When the buzzer sounds at my door, I know exactly who is on the other side without asking. Who else would it be at this hour, so shortly after my own arrival home? Memories of the utter humiliation I’d just experienced at his hands flashes through my mind. First, this morning, when he’d gone chasing after that blonde, abandoning me with Caroline Welles, our client, to make his excuses for him. I thought I’d made my opinion clear on such antics as we’d dined with Caroline and her husband, Herbert.
“And when Mr. Steele sees something that attracts his attention, he won't hesitate to track it down, will you sir?"
Criticism cloaked as a professional explanation, wrapped up in a saccharine coating. Caroline took it as such, thank God, and the quick look he’d given me said my point had been made, uncomfortably so. Or so I’d thought, until he’d done it the second time at Club 10 that evening, leaving Herbert Welles looking upon me with pity in his eyes as we watched from the dance floor while he chased that blonde again. It had been enough. More than enough!
I’ve never told him he couldn’t have his flings. After all, he’s a grown man with needs. Needs I’ve still not fulfilled. So, if he can’t keep it in his pants while we try to figure out what exactly it is we want from our personal relationship, more power to him. I have no hold on him, no claim to him. The only request I have ever made, unspoken yet I believed understood, was that he use discretion. Not to flaunt his affairs in my face. It’s one thing to climb into your empty bed at night suspecting his is not equally as lonely and quite another to know it’s not… and to have a face to attach to those images of him doing to another woman what you want him to be doing with you.
I pull open the door. Surprise, surprise. Mr. Steele. Standing there in all his glory. Tie gone, the first couple of buttons of his shirt undone. Looking contrite, nervous, as though he’s about to walk straight into the lion’s den. Good. I’ve never refused him the opportunity to present the reasons for his actions, but as far as I’m concerned, this is indefensible. I tell him as much.
"What did you expect me to do, spend the evening looking at the back of your head? It happened in the museum. That was alright. Now it's happened again. Watching you with that blonde is not my idea of a rollicking night out."
The utterly defeated pose he takes is not at all what I expected. Sitting, bent forward, shoulders slumped head down. Nor is the story he tells me. A woman, an unimaginable loss, him suffering in the aftermath. Unsure if I’ll believe him, or if he’ll simply sound like he’s gone mad. I may be angry, but I’m not heartless. Especially when it comes to him.
I mentally sigh. It’s often a point of frustration with myself, this instinct of mine to protect him, body and heart, despite how many times he’s tried to pull a fast one on me, has let me down. Maybe it’s because I am dumbstruck by his resilience. In spite of being abandoned time and again as a child, his life on the shady side of the street as an adult, he still has one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever known, a gentleness about him that lures me in like a moth to the flame. Then again, maybe it’s simply that contrary to what my commonsense screams at me daily, I’ve somehow allowed myself to fall in love with him. His past, his secrets and his candid admissions he cannot promise to stay, be damned.
I force myself back to the here and now. He’s talking again.
“Thank you.” The words catch me unprepared and my eyes widen. Amazingly, I sound perfectly composed when I speak.
“For what?” I ask. He stands and walks slowly towards me. I can’t take my eyes off him as he approaches, enraptured by the profound gratitude I see in his eyes, on his face, that I’ve not sent him off to suffer his sins, but have instead offered absolution. Sometimes, I even surprise myself.
He reaches for me, cupping my face in his hands, and drawing my lips up to meet his as he bends his head downward. When he releases my face and he wraps one arm around my shoulder, another around my waist, I press against him willingly. The kiss is breathtaking in its tenderness. It’s the type of kiss that leaves your heart pounding and turns your mind to mush. The type of kiss that when his lips part yours, you lean in, silently asking for more. I do just that, and he obliges, always grateful for those moments when I willingly offer some small part of myself to him. I press even closer to him and his embrace tightens. He dares to touch the tip of his tongue to my lips. This is where, nine times out of ten, I pull away, put distance between us. Instead, I hum softly as I open to him, then allow myself to savor his rich, spicy taste as his tongue traces my teeth, then does an elegant dance with my own. I feel the proof of his arousal against my stomach before he shifts his hips, always the gentleman.
Then again, maybe he’s simply afraid such an evident sign will send me running for the hills. Actually, it thrills me to know I can do this to him. I’m not exactly his ‘standard’. Maybe all those trashy novels I read are correct: when a rake is considering settling down, it is often at the hand of a woman who goes against his norm.
I stiffen, my own thoughts shaking me. Settle down? Where in the hell did that come from? He’s been honest from the beginning: neither promises to stay nor of a future. It is the crux of our largest problem. But he’s stayed. For more nearly two years, he’s stayed, and I’m not under the impression he plans to take off tomorrow. That has to count for something. Doesn’t it?
He must have noticed my sudden tension or that I was caught up in my own thoughts. Maybe both, for he ends the kiss, but not wishing to lose all contact, pulls me into his embrace. I lean back and look at his face, find the reluctant acceptance in his eyes that is always there when I back away. But the strain around his eyes, the way his eyes dart away from mine before he buries his face in the crook of my neck, speaks of his vulnerability.
And it is my undoing. I have developed zero intolerance for his vulnerability. It breaks down all my carefully constructed walls and goes straight to my heart.
I remember the night, sixth months earlier, after my house was bombed. I’d lost Bernice and Murphy in the months before, had no family nearby to offer me solace. I needed, desperately almost, to feel fully connected to someone. All the reasons for not crossing that line of the bedroom door were conveniently absent.
“Tonight, if you asked, I don’t think I could say no.”
It was one of those times I was reminded what a truly good man he is, underneath all his quips and the devil-may-care attitude. I’d offered up what he’d wanted for the last year, and he turned me down. Chivalry, I’d thought to myself that night as I lay alone on the couch. As much as he wanted me in his bed, he wouldn’t take advantage of a moment of despondency. There was simply too great a risk for morning after regrets.
I have wanted him since he walked into the office at Ben Pierson. With his blue eyes and dark hair, the slim frame that made anything he wore from jeans to a tuxedo look fabulous. It had only been a matter of weeks before I wanted to know the man beneath all the masks, somewhere between the magnum of champagne and his championing a former heroin addict in the morgue. He was a mystery I wanted to unravel, both in and out of bed. The year and a half in between had only served to make me want him all the more.
I could do this for him, for us. I ache to take him in my arms, kiss him, caress him, until his eyes fill with the mischievousness and good humor that is normally there. The only thing that’s stopping me is me.
For once, I decide to get out of my own way.