Rain beat the thin, single-paned windows of Tony’s house with an unearthly vehemence. He scrubbed his face with his hands and sighed. Cooling remnants of an unsatisfactory dinner sat on a plate before him, pushed to the side to make space for a jumble of files and notes that had been put off too long.
Tony thumbed through them, counting. “Fifteen patient notes and three treatment plans,” he murmured to himself. “How am I going to get all this done by tomorrow morning?”
As if on cue, a ghostly howl of wind shook the trees and splattered a fresh coat of rain on the window, the onslaught closely followed by the soft ping of every light in the home extinguishing and the picture on his muted TV flickering out.
Suddenly plunged into darkness, Tony stood, muttered a mild obscenity, and felt his way awkwardly out of the dining room. A banged ankle and another obscenity later, he was in his kitchen, pulling out drawers and riffling around. A firm knock on the doorway down the hall caught his attention and he shuffled around the corner to open it.
“You too then?” The dark outline said.
“Yeah. Could be a fuse, but that seems unlikely if the whole house has gone dark. I know I’ve got a torch in the kitchen somewhere. I was just looking for it.”
“I thought it might be my fault for running every appliance in the flat all at once.”
He couldn’t see her face in the dark hallway, but he caught the lightness in her voice.
“Sounds like you’ve been busy down there.” He turned back down the hall, presuming she would follow. She did.
“No more than usual. You?”
"I was watching football. Relaxing.”
A beat. “Really?”
“No, not really.” He made a sound that approximated a sigh and a laugh all in one. “Well, half of that’s true, anyway.”
“Aha, I knew you’d never watch football.”
He smiled. “After Bradfield’s fifth consecutive loss this season sometimes I feel like I’d be better off without it. The outage at least saved me from confirming how poorly they did this afternoon.”
She stood against the doorway, her form shadowed by what little light bled in from the windows behind her. “Always in it for the underdog, aren’t you, Tony?”
“Or the masochism.”
A few more moments of the sound of utensils and clutter being pushed around and he stood up, triumphant. “Knew it was here.” A pale, pathetic stream of light fought a losing battle against the enveloping darkness. He shone it toward her, shook it lightly, and shrugged. “Batteries aren’t so fresh, I suppose.”
The bobbing light caught her soft smile as he walked past her. She followed slowly, one hand tracking the wall, and as she rounded the corner, she found the darkness quickly illuminated, a warm orange glow spreading under Tony’s bent form. He tipped the first candle to light the next three which, taken together, cast a pleasant, low light over the small dining room table.
“You can stay here. I’ll go check the fuses.”
Carol made a small noise of assent before taking one of the pillar candles downstairs to retrieve a few candles from her own apartment. By the time she ascended the stairs with her own offerings, Tony was standing on the floor stripping off a dripping jacket.
“Not the fuses then?”
“No,” he replied, stating the obvious. “Not much to do besides sit and wait.”
Carol carried the candles to the table near his sofa and arranged them, lighting the few she had brought. “In that case, I won’t be getting much done on the computer tonight and there doesn’t seem to be enough light to ration it between us, so perhaps you could keep me company instead?”
Circumstances notwithstanding, Tony was secretly pleased with the forwardness of the request; it seemed like they had not spent more than a few minutes in each other’s company without professional pretence in far too long.
“Of course. Can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
She moved to speak but the swallowed the reply when she realized that there was nothing but sincerity behind his words.
“Should I put the kettle on, then?”
“To be honest, after the day I’ve had I’d prefer a bottle of wine.”
Tony disappeared around the corner again and emerged with laden arms. He produced a bottle, its label too small to read in the dim light, two glasses, two utensils and a carton.
Carol picked up the carton; it was cold and she tilted it toward the candles to read the label. “Wine and ice cream?” She assumed a mock-serious tone. “With treatment like this, Tony, you’re going to ruin me for other men.”
“I try,” he said, letting it hang in the dark air for a moment. “Besides, no point in just letting it melt. That’s the good stuff.”
Carol smiled and dug a spoon into the soft surface of the ice cream while Tony poured her a generous glass of wine. They sat in silence, alternating between food and wine, and topped off both carton and bottle in under a half hour.
As Tony moved to swallow the last mouthful of wine in his glass he motioned out the window. “I’m surprised you haven’t been called in on a night like this.”
“Shh, don’t curse it,” came the quick reply. “Bad weather cuts down on some of the opportunistic crime, but doesn’t make much of a difference to those determined to make mischief one way or another.”
She felt pleasantly warm; the flickering light of the candles lent a strange intimacy to the tableau, making Tony’s face glow a pale golden color. Carol realized with a sudden touch of whimsy that she was finally getting a candle-lit meal with Tony, if she took a liberal interpretation of what constituted a meal.
“Sorry, won’t mention it again,” Tony said. “Will you be all right downstairs with the heat off?” He instantly regretted alluding to the fact that she would leave, or worse yet, inadvertently implying that she should leave.
“Electric heat,” he said apologetically. “It gets a bit cold down there without it—basement walls with old windows. They leak heat like a sieve.”
Carol made a small noise of consideration. “In that case, I’ll just take your blankets. My extra linens never made it back to Bradfield.”
“It’s not my fault the power’s gone out,” he huffed, though she could see the corner of his mouth twitch with the threat of a smile. “You could just stay up here tonight so I won’t have to worry about you holding my linens hostage.” In the low light he felt both protected and vulnerable; he couldn’t precisely read her tone or expression, but he knew she couldn’t see him well, either. It left plausible deniability if he were taking the flirtation one step too far.
“That is a definite risk. The ransom wouldn’t come cheaply.” She played along.
“Then the blankets stay up here. And so do you. I’ll take the sofa.”
She placed a light hand on his arm, searching his face for shadows that might indicate his true mood. “All right, I’ll stay. And while your offer to sleep on the sofa is chivalrous, it’s not necessary if it’s only for my sake.” It came straight from the part of her heart that spoke without allowing the words to be filtered through higher thought, a part of her she normally carefully controlled, but that right now, in the darkness, asserted itself as bold and reckless. The tone carried the unspoken, unmistakable meaning.
He drew in a deep breath; she was close enough to hear it. Her heart clenched—she’d nudged herself over their long-standing line in the sand without even realizing she had done it, and was gripped with gnawing fear that he would not follow her. She was suddenly grateful for the protective shroud of darkness, but knew that her voice had already betrayed what the inky blackness hid from view.
“Carol,” he said, his voice soft as the candlelight.
Her stomach dropped and she felt light-headed, but she bit her lip to keep from speaking.
“I still can’t always—” he said, but placed a hand on top of hers. It trembled slightly; he made no attempt to hide it.
She had expected him to feign misunderstanding to maintain their careful façade, or at least offer a quiet protest. So for one brief moment, Carol couldn't comprehend his words. “You mean—” Sex. She laughed lightly, a nervous response she couldn’t control when all her veins were shot through with adrenaline.
She felt him pull back, though the edge of the sofa still kept him close, and curled her fingers around his arm. “I’m sorry, Tony, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m—” Carol paused. She felt his hand tighten over hers, a simple closeness that made her chest feel tight and her heart overwhelmed. “I’m not asking for that.”
Carol felt him slipping again; she shifted closer until their legs touched, determined not to let it end without Tony confronting the offer. “I’m asking for you. Just as you are.”
The yellow light from the candles haloed her in soft silhouette, but from this angle, Tony couldn’t see much of her face.
“Are you certain?” He asked. It sounded insipid even to his own ears.
“I’ve never been more certain of anything.” Because I’ve had so long to think about this, and to want nothing but this, she almost added, but the words never found sound.
His hand left hers, fingertips finding her shoulder and tracing a path to her cheek so lightly that she wasn’t at all positive she hadn’t imagined it. Then his hand moved with more purpose, sliding flush against her skin and guiding her forward in the darkness. He was tentative at first, years of studied restraint making him trepidatious, but finally—finally—he pressed his warm lips against hers and the lingering want of all those years suddenly spilled forth.
Carol pulled herself closer; with Tony now pressed into the arm of the sofa, half-supine, she leveraged her body over his. He hadn’t expected it, and the new points of contact where her body pressed against his tugged a murmured noise of pleasure from deep in his chest. She couldn’t help that she smiled into the kiss; she was almost dizzy from the way his mouth felt against hers, so often imagined, but never with the heady immediacy of the real thing.
A hand found its way to the small of her back and settled there, a comforting weight that invited her closer. She leaned further into him, one arm braced against the sofa as her tongue found his, eager and yearning. And so much of what had been built up between them flowed into the way he moved against her like persistent leaks through a levee too long ignored until, finally, the unrelenting force of it washed away the last traces of the impediment.
Tony broke the kiss long enough to pant her own name and press a soft kiss on the inviting skin below her ear and she came undone.
* * *
Tony’s mind touched the veil of sleep but refused to surrender completely. He was too content, too warmed by the body curled against him in peaceful repose. And, yes, too apprehensive. It was unjustifiable and completely irrational, he knew, especially after she had kissed him and wrapped her body around his and moaned his name as he pressed worshipping, needy fingers into her, but what his brain knew ran counter to what years of careful conditioning had lead his heart to expect. If it were over before it begun, if tomorrow morning they parted and she returned to her garden flat and only mounted the stairs on the pretense of work or for a few hours of chaste company and tea, he wanted the clarity of this moment to carry with him through darker days.
A sudden, small tremor on the bed shook him from his reverie and he blinked against the darkness until his eyes settled on the shadowy form of a black cat.
“Good evening, Nelson,” he whispered, extending his fingers to the cat stalking its way silently up from the foot of the bed. Nelson’s whiskers caught the low light as his nose twitched to sniff the offering. Finding it suitable, he rubbed his head against the proffered hand and was rewarded with a scratch behind the ears.
The movement made Carol stir lightly in her sleep. She mumbled something incoherent, drew the blanket up around her shoulders and stilled. He watched her protectively for a moment before satisfying himself that she was still fast asleep. Nelson had no such patience and butted his head against Tony’s hand insistently.
“It’s a packaged deal, then? Take the mistress and the familiar comes with her?” A raspy tongue licked at his wrist in response. “I’ll tell you what, Nelson, you’ve had her all to yourself for far too long. But if you’re willing to share graciously, there’s a tin of tuna in it for you.”
Nelson nudged Tony’s hand again before picking his way gingerly back down the bed and claiming a spot over Carol’s ankles.
“So it’s a deal?” Nelson licked his lips and blinked lazily back at the doctor. “You got the short end of that arrangement, Nelson.” Tony smiled, as if just now realizing to whom he was talking, and settled back down beside Carol, one arm draped possessively over her body.
When morning did come, she held fast to him and pressed solicitous kisses to his neck and melted away the last vestige of apprehension, his and her own alike, and she told him, again with an expression more brilliant than the early light of day, that she had never been more certain of anything.