READY TO TAKE A CHANCE
Barbara has been receiving cards from an unknown source for almost a year. Finally on her birthday she discovers who has been sending them.
A first time story.
Written: February 2012. Word count: 2,900.
Barbara looked at her watch and winced; she should already be on her way to work; she shouldn't be standing by the front door waiting for the postman. It was foolish and very out of character. But even as she told herself just to forget about it and go to work, she knew she couldn't.
It had begun almost a year ago now. On special occasions - Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter - as well as occasions she'd never heard of and on the first of each month (assuming it wasn't a Sunday) she had received a card. A very simple card, always the same size, always in a pale grey envelope and always unsigned. Although most of the cards arrived on occasions, the picture never related to the occasion, they were just very beautiful and apart from what her 'admirer' printed inside, they were blank.
She had got to the stage where she looked for the pale grey envelope on the first of each month and other occasions, and today of all days she had expected one, because today was her birthday. She had felt sure the person who could choose such perfect cards, cards she wouldn't have realised she liked until she saw them, who knew where she lived, who seemed to know her, would know when her birthday was.
To begin with she'd been dismissive, almost irritated by the cards, but as the months went on, she'd found herself looking forward to receiving them. She had no idea who sent them and strangely she hadn't tried to find out; she hadn't even thought about it too much. It was as though for the first time in her life she had something that was entirely hers, something no one could take away from her, and she enjoyed the element of not knowing, enjoyed the secret.
She glanced at her watch again and sighed; the post should have been delivered by now and she really should be on her way to work. Okay, they weren't working on a particular case at the moment and she'd done all the paper-work Lynley had given her, but birthday or not, she shouldn't be late.
She'd have to go; the card would be there when she got home. About to open the front door, she realised she hadn't got her car keys. She turned and hurried to the kitchen to grab them from the work-surface. On her way back to the door she heard the post fall onto the mat. She pushed her keys into her coat pocket, picked the pile (mostly advertising rubbish) up and smiling, quickly searched through it, certain there would be a pale grey envelope.
There wasn't. She checked for a second time. Still nothing. To her annoyance she felt tears prick the back of her eyes. Angry with herself for getting her hopes up, she threw the post down, yanked open the door, slammed it behind her, locked it and jogged to her car.
When she reached the Met, she parked and hurried in, nodding 'hello' to people who spoke to her. Finally she reached the area she worked in. "Morning, sir," she called, hurrying past Lynley's office before he could ask her why she was late.
She'd already pulled off her coat before she reached her desk and was about to dump it and her bag on her desk when what she saw on her desk stopped dead in her tracks. There in the very centre of her desk, as if it had been measured precisely to make sure it was exactly in the middle, was a pale grey envelope. She just stared at it, almost afraid to touch it.
She looked around her, but there was no one in sight. Absurdly she felt let down now that she knew the person who'd been sending her cards for nearly a year was someone she worked with. As she stared at the envelope it seemed to be mocking her and she felt the anger creep up inside her. No doubt someone somewhere was having a huge laugh at her expense; there might even be more than one person involved, a group of them maybe pooling together to send her cards to make her think someone actually cared; cared about her.
She bit her lip hard, enjoying the pain as her teeth bit into the softness. She threw her coat onto the far side of her desk, ignoring it when it fell off. She then grabbed the mocking envelope and stuffed it into her bag, not bothered that it was bent in half. Finally she threw her bag onto the floor and sat down, yanked a pile of files towards her, opened one and began to read. She wasn't going to give anyone the pleasure of seeing how upset she was; how hurt she was; how foolish she felt; how angry she was with herself.
In fact, she tried to tell herself, she wasn't upset at all; she was just angry that she'd allowed herself to be the butt of a practical joke for nearly a year now. Angry that she had allowed herself to hope, to believe that someone -
"Happy Birthday, Barbara." She looked up to see her boss standing by her side holding a mug of coffee out towards her.
She swallowed hard. "Thank you, sir," she managed, refusing to meet his gaze. She took the mug and banged it down on the desk, ignoring the fact coffee slopped over the edge. Too late she remembered that Lynley wouldn't just stand there and ignore the mess and before she could grab a tissue from the box on her desk she felt him lean over her and mop it up.
She gritted her teeth. "I can do that," she all but snarled at him. She glared up at him. But he just shrugged, dropped the tissues into the bin, wiped his hands together and nodded at her. "Enjoy your coffee," he said, turning and walking away.
He went into his office, sat down at his desk and groaned softly. That hadn't gone in the way he'd expected it to go. He'd finally made the decision to stop hiding his identity and let her know who the cards had been from. He'd thought about doing it on Valentine's Day, but that had seemed too clichéd, which is why he'd decided that her birthday would be the day he'd tell her, show her, he cared about her.
He hadn't expected for a moment that she'd just ignore the card and stuff it into her bag (yes, he'd been watching her from the moment she'd arrived) what person ignored a card on their birthday? He smiled to himself as the answer came: Barbara Havers.
Barbara Havers, a woman unlike any he had ever met. A woman he'd started off tolerating, grew to respect, grew to consider a friend, until he woke up one day and realised it wasn't just friendship he wanted from her - which is why he'd started sending her cards. At the time it had seemed a good idea, a romantic, without being romantic, idea; now he thought it had been a mistake.
He'd loved Deborah and he'd lost her to his best-friend. He'd loved Helen and he'd lost her to a far too early death, not that they'd still be together as man and wife, but at least they would probably still be friends. He loved Barbara and it looked as if he might lose her before he had a chance to tell her he loved her.
He'd planned it all so carefully; the card on her desk, telling her what time the taxi would pick her up to take her to the restaurant, the perfect restaurant. Nice, elegant, they served excellent food and wine, but it wasn't a snooty place, they didn't look down on their customers; they didn't sigh or roll their eyes when someone used the wrong fork or glass or cut their bread roll rather than breaking it; they respected their customers. Yes, you paid for that respect, you paid for the fact you could ask for an omelette (as he'd seen happen) even though such a thing wasn't on the menu and not only ask for, but get it. But money was not exactly a problem for him.
The table had been booked for eight; he had eight hours (he had to allow her some time to get ready) to get her to open the card. But getting Barbara to do something she didn't want to do wasn't the easiest thing in the world.
"Flowers!" he exclaimed; he'd sent her a simple arrangement of flowers with a card giving her the details for the evening. He pulled open his desk drawer to check the number of a florist he knew he could 'persuade' to deliver that morning and saw one of the mugs she'd bought Helen and he as a house-warming present.
He smiled as he'd looked at it. It was hideous; it really wasn't his type of mug or Helen's. In fact Helen had refused to use them, she'd thanked Barbara, of course she had, she'd done the proper thing, but once Barbara had left she'd laughed about them, pushed them into a cupboard, saying they were too embarrassing to use. He'd forgotten about them until he'd been clearing the place after Helen had died and he was about to move.
He'd given everything away to local charities, not wanting to keep anything he and Helen had bought together or been given. Except he hadn't given the mugs away; he couldn't. It just hadn't seemed right, which he knew was foolish, Barbara would never have known, but he couldn't give them away. It was only when one night he'd been forced to use one because all this others were in the dishwasher that he'd realised he'd kept them because they reminded him of Barbara.
Now he had one in his desk drawer and one by his bed; somehow they made him feel nearer to her. Now it was quite possible that a mug she'd bought him was the only way she'd be nearer to him.
Five minutes later after all but bullying the florist into promising to deliver the flowers within the hour he stared out of his office window his gaze falling, as it so often did, on Barbara. She had her head on one hand, her finger raking though her hair and was chewing the end of a pen as she stared at the file in front of her.
Her phone rang. "Havers?" She listened to the man on the front desk and laughed. "Sorry, they must have made a mistake. No one would - Oh, all right. I'll come down." She slammed the phone down, pushed her chair back so hard it went halfway across the office and stomped off.
When she returned, the arrangement of carnations in her hands, they apparently really were for her, she saw Lynley sitting on the edge of her desk. She cursed under her breath and vaguely wondered about just dumping the flowers. But it was too late; he'd seen her and the blasted flowers.
He stood up and smiled. "They're beautiful, Barbara. Who sent them to you?" She ignored him and pushed past him. "Barbara? Are you all right?" His tone changed to one of concern as she plonked the flowers down on her desk and pushed them as far away from her as she could. She sat down (he must have brought her chair back to the desk) and turned away from him. She couldn't cry; she wouldn't cry; damn the cards; damn the person who'd sent them; damn herself for believing.
And damn Thomas Bloody Lynley! Why couldn't he have stuck to being the Eighth Earl of Asherton and ran his estate of whatever an Earl did? Why did he have to rough it and join the Met? Why had she ever had to meet him? Why had he made her care?
Because now she realised it was all his fault that she'd dared to let her guard down, dared to believe in other people, and dared to think that someone might care about her. It was all Lynley's fault. If it hadn't been for him and his caring ways, she'd have dismissed the first card and all the subsequent ones. If it hadn't been for him, she wouldn't have expected one today and she wouldn't be upset now that one (or more) or her colleagues were laughing at her - having a wonderful joke at her expense. It was all his fault.
She spun around and glared at him. "I don't know who sent them and I don't care who sent them. And I don't care who sent this." She pulled the crumpled card from her bag and tore it into four pieces, dropping them into the bin. She could barely see him now; her eyes were blurred with tears. And that was his fault too; she'd never cried before he'd come along. She'd let him get close to her and he'd betrayed her by making her trust people.
"But, Barbara, you must care. The flowers are -"
"From some bastard who's now laughing at me!" She spat the words at him. "Just as they always laugh at me."
"Barbara, no one laughs at you. No one would da- do that."
"How would you know? How would you know about anything?" Now she was crying and couldn't stop.
He looked at her, feeling momentarily helpless. It had all gone wrong again; it had all gone completely wrong. And somehow he had to put it right. He reached over and pulled the card out from where it nestled amidst the flowers. "You should open this," he said.
She shook her head. "I don't want it. I don't want them. If you care so much, you open it."
He swallowed and took a deep breath. "I don't need to open it," he said quietly.
"What?" she wiped her eyes and looked at him. She looked a mess, her eyes red, her cheeks wet, her hair all over the place from where she'd dragged her hand through it, her cardigan had fallen half off one shoulder. She looked a mess, but to him she looked so beautiful, beautiful and vulnerable. He'd never tell her either, she'd never believer him. She wasn't beautiful in any classical, any traditional way; but to him she was.
He crouched down in front of her and took her hand; he was quite surprised when she didn't pull it away. "I don't need to open it, Barbara, because I know what it says." She just continued to stare at him. He wiped a stray tear from the corner of her eye. "I sent the flowers, Barbara," he said. "Just as I sent the card you tore up, just as I sent all the cards to your home."
Her mouth fell open and her eyes widened. "You sent them?"
He nodded. "Yes, all of them."
"But why? Why? I thought -" Now she did try to pull her hand from his, but he didn't let her.
Her cheeks reddened. "That you c- respected me."
"I do, Barbara. I respect you very much."
Again she tried to pull her hand away; again he held on tightly. "Then, sir," she spat the word at him, "why did you let me think -" She stopped abruptly and looked away.
Suddenly he realised what the problem was; he realised just how much she'd let her guard down over the years they'd worked together and just how much she was hurting. He realised what she'd meant when she'd said people were laughing at her. He realised that finding the card on her desk that morning had made her think she'd been a victim of a practical joke.
Vaguely aware, but not giving a damn, that people around them were watching them and not even bothering trying to hide the fact, he stood up, dragging her up with him. Once they were both on their feet, he pulled her into his arms and held her, cradling her head as he'd done once before.
"I made you think I cared, Barbara, because I do. I care about you. I had it all planned, the card I left on your desk and the one with the flowers told you -" He broke off as she lifted her head, pushing against his hand until she was gazing up at him.
Completely unconcerned that people were watching them, that it wasn't going to go as he'd planned, that her face was wet he lowered his head and kissed her.
He went on kissing her until she finally began to kiss him back. He went on kissing her until he could see lights behind his eyes and felt his head start to swim. But still he held on a little longer before breaking away and taking a deep breath.
He stared down at her, uncertain what he might see on her face, partly tensed just in case she lashed out. She looked shocked, surprised, uncertain, but also for the first time ever in their acquaintance she looked truly content.
"Tommy?" she said, her voice slightly shaky and almost inaudible.
The name answered all his questions and dismissed all his concerns so he kissed her again.
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