“Oh, Dot, that’s a lovely fabric!” Phryne Fisher leaned over her companion to stroke the delicately beaded chiffon that lay spread over her dining table. “For a special occasion, I suppose...?”
Never one to let pass an opportunity to poke, prod, and sometimes rearrange the details of her young friend’s romantic life, Phryne craned her neck around to affix Dot with a sly look. Could it be possible that Hugh had stopped dragging his feet, and was planning a proposal? Dot Williams met her eyes and blushed charmingly. Unless, the thought hit her with a jolt, they’ve already come to a secret understanding!
“Nothing too special, Miss; only the Spring Policeman’s Ball.”
Her words and lack of guile were enough to convince Phryne that Dot was not, after all, hiding a secret engagement. And yet, her offhand tone, a little too dismissive, belied the quiet elation in her smile. And not just any event would require the dress that was taking shape at Dot’s patient hands. This was clearly a big deal.
Well, Phryne mused. A grand official function, stuffy and boring and conventional. Not my idea of a good time, but Dot will be lovely and Hugh dashing and eager to show her off, so who knows? A proposal might be close at hand after all.
Phryne reached over to squeeze her companion’s hand. “It sounds like a lovely time, Dot. Be sure to remind me not to expect you all night.” She smirked slightly, not enough to scandalize the dear, and quirked her eyebrow and dipped her chin at Dot’s widened eyes. After a beat, Phryne relented with a wink.
Dot smiled back at her, clearly not offended and returning the deep affection. As Phryne rose to take her leave, Dot’s pleasant voice halted her unexpectedly: “I’m surprised the inspector hasn’t mentioned it.”
Phryne’s retreating step faltered. “Jack?”
“The Ball’s only two weeks away. I just thought, if he was going to ask you to accompany him, he would have said something by now.”
“Oh, Dot, Jack and I aren’t - “
“Sweethearts. I know, miss.”
Phryne swallowed as the tidy assessment caught her off guard. We’re not like you and Hugh. Innocent. Uncomplicated, though she could hardly phrase it like that.
“But you are good friends,” Dot continued, “and it is such an important social event, I’m sure he must be looking for a partner. I just thought he might ask you.”
Phryne felt an uncomfortable tightening sensation in the pit of her stomach as she processed Dot’s innocent words. For one thing, her friend’s easy summation of her and Jack’s relationship did not sit right at all. It was true they were close, and friends, and certainly not “sweethearts,” but couldn’t the girl see that it was more complicated than that? Couldn’t she see that whenever Jack looked at her, it was never a casual glance, but rather as if he were seeing something, someone, that other people did not see? That whenever he spoke to her, it was always as if his words were meant for no one else’s ears? It galled her to think that others might not have noticed how things were between her and Jack. Whatever that means, she admitted to herself, actively not thinking about his unspoken confession made in the wake of believing her dead, nor of the fragile and ill-defined reconciliation that resulted from the realization that their partnership was something neither was willing to sacrifice.
And then there was this idea that Jack would attend a Grand Policeman’s Ball, merely to bow to convention. As if he would suffer through such a thing for the sake of appearances. Jack was undoubtedly an astute observer of departmental politics, so the notion that he would sometimes make concessions for the sake of his career was not surprising, but surely this is where he would draw the line! What was to be gained from his attendance at a ball? Everyone knew such affairs existed merely to give the policemen’s wives and sweethearts something to fuss over. Heaven knows what their dreary social lives would look like without such things, she thought uncharitably. Anyway, it was a mere misjudgment. Dear Dot, not knowing the inspector as she did, and caught up in her own romantic prospects, could not help but expect that everyone would be as breathless over the promise of a ball as she was.
Phryne adopted a placating tone to hide the unwarranted disgust she felt at the idea of Jack’s attendance at such an event. “I expect the inspector’s dancing days are rather over, Dot! I would be very surprised indeed if he were to put in an appearance. Goodnight!”
She stepped out of the room quickly to forestall any reply, and to escape the peevish mood that had descended upon her suddenly and inexplicably.
* * * * * *
“Yes, miss. Hugh specifically mentioned that cute cottage with the overflowing golden wattles that I love. Just beginning to bloom, they are…” Her wistful reverie was interrupted by sudden alarm. “Not that - oh, miss - you won’t tell the inspector that Constable Collins sent you here, will you?”
Phryne patted her friend’s hand reassuringly. “I know he did no such thing, Dot. It’s not his fault that, during the course of a pleasant chat with his darling, he remarked upon the location of a murder he was about to attend to. Given its proximity to a place you hold dear, he could hardly have neglected to mention it, now, could he? And, of course, the fact that I happened to overhear your conversation was entirely out of his control, wasn’t it?” She turned her attention back to the quaint neighborhood. “Now, what criminal element do you suppose is masquerading underneath all this respectable charm?” Spying a crowd of police vehicles and officers forming a firm perimeter, she parked the car as close as she could get.
Phryne was deciding upon which tactic would quickest serve to get her past the barricade, when a familiar baritone sent a tingle through her body and sent her stomach plummeting. It had been almost a week since she had last seen him, six days, a remote awareness supplied, and while she generally tried to avoid agonizing over any particular man’s absence from her life, she had to admit that her eagerness to engage in this murder investigation had as much to do with the prospect of crime-solving as it had to do with having an excuse to see Jack. Jack! She caught her bottom lip between her teeth as her eyes unerringly located his lean form striding out of a neat blue-and-white cottage. Automatically cataloguing his suit, his tie, his intoxicatingly masculine features, and the deft authority with which he commanded his officers, she allowed herself to acknowledge the effect he had on her. He was an attractive man, and yes, she really wanted to invite him into her boudoir, undress him, give in to the desire that they both obviously felt for one another. And yet, he refused to seduce her. It really was unfair.
As if sensing her thoughts, the man in question turned his head and pinned her with a stare, unsurprised and emotionless, that stopped her in place. Their eyes held as he advanced upon her.
“Miss Fisher.” Resignation, wariness, defeat? Maybe. And then something in his face relented, and everything changed. Amusement, relief, pleasure? And something else. Phryne let out the breath she hadn’t known she had been holding, feeling unduly gratified.
“Hello Jack.” She returned his warm look, communicating her pleasure at seeing him. Really, it was probably a mistake that they had let so many days pass since their last meeting, during which they had finally come to terms with a working relationship that acknowledged Jack’s feelings for her. It probably would have been better if one or the other of them had reached out to break the ice before so much time had allowed further tension to build up.
“And what brings you to my crime scene today? Somehow I don’t suspect you have friends among the Preston society?” He raised his eyebrows in mild challenge.
“As a matter of fact, Jack, I wouldn’t be surprised if I could claim acquaintance with a few of the locals, but --. No,” she cut herself off in uncharacteristic concession. “I suppose it’s true I’m not on close terms with anyone in the neighborhood.”
She waited for him to press her over how she managed to learn of the murder, but instead he fixed her with an inscrutable look and as the seconds ticked by, she wondered what she was missing. With a slight smile, she raised questioning eyebrows at him.
The spell suddenly broken, Jack looked away abruptly, seeming to survey his industrious officers, who had their hands full keeping curious neighbors away from the house. With a shrug and an empty smile, he offered, “I live in Preston.”
Phryne gasped, audibly. How did I not know? How have I never bothered to check? Before self-reproach could overtake her, Jack’s voice cut in.
“So how is it, again, that you’ve found your way here?” He squinted at her, obviously wishing to move the discussion along. Upon seeing Phryne’s indrawn breath and evasive expression, he apparently decided to simply accept her presence. He held up a hand to stall her words. “No. Never mind, Miss Fisher. You’re here now, and I’m sure the police photographers are ready for us.” Motioning with his head, he strode back toward the house, and Phryne found herself rushing to catch up with him.
“Photographs appear to confirm he was married, as recently as July, if we can trust the date on this one. Explains why the outline of a wedding ring is still so clearly visible on his skin.” She stared hard at an older photo, a formal assemblage of men and women of the bourgeois class, in their finery. Her eyes then encountered a framed certification hanging on the wall. “I believe records will confirm the victim is Thomas Walker, member of the Institute of Factory and Cost Accountants.”
She spun abruptly to face Jack as he approached her. “Where’s the wife now, I wonder?”
Jack hummed noncommittally as his eyes took in the wall hangings. He paused on the formal photograph. “IFCA Inaugural Ball, 1923.”
Phryne’s memory instantly flashed to her conversation with Dot, and she suddenly needed to settle a small, niggling doubt that she hadn’t realized had been bothering her. “Much like a policeman’s ball, I’d imagine.”
“Mmm.” Jack bobbed his head once.
Phryne tried again. “Dot informs me that there will be one such affair in a matter of weeks.”
Jack glanced at her, but his face gave nothing away. “Uh, yes. A week from Saturday, I believe.” He turned toward the adjacent wall.
“Will you be attending the ball, Inspector Robinson?” Clearly, the situation required directness.
Jack paused for a long second before turning his body fully to face her, and Phryne wasn’t sure why, but his serious expression set her heart beating in alarm. “Phryne, I --”
Phryne swallowed quickly and tried to think of a way to interrupt him, and her eyes gratefully caught on something to the left of Jack’s head. “Jack!”
He reacted to her tone with surprise, arresting his speech and turning to follow her gaze.
“A bullet hole!” She rushed over to join him in investigating the new piece of evidence, and their conversation was left unfinished. Phryne, for one, who had suddenly feared that he had been about to invite her to his policeman’s ball and had no idea how to disappoint Jack gracefully, was not sorry.
* * * * * *
These were the best times, in Phryne’s opinion. Basking in the glow of a successfully solved case, having spent the past however many days working together, challenging each other’s wit, perfecting their communication, honing their partnership. The urgency that defined many of their interactions during a case would give way to a mutual sense of triumph, a need to mark the occasion, and she relished the unhurried quality of these evenings, the joy of simply being, together. The stated occasion for these moments meant that they rarely lasted longer than one night. And yet. They remained the times when Phryne felt most at ease, most herself, and she cherished them.
“Well, that one wrapped up quite neatly, don’t you agree?”
Jack smiled at her over the rim of his glass as he sipped leisurely.
There was really no need for a response. Interviews with a close friend and neighbor of the victim’s wife revealed that she had been a battered woman. From there, it had been easy to follow a trail of records and straightforward motives in order to apprehend the murderer, the victim’s brother-in-law. It was a murder plot masterminded by fear and desperation, rather than hate or greed, and the whole thing was slightly more tragic than Phryne had learned to expect. She shuddered slightly, in sympathy or relief.
“The circumstances remind me how fortunate I am,” she began, staring into the fire. “To have had the resolve, all those years ago, to fight and not give in.” She met Jack’s eyes, shimmery with firelight and concern. “I very nearly did give in. What would have become of me, if I hadn’t remembered my self respect?” She huffed derisively. “Or if I hadn’t had a fortune to fall back on? Sometimes I think it was only that knowledge that got me through.”
Jack, who sat across from her but whose knees, somehow, were almost touching hers, cocked his head slightly as if to say, ‘I very much doubt that.’ “The Phryne Fisher I know would have found a way regardless.”
She smiled at him quietly, but her customary assurance was not so easily restored. “The Phryne Fisher you know still has the advantage of wealth. The Phryne Fisher you know need not rely on any man for her survival.”
Jack bowed his head in acknowledgment of that fact, but he would not believe that money was the source of Phryne’s strength. He took a breath to say as much, but Phryne had not finished.
“I have never had to make the choice, Jack, between dying or living with bruises. Not really. Not the way Eleanor Walker had to, every day, with children to care for and no hope for a brighter future.” She shook her head. “I can live life on my own terms, without resorting to murder. But I cannot bring myself to believe that I might not have considered it, were I in her circumstances. I cannot condemn her.”
Jack rose from his seat and joined her on the chaise, so close that the length of their thighs came into contact. Phryne had thought he had made the move in order to add intensity to some emphatic speech or other, but he remained silent. Instead, he caught her eye and held it, letting the minutes tick by as he slowly sipped his whiskey.
And Phryne found, after a while, that while no combination of words would have comforted her, Jack’s quiet acceptance did. Eventually they talked of other things, and when an hour later Jack made to depart, Phryne found herself markedly reluctant to see him go.
She held his arm as she walked him to the door, assisting him into his coat and hat rather than giving him space to do so himself. An idea occurred to her, one which, she realized, had often flitted into her head when saying goodbye to Jack. Only this time, she refused to suppress the urge. She was tired of waiting for fate to set their schedule.
“Would you like to come to supper on Saturday?” She aimed for a casual air, as if she were forever offering, and he forever accepting, such invitations.
For a long moment, Jack looked into her face as if attempting to ascertain what hidden overture lay beneath the offer, but Phryne saw him recollect himself before he had deduced an answer. “I, uh, would love to, actually, but I’m afraid I have a prior obligation.”
“Ohhh?” Phryne’s irrepressible curiosity banished her initial disappointment. She rose on her toes in order to look more closely into Jack’s eyes, but his face remained nearly impassive. It was just possible that he was amused by her need to know.
“Yes, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline this time. Good night, Miss Fisher.” He slipped out the door, and as Phryne locked it behind him, her suspicions grew.
* * * * * *
Once Dot had departed, swept away in Bert and Cec’s cab by her handsome constable, Phryne found her young friend had taken all sense of occasion with her. Really, she chided herself, it’s only a policeman’s ball! It is only her youthful enthusiasm that makes it seem worthwhile at all. I’m sure I would die of boredom within an hour. And so she threw herself into her own adornment, choosing a navy silk slip under a sheer, navy dress of beaded lace with a plunging neckline. After selecting accenting jewels and a simple beaded bandeau, she completed the look with kohl to her eyes and deep red to her lips.
After a long moment of protracted eye contact, Phryne moved to meet the stranger on the dance floor. Holding his gaze as their bodies fell into a rhythm, she shook her head sharply when he began to speak. ‘No words,’ her eyes commanded. The stranger assented with a half smile. When the dance ended and Phryne was much more acquainted with the firmness of his body, she motioned toward the bar. The stranger wordlessly bought them both drinks, which she allowed because she was interested to know what he’d choose for her. Ah, a martini. She suppressed her dismay. The night progressed in the usual alternation between drinking and dancing, though when it became apparent it was time to take her paramour home lest he ravish her on the dancefloor, Phryne suddenly realized she was much more sober than usual. She had imbibed her customary three drinks, but it seemed that music and lust had failed to make their expected contributions. What is wrong with me tonight? She grabbed her partner’s hand to lead him off the floor and into her bed, but she found herself pausing at the threshold of the club.
Knowing what it would do to her reputation, one of the limited reputations she cared about, she clasped the stranger’s hand and looked soberly into his eyes. He was beautiful, and had played by all her rules. Remarkably accommodating, in fact. “Thank you for a lovely evening. I’m afraid I must be going.”
Once the stranger had sluggishly processed Phryne’s meaning, the expected confusion and disappointment registered on his questioning face.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, gently pulling her arm out of his grasp. But when at last he spoke in brief farewell, she found his voice was after all not pleasing, and she suddenly felt much less apologetic than she should have.
* * * * * *
Once she gave herself permission to acknowledge what was bothering her, the cause was obvious, of course. He wouldn’t have gone to the ball, surely?
She reached up to adjust her bandeau, then absently began to smooth her hair. And yet, he did say he was busy tonight. And I had suspected, for a moment, that he was going to invite me to accompany him.
She brought her hand down on top of the steering wheel, harder than intended. But if he did go, why didn’t he ask me? No, I’m sure he had other obligations, just as he said.
But try though she might, she couldn’t imagine what those other obligations should be, and that realization rankled. Abruptly, she put the car in gear. She was certain she wouldn’t find him at the ballroom. But surely no one would object if she put in an appearance of her own.
Phryne’s warm smile froze as Hugh’s motion revealed another familiar form. He stood in graceful stillness, the lithe lines of his body provoking a sudden ache deep within her. He was here. Wrapped delectably in a tuxedo, the same one, surely, that she had encountered on one prior occasion, he seemed much too vital for the room. And when his face lit up in sudden laughter, Laughter!, she found she needed the bracing support of the wall at her back.
Why hadn’t he told her he was coming? And why hadn’t he invited her to be his partner? Though he had made no declarations, his feelings for her were no secret. Not only had he not struggled to hide them, he had, rather bravely, all but professed them. She knew intuitively that he hadn’t made his confession in hopes that she would return his sentiment, but because they both knew he wasn’t able to keep things hidden from her. Not important things, anyway. Phryne allowed herself to take comfort in that fact, her eyes following Jack’s progress toward a table of champagne. And yet, he had kept this from her.
Her memory flashed to Thomas Walker’s parlour, to the moment when Jack had been on the verge of telling her something. Or maybe asking her something. She remembered how emphatically she had cut him off, despite, and in fact because of, the look of resolution in his eyes. She considered how he must have interpreted her interruption. He would have guessed that she had anticipated his invitation, and cut him off to spare both their feelings. He would have seen straight through to the truth of the matter, of course. It was, after all, not only Jack who was incapable of keeping secrets between them.
She felt a rush of regret as she processed the hurt he must surely have felt at her attempt to avoid embarrassment. She sighed, her eyes returning to anatomize the most exquisite man in the room. She couldn’t have hurt him too deeply, Phryne decided. After all, there had been no lapse in communication during the course of their most recent investigation, and their post-investigation tête-à-tête had suffered no interruption in intimacy. Rather the opposite, in fact. Phryne smiled at the memory. No, he must have understood. Perhaps he had even guessed that more than half her reluctance sprang from an abiding aversion to pedestrian galas such as this.
As Phryne watched covertly, a woman approached Jack and brushed her hand along the underside of his elbow. He immediately offered her the glass held in his hand. The woman, a tall brunette sheathed in crimson satin and lace, smiled coquettishly and leaned to whisper into Jack’s ear. He answered her with a few smiling words, and Phryne knew the woman’s heart must have sped up at the sight, as her own did even from thirty feet away. The brunette turned so that the length of her body pressed against Jack’s, and she tucked her arm familiarly into the crook of his elbow. Phryne watched as they sipped their drinks and observed the dancers, while every so often the woman leaned into Jack to deliver private commentary.
Phryne found that the woman at Jack’s side inspired some internal commentary of her own, but it was Jack’s behavior that silenced her thoughts. Rather than receiving her attentions with politely remote civility, Jack allowed the woman to insinuate herself ever closer. She saw it in the angle of his head as he leaned down to receive her whispered words, in the way he allowed his gaze to linger after she had turned her eyes back to the dance floor. Phryne felt an unaccustomed choking sensation, and though she knew she had no right to the word, she could not suppress a feeling of betrayal.
Before Phryne could decide what to do about the unwelcome emotion, another woman, a tall redhead in a deep emerald gown, strode up to Jack and pulled him away from his companion. Instead of refusing, Jack shot an apologetic glance toward the brunette, paused to set his empty glass on a table, and allowed himself to be dragged into an intimate Foxtrot. Phryne gasped in mild shock as she digested his uncharacteristic abandon. She wondered how much he had had to drink, and whether his system found champagne to be particularly potent.
Unable to look away from Jack’s body pressed unnecessarily close to the redhead’s, she saw delight spread across the woman’s face, followed immediately by a rush of open lust as Jack whispered into her ear. Phryne saw Jack witness the woman’s response with a small smirk of satisfaction, and Phryne almost gasped aloud. He knew! He was fully cognizant of the desire he was provoking. Phryne couldn’t tell whether she was more amazed or aroused.
As the dance ended, a third woman stepped up to claim Jack, this one a delicate blonde wrapped in brocaded jade silk. The redhead relinquished him with an inelegant reluctance, but Jack’s parting bow was nothing less than charming and courteous. In contrast to her rivals, Jack’s new companion seemed innocent, demure, and utterly disarmed by his attention. Phryne watched as Jack, as observant as ever, adjusted his bearing to facilitate her comfort. His eyes softened from feral to tender, and he guided her into a slow waltz.
Witnessing the gallantly attentive man guiding his partner though the dance, Phryne’s unexpected flare of jealousy abruptly subsided, and she forced a laugh at her peculiar reaction. Though she could scarcely account for it, and never would have anticipated it, something about this conventional, mundane, formal affair brought out a side of Jack she had never seen. And despite her initial unease, this Jack in front of her did not negate the authenticity of her Jack; rather, he presented a side of the man she ought to have have foreseen. A carefree Jack, naturally comfortable, alluring, and undeniably irresistible. This Jack belonged to no woman, and every woman, and Phryne couldn’t at that moment think of a single reason why she shouldn’t be one of the many.
She stepped out from her shadowy enclave, gladly sacrificing her pride in exchange for a chance to enjoy this captivating variation of Jack. Her eyes remained fastened on his sensual face as she approached him obliquely, and she saw as another man, older, stepped in front of Jack and his companion and covered their joined hands with his own. The gesture struck Phryne immediately as significant, approving, binding. Her steps paused. She was struck with a sudden and overwhelming horror that she had been wrong, about everything. Who was this blonde woman? Blinking and breathless with shock, she turned to rush out of the room, glad she hadn’t been spotted.
“Miss Fisher!” Hugh. She took a fortifying breath, but her heart continued to beat wildly.
She turned to face the earnest constable with as much of a smile as she could muster.
“Oh, Miss, I didn’t realize you would be coming tonight! Does the inspector know?” And Dot, of course.
Phryne hurled several unkind thoughts toward her dear friends. “Oh, hello Dot, Constable Collins. I’m not here, not really. I’ve just returned from an exhausting evening out, but I thought it might be nice to check in on you two. To see if the night has led to any interesting…developments.”
Dot coloured at her insinuation, but Hugh, thankfully, missed her meaning entirely. Phryne was not at all proud of herself, and she decided she would need to apologize to Dot later on.
“Inspector! Inspector Robinson!” Hugh was gesturing enthusiastically, completely unaware of the spectacle he was making of them all.
Phryne stood frozen, unwilling to draw further attention to herself, and Dot seemed similarly petrified. Hugh, having clearly caught Jack’s attention, motioned him over vigorously.
“Look who’s here, Inspector! Miss Fisher!”
Having thus been exposed, Phryne fixed a smile on her face and stepped from behind a cluster of people to welcome Jack and his companion to their circle. She was quick enough to register his look of surprise and dismay before a mask of pleasantry took its place. “Good evening, Inspector Robinson.”
She observed in the flicker of his eye that her formality did not go unnoticed.
He presented her with a gentlemanly bow, and then turned to his companion. “Miss Ada King, this is my colleague, Miss Phryne Fisher.”
Phryne heard how he faltered on the word ‘colleague,’ saw the uncertainty when his eyes met hers on the designation. On the one hand, it was a term that acknowledged a closer professional association than he had ever admitted to before. Personally speaking, however, the word held her at a distance, and Phryne wondered for whose benefit he had spoken.
“A pleasure to meet you!” She achieved a tone of serene pleasure as she took the younger woman’s hands. Upon closer inspection, Phryne could see the woman was beautiful, with wide, pale blue eyes, delicate features, and an open expression. Experiencing a confusing wave of emotions, she decided to make a quick exit. Glancing around the circle to meet everyone’s eyes in turn, she gave a slight curtsy to the company. “Well, as I was already explaining to Miss Williams and Constable Collins, I only stopped in on a lark, and I must be going now.” She met Miss King’s eyes one more time. “So happy to have made your acquaintance.”
Before she spun around, her traitorous eyes sought Jack’s, and she clearly read deep concern there. The nature of that concern was much less clear, and her own rioting emotions only served to confuse her further.
As she swept out of the room, she knew she was in for a long, uncomfortable night.