Disclaimer: Characters borrowed, and safely returned.
Author's Notes: Inspired in part by the lyrics to 'Thanks for the Dance' by Anjani, and by a line in a NW novel, the title of which escapes me, where Archie says that he and Lily often return to her apartment to do 'their own crowding' (a Wolfean twitch of satisfaction, if you can tell me which book that is!)
He likes to dance, and I like to be the one he dances with. Sure, there are others when I have to sit this one out or when he is all work and no play, but the last dance is always ours.
When we are on the floor, he doesn’t speak to me; he smiles, and sometimes mouths the lyrics to the number that is playing, but when we dance, he is a different Archie to the smart, sharp figure he thinks he is otherwise. I like them both: I like to laugh and I like to be held.
We spin and step through the fast dances, breathless as our feet somehow manage to pilot the floor on automatic. He is a nimble, graceful mover, leading me between and around the other bodies as I hold onto his shoulders, and I willingly surrender control to be his partner; to fight his instinct would be to lose the rhythm, and then we would be out of step.
Archie prefers when he can feel the music and stop thinking, but I enjoy the embrace of a lazy shuffle on a crowded floor. For the slower numbers, when the lights are dimmed at the end of the evening, I recover the initiative; I can rest my head against his shoulder, his body swaying mine, or tilt my head back to watch his face. He won’t let me hold his hand in public, and claims he can’t walk straight with my arm linked through his, but when we dance his hold around my waist is firm and he will rest his cheek against my hair if I lean into him. Late night into early morning is my time, and I know that I have him for as long as the band plays on; sometimes the spell carries him with me, but it is always broken long before daybreak.
“How about you stay to let me cook you breakfast?” I ask, as we walk out of the club. “You’re starting to make me feel cheap.”
“You’ve never been cheap,” he tosses back, throwing up his umbrella before we leave the canopy and step into the street. “And Fritz cooks breakfast – I’ll send you something over, what do you fancy?”
Fritz – Wolfe – Archie: the spell is broken. “Thanks, I think he’ll have stopped taking orders before I plan to greet the day.” I press against him, nearside for a lady of course, to stake my share of the cover; he’s holding the umbrella between us, but I slip my hand beneath his elbow anyway.
“I could hand you into a cab with a chaste kiss,” he touches his lips to my temple and sounds an affected ‘mwah’, “if that would be more along the lines of your new sensibilities?”
“You owe me a damn sight more than a chaste kiss, Goodwin,” I fire back, stopping him in the street with a hand against his chest.
“Will that do?” He wants to sound mad, as we start walking again, but he is still getting his breath back.
“As an I.O.U.”
I try not to, but a laugh escapes my throat, and I glance at him. He is watching me, grinning, and I shove against him with my arm; his body tenses, absorbing the impact, and then he dips the umbrella over to his far side, letting the rain fall cold on my hair. As I reach across him for the stem, he pulls me in as if we are still on the dance floor, and waltzes me into a doorway.
“Unhand me, fiend,” I whisper.
Hidden from view, our bodies are pressed close, quick breaths of warm air tingling between our lips. I meet his sharp grey eyes, focusing on one and then the other as our noses touch, and I lower my lashes; I can barely tell if he is kissing me at all, or if he is just whispering against my mouth. ‘Marry me.’
I open my eyes. “Sure,” I smile, because I wasn’t supposed to have heard that. “You forge the licence, I’ll buy the garter.”
“Not until we’re married, buster,” I leer at him. He shrugs and starts walking. “You’re on!” I call after him.
If I let him carry me along the street, we will laugh, and if we laugh we will be safe; sometimes our poker faces are too good. So he hands me the umbrella, boosts me up onto a low wall that runs around a basement areaway, turns his back and bends his legs a little. My dress is cut in the right places, for dancing, and when I crouch behind him it parts over my knees. I hitch myself onto his back, my hands gripping his shoulders awkwardly. The umbrella falls to the sidewalk, bouncing on its metal tip before lazily rolling towards the kerb. And we are laughing.
I grip his hips with my knees, and he slips his hands around my thighs and lifts me higher. My arms are hugging his neck so that he has to lift his chin, but he doesn’t complain. I press my cheek to his ear. He starts moving, weaving slowly along the path, and somebody from the club overtakes us, cheering, but we just laugh harder, almost breathless now. My body is clamped tight against his, and I can feel the muscles in his back as he walks with that distinctive light prowl that first attracted me to him many moons ago. I sweep his hat off and lift it to cover my hair, now lank from the rain; shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, as my father would have said.
“All right, my little snowflake, end of the line,” he grunts, and dips his knees again to let me slide to the floor.
I unlock the door to my apartment and he follows me inside; there is a duplicate key on his keyring, but he and I both know what it is for – and what it is not for.
Marie has left strategic lamps switched on, in the hall and the lounge, though I can see my way without them. She only seems to take this precaution when I return with company; I don’t know if it is for their benefit or hers, but Archie is no stranger here.
I grab his arm as I teeter on one slender heel, fighting with the buckle on my ankle strap. As I stand wriggling my toes and readjusting my feet to a flat surface, he stoops and gathers up my shoes that I have abandoned in the middle of the hall, collecting them by the straps and standing them by the door.
“You’d make an excellent butler.” I smile at him and he takes a bow, folding one arm across his stomach and the other behind his back.
We head for the kitchen, where the counter lights cast a diffused glow upon the surfaces and leave the rest of the room in shadow. Marie has predicted our path right down to the glass upon the table for Archie’s milk.
I beat him to the refrigerator, and stand with my back against the door.
“What’s the going rate for a bottle of milk these days?” I ask. It’s an honest question; such minutiae bores me.
He stuffs his hands into his trouser pockets and leans against the edge of the table, smiling faintly. “A whole bottle?”
I’ve forgotten my line; the air is crackling with energy and we both know what we came here for. We can be friends, sharing interests and each other’s company, or we can be lovers. I have the sudden urge to push my fingers through his hair, longer than usual and sandy-coloured in the low light; rake my nails against the roots and watch it spring back.
“Maybe,” I manage to answer. “If you’re good.”
He slips one hand free from its pocket, his fingers extended and his thumb hidden, and then deftly flips a coin into the air. I am still leaning on my hands when I realise what he is doing, but I manage to palm the dime before it falls to the floor.
“What is this?” I tease.
“Keep the change,” he says, pushing away from the table.
The dance is over. I lay in the warm cocoon of sheets and pillows, breathing slowly and listening to those familiar sounds: a whisper of material, light footsteps, the creak of my Louis XVI chair by the window. The constant twilight of the city that never sleeps penetrates the silk drapes, but I can see him dressing to leave me, to go home, without opening my eyes. He moves into the bathroom and runs the water, working it through his lively hair with his fingers because his comb is in his jacket pocket, which is still in the kitchen. I can smell on my hands whatever product he uses, and hope that water will hold the same neat style until he reaches his own bed; he hates it when his stubborn hair refuses to be tamed, but then few people will see him tonight. He shuts off the water, dries his hands, and stealthily crosses the bedroom to collect his shoes.
I roll onto my side with an affected, though I hope seductive, little sigh, and let my hand fall onto the cold space beside me. After I am settled, I hold my breath to listen: is he satisfied that I am still asleep, or will he take the hint? We have both learned not to underestimate the other’s wits and wiles. The light on my eyelids becomes a shadow, and I force myself to breathe normally, wanting and pretending at the same time. He approaches the bed, his scent still strong, and I tell myself that he has seen me, but then I hear a chink of metal against glass as he retrieves his cufflinks from the ashtray and I know that the moment is over. I hear him fiddling with his cuffs, that sharp tug on his sleeve and his heavy breathing as he concentrates in the gloom, and flutter my eyes open.
Women watching through their eyelashes is only a device used in storybooks. He looks at me. “I wondered how long you could keep that act up.”
“Did I beat my personal best?” I murmur, pushing myself up; the sheet stays with me, I refuse to stoop to that level.
“I thought the whimper was a nice touch,” he smiles, stowing his hands in his pockets again.
“That was a sigh of satisfaction, not a whimper,” I answer back.
He is dressed and ready to leave, but we are still staring at each other. That energy is back, quickening my pulse and prickling my skin. I lower my gaze, tracing his silhouette against the grey light of the picture window, and see flashes of his bare shoulders or the curve of his spine; my body seems to react to the gentle suggestion of his touch, as in dancing, and I lean into the step; we guide and respond without words, changing pace and taking turn to lead, but never losing our rhythm.
I hold out my hand. “Thank you for the dance.”
He kneels on the bed, the mattress shifting under his weight, and leans into my frame, slipping my arm over his shoulder. I can taste my toothpaste on his lips, on his tongue – the cheat – and feel my own urgency in his embrace, as he draws me up against his body.
The music, our music, has ended for tonight. My fingers rake through the short hair at the nape of his neck, over his collar, onto his shoulder; he presses a hand against my back, pulling me in, and then releases me.
“Nobody I’d rather dance with.”
I’ve had other partners, but Archie is the only man who can match me at any tempo and move with me through every new dance. We are close, intimate, when we need to be, but we also know when to leave the floor.