Peace and quiet could never last long in the house of the Honourable Phryne Fisher. Not even on the sunniest of Sunday late-mornings.
Phryne wasn’t used to hearing shock in the voice of the unflappable Mr. Butler. She placed her piece of thickly jammed toast back onto her plate and rushed into the foyer.
Jack was standing on the doorstep in clothes that would have been shockingly casual if they hadn’t been so shockingly dishevelled and bloody. There was a trail of dried blood down the one side of his face.
“Jack!” she gasped.
His scratched face swivelled to her. “Miss Fisher! I, ah… May I use your telephone?”
Her mind was whirring. There had been some gang activity lately, but she hadn’t heard anything from Jack and hadn’t even thought that he might be involved. Wasn’t today his day off? And why was he holding a large steel bucket in his hands, cradling it the way he usually did his hat?
“What happened? Were you attacked? Mr. Butler, call the station and – “
“No, no…” Jack said quickly, gesturing at Mr. Butler to stop with one hand. “I just had a mishap; all I need is to call a cab home.”
“A mishap?” Phryne said incredulously. “You look terrible! Come in, I’m calling Mac.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he protested, but Mr. Butler had already ushered him inside. Phryne caught a glimpse of a bicycle leaning against the wall outside before Mr. Butler closed the front door.
She looked Jack up and down, mentally cataloguing his injuries. The shell of his ear was bleeding, which was responsible for the blood staining his face and shirt. There were scratches on his face and neck, and his dishevelled clothes had several small tears. In some part of her brain, Phryne briefly wondered again why he was holding a bucket, but there were more important matters at hand.
“Mr. Butler,” she spoke decisively, “we’re going to need warm water, some clean cloth, and antiseptic.”
“Yes, Miss.” He disappeared into the kitchen.
“Come into the parlour and sit down, Jack,” she ordered. She would have physically dragged him into the parlour if it weren’t for the injuries. Luckily, he followed her (albeit not without protest).
“I don’t want to disturb –”
If he was well enough to be this contrary, he was probably alright. She rolled her eyes. “Sit down, or I’m really calling Mac.”
He awkwardly moved to the chaise and winced as he lowered himself. He placed the bucket he had been holding on the floor next to his feet. Phryne walked over to the decanter and poured him a drink.
“Medicinal,” she said before he could start protesting again. She stood back slightly and regarded him as he drained the glass. “Now, tell me who attacked you.”
He looked slightly sheepish. “Ah, no one. I was riding my bike and I must have gotten a bit too close to a magpie’s nest.”
“Oh,” she said, taken aback. “Isn’t it a bit early in the year for them to be swooping?”
“I tried to tell him that, but he wouldn’t listen,” he said drily.
She rolled her eyes as Mr. Butler came in with the medical supplies. He placed them on a small table which he moved next to the chaise before he turned back to her. “Do you need anything else, Miss? And should I call for anyone?”
Phryne saw Jack draw a breath to start protesting again and she interrupted. “It’ll be fine for now, thank you, Mr. Butler. I’ll examine him myself first and I’ll let you know if I need anything.”
Mr. Butler nodded and left the parlour.
Phryne turned back to Jack. “Let’s take a look at that.”
She sat down on the chaise next to him and picked the cloth from the bowl of water Mr. Butler had provided. Jack was looking at her warily. She could tell he didn’t like being the centre of her attention because of an injury, and part of her understood the impulse. She didn’t like being fussed over when she got hurt either. It made her feel pitiful, and she much preferred having someone’s attention for other (more enjoyable) reasons. But right now, she needed to clean his injuries and he was leaning ridiculously far away from her.
“Are you going to be a difficult patient, Inspector? Because I have no qualms about restraining you.”
He huffed but relaxed slightly.
“Do your worst, Nurse Fisher.”
She smiled at the humour that crept back into his voice. “I can assure you that my worst is a lot gentler than Mac would have been.” She leaned over to examine his clipped ear. “Would you turn your head, please?”
He complied and she looked him over carefully. The dried blood that stained the side of his face had made the injury appear a lot worse than it was.
She started gently dabbing the wound with the cloth to clean it. He breathed in sharply and pursed his lips.
“So, tell me about the magpie?” she asked to distract him.
He was watching her from the corner of his eye. “There isn’t much to tell. He started swooping me and when he clipped my ear I, uh, lost my balance and drove into a hedge. Which happened to have thorns.”
“And which explains the rest of the scratches and state of your clothes,” she concluded, turning away for a moment to pick up the antiseptic.
He shrugged deprecatingly. “At least he left me alone after that.” The final word turned into a hiss as she applied the antiseptic to his ear.
“Why do you have a bucket?” she finally allowed herself to ask, gesturing with her head towards the steel bucket at his feet.
He gazed at the ceiling. “It… I found it in the garden behind the hedge.”
She stared at him uncomprehendingly. “Why bring it along?”
“To protect my head.”
A laugh bubbled out of her mouth. “You stole a watering bucket from someone’s garden, and – "
“I didn’t – “
“– you rode here with the stolen bucket on your head?” She laughed again, delighted. “I wish I could have seen that!”
“I’m rather glad you didn’t,” he said. “And I didn’t steal the bucket, I plan on returning it.”
She gave him an exaggerated wink. “Of course you are. Can’t have people thinking I’m rubbing off on you now, can we?”
“No,” he rumbled his agreement, his eyes suddenly fond. For a moment she almost got lost in his gaze. Those eyes…
She remembered the task at hand. “Now for your face.” She dumped the cloth into the bowl of water, wrenched it out again, and leaned closer to him. He leaned away reflexively, but the glare she gave him quickly convinced him otherwise and he stilled beneath her touch.
She swiped gently over one of the cuts, before deciding that she needed to be closer and swinging her legs onto the chaise. She folded them under her, her knees touching the side of his leg. His eyes darted down briefly before coming back to her face. They fluttered shut as she leaned forward on her knees and reached for his face again.
It was almost hypnotic. Swiping gently at each cut, turning his face when she needed to see better, feeling the slightly ragged huffs of breath on her hand as she cleaned a small scratch above his upper lip. After a while, she sat back and examined his face. The cuts would heal, but it wasn’t often that she got the chance to look at him so closely.
His eyes blinked open, settling on her. “Done?”
“Yes,” she said, feeling slightly ridiculous for being caught staring. “Your face looks terrible.”
“Exactly what every man wants to hear from a woman.”
His dry voice made it difficult not to regain her composure and she grinned at him. “A woman? I thought I was just ‘Nurse Fisher’ today. I’ll try my best to be more professional.”
He lifted his eyebrows at that and pulled a doubtful face, his eyes dancing playfully.
That wouldn’t do.
She leaned closer and started wiping the dried blood from his neck, going so far as to reach inside his bloodstained shirt. His shoulder was wonderfully muscled, and if her hand happened to slip off the cleaning cloth to come into direct contact with his skin, well, who could blame her?
“If you want, you can take your shirt off, Jack,” she said conversationally. “These bloodstains will come out more easily if we soak it in cold water right away.”
From the corner of her eye, she could see his Adam’s apple bobbing. She smirked.
“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” he managed. “I’ll just wash it at home.”
“Are you sure?” she asked innocently. “Mr. Butler works wonders with stains.”
“Quite certain, Miss Fisher,” Jack said evenly. “Thank you.”
She retracted her hand and tilted her head at him, but he kept a straight face. Spoilsport, she thought and raked her eyes over him for good measure.
Her gaze settled on his hands. They were terribly scratched as well, she realised. He must have held his hands in front of him to break his fall when he went into the hedge. During her ministrations, he had kept them still on his lap with the palms facing upwards.
She turned back to the table, taking a clean cloth from the bowl of water. He looked at her, sensing a shift in her mood.
“Hand,” she said simply, holding out her palm. He placed his right hand in hers.
She cleaned all the cuts on the palm before she turned it over to check for more on the back. Satisfied, she gently placed his hand back on his lap.
She picked up his left hand without waiting for him to offer it. His eyes were on her face as she cleaned it, but she didn’t look up at him. It was rare to have an excuse to touch his hands, and she enjoyed feeling the weight and roughness of them in hers. She turned it over to check the other side.
His fingers were terribly distracting. She remembered how beautiful they had looked on the keys of her piano. How warm and comforting they wrapped around hers in the aftermath of the Foyle case…
Without thinking, she bowed her head and pressed her lips to his knuckles. When she looked up, he was watching her with a curious expression.
“I was told it helps with the healing process,” she said lightly.
His eyes did a careful analysis of her face. Then the corners of his mouth twitched and he raised his eyebrows at her. “What about my other hand?”
She put his left hand down and picked up his right hand, lifting it to her mouth. This time, her eyes didn’t leave his as she pressed her lips to his knuckles. He stared back at her without wavering.
“Thank you, Nurse Fisher,” he said levelly as she lowered his hand. “Your bedside manner is impeccable.”
“My pleasure, Inspector.” She let her voice drop a few octaves. “Anything else I need to kiss better?”
“I think I’ll manage, thank you.”
“If you say so.”
They smiled at each other. This, Phryne thought, was why she liked having him around.
He stood up. “I must be getting home. Thank you for the help, and sorry for showing up on your doorstep like that.”
“I like it when you show up on my doorstep,” she said, “although I prefer it when you do so in one piece.”
“Duly noted. I’ll tell that to any other angry birds I encounter.”
Phryne laughed and bent down to pick up the bucket from the floor. “Shall we drop this off on our way?”
He frowned and shook his head “No, I – "
“Jack! You don’t mean to say you’re going to keep it? Where have you been hiding this rebellious streak?”
He rolled his eyes. “I meant to say, no, you don’t need to drive me to my house. I’m feeling a lot better, I can just ride back, or I can call – "
“Nonsense,” she said, starting to usher him out of the parlour and into the foyer. “We can put your bicycle on the backseat of the Hispano – "
“It won't fit – “
“Then you’ll just have to come by another day to collect it. Mr. Butler!” she called into the kitchen without giving Jack a chance to reply. “The Inspector and I are leaving!”
Jack groaned and threw up his hands in defeat, earning a grin from her.
“Come on, Jack. I’ve never even been to your house. What if I want to show up on your doorstep for a change?”
He took a moment to consider before he tilted his head. “As long as you're in one piece when you do.”
She smiled at the echo of her own words. “Of course.”
“Miss?” Mr. Butler spoke from the doorway. “I have lunch ready, if you’d like to eat before you go?”
“Excellent!” She turned to Jack.
“Will you join me? Or,” – she let the mischief dance in her eyes – “are you in a rush to get home? We can still call you a cab, of course, or you can take your bicycle –”
“No, no, I’ll join you,” he said with a delightfully hungry look on his face.
She smiled, satisfied, and gestured to the dining room. “Shall we, then?”
He gave her his crooked smile in return and they stepped into the dining room together.