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if inconvenient, come all the same

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forty-one weeks / april 1966

 

“She was all right. Her resume was…standard.”

“You hated her,” Joan says, giving an amused sigh.

“I didn’t,” Lane pretends to be offended, adjusting the phone on his ear and looking around his office as if some unknown ally is going to leap out of the paneling to support him on this. “She was a nice girl. Very—erm—”

When he thinks hard, he can’t remember anything about the young woman other than the fact that her glasses had rhinestones.

“Do you even remember her name?”

Even through the phone, it sounds as if Joan is laughing at him.

He fumbles for the girl’s resume, still left on his desk. Something with a K.

“That,” he says pointedly, giving up once the paper rips in his hand, “is not fair.”

“You just talked to her twenty minutes ago,” Joan scoffs in a facetious way.

“Oh, shall I bring you over to hire someone instead?” Lane teases in return, although it’s a relief to hear her in such a good mood. She’s been upset about the baby being late—understandably so, he quickly amends. It’s a very uncomfortable business. But they’ve got one final week until she absolutely has to deliver.

Joan does not take the bait. “I’m just calling to tell you about dinner.”

“Oh?”

Please don’t be casserole. Please don’t be more curry. At the week forty mark, Dr. Emerson suggested spicy foods might be a good way of bringing on Joan’s labor, and as a result, he’s had heartburn for what feels like an eternity.

“I bought steak,” she tells him, in the tone of voice which means she’s bought it for him.

Lane’s so pleased he feels like leaping into the air.

“I could kiss you,” he blurts first, which makes her burst out laughing. “Did you get potatoes, too?”

She sounds as if she’s enjoying his enthusiasm. “And green beans.”

He doesn’t care how silly he sounds now. “What on earth’s the occasion?”

It’s not her birthday, or his, or their anniversary. (He has written all these things down in his diary, and in Scarlett’s appointment book, and on assorted slips of paper.) Really, he doesn’t know why she might go to all this trouble on a whim.

“No occasion,” Joan says, in a very innocent voice. He knows that tone. She’s up to something. “I know you’re tired of takeout. Just thought you’d like a nice dinner.”

“Well,” says Lane, trying to let on that he’s aware of some kind of secondary motive without spoiling the fun of this game. “I can’t wait to have it.”

Joan giggles at the unintended wordplay, and he laughs along with her.

“You know what I meant,” is all he says, pushing around one of the papers on his desk with the tip of his pencil. “Are you sure you’re resting, dearest? You’re not supposed to be on your feet for very long.”

“Yes,” she says in a fond way, but the rest of her sentence is cut off by the sound of the buzzer. The other candidates must be here.

“Oh, I’ve got to go,” he sighs. “Three more interviews.”

“Don’t flirt too much,” she returns.

“Bite your tongue,” he says gruffly, as the buzzer sounds a second time. “Oh, it’s gone again.”

“Okay. I’ll let you go.”

“All right, dearest. See you soon.” He hangs up just in time for Scarlett to walk through the door, a quizzical look on her face.

“I’m sorry. Your first interview is here.”

He shrugs, not worried about the timing in either case. “You may send her in.”

**

“My goodness, I love these offices.” The young girl’s long blonde hair flows around her shoulders as she glances around the room. “Yours is so elegant.”

“Oh—thank you, dear,” Lane says, not sure why they’re taking this conversational path, but indicating she ought to have a seat in the chair opposite his.

“Did you get a decorator?”

“No—I—had quite a bit of help in that department, fortunately.”

He glances down at the resume in his hand, glimpsing the name of a high school, but before he can inquire about this point, the young woman is speaking again, her gaze fixed on a framed photo which stands just beside his abacus.

“What a beautiful picture. Is that your wife?”

Lane doesn’t even have to glance up to remember it exactly—it’s Joan, from sometime just before Christmas, unwrapping a little present he’d bought for her before the holiday. She’s sitting in front of the vanity in her old flat, surrounded by vials and jars and a few pieces of jewelry scattered around her dresser. One hand is reaching down into the papered box, while the other clasps at her necklace, as if she were afraid the pendant would get in the way of her gift. The expression on her face is so happy it makes him smile just to look at it.

“Yes,” he says, clearing his throat in an attempt to temper his pleased expression.

“How long have you been married?” she asks.

Lane exhales a noise like a laugh. “Not—long, actually. Very recent.”

“That is so cute,” she says, and when he goes a bit red in response, she puts the fingertips of one hand to her mouth, as if she’s embarrassed to have said that aloud.

“Oh, you’re shy! I’m sorry!”

“No,” Lane says, shaking his head. “Well, that’s—quite all right, dear.” He pauses, glances at the resume again.

“So, erm—Meredith, why don’t you tell me a little more about yourself?”

**

Lane’s feeling very pleased about most of this afternoon’s interviews—all done but one last girl, who’d only been scheduled by Caroline earlier today. He’s thinking about going home and how much he’s looking forward to a nice dinner, when the door to his office opens. Scarlett enters, and shuts it behind her just as quickly, looking anxious.

“Mr. Pryce—the last girl is here to see you, but—”

“Oh,” he interrupts, “send her in.”

“I—well, the thing is,” she sputters, practically whispering, as if she doesn’t understand why he isn’t similarly ruffled, “Mr. Pryce, she—”

“Scarlett,” he sighs, feeling part of his good mood begin to slide away, “I’d very much like to finish up these interviews. I am due home very soon.”

“I know that—and I don’t mean to hold you up, but I just think you really—”

He lets out a breath. “For heaven’s sake. Is there something wrong with the girl?”

She flushes very red, as if embarrassed. “No—but you don’t understand—”

“Then send her in.”

“Okay,” Scarlett says after a moment, looking resigned, pressing the palm of her hand to the side of her temple. “Just a minute.”

He’s shaking his head in silent aggravation, not understanding what’s gotten into that girl, when the noise of his door creaking open makes him look up again. Scarlett is leading a young black woman in question into the room with very little ceremony, giving him a very nervous smile as she indicates this is their last candidate.

“Dawn, this is Mr. Pryce. Mr. Pryce, I’ll—close the door on my way out.”

With that, his secretary departs, leaving the two of them alone.

The woman is actually very young, perhaps twenty or twenty one. Pretty, too: she’s dressed in plain but smart clothes. A blue blazer is matched over a sturdy green and blue plaid dress. Her skin is the color of dark polished bronze, and her jet-black hair is short and styled in such a way that it makes him think of one of those girl group singers.

Unfortunately, she seems prepared to flee through the door than stay here another minute.

“I’m sorry.” She’s barely looking at him. “I think—there was a mistake.”

Lane frowns, not understanding. “What?”

Her voice is so quiet he almost has trouble hearing it. “She didn’t tell you I’m colored.”

“Well, no,” he admits awkwardly, “but you mustn’t—”

She’s already turning to leave. “I won’t waste your time.”

“Wait,” Lane blurts, holds up his hands as if in supplication. “Please, don’t. Only—we are—still hiring. And you’ve already—come all this way.”

The girl stares at him as if she isn’t sure whether to believe he’s being genuine or not. Lane tries again, clearing his throat as he rises to his feet, walking around one side of his desk but stopping before he can cross much farther into the room.

“At the very least, allow me to read your resume.” He tries to smile—to be reassuring. “It will only be a minute.”

The young woman’s lips are pressed into a thin line, but after another moment, she takes several steps away from the door, and produces a piece of paper from a scuffed leather folio balanced over her left arm. She crosses the room and hands the page to him just as quickly, but before she can retreat again, he indicates the chair in front of his desk.

“Won’t you sit down? Please.”

After a hesitation, she does, perching on the very edge of the chair with her small patent pocketbook sitting atop her folio in her lap. He doesn’t quite know how to put her at ease, and so he decides to try being friendlier than he might usually be in an interview.

“Well,” he says first, still standing, and deciding to walk a little, for the time being, “Miss Chambers, this is a very interesting document.”

Lane hopes she doesn’t see this comment as an attempted joke. He means it sincerely. She’s had excellent marks in school; plus a secretarial degree from a local college, and a variety of work experience. Mostly in service, with another office position at the very top.

She doesn’t seem to acknowledge his positive words, and so he decides to ask her a question, instead.

“What’s…made you want to pursue secretarial work?”

“My degree,” she says neutrally, as if he ought to know better than to ask such an obvious question. He winces.

“Yes, of course. I only meant, why did you pursue it? Initially?”

“Oh,” the girl says. “Well, I wanted to learn typing.” Her hands still clasp the top of her pocketbook as she speaks. “My high school didn’t offer it. And—I thought secretarial skills might be—interesting.”

For the first time in their short-lived acquaintance, she seems as if she might keep talking without his prompting her, and so he moves to sit down in his desk chair.

“And did you learn it well? The typing?”

One corner of her mouth tugs up briefly, as if she wants to smile, but she remains placid, now folding her hands in her lap. “I can key over a hundred words per minute.”

“Good lord,” says Lane. “And that’s with—no mistakes?”

“One or two,” she admits. “Sometimes.”

He inclines his head as if congratulating her. “Very impressive.”

She smiles this time, looking away as she does so. “Thank you.”

**

“You hired a black girl,” Joan says, as Lane brings their plates to the table. She sounds as surprised as if he’s just announced he won the lottery. “For Don’s desk.”

He settles in the chair directly next to her. “Why is that so hard to understand? She was very professional. And poised. And her qualifications were excellent.”

“I’m sure they were.”

“Well, honestly,” he huffs, letting out a breath. “Why shouldn’t we hire her?”

“I’m not upset. I’m just saying you’ll have to fight for her.”

Joan slices a small piece from her steak with a satisfied noise.

Lane sighs again. “I really don’t believe it’s—what does it matter, as long as she can do the work?”

“Okay. I’m not second guessing you,” says Joan, with a little shrug. “It’s a surprise. That’s all.”

He’s grateful that she seems to understand his viewpoint on this particular subject.

“Let me know when you’re going to march with Dr. King,” Joan offers next, putting a hand over his and giving him a small smile.

“Not funny,” he grumbles, even as she withdraws her hand. “Oh, let’s change the subject, then.”

Her smile widens. “I did have something I wanted to discuss before bed.”

“Long bath tonight, then?” he asks, stabbing a few pieces of salad and green beans onto his fork.

“Well, I was planning to take one, yes, but that’s not what I meant.”

He’s mid-mouthful, and can’t yet reply, so she continues.

“I’d like to have sex.”

Eyes widening, he swallows his bite so quickly it’s a wonder he doesn’t choke, and the subsequent forkful of beans he was preparing to eat falls swiftly from his utensil back to the plate. He’s staring at her, stunned into silence.

“Thoughts?” is all she asks, her eyes shining with what looks like no small amount of mischief.

After a moment of deliberation, he begins to cut his piece of steak in half, deciding it might be better if he eats light. “I—well, that’s—” he clears his throat, “unexpected.”

A low laugh bubbles up from her throat. “I hope in a good way.”

He flushes, laughing along with her. “Well, yes, of—of course.”

“I’ve been feeling better in the evenings,” she says, with a little shrug. Her voice turns amused. “And I—heard it could help put me into labor. If we’re successful.”

Now he understands what the meal was about. His grin gets very wide. “So you need my…particular assistance.”

“Well,” she says with a smirk, taking another sip of her water. “In more ways than one.”

**

Steam rises from the bathtub in waves. Bubbles mingle with the currents as Joan idly flicks one hand through the water. The room is quiet except for the occasional splashing noise, mingled with the sound of their calm breathing.

Sitting on the edge of the tub in his undershirt and shorts, with his feet in the water and a wooden-handled straight razor in his right hand, Lane glides the blade over the side of Joan’s shin, guiding it by grasping the steel shaft with his thumb and two fingers, and using small, short strokes as he makes his way around her bent knee.

She sighs out a happy noise, flexing her ankle by the ledge of the tub as he carefully wipes the blade across a thick towel spread over his knee.

“You’re good at this.”

“All in the wrist,” he jokes. She puts a hand to the side of his calf with a grin.

He brandishes the razor as if he’s about to launch into The Barber of Seville, trying to adopt an innocent expression. It’s very ridiculous. “Shall I shave anything else for you, while we’re in here?”

When she splashes him, he lets out a yelp, holding the razor out and away from the left side of his body as if he’s gripping a live cockroach by the leg. “Joan, this is very sharp!”

“What, you don’t want to go to the emergency room half-naked?” She shifts against the back of the tub, fixing him with a fond look. “Too bad.”

“Yes, too bloody bad,” he parrots with a scoff, but after several minutes have passed, and he’s finished the rest of her left leg, he cleans and closes the razor, putting it aside on top of the marbled counter a few feet from the edge of the tub. Joan watches his movements, seeming puzzled.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” She lifts her right leg slightly up, so the tips of her toes break through the surface of the water.

Lane smiles at her—or tries to, anyway.

“No—I know—it’s just—I...” he drums two fingers against the top of her now-smooth ankle, trying to figure out how best to broach this topic. “Sometimes when you aren’t nearby, I call you…my wife.”

He glances to his right, and meets her eyes, expecting her to make a little joke. Maybe when you’re mad at me. But she’s quiet, watching him with one hand folded across her pregnant figure, and the other hand mimicking the continued tapping movement of his fingers. Her palm brushes against his calf in a way that’s meant to be soothing. The touch, combined with the silence, makes him even more nervous, to be honest. He clears his throat again.

“And—and sometimes, people ask if I have children—and I get to tell them yes. A boy and one on the way.”

His fingers slide through the remnants of shaving foam to cup the underside of her leg. Oh, god, he’s getting it all wrong. The ring’s still hidden in his sock drawer; he was going to ask Joan in the nursery and everything—

“You’ve changed my life,” he says thickly, with a kind of helpless shrug. “You’ve stayed by my side—you’re having—our child.”

Joan’s mouth twists like she’s about to cry, and on a whim he nudges her leg back down to the water, suddenly feeling like this fleeting contact isn’t enough. He needs to touch her; he needs to be close to her, and so he just moves forward and stumbles into the bath on his knees. He’s straddling one of her legs, and his hands are braced on her belly, where the little one squirms under one palm. Water soaks into his t-shirt and shorts, making them stick to his skin. All around his torso, bubbles glide through the choppy water.

“Darling, I just love you to bits,” he rasps, his palms moving from her stomach to her shoulders, and then sliding down her arms to take her hands in his. “And I—I want to make you happy. Please say you’ll marry me. It’s all I want in the world.”

Joan presses their clasped hands to her forehead in an attempt to hide her tears, but she’s also nodding her head up and down, the movement very small.

“Yes,” she finally manages.

With a wordless yelp of excitement, he pulls their joined hands away from her face, kissing her fingertips until she laughs a little through her tears. He’s completely gone, too, and his wet clothes are freezing, and water’s sloshing over the sides of the tub in enormous waves and he doesn’t even care.

She pulls him down for a kiss, the brush of her lips too quick for his liking. Her face is flushed pink all over, and her voice cracks a little as she puts a hand to his cheek.

“I love you so much.”

“And I love you.” He can’t put his arms around her, so his hands are slippery on her generous hips; to compensate, he leans forward again, catching the corner of her mouth with his own. He lowers his voice, hoping he can make her laugh. “I’ll tell you every minute, if you like.”

Joan strokes her fingers through his hair, letting out a little sniff as he brings a hand up through the water to cup one side of her face. He just ends up getting pieces of her hair all wet, and fumbles to tuck a long lock of hair behind her ear.

She tilts her head to press her cheek against his palm, letting out a shaky breath. “Let’s get married.”

He’s choked up a second time, almost speechless with happiness, and so he kisses her over and over, running his hands down her sides and continuing his affections for several minutes until they’re both more relaxed.

Soon, Joan sighs into his mouth as he balances on increasingly numb knees, trailing a sly hand up her inner thigh.

“Are you really trying to make it in the tub?” She arches her back, trying to encourage him. Although, considering the size of her belly and their awkward positioning, the movement jolts him up so far away from his goal they may as well be on two separate planets.

“Don’t you like the water?” Lane pulls back to peel off his wet t-shirt over his head, and tosses it away. How the hell would this work? Perhaps if she put her feet up…

When he moves closer, she braces her palms on his bare chest in a way that’s very promising, giving him the most sultry look she can manage with loose strands of wet hair plastered to her shoulders, and her nose and cheeks still red from the earlier tears. Her raised eyebrow is very mischievous. “Help me sit up. I might make it worth your while.”

He starts giggling, feathering messy kisses all over her neck in between fits of laughter. This just makes her squeal, and sets them both off again.

**

Standing to the left of their messy bed, nearly dressed except for his jacket, Lane leans over to stroke a bit of Joan’s hair from her face with one hand. “Darling.”

Half-asleep, tucked on her right side under the top bedsheet, Joan stirs at the word, squinting up at him with bleary eyes. This is much later than he’d normally leave the flat. Sun’s already up.

“Getting ready to go,” he murmurs, grazing her lips with his, and loving the way her nose scrunches up in annoyance after he pulls back.

“Not yet,” she sighs. Her left hand reaches out for him, taking hold of one belt loop by the crook of two fingers and pulling him forward until his hips are flush with the palm of her hand. She trails a curious finger up the path of his zipper.

“Oh,” he blurts, as he feels himself harden. “Joan, I’ll—be late.”

Followed by a shiver, the protest is clearly halfhearted, and Joan takes full advantage of his feigned reluctance.

“You’re a name partner,” she counters, awkwardly pushing up on one elbow as she continues to excite him, tugging up at his shirttails. “Make your own hours.”

“I—” he hisses out a breath as she strokes him again, coherent thought leaving him in a sudden rush. “Well—”

Joan laughs low in her throat. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and as she slips her hand inside his trousers, he swallows a moan.

“Don’t you want to try again?”

He’s already flinging his tie and waistcoat to the ground and begins to wriggle out of his braces, trousers and pants. When he hops up onto the bed and crawls to her side, he helps her fling back the bedsheet and carefully roll over to face him, only to discover that she’s still beautifully, gloriously naked.

“Let me look at you,” he breathes, with a happy sigh. His hands move, as if on their own accord, to caress her breasts.

She smirks at him. “I hope you’re feeling creative.”

**

“If he’s not here in ten more minutes,” Harry announces to the full conference room, “I’m leaving.”

Pete’s sneer is automatic. “This isn’t your freshman health class.”

“Well, I think we all know why he’s late,” Stan says with a snicker, which earns him eyerolls and groans from half the room, and a disgusted noise from Ginsberg. Peggy just pretends not to hear this comment, focusing on doodling on the back of an old concept sheet instead.

For a moment, Pete and Harry are in perfect sync, turning to Stan with equally skeptical looks.

Pete speaks first. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Please,” Stan says with a shrug, waving a hand toward the empty chair two seats down from his. “Megan and Don pull this crap all the time. It’s not rocket science.”

Harry scoffs, closing his folio. “Okay. Megan’s not a beach ball. And you’ve never been married, or you would know that doesn’t happen—”

“She’s in a very delicate condition,” Pete interrupts.

“Shh!”

The admonition comes from the end of the table, where Scarlett is pacing in front of the glass doors facing Don and Roger’s offices, occasionally stopping by the right wall to peer down the hallway, as if expecting Lane to magically appear in his office at any second.

“Jesus. Will you stop that?” Harry snaps.

“He is never late,” she hisses, watching Clara walk by the panel windows with her arms full of job jackets. “What if we don’t hear from him?”

“Okay, well, pacing all over isn’t helping. He’s fine.”

Peggy raises her eyebrows at the pointed tone. God, those two sound more married than half the couples in this office. “Did you try calling his house?”

“No answer,” Scarlett replies tersely.

Without warning, Ginsberg jumps up from his chair, its legs scraping across the tile as he gets up. He skirts around the table and sails out the door past Joan’s office, turning left like he’s heading for the kitchen.

“What the hell,” Stan says to no one in particular, and gets to his feet with a sigh, following the same route out the door.

“That’s it,” says Harry, standing up and buttoning his jacket, not even bothering to gather up his things. “Somebody come find me if we’re actually doing this.”

Scarlett follows him into the hall with a little growl of annoyance. Peggy watches them go, then glances across the table at Pete and Kenny, who seem just as resigned as she does at the idea of getting up.

“Would you…hear from them, if Joan had delivered?” Pete suddenly asks Kenny, his voice very careful. Ken just shrugs.

“I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t they call Cooper?” Peggy offers after a second of thought.

Pete taps his pencil against a sheaf of papers. “I suppose so.”

“I really don’t think—” Ken’s attention is suddenly diverted down the hall. “Oh, boy.”

Two seconds later, the door opens and Lane strides in, clearly having been caught in the rain. The shoulders and front of his jacket are damp, but his hair’s neat, as if he just had time enough to comb it back. What’s funny is that he doesn’t seem to care much about the rain. A smile keeps playing around the corners of his mouth.

“Sorry,” he says, surveying them with mild surprise. “Good lord. Am I—early?”

“Not exactly,” Ken says, suppressing a grin.

“I’m just—going to—find the others,” Pete says after a moment, sidestepping his chair and buttoning his jacket before walking quickly out of the room.

Lane makes a little satisfied noise as he sits down. “Fine idea.”

Peggy has to stop herself from giggling. Not counting the day they started this agency, this is the happiest she’s ever seen him.

“So, Lane, how’s Joan doing?” she asks, with no small amount of mischief.

Across the table, Kenny’s mouthing something at her that she doesn’t understand, tapping his hands on the table in what looks like random intervals.

“Oh,” Lane says, a wide smile creeping back to his face. “Well, she’s—a bit tired, but otherwise in fine spirits.” He lets out a sigh. “Very kind of you to ask.”

“Sure,” Peggy says, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “We—really miss her.”

“Well, then, you ought to ring her up,” Lane’s expression is puzzled, as if he doesn’t know why she hasn’t picked up the phone to do that right now. “She’d enjoy that very much.”

“Mr. Pryce!” comes a horrified voice, and it’s Scarlett, framed in the doorway, her mouth open in shock. “What time did you get here? Why are you—?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear. I’m—not sure exactly,” says Lane, glancing around the room with a little laugh. “Did you need something?”

Peggy snorts at the secretary’s dumbfounded expression, but before she can turn back to her notepad, she catches Kenny’s eye across the table again. He’s still drumming his fingers on the wooden surface, but it takes her a few seconds to realize he’s not just doing it to be annoying. He’s tapping his left ring finger with the pointer finger of his free hand. She blinks down at his shiny wedding ring, which is reflecting the fluorescent light above the table, then finally realizes what he’s trying to tell her.

Are you serious? she mouths. But when she turns to glance at Lane’s left hand, there’s no wedding ring, which makes her turn back to Kenny in confusion.

Yeah, he mouths back.

Jesus. Maybe they’re engaged.

“Oh, lord,” says Lane out of nowhere, surveying the empty desk in front of him with a sigh. “I’ve left my briefcase in reception.”

Ken bites the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.