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Interlude II

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Mac pulled the motorcar up to the small cottage she’d inherited from her grandmother. Not for the first time, she wondered whether she ought to replant the flower beds along the front--she didn’t have a particularly green thumb and had allowed them to grow over years before, but when her grandmother was alive there had always been a riot of colour, and even now the house seemed odd without it.

“Maybe I can get Jack to do it,” she muttered absently.

“Pardon?” said Frankie.

Mac startled--she was so used to being alone at home that she’d forgotten the other woman was in the car.

“The house used to have flowerbeds,” she said. “I might see if I can pay Jack in whiskey to come have a look, once he’s healed up.”

Frankie arched a wide eyebrow.

“You are aware my mother is a botanist, yes? She had me planting gardens by the time I was five.”

“You don’t--”

“Of course I don’t. But I’ve been in a flat since Harry, and I could use the soil under my nails.”

Mac smiled. “If you’re sure…”

“By the time Jack’s in any shape for heavy lifting you’ll be well past planting season. I’ll do it next weekend, save you the whiskey. Heaven knows you’re always running short.”

Mac had an entire shelf devoted to various bottles of the stuff, and Frankie damn well knew it. Shaking her head, she shut off the motorcar and climbed out. Then she grabbed her valise from the back seat and headed into the cottage, Frankie following behind.

Inside, Mac flicked on the lights in the parlour--the curtains had been drawn when they had left for Tarwin Lower a few days earlier--and moved to the kitchen to put on the kettle while Frankie headed through to her bedroom to unpack.

“Tea?” Mac called out.

“Always,” replied Frankie. “But check the cannister for oleander.”

Mac rolled her eyes, laying out two cups and some biscuits while she waited. The tea was just steeping when Frankie returned, freshly bathed and refreshed.

“You survived trial by Phryne, I see,” Mac observed, trying hard not to focus on the scalloped lace edging of Frankie’s house pyjamas--the deep purple silk highlighted her decolletage, and her dark hair was plaited and over her shoulder, the edges just brushing the top.

“Yes, when you said that life was never boring with her around I wasn’t expecting to turn treasure hunter.”

“No,” Mac agreed, “that was unusual even for her.”

Frankie laughed, a sweet, husky sound.

“Not, I take it, the only novelty of the investigation?” she asked.

“You mean Jack?”

“Mhmm. She doesn’t strike me as the sort that is usually left…”

Frankie trailed off, and Mac grimaced. It had been a long few hours, Phryne barely responsive as she’d sat by Jack’s bedside and willed him to wake up. How the man had survived the fall with little more than a few broken ribs and some short-term memory loss due to the concussion was a medical mystery; if Mac was given to flights of fancy, she’d think Phryne had managed it through sheer force of will. Still, he had been awake and alert and stubborn when Mac and Frankie had left them to return to Melbourne, and Mac had no doubt he’d make a full recovery.

“No,” Mac said. “No, I imagine that took her by surprise.”

“Unwelcome, do you think?”

“I doubt it. Phryne tends to take everything in her stride, even being in love.”

Frankie laughed again, lifting the pot to pour out the tea.

------

Mac was pressing her cravat for Phryne’s birthday party that evening--really, she ought to get a better laundry service, but Mrs.Russo down the street needed the money and had been doing it since Mac was a poor student--and wondered how Frankie was coming along in the garden. A moment later the door opened and the woman in question stepped inside, face red from the afternoon sun.

“You have beds, at least, but I’ll have to do the actual planting tomorrow,” she said, brushing her hair out of face; her hand left a smear of dirt on her cheek as she did so.

“Thank you,” said Mac, unable to come up with a more characteristically acerbic way of conveying her gratitude as she stared at the dark smudge.

She sighed--this was becoming untenable. Frankie was attractive, yes, and at least occasionally interested in women, as evidenced by her assignation with the wife of the organiser at the medical conference where they had met, but it had never been… on the table, so to speak, given the distance between Melbourne and Perth. And now the distance was gone, and with it Mac’s excuses for not acting.

But whether she should act was another matter entirely. Frankie was a friend before anything else, and while they had not known each other for that long, Mac found the idea of losing that friendship painful. But that did not mean the attraction needed to mean anything more, if indeed Frankie was even so inclined--between the demands of the job and her need for discretion, Mac almost always favoured casual encounters, and her last real relationship had ended with Daisy’s death three years before; the idea of putting herself in that position again… well, she supposed Phryne had always been the braver one in their friendship, and it wasn’t easy even for her.

The point remained, the urge to brush the dirt from Frankie’s cheek, kiss her (soft at first, uncharacteristically tentative as they attempted to find… something, then growing deeper), discover her scent and her taste and her sighs of pleasure… the urge warred with another, to keep this friendship, to play it safe, or to perhaps discover whether she hogged the blankets at night, to share--truly share--the little moments in her life with another. Every route came with a cost, and Mac wasn’t certain she was willing to pay.

Finishing the cravat, Mac lifted the iron.

“Do you have anything you need done?” she asked.

“No, thank you. I’m just going to have a shower,” Frankie said, cocking her head.

Then she stepped forward, laying one hand against Mac’s chest and brushing a soft kiss to her mouth. Mac stiffened, and Frankie’s hand fell away.

“I’m sorry,” she said, moving back. “I thought… you looked--I’m sorry, I’m terrible at this. I can… get a hotel room, or--”

“No!” barked Mac, cringing. She stepped forward, then realised the iron was still in her hand and sat it down awkwardly. “It was… a surprise.”

“An unwelcome one?” Frankie asked, echoing her words from days before.

Mac studied her face--the sharp slope of her nose, the full lips pressed together in nervousness, that blasted smudge of dirt that had started this whole thing. There were so many ways this could go wrong, so many reasons to say ‘This far and no further’.

“No,” she finally said, feeling a small smile tug at her lips. “No, not unwelcome in the least.”