Disclaimer and Notes: Not mine, just playing in the sandbox as always. Written for the 2005 dS Seekrit Santa challenge. Thanks to Rhiannon Shaw for the beta.
A Sleeve Is No Place for a Heart
By Raine Wynd
Later, Harding Welsh would blame the broken espresso machine, and the fact that she'd gotten him so hooked on it, for making him so tired, so vulnerable. They'd gone shopping for a new one, over his (admittedly token) protests, and somehow the November wind and cold had them fleeing the shopping mall for somewhere warmer, somewhere out of the freezing rainstorm. Then her car wouldn't start, so he'd been forced to offer her a ride home in his car. Road construction combined with a six-car pileup on the freeway led them to detour off in an unfamiliar area, and she'd started talking about stuff he hadn't ever thought about since his wife had died, plus her directions to her house quite frankly didn't make any sense, so he'd just given up and driven her to his house. At least, there it was warm and he knew where everything was.
Later, he would find a million reasons why he should have never allowed himself to be involved with anyone named Vecchio, and why he should know better.
Later, he'd tell himself he was crazy, that the only reason it got as far as it did was because he was lonely.
He'd call himself ten kinds of fool.
Right now, though, those thoughts were hours, even months, away.
He'd meant to replace the shower curtain in the spare bedroom, but he'd forgotten, just like he'd forgotten that it was missing when he went to give her a towel. He didn't really think, and then it was too late, so he tried to avert his eyes when she turned around, dripping wet, but he was a man, and one who hadn't been in this close proximity to a naked woman in his own house in... He couldn't think how long it had been, didn't really want to, and anyway she was still standing there, waiting.
The bathroom, already just barely wide enough for a man of his girth, suddenly seemed to shrink exponentially. He cleared his throat, muttered an apology, and shut his eyes as he handed over the towel, but it was too late. Closing his eyes only etched the image of her body into his brain.
To his surprise, she just laughed softly. "What, you think I'm blind or something?" she asked.
This was not the Francesca he'd come to know. This was not even Frannie. This was some sort of pod person and he was an idiot for standing there with his eyes shut. He had to turn around and leave. That would be the smart thing to do, and he prided himself for being a smart man. He heard Frannie step out of the tub and close the distance between them.
"It's okay, Harding," she told him. "Can't blame you for looking." She cleared her throat. "Kinda hard not to, without a curtain."
He opened his eyes and realized she stood just within arm's reach. She'd wrapped the towel around herself, tucking the edge in so it dipped down into the valley between her breasts. The glint in her eyes made him wonder if she'd done so deliberately — surely, she knew better than to tempt himso? She was his employee, Ray's sister, a trusted friend, and...
His gaze traveled down her body, and he realized just how much the towel didn't cover, and that he was, once again, staring at her pubic hair. Abruptly, he felt like he was twelve all over again, sneaking a peek into the girls' locker room and seeing a naked girl for the first time. Mortified, aroused, and distinctly uncomfortable at feeling both emotions at once, Harding cleared his throat and tried to find his dignity by backing out of the room. There was more room in the guest bedroom, more air to breathe. Maybe if he left now, he'd be able to clear his brain, which was full of just how much he wanted to touch what Frannie was showing him.
Frannie, however, didn't let him. She followed him.
It was silly to be this afraid of a woman, he thought, and he abruptly stopped backing away. She took that opportunity to pull him down to her and kissed him. Shocked, Harding could only stand there, frozen. "Francesca- " he started to say.
"Don't talk," she told him. "Please." She began to unbutton his shirt.
He caught her hands and stilled them. A part of his mind — the part that hadn't gotten laid in more years than he cared to count — asked him what the hell he was thinking, stopping like this, when he had a beautiful, naked, and willing woman standing before him, but the other part — the part that hadn't made it through all those years without thinking about consequences — was louder. "I can't," he told her, hating the fact that he had to say it.
She looked up at him. "I'm not going to regret this," she told him, and shimmied a little. The movement loosened the towel and sent it to the floor. She lifted her chin higher and dared him to look his fill of her. "Come on. No one will know this happened but us. There's no one else who knows I was with you tonight. It's cold and lonely out there, and I..." Tears welled in her eyes and she swallowed. As if hypnotized, Harding watched her throat move. That movement seemed to call attention to the bare skin there, and he found himself wondering how she'd react if he kissed her there. Abruptly, he jerked his attention back to what she was saying, in time to hear her say, "I don't want to be alone anymore."
She stepped back just slightly, letting him look at her as goose bumps prickled her flesh and the chill of the room made her nipples stand out even more.
There were a thousand reasons why he shouldn't touch her, why it was wrong of him to stare at her like this, but suddenly, Harding didn't want them running through his brain. When was the last time anyone had offered themselves to him like this, without any ulterior motives? Frannie was beautiful. She wanted him. Later, there'd be time enough for analyzing and for regrets.
Hesitantly, he kissed her, not wanting to scare her with the force of his desire at the same time he wanted to be sure she wanted this. He'd spent too many years uncomfortably aware of how she'd modified her work uniform, too much time convincing himself she'd never look at him as anything other than her boss, to want to rush into something they'd both wish they hadn't done. Oh, he'd been more than aware of her flirting — it was hard not to notice, but he'd tried to push it all back under a professional demeanor, tried to pretend that he hadn't been at all aware that she was trying to entice someone. He just hadn't figured that someone was him.
Frannie kissed him back, answering his unspoken question with a yes, then took the kiss deeper. Passion built rapidly as the distance between them closed and he felt her breasts touching his chest. Her hands slipped out of his and finished unbuttoning his shirt, pushing the material away. He shrugged out of it and proceeded to kiss his way down her neck until finally, he reached her breast. She arched into the contact, her hands on his shoulders, and gasped as his tongue flicked over her nipple.
He'd nearly forgotten the thrill of hearing such a sound, of being the cause of such a sound, and that thrill filled him now, a powerful aphrodisiac. He pulled Frannie closer, slipped a hand farther down her body and onto the center of her. She cried out, but the cry of surprise turned into a moan of pleasure as he rubbed her clit and continued to suckle on her nipple. She widened her stance to allow him better access and he moved his attention to the other breast as he continued to stroke her. She was getting wetter by the second, and he soon took his attention off her breasts to focus on steadying her while he finger-fucked her to her first orgasm.
He waited a moment until her eyes focused on him again, and he deliberately licked his fingers. She shuddered, half-closing her eyes. He smiled hungrily. She took the hint and sauntered provocatively towards the bed. As he finished undressing, she pushed the covers down and stretched out seductively on the bed.
He didn't hesitate, didn't stop to think. He stepped towards her, then onto the bed to lie next to her. She kissed him slowly but thoroughly,then maneuvered him so that he was flat on his back and she was on top of him. He felt her grasp his cock, stroke it twice, then she pushed it into herself and he groaned at the contact. She was so hot and moist and then she started riding him in earnest. He caught her hips and tried to get some control of the pace, but she wasn't interested in going slow, and soon, neither was he.
Silence reigned in the wake of spent passion. Abruptly awkward, Harding started to speak. "Fran—"
She kissed him, and he quickly forgot what it was he was going to say. Clearly, she was still hungry for him, and the desire to sate that hunger swept over him like wildfire. The evening passed in a blur of sex and naps between sex and more sex.
Somehow, he woke up alone. There was a note on the table in the kitchen next to the coffeepot that just said, "Took a taxi. You were sleeping like an elephant. Couldn't wake you. See you Monday."
He poured coffee blearily and wondered if he could just wipe the evening from his memory.or if would happen again.
It never did, though. She never said anything about it, and they went back to their previous relationship as if the night was simply an aberration. He figured that was probably for the best. It was crazy to think that she'd really be interested in a real relationship with him, and she certainly didn't act like she was interested in repeating the admittedly spectacular experience. He'd felt too awkward, unsure of where the boundaries were, to push the issue. Moreover, he didn't feel the workplace was an appropriate place to air his private feelings. The fact that he could find other ways to remove those constraints occurred to him, but he chose to follow Frannie's lead: what happened, happened, and would not happen again.
He'd nearly put it out of his head, writing it off as some Christmas present come early, when the office grapevine reached him four months later. He didn't want to believe it, and yet. He really hadn't seen her for several weeks. She'd been careful not to get up any more than necessary, even going so far as to have other people deliver him what he'd requested from her, and the caseload lately had been a nightmare.
"Francesca? Can I see you in my office?" he bellowed across the bullpen.
She looked up from her conversation with one of the detectives and nodded, quickly excusing herself and stepping into his office.
"Shut the door," he told her, sitting down behind his desk and gesturing for her to sit.
She perched on the edge of the chair. "Is this about the espresso machine? I told Detective McCleary not to hit it again."
"No, it's not." He took a deep breath and wondered why the hell he was so nervous. "I heard something about you that concerns me. Are you—" He stumbled. Never in his life had he had to ask anyone this question, and certainly not under these circumstances. For a moment, he wished he'd said something sooner. "Are you pregnant?"
She stared at him for a long moment. "Who told you? I am so going to kill Sheila, she wasn't supposed to tell anyone." She rose to her feet.
Harding waved her off. "It wasn't Sheila. It was the janitor who found you in the bathroom this morning, vomiting." He leaned closer. "When were you going to tell me?"
"I don't know," she admitted miserably, sinking back into the chair. "I was going to, you know, after I'd figured out how."
"Was getting pregnant your intention that night?" Harding tried for a level tone of voice, trying not to judge, but it came out accusing anyway. He couldn't believe this was happening.
"No, damn it," Frannie protested, horrified, half-rising out of her chair. "I just thought—oh hell, I don't know what I was thinking. I thought it was safe! I mean, I pray every day that God will forgive me for using the Pill, but I guess I was wrong!"
"Well, I thought it was safe, too. I got, you know... well, let's just say I didn't think I could produce kids anymore. Look, I'm sorry," Harding said awkwardly. He could see that she was genuinely sincere, and he stepped out from behind his desk to kneel beside her. Taking her hands, he looked into her eyes and said quietly, "I just...needed to know. I mean, we never talked about it before."
"I didn't think it needed talking about!" Frannie was nearly hysterical. "It was then, this is now, and, and—" She rose to her feet, her hands fluttering, breaking contact with his. He stood, feeling helpless. She started for the door,then abruptly whirled. "I'm not asking you for help or anything."
"You sure?" He wanted desperately for her to say she needed his help. He prided himself on taking care of his responsibilities, and he wasn't sure what he'd do if she refused.
"No, I'm not sure, but —"
A knock sounded on the door and Detective McCauley leaned in. "Sorry to interrupt, but there's a Special Agent Sanchez from the FBI here who wants to speak to you, Lieutenant. Says it's important."
"Give us a minute," Harding told him. He waited until McCauley shut the door again. "We'll talk more about this, Francesca. Later."
"There's no need to talk about anything," she protested.
"Yes, there is. Don't be stupid. Now go and tell the Feeb he can come in and tell me what's so damned critical."
Somehow, work got in the way of that conversation, and another month slipped by. Harding was sitting at his desk late one Friday evening when the phone rang.
"Tell me why I shouldn't just fly up there and shoot you now," a male voice demanded.
"Because, Vecchio," Harding said conversationally, "I would have to consider this a threat against a police officer, and you know how I hate paperwork. Please tell me this is a social call to let me know just how much you're enjoying running a bowling alley in Florida." He rubbed the bridge of his nose and tried to ignore the warning signs of a migraine. "Now, please clarify whether I'm being accused of something in particular or if you're just channeling a dead Mafia boss. If it's the latter, then I'll have you know that not everything is within my power to fix."
"My sister is pregnant. She swears it's an immaculate conception, and we both know that's impossible."
"What, that your sister is pregnant or that she got pregnant through some miracle?"
"Ha ha, you're so funny."
"And you, Vecchio, seem to have lost your sense of humor," Harding pointed out. "Listen, I don't know anything about your sister's pregnancy. She hasn't told me anything. Maybe it is a miracle." Which, Harding thought, would be something of a truth. "Have you talked with Francesca lately?"
In reply, he got a dial tone. Harding stared at the phone a moment before replacing it on the receiver.
"I'm sorry," Frannie said. She shrugged and shuffled into the office. "I couldn't help but overhear that." She lowered herself into the guest chair. At five months, she was already hugely pregnant. "My brother never did like surprises. He found out yesterday from Ma about—" She waved a hand over her belly and looked directly at Harding. "I tried to tell him it's not your fault, but I think he assumed you'd look after me, keep me out of trouble."
"So he doesn't know I'm the father?"
"I didn't tell him."
"Were you planning on it?"
"Well, that's why I thought, with everyone gone, we could, you know—"
Harding looked at her blankly.
"Talk, that is," she clarified hastily. "Look, I don't know if what we did resulted in this or not, but I'm guessing it did, and I just wanted you to know before I went on maternity leave."
"Maternity leave? Already?"
"I'm expecting sextuplets," she told him. "I've been ordered to do bed rest and there's a bunch of other things the doctors want to be sure about."
"I see." He sat upright in his chair and drew a deep breath. "Anything I can do for you?"
She half-chuckled. "You could lie to me and say we'll live happily ever after."
He smiled. "And what good will that do?" He stood and moved to kneel before Frannie. "Look, let me make some calls, at least let me take care of the medical bills. You don't have to put me down as the father if you don't want to. We can figure out paternity later. I'm not saying that to get out of any responsibility, I'm just saying you don't have to worry about it or decide anything."
"What, call this a miracle pregnancy?" Suddenly, Frannie's gaze sharpened. "You know, if we do this right, I could be set."
"Nothing illegal," Harding reminded her sharply. Something in her tone and her expression combined with the recent reminder of some of her brother's hare-brained stunts made him wary.
"No, but if you're not going to claim you're the father, and I'm not going to claim I know who the father is, then what's left is a miracle, right?" She struggled out of the chair and Harding rose with her, supporting her partially as he did so.
He could nearly hear the gears in Frannie's head going. She turned into him, pulled him down, and kissed him soundly. "This is perfect," she exclaimed, then stopped as she noticed his expression. More quietly, she reassured him. "It's okay. I'm not lying, and you're not lying, and no one will know but us."
"Isn't that what got us in trouble before?"
She stared him. "I wanted you to see what you meant to me. I'm sorry it's not what you wanted."
"What I wanted? Where the hell did you get that idea?"
"You didn't call me!"
"Call you? Francesca, you didn't act like you wanted to remember it the next day!"
"I thought you wanted it that way." Frannie's voice was small and quiet, and he hated how she sounded.
Harding sighed and rubbed his forehead. How the hell did his life get so complicated? he wondered. Moreover, how the hell was he going to cope with this? His first instinct was to protect her, to provide for the children, and as much as she'd let him, love her for it. Suddenly, he felt every inch of his age — old enough to know better twice over, and still not wise enough for anything.
"Not if it was going to maybe turn out this way," he told Frannie tiredly. He walked over to the window and braced himself against the ledge, staring out the glass at the night. He exhaled heavily, then turned back to face Frannie. "What way do you want it to be?"
She walked to the door and shut it. She stood there a moment, facing away from Harding, and took a deep breath. Bracing her shoulders and straightening her back as much as her body would allow, she turned to face him. "I just want my babies to be taken care of."
He stared at her a long time,then cleared his throat. He could see she was fighting not to wear her heart on her sleeve, not to ask for more than she thought he could deliver. He wanted to tell her...something, anything, but he knew the words wouldn't change anything. He loved her, but he'd always loved being a cop more than anything else. She knew it, he knew it, and anyone who knew him knew it.
There were tears in her eyes, and he knew suddenly that she cared more than she was willing to admit. Harding found focusing on planning difficult. He knew that what happened now, in this office, in this moment, was changing more than his life. Some part of him grieved for the choice he was making.
"I have a friend who works for a newsmagazine. I'll call her tomorrow, tell her your story. Not every day someone gets pregnant with six kids — ought to make a few headlines." He let go of a breath and braced his shoulders, trying to resist the urge to hug her and promise more than he could deliver. "They'll always be my babies, you understand. No matter what gets said."
She nodded. "I'm not going to deny that to you." She crossed the room to him and took his left hand in hers and kissed the space where a ring would go. "It's not the first time I've pretended the incredible. I mean, come on, who'd mistake Stanley Kowalski for my brother?"
"It worked, didn't it?"
She smiled. "Yeah. So, what's the story this time?"
"Well, you gave me this idea of a miracle pregnancy, and..."