I was dozing before my own fire when those two days of uncertainty came at last to their end, a half-composed verse open on my lap and my pen bleeding ink over the hand that held it. Even in those early days, Raffles had kept me in far worse suspense for far longer, but, though I had the sense to censor it from the public account, never had I found myself in a blacker funk from the waiting and wondering he forced upon me. The verse itself was doggerel, and would soon meet a just and merciful end in the grate; it spoke, I think, of the enticing eyes of Saint Dismas and the sly twist of his smile. An interminably extended allegory and an obvious one (and how bitterly I laugh now at my own prescience to costume Raffles thus), but I had spent the past forty-eight hours with 'what rot it is to go doing things by halves' ringing through my head in Raffles's laughing tones whilst I tried to reconcile my Good Thief with a man who would murder in cold blood.
And what rot it was, I had concluded uneasily. What rot it all was! What did we do that we did not do by halves? We were neither entirely criminals nor entirely gentlemen. It was sport for Raffles, a game. It would be a long while yet before the thrill of that chase came over me fully, and at this point I played my part because I could not bring myself to do otherwise. I could not resist him, and yet I had to resist him. He would think nothing of holding my hand in his as though it were one of his precious jewels, nothing of sitting so close to me that I could smell the minute heightening of his particular scent (bergamot, Sullivans, spice, willow wood if it was cricket season) each time his pulse beat outwards. Nothing of pressing his lips to my ear in conspiracy, and nothing, too, of casting me as far afield as he could when my existence could not help the side. I was not quite his partner, not quite his friend, and nothing approaching what I would have liked to be to him. This last was my most closely guarded secret, locked deep within me in a crib that not even the great Raffles could crack. My face, as he so often said, was by its nature innocent. He would not have believed me capable of passion. Of old I had stammered and blushed in his presence, sheerly star-struck; if he found it unremarkable then, why should he find it otherwise now? That I loved him had never been any secret; how I loved him always had and would ever be.
I think the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians has been recited in every wedding sermon in history, but that morning it had been preached in a church I'd had the temerity to enter in a moment of folly. I should likely have been better served to sit home and await Raffles with some secular verse, if I needs must be spoken to of love. Mine had indeed been patient and kind; I had bitten down jealousy when his eye turned to a pretty girl, I had written off his wrongs and hung on for the truth, and above all been faithful and hopeful. But this silent waiting was yet more of this doing things by halves. I would rot doing things by halves. I would waste away on purple diamond crumbs of hope and starve on nonchalant grasps that always took, never gave.
As I had dropped off slandering my Saint, I had resolved to seek the other half I was owed, or to hand the remainder back with a kind dismissal. I would have all of A.J. Raffles, or I would have nothing of him ever again.
Strength is easily come by in solitude, resolve easily bolstered with silent words in an empty room. Self promises self to move mountains, but when the mountain arrives, one can scarcely think of scaling it with that one great leap.
Raffles stole into my rooms in the dead of night as silently as if he had come to steal back what he had given. He took nothing, of course, though he did I knew not what before he crouched down next to my chair and said in a playful near-whisper, "And what must rabbits dream of?"
I started awake with an indelicate snort just in time to snatch my page back out of his hands and crumple it. He grabbed at it but I clenched it tightly in my fist. "Where have you been?" I demanded.
And he reported to me what I have reported already, of rushing the unhappy Jack Rutter down to Liverpool only to find that the warrant was out already on Rutter's murder of the usuring Angus Baird, whom Raffles himself had set us out to kill.
"You might have let me know!" I exclaimed when he had finished. I sent my verse to rest in the fire and poured myself the whiskey I knew Raffles would decline to drink.
"There was no chance of getting a message to you, my dear fellow. It was job enough keeping Rutter from running to Scotland Yard without us walking abroad. I thought surely you understood the way of these things by now, Bunny."
"Oh, yes, I understand perfectly. I'm to wait, entirely in the dark as to what may be transpiring, until I may serve some purpose for you."
"You paint it so uncharitably." Raffles had flung himself into my vacated chair and lit a Sullivan, looking quite at home.
"I paint it as it is."
"Well, your eye was never anything like your ear."
"What were you writing?"
"You keep your own counsel too, you see."
"Not where you're concerned."
"This didn't concern you, Bunny. You had played your part. If you remember, I didn't want you playing any part at all."
"No, you wanted to hang on your own and leave me—" I bit off my speech before I said too much and turned to stare into the fire.
"You might as well go home, Raffles. I know you're quite safe now and surely you've got no need of me."
I felt rather than heard him rise from the chair and come to stand at my back. His hand came down on my shoulder and I summoned the will to shrug it away.
"Don't be petulant, Bunny."
"I am annoyed, Raffles, with every right to be."
The hand came down again and would not be shrugged off without a much greater fight. My back was up; I struggled. Raffles locked an arm across my chest, laughing in my ear, too warm and too close, and even in anger I was not immune. I would have given anything to be out of that hold, and anything to stay within it. Even my elbow connecting sharply with his ribs did not free me. I got only a grunt for my trouble and another arm vice-like round my waist.
"Stop," I growled.
I threw my leg back and knocked his balance off, but even as he fell, he clamped a foot behind my knee and took me down with him. My chin knocked against the top of his head as we tumbled to the rug, jarring my teeth together painfully. Raffles took no notice when I cried out, only took advantage when my guard was swayed and threw me prostrate, pinning my wrists above my head.
"Are you ready to stop this nonsense now?" Raffles said, laughter still in his voice and eyes flashing. If he adjusted his position sitting on top of me just a few inches, it would all go to blazes.
Perhaps I ought to let it, I thought. Let him feel my desire, let him show me his disgust and wash his hands of me. I could bear it; I had borne worse and would again. He would never give me up to the police, I knew, not for that. However he made his living, he had his honour and would give me mine if there was no question of saving his own skin. Too, I could so easily relent. Say yes and give my apologies and let us go on as before. But could I bear that? I stared at his eyes, cool and hard as crystal and not a hint of anything beyond vague amusement. For all my earlier resolve, indecision and fear bound me far tighter than Raffles's hands.
He spoke before I could unstick myself. "I am no saint of any kind, Bunny, and I have not the patience of one."
I boiled with embarrassment to realise he had sneaked a look at my writing before rousing me. "Let me up, you devil," I spat, and forgot that I should not struggle in this position. Raffles fell forward and landed just where I could not have him land.
The world froze. I squeezed my eyes shut, biting back the noise that was my body screaming 'at last! at last!' and blood pounding in my ears. I braced for a blow, an insult, a threat. My wrists were let go.
My eyes flew open in shock, for the hand that now came to my face was not an angry fist, but a tender stroke, and Raffles rolled his hips down against me. I was nearly undone instantly by the rigid heat against my own. Raffles looked down at me, no laughter now but neither any disgust, our faces so close that I could feel his breath when he sighed, "Oh, Bunny, is this what you wanted?"
My hand went unbidden to the back of his head, the soft inky curls luxurious against my fingers that had so longed to touch them. "Yes," I whispered, breathless.
He held his neck taut and did not allow me to pull him down for our lips to meet, but continued to rub against me, so torturously slowly. "Then it is yours."
Quick as a flash, he was off me and undoing my trousers. I could scarcely draw another breath before I was suddenly and completely engulfed into his hot mouth.
How I had wanted it! Even as a schoolboy naive to the act of love in all but rumour, I had known that there could be no better place than as close to Raffles as I could manage. When he had taken the gun from my hand on that fateful night, I had needed every ounce of resolve I possessed not to throw myself upon him that very moment. I would have promised him anything then; I did promise him anything.
And now here I was, swallowing throes of ecstasy and trying to keep my hips still so as not to choke him. Here was he, sinful mouth full of me deeper and deeper, impossible tongue of neither man nor angel finessing its way round. But in my mind's eye I saw him sitting up, deed done, as though he had just cracked the simplest crib in the country, imagined him wiping his mouth and asking if I would be a good rabbit now and let him judge the best way to the prize without talking nonsense.
It was wrong, all wrong.
"Raffles," I gasped, and pushed him back no matter how I wanted to pull him down. He released me with a slow, teasing lick and looked up at me, quizzical with an undercurrent of annoyance. But his eyes were bright and soft round the edges, which gave me the courage I needed. "I didn't mean—it's not all I want, not another thing done by halves."
"You think to sting me with my own words, do you, Bunny?" Raffles's tone was all sang-froid, but even yet his eyes were not; neither were his hands as he gently tucked my trousers back into place. Was this it, then? All going to blazes?
But no; to my surprise, Raffles slid himself languidly up alongside me, one hand fidgeting over the buttons of my wrinkled waistcoat, the other trapped motionless between us. On instinct my outstretched arm closed round his shoulders. His hair was like silk against my cheek. It might have been perfect but for what yet hung undecided in the balance.
"Not to sting. Only to explain in your own terms. I don't want—" I cast about for some declaration that would not reek of my hackneyed poetry and earn his scoffing disdain. "We were about to embark on a single occurrence that we would never speak of again, were we not?" He made no denial. "That isn't what I want. I couldn't live with it. If that's all you can manage, Raffles, I'd rather you go."
I thought, for a moment, that he was on the point of doing so, but he only levered himself up on his elbow. "Then what promise would you extract?" he asked, low and thick, and tracked the outline of my lower lip with one fine fingertip. "Shall A.J. Raffles forswear all female company and pledge eternity to a blushing rabbit?"
"Don't tease me."
I tried to shrink away, but he stayed me with nothing so forceful as his earlier rough grasp, only a light kiss of knuckles against my cheek. "I'm not teasing you, Bunny. I cannot predict eternity. You may well grow to hate me. You nearly do so weekly as it is."
"You infuriate me," I said, "but I could never hate you."
Raffles's hand fluttered down to rest over my heart, which pounded with disbelief, elation, fear. "There may be eyes, not so kind as yours, that occasionally will need the wool pulled over them."
"MacKenzie, you mean." He spoke not of burglary, I knew.
"Partly, I suppose, if he had the brains to tumble to it. But there are, too, certain ladies who have come to expect my attentions. Work we may do that would require me to give them."
"It has run to far more, as you know, and may again."
I knew why he reminded me. I had shown myself to be jealous enough merely as his friend, and this jealousy now burned in my throat, begged to renounce this disingenuous life and live quietly, honestly somewhere. But I could not ask that of Raffles. I would have more success demanding he give up slow bowling.
"If I knew that you—that you loved me and not them." I stuttered it out in a rush, feeling foolish before the words were even said.
"I far more than love you, my dear Bunny," said Raffles, holding a steady gaze straight into my eyes so that I could not help but know it was true.
"Then why did you set upon me with nothing but— It was as though you were simply obliging me."
"Perhaps I hoped you would demand what you have demanded. I'm terribly clever, Bunny, but I cannot read minds."
"And if I hadn't?"
"Oh, I hope I might have driven you to it in time. I could never have known otherwise that you were not simply obliging me."
Neither did I read minds, but it made a sort of sense—what was there in which I did not oblige Raffles? To think he might have longed for me as I had longed for him! If my eyes moistened, I could blame the neglected flue. This time when I reached for him, Raffles let himself be pulled down to meet me in a kiss.
How breathless it was, how possessively forceful and yet gently searching, and I would never for the rest of my life encounter the mingled taste of whiskey and Sullivans without thinking of it. Raffles's tongue was no less wicked than it had been earlier, and what must have been the taste of myself on it drove me to take rough hold of his shoulders and pull him down on top of me, starting again where we had begun. But no more did I envision an aloof dismissal, only what was to come next, and next, and to be held tightly for as long as I could keep it in my grasp.
There was no end of trouble ahead—this I knew even lacking the hindsight I now have—but for now every possible thing was better than right. Our ungainly stumble to the bedroom was right, the way even Raffles's hands trembled along buttons and seams was right, all that ivory skin revealed and mine to touch and taste as I pleased—right. Even the too brief interval before we were both of us gasping into the kiss that we had barely broken, heat spilling between us, could not have been more right. Nothing on my muffled lips but 'yes' and 'yes and 'yes,' his name and mine swallowed in ragged breath. The silver laughter against my ear as we caught our wind and toppled into sleep was no less enticing, but now it was a promise of things to come, of my hand in his truly as something precious, his curls mine to muss and my doubt his to caress away— yes.