“I thought you were Francis.”
She tilted her head and pulled her eyes away from Sonny's to regard the tall, silent figure standing just a few yards behind him. She smiled and nodded, then her eyes quickly shifted back.
“I offered him some coffee a little while ago, but he politely declined.”
“Did you tell him it wasn’t you who made it?”
Alexis sighed heavily and loudly. It was followed by a dazzling smile.
“Thanks for stopping by. See ya!”
She took a quick step back and the door began to close in Sonny’s face. His arm shot up and a flattened palm hit the wood, stopping the door it its tracks. Alexis squinted at him through the 6-inch vertical opening. He gave her a pout, complete with extended lower lip. The door swung back open.
“Yes, I told him it wasn’t me who made it...Mr. Smarty Pants.”
She tossed her head and turned on her heels, leaving Sonny alone in the open doorway as Francis choked back a guffaw. Sonny turned his head and shot a look over his shoulder, but Francis didn’t see it. He kept his eyes straight ahead and focused on the wall. Johnny had EARNED a certain familiarity that was just not appropriate for anyone else on the boss’s payroll to assume. And Francis thought it best to avoid eye contact at this particular moment. He hadn’t meant to laugh, but Miss Davis could make one hell of a funny wisecrack. And they were especially funny when she directed them at the boss. Francis never heard anyone talk back OR crack wise to him the way she did, and Sonny seemed to eat it up. She may be on his payroll too, but it often seemed to be the other way around. And the more he thought about it, the more the small whisperings among the men began to make sense. Maybe there WERE reasons other than Sorel that made the boss’s wife take a powder? Not that he was complaining.
“Women!” Sonny smiled as Francis finally turned hesitant eyes his way. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “They’re so sensitive.”
Sonny closed the door behind him and followed Alexis as she sauntered back into the living room and toward the couch without so much as a backward glance. He halted before the desk, noticing at once that she’d been ornery. The cushions and pillows he’d strewn on the floor for their private, lazy fireside hours the night before had been put back where they belong - in spite of his demand that they be left alone. His impulse was to scold her for not letting HIM do the work, and yet he had to smile at the stubborn way she had of showing him who was really the boss in PH2.
But Sonny also noticed that she was wearing pajamas of pure white silk. He rubbed at his chin and frowned. The rich color of cranberries had covered her body while she lay fast asleep under the dim light of her bedside lamp. And the night before, his hands had traveled through her smoothly brushed hair. Now, her hair hung in wavy, tousled layers around her shoulders. He wanted to ask why, but he held his tongue - though it would nag at him to wonder. He hoped she’d tell him on her own, if there were anything TO tell. Alexis suddenly stopped in front of the corner of the couch and turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were large and studious.
“Good morning.” She murmured with a hint of a question in her voice, as if unsure that he knew she’d been teasing him. He was sure. He simply wasn’t aware that his bearing had turned solemn while contemplating the change in her appearance. But as if on cue, Alexis followed her two softly spoken words with the sweetest smile Sonny had ever seen.
“It is now.” He murmured back.
Alexis clutched the warm mug against her chest and cast her eyes away from Sonny and toward the kitchen. “Would you like some coffee? It’s pretty good. My landlord made it.”
He smiled broadly. “Thank you for qualifying. Is that your first or second cup?”
He thought he’d found a sneaky way to see how long she’d been awake. She hadn’t called him like she said she would. Although she was half asleep when he asked her to.
“My first, Mr. Not-So-Smarty Pants. I haven’t been up all that long. I didn’t want to call you yet because I thought you might be sleeping in.”
So much for being sneaky. But Sonny smiled anyway. She hadn’t forgotten him.
“When I went to get the paper, Francis said it had been quiet behind your door. And it occurred to me that maybe being back home and reacquainting yourself with your own bed had a positive effect on your insomnia. So I…wanted to let you sleep. In case you WERE sleeping.”
“I was up. I was just quiet. And I knew you were up too, because Francis said that you’d already asked about me.”
She felt her face warming under the radiance of his smile. Had his teeth always been that white? “Oh. Well, good.”
“Did you sleep well?” Sonny moved closer to her as he spoke, and her eyes stayed on him.
She answered a little too loudly. Sonny smiled and her eyes fell away from his face to focus on the blue mug held firmly between her palms. She took another sip before finally sitting down on the sofa, and Sonny took another step. Alexis glanced at his legs as they moved toward her. She cleared her throat.
“How about you?” She looked up from her coffee.
“Fine.” He mimicked her tone.
Alexis tilted her head and studied him through squinting eyes. “Liar.”
“So are you.” He quickly shot back.
Her mouth reflexively opened to protest, but thoughtfully closed again. Sonny smiled and touched a light finger to her lips. “Silence. Good call.”
He lingered there a long moment, his soft touch warm against her mouth. And the feel of it still lingered long after Sonny slid his finger down the curve of her chin until all physical contact was gone. He stared intently into her eyes and she stared back, as if transfixed. She remembered the feel of contact the night before – the new kind of contact her mouth had felt with his. And the tip of her tongue quickly slipped across her bottom lip, tasting the vague hint of saltiness from Sonny’s skin. She swallowed again as a slight light-headedness hit her.
Sonny furrowed his brow at the perplexed expression her face had assumed. He thought she was searching for a better retort than the one abandoned, but the truth was that an unconsciously held breath was being quietly and carefully released. Alexis didn’t want him to see that she’d forgotten to breathe. Sonny reached down and gently took the mug from her hands with a gentle whisper.
“I’ll top this off for you while I’m getting mine.”
“Be right back.”
He gave her a quick wink and a smile before heading off for the kitchen. He could feel Alexis’s eyes follow him as he walked away. That made his smile grow. She saw his dimples flashing as he rounded the threshold and disappeared from view. What was he thinking as he smiled to himself? What was he thinking when he touched her lips and searched her eyes the way he did? What was he thinking - what was he feeling when he touched her that way last night?
Her heart pounded away in her chest, and Alexis was glad she was already sitting down. She sighed heavily and gave her head quick shake. Maybe she just needed breakfast. She pulled her legs up as she shifted her body with a little groan, turning herself toward the back of the sofa. She folded her arms upon the top of the back cushion, and her cheek came to rest against the back of her hand. Alexis stared at Sonny’s well-worn path to her kitchen and began to wonder other things.
“So are you.”
What had Sonny’s solitary night had held, and would he tell her about it if she asked? She wanted to be respectful of his manly pride, though the issue had been the subject of humor between them. Sonny’s masculine pride was still very real and intact, and she had to admit that she enjoyed watching him own it. But some of that pride showed itself in an overprotection of her. He worried about her too much. Would he ask her about HER night when he returned from the kitchen? But Alexis knew that if he did ask and she deflected, he’d respect it and not pry.
And she also knew she’d still see the worry in his eyes, right along with the carefree flashing of dimples and pearly white teeth. She could read him that way. And the moment he walked back into her view, pausing to show off dimples and teeth, Alexis stopped kidding herself that it wasn’t exactly the same for Sonny. She wouldn’t wait for him to ask. She lifted her head up and quickly laced her fingers together before setting her chin down to rest upon them.
“I was just a little restless last night. That’s all.”
Sonny watched her dimples come out of hiding in a gentle smile as she stared at him from afar, the ends of her tangled hair dusting the backs of her wrists. “Me too.”
She kept her eyes upon him as he moved back to the couch, a full, fragrant mug held carefully in each hand. “Aren’t we both a bit old to be suffering from separation anxiety?”
“Speak for yourself, buddy.” He set the mugs down on the table and scratched the top of her head. “And no offense to your little penguin friend, but he’s nowhere near as good company as you are. Nor is he as good a conversationalist…nor does he amuse me as well…nor is he half as cute. Though I'm sure he would beg to differ on the cute issue.”
Alexis shifted and turned to make room for him beside her. “Yeah, well…you’re not all that bothersome to have around yourself.”
Sonny’s hand moved back to her hair as he lowered himself down to sit. “What did you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your hair. It’s all…you know.”
She laughed. “Messy?”
“Wavy. Like it is when you wash it and let it dry by itself.”
“Well done. You just answered your own question.” She clamped a hand on his knee and wrapped her fingers around its curve for balance as she reached for her mug.
“You already took a shower? Your hair dried quick.”
“No, I did it last night, not this morning.”
He stared as she blew cooling ripples into her coffee. “You…oh.”
She smiled and took a small sip. “Why do you sound so shocked?”
He shook his head with a furrowed brow. Alexis peered at him over the top of her mug through squinting eyes. He smiled at her expression.
“What’s with the look?”
“What’s with the head shaking?”
Sonny leaned over and retrieved his own coffee. He settled back against the cushion and peered back at her as he took his turn to blow cooling breaths into the steamy dark liquid.
She sighed and cocked her head. “Some people do like to take showers at night, you know?”
“I know. I’m one of those people.”
“So am I. I happen to find the water quite relaxing when I’m…restless.”
“Me too. I like to swim, but showers are good too.”
“I used to swim. I haven’t in a long time. I don’t know why.” Her eyes drifted toward the stairs and her bottom lip disappeared between her teeth.
“I’ll take you swimming, if you'd like. I’m a strong swimmer, so you’d be safe in the water with me. Besides, it’s just like riding a bike – you never forget.”
She shifted her gaze back to his face with a look of slight embarrassment. “I’ve never ridden a bike. I rode horses, remember? Bikes just wouldn’t have done well on the sandy beaches and rocky hills of the Greek island.” She took a swallow of coffee.
“I’ll teach you how to ride a bike too.”
“I’d need knee-pads for my whole body. Do they make those? Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll stick to riding in automobiles and splashing around in the water provided by my own bathroom faucets.”
She unconsciously pushed at her sleeves and Sonny let his hand drop away from its hold on the mug. Her eyes moved with it as he reached for her collar and captured the edge of silk between two fingers, sliding them down the soft, slippery fabric. And then, he released it with a breathy exhale.
“From Christmas elf to snowflake in the blink of an eye. The magic of silk pajamas.”
“Elf? Who you calling an elf? And more to the point, why?”
Sonny laughed. “You – because of the festive little red ensemble you had on last night. I haven’t seen you in these white p.j.’s before…but you look like a snowflake.”
Alexis pulled back and regarded him with a wary expression. “Are you feeling alright?”
“What? I’m just making an observation.”
She frowned and leaned forward to press a palm to his forehead. Sonny’s smile softened, his face relaxing at the unexpected feel of her warm hand on his skin. His eyes soon drifted shut.
“Elf and snowflake are hardly Sonny-esque observations. You sound more like Chloe.”
“Oh. Okay, well…”
“And how do YOU know what color ‘ensemble’ I was wearing last night?” Alexis saw his eyeballs shift beneath closed lids. “Sonny?”
Her hand disappeared from his forehead, and Sonny couldn’t stop the small noise of protest that followed. The sudden feel of his earlobe being yanked elicited a bigger noise of protest.
“Hey!” His eyes flew open and his body slightly jerked back with surprise. “You want me to spill coffee all over your nice couch?”
Alexis smiled sweetly. “No, I don’t want you to spill coffee – I want you to spill the beans.”
Sonny sighed and shifted his jaw as he regarded the stubborn look on her face. He took another long sip of coffee, and Alexis tilted her head to the other side as she stared at him patiently.
“You snuck back in here last night after I sent you home. ’Fess up.”
“Guilty, with an explanation.”
“You fell asleep while we were talking last night, and I didn’t think it was a very good idea to let you be alone with the phone off the hook all night. You know, just in case of…whatever. So I came back, I put the phone back where it belonged, I listened to you snore like a buzz-saw for a couple of minutes, and then I went back home.”
“I do not snore.”
“Like a buzz-saw!” Sonny deadpanned. He watched the pink hue of her face deepen as she tried to sputter a response. He went in for the finish. “Even Johnny heard it, all the way out in the hall.”
Her mouth clamped shut and her wide eyes darted quickly to the door, then back to Sonny’s newly blazing thousand-watt evil grin. Alexis hit him with a pillow. He grabbed it as he ducked sideways, quickly setting his mug down on the table with a sharp cracking sound.
“Hey! Coffee, remember?”
“I don’t snore.” She grumbled with a decided pout.
Sonny pulled the pillow into his lap and smiled lovingly at the blushing, pouting, velvet-eyed woman with a beautiful face framed with untamed strands of hair…and a fading marbled bruise on her cheek. He wanted nothing more than to take that beautiful face between his hands and know the blessed feel of her soft mouth against his once more. A ‘good morning’ kiss just as sweet, but maybe not as innocent as the one to say ‘good night’ – a kiss that was a little longer and more deep than yesterday. If he dared, would Alexis allow it just as easily? Would she accept it as completely? Would she look at him afterward the same way she did before, in a way that gave him permission to think about doing it again tomorrow, but for a little longer and more deeply that today?
And Sonny’s hands found a life of their own in his wanton thoughts, as they were inclined to do when within arm’s reach of Alexis. Her hair caressed his fingers as they threaded through it. She seemed to move into his touch as he leaned his body forward, closer to her, his eyes never leaving hers. He ran his hungry tongue across between his lips and released a slow, steady breath.
“Alexis, I promised I’d always tell you the truth, right?”
She nodded almost imperceptibly as her eyes widened. Her tongue briefly and unconsciously traveled across her lips, mirroring Sonny’s same gesture. Sonny let his gaze shift down from her eyes to her mouth with the movement he saw there, and his thumbs began a light back and forth grazing of the downy hairline at her temples. She swallowed hard and scrunched her shoulders as both her top and bottom lip were taken hostage by her teeth. Sonny’s heart leapt into his mouth. Her familiar gestures told him that Alexis felt safe and content…and a little bit nervous. And she was, without question, melting into the feel of his hands against her head. Yes, Alexis would allow it again. But something deep in his soul told him that now would be too much, too soon. He would just keep loving her and waiting for familiar gestures to tell him when it was right. She was more than worth the wait.
“So, about that snoring thing…”
Alexis cleared her throat with a tiny frown, and Sonny lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“You’re a mean, mean man.” She whispered back.
“Consider it a bit of payback on behalf of my poor, pink-faced bodyguard.”
“I’m telling.” She challenged.
“Johnny won’t like it.”
“I sign Johnny’s checks.”
“Oh. Right. I forgot about that.” Alexis teased him with a dimple display. “But that could change at any time, you know. Maybe Johnny would prefer getting checks signed by ME. Maybe I should just hire him away from you. I think he'd like working for me.”
Sonny drew a slow breath as a stricken look took over his face. “You wound me, Alexis! You would cast me aside, just like that, for a SLIGHTLY younger houseboy?”
“Considering the proclivities of the woman who raised me, it shouldn’t come as too great a shock.”
He rolled his eyes and heaved a heavy sigh. “You stoop to playing the Helena card? You win.”
“Thank you!” Triumph sang in her voice, making Sonny laugh with a hake of his head. “My favorite monosyllabic pair of words spoken by Mr. Bossy Smarty-Pants. It IS a good morning.”
“You know, it figures that you’d come up with nicknames for me that have, like, a million syllables, while I embrace brevity – which IS the soul of wit, you know…Spud.”
“I still win.” She stuck her tongue out and resumed happily sipping her coffee.
“More than you know.” Sonny thought to himself.
It was only a matter of time before she would know that she’d also won his heart. He smiled, enjoying the sight of the sparkle in her eyes. And as his hands began to pull away from her hair, Sonny let the edge of his thumb trace the curve of her left cheek, taking care to stay beyond the mark of Sorel.
“It’s fading. I really think it looks better this morning. Don’t you?”
Her eyes lowered and she smiled quickly as her head pulled back, breaking contact with his hand.
“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
She shook her head and looked off into the far corner of the room, focusing on nothing. Sonny laid his palm on her knew, and the feel of his warm skin through her cool silk pajamas sent a shiver up her spine. It made her body tense. Her chest rose with a deep inhale of breath and her back arched slightly in response.
“What? Did you remember something?”
She shook her head once more. Her nervous hand moved up to her hair to fidget with her bangs. She didn’t know what was coming over her, or why, but Alexis suddenly wanted her injuries to be invisible to Sonny’s eyes. She suddenly hated the fact that he was looking at her face and seeing the marks of ugliness there. Ugliness…a little ugliness…
The growing distance in her eyes scared him. He hadn’t seen it in a while and hoped against hope that he’d never see it again. It hurt so much to see her mind pulled away from a safe place and thrown back to a bad, painful place from which she’d physically escaped.
“Honey, please. Talk to me - about anything. I’ll even tell you that you win again, and then you can gloat some more. How’s that?”
She smiled softly, but didn’t respond in any other way. The bottom of her mug rested at a dangerous angle against her thigh, and he tried to take it from her hands. Alexis reflexively tightened her grip.
“It was starting to tip. I didn’t want you to spill it.”
She finally turned her focus back to him and he saw a vague confusion in her face.
He let go. “Are you okay?”
She nodded. “Sure.”
“At the risk of being cliché, was it something I said?”
“Sonny, stop. Please. You know it isn’t you. It’s me. It’s just me. I can go along for a pretty fair amount of time without even thinking about…this.” Her fingers fluttered in the air beside her face. “And then, when I remember, it’s a bit stunning. It’s…I mean, at least I don’t purposefully avoid my own reflection in the mirror anymore, but I don’t seek it out either. Unless it’s time to put the Vitamin E on my scrape, in which case I WILL find a mirror because I tried to do it by blind touch once and it just got in my hair, which was sticky and messy and a real pain to wash OUT of my hair, so now I just make life easier for myself and look in the mirror…when I have to put the Vitamin E on my face.”
Alexis stopped and took a deep breath, then slowly let it go. She smiled. “See that? I’m breathing without having to be told to do so. I really am making progress, huh?”
Sonny laughed. “That you are.”
Her smile turned into a quizzical expression. She bit her lip and leaned back against the cushions. “I lost my train of thought. What was I saying?”
He leaned back as well, raising his arm to rest it along the top of the sofa. His fingers toyed with the end of a lock of hair, twisting the silky strand and letting it unwind between them.
“Mirrors.” He murmured with a throaty voice. “You don’t avoid them anymore, but you don’t…”
“Seek them out. Right.”
Her hand was suddenly moving up to her face, fingertips touching lightly upon her cheek and pressing gently. She tried to find the parameters of soreness that still lingered there, and discovered that they were shrinking, localized to one specific spot just at the edge of the cheekbone - the precise point of impact made by Sorel’s fist. Her eyes shifted to found Sonny. He was staring intently at the fingers he still held laced through the ends of her hair. He looked wounded himself. Alexis let her hand drop back down to her lap.
“It doesn’t really hurt anymore, unless I touch it too hard or in the wrong way. If I don’t see it or feel it, I won’t think about it very much.”
Sonny’s eyes darted back to hers. “Until someone stares at you a little too long and tells you how you look. I’m sorry.”
She smiled within a frown. “I’m not. I’m glad to hear you think it looks better. And I told you before that I don’t want you to sensor what you say to me. Tell me what you think and how you feel.”
Tell her how he felt? Where would he begin – with his desire to tear Sorel and Malloy apart? And where would he end – with his desire to be with her for the rest of his life? He didn’t respond. Alexis reached up and withdrew his fidgeting hand from her hair. She wrapped her fingers around it and pressed it against her shoulder as Sonny still stared.
“I mean it Sonny. I’m not so fragile anymore. And I think you know that.”
Yes, he knew. And he loved that it was true. But as Sonny’s eyes dove deeper into hers, he could see that as strong as she’d become in the days since he brought her home, there was still something very small and fragile inside of her. He knew that she’d ignore it and keep it hidden beneath a mountain of strong will. But Sonny would still know where it lay, and he would watch over it for her.
“I do know, Alexis.” He pulled her hand down to rest upon the pillow in his lap and clasped it between his palms. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to act as if none of this ever happened to you.”
She sighed and lowered her head. “I’m not saying that you should.”
“In a way, you are. And you have to understand that I can’t pretend any more than you can.”
“I don’t WANT you to pretend, Sonny. That’s my point. I want you to be real with me.”
“I AM real, Alexis!”
His sharp outburst snapped her head back up, and she stared at him with large eyes.
“What exactly does that word mean to you, anyway? Because to me, real is being true to your feelings - to what you want and need. And for me, that means wanting and needing to be careful with what I say or do so I don’t cause more hurt to someone I absolutely adore. So please don’t expect me to be cavalier about how I affect you.”
He took a quick, deep breath and released it heavily as Alexis tilted her head. Sonny thought he saw her cheeks flush just a bit. Or maybe he was projecting. She knew he adored her, but his own cheeks felt hot as he realized the way his choice of words sounded just hanging there in the air. "How I affect you…" Freud would have a field day. Time to back-pedal.
“What I mean it that you should expect me to be sensitive to how things I say and do will affect you. If I wasn’t, that just wouldn’t be real.”
“I just…hate the idea of being handled with those bloody kid gloves. Being treated like an invalid when I pretty much was one was difficult enough. I just don’t want to be treated like and emotional invalid now.”
“I never meant to make you feel like either one.”
She shook her head lightly. “You didn’t.”
“And I know how much it matters to you that you take back your control and self-sufficiency. I want that for you. I don’t want to hold you back, Alexis. I want to help you move forward. But I also want…”
What Sonny wanted was to wrap her in protective glass and never let her out of his sight. But the expression of that particular sentiment would not go over well with this particular woman. He smiled and shook his head at the boorish caveman within him that was rearing its ugly head. And as his focus lowered to the soft, warm hand he held between his own, his fingertips began to trace the lifeline of her palm. Sonny’s voice lowered, his sentiment having found a more Alexis-friendly means of expression.
“I admit that I also want to cushion your backside from all the nasty bumps in the road ahead of you.”
Alexis squirmed in her seat, feeling a tingle of goose-bumps rise up on her arms in response to the fluttery touch against the sensitive skin of her palm. Sonny lifted his eyes to peer up at her shyly, like a little boy who may or not be in trouble. He had the sweetest way of looking at her. And sometimes, it caught her so off guard that everything else disappeared and all she saw was his smile – all she felt were his eyes. And sometimes, his voice lingered in her head and it was all she could hear.
”Someone I absolutely…adore.”
“I know what you want for me, Sonny. I do.” She murmured. “But the road ahead of me is going to have at least a few nasty bumps that my backside is just going to have to feel, because neither you nor anyone else can cushion them for me. And that’s okay. I’ll live.”
Sonny laughed. It made Alexis smile, and she began to make a tentative foray onto the few bumps in that road that Sonny would feel as much as she – a possible trial, Sorel, and Thomas Malloy.
“Sonny? I already said this to Ned, and I think I should say it to you too.”
The unexpected utterance of Ashton’s name made Sonny’s neck muscles tense.
“Although I think you already get this much about me already.”
“You know as well as I do that there are some unpleasant things I’ll probably have to deal with soon. And there might be some things I need to do or choices I need to make that you won’t understand or particularly like. But I’m going to do them or make them anyway because I need to be real too - true to what I want and need, even if the people who care about me don’t happen to agree.”
“Is that…what you tell people when they get on your case about representing me?”
“Then how can I argue with it?”
“Especially since I threw your own words back at you?”
“Yeah, well. They were good words.”
“They were.” Alexis smiled and began to stretch her back. Sonny felt her fingers flexing against his hand. He released his hold on her, and she stretched her arms out too. She reminded Sonny of his mother’s beloved kitten all over again.
“Okay then, councellor. It’s duly noted that in addition to the apron strings being untied, not cut, the kid gloves are to come off. But what do you say we compromise and replace them with lambskin?”
“It’s not as delicate as kid, but…you know. It still keeps you warm and protected.”
She looked at him sideways.
“Aw, come on. At least gimme lamb.”
Alexis still stared. Sonny bleated. She broke into peals of laughter.
“You are incorrigible!”
“It’s all a part of my charm.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it.”
His eyebrows rose sharply. “What? Excuse me? Did you just acknowledge that I am, in fact, a man of charm?”
Alexis rolled her eyes and leaned back with her arms crossed over her chest. “Oh great. I suppose I’ll be hearing about THIS slip of the tongue for the rest of my natural life.”
“Don’t you know it.”
She sighed and regarded Sonny thoughtfully. “I suppose lamb is acceptable for the time being. But I reserve the right to request that you to remove said gloves at any time, for any reason.”
“What if they’re stuck?”
“I have scissors.”
“What was the question?”
“Is it a deal?”
“Stop it!” She swatted him with another pillow.
Sonny grinned as he ducked, then reached out to run a hand over the top of her tousled head. Stop teasing her? Touching her? Protecting her? Strengthening her? Wanting her, loving her, making her laugh…?