“Have you been to a doctor?”
“Do you need anything?”
“Peace and quiet,” he muttered.
“You could have bronchitis or pneumonia or something.”
“I’m perfectly fine. At least, I was until you arrived.” He walked across the carpet—a dark green-and-gold Persian, Maryanne noted automatically—and slumped onto an overstuffed sofa piled with blankets and pillows. The television was on, its volume turned very low.
“Then why haven’t you been at work?”
“I’m on vacation.”
“Personally, I would’ve chosen a tropical island over a sofa in my own apartment.” She advanced purposefully into his kitchen and stopped short when she caught sight of the dirty dishes stacked a foot high in the stainless-steel sink. She was amazed he could cram so much into such a tight space.
“This place is a mess!” she declared, hands on her hips.
“Go ahead and call the health department if you’re so concerned.”
“I probably should.” Instead, she walked straight to the sink, rolled up her sleeves and started stacking the dishes on the counter.
“What are you doing now?” Nolan shouted from the living room.
He muttered something she couldn’t hear, which was probably for the best.
“Go lie down, Nolan,” she instructed. “When I’m done here, I’ll heat you some soup. You’ve got to get your strength back in order to suffer properly.”
At first he let that comment pass. Then, as if she was taxing him to the limit of his endurance, he called out, “The way you care is truly touching.”
“I was hoping you’d notice.” For someone who’d been outraged at the sight of her dishpan hands a week earlier, he seemed oddly unconcerned that she was washing his dirty dishes. Not that Maryanne minded. It made her feel good to be doing something for him.
She soon found herself humming as she rinsed the dishes and set them in his dishwasher.
Fifteen minutes passed without their exchanging a word. When Maryanne had finished, she looked in the living room and wasn’t surprised to find him sound asleep on the sofa. A curious feeling tugged at her heart as she gazed down at him. He lay on his back with his left hand flung across his forehead. His features were relaxed, but there was nothing remotely angelic about him. Not about the way his thick dark lashes brushed the arch of his cheek—or about the slow hoarse breaths that whispered through his half-open mouth.
Maryanne felt a strong urge to brush the hair from his forehead, to touch him, but she resisted. She was afraid he’d wake up. And she was even more afraid she wouldn’t want to stop touching him.
Moving about the living room, she turned off the television, picked up things here and there and straightened a few piles of magazines. She should leave now; she knew that. Nolan wouldn’t welcome her staying. She eyed the door regretfully, looking for an excuse to linger. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of Nolan’s raspy breathing.
More by chance than design, Maryanne found herself standing next to his typewriter. Feeling brave, and more than a little foolish, she looked down at the stack of paper resting beside it. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure he was still asleep, Maryanne carefully turned over the top page and quickly read the last couple of paragraphs on Chapter Seventeen. The story wasn’t finished, but she could tell he’d stopped during a cliff-hanger scene.
Nolan had been so secretive about his project that she dared not invade his privacy any more than she already had. She turned the single sheet back over, taking care to place it exactly as she’d found it.
Once again, she reminded herself that she should go back to her own apartment, but she felt strangely reluctant to end these moments with Nolan. Even a sleeping Nolan who would certainly be cranky when he woke up.
Seeking some way to occupy herself, she moved down the hall and into the bathroom, picking up several soiled towels on the way. His bed was unmade. She would’ve been surprised to find it in any other condition. The sheets and blankets were sagging onto the floor, and two or three sets of clothing were scattered all about.
Without questioning the wisdom of her actions, she bundled up the dirty laundry to take to the coin-operated machine in the basement. She loaded it into a large garbage bag, then set about vigorously cleaning the apartment. Scrubbing, scouring and sweeping were skills she’d perfected in her Rent-A-Maid days. If nothing else, she’d had lots of practice cleaning up after messy bachelors.
Studying the contents of his refrigerator, more than an hour later, proved to be a humorous adventure. She found an unopened bottle of wine, a carton of broken egg shells and one limp strand of celery. Concocting anything edible from that would be impossible, so she searched the apartment until she found his keys. Then, with his garbage bag full of laundry in her arms, she let herself out the door, closing it softly.
She returned a half-hour later, clutching two bags of groceries bought with her tip money. Then she went down to put his laundry in the dryer. To her relief, Nolan was still asleep. She smiled down at him indulgently before she began preparing his dinner. After another forty-five minutes she retrieved his clean clothes and put them neatly away.
She was in the kitchen peeling potatoes when she heard Nolan get up. She continued her task, knowing he’d discover she was there soon enough. He stopped cold when he did.
“What are you doing here?”
“Making your dinner.”
“I’m not hungry,” he snapped with no evidence of appreciation for her efforts.
His eyes widened as he glanced around. “What happened here? Oh, you’ve cleaned the place up.”
“I didn’t think you’d notice,” she answered sweetly, popping a small piece of raw potato in her mouth. “I’ll get soup to the boiling stage before I leave you to your…peace of mind. It should only take another ten or fifteen minutes. Can you endure me that much longer?”
He made another of his typical grumbling replies before disappearing. No more than two seconds had passed before he let out a bellow loud enough to shake the roof tiles.
“What did you do to my bed?” he demanded as he stormed into the kitchen.
“I made it.”
“What else have you been up to? Damn it, a man isn’t safe in his own home with you around.”
“Don’t look so put out, Nolan. All I did was straighten up the place a bit. It was a mess.”
“I happen to like messes. I thrive in messes. The last thing I want or need is some neat-freak invading my home, organizing my life.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” Maryanne said serenely, as she added a pile of diced carrots to the simmering broth. “All I did was pick up a few things here and there and run a load of laundry.”
“You did my laundry, too?” he exploded, jerking both hands through his hair. Heaven only knew, she thought, what would happen if he learned she’d read a single word of his precious manuscript.
“Everything’s been folded and put away, so you needn’t worry.”
Nolan abruptly left the kitchen, only to return a couple of moments later. He circled the table slowly and precisely, then took several deep breaths.
“Listen, Annie,” he began carefully, “it isn’t that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done, but I don’t need a nurse. Or a housekeeper.”
She looked up, meeting his eyes, her own large and guileless. “I quite agree,” she answered.
“You do?” Some of the stiffness left his shoulders. “Then you aren’t going to take offence?”
“No, why should I?”
“No reason,” he answered, eyeing her suspiciously.
“I was thinking that what you really need,” she said, smiling at him gently, “is a wife.”
“A wife,” Nolan echoed. His dark eyes widened in undisguised horror. It was as if Maryanne had suggested he climb to the roof of the apartment building and leap off.
“Don’t get so excited. I wasn’t volunteering for the position.”
With his index finger pointing at her like the barrel of a shotgun, Nolan walked around the kitchen table again, his journey made in shuffling impatient steps. He circled the table twice before he spoke.
“You cleaned my home, washed my clothes and now you’re cooking my dinner.” Each word came at her like an accusation.
“You can’t possibly look at me with those baby-blues of yours and expect me to believe—”
“That you’re not applying for the job. From the moment we met, you’ve been doing all these…these sweet girlie things to entice me.”
“Sweet girlie things?” Maryanne repeated, struggling to contain her amusement. “I don’t think I understand.”
“I don’t expect you to admit it.”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know,” he accused her with an angry shrug.
“Obviously I don’t. What could I possibly have done to make you think I’m trying to entice you?”
“Sweet girlie things,” he said again, but without the same conviction. He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment while he mulled the matter over. “All right, I’ll give you an example—that perfume you’re always wearing.”
“Windchime? It’s a light fragrance.”
“I don’t know the name of it. But it hangs around for an hour or so after you’ve left the room. You know that, and yet you wear it every time we’re together.”
“I’ve worn Windchime for years.”
“That’s not all,” he continued quickly. “It’s the way I catch you looking at me sometimes.”
“Looking at you?” She folded her arms at her waist and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling.
“Yes,” he said, sounding even more peevish. He pressed his hand to his hip, cocked his chin at a regal angle and fluttered his eyelashes like fans.
Despite her effort to hold in her amusement, Maryanne laughed. “I can only assume that you’re joking.”
Nolan dropped his hand from his hip. “I’m not. You get this innocent look and your lips pout just so…Why, a man—any man—couldn’t keep from wanting to kiss you.”
“That’s preposterous.” But Maryanne instinctively pinched her lips together and closed her eyes.
Nolan’s arm shot out. “That’s another thing.”
“The way you get this helpless flustered look and it’s all a simpleminded male can do not to rush in and offer to take care of whatever’s bothering you.”
“By this time you should know I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” Maryanne felt obliged to remind him.
“You’re a lamb among wolves,” Nolan said. “I don’t know how long you intend to play out this silly charade, but personally I think you’ve overdone it. This isn’t your world, and the sooner you go back where you belong, the better.”