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The Knight of the Rose

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OVERTURE

 Richard Strand was clearly experiencing apophenia. Or perhaps a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation and stress. Either way, it was going in his next book.

His mental calculation went something like this: Alex Reagan, he was certain, was in Seattle chasing down leads on a mad Russian composer. And yet Alex Reagan was also standing impatiently in the coat check line in the lobby of Chicago’s famed Lyric Opera house. Alex Reagan, he was also certain, did not own a luminous red satin dress. And Alex Reagan’s hair never shone like burnished walnut kissed by firelight. And Alex Reagan’s lips were never painted a tempting shade of crimson.

Ergo, apophenia.

Or a hallucination. Which was now waving to him from across the narrow lobby. Clearly his tired mind was stepping up its game. He adjusted the brown leather briefcase on his shoulder and surreptitiously checked the crowd around him for a handsome young man waving back at the specter. Who was not Alex Reagan. But who was marching toward him with Alex Reagan’s determined stride.

“Dr. Strand?”

And now it was speaking to him.

“Miss Reagan?”

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she gave him a hapless shrug, “It took longer to grab a cab than I’d expected.” He stared down at her, and at the dress, and at the tiny beaded bag she carried in her—was that nail polish? Around him glasses clinked and the subtle stench of a slowly decaying building filled the air. “Dr. Strand?” Her voice was hesitant this time.

“You’re not carrying a microphone.” It was the first thing that came to mind. He couldn’t remember a time when Alex Reagan’s hands were free. She was always held a microphone or a pencil or a cup of coffee as though she couldn’t bear to have her hands empty or still. As though she needed a shield. Clutching a tiny silver purse that seemed to have no practical or defensive purpose was the loudest in a symphony of discordant notes.

“No… No, I’m not.” She shrugged. “Ruby was pretty clear about not bringing any recording devices on this round of the investigation. And I get it. I respect the opera company’s no recording during the show policy. But I’m hoping they’ll let me record when we come back tomorrow.” She hefted the small bag and cracked a smile. “I’m going civilian tonight.”

“Investigation?” Richard felt as though he was standing at the top of a steep, dark staircase. Vertigo grabbed his center of gravity and flung it somewhere down below his knees. One stiff breeze and he’d tip down into a bottomless pit that no amount of clawing or climbing could escape.

In reality he was standing at the bottom of a reassuringly solid staircase carpeted in a lush red velvet that muffled the sound of hundreds of feet marching towards their seats. Red punctuated the room around him and the stray journalist in front of him. To his left a diorama explaining hydraulic lifts glowed blue and he focused on the comforting cool color.

“Right. Into the possibly demonic haunting of the opera house. Ruby said that it was pretty urgent I fly out and meet you.”

“Ruby.” Now the red was washing over his vision. He pictured beat up sneakers stopping just within his line of sight and stack of folders thudding on his desk. Don’t forget, boss, she had said. Meeting with a possible partner for the Institute tonight. Really likes opera, so I got you tickets to the opening of the new one. It’s German. There’s a clean suit behind the door, and your emergency shaving kit’s in your left bottom drawer so you don’t go in looking like the Unabomber. Everything’s arranged. Tickets and stuff in your bag. She’d rapped on the files until he’d looked up and given her his full attention. You have to leave at five to be there on time, got it? He’d mumbled something and she’d gone away and come back later and herded him out the door to a waiting cab.

Miss Reagan was still speaking, the lines between her brows and around her lips that peeked out when she was upset were growing deeper by the moment. It seemed like he’d been seeing them more and more recently, and he’d even learned to listen for them creeping into her voice over the phone.

“Ruby,” he said again.

“Yes? Your assistant? Who insisted I come out here to Chicago and—“

“The Lyric Opera isn’t haunted,” he snapped, cutting her off. “It’s the least haunted theater in America. Possibly the world.” He gestured at the squat slabs of marble that made up the malevolent beige cave of the lobby. “If ghosts were real, do you think any of them would want to haunt a place like this? No one has ever died here, there have been no accidents, no fires, and the only tragedy that’s ever happened here is the death of good taste.” He shuddered.

Miss Reagan’s beautiful crimson mouth hung open. With visible effort she closed it and narrowed her eyes at him. “It’s not haunted?”

“No.”

“Ruby lied?”

“For reasons known only to Ruby, yes. Ruby lied.”

“I flew to Chicago, put on this dress, and came out to the freaking opera because Ruby lied?” She lifted a hand as though to run it through her hair and then with a uniquely feminine show of restraint forced it back down to her side. Her customary, practical hairstyle was nowhere in sight tonight. And having lived with women, he understood that whatever was going on back there probably took hours to achieve.

Behold the journalistic prowess of Alex Reagan, he thought. She was far too trusting, too gullible, and this was exactly the kind of nonsense that she would continue to fall for until someone pushed too far and she wound up dead in a ditch. And then that idiot Tannis Braun would be called in to find her body and Braun would gloat and Richard had every intention of giving her a thorough account of exactly what he thought of her so called investigative skills when “It’s a nice dress,” popped out of his mouth.

They both froze. Miss Reagan blinked at him and frowned. “It’s not mine.” She skimmed an awkward hand down the elegantly nipped waist and he felt an answering flush creep up his neck.

“Clearly.”

What?”

Richard sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Miss Reagan. My assistant, who I am going to fire tomorrow morning, brought us both here under false pretenses. I am supposed to be meeting with a potential partner for the Institute. You are supposedly here to investigate a Black Tapes case that does not exist.” He shifted the briefcase again and ignored the snookered elderly gentleman in a purple corduroy coat trying to walk between them. “I apologize, Miss Reagan, for the deception. And the Institute will happily cover the cost of your airfare and any other expenses incurred during the course of this unfortunate incident.”

Miss Reagan frowned at him, and then looked at the smiling people swirling though the lobby, hoisting glasses of champagne and greeting old friends. Most were hunched, elderly pairs dressed in their best opera finery, which was a cross between “elegant enough for Sunday Mass” and “comfortable enough to sit through four hours of screaming Germans while packed together like sardines”. Behind him another diorama turned with an irritating whirr, begging for donations for a new stage.

“I came out here for nothing?”

“It appears so, Miss Reagan. If you like I can help you find a taxi so that you can head back to your hotel. I have a great deal of work waiting for me at the Institute so you’ll excuse me if I—“

“I’m staying.” Miss Reagan nodded once and put her hands on her hips. The lobby crowd was starting to thin and he had an excellent line of sight to his frigid escape route. He arched an eyebrow at her. “I’m tired. And I’m not in the mood to go charging back out into the snow.” Her hands dropped and her brow furrowed again. “Were the tickets real?”

Richard felt the accusatory weight of the briefcase on his shoulder and he frowned at her. “Do you know anything about opera?” Miss Reagan had always struck him as more of as a sitting in a bar with a cold beer type. Listening with rapt awe as an overgrown child strummed the same four chords and whined about the difficulty of growing GMO free kale.

“No. Well, nothing beyond the research I did on the plane. But if I’m stuck here in Chicago for a night and already here and already spent this long on my hair I might as well stay.” She shifted from foot to foot, a familiar signal that she was ready to switch gears. He resolutely ignored the very un-Miss Reagan like black heels and the elegant curve of her ankle that was usually hidden by thick socks and practical boots.

“The tickets were real.” He unzipped a pocket on the side of his bag. Ruby was precise and efficient, and he’d miss her. But much like Miss Reagan, Ruby had never been good at leaving certain lines uncrossed and this was the last straw. Without looking Richard fished the tickets from his leather briefcase and handed them to her. “Why would you want to subject yourself to this? You could just as easily go back to your hotel.”

A gentle trill rang through the lobby, signaling the ten minute warning. Miss Reagan snagged the tickets and held them loosely between two fingers like a woman enjoying a cigarette after a healthy bedroom romp. He tried valiantly to shake off the image. And failed. “What’s life without a little adventure?” She peered up at him and his breath hitched in his throat. “Would you be up for a little adventure tonight, Dr. Strand?”

Richard’s stomach dropped as he teetered again at the top of the dark, steep drop into the unknown. Her eyes were warm, challenging, and just a little dangerous. He cleared his throat. “Well. If you’re determined to stay.” Then she could damn well stay on her own and endure the torturous delights of Richard Georg Strauss. “Then it would be rude of me to abandon you.”

He paused and wondered if he was having some kind of stroke that made him say the opposite of what he intended and plagued him with images of Miss Reagan’s pale, naked body in his bed. The real Miss Reagan cocked her head. He cleared his throat again and gently took the tickets back, his fingers trailing against hers for a split second. “As it is partially my fault that you’re here.”

Wailing Germans. For four hours. That was exactly the kind of torture he needed to banish the thoughts of Miss Reagan laying post-coitus among red satin sheets from his mind. It would be enough to drive all but the most homicidal thoughts from anyone’s head. In fact, he might take the time to formulate a new theory on operatically induced madness. The idea was entirely soothing.

He turned, knowing she would follow, and headed up the plush stairs to their third level dress circle seats. Ruby may have been insane, but she had excellent taste. “It’s starting soon. No late seating at the opera.”

“Really,” he heard from somewhere near his left elbow as they zipped past wall sconces decorated with horrifying Greek theater masks. He hoped Miss Reagan didn’t examine them too closely, or they’d be having another conversation about the Festival of the Upside Down Face.

“They’re very punctual. Modern opera is a bit of a misnomer.” He let the comforting familiarity of a good solid lecture take over. “Opera is all about ritual and tradition. The same words sung the same way. The same sets and costumes reused over and over by different companies. There are innovations, certainly. The American preference for acting as well as singing a part was revolutionary in the 1960s.” He quickly summited the last set of stairs and double checked the tickets for the aisle number.

“Acting was an innovation?” There was Miss Reagan, sounding nothing like a woman who had just run up four flights of stairs. In heels. She was remarkably good at keeping up.

He handed their tickets to a pit bull faced usher who launched into the no talking-no photography-no recording-no leaving- no readmittance speech like a Catholic missionary with a fresh batch of heathens. He ignored her and gestured for Miss Reagan to proceed him into their row.

“Even the supertitles, arguably the innovation that has done the most to save the art form and make it more accessible to modern audiences, are still considered anathema in some circles. The zealotry of opera aficionados is greater even than that of some parapsychologists when discussing the number haunting classifications.” He kicked his briefcase under the seat and looked at her. A small smile played around her distractingly painted lips and her eyes shone. “What?”

“Nothing. I just had no idea you were such a… fan of the opera.”  She settled her hands primly in her lap and waited as he folded himself into the narrow seat next to her. Truly, the man who had designed this squat temple to straight, sharp lines was a sadist. A short sadist.

“Hardly. But my mother enjoyed it. And I. Well.” He handed her a program plucked from the pit bull and tried to ignore the way his knee brushed against the full skirt of her dress. “Here.”

She hummed and her smile grew a shade more mysterious. “Thank you.” She bent to peruse the program and he fisted his hands against his trousers and tried to ignore the happy couple in front of them. Neither could be under seventy. Yet the man was merrily whispering into his wife’s ear and she was giggling like a teenager. That level of public affection was entirely inappropriate and beneath the dignity of their age and Miss Reagan’s hand was on his sleeve.

“Dr. Strand,” she asked, tone indicating that it wasn’t the first time she’d called his name. “Are you all right? You look uncomfortable.”

“Yes.”  With great effort, Richard unclenched his hands and smoothed the charcoal grey wool over his thighs. Her hand was still on his sleeve and suddenly the massive auditorium was entirely too warm and his jacket far too tight. He glanced around at the faded pink and green gilt paint. It appeared the Lyric was so strapped for cash this season that they’d turned off their air conditioning. Disappointing but not impossible. And once he fired Ruby his office would again be free of the curse of snacks and regular meals that often found their way onto his desk and his clothes would go back to their normal size. Occam’s razor.

He glared at her hand until it dropped guiltily back into her lap. Richard let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

At that moment, by the blessed grace of a god he didn’t believe in, the lights dimmed and the orchestra morphed from an unharmonious tangle of jarring notes into a symphony. A sliver of peace alone in the riotous dark was just what he needed. Alone, surrounded by one thousand other people breathlessly waiting for maudlin hell to be unleashed on their eardrums. Alone, and relieved of the burden of polite conversation with the most maddening woman he’d met in twenty years.

With a triumphant swell the curtain rose on two lovers writhing together on a sumptuous bed. Richard shifted restlessly, glanced at Miss Reagan, and his mouth went dry. She reminded him of a glorious chiaroscuro painting by a Renaissance master, eyes wide and delicate teeth sunk into her luscious lower lip as she stared at the passionate embrace on stage. For a moment he wanted to reach out and brush the shadows from the high curve of her cheek. He wanted to sink his hand into the mass of hair bundled at the back of her neck and yank her toward him. He wanted to devour her.

Richard let out a soft groan and slumped deeper into his seat. It was going to be a long night.


 ACT I

When blessed silence and light again filled the auditorium he dared a glance at Miss Reagan. It was the first he’d allowed himself since the disastrous beginning of the first act.

He stiffened. She sniffled.

“Are you injured,” he ground out. She gave him a small broken laugh and a watery smile.

“That was beautiful.”

He fumbled in his breast pocket for a handkerchief and handed it to her. “Are you actually enjoying this?”

“Thank you.” She began dabbing ineffectually at her face as women wearing makeup were wont to do. An absolutely ridiculous vicious cycle, if you asked him. Spend all that time and effort on artifice, cry, and look like a fool trying to fix the mess. “And yes,” she said, shaking him from his reverie, “I really am. The whole thing is just so well done. And sad. And beautiful.” She smiled at him again and offered back the blotched handkerchief.

Richard waved a hand. “Keep it. If that part made you cry you’re going to need it in Act III.” He rose and nearly fell over as feeling and blood returned to his legs. This was one of the many reasons he detested coming to the Lyric. He fit into no part of it. “Come along.”

“Oh no. I absolutely want to see how this ends.”

He sighed and hefted his brown leather briefcase. “No, Miss Reagan. It’s time for dinner.”

“Dinner?”

“Tradition and ritual, Miss Reagan. Traditional and ritual.” He nodded to the stage where a series of loud bangs and crashes echoed from behind the curtain. “During the first thirty minute intermission: dinner. During the second: dessert.”

Her eyes went wide. “A half an hour intermission? Seriously?”

Richard led the way out into the bustling corridor. Patrons thronged toward the makeshift bars littered every eight feet, grabbing wine flutes and dissecting the soprano’s performance. A heated argument about the merits of Italian versus German opera had broken out near the restrooms and it looked like the gentlemen would likely come to blows. “Opera is a world unto itself.”

Behind him he sensed Miss Reagan pausing and he turned. “If we’re going to eat, I’m going to go wash my hands.”

He nodded. “I’ll brave the bar. Will wine do?”

She smiled and he had the singular joy of watching her swish away, tantalizing glimpses of the back of her knees flashing as the hem of her dress swayed. It was, he knew from experience, an often overlooked erogenous zone and it was possible to bring a woman to the sobbing brink from just the right attention.

Richard gritted his teeth and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Definitely time to fire Ruby.

He had acquiesced gracelessly to Ruby’s demands that he learn to text. She’d presented her case with ruthless logic, citing the efficiency and swiftness of the medium. Which he’d appreciated, under the condition that she refrain from flinging those absurd acronyms at him. But he would never appreciate trying to stab the tiny keys of his Blackberry with his large fingers. Yet another part of the world that others swam through while he stumbled.

The words Fish or cut bait were waiting for him when he keyed open his messages. They were the same cryptic words she’d muttered when she stuffed him into the cab earlier that evening.

You’re fired, he shot back.

No I’m not. Clearly Ruby had been waiting with baited breath to see how her little drama played out. She’d never before revealed a weakness for sentimentality, although her scheming nature was one of the reasons he’d kept her around this long.

Yes, he typed back. He glanced around at the happy couples strolling through the hallway with glasses of rosé. A gaggle of young people under forty, possibly all the youngest people in the building, were gathered around a large piece of stretched canvas with the words “Chicago Lyric Opera” splashed across it like Jackson Pollock taking a commercial turn, snapping pictures of each other and laughing. He frowned. Attention deficient flies to honey. And of course Miss Reagan was strolling over for a closer look at the pathetic attempt at free marketing. The phone vibrated in his hand.

No, Ruby typed back. The messages came in quick succession now, the phone buzzing angrily as Ruby ramped up to one of her rare but usually correct tirades. You won’t. You needed this. Alex is a distraction from the mission. You need time without a BT case or her waving a microphone to figure out whatever the two of you are doing. Chicago is your city, not hers. You know opera, she doesn’t. I gave you home court advantage. Something big is coming. You don’t have time for a distraction. So figure it out. Either she’s Team Strand or she’s out.

Richard paused. Then he typed, I thought you didn’t like Miss Reagan.

Alex is fine when she’s not messing up your life. Or your focus.

Why didn’t you just tell me?

You wouldn’t have gone otherwise. BUT YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO STAY. Richard frowned at the phone, the words seeming to grow until they filled his field of vision and the imagined sound of Ruby’s frustration rang in his ears.

Dinner and dessert in the bag. Buy your own drinks. You’re welcome.

You’re still fired.

See you on Monday.

“Beer, wine, or champagne, sir,” a polite voice interjected. He glanced down at the little round man holding court behind the bar. And steadfastly ignored the grumbling people on either side of him.

“Two glasses of rosé.” It was Der Rosenkavalier, after all. Miss Reagan would appreciate the on-the-nose absurdity if nothing else. He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and took a glass in each hand, scanning the hallway for his errant companion. As if sensing the weight of his gaze she lifted her head from an animated conversation with two young men dripping the kind of taste that screamed “I was dressed by my socialite mother” and met his eyes. He jerked his chin towards a deserted back staircase, abandoned by the rest of the crowd in favor of closer proximity to the alcohol. She smiled at the young bucks before gliding over to meet him.

“Do you mind the stairs? It’s quieter here than trying to jockey for a tall table.” And having seen her happily enjoy a meal balanced on a curb in downtown Charlesworth, he was sure he already knew the answer.

Miss Reagan smiled at him and accepted a glass of wine. Perching daintily on the step above him he caught a flash of garters as she settled her skirts. He hardened instantly and dropped like a rock onto one of the steps, pulling the briefcase into his lap with the practiced efficiency of an oft-guilty schoolboy. Ruby may have had a point about Miss Reagan’s distracting… charms. He breathed steadily through his nose and tried to picture the most unappealing thing he could think of.

Calvinism came to mind. Nothing less erotic than a bunch of smug, self-righteous prigs fanatic about their predestined place at God’s right hand. He imagined John Calvin nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to an ancient church door in Wittenberg. He imagined himself nailing Miss Reagan against the same door, hiking her satin skirts up above her waist, hooking her legs over his elbows, and driving into her wet heat until she screamed. He imagined burying his teeth into the juncture of her neck and shoulder and leaving a mark that would warn every other man in the world to keep his hands off.

“Dr. Strand?” Miss Reagan made a little waving motion near his face, and then lay the back of her soft hand against his forehead. He shuddered, his body inches away from the most painful orgasm of his life, and she pursed her red lips. “You’re looking a little peaked. And you’re warm. Are you sure you don’t want to leave?”

“Nothing a little food,” and a long, cold shower, “won’t cure.” He flipped open the messenger flap of his briefcase and peered in at Ruby’s handiwork. “I think this one is yours,” he said, drawing out a bright pink Hello Kitty bento box.

She gave a tinkling little laugh and cracked open the box. Her delighted laugh, he noted absently as he pulled out his own black lacquered bento and handed her a pair of chopsticks. It differed in pitch and duration from the triumphant laugh she sometimes offered him when she guessed a Sunday crossword clue before he did. He frowned as he wondered when he’d begun to notice the subtleties of Miss Reagan’s moods.

“Itadakimasu,” she chirped before deftly snagging a cherry tomato with her chopsticks. He surveyed his own dinner and decided a sliver of smoked salmon was the option with the least possibility for humiliation. 

They chewed in silence for a while as he juggled his dinner, the bag, and his erection. When it didn’t seem like Miss Reagan was going to fill the creeping conversational void he coughed and said, “What Ruby lacks in sanity she makes up in connections.”

“Meaning?” She giggled as she found an onigiri shaped like a cat hidden underneath a leaf of lettuce. Miss Reagan was smiling more this evening than he’d seen in the last few weeks.

“There’s a Japanese restaurant down the block from the Institute. If you drop off your own box, and you’re Ruby, they’ll make you a custom picnic to go.”

Miss Reagan grinned and hefted a second tomato. “I never pictured Chicago having such great Japanese food. Can we go the next time I’m in town?”

“Maybe.” He stared down at his chopsticks. “Are you glad you stayed? For the show, I mean. The opera.” Smooth, Strand. Smooth.

She sighed happily. “Oh yes.”

“Because you were crying.” He experienced another quick jab of vertigo as he looked up at her, rather than down. Even from this angle she was uncommonly pretty, and he had the rare pleasure of tracing the vulnerable curve of her biteable lower lip with his eyes. “I know it’s not to everyone’s taste.”

“I really didn’t know if I’d like it. But I do. And that last song was so powerful. And sad.” Richard watched enviously as she ate her rice with practiced ease. No matter what Ruby said, his assistant was taking at least a small measure of vicious pleasure in forcing him to try and use chopsticks in front of Miss Reagan tonight.

“Aria. One of the most famous in history. Singing the part of The Marschallin sending away her young lover is a singular honor.” And only the first of the failed May-December romances that littered the damn piece. Strauss had not been kind or forgiving to the middle aged characters of his opera. Ice water flooded his veins as he thought of the rest of the play, where an older buffoon was shamed and humiliated for his ardent pursuit of a beautiful young woman.

Thank you ever so much, Ruby.

“It’s sad that she’s an idiot,” Miss Reagan said.

Richard’s focus snapped back to her. “I beg your pardon?”

Miss Reagan closed the lid of her bento and leaned forward. “Really. The… Marschallin? She’s being foolish. She’s so wrapped up in her own insecurity that she can’t see that she’s got everything she wants right in front of her.” She shook her head. “It’s almost depressing. Throughout the first act we see that Octavian adores her, right?”

Richard shrugged. He wasn’t sure he’d ever heard Miss Reagan so passionate about anything outside of her work. He also wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“Exactly. He’d do anything for her, they balance each other out, and he makes her happy. And then we get to see that she’s a mature woman fully at home in her own power. It’s great! How often do you see that?” She straightened and squared her shoulders. “And then she starts to doubt herself. And him. And she breaks up with him?” She shook her head. “It’s tragic. I read that this was a comedy, but it’s really tragic.”

Richard was adrift, feeling like the Titanic becalmed in a wine dark sea. Deadly icebergs were all around him, and the only mystery was which one he’d crash into first. Anger flared at Miss Reagan’s illogical and unexpected track, and the feeling that she’d deliberately outmaneuvered him in some way. Why was she so blinkered? So unwilling to see the truth when it stared her in the face? “Octavian had his whole life ahead of him. She was half way thorough hers. She wanted him to be free to find someone his own age. To be happy.”

Miss Reagan shook her head again with fierce jerk. “You don’t know that. Do you know what the life expectancy was for a young man at that time?”

“Actually ye—“

None of us know when we’re going to die.” She stilled, and her face was grave. Shadows darkened her eyes and at that moment Miss Reagan looked positively world weary. He batted away the absurd impulse to take her hand and leaned away from her instead. “Both of us? We could die tomorrow, Richard. Do you know how many death threats I get in a month? Nic keeps a file.”

The intimate thrill of his given name on her lips thrummed down his spine. So it was understandable that it took an extra moment for what she’d actually said to sink into his stomach with the unerring accuracy of an icy stiletto. Time, for an infinite moment, ground to a halt.

“What?”

She waved a hand. “Yeah. I’m basically ‘marked for death’ or something. Nic has a recurring appointment on his calendar to fax the latest batch to the FBI and the police each month.” She handed back her bento box, the dancing pink cat suddenly obscene and out of place. He took it with numb fingers, unable to look away from the shadows in her eyes. “Whatever. The point is, carpe diem.”

“Death threats?” It hadn’t been the iceberg he’d expected, but Richard was still sinking fast. His brain was frozen and careening toward the bottom of the Atlantic. His back was to the bustling hallway a few feet away from them and he had the ridiculous impulse to crowd Miss Reagan into a corner and scan the area for possible attackers. He wanted to bundle her out of this terribly public and vulnerable tomb and into the relative safety of his home, guarded by the best security system on the market.

She gave him a small smile. “Gather ye rosebuds, and all that. Hey, roses!” Her smile widened. “Which came first, the poem or the whole German Knight of the Rose idea?”

“‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ was published nearly three hundred years before Der Rosenkavalier debuted,” he said automatically, brain bucking at the word “virgin” in close proximity to Miss Reagan. “Though certainly Strauss would have had the opportunity to read Herrick’s work.” He paused and brought his focus to bear on the more urgent matter. “Death threats?”

Another chime rang through the quickly emptying corridor and Miss Reagan stood, smoothing out her skirt. It was a testament to Richard’s own deteriorating mental state that he didn’t even note if her garters made another flickering appearance. “Come on. I don’t want to miss what happens next. And they might lock us out if we’re late.”

And then it was his turn to follow after her. He forced himself to walk slowly, scanning the scant crowd for any signs of trouble, human or demonic. Richard nodded to the pit bull on the way back into the auditorium, and he was careful to note the faces of everyone in their cramped section. Most of the couples around them were busy settling back into their nest of coats for the second round but he caught the two young men Miss Reagan had chatted with earlier staring their way and nudging each other. He narrowed his eyes. They had youth, but he had experience. And if need be, an assistant who was handy with a Taser and a shovel.

Richard squeezed himself into his seat and took a deep breath. His nose filled with the delicate, earthy scent he’d come to associate with Miss Reagan and he settled back. He was glad he’d chosen to stay.


 ACT II

As the curtain went down he surreptitiously checked Miss Reagan for any signs of weeping. What he found instead was her mouth compressed into a firm line and what Nic often called her “death from above face” firmly in place. The woman on her other side looked from Miss Reagan to Richard and back again. Then she turned to her friend and shooed the woman out toward the other end of the row.

“Miss Reagan?”

“What a jerk.”

“Disgusting, isn’t it?” He felt a cold smile of satisfaction stretch across his face. A distinguished and elegant woman like The Marschallin with a love drunk younger man was one thing, but even Miss Reagan would finally be forced to face reality. “The girl probably isn’t even half his age.”

She snorted. “Age has nothing to do with it. Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau is a horrible, horrible person. Ew. His name even sounds like ‘lecher’. ”

Richard rolled his eyes and it was his turn to snort. “Really.”

“Yes, really.” She began ticking points off on her polished fingers. “He pawed Octavian while he was dressed as a maid. He tried to swindle his fiancée and her family out of their fortune. His men attacked the serving girls, probably because they knew he’d be cheering them on. And then,” she clenched her hand into a fist. “And then he mauled his poor fiancée right in front of her father. Who did nothing.” She pounded her fist on her thigh. “Also a colossal jerk, for the record. God.” She sounded as though she’d found a particularly virulent strain of mold growing in her refrigerator and was ready to kill it with fire.

Richard felt like he was back on the Titanic, being tossed about on white capped waves. The uncertain terrain left him unable to call up the anger he usually wrapped himself in when Miss Reagan was being absurd and instead all he could muster was a cautious contempt. “And that he was probably older than her father in the first place?”

She waved her hands dismissively. “One, untrue. Two, doesn’t matter. I am going to enjoy watching him getting his comeuppance in Act III.” She paused and twisted her fingers together. “That is what happens in Act III, right? If anything good happens to that guy, we’re leaving now.”

“Humiliations galore.” He nearly smiled at the presumption that he’d be leaving with her. She wasn’t incorrect. As though he would have suffered through an opera about elaborate fictional floral courtship rituals for this long without the pleasure of her company. Left to his own devices he’d be back in his gloomy office at the Institute, sticking pins into a wall map charting the rise in supposed supernatural activity throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“Good,” she said with vicious relish. It dimly occurred to Richard that the women in his life were of a very particular type. Though Miss Reagan was likely the least terrifying of her cohort. He hoped.

Richard stood, his knees creaking in protest after being shoved against the rickety seat in front of him for two hours. God, but he was getting old. He threw a self-conscious glance at Miss Reagan. The much younger and more flexible Miss Reagan. Who doesn’t seem to mind, a dark voice in his head whispered.

“Would you like some dessert?”

“Do you know what it is?” She lifted the bag from the floor and handed it to him.

 

“No.” But knowing Ruby, there were his own humiliations galore waiting inside.

Richard went to buy two more glasses of wine while Miss Reagan strode off to secure what had somehow become their spot on the disused marble stairs. He watched her plucking at her borrowed skirt, apparently deep in thought, and waited an appropriate amount of time until he was sure that she and her garters were settled before joining her.

As he handed her a glass and sat down on the step above her he congratulated himself on a strategic retreat from the temptation of her delicate ankles and anything else that might be lurking higher on her lovely legs. Until she turned to smile up at him and he realized that she had an excellent view of his groin and the potentially embarrassing bulge hidden behind his briefcase.

“So, a two course meal is traditional,” she asked.

He cleared his throat and opened the flap. “Yes. Some opera houses have special restaurants. You call ahead with your order and they have it plated and waiting for you at the table when you walk in after the first act. And when you return after the second, dessert is waiting. Or you can picnic on your own.” His fingers closed around a smooth cardboard box and he held it out for her inspection.

Miss Reagan whistled. “I’m still not happy with Ruby for lying to me, but Godiva does help take the edge off.” 

She slid open the lid and let out a slight moan. His shoulders and parts further south stiffened. She turned the box around so he could see the two chocolate covered strawberries nestled in tidy white paper cups. “Which one would you like?”

“No,” he rasped. “They’re yours.” He took a healthy gulp of wine and nearly choked as she trailed a careful scarlet fingertip around the crown of one of the berries. He didn’t care if Ruby had excellent points and a Taser. She was a monster. A creative, vindictive monster.

Miss Reagan smiled and then opened her mouth, wrapping her lips around the berry and hollowing her cheeks as she took a bite. He took another careful sip of wine to drown his own moan and breathed deeply through his nose. The sweet scent of berry and Miss Reagan hit him and all he could see was her crimson lips wrapped around his cock, eyes closed in pleasure and dark lashes fanned out against her pale cheeks.  She swallowed and then sucked delicately on one of the ragged edges of the berry and he imagined what those tiny little movements would feel like against his sac. He could nearly feel her hot breath ghosting over him.

She sat back and took a small sip of her own wine, giving him a content smile. He smiled back, helpless to do anything else, and groped for a topic. “So. Ah. You borrowed the dress?”

Her white teeth flashed as her smile broadened. “I borrowed it from Nic.” She made a strange catch and release gesture. “Long, long story. Ask him the next time you see him. He’d love that.” The image of Nic Silver pirouetting in a red satin dress danced through his mind for a moment and Richard shoved it away, eyes on her throat as she swallowed another sip. Oh, but to be that wine.

“Are you sure you don’t want at least one, Dr. Strand?” His eyes flicked up to hers and he was ensnared. Was falling and drowning. Was conscious only of the fact that he most certainly did not want a berry.

But he would like to see her have another. He’d never experienced an erotic fixation for a fully clothed woman eating a piece of fruit on a public staircase but he was nothing if not interested in exploring the possibility. “Please. Really. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.”

A lie. Though at that moment the only thing he had a craving for was the heady taste of juice and chocolate lingering on her lips.

“More for me then.” She plucked the fruit from its rustling paper cup and held it close for inspection. The pink tip of her tongue flashed out for a quick lick of rich chocolate before she quickly sucked in the small berry down to its leaves. He shuddered.

His eyes unfocused and his entire world became Miss Reagan below him, eyes closed in pleasure and head leaned back against the marble staircase. He saw himself bracing both hands against the bannister above her head and feeding his cock into her mouth. He already knew that her long experience on air had given her excellent breath control. On the other hand, Richard also knew he was large enough that some women had difficulty taking all of him. He found he was desperate to know if Miss Reagan could keep up with him in bed as well as she did everywhere else. If Miss Reagan would suck him down her throat, take him all the way to the root, and let him come there. He imagined coming in her red cupid’s bow mouth. He imagined coming across the crimson satin stretched tight between her firm breasts. His cock spasmed and he shifted, desperate for even the smallest burn of friction. His breath was shallow and fast and his eyes were glued to her lips as they plucked the last bit of chocolate off the strawberry.

Richard fisted his hands against the sides of his leather briefcase in a desperate effort to keep them from sinking into her hair and holding her head down so that he could feel her throat working around him. His fingers itched to sift through her dark locks and destroy the elaborate coiffure. He wanted to kiss away the strange lipstick and tear off her borrowed dress and reveal his Alex, the woman who had been slowly wrapping herself through every part of his life for the past year. The specter who’d materialized in the lobby tonight was a dangerous temptation, but she held nothing to the siren song that had begun building with the first of eleven messages left on his voicemail.

Miss Reagan settled her shoulders more firmly against the staircase and let out a long, slow breath. “That was great.”

Reality washed over him like a frigid wave, and the bustling sounds of the very public hallway around the corner filled his ears. His cheeks began to burn, and a strangled noise escaped his throat. Richard coughed and tried again. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. Them. I had no idea that you liked. Those.”

She smiled. “Oh, it’s something Ruby and I talked about once. I don’t let myself have them too often, because, well, waiting makes it better.” She sighed and rolled her shoulders. “And there’s no real polite way to eat them, you know? Try a ladylike nibble and the chocolate falls right off. You sort of have to dive in to the experience.” She laughed and stretched her arms out in front of her.

“No. I don’t know.”

“Well, next time we get some you’ll have to give them a try. Take a walk on the wild side.”

She had no earthly idea what Richard Strand’s wild side looked like. And if her idea of a hedonistic bacchanalia began and ended with chocolate covered strawberries, clearly they would never suit.

Lust crumbled to ash in a purifying and familiar rush of anger. He glared down at Miss Reagan. “Excuse me. I need to check my messages. I was expecting an important email tonight.”

She blinked and straightened, flicking a feather light glance between his face, his briefcase, and back again. “Oh. Sorry. I’ll… I’m just... Sorry. I keep forgetting tonight wasn’t part of the plan for you either.” She fidgeted with her skirt for a moment before standing slowly and picking up the Pandora’s box that had loosed his own personal hell into the world. “I should probably check mine too. And wash my hands again.” She paused, looking almost sad for a moment. As though she had anything to be sad about, Richard thought with a snarl. “Will you be back in for the finale? I mean, it’s fine if you’re not. If you have to leave.”

Richard scowled. “Of course. I just have other priorities at the moment.”

“Right. Okay. Um. Thanks for dessert?” She gave him a small, shy smile before walking quietly away.

He let out a deep breathed and hunched over the bag in his lap.  This was ridiculous. There were hundreds of hacks and cranks out there in the world who would pay good money to see Dr. Richard Strand making a fool of himself in public. He could see the headlines now. “Strand Institute Founder Arrested for Public Indecency.” While the Lyric may have been home to generations of libertine stories on the stage, he was certain they’d be far less forgiving of such a scandal happening its venerable hallways. Braun would have a field day.

Alex Reagan was a distraction. She prompted him into unforgivable lapses of his otherwise iron-clad discipline. She made him laugh. He pulled out his phone and stared unseeing at the screen. Ruby was right. Richard carried far too much on his shoulders to allow this kind of weakness.

He heard a polite cough a few feet away and looked up. An older woman dressed in the cheap black polyester of the Lyric gave him a tremulous smile. “Are you done with those glasses, sir? I’d be happy to take them.”

“Yes. Fine.” Richard picked up Miss Reagan’s wine flute and absently traced the pattern of her lipstick with his thumb as he handed them over.

“Thank you.” The woman placed them both on her wheeled cart and paused before  giving him a brighter smile. “You’re a lucky young man, you know,” she said. Her voice carried the blunted round heaviness of the Baltic Sea and the hint of teasing.

“I beg your pardon?”

“She’s very pretty, your wife.”

“She is most certainly not my wife.”

“Oh.” The woman frowned. “Oh. I see.” She shook her head and muttered something in Russian before wheeling her cart away. Richard caught the words “idiot” and “blind” as she walked off to find someone else to bother.

He shifted his hips against the unforgiving marble stairs and checked to make sure that he could walk without fear of being arrested. Satisfied, he rose. He was a distinguished man of science and intellect. It was certainly within his ability to survive another hour with Miss Reagan before shoving her into a cab and walking home alone through the freezing snow. Back to his dark, empty house.

As long as she did not speak. Or move.

Walking along the hall he found Miss Reagan talking animatedly to the pit bull, who looked as though she had shoveled on another pound of make up during the first act. Miss Reagan’s laugh was high and rich and when she noticed him staring at her she waved him over. “Dr. Strand! Have you met Marge yet? She’s a walking history book! She knows everything there is to know about the history of the Lyric.” The older woman blushed to the roots of her white curly hair and gave Miss Reagan what may have passed for a smile in another species.

“Now, I don’t know about everything. But like I told you, it’s important to do something that you love.”

“But you!” Miss Reagan beamed back. “You’re amazing! Look, can I give you my card?” She popped open her small silver bag and pulled out a familiar PNWS business card. “I’d love to talk more with you some day, but I know you’re busy right now.”

“You’re with Pacific Northwest Stories? Oh, we loved you when you were on the air!” The woman’s smile turned shy. “You really think you’d like to talk to me?” Most people smiled at Miss Reagan. If Richard had been given to flights of fancy, he would have believed it was her greatest superpower. Followed closely by her dogged persistence. Perhaps that was why she and the pit bull found common ground so quickly.

“Absolutely! We’re doing podcasts now. On demand radio on the internet. Please give me a call and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“That would be lovely. But now you should hurry back to your seats.” The older woman made a small shooing motion. “You don’t want to miss the pantomime!” Miss Reagan gave her a quick hug and bounded back into the theater.

Richard followed at a more sedate pace. Miss Reagan had never dared give him a hug. And yet perfect strangers, people who had known her for less than five minutes, were more fortunate. Though to be fair in his current state if she so much as brushed a fingertip down his sleeve he’d probably spontaneously combust and take the whole theater with him.

At least then she’d get her ghost story.

After he’d stuffed himself into the horrible little chair one final time, Richard looked down at his hands. “You seemed to be enjoying your chat with the pit bull.”

“Richard.” He didn’t have to look up to hear the eye roll in her voice. “Marge is amazing. Did you know she’s retired, and volunteers with the opera full time? She used to be an air traffic controller. The first woman to hold the job at O’Hare airport. Nearly the first in the country, period.”

He looked over at her and was entranced again by the passion burning brightly in her face. “That is actually quite impressive. But I only left you alone for a few minutes. How did you learn all that so quickly?”

She shrugged. “I like people,” she said. As though it was really that simple. Why everyone was so drawn to her, why Richard was drawn to her, was truly the mystery. “People are fascinating. And I know you think so too.”

“I? No. You’re mistaken. People are inconsistent and absurd. And too ready to believe the most ridiculous things based on zero evidence.”

Miss Reagan gave a small huff. “You’re adamant that there isn’t anything supernatural, right? That man is alone in the universe and all that? So everything you spend your time investigating is, basically, people. Their foibles. Their wild stories. You have two degrees from Yale that focus around, in your own words, purely human constructs. Isn’t that a pretty strong indicator that you, at heart, think people are pretty interesting?”

He stared at her. Behold the journalistic prowess of Alex Reagan, he thought again. Sometimes she shocked him with insights he himself was unable to see. The woman was too perceptive by half, and he was a man with far too many skeletons and secrets to ever let his guard down around a professional journalist. No matter how mesmerizing her mouth was. Or how jealous he became when she hugged an opera-loving retiree.

 “Well. I don’t think your fried Marge can tell you much about the non-existent haunted history of this building. If that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “Marge confirmed everything you said. But she gave me an idea. For another series.”

Apparently the Lyric had decided to turn their air conditioning back on, because Richard shivered as a cool draft snaked down his neck and into the pit of his stomach. “Another series? Are you becoming bored with The Black Tapes, Miss Reagan? Am I not providing sufficient entertainment for you and Nic?”

A small silence grew between them and she cocked her head, concerned eyes searching his. “Do you want to be my interview subject forever, Dr. Strand?” He felt his mouth firm into a hard line. Of all the things he’d imagined tonight, being summarily dismissed in favor of a retired flight controller wasn’t one of them. “Because,” Miss Reagan continued slowly, “I know what we’re doing kind of makes you nuts.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“This was supposed to be a short series. And then it got bigger. And we’ve been focusing a lot on you. And your past. And your… family. So. Would you really want to do this forever?”

Once again, a dark pit yawned beneath his feet. But this time it also seemed to echo with an aching emptiness. When he finally succumbed to gravity and fate, he’d be the only one down there in the cold blackness and no one was coming in after him. He scrambled for the only lifeline he could feel.

“You and I aren’t finished yet, Alex,” he said harshly. Too harshly, even though a smile blossomed across her face.

“No. Not for a while. But sometime, in the future, we’ll have solved all of your Black Tapes, right?”

“There are always more Black Tapes. Since you and I began working together Ruby and I have been flooded.” It was more fresh data than he’d dared hoped for, in fact. For the first time in his life he’d felt like he had the tools to be the hunter rather than the hunted.

She laughed and sunlight broke through the bleak direction of his thoughts. “Right. But. At some point things will change. And I was thinking, a good follow up to The Black Tapes might be a series on second acts?”

“Second acts?” He was still stuck picturing the ringing emptiness of his life without Miss Reagan. It would certainly be quieter. And there would be far less laughter.

“Yeah. What you do after retirement. What you do after cancer.” She gestured at the people around him. “Everyone’s got more than one chapter to their story. Second careers. Second lives.”

“Second marriages,” he muttered.

“That’s a great one! Yes!” She leaned forward and her hands plucked at the beadwork on her small purse. He knew from long experience that she was probably itching for a pen and paper or one of her many digital recorders as her thoughts boiled like a thunderstorm. “What’s it like to become someone no one in either part of your life recognizes? Do you really? Are you the same person underneath? Or do you shed everything and bury the memories of one life and immerse yourself fully in the other?”

Richard’s laugh was small and rusty. He was certain he’d remember the beauty of Alex Reagan’s mind and mouth on his death bed. Whether that was six months or sixty years away. Whether he was living as Richard Strand or another incarnation.

“Wait,” Miss Reagan drawled. “Was that agreement? See, you don’t think this is a terrible idea!” She bounced once in her seat. He wondered if this is what Nic felt like every day, working with her to break a story and map out the best way to tell it. Watching her eyes sparkle in a way he hadn’t seen for months.

The thought gave him pause.

“Would it be safer for you,” he asked quietly.

“Safer?”

“With the,” he gestured helplessly, “threats. The file you mentioned earlier.”

She sobered, and he hated himself for it. “Maybe?” Her gaze turned inward and distant. “But probably not. There was one.” He leaned forward. She was always maddeningly vague about her own life, though she considered everything about his fair game. It was one of her worst qualities. “Well. It doesn’t matter. But it happened before we started doing the Tapes.” She wrapped her arms across her middle and the corners of her mouth turned down. “And it’ll probably keep happening. People get weird about female journalists, you know?”

Oh yes. He knew.

“But really.” Her hands dropped back into her lap and she met his eyes. “It’s just the other side of people being fascinating. Sometimes they get weird. They get angry and they fixate. And they lash out. Hurt, unhappy, angry people pick a target. And sometimes that target doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

He stared down at her for a long moment and let himself see for the first time how small she truly was. She was bold and fearless and frustrating and maddeningly, terrifyingly fragile.

He lifted his arm and with exquisite care curled it around her narrow, slumped shoulders. The red satin whispered seductively against the dark wool of his suit but he ignored it.

Sometimes, he had realized, maybe Alex Reagan needed a hug herself.

She half leaned into him, awkwardly blocked by the armrest between them. He felt the tension leave her shoulders with the slow softness of melting snow as a weight he hadn’t even known she carried flowed out of her.

Darkness settled around them like a blanket and he permitted himself this singular moment to be nothing more than a man offering what little comfort he was capable of.


 ACT III

Richard held himself very still as the last of the roaring applause faded into the muted grumbling of people reemerging from Vienna in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa back into their shabby little lives in Chicago in the reign of Rham Emmanuel.

It was time, he knew, to send Miss Reagan away in a cab. Alone. And head back to his own home. Alone. Or perhaps to the dubious comfort of the worn leather couch in his office at the Institute. Still alone.

Tomorrow she would travel back to Seattle and he would remain for a few more days in Chicago, working through Institute business before returning to his temporary duties on the West Coast. Where they would be nothing more but polite and appropriately distant colleagues. He would continue to try and push her investigation towards the skeptical deconstruction of hoaxes and charlatans. And away from the tattered remains of his personal life and family.

Away and alone would be his watchwords.

He turned to Miss Reagan and found her studying him. The compulsion to lean down and capture her lips with his blazed through him and Richard jerked to his feet so quickly he nearly toppled over.

She narrowed her eyes. “Still feeling okay, Dr. Strand?”

“I’m fine. These seats. They’re worse that being stuffed into coach.” He scooped his briefcase off the floor and slung the strap across his chest, a flimsy and likely ineffectual shield against her regard.

She winced. “Yeah, they’re a little tight for me too.” She stood and rubbed a hand against the outside of her satin covered thigh. He forbade his mind to wander towards garters, stockings, or any other category of lingerie. Or lack thereof. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.”

“Acceptable,” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “We should get you home. To your hotel.” His laugh was a tad too forced and he cringed inwardly at how foolish he sounded. Deliver a keynote at a symposium on the evolution of glossolalia in Charismatic Christianity at Harvard? No problem. Speak to Alex Reagan when she was armed with a silver handbag instead of a microphone? Evidently impossible.

“Uh, sure. Okay.” She brushed past him and waved to Marge the air traffic controlling pit bull. “Marge!” The older woman gave her a toothy smile. “You were right! That was great.”

“Glad you liked it, hon. You gonna come back and see the next one? Nabucco will be here in June. One of Verdi’s best.” Lovely, Richard thought, and rolled his eyes. Something Biblical. About a foolish old man. With miracles. Just what he needed.

“Oh, I’m not sure. I’m in town from Seattle.” She flicked a glance at Richard. “I don’t know when I’ll be back next. But I hope I can!”

“You can if you like,” Richard blurted. “I have season tickets.” It was a lie. But if Miss Reagan wanted opera, he would move heaven and earth to make it happen.

The woman smirked at him gave Miss Reagan a quick hug. “Well, you just stay warm while you’re here, okay?”

“I will. And don’t forget to call me! I have a lot of things I’d love to ask you.” Miss Reagan gave her a little wave and then moved out into the hallway full of lingering, half-drunk opera buffs arguing over the nuances of the mezz-soprano’s performance and whether Strauss or Wagner should be crowned king of the German composers.

Richard eyed the terrifying half melted Greek masks decorating the wall sconces as they walked and waited for Miss Reagan to comment on them. But her head was low and she was strangely silent.

“So,” Richard tried as they headed down the grand staircase toward the lobby, “what did you think? My mother always said that Strauss wasn’t the ideal choice for a first opera. That people should start with something, I don’t know, easier like The Magic Flute. Though I don’t know how that’s easier…” He trailed off, watching the soft, kissable nape of her neck as she negotiated the final stairs. “Miss Reagan.”

“Oh, um.” She looked up and gave him a small half smile. “It was lovely. It was nice, actually, to do something that wasn’t work for once.” They stepped into the coat check line snaking through the lobby and she turned to look at him fully. “Are you really going to fire Ruby?”

“I find it’s good to keep the devious and cunning close. On your payroll, if possible. So no. She and I are going to have words, make no mistake. But I’m sure she has her reasons for this little stunt.” Potentially good ones, though he didn’t entirely care for her execution.

Miss Reagan gave a full, sunny smile. “Friends close, enemies closer?”

He leaned down and placed a hand at the small of her back as the line moved forward. “I don’t have many friends.”

She shivered under his touch and leaned back so that he could feel a sampling the delicious weight of her. He sucked in a breath and gazed down, surprised. She met his eyes and he swore the air between them shimmered with heat.

“Coat check tickets!”

His head jerked up. “What?”

“Do you have your coat check ticket?” The blonde Valkyrie behind the ancient oak counter glared at them both and snapped her gum. “Orange thing. Red numbers on it? You got it when you came in?”

“Right here,” Miss Reagan said, stepping away from his touch and up to the counter. “Dr. Strand?” Blindly he grabbed his own ticket from his pocket and tossed it toward hers.

The woman heaved a sigh and moved off. Quietly, eyes glued to the warped wood under her fingertips, Miss Reagan said “You have more friends than you think, you know.”

“Okay big guy, this one is for you,” the woman with the worst timing in the world returned and handed him his long, dark wool overcoat. “But this,” she held up a familiar, battered Columbia jacket in an eye searing shade of turquoise that looked like it belonged in the wilds around Mt. Rainier rather than the streets of Chicago, “you sure this is yours?”

“Yep, thanks”. Miss Reagan placed a two dollar tip in the woman’s jar and moved off so that she could struggle into her coat. Then she turned and laughed at whatever look had crawled across his face. “It’s still me, Richard. Nic could loan me the dress but it’s harder to find a coat that says ‘night at the opera’ on short notice.”

And there was his Alex. He smiled back and laughed. This time it came from a deep, cobwebbed part of his soul he’d long since thought walled off. “It’s fine. More practical that what you usually see here. And in this kind of weather? That’s a good thing.” He glanced down at the full red skirt flaring out from the bottom of her jacket. That was his Alex, too. He’d never given her credit for so much complexity, but he should have learned by now to stop underestimating her.

He looked up again and again, she was studying him. Her eyes were dark and watchful and held something he couldn’t allow himself to understand. Near them the golden doors of the opera house stood wide letting people stream out and freezing drafts and the metallic scent of snow to race in.

Richard stared down at her and felt the vertigo he’d fought all night rise up like a wave, crashing over him and hurtling him down toward the darkness. Down to Miss Reagan. To Alex. She destroyed every best intention and careful plan he had. It was unacceptable, and as irresistible as gravity.

Both of them remained silent, on the knife’s edge between a short drop back to careful civility and a long dark plunge into something else. Into the deep and dangerous unknown.

Then an ox of a man barreled into Richard, knocking him off balance and shoving him into Miss Reagan who let out a sharp squeak. Richard’s arms locked around her as they steadied themselves and he raised his head to glare at the man who rounded on them and spat, “Watch where you’re going!”

“I beg your pardon,” Richard began, before a muffled voice muttered something against his coat. He loosened his grip a bit and leaned back to look at her. “Are you all right?”

“I said I’m fine.” She turned her head and tracked the ox as he stumbled off into the night, waving one arm theatrically. “Guess he had somewhere important to be.”

“That’s no excuse.”

He looked down at the woman in his arms. Neither of them seemed to be in a hurry to break apart. What would it be like, he wondered, if she were simply a beautiful, tempting woman and he weren’t a man with a front row seat to the end of the world?

Death threats, strawberries, and red lips swirled through his mind. They all twined around Miss Reagan’s earlier challenge. Would you be up for a little adventure tonight, Dr. Strand?

“You should come home with me tonight.” Her eyebrows rose and he rushed on. “You’re a woman alone in a strange city. And with all of these threats against you, well. My security is vastly superior to that of any public hotel.”

“You’re obsessing.”

“I’m concerned. Do you have a Taser? I bought one for Ruby.”

She snorted. “Nic is way ahead of you. Don’t worry.”  She tipped her head back and gave him a long, appraising look. A stray snowflake landed in her dark hair and he stifled the urge to brush it away.“Dr. Strand, my stuff is at the hotel. And I travel by myself all the time. I’ll be fine.”

He leaned in and lowered his voice. “Alex, I make superb French toast. With chocolate chips.” He swallowed hard. “And strawberries.”

She leaned toward him with a sly smile until they were only a few breaths apart. “Well. I can’t say no to strawberries.”