her. And if he went in wearing his suit, he’d be completely waterlogged and unable to give chase to whatever criminal was surely lurking nearby. “I think I’ll stay on shore,” he said, smiling.
“Suit yourself,” Phryne said, her voice echoing over the water, her tone playful.
Was it only playful, though, or was it a little disappointed?
Oh god, was this a test? Did she make all her lovers go swimming naked under the moonlight? Was she testing how much he wanted her? Did she think he’d merely succumbed to temptation earlier and would be even more determined to keep his distance now?
Jack sighed, and reached for his tie.
“I didn’t expect you to come in,” Phryne said a few minutes later, sounding faintly breathless.
“It’s just what I’ve always dreamed of,” Jack said, treading water and trying not to think about the possibility of fish nibbling on his tackle. “Swimming under the moonlight with you.”
Phryne paddled a bit. This close, he could see the milky-white of her skin against the dark water. “Ah yes, so romantic,” she said, lightly. “Honeymooners under a summer sky. Just where you’d dream of bringing your bride.”
“Or the woman you care for,” Jack said.
There was no reason why that simple sentence should make his heart beat triple-time. Perhaps it was the threat of the fish.
He listened to her breathing for a long moment, and then saw her smile, a flash in the moonlight. “I think it’s been long enough.”
“Yes,” he said, swallowing, and then, belatedly, “For what?”
“Long enough for someone to be in the middle of searching our room,” Phryne said, cheerfully “The murderer’s either Mr Griffin or Edith, and we could be here weeks trying to figure it out. So I took a shortcut – I implied to both of them during the party that Mary had sent me a report of their crimes. Oh, I played my part well, they won’t think I know what I have,” she added, complacently. “Thus the moonlight dip with my handsome husband, giving them time to go through my suitcase for the incriminating document.”
“Explain,” Jack said, striking out for the shore.
“Gladly,” Phryne said, stroking alongside him, then launched into two competing theories, one of which involved Mary discovering that Edith had forged her mother’s will to inherit the hotel, and the other which had Mr Griffin being a serial bride-murderer and recognised by Mary from an earlier stay in Perth.
Jack wasn’t entirely sure of the details, but they could go over them later. For now, as he pulled his clothes on with more hurry than finesse, the operative point was that they were about to go charging in to confront a killer. Again.
Next to him, Phryne had pulled out her pistol and was checking it over. Despite the need for haste, he raised his eyebrow at her. “Where have you been hiding that?”
“Oh, I try not to go anywhere without it,” she said, smiling. “It was under my dress.”
Surely there hadn’t been enough room to hide even that small pistol under there. “I didn’t…” he started.
She reached out a hand to trail a finger lightly down his cheek. “Oh sweetheart,” she said, in the slightly affected tones she’d been using all day, “you were too distracted to notice.”
And then she was bounding lightly up the beach towards the house. Jack followed close behind, his own gun in his hand.
“So,” Phryne said, settling into the sofa beside him, “that was an exciting case.”
It had ended up being the bride-murderer Mr Griffin. Luckily, thanks to them – and to poor Mary’s warning – his latest bride was still alive. (Although more than a little shaken up.) Unluckily for the bedspread Jack still had fond memories of rumpling, Griffin had panicked when confronted by two damp detectives, and had ended up being shot in the shoulder. Jack hoped Edith was as good as Dot at getting out bloodstains.
“Too much dancing,” he said, but couldn’t keep up his poker face.
“I wonder if all honeymooners are that silly and distracted,” she mused. “If the maid hadn’t been paying attention, I think we could have been there for weeks without learning much more than that Elizabeth called her husband poochie-koo, which I personally could have done without knowing. Is it something about love, do you think, that drives otherwise intelligent people to distraction?”
Dangerous territory, this, but he’d shot a man who was pointing a gun at the woman he loved. Again. He could do this. “I think,” he said, slowly, “that love can be distracting. But many things can be distracting.”
“Like my dress,” Phryne said, her eyes laughing at him over the rim of her glass.
Jack inclined his head in acknowledgement of the point. “The thing is to do your job despite the distractions.”
“Oh dear. That sounds quite dull. Ignoring the distractions entirely?”
Jack set his glass down on the table, deliberately. He knew he didn’t have Phryne’s easy facility with words (although he wasn’t as helpless as poor Collins), but this mattered. “Not ignoring them,” he said, meeting Phryne’s eyes with more calm than he felt. “Embracing them, perhaps.” Her eyebrows raised, so he hurried to correct, “Using them to your own advantage.” That wasn’t much better.
“You’re going to use my dress to your own advantage?” Phryne asked, her voice very amused indeed now. “Any time you like, Inspector, although I’m not sure you have the figure for it.”
“I mean,” Jack said, trying not to laugh at the mental picture, “that you’re going to be a distraction no matter what I do, so I might as well learn to enjoy it.”
And, taking his heart in his hands, he leaned over and kissed her.
“I think,” Phryne said, much later, “that we should make this sort of debriefing a tradition.”
“You think?” Jack asked, sleepily. Her fingers kept trailing over his chest, as if memorising it. By rights it should tickle, but somehow it was oddly soothing. And her bed was incredibly comfortable.
“Obviously not during cases,” she said, using her sensible voice. “I agree that distractions can be enjoyable, but not when we’re chasing murderers. I’d prefer to keep you in one piece.”
“Reasonable,” he said, and let his eyes slip shut.
After a moment, Phryne curled into the curve of his arm, pillowing her face on his shoulder. She might not stay there long – she’d probably be up and about in no time, causing havoc and wreaking justice and upending his carefully arranged life and career. He’d find her at his crime scenes, and she’d have intriguing theories, and perhaps she’d kidnap a suspect or a piece of evidence or his assisting officer (again). She’d be at his side, and they’d fight crime and solve murders together, and afterwards they’d discover what this new thing between them meant. He knew it wouldn’t be simple – Phryne Fisher was not a simple woman.
But then he would never want her to be. All he wanted was for Phryne to be Phryne. They could figure the rest out in time.
After all, they were pretty damn good at solving mysteries together.