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if inconvenient, come all the same

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march 1966 //  wednesday

 

A clatter echoes through the closed door of the master bathroom, like something being knocked off the edge of the sink; this noise is immediately followed by Lane cursing out loud. Standing in front of her vanity mirror, Joan tries her best to ignore it. Lane's been in there fixing his hair for almost fifteen minutes. She'd tease him about it if she didn't think the joking would make him lose his temper again. He's been so nervous. He spent the day pacing around the house and getting in her way as she tried to do some light cleaning.

For once, she isn't anxious. Her objective for the evening is to treat it like a client dinner: to be charming and witty if Lane's father appears to like her, to smooth over any awkward patches in conversation if he doesn't, and get through dinner without significant incident. That's it. After the stress of the past few days, and in her condition, she doesn't have patience for much else.

A long sigh issues from the bathroom, and Lane finally emerges, his hair slicked back in its usual way, and his dark suit and muted tie immaculate. He looks nice. He's even wearing the silver tie bar she bought him for his birthday. When he glances over to where she's standing, almost dressed, his reaction is immediate.

“Christ!”

She adjusts the beaded acetate against her collarbone as she threads her right arm through a crimson sleeve. “Something wrong?”

He pretends to re-fasten one of his cufflinks, desperately trying to backpedal. “No—it's only—I thought you were going to wear that—blue dress?”

Joan shakes her head. “Too small.”

Honestly, it probably would have fit if she had bothered to let out the bust. But Lane – for the first time in his life – decided to spend all of lunch hinting that she ought to wear something “a bit darker—perhaps—black, or navy?” Something about his father being very traditional. They had another argument while Nigel was putting some things in the wash. She was so frustrated that she'd gone straight to the master closet and picked out this outfit. Bright red, low scoop neck, three quarter sleeves. His father can like it or lump it.

Judging by Lane's face—and the way his eyes keep lingering on her décolletage—he's not exactly immune to its charms, much as he might not like her wearing this dress on this particular occasion. Joan examines herself in the mirror with some satisfaction, and then motions toward the back of the dress to indicates she'll need assistance with the zipper.

“Zip me up?”

He does. She fastens a delicate gold lavaliere around her neck to complete the look, examining her face and hair in the vanity mirror one last time. While she's occupied, there's a sudden knock at the bedroom door; Nigel stomps inside less than two seconds later.

“Dad, I think Uncle Lewis is—” the boy stops mid-sentence, eyes widening as he sees Joan's outfit. She sends a small smile his way. He's wearing his ever-present school blazer and blue jeans, but at least this pair isn't wrinkled.

“You look nice.”

Lane is already frustrated with his son, judging by his thunderous expression. “Oh, for god's sake, Nigel, where are your trousers?!”

“Rucksack,” Nigel says slowly, as if it should be obvious.

“Well, go and get them! You are not wearing those in front of your grandfather!” Lane hurries Nigel out of the room and into the hallway in a panicked movement.

There's still a faint knocking coming from the front door. Joan walks outside to answer it.

“I say,” Lewis says when she finally lets him inside, looking her up and down with a raised eyebrow. “What an impression you make.”

She snorts out a laugh. The man has obviously spared little thought for the traditional, himself. He's wearing a rich burgundy paisley cravat to set off his double-breasted brown suit, paired with a gold tie pin. A red carnation in his left buttonhole offsets the entire ensemble.

“Well, I see you've dressed for the occasion.”

“Naturally.” He sweeps inside, takes Joan's hand, and kisses the top of her knuckles before releasing her palm. “Now, I'm going to make myself a very large drink. Shall I cook for two?”

“That would be lovely.”

Lewis crosses to the sideboard in the living room, and is opening one of the half-full gin bottles before Joan decides to speak again, letting out a sigh.

“Lane wants tonight to go perfectly.”

The older man purses his lips in something like a smirk, removing the lid from the tarnished silver ice bucket, and directing a significant glance down the hall. “Are we making accusations or observations?”

Joan accepts the half-full cut glass Lewis presses into her hand, gesturing with it toward the back bedrooms, where Lane and Nigel can be heard in the middle of a heated disagreement. “He's never said two words about the man except to tell me he had a father.”

“Generally, I should not spend the evening searching for affirmations,” Lewis says, following her gaze. “Because you won't find any.”

Joan takes a small sip from her drink. Well, at least he's being forthcoming. “The word traditional kept coming up.”

There is a slight pause. “Are you asking if you think he will like you?”

One of the things she likes most about Lane's brother, Joan decides with a huff, is that he's almost as direct as she is. “I don't care what he thinks about me.” She notices the Cheshire cat smile that passes across Lewis' face, and so leaves the rest of her thought unsaid. It's Lane I'm worried about.

He must see worry flicker in her expression, because he turns serious. “You understand the old man adored Rebecca.” Meeting Joan's gaze, he lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Only thing Lane ever did right, to hear him tell it.”

“Jesus,” Joan responds, much louder than she should, considering Nigel is still in the house. “They were miserable together.”

Lewis makes an amused noise, and takes a deep drink from his glass, his accent becoming crisp. “Yes, but she was wealthy, darling. Traveled in all the right circles.”

Joan raises an eyebrow. “You make it sound as if Lane was a gold digger.”

“Not as such, but Becky was older. Thirty, thirty five.” He lowers his voice, and Joan leans in to catch his next words, the gesture automatic, her hand coming up to catch at the delicate gold chain dangling from her throat. “Might have lost the luxury of considering other offers.”

She feels a sharp stab of pity in her stomach, surprised this idea hadn't occurred to her sooner. Maybe Rebecca had married Lane for the same reason Joan had once married Greg. It's a bleak prospect, but not completely unlikely. “That would explain a few things.”

Her fingers trace over the rim of her glass, condensation from the melting ice trickling toward the base and slowly turning the sides blurry. Lane's spoken to her about most of it—how he and Becca met and courted in London, three years after the war; their struggle getting pregnant; the unhappiness, the separation—but he has never talked about the marriage in what Joan would call practical terms, and she has wondered, briefly, if it is because they had a dynamic based more on convenience than love.          

She still feels she should defend him. “Lane does care about her.”

Judging by the surprised expression on Lewis's face, he does not miss the purposeful use of the present tense. “After all this time?”

Joan sets her glass aside. Rebecca and Lane fight like cats and dogs every time they speak. They couldn't make each other happy when they were together. But they were married for over fifteen years. They have a child—history—some kind of lingering connection. Lane has fond memories of the early days, anyway. Her mother used to say it was just two sides of the same coin.

“She's Nigel's mother.”

“Duty and honor, hm?” He gives a humorless chuckle.

“What are you two talking about?” comes a voice from across the room.

Joan glances over to see Nigel standing in the doorway, scratching a hand over his smooth jaw. He’s wearing what looks like school-issue navy slacks, which are a little too short for him. She can see an inch of black sock visible below the cuff.

Lewis, meanwhile, is quick on the uptake. “Literature.”

“Eurgh,” groans Nigel, plunking down into his father's desk chair, and poking at the lip of the ornate mahogany with one finger. “Borrrr-ing.”

Lane is not far behind, gesturing toward the front door as he pokes his head into the doorway.

“Nigel, we're going down now—get up and put on your coat!” To Lewis and Joan, as if he can't believe he has to tell them these things. “There's going to be traffic. Aren't you ready?”

Joan surreptitiously checks her watch. Ten after six. It won't take fifty minutes to drive a few blocks uptown, even in the worst traffic, but if leaving now will make him stop panicking, she'll have another drink at the restaurant without complaint.

“Well,” Lewis mutters, draining the rest of his glass in a single gulp, and setting it back onto the credenza so roughly that it clicks against the wood, “darling, any last words before they kill us?”

At this, she gives him an unamused look, and moves to join Lane in the hallway.

**

“Ten till. Ought to be here soon.” Lane checks his watch for the fifteenth time in as many minutes, fidgeting in his chair as he glances around at the other tables and toward the lobby for any sign of his father. Joan has to suppress the urge to reach out and touch his hair, the way she usually does when he's extremely stressed. But as she glances at him, she notices his forehead is a little misty, and instead puts her hand on his, keeping her voice low as she leans in.

“Honey, you're sweating.”

Lane quickly pulls out his handkerchief to dab at his temples and neck, shooting a furtive glance at Joan to make sure he looks presentable. She gives him a reassuring smile, and nods her head yes.

He tries to return the smile, but on his face the expression turns strained, like a grimace. Within seconds, he's checking his pocket watch again. “I—think I ought to go up to the front. That way he'll know where we are.”

Lewis has to make a cutting remark as his brother leaves the table. “Wouldn't want the old man to get lost.”

Lane either doesn't hear it or doesn't bother replying. Joan watches him go, then directs a glare across the table. From where she's sitting, on the left hand side facing the wall, he's to the right of the head chair. “I don't care if you want to get drunk, but you need to be quieter about it.”

“Oh, dear sister.” He leans back in his chair, slanting her an expression she can't quite decipher—is it pity? “Ignorance truly is bliss.”

She glares at him in reply. “It's not a joke.”

Nigel giggles, watching their interaction, then hides his smile behind his menu when Joan turns her glare on him. Before she can say anything else, she sees a young woman leading Lane and an older gentleman toward their table, and immediately begins to get to her feet, pushing herself up by placing one hand on the top of the table. “Here they come.”

Lewis straightens as quickly as if he's been jerked up by a string, but once he's standing, he seems very collected. He doesn't even have to button his jacket. Nigel just scoots his chair back a few inches from the table, sidesteps it, and stands beside the table with grim determination, making himself as tall as he can manage, with his hands clasped in front of his buttons.

Lane seems to be expecting this kind of welcome committee, because as soon as he reaches the table, he's gesturing toward the group, voice much louder and cheerful than usual. “Here we are, then, Father. You—well, you know almost everyone—”

“Hello, Father,” Lewis interrupts, reaching around Nigel's left side and sticking out a hand for the old man to shake. “Surprised you've come to New York.”

“How unexpected to find you here,” the older man replies in an even, pleasant tone, with no more than a second's pause. He eyes Lewis's proffered hand, but keeps both palms braced on the top of his walking stick, making no move to reach out. Without further ado, he moves past his eldest son to speak to his grandson, instead.

“Hello, Nigel.”

“Hello, Grandfather.” The boy's voice cracks over the first two words, and he winces visibly before continuing. “You're looking well.”

The old man clears his throat, shaking the boy's hand. “Louder next time. A young man is confident.”

Nigel flushes, but doesn't counter this command, just nods. “Yes, sir.”

Behind his father, Lane visibly sets his jaw, so tightly it's a wonder his molars don't crack. Joan's eyes flick back to the older Mr. Pryce just in time for him to meet her gaze. His sharp, dark eyes flick up and down her voluptuous body, then back to her face, narrowing very slightly. She feels a slight twinge of self-consciousness at this, but refuses to let it show. In appearance, he's basically what she imagined; average height, more broad-built, thinning white hair. Fastidious clothes.

“Father,” Lane says, stepping forward with an expectant air, “I'd like you to meet Joan Harris, my—dear friend. Joan, my father, Robert Pryce.”

She puts on her best client smile, and extends her hand “Pleased to meet you.”

“Pleasure.” He barely grasps her fingertips before releasing her hand.

“Now, we've saved you a seat just here,” Lane is being overly cheerful again, gesturing toward the empty chair with an anxious expression. Robert's eyes flick to it, then to its nearest hand, where his eldest son sits watching him with sharp eyes.

“No,” the old man says, his deep baritone firm but not unpleasant. It has a silken quality that reminds her of Lewis. “Nigel, you shall sit next to me, instead.”

“Oh—” Lane sputters, glancing from his son to his father in surprise, “well—I had thought—”

“Be quick about it,” Robert interrupts, calm, as if Lane has not spoken. He is still staring at Nigel, who puts his napkin on the table with a tiny sigh, stands up, and turns to his uncle.

“'Scuse me, please.”

Lewis sniffs out a derisive noise, pointedly not looking at his father, but rises from his seat without a word, picking up his napkin and drink and sidestepping the boy so Nigel can sit down next to Robert's left hand. When Lewis is finally resettled, he glances across the table and meets Joan's eyes with a lift of one eyebrow before taking a gulp of his drink, as if to say I told you so.

Jesus, if their father is this controlling, it's no wonder Lane was so anxious about the evening going well. Joan feels the sudden press of exhaustion in her temples.

“Father is staying at the Warwick,” Lane announces once everyone is seated, glancing briefly at Joan with a concerned expression, as if he isn't quite sure how to begin the flow of conversation. “He does so like a view.”

Robert is quick to pick up this thread, his hands still braced on his walking stick, which is now balanced between his knees at the end of the table. “Unfortunately, the rain has kept me from seeing it.”

“Oh. Yes, you are right—I suppose I did not notice. The temperature, at least, is cool.”

“Really? Do you think so?” Joan raises an eyebrow in response to Lewis' loud interruption, turning to stare at him. He glances back at her with innocent eyes. “Only I find it rather warm, myself.”

Silence falls over the table. Nigel coughs, once, and for a moment no one else speaks.

“Well,” Joan says with a short laugh, determined to steer the conversation into less awkward waters, “given my condition, I would probably be warm in a freezing snow bank.” She turns back to Lane's father, wondering if he'll be more receptive to conversation if he's being asked questions. “Robert, have you retired? What do you do?”

“Oh—surely you remember, darling,” Lane interjects, sounding a little panicked. “Father was Carrington Surgical. Medical equipment.”

“Of course,” Joan decides the word equipment would better denote a technician instead of a doctor. “You were a technician?”

“Sales.”

Lewis smirks in a way that suggests he finds Joan's question hilarious, but before he can speak, the server arrives at their table. They spend a few moments listening to the specials before the boy begins to take their drink orders. Lane speaks up first, gesturing toward his father and brother. “Yes. Well, we'll have three whiskey sours, to begin with—and Joan, sorry, darling—what did you—”

“Lane, he's asking for your drinks order, not a string of nonsense.”

Joan blinks at Robert, stunned by his sly-voiced remark.

Lane just exhales, and pretends not to have heard it, staring down at his menu like he’s completely lost his train of thought. “Sorry. Just—another moment.”

“The two sours,” Lewis interrupts, gesturing with one hand to get their server's attention. “And I shall have a crown and ginger—tall glass. Mrs. Harris? Your poison?”

He winks at her. She smiles in return. “Gin and tonic, please.”

“Excellent. Nigel?”

Whatever he was going to say becomes moot; Robert speaks up instead.

“Water for the boy.”

The server departs their table at a speed that Joan would classify as close to a jog.

**

Robert takes another drink from his highball glass, then sets it aside, clearing his throat. When he speaks, he looks only to Lane, although his voice is loud enough to carry over to the next two tables. “Your younger brother has gone up the ranks again.”

“Oh,” Lane says in a dull voice, posture ramrod-straight, poking at his salad with his fork and wearing an expression that suggests he'd rather fling himself from the nearest curb than hear any more about Charles. It's all Robert has talked about: Charles' marriage, and his sons, and his proper little wife. Although, if Joan is making judgments based on Lewis and his many amused looks, the woman is anything but small. “That's—well done, I suppose.”

“Now, Lane, don't be childish. Charles is a family man. He ought to be commended.”

Joan can't stand Robert's patronizing tone; the way he couches all his insults as harmless remarks and jokes. She has held her tongue through the first round of drinks, and the appetizers, and after what was close to an hour of passive-aggressive barbs disguised as helpful advice.

Well, God knows she tried to make nice.

“Now, remind me, Robert, is Charles a partner with his law firm, or a senior associate?”

Directly across the table, Lewis is smirking again. To his right, Nigel's frozen with his soup spoon halfway to his lips.

Robert sets his jaw. “He shall be promoted again by year's end.”

So not a partner yet. Joan affects complete innocence, laying a brief hand on Lane's arm as she speaks. “Oh, of course. I was just saying to Lane this week how difficult it can be to break into partnership ranks; don't you agree, honey?”

“I—well, depends on the place, I suppose,” is all Lane says, looking from her to his father with a wide-eyed expression, as if he's not sure what to say, or whose side to take.

She refuses to be deterred, beaming at the entire table. “Robert, I’m not sure if you're aware, but Lane was instrumental in founding our current agency. Without him, who knows where we'd all have ended up.”

The old man returns her smile, but on his face it's strained, and suggests he doesn't appreciate the reminder. “I'm sure a woman like you should have found her way very well indeed.”

Joan knows this is not a compliment, and simply sits taller, buffering her shoulders, and smiling in a way that can best be described as vicious. The baby keeps smashing one hand into her side as she speaks, and she lays a hand across the top of her stomach in an attempt to quiet it. “Well, you can't blame a girl for having ambitions.”

Across the table from her, Lewis lights a cigarette—holding it not by the filter, but by an oblong brown enamel holder that’s several inches long. She almost laughs out loud. Jesus. He looks like Addison DeWitt. She hasn't seen a red-blooded man hold one of those in years.

From her left, Joan can practically hear Lane's teeth grinding together as he attempts to keep his feelings to himself. Meanwhile, Nigel seems as if he’s just trying to ignore everyone at the table, Lane included, keeping his eyes fixed on his soup like he’s going to get rapped on the knuckles if he so much as looks up from the dish.

“Joan, dearest, you are going back to work after your condition...resolves itself, hm?”

She turns a raised eyebrow to Lewis, who blows out a breath of smoke through his nose. The man is clearly trying to provoke a reaction from someone, but whether it's just his father or both Robert and Lane is unclear. At this point, after the way Robert's acted all evening, she's more than willing to play along. “You mean after I deliver? Yes. We'll hire a girl.”

This manages to elicit a response from Nigel, of all people, who glances up with a startled look. “Really?”

At the glare he receives from his grandfather, he shuts up, although his face is still plainly curious. Joan smiles at the boy, determined to answer his question as if it's the most entertaining one she's been asked all night. “What, is that so hard to believe?”

His eyes widen, as if he wants to laugh, but he doesn't say anything, just starts to poke at his vegetable soup with his spoon again. Joan isn't sure why he's being so demure until Robert speaks up, his silken voice underlined by the smallest note of steel. “Finish your food or have the boy take it away. You will not make a game of it.”

Nigel flushes with embarrassment, and puts his spoon down so quickly he practically drops it, wincing at the clatter of silver against white china. “Yes, sir.”

Joan glances to her left. Lane is sweating again, as if he's sitting in the steam room at the athletic club, and he hasn't eaten more than two bites of his meal. Jesus. Isn't he going to say something?

“You know, Nigel, I did mean to mention—” she begins again, but is interrupted by Robert, who raises a hand as if forbidding the boy to respond.

“Mrs. Harris, perhaps it's best I explain this matter directly. I believe children ought only to be seen at table, and not heard.”

She keeps a smile pasted on her face, refusing to let him see that he's hit a nerve with his condescending remark, but luckily Lewis speaks up before she has a chance to say anything rash.

“Even grown children, apparently.”

Robert's voice does not rise in pitch, but even from her seat, Joan can see one of his eyes twitch imperceptibly at hearing the backtalk. “What was that?”

Lewis' eyes widen for a fraction of a second before the surprise disappears, and a wolfish smile lights up his face. Jesus. She can't tell if he's more thrilled at being directly addressed or at finally getting under his father's skin. It's almost pathetic, watching the way he preens under the negative attention.  “Oh, of course, Father, we'll speak a little louder.” He raises his voice, as if the man is hard of hearing. “I was only saying to Joan that she and little brother seem well suited. What a match, hm?”

Joan's so surprised to hear positive words emerge from someone's mouth that it almost eclipses her frustration at knowing Lewis is only saying them to be annoying. “Thank you.”

Robert purses his lips at the exchange, voice calm but razor-sharp. “I should not be so quick to insult the boy's mother, were I you.”

“Course I wasn't,” Lewis says in a blithe tone, now turning to Nigel, and watching Robert's face become more pinched as his eldest son addresses his grandson directly. Lewis, for what it's worth, keeps his voice prim, directing a wink to Joan that no one else seems to catch. “No one could replace dear Becca in our hearts.”

Jesus. He's making it sound like she died, for god's sake.

“I'm not trying to replace anyone,” Joan says, more sharply than intended, and quickly softens her voice. “Rebecca and I are different people, obviously. I'm sure that's all Lewis means.”

She shoots a glance at Lane, expecting him to chime in, or to tell his father not to take the conversation so personally, but he's silent. He's staring down at his plate and spearing individual peas on the tines of his fork as if the repetitive movement will physically will the argument to be over.

“Couldn't agree more, dear,” Robert says instead, his smile very tight. The look in his eyes suggests Joan is as far from Rebecca as a disgusting insect might be to a queen.

She feels a thrum of anger pulse through her chest.

“Now, Joan,” Lewis begins in a droll voice, as if his father hasn't spoken, “when you do hire a girl for the little one, you might consider taking a leaf from dear Father's book—”

Lane pushes back his chair and stands up, expression pale and strained, as if he's had more than enough of this passive-aggressive bickering. He places his napkin in a messy pile beside his untouched plate. “If you'll—please excuse me.”

Robert's face is like stone as his son walks away, and in Lane's absence, they all fall silent, not needing to keep up the charade. Joan watches Lane pick his way through a sea of tables—clumsy, almost panicked—and finally turn left down a long corridor. She hopes he'll splash some water on his face; take a few minutes. When he put his napkin on his chair she could swear his hands were shaking.

**

After the entrees, Robert made his excuses and went back to his hotel before the check could even hit the table. Lewis only stuck around long enough to wave him off, and once that was accomplished, he went straight into the bar. Although at that point, he was already drunk, and Lane was radiating quiet fury just having to look at him.

She, Nigel, and Lane got a taxi and rode home in miserable silence.

Joan checks her freshly-scrubbed face for any remaining cold cream, and steps out of the restroom, turning off the light as she pads into the master bedroom. Here, Lane is still fully dressed, with only his tie loosened, sitting in front of her vanity mirror, and staring into space.

“You're quiet,” she says first, and apparently this is the door to the floodgates.

“Between you and Lewis, how on earth am I supposed to get a word in edgewise?”

It escalates quickly.

“Did I ask your mother leading questions? Did I tell her she was loud, or garish, or too bloody chatty—?”

“Jesus—I know my mother's a pill! And she loves stirring the shit, but she was at least polite

“To you,” he interrupts in a snide voice, and Joan feels her blood boil at the comment.

“You have something you want to tell me?!”

“Oh, for god's sake,” Lane retorts. He's avoiding the question; he's always avoiding the question. “I don't need you to stand up for me!”

Whatever reply Joan was going to make dies on her lips, and she stares at him, open-mouthed. “That's what this is about?!”

“My father doesn't like being challenged,” he retorts through gritted teeth, standing in front of her vanity with his arms braced on the table. He still won't look at her. “And I told you that tonight—I asked you—”

“He talked to us like we were scum. He spent the entire evening taking pot shots at our life, and at you, and—” she refuses to let herself say and me, “acting like it was nothing! He was a shitheel! And you just sat there!

Lane meets her eyes in the mirror, crestfallen, and the shame is written all over his face.

She just shakes her head in disbelief, voice turning quieter. “What was I supposed to do?”

“You don't—know what he's like, you can't—” He lets out a long breath. His head hangs so low Joan can't even see his face reflected in the mirror as he talks.

“Because you won't tell me,” she insists.

Lane's arms and back are so tense that even from her place beside the bed, she can see a stray muscle twitching in his upper arm. His voice is low, but it shakes. “I don't want to talk about it.”

This quiet rebuff, out of everything that's happened tonight, is what tips her over the edge. She gives a helpless shrug, feeling humiliated at being shut out, so humiliated she's tearing up a little. “I'm going to go into the nursery.”

She curses the waver in her voice as she speaks because it makes him jerk his head up to look at her, glimpse her expression with startled eyes.

“Oh, damn it,” he mutters. She can't tell whether this is because he's more upset with her or with himself, but either way, she waves a dismissive hand, expression very watery.

“You can go to bed if you want, just—leave the light on.”

“Joan,” he mumbles, looking ashamed, but she shakes her head, thinking that if she so much as speaks another word she's going to burst into tears.

She goes into the nursery, with its cheerful pastels and toys. One side of the crib has been lowered while they continue to prepare the room, and so she sits on the armchair which faces the open edge, staring at the printed sheets and clutching a length of soft patterned cotton in two fists, dabbing at the corners of her wet eyes. She's basically using the corner of a baby blanket as a giant handkerchief.

Twenty minutes later, she hears quiet footsteps on carpet, coming from just inside the nursery doorway. Joan glances over and takes in Lane's anxious expression. Her eyes are finally dry. “I don't want to argue in here.”

“No, I wasn't—” Lane looks hurt at this implication, but he doesn't finish the sentence. She sighs, motioning that he can come in if he wants to, but he just stands there awkwardly, tense and cautious, as if waiting for her to throw a plastic rattle at him.

“My father left us when I was eleven,” she says simply, turning back to the crib as she speaks, because it's been on her mind tonight—it's been on her mind for months, if she's being honest. “When I was younger, I thought I was eventually going to want him around, when I married, or when I had children of my own.”

When she looks back at Lane, he's finally staring in her direction, eyes fixed on her right hand, which is resting on top of her enormous stomach. She can't help letting out a puff of unamused laughter. “For all I know, he could be dead now.”

There's a long pause. She doesn't know how else to start this conversation. She thought reciprocity would at least help him feel less isolated, but it seems to have made him even more anxious. He swipes a hand across the back of his neck. That same dark flush of embarrassment is creeping up from his collar. “I wish—”

He stops talking so quickly it’s as if he bit his tongue to keep from finishing the sentence. Joan watches the tension in his face shift into something more pained, and decides to prompt him, just once.

“Lane, I don't care if you hate him. Just—talk to me. Please.”

Fraught emotions are fighting for dominance across his face, but Lane manages to look at her, and lift one hand in a shrug. “I—don’t like—thinking about him.”

He doesn't elaborate, but at least he isn't dodging the question this time. Joan lets out a long breath, not sure what kind of answer she was expecting to hear, and disappointed because she'd gotten her hopes up for some loaded admission, for a truth that was clearly not coming.

“Come sit down?” she asks, changing the subject, and motioning that he can come closer. If nothing else, they can sit in here together, while it's quiet.

After a moment, Lane shakes his head no, but there's a current of hesitation running underneath his refusal, like he wants to, but had to talk himself out of it. Joan's too exhausted to press any further once he finally answers. “Bit tired, I think.”

He gives another sigh, and disappears back into the hallway. Joan turns back to staring at the crib, stroking two fingertips over the baby's palm, which is pushing out against her resting hand.

**

The next day, the telephone rings about an hour after lunch. When Lane hangs up the receiver, after an extremely brief conversation, the color in his face is so high he looks consumptive. Nigel’s been in his bedroom for awhile—supposedly reading, probably just sleeping—and just as she decides Lane is going to go in after him, Joan feels a sudden hand on her elbow, and glances up from her book.

He takes a seat on the edge of the sofa. “Father's coming here. Tonight.”

Joan sets her book aside.

Lane's head is bowed, and automatically she reaches out, brushes a lock of hair back from his temple. He glances over at her, and speaks in a rush, voice breaking a little. “He—wants to take Nigel.”

Shit.

Joan knows her mouth has dropped open, and closes it, willing herself to remain calm. Jesus, and she spent half of dinner baiting the man, playing little games with Lewis, needling Robert in an attempt to see who could be more annoying. Why the hell wouldn't Lane say anything?

When she speaks, she makes sure her voice is perfectly steady. Reaching out, she slips her left hand into his. “That’s not going to happen.”

“I—” he seems torn between fury and panic, squeezing her hand very tightly. “No. No.

“What time is he arriving?” she asks, keeping her voice low. “I'd like to have a plan, or at least a logical argument.”

“He—” Lane lets out a breath, his free hand worrying over his forehead. “Christ—”

“Call Lewis,” she suggests immediately, then purses her mouth as another thought occurs to her. “Unless he's drunk. He could be useful.”

It's not meant to be a joke, not under the circumstances, but the attempt at humor does make her feel a little less awful. Plus, it makes Lane squeeze her hand again, although not as tightly as before.

**

Lewis has been here for an hour already; he and Lane are squirreled away in the master bedroom, supposedly talking. Mostly arguing instead. They're supposed to be strategizing.

She was present for the first few minutes of conversation—in which Lewis swore a blue streak, and Lane just snapped at him to shut up, and paced—but she got called away by Nigel with a question about their TV guide listings. She's since lost track of the ebb and flow of the plan, but her part in it is simple enough. Answer the door, keep Robert talking for a minute or two until Lane and Lewis can appear and present a united front. Nigel is banished to his room for the time being, which seemed like a difficult goal until Joan said the magic words: “Your grandfather's coming over.” At which point it became easy to get him out of their hair.

At exactly five o'clock, a knock comes at the door. Joan answers it.

“Hello, Robert.” She gives him a wide smile. “Lane's on the phone, but he'll be out in a few minutes.”

“I was not aware I should be seeing you again,” the old man says, staring at Joan with a stiff smile, as if her surprise appearance is no less than horrifying.

Joan does not let his sneering tone intimidate her. “I live here.”

She ushers him inside, indicating he can follow her into the living room if he likes. “Would you like something to drink?”

“No. I do not wish to delay,” he tells her, holding up a warning hand. That awful, oily smile is still stretched across his face.

“Well, it's too bad,” Joan replies in an airy voice, folding her hands across her pregnant stomach. The gesture draws Robert's attention to her figure, and she can see his lips press into a thin line. Clearly, the idea of his son having another child upsets him. Maybe it's because she and Lane aren't married; maybe it's because Becca only gave Lane one son, instead of a houseful of strapping boys. For the millionth time, she wonders why Robert would be so insistent on taking sides with his ex-daughter-in-law.

“I hope you'll have a pleasant journey back to London,” she says, leaning slightly against the nearest side table as she speaks. It's tall enough for her to rest a hand on.

“Do you hear yourself, Mrs. Harris?” he asks in return, the smooth manners disappearing from his voice with every word, like a bird shedding feathers as it flies away from a perch. “Have you any idea how ridiculous you sound?”

Joan raises an eyebrow, all humor now gone from her voice. “Excuse me?”

Robert moves to stand directly in front of her. His voice is a rough hiss. “You think I don't know why my son enjoys you? Lane is weak. He's only interested in what's between your legs—”

Joan raises one hand to slap him, but he catches her by the right wrist before she can complete the movement, forcing it down and away from his face.

“Let go of me,” she hisses, struggling to pull free, but his vise-like grip is like iron.

“You have no business in his life.” He squeezes tighter with every word, the sensation so painful Joan lets out a small cry, then presses her lips into a line. Don't let them hear anything.

Robert is unmoved, forcing her backward into the edge of the table, her arm braced upright between their bodies. The way she's angled, the wood digs into the tail of her spine, forces her to arch her back. She can barely breathe for the pain. “You're hurting me—”

His fingers dig into her arm even harder; Joan can feel the welts rising as he keeps squeezing, and turns her face to the side, suddenly remembering Greg's weight on top of her. God. What if he—

“—you are nothing but a whore—”

“Shut up,” Joan snarls without thinking, suddenly meeting his eyes, but before anything else can happen there's a voice from the doorway: quiet, agitated.

“What are you doing?

She can feel the result even before she can see it. Robert takes an imperceptible step back, and his grip loosens. The fury in his expression is receding into its usual measured sharpness. His voice is sibilant, practically airy, and watching the mask pulled neatly back into place is almost more frightening than seeing him without it. “Whatever can you mean?”

Nigel stands poised just outside the living room doorway, just to their right, shock and fear overwriting his expression, and one hand gripping the lip of the doorjamb like he doesn't know what to do. His mouth is hanging open, face flushed. “You—hurt her.”

“You've a very vivid mind, boy,” Robert says in a crisp way, slanting an amused expression at Joan. “We were having conversation.”

She can barely force the corners of her mouth to rise in answer to Robert's lie; it's not a smile at all, it's tremulous, it slides from her face. Her legs are shaking, and her face is flushed, and all she can hear is blood thundering in her ears—every instinct inside her chest screaming run, run. Her heart flutters faster with every beat of silence. She feels like she's going to pass out, or cry, or scream, and Nigel's eyes are locked on her: furious, unbelieving.

Jesus. What did he see? What did he hear?

“Nigel,” she begins, and has to swallow to wet her throat, but the boy interrupts her—voice hoarse but still too strong by half.

I saw it!

Robert is poised in place, muscles coiled and expression wary; Joan knows if Nigel makes the smallest move into the room, the old man will go after him, and that can't happen. She moves to keep Robert from the doorway, slowly walking backwards on coltish legs until she's blocking his path.

“Get the elevator.” She doesn't dare look back at the boy, now positioned in the doorway behind her. But she's also too afraid to meet Robert's eyes, staring at the pressed lapels of his suit instead.

“But—” Nigel sputters.

Go.

As he slips outside, and the front door slams open and closed, she locks eyes with Robert again in a silent challenge. But there are loud voices from the master bedroom, sounding as if they're moving down the hallway, and he can't do a damn thing; Joan feels the shiver of certainty trip down her spine just as she sees the hatred sparking in his eyes.

“Get out of my sight,” he hisses, and she does, practically stumbling because she's so clumsy with fear. She's grabbing her coat from the rack by the front door, hands shaking, when she hears Robert and Lane behind her.

“Why are you—?”

“Where's—”

Joan doesn't stop to answer any questions, just focuses on getting out before she can panic. She's out of the front door and several yards down the hallway when Lane finally catches up to her.

“Wait—Joan—”

He grabs for her hand, but his fingers find her right wrist instead, and she stops walking, pulling away from his grasp with a cry of pain.

They're stopped in front of Mrs. Henderson's apartment, the brass numbers on her door gleaming back at Joan in a mocking way. Lane's staring from his flexed hand to her right arm as if he's been burned, face white with horror, eyes wide.

“Oh, my god,” he whispers, stepping closer, and Joan closes her eyes, very briefly.

Her face still burns hot with shame; tears falling silent and unchecked. She can feel the muscles in her forearm pulsing with a sharp, agonizing pain; god, what if something's broken—

When she opens them again, Lane's face is as closed off as she's ever seen it. He's just staring from her pained expression to the baby inside her as if he's never going to get the chance to see either of them again, jaw clenched, but with his palms balanced under her arms, just below her elbows.

“Take Nigel,” is all he says, voice strained and low in the buzzing quiet of the hallway. “Keep him away.”

She grips the cuffs of his jacket in two fists, mute, blinking quickly, but nodding her head yes because what else can she do? She has to get out of here; she needs him to come with her, she can't move because she's rooted to the ground.

Don't.

“Go,” he whispers, and his hands are now in hers, gripping them tightly, nudging her backward. She feels herself stumble a little, but pushes upright using the heel of her shoe, letting out a shaky breath. The kids. The baby.

Move.

Joan turns, forcing her feet into brisk motion against the patterned carpet. In her left coat pocket is a house key and a small wad of cash—she doesn't know how much. She doesn't even know how they got there. Heel, toe; heel, toe until she's around the corner, and the door to their apartment has since opened and closed in the distance, and in the sitting area just beside the elevator Nigel is slumped in a miserable ball, knees drawn up, his face buried in his arms.

“Come on,” she says, nudging the side of his leg in a brisk way with the toe of her shoe and urging him up; he rises to his feet the way a sleepwalker might, dazed and anxious. His eyes are red, but he isn't crying.

“Where's Dad?”

She refuses to let Nigel see her cry, although thinking of Lane is painful, like a knife sliding between her ribs. “He's coming later.”

The elevator arrives at the landing, and they walk into the open car. Joan hears the doors ding as they slide closed, and turns her face a little to the left, trying to choke down the lump in her throat.

Breathe.

Neither of them move to hit the button, and after what feels like at least a minute, Nigel slips his hand into hers—as if she's actually his mother, as if he's a little boy afraid to see her sad and upset. She squeezes it tightly. She doesn't make him let go, even once they reach the landing.