SHE CAN DO IT
Tommy and Barbara are sent undercover as husband and wife.
A first time story.
Written: March 2012. Word count: 3,500.
He watches her move around the room; she's tense, ill at ease and it isn't just because the opulence of the room. He knows her well, sometimes he thinks he may know her too well. He watches her frown as she looks at the pictures on the walls; he watches her move one of the bottles of body lotion on the dressing table; he watches her run her hand through her hair and smooth her frock down.
He watches her look at the bed; he watches as she tentatively touches the pile of pillows; he watches as she frowns at the arrangement of cushions; he watches her shake her head and move away from the bed. He watches as she looks into the bathroom; he watches as she looks at the sofa set between the two windows.
He watches her pull the long, heavy curtains that frame the window to one side and stare out. The sun is setting and the colours of the sky reflect off the lake they can see from the room - their room. She turns and looks at him; his heart aches at the look on her face. He smiles at her, but she turns away, moving nearer to the window, leaning her forehead against the glass and staring out, watching the sun drop lower in the sky.
"Barbara," he says quietly. She doesn't reply. He takes a step towards her and then another. He tentatively puts a hand on her shoulder; she freezes for a moment, her shoulders rising with tension, before he watches her force them down. He leaves his hand where it is, but again his heart aches. It's been a long time since she flinched when he touched her.
Part of him can understand her unease; part of him feels it too. He knows she doesn't want to be here; he doesn't be here - at least he doesn't want to be here like this; under these circumstances.
"Barbara," he says again.
"What, sir?" Her tone is harsh.
He sighs. "Barbara, you can't call me 'sir'."
She glares at him. "Well, I won't when we're in public, sir."
He shakes his head. He knows how easy it is to make a mistake, to slip up, unless the façade continues at all times. "Tommy," he says firmly. "Say it, Barbara. It's an easy enough name. Two syllables - Tommy. Just say it. Please," he adds.
At the word he sees her face soften just a little. Then her shoulders sag and she looks down at the floor. "Tommy," she murmurs. He likes the way she says it; he likes hearing her say his name. Then she looked up and he's aghast to see tears are shining in her eyes. He doesn't know whether to acknowledge them or just pretend they aren't there. But then she sniffs and reaches for the pocket she doesn't have in her well chosen, elegant, fitted frock.
He hands her his handkerchief. "It's clean," he says with a smile, trying desperately to put her at her ease.
To his relief she manages a watery half-smile and she takes the handkerchief. "Thank you, Tommy," she says wiping her eyes. She closes them for a moment, before opening them and looking up at him; he has never seen her look so unhappy, so lost, so sad. "This isn't going to work." She pauses, then says deliberately, flatly, but with no hint of the belligerence he'd heard earlier, "Sir."
She walks past him, kicks off her shoes and slumps down on the bed, and tries to pull up her knees, but she can't the smart frock is too fitted. Instead she slumps forward and talks to the floor. "It isn't going to work, Tommy. I told you. I told the Commissioner, it isn't going to work. Who's going to believe I'm the Earless of Asherton?"
"Countess," he murmurs.
She flashes him a look that makes him uncertain whether she had made a mistake of if she was just playing with him. Whatever it is, it's the first look that has given him hope. "Countess of Asherton, then - what does the title matter? What matters is who'll believe it. Who, Tommy? Who's going to believe it? I've got the clothes, the hair-do, the make-up, but I can't do it, Tommy. No one is going to believe that a toff like you married a . . ."
He aches at the pain in her voice. He squats down in front of her and takes her hand, this time she doesn't freeze or flinch, it's as if all the fight has gone out of her. He brushes her hair back so he can see her face. "You'll be fine, Barbara," he says.
She shakes her head. "No. We've still got time to get someone else. Ring the Commissioner, he can find somehow who can be your wife, not play at being it. Tommy, I know I'll slip up. I'll use the wrong fork or something or pull out my own chair or forget how many acres we own."
He squeezes her hand. "None of those things matter, Barbara."
"Yes, sir. They do. Please, call the Commissioner."
He shakes his head. "No, Barbara. This is all set up. You're not the only one who is going to be acting. And I need someone by my side that I trust. I need my partner. I need you, Barbra. I don't need someone I'm going to be watching all the time, someone who may have the right accent, may know which fork to use or exactly what my title is. Believe me those are not the things that matter. The thing that matter is that we have to be believable as husband and wife and there's only one person I feel comfortable enough with to pull this off - and that's you, Sergeant Havers. You are a trained detective; this is an assignment; we have to do this. I cannot go running to the Commissioner just because you can't put the chip you have on your shoulder to one side and can't spend a couple of days being part of a class you despise. We have a job to do; you have a job to do. Do it."
He isn't sure changing from cajoling her to ordering her was a conscious decision, but as she looks at him and her eyes blaze, showing him the Barbara he knows and loves, he knows it was the right thing to do.
She straightens up and then stands up and glares up at him. He forces himself not to smile. "Yes, sir!" she says and turns around so her back is to him. "Well," she says after a moment or two, "aren't you going to unzip my dress, I thought that's what toffs like you did for their wives."
As he reaches for the zip he swallows and makes sure his hands are shaking, he also makes sure he doesn't touch her skin. The frock falls to the floor and she steps out of it, bending to pick it up before she throws it on the bed. He tries not to look at her in her silky, modest underwear as she stalks off into the bathroom.
He hears the shower begin to run and sinks down onto the bed. Then she reappears, now wrapped in a thick, white dressing-gown. "And I don't despise all your lot. Simon and Deborah are nice."
The Commissioner hadn't exactly been overly happy when Tommy had said he intended to let two civilians in on the assignment. But after twenty minutes of talking, Tommy had persuaded him it was necessary. In fact it had been Deborah who had taken Barbara under her wing, taken her shopping for clothes, taken her to get a decent haircut and make-up and showed her how to apply the make-up to good effect.
He smiles at her. "I'm glad you think Simon and Deborah are nice, because they like you too" he said. "And I suppose two nice people out of about forty isn't too bad."
She looks at him for a moment and he sees her smile. "Three," she says, turning on her heel and vanishing into the bathroom; this time she closes the door behind her.
He lies back on the bed and lets out a long sigh. He has a dull headache, which he is sure by the end of the evening will be considerably more than just dull. The whole case rests on one thing: he and Barbara being believable as husband and wife.
Had he done the wrong thing in insisting on it being Barbara? Were the people going to really believe he would marry so far out of his class? Could she carry it off or would her inner self take over? He'd meant what he'd said, he did need someone he trusted to be by his side, someone he knew, after all he was about to lay a trap for a man he'd gone to school with. If all went well, he was about to bring down the leader of one of the biggest so-called white collar crime rings the country had known.
His headache is already getting worse. He stands up, goes to the bathroom, taps on the door, opens it slightly and calls, "Barbara, do you have anything for a headache?"
"In my handbag," she calls back. "And," she calls, just as he's about to close the door. "Choose a dress for me; you know what will be appropriate."
"Yes, dear," he says so softly, she won't hear it and closes the door on the steamy room.
"Well?" she demands, turning around twice and looking at him. "How do I look?"
He thinks of all the things he'd like to say, but none are appropriate for the moment. In the end he just settles for, "Lovely." She smiles and blushes slightly as she stares at him in silence. He tries to read the look she's giving him, but he can't. "But you need this," he pulls a necklace out of his jacket pocket and moves towards her.
To his amusement she looks at it and takes a step back. "I can't wear that, Tommy," she whispers. "It's -"
"Eight generations old and every Countess of Asherton wears it on formal occasions." He's already behind her, putting it around her neck and fastening it carefully, letting it fall into position.
"But, Tommy," she says, glancing in the mirror. "It's . . . Wait a minute, is it real?"
He laughs. "Yes, Barbara," he says, touching her cheek with his fingertips. "It certainly is real."
"What if I lose it?"
"I'd rather you didn't. But if you do, I'll have to buy a new one, won't I?"
She looks dubiously at him. "What if I -" He puts his finger on her lips silencing her and once again she gives him a look her can't read.
"Good God, it's Tommy Lynley! How are you, old boy? It's been . . ."
"Far too long," Tommy says, taking the proffered hand and shaking it. "May I introduce my wife, Barbara? Barbara, this is Gerald Harris-Smyth, we were at school together."
"Mrs. Lynley," Harris-Smyth says, taking Barbara's hand and kissing it rather than shaking it. Barbara's restraint is admirable, Tommy thinks, as she just smiles. "It's a pleasure to meet you. So you've finally tied Tommy down?"
"It's nice to meet you too, Mr. Harris-Smyth," Barbara says. Tommy watches his old friend's, the man he is about to entice into a trap, eyebrows raise slightly as Barbara speaks. It had been at his insistence that she not attempt any kind of posh accent as every time she tried, it sounded as it was: false.
He watches Harris-Smyth look from Barbara to him and back again; he doesn’t like the look; he doesn't like Harris-Smyth. Casually he puts his arm around Barbara's shoulders as he chats amiably to Harris-Smyth. Barbara stands and smiles, nods and laughs in the right places and any lingering concern Tommy may have had flies away as he realises she could easily be who she is pretending to be.
THREE HOURS LATER
Dinner is over and it's time. "Darling," Tommy says, turning to Barbara and putting his hand on her arm. "I need to have a private word with Gerald, you don't mind do you?"
She smiles up at him. "Of course not, Tommy. I'll just stay here with Deborah and Simon." Her eyes flash 'good luck' and 'take care'.
He bends his head and kisses her on the cheek, before straightening up and calling, "Gerald, can I have a word?"
AN HOUR LATER
"Gerald Harris-Smyth, I am arresting you for -"
"You bastard. I'll get you for this Lynley."
Tommy ignores the outpouring of hatred and continues to read Harris-Smyth his rights. His headache is back and he also feels sick. Despite what Harris-Smyth has done, Tommy still has a nasty taste in his mouth at being the one to arrest his old school pal. Not for the first time he wonders why he'd decided to become a detective and not stay at home and run the estate.
He nods to the two plain-clothes policemen who he'd called, who will take Harris-Smyth into custody. "Take him out through the conservatory," he says, "and try to keep those covered," he nods to the handcuffs he'd put on Harris-Smyth. He feels he owes that much not just to the Johsntones in whose house they are, but also in a strange, incomprehensible, illogical way to Harris-Smyth.
Barbara hasn't spoken for some time. She has just been there by his side as she always is, quietly supporting him, backing him up, ready to step in if she was needed. He turns to her, "Do you have any more of pain-killers?" he asks.
"There in ou- the room, sir. I hadn't got room for them in this," she holds up the small bag which whilst going perfectly with her evening gown, didn't leave a lot of room for anything other than a tissue and lipstick. "Do you want me to get them?"
He shakes his head. "No, it's all right, Barbara. We need to pack anyway. Let's -"
He closes his eyes for a second and turns around. "Charles," he says, staring into the cold, grey eyes of Charles Johnstone. "I don't know what to say."
"An apology would be a good place to start."
Tommy shrugs. "I'm sorry, Charles. Does that help?"
Charles stares at him for a long time in silence. Tommy meets
the stare and holds it. Barbara is still by his side, still silently supporting
him. Finally the anger fades from Charles's face and the grey eyes seem warmer.
He looks away from Tommy, down at Barbara. "I suppose you aren't even his wife?"
Barbara shakes her head. "No, sir. I'm -"
"Barbara Havers, my partner," Tommy says.
Charles continues to stare at Barbara for a moment. Then shakes his head and says, his time ruefully. "Shame. I thought, Jilly thought, everyone thought, he'd," he nods at Tommy, "finally settled down and found himself a nice wife."
Barbara glances down at the floor and shifts slightly; Tommy can sense her embarrassment and unease. In an attempt to detract the attention back to him he holds out his hand. "I am sorry, Charlie," he says sincerely.
After a second Charles takes it and shakes it. "Well, at least it'll give people something to talk about."
"If I could have told you, Charlie. I would have done."
"I know, Tommy. Look, come and have a drink, both of you."
Tommy shakes his head. "I'd like to, but Barbara and I have to get back to the Met. We'll pack our things and go." He holds out his hand again.
Charles takes it again. "Okay, Tommy. Come and see us soon, without your badge, oh, and bring Barbara with you. It's been nice to meet you, Ms. Havers. Look after him."
Before Tommy or Barbara can say anything, he turns and walks away.
"Here you are, sir," Barbara says, handing him two more Paracetamol and a glass of water.
"Thank you, Barbara," he swallows the tablets and drains the glass before putting it back on the bedside table.
The silence stretches between them before Barbara breaks it. "That wasn't easy for you, sir, was it?"
Tommy shakes his head. "No. It was harder than I thought it'd be. Before I got here I told myself it was my job, my duty, I carry a badge for a reason; he was just another criminal. But -"
"He wasn't." Her voice is low and to his surprise she takes his hand. He notices she's taken her heels off and the gown is pooling around her feet.
"No, he wasn't. Maybe it is time, after all that I quit playing detective, go home and do what I was born to do, what people think I should be doing."
She stares up at him, shock and disappointment on her face. "You want to leave the Met?"
He shrugs. "It might be better if I did."
"Better for who?" Her head is tilted back, her eyes are wide and she's staring as him, a flash of anger races across her face.
He can't help it; he can't hold back any longer. Swiftly, he pulls her into his arms, ignoring her gasp, lowers his head and kisses her and goes on kissing her until he feels her relax in his arms and begin to kiss him back. He pulls her hard against him, suddenly desperate just to loose himself in her for a brief moment, desperate to forget he's just arrested the man who'd been his closest friend at school, desperate to feel something other than the self-disgust that it threatening to engulf him.
But as he's about to pull her dress up, he stops. It isn't right, he doesn't want it like this, he wants to court her, to woo her, to make love to her, to hold her, kiss her; he wants it to be right. Gently he breaks the kiss and pushes her away just a little.
She's breathing hard, her lips are swollen, her pupils dilated and the look she is giving him, almost makes him change his mind. He groans silently to himself, cursing himself for being ten kinds of fool, but stands firm and just stares at her, willing her to read his mind as she's been able to do for some time - at least on the job.
She holds his gaze and he notices a rueful look touch her lips. Then she stands up on her toes and lightly kisses him again, before turning in his loose embrace. "Well," she says, glancing over her shoulder, "are you going to make yourself useful and unzip my dress?"
He laughs softly as he does, she lets if fall to the ground, steps out of it and goes to the wardrobe where she pulls on a jumper and a pair of trousers. They are far smarter and more expensive than her usual ones; they, like everything she brought with her, are part of her undercover personae. Nonetheless, he hears her sigh softly in relief as she puts them on, and pushes her feet into low-heeled shoes rather than the high-heels she'd been wearing with her frock and then evening gown.
She tugs the jumper down over her hips and shoulders, then her hand goes to her neck and she comes back to him and turns around again. He hesitates. "Sir?" again she looks at him over her shoulder. Still he hesitates. "Tommy?" she asks.
He lightly kisses her neck. "You keep it," he says.
She spins around and stares up at him, shaking her head. "I can't," she says. "It's -
"Mine to do with as I wish," he says with a shrug.
She shakes her head and reaches behind her. He puts his hands over hers. "Don't, Barbara," he says softly.
He feels her hands tremble beneath his. "Please, sir," she whispers. "Please, Tommy."
He hears the stress and a hint of tears in her voice. His hands reach for the clasp and he undoes it, gathers it up into one hand and lets it fall into the pocket of his diner jacket. "I'll keep it for now, Barbara," he says softly, bending his head to lightly kiss her again.
Then he straightens up, whirls around and begins to pack his things. He pulls off his bowtie, unbuttons the top button of his shirt and pulls on his overcoat and grabs his bags in one hand; that will do.
He takes her hand and squeezes it for a moment, before picking up her bags in his other hand, ignoring her objection that everyone knows who they really are now and heads towards the door. He hopes she had time during the evening to get used to being called 'Mrs. Lynley'.
Questioning Himself is the sequel to this story.
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