It was late in the evening – later than was entirely appropriate.
Jack Robinson was standing before her, coat still on, clasping his hat in both hands. Phryne had been on her way to bed when she heard the soft knock on the door, and was only wearing her black kimono. She could sense his presence through the thin material. He seemed solid as a rock, but at the same time threatening to be nothing but an ephemeral image – she was certain he was there to say goodbye. And if this was a farewell, then she would allow herself the indulgence of telling him how she saw his very nature:
“Jack Robinson. The man who always does the right thing. The noble thing.”
He searched her eyes.
“Not always, Miss Fisher.”
Time stopped and he shifted slightly towards her. It was only a split second before he did it that she realized the movement was actually coming – that something was building in him behind that intense gaze, something he couldn't keep in anymore. Her heart fluttered frantically at the realisation. His hat fell to the floor as he reached out and grasped her waist with both hands, pulling her towards him. Finally, gloriously, his lips were on hers.
The kiss was as intense as it was tentative, his lips eager but still undemanding. He seemed to be on the very brink of letting down his guard completely; Phryne could almost hear the walls crumbling inside him. She sighed and allowed the cautiousess for a while, then reached up to wrap her arms around his neck, pressing herself to him fully. She opened her mouth, making the kiss more in line with the tension rippling through her body.
It was as if a flood of electricity rose in her, needing a connection to release its charge – her crackling tension searching for his groundedness to actually release the flash of lightning. As their tongues met, it did ignite. He crushed his mouth against hers more decisively and his embrace grew stronger, one hand sneaking further down from her waist, the other upwards, as if he wanted to enclose her completely. Her own hands were busy making a mess of his hair, finally allowed to untangle those perfectly restrained curls.
Her brain had started to form the thought of dragging him upstairs, and she whispered his name against his mouth, savouring it as if it was unique and not one of the impossibly common ones. As the kiss grew more intense, he elicited the most delicious moan. Jack Robinson moaning! Phryne decided she needed to entice that sound from him again. With a harder press of her body against him, she managed to rip a much rougher groan from his throat when...
"Was that the baby?”
The words were coming from the doorway to the dining room, swiftly followed by a loud inhalation and a very sharp ”PHRYNE!”
They quickly tried to untangle themselves, Jack letting go of her derrière as if his life depended on it; nothing they managed was even close to dignified. Exasperated, Phryne turned to face her aunt:
”Aunt Prudence! What are you doing here?”
In the corner of her eye, she could see Jack turn painfully crimson, still facing away from Prudence. He produced a taut smile of deep embarrassment that was slightly tinged with self-ridicule, and it made her ache to see it develop. He refused to meet her eyes.
Prudence Stanley was at a loss for words, confining herself to give her best impression of a scandalised lady from the upper crust of society.
”It's very late, Inspector,” she finally managed, pointedly.
Jack turned to face her for the first time, his colour still not back to normal, making a small, polite nod:
”Yes. Yes, it is.”
And before Phryne had a chance to react, he mumbled a defeated goodbye and set for the door. He behaved as if they had done something wrong, as if they were teenagers that had been found out by their parents, Phryne thought. She was about to protest when Prudence raised her voice.
”Don’t forget your hat, Inspector.” She eyed the garment laying forgotten on the floor as if it was personally offending her.
He quickly retrieved it and headed again for the door, quietly nodding a ”Mrs Stanley, Miss Fisher”. Then he was gone.
Prudence and Phryne stared at each other.
”I can’t believe you interrupted us!” Phryne exclaimed.
”I can’t believe you were doing something that needed interruption,” her aunt huffed.
”You scared him away.”
”I did nothing of the kind. The Inspector probably only needed some help to realise this was not at all appropriate.”
”Appropriate,” Phryne snorted. ”When have I ever cared about appropriate?”
Before Prudence could answer there was a wail from the baby, and she was happy to grasp the offered diversion.
”It’s alright, little man. I’m coming,” she cooed, leaving Phryne alone in the hall with a last, reproachful glance.
Phryne bristled from the quick turns of the evening. It had all seemed so promising, so unexpectedly glorious, and now she was suddenly alone. Should she head out after him? It seemed ridiculous after the events of the day, and with the speed he’d retreated by he was probably halfway to Richmond already. There was nothing to it but to head up the stairs and go to bed.
It wasn’t her best night ever. She was stiff from having been bound and gagged, and from running and fighting on the ship. The ointments Mr Butler had given her helped, but they couldn’t take away her dreams: a barrel of a gun being pointed at her; a man’s smile when he realised she was at his mercy; another man kissing her and then abandoning her. The day blurred together.
Early in the morning there was a knock on her bedroom door. Before she was fully conscious, hope began to stir in her stomach. Could it be...?
Through half-opened eyes she saw the door open to reveal Aunt Prudence towering in the doorway. It was astounding how the woman could tower in spite of her short height.
”Phryne Fisher! I really couldn’t wait any longer to talk to you!” Prudence boomed as she closed the door. She was a little bit out of breath from climbing the stairs, sporting a scolding expression. ”What were you thinking? With the Inspector! In the middle of the night! Hardly even dressed!”
”Why would you presume I was thinking?” Phryne answered, more to make her aunt gasp than anything.
She wasn’t happy about her aunt meddling. Of course Prudence would still be hoping for her to make a proper match in the aristocracy.
”You have to think about his reputation!” Prudence exclaimed.
”Clearly yours isn’t in more danger than usual,” Prudence observed levelly. ”But the inspector is a servant of the law. And one who has just arrested his own father-in-law.”
”Former father-in-law, Aunt P. I had no idea you cared about him so intensely,” Phryne said, trying for sarcasm.
”Nothing has real repercussions for you, Phryne, but his position is completely different.”
Prudence came to sit at Phryne’s bedside, which caught Phryne completely off guard. She couldn’t even remember the last time a maternal figure had come and sat at her bedside, disapproval on her face or not. It was definitely before the war, perhaps even before Janey’s disappearance. Her eyes filled up with tears at the intimate gesture, made without a second thought. She looked away so her aunt wouldn’t see it.
Prudence hesitantly laid her hand on Phryne’s arm and softened her voice slightly.
”You know I love you like you were my own daughter, Phryne. But the inspector is a serious man, he’s a… he’s an ordinary man. What are your intentions with him? Shouldn’t you just let him continue with his own life?”
”I’ll have you know it wasn’t me who showed up unannounced past midnight. You cannot mean I should have turned the man down?”
”Just think, Phryne. What is this to you?”
Annoyed at her aunt, Phryne still felt the need to refute her.
How was she supposed to be able to put that into words? And what was it to him?
Had Jack perhaps only reacted to the relief after the dramatic case – to the shock of having shot a man that was about to shoot her? Had she only reacted to that relief, to still being alive? Would he have come to his senses and realised it was a bad idea? Of course she already knew something about the depth of his feelings, but she also knew he had never wanted to act on them before. How could she trust this action to be what he wanted?
Perhaps he was grateful that Aunt P had interrupted them? Or was it Phryne who ought to be grateful?
It would have been so much simpler if her aunt hadn’t shown up. Then she would have had him by her side now, and wouldn’t it all, in a sense, have been decided for them? Or, if Aunt P had only shown up a few minutes earlier, before they had started to kiss. Then they could have pretended that nothing had happened, that nothing had been about to happen, and carried on as usual.
But this! Going too far but not far enough, balancing on a knife’s edge – it was the worst possible scenario. It made her stomach ache in a way it never used to do.
That had been a charged kiss, a promising kiss, so very far from a chaste meeting of lips, and really not only about lips at all. The feel of him still lingered on her body and made it even more difficult to think. How do I know if I want this more than anything? What does that even feel like?
”It’s...” she repeated, unable to continue the sentence.
”It’s a gamble, Phryne. You are gambling, but the two of you have very unequal stakes.”
She had rather thought of it as a dance, two steps in front, one step back. Aunt Prudence made it sound so much crasser. In the bleak morning light, Phryne couldn’t help but feel she had a point, and she hated that she was actually considering things from her aunt’s perspective. She was used to doing and thinking the exact opposite of what her aunt did and thought, and to laugh in the face of conventionality.
This time – perhaps it was because she was still tired from the kidnapping, perhaps it was because Prudence actually sat at her bedside and patted her – she couldn’t shake it off so easily. Jack was a man who cared about propriety. What if Aunt Prudence was right? What if the last thing he needed in his life was a charming freight train? But wasn’t there something to be said about things you might not need, but still very much want?
”Just think about it.” Prudence gave her a last pat on the arm before she stood and left the room.
Phryne sat in her bed staring into the wall. She felt as if the two of them had jumped a ravine, but without enough momentum to actually reach the other side. She groaned and buried her face in the pillow. There was no reasonable way she could think herself out of this conundrum.