Maybe derailed trains and bar brawls weren't the most glamourous of subjects to cover, but Joe Bradley was back in New York at last. Somebody up there was looking out for him. He had a steady gig at the Brooklyn Eagle, complete with a desk and a telephone and a press card to hang out of his coat pocket should the need ever arise. He typed up his little items of general interest and filched matches from the editor's desk, both of their feet kicked up as they lied to each other about all the generous and beautiful women they'd known.
Well, almost all of them.
This was who he was, now. A proper New York newspaperman again, even if it was in Brooklyn, with an apartment of his own. There was thick carpet in the bedroom and a fat little icebox humming in the corner of the kitchen. A real kitchen, too, with a sink and a stove and a table. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the view was terrible, of course, unless you were a red brick aficionado of the highest order. The smell when the damp crept up from the river was even worse. But all of it was his, even the can of beans heating in a little pan on the stove, and he liked it.
"I tell you, Irving, I'm glad to be back. Glad as hell. Sure, it's not everything I ever dreamed of, but it's mine, you see?"
"Yeah, I know, Joe. Of course, Rome's not the same without you, but it couldn't have happened to—"
Crackling overtook the line for a moment as a police siren raced by outside Joe's open window. He cradled the phone with his shoulder and tugged on the flaking sash to pull it closed. It jerked down a few inches before jamming with a loud squeal. The receiver clattered to the linoleum.
Joe swore and pulled on the window sash again. The weather had been so warm during the day that he'd taken off his coat on the street, but now it was reverting to New York City form, and quickly. A breeze stirred the leaves in the alley below and prickled the skin on the back of his neck. From the floor, Irving's voice was hollow and tinny, like he was shouting down an elevator shaft.
"—ou still there? I've only got a few more minutes. Francesca's waiting—"
"Hold on!" Joe yelled, giving the window one last pull that strained his shoulders before giving up and scooping the phone from the floor. "Look, if you've got places to be..."
"Just Mother's dinner table, and I'd rather stay here talking to you. What that woman does to a defenseless roast.... Listen, Joe, once Mother loosens her grip and we can get out of Chicago, I'm taking Francesca to see Washington and New York both. We'll only be in town for a few days but we'd love to see you. We sail out of New York on the eleventh and who knows when I'll be back on this side of the ocean. You should come out with me for a drink, like old times. Francesca, too, you haven't seen her since—" His voice trailed off awkwardly. In the background, Joe could hear faint music over the hum on the line. Both of the Mrs. Radoviches would be waiting with growing impatience for Irving to wrap up the call.
"It has been a while. Sure, I'll come out with you. I can give you the grand tour. In fact, why don't you stay with me? I have plenty of room. There's a whole extra bedroom I've barely even seen in this place."
"Hey, that'd be fine with me! But I should check with Francesca. After a week with my mother, you know."
"Well, let me give you my address. I'll leave the door on the latch during the day. If you do come, you can walk right in."
"Wait, I need a pen." Irving muffled the mouthpiece with his hand, but not enough that Joe didn't hear him shout, "Ma! MA!"
The doorbell rang. Joe picked up the phone and went to answer the door, kicking the phone cord out of his way, Irving still yelling in his ear.
A large man with a pale face and short dark hair stood in the hallway. At his feet was a crate of groceries. He held another at his hip.
"Sorry, I think you've got the wrong door."
"Mr. Joseph Bradley?" He sounded British, or near enough.
"Late of the Daily American and the Eighth Air Force?"
"Yes. What's this about?"
"Dinner, Mr Bradley," the man said, as though he were already bored with the whole proceedings. "Stand aside."
Joe responded to the command the way only a man who'd been surprised on his doorstep by a large man wielding produce would.
He stood aside.
The man lifted the second crate with his huge free hand and began marching down the hallway. "This way to the kitchen I presume?"
"Yes, through there—" Recollecting himself at last, Joe started after him. The door swung closed behind him. "Wait a minute! Just who do you think you are? You can't just barge in here and—"
"You invited me in, sir."
Joe lifted the receiver and told Irving, "Hold on. A strange man has just broken into my apartment."
"To do what?"
"To cook me dinner, I think."
From the kitchen, there was the low sound of someone trying not to curse aloud and the man reappeared in the hall. His expression was both irritated and disgusted. "Have you no cookware that doesn't look like it came out of an ash heap?"
"He's cooking you dinner? Doesn't sound like a bad bargain to me. What's he making?"
From the doorway, Joe watched as the man unpacked his crates: large lumps wrapped in white paper, a capped bottle of milk or cream, a brown-paper package made translucent in spots by oils, big bunches of leafy greens, large spongy brown mushrooms, bright carrots and tomatoes, papery onions, canisters and paper packets containing things he couldn't begin to guess at, a dark green bottle of wine, and a long loaf of soft white bread.
"Well, it's sure not Bradley's Bean Surprise," he told Irving.
In fact his battered little pan was sitting on the windowsill. The spoon he'd been using to stir his dinner stood upright in the rapidly congealing mass.
Joe tucked the phone under his chin. "Now, listen here, I think there's been some mistake. I'm Joe Bradley, but I didn't hire a cook and I don't know who you are."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr Bradley. I'm Alonzo Ware."
"Pleased to— Hey, no! Stop that. You're not staying."
Ware ignored him and continued adding things to a large pot Joe didn't remember seeing before.
"Did you hear me? I said to get out!"
"Maybe you should let him stay, Joe. It can't be worse than Bean Surprise."
"You mind your own business."
Joe took a step toward Ware but the man pulled a large knife. Joe stopped, ready to bash him with the heavy phone, but Ware calmly went about slicing open one of the white paper packages, revealing a large, beautifully marbled piece of beef. He cut it into even chunks and dropped it into a heavy-bottomed pan that had been heating at the back of the stove. The sounds and smells of sizzling meat instantly transformed the kitchen from Joe's coffee-stained pit stop to something almost magical.
His stomach growled. The hamburger and black coffee he'd bolted down for lunch were a dream he'd once had. "All right, maybe you can stay."
The doorbell rang again, followed by a heavy knock. Ware looked up from his labors. "You should answer that."
"Yeah, Joe," Irving said in his ear. "I'm paying a fortune for this call and it's getting a little dull."
The cord tried to wrap around Joe's ankles when he went back into the hall. He was still kicking himself free when he opened the door. Another dark-suited man stood there, with his fist upraised, halfway through knocking again. He didn't stop the motion in time and rapped Joe sharply on the chest.
"Hey!" Joe lifted the phone and shoved him back. The man stumbled sideways and Joe saw for the first time that someone was standing behind him: a woman, so tiny she barely reached the man's shoulders.
"Well, who is it?" Irving shouted from the receiver Joe had forgotten he was holding. All the air had rushed out of the apartment.
She smiled, her face creasing with delight. "Hello, Mr. Bradley."
He could hardly pull his mouth down out of its grin to say hello back. "You used to call me Joe," he said stupidly.
"And you called me Anya."
"Among other things."
The suited man behind her narrowed his eyes but otherwise made no reaction to anything they said.
"May I come in, Joe?"
"Would you mind moving out of the way, perhaps?"
"Would I? ... Oh, yes! Yes, come in!" Joe stepped back and waved her toward the front room that passed as both his living and dining rooms. His visitor giggled when the phone in his outstretched hand bonked against the wall. He looked at the phone like he couldn't remember what such a thing was, until his friend's voice shook him out of it.
"Irving, I have to go," Joe told him. His grin was probably visible from the sun. "Smitty's here."
The meal was excellent—easily one of the finest Joe had ever eaten on any continent, even considering its strange beginnings. The wine was velvety and expensive, washing the taste of the cheap whiskeys he preferred right out of his head. His apartment (hell, an entire fifteen-block radius) had likely never seen a finer guest than the crown princess who sat at the other end of his lopsided table, wrinkling her nose at the mushroom ragout and pouring the wine herself.
And the conversation, well...
"So, er. It was quite warm today, wasn't it?"
"Was it? I hardly had a chance to step outside until evening. They keep the UN offices quite cool."
"Yes, it was quite warm."
He could practically hear Irving's snickering from Chicago.
What on earth was she doing here? Anya—Smitty, here! Even after that long painful goodbye-that-wasn't, after the months it had taken him to work his way back to the States, he could still hardly think of her as the princess, heir to the crown of a tiny alpine country he'd never see. That woman belonged to a world he was happy to have only rubbed up against once in his lifetime. She told him she had spent the day meeting with dignitaries and diplomats, working to help craft a new agreement to develop children's aid programs in the developing world.
But Anya... The girl who had waded without thinking into the middle of a brawl when she should have fled, who had found such joy in nothing more than walking around a city with no particular schedule to follow. That girl he could believe was perched on a battered chair he'd saved from someone's rubbish pile and repaired with haphazard carpentry and a healthy dose of stubborn refusal.
"The meal was very good." He should just throw himself down the fire escape, put himself out of his misery.
"Yes, Alonzo is extremely talented."
"Is he?" At what, exactly?
"Yes, thank you." Maybe a little more alcohol would shake him out of this ridiculous fit of insanity.
Instead of reaching across the small table as she had before, this time the princess lifted the bottle and stood. She came to stand beside him. Her skirt drifted around her, a layered confection of thin fabric and embroidery, hardly the thing a girl would wear to dinner in his neighborhood.
"Have you lived here long?" she asked.
He looked around at the bare walls, the paint flaking from the windows he kept meaning to touch up. It took a minute to remember. "Since just before the new year, I think. The family who had it before me moved out to Long Island."
"Well, it's not much, but it's no elevator."
Her forehead wrinkled slightly as she tried to puzzle out his meaning.
"Long story." He stretched out in his seat, folding his hands behind his head and nudging his knee closer to her skirts. "So, tell me, Anya, how long have you been on this side of the Atlantic?"
"A fortnight. We arrived in Baltimore and visited the embassy in Washington before coming here. Of course, I'll be returning soon. I've already extended my trip as long as I could get away with."
How had he missed that she was in the country? He didn't expect that there should have been some new weight to the air around the city, though he still felt like he could hardly breathe when she laughed or brushed hair away from his face. But knowing things was his business, and knowing things about her was a compulsion.
"My grandparents are very anxious that I should come home soon, I think," she went on. "They don't say so, of course, but after last year—"
She stopped and covered her mouth for an instant.
"Were they very angry?"
"No. I thought they would be. They should have been." She shrugged. "But Grandfather merely asked if I'd enjoyed the Spanish Steps, and Grandmama told me how she toured the Colosseum as a girl. But I didn't come here to tell you about my grandparents, Joe!"
She squared her shoulders and walked to the tall narrow window that overlooked the brick wall of the next building. Pigeons would no doubt be dozing along the edge, as they did every evening, but there was nothing that she could possibly find interesting out there.
Joe swallowed the rest of his wine and sat back. He was loath to start asking real questions, lest the magic of her sudden appearance melt away into the early spring night.
"I suppose I should tell you why I did come."
"I certainly wouldn't mind."
"'Life isn't always what one likes', do you remember that? I think you said it to me, that night you found me. Or maybe I only dreamed it."
"I could have. I said a lot of things, not all of them things I like to remember."
Joe thought about it for a moment. He wasn't ashamed of his plan, the one he'd concocted when all he knew of her was a life of privilege and pampering. It had made sense at the time, and would again if by some miracle he were to find himself in the same position.
But it stopped making sense when he thought of the panic on her face in those few seconds when she had recognized him among the press in Rome, before he could reassure her, and again when Irving pretended to take one last snapshot with his hidden camera. When he thought of how swiftly she had masked her reaction so she didn't give anything away to the crowd around them. He was ashamed of it then.
"Maybe I like to think it was a dream, too."
She turned from the window, her skirts swirling around her again with a soft whisper. "Do you?"
"I'm so happy to hear it."
Joe cleared his throat. The cream sauce had been too thick, perhaps. "Is that why you came all this way?"
Anya twisted her hands together. "No."
"Then why have you come?"
"To... I wanted to work with the children's programs; there's so much to be done for them, and— It's time that I take on more responsibility. It's been decided, that is, I've decided that it's time I start thinking about—"
She stood her ground when Joe suddenly rose from his chair and towered over her. "No," he said, letting his voice turn serious, just a bit. "Not why are you here in America. Why are you here, in Brooklyn? I thought your kind didn't venture across the river."
He grinned. "Troublemakers."
"Oh!" He barely felt the hit she aimed at his upper arm. "If you must know, I came to repay you."
"Repay me? For what?"
"For the loan. I tried to repay you before I left Rome—Via Margutta, fifty-one, remember? I had the Countess make time in my schedule especially for that. But you weren't there, and your landlord didn't know where you'd gone."
Right into the nearest bottle was where he'd gone, along with Irving until Francesca had dragged them both back out again. That was hardly what Anya needed to hear, though.
"In any case, here." She reached into a pocket cleverly concealed in the folds of her skirt and pulled out a crumpled thousand-lira note. "It's about a dollar-fifty, I believe?"
"Or thereabouts. Thank you."
"So now I'm no longer in your debt, Joe Bradley."
"Were you ever?"
"Well, clearly I was. I travelled all this way to pay you back."
Somewhere in the building, someone was playing a piano, something sweet and lively. The sun sent its last rays to spill through the windows and turn the room a soft gold. Anya's cheeks were pink, with embarrassment or amusement, her lips still reddened from the wine. Joe couldn't stop his hand from reaching out to stroke the side of her face.
"All this way, for a dollar-fifty?"
She reached up and took his hand in hers. "I'll concede that perhaps it wasn't the only reason."
"It is an awfully long way to force a man to have dinner with you."
"Were you forced?"
"A little. How does one refuse a princess royal?"
"With great difficulty, surely."
"I have little doubt."
She looked away for a moment, tucking a stray curl behind her ear with her free hand. "It's rather a large apartment for just one man, isn't it?"
"Perhaps a little."
"Were you planning to fill it any time soon?"
He wasn't, but couldn't deny the idea grew more attractive the older he was.
"I hadn't thought much about it," he said.
"It's a lovely home," she said again, "but do you think you could be happy here?"
"Perhaps, in time...." He turned their hands so he could squeeze hers and moved close enough that the light perfume she wore tickled his nose. "I think perhaps I could. And you? Do you have an opinion on the matter?"
She moved into his arms without prompting, tilting her head back to look him directly in the eye.
"I have many opinions on many matters, Joe Bradley. I'd much rather demonstrate them, if you don't mind. Even... even if it takes a lifetime!"
It was tremendously difficult to refuse a princess royal, Joe learned.