It's the eerie silence following an explosion that unsettles Jack the most, the disorienting blank space before the next grenade lands when he knows only two things: that he's alive and he may not be a moment from now. He drags himself up onto his knees, swimmy headed, ears percussed, grit in his mouth. His eyes take a moment to focus, watery from the smoke. The skin on one cheek feels seared, and he swallows around the familiar taste of dust and black powder. Belatedly, he thinks to reach for his gun, the grip of it reassuring in his palm. He needs to locate the rest of his squad. He can only hope they'll be alive when he finds them.
The voice reaches him first and then what sounds like—but can't be—the click-clack of a woman's heels. She appears around the corner of a barricade, an apparition in white: pale skin, a flash of white blouse. An incendiary rage burns through Jack as he imagines the desk-bound fool who thought sending nurses onto an active battlefield was a good idea. Before he can call out to her to get down, get out of here, go, his beleaguered brain sorts through the rest of the picture: the sweep of a well-cut coat, ruff of fur at her throat, the soft clutch of her hat against the sleek bob of dark hair.
She kneels down and touches her fingers, cool and gentle, to the burned strip of skin on his cheek. "I'm afraid your head seems to have taken the brunt of it. Gang wars aren't good for anyone's health."
Her voice is light, but the way she dabs at the grime on his face, sacrificing a pristine handkerchief to the cause, is exquisitely careful. He finds the concerned pinch between her eyes surprisingly touching given that he has no idea who she is.
"Jack," she says, leaning in, studying him more closely.
She smells of French perfume, something light and subtle that makes him think of weekend leaves spent in Paris. He's fairly certain that he's not in France anymore, however, and that might actually be funny if his head hurt just a little bit less.
The dark-haired woman helps him up and leads him over to a police car. A uniformed constable runs from the other side of the building to meet them wearing a look of deep concern.
"I found him amidst the rubble," the woman says, and even if Jack doesn't remember her, he can hear the lingering fear in her voice. "I hope that teaches you not to rush off to possible crime scenes by yourself."
The constable frowns more worriedly at Jack. "Are you—should I—"
Jack holds up a hand. "I'm fine."
He's always been a cautious man, preferring to part with information only when absolutely necessary. Telling unfamiliar people that he can't remember anything beyond a battlefield in France doesn't strike him as necessary, not when he's already begun to piece together the situation for himself. The war is over, and he's returned to his life as a police officer. Apparently whatever case he's working is not going particularly well.
"Why don't you bring me up speed?" he prompts the constable.
"Oh, um, well, according to bystanders, this is in fact one of the warehouses that belong to the Byrnes, so we were on the right track… so to speak," the young man tells him, darting a distracted glance at Jack's battered face and then quickly away.
"Probably payback from the Casellis for the nightclub fire last week," the woman interjects as if she has knowledge of the case.
The young constable nods. "Not that anyone will admit to having seen anything. No one wants to get in the middle of Melbourne's two biggest crime families if they're bent on going to war." He stops, open his mouth, closes it again, and finally blurts out, "Are you sure you don't want me to call the doctor, sir? Or maybe I should take you to hospital?"
A sudden antiseptic stench turns Jack's stomach, and it takes him a moment to realize it's a memory. A picture of the last hospital he saw—the last one he remembers anyway—floats up behind his eyes, row after row of cots, a seemingly endless expanse of bodies. In the chaos, men who'd had nothing more seriously wrong with them than a minor bout of dysentery, men like Jack, had been mixed in with the maimed and the dying. All through the long nights Jack had listened to the thin, desperate voices of men calling out for a nurse, for God, for the sweet mercy of death.
He shakes his head resolutely. "No need for a doctor, constable. I'm perfectly well."
The constable appears unconvinced, but he also seems to understand there's no point in arguing. "What should we do now?"
Before Jack can come up with a suitably vague reply, the woman says, "Let's regroup in the morning. Neither the Byrnes nor the Casellis have shown much interest in helping us. We'll need to put our heads together and come up with some other way to get at the truth. In the meanwhile, Inspector Robinson could no doubt use some rest. Wouldn't you agree, Jack?"
The question is clearly no question at all, and she hardly waits a beat before adding, "Constable Collins, perhaps you could see the Inspector home?"
Jack marvels at this woman who apparently feels perfectly at ease arranging both his investigation and his life. Who could she possibly be?
"Oh, um." The constable shifts his weight. "Perhaps it is a good idea if I just run you home, sir?" His voice lilts up apologetically.
Jack can't imagine he's changed so much that he would accept coddling without an argument, but there is the practical difficulty that he can't be certain where he lives.
"The investigation will keep to morning," the woman says softly.
Jack studies her, but there's nothing, no whiff of memory. "Fine," he says at last.
The constable breathes out, as if relieved that Jack isn't going to prove difficult. "If you're ready to go then, sir." He nods to the woman. "Good evening, Miss Fisher."
They've gone halfway down the block before Jack thinks to look back. The woman—Miss Fisher—is still standing there, immaculate amid the soot and debris, watching with a quizzical look.
It's a wise decision in hindsight, letting this Constable Collins see him home. They drive to a completely different part of town than the tidy block with white houses and neat-as-pin lawns where he'd lived with Rosie.
"Maybe I'll just come up with you," the constable says when he notices the blank way Jack eyes the building.
Jack follows him up a steep set of stairs, the treads creaking beneath their feet, to a flat on the second floor. He fumbles in his pocket for keys, a good dozen of them on the ring, and strikes it lucky when the first one he tries slides into the lock. He takes a step inside, glances around, and what he sees answers one question: he and Rosie haven't fallen on hard times. The forlorn bachelor look of the place says there is no Rosie, not in his life, not anymore.
"Are you sure—" the constable begins, his forehead wrinkled with concern.
"I'm fine. Thank you, Collins."
He says it with such a clear note of dismissal that the constable hesitates only a moment before wishing Jack a good evening and making his exit. In the bathroom, Jack splashes water on his face, washing away the last sooty smudges from the explosion. The skin on his cheek stings and even more so when he dabs at it with alcohol-soaked cotton wool. He studies himself in the mirror, the weary lines around his eyes, the way his mouth turns down at the corners, not quite in resignation, but as if there's nothing left that has the power to surprise him. It's some consolation, he supposes, that at least he doesn't look like a stranger.
A tour of the flat seems in order, and Jack trails through the few rooms, examining dresser drawers of clothes folded with military precision, the trolley holding bottles of his favorite liquor, a plate of dinner left for him to warm up, he assumes by a housekeeper. There are no traces of Rosie, no silver-framed photos of her smiling face, none of her embroidered cushions lying about, not a stick of furniture from their old home. If she'd died, he would have cherished those things, which leads him to believe that they must be separated or even divorced. Perhaps the most surprising thing is how unsurprising that is.
Jack thinks of the letters Rosie sent to him at the front, those determinedly cheerful accounts of life back home. He'd hole up in his spot by the sandbags, ignoring the ever-present reek of rotting bodies and the scuttle of rats, reading her descriptions of the ladies auxiliary gatherings to knit socks for the troops and the prize-winning roses honored by the local garden club. The words would swim on the page, lose all meaning, as if he and his wife no longer shared a common language.
The unspoken assumption threaded all through those letters was that when the war was over Jack would slot back into the space he'd left vacant, and everything would go back to normal, and they'd all start moving forward again, as if the war were merely some temporary detour. He'd wondered with every word he read—the neighborhood news, the weeks-old gossip, all the trivia of everyday life—how it would ever be possible to return to that, to fit there again.
Now he has the answer: it wasn't.
A desk sits next to a bank of windows. It's stacked with files. Papers are spread out in careful order. A pen looks as if he just set it down. These are the only real signs of life in the place. He settles onto the chair, sinking into the leather, the earthy smell comforting in its familiarity, and he starts to sift through the papers. His own crabbed handwriting swims up at him, and he feels a flash of recognition, like catching a glimpse of an old friend in a sea of strangers. The sense of familiarity quickly fades as he reads what he's written—notes on the current case he's working. He comes across the same names the woman, Miss Fisher, mentioned: the Byrnes and Cassellis. Nothing else sounds the least bit familiar.
He settles in to read, to memorize every detail since he has no intention of letting on to anyone that there's anything wrong with him. If war has taught him one thing, it's the feebleness of modern medicine, the impotence of doctors to do anything more than poke and prod and shake their heads with grim befuddlement. He has no intention of allowing himself to fall into their hopeless hands. No doubt his memory will return on its own. Until then, he'll pretend that it never went missing.
According to Jack's notes, the burgeoning gang war began with a tipoff. Prior to it, the Cassellis and Byrnes had a longstanding mutual understanding that effectively divided Melbourne and its criminal enterprises down the middle. Occasionally they joined forces on larger jobs. The most recent example was a gun trafficking scheme, and that was when it had all started to go bad.
A call had come into the switchboard two weeks ago with a detailed who-what-where-when account of the upcoming arms deal. The commissioner had sanctioned a raid, and Jack had led the team. He could read between the lines of his notes that he'd expected it to come to nothing. But when they'd stormed the old canning factory, they'd found crates of weapons stacked to the ceiling as promised and rounded up at least two dozen men from both families.
Subsequent events would suggest that each family believed the other responsible for the tip, despite the fact that they'd both lost money and personnel. Three days after the raid, a nightclub owned by the Cassellis burned down, and now one of the Byrnes's warehouses had exploded.
Jack purses his lips as he studies the notes. It makes no sense. If one of the families wanted to move in on the other's territory, there had to have been a better way to go about it than compromising their own operation. What could they have hoped to accomplish by tipping off the police? Jack squints against the dull throbbing in his temple as he puzzles over that conundrum, and then sits up straighter in his chair. Perhaps the point had always been to start a war. The question was: who would profit by it?
A knock at the door takes him by surprise, and the surprise only deepens when he finds Miss Fisher standing in the hallway.
"Good evening, Jack." She breezes inside as if certain of her welcome. "Not that I don't trust in Constable Collins' ability to look out for you, but I thought I'd just come check on you myself. If you hadn't had such an intransigent look about you at the warehouse, I would have suggested you come stay with me, at least for tonight. Someone should keep an eye on you with that knot the size of a grapefruit on your head."
"It's not that bad," Jack manages, unable to look away from her.
Her mere presence makes the flat seem less shabby and lifeless than it had only the moment before, and he's struck by the impropriety of having her here alone with him. That he can't seem to take his eyes off the bare curve of her throat and finds himself imagining how soft her skin is makes him wonder if she's a regular visitor, if perhaps they—
But no. The way she glances around the flat, her curious eyes taking in all the details, tells him that she's never been here before. Allowing her to linger feels as if it would be taking advantage of her kindness—there is her reputation to consider after all—and he really does mean to assure her that he's well and see her to the door. "May I offer you a drink?" comes out instead.
Her smile is brilliant, head tilted at a flirtatious angle. "Always."
She wanders over to the desk while he pours the brandy and unapologetically snoops through his papers. He takes a moment to consider if he minds and finds that he doesn't.
"I've been reconsidering that tipoff call," she says, with a thoughtful air. "What if a burned-down nightclub and charred warehouse was precisely the point of it?"
Perhaps it should be a surprise that she's arrived at the same conclusion he has, but somehow it's not.
He hands her a tumbler and takes a sip of his own drink. A doctor would no doubt advise him that it was unwise to imbibe with a head injury. Yet another reason to avoid doctors. "If someone wanted to take over organized crime in Melbourne, it would be quite the challenge. They'd need a very clever plan."
Miss Fisher nods. "And what more clever plan than to have the Cassellis and Byrnes do all the dirty work themselves?"
"A gang war would leave a convenient power vacuum."
"Which begs the question: who's feeling power-hungry?" Her expression is keenly focused, eyes bright with intelligence as she waits for his answer, an easy assumption on her part that they are partners in solving this mystery.
Jack can think of all the reasons why a man might object to such an arrangement. None of those reasons seems to disturb him. If anything, he finds himself intrigued by the prospect. "Perhaps that's where we should start in the morning?"
"My thought precisely." She smiles as if delighted that they are of a like mind, finishes off her drink, and hands him back the glass. "See you, Jack."
The room feels flatter after she's gone. Jack finishes his own drink and gathers up his papers. He should sleep, but he can't be sure that he will. The shadows of dead men linger behind his eyes, and whenever he lies down to rest, they slip into his dreams. Better to stay up late reading in bed or stare wakefully at the ceiling than to wrangle with ghosts all night.
At some point, he must drift off, but his dreams aren't what he expects. Miss Fisher sits so close, and she's trembling as if afraid, and all he wants is to distract her, comfort her. "Phryne," he says, low and urgent, as if nothing has ever been more important. She won't look at him, and he has to do something. It just makes sense to take her face between his hands and kiss her. Her gasp is a warm puff of breath against his lips, and she melts into him, kissing him back. He doesn't want to let her go, but there's some urgent reason why he must, and when he pulls away, she looks at him so searchingly that he feels utterly laid bare.
When he wakes, the dream is still vivid, and it lingers as his morning gets underway. The scene plays back in his head while he shaves, and starts to seem less and less like a dream. He furrows his brow at himself in the mirror. How could he know her first name if it wasn't an actual memory?
The workday's challenges begin on a mundane note; Jack loiters outside police headquarters, eyeing its façade, wondering how he'll find the way to his office without giving away his secret. Handily Constable Collins turns up before he has to make any decision.
"Were you waiting for me, sir?" the constable asks, his forehead creased with confusion.
"Just stopping for a breath of air," Jack tells him.
The constable doesn't quite seem to know what to make of that, but he lets the matter drop and leads the way inside. A nameplate helpfully shows Jack the way to his office. He expects the office to be empty when he opens the door, and when it isn't, he has a flash of fear, irrational as it is, that he'll cross paths with his other self, the one this life actually belongs to, a hard way to discover that he's as ghostly as the men in his nightmares. But the only occupants of the room are two men sitting opposite the desk, a mismatched pair, one stout and the other thin, both wearing disapproving scowls. Each is so absurdly starched, pressed and polished that Jack can't imagine he'll be able to trust a single word that comes out of their mouths. He's almost grateful to them for that, for giving him something more pressing to focus on than the mess of his own mind.
Another constable, even younger than Collins, hurries over. "Sorry, sir. I told them to wait out here, but they insisted."
The stout man clambers to his feet. "I'm here representing the Byrne family. I've come to find out what's being done about this appalling attack against their property. It's a miracle that no one was hurt or killed. We expect swift action by the police."
The other man refuses to be upstaged. He leaps up as well and demands in equally dramatic fashion, "I hope you aren't being taken in by this charlatan. The Cassellis were attacked first. This warehouse explosion is merely a diversion to distract you from the arson at the nightclub."
"When was that nightclub ever profitable?" the stout man challenges. "That was the diversion."
The two glare at one another, and Jack indulges in a personal moment of amusement that these two mouthpieces for organized crime are currently bickering over who has the greater right to police attention.
"Gentlemen," he says coolly, taking off his topcoat and hat, and settling behind the desk. "We are doing our best to investigate both cases, but it would certainly make our job easier if we could speak with your clients."
According to Jack's notes, both the Byrnes and Cassellis have shown a distinct lack of interest in cooperating with the police. That's borne out when suddenly neither lawyer will meet his eye.
"My clients have already told you everything they know," the stout man says, his mouth tense at the corners.
"The same goes for my clients," his counterpart chimes in, just as tight-lipped. "They have no knowledge of this warehouse explosion or any other crime. They're the victims here."
This earns him a glare from the other man, and Jack decides to put an end to things before another round of mutual blame can begin. "We'll continue our investigations, and I'll be in touch when there's anything to report." Before either can protest, he adds in a firm tone, "Good day."
Neither man is eager to leave, but Jack's unyielding expression gives them no reason to stay. They depart his office, casting dissatisfied backward glances.
Miss Fisher appears just as they're going. "Those two have a shady look about them."
"Lawyers," Jack explains.
"The shadiest," Miss Fisher declares, taking a seat. "Am I to suppose they represent either the Byrnes or the Cassellis?"
"One of each, actually."
"Come to check on the status of the investigations?"
Jack nods. "And to reiterate that their clients have absolutely no intention of helping us with any of it."
"Inconvenient, but hardly surprising." Miss Fisher purses her lips thoughtfully. "You know, Jack, I've been thinking about these crimes and their timing. According to the nightclub's manager, they had more cash on hand than usual when it burned down, and sources tell me the warehouse had just received a very lucrative shipment the day before it exploded."
"Sources?" He raises an eyebrow.
"Sources," she reiterates, adding no further detail. "So if these crimes are the work of someone trying to take over the families' operations—"
"It's someone on the inside," he finishes the thought for her. "More specifically, at least two people working together, one from each family, well connected enough that they'd know all about the inner workings, details they could use to inflict maximum damage."
"All we have to do now is figure out who our co-conspirators are," she says, looking pleased with their efforts.
He rises to his feet. "And that will require research. Can I interest you in a visit to the newspaper office?" He doesn't know how he's entered into such an unconventional partnership with this woman, but he finds he has no interest in discontinuing it.
Miss Fisher smiles widely. "There's nothing I enjoy more than a good foray into facts." She breezes out of the office, and he can't help but smile.
Their reception at the newspaper's archive is less than friendly.
"You again," the woman behind the desk says, squinting at Jack over the tops of her spectacles. She reminds him of a particularly stern-faced grammar school teacher he suffered through as a boy.
"Hello, Miss Tattersall," Miss Fisher says brightly.
The archivist's mouth pinches together into a tighter line. "And you're here as well. Of course, you are."
"It's lovely to see you again," Miss Fisher continues undeterred, and Jack has to work not to smile at that.
Miss Tattersall clearly suspects his amusement because she narrows her eyes at him rather ominously.
He assumes his most professional demeanor. "We're hoping you can help us with some research. It's important police business."
Miss Tattersall is decidedly unimpressed. "When is it not?"
Jack leans in and marshals whatever charm he possesses. "It would help us greatly if you could pull for us mentions of the Casselli and Byrne families."
"I assume you're referring to the criminals," Miss Tattersall says primly.
Jack nods. "From the past year would be very helpful."
"All the mentions for the entire year?" Miss Tattersall's eyebrows rise dramatically, as if she's scandalized by the magnitude of the request.
"Best make it the past two years," Miss Fisher chimes in. At Jack's questioning glance, she explains, "Starting a gang war isn't something you do impulsively. Whoever's responsible has planned this carefully. The roots of this attempted coup may go back some way."
"The past two years, please," Jack says to Miss Tattersall.
She walks away with a loud harrumph.
Jack isn't entirely certain whether to interpret that as agreement or dismissal, but eventually Miss Tattersall returns toting an armload of newspaper folios. She drops them with a displeased clatter onto the table. "I've started with the most recent editions."
Miss Fisher claims one of the chairs at the table and retrieves the first paper off the stack. "Looks like we've got our work cut out for us, Jack," she says gamely as she starts to flip pages.
Mentions of the two families turn up most often in the crime blotter, which only stands to reason, and the society pages, which boggles the imagination.
"Liam Byrne has been named philanthropist of the year in recognition of his generous support for Melbourne Children's Hospital," Jack reads aloud. "If this article was all you had to go by, you'd think for sure he was a respectable man of business with a soft spot for the ill and less fortunate."
"Money covers a magnitude of sins, I'm afraid," Miss Fisher says philosophically.
"Let's lay out our possible suspects," Jack says. "Liam Byrne is the man in charge, so I think we can safely rule him out."
"The same would go for Rinaldo Casselli," Miss Fisher says.
"So who does that leave? People in the innermost circle."
"Rinaldo Casselli is a widower, but there is the matriarch of the family, Rosa Casselli." Miss Fisher points to a picture of an elderly woman in a flowered frock and wide-brimmed hat attending a garden party.
"Perhaps not the most likely suspect."
"Rather like my Aunt Prudence turning out to be a criminal mastermind."
"Rinaldo Casselli has an older sister," Jack says, recalling the detail from his notes. "Alexandra. Perhaps she didn't appreciate being passed over in the family hierarchy simply because she's a woman."
"I certainly wouldn't have." Miss Fisher lifts her chin. "Look at this." She turns around the newspaper so Jack can see. "Alexandra recently became Mrs. Victor Marino. Perhaps the newly married couple prefers to be in business for themselves."
"There's a younger brother as well, I believe."
"Marco," Miss Fisher supplies in a way that sounds as if she has personal knowledge of the man.
Jack lifts an eyebrow.
"He runs the loveliest bistro over on Hawthorn Street," Miss Fisher explains. "He's a French-trained chef and does all the cooking himself. The menu is positively inspired. You really should get out more, Jack. In any event, from what I hear Marco's never had any interest in the family business."
"Perhaps he's developed one of late."
"And what about the Byrnes?"
"Liam Byrne has a wife, Estelle." Jack leafs through the paper until he comes to a picture of her, a showy blonde in a strikingly low-cut gown.
Miss Fisher leans in for a look. "Quite the bombshell."
"If you like the type, I suppose," Jack says dismissively.
Miss Fisher eyes him curiously. "And just what is your type, Jack?"
A sense memory from Jack's dream rushes up at him, the sweep of her hair against his cheek, the heat of her body beneath his hands. He clears his throat, feeling disturbingly warm beneath the collar. "Perhaps we'd better—" He gestures toward the pile of papers.
Miss Fisher looks reluctant to let the subject drop, but she does at last turn her attention back to the research.
The work is tedious, but it feels companionable with Miss Fisher across the table from him. Jack is surprised to find himself thinking that he could do this every day quite contentedly. He pushes aside that disturbing notion to focus on an equally alarming revelation about their pool of suspects. "The immediate families of each of our crime bosses are contained enough, but the number of great uncles, distant cousins, and longstanding associates who are as close as family seems virtually limitless," he says with a sigh.
Miss Fisher nods in sympathy, and even her optimism seems to dim a bit when Miss Tattersall unloads the next round of folios onto the table.
They continue on with only a brief pause for lunch, slowly digging through every reference no matter how seemingly irrelevant. Jack is just beginning to wonder if asking Miss Tattersall to go back another year will be pushing his luck too far when Miss Fisher sits up straighter, her entire body alert.
"What is it?" he asks.
She looks up from the page. "I think we may have gotten the motive for this crime wrong. It's not greed, at least not entirely, but something far more personal."
When she shows him the photograph, Jack knows immediately what she means. Affairs of the heart may not be his particular area of expertise, but the naked longing on Estelle Byrne's face would be impossible for anyone to miss. Mrs. Byrne's husband sits beside her in the picture; she's turned slightly away from him, staring at something—someone outside the frame. Clearly, it isn't her husband who inspires such urgent emotion in her.
"Where are they?" he wonders aloud, scanning the article to figure out the answer. "Must be Christmas time. I see pine boughs decorating the table."
"That's the best part," Miss Fisher says. "It was a holiday party thrown jointly by the Byrnes and Cassellis."
Jack's interest picks up even further. "Interesting. Do you think it was a sort of—" He waves his hand. "Good will gesture between the two families?"
Miss Fisher nods. "Makes sense to me. It's in both their interests to keep the peace, stick to the boundaries they've agreed on, join forces when needed. What better way to affirm that than by raising a cup of wassail together?"
"We need to find out who Mrs. Byrne's—her—" Jack trails off, awkward about finishing the sentence.
Miss Fisher does it for him. "Lover. I believe that's the word you're looking for, Jack."
"Yes," Jack says, his voice dropping lower. "Her lover."
The nature of the conversation has drawn them closer to keep from being overheard, and she is suddenly so close that he catches the delicate scent of her perfume, feels the brush of her sleeve against his hand. It's a good thing that no one is here to take his photograph. His expression might give him away as surely as Estelle Byrne's had.
"Roderick Blanchard," Miss Fisher says, her voice still hovering in the confidential octave.
Jack blinks. "I beg your pardon?"
"That's who took the picture. See?" She points out the caption. "I know him. He's not a newspaperman, but a society photographer. My aunt posed for a portrait at his studio a few months ago."
"A society photographer at the Christmas party of Melbourne's two biggest crime families?"
Miss Fisher shrugs. "Everyone else who's anyone in this town was there according to the article. High sticklers like my Aunt Prudence might not approve, but the rest of Melbourne's elite finds a certain thrill in hobnobbing with mobsters."
Jack shakes his head sadly. "Just when I think people can't get any more foolish."
"It's quite a striking photograph. Perhaps Mr. Blanchard remembers who captured Mrs. Byrne's attention so intriguingly." Miss Fisher cranes her neck, checking the clock on the wall. "It's half past three. If we go now, we may be able to catch him before he leaves for the day."
They scramble up from the table and hurry past a deeply disgruntled Miss Tattersall. "Leave me with the mess to clean up," she grumbles. "It's not as if I have anything better to do."
The studio is only a ten minute trip by motorcar, but they arrive to find a "Closed" sign on display in the front window.
"Mr. Blanchard is getting a head start on the cocktail hour it appears," Jack says dryly.
"I suppose we'll have to come back tomorrow," Miss Fisher says, disappointment punctuating the words.
"In the meantime, I'll have Constable Collins pull together everything we know about Estelle Byrne's background."
Jack ushers Miss Fisher back to the car, grateful that he was foresighted enough to have looked up her address. "May I see you home?"
She tilts her head and smiles. "I'd be most obliged, Inspector."
When they get to her house, he accompanies her inside, lingering in the entryway, strangely hesitant to leave although they've already spent the better part of the day together and for all practical purposes he's known her less than twenty-four hours.
Perhaps Miss Fisher reads the reluctance on his face, or perhaps she's just as loath to part ways. "May I offer you a drink? Or perhaps I could interest you in some dinner? I'm certain Mr. Butler is whipping up something spectacular even as we speak."
A man in a butler's uniform—Mr. Butler, it would seem—appears on cue. "Beef bourguignon, Miss, and if I may say so myself, it's some of my best."
Miss Fisher turns to Jack with a bright smile. "Can we tempt you?"
The way she looks at him, the way it makes him want to—temptation is precisely the right word. "I really should be getting home," he says in a gruff voice that he suspects fools absolutely no one.
Mr. Butler excuses himself. "I'll just see to dinner, shall I?"
Miss Fisher takes a step closer, chin tilted up. "Are you sure you have to go, Jack?"
"I—" He stammers helplessly, and that damned dream flashes behind his eyes again. If it was only a dream, how would I know her first name? "Phryne."
She leans in closer. "Jack."
Maybe this is what they are to each other. Maybe all he needs to do is—he reaches for her before the thought has a chance to fully form. He rests his hand against her cheek, just like in the dream, his thumb stroking along her jaw as he presses their mouths together. She comes easily with a soft pleased sound, her body swaying in toward his. But it's after just the slightest stutter of surprise. He might not even have noticed that if he weren't so attuned to her.
He draws back in confusion. "I—" It's clear now that this isn't how they are, and he has no notion of how to explain himself, apart from offering a confession he has no intention of making.
Disappointment passes fleetingly across her face before her expression settles into concern. She touches her fingers to his temple, to the spot where some piece of that warehouse collided with his skull, her touch light, questioning. "If something were wrong, you would tell me, wouldn't you?"
He smiles ruefully. "If I didn't, I'm sure you'd manage to figure it out for yourself." He lifts her hand and presses a kiss to it. Perhaps he doesn't usually do that either, but he really can't care. "Good evening, Miss Fisher."
At home, the flat greets him with dull silence, and the stubborn headache he's done his best to ignore all day overtakes him at last. He settles with a tired sigh onto the most comfortable chair in the room, rubs idly at his temple, and wonders if he should start to worry that he hasn't recovered a single memory of his life after the war. Quite likely he should consider seeing a doctor. Instead he reaches for the brandy decanter.
Half a glass is all it takes to send him drifting off. It isn't a deep sleep, and he has a vague awareness that he must be dreaming as Miss Fisher—Phryne—makes an appearance, pushing him into a curtained alcove and settling onto his lap. It feels entirely real though, the weight of her, heat of her body, whisper of her breath against his cheek.
It's even more obviously a dream when the scene changes abruptly. Phryne is still there, but she's on the other side of the room from him now, dancing half naked, hips lazily swaying, a secret smile on her face as if she knows something no else does. Jack would easily believe that, and he can't take his eyes off her. She's all he can see.
She stretches out her arms, and her breasts are bare, high and round, her skin pale and smooth. It would be so easy to go from looking to touching—that's the thought that keeps going through Jack's head. He takes a step toward her, but it's a dream, so he can't move. The harder he tries, the more of a quagmire it becomes, trapping him where he stands, the length of a room away from where he most wants to be.
He startles awake, daylight slanting through the blinds. His back complains when he straightens up, and he blinks as images rush back from the dream. That wasn't some gauzy fantasy, some half-remembered pinup photograph. That was a real woman. That was Phryne. He's sure of it.
He's more confused than ever about the nature of their relationship.
The kinks in Jack's back have not worked themselves out by the time he arrives at the station, but at least there's the comforting clarity of focusing on the case.
"I have that information you wanted on Estelle Byrne," Constable Collins says by way of greeting, handing over a folder.
Jack takes a seat at his desk and flips through everything they know about the woman. Her involvement in the scheme makes so much more sense once he's done.
Miss Fisher announces herself, "I'm here for our date." At Jack's somewhat strangled expression, she clarifies, "With Mr. Roderick Blanchard."
"You should see this first." He holds over the folder.
She settles onto the corner of his desk, eagerly digging into the file. Her eyes grow larger as she reads, and when she makes it to the end, she lifts her gaze and fixes it on Jack. "Estelle Byrne née Lester would appear to have more than one reason to want to destroy both families."
"I hadn't connected Estelle Byrne to the Lesters." Perhaps he would have if he had the full use of his memory. "The Lesters ran this town when I was a boy. Gambling. Bootlegging. Gunrunning. No one could challenge them."
"Until the Byrnes arrived on the scene."
Jack nods. "There were some very bloody years, heavy losses to both families, until they chose to forge an alliance rather than continue to compete over the same territory."
"An alliance cemented by a marriage. I see Miss Lester was all of seventeen." The corners of Miss Fisher's mouth tighten in disapproval.
"It was less than a year after Estelle Lester's wedding to Liam Byrne that her father was gunned down under some rather mysterious circumstances. Within five years, she'd lost most of the rest of her family. Her uncle, brother, several cousins."
Miss Fisher turns a page of the file. "And suspected in all of those murders were people working for the Cassellis."
"Suspected but never proven."
"Or avenged, it seems," Miss Fisher adds dryly. "It wasn't much of an alliance, was it?"
Jack shakes his head. "Frankly, I'd call it more of an ambush."
The expression in Miss Fisher's eyes sharpens. "You think Liam Byrne had this in mind from the beginning? That he was already in cahoots with the Cassellis? The plan all along was to marry into the Lester family, gain their trust, and then pick them off one by one?"
"It doesn't matter what I think," he says. "Only what Estelle Byrne does."
"Then we'd better go talk to Roderick Blanchard. We can't prove anything if we don't know which member of the Casselli family is her paramour in crime."
Miss Fisher hops down from his desk and he hurries after her, grabbing his coat and hat. Her sideways look of surprise when he agrees to ride along in her motorcar makes sense once he's actually experienced her driving. There is no corner she doesn't take too sharply, no intersection she doesn't speed through with a loud application of horn. Jack vows never to ride with her again. He suspects he's made this resolution before.
"There's no reason to believe Roderick Blanchard will be fleeing the country," he points out after a rather too-close call with a milk truck.
Miss Fisher simply smiles and presses down that much harder on the accelerator.
By the time they arrive at the photography studio, Jack feels as breathless as if he'd run the entire way. Miss Fisher descends calmly from the car, rearranges her fur stole, and heads for the door. They find the reception desk empty, but Roderick Blanchard is in the next room, bent over his camera, adjusting the lens. A young girl of not more than fifteen, primly dressed in a high-necked white frock with her hair neatly plaited and tied with ribbons, sits on a rather uncomfortable looking straight-backed chair waiting to have her picture taken. At the sight of unexpected visitors, she shyly ducks her head.
An older woman, no doubt the girl's mother, pops up from a chair along the wall. "You can't be here. This is a private session."
"I shoot portraits by appointment only," Blanchard says, without looking up from his camera. "My assistant has gone out on an errand. You'll have to come back another time."
"Inspector Jack Robinson, City South Police Department. I have a few questions for you, Mr. Blanchard."
The older woman narrows her eyes at Blanchard in suspicion. The girl looks delighted that some drama is about to unfold.
Blanchard sighs, finally glancing up from the camera. "I don't suppose we could do this another—" He stops short and blinks as if not quite certain he can trust what he sees. "Miss Phryne Fisher." He hurries forward and bends over her hand to kiss it. "A pleasure, as always."
Jack takes an instant dislike to the man, bristling at the oiliness of his tone as he fawns over Miss Fisher. He's never had much use for puffed up dandies who get by on their charm. "We can speak here or down at the station, Mr. Blanchard."
Miss Fisher shoots Jack a surprised look at his abruptness. Mr. Blanchard appears amused for his part and turns to his clients to say, "If you'll excuse me please. I must do my duty and assist the police."
If his client's scowl is anything to judge by, she's rather unimpressed by this display of good citizenship. "We have a very important luncheon engagement."
Mr. Blanchard's mouth quirks into a would-be smile, but he promises, "I'm certain this won't take long."
He leads the way back to an office, settles at the desk without inviting them to take a seat, and demands to know, "Now what is so urgent that you needed to interrupt Miss Woodrow's sixteenth birthday portrait?"
Miss Fisher plunks down onto a chair, making herself right at home. "Last year's Byrne-Casselli Christmas soirée."
Blanchard laughs. "That annual farce. Ah, well. The criminal element does pay handsomely."
"You were hired to photograph the event?" Jack asks.
"But you sold some of the photographs to the newspaper?" he prompts.
"At my clients' request. They do enjoy seeing themselves in the society pages. "
Miss Fisher leans in. "There was one photograph in particular that stood out from the rest."
"The one of the lovely Estelle Byrne looking rather moon-eyed?" Blanchard's own eyes gleam with appreciation. "Some of my finest work."
"You wouldn't happen to remember who was at the end of Mrs. Byrne’s longing gaze?" Jack does his best to keep the irritation out of his voice. From the glance darted his way by Miss Fisher, he's not entirely successful.
Blanchard smiles wolfishly. "I'm afraid I was too busy admiring Mrs. Byrne to notice whom she was admiring."
"What about other photographs of the event?" Jack asks.
"I keep copies of all my work."
"Wonderful," Jack tells him. "We'll take everything you have from that evening."
Blanchard pulls a mulish expression. "You won't, actually. Imagine what would happen to my reputation if word got out that I freely shared a client's photographs with the police."
Miss Fisher brushes away his concern with a sweep of her hand. "Imagine what will happen when your photographs help to solve a string of gangland crimes. Morbid curiosity alone will keep you well stocked with clients."
Blanchard looks as if he might argue the point, and Jack clarifies, "It wasn't a request. The photographs, if you please, Mr. Blanchard."
The man is not happy, but he does eventually produce two large folios. "I'll expect everything returned promptly and in pristine condition."
Once in the car again, Jack leafs through the thick stacks of photographs, a pinch between his eyes. "How should we approach this?"
Miss Fisher cocks her head. "I have an idea."
She darts out into traffic, and they go careening through the streets. When the Roseland Ballroom comes into sight, Jack understands where they're going and why. "We reconstruct the event with the photographs at the venue where it was held. That just might work."
Miss Fisher smiles with satisfaction.
At the ballroom, Jack produces his identification, but it proves unnecessary. The manager greets Miss Fisher like a long lost friend. "It's been far too long since you've come to visit us." He ushers them at once into the main ballroom.
Miss Fisher plucks the folios of photographs out of Jack's hands. "Shall we get to work, Inspector?"
They begin with the photo of Estelle Byrne. Fortunately, there's a column in back of the banquette where she was seated and a rather unmistakable statue of a satyr, so it's easy to find the spot.
"She was looking this way." Miss Fisher angles her body in that direction. "Could have been one of those tables." She points out three possibilities, all in a line.
Jack sorts through the photographs. One of the tables is flanked by a tall potted palm, which makes it easy to pick out. He studies the people in the grouping: a middle-aged couple who appear to be having a spat, a bored looking young woman and her date who seems to be the one boring her, an older woman engrossed in her dinner, and a white-haired man tipping back a martini. Nothing promising there, but they do get lucky that there's a bit of the next table over caught along the edge of the frame.
Jack beckons to Miss Fisher. "Help me find these people?"
She leans in to study the photo, pursing her lips in concentration. "That's a batwing sleeve in printed chiffon and a fox stole." She sifts through the photos and comes up with one. "There."
Jack peers over her shoulder, pushing away the awareness of how good she smells. Now is not the time. "I don't see any likely suspects."
Miss Fisher shakes her head. "I recognize everyone here. The Cavendishes, the Whitfords, Miss Henrietta Smythe and her escort Darby Travers. None of them has anything to do with organized crime unless they're far more interesting than anyone gives them credit."
Jack's mouth quirks up at the corner. "That leaves just one last table to find our second suspect."
They spread out the photographs, working through them methodically, piecing together the clues until they finally manage to track down the table in question. A familiar face peers out at them. Jack knows it well from reading through the case file.
Miss Fisher draws in an audible breath. "Oh."
"Marco Casselli," Jack says in confirmation. "The younger brother who wasn't interested in the family business."
Any remaining doubts are put to rest when they sort through the rest of the pictures and find another shot of Marco. He stares at something—someone—outside the frame, his expression earnest, soft. It's the mirror image of the picture of Estelle.
"Now what do we do?" Miss Fisher fixes Jack with a look.
"It's not enough to arrest them, but perhaps it will inspire Mr. Casselli and Mrs. Byrne to cooperate. I suspect they'd rather take their chances with the police than their respective families."
Miss Fisher squares her shoulders. "Let's go then."
"No," Jack says firmly. "These people have proven themselves to be both devious and dangerous, and bringing them in is a job for the police." He holds up a hand to forestall any protests. "You can help me interview them once we have them at the station."
Miss Fisher puffs up indignantly. "But Jack—"
"That's my best offer," he tells her, leaving no room for negotiation.
Miss Fisher continues to look mutinous, but she must realize there's no point in arguing. "Fine," she says, turning on her heel and striding from the room.
At the station, Jack directs a group of officers to the Byrne's home and chooses Collins to accompany him to Marco Casselli's restaurant. He leaves Miss Fisher to the supervision of one of the more junior constables and feels her glaring daggers at his back as he departs. It makes him wonder about his other self—the person he's become—whether he routinely allows her to go along on occasions like this. If so, he has a lot to answer for.
The restaurant stands on a quiet side street, a quaint façade with a red awning and brass gas lamps, a wide front window with "Maison Blanche" lettered in gold curlicues. It's a touch of Paris set down in the middle of Melbourne, and for just a moment Jack falters, suddenly unsure if any of this is real. Perhaps he hasn't lost his memory. Perhaps he never made it home at all, but is still on that battlefield in France. This could all be some vapor of a dream, a last fragment of consciousness as he lies dying.
"Sir?" Constable Collins says uncertainly.
Jack collects himself. "Go around back. I'm not expecting Mr. Casselli to try and flee, but it's always best to be prepared."
The constable nods and takes off down the alleyway. Jack pushes through the door. The restaurant is quiet and nearly empty. It's still early. The staff hasn't arrived yet to start making preparations for the dinner service. Marco Casselli sits at one of the small tables, Spartan-looking without the pressed white tablecloth it will wear when the restaurant opens, going over account books. He glances up at the sound of the door and regards Jack with what appears to be confusion. "May I help you?"
"Mr. Marco Casselli?" Jack confirms.
"Yes," Casselli says, with a trace of impatience.
Jack takes a moment to admire the man's fine acting skills. He has no doubt that Casselli knows who he is and why he's here. "Inspector Jack Robinson, City South Police Department. I'm going to need you to come down to the station to answer some questions."
Casselli's forehead puckers with annoyance. "What's this all about?"
"You know exactly what it's about, Mr. Casselli," Jack replies evenly.
Casselli studies Jack for a moment, as if deciding whether there's any point in continuing with the innocent act. Apparently, there isn't. "I'm afraid this isn't a particularly convenient time, Inspector."
"And I'm afraid this isn't a request," Jack counters.
After a moment, Casselli relents. "Fine, but I need to turn off the stock that's simmering in the kitchen, or my sous chef will arrive to find a charred pot on the stove."
Jack catches the faint whiff of something savory in the air, so he doesn't think this is merely a stalling tactic. "Fine, but in case you get any ideas—" He pats the gun in his pocket. Casselli may be unarmed, but a man capable of starting a gang war is not someone to underestimate.
Casselli breaks into a smile. "There's no need for concern, Inspector. The veal stock won't hurt you."
In the kitchen, Casselli stirs the contents of the pot with extreme diligence. Jack may not know anything about cooking, but he's quite certain that turning off the stove doesn't require this much dawdling.
"I'd prefer to do this in a civilized fashion," Jack tells him, "but I do have handcuffs if necessary."
Casselli turns around from the stove, his expression unexpectedly somber. "That's something we share then, Inspector. I also prefer the civilized way of doing things. Unfortunately, it's not always possible."
Jack barely has time wonder what that means before the answer comes in the form of a vicious blow to the back of his head. His knees buckle, and he hits the floor. The edges of his vision shimmer, but he doesn't actually lose consciousness. He fumbles the gun out of his pocket only to have it kicked from his hand and go flying across the room. In the blank space when he doesn't know what will happen next, if this moment will be his last, everything slots back into place, the man he was and the man he is now, the gears of his memory catching, cranking back into motion.
So it's not a particular surprise when he hears Phryne's voice. "Not so fast, boys."
Jack manages to pull himself into a sitting position, his head reeling. Phryne stands in the doorway of the kitchen, once again a vision in white, training a gun on the two suspects, Marco Casselli and a mountain-shaped goon in a three-piece suit who must be responsible for the new knot on Jack's skull.
"Are you all right?" Phryne asks, darting an anxious look at him.
"Fortunately I have rather a hard head," he tells her, dragging himself to his feet.
"Mrs. Byrne wasn't at home," Phryne explains. "Your officers should be right behind me."
Jack's mouth turns up ever so slightly at the corners. If he'd remembered her earlier, he would have known that a lone junior constable would not be enough to keep her at the station and out of trouble. "Collins is out back," he tells her.
"Somewhat incapacitated, I believe," Casselli interjects, with a meaningful glance directed at the goon.
Fear grips Jack, and he dashes for the rear exit to go check on Collins only to be herded back inside by Estelle Byrne, who makes her entrance holding a gun of her own.
Casselli looks from Estelle to Phryne and breaks into a smile. "It appears we have a standoff. So we'll just be going."
Jack says the first thing that comes to mind, anything to stall them until his officers can arrive. "How will you take over your families' operations if you're on the run from the law?"
Estelle Byrne's expression contorts with disgust. "You think we want to be like those animals?"
Casselli moves to Estelle's side. "Our plan was never to take over, Inspector, as I think you well know, but to use their mutual destruction as our means of escape. All we've ever wanted is our freedom." He settles a hand on Estelle's shoulder, and the proprietary tenderness of the touch says, And each other.
"You'll fare better with the police than with your families when they track you down," Jack tells them.
Casselli smiles faintly. "Then we'll just have to be very good at hiding, won't we?"
Phryne continues to aim her gun, looking frustrated—now that Jack remembers her, he knows how much she hates to lose—but there's nothing she can do in the current situation. It is indeed a standoff. The couple along with their hired goon slowly edge toward the back door. Jack moves toward his gun. If he and Phryne were both armed, it would shift the odds in their favor.
"What the—" a voice says from the kitchen doorway.
Phryne whirls around, gun still aimed, causing a very startled sous chef to raise his hands in the air. It happens so fast, only a second or two, but it's long enough for Estelle and Marco to escape out the back door. Jack and Phryne chase after them, past the slumped figure of Constable Collins who looks the worse for wear but is at least conscious. They race down the alleyway and out onto the street just in time to catch a glimpse of a dark sedan streaking away down the block. Jack runs toward his car and Phryne to hers, but they both stop short. The tires have all been slashed.
"I suppose we shouldn't have expected anything less from people clever enough to orchestrate a gang war," Phryne says with a sigh.
Collins comes stumbling down the alleyway, and Jack rushes to help support him.
"I'm all right, sir," Collins assures him.
Jack doesn't let go of his elbow. "I'll let a doctor be the judge of that." In response, he receives a side-eyed glance, well deserved, Jack must admit. "Do as I say, Collins, not as I do."
"The cavalry at last," Miss Fisher says, nodding toward the black police cars rounding the corner.
Jack sends Collins off to hospital and instructs his officers to round up more men to stake out the docks, train station, and primary roads leading out of town. If Jack were a betting man, he'd lay money on the couple trying to flee the country. It's the only hope they have of escaping their families' own particular brand of justice.
That just leaves—he clears his throat. "Miss Fisher."
Her voice is husky, and the memory of kissing her washes over him, her softness and the way her body fit against his, how he clutched at her and didn't want to let go. His cheeks go hot, and his words come out stiff, stilted, "There's not much we can do now but wait and see if they turn up. I promise to let you know as soon as I learn anything."
Phryne studies him closely, and once again Jack has the sensation that she can see right through him, that she knows him as no one else ever has, as terrifying and exhilarating as that is. "I'll be at home this evening."
He sends her off with one of his officers, watching until the car disappears from sight. Of all the unlikely things that have happened over the course of the past few days—surviving an explosion and losing his memory, managing to conceal amnesia while also solving a crime—the most unlikely of all is that he could forget Phryne Fisher.
Jack spends the rest of the day coordinating the search for the fugitives—to no avail. Escape appears to be yet one more thing that they've carefully planned. The harbormaster's records show that a steamer departed for Kuala Lumpur around the time Jack's men were arriving at the docks. His instincts tell him Estelle and Marco were on that ship, but he keeps up the police presence at all the major points of departure just in case.
That leaves one last thing to do before he goes home for the day, and he heads for the telephone. Now that he remembers his life, he recalls all the reasons why it's wiser to fulfill his promise to Phryne by phoning rather than with an evening visit to her home. But as he palms the receiver, he imagines sitting in her parlor in the comfortable chair by the fire, drinking her excellent scotch, watching her eagerly take in the details as he recounts the developments in their case. He puts down the telephone and reaches for his coat and hat.
When he rings the bell, the door opens almost immediately, and it's Phryne standing there rather than Mr. Butler. She takes one look at him and declares, "They got away."
"So it would appear."
She leads him into the parlor, supplies him with a tumbler of scotch, and settles into the chair opposite him. "Tell me everything."
He does, about the police blockade at all of the city's points of departure, the steamer that pulled out of port before they could stop it, his theory that even as they speak Estelle and Marco are on their way to Kuala Lumpur.
"They were very shrewd," Phryne says. "It only stands to reason that they'd have a contingency in place if they were found out."
Jack nods. "We were a step behind them the entire time."
Phryne looks thoughtful. "They make a good team, Mr. Casselli and Mrs. Byrne, and yet it's difficult to imagine a more unlikely pair. She has every reason to despise every member of his family."
"And he's never wanted to be involved with anything having to do with his brother's business," Jack says.
"With one notable exception, it would appear."
Jack's voice goes husky. "Yes."
"I suppose going on the run is one answer for what to do about an impossible relationship," she muses.
"Hopefully not the only answer."
"Certainly not," Phryne says. "I feel certain clever people could find a less desperate way to make things work."
Their voices have dropped lower by degrees, grown more intimate, and they're both leaning in, so near that Jack could just reach for her. How many times have they been just like this? So close, but never any closer.
Jack clears his throat to break the spell. "You seem to be turning into a romantic, Miss Fisher."
Phryne gives him an appraising look and sits back in her chair. "And you seem to be yourself again." Her voice is full of knowledge, which shouldn't come as any surprise. When has he ever been able to put anything past her?
He looks awkwardly down at the floor. "Yes. Well. It's late. I should probably be going."
She goes to fetch his hat and coat, and he follows her into the hall. The sound of her crossing the room, the rustle of silk, light staccato of heels, is almost unbearably familiar.
It's funny what a bout of memory loss will bring to mind. He'd nearly forgotten about those letters Rosie wrote him during the war, the way he'd felt his old self slipping further away with every word. It was almost a relief when she finally left him and he could stop pretending to be the same man who'd gone off to France, the man who'd believed in easy definitions of right and wrong, who'd thought there was one correct way to live. The hardest battle in war was trying to cling onto some notion of goodness, and after he'd come home again, all the old correct ways felt feeble, a flimsy frame surrounding an empty space.
Whatever goodness there is to be found in life or in himself, Jack knows now, doesn't come by rote. He has to wonder if he's been making a mistake with Phryne all this time, imagining their relationship to be impossible just because it doesn't fit into some neat mold of the right thing to do, a mold that doesn't suit either of them.
Phryne turns with his coat. "Here you are, Jack."
Even when he didn't remember her, couldn't recall any of their history together, he still wanted nothing more than to work alongside her, match wits with her, sit in her comfortable parlor at the end of the day drinking her excellent scotch. She may be a modern independent woman, but he's hardly the conventional man he once was. What's so impossible about that?
"Jack?" Her eyebrows slant down in confusion.
He takes his coat and hat, and lays them on the side table. This time when he kisses her, he knows exactly how much he's wanted to do this and for just how long.
Phryne returns the kiss eagerly at first, but then abruptly draws away. "Jack, are you—" She touches her fingers gently to his head, to the spot where he was injured at the warehouse and then to the place where Marco Casselli's goon did damage.
He understands what she means and shakes his head. "As you said, I'm back to my old self."
She gives him a deep, searching look as if she's not quite certain, and he kisses her again to convince her.
This time when she pulls back, her eyes are gleaming. "Does this mean you've changed your mind and decided to stay?"
He smiles softly. "It does."
"Well, it's about time," she says with a smile.
She sounds so certain, as if this was inevitable, as if she's just been waiting for him to catch up. Jack's a careful man, always has been, but he wants nothing more than to slip the gown from her shoulders right there in the hall, press his face against her neck and breathe in the scent of her skin. Instead he follows her up the steps, her fingers curled around his, down the hall, through the door of her bedroom. Her bed looks everything—and nothing—like he's imagined.
When he follows her down onto the coverlet, everything seems possible.