"We really must stop meeting like this."
Dashiell leaned against the wall, his legs crossed at the ankle and his hands in his trouser pockets. He looked at ease, and was smiling with all the warmth of earlier.
"You okay?" He bent his head to the side and looked at me, and a small frown furrowed his brow. When I didn’t answer he pushed himself away from the wall and took a step towards me.
"Yes, I'm fine." I was anything but fine, because that smile brought back what I’d seen in his eyes as we’d stood by the wall. He had no right to look at me like that, not when there wasn’t a thing he or I could do about it.
"Are you? You seem very, I don’t know, muted I suppose the word is. Yes, muted."
I wanted to scream. Yeah, I was muted, all right. Muted, meek, mild, compliant, silent. All those words and more were my default mode. It was what was expected of me, and I played my part well because muted and all the rest of it got me through each day.
"I'm okay. I should get back," I mumbled, and I made to walk past but Dashiell caught my arm and stopped me in my tracks. I stared down at his hand, wrapped around my forearm. A few fine dark hairs were scattered over the pale skin. His hands were calloused, as though he was used to rough or outdoor work, but it was his fingers I noticed, long and slender, and I wondered, just for a moment, what he might do with those fingers and how they might feel as they traced their way across my skin.
"No, you're not."
No, I wasn't all right. I was as far from all right as it was possible to be, but I tugged my arm out from his grip. I needed to get back, to the noise and the heat and Frankie's insistent squeezing and rubbing of my thigh under the linen-draped table. That’s what I needed to do, but instead I looked up into Dashiell's big blue eyes, eyes that were looking back at me with concern and compassion. I honestly didn't know if what I was seeing was genuine, or whether Dashiell was under orders from Frankie to test me, and trip me up, but at that moment none of that mattered as I stood there and unraveled.
Dashiell’s arms wrapped themselves around me, holding me up and holding me tight. There was no heat, nothing sexual in his touch, there was just warmth and strength, and I just couldn’t hold back. I cried. Big, fat, messy sobs, and it wasn’t pretty. I had snot running from my nose and drool from my mouth, and I was getting it all over his suit, the suit he looked fuck-off gorgeous in. I couldn't help any of it, and all I wanted was for Dashiell to hold me in his arms, a temporary safe haven from the mess that was my life.
"You can trust me, I'm not like the others. With whatever you need. If you want to talk—”
"There’s nothing to talk about. It is what it is.” I stepped back and dragged my hand across my face to wipe away the snot and tears. The wave was receding, and I was feeling a bit stupid as I battled to regain the control I’d lost that had resulted in me melting into a slushy puddle.
"He's asked me to report any unusual activity."
"So you're a spy? Your daily reports are just going to be a pile of blank pages." Perhaps I should have been angry, but I didn’t have the energy.
"No, I'm not. And I never would be, for that man."
Dashiell looked down at me. His eyes were still kind, but there was something else there too, as if he were thinking, and working something out.
"You don’t believe me? Would I have told you that if I intended to do it?"
"Why would you go against his orders? Frankie's not a man to make angry." If there was anyone who knew that, it was me, and I had the faded bruises and faint scars to prove it.
"Maybe I don't like being told what to do."
"I—" I didn't get any further. Dashiell pressed a forefinger to my lips, and the rest of the words melted away.
"Sometimes you just have to trust somebody, and that somebody's me."
His words were matter of fact, as if my trusting him was some kind of done deal. And you know what? In that moment that was exactly what it felt like. I nodded and Dashiell smiled big, broad and this time just a touch cocky, and God, didn't I just want him to pull me back into this arms.
"Come on, let's get back out there," he said.
He was right, because being away for too long wasn't a good idea, but as I washed and dried my face, and walked through the door Dashiell held open for me, I felt a calm I thought had been lost to me forever.