Summary: A lot of things can happen in a New York Gala at the exclusive Waldorf Astoria Ballroom, appropriately transformed into an Enchanted Forest for the occasion.
Dedication: This second part goes to Rufeepeach, cause her recent bountyhunter!Belle fic totally inspired the last bit of this chapter, BookNook, Bad Faery, Andachippedcup, Nym, Phoenixfeatherquill, Bottledspirits and everyone who writes awesome Rumbelle AUs that I squeal when I see updated.
This was gonna be the last part but by the time I finished with most of the Red Cricket I still had Regina and all the smut to go, so I decided to split it again. Then I felt horrible that this chapter would have no Rumbelle whatsoever so I added some steamy memories of Belle to spice things up a bit.
If you want to see the dresses mentioned in this fanfic go here
As usual feedback is appreciated, specially since I’m still writing the third part. Any and all forms of encouragement are more than well-received!
“I’ve never been happier to leave a table full of people” Belle said in lieu of a greeting as she joined her two friends in a corner of the ballroom. Mary M. looked worried and Ruby pissed “What’s going on?”
“We’ve got some interference” Mary Margaret replied, pointing with her chin to Emma, who was clearly trying to get out of a conversation she was having with a dark-haired man with a scruffy beard and an impeccable suit.
“Isn’t that ADA Booth?” Belle asked, her nose scrunching up “I thought Emma had turned him down already. Several times, in fact. Called him a creeper once, didn’t she?”
Ruby growled, nodding. She had briefly gone out with August way before she ever knew what his nickname down at the DA’s office was. Needless to say it had turned out to be a bad, bad idea, and not just because he had had his sights set on Emma even way back then.
“We’ll never get them together if August doesn’t get out of the way” she huffed, her sharp mind already trying to come up with a solution to their current predicament when Mary Margaret squealed, clapping her hands together.
“We may not have to worry about that” she proclaimed, spying the only man wearing an ascot approaching her best friend and her slimy companion.
“Well, let’s give the man some help” Belle quipped, smiling widely before casually making her way towards the dance floor, her bright blue eyes catching the fevered gaze of her target with little difficulty. Ruby and Mary Margaret discretely set out to watch the scene unfold, drinks in hand and expectation high.
“August, really, I’m pretty sure there are no lemurs in Nepal” Emma’s voice was clipped, anger lurking at the back like a coiled snake, ready to strike at the right time “I’ve even googled it. Just give it up already”
August Wayne Booth smiled in that obnoxious, smarmy way he did every time he was caught in a lie and was trying to think of a way to fix it. One of his hands was holding a glass of Scotch on the rocks which he had so far not touched, and the other was trying to subtly snake around Emma Swan’s waist, but it got slapped away every try. He rifled through his mind for an appropriate change of subject.
“Did you hear that I broke the record for most convictions for an ADA under 35?” he suddenly announced, smug and charming. The blond detective rolled her eyes, damning Mary Margaret for forbidding choke-holds. She smiled, a pained sort of grimace the lawyer seemed to see as a good sign.
“Well, I’m sure it must be quite exciting” she gritted out, conscious of her superior watching her, approving of her interaction with the prestigious ADA “But, really, I’m famished and…”
“Ah, the young hope for the future” DA Marco Valente, aptly called “The Puppet Master” for his ability to seemingly manipulate defence attorneys into botching cases and generally making dreadful mistakes, clapped August in the back, a proud look on his aged face. Emma didn’t dislike Marco. Despite his ruthless reputation among defence attorneys he was a caring, compassionate man with a rather unfortunate belief that sometimes the end justified the means. But she was in no mood to put up with him playing matchmaker to his little protégée.
“Good evening, Mr Valente, I was just about to get…”
“Oh, nonsense, dear, don’t let me interrupt this tender moment. The night is for having fun, for dancing!”
August took the unsubtle hint with more grace than she expected, but Emma tried to wiggle out of it for a split second before giving up and accepting the hand the ADA was offering. He twirled her expertly around, giving her ample time to roll her eyes before he unceremoniously plastered them both together, making some inane observation about how crowded the room dance floor was. She smiled tightly, aware of her Captain’s eyes on her, a warning to “be nice and behave” or he’d make her pay come Monday morning.
“You know, you look ravishing Emma” August whispered, his dark eyes trained on her. She arched an eyebrow.
“Yes, you’ve mentioned that… once or twice” she all but spat out, unimpressed, while she took firm hold of the hand on her back and moved it upwards, a warning in her eyes “… every time we meet. Some would even call it unprofessional”
She had lost many a cop’s respect by being treated as a pretty thing called to the DA’s office so the young, promising ADA could openly flirt with her and she was more than getting tired of it. But with so many eyes trained on her she had little choice but to grin and bear it. After all there was no polite way for her to bow out…
“Ah, Miss Swan. What a delight. I see you’re dancing with our little wooden boy”
She recognized that low, smooth voice the second it reached her ears. Emma turned her head to a side, encountering the disturbingly-piercing gaze of Jefferson Madden, the pride and joy of Vander, Land and Associates. Founded by Erik Vander, Thomas Raines and Christopher Land, the firm had soon after faced the death of one of its three senior partners, changing the name from Vander, Raines and Land to its current one. It hadn’t taken much time for “Vander, Land” to be more commonly-known as “Wonderland”, and for all other literary puns to come to play. It had been almost prophetic, in retrospect, the addition of Jefferson Madden, a man who had acquired while attending Harvard a rather peculiar nickname because of his habit of prepping and sitting for all of his exams wearing an old velvet top hat. The Mad Hatter had been famously known as such well before ever coming across Vander, Land and Associates, but his nickname had spread like wildfire when he had joined. Several paralegals and junior associates had divulged the fact that his famous hat was the main feature of his office and he put it on whenever getting ready for a case, going so far as to trying to get away with wearing it in court.
He had nearly done it, too.
He had met Detective Swan while representing one poor sucker she had arrested, an influential little cousin to the Vanderbilts, which Jefferson had gotten off the hook without actually ever being nice to him. He had spent most of his time with his attention riveted in the lovely little thing that had managed to handcuff a man twice her size and break his nose in the process. She had been unimpressed, sassy and more than able to match his madness with some grounding common sense of her own, and since then he had been besotted or, like he liked to put it, “madly in love”. Unfortunately so far he only knew how to show his appreciation for her witty banter and lovely temper by antagonizing her, constantly testing the limits of her self-restraint with a smile and a casual disregard towards the concept of personal space.
“Madden” August’s voice interrupted their delicious little moment, and Jefferson frowned, his arms, full at the moment of Belle French, itching to wipe the ADA’s condescending smile from his face. He smiled instead; the wide curving of his lips that he knew made him look deranged, and gestured to the lovely brunette in his arms.
“Change partners!” he barked suddenly, expertly twirling a willing Belle into August’s arms and taking the blonde detective for his own, waltzing them away with a grace that bordered on miraculous. Emma allowed it, her relief at being away from the oily lawyer overrunning her suspicion that she had gone from the frying pan to the fire.
Jefferson was, as always, dressing a bit too Edwardian to seem normal. He had on what she believed was called a frock coat, open to reveal the patterned waistcoat beneath and the burgundy, eye-catching ascot that had allowed her to keep a discrete eye on him since he had arrived, surrounded by the high, stiff collar of his dress shirt. She surmised that this being an “enchanted evening” he had allowed himself a bit more eccentricities with his wardrobe than usual and was mildly surprised not to spot his top hat somewhere.
“Ah, Detective Swan, how absolutely breath-taking is to have your undivided attention lavished upon my person” he crooned, always an inch taller than her no matter what heels she was wearing, his mouth close to the crown of her hair “And how lovely you look when you shed your armour”
His voice was riveting; it had always been for Emma. It was almost a whisper, rough yet gentle, the voice of a storyteller. It was his true persona, the real Hatter that hid behind the façade of Jefferson Madden, star attorney. The fake Jefferson was all easy laughs and normality, the real Mad Hatter was intense and compelling and she was both afraid of him and thrilled when she was in his presence. Both a predator and a wounded victim, the Hatter would usually bask in her presence, all feverish eyes and sometimes uncomfortable amounts of physical contact she had, incredibly, grown used to over time. Then he’d ruin the moment by provoking her and she’d lash out and the fight would begin. She suspected that, for all it annoyed her, fighting with Jefferson in some ways was the highlight of her day, something she looked forward to whenever the possibility arose.
“Yeah, well, Mary Margaret was insistent about this dress. And the hairdo” she babbled, a slight blush creeping up her neck despite her best efforts to quell it. Jefferson smiled, not one of his crazy or intense smiles but a tender, understanding one.
“So the Saviour feels vulnerable, dressed up as she is in clothes she thinks do not fit”
“You keep calling me that” she remarked and he nodded, guilty as charged.
“It’s the way I see you, poppet” he murmured, spinning her around to lighten to mood, feeling suddenly pretty vulnerable himself “That and gorgeous, of course” he got close enough to very lightly nip at the edge of her ear, all playfulness and hidden roughness “Good enough to eat, my dear”
She pulled back, partly embarrassed, partly pissed and all around tempted. Jefferson did that to her, confused her in ways that no man had even before, not even Graham, her most serious relationship (so serious it had taken a stray bullet to pull them apart just as they had started to build something together). She felt a stab of guilt and quickly chased it away so she could pay attention as Jefferson spun her around again, putting a bit of spice into the old, 1940’s music they were currently playing till she giggled against her will, relaxing a bit in his arms and enjoying carelessly the way he smiled at her, all teeth and wickedness.
“Ah, there we are, the elusive Swan laugh” he crooned, boyish glee dancing on the edge of his lips, and he lost all his menace “I knew I’d get it out of you sooner or later”
Despite the voices in her mind still cautioning her about Jefferson, the same voices that were always vocal around the so called Hatter, she decided to enjoy herself for a little while. She was tired of having her guard up constantly and Jefferson, for all the “Danger, Will Robinson!” feelings he sparked within her, had an inherent vulnerability he displayed ever-so-willingly around her that made it impossible to feel genuinely wary of him.
“I’m rather surprised that August hasn’t come intent on feeding me more fake-lemur stories” she quipped, trying to, for once, have a casual, non-confrontational conversation with the man. Jefferson smirked, turning her so she could see how Belle expertly led the attorney as far away from them as possible, giving him her best smile and a hint of flirt. Emma grimaced.
“Oh, he doesn’t know he’s flirting with Gold’s girl, does he?” she almost sounded sympathetic, especially when she caught sight, on the other side of the room, of a very straight-backed Mr Gold, his face like stone and something dark and ugly lurking behind his gaze. The Hatter shook his head, laughter making his shoulders shake.
“Oh, no” he confirms “Belle is being a naughty little girl” he added fondly, with the sort of brotherly pride no woman could ever be jealous of “Pinocchio is in for a world of trouble if continues down that particular rabbit hole”
Emma wanted to scold him for his use of August’s infamous nickname but she couldn’t muster enough disapproval, instead choosing to be sort of pleased that Belle’s ‘old lion’ would finally do something good in her eyes, namely beat August silly with his cane. She didn’t dislike Gold per se, but she found him incredibly duplicitous and highly unreliable. But, then again, she thought as much about Jefferson and he allowed him more liberties than she should.
“By the way, lovely little saviour, how’s the princeling? Scoring goals, I hope”
Of course, Emma thought, Jefferson would turn on his incredibly sexy ‘I’m-a-concerned-single-parent’ mode when her mind started wondering toward the questionable wisdom behind dancing with the Hatter. And she knew his question was sincere. For a ruthless lawyer and all-around mentally unstable man Madden was, without a doubt, the most loving parent she knew. He went to all of Grace’s dance recitals, knew her favourite colour, the name of all her close friends, the brand of fabric softner that she claimed made the sheets scratchy, that she’d refuse to eat Oreos unless she could dunk them in hot tea, of all things and a million more things she found out every single time they spoke because Grace was Jefferson’s life and, as much as he annoyed her, Emma couldn’t get enough of him when he talked about his daughter, nor could she prevent herself from bragging about her own kid whenever he asked.
“I swear that if that kid tells me one more time not to call European football soccer he’s gonna be grounded” she huffed, all pretend-annoyance that made Jefferson honestly laugh “But it’s allowed him to make new friends, which is always nice. And I think he’s crushing on some rival team captain. Pretty little blond with spunk”
“Mmm… I approve” there was something dark about the Hatter that drew Emma in when she knew it shouldn’t but as quickly as it came it was gone. “Though I pity the father of that little girl. If she’s anything like other spunky blonds I know he’s in for a world of pain” he paused, a self-deprecating laugh bubbling out of his mouth “God knows Grace is getting to that special age where I will be as useful to her as a block of wood”
It was on the tip of her tongue, to volunteer to be a female presence in Grace’s life, but the words got stuck to the roof of her mouth, unwilling for a moment to put herself in that position, as another person’s advisor, feeling inadequate and presumptuous. Mary Margaret, she thought, she should volunteer her since she knew they were at the very least well-known acquaintances. Mary Margaret, with her proper upbringing and maternal instincts, would know all about…
“Grace already has your number, by the way… Don’t look at me like that, you’re a public servant and she’s a bright little thing, she figured out how to cajole someone into giving her the number all on her own. She’s just building up her courage to give you a call. Even since you took down that 6’3 bank robber at the hallway of the courthouse while she was picking me up for lunch she’s been talking non-stop about wanting to learn kick-boxing and how all modern women should know how to properly defend themselves…” he rolled his eyes and squeezed her hip, a gesture that would have earned most other men at least a kick in the shin “I’ll never be able to properly thank you for prompting my little girl to learn how to make men twice her size cry and scatter like scared little rabbits”
And he meant it, she knew that, this overprotective nut who tried to both foster his daughter’s independence and shield her from the outside world and all its cruelty. So she took a leap of fate, the kind she absolutely hated, and did not stumble on her next words.
“You know, you could use it. My cell phone number, I mean. Like… this Friday. To text me the name of a good bar where we might, who knows… Bump into each other?”
“Bump into each other? Oh, detective, are you propositioning me?” Jefferson’s tone was breathy and only a dash scandalized; his eyes wide and innocent “My, I never…”
Emma gave him her ‘I take no nonsense’ look and quite gracefully moved out of his arms, walking in the general direction of some of her friends in vice, all looking very uncomfortable in their best suits.
“Remember, Hatter boy, Friday. You snooze, you lose” she called over her shoulder, her gown fluttering behind her as she walked away from him, all power and determination.
Jefferson’s grin turned maniacal again as he turned around, barely registering the now alone ADA fuming at him as he walked away from the dance floor, whistling ‘White Rabbit’ underneath his breath.
“Did that go well?” Mary Margaret’s attempts at subtlety while spying on her best friend and her dancing partner had long been abandoned in favour or blatant staring. Ruby frowned, squinting her eyes.
“I cannot tell” she finally answered “Jeff’s smiling but, then again, he is off his rocker”
She sipped her drink, a Jack Rose, trying to follow the retreating figure of Emma, evading at the same all form of eye-contact with Whale and generally most slimy men eyeing her like a piece of meat. She knew her dress, though striking and a bit risqué, was by no means inappropriate or overly-revealing and, in any case, she was not willing to dress as a nun in order to get men to respect her. She found it profoundly unfair, the notion that her looks made her less in the eyes of the people here present. Mr Gold might have been a monster- a beast in love, as of the last two years- but he had never once even given her the idea that he had dismissed her intellect on account of her appearance.
“Oh dear” the voice of Mary Margaret snapped the brunette out of her daze, and put her on alert mode.
“What? New obstacle? Jefferson being too creepy?” she enquired at once, her eyes alert and again scanning the crowd. She saw her friend looking towards a table in the far upper-right corner where five people sat: two of them obviously couple, colour-coordinated and all, and a man looking a tad uneasy in a smart tuxedo and a golden-green tie. He had glasses on and noticeable red hair, his skin even from a distance obviously freckled. He looked uncomfortable as hell, meekly sitting between the two couples, who were obviously holding a conversation over his head. One of the women in particular, a brown-haired, snooty-looking woman in her mid to late twenties with a mermaid periwinkle blue dress and the gaudiest golden seashell necklace she had ever seen, seemed to make him particularly uncomfortable, and every time she gazed in his direction she was possessively running her hands over her date’s arm while, at the same time, giving the very unwilling ginger a good look down her strapless dress.
For a moment Ruby titled her head, the idea that she knew the poor fifth wheel nagging at her.
“Well, that looks cosy” Ruby commented, sarcasm coating her voice. Mary Margaret winced “And he kinda looks familiar”
“That’s Archie. You remember him, right? He collaborates with the police and the FBI, apparently he’s some sort of behavioural expert. Also he’s Henry’s shrink” Mary Margaret smiled fondly, Henry always produced that reaction in her “A total sweetheart that helped Henry when he went through that whole anxiety phase after Emma got shot during a bust three years ago. Still sees him every now and then, always clearing his schedule for the little darling”
Ruby nodded, a hazy memory making its way to the forefront of her mind, of a time some years ago, when she had been merely an intern invited to a party such as this only to be at the beck and call of a nasty woman then her boss (now an unemployed alcoholic, she had heard), and she had broken down in tears outside the ballroom, in a secluded little terrace, because she had had all the verbal abuse and the belittling she could take and she hated the itchy, long sleeved maroon dress she had been forced into wearing. Dreams of quitting had flashed through her head, thinking no one would ever take her seriously long enough to give her a chance and that she was not likely to advance in her chosen career, which had brought her so far little joy and a lot of grief.
She hadn’t realized someone was already there, an awkward, fumbling man with a stammer that, as soon as he saw her crying, became this confident, nurturing figure, full of the right things to say and the right moments to offer a gentle pat on the shoulder or a handkerchief she had promptly smudged beyond repair with make-up. It was one of those monogramed deals, old school and she had laughed at the tiny embroider of a cricket in a corner. Soon enough her awful boss had texted her and she had rushed out, forgetting to return the handkerchief.
She had washed and pressed it and put it in her purse with every intention of trying to find the owner and giving it back, and a few days later she had promptly forgotten all about it.
She had never connected the kindly stranger (whom she had quite put out of her mind, she shamefully recognized) with Archie Hopper, a name that got tossed around the four of them every once in a while. Apparently he and Emma were good friends, and Mary Margaret also knew him relatively well from picking up Henry from his appointment when his mother was working a case.
“Last I remember ‘what’s-her-name’ he had been dating for a while had dumped him when he had proposed. What did I miss?”
Clearly she had missed something cause nobody could be that uncomfortable without some underlying cause other than social awkwardness. Mary Margaret winced, gesturing towards the brunette in blue at the table.
“There she is, Dr. Vanessa Lyman, being her stereotypical bitchy self by shoving both her cleavage and her newly-acquired heart-surgeon fiancé into Archie’s face” MM’s words didn’t particularly surprise Ruby, knowing as she did how protective of her friends the little short-haired woman was “And the other couple is her future brother-in-law and his vapid socialite wife, as you can probably tell from the slutty Armani Privé and the blank look in her eyes. Archie told me that they had been assigned to his table. I offered to trade places with him but he got all psychologist on me and said that he and Vanessa were “friends” now and he was totally okay with the situation. I should have known Vanessa wouldn’t be gracious about it”
The secretary sighed, took a sip of her Bellini and frowned even more as she watched Vanessa give the very-uncomfortable Archie a falsely-sweet smile.
“It was bad enough that she broke his heart when she rejected him” as Ruby vaguely recalled when the brunette had turned down Dr Hopper she had apparently been very vocal about all of his shortcomings. Soon later she had apparently moved on to a very well-off surgeon, and had called to make sure she could remain good friends with Archie (MM was sure it had nothing to do with the man’s fame in his chosen field or his success as an FBI profiler, which had gotten him mentioned in newspapers quite a lot) “But now she wants to rub her engagement in his face, God knows why”
And of course Mary Margaret couldn’t even begin to fathom the why, Ruby thought, half her Jack Rose gone, because she was the embodiment of all things good and nice and, as much of a badass she could be from time to time, to defend the people she loved, to keep them happy, she didn’t have it in her to hurt just for the sake of it, to feel better about oneself. She loved that about her friend.
Back at the table of five the woman called Vanessa was enthusiastically showing a very flustered and increasingly distressed-looking Archie Hopper a brochure, depicting some sandy beach that Ruby deduced was the honeymoon destination for the lucky, lucky couple. Something snapped inside her, something dark and petty and not very nice that she knew good, kind people like Mary Margaret and the nice Dr Hopper did not have inside.
“Well, I’m tired of watching this Greek tragedy” she said aloud, putting down her empty glass and turning towards a mirror to check her lipstick “I’m about to return a very overdue favour. Wish me luck!”
She smiled brilliantly at Mary Margaret before strolling confidently across her room, enjoying the fact that her beautiful red Elie Saab looked spectacular when she moved, the slit revealing enough leg to tempt without being immodest and the layers of fabric fluttering around her. The vivid colour made her particularly eye-catching so when she was close enough to the table everybody, almost against their will, turned to look. She flashed them a beautiful smile before her eyes locked with the good doctor’s, making his face match his hair quite nicely.
“Hon, I’m so sorry I’m late” she apologized, looking genuinely contrite as she loosely wrapped her arms around a stunned Archibald Hopper “But I couldn’t get away from the business talk until now”
She gave him another smile, as if she was trying to get him to not be mad at her before she swooped down and firmly kissed him on the lips, which were conveniently parted in surprise. Ruby hadn’t expected it to feel any different than kissing someone asleep. After all she had caught the poor guy by surprise and was more than ready to fake the most passionately make-out session that polite society could accept in public. She was just glad that his lips were warm and supple and tasted of the raspberry sauce that covered the cheesecake he had been eating.
All of a sudden, though, just as her tongue darted out to trace his lips lightly, she felt him come to life, both his hands perching themselves gingerly around her waist, almost afraid to touch her, while his lips slanted across hers with more certainty, making her forget herself for a moment and hum in approval, her mouth opening to his automatically, wanting more. She felt his tongue shyly trace the roof of her mouth, all tentative and unsure and something fluttered inside her in response, making her gasp slightly and grab a handful of his hair, hoping he wouldn’t take it the wrong way and think she wanted him to stop. One of his hands squeezed her waist, trying to ask a silent question she understood all too well so she sighed, not able to resist nipping at is bottom lip before pulling away, her hands squeezing his shoulders and her eyes trying to get him to calm down and follow her lead.
“I really am sorry, cricket” she said, the warmth in her voice strangely easy to fake. It was his face, she reasoned, so open and sweet, so devoid of any form of deceit, and he looked at her with a hint of confusion and more than a bit of awe, which is what made her comb her right hand through his hair and cup his cheek “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long”
His eyes were as wide as saucers, and when he stuttered a “No, not at all” Ruby’s heart melted a bit against her will. He stood up rather stiffly and pulled out the chair next to his, never once trying to cop a feel or in any way touch her as she sat down, giving him a smile over her shoulder.
“I must admit it was not all boring business, I also hanged out a bit with Mary Margaret, Emma and Belle. We’re… helping Emma out a bit, you could say”
Archie nodded, dropping into his own chair rather gracelessly, but with a look of dawning understanding spreading across his face. Now he knew what the connection between them was, and that she was a friend.
“I see… That’s nice of you. Emma certainly could use a bit of girl-time” he cautiously replied. Ruby nodded, all cheer and sparkling personality before turning to the neglected four members of the table.
“Oh, hi there!” she greeted, her smile pristine “I’m sorry, I’m so rude, not even introducing myself! I’m Ruby Lowell, Archie’s girlfriend”
For a moment there was utter silence at the table as both men gawked at her while the women looked from Archie to her and back to him again, puzzled. Finally Vanessa smiled, trying to recover herself and deliver a counterattack to Ruby’s spectacular manoeuvre.
“Oh, hi, I’m Dr Vanessa Lyman, Archie’s…”
“Former flame and current friend. I’ve been dying to meet you!” Ruby gushed, shaking hands with a rather shocked brunette “And this must be your fiancé”
Said fiancé was staring at the girl in red with more than polite interest in his eyes, and for once Ruby welcome the lewd looks, knowing how they would bother both women at the table. Archie, however, shot the man a disapproving look across the table, the first time he had shown any negative emotion at all, which surprised Ruby slightly.
The two couples introduced themselves to her, exchanging false pleasantries for a while before Ruby settled back, leaning against Archie’s side slightly, playfully grabbing his fork and snatching up a piece of cheesecake from his plate, smiling at him.
“My favourite” she purred, a mixture of warmth, domesticity and something darker, carnal. It was meant more for their audience than for him, but for a moment Ruby forgot about them, captivated by the strange look in Archie’s eyes, something akin to worship, not just appreciation for her body or her sex-appeal but more reverential, a sort of adoration she had strangely never seen before. Lurking behind that was a gentle guilt, her lie no doubt not sitting well with him.
“Well, I must admit, hon, Archie has been keeping quiet about you” it was Vanessa again, trying to worm her way between the couple and put Ruby in a defensive position “So, tell me a bit about yourself. What do you do? What are your interests?”
The question made Ruby smirk, knowing the intent behind it.
“I’m Junior VP of Acquisitions at Imp Inc., which really does take up most of my time but it’s ever-so-fun. But I still do yoga and Pilates, though not as fervently as before, I’m afraid. But most of my free time I spend it with close friends and, of course, my cricket”
The nickname would have sounded ridiculous had she not said it with such affection and Archie coloured again, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips even as he tried to look stern, not wanting to approve of whatever charade this unknown woman had decided to stage for whatever reason.
“What a… quaint term of endearment” Vanessa “So… young and fresh”
The brunette took Archie’s left hand in both of his, her smile turning sheepish while he fought not to let it be too obvious that he was struggling to breathe.
“I know it might sound silly and childish but there is a story behind it. The very first time I met him I was a crying mess, upset about some silly work thing and he gave me one of his monogrammed handkerchiefs with a little cricket embroidered in a corner and I remember that no matter how awful I felt it made me smile” the wistful affection in her voice was, for once, real. She risked a glance towards the psychologist and saw him frown, look at her intently then widen his eyes in realization “He knew exactly what I needed to hear and I envied that, the ease with which he approached a complete stranger and managed to make them feel better, to understand them so deeply, empathise to such an extent. Then I found out that he was friends with a good friend of mine and the rest, as they say, is history”
She had no idea what most of what she was saying was coming from but she went along with it, trusting her instincts. She also noticed that it felt strangely comfortable to be leaning against Dr Hopper. He was surprisingly warm and solid, keeping his hands at appropriate places to a point where she actually had to manoeuvre her body so he would drape one of his arms lightly over her shoulders. At first he was stiff, uncomfortable, but as she expertly directed the conversation towards neutral subjects he relaxed beneath her, the hand resting on her shoulder unconsciously beginning to trace patterns across her skin in a pleasant manner.
Ruby felt tempted, for a moment, to stay where she was. It felt very refreshing, not to have to be on guard around a man, trying to fend off inappropriate advances and such. And she knew the moment she got him alone he’d start asking questions and whatever cosy feeling she felt with him would evaporate. But he deserved some sort of explanation and so when the music changed she squealed, grabbed Archie by the arm, said something inane about how much she loved the song and dragged him quite graciously onto the dance floor, where she wrapped her arms around him and waited for him to say something. She noted that, while he was trying to sort out his muddled thoughts, he was sure-footed and certain of his movements.
“I cannot imagine where to start, so I’ll leave it to you” he finally said, his voice raspy and low in a pleasant way. She explained briefly her association with Mary Margaret, Emma and Belle (which he knew less that the first two, but seemed to recall meeting once or twice) and only stopped when he let out a self-deprecating laugh.
“Oh, I see… Though I can understand you felt sorry for me lying is not the way to…”
She stopped him with a shake of her head.
“I didn’t feel sorry for you” she clarified “I rather admire someone willing to be the better person in a situation. I know I couldn’t, I just don’t have it in me, I’m afraid. It was less to do with you and more to do with her… Vanessa” she paused, trying to collect her thoughts and put them into words “Look, I hate people who take advantage of other people’s innate goodness to try and trample all over them. To spite just for the sake of it, just because you can, because the other person will not fight back… It’s not right. And sometimes that type of fire can only be fought with more fire” she smiled that wolfish grin she knew was rather impressive “I may be very bad at being good, but I’m rather good at being bad”
He laughed and blushed, ducking his head.
“And, the bit about the handkerchief…”
“I never put two and two together. Mary Margaret and Emma speak often of you, the ever-perfect Dr Hopper, a paragon of virtue with, if I’m not mistaken, the coolest Dalmatian ever and a rather disturbing attachment to a certain umbrella” she laughed when he blushed again “And I had almost forgotten about the stranger who had given me a helping hand when I had needed it, I’m sorry to say. Which is awful, considering what it meant at the time”
MM and James passed dancing by and the woman’s clear ‘You owe me an explanation Ruby Lowell’ face almost made the girl in question laugh. She mouthed a ‘Later’ that seemed to do the trick and turned her attention back to her partner.
“Well, since you seem to be stuck with me for the time being, I guess this is the perfect time to ask what I’ve been dying to know for a while now” she made a big deal of the whole thing, even pausing to create an air of suspense which forced the good doctor to lean close in a way Ruby was surprised she enjoyed “Why crickets?”
Archie blinked, startled by the question and blushed some more, the red reaching his collar while he fumbled for words.
“It’s a silly reason, really” he stuttered, pushing his glasses up with a shaky hand “When I was a little boy, my parents were travelling salesmen… Con artists, really” he seemed surprised to be talking, but not uncomfortable “We moved from town to town, through rural America, looking for these backwater, quaint little towns full of the people my parents were experts at cheating money from… I hated it, not only what they did to the people but the constant moving, living on an RV, never having any stability. But no matter where I was, when it got dark and I’d want to get away for a while, there always were crickets, chirping away, my only company in the night. Friendly creatures, crickets, and fascinating too. Do you know that female crickets do not chirp?” his tone changed to enthusiastic, and Ruby’s heart melted even more, both from the story and from the psychologist’s passion for an insect.
“Really?” she enquired, a smile on her face that found its match in Archie’s “Tell me more”
“The males do, and they have a calling chirp, the loudest, meant to attract females and repel males, and a courting one, for when the female is near. They also chirp when they fight other males or sense danger”
His boyish charm was strangely appealing and when he started talking about something he liked he lit up, his stuttering disappearing and his movements no longer hesitant. They talked about books and movies, music they liked, and Ruby did not feel once that he humoured her or thought her choices or suggestions of poorer taste. They had much more in common than either at first suspected. Both were religious followers of Dr Who and loved Bang Camaro (Ruby could not picture the good doctor listening to it, but she had to agree he knew a lot of the songs), preferred fall to any other season and loved dogs (Ruby claimed, quite rightly, that for some reason all dogs seemed to love her).
When they had worn themselves out they went back to the table, content to let the two other couples generally exclude them from whatever heated debate about the advantages of liposuction over a tummy tuck they were having, leaning close together to have their own little conversation.
A few feet away Mary Margaret instructed Emma to pick her jaw off the floor.
“Well, I never saw this one coming” the detective said when she could finally speak again. Her friend smiled from ear to ear, looping her arms through the blonde’s.
“They look so good together, Em!” she gushed, her eyes sparkling and her face beaming. She looked ready to plan a wedding, or at least an engagement party.
“Now that you mention it… Archie could use someone like Ruby around to bring a bit of fun into his life, if you catch my drift” Emma wagged her eyebrows playfully, pretending to be hurt when MM smacked her for her unladylike behaviour.
“And Archie is such a decent guy. It was about time Ruby met one” she paused and looked around “Where’s Belle, anyway?” she asked, frowning “Please don’t tell me August is still pestering her cause then he’s gonna be out of a job come Monday, by the way my boss was looking at him a few moments ago”
Emma craned her neck from side to side and then pointed at Belle’s table.
“Look, there she is, safe and sound having copious amounts of unresolved sexual tension with her creepy boyfriend while her equally creepy boss sits in between them getting off on not letting them get off. All’s right with the world” she nudged her friend towards the bar “Come on, I just recently gave in to what promises to be a very bad idea so I need to get sloshed ASAP”
While one might frown at Detective Swan’s colourful use of language her description was rather spot on. After managing to pry herself away from the star ADA Belle had made a few rounds, greeting all the other members of Uni Global invited to the Gala and exchanging a few words with business acquaintances and the like, not at all eager to go back to longingly staring at the object of both her most tender affections and darker desires while her lovable yet completely psycho boss kept them apart because of some stupid contract she hadn’t agreed to on the first place.
But she had found herself wondering back eventually, her skin itching to even brush softly against the fine fabric of his suit jacket or, if she was lucky, the silky texture of his hair. She had felt rather cruel, letting her fingers briefly caress the nape of his neck as she approached her own chair, because she had felt him shiver beneath her fingertips, and as it was often the case whenever she became aware of the power she held over him it frightened her to a point. But as he had reciprocated by nonchalantly letting the metallic handle of his cane trace a soft path against her spine she had felt better, the realization that he held as much power over her strangely comforting.
‘twas a pity, really, that Mal hadn’t left the table and was still firmly planted in her seat, a drink in hand and a smirk in place. Any other seating arrangement would have posed no problem for the couple, as Belle could embarrassingly recall an occasion, quite seared into her memory, when Nicholas had shown her the way he could play ‘footsies’ with his cane. She had had to bite her tongue as Nick had pressed the tip of his cane against her clit like he could magically guess where it was, alternating between rubbing her through her soaked underwear and firmly pushing against her covered opening, looking to everyone at the table like the picture restraint and poise as he had teased her into her first public orgasm, which had left her face red and her composure quite shattered.
Later that night, hours after the party had been over, she had shown up at his house, dragged him forcefully by his hair till he was sprawled over his beautiful dinner table and, quite unceremoniously, mounted him, batting his hands away as they had tried to tear at her clothes and grab whatever bit of skin they could find. She had made quick work of her skirt and his pants, leaving him with a torn dress shirt, ripped open in a moment of breathless delight and herself with a sheer blouse, opened by his persistence alone. She had not bothered with undergarments before coming over so her sheer white stockings were the only other fabric obscuring her body, however little.
She had ridden him in a savage, merciless way she had never imagined herself capable of, not knowing if she was getting more pleasure out of grinding against him with brutal force or out of staring into his eyes, as wild then as they had been composed earlier, hungry and mad, not a trace of the usual calmness with which he did everything in life. He had finally anchored both hands to the sides of the table to enable his body to arch upwards, matching her rhythm with thrusts of his own, moaning that she looked like a warrior goddess, like the great Scathach, legendary trainer of Ulster heroes and protagonist of countless epic tales, a beauty forged in steel and fire, smoke and blood. His tone had been raspy and dreamy, the awe present in it coating every deliciously-accented word, making her feel powerful and worshipped, a deity enjoying the feverish prayers of her most faithful and devoted priest. The fire from the fireplace, the only source of light in the room, had added to the strange, reverential atmosphere, making her glow and him be cast mostly in shadows, two halves of a whole.
He had come first, his eyes wide and his look haunted, as if he had displeased her when it had been her intention from the very beginning to make him come apart before he could undo her. Not one to let things be he had thrust even deeper into her, using the fact that she had been distracted by his orgasm to move his hands from the edges of the table, one resting a little lower to the small of her back to press her more against him and the other quickly locating the small bundle of nerves beside his buried cock and capturing it between his thumb and forefinger, pinching and twisting in one swift motion that was enough to send her over the edge, her release catching her by surprise and making her collapse atop him. The need for revenge gone she had nuzzled against the juncture between his neck and left shoulder, one of her hands lazily stroking his hair.
“I didn’t pull on it too hard, did I?” she had asked in voice both guilty and sated, languid. He had laughed, his own fingers sinking into her hair, her glorious curls splayed against the expensive mahogany of the rather sturdy table and glinting in the dim light of the fire.
“My hair is yours to do with it whatever you like” he had replied, both playful and dead serious “Everything of me is yours to command” he had added, the feverish spark of veneration back in his eyes, warming her all over. She had raised an eyebrow, a smirk curling about her face.
“Even your cane?” she had enquired impishly, finally tugging his face to her to give him an open-mouthed kiss, more of a communion of air than a passionate lip-lock.
“Yes” he had rasped out, his mouth chasing hers as she had pulled away “Even my bloody cane”
Belle snapped out of those very inappropriate thoughts, a blush stealing across her face. Her eyes scanned her fellow table-mates, noticing that Mason and his two women were gone and that the Adams men were busy talking with another man about Jasper Adam’s age. Even Mal, by some sort of miracle, was busy chatting over the phone with some sort of “colossal twit” from London. But as her eyes settled on the last person, Gold, she realized he was looking at her fixedly, his eyes dark and trained on her with an fierce sort of intensity that felt as palpable as a hand caressing her skin beneath the gold she wore. He promised things with his eyes, dark and disturbing and utterly delicious, taking his cane between his hands and softly, almost absentmindedly in the eyes of a passer-by, caressing the polished wood with long, deft fingers.
Her breath hitched, chest heaving slightly and, just as she thought she could make it through the rest of the night without a hitch and get her well-deserved rewards afterwards trouble reared its head again.
A head, this time, sporting a lovely velvet hat.