“All right, JoJo. Go ahead and sit up.”
Dr. Emerson pushes his rolling chair away from the exam table and deposits his latex gloves into a nearby garbage can, moving to the sink to wash his hands. “Everything looks good. You're right on track for eighteen weeks.”
Joan sits up, with a little difficulty, and tugs at the shoulders of her thin cotton gown. Today, they've discussed some of her latest symptoms (backaches – her lower back hurts all the time) and he's recommended another book to her. She's already read two.
“Any other side effects I should expect?”
The doctor chuckles, and picks up her chart to make a few notations. “I tell all my ladies: the second trimester’s usually easier than the first. More energy, better appetite. Make your husbands—”
He stops abruptly, and the smile on his face dims, but he just clears his throat and keeps writing on her chart, as if nothing's happened. “Well. You're supposed to start taking it easy. I doubt you'll follow that advice.”
She rolls her eyes, folding her hands across her rounded stomach. “I'll keep it in mind.”
There's a short silence. Dr. Emerson closes her chart.
“I'm going to need to start seeing you every month until you deliver, so tell Stella to put you on the books before the holiday.” He pauses, pats her hand. “If you need anything, you call me, all right?”
“Did you know it's developed fingerprints? The baby?”
This is the first thing Lane blurts out after he says hello, voice so excited it's as if he's teaching her about cost-variable analysis again.
Joan blinks, and adjusts the receiver against her right ear. She was lying in bed in her pajamas, reading, when the phone rang. “What?”
“During the second trimester—” voice steady and even, as if he's reading straight from a page “—changes in fetal development include the following.” With a short laugh. “Well, first there's rather a large summary about quickening and reflexes and later things, but in the subsections specifying weekly development, it says that this is the period in which fingerprints and toeprints have formed.”
“It's the size of an avocado. How can it have fingerprints?” She frowns at her free hand, turning her palm one way and then the other, trying to imagine the microscopic-sized hand of the baby inside her. Apparently complete with fingerprints.
“I don't know,” Lane replies, as if he's happy for this phenomenon to remain a strange mystery. “Oh! It's also—covered in hair, apparently. I don't—know how to say this word.”
Joan can't help smiling. “Lanugo. I read it in my book this morning. It's a very fine down.”
“Was that the book by the board member fellow?”
“Mm hm,” she replies, stifling a yawn. Vice President of…something. She can’t remember. “It's practical. I like it.”
Lately, they've been careful with each other at work. She won't let herself duck into his office after every little mishap, and now that she's not as ill, it's easier to be more self-reliant. But she'd promised to keep him updated—and after her house guests left, the apartment had felt so empty. She felt strange wandering around all by herself. One night she'd just picked up the phone and called him at home. Now they talk twice a week in the evenings, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“Dr. Emerson listened to the baby's heartbeat,” she says quietly, turning onto her left side and curling into the pillow. She's much more comfortable this way. Her back barely hurts. “Said it's strong.”
“What else did he tell you?”
Lane's voice is warm in her ear, and she's relaxed, almost drowsy. She's just going to rest her eyes for a minute, and tucks a hand under her cheek, voice low. “Said we're right on track.”
“So, do you and Lane screw around all the time now that you're knocked up, or what?”
Stan's sitting on a tall wooden stool, behind a canvas the size of the conference room table. He's wearing a tight, paint-stained white t-shirt and blue jeans – no shoes – and holding a large palette and paintbrush smeared with bright color. His eyes flick to Joan, briefly, before returning back to the canvas.
Joan's hand tightens around the gilded sword in her right hand. Her hair – so long it brushes against the backs of her knees – is intricately braided with large tropical flowers and vines, and arranged artfully around her naked, very pregnant body. She's standing against a dense background of living plants and trees, like it's the middle of a jungle, although the expansive marble floor is cold against her feet. “Excuse me?”
There's a snort, as if he finds the concept of her offense hilarious. “Oh, please. He spends half the day staring at your expectant ass.” Peering back around the side of the canvas. “Will you stop moving your arm?”
“It's heavy,” she complains. Stage lights are beating down onto the tableau, making her skin dewy with sweat. “I've been here for hours.”
“Well, it's supposed to be higher, like the Statue of Liberty.”
Joan grits her teeth, and obligingly raises her arm, although her lower back aches with the movement. She tries to remember the position of the original pose: right arm up, left arm draped across her breasts, left leg poised on the first stone step.
Peeking out from behind the canvas, Stan wipes his brow with the back of his hand, then blinks at her. “You got paint on your stomach.”
She looks down to see a long smear of blue-green standing out against her skin, as well a man's hand reaching out to wipe this away with a white cloth. The fabric is damp and pleasantly cold against her hot skin, giving her goosebumps as it glides across her body.
“Better?” Lane murmurs, his other hand moving to rest against the small of her back. Joan feels herself shiver at the touch, and lifts her head to look at him.
“You missed a spot.”
As he bends his head to kiss her, she snaps awake with a jolt, body flushed, limbs tangled in the blankets, and a fierce, familiar ache between her legs.
When Lane appears at her office door the next morning, eyes twinkling with mischief behind his glasses, she feels herself turning pink, and pushes aside the dictation she was editing.
“I'm sorry,” she murmurs, putting a hand to her flushed cheek.
“No—I'm not upset,” he says, voice bemused. “One minute, you were talking, and the next...” he shrugs, a small smile returning to his face. “Well.”
“Talking?” she echoes, eyes widening. “What did I say?”
He chuckles. “No—it was—nothing I could understand. But you, erm, started...snoring.”
Joan fixes him with a stern look. “Excuse me?” With a scoff. “I don't snore.”
“If you say so,” he replies lightly, in a voice that means she's completely wrong.
“All right,” he says, holding up two hands in fake surrender, and failing to stifle a laugh. “Must have been someone else in your flat.”
On an impulse, she tosses a paperclip in his direction to get him to stop teasing her. It sails past his leg and doesn't even touch him. Too bad.
The corners of his mouth are twitching up again, but he doesn't say anything, just raises his eyebrows in an amused look and ambles back into the hallway, toward his office.
Joan makes one last notation on her stenography pad, and glances around at the partners. Across the table from her, Mr. Cooper is finishing his danish. Next to him, on her left, Roger's on the last few drags of his cigarette, while Don's flipping through some sketches. On the opposite side of the table, Lane is hunched over an unfolded spreadsheet, making minor changes to it, while Pete's already gotten all his things together and seems to be waiting for dismissal, like he's a schoolboy anxious to beat the Friday bell.
“Well,” she says, “if there's no new business, I believe that concludes our meeting.”
“Excellent.” Pete rises from his chair and leaves the room before anyone can say another word. Cooper sighs; Joan meets Roger's eyes with an expression that says can you believe him? But before anyone can make a comment, Roger speaks.
“Hang on a second.” Waving an arm to get the other men's attention. “Lane. Did you tell Mrs. Harris the good news?”
Lane looks up very slowly, fixing Roger with a panicked expression. Joan feels her heart pounding an anxious tattoo against her throat. If Roger knew anything close to the truth, he'd be camped out alone in her office, drunk, chain-smoking and asking a lot of inappropriate questions. Stay seated. Stay calm. It's probably nothing.
“What?” Lane says, letting the spreadsheet fall from his hands, and adjusting his glasses. “No—I don't—”
“Oh, come on!” Roger booms, gesturing to Joan with an open hand. “Thought we settled this months ago.” He turns to Joan with a rakish smile. “Partners talked it over. You're getting promoted.”
She feels heat rush to her face, but just blinks, and tries to keep her expression neutral.
“You'll be our Director of Agency Operations,” Cooper says.
Joan takes a deep breath, risks a look at Don, who's smiling at her so broadly it's like he's never been prouder in his life, like he's her brother, for god's sake.
“My goodness,” is all she can say at first.
To her right, Lane clears his throat, his hands fidgeting on top of his spreadsheet.
“Under normal circumstances, there'd be a....modest pay rise—” he begins carefully, and for all his hesitation, she knows him too well. She knows how this sentence is going to end, she's seen the books herself—there's not enough money for a raise, it's not in the budget—and she steels herself to take this as gracefully as she can, audience considered—
“There's a thousand dollar signing bonus,” Roger interrupts, taking another drag of his cigarette, and producing something from his jacket pocket—a thin, sealed white envelope. He sets this on top of her notes. “No raise, though. Don't get excited.”
Lane's mouth hangs open. He's clearly blindsided by this news. Roger and Don are grinning like idiots, and Cooper's smiling fondly at them all. Joan bites the inside of her cheek to keep from saying something rash. The only continuous thought running through her head is guilt money, guilt money, guilt money.
“It's...very generous,” she manages, keeping her gaze on Mr. Cooper. If she looks at Roger, she's going to scream, or cry, or possibly both. “Thank you.”
“Congratulations, dear,” he replies.
Don clasps her hand. Roger gives a mock salute, and they disperse, but she doesn't move. Neither does Lane. And it's not until the two of them are completely alone in the room that she finds her voice again. “So, did they take this signing bonus from petty cash or from Roger's pocket?”
“Joan, I didn't know he was—” Lane begins in a low voice, but she shakes her head no, pressing her lips together to keep her temper under control. Don't interrupt me.
“I've been here twelve years,” she says loudly, with a shrug of her hands, “and it took Greg getting blown up for me to be promoted.”
He sits up very straight, as if preparing for a verbal assault. “That is not what this is about—”
“Lane, it's guilt money!” she snaps, feeling herself well up again, and dabbing at the skin under her left eye in an attempt to stem the flow of tears before it can start. “Poor Mrs. Harris, isn't she pitiful with her dead husband and unborn baby—”
“Stop it,” he hisses, reaching out to touch her free arm, but she pulls it away before his fingers can brush her hand.
“I thought they'd finally noticed my work,” she whispers, and has to bite her cheek to get a grip on the swell of emotion running through her body. Her hands are shaking. “But they just look at me and see some...expectant secretary who needs job security.”
“Joan,” he interrupts, voice firm, expression gobsmacked, “you deserve to be recognized—”
She holds up a hand to indicate he doesn't have to defend her, and closes her notebook, meaning this conversation is over. “Just—let me be upset for ten minutes. Can you do that?”
“I don't want you to be upset,” Lane says in a wounded voice, and she has to stop herself from yelling at him. This promotion was probably his idea in the first place. Even the title sounds like something he'd come up with. It's long and involved.
“You want to take care of me,” she replies with a sigh, allowing herself to be generous with the truth, and meeting his eyes. “I know.”
He rubs a hand across the back of his neck, a muscle twitching in his jaw, and when he stands up from the table, his voice is strained. “No, you don't.”
After this, he stops himself, glancing around the conference room with wide eyes, as if unwanted ears are already listening. He walks out without another word.
Joan continues to gather her things in an unhappy stupor, forcing herself to focus on the papers in front of her, combined with thoughts of an early lunch. She will not cry. Not again, and not here. Once she's organized her papers, she looks to her right. Lane's things are still scattered around his place at the table. After a hesitation, she reaches over, caps his fountain pen, and shuts his folio. She'll drop them by Scarlett's desk before she leaves. They shouldn't be left out.
Halfway through their Saturday phone call, conversation is basically at a standstill. They've talked a little about the baby, and a little about Joan's weekend plans, but not about work at all, which is unusual. After a certain point, even she can't squeeze blood from a stone. Another long silence engulfs the line. She's ready to make some excuse and hang up when Lane suddenly breaks it.
“I—wanted to—say something to you. About...the, erm, other day.”
“Lane. It was one fight.” There's no use revisiting this. They exchanged an awkward apology on Friday afternoon. As far as she's concerned, it's fine. She can use the money, and just needed an hour to be angry about the circumstances. She'll get over it eventually.
“No—it's not about—that.”
“Okay,” she says, leaning back against her kitchen wall. She's very uncomfortable on this chair. Back pain aside, it makes her hips ache. “What's on your mind?”
“Well, there was a...delivery during...Thursday lunch.” A sigh. “Becca filed the—divorce petition. And I thought you should know I've already signed the papers. Sent them off.”
“Oh,” Joan says, suddenly understanding. That's why he was avoiding her. They've barely talked over the past two days, and he left for the weekend before she had a chance to ask him anything that wasn't related to the fiscal year budget. “Are you okay?”
“Mm,” comes the reply. “It’s all right.”
“You were married a long time,” she says. “No one would blame you if you missed her.”
There's a huff like a laugh. Lane’s voice is quiet when he speaks, as if it really does bother him, but acts as if he’s trying to make a joke. “Do you miss your husband?”
“He's dead,” Joan says in an airy voice, rolling her eyes. “It's different. You two have a child together.”
A very long pause.
“We aren't even friendly,” Lane says finally. Joan breathes out a sigh of relief at the admission. “It isn't that I imagined the situation would turn out—this way—but I had assumed—after the initial storm was past...we would be cordial. She won't speak to me.”
She raises her eyebrows. “How mature of her.”
“Well—” he exhales a long breath, seems to reconsider his words. “I suppose you don't want to hear about this.”
“You put up with me talking about Greg,” she reminds him. “I don't care.”
Another sigh. “She believed...you and I were...involved. Due to the—mix up with those flowers. At—New Year's.”
Joan can't help laughing. “You mean when I threw them into your face?”
“Yes,” he says with a haughty tone, drawing out the s into a kind of hiss as if he's upset, although he's clearly trying to make a joke. “Well. It—was the final straw, anyway. We'd had a series of arguments before that had even...happened.”
He's never been so candid about this, not even on the night they conceived the baby. Joan keeps her voice light. It's good if he wants to talk. “About the usual things?”
“Mmm,” Lane says. “Money. The agency. England.” Another pause. “She hated it here.”
Joan sighs out a breath. “I can't imagine hating Manhattan.”
She loves this city so much. And Lane does, too—which always surprised her. When they moved into the office, he had half a box full of New York paraphernalia for display. Statues and pennants and the tackiest souvenir coffee mug, featuring hand-drawn maps of the island. It probably got shuttled into the trash, given his wife’s decorating tastes. She'd forgotten about that.
“They attempted to send me to India, you know,” he says, with a huff of amusement. “I imagine Rebecca should have liked New York much better after months in...Bombay.”
Joan blinks, completely lost. “What?”
He laughs again. It's almost a giggle. “Oh. Perhaps I've never mentioned. Sorry.”
“No,” she says, teasing him, “you haven't. When was this?”
“Lawnmower day,” he replies, voice matter-of-fact. She bursts out laughing. Put like that, it sounds like a national holiday instead of a horrific accident.
“God.” After getting her breath back. “You would have hated that.”
She can't imagine him in India. All those people pressed together in colorful, dirty streets, speaking so many languages—the oppressive heat—playing manager to a bunch of stuffed shirts with pedigrees and fancy titles. And an unhappy wife, to boot. He'd have been miserable.
“You understand why I chose to be part of—this firm, obviously.”
Joan smiles, twisting the phone cord around one finger. “Well, you belong in the city. That’s the bottom line.”
There's a sudden tightness in her chest, but she pushes it aside. Why did she get so sentimental?
“Yes,” Lane says, after a strange pause. His voice is quieter. “Erm. I—think it—turned out all right, anyway.”
Her hand brushes against the gentle slope of her belly, where there's been a small twinge on her left side. I think the baby might be moving, she means to say. There’s a type of flutter. You would understand if you felt it. It’s so strange.
None of these thoughts leave her lips. Joan clears her throat in an attempt to hide the fact that she's a little choked up. “Yes. I think so.”
Lane shuts the door to her bathroom as he emerges, wearing an undershirt and blue pajama pants, and smelling faintly of spicy soap. “Ready for bed?”
Propped up by several pillows, Joan sighs, and puts her book aside, one hand resting on her swollen stomach. “Baby's been moving a lot tonight. Be warned. I might not sleep.”
Lane pulls an intrigued face as he climbs in beside her and gets under the covers. “Can I—feel?”
“You're the one who moved him in there.” With a smirk. “Go ahead.”
After a moment, his hand, warm and big, nudges underneath her button-up pajama top and splays over the roundest part of her abdomen. She lets out a deep breath, relaxing into the touch and closing her eyes.
“It was on my right,” she murmurs, not lifting her head from the pillows. There's a rustling, and she feels him scoot closer to her side, push the hem of her pajama top up with both hands. Despite the discomfort in her back, this is more comfortable than lying all the way down.
When Lane presses a kiss to the top of her stomach, she opens her eyes, regarding him with a drowsy smile. “You want to feel, or do you want to fool around?”
“I want to kiss you.” He does it again, brushing away the touch of his lips with the back of his fingers. Joan sighs again, adjusting her position on the pillows. For a few minutes, it's relaxing to let him do this, just kind of nice, until one of his hands drifts up to caress her breast. Then it begins to feel distinctly more stimulating.
Lane's thumb swipes across her nipple, making her gasp. When she looks up at him, he very purposefully does it again, studying her reaction. Her breath hitches. He reaches out to palm her other breast with the heel of his left hand, moving in wide circular motions.
After several moments, she reaches up to unbutton her top with shaking fingers, and as soon as she's got the last button his mouth replaces his hands—making her arch into him—her fingers threading through the back of his hair—
Her pajamas are soaked and sticking to her skin, especially in the chest—she's either sweating, or lactating, or experiencing some awful new pregnancy symptom. Hard to tell in the dark. Clumsily, she sits up and strips off the damp clothes, flinging her blankets to the side and scooting toward the cool side of the bed. Jesus. She almost feels feverish.
Joan glances at the clock on her bedside table as she settles back into bed. Two thirty.
It's only a dream. It's nothing.
They've been working in Lane's office for almost an hour with the door closed, and at this point, the heat inside the modest-sized room feels unbearable. She feels flushed, as if direct sun is beating down on every inch of her skin. Sitting here unmoving, Joan's hyperaware of perspiration as it trickles slowly down her neck and lower back and between her breasts. She does not let herself acknowledge the persistent ache that beats between her legs. These days, everything gets her going. She’s just trying not to draw attention to the symptoms.
After shifting uncomfortably in her seat for what feels like the millionth time, Joan reaches for her purse with a growl of annoyance. She retrieves her handkerchief, unfolds it, and dabs as delicately as she can at the hollow of her throat and around her collar to wick away the moisture, briefly closing her eyes and letting out a small sigh as she feels a slight breeze against her skin.
When she moves to replace her handkerchief in her purse, she notices Lane staring at her, eyes dark, hands frozen on top of his desk. Joan knows that look. She loves that look. If he doesn't stop looking at her that way, she's going to lock the door and unzip her dress and—
Lane shakes his head once, and noticeably clears his throat, causing her to snap out of her reverie. “You—all right?”
She lets out a breath she wasn't even aware she was holding. “Sorry. Just—distracted.”
Sitting astride Lane in a hotel bedroom, Joan sighs out a laugh at his gasped out words, rolling her hips slowly forward from the place where they're joined. Too slowly, apparently. He thrusts up, wanting more. His legs are shaking between her thighs as she moves.
“Feel good?” she asks, voice low. She loves teasing him.
“Mmm,” he whines, sucking in a sharp breath. His hands clutch at her wide hips, one moving to palm her breast. “Need to—”
“Not yet,” she murmurs with a wicked grin, brushing wild locks of hair away from his reddened face, and moving faster. He's so close. She loves seeing him like this, all tension and heat and primal need. “Hold on.”
He pinches her nipple, tipping her over the edge—
Joan wakes with her body clenched in climax—mouth open, her fingers clutching at the blanket covering her lap, back arching into the sofa cushions. After a few moments, her muscles relax, and she's able to gather her wits, glancing around the living room as her heart continues to pound in her chest. The magazine that was draped across her lap has sailed into the floor, and the television’s still on from earlier, playing a Lucy repeat. She swipes at her mouth with the back of one hand.
How the hell is she supposed to endure five more months like this?
In the mornings, Joan sees handsome men on the street and imagines them going home to pretty wives or girlfriends, wonders how they'd take their lovers, what they like, if they're any good. She's even caught herself glancing twice at some of the other men in the office, which is beyond embarrassing, and although she's been taking care of the issue on her own as best she can, so far, going to bed alone has only sharpened the urge for someone else’s touch.
Sitting in the quiet conference room and filling out paperwork serves the dual purpose of allowing her to prepare for the upcoming status meeting and avoiding Lane for a few more minutes. She’s started to experience visceral reactions every time she so much as glimpses him in the hallway.
“Hey, Joan.” Stan breezes inside, tossing a sketchpad onto the table several seats away from her. “Any sign of Pegasus?”
She barely looks up from her steno pad. “Did you bring your expense reports?”
Stan rises from his seat before he can even finish sitting down. “Shit. See you in two.”
Humming a tune, he passes Lane in the doorway on the way out. As Lane walks into the room, she gets a small whiff of his cologne, mixed with a hint of vanilla tobacco. The scent sends a twinge of excitement straight into her belly.
Don't look at him. It'll pass in a minute.
Lane makes a noise of amusement as he puts several folders in front of his regular place at the table, on her immediate left. “What did he leave out this time?”
Joan focuses on keeping her breathing steady, presses the nib of her pen more forcefully into the paper. November nineteen sixty five. Ten o'clock am.
“Joan, did you—” are his next three words, followed by a sharp intake of breath.
The sound makes her snap her head up to look at him. He's staring at her. Or, more precisely, at her chest. She looks down, notices she can see the outline of her taut nipples through the fabric of her sage-green dress, and flushes hot all over. God, it never ends. Just when she can get Lane to look at her like he wants to have her for breakfast, there's not enough time to do anything.
“You're making it worse,” she says crisply, snatching a manila folder from a nearby stack – did he bring them? did she? – and opening it in front of her as a kind of shield, as if she's examining the papers inside. She has no idea what any of them say. They may as well be written in Greek.
“What,” Lane manages to rasp out.
Joan slants him an angry glance over the top of the folder, voice low. Does she have to spell out everything? “Because I'm thinking about you! I can't stop!”
Lane's movements are awkward and clumsy as he sinks into the chair next to hers, obviously aroused. His face is pink all the way to the tips of his ears, eyes dark behind his glasses, mouth pursed in an O of surprise.
All she can hear is her own pulse hammering in her ears. She just keeps picturing him closing the space between their bodies, putting his hands to her—no. Stop it. She wrenches her gaze away.
“Joan.” The way he breathes out her name – the waver in his voice – is like a jolt to the spine. Jesus. Don't look at him. Don't think about it.
She squirms in her chair, still pretending to examine the folder in her hands just as Stan pushes back into the room with Peggy and Ken and Harry in tow, the four of them slinging papers around and laughing and arguing over some stupid program they all saw on TV last night. Lane uses the interruption to hide his flushed face with his left hand, practically hunched over the ledger as he hastily picks up a pencil with his other hand. He holds it upside down for the first few seconds.
Joan glances over at the others. Pete's the only person not accounted for. She swallows, tries to wet her lips. “Where's Pete?”
“Secor,” Ken replies, before taking a drink of his coffee. “Brunch date.”
She nods her head. Avoids looking at Lane. “Well. Let's—begin.”
Twenty minutes after the meeting, Joan's at her desk attempting to put together a to-do list for Thursday (and failing miserably) when her phone rings. Private line.
She lets it ring twice before picking up. “Joan Harris.”
“Have you any idea what you’ve done to me?” comes the hushed exclamation. “I—I—spent the entire hour wracked by—every manner of—obscene images!”
Joan bites her lip to keep from laughing, but she can't hide the amusement in her voice. Lane was noticeably distracted throughout the meeting, barely spoke, and refused to budge from his seat until everyone else had left the room. She’d used the opportunity to show off her ample figure as she gathered her things and walked out of the conference room. It’s his fault for sitting directly by the door.
“By all means, share.” She keeps her voice light. “It isn’t nice to leave a girl in the dark.”
There’s a sharp breath on the other end, but no reply. Joan decides to keep playing. “You could come over here and tell me in person.”
“As you are well aware, I am in no condition to leave my office!” Lane snaps, but quickly lowers his voice again. “And what, precisely, would you have me do once I arrive? Shall I have you on your desk before the lunch break?”
A shiver courses through her at the words, but Joan keeps her voice low. “Why not? Do you get off on being watched?”
Noises like papers being pushed aside. Maybe even onto the floor. When Lane speaks again, his voice is shaky. He lets out a noise like a whine. “Why must you torture me this way?”
Joan raises an eyebrow. The teasing note is gone from her voice. “All I’m saying is that we had fun last time. No reason we can’t do it again.”
A loud scoff echoes down the line. His voice is agitated. “One minute, you tell me we’re not to be over-involved, and the next, you say you need me to touch you! That is not clear! This is the complete opposite of clarity!”
Joan lets out an aggravated breath, briefly closing her eyes. This conversation is not going the way she’d originally hoped. She folds her hands on top of her desk, and presses the receiver between her shoulder and her ear, trying to ignore the pressing flutters of arousal. “I'm not trying to confuse you.”
“Well, you are, damn it! I’ve never been so mixed up in all my life!”
A brief silence. Joan can't make herself say the words I'm sorry without seeming insincere, so she offers the truest reparation she can muster. “What would you like to be different? Between us?”
“I—” Lane stammers to a stop, as if he meant to continue his earlier tirade no matter what she said, but has suddenly lost the words. “What?”
She lifts one shoulder in a shrug, although he can't see her through the phone. “You say I'm confusing you. So tell me what you want.”
A noise like a laugh, but it’s obvious he isn’t amused. “For god’s sake—I’ve never told that to—anyone. Even when they've—asked.”
Joan expels another breath. She wishes Lane was in the room, wishes she could offer him some kind of physical reassurance.
“I—” he stutters, seeming to catch himself before he can blurt out whatever else is on his mind, “Sorry. I can’t—talk about it now. I’ve—got to go.”
A dial tone echoes in Joan’s ear. She grips the receiver for what feels like hours, and when she comes back to herself, an operator’s voice is on the line, high and shrill. “Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”
Joan curses out loud, and hangs up.
There’s a knock on the door around 2:30.
“Do you have a minute?” Peggy’s poised in Joan’s doorway with a folio in her hand. “I wanted to talk to you about some…budgetary…concerns.”
“You should see Lane first,” Joan says automatically. She’s likely more than capable of taking care of this problem, whatever it is, but the urge to be petty about work is very strong today. If he wants to be tortured, she can take care of that. Creative always has endless lists of complaints, and he’ll hate listening to every one of them.
“Well, I knocked on his door and he yelled that he was busy, so…” Peggy’s raised eyebrows are a question. “Do you mind?”
With a sigh, Joan motions her inside. Peggy shuts the door behind her as she sits down.
“We need another writer,” she says first, reaching to grab a cigarette from the holder on Joan’s desk without even asking. Joan doesn’t comment, just watches as Peggy lights it and takes the first drag, exhaling with a vicious huff of breath. “Doesn’t have to be full time. I just want to know if we have the money. For that.”
“But I thought you could do everything,” Joan says, with the barest hint of snideness in her voice. She can’t help it. Peggy’s walked around here for months like she was the agency’s gift to copywriting. Sometimes her ego gets on Joan’s nerves.
“I’m not Don,” Peggy retorts. “I can’t just hire somebody.”
“You fired somebody,” Joan counters. “It didn’t seem to stop you before.”
Peggy takes another drag of her cigarette, rolling her eyes like this was basically the kind of conversation she expected to have. “Well, it wouldn’t be an issue if Don was involved with the work. But he’s not. He’s always with Megan, and she’s just starting. She’s not any help.”
“Peggy, they’re about to be married,” Joan says, rolling her eyes. “They’re not going to stop being distracted just because you hire someone else.”
The younger woman glares at Joan as if this is a personal insult. “Well, I can do the work alone right now, but if we take on much more new business, and Don keeps being distracted, creative is going to be stretched. I thought someone else should know. He’s not writing at all.”
“I’m flattered to be chosen,” Joan says in a dry voice. “Anything else?”
Peggy huffs out a sigh, rolling her cigarette between her finger and thumb. “They’re always together in his office. With the door closed. It’s disgusting.”
“Are you spying on them now?” Joan asks, raising an unimpressed eyebrow.
The other woman rolls her eyes. “No. I’m just saying. The sex can’t be that good.”
Joan can’t help but snicker. “Well, I’m sure it isn’t terrible.”
A man like that – considering the number of women Don’s probably been with – is bound to know what he’s doing. Although, Lane knew what he was doing the night they were together, and he’s not the carousing type. Not for the first time, Joan wonders if Lane reads up on sex the way he does everything else: researches positions and biological responses with the same vigor usually reserved for finance and mathematics. He’s probably stored facts upon facts inside that brain of his. He could catalog her body with methodical precision, the way he did the night they were together—
“Joan, you’re really flushed,” Peggy says, interrupting Joan’s train of thought. Her voice is loud and concerned, as if this is not the first time she’s said it. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Joan responds automatically, shifting in her seat, hoping her pregnant body isn’t giving her away and that the younger woman doesn’t know where to look. “It’s a little warm.”
Peggy fixes her with a critical expression, as if she recognizes she’s being lied to. But all she does is rise from her chair with a heavy sigh, stubbing out her cigarette in the ashtray. “I’ll tell Bridget to get you some water.”
Joan doesn’t see Lane again until the end of the day, when she’s boarding the elevator to go home. When she glimpses him in the corner of the car, she doesn’t hesitate to walk inside or to stand next to him, although her heart beats a little faster in her chest. She leans against the wall very slightly, needing to feel its heavy weight against her back and shoulders.
“Hello,” she says.
“'Lo,” he mumbles. He won’t look at her.
The doors close. There's a slight shudder as the elevator begins to glide downward, and Joan glances to her left, needing to see his face. It’s tense; his jaw is set firmly and he’s staring straight ahead at the seam of the steel doors.
The bell dings. Joan glances toward the opposite wall just as the doors open to admit several people from another floor, but she and Lane don’t move away from each other. The doors close again, and the elevator lowers to the ground floor.
As it opens on the lobby and everyone begins to file out, Joan prepares to exit behind them, to murmur a passing comment to Lane as she leaves—good night; take care; talk to you later—when his hand presses against her wrist, so briefly it’s as if he didn’t touch her at all.
“Wait.” His voice is raspy.
Joan’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t speak, just stays still until the car is empty. He jabs at a button and the doors close again. As the elevator begins to rise, it suddenly comes to a halt, and she glances over to see Lane's hand hovering over the emergency stop. Anxiety trickles down her spine as she waits for the words.
“I don’t—know how to say this,” he begins quietly, staring at the row of unlit buttons as if his thoughts are printed on their numbered faces.
She glances at him, feels nervousness bubble up into her stomach and throat. If he’s going to reject her, he needs to do it fast so she can get out of here with her dignity intact. “Just tell me.”
Lane lets out a heavy sigh, and when he speaks it’s quiet, but rushed, as if the words are being ripped from a shameful place. “You said we—had fun together, before—and that is true, but I don’t only…want fun. I think you’re…aware.”
Oh, my god.
“I know you have strong feelings,” Joan manages to say, stunned. Her voice is small, almost tremulous. “About the baby.”
Lane straightens up with a sharp exhale, and finally turns to face her, rubbing an anxious hand over his flushed face. At this angle, she can see a five o'clock shadow beginning to darken his jaw. “You don't—think that I—care about you?”
“You do,” she says immediately. “Lane, I know you do.”
Another heavy sigh. He begins to pace as if by habit, although in the cramped elevator car he can only walk one or two steps in either direction before having to turn around.
Joan lets out a breath. Her lower back and the balls of her feet pulse with a dull, persistent pain, and after watching him pace for several seconds, she decides to speak up. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I need to sit down.”
His eyes widen, but he stops walking, and moves to help her as she scoots carefully down the wall and into a sitting position. It’s awkward, but it’s better than before, and she’s not as uncomfortable trying to shift her weight on swollen feet. After another moment, Lane sits beside her. They stare at the beige speckled tile in silence for several seconds until Joan speaks again.
“If it's just guilt driving this conversation, we shouldn't be together.”
Biting her lip as soon as the last words leave her mouth. Any personal involvement will mean scandal. It won’t be easy. And it’s not something to be undertaken lightly. Children are involved: a baby that will be shaped by the relationship of its parents, for good or bad.
Lane starts to speak before she can find the rest of her sentence. “I don’t—feel that way.”
“I don’t either,” Joan says. Her heart is in her throat as she admits it. If there is the smallest chance they can be together and make it manageable, Joan wants to take that risk. He’s the father of her child, for god’s sake. And he’s good to her.
Silence settles over the car again, making her skin prickle with goosebumps, but suddenly she feels Lane’s fingers thread gently through hers. She looks over at him, studies his blue eyes, hidden by thick black frames—studies his crooked nose, freckled face, and the pockmarked scars on his jaw.
He takes her left hand in both of his and when he looks at her it’s as if he’s seeing her for the first time. His voice is rough as he speaks. “You’re my…dearest friend, you know.”
Joan has never had a man profess his feelings to her by invoking friendship, but she feels her eyes prickle alarmingly at the sentiment, and clutches his hand. She knows what Lane’s too afraid to say. What their relationship, complex as it is in this case, means to him.
“You, a-and the little one, ought to be in my life.” A pause, as if he’s trying to find the rest of his words, but he sighs, as if none of them are coming out right in his mind. An anxious expression returns to his face. “If you’ll…have me, anyway.”
God, even sitting here holding her hand, she can feel him trembling; he must have been terrified to say any of those things aloud. Her throat is tight, and she feels her eyes brimming again. Oh, these stupid hormones, making her cry all the time.
“We’d like that,” is all she manages to say at first. Lane’s grip on her hand tightens, and she swallows, looks up at him and meets his eyes, trying to smile.
“Do you—mean it?” he says in a rasp.
Joan nods once.
Clearly moved, he kisses the back of her hand before releasing it and moving to embrace her. The positioning is awkward: sitting down, her stomach is large enough to be in the way, and he can’t hold her as closely he could even a month ago, but she doesn't care. When he kisses her, he tastes like gin and tea, and Joan finds this strange combination oddly comforting.
After they part, he presses his forehead to hers, one hand cupping her cheek, as if it’s all too much for him to process, and he just needs proximity to believe that this is real. His breath is warm against her skin. Joan doesn't have to open her eyes to know that he’s emotional. She’s choked up, too. If they’re both a mess, it doesn't matter.
“You did good,” she whispers once she thinks she can speak, kissing him again briefly before putting her head on his shoulder. It took courage to lay his true feelings on the line, and she wants him to know how much she appreciates that. He leans into her, planting a quick kiss into her hair, and they sit in peaceful silence for a few minutes, broken only by the hum of the fluorescent lights above them and the distant whirring of machinery.
Joan swipes at her damp lashes as best she can with the fingertips of her right hand. She clears her throat. Maybe she can make him laugh. “They’re going to think the elevator’s broken.”
He hums out an amused noise, reaching for her hand again. Hands clasped, his thumb brushes against the side of her index finger. “I don’t care.”