“Mrs. Harris? I have your mother on line two.”
Joan's already reaching for a half-smoked cigarette, still burning in the ashtray. She must have forgotten to stub it out. “Thank you, Bridget. I'll take it.”
It must be somewhat important. She never calls the office.
“Well, you never pick up at home,” Gail says in response, when Joan points out as much. “What am I supposed to do?”
“I told you I'm staying with a friend right now.” Joan taps her cigarette against the side of the ashtray as she talks. “I'm not at the apartment.”
“Oh, Joanie, don't mince words. You're living with that friend—and don't think I don't know what that means.” A short laugh. “Last time you called I heard his voice in the background. He's got a nice accent.”
Joan lets out a sigh. “Mom, I don't have time for this.”
“Well, clear your schedule,” Gail says in a blithe voice. “I'm coming to the city for the weekend. The two of you can take me to dinner.”
Joan's cigarette dangles precariously between two fingers. She pushes it into the ashtray before she can fumble it. “Excuse me?”
There's a small peal of laughter on the other end. “Yes, Joan, I have my own social life. Don't sound so surprised.”
She's still trying to adjust to the idea of her mother being in the city. It's probably to see some fourth-rate musician. “You want to go to dinner.”
“Why, don't you want me to meet your beau?”
Joan's voice gets sharper. “You're being ridiculous.”
Surprisingly, the other woman doesn't take the bait. “I think Friday night would be best.”
“Mom,” Joan says in a frustrated tone, picking up her earring from where it's been lying by the phone—has she been missing it all day?—and toying it through her fingers. “We'll have to come from work. It's very inconvenient.”
Gail just laughs. “I knew he was from work. You kept denying it.” There's a noise like a buzzing egg timer in the background. Is she cooking? What the hell would she need to cook? “Well, call me back when you've set the reservation.”
Joan sighs again. “Fine. Goodbye.”
Sitting in front of her mirror in her silk bathrobe, she fumbles yet another compact while trying to open it. Unfortunately, this one falls out of her hands and goes sailing onto the floor. “Damn it!”
She's long past the stage when she could pick up dropped items in less than five minutes, and glares at the object on the carpet as if it's personally insulted her.
Lane walks out of the bathroom, freshly showered, and dressed in his bathrobe. He's wiping remnants of shaving cream from his jaw with a hand towel, frowning at her. “You all right?”
Joan closes her eyes briefly, pinching the bridge of her nose. When she opens them, she sees Lane's reflection in the mirror as he walks closer. “This has to go well.”
He picks up her compact, comes to place it onto the vanity, and puts his palms on her shoulders, fingers gently kneading into the tense muscles. “Lean your head forward, hm?”
Joan does, sighing as his thumb presses into a particularly distinct knot behind her shoulder blade. “She never likes anyone. I don't know why I'm tense.”
“We don't have to go. Say you're ill, or something.”
“You keep suggesting that,” she mumbles, but a little smile plays around her mouth. She lets out another happy noise as his fingertips stroke over the nape of her neck. In the past few weeks, she hasn't felt well, so they've had little opportunity for sex. But sometimes she's still surprised at how often he craves physical contact of any kind. Like he's starved.
His hands move down to her lower back, eliciting another deep exhale and making her shift in her chair. That feels amazing.
Lane must have liked her expression, or the noise she made, because he bends his head to press a kiss to her bare shoulder, voice low. “Shall I keep relaxing you?”
Joan's eyes flutter open, darting to glance at the clock on her vanity table before meeting his questioning gaze in the mirror. He's got that twinkle in his eye. “What do you have in mind?”
Lane grins, and with a little amused noise, he slides one sleeve of her robe from her shoulder, exposing her upper arm and most of her left breast.
Joan snorts out a laugh. “I still have to put on my face, so whatever it is, you've got twenty minutes.”
“Now, Lane, when Joanie says you two go over the books together, what exactly does she mean?”
“Oh,” Lane says, glancing at Joan with a smile he can't suppress. What has she said about that? “Well. It's—only accounting. Fairly straightforward.”
“Mom,” Joan interrupts, giving him an apologetic look. “He's not on a job interview. Can we talk about something other than work?”
“No, Joan—I honestly don't mind,” he hastens to say, putting a brief hand to Joan's knee under the table. It's all right.
“You see?” Gail says, waving a hand as if to say her daughter is overreacting. “I'm just trying to get to know him!”
After nearly a bottle of wine split between the three of them, he's certain there can't be much else to know. Not unless Mrs. Holloway—no, Gail, she's already reminded him twice—wants to hear about the fiscal year budget. He's not sure why she wants to dwell on particulars of the office, but it's friendly of her to try and include him.
Joan lets out a breath, and presses her hand to her stomach with a wince which likely means the baby's jumping all over her bladder. Giving him a knowing look, she sets aside her napkin, rising awkwardly from her chair. “I'm just going to go freshen my lipstick.”
“Take your time,” Gail says with a smile. “I'm sure we'll find something to talk about.”
Lane watches her walk away with a happy sigh. Joan's been dreading the evening for nearly a week, so it's nice to see everything going so well. He really isn't sure why she was so anxious, unless it was something to do with her hormones.
“So, now that you've knocked Joanie up, are you planning to marry her?”
He turns back to the table with a frown of confusion, eyes going wide. “Sorry?”
Gail stubs out her cigarette, giving him a sly smile. Her voice is easy, but with a steel undertone that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. “Well, you're the baby's father, aren't you? The way you look at her. It's obvious.”
He feels color rush hot to his face. “Mrs.—sorry, Gail, you've—I assure you that—Joan and I didn't—we weren't—”
Gail just glances him up and down, unfazed, and reaches for her wine glass. “You think I'm asking because she was married?” She makes a derisive noise. “I don't care about that. Greg's dead.”
“I—” Lane stammers, completely thrown, “well—”
“Honey, you're not a good liar, so I'll spare you the trouble. I just want to know if you're the kind of man my daughter thinks you are.”
At his shocked look, she shrugs. “Her father isn't around to do this. And with men, she doesn't always speak up for herself.”
Lane huffs out a skeptical noise. “She's—always been—candid with me.”
Gail arches an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?”
He draws himself up taller in his chair, knowing he's got to stand up for Joan in her absence. “Sorry, I—understand your concerns, and with all due respect—”
“You're not kids. And I'm sure you like to imagine this is the perfect solution, but I know Joanie. She'd rather be married.”
“Joan and I have discussed it, thank you. We thought it prudent to wait, given...her situation.”
Bit of a white lie. The subject was discussed very briefly after they first got together. They'd been in bed one afternoon, and after a particularly passionate go, he'd stammered out something very impulsive. What would you say if I asked you to marry me? And she'd stared back at him, looking stunned. Are you asking? And then he'd felt nervous and said, well, not this minute, no, and she'd looked relieved, and kissed him, and they...haven't spoken about it since.
Gail rolls her eyes. “What are you waiting for, the second baby?”
At his outraged expression, she actually laughs.
“After she got engaged to Greg, he told me he was going to take care of her.” With a scoff. “He might have been a moron, but at least he made a commitment before getting himself blown up.”
“I am committed,” Lane snaps back, before he can help himself. Noticing he's caught the attention of the next table, he lowers his voice. “Joan is part of my life now, and I intend to marry her.”
“I don't care about intent. It's useless.” Gail says coolly, taking a drag of a freshly-lit cigarette and looking more like Joan than he's ever realized. “Are you planning to act or not?”
He opens his mouth to reply, but sees Joan walking slowly in their direction, one hand over her stomach as if she's feeling ill again. “Yes,” he hisses quickly, watching as Joan accidentally knocks into a stranger's purse on the way over, “all right? Yes. Now I'll not have you upsetting Joan in her condition. This conversation is over.”
“Fine,” Gail retorts with a shrug, glancing over her shoulder as her daughter arrives at the table, and addressing Joan with an airy voice. “You all right?”
Joan ignores her as she lowers herself into her chair, but eventually, once she's settled, she reaches for her purse, rifles through it for a moment, then glances over at her mother's cigarettes with something like guilt. “Can I have one of those?”
Gail slides her pack across the table. Lane exhales a very deep breath, feeling a bead of sweat roll down the side of his face, and wishes the waiter would return with their entrees.
Sunday morning—very early—Lane wakes to see dim light filling the room. Joan's standing by her night table, hunched forward, one hand flat-palmed on the mattress, and the other clutching something—his pocket watch, he realizes, after putting on his glasses.
Joan shakes her head. “No, it's—nothing.”
But her face twists as she says the last word, and she presses a hand to her stomach with a grunt, closing her eyes and breathing deeply, as if she's in a great deal of pain.
“Christ,” he blurts immediately, jumping out of bed and hurrying around to her side, putting a hand to the middle of her back. “Where does it—what—”
Oh, god. Oh, my god. Can't be time.
She ends up gripping his forearm until the spasm has passed. When she finally speaks, her voice is strained. “I think it's...” she trails off, and blinks, as if she's forgotten what she was about to say. “The—contractions. False labor.”
“There's—no blood,” he rasps, looking her up and down and glancing all around the room as if to confirm this.
Joan shakes her head.
Lane exhales, feeling lightheaded, and rubs a hand across the scratch of stubble at his jaw. Right. “Hospital. Come on, let's go.”
“But—Dr. Emerson said if I had less than five in an hour it was fine.”
“And how many have there been?” he asks loudly, attempting to keep calm. He's not sure how well it's working. For god's sake, why didn't she wake him?
She presses her lips together, glancing toward the night table. “Four. But they're not—there's no pattern.”
Lane swears aloud, trying not to glare at her, and briefly fixing his gaze on the floor instead.
Joan's voice has gone very quiet. “I didn't want to overreact.”
He crosses the room, shedding his pajama top, and pulling on the rumpled collared shirt and trousers that were folded on top of the hamper. “I don't care what argument you make. I don't care if they send us back home. You're in pain. We are going, and that's final.”
Joan's staring at him with wide eyes, blinking rapidly, mouth set in a familiar way that means she doesn't want to burst out crying. “We don't even have the nursery ready.”
She presses a hand to her mouth. It hits him, then, too—the familiar press of fear at the back of his mind. What if it's today? What the hell will we do?
“Oh, my darling, no,” he blurts, moving back to her side and taking her free hand in both of his. She's scared. He's got to calm her. “You—you said yourself, it may not be time. But we've got to go to hospital to find out. We'll—have you looked over, a-and—speak to your Dr. Emerson, and finish your list of things we need. And we'll buy them all, hm?”
She lets out a noise that's half sob, half laugh, leaning into him. He keeps babbling.
“Now, if you'll phone for the taxi, I'll get you a nice comfortable top to wear over.” She's got maternity smocks...somewhere. He hasn't the faintest idea. But there's jumpers in the other dresser. Just—for god's sake, find something! Any sort of top will do. Christ. Perhaps he should have suggested it the other way round, but she's already gone to pick up the receiver.
He heads for the closet in a kind of frantic desperation.
“Time of last contraction?”
Dr. Emerson presses two hands to her bare stomach, palpating firmly as he tries to locate the baby's position. Joan tries to think. Was it one fifty or two fifty when Lane woke up? She wishes he was in the room. Dr. Emerson sent him outside before the physical examination began.
“An hour and a half? I'm—not sure.”
He pulls his hands away to make a notation on her chart. “And you mentioned there was spotting.”
Joan sighs. She didn't tell Lane that part. He was already panicking, and they were filling out paperwork in the waiting area before she found out. “Yes. Very light.”
“That can be normal,” the doctor says, pointing his pen at her stomach, as if for caution. “But I've got questions for you anyway. You drinking plenty of water?”
“Yes. Several glasses a day.”
She had a dizzy spell early in the second trimester. When she told Lane what happened, he started making it a point to bring her water during the workday, or to make sure she had a drink available on her desk, just in case.
“When you were spotting, was the blood bright red?”
“And one I haven't had to ask you in years – are you sexually active?”
Joan fixes the doctor with an unamused look. He just sent a rumpled Lane into the waiting room. She's wearing a man's collared shirt, her blue striped pajama pants, and no makeup. “Yes.”
“Within the past forty-eight hours?”
“Did you experience contractions after sex?”
“During,” she says pointedly, because she's tired of repeating the same word over and over.
Dr. Emerson clears his throat as if trying not to laugh, but his voice doesn't falter. “My fault for not being specific. Did your contractions start less than an hour after sex?”
He writes one last notation, then sets her chart aside. “Okay. Well, you're not dilated. There's no show except for the light spotting, but I think that's probably due to the, uh, extracurricular activities.”
“You think?” she echoes, a little harshly.
“Joan,” he says, briefly touching her elbow. “Physically, everything looks good. You're not in labor, and the baby's fine.”
Joan sighs out a ragged breath of relief. Thank god. There's still time to get everything ready. She could kick herself for not having the baby's room finished. Obviously thirty weeks was too short-sighted a goal. Why didn't she plan for twenty-five?
Because she and Lane were delirious with excitement, and terrified to ruin things.
“When it's time, the pain's going to increase in frequency and intensity. If you can sleep it off, change position to stop them, or walk it off, it's false labor.”
“Okay.” She pauses, trying to parse out the best way to phrase her next request, and decides on the truth. Not like Dr. Emerson is an idiot. “Will you bring my friend in, so he can hear you say that?”
If the news comes straight from the doctor's lips, it will give Lane more peace of mind. And knowing him, he'll write it down or file it away for later. He'll want to hear about the signs; she's sure.
Dr. Emerson raises his eyebrows. “Are congratulations in order?”
“Soon,” she says simply. He hasn't asked, but the conversation is overdue. The day they'd decided to move in together, she'd asked his opinion on setting up the nursery—whether it should be in his apartment or hers. This was followed by an awkward conversation which seemed to go nowhere, but a few minutes later he'd walked into the bedroom and blurted out his real opinion. Stay here. Live here...with me. Don't—don't you know that I want that?
It felt like the prelude to a very different question. But he's been shy about revisiting the subject, and she's tried to be understanding about that.
Joan glances at the doctor's carefully neutral expression. “You don't like him.”
He pauses at the door before he can open it, forcing a smile. “Jojo, I don't get paid to have an opinion.” In a warmer voice. “He did snap at two of my nurses, you know.”
Joan sighs, shaking her head. She only witnessed the time at the admissions desk, when a thin, calm woman filling out a book of crossword puzzles got to go in before they did. Lane's scoff and his loud, incredulous, are we in maternity or not?! wasn't well received by obstetric staff.
“His first wife had a lot of trouble. Lane gets anxious.”
The doctor gives her a more genuine smile this time. “Call me if this happens again, all right? Could save you both the stress of a hospital trip.”
Before he can leave, Joan speaks. “Walter. Thank you.”
“Anytime.” He inclines his head. “Like your outfit, by the way.”
She rolls her eyes as he walks down the hall, tugging at a shirtsleeve in order to re-adjust it. They're too big. They keep coming loose.
Monday afternoon, they're in Lane's office, supposedly going over the expense reports.
Lane's been asleep facedown on the sofa for half an hour, so tired he isn't even snoring. Joan's sitting in the wing back chair with her feet propped up on the coffee table, browsing through a copy of Ad Age she filched from the lounge. Most of the ads have been torn out of it, which should make for easy reading. Not that it's helped. She can't sleep right now, but she's also too exhausted to concentrate on much else.
The crackle of the intercom interrupts her train of thought. “Mr. Pryce?”
Joan glances over at Lane, who doesn't even twitch. With a heavy sigh, she puts her feet on the floor, pushes up out of the armchair, and walks over to his desk. The line two extension blinks back at her from the telephone.
“Scarlett, he's eating,” she says briskly. “If you'll take a message, please.”
If it's his brother again, that can wait. Lane's been ducking that call for what seems like two weeks. Mainly because Scarlett's too stupid to ask which brother called, or to take a legitimate message, and Lane doesn't want to phone anyone back unless he absolutely has to. Especially if it's his younger brother. He hates Charles, apparently. Joan doesn't know why.
“Oh,” comes the hesitant reply. “Well—um—I don't mean to interrupt his lunch, but it's Nigel. And—Nigel's always to be put through, if he calls.”
Jesus. What time is it in England? Why would Nigel be calling in the middle of the morning?
“Yes, of course,” Joan says slowly, casting a hesitant look at the sofa. “Go ahead.” She'll just pick up, excuse herself to wake Lane, and go back into her office.
She can feel her heart pound a little faster as the phone rings. The stupidest thought is running through her mind – don't hate me – as she picks up the receiver.
“Hello, Nigel,” she says first. “Just a minute. Let me get your father.”
A pause. “Wait. You're—not the same girl.”
“No,” she says, debating whether to introduce herself, and deciding she'd better, to clear up some confusion. “I'm Joan. Harris. Your father and I work together.”
“Oh.” Another long pause. “Are you—that Joan? The—the woman?”
“The woman,” Joan echoes, frowning. She can't tell by his tone of voice if he considers this a good or bad thing, although he's clearly picked up the phrase from Rebecca, or someone just as snide. “Lane and I are an item, yes.”
She's on the verge of telling him to hold on, that she'll get Lane, when he blurts:
“Are you really having a baby? Dad's—baby?”
Joan blinks, feeling her entire body prickle with goosebumps. She can't remember when he and Lane spoke last. Maybe he heard that from his mother, too. Jesus. No wonder Lane's been upset. She leans against the side of Lane's desk, clearing her throat. “I am. I didn't—realize you knew that.”
“Yeah. Erm. Heard Mum and Granny talking over Christmas, late at night.” A pause. “They say you're a tart. They hate your guts.”
“Well, I'd like to say I'm surprised, but I'm not,” Joan says, keeping her tone as light as she can, and searching for a way to change the subject. “I hope hearing about the baby didn't upset you.”
“Dunno,” Nigel grumbles after a moment. “'S fine.”
Meaning it bothers him. She can't help but roll her eyes. Lane does the same thing.
Movement from the corner of her eye makes Joan glance at the couch again. Lane's turned over on his side, toward the wall, but judging by the rise and fall of his breaths he's still asleep.
“Well,” she offers, after a second of thought, “if you do have questions about—our situation, you can always talk to L—your father. He'd want to know if you were upset.”
“Dad just asks about school and mates and things.” A scoff. “It's really stupid.”
She was afraid of that. Lane's been agonizing over how to break a lot of their big news to Nigel, and that was only because she insisted his son would be angry if the baby was already born before Lane said a word about it. Last they'd talked, he'd mentioned maybe writing a letter. She doesn't know if anything came of that discussion or not.
“If I—asked you something,” the boy begins, quickly, “like a question, right—would you—tell me the truth?”
Joan purses her mouth, searching for the best way to phrase her reply. Her mother never held anything back, no matter how ugly the truth was, or how much it embarrassed Joan to hear it. But Lane's very protective. She tries to think of a working compromise. Nigel is twelve, and needs to be treated with some type of consideration if he's going to trust them, or be part of their lives in any meaningful way.
“If you think you're mature enough to hear the answer, then yes,” she says, sighing out a deep breath. “You can ask me anything.”
God, she hopes he'll self-censor questions that are too inappropriate. Lane might have a coronary if she talked to his son about sex or girls without consulting him. She's just banking on the gut feeling that Nigel only wants to know what's going on. It'll be about her, or their relationship. Lane can't get annoyed if she answers questions about herself.
“I heard Mum tell Granny you're the reason she left,” Nigel begins slowly, and Joan feels as if lead's dropped into her stomach. “Cause you were the office harlot, or something, and he fancied you.”
Joan bites her lip to keep from saying something she'll regret, although the gist of his question is becoming obvious.
“Erm,” the boy says, quiet. “Yeah, so, is that—true?”
“No,” Joan replies, trying to keep her voice as calm as possible. “Your parents were having problems, but I wasn't part of your father's life. This time last year, we barely said two words to each other.”
“You didn't even—talk? Not even a little?”
“Well, we talked,” Joan says. “But about work things. Cost-variable analysis and expenses and budget restructuring. We weren't friendly. He didn't like me.”
She pauses, listening for a response. “Does that answer your question?”
Joan hopes Nigel can understand a little. She decides not to mention she was also married, or bring up the flower incident, or talk about the pregnancy timeline. That would be too confusing.
A throat-clearing on her right makes Joan startle, and almost drop the phone. On the sofa, Lane's pushing himself into a sitting position, fixing her with a furious look that says he's been awake for at least a couple of minutes. Long enough to hear what she just said, obviously. She winces, and meets his eyes with a silent plea for patience, motioning that it'll be a second.
“Nigel, I'm sorry, but I'm getting called away. Your father's here, though, and he wants to speak to you.”
Lane's standing in front of her now, clearing his throat again, hand outstretched for the receiver. She bats at his fingers. Jesus. Don't get so impatient. “It was nice to talk to you.”
“All right,” the boy mumbles, “bye.”
She hands the phone to Lane, who practically wrenches it from her grasp, glaring at her in a way that means she'd better beat it. When he speaks, his voice is raspy with sleep. “Nigel. Sorry. I'd—stepped out. What—is something the matter?”
Joan turns to leave, rolling her eyes at Lane's petulance and sighing out an annoyed breath as she opens his office door and walks out. If he'd just talked to his son a few weeks ago, this conversation could have been avoided.
Joan takes off her robe and tosses it aside, easing herself into a sitting position on the bed. Lane's been seething about the phone call all day. He barely even said two words to her until they were sitting down to dinner, at which point, he growled out a single sentence:
“Why did you let him ask so many questions?!”
She'd sighed, dropping her spoon into her mashed potatoes, and leveled him with a pleading look, too tired to have an argument. “Do you want to have a conversation, or do you just want to be mad at me?”
He'd set his jaw, apparently thinking she was taunting him, and hadn't said another word. After dinner, she'd left him to his own devices, and spent two hours organizing the nursery, washing baby clothes and putting them into drawers.
They still need to get a crib, a rocking chair, and more age-appropriate toys, but the room's been painted a pale yellow for a couple of weeks, and Lane arranged the rest of the furniture on Sunday afternoon. She checks off items on her to-do list with a golf pencil she'd found in Lane's nightstand, puts this into the spiral binding, and sets the memo pad on the edge of her end table.
It takes her several minutes to turn down the blankets and move awkwardly into a prone position under the covers, lying on her left side, with a pillow between her knees. After a few more minutes, the light clicks off in the bathroom, and Lane emerges, wearing a set of striped pajamas and rubbing at his nose. Obviously thinking she'd be asleep by now.
She watches him as he takes off his glasses and gets into bed, leaning against the headboard. He clearly notices that she's awake, but he doesn't speak. Joan was hoping he'd say something.
“Good night,” she offers, studying his distant expression as he stares across the room. He's still thinking about it. He worries so much.
“'Night,” he says gruffly.
She sighs, adjusting position, and shuts her eyes. Sometime later, she wakes up to feel a hand shaking her shoulder and Lane whispering her name.
“'M asleep,” she groans, pushing away his hand with a halfhearted effort.
“I know—sorry—but I've—got to talk to you. Please.”
“Mmph,” she mumbles, forcing open her eyes, and trying to focus. Lane's sitting straight up in bed, room dark except for a few slivers of moonlight by the window. The blankets around him are undisturbed, and his pillow is tucked behind his back. Like he hasn't even slept.
She squints in his direction, pushing up onto one elbow. If she doesn't keep her head up, she'll nod off again. “What's wrong?”
“Do you—think I'm a bad father?”
His voice is so quiet. She frowns at the words, and reaches out to touch his arm with her free hand. “Lane. No.”
What happened on that phone call?
“I just keep thinking Nigel's outgrown me.” He rubs a hand over his face. “I try to talk to him about marks and his friends and all the—important things, you know, but he—just—doesn't seem to care one way or the other. And then I keep wondering what I've done wrong.”
She slowly pushes herself into a sitting position, putting both pillows behind her back. “If this is because I answered his questions, I wasn't trying to cut you off at the knees.”
“No,” Lane says. “It was like this well before you spoke to him.” He looks over at her, expression fraught with anxiety. “Although I was—upset. Obviously.”
Joan nods. He blows out a breath.
“It—” he begins, and winces, lowering his voice. “I'm aware this is going to sound ridiculous, but I was actually—well, I was—envious of—of you.”
She blinks, completely thrown. ”Why?”
Lane sighs, and shrugs. “He was...asking you...proper questions. Important questions. And all I could think was I'm his father; why isn't he asking me?”
“Oh,” she blurts, in a kind of relieved voice. Lane turns to stare at her, and she quickly clarifies her outburst. “I'm sorry. I—just thought I'd crossed some kind of line.”
“No. Erm. I don't know.” There's a wistful note to his voice. Maybe he's still envious, even in hindsight. They'll need to have a real conversation tomorrow. “Only I couldn't get over how calm you were. How easily the words came.”
“Trust me,” Joan says, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand, “it wasn't easy.” She slants him a knowing look. “He overheard Rebecca talking to her mother.”
“Christ,” he mumbles, looking embarrassed.
She shakes her head. It's not something to dwell on. “Have you thought any more about writing that letter?”
He shrugs. Joan decides to press the issue one more time. “I know you'd rather talk to Nigel in person, or on the phone, but he does have a lot of questions. And I think you should be the one to answer them.” She sighs, trying to make her voice a little teasing. “If nothing else, it gives you a way to strike up proper conversation. About important things?”
He makes a grumbling sort of noise that says he'll think about it. She takes one of his hands and presses it to her taut stomach, although the baby's actually asleep, for once. Lane glances over. His hand twitches under hers.
“Listen to me,” she says, gentle. “You love your children, and are involved in their lives. You're one of the good ones.”
Lane still seems melancholy, but he leans in, kissing her briefly, and when they part, he exhales, putting his forehead to her shoulder with a mumble. “Sorry I woke you.”
Joan sighs, reaching out to thread her fingers through the back of his hair. “Next time, talk to me before I drop off.”
He kisses her neck, then moves back, motioning that she can lie down if she wants to. They settle into bed in companionable silence, until Lane breaks it.
“You'd...tell me if you...wanted something...to be different, wouldn't you?”
She frowns. “What?”
A sigh. He shakes his head. “I—I don't know. Sorry. Bit tired.”
“Let's just sleep,” she says after a pause, adjusting her head on the pillow, and closing her eyes. “I thought we could go to Gimbel's on Friday. Get a few toys?”
“Hm.” He pats her hand. “That could be all right.”
The whooping noises of delighted kids and the sighs of their indulgent parents carry across the store as Joan examines a display of rattles and teething toys. They've been wandering around the aisles for almost thirty minutes. Lane keeps finding new things he thinks the baby might enjoy. Because the baby will be born with the skill sets to put together miniature warships and play with model trains. Honestly, after the stress from the beginning of the week, his eagerness is a welcome change.
As she consults her list for the millionth time, and takes a pink and white plastic rattle from a low shelf, Lane comes to stand on her right, with some kind of small stuffed animal in one hand. “They've got plenty of cuddly toys. I like this one.”
He leans closer, showing her a fleece orange-and-black-striped tiger, and lowering his voice until it reaches a playful pitch. “Good evening.”
She gives him a fond look. “Someone's in a fun mood.”
“But—he just wants to speak to his friend,” he says in the same gruff voice, placing the tiger's front paws onto the top of her stomach, and bobbing its head from side to side, as if it's self-aware and talking. “Hello. I'm awfully nice.”
Joan has to bite her lip to suppress a laugh. “Tell Shere Khan to wait until we get home.”
Lane makes a sort of disappointed growl, then moves the toy away, adopting his normal voice. “Well, I'm putting him with the basket up front.” She mumbles an assent. That's fine. But no sooner has he disappeared around the corner than she hears a voice to her left.
A visibly curious Trudy Campbell is waving at her from the middle of the aisle, with a mischievous look on her face. She's wearing a long-sleeved baby pink dress. Joan can tell by the generous cut and by the soft roundness of Trudy's face and figure that she hasn't reduced by much since delivering, but the other woman still looks elegant, if exhausted around the eyes.
“Trudy. My goodness.” Trying to smile. Did she witness any of that? “What—brings you to the toy department?”
“Oh,” the younger woman says, waving a hand. “We're just exchanging a few baby gifts. Some of our friends do not know how to buy for young children.” She looks around the mostly-empty aisle, and walks closer, suddenly conspiratorial. “I didn't realize you and Lane were seeing each other. When did that start?”
“Well,” Joan says, lifting one shoulder in a shrug, and giving the other woman what she hopes is a pointed look, although her voice is light. “You weren't supposed to see anything.”
Trudy's shaking her head, smile wide, and she gently taps Joan's elbow with her white pocketbook, as if they're sorority sisters making a successful match at a party. “And in your condition. The look on his face!” She sighs. “I just think that's adorable.”
Joan has a perverse urge to be witty – how do you think I developed this condition? – but she pushes it aside, in favor of a knowing smile. They've already been found out. And Trudy's going to tell Pete about it no matter what gets said. “He's very attentive.”
Lane returns before Trudy can make any more editorial comments, carrying several small cardboard books in one arm. “Joan, did you see they've got picture books at the—” clearing his throat as he realizes she's not alone— “oh. Mrs—Campbell. Hello.”
“Look who I bumped into,” Joan says as he comes to stand on her left, keeping her voice carefully neutral, and placing a hand to her wide stomach, where the baby is poking her in the side with what feels like a knee or an elbow. “Trudy's exchanging some baby gifts.”
“Ah. Isn't that—nice.”
“Lane, you must have felt your ears burning,” Trudy says in a playful tone, although her smile is completely innocent. “Your sweetheart was just complimenting you.”
Joan risks a glance to her left. God. He's already turning pink, briefly looking down to fuss with one of his cufflinks.
“Oh. I don't—know about—that. Erm...”
“Well,” Joan interrupts, brisk, because Lane won't be finding the end of that sentence anytime soon. “We certainly don't want to hold you up—”
Before she can finish, Pete appears at the end of the aisle, walking up to his wife. ”There you are, lovely. I assumed—” He pauses, sees Lane with an armful of baby books, and Joan with a rattle in one hand. “Oh.”
His suddenly wide grin borders on panicked, although he's clearly still processing the situation, staring from Joan to Lane like he's very confused as to why they're both here.
Joan gives Pete a perfunctory smile as she waits for him to speak.
“Hello,” he says finally.
“'Lo,” Lane replies, after an awkward silence. His face is still a little pink.
Joan bites the inside of her mouth to keep from laughing. At this rate, they could be here all night. “Trudy, it was nice talking to you.”
“Yes. And we've got to run, or we'll be late for our reservation,” Trudy says, tugging on Pete's arm, and beaming at Joan one last time. “Nice to see you both.”
“Take care,” Joan replies, with a polite wave.
The Campbells walk away, and after another minute of relative silence, Lane speaks, voice gruff. “She—called you my—sweetheart.” There's a question in his eyes, and he's trying not to smile, but it isn't working. The pride on his face is bright and obvious. What did you tell her?
Joan makes a noise of assent, patting his arm. Well, it wasn't going to be a secret forever. “Will you show me the stuffed animals?” she asks instead, with a little smile.
Lane's pleased expression widens into a grin.