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an island in your arms

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This time, Lane’s standing naked in the middle of a very dim, plain sitting room—not his. The only light in the room comes from a flickering street lamp silhouetted just outside the ornate window.

A few yards away, reclining on a sofa, Joan sits naked and proud with her head tipped back against the cushions and her legs spread in wanton ecstasy as Tony Blake caresses her. All Lane can do is watch with a deep slash of envy as the man buries his face into Joan’s beautiful cunt, coaxes long, lovely moans from her curved throat as he licks and sucks her toward the pinnacle of release.

He shouldn’t be here; rationally, he knows he shouldn’t be watching them, but he can’t make himself leave. And he’s so tired of pretending.

Desperate to get off while they’re too distracted to notice, he reaches down and grasps his cock in one hand.

Joan’s hands are tangled in the back of Tony’s hair, gripping and tugging at his thick wiry curls whenever he does something right. She arches back into the cushions with a sudden gasp as he groans out his appreciation. God, she’s so gorgeous like this; Lane forces himself not to close his eyes, because he wants to remember her exactly this way: messy hair tangling over the cushions and around her face, a fine sheen of sweat beading up on her upper lip and the nape of her neck and the hollow of her breasts and the cleft of her thighs—oh, Christ, he wants to lick her all over. He wants her so badly he can hardly breathe.

Lane strokes himself faster, and bites his lip to keep from moaning out loud. Perhaps he’s not quiet enough, or perhaps he moves in a way that catches her attention, because suddenly, Joan’s mouth opens in a gasp, and her brilliant blue eyes lock onto his.

His heart nearly gives out. He can’t hide from her, now. She knows what he’s doing, and there’s no way he’s going to be able to explain it away or pretend it was an accident. He saw her making love with her boyfriend and he didn’t leave; instead, he watched them—listened to them—pleasured himself to them! Like a depraved scoundrel peeping in the bushes.

Joan doesn’t scream, and she doesn’t make her lover stop his caresses. All she does is motion Lane forward, dark, lust-blown pupils holding his for several seconds before her eyes flutter closed. Tony moans and presses his forehead into the cleft of her hip for a moment, as if he’s too overwhelmed to do anything but center himself before renewing his intimate attentions.

He still has no idea Lane’s in the room.

“Don’t stop,” Joan whispers into the silence.

Her eyes flutter open—she’s looking at Lane—and so, hesitantly, Lane strokes his fingers up and down his cock, unsure at first, then faster, with renewed purpose. Joan watches him in feverish excitement, mouthing something he can’t hear from this distance. Her breath speeds up and one hand drifts up to stroke her breast and she’s still watching Lane touch himself, her eyes hooded and blown wide. Like there’s no one else in the room.

“Hurry,” she whimpers. “Hurry.”

It’s getting her hot. He’s getting her hot.

I’ll make you come now, Lane thinks as he watches her abdomen tighten with new urgency, as her hands clench and unclench and she begins to tremble slightly in anticipation of her climax. Because it’s me you want. Only me.

“That’s it, honey,” Joan’s eyes are glazed and unfocused. Lane has to grip himself by the root to keep from going off on the spot as he imagines he’s in that man’s place, his knees raw and aching and his face slick from her—so close to triumph he can taste it. “Give it to me. I want it. I wanna—”

You’ll have it, Lane thinks in a haze as he urges her on. And when she finally goes over the edge—when her legs lock up around Tony’s shoulders as she lets out this wild, primal shriek, yanking at his hair and bucking up against his jaw as she shudders through her peak—Lane comes so hard he nearly blacks out, still stroking himself with one messy hand as he drops down to his knees.

Oh, oh, god, you’ll have it. As—as many times as you w-want, because you’re so—Jesus Christ, Joan, you—you’re—oh!

Without warning, Lane comes a second time, loses all fine muscle control, and flops sideways into the carpet, utterly dead to the world.

He wakes up alone in his bed amidst a sticky mess, again, and when he attempts to roll out of the wet spot and over onto one side, he unfortunately sails right off the mattress, into the floor.

“God damn it!”

He smashes one palm into the carpet in impotent frustration, lies there fuming like an angry child for several seconds, and then scrambles to his feet, ignoring the sudden, throbbing ache in his shoulder and legs and lower back. To hell with the blankets, to hell with the pillowcases: he rips the sheets from the bed so carelessly there’s a distinct tearing noise from the elastic around the bottom left corner of the bed.

I don’t care, he thinks as he tosses his pajamas down on the ground and gathers everything up; he doesn’t even bother putting on his robe this time. I don’t care because it doesn’t bloody matter, apparently. Nearly fifty years old, and waking up like a pubescent child every morning, covered in spunk, dreaming of the one woman who’s impossible to get.

“God damn it!” Lane snarls a second time, as he throws open the machine and flings the lump of laundry into the barrel without even bothering to untangle anything. He even throws in a scoop of detergent without looking, and ignores the subsequent shower of fine dust that swiftly settles over both machines as a result. Finally, he jabs at the button and watches hot water pour out of the spout before slamming the lid closed.

There’s breathing from the doorway behind him; of course Lewis is already here to witness all of this. Before Lane can tell the idiot to fuck off and leave him alone, his brother steps into the room and approaches the machine.

“Here. You’ll cook the blasted things.”

Briskly, and without another word, Lewis reaches over and clicks the temperature dial back down two settings—to cold.

Lane stares at the word in horror, and forgets, for a precious few seconds, that he’s stark naked. All he can think about is the fact that the water temperature’s been wrong all this time.

“It’s supposed to be—cold water?”

“Mm,” says Lewis casually, pursing his mouth as if they’re chatting about something as simple as the weather. “Else it sets the stain permanently.”

“Permanently,” Lane echoes. Dear god. How many sets of sheets was that?

“Quite.” Here, Lewis’s voice catches its usual hint of mischief. “You are trying to wash the spunk out, aren’t you?”

“Oh, fucking hell, Lewis!”

Lane buries his face in his palms as his cheeks blaze hot with shame.

“Did rather the same thing, the first time round—that is, if you remember. Father used to call you the Yank.”

“Jesus Christ.” Lane’s voice comes out muffled and nasal. “Why?

“You know, overpaid, oversexed, et cetera.” Lewis stops talking for a moment, and when he speaks again, his tone turns gentle. “Think he was actually a bit proud of that development, initially, so there’s something for you.”

“Please stop talking about our bloody father,” Lane hisses, because there are some things in life which ought to be sacrosanct. Being caught naked after a humiliating series of wet dreams and ruining several sets of sheets ought to qualify as a situation where one’s parents should never be mentioned.

“Right.”

Down the hall, a toilet suddenly flushes; Lane lifts his head from his hands in order to gape at his brother, slack-jawed.

“What the hell is that?”

“Ah.” Lewis scratches one hand across his jaw, and purses his mouth. He appears to be temporarily stymied. “Well. You weren’t supposed to hear that.”

“Did someone—did you bring them here to spend the night?” Lane glances around in a panic for anything he can put on to cover himself; all he finds is a stiff, faded yellow towel hanging up by some old coats. He quickly ties this around his waist. “What in god’s name is wrong with you?”

“Oh, don’t be so prudish. You can’t pull it off, especially now.”

“Did he sleep in Nigel’s bed?”

Lewis raises one eyebrow in a clear challenge. “Do you really want to know?”

Lane’s face drains of all color, and he swiftly throws one hand into the air between them as he wrenches his face to one side.

“Never mind. Do not—for god’s sake, don’t tell me anything.”

“Right,” says Lewis slowly, and raises his voice as someone else arrives in the kitchen. Lane can’t see them – him? – from this angle, but the footsteps are confirmation enough. “Hello. Coffee in the pot, just there, if you want any.”

Lane can’t help glancing through to the kitchen to see this person, and is flabbergasted when the man finally steps into the light and appears to be no older than twenty. Fair-haired, angular, and slight, wearing slim trousers, a plain t-shirt, and a bomber jacket. My god. He looks like he’s ready to take his high school annual picture, not go out with some dodgy old man! There are probably—what are they called, the children who follow certain bands around the country? Rock groupies? Point is, there’s probably thousands out there who are older than this lad!

“Nah, I should get going.” The boy tosses his head to get his long fringe out of his eyes, and for some reason, this gesture rings a bell in Lane’s head. “Thanks.”

“Sorry, but you—you look a bit familiar,” Lane does not mean to say this, but it slips out anyway. “How—have we—met before?”

“Um,” says the lad, and grimaces slightly before glancing over at Lewis. He’s already stepping backwards toward the hall, and gives them an awkward wave. “Well, sort of. See ya.”

“Delivers your papers, technically,” Lewis says in an undertone, as the lad disappears and the front door opens and closes.

“Delivers my—are you bloody joking?”

“No,” says Lewis—and he has the nerve to grin, damn it.

Lane can hardly sputter out a reply. “What, did your hands brush when he handed you the bloody Times? Did you pass him on the way to the garbage chute and think ‘my, what a handsome foetus of a person!’ Dear god, you are so utterly, inexcusably…” he trails off when he sees Lewis pick up the half-full coffee pot “…what on earth are you doing with that?”

“Just going to pour it over your best shirts,” Lewis says sweetly. “Unless you’d like to shut your gob while you’re ahead.”

Lane does a double-take, and immediately rushes out of the kitchen and towards his bedroom before his brother can get a head start. Whether or not the man is kidding – and there’s no way to tell at this point – an attack on his clothes must always be taken seriously. It’s happened before.

“Don’t you bloody dare! I mean it, Lewis. I’ll—thrash the living daylights out of you if you do!”

“Oh, please. You couldn’t thrash a wood nymph.”

The coffee threat turns out to be a ruse, and the only adverse thing that happens is that they proceed to whip each other with the ends of rolled-up towels for the next five or ten minutes.

Either way, by the time Lane gets to work, he’s exhausted. He can’t tell if the twitch in his eye is simply stress or a migraine coming on, but the end result is that he needs some time alone to think. He spends most of the morning in his office, reclining on the sofa, with the door closed. Besides his secretary, the one person he allows to come in is Joan, and that’s only because she’s picking up some paperwork.

“Long morning?” asks Joan when she drops by, just before lunch.

She’s been careful around him ever since their little tiff, three days ago. Lane just rolls his eyes, so she knows he’s not really unhappy, just annoyed as the dickens. Plus it sometimes makes her smile when he’s a little dramatic; he has no idea why she finds this funny, but every time he succeeds in making her grin, it sends scads of butterflies rushing into his stomach.

“My paperboy apparently spent the night in my home.”

Joan purses her lips, clearly confused, but after Lane raises his eyebrows at her in a significant way, the light finally dawns.

“Oh.” She bites her lower lip to keep from laughing, but it doesn’t work, and she lets out a very uncharacteristic giggle.

Frankly, Lane finds this gesture adorable. “Yes.”

“How—how old was he?” She’s still trying not to laugh.

He makes a disgusted face. “Not old enough to sleep with a fossil.”

She hides a grin behind one hand as she plucks a couple of papers from his outbox. Before he can say anything else, and without speaking, she reaches over and squeezes his shoulder, once.

“Sorry about before,” she says quietly.

Obviously, it’s not about Lewis.

“Me too,” he mumbles.

Joan pats the seam of his jacket, and promptly withdraws her hand. “Well, I hate to run, but I’ve got to chat with Kenny about our dinner.”

“Oh. When is that?”

“Next week,” Joan says, and then glances at her watch. “Ugh. I’m already running late, and I have to drop these off. I’ll see you later.”

“Mmkay.”

As she walks out, Lane does not allow himself to dwell on how pretty she looks in her new leopard print skirt.

 

**

 

When Lane gets in, he finds Lewis sitting in the living room, counting out what appears to be an obscene amount of cash; low stacks of bills litter the coffee table, each with a small binder clip on top of it to hold the paper in place.

“Robbed a bank, have you?” Lane asks with a snort.

“Hilarious.” Lewis makes a notation on a piece of paper with a nearby pencil. “Thought it was high time we got everything settled, actually.”

“Settled?” Lane makes a face. “What do you mean?”

“Flight leaves Thursday night, so a bit of cash may come in very handy,” Lewis says with a shrug. He sets his pencil aside. “Never can tell who you’ll need to bribe for a couple of cigarettes.”

“Flight,” Lane echoes, shocked. “You’re—going home?”

“Mm.” Lewis is still counting bills. “Don’t make that face, darling. I’m sure I’ve quite overstayed my welcome by now. Not yours, obviously, but perhaps some other person’s—the little lesbian’s, or that funny little boy who writes all the ads. Who keeps track of conventions, in the end?”

“But I didn’t know you wanted to leave,” Lane sputters; his voice rises a little. “Were you—god, would you have phoned me back from London just to say you’d gone home? Were you even going to tell me before you got onto the plane?”

Lewis stops counting for a moment. He does look up, this time.

“Course I was.”

This is a rather surprising answer.

“Oh.”

His brother shrugs again. “Were you ever going to tell me about Joan?”

Lane’s heart stutters in his chest. “Well, there—there’s nothing to tell, so it’s rather a moot point.”

“But you love her,” Lewis says quietly, and makes another notation on his sheet of paper. Lane glances down, and notices that it’s a ledger. Money in, money out. Same system he uses for work.

He rubs one hand across the back of his hair, as his face blazes hot. “For god’s sake, Lewis, I really don’t feel like explaining this in detail. Just—as I am sure you must understand by now—she and I are—are very good—”

“Not asking you to explain,” Lewis interrupts mildly. “Just pointing out a fact.”

“What? No, I’m—you’re being absurd.”

“Lane,” and Lewis’s voice is so serious, strangely devoid of all sarcasm. “You dream about the woman every night. The two of you spend time together constantly, and she prefers your company, as you do hers. You know how to talk. You know how to argue. If that isn’t love, or some form of it, anyway, then what on earth are you doing?”

Lane meets his brother’s exasperated gaze. He’s about to blurt out that Lewis’s words absolutely aren’t true, he isn’t in love with her, and it doesn’t bloody matter anyway, but he can’t force the words past his lips.

It’s such a lie. It’s the biggest lie he’s told in months.

“I don’t know,” is all he says.

They’re quiet for another moment.

“Could speak to her about it,” Lewis offers.

Oh, Christ. Lane grimaces as he pictures himself stuttering through some hideous planned speech. She’d listen, naturally, and perhaps let him down with a few kind words and a kiss on the cheek, but she doesn’t—she wouldn’t—

His chest tightens with fear as he imagines admitting to her face all the things he can hardly admit to himself.

“Well, I don’t know what good talking will do,” he says finally, in a very thin voice, and pretends not to notice when Lewis actually turns to stare at him.

“My god.” His brother huffs out a breath as he grabs Lane’s wrist. “Here, give me your hand. Just buy her something pretty and get on with it.”

Lane rolls his eyes, expecting to feel a fiver or a tenner slipped into his palm; instead, Lewis gives him a stack of bills so thick he can hardly close his fist around all of them at once.

“Good lord.” Lane stares down at this ridiculous amount of money in his hand, and then looks back at his brother. There must be at least a thousand dollars here; although it’s mainly in small bills – lots of twenties. “This can’t all be mine.”

“Tis’n’t,” Lewis says with a smirk. “That’s twenty for all the lunches you bought, forty for the electrician, same for the plumbing, thirty for the painting and cleaning crew, ninety for the movers and priority freight shipping to London, plus an extra—” he counts a few ticks on his hands “—eight hundred or so from the estate sale. You remember the hideous suit of armor walked off, don’t you?”

“Yes.” But Lane does not remember Lewis earning more than two or three hundred dollars—nothing like this. “How—what else did you sell?”

“Few large pieces in storage,” Lewis says, and takes a deep breath. “Judging by the cobwebs, you won’t miss them.”

Lane glances around the room in shock. He’s not sure how he never noticed any of this before, but the walls are freshly painted—now a calming grey-blue color instead of that awful brown Becca had picked out when they moved here.

No more china and silver in the hutch. Golly—no more china hutch, either. And now that all of Becca’s leftover trinkets are gone, Lane finds that the room is rather peaceful. His bottled frigates decorate the mantle above the fireplace, along with a couple of pieces commemorating Nigel’s woeful attempts at sculpture. Hanging along the fireplace wall are his collegiate diploma, two large paintings that were down in storage, plus some pictures of Nigel as a child, and of their first day at the firm. Mrs. Campbell is handing everyone sandwiches in that ridiculous hotel suite. There are also a couple of faded photos, set into a shiny new frame.

Lane is shocked to realise that these pictures are of him and Lewis, when they were only boys. They got them done at a fair in London, he thinks, perhaps a year or two before Mother died. He pushes to his feet, and rubs one anxious hand across his mouth.

What else has he done? What else haven’t I noticed?

Nigel’s room is the first stop on Lane’s mind; he pads down the hallway and toward the doorway, mentally preparing himself to see it completely refinished, shorn of its aeroplane bedspread and the Mickey Mouse stickers which littered the wall behind the bed, and all the little things that had made Nigel’s childhood so dear.

He opens the door. The room is relatively unchanged.

There’s a new paint color, yes—handsome crimson—and some new striped linens, plus a pair of sturdy floating bookshelves installed on both sides of the room. One shelf is fairly empty, while the other is full of Nigel’s childhood books and comics, plus a ragged cuddly toy. On a table at the bottom of the bed sits an open suitcase record player. Was that here before, or is it new?

There’s also a telephone on the bedside table, between the two beds?

But the aeroplane comforter is still spread on the second bed. And although the Mickey Mouse stickers have clearly been peeled up from behind Nigel’s headboard, four of them have a place of honor along the border of a crisp corkboard that hangs just to the left of a handsome new desk. The desk sits flush along the same wall as the door, and on the surface of this desk sits Lane’s wedding portrait—the frame’s been glued back together—along with a few smaller pictures of Becca and the family.

Lane turns around to find that Lewis isn’t behind him, and practically runs back to the living room, where his brother has gone back to his ledger with a very determined air, and seems to be separating out three distinct stacks of money.

“Guest toilet’s fixed, as well,” Lewis says lightly to the air as he thumbs through the smallest stack of cash, and pockets this one, “as is that blasted leak above your shower. And if you don’t like the rest, hire someone to do it over. Whatever you think’s best.”

The entire effort must have taken weeks. Why would Lewis go to all this trouble? Why spend so much time on silly little things like new paint and selling furniture when he could have been seeing—well, the Statue of Liberty, or something? Or going to dinner? Or staying at home?

“You did all of this for—for me?”

Lewis puts down the money onto the table, and pats the stack with the top of his hand, twice, as if willing it to stay put.

“Well. You’ll enjoy it, won’t you?”

He finally glances up from the table.

Lane swallows hard. A surge of gratitude bubbles up inside his chest, and before he can think—before he can stop himself—he’s crossed the room, flung himself down onto the sofa, and embraced his brother in a tight hug. He buries his face in the lapel of Lewis’s jacket, right near the neck. For the first time in a long time—perhaps the first time, full stop—he’s desperate to convince him to stay. Live here. Make a life in New York. Get to know the city and the good restaurants and everyone who’s important. Just stay.

Tears prick his eyes, and he’s sure Lewis is going to tease him for getting maudlin, but this time, his brother doesn’t say a word. At first, Lewis just taps him on the back a few times with a flat-palmed hand, but when Lane still doesn’t let go, Lewis puts his arms around him, and lets out a deep sigh. One hand curls against the shoulders of Lane’s jacket while the other rests absently on the nape of his neck, and after another minute, Lewis begins to hum a nameless tune. The deep baritone notes rumble pleasantly through Lane’s ear and chest, and remind him of the flash of memory he had a few days ago—of falling asleep in a trundle bed with a hot water bottle warming the blankets. Huddling into Lewis’s chest in the night when there was crying downstairs. Lewis used to draw the blankets up over Lane’s head and put one hand over his ear, so he could sleep.

It’s all right, little one. We’ll be all right.

“Thank you,” Lane finally chokes out, and lifts his head.

When he meets Lewis’s gaze, he can see his brother’s eyes are damp, too, but the man's expression doesn’t stay serious for very long.

“Right,” Lewis clears his throat, and chucks Lane under the chin with the knuckles of his first two fingers. “Now, then. If you’re getting Joan a gift, beware the brooches.”

“Oh, get off,” Lane shoves his brother’s hand away. It causes him to fall sideways into the sofa pillow. “You insane person.”

 

           

**

 

           

Steam is rising from a fresh cup of tea that Dawn’s just delivered, and as Joan drags the paper teabag around the mug by the string, willing the chamomile to steep a little faster, a knock sounds at her door.

“Come in.” She lets go of the string, and sits up a little.

When Lewis Pryce pokes his head around the door, and saunters inside, it makes her arch a suspicious eyebrow.

“Not busy, are you?” he asks. “Wanted a quick word.”

Joan shakes her head no, and gestures for him to close the door.

He takes a seat in the blue chair directly across from her, and crosses one leg at the knee as he leans backwards: a picture of casual elegance in subtle black-checked houndstooth.

“Well, my dear, you’re nearly rid of me at last,” he says, studying his nails as he speaks. “So if you’re planning a little party to mark the occasion, Friday would be the day to do it.”

“I’ll put that on the books,” Joan says dryly, and picks up a still burning cigarette from her ashtray, rolling it between her finger and thumb idly for a second before picking up her pen with the other hand, and writing a quick notation above Thursday’s tasks. Lewis goes home. “What can I do for you?”

He’s quiet for a moment—which is bad enough—but when Joan looks up, he seems to be deliberating how to start this conversation, which is downright terrifying.
“I wanted to thank you,” he says, and scratches at his beard. “Properly.”

Joan shakes her head no, automatic. “Oh, I don’t think—”

This doesn’t shut him up. “When Lane needed someone, you were—”

“Please, don’t. This really isn’t necessary.”

“All right, all right. Skipping ahead.”

With a flourish, he produces a small, newspaper-wrapped box from his inside jacket pocket—about two inches tall, tied with a bit of thin yellow ribbon—and slides it across her desk until it sits just on top of her calendar.

She stares at the present, stunned, before her narrowed eyes flick toward his. “What did you do?”

He lifts one shoulder in a shrug; although he’s clearly trying to affect casualness, the fondness in his voice gives him away.

“Got to open it to find out.”

Although Joan prides herself on being unflappable, the mischief in his eyes is impossible to ignore, and so she reaches for the box, unties the ribbon with a steady hand, and slices through the small pieces of scotch tape with her letter opener. When she unfolds the paper, she discovers a shallow, square, royal purple box, and when she lifts the lid, a gilded brooch stares up at her from a bed of thick velvet.

From this angle, the bottom layer of the brooch reminds her of a Renaissance painting; it looks like a sunburst or a stylized halo set into thick, wavy rays. The second layer is more intricate. Large fleur de lis sprout proudly from four sides of the elegant shield crest in the middle of the brooch, and at the widest part of the shield, the last fleur de lis is threaded through a low crown which lines the top border. In the middle of the shield banner, just above the lowermost point, before it slopes up into two gentle curves, a roaring lion stands on its back legs.

“Proper champion deserves a coat of arms,” is all Lewis tells her.

Oh, my god. The longer Joan stares at the open box, the more she thinks she might cry; she has to bite her lip to stay composed. For the first time, she truly understands why Lane’s so fiercely loyal to his brother. As irritating as the man may be, underneath all of the snark and the bluster, he has a good heart. She didn’t expect that. She didn’t expect any of this.

Joan lets out a ragged sigh. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Then say nothing.” He gives her a quick, furtive smile. Obviously, this kind of sincerity is uncomfortable for him. “Just know that you have my deepest admiration. Not just for Lane, but—“ he waves a hand toward the conference room “—generally speaking. You’re really quite formidable.”

“Now you have to stop,” Joan waves one hand back and forth to indicate she’s getting choked up. “Sorry. This is—very lovely.”

“Golly.” He pulls an alarmed face, and just like that, the moment is gone. “Well, we can’t have everyone see you cry. Little brother might slug me in the nose.”

Without another word, he sits back down in the blue chair, and once Joan’s got herself under control, they go back to chatting about the weather and Lewis’s favorite parts of the city.

“Was there anything you didn’t get to do, while you were here?”

He considers this question, pursing his mouth as he deliberates. “Oh. Nothing much. Thought about crank-calling Charles if Lane’s mood got too gloomy, but you can’t have everything when you’re on holiday.”

“Charles,” she says carefully. Your youngest brother?”

“Ah. I see the man’s nasty little reputation precedes him.”

Truthfully, Joan’s heard very little about the youngest Pryce—other than the fact that he’s cruel, used to taunt Lane constantly, and has an ego the size of Mars.

“So what were you going to say?”

“Not sure,” Lewis plucks a pencil from the holder on her desk. “Thought about making up tax liens, but that’s a bit risky. Unpaid nightclub bill sounded better, anyway. Stuffed-up banker with a double life.”

“Mandated employee psychiatric testing,” Joan offers with a wink.

He raises an eyebrow. “You’ve done this before.”

“Kenny and Paul and I used to put things in people’s offices as a joke.” A snort of laughter escapes her as she thinks about it. “Animals or weird props. There was one idea I had that—“

She bites her lip again to stop herself from admitting how stupid it was.

Lewis looks intrigued. “What kind of idea?”

“Well,” her smile goes a little soft. “On my last day at the old place, I was going to place an upside-down coffee mug in the center of Harry’s desk, with a little note on top from a blushing young secretary. You know. Something he couldn’t resist picking up.”

A delighted smirk spreads across Lewis’s face. “And what, pray, would be trapped beneath the lip of that very innocent-looking mug?”

Her smile widens. “Did you know he’s terrified of spiders?”

They stare at each other for a moment.

“Do you know,” Lewis says lightly, “I passed a little pet store earlier in the week; one that sold exotic things. Lizards. Snakes. Tropical arachnids. I’m sure I could manage to stop in again before I go.”

“Well, I’ll make you a deal,” Joan echoes his tone as she gathers up a pad of post-it notes and a pencil, and then places these at the edge of her desk. “Write down Charles’s number, and I’ll take that prank call off your hands.”

Lewis’s grin turns sharklike. “Just record it for me, dear. That’s all I ask.”

 

**

 

Friday morning: Ken’s trailing Harry into his office as they bitch about the latest Yankees game. He’s half-awake without his coffee, and barely paying attention, so it’s not until Harry stops in front of his desk, and squints at an upside-down mug with a note taped to it, that Ken realizes something is weird.

“Holy shit.” Harry cuts him a stunned glare after he reads the thing. “I think Scarlett’s a little horny for the Crane.”

“That’s disgusting,” Ken says, deadpan.

“Wonder what’s in here.”

“Uh, I’m guessing she just washed it.”

“No. Can’t be. You think she left her underwear—” Harry picks up the mug, and shrieks out loud. “Ah, shit!”

Ken gets a glimpse of two giant hairy legs crawling forward, and jumps backward by reflex. Harry’s already panicking; he pitches the mug into the floor, and stumbles back from the desk so quickly he falls back into his ornate Civil War painting, knocking it off the wall and sending the gold cannons flying.

“Augh! Spider! Get it—off!”

He sprints for the doorway, stumbles as he rounds the frame, and falls into the hallway, still scrabbling away on his hands and knees as fast as possible.

Further down the hallway, someone out there is cracking up.

Even as he’s trying to stumble out of the room, Ken’s already wheezing with nervous laughter as he meets the stunned, wide-eyed gazes of the crew in the hallway. Somewhere in another office, he can hear a secretary giggling behind a closed door. Probably the culprit.

“Oh, man,” he huffs out. That was priceless. “Oh, man.”