Lane steps through the revolving doors and into the bright sunshine with a slight wince, bringing up a hand to shield his eyes as he walks past the front doors and toward the right hand corner of the building. Here, a red-haired woman in an aqua suit stands a few feet from the stone foundations, smoking a cigarette and staring out at the passing pedestrians along the street.
“You—saw my note, I suppose,” he said in greeting, and she turned to glance at him, a half-smile coming to her face.
“We really couldn’t have met at reception?”
He lets out a sigh. “I suppose we could have, only I had to slip away.”
Joan exhales smoke in a long breath, practically grinning now. “Can’t imagine why.”
Lewis has been here for nearly a week, and – so far – has made no mention of leaving. He’s tagged along to the agency too many mornings to count, and to lunch with Myra, as well, and when he’s not doing either of those things, he’s at home, making inane conversation, controlling the television channels, and telling Lane an array of horrible jokes.
“He’s not still staying with you, is he?”
Lane makes an unhappy noise. “Don’t remind me.”
Supposedly his brother’s got a room in some horrid hotel, but Lane has yet to see the man leave the flat in search of anything other than the nearest pub. And his suitcase keeps turning up in the oddest places—and there’s always food strewn all over the kitchen!
“Well,” Joan drops her cigarette onto the pavement, crushing it under the toe of her elegant black pump. “I’m sure he’s managing to distract himself.”
Lane groans again, briefly putting a hand to his eyes in a frustrated gesture. “Oh, god. Let’s just—walk before he finds out where we’ve got to.”
Two people: a young man and young woman, are standing nearly a foot away from Lewis, where he sits idly at the round table in the office lounge.
“Okay. There’s Italian, or Chinese—”
“Stanley,” says the little lesbian, wearing slim trousers, a colorful blouse, and a blazer, with her dark hair hanging down her back in a severe ponytail, “for the thousandth time: pick a place before I starve to death.”
“I thought you said you wanted sandwiches,” grumbles the coltish boy from his slumped position on the sofa—Lewis always remembers him as a bit manic, skittish, even. “We said sandwiches.”
“If we’re not gonna pick a place, then I’m going to go talk to the new girl.”
“Not your type, I think,” Lewis says loudly, keeping his voice innocent.
The young woman glances toward him—he’s still thumbing through a worn copy of Advertising Age—and then back to her companions with a frown.
“Who the hell is this?”
“Lane’s brother,” Stanley says with a snort. “Don’t ask.”
Lewis extends a hand, but doesn’t get up. “Lewis Pryce.”
“Joyce Ramsay,” she says, squeezing his hand tightly as she shakes it.
God. The butch ones are always trying to prove themselves.
Her mouth purses in amusement the moment she lets go of his hand. Like recognizes like, he supposes, but she says nothing apart from:
“One of these days, she’s gonna warm up to me for real, and Stanley here is going to owe me fifteen dollars.”
“Uh. We said ten,” the scruffy man interjects, with good humor. “And she hates talking to you.”
“Please. I think I know how to read my audience.”
“Ah,” Lewis pulls a sympathetic face, “the little dyke’s upset because she can’t get noticed.”
The manic chap, who had been staring off into the distance, jerks his head round. An alarmed look crosses his features.
“Did you just—”
The young woman waves away her friend’s concern with a scoff. “We’re not across the pond, asshole. Queen doesn’t get the last word here.”
Lewis can’t help smiling. Got a bit of gumption to her, then. He admires that. “Well, I’m only being honest, dear. She’s never going to look twice at you.”
“God, you’re such a smug little—”
“Anyway,” her bearded friend interrupts, and lets out a long sigh, like he’s only been waiting for the conversation to lull. “We going to Moretti’s, or what?”
“Yeah. Get off your ass.” The young woman gestures toward the door.
Stanley indicates she should lead the way. “Come on.”
The three young ones begin to gather up their things.
“Wait,” the manic chap blurts, glancing toward the creative office. “Let me get my coat. It was raining before.”
“Jesus. Ginsberg, we’ll meet you at the elevator!” the bearded chap calls.
He begins to amble toward the main exit, mumbling something under his breath.
“Hey, Oscar Wilde.” The young woman turns to Lewis with an expectant look, “you coming, or what?”
Lewis blinks, but recovers quickly, straightening his jacket as he stands. “Well, I could do. If you’re quite certain.”
She makes a derisive noise. “Well, I passed Lane and Joan getting in the elevator on the way down. You’ve been ditched.”
Lane puts his key in his door, and gets it unlocked, opened, and fully closed behind him before realizing that his hallway is cluttered with things. There are three small cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other, sitting a few feet from the door.
“What on earth—?”
“Oh,” Lewis, dressed in trousers, a waistcoat, and a cuffed shirt, is carrying a small box into the foyer. What the hell has he got in there? “Hello.”
Lane tries to hang his coat on the rack and ends up accidentally dropping it onto the carpeted floor, along with his hat. “What are you doing?”
His brother sets the last box on top of the others, straightening up with a huff of breath. “You mentioned last night these were getting in the way. Thought it high time you were rid of the lot.”
“When did I—”
Lane glances back toward his briefcase, which is now lying on its side on the carpet, and then toward the nearest box, sitting a few feet in front of him. He takes a few steps forward, flipping up the flimsy top to reveal the contents: large, heavy round pieces wrapped in sheets of old newspaper. When he unwraps one of these, halfheartedly, the paper rips down one side to reveal part of a white china plate with a blue fleur-de-lis border.
Oh. The china. He doesn’t remember saying that the set was in the way or that he didn’t want it, but it’s just been sitting in the display cabinet in the sitting room for months, gathering dust. If Lewis wants to take the trouble to box it up, then that is—his affair. Better he stay occupied with some stupid project than to be bothering everyone else with other nonsense.
Lane clears his throat, somehow not wanting to think about the plates getting broken in storage, or thrown in the bin by some careless buyer. Becca had taken such pains with them over the years.
“You’re not just going to – what shall you do with them?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Lewis lets out a snort. “Send them back.”
Lane can’t even work up enough outrage to argue with this idea. There’s no use in it. Rebecca will likely find fault with the gesture, no matter if the entire set arrives on her doorstep without so much as a mark.
“Silver’s hers, too,” is all he says, letting out a sigh.
Lewis raises an eyebrow. “Well, well. You have got around.”
“No, it’s her grandmother’s. Wedding present, or something.”
It’s a miracle Lane remembers this, but in the early days, Rebecca reminded him of that particular fact every time they made so much as a cup of tea. Careful, darling, please be careful.
His brother holds out a large empty box toward Lane with only one hand. “Look here, if there’s anything else of hers still in your room – clothes or…woman’s things – put them in here, and I shall send those, too.”
“Ugh,” Lane winces at the phrase woman’s things. “Honestly.”
He doesn’t want to do any of that right now. All he can think about is getting his jacket and shoes off and perhaps having a lie-down.
“Little brother. Has your arm broken?”
Lane takes the proffered box from the other man with a huff of breath, deciding, as he walks down the carpeted hall, that he’s just going to keep to his room for the next few hours.
His bedroom is blessedly quiet, and with the door closed, it’s easy to pretend no-one else is in the flat. But it’s only after Lane’s sat down to remove his shoes and jacket, and is walking towards the bureau in search of a sleeveless jumper when he suddenly feels compelled to open one of the drawers on the left side – her side.
He can’t remember the last time he opened any of them – perhaps it was when she first went away, perhaps it was never – but curiosity is tugging at him again, insistent. You’ve got to know what she left behind. You’ve got to look.
Lane pulls open the top drawer – the smallest one. It’s completely empty. He thinks that may have been where she had all her jewelry.
Heartened by this fact, or perhaps a little disappointed, he reaches for the handle of the second drawer. It’s a proper size, and has a few small tokens inside – a couple of mismatched stockings and a small pile of thin handkerchiefs. Lane reaches inside, unfolds one of them; it’s a little lacy thing, impractical. He wonders why she wouldn’t have taken it; it’s so small.
Underneath this pile, the corner of an envelope peeks out from underneath a blue handkerchief – some little notion, Lane supposes. He actually remembers what these were meant for: scent to keep the clothes fresh, although he can’t smell anything perfumed at this point. Perhaps it’s gone off.
Lane reaches for the sachet, gripping the corner between his finger and thumb, but once he pulls it from the drawer and gets a good look at the face of the envelope, he realizes it’s not decorative at all.
It’s a letter.
Joan pushes open the door to Lane's office only to find a man stretched out fast asleep on the sofa, his face and shoulders covered by an open newspaper. It crinkles faintly as he breathes, in and out.
She looks toward the desk. Lane sits in his usual chair, frowning at what must be his brother's sleeping figure, and meets her incredulous look with a sigh, holding up his pencil and aiming the eraser toward Lewis' head, like he's ready to hurl it across the room.
“Do you think it might work?" A smile plays around his lips. Joan shuts the door carefully and goes to sit down opposite Lane's desk, setting her pile of work in her lap and pushing a single thick folder in his direction.
“Use this. It'll fly through that newspaper.”
Lane chuckles, as if he’s imagining the result, but when he flips open the folder Joan’s handed him, he studies the quarterly statement for several seconds before looking up with a sigh.
“I don't much feel like going through these, to be honest.”
Joan snorts out an amused noise, knowing exactly what he means. Quarter two is usually quiet at first, and there's nothing exciting in this writeup. Gains and losses are holding steady, not to mention that they haven't picked up a new client in three weeks. It’s a dry spell—probably the longest in two years.
“Well, if we're playing hooky, where do you want to start?”
Lane makes a noise that indicates he's thinking, and flips the folder shut. After a moment, he looks appraisingly at the drink tray, then back to Joan. “Care for one?”
“At twelve-thirty?” She glances at her watch, and pretends to disapprove, but in response to his disappointed expression, which plainly says spoilsport, she lets herself smile. “Maybe a little gin.”
He grins, gets to his feet, and moves to pour the drinks, taking out two glasses and putting in two ice cubes, then uncapping the nearest bottle and pouring a small measure of liquor into each. When he returns, he sets Joan's drink across from her, then sits down, taking a sip of his own drink and putting his glass aside.
“What have you been up to this morning?”
One corner of her mouth quirks up into a smile. “Ken roped me into a client dinner with Ed Baxter, three weeks from now. You’re welcome to join us.”
Lane pulls a face that practically screams no. Joan laughs again.
“A multi-million dollar company, and Ken’s worried about the cost of one campaign. He doesn’t want to ruffle his father-in-law too much, so it falls to me. I’ve already drawn up a provisional budget.”
“Which one is Baxter?”
“His father-in-law. Leather-bound.” Joan takes a drink, gesturing to her face with her free palm. “You know, orange?”
It takes a second for him to get that, but once it lands, he grins. “Ah.”
They chat comfortably for a little while. Joan shares a few stories about Kevin, who’s talking up a storm and running her mother ragged, but it’s not until Lane gulps down the rest of his drink that he admits why he must have been so eager to talk about something other than work.
“Have I—mentioned this new business with Rebecca?”
Joan takes another sip of her drink. Oh, god. “She didn't call you, did she?”
Lane's eyes widen. “No, nothing like that. Only—” he’s speaking very slowly “—to be honest, when she went away, she left some of her things in the flat. I, erm, never got round to rearranging.”
She raises her eyebrows. “I'm surprised you didn't throw them out.”
Lane gives her a mildly disappointed look over the top of his glasses, which just makes Joan smirk.
“Greg used to have a baseball card collection. I sent it down the trash chute the day we separated.”
When he speaks, he sounds a little tickled by that fact. “Well, I wasn't going to go thatroute, but someone,” he inclines his head behind her, toward the sleeping form of his brother, “decided to make the lot a kind of, erm, pet project. Keeps saying we ought to send it back.”
“We're not talking about furniture, are we?” Joan traces over the rim of her glass with one finger in an idle gesture. “What did she leave?”
He shakes his head.
“It's—well, some of it's silly, you know. Trinkets. Books. But there's a set of china—and the silver. Her grandmother's.”
Lifting one hand in a shrug as if to say I don't know what to do about that.
Joan takes another gulp of her drink.
“She also—there was something I found.” Lane stares down at the top of his desk as he says it. “Not meant for me, but it was—well, I'll just show you.”
He reaches inside his jacket pocket and produces a letter whose envelope is ripped at the top right corner, thin and stained with wear, as if it's been handled often. It looks ancient, though it can't be more than thirty years old. Lane turns it over in his hands for a moment before pushing it across the desk.
“It's from the war.”
As if this explains everything. Joan looks over the face of the small, worn envelope. The address and name – Miss Rebecca Winters – are scrawled in a thin, slanted black script she doesn’t recognize, and the envelope is covered with faded postal marks. Royal Mail.
It looks like it’s from a soldier – probably a love letter. Joan glances back at Lane, trying not to sound as curious as she feels. “Did you read it?”
He nods, and she picks up the envelope, taking his yes as tacit permission to open it. Her fingers are rough against the delicate paper as she carefully unfolds the letter, and clears her throat, reading aloud at first.
“My dearest darling: as I sit here tonight I am thinking of you so terribly much.” She snorts out an amused noise. It’s a little cheesy. ‘The desert is just rotten. Sand everywhere. Let’s get back to the old days, darling, soon as this war is over – ”
She reads a little further, silently, and gets as far as I want nothing more than to see you again. I want to be in the back garden, I want to hear your lovely sighs before setting it back onto Lane’s desk with another little huff of amusement. Soldiers are all the same.
“Nineteen forty-one,” he says first, gruffly.
Joan’s not sure what he’s trying to point out. That would be years before he and Rebecca met, at least—she remembers that much. “Were they engaged?”
Lane rubs a hand over the back of his head, putting the letter back into his jacket pocket. “I honestly don't know. Poor chap never came back, far as I'm aware.” He sighs loudly, now fiddling with a pencil on his desk. “What do you think?”
Joan almost chokes on the last gulp of her gin.
“About your ex-wife's dead lover?”
What exactly are you asking, she wants to say, but decides to phrase it another way. “What bothers you most about it? Besides the fact that she kept it?”
An audible snore sounds from behind her, in the sofa’s direction. Lane rolls his eyes, but seems as if he's trying to ignore the interruption, and after a long pause, he finally speaks. His voice is quiet.
“The night she, erm, left, she told me I never knew—what she wanted.”
Oh, god, that’s awful. Joan wants to say a few choice words, but forces herself to stay quiet. She shouldn’t interrupt his train of thought.
“I don't know. I suppose—well, now I—wonder why she accepted me at all.”
There are other questions wrapped around this admission, truths he might not want to discuss – did she love me at all, did she even like me – but there's only one question that Joan feels she can ask without being too prurient.
“Do you regret marrying her?”
He stares at her, clearly stunned. She shrugs, offering a rationalization.
“I was miserable with Greg, but if it weren't for that relationship, I wouldn't have Kevin. I wouldn’t be here. I might not have any of this.”
Her admission seems to make Lane thoughtful. He considers her question for a long few seconds before speaking again.
“We both wanted Nigel. Or, well, children, you know.” He gives her a significant look that she can’t quite parse. Maybe they had trouble conceiving? “I think that’s why she—stayed so long. Thought he’d be, erm, better off, I suppose.”
Joan understands that rationale. If Kevin had been old enough to be attached to Greg, or if Greg hadn’t been a completely selfish bastard, she would probably have tried harder, too, before kicking him out. She would have tried everything. She did try everything.
“Had you separated before?” she asks, keeping her voice careful. “I thought things were up and down for a long time.”
Lane’s brow draws into a frown. “Oh. Erm, yes—can’t recall when, exactly, but I think it was several months, or a year, or something. She went back over.”
“I didn’t know that,” is all Joan says, her mind whirling with more questions. How long were you separated? Why didn’t you get divorced then? What made you get back together? Did you even want to? “I’m just surprised you got back together.”
“Well,” Lane sighs after a moment, but stops, looking apologetic. “Sorry. Not exactly the conversation you wanted, I dare say.”
Joan offers him a smile, and tries to be more reassuring. She’s glad he feels like he can confide in her. Honestly, she welcomes it. It feels normal.
“Don’t apologize,” she tells him, shaking her head. “If things between the two of you were that bleak, then she did you a favor by ending it, because you wouldn't have.”
She glances from Lane's surprised expression to her empty glass, realizing how sharp this must sound, and not wanting him to feel insulted. She isn't trying to be ugly. “All I’m saying is that you deserve to be with someone who really appreciates you, and now, with the divorce, you have the opportunity.”
As she’s speaking, she realizes she didn’t even bother to ask if he was interested in dating people again, and quickly amends her sentence, just in case. Maybe he’s not ready to be set up. Maybe he’d rather get used to being a bachelor first, keep getting his head together.
“If that’s something you want.”
Lane's obviously flustered by her comment, mouth slightly open as if he doesn't know what to say. He's trying not to stare at her, which isn’t working very well. She clears her throat again to break the awkward silence, gesturing to his glass.
“Need a refill?”
She probably shouldn't have one, given that she's getting sentimental, but stretching her legs seems like a good idea. She’s a little warm, as well. The air conditioning is turned down low, and without a breeze, it’s become almost stifling.
“I—think I will do. If you don’t mind.”
“I’ll even pour this time.” Joan collects the glasses, and walks quickly to the credenza. Before she even grabs for the bottle, her eye catches the silver pitcher of Lane's tea service sitting to her left, within arm's reach. A mischievous idea sparks to mind.
Calmly, she picks up the teapot's lid with two fingers, turns to get Lane's attention, and inclines her head toward the still-sleeping Lewis. Lane meets her eyes, plainly amused, and she puts one finger to her lips, miming that she's about to let the lid drop. He nods for her to go ahead, and puts a hand up to one ear.
The lid drops to the tile with an ear-splitting crash.
On the sofa, Lewis bolts upright, arms flailing, the paper still covering his face as he blurts, “Jesus bloody Christ!”
Turning quickly around, and pretending to be busy with the drinks, Joan shoots Lane a sly look, biting the inside of her cheek to keep a straight face. He’s covering his mouth to hide the fact that he’s laughing, but when he speaks he tries to pretend nothing's happened.
“Did that—wake you?”
He’s giggling so much he can barely choke out the words, but she’s glad he enjoyed their little prank. God knows they never get to have a little fun at someone else’s expense. Joan bends down, picks up the lid from the ground, and replaces it on the top of the teapot.
“Sorry,” she says lightly.
Lewis throws the newspaper pages aside with a crinkling noise, and gets to his feet with a growl, rubbing at his eyes with the palms of both hands.
The door clicks closed behind him as he leaves.
Lane laughs even harder, then, and tips one hand to Joan in a silent well done.
She inclines her head in a pretend bow – you're welcome – before taking the refreshed drinks back over to his desk.
“What are you staring at?” one of the secretaries asks, which causes Lewis to look up from the cuff of his left shirtsleeve. He’s still standing just outside Lane’s closed door, trying to process what he’s just overheard.
Lane held nothing back from her—and she encouraged him.
“Loose button, I’m afraid,” he answers, clearing his throat and giving the girl a sly smile, which feels forced around the eyes. “Shirt may be a bit younger than you. But not by much.”
The brunette giggles, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. “I doubt it.”
Lewis turns his attention back to his shirtsleeve, absently rubbing the side of his right thumb against the top button at his left wrist. It isn’t loose at all. Mark sewed the thing himself, ages ago, and pronounced it very sturdy. But Lewis is still shell-shocked by the conversation he’d just overheard – they’re in love, the pair of them, can they not see it? – and so on a whim, deciding this will further his ends, he reaches toward the secretary’s desk, grabs the handle of a pair of metal scissors sticking out from her standing pencil box, and snips the “loose” button clean off.
It falls to the floor and rolls against the heel of his shoe.
“Oh, my god, you didn’t need to do that!” the girl cries, looking horrified at his impulsiveness. “Caroline has thread in her desk; she could have fixed it.”
His retort is automatic, but lacks heart. “She’s likely too busy to deal with an old man like me.”
Caroline: older, he thinks, brunette, slightly dowdy. Perhaps she’ll have a bit of useful information. Battle-axes always know the stories of the old wars. She must know something about Joan, at least.
You deserve someone who appreciates you.
Was Joan telling Lane to make a play for her affections—that she could appreciate him better than Rebecca ever had? She told me I never knew what she wanted. Christ, if Lewis ever sees the hellcat again, he shall give the woman a piece of his mind.
“Oh, no, she wouldn’t mind. Mr. Sterling’s never in.”
Hm. A bored secretary tends to be a talkative one, especially if they’re the helpful type. “You wouldn’t mind taking me over to her, would you? Only I’ve still got everyone mixed up.”
Lewis smiles again at the young girl, very conscious of the way she preens under a bit of courtesy flirting. None of the other executives must bother paying attention to her.
“Oh, of course.” She quickly puts her typing pages aside. “It’s no problem at all. Come right this way.”
Fifteen minutes later, he sits in an extra chair, just behind Caroline’s desk, with his left arm extended over the tabletop, palm up, and her hands balancing against the sides of his wrist as she sews.
“Thread on this button-hole’s coming loose, which is probably what did it. We might have to roll your cuff back if you want that fixed.”
“You’re a dab hand, my darling,” Lewis prounounces as he watches her handiwork. Neat, tidy stitches have secured the end of the loose bit of thread as she continues to work. “Many thanks for tidying an old man up.”
The secretary just laughs, in a short nasal burst. “In this place, you’ve gotta be prepared. I even have a tourniquet in my desk.”
Hm. He supposes they’d need a few first-aid items, just in case.
As conversation lapses, Lewis turns to examine a few of the personal items on her desk. There’s two pictures: one of her and a stout balding chap – husband, he guesses – and one of a group of three young people all together by a sitting room window: her children, probably, judging by the look of the two girls. Possibly taken during a holiday, as one of them’s wearing a red party gown.
“How old are your children?” he asks, inclining his head toward the group picture, which is nearest his eye line. “Handsome bunch.”
“Oh, thank you. Well,” Caroline adjusts one side of his left shirtsleeve as she talks. “Ritchie’s my oldest, and he’ll be…thirty eight this year. Then there’s Millie, and my youngest, Patricia. She’s thirty two.” She smiles again. “I probably shouldn’t brag about their ages, huh?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry,” Lewis assures her. “All married with children of their own, I suppose?”
“Mm hm,” Caroline says. “Eight grandkids, altogether.”
“Blimey.” Lewis pulls a face. The prospect of so many brats sounds ghastly. The husbands must be on the wives constantly, poor girls.
“Are you married?” Caroline asks after a second, and the hesitation on her face would be funny if it wasn’t so earnest. “I noticed you don’t wear a ring.”
“Lifelong bachelor,” he replies with a smirk. “More fun that way.”
She frowns in a surprised way, as if she doesn’t know how to react to such a pronouncement, but doesn’t comment other than to say:
“Well, I hope you’re not out there breaking poor girls’ hearts.”
“Never,” Lewis says, with a little wink, and the secretary laughs.
A brief silence falls across the table, broken only by the distant bustle of chatter and typing and activity from the desks down the hall.
“You’re a little alike. You and Lane.”
Lewis raises an eyebrow, interested to hear what she means by this. He and Lane have always been like night and day as far as personalities were concerned.
“I mean, I didn’t know he had a brother,” she continues. “And you’re more outgoing. But I can see the resemblance.”
He snorts out an amused noise. “You certainly see more than most.”
“Well, believe me, we’re just glad he’s all right, after everything that happened. Heart attacks are serious.”
“Mm.” Lewis fights to keep his face impassive, and his voice light.
“Lane was—poorly,” Rebecca smoothed her gloved hands over the clean napkin in her lap, for what must have been the third time in five minutes. She had barely even touched her tea. The slightest smudge of nude lipstick grazed the rim of her cup. “That’s all.”
“Define poorly,” Lewis said flatly.
Her dark eyes met his, and then flicked away toward the other end of the café, as if she wanted to roll her eyes. “Exhaustion, I suppose. All he cared about was the business. What more could you possibly want to hear?”
That you loved him, Lewis thought sourly. That you were worried.
“So, I suppose you stopped speculating the moment you boarded the plane?”
Her mouth thinned.
“Well, he brought it on himself. He worked too much.” She removed her napkin from her lap, dabbed gingerly at one corner of her mouth, and then set it into a neat pile next to her silverware. “You must excuse me. I’ve another appointment.”
“I’m afraid I’m very busy—”
Lewis realizes he has no idea what the secretary’s just said.
Caroline stares at him as if he’s misheard the question. “I was just asking, did you get to visit? When he was in the hospital?”
“Oh,” Lewis plays this question off with the easiest excuse in the world. “Hard to get the time off, you know, not unless someone’s taken a real turn.”
She looks sympathetic. “I’m surprised Lane’s doctors didn’t ask you to come. The partners were worried.”
He feels his stomach drop with the implications, and clears his throat to mask the sudden tightness in his voice.
“Yes, well. They said everyone here had things well in hand.” Lewis pauses, wonders if he dares to ask the bold question. “He and Mrs. Harris seem to get along.”
Caroline’s smile lights up her face for half a second before she tempers it.
“Sorry to interrupt,” comes a third voice. Lewis looks over to see a young black secretary standing in front of Caroline’s desk. She’s pretty; with short hair and striking eyes, but her long plaid skirt, drab jacket, and muted blouse do nothing to compliment her figure, if she’s even got one under all that. Her eyes keep flicking towards in him in a way that suggests she heard what he’d said, and knows what he’s doing. She’s holding a few envelopes in one of her hands, which she quickly places into the older woman’s mail tray.
“These just came for Mr. Sterling.”
Solicitor’s bills, judging by the return address. Caroline does not seem fazed.
“Oh, thanks, honey.”
The young girl gives them a polite smile before she walks back to her desk. Her sensible heels barely make any noise at all.
“Well,” Caroline says, snipping off the last thread with a pair of small scissors, and releasing his arm from her grasp. “That should just about do it.”
Lewis flexes his wrist, experimentally, then rolls the sleeve cuff back into place. He forces cheer into his voice, although the end of the sewing means their time together has just been cut short. “Thank you for all your help.”
“Mr. Pryce?” came the call from the buzzer on Lane’s desk. “Mrs. Harris is here to see you.”
Lewis puts his magazine aside, and looks around the empty office, as if a second person is going to catch his eye and laugh at how this slip-up must have happened. After a moment, he gets to his feet with a bemused snort, walks over to his brother’s desk, and pushes the flashing button, which he assumes will answer the summons.
“I’m afraid my brother’s gone to lunch, dear girl—”
The door to the hall opens anyway, and here is Mrs. Harris, striding in slowly but purposefully, if Lewis is reading her correctly.
“No, she means you!” the secretary says brightly, from the hallway.
“Well, well,” Lewis spreads his hands in surrender, very intrigued, and watches as the woman in question closes the door behind her. “Mrs. Harris. What an unexpected pleasure.”
“I thought I might drop by and say hello,” she tells him first. There’s an insouciant quality to her voice as she speaks; that low purr, combined with the way her hips sway as she walks toward him, makes Lewis certain this has worked with stupider men. Or perhaps it’s just her way of assuming friendliness, that girls-gossiping tone he knows well from his years in the theatre. Either way, it’s something she plays to her advantage. He can’t help admiring the woman for knowing her own strengths.
“Now, that act may charm plenty of others,” Lewis can’t help smirking as he talks, “but not me, I’m afraid. You’ve come calling for a reason.”
For a moment, he can see her practiced smile widen into something more genuine, but the private amusement is gone in seconds. When she looks at him again, it’s without the film of that coquettish charm. Her eyes are clear and keen. She’s sizing him up.
“Well, if you’re incorruptible,” she draws out the word, either because she finds the idea funny or because she’s guessed at the truth, “you won’t mind if I stay.”
Lewis gestures toward the sofa, taking out his cigarette case. “By all means.”
She walks toward the sitting area but does not sit down, exactly, simply turns to face him as he’s walking closer, her hands folded in front of her skirt.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Her eyes follow his movements as he plucks a cigarette from the silver case. He almost laughs at her expectant look. Most of the young girls don’t demand this kind of attention from him. They prefer to light their own, these days.
He offers her the open case. She picks out a cigarette from the middle, puts it to her lips, and allows him to light it.
They sit down. Lewis perches on the far end of the sofa nearest the shared wall, with Mrs. Harris in the green chair nearest the doorway.
She taps her cigarette into the nearest ashtray, by her right hand, clearly waiting for him to break the silence.
He crosses one leg over the other, leaning back into the sofa cushions and watching her as she sits across from him, smoking idly.
“You aren’t at all what I expected, you know.”
A lift up of her chin, forward, aggressive. “What were you expecting?”
“Do you often interrogate strangers?”
“Why? Are you always this coy?”
“Mrs. Harris.” It’s an amused chastisement. “I’ve much better things to do than play the coquette.”
Her voice is all innocence. “I thought lifelong bachelors were good at that.”
Lewis does not miss the raised eyebrow that accompanies this remark, or the way her mouth twitches up in brief satisfaction. Oh, she is pleased with herself. Even Lane’s not been brave enough to pursue this line of conversation.
“Not as a herd,” he responds, which makes her huff out a breath through her nose. So, she’s a woman of the world—observant, has manners, but isn’t afraid to ask the impolite questions.
“Are you in love with my brother?” he asks.
Her eyes widen for a fraction of a second before she’s able to control herself. “Excuse me?”
The other man raises two eyebrows, pleased to have caught this much. “It’s a perfectly reasonable question.”
“Why are you here?” she asks flatly. He’s got under her skin with that one. Her voice has lost its once playful edge.
Lewis's eyes flick toward the desk, and land on the battered abacus to the left of the desk lamp. Perhaps the woman will be more forthcoming if he talks first.
“Last month, I saw Rebecca and Nigel in London, and the only piece of information she gave me regarding Lane was that he'd been unwell. She called it exhaustion.”
Mrs. Harris opens and then closes her mouth, pressing her lips together as if to keep from saying something she’ll regret.
The older man inclines his head in confirmation.
“You may imagine my confusion,” he continues, “when I heard one of your secretaries reference the cause of his leave as a heart attack.”
He produces the silver cigarette case from his jacket pocket again, turning it over in his hands for a moment before meeting her eyes.
“Of course, Lane's wife—”
“Ex-wife,” she corrects immediately.
Lewis clears his throat. “My apologies. I was going to say she may have her stories crossed.”
“She left.” The woman bites off each word. “Anything she's told you is irrelevant.”
“Joan,” the other man begins, and at her sharp look, immediately backpedals, “Mrs. Harris. If Lane was unwell, and he is divorced, something has gone very wrong. Now, it doesn't matter what Rebecca said. Frankly, Nigel was the one who brought it up. He was adamant I hear the truth.”
“So you just flew over here, expecting other people to fill you in? I know what you’ve been doing.”
He raises an eyebrow at her vehemence, but ignores the bait. “You have the entire story – the true story – at your disposal. All I’m asking is for you to tell me.”
Joan exhales out a jet of smoke. Her cigarette dangles between two fingers.
A clump of ash drops onto the floor, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
Her refusal actually takes him by surprise. “What.”
“No,” she repeats, and puts her cigarette aside for a moment. “I’m not telling you a damn thing.”
Lewis can’t help it—he starts laughing.
“That’s funny to you?” Her hands are shaking, although her words are steady with suppressed anger.
“Evidently.” He lifts one hand in a careless gesture, and decides to try again. “It’s a word I don’t hear often, to be perfectly honest. You know, I really do—”
“He doesn’t trust you,” she interrupts, then mimicks his nonchalant tone. “To be perfectly honest.”
Lewis stops laughing. His voice turns silken. “While it is touching to know Lane’s got a sort of—champion—you don’t get to determine what I’m able to hear about members of my own family.”
“Because you’ve been so devoted to him lately?”
He feels a spike of anger in his chest. “You have no idea what you’re—”
She talks over him, voice becoming high-pitched. “Feel free to keep pretending you have Lane’s best interests at heart, but nothing you say can change the fact that when he needed you most, you weren't here. I don't care how far you’ve traveled. I don't care that he’s your brother. You don’t deserve anything. You’re nobody.”
She reaches to her right, stubs out her cigarette with such force that the ashtray slides several inches across the tabletop, and rises to her feet.
“You want him to need you,” Lewis watches the woman stare at him as he says the words, “don’t you?”
A faint tinge of pink appears in her cheeks, but she stands her ground, and meets his eyes with a glare so fierce it’s as if she’s waiting for him to leap up and strike her. Go on, then, her thunderous expression says. I dare you.
“At least I don’t have to worry he’ll forget me.” Her eyes narrow almost imperceptibly after she says this, as if she’s given something away, but just as he notices the shift, it becomes guarded again—unreadable.
“Well, it’s selfishness either way, dear girl,” Lewis says lightly, breaking the established pattern in an attempt to keep himself calm. He forces himself not to clench his jaw—to remain unruffled. “I do hope that doesn’t bother you. I’m sure you have the clearest of intentions.”
She throws him a look of pure disgust. “Grow up.”
And with that, she strides to the door, opens it calmly, and leaves him alone in the room. From the hallway, he can hear Lane’s secretary rustling through papers at her desk, the swish-swish-swish noise echoing around and around in his ears.