This chapter should probably be rated E, as there is explicit sex. However, the fic as a whole is not explicit, and most sex going forward is either implied or cuts to black.
Alexander sighed and looked around the club. Isabel had dragged him to it, saying he needed to get out more, and what better than a queer club on New Years Eve? Never mind the fact that Alexander wasn’t much of a dancer and thought he was probably too old for clubs, Isabel had said. It did seem like her claim that this club attracted all ages was correct, but he still wasn’t much for dancing, and the music was too loud for much in the way of conversation.
He was thinking about slipping out before midnight hit; he had lost track of Isabel an hour ago after she’d disappeared to dance with a woman who had looked, even from a distance, like she could pick Alexander up in one arm. And now that midnight was approaching, people were pairing off all around him, deciding who they wanted their first kiss in the new year to be… which left Alexander feeling even more lost and useless than he’d already been feeling.
After all, Alexander didn’t think he could kiss a stranger, but the only person he knew here was Isabel, and he definitely didn’t want to kiss Isabel. Even if he could find her.
“Hello, you,” said a low, raspy female voice at his side, just barely audible over the music in the club. Alexander turned his head to find a short, fat, and extremely buxom Black woman looking him over.
“Have we met?”
She shook her head. “Not that I’m aware of.” She gave him another once-over and smiled. “Would you like to?”
“Five!” Came a resounding shout from the rest of the room as the music faded out.
Alexander glanced up to see the big digital display on the wall counting down the last few seconds of the year.
He turned back to the woman and considered.
Perhaps he might not be able to kiss a stranger… but perhaps he could let a stranger kiss him.
He nodded at the woman and leaned just a little bit towards her, and suddenly her hands were cupping his face and…
“Happy New Year!” She shouted along with the rest of the club, a giant grin on her face, and then she was pulling his face towards hers, pressing a warm, chaste kiss to his mouth. Even though he’d been expecting it, he let out a startled breath, and she seemed to take it as an invitation, opening her mouth against his and deepening the kiss for a long, breathless moment.
Her breath feathered across his lips as she finally pulled away, and Alexander straightened up reluctantly. She smiled again, a bright, gorgeous smile that left him unable to think for a moment.
“You’ve got a bit of my lipstick on you,” she said, reaching up to cup his jaw. Her thumb swiped across his upper lip. “Sorry about that. This stuff’s supposed to be colorfast, but you know how that goes.”
“Not really,” Alexander said, still breathless, even after she withdrew her hand.
Her grin widened, as if she’d found what he’d said genuinely amusing. “You never know, at a club like this. You have cheekbones that would make a drag queen weep with envy.”
The music had started up again, and the woman was getting harder to hear. He leaned back towards her. “Do I? It has never come up.”
She tilted her head to one side. “Want to get out of here and go somewhere a little quieter?” she shouted over the throb of the music.
Alexander considered. If he went to a diner with this woman and had a cup of coffee and talked for a bit, he would have a firm defense when Isabel accused him of not socializing. So he nodded and she took him by the hand and lead him towards the door.
They both claimed their winter gear from the coat check, and then they were out on the street, walking side-by-side. “Where would you like to go?” the woman asked, glancing sidelong at him. “I’ve only been in the neighborhood for a week.”
“Did you just move here?” Alexander asked, then mentally cursed himself for asking a silly question. Of course she had just moved here.
“Mm-hmm. Right up there, actually,” she said, pointing up at a high rise across the street. “I start a new job this week.” And then she stopped walking and so did he, turning to look down at her. She was biting her lower lip and considering him. “Want to come up? To my apartment, that is. It’s quiet.”
Alexander swallowed hard, and then nodded.
The apartment was a bit dingy, and the living room she let him into had stacks of boxes along two walls and a single couch, looking a little lonely in the middle of the room. “Sorry. I haven’t finished unpacking yet,” she said, shrugging her coat off and throwing it on the boxes. “I’m not sure whether it’s worth bothering, to be honest; I’m probably going to move again once I’ve got a bit of a cushion in my savings account again. This place is… pretty dire.”
Alexander couldn’t quite bring himself to disagree with her. “Were you out of work?”
The woman removed her shoes and bustled over to the kitchen that was divided from the living room area by a counter, heading to the sink to wash her hands. “My mother was in hospice.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Alexander removed his shoes as well—no need for him to be tracking salt onto her carpet, even if it was already covered in suspicious-looking stains—and came over to lean against the counter, watching her move around her kitchen.
She shrugged awkwardly. “It had been coming for a while. Coffee?”
“Then a glass of water would be good.”
She opened a cabinet and stood on tiptoe to pull glasses down from the lowest shelf. The upper set of cabinets in this apartment was entirely too high up for her.
“Do you have a step stool?” Alexander asked.
“I think it might be in one of the boxes.” She filled the glasses at the sink and brought them over to the counter, handing one over to him and then cradling hers in her hands as she leaned on the counter. “Of course, I might have forgotten to pack it. I keep forgetting to ask my old roommate if she’s seen it around the apartment.”
“Mm.” Alexander couldn’t think how to respond, so he took a sip of the water.
The woman watched him, a little frown between her eyebrows, and when he set the glass down she asked him “Did you want to kiss some more?”
Alexander hadn’t wanted to be the first to bring it up, but he had been thinking about very little else since they had left the club together. “Yes.”
The woman set her own glass down and came around the counter, reaching up towards him. This time she slid her arms up around his neck, the move pressing her body close to his. His arms closed automatically around her waist, pulling her even closer. And then they were kissing again, going straight to passionate, open-mouthed kisses, as if continuing the slow escalation that had started when they had kissed in the club.
As they kissed, he let one of his hands drift down the curve of her spine to smooth over the equally tantalizing curve of her ass, round and taut in the tight black pants she was wearing. She wiggled closer as he explored her backside and he let out a low groan against her mouth; he had hardened as they’d been kissing, and her wiggling had him grinding against her in return.
She broke the kiss, looking up at him, breathing hard, her cheeks flushed. “Do you want to…? I mean, my bedroom’s just behind that door, and I’ve got condoms…”
Alexander didn’t think he could manage words, so instead he just nodded. And for the second time that night, she took him by the hand and he followed her lead.
Her bedroom had just as many boxes along the walls as the living room, and one end of a chest of drawers was currently acting as a bedside table for the double bed that was up against the back wall of the room.
Of course, these were details Alexander barely registered as the woman pulled him across the room and onto the bed after her. He found himself on top of her, his hips between her spread thighs, and he luxuriated in the feeling of another person so close after what had been, even for him, a remarkably long dry spell.
She pulled his face down to hers and kissed him again, slow, tender kisses that left him shaking with need.
“Please,” he heard himself saying, though he wasn't entirely certain what he was asking for. In response, the woman unbuttoned his shirt, sliding her hands across his bare chest and around his waist, pulling his hips hard against hers. Alexander tugged frantically at her shirt, which was caught under her, and she released him and pushed him back so she could sit up and fumble it over her head. He went for the clasp of her bra as she was still pulling the shirt off, then left her to remove the bra the rest of the way as he went for the button on her pants.
He was desperate to be skin to skin with her, he realized. Perhaps she was just as desperate for the same thing; she pushed his hands away and shuffled back from him just far enough to remove those skin-tight pants, peeling them down her legs along with her underwear and socks and tossing the lot off the bed. Alexander made as efficient a job of his own clothing, so that when she pulled him back towards her he was every bit as naked and exposed as she.
He kissed her again, caressing the inside of her upper lip with his tongue. She let out a soft whimper, then pushed him away again. “Wait. Condom first,” she said, scrambling out of bed to pull open a drawer, pulling out a box of condoms and leaving it there on the chest of drawers next to a box of tissues as she fumbled with one of the little foil packets.
Alexander moved towards the head of the bed, removing his glasses, which were now extremely smudged, and reaching around her to set them next to the box of condoms. And then she was holding up an open condom and smiling at him, her grin just a bright flash of teeth against her red lipstick and dark skin. “May I?”
Alexander’s mouth went dry at the thought of her hands on him, so he nodded and rolled onto his back as she re-joined him on the bed.
It was cool in her bedroom, a bit of the frigid winter air obviously leaking in from somewhere, but Alexander didn’t think that was why he was shaking as her hand closed around his cock, rolling the condom down his length. No, it was the thought of what he was about to do, here, in bed with a woman who was a complete stranger. It was the fact that he wanted to do it, wanted this woman on top of him, around him, with a desperation that bordered on madness.
She stroked a hand down his side, obviously feeling him shiver. “Are you all right?”
He nodded again, and forced some words out. “Just cold.”
“We should get you under the blankets,” she exclaimed, fumbling with the edge of the comforter.
Alexander reached out and stilled her hand. “The only thing I want on top of me right now is you,” he growled.
There was the sound of a rushed exhale, and then she was sliding a leg carefully over him, straddling his hips, reaching down between them one-handed to adjust his cock. And then, in one smooth motion, she enveloped him completely. Alexander moaned and thrust his hips up against her. Ah. Not quite completely.
The woman’s eyes were wide, and he saw a little flash of teeth as she bit her lower lip. She lifted her hips a bit, then let out a whimper and sank back down on him, slick and aroused and so, so tight around him. “Oh god. Just a minute. It’s been a long time.”
She was shivering too now, and Alexander stroked comforting hands down her thighs. “Take your time,” he said softly, though his entire body was screaming that there wasn’t time, that he needed to take her now.
There was a bright flash of teeth as that bitten lower lip turned back into a grin. She leaned forward, shifting around his cock, and slid one of her hands behind his neck, lifting his head towards hers. “Kiss me?”
He complied eagerly, wrapping an arm tight around her waist to keep her steady against him, sliding a hand up to caress the thin fuzz of hair at the nape of her neck.
She started moving against him again as he broke the kiss to explore her neck and shoulder with his lips, and then let out a needy little whimper and ground against him as his fingers found one of her nipples. Without a bra, her breasts sagged heavily against his chest, and he had a fleeting thought that he might want to explore them more thoroughly at a time when he wasn't focused so intently on releasing the tension that was winding through him, making him strain up against her each time she withdrew her hips.
She sat up suddenly, her hands on her thighs, her hips forcing his flat against the bed as she ground down against him in little circles, obviously getting a new angle and even more obviously enjoying it. Alexander took the opportunity to reach between them and find the hard little nubbin of her clit, and she shut her eyes and rode him hard for a moment, then let out a strangled “Oh, god,” as her entire body stiffened and her cunt clenched tight around him.
He grabbed her by her hips and thrust quickly up against her in a few short strokes before his own tension found release, his entire body stiffening under hers as he came.
She collapsed against his chest with a groan and both of them lay there, panting hard. After a few long, quiet moments, she reached between them, obviously holding on to the condom as she pulled herself off of him, but instead of getting out of bed to go clean herself up she flopped on the bed between him and the wall, moving with the relaxed sort of languor that a really good fuck could provide. She cuddled up against his side, nestling her head against his shoulder, and he felt rather than saw the smile on her face.
“That was fantastic,” she said, her voice even more raspy now than it had been when he’d met her in the club.
Alexander reached for the box of tissues. He removed the condom carefully and mopped up as much of the mess as he could. “Where should I…?”
The woman sat up. “Let me show you were the bathroom is.”
She let him take a turn at using the toilet and washing up first, but she was waiting at the door of the bathroom when he opened it, leaning against the wall next to it. “Not sure my legs work properly right now,” she said, flashing that bright grin of hers up at him.
Anxiety had overtaken Alexander’s relaxation while he’d been in the bathroom. “I, uh… I have never… what do I…?”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You go back to bed, because it’s got to be close to two a.m. on New Years’ Day and you're probably just as exhausted now as I am.”
He felt a surge of relief at that. “Thank you.”
A little smile was playing at the corners of her mouth. “Don't thank me. After all, I intend to make use of you at least once more before you go anywhere. Twice, if you can manage it.”
Alexander’s mouth went dry, as it so often had around this woman. “I think I could manage that,” he croaked.
The hint of a smile turned into another of those blinding grins. “Oh, good,” she said, before slipping around him and into the bathroom to take care of her own cleanup.
Alexander stumbled into the living room area of the small apartment, finding his glass of water from earlier and then draining it. He was filling it from the kitchen sink again when the woman’s voice said “Oh, good idea, I’m parched,” followed by the sound of her drinking the rest of her glass down as quickly as he had his. He turned and offered her his full glass as she joined him at the sink, then moved to fill hers. After all, it didn't really matter which glass was which when they had been kissing the way they had, did it.
What was her name? He found himself wondering now, for the first time since she’d kissed him in the club. But he suspected that the time to ask had been more than an hour ago, when she had asked if he wanted to come up to her apartment, not now, with the both of them standing naked in her kitchen, glowing from the after-effects of a good fuck.
She shivered and set the glass, half-empty again, down at the side of the sink. “Time to go hide under my comforter. Coming?”
In bed, she curled up at his side with her head against his shoulder and one arm thrown over him, and was asleep in seconds, her little whispery snore lulling him to sleep moments later.
Alexander was not used to sleeping with another person in bed with him, and he woke up several times in the night… but so did the woman at his side, and as promised, she made use of him. After the second time—the third for the night, a pace he had not kept since he'd been in his twenties—he was finally so exhausted that he didn't wake again until he heard the buzz of a cell phone and woke to find bright sunlight streaming in through the blinds.
Alexander extracted himself carefully from the woman, who had spent most of the night cuddled up against him. He retrieved his glasses from the chest of drawers that served as a bedside table and found his trousers where he had tossed them on the floor with no regard for the contents of their pockets, then went digging for his cell phone.
He had a string of texts from Isabel.
Sorry I abandoned you!
Hope you didn’t worry too much when I didn’t come home
Min is really great
So’s her husband Dom
You off running errands or something?
Alexander shook his head and tried not to laugh. Trust Isabel to latch on to a married woman and then get in good with her husband.
Did not realize you hadn’t come home, he texted back.
What, didn’t check my room before leaving the apartment this morning? You're losing your dad-cred
Did not make it back to apartment myself, he sent.
Alexander almost dropped his phone when it buzzed immediately with a call. He fumbled the phone back into hand and stepped out into the living room area, closing the door of the bedroom behind him before answering.
“You WHAT?” came Isabel’s shout as soon as he answered.
“Keep it down. Am still in her apartment. She is asleep,” Alexander hissed.
“Yes, her and she.” Alexander realized, suddenly, that as close as he and Isabel were, he’d never told her that he was bi… and the only people he had dated since they’d become friends were all men.
“Huh.” There was a silence on both ends, and then Isabel added, in a teasing tone of voice, “So what’s her name?”
“I do not know.”
He heard a surprised exhale from the other end of the line. “Wow. When you cut loose, you really cut loose, don’t you.”
“Mm.” There was another silence.
“You have a good time, at least?” Isabel ventured.
“Yes.” Alexander sighed. “Isabel, I have never done this before.”
“What, had an anonymous one-night stand? I’m shocked,” came her dry response.
“Mm. What do I do now that it is morning?”
“You've got two options. Go or stay.”
Alexander let out another sigh, this one exasperated. “Oh, very helpful.”
“Hey, I’m being serious! There are a lot of variations, but that’s more or less what it comes down to.”
“If I go… do I tell her my name? Leave her my number?”
“Do you want to see her again?”
“Yes,” Alexander said without hesitation.
“Then leave her your number. But take her lead on the name. Some people like the thrill of anonymous booty calls.”
Alexander thought, after the night that had just passed, that he might be one of them. “Thank you. I am going to go now.”
Alexander snorted and hung up the phone.
When he opened the bedroom door, the woman lifted her head and blinked sleepily at him. “Good morning, you.”
“Good morning.” Alexander stooped to put his phone back in the pocket of his trousers. “I, ah. Was thinking I would get dressed. And head home.”
“All right.” He couldn’t read her expression, and that bothered him.
“Would you like my number…?”
Her face lit up, and she threw the covers off, rolling out of bed, shivering a bit in the chill of her bedroom. “Let me find my phone.”
Alexander was mostly dressed by the time she returned.
“What is it?”
Alexander recited it for her as he buttoned up his shirt, and she tapped it into her phone. A moment later his phone buzzed against his thigh, and he pulled it out and found a message that just said Hello, you.
“So you have my number too,” she said, smiling.
Alexander smiled back. “Thank you. I will see you around?” He heard a touch of anxiety in his own voice as he asked the question.
She nodded. “Definitely.”
A few minutes and remarkably little conversation later and he was bundled up against the cold again. The woman had put on a cozy-looking turquoise robe and followed him to her apartment door.
“Here,” she said, reaching up and tweaking his scarf up around his ears. For a moment Alexander was tempted to ask her name, to try and make more of this than it had been, but then she was opening the door and he was stepping out and nodding an awkward goodbye to her.
What a way to start a new year.
The instant Isabel heard her roommate’s keys in the lock, she perked up, prepared to pounce. When she had come back to the apartment early that morning and had discovered that Alexander wasn’t home, she’d assumed that he had kept to his usual early hours and had decided to treat himself to a fancy breakfast somewhere.
When Isabel had fallen asleep on the couch and had woken again close to noon to find the apartment still empty, she had started to worry a little. But she’d assumed Alexander had decided to use his day off to run errands while out and about, or had been called in to work. After all, he normally kept to a fairly strict routine of late to bed and early to rise and far too many hours on the job for any truly sane person.
Which made it all the more shocking when she got a text from him that implied he had been out all night himself. Of course she’d dragged him out to the club the night before in the hope that he would relax a little and have a bit of fun, but she’d given up on that hope after he had spent the first hour in the club hiding in a dark corner and failing to dance—or even talk—with anyone. Apparently, though, she had given up too soon.
“So how’d it goooo?” Isabel called out as Alexander shut the front door of the apartment behind him.
Alexander rolled his eyes expressively before ducking in to the kitchen. “Please. Could you save the interrogation for some other time?” He called out to the living room.
“That bad, huh?” Isabel got up from the couch and followed Alexander in to the kitchen. He was moving slowly and carefully as he pulled out coffee, filled the machine… god, was he sore? Isabel looked him over. Dark circles under his eyes, careful movements… but despite all that, he seemed almost relaxed. No, not relaxed, really, but he seemed more… content than he usually did. Huh. “Or was it that good?”
Alexander shot her a distinctly unamused look. “I have her number.”
“But not her name?”
“That bug you?”
Alexander sighed and leaned against the counter, shutting his eyes, looking exhausted. “Perhaps a little.”
“Maybe she’s someone I know. ”
“I doubt it. She has only been in town for a week.”
“Still. What did she look like?”
Alexander sighed again, as if accepting that he wouldn’t be able to escape this interrogation. “Very short, very…” His hands traced a shape in the air that indicated impressive… assets.
He gave her a confused look. “I suppose?”
Isabel frowned, considering the people who had caught her eye in the club last night. “You don’t mean that chubby little Black woman with a lesbian haircut, do you?”
Alexander looked nonplussed. “Was that a lesbian haircut?”
“Good god.” If it really was the woman she was thinking of, Isabel was even more confused about how Alexander had ended up going home with her.
“I know. Must be a crazy woman, to take me home when she looks like that,” he said, a bit of dry humor in his voice.
“You’re not bad looking!” Isabel protested.
Alexander shrugged awkwardly. “But not as good looking as her, da?” He flicked her a sly look. “But enough of my night. How did you manage to pick up a married couple?”
Isabel suppressed a groan. “I didn’t.”
Alexander pulled his phone dramatically out of his pocket and unlocked it, reading, “‘Min is really great. So’s her husband Dom,’” in a distressingly good imitation of her own voice.
“It’s really just Min I’m seeing,” Isabel said. “We’ve been sort of… I mean, we met a month ago, and I knew she was in an open relationship, but it’s the first time I’ve spent the night with her, and also the first time I’ve met her husband…”
“And he is great?”
Isabel opened her mouth to say yes, but the groan she had been holding back escaped instead. “Okay, so it was awkward as hell coming out into Min’s kitchen in the morning and finding him there. But he was… surprisingly cool about it.”
“Hm.” Alexander turned and pulled a mug down, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Coffee?”
He pulled down a second mug and handed the one he had already poured over to her. Isabel cradled the mug against her chest and leaned against the counter next to Alexander. “I’ll admit, sometimes I think life would be easier if I could just date you.”
“Okay, yeah, I know, kissing you would be like kissing my brother.”
“And there is the fact that you are not interested in men.” He crossed to the fridge. “Milk?”
“Are you attracted to me?” Isabel asked instead of answering his question. It wasn’t something they had ever really discussed, but she had moved in with him assuming that he was just as gay as she was, and now…
“Only when your mouth is shut,” Alexander muttered from the depths of the fridge.
“I’m being serious.”
“So am I,” Alexander said, standing up with a milk carton in one hand. He opened it and sniffed it dubiously. “Do you remember when you bought this?”
“No idea.” Isabel frowned. “Look, if I were interested in men…”
Alexander let out another snort of laughter and shut the fridge. “I still would not want to date you,” he said as he poured some of the milk in his coffee. He took a cautious sip and winced, then turned and dumped the rest of the mug of coffee in the sink, followed by what remained of the milk in the carton. “Does it bother you, then, that I am interested in women as well as men?”
“I don’t know. I guess… it makes me feel a bit weird.” Isabel tried a sip of her coffee. It was still too hot.
Alexander rinsed his mug out and poured himself another cup of coffee, emptying the pot. “You remind me too much of my sister for me to ever find you attractive beyond an aesthetic level.”
Isabel had met Alexander’s sister once, when she’d been in town for a conference, and wasn’t quite sure it was a fair comparison. “Hey now.”
“On the plus side, it did give me and Olga something in common to talk about for once,” he said in a considering tone.
Isabel gaped at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. “You’re teasing me, aren’t you?”
Alexander’s eyebrows twitched upwards in amusement. “It took you long enough to notice.”
“So. No latent attraction on your side that I need to be worried about?”
“Not in the slightest.”
Isabel took another sip of her coffee, then ventured, “Any plans for the rest of the day?”
Alexander shrugged. “Was thinking about going in to work this afternoon.”
“Oh, don’t you dare!”
Alexander looked startled by Isabel’s vehemence.
“Not after you did so well at, uh, relaxing last night, that is. You’ll lose all your progress towards becoming a proper human being.”
“And what am I now, an improper human being?” Alexander was giving her a bemused look.
“More like a robot.”
“I mean it. All you do is go to work and come home and sometimes, sometimes you spend the evening reading a book. You wouldn’t ever see any of your other friends if I didn’t force you to go to at least some of the parties they throw, you don’t go out to work events, I don’t even know when you last went on a date…”
“I am an introvert,” Alexander said mildly. “And you know that I feel no particular urge to date. Not since…” He trailed off.
“All I’m saying is that sometimes I worry about you.”
Alexander took a contemplative sip of his coffee. “You do not need to, you know. It’s not your responsibility.”
“Like hell. You’re my friend, Alexander.” Isabel swallowed hard, looking down at her coffee mug. “So… I worry.”
He set his mug on the counter and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, hugging her to his side, and Isabel leaned into him. “I am fine. I promise. You do more than enough to pry me out of my head and keep me safe from myself.”
“Yeah, well.” Isabel shrugged. “Just… let me know? If it ever gets bad again?” She had been the one to find him in his apartment, four years before. They had been neighbors then as well as friends, and Isabel had started to worry when she hadn’t heard him leave his apartment for a full week, so she’d gotten the super to lend her a key and had found him in his bed, unwashed, dehydrated, barely aware of the world around him.
He hadn’t had an episode that bad since then, and these days he was seeing a therapist and on anti-depressants. And living with her seemed to help stave off the worst of it. But none of that stopped her from worrying.
Alexander picked up his coffee cup again and took a sip. “So what would you suggest I do today, to be less of a robot?”
Isabel shrugged. “Want to go see a movie?”
A small smile twitched at the corner of Alexander’s mouth. “Only if it does not involve superheroes.”
“Hey now, I can’t promise that.”
“Oh, very well, I will go see a superhero movie. But only for you.”
Despite the fact that Newman Aeronautics only gave their staff New Year’s Day off, the building seemed unusually empty when Alexander returned to work on January second, and of those who had made it in to work today, the vast majority were quieter than usual. This suited Alexander just fine; with luck, it would keep the awkward small talk he always had to negotiate during lunch in the cafeteria to a minimum.
To his annoyance, however, his lab tech was among those out that day and hadn’t bothered washing glassware before leaving the building on Monday, so Alexander spent a rather annoying hour washing strangely-colored crusts out of used test tubes instead of being able to get on with the work he needed them for. He had just started setting them up for the next round of tests on some of the samples that had been scraped off a passing asteroid by one of Newman’s space drones when his lab phone rang. It was the company’s HR director, Rachel Young.
“Dr. Hilbert. Could you spare half an hour out of your very busy schedule to show the new hire around the labs?”
Ah, yes. His lab manager, Janet Mun, had said something a few weeks back about a new biochem specialist coming in. But Alexander resented the implication that he had nothing better to do than hop to Rachel’s orders, when really that wasn’t his job at all. “Shouldn’t Janet take care of that?”
“She’s still out with the flu,” Rachel said in a tone of voice that indicated that she believed Janet was over-exaggerating her remaining flu symptoms to get an extra day off after a New Year’s Day hangover.
Alexander sighed and looked over at the half-prepared samples. Well, with Janet still out, this new specialist would most likely not have anything to do. Perhaps he could recruit them to give him a hand. “I am always happy to be of assistance,” he said with as much patience as he could muster for Rachel and her snide little implications.
“Get up here, then.” The line went dead.
Alexander sighed again, and went to wash his hands before leaving the lab. He hadn’t started working with the samples yet, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious.
Rachel’s door was closed when he got to the admin offices, so he knocked cautiously. “Come in!” She shouted through the door.
Alexander opened the door and stood in the doorway.
“Dr. Rosemary Epps, Dr. Alexander Hilbert,” Rachel said by way of introduction, gesturing to the heavy-set, dark-skinned woman in a suit who was sitting in one of the spare chairs in front of Rachel’s desk.
The woman half-turned in the chair, a blinding smile covering the lower half of her face—and then, the smile froze into a rictus of horror and all the color drained out of the woman’s face, leaving it ashy under the brown.
Alexander froze as well, halfway towards reaching out to shake the woman’s hand, and suspected his face was just as devoid of color.
It was her.
Dr. Epps recovered first, standing up from the chair and taking his hand in hers. “Good to meet you,” she said in that low, raspy voice of hers.
It sent a shiver down Alexander’s spine, hearing that voice here, but it broke through his shock. “Yes. Shall we?”
Dr. Epps looked to Rachel. “We’re done here?”
“Yes. After Dr. Hilbert shows you around, you can go home for the day, if you’d like.”
“I’d like to spend some time in my lab space, if that’s all right.”
“Whatever you want,” Rachel said, her tone of voice the vocal equivalent of rolling her eyes in annoyance.
Alexander jerked his head towards the hallway and stepped out, shutting the door as Dr. Epps followed him.
“Well. She’s… interesting,” Dr. Epps said when they were a safe distance down the hallway.
“Mm. A sampling of what upper management has to offer,” Alexander said without thinking, then winced. He hadn’t meant to be so forthright.
“Oh, yes. My second interview was a hell of a thing.”
“Newman and Pryce?”
They fell into an awkward silence.
“I never would have—” “If I had known—” the two of them said simultaneously.
“You first,” Alexander offered.
“If I had known that you were going to be one of my future co-workers… I’m not usually that sort, you see, and… and it just makes everything awkward, you know, and—”
“I would not have either!” Alexander interjected. “It is… work is… when you have to see the person every day…”
“Exactly.” Dr. Epps’ gaze was fixed on the floor as she walked. “Do you think… I mean, could we just… just forget that ever happened?”
Alexander glanced her way, and found his gaze caught on her. Forget he’d seen this woman naked? Not likely. But… “I will do my best,” he stammered. “It was… a singular event.”
“Oh, lord,” Dr. Epps said in a low, desperate voice. And then, “I know. But I’ll try if you try?” She shot him a shy, sideways glance that left him blushing.
“This way,” Alexander said, staring at the floor himself and trying to regain his composure. “I’ll try,” he added as they turned down the hall that lead to the labs.
He caught a flash of blinding smile out of the corner of his eye. “Oh, good,” Dr. Epps said.
Alexander cleared his throat. “I am not certain which lab you will be working in—there are several currently empty—but they are all more or less identical, so let us examine mine,” he said, opening the door to his lab and holding it for Dr. Epps.
“Sounds like a good place to start,” she said, that smile growing wider.
In spite of the awkwardness that still hung in the air between them, Alexander found himself responding with a smile of his own.
Dr. Epps took in Alexander’s lab with an openly impressed expression on her face. “God. What a set-up. This is all state-of-the-art, isn’t it?”
“Mmm,” Alexander hummed in agreement.
“I know I haven’t been working for the past few years and I’m sure there have been some advancements, but compared to this, I’m pretty sure some of the equipment my old job had was from the stone age.”
“Oh, surely not. Nothing more outdated than the bronze age has any place in a modern laboratory,” Alexander found himself saying.
“You’re assuming the lab I worked in before this one was a modern one,” Dr. Epps responded, sounding like she was holding back a laugh.
“Well, if you would like to get to know some of the machines you are unfamiliar with, I was preparing some samples for analysis when Rachel called me up to take you around…” Alexander trailed off. What was he doing? Did he really want to be trapped in a lab with this woman for the next five hours as he worked his way through the samples he needed to test?
Yes, his mind offered immediately. Because the sooner he started thinking of this woman as a competent coworker and fellow scientist, the sooner he would be able to forget what it felt like to have her naked body pressed up against his.
From the look Dr. Epps was giving him, her train of thought was running along similar lines. “All right,” she said finally. “Let’s take a look.”
Alexander suppressed a sigh that was somewhere between relief and terror, and lead her over to the test tubes he’d been preparing.
It wasn’t going to be easy to forget that he’d had sex with this woman, Alexander realized as he worked side-by-side with Dr. Epps. She was intelligent and competent and, when set to a task, completed it with a sort of single-minded intensity that Alexander found enthralling.
No, if he were being honest with himself, he found it arousing. And when he knew for a fact how every inch of her skin felt under his fingers, when he knew what she tasted like… well. His discomfort wasn't only related to the mental shock of seeing her. There were physical symptoms as well.
They finished processing the samples in half the time it would have taken on him on his own, or close to it. Dr. Epps had made some joking comment about being a bit rusty as she watched him process the first batch, but when he handed the second batch over to her, her hands moved with a careful precision that left him feeling more than confident enough to move on to the third batch and leave her to it.
“Are these from a meteorite, or one of Newman’s space probes?”
Alexander shot her a startled look, and she smiled.
“What? I figure it’s either one of those, or someone’s been doing some really exciting synthesis here on earth.”
“How did you…?”
“We’ve been running tests on these samples all morning. Did you think I wouldn't notice that some of these compounds aren't naturally occurring on Earth?” Her voice was full of the sound of barely contained laughter. Was the expression on his face so amusing?
“They are from a space probe. An asteroid.” His answer was punctuated by his stomach letting out a loud growl.
Dr. Epps glanced down at her watch. “Goodness! How is it two in the afternoon already?” She tilted her head to one side as she looked up at him, a move that only served to accentuate the open warmth of her face. “What do you lot do for lunch around here?”
“There is a cafeteria…” Alexander offered.
Dr. Epps made a face.
“It is really not that bad!”
“If you say so. My experiences with on-site cafeterias have been… less than ideal.”
“Well, if your previous employer was still using equipment from the bronze age…”
She let out a little bark of laughter at that. “You’re giving them too much credit. I still maintain that they were stuck in the stone age.”
“Or… I could show you the neighborhood. Take you out for lunch.”
“As long as we go dutch.”
Alexander shook his head. “No. My treat.” She opened her mouth to protest and he held up a stilling hand. “You could have gone home for the day, but instead you stayed to help me. Now I can spend afternoon writing up report instead of running more tests.”
“It just makes it seem like, well, a date. If you treat me, that is.” A dark blush had spread across Dr. Epps’ cheeks, and suddenly the awkwardness from earlier was back.
“Oh.” Alexander couldn’t think of anything else to say. “So. Uh. Perhaps the cafeteria would be better, then.”
“I’ll give it a try,” she said primly. “Lead the way?”
Hey, hope you’re not still feeling awkward
Sorry for forgetting to tell you Dom would be home
He’s really happy we finally got a chance to have a sleepover
Isabel looked at the messages she’d gotten from Min over the past 24 hours and sighed. The last one had come in half an hour ago, and Isabel still wasn’t sure how to respond. After all, she still hadn’t admitted to Min exactly how awkward she had found it; instead she’d made up some nonsense about not having heard from her roommate since abandoning him the night before, and needing to go make sure he wasn’t dead in a ditch somewhere. And then she had fled Min’s house as fast as possible.
Of course, she had been worried about Alexander; it wasn’t like him to not answer her texts as soon as she sent them. But that hadn’t been why she’d been in such a hurry to get out of that house.
Isabel set her phone aside and turned back to her computer, cranking up the volume on her headphones. Database maintenance wasn’t the most glamorous of occupations, but at least it paid the bills, and her boss didn’t mind if she listened to music while working.
And right now, it was an absolutely necessary part of distracting her from worrying about how to respond to Min.
Isabel checked her phone again at lunch time. No new texts from Min, but the ones she hadn’t responded to yet were still there, laying in wait, weighing heavily on her. She sighed and started typing a response.
No worries! It was just a surprise
No. Not right.
Could we talk about it in person?
Better, maybe? After all, Isabel did want to talk about how she’d reacted to the unexpected presence of her girlfriend’s husband, right after they’d spent their first night together, but it definitely wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have via text… or a conversation she wanted to have in front of said husband, truth be told.
Before she could change her mind again, Isabel hit send. A few seconds later, her phone buzzed with a reply.
Of course. Want to get dinner tonight?
Isabel frowned, considering. Could we get takeout and talk somewhere not public?
Sounds good. Your place or mine?
Isabel couldn’t face the thought of accidentally running in to Dom again, not so soon after the first time. Mine. I’ll ask my roommate to go out for dinner.
Text me your address and it’s a date.
Isabel smiled and typed her address in to her phone. And next, Alexander…
Rosemary followed her new coworker back along what she thought might be the way they had come to get to the labs, but all of the corridors were so alike that she couldn't be sure. The headquarters for Newman Aeronautics was a massive, sprawling complex; no more than two or three stories tall, all told, but she thought it must cover a good half-acre at least. And focusing on learning her way around the building was a good distraction from the fact that her new coworker was the man she’d taken home from the club two nights ago for what had, even for her, been a rather torrid one-night stand. Torrid and dangerous; she had spent the day before wondering what she had been thinking, taking a strange man home and admitting to him that she was new in town. But after the past three years—three years of her mother’s condition worsening, day after day, three years of trying to sort through the old house her parents had filled with junk over a lifetime, three years of dealing with bills and debts that weren't her own—it had felt good to just let loose, no matter how dangerous it had been.
Truth be told, she had decided from the minute he had kissed her that he wasn't the sort to push in where he wasn't wanted. She had decided to take him home if he wanted to come with her, no matter how foolish an action it had been. And after three years of neglecting her physical needs, she was very glad he had wanted to.
She just wished he wasn't her new coworker.
At least he seemed to be feeling just as awkward about the whole thing as she was. Even better, he didn’t seem like he was the sort to make assumptions about her personal conduct at work based on the encounter they’d had. He had been respectful of her experience and relative expertise, which was really quite refreshing, and he hadn’t made any moves to touch her inappropriately.
Never mind the fact that some small part of her brain had been hoping that he would make an inappropriate move… because then she could reciprocate.
Rosemary shoved that train of thought thought back down and tried to get her bearings, but she had been following Dr. Hilbert mindlessly for the past few minutes and had no idea where she was. Well, following him mindlessly and staring at his butt, if she wanted to be entirely honest with herself.
And if she wanted to be even more honest with herself, she liked this Dr. Hilbert quite a lot now that she’d gotten to know him a little bit better, working side-by-side all morning with him as she had been, and it wasn’t just because he was good in bed and had an eyecatching butt.
“Here we are,” Dr. Hilbert said, pushing through a set of doors to a room full of tables and somewhat less full of people eating. Apparently the two of them weren’t the only Newman employees who needed a late lunch.
The lunch counter had more in common with a café than with the last work cafeteria she’d been in; while there were some ready-made items, most of what was on offer was made-to-order. Rosemary took her time looking over the selection and eventually grabbed soup—seafood chowder, because it smelled delicious—and bread, and joined Dr. Hilbert and his extremely fancy-looking salad at a table, sitting across from him.
Dr. Hilbert glanced up at her, a questioning look on his face.
“Do you like it here?”
He took a bite of his salad and appeared to be considering. “I do not dislike it,” he said finally.
Rosemary snorted. “Well, that’s a stunning endorsement.”
Dr. Hilbert shrugged. “I like having something to do. This is a job that uses my skill set and pays well, and has very good benefits. I could do without the occasional interference from upper management that comes down from time to time, but…” He shrugged again.
“So you’re a work to live type?”
This question tweaked the corners of his mouth up into an amused little smile. “Not according to my roommate, no. But I would not say that I live to work, either.”
Rosemary grimaced. Something about the way he’d said that came across as just a little bit grim. “Sounds like you’re just… existing.”
The smile fell off his face and he looked down at his salad. “I suppose I am.” A series of loud buzzes from his pocket broke through the sudden melancholy that hung in the air between them. “Ah, it appears my phone has reception again. This damn concrete block of a building!”
Rosemary ripped into her hunk of bread and dipped it in her soup as he read his notifications. The bread was mediocre, but it was very good chowder.
Dr. Hilbert set his phone aside, smiling again.
“Hm?” He looked at her as if he’d forgotten she was at the table. “Oh. The texts?”
“No, simply my roommate being over the top while asking me to stay out for the evening.”
He picked up his phone and read, “‘Oh most esteemed and generous of roommates, could you, in your beneficence, absent yourself from the apartment this evening?’”
Rosemary blinked. “Goodness. What sort of person is your roommate?”
“Ex-air force. Too smart for the job she is doing, too set in her ways to find new job, takes her wasted intelligence out on me.” Dr. Hilbert sounded so put-upon that Rosemary couldn’t help but laugh.
“So is she a relative or something, or is that just how the two of you are?”
“She…” He sighed. “She was a friend to me when I thought I could not bear the weight of friendship.”
Oh. That, Rosemary recognized. And that, she would not push on, as no doubt he was already regretting the fact that he had said something so revealing to a relative stranger. Time to change the subject. “You were right about this cafeteria being decent,” she offered up.
Dr. Hilbert gave her a hesitant little smile. “You should finish your soup before it gets cold, then.”
Rosemary took that as an indication that he needed a break from talking and saluted him with her spoon before digging in to her meal.
Alexander tried to focus on his lunch, but instead he found himself wondering why he had said as much as he had to Dr. Epps. No one at work knew anything about Isabel or his depressive episodes—not that anyone had ever asked—but something about Dr. Epps made him feel as if it were safe to let just a little bit of that side of himself show. Of course, she seemed to have picked up on it on her own, without any prompting from him; he had been hard-pressed not to wince when she’d said it sounded like he was just existing.
It was too much like what Isabel had said to him the other day to be a coincidence. If someone he barely knew—assuming he could consider a woman he’d seen naked someone he barely knew—had come to a similar conclusion, perhaps it really was time for him to try and add a little more living to his day-to-day life. He knew that Isabel would be more than happy to help him with that task. Had practically been begging him to let her help with that task, more like.
Of course, he had let Isabel use that reasoning to drag him out to a club on New Years Eve and had ended up accidentally having a one night stand with his new coworker as a result, so perhaps he shouldn't be trusting Isabel on this sort of thing.
Dr. Epps scraped up the last of her soup and finished it off, then shot him a cautious glance and cleared her throat. “You know, the report would probably go faster if I gave you a hand there as well. If you can find me a spare computer, that is. The notes I took are an absolute mess.”
“I have spare laptop in my lab.”
Dr. Epps grinned across the table at him. “Oh, good.”
No, this wasn’t going to be easy. Not when he’d seen that grin in the dark of her bedroom as she had pulled him over her for round number three, not when he knew how smooth her skin was under his hands, not when he knew what she tasted like.
And definitely not when he wanted to taste her again.
When they returned to his lab, Dr. Hilbert handed her a laptop and showed her how to access the remote drive where all the report templates were stored, then left her alone with her pile of notes while he went to the desktop computer on the other side of the room. Rosemary wanted to think it was another sign that he trusted her expertise, but she suspected he was using it as an excuse to put the entire length of the lab between them while they worked.
Having just a table between them clearly wasn’t enough. Somehow at the end of lunch, all the awkwardness between them had melted away for just a moment, and the expression that had answered her cheerful grin had been a searing look that had reminded Rosemary that this man had been naked in her bed not all that long ago.
It had taken the entire walk back to his lab for her to catch her breath again.
And even now, with the full length of the lab between them, Rosemary found herself glancing his way more often than was reasonable, hoping she’d find him looking back at her.
Damn. Hell. Fuck. This was a gordian knot of a problem, and she didn’t know how to untangle it, didn’t even know if she wanted to untangle it. Because even if she knew logically that it was a bad idea to leap straight into a relationship with a coworker, that she had probably only latched on to this man because he was the first person she’d had sex with since her mother had entered hospice care… despite all of that, she still wanted him.
It took twice as long as it should have to finish typing up her notes, and she couldn’t blame it all on learning how to use the templates. Finally, though, she set the last page of her handwritten notes aside and carried the laptop over to where Dr. Hilbert was hunched over his desk, hammering away at the keyboard.
He paused and peered up at her over the top of his glasses, looking damnably adorable, curse the man.
“I’ve finished with my notes. I imagine you’ll want to give them a once-over, though.” Rosemary set the laptop on the corner of his desk and cleared her throat, suddenly nervous. “I was wondering… since your roommate needs you out of the apartment this evening… dinner?” She winced. Not elegant wording in the slightest.
His eyes widened a bit. “That sounds like a date.”
Rosemary bit her lower lip and dropped her gaze to the laptop she’d set on his desk. “Let’s call it ‘getting to know my new coworker.’” She glanced up, searching for his reaction, but he had turned his gaze away from her. “After all, we will be part of the same research group.”
Dr. Hilbert seemed to be frozen, staring at his computer screen, and Rosemary looked back down.
“If you’d rather not, it’s fine, I just thought if you didn’t want to spend the evening alone…” Great. She was babbling. Just perfect.
“I do not want to spend my evening alone,” she heard him say in a small, hoarse voice. She looked up again to find him staring at her, a strange, hopeful expression on his face.
“Good,” she declared, sounding more sure than she felt. “You can show me the sights.”
A tiny smile twitched the corners of Dr. Hilbert’s mouth up.
Perhaps some day, this man’s smiles wouldn’t leave her wanting to kiss him.
Renée Minkowski—Min, to her friends—toweled off and threw on the jeans and sweater she’d left on the bathroom floor. She really hadn't had time for a shower before she was supposed to meet Isabel, but she hadn't wanted to go all sweaty from the kettle bell class she’d just finished teaching at the gym down the street from her house, either.
She popped in to her husband’s home office and leaned over him, giving him a hug and a kiss on the side of the head. “Hey. I'm off for the evening. I know you're on deadline, but remember to eat dinner, okay?”
Dom glanced up at her, a good-humored smile on his face. “Doug was going to bring me something later. He wouldn't say what it was, though.”
Min dropped a quick kiss on his lips. “Probably pizza. Doug’s pretty single-minded like that.” Doug had started as a work acquaintance of Min’s—she did tech work for a local theater company as well as teaching at the gym, and Doug was the sound designer—but when Min had brought her husband to an opening night party… well, Dom had definitely gotten to know Doug a lot better in that single night than Min had ever even wanted to, and, much to Min’s bemusement, Dom had been seeing Doug ever since.
But then, Min thought that Dom was just as cheerfully baffled by her own interest in Isabel, so she supposed it balanced out.
As she made her way downtown to the address Isabel had given her, Min considered what to say. It had been blindingly obvious that Isabel had been caught off guard by Dom being in the house the morning before, no matter what awkward excuses she gave. And Min knew she needed to fix that somehow.
But she was also still on the high of having spent a night with Isabel, even if they hadn't done much more than cuddle together in the same bed and kiss. So… maybe she was hoping, just a bit, that the awkward conversation bit of the evening would be over quickly enough to allow for something more.
After all, nothing was quite so good at reassuring a partner that they were a priority as some physical affection. And Min was pretty sure that Isabel needed some reassuring.
“Hey. Sorry I’m late,” Min said after Isabel buzzed her up to the apartment. She pulled Isabel into a close hug that Isabel stiffened against for just a moment before relaxing into, her head against Min’s shoulder, her face nuzzled up against Min’s neck.
“It’s okay,” mumbled Isabel. “You beat the food here, anyway.”
Min smiled and pressed a sideways kiss to Isabel’s cheek. Good. She obviously wasn’t too far in the dog house, if Isabel was still willing to be this relaxed with her. “How was your day?”
She felt Isabel make a tiny, abortive shrug against her. “All right. Long. Normal first day back to work after New Years, I suppose.”
Min laughed. “So everyone was still nursing the remnants of hangovers from treating the previous day’s hangover with the hair of the dog, and no one wanted to be there?”
The buzzer went off and Isabel left Min alone in the apartment as she went down to grab their dinner. Min normally wasn’t much of a snoop, but this was the first time Isabel had let Min near her apartment; something about her roommate being a bit of a recluse, which had left Min a little surprised when Isabel had said she would ask him to stay out for the evening. But maybe he was a workaholic as well as a recluse.
The common areas were remarkably clean, though a large number of plants were clustered under each windowsill, and there was a built-in bookshelf in the living room, half-full of trashy spy novels and half-full of what looked like Chemistry reference books. A pair of sofas and a tv stand with a large flat-screen tv on it took up the rest of the empty space in the living room.
A tiny hall off the living room had three doors off it, but before Min could quite bring herself to peek behind the doors, Isabel came back in to the apartment. “Food’s here!”
Min joined her in the kitchen. “You’ve got a nice place.”
Isabel shot her an amused look. “Have fun snooping?”
“I don’t snoop,” Min said with a great deal of assumed dignity.
“Exploring, then,” Isabel said.
Min shrugged, completely distracted by the Mexican food Isabel was unpacking because it smelled fantastic… and her appetite was always ravenous after she’d taught a kettlebell class. “God. You were right. I don’t normally go for Mexican, but this looks amazing.”
Isabel gave up on the idea of talking over dinner when Min tore in to her first tamale like she hadn’t eaten all day. So instead she watched in mild amazement as Min plowed her way through five tamales, four empanadas, several tacos, and a giant plate of rice and beans. Isabel hadn’t eaten that way since basic training, but she supposed that Min’s job burned just as many calories.
After she was done, Min sat back in her chair with a content smile on her face. “I’m definitely letting you pick the restaurants from now on.”
Isabel set her second taco aside. “You’re making me long for the days when I could put away that much at a meal time.”
“You’ve been working a desk job too long. We should get you a personal trainer certification.”
Isabel snorted and rolled her eyes. “I’d be a terrible personal trainer. I don’t have nearly enough patience for other people’s foibles.”
“Well, we should get you a more exciting desk job, then. One that doesn’t leave you exhausted at the end of the day.”
Isabel frowned. “Do I really come across as exhausted?”
“Maybe not exhausted.” Min looked like she was considering. “But like… like it’s sucking all the life out of you, a little bit at a time.”
“So what you’re saying is that my job is that one machine from The Princess Bride?”
“I’ll… I’ll think about it.”
They fell silent for a moment.
“Want to move to a couch?”
“Yeah, sure.” Isabel stood and gathered up the empty containers. “You go get comfortable while I clean this mess up.”
When she joined Min on the couch a few minutes later, side-by-side, Min wrapped her arm around Isabel’s shoulders and pulled her close. “So. Sorry again, for not warning you Dom would be there.”
Isabel sighed and let her head fall to Min’s shoulder as she pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “I’ve seen enough people that I’ve had plenty of awkward encounters with roommates in the morning, so I’m not entirely certain why this bugs me, only…”
“Only those other roommates weren’t your partner’s spouse?”
“Yeah. And I guess… it’s one thing knowing you’ve got a husband, and that you’re in an open relationship, but it’s a whole other thing to have your husband right there.”
Min pressed a kiss to the top of Isabel’s head. “You said when we started dating that this is your first time being with someone who is in an open relationship. I should have been better at checking on your boundaries.”
“No, I mean, this is all in my head—”
“Isabel.” Min cut her off and sat back a little, putting her hand under Isabel’s chin and turning Isabel gently to face her. “Part of my job as the partner with more experience in this area is to make sure we’re communicating properly, because so often that’s not the case even in the best of monogamous relationships.” She raised her eyebrows and smiled a little. “I’m used to partners who’ve done this before and know how to negotiate their own boundaries. I guess it didn’t occur to me that you might not know how to do that, or even know what your boundaries might be in an open relationship. So put the blame where it belongs, okay?”
Isabel sighed again, feeling suddenly more relaxed. “Okay.”
Min leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to Isabel’s mouth. “Good,” she said as she pulled back. “So let’s talk boundaries.”
Isabel wrenched her attention back to the conversation. For all it had been an extremely chaste kiss, it had her wanting to kiss Min again… but it seemed a little more important to get this conversation out of the way first. “Okay. Well… I guess I’m not opposed to meeting your husband in general, but I want some kind of warning before it happens.”
“Which I was definitely planning to do going forward anyway, but it’s good to hear you say it.”
“And… I guess… I’ve never asked. How many partners do you have?”
“Right now? Just you and Dom. I’ve had a few short-term relationships over the past few years, but you’re the first person in a while I’ve been interested in something long-term with.”
Isabel blushed. She’d suspected something of the sort, based on a few things Min had said since they’d started dating, but it felt good to get confirmation. “Just to be up-front, I think I’d like something long-term with you, too.”
Min’s smile at that lit up her face, and Isabel couldn’t resist. She leaned further against Min and pulled Min’s face to hers, kissing her hard. Min kissed her back with just as much fervor, and in relatively short order, Isabel found herself straddling her girlfriend’s lap and making out with her like a teenager.
Isabel broke away, panting for breath, and leaned her forehead against Min’s. “Is there something else we should be talking about right now?”
“Yes,” Min said, grabbing Isabel by the hips and pulling her closer. “We should be talking about whether or not you want to take this to your bedroom.”
“Definitely the only topic that was on my mind.”
Min grinned wickedly and stood up from the couch, lifting Isabel with her as she did. Isabel let out a startled laugh and wrapped her legs around Min’s waist.
She really liked it when Min showed off her strength.
Alexander remembered their conversation from lunch time when he left the building with Dr. Epps, and instead of taking her three blocks away to the delicious-but-expensive Russian tea house that always reminded him of home, he took her to the pizzeria down the street from Newman Aeronautics that his coworkers apparently frequented when they needed a quick lunch and couldn't stand the work cafeteria any more. Alexander normally didn't care enough about food to get tired of the cafeteria; eating was a necessity, but outside of the occasional visit to the tea house, food wasn't really something that brought him much joy.
“Is this all right?” He asked as they came to a halt outside of the small, slightly dingy building.
Dr. Epps glanced at the menu in the window, then grinned up at him. “Well, it certainly smells delicious. And it's well within my budget, thank you.”
He nodded at her and opened the front door, then followed her in. She snagged a menu off the counter and dragged him over to an empty booth so they could study it. “Want to split a pie, or are you in more of a sandwich mood?”
She had pulled him in next to her before he'd been able to slide into the bench opposite, and Alexander found himself completely distracted by the warmth of her all along his side, felt even through the coats they were both wearing.
“Pie?” He said, more an echo of the first option she had offered than a proper decision.
“Pizza it is, then.” She ran her finger down the specials. “I'm not always big on sauce; how do you feel about Caprese?”
Alexander nodded, then cleared his throat and added “That sounds good.”
“Think we can finish a large?”
“Perhaps?” He sounded dubious, even to himself.
“Ah, well, they probably have boxes for leftovers if we can't. Water enough to drink?”
He nodded again.
“Scootch on over and I'll go put the order in, then,” Dr. Epps said, flashing him another of her bright smiles. At such close quarters, it was overwhelming; if her voice hadn't gone straight to his subconscious, forcing him to slide back off the bench and stand aside before he'd even become aware of the intention to move, Alexander thought he might have leaned towards her instead.
To do what, he didn't know.
Ah, no, that was an utter lie and he knew it. He would have tried to kiss her, despite the fact that he barely knew her, despite the fact that she was now his coworker. Because before she'd been that, she had kissed him and had taken him home with her, and try as he might, Alexander couldn't quite get the image of her naked and riding his cock out of his mind.
It would be safer for the both of them if she didn't sit next to him when he returned, so Alexander removed his winter gear and set it on the bench opposite, then sat down on the outer edge of that bench. When Dr. Epps returned, two glasses of water in hand, she gave him a rueful look that he suspected indicated that she’d been thinking something very similar.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Ten bucks, including tip.”
While she removed her own winter gear, Alexander dug out his wallet and removed two fives, setting them on the table. She smiled again as she picked them up, and he tried to ignore the way his breath rushed out of his lungs and his pulse raced a little faster at the sight of her smile.
He thought he might be just a little bit obsessed with that mouth of hers. An obsession that could go nowhere and mean nothing, but an obsession nonetheless, and one that felt as if it might stick with him. But no, like all things, he was sure he would grow used to this woman in time.
He cleared his throat and offered up the conversational foray of “So, what did you think of your first day?”
“Good, I think. My coworkers seem pleasant enough so far,” she said, her face a picture of impish amusement.
Alexander snorted. “Yes, so much pleasantness to choose from between me and Miss Young.”
“You prefer to think of yourself as unpleasant?”
Alexander frowned. He'd never though overmuch about it. “I… was surprised, that I was the one Miss Young called in to take you to the labs. I do not think I have reputation for being, ah, sociable.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“Well, we met under… unorthodox circumstances.”
Dr. Epps let out an undignified snort of laughter at that. “That's what I'm going to call all my one night stands from now on. ‘Did you have a good time last night?’ ‘Yes, I found myself in an unorthodox circumstance.’”
Alexander couldn't help but be amused by the conversation Dr. Epps pretended to have with herself, even as he bristled at the thought of her having sex with someone else. And then he sat there, blinking blankly across the table at Dr. Epps, startled with himself. Where had that come from? He had no call to be possessive of this woman.
“Still with me?” she prompted into the silence.
Alexander brought himself back to the conversation with a snap. “Apologies. My mind tends to wander.”
Dr. Epps laughed again. “Oh, so does mine, I just tend to do it out loud.”
The pizza arrived just then, and they both dug in, eating silently… though every time Alexander looked up from his meal, Dr. Epps was studying him contemplatively from across the table. The fourth or fifth time he caught her eye, he set the slice he was currently working through down. “What?”
She sighed. “I like you.” She looked down at her plate and fiddled with a piece of crust. “I wasn’t expecting to like you. I mean…” Her cheeks darkened in a blush. “I had a good time with you the other night, but it’s not like we did all that much talking then, only I was looking forward to getting to know you better, and then it turns out we’ll be working together, and…” she sighed again and looked back up at him, a frown on her face. “And I like you. More than I should.”
Alexander found he was having a hard time taking a proper breath. It was so much what he’d been thinking that he didn’t know how to react.
“And I know I said that… that we should forget about what happened, because dating a coworker almost never goes well, but…” her teeth dug into her lower lip, and she gave him a hopeful look. “If we’re really careful. About not bringing it in to work, that is. Do you think we could try?”
Alexander felt his jaw clench involuntarily and swallowed hard, trying to relax it. “My ex still works for Newman. It was… he is…” Alexander’s jaw ground shut again around his words.
“Oh.” Dr. Epps looked mildly horrified on his behalf. “Was it a bad breakup?”
Alexander tried to find words for how bad it had been. After all, it had sent him into a depressive spiral that had ended with him in the hospital and Isabel deciding she needed to become his roommate to keep an eye on him. Finally, he settled for nodding.
“Right. I suppose that answers that question, then. No more dating coworkers for you.” Dr. Epps was smiling again, though this time he thought it seemed a little forced. “But… I would like to be your friend. If you can handle one of those.”
“I like you too,” he managed to get out. “Don’t think that I don’t… I like you too.”
“Well, good,” she said, sounding amused. “You’re eating dinner with me, after all.” She eyed the final slice of pizza on the platter with a bit of avarice and, when Alexander gestured for her to go ahead, took it with a genuine grin on her face.
After they left the pizzeria, she tucked her arm through his for a few moments as they walked down the street. “Thank you. For showing me the ropes in your lab today. For coming to dinner with me. I don’t know anyone here yet, and it helps.”
“I have no doubt that you will find friends quickly.” How could she not, after all, as friendly and open as she was?
“True,” she said, glancing sideways up at him. “But I’m glad you’re my first.” And then she pulled her phone out of her pocket and glanced at the time, then released his arm and broke into a jog. “Gotta run if I want to catch my bus!” she called over her shoulder. “See you at work tomorrow!”
Alexander raised his hand in a wave he wasn’t sure she saw, then turned back towards the campus of Newman Aeronautics. After all, it wasn’t too late to get a little more work done.
Min smiled and pressed a kiss to Isabel’s neck. The other woman was laying in her arms, half-asleep, sweaty and replete with the afterglow of their lovemaking, and Min found she couldn't stop smiling. She knew it was just because they were still in the honeymoon phase of the relationship, but oh, what a honeymoon it was.
Isabel shifted closer in Min’s arms and sighed. “You should probably head out soon if you don't want an awkward roommate encounter yourself.”
“Mm.” Min traced her fingers softly along Isabel’s hip. “Is your roommate really so bad?”
Isabel took a deep breath and sighed again. “Not bad. The awkwardness would probably be all on his side, to be honest. He doesn't really do…” Isabel made a vague gesture in the air.
“Socialization?” Min suggested.
“People,” Isabel said emphatically.
“I see.” Min stretched. “I'd better get back before Doug manages to cover my kitchen in empty pizza boxes, anyway.”
Min sat up and peered over the side of the bed. Ah, there her shirt was. “One of my husband’s partners.”
Isabel let out a little laugh and rolled on to her back. “God. You say that so easily. Don't you ever… you know. Get jealous?”
“Why should I?” Min slid off the bed and found her jeans underneath it, a little confused as to how they'd even ended up there. “We both realized a long time ago that we couldn't possibly be everything to each other. It was especially true back when I was still in the Air Force and away from him for months at a time, but even now… I love him, but if I had to spend all my free time just with him, we’d probably kill one another. And…” Min buttoned up her jeans and sat on the side of Isabel’s bed, taking Isabel’s hand in her own. “There’s something reassuring about it, you know? I know that if anything were to happen to me, Dom wouldn't be alone. He would have people around him who love him the way I do.”
“I'd… I guess I’d never really thought about it that way,” Isabel confessed, interlacing her fingers with Min’s own. “And I suppose I understand, at least a little. Alexander—my roommate,” she clarified, “he’s… well. He’s closer than family, in some ways. It's not… I don't even know if English has the right words. It's not sexual in any way, it's just…”
Min smiled, and lifted Isabel’s hand to kiss the palm of it. “You love him.”
Isabel made a face. “So not the right word. But… yes. I suppose I do. And I worry. He's got family—well, a sister, at least—but she’s in Russia, and he hasn't got a lot of close friends, and sometimes…”
“Sometimes you wonder what would happen to him, if something happened to you?”
“Yeah.” Isabel sat up, no longer loose and relaxed but tense, worried. “You know, I've never really talked about that with anyone before. I've tried, but…”
“But other people didn't understand why you'd be so attached to someone who isn't family and who you aren't dating, I take it.”
“Yeah.” Isabel sighed. “They assumed that because he matters, I must want to fuck him. Wrecked my last two attempts at relationships, honestly. I mean, there were other problems, but…”
“I'm never going to assume I mean less if that relationship has to come first sometimes,” Min said with a smile, leaning across the bed to press a gentle kiss to Isabel’s mouth. “And you,” she added, still nose-to-nose with Isabel, “You never think you mean less just because Dom was part of my life first, you hear?”
Isabel smiled and pressed a quick peck of her own to Min’s lips. “I'll do my best. It may take some time.”
“That’s all I ask,” Min said, running her fingers gently down Isabel’s cheek before pulling her into a warm goodbye kiss. “Now, should I just let myself out?”
“Right! Yes. I mean, no. Let me just… put some clothes on.” Isabel scrambled for her own discarded clothing, and a few minutes later Min was on her way back to Dom… and, most likely, a kitchen counter covered in pizza boxes.
And then she froze on the landing right before the first floor, face-to-face with the man who had been indirectly responsible for the implosion of her last community theater group.
He'd glanced away immediately, as if not recognizing her, and edged past her on the landing. Perhaps he really hadn't recognized her. She almost hadn't recognized him under all of his winter gear, with his scarf tucked up around his chin like that, and after all, it had been nearly four years.
“Alex?” She called after him. “Alex Hilbert?”
He paused two stairs up and turned back towards her, a frown on his face. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Renée. Minkowski, that is.”
The frown deepened for a moment, and then all the color drained out of his face. “Ah.”
“That’s… that’s a you’d rather not talk to me sort of noise, isn't it.”
Alex nodded stiffly.
“That’s understandable. I just wanted to say…” Min trailed off. What did she want to say?
“Well?” Alex’s voice was impatient, if a little shaken.
“No one knew how to find you after… after what went down. And I just wanted to say… well. Warren isn't welcome anywhere near me again after what he did to you, and the same’s true for most of the rest of us. Dan and Alana…” Min shrugged. “But it probably doesn't surprise you that they took his side in things.”
Alex’s face softened for a moment. “No. It does not.” He let out a harsh little laugh. “You have been better than my employer in that respect.”
“God, you still work with him? How?”
Alex shrugged. “Different departments. I do not often see him.”
“Yeah, well, if you ever need me to come kick his ass for you, let me know.”
A tiny smile crept its way on to Alex’s face, peeking its way over the scarf. “I will keep that in mind, should he ever overstep his bounds.”
They stood there looking at one another for a long moment, a strange, hopeful expression on Alex’s face. And then he nodded abruptly and murmured a quiet “Good night,” before turning and making his way up the stairs.
Isabel seemed to have already gone to bed, and Alex was grateful for it. He really didn't need his roommate seeing the look he had on his face right now, right after his unexpected encounter with Renée.
Warren had already been on his mind that evening, ever since he had admitted to Dr. Epps that his ex was still a coworker. He'd found himself dwelling on the relationship, found himself wondering where it had gone so wrong, to end the way it had. Warren had been selfish and thoughtless, it was true, but… hadn't Alexander been distant and cold himself? Hadn't he deserved it, in the end?
Thoughts like that had plagued him all evening, ever since he'd returned to his lab in order to put off going back to the apartment just a little bit longer. And nothing had been able to snap him out of it, not even repeating what his therapist had often said, that no one deserved what Warren had done to him, the years of verbal abuse, the cheating, the public humiliations, especially the one that had finally ended the relationship, and which had almost ended Alex as well. He knew it was a vicious cycle once he started to think about it, that if he let himself succumb to the urge to rehash the relationship over and over in his head it could take months before he would be able to set it aside again, months where he would hate himself so much he would start considering almost anything to make it stop. But he couldn't keep himself from thinking about it now that it had started.
And then… and then he had met Renée on the stairs.
Alexander had expected her to have been on Warren’s side. Warren had always been a good talker, had always made his point of view seem so reasonable that only an idiot would disagree with him.
But apparently she had disagreed.
And maybe if what Warren had done to Alexander was bad enough that Renée was willing to cut him out of her life, when the local theater scene was, as far as he remembered, how she made a significant amount of her income, when Warren Kepler was known for getting lead roles just by walking in to auditions… well, it had to have been a blow, if she refused to work with him. Maybe it meant that what Warren had done really was as bad as Alexander’s therapist said it was.
And maybe there was hope that he could have a relationship some day where the fact that he was cold and distant sometimes wouldn't matter.
Not with Dr. Epps, of course. Not when she was so much his opposite.
But some day.
Isabel wandered back to her bedroom after letting Min out and collapsed on the bed, dozing off almost immediately. Min was… enthusiastic when she got going, and although Isabel appreciated it—it had been the better part of a year since she'd last dated someone long enough to feel comfortable having sex with them—her stamina levels weren't quite up to it any more.
There was the vague, far-away jingle of keys in the lock, the reassuring sounds of Alexander going about his evening routine, and the knowledge that her roommate was home safe and sound relaxed her the last little bit needed to send Isabel into a deep, dreamless sleep.
It wasn't until the next evening, when Alexander returned home at an unusually early hour and took over the kitchen to cook dinner that Isabel got a chance to thank him for staying out the night before.
“I really needed the alone time with Min. Just… just to talk, really.”
Alexander glanced over his shoulder at her from his station at the stove and raised an eyebrow expressively.
“Oh, don't give me that look.” Isabel rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine, I got lucky. Satisfied?”
“I did not demand a recounting of your evening,” Alexander said gruffly, but he had an amused little grin on his face all the same.
“Anyway, you're home early. What’s up with that?”
The grin dropped off of Alexander’s face and he turned back to the stir fry he was cooking. “An adjustment period,” he said with a shrug. “They have finally hired new biochem specialist. She started yesterday. We are working out division of labor.”
There was something strange about Alexander’s voice, but Isabel couldn't pinpoint it. “She a pain in the ass or something?”
“No!” Alexander said vehemently, and then, more hesitantly, “Well, yes, actually. But that does not mean I do not…” He froze, and Isabel came to join him at the stove, taking the spatula out of his hand and bumping him to one side with her hip so that she could take over the stirring.
“You do not…?”
“I have her number,” Alexander said in a low, distressed tone of voice.
“So she’s a flirt,” Isabel said, scraping the bottom of the frying pan. “And really, two numbers in a week? We'll make a player of you yet.”
There was a long silence from Alexander, so Isabel focused on making sure dinner cooked evenly. Finally, he offered up a single word: “One.”
“What?” Isabel frowned, switching off the burner. Everything looked done.
“One number,” Alexander said, taking the spatula back and nudging her out of the way before switching the burner back on.
“One number…?” A sudden, horrifying thought emerged from the back of Isabel’s mind, but surely not…
“Is all I have received this week, yes.”
“No. Miss one-night-stand is your new coworker?”
Alexander nodded and flipped the burner off again before scooping half the stir fry on to one of the plates he had ready and offering it to Isabel. “Oh, yes..”
“Oh, god.” Isabel took the offered plate and headed to the kitchen table with it. “So. Uh. How… how is that going?”
Alexander shrugged and scooped his own dinner out of the pan. “It is…” he sighed. “I still like her. Well, even more, now. She is very good at what she does. Very quick. Very intelligent. Very…” His jaw tensed, and he set the plate down on the counter before letting out a little cry of frustration, his head thumping forwards against one of the cabinets over the counter.
Isabel left her own plate on the table and returned to his side, touching his shoulder gently. “Hey. What is it?”
“She is first person in four years who… and we cannot even…” Alexander let out another strangled sound of frustration. “Not when she works with me.”
“Are you worried that what happened with Warren will happen again?”
“Yes. No. I…” Alexander slumped sideways, and Isabel caught him in a one-armed hug. “He cannot touch me,” Alexander continued in a low, desperate voice. “Mr. Newman has made sure of that. But if he thought could get at me through someone else…”
Isabel frowned. It sounded like Alexander was afraid Warren would go after this woman to get at him… and Isabel couldn't say he was wrong about that. It sounded like the sort of thing Warren would do. “You really like this woman, huh?”
“I barely know her,” Alexander insisted. And then: “Yes. I do. Very much. But we both have enough experience to know that dating a coworker is very bad idea.”
“So don't date her. Just have sex with her,” Isabel said flippantly.
Alexander shot her a dire look over the top of his glasses. “Not helpful.”
Isabel sighed. “Yeah, I know. I just… don't have anything useful.”
Alexander sighed. “I will recover, in time. But right now… is still very fresh. And it hurts.”
Isabel reached up with her free hand to ruffle Alexander’s hair gently. He let out a little hum of contentment. “Maybe… maybe it’s time. To test your bounds. Maybe Warren’s not as vindictive as he used to be.”
Alexander let out a disbelieving snort. “That will end only in one way. I make Warren angry, he finds way to frame me for something that will get me fired, I get deported and live rest of very short life in Russia.”
“Yeah, well, I'm not going to let that happen. And you're catastrophizing, which makes me wonder when you last ate and whether you remembered today’s dose of anti-anxiety meds.”
“I… hm. Am not certain I did.” Alexander straightened up and pulled a small pill case out of his pocket, rattling it. “I definitely forgot them. And you are right, I should eat.” Alexander shrugged Isabel’s arm off and grabbed his plate again.
By the time dinner was over, Alexander was in a much more cheerful mood… and Isabel was trying to figure out if she knew anyone at Newman who could introduce her to Alexander’s new coworker.
Maybe Alexander wasn't ready to stand up to Warren on his own, but perhaps if he had a willing co-conspirator...
Well, it was time he seized control of his life again. And if he wouldn’t let Isabel help him do it directly, she’d find some other way.
Three weeks later, Isabel found herself sitting across a small café table from Alexander’s new coworker for an early morning cup of coffee, startled yet again by the fact that her dour friend had somehow managed to catch this woman’s eye. Sure, Rosemary—and she’d insisted Isabel call her that, and not the Dr. Epps Isabel had prefaced her awkward, out-of-the-blue email with—was a fat little thing… but damn, she was hot.
Right now, Rosemary had her hands folded around a mug full of coffee and had a polite smile fixed on her face as she waited for Isabel to finish reading the string of texts that had just come in from Min.
Thought you might want to try coming over again?
Dinner with Dom and Doug. Saturday.
You can even bring your reclusive roommate.
Isabel tapped out a quick Sure, sounds great and sent it before she could think better of it, and then turned her attention back to Rosemary. “Sorry about that.”
Rosemary shrugged. “No, I get it. If I had any social life left, it would take precedence too.”
“Right.” Isabel felt awkward all of a sudden. “So. Anyway. I know that email was weird…”
“Not the weirdest email I've ever received, believe me. Not by a long shot.” Rosemary’s voice was filled with a wry sort of humor, and Isabel wondered for a moment what sort of weird emails Rosemary had received, to so thoroughly put a random missive asking her to meet for coffee from the roommate of her one night stand low on the list.
“I just don't want you thinking I'm trying to stake a claim on him or something. It’s not like that,” Isabel said in a rush.
Rosemary’s eyebrows climbed her forehead at that. “We're work acquaintances. I hope we'll be friends, since we'll be working together on long-term projects, but even if the two of you had the sort of relationship where you'd feel the need to stake a claim—”
“He told me how you met,” Isabel interrupted, deciding to be blunt. “So you don't have to dance around the subject.”
“Ah, so you know about that.” Rosemary let out a light laugh that almost didn't sound fake. “One of my more mortifying first days on a new job, let me tell you.”
Isabel felt a little less hopeful, all of a sudden. Still… “You regret meeting him like that?”
“No!” came Rosemary’s immediate, forceful reply. “Well, yes, a little,” she added, looking down at her coffee mug, a dark blush spreading across her cheeks. “I… haven't had a chance to date in a while, and it's… hard. Getting a glimpse at what might have been, that is. If we weren't coworkers.” She cleared her throat and took another sip of her coffee, continuing to look down at it studiously as she did.
Isabel found she was smiling. “You like him.”
Rosemary glanced up with a small smile of her own. “Is it silly of me to say that I really do? I barely know the man, and he seems like a bit of a…”
“Asshole?” Isabel suggested.
“I was going to say curmudgeon,” Rosemary said mildly.
“He’s… not real comfortable with the social graces.”
“No, I’d gathered. Just a bit of a grump, that one.” Rosemary had a fond smile on her face, and Isabel felt hopeful again.
“Yeah, well. He takes well to teasing, if you're gentle with him,” she suggested.
Rosemary raised an eyebrow. “And is that why you asked me to coffee? To ask me to tease him?” The word was infinitely more suggestive from Rosemary than Isabel had meant it to be, and she blushed under Rosemary’s direct stare.
“I mean, yeah.” Isabel shrugged awkwardly. “He’s a bit of a shut-in. Has been since his last breakup. And he lost all of his work friends in that, so…”
“But what made you think I wouldn't want to be friends with him?” Rosemary looked confused. “I mean, yeah, the one-night-stand thing is awkward, but…”
“So you haven't heard any of the rumors yet, then.”
Isabel frowned, trying to decide how best to put it. “His ex still works there,” she started, trying to buy some time.
“I'd heard that, yes. You know who?”
Rosemary winced. “Head of security.”
“That’s the one.”
“That man really is an asshole.”
“Yeah, he’s a vindictive son of a bitch. He was making Alexander’s life hell until Newman stepped in, but that hasn't stopped him from spreading rumors. And I can't prove it, but I suspect…”
“…that he’s been poisoning the well with any of Dr. Hilbert’s coworkers who look like they might get friendly with him,” Rosemary finished for her.
“Yeah.” Isabel snorted angrily. “And I don't understand why. He’s the one who broke it off. Hell, he’s the one who was cheating. Every time they had a fight…” Isabel felt her jaw lock up in anger, and paused to take a few deep breaths. “Every time they had a fight, he’d go pick someone up, right in front of Alexander. And Alexander always said that they’d agreed the relationship would be open, but… what would you call a relationship where one partner can do whatever—whoever—they want, but if the other one so much as laughs at someone else’s joke…”
“Abusive,” Rosemary interjected.
“Not open, that’s for damn sure.” Isabel glanced around and realized she was drawing attention from the other patrons of the coffee shop, and took another deep breath. She hadn't ever talked about this before, about how hard it had been to see Alexander dealing with the after-effects of Warren’s manipulations, how hard it had been to listen to him blaming himself for them.
“I won't hurt him like that,” Rosemary said, reaching across the table and patting Isabel on the arm. “And you've got my permission to kick my ass if I ever do, okay?”
Isabel let out an unwilling snort of laughter. “Okay.”
Rosemary shook her head and let out a little laugh of her own. “And here I am, talking like I'm dating the man when he and I have both decided it's a bad idea. Goodness.”
“Would you want to date him? I mean, if you weren't working together?” The question had slipped out before Isabel had a chance to think it through, but Alexander was still so obviously distraught by this woman that Isabel really did want to know.
“Well…” Rosemary smirked. “I don't know for sure about dating, but I’d be more than happy to rail that man senseless every night of the week.”
“I’m not sure I needed to know that.” Isabel made a face.
“Ask a silly question…” Rosemary buried her smirk in her coffee cup, but hiding half of her face couldn't hide her obvious amusement at Isabel’s distress.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Get a silly answer.” Isabel made a face. “Aren't you a bit old for that sort of thing?”
Rosemary laughed. “Wanting lots of sex isn’t just the realm of teens and twenty-somethings, you know. They’re called the horny forties for a reason.”
“I’m not sure I needed to know that either,” Isabel said, laughing a bit herself now. “So, what, give me five years or so and I’ll have the energy to rail someone every night of the week?”
Rosemary shrugged. “It really depends on what your sex drive is like, but maybe.”
“Huh. Good to know, I guess?” Isabel fiddled with her to-go cup and frowned. “I should probably get going. Work starts soon. But…”
“I’ll keep an eye on him at work and make sure his head doesn’t wind up too far up his ass. I promise. Pinky swear.” Rosemary held her hand out, one pinky extended, an overly-serious look on her face, and Isabel grinned, then interlinked her pinky with Rosemary’s for a moment.
“All right, fine. I believe you.”
“Well, good. Now go do your boring office job.”
Isabel got to her feet and saluted Rosemary laconically. “Yes, sir.”
Rosemary rolled her eyes. “Oh, good lord, he wasn’t kidding about you being trouble. Shoo!”
Isabel laughed again and left the coffee shop.
Dr. Hilbert had been right, Rosemary realized, now that she was closing in on her first month on the job. She had gotten to know people quickly.
She had always been good at that, she supposed.
But the man himself… well, he was proving a much more difficult nut to crack. She was still determined to befriend him, and even more so after the conversation she’d had with his roommate, but despite the fact that she dropped by his lab every day to ask him if he'd eaten lunch yet, hell, after a week-long project they had worked side-by side on, he was still reserved and cautious with her, as if he expected her to turn on him at any moment.
Or perhaps as if he expected her to ravish him at the slightest provocation. It was hard to tell.
Still, she kept trying, kept smiling, kept inviting him to lunch with her. And bit by bit, he seemed to be coming to trust her, as a competent coworker even if nothing else. And now…
“Now that you're more settled in, we were wondering if you wanted to come to happy hour. At the bar around the corner.” Dr. Victoire Fourier stood in the door of Rosemary’s lab, Dr. Kuan Hui fidgeting awkwardly at her side. They spent most of their time in the radiology lab, so Rosemary didn't work with them much, but they gave her a strong impression of precious, precocious children… who had yet to notice that they were head over heels for one another.
“I'm more or less done for the day, so of course. I’d love to. Is Dr. Hilbert coming?”
Victoire and Kuan exchanged a look.
“Well…” Kuan started, suddenly even more awkward.
“He tends to… snap. When people interrupt him for matters he considers unimportant.” Victoire said.
Rosemary raised her eyebrows. “Really.” She got to her feet and shooed them out of her doorway. “In that case, I think I’m going to go have a word with him.”
Victoire and Kuan exchanged another look, then followed her down the hall. Rosemary knocked briskly on the door to Dr. Hilbert’s lab and then opened it without waiting for a response. After all, the caution light that he always turned on over the door when working with dangerous chemicals was unlit, so it should be safe enough.
“What?” Dr. Hilbert growled, not looking up from where he was hunched over his keyboard, glaring at the sheaf of notes in his hand.
“Well, I was going to ask if you wanted to go to happy hour down the street with me and the kids—” Rosemary caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye of Victoire and Kuan exchanging a look that was halfway between appalled and amused at being called kids, “—but given the way you just snarled at me I'm actually going to demand that you come with us. You sound like you need a break.”
Dr. Hilbert had looked up as she’d spoken and was now looking a little ashamed. “Apologies. I was…” he sighed and set down his notes. “I am not certain I wish to go to happy hour.”
There was enough uncertainty in his voice that Rosemary pressed on. “Half an hour. I'll buy you a drink,” she offered persuasively.
“I do not drink alcohol.”
“Then I'll buy you a Shirley Temple. You do realize I'm just going to keep bothering you until you either give me a hard no or agree, right?”
“I had gathered as much, yes,” Dr. Hilbert said, sounding amused and glancing past her shoulder at Victoire and Kuan, who were still hovering just outside his lab door. “Have you always been this much of a pest?”
“Oh, since birth,” Rosemary said with a smile.
“Fine. Then I will come to happy hour. Are you satisfied?” Dr. Hilbert raised a sardonic eyebrow, but there was a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Thrilled. Are you ready now, or do you need half an hour or so to sort those notes?”
Dr. Hilbert glanced down at the notes in front of him. “Fifteen minutes?”
“Great. I'll be back.” Rosemary whisked herself back out the door of his lab, stifling a giggle at the dire “Yes, I am certain you will be,” that Dr. Hilbert sent after her.
Victoire and Kuan were staring at her, wide-eyed.
“What? You just have to know how to manage the man.”
“If you say so.” Kuan sounded exceptionally dubious.
“Yes, well…” Rosemary shrugged. She supposed that neither of them had any idea what sort of man he was in his personal life. Of course, it wasn't like she had any more than the vaguest impression herself, and most of that via his roommate, but it was enough to suspect that his growling was mostly for show, to protect himself.
Not that she minded the growling in the least.
Alexander sighed and set his notes aside, and then took off his glasses so that he could rub his forehead without smudging them. Well. Dr. Epps was remarkably hard to discourage.
Though perhaps it would be easier if he actually wanted to discourage her. Oh, obviously he did not want Warren catching sight of any friendliness between them and deciding to make her life at work more difficult. But as for the actual friendly relationship Dr. Epps seemed to be trying to build between them… no. Alexander had to confess that he did not really want that, either. No, what he wanted was more nights like that one they had spent together. Nights… and days, too, if he were lucky. The damn woman had infected him with her charm and persistence and open affection over the past few weeks, and now he craved it. He craved her, despite the fact that it was a terrible idea.
Dr. Epps knocked on his lab door again the promised fifteen minutes later and poked her head in. “Hey. You ready?”
Alexander set his notes aside again. “As much as I will ever be.” He paused to set the away message on his lab phone and gathered up his coat, noticing a distinct absence of Dr. Fourier and Dr. Hui behind Rosemary as he approached the door. “Where are, ah, ‘the kids’?”
“I sent them on ahead.” She tucked her arm through his when he finished locking his lab door and pulled him close to her side, and they continued down the hall together. “I wanted a moment alone with you.”
“Well, then?” Alexander prompted her, already finding it hard to pay attention to what she was saying now that his arm was pressed into the side of her chest.
“Do you really not want to go to happy hour?” There was a touch of anxiety in her voice and in the brief, sideways look she shot up at him.
“I…” Alexander sighed and shrugged.
“Because if you don't want to go… if I was pressing too hard, or overriding your no…”
Alexander pulled her to a halt just inside the front doors of the building, and Dr. Epps looked up at him curiously. “I do not find it an entirely dismal prospect.” Not as long as you are there, he added silently.
Dr. Epps seemed to hear the words he didn't say; her mouth fell open slightly and she blushed. “God, you're a flirt,” she muttered, turning to push through the front doors.
“Look who is talking,” Alexander shot back.
“Yes, but it's much worse coming from you. It’s unexpected.”
“Am I so staid?”
“Dour, I think, is the operative word. And cranky.” Dr. Epps grinned up at him. “I like it.”
“When I am cranky?”
“When you flirt in spite of it.” Another sideways grin from her, and Alexander’s heart thumped hard in his chest.
Damn, he liked this woman. And that thought made it impossible to speak again, but instead of pressing him into conversation, Dr. Epps just walked silently at his side around the corner to the Urania.
The last time Alexander had last been in the bar, he’d still been dating Warren, and the thought had him freezing at the door. Dr. Epps stopped as well, and looked up at him with concern… and Alexander took a deep breath, shook his head, and continued. No. He could do this. He would do this, would manage, for once, to have a perfectly congenial night out with his coworkers without worrying about what Warren Kepler would think or do if he heard about it.
His eyes still darted to the booth that Warren and his cronies usually claimed, but only for a moment, and then he was being nudged by Dr. Epps into a booth with Dr. Fourier and Dr. Hui, and in spite of their usual caution with him, they almost seemed… welcoming? He smiled carefully at them and they smiled back, at least, which was the most positive interaction he’d ever had with them.
“I’ve got my first paycheck now, so first round’s on me, okay?” Dr. Epps beamed across the table at the kids, as she had called them, and they both responded to the warmth of her smile the same way Alexander always did, by leaning towards her unconsciously.
“You’re the new one. We ought to be buying you drinks,” Dr. Fourier protested.
“Nonsense. Now tell me what you want.”
Dr. Hui and Dr. Fourier continued to put up a token resistance, but Dr. Epps eventually wheedled drink orders out of them. “And you?”
“They do Italian sodas here. Hazelnut?”
She smiled and nodded and left for the bar, and Alexander was left at the table with Dr. Hui and Dr. Fourier and no clue where to even start with a topic of conversation.
“Er.” Alexander cleared his throat. “You two have had good week…?”
Dr. Hui shrugged. “Well, we did get some new data on the latest solar flare. Exciting stuff. You?”
“Mm. Wrapped up analysis of latest set of samples from space probe, worked on issue of synthesis. With…” Alexander’s eyes were drawn to Rosemary, who appeared to be flirting with the woman who was working the bar. He suppressed a little stab of jealousy.
“I'm glad you decided to come out with us,” Dr. Fourier said. Alexander snapped back to attention.
“Why?” He asked, unable to be anything but blunt. “I have not gone out of way to be sociable.”
“Not really, no.” Dr. Hui frowned at Alexander, and Alexander resisted the urge to flinch.
“Which is why,” Dr. Fourier said with a glare at Dr. Hui, “it’s nice that you're trying now.”
“Er.” Alexander wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. “Well, it is not as if we often work together. There have not been many opportunities…”
“You always look like you’re ready to bite the head off of anyone who talks to you,” Dr. Hui said, still frowning. “And you shout.”
“Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just him being Russian,” Rosemary said, appearing at the table again, setting drinks in front of Dr. Hui and Dr. Fourier and turning to dart back to the bar.
“I told you,” Dr. Fourier said, frowning back at Dr. Hui. “Russians are just like that.”
“None of the other Russians I’ve met have been cranky and shouty,” Dr. Hui protested.
“Let me guess, the other Russians you’ve met have all been women,” Rosemary interjected, returning to the table with Alexander’s soda and a small glass with a finger of amber liquid in it that reminded him strongly of the fancy scotch Warren had always liked… until he got a whiff of it, and gave it an appalled look.
“What on earth are you drinking, rubbing alcohol?”
“Nonsense, rubbing alcohol isn’t brown.” Rosemary held her glass up to Alexander in a toast. “This is the cheapest damn whiskey in the universe… and it burns like a mother going down.”
Alexander grimaced. “Why would you drink that?”
“Because I want to get pleasantly tipsy, not falling down drunk.” Rosemary took a sip and made a face. “Ugh.”
Alexander glanced across the table to find Dr. Fourier and Dr. Hui watching them with fascination, though both of them quickly smoothed their expressions out when they noticed him looking.
“And that,” Rosemary said, gesturing at Alexander, “Is how you deal with a cranky Russian man. You shout right back at them.”
Alexander blushed and picked up his soda.
Somehow, Rosemary managed to get a pleasant sort of banter going between the four of them, even managing to rope Alexander in when he otherwise would have withdrawn from the conversation and sat quietly as the table. As the evening progressed, Alexander realized that he was almost having fun.
Alexander couldn’t remember the last time he had had fun in a social situation.
And then, Warren Kepler, head of security at Newman Aeronautics, walked in to the bar. Warren sent a brief glance Alexander’s way, and then ignored him, heading to the bar for a glass of that expensive scotch he liked and then to his usual table at the back of the establishment where a few of the other security personnel were seated.
Alexander felt all the blood drain out of his face all the same. He felt faint for a moment, until a firm hand came down on his arm, drawing what little attention he was able to spare.
“You all right?” Dr. Epps murmured from his side.
Alexander nodded, still barely aware of his surroundings, which seemed to be swimming in and out of focus around him.
“Still hard facing the ex, huh?”
“Want to make him jealous?”
“…what?” Alexander snapped out of his daze immediately, suddenly terrified. “No. You cannot imagine… the things he can do to make your life more difficult…”
“I'm not afraid of Warren Kepler,” Dr. Epps said evenly, meeting Alexander’s eye steadily. “Believe me, I've handled worse.” She reached up and cupped his cheek carefully, rubbing her thumb along his cheekbone. “Trust me.”
And when she pulled his face down to hers and pressed a warm, open-mouthed kiss to his lips, he leaned in eagerly, too weak for this woman to resist.
He let out a sigh when she pulled back from the kiss to catch her breath. “Rosemary, I…”
“I was wondering if you remembered my first name,” she said with a smile.
“I did.” He had only looked her up on Newman’s website a few dozen times since her profile had appeared there, just to get a glance of the shining smile on the photograph that accompanied it. It made him smile as well, at least when he was having a good day. And when he was having a bad one...
He did not know what sort of expression was on his own face now, but suspected it was similar to the tender, affectionate look Rosemary was giving him, an expression that made it impossible to resist leaning in and kissing her again.
She was just as eager for him as he was for her, and Alexander forgot the anxiety that the sight of Warren had filled him with, forgot everything but this woman and her kiss and this moment. He knew that eventually reality would set in, eventually they would need to face the fact that this was still a terrible idea… but not right now.
Finally they broke away from one another for a second time. Alexander was vaguely aware of Victoire muttering something to Kuan that sounded an awful lot like “I told you so,” but his attention was locked on the dreamy, content look on Rosemary’s face.
“He will try to hurt you for this,” Alexander murmured.
“Oh, probably.” Rosemary’s tone was nonchalant, but he thought he felt her tremble under the hand he had placed on her shoulder. “Why don't we really make him jealous?”
“How would you propose we do that?”
“Come home with me.”
Alexander drew in a sharp breath. “I thought we agreed that we would not… that it is a bad idea.”
Rosemary tilted her head almost imperceptibly towards the table across the room, where Alexander could see Warren glaring at them both. “He doesn't know that,” she said in a low whisper. “Walk out of here with me. Laughing. Smiling. Make it clear you're living your best life and definitely about to get lucky.”
He knew he should not. But Alexander couldn't quite resist the urge to be the one to flaunt a conquest, even if it was not really one, even if he just planned to walk Rosemary to the bus stop. Not after Warren had done such things so many times himself back when they had been dating. “Very well.”
Rosemary turned to Victoire and Kuan with a grin on her face. “I hope you don't mind, but I think we're going to head out.”
“Not at all.” Victoire’s eyebrows were raised, though Alexander could not tell if it was in surprise or judgement.
“See you two Monday, then.” Rosemary nudged Alexander in the side and gave him a significant look.
“Ah. Yes. Monday,” he said with a little nod to the two other scientists.
There. Definitely surprise, from both of them. But Alexander only registered it for the moment it took to slip into his coat, because seconds later he was following Rosemary out of the bar.
She pulled him to a halt outside of the plate glass window at the front of the bar. “Here,” she said, as she reached up to tweak his scarf into position. “Let's give Warren something more to think about.” And then she pulled him down into another kiss.
He thought that perhaps she had been searching for a reason to kiss him.
Perhaps not. Perhaps it had all been a show to make Alexander feel better and to ruffle Warren’s tail feathers a bit. After all, Rosemary did not make another move in that direction as he walked her to the bus stop.
“You will be fine from here?”
“I suppose so.” Rosemary looked up at him with those wide, dark eyes of hers, searching his face. “Or… you really could come home with me.”
“It wouldn’t have to be for… well, you know.” She sighed. “We could just… just sit. And talk.” She gave him a wistful look. “I like you. And…” another sigh. “If I’m going to be punished for something, I’d like it to be for something I’ve actually done.”
“You are trying to make me feel guilty,” Alexander said, somewhat bemused.
“Is it working?”
“It is a terrible strategy.”
“I know.” Rosemary was looking up at him hopefully. “Come home with me.”
And a few minutes later, when the bus arrived, he followed Rosemary on board.
Isabel woke up feeling like something wasn't quite right in the apartment… and then she remembered. Alexander hadn't come home the night before. She'd assumed that he was just putting in a late night, like he sometimes did; a text to his cell hadn't gotten any response, but that wasn't surprising given the concrete block his lab was in, and he always texted her back once he got signal again.
But usually when she fell asleep before Alexander got home, Isabel woke up just enough to take note of it when he finally came into the apartment, and last night? Last night she hadn't.
She told herself that she'd just been tired. She told herself she’d slept through Alexander getting home for once. And then she checked her phone again, there was still no response to her text asking if he was working late.
She lasted through her shower and brushing her teeth before giving in to the urge to knock on his bedroom door and, when there was no answer, let herself in.
Alexander’s bed didn't look as if it had been slept in at all. So either he'd already been and gone… or he hadn't come home the night before. Isabel shoved down a surge of panic.
Right. First things first. She dialed up the connection for his lab… and got redirected to voicemail immediately. So he must have left work and intended to be gone overnight, if not all weekend, and he hadn't returned there this morning. Next, she tried his cell phone… and again, her call rang straight through to voicemail. So either Alexander had turned his phone off for some reason… or someone else had done it.
Isabel sat down on the couch and set her phone to one side, then bent her body over her knees and tried not to hyperventilate. It would be fine. Alexander was probably fine. There was no reason to think that anything really terrible had happened to him. Maybe three or four years ago, but now? Now he’d probably just set his lab phone for the weekend and then had gotten distracted on his way out the door by a sudden solution for a tricky problem. No doubt she’d get an apologetic call or text from him any moment.
Isabel’s phone buzzed, and she snatched it up.
It was Min.
Looking forward to seeing you tonight! Your roommate going to make it?
Isabel frowned and typed a quick message back. Not sure. He didn’t come home last night
That got an instant reply from Min. Is he okay?
Isabel responded with shaking fingers. I don't know
Are you okay?
I don't know, she typed again.
I’m coming over.
Isabel set her phone down… and then picked it up again. She should start calling local hospitals. Just in case.
She was halfway through her numb recitation of Alexander’s physical details when Min arrived.
“Hospital?” Min mouthed as Isabel opened the door to her.
Isabel nodded. “No one matching that description arrived last night? Okay. Thank you for checking.” She hung up with a sigh of relief. Barring some accident so bad it had mangled Alexander beyond recognition, it seemed he wasn't in the hospital.
Of course, that didn't mean he wasn't dead in a ditch somewhere. She tried his number again, and again, just got voicemail.
“Have you tried the police station?”
“No,” Isabel said, hanging up instead of leaving another message.
“Want me to take over?” Min had a concerned look on her face.
“I can manage. You’d just have to ask me for details while on the phone.”
“Maybe not many.” Min looked awkward for a moment. “I've been meaning to ask. Your roommate is Alex Hilbert, right?”
Isabel almost dropped her phone. “You know him? Wait, he knows you? But he didn't say.”
“Well, he knew me as Renée. And we didn't really hang out socially outside of theater things, and really he was only ever around because he was dating Warren back then. But that first night I came over here, I ran into him on the stairs, and you said your roommate is named Alexander, so… I wondered.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s him.”
“So. Five six, about 130, glasses, wavy black hair?”
“He’s gone about half-grey, now.”
“He was wearing a hat the other night. Done with hospitals?”
“I'll call the police station. Sit for a bit. You look…” Min tilted her head to one side with a frown, and Isabel let out a little laugh that verged in hysterical.
“I'll sit.” Isabel flung herself on the couch… but as Min started talking on the phone, she found herself back on her feet, pacing the apartment. Maybe… that woman Rosemary had given Isabel her phone number…
Rosemary’s number went instantly to voicemail. “FUCK.” Isabel flung her phone down on her couch.
A few minutes later, Min joined Isabel on the couch. “Not at the police station.”
“Okay.” Isabel shook her head, trying to dislodge the panicked numbness that had overtaken her. “Okay. Let me just think…”
“Do you know his passwords? He might have ‘find my phone’ turned on, and I think it should work for a general location if it’s just in Do Not Disturb instead of turned off or airplane mode.”
Isabel was an idiot. She stood up from the couch and practically dove for Alexander’s bedroom door, flinging his laptop open. He had a password manager… and she had the password for that. “He’s downtown,” she said breathlessly after a few minutes. “Near…”
Min peered over Isabel’s shoulder. “I know where that is. Come on. I've got the car.”
“Thank you. God, thank you.”
Min silently squeezed Isabel’s shoulder.
Five minutes later, they were on the road.
The buzzer on Rosemary’s door was going off, and Alexander forced himself into wakefulness, or rather, a groggy facsimile thereof. Rosemary had already rolled out of bed and had shrugged into her robe on her way to answer it. He listened, relaxed on the bed, barely able to hear the muffled conversation Rosemary was having with whoever it was on the intercom. And then she reappeared in the bedroom door. “Hey. Might want to put some pants on. Your roommate is here.”
Alexander blinked sleepily and sat up. It had taken him and Rosemary a long time to unwind the night before; while they were both on the bus, texts from an unknown number had started pouring in, first to Alexander’s phone… and then—after he had handed the phone over to Rosemary with shaking hands so that she could put it on Do Not Disturb because he didn't dare catch more than a glimpse of the notifications himself—to Rosemary’s phone as well.
She was made of stronger stuff than he was; she had flipped through some of the messages and had let out a scoff of disbelief before turning her phone off entirely.
But Rosemary’s nonchalance had not stopped them both from being tense and miserable the night before, when they had finally made it to her apartment… and that had lead to a night where every attempt to recapture the heat that had been between them on New Years failed.
What Rosemary had said finally made an impact on Alexander’s brain as he watched Rosemary pick up his clothing and shake it out, laying it on the bed next to him. “My roommate?” he asked in disbelief, scrambling for his boxers.
“Isabel Lovelace? Tall, butch, too much energy for her own good? Ring any bells?”
“Yes,” Alexander said, sliding in to his trousers before taking the undershirt Rosemary was offering. “You have met her?”
“She asked me out for a coffee earlier this week.”
Alexander frowned. Had things fallen apart with Isabel’s married couple so quickly? Was he going to be competing against his best friend for Rosemary’s affections, such as they were? “You met her at club?”
Rosemary shot him an indecipherable look. “No, I met her for coffee. She figured out who I was from Newman’s website and emailed me.”
Alexander snatched his button-up out of Rosemary’s hand, feeling a sudden surge of irritation. “Why?”
Rosemary was pulling fresh clothing for herself out of drawers, but glanced his way with what Alexander thought was feigned nonchalance. “She wanted to talk about you.”
Alexander scowled. Of course. Of course Isabel had stuck her nose into this. No wonder things had eventually turned so awkward the night before; no doubt a good deal of pity had motivated Rosemary, from her decision to kiss him to the one to bring him home, and pity was no basis for… Alexander sighed, and dismissed the train of thought. He had already given this woman up once; he could do it again. He finished with the buttons on his shirt, pulled his socks on, and stalked past Rosemary to her bedroom door, ignoring the startled look she shot his direction.
The door of the apartment was slightly ajar, and as Alexander entered the tiny, open plan kitchen-and-living-room area of Rosemary’s apartment, Isabel flung the door the rest of the way open… and then flung herself on Alexander.
“Alexander. Thank god.” Her hug was crushingly tight, betraying the anxiety that must have brought her here… and despite that, he was still too angry at her to want her anywhere near him. He shrugged her off of him and stepped back.
“Isabel. What is meaning of this?” Behind Isabel, he could see another tall figure enter the apartment… and then Rosemary emerged from her bedroom, getting Alexander’s attention with a firm hand on his shoulder.
“I'll take Isabel’s friend around the corner to get us some breakfast,” Rosemary said in her low, raspy voice. “Give you a chance to sort this.”
Alexander nodded stiffly, and Rosemary left his side to gather up her coat.
And then, he and Isabel were the only two people left in the apartment.
“So.” Min said, standing awkwardly in the hallway after the short, Black woman who was obviously the occupant of the apartment they’d found Alex in had shooed her out, following close behind. “Figure trapping them in there together will get them to sort things out?”
The woman laughed. “Well, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to get my deposit back if they murder each other in there, so I hope so.” She held her hand out to Min. “Rosemary Epps.”
Min took the hand and the surprisingly strong handshake that came with it. “Renée Minkowski. Min to my friends.”
Rosemary raised a dubious eyebrow. “Am I one of those?”
“Well, it looks like you’re dating my girlfriend’s roommate, so things might get a bit weird if we can’t at least be friendly with one another.”
“Fair enough. Now, please tell me there’s actually somewhere around here where we can get a decent breakfast to go, because I’ve only lived here a month and I have absolutely no clue.” Rosemary tweaked her scarf up around her ears and headed down the hall without waiting for Min.
“On Saturday... Hm.” Min thought it over as she trailed down the hallway in Rosemary’s wake. “Well, it’s not quite in the neighborhood, but I’ve got my car with me... do you like Polish food?”
“Please tell me you’re talking about some place we can get Paczki when it’s not Easter.”
Rosemary paused and turned with a huge grin on her face, letting Min catch up with her. “Lead the way.”
Back in the apartment, Isabel was facing down a furious Alexander and wishing she still had Min at her side. Not that she was afraid of him, but Min’s presence would have forced them both to put on polite, public masks for a bit, and hopefully after that bit Alexander would have cooled off.
“I cannot believe,” he said icily, breaking the long silence that had hung between them after Min and Rosemary had left the apartment, “that you talked to Rosemary about me behind my back.”
“I was trying to help!”
“You were trying to meddle in my life!” Alexander glared at her. “I am not a child, Isabel! I can manage my own affairs!”
“Right, and that’s why you’ve been moping around the apartment for the last month! Because you’re so good at managing your own affairs!” Isabel was trying not to shout and mostly failing. “Hell of a hill to die on when you obviously spent last night here!”
“Because she pitied me,” Alexander hissed out.
“Yeah, sure,” Isabel spat in return. “I met her this week, Alexander! Once, for fifteen minutes, over coffee, because I was curious and so was she, because apparently you’ve told her enough about me behind my back that she wanted to meet me.” Isabel paused and took a deep breath, continuing when Alexander didn’t interject. “If she was nice to you up until that point, it has nothing to do with me. And neither does you ending up here.”
Alexander snorted angrily and looked off to one side. “I do not think you can claim that.”
“Dude, she’s hot for you.” Alexander looked up again, startled, and Isabel continued. “I was kind of grossed out, to be honest. She said she... ugh, what was the phrasing she used. Something about wanting to bang you senseless every night of the week.”
“She said that out loud?”
“In the middle of a crowded cafe. I know.”
Alexander’s anger had bled away, and now the set of his shoulders betrayed exhaustion. “It is simply... I will always wonder, you understand? If she wants me for myself, or because...” he sighed, and then frowned, suddenly alert once more. “Why are you here?”
Isabel swallowed hard, her throat suddenly tight. “You didn’t come home last night,” she managed to croak out.
“I did not come home on New Years Eve, but you did not come hunt me down then.”
“You answered your phone then.” Isabel swiped angrily at the tears that were now pouring down her cheeks. “I thought...”
“Ah.” Alexander’s arms were around her in an instant, and Isabel let herself collapse against him, burying her head against his shoulder.
He hugged her tighter. “Do not be. I should have texted you.”
“No, I mean, I know it was an overreaction.” Isabel pulled herself away a bit. “I just...”
“You never did go to therapy, did you?” Alexander frowned at her. “You dragged me off to therapist, to psychiatrist, but you did not ever go yourself.”
“You are not. I do not think you have been since you left Air Force.”
“Yeah, well, I can manage myself.” Isabel ripped the rest of the way away from Alexander and stalked across the room. Now that the fear she’d been feeling all morning had abated, she felt itchy and restless.
“Like I was able to manage myself?” Alexander said mildly. Isabel turned to glare at him, and he held his hands up disarmingly. “I would not have been able to get through those first few months after without your help. I would have ended it, one way or another.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not catatonic, and I don’t need to see a goddamn therapist.” The expression on Alexander’s face was vaguely pitying, and that made her angrier. “I don’t,” she insisted again, her voice choking up once more.
“You cannot use fixing my life as an excuse to ignore the fact that you are not happy with your own, Isabel.”
Isabel burst into tears again.
Rosemary turned her phone back on once she was in the car with Min, and winced as an absolutely ludicrous number of notifications pinged all at once.
“That sounds exciting,” Min said, obviously trying to come up with some topic of conversation, no matter how awkward.
“Not exactly.” Rosemary unlocked her phone and started screenshotting the texts, blocking the numbers they’d come in from as she did. “I think Alexander’s ex took offense when I decided to take him home with me.”
Min was silent for a moment, and then said hesitantly, “ Warren?”
“You know about that too, then?”
“Well, I only got the bare bones from Isabel, but it sounded like the breakup was pretty bad. Probably worse than I’d imagined, given all of this.”
“Are you deleting them?” Min’s hands were clenched tight on the steering wheel.
“God, no. I’m just making sure I’ve got screenshots backed up a couple of places in case this leads into restraining order territory.”
Min relaxed. “Good. Though make sure you’ve got an offline backup if you can. Evidence tends to go missing where Warren Kepler’s involved.”
Rosemary raised an eyebrow. “Good to know. I think I’ll just send the screenshots to a friend I can trust to back them up now.”
“Probably a good idea.”
Rosemary finished screenshotting the last batch of texts as they pulled up next to a storefront that advertised the presence of Paczki within its walls in large letters and multiple fonts. “Goodness.”
Min laughed. “Yeah, I know. But they’re the only Polish bakery around here, so you sort of learn to ignore the garish signage.”
Ten minutes later they were back in the car, coffee for the four of them and a load of sugar-dusted donuts with assorted fillings in hand, the smell of the sugar lifting Rosemary’s mood, which had been sour ever since she had turned her phone back on.
Donuts made everything better.
Alexander retrieved a box of tissues from a side table and sat down on Rosemary’s couch, just watching his friend as she paced the apartment, tears streaming down her face. Isabel eventually collapsed on the couch at his side, taking the wad of tissues he offered her and wiping aggressively at her face before blowing her nose.
“So?” he asked her.
“You’re right. I need to see a therapist.” She laughed softly and let her head fall back against the cushions of the couch. “Goddamnit.”
“I can get you some names. Of people who are taking patients, that is.”
“That… would be nice,” Isabel said grudgingly.
“Good.” Alexander lifted his arm from his side and Isabel fell against him, tucking her head against his shoulder as he hugged her close. “I will make sure you go to appointments.”
“It’s going to be a pain to pay for. My health insurance is shit.”
“I will pay.”
“Would you be this bad, if you were not putting all the pressure of caring for me on yourself?”
Isabel was silent.
“Then I will pay.”
“How about we go dutch?”
Alexander laughed. “I could accept that. As long as you go.”
There was the sound of keys in the door, and Rosemary entered the apartment, a large white box balanced on her hip, closely followed by Min with a cardboard cup holder full of to-go coffee cups.
“Here, one of those terrible lattes you like so much,” Min said, crossing the room and handing one of the cups over to Isabel.
“And a custard-filled Paczki for you,” Rosemary said, passing over a round donut covered in powdered sugar and half-wrapped in waxed paper, which Alexander took without thinking and almost dropped as Rosemary immediately plopped down on the arm of the couch and leaned over to wrap her arm across his shoulders and kiss his cheek.
Min had settled herself on the other side of Isabel, leaning her head against Isabel’s shoulder and resting her hand on Isabel’s thigh, though to Alexander’s surprise, his roommate didn’t do the usual thing she did when she had a girlfriend around and avoid any sign that she and Alexander were any closer than roommates. Instead, she just reached up to ruffle Min’s hair with her free hand and smiled.
“Want to go to dinner at Min’s house tonight?” Rosemary asked, pressing a kiss to Alexander’s temple.
“Oh, damnit, I forgot to ask you,” Isabel said.
“I figured,” Min murmured, sounding very content from her position at Isabel’s side. “And I figured one more wouldn’t make too big a difference. And someone should rescue these coffees from me before I doze off here.”
Rosemary laughed and slid back off the couch arm, doing just that, claiming one of the cups for herself as she did so. “And who else wants a Paczki?”
Alexander straightened up from where he’d leaned back against Isabel, and the other two on the couch followed his lead, with a little bit of good-natured grumbling from Min.
“I figure we might want to have a little war conference,” Rosemary said once the coffee and donuts were distributed. She had perched herself cross-legged on one of the boxes that still littered her living room, even after a month of living there, and Alexander missed her warm weight against his side. “I really don’t know what I ought to expect from Warren Kepler, but some of those texts were… well, let’s say I’m a little more concerned than I was yesterday.”
“Texts?” Isabel asked.
“Ah.” Alexander dug his own phone out of his pocket and handed it to Isabel, who turned off Do Not Disturb and immediately winced as notifications started pouring in.
“You too?” Min asked, frowning over Isabel’s shoulder at the phone, letting out a low hiss of breath as she started reading. “Goddamn Warren.”
“Is he the sort to resort to physical violence when he feels thwarted?”
All three of them looked up at Rosemary’s question, and Alexander suspected his frown was mirrored on Isabel and Min’s faces.
“Not… not that I’m aware of,” Min said shakily.
“He has used physical intimidation, but violence?” Alexander shook his head. “But there was always threat of it, you understand? He would…” His voice choked up in his throat, and Isabel put her hand on his arm, obviously concerned. Alexander took a deep breath and continued. “He would lean over me, or punch wall next to head. But it never escalated.”
“Well, that’s something,” Rosemary said, chewing on her lower lip. She took a contemplative bite of her donut, and Alexander found himself wanting to lick the custard that oozed out the sides of it off of the corner of her mouth. Damn, but he was hopeless where this woman was concerned.
“What set him off?” Isabel asked faintly, still scrolling through the texts and screenshotting as she went.
“Ah,” Alexander said.
“Mm,” Rosemary hummed.
“We may have, uh.”
“I kissed him senseless in public because I knew Warren was watching,” Rosemary concluded.
Min made a small sound of disbelief, and no wonder; Alexander had never been much for public displays of affection back when she had first known him.
“Really.” Isabel raised her eyebrows, and Alexander caught sight of her giving him a significant look out of the corner of his eye. He ignored her.
“Really,” he responded. “And that is all that happened last night.”
“This would ruin anyone’s mood,” Isabel said, gesturing with the phone.
“So what can we do about it?” Rosemary asked. “Or do we just wait and see what he does next?”
Alexander sighed. “I hate to say it, but…”
“What I was afraid you’d say.” Rosemary sighed as well. “Oh, well. Anyone want another donut?”
This chapter gets a little bit smutty.
Alexander turned down Min’s offer of dinner, in the end. “Another time, though,” he said, truly meaning it. “But I think...” and he had let his gaze rest meaningfully on Rosemary, and Min had laughed at that and nodded and had dragged Isabel off, leaving him alone in the apartment with Rosemary.
Of course, he didn’t know where to start.
Rosemary didn’t seem to know either. She fidgeted around her kitchen after Min and Isabel left, throwing away the trash from their breakfast, wiping down the counter with a wet paper towel. Alexander sat on the couch as she went about these tasks, staring somewhat mindlessly at the floor, making out patterns in the stains that weren’t entirely hidden by its rough weave.
“I am sorry,” he said finally.
“Goodness, for what?” He heard the damp thud of the paper towel hitting the side of the trash can, and then Rosemary was at his side, leaning on the arm of the sofa again instead of settling at his side on the cushions, an arrangement that let her easily throw her arm over his shoulders and which, he was just noticing, put her chest at head height.
Rosemary let out a little laugh. “Go on then. I can see you thinking about it.”
Alexander let out a low groan and buried his face between her breasts. They weren’t as soft as they looked—he had seen her naked and knew that it took a great deal of structural engineering to make her chest look as perky as it currently did—but it was satisfying and strangely comforting all the same.
Rosemary let out a low laugh and stroked his hair. “Men. Honestly.”
Alexander turned his head to one side so that he could speak unmuffled. “You object?”
“Did I say that? It’s just women tend not to be quite as interested in just making pillows out of them, while every man I’ve ever dated has given in to the urge to just faceplant in the cleavage at least once.”
“Mm,” Alexander hummed in agreement, burying his face in the aforementioned cleavage once again. “Take your bra off.”
“Oh, now you’re horny,” Rosemary said in mock irritation, a low thrum of laughter hiding beneath. But she complied, and in very short order they found themselves in her bedroom, recapturing the heat of their first night together and more.
“I’m sorry,” he said again afterwards, when they were laying side by side in her bed, Rosemary’s head heavy against his shoulder.
She pressed a lazy kiss to his neck. “You keep saying that, but I’m not entirely sure what for. I hope you’re not sorry for fucking me senseless?”
Alexander blushed, and Rosemary let out a low chuckle and pressed more kisses to his neck. “No,” he said, smiling at her. “Definitely not sorry for that.”
“It’s whatever this thing is with you and your ex, huh,” she said, a distressing amount of insight given the fact that they had only known one another for a bare month.
Alexander nodded. “I did not want him fixing on you as a... as a target.”
Rosemary let out a low, disgruntled noise. “I’ve dealt with being a target before,” she muttered against his neck.
The thought chilled Alexander’s blood. Rosemary might not be a small woman in some respects, but she was still a good half foot shorter than he was himself... and he was not a tall man.
“I did cam shows,” she said quietly, continuing, her words sending a low shock through Alexander. “Well. The internet made it easy, and there have always been fellows who liked to see a woman with a bit of heft enjoying herself. And there was a bit after grad school when I kept going from dead-end job to dead-end job, but as long as I had the cam shows I wasn’t starving between jobs. But a few of the guys who watched a lot got really...” she shuddered and curled closer against his side, and Alexander ran a gentling hand down her arm. “Anyway, it was almost twenty years ago now. And I had friends I could turn to, because you know the police weren’t doing a damn thing, and not just because what I was doing wasn’t strictly legal.”
Alexander considered what she had just told him, fitting this new knowledge into what he already knew of her. No, there was no point in being jealous of the audience she had shared her body with, because that had been, as she had said, twenty years ago. And of course it didn’t change his opinion of her work now—he had seen her in action, and he knew she was good at her job, and the fact that she had needed to resort to sex work in the past when starting out in her career was no blemish on her person.
No, the main thought in his head was that she must have been very good at what she had done. She was open and responsive in bed with him, and she had a cheerful, friendly way about her, and he could easily imagine her charming tips out of viewers before she had even taken her clothing off.
“Did you enjoy doing the shows, before things got bad?” he found himself asking.
There was a low laugh from Rosemary. “I was worried about how you would take it, but you’re interested, aren’t you.”
“I have never watched cam show.”
“It’s just a performance, in the end,” Rosemary said, a little flippantly.
“...want me to show you?”
She pushed upright and smiled down at him. “I’ve never done this with a captive audience. I might get stage fright.” As she spoke, she trailed a finger down his chest, down, down into the trail of dark hair on his abdomen, stopping there and leaving him breathless with want.
“Naughty man. I do know some Russian, you know.” But her fingers closed around his cock all the same, and he felt as if he would never breathe again. “Usually I’d have props, but let’s see how far I can get with the materials at hand, hm?”
He managed to hold still for a bare five minutes before deciding to make her performance a collaboration.
Isabel slid in to the passenger seat of Min’s car and buckled up, but it seemed like Min was in no hurry to go anywhere right away.
“You okay?” she asked.
Isabel tried to answer and eventually settled for a shrug.
“You still up for dinner with Dom and Doug?”
Another shrug, followed by a sigh. Isabel sank back into her seat, shutting her eyes. “I don’t know,” she eventually forced out, her voice small and raspy in her throat.
“That’s okay.” Min’s hand came down on her shoulder, tentative at first and then firmer when Isabel didn’t flinch away. “Look, I don’t want to leave you alone right now. Come home with me?”
Isabel flinched at that. “I don’t know...”
“I’ll hide you away in a bedroom. Just the two of us.”
Hiding in a bedroom with Min cuddled up against her was more than a little tempting, even if it wasn’t her own bedroom. “All right.”
When they came in the front door of Min’s house, Dom poked his head out of the kitchen, clearly preparing to greet them both... and then he met Min’s eye, nodded, and disappeared back into the kitchen without a word.
Min lead Isabel down the hall to her bedroom, and before long they were cuddled up on the bed under a pile of blankets, Min wrapped around Isabel from behind, her face nestled against the nape of Isabel’s neck. Isabel knew that before long, she would be too warm like this, but right now, both of them still chilled from the frigid winter weather and a car that hadn’t quite had the time to warm up during the drive to Min’s house, it was perfect. She relaxed like that, mindlessly tracing Min’s bicep with a finger, feeling Min’s smile against the back of her neck.
Min shifted against her and pressed a kiss behind Isabel’s ear. “Feeling better?”
Isabel let out a shaky laugh. “Can’t you tell?”
The bracing strength of Min’s arm snugged Isabel even closer. “I was hoping. But sometimes it’s better to ask and hear the words.”
“I’m feeling better.”
Min pressed another kiss behind Isabel’s ear. “Good.” Her arm released, and Isabel almost protested until she felt Min’s hands on her shoulders, seeking out tense muscles and rubbing them into submission. “Bet I can make it even better, though.”
Isabel whimpered as Min found a knot she hadn’t even realized was there. “Oh my god.”
“I know the muscles pretty well,” Min said conversationally, “but I’m not exactly trained in this. We should get you an appointment with a proper masseuse.”
“Like I can—oh!—“ Isabel gasped as Min dug her thumbs into another stubborn knot.
“Like you can...?”
“Tell,” Isabel let out on a low hiss of breath, finishing her aborted sentence. “What the hell did you just dig your fingers into?”
“Either a knot that’s been there since the dawn of time or some kind of alien parasite that’s fused with your body,” came Min’s measured response. “Want me to stop?”
“Don’t you dare.”
Isabel let herself drift as Min worked away at her back and shoulders, though she suspected she was making the sort of sounds that would make anyone listening in think she was being murdered.
Finally, Min came to a halt and pressed a kiss to the back of Isabel’s neck, an obvious smile on her lips. “Better?”
“Than I have been in months.”
“I’ll have to get you an appointment with my massage therapist.”
“Oh, don’t. I can’t afford regular massages and I know I’d want more.”
“So let me pay for them for you,” Min said stubbornly. “I can afford it, and I get discounted rates at the gym I work at.”
Isabel felt as if something had broken inside her. She started crying again and hating herself for it; after her outburst in Rosemary’s apartment, she had cried more today than she had in years. “I can’t. First Alexander... and then you... but I can’t let you pay for things for me.”
Min sighed and held Isabel close once more. “Look. If the people who l—who care about you can’t buy you nice things, who can?” she murmured against Isabel’s ear. “The fact that we want to means you probably need it. So let us buy you the things that you need, all right?”
Isabel let out a watery and, she suspected, wholly unconvincing laugh. “All right.” She reached for the tissue box on the bedside table and grabbed a few, mopping at her streaming nose. “Min?”
“Were you just about to say you love me?”
Min tensed against her. “I... it’s—it feels too early for that. And maybe love isn’t the right word. It’s just... I met you. And I knew within a few days that you were someone I wanted in my life for as long as you were willing to stay.” Min paused, and Isabel waited breathlessly. “And now that I say that out loud, I suppose it isn’t any less intense than saying I love you after two months. So yeah. I love you.”
Isabel laughed again, this time a little hysterical.
Isabel fought for breath and turned in Min’s arms so that her girlfriend could see her expression. “No, sorry. It isn’t you. I just...” She managed a proper, deep breath, and got the laughter under control. “It’s been a long day.”
Min nodded, looking her in the eye. “It has.”
“And I love you too.”
“Oh...” Min teared up suddenly herself, looking shocked. “Thanks.”
Isabel leaned in and nudged Min’s nose with her own, a soft little nuzzle that left Min smiling. “That was a terrible acknowledgement.”
“Let me do better,” Min said, and then her mouth was on Isabel’s and her hands were pulling her close and closer still. She broke the kiss to murmur a frantic and half-incoherent “Do you want?” against Isabel’s ear, and at Isabel’s just-as-frantic nod, grabbed the hem of Isabel’s shirt and pulled it over her head, stripped her bare of pants and socks and undergarments, making a strange wiggling dance of it as Isabel did her best to rid Min of her clothing as well.
“God, you’re beautiful.” Isabel pressed a kiss to Min’s collarbone, smoothing her hand down Min’s side.
“I won the mixed genetics lottery, it’s true,” Min said in a self-effacing tone.
“It’s not that. It’s…” Isabel looked her girlfriend in the eye and tried to find the words, and finally shrugged. “I’m used to being the big one. The tall one. The protector. It’s weird—good weird, but weird—being on the other side of that dynamic. And you’re…” she traced fingers down Min’s side, cupped the round, muscular curve of her hip. “You’re just beautiful. Every bit of you.”
Min looked strangely touched. “You deserve to be protected,” she said, leaning her forehead against Isabel’s. “And you can protect me too, if you want.”
Isabel found herself tearing up again at that. “I’d like that.”
“Good. But I think right now…” and Min’s hand grabbed Isabel’s leg by the thigh and drew it over her hip. “Right now let’s both be vulnerable for a bit, and leave all the protecting to someone else.”
Isabel smiled, her lips brushing against Min's as she responded. “I think I’d like that too.”
Rosemary had hoped to have a day or two more to gather her resources, but unfortunately, it seemed Warren Kepler was a strike first, sort out the mess later sort of fellow. She found herself summoned to his office first thing on Monday, the phone in her lab ringing before she’d even had time to remove her coat.
“As you say.”
There was a pause long enough for Rosemary to get impatient. “Well?”
“Come to my office.”
There was a click as he hung up, and Rosemary shook her head. The man’s drawn-out drawl really got under her skin.
That was the purpose of it, she suspected.
“And why have I been called in by the head of security on this bright and sunny Monday?” Rosemary asked when she reached his office, false cheer thick on her tongue.
Warren only raised an eyebrow and deliberately set a piece of paper down on the desk between them. Rosemary picked it up and scanned it quickly.
It was a notice of her bankruptcy filing.
She set the piece of paper back down on the desk, just as deliberately as Warren had, and raised an eyebrow back at him. “Yes?”
“You filed for bankruptcy three months ago.”
“I did.” Rosemary gestured at the paper as if to add a non-verbal “obviously” to her spoken response.
“You did not disclose this in your application.”
Rosemary snorted. Was this all he had? “Well, for one, it’s not at all relevant to my position. And for the other...” she trailed off, intent on making him lose his patience.
Warren took her bait the instant before the silence stretched long enough to make her uncomfortable as well. “For the other?”
“For the other, I did disclose it. Might want to get HR to forward my cover letter, though I’m surprised you didn’t have it on hand already. Don’t they send you everything when it’s time to run background checks?”
A vein popped up in Warren’s forehead. “They were supposed to. If you’ll just give me a moment?”
Rosemary pasted a false smile on her face. “Take your time.”
He had already picked up his office phone and had dialed a number she suspected belonged to the HR department.
“Rachel,” he began brusquely when someone finally answered the phone. The head of HR. Rosemary rather suspected that Rachel found the man even more annoying than she did herself... but at least Rachel was at a level where she could strike back at Warren on a relatively even playing field, or at least that was how it seemed based on how the half of the conversation Rosemary could overhear had gone so far.
Warren was frowning into his phone now. “Yes, I do consider things like that relevant to company security, and you should know that by now. Would you just forward it?”
There was a ping from Warren’s computer, and with an extremely sarcastic “Thank you so much,” he hung up.
That vein in his forehead bulged again as he read Rosemary’s cover letter.
“Do things like this happen often?”
There was the slightest tension in Warren’s jaw as he glanced up at her. “Not at all.”
“Well, it’s good to hear that the security office here is doing their job. Anything else?” she asked brightly when he clicked the window shut.
“Not at right now,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Then how about I just get on with my day.” Rosemary got to her feet and made for the door of Warren’s office.
She only got two steps before he called her back with a laconic “Oh, wait just a moment, Miss Epps. There was one other thing.”
Rosemary turned back, gritting her teeth even as she smiled. “As I mentioned before, it is Dr. Epps,” she said in the sort of voice usually used for chastising small children who weren’t particularly bright. “What is it?”
He placed another piece of paper on his desk. Even from her position by the door, Rosemary could see that it was a printout of a photo of some kind.
Even if she couldn’t make out details from this distance without her reading glasses, she rather suspected she knew exactly what it was. Two steps back towards the desk confirmed her suspicion. “She’s very attractive,” Rosemary heard herself saying calmly, “but I don’t know why you’re showing me a photo of a half-naked woman. Do I need to get HR to put you in for some training on what constitutes sexual harassment?”
“This,” Warren said, pressing a fingertip down on the image, right over the woman’s throat, “is you.”
Rosemary deliberately raised her eyebrows. “Is it?”
“You know it is.”
“Do I?” Rosemary asked, keeping her voice as mild and disinterested as she could manage. “Goodness. I must be holding up better than I thought. I could have sworn my boobs were down by my waistline by now.”
Warren rolled his eyes. “It’s from 2000.”
“Oh, poor thing. She must be good friends with gravity by now.”
That vein popped up once more. Rosemary was beginning to wonder if she ought to be worrying about his blood pressure. “Somehow, it seems like you aren’t taking this seriously,” Warren drawled.
“Oh, I’m taking it very seriously. I’m just not entirely certain what you’re trying to achieve,” Rosemary drawled back, mimicking the man’s cadence.
“You do understand that I hold your job in my hands right now.”
“Do you? How alarming.”
“And there you go not taking this seriously again.”
Rosemary raised an eyebrow. “Look, if you’re going to make a demand, could you just make it and get this over with?”
“Stay away from Alexander Hilbert or this goes to him,” Warren said, clear and deliberate.
“Goodness.” Rosemary reached out and trailed a finger along the curve of a photographed thigh. Damn, but she had been a glorious thing in her twenties. “And if, by some chance, dear Alexander is aware of my supposedly sordid past and finds it, ah, interesting?”
“Then it goes to Newman and Pryce.”
“Let’s just take it to them right now, shall we?” Rosemary smiled, sharp and wild, and Warren gave her a cautious look. “But before you do... please do check my educational history against Dr. Pryce’s. I’m sure you’ll find it... enlightening.”
Warren frowned, but turned to his computer and searched something up, cursing under his breath as he read over what he’d found. “You were in the same graduate program.”
“For two years before she made the shift to her current area of expertise.”
“So Miranda knows. Which means Newman knows about this as well.”
Rosemary opened her eyes wide. “Knows about what? I’m afraid I haven’t got the faintest clue what you are talking about.”
Warren didn’t protest again that she wasn’t taking this seriously or that she did know what he was talking about. Instead, he was studying Rosemary with a frown. “What are you?”
“I don’t really care to tell you,” Rosemary said flippantly. “Now, if you don’t mind, I would really like to get on with my work day...?” She trailed off suggestively, raising her eyebrows.
He jerked his chin towards the door. “Go on, then.”
Rosemary smiled brightly at him. “Have a wonderful day!”
She waited until she was back in her lab to collapse. Oh, she really hadn’t expected to be able to brazen it out like that. Telling Alexander had been good practice... and, of course, Warren hadn’t uncovered anything truly mortifying.
Not yet, anyway.
Hopefully, not ever.
Of course, Warren apparently didn’t need to figure out anything embarrassing about her to make her life miserable, she realized when she returned to her crappy apartment at the end of the day to find an eviction notice on her door.
Rosemary was late again. They had decided to keep their interactions to a minimum at work for right now—“Strictly professional,” Rosemary had said with a look on her face that indicated she would quite like to be unprofessional with him at work if she got the chance—but he had still noticed the lateness. Add that to the fact that they had only seen each other in passing the day before, and he could only bring himself to wait half an hour after she got in (plus the time it took to go to the cafeteria and get a very large cup of extremely strong coffee) before knocking on her lab door.
She was hunched over a microscope when he entered, a deep frown etched between her eyebrows that loosened and disappeared when she glanced up and noticed him. For all that it was only a small indication that she enjoyed his presence, it made his heart skip a beat all the same.
And then she caught sight of the coffee and her eyes lit up. Alexander laughed and handed it over. “Yes, this is for you.”
“God, thank you.” Rosemary shut her eyes and took a sip. “I didn’t have time to grab my own this morning, and I’m a little behind in things after the past couple of days.”
“Something is wrong?”
She opened her eyes again, but kept them fixed on the coffee cup, a rictus of a smile stretching her cheeks. “I spent the morning in my landlord’s office, trying to convince him not to evict me. “
Alexander let out a cluck of concern. “What happened?”
“Apparently he plays poker with one Warren Kepler, and they’ve got a bit of a good old boys club thing going. But it’s fine. I had a little talk with him about local tenant law and appropriate notice periods. I’ve got the next month to find a new place.”
“Ah.” A sudden terrible urge to ask her to move in with him surged through Alexander’s mind. He shook his head slightly to dismiss it. “You will need assistance...?”
Her smile was warm and relaxed now. “I’ll be fine. I’m a big girl. I’ve been apartment-hunting before.”
“Still.” Alexander reached out and put his hand over one of hers, where it was cupped around the coffee cup. “If there is anything you need—anything at all—promise you will come to me?”
Rosemary’s expression was so soft and melting that he almost forgot himself enough to ask her to move in right then and there. “I will,” she promised, and he almost forgot that he hadn’t actually asked her to move in with him.
He poked at that incongruous thought some more. He had known Isabel for almost three years before they had become roommates. He had never considered living with Warren; he had never considered moving in with a partner at all in the past. And here he was, two nights in this woman’s bed and a month of working with her, ready to ask her to join his life on a more permanent basis.
“Are you all right?” Rosemary’s voice broke through his thoughts and he found himself smiling involuntarily.
“Yes,” he reassured her. “Well, no, not entirely. It is my fault you have to deal with this.”
Rosemary raised her eyebrows. “I’m pretty sure the only one to blame here is Warren Kepler. Not you.” She bit her lower lip and looked him up and down. “And I rather think you might be worth the bother, even if it were your fault.”
Alexander laughed. “Oh, I see, I am nothing but a meat show to you.”
Rosemary had been about to take a sip of her coffee, but she burst into hysterical laughter at that, almost dropping the coffee cup as she bent over, wheezing. Alexander rescued the coffee cup and watched her, bemused.
“Not... not exactly how I would have put it,” she managed to get out when she finally caught her breath and straightened up. But her face was bright with genuine amusement and Alexander couldn’t resist. He leaned in close and brushed a kiss to her temple before leaning his forehead against hers, the tips of their noses just brushing, and for all that it had been Rosemary’s idea to keep their distance from one another at work, she was leaning back against him. The moment was sweet and tender, in a way that he had not experienced in a very long time.
“I hope you know that I want to drag you off to some dark corner and have my way with you right now,” she murmured, her breath warm against his face.
“Move in with me,” he said, unable to hold it in any longer. She opened her mouth—to protest, he suspected—and he lifted his free hand to press a finger to her lips. “I know. It has only been a month. Less, really. But...” he paused, and dropped his hand again, not sure how to put in words his certainty that he wanted to offer this woman a more permanent place in his life.
“Would you believe me if I said that wasn’t what was bothering me? You have a roommate already, darling. I don’t think you should be inviting me to move in without at least discussing it with her first.”
“Our lease is up for renewal in two months. We could afford to rent a house with you along for the ride.” And Isabel wouldn’t protest too much. He was sure of it.
“We’ll keep that idea on the back burner in case I can’t find another place,” Rosemary said with a smile, standing on her tiptoes to brush a kiss against his cheek. “Now, if you’ve got a few minutes, I was thinking we could plot some revenge against dear, dear Warren.”
Alexander let out a laugh that was half amused, half terrified. “You are far braver than I am.”
“No, just not worn down yet. You’ve been dealing with this on your own. Or, well, with you and Isabel and the help of your therapist,” she added when he opened his mouth to protest. “But Isabel at least is deep in it, and sometimes it takes a new viewpoint to see a way out of things.”
“You might be right.” Alexander sighed, and handed back her coffee. “Did you have anything in particular in mind?”
She frowned. “No firm plans yet, but… do you know what’s going on with him and the head of HR?”
Rosemary nodded, and Alexander considered what few rumors he had heard.
He shrugged. “They hate one another.”
Rosemary frowned, biting her lower lip. “Think she could be convinced to help us push back against him?”
“Probably not. She hates everyone else, too.”
“As much as she hates Warren Kepler?” Rosemary raised an eyebrow skeptically.
“Oh, no, she loathes him,” Alexander said without thinking.
“Then I will mark that down as worth a try.”
She looked so determined that Alexander laughed once more, a proper laugh this time, despite the fact that he knew it was no use to try and get rid of Warren Kepler.
But for a short while, he had hope.