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The Most Important Meal

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Joe had a taxi waiting, which seemed perfectly inevitable, in the way that improbable things which happen in dreams always do. Guinevere settled on the padded seat, sighing in relief as her feet in their unaccustomed high-heeled slippers were relieved of her weight. Joe, having handed her in, sat down beside her, and Guinevere found that her arm linked quite automatically through his, so that they sat as closely as they had walked. Guinevere leaned her head against his shoulder, and it occurred to her as she closed her eyes that though it had been a long, long time since she had eaten, it had been an even longer time since she properly slept.


She opened her eyes to find that the taxi had stopped, and Joe had taken a gentle hold on her hand.

"Oh," she said, realizing, "I do apologize."

"Not at all, my dear," Joe murmured. "Quite understandable. But I believe breakfast is in order now, if you would care to join me?"

Guinevere sat up with perhaps a trifle too much alacrity--not only betraying her eagerness but giving herself a bit of a dizzy spell. She held on rather hard to Joe's hand for a moment, and it was only when she relaxed her grip that he moved away far enough to step out of the taxi. As he handed her out Guinevere realized the driver had been standing there, holding the door, the entire time, but he merely smiled. Guinevere, at a loss for words, smiled back.

She accompanied Joe into a restaurant. It was dim inside compared to the bright daylight of the street, but that was hardly the reason Guinevere was blind to its appearance. She was simply overwhelmed by the warm, rich smell of food--an impenetrable tangle of a dozen good things at once.

Her stomach rumbled audibly, but when she murmured, "I do beg your pardon," Joe merely squeezed her arm tighter in his.

A well-dressed young gentleman greeted them a few seconds later, saying, "Mr. Bloomfield, your usual table?"

"Oh, let's have a new one," Joe said easily. "We're not here to be seen, just to eat. Full breakfast, and tea and toast at once."

"Of course," the young man said, showing them to a table for two in a cozy corner, somewhat screened by potted plants. Joe helped Guinevere off with her coat, and Guinevere saw the young man's expression become rather frozen as Joe handed over her coat and his own as well. The young man turned away, and Joe pulled out a seat for Guinevere. She sank into it, smiling up at him, and he smiled back but stood over her for a moment, seeming undecided about something.

Then he said, "If you'll permit me," and pulled the second chair around beside hers.

"By all means," Guinevere said, and reached for his hand. They were sitting that way when a waiter appeared with the teapot and two cups, and Joe waved his right hand for the man to pour out.

The waiter looked only at the tea, then went away in silence, and it finally dawned on Guinevere that she and Joe presented a rather dissipated appearance. Here they were at breakfast, both still in their evening things; likely it was obvious that neither of them had slept.

Joe released her hand so that she could take her tea, and Guinevere cradled the cup in both hands, letting the warmth sink into her fingers as she realized that she did not care. She did not care one bit--one scrap--one jot or tittle--what anyone in this fine restaurant thought she had been doing last night. She had tea, and Joe.

Still, she looked over at him as she took a sip; he had his own teacup raised, covering his mouth, but his eyes were bright and smiling. Guinevere had to close her eyes, because it was too much to bear, having Joe smiling at her as she swallowed that first sip of tea. The warmth that flowed down into her body, the sudden relaxation of those awful pangs of hunger, that was as much as she could cope with. Her closed eyes prickled. She kept very still, holding her cup in front of her with her eyes closed, until there was a touch--so gentle it was almost a phantom--at the corner of her eye.

Guinevere looked, and Joe lowered his hand slowly, with a hint of apology in his smile.

"I fear I have lost you already," he said lightly, "and to a cup of tea."

"Never," Guinevere assured him, and when she took the next sip she kept her eyes open, and simply felt stronger, and not especially as if she were about to melt right there in public.

Of course, then the toast arrived, and Guinevere was very badly distracted indeed. It required great concentration to set down her teacup, to reach out languidly for a slice of perfectly golden toast, to butter it neatly and set down the butter knife without a clatter. She looked at Joe even as she took a careful bite, and he very deliberately took an enormous bite of his own slice of toast, just exactly like an errant child trying to provoke his governess.

Only Guinevere had never been provoked by anyone who smiled at her in just that way as he did it. She had to look away to keep from laughing as she chewed--oh, crisp toast with melting butter, oh, heaven. When she looked back Joe was swallowing, and there was a shine of butter on his lip, and a crumb of toast besmirching his otherwise perfect appearance.

Guinevere--feeling not at all like a governess--reached out and brushed it gently away with her thumb, letting her fingers rest on his cheek as she did. Joe raised his hand to hold hers there, and Guinevere felt warmed all over again, and dimly aware of a long-ignored hunger that might soon be satisfied.

But for now, toast and tea, and she was perfectly willing to be so gauche as to eat and drink left-handed if Joe wished to hold her hand. When she reached for her toast again, however, he released her, nodding past her to signal the advent of yet another waiter.

"Here we are, my dear," he murmured. "And yet more to come."

Guinevere closed her hands around her teacup again as she watched the plates arrive. She let her knee rest against Joe's--on no account should he feel himself abandoned for the kippers--and prepared to thoroughly break her long, long fast.