“Sad but true,” Margie pronounces as she walks into the conference room and slides three thick manila folders across the table. Her brown paisley tunic dress pulls awkwardly around her expansive stomach. Paired with that black turtleneck and the tan hose, she looks like a fat tree trunk on stilts. “I’m leaving all my projects in the hands of you two idiots.”
“Hey, nobody told Randy to get you pregnant again,” Stan replies mildly, although he barely looks up from this month’s expense reports.
She smacks him in the back of the head.
“Ow,” he complains, rubbing at his neck.
“You deserved that.” Moving slow and careful, Margie sits down on Ginsberg’s other side, and throws Ginzo a long-suffering look. “Kid, keep this idiot from shooting himself in the foot twenty-four/seven, will you?”
“Pfft.” Ginsberg pretends not to care one way or the other, but Stan can tell he likes it. That kid eats up positive attention with a spoon. “Yeah, I’ll get right on that.”
“Afternoon, everyone.” Dawn opens the door and slips into her seat. She has to hide a giant yawn behind one hand as she takes out her legal pad. “Oh. ‘M so sorry.”
Stan raises his eyebrows. “Long day?”
“You could say that.” She blinks at her notepad before visibly shaking her head, like she’s trying to snap herself awake. “Phew. Have we seen anyone else?”
“No.” Surprisingly, Ginzo’s the one who answers first. “Think Joan’s on a call or something.”
Yeah, right. Lane took a personal day and now Joan’s conveniently unavailable. That’s not suspicious at all.
“Oh, they’re probably just—”
Before he can say another word, Dawn levels him with a glare that could cut glass. Her voice stays even and calm, but it’s as forceful as he’s ever heard.
“You better not finish that sentence.”
“Shit!” He brays out a laugh before he can help it. This is kind of amazing. He’s never heard Dawn cop an attitude with anyone. “Chambers with the kay oh.”
“Finally!” Margie’s face is flushed; she looks happier than when she told them she was having another kid. “Now I know who’s really gonna keep this bozo in line.”
Dawn shakes her head no, but the corners of her mouth still twitch up into a smile. “I don’t think so.”
“Sorry, Margie. I’m a full-time job,” Stan quips. “But we are taking applications. Tell your friends.”
Even Ginsberg is grinning. It’s pretty excellent.
That evening, after a much-needed lie-down and one of his pain pills, Lane spends an interminable amount of time staring at a blank piece of plain stationery before picking up his telephone and dialing the first person he can think of.
“Pryce,” says a deep voice after the operator puts him through.
Sadly, Lewis is the only other person he knows who might give him half-decent counsel, considering that the man has actually met Joan and has some idea of how things are between the two of them.
Lane doesn’t wait for his brother to say much else, just blurts it out.
“I’m writing a letter to Joan.”
“No, you’re not,” Lewis retorts.
“Augh! Why do you always—”
“Well, you’re on the phone avoiding the damn thing, obviously.”
“For god’s sake, Lewis. This is very serious, all right? I need—“ Lane gulps “—advice.”
Lewis lets out a sigh. “Whatever can you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” Lane says through gritted teeth. “I—it has come to my attention that I will have to—tell Joan things—and with luck we will—arrive at an understanding.”
“Golly, how romantic. What a lucky woman our Mrs. Harris is.”
“Will you bloody well stop it? I don’t know how to tell her, do I? Been staring at the damn paper for over an hour now!”
Maybe even two hours. At this point, Lane doesn’t even remember when he sat down at his desk.
Lewis sighs again, but thankfully, stops taking the piss out of him.
“Why on earth does it have to be done tonight?”
Lane pulls the receiver away from his ear with a groan. Should he say something about last night? Should he keep it to himself?
He decides to tell his brother some part of the truth.
“Because she went out with someone. Recently.” He winces as the words tumble out of his mouth. “And if I don’t tell her what I’m thinking now, it’ll happen again, and again, and I’ll—lose her.”
Lewis doesn’t say anything for a few seconds.
“Was it one evening, or does she actually like the man?”
“Well, it doesn't matter!” Lane hisses. Silence hangs over the other end of the line. “He’s an investment banker, for god’s sake. Just—horrid-looking. Smiling all the time. Only wants to sleep with her, probably, and I doubt he—the man can’t even get it up to try that much!”
His brother snorts out an amused noise. “Blackguard.”
“You make this sound very petty.”
“Because it is petty,” Lewis says in a flat voice. “You’re focusing on Captain Limpy when you ought to be focusing on her, aren’t you?”
Lane’s mouth drops open in outrage. “No, I’m not.”
“Bollocks. Even Mark says you are. Isn’t that right, Bryant?”
“What?” comes a faint, bemused voice in the background.
Rolling his eyes, Lane turns a scowl on the white blank page in front of him. “Of course I’m focused on her. I only meant—you know I’m not—good at putting it into the right words.”
“I'm aware of that, yes.”
This is kinder than Lane expected.
“Didn’t you faint dead away at Becky’s feet, when you proposed?”
“Anyway, the whole thing’s a very tricky business,” Lane continues loudly. “I mean, Joan deserves—I can tell that she—she needs someone to tend to her, same way she tends to everyone else. The fact that—Lewis, she looked out for me when no one else did. She gave me her friendship and her trust when I did not deserve them. And now… well, I could do it, you know, I could make her that happy—”
“Write all of that down, then.”
The remark is so devoid of sarcasm, facetiousness, or any other form of taunting that Lane can barely stammer out a reply.
“For god’s sake, little brother, say any or all of this to her, not me. Via Morse code or carrier pigeon or however you’re going to do it. Not half as bad as I feared.”
Is the man actually…complimenting him?
“Now, for god's sake, if you do write to her, be brief. Tell her you love her, what you want, and how you expect her to respond. Don't fumble about with verses and musings and all the rest. She's probably got bins full of those, from every chap who’s ever clapped eyes on her considerable talents.”
“You seem to have done this before,” Lane mutters, slightly alarmed at the ease with which this advice is dispensed.
Lewis just huffs out a laugh. “You've never known any actors, have you?”
“Erm,” Lane suddenly remembers that Mrs. Draper is, or was, an actor. Although he’s not sure if she qualifies as a proper thespian if he has never seen her in anything. “One, I suppose.”
“Well, they’re all very spirited, aren’t they? I’ll let you in on a little secret. Working in theatre's rather like being in secondary school. Only with co-eds.”
The prospect makes Lane's blood run cold.
“But that still doesn’t—well, how do I begin the damn thing?”
Lewis huffs out a breath.
“Two words, little brother: dear Joan.” Followed by a breathy snicker. “If you get stuck, have a whiskey, and disconnect your telephone. In reverse order, mind.”
“Now don’t phone me back until you’ve stopped stalling.”
“Lewis! Stop being a blasted nuisance and kindly—”
That utter bastard.
Lane puts down the phone with a growl, leans forward, and gently knocks his forehead into the desk a couple of times. Sadly, this does not give him any divine inspiration, just makes his head swim.
After a second or two of wallowing in his misery, he unplugs the handset, and gets up to take an aspirin. Or to find the nearest bottle of whiskey.
Joan snaps to attention, and glances over at her mother, who’s peering at her from the other end of the couch with a narrow-eyed, curious expression. They’ve been watching TV for over an hour, but Joan hasn’t heard a word since the nightly news went off and the sitcoms came on. She’s just been staring in the general direction of the screen, barely catching a word.
“You’ve got that look on your face,” Gail says with a knowing smile, as she adjusts a wiggling Kevin in her lap.
Her mother just arches an eyebrow, and pulls the blanket tighter around Kevin’s middle. He’s got his head on her chest and is sucking his thumb, with his other hand wrapped around the chain of her glasses. “Same one you got when you were six years old, following poor Baker Linetti around the grocer’s like an orphaned kitten.”
“Mom,” Joan groans. “For the last time, I did not follow him around.”
“You absolutely did. I remember you’d hide behind the meat counter so you could hug his spindly little legs.”
From her mother’s lap, Kevin giggles, and lifts up his head so he can imitate Joan’s theatrical groan. It comes out like a high-pitched growl. “Mama say rrrr!”
“See? You’re protecting him. Even the baby notices.”
“Oh, my god.” Joan puts a hand over her eyes. “I need to take a shower.”
“Is it the good-looking one from your office?” her mother calls after her as Joan pads toward the bedroom in her bare feet, and shuts her bedroom door with a loud click.
Although she’s inventing a flimsy excuse just to get away, within a few seconds, Joan figures she might as well take advantage of the time alone.
She goes into the bathroom, skins off her clothes, turns on the hot water, and is luxuriating under the hard driving spray before she allows herself to admit she’s still thinking about Lane.
Even though she was blind drunk, Joan can still remember enough to make her blush. And they didn’t even sleep together, for god’s sake.
The warmth of the Christmas lights twinkling over their heads. Firm, pliable hands stroking down her back and over her sides. How feverishly she wished they’d slide down the rest of her body and up her skirt instead. How he’d swiped hot tears away from her face between kisses, pressed up against her in the dark.
Don’t think about crying. Don’t think about what you told him.
Getting caught by Dawn, of all people.
Jesus. So humiliating.
Pushing everything else aside for now, Joan concentrates on the shiver Lane’s fingers provoked as they trailed a loose path up and down her spine, and slides damp fingers past her slick stomach to recreate the feeling, slow and gentle. She imagines him undressing her piece by piece as she teases her most sensitive spot; imagines him kissing her until she’s half-drunk with need, suckling his way down her throat as they clutch at each other.
Lane will put his hand down her satin panties and press the heel of his palm against all of her, rubbing in slow circles until she’s soaking wet, until she can barely think for the stimulation. And he’ll be so hard for her, breathing shallow and quick, but waiting his turn as she grinds into the touch, patient, patient, until she’s this close to losing control. Then he’ll move his hand just a little, press his fingers up and inside until he—oh! right there, like—
She comes with a gasp, bent over at the waist with her free hand pressed against sweaty tile and steam filtering through the entire bathroom.
A few minutes later, as she rinses soap off of her chest and stomach, her mind drifts back to forbidden places, and this time, since no one is there to scrutinize her, she lets it wander wherever it wants.
“Lane? Are you awake?”
He’s been so quiet for the last few minutes, and although his breathing is even, it’s not quite rhythmic in a way she thinks would mean he’s sleeping. And Joan can’t sleep, anyway. Her mind is buzzing.
She kissed Lane.
How could she possibly sleep now?
“Mm hm,” he mumbles. “Did you need something?”
“No.” She lets out a sigh of relief as she glances up toward his chin. “Just glad you’re up. I can’t sleep.”
His voice is a little scratchy when he speaks. Maybe he actually did doze for a minute or two. “What’re you doing, then?”
Joan eyes the shadow that stretches across the floor, in front of the credenza. Is the sun rising, or is that just her imagination?
“Hm? About what?”
“Lots of things.” She repositions her head on his chest; he cards one hand through the messy part of her hair. Suddenly she feels like she should warn him about something specific. “I was mean to Myra this week. Did you know that?”
He seems surprised. “Were you?”
“Couple of days ago.” Joan braces herself for a lecture. She’d deserve it. “Um. I yelled at her. And that’s bad, but I couldn’t stand—” she bites her lip. “Anyway. It happened.”
“So… you just had a row?”
“Yeah. But don’t ask why, okay?”
“Oh.” He stills his hand. “Is it terribly awful?”
“Just embarrassing.” She can’t tell him she was jealous. Then she’ll be an even bigger idiot than before. “I’ll prob’ly tell you soon, but not now. ‘S too pitiful.”
“All right,” Lane says slowly, and taps an awkward rhythm on her shoulder with his free hand. “Well. Changing the subject, then.”
“Hm.” Joan thinks for a second. What should she ask him? “Do you—”
“Is Tony Blake your—boyfriend, now?”
“What?” She jerks in surprise, and puts a palm to her forehead with a near-hysterical noise. “Oh, my god. Why the hell would you think that?”
Underneath her, he relaxes almost immediately, exhaling a sharp breath. “So you—the two of you didn’t—”
Lane clears his throat, and shifts slightly; she has to rock her weight to her left in order to keep her head pillowed on his chest. When she glances up toward his face, he sounds distant, like he’s looking at the wall. All she can see is the tense curve of his neck. “I’m not asking that.”
“Well, you are,” Joan corrects archly, but shrugs. “Things didn’t go that far. There was a problem.”
“Oh. Oh, I see.”
He sounds thrilled.
“Stop that.” She taps his chest with one hand. He sounds like he’s smirking. “It’s not funny, Lane.”
“Joan, I promise I’m not laughing at you.”
“He’s a very nice man,” she insists.
“I’m sure he is,” Lane’s still trying not to giggle. She can feel his breath catch as he tries to talk. “Chap’s probably bearing it up as best he can, isn’t he.”
It wasn’t impotence. Joan bites the inside of her cheek to keep from saying the words that hover on the tip of her tongue. I wanted him to be you.
“It was too weird,” she says instead, and snuggles closer. She loves being here like this. Just the two of them, alone: talking, touching, kissing. It’s wonderful.
Lane presses his lips to the crown of her head in response. Joan closes her eyes in quiet delight.
“I should sleep, but I really don’t want to,” he tells her with a low chuckle.
She probably shouldn’t ask her next question. It’s too intrusive.
“Are you afraid you’ll forget something?”
Lane’s quiet as he considers this. She feels him breathe in, and breathe out; once, twice, three times, before he finally speaks.
“A bit. Don’t want to risk losing the small things.” He pauses for a moment. “Forgetting the important ones would be more difficult, I think.”
Oh. Well, they can fix that easily enough.
Without warning, Joan pushes up onto one elbow, and begins to feel around Lane’s shirt and trouser pockets for the thick rectangular indentation.
He flails in surprise. “Ah! Steady on.”
“Hey, I’m not feeling you up!” She pats down both sides of his hips with a cackle. Not yet, anyway. He gives her a pointed look that plainly says: too bad. “Where’d you put your journal?”
“What?” Lane glances left, and then right. “Er, don’t know. Perhaps my jacket?”
Joan cranes her neck around to peer at the desk, and thinks she sees his jacket hanging on the back of his desk chair. “Mmkay. Let me look.”
“Oh, no, but then you’ll have to get up—”
What was that?
Joan blinks her eyes open, and frowns at the wall before reaching out and turning off the water. Stepping out onto her bathmat, she quickly dries herself off and wraps herself in a big blue towel before tucking it firmly around her body.
Once she opens the bathroom door and heads out into the bedroom, she spots the source of the noise—a little shadow in the hallway underneath her bedroom door, and a tiny chubby hand poking through the crack. Looks like he’s crouched down or sitting directly in front of it.
“Mama bath, Mama bath, Mama bath.”
Kevin smacks the door again; it rattles in its frame. From this angle, it might just be by accident, so Joan only stops in front of the closed doorway, and assumes an innocent voice.
“Who’s outside here?”
“Me me me,” Kevin squeals in excitement as he scrabbles to his feet. “Hi, Mama! I right here!”
She unlocks the door, grunts as he rushes forward to hug her legs, and scoops him up into her arms.
“Hi, sweetie. Mama’s clean now.” She kisses the side of his head. “You ready for your bath?”
“With my duck!” He nuzzles into her neck with another squeal.
Well, thank god that’s a yes.
“Okay. Come on.” Joan walks them back toward the steamy bathroom, patting his back a little as they go. “Let’s scrub up so you can get ready for bed.”
The next day, slumped forward in his desk chair with his arms folded on top of the desk and his chin balanced on his arms, Lane lets out a forlorn whine as he stares at the sea of crumpled-up paper scattered across his line of sight.
Damned Lewis and his damned advice.
None of it worked. The aspirin only made him tired. And while the whiskey loosened him up, it unfortunately made him a bit longwinded. As a result, he wrote three horridly maudlin messages that, upon re-reading them, made his skin crawl.
Not good enough. Why couldn’t he just say something decent, damn it?
Lane sits up in alarm and accidentally spots ink onto one of the blank pages as Scarlett opens his office door and breezes inside.
“I need to mail this packet to the 4As before the post office closes,” she says as she offers him a clipboard. “Sign by the stickers, please.”
With a heavy sigh, Lane takes it from her and scrawls his name on the form in question, beside two directional stickers. May as well be useful to someone, since he apparently can’t put pen to paper without sounding like a complete ass.
Once that’s done, he hands back the clipboard.
“Take it over now, if you like. Wouldn’t want to miss your chance at the post office,” he says dryly.
She actually snorts. “On a Friday? Sure.”
Oh, my god. Wait.
Where on earth did his fountain pen go? Lane pushes several balled-up drafts aside as he searches for it, and finally locates the thing under a pile of old invoices.
“Well, er—you may go early, after you send that off.”
“Really?” she asks.
“Didn’t I just say so?” He’s already fumbling for a new sheet of paper, impatient. Don’t lose it, don’t lose it. Chances. “Whatever. Put my calls through to the service once you’ve gone. Just—see that I’m not disturbed.”
She doesn’t ask any more questions, which is for the best. Lane needs the time to get his mind together.
As he goes to dip his pen in the inkwell, he nearly knocks the blasted thing over his desk. Lane’s heart leaps into his throat for a fraction of a second before he’s able to steady the small vial with his free hand.
Thank god. No accidents.
Once this is settled, Lane smooths his fingers across the bottom of the page before beginning the letter as simply as possible.
Marking up a list of prospective accounts and barely managing to keep her mind from wandering, Joan is flicking her earring back and forth along a small patch of her desk when she hears a knock on her door.
Lane peeks around the doorframe. He’s got his hat in one hand and his coat slung over one arm. “Not busy, are you?”
Joan glances at her desk clock. Three thirty. She can’t risk making a little joke, since he never leaves work this early, even on a Friday.
“Off to happy hour already?”
He lets out a rueful laugh. “Not exactly.”
She pushes her work to the side. Hopefully he’s doing something fun, and not going to court or to the dentist. “Well, what’s on the agenda? Anything exciting?”
“Hm. Rather a long story.” He jerks his chin toward her papers. “Are those very important?”
“Not at all.” Joan gestures to the chair in front of her. “If you want to sit, I could really use a break.”
“Ah. Well, I would, normally, but I’ve, er, got some things to attend to this afternoon.” His mouth twitches. “Just wanted to drop something off first.”
“Oh.” She deflates a little. “Okay.”
Her disappointment must be palpable, because Lane’s eyes widen behind his glasses.
When she speaks again, Joan just keeps her tone light, determined not to seem like an overeager little fool. It’s probably just the quarterly paperwork, or the expense reports.
“Must be important,” she says with a lift of one shoulder. “Last stop before you leave.”
She expects him to laugh, or at least smile, but he does neither. He just stands there unmoving, clearly in the middle of a heated internal debate, before he walks forward and places a sealed cream-colored envelope into her inbox.
It's too small to be work-related. Joan blinks in surprise.
“I was going to give this to you,” is all he says as he nods toward her tray. He won’t meet her eyes. “Before I left. Erm. So there you are.”
The air thickens between them, the longer she stares at that envelope.
“Can I open it?” she asks.
How long has he had it? When did he do this? Is this because of—?
“Erm.” When their eyes meet, he gives her a half-smile. It’s very strained. “You can once I’ve gone. If you don't mind waiting a bit.”
Her hands itch to pick up the envelope and tear it open with her fingernails, but Joan forces herself to be slow and purposeful as she gets out her letter opener, and sets the intricately carved stiletto next to her tea cup.
The blade is pointing straight toward Lane, like a little arrow.
“Take the weekend, if you like,” he adds after another moment, with a wave of one hand. “Whatever you need. It’s—self-explanatory.”
Her fingers twitch as she glances at the envelope again. She’s dying to read it, but forces herself to push the mounting anxiety aside, and to concentrate on the man in front of her.
Oh, god, he’s so pale and nervous and he won’t look at me. Is this the moment? Is he going to say it out loud?
“So you’re not going to avoid me until Monday?”
Lane’s mouth drops open slightly. He looks stunned that this is the first question out of her mouth.
“No. I only meant, you know where I’ll—I’m just going home. Unless I’m at the grocer’s.” He winces visibly. “Erm. I don’t spend all weekend there, obviously. That would be very pathetic. Probably illegal.”
She gives the joke a perfunctory laugh, but her heart is fluttering in her throat like a moth beating its wings against glass, quick and desperate, and it’s pulsing so loud in her ears she’s sure he can hear it, too.
“Okay,” she says slowly. She can’t tear her eyes away from his face. She’s trying to decipher every little twitch. “Enjoy your weekend at home.”
“Course. You as well.” He gives her that tense smile again. The longer they stare at each other, the more it morphs into something softer and more genuine. “Hopefully I’ll—see you later.”
He nods again, decisively this time, as if the motion has settled everything.
Before she can move another muscle, he skitters out into the hallway without another word.
Joan doesn’t even wait until the door closes before she snatches up the letter from her mail tray—so fast she accidentally knocks an empty bottle of club soda into the floor—and slices through the envelope flap in one clean stroke.
As she unfolds the stationery, careful not to rip the delicate textured paper, she braces herself for bitter disappointment.
Maybe it’s not what you think, she warns herself as she turns the page right side up, and reads her name on the first line. Maybe it’s—
Her eyes widen.
The voice in her head goes totally silent.
“Knock knock,” Caroline calls out as she taps on Joanie’s door and pushes it open. “I’m getting ready to go—”
When she sees Joan’s face, she stops short.
The poor girl is standing behind her desk, twisting her hands in front of her. She looks like she’s mid-step, clearly pacing. Her eyes are wild and a little too bright, her hands are trembling so hard Caroline can see them shake from this distance, and her mouth is pursed into a worried moue. Lying half-open on her desk is a plain, fairly brief letter. That must be what upset her.
“Honey, are you okay?”
Joan nods, blinking furiously, and taps her fingers to her mouth, like she’s about to burst out crying.
“Is it bad news?” Caroline quickly shuts the door.
Joan doesn’t say anything. After a pause, she lowers her hand.
“No. It’s good,” she says softly. Her mouth works before she can speak again. “Sorry. I have to go.”
As quick as you please, Joanie snatches the letter up from her desk, folds it back into fourths very carefully, and rushes past Caroline, toward her coat rack.
She yanks on her coat in a careless way, dropping the letter into her pocket once her arms are in the sleeves, but the poor girl can barely even get it closed because her hands are shaking so much.
“Well, you can’t leave in this condition,” Caroline steps forward to help her, as automatically as if Joan’s one of her own kids. “It’s supposed to keep snowing. You’ll get chilled.”
She drapes the woman’s scarf around her neck, and manages to get two buttons fastened before Joan comes back to herself, and briskly moves Caroline’s hands away from her coat, not unkindly.
“Sorry. I can’t wait.”
“All right, honey. If you’re sure.”
Caroline is positive the woman’s going to fly right out the door without so much as a goodbye, so when Joan turns around, flings two arms around her shoulders, and squeezes her in a hug, it stuns Caroline into silence.
“See you Monday,” Joan says in a rush, and lets go.
As she bustles down the hall, heels clicking sharply with every step, Caroline can’t help sticking her head out of the office door and calling after her.
“Be careful going home!”
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, the elevator is crawling downstairs at a snail’s pace, and even if there weren’t six other people standing in it, Joan would still want to slam the doors closed on every single person waiting on the other side. She taps her toe impatiently against the marble floor.
We don’t have time for this! Nobody has time for this. Where the hell are all of you even going?!
When they finally get to the lobby, she stumbles out of the car with her scarf askew on her head, and accidentally clips an old man’s elbow with her purse as she hurries toward the revolving doors. Although he gives her a very dirty look, she doesn’t bother stopping. She doesn’t have a minute to lose.
Once she gets through the lobby, and joins a big group of people leaving the building through the revolving door, Joan decides to flag down the nearest cab the second her feet touch the sidewalk.
Instead, on the other side of the door, she walks smack into a frigid whirlwind, and recoils with a gasp as thick snowflakes swirl up into her face.
Everything is white.
Snow is falling thick and heavy around her; a thin skiff of it has already blanketed the ground. And as far as she can tell, the entirety of Sixth Avenue is a parking lot. The traffic jam might even extend all the way up to the park. Cars are honking and revving and at least ten drivers are leaning out of half-open doors and windows to scream at someone else a few feet ahead of them.
Some tourists crashed, probably. No one is moving.
Joan takes shelter against the side of the building, and runs through various options in her head. She can get a cab here, now, and wait in traffic for god knows how long. Or walk a block to another decent hub—Fifth Ave, probably—and get a cab there. Which might lead to the same issue, depending on the traffic patterns.
Or she could take the subway.
You can’t wait any longer. Why are you waiting?!
A freezing gust of wind blasts the bottom of her coat open.
Shivering, Joan fastens the last two buttons, adjusts her scarf, and pulls her collar tighter around her neck with one hand. She’s on the sidewalk and moving before she realizes she’s only wearing one of her gloves.
Where’s the other one? Glancing at the ground, she doesn’t find it, and looks to see if it’s still in her purse, which is secured and looped over her left arm.
No time. No time.
She sticks her ungloved hand into her pocket to keep it warm, and pats the folded edges of Lane’s letter against her side in a distracted way as she hurries toward Fifth and 53rd, stepping gingerly in her heels in the snow.
You stupid idiot, she thinks as one foot skids under her on the sidewalk half a block later, you’re going to break your neck.
Pausing, she sucks breath after breath of icy air into her lungs before steeling herself. The hell I will. Not until I see him.
By the time 53rd Street Station is in sight, she’s frantic, and has to repeat the words to herself as she clacks down the concrete stairs, fumbles in her purse for the emergency token she knows is still in there somewhere, and puts it into the turnstile.
As she spots another sign for the Jamaica Center platform, Joan breaks into a jog, and then a run. She doesn’t even stop running once she reaches the escalator, just clacks down the moving stairs like a herd of elephants, ignoring the bored or amused looks of the people around her.
The graffiti-covered train’s already pulling up to the eastbound platform; its brakes squeal loudly against the tracks as it barrels to a stop.
No, no, no, you’re not leaving without me!
Even at a run, she barely makes it on in time. Joan pitches into the car with a yelp, staggering towards a pole and grabbing it with outstretched hands as the automated doors slam closed behind her.
Immediately, she glances around for the nearest empty seat, spies one hidden in the corner, and drops into it with a ragged breath. The sleeping teenager beside her doesn’t even flinch. Good. She’s barely paying attention to him, anyway. As the train gains speed, she pulls off her remaining glove so she can take Lane’s letter from her pocket and hold it in both hands.
She just likes looking at it.
Her eyes burn and fill as she scans the first few sentences again, but she refuses to let the tears fall. Not yet. Hold on.
Gently, Joan traces one fingertip over the thick lines of his letters. Lane’s handwriting isn’t like it was before. It used to be too pretty, like it was lifted out of some old-fashioned book, but now it’s a loopy, slanted scrawl that runs together when he’s writing very quickly.
He obviously wrote this quickly, too. There’s a huge inkblot in the upper right corner of the page.
As she stares at it, Joan wonders how she got so sentimental. If she were a decade younger, she would have hated that inkblot beyond all reason. But right now, today? She adores it.
Lane never does anything impulsively. He must have thought about what he was going to say for a long time. And nobody else has ever written her a letter like this. Not her husbands, or her boyfriends, or her lovers. No one.
Hold on. She blinks back fresh tears as she folds his stationery back into fourths, and puts the paper safely in her pocket. Hold on.
A tinny, garbled voice echoes out over the loudspeaker as the train races down the tracks toward its destination.
“Next stop, Lexington and Fifty Third.”
Alone in his flat, Lane paces the length of the living room, first one way towards the windows, and then the other way towards the door.
She’s not coming yet she’s definitely not coming she hates you why the hell would you ever do this to yourself
He forces himself to stop and shut his eyes.
Joan doesn’t hate you. That’s a lie. She is your friend and she likes you.
Expelling a deep breath, Lane resumes his pacing again. He’s still not sure if she’ll come by today. Why the hell did he tell her she could take the weekend to reply? What in god’s name is wrong with him?
Because you didn’t want her to feel rushed. You’d rather get a positive answer after several days than a bad one after an hour.
And now you have to wait clear through Sunday to find out if she wants you. Brilliant decision. Very well done, you absolute imbecile.
He can’t call Lewis or Myra again. Lewis probably isn’t even awake yet, and Myra’s likely off with some patient.
Oh, damn it.
In desperation, Lane pulls out his journal from his pocket, and flips to the second most recent page. He’d copied the letter he wrote into it, as well, but that’s not what he wants to see at the moment.
What he wants – what he needs – is to see Joan and hear her voice, and looking at her handwriting is as close as he’s going to get at the moment.
Letting out a sigh, he lets himself linger over her miniature entry, with its beautiful calligraphic bubbles and points, and the little grouping of hearts she’d doodled in the left hand margin.
“What are you writing?”
She lifts the notebook up so he can only see the back cover and a bit of the spine, instead of the top of the pages. “It’s a secret.”
“I see.” He lets his hands tap out a beat against her waist as she continues writing. “Well, do censor it once you’re done.”
“Okay.” She taps the cap of the pen against her mouth, thoughtfully, before resuming her writing.
“Don’t take up the whole page.” He tries to seem stern, but the playacting doesn’t land at all. Mostly because he’s smiling too much. “I’ve still got to use this, you know.”
“Shush.” She flicks the pen nib in his direction with a sniff of amusement. “I’m gonna draw on you if you don’t let me finish.”
“Heaven forbid,” Lane says dryly, but he goes quiet anyway.
Joan writes a few more notations, then pauses for a long time, and purses her lips in order to blow air onto the page. She’s drying the ink, Lane realises. Mainly he just observes how beautifully kissable her mouth looks from this angle.
“You’re staring at my mouth,” she says after she’s exhaled two more deep breaths, and tests the ink with the tip of her finger.
“Never.” Lane shakes his head. “Just your lipstick.”
Joan snorts out a laugh, then brightens.
“Wanna know what it’s called?”
He arches an eyebrow.
She scrunches up her nose as she grins at him. “Cherries In The Snow.”
“Well, write that down, too.” Lane tells her with a wink. “Case I need to know what color’s all over my shirt.”
She lets out a deep belly laugh, and drops her forehead to his chest for a few seconds before pulling her head up, righting his notebook, and bringing the page up to her mouth for a quick kiss.
“There,” she says primly. “Now it’s all on the record.”
“All right. Let me see it.”
Once she’s turned it around, and handed the diary off to him, he’s not able to read it very well. It’s still a bit too dark, and honestly, his head is beginning to throb from the lack of sleep.
Even so, Lane’s able to pick out most of the highlights, since Joan’s commentary is relatively brief. Below the date and time is her entry:
Tonight, I got totally blitzed during my client dinner and came to see you at the office. Why you were working this late is beyond me.
“Charming,” Lane drawls. “So glad to have this in the minutes.”
You and I ate Chinese food and horsed around the whole office. (Unless someone else is reading this, in which case, it wasn’t us!) We found erotic drawings of former coworkers, went target shooting in the empty floor upstairs, played baseball around the conference room using the sofa cushions as the bases (I won), and listened to records. You made us a pillow fort in your office. And I kissed you.
Next to the paragraph was her lipstick print, pink as could be.
“Well, I like everything you’ve put down so far,” he finally tells her. “Especially this kissing business.”
She’s already groping at his arm so he’ll hand her back the diary. “Wait. Here. One more thing, and then you can write something.”
Mock-grudgingly, he hands it over. She scribbles a few more words down with a flourish, and then gives it back to him.
Lane squints at her handwriting, and brings the book closer to his face. Sadly, he can read the capital C, and that’s it.
“Too small. Can’t make it out.”
Joan just snorts, grabs the diary, and tosses it a foot or so to her left. “Well, whatever. Read it later.”
Absentmindedly, Lane taps the open page with two fingers. A fresh wave of hope surges in his chest as he scans the caption below her lipstick print.
Cherries in the Snow for my favorite person. XOXO
Why did she ever think taking the subway was a good idea?
Electrical work down the line meant she had to get off at Lexington. By the time Joan staggers up from the platform and back onto the street, the wind is whipping so hard it’s practically snowing sideways. Luck is with her, though, and she’s able to snag a taxi that’s just dropped someone else off.
As she tries to warm herself under the hiss of the car heater, every part of the last eleven months hits her at once, and a high-pitched sob claws its way out of her throat. Several hot tears drop to her lap, but thankfully, she gets herself under control before she loses her head completely. All she needs to do is dry her eyes.
Lane will worry once he sees she’s been crying.
Opening her purse to pull out her handkerchief, and avoiding the cabbie’s resigned gaze in the rearview mirror, Joan pushes aside a comb and her lipstick before her hand closes around the square of cotton.
When she pulls this out of her purse, the knot of tears in her throat suddenly dissolves into a sharp, hysterical laugh.
It’s dark red with a neat border of two white stripes, and technically, it’s not even hers at all. This is Lane’s handkerchief – a pocket square, really.
Why the hell does she have this? How long has she had it?
Joan swipes at her face in a distracted way, still giggling to herself, and balls that stupid scrap of fabric in one hand until her knuckles turn white. Jesus Christ. How has she not known all along?
She’s in love with him.
The cabbie is still looking at her. “You okay back there?”
“Yes.” Joan sniffs loudly, bites down on another laugh. “Please just hurry.”
As they speed toward Sutton Place, she closes her eyes and thinks of the paper that’s burning a hole in her pocket, about February and hospitals and tears and laughs and everything in between. Pictures his messy scrawl and imagines him scribbling away in a diner after lunch or in a doctor’s waiting room or at his kitchen table, frowning down at the page through thick NHS glasses.
She tosses the handkerchief in her lap and pulls out the letter so she can read it again, smoothing her fingers over the sharp creases as her eyes fly over the page.
Tell me that this chance has not slipped through our fingers, and that your sweet feelings are just as they were the other night.
A rational man ought not ask for more than your friendship, but it is impossible to pretend that I love or admire or want you any less—I cannot!
Even when I was wretched and weak, you stayed by my side, and proved your dear nature beyond measure. You became a beacon for me in the darkest places, and now our bond is more precious than I can ever say.
By offering up my heart and affections, I hope to show you even a fraction of the tender warmth you have brought into my life.
Lovely dearest one. You deserve everything good in the world.
If such a hope is not impossible—if for a moment you return these feelings—then, my darling, come to me at once. One word or look will make me yours, for as long as you will have me.
The cab slows to a stop; Joan looks up and notices the fourteen-story limestone and brick building is practically towering over her window, although the falling snow is so thick it obscures the slate grey portico covering the lobby doors.
Quickly, she puts Lane’s letter back into her pocket, pushes a few dollars at the driver, and clambers out of the car before anyone can help her. She barely stops to thank Lazlo the doorman as he holds the front door open.
“Hello, Mrs. Harris,” he calls out as she passes.
Striding through the second set of double doors without looking, Joan nearly collides with another woman who’s pushing a worn-looking pram through across the black and white marble-tiled lobby.
One wet foot skids under her, and she does fall this time, sitting down hard on unyielding cold ground while the young mother and baby roll past her, serene.
Damn black pumps! Joan pushes up from the floor, yanks her heels off one by one, and stalks over to the elevator with as much dignity as her raw nerves allow.
She slaps at the button with one gloved hand, but the only thing that greets her in return is the hum of the car as it moves up or down.
After a few seconds, and a whole lot of nothing, her impatience gets the better of her; she veers right through the nearest hallway door, towards the plush carpeted stairwell. Walking will be faster.
By the time Joan bursts onto the fourth floor landing, she’s breathless, and in no time at all she’s standing in front of 4B with her heart in her throat and her heels gripped in her free hand, pounding on the front door like a maniac.
Bam bam bam bam
She has maybe ten seconds alone in the hallway before the front door bursts open, and suddenly Lane’s there. He hasn’t even changed out of his suit yet; the white collared shirt he wore this morning still has a dot of mustard on it from lunch, and his trousers are rumpled from an afternoon spent hunched over the ledger. And there’s a smudge on the bottom right lens of his glasses. He always pushes them up with one knuckle and gets fingerprints all over the edges.
“Dear god,” he blurts first, eyes widening.
Joan wants to hug him and never let go. Windblown and drenched, missing a glove, and all with mascara smudges under her eyes. She must look like an insane raccoon.
“Hi,” she manages to gasp out, steadying herself against the wall with one hand, and dropping her shoes by reflex. The patent heels clatter softly to the welcome mat. “Um, I lost a glove. And I have your handkerchief.”
His mouth opens and closes soundlessly as she pulls the cloth out of her pocket and waves it in front of him, practically under his nose. But he doesn’t even seem to notice; he just keeps glancing from her face down to her stocking feet, mouth still open, clearly bewildered.
“You—you’re not wearing shoes.”
Why is his confusion so adorable?
“I know.” Joan stumbles forward on jelly legs and throws her arms around his neck with a whimper; that prickly hysterical feeling brims up again, almost choking her. “But I had to see you—Lane, I just—I love—”
Her voice dies in her throat, and she puts a hand to her mouth.
“It’s all right. You’re here.” He sucks in a breath as he wraps her in a bone-crushing hug. She grabs the back of his shirt in two fists as he presses his palms to the nape of her neck and her hair and her shoulders, still babbling. “God. You’re really here.”
“Yeah.” Joan closes her eyes and lets the tears fall this time. “Yeah, I am.”