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The Com'on Inn

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Chapter 1
Everything Zen? I Don't Think So.


Midway up the stairs, the ringing phone propelled Nicole up the stairs faster than her normal, pokey pace. Darting into her office, she dove for the phone, and managed to answer it before the machine before it clicked to voicemail. “Thank you for calling the Com'on Inn. How may I help you?” she gushed trying not to sound winded. She mentally noted to add stair master to her workout at the gym...


“Hi, I’m interested in getting information about your Bed and Breakfast.”


“Excellent! Have you already been to the website?" you ask.


"I'm sorry, no."


"Well, the Com'on Inn is like going on vacation and crashing at your friend's house. We not only want you to feel welcome, we want you to feel wanted. We're similar to a B&B but more casual, with a few perks. There are meal plans to choose from, plus privileges to local businesses like the gym and recreation center, which kids love. There are laundry facilities here, and discounts for other services in town and near by amusement parks. What else would you like to know?” Nicole sat down in the chair at her desk. She leaned back and gently rocked back and forth.


“Do you ever rent out the whole inn?”


“Absolutely. Usually in the high seasons, for obvious reasons.”


“And what’s the rate for that?’


“That would depend on the timing and number of people. When were you thinking?”


“Uhhh…” Nicole heard rustling in the background. “Looks like, mid September or later.”


“Well, that's the slow season here so you’re in luck there.” She rattled off the whole house rates.


“How flexible are the meal plan add-ons.”


“Very. If I can't make it myself, I'll go get it. I tried to make thinks as adaptable as possible.” She then gave him the rates for the various plans.


"You make all the meals, yourself?"


"Yep."


"Nice."


"Thank you. That's why it's so adaptable, and I can accommodate different diets."


She heard him murmuring to himself. “I like it. It comes in significantly under budget.”


“Is this a corporate booking?”


The man on the other end paused, “Ah, yes. Sort of. We'll be doing business in the area and are looking for lodging. Is your schedule open September 13 through October 31?”


“Let me check.” Nicole opened the calendar on her computer and scrolled through the dates. “You’re in luck, I’m open.”


“Can you hold on for a minute?” he asked. Nicole heard him cover the mouthpiece of the phone and muffled voices. She swished back and forth in her chair while waiting for the caller to come back. “Hello?” He asked.


“I’m here.”


“Let’s do this. It comes in under budget and is close to the site.”


“Great! How many people?”


“Just one.”


Nicole paused this time. “O.K.”


“And lets throw in the full meal plan.”


“No problem. Since there's only one person I'll give you a fair discount.”


“Sweet.”


They talked logistics such as, contracts and payments. Then, "Now," the voice on the other end started, "there are some special circumstances."


"OK." she leaned forward in her chair, felling mildly apprehensive.


"We need to try to keep our presence there under wraps. There also needs to be a significant amount of privacy. Hence renting the whole B&B."


"Of course. Everything is completely confidential."


"Good to hear. Also, people may be trying to find out about us being there. That means there may be calls and unwanted visits from people trying to find out information."


Nicole sat quietly for a moment while the man waited. "Is there any chance of violence?"


He chuckled. "No. Obnoxious, but not dangerous, not at all. Our client is...private. Can you handle that kind of safeguard?"


"Well, the inn isn't all that easy to find. We're in a residential area, but off into the hills a bit. Plus, there's a gate that's kept shut. The guests get a code to enter. Other than that, I never give out guest information."


"If we need to contact him, it will be mostly on their cell. In the remote chance we can't, we may need to call there, so he'll have a pseudonym."


"No problem." OK, this is weird, she though to herself.


"Great!" he said.


“So I’ll email you all the documentation including a questionnaire asking about food allergies, food preferences, general likes and dislikes.”


“Great!” he said again.


“So the name of the guest?” she asked.


“Benedict Cumberbatch.”


She smiled broadly, "Is that the fake name?"


"No."


She paused. What? she thought.  Evidently the pause lasted too long.


"Do I need to spell it for you?"


"Nope," she recovered quickly, "English father. This doesn't even trip my radar." Except that it's BENEDICT FREAKIN' CUMBERBATCH!


"And the pseudonym?"


"How about Queen Anne?"


"As you wish." she smiled.


Once off the phone, Nicole typed up the documents and emailed them over to be signed and returned. Only then, did the conversation sink in. "Holy fucking shit," she whispered to herself, sitting back in her chair. She covered her face and began to laugh, it was just this side of hysterical. After regaining her composure, calmly she told herself, "He's just a man. A man who just wants a quiet space to retreat, after a long day on location. Wash, rinse, repeat. And in 10 weeks when he gets here, maybe you'll have convinced your self that it's true."

Chapter Text

Chapter. 2
Be Our Guest

10 weeks. That is all the time she had to prepare the Inn for Benedict's arrival. Normally the work she would do, coincided with the time he would be staying. Sure, she could wait until he left to do it, but vanity was a powerful motivator and she wanted the place to look amazing. It wasn't like she was doing any major remodeling, but things needed maintenance. Water filters needed changing, walls needed patching, painting touch-ups were necessary. Plus, it was time to update the bedding for some of the rooms. Guess whose room would definitely get an update.

Scheduling the repairs around the guest was the tricky part. She didn't want to inconvenience them with some guy in overalls, invading their space while he fixed electrical outlets and faucet leaks. If there was no way around it, she comped the guest with a pass to a local attraction or a meal. Some of her long term guests, who had been patronizing the Inn for years, were very gracious about the whole thing. Some of the senior gentlemen offered to "...hang around and make sure they're not fleecing you." She didn't have the heart to tell them, she had used these contractors for years and trusted them implicitly. Instead, Nicole would nod sagely and thank them profusely, then leave them cookies in their room with a thank you note. The message inside saying, that the cookies were a secret between just them, and we wouldn't want the other guests to get jealous. The next day, that would earn her a conspiratorial wink and smile.

There were two rooms in the house to which she gave extra consideration. First, the largest room, which was essentially a studio apartment. Usually families requested this room because of its size. It housed a king sized bed, a couch that folded out into a queen sized bed, another full sized futon and a single sized futon. Plus, it had its own en suite, complete with an extra large claw foot tub. Unfortunately, the problem with that room is its location in the front of the house, which gave it amazing light all day, and a nice view of the front lawns, trees and drive. If some clever press photographer figured out where Benedict was staying, while he couldn't come on the property, he could set up camp outside the house with a telephoto lens. The sheers in the window would give some modicum privacy, but not enough.

The second room was positioned in the back of the house. There was no way for anyone to get a look into that room. It was smaller than the studio, but still had its own three-piece en suite. There was a queen sized, sleep number bed, a reading chair and table. There was also, dresser with a TV on an adjustable arm above it, and a small walk in closet which housed another dresser. Since it's located on the far side of the house, it gets beautiful early morning sun. Nicole's early riser guests loved that. If mornings aren't your thing, there were also blackout curtains. Just in case. Of course, he can request any room he wants, and she would accommodate his wishes, but after doing this for any number of years, her hunches were pretty good.

The day of his arrival, his "people" called to let Nicole know when he would be getting in, for which she was very grateful. In anticipation of this, she set about final preparations. And if by preparations your thinking running around panicked, you would be correct. She did manage to bake about 58676587557559 cookies, and prepare for tea and dinner, if he was so inclined. Also, she put together menus for him, so he could pick and choose meals he liked. Yes, the advance team sent her questionnaire back, but it said, "He'll eat anything." Not helpful, and surely, not true. Trying to make his stay as easy and comfortable as possible, she needed the information, and would try to get it from him in the easiest possible way, and hopefully not be too annoying in the process.

With a house full of guests, normally, Nicole would prepare the menu with a few options and serve buffet style. She made all the decisions, and things ran smoothly. With him being the only guest, there was an exceptional amount of leeway and customization, and she hoped he would take full advantage of that.

About an hour before his arrival, Nicole showered and dressed in something other than her sweats and Doctor Who slippers. She looked in the mirror and assessed the situation. Her long, dark, way too curly hair seemed to be minding itself today. She was happy her hair was playing nice and wanted to impress Benedict, otherwise, shit would get real. She was tempted to put on some makeup, but having spent some time in the sun this summer, gave her caramel colored skin a nice glow, although, some lip gloss wouldn't hurt, she thought. Now, what to wear? What does one wear for this sort of thing? A suit? A dress? Heels? "Christ. I'm usually pretty good at this," she said out loud to herself. After trying on about seven different outfits, she landed on a white denim skirt with a royal blue swirl pattern, that fell above the knee. On top, a fluttery nearly sheer tank in the same color blue, as the pattern on the skirt. A pair of pretty sandals and some silver jewelry finished off the ensemble.

Just as she was deciding the outfit was all wrong, again, the gate at the front of the house opening, seized her attention. She stopped dead in her tracks and stopped breathing. This was her deer in the headlights moment. Fortunately it happened before she opened the door, and not right in front of him. Taking a deep breath and composing herself, she said aloud, "You're a grownup, act like it!" Ignoring her own admonishment, she sprinted down stairs like a berserk cat and ran into the kitchen. Grabbing a plate of cookies she had made, she rushed to the table next to the front door and placed the cookies there. Then, she ran into the family room, so it didn't look as though she was standing at the door, like a puppy, waiting for someone to come home.

The doorbell rang and her heart sped up to an alarming rate. Taking deep breaths, she willed herself to walk, like a grownup, to the front door and open it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

...Even When You Drag Casual...It's Almost Unbearable

Nicole opened the door to Benedict standing on her doorstep. His head was suffering from a severe case of hat hair. He had obviously made a valiant effort in trying to repair the dark curls, but failed. It was adorable. Who has hat hair, and it's adorable? she wondered.

A light blue button down with a white t-shirt under it paired with black jeans and casual brown shoes made him look the consummate, casual traveler. Even if he did look a little weary. It must have been a long flight. His carry on bag was hanging on his shoulder with a dark blazer laid over the body of the bag. Bright blue-green eyes actually sparkled when he smiled broadly at her. The pictures on line did not do him justice. Just behind Benedict, was a man in a black suit and white shirt, clearly the driver, holding luggage.

"Please, Com'on Inn!" Nicole said, stepping out of the doorway. The two men walked in. The driver put down the luggage and hastily headed out to the car, she assumed, to get more luggage. She extended her hand out to Benedict, "Welcome. My name is Nicole, I'm the owner of the Inn." Good, she thought, didn't even stutter.

Benedict took her hand and shook it. She covered his with her other hand for a full, enclosed handshake. "I'm Benedict. Very nice to meet you." He smiled brightly at her, as she let go. The driver came back in with the last bag.

"If you'll follow me, I'll take you up to your room." She picked up one of the suitcases and the driver protested.

"Ma'am, I'll get that." he was Very Serious.

"I don't mind. Really." She started up the stairs, "Follow me." Carrying the bag up stairs was no trouble. She glanced back, smiling, to make sure the men were coming. Benedict's eyes jumped up to meet hers and he smiled, what one might interpret a self conscious smile. Maybe, he was bothered by a woman carrying his bags. Or maybe, her skirt was too short to be walking up the stairs with someone right behind her. Shit. She disregarded that idea because it was too embarrassing to consider.

They made a u-turn at the top of the stairs and she led them to the last room at the end of the hall. The driver, the last to enter, placed the bags off to the side and looked up at Benedict. "Will there be anything else, sir?" he asked.

"No. Thank you, Paul." He extended his hand to Paul shook it and handed him a tip. The driver nodded and walked out of the room.

"One, second." she held up a finger to, Benedict. She hurriedly walked after the driver. He was almost out of the door when she called to him, "Paul?"

He stopped and looked up at her, "Ma'am?"

"Please take some cookies on your way out. They're by the door."

"Thank you, Ma'am. That's OK."

"Please, save me from my self! I have dozens in the kitchen."

He nodded, picked up a cookie and took a bite on his way out. He stopped, looked at the cookie then came back in the house and took a handful more. "Thanks!" he waved, smiling.

Nicole gave him a thumbs up and returned to Benedict's room.

"Do you always keep cookies by the door for a tip?" he asked amused.

"Not always, but frequently. So, about the room." She started, "Obviously you have your choice of rooms. I started you in this one, because it's the most private. I'll give you a tour later and you can make your own decision."

He nodded, "OK."

Nicole detailed the amenities of the room. She showed him the remote to adjust the sleep number bed, and how it works. She also pointed out where the electric blanket controls are and how to operate the remote for the TV. She handed him a typed up sheet of paper with all the passwords for the wi-fi and pay per view movie channels. "So," she said, "This hand written one here is a second password. It's for," she paused, trying to find the right words, "the adult channels. Kids are industrious, so I needed more precautions in place." she fidgeted awkwardly.

Benedict looked down at the password, "Hellyeah?" he laughed.

She shrugged. "It seemed appropriate."

"Indeed."

"OK. On that awkward note, I will leave you to your self. Would tea interest you?"

"I would love some tea."

"Excellent. Come down when your settled, and I'll make you a nice pot of tea, and then give you the nickel tour."

"Thank you," he smiled, and it was a genuine thanks.

 

Nicole puttered efficiently in her oversized kitchen, pulling the components for tea. She set the electric kettles to boil, then retrieved one of her favorite teapots. It was white bone china with silver flowers and rim. There were cups and saucers to match, which she also pulled down, as well as two large mugs. He was English, so he might want the china, but he's also a dude, so maybe, a mug. Her mug (one of many) had a picture of Tinkerbell. He was welcome to it, but she felt pretty safe that he would pass it by. She could also get down her Eeyore mugs, but she decided to rein in the crazy, this early in the game.

A pink box of pastries she had picked up earlier, sat on the counter. She carefully, and decoratively arranged the sandwiches, scones, pastries and cakes on an ornamental platter. Cream and various types of sweeteners were brought out, as well as napkins, plates, spoons and tea strainers. All that was missing, was her guest.

Nicole sat down at the kitchen table and decided to try to catch up on a little reading. Not really. She was looking for a distraction until he came down. The thought of that man, upstairs, settling in was setting her on edge. Right now, he was probably going through his luggage, pulling out things he would need sooner rather than later. He might even be changing his clothes, which means, he could be, right now at this minute...O.K. O.K. ENOUGH! She told herself. You have got to get a fucking grip!

Trying again for distraction, she looked to her tablet again, and decided to check her email. That was working. She waded through the one by one until she heard Benedict leaving his room. Closing the device and setting it down, she made her way back to the kitchen to finish her preparations. She poured some of the hot water into the teapot to warm it. Topping off the kettle she turned them both back on to start to boil again.

Benedict rounded the corner into the kitchen now wearing a polo, board shorts and flip flops. Flip flops? Does he look even better than before? What the hell? It's the legs. It's definitely the legs. His hair, instead of looking like had been tortured, as it did earlier, now exhibited gentle curls that floated around his head. Somewhere inside her, she swooned. Starstruck. That's all it is. You are just starstruck. "Well, that's better, isn't it?" she asked him.

Benedict smiled, "Yeah. Much. It's warm here," he said sitting down on one of the barstools at the butcher block counter, opposite her.

"It is. The good news is, it usually cools down at night, since we are so close to the ocean. If it doesn't cool down, it's not cool anywhere. Those are the days I thank science for air conditioning. I can turn it on if you're warm?"

"No, I'm fine. Thank you."

"Would you like to see the tea selection?"

He nodded, "Yeah." Nicole walked him over to the pantry and opened the side with the collection of teas. There were a lot of tea.

There was white tea to black tea. Different flavors, different brands. He blinked a couple of times, "Well. Too bad you have such a poor selection."

"Yes. It is a disappointment. What are you in the mood for?"

"Earl Grey?"

Nicole pulled down three containers of Earl Grey and a Silver Needle for herself. She opened each tea and handed them to smell.

"This one." He said handing her his choice.

The teapot was thoroughly warmed, so she dumped out the old water, poured in the new and added the requisite amount of tea, plus "one for the pot." and left it to steep. "Pick a cup, any cup!" she said. His index finger tapped the china cup and saucer.

Nicole poured hot water into both of their cups to warm them. She swirled the hot water around her mug, drained and refilled it adding a cup stainer and a couple of pinches of her silver needle tea.

As Nicole was making the tea, she watched Ben, hands in his lap, leaning over slightly, and kicking his feet back and forth on the stool. He probably looked like this as a boy. She handed him a plate, and slid the platter of treats over to him. He smiled up at her and began plucking up a variety of wares and adding them to his plate. "This is nice. Do you do this for all your guests?"

"Well, no."

He raised his eyebrows at her.

"There is only so much you can do if you have a house full of people. I have a few regulars, where having tea is a Big Deal. Sometime, if there are a gaggle of little girls staying, we have tea parties. With hats and everything! That's' a good time."

He nodded. "I'm embarrassed to admit, I thought this was all about me." he grinned.

"Today it is. Should I get you an easter hat?"

He smiled shaking his head. His curls flopping around and landing on his forehead. Nicole had an overwhelming urge to sweep them back. Luckily, she managed a little self control. After a few minutes, she lifted off the top of the teapot and gave it a stir. The delicious aroma wafted up making her sigh happily. She dumped the hot water out of his cup.

"Your strainer, sir," she said handing it to him. With that he proceeded to make his tea.

Nicole dunked her strainer in her cup a few times before removing it and taking a sip. The delicate flavor was heavenly. She watched him take a sip of his tea and looked at him expectantly.

"Perfect." He smiled.

Nicole nodded in triumph. "So, will you be having dinner in, tonight?"

"If you wouldn't mind?"

"Of course not. Quite the opposite." She ran off a list of dinner option for him to choose from, and finally settled on one. "I also have a list of other meals to give to you to let me know what you like and don't like. All I got back from your people was you had no allergies and would eat anything."

Benedict chuckled. "Well, that's fairly accurate. I will look this over, though."

"Feel free to write in anything that you might want."

"Thank you, I will."

"Also, I'm sorry if I'm being bothersome," she apologized, "but, if I can get, even a tentative, a schedule from you, I can make sure to have the meals and such prepared accordingly."

"That shouldn't be a problem. I'll have them email you a copy when they send mine."

"Excellent." She sighed with relief. "I promise, I'll try to leave you to yourself from here on out."

He looked at her thoughtfully, "Because?"

"I try to be as unobtrusive as possible with the guests. You don't need me clucking around behind you every minute."

"No, I don't. The company would be nice sometimes, though."

She supposed he would get lonely. He's probably stuck in hotel rooms most of the time, for weeks on end. That made her heart sad. She nodded. "O.K." But keep it professional, he is not your friend, he is a client! She chided herself. "You're probably exhausted. If you'd like, you can take your tea up to your room and relax," she offered.

"I'd like to stay here, if that's O.K.?" For the first time, she noticed a small lisp in his speech. It probably came out when he was tired, or maybe, hopefully relaxed. She didn't remember him having it earlier or when he was performing. It was endearing.

"Yes, absolutely. In that case, dinner will take a bout 45 minutes to make. Would you like the tour of the place before or after dinner?"

He thought for a moment, "Before," he smiled.

"Sounds like a plan. We'll finish our tea, take a tour, and I'll start dinner while you have a nice adult beverage...or not. No judgement, here," she held her hands up in defense, her smile playful.

"I don't know if you know, but, I'm a big fan and supporter of adult beverages. So, I endorse this plan," smiling, he lightly smacked his hand on the counter in punctuation.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 4

When your world is full of strange arrangements...

 

They started the tour upstairs, with the largest room.  It was decorated with light cool colors with bright punches here and there.  It was light, airy and spacious.  Perfect for a family.  “You can see why I thought you might like this room better then the one you’re in.” Nicole said.

“Yeah,” he agreed.  “It is a little exposed, though.  You’re right about that,” nodding at the large window that opened in the front of the house.

Nicole agreed.  “Well, I can try to find some sheer privacy screens to place in front of the windows, and that would help.”

“No.  I’m fine where I am.”

“It’s not like you can’t just come hang out here whenever you want.” she smiled.

“True enough.”

She showed him the other three bedrooms and bathrooms, her office and the door to her room.  “ If you can’t find me, just knock .  I’m usually in here.”

Benedict looked like he wanted to ask to peek inside.  She was not going to offer, professionalism and all that.  “Question?” she dared him, playfully.

He grinned and shook his head.  “No, I’m good.” and stuck his hands in his pockets.

They walked downstairs and Nicole pointed out the laundry room that he was welcome to use, if his people hadn’t already made arrangement.  The garage was next, and she opened the door to reveal a tidy space with one covered car already housed, and a spot for one more, two if you squeezed them in.  It is supposed to be a three car garage, but the house was old enough that, the builders weren’t expecting the advent of SUV’s.  “If you get a car, you may want to park here if people figure out where you are.”

He nodded.  Next she showed him the downstairs bathroom and bedroom.  “For the older guests who have trouble with stairs,” she explained, walking him back through the kitchen and into the formal dining room.  Against the walls were a bar, wine rack and buffet surrounding a large dark-wood table.  Connected to the dining room was the formal living room whose walls were covered with bookshelves.  Heavy dark furniture, rugs and curtains made it look like an old world library, which was exactly what she wanted.  It even came complete with a globe that opened into a little bar.  

Walking past her, he began scanning the books on the shelves.  “This is an eclectic collection,” his finger brushed along the spines of the books.

“Guests take books and leave books.  It’s like a book exchange.”

He turned and smiled at her.  “That’s fantastic.”

“I agree.  Harder to do these days with ebooks.”

He nodded, still eyeing the spines.

“Hardly anyone comes in here,” she continued.  “they feel like it’s too stuffy, too formal.  So, this is a good place to hide, since I never look in here, since no one is ever in here.”

They left the library and headed towards the back yard.  French doors in the eat-in kitchen lead out to a large space, about two acres.  The patio was covered with a pagoda, that provided filtered sunlight.  It was built on stained concrete that accommodated tables, chairs, and off to the side an extra large BBQ and fire pit.  In the back corner of the yard sat a small gazebo most guests used for reading.  Along various parts of the fences grew various fruit trees.  Lemons, peaches, plumbs cherry and tangerine trees all bore fruit when in season.  “What’s that?”  Benedict asked, pointing to the other corner of the yard where a small cottage sat. 

She sighed, “Oh, a small escape when there are too many people in the house.  I’ll come out here.  It’s got basic stuff, like a bedroom and bathroom.  No TV, though, but I can catch the WiFi out there and stream movies if I want.”

Nicole turned to face him, “So, that’s it.”

He turned too, which brought him a step closer.  Not too close, just a smidge inside her personal space.  Not enough that she could take a step back and not seem like an asshole, but just enough that he may not know that he was inside her bubble.  He smiled at her, hand in his pockets, looking content.  “This is really great.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Nicole wished she had pockets in her skirt, his standing so close was making her nervous and causing her to fidget.  They stood there not speaking, her waiting for him to voice what he wanted to do next.  The silence that hung in the air began to grow and was becoming more uncomfortable.  Well, at least for Nicole.  He stood there smiling like nothing was happening.  She took a deep breath, “So, dinner?” she asked, baking up heading for the door. 

His smile grew.  

Dammit.  He knew what he was doing.  She thought.

“Sure.”  He held his arm out inviting her to enter the house before him, like a gentleman, as if he wasn’t just before, acting impish. 

Once in the house, Nicole made her way into the kitchen, while Benedict sat at the counter.  “Dinner will take about 45 minutes,’” she reminded him.  “Those stools are not made for the long haul.”  

He looked at her thoughtfully, considering her words.  

“Might I suggest the evil couch of death,” she gestured into the family room.  

“You don’t like people watching you cook?” he grinned.

“It doesn’t bother me.  I actually like people with me in the kitchen, but those stools are literally a pain in the ass.”  He sat back from the counter.  “We can still chat with you over there.”

“Fine.  I can take a hint.”  He stood up from his seat.  

“Well, while you’re taking a hint, why don’t you head over to the bar and fix your self a drink, and pick out some wine for dinner while you’re at it.”  she smiled.

That cheered him up.  He strode off into the dining room.  She heard him clap and rub his hands together.  A few moments later, he emerged with a clear drink in on one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other.  Nicole pulled out a glass and filled it with ice and handed it to him for his drink.  He took two cubes and dropped it in, swirling the around in the glass.  “Cheers!” he said, taking a swallow.  “How’s this?”  he asked, holding up the bottle of wine.

“Anything you want.”

“Anything?” The mischief was back.

“That’s on the rack,” she acted exasperated, but wasn’t at all.  She enjoyed the good natured banter.

He chuckled and put the bottle down on the table in the eat in kitchen.  Making his way into the living room, he set his drink down on the coffee table and plopped onto the couch, laying down, kicking off his flip flops.  He wiggled around and sighed happily.  

“It’s good, right?”

“That it is.”

“It’s a built in recliner.  There’s a lever on your left that will kick the feet out.” she gestured with her knife.

You could see it in his eye.  Gadgets!  Flipping around, and sitting up, he stuck his hands between the arm and the cushion of the couch and with a pop, the foot rest jumped out from the front of the seat.  He pushed back and went into full recline mode.  “You’re right.  This is much better than the stool.”

“Good.”  Nicole went about making dinner, chopping, slicing, sautéing,  Usually she was alone in the kitchen, and happy to be so..  Cooking for her was an outlet.  If she was in a bad mood, it lifted her spirits.  If she was anxious, it calmed her.  If she was happy it was a joyous event.  Having people in the kitchen with her made it feel like a party.  Everything about the kitchen was good for her.  Except dishes.  Dishes suck.  

While prepping some herbs on the butcher block counter, she could feel Benedict’s eyes on her.  She wondered if she should look up and see why..  It wasn’t she wasn’t used to people watch her cook, she watched people cook, too.  It was hypnotic and soothing.  His gaze, did not feel that way.  She could almost hear him thinking.  “Where would you like to eat?” she asked, while she chopped.  Tempted though she was to look up and see his expression, realizing that she knew he was watching, she didn’t. Never look away from the knife if you don’t have Jedi knife skills.  Which she didn’t.  

“What are my options?”

“Anywhere you like.  Formal dining room, here in the eat it, up in your room, there on the couch.  It’s up to you.”

“I can eat in here?” his voice went up a few steps.

Nicole chuckled, “Yes.  You can eat in there on a TV tray if you’d like.”

“Wow.  I’ve never met a woman who would let me do that.”

“Yeah.  I probably shouldn’t but, since I do it all the time, who am I to judge?” she laughed.

“How about the eat in?” he decided.

Nicole nodded and began to gather the tableware for dinner.  She set a place for him and opened the wine to let it breathe a bit.  “Would you like water with dinner?”

“The wine is fine, thank you.”

“Well then, dinner is ready.”  

Benedict unfolded himself from the couch and made his way to the table.  After pouring himself a glass of wine, he sat.  She placed the plate of food in front of him and he breathed in the savory aroma.  “This looks and smells wonderful.”

“Dig in then.  Enjoy.”  she wiped her hands on a tea towel and started to head out, to let him eat in peace.

“You’re not eating?” he asked.

“I’ll eat later after you’re done.” she smiled.

He looked confused, “Is this you being unobtrusive?”

She nodded,”Yes.” it was part question part answer, since his question had the distinct feeling of being loaded.

His brow furrowed just the tiniest bit.  “Well, would you like to join me?”

Nicole started to shake her head and protest.

“Please, I prefer not to eat alone,” he said cutting her off.

She stood weighing that idea, and came to the conclusion it was a really bad idea.  Professional distance and all that.

He smirked, “The customer is always right, isn’t he?”

God. Damn. It.  She slowly shook her head.  “That’s dirty.”

He grinned ear to ear, “Desperate times, desperate measures…” he turned back to his plate. 

Nicole grabbed a place setting, and served herself dinner.  She sat down across from Benedict where he ate happily, smiling at her.  Nicole shook her head again.  “There are cookies for dessert.” Petulantly, she stuck her fork into her salad and took a bite. 

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Nicole sat relaxing on her evil couch, trolling through the internet on her iPad.  She would neither confirm or deny she was looking up pictures and stories about her current guest.  We’ll say, her curiosity had gotten the better of her.  She was not one to indulge in tabloid gossip, not because she had any real moral objection to it, it was just a never ending rabbit hole from which there was no escape, for her anyway.  At least this way, looking right now, she would have to stop when she heard him wake.  

Unsure of Benedict's plans, she had woken early to get the day's training out of the way.  One day, out of nowhere, she had decided she wanted to run in a Disney event.  Well, not really out of nowhere and not just any Disney event. The Tinkerbell 10K Run.  Since she loved all things Tinkerbell, she wanted a Tinkerbell medal.  The training plan Nicole was working on, was for the 10k but hoped to be far enough along by the time the race came around, to be able to do the Half Marathon, (it was a better medal).  Although, that seems like an awful long time to run.  Hours, in fact.  She had spent most of her years actively hating running.  If it hadn't been for the idea of this race, she would still be bad mouthing the activity at every opportunity.  What she discovered, was if you push through the initial discomfort, it was a wonderful stress relief.  Her anxiety levels had dropped drastically.  Anxiety, she found, was a fantastic fuel.  She always beat her times and distance if she was particularly anxious that day.  Of course, she was still in the beginning of the training, and still running at the gym on a treadmill, which she loved, (Air-conditioning, TV, people around if you dropped from a heart attack, what's not to love?) even if she was ridiculously slow.

Once back, she cleaned up and chose something cool to wear since it was going to be hotter today than yesterday.  A pair of cotton shorts and a tee would do, then she prepped items breakfast items for her guest.  That was fairly early, around 8:00AM or so.  She supposed, he would be sleeping in today.  He was most certainly exhausted from his trip and (she not knowing what time zone he was coming from) may be jet lagged, too.  A couple of hours later, she heard the beginnings of stirring upstairs.  There were footsteps, and water running, general movement.  She put her tablet down and meandered into the kitchen to start coffee for him, by putting on water.  He could have tea if he preferred that, also.  Shortly after initially hearing him move around upstairs, he appeared in the kitchen.

"Good morning, Mr. Cumberbatch,” Nicole said as he entered the kitchen.

"Good morning."  he smiled.  “And really, it’s just Ben,” he said walking in wearing shorts, a t-shirt and slippers.  SLIPPERS!  She won’t lie, she was a little disappointed that they weren’t bunnies or dragons or something, but it was pretty damn cool he was walking around all casual like in her Inn. 

“Of course Mr. Just Ben.  As you like.” she smiled.  “Coffee?”  She poured hot water into the coffee press.

He stopped short of sitting down at the kitchen counter.  “Really?”

She blinked innocently at him.

He couldn’t help but smile.  “So, is this gonna be a thing?” he said sitting down.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”  She brought him a mug and the press to him, the aroma of fresh coffee wafting up from the ceramic container.

“OK. OK.  So, we have a thing.  It’s our thing.” he smiled.

Nicole tried desperately not to laugh and outright failed.  At this point, the best she could hope to do is not blush.  "Did you sleep OK?” she asked deflecting.

"I did," he said pressing the plunger on the press.  "Really well, actually."

She nodded, pleased. "May I get you some breakfast?"

"I would love some," he said happily mixing his cream and sugar into his coffee.

"I have your basics,” she tarted, much like an auctioneer.  “I got your hot and cold cereal, fruit, and toast.  I have homemade yogurt and granola and fruit preserves to mix into the yogurt if you don't like plain…”

"You made your own granola and yogurt?" he interrupted her, eyebrows raised.  It wasn't really a question.

She nodded once, not sure where he was going with that.  Some people thought it was great, some gross, some thought she was just plain odd.  She supposed it was odd, but it was too delicious to for her to care.

"Huh."

"Strange, I know.  I promise, it's good.  I also made some bacon earlier, so I could whip you up some eggs and such."  she paused for effect, "Egg in an egg cup with soldiers, maybe?" she grinned.

A huge smile lit up his face.  "Really?"

"English father." she said by way of an explanation.

"Soldiers," he laughed to himself before he took a sip of his coffee.  “This is delicious." he said, looking up at her.

Nicole held up the bag of coffee beans to show him.  "I'll write it down for you, if you want."

He nodded emphatically.  "Yes, please.  How about the yogurt and granola, and scrambled eggs, if that's ok?"

"Of course." She went about making breakfast and setting him up at the eat in table.  

When he sat down he looked at her, "Have you had breakfast already?"

"I have, but I'll sit with you if you'd like."

He smiled.  “Thank you.”

Nicole grabbed herself a glass of juice and sat opposite him at the table.  "So, do you have plans for the day?"

"I have to pick up my rental car.  Other than that, just get acclimated before tomorrow’s start.”

"Where are you getting your car?"

He reached into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out his phone.  That’s a lucky phone,  she mused.  He punched the home button and a few taps later, he pulled up an email and showed her.  Nicole looked and nodded.  "Hmm."

“Do you know it?"

"Yeah, sure…”

"But?"

"Nothing.  I'm just surprised.  I figured they'd have you set up at one of those imported car places.  You know, because your fancy like that.”  she teased.

"No," he chuckled, "This is a small budget film.  I'm only a supporting role, in any case."  He put the phone away.  "Is it far from here?"

Nicole laughed.  "No, nothing in town is far from anything in town."

"Do you have a local cab company you use?"

"Sure," she hesitated, Don't do it.  Do. Not. Do. It.  She thought to herself. "I have a couple of errands to run in town, I could give you a lift, if you want?" Evidently her common sense had been usurped by her inner fangirl.

"Really?  It wouldn't be any trouble?"

"No, no at all,"  she felt butterflies in her stomach go to work.  Crap.  She knew she was being ridiculous, and hoped the novelty of Benedict Cumberbatch being in her Inn would wear off that way she could stop being whatever this is she was being. 

"Thank you!  I appreciate it."

"When do you have to go?" she asked.

"Anytime is fine."

"Well, just let me know when you're ready, I'm not on a schedule either."  But now you have to figure out what to do in town, so you don't look like a love struck, fangirl.  She thought to herself.

 

After finding some checks to deposit and paperwork to be mailed, she met Benedict at her car.  They climbed in and she set about hooking up her phone and securing the seatbelt latch in the latch plate on her right, when she looked up, she caught Benedict looking at her legs. His eyes met hers and he offhandedly picked up a tiny Tinkerbell doll she kept near her gear shift.  "So, you like her a lot." he said, playing off his being caught.

"I do."

"Cute." he said, sitting back in his seat.  

Nicole didn't know how to process that, so she nodded.  Was he just looking to look?  Was he interested?  Did he like what he saw?  Did he not?  Were her shorts too short?  Did she remember to shave her legs?  It was all too much, so she ignored it..  Instead she tried to calm another blush, she started into town.  She wove down through the small hills the Inn was nestled in, and into town.  She made two stops, one at the drive through ATM and one at a post office mailbox, before heading over to the car rental place.  The conversation was light as she pointed out small things in town here and there.  Where the best coffee is, where to get the best burger, you know the important things.

The business looked like any other car rental place.  Nondescript building with touches of the company’s signature colors.  There were a small collection of cars arranged out front of the building, but, the majority of the inventory was hidden in back.  Nicole pulled into a front parking space near the door, and smiled at him.  "Here ya go."

"May I ask you another favor?" he inquired making a please face.

"OK."

"Would you mind, waiting so I can find my way back to the Inn?"

“No, I don’t mind.” she turned off the car and sat back in her seat.

"Thank you.  I appreciate it."  He climbed out of the car and strode into the building.  Nicole took the opportunity to check out his ass...which was perfect by the way.  She leaned forward on her steering wheel and banged her head a few times to try to knock some sense back into her hormone addled brain.  In doing so, she wondered why he didn't just use the GPS on his phone to get back to the Inn.  Curious.

Giving the car enough power to run the radio, she sat back in her seat again, and lightly bobbed her head to the music coming from her speakers.  She wasn't sure how long she had been there when he walked out of the office, over to her car.  She hit the electric window, and rolled it down.  "They're pulling it around now."

"Cool."  

He paced around outside until the employee pulled up in a sterling gray convertible Mustang.  Nicole's eyes widened in surprise and stifled a laugh.  She covered her mouth when the stifling eventually failed.  Now, it's a nice, car.  That's for damn sure, but could he be any more cliche? I guess he could, he could have gotten a hybrid.  She climbed out of her car to get a better look and rested her arms and head on the roof, smiling.

"Cliche, huh?" he asked her laughing, repeating her thoughts exactly. 

"A little bit."

He was still undeniably pleased at the ride.  He shrugged, "When in Rome.  Maybe I can impress all the west coast birds with my wheels.”  He plucked his sunglasses from the front of his shirt, where they’d been hanging, and put them on.

Like you need the car to do that.  She thought.  "Well, I can't mock your oh so manly car with this little four banger, so..."

"No drag racing, then?" he quipped, climbing into the muscle car.

"Hardly."  She said, climbing into hers.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 6

Your appetite, is more than I knew…

 

Nicole heard Benedict coming into to the kitchen for breakfast.  With out looking up, she greeted her guest, “Good morning Mr. Just Ben,”.  He was halfway to the counter before she glanced up and smiled.

He sat himself down on the stool and grinned at her.  “Good morning.”

“Coffee?” she offered.  It was seriously the butt crack of dawn and even though she didn’t drink coffee herself, this morning she had considered it, since, she was nowhere close to being a morning person.  Of Benedict, she wasn’t so sure, it was too soon to tell.  He seemed awake enough, but he might have been up for a while before he came down.  Maybe his nerves had gotten the better of him and had his mind racing.  Or, horror of horrors, he actually was a morning person.

“Yes, please,” he accepted.

Nicole poured the hot water into the press and handed it to him.  While, he busied himself with preparing his mug, Nicole snuck a glance while cutting up some fruit for breakfast.  His wet, chestnut curls fell over his forehead and gently bobbed as he made his cup of coffee.  He was heartbreaking in his casual attire of a T-shirt and jeans.  The soft, blue material of his shirt begged to have hands run over it.  No one should look that good in jeans and a T-shirt.  It wasn’t right, plus it was too early to have to process all that deliciousness.  She shook her head to clear it.

“So, first day…” she started.

“Yeah.” he drawled, taking a long drink of his coffee.

“Are you excited?”

“I am,” he nodded, his curls bouncing in time with his head.

“Nervous?”

“No.” he said.  “And by no, I mean yes.”

Nicole smiled warmly at him.  “I’m surprised by that.” 

“Really?  Why?”

She pushed the bowl of fruit she had been cutting over to him, and shrugged.  “I suppose I thought that after doing this for so long you would get used to it.”

“I still get nervous.  Every time.  Every project.  I care. I want to do well.”

“That makes perfect sense.  I’m sorry if I was out of line,”she apologized.  Not that he had snapped at her, but it wasn’t her intent to put him on any kind of defensive about his art.  Especially not his first day.

“You weren’t,”  he assured her, “I’m a little wound up.”

“Well, I made you something special for your first day.”  Nicole walked over to the back counter and removed a basket of muffins that were waiting patiently to be revealed.  She set one on the plate next to the cut up fruit he had served himself.  “I made these this morning.  I call them peaches and cream.”

He picked the muffin up, an took a bite.  Chewing for a moment, he looked up at her and smiled.  “This is amazing!”  The muffins were lightly flavored peaches,  The surprise in the center were actual sweetened peaches with a sweet, cream cheese filling.

“It’s more like a cupcake than a muffin.  I did try to put some nutrition in it, though.  Anyway, happy first day of shooting.”

“Thank you.  That was kind.”

“It was my pleasure,” she smiled, “and I’m sure you’ll do great today.”

“Oh, yeah?  How do you know that?” he asked happily munching on breakfast.

She thought about it.  Because it’s the truth, she thought.  It’s a statement of fact.  Like, water is wet or you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen and I could float around in them forever.  It’s just fact.  What she said was, “Because you care.  Like you said.”

“I hope it’s enough.”

“Well, you work hard, you’re talented, so together, it will be.”

“I’m not so sure,” He grinned at her and reached for another muffin.

“Are you just looking to have your ego stroked?”

He laughed, “Yes, among other things.”

His answer surprised Nicole, “Easy sailor, this is a family show.” she laughed, feeling her cheeks start to redden and willed them not to.

“Sorry, not enough coffee, not enough filter.” His apology was insincere and they both knew it.

“Well, I guess being away from your significant other for extended periods would be tough.”  Nicole internally held her breath for the answer to that.

“Yes.  It is.  Well, it would be if I had one.”

Nicole nodded and internally did a fist pump.

“What about you?  Will my being here keep you from anyone?”

She looked up to meet his blue eyes, “No.  I’m single.  To an embarrassing degree, actually.”  she laughed.

“How so?”

“Well, I haven’t been out in a good long while.  Partly by choice, partly by lack of choice.”  she shrugged.

“Go on,” he gently prodded.

“Well, “ she paused.  “You know, this is probably not the most appropriate conversation to be having with a guest.  I should at least try to maintain some semblance of propriety.”

He started to say something and she cut him off holding up a hand.  “Besides, it is way too early in the morning to go there.”

“Fair enough.”  

She could see the wheels turning in his head, and knew he wasn’t going to let it go that easily.  Nicole made a mental note to prepare to deal with that.

“How about some kind of protein to go with those muffins?” she asked changing the subject.

“More of the granola and yogurt would be great.”

 

After breakfast, Benedict went back upstairs to gather his stuff to head off for the day. When he came back down to leave, Nicole was standing by the door waiting for him, holding a lunch bag.  “I packed you some snacks in case craft services is sub par the first day.”  she handed him the bag.

He laughed at her, “Thank you.  I appreciate that.”

Nicole opened the door for him to leave.  “Now remember, hugs not drugs.  Go, fight, win!  You’re as good as anyone else there,  Break a leg and any other cliche I can’t think of.”

He took a step closer to her, still laughing.  It looked like something crossed his mind before he thought better of it.  “I’ll see you tonight.”  he said then walked out.  Butterflies raced around her stomach and the ambient temperature of the room seemed to shoot up several hundred degrees.  Speaking wasn’t an option, so, she nodded, and watched him walk off into the dark, closing the door once he was out of sight. Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, she said to no one in particular, “This is gonna tough.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 7

Hold my hand…

 

The familiar sound of the click, swish and thud of the door opening and closing alerted Nicole to Benedict's arrival home.  His soft footsteps brought him into the kitchen where she was finishing up preparing that night's dinner.  "Halloooooo Mr. Just Ben!"  she greeted him.

"Hello." he smiled broadly.

"How was your first day?"

He sat himself down in one of the chairs at the table, leaning back and kicking his legs out in front of him.  "It was good.  No major hitches.  Everyone got along well."

"That's good.  Did you actually shoot or just rehearse?"

"We had rehearsals already, before we started shooting."

"Of course,"  she nodded.  "Well, how about dinner?"  she looked up at him smiling.

"Sounds good."

Nicole grabbed his place setting she had pulled earlier and set it in front of him returning to the kitchen.  

He eyed the plate, and then her, "Have you eaten already?"

"No.  Not yet.  I'll eat later."  she smiled.

"Are you going to make me ask you every night to join me?"

Nicole smiled, and laughed to herself.  "Yes, likely."

"Why?"

"Maybe a girl wants to feel wanted."  she batted her eyelashes at him, jokingly.

"You're ridiculous."

She snorted, ”Like you're the first person to point that out."

"Fine.  Would you like to join me for dinner?"

"Sure." she chuckled.

"In fact, why don't we just make this a standard arrangement?"

"We'll see.”

Dinner was had with companionable small talk and observation.  Stories of the goings on, on a set, and questions about procedures and protocols, such as, Nicole asking about how rewrites were handled.  There were a lot of ‘Have you evers,’ on set or during filming from her and he was gracious and happy to answer what she thought were probably silly questions, which she truly appreciated.

“That was great, thank you,” Benedict said when they had finished eating.

“You are very welcome.”  

Benedict picked up his glass and leaned back in his chair, taking a sip.  “So,” he said.

“So,” Nicole parroted back.

“Single to an embarrassing degree…” he grinned.

Nicole groaned leaning forward, resting her head in her hands.  She listened to Benedict chuckle from the other side of the table.  

“Well, this is bound to be good.”

“It’s really not all that interesting,” she answered, trying to discourage him from this topic of conversation.

“Come on,” he prodded.  He was good natured about it, and the curiosity was understandable, but who wants to admit to Benedict Cumberbatch that you have issues.  Really, you want to present as a glittery, muffin making unicorn, not a cross between Carrie and Lisa Rowe.  OK, not that bad, but still.

She looked at him for a long moment, running the scenario in her head.  Weighing whether or not it was a bad idea.  No question, it was bad.  Would she talk about it? Probably.  Why?  There is something about him that makes her want to tell him everything.  Which was really inconvenient.  Should she feign illness, and run to her room for the night?  Yes. Absolutely.  RUN, BITCH RUN!  

She watched Benedict, watch her, spinning her wheels.  He looked like he was waiting to hear the last lotto numbers.  A little anxious, wound just this side of too tight.  “Fine,”  she finally relented.

“Excellent!” he said a little too enthusiastically.  

She leaned back in her chair, probably subconsciously trying to get further away from him.  “I made bad decisions in regards to people.”

He nodded, “OK…”

“All the time.  Like, I was the queen of misjudgment.”

He nodded again, more slowly this time.

“One day, I’m on the phone with my best friend.  I’m whining and crying about how I’ve been done wrong again, and how did this happen?” she said dramatically, self deprecating. “How could this happen again?  I asked her, when she says to me, ‘well, let’s take a look at it, you are the only constant in all of these situations’.”

“Oh.  Ouch,” Benedict said.

This time, Nicole nodded.  “Right.  So, I made a decision.  I checked out socially and got a therapist.  For a long time, it was me trying to figure out what it was about me, that made me do this.”

“And you figured it out.”

“I did,” she said.  She didn’t really want to volunteer the information, and hoped that he would let it drop there.

“What was it?”  he was sitting forward now leaning on the table.

She sighed heavily.  Of course he wouldn’t drop it.  “I mean, it’s not that big a deal.  It’s pretty common.  I just didn’t deal well.” she said delaying.  Looking at Benedict, he hadn’t moved, and was waiting for the huge revelation, that frankly wasn’t that huge.  It was just humiliating to have to admit it aloud, to a near perfect stranger, that was smokin’ hot.  “It was just low self worth.  I needed approval from people so I went out of my way to get it.  I was too generous with everything about myself.  Consequently, I was taken advantage of, and must have had a huge target right on my forehead, that everyone could see but me.” She huffed after she spat out her explanation.  Then in one last burst of outrage, “On top of it, I feel like I’m overly sensitive, but the therapist said, he felt I was handling things just fine, I had great coping and reasoning mechanisms, but he understood where I was coming from, that I was gentle. Blah, blah, blah.”

Benedict sat back in his chair and considered her for a moment.  “So you were short on boundaries.”

“Yes.”

“And, I just ran roughshod all over them, pushing you to talk about it.”

Surprised, Nicole didn’t answer him, because he was right.  Only partially, but still right.  But, what do you say to that?  Why yes you did, and to make it up to me, take off your pants.

Sitting back in his chair again, he exhaled heavily.  The glass in his hands, moved in some pattern only known by the holder, held his attention, for more Mississippies than was comfortable.  His eyes met hers, and he brusquely stood up and started removing the plates from dinner.  

“Please, I’ll get that.” she said softly, confused by his behavior.  Was he mad she didn’t counter his claim?  (Which would be wholly unfair, by the way.)  That was the last thing she wanted.  She surely didn’t need him angry with her within the first few days he arrived.  Moreover, she didn’t want him mad at her at all.  That sinking feeling you get in your stomach, when something goes terribly wrong, was starting to emerge.  Everything she had, just moments ago confessed to him, reared its ugly head, and all her coping mechanisms were based on walking away, thinking and reasoning things over, then dealing with the situation.  There wasn’t going to be time for any of that today.  She cursed herself for not being able to jumpstart the process.  Her mind raced to find a way to quickly smooth over the situation.

“No.  I’ll get it.  It’s the least I can do,” he said, and smiled sadly at her.  “I am so very sorry.  I didn’t think it through.”  He stood by the kitchen sink waiting for her answer.  He looked like a sad puppy.

Nicole blinked, still confused, but now in a different direction.  She blinked three more times unable to hide the confusion on her face.  It took a moment, you could almost hear the tires in her brain skidding to a stop, and then the fog cleared, “Oh,” she started, “There’s no need to apologize.”  He wasn’t mad at her, he was mad at himself.  Well, that’s a first.

“Of course there was.” he countered.

“Please, come sit back down.” 

He walked back over to the table and sat.  She smiled, because she was sure she got a glimpse of what he looked like as a contrite, school boy.  

“The boundaries you ‘ran roughshod’ over were not really personal ones.  If I hadn’t wanted to tell you, I wouldn’t have.  I…” she hesitated, trying to find the words, “The boundaries were professional ones.  I didn’t feel like I should over-share with guests.  I mean, who really wants to hear their inn keeper bitch about bad relationships?”

He inclined his head in understanding.

“The real problem is,” she stopped because she knew she was about to over-share again, and this was a monumentally bad idea.  She was not about to tell him he was like some living embodiment of personalized truth serum, and wanted to tell him anything he wanted to know.  “Never mind,” she said.

“No, please.  Go ahead.  Let me have it.  I deserve it.”  

She laughed out loud at his misunderstanding.  He thought she was going to tell him where he was wrong.  “No, it’s not you, it’s me.”  This phrase sent her into more fits of laughter.  This whole situation was ridiculous.  He couldn’t help but smile at her, and even laugh, although it was obvious he didn’t know exactly why he was laughing.

“OK…” he drawled.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh.  This is an example, as you so astutely surmised earlier, of my ridiculousness,” she said.  “Are you cool over there, because everything is fine on my end. 

“Yeah, sure.  If you’re good, I’m good.”

“Great,” she stood and headed for the kitchen, “Let me get you some sugary goodness for dessert,” she said patting him on his shoulder as she walked by.  He reached out and grabbed her hand, and gently pulled her back towards him.

“Nicole, I really am sorry,” he said, his warm, and unnervingly soft hand, still holding hers.  Those remarkable eyes looking up at her.  She felt heat radiate up from where his hand held hers.  

Nicole’s breath caught, feeling like she was on fire, plus, didn’t do herself any favors by looking directly in his eyes.  That was a rookie move.  If he’d been a vampire, he’d have glamoured her in .0000000000000037 seconds.  “I know,” she finally got out, too softly, too breathy. “I-it’s fine.” she managed with a little more authority, although, she nodded her head a little too frantically.  She expected him to let go of her hand.  When he didn’t, panic started its chaotic dance in.  She could not stand here like this, holding his hand, gazing into his eyes, in the middle of her kitchen with a sturdy, freshly cleared kitchen table, Right. There.  She could not do that.  

It took all her will, and all her might, but she summoned up a few ounces of common sense, and snapped out of her stupor.  If he offered any resistance, she would be toast.  She gave his hand a small squeeze and let go, but not before she saw a flash of recognition of his effect on her.  Shit.  Maybe he’ll mistake it for something other than her wanting to have her way with him on the table.  Maybe…  She hurriedly walked through the kitchen and into the formal dining room, where she had left the cupcakes she made earlier in the day.  She thanked whatever deity told her to put them in the other room, so she could collapse instead, onto that table, and catch her breath.  

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 8

Welcome to the theatre…Now you've entered the asylum, this profession unique

 

The evil couch came as a set.  One of the pieces was the evil chair.  Well, it’s actually a chair and a half.  It is the best chair ever.  It is super wide and reclines back like the couch.  Napping in this chair is one of life’s greatest joys.  Other favorite activities in the evil chair include watching TV and reading, which is what Nicole was doing now.  She was in full recline mode, lying on her side reading her new ebook.  It was an indulgence she didn’t often partake of, for obvious reasons, the Inn being what it was.  Today though, she made time to do this.  She needed the distraction from a few days ago.  It had still left her shaken.  Benedict had a look of cheery smugness about him.  Obviously, she couldn’t confirm that, and it might be her overactive imagination, but that’s what it felt like.  She was pretty sure someone should award her an honorary Oscar for her performance of not looking, even though she felt like, a besotted teenaged girl.  Unfortunately, it did seem that was the road she was being pulled down kicking and screaming.  

The front door opened and shut and she looked up from her book to see Benedict walking in waving at her, “Hi!”

“This is a surprise,” she said, putting her tablet down.

“Yeah.  Rewrites and changes,” he said, waving a packet of pages at her.  “They were done with me for the day, so I came back.  No reason sitting around the trailer.  I can learn the new stuff here.”

“Alrighty then.  Can I get you anything?”

“No, no. I’ll just sit here at the table and work, if that’s ok.”

“Sure.  Should I leave you in peace?”

“I just need quiet…”

“OK.  I’ll continue to sit here and read, then,” she really didn’t want to leave her chair.  “If you need anything…”

“Thanks.”

 

About an hour later, Nicole thought she heard a small noise behind her.  She stopped reading, looked up, and listened.  Nothing happened.  She shook her head and began reading again.  The noise happened again.  She put the tablet down and turned her head toward the sound and listened.  Still nothing.  She looked over at Benedict to see if he had heard it, but he had his head buried in his script.  She sighed and picked up the tablet, deciding it was just wind in the chimney.  A few seconds later, a small, balled up piece of paper, landed in her lap.  She looked down at it, fought a smile and continued to read her book.  Bap!  Another ball.  This time it hit her tablet.  She put it down, and looked over at Ben, who was trying to look studious.  “Can I help you?” she asked.

He looked up at her, “No.  I’m fine, thanks,” and turned back to his script.

Nicole did the same, until BAP!.  She slammed her tablet down on her lap and shot a look over at him.  “Dude!  Seriously?”

Benedict fell apart laughing, lying his upper body across the table.  Clearly oh so pleased with himself.

“How old are you, 11?”

“According to the internet, yes.!”  He continued to laugh.

Nicole sighed heavily, pretending to be annoyed.  “Well, knock it off.  You have homework.”

He stood up from his chair it slid back behind him on the tile noisily.  He started walking towards her carrying his script, “I’m bored.”

“Bored?  Again I ask, seriously?”

“They added a whole new scene and it’s all kinds of dialog and shit.”

“Uh, that’s the point, otherwise you’d be in SILENT movies.”

He sat down in the couch that was next to her chair and leaned in over the arm closer to her.  “Help me run lines?”

Nicole opened her mouth, but nothing came out, so she closed it and decided to look at him as if he were crazy, instead.

“Please?”

“Isn’t that top secret or something?” she asked, tapping at the papers with her toe.

“Only mildly.  You won’t tell, will you?”  There was that goofy grin.

God. Damn. It.  She was losing this battle, too!  “I can’t act,” she declared.

“Have you ever tried?”

“Well, no.  But I’ve never tried surgery, and I’m pretty sure I can’t do that either.”

“You can read…”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“From you, moron.”

“Right.  I’m a liar,” she stated.

“No! You’re an actor!” He said triumphantly, as though his point had been made.

She scowled at him.

“Please?” he begged, making a pouty face.

“Boo boo face does not work with me.  Ask all the kids I know.”

“I’ll pay you.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, “With what?”

He thought about it, “Whatever you want.”

“Wow.  You are desperate.”

He nodded frantically.

She sighed, “Fine.  Hand me the script.”

He handed it to her and jumped up from the couch.  Nicole flipped through it.  “Summary?” she asked.

Benedict gave it to her in a few sentences, including a brief narrative of the two characters.  After directing her to the start of the scene, she mumbled to herself, “I don’t even know how to read a script.”

He bounced around excitedly waiting for her.

“Do I read this stuff out loud?” she asked pointing to the paper, “The Ext. and Int. descriptions or ignore it?”

“You can ignore it.”

Nicole slowly rose from her chair, and looked at him with a truly pained expression.  He walked over and grabbed her by her upper arms and looked her dead in the eyes.  “You have nothing to worry about.  This is a safe environment.  No one will make you feel uncomfortable.  You’re safe,” he smiled and nodded happily.

She took a deep breath in and nodded in return.  Benedict stepped back and watched her.  “OK,” she said, “Give me a second,” she closed her eyes, took a deep, steadying breath, then another, and looked at him.  “OK,” this was going to be humiliating.  All that was missing was her in her under ware in front of a classroom.

He nodded once and did, what was obviously his process to pull himself into character.  When he looked up at her, he wasn’t Benedict, and it was really unnerving.  His character started the scene.  It was a loaded conversation; question, answer, question, answer, accusation, then a tirade from Benedict’s character, followed by more arguing.  He launched into his monologue with conviction and presence she’d not ever seen up close before.  She wasn’t a theater person, and didn’t know any actors.  The intensity caught her off guard and she forgot to do anything; blink, move, breath, read her lines.  All she could do was watch him perform.  He was all anger and outrage; piercing eyes, balled fists and tensed shoulders.  The range of his vocal deliveries, was masterful, from a mildly elevated speaking voice to volatile yelling, back down to a deadly whisper.  The delivery was perfect.  Too perfect.  

It wasn’t until Benedict said her name before she snapped out of her shocked state.  “Oh.  Sorry,” she breathed.  “Sorry.  Sorry,” she repeated.  “That was really good!” She said looking at him wide eyed.  

Benedict looked like he was trying to tell if she was kidding or not.  Or maybe trying to figure out why she was so ridiculous.  It could have gone either way.

“No!  Really!  That was so good!  I mean, I was right there!  I totally believed you!”

He smiled, amused, “Thank you.  Why don’t we try it again.  This time, while you are there, in the moment, you respond with the lines…in the moment.”

“Yes.  Of course.  I’m sorry.  You caught me off guard.  It’s my first acting gig, you know,” she joked.

They started again, this time Nicole managed to keep up.  She couldn’t look at him and do it, since she hadn’t memorized her part, and had to read, but it gave him something to react to.

“Good!  Good!  How was that?”

“Really good.  You only missed about a third of it.”

He groaned.  “OK.  Let me see.”  

Nicole handed him the script. While he took a few minutes to go over it, she went and got them a couple of bottles of water.

“OK.  Let’s go again.”

They got into position and started.  It took six times to go through the scene, before it was error free.  “That was perfect!” Nicole smiled.

“Thanks.  Let’s try it again, if you don’t mind.”

“OK.  That’s fine.”

“Maybe, you could, I don’t know, throw a little color in there?” he smiled at her looking excited.

She blinked at him.  

“It’ll be fun!  You’ll see!  It will really help me,” he said by way of persuasion.

She clenched her jaw at the prospect of making a fool of herself.  

“You’ll be great!” He bounced back into position, denying her the opportunity to refuse.  “OK.  Let’s go!”  He said.

They started again, and Nicole tried to give it more ‘color’.  They ran the few lines just before his big tirade.  When they reached his part, he stopped them.

“That’s good!  Now, multiply that intensity by 50!”

Nicole looked dubious.

“You’re doing great!”  He stepped back into position.

Not sure at what level she had began, multiplying by 50 was as arbitrary as anything else.  She tried though, and hoped for the best.  They started again. 

“Great!  Now, let’s try something a little more advanced.”

This time Nicole groaned, “Can’t you admit I suck at this?”

“But you don’t.  You just don’t have any formal training.  Just think about all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen.  You know a lot already.  You just don’t know you know.”

“Right! I don’t know!” She said growing more uncomfortable.

“OK,” he soothed, “think about your character.  Ignore the directions.  Think about how YOU think she would feel and react.  Take a moment. I’ll go get us some more water,” he grabbed the two empty water bottles and jogged off into the kitchen.  She watched him go.  He was so happy right now, completely in his element.  It was beguiling.  But enough of that.  

She closed her eyes again and took in a deep breath.  She replayed the scene over in her mind and tried to feel her way through it.  She mumbled the lines to herself,as well as questions about the character, and a lot of why, why, why.  When she felt she had as much as she ever was going to have, she opened her eyes and found Benedict standing in front of her watching closely.  How long had she been standing there that he was looking at her so intently?  They didn’t say anything for a moment, but then Nicole said, “OK.”

He smiled broadly.  “OK.  Don’t think, just do.”

She nodded.  Panicking was not an option, neither was fear or embarrassment.  She would worry about the consequences after.  Right now, right in this moment, all she could allow was space for the character.  Nicole found herself adjusting her body physically.  She angled her body away from Benedict’s, and stood a little taller her back a little straighter and prepared for this clash.  They began, and she took his advice, and didn’t think, just did.  His character came at her, and hers fired right back.  The push and pull and agony of their interaction played out until its heartbreaking resolve.  

Benedict stepped out of character and watched Nicole.  Her breathing was labored and her eyes almost frantic.  He tentatively walked up to her.  “Well.” He said gently, wiping a tear off her cheek with his thumb, as he smiled.

Nicole looked like she didn’t immediately recognize this Benedict standing in front of her.  Meeting his eyes, she composed herself and took a step back.

“You OK?” he asked.

She nodded, “That was intense,” she said softly, and wiping her face with the palms of her hands.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.  That was beautifully done.”

She bent over at the waist, resting her hands on her knees, laughter welled up out of her as she shook her head.  Emotionally, she didn’t know what else to do, so laugh, it was.

“How did it feel?” he asked.

“Emotional.  I feel like all my nerves are on the outside of my body.  You guys live this way?” she asked, incredulous.

He smiled.

“No wonder you’re all bat shit.”

“Yes.”

“Um…I think I need a break from this, OK?”

“No, that’s fine.  I think we’re done here.  Thank you, for helping me.”  He walked over and wrapped his arms around her in a really good hug.  I mean, a really good hug.  His hands gently stroked her back, holding her close, trying to settle her nerves.  She allowed herself to hug him back with as much gusto as he hugged her.  The toll their rehearsal took on her had been demanding. Benedict rested his head on top of hers, “Who’s my little protege?”  he chuckled, proudly.

Nicole laughed, too.  “I don’t think anyone is looking over their shoulder at me.  Their parts and awards are safe,” she drew back from the hug because it was starting to feel too good.  He was too warm and smelled too yummy and his arms…yep time to pull back.

“I don’t know.  You might be able to give them a run for their money,” he smiled at her.

“You’re just buttering me up, so I’ll run lines with you again.  You can’t fool me,” she slowly, started backing out of the room.  “I’m just gonna go upstairs and freshen up,” she said pointing backwards with her thumb.

He nodded, and she tried to leave the room without looking like she was running for her life.  Which, actually, now that she thought about it, was a good idea.  She should go to the gym and run this shit off.  The clock said she had enough time to do just that before dinner had to be started.  This was better, she had a plan.  One that didn’t involve emotionally volatile situations or hugs with Benedict.  A.  Very.  Good.  Plan.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 9

It's a ding dong treat, Knittin’ socks for little feet

 

Friday night Nicole gently tried to find out Benedict’s plans for Saturday.  She did know he didn’t have to work, since she was emailed his schedule regularly.  The question became, was he going to sleep in?  Was he going to stay on his sleeping schedule?  Who does that, anyway?  Get up early, but not so early?  Enquiring minds wanted to know.  It made planning around meals and such easier.  She didn’t want to bust out with, “Are you sleeping in or what?  I have a life ya know!”  That not being very host like and all.  Finally, after some leading questions, she got he planned on sleeping in, but not too late.  Whatever that meant.  She was gathering around 9:00 or 10:00.  That seemed a reasonable assumption.  

The trouble with guests, is that you had to meticulously plan your down time.  If you had errands to run or wanted to do something social, arrangements had to be made.  Most of the time, it wasn’t that difficult.  Guests were usually out during the day, which left time for her own activities.  She just had to make sure their needs were met.  She didn’t expect much difficulty with Ben being the only guest, plus he wasn’t very demanding, truly one of the easier guests she’d had.  

Saturday morning, Nicole was up before Benedict, and had breakfast and lunch set up for him, in case she didn’t make it back by lunch time from getting stuff done.  It wasn’t like she had a huge list of things to do, but stuff nonetheless.  As she was typing another item into her to-do list, she heard Benedict making his way downstairs.  When he finally stepped into the kitchen area, smiled at his appearance.  Clearly, sometime this week, he had decided he was comfortable enough to come down freshly out of bed.  She could imagine how he was probably still extra warm from being cocooned in blankets.  Oh God…  He sat down at the table across from Nicole, leaned against the back of the chair and closed his eyes, resting his hands on his stomach.  “Good morning, Sleepy Head,” she smiled.

Benedict frowned.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Good morning Mr. Just Ben,”

Benedict smiled. “That’s better.  It’s only been a week.  You can’t abandon our thing already,” he said, his voice gravelly from sleep, eyes still closed.

“OK. Sorry,” she watched him, he didn’t move.  He sat there breathing, she watched the slow rise and fall of his chest, waiting for him to do or say anything.  He didn’t have to, she was fine watching him breathe, but she also didn’t want to be creepy about it.  “Maybe you should go back to bed.” she suggested.

He opened one eye and looked at her.  “Why?”

She shrugged.  “Because you’re asleep at the table.”

He closed his one eye.  “I’m just resting.  Waking is hard work. I need recovery time.”

She nodded and realized he couldn’t see her.  “Right.  Would you like some coffee to help?”

“I would love some coffee, thank you.”

Nicole got up and started a pot for him.  When it was finished, she brought him the press and everything else he needed, since he hadn’t moved.  “There you go.”

He opened his eyes and moved to the table and made his cup.  “Thank you,” he smiled at her.

“My pleasure.”

He took a few sips, and got up from the table and went into the kitchen.  

She watched him take out a plate and cutlery and began to pull things for breakfast.  Nicole stood and headed into the kitchen to stop him, “Let me get that.”

He looked at her amused.  “It’s fine.  I think I can be trusted to make a bagel.”

“No, it’s not that. I should be doing that for you,” she reached for the items in his hand.

He pulled them away, grinning at her, “It’s Saturday.  Relax.”

“It really doesn’t work that way.”  They looked at each other in a sort of stare off.  When Nicole didn’t back down, he maneuvered around her and over to the toaster.  “Can I just,” she said, reaching for his stuff, he moved it out of her way again.

He laughed, “You are positively vibrating, this is driving you so mad.”

“Well,” she huffed.

“Nicole,” he said, and her heart constricted at hearing him say her name, “I would like to make my own bagel.  May I make you one while I’m at it?”  His eyes were playful and it was obvious he was ready to wrestle her for the cream cheese if necessary. 

Nicole dropped her arms to her side, defeated.  “No, thank you.  I ate already.”

“OK,” he smiled and went back to making his breakfast. 

Nicole wandered out of the kitchen, beaten, but paced back and forth in front of the counter watching him, wringing her hands.  Benedict turned around and caught her.  She stopped moving and looked at him.  “Oh my God!” he laughed. 

“I can’t help it.”

“You have issues,” he pointed his butter knife at her.

“We’ve had this conversation already.”

He sighed heavily, and walked over to her.  He put down the knife and placed his hands on her shoulders.  Nicole’s eyes darted from one shoulder to the other, than up at him.  “I understand this is your job, and you are brilliant at it.  Truly.”

“But,”

“However,” he corrected.

“That's a fancy but,” she countered.

He slowly blinked once at her, clearly trying to process her ridiculousness again, “I do not need to be coddled, well, not all the time,” he grinned.

Nicole took in a deep breath and let it out.

“Why don’t we relax the rules on the weekends, hmm?”

Nicole agreed by way of nodding.

“Wonderful!”  He released her shoulders and went back into the kitchen.  

Nicole had to look down at her shoulders again to make sure there weren’t scorch marks where his hands had been, since that area was on fire.  Maybe she was allergic to him and that’s why every time he touched her, she felt like she would go up in flames.  Yeah, let’s go with that, she thought.  I’ll go get myself some Ben-adryl.  She laughed at her own joke as she sat down.

“Something funny?”  Benedict asked.

Well, that was a joke she couldn’t share.  “Just laughing at how ridiculous I am.”

After Benedict had made his breakfast, he sat at the table with Nicole while she contemplated what else needed to go on her to-do list.  “What are you working on?”

“Just a list of things I need to get done.  I have to write them down, or I will forget the moment I walk out the door.”

“Oh?  Like what?”

“Uh, well,” she stammered, “I need to go to the grocery store, then I need to get some supplies for Christmas gifts, finally I have to pick up my bow.  There are other things, but that’s all that has to happen today.”

He took a bite of his bagel and nodded, fiddling with what was left on his plate.  He was now, obviously, distracted by his thoughts.  

Nicole watched him to see if he was going to say something else, worried that she had somehow said something wrong.  Finally she asked, “Did I say something?”

He leaned back, “No, not really.  I’m just, reminded that I can’t really do things like that, anymore. You know?”

Nicole nodded.

“I actually miss going to get groceries.”

“That’s a statement, right there.”

“I shouldn’t complain.”

“Why not?  Because you’ll sound ungrateful?”

“Yeah.”

“Not here you won’t.  Not about this.  Loss of privacy seems like its own special hell.”

“I love my job.  I love the fans.  I just…” he paused, “would like a fucking minute to myself," he grumbled.

All Nicole could do was nod.  This was way outside her knowledge base.

“Am I an asshole?”  he asked, leaning forward on the table.

Nicole shook her head, “No.  Not at all,” she reached over and touched his arm.  He placed a hand on top of hers.  “Would you like to run mundane errands with me today?  We can disguise you up, and make a go of it.”

His eyes lit up.  “Can I?  You think people will know?”

Nicole shrugged, “We can try?”

“Yes!  Let’s try!”  he said, standing up.

He was so excited. Nicole found it hard to not share in it.  Such a simple thing, buying salad, and he was over the moon.  “Are you going to finish that bagel you fought me for?” she said looking at it pointedly.

He grabbed it up and took a bite, “I’m gonna go shower and change!” He said with his mouth full before running off.  

“Ok, then,” Nicole said to herself.  She went upstairs and, from her extensive t-shirt collection, pulled out one that had the local high school mascot on it; The Mustangs.  She checked the tag and was reasonably certain the shirt would fit Benedict.  He’d also need a hat.  Not that flat cap he was so fond of, that would make him stick out like a sore thumb around here.  She’d check to see if he had a baseball cap.

When she heard him leave his room, she left hers and met him in the hallway.  He was in board shorts, good, flip flops, also good, and a t-shirt. That was good too, hers was better.  “Here,” she said, handing it to him.  “No one would think someone like you would be wearing a local high school shirt.”

He pulled off the t-shirt he was wearing and handed to Nicole, taking the other one.  She tried desperately to not look at his bare chest, by folding up the discarded shirt.  “How do I look?” he asked, smiling, once he had it on.

“Better.  Do you have a baseball cap?”

He thought about it, “No.”

“Follow me,” she said walking back into her bedroom.  There was a slight pang of hesitation.  Should she have left him in the hallway?  Oh well, too late now.  She opened her closet and stepped in pulling out a selection of a few hats.  They all had local sports teams on them.  When she walked out , he was turning in a circle, taking in her room.  She didn’t say anything until he turned back to face her.  

He smiled brightly, “So, this is where the magic happens!”

Nicole could not stop the blush, and could not come up with a witty comeback.  She shook her head, “Nonotreally,” she mumbled handing him the hats.

Benedict laughed and Nicole felt herself turn a brighter red.  “Which do you recommend?”

“The black and orange one.  They'e a local favorite," she waved her hand in the general direction of the hats, avoiding eye contact.

He handed her the other two hats and put on the one she suggested,  “How do I look?”  He smiled.

So fucking adorable.  “It’s good.  You look good.  So, If anyone asks, your my cousin visiting.”

“Right.  Thanks for this,” he said, stepping to her and embracing her in a hug.  She hugged him back, and couldn't help but smile.  Until she realized she was hugging Benedict Fucking Cumberbatch in her God Dammed bedroom.  Fucking hell.

 

Nicole and Benedict climbed into Nicole’s car.  She hooked up her phone and then joined Benedict in putting on their respective seat belts.  Nicole turned to him and said, “There are rules in this car.”

He smiled, “OK.”

“I’m not kidding.  The will be followed, no questions asked," she said pointing at him.

He stopped smiling, “OK.”

“The music will be loud.  There will be singing. Car dancing MUST occur.  There will be no judgement, pointing or laughing at any inherent lack of talent.”

Benedict laughed, “OK.  I thought you were serious, like no talking or some shit.”

“No, but I am serious about the rest.”

“OK.”

“No, really.”

“I got it.  I can car dance with the best of them.  Plus, I have a lovely singing voice,” he grinned.

“I know.”

“Do you?” He grinned.

She made a ‘whatever’ face at him, “Quit fishing for complements.”  She leaned over and hit the start button on the car.  It’s customary “Hello” flashed across the dashboard and she turned to Benedict.  “80’s?”  She asked him.

“Works for me.”

She selected her 1980’s playlist and turned up the volume.  The first band to play was Duran Duran.  She cheered, “YES!” and began dancing as she put the car in gear and head out to run the errands.  Just as promised, there was singing, loudly.  There was dancing, badly.  There was fun and hilarity had by all.  

“Do you do this every time you go somewhere?” Ben asked.

“Mostly.”

“Do people say anything?”

“Probably.  Sometimes people join in,” she shrugged and smiled, thinking specifically of the guy at the McDonald's drive through window.  That was fun!

Nicole pulled up in front of a small storefront with the name Passionknit hand painted across the window, and turned off the car.  “First stop,” she declared.

He looked at the store, “A knitting store?” He turned to Nicole, “You knit?” he was dumbfounded.

She pulled back from him a bit, “Yes.  What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. I,” he stammered, “I wouldn’t have expected that from you.”

“Why?”  She wasn’t sure if she should be defensive or not.

“You’re not an 80 year old English grandmother in a rocking chair.”

She pointed at him, “Yet!”

He laughed, "Noted."

Inside the store, Nicole sighed with happiness, because lets face it, yarn is yummy.  She moved around examining the cubbies that lined the walls.  They were filled to the brim with yarn of different weights, colors and textures.  She stopped to touch each one as she passed by, and occasionally pulled a skein out and examining it closely.

“Hi!” A cheery saleslady greeted her, “Can I help you find something?”

“Not really.  I’m just looking for some yarn to make hats and scarves for my best friends kids for Christmas.”

“Really?” Ben asked, truly curious.

“Yes,” Nicole said.

“Well,” the sales lady said, “If you need anything, just let me know,” she smiled and headed off to parts unknown.

“How many do you have to make?” Ben asked.

“Four sets.”

“Is that a lot?  It sounds like a lot.”

“Well, kinda.  The pattern is really simple, because I’m not that good, so if I work steadily, I should be OK.  If I’m late, that’s OK, too.  They don’t care.  I’ll get them gift cards or something, too.”

“Can you knit jumpers, too?”

Nicole eyed him.  “No, I don’t thinks so.  It’s hard, it has arms and stuff.”

“What else do you make?”

“I can make socks!” she declared, proudly.

“Really?  That seems hard.”

“It’s fiddly, but fun.”

“I love hand knit things,” he smiled.

And there it is.  “Do you?  I do, too.”

“Yeah.  I don’t really know anyone who knits, though.”

“That’s a bummer.  Tough break.”

“Are you going to make me beg?”

“Hell yeah I’m gonna make you beg!”

“Will you please make me something?” he smiled, trying to be adorable, and succeeding.

“No.”

“What?  No?  Why?”

“I hardly know you!  I’ve known those kids their whole lives.  If I make those kids something, they will love it because their Auntie Nicole made it for them, and won’t care if there is a mistake in it.”

“I don’t care if there is a mistake!”

“But, I do!”

“Come on.  Please?  I will love it.  I promise!”  In that moment he looked like his Sherlock character, pleading with her, his hands steepled in front of his mouth.

“No,” she didn’t sound all that convincing.

“Something small.  Something simple.”

“I have never seen you wear anything other than sweaters.  I don’t do that.”

“Only because I don’t have any other knit items.”

“I’m gonna call bullshit on that.”

“I don’t!”

“Can’t you go to Etsy like everyone else.”

“Please?”  He made sad Benedict eyes, and she felt herself caving again.

“What if I can’t finish before you leave?”

“You can mail them!” he was starting to get excited.

She sighed.  “Fine.  Go pick out some sock yarn.”

“Yes!  What’s sock yarn?”

She pointed to the corner of the store.  “Over there.  Check the yardage and make sure there is enough.  It should say.”

Ben walked off smiling like a small child who was just told they could pick out a toy.  Meanwhile, Nicole picked out yarn for her projects, plus some to add to her stash, not that her stash of yarn was getting any smaller, it was just what you did, like an offering.  A lovely yarn stash offering.  Ben came back with a skein of yarn in vibrant blue colors.  

“That,” she looked pointedly at the skein, “That’s what you want?” she asked, surprised at the vividness of the yarn

“Yeah," he said, so obviously thrilled with his choice.

She took the skein from him and examined it, “Good.  You won’t have to wash these by hand.”  She added it to the pile in her arms.  “That it?  You don’t want stripes or anything?”

“I can have stripes?” he said way too excitedly.

Nicole looked at him and now agreed with the internet, the first number in his age was silent.  He is a giant child.  “Sure.  I can manage that.  Horizontal stripes, that is.”

Benedict plucked the yarn from her arms and dashed back over to the corner of the store.  Eventually he came back with another skein in a single color, muted blue.

“Oh, that will look nice,” she smiled up at him, “You’re good with color.  That’s a gift.  I can’t match anything to save my life.”

His smile for her was endearing, and the genuine sincerity of it made her blush.  “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

She shrugged, taking the yarn from him and rearranging it in her arms, so she didn’t have to meet his gaze.  “Ready?” she asked.

He nodded and they made their way to the register.  Nicole dropped the big, squishy pile of yarn on the counter.

“Will this be all?” the clerk asked.

“Yep,” Nicole answered.

Ben tried to pull his yarn out of the pile.

“What are you doing?”  Nicole asked, “Did you change your mind?”

“No, I was going to buy it myself.”

The clerk watched the exchange between the two, her eyes darting back and forth.

Nicole took the yarn back from him and put it on the counter and smiled at the confused clerk.  “I got it,” she said to the both of them.

Benedict started to protest and, was cut off.

“The socks are a gift,” she said, simply.  “It’s my gift to you.”  They stood at the counter looking at each other, Nicole somewhat challenging him to protest, but him, it was more a look of gratitude and something else.  

The clerk cleared her throat when the silence was too much for her.  “Cash or credit?”  she asked, needing the tension to be brought down a notch.

Nicole handed over the credit card and smiled politely.  

 

Once squared away in the car, Benedict turned to Nicole, “Thank you.”  His voice was low and deeper than usual, affected by emotion.

“It’s just socks,” she said quietly, busying herself with the car controls, “It’s not like an ovum or anything,” she tried to joke, because she was affected by his emotion.

He chuckled, “Right.  Thank you, just the same.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 10

Shoot that poison arrow

 

With the music turned up to a level that would preclude any more uncomfortable conversation for Nicole, they headed for the next errand downtown.  Since the city decided to keep the charm of the heart of it’s central area, it retained much of its picturesque character.  The streets and medians were lined with trees that were woven with white lights that lit up at night, while the lamp posts adorned with hanging flower pots overflowed with vibrant blossoms, and the building fronts were restored to their original states, with a few minor changes, mostly in delightful colors.  As they walked down the sidewalk, Nicole pointed out a few interesting tidbits about the town.  This was the first that, and over here, there used to be a something else.  

A few yards in front of them, they approached a large, 3D foam Velociraptor standing about 4.5 feet tall and about 8.5 feet long.  Benedict pointed, and moved towards it.  “What’s up with this?”  He asked, placing his hand on the dinosaur’s head grinning.  Nicole wished she had a camera to capture the moment. 

“The archery store puts it out,” she answered, smiling.

“This is cool,” he patted its head.

She agreed.  “Some of the tournaments shoot 3D stuff like this,” she said, nodding her head at the doors of the store, and walked in, Benedict following her.  

“Hey, Nicole!  Your bow’s all ready to go,” John, one of the men behind the counter, called to her as she walked in.  “I’ll go get it for you.”

“Thanks,” she smiled.

Benedict’s look of bewilderment was priceless, “When you said you had to pick up your bow, I thought you meant like ribbon or violin or something.”

Nicole nodded, “That’s fair.”  She watched Benedict look around the store, taking in the walls covered in hunting accessories and varying types of bows.  

“Which kind do you shoot?” he asked.

“That kind!” she smiled as John walked out with her black compound bow and case.  She took the bow from him and looked it over.  

“You shoot that thing?” Benedict asked.

“Yes I do,” she couldn’t help but grin.  She puffy heart loved her bow.  She turned to John, “Can I test it out?”

“Sure.” The walked around a corner, through a hallway and into another long room, set up as an indoor range.  At the far end, there was a barrier large enough to accommodate 8 archers shooting, although no one was there now.  John moved the paper tuner in front of the wall, and Nicole stood a few yards back.  She grabbed her arrows and release and set up to take her shot.  She fired one arrow and John took a look at the pattern it made on the paper.  

“Shoot another…” he instructed her and she did.  “Looks good!  How does it feel?”

“Fantastic!  The new strings feel amazing!”

“Wanna shoot a few at 20?”

“Absolutely!”  Nicole grabbed her arrows and moved back to the 20 yard mark, while John put a target up on the wall.  

“Shall we make it interesting?”

Nicole glanced at Benedict debating how bad John would make her look in front of him.  “What did you have in mind?”

He went to a box and pulled out a foam ball target.  Essentially, it was a foam ball about the size of a golf ball, connected to a stiff cable, attached to a wooden pin.  The idea is to hang the ball over the bull’s eye, and well, shoot it.  She had only done it a few times, and only in one session.  She was pretty sure it was luck, rather than skill that facilitated those shots.

“I’ll try,” she said, clearly skeptical about the idea.

Benedict leaned down next to her ear, “You can hit that?”

She turned her head a little towards him, “Sometimes?”

Benedict stood back up, turned his baseball cap around backwards to make sure he wouldn’t miss anything.  He mumbled something about her being Merdia, while crossing his arms over his chest.

Nicole took a few calming breaths and set up for her shot.  She drew, acquired the target, took a deep breath, counted and released.  Close, but no banana.  It was inside the second ring, but not a bull’s eye.

“You’re watching the arrow,” a voice boomed from behind her.  

She turned and smiled, “Hi Mike,” she greeted her instructor.

“Quit lookin’ for the arrow!  It’s not going anywhere.”

Nicole huffed, “Right.  I didn’t realize.”  She took off her glasses and handed them to Benedict.  “Hold these will you?”

He took the glasses and could not disguise the look of disbelief.  You could tell he was clearly thinking, ‘Is that the best idea?  You know shooting without your glasses…that you need…TO SEE!’

Taking off her glasses was the only way she could convince her brain to not look for the arrow.  Since she couldn’t see it anyway, why look?  Of course, this did make targeting a little more challenging.  She would aim at the slight red, fuzzy dot at the center of the yellow and hope for the best.

Nicole set up again, went through her routine, and shot.

“Close,” Mike confirmed.

Nicole shot several more arrows, all grazing and circling around the ball, but not hitting it.

“You’re killin’ me!” Mike said.

Nicole steadied herself and shot again, and was rewarded with a resounding thwap! 

“You got it!” Mike laughed, “Finally.”

Finding her stride, Nicole shot the rest of her arrows and hit the ball four out of her last six shots.

“Nice,” Mike said patting her on the shoulder, “You been practicing?”

“When I can.”

“Practice more,” he turned to Benedict and extend his hand.  “Hi, I’m Mike.  Ekim if you say it backwards.”

Nicole rolled her eyes at his standing joke, as Benedict extended his hand.  

“Benedict, pleasure to meet you.”

Mike’s eyes narrowed, “You from England?”

“Yes.  London.”

“You know, I’ve shot a lot of tournaments in the UK,” he started.

“May I get my arrows?” Nicole interrupted, having heard these stories before.

“Archers collect your arrows!” he boomed throughout the room.  Safety first.

Nicole set her bow down, and wandered up to collect, carefully studying her grouping before removing them from the target.  She walked back to the two men laughing at whatever joke one of them told, probably Mike.  He had jokes.  Lot’s of them, being the big, affable character he is.

“The zombie shoot is coming up,” he said to her, when she returned to the men.

“I was thinking about it.”

“You need to do some tournaments to get better.”

“I know.  I’ll do it if the Inn is quiet.”

“Do it anyway.”

Nicole laughed, “Yes, sir.”

“Are you going to shoot more?” Benedict asked.

“No, not today.  We still have another stop to make,” she turned to Mike, “I’m gonna schedule another lesson, soon.  I can’t seem to shoot uphill for shit.”

“Downhill’s OK though?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Hmmmm.  Ok.  I’ll fix you.”

“Cool.  See you soon,” she said, grabbing her stuff.

“Nice to meet you,” Benedict said to Mike, then gave Nicole her glasses after she packed up her equipment.  They walked into the store, where Nicole payed, and they headed back to the car.

“That was impressive,” Benedict said.

“Thanks,” she said loading the things into the car then they climbed in.

He turned sideways in his seat to look at her, “You’re kind of dangerous.”

Nicole shook her head, putting on her seatbelt. “No, not really,” she said softly, embarrassed by the flattery.

“It’s pretty hot,” he grinned.

She looked up at him, plainly shaken by his statement, blushing furiously.  “I…” she paused, “I don’t know what to say to that,” her eyes now looking anywhere at him because, oh dear lord.  He laughed heartily as she pushed the start button and took the parking brake off.

He leaned in until he was about six inches from her,and said, “You say, ‘thank you’.  It was a compliment.”  The baritone of his voice, and his breath on her ear, very nearly caused her to burst into flames.  He had to be doing that on purpose, there is no way in hell he didn’t know how he affected people, and it was seriously not OK for her.

“Thank you,” she said, doing her best to hold it together, shifting the car into gear.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 11

I'm all lost in the supermarket

 

 

 

Nicole grabbed the reusable grocery bags and her iPad with the shopping list on it and headed into the grocery store, grabbing a cart on the way in.  This is where her concern about Benedict’s anonymity might be in jeopardy.  Saturday, is usually one of the busier days at the store, she hoped he had mastered his ability to blend in.  

“Where’s the list?” He asked beaming.

She marveled at the joy he was experiencing at doing something so mundane, and her heart did a thing when she thought about it, so she would not think about it.  “It’s on here,” she held up her tablet.

“That makes it challenging to split up.” 

“We’ll have to put your superior actor memory skills to the test.”

“Challenge accepted!”

“OK,” she pulled up the list, “First five on the list?”

He read it over, “I’m on it,” and he took off toward the vegetables.  

Shortly after taking off, he returned with all five items, looking pleased with himself.  “Next?”

She smiled, and showed him the next few items on the list.  “I’ll get through here,” he said, pointing a few items down.

“OK.”

He was as good as his word and returned with the items he promised and dropped them into the cart, along with the things she had collected.  “I was thinking.”

“Oh?”

“We should have a movie night, tonight.”

She nodded, “OK.  I have popcorn, but you’re in charge of snacks.”

“What do you feel like watching?”  His excitement threatened to bubble over.

“No horror and nothing that is going to make me cry.”

A grin spread across his face, and he crinkled his nose. “Really?”

She shook her head slowly, “Nooooooo.  I can’t hang.  That shit will give me nightmares for weeks.”

He laughed, “Really?”

“I am the biggest weenie, ever.  And, I can not be in that big old house by myself with all the creaking and what not.”

“I’ll be there,” he offered.

“I still have to sleep alone.”

Mischief shone in his eyes, and he opened his mouth, for what Nicole was sure was going to be an epic choice of words to embarrass her, when his phone rang.  

“Saved by the bell,” she mumbled, and went back to her shopping list.

“This isn’t over,” he said, pulling his phone out.  “Hello,” he answered, not bothering to check the ID.  “Hey mate!” he greeted.  “I’m well, how are you?”  He held up a finger to Nicole and wandered off to take the call, giving Nicole some much needed breathing room.

He eventually found her in the meat department eyeing the selection.  “Sorry about that.”

“No need to apologize.”  She inclined her head at the case, “Anything pique your interest?”

He was standing behind her, just to the left.  He leaned over her shoulder and peered at the case.  When he couldn’t quite see to his right, he leaned farther forward, leaning against her.  “That one,” he said next to her ear, pointing around her back, to his choice, then standing back.

Nicole nodded and picked up the package stuffing it into the clear plastic bag, wishing she could walk into the meat locker to cool down.  She was pretty sure she was going to go down in the history books as the only person on earth to literally, spontaneously combust.  Which would put Benedict in the books, too, that is if they figured out it was all his fault.  Any one of his fans would immediately know.  ‘It was his voice,’ they would say.  ‘It’s the only explanation.’  They would shake their heads sadly, knowing it could have been any one of them, and disappointed it wasn’t.  Because honestly, what a way to go.

“Anything else?” she asked, proud her voice sounded normal, and not at all like she was hyperventilating.

He walked along next to her examining various packages and occasionally, handing Nicole one, his expression asking for approval.  Nicole always gave it enthusiastically.  It was actually pretty nice having him shop with her, letting him pick what he wanted made him happy and helped ease her burden of coming up with a menu from scratch.  

“So,” she started, “can we get a comedy or action movie or something?”

“Sure.  I was only taking the piss, you know,” he smiled.

“I know,” she assured him.  “So, the Red Box is up front, and you are still on snack duty.”

“Right.  Just so you know, that was a friend of mine on the phone, he’s near by tomorrow, so we are going to meet up.  I’ll probably be gone most of the day.”

“Fun!  If you need recommendations, let me know.”

“Thank you.  OK, I’m off to find movies and snacks,” he said taking off.

Nicole slowly made her way through her list while Benedict was off procuring his list.  She hit the candy aisle and found him with a little boy, they were discussing the merits of the different candy types.  The boy couldn’t have been more than five, and had one of the bags open, systematically eating his way through his treasure, gesturing in-between mouthfuls in the course of his explanation.  Apparently, the boy had given the topic considerable, and rational thought, about what should be consumed during a movie and when.  It was a very serious matter.  She watched, stifling a laugh, trying to decide how to approach the situation, when she saw a father pushing a cart with a little girl in the seat, looking like he lost someone.  

Nicole walked to him, “Are you missing a little boy?”

His eyes widened, “Yes!”

“This way,” she smiled.  The got to aisle and she said, “Evidently, he is with the man-child I should have kept an eye on,” she looked at him wryly. 

He sighed, “Jeremy, what have I told you about wandering off?  Give me that bag.”  

The father was surprisingly calm, clearly not his first rodeo.  Benedict stood and walked to her with a variety of candy and dropped them in the cart.  He held up two movies, “OK?”

“Sure,” she said, happy to not have seen either of them.  

“Jeremy there, had very definite opinions about what candy was best for movies.  I took his recommendations into weighted, consideration.”

“I can see that.  And the open bag of candy?”

“I found him like that, promise,” he smiled.  “I figured I stay with him until someone claimed him.”

She nodded, her ovaries aching.  “Well, there are only a couple more things then we can blow this taco stand.”

 

 

Nicole poured the freshly made popcorn into two bowls, and brought them into the family room.  She dropped one on Benedict’s stomach, who was already stretched out on the evil couch, and plopped into her spot on the opposite side of the room.

“Ready?”  Benedict asked, holding up the remote.

“Yup,” she confirmed, as he started the movie.

By the middle of the action film, Nicole was completely engrossed, and sitting forward, gripping the bowl of popcorn like a lifeline; holding her breath, eyes wide in distress.  Of course, something spectacularly surprising happened, she jumped tossing the popcorn all over the floor as she squealed in start.  She fell backwards laughing at herself, covering her face.  “Oh my god, I’m such a dork.  I knew  it was coming and I still jumped!”  It was a good 30 seconds before she composed herself and sat up.  Benedict was still laughing at her.

“Would you mind pausing it?” she asked.

He hit pause on the remote, “People like you are the reason I do what I do.”

She nodded, “Yeah, yeah,” and climbed off the sofa and began picking up the ejected popcorn off of the floor, and tossing it into her shirt to carry to the garbage can.

“Let me help you with that,” he offered.

“No, no.  I’ve got it,” she finished picking up the mess and dumped it in the trash can, then went back to her spot.

“Has anything I’ve done make you jump like that?” He tossed a piece of popcorn into his mouth.

Jump, no.  Turn me into a wanton hussy, yes, she thought to herself.  “Well, I don’t think I’ve ever jumped like that.  But, I have had real, visceral reactions to a lot of your work.”  That’s one way of putting it.

“Oh yeah?”  he grinned.

“Sure,” she smiled, “The best one though, was seeing Star Trek in the movie theater, and when you did you big reveal?  The whole auditorium gasped!  I may or may not have thrown my hands in the air and cheered.”

“Brilliant!”

“It was.  It was a good moment.”

He was looking at her with an expression, she couldn’t quite place.

“What?”  She asked.

Benedict shook his head, “It’s nothing,” he said smiling, the expression gone.  “Restart the movie?”

“Yep.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ch. 12

Just tea for two, And two for tea

 

Sunday morning, Ben’s brisk footsteps echoed down the stairs, and into the kitchen.  It was a sound to which she was quickly becoming accustomed, and found herself looking forward to their arrival.  “Good morning,” he chirped.  

“Good morning, Mr. Just Ben.  What can I get you, today?” she smiled.

“Nothing, this morning, thank you.  I’m headed out.  But I was wondering if you know the Marriott Hotel on First street?”

“In Big City?  Yeah.”

He walked over with his phone and showed her the directions the mapping software gave.  “Is this correct?  Sometimes it gives strange advice.”

Nicole looked over the map and directions.  “Yeah.  I’d go around this way, though.  It’s and easier drive, and exiting here, will give you an easier way to access the parking,” she said rerouting his map.  “Plus, it’s a little quicker.”

“Thank you,” he smiled warmly at her.  “What would I do without you?”

“Spend more time in the car?”

“Right.  So, I’m not sure I’ll be back for dinner.”

She nodded, “OK.  If your plans change, let me know.  You have the number, right?”

“I do,” he leaned against the counter, arms folded casually across his chest.  “What will you be doing today?”

She sighed, and copied his position against the counter, “I have some miscellaneous things that need attending.”

“Will you miss me while I’m gone?” He grinned.  

For someone who had the adoration of millions, he sure did fish for a lot of complements.  She rolled her eyes at him, “I’ll manage, I’m sure.”

He pushed himself up, “I’ll see ya later, then,” he chuckled, and began to walk out.

“Indeed.  Be safe.  DON’T DRINK AND DIRVE!” she called after him.

He turned and smiled at her, “Promise.”

Did he do that on purpose?  Was he trying to evoke the illicit images and sounds of him reading the R. Kelly lyrics?  She didn’t put it past him, there was enough consistent mischief in his eyes that would support the hypothesis.  Choosing to ignore the unsettling memories, she said, “I mean it!  Call a cab or call me or something.”

“Yes madam,” he waved, as he walked out of the room.

 

Nicole curled up on the couch with a movie she had already seen, and her knitting, opting to start on Benedict’s socks.  She had decided to knit them toe up, thinking it would be easier to make sure they fit better, being able to have him try them on as she went.  She had gotten a few inches in when her phone rang. 

“Thank you for calling The Com’on Inn.  How may I help you?”

“Hi Nicole, it’s Ben.”

Her heart stopped for a moment, “Oh my god.  Do you me to pick you up?  You’re not in jail are you?”  Not that she was really worried about him being in jail.

He laughed, “No, nothing of the sort.  I was wondering if we could come back to the Inn for tea?”

“Sure, no problem,” she looked at her watch, 1:30pm. “Four o’clock?”

“That’s perfect!”

After making a quick run to the bakery in town, Nicole came back and set up tea for Benedict and his guest.  She also decided, she should probably change her clothes as a Doctor Who t-shirt and shorts, were probably not the professional image she was trying to project.  As she finished the last of the preparation, the doorbell rang.  “He forget his keys?” She mumbled to herself as she opened the door.

“Hi, I’m Tom, Ben’s guest for tea,” said another of the worlds’ most beautiful men.

Nicole felt her eyes widen in shock.  Ben’s friend…She wracked her brain to recall if he ever mentioned a name or even a man or woman.  He had not.  Now, she was staring at Tom, you know, because that’s what you breezily call him, Tom, standing at her front door.  She tried to say something, but realized she had stopped breathing and her mouth and throat had gone completely dry.  Her mind reeled.  Oh shit, Nicole!  Say something!  Anything!  Don’t just stand there like a complete asshole staring at him.  

“Am, I in the right place?” he asked, stepping back to look at the house number by the door.

Nicole nodded shallowly, then shook her head, trying to snap out of her stupor.  She felt her mind come back to her like someone bursting through the surface of water with a gasp.  “Yes.  Yes you are.  I’m so sorry.  I was just caught off guard,” she scrambled trying to regain her composure.

He grinned broadly, extending his hand, “Tom,” he said.

Nicole reached out and shook it, “Yes, I know who you are Mr. Hiddleston.  Please, come in,” she said, stepping aside to let him enter.

“I take it Ben neglected to tell you who was joining him.”

“Yes he did.  I’m so sorry for my reaction.  I’m usually not so lame.  At least not outwardly.  Normally, I can keep it to myself.”

“No, love.  You were fine.  Really.”

“That’s very gracious of you, but it’s ok.  I know I geeked out,” she motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen area.  “I’d like to think I recovered well, though,” she smiled at him and indicated for him to sit at the counter.

“You did!  Wonderfully!”

“You know, you like to believe if you ever found yourself in situations like this that you would be much cooler about it.  Epic fail.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say epic,” he teased.

She grinned, “So, where’s Ben?”

“On his way, I’m sure.  He got a phone call as we were leaving.  Sent me ahead with the address.”

She nodded, “Well, do you want to start?”

He shook his head, “No, let’s wait for Ben.”

She leaned against the sink and crossed her arms, “What brings you to town?”

“Business.  I was looking into a start up that wants to expand.”

“Wow.  Good for you.”

“Maybe, we’ll see.  Not really my arena.”

“I’m sure you have ‘people’ to help you out,” she said making air quotes around the word people.

“I do, I do.  How long have you owned the Inn?”

Nicole’s demeanor changed, tensed just a little.  She liked to talk about the inn, it was her pride and joy.  Although, the story of how she came to own it and keep it, was a memory that was still raw and painful.  Most of her friends and family didn’t know the details either.  One day she figured she could talk about it, but not today, and certainly not with a complete stranger, no matter who he was.  She started to pull up her defenses and distractions just in case he decided to push.  She hoped she wouldn’t need to use them though, expecting someone with such a public life would understand the desire for privacy.  “I’ve had her about, seven years.  She’s been around for a couple decades, though.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Most of the time,” she smiled.

“Well, it’s lovely here.”

“Maybe you can convince Ben to give you a tour.”

“Why not you?”  Tom said, obviously the practiced flirter.

Nicole shrugged, “It could happen,” she smiled, playfully.

Tom grinned at the flirtation.

“You know, my inner fan girl is screaming right now.”

Tom ducked his head, and laughed his laugh.  Nicole all but died.  He really does laugh like that!

“May I tell you something?”

His grin grew bigger, “Anything.”

Nicole took a deep breath.  “OK.  Stay with me here for a minute, there is a point.”

He nodded.

“I don’t know, if you ever wonder if or how what you do affects people, but I’m sure you know it does.  Yes?” 

“I hope so, it’s why I got into acting.”

Nicole nodded.  “Well, I swore to myself, if I ever got the opportunity, I would tell you, or anyone else, that your work had affected me, and I would thank you.  So, thank you.  Your work is appreciated.”

“Well, thank you, love.  May I ask how?”

Nicole looked at him long and hard debating if she was going to of full tilt fangirl or try to escape with a modicum of dignity.  “I sort of had an ah-ha moment because of your work in Coriolanus.  It’s a long, silly story that I won’t bore you with, but it made me realize how much I like Shakespeare.  So, thank you for reintroducing it into my world.”  Yep, we are taking the no dignity route.  She felt her whole body blush, once again thanking the deities for her pigmentation, so it at least it wasn’t as prominent, and smiled at him.

“Thank you!” he said, clearly meaning it.  “How about a hug?”  He asked, standing, unfolding his lanky frame, his hands pushing down his bunched pant legs.  

Nicole’s inner fangirl squealed, and she endeavored to be cool about walking around the counter to him, trying desperately not to run.  

He opened his arms as she approached.  Wrapping her arms around his waist, she gently hugged him, again trying not to be super creepy.  In contrast, Tom enveloped her in a tight hug, resting his head next to hers and rubbing her back.  What’s a girl to do?  She hugged him just as tightly. Oh my Christ, is he thin! And he does sincerely hug the shit out of you!  This is awesome!  She loosened her grip to back away, again trying not to be too creepy, but he didn’t let go.  Once more, what’s a girl to do? So she continued to hug him.  Dude really loves his Shakespeare. 

The front door opened and closed, and Benedict walked in on the hug.  Tom finally released Nicole, slipping his arm around her shoulder.  “There you are!” Tom greeted him.

“I see you two are getting along.” Benedict said walking into the room.

“Yes,” Nicole said, “And you are in trouble!” she pointed a finger at him.

He stopped in his tracks, “Me?  Why?”  Momentarily, truly worried.

She felt Tom look down at her, as she spoke, “You didn’t tell me your friend was Mr. Hiddleston, and I made a complete ass of myself when he came to the door.”

Tom grinned, “Yeah!” he punctuated her statement,nodding, and looking back up at Ben, “Please love, call me Tom,” he directed at her.

“She doesn’t do that,” Benedict said.

“Do what?” Tom looked up at Benedict.

“Call people by their first names.”

Tom looked back down at her, “No?”

“I generally try to keep it professional.”

“What do you call Ben?  Mr. Cumberbatch?” He laughed.

“He makes me call him Sir,” she bit back her grin, trying to keep a straight face.

“Oh, that’s bullshit!” Benedict laughed.

Nicole laughed heartily, “I know.  Payback.”

“OK, so really?  You call him Mr. Cumberbatch?”  Evidently, Tom was having a hard time wrapping his head around this whole concept. 

“No,” she said simply, looking at Benedict.

With his eyebrows raised, Tom also looked at Benedict.

Benedict plopped himself down on one of the counter stools and sighed, “We have a thing,” he said.

“Do you?  Pray tell?”

Benedict looked at Nicole, “She calls me Mr. Just Ben.”

It took Tom a second to suss it out, but when he put it together, he tossed his head back laughing.  “Boy, does she have your number.”  He turned to Nicole, “I bet he hates that.”

She shrugged, grinning, “He did.  Now he likes it.”

“Does he, now?” Tom and Benedict passed looks between each other.  

Nicole could only see Benedict’s face, as Tom still had his arm around her.  She wasn’t sure what Benedict’s expression meant, maybe she could have figured it out if if she could see Tom, but there was some “Bro” stuff going on there, for sure.  

Though she was not eager to extricate herself from Tom, someone needed to break the silence.  “So, tea?”  She asked, looking between the two of them.

“Yes.  Tea!” Tom said.

Nicole walked to Benedict and put her hand on his shoulder.  “Why don’t you pick out some tea,” she suggested, giving him a reassuring squeeze.  It was silly she knew, but she couldn’t very well, come right out and say, ‘Don’t worry Pookie, you’re still my favorite.’

Their eyes met, and he seemed to get the message.  “Right!” He said standing up.  “What are you in the mood for?” He asked leading Tom to the tea cupboard.

While the two figured out what they wanted, Nicole began heating water.  “Where would you like to have tea?”  She asked.

The two men looked at each other then at her.  Options were clearly not what they were expecting.

“At the table?  Family room?  Living room?  Outside on the patio?”  She offered, as suggestions.

They looked at each other again, and Tom shrugged at Benedict. 

“At the table here is fine,” Benedict said.

Nicole nodded and began moving the food over to the table, along with the accompaniments for the tea, while the two sat back down at the counter.  She turned to them and pointed at the top tray of the tiered server, “Sweet,” she pointed to the middle tray, “Savory,” then pointed to the last tray, “You’re Welcome,” she smiled, walking back into the kitchen.

The two men leaned over to the table to take a look, with more than a little interest.  Nicole finished preparing the tea and set it up on the table with the rest of the setting.

“There you go gentlemen.  If you need anything, I’m within shouting distance, but I’ll be back to check on you in a while anyway.”

“Wait, you’re not joining us?”  Tom asked.

“Noooo,” Benedict drawled.  She doesn’t do that either.”

“Drink tea?”

“No, have meals with her guests.”

Tom looked to Nicole, who smiled and shrugged.  “So, do you eat by yourself every day?”  He asked turning back to Benedict.

“No,” he sighed, “She makes me ask.  Every meal.”

Nicole grinned and Tom laughed again.  “Wow, she really does have your number.”  He turned to address Nicole.  “Sweetheart.  Won’t you join us for tea?”  Both men looked at her, Tom expectantly and Benedict amused, and mildly curious.

“Thank you.  I appreciate the offer, but I actually have some projects that I need to take care of.”

Tom nodded while Benedict looked at her skeptically.  Nicole smiled and slid the pocket door to the kitchen closed.  As she walked away, she heard both men bellow with laughter.  Her insecurities made her jump to the belief they were laughing at her.  The truth was probably closer to then making manly jokes and she happened to be intwined in them.  Taking deep, soothing breaths, she walked to the chair in the formal living room.  Her knitting was waiting for her on the side table.  She took it in hand and proceeded to work on her project.

About 20 minutes later, she went back to the kitchen to check on them.  “How are we doing?”  She asked walking in.  

“Great,” Benedict answered.

She walked to the table, again making sure to gently touch his shoulder as she walked by, and checked the tea pot.  “Let me make you another.”  She said, taking it to the kitchen.

She began to make another, and tried to surreptitiously watch the two men at the table.  They were shooting looks back and forth at each other, holding some silent conversation.  With out looking up to actually watch them, Nicole couldn’t decipher what was going on.  One thing she was sure of, they had been talking about her.  “Are you enjoying your visit?”  She asked, after a minute or two, breaking the silence, because it was killing her.

“Yes, thank you.  How are your projects coming along?”  Tom asked.

“Slowly,” she sighed, “but but well.  Do you need any more treats over there?”  She looked up to the table.

“No, we have more than enough, thank you.”

She nodded and finished up with the new pot of tea, bringing it back over to them.  “Here you go,” she said, placing the teapot down on the table.  “Can I get you anything else while I’m here?”

“No thank you,” Benedict said with an appreciative nod.

She patted his shoulder again and left them to their conversation, while she went to continue work on her project.

 

About a half an hour had passed when she heard the two men open the pocket door to the formal living room.  Nicole set her project down in her lap and looked up at them, “Did you want more tea?”

“No,” Benedict answered, “I was telling Tom about your guest library.  I offered to show him.  I hope that’s alright.”

“By all means,” Nicole started to get up and they waved her back down to her chair.

“Please, don’t mind us,” Tom said.

They wandered closer to Nicole as they made their way across the shelves, commenting on the books.  Benedict smiled at her, when his eyes caught a glimpse of the yarn in her hands.  “Is that mine?”  He asked, pointing.

She nodded, “Yeah, I thought I’d get started and hopefully finish before you go.”

Tom looked over at Nicole’s project then back to Benedict.

“She’s knitting me socks,” he grinned.  

“You knit?”  Tom asked

Nicole nodded.  “Poorly, but yes.”

Tom walked to stand next to her chair, placing his hand over his heart, “I love hand knitted things.”  He used all the sincerity he could muster to throw into that statement.

“You don’t say,” Nicole said wryly.

“I do!  Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who knits.”

Nicole shot Benedict a look that screamed, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’  She looked over at Tom, “Did you two plan this?”

“Plan what?  No.”  Tom looked confused.

“Mmhmm…”

“What does one have to do, to get into your good graces?”  Tom asked.

“Oh, no.  No, no, no,” Nicole said, shaking her head.  

Tom knelt down in front of her, “Please?”

“Fucking hell, Tom,” Benedict chastised his friend.

“You two are a nightmare.  Tom, you don’t wear knitted items either!  Besides, don’t you have a legion of fangirls out there who would knit you a whole wardrobe?”

He sighed, “I do, bless them.  But to have a Nicole original!” 

Boy he’s laying it on thick, she thought.  She looked over at Benedict she caught the irritation in his eyes before he had a chance to hide it.

“How the hell would I even get them to you?”  Nicole tried logic, but knew she was failing miserably at being a hard ass.

“I’ll give you an address.”  His eyes now hopeful.

Nicole huffed and fell back against the chair, “Fine.”  

Tom grinned and jumped up to his feet, “Thank you!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nicole said waving him off.  She stood from her chair and poked him in the chest, and only faltered a little when she was met with hard muscle, “You only get a scarf.  AND you are last on my list!”

“Yes.  Absolutely!”

She crouched down and pulled out a large decorative box, where she kept some of her yarn stash, from under the chair.  Placing it on the seat, she took off the lid and looked to Tom, “OK.  Pick some yarn.”  

WhileTom began poking around in the box, Benedict moved a little closer to get a look.  Tom pulled out a heathered, silver grey yarn and held it up.  “Would this be alright?”

“Sure.  Nicole took the skien and found its match and set it aside.  She grabbed a business card off one of the tables and handed it to him.  “Just, have someone let me know where to send it.”

“Thank you, darling,” Tom said, giving her a great big bear hug.  This man loves his hugs, Nicole was unabashedly glad of it, too.  She hugged him back.

“I’ll try to get it to you for Christmas, but more than likely it will be closer to your birthday.”  She said as Tom released her.

“That would be lovely,” he smiled.  His brows knit together, “You know when my birthday is?”

Nicole could feel Benedict’s eyes on her, and there was no way she was looking over at him.  “I do.  Actually.”

Tom grinned, “And how would you know that?”

“I happened to see it one day, and it stuck,” she tried to sound nonchalant. 

“Did it?”  Looking altogether too pleased with himself, he threw a smug look at Benedict.

“It did.  I happen to have the same birthday.  So, of course it stuck,” she said, waving her hand like she was shooing away the inconsequential information, trying to bring things back down a bit.

Instead, Tom lit up, “We do?”

“Not the same year…”

“Aquarians!  What year?”

“No fucking way.”

“Oh come on…”

“Do I need to take the yarn back?”  Nicole threatened him.

“No! I just-“

“Stop.  I’m not telling you how old I am.”

“Fine.  I’ll let it go…”

She didn’t entirely believe him.  Finally, she looked over at Benedict, who looked thoroughly amused.  “Thank you,” she said and watched Tom struggle not to ask all the questions so obviously dancing behind his eyes.

Tom’s pocket beeped and startled him out of his thoughts.  He retrieved the phone and made an unhappy face.  “Well, as much as I’d like to stay, it appears I have a meeting.”  He looked at Nicole, “Thank you for tea and the scarf.  I’m sure we’ll speak again soon.”  He kissed her European style and gave her another hug.  Nicole had to resist the urge to touch her cheeks.  

Turning to Benedict he extended his arm for a handshake and pulled him into a hug.  “It’s great to see you again.  I’ll try to get together with you before I head out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Benedict replied.

“If things go well, I’ll be back out here, so maybe we can get together then, too?”
“Absolutely.”

Benedict walked Tom to the door, giving him one last hug before seeing him off.  When he shut the door, he turned and found Nicole standing behind him.  He opened his mouth to say something, and she cut him off.

“You.  Follow me,” she said, turning and walking up stairs.  She led him into her office, where she looked in the closet and pulled out a giant, plastic bin, and set it in the middle of her floor.  She sat down next to it and pulled off the lid to reveal it was full of yarn.  Benedict sat down next to her and gave a low whistle.  “You may have a problem,” he looked at the closet and saw there were more bins.  “Are all those filled, too?”

“Yes.”

“You do have a problem.”

“All knitters do.  It’s a known issue and no one is working on it.  Pick some yarn for a scarf.”

He looked at her confused.

“I saw you down there.  You were totally butthurt that I relented and agreed to make him something.  I was going to make you one as a surprise, but…”

He nodded embarrassed, “I was.  So petty.  Thank you.”

“You want to be the favorite, special.”

He laughed and wrinkled his nose, and Nicole’s chest ached at the adorableness of it.  She was afraid she was soon going to have to address these feelings.  Being star struck should have faded by now.  

“So, pick a yarn, from my very favorite yarn stash, and I’ll make you a scarf.”

“Thank you,” he said in earnest.

“You’re welcome.  And just so you know, socks are a way better gift than a plain scarf.”

He grinned at her and for a brief moment, something flashed through his eyes, but he turned to the bin and began rummaging through its contents.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ch. 13

Bad Day

Monday morning, Benedict came bounding downstairs, clearly more rested having a later call time, to greet Nicole with a cheerful, “Good morning!”

“Good morning Mr. Just Ben.  What’ll it be today?”  She said reflecting back his cheerfulness.

He pondered monetarily before coming to a decision about what to eat.  Making himself a cup of coffee, he informed her that he would be late coming back that evening.

“Oh?” She asked, continuing on in her prepping his meal.

“Doing some night scenes,” he explained.  “You won’t need to worry about dinner.  I’ll eat there.”

“OK.”  

After fixing his breakfast, and he had started eating, he asked, “So, what will you do with a whole day free of me?”  He grinned.

“Oh, I don’t know.  Probably something involving a circus and orgies.”

Benedict all but spit out his yogurt.  “Sounds…titillating.”

She nodded.

“So do the orgies and circus animals all happen together, or?”

“What happens on my days off, stay on my days off.”

He looked at her for a moment, “You’re kinda depraved,” he smiled, wrinkling his nose.

She held up her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, “Lil’ bit,” and went back to slicing fruit.

“I love that in a woman.”

“Well then, I’ll keep my eye open for a suitable match for you tonight.  Do you have a minimum height requirement or a problem with facial hair?”

 

Nicole spent the morning doing the mundane things that mere mortals (not movie stars) do.  Cleaning, small household projects, running errands and the like.  Yep, she was all about the glamor.  Not that she hadn't had glamorous moments, because, she had.  It’s not that she couldn’t have more glamorous moments if she pursued them, because she could.  It just seemed, more often than not, that it was more work than she was inclined to undertake.  Emotionally, it would be more tiring than fulfilling she had previously found.  Now, for the first time, in a long time, she was content.  Happy, even.  The information she had gained about herself came with tools, that gave her the opportunity to enjoy her life on her terms.  

There was a period, if Benedict had shown up in her life, it would have thrown her completely.  His being there would have been an unmitigated disaster.  In fact, it was doubtful her former self would have been in the position to buy the Inn and run it.  Initially shaken by his presence, interacting with him, thankfully, did not turn her into a bumbling clown.  All she had to do was deal with whatever it was she was feeling about him.  Or more to the point, for him.

She wasn’t kidding herself, as much as she would like to believe.  It was obvious what was going on.  There was a full blown crush happening.  The depth of it, was still to be determined.  Why the crush was happening was no mystery.  What it was, she was sure, was a cosmic joke.  Every woman has a list of traits and attributes she would like in her perfect man.  Mostly it’s what came up during those nights of girl talk over too many drinks.  Where most of Nicole’s came from were cliche.  Yep, she was likely to marry her father.  She was such a mundane mortal.  

The thing that was alarming, were how many of the boxes Benedict checked off for her.  Even the more ridiculous ones.  Let’s start with her father’s traits, shall we?  English? Check.  Tall and preferably lanky?  Check.  Hazel eyes?  Close.  Dark hair?  Occasionally.  Or, ginger or auburn hair (her first real boyfriend being a red head and all)?  Also, occasionally.  Educated?  Check.  Sharp wit?  Check.  You do see where this is going?  All the more general wants included thoughtfulness, intelligence, kindness, funny, playful, artistic, talented…it’s fucking ridiculous.  Only he’s ridiculous in a good way, not silly like her.  The universe, truly, has a disturbing sense of humor.  

It’s fun to entertain the idea of a romance, but in reality, it’s pretty low on the likely scale.  Yes, he is nice and flirty, but it’s more likely and safer to chalk that up to Benedict being Benedict, rather than Benedict crushing on her.  So, how to address it is the thing.  Does she go with it?  Enjoy the non reciprocated crush for what it’s worth, and deal with the heartache when it comes?  Or try to tamper it down, don’t feed the indulgence?  The second option is probably the smarter of the two.  

Nicole worked at the counter packaging the protein she had bought from the butcher, so it could be put in the freezer in serving size portions, sighing deeply, mulling all this over.  “Yeah, don’t feed the indulgence troll,” she said to herself.  

“I know!”  Nicole heard Benedict say, loudly, from the other side of the front door.  Nicole looked up and listened for him to open it, and come in.  Instead she heard, “I know!  Yes!  No!”  He said something after that was muffled and she couldn’t hear.  “What about the other one?”  he asked again loudly.  Clearly he was having an angry conversation with whoever was on the other end of that call.  “I FUCKING, KNOW!”  

Nicole’s eyes widened in surprise.  Angry Benedict was not something for which she was prepared.  Taking a calming breath, she considered her options.  She could run and hide, an option she liked a lot.  She could pretend that she heard nothing, also a good option.  That was pretty much all she could come up with.  Unless, she decided to stay where she was, and play it by ear when he came in.  It was likely, considering the intensity of the conversation, that he would retreat to his room and she wouldn’t see him until he’d gathered his wits about him.

“What about the other thing?”  He asked, voice still raised. 

Nicole quickly rinsed her hands and went about, pulling out the makings for a vodka tonic.  Setting them on the counter, she waited for an indication on what to do.  She felt mildly guilty for eavesdropping, but not enough to stop.  

“Well I’ll tell you what!” he yelled, “Don’t tell me how to do my god damned job and I won’t fucking tell you how to do yours!”

Nicole stood frozen, anger not being her best emotion to deal with.  The anger issues she had come from the other side, fear of it.  Quickly she made the drink, strong, thank you very much, and was just dropping the lime wedge in when she heard the door open and close.  His footsteps into the kitchen were forceful, and she froze as he walked in.  He didn’t look up at her, so she fiddled with the materials she was using to wrap up her purchases.  

Benedict sat heavily into a chair at the table.  Putting his phone down, he cradled his face in his hands.  Nicole wasn’t sure he realized she was there.  Walking to the table, with the drink in hand, she gently set it down next to him.  He looked up at the drink, then her, and the tension he was carrying eased.  His shoulders dropped, as he huffed out a relieved breath, thanking her with his eyes.  She gently patted his shoulder and walked back into the kitchen.  

Carefully and discreetly, she watched him, as he got about three quarters of the way through his drink, Nicole pulled out another glass and made a second drink.  The moment he finished the first one, she was there, handing him the second.  He chuckled as he took it, “Thank you,” he said.

She nodded and took his empty glass from him.  He finished the second drink, and she brought him a third. He outright laughed at her.  She smiled and went back to her post.  “I’m sorry you had a bad day,” she said softly.

“Thank you,” he smiled at her looking down at his glass lost in thought again.  

Nicole continued what she had been doing and left him to his thoughts.  If he wanted to talk, he would.  After a few minutes of silence, and about half way through his drink, he looked up at her, “Nicole?”

“Yes?” Nicole ignored the butterflies in her stomach when he said her name.

“I know I said I wouldn’t be here for dinner, but-”

She raised her hand to stop him, “You don’t have to ask.”

“I can reheat something, if that’s easier,” he offered

She rolled her eyes at him, “Because I’m gonna let that happen,” she grinned.

He downed the rest of his drink and she brought another one.  This time she pulled out a chair and sat in front of him.  He sat up, amused and surprised.

She thought about what to say, not wanting to come off as nosey.  “I know that you have people.  Family, friends, confidants who you can talk to.  And, I’m not trying to get into your business.  But I’m gonna make you a one time offer.  Good for tonight only.”

Benedict smiled.

“For tonight only, I will drop all the pretense.  All the professional distance and crap and just be Nicole, your friend.  You can talk to me about your day if you want.  Gripe, complain, say whatever and I will be on your side.  I won’t try to fix it, all I will do is support you in all your righteous anger.  On the other hand, if you don’t want to talk about it, or at all, that’s cool, too.  If you want to be alone, I’ll disappear.  What ever you want.  Right after I fix you something to eat, of course,” she smiled.

He sat and regarded her for a moment.  “That…” he started, looked away, then back at her, “thank you.  I don’t really feel like talking about it, though.”

“You don’t have to.  Your night, you decide.”

He nodded.

“So, Benedict.  I just got these awesome steaks from the butcher today.  How about I grill them up with some yummy fixin’s?”

“That sounds amazing.”

Nicole nodded once and stood to head into the kitchen.  Benedict caught her hand, and Nicole turned.

“You saying my name, is probably the best thing I’ve heard all day.”  His words were spoken sincerely as his thumb gently brushed back and forth along the back of her hand.  Everything about those words, and that action sent Nicole’s insides into a frenzied mess.  His words were both the best and saddest thing she’d ever heard.  Someone, or more specifically her, saying your name should not be the best part of your day, if you’re Benedict Fucking Perfect Cumberbatch.  The fact that it was, no matter if it fell into the category of consolation, was no less heartening, even though it shouldn’t be, because she wasn’t going to indulge the crush thing.  Remember?  His thumb gently caressing the back of her hand, was just as potent a jolt as the last time he had done it.  There was no way to shield from honest, blue eyes, looking at her with an expression on his face that exuded pure gratitude.  You can’t, and Nicole would dare anyone to try.  You would have to not have a heart to ignore it.  She closed her other hand over his, which to him she she hoped would be comforting, but for her would stop the affectionate gesture that was pushing the boundaries of her self control.  She nodded at him and walked into the kitchen, leaning on the counter because she was not sure about the stability of her legs.

“May I offer you some wisdom?”  She asked, so pleased with herself that her voice sounded normal.

“Please.”

“Hot water is one of the best things ever invented.”

He smiled.

“You have some time before dinner.  May I suggest a scalding hot shower or bubble bath,” she offered, teasing, “whatever it is you Hollywood types do.  Wash away as much of the day as you can.  It should help you relax.”

“That’s an excellent idea,” he stood taking his drink with him.  “You’re brilliant,” he said, pointing at her as he walked out of the kitchen.

“How do you like your steak?”  She called after him.

“Medium rare, please?”  He turned to answer.

“Your wish is my command.”

His eyes sparkled with mischief.  Knowing he was about to say something risqué, she pointed him out of the room, and turned her back on him to collect the ingredients for dinner.  She heard him laugh all the way up stairs.

 

Chapter Text

 

Ch. 14

Bad Day - The Continuation

 

 

When Benedict emerged from upstairs, his countenance seeming lighter, his hair was slicked and brushed back to within a breath of its life, and he had on an old pair of sweats and t-shirt.  Nicole watched him, from outside, place his empty glass into the sink through the kitchen window, while she pulled the steaks from the grill and brought them in.  “Good timing,” she smiled, closing the screen door behind her.  “Would you like another drink or do you want to switch to something else?  Wine maybe?”

“Wine, I think,” he said.  “Shall I?” he asked, pointing towards the bar.

“By all means.”

While Nicole busied herself with the final preparation of the side dishes, Benedict opened the wine he chose and found two glasses, placing them on the table next to the place settings.  “Is there anything I can do to help?” He asked.

“Take a load off,” she smiled at him, “I’m just about to plate.”

A few bites into dinner, Benedict looked up at Nicole, “This is wonderful.  Thank you.”

“It was absolutely my pleasure.  I know there’s not a lot I can do for you, but comfort food?  I’m all over it,” she smiled over at him.

They ate dinner leisurely,and deciding during, that rather than watch TV or play a game, Benedict wanted to sit and chat when the meal was over.  So, they took their wine and fell on the couch and sighed contentedly, sitting in companionable silence, until Nicole lolled her head to the side and looked at him.  “Feeling any better about today?”

With out looking at her, he held his hand up and seesawed it back and forth.

Nicole sighed, “Well, the truth of it is, you may never feel better about it.” 

He turned to look at her then.

She shrugged a shoulder.  “It just may be a bad day, and you have to chalk it up to that, and let it go.”  She looked at him sympathetically.

“You’re probably right,” he said, softly.

She nodded, and looked forward again.  “But those assholes who made it a bad day?  Fuck ‘em.”  She turned back around and grinned at him.

For the first time that evening he really laughed.

“I mean, where do they get off?” She continued.

“I know, right?” he said, still laughing.

“Sons of bitches,” she said, half heartedly shaking her fist in the air, in mock outrage.

He did that thing, that thing she loved, where he laughs with his whole body.  Eyes squinting shut, doubled over, laughing almost silently.  Nicole felt like she had won the lottery.  All of her favorite pictures of him, he’s laughing.  It is one of the most wonderful things, ever.  Like Christmas and the Oscars all rolled into one.  Once he’d gathered himself together, he positioned his body sideways on the couch to face her and she mirrored him.

“Are you drunk?” she asked, still grinning ear to ear.

“Nooooooooo,” he smiled back.  “Pleasantly buzzed.”

Nicole reached over for the second bottle of wine for the night, (they’d polished off the first one at dinner…well he’d mostly done that, she was only on her second glass) and topped off his drink.  “Let’s keep it that way.”

“Thank you,” he smiled taking a sip.  “Tell me something I don’t know about you.”

“Oh, wow.  That’s a big question,” she said.  “You hardly know anything about me.  That could be anything from, what was my first word, to if I still have my appendix.”

“What was your first word?”

“You know, I don’t know.  We could call my mother and ask,” she suggested.

“That’s OK.  Appendix?”

“Yes, I still have it…and my tonsils.  My gallbladder is gone, though.  The traitorous bitch.”

“OK.  Tell me something you’ve never told anyone before.”

“Uhhhh…” she stammered.  Of course the only thing she could think about were topics that were sexual in nature, and she was not going down that road.  She searched her mind for something innocent, but moderately interesting.  Truth be told, she didn’t feel she was that interesting.  “Something I’ve never told anyone…” she mused aloud.  “Oh.  OK.”  She smiled at him.  “You can not judge me!  Promise?” She pointed at him.

“Promise,” he nodded solemnly.

“I hate plants.  They’re creepy as fuck.  They freak me the hell out.”

He halted the glass he was lifting to his mouth.  “What?  Plants? Who hates plants?”

“I do.”

“But, ho-?  Why?”

“I told you.  They’re creepy, with their sinister tendrils all growing towards you,” she wiggled her fingers creepily at him,”and ESPECIALLY sunflowers with their gigantic heads following you…watching you.”  Nicole turned her head back and forth, keeping her eyes locked on Benedict.  Then she shuddered.

He looked incredulous.

“If you notice, there are no plants in the inn.  I only have the occasional cut flowers.  I have a gardener come and take care of the landscaping.  Nothing too creepy growing towards the house out there.”

“That is…I have never heard anyone say that.”

She shrugged.  “You can see why I don’t tell people.  They’d look at me like I said I ate babies or some shit.”

He nodded, obviously thinking through this revelation.  “You know, I have a roof top terrace with a garden.”

“I’m sure it’s lovely.”

“It is!”  He pulled out his phone, clearly excited to show it off.  He pulled up some pictures to show her.  It was beautiful.  “Would you not go up there?”

“No, of course I would.  It’s not like, say, a spider, where I would flee for my life.  I think plants and flowers are very pretty.  They just creep me out if I think too hard about it.”

“Well,” he said still looking at his phone, “maybe one day you’ll come to London and visit, and I can give you a tour of my garden.  I’m quite proud of it.”  He looked up at her.

Her eyes widened a bit, in surprise, but she tried to cover.  Nodding, she said, “I’d like that.”  Nicole could feel her cheeks flush and she fought to calm herself, again thankful for her pigment, hopefully, hiding it.

Benedict reached over and touched her cheek with the back of his finger, in a soothing gesture.  “You do that a lot.  Blush.”  He smiled at her.

Evidently, it did not.  Oh sweet baby Jesus!  He just touched my face.  Ohgodohgodohgod!   She exhaled loudly and covered her face with her hands.  This is just all kinds of what the fuck.  “OHMYGOD!  How embarrassing.”

Obviously pleased with her reaction, he asked chuckling, “Why?  It’s cute.”  He nudged her a little.

She peeked out at him through her fingers, “Becauuuuuuuse,” she whined, “you just make it worse.”  Nicole dropped her hands, dramatically in her lap.  She could feel she must have been the color of a tomato.  “Plus, I’m a grown woman.  Grown women don’t want to be considered cute.”

“How about adorable?”  He teased.

“No.”

“Well, I know a lot of women who would kill to be considered cute.”

“I’m sure you do.”  She grumbled.

“I think it’s nice.  I don’t see a lot of blushing these days, just lots of jaded people.”

She nodded, “That’s probably true.”

He sat looking at her with a grin, trying hard to rein it in.

“What!”  She said exasperated.

“You don’t want to know.  If you don’t like cute and adorable, you’re not gonna like these words either.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she grabbed her glass and took a big gulp of her wine.

“You know what else is adorable  When you are not ‘Ms. Professional’,” he said, sounding overly serious, and plainly mocking her, “you swear…a lot.”  He punctuated the “t” at the end of a lot, smiling as he drained the rest of his glass and poured another one, finishing off the bottle.

“I do,” she agreed.  “I have a potty mouth.  I like swearing.  It’s fun.”

“Do you?”  He asked, but it wasn’t really a question, not with the tone he used for those two words.  It spoke more about what he was thinking, than the actual words of an innocuous question.  

She nodded pretending she missed the insinuation.

His expression turned mischievous. “Hmm.  You know what?”

“Chicken butt?”  She answered, because she’s five…

Benedict sat surprised for a second then, roared with laughter, bringing Nicole right along with him.  Once they had composed themselves, he said, “You’re right, I’m drunk.”

“Congratulations!  My work here is done.”

“Indeed, madam..  You are to be commended for your diligent and exceptional work.  Let’s see,” he said, rubbing his chin, as though in thought, “How can I repay your graciousness?”

“You can give me something pretty,” she joked putting her wine glass down.

His eyes widened with an idea, “How about a pretty sunflower!”

“Ok.  You’re done.  I’m cutting you off,” she said, reaching for his glass.  He pulled it out of her reach, and maneuvered himself into a position, where he could down the last of the wine.

“Too late!”  He giggled.  GIGGLED!

“OK.  You got me.  I think it’s time Mr. Drunky Pants went to bed.  It’s a school night, after all.”

“Again, you are right.”  He set his empty glass down on the table.

She stood and watched him fight his way up and off the couch, while trying not to laugh.  Once on his feet, he only swayed a little.  “OK?”  She asked.

“Yup!”

“Off we, go then.”  She gently nudged him in the direction of the stairs, and once there, put a hand on his back to make sure he was steady they way up.  Well, that’s what she told herself, anyway.  They turned the corner at the top of the stairs towards his room, and she stopped.  “OK.  There’s Tylenol in the bathroom cabinet and water in the mini fridge.  I suggest you avail yourself of both.  What time do you have to be up tomorrow?”

He screwed his face up trying to remember, “Five?  Yeah, five.”

“OK.  I’ll set my alarm for you, too.  Just in case.”

He turned to face her, “What?  You’re not gonna tuck me in?”  He grinned.

“Uh, no.  You’re a big boy, I think you can handle it.”

“I am a big boy,” he waggled his eyebrows at her.

“OoooooKayyy.  You have a good night.

“Thank you.”  He stood there looking earnest, “I really do appreciate everything you did for me tonight.”

“I know.  It was my pleasure.”

Benedict stepped to her, and enveloped her in a hug.  “Thank you,” he whispered.

Nicole, wrapping her arms around him, hugged him back, “You’re welcome.”  After a moment, she felt him turn his head toward her neck, and take a deep breath, inhaling her scent.  He hummed, “You always smell so good.”

“Thanks,” she said, as she felt his hands begin to roam over her back.  Her brain yelled at her to break away, and stop this now!  She gave it a moment because, holy cow did he feel good, and she really liked drunk touchy feely Benedict.  Eventually, she began to pull away. 

“No.  Please don’t.” He whispered.  “Are you going to go back to being Ms. Professional tomorrow?”

She nodded.

“Then, can you let me have this, just a moment longer?”

Her heart turned into a melty puddle of goo in her chest cavity.  Fuck.  “OK.”

He pulled her in, that much closer, letting his hands continue their journey.  

Nicole closed her eyes and relaxed into him because, well who the hell was she trying to kid, he’s delicious, and she really, really wanted to.  Like really, really, really.  Let’s call it an early Christmas present to herself.  That is, until his hand wandered a tad too low.  Her eyes shot open and, she gently pulled herself from the hug.  “OK. It’s time you went to bed.  You don’t want to do anything you may be embarrassed about in the morning.  That is, if you can remember anything in the morning.”  She could feel herself blushing again.

He smiled, “I always remember,” he promised.

Oh.  

“Well, we’ll see,” she said.

“Sweet dreams.”  He smiled at her like he knew something.  Not quite a secret, but like a truth, and it amused him, but the amusement was more about her figuring out said truth, than it actually brining him amusement.

“You too, Benedict.”  Nicole turned and went to her room, shutting and locking the door.  If she had a piano, she would have put it in front, as well.  Not sure if it was to keep him out or her in.  One thing she did know, she needed a time out.  She went to her bathroom and leaned her hands against the counter, looking at herself in the mirror.  Yup, flushed like a nun in a whorehouse.  “What are you doing?”  She asked her reflection.  “Stupid girl.  Stupid, stupid girl.”   Turning on the water, she splashed her face a couple of times before drying off.  The clock in her bedroom said it wasn’t that late, and she was way too wound up to sleep.  She made a decision, went downstairs to the kitchen and pulled out her mixers.

Hours later, Nicole made her way back upstairs and got ready for bed.  She thought about Benedict, wondering if he was ok.  Tiptoeing to his door, she listened, heard him snoring softly, and smiled.  She went back downstairs to grab a few bottles of water to leave where he could see them, on the banister, if he woke, needing more water.  As she was turning the corner towards his room, Benedict opened the door, his hair a bed-head train wreck, and rubbing his eyes.  When his eyes focused and saw Nicole standing there, for all the world, looking like she had been caught stealing.  He smiled.  “Hey,” he greeted her.

“Hi.  I was just gonna leave some water for you here, just in case.”

“Thank you.  That’s why I got up, actually.”  He looked at the water bottles she was clutching to her chest, and then she saw a realization hit him.  She was in her jammies.  His eyes slowly, and deliberately scanned her top to bottom, then back up again, and he grinned.

Nicole kicked herself for not putting on a robe before heading downstairs, but HE WAS ASLEEP!  Her pajamas were little more than, a cotton camisole and short shorts, sage green with little Tinkerbells flying all over them.  She was not only blushing in her cheeks, she could feel her whole body change color, and briefly wondered if chameleons could feel themselves change colors.  “H-h-how are you feeling?”  she asked trying to distract him.

“Better,” he said still grinning at her, slowly walking forward.

“Good.”  She thought about dropping the bottles and running back to her room.  

“Are these for me?”  He said, pointing at them.  Smiling.  Smiling. Smiling.

“Uh, yeah.  Most of them, I got one for myself.”  Her mouth felt like the Sahara and wished she could drink it right now, but she was desperately trying to figure out the physics of making a small bottle of water cover her entire body.  As a matter of fact, she wondered if the Vera Verto spell from Harry Potter would work right now.

“May I?”  He asked, still smiling.

“Sure,” She handed him the water, and tried to casually cross her arms over her chest, like she wasn’t trying to cover herself.  

He took the bottles and set them on the bannister, leaning against it, undeniably amused.  He reached out and gently toyed with the hem of her top.  “These are cute.”

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t resist…Tink.” she shrugged, trying to hide her nervousness.

“And yet you don’t want to be cute.”  He inclined himself towards her just a bit.

“Tink is an exception.  I also have some with Eeyore on them.”  Like that helps prove her point of not wanting to be cute.  Jesus Nicole.  Stop talking and get the fuck out!  Wait, why is he not letting go of my shirt!  

“I’d like to see that.”  He tugged on the hem a little bit.

Nicole laughed nervously, trying to sound breezy, “Well, maybe next time.  I’ll see you in the morning.”  She started to back away, and he held fast to her top.

“Are you sure you don’t want to tuck me in or maybe tell me a bedtime story?”

Nicole laughed, she couldn’t help it.  “Benedict, you’re still sauced.  You should get some sleep.”  It wasn’t really an answer, and they both knew it.  She took a step back and out of his reach.  He didn’t move, and she realized she couldn’t back all the way to her door without looking weird, but turning around, would show just how short her shorts were.  Fuck.  She turned and walked the few steps to her door, that may as well have been and entire high fashion runway, she heard him make an appreciative noise as she went in, and she just about died of embarrassment.  “Good night,” she called, with out looking back and shutting the door, amazed she didn’t sound mortified.

“Night,” he called back to her.

Nicole’s last thoughts as she fell asleep were , please oh please do not let him remember any of this tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ch. 15

Last Night

Nicole’s alarm went off a full two hours before Benedict’s was supposed to wake him.  She didn’t always wake this early for guests, especially if most of the preparation had been done already, as it already had been today.  This morning though, she decided to get up, shower, and pull herself together early, because she needed a plan.  A  fortification of defenses, as it were.  Obviously, her initial plan of ignoring her feelings was not working all that well.  Or at all, actually.  Well, maybe it would have worked if he weren’t so damn charming, and affectionate, and adorable.  A girl only has so much will power.  

With any luck, he’ll wake, hung over, and with a decided lack of memory, and that will be that.  Problem solved.  If he woke with his memory intact, well, that was another issue.  What if he remembered and was embarrassed and regret everything.  Ouch.  It wasn’t ideal, but understandable.  I mean, who hasn’t been there?  What if he woke and that wasn’t the case?  What if he was still flirting with her?  What if he did want to…what?  Sleep together?  Hook up?   Have a fling?  Then what?  He leaves when the shoot is over, and she deals with the left over emotions, which would be a cacophony of self loathing.  This wouldn’t be the first time Nicole wished she were able to handle casual sex.  It would make many things, so much easier.  Unfortunately, that was not how she was wired.  She envied people who could keep the emotional component separate.  Lucky bastards.  Would the possible heartbreak, and don’t be fooled, it would be heartbreak, be worth the few weeks of, what would probably be, really great sex?  Possibly.  Then what?  How do you go from a diamond necklace to macaroni on twine.  Yes, that was probably an unfair statement, but she did live in a very, small town.  The pickings were pretty slim.  She knew, she had picked threw some of them.  

The most reasonable thing would be to say, “I’m flattered, but I’m sorry.  Professionalism and all that.”  She’d have to look somewhere else to say that, because if he was able to read her at all, and as an actor, he should have that ability, he would see what she was feeling written all over her.  Which, frankly, wasn’t that hard to see.  Her emotions were routinely evident.  What would those feelings be?  “I can’t sleep with you, because when you left it would pulverize my heart, because I think you are the bee’s knees.”  That would not do.  Probably, no one wants to know that…probably…maybe.

For now, the plan is to pretend nothing happened.  They had a lovely dinner, spent the evening chatting, then, she sent him to sleep off the booze.  Yep.  That’s how it will go…unless it doesn’t.

Nicole slowly got up, ready and made her way downstairs to prep.  At 5:00, when Benedict was supposed to be up, she listened for movement, to make sure he was awake.  His footsteps upstairs assured her he didn’t oversleep, so she sat at the table with her iPad and waited for him to come down for breakfast.

About 20 minutes later, he wandered downstairs, and Nicole was waiting for him behind the counter, his coffee already brewing.  He was in jeans and t-shirt, and his hair still wet from the shower.  His damp curls, hung heavily around his head.  She had to wonder if he didn’t brush his hair as he usually did, because everything about his head hurt due to a hangover.  The thought amused her.  

Benedict sat on the bar stool, and Nicole slid the coffee press to him.  “Morning,” she said quietly, just in case.

“Morning.”

“Is it a goooooood morning or…”

He chuckled, “It’s an…OK morning,” he said, pouring his coffee.

“Well, that’s better than I expected.  How’s your tummy?  Can you handle some breakfast?  Toast, maybe?”

“Toast would be great.  Thank you.”

As Nicole started to make his request, she asked over her shoulder, “Are you feeling any better about work yesterday?”

Benedict took a sip of his coffee and sat back, naturally thinking about it.

“You don’t have to talk about it.  I don’t want to impose.”

“No.  It’s not that.  I just…” he sighed.

Nicole stood quietly, letting him gather his thoughts.

“It was so frustrating.  It was like Murphy’s law was in full effect, yesterday.  There were equipment problems, and delivery delays for some shit or another.  So, the director was in a mood, to say the least.  Then script changes were made and we had to learn all new scenes and dialog, and with, honestly, not enough time to learn and rehearse.  So, we were doing it on the fly, and that’s fine.  But, he wouldn’t be happy with it and change it all over again.  This went on and on.  I know it’s my job, but I really felt it was unreasonable.  And I’m sure, as much as I tried to remain professional, some of my irritation showed.  Other’s didn’t hide it as well, which helped, not at all.  So all of that, pissed him off more…”

Nicole sat his toast in front of him with butter and jam if he wanted to add it, then leaned against the counter as he prepared his toast and continued to rail on.

“The mood on the set was shit, and everyone was pissed at everyone else.  Nothing was working, including the equipment needed for the night shoot, so we were all sent home.  Then on the way, I got phone calls that were NOT HELPFUL…” he emphasized the last two words.

Nicole nodded, remembering his yelling, as he looked up at her.  She took a deep breath and exhaled.  “That, is a really shitty day.  I’m sorry.”

He smiled weakly at her, “No advice?”

“I promised only validation and support, remember?”

He nodded, and looked at her expectantly.

“OK, listen, I don’t know film making from wine making.  But it seems to me, you feelings are right on the mark.  It would be frustrating if someone came along and kept changing your job duties and then was mad at you because they didn’t like the outcome that only happened because they changed it.  Of course, I’m biased so, take that with a grain of salt.”

“Biased how?”

“Well, your my friend.  Of course I’m gonna take your side.”

That made him smile in earnest.

“In any case, I think you did the right thing.  You can only do what you can do.  It’s not your job to make sure everything works.  It’s your job to make sure the stuff that you do, works.  If someone asks for help or you offer help and they accept, then fine.  But don’t let all the outside stuff get to you.  Yesterday was a bad, toxic day.  Cleanse your system and go in positive and ready to work.  That’s all you can do.  That’s my two cents.”

“Excellent validation and advice.  Thank you.”  He smiled, munching on his toast.

“You are very welcome.”  She looked at him for longer than she should have, nibbling on her thumbnail.

“What?”  He asked.

Nicole answered nervously, “So, I kinda did a thing.”

“A thing.”

She nodded.

“What kind of thing?”

She took a deep breath, “Well, so, you know, uh, I’m,” she huffed in frustration and began again.  “Let me start by saying, if you are uncomfortable with this, do not feel obligated.  I have a back up plan.  It’s fine.  Truly. ”

Benedict sat forward in his chair, “Okay…”

“I feed people.  It’s what I do.  When someone is upset, or having a bad day,” she gestured towards him, “or even a good day.  I feed people.”

“Yes,” he smiled.

“Also, when I’m feeling bad, I like to do things for people.  It makes them happy, it makes me happy.  Win win.”  She unconsciously took a step back away from him.

He nodded, again.

Still chewing on her thumbnail, she motioned her head towards the door to the formal dining room.  Benedict stood and walked to it, slowing as he passed and looked at her.  He slid the door open and saw the table covered with large bags.  “What did you do?”  He asked, walking in, looking back at her.  She made an ‘I’m sorry’ face.  He opened up one of the bags, as Nicole moved in behind him.

Inside the bag was a bakery box, that when opened, revealed muffins.  He turned to face her.  “Are all these filled with muffins?”

“Yes.  Let me explain.”  She threw her hands up defensively.  She began speaking so quickly that most of her words ran together.  “I thought, hey!  Everyone likes food.  So, if you wanted, you could bring these with you and put them out for people, maybe give some to strategic people first, but then people might be happier because they got treats, and you could be happy because you brought the treats, and then people would really like you, because you’re the guy who thought enough of them to bring them goodies.”  She held her breath.

Benedict looked at her, taken aback.

“If not,” she jumped in before he could say anything, “I can take them to the local senior center.  They love it when I do that.  No harm, no foul.  So, you know, you don’t have-oof!”

Her rambling was cut off by a crushing embrace.  Surprised, she stood there for a moment, before she hugged him back.  He looked at her when he pulled away, with out letting her go, “I can’t believe you did all that.  That’s a lot of work!”

She shrugged a little, “It’s not so bad.  Mostly the same batter, so…”

“How long did it take you?”

“A few hours.  You went to sleep pretty early, I had plenty of time.”  Nicole kicked herself internally for bringing up the night before.  Nicole disentangled herself from his arms, moved to the box he opened, and closed it.  “I’m glad your not mad.”

“Why would I be mad?  That was wonderfully considerate.  You have to let me compensate you for this.”

She waved him away.  “No.  Not a chance.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

He stood looking at her, wanting to change her mind, his expression said he was trying to figure out how.

“Why don’t you go finish getting ready, and I’ll handle this,” she said, pointing to the bags.

He smiled, nodded, and walked off. 

Nicole moved all the bags to the foyer and transferred the remainder of his coffee to a travel mug.  By the time she was done, he was trotting back down stairs.  “Ready?”  She asked.

“Yes!”

They each grabbed a couple of bags and in a few trips had them all, surprisingly, loaded into his car.  The last trip she grabbed his mug and handed it to him.  “Your car holds an unexpected amount of stuff.”

“It does,”  They stood in the driveway, Nicole uncomfortably shuffling her feet and Benedict smiling at her.  “I’ll see you later, I’m not sure if I’ll be back for dinner, they may try to do the night shots again, if the equipment is fixed.”

“OK.  Keep me posted.”

“Thanks again,” he said, hugging her.

“You’re welcome,” she said, returning the hug, then pulling away, walking back towards the house.

“Hey!”  He called to her.

She turned to face him, “Yeah?”

“About last night.”

Nicole froze, terrified.

“I remember everything,” he grinned.

Nicole looked at him for a beat, erupted into laughter, then shook her head turning round to resume her walk back into the house.

“I regret nothing!”  He shouted.

“Quit flirting, and go to work!”  Called back, knowing she was bright red, and refused to turn around.  She could hear him laughing as he got into his car.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ch. 16

“Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid”

Later in the early afternoon, someone called from the front gate with a delivery.  She buzzed them in and opened the front door to meet the driver, trying to remember if she had an order coming or if she had done some online shopping and forgot.  It happens.

A man walked up carrying a large flower arrangement.  “Are you Nicole?”  He asked as he approached.

“Yes.”

“These are for you.  Please sign here,” he said, handing her a clipboard that had been under his arm.

Nicole signed her name and exchanged it for a vase of flowers.  “Thank you!”

“My pleasure, have a great day,” he said and was off.

Nicole carried the bouquet into the kitchen, setting the vase on the table to admire them.  The bright white oriental lilies, white roses and white alstroemeria with a beautiful, contrasting greens mixture was one of the prettiest she had ever seen.  She pulled the card out of the arrangement and opened it.  It read:

 

Something Pretty

 

Nicole realized she’d stopped breathing, when her lungs reminded her she needed air.  “Holy shit,” she said to no one in particular.  She was dying to tell someone.  Calling her best friend, Julie was her first thought, but having to keep her guest’s identity a secret would limit what she could say.  Knowing herself, there would be no way to side step this with Jules.  No way.  Overanalyzing this with her best friend was just what she needed, though.  Confessing all the thoughts and actions that have been going on around there would be such a relief.  Alas, that was not going to happen, so, she was going to stand there and look at this beautiful arrangement, squeeing on the inside, and maybe a little on the outside, too.  

Trying to nip this in the bud, if you’ll excuse the pun, was the first order of business.  She had told him there was no need for compensation, so he clearly took that literally.  He didn’t pay her, per se.  Sneaky bugger.  Giving him an ear full of what for, is what she’s going to do, although, she probably wouldn't be all the convincing because of the internal shrieking of OHMYGODHESENTMETHEMOSTBEAUTIFULFLOWERS!  She would try though…maybe.

The rest of the afternoon, if she was going to be in any room for an extended amount of time, she brought the flowers with her.  Shut up, you know you would, too.  At this moment, they were positioned front and center on her desk while she attempted to do some work on her computer.  When the phone rang, startling her out of her flower gazing , work, she chided herself and answered.  “Thank you for calling The Com’on Inn.  How may I help you?”

“Hi, Nicole.  It’s Ben,” he said in that lovely baritone voice of his.

A grin threatened to split her face in half.  “Well hello there.  How’s your day going?”

“Good.  Good.  Your muffins are a hit.”

“Yay!  I’m glad to hear it.”

“I’ve had several people ask me if you cater or would share your recipes.” 

“Really?  Wow.  I have never been asked to do that before.”

“Well, there you go.  New business venture.”

Nicole laughed, well, more giggled like a pre-teen.  She mentally smacked herself in the head for it.  Trying to gather herself together like a god damned adult, she said, “So, I got an embarrassingly beautiful display of flowers today.”

“You got them!  Do you like them?”

“I love them.  Truly.  White roses are my favorite flower.”

“Are they?  I’m glad,” he said, sounding relieved.

Nicole heard raised voices in the background.

“I told you I didn’t need anything,” she said, trying to sound like she was chastising him. 

“I know you did, but I wanted to, plus I was informed, after what I put you through, I would be an ass if I didn’t.”

She heard a woman’s voice in the background yell, “Damn, right!”  

“Excuse me while I quiet these hens down,” Benedict said.

She heard him cover the phone and him say something that was too muffled to understand.

“Sorry,” he said to Nicole, when he came back on the line.

“No problem.”

“I’m in the hair and makeup trailer, so obviously this is a group conversation.”

“Obviously,” Nicole chuckled.

“Uh, the actual reasons I called were to let you know, first, we’re going to do the night shoots, so you don’t have to worry about dinner tonight.  It’ll be a late night.  So I’ll eat here.”

“OK.  Do you want me to leave you a snack or anything?”

“No, I should be fine.  I stashed a couple of the muffins for myself,” he said, whispering the last part.

There was more female yelling in the background.

“Sounds like the natives are getting restless, maybe you should go tend to that.”

“As if I had any control over them,” he laughed.  “The second thing,” he paused, and it was surprisingly quiet on his end, “A few of us are going to dinner at Agostina’s in town tomorrow night, and I was hoping you would join us.”

For a moment, everything stopped for a beat, including Nicole’s breathing, and the hens squawking in the background.  “Benedict, the flowers were more than enough.  You don’t have to do this.”

“I know.  I want to.  A dinner for a dinner!”

“Then what were the flowers?”

“Flowers for muffins?” He tried.

Nicole laughed.  “That is so very sweet, but, I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”  She heard a shuffling with the phone, “Hello?” she asked.

“Hello, Nicole?” an English woman’s voice asked, “Mandy, here.  So do you have plans tomorrow night?”

“Uh, well, no…”

“Great!  We’ll see you at 7:00!”

“Yes ma’am.  OK?” Nicole stuttered out, completely blindsided by the sheer force of the woman on the other end of the phone.

“Here’s Ben!” she said, presumably handing the phone back to him.  She heard her say, “There you go.  All done.”

“Hello,” Ben asked, cautiously.

“Hi.”

“OK.  So, tomorrow night.”

Nicole smiled, “I guess so.  Who was that?”

“Mandy.  ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce’.”

“The little ones always are,” she said knowingly, and silently loving the Shakespeare quote.

“I would tell you, you could back out, but frankly, I’m afraid of her so, you’re stuck.”

“Well, if I have to suffer through an evening of good food and great company, I guess I can make that sacrifice.”

“There’s the spirit.  I guess I’ll see you tomorrow morning then.”

“Yep, bright and early!”  They hung up and Nicole thumped her head on her desk half a dozen times.  “This is such a bad idea,” she whined.  She sat with her forehead, pressed into the desk mat for goodness knows how long, when a distressing thought filled her head.  “Shit!  What am I gonna wear?”  She got up and went to her closet.

 

 

 

That evening, Nicole curled up in her evil chair in her comfiest sweats, Weeping Angels t-shirt, and TARDIS slippers and blanket ready to catch up on Doctor Who.  Go big or go home, right?  Fortunately, the Inn had been relatively busy, but the downside of that was, she often missed her favorite shows.  She probably had a good 24 hours worth of TV to catch up on.  Since Benedict would be gone for most of the evening, this seemed like the perfect time to do it.  She picked up the remote and happily hit play.

 

Nicole woke to gentle brushing across her cheek.  Groggily , she opened her eyes to find Benedict smiling at her.  

“Hi,” he said, softly.

“Hi.  What time is it?”

“Late.  Or early, depending on your perspective,” he said, bobbing his head side to side, lightly.

She nodded, fondly noting he was still brushing her cheek.

“How’d the shooting go?”

“Well.  We’re almost caught up.”

“Good.”

“Were you waiting up for me?” He grinned.

“Nooooo.  I was watching Doctor Who.”

“Are you sure?”

“Even if I were waiting up for you, I didn’t do a very good job of it now, did I?”

“You get points for trying.”

Nicole sat up from her curled position in the chair, and turned off the TV with the remote.  Benedict stood and offered his hand to help her up, which she accepted.  He cocked his head, looking her over, wrapped in the TARDIS blanket.  He opened the blanket and looked at her clothes.  “Really?”

“Don’t judge,” she pouted.  “I told you I was watching The Doctor.”

He sighed, “Yes you did, you giant child.”

“Whatever, pot.”

Benedict chuckled, “OK, come on,” and herded her towards the stairs.

At her door, Nicole yawned and pulled the blanket snugly around herself, trying to retain some of the warmth from being cocooned earlier in her chair.  “Thanks for waking me.”

“I’m not sure I did,” he joked.

She nodded, and he stepped forward, embracing her in a hug.  Nicole sleepily fell against him, and made no effort to move, enjoying the warmth and comfort he offered, for longer than she should have.

“I have to say, I like drowsy Nicole,” he said, resting his head on top of hers.

Nicole smiled, “Too bad you couldn’t keep me this way.”

“Well, I’m sure I could, but it would be completely illegal and land me in jail for decades.”

Nicole laughed, “Yeah, that wasn’t creepy at all.”

Benedict laughed too, gently stroking her back.  “Do you need me to tuck you in?”

Nicole shook her head as best she could, since her cheek was pressed to his chest.

“Are you sure?”  He asked, almost whispering.

Jesus.  That was a completely different offer.  Her skin broke out in goosebumps and butterflies took off in her stomach.  Grateful the blanket hid her reaction to him, she nodded.

“OK.”  He held her for a moment longer, then slowly ended the hug.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”

She nodded again, terrified of what might come out of her mouth.

“Good night.”

“Good night,” she said, but neither of them made a move to walk away.  Finally, Nicole turned and went into her room, shutting the door behind her.  It was a moment before she heard his footsteps move towards his room.

 

 

~The Next Morning~

 

 

“So, I guess we’ll leave here about 6:30?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Nicole confirmed.

“No backing out!” Benedict said pointing to her, as he walked out the door.  “I know where you live!”

“OK,” she smiled.

“And if you do, I’ll sick Mandy on you!”

“God forbid!” Nicole held up her hands in mock surrender.

“Have a good day,” he smiled.

“You too,” she smiled back, shutting the door after him.

 

 

Nicole had three outfit ideas.  A range, as it were.  Casual, nice, and dressy-ish.  Having been to this restaurant a number of times, she knew any of these would work, it just depended on what kind of night it was meant to be.  She’d gone in shorts for a casual dinner and she had gone in dressy attire for a special occasion.  What she needed to know, was what other people were wearing.  Which she had no real way of finding out.  Her only option was to wait for Benedict to get home, and check out his clothes and adjust.  

In the mean time, she concentrated on other aspects.  Hair, make-up, jewelry.  When she had decided to grow her curly hair out, no one had informed her what a pain in the ass it is.  Sure, it looked great when worn down, but that was a lot of work, especially after when you have to comb out all the tangles and knots from it being whipped around by, well , anything.  Let’s not even bring up how it gets caught in shit.  Learning to be creative with hairstyles becomes a near full time occupation.  With any luck, you find a few that you can do, and rotate.  Tonight she pulled it back, (since she would be eating and had no desire to consume a mouth full of her hair) in a low ponytail and pulled under to shorten it, keeping it in check.  It was still long enough to cover the back of her neck, which kept the chill off, a nice bonus.  There were a few curls that would not be restrained, so she left those out and hoped for the best.  

The make-up was kept light, well almost non-existent.  Wearing glasses had its perks.  If you put on a little blush and lip color, people assumed you had on eye makeup.  Try it!  So she stained her cheeks and mouth and applied lip gloss.  Depending which outfit she chose, would determine the jewelry.  

While she waited for Benedict to get in, she transferred the important things from her regular purse to a small bag to take with her.  As she was pulling out various credit cards, she heard the front door open and close, then hurried footsteps bounding up the stairs.  Nicole couldn’t help but grin.  She gave it about 10 minutes before she wandered over to his door and knocked. 

Opening the door, Benedict looked her over, all made up, but in her robe, and smiled broadly, leaning against the frame.  “Not that I mind, but aren’t you a little under dressed?”

“Very funny.  I just wanted to see what you were wearing first.”

“Well, this, and a jacket,” he looked down at himself and smiled, flourishing with his hand, hair still wet from a shower.   He was in gray slacks and a blue button up, that wasn’t entirely done up, she noted, showing skin she desperately wanted to touch.  Internally, she sighed like a lovesick teen.

“OK,” she chirped, turned and headed back to her room.

“So, what are you going to wear?”

“A dress,” she called not looking back.

“Is it short?  Tell me it’s short, and fitted.”

She turned around, “No, you degenerate!”  She laughed.  “It is neither of those things.”

“That’s too bad.”

“No it’s not!  It’s pretty.  You’ll like it.”  She headed into her room, shutting the door behind her.  

She pulled out the mid-range dress, one of her favorites, actually.  It was strapless with rouched sides, and empire waist that was lightly fitted through the body, dyed in an ombre style.  The top was turquoise that darkened into a deep midnight blue, and was long enough for her to need heels to keep it from dragging the floor.  She complemented it with an understated silver necklace and earrings, and a wrap, to cover her shoulders and arms.  She dabbed on a little floral perfume, and sat to slip on her shoes, when there was a knock at her door.  Her stomach did all kinds of flips, and she mentally scolded herself.  “I’ll be right there, just slipping on my shoes.”  She finished the task, grabbed her wrap and purse and went to the door.  

When she opened it, she smiled up at him, “OK! Ready!”

He openly looked her over from head to toe, “Wow.”

She did a little spin.  “See!  I told you!”

“Yes.  Yes you did.  Do that again,” he said slowly.

Nicole’s breath caught.  Did his voice get deeper?  She turned again, this time a little more slowly.  When she was facing him again, she watched him rake his eyes up her body, mapping every curve, with a look so intense, she could almost feel his touch.  Especially when he would pause occasionally on a particular attribute, until their eyes finally met again. 

“Gorgeous.” He breathed, leaning in and kissing her softly on the cheek, much longer than convention would dictate.  When his warm, soft, lips withdrew, he inhaled deeply, then whispered in her ear, “You smell wonderful.”  He drew back, “I’ll be the envy of every man there.”  He extended his arm to her, “Shall we?”

She took it, nodding, having lost her voice, and quite possibly her mind.

 

Once settled in Benedict’s car, they cleared the driveway and were on their way, Nicole turned to him, “So, how many will be at dinner?”

“Just four of us.”

“Mandy, I’m assuming.”

“Yes and her husband, he flew in for a visit.”

“Oh, how nice!  What’s his name?”

“Martin.”

The wheels in her head started spinning.  Mandy and Martin.  Like Amanda and Martin???  “Mandy and Martin?”  She asked, giving voice to her thoughts.

“Yep.”

“Like Amanda Abbington and Martin Fucking Freeman?”

He turned his head, surprised at her outburst, “Yeah.”

“OH MY GOD BENEDICT, YOU DIDN’T TELL ME THAT!”

“I didn’t think…”

Nicole, just this side of hysterical laughter, cut him off.  She took her glasses off and covered her face.

“Seriously!”  She accused, dropping her hands.

“Amanda is in the film with me,” he said, as if that was an excuse.  “Is that not ok?”

“No, it’s fine…I mean…I don’t know…it’s certainly disconcerting.”

“They’re just people, Nicole.”

“I know that,” she snapped.  She took a breath and calmed herself.  “I think you forget that most of us, don’t run in these circles, and meeting a celebrity is kind of a big deal.”

“You didn’t seem to have issue with me.”

“I had weeks to get used to the idea.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, Nicole trying to control her rapidly unraveling nerves.

He nodded.  “You did kind of freak out over Tom,” he grinned.

Nicole glowered at him, “Right.  I am a huge fan of Amanda and Martin.  Huge!”

“I can see that,” he smiled, obviously trying not to laugh at her.

“No, you don’t understand, I LOVE them.  Like, I want them to adopt me, I love them so much!”

Benedict laughed.  “You should offer, they may take you up on it.”

“See, you’re not getting it,” she said, annoyed, “MARTIN is the reason I started watching Sherlock.”  BAM!  Take that!

Benedict whipped his head around to look at her so fast, he dislodged one of his curls.  “What? Really?”

“Yes.”  Nicole smiled.  Probably a little too smugly, and relishing the perturbed look on his face.  “I didn’t know who the hell you were, before that.”

“Ouch,” he grumbled, clearly stung by her words.

His irritation, probably shouldn’t have made her as happy as it did, but oh well.  “So this is a big deal.  You’ll have to excuse me while I try to pull myself together in the next two and a half minutes.”  She put her glasses back on and tried to reign in her nerves.

Benedict reached over and took one of her hands, that she was unconsciously rubbing up and down her legs, trying to self soothe.  “You’re right, I probably should have realized.  I’m sorry.”  He squeezed her fingers.

“It’s ok.  I’ll pull it together.  I promise not to embarrass you.”

“That’s what you’re worried about?”  He asked incredulously.

“Well, yeah.  Who cares if I embarrass myself.  I do that all the time.”

“Nicole, you aren’t going to embarrass me.  You’ll be fine.  Remember, they’re just people, like you and me.”

“Well, like you,” she mumbled.

He huffed.  “They just want to go out, have a nice relaxing dinner with friends.  That’s all it is.  Everything else, is bullshit.”

Nicole nodded, absently.

It wasn’t until they pulled into the parking lot, and Benedict let go of her hand, that Nicole realized, he had held it the rest of the ride there.  He shut down the car and faced her.  “Ready?”

Hesitatingly, she nodded.

“Ok.  Let me get your door.”  He climbed out of the car, walked around and opened the door, holding out his hand for her.  She took it, climbed out and he shut the car after she was clear.  Putting his hand on her lower back, and beginning to guide her to the restaurant, Nicole stopped him, with a hand on his arm.  Benedict turned, as she leaned back up against the car.

“I just need one more minute, please,” she requested, her voice and eyes slightly pleading.

He stood in front of her, and nodded, hands in his pockets, watching her carefully.

She took a few deep breaths with her eyes closed, then opened them and looked at him.

“OK?”  He asked, softly touching her arm.  His eyes were warm and kind.

“Yeah?”

He placed his hands between her shoulder blades to escort her into the building and was stopped, again.  Looking down, he saw she had hold of the car door handle.  He gave her a wry look, rolled his eyes, and reached behind her, dislodging the handle from her hands.  He shook his head, “Let’s go.”

They were cheerily greeted by the hostess as they entered, and as Benedict was about to say something, a hand waved at them from the other side of the room.  Thanking the girl, they walked over to the table.  Benedict and Martin did that thing, giving each other manly hugs and greetings, before Amanda stepped up and kissed Benedict on both cheeks.  Nicole, trying not to freak out, had to count out her breathing.  In for 1-2-3 out for 1-2-3.  “Mandy, Martin, this is Nicole, my kind host.  Nicole, Mandy and Martin.”  Benedict said, stepping out of the way for them to greet each other.

Martin stepped up first shaking her hand, and pulling her in kissing both cheeks.  “Pleased to meet you.”  Nicole said.  

Amanda stepped up next, giving her a hug, “Lovely to meet you.”  

“Lovely to meet you,” Nicole replied.

They moved to sit at the table.  The location had them sitting against a wall, where a long bench with fluffy padding lined it, tables positioned periodically in front.  On the opposite side of the table, were two, equally appointed chairs, where Nicole and Benedict sat, leaving the bench for Martin and Mandy.  Just as they got comfortable, the waitress walked up, handing each one of them menus.  “May I start you with something to drink?”  She asked, looking around the table expectantly.

“Bottle of wine?” Martin asked the table.

Everyone agreed.  Picking up the wine menu, Martin chose and the waitress left to retrieve the order.

“So, Nicole.  That was a really nice thing you did for Ben.  How were the flowers?”  Mandy asked, grinning, obviously the mastermind behind the act.

“Thank you.  I was happy to help.  The flowers were beautiful.  My favorite actually,” she said, glancing at Benedict, who was all but beaming.  “Truthfully, I’ve been carrying them around the house with me all day.  Were the flowers your doing?”

“No.  I told him putting up with his shit, deserves a car.”

Nicole laughed in surprise, “Well, I think that would have been excessive.”

“By the way, those muffins were delicious!  I don’t suppose you’d share the recipe?”

Nicole tried to keep the internal squealing down to a minimum.  “Absolutely.  I’ll send it in with Benedict tomorrow.”

“Thank you!” She grinned.

Small talk was had until the wine showed up and poured, “A toast,” Martin said holding up his glass.  Everyone did the same.  “To Nicole, for putting up with Ben’s neurotic shit!”

“Hey!” Benedict laughed.  Nicole felt her face turn red as they all clinked their glasses,  and took a drink.  Benedict looked over at her, glancing down at her cheeks, then back up at her eyes, his sparkling with mischief.  She narrowed her eyes at him, silently letting him know she knew he was up to something.

“So Martin,” Benedict started, “this should make your day.”  He turned to look at Nicole, “Nicole here, is a big fan of Sherlock.”

Nicole felt her world drop out from under her.  Was he going to…Her heart started to race in nervous anticipation.

“In fact,” he drawled, “you’re the reason she started watching.”

Yep.  He totally was.  She felt her cheeks flush again, and when Benedict turned to look at her, he grinned.

Martin’s chest puffed up and he sat a little straighter.  “Is that so?”

Nicole nodded, looking Martin in the eye, attempting to look calm and amused by the situation, all the while, trying to keep her nerves in check, by playing with and twisting the napkin in her lap with in an inch of its little, linen life.  “It’s true.”

“Well, Ben.  Finally you’ve met someone with taste!”

“Yes.  Finally.  In fact, she is a fan of the both of you.”

Amanda’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.  “Really?”

Nicole nodded again, praying the ground would open up and swallow her.  Instead she continued twisting the poor, defenseless, napkin.

“She was hoping you would see your way to adopt her.”

They laughed heartily, while Nicole thought she might actually die of embarrassment.  She made a mental note to research if that was possible, right after disposing of Benedict’s body.

“Well, I don’t know,” Martin said, stroking his chin as if considering the ludicrous idea.  “We already have two…”

Amanda nudged him, and in a stage whisper said, “Muffins!”

Nicole smiled, “Yes.  Well, I can cook, am housebroken and come with excellent references,” she said, playing along, glad she didn’t sound as mortified as she felt.

“Do you baby sit?”  Amanda asked.

“Absolutely!”

“Sold!” Martin said, with a decisive thump on the table.

Everyone was laughing, as the waitress came up to take orders.  While all eyes were on the perky blonde, Nicole felt Benedict’s hand settle on hers, that was hidden underneath the tablecloth.  He gently liberated the poor napkin from her fingers and affectionately squeezed her hand.  Turning it over, he tried to coax it open with his thumb.  When he finally had, he gently stroked her palm, trying to calm her.  He glanced over, and subtlely nodded his head, assuring her everything was OK.  She nodded back, taking a deep breath to loosen her shoulders, and relaxed into his touch that was having and calming effect on her.  He continued to hold her hand until he needed to gesticulate during his conversation.  She knew it was a bad idea to give into his advances, but her will and strength were only so strong, and were waning.  She had enough strength to sit at the table with people she didn’t know, and present as an appropriate, adult companion.  She had the capacity to interact and be social and engaging  She even had the will to fend off the beautiful and charming man sitting next to her (which took most of her effort on a good day).  What she didn’t have, was enough to do all three.  Right here, right now, though, his soft hand, trying to soothe her anxiety, was comforting and warming her in places that she ought not let be affected, the most important place being her heart.  But it was, he was, and she hoped later she would have the opportunity to regroup, and not crumble under the weight of his gaze.

After a couple of glasses of wine, Nicole finally started to calm, and once dinner was served, she had settled into a comfortable ease with her hosts.  Benedict was right, they were people first, and remarkably down to earth.  By the end of the meal, they were all laughing at some off color joke or another Martin had told, when the waitress came and set the leather portfolio with the bill inside, on the table.  “Whenever you’re ready,” she smiled and walked away.  

Nicole reached out for the folder and Benedict caught her hand, while Martin grabbed the bill.

“I’m sorry, were you about pay the bill?” Mandy asked, amused.

Nicole’s eyes widened, “No?”

“We’re treating you, remember?”  Benedict asked.

“Force of habit,” she said setting her hands on the table.

“So, she puts up with you, and she’s used to paying the bill?”  Martin said, as Benedict took the folder from Martin, pulled out a credit card and stuck it in the slot.  The waitress swooped in stealthily and took the payment.  “Too bad we adopted her before you could stake your claim.”

Benedict howled in laughter.  “I think my claim would be of an entirely different nature,” he smiled, flirtily, at Nicole, who blushed profusely, for the umpteenth time that evening.

“Well,” Mandy said, “in that case, you’ll have to come by the house where we will have a long talk about your intentions towards our new ward.”

“Will the shotgun be sitting prominently on the coffee table?” Benedict smiled, sitting back in his seat, his arm draped around the back of Nicole’s chair.

“With the box of ammo,” Martin said.

“We will not have a lothario such as yourself besmirch our girl’s virtuous reputation,” Mandy declared.

Nicole leaned forward, scrunching her nose, “That ship sailed a while ago,” nodding knowingly, at Mandy.

“Shhh, child!  Dowry negotiations in process!”  

This time Nicole laughed.  “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good girl.  Mummy knows best” Mandy said, patting Nicole’s hand.  “Besides, we should keep your options open.  Isn’t Hiddleston in town?”  She asked Benedict.  “Maybe he’d like to throw his hat into the ring,” Mandy smiled wickedly at him.  There was some silent joke or knowledge that passed between them at the comment.

Nicole turned, smiling at him as well, waggling her eyebrows.

“I’m sure he would,” Benedict said, dryly.

“Oooo!” Nicole said, “Maybe there would be a duel!”

Mandy and Nicole nodded enthusiastically at the idea, while Martin watched his friend shake his head.  The waitress came back with the receipts, and a small flyer.  “Thank you very much for visiting us.  Just so you know, we are now open for dancing on the weekends.  We bring in a DJ and clear a dance floor.  Come on by!”  She said, cheerily rattling off her schpiel, then disappearing.

Mandy grabbed the flyer, “Ohhh, we should do this!” She looked at Martin, who was looking like this was the craziest idea since someone decided to clone dinosaurs. 

Nicole took the flyer from Mandy, looking it over.  “This is pretty new.  There’s not much night life here.  I wonder how it’s doing.”

“Martin, take me dancing, Friday!”  Mandy cooed, snuggling up to him.  He draped his arm around her.  

“Mandy…”

“Please!”  She pleaded, batting her big green eyes at him.

He, for all the world, tried to look put out, but the obvious love he had for her was written all over his face.  “OK.  Whatever you’d like.”

She smiled and kissed him.  “You guys are coming, too.”  She pointed at Benedict and Nicole.

“Sure,” Benedict said.

“Uh,” Nicole started, trying to quickly think of a way out.  

“Nope,” Mandy said, “you too, young lady!”

Nicole smiled and nodded, defeated, wondering if anyone could deny this woman anything.  She caught Benedict out of the corner of her eye, looking exceptionally pleased.

Nicole sat quietly the car ride home, trying to absorb the events of the evening.  “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”  Benedict asked her.

“No.  It was really wonderful, actually.  I had a great time.  Thank you.”

“It was absolutely my pleasure,” he said, reaching out and taking her hand again, holding it the rest of the way home.

They got back to the Inn, where Benedict, ever the gentleman, unlocked the door and ushered her in.  When he shut the door, Nicole turned to say goodnight but was caught by his look.  Gone was the light hearted, silly guy from earlier.  Before her stood a self assured man, who unquestionably had thoughts about what should happen next.  This was the exact moment she was hoping to avoid.  Everything logical told her to back away and don’t get drawn in.  Her body and emotions were warring for the exact opposite outcome.  This must explain her inability to move, the push and pull of logic and emotion.  She stood frozen, in contrast, the foyer seeming to have gone up several degrees in temperature, and her mouth suddenly went dry.  Benedict took two measured steps towards her, and was close enough that she could feel his breath coming in shallow puffs, his body language tense.  Nicole wasn’t sure she was still breathing.  All she knew for sure was, she could feel her heart hammering in her chest, mimicking a prisoner pounding on a door, trying to escape, pleading to be let free.  Her confusion at this point, was she wasn’t sure which side was fighting harder, her head or her heart.  The blood rushed in her ears, and knew if she held her hand up it would be shaking, much like her voice would be, if she had any ability to speak.

Benedict looked down at her lips, unconsciously drawing his in, dampening them, then back to her eyes.  His hand reached up, gently cupping her cheek, making her feel she had been set on fire.  Slowly, he leaned in until his mouth was a breath away from Nicole’s, when his pocket started ringing.  Both startled, they jumped and moved back.  He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and exhaled, reaching into his pocket for the offending phone.  Without looking he swiped the screen and answered, watching Nicole shift uncomfortably, “Hello, Karon.”  He paused, listening to the voice on the other end, trying to keep the annoyance out of his.  “Yeah.  Yeah.”  He sounded resigned, his shoulders slumping just a little.  

Nicole, regaining the use of her faculties, took a step back towards the stairs, waved at him and mouthed ‘good night’, turned and left.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him straighten up, step and reach towards her.  The frustrated look on his face, clearly said he was against the idea of her leaving, but since he was on the phone, he was unable to stop her before she turned tail, and all but ran up the stairs to her room.  Closing the door, and locking it, mostly as a mental exercise for herself, not to go back out, she went to the bathroom and wiped the makeup off her face, changed into her jammies, and climbed into bed, without turning on the lights in her room, just in case he came after her, she wanted it to appear she’d gone to bed.  

Some time later, she heard him come upstairs, anxiously watching the band of light under her door.  She tracked his shadow as it approached, and where he stopped, in front of her bedroom, cutting that band in half.  She held her breath, scared he would know she was still awake, waiting, unsure what he would do if he knew she wasn’t asleep, unsure of what she would do if he knocked.  Eventually, the silhouette receded, and the hall light went out.  Nicole exhaled heavily, turning over on her back.  “Crap,” she whispered.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ch. 17

“This is my penis song”

or

“Memories seep from my veins”

Readers choice!

 

The next morning, Nicole busied herself with preparing breakfast for Benedict.  Obviously there would be a conversation about the previous night.  Although, she would be lying if she said she hoped it would be ignored.  She’d made a huge mistake.  Although, she was fighting herself over which one she believed was the mistake.  

Her head told her, walking away, although done in the most cowardly of fashions, was the best decision.  She should have had the will power to stop him without fleeing like a church mouse.  Alas, he really did act as her Kryptonite, and seemed to lose all sense of herself when he was too close.  It floated off somewhere into adolescent giddiness, only to be seen again when out of his presence for a significant amount of time.

The other part of her said she was crazy and should have stayed, lasciviously batting her eyelashes at him until he hung up the phone.  Well, she liked to believe she was that person, but truer to her nature, she probably would have sat on the stairs and smiled at him while he finished up his call.  “Why does it have to be so hard?”  She mumbled quietly to herself.  “Fuck!” she swore, closing the cutlery drawer with authority.

“Are you OK?”

Nicole jumped and did that surprised girly-squeal-gasp thing that she hated and dropped the silverware she was holding.  Actually, dropped was being generous, more like it went flying through the air when she was startled, landing with the clanging sound on the tile floor.  She covered her face with shaking hands.  “Sonofabitch!  You scared the shit out of me!”  She removed her hands and covered her heart.  

To his credit, Benedict looked like he was trying hard not to laugh at her.  “I’m sorry.  You usually hear me coming,” he said, losing the battle of not laughing.  He sat down at the counter.

Nicole collected the scattered silverware and tossed it, noisily, into the stainless steel sink.  Picking up a nearby dishtowel off the counter, with great force and determination, hucked it at him.  “Jerk,”she spat.

He caught the towel, unable to stop laughing.

“The first number in your age is silent.  You’re lucky I don’t mess with your food!”  She pointed her finger at him, but not the finger she wanted.

“I’m sorry for laughing,” he smiled.

“Apology, considered,” she grumbled.

“Well, at least I learned one more thing about you.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“You swear when you’re startled, too.”

“I swear all the time, when there aren’t guests.  What would you like for breakfast?”  A subject change was in order.

“Something light, please.”

Nicole nodded and began gathering things for him.

“Are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?”  Benedict asked.

Nicole almost imperceptibly hitched with his words.  “You mean the fact that you’re a big meanie?”  She tried to deflect.

“No.”  Was all he said.

Nicole sighed, while looking up to face him.  She stepped back to lean against the counter with her arms crossed, but said nothing.

He waited for her to speak first, but when it became evident she wouldn’t, he started.  “Why did you run away like that?”

Well, going in dry, I see, she thought.  “You got a phone call,” she shrugged.  “It didn’t feel right standing there, listening.”

Benedict watched her, obviously, carefully, considering his next words.  She realized her body language looked like if she could curl in on herself and disappear, she would, and mentally chastised herself for it.  

“Karon is my PR Agent.  We work together.  Nothing more,” he said gently.

Oh.  OOOOOOH!  So he thinks she was upset because she thought it was another Woman!   Capital W!  It would be the coward’s way out again, but taking it would afford her the time to reinforce her barricade.  Nicole calmly nodded.

“I promise, just colleagues.”

She nodded again, pulled out more silverware and handed it to him, along with a bowl of diced fruit.  “Eat your breakfast,” she smiled.

Reaching out he caught her hand, “We good?”

“We’re good.  We were always good.  You don’t owe me any explanations.”  She stepped back and gathered more food for his breakfast, handing it to him.

“I did.  I needed you to know, I’m not that guy.”

“I know you’re not,” she said softly, watching him search her face for signs of doubt, she was sure.  Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, he grinned and began eating.

“Are you looking forward to tomorrow night?”  Benedict asked.

“I kind of am.  I haven’t gone dancing in a while.  Is Mandy really going to invite Tom?”

He looked up with his expression plainly trying to remain neutral.  “I don’t know.  Did you want her to?”

Nicole shrugged a shoulder, “Makes no difference to me, he’s your friend.  The odd number would be awkward, though.”

“I think she was mostly kidding,” he took a few bites of his breakfast.  “Although, I think he’d like to see you again.”  

Nicole, in the middle of taking a drink, sputtered her current gulp out in front of her.  “What?”  She grabbed the towel she had thrown at Benedict earlier and began mopping up her mess.

Benedict looked up with a look of mild amusement.  “I think he fancied you.”

“What I think he fancied, was taking the piss out of you.  There is no way that boy has any real interest in me whatsoever.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Have any interest in him?”

In a I’d like to spend a couple of weeks in a tropical location, naked kind of way?  Yes.  “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Benedict, what are you doing?”  She asked, exasperated.

“I’m just trying to gather all the facts,” he grinned.

“Why don’t you gather the rest of your breakfast in your belly, and go to work, goober.”

Nicole marched out of the kitchen as Benedict roared in laughter.

 

 

 

Nicole pulled out her bow and set up her target in the back yard to practice.  After this morning, it was one of those days, she needed to shoot something.  She’d been at it for a while, she stopped to take a drink of her water when the Inn’s phone rang, she Answered it with her usual greeting.

“May I speak with Nicole, please?” The voice on the other end surprised her.

“This is she.”

“Hello, Nicole!  This is Tom.  Tom Hiddleston.”

Nicole looked around the yard for a camera or Benedict or Ashton Kutcher, or something, sure she was being punked.  

“Hello?”  Tom asked.

“Oh.  Yes.  Sorry.  How are you?”

“Great.  How are you?”

Utterly and completely freaked out.  “I’m well.  What can I do for you?”

“Well, I was wondering if you were going to be around this afternoon.  I’d like to drop by if I may?”

Nicole’s eyes widened.  What.  The.  Fuck.  “Sure.  I’ll be here all day.”

“Wonderful!  Say, tea time?”

“Sure.  I’ll have some ready.”

“Thank you.  I’ll see you then!”

It’d be a lie if she didn’t think about running into the house and sprucing herself up.  Instead, she decided to make sure she didn’t have anything between her teeth, and leave it at that.   There was no need to go there.  She dropped heavily into the patio chair and tried to figure out how this had become her life.  When no answers came, she went back to shooting the crap out of her target.


 

 

 

"Hi!" Nicole smiled, opening the door for Tom.

He walked in embracing Nicole in a hug.  He really did give the best hugs.  "Hello, luv."  He pulled back, giving her a kiss on each cheek.  She had the urge to reach up and touch her face, but fought it, trying to act like a civilized adult, rather than an infatuated fangirl.

"Come in."  She led him into the kitchen, where he hung his messenger bag over the back of a nearby chair.  "I have tea all ready, any place you'd like to sit?"

"It's a nice day.  Outside?"

"Perfect!  If you get the door, I'll grab the tray."  

Once out on the patio, and into their first cup of tea and small talk, Tom pointed to her target out in the yard.  "Archery target?"

She nodded.

"Really?  I learned to shoot for Henry."

"I saw that.  A traditional longbow, wasn't it?"

"Yes!  I was so excited the day I hit a bullseye at 30 feet!"

"It is exciting.  Had you been practicing long before you hit that?"

"Kind of, yeah."

"Instinctive shooting can be tough."

"What are you shooting?"

"Compound."

"May I see?"

Nicole grabbed her bow from the house and handed it to him.  His wingspan was much longer than hers and wouldn't be able to shoot it comfortably.  He looked on the fence about trying it anyway, though.

"This is menacing," he laughed.  "Have you named it?"

"Yes."

He waited for her to tell him.  She smiled and said nothing.

"Well, go on then."

Trying to fight her grin, she said, "Bod."

"Bod?" He asked, looking perplexed.

"It's Scottish Gaelic," she tried to help him along.

His eyes widened, "You. Did. Not!"

"I totally did."  She grinned.

Tom roared in laughter.  Bent over, eyes watering, can't breathe laughter." I can't believe you named your bow Penis," he choked out.

"Well, I figure this is how men must feel, so..."  She watched him continue to laugh at her.  "Well, I named my convertible Quéquette, so..."

Apparently that was the final straw and he had to sit down to try to control himself.  She patiently sat and waited for him to gain some composure, but every time he did, he'd look up at her and fall apart all over again.  

A considerable amount of time later, he finally pulled himself together.  "I have no idea what to do with you."

Nicole shrugged.  "I get that a lot.  Although, I'm not entirely sure why."

"It would never occur to me to name something dick, or penis."

"Probably because you have one."

"Well, you're not wrong.  How about a demonstration on how you wield your cock."

Nicole was uncertain about wanting to do that.  

"Come on!  After all that, you have to."

She nodded, grabbing the rest of her gear and headed with him out to the yard.

"Let's see your bullseye at 30 feet!"  He had a competitive twinkle in his eye.  Oh my sweet summer child,  she thought.  She was fairly new to archery, and not particularly skilled, but she should be able to make this shot with very little trouble.  Nodding, she hid her grin and found the mark for 10 yards.  Luckily, the weather was nice and there was no breeze at all, so it should be ok.  Getting into position and taking off her glasses, she got into her stance, drew, aimed and released.  Fortunately, she hit her bullseye, and grinned.

"Nice!  Can you go longer?"  No double entendre there...

"It's happened."

"What's the longest?"  He grinned.

Nicole rolled her eyes at him.  "Uh, well, it was 50 yards, but, I think that was more luck than anything else."

"Oh! You HAVE to try!"

"Can I have three shots?"

"Absolutely!"

Grabbing her bucket of arrows, she walked back to the 50 yard mark, which was the highest on her sight and frankly, the least used.  She had to leave her glasses on for this, she could barely see the target let alone the bullseye.  She set herself up again, and shot.  "Where'd it land?  I can't see it."

"About an inch right of the bullseye.  You can't see that?  How are you aiming?"

"Not really.  It's a fuzzy blob with an even fuzzier red center.  I'm aiming for what I hope is the middle of the red."  She adjusted and shot again, then looked to him.

"Bullseye!"

Totally forgetting to play it cool, she squealed and jumped up and down.   They both walked back over to the table and sat, Nicole putting her bow back in the case.  "That was impressive."

"It was, wasn't it!  I haven't been at it long.  Sights help."  Nicole took a sip of her tea.  "Well, I don't think you came all the way over here to watch me play Robin Hood."

"No, but I'm glad I did!”  He leaned forward, “I had been thinking about how I pressured you into knitting a scarf for me.  It was unforgivingly rude.  I'm very sorry."

"Tom, if I minded, I wouldn't have done it."

"No, but you hadn't offered, either."

She shrugged.  "I don't mind, really.  I'm honored you'd want one of my terribly knitted pieces."

He got up and grabbed his bag from the house, opening it on his way out, he handed her a beautifully wrapped gift.  "An apology and thank you gift."

"You didn't need to do that," she hesitantly took the gift.

"I really did."  He smiled.

Pulling off the ribbon and slipping her fingers under the taped edges she lifted the paper, to reveal a hand tooled, leather journal.  Delicately engraved flowers stems spiraled and circled around blooms and leaves.  It framed a quote that looked as if it, too, had been hand engraved into the soft, brown leather, ‘We know what we are, but know not what we may be.’  It was held closed with a tie made of the same leather.  

"I remembered how you said you had rediscovered Shakespeare, and it reminded me of you."

"It's beautiful," she breathed, opening it and flipping through the blank lined pages.

"I don't know if you journal, but you could put your thoughts down, or the woman I bought this from said you could keep your knitted swatches in here, with the information about the needles and such?"

"I do journal...off and on.  But the idea of keeping my knitting information in here is a great one!  Thank you!"  Nicole stood and hugged him.  "This is so thoughtful," she said into his chest.

"You're very welcome," he whispered, into her ear.  He gave her a squeeze, rubbing her back and took a deep breath of her scent before he let her go.  They sat back down, and Nicole lightly ran her fingers over the carvings in the leather of her journal.  "What perfume are you wearing?"  He asked.

Nicole looked at him a little surprised.  She had to think a minute,  "It's a blend I had done a while ago.  Gardenia and Jasmine I think."  

"It suits you.  I think the last time you smelled of vanilla."

Nicole blinked a couple of times, "I...I don't remember, but that sounds likely," she laughed nervously.  She could feel her cheeks redden.

He sat back in his chair, smiling.  "You're blushing.  That's adorable."

Nicole groaned covering her face.  "Yes.  This has recently been pointed out to me.  I thought I was hiding it well."  She dropped her hands.  "It's embarrassing."

"It's beautiful."

"I'd like it better if you blushed instead of me."

"Well then, make me blush."  He leaned his head on his hand of the arm, that was resting on the armrest of the chair.

That's new, and not at all subtle.  She regarded him for a moment saying nothing.  Sitting up straighter and staring at her lap, she said, "Well," then looked up at him, "I wasn't going to say anything, because I didn't want to embarrass you, but, your barn door is open."

"What?" He asked confused.

"Your fly is down."  She wiggled her finger in the direction of his crotch.

He nearly jumped up out of his chair to zip his pants back up, except he didn't need to.  She briefly wondered, if the reason he jumped so quickly, was because the rumors of him going commando were true.  Nicole sat grinning at him.  

"Just kidding.  But look how pink your cheeks and ears are!"

He sat down exasperated.  "Not really what I had in mind."

"I know exactly what you had in mind.  Behave yourself, or I'll snatch that phone from you and call your mother!"

He burst out laughing again, "No.  Please.  I'll behave."

"Thank you."  

Nicole heard the front gate shut and tires on the driveway.  "Ben's home."

"You calling him Ben now?"

"Not to his face," she grinned.

A minute later, the front door opened and shut and Benedict came strolling into the kitchen.  Nicole and Tom both stood.  

"Hey, man!"  Benedict said, walking outside and grabbing Tom in a bro-hug.  "This is a surprise."

"Yeah. Nicole was kind enough to let me come down and apologize."

"For what?"

"The whole scarf thing."

Benedict nodded slowly and glanced to Nicole.

She picked up the journal he gave her and held it up.  "His apology and thank you present."

"Something handmade for something handmade," Tom said.

“How thoughtful," Benedict replied.

"Here," Nicole said, offering her seat.  "I'll go make more tea," she said grabbing the pot.

Tom looked at his watch, "I actually have to get going soon."  He turned to Benedict, "I was hoping we could have dinner tomorrow night.  Of course, I would be honored if you would join us," he said turning to Nicole.

Nicole looked to Benedict as he squirmed uncomfortably.  "Well, we actually have plans tomorrow night.  Martin and Mandy are in town."

"And I'm being forcibly dragged along," Nicole said, trying to look overly put upon.

“Forcibly?" Tom asked.

"I couldn't think up and excuse quickly enough to get out of it."

Both men looked at her, Tom confused and Benedict again with a schooled expression.  

"It's mixing business and personal and I'm the sort of odd man out..." she explained.

Tom nodded his head in understanding, while Benedict shook his head in disagreement.  Both started speaking at the same time, but Tom was faster.  "Well, why don't I provide you an excuse.  We'll have dinner," he beamed.

Nicole's face brightened, while Benedict looked a little panicked.  

"Why don't you join us?"  Benedict countered.

Nicole blinked in surprise and amusement.  She smiled, looking to Tom.

"I don't want to impose."

“No.  No imposition.  Mandy had mentioned calling you anyway.  I'm surprised she hasn't.  Must have slipped her mind."

"Well, in that case, I'd love to!  What's the plan?"

"Dancing!" Nicole piped up, happily.

"Great!"

"We're each on our own for dinner, but we'll meet there around nine or so.  I'll text you the details."

"I'm looking forward to it."  He turned to Nicole, "Have you named your shoes, too?" He grinned.

"Hardly.  But I'm sure I can come up with a suitable name.  Something about how they can kick your ass at dancing."

He narrowed his eyes at her, and what can only be described as and evil grin, spread across his face, "Challenge accepted."


 

 

 

After Benedict walked Tom out to his car, he came back in where Nicole was cleaning up tea and starting dinner.  He plopped down in his standard chair next to the counter.  "Can you out dance him?"

"I can if he hasn't learned any more moves.  He seems to only know those ones all over the internet."

Benedict chuckled, "I don't know, but I would love to see you best him."

"It'd be a pretty awesome resume filler.  'Out danced Tom Hiddleston.'  So you better polish up some of your moves.  None of that Thriller mess, please."

"Oh!  Is that how it is?"

"Yup."

"I'll have you know, I have great rhythm."

Nicole looked up at him, and yep.  There it was, the flirtatious double meaning.  

"If you say so."

He leaned forward on the counter, "Shall I prove it?"

"Nope.  I believe you."  And she did.  She really, really did.

She continued to clean up the remnants of tea, trying to ignore Benedict watching her every move.  

"Is there anything I can do to help?"  He asked.

Nicole looked up at nothing in particular and thought about dinner prep and if he could do anything.  "Well, no.  OH! Would you mind taking my bow and target from outside and putting it in the garage?"

"No, I don't mind at all."  He rose from the chair and started on his task.  

"Just place it next to the door, I'll stow it later."

He nodded carrying her equipment off.

When he came back, he sat down in his seat again and asked, "What's that covered car in the garage?"

Nicole stilled for a moment.  This was not a conversation she wanted to have.  "It's a car."  She tried to look very interested in peeling her potatoes.

He huffed.  "Yes.  Obviously.  Is it yours?"

"Yes."

"Does it run?"

"Yes."

"Do you drive it?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I don't want to."

"Nicole."

“Hmmm?"  She responded, still peeling potatoes.

"Look at me."

Taking a second, she composed herself, plastered a smile on her face and did as he asked.

"What's going on?  Why are you being evasive?"

She dropped her smile and sighed.  She held eye contact with him for a moment contemplating her next move.  Dropping the vegetables and peeler into the sink and drying off her hands, she started to walk out of the kitchen, looking to him to follow.  

Leading him into the garage, she went to the right front bumper of the car and pointed him to the other side.  "Here help me lift the cover off."  Together they pulled back the material to reveal the hood and the insignia.  She looked at him and watched his surprise.

He looked up to her, "This is a Jag."

"Yes."

"An F-Type."

"Yes."

"And you don't drive it?" He was appalled.

She shook her head.  "No.  I do come out every so often and run the engine for a few minutes, because someone told me to."

"Why?  Why wouldn't you drive it?"

She began pulling the cover back further to reveal the rest of the car.  "It's..." she didn't know what to say, "It's complicated."

"I don't understand."

She sighed heavily again, and realized she wasn't really breathing.  "It was bequeathed to me."

She watched the one two punch of understanding flash over his face.  First the surprised ‘Someone left you a car!’ look, then the, ‘Oh God, someone left you a car…’ look.  "I'm so sorry."

She nodded.  "Thank you."  

"How long has it been?"

"A couple of years."

He walked over to her and gently touched her arm, "And it's still this painful?" 

She looked down at her feet, as if that could chase away the images and memories.  "He saved me.  He was one of, if not the best man I ever knew."  Nicole could feel Benedict watching her.  She couldn't meet his gaze, she knew if she did, his look of sympathy would push her to tears, and come hell or high water, she was not going to cry in front of him.

"You were in love with him?"

Her head shot up, "No! Oh, no, no, no," she laughed.  "He was Uncle Joe!  I mean, we weren't actually related, but, for as long as I've known him, which was most of my life, he's always been ‘Unca' Joe."

Benedict smiled.  "You're face just lit up talking about him."

"He was amazing.  I'd known him since I was, as he put it, 'knee high to a venture capitalist'," she grinned.  "Smartest person I ever met, hands down."

"How did you meet?"

Nicole and Benedict leaned against the car.  "Well, Betty, who owned the inn before me, I bought it from her, knew Unca Joe from school, and he would come out with the whole family and book the inn.  Betty had taken pity on me or maybe my mother, I'm not sure," she chuckled, "and would have me come over and 'help'.  I'm sure I was more trouble than help, being a live-wire child.  She channeled my energy into work around here.  This is really the only job I've ever had.  Anyway, Unca Joe took me under his wing, treated me like one of his own kids.  I mean, I scolded as often, if not more, than I was praised.  He made sure I did well in school, pushed me to go to college, 'suggested' what classes I should take.  By suggested I mean picked out, expecting no lip from me."

"Where was your family?"

"They were around.  They weren't bad or anything, just not particularly...consistent or stable.  Unca Joe and Betty gave that to me."

"So why the car?"

Nicole's face saddened, "We had a thing.  He loved cars.  He would talk about them endlessly.  Then we would pick out our favorites.  He'd spout facts and figures to support his choice and I'd say, ‘I like that one!  It's pretty!’  Drove him nuts.  Of course he always tutted about my picks.  They were 'silly' or 'I could do better than that'. 

"One day we were all sitting around watching TV and the commercial for the F-Type came on as I was leaving the room.  The engine stopped me in my tracks, it was like love at first sound.  My heart stopped, and I ran back into the room to see what that soul inspiring noise was.  When the commercial was over I looked to Unca Joe and said, that one!  That's the one.  He nodded and smiled at me and said, 'Good choice.'  I'm not sure why he approved of that one, maybe because he saw it touched me, but he knew it was my favorite."

"So he left you one in his will?"

Nicole nodded.  "In blue, because it was his favorite color on me."  Her voice hitched as she tried to stop a sob from escaping.  Gathering herself together and blinking back tears, she squared her shoulders stood  up, and took a deep breath.  "So, I haven't gotten past it yet, and that's why I don't drive her."

Benedict engulfed her in a hug that rivaled one of Tom's, and she let him, hugging him right back.  "He would want you to drive it," he whispered in her ear.

"I know.  I will.  When I can," she said, as softly as his whisper.


 

 

 

In the middle of dinner, Nicole looked up at Benedict, who was watching her carefully.  She slowed her chewing and asked, "What?"

"I don't want to be intrusive." 

"But you're going to?"

He smiled, "Yes.  I feel like there is more to this story about you and Joe."

Nicole pushed her food around her plate with the fork.  "How do you mean?"

"He left you an $90,000 car..."

Well, closer to $100,000.  She put her fork down, and absently studied the food on her plate.  "What are you insinuating?"

"No! Nothing like that!"

She looked at him.

"It's just a very generous gift."

"He was generous."

"Nicole, you can not tell me you don't see how this is an extraordinary occurrence."

Forgoing all sense of etiquette, she dropped her elbows on the table and sunk her head in her hands. “What does it matter?  Why do you care?"  She all but whined.  She was so tired of this conversation.

She felt Benedict reach out and grasp her wrist and pulling her hand down until he could hold it in his.  "I care, because I care about you.  I care about an obviously cherished relationship with a man, who shaped you into an incredible woman."

When her eyes met his, she saw unwavering sincerity.  Dumbstruck.  She had no words, they had all fled and abandoned her.  Closing her eyes, breathing deeply and drawing in her focus, she smiled lightly at him.  "I had decades with Unca Joe. Decades of history and stories.  Some of them I tell, some I don't, because they’re mine.  You know?"

Benedict nodded.

"He was a wealthy man, and he was generous with his wealth.  I didn't want any of it.  I'd give it all back tomorrow if it would bring him back."  She smiled sadly.  "He probably laughed his ass off the whole time he drew up his will, knowing it would bug the pig shit out of me."

Nicole watched Benedict's fingers gently caress her hand, and allowed herself the comfort of it.  "There are a lot of things that transpired between us that I don't talk about, because, frankly, I feel it's in my best interest not to.  One day, I may.  I haven't even told my family or best friend the extent of everything.  I mean, she has a good idea, but just superficially.  So please, don't think it's you and whatever this is between us, that’s stopping me.  It’s not."  Somewhere in the back of her head a voice scolded her for admitting there was something was between them, but fuck it.  Dancing around it was exhausting, and she didn’t have it in her. 

Benedict nodded silently.

She nodded in return, taking her hand back.  "Thank you."

"Do you get lonely, not having anyone to confide in?"

"Sometimes," she smiled, "but there's always hope someone will come along."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ch. 18

Oooooh, Fiiiiiiire!

 

Friday was a relatively uneventful day, as her Fridays went these days (Which she had now come to see as, BBC and ABC.  Before Benedict Cumberbatch and after Benedict Cumberbatch, which tickled her more than it should have).  Benedict’s schedule was short, since his character was only in a few of the scenes.  Home early, he found Nicole in the midst of her mundane daily activities, and she was thankful, he had other things to attend to, and stayed out of her hair while she handled her tasks.  That man could be a bigger distraction than anything she’d ever encountered.  Hell, he was a distraction, before she met him.  He’d lost none of his potency in person, in fact it was worse.

After dinner, they sat congenially in the living room, her reading on her iPad and him flipping through the eight billion channels in the satellite package, evidently, unable to find anything to watch.  Surreptitiously, she glared at him out of the corner of her eye.  His facial expression, bored, as he flipped through, channel by channel.  She wondered why he couldn't just pull up the menu and read what was playing.  Every man she had known, had done this channel flipping thing.  What was it with that stupid y chromosome*?  Thankfully, he eventually landed on a black and white movie and settled back into the sofa to watch.  Nicole was relieved, because she was sure she was going to have to take the remote from him, and maybe commit a felony with it, and she didn't’ want that headline to be her legacy:  

“Woman Driven to Insanity by Sherlock and the Stupid, Fucking TV Remote Control”

A couple of hours before they were to leave, Nicole shut off her iPad and pulled herself out of her chair, causing Benedict looked up at her with raised eyebrows.

"I'm off to start the beautification process," she said answering his silent question.

He looked at his watch, "Already?"

"Have you never had a girlfriend?"

He looked like something ridiculously sarcastic wanted to burst from his mouth, but must have thought better of it.  Instead he smiled, "Well, I mean, you're already so lovely.  I can't imagine you have much to do."

"Nice save."

"Well, I'm not entirely stupid."

"No.  You're not.  Pesky, but not stupid."

He grinned.

"It was only half a compliment, at best.”

 

Nicole had spent a good portion of her day, while working, pondering her appearance for that night.  After ping-ponging back and forth over ideas, she finally said to herself, fuck it and decided she would make the full effort.  She worried about what kind of signals it would be sending to get gussied up.  Would Benedict and Tom think she was doing it for them?  Probably, because, have you met their hubris?  

Going out and having a good time is not something she did often.  Most of her friends lived hours away, and when they did get together, preferred to stay in and catch up.  Admitting to Benedict how much she was looking forward to the evening, worried her, that she would add fuel to his fire.  That wasn't something she wanted.  

OK.  That was a lie.  Human beings want to feel attractive, wanted, appreciated.  In that sense, deep down, well maybe not so deep, his attentions were flattering and nice.  The active perusal was another matter.  While flattering, it was problematic.  She didn’t want to be one of those people who hooked up with her customers.  It was unprofessional and undoubtedly bad business.  People would argue, it’s a good practice, until it isn't.  Well, how do you know?  Exactly.  You don't.  Better safe than sorry in some regards.

Had she met Benedict under different circumstances, there would have been no question.  She'd have said yes without a moment's hesitation.  Of course, there was a niggling doubt, that had he not been subjected to her day in and day out, combined with lack of other options, his interest would have been nonexistent.  Because, really…  Right?  Her standing next to Zoe Saldana, that's a no brainer.  Even she would pick the latter.  Her standing next to the cashier at the local market?  Maybe.  Probably, if it was the dude with the handlebar mustache.  Although, the mustache is impressive...

After turning the ideas and thoughts over and over in her mind, the conclusion was that she was going to do this for herself.  Who knows?  Maybe she would meet a better match there.  Maybe, nice engineer that lived in the area or something.  In any case, this was for her.  It was her night out, too.  She would dress up, drink and dance and have a great time.

Nicole decided to wear her hair down and unrestrained.  She felt a bit like a wild Lady Godiva with it loose.  Full make up, not just lip gloss and cheek stain.  Going with the Godiva feel, the top was a navy, sheer wrap around with a matching decorative, satin bra to hide the good bits, dark wash jeans, and black moderate heeled boots for comfort.  Never wear open toed shoes to a bar, just don't.  Trust.

She gathered what she would need for the night, tossed them into a small bag, grabbed her leather jacket and headed downstairs.  When she stepped into the eat in kitchen, she found Benedict already waiting for her in the family room, flipping through a magazine.  He caught sight of her and stood, dropping the magazine on the table.  He wore a black button up shirt tucked into some very loved jeans, that fit, oh so well.  In that moment she questioned whether or not she overestimated her will power.  Quickly, she snapped herself out of the lusty daze she was momentarily lost in, to see him look her over.  His eyes’ consumption of her form was so intense, she actually took a step back.  When he began to move towards her, she gathered her wits about her, quietly planting her feet, and smiled.  "You look nice," she said, trying to diffuse the tension.

"You look...wow."

"Thank you."

He stopped just in front of her, gently brushing and holding her hair aside, the other hand softly touching her other arm as he gave her a soft kiss on the cheek.  "All eyes will be on you tonight, that’s for sure."

"It's the hair, people will think I'm Cousin It," she joked.

"Not in those jeans."

Nicole felt her cheeks redden. "Thanks."

“Shall I drive?”  He asked, holding up his keys.

"I thought I'd call a cab.  That way we don't have to worry about a designated driver."

"Beautiful and brilliant."

"I have my moments," she mumbled, embarrassed, pulling her phone out of her purse and began to call the local cab company.  After giving them the address, she informed Benedict their ride would be there in about 15 minutes.

She wandered over to her chair and fell into it with a sigh, fiddling with her phone as a sort of distraction from his intense attractiveness, to wait for the cab.  He went to the couch and sat as well.  When she was done, checking all her stuff, she looked up to find him watching her.  “Yes?”

He didn’t answer immediately, but continued to stare.  Then, something happened, something clicked for him, like a decision was made; she saw it in he countenance.  He shook his head once and smiled.  “Nothing.”

Well, they both knew that was a lie, but she was fairly bright too, and knew not to poke that bee hive.

 

 

At the restaurant, Mandy and Martin were already there, and had found a table near the back.  Strategically, it was a good spot.  The location provided a fairly good path to the bar, restrooms and dance floor, but gave some relative privacy being in a corner, especially with the dark lighting scheme.  As they walked up, everyone greeted one another with hugs and kisses.

“Look at you, all fancy!” Amanda said pulling Nicole in for hug.

When they broke apart, Nicole did a small curtsey, “Why thank you, you also look amazing!”  She said to Amanda, who was wearing a similar outfit of fitted jeans and a green low cut top, that accented her eyes.

Benedict looked over to Martin, “Oh you look so pretty!”  He said in a high pitched voice.

Martin joined in with his own silly voice, “I love your hair!”

Amanda smacked Martin in the arm with the back of her hand.

“The beatings have already started?”  The group turned to find Tom walking up, smiling.

“Tom!”  Benedict called, opening his arms for a hug.  

Tom brushed Benedict’s arms away and headed to Nicole.  “Ladies first!”

He held her at arms length for a moment looking her over, before spinning her in a circle.  “You are stunning,” he said, just before pulling her into a tight hug, apparently for too long, in Benedict’s mind.  He playfully pulled Tom from her.  “OK, OK.  Get your own date,” he laughed.

“Oh, darling,” Tom said, pulling Benedict into a hug.  “Don’t be jealous.”

The five of them settled in their chairs around the round table as the waitress came up asking if we would like to order drinks.  Martin pulled out his credit card and handed it to her, “Please start a tab.”

Everyone put in their orders, no one starting off slow and easy, and settled into friendly conversation.  When the drinks arrived, they immediately ordered another round from the waitress, before Tom held up his glass.  “A toast!”

Everyone held up their glasses.

“To make the coming hour o'erflow with joy,

And pleasure down the brim.”

“Here, here!”  Everyone responded.

Actors and their Shakespeare.  Nicole thought to herself, amused.

 

That damn bartender made the best dirty martinis she’d ever had.  They went down way too easily.  They were two drinks in and working on the third when a song finally caught Amanda and Nicole’s ear.  They looked at each other in wide eyed joy.

“Let’s go!”  Amanda commanded, and they both jumped off their chairs and made their way to the dance floor.  

After a few songs, they tired and decided to head back to the men.  

“My dancing queen!” Martin declared, as they walked up to the table, then kissed Amanda on the cheek.

“You looked like you were having a good time,” Tom smiled at Nicole.

“We were.  You should have joined us.”

“I’m waiting for my moment.”

“What’s your excuse?”  She asked Benedict.

“I like to watch.”  He was smiling, but there wasn’t an ounce of humor behind that statement.

Nicole looked at him amused, and moderately emboldened by the alcohol.  She wasn’t backing down this time.  “Well, you know what they say.  Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, watch.”

Slowly, a predacious smile formed on his full lips.  Before he could respond, Nicole grabbed the I.D. and credit card out of her purse and tucked it into her jean’s pocket.  “I’m gonna visit the ladies, then I’ll get us another round of drinks.  Same for everyone?”

The answer was a resounding yes and off she went, with a coy glance over her shoulder at Benedict.  

Once she had made her way to the bar, someone sidled up beside her, gently placing a hand on her lower back.  When she turned to see who it was, Tom grinned down at her.  Leaning in, he spoke next to her ear, “I thought you could use some help carrying the drinks.”

“That’s so sweet! Thank you.”  While the bartended worked on their order, they stood at the bar talking, with Tom, just a little too close, Nicole noted, but did nothing to dissuade him.  One might pass it off as a necessity being in a loud bar, but for Tom, who is a charming, cocksure Alpha, it was surely, nothing but deliberate.

Once they made their way back to the table with the drinks, Benedict slipped his arm around the back of Nicole’s chair as she sat down.  Copying Tom’s move, he leaned in, and said, “Thank you,” letting his mouth gently brush her ear.  Nicole tried not to let the intimate act affect her, but she couldn’t keep the heat from raising her body temperature.  She nodded her head and tried to hide her blushing face behind her hair, “No problem,” took a sip of her drink, and hoped she looked unaffected. 

Most of the night went, drinks, flirt, dance. Drinks, flirt, dance.  Benedict flirting skills were unparalleled.  He walked a very fine line between appropriate and down right dirty, but left you questioning which was which.  The dance pairings and groups switched and rotated, but everyone had spent significant time out on the floor.  It was especially entertaining for Nicole whenever Benedict tried to get a little handsy, and she would shimmy away from him just out of reach.  She would bet a dozen doughnuts that every time she pulled this maneuver, he growled in amused frustration.  She was also sure she shouldn’t take any satisfaction in that, but oh well, she did.  It was immensely satisfying.

While on one of their breaks, Tom, who was sitting across from Nicole, leaned over the table to her, “So, you gonna make good on your unfounded promise to kick my ass dancing?”

“Well, I was trying to save your ego.  But if you’re gonna be like that.”

“Lets’ see what you’ve got!”

“Let’s go!”  

Benedict leaned over to her ear before she climbed down from her chair.  “What’s going on?”

“I’m about to kick Hiddleston’s ass dancing!”

Benedict smiled brightly, “There’s my girl.”  He kissed her on the cheek.  “Give ‘im hell!”

Even under a challenge Tom was a gentleman, and protectively guided her out to a clearer spot on the floor.  They danced around each other, in the generic dance moves that everyone does, each challenging the other to make the first move.  Tom finally gave in , after one too many provocative insults that questioned his manhood, and she stood back as he broke out into his signature steps.  He started with his Running Man/Wop moves.  She was ready, she countered, doing the same, but a sillier version, mocking him, before she took it and made it into a slicker version.  Finally. Having no social life and all those hours of watching YouTube dance videos are paying off.  Every move he made she countered.  Finally she pulled out a small routine she liked and learned from one of her favorite YouTubers.  Tom laughed so hard, she could hear him over the pounding music.  “You win.  You win!”  He declared, wrapping his arms around her in a hug.  Nicole laughed, hugging him back.  

The music slowed, “Truce?” Tom asked.

“Truce,” Nicole replied, allowing him to position her into a slow dance.”

“Where’d you learn to dance like that?”

“YouTube.”

“Seriously?”

“Well, yeah.  I mean, I danced as a kid.  I was always conning my ballet teacher into teaching me hip hop moves.  Then there were clubs and stuff when I got older.  I don’t go out much these days, so I find videos on the internet.”

“Well, that’s impressive.”

“I would have gone with sad and pathetic, but thank you.”

They danced quietly for a few measures when Tom broke the silence.  “May I ask you a personal question?”

“Sure.”

“What’s up with you and Ben?”

Nicole stiffened, taking in a deep breath and sighing.  “Nothing.”

He pulled her in closer, “Nothing?”

“Well, he’s been…flirting and I’ve been trying to keep him honest.”

“Why?  Aren’t you interested?”

She felt his fingers make small circles where he held her.  “It doesn’t matter if I am or not.  It’s a bad idea to get involved with a client, especially when he's living under the same roof.”

This time Tom sighed, unhappily, “If you like him, isn’t it worth the risk?”

They swayed back and forth for a few seconds, “I don’t know.”

Tom pulled back from her, just enough to meet her eyes.  “I know we’re not that close, and I would like to change that.  So know, that whatever you decide, I’ll be here for you, in whatever capacity you need, at any time.”  She could see the underlying message in the look on his face.

Nicole nodded, “Thank you.”

“Besides,” he smiled, flipping the switch back to casual, “We have to keep in touch.  You need to send me my lovely hand made scarf.”

Nicole smiled back, “Yes I do.”

Back at the table, Benedict greeted her with a laughing smile.  “You were great!”

“Thank you,” Nicole said, drinking the rest of her remaining cocktail.  Another one promptly showed up after.  She got through half of that and realized she was beyond tipsy.  Being that she was, let’s face it, drunk, she shrugged it off and kept drinking, although, she did try to slow down.  

She’d lost count of how many she had had by the time the DJ put on another slow song.  Benedict slipped his arm around her shoulder, leaning in, “May I have this dance?”

She smiled and nodded, as they made their way to the dance floor.  It started in a traditional embrace, her hand in his.  His arm around her waist, while she rested her other on his shoulder.  As they slowly swayed, the space between them dwindled until they were gently pressed together.  Benedict took her hand and placed it around his neck, as he let his slip around the other side of her waist.  He hugged her close, letting his head rest against hers.  She inhaled deeply.  He smelled vaguely of whatever cologne he chose that night and whatever made him, him.  It added to her already drunken state.  He always smelled, and felt so good and warm. She thought.

His hand slid up her back and pulled her even closer.  “So do you,” he said softly into her ear.

Had she been less drunk, she’d have been mortified to realize she’d said that out loud.  As it stood, her heart that had been fighting all this time to get it’s little Id way, finally had its chance with her brain a pickled mess, and skipped a beat or two in happiness.  The song ended and rolled straight into another ballad.  Nicole pulled back and looked up.  The desire she saw vividly in his eyes, she was sure, mirrored her own.  She took a step back, letting her hands slide down and rest on his warm, solid chest.  She watched her fingers make small invisible designs there before looking back up at him.  “I’m so drunk.”  

“Me too,” he answered.

A beat passed before they both fell apart laughing, collapsing in on each other in a fit of giggles.  Nicole in her altered state, could not figure out for the life of her why that was so hilariously funny.  All she knew, is that it was.  

Regaining control, Benedict took her hand and began to lead her back to the group.  “Come on, Miss Hannigan.”

“Whatever, Mr., Mr.,” she tried hard to think of an equally amusing parallel and failed miserably.  “Mr. Silly drunk movie character I can’t think of right now.”

Nicole, very carefully and deliberately, because she wasn’t sure things weren’t moving on their traitorous own, climbed into her chair and sat.  Benedict didn’t seem to be having the same problem.  Fucker, she thought and giggled.

Mandy smoothed back Nicole’s hair, “Well, my darling daughter, how are you?”  She smiled.

“I’m soused.”  She nodded her head once in punctuation.

Mandy laughed, “I can see that.”

“There is a voice in my head telling me I am going to be a very, very, very sad camper tomorrow.  I believe the voice.  I need to start with the water and Tylenol, STAT.  Does anyone know the origin of STAT?  I do!”

Mandy leaned over to Benedict, “You guys aren’t driving are you?”

“No, we took a cab.”

“Well,” Tom piped in, “It’s late.  I think I’m gonna head out.”

“We probably all should,” Martin agreed.

Everyone started to pack up and leave while Martin went to the bar to settle the tab.  Nicole offered to pay for the drinks, but being as inebriated as she was, it didn’t take much cunning to outwit her.  The group met at the door, and hugs and kisses were given all around.  

While Benedict was saying his goodbyes to Martin and Amanda, Tom hugged Nicole, and whispered in her ear, “Call me anytime you want.  I’ll always be happy to hear from you.”  He pressed a soft, lingering kiss to her cheek, and Nicole closed her eyes and leaned into it a bit, faintly acknowledging a warmth and serenity it gave her.  She hummed in contentment.  

“I will,” she said, and pulled back.  

“Maybe you can text me pictures of your progress on the scarf, or of your bullseyes,” he smiled.  

“It’s a deal.”

 

Outside, there were a line of cabs waiting, bless their opportunistic hearts.  Benedict helped Nicole into the back of one, before sliding in after, giving the driver the address.

“Have a nice time?”  The driver asked pulling away from the curb.  

“Yes. It was a lot of fun.”  Benedict replied.

“Yes,” Nicole said just after him, “I drank way too much.”

The cabbie looked into his rearview mirror at Benedict nodding affirmation, and laughed.  “Do that a lot?”  The driver asked.

“No.  I can’t remember the last time I did,” she said.

“Oh, then you’re gonna be one sorry girl tomorrow.”  The driver said.

“That’s a certainty.”  Her head seemed incredibly heavy, so she let it slide onto Benedict’s shoulder.  He wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close.  She reciprocated by doing the same around his middle and cuddling into him.  He kissed the top of her head and wrapped his other arm around to stroke her arm.

Benedict paid the cabbie and got the two of them inside without any trouble.  Nicole went into the eat in kitchen and leaned against the table while Benedict locked up and hung up her jacket and purse in the front coat closet.  He came in to find her bent in half, her hair dusting the floor while she took off her shoes.  He leaned against the doorway amused, watching.  When she succeeded, she stood up and had to use both hands to throw her mane of curls back out of her face.  She blew away the few strays that remained.  “I tell ya’, the shoes are really comfortable, but not even they could withstand all those hours of dancing,” she grinned.

Still propped against the doorway, watching her, and fiddling with the keys in his hands, she could see he was working something out.  She waited, what she felt was a long time in the growing, uncomfortable silence for Benedict to speak.  When the mounting pressure became too much, she decided Pipe up and say something.

That’s when Benedict pushed himself from the doorway frame, shoving the keys into his pocket, “Fuck it.”  He walked the short distance, cradled her face in his hands and kissed her.  It was just an extended touch of the lips, nothing salacious or demanding.  Pulling back, he looked to weigh her reaction.  Her face was blank, because she was too surprised to have any coherent thought about what had just happened.  He must have seen this as permission, and leaned back in to kiss her again more intensely.  Nicole’s hands found the side of his arms and kissed him back every bit as intensely.  

Breaking away from the kiss, Ben grabbed Nicole by the waist, picked her up and placed her on the table.  Pushing his hips between her knees, she wrapped her legs around him.  Benedict wound one hand in the back of her hair, while placing the other around her back, as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders pulling him closer, as they kissed again.  His tongue found its way into her mouth after taking a detour to tickle the inside of her lips and he began to lay her back on the table, when his phone rang.  He ignored it.  Eventually it stopped, but then began to ring again.  Nicole gently pushed him up, “Maybe you should get that.”

“You’re joking…”

Nicole laughed.  “No.  No one calls this late unless it’s important.”

She was right, and he knew it.  They both sat back up, and Nicole went to hop off the table to get a glass of water.  Before she could move more than an inch, he stopped her by blocking the path with his body, and placing a hand on her hip.  “No,” he said, pulling out his phone,  “Not this time.”

She smiled as he spoke into the phone,  “Hello?”  He leaned down and gave her a soft kiss, nuzzling his nose against hers.  Benedict abruptly, stood up straight.  “What?  Ae you kidding me?”  He all but whined.

Nicole raised her eyebrows.

“OK.  Yeah.  Fine.  I’ll be there,” he said and ended the call.

“What’s up?”

“I have to go in tomorrow.  They want to do some reshoots.”

“Oh, yuck.  What time?”

“Seven.”

Nicole’s eyes widened and she turned to look at the clock.  It was coming up on 2:00 AM.  “Oh, that really sucks.”  She wrapped her arms around his torso.  “I’m sorry.”

“Thanks,” he said, hugging her back.

“May I bring up the elephant in the room?”  She spoke into his chest.

He moved back to look at her.

“So, I’m still really loaded.”

He nodded, brushing his thumb over her cheek.

“I know where this was headed, but…”

“You’d rather not be drunk.”

“Yeah.  Plus, I kinda need some time to wrap my head around this.  And if that doesn’t work for you, I understand.  We can pretend none of this happened.  No harm, no foul.”

“Well,” he breathed, drawing her near again, “I can’t say I’m not disappointed.  But, it’s probably best if we’re sober.  I worry you’re gonna change your mind, though, and now that I’ve had a sample,” he said, bringing his hands to her face and kissing her hungrily, “I’m loathe to risk losing you.”

“I don’t think I’m gonna change my mind.  I’m pretty sure you would find a way to assuage my doubts, if I did.”

“I would,” he smiled.

“OK.  Then, I guess we should call it a night.”  They headed upstairs, and when they got to the door of Nicole’s room, she kissed and hugged him good night.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You’re not inviting me in?”  He put on his puppy dog eyes.

She had to laugh.  “Did we not just talk about this?”

“Well, we could just sleep.  Nothing has to happen,” he said, pulling her closer, every bit of his body language screaming the opposite of what he was saying.

“Oh my God!  How old are you?”  She laughed.  “I haven't heard that line since college!”

“OK, fine,” he pouted, then kissed her so thoroughly, the only intent clearly being to make her change her mind.  “Good night,” he whispered.

Nicole unscrambled her brains and answered him, “Good night.”

 

After getting ready for bed, Nicole set four alarms to make sure she got up in the morning, and cursed herself for being a goddamn Pointer Sisters song.  Setting eleventy alarms was good idea, as it turned out.  She’d turned it off twice before realizing she had.  When it went off the third time, she hit snooze and cursed herself and whoever invented vodka, once she remembered why she felt like shit.  “I can’t even be mad at someone, because I did this to myself,” she whispered, which as it turns out was still too loud.  

She lay in bed, willing herself up, to no avail.  That’s when her mind began replaying the previous night's events.  That caused her to moan in regret, and then moan again in pain for moaning in regret.

She’d crossed the boundaries she’d set up, almost spectacularly, and on the kitchen table, yet.  Nicole covered her face with her hands, sighing.  “Fucking vodka.”  She winced at the pain her spoken words caused.  Now what?  This is the same predicament she was in the first time he got loaded.  Her options, were, not surprisingly, the same.  Wait and see if he remembers.  He did have considerably more alcohol than the other time.  If he doesn’t, let it be.  There is no problem in pretending nothing happened.  It would be for the best.  If he does remember, then let him make the first move.  He may regret the incident and want to pretend nothing happened.  Ouch, but OK, and really for the best.  Maybe he would think about the fact she needed to take some time to get her head around the situation, and decided that didn’t work for him.  Well, OK.  He’s Benedict Fucking Cumberbatch, he doesn’t have to wait if he doesn’t want to, that’s for sure.  If it was too humiliating, she could always call for her backup to cover the Inn, while she hid at Unca Joe’s compound back east, way on the other side of the country, far, far, from The Inn.  Liz, Unca Joe’s oldest daughter still lived there and would be more than happy to let her stay and lick her wounds.

Why was she waiting?  Was she holding to relics of an outdated, misogynistic standard that said only “bad” women slept with men so quickly.  A little, maybe.  If she was going to really go there, and dissect it, what it really was, was shoring up her defenses, for not if, but when, he left, and they bid each other farewell.  Of course, there’d be the whole, “I’ll call you.  We’ll keep in touch.  We can visit!” bullshit that everyone says but no one believes or means.  He would leave, and it would hurt.  Plain and simple.  So, there really was a choice to make; decide if the affair is worth the expiration date pain.  

The snooze went off, and she smacked it again.  How, again, she wished she was one of those women who could be casual about sex.  By the time the alarm went off again, she’d made up her mind.  If he still wanted her, she’d begin strengthening those walls for the incoming hit.  Maybe…She sighed at her indecisiveness. 

Sighing, she rolled over and sat up, letting her legs hang off the side of the bed.  A thousand elephants began tap dancing on her head.  The pain caused her stomach to roil, so she began to take slow, deep breaths, until it calmed.  Normally, the next business would be a shower and dress for the day.  Fuck that noise.  Wandering to her bathroom, she pulled her giant terry cloth robe from behind the door and slipped it on.  Three Tylenol, from her medicine cabinet, later, she wound her hair into a sort of bun, that more accurately resembled a pineapple, on the top of her head to keep it out of the way, put on her slippers and headed downstairs.

With the kettle beginning to heat up the water, she grabbed the coffee press for Ben and scooped in the instructed amount of grounds, looked at it then added enough to double it.  Then she grabbed some mint tea and set up her own mug, hoping the mint would help with her queasiness.  There would be no food consumption for quite a while.  If Ben wanted food, she would make it, and hopefully not have to excuse herself to be sick in the process.

When she heard noises from Ben’s room, she poured the water into his press to begin brewing.  She was drinking her tea out of her “Mornings Are Not Magical” Tinkerbell mug, by the time he ambled into the kitchen, looking for all the world like a Walking Dead Zombie, in rumpled sweats and t-shirt.

“Coffee?”  She asked quietly.

He nodded, shuffling over next to where she stood, behind the counter.

She slid the press over to him along with his mug.  “Leaded, double lead.”

“Oh thank god,” he groaned pouring the steaming black liquid into the mug.  She was a little surprised it still poured.  She thought it might have oozed out like lava, it was so strong.  She watched him, from behind her own mug, take long pulls from the cup, sighing in relief.  He was extra pale and his curls were everywhere but where they should have been.  If it hadn’t hurt to laugh out loud, she would have.  She laughed, very quietly, on the inside instead.

After finishing about half the beverage, he set it down and looked at Nicole, taking the mug out of her hands and setting it next to his.  He moved between her feet, cupping her face in his hands and kissed her slowly and thoroughly.  Nicole, wasn’t a coffee drinker, but she had to admit, it tasted delicious and sweet on him.  When he pulled back, he smiled, “Good morning.”

She didn’t say anything, and realized, she must have had a surprised look on her face when he asked, grinning, “What?”

She shook her head, oh so gently, “Nothing.  Good morning.”

“You thought I wouldn’t remember.  Again!  I told you, I remember everything.”

“That you did.”

He slipped his arms around her waist and pulled himself close.  “How’s your memory?”

“Every bit as good as yours.”

“Good.  I wasn’t looking forward to the idea of having to woo you all over again.”

“That would have made this mornings whole interaction awkward.”

“Are you still OK with this?”  He asked, brushing the back of his fingers over her cheek.

“I am if you are.”

“Good,” he leant down and kissed her again.  “I have to go shower.”

“OK.”

“Care to join me?”  He grinned mischievously.

“Tempting, but I’ll have to decline.”

“I know you said you needed some time, and I respect that.  I do.  But, fair warning, I intend to try to change your mind.  Often.  At every given opportunity.”

She chuckled, then winced at the pain.  “Thank you, and OK?”

 

They kissed goodbye at the door, as he was about to leave.  “Try to take a nap.  It should help,” he smiled.

“Are you trying to tell me I look like hell?”

“Yes.”

“Probably accurate.  I’ll try.”

“Good,” he kissed her once again.  “I’ll see ya’ later,” he said as he walked out the door.  Nicole shut and locked it, then trudged back up to her bed and immediately went back to sleep.

 

After a few more hours of rest, Nicole got up feeling somewhat better.  With showering and eating some toast accomplished, she sat at the table going through her phone when it rang, Ben’s number popping up on the screen.  She smiled to herself.  “Hello?”  She answered.

“Hi.  How’re you feeling?”

“Better.  Not great, but not like I’m going to die.  You?”

“I’m OK.  I got a few quick naps in and drank all the water I could find”

“Excellent plan.”

“So, I’ll be done here in a few hours.  I would like to take you to dinner.”

Nicole paused a second, as his words sunk in, “What, like a date?”

“No, exactly a date.”

“I-I’d like that.”

“Great!  Since you’re the local, why don’t you pick a place, and I’ll be home around six.”

“OK.  It’s a date.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 19

Sunshine of Your Love

 

Spending a good amount of time pondering date ideas, Nicole searched on local websites for interesting events.  Sadly, all she could come up with was plain ol’ dinner.  She didn’t know what kind of food he wanted, or how far he was willing to travel.  Her small town didn’t offer much in the way of fine dining or interesting cuisine.  The best she could come up with were some local, resident favorites and a couple of places within a 30-40 minute drive.  Although, one of those options would surely be a nightmare if he were recognized.  She still hadn’t figured out how they had managed to keep Ben and the cast under wraps this long.  

Her evil chair beckoned her, so she moved from her office back downstairs to further investigate in comfort, with her iPad.  Warm, soft lips woke her like Sleeping Beauty from the unplanned, but not surprising nap in which she had found herself.  She smiled, without opening her eyes.

“Wakey, wakey,” Ben’s low voice rumbled.

Fighting the urge to open her eyes crossed, she met his gaze.  

“Have a nice kip?”

“It was pleasant.”

Ben scooted in the chair, pulling her into him as he did.  She wrapped an arm around his middle, resting her head on his chest, and they both sighed contentedly.  

“What time is it?” She asked.

“I’m late.  It’s 7:30.”

Squeezing him gently, she said, “That’s OK.”

“Have you figured out someplace for us to go?”

“Maybe.  How far do you want to go?”

“I don’t care, whatever you want.”

She thought about teasing him, but went with, “I’d prefer to stay in town.”

“Me too.”

“What kind of ambiance?”

He thought for a moment, “Casual?”

“What do you want to eat?”

He chuckled.

“FOOD!  Food, you perv!”

He laughed, “Lady’s choice.”

“How about Mexican?  We have an inordinate number of really great Mexican restaurants in town.”

“That does sound good.”

“OK, how authentic do you want?”

“Ooooh, very!”

“OK.  I have just the place.”

“Excellent.”

“Ready whenever you are.”

He looked down the line of her body, clad in jeans and t-shirt, “I take it, this a very casual place?”

“Super.”

Once in the car, Nicole routed Ben to the taqueria.  The ride there, he held her hand as he drove.  She should have known he was “that guy”.  He was demonstrative most of the time anyway, why should this be any different.  As they pulled into the restaurant and parked, he looked around at the small understated building.  She had to admit, probably for a non-local it was an odd thing.  It wasn't much to look at, though the new owners did a nice job of trying to gussy it up.  There was a grill in the back being manned by one of the employees, and a taco truck parked outside the front, that also belonged to the place.  The truck had a line of about 15 people waiting.

“So, that,” she pointed to the truck, “used to be the restaurant.  Then they bought the building.  But, they’re so busy, they open the truck during peak hours.”

“Wow.  Must be good.  It smells amazing!”

“It’s so good.  They make their tortillas fresh, and they give you extra if you ask!”  She beamed.

He got out of the car and came around to open her door.  Taking her hand as he helped her out, smiling brightly.  Heading towards the doors, he looked around and Nicole felt him stiffen a bit.  There were a ton of people inside and out.

“It’ll be OK.  I’m pretty sure no one here is going to recognize you.”

He looked at her like he wasn’t sure he believed her.  As they walked in the door, the menu was basically a poster hanging in front of the cashier.  

“Everything is in Spanish.  Just point at the picture of the items you want,” she instructed.  “We’re probably the only ones in here that are native English speakers.  I’m pretty sure your identity is safe here, Superman.”

“That’s brilliant,” he beamed.  

When it was their turn to order, they pointed at the items they wanted opting for a mix of dishes to try and share, with extra tortillas, of course.  They ate at one of the corner tables near a window.  Nicole was pleasantly surprised how open he was with himself.  Speaking of his work, family, school anything she had questions about.  It set off wave after wave of pterodactyls butterflies and feelings of affection for him.  She had to consciously rein it back and put a lid on it.  This wasn’t that kind of relationship.  It was to be an affair, nothing more.  Do not get attached, she told herself.  Unfortunately, ‘herself’ didn’t want to listen.  ‘Herself’ wanted to nestle down into all the warm, fuzzy feelings that were swirling around her like stardust.  One of the downfalls of being raised on Disney films.

One thing Benedict has going for him, he has self-discipline and will power.  He stopped eating well before he was overly full, unlike Nicole.  Honestly, she’d been worse off, but the food here was pretty heavy and remember the fresh, hand made tortillas?  Yeah.  That was her downfall.  

“I blame you,” she grumbled.

“If you’d like,” he grinned.

“Why did you let me eat so much?”

“I was curious how much food you could actually ingest.”

“So I was an experiment.”

“Yeah.  A bit.”

“You suck.  I’m writing you out of my will.”

“Completely worth it.”

She sighed in resignation.  “Well, it’s still pretty early.  Do you want to walk some of this off?”

“I’d love to.”

As they left the building, Ben took her hand and they strolled, remarkably to Nicole, like an actual couple, down the main drag of town.  It didn’t take very long since it was only about seven blocks one way.  But they walked slowly and this time Ben took his turn asking Nicole about her life, and she tried to be just as forthcoming as he had been.  By the time they had made it back to the car, they had been walking with their arms around each other, his over her shoulder, hers around his waist.  At the car, Ben hit the car fob and unlocked the passenger side door.  Before he let Nicole in, he pulled her around to face him and gave her a long, slow kiss.  

“Are we going to make out in the parking lot?”  Nicole asked, when the kiss ended.

He kissed her again, “Maybe.”

They both smiled, “Well,” Nicole said, “I don’t think either of us wants to attract attention to ourselves,” she said, smoothing her hands over his solid chest.

“Why, are you ashamed to be seen with me?”

“Yes.  That’s exactly it.  I can’t afford to be seen slumming it with one of the most famous and coveted men in the world.  I have a rep to uphold.”

He grinned, pressing her between his body and the car.  Leaning down his deep voice whispered in her ear, “No, we can’t have that, now, can we,” then kissed her on the neck, just under her earlobe, sending shivers and goosebumps rippling across her skin.  Pulling her back away from the car, he opened the door and helped her in, which frankly, she needed.  That little move had left her weak-kneed and shaky.  As he walked around to the driver’s side, she took long, calming breaths, because, holy manhole covers batman!

Once back at the Inn, as they stepped inside the foyer, Ben corralled her in his arms, depositing noisy kisses on the side of her neck and face, causing her to giggle.  She finally managed to wiggle enough, that he allowed her to turn and face him, but not escape.  As soon as she had, Nicole found herself enveloped in a slow kiss in which she allowed herself to be immersed.  Time lost its constancy, as a good kiss should cause to happen, and when they parted, she felt his finger lightly run along her nose, cheeks, lips, chin neck, leisurely like he had all the time in the world, her focus riveted on his cupid bow lips.  

“Still sorting your thoughts?”  He asked, letting his hand settle over her cheek and temple.

Nicole nodded, looking up to meet his eyes, nervous and unsure of his reaction.  She realized this said a lot about her past love interests.  Being afraid of saying ‘no’ without negative repercussions.

“OK,” he kissed her again.  

“Are you upset?”  She knew full well she shouldn’t poke that bear, but old habits are hard to break, especially ones tied to self-esteem.

“Not at all,” he smiled.

“Thank you.”

“There’s no reason to thank me.”

 

~The Next Morning~

 

Nicole, coming back from her run, stepped into the house just as Ben was coming down the stairs.  She caught him giving her the once over in her running clothes, which were not all that appealing, honestly.  Compression capris and a baggy tank top?  Not the height of fashion.  The sexiest thing about it, were the capris, being like tights, but most of her interesting bits were covered by the large tank.  

“Hi,” she said, feebly.

“Hi,” he said, coming to her trying to give her a kiss.  She stepped away warding him off with her hands.  “Don’t.  I’m gross.”

“How was your run?”

“It was running.”

“I would have gone with you.”

“No way, Jose.”

He looked struck, “Why not?”

“Because I’m slow.”

“That’s OK.”

“No, my running speed, you could probably walk.  So I would hinder your workout, on top of humiliating myself due to my pokiness.”

He stepped to her again, and she backed up, but ran into the door, “Gotcha,” he smiled, before giving her the kiss he’d tried to give her earlier.  She relented, but tried to keep as far away from him as possible, which made him laugh into the kiss.  “You’re so silly,” he laughed.

She huffed, “I know.”

“I have to go in.  What do you say to a movie tonight?”

“Great!”

He kissed her goodbye and left.  Nicole staggered into the kitchen, downed 800 gallons of water, then made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk.  Which, she recognized as over-kill, but whatever.  While eating, she had a great idea about the movie that night.

 

When Ben came back that evening, he found Nicole relaxing in her evil chair reading.  He scooted her over, rearranging her for a kiss and a cuddle.  

“How was your day?” She asked.

“Good.  Yours?”

“Good.”

“Did you think about a movie?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“Do you trust me?”

He furrowed his eyebrows, then smiled.  “Of course.”

“OK,” she grinned, “Have you eaten dinner?”

“I haven’t.”

“How about I order some Chinese delivery?”

“OK,” he watched her for a moment, “What are you up to?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“I love surprises.”

“Good.”

By the time the delivery showed and they ate, it was dark, which was what Nicole had been waiting to happen.  They cleaned up the dishes and once the last of them had been loaded into the dishwasher, Ben cornered her between him and the counter, “What’s this surprise?”

“Follow me?”  She grinned, ducking under his arms.

They walked to the sliding glass door that lead out to the backyard.  She hit a switch and dozens of strands of fairy lights turned on.  Opening the door, she and Ben stepped outside, and watched him take in the outdoor theater set up.  There was a large screen and a blue and white striped cushioned lounger for two set up in front and flattened out with complementary blue blankets and pillows at the head, and the projector set up behind them.  The look of surprise was priceless.  He turned to her, “This is fantastic.”

Nicole breathed a sigh of relief, “Oh good.  I was worried you might not like the idea.”

“How could I not?  This is profoundly romantic.  Thank you for setting this up.”

“You’re welcome.  So what movie would you like to watch.”

She watched something flash in his eyes and knew he was thinking, he didn’t want to watch a movie at all.  The look elicited goosebumps and the pterodactyls in her stomach.  “What do you want to watch?”  He countered.

“How about Star Wars?”  It was a classic.  She’d seen it more times than she could count and if other things, ~ahem~, happened, she would be OK with missing the film.

“Perfect.”

“Do you want drinks or snacks or anything?”

“No thank you.”  He looked positively predatory. 

“OK.  Why don’t you go make yourself comfortable, and I’ll start up the movie and join you.”

To their credit, they got about 20 minutes into the movie before the cuddling started.  Then the slow, finger doodling along arms and hands and hips, followed by hands lazily mapping new territories.  Nicole wondered if he could feel how her heart rate had begun to quicken, they way she could feel his under her palm.  If she let herself think on where she was, who she was with and what they were doing, it wasn’t just excitement or passion, it was panic.  She narrowed her thoughts down to the man who had talked to her about his love of his parents and silliness and the mischief he’d gotten into at school.  A man who was happy and excited about the possibility of learning and exploring new things. He’s a man, nothing more.  A man that has told her he wants to be with her.

He was a man who could have nearly any woman he wanted, famous or not.  He was smart, well educated, beautiful with a gorgeous accent, all he’d have to do, is merely smile at some unsuspecting woman and he’d be good.  The fact that she could cause his heart to race, just as he’d caused hers to speed was exhilarating.  The rest of her life she felt was in order.  This area, relationships, was the only place she still had trouble stabilizing.  Here was the first step into that brave new world, and with a remarkable man.  It made her happy, and feel good about it.  She found herself smiling at the thought, and Ben looked down and smiled as well, then leaned in and kissed her.  At that moment, things felt like they’d mostly fallen into place, sure, there were bound to be stumbling blocks, but you had to take a step to find them.  So she did, and that first step was to not only return the kiss, but with real passion.  

Ben pulled her tightly against himself as his hands drifted over her body this way and that.  One finally settling on the back of her neck while the other roamed and kneaded the generous curve of her backside.  When she pulled him closer as he did, she felt him groan, a deep rumble in his chest as he repositioned them so he could discover more of her body.  He slid one of his hands back from around her waist, slowly but firmly up the front of her body, until his large hands cupped her breast, he gave it a gentle squeeze causing Nicole to moan into their kiss and bow into him.  He repeated the action, a little harder this time, and seemed to like her response, so much so he removed his hand and immediately slid it under her shirt and back to its previous position.  She let her hand wander whatever part of him she could get to, adoring the feel of his warmth.  

When his hand strayed and slid under the band of the back of her jeans, she hummed at the feeling of his fingers on her skin.  “Ben,” she said, not moving more than a breath away from him.  He stopped caressing her, but she noted, he didn’t move his hands, from their place inside her jeans.  

He made a noise of acknowledgment before giving her a series of soft kisses.

She brought her hand up and held his face, “Why don’t you give me about 20 minutes, and meet me in your bedroom,” she said softly.

He looked at her like he wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly, then smiled.  “20 minutes?”  He pouted, playfully.  “Why don’t I just go up with you?”

“Are we negotiating?”  She smiled.

“Yes.”

“OK.  25 minutes.”

“You’re doing it wrong.  You’re supposed to come down,” he said, helpfully, brushing his nose against hers.

“30 minutes.”

“Five!” He countered.

“40.”

“OK! OK! 20 minutes,” he laughed.

“Thank you.”  She kissed him, and stood up.  “If you wouldn’t mind bringing the projector in the house with you?  I’ll get the rest of the stuff tomorrow.”

He grabbed her hand and pulled her down for another kiss.  “Sure thing.  Aaaaaand you have 19 minutes and 50 seconds.”

She smiled and walked towards the house.  Once inside, and sure he couldn’t see her, she ran like a mad woman upstairs.

 

Once up the stairs, she darted into her room, closing and locking the door behind her.  Not that she didn’t trust Ben, but she didn’t trust Ben.  She opened the bottom drawer of her dresser and began to paw through her lingerie for something to wear.  She pulled out a delicate purple satin babydoll.  Two thin straps held up the triangle cups, while elastic under the bust gave illusion to light support.  The sides had intricate lace panels to reveal the matching, teeny tiny panties.  She set the accompanying satin robe aside for later.  She looked at the flimsy material in her hands and had a moment of doubt.  Was this cheesy?  Do people dress for sex?  Have I watched too many romances?  She looked around her immediate vicinity, seeing nothing as she weighed the idea in her mind.  “Fuck it,” she whispered to herself.  She’d never met a man who didn’t like lingerie.  

Having already showered and shaved her legs, (because let’s face it ladies, we all know that trick, no shavey, no sexy) she brushed her teeth and set about adding a little extra moisturizer, whose light floral aroma left her skin deliciously soft and touchable.  After, she changed into the babydoll and twisted her hair up out of the way, careful to leave a few curls casually out, for a hopefully romantic feel, rather than the I’ve just been dragged from under a bush feel.  Dabbing on a little lip gloss, and she was ready.  Well, as ready as she was going to be.  

She inspected her reflection in the mirror and took a deep, calming breath, trying to quiet all the uncertainty and questions spinning in her head.  She realized that this was a step of self-discovery, and acceptance, really.  Were a few nights with him worth the very blatant emotional risks on her part?  Will she be OK with this being a relatively meaningless exchange of pleasure?  Let’s face it, it wasn’t twoo wuv, she had no illusions about that, but still the Disney Princess deep, deep inside her really wanted it to be, but that chick needed to grow up.  “It’s fine.  You’ll be fine,” she told her reflection.  

She grabbed the robe when she walked out of the bathroom, putting it on and tied it closed.  One more deep breath, “Ready or not, here I come,” she said, to no one.  Leaving her room, she softly padded down the hall, and at that moment, truly understanding the theory of relativity.  That night when she was trying to escape tipsy Ben, the hallway seemed to go on forever.  Tonight, it didn’t seem nearly long enough.  She’d just reached the door when he walked out of his bathroom.  He had lost his shoes, but as he came closer, she detected the scent of mint.  He’d brushed his teeth too, the normal activity giving her comfort, and that made her smile.  He smiled too, walking to and slipping his hands around her waist, but, keeping her at arm’s length.  

“You are a beautifully, wrapped present,” he said, eyeing her hungrily.

She smiled.  “I’m glad you like it.  I wasn’t sure.”

“I more than like it,” he said, gently pulling her against him before slipping one hand up to the back of her head, as he leaned down for a long sensual kiss.  His tongue slid gingerly into her mouth, Nicole rested her hands on his chest, her tongue moved to meet his, toying with it until she began to suck, causing him to groan and pull her pliant body more firmly against his.  He broke from the kiss, but didn’t release her.  His forehead resting against hers, he whispered, “Do that again.”  So, she did.  This time she initiated the kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck, and seeking out his tongue repeating the action, taking it into her mouth, stroking then sucking.  Ben moaned again, pressing his fingers into her soft body, causing her to lean into him even more.

Creating a little distance between their bodies, his hands slipped around to the front of her robe and untied it.  The kisses stopped, as he watched his hands open the front of the robe and slip them inside, gently squeezing her waist, punctuating it by giving her a kiss.  His hands began a slow path up her sides, his thumbs gently caressing her ribs as they made their way up.  At her breasts, they moved to her front, taking one in each hand, giving them a gentle squeeze, caressing them, thumbing over the front, creating stiff peaks for him to circle.  Nicole heard his breath quicken, she quietly moaned, and arched her back, forcing her breasts into his hands where he gave them another squeeze.  He let his hands move up under the collar of the robe and brought her arms down as he slid the soft fabric off her shoulders, over her arms to land silently on the floor.  

Ben broke away from the kiss to look down over her body.  His eyes lingered over her soft curves and he made a low noise of appreciation.  When his eyes finally made it back up to hers, he gathered her into his arms again, and crushed his lips against hers in a needy kiss.  His warm hand explored all the new skin the back of her gown allowed him.  Finding her backside, he gave it a caress before he lowered himself enough to get a grip, and pick her up.  Instinctively, she wrapped her legs around his waist and he climbed onto the bed, her holding on like a monkey, making her giggle when he finally released her on the fluffy comforter and pillows.  He remained hovering over, her smiling.  

He leaned down and gave her a long, gentle kiss.  Opening his eyes, he smiled his charming, crooked smile, down at her, “Hi.”

“Hi,” she smiled back, enjoying the butterflies flitting around in her stomach.

Neither of them said anything, but quietly took each other in.  Nicole brought her hands up to his face and let her fingers glide over his forehead, down his nose, over his cheekbones, then across is red, swollen lips, memorizing the details, like the smattering of freckles over his nose and cheeks and the light auburn stubble coming in.  Surprising her, he playfully nipped at one of her fingers, holding it between his teeth.  When she tried to pull it back, he pressed down gently, making her giggle.  He smiled broadly, but still didn’t relinquish her trapped digit.  She brought her free hand up behind his neck, and nudged his head forward as she pulled with the other.  He lowered himself on top of her and as his lips were about to touch hers, he freed her finger so they could kiss.  He slipped his arms under her shoulders, allowing one hand to caress the side of her face while the other buried itself into her curls piled on her head, holding her firmly to him.  

He ground his hips into hers and groaned.  She could feel him, hard as steel, press against her, through their clothes.  He kissed his way across her cheek, and down her neck, all the while his breath scorching her skin, before taking the lobe of her ear into his mouth and sucking at it, then letting it slip from his mouth, through his teeth, causing just the right amount of contrast.  “Oh, my Nicole,” he breathed, into her ear.  Desire and heat swirled around inside her stomach.  He continued downward, licking and nipping her throat until he ran out of skin.  She was confused when he pulled away and began to climb off the bed.  Then to her utter joy, he began to undress.  He pulled his t-shirt off from over the back of his head, like men tend to do, dropping it to the floor.  He undid his board shorts, pushing them and his boxers down and off his feet.  

Ben stood in front of her, completely nude.  Nicole tried to be cool about it, but failed miserably as she took in his toned chest and stomach, narrow hips and strong legs.  His cock stood at attention, glistening at the tip.  When her eyes made their way back up, and met his, he was smiling, seemingly pleased she liked what she saw.  Nicole felt herself blush and he smiled even bigger, climbing back on the bed and kneeling between her feet.  

He placed his hands on her ankles, gently caressing them in unhurried brushes, then slowly slid his hands up her legs, learning the feel of her skin against his.  She took in how his hands were a little rough and wonderfully warm against the slightly cooler skin of her legs.  His exploration roamed up to her waist, where her nightie had bunched when he’d carried her up onto the bed.  Then, looking up at her, Ben silently asked for permission, making sure it was OK to continue.  She smiled, gently pulling her, into a sitting position, he kissed her before lifting the gown up over her body, leaving her exposed to him.  Where she had been nervous before, she was damn near terrified now, that is, until she saw the look of adoration as he took the sight of her in.

His eyes met hers, “You’re more beautiful than I’d imagined,” he said, almost reverently, before kissing, and leaning her back down to the bed.  His kisses, continued down her neck and chest until he came to her full breasts, where he took each in a hand, one massaging and kneading while the other, he held for his warm, wet mouth, kissing, licking and sucking all around, trying to take as much in as he could, letting the tips slip from his mouth with a light scrape of his teeth, before diving over to the other one.  

Nicole buried her hands in his soft curls and gently massaged his scalp, in between hums of pleasures making him work all the harder with his clever tongue.  He kissed a path down to her tummy, where his fingers curled inside the tiny panties and began to lower them down.  Nicole raised her hips, and he slid them quickly off her legs, tossing them to the floor.  

As he lowered his torso, positioning her legs up over his shoulders, putting his mouth right in between her legs.  Nicole was a little surprised, this is quite an intimate act, more so than just sex, if that made sense, at least to her anyway.  Ben wasted no time, planting his mouth firmly against her, his tongue exploring, methodically testing her reactions.  As she began to respond favorably, his tongue began to move faster and more assuredly, periodically teasing her clit by sucking it into his mouth, before releasing it, then going back to explore.  Sometimes he’d move his head to nip and kiss her thighs, sometimes his tongue would delve inside her, making her tremble with pleasure.  

He returned to her clit with renewed confidence, and she felt him slip one, then another finger inside her and began to gently pump.  Nicole began to move her hips, and he slipped his free hand over her stomach to hold her in place.  He began to speed up his movements, both fingers, and tongue.  She felt her climax approaching, and fast, and when it hit, she arched back, calling out his name, and gasping for breath.  Ben continued until the waves of pleasure subsided and she fell back to the bed spent, chest heaving.

As she floated back down, her eyes fluttered open to find Ben over her, smiling.

She smiled back, bleary-eyed.

“Well, that was fast,” he grinned.

She had to laugh.  “I think that had more to do with you than, me.”

He leaned down and kissed her, then reached over to the nightstand, opened the drawer and pulled out a box of condoms.  It was brand new, and for whatever reason, Nicole sort of felt better about that.  He held it up to her, “Yes?”  He asked.

“Please,” she nodded.

He opened the box, pulled out a packet, and opened it.  After rolling the condom on, he laid down and positioned himself between her legs.  He kissed her again greedily, and she returned the kisses mirroring his greed, wrapping her hands around his back, trying to feel as much of him as she could reach.  Rocking his hips, he rubbed his erection along her, gathering her moisture.  Finally, he slowly, and carefully, pressed himself forward into her, resting only when he was fully seated.  They both moaned in pleasure before he dropped his head down into the crook of her neck, and she felt his hot breath coming in heavy pants.  His fingers wound in her hair as hers dug into his back.  

“Fuck,” he breathed, then taking in a shaky breath and slowly exhaling.  

“Yes,” she agreed.

He slowly pulled his hips back, sliding out of her, then pushed back in.  Keeping the slow pace until he seemed to have gained some control.  When he had, he pulled himself back into a position where he could look down at her.  

“You feel fucking amazing.”

She reached up and pulled him down into a hot kiss.  

He pulled one of her legs up around his waist, making the angle deeper, and picked up his pace, thrusting harder.  “Do you need more?”  He asked.

Nicole nodded.  “Please.” 

He brought two of his fingers to her lips, “Open,” he commanded.

She did and he slid them into her mouth, where she licked, sucked and swirled her tongue around them, causing him to growl, filling her with pride.  Withdrawing his fingers, he brought them down to her clit and began to circle.  Nicole gripped him tighter, digging her fingers into his back with a mewl of pleasure and started to meet the thrust of his hip, timed with the motion of his fingers.  He encouraged her and rained compliments until she dug her fingers into his back again, coming with a force that caused her to see stars.  

“Beautiful,” he smiled, at her once she came around.  He reached down, taking her hands entwining their fingers, pinned them above her head, and grinned.  

Ben sped up his pace and began to fuck her hard and fast, his face determined, and a narrative of filthy and pornographic words spilled from his beautiful, kiss bruised lips, as his breathing picked up .  He drove into her as droplets of sweat matted the hair along his forehead and trickled down the side of his face while Nicole met him thrust for thrust.  Ben’s hips lost their rhythm began jerking erratically, until he roared, calling out her name interspersed with an impressive string of obscenities.  He carefully collapsed on top of her with labored breathing, slowly releasing her hands.  She wrapped her arms and legs around his heated, sweat soaked body, as they both calmed.

Once he was coherent, he gave her a loving kiss, rolled off, and made his way to the bathroom to dispose of the condom.  When Ben came back out, he playfully scooted her around, so they could crawl under the blankets together.  He gathered her into his arms so she could rest her head on his chest, and they lay quietly, he occasionally kissing the top of her head, she occasionally his chest.  

Nicole felt like she should say something, but she didn’t know what.  Maybe he should say something, anything, a high five even.  The amusing thought made her smile.

“What?” He asked, having felt her smile, his fingers creating doodles on her skin.

“Nothing.  Just randomness.”  She patted him lightly.

“Good random, yes?”  He asked, pulling her closer.

“Yes.  Very good random.”

He kissed the top of her head.  “Good.”

With that assurance, he must have relaxed, because not long after, he had fallen asleep.  Nicole listened to the steady beat of his heart and breathing, wondering what she should do.  Does she stay?  Does she go back to her room?  She didn’t want to outstay her welcome.  There were so many horror stories of guys talking about girls they wanted to hurry up and go.  Better safe than sorry, she supposed.  Better an enigma than an open book?  Maybe?  

Carefully, she extracted herself from his arms, trying not to wake him, and began to crawl out of his bed.  She’d made it to the edge when hands grabbed her from behind and pulled her back.

“Where do you think you’re going?”  He growled into her ear, from behind.

“Bathroom,” she lied.

He turned her over so he could see her face, and evidently right through her.  “Why were you leaving?”

“I told yo-“

“Nicole.”

She sighed, “I wasn’t sure of the protocol. What do I do?  Do I stay?  For how long?”

He grumbled something incoherent, and pulled her into a spooning position.  “Stop running from me.”  He gently scolded.  “Stay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

She nodded.  After a couple of minutes she said, “I still need the loo.”

He chuckled, releasing her.  “Fine.”

She climbed out of the bed, picking up her robe and wrapping herself in it as she made her way to the bedroom door.

“Where’re you going?”  He asked, partially sitting up on an elbow, “The bathroom is right there,” he said motioning his head to the one in his room.

“Yes.  But all my stuff is in my bathroom.  You can come get me if I’m not back soon,” she smiled.

He didn’t need to, she was back soon, and he pulled her up against him when she climbed back into bed.

“Why’d you want to come to my room?”  He asked, after a while.

She hated to lie, but to tell him it was because she didn’t want what was sure to be a very emotional memory associated with her room, her safe haven, was a dick move.  You can’t just say,  ‘When you leave, my heart will probably be broken and I need a safe place to heal.’  You just can’t.  So she said, “I don’t know.  I thought it would be nice, surrounded by you.”

He hummed.  “Well, tomorrow, let’s try your room.”

“Deal.”

They took a little nap and started all over again…several times.  The last time, after Ben had passed out, she got up to get her phone and set the alarm.  

 

When her alarm went off a few short hours later, she turned it off and started to get out of bed.

Ben groaned, “What time is it?”

“Early, go back to sleep,” she whispered, kissing his cheek.

“Why are you up?”

“I have this really high maintenance guest I have to go make breakfast for.”

He pulled her back to him.  “He sounds awful.”

“The worst.”

“Set it for another hour.”

“What about breakfast?”

“I’ll grab a muffin and some coffee.”

“Are you sure?  I don’t mind.”

“I mind.  You’re far too warm and soft to let go.”

She smiled, grabbing her phone and setting the alarm for an hour later.  “OK,” she said, curling up and falling back to sleep.

When the alarm went off again, she groggily reached over silencing it.  After she had, Ben pulled her back to him covering her with his body, giving her a long delicious kiss.  

“Good morning,” he purred.

“Good morning,” Nicole smiled, back at him.  She noted that he was happy to see her, since he didn’t have anything in his pockets, being naked as the day he was born.

He reached over to the nightstand, plucking out another condom from the box.

“What about breakfast?”  Nicole chuckled.

“I’m sure craft services will have something,” he said.

 

 

At the front door, they kissed goodbye.  “Have a good day,” he smiled.

“You too.”

“It’ll be a great day.  Let’s hope I can concentrate,” he wiggled his eyebrows at her.

“I’d be surprised if you can stay awake.”

“Coffee.  Lots and lots of coffee.”  He gave her another kiss, and backed out of the door.

“See you at dinner.”

He gave her the once-over, in her satin robe, “I’m looking forward to dessert.”

She rolled her eyes.  “Bye,” she laughed, shutting the door.  She could hear Ben laughing as he left.  Nicole couldn’t stop the grin that spread across her face.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Ch. 20

Of all things that I'd most like to receive…I believe it's you.

 

Nicole took a moment to ponder the brilliance of hot water, as it sluiced over her skin while she showered.  Whoever invented it was a genius.  It’s perfection.  After she’d taken care of all the mundane tasks like washing and shaving, she indulged in the warmth of the overheated water that was relaxing all of her achy muscles.  The memories of why they ached, considerably more pleasant than the usual reasons, (like running, and when the hell was THAT pain gonna stop?  Where is the runner’s high everyone keeps talking about?  Liars!) brought a smile to her lips.  Of course, her mind wouldn’t stop there.  It had to bring up every tangent tied to the previous night.  Leaving her to frolic in the pleasant satiation was too much to ask.  It had to delve into murkier pools, because self-doubt almost always was a stronger voice than the others.

She rolled her neck under the hot spray, as those thoughts begin to invade her mind and tense the once relaxed muscles.  OK, let’s do this.  She thought to herself.  Overall, how did she feel about what happened?  How did she feel in her heart?  Right now, she was feeling pretty fucking happy.  She’d been with a beautiful, kind man, who’d made her feel desirable.  Her heart was all a flutter in its giddiness.  That’s pretty good for an affair.  Or maybe that was the point of an affair?  Being this was her first, she wasn’t sure, but, she would place it in the win bucket.  What she would consciously try not to do, was develop any more feelings for him.  Keep it fun and casual.  She made a mental note to go look up how to do that on the internet.  It would be all too easy to slip into that giddy, romantic current, and let it carry her along in its warm and comforting rush.

How was he feeling about the whole thing?  Well, this is where you get into trouble, trying to second guess what other people are thinking and feeling.  Just ask, it saves a lot of heartache.  However, if she were to speculate, he seemed pretty happy.  His innuendo about dessert suggested he’d like to do it again.  She can’t say she was opposed to the idea.  She smiled to herself at the thought.  

What’s the next step?  She sighed heavily.  That’s a fantastic question.  Nicole was inclined to step back and follow his lead, rather than take control, for several reasons.  One being, she’d never done anything like this, and had no frame of reference for how to proceed other than bad movies on ‘Television for Women.’  The big reason being, it was not her nature in relationships.  Now, was that truly her nature or did that have to do with making bad boyfriend choices and taking the role assigned because that’s what seemed right?  Maybe and maybe?  Was it a fear of making a mistake, doing something wrong and pissing them off?  Oh yeah.  This one played right into her issue of fear of anger.  Really though, she didn’t know what to do, and was willing to follow, but she didn’t want to be weak or a doormat.  She wanted to participate in the, correction, in “their” relationship.  

Then, she had a thought.  “Oh my god,” she whined, and rubbed her face.  He’s paying her to stay there.  Does that mean he’s paying to sleep with her?  She laughed at the absurdity.  This was the strangest dilemma ever.  She did feel a little icky about it.  This was a gray, muddy, slimy, area.  Ew.  OK.  Well, she could refund him the money for the remainder of his stay, if it came to that.  Fortunately, the Inn didn’t need the money.  Plus, how do you bring that up in casual conversation?  ‘How was your day?  Hungry?  Do you feel like you’re paying me for sex?’  

Standing in the shower, obsessing over her personal crazy was not doing her or the environment any favors.  She turned the silver valve, shutting off the water, grabbed her towel and wrapped herself in its white, oversized, fluffy goodness after drying her face.  Moving to stand in front of the mirror, she looked at herself for a long while, trying to decide who was looking back at her.  “Does everyone get this contemplative after sex?”  She asked her reflection, who, by the way, didn’t answer, thankfully.  “Fuck,” she shook her head.  “Idle hands, Nicole.  Idle hands.”  She left her bathroom to go get dressed and find something useful to do so she didn’t overanalyze every single thing.  

 

As Nicole was loading the last of the dishes in the dishwasher, the text alert she’d given Tom went off.  Smiling, she fished the phone out of her back pocket.

          Tom:  Did you know there are 37 Greek restaurants in a half mile radius of my hotel?  I counted.

          Nicole:  I knew there were a bunch, not the exact number.  Are you actually looking for one or were you just bored?

          Tom:  Both.  Recommendations?

Nicole thought for a moment.

          Nicole:  Athena Grill.  It doesn’t look like much but you can’t beat their UNLIMITED pita bread and the lamb is soooooo                                  gooooood! 

Nicole realized she may or may not have a carb problem.

          Tom:  You’re a rock star! 

          Nicole:  My secret identity has been revealed!  I’ll have to call the Men in Black to use their neuralyzer on you.

          Tom:  No!  I promise to keep your secret!

          Nicole:  Best see that you do!  You’ve been warned!  I’ll be watching you.  

          Tom:  Will you?

          Nicole:  Yes.  Mostly on tv because you don’t have any new movies coming out, slacker!

          Tom:  OUCH!

          Nicole:  *evil grin*

          Tom:  Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go lick my wounds.

          Nicole:  *I will not make a dirty joke.  I will not make a dirty joke…*

          Tom:  I really wish you would

          Nicole:  I bet you do.  Say goodbye, fool.

          Tom:  Goodbye fool

Nicole was pretty sure she was going to love being texting buddies with Tom.  She tucked her phone back into her pocket and started on dinner.

 

“Lucy!  I’m home!”  Called Ben, in the worst Ricky Ricardo imitation she’d ever heard.  She watched the entryway into the kitchen for him.  He strode in grinning.

“That was so bad,” she laughed.

“What?  You don’t like my impersonation?”  He asked, wrapping his arms around her waist.

“You are an amazing actor,” she placated him.  “I’m sure with a little practice it will be great!”  She grinned.

“Heartless,” he shook his head, before leaning down and kissing her deeply, as he pulled her closer.

When they moved apart, she asked him, “Were you acting just then?”

He smiled mischievously, “Yes.  Yes, I was.”

Nicole nodded, very seriously.  “I thought so.”

“No good?”

“Well, I felt like something was missing.  Like, you didn’t commit fully.”

“Really?”

She nodded, but the look on his face should have warned her.

“I’ll show you committing fully!”  He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder.  She squealed and laughed as he carried her around the kitchen and living room, playfully complaining about her critique of his “performance.”  Walking out into the hall, he stopped in the entry area, looking around, deciding on his next move while her ponytail swished around her head and arms.

“Put me down!”  She demanded, smacking his ass, which she noted, resembled a very firm bongo.

“You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” he quipped.

“You know what I meant!”  She said, smacking it again after each word.

He, in turn, popped her, quite hard, on hers.  “Behave.”

She yelped in surprise.  “Uh, nooooo…”  I mean, really, she was already hanging upside down, essentially helpless.  How much worse could it get?

“Do I have to punish you?”  He growled, and turned towards the downstairs bedroom.  Nicole’s eyes widened in surprise.  You had to ask… she thought to herself.  He opened the door and tossed her on the bed.  She landed on her backside with a bounce.  She still held the expression of shock.  

“Do I?” He asked again, more insistently, inching towards the bed.

“Nope,” she shook her head, eyes wide, finally realizing she was in over her head.

He fell on top of her, nuzzling his nose and lips against her neck.  “Are you sure?”  He crooned, his deep baritone giving her goosebumps.

Honestly, the feel of him against her, the warmth of his breath on her neck, and the rumble of his words was so tantalizing, she wasn’t sure of anything.  

He pulled back to look at her.  He tilted his head a little like he was considering an idea.  He brought his hands up and began to gently stroke her cheeks.  “Do you have a safe word?”

She shook her head no.

“No?”

She shook her head again.

“Why not?”

She shrugged.  “I never needed one.”

“Really?  So you’ve never-“

“No,” she cut him off, feeling a blush bloom on her cheeks.

“Not even a little?”  He smiled.

“No,” she smiled, too.

“Dabbled?  A smidge?”

“No,” she chuckled.

“Nary a scarf or blindfold?”  He laughed.

“No, Goober!  I never have.”

“Does it interest you?”

I don’t think so, she thought, but it’s interesting that it interests you She took a moment, trying to think of an appropriate response.  “I don’t know.  On one hand, I don’t think I’d make a good Dom.  It’s not really my personality type, plus it seems like a lot of work.  On the other hand, I’d make an even worse sub, because the minute you tell me not to do something, is the exact minute I want to do just that thing.  I’d be in trouble all the time.  I do have some self-preservation skills.”

His eyes got a look.  She wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but she had a pretty good guess.

“That sounds amazing,” he purred.

“Sure, for you.  You’re not the one who’d have the sore ass.”

“Mmmm, and such a lovely ass it is,” he said, sitting back on his calves.  He quickly and efficiently removed Nicole’s clothes, before removing his own.  “I’m sure it would be a lovely shade of rose.”

She was pretty sure she was blushing furiously head to toe right now, so he should have a good idea what that would look like without the spanking.

“I’m sure,” she said, drily.  

He covered her body with his.  “Let’s put a pin in this conversation, and come back to it later.”

“OK,” she breathed, before he leaned in to kiss her.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Nicole looked up at the calendar of kittens on the light blue wall of her office and counted the numbered boxes.  “Seven days,” she murmured.  Seven days of playing house with Ben.  After that first night, he moved into her room, mostly.  He left his clothes in the other, since she refused to give up drawer space.  She had to admit, it was nice.  It was easy.  It was too nice and too easy.  Little by little, every day, she felt her walls being chipped away.  Every day, she had to remind herself, this was an affair.  It had an expiration date.  “Expiration dating,” she giggled to herself, remembering the line from Sex and the City.  

“Concentrate!” Nicole scolded herself.  She was supposed to be going over the financial reports her money managers had sent her.  Normally this was a quarterly thing, but they wanted to move some of her investments around, so here she was, in her office, where she was SUPPOSED to be going through the paperwork, but instead she was obsessing over her “relationship” with Ben.  “Gawd, you’re being such a fucking girl!  Sack up, bitch!”  She sighed heavily, and made a deal with herself.  If she gets this done, she can obsess guilt free for an hour.  

It didn’t help this was not her favorite thing to do, financials, and it was hard to concentrate under the best of conditions.  Throw cute boys into the mix and it’s a disaster.  But, she’d promised Unca Joe before he died, she would be involved in all aspects her finances, and not leave it in other people’s hands.  “That’s how you get fleeced,” he’d told her.  She didn’t think that would happen with her “people,” since they were Joe’s “people”, too.  She was lucky to have them, frankly.  They generally didn’t take on clients whose accounts were less than nine figures.  It was a favor to Joe, and they were happy to do it, since his wealth was in the 11 figure range, and they pretty much bent over backwards to make him happy.  

He knew she didn’t love money and finance like he did, but he made damn sure she understood it well enough to look out for herself.  Knowing her interest in one day having an Inn of her own, he let her know, under no uncertain terms, she needed a business background.  They’d gone round and round about it, but that’s why she was a business major in college.  She’d hated most of it, but he was right.  All those conversations stuck with her. 

 

“People don’t understand money.  They should teach it starting in primary school,” Joe told her.  “I’m going to make sure you do understand it, my little nickel.”  

Nicole sighed, but smiled.  “OK, Joe.  Just have patience.  It doesn’t come as easily to me as it does to you.”

“Nothing worthwhile is easy.”  He patted her on the hand.  “Money is a living, breathing thing.  You have to care for it, like any other life.  Treat it badly, it’ll desert you.  Nurture it, and it’ll grow.  You’ll make mistakes.  You’ll make rational decisions and still have bad outcomes.  That’s OK.  You think I never dropped any of my kids when they were small?  Or fed them the wrong thing?  They turned out fine…well for the most part!”  He winked at her.

Nicole smiled at the jab towards his very successful kids.

“We’ll have you in the club in no time.”

“I don’t know about that, but I appreciate your help.”

 

So here she sat, following Joe’s directions, and taking care of her finances.  Well, trying to, anyway.

As she was finishing up, and signing the last page, a gentle knock at her door, preceded a mop of dark curls poking through the opening.  “Hi,” Ben smiled.  “Am I interrupting?”

“No, I was just finishing.  You’re back early.”  Quickly, and a little frantically, she gathered up the papers and shoved them into the overnight envelope, and closed the relevant windows on her computer screen.  

He strolled in around her ornate wooden desk, bending to give her a long soft kiss.  “Yep!  How was your day?”  He asked, when the kiss ended.

“Oh, you know.  Work, work, work.”

“What’cha working on?”  He asked, nodding towards her paperwork.

The question caught her a little off-guard.  Most people never enquired about her work.  Not that she blamed them.  Running an Inn wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  “Just, financial stuff.”

His face went serious, “Is everything OK?”

“Oh, yeah.  Everything’s fine.  People are recommending that I shift some stuff around, and I had to approve it.  Nothing bad.”

He looked relieved.  Isn’t that interesting, she thought.  Not only did he seem interested, he also seemed to care.  Not many had taken that kind of interest before.

“Soooo, I had an idea,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets, grinning that lopsided smile of his.

“Do tell.”

“Is the calendar with the schedule for the Inn on your computer?”

“It is.”

“Will you pull it up?”

She blinked at him a moment, then turned to the computer opening up the calendar.  Ben pulled her up from the chair and sat in it, pulling her back down on his lap, giving her a kiss on her cheek.  He took the mouse and scrolled through the current month and next.  

“It looks like you don’t have any bookings for the first couple of weeks of next month.  Am I reading that right?”

“You are.”

He pointed the cursor to the end of October.  “I’m scheduled here at the Inn until then.  I don’t HAVE to be back home until here,” he said pointing to nearly mid-November.  “What would you say to spending that time with me?”  He looked up at her.  “We could take a vacation.   Go somewhere, stay here.  Whatever you wanted.”

She wanted to say something.  She really did, but she had no idea what to say.  This is an affair?  What happened to expiration dating?  He’s doing it wrong!  You’re not supposed to spend more time with your fling.  That’s the point of a fling!  ‘A short period of enjoyment or wild behavior.’  Maybe he’s confusing the definition.  “You want to go on vacation.”

“Yes.”

“With me.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“Well,” she started.  “You,” she stopped, then started again.  “We,” and stopped.  

Ben looked amused.

Nicole huffed in frustration.  “May I be blunt?”

“Please,” he sat back in the chair looking up at her.

“I thought you and I,” she gestured between them, “were just a fling.  Going on vacation together insinuates that we’re not.  So, I’m confused.”

She watched him clench his jaw as he looked across the room focusing on nothing.  Nicole watched his Adam’s apple bob, before meeting his eyes, which seemed to have turned an icy blue.  He looked at her for a few, long agonizing moments before he spoke.

“Have I ever said that?”  He asked, quietly.  Too quietly, uh oh.  

Nicole slowly shook her head.

“Have I ever treated you in a manner to suggest that?”

Nicole’s heart sunk and her throat tightened.  Fuck.  She’d clearly hurt his feelings and now she felt like a complete ass.  Again, she let her past toxic relationships dictate her behavior in the present, and jump to, apparently, astoundingly wrong conclusions.  She tried to stop the tears from welling in her eyes, but failed.  At least they didn’t fall.

“No,” she whispered, in a watery voice, and looked down, fiddling with her fingers resting in her lap.

“Then why?”

The tears spilled over and she wiped them away with the palm of her hands.  “Low self-worth?”  She chuckled feebly, but it wasn’t all that funny.

“So, you’re good enough to have a fling with, but not more?”

Nicole looked at him but didn’t answer.  Because the answer was, With you, no.

He nodded, understanding.  “First, that’s bullshit.”  There was no anger, no heat.  It was a simple statement of fact.

She nodded.

“You really do grasp that?  That it’s total bullshit.”

“I do.”

He sighed, closing his eyes.  When he opened the again, they had softened.  “But I get it.  I’m not blind to the fact of what I am.  I know it’s a lot to deal with,” he stopped for a moment, sitting up.  “Wait.  Is that why you dodged me for so long?  You thought I was a hit it and quit it kind of guy?”

“I would be if I were you,” she smiled, noting he should never use that phrase again.  Ever.

He pinched her in the leg.  “Daft cow.”

“Ow!”  Nicole laughed.  “And hey!”

He pulled her down and gave her a kiss.  “Listen.  My life is strange and I learned to aggressively pursue the things that I want, because I may not get another shot at it.  So I’m here, with a woman I want to spend as much time with as I can, before I get pulled off somewhere else.  Time is my enemy.  It erodes so much of my life.  I’m trying to stabilize things with you, in hopes of stopping the erosion from happening.  The only way I know to do that is, for us to spend time together.”

Touched by his heartfelt declaration, she reached over and cupped his cheek.  “I’d love to spend that time with you.” 

“Good,” he turned his head and kissed the palm of her hand.  “I’ll try not to be hurt about you underestimating me,” he said over dramatically.  

“Well, at least I wasn’t running from you, again.”  She turned to the computer and blocked off the time on both the hotel and her personal calendar.  “Done.”

“I have another idea.”

“What’s that?”

“Why don’t you come back home with me when I go?  You could stay through the holidays.”

She put her hand on his forehead.  “Are you feeling OK?”

“Yes,” he said, chuckling and removing it.  “I’m fine.  What do you think?”

“That’s like two months!”

“Mmhmmm,” he said, letting his hands wander over her thighs and back.  “I know.  You in my house, in my bed for months…” his hand found the back of her head and pulled her into a heated kiss.  He pulled back,“What do you think?”  He asked.

I think that you would get very, very tired of me.  That’s too much time together.  There is such a thing as too much togetherness.  If he really wants a relationship, even considering his erratic lifestyle, spending that much time with someone is tantamount to a nail in the proverbial relationship coffin.  You need time to build up to that kind of closeness.  Well, she did, at least.  Maybe he’d learned to adapt, and it’s easier for him, her mind raced.  “I think you’re amazing.  But I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year.  I’m going to have a house full.  Plus, I have the Inn to think about.”

“Don’t you have anyone who can cover for you?”

She hesitated.  “I do, but I have to make sure she’s available.”

“Let’s call her!”  He sat up looking for the nearest phone.

Nicole laughed.  “Ben…”

“OK, how about, the day after your Thanksgiving, you fly to London?”

“They’ll be here through the weekend, I’m guessing.”

“Fine.  As soon as the last person leaves, get on a plane.”  He grinned.

“Ben.”

“What?”

She sighed, “I’ll call Lupe tonight and see what her schedule is.”

 

After dinner, Nicole sent Ben off to go entertain himself.  She picked up her phone and looked at it, hesitant to call.  Lupe had worked for Betty back when Nicole started hanging out at the Inn as a child.  About 15 years older than Nicole, and now with a 13-year-old daughter, Lupe knew the workings of the Inn, and had often been Betty’s backup.  By the time Nicole took over, Lupe had left a few years earlier to go back to school, and then pursue her own career, but she still loved the Inn and would cover for her on the occasions Nicole needed it. 

Now, Nicole was in doubt.  Was this a good idea?  Was it the responsible thing to do?  Was this a disaster waiting to happen?  The doubt and misgivings about taking a vacation a continent and ocean away from her life were churning.  Of course, people took vacations all the time, and often over the holidays.  The holiday season was usually a slow time for her, mostly people who traveled during that time stayed with family.  It was fine.  She didn’t mind, and planned ahead for the lull in business.  Occasionally, she would spend a few days away with her BFF and family.  But this is potentially weeks away.  She’d never done that.  Maybe that was part of the anxiety.  Obviously, the other part was Ben.  

He seemed sincere about wanting her with him, eager even.  She had to wonder how much he thought out this idea of his.  Not just the, “now we will play house at your place” aspect, but, it’s “The fucking Holidays.”  He has family and friends.  Was she supposed to go with him to visit if that was the case?  What was he going to say to them?  “Hey!  Look what I got in America!”  This was way outside her comfort zone, but maybe that’s what she needed.  She’d been playing it safe for a while, whilst she licked her wounds and healed.  She’d taken the first steps, and let someone get close, maybe another step, although a GIANT one, was to hop on a plane.  

Nicole looked at the jumble of pictures on her wall and found one of Joe smiling, wearing one of his driving caps.  She pondered what Joe would say.  She didn’t have to ponder long, she knew exactly what he would say.  “Fear is stupid!  So are regrets!  Get your ass on that plane!  If it turns out to be the wrong decision, get on a different plane!”  She smiled at the picture.  

Taking a deep breath, she dialed Lupe’s number.  

“Hello?”  Lupe answered.

“Hello, Lupe!  How are you?”

“Mija!”  She exclaimed.

 

They spent the better part of an hour catching up, before Lupe got to business.  “So, I take it you need me to cover the Inn for you?”

“I do.  I have an opportunity to go to London for Christmas and New Year.  Are you available?”

Lupe asked her to hold while she got her calendar.  They went back and forth about dates, accommodations and pay before they had a plan.  “Thank you, this means a lot to me.”

“It’s my pleasure.  I’m so happy you are finally moving on!  I just wish I could start earlier so you could have more time there.”

“No, this is perfect.  It gives me time to prep everything.”

“Aye!  You and your prepping!  You over think things.  Grab your toothbrush and passport and go!”  She laughed.

“I know, I know.  But it quells my anxiety.  You know I come by my control issues honestly.”

“I do.”

“I’ll call you closer to the day so we can finalize details.”

“I look forward to it.”

“And you know you’re welcome for Turkey day.”

“I know.  Alicia and I will be going home for Thanksgiving, but thank you for the invitation.”

 

Nicole wandered downstairs and found Ben watching the news on TV.  She went to him and when she was close enough, he pulled her down to lie on his chest, wrapping his arms around her in a cuddle.  “How’d it go?”  He asked.

“Really well.  I didn’t realize how much I missed her.  It was nice to catch up.”

“Good.  I’m glad,” he said, rubbing her arm.  “Was she available?”

“She is.  I can fly out December 18 and not return until January 4th.”

“Two weeks…I’ll take it!” He smiled, then kissed her.  “London at Christmas!  There’s nothing like it!  I can’t wait to show you.”

She had to admit, that did sound kinda magical, and his enthusiasm was kinda contagious, and he was really kinda adorable right now.

“I’ll call my assistant, Emily, and have her make the travel arrangements.”

“You don’t have to do that, I can make my own.”

“Nonsense.  I invited you, I’ll take care of it.”

“Ben…”

“Think of it as a Christmas present!”

Nicole thought about it, while looking at him skeptically.  “You know, I’mma go with no on that.  You can get me an ACTUAL Christmas present.  No easy cop out for you!”

He laughed so hard, she thought he might get the hiccups.

“I was going to do both,” he finally said.

“No.  Just the one.  Besides, I have a ton of airline miles.  Some of them are about to expire; I need to use them.”

“OK.  I’ll allow it.”

“So benevolent of you,” she said, wryly.

“BENevolent Benedict.  I like it.”

Nicole didn’t have enough eyes to roll.  “Of course you do.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

 

The first couple of days after Ben’s filming ended, and all the goodbyes and well wishes had been given, were spent with he and Nicole doing as little as possible.  Sleeping in, well, not always sleeping, lounging around watching TV, reading or having conversations were the only activities deemed acceptable.  They were to do nothing strenuous, or anything that required any kind of real thought.  After catching up on some much-needed rest, the discussions turned to what kind of trouble they could get themselves into.  

Nicole offered to take him up to Really Big City and sightsee, knowing a few good spots, tricks, and restaurants to hit.  The decided to go, and took the 90-minute drive.

After taking her suggestions, they took some fun pictures with street performers and silly statues that were placed in front of shops, (to lure in tourists and separate them from their money) before heading to the car and home.  

In the car ride back, Ben sat scrolling through his phone, looking for more touristy things to do.  What a goober.  “Hey, so we’re pretty close to Cool Historical Monument.  It’s like a three-hour drive south.  I’ve never been.  Have you?”

Nicole smiled, not taking her eyes off the road.  “I have, once, a few years ago.  Actually, it was right after we had had an earthquake and there was some damage, so we had to skip some statues and stuff.”

“Would you be up to seeing it again?”

“Yeah!  Totally.”

He reached over placing his hand on her thigh,  “We could spend the night, so there’s no rush.”

“That would be lovely,” she said, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze.  He was quiet for  a moment while he scrolled through his phone.  “Hey!  We could drive down the coast, maybe take a couple of days, stop in Ridiculously Expensive Coastal Town.  Spend the night, then head down to the Monument, spend a night or two there, then head back.”

“If you ever decide to give up acting, you should look into being a travel agent.”

“You’re in, then?”

“I’m totally in.”

 

Once back to the Inn, like delighted children, they packed their bags enough for a few days, and took off on their mini adventure the next afternoon.  When they arrived at the resort in Ridiculously Expensive Coastal Town, the front desk clerk recognized Ben and nearly fell all over herself to upgrade the room to their largest suite.  Nicole stayed back out of the way in case anyone else recognized him, although she probably needn’t worry since the place was used to high profile guests, being the location of a major golf tournament.  He left his car keys with the desk clerk, assured they would park the car and bring the bags to the suite for them.  Someone came up to him as he finished the check-in, “My name is Charles, and I’d be happy to show you to your suite.  If you’ll just follow me.”  Ben extended his arm, beckoning Nicole to him, and taking her hand once she had walked up.  Nicole was amused that upscale hotels seemed to have hidden alarms and silent communication so that everything you needed magically turned up.  

Charles walked them through the grounds to their suite that was accessed through a private garden off the main courtyard of the estate.  The offer to show them around and the amenities of the suite was declined.  After tipping him, they took a moment to wander around the living room with wood-beamed ceilings, a wood-burning fireplace, a wet bar, and a guest powder room.  They then got to the private master bedroom with a four-poster king-sized bed.  Ben turned to Nicole and winked.  It had a sitting room with a fireplace and sliding doors that lead out into a personal outdoor courtyard complete with a spa.  

“I’m glad I brought my bathing suit!”  She smiled.

Ben looked at her incredulously.  “You won’t be needing that.”  He turned and walked back into the room.

“Well alrighty, then.”

The resort and town were obviously lovely, but after Ben had been spotted by some fans, they resolved to stay in and order room service and leave in the morning.

 

The next day they made the decision of skipping the stop at another Charming Coastal Town, in favor of heading down to the Monument’s town, and checking into a nearby Bed and Breakfast.  The keepers offered to hold their luggage for them until the room was ready, since they had no reservations.  They took their host’s advice about going to visit the marine sanctuary, after which, they wandered around the town, until dinner.  After picking a restaurant and eating more than they should have, they made their way back to the B&B and their room, which by the way, had a whirlpool tub IN the bedroom.  Weird.

The following day, they took a couple of tours of the Historical Monument and ooooo’ed and ahhhhhhh’d over the decadence.  They left to find lunch and came back for the evening tour given by docents in period attire.  Very cool!

After one last night at the B&B, they headed back to Nicole’s for the remainder of Ben’s staycation. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The last couple of days before Ben was due to leave, found Nicole getting quieter and withdrawn.  Since the discussion about expectations between them, she had let down her defenses quite a bit and let him get closer.  Now that he was leaving, she was having a hard time.  It caused her to second guess not just taking off with him, and shutting down the Inn until Lupe could come take over.  That was the impulsive emotional decision, the knee-jerk reaction.  The current plan was the right decision.  She was sure of it.  She would not let her Id get the best of her.  

It seemed Ben had had enough of her trying to hide her sullen mood.  As she was walking by he grabbed her hand and urged her to sit down with him in the big evil chair.  “Spill,” he demanded.

“Spill what?”  

“You’re upset.  Why?”

She sighed.  She should have known she wasn’t doing a good job of hiding her feelings as she thought.  She was a terrible liar.  “You’re leaving.  It’s hitting harder than I thought it would,” she smiled sadly at him.

Ben pulled her into an embrace and sighed.  “I know.  I’m sad, too.”

“Really?”  She asked, relieved she wasn’t alone in her sadness.  “Does it get easier?”

“No.”

“Well that sucks,” she said, petulantly.

Ben chuckled.  “It does.”

“So what do we do?”

“Enjoy each other while we can, or you can say fuck it and hop on the plane with me?”  He asked, hopefully.

Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged him tightly.  “Don’t tempt me.  That’s exactly what my Id wants to do.”

“I like your Id.  Your Id knows what’s up.”

Nicole laughed.  

“That’s better.  What do you say, we do all the sappy, cliche, romantic things we can think of until I have to leave?”

“As long as you stay close,” she said, softly into his chest.

He kissed the top of her head.  “Of course.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The driver picked up Ben’s bags and carried them to the car.  Ben and Nicole held each other in a tight embrace at the front door.  “You have everything?”  Her voice was muffled, with her face buried in his chest.

“Everything but you.”

“Don’t,” she choked.  “I’m barely holding it together.”

He held her that much tighter.  “Yeah,” he whispered.  He pulled back to look at her, eyes red and wet with unshed tears.  “It’s only a little over a month.  We’ll both be busy.  Time will fly.”  

She nodded, unable to look him in the eyes.

He lifted her chin with his finger, “And well keep in touch.  Ever try naked FaceTime?”  He grinned.

Nicole had to laugh.  “No,” she shook her head lightly.

“Well then, new experiences on the horizon.”  Wetting his lips lightly, he leaned down and kissed her letting it turn into something heated and a little desperate.  

Nicole pulled away first, “Don’t start something you can’t finish,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“I’ll finish it.  In just over a month.”

“I’ll hold you to that.  Let me know you got in safely, please.”

“I will.”  He cupped her face and kissed her soundly, then kissed her forehead, “Bye,” he said, before turning to walk to the car.

“Bye,” Nicole waved.  She watched the car pull out and away until she couldn’t see it anymore.  

Once back in the house, she dropped into her evil chair and gave herself permission to be sad.  She curled up in it, and cried.  This part of relationships she did not miss.

 

          Ben:  Landed.  Headed home to sleep.  Call u tomorrow.

          Nicole:  OK.  Sleep well.  <3

          Ben:  <3

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

          Tom:  How r u?

          Nicole:  OK. U?

          Tom:  oh u no, over worked over paid :-D  How r u rly?

          Nicole:  ??

          Tom:  didn’t ben leave yesterday?

          Nicole:  yes.  I’m fine.

          Tom:  Face Time.  I wanna see.

          Nicole:  No way!

          Tom:  Nicole…

          Nicole:  Tom…

The phone rang and she answered it, “No.”

“Hit the button,” Tom said.

“No.”

“Nicole, so help me if you don’t hit the camera button…” he threatened.

“You’ll what?  You’re 300 miles away.  What the hell are you going to do?”

“You think I wouldn’t get on a plane?”

“You wouldn’t,” she challenged him.  Would he?  She hoped she hid the uncertainty in her voice.

“Test me.”

Nicole thought about it.  She actually didn’t know him well enough to discern whether or not he would follow through on that kind of threat.  It’s not like it was a long flight, just over an hour.  Flights from there usually left hourly if not more.  He seems like the kind of guy not to back down from a challenge, either.  God Damn, Him.  “Fuck.”  She hit the camera button.  “Happy?”  She asked, looking at his unhappy face.

“No.  Not in the least.”

She knew she didn’t look well.  She’d cried off and on since he left the previous day.  The dark bruises under her eyes told the story of little sleep and probably some dehydration.  She huffed, “Then what was the point?”

“I needed to see you were OK, and you’re not.”

“I will be.  It’s childish.  I’ll be fine.”  She tried to brush it off.

“Having an aching heart isn’t childish.  Have you eaten?  Had enough water?”  His eyebrow did this thing that, depending on the situation, accentuated his emotions.  This time, it made him look oh so very sympathetic, making her heart ache just a little bit more, as sympathy can do.  

“I’ve had a little.”

“Would you have more?  For me?”  He asked, softly.

Nicole chuckled a bit, “Yes.  For you.”

“Let’s go then.  Into the kitchen.”

Nicole grumbled, “I hate camera phones.  Whose bright idea was that?”  She carried her phone into the kitchen and propped it up so they could talk while she made herself a sandwich.  

They continued to talk while she ate, and she noted how he was keeping an eye on how much she consumed of both food and water.  

“I’ve been invited by about a dozen people to celebrate your Thanksgiving holiday,” he sighed.

“That’s nice.  Just make sure they can cook.  Dry turkey sucks, but if they make a good gravy you can douse the bird in it,” she smiled.

“I think most of them are catering.”

“Oh.  Well.  It should be fine.  Weird, but fine.”

“Why weird?”

She shrugged her shoulders, “I mean, I guess I understand why people do that, it’s a lot of work, but part of the fun is everyone in the kitchen together, laughing, talking, cooking.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

“Yeah.  Having some friends and family over.”

“Your’s sounds better,” he pouted.  Remember the eyebrow?

Nicole tried to stifle a grin at his not so subtle attempt to wrangle an invitation.  “Oh, it will be.  So much food and wine and dancing!”

“Dancing?!  Really?”

She nodded, “And singing, too!”

“Wow.  That sounds amazing.”  He said, lamenting his sad, sad situation, shamelessly working the pity thing.  In a last ditch effort, he gave it everything he had,  “I’m sure none of the people here are doing anything like that.  It’ll probably be stuffy and dull."  Tom did his best (and succeeded) to look like a pitiful, forlorn puppy.  

Nicole had had enough, and decided to let him off the hook.  “Tom?”

“Yes?”  She watched him try not to smile, though his lip twitched, just a touch.

“Would you like to come up for Thanksgiving?”

“I thought you’d never ask!”  He grinned.

Nicole rolled her eyes.  “Yes, I caught that.  You can bunk here if you want, there’ll be room.”

“That would be wonderful.” His face brightened, with an idea.  “Do you need help?  I could come up early and help you prepare.”

“Can you cook?”

“Well, no.  A little.  Sort of.  But I take direction very well.” 

“OK.  I welcome the help.”

“Is the Monday before too soon?”

“Nope.  Anytime you want.”

“I’m so excited.  I’ve only been to two American Thanksgivings, and both were at a restaurant.”

“Well, you’re in for a treat, I dare say.  I’ll dub you the guest of honor since it’s your first year with us, which means, I’ll let you pick some of the side dishes and desserts.”

“I can’t wait.  I’ll start looking immediately.”

“OK.”  His exuberance making her laugh.   

“Thank you, love.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ll text you again tomorrow to check on you.”

She nodded.  “Talk to you then.”

 

 

“I’m home!”  Ben sang into the phone.

Nicole laughed.  “I’m glad.  Good flight?”

“Yes.  Trouble free.  How are you?  Sorry I didn’t call sooner. I got home and passed out.  I hadn’t much sleep in the past couple of days.” 

Nicole could hear the grin in his voice.  “Yes.  I remember.”

“So, what have I missed since I left?  Besides you.”

Nicole's heart skipped a beat.  “Nothing really.  Your friend Tom finagled an invitation up for Thanksgiving.”

“Oh, he’s my friend, is he?” He laughed.  “Well, that was nice of you.”

“Yeah, well…he’ll earn his keep.  I’ll make him chop all the stuff I hate.”

“Good plan.  You should make him chop things you don’t even need,” he cackled.

“You are truly evil.”  

They spoke for another hour before Ben had to go.  

All in all, Nicole was feeling better about things.  He had been right.  With the holiday coming up, she would be busy planning and preparing for her guests.  Then the weeks before, she’d be Christmas shopping and packing.  It would be OK, and she actually kind of believed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ch. 21

“I wish I didn't feel so strong about you

Like happiness and love revolve around you”

 

 

Even though she had left the door unlocked for him to come in, ever the polite soul he was, Tom knocked anyway.  Upon opening the door, she was swept up into a tight hug and swung around in a circle. It left her giggling and her feet dangling several inches off the ground.  She realized, mid hug, that she missed him and was excited to see him again.  In the back of her mind, she thought maybe she should examine those feelings.  Were they appropriate, or too much?  Maybe she just really missed her friend.  Coming back to the present, she noticed Tom made no move to put her down. 

“Now I know how pets must feel when they get picked up.” 

Tom laughed, still not willing to let her go.

Nicole pulled her head back, to try to look him in the eye.  She was met with one of his bright smiles and a smacking kiss on the cheek before he set her back on terra firma. 

“I told you I left the door unlocked for you.”

“You did, and I’m way too British for that,” he smiled, rubbing her arms.  “You look wonderful.”

“Of course, you are!  And thank you.”  She stepped farther back into the foyer and gestured for him to come in.  He picked up his bag and carried it in, setting it down in the entryway, looking around a bit, as the door closed behind him.

“It looks like you’ll have your choice of rooms.  The three guests who were to be staying, have turned their yeses into maybes and will probably end up being no's.”

“Oh?”

“Seems they got a better offer for a trip to the casinos or something,” Nicole shrugged.

“Will they not be here for dinner?”

“No, they’ll be here.  They just won’t be staying.  And frankly, I’m not that upset about it.  I love them, they’re family, but man can they wear a person out.”

Tom nodded in understanding.  “Like only family can do.”

“Yes.  Exactly.  Do you need to do laundry or anything?”

“No, thank you.”

“So do you want to pick out your room now, or unwind maybe have a little lunch first?”

“Lunch sounds wonderful.  I haven’t eaten yet today.”

Nicole had him leave his bag in the entryway, they'd get back to it later, and motioned him to follow her into the kitchen where she set out making some food.  Tom sat at the counter watching Nicole flit about the kitchen as they caught up.  She was well aware of his heavy gaze, taking in everything, no doubt assessing how she was really feeling. 

“So, how is He Who Must Not Be Named?”  Tom asked.

“He is just fine.  Haven’t you two spoken?”

Tom shook his head.  “You know how it is.”

She did since it’d been a few days since she and Ben had last spoken.  Not for lack of trying, just, bad timing. 

Each were cautious about bringing up Ben's absence, they let that topic die.

After lunch, they adjourned to the family room with their drinks, where Tom promptly brought up Thanksgiving.  Nicole picked up her iPad and after some tapping handed it over to him, with the prospective menu pulled up.

“Those are some side dish ideas as well as dessert ideas.  I didn’t know if you’d had time to look, or if you were serious about it.”

Nicole came by being a control freak honestly, at least that’s what her parents told her.  Her issues were handed down by many generations of control freaks on her father’s side.  So the idea of Tom running around in her kitchen put her on edge a bit.  This issue, she was actually working on…unlike the yarn, because yarn.

His eyes scanned over the document as he scrolled through.  “I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.  And I was serious.  I did a little research and came up with some ideas.”  Handing her back the tablet, he pulled out his phone.  He tapped and scrolled  eventually pulling up a document, before handing it over for her to see.  “I’m not sure of the difficulty level of some of those, or your skill level.”

Nicole looked through the list.  None of the dishes were particularly hard, some were time-consuming, and some would be difficult to time, what with so many dishes needing coveted stovetop or oven space.  She took the time to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each of the sides he picked.  Tom nodded the whole time in understanding, he narrowed it down to a few choices, and decided that they would make whichever one, the store had in stock. 

Next came dessert.  His list was much longer.  “Someone have a sweet tooth?”  Nicole smiled.

“Yes,” he sighed like he was having visions of cupcakes dancing in his head.  “It’s a known issue, and I’m not working on it.”

Nicole started at his statement.  She’d only ever heard a few people use it.  Obviously, other people must, but regardless, it still surprised her.  “Nor should you.”

She filled him in on how other people would be bringing dessert as well, most likely pecan, pumpkin, and apple pies, to which his eyes brightened. 

“I don’t suppose, you can make a New York style cheesecake?” Tom asked.

“I can, actually.  I have a fantastic recipe.” 

“Shall we make that, then?”  The hopeful look on his face was too much. There was no saying no. 

“Sure.  We’ll put it on the list!”

Tom clapped his hands and rubbed them together in excitement.  “So what next?”

“Next, I guess I go grocery shopping.”

He sat back, surprised.  “I can’t go?”

“Did you want to go?”

“Yes!”

“Really?”

“Of course!”

Nicole sat blinking at him.  “It’s because you never go, huh?  This is like an adventure.”

He grinned.

Nicole rolled her eyes.  “OK.  Let’s get you some camouflage.”

Two hours later, they made it back to the Inn, unpacked everything and decided to do nothing but relax for the rest of the evening.

 

The next morning, Nicole sent Tom out for a run, to get him out of her hair, in order to get things ready for the prep work ahead.  Once he was back and showered, he came bouncing into the kitchen eager and excited.  “Where do you want me?”  He asked, rubbing his hands together.

“How are your knife skills?”

Tom stood looking at her like he was really weighing out his skill level.  “Uh…OK?”

“Good.”  She handed him a chef’s knife, cutting board and a boat load of veggies.  “Please dice these into small pieces about the same size.”

“OK.  How big?”

“Good question.”  She took a piece of celery and cut it up into pieces the size she was looking for, explaining everything needed to be the same size to cook evenly.

“Yes, chef.”

Nicole watched Tom chop away while trying to not look like she was watching.  She momentarily was amused at the thought of giving him the child scissors to cut herbs and such but decided not to be mean.  Well, too mean.  She could have given him either the large or small food processor.  But watching Tom chop things so very carefully, tongue peeking out whenever the pieces got too small to cut easily, was totally worth any guilt she might have.  A little way in, she did take pity on him and show how to turn the vegetable over to get a sturdier grip when things got too tiny.  She also had to show him how to hold a knife, “and please, please, please unless you want to drive me up a wall, do not scrape the board with the sharp side.  Please, and thank you.”

“I’ll be filing this bit of information away for future use,” he said by way of warning, as he set down the knife.  “Finished.”

“Cool, thanks.”

“Now what?”

“Now we start cooking.”  Nicole set things up on the stove.  With a little instruction, Tom was sautéing like a champ.  She’d check on him every now and again and found he’d needed no help.  He was way better at this than so many of her other “helpers” she’d had in the past.  Having worked with both kids and adults, some of the kids were astoundingly good compared to the adults.  If the parents of the kids staying at the Inn didn’t mind, Nicole liked having the kids in the kitchen with her.  It reminded her of when Betty used to let her cook. 

It didn’t take long for them to get the savory dishes which could be prepped well in advance done.  Having help really did make a difference.  Tucking the last of the food safely away for the next day, Tom turned to Nicole expectantly.  “What next?”  Her ever diligent helper asked.

“Well,” she looked around the kitchen, thinking.  “We got done a lot sooner than I had thought so, I really didn’t plan for more than this.  We could start on the cheesecake if you want?  Or we could just relax?”

“Cheesecake!  Yes.  Let’s do that!”

“OK.”  She laughed.  “In the fridge out in the garage, there is a bag with cream cheese in it.  Would you bring in the whole bag?”

“I’m on it!”  He said as he left the kitchen.  By the time Nicole realized, it was too late, she’d sent him into the garage…with the car.  Why do these men short circuit my brain? She hoped he wouldn’t notice.  She kicked herself a second time.

He walked back in carrying the plastic bag.  “Is that your F-Type?”

She nodded, groaning inwardly.

“Nice!  I have one!  The coupe.  Which is that?”

“Convertible.”

“Don’t you love it!”

“I do.”  She’d taken too long to answer.

He cocked his head a bit and looked at her, “But?”

“No buts,” she put on a cheery face.  “It’s amazing.”

He screwed his face up in confusion, letting the bag he was holding up, fall to his side.  “What was that?”

A thought briefly ran through her head about putting together a FAQ sheet for people.

“It’s nothing.  It’s a long story.”

“Which is it?  Nothing or a long story?”  He dropped the bags on the counter and approached her.

Nicole sighed, sticking her hands in the front pockets of her jeans.  “It’s a long story.”

Leaning against the counter with his hip, he crossed his arms over his chest and raised his eyebrows, indicating he was waiting for her to continue.

“It’s a long story, and now is not a good time to go into it.”

She watched his jaw clench and unclench as he thought about what to say next.  “Because?”  He asked drawing out the word.

“We want to surround the cheesecake with love.”  She swept her arms in a circle in front of her.  “Anything else is bad for cheesecake.”

“Later, then?” 

Either he didn’t want to risk the cheesecake or he was being moderately gracious.  Either way, she’d take it.  Maybe he’d forget.  “Later.”

 

 

With the cheesecake done and cooling, the two of them sat on the evil couch with a glass of wine, reveling in their accomplishments.  Tom held up his glass, “To a fine day’s work.”

Nicole touched her glass to his with a delicate clink.  “Indeed.”  They both took a sip of their drink.  “I say,” she smiled, after her sip, “we have done enough cooking today, and we order out for dinner tonight.  Whaddya think?”

“I support that plan.”

“Cool.” They sat in a comfortable silence for some time.

“So,” Tom started, “How about you fill me in on that long story.”

Nicole set her glass down on the table, then leaned back against the couch rubbing her face with a sigh.  She peeked out at him through her fingers, with the eye that was closest to him.  He made no move of backing down from his request.  Sighing, she dropped her hands, “I’ve gone years without talking about this, and in the space of a few months, it’s come up twice.”

“Well, maybe it’s the universe telling you it’s time.”

“Or maybe there are a couple of nosey Englishmen running around my Inn.”

“Or that,” he grinned.

She looked at him for a long time.  Well, not really at him, he was in her line of thought, as she sorted through the information and questioned how much she should tell him.  Having never told anyone the whole story before, she was wary about telling it.  The only people who knew everything were Joe’s family.  Saying the whole thing out loud was going to be strange and more than a little uncomfortable.  Tom watched her quietly and settled himself into a comfortable position, while he waited for her to figure it out.

“Do you want to know about the just car or do you want the story from the beginning?”

His eyebrows hitched up slightly, “The beginning.  Please.”

Nicole kicked off her shoes, and propped her feet up on the coffee table, careful to avoid her wine glass, and leaned back against the back of the couch.  She took a deep breath.  “Once upon a time there was a girl,” she rolled her head to the side to look at Tom.  He smiled, and she smiled back, then looked to her socked feet, wiggling her toes.  “My mother was…is…interesting.  She’s prone to whatever the latest spiritually enlightening fad.  Light therapy, aromatherapy, herbs, crystals, more ‘religions’ than I can count.  She dragged me to most of it with her.  My guess, she’s searching externally for some kind of happiness.  Unfortunately, what she really needs is a good therapist and maybe an antidepressant. Not that she’d listen to me about it.  Anyway, during one of the religious phases, she had some sort of shut in prayer thing.  It was all day, they were doing it for a week or something.  I don’t really remember.  Mom was friends with Betty, who owned the Inn before I bought it.  Mom was telling her all about what she was going to be doing.  I remember Betty looking down at me, and I must have had a look of dread because she offered to take me during the days.  I was so happy I thought I’d pop.  Mom wasn’t so sure, I guess she figured my spiritual side needed enlightening or something, but Betty convinced her, and I felt truly saved at that moment.”

Tom nodded and gave her an encouraging smile.

“So, that week, Betty had me playing outside and what not, but, I’m not really an outdoor girl, so I got bored and came inside and watched her in the kitchen.  She watched me watch her and pulled out a pair of kitchen shears, and handed them to me with a handful of herbs and told me to cut them up.”

Tom sat up a bit.  “Were you tempted to hand me scissors instead of a knife today?”

Nicole’s laughter betrayed her lie.  “Of course not.”

Tom flicked her in the leg, laughing.  “Go on.”

“Well, that’s how it all started, scissors and cilantro.  After my mother’s ‘spiritually awakening’ week was over, I still came to the Inn after school.  Betty had me help her in the kitchen, then she started me doing some cleaning.  You know stuff a kid can do.  Dusting, vacuuming.  I couldn’t fold worth a damn so that came later.  Honestly, still, can’t fold a fitted sheet.  Eventually, she worked me up to more responsibility, even gave me a real job when I was old enough.  But that’s how I met Unca Joe.”

She looked to Tom and he was smiling, amused by her diminutive for him.  She debated for a moment on whether she should give his last name or not.  Being from another country, he might not recognize it.  Although, she was pretty sure the UK’s educational system was vastly better than the U. S.’ and he may.  Hell, most people here didn’t recognize it.  Fuck it.  “We’re not related.  His name is actually Joe Huber.”  She watched him very carefully.  “He was friends with Betty, back since they were kids, and would rent out the entire Inn for weeks at a time and bring his family.”

She saw Tom’s mind working, but kept going.  “He has four kids.  Three boys and a girl.  Joe’s youngest, his daughter, was five years older than me.  She was always kind to me.  I know I must have been a royal pain in the ass, but I thought she was amazing and followed her everywhere.  She never batted an eye.  Always gracious and inclusive.”

Tom reached over and rested his hand on her leg, as a way to interrupt her.  “Joe Huber.  That name sounds familiar, but I can’t place it.”

Nicole nodded.  “He’s a venture capitalist.  Among other things.”  She waited to see if it would click.

His face pinched in thought until something did click.  “Joseph Huber.  From the Huber family.”

Nicole nodded.

He nodded slowly, with the realization that she was friends with The Hubers, one of the richest families in the world.  “Isn’t he-“

“Yep.” 

“Wow.”

Nicole nodded.  It’s a lot to get your head around.  The family was worth over a trillion dollars.  That’s trillion with a T.  Joe himself was worth over a billion.  If Tom wanted to look up the numbers he could.  They’d be on any of the Forbes lists.

“Anyway, he was nice to me.  Treated me like one of his own.  I was given the same rules and expectations as his kids.  I think he saw how flighty my mother was and between him and Betty, they wanted me to have something solid to count on.  It was cool.  I could  call him anytime I wanted, for any reason.  And I would.  For no reason, for homework help, to talk about the latest drama in my life.  Whatever.”

“He sounded like a nice guy.”

“He really was.  But, don’t be fooled.  He was a shark!  He expected nothing less than your everything.  But, if you tried your best and failed, that was fine.  As long as you tried and had no regrets. 

“When I hit my teens, he started inviting me out to the compound in the summer.  It was this huge, sprawling place.  It was like a private park.  Tennis courts, pools, a pond you could swim in if you wanted.  The main building had a movie room and game room, stuff like that.  It was awesome.  The only thing it was missing was teenaged boys, much to my dismay.  I never asked, but I think that’s why he had me out, to keep me from getting too boy crazy,” she grinned.

“Around meal times, he’d find me in the kitchen with the chef.  Badgering him to let me do stuff.  Trying to get him to teach me this technique or that.  I guess he didn’t mind because he never kicked me out.”  She shrugged.

“Eventually, Joe helped me apply to college.  He picked my major.  Business.”  She looked at him wryly.  “He’d say, ‘Nickel, if you want to run an Inn of your own one day, you need to understand how business works.  You can never go wrong with a business degree,’” she said mimicking his voice.  “So that’s what I did.  I’m sure there were some nights he’d regret giving that advice, when we’d been on the phone for HOURS, him trying to explain accounting to me, while I cried.”

“Oh no,” Tom laughed.

“It was ugly.  Then one day, Betty came to me and said she wanted to retire and wanted to know if I would like to buy the Inn from her.  I nearly exploded.  It was a dream come true.  Except the dream and the reality are very different.  I went to the banks for a loan, but of course, they wouldn’t give me the whole asking price.  I mean, who was I?  I had nothing, really, except the experience of running the place.”

“Joe didn’t step in?”

“Oh, he tried.  I wouldn’t let him.  Betty and I went back and forth over the price.  What finally happened, I took the amount the bank gave me, and Betty floated me a loan for the rest.  I was, finally, the proud owner of an Inn.  I couldn’t have been happier.

“Things were fine, for a minute, then that big recession hit.  Betty suspended my payment to her, but I still had trouble with paying the bank loan.  That’s when I finally called Joe and asked him to look over everything and see if there was something I was missing.  I wasn’t, the revenue just wasn’t there.  After some convincing by Joe, I let him buy out my loan from the bank, and I made payments to him, at a lower rate until things picked up.  I didn’t want to, but I had to take his help.  I would have lost her if I hadn’t.   

“The following year, Betty passed.  No one I’d ever loved had died before.  I was devastated.  In her will, she forgave my loan.”  Nicole twiddled with her fingers, lost for a moment in her memories.  “So,” she breathed, “I got a second job, and funneled all that money into paying back Joe.  I’d made a good sized dent in it, too.

“About two years after Betty passed, Liz, Joe’s daughter, called me.”  She felt the tears that always threatened whenever she thought about that phone call.  It took her a few moments of deep breaths and swallowing back tears before she could continue, but her voice was tiny and wavering.  “Joe was in the hospital, and I needed to come.  She had a ticket waiting for me at the airport.  I just grabbed some clothes and left.  Locked the Inn up, called my boss on the way and I…I just left.”

Tom reached over and took her hand.  She nodded gratefully.

“I went straight to the hospital.  Liz and the other’s filled me in.  He was dying, there was nothing to be done.  I remember shaking my head, no.  I couldn’t accept it.  When I went into his room, he’d never looked so small to me, so frail and I knew it was true.  He smiled and I went straight into his arms.  I tried to gently reason with him about how he couldn’t leave.  I wasn’t prepared for a world where he wasn’t in it.  He told me it was fine, I’d be fine.  He’s going to be with his wife.”  Nicole looked to Tom, “He married his childhood sweetheart.  They’d met at four years old.  She’d died suddenly after they’d been married a little over ten years.  He never remarried.”  She looked back down at her hands.  “He said, I shouldn’t worry because he wasn’t worried about me.”  Nicole shook her head, wiping away the tears that had slipped by.

“We were all there when he…” she stopped, gathering herself together, “It was peaceful.  After we left the hospital and returned to the compound, Liz told me to stay, they were going to read the will after the funeral, and Joe had included me. 

“The funeral was a quiet affair, like Joe.  Such dignity, even in death,” she mused, almost to herself.  “Anyway, the will was read a couple of days later.  There were a couple dozen people there, mostly immediate family.  Honestly, I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the proceedings.  I’d lost two people in three years and I was just so heartbroken.  Then the lawyer said my name.  I remember Liz taking my hand.  I took a deep breath and sat up straight.  Joe had included notes to all his family.  He had one for me, too.”  Nicole couldn’t see at this point, she stopped trying to stem the flow of tears and she was looking at her hands through droplets.  “It basically said, he knew how much what he was about to do would irk me, but tough cookies.  I was one of his, and he loved me and he wanted to make sure I was taken care of.  I still have it, tucked away.  I should say, one of Joe’s indulgences was cars.  He loved them, and we’d talk about them endlessly.  Well, he’d talk, I’d nod and agree.  I had no idea what he was saying half the time.  So.  When the lawyer read my portion of the will, he’d left me an F-Type.  Because it was the one car I truly showed love for.  I’m supposed to get a new one every four years.  I haven’t tested that yet.  I’m actually not sure how it works.”

“That’s love.”

She nodded.  “Truly.  But there was more,” she shook her head.  “He forgave the loan.  All the money I’d been paying him, he put into an account for me, plus the remainder on the loan was to be added to that.  So essentially, there was an account with the loan amount in it with my name on it.  He’d also created a collage account for me, to pay for school, which I didn’t use.  I wanted to do it myself.  So there was this other account with enough money for me to go to college anywhere I wanted for several degrees if I chose.  Then he left me an inheritance.  This was all put into investment accounts so they would earn money.  Because, venture capitalist, so of course he did.

“After the reading, I went to Liz and told her if she wanted to contest what he left me, I wouldn’t fight it.  I mean, it was so much money, how could she not contest it?  She just smiled at me and told me he wanted me to have it.  Then asked me if I wanted anything else.  Once I got over my shock, I asked for a few of his sweaters.  I keep them in vacuum sealed bags, and when I miss him, I go and smell them.”  She was lost in her memories again but realized Tom wasn’t moving.  He was looking at her a little wide-eyed.  She could see how badly he wanted to ask her about the amount, but his upbringing just wouldn’t let the words out.  “Go ahead and ask.”

Tom shook his head.  It wasn’t like he wasn’t used to those kind of numbers in his business, but there’s something different about it when someone leaves you that kind of money or you win the lottery or something.  It’s like some magical chest of cartoon gold coins and precious jewels.

“I’m probably worth about two and a half times both you and Ben…together.”

He blinked and sat back against the couch.  “Wow.”

“Yeah.”

Nicole had to hand it to him, he recovered relatively quickly.  “So driving the car, breaks your heart.”

“It does.”

“You should drive it.”  He set his hand on hers.

“I know.”

 

 

 

“That's the last of it!”  Nicole said, looking around the kitchen, with her hands on her hips.  “We’re good until tomorrow morning.”

“I can’t believe you do this all by yourself.”

She half shrugged.  “I’m used to it.  It’s not like I don’t cook for a number of people on a daily basis.  You work out a system.”

“So, now what?”

Nicole stuck her hands in her pockets and shook her head.  “Whatever. 

Tom met her gaze for a moment, then a slow smile spread on his face.  She narrowed her eyes at him.

“What?” She asked.

“Let’s go for a drive.”

Nicole stilled and felt the color drain from her face.  Tom, immediately stepped to her and took hold of her upper arms.  “Sweetheart.  Breathe.”

She nodded, taking a deep breath, and slowly exhaling.  He pulled her into a hug and held her, letting his hand smooth the back of her head while she got a hold of herself.

“Darling, you have to move past this,” he whispered into her hair.  She nodded.  “Come,” he said, pulling her along and setting her down in a nearby chair.  He pulled another around, so he could sit in front of her.  “What do you think will happen if you drive the car?”  He asked.  His voice was soft and gentle.

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do.”

Nicole sat looking at him.

“Tell me.”

She looked down, away from him shaking her head, slowly, trying to put her feelings into words.  She closed her eyes and watched colors swirl behind her eyelids.  “That I have to accept he’s really gone.  That I won’t be able to bear the pain.  That the pain wouldn’t kill me and I’d have to live with it.”  She opened her eyes and looked back to him, unsure of what his reaction would be.  She was so afraid he would disregard her feelings, brush them aside like they were silly, or ridiculous, or wrong, which they may be, but they were hers.  They were how she felt.  They were real, and they mattered. 

He looked at her, long enough to acknowledge her confession, to let her know he’d heard her, before he looked away himself, thinking, looking for the right response.  When he seemed to have found one, he met her eyes again, his expression soft and understanding.  “That must be terrifying.”

She didn’t respond.

He reached out and cupped the side of her face with his hand.  She closed her eyes, willing her tears away.  When she had them under control, she opened her eyes when his other hand matched the first.  They said nothing as they looked at each other, and after a moment, she thought, briefly, he might kiss her.  As vulnerable as she was feeling, she couldn’t say it wouldn’t have been unwelcome.  Wrong yes, but so very comforting. 

“Let me help you,” he said, just above a whisper.

“How?”  She did whisper.

He removed his hands from her face, and the cool rush of air that took their place was unwelcome.  “What if I drive?  All you have to do is sit there.”

“If it’s too much?”

“We’ll turn around.”

Her eyes looked around, like they were searching for the right answer. 

“You are extraordinary.  Don’t let this define you.”

“He helped define me.”

“He wouldn’t want this.”

She nodded.  “I know.”

He watched her.  She knew every thought she had was scrolling across her face like a marquee.  She gathered her strength and nodded once.  “OK,” she whispered.  She felt her heart pick up pace. “OK.  When?”

“Now.”

She nodded again.  “OK.”

 

While Nicole grabbed a jacket and light scarf, Tom took the cover off the car and did the pre-flight check, as it were.  They climbed in, and as they got settled and belted in, Tom reached over and took her hand.  “Yes?”  He asked her.

“Yes,” and they were off.

 

After they were out on the open road, they made the decision that the ambient traveling noises were enough, and music wasn’t needed.  They rode in silence for about 20 minutes before Nicole started feeling anxious.  Her mind began plowing through her memories of Joe.  Summers and vacations.  Driving and laughing with his family.  Late night conversations on school problems or politics.  He had so much fun watching less clever contemporaries battle with new legislature or audits.  There were talks about what it meant to be yourself and a productive member of society.  So many ideas about what the world expects of you, and how you live up to those expectations.  All the while, wading through those thoughts, her heart rate accelerated. 

Thoughts of him in the hospital, the desperation she felt trying to get to him as quickly as possible, caused a shortness of breath.  She struggled to get air into her lungs, even though the top was down and fresh air whipped around them.  She dug her fingers into the palm her hand while the other gripped the black leather handle on the door, trying to still the shaking.  She squeezed her eyes shut, she felt like she was getting a fever, and she felt her fingers start to tingle and go numb. 

She heard Tom’s voice, like it was coming from far away, “Are you OK?”

Nicole didn’t answer him, she couldn’t answer him. 

“Nicole?”

“Pull over,” she gasped out.

“What?  What’s wrong?”

“PULL OVER!” 

She felt the car swerve over to the side of the road, and as soon as the car stopped, she tried to get out of the car, but the seat belt stopped her.  She turned and grappled with it until the latch released and then turned back to the door to get out, fighting with the uncooperative handle.  As soon as her foot hit the dirt, she fell hard, landing on her hands and knees, narrowly avoiding hitting her head on the door.  Somewhere in the back of her head, she noted that the fall would hurt later, but now, at this minute, she was trying to get air into her lungs. 

By the time Tom got out of the car, and around to Nicole, she was on her hands and knees gasping and counting backward.  “100.  97.  94.  91.  88…”  She felt Tom kneel next to her and take her in his arms.  Settling down with her in his lap, she continued to count.  Gently, he rocked back and forth, his hands soothing her arms, while murmuring words of encouragement.  When she hit the thirties, she had began to calm, and cry instead of panic.  She curled her fingers into his shirt, gripping in anguish, while sobbing into his chest.

They sat at the side of the road, Tom continuing to try to soothe her until she quieted.

“Driving the car was admitting he was gone,” she murmured into his chest.

He nodded silently.

“I didn’t want to admit it.”

“Now you can grieve properly.”

She took a shuddering breath.

“You’ll be OK.  I promise,” he whispered into her hair and kissing the top of her head.

She nodded.

“It’ll be difficult, and painful, but you’ve done so much and come so far, I know you’ll be OK.”

She nodded again.  “Thank you.”  She paused, thinking about what had just happened.  “I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize.”  He slipped the scarf from around her neck and dabbed the soft material at her face, drying her tears.  “OK?” He asked.

Nicole nodded, and together they climbed back into the car, to head back home.

 

 

 

Waking up at the butt crack of dawn, as Nicole put it, she made her way to the kitchen to preheat the oven and put in the turkey.  Once she was satisfied nothing would catch fire or blow up, she shuffled back up to her room and back into her warm, soft bed.  A short while later, she heard Tom get up and leave the house, for a run, she supposed.  Looking at the clock she realized, staying in bed would put her behind for the rest of the day, so she showered, dressed and headed downstairs to start preparing for her guests to arrive.  When Tom came back from his run, he went to the kitchen for water and found Nicole working on food for the get-together.  She smiled at him in greeting as he went to the cupboard to grab a glass for his water.  After downing two glasses, he wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his hoodie and smiled.  “Need any help?”  he asked?

“Sure.”

“Let me shower and I’ll be back down.”

A short time later he was back and Nicole had put him to work.  When they finished, Nicole excused herself to go change, and Tom decided he’d do the same.  Tom eventually came down and found Nicole sitting outside on the patio, wrapped in a blanket looking off into the yard.  Quietly, he slid the glass door open, shutting it behind him, before sitting next to her on the bench. 

“May I join you?”  He asked.

She smiled and nodded.

They sat quietly for a moment before he asked, “Are you OK?”

Nodding, she glanced at him.  “I’m fine.  Just taking in some calm before the storm.”

He nodded a bit.  “Who’s coming?”

She took in a deep breath and exhaled.  “Only a two people, my aunt, and cousin.  Family who didn’t really want to go somewhere else far.  Not that many would invite them.”  She looked to Tom giving him a knowing look.  “Although, they behave somewhat while they’re here.”

“Ah.  Yes.  Thoooose relatives.  And yet you invited them.”

“Yeah, I hate the idea of people having nowhere to go for the holidays.  I generally take in strays.”  She nudged him with her elbow, smiling.

“Thanks for that.”

“You were really the only one I invited.  The others invited themselves.”

“Thank you, truly.”

Nicole leaned over onto him, resting her head on his shoulder.  “You’re welcome.”

Tom slipped his arm around her and they sat, lost in their thoughts, for a bit.

“How are you feeling about yesterday?”

She shrugged, looking at the palms of her scraped-up hands.  “OK, I suppose.  It’ll take time.  I’m sad, but, it’s like, I dunno, I feel lighter?  Maybe?”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah.  I guess it's my turn to thank you.  If you hadn’t made me step outside my boundaries, I’d still be harboring all that.  No doubt it would explode at the worst possible moment.”

“No doubt.  As all epic breakdowns tend to do.”

There was a long pause before Tom spoke again.  “Have you spoken to Ben about it?”

She shook her head no. 

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Really.”  It wasn’t a question.

She sighed, “No.  I mean...I’m not all that comfortable talking about it.”

“You talked to me about it.”

“I did.”

“Then, why can you talk to me and not him?”

Nicole took a moment to gather her thoughts before answering.  “I guess, he and I haven’t been together that long.  It seems too soon, or too awkward or something.”  She paused, looking around her back yard. “And you’re...I’m not sure.  I feel a certain level of comfort with you, that I don’t have with Ben.”  This confession surprised her.  She’d always felt comfortable with Ben.  He’d been nothing but kind and supportive, and yet she was still shielding part of herself from him.  Some latent defense mechanism, it seemed.  The thought made her sad and she knew she’d need to examine that later.

“Because we’re not dating?”

“Honestly, I don’t even think it’s that.  I’m not sure what it is.”  She thought for a moment.  “You know how, with some people, you just fall into step with them?  Everything about it is easy?  You’re one of those.  For my part, anyway.”  She shrugged.

Tom hugged her close and kissed the top of her head.  “I feel the same.”

She nodded, “Besides, I don’t want to be that girl.”

“What girl?”

“Whiny, needy, complicated.”

“You’re not whiny and needy.  You’re hurting and need comfort.  Those are very different things.”

“I guess.”

“Isn’t that the benefit of a relationship?  That you have someone to help you?”

“Isn’t that what you’re for?”  She smiled up at him.

“Nicole.”  He chided her.  “You should talk to him about it.”

“I’ll…think about it.”

“Have you spoken with him at all?”

“Not for a few days.”

“Why?”

“Bad timing.  An eight hour time difference is proving more tedious than I thought.”  She leaned back into the crook of his arm and stretched her feet out in front of her.  Tom tightened his arm around her and pulled her in closer.

He hummed.  “For sure.  But you have been trying to talk to one another?”

“Yeah.  We’ve taken to leaving each other video messages,” she smiled.

“Oh?”  She could hear the grin in his voice.

Nicole elbowed him again, this time, harder, making him oomph.  “Don’t be creepy.  Nothing like that.”

He chuckled, rubbing his ribs with the arm not currently slung around her shoulders.  “I said nothing.”

“You didn’t have to, perv.”

“You know me too well.”

She hummed.  “Getting there.”

“Are you sure you’re OK?  Are you up for having guests?”

“Not much I can do about it now.”

“We can wrap all the food up, leave it at the gate with a note, while we go find a Chinese restaurant.”

Nicole doubled over laughing.  “Oh my God.  That would be hilarious.”

“Just say the word.”

“No.  There’s wine.  I’ll survive.”

“Anything I can do?”

“If I start to look frazzled, can you detour them somewhere else?”

“That I can do.”

 

 

 

“Hellloooooo baby!”  Aunt Jackie, crooned as she enveloped her in a bear hug.  Jackie wasn’t her immediate aunt, as in her mom or dad’s sister, she was one out.  Once removed?  Second Aunt?  Something like that.  Nicole could never keep it straight.

“Hello, Auntie.  So glad you could make it.”

“You know I love coming here!  Now, where can I put this food?”  She asked, gently shaking brown paper grocery bags in her hands, as she walked away, into the kitchen.

Nicole watched the back of her short, round body disappear.  “Right into the kitchen, there,” she half-heartedly pointed.

“Hey, cous’!  How’s it going?” June, (Nicole’s second cousin?  Once removed?  Whatever) asked, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Well, thank you.  And thanks for coming.”

“You know me, always up for some food and fun.”

“Why don’t we all move into the family room.  I have hors d’oeuvres and drinks ready for us.”  Nicole tried to usher June into the kitchen for fear of leaving Jackie alone with Tom for too long.  He’d never survive the full force of Jackie.

They walked into the kitchen area to find her unpacking pie after pie after pie onto the counter.  Tom was standing nearby eyes wide, nearly salivating. 

“Auntie Jackie!  What did you do?”  Nicole walked up to the counter and eyed all the desserty goodness.

“Well, once I got started…”

“You’re taking most of that home with you.  There’s no way it will get eaten here.”

“Now, let’s not be hasty,” Tom piped up.

“Of course, you…”  Nicole rolled her eyes.

“And, who are you?”  Jackie asked.

“Tom,” he said, extending his hand to her.  Jackie took it and eyed him up and down.  Slowly.  Twice.

Oh god…  Nicole thought, Here we go…

“Well aren’t you a tall, tall, drink of water.  I’m Jackie,” She greeted with a bright, white smile.

 

 

 

Tom chuckled, embarrassed at the flirting.  “Pleased to meet you.”  He shook her hand. Jackie kept shaking his, refusing to let go, and Tom, clearly not wanting to be rude, continued shaking hers.

“June, this is my friend Tom.”  Nicole tried to politely retrieve Tom from Jackie clutches.

Taking the hint, Jackie let go of his hand but continued to look him over.  Tom stepped over to June and shook her hand.

“This your new man?”  June asked, turning to look at Nicole.  “He sure is fine.”

Nicole calmly shook her head.  “No.  He’s a friend.”

“Single?”  June asked, turning to look back at him.  Nicole shook her head, almost violently at him, behind June’s back.

“Ahhh,” he stumbled, “I’m currently off the market.”  Nice Evasion.

“Pity.”

“Hardly,” Nicole mumbled under her breath.  “There are plates and napkins and utensils next to the food, drinks are in the fridge and glasses are over on the far counter.  Please, everyone, help yourselves.”

As her family made their way to the table ladened with food, Tom made his way to Nicole.  “Seems like you just saved my life there.”

“Probably.  June and Jackie are relentless.  You wouldn’t have had a moment’s peace if they thought you were available.”

 

 

Nicole’s guests sat in the family room talking, while she worked on unneeded food prep, due to a much-needed break.  She had never met anyone who could talk as much as June and Jackie.  About anything.  About subjects, they had no knowledge of, whatsoever.  It was a double-edged sword of a gift.  Since they had a new victim to regale with their stories, they were thrilled and had no interest in digging around in Nicole’s life.  Not that she minded talking, but they always wanted to know things that were none of their business.  She suspected, that half of the questions were from her mother who, for whatever reason, felt she couldn’t ask Nicole herself.  Nicole wasn’t sure why that was either.  As far as she knew, they were on OK terms.  Not super close, but not hostile. 

“You got a boyfriend!  When?”  Was shouted at her from the family room. 

“What?  Why-” Nicole  looked wide eyed like she’d been caught stealing.

“Tom here told us you’re dating his friend!”  Jackie looked smug in her new knowledge.  “When were you gonna tell us?  Where is he?”

Nicole looked to Tom, who looked guilty and apologetic.  She sighed and shook her head.  “I wasn’t going to say anything because we just started dating.”

“So?”  She always wanted all the information as soon as something happened, and Nicole didn’t operate that way.

“I just couldn’t see bringing it up if it turned out to be nothing.”

“Why isn’t he here?”

“He lives in another country.  He had work obligations so he had to go back.”

“What country?”  June piped up.

“Take a guess,”  Nicole said, pointing at Tom.

“You always did like them British boys, on the TV and such.”

Nicole nodded, pretending to prepare food.

“What was the latest British crush you had?  The one with the crazy name.”

Nicole shook her head, willing for anything to change the subject.

“Benadryl Cucumberpatch?  Or something?  Plays Sherlock Holmes?”

“Benedict Cumberbatch?”  Tom politely, supplied.  Nicole shot a death glare at him so hard, she likely sprained something.

“That’s the one!  Peculiar looking.  Nice hair, though.  You still like him?”

Nicole could hardly breathe.  She didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or run.  A combination of all three wasn’t out of the question.  “I do.  He’s very talented.”

“So you caught you one.  Nice.”  June said, approving of her choice.  June turned to Tom.  “The UK’s a really small country.  You know that Cumberbatch guy?”

“Uh-.”  Tom started, looking to Nicole who shot him another glare.  “There are over 64 million people in the UK.”  Evasion number two.  Clever boy.

June nodded.

“What about The Queen?  You ever meet her?”

Tom grinned.  “Actually yes, I have.”

“Oh yeah, where?”

“An event at a college.  I was lucky enough to finagle an invite.”

“What was she like?”

“Gracious.  Funny.  And regal.”

“Cool.” 

Nicole wondered for a moment if June even knew what regal meant.

“Can I refresh anyone’s beverage?”  Tom asked standing up.

“Yes please.”  They all agreed.  He went to the kitchen and stood near Nicole as he worked on the drinks.

“Sorry about that.”  He said, refilling the glasses, he brought with him into the kitchen.

“It’s OK.  I didn’t tell you.”

“You dodged well.”

“So did you.  Not actually answering the question.”

“Press junkets have taught me well.  Do you need any help in here?”

“No.  I’m fine.  Thanks.”

“Are you actually doing anything in here, or just looking busy.”

“I’m doing very important kitcheny business, like monitoring the turkey.”

“So you’re just gonna leave me to those she-wolves.”

She nodded.  “Pretty much.”

“You owe me,” he pointed at her.

She grabbed his finger, “I think we’re even.”

“I’ll tell them about Ben.”

“I’ll tell them you’re single.”

He squinted his eyes at her.  “That’s…”

“Yeah.  Don’t mess with me.  I’ll fuck you up.”  She grinned and let go.

“Right.  Once more into the breach.”

 

For the next hour, Tom played host while Nicole, in earnest, did start prepping for dinner.  He brought drinks, snacks, napkins whatever they needed.  She watched him charm and wrap her family around his finger.  More than once she heard the question, ‘Are you sure you’re not available?’  And he’d charm them some more. 

While tending to a couple of the side dishes on the stove, June came into the kitchen.  “Smells good in here.”

“Thanks.”

“So.  Tom.”

“Yep.”

“Are you sure he’s not your boyfriend and you’re just trying to throw us off the scent.”

Nicole raised her right hand, “I swear.”

“Does he know he’s not your boyfriend?  Because he’s like the host with the most over there.”

Nicole laughed.  “He’s manners are impeccable.”

“I’ll say.  You been friends long?”

“No.  Just a couple of months.”

“And you haven’t tapped that?”

“June!  No!  We’re friends.  That’s all.”  She stirred one of the pots, aggressively.

“Because you’re dating his friend.”

“Yes.  I’m dating his friend.”

“How long?”

“Late September.”

“And you met Tom through him,” she mused out loud.  “What’s his name?”

Nicole paused for a beat.  “Ben.”

“Benjamin.  Hmmmm.”

Nicole didn’t correct her.  “Did mom send you to interrogate me?”  She asked without looking up.

“Kind of.”

“I don’t know why she does that.  She could just call me.”

“Well, after you tore her a new one, and told her to mind her business…”

“That was over the Inn!”  She whisper-yelled, dropping the wooden spoon into the pot with a dull thunk and turned to face June.  She looked over Junes shoulder to make sure no one was looking.  “Just because I didn’t want to talk about my finances with her, doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to at all!”

“Well, you can see why.”

Nicole shook her head, eyes closed.  “I can’t win.  I don’t know what I did in a past life to deserve the two most maladjusted parents in all the Nine.”

“The Nine?”

“Nine realms.”

“Is that more of your geek shit?”

“Yes.”

June nodded.  “You should call her.”

“She could call me.”

“You know she won’t.”

“Why do I always have to be the reasonable adult?”

“June, love!”  Tom called, from the family room.  “Don’t think I forgot about your promise!  I want to hear about how you woke up in Mexico wearing naught but a poncho!”

June turned and smiled at him holding up a finger, signaling him to wait a moment.  “Did you tell him to do that?”

“Yep.”

“You know what?  I don’t even care.  He’s too good to look at.”

“Enjoy.”

June turned and started to walk back into the family room.  Halfway there, she turned back and said, “I brought the Karaoke machine,” and continued walking.

Nicole sighed.

“Karaoke?  Really?”  Tom almost squealed from joy.  “I love karaoke!”

“I’m gonna need a lot more booze,”  Nicole said to herself.

 

 

After dinner and before dessert, Jackie piped up with “It’s karaoke time!!” 

Nicole sighed and rolled her eyes.  She was a little afraid her eyes would roll right out of her head, she’d done it so frequently that day. 

“What’s the rule this year?”  June asked.

Tom looked around from person to person, wide-eyed questioning the rule.  “What rule?” 

Nicole explained.  There was a rule for karaoke.  It involved very, very scientific calculations as to which songs could be sung.  Example, The 80’s.  It could be a time frame, a genre, one artist’s catalog, songs having to do with drinking, whatever.  See, very scientific.

“No rules.  Sing what you want,” Nicole said, waving her hand, like she was dismissing the thought.

Tom clapped his hands together and rubbed gleefully.  Offering to help get the machine out of the car, Tom followed June out.  Nicole busied herself in the kitchen cleaning up the dinner mess.

“Baby, you want some help?”  Jackie asked.

“No, auntie.  Thank you.  You relax.” 

Normally, Nicole wouldn’t have minded the help, but she didn’t want to participate in the singing.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t sing, she could.  Well enough for the car and shower in her opinion anyway, but singing with family is one thing, singing in front of someone like Tom or Ben was something else.  Cleaning the kitchen and dishes should keep her busy long enough to avoid it, and if it didn’t there was always the distraction of dessert.

Once everything was set up, June offered the mic to Tom, who declined with a “Ladies first.”  Jackie ate that shit up.  They were off!  June belting out songs from Motown, Jackie pulled from 90’s divas.  Both had remarkable voices, and probably could have performed as a career if either had been inclined.  Tom?  Tom was all over the place, vocally and musically.  There was old school, present day, he even tried to rap.  Nicole almost died of laughter in the kitchen. 

“Alright, madam.  You’re not going to stand in there and laugh.  Come on out,”  Tom called.

“Sorry.  These dishes aren’t gonna wash themselves.”

“They literally are.  In that thing there, called a DISHWASHER!”  Jackie called in to her.

“They have to get in there first!  Plus, not all of this is going to fit.”

“Sorry.  You know how it works.  One assist, one solo.  Minimum,”  Jackie said.

“Later, auntie.”  Nicole tried to get out of it.

“Nope.”  June made her way into the kitchen and dragged Nicole into the family room.  Nicole whined as she resisted June’s pull.  “You can start with an assist.”

Tom was grinning ear to ear, so very pleased with the turn of events.

“Our girl here as a special talent,”  June said, and Jackie laughed.

Nicole wanted nothing more than to slink out of the house.

“And what would that be?”  Tom asked.

“If there is a song, with a rap in the middle of it, she knows the rap.”

Nicole covered her face and groaned.

“You can rap?  Oh yeah.  This I must see.”

“No, I can’t rap.  I can kinda, sorta mimic rap.”

June grabbed the list of songs and began to flip through it.  Nicole stopped her on one and pointed, “If I sing that one and do the rap will it count as both a solo and assist?”

Everyone in the room said, “No.”

She sighed in defeat. 

“You know this one?”  Jackie asked, pointing to a song.

“Yeah…”

Jackie grinned and went to the box and plugged in the number of the song, and Son of a Gun started playing.  In for a penny… Nicole thought and jumped in head first as it were.  Tom’s look of surprise and amusement were almost worth the humiliation she felt.  His laughter and chair dancing made the whole thing more fun than she thought it would be.  Humiliating yes, but in that way humiliation is safe and not damaging.  They were all being humiliated together, so no need for fear or judgment.  We’re all equally ridiculous.  Now, if she only had Janet Jackson’s abs in the video…

After the song, cheers, and laughter abounded.  Nicole took several dramatic bows and then tried to head back into the kitchen.  Tom caught her arm as she tried to walk by, “Not so fast.  You’re still obligated to a solo.”

“Why don’t we have dessert?”  She tried to bribe Tom.  Yes, she was playing dirty.  No, she didn’t care.

“As tempting as that is, I’m still quite full.  I can wait for at least another, hmmmm, say, four to five minutes.  Which coincidentally is about the length of a song!”

“Well, aren’t you clever.”

“Cambridge.”  He grinned.

“Fine.”  Nicole took the song list from the table and began to flip through it.  June made her way to Tom and whispered something in his ear.  Tom narrowed his eyes at her, “OK, I’ll take that bet.”

After a few minutes, she found a song and punched in the number.

“Lemme guess.  You picked something from your beloved 80’s.  Who’d you pick?  Boy George?  Hall & Oats?”

“Fuck you.”

Jackie smiled at Tom.  “Told ya.”

Tom reached into his pocket, pulled out a $5 bill and handed it to Jackie.

“Easy money,” she crowed.

“What is it, then?”  Tom asked.

Nicole hit play and tinkling synthesizer sounds started from the machine. 

Nicole sang emoting enough cheesiness to convey all the sappiness of unrequited love the song espoused.  Tom watched with a wistful, almost sad expression, smiling every now and again when Nicole’s aunt and cousin would pipe in with background vocals.  They teased her about her love of the 80’s but they seemed to know most of the songs themselves. 

When the song ended, her audience of three applauded and cheered.  Nicole curtsied, badly, then dropped the mic.  “That’s how it’s done.”  She said.  Walking past June, she snatched the $5 bill out of her hand, and made her way into the kitchen, leaving June, playfully offended and Tom & Jackie cackling.

Tom eventually meandered into the kitchen where Nicole had finished up the dishes and stored the leftovers, and was now getting ready for dessert.  He stood next to her and watched her arrange things on the counter.  “Need any help?”

She smiled and directed him to the cupboard to get dessert plates, and forks from the drawer below.  “Auntie Jackie, is there anything special that needs to happen with the million pies you brought?”

“No baby.  Just serve ‘em up.”

“What would you like?”

“Lil’ bit of everything.”

Which was exactly what Tom wanted, as well.  Nicole looked at his plate and tried to mentally calculate how many miles he’d have to run to burn all that off.  She had to admit, Jackie’s pies were worth the extra workout.

 

 

At the end of the evening, when everyone had left and it was just Nicole and Tom sitting on the couch, swirling their adult beverages around in their glasses, Tom sighed and reclined the section of the couch he was sitting on.  “That was amazing.”

“Thank you.  I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“It’ll be tough to top.”

Nicole nodded, then laid her head back on the couch, closing her eyes.

“The song you picked.”

She hmmmed.

“Why that one?”

Nicole shrugged a shoulder.  “I always liked it.  I sing it in the car all the time.”

“So, you weren’t thinking of Ben?”

Nicole stilled, opened her eyes and looked at Tom.  “No.”

“OK.  Just curious.”

She thought about the lyrics and understood where that thought might have come from.  “No, not consciously anyway.  Although, if I thought about it, there are some elements of truth swirling around there.”

“It’s kind of a sad song.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.  Is it, reminding you of someone?”

This time, he stilled.  “A bit,” he answered, looking at his glass of amber liquid.

“Does she know?”

“No,” he said and smiled a smile that bordered on sad.

Nicole felt a pang in her heart.  “Wanna talk about it?”

He shook his head slowly.

“Well, I hope she comes to her senses,” she reached over and took the hand that wasn’t holding the glass and gave it a squeeze.

He sighed, a deep, heavy burdened sigh.  “Anything can happen.”  He squeezed her hand back then took a large swallow of his drink, and closed his eyes.

 

 

 

“Now, I know you’re going to be spending every single minute with Ben that you can, but if you can spare an evening, let me know.  I’d love to see you on my turf.”

“I’ll do that.”

Tom scooped her up in a bone crushing embrace, and it felt like he’d never let her go.  Nicole after a moment, clung to him, just as tightly. 

“Thank you for inviting me,” he whispered into her shoulder.

“It was my pleasure, and you’re always welcome.  Anytime.” 

They held each other for a long while before reluctantly letting go.  It was then that she noticed how sad she was to see him leave and how her heart ached a bit.  She became aware of all their hugs linger like this and how comforting they were.  Then she realized she’d barely thought about Ben the whole time he was there.  Quickly brushing the thoughts aside, she told herself, Tom’s hugs were just that great, always had been, and he was a terrific friend keeping her occupied so she didn’t sit around and pine for Ben, and that’s why she was so sad to see him go.  Those thoughts, she decided, she wouldn’t look into too closely.

When they finally let go,Tom rested his forehead against hers, his hands rubbing her arms.  “I’ll hold you to that.” 

“Please do.”

He stepped back picking up his carry on.  “Also, you are always welcome, wherever I am.”

“Well, when you get somewhere interesting, let me know!”  She grinned.

“I will.”

“Let me know you arrived safe and sound, please!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Tom climbed into his cab and they both waved goodbye, neither of them turning away until the car was out of sight.