Should he knock on the door? There was still a light shining in Phryne's bedroom, surely she was up?
But would she welcome him?
He couldn't be sure. His fingers continued to tap against the car as he debated with himself. He'd left her to find her own way home, after what had been a very traumatic night. He needed her…God, he needed her.
He felt in his pocket for the small box he always carried with him; a box with a future that would never be fulfilled. Still, there was comfort in it, a sense of steadiness and hope that he couldn't quite abandon. His fingers rubbed over the well-worn velvet in a motion they'd done a hundred times as he tried to steady himself.
For what seemed like the hundredth time tonight he relived the scene on the ship, when he had discovered that Phryne was onboard. It shouldn't have shocked him so; he knew it could likely happen, but the proof of her senseless actions nearly caused him to go crazy with fear. He'd looked at George Sanderson and hated, truly hated for the first time in his life. Bitter bile had risen in his throat, and he'd swallowed it back down as he fought the urge to vomit at Georges' smug words.
He swallowed again unconsciously, trying to regain his composure. It was out of his hands now. He and Collins had been pulled from the case due to the people involved. The new, acting Chief Commissioner wanted both of them to keep their distance from it in fact. Jack was on leave for the next 6 days in an effort to keep him completely out of it
He had no intention of joining into what was sure to be a vicious and demoralizing case.
Tomorrow, he'd let Chief Commissioner Matlock know of the possibility of Rosie's knowledge and walk away. For his own peace of mind he needed the distance.
He also needed to talk to Phryne, to explain. All of it, including what he'd discovered at Annabelle's. Would she listen? Would she care?
If he were being honest with himself, totally honest he needed that understanding. If she refused? He shook his head to clear that thought. He'd kept too much from her for far too long and now possibly it no longer mattered. Once again tonight he'd thought he had lost her. It could have gone so badly; if that ship had sailed with Phryne, Dot, Cec and Bert on it they would surely have been killed and disposed of when they were out to sea. She might never have known his feelings for her.
His love, he'd kept his love from the woman that meant more to him than his own life, his job, his world as he knew it. Without her life was colorless, untenable; it was life without sunshine, without the spark of vibrancy that she brought with her and filled him with such joy.
He had no choice; he would take the chance.
Out of the bath Phryne dressed herself in a robe and headed downstairs, finding Dot in the kitchen, saying goodnight to Hugh.
"I'm sorry, Miss Phryne. I lost track of time. I'll make you a tray straight away," Dot almost stammered, ashamed that she'd been so wrapped up in Hugh that she'd not taken care of her Miss.
"That's quite alright, Dot," Phryne said with a wan smile. "If you'd just bring it up to my parlor when you're done?"
"Certainly, Miss. I won't be but a few minutes."
Phryne nodded and headed for the stairs when she heard a soft tapping on the window by the door. She hesitated for a moment before answering, only to find Jack there, looking unsure of himself. She stepped aside and as he entered she asked him about Rosie.
They talked quietly for a minute and she tried to reassure him that he did the right thing, as always.
"Not always," he said and started to move closer to her.
Her heart beat frantically, thumping as loudly as tympani and she was sure he could hear it. She struggled to take a breath, waiting for him; a touch, a word, anything. The moment was lost as Aunt P moved into the room, staring at Jack with a frown.
Jack felt frustration grind through him at Prudence Stanley's words. "It's very late, Inspector!"
He looked at Phryne and thought for just a moment something like sadness sparked in her beautiful eyes that looked to be a smoky blue-gray right now. The truth was, he needed that glass of whiskey tonight. Well, morning actually because his watch told him that it was well after midnight. He really needed it; no, the truth was he needed Phryne. He needed to reassure himself that she was fine, that the events of the evening hadn't left her devastated.
He needed to know if she'd accept his love; if she'd accept him.
After a few words to appease Mrs. Stanley, Jack headed towards the door. Phryne gave him a smile; a cover attempt at assuring him that she was okay.
"Until our next murder investigation, Inspector."
"Yes, I look forward to it. The, um, investigation, not the murder," he replied, giving her a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. He turned to leave and then felt her small hand on his arm, staying his departure.
"Jack, come with me, upstairs to my private parlor. I - I would really like a drink. Please?"
"Miss Fisher, your aunt would not approve." His heart leapt at her overture, wanting to accept it, but knowing he shouldn't.
"Jack, I am a fully grown woman and this IS my house." She gave him a small attempt at a coquettish smile with a tilt of her head and added, "Come on, Jack. We can pretend we're adolescents sneaking off behind our parents back." She gave him a wink and he felt himself blush, something that embarrassed him greatly. He was a grown man, as he had told her that long ago day when he saw the painting of her.
He was a grown man!
He dipped his head low for a moment, an attempt to hide his reaction to her flirtatious words. The light banter was something he was used to with Phryne Fisher and yet right now it made him yearn for more than mere words. When he finally dared to lift his eyes to her she regarded him solemnly and extended her hand.
He contemplated his decision only for a moment before stepping away from the door, and closing it softly. She tugged lightly at his hand, which had been captured by hers. They made for the stairs, creeping as quietly as they could, both of them holding back smiles as they reached the first landing.
"PHRYNE!" Aunt Prudence exclaimed. "What are you doing?"
Phryne drew in a deep breath and squared her shoulders before turning to look down at her aunt who stood with her arms folded over her considerable chest.
"Aunt P, Jack and I are going to have a nightcap, as is our custom after we've solved a case. As my main parlor is in use, we are going to my private parlor." Her eyes were like flints of steel as she stared down at her aunt. Jack's hand was still clutched in hers and she refused to let it go. If he felt the slight tremble in it he said nothing at all.
"Absolutely not. I forbid it," Aunt Prudence snapped angrily.
Rage seethed in Phryne, twisting her emotions until she found it difficult to breathe. "Forbid it, Aunt P? You forget, this is my home. I am above the age of majority and in any case you are not now and have never been my guardian. I'll do as I please." Her words were spoken quietly, but with a sharp edge of determination that Prudence Stanley knew would brook no interference.
"Phryne, the neighbors, his automobile is outside. It's not done, please girl, use your head."
Phryne bit back a retort about the neighbors and other visitors and finally said, "Goodnight, Aunt P." Her mouth tasted bitter from the confrontation and she longed even more for that drink, maybe more than one.
Prudence backed away, knowing that Phryne's mind was set. She finally mumbled, "Just consider the situation, Phryne, that's all I ask. I'll take my leave now."
Phryne nodded and turned to make her way to her bedroom, still holding tightly to Jack's hand. When she glanced down she realized just how tightly; her fingers were almost white from the hold. She tried to loosen it a bit as Jack walked with her quietly down the hall.
He knew exactly which rooms were hers, both from the night they caught a jewel thief and from a trip to her bathroom one day that had provided him with an opportunity to peek into her rooms. He'd stood still that day, staring at the painting of her, amazed how it captured his imagination. She was stunning, beyond beautiful and he'd almost held his breath for fear of someone catching him. When he realized how arousing the painting was he had reluctantly stepped away, taking a few deep breaths to steady himself before heading back down the stairs to her parlor.
Now, her door was open and a lamp emitted a soft, golden glow to the room. Jack couldn't help but glance quickly at the painting before turning away from it; that was a problem he didn't need to deal with tonight.
He stared at her as she walked away from him, heading towards a door at the other end of the room. The silk of her robe slipped sinuously over her body with a softly fluid rustle as she moved and he drew in a sharp breath as he saw how it clung to her small but delicious curves. He comprehended that the painting would not be the only danger this night.
"Please, Jack, won't you take off your coat and be comfortable?" she asked softly.
There was nothing comforting about that at all Jack knew. He often thought of his coat as his shield, protecting and insulating him from the world around him. He thought it hid his inner self from other people except that Phryne had found a way in a long time ago. He sighed and took it off, shrugging out of it as if it were merely a feather instead of his armor. His suit jacket came next and he laid them both across a chair by her vanity table and followed her into the parlor.
Phryne watched as Jack shed his protective layer with a small smile and a raised eyebrow, knowing he used it to cloak himself from the world around him. He looked so tired, exactly the way she felt, but she needed some time with him this night. A drink? Yes, and she also wanted his company, his presence, his ability to calm her. She needed him now, as Rosie had earlier
A quiet knock on the door interrupted her thoughts and for a moment she thought her aunt was launching another attack before she heard Dot call out to her. With a sigh she told her companion to enter.
"Miss, I heard that the Inspector was here, so I brought extra food," Dottie stated, looking down at the floor.
"Yes, I'm sure you heard, and probably will hear even more before my aunt departs." She indicated that Dot should set the tray on the parlor table with a nod of her head.
Dot felt strangely embarrassed about the Inspector being in Miss Phryne's room for some reason. Mrs. Stanley had made it seem as if the whole world would come to an end while he was here and now that Dot had seen that he'd shed both overcoat and jacket, she felt a heated blush spread up over her neck and face. Suddenly Mrs. Stanley's word seemed like a prophecy; surely it was improper? It wasn't like her Miss hadn't had men in her private rooms before but this was the inspector, a man that Dot knew Phryne cared about - loved. It just didn't settle well; Dot wanted them to be together forever, not just for a night. What did Miss Phryne intend?
"She, um, they have left already. I've locked up downstairs and if you don't need anything else, I'll be retiring, Miss."
The air in the room seemed to lighten considerably at Dot's words and Phryne smiled as she said, "That's fine, Dot. I'll most likely sleep in tomorrow and so should you, after this night…"
Dot gave Phryne a quick nod but still couldn't bring herself to look at the Inspector and swiftly exited the room after setting the tray on the parlor table. The door closed softly but with a firm 'click' and they were alone.
"Are you hungry, Jack?"
"I, um, yes. I could eat," he told her, his eyes following her as she sat at the table and held out her hand to indicate that he should sit as well. Oddly enough, he wasn't really hungry, but it seemed a way to try to relax he decided.
Phryne poured them each the promised whiskey to go with their meal and she noticed that neither of them touched it. Perhaps later she thought as she fought the urge to down it and pour another. She needed to keep a clear head and so she focused on the food.
The meal passed quietly, each absorbed with their own thoughts; what they wanted to say, what they were afraid to say to one another. They weighed their feelings carefully, aware that any misstep at this time could dissolve what they had built together.
Was it better to remain silent? Both would be surprised to know that their thoughts mirrored the others perfectly.
It was hard for Jack to even contemplate the idea of opening his emotions for her examination; he was a man who scrupulously kept his own council about matters of the heart. He had learned from example how carelessly his feelings could be trampled upon, even when owning his own part in that situation. Another person cannot understand your hopes or your hurts if you don't share them. Years ago he had, in a manner of speaking, closed up shop, and became a man whose passions stayed well hidden.
Except where Phryne Fisher was concerned. What had she done exactly? How? She had managed to uncover, unleash all his emotions until he now feared there was no holding them back if he wished to keep his sanity. Coquettish smiles and sultry looks had parleyed into eyes that peered deeply into his soul and seemed to approve of what they saw. He swallowed hard, whether in an attempt to hold back his emotions or simply to finish his sandwich was unknown to him.
Phryne saw the almost convulsive action of her table mate and followed with one of her own. What she was contemplating doing could very well change everything for them and perhaps not for the better. What if he couldn't handle it all, her feelings; didn't share them? What if he rejected her and walked away, preferring to keeps things strictly business between them?
The landscape before them was like a beach with no footprints on it. Each step they took would make the sand shift and despite what she hoped, those steps might only set them adrift and render them separate forever.
She loved him; would he accept what she offered him? Could both of them live with it?
With her last bite she wiped her mouth with a fine linen napkin and looked at Jack who seemed to be finished as well. "Can I get you anything else?" she queried. At his negative acknowledgment she added, "I'll just go and return the tray downstairs; I won't be but a few minutes."
He watched her gather the tray and carry it out of the room before he allowed himself the opportunity to study this room more carefully. It was her private refuge he realized as he took in the photographs and other trinkets that were important to her. Even the furnishings seemed to be redolent of her style he thought, comfortable but with a certain flare of color that bespoke of the woman he loved. The sofa was vivid aquamarine satin brocade with rose colored threads throughout. It looked plush and comfortable, with several large pillows and a throw over the back that told of long, rainy afternoons curled in comfort upon it with a book. The bookcase on the far wall caught his eye; it was glass-fronted and he walked closer to it to survey some of the titles.
Well-worn copies of Anne of Green Gables, The Little Princess, David Copperfield and Peter Pan stared back at him and he smiled at the thought of a young Phryne reading the tales of adventure those books would have provided. He also spied what looked to be a new volume of Antony and Cleopatra, which brought a smile to his face. As he scanned further he realized that this was certainly her private area. His eyebrows rose a bit as he scanned the titles, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Fanny Hill, Erotica of the Far East and other volumes of known erotica. He was tempted to reach for the Kama Sutra, of which he had heard much and had never seen when his attention was drawn to the photographs that shared the shelves of the bookcase and the wall next to it.
A photograph of two people that must be her parents looked back at him. She looked very like her mother; the same eyes and cheekbones seemed to examine him through the glass frame. Another, older photo held a group sitting of a family near the pool at Prudence Stanley's home. Surely the young women in the photo couldn't be Prudence and Phryne's mother? Both were staring unsmilingly at the lens of the camera, as was normal for that time period but there was still almost a feeling of merriment in the photograph. The women's arms were linked and the familial resemblance between them was strong.
Next to that was a photograph of four young women in what appeared to be the streets of Paris as the Arc de Triomphe was visible far in the background. As he gazed at it he realized that one of the young women was Phryne; her hair long and curling around her shoulders as it was in the painting he so coveted. There was no mistaking her smile either he knew. Next to her another young woman stared boldly at the camera, her smile as wide as Phryne's; surely that was Dr. Macmillan? This was a happy time in Phryne's life, apparently. Before Dubois perhaps, he wondered.
A lovely ornate silver frame held a beautiful picture of Jane, a wreath of flowers in her hair and Jack realized the picture must have been taken when she was one of the flower maidens. She cast a look over her shoulder, her smile wide and even though it was a photograph you could see the mischievous sparkle in her eye.
The last photograph to catch his eye was undoubtedly of a young Phryne and Janey, her sister.
The girls looked to be about 10 and 8, Phryne with her dark hair and Janey with her light; they looked almost scared of the camera as the stood on a cobblestone street.
"That was Janey and me, taken about 1910 I believe. Not terribly photogenic was I?" she asked, attempting to hide the lump that rose in her throat as she'd spied him perusing her photographs.
Jack straightened immediately, aware that he'd been caught prying. "I'm sorry, Phryne. I was…" he trailed off.
"It's okay, Jack. If I minded, I wouldn't have left you in here." She glanced around the room and added, "My sanctuary, I suppose."
He nodded and stood gazing at her, standing in the doorway looking so small and lost. He saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes and went to her to pull her to him in a long-awaited embrace. He felt her body tremble and heard a small sniffle as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
For a moment they stood, holding one another, each trying to just breathe in the other as emotions caught at them. A sob suddenly tore through Phryne and she said, "Jack, I made such a terrible mistake tonight. I should have listened to you. Dot, the boys, we could have all been killed. I could have lost you."
"Shh, Phryne. I've got you, love. You'll never lose me."
To be continued…
*NOTE* The painting that is referred to is a nude painting of her, first seen in the first series, Murder at Montparnasse. It was painted by Pierre Sarcelle and her lover, Rene Dubois, killed Pierre for it after she had left him for his cruelty and physical abuse.