“Mike, dear, it’s not that you’re not any good at horseback riding,” Tracy said, swinging down from the saddle gracefully to land in the mud, spraying a little on Macauley Conner’s trousers in the process. “It’s just that I like your face so much better without all the mud. It sort of gets in the way of your eyes, your mouth, your nose -- all the parts I like.”
“I suppose I couldn’t trouble your majesty for a handkerchief?” Macauley (Mike to his friends) asked, making no move to stand. He had smeared some of the mud from his face with one hand before realizing he had nowhere to put it: every patch of ground within reach was brown and sloppy and smelled of dead leaves (at least he hoped that’s what he was smelling), and he had no desire to soil his new riding gear any further.
“Of course, how silly of me,” Tracy said, pulling a clean white hankie from one sleeve and handing it down daintily to Mike. “Don’t bother returning it, it’s one of Dex’s and I happen to know he has about three hundred. They take up a whole drawer. Next time we go riding, I’ll bring twenty or so. He’ll never notice.” Mike examined the hankie now that he’d removed most of the mud from his eyes: embroidered in one corner were the initials CKDH. He shook his head as he got slowly to his feet; of course C.K. Dexter Haven would insist on getting his handkerchiefs monogrammed with all four initials.
“Next time, you say?” Mike asked as he and Tracy began walking their horses back towards the Lord estate. He was grateful to Tracy for not insisting they ride back; he wasn’t sure his backside could take another second in the saddle. He hadn’t exactly fallen off on purpose, per se, but he hadn’t been sorry their ride had been cut short either. “I don’t think Gawain here exactly took a shine to me.”
“I don’t know what got into him today,” mused Tracy as she led her own horse, a palomino filly named Strawberry. “He’s usually so docile.”
“Did you say Dinah rides him?” asked Mike.
“And how long has Miss Dinah been riding?”
“Oh, since she was three or so. The Lord women saddle up young,” grinned Tracy, winking at Mike. “Here we are! I was beginning to think I’d misplaced it.” Mike turned to ask what she’d misplaced and stopped in his tracks: out of the woods ahead of them had suddenly appeared a tiny cabin. It blended seamlessly into the surrounding trees; Mike could have passed within twenty feet of it and never noticed.
Tracy bounded up the porch steps and retrieved a key from above the lintel. “We can’t have you walking all the way back to the house looking like that,” she said in answer to his unspoken question, letting them both inside.
“Should we tie up the horses?” asked Mike as he looked around. There wasn’t much to see: a sofa, a fireplace, a table, a tiny kitchenette. The cabin felt stuffy and close, as if it hadn’t been used in months.
Tracy shook her head. “They’ll either stay here or go on home. They could find their way back in their sleep, especially Gawain.” She opened the door to a narrow closet and rummaged around, finally pulling out a plaid shirt and a pair of canvas trousers with suspenders attached. “Looks like you’ll have to wear Cousin Junius’s waders,” she said, handing them to Mike with a grin. “I don’t think you’re quite his size.” Mike held up the waders next to his skinny torso and snorted: they were nearly double his width and at least six inches too short.
“Is he the same family member I borrowed that bathing suit from?”
“Oh, there’s no telling which redwood of a Lord uncle those belonged to,” Tracy laughed. She turned toward the door. “I’ll wait outside while you change. Mind you close the curtains tight. I hear there’s been a peeping tom sighted in the neighborhood.”
Mike shook his head as the door closed behind Tracy. He cleaned up as best he could before putting on Junius’s clothes, which were at least warm and soft and smelled pleasantly of vanilla pipe tobacco, even if they left his ankles and six inches of shin exposed. He opened the closet again and found several pairs of wool socks on the floor, balled up neatly in pairs. Silently thanking Junius, he snagged a pair and put them on.
Just as he was pulling the second sock on, Tracy sailed back inside, looking fresh as a daisy. “Don’t you clean up nice!” she exclaimed.
“Shall we head back?” Mike said, moving to stand.
“No hurry, let’s see what else Junius has stashed away,” Tracy said. She went to the cupboard over the half-stove in the corner. “Aha!” she exclaimed, turning around with a grin. In her hand she brandished a half-full bottle of amber liquid. “I knew we could count on Junius!”
She glided to the sofa and handed Mike a heavy cut glass tumbler, turning sideways to put her stocking feet in his lap. Mike sniffed the glass and took a sip.
“Good stuff,” he murmured, wondering when would be the right time to mention Tracy’s narrow feet resting lightly across his upper thighs.
“Junius always had expensive taste,” Tracy remarked approvingly. “That’s why he’s in Monte Carlo right now instead of here.”
“He doesn’t live here, does he?”
“God, no. This is just where he comes to get away from Mother when he’s in town. Over the years it became a sort of hideout for everyone, at one time or another. It’s far enough away from the main house that you can pretend you’re in another country. On another planet, even.”
“And who exactly are you hiding from?” Mike heard himself ask.
“You mean Dex?” Tracy laughed, not unkindly. “We’re not fighting, if that’s what you want to know.” Mike blushed. “I don’t like to drink in front of him, is all.” Tracy swirled her glass of whiskey meditatively and took a small sip.
“Does it bother him?” he asked.
“I don’t think so, but you know Dex. He doesn’t exactly wear his heart on his sleeve. I just feel it’s inconsiderate, drinking in front of someone who’s on the wagon. Besides, I don’t exactly want to tempt him to start up again.” Tracy shuddered theatrically and Mike laughed.
“Now you, on the other hand,” she continued, stroking the sleeve of his plaid shirt. “You’re quite fun when you’ve had a few drinks.”
Mike felt his face heating up again. Should he take Tracy’s hand? Try to kiss her? She’d flirted with him off and on since that night before the wedding -- at least he thought it was flirting, he never could tell for sure -- but they had never kissed again since then. Mike had assumed it was over, just a moment’s insanity. But he would be lying if he said he’d stopped thinking about it.
This time, though, he knew Tracy better; she’d lose interest if he gave in too easily. “Not so much fun when I’m sober, then?” he asked wryly, keeping his hand where it was, resting on the back of the sofa.
Tracy laughed. “Heavens, no. I can hardly stand to be around you.” Her hand moved down toward his own, tracing lines across his wrist and the back of his hand and down to his rather wide nails with a fingertip. Mike kept his hand still. He knew Tracy wanted to draw this out, and God help him, he was going to let her.
“That explains everything,” he said gruffly. “Why you show up at my apartment demanding lunch, why you send Dinah around in that preposterous buggy to bring me letters requesting my presence.”
“You always come,” Tracy pointed out. Mike’s hand turned palm-up, seemingly of its own accord, and Tracy skated her fingers across his palm and the soft skin of his inside wrist. His own breathing suddenly seemed very loud.
“Tracy,” he finally managed to gasp, “I hope you won’t think this terribly old-fashioned of me, but--”
“Dex? That’s sweet of you to worry about him.”
“I’m trying not to court any more punches to the jaw. Can’t deprive the world of this face.”
“No indeed. But you needn’t worry on Dex’s account. We’ve always had a flexible arrangement. He enjoys certain things that… well, technically I could do them. But we’re both happier if he seeks them elsewhere. And if I decide to amuse myself with someone new once in a while, he can’t exactly complain, can he?”
“Someone new?” breathed Mike. His right hand had drifted down to Tracy’s feet and was pushing her trouser leg up past her ankle, over her smooth calf. True, they had never touched each other this way before, but it didn’t feel new, not exactly.
“Unless you’d prefer I call you someone old.”
“I’m going to close the curtains.”
“It’s from the gentleman over there, Mr. Conner,” said the bartender, setting an Old Fashioned on the bar next to Mike’s elbow and gesturing at a table in the corner. Mike looked up from his notebook in surprise and squinted into the gloom of the dark corner of the bar. The figure seated at the table until he lifted one hand and waved. To Mike’s surprise, he recognized the gesture. He thanked the bartender, closed his notebook, and took his drink to sit at the table across from the shadowy figure.
“I never expected to see you in a place like this,” said Mike, glancing at the half-full highball glass in front of his companion.
“Don’t worry, it’s ginger ale,” said C.K. Dexter Haven, taking a sip and winking at Mike.
“That wasn’t quite what I meant,” said Mike. “Although I’m glad to hear you’re still off the sauce.”
“If you mean the predominantly male clientele of this establishment, I’d like to point out that it’s no different from a standard gentleman’s club.”
Mike snorted. “It has one or two extremely key differences, but I’ll let it pass.”
“I could ask you the same thing,” said Haven with a twinkle.
“Oh, you know. It’s close to my apartment, it’s quiet for when I want to write. The bartenders know me.”
“I’ll bet they do,” smiled Haven. “Cigarette?”
Mike nodded, and Haven withdrew one from the silver case on the table and lit it, leaning across to hand it to Mike. Their fingers brushed and Mike shivered involuntarily and tried to hide it by taking a puff of the cigarette.
“It’s lucky I ran into you, actually,” Mike said, trying to keep his voice casual. “I have something of yours I’ve been meaning to return.”
“Something of mine?” Haven sounded intrigued. Mike reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the handkerchief, freshly washed and pressed.
“I didn’t wash it myself,” he confessed, not sure why he felt compelled to give this disclaimer. “I send my laundry out.”
Haven laughed. “It’s very kind of you, just the same. But why didn’t you give it to Tracy? I know you two see each other fairly often these days. She could have given it back to me.”
Mike blushed. “So you know about that.”
“Of course! Please don’t be embarrassed. Tracy’s a free spirit. That’s what I didn’t understand about her the first time around. I expected her to be like other women.”
Mike laughed. “She most definitely is not like other women. At least not in that way. Although I don’t mind telling you, Haven--”
“Dex, please. That’s what Tracy calls me.”
“Dex, then.” Mike took another drag from his cigarette, trying to hide the blush he could feel creeping up his cheeks toward his hairline. “I don’t mind telling you, I still don’t know the first thing about women.”
“You and me both, Mike,” Dex laughed wryly. He folded the handkerchief into a tiny square and unfolded it again, smoothing it out on the rough wooden table. Mike watched his hands moving, hypnotized. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”
“What question?” Mike asked, playing dumb.
“Why you carried my hankie in your pocket all this time instead of giving it back to Tracy. Not that I mind - I got several hundred as wedding gifts, the first time, that is. If you need any spares, I can supply you, as long as you don’t mind them having my initials.”
“I’m not sure I can answer that, Dex. It wasn’t exactly one of those decisions that passed through all the logic filters in my brain. More of an impulse, I suppose.”
“An impulse,” mused Dex, playing with a corner of the handkerchief, running his fingers over the white embroidered initials. “And you carried it there, inside your jacket, this whole time?” He handed the hankie back to Mike, who tried not to inhale sharply when their fingers brushed again.
Mike nodded and demonstrated, folding the hankie into a neat square and tucking it into his left inside jacket pocket. “Right here.”
“Next to your heart, you might say.”
“You might,” breathed Mike. “It had to go somewhere.”
Dex smiled then, a generous, relaxed grin that showed all his dimples and made him look about nineteen. “Just as you say. Why don’t you hold onto it a bit longer?”
“I couldn’t possibly--”
“I insist. I like the idea of you carrying something of mine around with you as you go about your day, going to meetings or talking to editors or buying groceries or whatever it is you New Yorkers do all day.”
Mike laughed. “Don’t forget haunting gay bars in Greenwich Village.”
“That too. Although I hope you’ll do that part with me, at least when I’m in town. Want to go for a walk?” Mike nodded and they headed out into the rainy evening.
“Say, what are you doing in town, Dex?” Mike asked as they both pulled their hats down to shield their faces from the springtime bluster. The pavement glistened in the streetlights, and everyone was hurrying to get indoors.
“I come up once a month, actually. I’m on the board of directors of a nonprofit, and somehow I convinced them my input was worthwhile, so once a month I take the train in and spend a day in meetings. It lets me pretend to be a city boy for a day.”
“A nonprofit? You never mentioned.”
“Please don’t be too impressed, it’s not nearly as much of a Robin-Hood-style endeavor as it sounds. We design public housing, that’s all. It’s mostly gathering permits and submitting zoning applications. Very glamorous work.”
“That sounds extremely worthwhile to me,” said Mike quietly. “I never pictured you as the do-gooder type, Dex.”
“Did I seem purely decorative? A hothouse orchid who squires his lady love around to society events and delivers polite witticisms?”
Mike laughed. “Certainly not polite.”
“Or did you think of me as a gruff business type who comes home every day and throws his briefcase down and demands a martini from his weary housewife?”
“Maybe, minus the martini.”
“I do miss the after-work cocktails once in a while. It’s a good thing I only work two days a month.”
“Neither of those,” Mike says after a beat. “You were a mystery to me. I knew a little about you of course, from that night, and from Tracy. She talks about you quite a lot, actually. But I still couldn’t fit you into any category in my mind. You rather defy classification.”
Dex stopped and turned to look at Mike. No one else was around, but Mike still fought the urge to take Dex’s hand.
“And what about now?” Dex asked softly. “Have you figured me out?”
“Not by a long shot,” admitted Mike. “But I’d like to try.”
Dex nodded and began walking again, and Mike thought at first he’d said something wrong. But then Dex remarked, “You said you had an apartment nearby?”
“Right around the corner,” Mike said.
“How are you fixed for ginger ale?”
“I’ll pick one up on the way.”
Dex nodded again. “Better make it three.”
“Dex, darling, it’s lovely, but where am I going to wear it?” Tracy held up brightly colored caftan, green and yellow with streaks of pink.
“Here, of course, when it warms up. It’ll be just the thing for lounging by the pool in the summer.”
“I suppose I’ll have to learn to lounge first. I prefer to stay in the pool until I can’t stand it any longer, then I jump out and right into the warmest robe I can find.”
“Just wait, you’ll be glad to have that in midsummer, when you want as few clothes touching you as possible. I’d wear it myself if I could get away with it.”
“I think you certainly could. Oh, there you are, Mike. What do you think? Wouldn’t Dex look devastating in this?” Mike was walking up the path from the house to the pool. He glanced at Dex, who winked at him from the pool.
“I’m not sure green is his color,” said Mike, with a wink at Dex in return. “And the neckline needs to be more plunging,” he added, gesturing with a downward motion at his chest.
“I suppose Tracy should keep it then,” said Dex, pretending to pout as he continued his slow crawl back and forth across the pool. Mike kissed Tracy on the cheek and handed her a small box. “Happy birthday, Tracy,” he said with feeling.
“Mike, you really shouldn’t have,” Tracy said, tearing the paper off the box with energy born out of curiosity.
“Don’t thank me yet, it’s technically for both of you, which I realize might be a bit declassé in a birthday gift.” Mike drifted toward the changing cabana but lingered by the door; he wanted to see Tracy and Dex’s faces when she opened the box.
“Don’t worry, we’re used to it,” remarked Dex. Tracy took the lid off the small cardboard box and withdrew a house key on a stylish silver chain. She held the key up close to her face, and Mike knew she was examining the letters he’d had it embossed with: MC.
“It’s to my apartment in New York. For whenever one or both of you want to come visit.” Mike hadn’t meant for his voice to get soft and husky, but he couldn’t help it. He glanced from Tracy, standing near the patio table in her bathing suit, looking girlish and wily as a slow grin spread across her face, over to Dex, who had stopped swimming to pull himself up on the side of the pool and now gazed at him, his arms folded on the pool rim, his chin resting on his arms, and a look of amused wonder as he gazed back at Mike. He felt drunk with joy, dizzy with possibilities.
“That’s very generous of you, Mike,” said Tracy in her most serious voice, the one he’d only heard when she was turning down his marriage proposal. That day seemed like a thousand years ago now.
“Are you sure we won’t be imposing?” asked Dex.
“No, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take. As long as you promise me one thing.”
“What’s that?” asked Tracy and Dex in unison. Mike wanted to laugh but his heart was too full.
“No more horseback riding. My manhood can’t take it.”
Dex laughed, and Tracy pretended to pout. “You were slowing me down anyway,” she said, twisting the silver chain around her long, strong fingers.
“Do you think your manhood can handle a little swimming? This pool is getting awfully cold with just one person,” said Dex. Tracy fastened the chain with the key tightly around her wrist and dove back into the pool.
“Mike! We’re waiting!” she called.
“Let me go get changed!” he laughed, and ducked into the cabana. When he emerged again, the first thing he noticed was a pair of wet bathing suits on the paving stones next to the pool.
“I seem to be overdressed now,” he mused. Both Tracy and Dex now had their arms folded on the side of the pool, so he couldn’t see what was going on below the surface, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Tracy’s bare shoulders, lightly freckled and smooth, or the muscles of Dex’s arms, which looked like they were carved from marble.
“We did change the dress code while you were inside, yes,” smiled Tracy. “Can you still join us?”
“Oh, I think I’ll manage.”