Does this work?
Phryne’s tongue poked out one side of her mouth as she concentrated on making the letters correctly. The nib of the pen was scratchy against her skin, and the special ink with its rainbow sheen smelled of something herbal. Lifting the pen from her arm, she turned to show Janey.
“What does it feel like?” Janey’s voice was frightened—partly, Phryne knew, because she was worried that their parents would catch them with the ink, which they weren’t meant to touch, and partly because she had seen first hand how the passion of a soul bond could turn into fury.
“It’s cold,” Phryne said, examining her penmanship, “and a little itchy. I wonder if my soulmate will reply.”
“He will,” Janey said stoutly. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“Maybe he doesn’t have any ink, or he’s too young, or any number of other reasons!” Phryne shook her head, carefully putting the stopper back in the ink bottle and swishing the pen tip in a rain barrel to rinse it off. “I don’t even know if I want a soulmate anyway. I mean look at mother and father. They don’t seem to even enjoy it, for all they say ‘ohh, it’s sooo romantic’.” Phryne clasped her hands together beside her chin, tilting her head and batting her eyes, and Janey laughed.
“I don’t know why you even stole that ink,” Janey said, shaking her head. “What do you want with a soulmate anyway? And a boy?” She pulled a face. “Boys are nasty.”
“Not all boys,” Phryne said. “Arthur is lovely, and Mr. Bisbee down at the bakery.”
“But Arthur is special—and Mr. Bisbee is so old! Everyone knows that a soulmate is about romantic love.” She shook her head again. “I’m never finding my soulmate. I don’t want that kind of love.”
Phryne shook her head at her younger sister, who was usually so much happier than she herself was. Janey had a point, though. Phryne licked her thumb and tried to rub out the message on her skin, but didn’t even succeed in making a smudge. It would fade in a day or two, she knew, as would the corresponding mark on her soulmate’s skin, but until then, it would stay. She tugged her sleeve down and gathered up the supplies.
“We should put these back before mother and father realize that they’re missing.” Standing, she gathered up the pen and the stoppered ink bottle, tucking both into her apron pocket before holding her hand out to Janey. “Who needs a soulmate anyway? I have you.”
The two girls, one dark and one fair, shared a sunny smile before skipping off toward home. Phryne didn’t tell Jane when, later that night, she felt the cool kiss of ink along her arm; she managed a moment to look after Janey was asleep, and the answer to her question had been scribed—in a rather messy hand, she was sorry to say—just below the original.
Jack’s parents—soulmates themselves—had given each of their children a pot of the special ink for their thirteenth birthdays. He had known it was going to be among his presents—it was a traditional gift for any child entering their teen years—but it was one he wasn’t enthusiastic about. Bunch of romantic hooey as far as he was concerned. He wasn’t even tempted to try it, so he put the ink in a cupboard, where it gathered dust for almost a year.
When the first message appeared on his arm, he was surprised—he hadn’t expected his soulmate to send him a message, or for the message to be so mundane. He found himself irritated by it—how dare someone he didn’t even know presume to mark his skin, and without even using meaningful words? So when he responded—it didn’t occur to him not to—he was terse, answering with just a single word.
She—whoever she was—didn’t write again for almost two years, and he mostly forgot that she ever had. When he was sixteen, though, another message appeared on the top of his left thigh, the handwriting more mature than the childish scrawl of the first time.
She’s gone, and I’m alone.
Jack caught his breath. He found himself wanting to respond but not knowing what to say. He sat on the edge of his bed, ink bottle in one hand, pen poised above it for the longest time before he slowly wrote an answer.
You’re not alone.
The messages on Jack’s skin appeared periodically over the next few years—always randomly, rarely happy.
We’re moving to England.
It’s so cold here.
I hate this school.
Are you even real?
I’m not a virgin anymore.
He responded to each message, though never at length. And he didn’t initiate the messages himself. He was too busy, he told himself, he had a job—a constable with the Victoria Police Force—and he’d just met the most wonderful girl. He didn’t hold with this soulmate business, so why would he reach out to someone he didn’t even know when he could talk to his beautiful Rosie instead?
When he married, it was with both exhilaration and a sense of having triumphed over some unknown hand that was trying to steer him toward someone else. His response to the message about her lost virginity was simple.
I got married.
She didn’t send him another message for two years.
England didn’t agree with Phryne. She had plenty of friends—people who wouldn’t have met her eyes when she was a hungry child in Collingwood, but who valued her highly enough now. If it weren’t for Henry, she might even manage to enjoy her life, even though the winter cold was murderously hard for someone who’d grown up in the heat of Melbourne. But inheriting the barony hadn’t changed her father in essentials—he still drank to excess, and he was a mean drunk. Phryne was his particular favorite target, as her very existence seemed to remind him of Janey, who had never been found.
When Henry was on a tear, she would write messages on her skin using anything other than the special ink that would carry them to him, a twig, the tines of a fork, even a plain old pencil. The messages were her innermost hopes and fears, but she wouldn’t be the cause of tension in his marriage by continuing to communicate with him.
I hate it here, she wrote one night as her father shouted at her bowed head, fingernail gently tracing the words on the back of her hand, one letter layered over another. I can’t wait to go back to school. I hope you’re safe.
She blinked as the last sentence was completed almost without her volition. It was true. Since the start of this bloody war, she’d wondered whether he—she wouldn’t call him her soulmate—had been called to fight. She was only fifteen, and she assumed that if he was married, he had to be at least eighteen. What if he was heading to the battlefields? Would she know if he died? She couldn’t imagine it. Knowing that he was out there in the world was… comforting, somehow. He was a connection to the part of her that had been happy back in the streets of Collingwood, before Janey went away, and she didn’t want to lose that.
The first time he sent her a message, the flow of the words on the skin inside her elbow sending a shiver down her spine, she nearly gasped aloud. Excusing herself from class, she ran to the nearest toilet, frantically rolling up her sleeve to see. The writing was small and cramped, as if the writer were conserving ink and space.
They’re all dead, but I’m alive.
Sliding down the wall to sit on the floor, Phryne wept, hot tears of relief that he still lived. When she’d calmed down, she crept out of the toilet, back to her room, where she dug out the bottle of special ink that she’d packed in the bottom of her trunk for every school term, even knowing she didn’t plan to use it. With a shaking hand, she answered him, trying to keep her letters small but legible; she knew that he’d need the blank skin if he was going to write her again.
Good. Stay that way.
Capping the ink and wiping her nib clean, she pulled down her sleeve and returned to class.
Jack had been surprised at the contents of his rations box—bully beef, hard tack, tea, sugar, tiny tube of ink. It seemed that the army had decided that one way to keep its troops happy was to let them communicate with their other halves from across the world. The tubes were very small, a capsule, really, designed so that the user could snap off one end to expose a built-in nib. Each one was good for only a few words—enough to let your soulmate know that you still lived.
He had given away his tubes for the first several months, through training and the voyage to Egypt where they trained some more. After all, his wife wouldn’t get any messages he sent, and sending messages to another woman didn’t feel right; it was an emotional infidelity that he couldn’t justify. The night after his first battle, though, he sat in a dark only illuminated by the smallest of fires and stared at the tube that had fallen into his hand along with his sugar packet.
Today had been a nightmare. Hours after sundown, Jack could still hear the gunfire and the screams, still smell the cordite and the blood—so much blood—and he knew that if he closed his eyes to sleep, the whole thing would replay itself again in his dreams. He swallowed hard, trying to fend off nausea. So many men had died, good men whose families would be getting terrible news; their soulmates would know sooner than the army could notify them, when the daily messages stopped.
Jack closed his eyes, wrapping his fingers around that tiny tube—that connection to a world that wasn’t covered in mud and blood and bodies. She wasn’t Rosie, much as he might wish otherwise, but she was a reminder that life went on. Swallowing hard, he snapped the tip on his capsule and wrote the truth that was etched on his soul. And he cried silently in the dark when she replied.
The messages continued through the years of the war—he was there until the bitter end, in battle after battle, some on the front lines and some that were more covert behind the lines. He wrote to Rosie at least once a week, and he exchanged messages with her more often than that.
I joined the ambulance corps.
Jack groaned when the message appeared. For the first time, he wished he could see her face to face, to shake sense into her.
Why would you do that?
After a short delay, her response appeared, moving quickly across his calf.
I cannot be here anymore, and the war is as good an out as any.
He sighed. He didn’t want to think about what her life must be like if she wanted to go to war. After that, he examined every ambulance driver and nurse’s aide with interest, wondering whether one of them was her. He didn’t know what he would do if he found her, really—he loved his wife, and he was an honorable man—but he looked nonetheless.
He also looked at the bodies of his friends and fellow soldiers, seeing the fading ink that covered their skin—messages of love and reassurance, each one heartfelt because it could be the last. He knew that his own skin, were he to roll up his sleeves, was similar—the ink faded over time, but he’d scavenged unused capsules and written more than the few words a single capsule would stretch to. He’d written to her of his fear, of his sorrow, given her his friends’ names so that he wouldn’t be the only one to remember them. Her messages had been similar, filled with moments of grief and terror, her war not so different from his. In all their messages, though, he hadn’t told her his name, and she hadn’t shared hers. He told himself that the anonymity made it less meaningful.
The night that he was put on a ship home, he sat on his bunk, his final ink ration in hand, wondering what he should say. He needed to stop this communication; he was going home, where he would pick up his old life. He would make love to his wife, go back to his job on the police force, and be the perfect husband and father that he’d been dreaming of being for the last three and a half years. He didn’t know how he could feel like he’d been unfaithful to Rosie with a woman he had never, to his knowledge, even seen, but he couldn’t deny that the connection was a real one. It had to stop if he was to maintain his self-respect.
He pressed his lips together and snapped the cap off of his ink. The scratch of the nib was familiar by now, and his nostrils flared as he wrote the message across the top of his right thigh.
I’m going home to Melbourne, to my wife. Goodbye.
He told himself that the burning in his eyes was relief rather than tears, and he did his best to believe it.
Sitting in the lavatory at the train station, Phryne read the message on her thigh, her hand clasped around her own final capsule of ink, her eyes dry. She’d known that they could not continue the pace of their messages as they had been through the war. He was a married man, after all, and how awkward would it be if she’d sent him a message that his wife might see? She’d known this was coming—had planned to break it off herself if he hadn’t—and yet the end of their connection was a stunning, sharp pain. She breathed slowly, absorbing the unexpected blow.
Melbourne? Had he been that close when she was a child, sending her first message via stolen ink? It was just as well that her plans were already laid. All she had to do was board the train. Thinking hard, she formulated her response carefully. It wouldn’t do to let him know that she was in any way upset by this parting. It wasn’t as if she’d ever actually met him, after all.
I think I’ll go to Paris. I hear it’s beautiful this time of year. Adieu.
Tossing her empty ink capsule into the bin, she straightened her clothing, hiding the messages under her uniform skirt. She checked her face in the metal mirror, the brilliant red of her lipstick a message to the world that she was not a woman to be trifled with. With an approving nod to herself, she straightened. It was time to catch her train.
As she went on about her life, Phryne reverted to her habit of writing to him without ink. When she’d posed for her first nude painting, she used the back of a paintbrush to write This makes me feel beautiful on the underside of her arm. She wondered whether he would condemn her for her lifestyle in Paris—the lovers she took to pleasure her body, the modeling with and without her clothing, the drinking and the dancing and the parties.
And when René beat her, she used a finger to write I want to go home across the bruises, as if she even knew where home was. After the last time—when he left her bleeding in an alley, her belly aching from his kicks—she ran to Mac, who was studying medicine; her childhood friend tended her wounds and held her as her body expelled the new life that had been germinating within. When Mac had tucked her in to sleep and Phryne found herself lying in the dark, looking out at the moon, she used her fingertips to trace the words I got away across her breast, just so that he would know.
It was eight years before any actual messages were sent, and it was a shock to Phryne, who was living in Madrid, when the words flowed down her left arm.
My wife left me.
She stared at the message, unsure how to respond. If he was still in Melbourne, he was half a world away from her. They knew nothing about each other; it had been years since he had written even one word, and now he said this? Intellectually, she understood. They had propped each other up during the war, their frequent communication creating a false sense of intimacy. But eight years (give or take—she wasn’t counting, after all) since he’d cut her off completely and he jumps back in with something so… so baldly important? Did he expect her to come running now that he was free?
Rising, she opened the small door in her writing desk where she kept her bottle of special ink. Jaw set, she took it and her pen and wrote swiftly, the ink dark against her pale skin.
Did you deserve it?
His answer, when it came, was a single word.
Phryne did not reply. She went out dancing and brought home a beautiful young Spaniard to warm her bed; he did not ask questions about the words on her arm as he made love to her, and she appreciated his… discretion? Disinterest? Whatever it was, she was happy not to have to explain. In the hour before dawn, though, when sleep was elusive, she rose and made her way to her desk. Drawing out her bottle of ink, she penned a question that she knew would open the lines of communication between them.
His answer came within minutes—if he was in Melbourne still, it would be the middle of the afternoon.
Phryne sucked in a breath. She knew that feeling, that the war had changed something fundamental within her. She coped by allowing herself to experience all of life’s pleasures, but even so, there was occasionally a moment when a smell or a trick of the light would put her right back in her ambulance, tearing across the countryside accompanied by the screams and moans of wounded men. Or worse, the silence of dead ones.
More minutes passed, and she wondered whether that had been the answer he needed. Maybe he’d wanted her to berate him or tell him how to get his wife back. She wouldn’t do either—every person deserved to make their own choices, and she had no place in this one.
So am I.
At a loss for how to respond, Phryne capped her ink and wiped her pen. Maybe tomorrow she’d have more to say.
Over the next two years, their correspondence was sporadic. Phryne would manage to forget that he was out there in the world for a few months, and then he’d send another message.
We filed the divorce papers.
It’s strange to live alone again.
My garden is thriving.
Phryne would respond, sometimes they’d exchange two or three messages, and then months would go by before he reached out again. Although she continued to write notes to him without ink, she didn’t initiate actual contact, mostly because although this method of communication seemed anonymous, it was also terribly intimate. She didn’t even know his name, but that seemed to matter less than the fact that she knew some of his greatest joys and sorrows. Not many joys, but a few; small ones, mostly, but there.
And, if she was honest, putting an end to their messages after the war had been painful, the first few months without them appallingly lonely. So she kept her own joys and sorrows—more joys than sorrows these days—to herself, using her old habit to crystallize her feelings about them without actually sharing them. She told herself that she no longer missed him as she had after the war, that she was older now, and wiser. She knew that she did not need a man to make her whole. She’d never allow herself to need a man that way again.
In August of 1928, she received notification that the man she believed had kidnapped and likely killed her sister was being considered for parole. Without hesitation, she sold her Lisbon flat—Europe was a never-ending playground of beautiful places and people, and she didn’t want to go back to her parents’ home in London, so she spent a year or two in a city before moving on to something new—and bought a ticket to Melbourne. Her intention was to do everything in her power to make sure that Murdoch Foyle never saw the light of freedom.
She figured that, just as she had in Europe, she’d find her way into Melbourne society—her aunt Prudence would be able to help with that—and she’d been told that the city’s jazz scene was surprisingly robust. It would certainly be a different experience than living in Collingwood had been. After all, she’d taken her inheritance from her grandmother and invested it—it seemed she had a talent for making money—and unlike her childhood days, she would want for nothing. She’d also be able to reconnect with her friend Mac, who’d headed back to Victoria after finishing her training and now worked in a women’s hospital in addition to teaching at the local medical college.
When Phryne flirted with the handsome detective inspector in the bathroom after John Andrews’ death, it was reflex, honed over years of using her beauty to blind men to her brains. She couldn’t have guessed that he would become a friend, or that her involvement in solving that case would become a passion unlike anything she’d felt before. She’d always thrown herself into her causes, but solving crimes—it was addictive, especially since she was quite good at it. And the fact that the attractive Detective Inspector Jack Robinson treated her with a respect from the beginning was an unexpected bonus.
It didn’t hurt that Jack was very good looking, and she enjoyed seeing him and being seen with him; more than that, though, she enjoyed matching wits with him. She wondered, as she did with many of the men of her acquaintance, what he would be like in the bedroom. Would he lose his serious mein? He had a subtle sense of humor that she appreciated, and she wondered if he’d bring that sense of playfulness to lovemaking. And even though she knew that he wondered too, he was an honorable married man, and she would not tempt him to stray.
The first time she saw a case file that Jack wrote, his handwriting was a bit of a shock. Almost bad enough to be called chicken-scratch, his writing was very like what she’d seen cross her skin over and over since she was ten. She looked at the shape and slant of the letters and then at Jack. What were the odds, really, that she’d come across her “other half” by pure happenstance? Slim to none, surely. And wouldn’t she know? Besides, Jack was married; her soulmate was in the midst of divorce. Jack couldn’t be him.
Phryne hadn’t heard from him in months, anyway. Maybe he’d met someone else and moved on. There was a tiny pang of something at the thought… regret, or possibly relief. Phryne couldn’t say. But she felt both again when she stepped out of the bath after the case that brought René Dubois back into her life—and then out of it again, permanently—and a message appeared on her thigh.
I kissed a woman other than my wife for the first time today.
Phryne smiled, not at his message—she was pleased that he’d found someone—but at the fact that her lips were still tingling from the very forceful kiss that Jack had pressed upon her in Café Replique. Even the confrontation with René and his subsequent death at Veronique Sarcelle’s hand could not overshadow the sensation of Jack’s lips on hers. As she wrapped her black silk dressing gown around herself, her eyes fluttered closed at the memory of that kiss—his mouth had been slightly open when it landed on hers, and she’d slid her tongue between his lips almost without thinking. He’d tasted of garlic butter, predominantly, but there’d been another flavor there that she wished she’d been able to pinpoint. It was unlikely that she’d get another chance to taste it soon, if ever.
With a soft, disappointed sigh, she moved to her vanity and sat. Taking out a gold-barrelled fountain pen filled with special ink, she responded.
And did she kiss you back?
His response was almost instantaneous, as if he was standing in the same room as she was, and for a moment, she almost heard it—her mind filled in the low rumble of Jack’s baritone before she dismissed the thought as imagination gone wild.
Yes, she did.
Phryne shifted, finding a new space in which to scribe her next question.
So will you do it again?
This answer took longer to arrive, as if he had needed to consider it.
Maybe someday. If she wants me to.
Phryne began penning her answer almost before he finished.
If she kissed you back, she’ll want you to.
When he didn’t respond, she put away her pen and dropped her robe carelessly to the ground, crawling between the covers of her bed. He would figure out what to do with his new lady friend. She had some quality time planned with the memory of her own kiss.
Jack sat in his car, looking up at the stately home of Prudence Stanley, currently awash in light. The party for Guy Stanley’s engagement was in full swing, it seemed. As he watched, a laughing couple rounded the corner from the back of the house, stopping in a spot they must have thought would leave them unobserved to engage in a passionate kiss. He swallowed hard, remembering a time when he and Rosie would have done the same, in the early days of their marriage. No longer, though. As of today, he was officially a single man.
If it hadn’t been for the look in Phryne’s eyes when she’d invited him here—she’d been trying to sound light and unconcerned, but her eyes had told a different story—he would be at home, working on getting very drunk. But she had asked him to come; she, who never asked for help, had asked him to be here for her. He hadn’t been able to say no.
As much as he wanted to go in there and find Miss Fisher, though, his hand itched for a pen and his special ink, just so that he could tell someone his momentous news. It wasn’t the right moment to tell Phryne—she had too much on her mind just now, and he thought she might take it as an overture. He didn’t think he was ready for that yet. He wondered, suddenly, if she would actually want to know—she hadn’t exactly been beating down his door with news of her own. He thought that she would tell him if she wanted him to stop, though. Wouldn’t she?
He shook his head. Telling her would wait; he’d made a promise to Miss Fisher. He opened the car door and stepped out, trying not to make enough noise to disturb the couple by the wall, who’d continued to snog.
It was days before he sent that message, and by the time he did, his gut-churning sense of failure had lessened.
My divorce is final. Is it strange that I mostly feel relieved?
Her response, when it came, was simple.
That likely means that you made the right choice.
Jack nodded. He’d come to the same conclusion as he’d written. It had been the right choice—for both himself and Rosie—and he couldn’t regret it.
Phryne sat alone in her parlor, desultorily turning the pages of a novel. With a sigh, she snapped the book closed and took a drink of her whiskey. She wasn’t lonely, exactly. She just… couldn’t settle. It had nothing to do with the fact that Jack Robinson hadn’t spoken to her in nearly a week.
It wasn’t her fault, after all, that he’d gone and fallen in love with her. Or at least, that was what he’d implied. She didn’t want to fall in love ever again—René had cured her of that particular romantic notion—and although she wouldn’t object to taking her relationship with Jack in a new direction, she didn’t want to hurt him. And so I’ve hurt myself instead?
For the first time in a long time, she found herself wondering what he would say if she asked him what she should do. Would he tell her to pursue Jack, that her inspector was a grown man and could make his own choices? Or would he say that she should let Jack go—if she couldn’t give him what he needed, she shouldn’t start anything at all.
As if summoned by her thoughts, she was surprised to feel the cold tracery of words along the inside of her arm. Pushing up her sleeve, she watched the last few appear before she truly took in their meaning.
Why does doing the right thing hurt so much?
Phryne caught her breath. That was an excellent question. She laid her arm back in her lap and considered it. She’d done the right thing, telling Jack that she wouldn’t change for him, but she hadn’t expected his absence to hurt this much. She enjoyed his company, yes, but it wasn’t as if she was in love with him… was it? No. Love was a trap that she refused to fall into. She cared for him, certainly, and he was one of the best friends she’d ever had. That was what she missed. So maybe she should be willing to change a little, to shore that friendship up? She could have trusted him to help Ailsa, rather than blocking his investigation. That, at least, was something she could give him.
Resolved, she stood and moved into her study to find her pen. Her response was simple—how it had taken her so long to come to it, she didn’t know.
Perhaps if it hurts so much, it isn’t the right thing.
Jack sat at his desk in his shirtsleeves, late on a Saturday night, copying out forms in triplicate. The paperwork about the arrests of George Sanderson and Sidney Fletcher was possibly more than he’d done in the previous five cases combined. The new chief commissioner, a hard-eyed but fair man, had told Jack that he needed to “cross his t’s and dot his i’s carefully,” and he was right. Both Fletcher and Sanderson had good lawyers, and Jack would hate for either man to get off on an error in his paperwork.
Sitting back, he massaged the back of his neck. How long had George been on the take without Jack noticing? Truthfully, Jack had known that something was going on with George since the case of the murdered prostitute. It didn’t make sense that George would take that kind of meeting at his home—the man was too conscious of his own importance to allow a woman like Sarah Holloway, working name Lavinia, into his private space. And he’d shot Maury Berk just as the man had been about to reveal who’d bought Madame Lyon’s blackmail box—in hindsight, it was all terribly coincidental.
He needed to take a break. He wished he had someone to talk about this with, but Collins had gone for the night, Rosie would not understand, and Phryne… well, the next time he saw Phryne he hoped they wouldn’t be talking. That left one person, and it had been months since he’d reached out to her. Tightening his lips, he slid open the drawer of his desk and took out the red-enameled fountain pen that was filled with the special ink. Setting it on the desk blotter, he rolled up his sleeve. He didn’t even know where in the world she was now, and it was possible that she’d be sleeping, but he decided to take the chance.
Some days, I hate my job.
It was true, that sentiment, though it wasn’t the whole story. What he hated was that he had failed so spectacularly to see what was right in front of him. Before there was any chance that she could answer, he was writing again.
That’s not true. I love my job, I just hate this particular piece of it.
Jack propped his elbows on his desk and rested his head in his hands, forcing himself to wait and see if she’d respond. Surprise flooded through him when he felt cool words crossing his skin.
He wiggled his pen between his fingers and pondered his response. He’d started this. Could he say, even this way, what it was that weighed so heavily on him? He waited a long moment, trying to will himself to write I had to arrest someone I trusted, but it felt like that was too real, and he found that he didn’t really want to talk it through again after all, no matter that this was less personal than even giving his statement had been. So in the end, he prevaricated.
Too much paperwork.
Her answer, when it came, was simple.
Despite his fatigue, he smiled. Replacing the cap on his pen, he placed it carefully back in his desk drawer and rolled down his sleeve. He was almost finished with these forms—if he could get through them quickly, perhaps he’d drive past Wardlow on his way home and see if Phryne was still awake.
Phryne sat on the edge of her bed, considering. She had spent the evening before having dinner with a woman who wanted Jack Robinson, and who might actually get him. A year ago, Phryne would not have blinked—she’d had no intention of getting into a traditional relationship with any man. Now, though, the thought that Jack might want a more traditional woman made her heart ache.
With her finger, she traced words along the line of her thigh, formulating the message slowly, struggling to put into words what she was feeling.
There’s a man. I thought we were only friends, but the idea of him being with someone else is
She paused, lifting her head to stare out the window at the moon. Is what? Heartbreaking? Terrifying? Unimaginable? Yes, all of those, but the words felt too dramatic even for this message that no one would read. She settled on understatement.
uncomfortable. I’ve never wanted to claim someone so much.
Closing her eyes, she sighed. What made it worse was that Concetta was lovely, both physically and in spirit. She would make Jack a wonderful wife. Phryne laid back against her pillows, tucking her legs under the covers. What did she think that he would say in response to something like that, anyway? She didn’t know, but she heard Jack’s bass rumble in her mind, the words he’d spoken when she’d struggled with the letter from Murdoch Foyle last year: “You know what to do.”
“I do,” she whispered. She would continue to show Jack that she cared for him and let him make his own choices.
Her mother had always said that she’d lost all reason when she waltzed with Phryne’s father, but Phryne had never believed it. At least, she hadn’t until Jack led her around the room at the Grand, his chin high and his eyes on hers. Their bodies moved in harmony, as if they were meant to function as a whole rather than as individuals.
At first, she thought it was just that the waltz itself was so… perfect, and intimate, and… perfect. Maybe she was her mother’s daughter after all. But an idea she hadn’t even realized she was considering began to grow in her mind, unbidden, and when the music stopped, she felt it come together with a jolt.
Phryne was never really sure how she put together the pieces that led to the answers she and Jack needed in their cases. Jack said that she put two and two together and made five, but for her it felt more like lightning that illuminated the connections between events and people. In this case, the lightning struck at her as they stood, breathing heavily, at the end of the dance. What if her soulmate—that man whose skin resonated with hers so that he could receive her messages—was Jack?
Without moving away, Jack broke the silence between them, his eyes darting between her eyes and her lips. “I need to go back to the station. Paperwork.” He swallowed, but didn’t move away. “May I come by for a nightcap later?”
Phryne’s eyes tracked his, fighting her instinct to take a step closer, and her voice was rough when she spoke. “My door is always open to you, Jack.”
After another beat, Jack stepped back, releasing her hand and her waist; Phryne let her hands fall to her sides. Tearing his eyes from hers, Jack moved to the side of the room where she’d flung her wrap and brought it back to her. Then, without a word, he offered his arm to walk her to her car. As she walked with her hand wrapped warmly around his bicep, Phryne’s heart pounded with the tension between them. Perhaps tonight would be the night that he broke through his reluctance and kissed her. It was something she’d wanted for a very long time, but did this new information change that? She was glad that she’d have a few hours to herself. She needed to think this through.
Thirty minutes later, she had changed into lounging clothes and was sitting in her window seat. She cradled a cup of tea in both hands and stared blindly out into the street as she contemplated the mystery she hadn’t known she was solving.
What was it that made her think Jack was her soulmate? The sexual tension, of course, but she’d felt that tension with other men, if not for quite so long a build-up. There was the handwriting, too—Jack’s was similar in form to his, and what differences there were might be explained by the variation between writing on paper and writing on skin. The conversation with him about kissing had happened on the same night that Jack had kissed her in Café Replique, but many people had undoubtedly been kissing that night. There also seemed to be a general similarity in tone between the messages and Jack’s speech, but that could just be her mind filling in Jack’s voice in a spate of wishful thinking. She blew out a breath, sending her fringe flying. How was she to be sure? It was all circumstantial, joined together by instinct.
She could ask, she supposed. When Jack came over for that evening’s nightcap, she could say something. Or she could put a message on her skin—perhaps on her hand—that would prove it one way or another. At that thought, she brightened, and unfolded herself to move across the hall to her office. Setting her tea on the desktop, she pulled out her special pen and took the cap off, fitting the nib against her index finger. Laying her left hand flat on the blotter, she sat, pen poised and ready to write… what? Her mind suddenly blank, she sat for a long time, pen shifting between her fingers, before she sat back in her chair, replacing the pen cap.
Maybe she didn’t truly want to know. What would the knowledge change? Would Jack, traditional man that he was, feel that being soulmates meant that they should marry? She didn’t want to marry, possibly ever. Marriage would mean giving up her independence and signing all of her worldly goods over to her husband—the thought of being that powerless made her shudder. Perhaps she should give it a little more time before she rushed into anything. Maybe there’d be conclusive proof if she waited.
Over the next weeks, Phryne watched Jack carefully and waited for him to send a message. More than once, she sat with her special pen poised over her hand, with no idea what to say. After Jack had come to her rescue, capturing the spider that had invaded her boudoir, she was tempted to write something gushing—she sat, pen open, for a full five minutes that time, but she was unable to make herself write. All she had to show for it was a smudge of ink on her index finger from the minor leakage of her pen. She thought that she saw a similar smudge on Jack’s index finger when she took him dinner after the arrest of Constance Burrows, but she couldn’t tell if it was really a match to her own; he’d been doing paperwork all evening, after all, and it could be just normal ink.
It wasn’t until she felt her heart leap with joy as his motor car sped toward her runway that she knew that being Jack’s soulmate would be worth the leap of faith. This was Jack, her Jack, and if she was going to entrust her heart and soul to anyone, it would be to him. There was no time now to tell him, though—the plane was running and she needed the fuel to get to her first stopping point of the day. So she said the only thing that came to mind.
“Come after me.”
“What did you say?” His sideways smile was wondering and so warm it wrapped around her like a blanket.
“It was a romantic overture.” She grinned. He hadn’t had a chance to improve upon his overture at the observatory, but she knew that he’d understand the reference.
“Say it again.”
She feared that her smile grew ridiculously tender—really, this man. “Come after me, Jack Robinson.”
And then his mouth was on hers, his taste flooding her senses. She set her hands on his hips, knowing that the kiss couldn’t last long, but wanting to be surrounded by him. When their lips parted, it was a moment before either of them could speak, and the words they used seemed inconsequential compared to the underlying meaning.
“I always feared another man would sweep you away from me,” Jack said. “I never thought it’d be your father.” But what he meant was I want you, please say you want me.
“There’s a whole world out there, Jack,” she replied with a laugh, “he’s the least of your worries.” She knew he’d take her meaning: I want you too, so don’t delay.
By his smile, she knew he understood.
Jack watched Phryne’s plane until it became no more than a tiny speck. He could still taste her on his lips and tongue, and he hoped that there would be a time that her flavor wouldn’t need to be one that he tried to memorize—that her kisses would become so commonplace that he could not forget them. Until then, he’d treasure this one.
Climbing into his car at last, he made a wide turn to return to the road, his mind on her words.
“Come after me, Jack Robinson.” She’d been smiling, but he’d seen the glimmer of uncertainty in her eyes. It was what had prompted him to kiss her—well, that and the fact that he’d wanted to kiss her senseless for months now.
He would follow her, he knew. He had plenty of leave built up, and even if he hadn’t, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he didn’t intend to pass it up. Turning down the road that would take him to the docks, and to the shipping offices where he could get information about the travel possibilities, he composed his arguments to the chief commissioner in his mind. If Jack could convince the man that this would be a boon for the station—the notoriety of the Sanderson and Fletcher arrests hadn’t yet died down, and Jack had been the face reporters had put on the story—he might still have a job when (if?) he returned to Melbourne.
Four hours later and considerably poorer—passage to London was not cheap, so it was good that he’d not had much to spend his salary on for the past several years—Jack sat at his desk, drafting a plan for handing off his open cases. The chief had agreed to his leave, though he hadn’t been happy about it. Apparently, Jack’s closed-case rate was good enough that the force was loath to lose him.
As he wrote, he glanced sideways at his boarding ticket, which sat propped against his telephone. His ship would leave in three days and arrive at the docks in Southampton in five weeks’ time. There was a lot to do before he left. Jack’s mind raced as he considered all of the details. He was sorry that he wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to Collins in person—Hugh and his bride were on their honeymoon—but he’d written a letter to his senior constable that he’d leave with Mr. Butler. Jack thought that they might want to use his bungalow, rent-free, while he was away. Phryne had offered up Wardlow as well, but Jack thought they might be more comfortable in his small house. Either solution would allow them to save up some money to buy a house of their own.
He glanced at his watch. Phryne was probably setting down about now, somewhere in the interior of New South Wales. He knew that she was headed for Darwin today, a total of about twelve hours’ flight, and she was smart enough to take it in chunks. He hoped she’d send a telegram at each major stop just to let those who loved her know how she fared.
Feeling the chill sweep of words along his arm, he paused. That was another loose end he’d need to tie up. He still felt that the soulmate bond was an intimacy that should not be allowed if he was committing himself to someone. He’d have to tell her so, but for now he let his curiosity lead—she hadn’t initiated a message for some time. Years, maybe. He hoped this one wouldn’t throw a wrench in his plans.
Rising, he closed the doors to his office and shrugged out of his jacket. He pulled out his special red pen and set it squarely on the blotter at the center of his desk. Taking a deep breath, he sat up straight and rolled up his sleeve to see the message from his soulmate... and froze.
Will you be coming after me?
A huff of incredulous laughter escaped him as all of the pieces fell into place. Of course he never felt more at home than in her company, never questioned that he was in love with her. Phryne Fisher was his soulmate. Who else could it have been?
He uncapped his pen, realizing that his hands were shaking slightly.
How is it that you’re always two steps ahead of me, Miss Fisher? I arrive Southampton, Oct 17.
Her response was almost immediate—she must have been waiting for his.
I’ll be the one with the red scarf.
This woman. As if he wouldn’t recognize her anywhere.
I’ll be the one in the fedora.
He could almost hear her laughing. Capping his red pen, he set to finishing his paperwork with a smile on his face.