******October 13, 2021***
Alexandra Eames was seated cross-legged in bed, watching him sleep.
At this moment she almost had to; she could tell he'd been sleeping alone for some time by the way he sprawled over the bed, arms stretched outward, face half-buried in his pillow, breathing deeply. At some point he had kicked downward so that the sheet and blanket were bunched around his hips, and now she pulled them up so he was covered again, and then with one gentle forefinger reached out and gave the briefest of brushes to the springy hairs of his beard, not enough to wake him. But still he murmured a little in his sleep.
Her reunion with Robert Goren had been as unusual as their working relationship. If discovering him running a twice-weekly trivia game in a surprisingly thriving small-town Connecticut restaurant and bar post-COVID-19 lockdown hadn't been odd enough, the business itself had turned out to be owned by the son of their old A.D.A. liaison Ron Carver. Even more surprising had been Bobby's outright—and upfront—affection for her—and her realization that she seemed to be feeling the same way in return. But even that had been complicated: last night, after leading her back to his bedroom, he began to withdraw into himself. By the time he was seated at the edge of the bed and she had stepped up to him, kissing his forehead, he had all but frozen. She'd pulled back a little, regarding him thoughtfully.
"Bobby," she said softly, and his eyes flickered to her. "I haven't been reading you wrong all night, have I? That kiss you just gave me in the shed? And all that...flirting at the Dark Crystal?"
"No." His voice was grave. "I meant everything. But now...it's real...and I can't mess this up."
Definitely time to step back. She gave another light kiss to his forehead, then moved sideways so that she could take a seat next to him on the bed. She finally confessed, "I felt like that on the way here. We hadn't spoken in so long...it's why I booked it on Saturday."
"But you came back."
"Because I told myself I had to find out why Shard looked familiar. I kept telling myself it couldn't be you—that I just imagined your voice; that you were still in Albany working, because I couldn't imagine you not working. But then, according to my sister, I've become adept at lying to myself these last few months. And I worried that if it were you, and we did talk, after so long it would end up being polite and perfunctory...and another dead end."
He curved his right arm around her and she leaned against the hollow between his shoulder and his chest, adding. "I didn't realize how much I'd missed talking to you."
For some seconds there were only the sounds of their breathing, and then he asked, low, "But this–" and here he patted the bed to makes certain she understood. "What if this isn't the right thing?"
"Then we take a step back," she said logically, meeting his eyes. They were slightly sorrowful, fed with apprehension. "No matter what happens tonight, I will never not be your friend. And if it's not the right thing, that's all it means. Not that either of us messed up, or that it was wrong to try."
He turned to her then, brushed her under the chin with his left hand, then ran his thumb over the point of her chin and over her lips. She kissed it, then gently ran her tongue over the tip, and he brushed it over her lips again. When she saw his shoulders relax it felt as if the weight of his hesitation had melted as well, so she took it as a cue, rose, shed her blazer like an unneeded second skin, and tossed it in the general direction of an old ladder-backed chair under the window next to the tall bureau. Then she returned to the position she'd vacated a few minutes earlier, this time straddling his right leg. "Now," she said softly, "I can kiss you properly." Forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks, and finally his mouth.
That kiss had been even better than the one a few minutes earlier in the shed. It was long, lingering, arousing and comforting all at once, speaking of hidden promises, something that ran shivers through her.
He had, Alex recalled a little dreamily, even groaned deep in his throat and pressed her closer until it was possible no further unless they melded with each other, and when he finally relaxed, the deft fingers of his left hand became busy with her blouse.
"Buttons." His voice was soft and slightly husky. "What made you think of buttons?"
"It was the closest thing to a purple shirt I own," she confessed, then added with a little smile. "But sometimes a lady likes to be unwrapped."
He returned the smile with one that lit up his face. "Beautiful Alex," he said gently and went on to the front clasps of her bra. In a minute he had a breast cupped in each hand, his thumbs teasing her nipples to attention while she closed her eyes, unsuccessfully suppressing a small moan. He would have undressed her completely in one turn had she not insisted on a turn of her own. When she pulled off his sweatshirt, the scent of warm skin and musk made her heady, and she laid a line of kisses from throat to ear, and then whispered in his ear. He gave a chuckle and breathed "Yes..." When they were quite naked, he pressed her against him and then confessed that she was so small he was afraid of hurting her.
"I could always get on top," she said playfully, and then laughed when he said, amused, "You always did prefer to drive."
Alex smiled to herself again. He'd seemed very satisfied with that solution. Oh, so very satisfied...she ached inside just thinking about it.
They'd fallen asleep spooned together, her back to his chest, and she was awakened some hours later with Bobby's fingers exploring the soft cleft between her legs. She was aroused even before she was fully awake, and that awakening was equally rewarding. When they finished, she was enfolded by one arm, resting her head on his chest. He was already half asleep, but murmured, "Alex...will you stay?"
She'd responded drowsily, "Bobby, it's almost three o'clock. I don't think I'm going anywhere else tonight."
He struggled with his words. "Tonight...I know. Will you stay...forever?" And then he was asleep.
Forever. And now here it was, a half hour later, and she was still thunderstruck and sitting up in bed watching him sleep.
She finally decided to use the bathroom. As she padded from the bedroom, Sam, the collie, lifted his head from his dog blanket to look questioningly at her. "It's okay," she whispered. "We're both okay," and resisted the oddest impulse to giggle. "Go back to sleep, Sam."
She was washing her hands when she heard Bobby's voice. "Alex?" And then, louder, "Alex?" And finally an almost anguished, "Eames?"
She hurried back to the bedroom to find him sitting upright in bed, disoriented. "Bobby—what's wrong?" and he pulled her to him, pushing his nose into her hair, breathing in the scent of her, finally calming. "Shhh. It's okay."
"It's my dreams," he said in a blurry voice, "Some are so real. You. The squad room. My mom. But I wake up and everything's gone–"
Still ghosts to be dispelled in Bobby Goren's universe. She kissed his forehead. "I'm here. And real. But still very sleepy–"
His eyes too were heavy even as he gave a trace of a grin. "Maybe we're too old for all this?"
"Not...on...your...life," she said, giving him a teasing push, and when he lay back down he took her with him, although they compromised by falling back to sleep.
The next thing she knew, light was intruding at all edges of the still-closed window blinds and he was sitting at the side of the bed rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Alex?"
"Hmn? What time is it?"
"Just after eight. Need to eat breakfast and take Sam for his walk."
She said muzzily, "I don't suppose I could have a shower."
He arched one eyebrow. "Could I help?"
"That depends," she said, stretching, "how long that will delay us."
It ended up being only a half hour delay, and by nine o'clock she'd emerged from the bedroom in last night's clothing, hair pinned back with a barrette she'd fished from her purse, to the scent of eggs and bacon. Bobby was in front of the stove in sweatpants and a faded T-shirt, in his stocking feet, just scooping up a serving of scrambled eggs with ham, added three slices of bacon from a separate frying pan, and handed the plate to her. She blinked in surprise, and he tilted his head. "Would you rather have them over easy? Or sunny side up? I can do either."
"Scrambled is fine." She added, "Is there toast?"
"Bread in the breadbox, next to the toaster. Butter in the fridge, or blackberry spread. Utensils in the drawer to the left of the sink. Help yourself to coffee; the cups are in the cupboard to the left of the sink."
In ten minutes they were eating, the eggs fluffy with just enough diced ham and butter. She blinked in slight surprise. "You're handy in the kitchen."
"Learned to cook early. Sometimes it was the only way I had a meal as a kid," he shrugged. "Here, try the blackberry spread on your toast. It's local."
He was right about the spread, too, so sweetly delicious that when she finished the toast, she took the time to lick the overflow from one finger. He had his eyes downcast on his plate, but she could still see the corner of his lip turned up in a smile.
"Bobby–" and he was all attention, which made her hesitant to say the rest, "I was thinking...that we should...keep to our own schedules today–"
"That's...sensible," he agreed, but there was a slight frisson of disappointment to his voice.
"You have your counseling session today, and then the boys' club. Maybe today...will be the day someone needs you to listen." Her eyes softened, but then she had to bite her lip to hold back an embarrassed smile. "And if I'm going to stay overnight occasionally I really need fresh underwear. So why don't I go about my day and I'll meet you back here about five?"
He said equably, "I've got a couple of strip steaks in the freezer. We could have them for dinner. While you're on your 'essential grocery mission,' maybe you might pick up something to go with them?"
So he'd remembered her silly joke about Wednesdays at the supermarket. "Baking potatoes maybe? And some fresh carrots? I'm no Julia Child, but I'm told I make a mean glazed carrot dish."
The catch in her voice was immediately apparent, even to Sam, who left his place by Bobby's side and came to sit next to her, laying his head in her lap. He reached a hand across the table, caressing the fingers of her left hand. "Alex?"
"We sound like my parents planning dinner," was her wistful response, and he gave the hand a squeeze.
He forked a few more mouthfuls of eggs and bacon before he said quietly, "Alex...that question I asked you last night...I'm sorry. It was...uh...inappropriate."
She gazed at him thoughtfully. "So...if I were to ask you the same question, your answer would be yes?"
He swallowed the last of his coffee, keeping eyes fixed on the cup. She could feel the table vibrate from the sudden nervous shifting of his legs.
"It would be," he admitted. "But...that's my responsibility, not yours."
The remainder of breakfast was spent in silence, and then he proceeded to clear the table. "I'll do the dishes later. Come out with me and Sam, and we'll walk you back to your car. I'll lend you a jacket—it was chilly last night."
"In any jacket of yours I'll look like I'm in my dad's bathrobe," she warned, and her prediction was so correct that she was still joking about it as they walked out the door; it was a hooded jacket with its hem falling around her thighs and the sleeves engulfing her hands until she rolled them up. The temperature had fallen during the night and it was in the high forties, a light breeze ruffling the leaves on the trees. Above was a flawless autumn blue sky, dotted with a few puffy clouds. As they passed the Colonial house next door, a squat elderly man with a seamed face, bundled in a checked jacket and green toque, was in the front yard raking leaves. He waved to Bobby.
"'Morning, Bruno!" he called back, then told her, "Bruno served in Korea during the war." He arched his eyebrows. "He also cheats at checkers."
"I heard that," Bruno complained as he ambled closer to the fence. "Don't you listen to him, girlie." He lifted his chin. "Bob, aren't you going to introduce me to your lady friend?"
"Bruno Volpe, this is Alexandra Eames. Alex and I used to work together. Alex, Bruno."
"Glad to meet you, Mr. Volpe," she said with a smile.
"Honored," he said, giving an old-fashioned bob of his head. "Funny, no one I worked with ever looked so good."
"That's because you were a boxing coach," Bobby joked. "Hey, you're gonna let me know if you need help with the raking, right?"
"I'm doing fine—don't start making an invalid out of me like my boy does. Taking it slow, and my doctor wants me to get more exercise anyway. You remember that, young man." And if to prove his statement, he began corralling leaves once more.
Sam suddenly became fascinated with the progress of a squirrel along the fence and they followed in his wake to the corner to turn back on Main Street. In daylight she could see the beauty of the old avenue, and which of the homes were weathering more than others, and the varying glow of the autumn foliage. As they passed under a maple tree, an errant breeze sent a swirl of golden leaves around them. A white-haired woman beating out her rugs waved to Bobby, and two blocks on Sam set up a fierce barking at an unseen dog with a shrill yap. After squinting for a few seconds, Alex could make out a caramel-hued Pomeranian bouncing up and down on one of the front porches, challenging Sam to mayhem. Sam, however, having done his duty protecting his humans from a fierce predator, resumed his demarcation of territory with a decisive cocked leg. Eventually they approached the Dark Crystal and she could see the nose of her car still visible in the Rite-Aid parking lot.
The restaurant itself was still dark and looked slightly forlorn in morning light, with the colorful signboard gone and the front doors shut tight. Then one light and then another flashed on inside, and one of the double glass doors opened to reveal a stocky Black man in wire-rimmed glasses and thinning short-cropped hair who reminded Alex of her high-school chemistry teacher. He was in sweats and running shoes, and did a few stretches before standing back up and catching sight of them. Sam immediately began to dance back and forth, and Bobby unclipped the leash so the collie could bound across the side street—she could see the name of the street now: Sycamore—and greet an old friend.
"He just loves everyone, doesn't he?" she said with a grin.
"Especially if the person in question saves steak leftovers for him. Hey, Teej!"
At last, the elusive TJ, she thought, just as he smiled at her and offered her an elbow bump. "So this is the famous Ms. Eames, who shook up the joint last night?"
"Shook up?" she said in surprise as Bobby clipped Sam's leash on him once more.
"Yeah, Shard tells me that Maureen Leighton posted an extremely negative review of last night's festivities. She wasn't pleased with the format changes." TJ Gomes' face was mischievous.
"What a shock," Alex retorted cynically. "And I suppose she threatened not to come back?"
"Got it in one." TJ looked amused. "On the other hand, 'Glinda the Good' racked up a couple of positive reviews."
"Ooooh, maybe I can sit with the popular kids in the cafeteria again," she joked.
"You're up early, Teej," Bobby said, tilting his head, a motion she immediately read as "something's up." "Anything wrong?"
"Well, you know we did tell Ms. Eames we'd look after her car. Now that the world is waking up, we wanted to make sure we had kept our part of the bargain overnight." TJ said innocently, but his eyes appeared to be directed over Alex's shoulders. In the next second, two large warm hands covered her eyes. "Good morning, Allie."
She spun around, inadvertently hitting someone in the stomach with her elbow. "Phil?"
"Is that the kind of retaliation I deserve?" It was indeed tall, dark-haired Phil Cochran, but this time dressed for work in a dark suit, cream shirt, and red-and-gold striped tie, complete with an overcoat, instead of the casual clothing he'd worn Saturday. "Or is this just a new way to say hello to your favorite cousin?"
She threw him an exasperated look and instead said, "Bobby, this is Phil, and he is no longer my favorite cousin."
"Crushed," Phil said blandly, right hand clapped to his chest in feigned distress, and Bobby suddenly cast his eyes upward in realization, then began to laugh. "Eames, we've been skunked."
"Then I've missed something," she said, giving Phil a sideways glance.
"I'm not sure what's going on, either, but I smell a set-up." Bobby said, fixing eyes on Phil, who rewarded him with an affirmative grin and then asked, "Did I ever mention that TJ and I used to work together?"
"At the Hartford?" Alex asked, now wary.
"Exactly," TJ took up the tale. "Worked and saved—just like Shard did—to put the down payment on this place." Here he gave a heavy sigh. "Selling insurance, a hell I hope I never have to repeat."
"Hey, speak for yourself," Phil said with a good-natured grin. "And when Teej wasn't here breaking his back during renovations he talked about this dude they had lined up to do trivia—the guy who'd once worked with his partner's dad. He never called him by name, except once—he slipped up and mentioned 'Bob.' I see a lot of Bobs, on a lot of forms. Didn't think a thing about it until about a week ago when TJ told me 'The Wizard' here was–"
"–looking for a life insurance policy," Bobby interjected, realization dawning on his face.
"And I sent an e-mail with a form, asked TJ to have him fill it out, then scan it and e-mail it back. And there it was, with the name 'Robert Oliver Goren.'"
"And that's when you called Lizzie, didn't you? Not me–" Alex flared, not seeing Bobby grin at the way she squared her shoulders and scowled.
"Look, I had no idea how you two parted ways, and how you'd take it. So, yeah, I called your sister. She knew best of all of us how you felt. She really was...is...worried about you. Said you seemed lost since you retired, and she'd never seen you like that—ever." He shrugged with palms upward, resigned. "So when Becky couldn't come Saturday I took matters into my own hands. Then you went and pulled that 'sick' routine—damn, Allie, you used to be better at acting! Why do you think I called so early Sunday morning? I knew you hadn't really been sick." He suddenly looked contrite. "I'm sorry, Allie. If I'd known...I'd have told you months ago."
She sighed deeply, and then held out her hands, her face humorously skeptical. "All right. You can be my favorite cousin again."
Bobby stepped up behind her to rub her shoulders as Phil took her hands. "Now, I need to get into work since I can't stand around gabbing at every restaurant in lower Connecticut." He leveled eyes at Bobby. "As for you, you be good to Allie. We Cochrans take care of family, too." He laid a peck on Alex's forehead. "Be happy, cuz."
He'd barely taken two steps away before Bobby spoke up in his best interrogation-room voice, "Hey, Phil, one more thing–" and when Phil wheeled, pointed a finger at him. "Just when do I get my quote?"
Phil snorted. "Oh, God...this afternoon at the latest if I can get the hell out of here now." He arched an eyebrow at Alex. "I trust I'll be seeing you Saturday, Allie."
They watched as he got into a silver Mazda and headed east on Main Street, then TJ clapped Bobby on the back. "Look, I'm trying for five miles this morning, so I need to make tracks. As the cliché says, don't do anything I wouldn't do," and then he locked the Dark Crystal's door behind him and set off south on Sycamore Street while they walked the rest of the way to Alex's car. Now came the difficult part: unlocking the door and actually leaving, but Bobby took it in good grace, opening the door for her after she unlocked it and leaning over it as she tossed her purse inside.
She could do this. She reached up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek as if she was heading to work for the day. "You have a good day. I'll be back around five."
"Alex–" Oh, please don't ask. "Drive carefully."
Her face softened. "I will. See you tonight."
She knew he remained there, holding Sam at heel, every minute that she backed out backed out of her parking space, moved to the parking lot entrance, and then turned left toward Southbury, and probably until she was out of sight. What she didn't expect was the feeling that she was deserting him. It was ridiculous. One of them had to be sensible, and evidently it wasn't going to be Bobby; based on the question he'd asked her last night, he'd already decided what he wanted the outcome of the evening to be. After all, you couldn't decide your entire future upon one night of lovemaking.
No, it was ridiculous, impossible. They hadn't felt like that about each other when they'd worked together. This was something new, she was certain, and it needed time.
She switched on the radio and touched the preset for her favorite oldies channel, catching the last second of a commercial, and then the gentle tinkle of piano keys in a song intro that sounded familiar.
"You remind me I live in a shell,
"You've got to be kidding me," she said, slapping the radio in her haste to shut it off, and driving steadily until she was once more parked in front of her apartment building. She yanked her purse strap over her shoulder and vacated the car as quickly as possible, before Mrs. Perrino—or any of the other neighbors—saw her in yesterday's clothing. And wondered why she cared.
Her eyes were gritty from lack of sleep and she'd already decided that before she made any grocery trip, she was going to take a nap, so she pushed the door open with a sense of relief. The apartment was exactly as she had left it—even a puddled blanket on the sofa cushions, and an empty teacup and spoon set next to the sofa, the book she was reading next to the cup. But the living room smelled...vacant, as if she'd been gone a month instead of an evening, almost the musty "attic" odor that she remembered from her old house when pulling down the folding staircase to the storage area under the roof. Puzzled, she took the cup and spoon into the kitchen, only to discover an air of neglect there as well. She washed the cup, the spoon, and a few other dishes she'd simply rinsed and left in the sink. Then she came back out, staring at the row of boxes in the hallway.
This had nothing to do what Lizzie had told Phil about her being depressed, she told herself sternly. She was just tired. She just needed to rest. She needed sleep. Briskly she entered the bedroom, pulling Bobby's hoodie over her head. It still smelled faintly of his cologne and she stopped and breathed it in, then set it aside so she could finish undressing.
This had been so much more pleasant last night, she admitted to herself, and then, almost guiltily, her eyes dropped to her wedding photo on the dresser. How long had it been, just since Joe had been gone? She stopped as she did the calculation in her head: was it...twenty-three years? The knock on the door, the soul-freezing sight of two uniformed officers through the window glass, seemed like only yesterday, and yet at the same time an eon ago.
Wearily she pulled on her usual night outfit, a tank top and shorts, and crawled into bed, closing her eyes, but they almost immediately popped open again. She looked across the room at the hoodie as two, five, ten minutes clicked by. Finally she groaned, got up, slipped the hoodie back on, returned to bed.
"I'll deal later," she sighed to herself, and fell asleep, as if she were still in Bobby's arms.
. . . . .
Ninety minutes later she was briskly tucking clothing in a suitcase, then realized she wouldn't have enough room in one suitcase and started a second. She also layered an assortment of shoes in a big Macy's shopping bag she found tucked at the back of her closet. All three of these she hastily transported to the car as if still afraid of discovery by the neighbors, then returned inside. Her Fitbit as well as her growling stomach told her it was long past one o'clock; she opened the refrigerator and then the cupboard, searching her diminished means for something to eat, then shook her head. Tossing a jacket over her sweater and jeans, she trotted back down to the car and headed to the IGA on the opposite side of town.
Here she was faced with a conundrum: how much to buy and for which location. She was still tugged in two directions: an instinct for independence long cultivated as well as the sudden, newer feeling that made her uneasy but so strongly enticed her. Finally she purchased things that she knew were mostly her favorites: the yogurt, marmalade and English muffins she was wont to have for breakfast, coffee, various snack items, fruits and vegetables including the promised carrots and potatoes, skim milk, more eggs, favorite teas. She put perishables in an insulated bag with an ice brick; it was still chilly enough outside that she wasn't worried about them, but it never hurt to be certain.
Far hungrier now, she strolled to a small nearby park, triangular-shaped, centered with a mildew-encrusted obelisk that was a tribute to the fallen in World War I, where five benches and little groupings of trees made a pleasant place to eat her lunch. It was warmer than earlier, but she still chose a sunny spot, then unwrapped and bit into the plump tuna salad wrap she'd ordered in the supermarket deli, sipping the sparkling blackberry water she'd bought along with it. The falling ash and maple leaves in the park made slow arabesques around her head.
Two women, their hands intertwined, walked by with a madly sniffing bull terrier who lolled its tongue and huffed at her. One of the women tossed her a sunny smile, but her partner was definitely the only thing on her mind. One young man and then another jogged by, each from opposite directions, and then a young mother—or perhaps a nanny—with a stroller with a sleeping baby in it passed. The baby had its sleep-swollen face turned toward her, and she remembered when her nephew Eddie had looked that way.
Alex's eyes followed the couple with the dog, thinking about Joe. They'd both been children of law enforcement officers, both knew going in that life in their profession could be ephemeral. They lived lives between shifts making love as if racing a clock, trading war stories, laughing over silly jokes, stealing kisses in hallways—until one day he wasn't there.
Last night was different. Not just because it was Bobby, but...something else? Because they were both older? Or because he'd been so carefully testing the waters? He'd savored her slowly, as if she were a precious gift, as if she was a fine wine...or, in Bobby's case, she smiled to herself, a rare book. Was that why she was struggling? Surely she couldn't expect that loving Bobby would be the same as loving Joe? They were two different personalities, their only similarity being a thirst for justice. Or was it because after so many empty weeks the resolution just seemed too simple?
The couple had long gone, and she was startled to realize she'd daydreamed her way through nearly an hour and it was now almost three thirty and she wanted to stop at a drugstore to get some duplicate sets of personal items.
But did she really need them?
It was easier when she didn't care—but that bridge had been crossed permanently last night.
Instead, she returned to her apartment, putting a few new things into the fridge before wandering back into the living room. The sight of the paperback book still laying on the coffee table made her think that she should bring some reading material with her if she were to stay—occasionally, she insisted to herself—at Bobby's house. Despite his talking about Harry Potter last night—that had been an odd surprise!—she'd seen the extent of his reading in the past; most of it work-oriented and very dry. So she began to stack some favorites in an empty copier paper box: J.D. Robb, Dana Stabenow, Lynda La Plante, Patricia Cornwell, Tony Hillerman, Craig Johnson. She laid the paperback she'd been reading—A Fatal Thaw—on top of the rest and then set the box near the door. For a moment she regarded the box, then went into the bedroom and found the eight books she had brought from Lizzie's house and wedged them in.
Finally she picked up the toiletries case that had been included with her set of luggage and began to sort things to place inside: toothbrush, toothpaste, hair brushes and combs, lotions, lipstick, makeup, until it was full.
It was after four; she supposed she should load the rest of this up and head back to Milbury; she'd spent too long dawdling despite something inside her urging her to return earlier.
The box required two hands, though, so she brought the toiletries case to her car first for the penultimate trip. Sliding it in the footwell behind the driver's seat, she'd re-locked the car and wheeled to return for the book box when she was hailed from behind. "Good afternoon, Alexandra!"
She pivoted on her heel to find Mrs. Perrino trotting behind her; despite her age, the sturdy woman walked briskly, bundled in a hunter-green fleece jacket, with her short, curled silver hair topped by a jaunty pale blue newsboy's cap the same color as her eyes. She was carrying a pink-and-purple paisley gym bag along with her purse.
"Hi, Mrs. Perrino!" she said cheerfully. "Just coming back from Silver Sneakers?"
"The best part about my Medicare coverage!" the woman returned. "Exercise and then coffee with friends my age. Makes my week!"
"Are any of them gentlemen your own age?" Alex asked mischievously.
"Some of them," Mrs. Perrino answered with a sparkle in her eye. "Never mind my love life, child. What's happened to you?"
Child? This out of a woman only 20 years older than her? "What makes you think something’s happened?"
Mrs. Perrino could level eyes at her almost as well as Bobby. "Don't take this the wrong way, Alexandra, but if you were much younger I would guess that you were pregnant. You look all lighted up."
Remind me not to play poker anytime soon, she thought ruefully, but Mrs. Perrino was smiling at her with such a fond look that she couldn't be angry. So she said, "Well, to be honest, last night I ran into a former co-worker and...we had a nice dinner together." She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and took a deep breath. "And if you'd like to meet him, he just pulled into the parking space next to mine."
So they were both watching as Bobby emerged from the rather battered dark blue Camaro she'd barely noticed in his driveway. He made eye contact with Alex in tandem with a sheepish smile, but she made a slightly reproving face in return and the smile faded until he registered the presence of Mrs. Perrino; his expression switched to one of interest as he sauntered forward, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket. As he reached them, he offered the older woman his right hand and Alex said, "Mrs. Perrino, this is Robert Goren. Bobby, this is my neighbor, Mrs. Perrino."
The elderly woman actually blushed slightly as Bobby took her hand; she murmured, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Goren."
"It's Robert, Mrs. Perrino," he said with a genial smile, and to Alex's surprise Mrs. Perrino blushed again and said, "Then please call me Viola."
Alex watched whatever magic it was Bobby had with older women—or sometimes just people in general—with a small smile; within a few minutes of chatting with him, Mrs. Perrino—I've lived next door for nine months and she never told me her name was Viola!—had pulled out her wallet and was showing Bobby photos of her three grandchildren, two preschool-age boys, Paul and Michael, and a kindergarten-age girl, Carol, and her favorite nieces Melinda and Amanda, and favorite nephews Alfonso and Rey. After some chatter about the children and their families, the wallet was put up, and Mrs. Perrino made her excuses, continuing on to her apartment.
"She's nice," Bobby said thoughtfully after she was out of earshot. "Lonely, though. We should invite her to dinner."
"Lonely? She spends hours on Facebook and Zoom talking to all of them, and to her sons."
"Yeah, but do they ever visit her in person? One son's in Kansas City and the other's in Miami, the nieces and nephews from Arizona. Ever see out-of-state cars or rentals visiting her? You can't hug little kids on Zoom."
After all these years it still surprised her how he managed to tease these little details and feelings out of others.
"I thought it was due to the pandemic."
"That could be, but," and here he rubbed knuckles across the side of his neck, "seems like it's been going on longer than that. She says she hasn't seen Michael since he was born and he's in pre-K now."
"You were always better with people than me," she said, then checked her watch again. "There was no need to come find me. I was just about to leave—I just need to get a box of books."
"Russ and I shot some hoops with the kids today and they left about a half hour ago, and we had coffee afterward. Big Brothers is just down the road, so I came by–"
She was waiting for his excuse.
"Missed you," he said simply, waited a beat, then asked, "Need help with the box?"
His forthright reply had completely disarmed her. "Um...sure."
"I did have an idea," he said after a few seconds as they returned to the building, "but the property's yours and you might not want to do it."
"Try me," Alex proposed, and then added sternly, "and wipe that silly grin off your face."
"Your book," he said, unabashed. "Maybe what you need is someone independent to look through your source materials."
"Like you? Hardly an unbiased opinion!"
"Can't claim 'unbiased,' but still independent. If I could see your material, maybe I could pull items that would spur strong memories–"
"–and jog my impulse to write? Shouldn't all I have to do then," she added testily, "is think about Jo Gage?"
"It would make a compelling opening chapter." He pursed his lips. “But you might not want to relive the experience, either."
"If I'm going to write the complete story, I'll have to face it eventually."
"It's not necessarily the only 'hook' you have, though." He chewed his lip, then suggested, "Working with Olivia Benson might do. Could lead into a flashback."
"Considered," she said briefly, remembering the conclusion of that case as she unlocked the door.
Despite both lamps being on in the living room and the overhead light switched on in the kitchen, the negative energy in the apartment practically embraced them in the doorway. She could see Bobby stiffen as he stopped three feet into the entry, looking left into the living room, right around the partition and into the kitchen, directly ahead into the short hall with its fortification of boxes with the bedroom door to the left and the bathroom and a hall closet on the right. She had an instant impression that in another minute he was going to snap on latex gloves and examine the place as if it were a crime scene.
"You've been here nine months?" he asked in disbelief.
"Well, yes...I told you, I didn't do much. It was just temporary–"
He turned to her with his face bleak with shock. "Except for that box of books, there's nothing of you here. I've seen hotel rooms that looked more lived in. You've even made a barricade outside your bedroom with the boxes."
"Because that's where they fit best, for heaven's sake. What's next out of you, a psych exam?" she said impatiently, then her voice sharpened. "So, what's your verdict, Doctor Goren?"
"That would be 'mansplaining' again. You already know. You told me last night." He turned in a circle, saying in a tense voice. "I've been here—in this emptiness. It's an abyss."
Without another word, he shouldered the box of books and hurried out as if pursued by the shadows.
With his departure the place was empty. Silent. The icemaker on the refrigerator wasn't even running, or the heat on. She didn't even have a ticking clock to fill the gap.
She picked up the first of the soot- and water-stained records boxes and followed him downstairs.
He was leaning against his car, having already put her book box on the rear seat, and was paging through the Kate Shugak mystery she'd left on top. When she came abreast of him, he held up the Post-It bookmark with his handwriting on it between thumb and forefinger, holding her place in the book with his right hand. "I think this was a reminder for Nathan's 1960s prices day."
She nodded. "All-beef hot dog, onion rings, and a drink for 99 cents."
He put the marker back in its place and returned the book to the box, careful not to meet her eyes. "I didn't mean to go off like that."
Alex sniffed impatiently. "You didn't tell me anything someone else hasn't already said." She handed him the records box. "I'm sorry about your car. There are three more and they're all just as grimy."
"Cars can be vacuumed," he said, transferring the box to the trunk.
They managed the other three boxes in one trip by using a portage technique down the stairs, and then Bobby carefully hefted two boxes, one on top of the other, while she transported the third. When Alex locked the apartment door she knew it wouldn't be the last time, but there was a sense of finality to it.
"Where'd you get the Camaro?" she asked curiously as they finished loading up.
"You remember my buddy Lewis, right? He found it for me. Or rather he found it for someone else, who planned to restore it, but the guy ran out of money about halfway through, so Lewis asked me if I wanted it 'as is.' He made it run well and it can do zero to sixty in a decent amount of time. Body's rough, but no matter." He regarded her thoughtfully. "You look like you're ready for dinner."
"You might be right," she said, suddenly exhausted both physically and emotionally from her day. "What was the menu again?"
"The strip steaks turned out not be strip steaks, so grilled ribeye, baked potatoes, and carrots," he said, ignoring her sooty fingers and coaxing her into his arms.
She said a little teasingly, "And then night maneuvers?"
He regarded her gravely, then kissed the top of her head. "I was thinking on the sofa with a classic movie. And popcorn. Maybe cocoa."
Retired persons' date night, she thought, amused. "Sounds nice."
When they reached Milbury Bobby hefted the suitcases and the shoe bag inside, and the books, then locked his car. "Tomorrow's soon enough for the rest."
Now they returned to the odd domestic situation she'd encountered earlier, one that both comforted and unsettled her, slicing carrots and steaming them while Bobby lit the oven and prepped the potatoes for baking and popped them in, then pulled out a grill that worked on the gas burners of the stove. Sam had already trotted out to greet them earlier and now immediately became interested in the proceedings when the steaks emerged from the refrigerator and had to be put on "stay." She watched the collie's alert eyes track every move of Bobby's hand over the grill.
"Try offering him a carrot," Bobby suggested with a little smile and she laughed when the dog gobbled the piece down and begged for more. "He likes oranges, too."
The house took on a savory scent of sauteed onions and then grilled steak on top of it, and by the time all was plated out her mouth was watering. When was the last time she'd really felt hungry? Was it...just last night at the Dark Crystal? This morning when she wolfed down scrambled eggs and bacon? Surely all those times she and Lizzie went out to lunch–
He saw her pause in the midst of cutting her steak. "Food okay?"
She said thoughtfully, "Do you think Dr. Chaudry is taking new patients?"
"I'll give you her number tomorrow and you can call if you like. She should know your name by now."
"Does everyone talk about me?" she grumbled, continuing with her dissection of the steak.
"Only the people who care about you."
Sam chose that moment to whine and lay his head in her lap.
She stroked his head. "Thanks, Sam. But still no steak for you. Go lie down. Go on."
The dog gave an almost human sigh and did as he was told.
Her eyes wandered the kitchen of the 1950s-built house as she ate, noticing the battered gloss-white original cabinets, the scuffed linoleum, the at-least 20-year-old appliances, the vintage overhead light that mimicked a 19th-century oil lamp, the wooden scroll-edged valence over the window at the sink, and the various local business card magnets and a few other paper items tacked on the old refrigerator door with coin magnets. "Whose picture is that on your fridge?"
"It's Molly," he said. "Molly Fry, my my no-longer-little cousin. My father's sister's granddaughter. S-She started college this year—community college until she decides on her major. She's talked about both social services and criminal law."
"I'm glad you still see the Frys. What about Frank's son Donny? Have you heard from him?"
"He doesn't get word to me, but Evelyn's heard from him. Somehow he gets a message to his mother once a year, but so far she's come up empty on finding out how. We figure he's got a friend who drops it off for him. It's never mailed, just turns up on her doorstep." He looked up at her. "Know you usually have a family reunion on Thanksgiving, but if for some reason that's off, you're welcome to go out to Michigan with me. The Frys are nice folks." He paused, then asked, "Wash or dry?"
"Wash," she said promptly. "Always hated drying dishes. Why not just leave them in the dish rack to air dry?"
He shrugged. "My mom always said they had to be dried."
As they worked through the dishes, he continued, "I cleared the bottom half of the dresser for you. The closet in my...in the bedroom is small. The closet in the other room is mostly empty. I keep my suits there. You could use that for anything you want to hang up." He paused, looking thoughtful. "The futon is comfortable, if you'd rather have a space of your own."
He'd been tiptoeing around her since his outburst at the apartment.
She said firmly, "I didn't drag these things here to sleep alone."
He helped her transfer clothes to the closet and into the emptied drawers, and if he noticed that it was quite a lot of clothing for someone who had said she might stay "occasionally," he was too diplomatic to mention it. She was left on her own to arrange toiletries in the big cabinet in the bathroom. She slid closed the chipped mirror that covered what was now "her" side of the cabinet, set out her toothbrush, toothpaste, and comb and brush on the sink counter, and then smelled the enticing scent of popcorn coming from the kitchen. Almost immediately Bobby passed by the doorway with a big bowl.
"You weren't kidding about tonight, were you?" she asked as she followed him down the hall.
"What would make you think I was?" he asked, puzzled, then paused in mid-step. "Is there something else–"
"No!" she said hastily, then added, honestly, "I'm...looking forward to it."
For a second he looked uncertain, then ventured, "Before I start the movie, I'm gonna get changed," and she followed him into the bedroom to discover him unselfconsciously discarding jeans, sweatshirt, and shoes in exchange for this morning's sweatpants and shirt and stocking feet, as if she'd already lived there years instead of slept there one night. She rummaged in the largest drawer she'd been allocated and found flannel pajama bottoms and an old NYPD long-sleeved shirt, and in with her underwear she discovered soft green socks. He'd bustled out before she finished changing and as she emerged he called "Do you want peppermint in your cocoa?"
"Um...yes?" She padded into the kitchen to find him adding a little milk to two cups of steaming dark cocoa mix, with peppermint sticks being used for stirrers, and leaned against him. "You don't always do this when you watch a movie, do you?"
"No. But tonight's special. What movie are you up for?"
"Your choice. But...nothing too esoteric. I know you too well."
"What," he said, amused. "You don't want to watch a three-hour experimental film in Esperanto?"
"You have one of those?"
"No, but I could find one online."
"You promised me 'classic,'" she pointed out.
"Got it," and he handed her both mugs and vanished into the living room. By the time she'd carefully transported them without spilling, he'd already loaded a DVD in the player and had fished a fleece blanket from a collapsible basket next to the DVD cabinet and thrown it on the back of the sofa. He took a seat on the recliner portion, under which Sam had already claimed a spot where he could point a slim canine nose at the popcorn. She set the mugs on the side table next to the sofa, beside the bowl of popcorn, and settled beside Bobby with her feet curled under her as he wielded the remote.
"So what are we watching?" she asked, just as the DVD came to life with a Warner Brother's logo and then the menu flashed on. "Oh, Casablanca. I've never seen it."
"You've...never seen Casablanca?" he asked, astonished.
"I like action films," she said defensively.
"Next time I'll play The Magnificent Seven. But...really...never seen Casablanca...how can that even be?"
. . . . .
"Bobby, is there something wrong?"
She'd taken her shower and put on her shorts and tank top, and was toweling her hair dry. He'd just finished brushing his teeth, standing before the sink in a pair of sleep shorts and a well-worn Beatles t-shirt, and blinked at her. "Nothing's wrong. Why?"
"You've been so quiet tonight, except for the occasional trivia during the movie."
"Last night was...all fireworks. And then this afternoon– Just wanted you to know it's not always drama here. I mean, this is it. It's the way I live now. It's not exciting. It just...is." He added, "Should I have shut up?"
"No," she said with a small smile. "I've missed your CliffsNotes."
He slid open what was "his" side of the cabinet and for the first time she could see prescription bottles on one of the shelves. "Are you taking meds now...for your restlessness?"
"What, like Ritalin?" he grinned. "Nope. Just old. Blood pressure meds...since even with working out there's more of me than there used to be," and here he patted his belly ruefully. "Acid reflux meds. Something for cholesterol. You?"
"So far just ibuprofen for arthritis symptoms and Vitamin D supplements. Multivitamins. B-12."
Next it was time to engage Sam in a final game of fetch, shut the lights, head for the bedroom. She seemed to gravitate to the right side of the bed, then frowned. "Did you want to sleep on this side?"
"I'm used to sleeping in the middle," he shrugged, confirming her earlier suspicions. "Take your pick and then give me an elbow if I start pushing you off the edge."
She sat cross-legged on the bed as she had that morning. "Mrs. Perrino said something funny today, before you showed up."
"Funny as in amusing or as in peculiar?" He settled on the opposite side, rubbing his hands through his hair.
"Peculiar. She asked me 'what happened,' and then said if I were younger she might have guessed that I was pregnant because 'you look all lighted up.'"
"Mrs. Perrino must be on the same wavelength as Dr. Chaudry," he chuckled, and when she looked at him curiously, he added, "I logged on to my Zoom session about five minutes before she arrived. I sat at my desk, as usual, her face appeared on my screen; I said, 'Good morning,' as always, then she gave me the most intense look, and asked, 'Robert, something's changed. Tell me what's happened.'"
"And I bet...you fibbed–" she commented shrewdly, judging by his expression.
"Well...yes...but not for the reason you might think. I've been seeing her for nearly ten years and she's never called me by my first name—it's always been 'Mr. Goren.' It completely threw me."
"Totally. Because the next thing she did was fix me with that look your mother always gave you when you fibbed–"
"A look I was intimately acquainted with as a child," she said with amusement.
"–and she asked, 'Does this have to do with Alexandra Eames?'"
"I'm impressed. She should be working for Major Case. And I suspect this was followed by a lonnnng chat."
"It was a longer session than usual. I was almost late to Big Brothers." He picked up what looked like a textbook from a scarred wooden stool set between the bed and the wall that he used as a nightstand. "Do you read before bed?"
"Sometimes." She lifted the Shugak book. "I've brought mine for tonight. What are you reading?"
He flashed her the cover and she read the title aloud. "'Applications of Entomology in Forensic Pathology by Gilbert Grissom, PhD'? So your bedtime reading involves insect life in corpses?"
"There are some intriguing facts here," he said animatedly, opening it at one of a dozen marked places and pointing out a photo of a pig wrapped like a mummy. "Did you know if you wrap a corpse in a blanket tightly enough it can retard the development of insect life on the corpse for up to two days?"
She patted his arm fondly. "No, and I'm not sure I want to. Don't you ever read any fiction? That is, aside from Moby-Dick and the Harry Potter you dipped into during the pandemic?"
"You know I do. Melville, Emerson, a little Dickens. Christie. Sayers. Marjorie Allingham. Ngaio Marsh. A couple of the Longmire books you have, too. But there's so much nonfiction out there that I'd rather read."
She kissed his cheek. "Read away about your bugs," she bade, and settled back on her pillow to vanish into her tale of Alaska.
And when, some time later when they had closed books and lights for the night, and had, almost shyly, kissed goodnight, she had curled up next to him and felt as if she'd already lived there years instead of slept there only one night.
. . . . .
There had been a hard freeze overnight and she woke to find herself cocooned with Bobby, comfortable and warm. At that moment he rolled over to his right side, his arm automatically reaching around her waist, and she fell back asleep almost immediately. Evidently Thursdays were free in the Goren Universe.
The next time her eyes opened they wouldn't close again, and she slipped out of bed to the bathroom, washed her face and massaged some almond oil lotion into her skin, brushed her hair and fastened it back for now, as she intended to get the rest of the boxes out of her car that morning. She'd just finished with some mouthwash when arms crept around her waist and Bobby's voice said "Good morning!" in her ear.
"Hi," she said happily, snuggling against him. "You're warm, I like that in a guy."
"So that's the basis of this relationship, body heat?"
"At this instant, yes." She wiggled from his embrace. "Let me get dressed."
She padded back into the bedroom intending to pull the blankets back to air the bed and discovered the forensics textbook puddled in blankets near the foot of the mattress where he'd discarded it last night, hefting it to get it out of the way. She discovered he still was in the habit of using Post-It notes as bookmarks, and opened up the volume to discover he'd made a penciled note at a particularly revolting description of maggots on a gunshot wound. And then she saw the decisive reminder in block printing he'd left on the bookmark: DON'T PUSH.
When he returned to the bedroom the book was on the stool next to his side of the bed, the covers were pulled back, and she, still smiling to herself, was just pulling on a fresh pair of panties. He stopped in the doorway, propping himself against the frame, and watched her with evident pleasure.
"See something you like, soldier?" she asked mischievously.
He rewarded her with a slow smile, the result being that once they got to breakfast they were much hungrier than they had been earlier, and neither of them paid attention to Sam cadging freebies at the table.
While she was eating her English muffin and marmalade, she said, "I'd like to get those boxes inside. Where should I put them?"
"Basement until we figure out a workspace for you," he said absently, slicing a banana into his cereal. "Not really any way we can share my desk."
Alex thought of the mini-towers of paper she'd seen on the desk in the attic Tuesday night and not for the first time wondered if all that was necessary for producing trivia questions. Still secrets in Goren-Land to be discovered, she realized.
At that moment the telephone on the wall of the living room rang.
She turned, startled even though he had told her the dial phone still worked, then was even more surprised when Bobby consulted the ancient green Bakelite-framed electric clock on the wall over the refrigerator before saying "I don't suppose you could get that."
"Well, okay–" She gave him a sideways look and he held up his cereal bowl.
"Yeah, so I can finish this before the cereal gets mushy." he said, with a faint grin playing upon his lips.
"Obviously, it's the IRS," she said dryly. "I'll just tell them you won the Publisher's Clearing House."
In another few seconds she had picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
There was a sharp intake of breath at the other end, a pause, and then a bewildered male voice asked, "Eames?"
Still holding the receiver to her ear, she paced the few steps toward the kitchen with the long flex cord extending behind her until she'd pulled it taut, and fixed a stare at Bobby. He merely arched his eyebrows at her; she responded by rolling her eyes.
"Good morning, Mike," she responded.
"Oh-kayyyy," Mike Logan replied, a jaunty note creeping into his voice. "Well, let's see if I can use my now-diminished powers of detection to figure this one out. I don't have your personal telephone number, correct?"
"Not as far as I know," she said, tongue in cheek.
"And I know I called area code 203, and the only other person I know in area code 203 is Wheeler...and you are definitely not Wheeler."
"Then I must cleverly deduce you're at Goren's house. Have I got it yet?"
"Very good, Sherlock."
"You tell Bobby I'll kill him later. He deliberately told you to answer the phone, didn't he?"
"That's affirmative. And you can try killing him if you can get him to stop laughing," she answered, trying hard not to lose her composure, for Bobby was now guffawing audibly.
"I can hear that silly son of a bitch," Logan growled, then chuckled, "Alex, hon, how are you?"
"I'm doing fine. And you?"
"I'm...c'mon, Eames, don't keep me in suspense...what the hell happened? Last time I was there Bobby was still sneaking peeks at your photo every time I turned around."
"Which photo? The one on the stairway or the one in his library?"
She watched Bobby come to attention, and Logan chuckled in her ear. "Ah, he hasn't let you in on all his secrets, then, has he? No, the one he keeps in his wallet."
"Is that so?" and she shot a glance back where Bobby was frozen with an expectant expression on his face. "That's funny," she responded with the tiniest hint of a suggestive tone in her voice, "I thought he'd revealed all Tuesday night."
Logan gave a belly laugh. Finally he sputtered, "And how did you feel about that?"
"Tired," she said truthfully. "But happy."
"I'm glad for you," Logan said soberly. "You do know Deakins always said the only ones in Major Case who didn't know about you and Goren were...you and Goren, right?"
She flushed so red that Bobby deserted the breakfast table and came up behind her, resting a hand on her shoulder. "I still don't see it, Mike. But let's say I'm finding out new things about once every two hours."
Logan continued, "So does this mean you lovebirds want to be left alone on Sunday?"
"No," she said firmly. "Right now we're trying to keep to our own schedules until...things settle down. Besides, I understand you may need someone who's actually interested in football to watch a game with you. Or I can go jogging with Sam and leave you two to your imperfect male bonding."
"Trust me, you have to be a better football buddy than Bobby. Baseball he'll watch forever, football's another thing altogether. Last time I was there he was so absorbed in whatever he was reading—something about forensics and bugs that sounded repulsive—that he asked me at half time what inning they were in." She heard him snap his fingers. "Hey, tell ya what, in your honor I'm treating for dinner. I'll stop at Mamma Rosa's and pick up a lasagna. They have a new Chianti marinara sauce that's to die for. I'll grab some tiramisu, too. Maybe you can spring for some vino and make a salad?"
"You're on. I haven't had Mamma Rosa's in years. Sounds delicious."
"I'll see you Sunday, then." Logan paused. "Eames...Alex...nice to have you back."
"It's nice to be here." And that had so many meanings.
"Good-bye, Mike," and she was still a little misty when she said, "Mike's bringing dinner Sunday. So, what's this about a photo in your wallet?"
Bobby fished the object in question from his jeans' pocket and opened it, revealing the head shot of her in her captain's uniform. "Hannah passed it on when you got your promotion." His voice took on a grumble she would understand only later. "Took them long enough."
Suddenly Sam gave a low "woof!" and it was only when they looked toward the door that they saw him sitting under the doorknob, eyes fixed on them accusingly.
"Our master's voice," Alex said with raised eyebrows. "Let me change my shirt."
She was itching to jog and compromised as Bobby led the big collie down the street to where the sidewalk petered out into cracked concrete after the final house and turned into a scuffed dirt path that meandered into a little hollow dotted with stands of maples, oaks, and sycamore trees with a shallow pond in the middle, an area he referred to as "the park": she started out walking with them, then ran ahead, circling back to join with them again and walking a few more steps before breaking into a run once more. Sam danced on his leash the first time she did so, and by the time she'd orbited a third time Bobby handed off the leash to her and the collie burst into a joyous lope at her side. He kept up his steady walk all around the perimeter of the pond, and then stopped to wait for them to circle back, trying to skip stones on the water. By the time both of them returned, she was rosy and catching her breath as she slowed down, Sam tugging the leash to urge her to continue.
"Sure you don't want to try?" she teased, handing back the leash.
"I'll stick to walking," he said. "You be the one to fly."
They turned back after half an hour, and she finished her workout with some cool-down stretches using the porch steps as support. Bobby coaxed Sam up on the porch while he remained at the side of the concrete slab that formed its foundation, fishing a dog brush from his jacket pocket and grooming the dog from face to the tip of his tail with even, strong strokes, working the knots out of the feathers of his legs and tail. Alex finished her stretches and watched Bobby finish by peeling the discarded dog hair from the big brush and leaving the wad under the tree closest to the house.
"Sharon suggested I do this. She said birds use the fur for their nests," he explained.
"It's either that or knit another dog out of what he leaves behind," she joked.
He grinned. "Want to tackle your boxes now?"
"Why not?" and he vaulted up on the porch, went back into the house, and emerged with the car keys to unlock his car.
Carefully lifting one of the records boxes from the trunk, Alex asked, "Where do you want these?"
"Left when you get down the stairs," he said, about to lift the box out of her arms. "But I'll take it."
"Save the Boy Scout routine for Mrs. Perrino and Bruno," she said tartly. "I'm capable of carrying my own boxes."
"Suit yourself, boss," he said lightly, but still couldn't resist helping her transfer them out of the trunk and set under the kitchen window so he could lock the car and the back door. "Look, I hate to abandon you, but I have some...stuff to work on upstairs." He didn't elaborate, but she felt fairly certain whatever it was, it wasn't Saturday's trivia questions. It was on her tongue to inquire, but she resisted the impulse. He'd been so open about his feelings so far that she was hoping this explanation wouldn't be long in coming. For now she'd have to take it on trust. The notation on the sticky note came back to her: DON'T PUSH.
"I'm perfectly capable of amusing myself," she answered mildly, and he'd retreated upstairs.
She balanced the first box against one thigh while opening the basement door, took critical note of the steep wooden stairs with no handrail on either side, then let herself down carefully between a pair of begrimed beige-painted walls, and, at the foot of the stairs under the bare light bulb, glanced to either side before bearing left.
He hadn't been kidding about the 60s vibe downstairs; this half of the basement had been paneled in dark wood, with a drop ceiling of acoustic tile, and the floor covered with cheap grey vinyl tile squares. The lights were still the original bare bulbs screwed into ceramic fixtures operated with pull cords made of butchers' twine. She tugged the one cord dangling between her eyebrows and was rewarded with a slightly brighter view of her surroundings. There was a faded red fifties' era sofa with brocaded upholstery against the far wall, and, opposite, against the wall that framed the stairway, was Bobby's own stack of brown file boxes. She put her own grimy white box down in front of them, then climbed up and down with the remaining boxes.
Taking a brief breather, she peered around the staircase to the unfinished portion of the basement. New gas furnace at center. Old and now unused oil tank, thick with dust. A washer and dryer and soapstone laundry sink. Homemade wooden shelving with some household tools and supplies: hammers, hand saw, mitre, T-square, old coffee cans filled with nails and labeled with paper tape, tacks, picture hangers—a hardware store in miniature. And, close to the stairs, a basic little workout area with a treadmill and a weightlifting setup.
She crossed back to the paneled area, exploring the other quarter of the room by a tug at yet another pull cord. This proved to have a battered old table pushed against the far wall under the small horizontal basement window. One of the brown file boxes sat open on the table, and some of the papers from the box were arranged in several small stacks next to it. The table was convenient; maybe she should start looking through her own boxes while he was sequestered upstairs. Without thinking, she picked up the closest short stack of the papers, preparing to collect the scattered sheets into one pile.
On the top sheet she was startled to find her name mentioned. And one sheet led to another...
She was so fixed on what she was reading that she missed the heavy tread on the stairs and Bobby's "Eames, I just thought of somethi–" A thought that presumably vanished when he saw her at the table.
What she didn't expect was his fury—and she had almost forgotten how explosive his anger could be—revealed in a bellow that bounced against the ceiling tiles. "What the fuck are you doing in my boxes?"
She gave back as fiercely, "I didn't touch your damn boxes! This one was open on the table and I was trying to get things out of the way so I could look through mine."
His hand darted out to grab the papers and in surprise she saw fear in his eyes. "Give me those!" He missed and she swept the handful behind her as if playing keep-away. "What now? Do I get your particular third degree?"
He was breathing hard, but he'd tempered himself almost immediately; the anger-–but not the apprehension—had died from his eyes, and he steadied his breathing before he responded. "I'm sorry. I needed something out of that box on Sunday and was in a hurry. I didn't put it away."
"Well, that explains your overreaction," she spit back, then waved the papers under his nose. "How do you explain these?"
His face was pale now and he swallowed audibly. "How much have you read?"
"Enough." She stalked forward until they were mere inches apart. "No, actually, much more than enough. I thought things were working out with us after you sweet-talked Hannah into bringing you back to Major Case—you did your stint with Gyson, and we were back to work. And now...and now I find out that practically the moment you were done with the mandatory therapy you were nosing around your contacts for that job with the FBI—the position you told me they recruited you for. And because I was your friend and wanted what was best for you, of course I said I was happy about your accepting it. If everything was fine between us, what the hell was this about?" and she slapped the papers against his chest. "You even say in the top letter that you didn't want me to know you contacted them."
She hadn't heard him stammer in years. "W-We were doing fine. But you weren't."
"Did you think I'd...f-forgotten what Leslie LeZard said?" he said wearily, the fight melted out of him.
"Leslie...who?" Her mind ticked back to one of their old cases. "You mean the faker from the FDA?"
"Yeah. Her. I didn't care when she said I'd never make senior detective. I think I always knew it. You said it yourself, I'm an acquired taste. But I didn't like what she said about you...that I was holding you back. When you said it was too late–"
"And what? So you threw yourself on your fucking sword for me? And what now, I'm supposed to be grateful for the favor?"
"I didn't do it for thanks!" His voice raised again as he stiffened. "And it wasn't a favor! I haven't forgotten what you said to me after I put Stoat away. I told you that you were right—did you think I didn't realize how many times you ran interference between me and...practically everyone? Deakins, Ross, Carver, various higher-ups and the powers that be? You said something about yourself coming behind me carrying my waterthat was never true! You always went in front of me and carried me. I did what I do, and you did the rest—followed procedure, smoothed the feathers of people I'd aggravated, did the right thing. Every...single...time, even when you were trapped in a basement with a madwoman."
He took a breath and it came with a tremor in it. "You gave me so many gifts—and none of them involved a rat in my desk drawer, even when I probably deserved it. Your friendship, you taking on my work when my mom was sick, your patience with my work habits. I just wanted that woman who practiced her signature line on her book covers to have what she'd earned and what she deserved—and that wasn't going to happen with me hanging around like a damned albatross. Hell, it's not like I suffered for it. It was different from when I was suspended: I worked with a good group, for a good boss." He looked her directly in the eye, swallowed, said through his teeth. "I had an active social life. It was a good gig until Cavanaugh reared his ugly head." He expelled a trembling breath. "The only thing missing...was you. Hell, it worked, didn't it? It wasn't too late—you did make captain. You headed task forces and got terrorists off the street. You worked with Benson, for Christ's sake! But it wasn't a favor–" And here his voice broke. "It was a gift. It was the only one I had to give."
Then he wheeled and strode out of the basement, boots thudding heavily on the stairs, and in another minute she heard a door slam. She remained under the glare of the bare bulb, the documents in her hand rattling because she was shaking so hard, and she was blinded by tears. In a moment she had collapsed on the sofa, sinking into its broken-springed surface, scattering the papers on the floor around her.
After all that he'd allowed a poser to get under his skin, to convince him the greater good was to leave something comfortable to make something better. Why–
But things unbidden flickered through her brain: the hellish year when he'd completed all their cases while struggling with his dying mother. The next year when he tried to hold his fractured family together and when even the man he trusted most in the world had betrayed him. But the one thing she recalled most were memories that were partially hearsay: how he'd practically gone berserk when she was kidnapped. The only thing she knew for certain was that every time she opened her eyes at the hospital, even the first night, he was sitting there watching her. He'd done his work, called his mother, and then spent his time, eyes dark-circled with lack of sleep, in an uncomfortable chair in an overheated hospital room. She couldn't even remember him reading; he just watched her every breath as if she were a book he never wanted to close.
Still...this...this had to be resolved.
After a few minutes she roused herself, collected the scattered paper, and in another minute was up the stairs and had popped from room to room—the house wasn't that big...where was he? She climbed the stairs to the second story, and that was empty as well.
Sam was scratching at the back door when she came back down, then, seeing her, the big tricolor collie padded to her side, crowded against her, whining, clearly upset. She grabbed his leash from the hook, fastened it to his collar, and confirmed she had a house key before heading out the back door. She should have grabbed a jacket, too, but at that moment she didn't care.
He wasn't in the yard, either, and his car was still parked behind hers in the driveway.
"Come on, Sam," she coaxed, "where'd he go?"
In response, the collie tugged her toward the back gate, nose to the sidewalk, and she could see that even more of the leaves that had scattered earlier when they had been on their walk had been swept aside by Bobby's stride when he stormed off.
"Lead on, Lassie," she said in resignation.
She caught up with him at the end of the street where she had jogged so effortlessly not two hours ago. He was standing staring in the direction of the pond, silhouetted against the late morning sun. Stopping, she let her hand go slack and loosed Sam's leash. "Go–" she whispered.
The oversized collie gamboled up behind him, grabbing at his hand playfully. Bobby stopped, backed up a step, looked down at the dog, then back at her, and she closed the gap between them, meeting his eyes without flinching.
"Thank you," she said finally, "for the gift. It was the proudest day of my life when I got those captain's bars."
"I would have told you eventually," he finally said as if beyond exhaustion. She was surprised at the catch in his voice as well as what he said next. "Didn't I tell you I'd mess this up? I shouted at you. I haven't lost my temper like that since last year, and to you of all people! The one person on earth I wanted to see again and I shouted at you. I'm sorry."
"I would have shouted at you, too," she said reflexively. "Just because something's out in plain sight doesn't give you permission to read it. But I did." She paused, considered, drew in a deep breath, then fixed her eyes on him again. "But how would you have told me?"
"Over dinner with wine? Feeding me breakfast? Watching a movie? Just blurted out, 'Alex, I have something to tell you...I lied through my teeth about how I got my FBI position'?"
He rubbed his hand across his eyes, sighed. "I don't know. Maybe I figured when the time came I'd know how to address it diplomatically. Or maybe I would have just fallen to my knees and begged for absolution." He gave her a pained look. "Maybe that's what I need to do now."
"I don't want you on your knees, Bobby. How about an easier question? Why?"
He blinked at her, bewildered. "I just...told you."
"There had to be a trigger. Things were working out. You don't deny that, do you? You came out of mandatory therapy happier than I'd seen you in a couple of years. You'd started to make peace with yourself. In fact there were a couple of times I thought–" and then she checked herself hard.
Now his head cocked to the left. "You thought...what–?"
Alex said levelly, "Nothing. You were just making jokes, that's all."
He regarded her gravely. "The use of humor sometimes covers up things that can't be expressed otherwise."
His eye contact suddenly made her shiver.
"It's cold out here," he said abruptly, seeing her clasp her arms around herself, then looked around for Sam. The dog had finished sniffing around the pond and wandered back toward them, leash trailing behind him. As he grew closer, it was clear he sensed something amiss, and sat down just out of arm's reach. Bobby stepped forward, snagged the leash, then headed back toward the house. "Why don't we go someplace warmer?"
She doubted "somewhere warmer" could make her any less cold than she was now. "If you like. But this conversation isn't over."
"I know." When they were back in the yard he let Sam loose. "Let's go sit in the shed."
So now they were back full circle to Tuesday night, sitting on the built-in bench. She wished it was Tuesday night again.
As if reading her thoughts, he said reluctantly, "I guess you wish you'd gone home night before last like you intended."
Alex said fiercely, "I regret nothing about Tuesday night. I wanted to be here. I wanted to stay with you. I wanted you. Now talk to me, dammit."
He wouldn't meet her eyes. "It was a couple of weeks after I'd finished my mandatory sessions with Dr. Gyson. Your friend visited you. Marie? Marla. Marla Vane?"
"That's right. She's Marla Deschanel now," she recalled. "She'd just made captain of the three-oh. She'd come by to deliver some evidence folders to 1PP."
"You talked for fifteen minutes. You were the perfect friend, all smiles, congratulating her."
"I was happy for her, Bobby!"
"I know. But your eyes gave you away. She was in your graduating class. And there you were, still trailing behind me carrying my water."
"Oh, my God, that...you asked what I regretted? An angry speech I made fourteen years ago because–"
"–because you were justified in saying what you did," he said wearily. "But it was the terms of the agreement with Moran and Ross–"
"That isn't the topic, Bobby, and I don't want to rehash it." She was staring straight ahead, unable to meet his eyes either, balancing herself on the bench with a hand on either side of her. And then she felt his left hand tentatively touch her right, a feather touch, and then the warmth of his fingers and palm.
"But you were right–"
"Fine. But you're still trying to distract me. So it was the way I reacted to Marla's promotion that made you leave?"
"No, that was just the prologue to the final solution. A few days later I was walking by Hannah's office and he called me in for a minute. Told me to close the door. I had my heart in my mouth-–kept trying to figure out what I'd done wrong. But he just said, 'Looks like Eames is getting restless.' You were a little impatient that day about getting some evidence, and I guess he'd noticed it. I just casually remarked that everyone has bad days, and he said 'Maybe.'
"So I manned up and asked what your chances of promotion were, and he gave me that sideways smile of his and asked, 'Bobby, we've been friends for a long time. Do you want that slow and easy, or do you want it with both barrels?' I said to give it to me between the eyes, and he said, 'With you around? Practically nil. She's already proven twice that she's loyal to you over the NYPD. If one of you transferred to another division—slightly better chances. But if you really want her to move up the ladder? You need to be gone.'" He snorted. "'Both barrels'? If he'd emptied his service weapon into me he couldn't have made it more clear. So...I made it happen."
Now his hand closed on hers and she let his touch steady her.
"I don't regret leaving if it helped you; I just wish there had been a better way to do it. Just like when you were jogging this morning—I wanted you to be able to fly. But–"
His hand tightened over hers, but she slipped her own from under his so she could clasp it instead. When she squeezed his hand, she felt him tremble.
"But I am truly sorry for being arrogant enough to make a decision about your life for you. It wasn't mine to make. And there's no way I can undo it."
She finally summoned enough courage to turn and look at him directly. He was sitting sideways on the bench as if perched on the rung of a fence, looking completely wrung out. "Fair enough. And since I can't put the genie back in the bottle either, maybe it's best to get the rest out in the open? So I ask...are there any more secrets in your boxes I should know about?" she asked.
He eyed her speculatively, but the fear was gone from his eyes. "Damn. You read fast–"
"Oh, come on, Bobby. It wasn't just reading...did you think I'd missed those stacks of documents on your desk? You couldn't think I imagined they were for your trivia queue! Besides," and a smile flickered briefly on her lips, "when you're captain you either have to learn to read fast or you're up to your ass in paperwork until midnight. I saw a letter from Penelope Saltonstall about payment for a consulting job, dated a month ago. Is that what you're working on upstairs, a new one?"
He shrugged. "You did say you couldn't imagine me not working. Besides, a guy's gotta pay the bills. I can't support myself on my tips." He added wryly, "I told you, Ben, Karin, and I were her team. She said she'd take care of us and she did. Actually, when she moved to California, she offered to take the three of us with her. Karin took her up on the deal. She found a spot for Ben in Chicago because he refused to live in what he called 'the land of nuts and flakes.' I said I wouldn't leave New York—though that changed–" He shrugged. "As for the rest—occasionally she uses me for courier work, too, since I'm not officially in the system."
"Courier work? They still do that? I thought everything was encrypted and submitted electronically."
"Not with all the data breaches in the last few years! There are some things they still don't trust to electronic communications. Once every few months I get in a suit, pick up a briefcase in a nondescript building in Hartford, fly somewhere, end up at some equally nondescript building in whatever city I'm in, turn over the briefcase, spend the night and come home. I can go sightseeing or go to bed, and I get a hell of a per diem: four-star hotel and a decent meal allowance."
"What's in the briefcase?"
"They don't say, I don't ask. The less I know, the better."
"Are you armed when you do the courier work?" Alex asked shrewdly.
Bobby nodded and she scowled. "Is she employing you or using you?"
He reached out for her now, hesitantly, but she willingly slid along the bench and into his embrace. "It's just a job. No worse than Major Case."
"Oh, like that was ever safe." She gave a resigned sigh, then added, "So you turned down L.A., huh? Not into fun in the sun? Oh, wait, I forgot. Two weeks at the Smithsonian instead."
"Could never figure out the attraction. I still hate the beach. Alex–"
"The FBI offer...you sent me off with a smile and a hug, but never another word–"
She had thrown him a bone and he wasn't about to let go. "Because it sounded like your dream job. Endless 'puzzles' to keep you stimulated, personalities to analyze, task forces to brief–" In mid-word she stopped.
He said softly. "Looks like neither of us were immune to that virus. But I've had my vaccine now. I'm through."
She understood. "Me, too."
They were quiet for a few minutes, then she hazarded, "So...any of them...long term?"
"Those people involved in your 'active social life.'"
He arched eyebrows at her, then shook his head. "A couple of people, no one long term. Dancing partners. Concert dates. Nobody...intimate." He paused a beat. "You?"
"I dated a CSU team commander for a few months. Eventually we bored each other silly. I'd gotten used to talking personalities and motives. All he wanted to talk was spatter trails and–"
"Insect activity?" he asked with a trace of a chuckle, then exhaled in relief. "All those months not hearing from you...how could I not think someone else hadn't noticed how special you were? You asked why I didn't call...I lived in fear that a man would pick up."
"Wait–" and she tilted her head at him with a disbelieving smile, "So I was your version of Schrödinger's Cat?"
His brow furrowed. "I never...deliberately thought of it that way. But I suppose you were."
Sam reappeared in the doorway of the shed, looking puzzled, then padded inside, thrusting his nose in Alex's lap. She stroked the collie's silky head. "It's okay, Sam. At least I think it is."
"That's for you to decide, and only if you say it is. You're the injured party." That frisson of fear once again touched his voice.
She said slowly, "I don't like what you did or how you did it, but I think I can live with knowing you did it with best intentions."
"'The road to hell' and all that," he said, resting his head against hers, and they were quiet, breathing in unison. It was so quiet she could hear the agitated thump of his heart slowing.
"Ross," he said reflectively, "And that bas...and Moran. When I talk about them it seems like just yesterday. But the old guard is practically gone. Jack McCoy's still in the loop...it's like he's ageless. Carver's a judge, I had lunch with Deakins a couple of months ago—we did it in Bryant Park, so we wouldn't have to deal with masks—and I had dinner with Joe Hannah about three weeks ago. Stabler's still knocking along on the OC taskforce, and Tutuola at SVU. And then there's your old friend Olivia Benson, still going strong. She's amazing—I don't know how she's done it all these years. Pedophiles, rapists, sex traffickers, pimps, molested kids...all that plays with your head. She's one tough cop."
"Tougher than me, that's for sure."
He fixed his eyes on her. "I don't believe that for a minute."
"I know I told you about the first case we worked together, but...I never told you how it finished." She gave him a wry look. "We ended up having coffee together...talking about our old partners."
He lifted an eyebrow. "We'll never be able to outrun our pasts."
She said soberly, "I don't want to. I had a good career. I did good work...and even if it turned out badly, I tried to make it right." She looked at him earnestly. "We both did good work. Always. No matter the obstacles." A flicker of regret crossed her face. "But I feel bad about those years we missed."
He sighed. "Dr. Gyson told me once that I had to see my self-worth beyond my work. Maybe we needed those years to finish that part of the journey." She could feel that he was getting fidgety again. "Look, I know we need to talk more, but I've got to get back to work. I'd intended to do some of it last night–"
"–and instead you were watching a movie with me." She slowly loosed her hold on him and almost immediately shivered, standing up to brush off her pants. His arms parted with her regretfully, but he rose stiffly, stretching.
"I wanted to make you feel comfortable. And welcome. At home."
She answered, not thinking and only half-jokingly, "Wasn't that what you did Tuesday night?"
"Yes...but...I didn't want you to think that it happened...just because I wanted to get laid."
She blinked at him, aghast. "I never thought that. I...wanted it just as much as you did."
"I–" For a moment he was at a loss, then finally just asked simply, "Alex, you do know...that I love you?"
She wanted to say that if nothing else his eyes had said it for the past two days, but her vision was blurred with Gorens past: the man who'd emerged from Dr. Gyson's office on the last day of mandatory therapy with a grin on his face and the word "Alex" on his lips. The man who had wanted to stay and left instead so she could fulfill a dream. And further back, the bone-weary face of the man who'd surely wanted to leave for the comfort of a warm bed and instead stayed at her bedside.
"It was a gift. It was the only one I had to give."
This was something new, she was certain–
"You do know Deakins always said the only ones...who didn't know about you and Goren were...you and Goren, right?"
Her cheeks were icy and she didn't realize why until Bobby wiped tears from them with his thumb.
"Do you remember the question you asked me night before last?" was her only response.
He tilted his head in the old familiar gesture. "The inappropriate one?"
"It wasn't. We were always straight with each other...well...most of the time. That's the way I wanted it. You told me how you felt." She paused. "If the offer's still open: yes."
"If you think you can put up with me..." and here Alex clasped his hands, "yes, I will stay forever."
He swallowed, his eyes gone soft. "Marry me?"
She shook her head. "Don't joke about that, Bobby."
"I'm not joking—and I'll abide with whatever decision you make. But the offer stands."
Startled, she met his eyes, then asked speculatively, "When?"
He shrugged. "Name a date. We can go to the county courthouse for a license tomorrow if that's what you want."
She could feel her pulse beating at the back of her head again. "Waiting period?"
"Connecticut has none."
"Dropped in 2003."
She tried to make it come out as lightly as possible. "Boning up on Connecticut marriage laws for trivia night?"
"Looked it up yesterday morning while I was waiting for Dr. Chaudry to log on Zoom." He stepped forward so that their bodies touched again. "There's a reason I didn't go to California. You were here."
Sam barked at that moment and they realized the dog had vanished while they were talking. They tore eyes away from each other, then stepped out of the shed, only to find the collie sitting by the back door, looking mournful. It was clearly, by his expression, time to go inside.
A freshening breeze pushed her hair into her face and she brushed it back reflexively. "I should let Lizzie and Jack know beforehand."
"And Phil," he added.
"Oh, please. Phil is going to think this was all his doing," Alex pointed out.
"Well...in a way, isn't it?" was his amused response.
"Yeah, but I don't want him to know it. He has a big head already."
"And we ought to tell everyone at the Dark Crystal. And I'd need to call Molly. She's always worried about my being alone."
"And we must tell Mrs. Perrino," Alex added, suddenly laughing.
"And Russ, and Mike, and Dr. Chaudry," he continued with a chuckle.
"Maybe if I could help you with that avalanche of papers on your desk, we could tell some people tonight?" she asked speculatively.
"You're volunteering to work all afternoon—and it will take at least all afternoon for two people—on the dullest paperwork imaginable for no pay?"
She shrugged. "We'd be working together. Like being partners again."
"Nope. Not possible," he said unexpectedly, but when he finished he made her smile, "We can't do it 'again,' because as far as I'm concerned we've never stopped being partners. There were just a few detours in between." He paused, then confessed, "Alex...I'm not sure I can promise to be the perfect husband."
She rolled her eyes. "Bobby, the only time the two words 'perfect marriage' exist together are in a rom-com. I can honestly say I was never a 'perfect' wife. All we can do is be the best we can."
"That I can promise," he said and offered her his arm, and they walked each other home.
"yours is the light
by which my spirit's born; -
you are my sun, my moon,
and all my stars."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . e.e. cummings