Two months. Two whole months of sleeping until noon. Of not having to go into work for any reason. Not being required to cater to any whims but her own or trying to get through a single day without embarrassing herself or killing Tracy. Just two months of sweatpants and sleeping until four in the afternoon and Golden Girls marathons and maybe, just maybe, finally figuring out which storage cage in the basement was supposed to be hers.
Oh, yes. This was going to be a hiatus to remember.
Liz followed Pete onstage to join the cast for the final wave-off of the season. She dodged that week's guest, Kimiko; hugged Jenna and the two TGS dancers she was pretty sure wouldn't give her hepatitis; and did a little bit of the elbow-snake dance on camera to fulfill the payment Frank demanded after the latest time she accused him of eating all of her desk candy.
"Good night, Houston!" Tracy shouted just before the on-air indicators went dark.
The applause died down quickly as the cast and dancers fled backstage. Pages melted out of the shadows to usher the audience out of the studio. The crew swarmed the sets, already striking walls and lighting rigs as the prop master grabbed at tchotchkes and shrieked at her assistant.
Liz lingered for a few minutes, aimlessly wandering from one side of the stage to the other. She had to look like she wasn't itching to race out the door, not if she wanted the crew to actually do their jobs instead of staging a mutiny like they did during the writers' strike.
"Looking good, Fred," she called to a stagehand stacking plastic vases in a crate. He turned and scowled. According to the name stamped under the equally scowling picture on his ID badge, the man she'd been calling Fred for five years was actually a Bill.
She recoiled. "Heyyyy, Bill, Fred's looking pretty good over there, huh?"
His scowl didn't falter for a second. She kept grinning until he turned back to his crate, then dashed for the nearest exit.
Caught between the urge to run for the stairs or pry the elevator doors open with her bare hands, Liz hesitated too long to do anything but wait for Jack to catch up with her.
"Good show tonight."
She hitched up her bag and smiled. He didn't have to sound so begrudging about it. "Right? Kimiko's great with the right material."
Jack squinted. "Isn't Kimiko a pillow?"
"Okay. I didn't actually watch the show tonight. I do have other things to occupy my time, especially this late at night. More important business things."
"Napping on your couch again?"
"Once Liddy started pre-school, I thought we would be able to get back on a sensible schedule!"
"You have two full-time nannies now, Jack."
"And managing them is draining the life out of me. I don't know how Avery does it."
Liz gave up on holding back an eyeroll and tried to disguise it by adjusting her glasses. "When does she get back from the G8 summit?"
"Tuesday," Jack said, in a tone of such longing that Liz had to concentrate all her attention on not mocking him with a whipcrack noise. She reached backward and jabbed the elevator call button.
He shook himself. "Anyway, the reason I've come down here isn't to congratulate you on another season of adequate ratings."
"I need you in London."
"London, Lemon. England. The land that gave us Colin Firth."
"Long may he enunciate," Liz breathed, already going starry-eyed. First on her list of non-Golden Girls hiatus marathons was the Costumer's Cut Special Deluxe Edition Pride & Prejudice box set. It was going to get cuh-razy all up in Chez Lemon this summer, that was for sure.
"—flight leaves on the 12th, and you'll be—"
The vision of Mr Darcy feeding her slices of sharp cheddar evaporated. "Wait, what flight? I'm not going anywhere."
"Yes, you are," Jack said, taking her by the elbow and steering her away from the bank of elevators just as one finally arrived with a bing. "You're going to London to head up the NBC Sports on-air-slash-off-the-cuff writing staff."
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, Lemon, you are. We can't afford a repeat of the..." He looked around to make sure no one was listening. "The Mary Carillo incident."
If Jack and Liz had been in a car, and that car had loud brakes that screeched when someone jammed on them, and someone had jammed on them at that exact moment? And they both went flying forward, probably hitting their heads on a dashboard or a seat back or a filthy cab divider like the one Liz always seemed to get flung against, usually right after she cracked open the lid on her coffee mug and took a bite of her bagel, and it was everything horrible and awful and disgusting and, and, and horrible? And disgusting and awful?
Yeah. That was how Jack sounded. There were no darker, more vile, more terrifying words in all of NBC than "the Mary Carillo incident."
The marathon strip karaoke contest between the late-night NBC Olympics host, a cavalcade of grandstanding athletes-turned-commentators, and an unending line of rowdy, drunken Vancouverites filing through the studio was one of the network's many dark spots during the 2010 Winter Games coverage. Three pages were hospitalized after throwing themselves at the cameras in an attempt to stop the broadcast. NBC wound up running Tom Brokaw's international matchmaking video for six hours straight across all of its networks and websites in order to maintain the technical difficulties cover story. The handful of die-hard viewers they'd carried over into the overnight hours fled in droves, falling victim to either boredom or incredible surges of nationalistic lust that closed more than one border crossing between Canada and the US.
And, to hit them where it really, really hurt: NBC had to refund half a dozen sponsors and advertisers for the six-hour, five network block at a 200% return on investment, which led to the programming meltdown that landed them in both tabloids and investment journals a year later when the financial and political fallout landed smack-dab on top of Conan's pompadour.
Liz shuddered just thinking about it. She'd only just barely escaped with her show intact. Her sanity she'd given up on much, much earlier.
"I need you in London," Jack said. He squeezed her elbow, just for an instant, before letting his hand drop.
She sighed. "Jack, I've got plans."
"Working your way through the Whole Foods dairy case isn't 'plans'."
"And," she continued, louder. Reviewing her brackets for the World Series of Cheese probably wasn't going to be enough to convince him... "I can't just drop everything every time you need something."
"Sure you can."
"Our fifth quarter profits are at stake!" He clapped a hand over his mouth as soon as the words slipped out.
"Fifth quarter? Oh, come on, I'm not falling for—"
Jack wasn't listening to her, though. He'd shifted straight into panic mode, his head whipping around as he scanned the hallway for eavesdroppers again while hustling her farther from the elevator bank. "Five quarters? Don't be ridiculous, Lemon; a year has only four quarters."
"Yeah, that's what I just said."
Once they were out of sight of the elevator doors, he hissed, "There are five quarters in the Kabletown fiscal year."
"I knew it!"
His side-eye needed work. "The additional quarter is how we— Not important. Forget I said anything."
"Said anything about what?"
"Lemon, if anything happens during the London Olympics, Kabletown will fall. It's not too big not to not fail. I need my best people in position to make sure it goes off without a hitch."
She couldn't help it. She melted at that a little bit, like a big old ... melty thing. "Aww, I'm one of your best people?"
"Of course you are."
It wasn't the nicest thing he'd ever said to her but it was close. And it wasn't like she couldn't get a good World Series of Cheese run going in London, right?
"I'll go, Jack. If you need my expertise so badly—"
"I knew I could count on you. Of the available people, you were absolutely my first choice." He thrust an envelope in her hand. "Tickets, itinerary, security badges. Jonathan hasn't touched any of them so there shouldn't be any snafus like at the upfronts."
The upfronts at which Liz was shoved onstage to participate in a panel discussion about the all-star season of MILF Island. As a participant. She was still deleting disgusting voicemails from a local TV critic who'd been in attendance. And Dennis, who hadn't. (She also couldn't figure out how the hell he found out about it, or how on earth he thought his chances had improved when she had a child to think about. Not that she had a child, but if she did it certainly wasn't going to get within fifty feet of Dennis Duffy.)
Jack was backing away down the hall, cell phone already pressed to his ear. "Don't worry, Lemon. If it turns out Leno or Whitney is willing to work the games, you won't even have to go!"
The elevator doors opened just as he reached them, then slid shut as Liz shouted, incredulous, "I'm second fiddle to Jay Leno? Ugh, you are the worst!"
Somewhere over the Atlantic, Liz picked up a plastic tumbler and squinted at the bubbling liquid. She couldn't remember if it was ginger ale, which it was starting to feel like her stomach couldn't live another second without, or business party juice, which was the reason she needed the ginger ale in the first place.
"Anyway," she said to her seatmate, Angelina Jolie. "That's why I'm going to London."
She drained the drink. They were only like four hours from Heathrow anyway. She could keep breathing through her mouth to keep the nausea at bay at least that long, no problem.
"So why are you going?" Liz asked Angelina. She'd been trying to keep it together for hours but Dr Spaceman's new formula wasn't all it was cracked up to be in the unconsciousness department. "Ooh, are you doing a new movie? With Daniel Craig maybe? He's got eyes like a lizard. You guys would look great together."
Angelina grinned. "I'm going to see my sister at college. She's there on an exchange program for a semester. It's so awesome."
"I bet! I didn't even know you had a little sister. That is so cool!"
"I know, right? And she said the first thing we're going to do is go to a pub, can you believe it? Oh, my God, you should come with us!"
Liz accepted the invitation with what she felt was an appropriate level of totally meaning it but not really, then swabbed the bottom of her cup for the last drops of the business ginger champagne ale party juice.
Something about the whole unlikely bonding experience with the world's hottest actress seemed really familiar, niggling right at the front of her brain, but she couldn't quite connect the dots.
The plane's speakers bonged, then the pilot drawled an incomprehensible, faintly English-accented announcement. Liz clutched her armrests, or Angelina's arm and an armrest, or possibly Angelina's arm and the thigh of the man sitting to her right.
Who knew Angelina Jolie flew coach, anyway? Business class, maybe, if she was trying to make a point about the suffering of the world's jet-setting children or something.
"Sorry," Liz mumbled, letting go of the man's thigh when the plane didn't take a screaming dive toward the frigid depths of the Atlantic.
"Quite all right! It's not every day such a lovely American woman accidentally gropes me." He smiled and tilted his head slightly. "I've been meaning to ask since we boarded: are you by any chance a model?"
Maybe a summer in England wouldn't be so bad after all.
Summer in England was the worst.
It rained the first four days Liz was in London. And not hot, sticky, normal American summer rain either. This was cold, stinging, gray-skied, soul-killing rain. No wonder people fled this country for every conceivable tropical place they could subjugate...
"Which was a terrible thing!" she tried to backtrack once she noticed the looks her inadvertently outdoor-voiced rant was getting from the other passengers in the elevator car. "Subjugation, ugh."
For some reason no one started yelling. There wasn't so much as a dirty look, let alone muttered insults. The woman standing to her left even smiled and nodded.
God, she missed New York.
Someone, somewhere, had assigned her a PA for the summer, and what a doozy he was. Tilney Manderflake, a nearly translucent man of indeterminate age with wispy, dull hair and an obsequious attitude that even Kenneth would find disturbing. His accent sounded less like an accent and more like he had a mouthful of cheese all day long. Except when he actually had a mouthful of cheese, as he often did, since it seemed no one in the whole of London ate anything but beef and cheese and a random selection of dough-based foods.
(Maybe England wasn't so bad.)
Tilney manned her calendar with all the ruthless precision of a comatose hamster. Liz sat in on an incomprehensible meeting twice a day every day for two weeks before Tilney, blushing, admitted that he'd sent her to the wrong building. Once that was straightened out, she'd finally met the team of writers she was meant to be coaching or supervising or ghost-writing. Something. Jack's instructions had been maddeningly vague. But at least she had an office, where she sat and threw away line after line, morning after morning, while the writers ignored her and cranked out an unending series of lame puns. Afternoons were for meeting with segment producers, all of whom were named Nigel or Vivian, and all of whom had a penchant for giving her a thumbs-ups instead of an answer whenever she asked any questions.
All in all, it wasn't such a terrible gig, as long as she didn't look outside or ask for mayonnaise-based sandwich fillings or try to speak to anyone about anything ever.
None of which came close to explaining why she was still somehow doing color commentary for what she'd been told was a major snooker tournament. For Radio Finland.
Outside the booth, there was a rumble of disappointment as the top-seeded player stalked away from the table. Liz squinted at the instant replay.
"Oooh, ouch! Virtanan's going to regret that stroke, am I right?"
Her co-commentator Mikko nodded and lowered his beer long enough to say, "Joo, varmasti, keltainen Lesbo. Hän ei ansaitse mestaruutta."
At least Mikko appreciated her efforts.
"Miss Lemon," Tilney hissed, "we're going to be late!"
An hour later, Liz was sitting on a train as it hurtled into the countryside. The rainy browns and grays of London gave way to rolling green hills, with trees and cows seeming to dot the countryside in equal measure. It was an awful lot like Pennsylvania, actually.
"Where are we going again?"
Tilney looked up from the laptop he'd been poking at since they left the station. His thin lips pressed together until they practically disappeared.
"What's it called?" she prodded.
"Little Fardleton." He put especial emphasis on the d, having already been goaded into this routine a dozen times since first handing Liz the schedule, and did his best to pretend he didn't hear her snort of laughter.
Liz tore into another packet of cheesy curry crisps with extra onion.
"Who'd want to live in a place called Little Fartyton anyway?" she scoffed, crumbs flying everywhere. "Michael Gasbender?"
She raised both hands in a V-for-victory salute, making sure to keep her fingers turned the right way. The last thing anyone needed was a repeat of the riot that had—totally 100% not-her-fault spontaneously—broken out near where she was taking self-portraits with Angelina Jolie.
Tilney's only answer was a deep, pained sigh.
The trip was supposed to be a three-day jaunt into a quaint small town deep in the heart of Devon. One day to soak up some local color and walk through setups with the camera crew and segment producer. The second was for scripting a few spontaneous jokes to be used in the filming and helping coach interview participants into being the adorable kind of British that Olympics viewers loved, and not the horrible, off-putting kind.
The third day, apparently, was going to be spent skulking around the village square trying to fend off Tom Brokaw's advances.
She crouched down behind a bench and hissed into her cell phone. "Tilney, I swear to God, if you don't get me out of here I'm going to Ponda Baba your face off."
"I know you're here somewhere, Liz," Brokaw called. The once comforting rumble of his voice sent chills up the back of her neck. "Where are you, my delectable little Canadian bacon?"
It figured that the only guy to ever compare her favorably to a ham product would be a weird old newsman obsessed with twisting a global sporting event into his chance to finally make his dream series of soft-core documentaries about the steamy relationships between America, Canada, and Great Britain.
(Not to mention the fact that for some reason he thought she was from Ottawa, which had apparently rendered her irresistible.
"Liz Lemon, a pleasure. You have the look of young, masculine Peter Jennings," he'd said when they were introduced. He caressed the inside of her wrist when she didn't pull her hand away fast enough. "And the rough, sallow skin of a native Canadian. Daddy like.")
He wasn't restricting his bizarre fetish to the realm of the barely-disguised tourism commercial, either. As Brokaw crept closer, Liz stuffed her phone in her pocket and tried not to gag aloud at his promises of erotic cross-border delights.
Ugh, no way was Liz Lemon Canadian. She was as American as the Wonderbra. As American as Shania Twain!
She waited until he'd passed, holding her breath to keep from giving herself away. Her thighs were burning and she felt a warning rumble in her stomach as it continued to protest the cheesy curry crisps. Or the tuna and sweet corn sandwich she'd bought off the train's snack cart.
Stupid England, she thought. Stupid Leno. Stupid Jack.
Brokaw moved further down the path toward the duck pond until he was obscured by the thick trunk of an oak tree. Liz jumped up and started backing away the way he'd come. With any luck, she would make it to the relative safety of the visitors center across the square, a tiny stone building that held only two people at a time. As long as they didn't want to stand up straight or maintain any personal space.
She was only feet away from her goal when she heard a sound that had haunted her dreams for years.
Ting ting! went a cheery bell, followed by a panicky-sounding, "Gangway!"
"God, no," she muttered as she turned to look.
A bright yellow bike with a large wicker basket on the handlebars was barrelling down on her, the front tire wobbling as the rider tried to decide which direction would take him to safety.
Liz could have made it easy for both of them by jumping out of the way. But across the rapidly shrinking distance between them, their eyes met. The rising horror on the rider's face matched her own.
Of course Wesley Snipes lived in Little Fardleton. Where else would he possibly live but the one tiny village in all of England where Liz would wind up? If she didn't already know how hateful settling with him would be, she'd be tempted to read some kind of sign into it.
"What is wrong with you?" Liz hissed as she surveyed the damage he'd done. There was a distinct tire mark on the leg of her pants and a long smear of dirt and grease on her shirt. Not to mention the gigantic bruise she was going to have on her ass and the stinging scrape on her left elbow.
"Wrong with me? You're the one with the absurdly pointy face!" Wesley tore off his blue helmet and shook it in her face. "You've cracked it."
"You're the one who couldn't watch where he was going!"
"You're the one who crossed the central reservation without looking!"
"No, I won't."
Brokaw was waving at her from the other side of the road. He'd undone another two or three buttons on his pale blue shirt, leaving a terrifying expanse of tanned old man chest exposed under his safari vest.
She tried to run but her ankle rolled on the very first step. Wesley tried to push her away before she collapsed into him. They went down in a heap, Liz on top with her elbow firmly planted in the middle of Wesley's narrow chest.
"I'll save you!" she heard from across the road. "Let's see Brian Williams do this!"
Liz's stomach lurched.
"Get off! You're crushing my bum bag!" Wesley wheezed.
"Stop calling it that!"
He bucked under her, setting the bell to ringing again with a cheery ting ting! ting ting! There was a flurry of honks and a crashing noise, followed by someone shouting, "The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!"
Wesley fought harder to squirm out from under Liz's elbow. His eyes were wild, his face flushed. A lock of his dark hair loosened itself from where it had been combed flat to his head and flopped over one eye, like a poor man's Hugh Grant.
She'd never found him more repulsive.
Looking around wildly, Liz prayed to every deity and religion she'd ever mocked, hoping a portal to Heaven or Hell or even New Jersey would open under her. Anything. But there was no escape, just the septuagenarian newsman bearing down on her like Harrison Ford with two broken legs and the pasty, pretentious d-bag practically crying for help under her elbow.
"Just hold still," she told Wesley. "This is as horrible for me as it is for you."
"You wouldn't," he gasped. His body stiffened under hers as she awkwardly tried to press herself against him, to make it look like they were rolling around on the ground together intentionally. Romantically. Sexily.
Think Chris Isaak, Liz told herself as she shuddered.
Liz mashed her lips against Wesley's, trying to fight back her instinct to recoil. She rubbed her hands all over his hair, an oily yet sticky substance coming off on her fingers.
"Pomade?" she muttered as she slid her mouth over his cheek. "How old are you?"
Indignation overcame his disgust just long enough for him to protest, but he only managed a few syllables before Liz pulled out her showstopper and licked a stripe across Wesley's face from ear to ear.
It was hard to tell which was louder: Wesley's cry of horror or Brokaw's breathy groan of appreciation.
"Furz in einer Fäustling!" Liz cursed.
Liz was trapped in Hell, that's all there was to it. An elevator had fallen on top of her at the office. Or Jenna ate her still-beating heart in some quest for eternal youth. Or her plane had dropped from the sky like a rock, straight into the icy embrace of the Atlantic. Whatever had happened, she was dead and this was Hell.
There was no other explanation. Because she certainly wasn't being patted down for injuries by an old woman who claimed to be a nurse and smelled like boiled cabbage, while two men in police uniform stood nearby commiserating with Wesley Freaking Snipes about the fate of his foot cycle.
Bicycle! Just because she'd landed in the Hell that was Little Fardleton, where everyone spoke the same weirdo imaginary version of British English that Wesley did, that didn't mean she had to too.
"I'm fine," she told the woman, who had pulled a white roll of bandages out of nowhere. "Really, I'm just going to go back to my room and—"
"Mine's bigger," Brokaw rumbled in her ear.
Yep. Definitely Hell.
The nurse toddled away before Liz could beg her for sanctuary.
With a leer, Brokaw stepped in front of her and gestured toward Wesley, who was giving her such a ferocious glare he looked more like a mole than ever. "I take it we're going for the Egg McMuffin?"
Oh, God, now he was going to ruin McDonald's too? "Please stop talking."
"You might be more familiar with its street name, the Colonial Coupling. You, me, that delectable English muffin you found for us... We'll have a night of—"
"Nothing! We'll have a night of nothing!"
He chuckled knowingly, his eyes sparkling with something that would haunt Liz's nightmares until the end of time.
"He's not even English!" she blurted out. "He's, uh... Um."
She dug down deep in her mind grapes, trying to squeeze out some delectably juicy factoid about Brokaw's weak spots, just like Jack had taught her that first heady week of executive training.
"My mother was Irish."
Damn it, that was an amateur mistake. Think, you idiot!
"I mean Welsh!"
"Cymru am byth!"
"Ugh! Uh, he's a— He's a climate change denier!"
In an instant, all trace of the horny old man who'd been chasing her all day disappeared. In its place was the steely-eyed serious face she remembered staring out from behind the NBC News desk.
"Oh, is he?" he said, menacingly.
"Yep, huge denier. He drives one of those big land yacht deals. And he eats every meal off of styrofoam plates. Not that good styrofoam, either. It's the old ozone-destroying kind."
Had she tipped her hand? Would he believe any of it?
With a shrug, Liz decided to go for broke. Tom Brokaw had only one weakness greater than climate change, and she knew just what it was.
"Do you still want to meet him? His name's Dan Rather."
Brokaw recoiled, and Liz knew she'd won.
Tilney materialized as Wesley limped away with his mangled velocipede—bicycle!—shooting dirty looks over his shoulder as he went.
"Your things have all been moved out of the hotel where the rest of the NBC contingent is staying," Tilney was explaining. "I've taken the liberty of arranging a room for you at a bed and breakfast, not far from here."
"Ugh, great, I just want to take a long bath and get something to eat."
"There's just one tiny detail...."
"I don't have to get dressed for dinner or anything ga— nerdy like that, do I?"
"Oh, no, it's an informal establishment."
"Great, okay, what is it?"
He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her. His face flushed so hard he practically turned purple.
"There was a fax from Kabletown's chief counsel when I checked you out of the hotel. It said you have to sign this contract saying you will remain at least 75% clothed for the remainder of your stay, unless a senior executive determines otherwise."
"What? That's insane."
Tilney pulled another piece of paper from his pocket. It was the front page of a tabloid newspaper, one of the big ugly ones, with a full-page picture of a woman in her bra, a terrified-looking teenage girl crouched behind her, crying. Standing on a plinth below a winged statue, the woman's hair was tangled and her makeup smeared, her arms were raised over her head as a riotous crowd swelled around them both.
Her hands, though, were a pixellated blur.
"Oh, God," Liz groaned. "Is that carrot in my teeth?"
"Jack, you have to fix this."
"Don't worry," came the reply after a short pause. "Ah, Legal's already on top of it."
Liz looked at the tabloid again. The picture was grainy and dark, except where they'd artificially brightened the white of her bra and skin and the orange clump between her front teeth. It looked like they'd blown up a screencap from a mobile video. She could tell by the pixels.
"I thought they weren't allowed to tap celebrities' cell phones over here anymore."
Jack gave a sharp bark of laughter.
"After you so gracefully torpedoed your own talk show and Tracy ate all the porn footage he'd shot, we sold your life story rights to Rupert. So technically they didn't do anything wrong by hacking into your accounts. Or your, ah, teenage friend's, thanks to a guest-performances clause."
She slumped down further in the bed, letting the duvet fall over her head.
"We're just securing the US broadcast rights to the full video so Brian Williams can run it during tonight's Nightly News and again before the Opening Ceremonies."
"And at regular intervals during the games themselves. This riot is going to be great for revenue, Lemon. Nothing quite like a city full of non-Americans destroying property to make us feel better about ourselves. You did good work. I knew I was right to send you instead of Whitney."
"Oh, hold on, Jonathan's got a—" He sucked in a breath. "Are you sure? Are there any—?"
"Jack? Are you okay?"
"Lemon, listen to me. Whatever you do, don't go back to London."
"What? Jack, why? I can't stay in Little Fartertown. I didn't tell you the worst part! Wesley—"
He cut her off. "Mary Carillo, Liz. She's on the loose. Someone let her out to do a last-minute location shoot and— Damn it! Just stay where you are. Someone will be in conta—"
The connection died. Liz shook her cell phone, as if that would help. She fought her way out from under the duvet and picked up the handset next to the bed. Nothing, not a dial tone, not even a noise when she pressed the buttons.
"I really hate this country," she muttered.
The bed and breakfast's outdated kitchen was tucked away at the back on the lowest floor, and showed the only signs of life in the darkened house. A pair of doors leading outside to a small garden were open, and there was a pot of something cooking on the ancient-looking stove. She picked up the lid and poked at the contents, wrinkling her nose at the chunks of mushroom and meat that floated up.
She dropped the lid with a clang. Wesley was standing just inside the double doors, a newspaper bunched up in one hand and a large band-aid slapped on his forehead.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, suspiciously.
"I might ask you the same. How did you get in?"
"How did you get in?"
"I live here. Did you follow me? Why won't you leave things be, Liz? You've had your fun. Go back to your doorman."
"Pilot," she corrected automatically, before scowling. "Tilney."
It was Wesley's turn to look sour and suspicious. "How do you know Tilney?"
"How do you know— Okay, no. I'm tired and this is just exhausting. Tilney's my assistant."
"Ah," was all Wesley said, but a quick look of relief passed over his face.
"He got me a room here for the night but if it's a problem, I'll go somewhere else."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said with a sigh. "The village is on lockdown."
"On lockdown. Voluntary compulsory curfew."
"It can't be both at the same time."
Wesley chuckled. "Oh, Liz. So very naive."
She felt the familiar surge of red-hot irritation starting to rise and ignored it. Sitting heavily in one of the chairs at the table, she scrubbed at her face.
"Why is there a lockdown? Is it another riot?" She knew without asking that it probably was, though. Mary Carillo, drunk on the excitement of the impending Olympics broadcast, loose on the streets of London.... A chill raced up her spine.
"Of a sort." He dropped his paper and opened a cupboard to pull out two bowls. "The details are still hazy. You can turn on the news if you like."
"Where's the TV?"
"Oh, I don't have one. Chucked it after the final series of Cougarton Abbey. Just the radio now."
Liz couldn't do anything but stare.
"I'd ask if you're hungry but that's a bit like asking if you're breathing."
The soup didn't look any more appetizing in the bowl he set in front of her, but it smelled delicious and tasted even better. She was mopping up the last dregs with a piece of bread almost before Wesley sat down on the other side of the table.
"Help yourself to as much as you like," he said when she finally looked up. "It seems you're my only guest tonight."
Once she'd refilled her bowl, they ate in silence. Feeling a slight crawling sensation on her cheek as though he were staring at her, Liz snuck a glance at Wesley but he was engrossed in his newspaper.
She cleared her throat. "Sorry about your face."
His shoulders stiffened but he didn't look up.
"I mean your forehead. Sorry."
"Is your bike okay?"
"It will be."
Another silence descended, this one broken only by the clank of his spoon against the side of his bowl.
Liz couldn't take it. It was one thing to sit across from him, stewing in an angry and resentful funk. That was how they'd spent almost all of their time together in New York. It was another altogether to eat food literally from his own table and not at least try to be a good guest.
Somewhere, her mother was beaming and had no idea why.
"So, how'd you wind up running a bed and breakfast?"
"After you threw me over for your aeroplanist beau, I chose to return home immediately rather than wait to be deported. But with the Olympics nearing, I couldn't face going back to London so I came here while my great-aunt decamped for the summer. Little Fardleton's been preparing for years for the games."
"I didn't think there were any events happening this far west."
He finally looked up from the paper, his face lit up with excitement for the first time. "Oh, there aren't! This village is an Olympics-free zone."
"After tonight, that is. Had to bump it up a bit because of all the bother in London. Your film crew were the last non-residents allowed in. I expect they've all gone now. I hope so, at any rate. No one's getting back out until the last firework after the Closing Ceremonies."
He grinned, all seemingly right with his world and everything in it.
"But," she said slowly, "I'm still here."
His forehead started to wrinkle up. That same lock of hair fell forward over his eye.
"Well, this is a bit of a pickle."
It took most of the next day for Liz to be convinced that she wasn't going to make it out of Little Fardleton. Not alive, anyway.
"It's a powderkeg out there!" Wesley had shouted when she tried to wrestle his bicycle away. "You saw what happened in Piccadilly when someone erected that vulgar gargoyle!"
And by gargoyle, he meant Liz. Maybe she'd just keep that to herself.
In the end, he'd finally given in and taken her to see the Major, who had orchestrated the closing off of the village and set up the staggered—armed—patrols that kept everyone where they should be.
The Major, a gruff old woman with arms the size of Wesley's thighs, listened attentively while Liz explained how important her job was to the American broadcasters. She'd even gotten on the phone with Jack, who wooed her with all the executive smarm he could muster. After thanking him pleasantly for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer her questions, the Major had hung up the phone and smiled at Liz. A big, sharp smile that promised no one would like what was behind it.
"You stay," was her final pronouncement on the matter.
Liz was convinced she would have gotten her way in the end—you didn't spend that long living in Little Armenia without picking up a few skills along the way, and not just dumpling-making, either—but Wesley had hustled her out of the Major's command center before it came to that.
"We'll try again, of course," he said as they walked their bikes back to his house. "She's mad for men's gymnastics. Bound to be a bit distracted when the Romanians turn up."
For dinner that night, Wesley turned the leftover soup into some sort of obscenely delicious casserole, with vegetables that tasted like they'd been grown in butter and a local hard cheese that had her eyes rolling back in her head with pleasure.
Four plates later, Liz realized that they'd spent hours together in the kitchen without snapping at each other once. As Wesley excused himself to do the washing up, she wondered how long it normally took for Stockholm Syndrome to set in.
"There's a broadband connection in the office," he told her over his shoulder. "I'll show you how to set up your portable Googler in the morning so you can get back to work."
She couldn't take it any more. He had to have some sort of evil ulterior motive. In the whole time she'd known him and been conscious, Wesley had never been this pleasant to be around. She doubted he'd been this agreeable even during their drugged idyll.
"Why are you being so nice?"
"You're a guest," he said, sounding surprised.
Wesley crossed his arms. "Do I need another reason?"
Liz ignored the little stab of guilt when hurt flashed on his face and he turned back to the sink.
"The wireless is in the library as well if you want to check on the news before bed."
"No, thanks," she mumbled. Even without the internet, she could at least hook up her daisy-chain of power adapters and converters to make sure her laptop still worked. After three days in Tilney's hands, who knew what was wrong with it.
Maybe she'd look through her cheese brackets to see if there was anything that resembled what they'd had with dinner.
"So," she said into the now-awkward silence filling up the kitchen. "What is there to do in Little Fardleton after curfew when you don't have a television?"
"It's a nice quiet evening in for me, I'm afraid. Need to ring Auntie in Mallorca to check in, but other than that it's a long night of double-checking my wagers for the next few weeks."
She wanted to leave it at that, leave him at that, but when she closed her eyes she could still see that ridiculous band-aid stuck to his forehead and hear the excitement in his voice when she'd accepted his settling proposal.
"Want some company?" she ground out, hoping it sounded at least a little bit gracious.
"Oh, no, you probably wouldn't be interested. It's just a silly little game I picked up on a wine tour of the Outer Hebrides."
He wiped his hands dry and took down a folder full of papers off the top of the fridge.
"It's called the World Series of Cheese. Have you heard of it?"
Wesley was no Colin Firth, that was for sure.
But then again, he was no Michael Gasbender either.