Jack pulls the door shut, gently, behind him and the big house feels suddenly empty without him -- despite Aunt Prudence bustling away in the next room, new mother and child asleep not far away; Dot, and Mr. Butler, sharing their accustomed cup of tea before retiring for the evening. She can feel the space of his absence, paradoxically a tangible presence in the hall before her.
It’s a haunting she’s grown accustomed to, of late: the presence and absence of Jack Robinson as he moves through her life.
Phryne stands for a moment on the stair, neither up nor down. Disoriented. She’d reconciled to an evening without the accustomed night cap with Jack, only to have him turn up at the door looking -- was it possible for Jack Robinson to look disheveled? -- and open. He’d had something in him just then, something that had never been so close to the surface between them before, something she’d thought -- for just a moment standing on the stair -- she would need to be prepared to catch, as it came tumbling out. But then Aunt Prudence had appeared and whatever Jack had been about to spill into her hands he’d reeled back in. She’d seen it in the back of his eyes, the set of his shoulders, the way he’d swallowed around words caught deep in his throat.
Folding the fragile pieces of that interrupted moment close, Phryne turns and finishes her climb to the second floor. She goes to her bedroom and, without turning on the light, flicks open the curtain.
Jack’s automobile is still parked on the curb, the engine silent. She lets her eyes adjust to the light and sees him sitting there, the edge of his hat, the shadow of his chin in the slanting light of a nearby streetlamp.
She considers opening the latch and going out to him. Perhaps he’s waiting for her to do just that: Miss Fisher in her black wool trousers and jet silk tunic, grappling iron and rope in hand, appearing at the passenger side door demanding entry -- as if they’d planned this all along.
But that would be Miss Fisher, she thinks; a part of her, of them, who they are together. But not who Jack had come here tonight to find. Here, in this home she’s made, there’s the possibility of something else taking root.
The possibility that something else has taken root, when they were both looking the other way.
She could take it back outside, what he’s given her tonight. She could shimmy down the drainpipe, tumble into the passenger seat and encourage him to take her back to his bachelor’s flat, maybe on the way pull one of his gorgeous long-fingered hands up the inside of her thigh, undo a few buttons, see how difficult he would be (“Miss Fisher, not while I’m driving -- Miss Fisher! --”) and how long it would take him before Miss Fisher slipped in favor of Phryne.
She inhales, deliberately, feels the pull of him deep in her belly like a needle shuddering around the points of a compass until it stands true. She’s been déshabillé in front of Jack, quite deliberately, before now. Yet never before had she been as conscious as she was tonight: the thin cambric of her camisole, the slide of her Japanese silk dressing gown. Never before had she felt quite so au nu. She’d thought, for a brief moment, that perhaps it was, finally, time.
She wants very much -- oh, so very much -- to go down to him.
She thinks of her diaphragm in the night stand: the work of a moment to settle it in, another to wrap herself in a layer of warmth, a third to slip outside with a nod to Mr. Butler not to keep the lights on --
-- Outside on the street Jack’s automobile rumbles to life, its headlamps cutting across the late evening mist. Phryne exhales, watches the car drive off down the street, turn the corner, and vanish from sight.
The compass needle shakes to life, spins, then settles. She can feel it, deep and low and always present.
She wonders if she’s made the right choice.
With Jack, she always wonders.
“I thought you were with Rosie.”
“I was. Too late?”
“I’ve never seen her like that. She was in shock. She needed company.”
“She needed you. Jack Robinson. The man who always does the right thing. The -- noble thing.”
“Not always, Miss Fisher--”
She considers herself: Phryne Fisher. She’d never meant to get involved -- not in this way. Not in the way that means she cares that Jack took Rosie home; cares because it’s who he is. That afternoon at the station she’d anticipated -- not jealousy, exactly. Perhaps a sense of loss as Jack folded Rosie in his arms. Disappointment: a man whose attentions she enjoys turning instead to the needs of his ex wife. Disappointment: no end-of-case nightcap, as has become their custom, the frisson of relief and sexual tension lubricated by champagne or chardonnay.
Yet she hadn’t. It is, in fact, the lack of disappointment she feels, watching Jack with Rosie, that shakes her more deeply than any other, more petty, feeling would have.
Jack is hers, now. Fiercely, irrevocably hers.
She drops the curtain and crosses the room to her bed, where ever-efficient Dot has pulled back the coverlet and plumped the pillows. Phryne lets the dressing gown pool on the floor and slides beneath the cotton sheet and quilted wool. The bed feels vast, wider and deeper than it should. Not for the first time, she feels surprise at Jack’s absence: he should be here. It seems untenable that, in fact, he’s never been so.
Jack’s knock on the door had been unexpected that night, though she’d realized as they stood in the hall that it had only felt unexpected because it was wrong of him to knock, wrong of him to be outside the house, wrong of him not to have already been inside, there with the others who were hers, whom she’d made hers, who had made her theirs.
He belongs in their home, Jack.
But she hadn’t been able to say all of that -- how to begin to say all of that? -- to a man who didn’t seem to know whether he was coming or going, leaving or staying, who’d knocked so hesitantly at the door, let Aunt Prudence startle him -- so easily startled, Jack. For a man who really ought to know better.
Who really ought already to know he will always be welcome -- will always belong.
It seems she’s just been waiting for him to notice, and come home.
In the darkness, Phryne takes measure of herself: One forty-two-year-old heiress with a household of strays, a long history of lovers, and memories that routinely haunt her sleepless nights. Jack isn’t a stray, has resisted becoming a lover, and looks at her with a gaze that says I want to know every contour of every scar.
He’d shouted her name -- Phryne -- on the ship that night. She can hold in her hands the number of times he’s allowed himself that intimacy. Always in just that moment when he fears that he’s already lost her.
She pushes her hands beneath the bedclothes, smooths her camisole up her spare hips, slides fingers -- two, three -- in a caress across the hollow of her pelvis. Fingertips graze the tangle of wirey raven curls nestled there, thumb finding purchase at the crook of her belly button. She splays her palm across her lower belly, thinks of another, broader hand there. Jack’s hands on her are always warm, a shock of heat even through layers of cloth. She’d been thinking of his hands -- here, she presses her palm lower -- and here, her other hand sliding up to cup the slight rise of her breast -- been thinking of his hands holding her for a long time now.
She arches into her own touch, can imagine-remember the closeness of Jack, the scent of his hair oil, the sweat that gathers at his collar, the sweet musk of cologne, the tang of fear or anger, the hint of desire.
She wonders if he’s walked away tonight conscious of the way her dressing gown barely closed across her breasts, of how little she wore beneath. How close she’d been to taking his hand and bringing him up to this room, Aunt Prudence be damned, right where he belonged.
She twists the nipple under her thumb and forefinger, imagines teeth. Considers the taste of his own skin against her tongue. She’s exhausted and exhilarated from the chase, the capture, the case resolved, the villains apprehended, even Mr. Butler’s hot toddy had done little to push her towards sleep. Restless. Wanting.
She pushes lower, hooks a finger inside, twists against her own hand, hips canting upward, inward, feels the brush of sheets, tangled against her thighs. Imagines Jack’s thigh thrown over her own, a solid weight to keep her there, keep her grounded --
-- another finger, a third.
There’s a well-stocked mahogany box under the bed, she could reach it blind if she wanted to. But hands are what she wants tonight, warm, alive, pulling, pressing. She’s been on edge for too long already, the orgasm building from the moment Jack knocked on the front door, she won’t last now, even if she tries.
A fourth folded inside, she rolls inward wanting deeper at an angle she can’t quite reach on her own. Jack is thick against her thigh, she can feel the weight of him, solid, the slick drag in the hollow of her hip, his lip between her teeth, his forehead pressed against her own.
The bed feels confining and empty; she flings a hand outward, pushing the quilt away, pulling it toward her. It’s all wrong, it’s all right -- Jack isn’t here, but he is, he will be. She isn’t afraid and that terrifies her: she shouldn’t want this, want him this deep, but he’s already here and she can’t find the will to push him away.
Instead, she wants him right where he should be: fist-deep inside.