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an island in your arms

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Right after Ken and his wife have gone, and the elevator doors slide closed, Joan tries to walk, immediately loses her balance, and crashes into Lane’s left side with an oof! of surprise.

He grunts under her sudden weight, and they both stagger sideways for a couple of seconds before he’s able to re-orient his footing and keep her steady.

“Good lord, woman. Calm yourself.”

“Shut up,” she murmurs playfully as she burrows into his shoulder and slips an arm round his middle. “Hi.”

“’Lo.” Gingerly, Lane returns her embrace. He’s never seen her have more than a couple of drinks before, so to find her in this state is a bit of a shock. “You’re having fun.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Joan releases him and grasps his hands in both of hers, gently swinging them from side to side as if they’re dancing.

Lane lets her toy with him for a moment before he tugs her forward. Perhaps they can walk to the creative lounge without a total mishap. “Here. Let’s just go this way.”

They stumble through reception’s mahogany doors and get within sight of the creative lounge before Joan’s heel turns under her. Lane lists to the right as she staggers for balance, but thankfully, she regains her equilibrium within seconds.

God, he's thankful for all the walking he’s been doing lately. He barely sways on his feet as she drags him over to the sofa by one elbow.

Once Joan sits down, she pulls off her shoes, tosses them across the room, sinks into the sofa cushions with a deep sigh, and closes her eyes.

“All right?” he asks, trying to gauge her mood.

Joan’s eyes pop open, and she lifts her head up. Although she’s slouched against the back of the cushions like an awkward rag doll, the smirk on her face tells him that she’s still got her wits.

“I feel amazing.”

“Yes, I can tell.” Seeing her like this makes him grin, although he tries to hide his amusement, and keep serious. “How much did we have to drink this evening?”

She shrugs. “Don’t know. When was lunch?”

Lunch?” He checks his watch. Almost nine o'clock. “Good lord.”

“Oh, it was just some gin in my tea. And then more without the tea.”

He’s still flabbergasted by the fact that she’s apparently on a bender. What the hell would have driven her to do that?

“What on earth made you want to drink gin for eight consecutive hours?”

“Hey! ‘S really good.”

He can’t help snorting. “But how much did you drink?”

Joan glances back toward the edge of the lounge, where her shoes lie on the ground. “A lot.” With a giggle. “A whooooole lot.”

With that, she stretches out sideways, grabs the nearest pillow, and makes a happy, high-pitched noise before waving one hand in his direction.

“Flask’s over there if y’want any.”

Lane purses his mouth to hide a grin, and goes to search for her flask. Probably best to stop asking rational questions. 

He’s still stunned when he finds the thing and it comes up completely dry.

“Erm. Joan.” He keeps his voice purposefully calm. “This is empty.”

“’S full when I left for the s’lon.”

Of course she doesn’t sound worried at all. Lane quickly tries to calculate a probable number of drinks. Flask holds six or eight ounces of gin, plus whatever she’d had at dinner, plus whatever she’d had at lunch. Or during lunch? Either way, she had better eat something, and soon.

“Right. Well, then. We’re going to get you some water. That’s first on the agenda.”

“Nooo. Don’t wanna.”

There are water glasses in his office, along with the leftover Chinese.

“Not optional, I’m afraid—although I’ll bring you out a little food as well. Think you can eat something?”

This pronouncement makes her sit up, wide-eyed.

“’M kind of hungry. I didn’t eat much dinner.”

“Good.”

 

**

 

Lane was right, Joan thinks as she stabs at a piece of beef with her plastic fork. Chinese food was an amazing idea. Jesus, this is good. How’d he get this delivered so fast?

“You know you’ve got sauce all over your arm,” he points out from his seat in the red wingback chair.

She squeals as a piece of green cloth flaps past the corner of the coffee table and into the floor, and clutches the carton to her body with both hands.

“Don’t get it in the food!”

Lane laughs quietly as he walks over, picks the napkin up, and places it on the edge of the coffee table.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this.”

Joan makes a noise that means no. “I eat in front of you.”

“Well, I meant—”

“And I don’t eat in front of just anybody, so you—had better be—” she burps so loudly she doesn’t even have time to cover her mouth, and quickly puts the carton down with a wince. “Oh, my god. You didn’t hear that.”

“Hm? Hear what?”

He’s smiling at her. It makes the corners of his eyes crinkle up.

“Mmph.” Joan chews happily on a big bite for a few seconds, and glances down into the carton for a second before showing off some newly-speared vegetables on her fork. “I love water chestnuts. They’re so crunchy.”

His smile gets really big. “What else do you like?”

“Lots of things,” she says with a flounce.

Joan glances next door at Pete’s office—well. Pete’s old office. Maybe if she turned the hi-fi up as loud as it would go, they could still hear music in here.

“So what are you thinking about now?”

“Music.” She shoves the carton onto the coffee table, and pushes to her feet. “I want music.”

Stumbling out of Lane’s office, Joan whizzes around the corner and past the glass walls of the conference room. Although she almost falls on her face next to Caroline’s desk, she recovers just in time to get a hand on Pete’s doorframe, and try the knob. Unlocked. Yes!

“Why can’t you just use the record player in the lounge?” Lane’s right on her heels as she walks inside. “I don’t think we should be in here.”

“What? No. His hi-fi’s th’ best.”

Joan yanks open the top of the hi-fi, turns on the power, and winces as they’re nearly blown away by the shriek of violins. She quickly slaps at the volume knob until it’s at a more reasonable level.

“So loud it‘s like Mozart died in there.”

Lane sounds like he enjoys her joke. When Joan looks over, he’s peering down into the hi-fi with an arched eyebrow. “Wasn’t aware one could catch flu from a record player.”

Joan taps him on the arm. He has to take a step back. Maybe it was too hard. “Hey. Hey, you remembered that. Small thing.”

“I did. So there's no need to shove me round.”

He taps her elbow with a smile, but doesn’t say anything else.

Humming a little, Joan twirls the tuner knob between two fingers as she searches for a good radio station. After a minute or so of nothing but twangy country and static, something good finally pops up. Song with a beat.

“You planning to dance, then?”

“Pffft. I could dance all night if I wanted, and tha—that’s th’best idea you’ve had all week. Oh!” She grabs both of his forearms. “We should go to a piano bar. Sing the Great American Songbook. Would be fantastic. Don’t you think so?”

He bursts out laughing, shaking his head no. “You really don’t want to hear me sing.”

“Noooo,” Joan puts a hand in the center of his chest, trying to reassure him. She just stumbles forward instead. “C’mon. I bet you sound fine!”

“Well.” Two spots of pink flare in his cheeks. In the low light, it makes him look handsome instead of just flustered. “I can carry a tune, but that’s about it.”

“So what? ‘S just for fun,” Joan says as she pulls her hand away.

Lane ducks his head on another laugh. “Generally speaking, people don’t like singers to have the lung capacity of a newt.”

The word newt makes her want to giggle, but she bites back the urge, and nods her head yes, even as her lips twitch.

He’s being serious. She’ll be serious, too.

“No, don't worry. We don’t hafta go anywhere. I mean—Peggy’s gotta copy.”

And Joan staggers back toward the doorway with a shriek of laughter, launching herself through it, with Lane right on her heels.

“Oh, lord. Be careful!”

 

**

 

“Now, we really shouldn’t be in here.”

Perched in the rickety rolling chair, Joan’s too busy rifling through the middle drawer of Peggy’s old desk to pay Lane much attention. He has no idea why she’s looking for a songbook in there; it’s filled to the brim with detritus.

Although it’s not on the bookshelf, either, so maybe she didn’t even have a copy to begin with. In Joan’s state, she may well have hallucinated the entire thing.

“Well, if I could just—get this—” she strains to pull open the bottom drawer “—the hell do they keep in here?”

“Are you still looking for the book?”

“No.” Joan’s actually, honest-to-god, pouting. Lane would tease her about it forever if it weren’t damned adorable. “’M hungry. I want chips. They always have food.”

“There’s a vending machine just round the corner.”

“Ugh!” She sticks her tongue out, which startles a snort out of him. “I don’t wanna pay for them.”

“Yes. Resorting to petty crime is much better.”

They stare at each other. Joan mock-glares at him for a couple of seconds before Lane finally gives in, walks toward her chair, and motions her aside.

“Here. Let a sober person have a look at it.”

“Hmph.” She lets out a soft laugh, but doesn’t seem to be offended, just scrubs a palm between his shoulder blades. Her fingernails trace odd little curlicues into his jacket before she pulls her hand away. “Fine.”

Lane doesn’t trust himself to answer, so he just spends a couple of minutes fussing with the handle and the runner. Feels like something’s stuck in the tracks. On the millionth try—and after poking at one of the runners with the eraser of a pencil to unstick a piece of Lego—the drawer finally gives way.

The second it glides open; Joan shoos his hands aside and wraps her fingers around the reams of file folders on top. With a grunt, she lifts a large handful out and plunks it down onto the messy desk.

“You do realise those aren’t chips,” he reminds her, as she yanks out another heaping pile and deposits it on top of the first. “They’re going to know you’ve snooped.”

“What? No, ’s in reverse order. Jus’ read the—oh!”

With a victorious noise, she pulls out an object that’s smaller than her hand. Lane gets a passing look at it—some kind of candy package—before Joan rips a dark square piece from the wax sleeve, and tosses a scrap of wrapper aside.

“You ever tried this?” She clicks the candy between her back teeth and her tongue with a sharp sucking noise. “Ugh. It’s disgusting.”

Lane holds a hand out for the package. When Joan pushes it into his hand, he inspects the wrapper. Violet flavored. Looks like something a grandmother would eat.

Gingerly, he brings it to his nose; although it smells like a thousand sickly perfumes, it isn’t vile enough to make him ill, thank god. “Doesn’t seem particularly good.”

“It’s garbage.” Joan picks up the nearest bin by its lip, and spits her piece straight inside; the candy hits the plastic bin bottom with a loud thunk! Lane has to turn toward the bookshelf to keep a straight face. “Don’s the only one who buys it. Or bought it. Whatever.”

“Did he give some to the boys, then?”

“I don’t think so. Look.”

He turns to see Joan holding a battered notebook in one hand. In the open drawer lies a flattened shoebox lid, filled with little knickknacks: a pencil stub, movie tickets, and a dark tube of lipstick.

Joan pulls this out, uncaps it, and wrinkles her nose at the bright pink color. “Belle Jolie. I bet these are Peggy’s.” She huffs out an amused noise as she stares at the lipstick. “Too red for her.”

“Well, I’ll be sure to tell her that, next time I see her.”

No reply. Lane turns back to the bookshelf. He didn’t realize they had so many copies of Greek myths here. Who on earth is reading them? The boys really don’t seem like the type.

“Have you ever heard the story about the—?”

Joan sucks in a sharp breath. “Shit!”

“What?” Lane whirls around, expecting to see that she’s punctured herself using the scissors. “What’s the matter?”

Instead, she’s waving him over to look inside the notebook.

“Look at this! It’s Peggy.”

His heart rate refuses to go back to normal, but grudgingly, he steps forward and peers down at the rough creamy page.

Bold pencil lines cut a petite female figure, sitting in a chair by a luxurious window, with a notepad balanced on her lap. The hotel room around her is barely more than a suggestion of heavy curtains and expensive furniture, but the svelte woman with the elven face still sits perched in the middle of the splendor like a satisfied cat: she leans backwards against the chair with her feet up. Her right leg is crossed over her left and both feet are propped against the middle of the table legs. She’s holding a pencil in her free hand, and smirking from ear to ear at nothing but air, as if poised to make some scathing observation.

She’s also completely—blithely—naked.

“Aah!” Lane flings one hand up to shield his face, and quickly turns away, his face blazing hot.

Joan’s not laughing anymore. She flips to the next drawing.

“Jesus. There’s probably eight or ten of these.”

“No.” Lane covers his eyes with a groan. Shouldn’t have snooped. Didn’t need to know this. “Don’t go through the rest of them! They’re obviously very private.”

“What? She didn’t pose for them!”

“Good lord. How on earth can you—you can’t possibly know that.

“Okay, well, she might’ve posed for the first one. But just look at ‘em. They’re not pinups.”

Lane just groans again, displeased. Never in a thousand years would he have wanted to see Peggy Olson without clothes.

“She’s still naked, you idiot.”

“And you’ll probably forget about it by lunchtime tomorrow. Just—” Joan hiccups, and excuses herself “—oops. ’S like the Pre-Raphaelites. You know?”

“Come again?”

“Pre-Raphaelites. But modern.”

This pronouncement may as well be in Greek, for all the good it’s doing. “I still don’t understand what that means.”

With a huff, Joan tugs at his wrist so he’s forced to walk a few steps closer. Lane sighs loudly, and braces himself to see some obscene picture, but when he looks down, he’s stunned at how classical this particular image appears.

There’s no one sticking bare bottoms in the air or trading explicit favors; here, the same woman as before hovers near the top right portion of the paper, extending one graceful hand toward the face of a bearded man kneeling at the bottom of the picture. This chap’s got no real features or body to speak of past his bare torso and the suggestion of thighs and knees, but Lane recognizes the awed tilt of his upturned gaze. Like a prayer.

Behind the woman, a dark billowing cloud lingers in the air, as if she’s descending directly from the night sky, and all throughout this dark diaphanous mass are curled scrawls of white—words or phrases, Lane supposes, although he can’t quite read them. They look like stars. And sketched in the lower right corner are shades of what appear to be discarded ads, torn and crushed underfoot. Lane can pick out a couple of men in old-fashioned collared shirts and empty-eyed cosmetics models, but that’s it.

She is naked, yes, but Joan’s right—there is a fantastic element to these that makes it feel less as if he’s spying through a keyhole and more as if he’s just walked into a museum exhibition. The way the picture’s drawn, she looks like some kind of wood nymph, or ancient goddess.

“They must have some kind of history,” is all Joan says, as she traces over the curled corners of the paper with two fingers.

“No,” Lane says in a low voice. When she turns shocked eyes on him, he just shrugs, and flings one hand toward the drawing. “I don’t think you imagine that if there’s not—?” He grimaces as the specific word fails him, and tries again. “Well, look at her. Way that’s all drawn. It’s—sad.”

“Hm.” Joan studies the drawing without looking up.

“Like he’s kept at a distance.”

She nods, clearly trying to think through this. “And she’s living with—with—what’s-his-name. Weird writer boyfriend.”

“Al,” Lane ventures after a moment. “Or, no. Ed.”

Short name. Strange boy.

Joan lets out a snort. “That’s not it.”

They fall quiet for a second. Lane thinks about Stan, about the sort of person who seems to take nothing seriously at first glance, and feels a strange rush of sympathy course through his chest. He must love – or have loved – her very much. And she didn’t even know. Or perhaps she didn’t want to know.

“Maybe she was his muse?” Joan flips another page. “Is it a modeling thing?”

That does sound like a rather artistic turn of events. Someone inspires your creativity and your abstract passion, only to later inspire your love.

“Suppose it’s possible.”

Joan starts snickering.

When Lane turns a puzzled glance on her, she quirks him a pleased smile.

“First time I met that girl, she was totally clueless. We—some of us used to call ‘er little church mouse.”

He arches a skeptical eyebrow. Last time the office bestowed a collective nickname on some poor soul, everyone called his secretary Moneypenny. And Mr. Hooker had been insistent on the source of the rumors.

“Did we?”

“Fine, it was me. I started it.” Joan rolls her eyes like she hates admitting something so juvenile, but after a moment, the contempt falls away, and a shy little smile lights up her face. “That girl really grows on you. She’s funny. An’ smart. An’ much prettier now that she doesn’t dress like a third grader. So maybe that’s—all that happened.”

Lane treasures the impish light in her eyes.

“That sounds more like it.”

Glancing back down to the notebook, Joan flips through several other pictures before she turns to the last page, gasps, and bolts upright in her seat.

“Whoa!”

She starts giggling. Her hand’s hiding the middle of the page, but Lane still glimpses a muscle-roped neck and thick shoulders bookended by splayed thighs, and draws his own conclusions about the rest.

“Ah.” His voice cracks on the next word. “I, er—I’ll just go see about the, erm, radio station.”

And he practically bolts from the room.

“Hey, where’re you going? I wasn’t gonna show it to you!”

“Can’t hear you!” Lane calls back as he sails into Pete’s office. “My turn to choose the music.”

“No, don’t—ow!” A loud thump echoes inside Peggy’s office, followed by some very colorful swearing. Lane winces as Joan scuttles out into the hallway. “Wait for me!”

 

**

 

This time, Lane chooses the music. Joan saunters in just as he’s turning up the volume on some old classical piece.

“I knew you’d pick that,” she says with a happy sigh, and glances around the room for an empty chair. “Hm. I wanna sit down.”

“Here. There’s a sofa right over—”

Joan ignores him, and totters toward the rolling chair. Two-thirds of the way there, and she trips on her hem, sails into the floor face-first, and starts cackling like a maniac as she rubs at her right arm.

“Shit! That hurt.”

Lane walks closer; his shoes squeak against the ground. “Here. You all right?”

“Fine.” She’s still lying on her stomach, and rolls over, a little dazed. “Phew. That’s gonna leave a mark.”

Before she can grab his outstretched hand, she notices an oblong object lying directly under Pete’s desk, and reaches out to drag it into the light.

When she realizes just what it is, she starts laughing again.

“I haven’t seen this thing in years!”

“Wha—no. No. Joan, give me that right now. I’m not joking.”

“Come on! Lane, it’s just a BB gun.” He yanks it from her grasp even as she's trying to show him that it's safe, so she hauls herself up from the floor with a huff. “It can’t hurt anybody.”

He’s already checking the barrel for the little thingies. Beads. BBs. “The hell it can’t. You could put an eye out. You could put my eye out.”

“Hey, ’m not stupid enough to point it at you! Tha’s safety one oh—one.”

“Oh, really? When have you ever been around guns?”

“Greg. Army. Hello? And f’your—for your information,” Joan sways alarmingly as she walks toward the hi-fi, and puts one hand on the side of Pete’s desk, “Daddy taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl. So I can handle myself.”

“You can barely stand up straight,” Lane puts the gun on top of Pete’s desk before straightening a couple of fallen pictures. “Have you gone shooting anytime in the last century, then?”

“No, but I used to be really good.” She frowns as she tries to remember when she’d seen Daddy last. “We’d line up a bunch of old soda cans on fenceposts, and get ‘em one right after the other. Target—” a hiccup “—shooting.”

“Didn’t alarm your neighbors, obviously.”

“Pffft.” Joan rolls her eyes. “Kansas, stupid. Neighbors have guns.”

Lane blinks. A wide grin unfurls across his face.

“I’m sorry. You’re from Kansas?

“Plain ole Spokane,” Joan holds out her arms in a can you believe it gesture, triumphant, like she’s in the Miss America pageant. “And then Indiana, and then Virginia, and then here. Which’s the only one I claim, ‘cause it’s the best.”

“Incredible.” He fumbles for his notebook with a weird giggle. “That’s—oh, I’m writing that down immediately.”

“Why?”

“Well, just—look at you.” He gestures at her with one flat-palmed hand. “You’re so elegant. Nobody would believe it.”

She smirks at him like he's just given her the compliment of a lifetime. “But I bet I can still shoot.”

“You couldn’t hit the broad side of a cliff in this condition.”

“Bet you five dollars I could.”

Lane harrumphs, and rolls his eyes in an overdramatic way.

“Yes. By all means, drive me to the nearest cliff. We’ll die screaming in the middle of Fifth Avenue, along with many other drivers and pedestrians.”

Joan slips a hand inside the neck of her dress for the mad money she always keeps there. And she also notices how quickly Lane looks away.

“Hey,” is all she says, “you get the cans. I’ll knock ‘em down.”

“Good lord.” When he finally looks back at her, she’s already fished five dollars out of her cleavage, and holds the bill high in the air, triumphant. “You cannot possibly be serious.”

“What? Are you afraid I’ll win?”

“Joan, I’m a man, not an eight year old boy,” he says with a heavy sigh. “I think I can let one boast stand for the evening.”

 

**

 

Bang!

A bit of dust explodes into the air as Joan misses her next shot; the seventh of ten cans stays motionless in its place in line.

Lane winces and recoils as the dust filters towards them. He’s so distracted he nearly drops his pocketwatch. “Don’t hit the drywall again. They’ll fine us.”

“Shut up!”

Bang! Bang!

Next shot hits the lumber pile; the little lead bead pings off and rolls away across the floor. Second one barely clips the edge of the ninth soda can, yet still sends it flying backwards into a pile of sawdust.

His eyes are fixed on the second hand of his pocketwatch. “Ten more seconds!”

If she’s going to beat his time, anyway. He’s less confident about winning now that he’s actually seen her shoot. If this is her performance while dead drunk, she must be rather good with a clear head.

“Hey! You’re making me miss!” She pulls the lever backwards again, sets the gun to her shoulder, and fires, hitting the last can dead-on.

Without warning, a thick stream of Coca Cola spews out from the side of it, spraying the dirty plastic sheet underneath in sticky brown syrup.

“Oh, god!” Joan tosses down the gun with a hoot, wobbles to her feet, and totters off toward the stairs. “That’s your fault.”

“Wh—no, it isn’t!” Lane just pitches his voice louder and points down at the gun as if he’s shouting to some nearby judge. “Yes, bad sportsmanship here! Contestant has—abandoned her weapon on the playing field—and got soda everywhere—”

Joan is already clacking down the stairs with a bright guffaw of laughter. “Lane!”

“Well, you can’t just leave me up here!” he shouts back.

“’M not! We’re doing something else now, and it’s your turn to choose! Lemme change the music.”

Quickly, he picks up the airsoft pistol and hurries after her.

 

**

           

“Okay. I got it. Just throw the ball. ‘S gonna be fine.”

Lane’s frowning at her like he thinks she’s going to kill him, and walks a few steps closer. “Do you want to see the stance again?”

“How hard can it be?” Joan tightens her hands around the wooden bat’s handle. She raises the bat higher, but it wobbles precariously over her shoulder. “Wait, am I—is this too high up? I don’t wanna look stupid.”

“You don’t look stupid. Although—bit lower. There you are.”

“’M gonna get a hit, right?”

“Mmm. Space your hands apart,” says Lane, peering at her hold. He pulls a satisfied face when Joan adjusts her hands, and glances back at him. “All right. Yeah. Let’s—first pitch is on its way.”

Joan tries to relax as Lane walks ten steps away from her and the giant couch cushion that’s serving as home plate.

“Coming up to bat next is Harris…had a hell of an evening so far. We’ll just see what she’s got up those giant sleeves of hers. Well. Sleeve.” With a grin, he gets settled, centers his feet, draws his arm back, and lobs the ball toward her in an obvious underhanded throw.

Joan swings wildly, misses, and winces as the wooden bat clatters away from her and rolls towards Lane’s feet.

“Oh! God, sorry.”

“No, it’s all right.” Lane picks up the bat and hands it back to her, handle-first. “May want to swing a little later next time. You went too early.”

She scrunches her nose at him, frustrated. “Well, how long do I wait?”

“Longer than you think.” Lane walks back to the pitchers mound and gets into his stance again. “Ready?”

“Yeah, go.”

Joan hoists the bat high, although her arms get tired while she waits for Lane to throw the ball. Just pitch already. Pitch. Pitch.

“Throw it!”

“Steady on. I’ll heckle you in a minute, if you aren’t careful.”

With a satisfied noise, he tosses the ball to her again.

This time, Joan waits too long, panics, and ends up chopping at it with a wild yelp. The bat clangs against the floor, but the ball just sails over her shoulder. Luckily, it doesn’t do much more than tap against the crown molding.

“You hit me with that thing, I swear to god I’ll toss it down the elevator shaft.”

“But then you can’t win,” he points out calmly, as he crosses back to the makeshift pitcher’s mound. It’s one of Peggy’s books. “Because it’s a forfeit.”

She glares at him.

He just gives her a shit-eating grin.

“Shut up and pitch,” she teases, and brings the bat up to her shoulder again. “’M really gonna do it this time.”

“That’s the spirit,” says Lane cheerfully, and tosses the ball—a little faster than before, but this time Joan waits a couple of seconds before clumsily swinging at it. To her surprise, the bat connects with a crack, and the ball goes thumping into the hallway behind Lane. It doesn’t even break the glass. Just zooms away!

She’s frozen in shock. “I did it!”

Lane wheezes with laughter at her surprise, practically bent over double. “Well, don’t just—stand there! Start running, you ninny!”

Oh, god. Joan takes off with a squeal, although she can’t really run in this dress. The best she can do is take tiny, hurried steps in her bare feet, all while hiking up the hem of her dress with one hand and flailing for balance with the other as she accidentally kicks first base into the conference room wall.

Rounding the corner, she almost stumbles into Caroline’s desk before realizes there’s no cushion on the floor between the two workspaces.

“Oh, my god! Where the hell is second base??”

“What?”

“Cheating!” Joan calls out as her fingers brush the side of a picture frame next to Dawn’s phone. It falls, and tips one of her porcelain cats backwards. The cat falls to the floor with an ominous crunch. “That is—shit!”

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” Joan calls loudly, and keeps running. When she stomps on third base, gets to the final turn, and sees Lane waiting directly between her and home plate, baseball in hand, she lets out a high-pitched screech.

“No, no, no, no, no! Don’t get me, don’t get me!”

She doesn’t know what the hell to do—keep running? Tackle him? Run around him?

Lane feints left, then right, then bounds forward with a snicker.

In a blind panic, Joan dives right, but instead of sliding gracefully forward to touch home plate, she ends up skidding most of the way there on her side. The tile squeaks under her arm, and she winces as she comes to a stop.

Towering over her, Lane cocks his head to one side, and peers down at her with a bemused expression. He gives her a small wave once they lock eyes.

“Hello.”

“Hi.” Joan just smirks at him as she rolls onto her back. “I won.”

He nods toward something above her head.

“You’re not actually touching the plate. Need to do that, first.”

“What?” She lifts her head to verify this, and reaches her fingers forward just the smallest bit, still feeling nothing but air. “No, come on! I’m close.”

With one dusty wingtip, Lane pushes the cushion a couple of inches to the right. The lip of it nudges the top of her fingers.

“There. Now you are.”

She squawks out a disappointed noise. “Nooo. ‘S not as fun if you let me win.”

“Well, you did break the wall with that hit. Call it a home run.”

He’s smiling, but Joan can’t tell if he’s being serious.

Quickly, she sits up, looks around, and gasps when she notices a large gaping hole in the drywall, smack between creative and Lane’s office, a few feet from the drawers of Scarlett’s desk. Her hands fly to her mouth.

“Oh, my god.”

Lane tries to stop laughing when he sees the horror on her face. “Here. We’ll find something to fix it.”

“Don’t tell anyone,” she demands, as he helps her up and she dusts off her arms and dress. Wait, why is her arm all wet? Did she roll in some water?

He sucks in a breath through his teeth. “Good lord. What did you land on?”

“What?” Joan glances down and notices that a big trickle of blood is oozing down the side of her elbow. “Oh. There’s—“ she takes a deep, shuddering breath “—first aid kit in the supply closet. Big one. Don’t make me look.”

 

**

           

“Ow!”

“Sorry.” Lane is in the middle of swabbing Joan’s elbow with an alcohol wipe. Who’d have thought rhinestones and a rather daring slide toward home plate wouldn’t mix? Or, more accurately, who’d have thought she would know how to slide for a home run? Quickly, he blows a stream of air at her wound, to soften the sting. “Any better?”

“Mm hm.” Joan’s still got her eyes closed. Her mouth tightens a little before she speaks. “Um. Is the blood gone?”

He quickly throws the wipe and the wrapper into a nearby bin, and tapes the large square of gauze to her wound.

“All done. Safe to open them now.”

She blinks her eyes open, and breathes a sigh of relief.

“I never realised you were afraid of blood,” Lane points out, as he takes a few steps backwards. Better to be careful. “Is it because of the, erm—thing? Accident?”

Whatever that tractor thing was.

“What? No.” Joan inspects the taped gauze on the side of her arm, and pushes her tattered sleeve back into place. “I don’t mind seeing blood when it’s other people’s. It’s just different when it’s mine. Does that sound weird?”

Lane runs his fingers over a couple of folios containing old advertisements. These are from nineteen sixty-one. Interesting.

“I suppose it could feel more alarming. You know, if you’re—really injured, on your own, that kind of thing.”

Glancing over, he notices Joan’s not quite looking at him.

“Once, when I was a little girl, I was home alone, and cut my hand paring an apple. We didn’t have any bandages or gauze, and I was afraid to get the dish towels all dirty.” She sniffs out a quiet laugh. “My mother came home and found me lying in the bathtub, crying my eyes out, with a stuck finger and an unwrapped roll of Northern Tissue. Apparently I thought I was going to die.”

This is the sweetest thing Lane’s ever heard. He tries to picture a very tiny Joan: in his mind, she’s a determined young thing with long, carrot-red hair, trying to make the best of what she thinks is a fatal injury. “That’s very dear.”

“Hmph. I was always too dramatic.”

“Was?” he inquires mildly.

Joan arches an eyebrow. He grins at her.

“If you weren’t now, my day would be far less interesting.”

She doesn’t say anything, so Lane goes back to glancing through the old ads. He’s just about to point out a ridiculous one for Lucky Strike, which – with this bare-chested chap relaxing in the hammock, looks more suited for a sunscreen commercial – when Joan clears her throat.

“What were you like, when you were younger? Do you remember?”

“You mean—as a child?”

“Mm hm.”

He takes a moment to consider the question. “Well, I—don’t have many memories of that time. Fortunately or unfortunately. Erm. Are you asking if I—well, if I could remember?”

“It wasn’t a test or anything.” Joan sighs and swings her feet as she adjusts position on the low bench. “I was just curious.”

This surprises him. “About what?”

There’s not enough room for him to sit next to her, so he just leans on the very tall, sheet-draped piece that sits off to one side of the bench. Probably just a nice chest of drawers or a bookcase or something.

“I wanted to know what you were like before I met you.”

Lane doesn’t understand why she sounds so wistful. “That would’ve been a very long time before.”

“Yeah.” She waves one hand in front of her face. “Sorry. It’s probably dumb.”

“Well, no.” Lane tries his damndest to think of something—anything. In lieu of agonizing over the blur of nothing that’s currently in his head, he takes out his journal, and flips backwards a few pages. The one he finds first has a few notations about the workday, and a list of chores, nothing exciting. “I—if I could—“

He’s about to apologize, but something about the way Joan shifts in her chair at that moment makes him think about her rumpled dress, and then about how she’ll wash the blood out of that sleeve, and then—and then—

Standing in the blazing sunshine on top of something very solid. A chair? A stepstool? And in his eye line billow rows of large white fabrics, seared bright white by the sun, each pinned to the line by two or three little wooden things. Clothespins.

And the white wicker basket’s next to his feet. Mother carried it on her hip. She didn’t want the bottom to get dirty.

“Lane?”

He gasps as he comes back to himself.

“Laundry,” he says with a deep breath, and laughs a little.

“What?”

He turns to look at her. “I used to help my mother hang the washing.”

Joan’s mouth drops open.

“She’d have this—enormous wicker basket that she’d carry everything in, from the tub, all the way out—well, behind the house, I suppose. And it was my job to pin everything to the line. And—” another new detail pops out, so vivid it’s startling “—once it was dry, she’d have me lie down on the bed, and put all the warm things on top of me in a—you know, lumpy thing that’s all together.”

“A pile.”

“Yeah.” Lane huffs out another breath. “Pile.”

“You remembered all that?”

He can hardly believe it, either—and then he remembers his diary is facedown over his thigh. Lane quickly flips to an empty page, scrawls down as much of this as he can, and closes it. His hand folds gently over the back cover.

“Suppose that’s why Myra has me write things down. Just in case.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“We—when it was just the three of us: my mother, and Lewis and I—I think we might have been—happy. Truly.”

He doesn’t know why this certainty resonates so deeply, or why it makes him get so bloody maudlin. All Lane knows, for a brief, shining moment, is that he can remember his mother. God. He can almost see the smile on her face as she stands next to the narrow twin bed, and pours a basket of clean linens over his middle. He can almost remember the color of her hair. Pale and thin, like cornsilk.

Joan reaches out and puts a hand on his arm, and it’s only at that point that Lane realises he’s gotten very misty.

“Well.” He clears his throat, trying to get himself together. “Father and Charles came along later and ruined it, so.”

It’s not a particularly funny joke, but Lane can’t stand in front of this woman he loves, in a confined space, and carve out what’s left of his heart. He’s already too close to ruining everything. He keeps wanting to kiss her. She looks so beautiful under the light of this little desk lamp.

“Yeah.” She gives him an odd sort of smile, and pats his forearm a couple of times before pulling it away. “Sure.”

“Sorry. Were you—did you mean to say something?”

Joan gets up, and begins examining an object on one of the lower shelves. “Not really. I just had an idea. But we’ll need the tape recorder to do it.” She gestures toward a large, shadowy object near her knees. “Um. Could you get it from the back of the shelf?”

Oh. Is that all?

“If you like.”

 

**

           

After Lane gets the tape recorder plugged in, Joan presses the play button to make sure she’s not erasing anything important. She rolls her eyes as a familiar voice booms to life through the crackling speakers.

Okay. Shit. What number tape is this? A rustling, like Roger’s checking some papers. Seven? Jesus. All right, where was I? Oh, yeah. Queen of Perversions, nineteen twenty-eight. Now this was the first year I’d done anything with a woman, other than some hand stuff with a cousin of the Astors. Lina’s side, not Alva’s. Or, wait, was she the cousin of a Vanderbilt? He clears his throat. Caroline, double-check that. Anyway. Long and short of it is, twenty-eight was the year I started working in the family business, and finally figured out why my old man hated the Iron Lady so much. She wouldn’t spit on him if he were on fire. A loud snort. But she definitely liked me. I think I still have pictures of the bite marks somewhere—

“What the hell—” Lane looks dumbfounded as he clicks off the tape “—is this recording?”

Joan cracks up at his horrified expression. “Roger’s erotic memoir.”

“What.”

“You know, he’s talking about Ida Blankenship,” she continues, with a flounce of one shoulder. “She used to keep a nine-tails in the executive secretary’s closet. I thought it was a joke until I accidentally saw her use it on someone.”

Lane brays out a nervous laugh.

“And if you tell anyone about that—”

“Good god. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repeat that story.”

“Too bad. ‘S pretty funny if you think about it.” She’s still chuckling. “Here. See if there’s a blank tape.”

Lane begins to search through the canisters.

“But aren’t you curious?” she asks, more loudly this time.

He pushes aside another spool of tape. “About what, the horsewhipping?”

“No. Roger’s writing a book,” Joan huffs. “Two books. Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks that’s ridiculous.”

“What are they even about?”

“Oh, one’s gonna be a type of—um—business guide. Bon mots, whatever. And he’s gonna call it Sterling’s Gold.”

Lane snickers loudly.

“I know. And the other’s th’ erotic memoir. Which I don’t think he’ll ever get published, if he keeps using that much detail.” Joan huffs out a laugh as she hooks the intercom into the recorder. “My god, Ida was a masochist.”

“Clearly. Only it—“ Lane glances back from the recorder to his telephone, eyebrows quirking up in a curious expression. “Hang on. What are we even doing with this?”

Joan’s smirk widens. “We’re making a prank phone call.”

He raises his eyebrows.

“You know, tell them they’ve won some contest and have to sing for their money?” She puts her hands to her mouth, but quickly yanks them back down. “I’m spoiling the surprise. We’re calling your brother.”

Lane still looks unconvinced. “Well, Lewis probably isn’t even home yet.”

“No,” Joan says. “I mean Charles. I have his number.”

He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even react, just blinks.

She lets out a bright guffaw. “Come on. We’ll make him tell us something really embarrassing. Or—or find out how much money he makes. Lead him on until we can’t even speak from laughing. I mean, wouldn’t that just be hilarious?”

He isn’t saying anything. She really thought he’d find it funny.

“Not really,” Lane finally says through a grimace.

Joan’s smile falls away from her face.

“What?”

“I don’t think—well. I don’t want to do that. Please.”

“You don’t want to?”

“Ah.” He lets out a deep sigh, scrubs a hand over his face. “Even if I—well, the idea of wheedling out some nasty secret—I just don’t like that sort of thing. And I wish you didn’t, either. It’s—forgive me for being blunt, but it just sounds awful.”

“Oh.”

For the first time all night, Joan feels like an idiot. Although she tries not to let him see how disappointed she is, the feeling must show on her face, because he’s watching her very carefully.

“Sorry. I know we said—whatever we wanted, but—”

“Yeah. No. We can do something else.” She waves away his concern, but winces as water springs to her eyes. “That’s fine.”

“Joan.”

“No, I’m really fine—it’s something in my eye. Um. I’m just going to—change the music.”

Quickly, she walks out of Lane’s office and into the hallway, biting her lip so she can keep herself focused.

Don’t cry over one stupid comment. You asked him what he wanted and he told you the truth. Why is that so sad? Don’t you want him to be honest with you?

I wanted him to laugh. I wanted him to be happy.

She doesn’t go back to Pete’s office. On the way there, she spies a pile of records on the floor next to the lounge record player, and spins toward the turntable so quickly that she almost loses her balance. But after a second, she recovers, and wobbles forward on careless legs.

Before long, she’s paged through the stack of records, thrown on something with Ella Fitzgerald on the cover, and plunked down beside the end table, leaning against the wall and hugging her knees to her chest.

Lane comes to find her after a few minutes, a puzzled look on his face. “Everything all right?”

“Fine,” she says with a shrug. “I’m just mad at myself.”

“Over the phone call? Whatever for?”

She lets out a sigh as he ambles over, trying to put this in a succinct way. “Do you think I’m a cruel person?”

He does a double-take.

“Sometimes I wonder. People have pointed it out to me before.”

“What? Who has?”

“Just—people,” she says, and stares sightlessly across the dim lounge, at the shadows of the furniture as they play across the tile floor. “I mean, I used to be that way. When I was younger. I’d say anything to anyone and claim they were just too weak to handle the truth. But I don’t do that now.”

“No.” Lane seems like he’s not sure how to ask his next question as he turns around, and gingerly takes a seat next to her. “Is this all because I didn’t want to phone my brother?”

“Not really,” Joan tells him, and sighs again. “It’s not about him. I just—”

The words stick on her tongue. She can’t say them.

He still looks concerned. “Tell me. If you want.”

She puts one palm against the floor to brace herself. The room is spinning. “I don’t know. It’s probably stupid.”

Joan can’t look at him yet; her feelings are probably written all over her face.

“What is?” he asks.

God, this is mortifying.

“I just wanted to make you laugh,” she admits, and when she looks up Lane’s staring at her like he’s never seen her before.

“You what?”

She shrugs.

“But—” he clears his throat— “why, particularly?”

Her eyes flick to his. The baffled frown he’s wearing makes her want to kiss him. How can he not know why?

Because it makes me happy when you’re happy.

“Does it really matter?”

Lane lets out a deep breath, and looks away before he meets her eyes again. “It’s important to me.”

Joan can’t stop herself from reacting. She leans in, puts her hands on his face, and kisses him, hard.

He makes a shocked noise against her lips, but after a second or two, he tilts his head—kisses her back—and then he pulls away.

Flushed and breathless, they lock eyes for a couple more seconds.

Immediately, she covers her mouth, and hides her face in his shoulder with a groan. “Oh, god, I’m sorry.”

He’s still breathing hard; his chest expands and contracts under her cheek.

“That was so stupid,” Joan grumbles to herself. “Sorry.”

“No.” Lane’s hands flex against her waist; one strokes over the small of her back. Does he know he’s doing that? “Erm. Once you’ve sobered up, neither of us will remember. So I, erm, wouldn’t worry.”

Her head snaps up so fast she almost clocks him in the jaw. She scuttles backwards to put a few inches of distance between them.

“What?”

“Well, you’re—you’re drunk,” Lane says again, very slowly, peering at her through his glasses with narrowed eyes. “And I—well, I’ll—probably forget, so you needn’t think that it—”

“Don’t!”

She means to say this quietly, the way you’d whisper to a friend in the movie theater, but it comes out loud and rushed and desperate. Joan wets her lips, and tries again, shutting her eyes for a second in sheer embarrassment.

“Please. I don’t want you to.”

Lane’s mouth drops open.

Joan has to look away. The lump in her throat is physically painful, and her heart is racing. Her chest feels like it’s going to burst open. Oh, god, he still hasn’t said a word. And for once in her life, she has no idea what to do next. All she can think is that she’s ruined everything. She’s drunk and dumb and she actually let herself believe that—

“Come here.”

She looks up.

He’s beckoning her closer with one hand. When she doesn’t move, he scoots left and carefully places an arm around her back. She’s so relieved that he isn’t angry that she puts her head down on his shoulder again, and lets out a loud sigh.

Okay. Okay.

They sit quietly for a minute or two. Joan just concentrates on breathing.

“’M kinda dizzy,” she mumbles into his shoulder.

“Yeah. Erm. Me as well.”

Joan lifts her head in alarm; apparently Lane takes this as a sign that she wants to get up, because he pulls his arm away and disentangles himself.

“Stay here for a moment,” he tells her in a low voice as he gets to his feet. “I’m just going to—”

With a secretive smile, he puts a finger to his lips, wheels around and marches straight into his office. He stays there for less than five seconds before he marches back, steals two of the couch cushions from the sofa in the lounge, and takes these back through the door.

“What’re you doing?” Joan stares at him, wide-eyed, as he comes back to the sofa and steals the last three cushions. He’s humming tunelessly to himself as he walks. She’s not sure he even knows he’s doing it.

“You’ll see,” he tells her again, but stops halfway across the lounge. “Erm. The—did I see the Christmas box in the storage closet, before?”

“What?”

She watches as he hurries back toward storage, but when he comes out, and shuts the door behind him, he stops in the middle of the hallway.

“Are your eyes closed?”

Joan squawks in protest.

“Just for a moment.” Lane’s voice echoes down the hallway. “Until I get everything ready.”

“All right,” she huffs, and puts her hands over her eyes—although when she peeks through her fingers, she sees Lane carrying a couple strings of Christmas lights in two hands. “I’m doing it!”