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A Slice of Chocolate Gateau

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“Just a bloody minute,” Laura muttered, fumbling for her crutches. She continued cursing under her breath as she hopped-dragged herself to the door, wishing she’d thought to push her hair off her face while she still had a hand free.

Once she got to the door, it took a minute to realign her balance so she could look through the peephole to see who it was.

Robbie Lewis’s wide, weathered face looked back at her. He was smiling, but he was wearing a coat and tie, which could only mean one thing. He raised one hand in a tiny wave.

Laura jerked the door open. “Whatever you’ve come to ask for, Robbie, the answer is no. Sick Leave means not at work, and I have no intention of dragging myself down to the morgue to investigate one of your bloody hunches—“

She stopped herself. She didn’t usually swear so much. The pain and inactivity must've been getting to her. She realized what a wreck she must look—no make-up, hair unwashed, track pants cut off above the plaster encasing one ankle.

“Steady on, lass,” Robbie said, looking genuinely hurt. “Steady on. Nothing like that. Just stopped by to see how you were getting on. Not every day one of the team gets injured in the line of duty.” He held up both hands as if placating her.

She stared at him, remembering how warm those hands had felt, how safe, after she’d taken her absurd, ungainly tumble down the treacherous river bank—the hideous snap of bone and the cold wash of pain going through her. “Hang on,” Robbie had said, as she clutched the sleeve of his coat to keep from screaming. “It’ll be all right.”

And now, four days later, it pretty much was, aside from the fug of painkillers and the frustration of her own clumsiness. She opened the door a little wider.

“That’s better,” Robbie said. “We’ve all been worried about you. Thought you might be wasting away, in need of a proper meal and the like.” She opened her mouth to object, but he stopped her. “Don’t worry—I even brought along someone who can cook.”

He gestured towards the bottom of her drive, where DS Hathaway was pulling an unlikely number of carrier bags out of the boot of Robbie’s car. James raised one of the bags in salutation.

She felt an odd little surge of warmth for the two of them. Still, manners seemed to dictate that she protest a bit. “It’s okay. I’m fine. My sister’ll be back on the weekend—she only had to go back up to London for work—

“Ah, but the weekend’s days away,” James said, arriving at the door with bags in both hands and a disarming grin on his face. “Will you let us in, ma’am?”

What else could she do?

+++

Before she knew it, she was installed on her own settee with a cup of tea in her hands and her plastered ankle carefully arranged on cushions. Robbie had assumed sous chef duty—she could hear him humming tunelessly to himself in the kitchen--and James prowled around her sitting room picking up unwashed cups and tissues and things she hadn’t been able to stoop to retrieve.

“Don’t,” she said weakly. “I know it’s a tip, but the lady who does for me will be in tomorrow, and—“

“I don’t mind,” James said. But he stacked the things neatly for later removal and went over to inspect her CD collection. “Would you like some music?”

“Please. Whatever you like.”

“Bach okay?”

“Perfect.”

In a moment, the regular swells of Bach’s cello concertos filled the room. Laura closed her eyes. In the privacy of her own head, she admitted that it was nice to be taken care of in these little ways.

“When are you due for more of these?” Laura opened her eyes to find James holding out the pill bottles that had been on the end table.

“I…uh.” She squinted at her watch. “A couple of hours ago, I guess. Must’ve lost track of time. You’re supposed to take them with food,” she offered by way of excuse.

“Well, dinner’s almost here, so I expect you’re good.”

He shook two of the antibiotic tablets into his hand and passed them to her. He waited until she’d downed them with swallows of tea before shaking out one of the painkillers.

She tried to decipher the expression on his face as he handed it to her. A kind of solemn compassion, she decided. No whiff of condescension or annoyance with the mundane tasks of life. He might’ve made a good doctor if he hadn’t been a policeman, she thought. Since he hadn’t been a priest.

“Sergeant?” Robbie’s voice sailed in above the cello chords. “I’ve need of your assistance now, please.”

+++

Dinner was something lovely and light—chicken and vegetables and pasta in a lemony sauce she was sure she could never duplicate. She suspected James’s influence—left on his own, Robbie probably would’ve produced bangers and mash and called it a day.

She didn’t feel up to much conversation, but they picked up the slack, especially after she convinced them they didn’t have to defer to her invalid’s glass of water and were welcome to all the beer in her fridge. They gallantly steered clear of work topics, too, except to assure her that Chief Inspector Innocent and the rest of the station were distraught by her absence and couldn’t wait to see her peg-legging it around the morgue.

She wondered how much of it was a performance for her benefit. On the rare occasions she’d thought about what they were like on their own, she’d imagined a lot of silent staring into pint glasses, and terse exchanges of case details. As it turned out, though, James seemed to know a great deal about Lynn’s new job up in Manchester, and Robbie could expertly take the piss out of James’s latest enthusiasms in music and clothes. Stood to reason, she supposed. They were bound to know the details of each others' lives, given the amount of time they spent together.

“Any room left for pudding?” Robbie asked, and only then did she realize she’d been drifting.

“I told him not to buy it,” James said confidentially, as Robbie disappeared into the kitchen. “Too rich, by half.”

“Nonsense.” Robbie proudly set a white pastry box on the table. “Val always said there was nothing like chocolate when you were feeling peaky.”

That sharpened Laura’s focus. She could remember a time when he couldn’t have said those words without sounding inconsolably sad. A time when he couldn’t have said them at all. Now, though, he just looked pleased with his own wisdom, and even more pleased with the miniature chocolate gateau he opened the box to reveal.

“You’ll have some, won’t you?”

Laura didn’t think she could manage another bite, but Robbie looked so earnest, so eager to do her good, that she said, “Well, maybe just a small slice.”

As she bit into the cake, which was indeed luscious, she thought she caught a look of fond indulgence on James’s face—directed not at her, but at Robbie.

+++

After dinner, she found herself back on the sofa, another cup of tea by her side. James had put on Vaughn Williams this time and she let herself float on the music, feeling a bit fuzzy from the food and the unexpected exertion of dinner guests, her ankle starting to ache under the drugs.

“Don’t bother tidying up,” she’d told them. “Mrs. Prochaska will be here in the morning; she won’t mind.”

But both men had been almost comically aghast at the idea of leaving a mess for someone else, and so the sound of running water and clanking pots occasionally punctuated “The Lark Ascending.”

After a while, she realized there was conversation, too.

“Don’t tell me you’re eating again? After seconds at the table? You’re nothing but a great overgrown teenager, you.” That was Robbie, with the usual faux-outrage he used to tease James.

The unapologetic mumble that followed might have been, “Hungry.”

The was more clanking, and then James’s voice, very clear. “This last piece of cake’s got your name on it.”

A dissenting noise from Robbie.

“Aw, g’wan.” James could apparently mimic a Geordie accent to a T when he chose.

The Williams petered out. A good thing too—something in the tenor of the conversation had piqued Laura’s interest to the extent in that she was considering turning it off.

Robbie was laughing. “Get thee behind me, Satan. When you get to be my age, every mouthful goes straight to the love handles.”

“I don’t mind. I like them. Makes it easier to--” The last bit was garbled, as if James had dropped his tone to a whisper, or pressed his face into something soft.

There was a sound then that she'd never thought she'd hear from Robbie Lewis, a private little mix of resistance and pleasure.

Laura found her crutches and started to ease herself upright, all aches forgotten.

“One bite,” James urged, and though his everyday voice was remarkable enough, this was something else, deeper and more intimate. “Come here—I’ll help you. That’s it—a little closer. Got you.”

Assorted shuffling and swallowing noises followed, accompanied by the occasional contented mmmnn. Laura supposed she should feel bad about sneaking up on her friends like this, but she was too curious to care.

“Oi,” Robbie was saying as she reached the kitchen door. “Careful there—you missed by a mile.”

“Didn’t miss. Entirely on purpose. Needed an excuse to do this.”

She could see them now. James was perched on her kitchen counter, Robbie’s hips held firmly between his knees. He had a plate of cake in one hand and a fork in the other, but as Robbie had, said, he’d misjudged the last bite and left a smear of chocolate on the corner of Robbie’s mouth. As she watched, he leaned in and slowly, sensuously, licked the chocolate off his skin.

Robbie’s eyes fluttered shut, and he seemed to melt a little into James’s hold as the licking evolved into a kiss.

Laura felt her mouth drop open.

“You taste good.” James murmured. Or at least that’s what she thought he said—the words were somewhat muffled by his proximity to Robbie’s face.

“Glutton.”

James balanced the plate above his head, but the hand holding the fork cupped Robbie’s hip, pulling him in closer. The issue of cake seemed about to be forgotten.

But then some verbal expression of her surprise must’ve escaped Laura’s lips, or perhaps one of her crutches squeaked against the linoleum, because suddenly the two men pulled away from each other and turned astonished, guilty faces in her direction. They looked like kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Which, in a way, they were.

They all stood there for a moment like wax statues.

Then, “Oh, Laura,” said Robbie, eyes filling with something like regret. “I’m so sorry. We’ve been meaning to tell you for ages. We never meant for you to find out like this, especially not when you’re laid up and all.” James slid off the counter and stood a little behind Robbie, whether from fear or for protection she couldn’t tell. He hung his head, looking contrite. “You’ve every right to be furious," Robbie finished.

“I…” She wasn’t sure what she was. Not furious. It was ridiculous to find out like this, stumbling into her own kitchen like a character in a bedroom farce—but then breaking her ankle had been ridiculous, so why shouldn’t everything that followed from that be the same? And she wasn’t as surprised as she’d been a moment ago, either. Perhaps the knowledge had been sneaking up on her for a while.

She didn’t know what she was. So she said the only thing of which she felt certain. “You’re happy.”

“Yes.” Robbie broke into a tremulous grin. “Yes, I am.” At his shoulder, James started to smile as well.

“Well,” she said. “In that case, there’s just one thing I might be a bit miffed about.” There was more than one thing, she knew—more than one pang of disappointment she’d have to work through on her own. But not now, not in the glow of their smiles and the faint haze of the Vicodin.

They leaned towards her, anxious to appease and console.

“And that’s that you weren’t planning to leave the last piece of cake for me.”

The two of them let out undignified little whoops of relief, and before she knew it James had grasped her around the waist, lifted her as if she were light as a feather—she hadn’t known he was so strong—and settled her very, very carefully on the counter. Robbie ceremoniously handed her the plate of gateaux and a clean fork.

“That’s better,” said Laura, and dug in.

the end