Jenny Astrid - December 1928
Jenny stepped into her silk and lace unmentionables, enjoying the sensual feel of them against her skin. They still seemed an excessive extravagance, but one she was more than prepared to continue for as long as she could afford it. Which could actually be for the rest of her life, she realised as her nimble fingers tied a miniscule bow. If that was what she decided.
She located her stockings, then absently perched on the edge of an upholstered chair to draw them over her toes and feet before unrolling them up her shapely white legs, smoothing them against her calves to keep the back seam straight. These were direct from Paris. A gift from Corwyn. So much finer than anything else she had worn and infinitely more comfortable than the woolen variety.
She vented a snort of amusement when she remembered finally persuading Carla to don something similar five years ago. The woman had not taken off that first pair for over a week. Jenny could understand the need to hold onto something fine – especially having grown up dirt-poor. Even woolen stockings had been a luxury that neither could have afforded.
There was a sigh from the far end of the massive bed with its soft sheets, feather-filled comforter, and black mink throw, that heralded Corwyn’s return to awareness. She closed her eyes for a second, hoping that he would simply roll over and go back to sleep. Then she could slip away and avoid having to bring the real world into this illusion of warmth, opulence, and affection.
“It is perfectly alright for you to stay this afternoon and, dare I say, the night as well.” Corwyn’s pleasant earthy baritone was comforting to listen to – and his associated smile, the one he reserved just for her, made it that much harder to even think about leaving this room. “You know that.” His voice hoarsened slightly as his eyes flicked momentarily toward the innocuous little brown leather hinged box sitting on the mirrored dresser behind her. “You also know that I would like you to stay every night.”
Her own dark green eyes surveyed the box unwillingly even as she remembered what sat inside it. That perfect golden ring, that beautiful ruby centre, and those stunning diamonds surrounding it. It had quite taken her breath away when she first beheld it and when she had realised what Corwyn was asking of her. Unable to resist its allure, she had tried the ring on, amazed that it fit and enamoured with its utter perfection. After a moment of silent contemplation, she had then forced herself to take it off and stow it carefully back in the box, before closing the lid with a trembling hand.
There had been something too perfect about the whole previous evening, and she was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Tongues would wag, Corwyn Malloran III.” She could hear the faintest accent in her voice, echoes of the way her mother pronounced the unfamiliar English words. She had worked hard to cultivate that exotic way of talking, making it softer, easier to understand, and above all, different. It had stood her in good stead when cultivating new marks for her cons. “They already talk too much about our involvement with each other – or perhaps, I should say, about my involvement with you. Without care, my reputation will be in tatters and then what would I be?”
“Still an owning director of Malloran, Astrid and Drago Investigations,” he responded with his irritating reasonableness that brooked no dissension.
She felt her forehead contract into a frown as her mouth pursed and she glared at him. Another habit gleaned from her deceased mother. “And that was the first nail in the coffin of my reputation. How does a woman like me get to fill such a plum role?”
Corwyn’s own brow furrowed in confusion. It was so like him not to understand, not to see the obvious. “By putting your life on the line, time and time again, during our investigations over the last nine years. By paying your way just like every other director in every firm I own.”
Jenny shook her head in his near-unshakeable belief in the goodness within his fellow man. It drew her to him like a moth to the flame, fluttering as best she could to stay out of the heat, but ultimately unable to resist. She moved slowly across the thick carpet, her stockinged toes relishing the softness, one foot after another, until she was beside him. Her hand reached out and ruffled his already tousled blond locks.
“You are such an innocent, Corwyn.”
She leant forward, her hand slipping down his cheek, and their faces met when her ruby lips pressed against his. She kissed him soundly. It should have been a ‘goodbye’ kiss, but it became something gentler and more meaningful than she originally intended. When his hands wandered, eliciting excitement wherever they touched, she had to pull herself out of his reach. “Enough love play, pretty boy. I have work to do this afternoon.”
“You could leave it to Carla,” Corwyn suggested hopefully.
Jenny chuckled, tempted. “Carla is good at many things,” she acknowledged with a slight smile, “but cataloguing and pricing my latest batch of occult books, esoteric paraphernalia, and downright lewd underground press printings is not one of them. The last time I tried that, she borrowed a set of thousand-dollar etchings and the manuscript that went with them. I did not see her for two whole days after that. When I asked her later what she had been doing, she said ‘research’.”
Corwyn laughed. “Bring some of those round next time, beautiful, and we can do some of that research together.”
Jenny made a rude noise and struck a pose that gave her Corwyn’s full attention. “Who needs etchings when this masterpiece is present in the flesh?”
Corwyn covered his eyes with his hands, peering between gaps in the fingers. “You’re killing me,” he moaned. “Marry me and put me out of my misery. Then everything I have will be yours too.”
Jenny bent to pick up her silk and velvet haute couture dress that had somehow ended up crumpled on the floor, presenting him with her silk-covered derriere. It was a form of answer, she knew, but it wasn’t the whole answer. That was far more complicated. Buying time to think, she shimmied into the form-fitting creation and looked back over her naked shoulder at him archly. “Help me button this up?”
Corwyn rose from the bed without covering himself and obliged, though not without few exploratory forays beneath the couture creation before he was finished. By the time she turned to face him, she was flushed and breathing heavily.
“Bad boy,” she growled, her eyes belying the tone. “I do wish I was able to stay, but some of those tomes have time-sensitive purchase dates – apparently, their would-be owners have plans over the Christmas period.” She set one manicured finger atop his lips to prevent him from speaking. “I am seriously considering your proposal, mon cheri.” Now she was completely out of her comfort zone and getting deeper into uncharted waters. “When we first met, I would have taken you and your money for a ride. But, in the years following that eventful time, we have grown closer than I could have ever imagined.”
He kissed her finger.
“I find that I am concerned about both our reputations.” Her eyes met his and she shivered. “At best, darling man, I am a procurer and purveyor of rare and esoteric books – many of which could rightly be labelled obscene. My clients are a private and eclectic set of individuals who prefer to remain hidden in the shadows they cultivate.” She shrugged at his quizzical expression. “If we go through with this, the muckrakers in the common press, the competitors who are forever being outdone by you, will dredge through my life with a fine sieve looking for dirt to sling.” She took a deep breath and released it. “Though I have been as discreet as I was able in the circumstances, some of what I have done and what I still do, will not show me in a good light.”
“And I’ve spent months in a sanitorium recovering from unnamed mental distress,” Corwyn argued, his hands clasping hers warmly. “There is plenty of ammunition in my past too. I don’t care what others think or believe about us. I only care about us.”
“But I do care,” Jenny told him, freeing her hand. “We have investigative work yet to do which will be made impossible if we are presented to the world in such unflattering light.” She gestured to the room about them. “I like you. I like the luxury your wealth provides. But do I love you enough to ignore the cries of ‘gold digger’ or worse that would be thrown at me? Can I bear up under that strain?” She ducked her head, almost ashamed, and wondering at the fact that she even felt this way. “I do not yet know.”
Her eyes flicked up in time to see his crestfallen face. “Truth is the hardest thing for any relationship, new or old, to bear. All the pretty little lies we tell each other, and ourselves, seem much more like true love.” She shrugged again, daintily. “I should know. I have conned many men and women out of their money by telling them what they want to hear.” She tried to present it as baldly and matter-of-factly as she could manage. “I do not want to do the same to you. If this is ever to work between us, we must be able to be ourselves, warts and all.”
Corwyn took her in his arms and squeezed her tight.
She damned herself for needing to respond to that expression of his affection by wrapping her arms about him and squeezing back just as tight as she could manage.
“I do understand, sweetheart,” Corwyn said softly. “I just think we deserve to put our own happiness ahead of what others may think. I also believe that we can weather any storms that beset us so long as we do so together.” He kissed her lightly and stepped away. “I will wait for your answer as long as it takes.”
The doorbell rang.
Coryn glared in its direction, snagged a waiting robe from a hook, shrugged it on and belted it tight. “My man has the day off,” he explained with a grin. “Reception have standing orders not to interrupt unless it is important.” He stepped out of the room, then poked his head back though the partially closed bedroom door. “Wait here.”
Jenny waited by the ajar door, concealing herself from any casual onlooker, but able to see and hear whatever transpired in the other room.
Corwyn winked in her direction, then opened the outer door with a flourish. Through the portal, Jenny could see the grey livery of one of Corwyn’s building attendants. It was the young man called Billy. She’d teased him about his apparent youthfulness, especially when compared with his older associates, and given him the monicker of ‘the kid’, much to his chagrin. Unfortunately, her well-meaning efforts had stuck, and the other attendants called him ‘Billy the Kid’ whenever they could.
“Telegram for Miss Astrid,” Billy announced, presenting a silver tray with a folded sheet of paper.
“Ah,” Corwyn said brightly, fumbling in his robe pockets. “I don’t seem to have any…”
Jenny huffed, strode into the room, crossing the thick afghan rug in a mere two steps, and claimed the slip of paper from the tray. Cringing inwardly at the extravagance, she replaced the paper with a five dollar note of her own.
Billy goggled at the amount. “Um, er,” he stammered, “thank you, Miss Astrid.”
“Thank you, Billy,” she told him with her sweetest smile before closing the door, freeing them both from his awkwardness. She turned on one heel and glared at her would-be fiancé. “Why is my mail being delivered to your apartment?” She was quite proud of how icy that last question came out.
Corwyn raised his hands in surrender. “I asked for them to do so if you were ever unavailable.”
“This is the very opposite of discreet,” she told him tersely.
“In my defence,” Corwyn argued in return, “we were working up here a great deal at the time and I did not want you to miss anything important.” He lowered his hands, watching her response carefully. “They are also our security personnel. Their job requires discretion and they are paid well enough to ensure it.”
Jenny could feel her temper rising. In Corwyn’s world, if his personality could not elicit the appropriate response, then money could surely do so. She was going to answer him sharply and explosively, but the telegram caught her attention instead. She scanned the stuck-on lines of teletype paper and her temper dropped to a slow burn. “Oh,” she muttered, “it’s from Jackson Elias. He wants us to meet him in New York on January 15 with an investigation team. He has information concerning the Carlyle expedition.”
“I’ll get dressed and have everyone meet us in the conference rooms,” Corwyn said decisively, heading toward his bedroom. He slowed when he caught her expression. “What?”
Jenny scowled. “There is plenty of time. I still have things to do this afternoon.”
“Okay,” Corwyn nodded in agreement. “I’ll organise the meeting for tomorrow afternoon.” He cocked his head, eyes distant, thinking. “As Connie is still in L.A. working undercover on a moving picture, perhaps we should bring in Maia Raith to assist?” He frowned remembering something. “I think she did the most recent bio on your friend, Elias. She can bring everyone up to speed on his credentials and dig up some material on Carlyle’s expedition. That was the one that vanished, wasn’t it? I vaguely remember reading about it in the NY Times.”
“I believe so,” Jenny agreed. She spied one of her shoes near the large open fire with its bearskin rug. The other was dangling from an upright lamp. She retrieved them both, blushing at the memory of how they had gotten into their respective locations. “We will continue our discussion about the other matters later. This is merely a postponement.” She looked across the room at him when she opened the outer door. “Yes,” she said in her professional voice, “I do believe Maia is ready for fieldwork.”
She closed the door behind her before Corwyn could come up with any witty reply, slung the shoes over her shoulder, and headed down the stairs to her own apartment, whistling a jaunty showtune with every step, the lyrics running through her head with every upbeat note:
When you're learning what lips are for,
And it's naughty to ask for more,
Let a lady confess, I want to be bad!
Oh, if it's naughty to rouge your lips,
Shake your shoulders and shake your hips,
Then, let a lady confess, I want to be bad!
And, if it's naughty to vamp the men,
Sleep each morning till after ten,
Then the answer is yes, I want to be bad!
Nobody cares just how blue and how lonesome I am!
If I have troubles and laugh, why they don't give a dam-
If it's wrong to let someone take,
Just a little kiss by mistake,
Let a lady confess, I want to be ba-da-da-da-da-da Bad!