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been so good at wasting time (thank god for july)

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Some parts of the story feel wrong from the very start. Some are the kind of wrong you just learn to lean into, just learn to pattern your day around. It’s wrong, but what other option is there, but to go forward? It’s wrong. And you just learn to breathe through it. 

She marries him. She marries him, because his mother is beaming, and hers is wearing that old can’t get it right, Danielle smirk, and he is looking at her like she hung the moon. Like she’s keeping the stars up all on her own. Like without her, the heavens would crumble and the story would end. 

He’s looking at her, smile wider than she’s ever seen it, and Dani Clayton thinks, It’s wrong. But if I’m the only one who knows it, how much does that really count?

***

The house is not large, but she thinks it could be warm, with work. It’s funny how close the world can get to perfect without ever quite touching. How, even though she shares it with him, even though she’s got his ring on her finger and his voice echoes through the walls in constant search of her, she still dreams of a day where this will feel like her house. A small sect of suburban living, with a fence, and a front door painted white, and neighbors who raise their hands each morning in solidarity of this life she’s stumbled into. 

She marries him because she can’t think of a better way to get into a house like this, to stay out from under her mother’s seething misery, to build a world that might one day--luck willing--fit around her body. She marries him. They move in together. It’s the way it’s supposed to go.

***

“You could quit,” Eddie says. She’s lost track of how many times this phrase has left his lips since the wedding. Three small words, nothing complex, nothing hard to follow, and still, she can’t wrap her head around them. 

“I like my job, Eddie.”

“Sure,” he says, in that easy-roll way he has of speaking past her. “Sure, you do. And you’re good at it, but Danielle. Come on. You don’t have to be doing it.”

The rest, today, goes unsaid. Let me take care of you, Danielle. Let me keep you safe, Danielle. Let me build you a box, Danielle, and set you inside it and close the lid forever. 

“I like my job,” she repeats, smiling, because sometimes pasting on a smile is the only way to keep from screaming into his too-pleasant face. “Mrs. Grose is talking about tenure.”

He makes a face, one she’s sure he thinks looks charmingly displeased. It’s ugly on his lips, a curl that makes her think of a fox eyeing a meal. 

Come on, she chastises herself. It’s Eddie, you know he doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s only ever wanted to help. 

She almost believes it. She’s got the script down cold, after so many years. She almost does believe it. 

“Come on, it’s almost summer,” he says in that cajoling just listen to me voice she’s grown to find so grating. When did he develop that voice? When they were fourteen, and he was trying to convince her all the girls let their boyfriends up their blouses? When they were ten, and he was trying to convince her it was never too early to plan for a future together? When they were eight, and she was trying so hard to explain to him why her mom needed her at home, needed her to get dinner going and make sure the bills weren’t stacking up by the door and check for lit cigarettes too near a bedspread?

“Right,” she says. Not sharply. Never sharply, with Eddie. “Almost summer. So, it’s not like I’m even going to be--”

“Just think about it,” he says, like her mouth isn’t moving at all. Am I here? she wonders with distant alarm. Am I here, talking to him, or is this all just an elaborate hallucination?

“I like my job,” she repeats. The words that close the loop, at least for a little while. The words that shut him up, until he next decides to push. 

He’s shaking his head, dark hair flopping into his eyes. “All right, all right. I’m only saying...I mean, sooner or later, Danielle, it’s going to be hard. Juggling that and the kids.”

Something cold leaks into her belly, something an awful lot like going to bed with the knowledge a horrific nightmare will be waiting behind your eyelids. She carefully does not blink, carefully does not grind her teeth. 

He kisses her cheek, self-aware enough, at least, not to go for her mouth. Gives her a little pat on the shoulder. Heads off toward the kitchen. Dani watches him go, this tall, angular man around whom she’s somehow built a world. 

Juggling that and the kids. 

She really isn’t sure why she thought it would take him longer to bring that up.

***

She hasn’t changed her name. It’s the one little holdout, the one precious light she can keep close to her chest on the worst kind of day. He looks disappointed when she says she isn’t ready, looks almost like he’s going to fight when she says the kids all know her as Miss Clayton, and she likes the consistency of that. 

“Some of them,” she tells him, hands on his shoulders, smile on her face, “have been through so much. The last thing I want is to shake them up.”

“It’s only a name,” he complains. She steels her smile, hitches it a little higher, a little brighter. 

“Then it shouldn’t bother you.” It’s a challenge, almost. A spark of her eight-year-old self, the last time she felt truly certain of her place in Edmund’s world. Can it really be said that an eight-year-old is the strongest a person could ever be? She doesn’t want to think about it too hard. 

He makes grumbling noises, and buries his face in her neck, and she hardens herself against it all. She already gives him so much. She already takes the ring, the promise, the chores, the place in his bed. This much, he can leave her. This much, he can manage. 

It’s Judy who makes it hardest, if she’s honest. Judy, who wants so badly to call her up on a Saturday afternoon and chirp, “Good morning, Mrs. O’Mara.” Dani has gotten good at being conveniently busy whenever Judy calls, her focus miraculously placed on getting the laundry done or starting dinner. 

“Early days,” Judy says fondly one day, and Dani--cradling the receiver with her shoulder, eyes clenched shut against waves of shame--can only force a laugh. 

“Yeah. You know. Busy.”

“Getting to work on my grandchildren?” Judy says, and she’s joking, she’s joking, she must be joking. Dani swallows. 

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m--the timer’s going off, Judy, I have to--”

Sooner or later, Judy’s going to piece it together. There’s a keen awareness in her eyes when she looks at Dani sometimes, a knowledge she doesn’t even seem to realize she possesses. Dani stares back over a Sunday afternoon lunch spread and thinks, Do it. Come on. Say it. I know you know. I know you know. 

Judy never does. It’s just clinking glasses and fresh iced tea and Eddie’s sandwiches prepared just the way he likes them, and Dani feels as though she will be waiting forever for Judy to finally see her properly.

***

“I hired a lawn service,” Eddie says. Dani, preoccupied with end-of-year school business, glances up.

“A what?”

“A lawn service,” Eddie repeats. “Name’s James or something, I don’t know. Going to come three times a week for the summer to keep things in order around the place.”

“Can we afford that?” She’d been wondering if the summer would require a temporary second job, in fact, if she’d have to take up a nanny position or a cleaning gig to make ends meet. Eddie looks at her like she’s just started speaking French.

“Wingrave gave me a raise, Danielle, we’re great. And you know how important it is, to have the house look--”

“But it’s expensive.” Dani frowns. “Isn’t it? I could do--”

“Danielle, I love you,” he says with a laugh, “but I’ve never seen you keep a plant alive longer than a week. You’ve got like. A black thumb. Anyway, this guy’s prices are competitive, and they offer minor repair services, too. It’ll be great.”

“Great,” Dani mutters. He cups a hand to his ear, an exaggeration of mishearing. 

“What’s that?”

“When do they start?”

“Friday. You’ll be able to meet him, show him around, huh? Only, Wingrave’s got me booked solid.”

You’re going to leave me alone with a strange man--or men--because you wanted the yard to look like something Wingrave would approve of? She’s staring at him. This is somehow the most Eddie thing he’s done all week, even with pressuring her to turn down Mrs. Grose’ offer of tenure. 

You married him, she reminds herself coldly. You walked into this bed. Anyway, maybe he’s right. Maybe we could use the help. 

“Last day of school is Wednesday,” she hears herself say. “I have some meetings to finish up after that, but I guess...I guess I could...”

“Great,” he says, scrounging for the television remote in the couch. “Slated to be here at one.”

***

It’s already hot for June, her classroom bursting with twenty-five sticky, grumpy children just itching for the final bell. Dani watches them go, unleashed in a shrieking torrent into the halls, smiling a little. There’s too many of them, she thinks almost every week, but they’re wonderful all the same. Several look back on their way out, one little boy tripping over his laces in his haste to throw skinny arms around her. 

“Have a good summer, Miss Clayton!” he chirps, and she thinks of how different he is, how his round face shines in a way she’d thought it never would again after his father passed away in January. She can’t say for sure whether she had anything to do with it, this relaxation sliding back into his little body, but she’s relieved to see it happening. 

“You too, Michael. Say hi to your mom for me.”

“I will!” And off he goes again, plowing into the friends waiting for him at the door. She waves, amused by their awkward too-loud whispers, and settles back behind her desk to finalize some paperwork. 

“I hope you’re not planning to stay all night,” Hannah Grose says mildly from the doorway. Dani jumps. 

“No, of course not, I just--” Get more done here. “--wanted to finish up a few things first.”

Mrs. Grose, who Dani technically understands is her boss, but sometimes feels would be more appropriate as a favored aunt, moves smoothly into the room. Her eyes drift aimlessly across thirty small desks, the remnants of pencil shavings and crumpled-up doodles still scattered beneath a number of them. 

“It always feels strange, doesn’t it?” she says lightly. “Like some of the light goes out of the room when they're gone.”

Dani makes a low hum of agreement under her breath. “It’s going to be stranger this year, going home, and--” She pauses, teeth clamping hard around the words before too many can slip out. Mrs. Grose, who feels kind and wonderful in so many ways, is still her boss. She doesn’t need to hear any of this, any of the endless list of reasons Dani wouldn’t want to be at home all day. 

She steals a glance up to find Mrs. Grose smiling. A gentle smile, serene. Comprehending. 

“I’m sorry,” Dani says quickly, “that was unprofessional.”

“Was it?” Mrs. Grose leans against the radiator, arms folded lightly across her blouse. Something about her carriage has always reminded Dani of royalty, even with sweat beading along the crown of her close-shaven head. Hannah Grose carries herself like a woman who has never once stared into a mirror, terrified of the made-up stranger gazing back. 

“It’s just,” Dani says, though she knows she ought to stop and turn the conversation back toward schoolwork, “being married now is so...”

“Different?” Mrs. Grose supplies. Dani nods fervently. “Yes, I suppose that’s the case for everyone. You think you know, beforehand, what it will be like, but...even so, they always manage to surprise you.”

She’s twisting the ring on her third finger, Dani notes, almost absently. This is uncharted territory for their relationship, a place which requires her to step lightly. Even so, she’s curious. She’s heard rumors of Mrs. Grose’s marriage for years. 

“Your husband,” she says carefully. “Was he...? Did he...?”

“Die?” Mrs. Grose says, her voice not fluttering in the least toward any heightened emotion. “No. No, Sam is very much alive, I’m afraid.”

Odd way of putting it, Dani thinks, even as something in her chest leans toward the idea. Very much alive, I’m afraid--and therefore very capable of causing pain, even in his absence. 

“But you’re not...I mean, you’re no longer--”

“Married,” Mrs. Grose supplies. “No, not for a number of years, now. Sam had...requirements I, evidently, could not fill for him. It would have been nice to determine as much before the wedding, of course, but these things do happen.”

She sounds so breezy about it, as though the memory of the man who left her doesn’t even sting. Dani can’t imagine. 

“Isn’t it...” Pushing too far again, she senses, but Hannah Grose is watching her with an expression that says they’re already in the trenches now. Might as well finish up. “Doesn’t it bother you? That he wasn’t the man you thought you married?”

Mrs. Grose gives a shrug that still manages to be more elegant than anything Dani’s done in her whole life. “Certainly, it bothers me. To think I could have loved him more than the sun, and still, he could replace me with someone else? Of course it hurts. But some people just aren’t intended for forever.”

“You still wear the ring,” Dani observes. Mrs. Grose seems to think on this for a moment before answering, her eyes a little sad. 

“I like the reminder. Of who I was with him. Of knowing I did nothing wrong, in loving him. That he couldn’t love me the same was...a truth I wasn’t prepared to understand until he left.”

But you’re all right, Dani is not brave enough to say, is not brave enough to hope. You’re still here, and you’re all right without him, and if he couldn’t love you...if he couldn’t make it right...you’re still--

Stop. Stop going down this road. You married the man, didn’t you?

Mrs. Grose is watching her closely, and Dani realizes her face is doing things she has not kept properly in line. She locks her expression into place, a sweet smile intended to reassure and please. 

“Things are just different,” she says. “Having someone else in the house, learning how it all...fits. It’s going to be an interesting summer, I suppose.”

“A summer, all the same,” Mrs. Grose says, a gentle admonition. “Come on, now, out from behind that desk. It will all still be waiting in the fall, Mrs. Clayton.”

“Please,” Dani hears herself say, a yearning suddenly opening like a well in her chest. A friend. Just one. Just one who isn’t Eddie. “Call me Dani.”

***

The anxiety of waiting for the lawn care men to arrive is enormous in a way she is not prepared for. Dani finds herself shuffling almost manically through the house, clearing cobwebs and washing dishes, until the clock strikes eleven-thirty and she runs out of chores. Even then, it’s impossible to sit down, impossible to stop thinking. 

“It’s going to be great,” Eddie had said again on his way out the door, all briefcase and striped tie and sharp-eyed energy. Wingrave hired him for his wits, he likes to say. Wingrave appreciates a man who is clever and bold. Until he says it, Dani’s not sure these are two words she’s ever associated with Eddie. 

She supposes she’s grateful he has the job, at least. It pays well, and Wingrave--a British transplant with hard eyes and a no-nonsense way of thinking--is good to his employees. Expects a lot of them, certainly, which keeps Eddie out until nearly midnight some nights. Dani doesn’t mind. She thinks she’s drawn more relaxed breaths in the time since Eddie’s being hired on than in the last ten years of his company. 

And now, with no school to occupy her time, she’s home alone. Pacing the living room in jeans and a pink blouse, hoping she looks like the woman of the house and not a woman to be taken advantage of by seedy men. 

Eddie’s already done the negotiating, she assures herself yet again, peeking through the curtains at a stubbornly-empty street. All you have to do is show them around. 

At twelve fifty-five, she moves from the living room to the front porch. She feels a bit like a teenager who forgot their house key, sitting on the stoop with her arms folded over her bent knees, but the day is gorgeous. She tilts her head back, letting the sun beat down on her closed eyes, and thinks maybe this will be the summer she spends almost exclusively outdoors. She could take up hiking, maybe, or learn to kayak. She could walk for hours in any direction, any direction but home, just keep going until her legs give out and her shoes fall apart and she’s forced to start fresh--

“Excuse me, is this the O’Mara residence?”

The voice is curious, possessed of an accent Dani thinks belongs to the north of England, and very much female. Her eyes pop open, her mouth following suit in surprise. 

The truck at the curb is large, green, a banner unfurled across its side declaring Taylor Landscaping. The woman, who appears by all rights to have stepped out of this truck, is dressed in denim overalls, a ratty t-shirt, and a puzzled expression.

Dani bounces to her feet, one hand extending through force of habit. “Yes, yes, hi. I’m sorry, I was--Dani. Dani Clayton.”

“Only,” the woman says, clasping her hand firmly, “the job is for an Edmund O’Mara? S’that...?”

“My husband,” Dani says, wincing even as the still-unfamiliar word forces itself past her teeth. “Eddie. Yes. He’s at work.”

“Left you here to handle the help?” The woman sounds amused. “Husband, you said?”

She’s tactfully left the real question unasked: If he’s your husband, why didn’t you give his name? Dani decides to let it slide, unable to bring herself to explain to this stranger the wealth of feelings that come with the idea of being an O’Mara.

“Yes. He said I was waiting on a...James?”

“Miscommunication,” the woman says with breathtaking ease. “Happens a lot with you Yanks, pardon my saying. S’pecially over the phone. Jamie. You’re waiting on a Jamie.”

***

Jamie is unlike anyone Dani has met in her entire life. She lacks the studied elegance of Hannah Grose; is not possessed of the hard-eyed cunning of Henry Wingrave; shows absolutely no sign of Eddie’s willful disinterest in anything that does not suit his story. Jamie-the-gardener, as Dani is already thinking of her, is something else entirely.

And Dani can already see this is going to be a problem. 

“How were they?” Eddie asks that first night, tumbling through the door at nearly eleven with a faint smell of liquor about his breath. Dani, dozing on the couch with a book open on her stomach, jumps. 

“How were...?”

“The lawn care people?” He bunches in beside her, prodding her in the side until she sits up and stretches. “They did turn up, didn’t they? I don’t have to make any unkind phone calls--”

“No,” she yawns, “no, they showed up right on time. She showed up, rather.”

Eddie wrinkles his nose, glasses slipping down. “She?”

“Jamie,” Dani says through another yawn, and even half-asleep, those two syllables taste dangerous. Jamie-the-gardener, in thick-soled work boots and a silver smile, walking in step with Dani around the yard. She’d moved like she already understood the land, like it spoke to her on some level Dani couldn’t hear. 

Decent crop of space, for a house this size. You’ll be wanting the full service, Mr. O’Mara said. Garden plot put in and tended, lawn mown and weeded on the regular. Something about repair work, as well, if it comes up? Gutters and the like? 

Dani had only been able to nod. Eddie hadn’t exactly been forthright with the details, saying only “they do everything, Danielle, it’ll be perfect.” 

“Just a woman,” Eddie says now, half under his breath. Dani raises her eyebrows. 

Just?”

“No,” he says hurriedly, “come on, you know that isn’t what I meant. It’s just--when they say an all-purpose lawn care service, I assumed...well, that there’d be a team, at least. A couple of--”

“Men?” Dani says, venom and sugar and sleep all wound together. She lets a lot go, with Eddie, has let too much go for years, but there are some roads she will not walk down with him. 

He looks at her, a long look that says he’s trying to find a way out of this corner. At last, he gives a brilliant smile, boyish and tipsy in equal regard. “No,” he says, though she knows he means yes. “No, of course not. This will be great. How was this, erm. Jamie, you said?”

Dani fakes yet another yawn, buying herself time. How was this Jamie, indeed. Scruffy around the edges, certainly, with eyes that followed Dani whenever she spoke. She’d spoken with ease, like she’d already known Dani for years, like they were already fast friends, and when she’d headed back to her truck after a lingering inspection of work to be done over the next few months, she’d offered Dani another handshake that had felt like...

Respect, Dani thinks, flexing her fingers now. She can’t remember the last time someone shook her hand that way, not a dainty clasp of her fingers or a limp little twitch, but a full palm-to-palm squeeze. 

Monday, then, Mrs. Clayton. 

Call me Dani. 

She doesn’t know why it popped out of her mouth. Doesn’t know why this has happened twice in a handful of days, her telling people to call her Dani. No one calls her Dani. No one in her whole life has ever called her Dani, not since her father when she’d been barely knee-high. 

Call me Dani. And Jamie had, hand still warm in Dani’s own, smiled in a way that made Dani’s chest grow tight. 

Dangerous. Very dangerous. 

“Hello? Earth to Danielle?” Eddie’s hand, huge and jarring, waggling in front of her face. She nearly slaps it away, catches the impulse just in time to wring its neck. 

“Sorry,” she says. “I was asleep.”

He grunts out a laugh. An of course you were. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come in so late.”

Could’ve stayed out all night, Dani thinks tiredly. I’d have slept right through it. 

***

She isn’t sure where she’s supposed to be, with Jamie here. Isn’t sure if she’s meant to be in the house, puttering around like a good little housewife, or out in the backyard supervising. Eddie certainly didn’t say. 

And you need that now? she asks herself angrily. You need to do whatever he says now you’ve got the ring on, is that it? 

It’s this thought, more than anything, that drives her outside to wait for Jamie again. When the green truck pulls neatly up to the curb, Dani tries to look as though she does this every day, just sets up shop on the front porch with a book and an air of casual hospitality. 

“I do know where the front door is,” Jamie calls across the lawn. “Would knock if I needed anything.”

Dani stands, taking mental stock of her situation. If she says she had nothing better to do than to wait for Jamie to turn up, she’ll look desperate. If she says anything else, she’ll look as though she doesn’t trust Jamie to do the job. 

If I say something about you feels like a dream, I’ll look straight-up crazy, so. Not that, either. 

“Can I help?” she asks, watching Jamie pop the truck’s tailgate open and begin unloading a series of tools from the bed. “I’ve got good, uh. Hands.”

Jamie tosses her a grin, hefting out a shovel. “I’ll just bet, Mrs. Clayton. Good soft hands I’d catch hell for muddying up.”

“Not so soft.” Dani is making her way across the lawn, unable to stay put on the porch while Jamie removes a weed trimmer, a rake, a series of other items she has no name for. “C’mon, I can help.”

“Uh uh.” Jamie piles a number of small trowels, a hedge trimmer, a set of thick work gloves into a wheelbarrow. “Last thing I need is your husband coming home to find I’ve put you to work. You are paying me, remember?”

All the more reason, Dani thinks recklessly. “At least let me carry some of this, you’re going to need three trips.”

Jamie shakes her head. “Respectfully, I must decline. Look, I’m all right. You don’t even have to keep an eye on me, I promise I will not make off with any of your shrubbery.”

Dani swallows another protest. Jamie is grinning, but it’s the smile of a woman who has just started work on a new project. Dani’s probably making her day harder. 

“I’ll be...inside, then, I guess. If you need anything.”

Tipping her a gentle salute, Jamie grasps the wheelbarrow by its handles and begins shifting it up the lawn. “I give you my word, Mrs. Clayton. Anything comes up, you will be the first to know.”

***

The first two weeks go exactly the same way. Every other day, Jamie pulls up to the house in that green truck, wearing overalls and gloves and the expression of someone most comfortable doing hard labor. Every other day, Dani is waiting for her on the front porch. She knows it probably looks a bit odd--to Jamie, at least; the neighbors are the sorts of people who largely distrust “the help”, and probably believe Dani is protecting her home assets--but she finds she can’t help herself. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, she tells herself she’ll stay inside this time. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, she finds herself walking as though in a dream to the front stoop ten minutes before Jamie is scheduled to turn up.

Insane, she thinks. I’m going insane. 

She tells herself it’s the lack of school, the lack of anything concrete to occupy her time. With Eddie off to work each day at eight, there’s very little routine in her world until his inevitable return in the evening. Having Jamie--having the schedule of Jamie, rather, the fact that Jamie is never late, turns up like clockwork at ten each morning--makes her days feel less rambling, less open to endless possibility. 

She’d liked that sort of summer day, when she was a kid. The boundless scope of June stretching out and out toward the horizon. That had been the best thing about childhood. Each day held mystery and miracle and no one could stop her dreaming of a future spent cherishing both. 

But children grow up. Children grow up, and fathers die young, and mothers stop trying, and best friends turn you into a daydream, and now Dani is here. Sitting on the front stoop three times a week, watching for a young woman with hair tied out of her face and patched overalls. 

She tries to stay indoors while Jamie is working, at first. Tries to keep her hands busy and her head down. Tries to keep from stealing glances out the sliding glass door leading to the back patio, beyond which Jamie spends each day patiently digging out a series of beds for what will be their garden. 

It’s the hardest thing she’s ever done, trying not to watch while Jamie works. 

She doesn’t want to think about why that is.

Not that it’s new. Not that it’s never happened to her before. Not that she hadn’t stood before a full-length mirror in Judy O’Mara’s wedding dress while a too-pretty young woman had lightly brushed her arm, her stomach, her back where the zipper gaped open. A woman like Jamie may be new to Dani Clayton, but this fevered response to her is not. 

But I can’t. I can’t be this. I married him

Say it all day long. Sing that song to the rafters. It doesn’t stop her eyes from sliding, as if hypnotized, from the kitchen sink to the window overlooking the yard. Doesn’t stop her mouth from running dry as Jamie places both hands on her lower back and arches into a stretch that nearly makes Dani drop a plate. 

Married him, she thinks again with distant awareness that the fact of her marriage is doing nothing to stop the pull she can’t help toward Jamie. Married him, married him, married him, you idiot. 

***

On the first Friday, she brings out a pitcher of iced tea. The day is threatening to break eighty, the summer already promising a sticky heat, and it’s the only polite thing to do, really. The only polite thing for anyone who happens to be working themselves to the bone in her backyard. 

“What’s this, then?” Jamie pushes herself upright, dirt smudged across her forehead in a streak Dani realizes belatedly she is staring right at. Jamie, eyes on the tray in her hands, doesn’t seem to notice. 

“Tea,” she says, hoping Jamie won’t notice the breathless excitement in her voice, either. “Thought you could use a drink.”

Jamie’s nose wrinkles, though she is smiling. “That,” she says mildly, “is not tea.”

“Sure it is,” Dani says cheerfully, brandishing the tray. “Look, it’s nice and cold--”

“Tea,” Jamie says, accepting a glass and allowing Dani to pour, “is meant to come in a nice little cup. Out of a teapot. With steam.”

“You don’t want me to make it that way, trust me.” 

Jamie shakes her head, taking a second glass and holding it out. “Well, best join me, then. I’m not going down alone.”

Dani obediently fills the glass, sets the tray down in the grass, raises her drink in a toast. “To beautiful summer days.”

“To steady work,” Jamie agrees, taking a ginger sip. Her mouth works, but she manages to swallow. “Mm. It’s, uh. Sweet.”

This does not sound like high praise. Dani can’t help giggling. 

“Want me to get rid of it?”

“No, no,” Jamie says hurriedly. “You went through the trouble, least I can do is polish off the poison.”

Dani tells herself it’s good that Jamie’s drinking, if only to keep her from passing out on the job. She tells herself she’s watching Jamie closely for signs Jamie secretly does enjoy this deeply-American beverage. She tells herself it is absolutely not because Jamie has tipped her head back to finish the glass, sweat working its way down her throat, dipping beneath the collar of her shirt in slow rivulets. 

“Good?” Her voice is strangely constricted. Jamie hands the glass back, face carefully arranged in a neutral expression.

“It was,” she says slowly, “maybe the worst thing ever to grace my tongue. But the gesture’s appreciated all the same.”

“Something to be said for honesty,” Dani laughs. Jamie doesn’t look the least bit embarrassed. 

“What can I say? Not a great liar.”

***

Dani doesn’t stop bringing out cold drinks--she just switches, after the failed tea, to lemonade. Jamie seems happier with this, and it makes Dani happy to see her smile. 

“You don’t have to keep doing this,” Jamie says the third time Dani arrives with a spring in her step and the ice-slick pitcher. “Honestly, I promise I won’t go keeling over on you.”

Dani settles on one of the patio chairs, trying to look as though she isn’t watching Jamie lick sweat from her top lip. This is getting rapidly out of hand, she understands. Jamie has been here for three weeks--long enough to mow the lawn twice, to dig out a bed for flowers, and one for vegetables--and Dani has been feeling less and less tethered to her own body around the house. There’s just something about the way Jamie works, her muscles standing out through tank tops and torn band t-shirts as she punches a shovel into the ground over and over again. Something about the way Jamie moves like there are no holes in the ground, no roots to stumble over, her boots as sure as if she had put the whole yard together herself. 

Jamie works like she was made to do it. Dani feels that way sometimes at school, watching the sunshine of a child’s smile break through their puzzlement when a concept finally clicks home. 

“You all right?” Jamie, she realizes, is standing over her chair. There’s an expression of mild concern on her face, and Dani realizes she probably should have answered already. 

“Hot,” she croaks. Jamie tips her head in recognition. 

“July next week,” she says idly. “Glad I got some of the plants in, or we’d be looking at empty beds for the rest of the year. I suspect your man wouldn’t be too pleased.”

Dani winces. Eddie doesn’t come up terribly often during these little breaks of Jamie’s, but every time he does, it’s Jamie mentioning his name. Jamie, reminding her sharply that this is not simply Dani’s home she’s working on. 

“Yeah. Wouldn’t...want that,” she mumbles. Jamie is looking at her strangely, and Dani finds she can’t handle this topic. Can’t flirt too close to the line of what Eddie would or wouldn’t like without tipping over into unsafe territory. 

Jamie is looking at her strangely, and though she shouldn’t be looking back, she’s having immense difficulty breaking eye contact. Jamie, back to the sun, brown hair underlit with gold, looking at her in a way she can’t decipher. 

“Anyway,” Jamie says suddenly, taking a halting step backward. “I should...”

“Yeah! Yes. Absolutely.” She should go back to weeding, and Dani should go back to feigning interest in the paperback she thought to bring out with the lemonade. Back to flipping pages blindly, every other paragraph a blank in her mind as her eyes flick up to watch the flex of Jamie’s arms, the length of her back, the way she tosses her head to get the curls out of her eyes. 

Dani entertains a brief, but painfully vivid notion of striding across the lawn, pulling Jamie to her feet, brushing the hair behind her ears with her own shaking hands. Her stomach constricts. 

Dangerous, she thinks, hunkering down behind the book once more. Too dangerous. 

***

She takes to finding little things to do outside. Silly hobbies she isn’t good at, like embroidery--her mother would be so proud to find Dani sticking herself in the finger, failing miserably to follow the most basic of patterns--or attempts to get ahead on the fall’s workload. Anything to keep her outside where Jamie is patiently transforming the yard into a wonder. 

From ten to two, every other day, Jamie works miracles. Some days, she turns up with fresh flowers, small potted plants she painstakingly moves into the proper beds. Others, she works her way along the perimeter of the property, pulling weeds and trimming hedges. Every job is approached with an identical level of care, every task accomplished with hands that do not shake, a discipline that does not waver. 

And every day, from twelve to twelve-thirty, she takes a break. Sits down, at Dani’s insistence, at the little patio table, and unwraps a sandwich, an apple, a bottle of water. Simple fare. Dani, who feels silly eating anything more excessive, takes to preparing similar lunches for herself. 

“You don’t have to,” Jamie says the first time Dani waves her over, catching her on the way to her truck. “Honestly, I don’t mind eating out in the--”

“I like the company,” Dani says. It’s perilously close to truth, and for a moment, Jamie just watches her with a small crooked smile playing around her lips. For a second, she’s terrified Jamie can see past the disguise she’s been watching slip off her own face for weeks. 

“All right then.” And that’s that. No further needling, no teasing as to why Dani likes the company. Just Jamie, sprawling across from her, pulling items from a paper bag with absolutely no sign of self-consciousness. 

Everything with Jamie is like this, somehow. Everything from conversation--small talk, to start with, though more and more Dani feels she's verging on telling Jamie a thousand little truths about herself--to the quiet of separate projects in this yard feels as though Dani doesn’t have to work at it. As though she doesn’t have to keep an eye out for land mines, picking her way through each interaction on the fear that, one day, she’ll step just wrong. 

There’s only the matter of looking at Jamie causing issues.

She tries to be subtle about it, tries to take the utmost care not to look Jamie’s way when Jamie has any chance of catching her at it. Mostly, she thinks she’s doing well. It feels less creepy than watching Jamie through the windows, being out on the patio and stealing little glances here and there. Feels more dangerous, too, but Dani thinks it’s a fair trade.

I’m only looking, she tells herself as her skin flushes and her hands knot under the table. Looking never hurt anyone. 

Untrue, and she knows it, but Jamie is...there isn’t even a word Dani can fall back on, not even something so clean and obvious as beautiful. Jamie is like looking into starlight when you’ve spent years wandering lost in the woods without a single constellation. Jamie is like--like--

Stop. None of this is useful, none of this helps. Jamie can be anything in the world; Dani is still married, still sitting in a cage she helped build with a thousand agreements, a thousand times saying yes to keep from having to explain why no

She’s only looking, and that’s well and fine--except for the times she looks and finds Jamie looking back. It doesn’t happen often; Jamie is good at keeping her eyes on the work. But occasionally, so occasionally it almost hurts, Dani will look up from whatever she’s using to pin her attention down that afternoon, and find Jamie watching her right back. 

Dani always looks away. Jamie...does not. And when she lets her eyes skirt back again, curious, she almost always finds Jamie smirking. 

It’s nothing. It’s nothing. She’s married, after all. Jamie knows it. Jamie can’t possibly know anything else. 

Still, when Jamie leans back in her seat with an exaggerated little groan, arching her back as she stretches her arms above her head, Dani can’t help noticing the way the cropped line of her t-shirt rises. Or the way Jamie’s hips roll back into place as she resettles. Or the way sweat marks a gentle path down the side of her neck. 

Or the way Jamie’s eyes are on hers the whole time. 

“Back to it,” she says cheerfully, pushing back from the table. “As always, Mrs. Clayton, thank you for the company.”

Dani, a little light-headed, is very certainly in trouble.

***

“You don’t have to do this,” she says, feeling embarrassed in a way she can’t entirely quantify. Jamie makes sense in the yard, in the garden, taking up space among greenery and sunshine and life. The idea of bringing her inside, into this place Dani is trying so hard to make work with Eddie, feels like an insult somehow. 

An insult to Jamie, not Eddie. She can’t let herself think about the distinction.

“It’s in the description,” Jamie says, rocking on her heels at the back door. “Minor repairs about the house, I said, and minor repairs about the house I will perform. Just lead the way.”

Embarrassed, Dani slides open the door and ushers Jamie in. The house is, of course, perfectly neat. She’s been obsessively polishing the silverware each morning before Jamie’s arrival, as though by setting in order every inch of this house, she can force it to feel like a proper home. 

Jamie looks around, hands in her pockets, and carefully lifts each boot to make sure she isn’t tracking mud onto the hardwood. “Feel like I’m gonna knock it down just walking,” she says. Dani gives a single nervous peal of laughter that doesn’t sound at all like herself. 

“I still feel like that, and I’ve been here three months.”

“That’s it?” Jamie looks surprised. “Dunno why, I just thought you’d been...”

“Married longer?” Dani tries to keep the edge out of her voice. Jamie looks uncomfortable for the first time in three weeks. 

“Was the way he talked on the phone, I guess. Like you were...” 

Like we were what? Happy? Settled? Happy? “It’s new,” Dani says evenly. “The marriage, I mean. We’ve known each other almost our whole lives.”

It feels strange, talking about Edmund with Jamie, and stranger still how it almost feels good, anyway. To get some of this out. Not that she should be saying it to Jamie, not that she should be giving voice to what she’s been thinking for years, but once she starts, it’s sort of hard to stop. 

Jamie, for her part, lets Dani speak without interruption. Maybe she feels uneasy, her employer’s wife running her mouth this way, but Dani somehow doesn’t think so. There’s just something about the way Jamie looks at her, the way her body language angles in and her eyes shine, that keeps Dani talking.

“He started asking me to marry him when we were ten,” she says, carefully looking away from Jamie as she leads her through the house. “Kept it up so long, I sort of had to say yes, eventually.”

“Did you?” Jamie doesn’t phrase it like a question, somehow, despite the uptick in her voice at the end. Dani swallows. 

“His mother was more of a parent to me than my own, growing up. And Eddie was always there. Always...” So unbearably present, no matter what I wanted him to be. 

Jamie, to her surprise, is nodding. “I get it. Sometimes you just lean into the first warm arms you can find.”

Dani wants to think how dare you, wants to think you have no idea, wants to think anything except what she says. “Yes. Yes, exactly.” The relief behind the words is humiliating. Jamie favors her with the softest smile she’s ever seen. 

“Anyway,” Jamie says. “You were saying about the bathroom...”

It’s nothing more than a loose screw on the hinge, Jamie finds after a moment of looking, and digs a screwdriver from the pocket of her jeans. Dani leans back against the counter, watching her kneel down and work the hinge back into place in several practiced twists. Even here, Jamie looks perfectly at home, her boots standing out against the clean white tile floor. Even here, when Jamie looks up with a satisfied smile, Dani thinks she belongs more than Eddie ever has.

Not that it matters. Not that it could ever matter. No matter how hard she tries to pretend otherwise, this is Eddie’s house--it’s in his name, bought by his father as a wedding gift to the son who secured a perfect wife, a perfect job in law, a perfect future all set to go. It’s Eddie’s house, and no matter what Dani tries to add, no matter how she tries to decorate or coax the walls into leaning toward her, she finds the house never budges. This is Eddie’s space. She just lives here.

“What else?” Jamie asks, still kneeling before Dani like a white knight in a story Dani can’t let herself read. She blinks, frowns. 

“Sorry?”

“What else,” Jamie says patiently, “can I fix?”

***

“It looks amazing around here,” Eddie says happily. It’s the first time he’s been home for dinner in a week, and Dani found herself stepping back from the door in shock when he soared through it an hour ago. “I told you this was a good idea, Danielle, didn’t I?”

“You did,” she agrees, and digs into lasagna to keep from having to speak further on the subject. It’s one of Judy’s, made special for Dani as her “favorite”; Dani’s never had the heart to tell the woman she only says she loves it because it was the first dish Judy ever made for her, back when most meals involved cans of soup and peanut butter sandwiches. 

“That woman knows her stuff,” Eddie goes on around a mouthful. “I was wrong, Danielle, and you can tell her so. Didn’t think anything planted in June would actually take, but look at it out there! It’s starting to look like a real garden!”

He sounds so excited, some of the tension eases out of Dani’s shoulders. She likes this Eddie, the one who reminds her of being eleven and riding bikes to the corner store, or being seventeen and catching Star Wars for the first time. This Eddie feels less like her husband and more like the boy she used to tease about his glasses, the boy who held her hand at her father’s funeral, the boy who didn’t ask questions when she missed a day of school taking care of her mother. 

When did he stop, she wonders, looking across the table at his shining face, being that boy? When did the man take over?

Will it ever be enough?

“I’ll let her know,” she says, when it becomes clear he is actually waiting for an answer. She won’t. She certainly hasn’t told Jamie her husband thought she was an unwelcome surprise, simply being a woman who dared run a gardening business. 

She hasn’t told Jamie anything Eddie’s said about her work, come to think of it--and Jamie hasn’t asked. She seems to find Dani’s pleasure at a job well done more than enough encouragement. 

“She fixed that busted hinge in the bathroom, too, I noticed,” Eddie goes on. “Really has some skill, doesn’t she?”

The bathroom hinge, yes--and the kitchen cupboards, some of which had been coming loose as well, not to mention a frazzled light fixture that has been blinking sporadically in the closet since they moved in. In fact, the day Jamie first ventured into the house, she and Dani had combed methodically through every room, finding all manner of tiny adjustments Jamie could make. Dani had felt embarrassed, at first; some of what Jamie was finding, she hadn’t even been aware of. But then Jamie was talking, laughing, showing Dani why she was doing what she was doing, and the embarrassment had simply melted away.

Here. Stand just here. And she had stepped behind Dani, standing close enough for Dani to find the air thinning around her. She’d wanted with a pull so powerful it hurt for Jamie to lay hands on her, then, to touch her hips, to press in against her back. But Jamie, quite properly, had only reached to show Dani where she was looking. Here. See how the molding’s cracked? You’re going to want a replacement. Get me a ladder and a day to find a matching piece, I can do it. 

Jamie, Dani is starting to believe, can do just about anything. Except, maybe, see how crazy Dani is going the longer she’s around.

***

When the storm comes, it comes hard and entirely out of the blue. One minute, Dani is skimming over lesson plans, mapping out the first month of science experiments for next year’s kids--looking up every so often to watch Jamie pruning flowers she hadn’t even known were there along the edge of the property until Jamie turned up. The next, the sky was opening in a sudden, blinding rage. 

“Shit!” She’s pulling the papers to her chest, aware even as she does it’s no use. This is no light summer rain, nothing so gentle and refreshing as they could probably use after so many weeks of sun. What is pounding down now can only be described as torrential, the kind of aggression that might result in flooded streets and the need for an ark.

“Inside!” Jamie is shouting, sprinting across the sloshy grass. Dani jerks the back door open, fighting a gust of wind that nearly slams it back on her, and they tumble through. 

“Jesus,” Jamie says, pressing her face to the glass. “The fuck did that come from?”

Dani, all too aware she is dripping all over the floor, drops the soggy remnants of her work on the kitchen table. Jamie turns, frowning. 

“What’s all that?”

“Pulp, now, I guess. It was a lesson plan.”

“Oh?” Jamie grins. “You’re a teacher?”

“Fourth grade,” Dani confirms, surprised this has never come up. “That’s why I'm here all the time, you know. Summer vacation.”

“Huh. And here I just thought you wanted to keep an eye on me.” Jamie, to her credit, doesn’t wink. Dani thinks the legs would go out from under her if she did. 

Admittedly, the legs are going out from under her anyway the longer she looks at Jamie, whose shorts are far shorter than she realized, plastered to her thighs with rainwater. Her tank top, formerly a light blue, sticks all the way down her frame. Dani glances away. 

“You, uh. Do you want a change of clothes?”

Jamie looks down, plucking at her shirt. It comes away from her skin with a sucking sound that seems to echo in Dani’s ears. “Ah. Didn’t take long, did it?”

“It’s, uh. Wet,” Dani says, rather stupidly. Jamie takes pity on her and neither comments, nor steps any closer. 

“If you wouldn’t mind, I would not say no to tossing these in the dryer. Wouldn’t do to catch cold in July.” She bends down, unlaces her boots, and sets them carefully on the rug beside the door. “There. Least I can do is keep from muddying up the whole damn house.”

Muddy it, Dani thinks inexplicably. Mark it up, I don’t care, just do something to prove you were here. 

“This way,” she says, kicking off her own flats and leading the way to the bedroom. Jamie follows along squelchily in her wake, sliding in her socks along the floorboards. She seems to be trying to make her steps as small as possible, trying to reduce the damage along the way. 

“Sure you don’t mind?” she asks, hovering in the doorway as Dani makes a beeline for the dresser. “Might have a spare shirt in the truck, I can go look.”

“You’re not going back out there until it dies down,” Dani says without looking. If she looks, she is sure she will also act, and she is suddenly very aware of how few steps it would take to coax Jamie from the door to the bed. “Here. Try this.”

An old school t-shirt, a little too long, she usually reserves for lazy Saturdays. A pair of sweats, too, with the high school logo spilling down one leg. She holds the bundle out to Jamie, who takes it with hands that deliberately do not brush Dani’s. 

“You can change in the bathroom,” Dani says, because giving instruction is easier than thinking about Jamie changing. Jamie, wriggling out of wet clothes. Jamie, unzipping denim shorts and working them down toned legs. 

What if she needs help? Then I’m going to need help. 

Jamie, blessedly, does not request assistance. Dani, easing the bedroom door shut on the impulse to follow her, changes into a comfortable skirt and an old white t-shirt. She stands at the mirror, looking at herself for a long stretch of minutes, trying to see what Jamie will when she walks out of this room.

Me. I think she’ll see me. And could there be a more terrifying concept?

Jamie is standing awkwardly in the living room when she finally does emerge, looking as though she isn’t sure how she got here. The rain is still slamming against the windows, dragging sharp-nailed fingers down the glass in great, terrible gusts. Dani hugs herself, tries to smile. 

“It was bound to rain eventually, huh?”

“Hope it doesn’t wash away all the new shoots.” Jamie frowns at the window, as if scolding Mother Nature for undoing all her hard work. Dani inches closer, touching her elbow as lightly as she’s ever touched anything. Even so, Jamie’s head whips around, her eyes bright. 

“It won’t be your fault if it does,” she says, trying to breathe, trying not to think about the bend of Jamie’s arm beneath her fingers. “If the garden doesn’t take this year, there’s always next spring.”

“Probably should have started it months ago, anyway,” Jamie says. Is her voice deeper than it was a minute ago? Dani’s hand is still on her arm, Dani’s breath not quite filling her lungs. “Hot summer might kill a lot of it off, anyway. Should’ve called in April.”

“Was getting married,” Dani breathes, and closes her eyes. Wants to take the words back, with the weight of Jamie’s gaze on her face. Wants to take the last three months back, reel back to the night before the wedding when she’d stood at the back door of her mother’s house and thought, Last chance. Last chance to run. Why aren’t you already in the car?

“Why did you?”

Her eyes flicker open, her skin hot. Jamie is still there, looking at her with such clarity, Dani wonders if she can’t see all the way through her. She’s there, standing in Dani’s clothes, standing with her body tilted toward Dani and the space between them somehow vanishing, and it’s all Dani can do to take the next breath.

“Why did I...?”

“Marry him,” Jamie says, almost a whisper. Dani shakes her head. 

“He was there.”

“That’s all?”

He was there when no one else was. He was there, and he asked, and he asked, and I knew he’d never stop. 

“That’s all,” she says, the words almost a gasp, and Jamie is so close, Jamie is inches away, her hair still damp, her skin smelling of summer rain. Jamie is so close, this could all end right now. 

Jamie takes a step back. One small step, her arm still in Dani’s light grip, and smiles. 

“The dryer?”

Dani lets her hand fall away. If this were a movie, she thinks, this would be the moment. This would be it. But if this were a movie, I would have run when I had the chance. 

“This way,” she says, and tries her hardest not to sound broken.

***

Jamie doesn’t come back Friday. The rain hasn’t let up, and there’s nothing for her to do until the ground dries out some. She calls the house, talks to Eddie about it, and Dani tries not to wonder if Jamie isn’t relieved. 

“Not even charging for the days missed,” Eddie says in his brightest voice, one that makes Dani want to scream. “Some places do, when they’re scheduled and the weather doesn’t cooperate. She’s a good one.”

Dani, standing at the stove with her back to him, can only nod agreement.

***

The sun returns over the weekend, and by Monday, Dani is vibrating in place. She’s spent four days thinking about Jamie in a skintight tank top, Jamie in her old t-shirt, Jamie standing so close she could have counted her eyelashes as she whispered, “Why did you? Marry him?”

Four days, with Jamie so far under her skin, Dani doesn’t see how she’ll ever dig her out again. Four days, with Eddie puttering off to work and home again, commenting on the rain, commenting on the lush state of the lawn, commenting like he had a single idea what was going on in her head. 

Sunday, standing in a cold shower, trying not to see Jamie’s smirk behind her closed lids, trying not to see the way Jamie tilts her head back to drink lemonade, the way Jamie’s whole body goes into every move she makes around the yard, Dani is fairly certain this is how she goes insane. 

Am I making it up? She leans her head back, lets the water drag icy fingers down her scalp. Was she not feeling it?

She was. She had to be. For the first time in her life, she’s certain that while she was looking at a woman the way she looked at Jamie, that woman was looking back with exactly the same weight behind her stare. Jamie felt it. And Jamie didn’t...

Jamie didn’t move. Jamie didn’t touch her.

Didn’t she want to? 

Dani reclines against the wall, trying not to remember the way Jamie had asked the question. Trying not to see the way her brows pulled over her eyes, the way her mouth curled around the words. Trying, above all else, to forget the brief sensation of her skin under Dani’s hand. 

When had she gotten that brave? When had she gotten so bold as to reach out, to close her hand around Jamie’s arm, to look at her without holding back?

The water is frigid--intentionally so--but her skin is hot under her hand. She almost doesn’t realize she’s doing it, too lost in the half-miserable, half-perfect memory of Jamie’s eyes so near her own. Braced against the wall, the spray muffling the small noises she can’t resist, she finds she’s not trying quite so hard to forget Jamie now. 

It is only when her body, untouched in a way that matters in months, jerks against her fingers, only when Jamie’s smile in her mind pushes her over the edge, that she leans her forehead against the tile and releases a shaky breath. Too much. This is far too much.

Right. This has to stop.

***

Jamie’s barely out of the truck when Dani says, “Come with me.”

“G’morning to you, too, Mrs.--”

“Don’t,” Dani says. The ground is too soft beneath her feet, the air too sweet, the sun too bright. Jamie, a flannel shirt tied around her waist and a crop top resting high against the muscles of her stomach, looks bewildered.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“Just. Come on.” Dani can’t touch her. Can’t grab her hand. Can’t even look at her without bursting into flame, remembering the way she’d been so unable to banish Jamie from last night’s shower. The only thing she can do now is stride toward the house, push the front door open, gesture for Jamie to go inside. 

“Dani, I don’t--”

That’s it. That does it. Dani, falling from her lips for the first time in over a month of Dani asking for it, and the door is barely shut before she’s got Jamie’s face in her hands. She allows herself one heartbeat, one single heartbeat of waiting to see if the alarm bells in her head are going to sound as she cradles Jamie’s jaw between her palms. 

Nothing. Nothing at all.

She’s kissing her against the door, her whole body bright and buzzing with the decision to jump. Her mouth is out of practice; she hasn’t kissed Eddie in weeks, since Jamie walked into the yard that first time, and she’s never kissed him like this. 

“Wait,” Jamie says, though one hand is bound tight in Dani’s ponytail. “Wait, hang on, just...”

“Did I get it wrong?” Dani’s forehead is hot, pressed to the side of Jamie’s face, her eyes squeezed shut. If she’s wrong, she thinks she might actually weep. 

Jamie, back against the door, breathes out against her in what Dani thinks might be a very small laugh. “Not wrong,” she says, and in fact, there is something else in her voice, something very different from revulsion. Dani thinks it might be...hope? “Not wrong, just...can we talk?”

“If we talk,” Dani says, “I’m afraid I’ll never--”

“And if you don’t, you don’t,” Jamie says gently, touching her free hand to Dani’s cheek until Dani looks her in the eye again. “But there are...I want to make sure, all right? You need to be sure.”

Dani stares at her, pulse thundering, searching for signs that Jamie is not sure. That Jamie is trying to give herself, as much as Dani, an out.

Jamie, palm work-rough against her skin, strokes her thumb gently along her cheekbone. Dani sighs.

“I’m sure,” she says. “I am.”

Jamie grins, and Dani’s sure of something else, too--that this is the most beautiful thing she’s seen in her life. That Jamie’s grin, more than her little smirks around the yard, more than the soft skin of her midriff or the muscles of her legs or the way she looks with sweat tracing her collarbones and down the collar of her shirt, is the most beautiful anything gets. 

Jamie kisses her softly, gently, her hand still cradling Dani’s face, and Dani thinks she hears her murmur, “Thank fuck” against her lips. She’s still grinning, her mouth sliding across Dani’s in a way that makes every inch of her skin jump to attention. Dani realizes she’s smiling, too, a stupid, huge, ridiculous smile that vanishes only when Jamie’s hand tightens in her hair and her tongue brushes Dani’s lips. 

“Is it,” Jamie murmurs around kisses, “safe to do this here?”

Dani nods. Eddie hasn’t come home before six since before summer started. No one is ever here except Dani and the loneliness she’d once thought marrying a friend who would have her could cure. 

“And you’re sure--”

“Stop talking,” Dani says, as gently as she knows how, and then they’re stumbling backward, toward the couch, Jamie’s kiss the only thing she cares about in the world. 

***

She wants to keep kissing Jamie forever, wants to explore every inch of Jamie, but Jamie only lets it go for a little while before leaning back. Her eyes are glazed, her mouth slick and pink, and Dani thinks, I get it. I finally get it. 

“I should get to work,” Jamie pants. Dani, one hand stroking along the collar of her shirt, testing the difference between the skin of Jamie’s neck and the skin just below the soft cotton, makes a soft noise of disapproval. 

“Technically, you’re working.”

“That,” Jamie laughs, “is a deeply dangerous path to start down, and you know it. If I’m kissing the boss’ wife, least I can do is make sure his yard is properly tidy.”

Dani leans her head against the back of the couch, sighing. “Can we not...talk about it like that?”

“Like what?” Jamie, despite her protestations, is lightly exploring Dani’s temple with soft kisses. Dani presses into her, fingers tightening around her collar. 

“Like I’m some rotten wife with a mistress.”

It’s wrong, she understands--wrong because she did say those words to Eddie, did accept his ring and his house, did agree to wear this mantle. But something that had seemed so black and white before Jamie feels...different now. She supposes it always must, for people who do this sort of thing. She supposes even Sam must have felt this way, knowing what Hannah would feel when she found out.

“I never...” She’s searching for the right way to phrase it, the right way to justify what she knows would break his heart. “I never felt it, with him. Any of it. When I let him kiss me, when I let him...when he said he loved me for the first time, I thought I might start laughing and never stop.”

Jamie has stopped kissing her, is leaning back against the arm of the couch and listening. Her hand is on Dani’s wrist, soft pressure to remind her Dani isn’t alone. Her jaw works, scrounging for the words that will get the story across.

“Even when we were little. Even before him. I think I knew it wasn’t going to be...wasn’t going to be him. Or maybe anyone like him. But...small-town Iowa...you can’t just say that, can you? No one wants to hear it. I mean, that’s the best-case.”

Her vision is swimming. Jamie says nothing, but she’s nodding a little. 

“So, I started saying yes. His family was good to me. I lost my dad when I was eight, and my mom...his sort of took me in. They were kind people. Cared about me. When he asked me to be his girlfriend, I...it sounds stupid, but I didn't know there was another option. And then there was a ring. And then it was just what we were...” She takes a deep breath, forcing down a wave of dizzy anxiety. “I kept waiting for a sign. For something to tell me when it was time to tell him that I felt...nothing. I love him, but I don’t...”

She doesn’t want to be crying. She wants to be in Jamie’s arms, kissing Jamie until the only thing in the world is Jamie’s hands and lips and sweet laugh in her mouth. 

“How do you tell a man you’ve just married you don’t love him because you’re not wired--because you can’t feel--”

Jamie pulls her close, kissing the crown of her hair, her forehead, her nose. “You don’t have to tell him yet,” she says, though they both know this is not the kindest answer. “You don’t have to tell him until you’re ready.” She hesitates, arms around Dani’s shoulders. Then, very quietly: “But...with me...you feel...”

“Everything,” Dani half-sobs, half-laughs. “Every single thing.”

***

Jamie does go back to work, and Dani goes back to pretending to enjoy embroidery. It’s easier now--both with the taste of Jamie’s kiss on her lips and the knowledge that Jamie understands this is not some common affair. This isn't about hurting Eddie. This is about...about...

Feeling right in my body for the first time in twenty-seven years, she thinks, and feels lighter than she has since she can remember. 

She had no idea, that another person could feel like this. That another person could feel like they were made to fit against her body, like they were designed to read every line of her face. Eddie has never once, in all the time they’ve been together, been able to sense her emotions. He has never once been able to look at her expression and piece together how uncomfortable she feels when he touches her in public, how awkward and itchy she feels when he tries to kiss her. 

Jamie, having spent one brief morning learning her way around Dani’s kiss, seems already to have her down cold. 

She’s looking at Dani now, Dani realizes with a start--looking at her with such brazen delight that Dani has to grip the table to keep from swaying out of her chair. God, she thinks, if she looks at me like that in front of other people, I’m going to get us both arrested. 

What comes next, she wonders, now that she knows how Jamie feels pressed against her on the couch? What comes next, now that she knows exactly how Jamie groans when Dani finds that little spot on her jaw, nips at it, soothes it again with a soft lick of her tongue?

What comes next, now that she knows Jamie wants her, too?

Dangerous, she thinks--but this time, the word is all thrill. Dangerous, as Jamie lifts her shirt to soak the sweat from her face, so much skin on display, it should be illegal. 

“On purpose,” Dani whispers wonderingly to herself. “She’s doing this on purpose.”

Jamie, as if hearing her, flashes a grin and sets back to burying her hands in damp soil. Dani shakes her head. 

How did this actually get worse?

***

Worse is, perhaps, a stretch. What Dani’s world is now is...complicated.

There are rules. Metrics to the thing. There have to be, or they’re going to get caught the first time Jamie comes back, the first time she’s within reach again. Rules are Dani’s everything right now, keeping the bulk of the danger at bay. 

Rule one, Jamie’s rule: that she must work. Must spend the majority of her time in Dani’s company actually puttering around the yard, actually planting and mowing and weeding. 

Rule two, Dani’s rule: that she must not grab hold of Jamie outside. No matter how badly she wants to, no matter how hot her skin blazes at the sight of Jamie at her absolute best. 

Rule three, mutually decided upon: that they are not, under any circumstances, to meet up outside of the allotted Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine until Dani figures out how to walk away from her marriage.

Three rules. Very easy to state, with Jamie in the cab of her truck and Dani standing safely on the curb. Very easy, very necessary, watching Jamie pull away. 

Dani has always put a certain faith in the power of words. Words can hold plenty of things back. You make a promise, and it has enough strength to banish all the little desperate reasons to question ever making it at all. Words, rules, oaths are everything. 

And yet, not a day after setting the ground rules with Jamie--ground rules that are for both of them, to keep them safe until Dani can figure this out--she already can’t fathom how they’re going to keep a single goddamned one.

***

Rule one: Jamie, upon arriving at ten in the morning three times a week, must get to work.

“You,” she laughs against the side of Dani’s neck, “are setting an incredibly bad precedent.”

Dani is trying, she really is, to care. Trying to remind herself that she is a grown woman, a whole adult, capable of self-restraint even in the most difficult of situations. 

Trying to remind herself that Jamie has been walking into her yard wearing t-shirts with the hems torn halfway up her torso and the most unethically short jean shorts all summer, and she’s managed to keep her hands to herself so far.

“You did this on purpose,” she accuses, plucking at the bottom of Jamie’s navy shirt. “You’re trying to bait me.”

They’re in the garden shed, door cracked to let in the smallest bit of light. Jamie had put in approximately fifteen minutes of arranging her workspace, at which point Dani stood up entirely too quickly, said, “I’ve been meaning to show you where the gas can is,” and took off across the lawn at a truly idiotic clip. 

“Subtle,” Jamie muttered, though she was grinning. Hasn’t really stopped grinning, in fact, even as Dani slid an arm around her neck and yanked her in for a kiss that hadn’t broken again for an eternity. 

“As for baiting,” Jamie goes on, hands firm and somehow driving Dani absolutely crazy without moving from her hips, “this is my favorite shirt, I’ll have you know.”

“You said your favorite shirt was the Blondie one.”

“Can contain multitudes, can’t I?” She’s found this spot, this tiny place along Dani’s collarbone, that she has discovered makes Dani’s voice swing higher. It seems to please her immensely to keep kissing that spot with slow deliberation. “Anyway, who’s talking, baiting. What is this little number you came flouncing out in?”

“It’s hot,” Dani says primly. Jamie catches a fistful of her sundress just along her left thigh and eases it up an inch. 

“Certainly is.”

There’s much less talking then, and considerably more of Jamie’s mouth making a slow descent down her chest as Dani arches to meet her. It’s true that this dress provides less coverage than the average blouse, sure, and it’s possible Dani spent two hours trying to decide if it was too much for Jamie’s first time back after Monday’s conversation. Given the way Jamie’s hand is anchored at the small of her back, urging her to let Jamie hold her up even as she’s clutching Jamie’s shoulders, she can’t help but think it was the right choice.

She’s just thinking they could stay here all morning--or forever, if Jamie’s game for it--when a voice from outside calls, “Mrs. Clayton?”

Jamie freezes, fingers just toying open the first button at the dress’ incredibly low collar. Dani struggles to regain her breath. 

“Y-yes?” 

“Package for you,” the man’s voice says, in that half-bored, half-professional way of a mail carrier. Dani swallows hard, trying not to think about Jamie’s mouth an inch from her cleavage, about the way Jamie’s hand is shaking against the button with suppressed laughter. 

“One minute,” she calls in her best I was busy, but I suppose it can wait voice. To Jamie, she makes a sharp shushing motion and pushes away, the slide of Jamie’s palm across her back almost too much to handle.  

The mailman does indeed look bored as he holds out a slip of paper for her signature. “Get locked in?”

“Sorry?” Dani’s sure her face is bright pink, panic sweat sticking the dress to her skin. 

“In the shed,” the man says. “Happens to my wife all the time. Damn doors are so heavy, and in this heat, they swell right up. Best be careful, Mrs. Clayton.”

She looks at him sharply, searching for signs of this being some kind of double entendre--but, no, he truly does seem to be talking about the shed. She forces herself to smile, accepting the small box he hands over. 

“I’ll be sure to prop it open next time.”

She watches until he’s out of the yard, off the property, ambling toward the next house before signaling to Jamie it’s safe to come out. 

“Maybe,” Jamie says lightly, “that was a sign I should get back to it.”

***

Rule two: Dani must not grab hold of Jamie outside, in full view of the world. 

This is proving somewhat easier to uphold, if only because every time her hands itch to close around Jamie’s arm or shirt or hair, she receives an unpleasant flash-memory of the mailman’s voice just outside the shed. How close they had come on their second day doing this to getting caught is not lost on her. 

Besides, she’s accustomed by now to wanting Jamie from afar. Entirely used to the way Jamie looks with dirt smudged on her cheek, with hair falling into her eyes, with the glow of a job well done about her smile. 

Used to it.

Perhaps not immune. 

“You,” Jamie says in a low voice, leaning against the patio table and lifting a glass of lemonade to her lips, “are eating me alive with your eyes, Poppins.”

This new nickname, brandished in the wake of Mrs. Clayton finally dying a fortunate death, makes Dani smile. Because, Jamie had said when Dani repeated it with a laugh, of the old movie, you know, the dazzling woman great with kids? 

It had been funny, but the kind of funny that was more sweet than anything else. Dani wondered if Jamie remembered the other part of Mary Poppins, the part where she christened herself practically perfect in every way

“I’m not doing anything,” she says now, watching Jamie gulp lemonade from the next seat over. Jamie seems to be drinking faster than usual today, her eyes carefully angled away from Dani. “You all right?”

“Fine,” Jamie says in a sort of strangled voice. “Absolutely fine. But I won’t be if you keep looking at me like that.”

“I’m not looking at you in any way I don’t normally--”

“Exactly,” Jamie says. Her voice is so low, her accent so thick, that Dani has to lean out of her chair to hear. “You’ve been looking at me like you want to throw me down on the grass all damn summer, and when I thought maybe I was imagining things, that was one thing. That, I could handle. But now that I know...”

Her hand is curling around Dani’s calf, just out of sight under the table. Dani draws in a breath through her smile. 

“Rule two,” she says, but she’s uncrossing her legs anyway, letting them fall open as Jamie’s hand moves higher, brushing the back of her knee. “You’re breaking rule two.”

“Should I stop?” Jamie is studiously not looking at her, gazing out at the garden plots where everything is greener than Dani had imagined after that storm. Her touch is soft, the tips of her fingers tickling lightly across Dani’s kneecap, tracing the scar she got falling off her bike when she was eleven. If Dani reached down and covered her roaming fingers with her own, if she told Jamie to put her hand back where it’s safer, she knows Jamie would do it. Jamie won’t fight her, won’t whine or ask what harm it could do. 

“Probably,” Dani says quietly, making no move to push her aside. She watches Jamie lick her lips, her hand now drawing a gentle, steady path up Dani’s thigh. 

Dangerous, she thinks, watching Jamie’s face, the way Jamie is trying to look perfectly calm even as Dani sees the breath catch in her throat. Dangerous--but, for the first time, it feels like the danger is in how comfortably Jamie’s hand fits against her skin. How Jamie’s hand exploring the inner stretch of her thigh feels an awful lot like leaning into something Dani should have known was there all along.

She suddenly wants to throw caution to the wind, to drag Jamie out of her chair, to feel Jamie’s mouth following along in the wake of her hand. What kind of existence would that be, to feel so brave and so free as to not care what anyone would think if they saw Jamie on her knees in the sunshine, eyes closed, lips pressed to skin and scar and everything that makes up the story of Dani’s entire life?

“Hello! Hey over there!”

Dani will be forever grateful for her flight or fight response choosing, once again, freeze--it’s the only reason she and Jamie don’t upend the table in surprise. Jamie’s hand is already gone, as if it was never there at all, and Dani is craning her neck to see over the fence. 

“Mrs...McGuire?”

A tiny woman in her fifties is beaming across the yard, her face almost completely dwarfed by an enormous pair of sunglasses. Dani stands, swaying a little, gripping the table for balance as panic and desire create a cocktail of sheer adrenaline. She does the math in rapid one, two, three succession:

One: the table, thankfully opaque, blocks just about every view not attempted from their own yard.

Two: Mrs. McGuire’s fence is as far from the patio as it can get.

Three: Mrs. McGuire is about four feet tall, standing on tiptoe to get even the merest glance into her neighbors’ business. 

“Fuck,” Jamie whispers, reaching for the pitcher again and slugging down another glass of lemonade. Dani resists the urge to touch her shoulder, to offer a measure of easy now. 

“Can I help you with something?” She’s got her Professional voice on, the one she uses on difficult parents and school board members. Light, cheerful, entirely unforgiving. Mrs. McGuire’s smile never wavers. 

“I want to ask about your garden!”

Fuck,” Jamie says again, so quiet she’s practically mouthing the word. Dani ignores her. 

“I’m sorry,” she calls, her smile barely more than a mask. “I’m afraid I don’t know all that much about plants. For that, you’d have to ask the gardener.”

“Don’t you dare,” Jamie says through her teeth. Dani finds her smile becomes just a little less grim. 

“Oh, you have a gardener,” Mrs. McGuire says with obvious delight. “Dear, you’ll have to give me your number, I’ve been looking for someone to help weed out these beds for ages.”

***

Rule three, perhaps the most important of all: they are not to meet outside of the house on the days Jamie is scheduled to work. 

This is, somehow, the hardest one. Shouldn’t be, Dani thinks. Should be easy, to keep to the summer routine. On Monday-Wednesday-Friday, Jamie is here, looking perfectly natural against a backdrop of blooming flowers. The rest of the time, the house is cold. A project Dani can’t seem to get right. Eddie’s.

“You look...” Eddie tips his head, a bottle of beer halfway to his mouth. Dani frowns.

“What?”

“Frazzled,” he says. “Are you all right? Get too much sun?”

“That must be it,” she agrees, her voice thin. He looks concerned, she realizes--the old Eddie shining through the mask of manhood. He looks like he did the time she drank an entire gallon of water after a run and promptly vomited into the bushes outside the track. 

She can’t tell him that it’s the weekend making her feel this way, the fact that he is off work and Jamie is, too, and it leaves her sitting in the living room with the wrong person. She can’t tell him she’s been sitting with the memory of Jamie’s kiss hot on her skin, with the quietly-lovely way Jamie had brought her hands to soft lips and murmured, “Monday” like a vow. She certainly can’t tell him how Jamie had touched her, the pair of them standing just inside the house, with hands that have yet to know her completely. 

“Sun,” she repeats. “It’s been...hot.”

“Wingrave won’t let us open the windows at the office,” he says, like this is funny. “Says it’d lead to chaos, if a breeze were to whip the papers off the desks. I try to tell him freak tornados usually come with some kind of warning...”

Not all storms do, she thinks, closing her eyes. She wonders if a person can actually break from the strain of wanting someone, if the floodgates she’s allowed Jamie to coax open might in fact drown her. Wasn’t it easier, before? Wasn’t it easier, wanting and wanting and forcing herself never to look at that want?

Easier, maybe, but so much less wonderful. Is this how Eddie feels around her? Is this why he’s spent a lifetime trying to convince her to like the way his hands feel on her body, the way his mouth feels over hers? 

He hasn't tried lately, and she is so fucking grateful for it, she could cry. She wants to believe it’s because things are finally sinking in for him, wants to believe he’s finally starting to see how she just barely keeps from flinching away when he slides into bed--but the odds are better that it’s just simple exhaustion keeping him distracted. Wingrave, who has never been an easy man to work for, is asking more every day. Longer hours, harder cases, for late-night meetings over drinks and--

“Anyway,” he says, bored at last with tales of Wingrave’s expectations of office etiquette. “I’ll be gone through Sunday, so if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call Mom. You know she’ll be over like a shot.”

“Gone?” Dani blinks, her mind running the thread of conversation back through its proverbial hands, searching for the gap where she stopped listening. “Oh. The retreat.”

A conference, she remembers now, where Wingrave hopes to charm new clients. Eddie, who hasn’t stopped talking about work since arriving home Friday, is as excited as she’s seen him since the wedding. 

“He usually takes Peter,” he says. “But I guess he’s branching out. Says it’s a test run for a project in September he hopes to have us both on.”

Gone, Dani thinks distantly. He’ll be gone three whole days. The house, so belligerent in its refusal to let her make it into a safe place to land, will belong to her completely for the first time since April. 

“Which reminds me.” He’s beaming. He’s so incredibly proud, and she can’t help feeling a little surge of affection for him, for her best friend, finally pleased with his own hard work. “We should talk about the kids.”

And just like that, she thinks dismally, he ruins it all. 

“I don’t think now’s a good time to--”

“They’ll bring their stuff, of course,” he blusters on. She feels her face twitch into an expression of puzzled surprise. 

“Wait, what are you talking about?”

“The kids,” he repeats. “Wingrave’s niece and nephew. We talked about this, Danielle.”

“No--no, I don’t think we did.” He isn’t saying what she thinks he’s saying, surely. He’ll be gone three whole days, the house will be hers, she’ll be able to do anything she likes, she’ll be able to-- “Eddie, what kids?”

“Miles,” he says, in that faux-patient voice that means he’s rapidly getting frustrated with her. “And Flora. Wingrave’s--we’re meant to be watching them for the weekend.”

“We,” she repeats. “Except you’ll be out of town, Eddie.”

“Right.” He has the grace to look very slightly uncomfortable. “Did I...did we not talk about this?”

Did I forget to tell you, in fact, that you will be responsible for my boss’ children for a whole weekend? That I signed you up for this without, in fact, asking for your thoughts on the subject? Did it slip my mind, Danielle? 

“Eddie.” Her voice is not the least bit thin now. “Are you serious?”

“Well...” She watches him lift a hand, run it clumsily through his hair. His cheeks are reddening, his eyes skirting away from hers like a little boy who’s just put a baseball through a window. “You’re so good with kids, and you’ve been missing school, so I thought...”

“You thought I’d just...watch your boss’ kids? With no warning? With no input at all?” It’s almost a relief, to feel anger wash away that crushing presence of missing Jamie. Almost a relief, to feel her face grow warm with something other than an arousal she has nowhere to put just now. “Eddie, you can’t just--”

“It’ll be great!” There’s an edge of desperation to his voice, creeping in against his usual grating calm. “You’ll love them. Wingrave says they’re both really great kids, really well-behaved--”

“I’m sure they are.” In through the nose, out through the mouth, each breath taking her a little further from the woman who so badly wants to shake him. “And I’m guessing you told Wingrave I’d be doing this?”

He mumbles something. She raises her eyebrows, and he says, louder, “Two weeks ago. Danielle, don’t be mad, come on. I really thought I’d told you.”

Don’t be mad, Danielle. Don’t look at me that way, Danielle. Don’t fight back, Danielle. She’s breathing too fast, the world swimming around her. Her hands feel numb, her thumbs jammed so hard into her fists, it almost hurts. 

“One time,” she says. “I am doing this one time, Eddie.”

“You’ll love them, I promise.” Relief is spilling over his face, something he doesn’t deserve. She wants him to feel bad about this, wants him to understand why it’s so unacceptable to just assume she’s up for whatever assignment he presses on her at a moment’s notice. “They’re great kids, and Wingrave says they’re brilliant, too. And, I figured, since you’ve already helped some kids who have lost their parents--”

She closes her eyes. Swallows the rage. Swallows everything, until she’s little more than the pressure pounding behind her forehead. 

***

“You’re kidding.” Jamie leans against an upright shovel, eyes wide. “He just...told you it was happening?”

Dani, cross-legged in the grass, is chewing the edge of her thumbnail. She almost didn’t tell Jamie. Had almost decided to keep this between her and Eddie, another stumbling block in an already-limping marriage. 

Except Jamie turned up in a smile like sunshine and a pair of overalls with the cuffs halfway up her shins, and Dani quite rapidly found she couldn’t keep from telling Jamie anything if she tried.

“I know he didn’t mean anything by it,” she says. Jamie snorts. 

“I’m sorry, Poppins, but that sounds like a crock of shit to me. Didn’t mean anything by it. Said the kids are orphans?”

Dani nods, cheek resting against her knee. Jamie shakes her head, gripping the shovel handle like she’s sort of wishing it were Edmund’s throat. 

“So, he’s pinning you with a couple of kids you’ve never met, who are still dealing with missing their parents, for a whole weekend while he’s out on the town with the boys? Is that the sum of it?”

Dani nods again. Jamie sighs. 

“Right. Well. Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life, Poppins, but--”

Dani sighs. “I know. I know how it sounds. And you’re right. But what am I supposed to do, just leave them without a sitter?”

She waits for Jamie to say, Yes, actually, that’s precisely what you do. That’s what anyone with a spine would do. Instead, Jamie says, “Would you...I mean, you don’t have to say yes. But d’you want some company?”

Dani just stares at her. Jamie, looking a little embarrassed, doesn’t avert her eyes. 

“Serious, Poppins. I know you’re good with kids and all, but you don’t know what you’re getting into. Might be good to have another pair of hands.”

“How would we explain it?” She’s sitting up straighter, something dangerously like delight radiating through her body at the idea. Jamie shrugs, smiling. 

“Maybe I just like you. Maybe there doesn’t have to be anything else to it.”

She wishes it could be true, wishes such a lovely dream could be reality. I can have other friends, Eddie, she imagines telling him, like the lie she’s building behind his back wouldn’t be enormous enough to swallow her in the telling. 

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, huh?” Jamie says softly, watching Dani’s expression flit between joy and stark panic. “I won’t leave you to hold it alone, okay? We’ll figure something out.”

***

As it turns out, they don’t have to do much figuring at all.

“Jamie!” 

Dani winces, jumping guiltily over next fall’s reading assignments. This is the third time Eddie has come out with Jamie’s name bugling from his mouth, and for a third time, Dani thinks, It sounds wrong when you say it. It sounds like a summons. 

Jamie, to her credit, is wearing her most casual smile. It’s one Dani has never seen before today, one that looks suspiciously like the expression Dani herself learned to craft before even leaving high school. “Mr. O’Mara.” She generously leaves the what now off the end of the greeting.

“Sorry to interrupt again,” he says, looking anything but. It’s been so weird, having him here this morning, bouncing around the house in a sweater and slacks as he throws together a bag for his trip. Dani had started to forget how he looks in the light of day. 

“No trouble.” Jamie brushes the dirt from her hands, waiting. He looks huge, standing over her, Dani thinks. She still remembers being the same height, the way he’d stretch up on his toes to try to get that bare inch over her. 

“I was just wondering when you last trimmed the hedges,” Eddie says, his voice entirely too loud for how close he is standing to Jamie. Dani wedges the end of her pen between her teeth, biting down to keep from snapping at him to let her do her damn job, Eddie

Jamie, as though his last two questions weren’t don’t you think these could use a bit more pruning and grass is a little sparse right here, don’t you think, makes a very gracious show of looking where he is pointing. “Monday,” she says calmly, “but if you think I’ve missed a spot--”

“No, no,” he hurries to interrupt, “no, I’m sure it’s. Fine. I’m sure it’s...”

“Mr. O’Mara, if you don’t mind my saying, you seem...nervous.” Jamie actually looks sympathetic. If Dani didn’t know her so well, if she wasn’t so aware of the muscle jumping in Jamie’s jaw that says she’s just barely holding back her distaste, she’d think it the most sincere thing Jamie’s said all week. 

“It’s not--I’m not--” He takes a moment to center himself, breathing in exactly as he’s always unhelpfully telling Dani to when her anxiety comes on hard and fast. It seems to work better for him. “I’m sorry. It’s just that my boss has never seen my home--our home,” he adds, gesturing to Dani like an afterthought. Jamie’s mouth tightens almost imperceptibly. 

“I’m sure he’ll be very impressed.”

“That’s kind of you to say,” Eddie says, with so much condescension anchoring the words, Dani nearly leaps up from the table. “But he has high expectations, and with his niece and nephew coming to stay...”

“Oh?” Jamie’s voice, as innocent as Dani has ever heard it. Almost as innocent as the other day, when she’d told Dani she needed to check something in the kitchen and wound up kissing Dani for ten minutes straight on the floor. “They’re staying...here?”

Eddie nods. “Danielle is great with children. I’m sure she’s told you all about her teaching.”

Jamie doesn’t so much as glance at Dani. “Two kids, though. Bit of a handful.”

“She’s used to twenty-five,” he says, a bit uncertainly. Jamie hums. 

“Sure, right, but those twenty-five go home at the end of the afternoon, yeah? Bit different than keeping ‘em for...how long did you say?”

He hadn’t. “Two days. Two and a half, I guess, counting this evening. We’ll be back Sunday at--”

It isn’t funny, exactly, watching Jamie play this little game. Less funny than nerve-wracking, and also just the slightest bit attractive. Dani, head bent carefully over her work, glances up just in time to see Jamie deal the killing blow.

“Well, you know, it isn’t one of our services, per se--but I’d be happy to help the missus along, if you’d like. Extra set of eyes and all that.”

He’s going to see it, Dani thinks with rising panic, he’s going to notice the way you didn’t say my name, the way you didn’t look at me, the way I’m losing my mind over here waiting to see--

“Would you really?” Eddie sags, hand coming up to push his glasses higher on his nose. “Oh my god, you’d be doing me the biggest favor. Erm--would you be asking compensation, or--”

“Favor,” Jamie says with the biggest smile Dani’s ever seen. “Absolutely. Consider it a debt paid to your wife, for keeping me in lemonade all summer.”

He laughs. “Danielle, what do you think?”

“Hm?” Dani wants him to believe her limited vocabulary is the product of focus on her work, not the idea of Jamie sliding an invitation to the house all weekend out of Eddie without really needing to work at it. 

“She’s going to help,” Eddie says, a little impatient that Dani hasn’t been hanging on every word of the conversation. “She wants to be here for you!” He swings back to Jamie, his face alight with relief. “Honestly, it’ll be nice for her to have you around, she could use a friend with me being so goddamned busy at the office.”

A friend, he says, so clearly unable to see Jamie as a threat it almost makes Dani laugh. Well, he isn’t entirely wrong. Dani’s been in need of friends who aren’t him for years. 

“You really don’t have to do that,” she says, realizing they’re both waiting for her to respond. “You’ve done so much around here already.”

“I don’t mind,” Jamie says, all the sincerity she’s been faking toward Eddie crystalizing into something real. “Really. I could use the company myself.”

***

Henry Wingrave is still, as he was on Dani’s initial assessment, kind of an ass. 

She doesn’t like the way he stands, equal parts stiff at the shoulders and shaky in the hands, as though he’s spent the majority of his day judging everyone around him over a series of increasingly strong drinks. Doesn’t like the way he keeps his eyes on Eddie at all times, either, like she’s not even there. 

Likes, least of all, the way he seems to be ignoring the children. It’s like he can’t stand to look at them, which Dani finds horrifying. He’s all the family these kids have in the world, from what Eddie has told her; why is he acting like they don’t exist?

“We really should be going,” he’s telling Eddie now. “Check-in is at seven.”

He says nothing at all to Jamie, who is standing with her hands in her back pockets, looking mildly concerned with herself for having set this situation in motion. To Dani, he says, “Call only if there’s an emergency, we’ll be quite busy.”

To the kids, he simply says, “Be good.”

Dani watches the car vanish around the corner, heart hammering. Sure. This is fine. Just two days alone with kids she’s never met and the woman she has trouble going ten minutes keeping her hands to herself with. Sure. 

“Mrs. Clayton?” the little girl says. “You’re very pretty.”

Jamie makes a noise a little like a strangled cough. Dani bends until she’s eye-level with Flora Wingrave, smiling. 

“Thank you. So are you. Is this all your stuff?” 

Flora hikes her backpack a little higher, her hands overflowing with apparently-homemade dolls. “All of the important things,” she says in the world’s tiniest English accent. Dani’s heart pulls instinctively toward her, charmed in an instant.

Her brother stands off to the side, looking morose. Dani knows that look all too well--it’s how Michael used to stand at recess just after the passing of his father, his mouth set in a stoic line. A look that somber does not belong on the face of a ten-year-old child. 

“Miles, right?” She reaches for his small suitcase, pleased when he lets go without a fuss. “Come on, cheer up. We’re going to have a great weekend.”

It’ll be easier said than done, she thinks--but, to her surprise, the kids really are sweethearts. Miles is quiet, quite apparently nervous, but when he smiles, it lights up his whole body. Flora, conversely, is a nonstop chatterbox, her voice prim and proper and the most excited Dani has heard since school. 

Jamie leads the way to the backyard, hands in her pockets, chatting with Flora about her dolls, and Dani looks to Miles. “I was thinking of pizza for dinner. How do you feel about mushrooms?”

He makes a face. She raises an eyebrow.

“Peppers?”

He shakes his head, starting slowly to smile. She snaps her fingers with an air of Sherlockian brilliance.

“Anchovies!”

He’s giggling, and she thinks, Yeah--he’ll be all right. 

***

The way to just about any child’s heart, Dani firmly believes, falls somewhere between a willingness to listen to them talk and the ability to offer them pizza. Within two hours of the Wingrave kids settling in, they’re acting like they’ve known her--and Jamie--forever. Miles, though still quieter than his sister, is teasing; Flora, clearly entranced by her big brother, pretends to hate it. The pair of them shovel pepperoni and stringy cheese into their mouths as Dani watches, feeling more and more like this wasn’t the worst idea in the world.

Jamie has a lot to do with that. Jamie, sitting with legs spread and one arm slung over the back of her kitchen chair, tapping an unopened pack of cigarettes against the table. Miles frowns at it. 

“You shouldn’t smoke.”

“Absolutely correct,” Jamie says, tucking the pack into the breast pocket of her flannel shirt. “Nasty habit. I really should quit.”

Dani, who has never seen Jamie smoke, and finds the idea considerably more appealing than she’d like to admit, laughs. Flora tugs on her sleeve.

“What’s your favorite color?”

Dani mulls it over. “You know, I’m not sure.”

“That’s what Miss Jessel said,” Flora sighs. “She says she likes all the colors.”

“Who’s Miss Jessel?”

“Our usual nanny,” Miles says. “We were supposed to stay with her, but--”

“But she’s out of town,” Flora interrupts, leaning on her knees across the table for another slice of pizza. “Out of town with her boyfriend. Do you have a boyfriend?”

She’s looking at Jamie, who startles. 

“Ah. No. ‘Fraid I do not.”

“Do you want a boyfriend?” Flora presses. Jamie, eyes locked to Dani’s with a gravity that feels nearly too much to bear, shakes her head slowly. 

“Can’t say I do, no.”

“Me either,” Flora announces decisively. “Boys are silly, aren’t they?”

“Hey!” Miles protests. “I’m not silly!”

“Yes, you are! You’re silly, and you smell!” Flora is giggling almost too hard to keep her seat. Dani tugs on the back of her sweater with an indulgent smile.

“Butt on the chair, please, I don’t want to explain to your uncle why you’ve got a new hole in your forehead.”

Flora sobers eventually, though not before trying to plaster a pepperoni into Miles’ ear. Dani coaxes them both out of their seats, showing them where to throw away their paper plates and napkins and sending them off to wash hands in the bathroom. 

Jamie waits until they’re out of sight to lower her voice. “Good kids, eh?”

“Really good.” Hands on her hips, Dani listens for signs of squabbling. All she hears is Flora sighing something about watermelon-scented soap being divine. “Thank god for that, I was half-expecting mini-Wingraves.”

“He seems a piece of work,” Jamie agrees. 

“Eddie loves him. Can’t imagine why. Did you see how he wouldn’t even look at them as they left?” She shakes her head. “I know the job is good for him, but I sometimes wonder if he’d be...”

“The man you married without it?” Jamie suggests when she trails off. Her voice is gentle, utterly lacking in jealousy. Dani wants to press close, wants to fold into her arms and stay there forever. 

“The man I married,” she says quietly, “isn’t the boy I knew. Wouldn’t be, no matter the job. But I worry he’s taking after them, y’know--the way he talked to you this morning? I’ve never seen him like that.”

“Maybe you’ve just never seen him talk to the help,” Jamie says with a faint tilt of her head. Dani frowns. 

“Well, sure, I’ve seen him in restaurants and--” And how is he, interacting with waitstaff, or with grocers? Not unkind, certainly, but clipped. Yes. A bit shorter than necessary. Dani, who goes out of her way to thank everyone who crosses her path, has never really noticed before. “All right, you have a point.”

Jamie, wonderful as always, does not crow about it. She darts one quick glance down the hall, and, finding no sign of children re-emerging, presses a kiss to Dani’s cheek. “S’all right,” she says. “You’re polite enough for the both of you.”

***

The kids ride a sugar high of cola and new-environment right up until nine-thirty--and then, as kids will do, smack face-first into a crash. Miles can’t stop yawning, even as he’s showing Dani his newly-cleaned teeth. Flora is swaying in Jamie’s arms, one small hand looped around the back of Jamie’s neck. 

She’s good with them, Dani thinks, liking the casual ease with which Jamie had swung Flora off the floor. The little girl keeps smiling at her like she already believes, after less than half a day, Jamie is as cool as it gets. 

“What are we doing tomorrow?” she asks, eyes half-closed even before Jamie drops her gently into the guest bed. Miles curls up on the floor in a plaid sleeping bag, hands cupped under his pillow. 

“If it’s all right with, erm, Mrs. Clayton,” Jamie says, shooting Dani a tiny grin as she pulls the blankets up to Flora’s chin, “I was thinking we could go on an adventure.”

“An adventure!” Flora sighs. “That would be perfectly--”

She’s asleep before the door is shut, Dani is reasonably sure, and that’s day one in the bag. Jamie gestures with her head toward the back door.

“Fancy a bit of fresh air?”

They leave the door cracked to ensure any cries will reach them without trouble, and Jamie settles in her usual chair behind the patio table. She taps a cigarette out of her pocket, offers the packet to Dani, who declines. 

“Well done, I’d say,” she says, a bit muffled as she lights up and takes a long drag. “You’ve earned your nickname, Poppins.”

Dani lets her head fall back, enjoying the way the evening breeze tugs at her hair. “They’re easy to please. Makes me wonder how much attention they’re getting at home.”

Jamie makes a noise of agreement, the ember of her cigarette glowing against the fading sunset. Her posture is the most relaxed Dani’s ever seen it, her elbow resting on the arm of her chair, smoke curling skyward. It’s the perfect image on a July evening, and Dani wishes she had a camera. Wishes she could afford pictures of Jamie in every moment of her life, just to prove she was here with her. 

“Thank you,” she says, the words she really wants too big and too frightening for a night this pleasant. “You really didn’t have to--”

“Know I didn't,” Jamie says with an idle smile. “It’s been nice. Not slinking around, not worrying about getting out of your hair before...well. It’s been nice.”

She takes another drag, and Dani watches with that old familiar heat mounting, taking the image in. The grace with which Jamie moves the cigarette to her lips and away again, the smoke curling out from between her teeth, the glorious length of her neck as she leans back and breathes out toward the moon. 

“That’s almost as bad,” Dani says, a bit shakily, “as the lemonade.”

“What, for my health?” Jamie grins.”Nah, the lemonade’s much more likely to kill me.”

It’s not dark enough, Dani reasons, to close the six inches between their chairs. Not nearly dark enough to climb into Jamie’s lap, pull the cigarette from between her lips, replace it with her own mouth. She imagines kissing Jamie, drawing the smoke out of Jamie’s lungs and into her own, and something in her clenches. 

Jamie, watching her with eyes that suddenly show no sign of teasing, licks her lips. 

“I want,” Dani says, unsure of where the sentence will take her, knowing it will absolutely lead to a change she’s been looking for since Jamie first stepped out of her truck. 

“Danielle?”

For the love of-- Her eyes sweep the yard, spotting auburn hair and a bright smile at the gate. Jamie leans back in her seat, sucking on the cigarette in an obvious effort to ground herself. 

“Judy?” Her voice is just a little too razor-edged. Jamie taps a fist lightly on the table as if to say s’all right. She swallows the prickle of irritation, turning it into a smile and a wave. “Hey! What are--what are you doing here?”

“Edmund said you’d be needing some company, with him out of town.” Judy picks her way across the yard, hefting a bottle. “I brought wine. Thought we could have a girls’ night. Who’s this?”

Too much, thinks Dani with sudden weariness, this is all too much. 

“Judy, that’s--that’s very nice, but--”

“Jamie,” Jamie interrupts, thrusting a hand toward Eddie’s mother and smiling with enough charm to light the whole sky. Judy gives her a very subtle once-over--the dust still clinging to her flannel shirt, the holes in her jeans, the silver chain Dani wants so badly to be playing her own fingers across right now--and accepts the shake warmly. 

“Jamie, right. That’s the...”

“Gardener,” Jamie fills in. “Among other things.” She gestures with her cigarette, a behold my splendor sort of flourish to the yard. “Mr. O’Mara hired me to make all this look its very best.”

“And you’ve done a spectacular job,” Judy says without missing a beat. She turns to Dani, waving the bottle of wine again. “Some glasses, dear? Jamie, you can’t possibly still be working so late.”

Heaven help me, Dani thinks, slipping into the house to recover three wine glasses and her dignity. This is not the evening I had in mind. 

***

Judy stays until nearly one in the morning. The bottle of wine quickly depleted, she insists on bustling into the house and returning with a small pitcher of some kind of punch, having used up the last of Eddie’s stock of vodka. Dani, who would much rather be administering her own root canal than drinking with her mother-in-law and the woman she so desperately wants to take to bed, is quite certain this is how her life ends. 

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers when Judy shuffles off to the bathroom. Jamie, nursing what Dani can tell is the same glass of punch Judy initially handed her, winks. 

“Hey, it’s kind of fun, in a horrible way. Haven’t had a mother in years, it’s nice to see some are actually present.”

Dani groans. Present is absolutely the word. She’s going to lose her mind if Judy keeps sitting here, spinning tales of “Danielle and Eddie” through the years, as if Jamie wants to hear a single one. 

“Hey--Poppins.” Jamie peers into her face, eyes bright. “Honestly, it’s okay. There will be other nights.”

“You promise?” Dani whispers miserably back, aware she’s had a little too much already, that Jamie is well within her rights to slink back home and leave her with Judy the Story Machine. 

“I do,” Jamie says, pressing one hand into Dani’s and squeezing. “I didn’t offer to stay because I wanted to get you into bed, all right?”

Dani raises an eyebrow. Jamie grins. 

“Not solely that, anyway. I’m here to help. If that means entertaining your mother-in-law, so be it.”

They do not, to Dani’s extreme misery, make it into bed at all. The party moves from the patio to the living room, Judy exhibiting nothing of her age when it comes to the ability to talk the night away. Dani only realizes she’s drowsy when Judy looks straight into Jamie’s face.

“Seem to make a fine pillow, don’t you?”

Jamie shrugs a little, and Dani realizes she’s tipped over, her head resting on Jamie’s shoulder. She tries to sit up, embarrassed, but Judy is already pulling a blanket over them both.

“It’s good you finally found a nice girlfriend,” Judy says with the pleasant good cheer of the rather drunk. “You stay here. Nice and cozy. I’ll call a cab.”

Dani dozes in and out of the rest of that conversation, unable in the haze of alcohol and exhaustion to process much beyond the soft murmur of Jamie’s voice above her, the gentle press of Jamie’s arm moving around her shoulders, the way Jamie says, “Wonderful meeting you, Mrs. O’Mara.”

“Judy,” Judy sing-songs over her shoulder, pulling the front door shut on her own mirth. Jamie sighs.

“She’s the whole show, that one.”

“And you didn’t even buy a ticket,” Dani mumbles, nuzzling into Jamie’s shoulder. She has the vague sense of Jamie shifting, Jamie plainly trying to decide if she’s quite strong enough to get Dani from the couch to her bed. “Shh. Stay.”

She blinks open one eye in time to see Jamie favoring her with the softest smile. “What?” she asks defensively. Jamie shakes her head. 

“Nothin’. Sleep, Poppins. I’ll be here in the morning.”

***

A Saturday hangover is not what Dani would call ideal, particularly when she’s roused from a rather bunched-up sleep nestled against Jamie by small voices chorusing in her ear. She winces, neck sore, all too aware that her first night with Jamie was spent curled on her chest, one knee pressing into Jamie’s pelvis, still fully dressed. 

“I am,” she says groggily, “so sorry.”

Jamie, who seems to be trying to work a particularly large kink out of her own neck, laughs. She’s got a good early-morning laugh, Dani decides: a little raspy, a little sweeter than normal. It’s the kind of laugh that makes Dani want to lean up and kiss--

“Mrs. Clayton!” Flora, bouncing on the couch cushions, jostling both women hard enough that Dani’s eyes cross. “Did you sleep on the couch?”

“I did,” Dani says, extricating herself from Jamie’s arms as gracefully as possible. 

“And you, Jamie, you slept over!”

“Correct.” Jamie, rubbing her eyes, yawns. “If you could call it sleeping. Poppins, your mother-in-law is a--”

“Treasure,” Dani says quickly. Jamie gives her a grin that says she was probably not about to say anything best not repeated by an eight-year-old. Not that Flora is listening. She’s still bouncing up and down, up and down, even with Miles standing beside the couch making noises of disapproval. 

“You said--” Bounce. Bounce bounce. “--we were going on an--” Bounce. “--adventure, Jamie!” 

Jamie snags Flora out of the air, dragging her into her lap and digging merciless fingers into the girl’s ribcage. Flora squirms, giggling hysterically, and Dani moves out of the way to keep from catching a sock-clad foot in the sternum. 

“I did,” Jamie says, when Flora seems to have accepted the maximum amount of tickles. “Thought we could all get a spot of breakfast, if your warden approves.”

Dani jabs her in the shoulder. “Warden, huh?”

“Mmhmm.” Jamie falls back against the couch, stretching both arms above her head. “These wee inmates have been imprisoned too long, by the look of it. They need sun. And bagels.”

Not an hour later, the four of them are dressed and walking through the door of a little bakery--Batter Up--a few blocks north of the house. Dani peers around, entranced by the sheer array of baked goods. 

“This is incredible. How have I never been here before?”

“Poor fortune,” Jamie says, leaning across the counter and banging her hand down on a little bell. “Oi! Sharma!”

A tall man with a truly impressive mustache pokes his head out from a door Dani suspects leads to the kitchen. “Jamie, what have I told you about the bell?”

“It is for me, and me alone,” she drawls. “C’mon, shake a leg, brought you some new customers.”

“High-rollers, by the looks of them.” Wiping his hands on a towel, he adjusts his glasses and squints over the counter. “This one, especially. She’s where the real money is, I’d wager.”

Flora giggles, stretching up a hand for him to shake. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise.” He smiles. “Owen Sharma. Any friend of Jamie’s a bit perplexing, frankly, but nice to see all the same.”

Dani orders a coffee for herself and a pair of small hot chocolates for the kids, as well as a small feast made up of muffins, scones, and bagels. It’s way too much, but watching Miles and Flora sample each in turn is beyond worth it.

Jamie, who insisted on purchasing her own tea, leans against the counter. “Business is good, then?”

“Bloomin’,” he teases, grinning when she rolls her eyes. “See, because of the flowers--”

“Yes,” Jamie says in a mock-grumpy tone Dani knows is hiding real affection. “We got it, thanks.”

“How long have you been here?” Dani asks, watching out of the corner of her eye as Miles samples an everything bagel and pulls a face. Owen frowns, calculating. 

“Two years, going on? Jamie and I got into town around the same time.”

“Made the same mad escape from the world’s smallest village,” Jamie says, sipping her tea. She sighs gratefully. “Owen, you’re still the only man alive in this blasted country who can make a proper brew.”

“I’d better. Can you imagine my mum, if she found me turning native on tea?”

“So, you grew up together?” This is the first piece of Jamie’s past she’s gotten a glimpse of, and Dani finds herself hungry for more. Owen shakes his head.

“Nah. I was born in Bly. Jamie--”

“Born in a gutter,” Jamie says dramatically, “and in a gutter shall I die.”

He swats her with a towel. Dani grins. 

“No,” Jamie says in a normal tone, “my story is long and more than the least bit riddled with sorrow, but suffice to say, I met Owen here once I’d gotten a handle on the narrative. Simple and boring. That’s the aim these days.”

She’s looking at Dani when she says it, and a surge of guilt wells past Dani’s pleasure at bearing witness to their decidedly sibling-esque banter. Simple and boring? Jamie can’t possibly think getting into bed with a married woman is either. 

Later, Jamie’s eyes say, her hand moving to press subtly against Dani’s arm. Owen pretends quite politely not to see any of it. 

“I like him,” Dani says on the way home, a bag of half-picked-over baked goods swinging from Jamie’s arm. 

“Me too!” Flora announces. “He called me sweetheart!”

Miles laughs, buzzing with the sugar of far too many chocolate-swirl scones, and takes off at a run. Flora sprints after him, calling his name, and Dani leans into Jamie. 

“Good adventure?” Jamie asks, digging a crumb of blueberry muffin out of the bag and popping it into her mouth. 

“They’re going to be bouncing off the walls the rest of the day, you know,” Dani points out. Jamie shrugs. 

“Big backyard, plenty of holes to dig. I think we can occupy ‘em.”

***

They teach the kids to make a simple pasta dinner, Dani showing them how to chop carrots for a salad without adding their fingers to the bowl, and polish it all off with a movie night. Flora is entranced by every minute of Labyrinth, right up until falling asleep at the half hour mark. Miles pretends not to care about the tale of a young girl racing the clock, but Dani catches him tapping along to the beat of just about every song. 

“Good day?” Jamie asks, when both kids have been summarily scooped and deposited in their room. Dani hums, stretching her legs across Jamie’s lap on the couch. 

“Best, I think. Best I’ve had in a really long time.”

Jamie closes gentle hands around her ankles, massaging lightly. “Good to hear. Think they’ll have nightmares?”

She’s nodding toward the television, no longer bearing Muppet or Bowie. Dani shakes her head. 

“They seem like pretty brave kids.”

“Mm. Been through a lot.” Jamie sighs. “Familiar, if I'm honest.”

Dani waits, feeling the dropped thread of the morning’s conversation picking back up. For a minute, Jamie just gazes at the opposite wall, covered in framed photos of a life Dani considers more of a twenty-seven-act play than reality. 

“Grew up rough,” she says at last. “Dad was a coal miner. Mum was...not ready to be one. Even with three of us, she had other plans.”

The rest comes out slowly: the insults, the accidents, the foster homes, the prison time. Dani listens to it all, scooting slowly across the cushions until she’s pressed against Jamie’s side, her knees bent over Jamie’s lap, her feet tucked under the plush arm of the couch. Jamie, who spent most of the story staring fixedly ahead, tips her a very small, self-conscious grin.

“People aren’t generally worth it, from where I’m standing. Lot of work. Truly, an exhaustive amount of work. But every once in a while...”

Dani leans until they are forehead to forehead, eyes closed, each breath she draws coming straight off of Jamie’s lips. This moment feels bigger than a kiss, somehow. Bigger than hands and sighs and all the tiny promises of two bodies coming together. 

“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “I know it isn’t easy.”

Jamie raises a hand to cup the back of her head, fingers drifting lazily through the loose waves of her hair. “Didn’t ask for easy.”

“Simple, then,” Dani half-laughs. “Simple and boring. I’m sorry I’m not either.”

Jamie is silent a long time, just breathing in time with Dani, letting the rare moment of rest unfurl between them. At last, in a voice unexpectedly raw with emotion, she says, “I’m not sorry. For any of it.”

They’re kissing before Dani realizes, her hand pressing firm against Jamie’s sternum, Jamie's heart fluttering under her palm. Jamie’s fingers are soft, combing through her hair, cradling her skull, shifting every so often like she’s afraid Dani is too fragile to hold tightly. Dani presses closer, legs still tented over Jamie’s lap, her lips parting until Jamie’s tongue curls against her own. 

“Mrs. Clayton?”

They wrench apart, Dani feeling very much as though she might be the most cursed human being on the planet. Flora’s voice, small and frightened, coming from all the way down the hall. 

“What--what’s wrong?” It takes her a second to unfold from the couch, Jamie helping support her so she doesn’t topple over in the process. Flora shuffles nearer, eyes half-shut with sleep, face miserable. 

“Had a bad dream?” Jamie asks, crouching down. Flora nods. “Was it about the Muppets?” Flora shakes no. 

“It was about my mum.”

Jamie’s good-natured reassurance dries on the spot, her eyes darting worriedly to Dani’s face. Out of my league, her expression seems to say. Dani gives her arm a squeeze, sliding past and bending to Flora’s level. 

“You wanna tell me about it?”

Flora sniffles, reaching, and Dani pulls her into a hug. She murmurs soft sounds of safety against Flora’s hair, smoothing hands down her back until Flora’s shakes subside into a sleepy sway. 

“Now?” she asks. Flora shakes her head again. 

“It’s all right. It’s...gone now.”

But there’s a pull to her mouth Dani remembers all too well from her own childhood, an expression of hard-nosed bravery no child should be expected to wear. How many nightmares has Flora had in Wingrave’s house, with that man too distracted by work to soothe her? How many times must she have been told it’s only a dream, go back to sleep?

“Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” she asks, unsurprised when Flora’s face crumples again. She meets Jamie’s eyes over Flora’s head, painfully aware that their final chance alone in this house is vanishing like fog in the morning sun. 

“S’all right,” Jamie says softly. “I’ll take the couch.”

***

By morning, it’s like none of it happened. Flora is bright and excited once more, talking a mile a minute as Jamie cracks eggs into a bowl and shows Miles how to whisk until they’re pan-ready. Dani, whose sleep was arguably no better than the night spent pretzeled on the couch, watches with tired eyes. 

Last chance, she thinks sadly. That was our last chance for god only knows how long. 

From the way Jamie keeps stealing glances her way, her lips curving in a little half-smile, she knows they’re sharing this thought. Jamie talking Eddie into letting her play house with his wife once was a marvel; it won't be happening again anytime soon. Maybe in September, if he gets that case, if Wingrave takes him on another whirlwind boys’ trip. 

But by then, she thinks, won’t she be sick of me? Of this? I’m already sick of sneaking around, and it’s only been a few weeks. 

Jamie eases around the table, doling out scrambled eggs topped with sprinkles of cheddar. When she reaches Dani, she bends, places her lips lightly to the shell of Dani’s ear. 

“I see you.”

“See what?” Dani murmurs, raising a glass of orange juice to her lips to keep from delving that hand into Jamie’s tousled hair. 

“See you giving up hope,” Jamie says quietly. Dani turns her head just enough to meet her eyes, heart pounding. “Come on. You surrender that easily?”

She wants to say no, wants to say there’s still so much time ahead of them, but the day drinks the hours down with a dehydrated desperation. Almost before she knows it, Wingrave’s too-nice car is pulling into the drive, the kids piling out of the house to greet him. 

Eddie kisses her with more fanfare than he’s attempted in weeks. Dani, eyes open, sees Jamie duck her head. 

“Miss me?” he asks in a too-loud voice he seems to have picked up from the office and forgotten to put back down again. Dani musters a grim smile. 

“Welcome back.”

“Now,” Wingrave says, leaning out from behind the wheel. Dani inhales as subtly as she can, relieved to find no trace of alcohol on his breath. “You’re going to be working up more excitement than that at the gala, I hope.”

“The--I’m sorry?” And off we go again, into plans no one thought to include me on. 

“The gala!” Eddie repeats with such gusto, she wants to shove him back into the car. “I was going to surprise you once I had a dress all squared away, but I guess now’s as good at time as any. Henry’s throwing a party in celebration of our latest case. Friday night. It’s going to be a blow-out!”

Terrific. Her eyes slide to Jamie, looking smaller and smaller with her hands in her pockets and her gaze unfocused. No way to con him into letting me take her as my plus-one, I suppose. 

“Are we coming to the gala?” Flora is bouncing on the balls of her feet beside the car. Wingrave frowns. 

“I suppose...I suppose you’ll have to. Rebecca will be attending with Peter, I assume...”

Flora looks delighted. Miles is frowning in a way so like his uncle, Dani aches to sweep him away from the man before more bad habits can set in. 

“Friday,” Wingrave repeats, ushering both kids into the backseat. Dani passes their luggage through the open passenger window, feeling as though there should be considerably more how were they-shaped conversation made before the car pulls away. 

“Well,” Jamie says in a voice much brighter than Dani feels. “I suppose I should be...”

“Thank you again,” Eddie says, clasping the fingers of her left hand and applying the thinnest pressure, like he thinks she’ll break. Jamie raises her eyebrows, searching out Dani’s gaze.

“Anytime.”

“See you Monday,” he adds in a tone of voice so hurry along now, Dani’s whole jaw goes rigid. “Bright and early, huh?”

“Same time as always,” Jamie says, in a voice like rage-hammered steel.

***

“We can’t accept this,” Dani says helplessly. “I can’t accept this, Eddie. How much did this thing cost?”

“It’s a gift,” he says for the fifth time. The dress is really less of a dress, more of a gown, floor-length and billowing in a way Dani suspects will leave her tripping more than a few times. The color is a deep burgundy, a color she’s not sure she’s worn in her entire life--and certainly not with such a plunging neckline. 

“Seriously, Eddie, I can’t wear that.”

He makes a noise in the back of his throat she takes for frustration, though she can’t tear her eyes from the dress long enough to confirm. “Danielle. Henry picked it out. If you don’t wear it, he’s going to be insulted.”

I’m a bit insulted, she thinks, that you both think I can be bought with a goddamn dress. 

"It’s one party, Danielle, I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it.” He plops down on the bed, narrowly missing sitting on the dress. She hasn’t seen him sulk like this in years, all his glee at such a high-profile event rapidly transmuting to irritation. “Honestly, it’s for work.”

Oh, when it’s your work, we care. When it’s my work, it’s all, You don’t have to work at all, Danielle, just quit so you can come grow me a baseball team, but when it’s your work-- She drags a breath through her nose. Tries to bring herself back to earlier that afternoon, when Jamie had kissed her neck, pinning her against the wall of the bathroom, until she’d been nearly out of her mind. 

It’s a different kind of frustration, but she finds it helps. Remembering Jamie’s hands on her waist, remembering Jamie’s hair in her grasp, the way they keep getting so close to finding the space, the time, the freedom to--

“Are you listening to me?”

“No,” she says before she can think better of it. His eyes widen, his glasses reflecting the bedroom light so sharply, for a moment she can’t see him behind them. She sighs. “No, I wasn’t. But...fine, Eddie. One party. One time.”

He’s like a child, she thinks, when the smile breaks across his face. Like a child who has learned he can throw tantrums and get exactly what he wants. When I have I ever let any kid get away with that shit?

“You’re gonna have a great time,” he says, kissing her forehead. HIs lips are damp, a bit clammy. She waits until his back is turned before wiping the stain away. “And, hey--you’ll get to meet Peter! You’ll love him, he’s hilarious.”

“Sure,” she mumbles. “Hilarious."

***

She isn’t sure what she expected a Wingrave party to look like, but even mapping off of her wildest imagination, the actual outcome is bigger. Bolder. More packed to the gills with finely-dressed rich people than she knows what to do with.

“Eddie,” she says in a low voice, grasping his arm to keep from being swept away. He beams down at her, utterly misreading the anxious jut of her chin, the tension between her shoulder blades. His hand curls around her fist, untucking her thumb, giving her a patronizing little pat. 

He knows she doesn’t suit parties like this. He knows how she cringed even walking into their own engagement party, how her plastic smile had been hitched so high, she’d thought it might fall and smash beneath her own heels. 

They’ll leave us alone, for a while, he’d said, and she had almost believed him. Almost. 

“Henry!” His arms are spread, a pantomime of easy luxury in a black tuxedo. Wingrave hadn’t sent that over, Dani had noted; he’s wearing his wedding suit, the best-quality thing he owns, and that’s more than fine enough. 

Wingrave, murmuring into the ear of a woman who, judging by her tense expression, might be his secretary, turns toward Eddie’s voice. He gestures for the woman to go, and Dani watches her bustle off with a not-inconsiderable amount of envy. Take me with you. Take me far away from whatever this conversation is going to entail. 

“You look marvelous,” Wingrave tells her, kissing her cheek in a perfunctory manner that nonetheless makes her feel impossibly small. “Here, Danielle, let me introduce you...”

Peter Quint, a handsome young man with a sharp jaw and scorn in his blue eyes, does not seem to her a particular beacon of hilarity. His date, the famous Miss Jessel, is infinitely warmer to Dani, taking her hands and squeezing. She’s absolutely stunning in a long black dress that Dani is certain doesn’t make her feel like some kind of pirate-coin-stuffed piñata. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca tells her in a voice none of the men seem wired to hear. “I’ll show you where the drinks live.”

“Thank you.” Dani scans the crowd, searching for tiny bundles of energy. “Have you seen the kids? I wanted to say hello--”

“Miles and Flora?” Rebecca sounds surprised. “Mm, no...I think Mr. Wingrave has his secretary on nanny duty for the evening. They’re probably off playing games with the other children.”

There are more children here? She’s feeling light-headed. Every inch of her body feels as though it’s on prominent display, set on the highest shelf of a cabinet for the world to admire against her will. Even Peter’s eyes keep flicking from Rebecca to Dani as though he can’t settle on who best deserves his attention. 

Don’t like that, she decides, furrowing her brow at him, hating the sly way he smiles in return. Don’t like that at all. 

True to her word, Rebecca finds her a glass of wine and a seat at the table, behind which Dani feels at least four percent less gawked-at. She tries to catch Eddie’s eye, but he’s preoccupied by his conversation with Peter, the words flying by so quickly, Dani is sure she’s only getting about a quarter of what they’re saying. 

“Don’t,” Rebecca advises, tipping back her drink. She, in direct contrast to the itch around Dani’s skin, looks perfectly at home here. “It isn’t worth the strain, I promise. They’ll just prattle on about cases won and fools lost, and never once notice you’re even there.”

Bitterness, Dani senses, though the woman is smiling at Peter with a surprising amount of affection. Bitterness and...jealousy, maybe? 

“You’re the kids’ nanny?” she asks, struggling to find a topic that will make her feel less like sinking through the floor. “How has that been?”

Rebecca’s smile doesn’t entirely reach her eyes. “Au pair, technically. They’re wonderful children. But I’d be lying if I said I knew it would be...such a long-term position.”

Dani sips her wine. “Surely it’s good for them, to have that stability, though?”

“They’re wonderful,” Rebecca repeats, her eyes on Peter, who is now offering Wingrave a rocks glass filled nearly to the brim. “And I fully thought I’d have a place in the firm by now.”

“You’re interested in law?” Dani dislikes the surprise in her own voice, as though the idea that a woman as beautiful as Rebecca could be a lawyer is startling. She shakes her head. “I didn’t--I didn’t mean to imply--”

“You,” Rebecca says smoothly, taking pity on her at once, “are not the problem at this table, I can say that much. No, I...had plans, before I met Peter. They didn’t exactly go according to expectation.”

“How long have you two--”

“Two years,” she says, and Dani can’t imagine what sort of relationship might lend a woman that particular combination of venom and joy. “Two years in June. He’s a clever man. Brilliant, really. I...I’m lucky to have him.”

This much, Dani senses, she does not fully believe. She’s frowning a little, her beauty cut through with a cleverness of eye Dani recognizes from her own life. A woman who has been told one too many times to be silent, sit pretty, listen while the grown-ups talk. 

Then, as soon as it comes, the cloud vanishes from Rebecca’s expression. “How about you?” she asks, nodding in Eddie’s direction. “Married, right?”

“Four months, almost,” Dani says weakly. “He’s--”

She’s rescued from having to come up with a pretty lie, anything that isn’t the most wrong thing I could have chosen, by Eddie himself. 

“Well, no, she doesn’t have to.”

Dani perks up, mouth turning down at the corners. Eddie is laughing. Peter, not laughing at all, is watching her with shrewd eyes. 

“She’s your wife, mm? A wife ought to fetch her husband a drink.”

Rebecca makes a thin noise, but Dani isn’t seeing her anymore. Her eyes are on Peter, in his pinstripe suit and his slicked-back hair, Peter, who smiles like he has the first idea about her. 

“Is that so?”

“Danielle,” Eddie says warningly. She raises a hand to silence him. 

“No, I’d like to hear more about what your friend thinks a wife ought to do.”

“He’s only joking,” Eddie says, even as Peter adds, “I’m sure I could find a list.”

“Peter.” Rebecca’s voice is sharp. He raises his eyebrows at her, leaning back in his chair. Something about the casual sling of his arm over its back makes Dani think of Jamie--if Jamie had a perfect foil, a revelation of opposition, it would be this man and his arrogance. 

Jamie. God, she wishes Jamie were here. 

“She doesn’t have to get me a drink,” Eddie says, and Dani wishes it felt like he was defending her. Wishes, even more so, that he didn’t need to. That they were home, that she was anywhere but here, with him, with Peter fucking Quint and his smile boring into her. 

“No,” she says firmly. “I don’t.”

“Doesn’t have to do anything,” Eddie goes on, like she hasn’t even spoken. “Doesn’t have to work, either, but that never stops her.”

She turns her eyes to him, aghast. We are not doing this here. Not in front of them. “Eddie.”

He’s grinning, trying to copy Peter’s body language so obviously, it embarrasses her to watch. His glasses are slipping. 

“I keep telling her, you know, teaching is a noble profession, but she could just stay home. I take care of her, she takes care of the house--”

“And the kids, no doubt.” Peter’s eyes never leave her face. It takes every ounce of self control not to lob the remnants of her wine in his direction. 

“Someday, sure.” Eddie gestures with one hand, as if relieved someone finally sees his point. “She could be anyone she wants to be, but--”

Enough. Dimly, she realizes she’s on her feet. An anger so white-hot, she can’t imagine it being replaced by anything less than violence, fills her until all she can see is Peter Quint, Peter fucking Quint, and, beyond him, Eddie’s stupidly self-aggrandizing smile. 

The boy is gone, and the man hasn’t seen me, the real me, since we were twelve years old. Enough of this. 

“Where are you going?” He’s sitting up straighter, his ears growing pink with distress. “Danielle. Hey. We’re only kidding around, come back--”

“Have a great night,” she hears herself say as if underwater. As if some part of her is drowning, sinking to the bottom of some distant lake she won’t be climbing back out of again. Danielle, drifting to the bottom in her too-red dress, with her too-tight expectations notched around her throat. 

Dani Clayton, after years of wishing, years of needing this, walks away.

***

She walks, in fact, for nearly an hour. Heels swinging from her hand, feet in now-torn stockings, she walks straight out of the party and keeps walking. If she stops, she thinks, it will finally catch up to her. If she stops, she’ll have to recognize what she’s just done. 

***

Batter Up is, inexplicably, still open. Empty, but unlocked. She storms through the front door, skidding a little on the tile, catching Owen completely by surprise. 

“Hey--uh. Jamie’s friend. Dani, yeah?” He looks at her closely, searching for signs he should be doing more than simply saying hello. “Are you all right? You look--”

“Do you know,” she asks, in a voice like broken glass, “where Jamie lives?”

He stares at her, blank, until the first tear falls. Then, without missing another beat, he ducks out from under the counter. 

“I’ll drop you off.”

***

“Dani?” Jamie is barefoot, dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt torn at the collar. She does not look like someone expecting company, leaning out of the doorway of her apartment. 

Dani, on the other hand, is pretty sure she looks like Cinderella after the ball in all the worst ways. Her hair, once inflated to within an inch of its life, is drooping around her still made-up face. Her eyes are too dark, her lips too red, her skin feeling as though she’s been sewn into it. The dress, clutched in her fists, is no less infuriating than it was five hours ago. 

“Hi,” she says breathlessly. Jamie is gaping at her, quite literally standing with her jaw hanging halfway to the floor. 

“I--Dani, are you all righ--”

Incapable of waiting even a second longer, Dani surges into her, kissing her so hard, she nearly knocks them both down. Jamie catches her around the waist, makes a wonderfully-wild little noise into her mouth, breaks only to gasp, “Inside?”

Thank you, Owen, Dani thinks mechanically, as the door swings shut and Jamie bolts it. 

“What are you doing here?” she asks. She looks as though she’s trying very hard to decide whether the moment merits concern or her most jubilant smile. Dani takes her by the shoulders, the faded fabric of her shirt feeling like spun gold against her palms. 

“I’m here,” she says. She wishes there was a better way to phrase it, a way that really could sum it all up, but she’s exhausted and angry and so incredibly high on the mere sight of Jamie, she can’t do better. “I’m here now. Okay? No more of...the rest of it.”

Jamie looks at her, hands lost in the too-much material of Dani’s skirt. She can’t quite seem to find Dani under it all, a problem Dani can already tell will need to be solved quickly. 

“You’re sure?” she says quietly. She’s waiting for the other shoe, clearly, waiting for Dani to add an almost to the end of the sentence. Dani grips her sleeves in shaking hands. 

“Yes.”

The apartment is small, bare, a studio suited to Jamie’s meager needs, and they still manage to make a mess stumbling across the floor. Dani bangs into a bookshelf, grabbing for it in a desperate bid to not send plants skittering everywhere. Jamie, laughing, nearly overturns a coffee table tripping into it. All the while, they are pressed flush, Dani’s hands clutched around Jamie’s shirt, Jamie’s fingers lost in the tangle of Dani’s hair. 

She’s never kissed anyone like this in her life, Dani thinks, not even in the weeks leading up to this moment. She’s never kissed Jamie without that little alarm at the back of her head, ringing out its warnings: someone could come, someone could see, someone could find you out and ruin it all. 

But here, in Jamie’s apartment, that alarm is silent. All there is now is Jamie, sighing against her skin, fingers playing along her jaw, down her neck, tracing the curve of cleavage so softly, Dani hears herself whimper. All there is now is Jamie, kissing everywhere she can reach, sucking gently at the spot where Dani’s pulse leaps against her lips until Dani grasps hold of her hair and pulls her back up to kiss her properly. 

It’s one thing, she thinks dazedly, making out on the kitchen floor, or letting Jamie nervously test the span of her thigh under the patio table. It’s quite another to be in Jamie’s space, in Jamie’s home for the first time, Jamie backing her against the half-wall that divides living space from kitchen. Her hand slides up Dani’s dress, pulling the skirt high, searching until she finds skin beneath. She’s laughing, or moaning, or both--Dani genuinely can’t tell what noise is coming out of her, even as Jamie dips her head and kisses the swell of one breast. 

“Help me out of this thing,” she hears herself groan. Jamie, obedient, spins her, presses her against the wall again with one hand grasping her ribs and the other seeking out a zipper. She’s kissing the back of Dani’s neck, kissing each vertebrae she uncovers as the zipper comes down, comes away, Jamie’s hands working the material of the dress aside in quick, confident motions. 

It’s the most freeing thing in the world, having Jamie kiss the curve of her shoulder, having Jamie’s deft fingers working the dress down her body until she can step out of it, be rid of it at last. Dani sighs, leaning on arms folded across the half-wall. Behind her, Jamie presses close, the heat of her sending Dani’s already-jangling pulse through the roof. 

“Better?” she asks, her mouth still on Dani’s skin. Dani laughs. 

“I never want to see that goddamn thing again.”

“Can be arranged,” Jamie agrees, and Dani turns in her arms, so relieved to simply be standing here with Jamie that she almost doesn’t care she’s nearly naked. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead--”

“You’re kidding,” Jamie growls, cupping a hand behind her head and kissing her until all thoughts of apology are banished. Dani rocks against her, the sensation of cool air on her skin battling with the heat of Jamie’s body in the most pleasant way possible. 

“Bed?” she asks, pressing her face to Jamie’s and closing her eyes. “Please?”

Jamie seems very much as though she’s trying to slow down, even as she joins Dani on her small, clean mattress. Her hand tips under Dani’s chin, her eyes searching for confirmation that this is exactly what it ought to be. 

I want to be here, Dani thinks with giddy relief, arching up off the bed to kiss her again. I want to be here, as Jamie reaches around to unclasp her bra. I want to be here, as Jamie hovers above her, just looking for a long moment. 

She’s thought these words before, but always as a desperate plea. Never with such incredible conviction. Never with such intoxicating joy. 

She’s clawing at Jamie’s clothes, pulling her shirt up and guiding her pants down, the both of them squirming to be rid of clothing without actually breaking contact, and when there’s nothing left, when it’s just Jamie’s skin against hers under the blanket, Dani clutches at her back. Buries her face against Jamie’s neck. Holds there, shivering, overwhelmed. 

Jamie kisses her face, holding her close, her body perfectly still. For a while, it’s just this: just legs tangling, just arms grasping, just Jamie whispering her name and stroking her hands lightly along her skin. 

Then, gradually, Dani finds herself moving, a slow rock of her hips against Jamie, a pace Jamie matches and keeps only as she sets it. Jamie, breathing harder, making a sound that’s half her name, half a curse when Dani reaches down between them and seeks out the source of the wet trail Jamie's leaving on her thigh. 

This, she thinks, stroking experimentally in slow circles, following Jamie’s movements as best she can. This is where this should be happening. Not a stolen moment in a bathroom, not a desperate night on the couch, each of them constantly holding just that little bit apart from one another as they wait for something to crash headlong into the moment. It should be this: Jamie, kissing the same spot on her shoulder over and over, wild with what Dani is doing with her fingers. Jamie, biting down when Dani slides one finger in, adds a second, utterly mesmerized by the way Jamie’s body responds to the lightest touch. She rolls Jamie onto her back, watching her face, watching the way Jamie throws an arm over her mouth and groans into it. 

This, she thinks with something that feels unexpectedly like pride, following the quickening rock of Jamie’s hips, the way Jamie’s body urges her to keep going, to pick up the pace. She presses her own body down, Jamie’s thigh flexing against her own desperate want, and kisses Jamie with a clumsy passion she’s never felt before. Jamie reaches an arm around her, fingers digging into the nape of her neck, mouth opening in a silent cry, and Dani has never been happier in her entire life. 

***

It means something, she thinks, that she wakes without confusion. That even before her eyes are open, she’s remembering last night: the party, the dress, the walk, Jamie. Jamie’s hands exploring her skin, Jamie’s body reckless beneath her own. Jamie, coming down faster than she was prepared for, flipping her over, kissing her through a dizzying smile. 

Jamie, saying, “My turn” in a tone of voice Dani’s pretty sure she’d die to be on the receiving end of again. 

And, later, Jamie pressing back against her, letting Dani rope an arm around her midsection, letting Dani pull her back until they were naked skin on naked skin even in sleep. Four months of wishing she could have the bed to herself, gone in an instant. Dani’s already certain she has no need to sleep alone ever again.

Jamie is still asleep, eyelids fluttering as she dreams. Dani slides from the bed as quietly as she can, searching the floor. The remnants of last night lay scattered across the small apartment: dress, over by the kitchen; underwear and bra, dropped in a heap with her stockings half-under the bed. She shakes her head, crosses to Jamie’s tiny closet, retrieves a flannel shirt she last remembers from the day Jamie had offered to help her watch the kids. 

She slides it on, buttons three of the middle buttons, glances back at Jamie. A sound sleeper, as it turns out. Dani could do just about anything, she suspects, and Jamie would not rouse. 

What she chooses to do, after careful deliberation, is get started on breakfast. 

True to expectation, Jamie doesn’t so much as twitch as she mixes boxed pancake batter--Jamie doesn’t have a lot by way of groceries, but there’s enough for the two of them--and fries up a few strips of bacon. It’s only when the food is near enough done that the smells drift through to the bedroom that she hears Jamie say, “Dani?”

Every morning, Dani decides, scraping a slightly-burnt pancake onto a plate. I want to hear that first thing, every morning. 

“Dani, are you--fuck--cook...ing...” Jamie, hopping into a pair of jeans, comes around the corner and trips over Dani’s long-dropped heels. She stumbles, lifting her head, and freezes. 

“Breakfast?” Dani gestures with the spatula. “Help yourself. Figured it was the least I could do for crashing without warning last night.”

“Yeah,” Jamie says faintly. “Warning. That really ruined the whole evening, your lack of...warning...is that...”

She makes a plucking motion at the front of last night’s t-shirt, eyes never leaving Dani. She is not, Dani realizes with a warm burst of pleasure, looking at Dani’s face. 

“Sorry. Didn’t think you’d mind if I borrowed. I really hate that damn dress.”

“Are you,” Jamie says, prowling ever nearer with her eyes fixed on the gap between the button Dani chose to consider the first on the shirt and the flannel's actual collar, “going to keep apologizing all morning?”

“I mean...not if you give me a reason to stop?” 

The squeal of surprise she releases upon Jamie catching her around the waist, spinning her around, and hoisting her on top of the small table in the kitchen’s corner would be embarrassing, if Jamie wasn’t looking at her that way. If Jamie wasn’t leaning between her legs to give her maybe the best kiss of her life, slow and hungry and utterly intentional. 

“Is your table going to survive this?” she asks, pressing her face against Jamie’s neck as Jamie’s hands draw hot paths up her bare thighs. Jamie makes a noise of amused dismissal.

“I can always buy a new table.”

“We,” Dani laughs, her voice going flimsy when Jamie bows her head and works open the first button to get at the skin beneath. “We can.”

Jamie’s eyes are bright, her hand stilling. “Yeah?”

“Not that I’m inviting myself to stay,” Dani says hurriedly, that old self-consciousness pouring in with the silence. “But--I mean--if you wanted--”

“Invite yourself,” Jamie says, her voice thick with freshly-shed sleep and something considerably more important. “You’re invited. Long as you like.”

She’s kissing her way down again, leaving the rest of the buttons intact in favor of pulling Dani’s thighs over her shoulders. Dani finds little room in her for embarrassment, with the way Jamie is kissing her now, making darkly pleasant sounds against her as she holds Dani steady, tongue circling, pressing, experimenting with soft strokes. Her head spins, hips twisting in search of that sweet, perfect level of contact. Jamie doesn’t seem to mind taking her time. 

It's more than she ever could have dreamed, somehow. More than she could have imagined another person feeling, even as Jamie gives a darkly dirty laugh on the heels of her own voice repeating Jamie's name in a crescendo. Jamie, head bobbing, tongue curling in, hands braced between the bucking of her body and the thin wood of the table. Jamie, licking her clean as she closes her eyes against waves of bright, sparking exultation. 

The table does not go down. It is, Dani thinks with her nails dragging hot trails through Jamie’s thin t-shirt, not even the greatest miracle of the morning.

***

She’d like to leave while he’s at work. Would like to walk into that house with Jamie’s hand in hers and walk back out again with what little she cares about. A red backpack, stuffed with clothes and a few papers. A duffel weighted with a handful of books, a photo of her father, the occasional trinket that always did feel like Dani, and not like some idealized concept of a girl in a window. 

She’d like to--but there are some things she knows she can’t live with. 

“I have to do it right,” she says, and Jamie kisses her with all the care of a woman who trusts her to do the thing as needed. She has Jamie’s card in her pocket, Jamie’s apartment address burnt into her memory. She’ll call, if she needs to, once it’s over. Come back, either way, once it's done.

But first:

“We need to talk.”

She’s always thought she’d be better that the old cliches, but maybe cliches exist for a reason. With Eddie standing in the living room in boxer shorts and the rumpled look of a man who had a very bad night, she waits to feel the guilt. The shame. The pull toward a lifelong best friend who has, she’s started to realize, never actually bothered to get to know her at all. 

“Danielle--”

She raises one hand, a bid for silence he actually, for the first time, accepts gracefully. Her heart is slamming against her chest, all the lazy pleasure of the morning spent in Jamie’s bed replaced with that old familiar tension. This was never going to be easy. 

Right so often isn’t. 

“I’m going,” she says. It’s important to say that first. To get it out of the way. “I’m going, and that’s going to be the end of it, Eddie.”

He frowns, tugging at his hair. An old habit from when they were kids, when he’d get frustrated staring at a homework problem he couldn’t work out. “I don’t understand.”

“I should have told you before. Years ago. I shouldn’t have let it get even half this far. I...can’t do this, Eddie. Never could, if I’m honest. I love you--some part of me still does, despite everything--but it’s never been...the right kind of love.”

Her voice is so much steadier than she expected, leaving Jamie this morning. On the whole cab ride over, she’d thought, This is where I break. This is where I slip up and fall back on old safety measures. And still, her voice is firm, her words absolute.

“You...don’t love me...the right way,” he repeats slowly, a man in a daze. “Danielle, this is crazy, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m saying I’m sorry. I should never have let you talk me into this. You’re...you’re a good man, Eddie. Maybe not when you’re listening to Peter Quint, but the rest of the time, you are. You’re a sweet, good man, and you were my friend when no one else cared to try, and...and I love you for that.”

He’s shaking his head. She can see him trying to piece it together: I love you with I can’t do this. The puzzle isn’t lining up. 

“Can we just...talk about this?”

“I am talking,” she says evenly. “I am saying everything you need to know, even if it’s not what you want to hear. I love you, and I can’t love you the way you deserve, and no matter how much I care about your family, your mom, I...it’s not enough. So, I’m going.”

“Going where?” he asks, almost helplessly. He looks so young, his glasses slipping down his nose, his mouth loose with exhaustion. She smiles a small, sad smile. 

“To figure that out. Where home ought to be. Might be here in town. Might be on the other side of the country. I should have gone looking so much earlier, but...I am going to find out. One way or the other.”

“Is there--” She sees him steel himself, sees him try and fail to find the phrase someone else

“Even if there wasn’t,” she says, unable to take quite that much pity on him. Not with last night’s laughter still ringing in her head. “Even if there wasn’t, I’d be doing the same thing. I should never have accepted this.”

The ring is in her hand, small stone sharp against her palm. She sets it lightly on the mantle, looks at it for a beat. Turns away. 

“I’ll pack up while you’re at work. I can get the papers figured out. You’ll just have to sign them. But the house, the...everything here, it’s yours. I don’t need much.”

He should fight her, she thinks dimly, with the part of her mind still trained to think in terms of should and should not. He should fight her, scream, yell, demand to know why she’s doing this to him, who is it, who changed things, what did I do, Danielle. 

He doesn’t. Maybe in another life. Maybe in another story. Here, he only leans heavily on the armchair, one hand gripping its back, and stares at her with wet eyes. 

“I have to go,” she says, the words as firm as they are apologetic. “I love you, Eddie. I really do.”

She holds it together on the cab ride back to Jamie’s place. Holds it together until she’s sitting on Jamie’s bed. She realizes, dimly, that she did all of this in a pair of Jamie’s jeans, in Jamie’s faded flannel shirt, with Jamie’s sneakers on her feet and Jamie’s scent all over her. And he’ll never know any of it. 

She cries, then. Cries until it wrings her bone-dry. Cries, while Jamie holds her, rubbing patterns into her back, murmuring love against her ear. 

It’s not even that it hurts, really. Not the way she knows it should. It’s just the price of an exorcism. 

***

“When do classes start, again?”

“Two weeks,” Dani says. Her hair is tied back in a braid, her clothes befitting of the searing August day. The plastic of the booth sticks to her thighs; she peels each off in turn, enjoying the weird sucking noise her skin makes as contact breaks.

“Owen,” Jamie calls toward the kitchen. “Honestly, you couldn’t shell out for the good seating?”

“Maybe if I was running a seafood emporium.” He pokes his head out, looking entirely too proud of himself. Jamie groans.

“Seriously, stop doing that. If you want to be pun-king of the world, that’s your funeral, but I did not ask for--”

“Mrs. Clayton?”

Dani shifts, looking past Jamie toward the door. Hannah Grose, in a rich blue blouse and plaid skirt, looks just as elegant in ninety-degree August as she had in Dani’s classroom. 

Jamie slides gamely aside, allowing Dani out, trailing in her wake. “Mrs. Grose, I presume?”

“And you must be...Jamie.” Hannah smiles, though her puzzlement is apparent. “Nice to meet you. Mrs.--I’m sorry, Miss Clayton, how are you?”

It had been strange, calling Hannah up for coffee. Strange, asking to meet outside of school bounds. Dani hadn’t known anyone else, anyone who would have the first idea how to go about securing a divorce, and Hannah had barely batted an eye. Not when Dani said she was leaving Eddie, and not when she said she’d need to change her address to a little studio downtown. Not even when Dani, staring at her shoes, had mentioned Jamie’s name for the first time to a human being who wasn’t Owen.

She half-expected backlash. Half-expected Hannah to grasp her ever-present crucifix, her face pulling into a snarl. Not a minute later, she’d been ashamed for worrying; Hannah had simply sipped her tea, lipstick immaculate when she lowered the mug, and said, “I certainly hope this one is worthy of your potential, Dani.”

One step at a time, Dani had thought, as a smile broke over her face. It’s a good start. 

“Why did you want to meet here?” Hannah looks around. “Not that it isn’t lovely, but if you wanted to pick up your paperwork, you could have come by the school just as...”

Her voice trails away. Jamie gives Dani a very small smirk. Dani pointedly does not look at her. 

“Owen,” she says sweetly, “I’d like you to meet a friend. Hannah Grose, meet Owen Sharma.”

“A baker,” Hannah says, sounding just a little less dignified than usual. She is not staring at Owen, exactly--though perhaps only because Mrs. Grose is far too classy a woman to stare at anyone. 

Owen, on the other hand, looks like a boy who’s just caught his first glimpse of the girl he’ll dream of for the rest of his life. 

“I warn you,” Jamie says, as the two shake hands with a slow electricity that could power the whole block. “Owen here is a mad genius in the kitchen, and a mad idiot any time he opens his mouth.”

“Rude,” he says, without looking away from Hannah’s eyes. “I’ll have you know, my jokes are top-tier.”

“If that's a cake reference,” Jamie says warningly. 

“Of course it’s a bloody cake reference, who do you think I am?”

Hannah laughs. Dani twists at the waist to feign a cough, grinning at the wall. 

It isn’t the story she planned as a little girl. Isn’t remotely where she’d thought to be: flirting with thirty, on the fast track to a divorce after less than six months, falling in love with a scruffy gardener. It was never the plan, never the pattern, never how she meant for it to go.

But, with Jamie’s warm embrace wrapping her up, with Owen looking at Hannah like she hung the moon, with Hannah looking back with a surprised sort of hope painted all over her lovely face, Dani thinks the patterns aren’t so important. The plans are just words scattered on a page. 

Jamie is looking at her, smile wider than she’s ever seen it, and Dani Clayton thinks, It’s the most right anything has ever been. And as long as I know it, nothing else much matters.